The Winter Assault

Part 24

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 – time indeterminate

Murikeer began to fear that the castle had, indeed, fallen to the enemy as he made his way through the corridors. Small clusters of Lutins, some accompanied by or accompanying human groups, moved like packs of feral dogs through the corridors. He could hear the sounds of battle from every side corridor he came to but did not deviate from his course to examine them. He had two goals set in his mind; the Long House, and Thorne. While he knew that Kyia, now that she had been freed from whatever magical imprisonment that had bound her, could guide him to the first goal he was not sure if she would be able to point him to Thorne directly.

If the Long House was the focus of their next offensive push then Thorne would be there, somewhere. The mages from the shop had said as much; he meant to join the main body of the attacking force. While he walked the skunk traced upon his chest with one claw, inscribing runework into his very flesh with the sharp tip of a claw. Into those rune structures he imbued as much magic as he could strip from the walls around him, turning the surface of the stone ashen gray and leaving a pall of dust in the air behind him. He suffered the small pains caused by his blood anchored spells, quickening shields both against magic and mundane threats. He was moving toward the amassed enemy and could no more use spells that could be woven by brief moments of concentration in the chaos of what could prove to be a considerable fight.

A handful of Lutins and two humans crashed through a doorway ahead of him and brought him to a halt. The humans were laughing at some shared joke while the Lutins, a bounty of captured vintage in their small hands, chorused at what luck had brought them two. The humans had naked swords glistening with fresh blood and the Lutins looked as if they had rolled in it. Before they realized that the corridor was not clear both of the humans were on the floor crumpled up around the steaming wreckage of their rib cages. The Lutins heard the sizzling shrieks of spell-spawned missiles and turned only in time to see their taller compatriots fall. They turned their stunned attention toward the mage a half dozen paces away and had a moment to register his presence before a wave of debris; broken stone and wood, fallen torches still ablaze, and anything else not mortared to the floor came surging toward them. Small green hands were thrown up before terrified green faces before the fusillade stripped the armor from their bodies and the flesh from their bones.

Murikeer paused at the hacked doorway to look into the room, solidifying his rage at the sight of wanton slaughter he beheld within. A handful of adults, both human and animal forms, lay scattered among the bodies of children within, all having been cut down in a rage of bloodlust by their attackers. None appeared to have had a weapon. There were more than three dozen unmoving corpses; three dozen more hapless victims of one man’s lust for power, left steaming in the cold air spilling into the room. With a snarl the young mage turned away and trotted down the corridor left painted with a patina of blood by his furious magic. His paws left red smears on the floor as he went.

A short time later he spied a lone Lutin standing sentry in a crossing corridor and burned it down before it ever noticed his approaching presence. He paused and created a small mirror spell to look around the corner before advancing. The mirror revealed a corridor crowded with startled Lutins and humans, all hastily hunkered behind drawn bows and readied crossbows. His lips peeled back in a vicious leer as he wove a second spell and sent it into the corridor. Someone among the waiting horde barked a command and a whistling salvo of bolts and arrows tore through the illusion of himself. Before they could ready their crossbows for another salvo he let the illusion fall and stepped around the corner himself. Arrows hastily knocked were loosed but they wavered when they met his shields before lurching in mid flight to carry on down the corridor behind him. With a loud, animalistic howl Murikeer extended both hands toward the crowd. Fountains of flame erupted down the corridor followed seconds later by the wailing screams of the burning invaders. He left them to burn without lingering to deal with any who may have survived.

He ran into smaller groups all heading in the same direction; some before him and some coming from behind but all meeting the same eventual fate at his hands. Eventually the sounds of a hard fought battle came to his ears and he slowed. He sensed that the Long House, or some other embattled stronghold, was close at hand and proceeded with more caution. Around him his shields pulsed with so much energy they warped the very air around him, lifting his fur as if in a gale. His tail, the last several inches of it were left naked by the moon dog’s bite, lashed behind him rapidly.

George raced up the steps, and passed the bubbling cauldrons and out onto the balcony. The sounds of fighting echoed throughout the hall and then died down. A tall woman dressed in robe but with a sword belted at her hip stood at the battlements looking down into the room. “What happened Diane?” he asked.

“An attack,” she answered. “By the sounds of it a major one.”

“Did the barricades hold?”

“I haven’t any seen Lutins yet.”

A figure rushed across the room and stopped underneath the balcony. The red squirrel morph was dressed in ragged and battered leather armor. The sword he held in his hands had blood on the blade.

“What happened sergeant Brea?” George asked the squirrel.

“Sir,” the squirrel replied. “They hit the north and east barricades at the same time, at least sixty and forty Lutins at each. We held them off but they’re reforming for another try. Plus there’s been noise from the south corridor.”


“Two wounded, not serious.”

Can you hold them against another assault?” George asked. It was a tall request; the squirrel had to hold three corridors with eight soldiers, two of them wounded.

“Their next attack will come at all three corridors at once,” Brea responded. “Either I get more people or we have to fall back to Long House. I can’t hold all three with eighteen people.”

“Agreed,” the jackal responded. “I’ll send you more people.”

“George,” Diane interrupted. “We only have a few soldiers and almost half of them are down there already.”

“Send more,” George responded. “If they manage to corner us in Long house we’re half dead.”

Diane leaned over the rail. “We’ll send you six more people,” she told the sergeant.

“How long till they are finished setting up the ballista here on the balcony?” George asked.

“Another hour,” Diane answered.

“Too long. We need it finished now,” the jackal commented. “Put more people on it. I want it ready in ten minutes.”

The woman nodded at George, “Understood.”

Then she looked back to the squirrel. “We’ll have the ballista ready to support you in ten minutes.”

The squirrel nodded, “Good. We can use the help.”

“Brea,” George called down to the squirrel. “I want you to hold onto the barricades as long a possible then fall back to Long house.”

“When do I give the order to bolt?” Brea asked.

“I’ll leave that to you,” the canine answered. “We need to hold them as long as you can but don’t hold too long or you’ll never make it back.”

The squirrel nodded in agreement. “All right.”

Brea turned and headed back to his soldiers. The sergeant had been tasked to defend this large hall. It wasn’t even really Long House but a small dining hall in front of it.

The room had three entrances into it, on the north, east and south walls. There were no easily bolted doors there, just openings that lead into corridors. To help defend the openings they had upended some of the wooden tables to make barricades. Being over two inches thick the flat tabletops made perfect walls. When vertical, they would stop any arrow from penetrating.

George had placed six people at each entrance. At the north entrance he placed the barricade as far down the passage as was safe. Far enough to give them room to retreat but close enough to hear orders and ask for help. Standing right behind the wooden wall, was two swordsmen standing side by side. In the narrow confines of the hallway there simply wasn’t room for more then two. Behind the sword fighters were a pair of pike wielding soldiers. It was an ingenious tactic. The nine-foot long pikes stuck out past the sword points and the barricade. Any attacker had to first get past the sharp points of the pikes before they could get to the barricade itself. Even if they did get that far a Lutin had to fight their way past the swordsmen. All the while two archers at the very rear would be peppering them with arrows. The final touch was the caltrops scattered across the floor in front of the barricade. Really nothing more then sharp, four pointed spikes, anyone stepping on them would have their feet pierced by a spike. It wouldn’t kill a person but it would cripple them and slow down the attack.

For the south doorway George had the same thing, but he didn’t have enough pikes or archers to do that for the east barricade, so he placed three crossbowmen there along with two spearmen. Not the best solution but all he could do. The extra soldiers he had stand ready in the hall near the three passages. If any barricade needed help, they could rush there quickly.

The ballista had been set up by this time and he could see it on the battlemented balcony overlooking Long Houses solitary entryway. He took the time to go up and check its placement and crew himself. Brea hadn’t worked with a siege weapon in a long time but he still remembered how to use it. The ballista basically worked like a large crossbow, except that the missile it fired as five feet long. It was cocked by winding the rope back with a small windless. The entire weapon was mounted on a large wooden base with a pivot. With a simple push the women who were crewing the weapon could swivel it in any direction.

Flanking the ballista on either side were eight soldiers, four on each side. They were of five different units. All had been lost in the attack and wandered into Long house almost by chance. They had never trained or fought together till today but he had no doubts about their fighting skills. He checked each in turn to be sure they knew what to do and had what was needed. Satisfied that they were ready he made his way back down to the floor of the large hall.

He paused at the doorway and looked across the wide expanse of the dining hall. Somehow it seemed larger now then ever before. Their chances of making it back across that open space to the safety of Long house while being swarmed by hundreds of Lutins was small. But he couldn’t fault Georges strategy. They had to keep the Lutins as far from Long House as possible. It was just Brea’s bad luck to be stuck out here.

Suddenly there came the blaring of trumpets echoed across the hall and soon it was joined by the sounds of combat. The last time they had only attacked two barricades. This time the Lutins attacked all three at once.

Caroline waited calmly. For the tenth time she checked each of the arrows she had prepared. There arraigned on the railing in front of her were twenty arrows. Forty more arrows were resting in two quivers slung across her back. She examined each of them with care, checking the feathers and shafts for soundness. When done with the arrows she checked her long bow with the same thoroughness.

Beside her stood a tall rabbit morph who was also doing the same thing the otter was, checking his bow and arrows. Caroline barely knew Padraic, but George rated the brown, flop eared lapine very highly, and that was all she needed to know.

The two archers were standing in front of a waist high railing that made a complete circle of the floor. There was nothing unusual about the floor inside that circle. It was identical to the stones of the rest of the small room they were in.

A hand dropped onto her shoulder and she turned to find Misha standing there. “We’re ready,” he said calmly.

“I still wish you’d let me go,” she commented.

“No,” the fox answered firmly. He was dressed in the camouflaged chain mail that marked him as a Long Scout. Besides the ever present battle axe Whisper strapped to his back, he had a long sword in a sheath at his hip. Two hand axes were tucked into his belt along with a dozen arrows and he carried a long bow in his right hand.

“You can’t keep protecting me Misha.”

“I know that,” Misha answered. “I’ll say this once more my love. You’re the finest archer in the Keep and you’re needed here.” He gently touched the arrows laid out on the railing. “These little items are keyed to you alone and they’ll be our edge in the fight. Plus you and Padraic are going to protect our backs.”

“That we will,” the rabbit said nervously.

The remaining Long Scouts came up and clustered around the railing. All were as well armed and armored as Misha.

“Everyone ready?” the fox asked to the group.

“My team is ready,” Arla said quietly.

“My team is ready as well,” Laura announced.

The scouts waited in silence. None had any illusions about this fight being easy. All of them understood just how dangerous things would be.

“This is has been our toughest battle yet,” Misha said calmly. “From happy celebration to a brutal fight for survival. It’s killed many of our dearest friends and family. This fight will end that struggle and pay them back for all the Keepers they’ve killed. Everyone spread out and take position.” The scouts all took a spot at the railing. His final order of “take no prisoners,” went unspoken. They all knew it already, even Padraic.

Misha took Whisper from off of his back and carefully leaned it against the railing. He strung an arrow onto his bow and aimed it at the floor inside the circle. All of the others quickly followed suit.

“Kyia,” Misha announced loudly. “Now!”

Suddenly the floor inside the circle disappeared. Caroline could see a large hall some fifty feet below crowded with Lutins and humans and she scanned them looking for a target. The otter saw a group of Lutins and humans protected by a barricade of wood at least six feet high. That would be Selig’s hiding place. A tough, little, wooden fortress in it own right that crouched in the center of the hall. It even had little towers at each of the four corners. She couldn’t help but laugh, it was an impressive fort, but a fort without a roof. The hole she was looking down through was directly over the center of it.

None of the people below seemed to know the Keepers were above them. That was only short lived as Misha loosed a shaft down into the waiting crowd beneath him. Everyone else joined in loosing, dropping or throwing missiles as fast as possible. They seemed to fall haphazardly, without a clear target but not one fell without striking a warm body. The floor below was soon was littered with the bodies of the slain. Everyone shot as fast as possible, everyone but Caroline.

The otter took her time. She picked up one of her special arrows, and drew her bow. In the archery tournament last summer she had been awarded twelve arrows for winning. The magic in those missiles was special, and she had saved them until the right moment. This was finally the right time. She aimed for the center of one the towers in Selig’s hiding place. There were four Lutins with bows there looking around for the killer of the man who was sprawled at their feet. She released the bow string and reached for another arrow. She had just grasped the missile when her first arrow reached it’s target. There was a bright flash and an explosion engulfed the whole tower and it’s occupants.

Misha put his bow down and picked up his battle axe. Jumping up onto the railing he held the weapon over his head. The fox let out a long, eerie yowl and stepped into open space.

Misha landed lightly on the floor in the center of Selig’s refuge, axe swinging. A Lutin with a spear in his hands had time to gawk before the fox cut his head off with one blow.

A dozen Lutins charged at him their spears aimed at the fox’s heart. Holding his axe in one hand he took something from his pocket using his free hand. The metal sphere he was holding looked just as it had when Misha had used it at the armory. He tossed it at the approaching Lutins. “Huyria Kormun!” the vulpine shouted. There was an explosion that tossed Lutins in all directions, some whole, but most in pieces. When the smoke cleared all twelve of his attackers were dead.

A moment later Finbar touched down next to the fox. “Great!” the ferret shouted. “The charm actually works!”

“That’s great to hear,” Meredith said landing next to him with a thump. The crossbow in his massive paws shuddered and a bolt buried itself in a human sentries head.

Misha retrieved the metal ball from where it had fallen. The sphere was different this time. The runes carved into it’s surface were still there but the whole ball was covered with a layer of soot. Plus there were hundreds of cracks that now spider webbed across the metal surface. Gingerly the vulpine placed the orb into a pouch and turned to killing Lutins. There was no time now to figure out what was wrong with it. In a moment the remaining scouts came down together. Quickly they lashed out at every enemy within reach.

Arla cut down a pair of Lutins protecting a small tent. Jotham and Allart leaped over the fallen sentries and into the tent. The wizard they found inside raised his hands to cast a spell. A blue light glowed in his palms. Allart buried his short sword in the mages chest, and the light died along with its creator.

Two humans were frantically trying to open the forts one gate to let help in when two arrows from Padraic dropped them.

Danielle, Finbar and Meredith charged straight at a group of ten Lutins who were trying to organize into a shield wall. They never got the chance.


At Captain Landon's shout Daria rushed through the breach into Barracks One, together with a mass of her fellow warriors. The acrid scent of smoke and charred, burning flesh filled the air, and her ears throbbed with the battle cries of those around her. Garulf ran alongside her, battleaxe at the ready.

The Enemy had arranged their forces intelligently: for all the devastation caused by the Keepers' magic attack, the rather expendable Lutins had formed the outer defensive perimeter, thus bearing the brunt of the assault. Hundreds of Lutins already lay dead, but their stronger and better-trained human companions had been partially shielded by the sea of green-skinned brutes around them. Now those human soldiers rushed forward with the surviving Lutins, intent on crushing the attacking Keepers.

It was, Daria knew, the absolute worst sort of fighting for her to be caught in the middle of. She was small, slender and lightly armored, and while her strength and agility were in top form there were still physical limitations on her abilities that she was all too aware of. In the close-packed sea of bodies that took shape along the outer edges of the barracks, there was a very real risk of her being crushed. She stayed close to Garulf, hoping that the bear-man's imposing bulk could help ensure her a little more breathing room.

For good or ill, that state of affairs did not last long: after a few minutes the battle lines had become mixed and jumbled, and the combatants spread out to fill the barracks' entire expansive area. Daria found herself fighting back-to-back with Garulf in a room filled with similarly small pockets of attackers and defenders. The Keepers were outnumbered, but only slightly; the initial magical strike had done much to even the odds. Daria couldn't get much sense of the overall flow of the battle— due in no small part to her height— but judging from the number of opponents she and Garulf were facing at any given moment, it looked as if the enemy had three soldiers left for every two Keepers. And since the Keepers were, without question, the finest warriors in all the lands of the West, those odds were rapidly evening out.

Daria and Garulf ran into a cluster of enemy soldiers, and the redheaded warrior quickly turned her mind from the overall battle to the task at hand. Occasionally glancing over her shoulder to keep an eye on her comrade, she admired Garulf's skill with that enormous axe— he wielded it almost artfully, using it as both shield and weapon, striking with precision and brutal intensity. At one point he was attacked from both sides simultaneously; aware of both enemies, he drove the butt of the handle hard into the face of the one on his right, even as he caught the other's sword with the blade of the axe. Pushing back the one on the left with a hard thrust, he made two quick swings— right, then back to the left— that left one attacker dead and the other grievously wounded.

"Nice work!" Daria remarked, genuinely impressed. Clearly, Garulf was a far keener warrior than his barbaric weapon suggested.

"Thanks," the bear-man grunted, as he finished off his remaining opponent. "On your right."

Daria spun and blocked the incoming sword, then darted to the left and directed the blow's momentum down and away from her body, reducing the force of the impact on her arm. She then drove a hard right kick to the man's right knee, stepped forward into a left jab, and drove in her sword beneath his chest armor, angling it upward into his gut. Sweeping her leg behind him, Daria pulled his feet out from under him and drove him to the floor. The force of the impact made the enemy soldier finally drop his sword, which Daria had carefully kept pinned between their bodies, and she quickly took advantage of his helplessness to draw her dagger and slice open the man's neck. Retrieving her sword, she sprang up and returned to Garulf's side, leaving the invader to drown in his own blood.

"Did I ever tell you how much I admire your courage?" Garulf asked.

"Don't think so," Daria said, flashing a quick smile.

"You don't shy away from a good fight," he continued, as another pair of enemy soldiers approached them. Daria and Garulf slowly circled, back to back, making sure there were no other immediate threats to worry about. "That impresses me."

Daria smirked. "Aye, well ... you're rather impressive yourself."

Then they plunged into the fray again. As the battle continued, Daria's focus closed down, the enemy soldiers and Lutins becoming mere targets to be destroyed, no longer sentient beings with dreams and fears and ambitions of their own. She and Garulf were the only two people left in her world, surrounded by a roomful of noisy, sweaty objects classified simply as "friend" or "foe". Together, they were unspeakably deadly.

High above the fighting Caroline and Padraic calmly added to the chaos going on in the main hall. Each was using their bows to good effect, picking and choosing the target to kill. The otter used her regular arrows only, leaving her magic ones for special targets.

The first to be killed after she destroyed the small tower was a tall, black haired, human officer. He was using his sword like a pointer, ordering his troops to attack the Long Scouts when two arrows slammed into his chest. The man was dead before he hit the floor. Another man rushed up to help the fallen officer and earned an arrow in the back from Padraic.

Caroline’s second kill was another human, one of three Jotham was fighting. That fighter took one arrow to drop. She moved onto other targets as Jotham quickly killed both of the other two he was fighting. Looking around she found more targets. Misha was fighting three Lutins. Two arrows evened the odds, and the fox made short work of his sole remaining opponent.

Suddenly all the troops of Nasoj in the little fort were dead, except in one corner. In that corner stood a large tent. The bright red canvas of the tent was covered in Lutin scrawl. In front of its sole entrance stood a ten foot tall banner hanging from a pole, that was at least fifteen feet high. Dangling from pole and banner were countless, skulls and decaying heads. On the banner was a fanged skull on a blood red background. That was General Selig’s personal standard.

Outside the little fort fighting raged savagely as the two sides were locked in a brutal fight for survival. Inside the wooden walls things were calming down as the Long Scouts finished with the other troops in the fort. Slowly they gathered in front of the tent. Between them and the tent were three ogres, ten human fighters and twenty Lutins. Behind them stood a Lutin, almost five feet tall and dressed in armor. This armor wasn’t the usual patched together bits and pieces. Instead it was finely made plate mail that fit him perfectly. Caroline had no doubt that this Lutin was General Selig himself. The woman standing next to him was dressed in the flowing robes of a mage.

Padraic loosed an arrow and Caroline watched it streak towards the general and the mage. Some ten feet from its target the arrow shattered as if it had struck an invisible wall. The rabbit muttered a curse under his breath and reached for another arrow.

The mage looked up at straight into Caroline’s eyes. She smiled and pointed her finger at the otter.

“OH SHIT!” Padraic shouted. Both rabbit and otter ran away from the railing as fast as possible and dropped behind an upturned table at the other end of the room. A ball of flame exploded a moment later engulfing the area they had just been standing in searing flames. It took a minute for the flames to die down. It revealed a burned and shattered railing.

Caroline and Padraic slowly edged forward to the hole in the floor. The rabbit shrieked and dropped to his knees. “MY BOW!” he screamed and held up a charred and blackened stick that might once have been a long bow.

The otter was luckier, she had managed to not only hold onto her bow but all of her arrows as well. She nocked an arrow and looked over the edge of the hole to the battle below.

The corner of the fort was a scene of savage fighting. The keepers were locked in bitter combat with the soldiers defending the tent. A brown bear was locked in a savage wrestling match with a ogre twice his size. Arla, Allart and Jotham were fighting a second ogre. The body of the third ogre lay stretched on the ground near the tent.

She saw Georgette, Danielle and Finbar were desperately trying to hold off a score of Lutins. For a frightening moment she couldn’t find Misha. Then she saw him and Laura standing back to back as they held off the dozen, human fighters surrounding them.

General Selig was still standing where had been the last time she had seen him. The mage was still at his side. The wizard moved both hands in small circles and four balls of light shot from them straight at the Keepers. Danielle brought her hands up as if to block the onrushing spheres. The balls suddenly changed course flying off to one side as if they had ricocheted off of a stone wall.

The mage scowled and readied another spell. The pine marten morph had caught her off guard, she didn’t know the keeper was a mage. Caroline took one of her magic arrows and aimed at the wizard. Danielle had blocked her first spell, but she didn’t have the skill to stop her forever.

Suddenly Padraic grunted and Caroline thought he had been wounded. Looking at him she saw that he had picked up a stone block that had to weigh at least twenty five pounds and was holding it over his head. She could see his muscles bulging under the strain. Then he threw it over the edge. Caroline followed the stone block as it dropped slowly to the battlefield below. It seemed to move with an incredible slowness, turning end over end as it sped towards it’s target.

“HEY MAGE!” the rabbit shouted down.

The wizard stopped her spell casting and looked up just as the block hit her square in the face. The woman’s whole head exploded in a splatter of blood and gore that sprayed all over the Lutin standing next to her.

Caroline turned back to the battle and aimed at one of the humans threatening her lover but didn’t shoot. “Think when you’re in combat,” George had told her during one of their training sessions. “The key to winning and living in combat is to control your emotions and not let your emotions control you.” Misha was surrounded and fighting for his life, but he was holding his own. If she killed one of the humans facing him that would have only a small effect on the battle. The same went with killing one of the Lutins. An ogre. Kill one of the ogres that will free up two or three scouts and the odds will be tipped in their favor.

All that decision making had taken a brief moment. She swung her bow over to the ogres. Meredith was tumbling and twisting on the floor in a death match with one, she couldn’t get a clear shot. So she took aim at the remaining monster. Allart was laying on the ground cradling a shattered arm as Arla and Jotham fought the eight foot tall creature. The dog morph dodged a blow from a club as large as her whole body. Jotham took advantage of the distraction and rushed forward, his mace held high. He smashed the weapon into the ogres side and danced backward as the creature swung at him.

Caroline took careful aim at the ogre and waited for the right moment. The three combatants moved back and forth, in a tight dance of death. Her bow followed every move of the giant creature as it tried to kill the two keepers. She had to bid her time and wait for an opening. A wrong decision and her arrow could wind up in a Keeper, so she watched and waited and finally the moment came.

The ogre gave a huge swing of his club that made both Keepers jump back to avoid it’s deadly contact, but Arla moved too slowly and the canine was sent flying backward. She landed in a heap and didn’t move. The ogre tossed his head back and shouted in triumph. Caroline loosed her shaft, and then drew, nocked and shot two more in quick succession. The monsters shout ended in a gurgle as two arrows buried themselves in his eyes and a third into his throat. The ogres club dropped to the pavement. His body joined it a moment later.

Jotham stood over the dead ogres corpse for a moment. The he turned to where Misha and Laura were fighting. With one swift motion he drew a hand axe from his belt and with a single toss, buried it in the back of a human soldier. Holding his mace high he charged the men surrounding Misha and Laura. He had no time to check on Arla. Help the living first, then see to the wounded and the dead.

Misha ducked under the sword swing and lashed out with his long sword. One of his attackers stumbled backwards his intestines spilling onto the floor. That did him little good as the other three he was facing pressed forward, eager to avenge their comrade. They didn’t see Jotham racing up behind them until it was too late.

Three swift blows killed them before they even knew what was happening. Misha turned to help Laura and found the woman fighting a single fighter. All the other men they had been fighting were dead. He noticed that at least five of the bodies had arrows in them, courtesy of Caroline and Padraic.

In short order Laura killed the man with a slash across his chest. “Where’s Selig?” she asked.

Misha pointed to a dozen Lutins who were clustered around the general’s standard fighting Georgette, Danielle and Finbar. One of the Lutins collapsed when two arrows sank into his chest.

Suddenly there came a loud grunt and the sound of bones breaking. Turning to the noise he saw Meredith standing over the corpse of the ogre he had just killed. The great bear wavered a moment then dropped to the ground.

“Jotham,” Misha said. “See to Meredith and the other wounded. This fight is over.”

“What about them?” the man asked pointing to the Lutins, who despite out numbering their attackers, were loosing badly.

He saw Finbar parry a blow from the general with the knife in one hand and then lash out with the other. The ferrets blade went through the visor on Seligs helmet. There was a splash of blood and the Lutin collapsed to the ground. Georgette and Danielle made short work of the remaining Lutins.

Danielle grabbed the staff of the banner and shook it hard. There was a loud crack and the cloth, and trophies fell to the floor. The banner itself came to rest on the general’s body. It’s cloth the color of blood made a fitting shroud for such a brutal murderer.

“Like I said. This fight is over,” the fox explained. “See to the wounded Jotham. Laura, make sure the dead are actually dead and not faking it. I’ll muster the rest. There’s still a bigger battle to win.”

There came a pounding at the gates to the little fort. “OPEN UP,” someone shouted from the other side. “GENERAL ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?” Then there was deeper thump and the door rattled visibly. Tired of knocking, the Lutins on the outside were battering the door open.

Georgette, Finbar and Danielle, joined Misha who was staring at the wooden gate. “What do we do?” the ferret asked.

“We let them in,” Misha said “and then we kill them.” The fox sheathed his sword and started to unbuckle the pants of his armor.

“What are you doing?” Finbar asked, confused.

“Preparing,” Misha asked, dropping the chain mail pants. “This is what we’ll do.”

Misha stood behind the tent and waited nervously. Beside him Georgette was kneeling, a spear in hand. If she was nervous, it didn’t show. The woman looked calm and collected. Peering around the corner of the tent he looked towards the gate. The wooden gate wouldn’t last much longer. Already it was splintered and hanging by a single hinge.

His eyes fell upon the small metal ball that lay in the open some ten feet from the door. That little magic sphere had done some great work for him, it’s explosive abilities had evened the odds on numerous occasions. The ball had always worked flawlessly but how would it work now? Would it work at all? The fact that it was damaged was clear, but what would it happen when he activated it? There was no telling what it would do, malfunctioning magic was a dangerous thing to mess with. Still they had no choice.

There was the loud cracking of timber and the gate went flying off it’s hinges. In rushed a mob of Lutins at least forty strong. They stopped just inside and looked around. All they could see was debris and dead bodies. “General?” one of them asked.

Georgette stepped into view and threw a spear that buried itself up to the shaft in the lead Lutins chest. With a shout the whole group of Lutins charged straight at the women who had dropped out of sight.

Without giving it a second glance they rushed passed the metal ball laying on the ground. Misha waited till the middle of the group was over the ball before setting it off.

“Huyria Kormun,” the vulpine said out loud. The ball gave a low hiss, and it started to glow, dimly at first, then brighter. Then there was a blinding flash and thunderclap, as the ball exploded. The flames came rushing towards Misha like a tidal wave. He had a moment of pure surprise before the shock wave sent him tumbling backwards into the tent.

A little dizzy Misha slowly stood up and shook his head to clear his thoughts. He looked to where the ball had exploded and saw total devastation. The gate was blasted into splinters as was the walls on either side for a distance of ten feet. Of the Lutins there was no trace what so ever, just a blackened and scorched circle on ground. Random bits of debris burned fitfully on the ground.

“Wow,” Georgette said standing up.

Hefting his battle axe, Misha stepped out of the ruins of the tent. He had changed his shape and now walked on all four legs of a foxtaur. His humanoid torso was still covered with his camouflaged chain mail armor. Below the waist his body was the pony sized form of a red fox. His lower body had no armor except for the metal soled shoes on his paws. Misha now stood over six feet tall and weighted almost half a ton, all of it muscle and bone. As he walked his muscles rippled, revealing the power locked up in them. A power he knew how to release and control.

He moved towards the gate and Georgette, Finbar, and Danielle walked with him. Reaching the point where the wooden doors had been Misha looked out at the bedlam and chaos of battle that raged around the little fortress. Everywhere his eyes wandered he saw humans, Lutins, morphs, giants and trolls were locked in a bloody fight for survival. Without a sound or a word he swung Whisper in a broad arc and charged straight into the chaos of the battle.

Starling pumped her wings hard, just barely dodging out of the way before an energy bolt burned through the space where she had been an instant before. Hissing, she turned and let out a fiery blast of her own. The enemy mage summoned a shield spell to block it, but he winced just a little under the impact. It looked like he was finally starting to tire.

David lashed out at the mage with his staff, aiming for his head and forearms. The wizard blocked the blows with his own staff, but he had nowhere near the same physical strength as the black ant-morph. Slowly, David drove him backward toward one of the pillars that supported the huge barracks room.

Starling darted around behind the enemy mage and breathed out another fire jet. This time she caught him squarely in the middle of his upper back, and the mage screamed in pain and rage as the flames burned through his robes and into his flesh. Dragonfire was intensely hot, difficult to extinguish and clung to surfaces in a thin film— but it was also highly magical, which allowed the wizard to absorb much of its power before it could do serious damage. Still, the attack managed to get her opponent's attention, and for an instant David was forgotten— an instant he used to knock the mage's staff out of his hands.

The sorcerer's face contorted with rage. Bracing himself against the pillar, he lashed out with claw-like hands towards the ant-warrior. Lightning bolts shot from his fingertips, coursing over David's body, but they fizzled in the space of an instant as David drained the mana out of the spell. Swatting aside the wizard's hands with a sweep of his staff, David drew back and rammed it hard into the man's gut.

Lord Dokorath's blessing was apparently still in effect, because the mage's abdominal cavity ruptured in a spray of blood, run through by the blunt, heavy staff. As the man writhed on the end of the pole, Starling let out one final jet of flame, aimed at the wizard's head. She held it there for a long time, longer than she'd ever held a blast before, until a deep, throbbing ache welled up in her throat. At last she couldn't take it any longer and closed her mouth, swallowing a few times to try to get the discomfort out of her throat. The mage's body sunk to the floor, its head nothing more than a blackened skull. Starling turned away, feeling more than a little disturbed about what she'd just done.

"Come on," David said encouragingly. "Don't think about it right now— our friends still need our help."

After a pause, Starling nodded. Their friends did need them, and that was all that mattered for the moment. She turned and flew beside the ant-man as he ran back into the fray, being careful not to look at the smoldering corpse behind her.

Misha charged a group of thirty Lutins who were formed up into two lines shooting arrows at the attacking keepers. Their backs were to him and they didn’t notice the foxtaur until it was far too late. His first swing cut down two Lutins with a single stroke, sending their body parts flying in all directions. The backstroke beheaded another in a spray of blood.

Rearing up he lashed out with his front legs. Steel shod paws cracked hard against bone and armor. Misha became like a whirlwind, slashing and swinging his axe and lashing out with his paws in all directions. Every blow seemed to connect with a Lutin, every blow killed something. He was an unstoppable killing machine.

In the battle at Stepping Castle he had gone berserk and become a monster, loosing all control, but Misha remained in complete control this time. The blind rage threatened to swallow him up but he fought it as he fought the Lutins. He kept the rage in check, controlling it and not being controlled by it, using it to charge his body and drive himself harder and faster and to make him infinitely stronger.

Behind him he heard running feet. He lashed out with both hind legs and heard bones crunching. Then he spun his large, bulky body around with a speed and grace that surprised him. It certainly took the twenty Lutins that were rushing him by surprise. His front legs took down two Lutins as his axe killed two more. The huge weapon moved with a deftness and speed born of years of practice. The blade sped passed his left hind leg missing it by inches. It didn’t miss the Lutin who was trying to roll under him. It’s skull was cleaved in half, brains splattering everywhere.

Misha closed his mind to everything but the fighting, to simply killing the enemy. The Lutins disappeared, replaced by men in plate armor, but they fared no better. Misha killed their leader with a single sweep of his axe and the rest scattered, trying to escape. Only a handful succeeded.

A large canine appeared in front of Misha, and suddenly waves of pure terror enveloped him. He stopped fighting and stood numbly in front of the moondog, too terrified to even move. Then he felt the handle of Whisper grow warm him his hands and the fear left him as suddenly as it had come. The vulpine let of a blood curdling yowl and reared up on his hind legs to his full height of ten feet. Then he dropped down on the moon dog, his front paws descending like meteors from the heavens. There was the sounds of bones crunching as his paws landed on the monsters head and the creatures body fell to the ground. Misha lashed out again and again, channeling all his rage and pain into each blow until the corpse was an unrecognizable, bloody mess. Only then did he move on to other targets.

Without a second glance at the creatures corpse he charged a group of Lutins who had surrounded a Keeper. A swipe of the axe and a flash of steel shod paws killed most of them, the rest tried to flee, but didn’t get far. The other keeper helped cut them down with a flash of sword play. Suddenly all the Lutins were gone and only the dead remained near the keepers.

The battle raged around them but for a moment the two were alone. He pushed the rage that filled him back down. He needed to rest for a moment, to regain his bearings and measure where next he was needed.

It took Misha a moment to recognize the blood and gore covered creature in front of him, but the long tail was a dead giveaway. Even matted with blood, it could belong to only one person. “Rickkter,” Misha said.

The creature looked at the Long Scout with cold, hard eyes that suddenly lightened in recognition. “I see you’re still alive,” was the raccoons comment. “Although you’ve put on some weight since the last time we met.”

Misha laughed for the first time in many days. “You look like the black dog of Maladar,” the vulpine replied. “How goes the battle?”

“Badly,” the mage answered coldly. “We’re badly outnumbered.”

The foxtaur swung his axe in a broad arc. “Well then, let’s go even odds.”

Rickkter nodded and the two went back to the business of dealing death.

A rear guard of mixed Lutins and humans watched the back of the unseen assault and let out a cry at his appearance at the end of a short, broad corridor. Behind them was a narrow doorway and, beyond that, Murikeer could see forms milling about. The sounds of battle almost drowned out the human commander’s alert cry, and the subsequent cry that issued from him when a coruscating bolt of raw energy struck his chest and sent him reeling backward to fall in a heap. His soldiers cried out in startled dismay at realizing that they faced a mage given the fill fury of Metamor Keep at his grasp and the rage of vengeance. Arrows and bolts thrummed in the air but none found a mark on the skunk as he charged into them, lashing out with bolts and gouts of flame. Summoning a pair of crackling blue-white whips in his hands Murikeer lay among them with furious, bestial abandon, snarling and kicking with magic enhanced claws. All the while he left a conduit open to the heart of Metamor’s well of manna, letting it flow into him unrestrained. It was like standing beneath a torrent and trying to direct its flow with only his hands and the weight of it threatened to overwhelm him at every grasp upon its surging flow.

Within seconds he was standing amidst the results of his carnage but he did not pause, continuing into the choked corridor beyond and hewing down those who could not flee into the press of fighters trying to join the battle the dead phalanx had been guarding. The corridor was too narrow to slip past his furious energies and their weapons only slid from his powerful shields when they turned to fight. At the end of the corridor was a larger intersection and, beyond that, the battle was fully joined.

Warriors from the Long House, if the presence of Misha Brightleaf and his whistling shadow axe was any indications, stood against an overwhelming force of Lutins and human mercenaries. A giant stood not far from Murikeer, unable to join the fight because of the choke point of the corridor, and looked down at him with a dubious stare of growing fear. When Murikeer turned and snarled upward the hulking giant dropped his huge mace and fled, crashing over the reinforcements holding in the connecting corridor and scattering them in disarray. Many of those, too, were routed by the giant’s all too obvious panic. What could frighten such a beast into full retreat was more than they cared to face.

In the opposite direction was another force of reserves and, with a unified war cry, charged toward the skunk. The vanguard came up abruptly short and those behind piled into them, their own naked blades cutting into those ahead of them. Murikeer pushed back against them with his shield, ignoring the larger battle for a moment to push the reserves back. They began to break at the rear and flee from a foe they could not face while those in the center of the crowd were more and more pressed by the invisible wall of magic force. As they reached another bottleneck, a single narrow doorway leading to an escape, Murikeer dropped his pushing wall causing those crushed against it to pitch forward onto their faces. Those behind them trampled over them at the sudden absence of the force staying them and they, too, stumbled and fell. A thunderous roar of flame kept them from rising ever again and further panicked those attempting to escape through the narrow door. Lutins turned on Humans in a panicked bid to escape, sparing a full scale war among the two erstwhile allies.

Extending his arms Murikeer hauled at the magics filling the walls about him, feeling it surge into him with crushing force, and strode toward the main battle. “Thorne!” he bellowed, his augmented voice causing the walls to shudder. Fighters retreating from the fight to lick their wounds fell to blinding bolts of magic energy and the enraged skunk strode over their twitching remains. “Thorne!” he bellowed again, turning the heads of those at the rear of the assault.

Among them was his foe, the gray eyed mage turning to see what thunderous creature called his name. When he spied Murikeer among the slaughter of their rear flank the mage’s eyes widened in fear. He turned and grasped the arm of a mage standing at his side, interrupting the steady stream of his own magical attacks, and turned him around. “Sever him, by the dark gods!” Thorne bellowed at the bald man’s face. Around them the walls drained of color; from the gray of neatly stacked and polished granite to the hue of rain-scoured, aged boulders. Wooded beams, age worn and deep brown, became rotten lengths of ancient wood that began to splinter under the decaying weight of stone they tried to hold up. Murikeer extended his reach to the mages, through them, and to the fight beyond. He grasped every thread of manna he sensed and pulled it to himself, sapping the stones even further, before extending his hands and summoning flame.

Not the searing gouts that had burned down the foes he had faced before, but a blast furnace of searing heat that turned leather armor to tinder and chain links to molten steel. The two mages gritted their teeth and grasped their own magical reserves before Murikeer could sap them but any lesser mages among the two warring forces was left drained to the dregs. The weight of the energies bored a lance of pain behind Murikeer’s eyes but he pushed the distraction away. If he burned himself out magically to slay Thorne it would be a sacrifice willingly surrendered.

“Thorne!” Murikeer snarled as he stepped into the void left between himself and his foe. Burning bodies writhed across the floor and the Long House forces were in full retreat but Murikeer’s vision was narrowed down to a tunnel of focus centered upon his foe. Wrapping the stolen manna into another crushing blast Murikeer sent it at the two mages in a torrent of flame that would leave dragons envious. Stone, left cold and wet by the winter chill and blood coating it, shrieked and shattered sending stinging splinters through the corridor. A rumbling crash shook the floor as the ceiling behind the two mages collapsed. The bald mage waved his arms in a hasty, intricate spell as Murikeer reached out further for the distant well of magic.

He found nothing.

That brought him to a startled halt as he reached once more and felt a skein of power between himself and the magic of the Keep. Thorne, his eyes wild with fear a moment before, suddenly sneered in victory. The mage bent and picked up a fallen sword only to hiss and drop it hastily as the fire heated hilt seared his palm. “Very good, my old tutor.” The mage growled as he fisted his hand to push back the pain of his brief burn. “It comes down to this, at last.”

“To us, murderer.” Murikeer snarled as he drew on the energies he had already taken into himself. His shields lost the distorting waver of their earlier power at the loss of Metamor’s nearly limitless font of energies but they remained strong. The bald mage sought to test them with a hurled ball of flame and it spattered in the air inches from Murikeer’s chest. “I am going to kill you, Thorne. Slowly.” Murikeer lashed out at the bald mage with a long whip of energy. The man let out a startled yelp and danced back only to stagger over a fallen stone and fall to his rump, saved only by his personal shields. “You will scream before you die.” The whip lashed sideways across Thorne and sparked off powerful shields.

“Tut tut, boy.” Thorne laughed, “You forget, the power of the storm is mine to command.” The mage extended his hand and mimicked Murikeer’s magical lash. Crackling energies passed through Murikeer’s shields, through his flesh, and scored a searing line along the pale gray stone of the wall. Murikeer did not feel the least of its potency and the stinging splinters of rock slid from his shields impotently. “Where is my phial?!” he roared abruptly at the ineffectiveness of his own magic. “Return it to me before you die!”

Murikeer barked a laugh of his own and bent to retrieve a dropped war hammer. He sent a short tendril of cooling energies into the steel haft before he grabbed its naked hilt. He bounced the heavy shaft in his hand and circled his former student. Thorne was taller by head and shoulders than the skunk he faced and he massed easily twice as much. If it came down to a fight of muscle and bone the human had an advantage that Murikeer was fully aware of yet prepared to face. Thorne’s magic could not affect him, but the man’s shields were fully as effective against his magic as any other. The bald mage pulled himself to his feet and looked around only to find that, other than the charred and half buried dead, he was alone with Thorne against the rampaging skunk.

Murikeer marshaled his internal energies and sent a searing bolt toward the bald mage. If he could not kill the man he would be limited to what he held, much of which was sustaining his shields. With an angry snarl the mage’s shields absorbed the bolt but wavered alarmingly; too alarmingly by far for the bald man. Spying a casement window he hauled himself up onto the sill. Thorne glanced aside at him, “Where are you going, coward?” he snarled in fury. With his own magic ineffective against the lone Metamor mage his associate was the only one capable of defeating the skunk’s power.

The bald man took a look outside briefly before looking to Thorne, “You’re on your own, brother.” The man sneered, “He’s severed, deal with him.” With that the man turned and threw himself out the window. Murikeer snarled at the man’s cowardly act as well. Out of sight he could not be slain; his spell could not be broken from within while he lived.

With a yell Thorne drew a curved blade from beneath his robes and charged. Murikeer could see that, like the mage Huk he had faced in the shop, the dagger was heavily enchanted. Bending his knees as Rickkter had taught him he braced to meet Thorne’s charge and raised the war hammer. He poured magic into the steel and as Thorne came in with a sweep of his dagger he struck out without making any attempt to parry. The dagger flared a brilliant orange white as it lashed across his shields and the hammer’s steel head flared a blinding blue when it struck Thorne’s defenses. The steel spalled and melted in an eyeblink leaving Murikeer with half a haft as they separated. He cast the haft aside and flung out a hand. Another hammer rattled and lurched into the air. Thorne circled slowly, a hunting cat seeking a moment of weakness in its prey, his gleaming blade sweeping back and forth before him with the same leisurely stroke of a stalking feline’s tail.

“Did I hurt you, boy?” Thorne taunted, “Did I cut down your precious slattern? Where did you hide my phial? Do you wear it, eh?”

“Where that is you will learn only from your dark god when you kiss his toes in hell.” Murikeer replied. With a flick of his empty fingers he sent a shower of hot steel from the floor flying toward his foe. Thorne held up his own empty hand and stopped every object in mid flight. Caught between a contest of wills the weapons hovered a moment before clattering to the floor.

“Do you think she was the only one dear to you that I’ve cut down, boy?” Thorne sneered. Stone and timbers shuddered above Murikeer at the man’s beck and a sudden collapse bent the skunk’s shields. He darted away from the crushing weight of denuded stone and reinforced his wavering defenses. He could feel his magic rapidly draining away as he tried to sustain his shields. That would mean that Thorne’s magic was likewise being drained; it would come down to who could sustain themselves longer. Murikeer knew that Thorne’s potency was considerable; he had known that from his days instructing him in basic magic principle. “Why am I here, then, if you left me under that doddering old fool’s charge?” The human laughed slowly as he reached into his robes and drew out a slender cylinder. “Do you think I left him untouched before I left to hunt you down?”

“Heiorn was more than you will ever be.” Murikeer hissed. A swarm of small stones, broken arrowheads, bits of armor and bone still smoking swirled into the air around him. “If he lives you will never touch me with your minor power.”

Ferwig, Teria and the traitor moved quickly through the myriad passages that made up Long House. They calmly walked passed guards, servants, and countless women and children. No one paid the slightest attention to the trio. They came to an intersection and took the right hand turn and entered a small hall which like Long hall was crowded with people. To the fighter the people all looked like the refugees he had seen elsewhere, tired, hungry and scared.

No one gave them a second glance as they moved through the hall. In a moment the group reached a doorway set in one wall. It was closed by a double door that lead into a passage wide enough for two people to walk side by side. The corridor was empty of people except for one soldier who was standing about twenty feet away.

The three people moved down the passage slowly. There were closed doors on the right hand side of the passage but not the left. The left wall was devoid of any openings that he could see. When they got close to the guard Ferwig could see that it was a woman, no more then sixteen, maybe seventeen years old. She was standing next to a small door that was recessed into the left hand wall.

Ferwig saw the traitor flexing his claws and realized he intended to kill the woman. He stepped in front of the scout. “We’re here to relieve you while you go eat,” he told the woman on guard duty.

The woman smiled. “Great, “I’ve can use the relief.” She saluted the traitorous Long scout “Thank you Sir. I’ll be back quickly.”

“Take your time,” the scout said as the woman moved off down the hallway and out of sight.

“That was stupid,” the scout angrily. “I should have killed her.”

“Is killing all you know?” Teria asked.

The traitor stared at her. “Since when do you care who lives as long as you get paid.” Then he turned and rapped on the door three times. There came three sharp raps in return.

“Good, they’re ready,” the traitor said and reached for the bolt that held the door closed. Suddenly the tip of Ferwig’s spear blossomed out of his chest. The traitor managed to gasp and look in shock at his killer. He was dead before his body hit the floor.

“Like Teria said,” Ferwig pronounced to the corpse. “There are other things besides power and riches.”

Suddenly there came three sharp raps at the door. Teria lightly placed her hand on the woodwork. A bright light leaped from the door and hit her full in the chest knocking her across the corridor.

Ferwig helped the mage to her feet. “They want in,” Teria said.

“Can you hold them?” he asked.

She made some complex gestures on the door and a light yellow glow covered it completely. A soft thump sounded from the other side, the whole door shook and the glow dimmed noticeably. “No,” Teria said, finally answering Ferwig. “There are too many and they’re too powerful.”

“How many?” a voice asked from behind Ferwig. Turning they found George standing there with a half dozen soldiers. The jackal was staring at them with a coldness that made them both shiver. “How many?” he asked again.

“At least eight,” Teria answered. “Two of them very powerful. Plus at least sixty warriors.”

The jackal stared at the dead traitor for a moment. The birds plumage was covered in blood. “Baldwin. I was sure it was Allart,” he said calmly as if discussing the weather.

The woman standing next to the jackal shook her head. “A Long Scout was a traitor. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I wouldn’t have believed it. He was going to let them in,” the woman said the shock plain in her voice.

BOOM! The sound echoed through the corridor. The door shook visibly.

“They still might get in,” the jackal said. George turned to the woman standing next to him and pointed down the corridor passed the door and the mercenaries. “Where does that lead?”

“It dead ends in a kitchen and some storerooms,” came the answer.


“Any exits?”

“No, this corridor is the only way in or out.”

BOOM! The glow surrounding the door flared and disappeared. BOOM! The door exploded, splinters showering everyone. A dozen men in armor came rushing through the shattered remains of the door.

The first two invaders through the door died quickly. Ferwig speared one through the stomach and George beheaded the other with a single blow of his cutlass. A dozen more poured in to replace the dead and the corridor was filled with people locked in bitter combat.

The fight in the hallway was a nightmare; men, women, and animal morphs of all shapes and sizes locked in a frenzied fight for survival. It was a hideous fight of sword, dagger, knife, tooth and claw devoid of any subtly or tactics. Magic arced and flared through the corridor adding an eerie and unworldly light to the scene.

Ferwig lost all track of time and place as he fought to survive. He calmly speared a mercenary in the chest and kicked another one in the groin. The man dropped to the floor, groaning in pain. A spear in his back ended his groans. He saw George parry a blow with his cutlass and drove his large dagger into the attackers stomach. Suddenly flames filled the hallway engulfing attacker and defender alike. He heard screams of agony over the roar of flames. Then the fire disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

Teria pointed her finger at a figure standing behind the attacking fighters, “FA SHOO!” she shouted. And the man just seemed to fall apart, blood spraying everywhere.

In the confusion Ferwig suddenly found himself fighting side by side with George as Teria stood behind them casting magic.

“Seems like old times George,” Ferwig shouted over the din of combat.

The jackal parried a blow and slashed the stomach of his attacker. He laughed, “Yes it does. Now that you’re on the right side.”

Suddenly from down the corridor came the sounds of shouting, screaming, and the crackle and boom of magic. The whole corridor suddenly lit up with the glow of flames. Behind the attackers he caught a brief glimpse of a skunk morph. The creatures black and white markings clearly visible amidst the invaders. He saw the skunks whole body glow with raw power. Then the image was gone, lost in a swirl of smoke and flame.

“What’s happening?” Someone shouted.

“Magic,” Teria answered. “Very powerful magic.” The mage let out a cry and dropped to her knees.

A soldier grabbed her and helped the mage to her feet. “What’s wrong?” the man asked.

“Something drained my magic,” the woman gasped. "All of it!"

“What’s happening to the walls?” A voice asked above the din of the fighting.

Ferwig spared a glance at the stonework overhead. He saw the stone go from the usual polished gray to a more corroded, ancient, very pale gray. Dust slowly filtered down on them. The stone was decaying as he watched. He heard George curse loudly as the stonework started to crumble. Suddenly one of the wooden roof beams he was standing under just seemed to disintegrate into sawdust and he heard the groan as the ceiling began to give way.

“EVERYBODY OUT!” the jackals voiced boomed over the bedlam. “THE WHOLE PLACE IS COLLAPSING!”

Everyone tried to scramble back to the hall down a corridor that was collapsing around them. The stones of the ceiling were raining down on everywhere as choking dust and smoke filled the air. A large stone smashed into shoulder of the reptile morph in front of him. Ferwig grabbed the Gila monster under the shoulders and lifted him up. Dragging the wounded man, the fighter made his way down the disintegrating corridor into the hall and placed the wounded man a good distance from doorway. Unlike the corridor this stonework seemed strong and secure.

Ferwig walked back to the opening and stood next to Teria. He place a hand on her shoulder and she gave him a faint smile. The woman didn’t seem hurt, just tired. He watched as the corridor he had just come from collapse into rubble and debris as smoke and dust billowed out into the hall.

There came a deep boom echoing down the corridor, followed by a bright flash of light clearly visible through the smoke and wreckage. A second boom rumbled passed the debris, this time shaking the very walls and floors, knocking everyone to the ground. Teria’s eyes widened in shock. “Get back!” she warned. “Get away from the corridor!”

Without bothering to ask why, Ferwig did as she ordered, scrambling on his hands and knees to do it. A tremendous roaring explosion boomed down the corridor and a jet of flame thirty feet long shot into the hall sending people and objects flying. Thick smoke filled the air and blotted out everything.

Thorne prized a scroll from the cylinder and unrolled it as he warily watched the skunk and the circling armada of debris. “If, boy, if.” He glared over the scroll and began intoning the glyphs inscribed upon it, “Does he?” He taunted as the scroll began to smoke. The glyphs inscribed upon it began to burn through and Murikeer read them easily, even backwards through the thin vellum, and called to his mind their direct opposing wards.

“Enough to send you scurrying to hide at the hem of Nasoj’s robes.” The skunk returned and swept his hand toward Thorne. The orbiting cloud of debris hurtled toward Thorne as the man completed his intonation but, rather than pounding fruitlessly against his shields, froze between them in a glyph pattern. Thorne’s incantation drove against the hovering ward and it collapsed with his spell even as the scroll crumbled to ashen dust. Murikeer sneered at the man’s frustrated moue.

“Simple, pawn, simple.” The skunk taunted in return before rotating his arm back and flinging his second war hammer with magic augmented strength. The steel length of lethal fabrication tumbled through the air and slammed into the shields an inch from Thorne’s brow. Hot metal sprayed from the weapon as the energies of the shield reduced it to slag. Murikeer reached out his magical touch for another hammer and it, too, committed metallurgical suicide against the mage’s shields. Weapon after weapon lurched from charred, skeletal hands in ballistic animation. Time and again they melted to slag as Thorne fought to maintain his shields, unable to counterattack lest just one sunder his shields and find its way to his flesh.

“Now you will die more slowly, for Llyn and Heiorn.” Murikeer danced back and braced himself as Thorne charged forward with a furious snarl. His dagger was a blinding cat’s claw slashing back and forth. Bright sparks of orange white fury spalled from Murikeer’s shields as he was forced back pace after pace. Weapons swirled in the air around them as the two clashed with furious anger. Molten metal sang as it spattered against cold stone and set fresh fires where it landed upon wood, but Thorne’s shields would not fall. Face to face Murikeer could see the sweat marring the mage’s brow despite the biting cold that gripped the remains of the corridor. Slowly color was coming back to the stones as Metamor’s magical energies flowed back into it but, like a man dying of thirst while upon an ocean, Murikeer could not reach out and grasp it.

Abruptly he lashed out a foot and hammered a kick to Thorne’s gut. The defensive energies of both mages flared titanically, sending tendrils of blue-white and searing sun-gold licking at the walls around them, and Thorne let out a pained grunt and fell back. Murikeer pressed his momentary advantage and leaped at his foe with bare hands. Energies flared and sizzled as his defenses, focused only on his hands, overwhelmed the human’s shields. Robes and flesh tore under the stone-shaping strength of those claws and the mage yelped in fresh pain with each assault. He parried with his dagger futilely but was unable to pierce the shields on Murikeer’s hands. One angry swipe opened the human’s cheek to the bone and he nearly succumbed to the deadly force of the blow.

He spun and retreated, reaching up to pull down a decayed wooden beam as he ran beneath it. Murikeer’s pursuit was halted as the stones and wood crashed down into the corridor between them. There were not so many that he could not navigate the devastation and pushed his way through before even the last stone had come to rest. He found Thorne leaning against a wall beyond holding his torn face together with one hand. His gray eyes were red rimmed with fury as he turned on the skunk. “For this… for this you will die!” he bellowed and launched himself at Murikeer again.

Murikeer jumped back onto a rocking stone and then upward, lashing out with his feet and hammering Thorne’s shields once again. His magic was drained heavily by the need to reinforce his shields enough to penetrate Thorne’s defenses. Thorne lurched as the lighter skunk’s paws slammed into his chest, the tips of stout claws rending the heavy furs and velvets of his robes to gouge flesh. Their tips raked savagely across the bones of his breast. He howled in fresh pain and anger and staggered away from the assault. Murikeer tumbled onto the stone and let loose a yelp of his own as he came down upon the uneven rocks beneath him. Fresh pain lanced across his back as hastily mended burns tore open.

Thorne clutched at his savaged breast and gasped for breath. When his hands came away they were stained red with his own blood. Murikeer scrambled up from the stones and reached out to snatch up another weapon. Though seared the wooden shaft was cool and stout in his grasp; the curiously anchored head tapered to a savage tip. He glanced at it and a snarling grin crossed his muzzle. It was an ice-axe favored by the men of the north, very much like the stone pick he had also used during his time north of the mountains that protected the southern kingdoms from Nasoj’s grasp. That axe was still in his chamber and, for the most brief of moments, he lamented not having brought it with him. He hefted the sharp pointed pick comfortably in his hand and advanced upon the human.

With a furious snarl of his own Thorne turned and darted through a door, kicking it shut behind him. A placard upon the door slapped woodenly and one end fell loose from the hooks that held it up. Murikeer tilted his head slightly to mark the simple pictograph; a lantern. Beside it was a torch bisected by a red line. The room beyond was a dead end, no matter how Kyia moved the rooms and corridors about it would always be a dead end.

It was a room for storing lamp oil. There would only ever be one way in, clearly marked with simple to understand pictograms to keep the careless or unwary at bay. And, as such, there would only ever be one way out.

“You cannot escape me, Thorne!” the skunk roared and slammed the steely tip of the ice-axe against the wood. The placard jumped again and slipped loose of the remaining hook to fall upon the floor at Murikeer’s feet. Again and again he hammered the axe into the wood of the door, first gouging it and then splintering it. He could hear Thorne chanting furiously beyond the barrier that kept Murikeer from his vengeance. “You will scream!” a plank broke loose and he yanked at it, leaning close to the door to snarl at the man hastily scrawling a protective circle on the floor. “Scream, do you hear me?!” With a final yank the board snapped from its cross member and Murikeer spied the heavy barrel of lamp oil pushed up against the door from within.

The barrel shattered easily under the skunk’s furious, magically enhanced strength when he brought the axe down upon it. He kicked the door savagely and it slammed open, breaking more planks and leaning rakishly as Murikeer pushed his way through, striding heedlessly through the flood of lamp oil spilled from the sundered barrel. The surge of thick, cloyingly acrid oil surged across the bounding lines of Thorne’s circle and obliterated them. Filling shelves along both walls were smaller casks of oil and, beneath them, more heavy barrels. Murikeer swung his axe sideways and the tapered steel tip bit into another barrel, collapsing the stave and sending another rushing wave of oil across Thorne’s aborted efforts. “You can not escape.” Murikeer rasped breathlessly. He was spent; it was down to muscle against muscle.

Thorne stood and turned to face him with his dagger held at the ready. One side of his face was a bloody ruin. A flap of flesh hung down along the line of his jaw exposing the bone of his cheek. The man’s arrogant gray eyes were white rimmed with hatred and fear as he saw no way out save past his former teacher. “For Llyn.” Murikeer snarled and raised the axe to swing it downward in a vicious strike. Writhing like a snake Thorne twisted out of the way and thrust out a foot. Murikeer grunted and staggered back as it slammed into his stomach, almost dropping his axe as he paws slipped and he pitched forward. He dug in his claws with a snarl and pushed himself to one side, crashing into the shelves and rattling the casks.

Seizing his momentary advantage Thorne turned and seized the skunk by his throat, lifting and hammering him back against the shelves solidly. Wood cracked and casks fell to the floor. “Die!” the human snarled, his speech slurred by the hole in his cheek. Pulling Murikeer away from the shelf he slammed him into it again and raised the dagger, “My phial will be no more concern with you dead.” Casks tumbled from the shelf and shattered as Murikeer gasped and clutched at Thorne’s arm. He swung futilely with the ice-axe but Thorne merely batted it away.

That took one of his hands, however, and he could not block the strong leg that the skunk drove against his torn chest and pushed. With a roar Thorne released his prey and leapt back to clutch at the fresh cuts left by the skunk’s powerful claws. Murikeer collapsed, choking, and fell to his knees. Snarling Thorne lashed out with a foot to connect with the coughing skunk’s ribs. He was smashed against a barrel and grasped at it to regain his feet. A wild swing of the axe sent Thorne scuttling back once more. “If you kill me,” Murikeer hacked past the crushing pain in his throat, “the phial will sever you.” He pushed himself upright and leered across at the man. “You know it; the nature of the phial protects the Master. Where the student slays him, that student’s magic is forever severed.” He hammered one hand against his breast, “I am your master!” he bellowed, sweeping one of the casks off of the shelf and hurling it across the small room.

Thorn dodged the flying cask easily and it shattered against others on the shelf behind him. Lamp oil spattered his back and poured to the floor from two others shattered by the impact. The sand in which they were nested turned dark as the oil soaked it. The room reeked of the acrid fuel. “If I kill you by my magic, fool.” Thorne pointed the tip of the dagger at him, “Not if I carve out your heart with my own bare hands.” He lunged toward Murikeer but the skunk dodged and hammered the haft of his weapon against the man’s shins. He let the blow knock the axe away and used that inertia to spin and aim a savage sweeping blow at the mage.

Unfortunately Thorne sensed the attack and dodged hastily out of reach. A barrel cracked loudly as the staves sundered under Murikeer’s furious blow. He tried to pull the axe back but he could not; the head was snarled in a tangle of broken barrel staves and collars. He swept his free hand toward the far wall, “Look about you Thorne.” He snarled, abandoning the axe as Thorne circled away from him. “Where are the doors? Where are the casements? The room is sealed.” Murikeer smiled with a sinister show of sharp teeth. “Kyia is free, the power of your dark allies is broken. Your great leader has failed.” He slipped the blue stone dagger from his belt and tightened his hand upon the use polished bone hilt. “Again.”

With a bellow of rage Thorne charged down the length of the room and Murikeer tried to dodge. One fur garbed arm wrapped around him as Thorne overtook his futile attempt to slip past and both of them crashed over a fallen barrel. The wood creaked loudly and, with a series of popping cracks, yielded under their combined weight. Murikeer crashed down through a font of oil and Thorne came down upon him. Blood spattered across his face as the man leaned the full measure of his muscular weight down upon his upper chest and throat. His lower body crashed down on Murikeer’s hips and pinned his legs. “Nasoj was a fool.” He spat angrily. From the corner of his eye Murikeer spied the wicked curved edge of the mage’s ensorceled blade. He writhed futilely under the greater weight upon him but was pinned in place. With his hands he raked at Thorne’s torn breast but, other than snarling in pain, Thorne continued to hold him fast. “A fool who I will slay as well, when I am done with you.”

Murikeer writhed and gagged against the pressure upon his chest, crushing the air from his lungs and throat. The glistening shimmer of polished steel drew closer to his face and he tried to twist his head aside but he was immobilized. “Do you want to know, boy, what I did to your precious Master?” Thorne’s words came in a slurred burble through his torn cheek. Blood gurgled from the injury with each word and leaked past his lips. “I carved out his eyes.” Thrashing wildly Murikeer dug his claws into the torn flesh of the man’s ribs but it was a futile gesture. The dagger touched the corner of his left eye and, with a quick thrust and twist, Murikeer’s world exploded in blinding white agony. He shrieked at the searing pain as the steel tore into the vulnerable flesh of his eye and gouged the bony socket. “I carved out his eyes!” Thorne crowed triumphantly as his prey howled. Shifting his weight he pushed himself up onto his feet and stepped back. Murikeer clutched at his face and writhed on the floor, yowling incessantly until he could offer no more voice to his agony. “Just like yours. With this very dagger.” He held it up and turned it slowly in his hand, the steel drinking in the blood that seeped down its length.

“Don’t you see, blind boy?” Thorne chortled in maddened hilarity as he pressed his good hand to his torn cheek, “They sent me, not my inept sire. The southern mage guilds sought to use me, to break your precious master’s wards from within.” He leaned forward and delivered a savage kick to Murikeer’s breast but the skunk was beyond noticing such a small pain as broken ribs. “And I did. He was guildless, he violated their laws, so they sent me. ME! And I succeeded!” Kicking the skunk again he pushed him onto his back and pressed the weight of his foot down upon Murikeer’s chest as he leaned down over him. “I backed the old fool into a corner and I carved out his eyes.” He leaned down and swept the dagger slowly back and forth before Murikeer’s remaining eye, “And when you escaped, I returned and killed them, as well. Those inept old fools never knew that they had loosed their own death upon themselves.” He stood and paced away again, to the far wall of the room to touch the wall with his hand as if seeking some secret lever that would open an unseen door. “You taught me nothing.”

Thryza grimaced as she cast her gaze around the barracks hall. She couldn't see much from her perspective, but her aura-sight told her just what she had suspected: Nasoj's forces were losing, and badly. And worst of all, she still hadn't spotted the Lightbringers who had killed her students.

"Damn it, Lothanasi, where are you?" she muttered, caving in the chest of an approaching Keeper with a quick right fist. The man sunk to the floor in silent agony, and she kicked his head contemptuously, snapping his neck. The fool never should have tried to take her alone, she thought, wondering why all of the worthier opponents seemed to be ignoring her.

As if in reply, a challenging shout echoed over the crowd. "Moranasi!"

She spun around to see the raccoon she'd fought yesterday, his whole body drenched with blood. He was approaching her now with death in his eyes. Smiling, Thryza brought her own sword to the ready.

"Let's finish what we started, eh, Shadow Bringer?" the coon said.

"Happily," Thryza replied, loosing a quick right slash. The dark warrior stopped her blow easily, and countered with one of his own.

The ensuing duel was intense, brutal, and vicious, with neither of them holding back. The power of Revonos flowed through Thryza's limbs, as she dealt him blows that normally shattered swords and severed arms; but the warrior's sword was imbued with some sort of powerful magic that shrugged off even her hardest strikes, and he countered with attacks so strong that they could only have been empowered by Dokorath himself. The man bared his teeth savagely, reveling in the conflict, as their lethal dance spiraled all across the barracks.

"You're good," Thryza remarked off-handedly, feinting to the right. The raccoon followed her movement just a split-second too long, and she gestured toward his sword arm with her free hand. With a few muttered syllables the warrior's hand spasmed, causing him to drop his sword. " 'Tis a pity I have to kill you." She swung her blade in an arc toward his neck—

And in a flash, he reached out and grabbed it in both hands. With surprising strength— the war-god's blessing again, no doubt— he tore it from her grasp in an instant, then drove a fist hard into her nose. The dark priestess flew backward under the impact, but she rolled with the fall until she came up in a kneeling posture. The raccoon was waiting, though, and with an outstretched palm he drove a sizzling green ball of energy into her chest.

Thryza reeled under the impact, momentarily stunned. She tried to project another spasm-spell at the battlemage, but he resisted its effects and kept advancing, armed with her own sword. Shaking off the effects of the energy bolt, she rose to her feet, just as he thrust the sword-tip into her belly...

Only to find that it stopped against her flesh as if it were solid rock.

Thryza smirked. "My sword," she pointed out, slamming her palms against his chest. There was a loud crack of broken ribs as the warrior flew back bodily to crash against a stone pillar. He crumpled to the floor with a sound halfway between a grunt and a moan. As she swaggered towards him, she noticed that he seemed to have worn down badly— this time, he'd only gotten to his knees by the time she reached him. He looked up at her with a stunned, glazed-over expression in his eyes.

"Such a handsome boy," Thryza purred, running her fingers through the fur on his head. "Maybe I won't kill you, after all. You'd make such a wonderful slave..." She stretched out her mind toward his, already weaving the charm-spell...

Then snapped back as if she'd been bitten. Her vision went dark and blurry, as a sudden vertigo struck her body. In her fragmented and disoriented aura-sight, she could see a strange amulet glowing red beneath his armor.

"Sorry, already taken," he growled, producing a dagger from his belt and driving it into her chest.

Thryza looked down in astonishment at the ornamented handle protruding from her sternum. That was magical armor she was wearing beneath her cloak! She coughed, feeling the unpleasant sensation of blood filling her lungs. Dizzily, she raised her hands upwards.

"Herumor, nai nuvan mornie!" she gasped.

There was a sound like thunder, and a cloud of smoke rose up around the Moranasi, choking the battlemage with its foul scent. Then there was a pulsation of darkness, and Thryza's flesh, blood and bones melted away into nothingness— until only a living shadow remained.

The dagger fell to the floor with a muffled clang, surrounded by the black and silver garments of the Moranasi.

The raccoon swore in amazement as Adept Mistress Thryza turned glowing red eyes toward him, ethereal claws flashing like silver daggers. He dodged and rolled out of the way, recovered his sword, and rose to his feet, the rune-carved blade at the ready.

Thryza was mildly curious as to whether that mystical sword of his could actually harm her in her present form, but there was no time for her to find out. Now that she had used the wraith-spell, it would not be long before she attracted the attention of Metamor herself.

"Polteen!" she cried, her voice echoing across the hall like a banshee's wail. "Come on!"

There was another puff of smoke on the other side of the room, and within seconds the two Moranasi had vanished into the shadows on the ceiling above, leaving the raccoon battlemage behind.

They floated through the stones of the castle effortlessly, racing toward the north wall and the freedom beyond it. Thryza found herself pondering what the Dark Prince would say to Nasoj when he was forced to give an account for this miserable failure. Perhaps he would torture the wizard— that could prove quite entertaining, indeed.

Thryza was just beginning to picture Nasoj writhing in agony in the pits of the Ninth Hell when she and Polteen passed out of the rock and into an open room.

A room that abruptly flared brilliant white from every direction.

Thryza hissed and covered her eyes, blinded by the divine light that emanated from the very stones. Futilely she threw her wraithlike body against the walls, but with no shadows present there was no way for her to slip through. She tried to summon a darkness spell, but she was already weakened from the battle— and maintaining her wraith form was already taxing her energy reserves. As her eyes finally grew more accustomed to the brightness, she noticed that Polteen was having the same sort of trouble that she was.

Then she heard the awful, piercing metallic sound of mithril sliding out of its sheath. She turned, and a chill of fear ran through her as she saw the Lightbringers— wolf-woman and cat-child— bearing towards her, swords flashing in the too-bright light.

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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