The Winter Assault

Part 22

by The Winter Assault Writers

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

December 27 – 4am

Misha sipped water from his canteen and pondered what Daria had just told him. He didn’t doubt what she had told said, the young woman would never lie about something this important.

“Are you sure of what Brenner said?” Finbar asked.

She nodded. “Yes. Plus it makes sense with what Kyia has told us.”

“Moranasi,” Misha muttered quietly.

“What are they?” Danielle asked.

“Evil,” Misha answered coldly. “Something this world has been cursed with for far too long. Just as Raven works with the Lightbringers, others see fit to use Daedra. One Moranasi is more foul and evil then a thousand Lutins.”

Danielle shivered. “Evil,” she said simply.

“You ever faced one in combat?” Daria asked Misha.

“No,” the fox answered. “But I’ve heard the stories. Dark stories, the type of things you whisper on a dark night to scare little children. A half circle was discovered in my hometown in my grandfather’s day. Followers, Rebuilders and Lightbringers all came together to track them down and wipe them out. Even so a lot of people died.”

“We have to stop this,” Finbar commented. “The Keep’s shifting rooms and halls are our greatest advantage. Without that they’ll pin us down and wipe us out.”

“That is their plan,” Daria commented. “And a very good one too.”

“Can they do it? Actually freeze the keep?” the pine marten queried. “How can anyone do that, freeze Kyia completely?”

“They can do it all right. Sacrifice magic is foul, evil and very powerful,” Misha explained.

“Raven wants you to scout around and find as much information on the Moranasi as possible,” Daria commented. “A prisoner could be of great help.”

“Agreed,” Misha replied. “We need to pin down the exact limits of the frozen areas and determine their next target.”

“Won’t be easy to find,” Kershaw commented.

“What type of preparation would be needed for such spell?” Misha asked looking at the woman.

“Mostly manual labor, removing furniture, and any other debris from the area, then cleaning the walls and floor to remove any dirt. The area of the spell has to be clean. Setting up the various apparatus and equipment would take time, several hours at least.”

The fox didn’t speak for a moment but just sat there. “These people won’t be doing that work themselves. They must have some trusted servant moving ahead preparing the next spell area. If we can find that one and snatch him we can get all sorts of good information.”

“But how do we find him?” Danielle asked.

“That type of preparation requires a lot of labor,” Misha commented.

“And a lot of labor means a lot of laborers,” Finbar added.

“Slaves more likely,” Jotham commented. “At least twenty or thirty.”

“We’re bound to come across some sign of a group that large,” Finbar said.

Misha put his canteen away and motioned his group closer. “All right, first we’ll head for the east gate, that’s the closest and look around.” He pointed at the woman. “Daria I want you to take a message to the other Long team. I’ll tell you where their rally point is, we’ll need both teams on this.”

“Understood,” was the woman’s answer. “Then I’ll get my team to searching too.”

“One question Daria. How long do we have before the Moranasi complete their task?”

She shrugged. “Hard to say, but Raven estimates one day, perhaps two.”

December 27 – 7am

Misha called a halt with a short wave of the hand. Instantly all five scouts behind him dropped to the pavement, looking in all directions for any trouble. Carefully Finbar moved next to his leader. “What’s wrong?” the ferret signed with his hands.

Misha responded by touching his left ear with his hand and then walking his fingers along the floor. “I hear someone walking up ahead.”

The ferret drew one of his knives and waved it in front of Misha. The fox responded with a shake if his head and held up both arms crossed at the wrists. Crossed like a prisoner’s bound arms.

The ferret put his knife away and pulled out of his pocket a sock, the end of the end of which was filled with sand. He would prefer to use his blackjack but in the confusion after Madog’s warning he had forgotten to take it. So this would have to make do. The ferret moved forward past Misha without waiting for any other orders. None were needed.

Everyone in the Long Scouts had a special ability, something that set them apart from the rest. Kershaw was a great fighter, few could best him in open combat. Jotham was a great healer, not on the par with Brian Coe, but then again the raccoon couldn’t sneak through a Lutin camp without making a sound. Danielle was a superb tracker, and Caroline was unmatched as an archer. Finbar’s area expertise was the snatch and the hush puppy. Right now Finbar was waiting to do a snatch. It was simple really, just sneak up on a person, knock them unconscious and drag them off without letting anyone else know it had happened.

The corridor they were in turned abruptly up ahead and Finbar hugged the wall on the inside of the curve. Laying low to the floor he blended into the shadows that resided there. Anyone coming along and not being careful could easily miss him until it was too late.

The sound of bare feet slapping against stone up ahead came to his ears. He heard only one set of feet, so the person was alone. The footfalls were light despite the runner’s haste, which meant that they were small, most likely a child or perhaps an unarmored Lutin. Who ever it was, they were running fast. Someone running was an easy mark, they were too busy running to be looking around for an ambush. Suddenly a figure rushed past in a swirl of pumping legs and tattered silk. Finbar jumped up and rushed up behind the person. Swinging the sock he cracked the hard, sand filled end against the back of his target’s head. The person dropped to the ground like a stone. The ferret grabbed the body under the arms and dragged it back to Misha and the other Longs. All told a nice, quick, clean snatch.

Swiftly the group moved to a small room they had found earlier and closed and barred the door behind them. Only then did they get a good look at Finbar’s catch.

It was a girl of barely twelve years old, dressed in the battered remnants of a fine dress. A quick splash of water brought the limp form back to life. Instantly she exploded into thrashing and screaming. It three of them to hold her down and stifle her yelling. There was a wild terrified look in her eyes as she thrashed her head around. Then she focused onto the furry snout of Danielle and her whole body went limp. She was among fellow keepers, not Lutins.

“Are you all right?” Misha asked.

The girl nodded slowly. “I am now.” She reached out and grasped Misha in a tight hug that knocked the wind out of the fox.

“What’s your name?” Finbar asked after they had pried the girl off of their leader.

“Sarah,” came the timid answer.

“How long have you been running around the Keep Sarah?” Jotham asked.

She shook her head. “I don’t know. I was headed home with Mom and Dad. We had been visiting uncle Karl when these Lutins came out of nowhere,” she whispered in frightened awe. “We were dragged off and made to clean rooms and set up all sorts of strange things. When we were moving a big coach I slipped away from the group. The guards didn’t see me.”

“Why did the Lutins make you clean rooms? They’ve never been big on cleanliness,” Misha asked.

“Lutins didn’t make us do that,” Sarah answered. “Lutins were only interested in eating and staying warm. Lutins gave us to some humans. The humans made us clean.”

“What did these people look like?” Misha asked as he passed the girl his canteen.

“Most were dressed like soldiers,” Sarah said after taking a long swallow of water.

“Mercenaries most likely,” Finbar said, interrupting the girl.

“They took orders from a woman,” Sarah said continuing her speech. “She was different from the soldiers. She was dressed in really nice furs and had gold rings and necklaces.”

“Was she wearing a gold collar?” Georgette asked. “One with a gold chain attached?”

“Yes,” Sarah answered. “How did you know?”

“That’s a slave collar, for a very important slave.” Georgette commented.

“Did you ever see her talk to someone else?” Misha asked.

“Once. I saw her talking to a man and a woman both dressed in black and silver.”

“Were there four others dressed the same nearby?” Misha asked quietly.

Sarah nodded. “She was bowing and kissing the man’s feet over and over again.”

“Did she call him anything? Any name or title?” the fox pressed.

The girl as silent for a moment before answering, “She called him Morinase, or something like that.”

“Moranasi?” Finbar asked.

“Yes! That was the word.”

“Do you know where they are right now?” Misha asked.

“No, right after that the slave woman took us to another room, and they stayed behind.”

“All we can do is find them, then go for help,” Misha said. “We don’t have the power to take on a group that powerful all by ourselves. Definitely going to need Raven, Rickkter and anyone else we can get to kill those mages.”

“First we have to find them,” Kershaw finished.

“If we can’t find the mages, I’m sure their slave can tell us where to find them,” Finbar commented.

“Good point,” Misha noted. He turned to the girl who was chewing on a piece of bread that someone had given her. “Can you lead us to that slave?”

“Yes,” she said in a firm tone.

December 27, 7am

Murikeer awakened with a lurch and tried to pull himself upright only to fail and flop into the straw enveloping him. He was bone weary, weak, and ached from eartips to toeclaws. Writhing against the infantile weakness he pushed himself up onto his elbows and looked around in panic. Fear clutched at his chest and sent his heart to hammering in his chest. His head swam with vertigo but more from the weakness gripping his body than any sense of an impending fall.

The interior of the building smelled overwhelmingly of horse and something altogether different; a deep, sickly sweet stench of unwashed flesh. He heard horses shifting about in stalls he could not see from his nest in a pile of straw. Somewhere a fire or lantern offered a wan orange glow to the building etched with a chaos of stark shadows. Something large shifted nearby and Murikeer sat up, laboriously, to see beyond the grassy womb enfolding him. His heart skipped a beat when he spied a huge, dark bearded head not far away bent over some task beyond his sight.

Sensing his motion the giant turned toward him and smiled hugely, “Little fur-man awake.” He observed with a voice like grist wheels reducing corn. Murikeer flinched, expecting the monstrous human to reduce him to a pulp with one swat of his massive hands. “Sleep long, Bruug watch you. Bad hurt, you rest.” He continued without otherwise moving.

“I am better… mmh, Bruug. Where am I?” Murikeer slowly sat fully upright and saw that the giant’s soiled tabard sported the crest of the Keep watch.

“Bruug’s home.” The giant offered slowly, “Bruug watch horses for black horse-lord.” One huge arm waved toward the general dimness of the stables beyond. Murikeer could see a few curious equine heads poking from a long line of stalls. None of them seemed particularly concerned that a giant, likely capable of lifting one like a pet dog, was seated at one end of their warm home. “No Lutin come here, Bruug no let them.” Judging by the various heraldic markings on some of the stall fronts Murikeer judged that he was in Duke Thomas’ stables. “You hurt, little fur-man. Bruug put liniment on back, but you rest.”

Murikeer lifted his arm and regarded the fresh pink of partially healed flesh under the missing fur. He had managed to put some healing through his ravaged body while he slept and, judging by the tightness across his back he knew that his burned flesh was in far better condition. The effort had left his body dangerously short on inner reserves, however, and he found himself amazingly hungry. His arm still pained him but his hand worked if with some loss of strength. It would serve his needs. “Food.” He chuffed as he levered himself to his knees. The giant, Bruug, extended a hand and Murikeer found carefully contained strength in the fingers offered. Each was as thick as a large man’s thigh and reeked of the yellowish paste that the giant had applied to his back but not bothered to wash from his dirty hand. With Bruug’s assistance he shuffled over to a stool near the ferrier’s hearth that Bruug was using as a cookfire.

Suspended from a spit as thick as Murikeer’s arm was an entire cow and the giant slowly turned it with a negligent push of his hand. The meat was charred black on the surface but smelled positively mouth watering. Finding the blue stone dagger lying to one side with the Lutin’s magical blade and a few other oddments gathered up during the giant’s wanderings he retrieved it to carve a slab of haunch from the spit. Bruug looked on as he tore into the steaming meat and, with a rumbling grunt, nodded toward a barrel containing loaves of bread and cheese wheels. “Horse-lord feed Bruug well.” The giant smiled. Murikeer dug a loaf from the barrel and nodded.

“Murikeer.” He offered around mouthfuls of bread and beef, tapping his chest.

Bruug nodded with the slow solemnity of the terminally dim-witted, “Bruug know little fur-man, Mukieer. Fight brothers in holy place, not kill Bruug.” Murikeer recalled, as well, the battle that had raged in Hough’s chapel only months ago, not long before the Patriarch’s fateful visit. Llyn had been placed under arrest as a result because she had brought about the attack. A magical sword she had stolen from a northern mage allowed him to open a portal and through it send a force of attackers. Only the swift arrival of capable fighters had prevented the mage’s portal from establishing a bridgehead right into the very core of the Keep. Three giants had been among the attackers, one of them being the giant who now shared his Yule feast with Murikeer while the other two had fought to their own deaths.

As the beef and bread worked its way into his system Murikeer felt a measure of his strength returning swiftly. He ate until he was so full he could barely choke down another muzzlefull but still felt ravenously hungry. His body demanded recompense from him for pushing himself so hard over the past days, moreso for the reserves tapped by the forced healing he demanded of it while he lay unconscious under Bruug’s attentive care. He sat before the ferrier’s hearth and waited for the strength to seep into his weary muscles. “Have you seen more Lutins, Bruug? Humans not from Metamor?”

The giant nodded slowly and chewed on a shoulder bodily ripped from the cooked cow. Bones crunched under the power of his jaws, “Some. No come here. Small few, some have white dogs like one Bruug kill.” Murikeer mulled that over while he carved a bit more meat from the haunch of beef and wrapped it in a bit of leather found hanging near the hearth. That it may have been used to wipe a horse’s hoof did not cross his mind. Stuffing the bundle into a saddlebag he stood slowly, swaying in place for a moment as his head swam anew, and turned toward the door. “Mukieer leave? Hurt!” Bruug protested, “Rest!”

“I cannot, my oversize friend.” Murikeer said back over his shoulder as he stood before the slightly open door, “I’ve a life to avenge.” He turned slightly and smiled with a slight bow of his head, “You have saved my life. The Duke chose well to make you his stableman.”

Bruug smiled beatifically at the compliment, “Bruug stay, keep horses safe.”

“You do that.” Murikeer slipped through the door and into the cold once more. Above the clouds had thinned to dark gray tatters through which the blue of dawning sky peeked intermittently. The storm had finally lost its strength. Snow still fell lightly from the remnants but it was clear that the storm was on its way out of the valley. Murikeer stood under the icicle festooned eaves for a few moments and scanned the park for signs of life; friend or foe. Spying none he looked to the battlements and the casements which looked out onto the park but, again, saw only the cold stillness of death in the few bodies not buried in snow.

No few of them were Keepers; animal forms or otherwise, garbed in Metamor’s colors or tattered fine clothes. Among them were the bodies of their foes, small and large alike.

December/27 – 9am

Hush Puppy

Finbar checked his surroundings one more time before edging forward to the corner. Since he had first arrived at Metamor Keep Finbar had always found the fact that rooms, walls and whole areas constantly moved really annoying and a little frightening. You could never really be sure where you were or where you would wind up. But now he was grateful. When Sarah had first led them to where the woman was there had been just a guard standing in front of an open doorway at the end of a long corridor. No possible way to sneak up on that sword wielding mercenary. Then the walls had moved and the corner Finbar was laying behind was suddenly thirty feet closer. Now less then ten feet away from the guard the ferret gave a silent prayer of thanks to Kyia.

Ten feet was too far to use a knife, the guard would have time to sound the alarm. He turned to Misha who was right behind him, “Hush puppy,” he signed with his hands. The fox understood and nodded his agreement.

Finbar had done such things many times before. In order to sneak into some important place, usually a Lutin camp, required that a sentry be taken out quietly and without raising the alarm. Finbar preferred to use a knife; it was quick, silent and he did not have to worry about his aim if he had an arm wrapped around the sentry’s head. Still, sometimes there was no way to use a knife; so something else was needed. From his pack Finbar drew out a little weapon. Meredith had first come up with the idea for it after reading a story about mysterious southern assassins. The weapon was a hand crossbow, barely one-fourth the size of a real crossbow. Its bolts were really too small to be of use on the battlefield but with a little help it was perfect for killing a sentry.

From his pack Finbar took out a tightly wrapped bundle. Carefully unwrapping the layers of leather and cloth revealed three bolts sized for the hand crossbow. The steel tips were covered with metal caps. Finbar cocked the crossbow quietly and then placed one of the bolts in the groove to be shot. Lastly he very carefully removed the cover from the tip of the bolt and placed it back in the bundle. Even in the semidarkness of the corridor he could make out the bluish liquid smeared on the metal tip of the bolt. Pascal had been most explicit about how to handle that liquid, one touch to bare skin and a person would be dead in seconds. It worked very well on killing sentries. A moment of sadness touched Finbar as the memory of a dead friend came to him. It had been Craig who had come up with the nickname Hush puppy since it worked very well to hush a noisy guard dog as well as a sentry.

Finbar nodded to his leader to let him know he was ready and the fox nodded back in acknowledgement. The ferret peered around the corner and took aim at the sentry’s throat. He tried not to see the man’s face, in his mind Finbar fixed on the idea that the person he was aiming at was the enemy. The target had no name, life or family, just a figure in armor that had to be killed. He squeezed the trigger and the bolt flew off to its destination. The figure just dropped to the ground with only a muffled thump, and the rattle of chain mail.

Misha rushed passed Finbar and up to the body. He quickly pulled the corpse back around the corner and dropped it by the ferret. The rest of the team moved around the corner and to the doorway. The Longs spread out on either side of the doorway and waited for a response. Finbar still lay on the floor with his crossbow in hand waiting for trouble. None came. Finally the ferret put away his dangerous little weapon with great care and took up his usual sword and dagger.

Misha cautiously peered into the room beyond the doorway then pulled his head back. Quickly and silently the fox passed orders along to the other Long Scouts. “Ten human guards, thirty Keepers – slaves, cleaning. Target is there, ordering, working on unknown items. Guards, slaves scattered around room. Target in center. Kill the guards, save the keepers, target gets taken alive.”

The other scouts with him nodded in understanding as their leader continued giving silent orders. “Me, Kershaw, will go straight forward. Finbar, Jotham go left. Georgette, Danielle go right.” All those orders had been passed without a word being spoken. Long hours of practice and training were now serving them well. Not a sound had been made and yet all understood clearly.

Finbar checked his long sword and dagger one last time. Jotham smiled at the ferret as he checked his own weapons. The man fingered the blade of a hand axe and checked the mace at his belt. Then he lightly patted the pouch on his hip.

The ferret pondered that gesture. In that pouch was all of Jotham’s healing supplies. Next to it was a mace. Side by side were tools for healing and killing, a strange mix in one person, healer and killer. The contradictions didn’t seem to bother Jotham. He did his both jobs very well.

The ferret fidgeted in place as he waited for the signal to attack. He saw Misha with his massive longbow in hand peering into the room. Then the fox looked to Kershaw, who was standing on the opposite side of the doorway. The panda also had also had a long bow ready.

The fox gave one last hand sign, “Ready?”

“Ready!” Everyone in the group replied silently.

Misha and Kershaw stepped boldly into the doorway and started loosing arrows. Then they dropped the bows and charged forward. Suddenly everyone was rushing towards the door. Jotham’s broad bulk blocked the entrance for a moment and then it was Finbar’s turn. He rushed through into pandemonium. He could see men, women, and morphs of all sizes and species running around, screaming cheering or just panicking. He saw Jotham throw a hand axe at a guard, draw his mace and then rush into the crowd. Finbar leaped over the dead body of a guard who had an arrow embedded in his face. He saw a group of keepers who were piled into a corner beating and punching something on the floor. He could guess who was underneath that pile and moved passed them. Allowing them their small measure of revenge.

Suddenly two soldiers appeared, swords in hand. Finbar charged straight at them his own weapons already lashing out. His sword caught one under the chin and the blade sank straight into the man’s brain. He dodged the other man’s blow as he pulled his sword free. Suddenly Jotham appeared at his side and swung his mace downward. Finbar heard the weapon connect with the remaining guards skull giving a sickening crunch. As the body fell to the ground both Long Scouts looked around for more of the enemy but all that surrounded them were fellow keepers, dirty and ragged from work and punishment.

“Any more guards?” Finbar asked.

“None alive,” someone replied and everyone laughed. Still both the bear and the ferret looked around but the only living souls they could see were keepers.

“REPORT!” came the loud shouted voice of Misha.

“All clear left,” Finbar answered.

“All clear right,” Georgette called.

Finbar moved towards his boss. “What about the woman?” he asked. The crowd opened up and he found the fox leaning on his axe a broad grin on his muzzle.

“We got her all right,” Misha said and pulled up something with his left hand. It was a woman, she was dressed in fine clothes and was covered with gold and silver. The clothes were torn and dirty, and her finely combed hair was a mess from where Misha held a huge handful. Finbar noted that the woman’s whole face was a mass of bruises and he realized that Misha had hit her with the flat of his axe.

Sarah stepped next to the ferret and looked the woman square in the face. “She doesn’t look so fine anymore.”

“Where’s my Dad?” a young voice said interrupting the story teller.

Looking he found a small otter girl of around ten years old standing up and waving her arms about.

“SWOOSH!” she cried, swinging her arms about as if wielding an imaginary weapon. “And he’d cut all they’re heads off.”

The story teller simply laughed and gave the little girl a pat on the head. “Definitely her fathers daughter,” he thought to himself.

“We will come to your father in due time. He did not fight the battle all alone you know. He had some help.”

The little lady slowly sat down, obviously disappointed.

“But we’re coming to his part soon,” he said in way of solace.

“Is uncle Ricky next?” A bright faced little girl asked.

“I want to hear about how my Daddy killed the evil villain,” a energetic little ferret boy announced loudly.

“No!” another child countered. “I want to hear about the Duke again.”

“Where was uncle George!” a third said as the whole group chimed in with the favorites. All of them shouting to be heard over the others

“Where was my mommy?”

“YEAH! Where was auntie Kimberly?”

“What about Raven?”

“We want to know what happened to Matt.”

The story teller just let the children’s voices flow over him. He knew what was next and let the excitement build before he began speaking.

Suddenly a small child touched him on the knee. “What about you Daddy?” she asked in a voice as soft as a cloud.

For the first time all night the story teller lost him calm demeanor. He looked out the window and didn’t speak for a moment. The children grew silent.

Finally he turned back to the crowd. His old warmth and calm was back. Looking down at his young daughter. “We’ll come back to me soon enough. Now let me continue with the story.”

Rickkter sauntered into the room where Raven and the others were gathered. Kayla had made it there before him, and he gave her a perfunctory nod before his gaze met with that of the high priestess.

“Our main concern now, however, is information,” Raven said coldly.

“Then you’ve not managed to take a prisoner?” Rickkter asked.

“We have not, but Misha has sent a message that he did. He’s managed to take a prisoner, a trusted slave of the Moranasi. We would have retrieved her sooner, but, as you’re quite aware, we’re no longer able to travel through Metamor as easily as before. Messenger are risky enough, but a prisoner escort I feel would be far too risky.”

Rickkter nodded during the last bit, his gaze drifting and head cocking off to the left, all telling Raven he didn’t think much of her statement. “But if you did have the prisoner, and they were able to tell you about the spell, do you feel you could reverse or undo it?”

“This slave can tell us where the Moranasi are and we kill them in one fast strike,” Daria explained.

Raven crossed her arms and grumbled at the raccoon. “And with the Moranasi dead their spell will fail.”

“I assume you have no... objections about how the information is extracted?” Rickkter had his ears fully perked up, leering at her in a challenging way.

Raven’s expression darkened and she refused to meet the looks of the others assembled. “Damn Rickkter”, she thought. He was testing her, seeing if she would condone torture of another human being. She had no choice. Too much was at stake.

“As long as the information is accurate,” she finally managed through grit teeth.

His head bobbing, Rickkter turned away from the Lightbringer, his gaze wandering the room. “Then I shall see to it she is brought.” He looked over at Raven and smiled. “Do you have anything in white?”

“You know, this never really was my colour,” Rick commented as he adjusted the long fur cloak.

“Oh, I think you look dashing,” Kayla protested as she adjusted his collar. Like the overcoat he had previous, the cloak, too, was made of arctic fox fur. The main difference was that this fur was clean. Kayla reflected that whomever Raven had purloined the cloak from, they must have been wealthy. Not only was the fur itself a reflection of this, but the cut and the light trimming of added blue fur around the neck really did wonders to set it off, especially against Rickkter’s darker grey. Of course all Rickkter wanted it for was to help him blend in with the snow outside.

“Hm, perhaps in your opinion. I just never favoured it. Black was always to my tastes,” he said, alluding to the coloured ranking system of southern mages.

“Perhaps. But you look best in grey, or so I think,” Kayla concluded with a wink. “There, all done. Those Lutin’s shouldn’t be able to spot you too easily in that. Now be careful my love,” she told him, adding a kiss on his muzzle. “I want you to come back to me in one piece.”

Rubbing her arm, Rickkter murred and told her, “I intend to, my dear.”

“Ready here?” asked a voice to their side.

Turning Rickkter saw it was David, as expected. The insect morph was wrapped in more furs than Rick himself, but in David’s case it was a matter of survival. While David would use magic to preserve needed warmth, when one’s life was at state, having some kind of a backup was always a good idea. About the only things that poked out from David’s covering were his eyes; even his claws had been wrapped in cloth to keep them warm.

“All ready, yes.”

The course of the two mages took them straight up through the levels of Metamor. It was Rickkter’s belief that they were safest travelling through the only part of the Keep that the invaders were confident no one would be; the roof. Or at least the upper walls and catwalks. Of course the invaders wouldn’t be expecting anyone there; nothing could fly in the blizzard and the freezing temperatures and extreme blowing snow would keep the rest of the keepers cooped up below. Besides, no one in their right mind would dare consider guard duty in such conditions.

The other reason was that the blizzard had frozen the doors almost shut.

“Damn it!” Rick grunted as he threw his shoulder against it again.

“Let me have a shot at it,” David said, gently moving the raccoon to the side. “I have an idea that just might work. The ant then turned around, crouching down a bit, and aimed a good, solid kick at the door. The first kick splintered the frozen wood, the second broke it open around the lock.

Rick nodded. “Nice.”

Of course the snow still presented a problem. It had blow up into a drift a few feet high against the door and it took the combined efforts of Rick and David to force it open.

“How long do you figure you can take this?” Rick yelled back over the howling wind. It tore at both their cloaks and drove stinging bits of ice into Rick’s fur. He had to hold the thick fox fur cloak in front of his face to shield his eyes.

David was trudging backwards through the snow to keep it out of his sensitive eyes, drawing a light cloth over as much of them as he could risk. “Not long. I didn’t expect it to be this bad. No more than five minutes without running into problems.”

“Okay, good,” Rick hollered. “We’re going to go along the battlements to the southern section of the Keep and down from there. I need to get some things from my room for the prisoner. We’re stopping there first, then going to the Long House to get the prisoner. All we have to do is hope we don’t run into anything in the meantime.”

Of course just as Rick put his foot down in what was supposed to be another soft snow bank, the snow gave way with a loud crunch, throwing him totally off balance and face down into the snow. He came up sputtering it away from his muzzle, rolling over and looking at what the hell tripped it. Frowning, he got to his feet and went to uncover it, David hovering over him.

“Oh, great maker,” Rickkter swore, his lips drawing up in disgust. What he had uncovered was a dead body. A dead body whose chest he had put his foot through. From the look of things, it had been a defender who had died in the initial assault and lay there until he was brittle as ice. Most of the chest was intact still, including several organs visible through the ragged hole. “Did you know they could do that?!”

“I had... heard of such things,” David admitted with a shrug. “But never saw it myself.”

Rickkter hitched his cloak close around himself once more and began a quick trot, his head tilted against the wind, along the battlements. David could just make him out muttering. “The one thing I didn’t miss about war was stepping in all the damned bodies.”

Some time later

David looked up and Rick and shook his antennae in his version of a ironic laugh. “Well, doesn’t look like you have much choice about stepping in the dead now, do you?”

The entire corridor was covered in them. Rather there were only ten bodies, their contents were just spread over the whole of the walls, floor, and ceiling of the hallway.

“Your room I assume?”

“Indeed,” Rick muttered, drawing his sword. He stepped gingerly towards the nearest lump of goo and bones of the floor. He gave it a cursory examination before using his sword to lift up what turned out to be a belt with a scabbard attached. “Looks like this fit a human mercenary.” He dropped it back onto the pile with a wet squish. “There are five more here like that. He definitely had friends with him.”

Moving up a little, he examined a much smaller pile. This time he extracted a small pouch with the end of his sword. “Hello, there.” He took it off the end of the sword and opened it. “Looks like this was once a Lutin shaman. A very experienced one, too, from the look of things,” he observed, jiggling the bag. “That would mean- ” and his gaze finally fell on the pile just beyond the ring near the door “- that that was the mage.” Tiptoeing through the congealed blood he repeated his procedure with the shaman, removing a pouch and amulet in the case of the mage.

“Yeah, looks like these boys were sent after me, alright,” Rick muttered as he pawed through the pouch and made his way back to David. “Lots of things here for spell countering, poison spell casting, defensive spells, things to take down shields. Oh, yes. Our boy was well prepared.”

“So what happened?”

Rick looked up. “Easy. They never expected that the merest touching of the magic would set it off. It’s kind of like petting a rabid wolverine. Only you don’t realize that fact until it’s busy chewing your arm off.”

“Well, be thankful you had them in place then.” David nodded towards a rather spread out pile of flesh and what once was tawny fur. “Have you ever heard of a kurenk’n?”

“You know, I was wondering what that was...” Rick muttered, following David’s gaze. “You can tell me about it inside.”

“We have kurenk’n in my homeland,” David explained, passing through Rick’s antechamber, “and I’ve heard they still run wild up north. They look like regular felines, something like a cougar, but with almost bat ears and teeth like a shark. Simply put, they were bred to kill magic users. They sense spells and can evade them to some extent, and they’re totally invisible to magic sight. Seems Nasoj was quite intent on doing away with you.”

Rickkter shuddered. “You’re right. Definitely not something for me to tangle with.” He shucked off his fox skin cloak and tossed it over the couch, never breaking his stride towards his book case. “Now David, how are you with light-manipulation and room-effect spells?”

The two mages made short work of it, Rick describing exactly what he needed the ant to do, pulling off and marking various book from the shelf. They ended up with a small stack of books and a pair of scrolls, all of which the raccoon bundled into a leather carrying pouch.

“Now David, are you certain you can handle yourself on the way back?”

“I have my magic,” the ant replied, “and I have this.” Using his second pair of arms, he extracted the two parts of his staff from beneath the heavy overcoat.

Rickkter nodded back at him. “Yes, I think that’ll work. I just need to get a few more things of my own.”

Naturally, the first thing Rickkter did was to lose the remnants of his formal attire. The jacket and shirt he was wearing would need major tailoring if they were ever to be wearable again, the chain mail he had managed to toss on over it having done just as much damage as the actual battle itself. The sewer and the running battles to and in town had pretty much taken care of his good pants and boots. Each were deposited in separate piles on his bedroom floor as he extracted something more wearable from his wardrobe.

“Ah,” he sighed, patting the hard leather and fine-linked mail of his fresh armour. “It’s amazing how much better a fresh set of cloths can make a man feel, don’t you agree?”

David had taken a seat near one of Rick’s windows and was looking out into the blizzards that raged outside. Where before the raccoon had only his dress cloths and some mail under a borrowed greatcoat, now he was much more suited to battle. His shirt had been replaced by a simple cotton undershirt under a hard leather vest, over which was a fine-linked mail shirt. Over that, he wore a black leather coat that reached just down to the top of his tail. The dress pants were exchanged for leather ones with plate over the thighs and high black leather boots. A pair of metal wrist guards poked from beneath his jacket as well. As Rick had come out from the bedroom, he was fastening a wide leather belt hung with several large pouches. About the only thing he had retained were his swords.

“Right. Let me get a few more things and we’ll go.”

A series of thumps caused David and Rick to both snap around and look at the door. Two more thumps followed in quick succession. “Okay, what the hell was that?” David asked, holding the staff defensively before him.

Rick hissed a curse between his teeth as he wrenched open the doors on his personal armoury and began pulling out a bandoleer of daggers, a pair of wicked looking knives, and one small sword with a thigh sheath. “That would be company.”

He paused, his head turned towards the door, looking for all the world as though he were sniffing at the air. “Looks like someone noticed our coming in. The spells got another three soldiers, but the mage is smarter this time. She’s staying well out of range.” Rick stuffed them all into a backpack from the bottom of his armoury and quickly slung it. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Where? Out with her?”

“Hell no.” Rick opened a small door near the apartment’s windows. “We’re going up.”

The circular stairwell led the two into a very ornately appointed apartment. “Wow. Where are we?” David asked as he gaped.

Rickkter never broke his stride towards the door. “My apprentice, Muri’s room. Kyia certainly made this room ostentatious, didn’t she?”

A single huge casement window was set directly opposite the door, and planters were arranged along the walls, the tips of a few leaves poking through the soil. The apartments was quite large, the receiving area passing as the dining and entertaining area as well. In the centre there sat a large, ornate stone table that looks to be quite old. There were chairs to match, equally old. In the centre of the main room was a couch, two massive reading chairs and several small book tables clustered around an intricate and ancient tapestry of some obscure scene.

“I’ll say,” David muttered before he followed Rick out the door. The two were greeted by a draft of cold, icy air causing them to hold their arms up to protect their faces.

“Okay, this looks like Kyia has given you a way home,” Rick shouted over to David. “Get to the temple, set things up just as we discussed. I should be back in two hours. If I’m not back in three, don’t sweat it. If I’m not back in four... well, take a really well prepared squad over to the Long House and do things there. And...” He winced a bit. “Break it to Kayla as best you’re able.”

“I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“Same here. She’ll be pissed!”

David clicked his mandibles in a parody of a chuckle. “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.” Wrapping his outer garments tight, he moved at a jog out into the blowing snow.”

Rickkter looked back down the hallway of almost endless doors and flicking torches. He fingered the hilt of his sword. “Let’s hope you make things as easy for me, Kyia.

“Bloody crazy place, this is,” mumbled one of the Lutins.

“Aye. Hard to believe those damned keepers can survive here.” The second Lutin barked a laugh. “At least we made sure that a lot of them won’t have to worry about that now!”

The first Lutin slapped his buddy on the back, both breaking out into roaring laughter as they continued down the hallway.

Neither one noticed the raccoon crouched down the hall, peering at them from around the corner and considering what kind of devastating magic to send their way. It was just then that Rick’s concentration was broken by a cackling laugh from behind.

“Well, what do we have here?” said a rather loud and grating voice behind Rick, causing the fur on the raccoon’s neck to bush up. “Looks like a little raccoon who’s- ”

Whatever else the man might have had to say was cut off by the sphere of magic that Rickkter threw at his chest. Blood and bits of ribs flew over his compatriots as they caught the body. All this was noticed at a fleeting glance by Rickkter, before he whirled and darted around the corner.

Of course the Lutins also whirled around at the sounds of the shouts from the other mercenaries as they gave chase to Rickkter. They had chance to draw their weapons before the mage was upon them, hacking away at their defences with his own swiftly drawn blade. The battle between the three was swift, Rickkter breaking through after giving the smaller Lutin a swift kick in the gut, sending him against the wall in agony, and severing the sword arm of the larger. A quick burst of lightening aimed back at the pursuing mercenaries allowed him precious seconds to get away.

All of the effort seemed to no avail, alas, as, skidding around into an adjacent hallway, Rickkter was brought up short by another group of a half dozen more invaders, four Lutins and two humans, a man and a woman. Snarling a quick curse, Rickkter cast an arc of fire back the way he came, actually hitting several members of that group with it. One man screamed as his long beard and bushy head of hair went up in flame, the others falling away to try and extinguish the crawling flames of magical fire.

This also had the advantage of giving the other group pause, allowing Rick the opportunity to lunge with his sword and open up the throat of one of the Lutins. He managed to kill a second as the group scattered.

“Okay, spread out and surround him,” said the largest of the two humans. He was a beast of a man, standing close to seven feet tall, dark hair and eyes and an a small goatee.

Rick glared at him and snapped out his open paw at the woman, sending a spike of white hot magic at her. She managed to shriek once before her face was melted off. Taking advantage of the opening, Rick drove his katana down through the sword, head, and most of the upper body of the Lutin next to the woman, swiftly moving to put distance between himself and where the two groups of mercenaries were gathering.

Rickkter looked them over and growled, his lips pulling up to reveal his muzzle full of teeth. He noted that the fire seemed to have taken care of most of the initial group of attackers, and he only had to deal with three more total. His eye caught the slinking green from of the first of the two Lutins he had spied further down the hall. He drew a knife from his belt, gestured with, daring his opponent to attack before flipping it around to a stabbing grip.

With a high pitched shriek, one of the Lutins launched himself at Rick. The raccoon used his sword to bat aside the Lutin’s club and caught him between the shoulder blades with the knife as he passed. That was when one of the two remaining humans decided to make his charge and try attacking Rickkter from the back. It was his magic sense that saved Rick, though the attacker’s sword bit into his chain-mail as Rick rolled with the attack and jammed his knife into the attacker’s neck at the collar bone. The man made one gurgle of protest and fell to his side, taking Rick’s knife with him.

Rickkter let out a yelp as a sword came down on the metal guard over his wrist, his entire sword arm going numb. His sword clattered to the floor and was kicked out of reach by the remaining human, the man with the dark eyes he had run into.

“Oh, you’re going to pay for that one, Keeper. You’re going to pay dearly.” And with that, he lunged at the mage.

Never one to pass up opportunity, Rickkter side-stepped his attacker, sliding in against him and trying to wrestle the sword from the man’s grip. Alas his attacker was even stronger than he looked and all Rickkter succeeded in doing was forcing his opponent to point the sword at the floor, not let go of it. Grunting and panting as they tried to gain control, the two warriors eventually ended up face to face, the sword held down between Rickkter’s legs.

“Well now, Keeper,” the man panted into Rickkter’s breath. Rick couldn’t help notice the stink of bad camp food on it. “You’re only making it harder on yourself. Not that I mind, of course.” And he bared a smile of large white teeth at Rickkter.

Rickkter returned the sentiment, only with a roar, an open mouth, and a lunge at the man’s exposed neck, which was at the perfect height.

Rick couldn’t see the startled expression on his attacker’s face, nor see his mouth bob open in an attempted exclamation. He was only aware of the hot coppery taste that filled his mouth and nose as the arteries in the man’s neck pumped out his life’s blood. A pulse that went almost up his nose caused Rickkter to snort and pull back, taking the entire front of the man’s neck away with him.

Almost as startled as the now dead mercenary by the action, Rickkter gaped into his face and let the man pull them both to the floor, Rick landing on top of the body. He blinked a few times at the head, lolling to the side and the swiftly spreading pool of blood.

Rickkter looked up from where he crouched over the body, eyeing the remaining Lutin. It was the little guy he had first seen, and he was now huddled against one of the statues along the hall. The Lutin was shaking in fear as he looked at the mage and the carnage surrounding him. Rick flicked his ears back and gave a full, open muzzle snarl at the Lutin, letting him have a good look at the now pinked stained teeth.

That did it, the Lutin bolted like a startled deer. And like the hunter he was, Rickkter jumped up right after him, catching up his katana on the run. Unfortunately the Lutin was a wiry little bugger, in addition to being scared out of his wits, and was opening up a sizeable lead on the raccoon. Rick snarled and grabbed a large vase off a pedestal, winging it in a long arc at the Lutin. It was a good toss too, and caught the little green simpleton right between the shoulder blades, knocking him sprawling. Rick gave him a good kick to the back, flipping him over, when the Lutin tried to rise.

“No.... no, please don’t kill me!” the Lutin blubbered.

“And how many times today have you heard that?” Rick asked. He removed the Lutin’s head with one clean stroke of his sword and resumed his silent jog down the hall to find Misha and the Long Scouts.

From that point onwards the journey was a swift one and Rickkter made good time without meeting any more resistance. It wasn’t until he saw the corridor blocked by a large wooden table and he was challenged by an unseen voice.

“Who goes there?”

“Rickkter,” he replied as he noticed several crossbows aimed at him.

“Come in,” the voice returned, the relief plain to hear.

Walking slowly he moved past the guards and into the hall beyond. “Welcome to Long house,” came a voice, drifting down from above.

Looking up he saw Baldwin, who had been perched atop a beam in the particularly high ceiling of the hall. The condor was eyeing him carefully. “Looks like you’ve been through some tough times.”

The racoon just nodded in agreement. “How have things been here?”

“Quiet and boring,” was the answer from above. Rickkter could sympathise with him. Being a bird with a large wingspan was prefect when fighting outside but in the tight corridors of the keep it was deadly. With a blizzard blowing outside the bird could do little else but sit and wait in the only room large enough to allow him to fly.

“Rickkter!” shouted a voice that he recognized as Misha’s. Rickkter was about to return the greeting only to be scooped up and crushed in an enthusiastic bear hug by the leader of the Longs. The fox spun him around a few times before setting him back on the ground.

“Good to see you, too, Misha,” wuffed the raccoon.

“So tell me, what happened to you? Were did you go? I know that Kayla has been worried sick over you.”

“Let’s just say that is a very long story. It’s also not that easy to kill me.” Rickkter reached up and started scratching out some the blood that was caking the fur under his chin. “I’m glad that you’re still among the living, also. How goes the fight?”

“Mixed,” the fox answered as they started to walk towards the entrance door to Long house. “We’re holding on in a few key places, but the Lutins just keep coming. Between my own men and the various refugee groups we’ve come across, we estimate we’ve killed a few hundred by this point.”

Rickkter sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Tell me about it. We still have yet to find their main camp, though I can’t imagine it’ll be very hard.” In a moment they passed through the two doors of the entrance and into Long House itself.

The warrior-mage nodded as closed the last door behind him. “Someplace central, large, easily defendable. Lots of exits, preferably some to the outside. I can think of several such places already.”

“So can I. And they hold them all easily.” The fox looked on as Rick picked at the congealed blood. “Can’t you ever manage to keep clean?”

“Killing’s a messy business and I wish I could.” He winced as he pulled at a clot that had gathered in his cheek fur.

“I bet you’ve been causing all sorts of havoc. Been a serious thorn in Nasoj’s side.”

"I'm not a thorn in his side. I'm a whole cactus up his ass!" Rickkter responded with a wicked grin. His grin turned to a wince as he tried to pull more blood and gore out of his fur. “When I was human I could just wipe it off with some water. Now I have to scrub it out. I don’t suppose you have somewhere where I could do that, do you?”

“Rest assured, we do. The Long House has full facilities to outlast a siege, remember?” Misha started to walk away. “And we’ve had to put them into full use. We’ve been flooded with refugees from town and all over the Keep itself. We’ve had somewhere close to two hundred so far with the odd small group trickling in. We’re keeping them mostly in the Long Hall, a few in Back Hall, the rest wherever they find space.”

“Back Hall?” Rick asked with a smirk. “Damn, you have a real knack for catchy names for this place, Misha.”

“Har har, very funny,” said the fox as he guided his raccoon friend to the back of the compound, picking their way around the huddled masses. “You should keep that look a might longer, as there are some people I want you to talk to. They’re tough, not easily intimidated. They’re also mercenaries, a people you’re all too familiar with. I can tell you right now that if I didn’t know you Rick, I’d be frightened by the way you look right now.”

“Comforting thought.”

“Well, they haven’t cracked yet, so I thought that you could have a few words with them would get them talking. I figured that anyone crazy enough to attack George is someone you should be able to relate to. George managed to get some basic information out of them but they failed to mention the Moranasi.”

Rickkter grunted, folding his arms over his chest and putting on a very ugly expression. “Let’s do it then.”

Misha grabbed Rick’s elbow forestalling the raccoon. “Before you go in there, there are some things I need to tell you. First is that Wessex is dead.”

“Dead? How?”

“I don’t have the details. Matthias left me a note, telling me that the mage was killed by a Shrieker.”

The bloodied raccoon visibly started, his ears flattening against his skull and his eyes showing the whites. “A Shrieker? Here in the Keep?” Rickkter said, his voice full of surprise. “Impossible! And how? What do you mean Matthias left you a note?”

“We found the rat’s room completely smashed and this note." He handed Rick the hastily scrawled piece of parchment.

Rick snatched it from his hand and quickly scanned the contents. "Glen Avery? Why is he going there?"

"I don't know," the vulpine replied in an angry voice. "But Garigan is from there. Perhaps he has some sort of plan in mind."

"Great, just great. Can you do something about it?"

"No," was the curt answer. “While the storm has lessened, we still have no communications with the rest of the valley. But I can tell you that when this is over I’m going to get some answers from that rodent."

“If we're still alive."

A serious look crossed the foxes face and he stiffened. “Something else I need to tell you, seeing as Muri is your student,” the fox started.

Rickkter’s ears turned back against his head. “Don’t tell me he’s dead, too.”

“No,” he paused for a moment as if unwilling to speak anymore. “But Llyn is. He brought her charred corpse into Long House a while back. Whatever killed her, he caught a good piece of it himself.” Misha bowed his head and shook it.

Rickkter slumped against the wall, leaning on his knees for support as he hung his head. “Then he… just let out a wild scream and walked out without another word. There was a look in his eyes that made me shiver. It was a feral, animal look of pure hate.”

Rickkter continued to lean against the wall with his head down and eyes closed. “This is all too much right now,” he whispered. “Do you have any idea what happened?” he asked in a louder voice, looking over at Misha. “Any idea where he went?”

Misha shrugged. “I don’t know. But that look on his face was incredible. I almost feel pity for any of Nasoj’s people he comes across.”

“Almost?” Rickkter asked.

“I lost a good friend in Llyn.”

Rickkter suddenly pushed off the wall and launched into a violent tirade of curses. Oaths in several languages echoed off the walls of the Long House as the people within turned and stared at the raving raccoon. It finally ended after he kicked a discarded helmet down the hall.

Misha slowly approached his friend where he stood panting, his fists clenched. Just as the fox was about to reach out and touch him, Rickkter spun back on him. “Muri will be… fine,” Rickkter snapped out. “He is a well trained mage. He survived for over five years up north on his own. Whoever did that to Llyn will be quickly dealt with, and then he’ll be back. We can’t spare the people to try and locate him, and besides, he’ll be fine”

Misha nodded, not sure if Rickkter was trying to convince, the fox or himself. “There’s still those other two I want you to talk to. Let’s get that over with now,” Misha said and took Rickkter to the Long House’s cells. There he removed his key ring, jingling it in the lock to get the door open.

The cell was much as Rick had expected, a small stone enclosure with a pair of cots, each containing a prisoner. His paw unconsciously removed the knife at his waist, taking a loose but firm grip on it.

Teria sat up with a worried look on her face. For Ferwig, that could mean only one thing, the raccoon was a mage. But if that were true, he was a mage who looked to have just finished using tooth and claw to take apart an enemy. Which wasn’t far from the truth. He made note that this raccoon was not someone he would want to cross in the future.

“So these are the two that tried to attack George?”

“Yes. He was the muscle, she was the magic.”

“Good combination,” observed Rickkter. There was something in that voice, the accent that tickled at Ferwig’s memory. “Though I can see not good enough. That old jackal still has a few surprises up his sleeve.”

“He got lucky,” spat Ferwig.

“The muscle, I assume,” said Rickkter as he turned his bloody grin away from the woman. The way the fur down his chin was all matted red made Teria barely able to suppress her shudder and she was thankful that her two captors were looking at Ferwig.

The new raccoon looked around the room once more. “Are all these cells magically shielded?”

“Yes,” said Misha, keeping a careful eye on Ferwig and his hand on the hilt of his long sword.

“Good thing. Few people are more dangerous than a cornered mage.”

Some time later

“So are we done here, Rickkter?” Misha asked.

“Yeah, I’m finished with these two. Let’s go.” The two started out of the cell, past Ferwig, only to be stopped when the assassin called out to them.

"Rickkter? You the same Rickkter that was involved in the palace coup in Teradale in 704?"

The raccoon frowned and looked at the fighter. "Yes, why?"

"Because I was there," Ferwig responded. "Part of the bodyguard defending the baron."

A look of puzzlement overcame Rickkter’s features a moment before his eyes lit up as he realized the truth of whom he was speaking with. "Oh yes! I remember you now," Rickkter replied and punched the fighter in the jaw sending him sprawling on the floor. "Now we're even." The mage turned and left the cell, shaking his paw. The door slammed shut behind him and Misha.

“What the hell was that about?” the fox demanded.

“Just a score from the past,” Rick explained as he flexed his paw. “They were working for the same people I was. Alas, they had little respect for authority, specifically mine.” He would have explained more, but Allart came up and interrupted them.

“I’m glad you’re here Rickkter. We need your expertise in magic, but you need to come to the chapel.”

The raccoon sighed and leaned his neck to the side, producing a loud crick. “My work is never done, it seems. Let me clean up and we’ll head out.”

“Did you learn anything from those two?” The young looking Keeper asked and nodded towards the cell door where the two mercenaries were.

Rickkter shook his head, “No.” he said sounding surprised.

“Nothing we don’t already know,” the fox interjected. “I doubt they know anything about the Moranasi.”

“They were just hired help. Why bother with them when we have that slave. She HAS to know what we need to know,” Allart countered.

Misha nodded in agreement. “Allart. I want to get that Moranasi prisoner moved to the temple so that Raven can speak with her as soon as possible. Tell everyone we’ll be moving out in 30 minutes. First we’ll head over to the chapel to get Meredith and check on Lisa and that werewolf bite. Then we will head to the Lightbringer temple. We’ll all meet in Long Hall.”

Allart saluted and went off to relay orders.

“First a Moranasi prisoner,” Rick said incredulously. “Now a werewolf. Damn, Misha, you do throw a hell of a party!”

The chapel was a lot like the Temple; very quiet atmosphere, almost a pall hanging over everyone; people huddled into masses, many praying to their god; and one cleared area filled with wounded and dying.

“So who is it you wanted me to see, Allart?” asked Rick.

“It’s Lisa,” Allart replied, carefully leading the way between the wounded. “We had a run in with a werewolf and she lost an arm. Ralls was also injured— broke his leg so we left him here to help – though the rest of us managed to get away with only dings and scratches. We’re afraid that Lisa might have been infected. Father Hough looked at her, but since he doesn’t know anything about magic, he couldn’t tell us anything for sure. Lisa is still unconscious so she can’t tell us anything either. Since you’ve had experience with these things...”

The raccoon grimaced, his hackles rising. “Few things are worse than lycanthropy. I’ll look at her, tell you what I can about her condition, but I’ll warn you now that I can’t cure it. If it is genuine, we might want to consider putting her out of her misery now.”

“Somehow I don’t think Misha will approve of that idea. Anyway, here she is.”

The two knelt down next to the blanketed form if Lisa Ringe. The AR had been wrapped securely in blankets to help against shock, but she was deathly pale and still out cold. Rickkter pulled down the blankets to and began to inspect the stump where her right arm used to be. “How was this treated?”

“First aid on scene,” the age regressed medic explained. “Tourniquet to cut off the flow of blood to the arm and then bandaged afterwards. Unfortunately this happened in the midst of the fighting and the other Longs weren’t able to get to her for a time, so she lost a lot of blood. Also, she was thrown against a wall when that happened. There’s a lump on the back of her head, probably a concussion.”

“Father Hugh helped her with his prayers,” Misha interjected. “She would have died otherwise.”

Rickkter had taken the stump in his paws and was gently probing around the thickly wrapped but still bloody bandages. “That would explain both why she’s so pale and hasn’t woken up yet. Her life force is very weak.”

“Lisa’s a fighter, all the Longs are. She’ll make it.”

“I hope so,” Rick muttered. “Did you cauterise this after?”

“Yes. It was a horrible tear and I had to cut off some pieces to get it to seal good, but we did.”

“Well that’s good. What did this werewolf look like, anyway?”

Allart went on to describe the werewolf, placing emphasis on its massive size and strength. Rickkter listened and looked at the arm some more as the medic spoke, then ran his paws over Lisa in a probing manner. “This is very strange. I don’t suppose I’d be lucky enough that someone took a souvenir from our werewolf before he was torched, would I?”

“Actually, I saw Meredith taking something from the body as we were preparing to douse it.” He called out to the bear, his voice echoing across the chapel. He quickly made his way over to where Lisa was.

“What is it, Allart?”

Rickkter answered instead, “Did you save anything from the werewolf’s body?”

“Actually, yeah. I cut out one of the big bastard’s fangs for a trophy.” He passed it over to the raccoon.

The tooth around two inches long and made Allart shiver as he considered the damage that a mouth full of those had done. Rick just studied it quietly, rolling it over in his paws. Eventually the mage came to a verdict. “Well, the good news is that this didn’t belong to a werewolf. Or rather it didn’t belong to a natural werewolf.”

Misha nodded his head. “We suspected as much.”

“What was it?” Meredith asked.

“Well, all lycanthropes have a kind of magic about them that causes their change. This does not have it.” He passed the tooth back over to the bear. Rick was about to say something more when his elbow touched something behind him. Looking down, he saw that it was the nose of a crouching dire wolf.

Meredith could have sworn that the raccoon jumped about ten feet, most of those straight up. When he landed, Rick had managed to draw his katana and was holding it in a defensive posture before him as he snarled at the wolf. The wolf snarled in return and slinked back a few feet into a crouch. “Great maker, what the hell is that doing here?!” Rick yelled.

“Wait, wait,” Meredith told him, stepping between the mage and the dire wolf. “She was one of the pack of dire wolves that led us to the werewolf-mage.”

“A pack?!”

“Yes, about twenty of them,” the bear answered. “The others should here somewhere,” he said nonchalantly as he looked around. We found them in a store room and were bringing them back here when that werewolf ambushed us all. At first we thought they would attack us too but they helped us! As near as we can figure it, that thing was their alpha male, and not a very good one. They were quite happy to help us get rid of him.”

Rickkter glared at the bear and the wolf a little more before returning his sword to its scabbard. “Well, that would fit with what I found on the tooth, but damn it, Meredith don’t let her sneak up on people like that. Damn near scared me half to death.”

“So I saw,” the Long admitted with a grin.

“What was that about the tooth?” Allart wanted to know.

“Well, what I found there was a curse, much like our own. It seems that Nasoj went and ‘rewarded’ one of his lieutenants or something, with the ability to change from human to what you described and placed the pack at his command. It also seems that our old friend learns from his mistakes, or rather our inventiveness; this curse is slightly different in construction than ours, and the counter is different also. They’re very close to what we have here at Metamor, but different enough to make it obvious. I just wish that wolf was still alive so I could study it better; the tooth isn’t large enough, and without life, the spell is already decaying.” He shrugged. “Who knows? It could have led to a cure for all of us.”

Meredith snorted. “We could only wish.”

“Well, that’s good news anyway,” Misha admitted as he scratched at his ear in a very canine fashion. I’m going to talk to Hough and Salius, see how things are on their end.”

The two scouts and the mage nodded and headed off in various directions. Meredith followed Allart in order to act as his assistant while the medic plied his trade. Rick went off on his own with a similar goal in mind. He didn’t get too far when he ran across a familiar looking form knelt next to an unconscious warrior.

“Elvmere? Elvmere, is that you?”

The other raccoon gave a slight start at the mention of the name, his ears flattening out against his head. When he looked and saw that it was Rickkter, the ears straightened up a little and he stood. “Yes, it is I.”

Rickkter nodded. “Well, I must admit that it’s good, if rather surprising, to see you again. I remember you telling me how you were going back home to Jetta.” He gestured at the clothing the other raccoon was wearing. It was a black clerical cassock that looked to have been rather amateurishly altered to fit his new physique. “And what is with this get up?”

Elvmere lowered his head and groaned, though it came out as more an animalistic murrr. “I have a confession that I must make to you, Rickkter. You were a good friend to me when we first met. You took the time to show me around Metamor. In return, I... was less than honest with you.”

He looked up when he heard Rickkter start to chuckle. “My dear Elvmere, I had not known you for more than a minute before I knew something was amiss.” Rickkter clasped the other raccoon on the shoulder, his whiskers perked up in a smile. “You sir, are horrible liar.”

“Well, I suppose I can take come comfort in that fact,” admitted Elvmere as he flicked an ear and grimaced. “And you can stop calling me that.” He straightened his back and looked Rickkter in the eye. “My real name is Bishop Vinsah of Abaef. Until recently I served the people of Abaef and directly under the Patriarch himself. I believe that will explain the cloths.”

Rickkter’s muzzle had dropped a few inches. “Bishop Vinsah?”

“Yes, Rick, Bishop Vinsah. Though I let my friends call me Vinsah.”

The other raccoon gaped at him a few moments more before turning his head to the side and busting out in full laughter. Slapping his thigh and shaking his head, all the while still laughing, he turned back to Vinsah. He pointed a finger up at the bishop, his muzzle dropped open in a smile. “Of all the people I had suspected you of being, I NEVER would have guessed that. The fact that they said you were dead, killed with the rest of the convoy, didn’t help matters.” He chuckled and shook his head again. “I have to say, the Sathmoran name was a thing of beauty, though. I mean who would suspect a man who worked at the highest levels of one of this word’s major religious groups adopting the name of his most hated enemy.”

“I wouldn’t have figured it to be that uncommon.”

Murring, Rickkter tilted his head and rolled his eyes back a bit. “Um, true. But you still did things that I wouldn’t have expected from such a devout Follower. The spending time with myself being paramount. Your people are rather... infamous for their treatment of mages. From what my apprentice Muri told me of your meeting, you weren’t very fond of the idea of your Patriarch associating with someone who knew magic.”

Vinsah inhaled deeply and let it go in a rumbling sigh. “Yes, I know. I know. But Akabaieth came here to try and change all that, and I intend to try and follow that. Since coming to after the attack, half transformed into my current form, I’ve learned a lot about the people here. Whether I ever wanted it or not, Metamor is my home now. I’m doing all I can for our people, Rick.”

“So what are you doing? Offering comfort for the spirit?”

“Body and spirit,” the cleric answered. “In these times people need comfort for both.”


Rickkter turned back.

“No hard feelings about my lying to you the whole time?”

“None,” the grey raccoon admitted with a smirk. “After what happened to the rest of your caravan, I don’t blame you for hiding who you were. There’s not a man, woman, or child here without secrets, Vinsah. Personally I believe we’re all entitled to have them. Though I am glad you told me the truth yourself.” He nodded. “I’ll see you when this is all over.”

“May the Lord protect and watch over you,” said Vinsah as he made the sign of the cross. “See that you don’t get killed.”

Rickkter smiled back, his tail wagging slightly behind him. “That’s the motto I live by.”

"Now trust me, Misha, this is very simple," Rickkter explained, gesturing with his small knife for emphasis. The raccoon and fox were in a small store room with the Moranasi acolyte strapped to a heavy oak chair in the center. Her legs and arms were securely tied to the chair and the bag had been removed, through her gag was still in place. She was seated in a circle of intense white light in the otherwise pitch black room, watching the two who had brought her here where they stood at the edge of the dark deciding her fate.

The fox-man crossed his arms and gave the woman a look of distaste. "Um, I don't know. Seems barbaric. Not to mention very messy."

"And that is why it'll work. Truth spells can be circumnavigated, I should know. Besides, we would still have to get her to speak on that topic. She could just as easily remain silent the whole time."

"But still, why not use one here? Wouldn't this just enhance the effect?"

"As I said, they can still be worked around. It would just make us think that she is telling the truth, and then where would we be? No, I've found this way much better, even if it does get a little messy. I'm glad the Lightbringer was able to lend us these old clothes for that, though."

Merai crouched in one darkened corner of the room behind the prisoner, listening to the dialogue between the two warriors. David was at her side, what little light that filtered into the darkness gleaming occasionally on his carapace. Both of them had been in the room since before the prisoner was brought in and she was certain they had not been noticed. Merai could understand why Raven had insisted that Rickkter be given free rein in the interrogation, though she had been rather dubious before hearing the full extent of the plan. David had told it to her while setting the spells to the room. She had to give the mage credit for ambience; the single intense light web he had woven on the ceiling, and the darkness spells cast elsewhere, gave the storeroom the perfect atmosphere of a dungeon inquisition chamber. Now all she had to do was pay attention to the protective Moranasi spell.

"Okay, true," the fox eventually conceded. "So where do we start? Knock out a few teeth perhaps?"

"No, the best place to start is the hands. Not only are they not vital, and the person can still watch and hear everything that is going on, but the pain is tremendous! If done right, one doesn't even have to go beyond that!"

"She can still lie to us, you know. And I've broken fingers before, it's not that bad."

"Who said anything about breaking? No, we're going to cut them clean off. What did you think this was for?" he asked, brandishing the knife.

Merai fidgeted a little, trying to keep her mind off Rickkter's rather graphic instructions for physical torture and on the mind of the Moranasi acolyte before her. It was her job to use her aura-sight to gently probe the prisoner while Rickkter and Misha distracted her, waiting until the right thoughts floated to the surface before breaking the Moranasi shield and telling David to trigger the telepathy spell to snatch those thoughts right from the prisoner's mind.

Rickkter held up his little finger and held the knife blade against the underside of his bottom knuckle. "First, you cut off the little finger, like so." He pulled the knife across in a mock cutting motion. "Now that hurts. A LOT. Far, far more than simply breaking the bone. The fingers are very sensitive, Misha. After that- " he turned to the seated woman, "I hope you're paying attention to this part– we skip all the other fingers and threaten to move right to the thumb."

Merai and David could hear the woman pull in a sharp breath through her nose. The entire room reeked with the smell of sweat and fear. At least the prisoner had not soiled herself, though by the way Rickkter and Misha were going she couldn't be that far away.

The fox shook his head again, his bushy tail lashing around his legs. "I STILL don't think that will work, Rick."

"Just wait! I've done this before, and I know that it will. A person will sell out their own mother rather than face the pain of having their thumb cut off. And if not, we still have three other fingers to work with and the whole other hand. And then the rest. Trust me."

"Trust me, he says." Misha looked at the panic-stricken woman in the wooden chair, jerking against the ropes. His steely, gray eyes catching the harsh white illumination and boring into the Moranasi. "Okay, you're on. I want to see this in action."


Rickkter stepped into the center of the circle and took the woman's hand in his paw. She tried to fight him, trashing about harder in the chair. But the knots that Misha had tied her down with were too good, too confining, and she wasn't able to do anything. She tried to scratch the raccoon's hand with her nails, but he just used his own leverage to bend her fingers back to near the breaking point.

"Shouldn't we take the gag off now? In case she wants to tell us something?"

"With hearing like yours, and in a room like this, you want to listen to her scream when I cut this off?"

"Good point."

The prisoner's thoughts were coming hard and fast to Merai, boiling right through the Moranasi mind shield. Most of them centered around doing anything to avoid the pain that was to come. She was on the verge of telling Rickkter or Misha anything they wanted, and truthfully telling it as well. Merai placed her paw on one of David's arms, leaning in close to whisper. The time to act would be soon.

Rickkter placed the needle point of his knife against the webbing of her left little finger and the ring finger, pressing her hand against the arm of the chair to control its shaking. He leaned the edge against the flesh, drawing a fine trickle of blood. When he looked into her eyes, he could clearly see the utter panic there, and hear her breath rushing in through her dilated nostrils. She in turn looked into the madness of those brown eyes. And then the raccoon smiled.

"It's nothing personal, you know. We just want the truth about where your masters are hiding." He bent back to the task at hand. "But we have to do this."

The spells practically crumbled before the poor girl's frantic mind, much to Merai's own relief. "Now," she whispered to the crouched ant beside her.

The woman was screaming through her gag at Rickkter when, all of a sudden, her back bowed and her whole body went rigid. Merai could imagine her eyes rolling back in her head as she saw the aura of David's magic envelop her. After a few seconds the prisoner went limp.

The raccoon looked over the woman's shoulder to where he knew the cleric and the other mage were waiting. "You got it?"

"We got it," David called back.

"Oh, good." He straightened up and wiped off the little blood on his knife on the Moranasi's cloak and patted her shoulder. "No offense, dear, but I've already gotten bloody enough recently, and I really don't look forward to cleaning it out of my fur any more."

The woman in the chair gaped at him and then started looking around the room, wildly twisting her head as she tried to spot the other two in the darkness. She was yelling something also, and Misha stepped forward to remove her gag.

"Bah! A trick?!" she shouted. "This was all a trick?!"

"Yup," Misha proudly proclaimed as the Lightbringer and mage came to stand with him and Rick, all four gathered just within the range of the light web. "We had David here use a telepathy spell to steal the information from your mind while Rickkter and I distracted you. We figured that you couldn't hide from a telepathy spell behind your own shields if one, you weren't expecting it, and two, you had something else to focus on. I think it all worked pretty well, considering." The four started out of the room to find someone to untie the prisoner and move her to a more acceptable cell.

"Considering? Considering what?!" she shouted at their backs.

"Considering that we both wanted to do it for real." The fox paused.

"And if that trick hadn’t of worked we would have. God forgive me, but we would have."

The prisoner sat in stunned silence for a moment and then started to cry.

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

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