The Winter Assault

Part 19

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

Misha fell down in the chair behind his desk, the wood groaning under the strain. With detached disinterest he noticed that the clock that hung opposite the desk had stopped. He didn’t care. For the fox time had lost meaning. He had no idea if it was day or night, morning or afternoon. All that mattered was the fight. All that he cared about was defeating the monsters that now infested his home and were killing his friends.

Outside his office he could hear the sounds of people talking, moving and some laughing and others crying. Even though the thick door was closed he could still hear them, muted to a dull, background buzz. It reminded Misha that there was more for him to do then kill. He had to save lives, that’s what matter most.

He was supposed to be here coming up with his next move but it was hard to concentrate on planning. So much had happened; Andre and Rickkter were missing, Charles had taken off with little more then a note. Everyone he knew seemed to be dead, wounded or missing.

Perched on the desk within arms reach was a bottle of wine, half empty. The missing portion had been drunk by him and Caroline during the party. That happy moment had seemed so many years ago. Was it really just two days ago?

Misha’s ears perked up suddenly but not at some noise. What had caught his attention was the sudden silence. Gone was the background buzz of the people outside in the hall. He was halfway to the door when it opened and Caroline stuck her head in.

“Misha . . .” was all she said before the fox rushed past her and into the hall beyond.

Outside he found Long house wreathed in silence and full of people all as still as statues and all staring at one point. As Misha moved forward the crowd parted in front of him like waves parted by the bow of a ship revealing a lone person standing just inside the entrance to the Hall.

The bedraggled figure was covered in thick, black and white fur and had once been wearing brown cloth. Now the cloths was gone replaced by tattered, charred remains that hung over fur that was singed and charred to a dull, ashen gray. The once luxurious tail was now a thin burnt remnant. The blackened person was carrying a large blackened thing in both arms. With a bolt of horror he realized that the thing had arms, legs and a tail. It was the corpse of a Keeper burnt beyond recognition. The stench of burnt flesh and death filled the air, clogging his nose like a poison gas.

George appeared out of the crowd carrying a large blanket. “I’ll take her Muri,” the jackal said in a surprisingly soft voice.

Muri! If the person was Muri that meant the corpse was Llyns. Horror, pain and shock swept through the fox and he rushed up to the skunk.

He looked at Muri and found the skunk staring back at him with eyes that were sullen, sunken and empty of life. Muri made no comment or movement as George wrapped the blackened corpse of the Skunks lover in the blanket. Suddenly they were surrounded by people. Misha watched as Caroline took the foot of the wrapped corpse as Arla, Kershaw and Jotham tenderly helped George’s burden. Meredith wrapped an arm around the nonmoving skunk.

A wild, animal scream erupted suddenly from the skunks muzzle that seemed to erupt from the deepest pit of hell. There was dangerous fire in Muri’s eyes that made a shiver run down the fox’s back. Gone was the light of warmth and intelligence. Replaced by the flames of a wild demon; a blood soaked, murderous, killing machine with but one thought - killing. With one blackened hand the skunk removed Meredith’s paw from his shoulder. Then he turned around and silently stalked toward the door.

“Muri . . .” Meredith said as he reached out but Misha’s hand stopped him.

“Leave him be,” the fox ordered. Then he turned to the blanket wrapped corpse. Without looking he pointed to a small door on one wall. “Take her in there. We’ll give her a proper ceremony when we can.”

Misha spun about and fled into his office with Caroline close behind. He just collapsed onto the floor near his desk and started crying. The otter came and sat down next to him and he rested his head on her lap. Together they cried and mourned the loss of a friend.

Rickkter called them up short when he saw the body. Certainly the Lutin was dead, there was no doubt about that. Still, the raccoon insisted on going in prepared, his sword poised to bring down anything that might move as he silently made his way forward. Jacob, Julian, Hector, and Elliot chose to stay back. Only Goldmark was brave enough, or crazy enough, to follow Rickkter. Jacob’s curiosity was piqued, however, when he saw Rickkter reach the centre of the intersection, straighten up, and openly gape at one of the halls leading off. Goldmark’s reaction was a little more subdued – his small ears went back and whiskers twitched faster as he surveyed whatever was in the hall – but equally as captivating as Rickkter’s. That did it and Jacob had to go see for himself. The other two rats followed in his wake.

When he finally reached the spot and saw the destruction that lined the hall, he had no trouble understanding the stunned look on the other’s faces. There were few bodies in the hall. Most of them were in pieces, those pieces being charred and scattered all over the place. In fact, most everything was charred and burned, but done so in lines and patterns. Carpets and once grand tapestries were scored over with burns, and various objects d’art that lined the walls – including statues of notable individuals in the history of Metamor valley – were lying in heaps of scrap, apparently blasted apart. For as far as any of them could see up the hall the destruction extended.

Hector was the first to break the silence. “What caused this?” he whispered.

“Magic,” Rickkter replied. “More magic than I’ve seen used in this manner in a very long time.” He started up the hall, gesturing with his sword as he went. “You can tell from the marks that it was lightening. This whole corridor must have been alive with it.” He gingerly stepped over a torched body that had armour melted to the bones. “Ambassador Yonson’s the only mage here who would favour this kind of attack. Whatever these guys did, it must have really pissed him off.”

“Remind me never to get on the ambassador’s bad side,” Julian mumbled as he gazed over at a life sized marble statue that had been blown in half by a single strike to its centre. He reached up and pulled his tunic tighter about his neck. The other rodents instinctively clustered around Rickkter and Jacob, all but the mage shooting furtive glances along the devastated corridor.

“What worries me about all this, though, is that we’re seeing it at all. Kyia should have given us a much shorter route to the temple.”

Jacob’s ears flicked about in anxiety. “So why are we out here?”

As if in answer to his question, the sounds of battle poured in from one of the side hallways. It was like someone had opened a door for them, but it was nothing more than the Keep’s variable geometry.

“My guess would be that,” said Rickkter as he headed off towards the battle, his sword drawn. Jacob and the rats elected to play rear guard for the crazy mage.

It takes about five or so minutes before Sandaron realizes he’s been had.

Not through any cleverness on his part, though he’d be loath to admit same to himself. While the Lutins had all eventually dispersed to the side of the flaming wave, he’d kept running, even outdistancing most of his human troops. And then he he trips and falls, suddenly alone in the path of the massive wave of flame that’s been persuing him relentlessly. He closes his eyes, prays to Ba’al that the end will be swift...

...and he waits for a long time for the burning to start.

He opens one eye, then jawdrops as he realizes he’s within the flames. They should be consuming him by now! Is he already dead? Or has Ba’al decided to bestow a dark miracle on him?

One of the soldiers from his human detachment walks over to him, looking fairly puzzled and yet somehow annoyed. He’s about to chew the bastard out for being annoyed with HIM when suddenly a spurt of flame goes straight through the soldier. Sandaron just watches then, waiting for the soldier to fall... but he doesn’t. Indeed, he doesn’t even seem to notice the flames. And that means...


“...damn them! An ILLUSION!”

He gets to his feet. “IT’S AN ILLUSION!” he yells at the top of his lungs, pronouncing what his soldiers, Lutin and human both, had mostly already figured out. “GO! KILL THEM! KILL THE ENEMIES OF NASOJ!!” His face colors red in his fury. Damn them!

And as he starts to run forward, screaming at the lazy Lutins to move forward like his human soldiers are already doing, the illusory wave of flame collapses around him.

“Damnit! Last guy figured it out...” Kevin turns over to the others. “Time’s up! They’re headed this way!”

Kirk and Jono can’t respond; they’re both in full animal forms, each in front of one of the former tents. Behind them, Jo and Dana are both helping kids over the canvas-and-pole “walls” and onto the stiff canvas “floor” within while Perry herds the kids.

The two tents have been taken apart and put back together to act as apparent large-scale sleighs, with enough room for half of the kids in each assuming they don’t mind getting too cozy; they’ll be literally piled on top of eachother. Kevin will also fit in if he goes to full animal form as well; indeed, the plan calls for him to do so and to ride in Daemion’s pocket. There isn’t likely to be room for Dana, though, and Perry’s quills keep him from being on such a close-knit ride, so they’re going to have to run along behind. And since they’ll probably need a bit of assistance in case the Lutins start to overtake them, Jo’s staying off as well.

“How much time?” Jo asks, clearly occupied with the kids as she hoists them up.

“Probably about five minutes!” he yells back, running torwards the sleighs, starting to pull off his outer cloak as he does so.

“Going to be close...” Jo mutters more or less to herself; it’s unlikely anybody else could hear her in this wind. But that’s good; we need the wind for this to work...

“Hi!” One of the kids. She looks down, noticing who’s at her feet. “Josh? Good.” she says, squatting down so she’s eye to eye with him. “I have something extra I need you to do...”

“Captain! Something heading our way, sir!”

Captian Travis Selinar dashes up the stares as swiftly as he can upon hearing the private, staring out beyond the walls. “Where?”

“Up over thataways, sir!” the private yells, pointing off in the direction of the Keep. He’s not sure, but Travis could almost swear there’s some sort of black shape out there headed torwards him... He scrutinizes it as best he can, taking the quietly and automatically offered farseeing tube from a nearby corporal and staring at the black shape through it.

Travis, when he was younger, had wanted to become a ship captain. He’d worked hard while growing up, learned all the lessons to be learned without direct experience, and eventually got his chance to serve as an officer on a Whales trading ship. He’d had to withdraw quickly, though – while he had the soul of a sea captain, he definitely lacked the legs; he got too seasick to work. He’d gone to Metamor in self-disgust, joined the guards and quickly built up a reputation as a strong independent leader, and so it wasn’t long before he started getting several commands, not for ships, but for fortresses. He ran his place much like a ship, and anyone who didn’t like it usually didn’t make it far in the Guard; being assigned to Captain Travis quickly became the ultimate test of dicipline.

The private – Travis doesn’t even try remembering his name; it’s not yet immediately important – is doing his best to show how well he’s learned this lesson by remaining silent while Travis takes a look at the rapidily approaching figure. Then he lowers the farseeing tube, handing it back to the corporal, looking puzzled. “I think that’s Jahnsen.”

“Sir?” the soldier asks.

“Regular NCO on the night watch; the hell is he doing out here?” He shakes his head, then goes back to his voice of command. “He’s probably bound for this point. When he lands, detain him where he is until I get there.”

“Sir!” the private swiftly replies, turning his attention back to the rapidly growing figure.

Starling poked her head into the storeroom, scanning the space below her for any sign of enemy soldiers. The room was apparently deserted, though, which made the dragonette relax a little.

Flitting out of the small alcove the Key had made for her, up near the ceiling of the room, she carefully checked around all of the boxes and shelves that filled the long, narrow chamber. Peering under the room's single door, she saw no sign of anyone standing on the other side. That was good; there would be less chance of someone hearing them.

Satisfied, Starling flew back up to the alcove and peered down at Daria, who stood waiting in the passageway below. The dragonette nodded, and the redheaded human nodded back, reaching up to clasp her hand around the Key. A moment later a door appeared, connecting the corridor to the storeroom, and Daria opened it carefully. Fortunately the door hinges were well-oiled, and it did not make a sound.

Starling watched as Daria moved silently through the room, making note of the large wooden kegs that lined the wall opposite the door, as well as the racks of smaller cylinders that served as explosive loads for the trebuchets. Smiling tightly, the woman began piling those loads in front of the wooden door, being careful not to make a sound in doing so.

Once she had a good number of the explosive casks in place, she took another one and opened the plug at one end. As she tilted the hole towards her hand, Starling saw a mixture of black powder and small metal beads spill out. Smiling again in grim satisfaction, Daria crouched on the floor and began pouring the deadly mixture over and around the pile of ammunition.

Once the pile had been covered to her liking, the human warrior began laying a trail of dragon dust from the loads to the large storage kegs on the opposite side of the room. She then drew connecting trails between the kegs themselves. Taking a dagger from her boot, Daria bored small holes in the side of each of the barrels, letting the dust begin leaking out to add to the trails she had drawn.

Finally, using the last of the dust in her deadly little cask, Daria drew a thin line from the nearest of the storage kegs to a spot just a few feet in front of the passageway through which they had entered the room. Looking up, she beckoned to Starling; obediently, the dragonette flew down from her perch, then turned to see that her little alcove had disappeared.

Starling flew alongside Daria back into the passageway, until they were a good five or six feet inside. The redhead grasped the Key again, took a deep breath, and nodded to Starling. Crouching, taking careful aim, the dragonette breathed out a long plume of fire. The flames licked against the little pile of dragon dust at the end of the fuse, and the black powder lit with a flash.

Immediately, a wall of stone closed up before them, filling the entire space they had left between themselves and the doorway. Just to be safe, they quickly turned and began moving down the passageway.

Twenty seconds later the walls shook with a thunderous explosion.

"Nervous, Brennar?"

The cat-morph looked up at Private Morel and nodded, his green eyes worried.

Morel smiled kindly. "Can't say I blame you. War is hard on a man. No one should really enjoy it." He held up his sword, examining it for any sign of weakness. For a Lutin-made weapon, it was holding up well. "That battle for the armory— was that your first time in combat?"

"Aye," Brennar said, nodding again. "I mean, I'd fought in training sessions before, but nothing like this. Nothing real."

"Aye, 'tis quite different when your Enemy is actually bent on killing you," Morel agreed with a lopsided grin. "You did all right, though."

Brennar smiled a little. "Thank you, sir."

"Now, don't go calling me 'sir', there, Brennar!" the man scolded playfully. "I'm a footman, and proud of it! Save 'sir' for the officers, soldier."

The cat grinned. "Aye, aye, Private."

Morel chuckled. " 'Private'. Gods, that sounds odd. Do you know what I do for a living, Brennar?"

"No, what?"

"I'm a cook. Work in Donny's kitchen at the Mule, have for the last ... thirty-two years, methinks. Never handled a sword in my life until after the Battle of Three Gates."

The tomcat's ears perked up. "A cook? What made you decide to join the army?"

Morel's lip twitched. "My husband was killed during the battle."

Brennar winced. "I'm sorry."

"Not your fault," the graying man replied with a small shrug, a faint expression of sadness on his well-worn face. "William was a soldier. Soldiers die. We bury them, we mourn, and then we move on. With Nasoj to the north of us, we have no choice."

"So you joined the army in his place?"

Morel nodded. "At first, I thought I'd make Will's killers pay for his death." He chuckled softly. "Jack gave me a good working over, though. Showed me that we can't do what we do for personal revenge— it clouds the head, you won't think straight."

Brennar nodded sadly. "I understand." Images of Captain Farmer flickered briefly through his mind. He hoped that Amanda's father was still alive, but something inside him told him that it wasn't likely. He wished that he could somehow make sure that the captain was all right, if only for Amanda's sake. But Private Morel was right: they had a job to do here, now, and it would only hurt them if he let things get too personal.

The old private chucked Brennar on the chin. "Hey, eyes front, mate," he said, smiling again. "We'll make it through this, you'll see. Say, you're a baker, aren't you, Brennar? Have you ever made a Yule Pie?"

Brennar shook his head, frowning at the abrupt change of subject. He wondered if maybe Morel was secretly just as nervous as he was. "Never heard of it."

Morel clucked his tongue. "Pity. 'Tis a meal in itself— meat, potatoes, carrots, celery, onions and peas, all within a pastry crust. The perfect dish to warm old bones on a winter's night!"

The tomcat scratched his head, puzzled. "It sounds like awful trouble to get all those vegetables in the winter."

"Aye, they have to be properly preserved at harvest-time if you're to make them for Yule. As it happens, we have a pantry at the mule with an excellent preservation spell. When this is all over, how would you like to help me make the greatest Yule Pie that Metamor has ever seen?"

Brennar grinned. "Sounds like fun! I have the perfect recipe for the crust, too..."

The muffled sound of an explosion on the far side of the wall abruptly cut short the conversation.

"That's our cue," Morel whispered, rather unnecessarily. "Stand ready..."

The wall opened suddenly before him, and Garulf charged through with his axe at the ready. Though younger than Daria, he had already seen a good deal of action on patrols; his battle-tuned senses now served him well, as he quickly scanned the room for threats and targets. It was a large, open room with a low ceiling, its bare floor covered with salvaged beds and mattresses that had replaced whatever furniture had originally been present. There were piles of clothes and other clutter, as well— a testament to the soldiers who had been camping here. The most readily-noticed aspect of the room, however, was that almost everything was either burning or charred by fire— including the enemy soldiers who had been sleeping here moments before. The scent of burning flesh and hair filled Garulf's sensitive nostrils, and the haze of smoke hanging over the room obscured his view of the bodies that littered the floor.

The bear-morph didn't bother to stop and take stock of which ones were alive or dead; if it was on the ground and wasn't moving much, it was of little concern. Instead, he focused his attentions immediately on those who were still standing, or were scrambling to their feet. In the confusion of the smoke and flames, his first few targets died quickly.

Bradfox was behind him, braced against the entranceway and cursing loudly and creatively as he unleashed a hail of deadly arrows any surviving invaders he could see through the haze. To either side of him other passages had opened, and the rest of Daria's team came forth to join the battle.

Garulf ignored them all, unconsciously aware of their presence but devoting his full attentions to the enemies at hand. Nasoj's troops had largely gotten over their shock by now and were coming at him in twos and threes, unwilling to face the huge bear-morph alone. Garulf pushed them back with the long handle of his axe, swiped at them with his claws, crushed their skulls against the stone walls, and cleaved off limbs and heads as the opportunities presented themselves, reveling in the heat of combat.

An arrow shot past his head, burying itself in the eye socket of an archer who had been ready to shoot him down. Garulf chanced a quick look back at his savior.

"Watch yourself, big guy," Brad grunted, nocking another arrow. Garulf bared his teeth in an ursine grin and dove back into the fray.

Moments later— or at least it seemed so to Garulf— a war cry echoed through the room from the doorway that stood opposite the sabotaged magazine. Glancing toward the direction of the sound, the bear grimaced as he saw a mob of at least thirty enemy soldiers rushing into the room.

Daria bit back a curse as she saw the enemy reinforcements arrive, flooding into the room with their weapons at the ready. Jessica cast a few energy bolts at the incoming enemies, even as Starling lashed out with fire and Bradfox set loose an even greater barrage of arrows; but none of them could continue such assaults indefinitely, and the attackers kept coming. In seconds her warriors were battling against four-to-one odds, fighting back to back or keeping the makeshift passageways behind them to keep from being surrounded.

"Starling, guard the passage!" Daria shouted, gripping her rapier and cutting into the half-dozen attackers approaching her. "All of you, come this way!"

The other Keepers complied, though Bradfox complained loudly at being forced to switch to his sword and plunge bodily into the fray. He was skillful even with the blade, though, and soon fought his way to join Garulf. Across the room, Weyden and David were inching their way towards Daria's escape passage, Jessica flying overhead and doing her best to thin out the ranks around them. Brennar and Morel were nearest to the door where the reinforcements had come in and were facing the heaviest opposition, but so far they were managing to hold off their attackers. Daria focused on eliminating any enemy soldiers who came close to her passage, knowing that there was no way she would last long trying to make it to the others on her own.

One of the enemy soldiers Daria was fighting swung his broadsword in a long arc, and pain lanced through Daria's arm as she blocked the blow. She and her fellow Keepers were tiring under the relentless assault— something would either have to give way soon, or most of them would not make it out of here alive...

The man with the broadsword was brought down with a sudden axe-swing to the back of the neck, and Garulf and Brad forced their way through the small opening created to take their places alongside Daria.

"Glad you could join us," Daria said.

"That makes three of us," Brad said shortly, dropping back behind the woman and the bear. With the two warriors shielding him from the enemy swordsmen, he had his bow out again in a matter of seconds. "Duck."

Daria did so, dropping into a crouch as Bradfox sent an arrow over her head and into the neck of one of her opponents. She blocked a sword that was aimed at her head, then leapt up and gave the offending soldier a quick jab to the nose.

Behind her, Starling gave a small cry. An image flashed in the redhead's mind: Brennar and Morel with their backs to the wall, fighting against six men at once.

"Damn," she muttered, blocking a quick series of strokes from the tallest swordsman attacking her. He risked a stronger blow, probably hoping to knock the woman to her knees, but she ducked in close to him and used her body as a pivot point, directing the man's own momentum into a throw that sent him tumbling into his nearest comrade. Grabbing her dagger from the sheath on her leg, Daria took advantage of her opponent's momentary disorientation and drove the sturdy blade firmly into his neck. Any scream he might have made was cut short as the dagger sliced through his windpipe.

A sharp kick to the ribs knocked Daria off of the dying man's body, but she quickly regained her feet. Her side was burning, but she couldn't worry about that right now. Garulf was a powerful fighter, but she could leave him to handle these invaders alone— especially since this was her team.

More shouts echoed through the room, and Daria looked up to see about ten more enemy soldiers rushing into the room. Dammit, she thought, didn't we have enough to worry about?

A moment later, though, she noticed something odd. The new arrivals weren't paying any real attention to Daria's team or the battle currently underway— they were looking backwards toward the doorway, expressions of fear on their eyes.

"What in...?" Brad exclaimed from behind her.

A ball of green fire suddenly shot into the room, hitting one of the enemy soldiers full in the chest and knocking him flat. His companions scattered, heading for the now-empty passageways that Daria's teammates had used on their way in to the room. The corridors would peter out a few ells past the entrance, closed off by the Keep, but at the moment Daria was in no position to capitalize on their miscalculation. Besides, she was far more interested in what could have caused the invaders such fear.

The answer came in the form of a gray raccoon dressed in a heavily tarnished white fur overcoat, the front of which was covered with dried blood. In fact, the only thing really clean about him was the sword he was wielding; it was a blade of medium weight and thickness, but longer than usual and of a slightly peculiar design.. Daria recognized him immediately as the same warrior she and Merai had seen hunting gremlins on Daedra'kema; Rickkter was his name, or so Daria was told, and he had developed a rather astonishing reputation among the members of his unit.

Right now, Daria was just glad to see a friendly face.

"Rickkter!" she shouted.

He threw her a look and nodded, taking in the situation in the space of an instant. Stretching out his hand, he threw two more blasts at the soldiers that stood between Daria's passage and David and Weyden, giving them an opening to fall back. He then turned his attentions to the crowd of soldiers around Brennar and Morel, laying into the invaders with blinding speed. In the space of a few seconds all six lay dead, and the surviving enemy soldiers scattered before the battlemage.

"Thanks," Daria called to him, stooping to retrieve her dagger. "We needed that."

"Welcome," the raccoon said shortly, looking back over his shoulder. "I assume you're from the Temple, right? Do you have a way out of here?"

Daria frowned. "Yes, why?"

Rickkter was still looking over his shoulder. "Because we're going to need it in a few minutes. I took care of another pocket of these guys on my way here, and I think some of them managed to get away and find reinforcements."

"More?" Brennar said plaintively. "Are you sure?"

"Never argue with a mage." The raccoon walked over to Daria. "You in charge

"Aye, sir."

"Thought so. Let's go."

"Right. Come on, people."

"Jacob, Julian, Hector, Elliot, Goldmark, let's move!" Rickkter shouted back over his shoulder. A few moments later a group of four rats, and what Daria could only assume was a black fox, hesitantly emerged from the same doorway Rickkter had. They quickly surveyed the carnage before hurrying through it to where the rest of the Keepers were.

They headed into the passageway, Daria in the lead. It was only about five feet wide, and went back roughly two yards before turning to the right and proceeding another ten yards or so to end in a stone wall.

"Nice," Rickkter said wryly. "This the way you came in?"

"Aye, with this," Daria said, holding up the Key. "We closed the passage behind us so no one could find the way back to the Temple if we were killed. Give me a moment, and I'll open it up again."

Daria clasped the Key in her hands and focused on the wall in front of her, visualizing the passage she wanted to form. Obediently, the stone began to give way-

And then stopped. The woman frowned, feeling the sudden resistance in the stones as she willed the passage to open. The stones seemed to give for a moment before melding back into their original flat shape.

"What's wrong?" the coon called out, noticing her expression. Rickkter had moved to the back of the group, looking out for unwanted company.

"It ... is fighting me," she said at last, scarcely believing it herself. "That's never happened before."

In the distance, she could hear the growing sounds of enemy soldiers, accompanied by the screams and war cries of Lutins. Brennar crept back to the entrance of the passage, out beyond Rickkter, peeking out into the room they had left. A few seconds later Morel was at his side, gripping his sword in one weary hand.

"We haven't much time," Rickkter growled quietly. "If this is not going to work..."

"It will work!" Daria insisted, her brow creasing as she put more effort into it. Slowly, the passage began to open once more— but the shape was unstable, the path warped. And it was taking all of her concentration to get it to go even that far.

The gibbering outside abruptly grew louder, as a horde of Lutins came streaming into the room.

"Get back! Get back!" Morel hissed, pulling Brennar away from the entrance— probably hoping they wouldn't be spotted. His hopes were in vain, however, as the Lutins made a beeline for the frightened tomcat. Morel positioned himself in front of the entrance, his sword at the ready as the little green-skinned brutes swarmed towards him.

Daria gave one final mental push, attempting to force the passage the rest of the way. For a moment it worked, but only a moment before the magical stone of Metamor closed once more upon itself. Daria swore loudly, shaking the key at the resisting wall.

Her frustration drew Rickkter's attention for a split second and he looked back to see what was the problem. That almost cost him a sword through the gut, but his sword whipped up faster and took off the arm of the attacker, swiftly followed by the Lutin's head. Another half dozen perished in the spell the mage cast a moment later, as five yards of corridor burst into a wall of flame.

"That should hold them a while," Rickkter explained as he jogged up to Daria. "What seems to be the problem? The short version, please."

Daria was quick to explain the function of the key and what had happened when she had tried to use it. Rickkter's expression grew less and less pleased the more she talked.

"Can you show me what is supposed to happen?" he asked, glowering back at the bend in the corridor. Fortunately he'd cast the fire spell near the entrance, and thanks to that bend they were now well out of the enemy's line of fire if they thought to bring any archers with them. Clearing her mind, Daria turned back to the wall and pictured the passageway leading up to the inside of the temple. She could feel the passage forming, and then the unknown force that blocked her efforts.

A voice came to her from inside her head. Here, let me help.

Before Daria could protest she felt a pair of paws clasp her head at the temples and ten tiny claws dig into her head. A surge of power went through her, so fast and strong that it almost took her breath away.

Concentrate, damn it! Rick's voice scolded her in her mind. Focus on the passage and let me do the rest!

Much to Daria's surprise, it seemed to be working. Their combined power was counteracting whatever was preventing her from opening the passage in the first place. Within about a minute they had a long staircase before them, leading up and northward in the direction of the temple. She quickly recognized that the passage was about as stable as it was going to get.

"Let's go!" she shouted, still rooted in place from the power Rickkter was channeling through her. She watched as Starling, the four rats, the black— or was he blue?— fox, Brad, and Garulf ran past and up the narrow flight of steps. The only two left were Brenner and Morel, both watching the slowly dying flames. "Rick, I think we had best be moving," she stuttered, trying not to let their weakening defense break her concentration from the corridor.

Okay, but go slowly. It's taking all my concentration to keep this thing open. Daria could clearly hear that strain in his projected thoughts. When she heard Rick tell her to move, she did so, however slowly it was. "Brenner, Morel, fall back!" she cried as she and Rick reached the first steps. She noted with some horror that the flames weren't even a foot high by this point.

The corridor they had opened seemed smaller when they were in it, Daria and Rickkter almost having no room to turn around in their awkward, attached state. They were about a quarter of the way up the flight when the first of the Lutins appeared. Fortunately the narrow passage worked to their advantage here and Morel and Brenner were able to hold the attackers back. But the further they went up, the narrower the passage seemed to become, and the more tightly Rickkter gripped her head. She could hear his panting behind her and could only guess at the effort this was taking the mage.

They hadn't moved more than half a dozen steps when first the grating sound occurred. Rickkter growled along with it, digging his claws further into the skin on Daria's head. She was horrified when she saw that the sound was made by the corridor warping behind them, closing in on itself, flowing almost like liquid.

Can't... hold on much longer! Rick told her.

"You two, get behind us!" Daria cried, sensing through the key what was about to happen. "Hurry up!"

"Funny, I thought we were!" Morel gasped, stabbing at another of the advancing Lutins. The staircase had slowed them down a little, but they were making up the distance.

Brennar was quick to see the situation and felled one more attacker before dropping to all fours and scrabbling up and around Daria and the mage.

Morel had apparently become winded from the fighting and so was slower than the cat. Daria cried out when she saw the contorting stairs of the passage heave beneath the man, tripping him.

"Morel!" she shouted, trying to break free and pull him up. She was stopped by Rickkter's iron grip on her.

Forget about him! Rickkter shouted, his expression harsh. He's gone!

"The hells he is!" Daria retorted angrily. She could see that the old soldier had scrambled back to his knees, but already he was being set upon by Lutins. "I don't leave my men behind!"

There's no time! the raccoon snapped, practically dragging her up the stairs by her head. Move! Now!

Morel screamed in pain and fury as he bravely tore into the Lutins with his meat cleaver, doing his best to buy time for the others— and in an instant, Daria realized that Rickkter was right. With a bitter taste in her throat, she turned and continued her frantic climb up the passage, not daring to look back again.

They made it another thirty seconds or so before Morel's screams ended. Forcing back the tears she wanted to shed, Daria heeded the instructions Rickkter was screaming inside her head and concentrated on the passage once more. The passage was now hardly big enough for the two of them to stand in and was shifting and moving about almost like a liquid. Redoubling her efforts, Daria channeled all her rage and frustrations into keeping the way open. Looking up, she could see the others on a wide landing, their expressions nervous as they saw the horde of Lutins closing in behind. Brad nocked an arrow and took aim, then apparently thought better of it and lowered his bow— the passage was too narrow for him to get a shot off.

Even with both Rickkter and Daria channeling all their efforts into the Key, and the others at the top of the passage yelling encouragement, it was tough going. As they neared the top the passage was brushing their shoulders and undulating beneath their feet like an ocean. The Lutins screamed and gibbered madly below them, as the stones shifted and disappeared under their feet and they fell cursing onto the swarm of green-skinned brutes behind them.

"Al -most ... there..." Daria gritted.

Suddenly the floor churned beneath them, and the steps they were climbing dropped limply away from the landing. Months of training kicked in as Daria jumped up, Rickkter copying her motion in sync, and grabbed onto what had suddenly become a ledge six feet high. The raccoon held on to her with an iron grip, dragging her down with his extra weight.

“PULL US UP!” Rickkter shouted, though Daria couldn't tell whether he was speaking out loud or only in her mind.

Whether he heard the battlemage's order or not, Garulf quickly knelt and seized hold of Daria's arms, pulling her upwards. Bones and muscles screamed at her as Daria felt her arms pull out of their sockets. In that instant her concentration on the key wavered— and the walls slammed shut beneath their feet like a battering ram, straight into the Lutins that were fast on their heels.

The crunching sound alone was sickening. The blood that squirted through the closing gap was worse. But it was the single outstretched arm reaching up from the floor below, fingers clutching for something they could not reach, that probably did the most to send Brennar and Weyden retching in the corner. Daria was in too much agony from her dislocated arms to pay much attention.

There was a door at the top of the landing, which someone opened a few seconds later. Some part of Daria's brain took note of the Lightbringer Archives on the far side of the doorway, and Merai rushing to her side.

"Oh, bother," Merai winced, quickly seeing the problem. "What have you done to yourself this time?" Taking hold of her left arm and its shoulder, the priestess did something extremely painful and the limb popped back into place. She then did the same to the other arm, completely ignoring Daria's screams and curses. Then she placed her hands on both shoulders, and Daria finally felt the pain dwindle away.

The feline girl smiled a little. "Feel better?"

Daria glared up at her. "I suppose you think you're clever."

Merai grinned broadly and rose to her feet, reaching out a hand to help the warrior-woman up. "What would folk like you do without folk like me?"

"Bleed a great deal more, I imagine."

By now Rickkter had recovered from his exhaustion, and Garulf helped him to his feet. "Thank Akkala you two are all right," the bear-morph rumbled. "We didn't think you two were going to make it up here."

Rickkter shook himself off, his tail bushing out behind him. "Almost didn't. Got lucky there. But what I want to know is what the hell is happening around here to cause the keep to do that."

"You'll have to talk to Mistress Raven about that, she might know something," Daria said, leaning on Merai's shoulder as they stepped out into the first floor of the Archives. A crowd was waiting in a loose semicircle around the entrance, and they looked greatly relieved as the warriors finally entered the room.

"Rickkter?" said a soft voice from beyond the wall of people. A few acolytes parted the way to allow a female skunk to pass by.

"Oh, Kayla," Rick gasped, holding out his arms when he saw her. The skunk almost rushed him, falling into his arms. Rickkter held her tightly against his chest as she clung to him and shook.

"I thought you had been killed out there," she said, her voice muffled against his coat.

Gently stroking the fur at the back of her neck, Rickkter shushed her. "I know, love. I know. I'm just glad nothing happened to you."

Whatever Kayla mumbled in response was lost in the thick fur of his coat. She just buried her face into it and squeezed him tighter. Rickkter felt himself doing the same, feeling the fabric of the dress slide beneath his paws as he rubbed her back. But he soon stopped and just held her, pressing her close. She was shaking very slightly as she clung to him. He could feel now the fur of her thick winter coat compressing under his touch and her ribs beneath. It was so soft, just the fur on her head as he pressed down on it with his chin, squeezing his eyes shut. Great Maker, it had been many, many very long years since he had had wanted to just hold someone as bad as he wanted hold her right now. If his grip was a little tight, she never complained. In fact, Rickkter felt her long tail wrap around his legs. He just hugged her tighter, whispering quietly that he loved her.

Eventually the conversation from the others drifted back, breaking his moment of peace. Rickkter opened his eyes and raised his head as he leaned back a little from the skunk. He had to blink his eyes several times, as they were a little wet. Kayla did likewise, though with greater reluctance. When he looked down into her blue eyes, Rick couldn’t help smiling.

"Well, I don't know about anyone else," said Rickkter as he turned and looked at the rest of the people in the room, many openly gawking at his show of affection, "but I am starving. Who's ready for dinner?"

Just like Randolph helping Alexander of the Northlands! Well, at least kinda sorta, Josh tells himself.

The staff that Uncle Jono’s ladyfriend gave him is extremely heavy for someone his size. The lantern at the end only makes it even more of a difficulty. But Josh is being a Tough Guy now. He’s got to be. Uncle Jono and Miss Joanne are both counting on him to keep the light out front, and he Always follows through on that sort of thing. As Mom and Dad always said, it’s just something you have to do.

So he stays at the very front edge of the makeshift sled, holding on tightly to both it and the staff, watching Uncle Jono run. If he turns to look behind him, he can see that other big guy – Uncle Jono called him Kirk, he reminds himself – pulling the other sled, looking like he could go a lot faster.

There are a few discontinuities between his role and that of Randolph. He doesn’t really recall Alexander of the Northlands having two sleds, for one, let alone ones thrown together with lots of canvas and a few tent poles, or ones pulled by a large panther and an even larger bull. And wasn’t Randolph one of the guys pulling? He’d wanted to join in, had asked Uncle Jono as nicely as he could, but he’d still been told that he couldn’t. So he does his job as best he can, holding the lantern remarkably steady for one of his strength.

Hopefully this’ll all be done soon, he thinks. Perhaps then he can be the one to tell the stories. That’d be... wowwww...

The campsite and surrounding terrain have begun to stand out as a battlefield quite clearly even through the rapidly falling snow. While for the most part individual tracks have been quickly swallowed up by the incredible masses of snow, enough have been fighting or just marching in this one area that the snow is trampled down a great deal, enough to be clearly visible.

That makes Kesk’s work to relocate it all the more easy. It doesn’t do anything for his mood, though. Forcing his best scouts ahead in a flat out charge as though they were common grunts! As if it’s going to accomplish anything in this weather, too, what with the lead they’ve taken from the time that illusion had Nasoj’s tool intimidated.

He keeps moving regardless, though, one hand near to the pouch where he keeps a small set of poisoned darts, not about to let any lucky Keeper catch them by surprise again. And besides, it gives him more time to torture his imagination’s representative of that damnable mage.

The guard on duty pays the price for blinking in the form of a snowdrift that catches him in the belly as Jahnsen lands, leaving him dazed for a moment. If he were leading an assault, Jahnsen could have very swiftly taken said guard out. And with the Captain only a few meters away at the time! He’s undoubtedly not going to be pleased with that.

Fortunately for him, Travis knows how to prioritize, heading straight for the downed batmorph after sending a glance in the guard’s direction that confirms his disapproval. “Corporal Jahnsen! Report!”

Jahnsen manages to leap to attention very quickly, despite his weariness. “Sir! Twoscore kids and defenders heading this way right now, persued by Lutins, sir!”

Travis’s response is to blink. “Say that again?”

“Sir. We got nearly forty children out of the Keep, but there’s a Lutin force of unknown strength tailing them at the moment. They’re coming here on makeshift sleds; two of us are going to full animal form to pull them. We need a place to defend the kids, sir. I was ordered to fly ahead.” He keeps his voice calm, direct, to the point.

“Spyglass”, Travis says, turning to his aide, who immediately produces the telescope, handing it to Travis.

“North-northeast, sir.” Travis nods in acknowledgement, training the spyglass in the direction the bat came.

If it weren’t for Josh, they’d be virtually impossible to see in the weather, calmed down even as it is. With the lantern, though, Travis can spot them.

There’s two sleds, done apparently by stretching layers of canvas between three tent poles in an almost triangle shape. The one bearing the lantern-carrier is of modest size, and being pulled at a remarkably rapid pace by a very large black cat; probably a panther of some sort. The other, immediately behind and a little to the right of the first, is considerably larger, and being pulled by a very large bull. The axe in the back of the sled is distinctive.


The cat’s unknown to him, but he can recognize Dana in the second sled, along with some other porcupine-like character. The other sled only has one apparent defender; while he recognizes Kevin in there, he looks rather out of it; only the vixen there seems ready to fight.

And, of course, there’s all the children down there. Jahnsen apparently wasn’t kidding; near to twoscore, obviously.

He hands the spyglass back to his aide, turns to the guard who’d noted Jahnsen’s arrival. “Take the corporal down to the sickbay and get him checked out.” Then to his aide, “Have someone keep an eye on them, and let me know when they get within fifteen yards.” A nod.

The two Lutins he’s found are virtual giants of their race. The weather’s barely affected them, too, so they can do an effective ferrying job. He’d appreciate it quite a bit more, though, if the two oafs didn’t keep him from juggling around like a ship in a storm, Sandaron thinks to himself, conveniently forgetting that he still is in one. They are making very good time, though; they’re rapidly outpacing the rest of those lazy bastard Lutins.

To Sandaron’s credit, he’s no longer leading from the rear. Having been taken for a fool once, he now has to avenge it, which means getting close enough to toss off a few spells at the opposition. He’s already got his favorite far-seeing spell running, so he can see his target. There’s a little boy carrying a lantern that they’re obviously counting on to guide their way... ha! Proper foes would have used something or someone less vulnerable. Just a few more meters...

Kesk glances to the left just in time to see Jekk and Harl... both carrying the mage as though they were palanquin carriers or something equally low! Bastard misuses some of his best soldiers...

There! That ought to do it! “Set me DOWN, you great oafs!” He can’t hardly cast a spell while he’s being bounced about, can he?

Sandaron is obviously not one for command; though he prefers not to admit to recognizing it, he was tossed out here because it was believed he’d do the least amount of damage here. He’d long since have been expunged from Nasoj’s ranks, except for one thing. Despite all his blustering, his cowardice, and his pompousness, when he’s aroused and angered he manages to be a deadly capable foe, all disbelief from everyone around him to the contrary. As such, he knows exactly where to aim his firebolt for maximum effect. Straight through the boy’s head, and from there to the cat’s leg...

Josh is completely unaware of what’s going on behind him, keeping all his concentration on holding the lantern up. Nearby, Jo can finally see their persuers, watching them very slowly but surely making up the distance. They shouldn’t be able to catch them in time, though, especially if more of them keep holding back like those two big ones...

A small patch of ice is ultimately what saves Josh’s life, when Jono’s rear paw slips on it, bumping the sled a bit, and thowing off Sandaron’s aim just enough to miss Josh.

He doesn’t miss Jono.

Daemion has been just sitting in the sled contemplating his future healing career once more when suddenly the bolt, and a subsequent howl from Jono catch his full attention. Crap! They’re able to hit us from back there! His first instinct is to leap up and move to examine where the bolt hit Jono. His next is to stop that and grab on tight to the canvas as Jono loses his footing and goes skidding, sending a few of the kids into the snow.

When I finally found them, the skunk and raccoon were at a table together, bent over a simple meal and talking softly to each other. I saw that they were splitting a loaf of rye bread, the skunk placing small pieces of it in her muzzle and slowly eating as Rickkter whispered near her ear. The rats, Julian, Elliot and Goldmark, everyone from the cellars, stopped a few feet from the table, waiting for the eating couple to notice us. I had to clear my throat to make them look up.

"I was wondering what had happened to you, Rick," I told him, softly smiling. "Who is this?"

"Ah, yes. I'm sorry about dropping you guys like that." He ran his muzzle along the skunk's head in a quick nuzzle. "Just that some things are more important to me." He returned his attention us. "That and the Lightbringer wanted to have a few words with me. She told me to tell you that she wants to talk to you about those soul stones we found in the labyrinth as well. She's quite intent on knowing their exact location. But where are my manners?" He straightened up and gestured to the skunk beside him using a piece of bread. "Everyone, this is Kayla, my love. Kayla, this is Julian, Elliot and Goldmark," he continued, pointing out the white rat, grey one, and black rat. "And lastly, that is Jacob Alton." Rick paused, looking at me for a long moment, I couldn't tell if was respect or a slight dejection. "We met in town. He was the one who kept me from freezing out there and helped me back to the Keep were we ran into the others."

Kayla turned up and looked at me with a pair of wide eyes, studying me with an intensity I had never had directed towards me before. Never one for such critical examinations, I was the first to break eye contact and dropped my gaze from her's. "You saved his life?" asked the skunk eventually.

I folded my ears back and nodded once. It didn't understand why she was looking at me like I was a hero. I would never claim to be one nor should I ever.

"Thank you." She looked over at Rick and smile before returning her gaze to me. The way her eyes were lit up, such vivid blue against the deep black of her fur, I could see some of the beauty that that crazed raccoon found in her. "From the bottom of my heart, thank you. I am deeply in you debt for that."

"Really, it was nothing. He saved my life before that, and I returned the favour like any good person should."

"Maybe to him." She squeezed the paw of her raccoon tighter. "But you still brought him back to me. That's something I can't forget."

"Um, well, yes." I reached up and scratched at the back of my head at an imaginary itch. "I was just honoured of the experience and to have a captivated audience for one of my stories." Nervously I looked around, uncomfortable by the situation. "I must go. If the Lightbringer wants to see me, I guess I had best go now."

Rick nodded and turned to the rats. "Why don't you guys grab something to eat, join us?" Their squeaks ascended as I turned and went off.

My throat had gone quite dry as I made my way past the people in the temple. The high priestess herself wants to see me! True that I had seen her many times already around the Keep since the attack, but never had I actually had the chance to speak with her. I was not a believer of the religion or of any but I do remember the small kindness she gave me when we were children. I still carry the gold in my pocket and in my heart. But my love is for Christina Fields, she warms my heart with the aura of love. The Lightbringer brings a warm smile to my face, nothing more.

I had seen Raven enough over the years, at public gatherings, celebrations, and even on occasion walking the walls of the Keep that she seemed more like a friendly, familiar figure and not a holy woman respected from a distance, but I was still nervous. She often had that flighty wolf minstrel with her, but I never paid him much heed at all. Besides, now it was just me and her and a million thanks for a simple gesture on her part.

Raven was at her desk when I nudged open the door and announced myself. She gave me just about the most charming smile I have ever been the recipient of. No teeth, of course, just a very pleasant drawing up of her lips and righting of her ears. Ah, like silvered temples those ears, I could write poems about them for years.

"Please, have a seat, Jacob. There are a few things I'd like to ask you about."

"Certainly," I replied, slipping my tail through the gracious hole in the back of the proffered chair. "What would you like to know?"

"I'll keep this simple. What I want to know about are the soul gems; specifically their location. Could you find them again if I wanted you to?"

"Certainly!" I said, my whole body— from my tail to the tips of my ears – perking up. "I know exactly where they are located."

“Excellent. That's good to hear Jacob. From what I heard, you were down in those tunnels for several hours. Not many people could remember their way like that. When this is all over, you'll have to take my acolytes and me to find them."

I suddenly recalled a fantasy that I've had about Raven for years; that one day I would be at The Tavern's Hearth, treating myself to a decent meal in celebration of having sold one of my manuscripts when she would come in. Sometimes there was a reason like The Tavern was full and sometimes there wasn't, but in the end she would end up coming over to my table and asking if she could share it. And, with no hint of nervousness or trepidation, I would agree. And we'd have a good dinner, and I would make witty conversation, and sometimes we'd go walk the streets together in friendly banter, and sometimes not. But the end result was always my walking away having made some sort of positive impression upon her. But those are a poor man's dreams.

Sitting there, staring at her across her large, ornate, cluttered desk, I asked myself if this could be more than a friendship? Am I lying to myself because of a distaste to the Lightbringers and her affinity to that. No, it was more than an affinity, this was her life, and her calling. What could I convey that could flatter this woman of intrigue and mystery. My bushy, black tail sank to the floor. No matter how much I might want to, to try and impress her, I could not lie to her. Not when she was counting on me that much.

"Well... that's not quite what I meant. If I were on the bridge once more, then I could find them easily enough. As for the tunnels... the best I could do is follow my own scent trail down. Which would quite possibly lead us in circles for a few hours before reaching the bridge once more. If you wanted to navigate those tunnels, perhaps you should ask one of the rats. They... they've more experience with the tunnels than I do, I fear."

Raven wuffed a sigh, turning her head away from me. She only looked down at a patch of her chamber's floor. "Did you... did you happen to bring any of the gems back with you? Did you take any besides the one you gave Rick to examine?"

In dejection I hung my head, giving it a slight shake. "No, ma'am. I had a second one picked up, but dropped it back when I learned what it was. I had heard they were things of the Daedra and not to be trifled with."

Raven nodded sadly at that what I said, not seeming to pay too much attention. Silence filled the room after I had stopped speaking, but I couldn't bring myself to do anything to fill it. Eventually she turned her gaze from the floor to the ceiling beams and rubbed her chin in thought.

"Well... they may just have a chance now," she muttered softly to herself. Her smile looked a bit forced as her gaze returned to me. "Thank you for your help, Jacob. I'll be sure to speak with one of the rats in regards to following the tunnels. As for the soul gems, you made the right choice. It' s not something mortals should trifle with. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to try and work on some new strategies to use against the insurgents." She gave me that wooden smile again.

I stuttered at her, my jaw not quite working right. "Of... of course," I finally managed to get out. "Thank you for your time." With that, I got up and walked towards the door when I turned to look at her, I wouldn't waste an opportunity like this.

"I remember you when I was a child. I was a trickster in the street, more begging than labouring for money when you passed by me. You were a beautiful girl in those days, not that you aren't now, but you were kinder to me on that one day than fate had ever been in my whole life." I reached into my pocket and pulled the gold coin. "I could never spend it, even when I was laying in the street, even when I was crying for food. For some reason, I could never part with it."

Her jaw slightly dropped when I showed it to her. Inside, I wondered if I sparked a recollection of a memory. She stood silent and I stuttered one more time.

"I am a poor scoundrel who is just trying to fool another who has much more than I."

I turned and left the Lightbringer's chamber. I made my way through the main hall without really seeing anyone in it, my thick black tail seeking refuge between my legs. It was just about the worst. How could I have EVER thought that a woman like that would want anything to do with a mangy animal like me. I grit my teeth tightly together, my lips and whiskers drawing up in a snarl. The truth hurts when it comes crashing in fiery embers all around you.

What a moron I am to try and be more than what fate intended for me!


December 26, 5pm

Daria let out a long sigh, trying to ignore the pain in her side and the chill of the stone floor against her back. Merai was working her hands slowly over the warrior's ribcage, using a Lightbringer healing technique to shift the broken bones back into place and fuse them together again. It was a wonderful tool when rapid recovery was needed, but it did nothing for the pain inflicted by jagged shards of bone pushing their way through her chest cavity to their rightful places.

"How much longer?" she asked through gritted teeth.

"A few minutes more." Merai smiled at her friend's expression. "Well, you don't want me puncturing a lung or something, do you?"

"No, thank you."

Garulf sat beside them on the floor of the temple hall, watching impassively as Caitlyn examined his arms for broken bones.

Daria's mother pressed down gently on one spot just below the bear's elbow. "Does that hurt?"


Another spot. "What about here?"




The girl sighed, shaking her head. "Well, your skin must be black and blue everywhere, but I can feel no breaks. Count yourself lucky."

The bear grinned. "Thank the gods for chain mail."

"And the fact that there weren't many archers," Daria added wryly.

The door to the Lightbringer's chambers opened, and Raven stepped out into the temple hall. Taking a look around the room at the healers, acolytes and wounded soldiers present, she approached Daria with a questioning gaze.

"Don't move," Merai cautioned, as her friend made eye contact with the wolfen priestess. Daria nodded in acknowledgement, laying her head back down on the floor and trying to relax. A particularly large piece of bone had just started shifting...

"Lothanasa," she said in greeting.

"Squire," Raven replied with a nod. "How was your latest battle?"

"The hardest we've seen, Mistress," Daria said, gritting her teeth as the migrant bone shard worked its way past her lung. "Between the explosion from the trebuchet magazine and the battle that followed, I estimate seventy to a hundred enemy casualties." Her face fell. "But we lost Private Morel."

Raven closed her eyes and nodded, her expression sorrowful. "I am sorry to hear that. I counseled Morel for a time after his husband's death. He was a good man."

"Aye." Daria frowned. "There's something else, as well, Lightbringer. During the battle, the Key ... did not work as it should."

Raven cast a sidelong glance at Caitlyn, apparently debating whether they should be having this conversation in front of her. Daria's mother, after all, had no idea of the Key's nature.

"Let me see it," she said at last. Daria looked at Merai, who paused, then nodded once. Carefully, the warrior woman removed the necklace and held it up for Raven to take, being careful not to move her chest in doing so.

The priestess studied the Key closely, doubtless examining its aura as well as its physical appearance. "I see nothing wrong with the Key itself," she said.

"There isn't anything wrong with the Key itself," said a voice on the far side of the room. "There's something wrong with the Keep."

For an instant, Daria saw Raven's ears flatten, the corner of her muzzle twitching in agitation. Then she composed herself and turned to face the man walking towards them. "Hello, Rickkter."

"Hello, Lightbringer," he said, in the pleasant sort of voice that the proverbial Mongoose might use with the Cobra if they were to meet by chance at a royal banquet. "I really must thank you for your acolytes' hospitality in welcoming me into your temple."

"Our house is open to all Keepers," Raven replied smoothly.

"Rickkter helped save our lives in that battle," Daria put in, anxious to defuse this sudden tension between her benefactors. "If not for him, we all likely would have been killed."

The Lightbringer looked at her for a moment, her expression unreadable, before turning back to the raccoon. "I am not surprised," she said. "Rickkter is one of the best warriors in all of Metamor. Thank you for your help."

Rickkter crossed his arms over his chest in an "X" shape, fists clenched, and bowed slightly. "I live to serve," he said— his voice, at least, totally sincere.

"I believe you were saying that there is something wrong with the Keep?" Raven prompted.

"Aye. To all appearances, something— or someone— is interfering with Metamor's variable geometry."

Raven raised one eyebrow, her ears pricking forward. "Any idea what that could be?" she asked speculatively.

The raccoon shrugged. "Why don't you ask her?"

Slowly, a small smile crept on the wolf-woman's face. "Merai?"

"Aye, Sister Raven?"

"See to it that I'm not disturbed."

"Of course."

Without another word, Raven turned and strode quietly back into her chambers, shutting the door behind her.

Once inside her bedroom, Raven cast her eyes up at the ceiling.

"What's going on, Kyia?"

Reaching out to the aura of the Keep all around her, Raven immediately sensed an undercurrent of frustration. And beneath it, something like ... fear?

"Black magic," Kyia said bitterly. "They have cast an enchantment at my gates, cutting me off from sections of the Keep." She paused, and when her voice came back it was softer, filled with a quiet terror. "Raven ... I can't feel those parts of the Keep anymore. They are like ... like dead limbs on my body."

Raven clenched her fists. "Who would dare to do such a thing?" she growled, righteous indignation springing up within her. It was one thing for the wizard to attack the human occupants of the Keep; but to attack Metamor herself, to assault a being who may well have existed since the very dawn of time...

"This was Ba'al's doing," Kyia spat. "His chosen servants have entered my house and desecrated it."

The priestess looked up in alarm. "What do you mean, Ba'al's servants?"

"You know what I mean," the nymph replied. "Moranasi."

"Moranasi," Raven breathed. She shook her head, hardly believing what she was hearing. Moranasi— "Shadow Bringers". The secret order of mages created by Ba'al as a perverted reflection of the Lothanasi. Their kind had not been seen in centuries— and yet they were here, now. And they were working with Nasoj to destroy Metamor.

"How many?" the wolf-woman asked.

"Two masters, four apprentices," Kyia said. "With the one master being greater than the other."

"A full circle." She let out a ragged sigh. "Where are they now?"

"I do not know. They are within the area that has been lost to me." The nymph paused, sounding thoughtful. "They appeared again within my senses a short time ago, but soon after that area, too, went dark."

"They must be expanding the spell through the Keep," Raven mused.

"Aye. They tried to isolate Daria and her friends, but I fought the effects long enough for them to escape ... though only just."

The priestess nodded, frowning, and turned to look out the window. The storm was still going strong. "We will have to seek the gods' help in this, of course."

The Keep's aura changed subtly, as if to imply that Kyia found the suggestion distasteful. "Do what you must," she said at last.

Raven glanced up at the ceiling. "Always," she murmured.

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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