December 26, 2pm
The ladder led from the darkness of some unidentifiable underground passageway to a trap door and Murikeer looked up at it dubiously. He could feel no cold air trickling between the cracks in the age worn boarding nor see any lights above. Climbing the ladder he tilted his head to press his ear to it but heard nothing from whatever room was above. There was a muted light through the cracks but it was dim and gray, likely from the wan light finding its way in through a window. He gave it a nudge with his shoulder and was pleased to find that it was not latched from above and carefully pushed it open. Above him was a beam from which was suspended a block-and-tackle used to raise items from below. The heavy hook was neatly hung from a peg on a wall and, nearby, freshly cut wood was stacked. The plume of mist that whispered from Murikeer’s muzzle told him that no fire had been lit in the hearth served by that stack of firewood and he climb the last short distance into the small closet.
The door to the closet opened upon a large central room neatly arranged with chairs and small writing desks. These were arranged around a central chair and single podium while the walls of the room were entirely lined with crowded bookshelves. Murikeer recognized the Writers’ Guild hall though he had only entered it a few times in the past to recover books used by the various writers for copying or research and he was pleased to see that it had escaped, thus far, the depredations of Metamor’s attackers. He soon discovered why when he opened the building’s front door to find himself staring at a densely packed wall of snow. The windows along the front of the building were likewise snowed under with such a weight of snow he could not push the shutters open. Only one of the back windows yielded after some pushing and an application of magical heat from within to melt the bit of snow accumulated against it. A single broad spruce blocked that blocked the window had also protected it from the wind and snow but the guild hall, nestled into a small hollow among the Duke’s private forested park, was otherwise almost entirely buried in snow but for the peak of its roof.
Murikeer used a bit of magic to replace the snow he displaced in his escape before navigating his way out from beneath the spruce. Hopefully it would go unnoticed by the invaders; he shuddered to think what would become of the vast repository of knowledge that was Metamor’s library should the invaders conquer it. Even their brief occupation would be immeasurable if they made it into the library. Murikeer pushed such thoughts aside while he stood in the shadows of the trees and surveyed the park beyond, rubbing his temples with one hand. His head ached, his body ached. Were it possible he would have thought that his very fur ached with the weariness of his days of fighting. He had only slept when exhaustion overcame him, and ate food where he found it. Usually both were cold, brief respites that came only elusively.
Time, likewise, was only a nebulous concept as both day and night seemed little different under the heavy weight of the storm hanging over the valley. Night was an inky tomb and daylight merely a dim grayness where the Keep seemed to be a world unto itself, constrained to feet or yards by the heavy veil of wind driven white. Currently it was through that dim gray pall that Murikeer gazed trying to pick out details of what lay beyond the curtain of snow. What day it may have been, or the hour, he could not begin to know; his sense of time had long ago been lost to the chaos of surviving and killing.
He had been pushing himself far beyond his limits, both physically and magically, in the past few days and he was feeling the effects more and more heavily. To him it seemed like only hours, long stretches of hunting and hiding interspersed with blindingly swift engagements with the enemy. He had learned a great deal from those he questioned and thought not a second time about the deaths he had caused among the attackers. Magic came with more difficulty and, though he had taken in more magic than he had ever grasped in the past, he was able to hold less and less with each passing embrace. He hoped that he would be able to hold enough when he finally found Thorne to exact at least some small measure of vengeance.
The broad sward of the Duke’s park was covered with a thick layer of snow that had been churned and disturbed by a few skirmishes. Bright crimson showed through a skein of fresh snow upon a few unidentifiable lumps he could see but nothing moved. The bulk of the castle and inner walls protected the park from the worst of the driving wind allowing the snow to fall in a thick veil stirred only by the occasional gusts and he could see the vague forms of a huge stable, where the horses for Metamor’s knights were kept. A short distance to one side was another broad, low building which, knowing the nature of Metamor’s malleability, could be anything. He hoped that it would be the woodsmith’s shop as she had claimed before she perished.
Following the edge of the wood he made his way toward the inner ward gate, which stood open, one huge banded wooden portal hanging askew on a single remaining hinge. That the hinge was nearly as tall as Murikeer was telling; some overwhelming force had battered its way into the part at some point and, Murikeer fervently hoped, had made its way back out by the same avenue. He had no desire to face the unknown monstrosity that had wreaked such havoc on a gate designed to withstand the assault of a siege ram. With a long examination of Meatamor’s inner ward that lay beyond the smashed gate Murikeer spied no movment and in a single swift sprint crossed to the wall of the opposite gate tower. He was left breathing heavily by just that short dash and grumbled to himself.
He had lived on the run for nearly six months, and then spent another year and more surviving in the frozen north, and a mere sprint of a dozen yards left him sorely winded. Either he had let himself get remarkably out of shape or the exertions were taking more of a toll on him than he imagined. He did need food, that much he knew; he could not remember the last time that he had put anything in his muzzle beyond a random handful of snow to slake his thirst. Moving cautiously along the flank of the gate tower he watched for unexpected surprises, noting how the snow was churned and noted how everything had been softened by the continued fall to judge how long ago the cause of those marks had passed. Nothing was particularly recent, a small consolation, but that meant little in the shifting geography of Metamor. In the last few hours he had felt a subtle change in the Keep, the magic had begun to flow again, surging into areas where it had been lessened. He hoped that someone else had found, and dealt with, the leavings of the Moranisi circle for he knew that, working alone, he could do nothing.
He reached the side of the building near the stables and rested the palm of one hand against one of the closed shutters, feeling the warmth of the wood, subtle as it was. There was a fire, or had been, burning inside to stave off the chill. That could mean either refugees seeking shelter from the bitter winter bite or attackers holding out to recoup their strength. He spared a brief glance across the park toward the distant hump of the buried Writers’ Guild building and considered, just for a brief moment, sneaking back to recoup his own strength. There had been no food there but it was sheltered and undisturbed which meant he could rest there and resume his hunt later.
But later was a luxury he could ill afford. Each moment he allowed to pass made his intelligence all the more tenebrous. He needed to learn as much as he possibly could, as swiftly as he was able, to succeed in his goal. Stealthily he slid along the wall of the building and around to its front, scanning the snow near the door before he approached. The snow there had been trodden down at some point but it did not appear to be recent. Reaching the door he rested his palm and ear against it to listen but, other than the warmth of the wood there was no indication that the building was in use. Lifting the latch he pushed against the door enough to glance within as he readied an arcane bolt in his free hand. The spell gave him a sharp twinge behind his eyes but he ignored it.
It was, indeed, a wood crafter’s shop, with racks of lumber near the door and half finished furnishings scattered here and there in various states of crafting or repair. He eased in and pushed the door shut behind him and looked around hastily. As with the Writers’ Guild the crafts shop had not yet been discovered and stood undisturbed. A fire, more coals than wood, glowed in the large circular stone hearth in the center of the room. On a table he spied the leavings of some small feast; mugs and plates of food left behind either hours or days earlier. Securing the latch Murikeer padded quietly over to the table and found that the serving platter the unknown tenants had used still contained a good bit of food and he set to it with famished zeal without even bothering to use his magic to warm it. He used the blue stone knife to carve large slabs from the hank of mutton with a feral grin; how appropriate that the weapon intended to kill him help keep him alive instead.
During lunch day a council of war was held in the Lightbringer temple, as Daria and her scouts related what they had found to Raven and Merai.
As it turned out, Brennar had found the most of any of them. Slowly and carefully, he described every detail of the guard house he had discovered, from the markings on the walls to the color of the girl's hair. He was naturally observant, Daria thought; she had chosen well in sending him in as their forward scout.
"It sounds like Brennar found the main focal point for the Moranasi spell," Rick observed. "Once they cast the spell there, they could expand its range by setting up relays further inside the Keep. Of course, they would have to enter an area that was still under Kyia's control before they could expand their spell there, so we have a chance for a surprise attack if we hit them before their relay is completed."
"How long would it take them to set up a relay?" Merai asked.
Rickkter shrugged. "Six of them, working together ... well, I've never seen this spell before, but normally a relay would take about ten minutes to cast. Of course, there is a lot of preparation that has to be done before you actually cast the spell, but they may have servants to set everything up for them. That way, they could stay back in the 'frozen' sections of the Keep until it was time to perform the casting— Kyia wouldn't be able to sense their location until they were actually ready to set up the relay."
Daria grimaced. "That doesn't give us much time. By the time Kyia senses their presence, it will be too late for us to get there."
"Which just means we'll have to know where they're going before they get there," Jessica said.
"Which means more sneaking around," Bradfox muttered.
"Agreed." Daria took a bite of her sandwich, chewed thoughtfully for a few moments, and swallowed. "We'll have to keep watching the perimeter of the Enemy's territory, I suppose— watch for any suspicious activity, people setting up magical equipment. I don't see what else we can do, under the circumstances."
"I'll track down Misha and let him know what to look for," Daria offered. “He told me how to find him if I needed to.”
"We may also be able to capture some enemy soldiers for interrogation, if we're careful," Rickkter said.
"A good idea, but that may be a little out of our specialty," Garulf said. "All this cloak-and-dagger business is more the Longs' area of expertise."
"Good point," Daria agreed. "Rick, David, why don't you two work with the Longs to try and find someone to interrogate. We can use the Key to fashion a holding cell for our guest, when the time comes. The rest of us will take shifts scouting the front lines— the Enemy's sections of the Keep are mostly frozen now, anyway, so there are only a limited number of ways for them to get in or out. Gods willing, we should be able to find these Shadow Bringers before they expand their control any further."
"One question," Brad said, raising a hand. "I don't mean to rain on anybody's festival, here, but what do we do when we find these Shadow Bringers? If these are the terrible, sinister, unimaginably powerful bastards you make them out to be, can we really beat them?"
There was silence around the circle. All eyes turned to Raven.
"We can," she said at last. "Not alone, perhaps, but I am confident that we will be able to secure divine aid for the battle. Lord Dokorath has a long-standing vendetta against the Moranasi; with his help, we shall be victorious."
Brad took a long drink from his wine. "Let's all pray that you get it, then."
They’re all in fairly decent shape after their ordeal, despite a few wounds. Most of the kids were shocked to their very souls to hear that Uncle Jono had been wounded, but that was immediately reversed when they heard he was going to do okay, and because of Daemion – one of their own! Wow!
And of course, everybody has heard about Derek taking down that one Lutin while Daemion was helping his Dad. They don’t know much about it, though; Perry and Daemion were both concerned with Perry’s wound at the time, and Derek is refusing to talk about it for some reason. That has a lot of folks puzzled; why Wouldn’t you want to tell everyone about how you kicked butt? But Derek still isn’t talking. One or two of the kids are real worried; they think this might be a sign that Derek is becoming another one of those Grown-Ups that never tell you about cool stuff like that. But, of course, this is Derek. He’s got to tell them all sometime. Really.
Nobody missed Kirk’s big stunt, though, when he ran in through the gates, then tossed off the sled harness and charged right back out. Now that was fun to watch, though there were several who wished they could go along. Especially Jeremy, but he’d been told to stay, and so he made sure Everybody stayed back in the fort where the Bad Guys couldn’t possibly get them.
There’s been a small army of kids staying at Jono’s bedside for a while now. Even though Jo and Daemion (he’s DEFINITELY becoming one of those stuck-up grownup types, many think) keep telling them that Uncle Jono needs his rest, they all want to know about the pie. After all, now that the Bad Guys aren’t able to get here, wouldn’t the deal be over yet?
So Jono has to tell them that no, the deal isn’t quite over yet – but yes, there Is a brief “time out” from it, so they can go ahead and play and do whatever, so long as they’re not bothering the soldiers keeping the Bad Guys out.
It’s not exactly the Yule they’d been looking forward to, but it’ll do. Well, except that there’s no presents, one child objects, but she’s quickly shouted down by the others – we got to have that big an adventure, and you’re complaining about no presents?
Most of them are just wanting to see their parents again. Hopefully the Bad Guys won’t find them.
Berchem and three other Glenners were waiting outside Lars’ brewery for the three Sondeckis. It was still mostly dark out, and the entire grove was shrouded in a pale twilight, the littering snow strangely luminescent. The archers were equipped with long bows strung over their shoulders, and quivers lined with smooth feathered arrows at their sides, that they might reach them easily. Their faces had been powdered haphazardly white, making it hard to notice them when they stood against the trunks of the trees.
The skunk waved the three Sondeckis over with one paw, and they quickly stepped through the low snow. The winds had buffeted much of the snow to the sides of the grove, leaving the area around the hillside mostly free from the accumulation. Drifts climbed the trunks of the trees, as if to swallow them and bear them down to the earth. Charles held his arms close to his chest and the thick tunic that he now wore. They’d had to leave the Sondeckis robes behind, as they were the wrong colour for this kind of weather. Though it was still night, it would be dawn soon, and they would be visible to any competent scout.
The clothes they had been given were thick, and fit relatively well, though Jerome found it amusing that he’d had to borrow some of Lars’ own shirts just to fit over his chest. The Sondeckis had told the others that if he were to become a bear, he’d be enormous. Even so, the breeches were a bit loose on him, and he gripped the belt that held them up tightly with one hand every now and then. Their faces were just as Charles’s, smeared with the white dust, to obscure their natural colours. They were three ghosts walking silently in the barren winter wastelands, their only life capture din the intensity of their eyes.
Charles gave the skunk a brief smile as he approached, his red tongue pressing against the back of his large teeth. He’d long since grown accustom to being covered in dusts and dyes, being a Long had taught him as much, so its chalk-like scent did not bother him. He felt a bit of sympathy with the mephit though, for nearly his entire body had to be dusted with flour. Every time his tail flitted from side to side, a miniature snow storm erupted from behind him.
“Where’s Burris?” Charles asked, as he scanned about for the woodpecker who was to burn the bridge.
Berchem pointed upwards into the branches far above and then winked. “He’ll watch us from above, and alert us if any Lutin parties are about. We should be able to walk along the ground the entire way. The Lutins appear to be staying close to the roads. We should not run into any unpleasant company on our journey until we near the bridge.”
“Good, I’d rather we not run into any opposition until then.” Charles then glanced back at the two humans standing behind him. “This is Jerome, and that is Krenek. We are at your disposal.”
Berchem nodded and then pointed to the three Glenners who had accompanied him. “Good, I was wondering what your names were. I’m called Berchem in case you had not heard, and this is Ralph, “ he gestured to the stout vole who was missing a tooth, “Anson,” a lithe arctic fox who had not needed any powder, “and Baerle.” The last almost appeared to be a rat, judging by the long tail, but it was white, and not grey, and her teeth were sharp instead of protruding as Charles’s were. It took Matthias a moment to realize that the young, female Glenner was an opossum. She saw the rat staring at her, and flashed him a smile that dimpled her furry cheeks. Matthias quickly turning away, trying not to let his blush show through his drooping whiskers.
“Well, now that we know who everyone is, shall we be off?” Charles asked, thumbing the button of his surcoat.
Berchem nodded, and pointed off towards one corner of the Glen, “Once we pass out of this grove, speak quietly if you must speak at all. I will lead us down the path. As my men are archers, I would ask that you three cover out flanks and rear while we walk. Can you climb?”
This last was asked of all of them, but Charles spoke for them. Ever since they had arrived at Glen Avery, the rat found himself their voice. He idly wondered if Jerome and Zagrosek were nervous about being surrounded by so many animal-men. “We’ve been trained to climb most surfaces. Though it has been stone in the past, trees are hardly more of a challenge.”
The skunk weighed the answer, but decided against debating that generality. “If we find ourselves surrounded by their army, just follow us into the trees. We’ll climb too high for them to follow, or observe from the ground and lose them that way. We shouldn’t have to, but we shouldn’t be forced to destroy our own bridge either.”
Charles nodded glumly at that. He’d never been along the road as far as the Giant’s Dike. He had been north of the Dike of course, the raid to Stepping Rock being the foremost instance in his mind, but they had followed a path through the hills on the eastern side of the valley. And now, he followed after the artificially white skunk into those unknown northern hills. The trees closed about them very quickly, casting them into a deep darkness, though not one impenetrable to his night vision. Despite Berchem’s admonition not to speak once they left the grove, none of the travellers said a word at all, and so, in the still calm of a forest gripped by the frost of winter, they marched into areas that none of the Sondeckis had ever trod.
Wistfully, he tried to spot the path through the trees that Misha and he had traversed while in animal guise to spy on the Lutins in the ravine between Mount Kalegris and Mount Nuln over half a year ago. Yet, it was lost in the shrouds of his memories, and obscured by the lay of the winter land. Should he spend enough time at Glen Avery, he was sure he could retrace his tracks, but for now, it would simply have to remain a memory. There had been something almost magical about that trek into the thick of the woods, into gulches and up to the rise of the hills to overlook the mountains yonder as the sun began to shine its first rays upon those lofty peaks. He had to wonder how many more such vistas would he have beheld had he become a scout as soon as he arrived at Metamor, instead of hiding from himself at the Writer’s Guild.
And then, he thought of the grey-eyed fox who had been his mentor in the Longs. In the last eight months they had grown rather close, spent a great deal of time together, and had found deep friendship. Yet, their last words to each other had been heated, and ultimatum’s had been delivered. He did not want to see everything he had begun to build here at Metamor fall apart. The worst bit of it was, none of it would ever have happened had that Kankoran not shown up.
His heart beat faster as he trudged through the snow, his eyes scanning the long, thick trunks that pierced the sky above. When he’d helped Christopher destroy that small Lutin band back at the end of March, he’d thought his life had been destroyed – he’d come within inches of striking the Duke himself because of it. Yet that had only been the rat’s rehabilitation, and the rediscovery of who he really was, a warrior. And then, just as he was coming to accept that new aspect of his life, that blasted Kankoran arrives, brandishing a Sondeshike, and turning everything on its ear.
The list of things that would be better if that man had never come to the Keep were endless, as far as Matthias was concerned. Though he would not now have the Sondeshike he held in one paw, at times it felt as if it had caused more trouble than it was worth. It had nearly destroyed his friendship with Misha, a fact that gnawed at his heart as he would gnaw on chewstick. Yet, what else could he do about it now? There did not appear to be any answers to that question, which only made the rat more sullen.
And then, he felt a prickling sensation on the back of his neck. Glancing to one side, he noticed that the opossum Baerle was idly watching him as they walked only an ell or so apart. Anson was further past her, while Jerome was some distance away. Zagrosek of course was in the rear, turning to look behind them every few steps. Ralph followed closely behind the white skunk, an arrow knocked in his bow, though he held it loosely in his small brown paws – though they were about all of him that was his natural colour.
They each of course kept each other in sight so as not to get too far apart. In case the Lutins suddenly attacked – though that was not likely, as every once in a while he could see a small, dim shadow fly overhead – they would need to draw closer together to protect each other’s backs. Yet, Charles felt as if the young archer was keeping more of an eye on him than she needed to, and he was not sure why. As he peered back at her, she gave him a ‘and-what-are-you-staring-at’ look. The rat, forced his eyes from her, and back to the trees about him, the sharply curved hills, and the shadows that lay all around. For some reason, he felt like she was laughing at him, and he didn’t know why.
Thankfully, the storm had died off in the night, and so only the occasional snowflake descended past their snouts to join its already fallen brethren. This let them move rather quickly through the meandering path that Berchem chose, winding in and out of clusters of trees, snow drifts, and the occasional pile of large rocks that had tumbled down from the western mountains in earlier generations. Upon their tired and worn surfaces, clung various lichens and moss, though most of it was shrivelled, long since dead from the cold. Every so often, a patch would stand out, only the barest of snow upon them as they held onto the sides of the boulders, making it appear to be a mosaic that had been painted, or a menhir chiselled by a forgotten hand in a forgotten time.
The lay of the land turned downwards, and Charles noticed that the hills along either side of them began to slope upwards, as they winded between them, always taking the route that led down into the gulches, and into even deeper shadows. Soon, as the mountains pressed closer to their left, they found themselves striding into narrow chimneys through the rock, forcing them to stand side by side, and sometimes single-file. For some reason, Baerle had trouble staying on her side of the pass as they walked, continuously bumping into his shoulder, and accidentally poking his round ear with the tip of her long bow slung across her back.
At the very least, the snow drifts had been swept out of most of these chimneys, or had simply not fallen into them at all, as they collected overhead, the roots of trees dangling out over the shallow precipices that they descended through. Glancing up once, he saw Burris perched on one of those roots, his long beak turning this way and that about the landscape before he launched himself into the chill twilight air. Of course, when he took off, he dislodged the snow collected on that branch, and it had fallen onto the rat’s head. He grimaced and swallowed his pride as he brushed the flakes off, while Baerle chuckled beneath her breath. His grimacing stare only made her try harder to suppress her mirth.
When they finally emerged from that chimney of course, Charles rather adroitly switched sides with Jerome, placing Anson between himself at the rather vexatious opossum. The fox’s wintry blue eyes, cold and flecked with white about the slit pupil, appeared to try to say something to him, but Matthias was not sure if he wished to know. Looking back at the tube through the rock, he could see Zagrosek stepping out of its dark embrace and back into the dim twilight that surrounded them even in the more open portions of the woods. The Sondeckis flashed him a quick grin and a nod, before peering once more backwards.
Berchem stopped a short while after that as they came to a cluster of hills that lay low against the wall of mountains that had grown ever closer to their left. The trees were thinning, not nearly as large as their giant brethren back in the Glen, and also permitted more of the faint glow that was brightening on the Eastern horizon. To their right the land continued to descend a short ways, then began to climb steeply higher before it spilled out into the northern reaches of the Valley. To their North, the Dragon mountains began to curve, boxing them in on two sides, tall, angry peaks rising up in protest of their journey.
Turning to face the others, the skunk held out his paws, and motioned for them to stop. They had reached a slight depression, and, as they had been walking for at the very least two hours, almost certainly the end of the first leg of their journey. Scanning those hills all around them, he could see through a thicket of bushes a small frozen lake half covered in snowfall, the rest blown up onto the banks by the winds. Even as he thought of them, they came as if summoned, buffeting his fur and streaming it back over his face. But the powder held fast to his fur, and the elements gave up their battle only moments later.
Circling down from the sky, Burris landed in the small copse of trees with the seven travellers, and began to shift back into his normal form. Strangely enough, his beak, which was already rather long and pointed, appeared to grow first, carrying the rest of him upward, as if it was only expanding to suit the weight of its heavier burden. Finally, bright red feathers clearly visible, and his plumage neat and orderly, the woodpecker glanced over the rest of them, and then turned to the skunk. “The gorge starts only ten minutes Northeast of here. I haven’t seen any Lutins, or their hounds patrolling this area, so it should be safe to proceed when you are ready.”
“Has the sun risen?” Berchem asked, crossing his arms before his tunic, which had been dusted with the flour as well.
“In another half hour I believe. The storm clouds are mostly to the South now, but there is a thick fog covering many of the hills to the East. It will probably give us some trouble spotting any Lutin forces when we do run across them.” Burris’s beak dipped into his chest feathers and picked at them for a moment before his small eyes regarded the rest of them. “You have made better time than we had anticipated.”
“One always does, when there is no trouble,” Berchem added, as if quoting a maxim. He then looked to Ralph , his dark eyes capturing the vole’s attention immediately. “Would you and Jerome go with Burris to find a path to the gorge.”
Ralph nodded his thick head, his brown paws tightening about the stout pine of his bow. “You’ll never know we were gone.” The vole smiled proudly and then gazed up nearly two feet to the massive Sondeckis who lumbered easily through the snow after him, flexing each of his fingers one by one. Burris hopped along after them, shifting to a smaller form in mid hop, and then swooping up to perch on the Sondeckis’s shoulder. Jerome looked at the woodpecker curiously, but could only sport a wry grin as he disappeared into the fold of the white hills.
Charles stepped over to Anson, thumbing his belt idly, ready to simply wait for the three to return, but soon heard the skunk calling his name. “Charles, would you and Baerle climb up those hills and watch for the sunrise? I don’t want to enter the gorge until then. Lord Avery’s forces will be leaving with the sun.”
“And the plan will work best if we both reach the bridge at the same time, I know,” Charles finished for Berchem. “We’ll keep a sharp eye out for any Lutins while we’re up there too.”
For some reason, as he moved to join the opossum, she flashed him that dimpled grin again. Uneasily, he strode off into the trees, and up the eastern rise, back-switching when the terrain became too steep. Baerle was behind him of course, easily following the trail he set, her foot paws crunching the snow lightly, or not at all. He almost imagined he heard Zagrosek chuckling behind him through the trees as he worked up that slope, though he could not imagine why that would be so.
The trees continued to thin, fur and pine having long since replaced the oak an birch that was predominant towards Metamor Keep. Ice hung from the pine needles, crystalline like fragile glass, trapping the trees in their glossy cocoon. Finally, after a few dips and rises, they saw one peak that opened out onto the valley beyond. It was even steeper than before, and slippery rocks jutted up from the hard earth. Digging his claws into the ice-locked stone, Charles hefted himself up the last few feet, before he crouched in shallow snow atop the slender rise.
“Um, could you help me up?” he heard the opossum’s voice call from behind. The vista before him did not even have time to register, before he naturally turned about and looked down the rock slope at Baerle who stood at its base, her narrow snout admonishing, though her eyes were pleading earnestly. She held out one slender paw, short claws reaching up towards him. Charles held out his own, and gripped her warm hand in his own, and pulled, letting his Sondeck draw her towards him.
Her foot paws clawed at the ice of the rock, scrabbling some of it free before she finally leaped up the last of the incline, and landed atop the rat, knocking him over onto his back, his face full of surprise. She laughed gently as she peered down at his embarrassed face. Before he could reach out to object and before he even realised what she was about, the sly opossum had planted a firm kiss on his pink nose. “Thank you!” she exclaimed spritely, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Charles scooted backwards then, extricating himself from beneath her embrace, though in the process managing to shove a good deal of snow down his tunic, his whiskers twitching in a furious blush. “Uh, you’re welcome,” he stammered, rubbing at his nose, still in disbelief about what she had just done.
She giggled slightly, and then sat back on her haunches, clearing the snow away with one paw. She then rested her legs, her long fleshy tail curling about them as she turned to look out across the hill. “Have you ever been this far North?”
“Um, twice before,” Charles said, still shaking slightly, though he peered out over the landscape on the other side of the hill too, still unsure of what had just happened. The valley dropped off slightly just past the rise, but they could not see far, as the fog layered the hills on the other side of the depression, all the way to the mountains several miles distant. It was still too dark to make out many details, but the clouds on the eastern horizon were brightening.
“This is as far as I’ve ever come,” Baerle said, when Charles did not speak further. She crouched down a bit lower, resting her head on her paws, elbows buried in the half inch of snow. Their clothes were much warmer than the Sondeckis robes that they’d arrived in, and so the rat found himself quite comfortable in the chill. “You’re a scout from Metamor?”
Matthias nodded, letting his eyes trail down the hillside, trying to spot anything he could. When he wasn’t looking at the young, female opossum, he could almost imagine that she hadn’t kissed him. He cringed at the thought of how irate Lady Kimberly would be when she found out another girl had kissed him. And his beloved would probably blame the whole affair on him too he thought sourly.
But, he kept all of that in his mind, and let his mouth stay where it belonged. “Yes, I’ve been on missions for the Keep sporadically over the last nine months.”
“Is that why everybody knew you when you arrived last night? Have you been to the Glen before?”
Charles nodded again and found himself, despite his best efforts, glancing over at her. She was not looking at him, but was scanning the valley and the hills, as the fog threaded through them. “Yes, it was one of my very first missions in fact, back in April. I don’t remember seeing you, did you just move to the Glen recently?”
“This last summer. My father finally died, and so I came out here. I like the Glen better anyway.” Her voice was bereft of any melancholy, but Charles suspected that it was only because she hid it rather well.
“Where were you living before, and how did your father die?”
When she turned to meet his gaze, her dark hazel eyes finding his own as if by instinct, the rat returned his attention to the valley. “We lived in Mycransburg. Before Nasoj attacked the first time, my father was Lord ard’Kapler’s butler. He lost both of his legs when their manor was destroyed, so I had been taking care of him since then.” Her voice remained level as she spoke, and Charles found himself gaining an odd sort of sympathy for her. Caring for an invalid could not have been easy, especially after the way Mycransburg had been decimated.
“So why did you come to Glen Avery after he died?”
She turned back to the valley, her voice taking on a slightly distant cast. “It’s where my mother was from.”
“And where is she?”
“My mother? I never knew her. She died giving birth to me. But many of the folk at the Glen knew her.” She giggled then, her face brightening, her short whiskers laying back against her narrow muzzle. “Do you know the tailor’s wife?” At seeing the rat nod, she continued, “She treated me so wonderfully when I fist arrived, I’ve started calling her Auntie Levins, and me her niece!”
Charles could not help but smile, at the thought of the plump hedgehog acting as a surrogate mother for a friend’s bereaved daughter. “That’s rather lovely, I’m glad you found a home here.”
“Do you like Glen Avery?” Baerle suddenly asked, shifting about on her belly. Charles noted that she appeared to be lying closer to him than she had been before.
Even so, he pretended not to notice. “Yes, I do. If I did not already have a life at Metamor, I would move her, for it feels as much a home as any place I’ve ever known.”
Baerle smiled then, her tail curling about her legs rather supply, more tightly than Charles could ever manage with his own tail. Even so, she did not speak for several more moments, preferring to lay there, watching the valley move slowly in the last few minutes before dawn. The only thing that moved before them though was the mass of fog that drooped over the hillside, shifting and eddying over the contours of the land. A gentle breeze came up the incline, rattling the trees behind them, the ice covering the needles tinkling a silvery melody.
At that, the opossum shivered visibly, and chattered her teeth together, “It’s cold!” She wrapped her arms about her chest to emphasize the point.
Charles moved closer and wrapped an arm about her back, and pressed his side into hers. He gave her a small smile then, “This should help keep us warm until that sun rises.” She grinned back at him, her muzzle dangerously close to his. He then remembered that kiss she’d planted on him earlier, and he was half afraid she’d strike again. Yet, she kept her lips to herself, pressing her side into his as well, and slipping her own arm underneath his.
The rat felt slightly uncomfortable at that. He’d never been this close to any other woman but Lady Kimberly, and he’d no intention of being this close to any other. But, this was to help keep them warm, as it was frightfully chilly laying there on the bare hilltop, with the wind rising over their fur. And that was all it was to him, two companions huddling together for warmth. “Feeling better?” he asked then.
She favoured him that dimpled smile again, and nodded. “Much better.” Her eyes turned back towards the fog bank, as it started to yellow with rising sun. Charles watched in rapt fascination as the fog started to glow with the dispersed morning sun, looking more like a mound of warm cream melting into the groove of the hills they topped, like a delicious biscuit fresh from Gregor’s ovens back at Metamor. The glints of light began to make the ice gleam brightly, casting ephemeral light about them on all sides, reflecting it subtly even into the dense thickets. The two animal morphs huddled together for several minutes more as they watched dawn bring light into Metamor Valley once more.
December 26, 2:30pm
“Damn the man to the ninth hell!” someone was yelling outside the shop and the voice brought Murikeer’s head up with a snap. He wasted no time in scrambling for the door to a back storage room rather than risking a peek outside to see if the speaker was coming toward the shop or not. He lamented, again, his lack of even the most basic divination magic as he darted into the store room and pushed the door shut then pressed himself against the back wall. There were enough gaps in the warped planks of the old door for him to see much of the shop. Settling himself and waiting he finished gnawing on the crust of bread he had torn from the loaf left behind on the serving platter. He jumped as the door crashed open loudly, kicked by the foot of the irate speaker. “He has his orders! I was given command of this operation, not he!”
Creeping forward Murikeer moved so he could see through one of the gaps in the door without putting his face too close to it, swallowing the dry bread with a muffled choke. The bellowing man was clearly a northerner by his garb and gaunt, wind scoured face, as well as a mage of some considerable strength. He stormed into the room and cast off the heavy fur cloak he was wearing nothing warmer than a shirtless vest and suede leggings beneath, quite unaffected by the cold. Another man followed through close upon his heels wearing not even a concealing fur cloak and the dark blue velvet robes of a mage practitioner. His bald head was heavily tattooed and Murikeer could easily see the tight swirl of complex spells wrapped about him; protections and wards that, from his distant vantage, Murikeer could not easily read because of the sheer number of them. “He was junior to us all, Master, even the Voice, yet they still chose to attend him.” Hissed the bald man irritably, “He will have less luck on his own than we had together.”
The first shook his head and strode over to the table without bothering to add wood to the glowing bed of coals in the hearth. The second seemed similarly unconcerned about the cold seeping into the building as the fire faded. Like Murikeer they had warming charms to hold back winter’s icy fangs. They reached the table and the first man slouched into a heavy wooden chair, “He is not seeking the Temple.” He groused irritably, snatching up a knife to carve at the hank of mutton Murikeer had not denuded. “Too many defenders, he claimed, too strong a defense from both this thrice bedamned heap of stone and the faithful bearing arms at every door.” Leaning back in the chair he chewed morosely upon the cold meat, “And yet… and yet he believes that he will join what remains of the dark circle?” he scoffed, “They, too, have failed. Without their anchoring spells the sprit will regain the stones and, no matter how many our Master casts against it in this ill begotten war, it will become impossible to hold.”
“If it has not already become that, Master.” The bald man supplied as he stood at the seated mage’s side, hands enfolded in the sleeves of his blue robes, and he stared down at the table. “Are you so certain that their power has been broken?”
“You heard the Voice! Five of their number have fallen!” barked the first, “Their central foci has been vanquished and, with it, all of the relays.” He shook his head irritably and gnawed at the cold mutton in his hand. “We must make due for ourselves, Huk, either to find our way out of this trap, or join Selig and whatever forces he may have left and make an attempt, any attempt, to regain the advantage.”
“We have a scrying glass, Master, I retain it. We may contact Nasoj and inform him of our situation?” the bald man, Huk, said quietly.
The first, yet unnamed, scoffed, “That cursed fool would have but one response; destroy the Temple, kill the bitch, and get her sword.” He leaned forward to stab a slab of cheese with his knife and picked up the torn heel of bread that Murikeer had left upon the table. He looked at it for a few moments before muttering and throwing it down as insufficient before biting a piece of cheese. “Though it be the death of us without Selig’s giants at our back. Where in the hells is that Lutin, anyway?”
“He was with us at the gatehouse, I did not see him when we entered.” Huk shrugged, “Perhaps the cold is more suitable to him.”
“Gods piss on his corpse.” The man slammed his hand down on the table causing all of the items upon it to jump and rattle. “Gods piss on them all, Thorne at the center!” He stopped and glared at the table, his eyes narrowing. Huk, as well, stared at the table. His gaze had never wavered from it. Slowly the robed mage withdrew one hand from his sleeves and extended an emaciated finger at something that lay upon it.
“Yes, Master, others have come. Only one.” Huk intoned as the first mage picked up the item that had captured his attention; a slender skinning knife fashioned from blue stone and bone. Murikeer gaped at his carelessness and clenched his teeth against the hiss of his own folly. “Another such as us, I have felt his touch already, twice.”
The other man jerked a glare up at his second, “And now you choose to say aught? Who, and when?” he stood swept his gaze across the shop, twisting about as if looking to see who had come up behind him unawares.
“The one whom Thorne tried to cut down in the gallery of stone kings, who has all of the spirit’s energies at his beck. Again when Aresor was snatched away from us.” Huk offered, “I saw tracks in the snow to the door, but only a single path.” The bald man looked around as well though with more slow deliberation than his Master. “He did not leave by that door.”
Spitting unfinished cheese from his mouth the first man threw down the incriminating knife Murikeer had left to be found, “In this hells cursed place he could have left through the very stones of the floor and we would not know.” He growled. He raised his hands and began moving them in a complicated gesture as he intoned words of Power. From his hiding place Murikeer watched them both with growing dread, they were both competent mages even if they did lack Kyia’s strength to draw upon. He knew he was stronger than both but doubted that his training was even close by comparison. Sending out a tendril of his focus he gave a tweak to the northman’s spell as he wove it and it flared once before collapsing. The man jumped in startlement and let out a bellowing curse, gazing at his hands as if they had betrayed him. “He is still here, Suspira curse him! Find him, Huk!” Neither had sensed the light thread of magic that Murikeer had used to unbind the spell. Against the near blinding background of Metamor’s great well of energies he doubted they would even be able to see any greater magic.
He had been blinded when he first arrived as well but had learned to filter the radiance of the node energies filling Metamor from his vision. He moved a little closer to the door and gathered up a measure of his readied energies into one hand, and watched both mages. The bald one, Huk, had moved away from the table like a stalking cat. From the depths of his robes he had drawn a wicked looking curved silver blade that shone to Murikeer’s magical sight like a blazing torch. Of the two, though his power was lesser than the one he called Master, Murikeer accorded him the greater threat. His discipline seemed to cover all of the elements whereas the more powerful of the pair appeared to be repeatedly attempting, and failing, to weave weather powers. Shifting slightly in his place of concealment Murikeer waved his free hand toward the hearth.
A shadow rose up from behind the stone, opposite the two mages, and resolved itself into an illusion of Murikeer with a bow in his hands. Before that illusion could loose the knocked arrow, or even half draw the illusionary bowstring, both men reacted. The first, with an angry shout as he extended both hands and released the spell Murikeer had let him complete, lashed out with a blinding thunderbolt that shook the walls of the shop with its deafening clap. Murikeer staggered back as the door to his shelter rattled but remained secure. Huk lifted but one hand and extended a single finger to send a sizzling orange bolt of fire at the illusion. Blinded by the thunderbolt Murikeer could not create an appropriate illusory death for the fakery and it simply vanished under the combined assault. “Illusions??” the Master quipped with a snarling lift of his lips, “Illusions?”
“Misdirection, Master.” Huk warned with a steely smile, “He must see us to make illusions, tempting us to expend our power wastefully.” Slowly the man leaned around a stack of lumber that awaited use but found no one hiding there. “I sense no magic of concealment, nor gaze of divination.”
“I see nothing.” The Master growled, “There is too much brightness upon the field.” Muttering under his breath he motioned with his hands again, preparing another spell, but Murikeer unraveled it moments before completion earning another furious bellow. “Oblivion take him! Huk!”
“There, Master.” The bald mage hissed and Murikeer was barely able to dodge deeper into the storage room as the door was reduced to splinters with a single syllable from the northerner’s mouth. He tripped backwards and fell painfully on his tail as shattered wood stung through his fur and crabbed backwards looking for another exit. Raising the readied spell called to his grasp he loosed it toward the door and the sound of running feet. Under the shatter spell the frame was reduced in the same manner as the door, as was a large portion of the stacked stones in which it was set, blowing the destroyed remnants outward in a spray of shrapnel. Murikeer hastily called another shatter spell, one he had only recently learned from Rickkter after watching him use it to considerable effect in the Chapel months earlier, and dove behind a stack of wood as the bald mage charged through the door.
He could hear the bald mage intoning a rapid series of clipped syllables in the Lutin language and a moment later the entire room burst into flame. Wooden planks and half finished furniture were sent crashing against the far wall in a thunderous symphony of sundering wood. Much of the stack behind which Murikeer had hidden was stripped, sailing over his head and smashing against the far wall within a torrent of flame. Before the initial flame burst had died down Murikeer leaped to his feet and yanked at the bald man’s spell recklessly, causing the mage to burst into flames with a startled cry. Only his personal protections saved him from self-immolation but he reeled back in surprise nonetheless, clearing the door for Murikeer’s headlong charge from the burning storage room.
He elbowed Huk in the face as the man busied himself shedding the remnants of flame scorching his blue robes and dove aside behind the hearth as the inside of the shop was once more rent by the crackling roar of thunder. Even out of its direct path Murikeer felt the numbing sear of energies racing through his limbs and collapsed in pain. He forced himself through it, teeth clenched and bared behind lips pulled back in a feral snarl, and scampered around beneath the protective height of the circular hearth as he heard the Master weaving another spell. Raising his head briefly he focused on the man and, instead of unweaving his spell, sent a surge of his own energies into it. Unable to sustain the additional power the man aborted the spell before it fed uncontrollably back into him and cursed.
“He’s an unweaver, Huk!” he bellowed and snatched a sword that Murikeer had not seen from a sheath barely large enough for a dirk strapped to his belt. Like Huk’s evil curved blade it shone with an unhealthy radiance to Murikeer’s sight. “Don’t bespell the son of a bitch, cut him down!” Murikeer stood and ran for the door but something hard struck the back of his head a stunning blow and he staggered under the blow. With a shake of his head he turned and shimmied behind one of the racks of planks missing a deadly sweep of the Master’s sword by a handspan. The magically enhanced sword sundered the beam supporting the shelf and it began to lean precipitously, forcing the man to retreat before it collapsed upon him.
Murikeer loosed his retained shatter spell at him from behind the protection of the listing shelf but saw its energies envelop a protective shield, wavering it heavily but failing to breach its protections. He reached out for Metamor’s energies again and felt them surge into him with alacrity, no longer held by whatever magic had been binding it earlier. A blinding pain stabbed at his skull behind his eyes and he bit back a hiss of pain, pouring the renewed energy into more spells. Rather than a single overwhelming magic he sent a fusillade of minor bolts searing around the shop like a swarm of angry bees to strike at both attackers madly. Most simply dissolved against magical shields but a few scored, staggering the men as they grunted under the stinging pain. None of the bolts were, of themselves, lethal but they made the concentration required to summon more spells almost impossible.
Both fell back to renew their embittered shields and Murikeer emerged from the far end of the shelves, sidling along the back wall of the shop, “I only want Thorne.” He spat in an animalistic growl as he faced the pair who now blocked the door. “Him I will flense alive, you are of no concern to me.”
The Master glanced at his second a moment before he barked a laugh and flourished his sword, “You are an enemy, beast, and as such you are our concern.” He raised one hand and motioned toward Murikeer but his intended spell failed upon inception and Murikeer merely leered toothily at him having ripped it asunder at the first basic call.
“I am not blinded by the power of this place, stranger. I see your magic as you bring it forth and it is not immune to being touched.” He growled, continuing to circle along the back wall, his hands casting about for anything he could use as a weapon. “Nasoj sends you here to perish.” He drawled in that low bestial growl that had become of his voice, “His failures, incompetents, or you are just too ambitious for his liking. Either way, you are here to die.” He shrugged expansively, jerking his attention to Huk as he saw the tendrils of magic wrapping about him anew. He studied the layers of spells upon the man and smiled, slowly extending one hand, fingers splayed. “See how you fare against the lowest of Metamor’s mages!” he snarled, closing his hand into a fist and twisting savagely. Huk let out a startled cry as the complex layers of protective spells he had woven about himself were twisted, yanked into a hopeless tangle that begin interfering with itself. He jerked and twitched as the chaos of magic began to feed back into him uncontrolled. None would be fatal; after all, the magic crashing back into him was no more than he had put into them initially, but it would be far from comfortable.
“Death will not be at your hands, beast.” The Master grunted though he did cast a sidelong glance at his grunting, twitching second. Murikeer could sense that his resolve was wavering but his back was against a wall. He could attempt, and perhaps succeed, at killing Murikeer but he had already proclaimed their cause lost. He could flee, but if he survived the failed assault and returned to Nasoj he would be seen as a coward. That left him but a single recourse; fight or die. Fight and die, as far as the skunk was concerned. Reaching the table he snatched up the bluestone dagger that had betrayed him and, flipping it swiftly in his hand, sent it spinning through the air. The Master twisted himself hastily and threw up a warding hand but the spinning blue blur would have missed him by a wide margin nonetheless.
Huk let out a strangled cry of pain and lurched back before toppling fully in a heap of singed blue robes.
The man gaped as his partner fell and by the time he turned back around it was only to see a heavy wooden framing clamp, snatched up from the far side of the room by Murikeer’s desperate magical grasp, hurtle the last few inches before impacting with his face. Unlike the hapless bald mage he never even managed a pained grunt before collapsing.
Panting heavily and hanging his head Murikeer clutched the side of the serving table and reeled. His head was pounding and his body still felt as if it were a carpet hung out and beaten by overly muscular chamber maids. After a few moments he levered himself upright and padded over to the fallen Master to examine the results of his final stand. He could still see that the man’s chest rose and fell; he had not succeeded in killing him. That was all the better. Though they had told him much before discovering that Murikeer was eavesdropping he would learn more of Thorne from the man once he awoke.
Interrogation of the weather mage, unfortunately, would have to wait.
“I was curious how long they would last against you, mage.” Growled a Lutin voice in poorly accented common. Murikeer lurched to a halt and looked toward the door to find a Lutin standing within, arms crossed upon his chest. Jizzah, break him, but do not kill. Let us savor his death.
Murikeer reeled back against the hearth as a white blur bounded into the room from the Lutin’s side and lunged toward him with a flash of deadly shark-like teeth.
As the scouts had reported, the area around the bridge was respectably guarded. Groups of six or seven Lutins circled the area at the South end of the long wooden bridge, accompanied by at least two of their arctic hounds. Ten Lutins stood sentinel at each end, bearing spears of crude but serviceable make, as well as hatchets and an assortment of stolen iron daggers. Over the chasm, the long wooden bridge spanned, with one central support descending into the darkness below. A few Lutins patrolled across it, though they usually stopped midway to see how long it took their spit to reach the bottom.
Angus set his ponderous form behind the tree trunk, nestled in the midst of snow covered branches. Despite his bulk, he had little trouble climbing the natural towers, though he did find it tricky at times seeking out trees with branches wide enough to support his weight without buckling. As it was, he was only twenty feet from the ground, but it had been enough to gain him a good view of the Lutin forces, as they milled about.
Taking a deep breath, he fixed his claws into the ice covered bark, and began to slide down the slippery oak, shivers of white glistening from his black claws as he descended. He held on tight with his legs though, keeping his descent both slow down quiet enough so as not to attract attention. Though he easily could have had one of his subordinates go up to take a look, he always preferred to do this sort of task himself. And no one was likely to argue with a three hundred pound badger either.
Lord Avery waited while the badger wiped the snow from his sleeves after landing with a silent thump in the thick snowdrift. The grey squirrel was grey no longer, his fur a snow white from the powder, his dark eyes shone like pebbles against them. They were four standing in the snow so close to the bridge they wished to destroy. The rest of their men waited several minutes back, while they went ahead and made one last survey before their plan of attack was set. Garigan stood next to the noble, two wicked daggers clutched firmly in his paws, while to his left was Alldis, whose wide rack of antlers threatened to catch the squirrel’s tail as it flitted anxiously from side to side.
“It doesn’t appear as if they’ve changed any of their patterns from yesterday. Ten men at the at the end of the bridge, two groups of scouts patrolling the woods. An equal number on the opposite side, though it will take a minute to cross once they know what is happening.” Angus spoke in a low gravely voice, keeping his head close to the ground to further muffle the sounds.
Lord Avery nodded, and then began to absently gnaw at the end of his long bow. He quickly stopped himself, affording only a slight moue from embarrassment before speaking. “Let’s kill the scouts first, as quietly as possible.”
Alldis shook his head, “They have hounds. They’ll start baying as soon as they smell us.”
The ferret let his eyes trial between the three of them, but held his tongue in check. Brian Avery though bore an amused expression. “True enough. We should give them something to bay at though. There are many animals in these woods, and we are certainly animals after all.”
The deer scowled unpleasantly as he found the Lord of the Glen’s eyes upon him. “The last time we used that tactic, they shot the animal full of arrows if you recall.”
Brian nodded. “I know, but it is probably the only way we can take out those scouts without the rest of their party realising what we have done. Let’s regroup with the others, and then I’ll want you to be our animal for us, Alldis. I know it is a great deal to ask, but–“
“But I am going to do it anyway,” the deer morph affirmed, bowing his head thoughtfully.
Angus gave his friend a comradely pat on the back as they retraced their steps through the snowbound earth, a good distance from the road. Garigan slunk off ahead, eyes darting this way and that as he slipped between the trees. They were tighter packed here than at Glen Avery, as they were much shorter, and thinner. Even so, a few giants rose up among them, stretching upwards to the sky itself, though none were large enough to build a home in, as had been done at the Glen.
The return trip to their comrades waiting in the woods clustered between the trees, and in most cases, invisible amongst them, was uneventful. The Lutin patrols stayed close to the bridge, preferring to run as close to the road as possible. The Glenners though were at home in the woods, and even though most of them had never been this far from their home, they still walked among the trees as spirits riding upon the wind. Only as they were so used to their own techniques were they able to even spot the guard of archers that had nestle in the crooks of branches all around their temporary camp, and even then, Angus was certain that he missed at least half of them!
When Lord Avery motioned for the others to approach, shapes materialised from the woods, as if they had just been created out of the trees themselves. Even those who had only been living with them for less than a year had become skilled, like the ermine Fellen who was suddenly at the badger’s back, thumbing the pommel of his mein gauche. Angus waited, giving the short musteline a firm pat on the shoulder, glancing from side to side as his friends made peace with whichever gods they worshipped.
“There are two groups of patrols, and we need to silence those first. Alldis will distract the hounds, so you should be able to kill the Lutins quickly. The Lutins at the bridge must not know we are here until we attack them directly. Archers, you will come with me to hide in the trees near the bridge. The rest of you will go with Angus and Garigan to kill these Lutins. It is nearly noon, so Burris should be at the bridge soon. If we can take it before he arrives, all the better. Now, let us fight for the Glen!”
Though Lord Avery’s voice barely rose above a whisper, the last statement felt as if it had been shouted directly into their hearts. Angus could barely contain his pride. Fighting for his home was one of the greatest joys he could think of. Drawing his thick blade into one paw, gripping it tightly, and feeling the weight responding kind, a grin began to cross his features. The badger did not enjoy battle for its own sake, rather, he was charged by the love of his homeland, and hatred for all those who would destroy it.
His group consisted of roughly six other Glenners, including Fellen. He watched for a moment as Alldis rubbed the snow across his muzzle and arms, removing the powder rather quickly. He did not stay to watch his friend undress and shift. Instead, he tasted the wind, and began to lead his group to the left of the road, circling far out into the thick woods, his men close behind. The archers were already lost to sight far above in the trees, moving between them as innocuously as normal squirrels might.
The stink of Lutins permeated the air. Aside from this glaring fact, the patrols were decent soldiers among the Lutins, making little noise, and hardly talking amongst themselves as most were inclined to do, sharing bawdy jokes and the usual assortment of boasts and mischief. If it were not for their foul scent, Angus was certain that he would have had a difficult time moving his men in behind them and their hounds. As it was, they crept up on the unsuspecting patrol, weaving in and out of the trees, their blades ready and yearning to taste flesh.
A flash of brown from one side caught his eye, and with a bit of a wry grin on his muzzle, the badger knew that Alldis was doing his best to attract the hounds. And he did a marvellous job, as the poorly trained dogs began yapping and straining at the leashes to chase the deer, galloping through the woods. Several of the Lutins swore at their animals, even as the Glenners crept up behind them.
Angus was the first to reach them, followed by Fellen and a stoat. He plunged the thick end of his blade into the first Lutin’s neck, and grabbed another with one hairy paw, and snapped its neck with a single twist. Fellen slid the mein gauche across one of the green-skinned throats, spilling the black blood across its studded armour and onto the mounds of disturbed snow below. After the first three of the seven were dead, the other four began to take notice, and one of them almost managed to cry out, but his voice was cut short when an arrow suddenly protruded from his warty lips, struck from some unseen perch among the trees.
Their master’s now dead, the hounds, still intent on the deer, ran after it, their leashes bouncing along behind them as a horse’s pinions might after its rider had been dislodged. They could hear a bit of laughter from the bridge as the deer and the hounds bounded along down the road. Angus waited quietly, standing amidst the dead bodies, listening to that laughter, hoping not to hear the sound of iron being drawn. Yet, only the laughter continued, and it was followed by the silence of the thick woods, save for the baying hounds receding down the road.
The badger surveyed the bodies, and noted that Fellen and the stoat were making a quick search of their garments. However, aside from their patch-work armour and a few cutlasses, the Lutins possessed nothing to distinguish them from the tribal savages that they had been before Nasoj had united them against Metamor. Angus pointed towards the sound of the laughter, and his group nodded slowly. He would trust that Garigan had met similar success, as no sounds of alarm had been raised. Now, it was just a matter of dispatching the ten who stood at the bridge’s end, and holding it against the forces on the other side.
The woods had been cleared for a good twenty feet on either side of the bridge, and obviously not recently. Most of the lumber from the felled trees had certainly been used to build the current bridge. And it was not the first bridge to span the chasm before them either. The old stone bridge had been fashioned in the days of the Suielman Empire, but it had crumbled a century ago from rot and neglect. Many of the crumbling stones were still at the base of the chasm, and even now were holding the present edifice aloft, as the central support rested upon their remains far below, though most had been pilfered over the years by the locals who did not wish to pay to have stone shipped from the quarries to the South.
Yet, as Angus peered out at the group of ten Lutins standing watch over the bridge, his concern was not so much for the history as for what his eyes now witnessed. There was a man crossing that bridge, flanked by two humans, and a dozen Lutins, armed not with spears, but swords, and well-crafted ones at that. With the foul taste of bile filling his throat, Angus could barely keep from spitting in disgust as he recognised the slender man as Baron Calephas. What was he doing here?
Holding his paws up, he motioned for his men to wait. Clearly, Lord Avery and Garigan were also holding back, as the forest remained quiet and still. In the distance, the hounds ceased their baying, as Alldis had undoubtedly lost them in his escape. The badger gazed across the wide ravine to the other side, and began to count the number of Lutins he saw over there. The number had tripled form only moments before. How had the Baron known of their attack? He couldn’t have, and they’d given no warning. Unless of course they’d captured Burris, Charles, and Berchem, and forced them to confess. That was an unpleasant, if unlikely thought.
As there was little else he could do, Angus waited, alongside of his men, many of whom were anxious from spilling blood. The black ichor slid from their sabres and daggers, staining the snow around them, darkening and melting it as it sunk down to the ground, as if even the Earth itself did not wish to remember it. Absently, he wiped his own blade clean in the snow, even as he pressed his shoulder firmly against the bark of the nearest tree, watching between the leafless thickets as the Baron’s party reached the other side of the bridge.
The Lutins there stood more firmly at attention, but as they were Lutins, that was hardly any better than a slouch, their spears pointing at odd angles. “Why were the hounds running down the road just now?” one of the men at Calephas’s side asked in a hot voice, as the Baron himself just glanced about the woods, his dark eyes searching randomly. Though Angus had nothing but contempt for the pederast’s tastes, he had to confess that the man was tactically sound, and rarely made the same mistake twice. He had to wonder what was going through the man’s mind, and if their enemy knew or suspected that they were lurking in the woods not thirty feet away.
“Ah, they were chasing a stupid deer,” spat one of the Lutins, waving a negligent paw down the road.
Calephas sucked in his breath and snapped his eyes to the other man at his side. “Get back across the bridge. Now!” The Lutins at his side faltered for a moment, but began to run back the way they had come, surrounding the Baron and his two human companions as they bid a hasty retreat. The ten Lutins standing guard stood dumbly for a moment, blinking, unsure exactly what had just happened. And then, a volley of arrows descended from the trees about them, piercing eyes and throats, arms and legs, including that of one of Calephas’s human soldiers. Five of those Lutins ran, dropping their clumsy spears in their haste. The other five lay dead or dying, clawing at the arrows in their limbs, even a the second round ended their last moments.
Angus did not emerge from the trees, and he put up his paws for his men to wait, though with as many arrows descending into that bridge, they did not need to be told to do so. He watched with a bit of surprise as Calephas and the other human stopped a moment to grab their fallen comrade by the arms and hoist him between their shoulders. The Lutins that had been protecting them continued to flee, leaving them exposed, yet they still managed to make the rest of the journey back across the bridge. Once on their own side, Calephas and his two human soldiers moved back into the woods, leaving only the Lutin guards to stand at the open, thirty or so, Angus figured from his rough count.
“Why did they give us this side of the bridge?” Fellen murmured softly, mostly to himself.
Angus shook his head. “Probably because he knew that they’d be decimated if they tried to hold it. They have archers themselves on their side. It does us no good to hold this side as long as they can shoot at us from across this chasm.”
“So what do we do?” the stoat asked, turning his short sword over in his paws.
Angus nestled in closer to the tree, loosening his grip on his blade a moment to stretch his claws. “We wait. We wait for Burris to set that bridge on fire. Once they do that, they can have that side all they want. They’ll be stuck on it, and Nasoj’s supplies with it. We just have to keep them over there.”
His men nodded, hunkering down amongst the snow drenched trees, but not a single one of them relaxed. It was never possible in a standoff. They watched the woods about them, hoping that Calephas did not somehow get word to troops on their side. It would be a disaster to be caught between Lutins and that chasm. Angus though, kept his eye on the other side of the ravine, watching to see if Calephas would ever emerge from the trees again. If the archers could just get one clear shot, a menace to their lives could be eliminated.
Of course, Baron Garadan Calephas was not such a fool as to fail to realise that himself. Sheltered amidst the pine, he helped the burly Northerner Andrig set his fellow Gaerwog against a tree. The latter was protesting bitterly, staring at the arrow that had plunged through the flesh of his thigh, completely through the scale of his hauberk. Calephas grimaced, rubbing one hand up and down his smooth cheeks as he considered his sergeant. “The wound does not appear serious, we can probably pull the arrow once we saw off the tip. Do you think you’ll be able to walk?”
Gaerwog nodded as he gripped his leg tightly, squeezing the flesh of his thigh, which was nearly as wide around as the Baron’s head. Both of his men were from the region about Arabarb, and so bore the characteristic red beards at only eighteen, as well as the build more reminiscent of a bear than a man’s. Reaching over with one hand, he gripped the handle of his axe and held it before his mouth. “Get it over with,” he said through clenched teeth, before biting down hard on the leather grip, his teeth chewing into the thick hide.
At a nod from the baron, Andrig leaned over his companion and held his shoulders down, while Calephas leaned over the leg. Taking a sharp dagger, he pressed it firmly at the arrow shaft just above the feathers, and began to press deep into the wood. After only a second it snapped and came off in Calephas’s slender hands. Depositing that in the snow, and giving his sergeant a warning look, he gripped the shaft firmly just above the man’s thigh, and yanked hard.
Gaerwog did not stir, but remained still, his teeth biting through the leather, spit dribbling into his beard as the blood coated shaft came free from the wound. Blood suppurated into the mail, before the Northerner pressed down again, stanching the flow.Andrig handed his friend a cloth to place over the wound, while Calephas tossed the bloodied shaft to the side.
“Will you be able to stand and fight soon?” the Baron asked, turning to glance over at his Lutin armies amassed at the one end of the bridge. He grimaced at their terrible formation, but was loathe to leave the safety of the trees to correct it.
Gaerwog nodded, his thick beard ragged. Pulling the axe from his mouth, he spat the bile onto the snow at his side. “Just give me a moment to tie this off.”
Calephas nodded once more and motioned for them to wait there. “I’ll marshal the troops, though I doubt there is anything that can be done just yet. We shall have to wait and see. I just wonder how the Keepers could have gotten past the main body.”
“Perhaps they aren’t from Metamor, but from one of the outlying towns?” Andrig offered.
The Baron shrugged, accepting the answer as the only that could make sense. “I knew we should have been more thorough when we pushed South, but I suppose they might have been able to get a message through to the Keep despite the blizzard. Well, we shall never know now.” With that, the Baron of Arabarb turned off and left the two humans alone together. They gave each other quick looks, and then scanned the immediate area to be certain that they were alone.
Lowering his head close to that of his friend’s, Andrig whispered softly into his ear, “This may the opportunity we’ve been waiting for.”
Gaerwog nodded, his face grim, his lips drawing out a thick line upon his weather-beaten cheeks. “Perhaps, but there are too many Lutins for us to fight alone.”
“We have to get the Lutins back on the bridge again somehow. If we an convince Calephas as well, it would be even better. I imagine the Keepers would be delighted to have one of Nasoj’s lieutenants to question.”
“We’ll, let us keeps our eyes open then.” Gaerwog looked up as he saw a small force of Lutins come trundling up the forest road towards them. “Quiet, we’ll talk later.” Andrig smiled down to his friends as he watched the green-skinned fiends move back into the woods after the Baron yelled at them a few times. They would keep their eyes open indeed.
Hastily thrusting out his hands Murikeer pushed with a panicked kinetic thrust but the creature passed through it unaffected, bowling him over backward across the circular hearth. Razor edged teeth seized the arm hastily interposed between its jaws and the skunk’s throat. He let out a pained, startled yowl as the ghost white hound’s teeth tore into the flesh of his arm. Searing heat bit into his back as he sprawled across the hearth under the beast’s weight, obliterating thought in a blinding fog of agony and terror. He seized the muscular white throat with his unfettered hand and clenched even as he writhed in a futile attempt to escape the heat of the hearth. The hound made not a sound as it bore the weight of its body down upon him, its already blood stained muzzle freshened with a new source of the scarlet red brightness.
Murikeer felt a moment of mind numbing terror, a momentary suspension of time before the beast slammed into him, and realized that he faced his own death in the moon dog’s pale white eyes. He only had his magic to fight and defend with and, in the face of the naturally magic resistant hound, he had nothing but his own flesh and strength to face the creature with. That clarity of understanding fled away under a tsunami of agony; both from the edges of the moon dog’s teeth sawing through fur and flesh and grinding upon bone as well as the piercing bites of burning coals. Arching his back, his shoulders pushing down into the fresh tongues of flame consuming his fur, he brought up his legs and raked at the moon dog’s tough hide. The species forced upon him by Metamor’s curse came with a full array of digging claws and their sharp edges dug deeply at the beast, opening long streaks of bright red along its stomach and flanks.He tried to tighten his grip upon the throat, digging the stout claws of his hands into the flesh, but the creature merely gave a powerful shake of its head, wholly ignoring his weak grasp. Murikeer yowled in agony and, planting his feet between the beast’s splayed rear legs, shoved upward with the last of his fast draining strength.
His legs had carried him hundreds of leagues from the kingdom of Sathmore, over the mountains east of Metamor, and deep into the north. They had never known the convenience of a steed nor the fatigue of leagues covered in a single day. In the face of that toughened endurance, driven by a purely panicked animal survival instinct, a couple of hundred pounds of hound was a pittance. His feet thrust its haunches up and pushed it forward over his head. Releasing his arm the moon dog twisted about with feline grace to land upon its paws on the far side of the hearth. Before it could spin about and make another leap Murikeer rolled to his feet and took the only avenue of escape his panic fogged brain could find; straight up the gaping gullet of the chimney flue.
Trailing his ravaged arm Murikeer dug his claws into the rough, creosote stained stones of the chimney and scrambled into the smoke filled darkness weeping in searing agony. His back was smoking and blood poured in a steady flood from the shredded muscles of his arm. Below him the hound twisted about and surged into the hearth as if unphased by the searing bite of the flames, leaping up and catching his tail in its deadly jaws. In comparison to the pain of his arm and back the weight hanging from his tail was inconsequential and he could only snarl and dig his claws into the stone. Creosote rained down around him while the hound shook savagely at its new grip. After only a few seconds fur and flesh failed under the heavy thrashing and the hound fell away. Freed from is weight Murikeer feebly pulled himself a few feet higher into the flue, weeping in pain and panting despite the hot smoke surrounding him.
“Nice throw, beast.” Came a rough voice from below him after a few moments. Murikeer twisted to look down but the hound and its master were not in sight. He looked up and saw a dim ring of light some distance above. “Took stupid mage in eye.” The Lutin, aware that his prey was trapped, seemed to be in no hurry to complete the task of killing him. “Keletikt is dead, yes.”
Murikeer’s brows furrowed and he rested the back of his head against the warm black sludge of the creosote and soot lined chimney stones to gather his wits. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, he plucked at the magic around him and stitched it laboriously together to push back the sharpest edges of his pain. Compounding that spell as the gnawing agony faded to a distant, dull throb he focused on slowing the steady flood of lifeblood spewing from the tattered muscle of his forearm. Even in the flame-lit glow of the chimney he could see the pale white glow of bone in the depths of the wound.
“Do you hear me, feller of towers? Your friend is dead!” the Lutin snarled from below. “The clan cast him into the maw.” Hissing through his teeth against the pain fogging his magical sight and consuming his already flagging strength Murikeer tried not to cough at the biting heat of the smoke. Below him he could hear the Lutin and moon dog moving about, circling the hearth. He could feel the terror magic of the moon dog radiating from it in frustrated waves. Abruptly the Lutin’s head appeared below and looked up at him as it waved the blue stone dagger in one hand tauntingly. “Come down, beast.” He coaxed, “I waited to find you, yes. Feller of towers would be foe worthy of a clan warrior.” The Lutin’s head disappeared from sight. “Yes, I there was, seeing towers fall. Your dead female I fought, but escaped she did.” Something hissed across the hearth causing Murikeer to start. Wood shavings from some waste bucket sparked and flared into hungry flame. “Days to recover from rock she struck with, lucky she-devil. Jizzah sorry not to kill.”
Eyes watering at the fresh roil of smoke billowing into the chimney Murikeer looked up at the dim ring of light above and wondered if he would reach it before he suffocated or burned. Bracing his back against the smut of the stone Murikeer edged upward with both feet and one arm. Though he had staunched the blood of his injuries he would not be able to knit the shredded flesh without considerable rest in a safe place.
“Saw you,” the Lutin continued, throwing a handful of half-finished furniture pieces onto the growing flames, “in cave, with traitor Keletikt, with female beast mage Thorne struck with skybolt.” Again the Lutin leaned over the hearth to look up into the chimney. “Come down, beast, Hizpeth to you speak!” Peering into the shadows he could see nothing and that only caused him to chuckle with some strange Lutin humor. “More one way smoke rats from cave, is.” A heap of table and chair legs was tossed onto the fire below.
Murikeer gagged at the choking smoke and coughed. Darkness swam at the edges of his vision that had nothing to do with the smut blackened shadows of the chimney around him. The soot he shook loose only added to the fire below. The heat of it was beginning to singe his fur as he struggled to pull himself higher. At the top of the chimney he found an iron hood held in place by four slender risers that had been thrust into the un-mortared stone. Prizing them loose, as they were not fixed in place, was a simple task and with a pained grunt he shoved the cover out of the way. He pulled himself up through the mouth of the chimney and, bracing his foot-claws against the stonework within, leaned on the lip of the chimney with his good arm while he cradled the savaged arm against his breast. He gulped in the biting cold of winter air.
A shadowy shape moved from below the eaves but, through the thickness of the steadily falling snow Murikeer could only make out a vague form. “Go nowhere you have!” the Lutin yelled from below, “Come down, face Hizpeth!”
Murikeer lifted one corner of his muzzle in a furious snarl at the taunting Lutin. Another shape appeared at the eaves, white against white but for the scarlet streaking its muzzle and flanks, as the moon dog reappeared. The thick snow upon the roof gave way beneath it and both spilled from the eaves. Murikeer reached out for the magic around him but he could only master a meager ghost of his earlier strength. Too much of his control was being used to keep the pain at bay and staunch his injuries. Tracing runes into the soot blackened snow accumulating on the lip of the chimney the young mage supplemented his lessened strength with the fixed anchor of the construct. He had only a few moments respite to prepare before the moon dog made another attempt to mount the roof where the snow had been cleared.
Against the dark shale tiles it was very easy to see and the moment its slender form appeared Murikeer focused his will into the runes while he thrust outward with his uninjured hand. Tiles rose from the roof and skated downward in a swift clatter toward the moon dog as, below the eaves, the front wall rumbled at the fresh magical assault. Already weakened by the earlier duel between mages and Murikeer’s failed defensive spell the stacked stones could withstand no more assaults. With a roar the entire front wall of the building collapsed outward across the snow and sent the Lutin scrambling back. Roof beams, suddenly bereft of the wall that had supported them, cracked thunderously and the front half of the roof fell inward upon itself. Murikeer scrambled hastily from the chimney as it began to list toward the expanding hole. Half sliding, half falling, he scrambled along the peak of the roof while behind him the chimney tipped and, in a shower of stones and flame, crumbled into the remnants of the shop.
With the added pitch of the front half of the roof’s collapse the entire weight of snow that had rested upon it sloughed away in an avalanche of white. Murikeer splayed with a pained cry as he was pitched into the falling heap of white and half buried when he reached the ground. Before he could regain his senses a small but powerful hand grasped his upper arm and heaved him up from the snow. The Lutin before him stood a head shorter than he but massed easily as much with more breadth of shoulder. He was garbed in a simple vest of fur trimmed leather laced with dangling fetishes made from all manner of items. Stone beads, bone, feathers, and other oddments clacked and clattered as it moved. Baggy leggings were stuffed into heavy winter boots and in his free hand the Lutin held a sword etched with glowing purple runes.
Reeling under the smaller demi-human’s strength Murikeer found something thrust into his uninjured hand; the blood stained blue stone blade. “Come!” he crowed triumphantly after ensuring that Murikeer would not drop the blade or collapse from his injuries, “Die like warrior!” He turned and paced away while his ghost white companion moved off a short distance and sat in the snow. Its jaws hung open and a blue tongue lolled from its narrow, blood stained muzzle as it watched with purely canine glee. “No fate of hand for beast.” He chuckled with a flourish of his magic imbued blade. Dimly Murikeer recognized the runes giving the polished steel strength, speed, and a preternaturally sharp edge that could not be dulled short of anything but the blade of a god.
Against that the paltry blade of polished blue stone was a paltry joke. Murikeer swayed where he stood, pushed to the limits of his endurance and beyond. Barely contained pain fogged his every thought as he poured as much magic as he could grasp into maintaining the spells. He swayed a pace and looked from the Lutin to its beast and back. “What hand of fate?” he choked past the smoky dryness itching in his throat. “Just bring that sword and be done.” He motioned at the Lutin with his puny blade.
“How summon Ghost Horde, you, yes? From stone house?” the Lutin scoffed as he circled lazily.
“What ghost horde?” Murikeer snarled irritably as he looked for some avenue of escape. Once the Lutin bored with his taunting the fight would be over before Murikeer could raise even a token resistance.
“Stupid, humans stupid are.” Hizpeth shook his head ruefully. Murikeer saw a motion from the livery that was now behind the Lutin; a huge hulking silhouette detached itself from the shadowy depths of the open doors. “Lutin prophecy, stupid mage. Less think you we are, eh? Less than manlings?”
Murikeer raised his paltry weapon to point it at the Lutin, “You are less.” He goaded as he staggered forward a pace. His head swam and he felt his balance beginning to waver but still managed to keep his feet. Slowly he moved to one side to put the grinning moon dog between himself and the Lutin. He just hoped the towering, vaguely humanoid shadow standing before the stables was not some ally to the Lutin. He could clearly recall how the gate had been torn from its huge hinges and that he had spied giants among the Lutins in previous encounters. He figured he would fare only slightly better if he faced off with the Lutin. “Nasoj’s meat shields is all your kind are. Even a single human can slaughter you out of hand.” He shook his head slowly as he lurched through the deep snow. “When you’re not too busy killing each other.” Extending a single finger from the bone hilt of the dagger he loosed a puny arcane bolt.
Hizpeth merely waved one hand and the bolt spent itself upon a simple shield. He shook his head, “Worthy foe, think I.” he sighed and tightened his grasp upon his sword as he paced forward with a wave of the gleaming steel. “Waste, letting spend self on inferior mages. Powerful, was you.”
“Was.” Murikeer chuffed angrily, “You are not Thorne, you are not worthy to do more than just cut me down. Come with you!” he gritted his teeth against fresh waves of pain as he used some of the precious magic holding back the agony to spatter a few ineffective spells against the Lutin’s shields. Hizpeth moved up to stand beside his moon dog and leered triumphantly at Murikeer. “Come on!” the skunk challenged with a flourish of his anemic stone blade, “If you want to keep me from bringing this horde of yours, come and cut me down!”
The moon dog stood and moved forward a pace as Hizpeth hefted his sword, “Talk done, now, weak human.” He observed with a shrug, “Speak Keletikt me of, in he –“ whatever he meant to say before he dealt a killing blow upon his foe was cut off when a massive weight came down upon him with enough force to send snow up from the point of impact like a geyser tinged with blood. The moon dog uttered some breathless sound and spun at the ground shuddering impact but the object merely swept sideways in a vicious arc that took in the startled white hound and hurtled it away with a crunch of bone. Murikeer did not see where it landed, his attention was on the towering giant standing a few paces behind where the Lutin had been driven into the ground.
“Bruug’s home.” The giant snorted flatly in a booming baritone as it gazed down at Murikeer, “Lutins no come to Bruug’s home.” Upon the giant’s breast was a soiled tabard sporting the crest of Metamor’s watch. Murikeer felt a giddy relief in his chest and almost laughed but before he could utter it darkness swam up and pulled him down.
What had begun as a simple down slope between two hills that rose on either side, rather quickly became a narrow ravine that twisted and wound its way through the Northern countryside. The walls that held them varied in height from just twice as high as Jerome, to nearly the summit of the towers at Metamor. Sunlight barely broke past the first few feet beyond the ground far overhead, leaving them walking through shadowed path, tripping over loose stones and bumping into each other when they got too close. Snow littered the ground haphazardly, the confining walls of the gorge proven resilient against the storm.
Burris was flying overhead, scouting along the ravine to see what lay ahead. Berchem and he had worked out signals in advance to warn of Lutins in the area, but so far, Charles was glad to see that they’d not used any. As the base of the ravine was sometimes so narrow as to only allow them to walk single-file, the three Sondeckis were interspersed between the archers, and Charles invariably found himself behind Baerle, who looked back over her shoulder at him the rat felt more often than she watched where she was going.
While they were climbing over a pile of old rocks that had fallen from the hills above, he whispered, “Where did this gorge come from? I mean, what made it. It doesn’t appear to fit with the rest of the Valley too well.”
Baerle shrugged her head, taking a moment to look over the rat’s shadowed figure. In the darkness, neither he nor she cast their own shadows, but relied upon the towers ridges along either side. “This is the first time I’ve been here, too.”
Anson, the arctic fox who had been giving Charles queer looks, a half-bemused smile usually, then spoke up from behind him, “An old earthquake some say. I heard one tale that one of the old gods of myth was punished to dig while blindfolded for some transgression, I’ve forgotten what exactly it was.”
The rat let his eyes stray up to the crevice of light far above. It was turning into a bright day now, the fog having long since rolled off to the South, leaving them with clear skies. The deep blue above him appeared almost crystalline, as if it were only a dream that would shatter should he throw a rock high enough. A tiny speck passed over the crevice, and he knew it to be Burris circling back to find them as he flew about. Charles hoped sincerely that the Lutins did not take to using the woodpecker as an object of sport, for he could think of no worse way to go, than having been killed by those who thought him nothing more than an animal.
Charles watched the avian mage circle the air a few times before dipping lightly at the lip of the ravine and heading East once more, before gazing back into the solemn gloom. Baerle was climbing up a pile of rocks, scampering up their slippery sides. The one constant at the bottom of this abyss was that it was damp. If the snow wasn’t covering it, then a slick of moisture coated its mouldy surface. This made climbing up the piles of boulders tricky at times, and the morphs had to rely on their claws to chisel their way over.
As his eyes made sense of the darkness, he realized that Baerle was holding her paw out towards him, urging him up. Charles reached out and clasped it, her sharp little claws digging into his wrist as she hefted him up the incline. Digging his toe claws into the rock, Charles brought himself up next to her, their chests alarmingly close. Though it was too dark to be certain, Matthias suspected that the opossum was flashing her dimpled smile his way again.
Turning, and trying not to blush, he helped Anson up that same incline. A sudden spark filled him as he felt Baerle’s tail curl about the tip of his, drawing it up, lifting it high as she continued on down the ravine. His Sondeck was aflutter at his embarrassment, so much so that he doubted he could use it at that moment. Anson was giving him that bemused grin again. The rat wanted to snap at the archer, ask him what he found so amusing, but was afraid that he already knew.
As they continued to walk along the ravine floor, it slowly began to widen, and straighten out. The light from the noonday sun filtered further down, casting the littered ground in pale shadows and vague outlines. Once there was room enough to walk side by side, Charles scooted up to Baerle’s right, nd leaned towards her ear. That dimpled smile was clear in evidence upon her muzzle, and she leaned back, her bright brown eyes warm.
“Yes?” she asked rather archly. Her tone set the rat of for a moment, and he began to blubber the first words that came to his mind rather nonsensically. She continued to fix him a curious stare, but it only confused the rat more.
Finally, Mathias grimaced, shook his head in disgust, and stepped back from her, shaking out his thoughts. He couldn’t tell if the girl was flirting with him or not, and it only made his head spin all the worse. If she were just consistent about it, he could understand, but this back and forth was playing havoc with his mind.
However, as they came around another bend, his eyes caught the red speckled shape of Burris descending past the ledges towards the skunk who was still powdered white. Charles caught his breath as he watched, forgetting his opossum troubles for the moment. His paw reached inside his thick tunic to the retracted shaft of his Sondeshike, feeling its cool surface and grain against his skin.
The avian shifted back to his most human form and pointed one wing tip towards the bend just up ahead. “The bridge is only a few minutes more away,” he said quietly.
“And the Lutins?” Berchem asked, his voice gruff, weary from the hike.
“They’ve retreated to the Northern side of the bridge. Lord Avery has pushed them back across it. Neither side is willing to take it back, as they both have archers.” Burris then lowered his beak a trifle. “Calephas is with them, and he brought two dozen more Lutin soldiers.”
Anson snorted at that, drawing his bow from over his shoulder and notching an arrow. Charles glanced past the arctic fox to Zagrosek who was thumbing his Sondeshike. The black-haired Sondeckis nodded in return, casting his eyes warily to the left ridge. Sucking in his breath, the Long waited for the skunk to make up his mind.
“We continue on as planned. Ready your bows,” Berchem drew his own, testing the string a few times before he continued on. Charles followed closely after Baerle, being careful not to step on her tail as they made their way around the last bend in the chasm.
The bridge itself, when he finally saw it for the first time, was hardly astonishing, but it did make him pause a moment to gaze. It was made entirely from wood, with three supports holding it aloft, two on each ridge, and one directly in the centre. The railing was at least five feet high on either side, and it was wide enough to hold two four-horse carriages side by side. At present though, it was as Burris had said, empty.
Crunching his feet through the snow, Charles followed after the opossum as they marched very close to the Northern ridge. If the Lutins were watching, they’d have to be peering over the edge to notice them as long as they stayed flush with the wall. Matthias drew his paw across the old stone, seeing the signs of age and mould corrupting its surface. Faints cracks cobwebbed their way up the surface, until they were indistinguishable in the dim light. He idly wondered if any creature lived down here where the sun refused to shine.
Yet, as the bridge loomed closer and closer to his eyes, and growing even more gigantic with each stride, did the reality of the situation come to him. They were going to destroy this bridge, send it crashing into the ravine so that the Lutins could no longer ship their supplies to Nasoj’s army at Metamor. Burris, whose specialty was working with wood, was going to convince the stressed timber to catch flame, which would be sufficient to do the job. Only Burris was a bird and cloud fly away when the bridge began to collapse. What about the rest of them? What would they do when the structure came tumbling down about their heads?
Also, as they began to draw near to the bridge’s underside, they began to hear the cries and snarls of the Lutins far above them. Most of them were unintelligible, but the rat did catch, “Come out, you bloody animals! Stop hiding!” The archers were watching that ridge, claws twitching on their bowstrings as they listened to the stream of invectives shot across the gorge. Yet, the other side remained silent, a testament to the patience and surety the Glenners possessed. Somewhere on the South ridge was Garigan, his student, waiting, possibly with blood already dripping from his daggers, waiting for the Lutins to finally charge across the bridge.
He did breathe a sigh of relief as they finally passed under the structure, and back into the thick shadow. Berchem slowly moved out along the ravine itself until he came to stand next to the centre support for the bridge. Burris hopped along after him, his thin legs sifting the snow about him. Anson and Ralph followed after them, their bows pointed up at either side of the North face about the bridge, their eyes bright. After a moment, Baerle went after, her tail curling up around her ankles as she did so.
Charles stood with Jerome and Zagrosek by the cliff wall, watching the five Glenners make their way into the path of danger, circling and covering the bird from any enemy attack. Grumbling slightly, Jerome patted one of the supports abutting the North face, “Well, we made it this far.”
“This far, yes,” Charles muttered sourly. “How are we going to get out from underneath this thing when it falls?
Zagrosek peered up at the wooden beams far overhead, and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“Well, perhaps we should start running as soon as it catches fire?”
The rat bore an unpleasant moue at hearing his friend’s suggestion. “Just run? The Lutins will be shooting at us for certain.”
“Then we try not to get hit,” the black-haired Sondeckis added dryly. “We have very few options at this point, Charles. Let’s just do what we can.”
Jerome pointed a bit further down the gorge. The two Sondeckis followed his thick finger, and saw a large pile of rocks that were clustered haphazardly a good twenty yards off. “We can probably climb in those rocks. They should shield us from most of the collapse.”
They both nodded at that, and Zagrosek added, “Yes, I think we can easily make that. And if the Lutins start shooting at us, they’ll hit the rocks most likely as well.”
Before either could even voice another thought, a shout descended from the North face above. Glancing up, their ears caught the strains of a strangled cry from first one Lutin, and then several more, as they clamoured about the edge of the chasm, looking down into the darkness at the mischief the Glenners were about. “Damn it,” Charles swore beneath his breath. “Now we have to do something.”
“But what?” Jerome asked, even as the archers began to let fly their arrows into the sky, their arcs long, yet most of them falling short on the first volley, crashing into the side of the rock, and clattering back down to the damp ground. In response, a vaguely familiar voice began shouting orders, and was quickly followed by haphazard arrows streaming down beneath the bridge, imbedding harmlessly into the snow, or coming dangerously close to the quartet flanking the woodpecker.
Charles knew that the Lutins were not aware of their presence yet, but hated himself for standing there while the Glenners were shot at. He looked into their concerted faces, fixed ever upwards on the lofty heights above, firing strained shots towards the lip of the ridge, while a rain of shafts fell about them. There were several choked howls as the shafts met their targets high above, and even one lone wail as a Lutin toppled over the edge, landing with a resounding thump in a pile of snow, sending gusts of white floating about him as he lay dead.
The vole grimaced as an arrow nicked his arm, causing him to take a step back before he could fire another arrow. That was all the catalyst hat the rat needed to dart forward, heedless of the arrows cascading about him, until he was standing in front of the four archers, the Sondeshike extended in his paws.
“What are you doing?” Berchem shouted amidst the twang of the bowstrings.
“Covering you.” Charles called over his shoulder, even as he began to spin the staff, quicker and quicker between his paws. Out of the corner of his eyes, he glimpsed Baerle’s glowing back at him, even as she continued to shoot. At that moment, it made the rat feel a bit surer that what he was doing was not going to get him killed.
Zagrosek saw what he was doing, and darted over to help, standing before Ralph and Anson, spinning his staff in his hands as well, until the ferrules whined as they twirled through the air. A faint nimbus appeared to shield those twirling staves, deflecting arrows that came into their path, smashing the wooden shafts into splinters. Jerome waited beneath the arch for several moments more, before running to join his friends, standing behind the archers, and striking the base of the bridge with the palms of his hands, even as the woodpecker continued to mumble barely audible enchantments.
“What’s taking him so long?’ Charles cried as yet another arrow shattered before him, yet this one had come straight towards his head.Blinking in fearful surprise at the averted death that had come so close, he added, “Let’s burn this bridge and run!”
“The wood is too wet as we feared, Burris is going to need several more minutes.” Berchem called back, letting loose another bolt. A cry arose from a Lutin’s throat, before the limp form tumbled down the ridge, bouncing off the rock face and dislodging mouldy stones until he collapsed in a heap beside his brethren in the piles of snow.
“Well, he’d better hurry,” Charles growled. His paws were not sore, and in fact, found the grove quite relaxing. He knew that he could have continued to spin his Sondeshike for a good fifteen minutes before he would have started to feel the effects of it, but he doubted that he would live that long. Surely one or two arrows would get through their impromptu shield, and then, it would be over.
Yet, fortune was in their favour, as Lord Avery realised this as well. Scampering down from his perch high in the trees just before the clearing, he quickly found Angus’s party nestled in the trees, their faces set in grim lines. The badger looked up as his Lord darted amidst them, his paws held out empty, long bow slung across one shoulder.
“Lord Avery, I take it you have seen the abominable situation before us?” Angus rose slightly from his kneeling position, but not fully.
The squirrel nodded, his tail flitting from side to side. “Yes, and we need to distract those Lutins. Take your men and get at the end of the bridge. Do whatever it takes to anger them enough to charge you. I’ve ordered the archers to hold back until they are at least two-thirds of the way across. I’m going to tell Garigan the same thing. Now move, we mustn’t waste a moment.”
Angus nodded and rose to his feet, drawing his thick blade into his paws once more. The five soldiers with him also stood ready, their bodies tense. Finally, Angus gave Brian Avery a wink, and then darted out from the trees, bellowing at the top of his lungs, brandishing his blade high in the air. The sound of bowstrings twanging ceased for a moment, as the Lutins looked up in surprise to see the Glenners emerging from the woods, charging towards the bridge. Moments later, a second group joined them at the end, shouting curses and challenges across the chasm to the angry Lutin soldiers.
Several of them dropped their bows at that moment and drew daggers, running down the length of the bridge, intent on silencing the Keepers. Yet, a voice from within the woods cried out to them, “Stop, you fools! Keep shooting at the Keepers in the ravine!”
“Calephas,” the badger said in distaste, before dropping his sword to the ground. With his large paws, he undid the belt at his waist, and dropped his trousers to the ground. Turning about, he gave the Lutins a good look at his tail and rear, waving it about in the air behind him as he continued to shout. Many of the Glenners did the same, which only caused the Lutins to cry out in further anger, a good number of them rushing across the bridge disregarding the Baron’s shouts for them to fall back.
Angus stared between his thick furry thighs at the Lutins racing towards them, and at the ones who had remained by the ledge. He offered a quick prayer of thanks that the Lutins had not thought to bring long bows with them, otherwise they would have been able to fire across the chasm with ease. As it was, they were safely out of range of the short bows that the green-skinned savages preferred. So he simply watched, and continued to shout, as the Baron began trying to frantically organise the undisciplined Lutin forces.
In fact, he kept waving his rear at the oncoming Lutins until he could distinguish the lacing of their bucklers. Then, with a final swing of his short tail, he stepped out of his trousers, and grabbed his sword, meeting the enraged soldiers half-naked. Even as he raised his sword above his head, slew of arrows descended from the trees behind him, pinning all but two of the dozen who’d charged them.
The first of those came at the badger, heedless that his companions lay dead or twitching on the wooden planks of the bridge. He raised his axe to swing from the left, but found himself neatly skewered on the long thick blade, the hatchet falling limply from his calloused hand into the snow at his feet. The second clutched at a dagger that protruded from his chest, falling to his knees, gurgling blood and bile from his lips, before collapsing on his side, clawing at the snow feebly until there was no strength left in him.
Angus let out a cheer and continued to swear at the Lutins still on the far side, many of whom were trying to ignore the Glenners and continue shooting down into the ravine. Baron Calephas was certainly not going to allow any more of his soldiers to foolishly squander their position, only to be skewered by the Glen’s archers. He had suspected all along after all that they had been waiting on the other side of the bridge for a reason. That a group had somehow managed to reach the bottom of the crevice and was attacking the base of the bridge, vindicated him in his suspicions.
However, as he shouted orders to the line of Lutins at the ridge’s lip, he did not consider the intent of the two men at his back. Gaerwog had finally manage to climb to his feet, the cloth tight beneath the mail, though he limped slightly. Andrig held the pommel of his sword tightly between his fingers, the two friends certain of their intent. They approached as quietly as their large feet would allow through the snow crusted road, ever watching their quarry, the tall, slender Baron Calephas.
The man whom Nasoj had appointed over Arabarb never once looked back, but continued to cry out to the disorderly Lutins, keeping them in check against the Glenner’s obstreperous challenges. Andrig brought the pommel of his sword hard against the back of the man’s head, causing the body to suddenly jerk, and then fold in on itself as consciousness fled the Baron. Gaerwog grabbed him in his arms, to keep him from falling over completely.
Andrig then sheathed his sword, and draped one of the Baron’s arm over his shoulder, holding him aloft. Gaerwog did the same, and Calephas’s feet dangled in the air between the two massive Northerners. Taking one last look at the Lutins lined along the rim of the chasm, not a one of them glancing back to see that their commander had been betrayed, they set off at a run, matching each other despite the one’s limp, straight across that bridge and toward the animal-men hollering on the other side.
It only took the Lutins a moment to realize just what the two Northerner’s were up to, and their shouts became that of war cries, as many of them abandoned their quarry in the ravine, and turned their sights upon those men. Discarding bows in favour of knife, cudgel, or axe, they charged after Andrig and Gaerwog, their collective rage making them faster than was commonly thought possible. Their footfalls were like thunder upon the bridge, a following storm that threatened to overwhelm them.
And it was a sound that did not go unheard by the eight down in the ravine itself. Charles watched in befuddled amazement as the ranks of the Lutins’s broke, and they began to charge across the bridge overhead. He stopped spinning the Sondeshike, to gaze up at the massive structure overhead. He then turned back to where Burris and Jerome were assaulting the base with their arts, a sudden look of shock crossing his features.
Berchem set down his bow and pointed towards where the flames were beginning to lick along the wooden supports. “Hit this thing with those staves of yours. If we can knock it down now, we’ll take out the Lutins too!”
The skunk then waved the rest of them over towards the pile of rocks that they’d spotted earlier. Baerle stopped a moment to watch in fascination as Zagrosek and Charles stood beside the flaming base, their Sondeshikes held firmly within their hands. Matthias peered into the bright flames that corroded the support, dancing madly up and licking at the wood higher an higher, spreading rapidly across its surface. The black-haired Sondeckis met his gaze then, through the flames, burning brightly, absorbing their entire world. The stresses creaked and the rock that it sat upon charred under the intense heat. And for a brief moment, Matthias could feel the pendant that Murikeer had given him, which he wore next to his chest grow cold, as if to war him against the inferno and the bridge overhead ready to collapse.
And then, the two Sondeckis swung, smashing their staves into the crumbling timbers that held the central support up. The entire bridge reverberated with the impact, as it buckled in the middle, the ends twisting and bending as it sagged. With the base racked and splintering, each new cross section thudded into the rocks, only to break apart, causing the bridge to sag even further. Finally, as the Lutins above realised just what was happening, their screams turning to ones of fear instead of rage, the planks overhead began to splinter, and the walkway broke apart, dropping the central section to the ravine far below, and with it the greater portion of Calephas’s forces.
Of course, by this point, both Charles and Zagrosek had run from beneath the bridge towards the large pile of stones that the others had fled to. Baerle stood open mouthed just a few feet from those rocks, staring as that great structure collapsed, the bodies of their enemies falling into the yawning pit, as if the earth itself were swallowing them up. Charles came up beside her and grabbed her arm, dragging her to the rocks, even as the two sides that had been abutting the ridges finally fell, crashing downwards into the large pile of broken timbers that had already accumulated at the bottom of the gorge.
Matthias pressed the surprised opossum down into a crevice within the stones, and lay atop her, even as the thunderous detonations continued, the crackling of the fire as the carnage spewed outwards. The freakish screams of the Lutins s they dies were lost in the roar of the bridge as the last of the struts slammed into the earth, showering them with debris. Snapped timbers splashed across the pile of rocks, throwing slivers across them, into their fur, and drenching them with thick dust.
Yet, one of the larger pieces slammed into the rat’s back, the force somewhat diminished by the rocks on either side, yet the pain was excruciating and brief. The last thing that he saw before blacking out was the dimpled smile upon the opossum’s muzzle, even bigger than after she’d kissed him.
December 26, time indeterminate
The ocean was becalmed as far as the eye could see, the sky dotted with a few puffy fair weather clouds but not a whisper of wind to be felt. The water was a deep cerulean blue and upon its glass smooth surface bobbed a single tiny boat. Its single mast was bent, the guidelines snarled and cut, and had been stripped of its sail. The tattered fabric was pooled upon the lap of the boat’s sole occupant, a slender black and white skunk trapped somewhere between the upright stature of a human and the quadrupedal nature of a beast. He was garbed only in fur and bore a look of studied concentration on his animalistic features as he deftly worked to stitch up the multitude of small holes in it.
“What’re you doing?” asked a voice, interrupting Murikeer’s concentration. He blinked and looked up to find Aniris, still garbed in the peasant clothes of their last encounter, seated upon the forward bench chewing on a fried fish. The skunk’s muzzle wrinkled around the needles clamped between his teeth and he bent to his task again, threading the curved needle in his paw through the tough canvas of the sailcloth.
“Mending m’ sail.” He mumbled around the needles.
“So I c’n resume m’ journey.” The skunk muttered, “Why’re you here?”
“I’m not.” Aniris offered with child-like aplomb, spitting a bone overboard. It disappeared into the blue waters without so much as a ripple. Murikeer glanced up with a scowl and paused in his work to pick up a beaten tin cup to sip from it. The contents were the same shimmering blue of the sea around them. Consuming it to the dregs Murikeer leaned over and scooped up another cupful from the cerulean sea. Taking another long draught he set the cup down on the bench beside him.
“Then why’re you talkin’ to me?” the skunk groused as he resumed his work.
“I’m not, you are.” Aniris regarded the bony remains of his fish before tossing it aside. “You’re talking to yourself.”
Murikeer chuffed a snort through his nose as he drew one of the holes closed and tied off the thread. Shifting the sail about on his lap he sought out another hole and set to mending it. “You’re in the Temple.” He groused irritably and rolled his aching shoulders, “I’m dreaming.” Not hearing a response from the figment of his imagination Murikeer glanced up to find that the boat was again empty. After taking another draught from his mug he returned to his work.
“How far will you travel?” asked a voice, a different voice, causing Murikeer to grumble at another distraction. He did not bother to look up as he finished that rent and found another. “How many will you leave behind to reach your destination?”
Quirking his eyebrows Murikeer glanced up, a pithy response on the tip of his tongue, but found his jaw unable to formulate words. It hung in shock, needles tumbling into his lap, as he found himself gazing at his old tutor, the mage Heiorn. The man had lost the roguish look of gentle age and looked positively haggard. Gone was the neatly trimmed beard around his mouth under an unkempt white nest that hid his mouth almost entirely. Likewise his once salt-and-pepper black hair had become a long uncut tangle. What was most striking, however, was his absence of eyes. Gazing at Murikeer from the forward bench were strikingly empty pits of ravaged flesh that seemed to look right through him. Murikeer lurched in surprise. “Master?”
“Will you leave me behind, my boy?” the old man asked in a ragged croak.
“Leave you… Master, I do not understand?” Murikeer gaped.
“If not me, what of others?” Heiorn waved a hand toward something behind the skunk and his mending prompting him to turn and look over his shoulder. Behind him was a forest clearing, close enough to step directly from the boat and onto dry land. It was an unremarkable clearing; merely a smallish pool of sunlight that penetrated the forest canopy above. In its center was a small mound of carefully laid stones. Upon those stones sat another man familiar to Murikeer, a pipe in his mouth as he looked on. “Will your travels leave him there, as well?”
“Father,” Murikeer said quietly, jerking his gaze toward the bow of the boat but Heiorn was not there.
“Don’t leave me behind, son.” His father said calmly from his seat upon the cairn of stones, “You have a great journey before you, do not forget that I have a journey of my own. I cannot undertake it where I rest.”
“Father, I –“ Murikeer turned back, but the clearing was gone. He stared at the vast expanse of unending blue for several long moments before he sighed and returned to his task. The sail seemed to be repaired enough to be usable so he set it aside and turned his attention to the mast. It was in far worse condition than the sail; a snarl of tangled and torn ropes festooned the otherwise undamaged spar of wood. Sitting he sat back to regard the damage for a moment he raised his cup and finished what little remained. He dipped it full from the ocean again and sipped at it as he pondered where to begin. Finally he leaned forward and took up the ropes, most of which had been savagely cut. Braiding them back together was going to take a considerable effort.
Time passed, an accounting of which he could not make, while he laboriously braided one rope after another. The clouds drifted lazily across the sky but the sunlight did not seem to waver. Indeed, there seemed to be no sun in the azure sky against which to mark time. Time and again he dipped his cup and paused in his work to sip at the cool blue water. His body ached from bending of his work but he suffered it; there was no other way to continue onward if his boat was unable to move.
“Murikeer!?? Are you there?” asked a voice insistently, interrupting him yet again. He looked up toward the bow of his craft but no new visitor sat there. “Are you with us, Murikeer?”
With a sigh Murikeer set aside his work. None of it was wholly repaired but it would serve. “I am.”
“I am glad! Are you well? What can you tell me?” the voice called out, having no source but seeming to come from the very air around him. “I am trapped in a kitchen with a drunk opossum and, I believe, a wolf of some sort. A very, very big wolf!”
“I am alive, what more I can tell you I do not know. Who speaks?” Murikeer asked of the unseen speaker as he sat back on his bench and set to weaving the rope back into the eyelets on the sail.
“I am, I know.”
“What have you seen?” the voice asked, “I know so little! How fares Llyn? The rest of the Keep?”
Murikeer twitched, the oceanic image shuddering and wavering under the blinding white image of storm energies coruscating around a writhing body. “Llyn,” Murikeer growled, feeling the familiar dark weight of rage boiling up within him. Overhead the cottony clouds darkened and gathered. Lightning flashed and distant thunder growled. Wind pulled at his fur and he drew up the sail, watching as it bellied into the growing wind. “Llyn is dead. The Keep is in the hands of Nasoj’s armies.” His small craft began to slide across the smooth blue ocean with increasing speed.
“They weaken, Murikeer. I have done what I can to disrupt their rest, but their most powerful, those that still live, are guarded against me. Beware of them!”
Murikeer gazed up into the black clouds roiling angrily overhead, the violence of the storm not raising so much as a ripple upon the ocean. Only the bow of his tiny craft, speeding swiftly across its smooth surface, cut a foaming wake. “Where do they go to ground?” he yelled into the wind, “Where is the one called Thorne!?!” The ropes hummed under the strain of the mended sail but his repairs were holding. “Where will they strike next?”
“I know not where that one is!” replied the voice, growing distant, “Look to the Long House, they are focusing their strikes there very soon!”
“There they shall die.” Murikeer growled as the wind of the growing tempest yanked bodily at his fur, driving his boat into the greater darkness at its core.