The Winter Assault

Part 17

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

He's moving his forces, such as they are, as fast as he can down the tunnels, and he knows that's going to make a lot of noise that's sure to make the Keepers be aware of his presence long before he gets to them, and that bothers him a bit, but there's not much for him to do about it. They probably know already, Orrusk thinks to himself. If the Keepers could see them coming for their first encounter, they'll surely be able to see them coming for a second. And they also have a head start, which means that any attempts at stealth would cause him to lose his quarry.

It's plainly obvious to Orrusk that if the Keepers had the capability to slaughter him and his forces that they would have done so. The fact that they didn't kill All his Lutins even after the sleeping air attack, while definitely insulting, shows that most of these particular Keepers are likely weak and have no taste for killing, and that the few strong ones among them are listening to what the weak say. That makes it all the easier for him to intimidate, charge in and destroy, doesn't it? Which he'll certainly have to do; the morons left behind by Tharag will probably be more easily beaten by the stronger Keepers with them. There's at least two strong ones; the powerful mage and the fierce warrior that killed that bootlicking disgrace of a brother. Get through them and at worst he gets plenty of prisoners with which to appease Nasoj. At best, he gets his tribe back.

It's been long enough that the Keepers are probably going to make it to the end of the tunnels before he does. In that case, it's likely that they'll have run into the small force Tharag left behind to guard the entrance along with the mages that were working on that spell they were going to cast to let the Great One know. One warrior and one mage could probably fend a group like that off, if the mage is sufficiently clever - and he has to admit, this one probably is. They must know, though, that he's behind them, and so they'd do probably what he would do - attempt to rally the weak ones to fight with them, to go down fighting gloriously one last time. So he's having his group make noise as they move along, making it absolutely certain that he is coming to destroy them. That ought to keep the number of difficult opponents down to the two strong ones and that's all. Perhaps even less than that if he can intimidate them enough to get them to panic and run; strong ones courting weak ones like this obviously are those strange type of strong ones that try to defend the weak; they'd be swept up into the panic attempting to defend their precious weaklings and in the process become a non-problem. Which makes it all the easier for him to take advantage of their grave mistake in leaving him alive.

Finally, something is going right after all the insults of the day.

Kevin blinks, then glances back, looking towards the dead mage but not at the body itself.

The lines are going... to the body? A point on the body?

He almost lunges forward in his excitement, quickly trying to get the mage's clothes open, his eyes always on the lines of magic... then as he pulls the mage's blood-soaked (ugh! a voice in the back of his head comments) shirt open, he finds the lines come to an amulet around the mage's neck, the back of it contacting the skin. There's got to be at least ten or twenty lines rushing to it, though a few of them are starting to disconnect and become free floating again. His mind is racing now... “The lines are going to that amulet... what could that mean? Some sort of gathering device? Or is the mage attracted to the dampening...”

“Wait a minute... it's a KEY!"

He dimly hears his name called from outside the tent; must have said that last part out loud. But that's not what his mind is focused on. Okay. The amulet is a key, a key for something allowing the mages to cast spells. But that would mean that what he'd assumed to be a simple dampening spell also has an access mechanism built into it. Why? Storm is sucking up all the mana of the area to allow itself to perpetuate, so a mage can't cast any spells, thus keeping them from 'picking the lock' all that easily since you'd need to gather the lines before you could try to arrange them, and they avoid gathering, so whatever those lines are doing should remain secure, it's got to be feeding mana! Or something to that effect. Allowing the caster to. . .

He blinks. “to usurp mana from the storm? No, no, has to be redirection. The storm's already DONE all the gathering; casting spells through the amulet would allow you to divert some of that which is going to the storm to your own spell, long enough so that you can work it, and only enough for your spell being diverted so another mage can't take advantage of it. 'key' amulets could be fairly quickly enchanted, just do a few properly arranged gathering or focusing spells on various points on the amulet for the lines to go to, plus prob'ly a means of interfacing with the wearer or at least the wearer's spells so that it can actually be put to use.”

He reaches out, picks up the amulet off the mage's chest. As soon as he lifts it several of the lines that were starting to disconnect do so, going free much more quickly. That has to be as a result of the interface. It was already coming apart because he's dead, will probably lose all the lines if I take it all the way off. He reaches down, taking the chain and pulling the amulet up and off of the mage; a triumphant grin comes to his face as all the lines dissipate and lose contact with the amulet.

Then a thought occurs. That'd be sending feedback, wouldn't it? The decay of the connection of the lines of magic could be noticed by Eli! No, probably not by Eli... but still, brilliant! It serves as a tracking system! That way he can tell if an amulet is stolen or if the wearer is lost! By checking to see if that decay occurs... and if it's reestablished, then he can track down whoever stole the amulet easily enough; just follow the newly reestablished lines! Would have a few communications problems if some mage loses theirs and then gets it back, but such things ALWAYS happen in invading armies.

Kevin's mind is a blur at this point. This is hardly a new experience for him. He became a historian for really no other reason than to experience this sort of rush; when you're in the library in the early mornings with dozens of books scattered around your workspace, poring over passages, parts of a riddle running through your mind, little bits and pieces of the puzzle coalescing, rushing together like clockwork, it's one of the most enjoyable things in his life. The current situation - being in an actual battle that will surely be remembered in all the histories of this valley for the Northlanders' daring (if rather suicidal) gambit alone, and having to use this talent of his to help protect his child whom he loves more than his pursuits and his life itself as well as so many other children - only adds to the incredible feeling he's experiencing. Application of talent to not just understand the actions of the past, but to defend the historical figures of the present and future.

This is what he would love to live for; all that prevents him from doing so is that massive invasions from the North are thankfully infrequent.

“So,” he thinks to himself. “Is it safe to keep this with me? Possibly. Can't keep it on, for sure, assuming it works if I do put it on.” He stops for a moment, looks down at the amulet, shrugs, and puts it on, then waits, looking around for the lines.

“Nothing,” A few seconds of depression, and then he slaps himself upon the forehead. "Skin contact!" He quickly starts to open his robes and shirts, the cold around him briefly forgotten, then lifts the amulet and drops it on his chest, fidgeting. “Will the fur interfere?”

After a few seconds, it's clear that again, nothing is happening. He quickly pulls out the small dagger from his belt, giving it a quick examination, then pushing his sleeve up and running it a short way up his wrist as a test. The fur comes away fairly easily; thankfully he'd made sure to keep the dagger good and sharp ever since the scare that had come after the Patriarch's murder. He places the dagger against his chest with the blade flat, oriented vertically and level with the amulet, takes a deep breath, then starts to cut at the fur with the dagger, using his other paw to lift the amulet up and away. He winces a few times as the blade makes a little too close contact with his skin, even barely suppressing a loud squeak as the tip starts cutting in a little far midway through, and there's a little blood there now, but he keeps going until he's shaved away a small patch of fur about four inches across. Then he wipes the dagger on his robe and sheaths it, takes in a breath, crosses his fingers and drops the amulet back down so it comes to rest against the shaved part of his chest.

It takes two or three seconds before Kevin grins triumphantly to the accompaniment of the sight of lines reattaching themselves to the amulet.

In the exact same moment, Orrusk also grins triumphantly as he spots the last three Keepers in the tunnel ahead of him, just under the trapdoor - one VERY large one holding up two children, apparently for his fellows on the surface to grab. Most of those ignorant fools who call themselves Lutin commanders would be disappointed at the low number of available targets in the tunnel, but he's well aware that if they hadn't hurried he wouldn't have had any. He makes a note to himself to praise his fellows behind him once they're done with this particular assault; keeping your troops feeling good reinforces the desire to serve, according to Markesh's rules.

But that's for later. There are other things to do now.

Hoping to intimidate the bull's passengers and thus keep the bull out of combat just long enough, Orrusk decides on the direct approach. Accordingly, he whips the Blackhand Scimitar out, pointing it before him, and with a cry of "CHARGE!" starts barreling towards the remaining Keepers.

The cell they were in was surprisingly good. It was twenty feet long and ten feet wide. Two beds that were set on either side had real feather mattresses and a small magic stone lit it brightly. The floor was clean and dry and there wasn’t even any lice or other bugs in bedding. They were placed on the beds, still bound, and had nothing to do but wait and wonder what would happen to them.

Finally the door opened and a short man dressed in armor entered. Behind him came two soldiers, he recognized one as the lynx who had brought him here. The other soldier was a tall man that had also helped bring him in but whose name he didn’t know. Those two were known to Ferwig, it was the stranger in the lead that had him curious. The man was dressed in chain mail armor and looked at him with cold, hard eyes. There was a mace hanging from his belt and two hand axes were tucked into the same belt. The weapons marked him as a warrior, but the items he took from his sack and laid on the floor were the tools of healers.

“How long have they been in here Janet?” the healer/warrior asked.

“Several hours,” the lynx answered.

“Several hour?” the man said surprised. “And has anyone seen to their wounds?”

“They’re prisoners Jotham. They tried to kill George.”

“That’s no excuse!” Jotham shot back.

“Yes sir,” the feline said coldly.

Jotham removed the gag from Teria’s mouth and began to examine the woman’s head. A girl of about ten entered the now crowded cell and held out a bowl of water and a bag to the healer. He took it and placed them on the floor. The girl looked at Ferwig with large, frightened eyes. Then she turned and fled the room.

Ferwig gave a small chuckle. “The way she ran out you think I was a monster.”

“You are monsters,” the feline answered.

“We’re only doing a job,” Teria said, speaking for the first time.

Jotham stopped his examination and looked the woman straight in the face. “You work for Nasoj, that’s close enough.”

The mage opened her mouth to say something but Jotham cut her off. “Shut up and don’t move your head.”

The next few minutes passed in silence as Jotham tended to Teria’s face. “What did this wound? It doesn’t look like any weapon I know.”

Teria didn’t answer but looked straight ahead into space and Ferwig was in no mood to answer either. Janet finally broke the silence. “George knocked her out with a plate.”

Jotham stopped cleaning the woman’s bruises and looked at the lynx. “A plate?”

“A big dinner plate,” she replied mimicking the plates dimension with her hands.

He nodded and laughed out loud. “Leave it to George to fight someone with a plate and win."

The two guards laughed in agreement. “What did he use on you,” he asked pointing to Ferwig. “A butter knife?”

The fighter held up his arm, revealing a long, bloody wrist. “He did that with his teeth.”

The humor disappeared from Jotham’s face instantly. He took a rag and dipped it into the water. The man wrung out the cloth and pressed it to the woman’s bruised face. Then he took Teria’s still bound hands and brought them up to the rag. “Hold that there.” Without waiting to see if she obeyed his order Jotham moved over to Ferwig and began to work on his wrist.

“I’m surprised George took you two alive,” the male guard said. “He’s not know for showing mercy to his enemies.”

“Dead bodies can’t give you information,” Janet answered.

“You two are lucky that George needed information or you’d both be dead now,” Jotham commented.

“So, the two of you tried to kill George by yourself?” he asked.

“Yes,” Ferwig answered plainly. “We were paid quite well.”

“Just you two?” Janet asked.

“Yes,” Ferwig answered calmly.

Jotham stopped cleaning Ferwigs wrist and looked him in the eyes. “Are you sure of that?”

“Yes,” he replied without a pause. The healer went back to working on the man’s wrist without commenting.

“Only fools would go after George without a lot of help,” Janet commented.

“It was a close fight,” Ferwig said, angry at being belittled. “I almost killed him.”

Jotham laughed, “I find that hard to believe. George is an tough, old bandit. You don’t get to be his age by being easy to kill.”

“Yup,” the feline said. “One man actually slit George’s throat. Not only didn’t he die but he killed the assassin with his own knife.”

“Oh Janet,” the male guard scolded. “Don’t tell me you actually believe that old tale?”

“It’s true Pepin,” the feline countered. “I’ve seen the scar myself.”

Teria lowered the rag from her face. “What did he look like before the magic changed him? Was his nickname The Cutlass?” she asked speaking fir the first time.

“Why do you want to know?” Jotham asked.

“I think we served with him once,” Ferwig said surprised. “About eight maybe nine years ago.”

“It cannot be him,” Teria said flatly. “The odds against our meeting him are astronomical.”

“George’s past is none of your affairs,” a figure said from the doorway.

Standing in the doorway was a tall, fox man, dressed in chain mail armor and carrying a five-foot long, black battle-axe. This person was unknown to them but he resembled someone that Nasoj had a large bounty out for. One even larger then Georges. The canine standing behind him was well known to both of them.

“Hello Ferwig,” George said calmly. “Been many years.”

“You know them?” the fox asked.

“A long time ago Misha,” the jackal answered. “In another life.”

“I wish we had known it was you we were to kill,” Teria commented.

“Why?” Misha asked. “Would that have stopped you from trying?”

“No,” Ferwig replied. “But we would have raised the price.”

Misha just shook his head in disgust. “I’ll never understand mercenaries.”

“Everybody out,” the jackal announced suddenly.

No one moved for a moment except for the fox who looked at George. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. Leave us alone.”

The fox nodded and waved everyone else out of the cell. He paused at the door himself and looked at the jackal. George gave a wave of the hand and shooed Misha out. The door closed behind the fox with a solid thump.

The jackal looked his two prisoners over with a cold, calculating glare. “You both look older, and thinner then the last time we met,” he said finally.

“You look fat,” Teria said.

“Things have been going well for me the last few years,” George answered.

George was now dressed in full plate armor, taken from some armory. Ferwig noted that he still had both of those weapons he had used so well to defend himself. “You were George the Cutlass.” It was more a statement then a question. “We fought under you some nine years ago in Talshet.”

“I remember,” the jackal said. “You both fought very well.”

“Those were good times George. I can see why the Duke would hire you,” Ferwig commented.

“I wasn’t hired by Thomas,” George answered. “I swore an oath of loyalty to Duke Hassan.”

“What?” Teria said, surprised.

Ferwig was just as surprised. “You can’t be the George we knew. George the Cutlass never had any loyalties except to himself.”

The jackal removed the metal collar of his armor and dropped it on the bed. Then he tilted his head back and spread the fur on his throat using both hands. The scar was plain to see. It didn’t go all the way from ear to ear but it was still impressive nonetheless.

“It is you,” the man said, surprised.

“Why the change of heart?” Teria asked.

“I came here because a friend told me the Duke would pay good money for a man of my abilities and he was right,” the armored canine explained as he put the collar back on. “I’m paid very well for my services.”

“Why the oath?”

“The Duke hired me in spite my past. He knew exactly who I was and it didn’t matter. He said that if I was a wanted bandit and was still alive then I must be good. And he hired me right then and there. Now I’m a respected, trusted and well paid officer of Metamor. The people here at the Keep accepted me without hesitation. They didn’t care if I was high born or not.” The jackal paused in his speech and seemed lost in thought for a moment. “Plus Metamor is the first place that I’ve ever truly felt at home.”

Ferwig shook his head. “To a mercenary no place is home.”

“Metamor is my home,” George said his voice hardening. “A home I’m going to protect.” He drew a dagger. “Now, tell me how you got in, how many were with you and exactly how many other assassins are loose in the Keep.” There was a dark gleam in his eyes that Ferwig recognized.

The man looked to his partner and saw that the usual air of confidence was gone. Instead he saw real fear in her eyes. She had recognized that look in Georges eyes too. “We entered the Keep about an hour before we met you after coming in the South gate. There were four others with us, all fighters.”

“Where are the other four?” the jackal asked in clipped tones.

I don’t know. We lost them soon after coming in. One moment they were behind us, the next all that was there was a stone wall.”

George nodded. “Kyia protects her own. How did you get past the guards at the gate?”

“Another group had killed the guards before we got there.”

“How many others came into the keep besides your party?”

“I have no idea. We were kept separate.”

“Who else were they after besides me?”

“The Duke, the Lightbringer priestess, the Follower priest, and a porcupine alchemist and your fox friend. There is a big bounty for them all,” the fighter answered. “I’m sure there are others but I don’t know them.”

“The main force, what’s the composition?” George asked. “How many and what types?”

“At least three or four thousand Lutins. Plus around five hundred human mercenaries and a score of ogres and the like,” Ferwig explained.

“Plus at least two groups of mages,” Teria added. “Powerful mages.”

“Who and how many?”

“No idea. They were very well shielded.”

“Any other information?” the jackal asked coldly.

“No,” Ferwig responded.

“Good,” George said and then turned and left.

George walked slowly away from the cell. There was too much to do to waste time thinking of the past and old friends. “You hear what they said?”

Misha fell in step beside the jackal. “Yes. Are they telling the truth?”

The Jackal nodded. “Yes, they were too spooked not to. When are you going out again?”

“In an hour or so,” the fox answered. “Too much to do. I want you to stay here and take command. There’s no telling who or what is out there.”

“You think they’ll attack Long House?”

“Yes I do. Its too important not to attack.” The fox stopped and looked around to be sure they were alone. “And don’t forget we have a traitor among us.”

The jackal stopped and looked at his friend. “How do you know I’m not the traitor?”

“Because old friend if you were, I’d be dead by now.”

George laughed, “True enough. Now lets go see to the defense of Long House.”

Long Hall was the heart of Long House. From the large hall rooms, corridors and stairs radiated in all directions. It was the place people trained, relaxed, congregated for meetings or gathered before or after patrols. Usually the hall was quiet at night aside from the odd person moving about. But it was far from quiet now. Misha, and George stood at the doorway looking over the countless people who filled the hall. There was at least one hundred of them; refugees. Every time a patrol went out it came back with more refugees in tow.

“I didn’t think we brought in that many,” Misha commented.

“You didn’t, many of them seem to wander in by themselves,” George explained. “In little groups mostly.” The two began to walk across the hall, moving around the various people. “And they’re still coming in. I think Kyia is deliberately directing people here as a refuge.”

Misha nodded. “Makes sense. She’s also taking people to the chapel and the Lightbringer temple. Do you have enough food for all of them?”

The jackal nodded. “For the time being. I figure about a month’s worth.”

“We won’t be in here that long,” Misha commented. “I hope.”

“So do I.” The two reached the opposite side of the hall. In front of them was the only exit to Long House, the single doorway that Ferwig and Teria had been brought through. Flanking the exit were two other doors. The fox and the jackal opened the right hand door and stepped through.

The room they entered was small about twenty feet long by twenty feet wide and had a table and several chairs. Three of the walls were lined with racks filled with spears and quivers of arrows. A doorway was set into the wall at Misha’s right. The two soldiers in the room came to attention. “Relax,” Misha said. “What’s your duty?” he asked the woman who was in charge.

“Sir,” She said saLuting. “If an enemy tries to enter Long House we are to use our spears and arrows to stop them.”

“How?” George asked.

The woman pointed to the one wall not holding weapons racks. There were numerous slits in the stonework. “Those arrow slits open into the entrance passage. All we have to do is shoot arrows and poke spears through them. In that small room we can’t help but hit someone.”

“Good,” Misha said. “Carry on.” Misha and George moved through the doorway and up the circular stairway on the other side. After several turns of the steps they reached the upper floor. The smell of hot oil filled his nose and the sound of something boiling reached his ears.

Two large cauldrons sat facing each other in the center of the room about twenty feet apart. Small fires were burning under each of the large pots. The space between the two pots was surrounded by a small wall barely a foot high. Misha noted the kegs of oil that lined a far wall. Two people were in here carefully tending the pots of boiling oil, keeping them from boiling over or going cold.

“Good,” Misha said. “I see we can give any Lutin who attacks a hot reception.”

George nodded. “Yup. We keep both pots simmering constantly. With a tip of a cauldron we can pour gallons of boiling oil into the murder room right below. They don’t even have to be neat about it. The low wall keeps the oil from splashing back.” The jackal pointed to a steel door set in a nearby wall. “That’s our next stop.”

Misha opened the door and stepped through onto a balcony. This was the same battlemented balcony that Ferwig had seen on his way in. Misha saw four guards standing on duty watching over the battlements. He noted numerous quivers of arrows hanging from hooks on the inside of the battlements. Misha leaned on a stone merlon and looked at the hall below. Empty, the hall was devoid of any cover for an attacker.

“Why is this hall still here?” George asked. “Long House was easier to defend when the sole entrance opened onto a small corridor.”

“Kyia has her own plans,” Misha answered cryptically.

“What does that mean?” George asked.

Misha shook his head. “Have there been any Lutins inside yet?”

George didn’t like the fact that Misha had changed the subject without answering his question but he knew his friend wouldn’t answer it. “A small group this morning. We killed them all easily.”

“In one of the store rooms by my office there was a disassembled ballista. I think we can assemble it up here. It would add considerably to the defense.”

“Sounds good,” the jackal said. “I have the feeling we’re going to need it.”

The two had been ignored after George had left their cell. Food had been brought them but the mole carrying it had entered and left without speaking a word. It gave them plenty of time to think and talk.

Their seclusion was suddenly broken when the door opened and Misha and a wolverine morph entered. The fox had a hard look to him, cold and angry but the wolverine looked frightened. “This is Jenn,” the fox said in a nasty tone. “She has a few questions to ask, and you will answer them.”

“You came in through the South Gate?” Jenn asked in a quiet, female voice.

Ferwig realized that under that robe and thick fur was a woman. “Yes we did.”

“Did you see any sign of my husband?” she asked. “He’s a wolverine like me. Andre is the Captain of the South Gate.”

“I saw no wolverines among the dead, my lady,” Teria answered truthfully. “But we did not take the gate, another group did.”

“Could he have been taken prisoner?” Misha asked.

“He could have, “ Ferwig responded. “We didn’t linger in the gate but moved on to our target.”

“You mean my friend George,” the fox commented.

“George is your friend?” Ferwig asked.

“Yes he is and so is Andre.”

“Are you sure you didn’t see him or hear someone mention him?” Jenn asked hopefully. There was a panic in her voice. She was obviously trying not to break down and cry.

“No, I know nothing of him.”

The wolverine burst out in tears and ran from the room. Misha started after her but paused at the door. “You’d better hope he’s still alive or I’ll take it out of your hides. Slowly and painfully.” With that he turned and left the cell. The door slammed shut with an ominous thud.

Neither doubted that the vulpine was dead serious about his threat.

Jono's mind is also working quickly, though he's not grinning triumphantly as a result. The expression on his face is one of stone-cold determination. "Jo! Perry! Take the tents down; try to keep them in one piece! We're going to need them for the trip over!" he yells as he helps another one of the kids up. "Go over to Dana and the others!" he says to the child, not having the time to even see who it is.

Jono has a Plan. If visibility through the snow wasn't so dismal, one would be able to see it in his eyes. He's certain that not all the kids would be able to keep up in an all-out dash to the tower; the Lutins would catch them. And there's far too many kids to carry. So he's going to have to improvise with what was left behind. “At least I'd already told them that story before this mess happened in the first place; it won't be an entirely new concept to the“

It's the scream of terror from one of the two kids still down there with Kirk that rips Jono's attention away from the tents.

Kirk, having heard the battlecry, has whirled around to face whatever threat is coming even before the girl has screamed. When she does, he's already assessing the situation. The upcoming combat, he can see, will consist of himself against roughly fifteen or so very active Lutins, one of whom is swinging a Very nasty-looking sword. His axe is useless in these tunnels; there's not nearly enough room to swing it. Worse from a combat perspective, he still has the last two children in his arms, which is certainly going to slow him down. Will likely have to resort to kicks, but they won't be all that powerful since he can't balance with the kids in his arms. Perhaps he could drop them, get in front of them so none of the Lutins ca


He looks up to see Jono on his belly before the doorway, reaching down inside. Before his mind even registers what Jono's trying to do Kirk has already given each child a quick heave upwards, sending them momentarily flying through the air until Jono catches them both. By the time he does, though, Kirk has already turned his attention to the Lutins.

Jono hasn't even gotten the chance to pull the kids all the way out of the tunnel before Kirk engages the Lutins, kicking out once towards some Lutin that looks to be carrying a scimitar; he misses, but ends up hitting someone directly in front of his target and knocking both back. Another kick delivered to the other side manages to send another Lutin crashing into what looks like two or three more.

Then Kirk starts to crouch down, and so Jono quickly pulls the kids back, managing to get them away from the trapdoor just before Kirk reappears, bellowing loudly and leaping up Incredibly high for one so big, landing halfway in and out of the trapdoor. It takes a half second before Kirk has pulled himself fully out of the doorway, and another second for him to grab the trapdoor and slam it down shut with a final grunt.

A few seconds just pass then, as Kirk lays there almost panting from the effort put into the jump, and Jono tries to keep both the kids and his friend all in view at the same moment. Then the little boy Jono is still holding gets an enthusiastic look of wonder on his face. "WOW! Can we do that again?"

"Twenty yards! They're almost on top of us!" comes Jahnsen's voice, bringing Kevin's attention back to the outside world. "Whatever you're going to do, Kevin, better do it now!"

"Coming!" he yells back, getting his robes back on over the amulet, making a brief check to insure that the lines are still attached.

Kevin is not primarily a combat mage. Strictly scholarly mages tend to be limited in what they can do, and Kevin is no exception; he only recently learned the Fireball spells after the death of the Patriarch and the scare of potential war that had come up in light of that event. He's not a combat mage by any stretch of the imagination - he's a historian. And it's highly doubtful that a detachment of Lutins will be intimidated or otherwise repelled from the field of battle by historical findings, no matter how dramatic.

But there's another tool he uses for his historical works that, if one is clever enough, can be very versatile.

He rushes out of the tent even as he notes Jo and Perry running towards it. Out of the corner of his eye he can see that the other tent has been apparently reshaped somehow; must have been that plan the bard was talking about. Near it is the collected future of Metamor, guarded by Dana. He waves to them as he runs over to Jahnsen; he knows they're going to love this.

"What're you waiting for?" the bat asks, yelling to be heard over the wind as Kevin makes it up to him.

"What direction are they coming in from? How's their front line oriented?"

"What?" the bat asks, momentarily puzzled. Then he shakes his head as if to dismiss that thought, and holds out his hand in their direction, turning it flat vertically so it's parallel with the Lutin front line. "Like that!"

Kevin looks out in that direction. The kids are well out of the picture; the tent contraption show up a little to the left, but it's not interfering. Jono and Kirk are off to the other side, but they're just close enough to him such that he still has room. "Perfect." he says almost under his breath.

"Excuse me, sir?"

Kevin turns to Jahnsen briefly. "Stand back a couple yards! Otherwise you could ruin the effect!"

Jahnsen knows better than to argue with a wizard on a point like that. He immediately runs towards the kids, looking back and watching.

And Kevin starts chanting.

Kesk Morgrim likes to keep things small and swift, based on the simplest lessons learned from the legendary Markesh Blackhand. Move in with small units run by trusted warriors, take by surprise and be prepared for the use of strength when surprise is lost. Only the most basic of tactics, he knows, but most northern humans don't know that, let alone most northern Lutins. That includes the human mages (damn them to the nine hells!) that have been running the remainder of the Blackhand tribe while Tharag goes off playing scout - they hear that Tharag's party has been attacked, and they insist on a show of force! Sure, it'll accomplish the job, but it'll also cause more Lutin casualties; the small detached units Markesh favored would do far better there...

Kesk spits in disgust. Takes eight score poison arrows launched into a forest and blind luck for that damn mage to throw away the greatest Lutin warrior that ever lived, but only shouted words from a lowly follower of same to throw away the remainder of that warrior's army. The Blackhand Tribe still knows how to Fight, damn it, and yet they're being thrown out here to cut off retreat and reinforcement. A living-wall force! One of the things Markesh would never have done. He spits again. It could be worse; he could find himself dead along with the rest of Markesh's general staff. Only a few of the lieutenants and one or two of the generals (including himself, he thinks in disgust) managed to survive the purges Nasoj ordered after Markesh's death.

Not that all of them would really have been threats. Most of Markesh's supporters, though thought of up North as military geniuses, would probably be considered equivalent to run of the mill officers here at the Keep. Kesk has a large amount of respect for his foes - another lesson of Markesh's. When you respect a worthy and strong foe, you're better prepared to defeat said foe when the time arrives. “All the more reason to fight them with brains throughout and not this damn sneak-up-then-smash foolishness.” But there's no way Tharag would ever listen to him.

He nods to Neska, one of the other ex-supporters who'd had to lay low and play dumb when Nasoj showed his wrath. If real tactics were being thought of she'd be just behind him, ready to use a few spells so as to narrow the odds against these Keepers. But Nasoj doesn't trust the Lutin shamans, so none of them can cast spells; only his incompetent humans can. And he, an experienced warrior who's run more campaigns than those babes have even dreamed of, has to take ORDERS from them!

Neska waves a hand to him, jolting him away from that line of thought. There is a task to do, however distasteful it might be. The Keepers that attacked Tharag's camp would be about oh, twenty yards ahead. “Would that we could have Fortune smile on us by insuring that runt's death in the assault,” he thinks to himself before he starts forward once more, his ragtag 'command' (he hesitates to dignify it with such a phrase) behind him.

And then he halts as the campsite comes into view.

A war raged in the hallowed and ancient halls of Metamor Keep. A war that would effect the course of millions in the next thousand years was being fought by a mere handful of people. It was being fought in a thousand little skirmishes, ambushes, attacks and desperate last stands that were taking place in nameless corridors and rooms. Halls that had seen only calm and happiness, that had echoed to the sounds of parties and celebrations now rang with the sounds of combat. It heard the clash of steel on steel, the crackling of flames and the screams of the dieing.

In one corridor which seemed much like any of a hundred others a score of Lutins had battered down a door using a makeshift battering ram. In the rooms beyond a family of seven huddled in one corner while their father bravely tried to hold off the monsters attacking them. It was a hopeless fight and they all knew it, especially the Lutins. First they would have some fun with the man, then the rest of the family – especially the wife and daughters. Four of the green creatures were taking their time in killing the man, taking turns attacking him while the others cheered and egged them on. They were so busy with the entertainment that they didn’t see the group of Keepers approaching until a javelin imbedded into the back of one of Lutins. He managed one scream before he died. The rest followed seconds later.

The ten panic stricken keepers were running for their life. Three men, four women and three children of various species were moving a fast as possible to escape but they weren’t moving fast enough. Death was snapping at their heels and they knew it.

Behind them, a dozen Lutins screaming and howling raced towards the Keepers. They were all trying to out race each other, eager to score the first kill. Their quarry was barely forty feet ahead of the lead Lutin when they reached an intersection. They paused for a moment as if deciding what to do then continued on. But they were still moving far too slow. The lead Lutin was a small male carrying a spear as long as he was tall. It’s long steel point was covered with blood. A raging blood lust filled his eye. The rest of his band was mere footsteps behind. He reached the intersection without slowing down. There was a brief flicker of a shadow and the Lutins head went flying from his shoulder to land at the feet of the rest of the war band. They had barely a moment of surprise before a shower of arrows, javelins and spears ripped through them. It was over in moments.

Misha casually wiped the blood from Whispers blade as Finbar moved among the Lutin bodies slitting their throats to be sure the dead weren’t faking. “That went well,” the fox said.

“Well for you,” one of the ‘panic stricken keepers’ said as the group walked back up the corridor they had just run down. They seemed none the worse for having been chased by such a bloody group. The speaker was a middle aged man with dark brown hair. “You weren’t the ones being chased.”

Standing next to the man was blonde haired women still holding her baby by one leg. “Here,” she said handing the doll to the man. “You get to hold junior this time.”

“I’m surprised they keep falling for such an obvious trick,” Caroline said as she stood, bow in hand and an arrow nocked in case more Lutins appeared.

“How many times are we going to do this trick” Danielle asked.

“Once more,” fox answered. “Four times is our limit. After that we’re stretching our luck.”

“Then what?” The woman asked.

“We start over again but we’ll use another trick this time,” Misha explained. “It’s a good one. Lutins used it against me four years ago and almost killed me.”

The hall was thirty feet wide and forty feet long, small by the standards of The Keep. It was laid out for a feast. Tables chairs and benches were everywhere many scattered or knocked, over evidence of the hurried retreat of the Keepers. On the walls hung fine tapestries richly decorated with all manner scenes done in silk, silver and gold thread. Equally beautiful carpets lay under foot.

The Lutins moved warily through the hall fearful of an ambush. They looked in awe, greed and hunger at tables laden with food and drink held in fine silver and pewter goblets and plates. These people were from the Mountain Storms, a tribe who eked out a precarious living in the Dragon mountains. In that terrible place merely surviving was a major victory.

Nearly a year ago the man had arrived warmly dressed in expensive furs. He came with a dozen soldiers and a tall troll all dressed like him. Between them they had more furs and clothing then half the tribe combined. The man brought with him a dozen ponies laden with gifts - food, furs, clothing even gold and silver in amounts none in the tribe had seen before.

This man spoke of a great and powerful leader called Nasoj who was going to conquer all of the Midlands. He spoke of great victories and of the immense wealth – loot and slaves for all. They only had to take one castle and all the wealth of the Midlands would be theirs.

Despite living high in the mountains and wearing skins these Lutins were hardly gullible fools. They knew about Metamor Keep and Nasoj and how he had failed to take it before. But they also knew of the legends of the wealth of that legendary place and besides it was something more to do in the deep of winter then huddle in their shelters and try and keep warm. And it HAD to be warmer down there.

The long walk through the storm had been easy enough for a people who lived in a land where the snow never melts even in summer. They did see how many other Lutins had died on the trip to the keep and most of all they saw how Nasoj had stayed behind warm and safe in his citadel.

The fighting to get in had been surprisingly easy, few of the Keepers were out and about in the storm. But those few they had come upon had fought hard and with great courage and skill, true warriors. The tribe would sing of their bravery forever.

So now sixty members of the tribe were in a place that had only been a fairly tale till now. Standing in a hall full of more treasure and wealth then any of them could imagine. Like small children they started to grab everything of worth within reach – gold, silver, pewter even iron and wood. Tapestries were pulled down and carpets rolled up and carefully piled in the center of the room. Roast meats, bread still warm from the oven, myriad cakes and all manner of vegetables were greedily snatched up and devoured. Washed down with fine wines, hardy ales and cool water.

One Lutin was carefully collecting the iron tongs and poker from the fire place. When he picked up the wooden bucket that was next to them he saw the contents. Surprised he stood there for a moment then tenderly touched the riches that lay within. The bucket was resting on the floor in front of a small door that was barely two feet high. Far too small for even a Lutin to use. In a flash of inspiration he pulled open the door and was rewarded with a sight of treasure far beyond his wildest dreams. His squeal of delight brought his comrades running and soon all the other treasures lay forgotten. The lure of the greatest treasure having driven thoughts of all else out of their minds.

An ancient Lutin her facial tattoos marking her as a shaman carefully reached into the small room and tenderly picked up one of the pieces of treasure. She sniffed it and then breaking off a tiny portion tasted it. All others waited in silence hoping that this wasn’t some foul trick but real. She smiled showing teeth stained a deep burgundy color and held up the piece for all to see. The room erupted in cheers and shouts of joy. This was a treasure trove they would remember and sing tales of for centuries to come.

What food and drink that wasn’t consumed was carefully packed away for the trip home. There was enough there to feed the hungry mouths of the tribe for months. The worthless gold and silver was also packed safely. It would later be traded to the low land tribes for more valuable things like weapons to protect the tribe and tools of steel like axes and shovels to cut wood and move the frozen earth. The carpets and tapestries were carefully folded and rolled. Soon they would decorate the rooms and temple of the tribe. They would be cherished heirlooms passed down from generation to generation. Their thickness would help to trap in the warmth while their bright pictures would stir the imagination and lead to many happy nights spent singing songs of how they were brought back from the mystical Keep.

These were all great treasures but none compared to the greatest treasure –that which had been found behind that small door. THAT treasure was packed and handled most carefully of all so that not one lump was lost. The treasure? Coal. Long burning, easy to carry coal. So much coal would last the tribe all winter. It meant that no one need go out to find and cut wood to burn. It mean that no longer would the tribe be forced to burn dung when the heavy storms came and no one could go foraging. All could sit by the warm, coal fueled fires and eat the food taken from this feast all winter. No need to leave their warm homes at all!

Without a second thought the tribe left the hall through the door they had entered and to their delight found themselves outside! The wind howled and the snow swirled so strong as to blot out all vision beyond a hands span. It was weather that would kill most folk but to these Lutins it was like being embraced by their mothers. Behind them they left a hall empty of all treasure save two. In the center of the room they left two entire handfuls of the life preserving coal and the largest portion of venison from the feast. These were left as offerings to the spirit of the great keep for the wonderful gifts she had given them. For Nasoj they left what he deserved – nothing.

Sandaron d'Magaere once was part of a noble family whose magical prowess had been famed up and down the land, or so he claims. Nobody else has ever heard of the name; the suspicion is that he keeps trying to make himself a name before he makes a name for himself, so to speak. Either way, he's certainly known for having the arrogance of a dethroned noble.

"Damn this infernal cold!" he grumbles, pulling his cloak about him as he marches forward at the back of the ranks, not really grasping the irony of his choice of complaints. Nasoj had no right to send advisers to his circle out here. “I'm one of their biggest assistants, damn it! I should be back at the Citadel, not freezing to death and dealing with these damn insolent Lutins. That one commander up front just wanted to argue, I damn well know it.”

Sandaron d'Magaere (whose birth name was actually Maygar in origin) isn't exactly one of the most capable mages at the Citadel, but he certainly considers himself significant. Why, he's thrown at least two fireballs at once to show those Lutins who's boss, and he's been able to alter thunderstorms such that lightning would strike where he determined it. Surely his talents would be better served making sure nobody attempted any sort of takeover up North while the army was down here! But no, he's given a cloak and an amulet and forced to come down Here, along with all these other lowly excuses for "mages", one of them asserting Command Authority over him! and the other human soldiers while he gets to baby sit the known insurrectionists.

That last has a bright side though. If he's trusted enough to watch over the Blackhands, perhaps this means that he's on the way up in the hierarchy! This had not previously occured to Sandaron, and he suddenly brightens considerably at the prospect. “Why, I could get a new imperial cloak, would be able to stay at the Citadel and not go on posts like this. I could go all the way up to directly serving Nasoj himself.”

His reverie is interrupted suddenly when he sees Kesk halting. “Why the hell is he not moving?” "YOU! LUTIN SCOUT! KEEP GOING! MOVE!"

If Kesk considered the human to still be worth mental exertion, he'd curse under his breath at the sheer stupidity of shouting to an advance scout. But Kesk's attention isn't on Sandaron at all; it's currently being occupied by the Keeper mage in front of him.

Right in front of Kesk, Kevin can clearly be seen as the storm appears to be almost dimming around him. Going by what limited knowledge he has of magic, Kesk would guess the reasons for that to be both the mana he's drawing and the immense column of flame just above the Keeper that the mana is undoubtedly going to. It seems to reach up far into the sky, several yards wide and impossibly tall, rotating slowly just above the Keeper's head as he stares upward at it, paws extended towards it.

Kesk hefts his sword and prepares to leap forward and charge when the Keeper turns from his creation to stare directly at him and those at his back. "LUTINS! BEGONE!"

The voice is incredibly powerful for such a tiny Keeper, but the implications of that become a secondary concern when the Keeper sweeps his paws outward towards the Lutins, and the column of flame follows, collapsing before the Keeper into a massive wave of animated flame heading straight for them.

“And we could STOP it, if Tharag hadn't took the Scimitar! Damn that bootlicking swine to the Nine Hells!” "FALL BACK!" The order is probably unnecessary.

"Fall back?" Sandaron screams in disbelief and anger. "NO! Attack! ATTACK! Destroy the enemies of Nas "

His words stop, caught in his throat as he sees the massive wave of pure flame heading straight towards him, preceded by a wave of heat that he seems to feel even through the cold weather.

Sandaron will eventually decide he needs to replace or at least clean his robe. This does not occur to him until far later. At the immediate moment, the only thing that comes to his mind is to RUN.

Sandaron d'Magaere, supposed powerful mage of Nasoj, turns and runs, scrambling in a panicked frenzy to get away from the wave.

And all the while, Kevin stands watching, his paws extended before him, mostly focused on the spell, though one part of his mind detaches to reflect on the situation. “Yep. Illusions can be real effective.”

December 25th, 706 CR - 8 PM

Aisha walks over with her siblings to the commanding officer, and Rois-sensei is standing there, talking with her. "Aisha, Colin, and Drake, reporting in," the young woman states as the trio reaches the pair. Both turn and look at the triplets, the commander saying, "Welcome back. I've been talking with Rois here, and we've come up with a plan to hopefully cause some infighting in the lutin ranks."

She looks over at Rois, who continues, "We're certain that at least some of the tribes here are ones that would normally be fighting each other, if they weren't here to fight us. Colin, with your mental powers, you should be able to find a group of lutins from normally warring tribes. You three then need to get them to start fighting each other. Possibly by making them think the other tribe had just insulted them."

"Sensei, what about Drake and I?" the girl asks the centauress.

The commander responds, however, "You two will be supporting Colin, and helping fend off the Lutins if you are discovered."

Rois nods her assent, then speaks again, "This may be a bit taxing, so I want you three to get some sleep. You'll start on this mission in the morning."
"Yes sensei," all three of them say at once and then head off to get some rest.

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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