The Winter Assault

Part 23

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

Divine Intervention

With just a hint of hesitation, Raven lit the incense offering and sat back on her heels before the altar, softly speaking the final words of the ancient prayer. She had never performed this particular summoning before— had never seen Him before— and she was just a little uneasy about the whole matter. Still, under the circumstances she had little choice.

In the apse on the far side of the altar, a thick gray fog began spilling through the semicircular window. It rolled across the floor of the hall with a quiet whisper of wind, until Raven was surrounded by it on all sides. Respectfully, she lowered her head.

Moments later, a deep, strong voice echoed through the room. "You summoned me, Raven hin'Elric?"

"Lord Dokorath," Raven said quietly. "You honor me with your presence."

"That," the voice said sternly, "was not an answer."

The priestess swallowed. "Aye, my lord. It was I who summoned you."

"To what purpose?"

"To ask for your assistance in our battle. The Wizard's forces are attempting to paralyze the Lady Kyia."

A pause. "And why should I care what befalls that little will o'wisp?"

Raven's ear twitched, as something unpleasant flickered through the Keep's aura around her. "Because, my lord," she said, "the mages doing the deed are Moranasi."

Another pause, this one far longer. "Lift up your head, Raven."

The wolf-woman did so— and for the first time, beheld the God of War in person. She was quite surprised at what she saw. While his appearance was largely just as the books described him— tall, broad-shouldered, and dressed in full battle armor and a helm that obscured his face— he looked as if he had been through all nine hells and back again. His armor was blackened, dented and scarred in dozens of places from head to toe, and the broadsword he wore at his side was marred by nicks all along its length.

"My lord?" Raven breathed. "What happened?"

"It is none of your concern," Dokorath said, waving his hand dismissively. "Despite my appearance, I am nearly recovered from that ... incident. You say that the Moranasi are here?"

"Aye, my lord. A full circle of them," the priestess said, nodding. "They have cast a spell to freeze the structure of Metamor, and are slowly expanding it by placing relays throughout the Keep. We know where they plan to cast their next spell, and we intend to strike before they complete it— but we cannot win without your help, my lord."

The war-god grinned, his perfect teeth glistening white within the shadows cast by his helmet. "To wipe six Moranasi from the face of this planet, I will gladly provide it," he said. "But they must be completely destroyed, and any of their possessions which you recover must be burned in sacrifice to me."

"It shall be done, my lord."

"Very good." Coming down from the pedestal to stand beside the altar, Dokorath placed a gauntleted hand on its polished granite surface. It flared with a sudden white light, then faded.

"For the next twenty-four hours, any weapon you place on the altar and bless in my name will be filled with a measure of my power," he said. "They will protect your warriors from the Moranasi's spells, though only in part. The blades themselves will cut like mithril until they are broken or the Moranasi have been destroyed."

Approaching Raven more closely, the armored being placed two fingers to her forehead. Instantly, she felt divine power flow into her. She closed her eyes, reveling in the sensation as the energy filled her being.

"Share this blessing with your comrades in arms," Dokorath said soberly. "If they will not accept it, it will return to you."

"Aye, my lord," she murmured. "It shall be done."

"Fight well, Raven hin'Elric."

There was another rush of wind, and Raven opened her eyes to see that both the fog and the war-god had vanished. Turning her aura-sight upon the altar, she could see Dokorath's energy crawling over it like a living thing. Smiling, she extinguished the incense and rose to her feet. The time to strike was coming, and there was still much to be done.

To Arms

Daria stood before the altar in the Lightbringer temple, Rickkter and the other members of her strike team to her right. Merai stood to her left, her linen robes replaced by the more practical tunic, jerkin and leggings of a field cleric. Behind them were a group of about forty volunteers recruited from among the refugees in both the temple and the Patildor cathedral. At the back of the room stood the Long Scouts, Misha at their head. She wondered what the fox must be feeling, a devout Follower accepting the blessing of a Lightbringer god. Strange even for Metamor, but war did make strange bedfellows. She put those thoughts out of her mind and turned to the front of the room.

Standing behind the altar, facing them all, was the Lothanasa. She, too, was dressed as a field cleric, her long hair tied back into a ponytail. A sword with a dragon-shaped handle hung in a scabbard at her belt.

Everyone assembled already knew why they were here, of course. The group's weapons had already received the blessing of Dokorath— though the Patildor among them only knew that they had been magically enhanced to do battle with the Moranasi, which was true— and they were now awaiting any final words from the Lightbringer.

"As I said once before, speeches will matter little in deciding the outcome of a battle," Raven said. "I shall not bore you with any further words, except to bless you for combat in the name of Lord Dokorath. If you wish to accept this, then accept it; if not, then refuse it. You need not say or do anything— the attitude of your heart will be enough."

The priestess stretched out her hands towards the group, and Daria bowed her head and closed her eyes. Raven spoke a good number of words very quickly in a language that Daria could not understand, and within moments she felt new strength and stamina fill her limbs.

After a moment of silence, the Lightbringer spoke again. "Now. Let us go forth ... to victory."

She strode to the back of the hall, nodded to Misha, and walked beside him as they filed out of the temple and through the narrow entrance corridor to the hallway outside. Father Hough was waiting beside the gates of the Temple, and he nodded respectfully to Raven as she went past. As Daria and her team slowly made their way forward, bringing up the rear behind the new recruits, she saw the boy-priest blessing the Patildor warriors as they walked by. She saw Misha again, kneeling in front of the Father, his great axe resting beside him.

"I guess they figure we need all the gods we can get on our side, eh?" Rick remarked.

Daria smirked. "Aye. Let's hope that the Shadow Bringers aren't doing the same thing."

Rickkter laughed and pointed as Hough the priest moved to the next warrior. “Even if they do, we’ll still have one more on our side.”

Once everyone was outside, Daria and her comrades filtered up to the front of the group to join Raven and the Long Scouts.

"Everyone is ready, Madam Lightbringer," she reported.

"Very well, then, Squire. We are right behind you."

Nodding once, Daria grasped the Key and began to open the passage.

Merai ran her fingers along the expander bow at her belt, feeling its cool metal beneath the soft pads of her fingertips. This was the first real combat situation she had ever seen— well, not counting the skirmish with the Hound back on Daedra'kema. She had been trained extensively, much of it under Master Misha's tutelage, but she still wasn't sure how she would handle an actual battle. In the end, though, Raven and Daria were by her side, and that went a long way towards easing her doubts.

Daria paused at the wall before her, placing her hand up against it. She turned to the rest of the group.

"Make ready," she whispered.

All along the broad, empty room they had assembled in, the soldiers and civilian warriors took out their swords, knives, maces, axes, bows— whatever weapon they had chosen to be blessed by Dokorath. They were gathered in small groups at various points along the wall, the idea being to attack the Moranasi from several angles. Merai took the bow from her belt and pressed the activation seal, expanding it to its full five-foot length. Opening the quiver on her back, she nocked an arrow and waited.

When everyone had signaled that they were ready, Daria held up her free hand. Three fingers ... two ... one...

The wall suddenly disappeared in front of Merai, and she rushed forward into the room with the others.

David could feel the mana around him as soon as he entered the room: a black, evil weave of magicka that prodded like icy fingers between the hardened plates of his neck and back. He could see the six hooded figures ahead of him, standing in a circle in the middle of the room. While he was blind to the intricacies of magic and could not recognize a spell on "sight", he had an instinctive ability to sense the mana around him— and right now his instincts were telling him that something very bad was beginning to take shape.

A rush of thoughts whirled through his mind. He'd discovered some time ago that he had a natural, subconscious tendency to absorb, shape or dissipate the mana in any offensive spell directed at him, a "defense mechanism" of sorts that allowed him to weaken fireballs and other magical assaults. If he could tap into that now...

Letting his large black eyes go blank— as an ant, it was impossible for him to close them— David stretched out towards the spell he felt forming around him. Something tugged at the corners of his mind, just slightly, and his mind abruptly tugged back in reflex. David followed that motion, consciously strengthening the "pull" that his subconscious had begun, and the trickle of mana widened into a stream.

David felt the magical energy filling his body, as he drained it out of the Moranasi spell. Unconsciously, he subtly altered the shape of the mana as he absorbed it, changing it from a black-aspected form to a neutral one. In the room around him, he sensed the spell falter, crack, and finally crumble— and the forming relay vanished like a puff of smoke.

Merai watched with her aura-sight as David reached out and dismantled the Moranasi spell, draining it of mana in a matter of seconds. The enemy mages turned towards him, looking startled, and for a moment stood motionless as the Keepers began firing arrows in their direction.

The enemy soldiers standing guard in the room— perhaps two dozen or so— quickly snapped out of their own confusion at the surprise attack and rushed toward the Keepers with a roar. Raising her bow, Merai took aim at the nearest enemy soldier, fired—

And in that instant the Moranasi raised their hands in unison and disappeared within an orb of black.

The arrow hit the soldier in the gut, and he staggered backward under the impact. Astonished, Merai peered more closely at the dark mass that filled the center of the room— and suddenly realized that it wasn't a mass at all. It was just a volume of space that was completely and utterly black. It flickered and swirled around the edges, like a mass of inky fog somehow being contained within a roughly spherical area, but no light whatsoever passed through its surface. Not even Merai's aura-sight could penetrate it, though it was clear that daedric power was woven through it.

A fireball came screaming out of the black space, striking down one of the Keeper soldiers, and with a grimace Merai realized that the darkness was apparently not hindering the Moranasi in the least. As she fired another arrow, she noticed David's aura reaching out again, trying to absorb the spell.

Something was different this time, though, and the expression of worry that Merai could sense in David's thoughts clearly showed it. She knew that daedric magic, like the divine magic used by the Lothanasi, was based not on mana but on the inherent energies of the god or daedra who provided the spell. If David was trying to absorb those energies...

"David, let go!" Merai shouted, taking another shot at an approaching soldier as she did so.

The ant's mandibles twitched. "... can't ..." he gasped, his voice sounding heavily strained.

With a heroic effort, David tugged harder at the darkness spell, forcing the strange magical energies to unravel as he absorbed as much as he could bear. The black cloud dissipated in response, spreading throughout the room but also thinning into a shadowed gloom that her catlike eyes could easily see through. Then, with a sound like a choked whimper, David collapsed to the floor, his body twitching with daedric energy. The entire process had taken no more than twenty seconds.

Clenching her teeth, Merai turned her attention back to the battle at hand. There was nothing she could do for him now, and there was still a more immediate threat to deal with. Seeing that the enemy foot soldiers were tangled up in hand-to-hand combat with the Keeper troops, she decided that she was relatively safe for the moment. Raising her bow, she aimed for one of the Moranasi, who still stood silently in the middle of the room. She let the arrow go, readied another one, fired, readied another one, no longer analyzing, hardly even thinking, just shooting at those dark things that weren't Keepers...

She continued until she finally reached back to her quiver and could find no more arrows to shoot. Collapsing her bow again, she returned it to her belt and took her little sword out of its scabbard...

A tingle of danger behind her, and she leaped forward, spinning around just in time to see the enemy soldier's sword cut through empty air. She hadn't seen him coming— seemed like there were more soldiers now, they must have heard all of the shouting and screaming going on— swinging her sword, blocking the soldier's blow, spinning, moving very fast, Dokorath's blessing, slash, slash, block, slash, thrust— oh, gods, that was blood, real blood, running down the soldier's chest— and then the training took over, and she pulled her sword out, grimly realizing that there was no time to think about such things. She went looking for another target, rushing back into the battle...

Chaos. Utter chaos, all of it. Looking back on it afterwards, she could remember only flashes: Rickkter, sword in hand, dueling with a woman who must have been one of the Moranasi masters. Raven, howling as she threw streams of fire against the enemy mages, the roar of the flames mixing with the shouts and screams of battle. Bradfox, cursing as he fired arrows into the battle— then screaming as his arms and legs suddenly withered before his eyes, and he collapsed in a heap against the far wall of the room. Starling, blocking arrows and spells with her eldritch shield, protecting Daria and herself even as she breathed out fire against their enemies.

One moment in particular stood out in Merai's mind, as she found herself face to face with one of the enemy mages. He stretched out a hand against her, launching some kind of spell; she instantly blocked it, then manipulated the energy of her shield to "shove" him backwards, turning the defensive spell into an offensive one. He stretched out his hand again, an expression of seething hatred on his face—

Then screamed, as a steely gray blur rushed at him from Merai's right, striking him squarely in the chest. The man toppled backwards, and Merai saw that it was Madog, the fox-shaped automaton, who stood over him with teeth bared.

"NA TO SHO TALA! YOU HURT FRIEND!" he shouted, the metallic voice rising above the roar of combat. "You hurt Kyia!" An ominous red glare lit the automaton's eyes. "You no hurt her again."

Then Madog seized the mage's arm and bit down hard, tearing the limb off in a spray of blood. The Shadow Bringer screamed, lashing out with his remaining hand, but the spells glanced off of the metal fox's enchanted body like rain off a slate roof. If the magic affected Madog he didn’t show it. Quickly the automaton shifted his focus, and the other arm was gone as well.

Merai stood there, dumbstruck, watching as the peaceful creature who would never hurt a fly systematically dismembered the helpless, shrieking Moranasi, throwing the bloody pieces away like so much trash. At last, Madog seized the man's head, snapping it off and finally silencing his screams. Moments later the man's entire body was scattered, leaving only tattered shreds of fabric and flesh and a pool of blood behind. Then the automaton disappeared into the battle again. Merai shook herself out of her daze and did likewise.

Some time later— minutes or hours, Merai wasn't sure— she found herself standing in a sea of bodies, watching as two of the dark-robed figures seemed to disappear into the walls. The other four lay dead, along with dozens of warriors— enemy and Keeper alike.

Rickkter swore vehemently as he watched his opponent make her escape. "I almost had her," he muttered.

"They won't get far," Raven assured him. "Kyia will make certain of that."

Merai blinked in surprise. Kyia? she thought. But...

And then she realized: four of the Moranasi circle had been killed. The harmonics of the spell had been broken. Kyia was free. Somehow, they had won. "We won," she said, half in disbelief.

Looking down at the floor, she saw the bodies of Keepers lying crumpled and bleeding on the floor. Patildor and Lothanasi alike— together in death.

"... we won," she whispered.

A low, muffled groan on the other side of the room shook Merai out of her reverie.

"Oh, gods," she gasped. "David!"

Running over to where the ant-man lay crumpled on the ground, she knelt beside him and placed a hand on his armored chest. Black, malevolent energy pulsated through his body, gnawing away at his insides like a living thing.

"David, can you hear me?" she asked.

The warrior moaned in response. Merai grimaced, placing her other hand on his forehead.

"Just hold on, David. I shall try to ... do something," she muttered under her breath.

Merai examined him with her aura-sight, projecting her consciousness down and to the left for a closer look. Tentatively, she reached out for one of the strands of darkness that had wrapped itself around David's aura. It drew back from her as her mind touched it, but at the same time she felt a strange tugging within herself. The light that had saturated her when she became a priestess— a swirling body of energy, like a little star knitted into her very soul— flared up vibrantly as she made contact with the daedric power that filled David's body. What was more, that light seemed to be pushing and pulling at the energy of Dokorath's blessing that rested on her own body ... almost as if it was trying to create some sort of channel...

That's it, she thought. Almost instinctively, without even really understanding how, she began shaping the divine energies around herself into a funnel, of sorts, with that brilliant soul-star at the bottom. Immediately the strands of daedric energy began drifting toward the metaphysical funnel she had constructed, drawn to the star inside her like iron filings to a lodestone. As that energy drew near her its blackness began to fade— and by the time it disappeared inside her there was nothing left of it but pure, untainted power.

When all of Ba'al's energy had been drawn off of David's body, Merai allowed the funnel to relax into its normal state. As the blessing of Dokorath fell once more into place around her aura, Merai drew her consciousness out and to the right, returning fully to her own body.

A few seconds later, David's antennae twitched.

"Are you all right?" she asked him.

"Ugh. I ... I think so," he groaned, wearily pushing himself up into a seated posture. "Thank you. How did you do that?"

Merai thought back on what she'd done: taking the energy of a daedra lord and somehow converting it into something neutral, then binding it into her own soul. She had never heard of anything like it before— and yet it had come so naturally, so easily, as if it was as normal a thing as breathing.

She looked at his large, black eyes, seeing her own awed expression reflected in their glossy surface.

"I don't know," she said.

Daria once again found herself sitting on the Temple floor, watching as the Lightbringers and healers tried to put her fellow warriors back together again. At the moment, Brad was screaming under Raven's tender ministrations as she worked to restore life to his withered limbs. Wincing, the redhead averted her eyes. Praise the gods that such a horrible thing could be undone, but the cure was as painful as the original spell!

Elsewhere, Garulf was being treated for a few broken bones he had suffered when one of the Moranasi threw him against a stone wall. Daria had no idea how the scrawny mage had accomplished that, but she decided that she probably didn't want to know. As for herself, the young warrior had gotten away with only a few minor slashes to her arms and legs. After her shattered ribs in the previous battle, she considered herself exceedingly lucky.

Most of the rest of their group hadn't been so fortunate. Daria's strike team would be in no position to fight again as a unit any time soon: Weyden was seriously wounded, and Brad would be in recovery from his ordeal for days. All told, twenty Keepers had been killed in the assault, and a good number of the survivors were severely injured. Daria didn't know most of the victims— although one had been a member of the royal guard like her father— but that didn't make the loss any less real.

Her father. Out there on the battlements when Nasoj's army struck. Gods, she hoped he was all right.

She wasn't sure how long she sat there before a rustle of clothing at her side stirred her to awareness again. Merai sat down beside her, her long feline tail looking agitated. Neither of them spoke for a while.

"How do you do it?" the cat-girl asked, her voice hoarse and barely more than a whisper.

Daria frowned. "What?"

"You know." Merai gestured vaguely. "Fight. Kill."

The warrior woman shook her head, making a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. "We don't exactly have much of a choice, do we?"

"I don't mean that. Of course we have to fight Nasoj. But how do you do it? How can you handle all of the pain, all of the death? How do you look at yourself in the mirror, knowing that you've killed people?"

Daria thought about it a moment, then shrugged. "I don't know. You can't really stop to think about it. They're trying to kill us. We have to kill them first. Maybe someday it will come back to haunt me, but not now. Not with my home and my liege counting on me to protect them."

Slowly, Merai nodded. "And how do you deal watching your friends die?"

The redhead clenched her jaw, as painful memories of Private Morel's death came rushing back. " 'Tis hard," she admitted softly. "But I have to remember my duty. I can do nothing to help the dead, but I may yet be able to help save the living." She looked up at the window at the front of the temple. The snow had stopped some time ago, and the patch of sky she could see from where she was sitting looked clear and blue. "There will be time to grieve later," she said.

Daria felt soft leathery pads against her skin. Looking down, she saw Merai's tawny-furred hand clasping her own. The young priestess squeezed her hand once, smiling sadly. The gesture said more than words ever could.

Sitting together in silence, they watched the healers continue their work.

December 27, 706

Glen Avery

Baron Calephas did not need to touch the back of his head to know that there was a large lump there; the throbbing pain that raced through his skull with each heartbeat told him exactly where he had been hit, and rather pointedly how hard the blow had been. He blinked groggily and dark images flashed before his eyes, a subtle play of light cast in lines before him, showing the rings of hollowed out wood. Memories swirled through his skull despite the prodigious bruise, flashes of the scene at the bridge crossing the chasm to the South. Vaguely he recalled that the Metamorians had been trying to torch it, but then had gone rather suddenly and painfully dark. Had a missile he had not seen struck him?

More importantly, where was he now? Calephas raised his head slowly up, trying to rub the sleep from his eyes with one hand. Yet his hand did not want to come to his face. With a start he realized that his hands were bound tightly behind him as he lay on one side. Rolling over on the flat wood, he pushed himself into a sitting position, stretching his shoulders as far as they’d dare go. Rubbing his fingers along the thick rope, he tried to hide his smile. These would not take him terribly long to undo.

Gazing up and about the tree’s interior he saw that there was only a single exit with a tiny, barred hole in it that offered his prison a feeble illumination, leaving much of the small chamber shrouded in deep shadow. The iron door was set firmly into the base of the tree, and no hinges were visible from that side. He secretly smiled at that but remained otherwise silent. It was clear to him now that somehow the Keepers had captured him and were holding him prisoner. Most likely they would try to discern what he knew of the attack on the Keep itself, and he hoped that they asked him.

It was terribly cold though, and as he shifted about in his thick woollen jacket he could feel the iciness of the weather sink through to his very bones. The cell was obviously somewhere outside, even though he could not make out any details outside. Given that he was imprisoned within a tree, though, he decided that he was probably at Glen Avery, for those folks had made the forest their home in more ways than one. That was good as well, for he knew the land around Glen Avery fairly decently.

Shadows passed before the narrow grate set in the iron door and Calephas straightened his back. He heard a metallic bolt shift about and soon the door swung outwards, allowing the meagre light to chase the shadows from the tiny cell. Without a word two figures walked inside and the door was slammed shut with a loud ringing, as if to emphasize his imprisonment. Garadan Calephas was unconcerned with that of course, instead turning his attention to the two figures that had joined him in the shadows.

They were an interesting pair, one large and swarthy while the other was lithe and narrow. They sat down before him, the larger of the two resting a black-furred paw on the pommel of the great sword resting in his lap. The other had a long tail that flitted back and forth behind his head, almost like a billowing cape. It only too the Baron a few moments to realise just who they were, even in the darkness of the cell they all now shared.

“Good to see you again, Lord Avery,” he said, doing his best to sound cordial. “How are your children?”

The squirrel started at that, and the badger sitting at his side drew his claws along the length of the blade, sending a strident squeal lancing about the dim prison. Calephas kept his face level though, knowing that his barb had stung as he had hoped. Lord Avery was quick to muster his own reserve though. “Safe, now that monsters like you have been caged. I suppose you know why you are still alive.”

Calephas stretched his back rather nonchalantly, fingers caressing the knot behind him deftly, tracing along it. It would take him some time to untie of course, and it was a long way back to his forces at the Dike. “Of course, you wish to interrogate me.”

The badger gripped the pommel of his sword, the leather creaking under his crushing grip. “I was thinking first we might rid the world of your filthy plaything first.” Calephas actually blinked at that and said nothing else for a moment. The last thing he wanted to do was to anger them enough to follow through on that threat.

Lord Avery let out a soft chuckle. “I see that we have your attention now; good.”

“Hardly,” Calephas countered, narrowing his gaze. “Before I say anything, I want your assurance that my two human sergeants will not be held here or interrogated any further. They know noting of the plans and the arrangement of the forces. The only one who did was myself, so if you want to know any of that, you will have to ask me. And I will say nothing until you let them go.”

Both the Glenners looked at each other for a moment in surprise, just as he had hoped. The more he kept them off-balance the more they could reveal to him. A silent communication passed between them for a few moments while Calephas fiddled with the ropes that bound him. He had no desire to get them too loose while that badger sat there with his sword in his lap, so did so as discreetly as possible, only tugging on them enough to see how they moved in and out of each other.

The animal morphs returned their gazes upon the Baron, the look of distaste mollified slightly, though now more uncertain than anything else. “We have already seen to that. They are being taken care of currently, and we will see to it that they are put outside the boundaries of the curse once we have what we need from you.”

Calephas nodded, though he had expected them to haggle the point for a few moments first. It was not important anyway, as he could find equally competent sergeants when he returned to the Dike. Considering the two Glenners before him, he leaned back slightly, shivering as a blast of cold air filtered through the grate. It was even worse in Arabarb, but at least there he could sit beside a roaring fire or lay beneath thick quilts while one of the local boys saw to his needs. “So, what do you wish to know?”

“How many enclaves have you set up in the Valley? We know your supply line began at the Dike, where you have considerable force. Where else do you have troops stationed?”

As he saw no point in lying about this, Calephas shrugged. “Most of the rest are at Metamor. There was no need to subjugate the northern villages as we had done the last time. Metamor is the nexus of this Valley’s defence. If it falls, the Valley falls as well.”

“So the only other troops that Nasoj has are at the Dike?” Avery pressed.

“That’s where I left them, yes. Though there are two other outposts we’ve taken and garrisoned.”

“And where are they?” Avery asked, leaning forward slightly, his claws scratching against the circles of wood.

Calephas drummed his fingers upon the coarse twists of the rope binding him. If they were to do as he wanted they would need incentive. Making a quick decision, he said in a droll tone, “We have troops stationed at the first watchtower on the North side of the Keep, just to make sure that none of the other villages attempt to outflank us. The second is another relay station along the road, a few hours South from this point.”

“What are they doing there?” the badger prodded.

“They receive the supplies and send them on. As I said, a relay point to freshen our horses and to keep the lines of communication open.”

Avery crossed his arms. “Then why haven’t they sent troops North to see why the supply shipments have stopped?”

Calephas laughed bitterly at that. ”Lutins are not terribly bright as a race. Their orders were to stay there in case our forces at Metamor needed to get word to the North, regardless of anything else. They’re not likely to disobey that.”

“How many troops are at this relay station?”

“As many as held the bridge, about three dozen, with half that number scouting the perimeter.”

The badger and squirrel held another silent conference between their eyes, and then some decision was reached between them. Turning back to the Baron, Lord Avery asked, “How many troops does Nasoj have at Metamor?”

Calephas rolled his eyes back slightly as he resurrected the numbers in his head. After a moment, his light tenor began to rattle of the figures, “Several thousand Lutins, with a few hounds per squadron of Lutins, at least a hundred human mercenaries, assassins, and the like, and about a dozen mages.”

“Is Nasoj himself at Metamor?” the badger then growled, his thumb trailing along the thick leather wound tightly about the hilt of his blade.

Calephas closed his mouth tightly, eyes firmly set upon the dark tree rings before him, and upon neither the badger nor the squirrel. Depending on how affairs were working out at Metamor, Nasoj was either going to be handing down rewards, or punishing those who had survived. Inevitably his ordeal here would be revealed and the truth of it strained through some particularly vile magic. He had to know what the Glenners intended to do with his information, so that he might slant it and use it against them later.

Sensing an ambuscade in the making, Calephas ground his teeth together, waiting for the Glenners to react to his silence. Lord Avery was quick to appease him, turning to the badger and giving him a meaningful look. Angus began to rise to his feet, the sword point levelled towards the Baron’s chest. Calephas continued to look away until the point pressed tightly against his shirt. A trickle of blood began to soak the wool against his skin.

“I’ll ask again,” Lord Avery said, his voice clam, though there was a slight burr to it. “Is Nasoj himself at Metamor?”

“Yes,” he barked out bitterly, and the sword point left his chest. He glared up at the badger, his eyes smouldering, though inside he could only laugh. Nasoj was quite a ways north of the Dike, letting his generals and mages do his own fighting for him. “I don’t know where in the Keep though. It depends on if Metamor has been taken or not.”

Angus snarled then. “I don’t believe that for a minute. You’ve been sending supplies back and forth. Surely you’ve heard something.”

Calephas glared indignantly at the irate badger, but kept his calm. “And the last I heard was that Metamor had not completely fallen yet.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Avery demanded.

“What I said, Metamor has not fallen completely yet. The town outside the castle is ours, but the castle itself is unclaimed.” He truly did not feel in the least bit traitorous for saying these things, for he doubted that the Glenners would be alive for much longer, at least not after he set his plan in motion. He simply had to satisfy them enough to get them to move, a tricky proposition at best.

Angus and Lord Avery shared another conference, gazing back at each other, their faces waxing between determination and uncertainty, gullibility and suspicion. Calephas said nothing more, for there was little need to at this point. Instead he watched them, noting the play of the feeble light upon their eyes and snouts, how it shined in the former, and cast the latter into vague shadows.

“How can we be sure what you are telling is the truth?” Angus declared suddenly, placing the tip of his sword beneath the startled Baron’s chin. The badger’s voice was full of disgust and loathing, and his eyes only betrayed his contempt for the man sitting before him.

“What reason do I have to lie?”

“Every reason in the world,” Angus snarled, pressing the icy tip against his neck. “You side with Nasoj, that makes you the enemy of every living being in this Valley, and in the world. What reason do you have to lie? Every damn one that a person can name, that’s what!”

Calephas stared, stony faced, back at the badger, noting the darkness of his face as he interposed himself between the Baron and the light. When the master of Arabarb finally spoke, he did so softly, but harshly. “If you are so convinced that everything I tell you is a lie, then why are you bothering to interrogate me? Do whatever you planned to do with me and get it over with.”

Lord Avery stood up then and placed a paw on the badger’s shoulder. Angus still had his sword pressed firmly against Calephas’s neck. “There is nothing more we can gain here. I think he has told us enough already.” Turning then to face the bound man, he spoke in tones that broached no argument. “I have no desire to kill you, Calephas. You will stay here, in this cell, until Metamor is freed, and you can stand trial for your crimes. I imagine the curse will give you a new form by then.”

Calephas nodded. “I’ll probably become a little boy, it would be fitting after all considering the hundreds I’ve taken to bed with me. It will be nice to feel that smooth flesh upon my own body, I’ve always thought one of the most alluring aspects of young boys is their sweet tenderness. Don’t you agree?” His tenor contained not a hint of mockery, but instead veiled itself behind a mask of honesty and simple-mindedness. The questions and statements were so frank though that they could do nothing but enrage the Lord further. After all, he had two young boys himself.

And it had the desired effect. Lord Avery stormed from the cell without another word, his tail flitting behind him in a terrible fury. Angus, however, sheathed his sword at his side and stared down at the bound noble with dark eyes gone as hard and cold as black ice. Then he brought his paw to one side and smacked Calephas across the cheek with the front of his palm with such force and speed it sent the baron tumbling away with a truly startled yelp. The claws dug into the man’s ear, rending it in two. Then the badger left as well, slamming the iron shut behind him. Stunned from the blow, Calephas could not hear the bolt as it rattled into place only seconds later.

Calephas lay face down on the ground feeling the sting of that blow ringing throughout his entire head. He supposed it was fortunate he came out with only a torn ear and aching skull. His healers in Arabarb were more than adequate at repairing the damage, but he would be left with a scar. It would not be his first though, which was a small consolation. Despite the ache of his head and neck and the sting of his savaged ear he figured the injury was not as great as others he could have received, so he put the wound from his mind.

He lay there on one side for a few moments and waited. There would surely be a guard at the door. Even so, he wished to stay safe in his prison until he was certain that Avery and the others had gone back to formulate their plans. He had his own to arrange, but they would have to wait a short while. So he lay there limply, closing his eyes to rest for a moment.

His own spies had learned a great deal about the Glen during his mission last April. Though it had been a disaster, and they suffered near total casualties, the information he had discovered about Lord Avery and his subjects had been invaluable. He could never have taunted Avery into storming off had he not known of his twin sons. With a bit of a grin he recalled that they were already squirrels too, like their parents. As he drifted off into light slumber he wondered just what it would be like to caress a soft furry rump than the smooth ones he was used to. Dreams of young squirrels brought a smile to his face.

Battle Lines

Metamor Keep

"What do you have to report, Misha?"

The battle-scarred fox rose and walked to the far end of the table, opposite Lord Thomas, his eyes hard and determined. Between the Long Scout and the Duke sat Father Hough, Raven, Rickkter, and Daria, on either side of the table in Hough's study. Daria was frankly feeling a little out of place among such important leaders, but the Duke had requested her presence personally.

"After interrogating our prisoners from the fight with the Shadow Bringers, we've learned the location of the enemy's command center," Misha said, gripping the edge of the table and leaning over the map that lay atop it. "There is a group of five high-ranking mages operating out of Barracks One, here. According to our sources, these mages are acting as the commanding officers for the entire assault. They're led by General Selig, one of Nasoj's old veterans. The mages are an unknown quantity, but the Lutin I know. He’s a very dangerous enemy."

"And now that Kyia has been freed, they are cut off from most of their forces," Raven added. "All of the gates and doors have been sealed. Nothing can get in or out."

"How many troops does the enemy still have in the Keep itself?" Thomas asked.

"We aren't entirely sure," Misha admitted. "Our best estimates indicate perhaps four hundred human troops, eight or nine hundred Lutins, and a small number of support units." He gestured at the map. "Of those troops, a mixed force of about three hundred is assaulting the Long House. The rest have withdrawn to the barracks itself, probably expecting an attack."

“Why are they only attacking Long House?” Rickkter asked interrupting the fox.

“Evidently Nasoj thinks that Long house is important enough to expend so much effort to take,” Misha replied.

“Why?” Hough asked. “What could be so valuable?”

“Metamor holds many treasures,” Raven answered enigmatically. “Some more valuable then others.”

Misha nodded in agreement but said nothing.

"If they are expecting an attack, then let us be sure we don't disappoint them," the Duke said evenly, changing the subject. He folded his hoof-like hands above the table and looked at the fox. "How many of our soldiers can you rally for this assault, Misha?"

The fox looked pensive for a moment. "Based on what we've seen while scouting ... perhaps two hundred regulars, another three hundred reserves and militia. The dire wolves may or may not help us, but I'll be satisfied as long as they aren't helping Nasoj. In terms of manpower, we have enough people to make it a decent fight. Our chain of command is in shambles, though, Sire— I can't guarantee that we'll be able to pull off anything elaborate."

The stallion twitched his ears in an expression of mild amusement. "Close-quarters combat in a confined area is seldom elaborate, Misha. Just do the best you can. I want every able-bodied soldier available to be a part of this."

"Aye, sir. They'll be there."

"Good. What's your plan of attack?"

Misha pointed on the map to a small room adjacent to Barracks One. "This guard room provides the most direct access to the barracks. It will be heavily guarded, but because of its size they won't be able to fit very many troops inside. I think a strong, veteran group can clear it with no trouble. There is another door at the other end of the barracks, but it usually leads to a small, narrow corridor that connects the barracks to the officers' quarters. It also leads to one of the small access doors to the outside of the Keep— a bolt-hole for the officers— but as Raven said, that door is sealed. Effectively, the enemy has shut itself into a den it can't get out of. He has nowhere to retreat to. That’s good and bad. The enemy can’t escape but it also means they have no choice but to stand and fight to the death.”

"Messy work," Daria murmured.

The fox nodded soberly. "This will be knife work, close and bloody. Very bloody, especially with wizards involved. Fortunately, the close quarters will keep them from using any large area-effect spells.”

“What concerns me is that the troops attacking Long House could come back and attack us from behind," Thomas gave Raven a serious look. "Lightbringer, can you assure us that Lady Kyia will keep that from happening?"

"She will," the wolf-woman said, eyes glittering coldly. "Kyia hates these intruders as much as we do, my liege. She can keep them running in circles forever, if need be."

“That will help," Misha nodded. "Once we kill the leaders, the rest will panic and
we can kill them at our leisure."

"What about the enemy forces outside the Keep?" Daria asked. "I realize they can't get in, but they could set up a siege and wait for reinforcements to arrive."

"What's the status of our own reinforcements?" Thomas asked.

"They could be here at any moment," Raven answered. "Now that the storm has lifted, they should be making good time. Once they arrive any attempt at a siege will be impossible."

"I still haven't seen any sign of help from the Mages' Guild," Misha added, "but that doesn't mean they aren't here."

The duke nodded. "We shall just have to hope they can take care of the forces outside, while we deal with those within. Continue, Misha."

"Aye, sir. Once the guard room is clear we will place the reserves and militia forces just outside it and muster our regulars here and here"— he pointed to two spots along the left side of the barracks— "along with most of our spell casters and archers. The remaining mages and archers will form a line at the main entrance, inside the guard room.

"When the signal is given, we'll open the front doors and the spell casters and archers will begin firing at the enemy. At the same time, Daria will use her Key to open holes in the wall at these points, and our ranged attackers there will set up a crossfire to eliminate as many of the enemy as quickly as possible."

"Will they be targeting the mages or the regular troops?" Daria asked.

"Primarily the regulars. For one thing, there are a lot more of them, and a dozen trained men with swords are as good as one mage in this sort of close-in fighting. For another thing, the mages will probably have shield spells to protect them from any direct attacks. We'll be better off using the mana where it will count. Plus I have a plan to get rid of the mages."

"All right," Thomas said. "How long do you plan to use the mages like this before pulling them back?"

"As long as they can keep the enemy at bay," Misha said. "Once they start getting drained, we'll pull them back and send in our foot soldiers. The archers will stay by the entrance points and scout for targets of opportunity.

“What about the Mages?” Rickkter asked. “They need to be removed quickly.”

“I intend to take out the general and most of the mages at the start."


“If they stay true to form,” fox explained. “We’ll find General Selig and the five remaining mages together in one, very well protected spot in the center. It won’t be hard for the Longs to get in and kill them.”

“How?” Daria asked. “They’ll be in the surrounded by all those Lutins.”

“I have a plan,” Misha said confidently but without explaining. “We’ll take him by surprise and kill them all before they can put up any resistance.”

Thomas nodded. “You make it sound easy.”

“It won’t be,” Misha said quietly sitting down in a chair. He leaned back and closed his eyes. As Daria watched the energy seemed to drain out of scout. He looked very tired and haggard.

“Are you all right?” The Duke asked.

“Just tired,” the vulpine said the weariness in his voice confirming the words.

“We’re all tired Misha,” the stallion commented.

“Llyn dead, Lisa – crippled, Ralls, injured and now Kershaw down. I’m running short of people. I need some help. More people. I wish George was here.”

“How many do you need?” The stallion asked.

“I could use one person, very good with a bow and sword.”

“I know of someone,” Raven said. “He just came to the temple a few hours ago. A fine hunter by the name of Padraic.”

Misha opened his eyes and seemed to perk up. “A brown rabbit from Ellingham?” he asked.

“You know him?”

“George and I have had our eyes on him for a while. Having him would be perfect,” the fox explained.

“I’ll inform him as soon as I return to the temple,” Raven answered.

“Thank you. It would greatly help us if she could do that.”

"What about you, Madam Lightbringer? What are your plans for this battle?" Thomas asked.

"Sister Merai and I shall deal with the two remaining Moranasi," the priestess replied smoothly. "I expect them to be in the barracks with the commanders, but if they should try to escape we will be ready for them."

Father Hough gave her a quizzical look. "I thought you said the Keep was sealed. How could they escape?"

Raven flicked one of her ears. "The old texts say that the Moranasi are extremely resourceful. They have spells that will enable them to escape almost any prison, though they are quite draining and used only in dire circumstances. They could escape through even a sealed door, though they could not take anyone with them."

The seeming-boy frowned. "Then why haven't they escaped already?"

The Lightbringer smiled thinly. "Most likely because they still suspect they can win. If they retreat now and Nasoj's forces still manage to achieve victory, they will be disgraced before their master— both for their cowardice and for allowing their four apprentices to die without retribution. If they wait until the Enemy is conclusively defeated, then they live to fight another day and lose nothing."

"But if they can escape so easily, how will you stop them?" Hough persisted.

Raven's smile grew wider and more mysterious. "We have our ways," she replied cryptically.

"Our key advantage in all of this," Misha said, "is the enemy's overconfidence. They didn't expect us to be able to do half of what we have already done. They certainly didn't expect Daria's Key— and thank Eli that Kee brought it here in the first place— and they probably aren't expecting whatever the Lightbringers have in store for them, either. I think that we should strike now— tonight, if possible— so that we can end this before they have a chance to come up with a new plan."

Thomas sat in silence for a few moments, then nodded. "Agreed. We shall not get a better opportunity than this." He looked up at the others. "Do what you have to do ... and may all the gods smile on us tonight."

"One thing,” Misha said interrupting the duke. There was a cold light in his eyes that made Daria shiver. "I need to make this perfectly clear. We are dealing with the leaders of this attack. Some of the most foul, vile and evil people alive. This is a battle of no quarter. No quarter asked, and none given. When the fighting starts, kill everything that lives," the fox said in a cold, heartless tone. "Take no prisoners and leave no survivors."

"Misha, we are not cruel monsters," the duke countered.

"We aren't, but our enemies are," the fox replied. "We have to destroy them utterly, wipe them out of existence." He held up a dagger its steel blade blackened to show no reflection. “To do that we have to be as hard and cold as steel. We won’t get another chance. We win or loose with this battle.”

A solemn air filled the temple as a long procession emerged from the Archives and filed out into the hallway outside. It was all very different from before. There were no speeches this time, no ceremonies— just the business of war, being carried out with quiet efficiency for the first time since the battle began. The Longs and the remaining members of Daria's otrinca squad had searched as much of the castle as time allowed, and dozens of ranking officers had been brought back to the temple to lead the mustering army. As Merai walked quietly with the rest of the group, she observed that there would be few people left in the temple when they departed. Lord Thomas was calling every able-bodied man and woman in Metamor to battle.

She looked up at her father, Dana, who was wearing his studded leather armor and carrying a long sword along with his expander bow. The man's gray eyes were serious and determined. She thought back to the time several days ago when Misha had turned him down for a place on Daria's team, saying that he was needed more as a father than a fighter. Now, it seemed, he would be called upon to fight anyway.

"Da?" she said softly.

He looked down at her, smiling gently. "Aye, honey?"

Merai grimaced, clenching her teeth and trying to force back the rush of fear that ran through her. "Be careful. Please?"

Dana reached out and hugged his daughter tightly. "I shall," he said.

Wordlessly, they drew out of the embrace and continued walking. In the flood of people, no one noticed the gray wolf slinking out the door behind them.

Adept Mistress Thryza prowled the edges of the barracks hall like a caged animal, nurturing her hatred into a quiet, simmering rage. The target of her anger was virtually irrelevant, and shifted with each passing step: The Horse-King who had dared to defy Lord Ba'al's chosen servant. Nasoj himself, for his idiotic misjudgment of the Keepers' abilities. Grand Master Polteen, for bringing her and her apprentices with him on this fool's errand. Rankin and Stenger, for allowing themselves to be killed by mundane warriors— and most of all, the Keepers who had slain them, putting to waste the years of training she had invested in them. The hatred churned and writhed inside her like a living thing, and with each passing moment it drew more of the Dark Prince's power into herself.

She would need every ounce of power she could get, Thryza thought bitterly, as she pushed aside an ogre who had gotten in her way. The towering brute reeled under the impact and fell to the floor, but it did not dare to make a sound in protest. In a way, Thryza found that a little disappointing. She would have liked the excuse to torture something right about now.

The door at the back of the hall opened and General Selig walked in, his little band of pet wizards following close behind. Thryza immediately veered to intercept them.

"Hail, General Selig! I trust the cowering is proceeding to your satisfaction?" she sneered.

Selig glared daggers at her. He was big for a Lutin, nearly as tall as she, and lately he had started refusing to bow his head before her. Maybe someone had finally told him that he was the one in charge of this debacle. Then again, maybe it was just that he didn't find her so imposing after she and her fellow Moranasi had been humiliated by a motley band of Keepers.

"This 'cowering', as you call it, is our best chance of preserving our foothold in the castle, Mistress," Selig said, his voice making clear how little value he placed on her title. "The Keepers must now make a choice: death now, or death later. If they attack us here, with our forces concentrated in one place, they will be crushed. If they postpone their attack, we will hold their castle under siege until the Dark Lord himself arrives."

Thryza frowned. "Nasoj is coming here?"

"We received word yesterday evening that another three thousand troops are coming to reinforce us," one of the mages said, standing impassively behind Selig with arms folded impassively in the billowing sleeves of his heavy velvet robes.

The Moranasi scoffed. "And you didn't tell him what's happened? We're losing, you idiots!"

"Do not take the failure of your mission to mean the failure of ours," Selig retorted. "We still hold every inch of ground we held before."

"But now that ground can slip through your fingers like sand!"

The Lutin smiled thinly. "The Keep cannot take us anywhere if we do not choose to move. When the Dark Lord arrives, he will penetrate Metamor's defenses and the rest of our troops will storm the castle. Nothing will save the Keepers then."

Thryza shook her head. "You're a bunch of damned fools, all of you. Once I take care of the ones that killed my pupils, I'm going to sit back and enjoy watching you die."

"We shall see, Mistress," Selig said, walking past her toward his chair in the middle of the room. The mages followed him, single file, all of them pointedly ignoring her murderous gaze.

Thryza turned her perceptions outward, sensing the hostile, swirling thoughts of the Keep itself— and somewhere, not far away, the minds of approaching Keepers, ready to fight.

"We certainly shall," she whispered.

The group that waited for Misha did so in the silence of worn and tired veterans. All of the remaining Long scouts were assembled together. Misha looked the group over. There was Meredith, Arla, and Laura sharing a bottle of ale. Nearby Jotham was examining a mace that he had captured. Danielle and Finbar were off in a corner by themselves, talking. Georgette and Caroline were eating a loaf of bread together, with some wine they had acquired somewhere. He also noticed far too many faces missing. Faces of people dead or wounded.

“Explain to me again what we’re going to do?” Georgette asked, chewing a piece of bread.

“We are going to kill General Selig before the main assault ,” Misha explained.

“I got that part,” the woman said. “My question is how? He’s surrounded by eight hundred Lutins, one hundred humans, and at least four ogres and a troll.”

“Let’s not forget the five mages too,” Meredith added.

“The big question is how do we do it?” Misha asked.

“You don’t know?” the bear asked.

“We have no option in this,” the fox answered. “These people are well prepared and fortified. The battle is going to be hard and bloody, with Selig in command it will impossible. If we can kill the leader when the attack starts it will throw them into confusion and give us a fighting chance to win.”

“That still doesn’t answer my question,” Georgette said. “How do we get past one thousand soldiers to kill him?”

“That’s easy,” Danielle said, speaking for the first time.

“Easy?” Laura asked as the whole room looked at the pine marten morph.

“They’re in a room, right? Rooms have ceilings and floors,” Danielle explained. We can knock a hole in the ceiling and dropped down on top of them.”

Laura smiled, “Death from above!”

In Long House

The next time the door opened the figure that entered wasn’t who they expected. “I see, Nasoj wasted his money on you two.”

“You told us that George was some drunken, old bandit, an easy kill,” Ferwig countered. “I think Nasoj wasted his money on you, traitor.”

The long scout’s eyes narrowed and the person stared at the fighter long and hard. “If you want to live I suggest you shut up and follow my orders. You can still earn your money.”

“How?” Teria asked.

“By helping me take Long House. In twenty minutes a large Lutin force will attack Long House through the front. While that’s going on I’ll let a group in through the backdoor. All you have to do is help us. Once the group is in we’ll kill anything that gets in our way.”

“Including George?” Ferwig asked.

The traitor laughed. “Yes, even George.”

The fighter and the mage exchanged looks.

“One question,” Teria asked. “Why are you doing this? Why betray your own people?”

“I want power and riches,” the scout answered. “I saw the power Nasoj gave to Loriod. If that fat fool can get such power, so can I, and I can do a lot better then he did.”

“There are other things besides power and riches,” Teria said. “But you’re too young to realize that.”

“Are you going to follow my commands or just lay there and preach.”

“As long as we get paid,” Ferwig said.

“Good,” the traitor replied. “First we’ll get your weapons, I have them stashed nearby.” Then he turned and left the cell.

Ferwig followed the scout out the door and into the hallway. A few short steps brought them to a small door. Moving quickly Ferwig rushed through into the room beyond and almost tripped over a body that lay sprawled on the floor. Looking at the corpse he recognized it as Janet, the lynx woman who had helped bring him in. The fighter stepped over the body and retrieved his weapons and equipment from the shelves they were resting on. Teria stepped over the corpse without pausing and retrieved her own items.

As they put their gear on Ferwig heard a low moan. Looking down he could see the felines arm move ever so slightly. “She’s still alive.”

The scout shrugged. “Not for long. I slit her throat.”

“Sloppy work,” Teria said adjusting the last strap.

“I’m not good at assassination, that’s Finbar’s job. If watching her die bothers you; kill her.”

Ferwig looked at Teria for a long moment. They had been together for a long time and no words were needed. He knew what she was thinking. “I’ll do it,” he said finally.

The fighter drew a dagger with his right hand and knelt down next to the feline placing himself between Janet and the traitor. He brought the dagger up over his head. With his left hand he grasped the lynx woman’s hand with surprising tenderness and he looked into her eyes. Something seemed to pass between them for a moment. Then the blade came down; Janet jerked once and lay still. Standing up he sheathed the blade and turned to the scout. “All right traitor, lets go to this back door and let this group in. The sooner we let them in the sooner Long house falls and we get paid.”

“We need to hurry,” the traitor said. “The main attack will start in a few minutes.” With those words he turned and left the room. The two mercenaries followed close behind.

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

« Previous Part
Next Part »