The Winter Assault

Part 20

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

December 26, 10am


He was right there, close enough to burn down with a single spear of magic! Murikeer’s teeth ground as he pushed back into the alcove and hastily erected a concealing ward about himself. The man was not alone and was so enwrapped with protective magics an arcane bolt would achieve nothing more than to expose the skunk. Ahead of him walked four other mages of similar or greater magical potency and just behind him walked a Lutin and moondog. Trailing in their wake was a bald man and woman in Metamoran styled clothing. She did not look in the least like a prisoner, walking with her head erect and arms unbound. Murikeer figured she was a spy or other traitor.

He watched as they filed down the corridor and listened as they bickered angrily among themselves, and his lips peeled back in a feral smile. Dissention in the ranks would only work to his advantage, but he would have to have all due care with how he worked his way closer to Thorne. Clearly he was not the dominant force in their deadly strength. That, too, would be to Murikeer’s advantage for he remembered the boundless ambition of the man; if given even the slightest opening he would strive to rise higher in position.

At the end of the corridor they came to a narrow door and were slowed as they first surveyed what lay beyond and then to file through it. The woman fell to the tail end of the line and Murikeer carefully eased out of the alcove. When the bald man stepped through the doorway Murikeer struck. Grasping at the sluggish magic of the keep he hauled at it, filling himself with the surging potency of node power to the point it made him feel aflame, and then reached for the doorway. With a single wrench of one hand he hammered it closed and squeezed at the stone of the archway even as he seized the startled woman as she lurched back from the suddenly closed portal. The rock groaned and shrieked and then, with a rumbling crash, sundered under his might. The capstone exploded in a spray of stone shards that pelted the woman and both sides drew inward, sundering the door with a thunderclap of shattering wood, sealing the doorway under a collapsed mass of ancient gray stone.

Screaming in horrified surprise the woman fell and scrambled away from the tumble of stone hastily. She felt the hard crush of unseen bonds about her and fought against them futilely, unable to dent the strength of Murikeer’s node enhanced magic. He dragged her bodily across the floor as, from beyond, he heard the crash of a counterattack moving the stone. The woman fetched up against his feet and he looked down at her frightened blue gaze with a show of his sharp musteline teeth. Kneeling he grasped her face with one hand, letting her feel the stout claws pressing at her flesh. “I carve stone with those claws, woman.” He warned in a low growl, “Struggle, please, bone is far softer.” She whimpered and shook her head feebly, dropping her hands to her sides.

Hoisting her by his magic he darted toward another door, through which Thorne and his retinue had entered moments before, with her floating impotently behind him. She tried to cry out, once, as he passed through the door but was silenced when she was hammered against the unyielding stone of the lintel. “Silence!” Murikeer snarled as he continued down the hallway and through the first door he came to. A stairwell lay on the other side of the door and he took it three steps at a stride. The woman was bodily bounced against walls and columns behind him and cried out in pain with each punishing impact. Not hard enough to kill, or even break fragile bones, but more than sufficient to keep her cognizant of her helpless situation. It also prevented her from concentrating long enough to attempt any manner of spells, though Murikeer saw that her potency was, at best, that of a journeyman.

Enough to be dangerous, but lacking the volume of sheer energy he could sap from the stones.

After several long minutes Murikeer slowed and stopped in a corridor overlooking the Keep’s inner ward. Outside the snowy tempest still howled but it seemed far reduced from its earlier might. He turned to her, “Who are you, magepawn?” he snarled with a squeeze.

She glared at him in fury, “Your death, hellspawned bea –“ her angry words trailed away in a groaning hiss as Murikeer clenched his hand, tightening the grip of magical strength about her and crushing the air from her lungs. He could see that she was as cursed as he was, a long time resident of Metamor. From the scent of her, and the cut of her clothing, she was a craftswoman who worked with wood; a cabinet maker or toy maker or some other sort of carpentry occupation. He eased his grip slightly and waited, letting her feel the bite of the cold, still air that his personal magic kept at bay. He could see no quickened enchantments about her, beyond a few simple warding spells that were placed to shield against attacks. There were no enchantments to prevent her from being picked up like a wayward puppy and hauled around.

“Your name!” he barked harshly.

“Die, beast!” she shrieked back and spat at him. He ignored the wet spittle did nothing to worsen his already befouled state. He reached into his belt and drew out a wide blade of gleaming blue stone with a bone hilt; the same blade that had been intended to kill him. Raising it to her face he touched her cheek lightly with the cold blade, watching as her eyes followed it and widened at the keen edge that traced slowly across her cheek.

“Death will be yours, traitor, not mine.” He churred slowly, giving the tip of the blade a light flick across her cheek toward her ear. She sucked in a pained gasp as it traced a clean line of blood across her cheek. “Now tell me, who are you?” The tip of the blade slowly drew along the curve of her jaw and he watched the muscles clench there.

“The great mage will crush this pl –“ again her angry words ended in a breathless hiss as a fresh line of blood bloomed along the hollow of her throat. The razor’s edge of the stone blade cut deep enough to sting but not deep enough to be deadly.

“Enough with the empty loyalty, bitch!” he snarled, driving the point of the dagger up against the hollow of her chin, pushing her head up, “Why do you cleave to the one who stripped your dick and left you with moontides?”

“Fuck you!” she spat once she was able to breathe again. Murikeer snorted and dug the tip of the knife at her chin. A trickle of blood leaked slowly down the blue stone as she winced in fresh pain.

“Nasoj has twisted you, woman, and you still kiss his toes. Why? What empty promises has he made?” He dropped the dagger from her chin, resting the blade upon the front of her cloak. He narrowed his eyes as he looked up to meet her gaze, “A reversal? Undoing the curse?” he queried, dragging the knife downward firmly. The heavy fur and velvet whispered as the blade sliced through it with the same distressing ease it had sliced through Murikeer’s own fur and flesh. It fell open and she cried out in surprise at the cold bite of air that found its way through the thin fabric of her blouse. “Talk, or I strip you and throw you to the blizzard.” He warned, poking the cloak with the dagger until it slumped from her back and cascaded heavily to the floor. Raising the knife again he traced the neckline of her blouse, “Or leave you for the Lutins after I carve out your tongue.”

“You wouldn’t!” she gaped, writhing in his magical grip and batting at his arms only to receive a savage stab of the blue blade into the muscle of her forearm. She let out an agonized shriek and jerked her injured arm back, cradling it against her body.

“Try me, bitch, try me.” The skunk snarled furiously, holding the bloodied knife up before her eyes, “I’ve done that much more and worse. You are less than shit to me.” He waved his knife slowly, “There are dire wolves about as well… shall I put the scent of a bitch on you before I let you go?”

That seemed to get through her resolve and she shivered, clutching herself and clenching her jaw as the cold of the empty corridor seeped through the thin clothing remaining on her; a cotton blouse and suede leather leggings. “Please, no.” she managed at length.

“Then tell me your name!” he bellowed.

“Aresor!” she hissed in return, “Aresor! I am only a furniture maker!”

Murikeer’s lips lifted in a snarl and he dug the knife down the front of her blouse, the cotton parting as easily as fur and velvet. She yelped and grasped at the cloth as it fell open. “Do not lie to me, traitorous witch! You are a mage, do not think me blind!” he rested the tip of the blade below her navel at the waistline of her leggings, “I saw you with that circle of mages! Who are they, what is their duty to this battle?” he snarled with barely suppressed animal rage.

“The temple!” she cried as she tried to keep the thin material drawn tight about herself against the biting cold and the skunk’s gaze. “They were to take the Lightbringer temple, kill the wolf, take her sword!”

Murikeer jerked his head in a nod and dropped the knife away from her waist, tapping it against the front of his thigh. There was rather little left of his own leggings beyond tattered afterthoughts barely maintaining his modesty. “Take it to Nasoj?”

She shook her head fitfully, tears joining the trickle of blood leaking from her nicked cheek, “To the dark circle, to Ba’al’s faithful.”

“And where are they?”

“Battling the monstrosity that gives this worthless heap of rocks life. They seek to contain it, and then destroy it.” She hissed at him.

“Where will your masters go once they have what they seek?” Murikeer growled, ignoring her venom for the moment. Tilting his head slightly he raised the knife and touched it beneath her chin again, lifting her head slightly, “Where is your workshop?” he asked with a quiet churr.

Her blue stare wavered as she met his merciless black gaze and she moaned softly, “It… usually… it’s near the stables.” She breathed, “I’m freezing, let me go.” She implored.

“You’re not frozen yet.” Murikeer pointed out, “How many others are there with your circle?” he growled.

“Five!” she cried, “Only five! A Lutin and its dog, and voice for the dark circle!”

“Five?” Murikeer chuffed with a snarling leer, “Only five? No others? No apprentices, slaves? No mercenaries to support them?”

“Only the five!” Aresor shook her head, the touch of Murikeer’s blade following her chin. “Please, let me go! They brought no apprentices, unless they are working with the Lutins! I did not see any!”

Her captor nodded slowly, still smiling that chill flash of white teeth. “They were lost, weren’t they?”

“L lost?”

“Their duty was to capture the temple, yet they are still afoot in the corridors. Kyia has them going in circles, they are lost, yes?”

She stared at him silently for several long breaths, her body beginning to shiver as the blizzard’s icy grasp worked into her flesh. “Y yes.” She stammered, “Thorne attacked t too soon, the spirit be became aware of us. It has mis misdirected us ever since.”

Murikeer leered even wider, “Good, he was always impatient.” He raised the hand that controlled the magic embracing her and she flinched but he only traced her unmarred cheek with the back of his knuckles, “Who commands them, these magi?” His breath was warm as he leaned in close, within reach of her hands, but she was too intimidated to do more than clutch her tattered blouse about herself.

“Kundar, th the weather m mage.” She shuddered at the cold, her teeth clicking, “Please! Please, release me! The man, Th Thorne, he and the w woman are mages of war, they are his right and l left hand.”

“I will sever his hands, then.” Murikeer growled, “Now, I give you your reward.”

She shook her head emphatically, “No! No! Release me, that is rewar –“ she gasped and trailed off with a breathy wheeze as Murikeer’s dagger dropped and drove savagely into the flesh beneath her left breast, angling upward between her ribs and finding her heart. Her body lurched against his magical bonds and slowly went limp, arms dropping loosely to her sides.

“A traitor’s reward.” He hissed into her deaf ear, releasing her lifeless body to fall heavily upon the floor. Only the last breaths steaming from the surprised gape of her mouth let any stir to the cold air.

There he is!

He’s been looking for Tharag’s puppeteer ever since his scouting team had run past, not giving him a second look. He probably looked rather dead, though, so they would’ve pressed on. Still, he’s going to have to discuss that with them. After he retakes his tribe, of course, Orrusk thinks to himself.

Jekk and Harl make for good visual references. The mage is between and just ahead of them, starting to move again after having cast the one spell. About twentyfive, thirty yards ahead, he judges. Not too far.

He starts running that way, trying his best to keep a low profile, mentally planning out exactly what he intends to do.

The first thing that comes to Kirk’s mind when he sees Jono go down is surprise. Then comes concern, more for the kids than for Jono – he’s a professional despite his lack of formal training, so he can probably take care of himself. But the kids are his responsibility...

“KEEP GOING!” This from Jo, who managed to keep from getting tossed out of the sled when Jono fell. He speeds back up immediately, of course. Even though Jono had the lantern with him, he can just about see their destination, so he shouldn’t need the lantern...

Behind him, Perry overhears the order, and takes a look back. He counts five, maybe six Lutins in advance that are probably going to overtake the others beforer he can get moving, and so even as that thought registers he leaps from the sled, rolling as he lands then springing back to his feet and running for the downed sled, while Dana just blinks and shakes her head.

Kesk doesn’t have the privlege of being one of those six. Markesh always picked his scouts more for endurance and intelligence rather than their ability to run away quickly, and so six of the regulars have overtaken them in the charge. Which means that that mage he’s about to go back to overtaking is going to scream at them after this is over for not being in the front despite elite status. He’s certainly looking forward to that.

He’s so focused on that that he takes no notice of Orrusk, about three meters behind him, and running just about as fast.

“DAMNIT!” He didn’t manage to get the boy! The damned thing moved as he was casting and...

But he did manage to cripple the cat pulling the sled. And six of his Lutins are about to overtake them. The other is too far ahead, but he’ll have enough captives to bring back to Nasoj. That brings a smile back to Sandaron’s face.

Six Lutins, two grownups, only one who can Do anything, Derek thinks to himself. Good thing we started that Plan... “Okay, everybody in the Plan! Get ready!” He’ll have to lead them over to the side a bit, so that nobody hits Jono’s friend, but he can do that quickly enough...

The sled’s stopped moving, so Daemion can follow up on his first impulse now, which he does, quickly dashing over to Jono’s side. It looks pretty nasty, but it’s probably not Too bad, and he’s dealt with worse before, he tells himself. After all, he was there for Jeremy, he saved Sammy and Derek from that really evil thing...

“Daemion!” He turns at the sound of his name, just in time to catch the two compresses Jo tosses him. “Put that on the wound!” He recognizes them instantly; it’s the same sort of compress she put on Jeremy seemingly eons ago. A bit of surprise – she wants ME to do the healing?. Then, She’s got other things she needs to do! She needs my help!

And Daemion is not the type to stop helping someone; he’s too much of his father’s child to be that way. So he allows himself only a moment to recall how Jo put the compess on Jeremy’s back before turning back to Jono. “This is going to hurt a bit at first...” he starts, but then he sees the cat nod, bearing its teeth in a manner that looks intimidating until he realizes it’s an attempt at a grin. Well, if he thinks I can do it...

The first thing that comes to his mind is that it’s really hard to see. And you need to be able to see well to do this right, yeah... So he glances over to the front of the sled. “Josh! I need you to move the light so it’s over here!”

Josh is sitting there wide-eyed, not registering Daemion’s words at all, having SEEN the magic bolt hit Big Uncle Jono, right next to him. He’s still holding the staff with the lantern – he did manage to keep it up even when the sled fell – but it’s drooped now, as the shock got to him so badly that he couldn’t hold it all the way up. The Bad Guys hurt Uncle Jono! But... that’s not supposed to be Possible!

“JOSH!” Hearing it screamed finally gets to him. “The lantern! I need it over here so I can help Uncle Jono!”

Helping Uncle Jono. So he can beat the Bad Guys again. Even adventurers got hurt sometimes, right?

“HEY! JOSH!” Oops! Need to help Uncle Jono! He promptly moves the lantern over so it’s hanging right over Daemion, and holds it as tight as he can. Gotta help Uncle Jono...

The six Lutins who’ve managed to get ahead of those pompous Blackhanders (damn swine, thinking they’re so important just ’cause they only had one decent fighter in the lot) are feeling pretty confident. Only one of the Keepers standing. And they’re both mages, to boot! All are convinced that this is going to be extremely easy.

Then one of them blinks in surprise as he hears something. Like an order to throw weapons, except it sounds like a ki–

Derek’s firing squad’s first volley catches them all by surprise, but the wind gusts just as they throw, and so only one of the six actually goes down, though several are wounded. The second volley has a better chance of not being thrown off that way, but the Lutins are aware now, and aside from a few more wounds, little impact is made.

Drat! He’d been so sure that it’d work perfectly... “Everyone! Quick! Back to the sled!” Derek yells, scooping up a bit of snow as he and the others start to run.

So that’s what he was up to! Jo thinks to herself. Not an original idea, but a very clever one; if only he had some more grown up people to work with, more of an impact might have been made. As such, there’s still five left, and they’re getting far too close...

She’s still got her spear in one hand, so she can only get one of the daggers into the air, cutting down one of the ones closest to her that seems not as badly wounded. But there’s still one other, and it manages to get close enough to her that all she can do is block the blow with her staff long enough to stow the thrown dagger, whereupon she shoves the Lutin back, trying to get a little more breathing room and time to plan...

And then she hears the yells of “For the Duke! For Metamor!” as Perry charges past the sled and torwards the Lutins, taking them All by surprise, swinging at one Lutin who was attempting to flank the sled, and Jono... this one has a higher quality sword, though, as it manages to parry...


Sandaron is now very much back to being pissed. How dare they come back and disrupt his scheme? Bastards.

But that can easily be rectified. So he starts preparing...

Finally! The lantern Definitely helps; he can actually see what he’s doing now, and hearing his father leap in just tossed away all his doubts about the approaching Lutins being able to get them. Okay... now, next... there was that paper she pulled off. He carefully peels off the small strip of paper on the bottom of one of the compresses, following up with the other. Probably to keep all the healing inside until it needs to be used. And the hurt spot is big enough that both are gonna be needed. He can’t see the look of intense concentration on his face as he gets both compresses in both hands, getting ready to put them both on simultaneously, counting to himself. One... two...

“...three!” he ends up saying out loud as he drops both compresses across the scar the bolt left on Jono’s rear left haunch, making sure to hold them down even as Jono yowls loudly and starts to try to squirm out of the way. Even the lantern starts to shiver a bit as Josh sees Uncle Jono obviously hurting... but Daemion’s got to keep the compresses on! “Have to stay still, Uncle Jono!” The cat grits his teeth, but to Daemion’s relief, he manages to comply for a few moments more; long enough for the compresses to do their work, and also long enough for the lantern to steady again.

Okay. Then she tied them down with something... some kind of rope! He glances up and looks around very briefly before making eye contact with another someone. “Sammy! I need some rope!”

Sammy perks up at the sound of his name very quickly, then upon hearing the rest nods and starts searching eagerly. Prob’ly looking for something to do since we can’t redo that Plan thing yet. It doesn’t take long before he’s rushing torwards Daemion, holding a bit of rope from the makeshift sled and handing it to Daemion.

Okay, this is good, this is good... “Hold these down for me,” he tells Sammy as he takes the rope. Sammy quickly obliges, looking a little puzzled but going along with what Daemion says. After what Daemion did for him, of course, he’s ready to believe he can do almost anything to make people better.

The rope’s much more than long enough, which is Very good. Daemion threads it under Jono’s leg, then loops it over the compresses two times, then very carefully ties the two ends together, tightening them down and getting another wince out of Jono. “Sorry... you okay?”

He gets a relieved-looking nod back.

That’s when the grin comes to Daemion’s face, followed quickly by similar ones on Sammy and Josh. He’ll be okay.

It vanishes immediately when Daemion hears another bolt, followed shortly by a cry from Perry.

The door to Raven's chambers opened again, and the Lightbringer strode forth with a look of iron determination on her face. Merai had just finished healing Daria's ribs, and the redhead swiftly rose to attention.

"Squire, I have a new assignment for you," Raven said.

In a few minutes, Raven had outlined the threat described by Kyia— a circle of six dark mages called the Moranasi. "How soon will your team be ready for action again?" she asked.

Daria looked around at the other members of her squad. All of their physical injuries had been healed, but they were exhausted from a long day of fighting— to say nothing of their mad dash to escape the Lutins a few hours ago. "We should be ready tomorrow morning, Mistress," she said at last. "I dare not try anything further tonight."

"Agreed," Raven said. "Tomorrow morning, then, I want you to send out your best scouts. Find these Moranasi and report back immediately."

"Aye-aye, ma'am." Daria turned to her comrades. "Rest well tonight, people. In the morning we're going hunting for shadows."


Brennar stopped and carefully peeked his head around the corner, staring into the gloom beyond. It was still a few hours before dawn— partly due to the mountains that hid the sun's rising from the Valley, and partly due to the recent winter solstice— but his feline eyes could see just fine in the dim lighting, especially in his full tomcat form. The hallway looked clear, so he padded down it with the perfect silence that cats seemed to specialize in. He could hear breathing somewhere up ahead, so he decided that he must be headed in the right direction.

He found the source of the breathing a minute or so later: an enemy guard, fallen asleep at his post. Brennar would have chuckled, if he had been in his normal form and it had been safe to do so. As it was, he slipped quietly by, and the guard was never the wiser.

From that point on, it was easy to see that he was in enemy territory. Soldiers and Lutins were sprawled here and there, in rooms and sometimes even in the hallways, often snoring loudly. There were guards on duty, of course, but they never saw Brennar in the darkness— and Jessica had cast a spell on him to hide his scent from any of the Lutins. So he continued on, slinking through the shadows, unseen, unheard, and unsmelt, looking for the people that Mistress Raven called Shadow Bringers.

A few turns later, Brennar found himself in the main hall that led from the southern gate to the Duke's throne room. He felt a tinge of sadness as he walked through it; the banners and tapestries were all torn apart, the expensive paintings covered with blood, the carpet all ripped and torn. It wasn't enough, Brennar thought, for Nasoj's army to break into the Keep and try to kill all of its people. They had to tear the place apart, destroy everything that was nice and good and beautiful, as if they thought that getting rid of the beauty would make their own ugliness go away. What horrible, miserable people they must be!

The main entrance hall was empty— with as far as the invaders had gotten into the Keep, there wasn't much reason for anyone to be here anymore. With the town outside— or what was left of it— under their control, the Enemy had their flanks well-guarded already. Still, Brennar decided to check the guard house, just in case.

He knew something was wrong as soon as he came near the doorway. The room should have been dark, but there was a soft green glow that spilled out onto the floor outside. Crouching low, the tomcat crept up to the edge of the room and poked his head inside.

The sight was like nothing Brennar had ever encountered. Evil-looking writing covered the walls of the room, glowing with a sickly green light. Blood covered the floor, and from the looks of it, it had been there a long time. The body of a horse lay dead in the corner of the room, its throat sliced open, but strangely there was no sign of scavengers— as if not even the rats could stand the evil that filled that place. Something inside him kept whispering at Brennar to run, to leave this place, to go as far away as he could. He knew that this was important, though, and so he forced himself to go forward into the room.

In the center of the guard house was a long, low table, just tall enough that Brennar couldn't make out what was on top of it. Around the table, collected in little pools here and there, was more of the glowing green liquid that covered the walls; in a couple of places it dripped down the sides of the table, leaving long green streaks behind.

Looking up at the window, Brennar saw a sill that was low enough for him to reach— he wanted to see what was on the table, but he was afraid to actually jump up onto the table itself. Crouching, he measured the distance to the top, then took a running start and leapt up onto the sill with ease. Tail flicking, he turned around-

And let out a startled cry. On top of the table was a girl— or what was left of her. There was a sinister-looking dagger buried in her chest, and all around the wound was that horrible green liquid, oozing out of her, running down her body and onto the table, where it then dripped down to the floor. The girl looked barely twelve years old.

If he had been able to, Brennar would have cried. There was some kind of black magic at work here, some foul, evil spell that the Enemy had killed this girl in order to be able to cast. Brennar remembered that Mistress Raven had told them about the Shadow Bringers' spell that was hurting Kyia, and that it had been cast at the gates of the Keep. This must have been the place where they did it, he thought.

Leaping down from the window sill, Brennar moved quickly and quietly out of the horrible room, heading back down the main hall toward friendly territory. He hadn't found the Shadow Bringers, but he had found where they cast the spell. Maybe that would be helpful. Maybe that would tell Mistress Raven and Master Rickkter and the others how they could stop these evil people once and for all.


Before anyone or anything else can even act, Daemion is up and running torwards his father. Still standing! No, half-standing... hurt, but not dead! But that Lutin...

Perry’s cry is more than enough to get Derek’s attention. The subsequent one from Daemion only reinforces it. He really only needs a half-second to notice what’s going on. Daemion’s dad got hurt, and there’s a Lutin right there!

Protect comrades. A warrior is supposed to protect his comrades.

With little more thought than that, he quickly presses the scoop of snow he has into a ball – no time to add one of those spikeballs – and hurls it at the Lutin, just catching it right in the back of the head. The Lutin blinks, and turns slightly to see Derek charging at him, screaming at the top of his lungs, which catches his attention for just a brief moment. But that ends up being more than enough time for Perry to sit up just enough to thrust the tip of his sword into the Lutin’s chest, causing them both to cry out from pain of wounds and fall over.

He’s not dead yet though! thinks Daemion, even as he keeps running forward. He’ll be okay. I’m going to help make things okay. I can do that sort of thing.

It takes him ten seconds to get to his father, collapsed in the snow. A quick look gives him a chill... it looks like there’s a whole part of his shoulder carved out, on the arm that was carrying his sword! Oh no... “Dad... you okay?”

No answer for a few seconds. Then, “...still here... yeah...”

Yes! Daemion instantly turns torwards Jo. “I need another one of those compresses!”

“Where the hell have you oafs BEEN?! FORWARD! CRUSH THOSE WHO WOULD DEFY NASOJ!” comes the mage’s cry.

Kesk just barely manages to stay silent as he approaches Sandaron’s position. To his far right, he can see Neska, looking about ready to explode, but holding her peace as she moves forward. It’s plainly obvious even from this far back that the six that got there aren’t going to be effective enough, even with the mage’s attacks on their defenders – which, Kesk grudgingly admits to himself, have been extremely effective; now if only he could have done that BEFORE! – and so he keeps one hand on his sword, certain that he’s going to have to clean up after Another mess very shortly.

Shit! She’s not usually given to cursing, but... if any situation deserved it, this one does! So Jo leaps backward, tossing the spear in her first opponent’s direction, catching the Lutin off guard for a moment – long enough for her to pull both daggers and send them flying, taking down her opponent and the runner-up immediately behind him. “Dae! I’m coming!”

She turns and dashes for the sled, skidding to a stop and grabbing first her backpack, then her bow and quiver right next to it. Then a thought occurs – wasn’t there six of them...?

“Kevin!” She prods the groggy-looking mouse with her bow. “There’s still one close by; I need you to look for it; I need to go help Perry!”

The sled is still a ways away, but he can still easily recognize the figure that stands up, grasping what looks to be an amulet of some kind. That’s the mage that cast the illusion! The one who tried to make a fool out of ME! He conveniently ignores whether or not the attempt was successful. That’s not the sort of thing you want to focus on.

Regardless, Sandaron wastes no time this time.

Fortunately for Kevin, he’s still tired. As a result, he’s not quite standing steadily, and so when he staggers it causes the bolt to crease across his back instead of going straight through his chest. That doesn’t prevent him from letting out a scream of his own.

“DAMNIT!” This comes from Jo. That is fucking ENOUGH! She tosses her pack torwards Daemion, then turns, pulling both daggers, and hurls them both as hard as she can torwards the distant mage, not bothering to notice whether or not her pack lands anywhere near the intended destination.

Orrusk has his hand on the handle of the Scimitar now, ready just in case the mage somehow anticipates what’s about to happen. “Sandaron! Orrusk Blackhand, reporting in!” Just as expected, Sandaron starts to turn, looking like he’s about ready to start screaming bloody murder.

That’s when Orrusk sees the Keeper he’d fought before tossing those daggers.

The thoughts come to mind in an instant. The daggers are heading straight for the both of them. They’re almost certainly deadly accurate; most thrown magic weapons are. Sandaron would be dead; this is Good. Orrusk would be at best severely wounded because he wouldn’t have time to react to daggers going through Sandaron’s body; this is Bad.

So he leaps forward, knocking Sandaron to the ground, and the Scimitar comes out, parrying both daggers in one swing.

YOU again?! Damnit! She stows both daggers, then starts to string her bow, keeping her eyes and her focus on the Lutin and human.

“WHAT IN THE NINE HELLS WAS THAT FOR?!” Sandaron screams, jumping immedately to his feet and glaring at Orrusk with a look that would wilt most lesser Lutins.

“In case you didn’t notice, I just saved your life!” Which is an amazingly calm response for Orrusk. He’d love to just put the Scimitar straight through Sandaron’s chest, but then the other tools of Nasoj might notice, and that wouldn’t be good for him...

“With the weapon you stole from your brother after you killed him!” Sandaron turns to his two mage-bearers. “You two! Disarm this impudent traitor immed–”

Jono has never been one to use magic weapons; he always observes that if you get dependent on them, then the instant you lose them or they become ineffective, you’re as good as dead. Jo, consequently, has kept in practice with a number of other combat skills just in case the improbable occured and her daggers wouldn’t work out.

Skills such as archery.

The winds throw her aim off down and to her left. Therefore, of the two arrows she fires simultaneously, only one reaches its target, striking Sandaron dead center in his stomach in the middle of his screaming, cutting it off very suddenly.

The cutoff immediately gets Kesk’s attention, causing him to turn, instantly noticing the arrow sticking out of the belly of that damned idiot mage. In less than a second, before Kesk even realizes what he’s doing, he pulls one of his poison darts and lets it fly, catching Sandaron right near the stomach.

The mage gasps a bit in surprise, then twitches... and falls.

Arrow must have been poisoned, Kesk thinks to himself. Such a pity!

To Daemion’s surprise, the pack didn’t fall short. Jo accidentally tossed it too far, sending it almost a meter and a half past Perry. It takes him a few precious moments to retrieve it before he’s back to his father’s side. Half a minute of searching through the pack locates the same kind of compress she’d tossed him earlier.

“Okay, this isn’t going to feel nice at first...” Daemion warns his father, starting to prepare it, keeping his eyes as focued on Perry’s eyes as he can, hoping to get his father’s attention away from the wound.

He does so well that neither of them realize that the last Lutin is right behind Daemion until it’s far, far too late.

But Derek notices. And the Lutin doesn’t see him. And he’s close enough this time. With a wild battle cry, he lauches himself at the Lutin’s back, slamming into it and staggering it briefly. “Leave my friends alone!”

The Lutin turns, and...

It’s remarkable how similar many of them seem to look, Derek’s mind thinks from far far away. For once again, despite everything that would dictate that it’s crazy, he’s once again facing the Lutin that found him when he was armed with little but snowballs; the Lutin that surprised him from behind and nearly killed him. The same countenance, the same scar, even the same weapons and clothing seem to all be in place.

But this time neither Jono or Jo is available to defend him.

So Derek launches forward again, just barely ducking a swing from that giant sword, going between the Lutin’s legs. He quickly gets to his feet even as the Lutin starts to turn, and out of the corner of his eye, he spots a dagger tucked into the Lutin’s belt. One quick jump, a desperate grab, and his hand closes around the dagger’s handle. The Lutin is swinging again, but Derek’s calm, now, knowing exactly how to pull this off; he leaps back, dodging the blow from the Lutin’s fist, gets to his knees, and hurls the dagger as hard as he can, straight into the Lutin’s forehead.

And his opponent finally falls by his own hand.

And Derek can only stand there in total shock, just staring at the foe he just took down, only one thought occuring to him. Finally got you.

Despite the surprise of the moment, Orrusk manages to catch Sandaron as he’s falling, even as the revised lines for this part of the plan start to race through his mind.

The first part, obviously, is to drop his sword and set Sandaron down carefully; even though he’d never be so foolish as to do so otherwise, it’s a necessary part of the act. Then, “Stand back! He’s been badly wounded!” Another part of the theater. He knows already that the mage is dead, but the whole series has to be played out.

He then checks the wound carefully, removing Kesk’s dart by sleight of hand as he does so. I’m going to have to have a talk with him... get him a promotion, perhaps.

Then, it’s time for the proclamation. “He’s dead! DEAD! The keepers killed him!” Couldn’t have gone better if I’d planned it...

The cry manages to reach one Jerek “the Twilight” (self-appointed), Sandaron’s apprentice, effective second-in-command, and not much brighter than he, but without the combat spell skills to justify much in the way of existence. With his immediate superior and master dead, though, he’s now got his own skin to worry about!


When Charles awoke the next morning, he felt as if he’d been sleeping for several years. Where he had fallen into his blankets upon the pile of hay sore and bruised, he rose from them feeling rejuvenated, and without any sign of the wear the previous two days had lent him. Opening his eyes, he stared down at the portion of his tail that Wessex’s spell had scalded, only to find that the skin was well, and that the pink tint had faded. Apart from his memories, there was nothing left to remind him of that battle.

Turning his eyes about the shallow chamber, he saw that Zagrosek and Jerome were both still huddled tightly in their blankets, black Sondeckis robes beneath their heads as they rested. The hay was fresh, and was the only thing between them and the rock of the cave floor. The accommodations in Lars’ brewery were hardly desirable, but they would have to do until it was safe to venture out in the open once more. Staring at the thick lines of granite and other more colourful veins that he did not recognize, he realized that he was secretly glad Garigan had insisted upon coming here. It was as if a part of the rat had been left behind in the Glen when Misha and he had returned to Metamor last April.

There was not much light to see by in the caves of course. A torch hung in a sconce outside the chamber entranceway – he refused to acknowledge the open passage as a door – but its flickering illumination was enough for his rodent eyes to notice most details. Yet his ears and his nose had become just as important to him as his sight in the past six years, and with them he knew that they were alone, and that no Glenner was moving about nearby.

Of course, as he shook the sleep from his head, Charles was given to wonder just what time it was. It felt like morning, and as he had lived the last six years of his life in a room with no window, and until recently no clock, he trusted his instincts. It was surely before dawn though, but as it was only a few days past the Solstice, that could mean it was as late as nine o’clock, though he knew it to be far earlier. A moment later, as he heard Jerome shifting to his side, he knew that he was right.

Throwing back the blankets, Charles stretched, and slipped on his garments, pulling the Sondeckis robe tightly about his small frame. Zagrosek yawned behind him, even while Jerome began to wipe the sleep from his eyes. They were Sondeckis, and their training still forced them to wake at the same time. Matthias smiled at that, imagining that Garigan was probably rising from his bed of hay and straw, surrounded by all his old friends, many of whom doubtless would have found his early rising contemptible. At the thought of their groaning, the rat nearly laughed, but he kept his peace, and did not disturb the rough walls beneath Lars’ brewery.

“Good morning,” he whispered instead to his fellows, even as he began to fold the blankets Lady Avery had procured for them. “I see we still get up at the same time.”

Zagrosek let out a throaty chuckle, but softly. “And you are the first up, not surprising either.”

Matthias smiled and then stood up, stretching again. “When do you suppose it is?”

Zagrosek shrugged, and stretched, his joints popping one by one as he did so. “I’m not sure, though it couldn’t be late enough for my liking, I can assure you. For once, I wish my body would let me sleep past the sun. Just once would be nice.”

The rat grinned then, his whiskers set to twitching furiously on his muzzle. “Oh, then you should be here for the Summer Solstice. Dawn comes very early then, much earlier than it ever did back at Sondeshara.”

Jerome rubbed the back of his head with one hand as he stared vacantly at the walls, tracing down the lines of granite. “By now, Ladero would have been praying.”

Charles nodded, a sullen moue stilling his whiskers. “Yes, he would have been. I wish he were here. We could use his devotion now.”

“But he isn’t,” Zagrosek murmured, his own face morose, and his voice gravely. “Even so, we are four, with young Garigan at least.”

The slim-shouldered Sondeckis rose and gazed back at them, “Speaking of Garigan, there is one thing I have been thinking about ever since our fight with the Shrieker.”

“Yes,” Jerome muttered, stepping across the rom to the open passageway. He glanced out both sides and then turned back to the rat and the other man. “We’re alone, so we can safely discuss it.”

Charles pointed to his nose and his ears with one paw. “I could have told you that. These do work much better than they use to, you know.”

Jerome blinked, and then grinned slightly. “I had forgotten how much better your senses are like that. Too bad we all can’t be rats, eh?”

Matthias felt a bit of pride at the implication that being a rat was something to be hoped and yearned for. After so many years living with his fur and his tail and everything else, it felt as if he always had been a rat, and he had no desire to change back anymore. With a wistful smile, he considered the loveliest part about being a rat, that of being with his Lady Kimberly, cuddled close, not saying anything, but just being together. And then he remembered that she was back at Metamor, hopefully safe in the Chapel, and his smile vanished. What if the Chapel had been overrun? Those filthy Lutins could be raping her violently, before they killed her in any hundreds of horrible ways. The thought of those abominable creatures desecrating her holy flesh made his own quiver with sudden rage. The Sondeck nourished that rage, turning his heart into a cauldron of boiling oil ready to spill forth and flay the skin off the next Lutin he should see.

“Charles?” Zagrosek asked, waving his hand in front of the rat’s face. “Are you even listening?”

Matthias turned at the sight of his friend, the unquenched desire still smouldering inside his chest. With terrible reluctance, he sought to find his Calm, assuring himself that Kimberly was safe, and that they would be together again after this was over. He banished all thoughts of Lutins even coming near her, seeking only to think about them by that espaliered tree, snuggled close, bodies touching in a most pleasant fashion.

“I’m sorry, my mind started to wander,” Charles said, drawing the blanket close to him and around his waist, to hide the visible signs of his emotional wavering.

“We noticed,” Zagrosek said, though his voice was dry. “We asked you what sort of techniques you’ve been teaching Garigan.”

“Only the standard methods to calm his mind and heart, and to reach a balance with his Sondeck. Why?”

Jerome and Zagrosek glanced at each other for a moment before the larger man said, his voice cautious, “Do you remember what Garigan did to the Shrieker when it charged at him?”

“Yes, he–“ Charles stopped speaking, his mouth hanging open in mid-sentence. He did indeed recall the scene, with that black mass hurtling towards his student, and the ferret reaching out with his arms, as if to draw it towards him. Instead, the abomination was sent sprawling backwards as the Sondeck’s intent was turned backwards upon it. He’d almost forgotten it in the nearly two days since then. So much had happened that he’d not given it much thought. Alone in the morning with lifelong friends, the implications of that moment were becoming rather clear.

‘That technique is not taught until a Sondecki attains the blue,” Jerome added. “How did he learn it?”

“I don’t know,” Charles said, his voice filled with the frightened curiosity that the rest of them shared. “He might have picked it up watching me, but that is all I can think of.”

Zagrosek let out a throaty chuckle. “I remember trying to do the same sorts of things that I saw the higher Sondeckis doing when I was a yellow. I couldn’t even push sand, let alone a creature of the Underworld. Do you realize what this means?”

Charles sat staring blankly at the floor, and the blanket draped before him as he sat on the hay. Jerome finished the thought that was going through all of their minds, his voice level, but certain, “He is one of the most powerful Sondeckis ever to tread the face of this world.”

The three said nothing for sometime as they sat in the vague light, the flickering torch casting the shadows this way and that as it shone outside the small room. Charles had known that Garigan possessed a very strong Sondeck, as it had taken him very little time at all to master the techniques of the yellow. He’d been able to find his Calm within weeks of searching, a feat that had taken Charles and his friends several months to duplicate. And he’d risen to the green after barely seven months of training. Charles had chalked that up to Garigan’s age, but as he considered it, he knew that had been a self-deception, for even the Sondeckis he had known at Sondeshara that had started late, still spent two or three years wearing the yellow robes of a novice.

“How old is he?” Zagrosek asked, drawing his thumb down his chin speculatively.

Mathias’s voice was hollow when he answered. “He just turned seventeen two months ago.”

“Had he been born in the Southlands and started his training at the same age we had, by now he would undoubtedly be a purple.”

“If not a black,” Jerome added.

“A black?” The thought made the rat shudder. He’d never even heard of a Sondeckis ascending to the penultimate rank in less than fifteen years. It had taken sixteen years for Charles to do so, and he and his friends had been among the most talented at Sondeshara. It was thought that one day, one of the three of them, or Ladero, would have become the new white. But the thought that the ferret had more raw power within him than the three of them combined was most unsettling.

“I’ve read more of the history of our clan than either of you two have,” Jerome pointed out, crossing his arms and pacing a moment. “There have been figures in the past that have possessed the Sondeck to the same degree as I believe Garigan does. Every one of them ascended to the white within ten to fifteen years. Every last one of them. Our greatest and worst times have been when our clan has been ruled by ones such as they, and your Garigan.”

Suddenly, a stray thought came back to the rat, and he exclaimed, “That can’t be what he means!”

“What who means?” Zagrosek asked, even while Jerome continued to pace, scouring his own thoughts, surely on the annals of the Sondeckis history.

“Remember that kangaroo, Habakkuk, I told you about?”

“Yes, I remember. The one who told you to give the Sondeshike back, the one who is a Felikaush.”

“Well, I’ve heard that he’s introduced a new character in his story. This one a white weasel.”

Both Jerome and Zagrosek looked to each other, then back at Charles, their eyes saying all that was required. Licking is lips, the black-haired Sondeckis finally gave voice to what they all knew, “So, how long before he becomes the next white?”

“And how?” Jerome muttered. “He’s a ferret. The Council of blacks is not likely to accept an animal as their leader. No offence.”

Charles shrugged. “I’m used to it, and I agree. I don’t see how they would tolerate having an animal that parades about like a man as their leader. I cannot imagine anything but dissension being formed in their ranks if he does fulfil this pseudo-prophecy. I’m going to have to find Habakkuk’s story when all this is over to see just exactly what he’s written.”

Suddenly though, even as the words finished leaving his mouth, he heard the sound of footsteps echoing faintly off the cavern walls. His nose rose into the air, drawing in the various scents that mingled in the dry caves, seeking to identify the trespasser. Both Jerome and Zagrosek looked at him oddly for a moment, then their ears heard the clinking of claws against stone, and they turned to face the open passage, no longer speaking of matters only for the Sondeckis. Whatever thoughts they still had would have to wait for another opportunity.

As the footsteps grew closer, Charles tried to turn his mind away from things that might be, and away from that kangaroo. He wished Habakkuk would stay out of his life, and not keep trying to interfere. Yet with each passing moment, the rat knew that he would have to entrust himself to the Felikaush’s guidance eventually, and the thought angered him, though not to the same extent that the Lutin’s harming Kimberly had. He still wished to see Habakkuk pay for breaking his arm, but so far, he’d not thought up a suitable bit of revenge he could exact, at least not without being caught. And he’d had a lot of time to think while scrubbing all the armour in the Long House the previous month.

When their visitor finally arrived a few moments later, they saw Angus’s angular head with the familiar diamond-shaped white blotch of fur amidst the black on his forehead peer around the corner. “Ah, you are awake. Good.” He stepped full into the room, a thick jerkin pulled tightly about his chest, while his leggings threatened to engulf his paws. “The scouts returned a few hours ago, and we’ve begun planning our counter strike. I thought you might like to participate. And get a little breakfast in you besides.”

“Certainly!” Charles said, leaping to his paws and dropping the blanket. “What time is it anyway? We’ve been wondering about that.”

Angus shrugged, his massive shoulders wider than Jerome’s. “I’d say nearly seven. The scouts are getting their sleep after a long hard night, while most everybody else is heading back to the common room. Lord Avery is already there trying to decide what we should do. It is a good thing that you stumbled across that supply wagon yesterday, we’ve been able to track it back to its source.”

Jerome and Zagrosek grabbed their Sondeckis robes and began to pull them over their heads, while Charles continued to ask questions. “Where is it?”

“Up at the Dike. It is almost a day’s journey that far, so I doubt we’ll be attacking there unless there is nothing else we can do.” Angus then shook his head, eyes gazing past the wall at something distant. “You are not going to believe who is overseeing the supply lines, at least if our information is correct, which I am certain it is.”

Charles reached down and snatched the black cloak from the hay and began to shimmy into it. “Who?”

“Our old friend Baron Calephas. At the very least he was seen at the Lutin camp by the Dike. I’m surprised he’s still alive even after all the failures he’s overseen for Nasoj.”

The rat shrugged, not too terribly surprised to hear this bit of news. “He’s overseen quite a few successful ventures as well. If nothing else, he maintains order in Nasoj’s holdings west of the Dragon mountains better than any of his other minions probably could.”

“Who’s Baron Calephas?” Jerome asked finally, staring at the two animals.

“One of Nasoj’s lieutenants who has some very sick tastes,” Angus spat, and then waved them on out the passage. Jerome’s brow furrowed slightly, but he said nothing. They followed the badger up the slanting corridor a short distance, until it met the intersection with the main passage into the mount’s heart. A long staircase had been chiselled into the floor, and it twisted this way and that up the natural corridor, with only the torches spaced every few metres to guide them.

The light of course was something that the rat relied on to steady himself as they headed back towards Lars’ brewery and the surface. It would be comforting to be out from underneath the tonnes of rock that were surely overhead. The only thing that Charles could think about as he moved along that passage was the weight of all that stone being placed atop his shoulders, crushing him flat. Shuddering, he pushed that image from his mind, and focussed instead on the badger’s back.

Soon though, the sound of other voices rang down the corridor, and the rat felt safe again. Stepping out into the main room of the brewery again was comforting, as so many familiar faces were clustered about the tables, spooning the culinary efforts of Mrs. Levins into their muzzles. There were eggs, and some lovely stew cooking, Charles’s nose told him, and he found himself drawn towards it, his stomach churning in anxious delight.

However, his eyes caught sight of the grey squirrel Lord Avery sitting at a table, with a piece of parchment spread before him. Garigan was there as well, pointing to it and saying a few words that they could not hear to the lord of the Glen. Angus led them to that large oak table, the two’s eyes rising to meet them as they approached.

“Ah, good to see that you are awake at last. Garigan and I have been discussing some ideas while you slept.” Lord Avery pointed to the chairs about the table, and the four of them sat, gazing at the unfurled map before them. The parchment was yellowing at the edges, curling up from lack of proper care, but otherwise, it appeared to be in reasonably good shape.

“Can we get something to eat first?” Charles asked, even as he leaned forward, his nose drawn by that irresistible smell.

“Of course. Christopher! Darien!” Lord Avery called out, and suddenly, the two young squirrels who had been hiding behind the counter bounded out across the floor and stood by their father’s side, their faces eager.

“Yes, Dad?” they both chimed, their high piping voices well formed from out of their rodential snouts.

“Would you get these three gentleman something to eat. And don’t fight over who gets to carry the extra plate this time.” His voice carried that weariness only a father with mischievous sons could have.

Both of the young squirrel’s tails twitched as they looked at each other and then back at the three Sondeckis. Their eyes settled on the rat and then grew very large, nearly popping out of their head. “Charles!” one of them shouted in delight, skittering over, almost on all fours to be at the scout’s side. “You came back!” the other added as he joined his brother.

Charles looked at them both, trying to decide which was which and failing completely of course, and then smiled affectionately, giving them both a pat on the head. “Good to see you two as well. Are you being good little helpers for your Father?”

One of them, Darien he thought, nodded and wrapped his tail about one of the table legs. “We’re helping to make the arrows!”

“Oh really?” Charles aid, letting his eyes widen in amazement. “That takes a lot of skill, why you two must be very talented.” He could hear Brian stifle a laugh over his shoulder. Both the other two Sondeckis were grinning as they watched. Angus and Garigan nodded in agreement with Charles though, congratulating the two young squirrels for their efforts.

“Mr. Berchem says in another year we’ll be making them for the whole Glen!” Christopher proclaimed proudly, or was it Darien? They’d both grown several inches since the last time Charles had seen them, he could not even guess which was which!

“I’m sure he’s right,” Charles said, smiling that huge grin which encompassed his thick set of whiskers. His stomach then offered an indignant growl, and he had to chuckle. “Now, would you do us three a favour and bring us something good to eat?”

“I’ll do it!” one of the two shouted, darting off towards the kitchen behind the counter. However, his brother was following right after him, protesting that he’d be the one to get their food. Lord Avery sighed, shaking his head, his tail laying against the floor in defeat, but laughing lightly with the others around the table.

Jerome watched their long tails dart behind the counter and out of view and then looked at Brian whimsically. “Those are your children? They’re adorable, and slightly incorrigible too, I might add.”

“And they’re a bit taller than I remember them,” Charles added, looking back to the exasperated father.

Brian nodded a bit, leaning back in his chair slightly. “Yes, they’ve grown nearly half a foot since April. They don’t even go around in clothes during the summer, because they keep outgrowing them! I think Walter stitches them new outfits every four months.”

“Why are they growing so fast?” Zagrosek asked, even as he drew his cloak tighter about himself, as if the mention of heat had left him chilled.

Lord Avery turned to the lack-haired Sondeckis, his face gone curious. “Aren’t you from Metamor?”

Zagrosek shook his head, “No, Charles is an old friend who we’re visiting. You’ll have to bear with our ignorance, I’m afraid.”

Angus and Brian looked at each other quickly, their faces suddenly very serious. “You do realize that if you stay here for long you may end up like us? We are still inside the radius of the curse here at Glen Avery.”

“We know,” Jerome said, glancing back at the kitchen door once before turning his wide face to look at the three Glenners seated across from him. “We are willing to take that risk.”

“We’ll help you in anyway we can, and stay for as long as we are needed,” Zagrosek added, favouring them a tight grin.

Angus nodded approvingly, while Lord Avery smiled. “I’m very glad to hear that. We can use all the help that we can muster up here. What can you do? Are you good fighters, scouts? Can you use a bow, staff, sword? What are your specialties. We’re going to be making our plans soon, and I’d like to know what you are capable of.”

The two Sondeckis flashed glances at each other, smiling slightly, while Charles just chuckled to himself. Jerome, then spoke, his voice certain, “Whatever Charles is capable of, we can match it. Our strong suit though is close combat. We could wield bows if necessary, but I’m afraid our accuracy leaves much to be desired.”

Lord Avery shook his head then. “We have more than enough archers. What weapons do you use?”

Zagrosek set the retracted Sondeshike on the table and just gave them a rather amused smile. Jerome held out his hands and favoured them with a similar smirk. “We don’t need much, Charles can tell you.”

Angus reached out and plucked the small cylinder from the table, and examined it in his paws. He traced two thick, hairy claws across the smooth surface, twisting it about, but he did not press the catch set in the middle. Setting it back down before the black-haired Sondeckis, he gave the man a very dubious stare. “Show me what you can do with that.”

Zagrosek took the Sondeshike and extended it with a flick of his wrist, spinning it over his head in a graceful arc before stashing beneath his arm and shoulder. “Something along those lines.”

The badger laughed quite loudly, while Lord Avery just stared in disbelief at the large staff that had suddenly appeared in the Sondecki’s hand. “If we had the time, and Nasoj’s army wasn’t marching over top of our home, I’d take you out to the fields and spar with you a bit, just to see how good you really are with that thing. What do you call it?”

“A staff usually,” Zagrosek said, returning it to its compact form and slipping it beneath his robes once more. A plate suddenly found itself in front of him, as the two young squirrels returned with their breakfast. Charles grinned at the two boys, but they quickly ran off back behind the counter, probably to work on more arrows. They’d been served a large helping off eggs, with a biscuit on one side, and a small portion of warm oats.

“I see Mrs. Levins has taken over all the cooking for you.” Charles spooned some of the eggs into his muzzle, and knew instantly he’d been right. There was some flavour to them that he’d never known in simple scrambled eggs before.

Jerome and Zagrosek were too busy feeding their faces to add to the rat’s peroration, but Brian Avery nodded emphatically. “She has a way of making even the simplest of meals taste like a banquet.” His dark eyes trailed after his sons, and then his face lit up with a forgotten question. “Oh, you wondered why they are growing so fast. Because they were born as squirrels, they age faster than normal children would. It is a burden that Angela and I are happy to bear, except that it makes them twice as hyper as normal children too.”

Zagrosek chuckled between mouthfuls, and grinned, “Well, they are adorable.” Then, he paused a moment and swallowed the last of his eggs. “Now, you said you’ve been discussing what you are going to do about this supply line. What have you thought of so far?”

Angus, Garigan, and Brian Avery leaned over the table further. A few of the other Glenners that had been mired in their own conversations stopped and turned to watch them as well. Charles chewed down a bit of the oats as he gazed down at the map of the northern Valley before them. He recognized the ravine between Mount Nuln and Kalegris that Misha and he had scouted last April, where the Lutins had been building catapults. However, where the squirrel’s paws were was atop the forests near the Giant’s Dike.

“Our scouts have found that Baron Calephas is making his camp just south of the Dike. They’ve got provisions there to last at least a month, and every few hours or so, a wagon is loaded and sent south to Metamor along the old North Road. As Garigan has informed us, and our scouts have confirmed, there are about twenty Lutins guarding each transport, with ten covering each flank.”

“Yes, we found that out the hard way,” Jerome muttered as pushed his plate aside.

“Now, Calephas’s camp appears to be well guarded, and there are several hundred Lutins stationed there. They’re going to Metamor piecemeal, but as it stands, we do not have the manpower to assault his camp. But we do need to stop those supplies from reaching Metamor.”

“So what are we going to hit instead?” the skunk named Berchem asked.

“I think we should try to destroy the bridge.” There was a bit of a gasp from several around the room. “It is the easiest way to cross the gorge in the hills without going to the eastern side of the Valley. Without that bridge, Calephas won’t be able to get the supplies to Nasoj’s troops for some time, hopefully long enough for the Metamorians to turn back the assault. Now, it is being guarded, several squadrons of Lutins on both sides, and several hounds with them, so we’ll have to be cautious in our approach. We cannot be certain how many patrols they have circling the area either.”

Angus tapped the line of the gorge that drew up into the Western mountains. “Perhaps we could come in from below? Torch the bridge, let it burn. It is made from wood after all.”

“We’d need an awfully hot fire in this weather,” Berchem pointed out, his monochromatic tail circling behind his head.

Avery glanced over his shoulder at the woodpecker who was hopping from one foot to the other so he could see. “Burris, do you think you could help there?”

“I think so yes, I’d just need a few moments free from distraction to convince the wood to burn hot enough.”

“Good, then we’ll definitely have to send a team down into that ravine. Unfortunately, that means they’ll need to leave several hours before the rest. We’ll have to have an attack up above as well, to keep the Lutins occupied while Burris destroys the bridge. Bercham, I would like you to take several of your archers and accompany Burris in the ravine. Charles, why don’t you and your friends accompany them, you may run into some unpleasant company on the way.”

Charles nodded and then glanced at the skunk, who was grinning slightly, “We’d be delighted to do so. When are you planning to attack?”

Brian Avery gazed at him, his face set in a firm moue. “As soon as you can reach the bridge. It takes three hours to walk there via the road. You’ll have to take the long way around, so you had best leave within the hour. Once we are finished making our plans, we’ll get you powdered up and then you can be off.”

“Powdered?” Jerome asked suddenly, noting the amused grin that had crossed the skunk’s face. Angus wore a similar one, and as he looked about, he noticed that almost every Glenner wore that mischievous smirk.

“Of course, you’ll need to blend in, and you are not quite white enough to do that yet,” Lord Avery said, his own smile quite large.

Jerome and Zagrosek looked at each other uncertainly, but then shrugged, and turned back to the map. Charles had to stuff his biscuit into his mouth to keep from laughing.

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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