The Winter Assault

Part 16

by The Winter Assault Writers

Cover | Contents | Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 |
13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | Epilogue

That omen of the coming storm was felt yesterday... However, now it seems much longer than that ago; as Colin is standing in one of the keep's many grand hallways, watching as his brother Drake finishes roasting the last lutin in this group they happened upon, the stench of charred flesh has brought him close to retching several times. He's managed to hold down what breakfast he had so far, though. The youth turns to Drake, "You done now?"

The dragon morph grinned back at his brother, "I don't know about me, but I think that Lutin is done now... well done."

Colin just groans at the obvious pun, and sets about putting out the burning corpses, making sure each lutin was really dead, and the other fires that were burning in the hall. Meanwhile, his once-brother-now-sister Aisha is checking to make sure the folks they fought off these lutins to rescue are okay. Looking over this scene, he realized just how much of an understatement 'something' was when Rois-sensei said it. ~This is horrendous!~ the age regressed youth thought to himself.

A tap on the boy's shoulder snaps him out of his reverie, and he turns his head to see who it is that was tapping him. It's Drake, "Snap out of it Colin, we're ready to go. We need to get these people to the Follower chapel."

Colin nods, "Sorry, Drake," and walks with him over to Aisha and the Keepers they had just rescued.

She's explaining the situation to the adults in the group, and then motions to her brothers as they're walking up. "These are my brothers, Drake and Colin," she says, introducing them and pointing to each of the two in turn.

Colin nods, "A pleasure to make your acquaintance, though I wish it was under more pleasant circumstances." Drake echoes sentiments similar to his brother's. "Now," Colin continued, "I believe Aisha has explained to you the situation," A show of nods from the group. "Good, then lets get going before another group of lutins shows up."

They head off, with Aisha taking point, Colin walking next to the group, and Drake watching their backs.

Rois-sensei has been helping the budding telepath with controlling his mental powers, and he's able to broadcast just to the people around him now, instead of deafening the mental ears of the whole keep. So Colin broadcast a message directed at the wall next to him, hoping that it will reach Kyia. ::Kyia, please see us safely to our destination, the follower chapel, as fast as possible.::

It seems she heard him, though, for they reach the follower chapel after walking for what seems to be only about five minutes or so. Aisha knocks on the door, while Drake and Colin are keeping a watchful eye on the corridor around them. They hear a slightly muffled voice from the other side of the door, "Who goes there?"

"Aisha, Colin, and Drake," The girl replies, "with a party of refugees."

It was Graed's turn for sentry duty, and so he's standing at the door when someone knocks on it, "Who goes there?" he queries, wondering if it's those kids.

The girl's voice comes from the other side, "Aisha, Colin and Drake, with a party of refugees." It's them all right.

"Is the hallway clear?" He asks, just to make sure, though they have probably already checked that.

"Yes it is," comes the reply.

~Like I thought, these three are sharp. And damn brave to take on the mission they have.~

Graed turns to the others, "Let's get these doors open, but be ready, just in case." A couple of the men get ready to open the door, while the others stand ready to attack whatever's on the other side, should it prove to be foe and not friend. When all are at the ready, the two men open the doors and peer out, then open them enough to let the people pass through single-file.

First through the door is the girl, Aisha. Following her is a group of very relieved-looking Keepers. Last come the other two of those kids, Colin and Drake. As soon as Drake's through the door, it's closed and barred shut again. The refugees are ushered over to where they can rest, those three kids walk over to the commander to report, and Graed resumes watching and waiting at the door.

12/25 – 3pm

Charles raised his chin slightly at the prick of cold, poorly forged steel against his throat, his dark eyes glancing at the cluster of Lutins surrounding them. His glance finally settled on Zagrosek as he quickly spoke in the Southern tongue, “Tanze wei Zherd?”

Zagrosek nodded, fingering his own Sondeshike within his robes, a smirk creasing his face. Jerome’s eyes went wide as he heard that, jaw falling slightly. With sudden, unexpected swiftness he reached out and grabbed Garigan’s neck with one strong hand, dragging him to the ground while the ferret let out a sudden cry of protest. The Lutins surrounding them moved forward a pace as a single mob, knowing that the Keepers were about to do something, but not understanding just what. They learned quickly enough a moment later when two of the approaching mob found the ferrules of Sondeshikes crushing their chests.

Charles spun the Sondeshike from beneath his robes, moving paw over paw along its length, until the silver shaft became no more than a spinning blur that he wove both around his body as well as around Zagrosek and his Sondeshike as well. The Lutin warriors tried to jab at the pair with their spears, but found them broken in half when they met those radiant discs that the rat and man kept before them.

It had been seven years since he’d ever enacted the Dance of the Staff, and never before with a Sondeshike of his own, and certainly not while he was a rat! Zagrosek had always been his partner, for the Dance required two to be done properly. He had to continuously remind himself of their size difference as he tucked and spun about his friend, their bodies always close together, yet neither they nor their staves ever touched, even when the brilliant discs they made in the air appeared to intersect.

Zagrosek also appeared to be having some difficulty adapting, but as Charles had never been struck by the swinging ferrules, he was managing well enough. The Lutin party about them found themselves facing a foe that they did not know how to kill. A few backed up and reached for short bows slung across their backs, and the rat gave them credit, for it was certainly a safer pursuit than trying to get close to those whirling discs. Yet, as Charles and Zagrosek turned in circles, even the arrows were shattered when they struck those impenetrable circles.

Of course, as they waded through the snow, closer and closer to the Lutins who were now shouting for the others to come help, Garigan and Jerome were once more safe to stand. The other two Sondeckis did so, and leapt at the nearest of the Lutins. Garigan plunged both of his knives into one of the green-skinned savage’s head before jumping off of him to another and Jerome deftly avoided stabbing spears, his open handed strikes reaching beyond them to crack bones and crush faces. Though he had many opportunities to take one of their weapons, he did never bothered.

As he turned about, the world a constant swirl about him, Charles saw that the Lutins from the supply wagons had raced up the ridge to join in combat beside their brethren. As if on unspoken agreement, on his next twirl, he came down a step closer to them, and Zagrosek followed suit, swinging his shaft out a bit far, smacking one Lutin in the head, knocking it almost completely off as he did so. The party of Lutins from the supply wagon took one look at the dancing Keepers spinning towards them, those discs slicing anything they touched in half, and then bolted back down towards the road.

They did not take up chase, the Dance was not quick enough for that, but instead they went back once more for the Lutins who had snuck up upon them, and were still struggling to hold their ground against Jerome and Garigan. One of them had managed to slice the ferret’s arm, a bit of blood dampening the torn green cloth, but aside from that the Sondeckis were easily corralling them against a stand of trees.

Into that stand Charles and Zagrosek wove, as if they were one being instead of two, a blurry image, one unable to be viewed with any precision by normal eyes, consisting of two twirling discs that rotated about them at all times, and two very different halves that spun with those discs. Snow spiralled up around them, as if it were incapable of existing in the same place with them. The snow that fell upon them was whisked aside by the wind raised with force of their spinning, leaving the pair in a sphere of open air. Charles felt his arms almost speed up as he neared the last group, draped so liberally in his own Sondeck that he was certain he could have continued should both his arms break!

With Jerome and Garigan before them, and the spinning menace behind them, the last six Lutins realized that they were trapped. They let out a bloodthirsty cry, one that might be heard elsewhere in these woods, though with the snow and wind falling as heavily as they were, that was suspect. Charging at the ferret and the man, they brandished bent swords, broken spears, as well as their teeth, attempting to do whatever they could before they were cut down.

Jerome, however, calmly put his front hands together, and pushed outwards with a sudden exhalation of force. The Lutins were sprawled backwards onto the thick snow, and then, as they struggled to return to their feet, their voices gave lent to horrible screams as Zagrosek and Charles whirled upon them, their Sondeshike slashing and crushing their bones, splattering blood all about them, until the once pristine snow was glazed scarlet.

With the Lutins dead and routed, the Dance was ended. Charles and Zagrosek spun away from each other, their hands still moving over each other across the Sondeshikes, until, a few seconds later, they were shaking their heads clear of the power that had flowed through them. Garigan looked at them, his eyes going from one to the other in amazement. “How did you do that?”

While the world continued to spin about him, Charles heard Jerome answer, “That was the Tanze wei Zherd. It means Dance of the Staff. It is one of the Sondeckis techniques that blacks who chose to practice the art of the Sondeshike are required to master. They’re just novices with the technique, so it will take them a moment or two to stop walking about in circles and falling over.”

“I’m still standing,” Zagrosek said, before his foot managed to catch at something beneath the snow, causing him to fall on his face into the stained powder. He lifted himself back up, shaking his head clear once again.

Charles managed to collapse against a tree trunk, so had a much easier time regaining his bearings than his friend. Peering down at the road, he could see that the Lutins had completely scattered, leaving the mules plodding along, dragging the wagons behind them, as if they had no other purpose in life. “Could we take one of them?”

Garigan stabbed one of the Lutins who was not as beat up as the rest, and then walked over to the rat, and shrugged. “Certainly, this road forks just up ahead. The right fork will take us to Glen Avery, while the left goes to Metamor. The Lutins were probably going to Metamor, so we shouldn’t encounter any problems on the right fork.”

They were soon joined by Jerome, who shook his head. “We ought to only take one, if any. We’ll be more visible targets if we choose to ride in one of those.”

“Well, it will make the trip go smoother, and we’ll have more supplies for the Glenners. Taken right from Nasoj’s own stock no less!”

“We should at least see what is in those wagons,” Charles pointed out as Zagrosek finally managed to find his legs beneath him again. The fight had left him drained and unsteady, even lifting his arms made him cringe, the rat realized. It had been too many years since he’d practiced the Dance, and it had left him almost completely sore. “And I think Krenek and I need to get to shelter soon; that was more taxing than I thought it would be.”

Jerome grimaced once, but then finally nodded, starting down the hillside. The road was clear of Lutins by now, and the mules did not object in the least to the presence of somebody smelling a good deal better than their previous owners. Matthias scrambled after him, while Garigan helped Zagrosek remain steady as they came down the hill. The rat privately hoped that they’d stopped an important caravan, but given the lack of serious protection, doubted it would be anything more significant than food.

And, it turned out that he was right. All three wagons were crammed with foodstuffs of one sort or another. It was mostly just grain that could be boiled in some water to make a soupy meal, but a meal at nonetheless. There were a few bags with carrots and potatoes, but only two at most per wagon. As quickly as they could, they redistributed all the vegetables to one wagon, and filled the rest of it with the grain. Zagrosek and Charles then climbed onto the inside the bed of the wagon, resting their arms and legs for a moment beneath the thick, coarse blanket. It was one of the first times that Charles had felt even remotely warm on this whole journey, and even then, it was only in comparison with burying himself in those snow drifts.

Jerome took one last look up the ridge, and then came back down, sitting at the front of the wagon behind the mules, the whip in one thick hand. “The snow’s already covering the bodies. With luck, the Lutins won’t find their comrades for days. If at all.” He glanced back at Garigan, who was walking over the cargo in the other two wagons, cutting open the sacks of grain and spilling them across the snow. “Unhitch the mules while you’re at it, would you?”

The ferret nodded, and did as instructed. With a sharp smack of his paw, he sent both mules charging down the road. Satisfied, he climbed down from the wagons, and peered underneath. Looking around, he saw an axe that one of the Lutins had dropped in their haste to flee. Grabbing it firmly in both hands, he swung down underneath the cart, and smashed the axle in two.

He did the same for the other wagon, before depositing the axe in a nearby snow bank where it promptly sank out of sight leaving only an axe-shaped crater. Charles nodded his approval at his student, even while he shivered beneath the thick blanket on the other wagon. Jerome helped Garigan climb up to join them, and then he whipped the remaining mules into action. Soon, he’d coaxed them into a decent trot, and they were moving at a respectable pace down the old road.

The road was not very wide, enough for a single cart to make its way down without trouble. The centre of the track was upraised slightly, but given the amount of troops that had moved down this way, the snow was rather thin on top, and packed hard beneath. Above them the branches clustered, casting them in deep shadow at times; the dismal grey light that fell from the sky just as much as the thick snow did, gave them the impression that colours did not exist in this part of the wood.

Yet they reached the fork in the road only minutes after they started, as Garigan had promised. The right fork was even more clustered then the old North road had been, and soon, they found themselves swatting at low-lying branches that clogged the pathway. Garigan ducked under one ponderous limb and then shrugged to the others. “We don’t use this road anymore, so we’ve let the woods grow back. I’d forgotten about that.”

“How much further until we reach Glen Avery?” Charles asked as he picked a bit of bramble from the cloth. It was not the most comfortable way to ride, he reasoned, as there was a carrot poking him in the back.

“Not far, perhaps a few minutes, unless we run into trouble.” Garigan then furrowed his brow thoughtfully, glancing at the thick woods on either side. “How had those Lutins snuck upon us as they did?”

“They had scouts following them on either side of the road,” Zagrosek murmured, even as he shifted about beneath the blanket, scanning backwards warily. “We were so focussed on the wagons, we didn’t pay attention to our flanks.”

“Well, it doesn’t appear that there are any Lutins harassing these woods,” Jerome muttered, as he gave the mules a little more incentive with a flick of his wrist. “Strange creatures, I’ve never seen their like before.”

“They live in the Giantdowns,” Garigan explained. “They’ve always been tribal savages, and until Nasoj organised them, they were rarely a threat to the humans living in this region, and to the North.”

“Well, as far as I’m concerned, they can keep the cold places,” Zagrosek muttered. “It was never this cold at night in Sondeshara!”

Charles had to chuckle lightly, even though he himself was shivering beneath the blanket. “You’ll get used to it, if you stay here long enough.” Neither of the humans had any response for that, simply huddling tighter in their cloaks, and staring at the world of white frost about them with a mix of wonder and of uncertainty.

True to Garigan’s word, Charles began to see the familiar shapes high in the trees only a few minutes later. The road led out into the relatively open space that was Glen Avery. Only this time, where the few open hills that the rat had remembered were lay undisturbed blankets of fresh snow. The ferret jumped from the wagon, and looked about, scanning sights that were familiar to his eyes, and grimacing as he did so.

“So where is everybody?” Jerome asked as he brought the mules to a stop and climbed from the wagon.

Zagrosek never had a chance to do so, before he found himself surrounded on all sides by fur and claws, the sharp point of a sword pressed firmly against his neck. A thick black paw with thick and unfriendly claws held that blade. Charles turned his head in shock, seeing the familiar badger, nearly drag his friend, a Sondeckis of the black, from the wagon’s back.

“Angus!” Garigan cried suddenly, spinning on his feet through the relatively deep snow! “Stop, these are friends!”

The badger looked over at the ferret, blinking several times, before a broad smile lit up his face. “Garigan! Why it is good to see your wretched face here. But what are you doing here? And who are these two humans?”

“They are friends of mine,” Charles said, as he glanced over the haggard and snow-bitten faces of the eight scouts that had descended on them so suddenly. He wondered idly where they had been hiding, for not even Garigan had seen them, and he was a native! “Trust me, they’re here to help.”

Angus nodded, and then sheathed his sword, giving Zagrosek a pat on the shoulder as he did so. “Any friend of Matthias’s is a friend of mine. But what are you doing here?”

Garigan glanced over at the rat, who had already begun to speak. “Metamor has come under attack...”

“We know that. Nasoj’s forces came through here first and snuffed out our defences before we could even raise an alarm. They killed a good number of our scouts too.”

Garigan’s face blanched, and his whiskers grew straight. “How many?”

“Five, including Shelley,” Angus admitted, gripping the pommel of his blade tightly in one paw. The leather of his pommel appeared freshly tanned, without the characteristic stains of well-worn weapons. As the rat scanned about the party, he noticed that all their equipment was that way, as if freshly made. Turning back to Angus, the rat noticed that the white diamond on his forehead appeared oddly distorted for a moment, but Charles soon realized that was just the snow collecting on his broad head.

Garigan sighed, his whiskers drooping, “I wish I could have been here sooner. Shelley was a good friend.”

“The rest of us are holed up in the caves underneath Lars’s tavern. We eight have been making sure that the Lutins don’t come back here for the moment. We were hoping to strike back at the Lutins once we were sure where they were, but we’ve not been able to find their base of operations yet.”

Charles grimaced sourly. “Unfortunately, the majority of them are in Metamor already. From all accounts I’ve heard, and from what I’ve seen, not only have they overrun the town, but they’re in the castle as well.”

Angus’s face fell, as did that of the rest of the Glenners. “Then all hope is lost. If Metamor does not stand, how can we?”

“Metamor is not lost!” Charles declared, shivering despite the passion that he could feel filling him. “They may have troops inside the castle, but they do not hold it yet. We’re here because we wanted to make sure that the Glen still stood, and, because together we might be able to take back Metamor, and stop Nasoj again.”

Angus appeared sceptical. “Just the four of you?”

Jerome gave the badger an odd smile, and Zagrosek, though still rubbing his neck, joined in. “We’re a bit more formidable when we don’t have a sword at our throats. And even then, as Garigan can attest, we are not without a few surprises.”

Charles pulled his cloak tighter, and shifted about on his foot paws. His toes were so cold, he cold almost feel ice forming on his claws! “Do you think we could go to Lars’s? It’s rather cold out here.”

Angus laughed slightly then and nodded. “Of course, we’ll go right away. But first, what’s in the wagon?”

“Grain, carrots, potatoes. We thought you might find them useful, so we stole them from the Lutins,” Charles added, shaking a bit of snow out from between his toes; a useless gesture of course, because once he put his paw back down again, more of the white powder settled between them.

Angus nodded and then turned to an ermine who was just at his back, “Fellen, would you make sure this gets into the storage?”

The ermine nodded, sheathing a long slender blade in his buckler. “Yes, sir.” He and two of the other scouts deftly moved to the front of the wagon, and led the complacent mules down into the open field towards the rocky base at the far end, near the frozen river. Charles watched them go, noting that Fellen’s pelt was far thicker than the rat’s own, which explained why he was dressed so comparatively lightly. His fur was also white, and if it were not for the leather, and the dark orbs of his eyes, would have been invisible only a few feet away against the snow.

A few of the scouts snickered, as Angus grumbled beneath his breath while watching the ermine lead the others off. Garigan looked at him curiously. “Fellen? Where is he from? I don’t ever remember seeing him before.”

Angus nodded, silencing his mutterings. “He’s from Lorland, just arrived this last Summer. He has become a decent fighter, at least once he got the courage to tell me he needed to use a smaller blade. No matter what I do though, he won’t stop calling me ‘sir’!”

Garigan had to stifle a chuckle of his own, while the other three Sondeckis simply smiled. Charles’s smile did not last long though, as soon, the chill in his feet began to creep up into his legs and tail. Angus though, did not give any the time to laugh, as he turned to the other four scouts and flashed them a quick hand signal. They disappeared into the trees within moments. Charles tried to watch them as they climbed up into the lofts, but lost them only after another few seconds. How he wished that he could spend a few months just learning from them, for he had never been so good at hiding as were the Glenners.

Angus gestured towards the same rock outcropping that the wagon was being led to. “Shall we go then? I assure you, we do have fires. But tell me, how in the world did you travel all the way from Metamor to the Glen? It is not a short journey, even by carriage.”

“Once we’re by that fire, I’ll let you know,” Charles said, eagerly scampering through the knee high snow. Angus didn’t say anymore as they quickly crossed the field, staying close to the trees the entire time. The copious snowfall began obliterating their tracks even before they had reached the entrance to the establishment. There would be no sign that they had ever been outside in a few more minutes. And certainly no trace of the supply wagon they’d taken from the Lutin army.

Lars Hasgkenn’s brewery was just as Charles remembered it, except that the front entrance was flanked by two Glenners bearing spears, and another two with bows standing behind them. Inside, it still had that pleasant atmosphere that reminded him vaguely of the Deaf Mule, but in a way, even friendlier than Donny’s well-run establishment. Many familiar faces looked up as they entered, from Lord Avery, to a few of the soldiers he’d fought alongside in the Battle of Nuln. Off in one corner had been the skunk whose tail he’d had been forced to keep his nose in while they rode the Lutin wagon up the back of the mountain all those months ago. Lars himself was tending the fire, his great ursine frame lowered over the sluice as he stirred the coals. Through the back door, he could hear the pleasant humming of Mrs Levins as she prepared the meals – somehow, anything that her paws touched ended up smelling delicious!

Each of those faces lit up in unexpected surprise as they came in, with Lord Avery bounding from his seat, and running to embrace the returning ferret. “Garigan! What a pleasant surprise! I never thought to see you here, not now! How’d you get here?” Even before the musteline had a chance to answer, the excitable grey squirrel had spotted a familiar rat. “Charles!” He embraced the honorary Glenner so suddenly, Charles barely had time to reciprocate. “What are you doing here? And who are your friends?”

“We’ve come to help,” Garigan replied, while Charles caught his breath. The rest of the bar had lit up, with old friends clustering about the entrance, greeting Garigan and Charles, giving him grins and hugs as if he were just as much one of them as the ferret was. Jerome and Zagrosek stood by, watching, secret smiles upon their faces.

“What happened to your arm?” Brian Avery said, as he saw the bloodstain on the ferret’s shoulder.

“I got cut a bit, but I’ll be fine. We’ve been travelling for a while, and were hoping to share your fire.”

“By all means, come in, do come in. You must tell me all that you’ve seen and heard.” Charles had to laugh as they were brought into the centre of the room, near the small blaze set in one wall. It was good to feel the heat again, soaking into his cloak and filling his bones. He stretched his foot paws as he was led to a chair, and a flagon of mead found its way into his hand.

However, before anybody could say anything, and before Matthias even got to sip the delicious mead, another voice broke into the crowd. “Oh, no they will not!” It was Lady Angela Avery, pushing her way through the Glenners that had clustered about their table to hear what they knew. “You will wait until we’ve seen to their wounds. Burris!”

The woodpecker appeared to have been sleeping against one wall, for his long narrow beak opened in some surprise, and his wings extended, nearly tumbling himself over in the process. “Yes, my Lady?”

“We need your art, poor Garigan has been hurt,” Lady Avery insisted, pushing her husband out of the way, while another one of the Glen’s females, a vole of some kind, snatched that flagon of mead from the rat’s paws. Her critical eyes examined Charles’s tail and she snorted. “The rat too.”

“I’m fine,” Charles began to say, but her sharp voice cut him off.

“Not until I say you are. You boys all say the same thing, be you three or thirty. Now you will sit there while we fix that tail up. Then you can have a drink, but only one mind you.” Her voice was so stern, that any further objections died in the rat’s throat. Instead, he glumly sat there as she cradled his tail in her paws, while the vole forced Garigan to remove his cloak, and shirt. Burris stood behind the two women, waiting, blinking sleep from his beady eyes.

Lord Avery gave Charles an understanding smile, and then a glance at the mazer of mead that the vole had put aside. The way his long tail darted behind him, said volumes – she’d kept him from having anything to drink recently too. Angus just chuckled, and focussed the Lord of the Glen’s attention on the other two men who were with their friends. “And just who are you two?” Brian asked, crossing his arms, glad to have something his wife would not interfere with while still excited.

“I’m Jerome Krebe, and this is Krenek Zagrosek,” the broader of the two men said. “We haven’t been touched by the curse yet, but are willing to take that chance to defend this place. It is not our home, not yet, but it is the home of our life-long friend Charles. We are at your service, my Lord.”

The squirrel nodded then, looking from one to the other. “Just call me Brian Avery, most everyone does. When was the last time you had something to eat? And just how did you get here all the way from Metamor with Nasoj’s army out there as it is?”

“Not since yesterday,” Zagrosek said, slumping down in a chair.

Angus patted him on the shoulder and looked over at the bruin standing by the fire pit. “Lars, we need two meals for our guests here. Fellen is bringing some more food around the back, so be a little generous this time.”

The bear snorted, and laughed. “Don’t you go prejudicing them already, you crazy badger. Not generous, hah!” The ursine disappeared in the back behind the counter top, grumbling something unintelligible.

Charles looked over at them both, and then across the smiling faces of the Glenners all about him, even to the critical expression that was on Lady Avery’s face. She continued to lecture him about being careful and not getting hurt like this, though she did treat him a bit lighter than Garigan, who was red from ear to ear; as if he could have made the wound heal by mere will alone!

Settling back with a sigh as he could feel Burris’ magic work through him, he had to allow himself a bit of joy. He was warm, there were good friends all about him, and the Glen was safe for now. Perhaps things were going to turn out all right in the end after all, and Nasoj would be kicked right back out of Metamor again, and maybe this time for good. And maybe Lady Avery would give him that flagon of mead back too. With a silent laugh, he decided to just enjoy the warmth filling him.

"Nervous, Greck?"

Kessig leaned back in his chair and put his feet on the small wooden table, watching with amusement as his Lutin companion paced back and forth outside the cramped storeroom they had converted into a guard station. The little green wretch held a crude dagger in one hand, quietly turning it end over end as he scanned the hallway for trouble.

" 'Course not," Greck said, scowling. "Jus' ready, that's all. I ain't lettin' no demons sneak up on me."

"Demons?" Kessig grinned.

"Keeper demons. You seen 'em. They hearts 'r' evil, so they turned in t'beasts and women. Punishmented."

Kessig laughed heartily. "If their evil hearts turned them into wenches, the world needs more wicked men!" he declared. "I'd like to see a few of those 'evil women' come our way tonight. We could show 'em a good time, you and me, eh Greck?"

Greck stared at the human soldier, aghast. "Oh, no. No no no," he said, waving his hands in fear. "You gonna summon bad magic on us. Don' touch the evil, Kessig, 'cept to destroy it!"

The mercenary snorted. "You're an odd one, Greck," he said, taking a swig of wine from a bottle he'd found in the storeroom. "I've seen others of your kind have their way with Keeper womenfolk."

"Yeah, an' they paid bad for it, too!" Greck shot back. "Remember that outpost that caught the otter woman a few months ago? The whole place was destroyed, all of 'em killed. They paid bad for touching the evil."

"Yeah, whatever, Greck." Kessig said, waving a hand dismissively as he took another drink. "You just send any pretty wenches you see my way. I'll take care of those wicked women for ya."

Greck turned away from his partner, grumbling irritably. He didn't see the four black, spindly arms reach out of the shadows and seize Kessig from behind, clamping his mouth shut as a long dagger sliced across his throat.

He did hear the clatter, though, when the chair Kessig had been sitting in fell over backwards. He turned and stuck his head in the doorway-

Just in time to see Bradfox's arrow speeding towards him.

The arrow struck the Lutin straight between the eyes, and the little beast fell backwards into the hall, slain instantly.

"Nice shot," Daria murmured.

"Thanks," said Brad, wandering over to the crates that lined one wall of the room. That soldier had been holding a bottle of wine...

David wiped his daggers off on the body of the human guard, examining them carefully before placing them back in his bandoleer. "This one must have been drinking for a while before we arrived," he said, stooping to check the body for weapons. "He didn't hear a thing."

"I don't know that anyone would have," Daria mused. "I know I wouldn't want to face you in a dark room."

The ant spread his mandibles in the equivalent of a grin. "Thanks, Squire."

"Credit where credit is due," the redhead replied, going over to the fallen Lutin and searching it for anything of value. There wasn't much.

"Come on," she said. "Let's drag these two into the passage. I don't want any evidence of their fate left behind."

They did as instructed, carrying the two bodies back into the narrow corridor that the Key had opened for them in the back of the room. The others were waiting for them inside.

"Success?" Morel asked with a grin.

"Success," Daria agreed.

Garulf took both of the bodies, one under each arm, and went off in search of a place to dispose of them. Starling went back with Daria and, with a careful application of her fiery breath, managed to erase the bloodstains that covered the floor. Then the whole group disappeared back into the passage, the wall closing behind them without a trace.

The wall silently opened, and Daria's strike team entered the first floor of the Lightbringer Archives. Merai rose to greet her friend, grinning at the look of satisfaction on the redhead's face.

"Good news, I take it?" the feline priestess asked.

"Victory, Merai!" Daria said, embracing her friend. "We found and eliminated three enemy guard stations in two hours' time."

"Was anyone hurt?" someone asked, as a small crowd formed around the returning warriors.

"Only our enemies!" Garulf declared, raising his blood-stained axe high for everyone to see.

A cheer rose up in the crowded hall, and Merai felt a brightening in the auras of those around her. For the first time since the temple had been sealed, there was a real feeling of hope. They could make a difference in the battle to protect their home. They could fight.

And they could win.

“What the heck is that sound?” Jacob asked, his voice echoing off the walls of the tunnel. They had been progressing through the sewers and catacombs of Metamor Keep for an unknown number of hours now. As they had moved up and down through the myriad tunnels, the architecture had varied widely. At first it was circular brick, defiantly laid by the hand of man; yet that design had rapidly degenerated into roughly hewn passages carved right into the bedrock. The sight of the first body, a skull on a wooden ledge cut into the rock face, gleaming hideously in Rickkter’s witch light, had forced a yelp from Jacob’s throat and caused him to drop his sword. The sudden noise in the desolate crypt had startled Rickkter so badly that he had whipped around, knife drawn. He gave the startled fox a dirty look before recommencing their trek through the catacombs. From there they had moved into some kind of sub-sewer system. At first Jacob had been glad to leave the tight passageways and innumerable nearly decomposed bodies behind him, at least until he began examining his new surroundings more.

Before they had been in actual passageways, square on all sides and with level flooring. But now... not they were in a literal tunnels, round corridors lined with support ribs that they had to walk over to get by them. The air in the tunnels was dry, yet when Jacob looked at the walls, they seemed to shine with a wet gleam. And while the tunnels themselves were made of cut stone, various support ribs had what at first seemed like the stone columns formed when stalagmites and stalactites join. Yet those columns didn’t look like they were formed by the usual mineral deposits; they had a decidedly organic appearance.

“What sound?” replied Rickkter. He was more intent on forward progress than in making conversation or studying the tunnel. The fact that this was their longest discussion outside of asking where Rick was going or which way Jacob thought they should head showed that quite clearly.

“That rumbling. It’s been getting louder for the last several minutes.”

Now Rickkter paused and cocked his head to the side, listening to the noise. Lifting his nose, he sniffed at the air of the passage, his long whiskers twitching in the faint illumination of the witch light. “Jacob, you’ve been living in town for far too long,” Rickkter finally pronounced.

Jacob pricked his ears up and looked at the raccoon.

“The sound is water. You can smell it from here. Sounds like a hell of a waterfall up ahead to boot.”

Sure enough, just up ahead and around a double bend in the tunnel, the curved walls vanishing into pitch-blackness. Upon their rounding that corner, Rickkter’s witch light, a bobbing source of constant, illumination that Jacob had grown so used to, surged upwards from its previous domain of the tunnel ceiling and plunged the two morphs into near darkness. Jacob could only see a dim outline of the mage as Rickkter craned his check upwards, following the path of the light.

“Damn, how big is this place?” the raccoon muttered as he stepped down from the tunnel onto some sort of ledge beyond the tunnel. From the echo of the roaring water in his ears, Jacob guessed the cavern beyond was indeed pretty big. Rickkter was on the other side of what the fox now saw was an actual platform, peering into the gloom where the river emerged from the darkness. His witch light rose about thirty feet in the air, swelling to almost ten times its previous size, throwing the dank cavern with its running water into harsh illumination.

The walls were of an expected wet and slimy appearance, all holding that curved and worn look of untold generations of exposure to running water. Jacob spared the platform they were on a quick examination and was rather amazed at what he saw. What he had first assumed to be a natural crag on the face of the cavern wall that the tunnels simply spilled out of, was in fact a man made, stone bridge. He was standing on one side of the stone frame that joined the narrow stone bridge to their wall. The bridge itself was suspended over the gorge of the underground river, running not more than five metres from the roaring oblivion of the falls. In that direction, all beyond was darkness. Rickkter now came over to the side where the fox gawked about himself to take a view from the side of the bridge where the falls were.

“Did you know this was here?” asked Rickkter.

“No, no I never even dreamed,” Jacob stammered. “I don’t think anyone has any idea that such a thing runs below Metamor. How large do you suppose it is?”

“From what I feel of the cavern with my probes...” Rickkter cocked his head and murmured. “Say about fifty-five, sixty feet across. The falls are close to one hundred straight down. Now hurry up. This is the first sign that we’re actually near the Keep.”

The sides of their platform were designed the same as the outer walls of Metamor with a simple facade of low battlements— ascetic only, as here there was nothing to defend against – the tops of which Rickkter lightly dragged his claws over as he made to cross the bridge. Jacob allowed the mage to go first, as he always did, despite the fact that the stone span was wide enough to permit the two to walk side by side. The fox believed that if anything untoward were to happen on the way over, Rickkter would know it first, thereby giving himself extra time to react. Instead, he chose to examine his surrounding closer. Something about the way the witch light glinted off the wet stone caught his eye in a most captivating manner. As he looked briefly at the pair of massive support chains, where they vanished into darkness to connect at the unseen centre of the bridge, he couldn’t help but marvel at the rust hanging from their iron rings. The rust looked like the leaves of Trees by the river with the red leaves, hanging from its chains in elegant strands. Jacob almost wanted to reach out and touch them but feared they would crumble to reddish-brown dust, taking the rest of the length with them. His admiration was short-lived, however, as Rickkter’s exclamation of surprise caused him to start and look forward once more.

The warrior mage had his sword out and in a defensive posture was circling a figure who stood in the middle of the bridge. Jacob fumbled to withdraw his own blade, the large weapon feeling foreign in his paws, and snarled, “Where the hell did he come from?”

“No idea,” Rickkter replied, never taking his eyes off the human form on the bridge. Jacob finally worked his blade free and joined the raccoon’s offensive posture. “He just seemed to come out of the shadows.”

The human, whoever he was, didn’t seem to be taking too much of an interest in the two morphs that stood so close by him, nor did he seem to make much of the witch light that blazed threateningly between him and that other party. The man was a little taller than Rickkter, clean-shaven and with a head of closely cropped, dark blonde hair. He had on high riding boots, well-worn leather armour, and a scarlet cloak. From the expression on his face, he didn’t even see the two animal morphs with their drawn steel. Instead, he seemed to be looking at something above the heads of the two, something that caused him a deal of panic.

“What is he doing?!” Jacob hissed.

Rickkter only grimaced and adjusted the grip on his blade.

Jacob was just about to ask what they were going to do, when suddenly the man panicked and took flight...

... right though the wall of the bridge.

“A shade! A shade!” Jacob yelped, back-pedalling as fast as he could, trying not to step on his tail which had wormed its way between his legs.

“It’s not a shade!” Rickkter yelled after him. Though he was still facing where the shade had appeared, the mage was retreating as well. “Damn it get back here! I tell you that was not a shade!”

“Then what in all the hells was it?!” Jacob yelled back from the end of the bridge.

“I don’t know what it was. I do know that wasn’t a shade, that much I can tell you.”

“How would you know?”

“Because I’ve dealt with them before!” Rickkter screamed back at the cowering fox. “So just trust me on this! Whatever that was, it’s gone now. So let’s get across this bridge before it really does come back!”

Jacob wined in hesitation, his tail still firmly between his legs. “I really don’t think we should cross, Rick.”

Arching his brow, the raccoon asked, “Pray tell, did you happen to see another way around this river?” Jacob could only shake his head. “Right, then let’s go.”

This time their crossing of the bridge was no leisurely affair. They jogged across the slick stones with steal drawn, and eyes and ears alert for any movement within the witchlight’s field of radiance. No shades or other apparitions appeared to hinder their flight, and they reached the other side without incident.

Rickkter ran a paw over one of the large, rough-hewn blocks that made up the entrance to the new tunnel. “Well, it seems we’ve finally reached our destination.”

Jacob’s opinion echoed that of the mage, as he too recognized the manner of stonework that made up Metamor Keep.

Rickkter’s witchlight swiftly descended from its previous lofty height, losing its current bulk and resuming its previous size as it swirled about the two morphs. “Now we just have to find a staircase leading up,” Rickkter said as he cast the light in front of them and prepared to enter the tunnel.

“Hold on a minute.”

Rickkter turned to see Jacob peering into the blackness in the direction where the river originated.

“Could you please cast that over there again? I think I saw something.”

Frowning, none the less Rickkter obliged. Joining the blue fox, he cast his witchlight upon the water and gazed upon what it revealed.

“Hah, I knew it!” Jacob yipped and jumped over the retaining wall to the small, rocky shoreline below. It was a drop of a little over seven feet, something the fox could handle with ease. Rickkter chose to stay behind, observing his companion’s strange actions.

Jacob scampered several yards along the shore, almost to the edge of illumination of Rick’s witchlight, where he began pawing at the ground. Yipping happily, he straightened up, holding a large, amber colour gem between his fingers. “I knew I saw something glinting out here! There’s a while bunch of these gems just lying here. Sure you don’t want any of them, Rickkter?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen gems that colour,” the mage hollered back, his arms spread as he leaned on the retaining wall. “Mind if I have a look.”

Jacob turned around, and taking careful aim, managed to make a prefect overhand toss to the mage, arcing the stone just over the raccoon’s head so that Rick has to back up a pace to catch it. It seemed that those countless hours playing in the street as a child had finally paid off.

Yet upon catching the stone, the raccoon gave a yelp as if he had caught a burning ember, immediately throwing the stone to the ground. Rickkter’s shriek still ringing in his now flattened ears, Jacob saw the mage stalk back and forth across the platform, growling and clutching his paw as through it really were scalded. The fur around Rickkter’s neck bristled out as he clamped his eyes shut and continued his little dance of agony.

“What’s wrong?” Jacob called back when he had found his voice again.

“Those aren’t real gems,” Rickkter said, Jacob barely hearing him as Rick spoke through clenched teeth. “Those are soul gems, you moron!”

The eyes of the blue fox widened as he looked down at the sapphire like jewel in his paw before he let it drop to the ground. “Where could such things have come from?”

“Oh, they probably belonged to the person you’re standing on,” remarked Rickkter from the bridge where he was examining and flexing his paw.

Looking down towards his feet, Jacob saw just what Rick meant. Buried in the mud and muck from the river were hand bones and part of an arm. Decomposing remains of a leather bag poked up from the mud near the hand, and his own foot, showing that it must have fallen and spilled open. A whine escaped Jacob’s throat as he began to back away, towards the bridge. Today just seemed to hold far too many dead people for his taste.

“What are we going to do with them?” he asked after Rickkter finally hoisted him back onto the platform.

“Leave them for now. We’ll tell the Lightbringer about them when we get topside. I’m sure she’ll be anxious to dispose of such evil clerical artifacts.” The witch light, which had been hovering over their heads, darted off into the tunnel ahead. “And right now, she’s some what in that direction. Come on.”

Jacob shivered and wrapped his cloak tighter around himself before plunging in after Rickkter. He just hoped that these tunnels would be of more mundane construction, unlike the previous outlying ones.

Lutins scattered across the white crystal covered landscape, gathered round large bon fires and glowing hot fire stones orbs while their comrades’ fought in battle.

Donned in expensive armor and fine weaponry they sat eating assortments of dried and preserved foods prepared for this campaign. They had become accustomed to the luxury working underneath the Four Winds brings, The luxury of heat and comfort even during the most furious of blizzards to name but one. Even in the dead of night they could see the dark silhouette of the Keep looming in the distance.

Four human figures stood solitary around the largest of the bonfires pressed against the warmth.

A bold large bald man covered in leather and full bodied runic tattoos sat there his immense frame in the snow stroking his beard seemingly deep in thought.

The thin gnarled hand came down resting upon the large mans shoulder in an almost parental fashion.

“What bothers you Phearsome?” said a thin cloaked man in a wispy voice.

The large man Mc Phearsome looked up as the thin masked man hold onto his shoulder and smiled while holding back a deep guttural chuckle.

“Bakuda my friend,” came the large man, “You’re the first person I’ve ever met that wouldn’t be worried about being seen this close to the enemy.”

This time the masked man was the one restraining laughter.

“My large friend this storm alone would keep us hidden, trust in my illusions a little. I doubt if even the Keep’s spirit is aware of this army’s presence.”

“Then why not attack,” chimed in the soft venomous voice of the Moranasi, Lady Eule.

Both Phearsome and Bakuda turned their stares towards the impatient pale women who sold her soul to the devil, donned in a black gown across the other end of the fire.

“Patience,” was Phearsomes only reply.

Eules face grew red and livid her eyes darting back and forth angrily as she got up onto her feet.

“How can I be patient!?” she screamed. “How can any of you?”

She began pacing along back and forth along the edge of the fire.

“You Phearsome,” exclaimed Eule if Metamor falls you’re a free man, you can go home to your family.”

The bearded man turned his gaze toward the ground, a distant look on his face.

“And You Bakuda,” she said pointing towards the masked man, “If Metamor falls Nasoj will cure you, you’ll be normal again.”

“And I’ll finally have vengeance….” As she said this she was bowled over onto the snowy ground Lutins struggled not to stare, at Eule, or the man in red who just committed the act.

“Stop it,” came a deceivingly smooth voice.

Eule looked up at the imposing figure of Kagnio, the Mercenary. A young pale man donned in red cloak with white hair, He didn’t look like a mercenary at all. But as Eule looked up into the strange mans glare, she couldn’t help but to recollect the images of devastation he would rain down upon his victims.

Eule shuddered.

“You’ll be rich you know.”

Before she could finish Kagnio kicked a fist full of snow into the black haired witches face.

“Who cares?”

At that he turned around and left heading towards his tent. Kagnio was strange indeed, especially for a mercenary.

“How, how could the Four Winds hide like this,” asked Eule as she got back onto her feet, “are you all such cowards?”

“Lady Eule,” said Bakuda looking down at Shadow Bringer, “We’d love to march on and finish this thing, but we’re here as backup,” he paused looking into the looming figurine of the Keep towers in the distance. “We’re not to take part in battle until signaled otherwise by Selig wherever he is.”

Without saying a word Eule stormed off silently.

“Please Lady Eule,” Called out Mc Phearsome with concern.

She paid no attention to the berserkers’ plea.

“Mother,” she said quietly aloud to herself.

“Mother it won’t be long now,” she looked up into the night sky.

“Raven, Raven we’ll meet again soon,” she smiled a cruel and cunning grin.

The wind roared through the skies, covering everything in a white death. The wind shrieked with pain and sorrow, as if announcing oblivion.

It's a conspiracy, all right.

So of course they're not going to tell any of the grownups. Not that it'd really matter - they're all pretty sure that the grownups at least know about what Derek managed to find, seeing as though they were kind of there at the time when Derek and Sammy were joining the fighting - but they're keeping it a secret anyways, because that's the Thing To Do. And anyways, the other kids might find out, and They'd insist on doing it too, and all the little kids just can't be trusted with this kind of responsibility, they all tell themselves.

Derek's the one apparently in charge here; nobody objects to this. All the kids involved in this were hand-picked by Derek. All of them know All about Derek's mighty heroism in the face of all those Bad Guys (Derek insists that they be called Lutins; that's what the grownups call them, after all), mostly from Derek's own lips, confirmed by stuff others had overheard from the grownups. In the eyes of the children, this places Derek on a platform of popularity and reverence normally reserved for gods. He has fought bad guys. TWICE. And beaten or at least survived against them both times. He is well and truly the warrior that he's always claimed to be, and so they're all willing to follow the wisdom of the King of the Snowfields.

It started when Josh overheard Uncle Jono talking to that weird-looking black winged guy about where all they were going. They'd been walking for hours and hours and hours, or so it seemed, with absolutely nothing to relieve the monotony. The Deal was still on, and so they couldn't really play all that many games together, and these tunnels were still are incredibly BORING. They just went on and on, the same old boring smooth black. Nothing to look at, no places to explore just boring old walking, like so many of their parents forced them to do every once in a while and which all of them dreaded almost as much as they dreaded the Bad Guys. So Josh had headed up towards the grownups, who'd been whispering back and forth about the trip they didn't look like they were having too much fun themselves and started to listen in. And while he hadn't caught most of what was said, he did get the basic idea. They'd be going outside again. Josh had been frightened every time they'd gone outside so far they'd been nearly hurt by bad guys, so he'd gone to talk to the hero Derek.

Thus the conspiracy. Derek had gone immediately to a few of his friends - they know at least Sammy and Jeremy were there, which makes sense; the three of them make the Invincible Trio Of The Snowfields; several think Daemion was there as well - and then Derek had gone out and picked several of the oldest kids who'd always been champs on the snowfields until he showed up, and started to fill them in on the plan.

"Now, when we get outside, there's going to be plenty of snow to work with.Right, Sammy?" Derek is whispering. Sammy nods solemnly. If he's still shaken from whatever-the-heck-it-was earlier, it's not really showing. All the kids have heard of Sammy's strength and speed in assisting Derek in the battle again told through Derek's lips. Sammy had been very badly hurt by the bad guys before Daemion did whatever he did, apparently - that's what Jono's friend Jo had told Daemion's dad - so obviously he'd been very much hated by the bad guys for the role he'd played in the heroic adventure several hours previously. This only elevates him in the eyes of the others - he assisted the great warrior Derek, and was wounded in battle for it, and ultimately came out unhurt. Never mind what Daemion did. Sammy is a helper and a survivor. Obviously he is someone to be respected.

The kids are in awe of this whole scenario, of course - the older kids are getting to be just as tough as grownups. They might even BE grownups someday... imagine that!

Derek keeps going. "All right. When we're outside, Sammy and I are going to set up near where everyone's getting out, and we're going to start making snowballs. Each kid gets two snowballs apiece, one in each hand. If you see any bad guys, and the grownups can't get to them, throw the snowballs at them. Don't everyone throw all snowballs at once you'll need them if more bad guys show up. And don't let the little kids get near them; they can't throw too well, and they might accidentally hit someone else, and these snowballs can't be brushed off." He nods a bit at Daemion as he says the latter, who nods back.

Every single last one of the kids knows all about how some really weird stuff that freaked out even the grownups happened around Daemion. It's just that nobody really knows for sure exactly what happened. The grownups didn't tell them a thing, Sammy was too shaken to talk about it, Daemion refused to talk about it beyond saying "yeah" to some bits of what Derek kept saying... and Derek kept making up these absurd stories of fighting some kind of daedra (of course provoking snorts from the Follower kids - daedra are just some myth told to insolent Lightbringer kids, right?) to save Sammy and Daemion being this big hero and all that. None of them really believe THAT, 'cause, well, come on, it's Daemion who's supposed to be this big hero. Daemion! The weirdo kid who never actually gets into the snowball fights but gets other kids to throw for him. Still, Derek would Never admit that it was Daemion who was the hero and not him, so you'd think that maybe he was telling the truth, and everyone Did see or hear about the weirdo stuff around Dae, so obviously he did something big but this is Daemion, here! It's just way too confused, and there's no way any of it can add up, so all they're willing to say for sure is that something really big and weird happened, and that after it Sammy and Derek weren't hurt anymore.

So they're in awe of Daemion too. And he doesn't seem to have anything wrong with this plan (or at least he hasn't voiced objection), so that's even more support for the conspiracy.

"Jeremy will be in charge of watching our backs when we're making snowballs," Derek announces next. Jeremy nods, thinking that finally he gets a chance to show what he's made of again. Sure, Jeremy got more than a little famous when he was wounded and saved, but that was back then before a lot of kids knew what was happening. Now, Derek's the real warrior here - he actually hurt the bad guys, while all Jeremy did was fail to get out of the way. He's definitely more than a little eager to show that he's still part of the Invincible Trio - himself, Derek, and Sammy - and he wants people to know his contribution. Fortunately, Derek still understands that all his friends can contribute - Jeremy was the first person he talked to about what Josh had heard, and the plan was mostly Jeremy's idea, and Derek had pointed that out at the beginning. He's always been the clever one of the trio; that's why they always kept him around even though he kept getting hit by snowballs so frequently. Jeremy's dad (despite being a weirdo who obviously wants to become some kind of old fogey guy) obviously knows what he's doing when he keeps telling Jeremy about brave warriors from battles past. It only makes Jeremy that much better of a tactician; quite an ability considering he hasn't hit his teenage years yet (One more month, he keeps reminding them all).

"Okay, everyone understand?" Everyone nods at Derek's question. "Right. When we go outside, be ready, and be quiet until then. Swear by the snowball bag." He holds up the bag he got from Kyia.

There's a chorus of whispered "I swears as all the kids give their oath. None of them will break it deliberately or even accidentally; the oath of an adventurous child is an unshakable bond. Derek has no worries about them at all. He doesn't have any worries about his sudden new position as commander, either; this is what he's been waiting for his whole life. He's getting to command people! Decide on troops, issue weapons, and be prepared to stop the bad guys if they get past the grownups. So what if nobody believes his fight against the daedra? This is way better. He's come into his own as a warrior for Metamor with his two clashes with the Bad Gu-er, Lutins (he's not going to call them Bad Guys anymore; that's what little kids do), and he's going to do as much as he can in this capacity.

His troops all disperse back into the ranks of the civilian children, and then Daemion and the Invincible Trio sit back down next to each other to further discuss their own plans for the time outside that they know is coming.

The Plan has been set in motion.


Jono instantly freezes upon hearing the sound, as does everyone else behind him. As a result, the following CLICK and slight rattling from what sounds like a kicked pebble comes that much more clearly.

He starts to turn his head, meaning to ask if anyone else behind him was possibly responsible for it, but that becomes unnecessarily when the low grumbling is heard. They're in the tunnels! How did they get in the tunnels?

Slowly, carefully, Jono steps back, motioning for the other grownups to move up to him. Then he turns to the kids, gives them what he hopes looks like a reassuring smile, and puts his finger to his lips while Dana and Jo and Kevin move forward as slowly and quietly as they can.

Another bit of low grumbling is heard then, and everyone freezes once more. Jo nervously fingers one of the daggers, straining to see forward into the darkness, but nothing comes after them as the rest of the adults make it up to where Jono and Kirk are standing.

Jono breathes in deeply, then whispers, "Okay... ideas, anyone? Jahnsen, can you 'see' them?" His voice is shaking; it's clear that he never expected for this to happen, and really isn't sure what to do. This doesn't help the moods of the others in the least; so far Jono's always been the clever, prepared one, and now he's uncertain what to do.

Jahnsen turns in the direction of the sound, taking a 'look'. None of the other adults can hear the supposed sound Jahnsen says is part of his ability to see in the dark, and they're hoping that the Lutins can't as well. "Probably twenty or so, about forty yards down."

"Can't charge through them; too many kids will be hurt, and we need to be able to get them out of this tunnel," Perry offers, his voice barely audible. This clearly isn't something he wanted either. If the tunnels are breached, they could get directly into the Keep... maybe even catching their group from behind. "Just this one, or have they found others? How far can they get in?"

"Kyia can handle them if they start getting too close," Kevin says in as authoritative a voice as he can manage. "Need to handle these, though. Fireball would make quite a bit of noise and possibly bring more down on our heads, and it almost certainly wouldn't get them all, or finish off most of them."

Kirk nods quietly, looking rather dismayed by Kevin's pronouncement. "Right, we need something that can keep the Lutins at bay long enough to get the kids past."

Jo looks up at that remark suddenly, a curious looking smile on her face. "Jono."

Jono blinks, looking over at his compatriot. "Yes?"

"You wouldn't happen to remember that moment when we were trying to sneak that Lightbringer relic out of Ederan, would you?" She's grinning almost impishly now, as if sharing a private joke.

Jono seems to get said joke, because his face lights up immediately in a bright grin. "That I do." he says slowly, turning to look over at Kevin.

Tharag Blackhand isn't feeling all that great anymore.

A half-hour previously, he'd managed a truly glorious feat - finding what looked like a hidden tunnel! Of course it had to lead to the Keep, he'd reasoned - all big castles have secret passages; Nasoj's Citadel certainly had them, and so obviously this must be some kind of escape tunnel. The potential glory of it was obvious; cut off escaping Keepers where they thought themselves relatively safe. He had dreams of coming down here and intercepting some nobleman, perhaps a few Keepers to be used as hostages, maybe even - dared he think it - the Duke himself!

But that was half an hour ago. Now Tharag is bored and irritated, along with the rest of the Lutins he brought down with him. On reflection, he realized that leading some two dozen Lutins into these tunnels was a bit much, given that they didn't have all that much space to fight, and the more there were the more noise could be made. Many were grumbling loudly, despite strict orders to be silent, and one of the fools had even kicked a rock. If there were any Keepers down here Tharag just knew that the element of surprise would be completely los

Tharag does not complete the thought as he sees a light in the distance suddenly... rushing straight towards them.

"Get down!" he calls down the line of Lutins, and drops flat just as the massive jet of flame thunders straight down the tunnel, singing his hair as it rockets over him. Then it's gone, and the air starts to rush in after the jet.

Jono and Joanne have been on the road together for nearly two decades. They've been all over the explored world in that time, and in a few unexplored parts as well. In the course of these travels they've ended up in quite a few notably troublesome situations. As a result of this, they tend to be prepared for lots of possible contingencies, and it's rather hard to catch them in a situation where neither of them know what to do.

A prime example would be the current event. Near to a decade previously, after the death of Jono's parents, the two of them had been asked on behalf of a local Lothanasi chapter to recover a holy relic of theirs from a ruined citadel. It had turned out that several daedra worshippers had set up housekeeping in same, and so they had to sneak their way in. They'd almost gotten out through a long hallway when suddenly several dark priests had emerged from the shadows in front of them. The solution they'd applied then was unplanned and rather hastily done, but ultimately it had worked, and so they'd set the idea aside, just in case they'd have to apply it again, say in a situation much like this.

Joanne is sort of an alchemist, but she usually practices it for purposes of healing rather than defeating enemies - she has other effective means for handling that. Despite that, there are a few agents used for healing that can also be quite effective when employed against foes.

Like sleeping agents.

In this particular case the agent is a billowing cloud of what seems to be light lavender dust, almost invisible in the tunnel's darkness, rushing in along with the rest of the air moving to replace the oxygen consumed by Kevin's flame jet.

Tharag does not know anything about Jono and Joanne's past adventures, and he can't see the light lavender tint to the air in the darkness. What he does manage to notice is that as soon as the air starts rushing in, he starts to feel very sleepy. “Magic wind!” He instantly covers his nose and mouth, trying to filter what he's breathing, listening as the rest of the Lutins behind him slump over and start snoring. “Brainless worms!” he thinks to himself. Now there's no way he can keep the Keepers from moving forward.

Then an idea occurs to him, and he slumps over himself, face down, keeping his hand concealed while it stays over his nose and mouth, closing his eyes to try to look asleep, listening carefully for any approaching Keepers.

Jahnsen makes another quick check. "They're all down. We can move."

Jono nods, then turns to the kids. "Everyone got their covers on?" He gets a series of nods; all of the children have extra shirts tied over their noses and mouths to keep from breathing in the gas. The adults have already ingested the counteragent Jo has (or rather, had). "Okay, let's go!"

And with that all the children start trotting quickly on tiptoe after Jono and the others as they head towards the fallen Lutins, with Jo and Dana in the middle to keep watch and Kevin and Perry holding up the rear...

It takes another few minutes and hearing lots of small forms passing by before Tharag is willing to risk opening his eyes again. He smiles inwardly. “Children. Perfect.”

Jo and Dana have both moved past Tharag when he jumps up Very suddenly, prompting several muffled yelps from the children behind them as he grabs for one of them. It's at this point that Tharag makes a critical error. He grabs the child in front of him by the left arm, leaving said child's throwing arm free.

Tharag's first words, muffled though they are through his hand, are intended to be "I have a hostage!" But he doesn't get beyond the "have" before Derek has hurled the spikeball he'd been carrying right into the hand and mouth, pinning the two together and prompting a loud howl of pain from the Lutin. None of the other Lutins are awakened by his cry, though, so Tharag only has a brief moment before the flash of light from Jo's dagger causes everything to go permanently black.

Their first three warnings come almost right on top of each other. The first of these is a cold breeze, catching them all unawares and starting a few of them who'd taken off their coats shivering a little. The second warning comes as a bit of light from right in front of them, revealing a small heap of snow just below the open trapdoor.

The third is a snort and grumble from the direction of the trapdoor that could only be a Lutin.

Of course they would have posted guards at the entrance.

Jono nods quietly to the others, then starts forward while Jo gets out a dagger and moves just far enough forward to get a good shot in if necessary. While he moves Jono keeps his ears perked and eyes focused around him; he can't see any shadows over the trapdoor to indicate any guards right there, but that doesn't mean they aren't present. He's moving unusually quickly despite his trying to stay stealthy; it's a risk he figures he can take since the wind is so loud above that he can barely hear his own breathing, low and quiet as it is.

His hand is moving far more slowly than his feet as it reaches for his whip; the metal bearings could smack against each other if he jars it too quickly, and that could very easily give him away. So he closes his hand over the bearings first before unhooking the whip from his belt, ready to swing with it handle first. It would seem a rather foolhardy gesture, except that Jono's practiced looping the whip around something when attacking handle-first.

Like, say, around a foe's neck.

Jono gets up very close to the trapdoor only about a yard away. He peeks upward torwards it, looking for any guards but the only things visible to him outside are the billowing snows.

Okay. No guards on that end, now comes the tricky part.

He takes a deep breath (the sound of which is hopefully obscured by the wind), then leaps forward to the other end of the trapdoor, landing and turning to look out the other side - and there's a Lutin there, sure enough, looking very shocked by his sudden appearance for just a half moment.

That half moment is all that Jono needs to lash the whip up and around the Lutin's neck, yanking him down with one quick motion back down into the tunnel, whereupon he quickly pulls a knife with his free hand and stabs the Lutin through the eye. He quickly looks up, hoping there weren't any other guards in the immediate area...

...but there aren't. If there are any other Lutins they're further away from the trapdoor.

He nods to Jo and Perry, both of whom are still towards the front of the group, and both of whom start moving up quickly, both trying their best to remain silent but knowing that speed is far more critical at this phase. Jono keeps his eyes open towards the trapdoor, both of his ears perked and listening for any surprised yells from outside that would tell him that other Lutins discovered that their comrade is missing, but no such yells are heard as Jo and Perry make it to the end. Jono gets down on one knee and knits his fingers together to create a foothold, Perry steps there, grabs the edge of the trapdoor opening, and then Jono shoves upwards while Perry yanks upwards, speeding him quickly over the top and out of the trapdoor.

There are no Lutins immediately menacing Perry. But there's a small squad not three yards away, near two tents they obviously pitched. Most of them are looking towards the small fire they somehow got going. He manages to take this all in the half-second it takes for Jo to join him.

It's at this point that one of the Lutins turns and rather suddenly notices that the trapdoor is no longer in their hands. Jo's dagger is already flying before he can even get a look of surprise on his face, though, and he falls over flat without getting the chance to give the alarm. The attention of the Lutins immediately goes towards their fallen comrade, buying enough time for Jo to toss both daggers, dropping two more while Jono leaps upwards and catches the trapdoor edge, hauling himself upward.

There are now four Lutins left in plain sight. They all turn towards the trapdoor to see Jono and Perry with swords drawn, charging towards them. Only one of them manages to get a weapon out before the two Keepers are upon them, but it's far too late to employ it. The remaining two go down just as swiftly under Jo's last two throws.

And that's when the apparently human mage steps out of the tent, cackling, holding two giant fireballs, which he flings in their direction.

Orrusk Blackhand has not been having a good day.

To start the day off, he'd been sent along with his brother and a few squads to head South to cut off potentially escaping Keepers that might retaliate. South! AWAY from all the glory and plunder at the Keep! That alone would be enough to completely ruin his mood.

But that wasn't all. While marching along next to his brother Tharag he's shoved in the back and falls like some kind of weakling, banging his head on something flat and stone; when Tharag had thrown him back to his feet, his damn brother had discovered it was a trapdoor, and took credit for discovery. An obvious attempt to discredit him in front of the tribe; it probably worked, too, which is all the more frustrating.

And then, to top it off, after a half hour of mind-numbing boredom with no chances for glory in these hellish tunnels, they'd all been magicked by the Keepers and sent to sleep. And he's only now waking up after the gods know how long...

He blinks once in brief shock as he starts to stand up. Right in front of him is his Wizard boots licking brother, clearly brutally slain from the way his hand has been pinned to his face. But none of the other Lutins are harmed... they must have known somehow that he was leading! And so they thought that leaderless he and his fellows would be weak... another insult to add to the day.

Then that thought drops.

Orrusk Blackhand, second and last son of Markesh Blackhand, has always been the more ambitious and clever of Markesh's two sons. It had been Markesh's desire that Orrusk take over rulership of the then-independent Blackhand tribe after his death, but Tharag had jumped in and quickly made arrangements with the damn wizards that had barged into the Giantdowns, and thus secured the leadership of the tribe with the backing of the most powerful army in the North. He knew he'd had no hope to challenge that, so he'd played dumb so as to avoid being destroyed himself by the Wizard's forces.

But now Tharag is dead. There are no other challengers to the post of chieftain.

His first act is to go to his brother's body and remove the ill-gotten family scimitar from same, slinging the scabbard over his back. His second is to start rousing the Lutins about him, getting ready to rally them for a rush down the tunnel. He's sure that they'll be glad to fight under a real Blackhand again.

Jahnsen's eyes go a little wide when he catches the echo from his last check. He turns to Dana. "The Lutins behind us are getting up. It wore off."

"Ohhh, that's just great," the swordswoman mutters before turning to the kids. "Okay, everyone quickly get bundled up again! We're going to have to leave real soon now!"

They each pick a direction to dodge the explosions. Jono leaps right, Perry left, and Jo somersaults back, tossing one of her daggers as she touches down. The mage doesn't get off any more shots before he falls; in the meantime Jono and Perry are both each charging a tent.

Jono slashes through the side of his tent with his sword, leaping through the cut fabric, and nearly runs right into a mage with a fireball ready. He instantly drops to the floor as the mage hurls it, managing to hold onto his sword but losing a few seconds to start to get up. The mage takes advantage and pulls out a small dagger, stabbing downward towards the cat. So he drops the sword and catches the mage's wrist with one paw - and gets blown back nearly a meter from the force of the magical blow that somehow lands on him, nearly flying out through the cut fabric of the tent, leaving him twitching, eyes closed in agony while the mage cackles over him. "Foolish little fighters. Think that force can solve ev "

His last word catches in his throat as Jono flips forward very suddenly, a knife seemingly appearing out of nowhere in his hand which he flings right into the human's chest. The mage blinks once, peering at Jono in puzzlement. "Bu..."

He knows that it's rather cliché to comment, but he really can't resist, especially after putting on a show. "Acting," Jono comments as the mage crumbles. "Had lots of practice," he says, grinning a bit at the corpse.

"Jono!?" The call is from Perry, apparently from outside. Jono retrieves his knife, then walks out through the proper exit for the tent. Perry is standing in front of the other, presumably also successful. The expression on his face isn't one of triumph, however...

"Tent's clear here! What about yours?"

"There were two! One of them got off a distress call, I think!"

“Marvelous. Get started on the tents! I'm going to help get the kids out from the tunnel!" He catches sight of the nod before jogging back towards the trapdoor. Kirk is already at the trapdoor's entrance, thankfully. "Kirk! We've got to get the kids going!"

"I know! Kevin's casting the warming spell right now!"

Jono gets puzzled. "You heard the distress call somehow?"

Kirk shakes his head. "The Lutins behind us are getting up! Your friend's sleeping stuff is wearing off!"

"Dammit!" is all that Jono manages to say. Kirk nods in wholehearted agreement. "Okay, get Jahnsen up here! I need him to try to spot someplace nearby and defensible!"

"Right!" Then Kirk is away from the trapdoor for a few moments while Jono yells out to the others aboveground. "Jo! Perry! Our friends from the tunnels are coming back! Speed is of the essence!"

"Can't be!" Jo yells back, even as she keeps working to take her tent down. "That agent lasted twice this long back in Ederan!"

Jono doesn't shout back a reply as Kirk comes back, hoisting up the batmorph. "Sir! What're we looking for?"

"Tower! Stone house! Anyplace we can hide the kids!"

Jahnsen nods, then starts turning about, scanning around for anything nearby as Jono kneels down, reaching down to pull up the first child Kirk hoists upwards - a little girl whom he can't quite remember through the stress. "Go over to where Jo is and stay right there!" he says, setting her down. He gets a nod before the little girl runs over towards the vixen. Then, "Kirk! Tell the kids to head over to Jo when they get up here!"

"Got it!" Kirk turns to the kids and starts to talk to them while Jono turns to Jahnsen. "Got anything?"

"Sir! Good news and bad news!" the bat reports. "Good news is, we're close to the goal! 'Bout three hundred fifty, maybe four hundred yards down that away" - he points - "I think I'm seeing the fortress outpost between the Keep and Lorland!"

"You think you're seeing?" Jono asks incredulously, looking in that direction. If he uses his imagination he thinks he can pick out maybe a slight shadow through the flurrying snow...

"Sir, noise from the wind is playing hell with echo locating damn near as much as the snow's screwing up regular vision!"

“Figures. Bad news?"

"Bad news, sir, is that about a quarter of that distance that away" - he points in the other direction - "is a whole shit load of Lutins, headed right this way!"

Once again there's only one thing Jono can think to say in response. "Damnit!" He turns back to Kirk. "We need Kevin up here, soon as you can!"

Kevin knows he's supposed to be looking for something. He's just not entirely sure precisely what.

Just a few minutes ago Jono said that they'd need him up here to potentially help out with an incoming marauding Lutin band; they wouldn't be prepared to handle same while dealing with getting the kids out of the tunnels, and so he was asked to prepare some means of defending them magically.

This poses a serious problem for Kevin. For one, while he can perceive and understand all magic’s like any mage and can perform a few basics from most any magical branch like most of the mages at the Keep, the vast bulk of his talent is with his historical divinatory magic, and the fire and heating magic’s for when he has to go into combat; as a result, the only thing he can do to keep that many Lutins away would be to either defeat them all at once (which is unlikely) or find some way of intimidating them (a little more likely, but not much). For another, the storm seems to be deliberately blocking any attempts at spell casting.

Or at least it was previously. Jono had mentioned that the mages that had been at the camp had all managed to toss spells of one kind or another, and if the storm was deliberately blocking Everything then obviously that wouldn't be possible. Even basic spell casting items like wands (which neither Jono nor Perry saw the mages using) have to draw on the surrounding mana, he knows that for a fact. So somehow they had some kind of mechanism for keeping the storm from impeding their spell casting. Jono wouldn't have called him up if he believed he could fend off the Lutins himself, so Kevin knows that he's got to find whatever it was that was allowing the mages to cast spells.

So Kevin reasons this out. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands of individual small-time mages in Nasoj's invading army; none of the really impressive types who can pose real threats to seriously trained personnel, but still having enough magic to help confound ordinary soldiers. He wouldn't want to get rid of that capability; he's been up against the Keepers before and knows quite a bit of what they're capable of; besides, his own common soldiers are going to obviously be seriously suffering from the storm, and the Lutins can't be as reliable as the average Keep footman, as they're in it primarily due to force. So he would have had to figure out a way to allow them to cast spells in this kind of environment. Casting a marking spell on every mage would be impractical given the difficulty of enchantments on living beings (they have to be willing, he knows, and he doesn't think Nasoj's empire to be a likely environment of absolute trust in one's magocratic superiors), and he couldn't easily do it en masse with everyone; even the Curse took the assistance of several other mages, and he'd had some kind of major power assisting him which would have its hands full with the storm, most likely. Now, there are types of items that can be enchanted en masse; he'd probably know that. And such talismans could easily be distributed to his forces. Amulets, or perhaps some kind of ring, or bracelet, or maybe even robes or something similar. The only difficulty with this theory is that Nasoj would obviously want to keep such away from the Keepers themselves, otherwise he'd be too easily routed - a single basic mage falling would be enough to possibly destroy either his storm or his army if found by the right Keeper. So he'd want to make them difficult to Keeper access; this implies something that would be set up at a camp. But that would slow down his forces' ability to use the spells in the First place... damn.

Reasoning is not allowing Kevin to follow the easy chain of thought he's used to. This is more than a little intimidating to him; he's grown accustomed to figuring out what someone or something might have done, following the line of reasoning, and come up with an appropriate end result. This is not occurring. For all his training with the keep's tactical magery group and his studies of people's actions of the past, he still can't always fathom exactly what someone will do right now.

It's difficult to see it through the lines of magic, too; the storm is literally blindingly bright overhead if looked at with magesight. There's two things that could be a result of; one is that the storm could be a magical creation of wild mana in an intensity rivaling the Keep itself; the other is that it's a circumvention device to keep people like him from disassembling the enchantment. Given the Keep's history, he thinks it's likely to be the latter, though it's not impossible to assume the amount of mana involved is great; he'd be surprised if it wasn't so much as to slow down the progress of the Curse if any poor souls happened to be trapped in th

"KEVIN! Have you got anything yet?" Voice is quickly identifiable as that bard. Jono.

"I'm trying to figure this out! Have patience!" Kevin does not like it when people disrupt a running line of thinking for any reason.

The bard appears to curse under his breath or something and then go on with what he's doing. Kevin's able to note the others in his party in the meantime; they're all rushing, trying to get all the kids out of the tunnels before the Lutins arrive. If he looks a little more closely he can see his boy Jeremy and Jeremy's two friends making up snowballs or something; his attention doesn't focus that way long enough to determine that much though. Better back to figuring.

Three main lines, it looks like to him. Three major areas of magic lines repeated over and over from the storm. One seems to be dedicated to perpetuating the weather's abdominal state, one is incredibly dedicated to mana absorption alone, and the last is very pervasive, obviously intended to prevent others from collecting any of the other natural lines of magic in the area. This latter is the one that has his attention; the areas it doesn't cover are obviously going to be his indicators of how to get his spells back. He made the mistake of succumbing to emotional strain the last time he was out here; he's not going to do that again.

Following that third major line, predictably enough, is unfortunately proving damnably hard.

So he moves over towards the tents. They're still flapping in the wind, from both the entrances designed in them and the entrances crafted by Jono's and Perry's swords. This tells him right off that the tents were not the focus around which spells might be cast unfettered; if they truly were, then the swordsmanship inflicted on them would have seriously disrupted or even destroyed the enchantment, and the two mages had resisted with spells, so clearly the tents are not the answer. And looking around the tent's interior (noting the body within, though not focusing on it too much; Kevin still isn't all that happy with being in combat, and death doesn't help his feelings about same much) clearly reveals that the lines of magic making up the third major line are not only still in the area, they're... even more focused?

Cover | Contents | Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 |
13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | Epilogue

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