Murikeer rolled and levered himself to his knees, blinded both by an agony too deep to be fully understood and the loss of an eye. He leaned over a fallen barrel and tilted his head slightly to glare at the man’s back with what little vision remained. “No,” he rasped and Thorne turned, “I taught you nothing, then.” He reached for his last dregs of magic and moaned as a fresh lance of pain blossomed behind his eye. He had no magic left to reach. With one hand he cast about for his amulets, his charms, those things he had invested some iota of his power to sustain other spells. In a small pouch tied securely to his belt he felt a hard lump. “But I can teach you something now.” His claws made short work of the thin material and the contents spilled into his hand.
He brought it around before himself and gazed into his palm. A gleaming, bloodied citrine winked up at him with a tiny dim glimmer of inner warmth; Llyn’s amulet. Grimshori, grant me your strength, he prayed fervently as he reached into the stone for that tiny spark. “What can you teach me in your dying moments, peasant?” Thorne spat as he strode toward his vanquished foe. Murikeer fought through the waves of agony that flared in his skull as he reached for the tiny spark of magic invested in the stone. Slowly he raised his head to meet Thorne’s hard gray gaze.
“How to die.” He rasped at length, shifting the magics of the stone, and casting it to the floor. The dim glimmer became a virulent red glow like the eye of an angry god. The golden stone darkened to orange, and then a deep ruby red before shattering with a scintillating crack. Tiny shards of stone trailed away and where they flew fire followed. Switching the enchantments, meant to keep Llyn warm and her scent damped, to pure fire was the last that Murikeer could accomplish. Before darkness swam up and snatched him away he managed one, final, word; “Screaming.”
Thorne gaped at the tiny blossom of fire that opened from the shattered stone like a burning flower and lurched back in horror. But there was nowhere to go; unyielding stone met his back as he retreated and he let out a last howl of terror and pain as the room was consumed in roaring fire.
Shadows and Light
Merai held her divinely-blessed sword at the ready and tried not to show any fear. The two forms floating before them, just a few yards away, were nightmarish and menacing: though nearly human in form, they seemed to be made of darkness itself, and their eyes glowed an unearthly red. Ethereal claws flashed like daggers at the tips of long, distended fingers, each looking like it could eviscerate a man in seconds. For all their terror, though, Merai could see that these Shadow Bringers were weakened and vulnerable, their fatigue made clear by her aura-sight. That, at least, filled her with a measure of confidence, bolstering her mind against the animalistic fear she felt at the sight of such unnatural beings.
She glanced at the elder priestess beside her, and the subtle motions of Raven's eyes made it clear: Merai was to face the one who had been a woman, while the Lothanasa herself dealt with the Grand Master. No words were spoken as the two sides warily approached each other; there could be no surrender in this battle and no retreat, and melodramatic speeches would only waste time and breath.
The Moranasi struck first, rushing with blinding speed at the Lightbringers' throats. Dokorath's blessing held firm, though, and both Raven and Merai stopped their claws with a swing of their blades. Merai focused in on her opponent, forgetting for the moment about Raven and the Grand Master and concentrating solely on the shadowy, vaguely female shape before her.
The she-wraith swung her claws in three quick swipes before Merai stopped her momentum and countered with an attack of her own. The shadowy mass before her felt firm but pliable as she struck at it, like leather armor, and in a flash of insight Merai saw the shields that surrounded her opponent's body. Those shields required force of will to maintain, and in time could be battered down.
"A nicacce!" the wraith hissed, spreading her palm toward Merai. A sudden, icy chill shot through the cat-woman's body, freezing her from inside out. She went rigid, feeling her innards turn to ice.
"N-nai nuva y-yaja!" Merai gasped, teeth chattering. Instantly an aura of fire sprang up around her, countering the freeze-spell and restoring her body to normal. Gritting her teeth, she struck out at the Moranasi again, knowing the dark cleric had just wasted a portion of her precious energy reserves. Silently, she thanked the gods that Raven had been teaching her Yajiit's proxy spells.
Stealing a glance across the room, Merai saw that the battle between Raven and the Grand Master had been vicious: Raven's leather armor was largely shredded, and the fur on her arms and legs was matted in several places with blood. At the same time, the chief Moranasi seemed heavily battered: his shadowy form was significantly faded in many spots, and his "body" was leaking smoke like a censer-pot. Both were fighting like wild animals, attacking and counterattacking with blistering speed. From a quick glance at their auras, though, it seemed clear to Merai that Raven was gaining the upper hand.
Merai's attentions were brought jarringly back into focus by a slash of her opponent's claws, slicing through her sword hand. Merai shrieked in pain as the blade fell to the floor, backed away from the attacking claws, then pushed the wraith away from her with a shield spell. The sword now lay several feet away, behind the advancing Moranasi.
Biting back a curse, Merai stretched out her hand. "Yajiit, a nasa yaja!" she cried. A blast of flame about a hand-span wide shot from her fingertips, but the fire jet passed through the wraith with no apparent effect. The unholy creature seemed to be laughing.
"So that's the way it is, is it?" Merai muttered. "Fine, then..."
The young priestess stood her ground, staring the Shadow Bringer straight in her flame-red eyes. Then, steeling her will, she drove her consciousness down like a dagger into her enemy's mind.
Merai found herself "standing", after a fashion, in the midst of a swirling torrent of hatred. Pushing further in, she saw ground below her— the solid terrain of conscious thought. In the Moranasi's mind, that ground was bare and hard, devoid of growth or beauty, like the deserts she had read about from time to time. She settled lightly to earth, eyes and ears alert for danger, tail flicking back and forth in anticipation.
She didn't have long to wait. The dust in front of her swirled together, driven by the winds blowing around her, and coalesced into the form of a short, red-haired woman with angry, defiant eyes. This deep inside her mind, Merai saw the woman's identity in an instant: Adept Mistress Thryza, the sixth child of Mordeloth Blackhand and right-hand aide to Grand Master Polteen. The Moranasi was proud of her titles, proud of the fear her name instilled in her homeland— and, at the moment, utterly livid with Merai hin'Dana.
"Get out of my head!" she growled, lunging at the young priestess.
Merai, feeling for the first time like she was actually in control of things, nimbly stepped aside, tripping up the enraged Shadow Bringer and slashing her arm with a swipe of her feline claws. Thryza landed hard, looked down at her bleeding arm, then looked back up at Merai with an expression of surprise mixed with silent fury.
"Don't ask me to explain it," Merai shrugged, her confidence strengthened by the discovery that Thryza was unfamiliar with this sort of battleground. Evidently Prince Ba'al taught his students to focus more outwardly than inwardly, to project their anger at external targets rather than to turn their observations toward themselves. That gave Merai the advantage: if there was one thing that Raven had taught her in her short time as a Lightbringer, it was to remain centered. "Nolalye sulelya", or "Know Thyself", was one of the prime commandments of the Lothanasi; fortunately, that did not seem to be the case for their counterparts.
Thryza rose to her feet again, panting, her fists clenching and unclenching as she stared at the intruder in her mind. Merai settled into a fighting stance, claws out, and beckoned to the dark cleric.
"What are you waiting for?" she asked, quietly but with a slight edge to her voice.
The red-headed woman took the bait. She stepped quickly forward, fists raised, and let loose a flurry of punches at Merai. The cat-woman blocked or dodged most of them, then darted in with a few quick jabs of her own— each one careful, deliberate, measured. She ducked under one of Thryza's swings and raked her claws across the woman's belly, leaving deep gouges in that soft and tender flesh. The tempest above them roared with thunder as lightning-flashes of anger split the sky, and though the wind blew hard against her Merai held her ground.
Thryza howled in rage and hit Merai with a straight right punch to the face, which sent her flying backwards to land roughly on the barren ground. The priestess was up in a moment, and she sensed a ripple of disappointment in the storm around her; evidently, Thryza had been expecting the blow to shatter Merai's skull.
"Your strength won't help you here," Merai said, wiping the blood from her nose. In truth, it probably would help the Moranasi a little, simply because it would grant her more confidence in herself. But Merai was attacking her psychologically, and the more uncertainty she could sow in Thryza's mind the easier it would be to defeat her.
Merai met her opponent halfway in the next attack, a quick exchange of blows that left both of them bruised and bloodied. They grappled with each other's arms, twisting this way and that in an effort to get some leverage, before both toppled to the ground in a tangle of limbs. Thryza bit, kicked and scratched like a wild beast, and Merai responded with carefully placed blows and measured swipes of her claws. Even as the Moranasi became more desperate and heated in her attacks, the Lightbringer became cool, almost emotionless, filled with a determination as rigid and cold as iron. It was a very different feeling for Merai, but it seemed so inexpressibly right — as if she had always known, at the very core of her being, what she would have to do in order to win this battle.
Rolling until she was on top, Thryza pounded downwards at Merai's face— but Merai caught her wrist and pulled the punch wide. Digging in her claws, she pulled roughly away from the dark cleric's hand, slitting the woman's wrist in a long, ragged gash. Boxing Thryza's ears, Merai rolled again until she was on top, and with two quick swipes she shredded the woman's dull black tunic to ribbons.
It was a symbolic act, representing vulnerability, exposure, and the loss of identity, and the damage it did to Thryza's avatar was reflected in the surrounding landscape: the storm overhead grew darker and more violent, and the earth beneath them rumbled as cracks began to form in its surface. The Moranasi's consciousness was beginning to come apart at the seams under Merai's relentless assault.
"Who are you?" Merai asked her, tearing away the shreds of fabric to leave Thryza naked and exposed on the rock.
"I am Thryza!" the woman shouted, getting her arm free and punching Merai in the chin. "I am Moranasi!" Focusing past the pain— after all, it was all in her mind, she thought— Merai spit out blood and pinned down the woman's arm again. Trapping one of the Moranasi's fists under her knee, Merai quickly slashed a twin-cross on the woman's chest with her claws. It was another deliberate act, "branding" the redhead's avatar with the symbol of her most hated enemy.
"Are you really Moranasi?" she replied calmly, holding Thryza firmly in place.
"Yes!" Thryza shouted.
"Then where are your robes?"
"You took them!" she screamed. In her eyes, though, Merai saw a flicker of uncertainty mixed with the rage. The ground trembled, and the cracks around them began to open wider.
"You don't look like Moranasi to me," Merai said firmly, locking eyes with the other woman. "You wear the symbol of the Lightbringers on your chest."
"No! You lie!"
"Look for yourself."
Merai gave the other woman just enough slack to let her raise her head and see the bloody twin-cross that the Lightbringer had carved in her chest. "No!" Thryza shouted, struggling to free her arms. "Get it off! Get it off!"
"It is a part of you," Merai said simply. "It is who you are."
"NO!" Another tremor, and the cracks spread into crevasses around them, jagged and unfathomably deep. "I am Moranasi! I am Adept Mistress Thryza!"
Merai scoffed. "You aren't an Adept Mistress," she said. "An Adept Mistress would never wear the mark of the Lightbringers. And an Adept Mistress wears black and silver robes."
"I have robes!"
"You are naked."
"I had robes!"
"Where are they?"
"I— I— "
The rocks groaned again, and now there was a canyon just a few feet away from them, so deep that the bottom— if there was one— was obscured in solid black. Merai leaned in close to Thryza's ear.
"You have no robes," she said quietly. "You have no robes, because you are not an Adept Mistress."
"I— I'm ... not?"
"No, you are not," Merai said, her voice firm. "You are not an Adept Mistress. You are not Moranasi. You are nothing but a naked woman with the mark of the Lothanasi on your chest."
"No!" Thryza insisted, tears of fear and desperation filling her eyes. "I am! I am!"
"You are what?"
"I am ... I am ... Thryza! I am Thryza!"
"Who is Thryza?" Merai asked. "It is only a name. What does it mean?"
"It means ... it ... I ..." The woman was sobbing uncontrollably. The canyon widened yet again, and now she and Merai lay at its very brink. The winds of the storm howled even in the bottomless chasm below— a tempest of pure, uncontrolled emotion.
"I shall tell you what it means," Merai said forcefully. "Thryza is a helpless, naked, defenseless woman who wears the mark of the Lothanasi!"
Thryza shook her head violently, barely able even to speak amidst her shuddering sobs. Merai loosened her grip on her hands, and the woman pulled away from her like a frightened animal.
"No! Go away! Go away!" she cried, pushing weakly on Merai's chest. Finding that she couldn't move that way, she pushed with her feet against the rocky soil, bringing herself and Merai closer to the edge of the cliff.
"Don't run, Thryza!" Merai all but yelled in her ear. "We can help you! After all, you wear the sign of the Lightbringers, so you must be one of our own! We will take care of you, poor, helpless, vulnerable Thryza!"
"No!" Summoning more strength than Merai would have thought possible in her current state, Thryza pushed the cat-woman off of her. "You stay away! I'm not one of you!" She was edging backward, sheer terror in her eyes, not even noticing the chasm behind her.
"Aye, you are, Thryza!" Merai insisted, holding out her hand to the frightened woman. "You are Lothanasi! Look at the mark! What else could you possibly be?"
Thryza backed away even further. "I am ... I am- "
And then, abruptly, there was no more ground behind her— and Thryza fell tumbling into the bottomless depths of insanity.
"I am!" she shouted, her voice echoing off the walls of the chasm. "I am! I am! I am!"
And then she vanished from sight.
Instantly, the ground beneath Merai crumbled to dust, Thryza's consciousness shattering in the wake of her fall into madness. With a thought, Merai propelled herself away from the disintegrating landscape, back into the storm of emotions raging above. She felt her mind twist sharply to the right, spiraling outward—
And then she was back in her own body, as Thryza— once again in human form— collapsed numbly to the floor.
"I see you survived your trip."
Merai looked up to see Raven standing beside her, Elemacil in its sheath.
"The Grand Master?" she asked.
"Dead," Raven assured her. "He vanished like a puff of smoke. And his adept will soon be joining him."
Merai looked at the Lothanasa in shock. "Is it truly right to kill her like this?" she asked, incredulous. "There is nothing left of her but madness!"
"We do not have to kill her, Merai," Raven said, putting a hand on the younger woman's shoulder. "For good or ill, that decision has already been made for us."
"What do you- ?" Merai turned, looking at the crumpled form of Adept Mistress Thryza, and suddenly saw what Raven meant: there was a grave-looking knife wound between the woman's breasts, which Merai's aura-sight revealed had pierced the woman's heart. Even now her life force was ebbing; in another minute or two, she would be dead.
"Someone must have dealt her that blow before she changed," Raven said. "In her weakened state, her body apparently returned to the condition it had been in before, wounds and all. I suppose they must have some way of restoring themselves when they return to human form, but after you defeated her from within..."
"There was nothing left of her mind to put her back together again properly," Merai said soberly. " 'Tis sad. For a moment there, I truly believed that we might help her to find a new life. One free of all the hate that she had been raised in."
"It is sad," Raven agreed. "But it is also just. She killed many in the pursuit of personal gain, and she was an accessory to the murder of countless others. She has paid the price for her actions."
Merai nodded, eyes still fixed on the dying woman before her. "I understand," she said softly. "But it is still ... so very hard."
"May the gods help us if playing the executioner ever becomes easy," Raven said. "Now, come. Let us see what has become of the others."
Turning away from the fallen Shadow Bringer, the two priestesses took the door that Kyia had provided and began walking towards the barracks hall. Behind them, the glow of the stones faded into darkness, and all was silent.
Raven stepped through the door at the back of Barracks One and cast a glance over the expansive room. The battle was over, but the hall was still filled with a subdued buzz of activity. The dead lay scattered from one end to the other, and spots were slowly being cleared on the blood-soaked floor to make room for the treatment of the wounded. Coe and his fellow healers were working feverishly to save as many Keepers as possible, while the soldiers and militia picked through the bodies for any comrades who might still be alive. It was a grisly, deadly serious scene— but though the men and women of Metamor had paid a heavy price this day, they had won the battle decisively. The sheer numbers of dead invaders attested to that.
"Lothanasa! Glad to see you're still alive."
Raven turned and nodded in polite acknowledgement to Rickkter, who was wiping his sword with a cloth as he approached. The raccoon looked like hell— several hells, actually. Blood and gore seemed to cover every inch of his body, though she suspected that most of it wasn't his. He seemed to be breathing with a fair amount of difficulty, probably due to the numerous cracked ribs she could see with her aura-sight.
"Likewise, Rickkter. It would have been a shame to lose you."
"You're too kind," he replied, with affected modesty. "I take it you were successful in stopping the Moranasi?"
"Aye. It was a hard battle, but justice has been served."
"Good. I would have liked to have killed that woman myself, but apparently my methods weren't strong enough for a Shadow Bringer."
Raven raised her eyebrows in interest. "Were you there when she changed? I still need to recover her clothes for the offering to Dokorath."
"Aye, they're ... around here somewhere," the raccoon frowned, scanning the piles of bodies around them. At last he walked over to one of the pillars supporting the roof, pulled aside a few corpses, and retrieved the pile of blood-soaked garments that lay beneath them. After picking through the clothes for a moment, he pulled out an ornamented dagger and handed the rest to Raven.
"Here you are."
"My thanks." Raven looked at the black, silver-edged robes, the belt, the shoes ... and something beneath the robes...
"This is magical armor," she said, holding up a short-sleeved black tunic covered with silver runes. It had a large, blood-stained hole in the middle of the chest. "I thought only mithril could pierce this."
"That and a few other things," Rick said, holding up the dagger for inspection. "This is one of Marshak's Teeth, four daggers that will supposedly pierce any armor."
"I remember those. You won them at the tournament, didn't you?"
The battlemage smirked. "Aye, they were the prize for second place. I suppose I should be grateful that Kwanzaa bested me."
Raven smiled slightly and folded the Shadow Bringer's clothes neatly over her arm. "Thank you, Rickkter. You helped Merai and myself more than you may realize."
"Always glad to be of service, Lightbringer," the coon said, bowing respectfully.
"Mistress Lightbringer!" a deep voice bellowed across the room.
Raven turned to see a tall, muscular bear-morph beckoning to her. He was kneeling beside a young woman— Daria, to judge by her aura. "If you'll excuse me, Rickkter..."
"Of course, Lothanasa."
The priestess walked swiftly towards the ursine warrior. As she drew closer, she recognized him as Garulf, one of the members of Daria's otrinca squad. He was covered with blood, both his own and others', but none of his wounds seemed particularly grievous. Daria, on the other hand...
"By Akkala," she murmured, kneeling down beside the young warrior-woman.
"Can you help her?" Garulf asked.
"Aye, of course," Raven replied, examining Daria's body with her aura-sight. Several of her ribs had broken, again; one of her lungs was punctured; there was damage to her liver and one of her kidneys; and her right biceps and abdominal muscles had taken a few nasty cuts. "Heart looks well ... brain and spine are unharmed," she said, after a moment. "I can heal her, though it shall take some time."
"Is it safe to move her?"
Raven peered closely at those broken ribs, finally determining that none of them looked likely to pierce the heart. "Aye, I think so, but we'd best be careful. Do you have a stretcher?"
"I can get one."
The bear rose quickly to his feet in search of the needed equipment. A minute or two later, Daria let out a soft moan and began to stir.
"Stay put, Daria," Raven cautioned her, placing a hand on her forehead. "You have some broken ribs."
The redhead sighed, then coughed weakly at the sensation of blood in her lung. "Again?"
"Aye, and 'tis a bit worse this time," the priestess answered. "Garulf is bringing a stretcher to take you back to the temple."
Daria closed her eyes and nodded. "Where's Merai?"
Raven lifted her head and took a brief look around the room. Merai's aura stood out like a lantern at midnight. "Over there, assisting the healers," she said. "She's fine."
The young warrior smiled. "Good."
Garulf came back with the stretcher, and he and Raven began the delicate task of moving Daria onto it and strapping her down. They were just getting ready to move her when a loud yipping noise caught their attention. Looking up, they saw Kee Coyote running into the barracks, looking excited and out of breath.
"Reinforcements!" he shouted. "They've arrived!"
Misha, walked quickly to where the Duke was standing, surrounded by the members of his guard. With the fox was Finbar and Danielle, all looked battered and exhausted. To the vulpine, Thomas looked as tired and worn as everyone else as he leaned wearily on his sword. The long scout noted the dents in the stallions armor and the blood on his sword.
“General Selig and the mages are dead?” Thomas asked.
“Yes,” Misha replied simply. “Can we . . “
“Captain Kortel, take your people and go with Misha,” the stallion ordered a woman standing nearby.
“How many do you have?” the fox asked.
“Forty eight,” the captain responded. “I started with ninety four.”
“Get your people together and ready to move right now. We have one last fight.”
“We’ll be ready in five minutes. Where are we going?”
“To Long House,” Misha explained. “And I hope we’re in time.”
Raven walked ahead of the convoy of wounded Keepers, her steps light and her stride long. She was feeling wonderfully optimistic, an emotion that had been sorely lacking in her life far too often of late. Nasoj's forces within the Keep had been resoundingly defeated, and even now the cavalry brigades from the Midlands and the nearby towns of the Valley were doing the same to the enemies camped outside. With their leaders dead the invading army would be routed, and the Keepers would drive them back into the Giantdowns like chaff before the wind. The enemy's morale would be crushed— and, Raven knew, Nasoj would likely have to answer to Prince Ba'al himself for his failure. In spite of the horrible destruction the wizard's winter assault had caused, the totality of Metamor's victory made the future seem brighter than it had in years.
As they passed out of the corridor, into a small and unornamented room, her attention was brought back to the present by the distant sound of an animal yelping. And by the timbre of the voice, it seemed disturbingly familiar...
"Hold," she said, raising her hand to stop the line of people behind her. "Guards to the front. Form a line in front of the wounded."
Silently, six of the soldiers accompanying the convoy entered the room and spread out in front of the doorway, keeping the line of wounded behind them. The other three warriors took up a rear guard position in the corridor at the end of the line. Ears perked forward attentively, Raven drew Elemacil from its sheath. Merai came up to stand beside her, carrying a short sword she had picked up in the barracks.
The yelping grew louder, now accompanied by shouts and other noises. Soon, just as Raven had feared, a gray wolf came barreling around a corner towards the line of Keepers, with about three dozen Lutins in his wake.
Damn it, Raven swore silently. Wanderer got out of the temple. He must have run into some of the troops from the attack on Long House...
The wolf ducked into the shadowed corridor with the wounded, as Raven, Merai and the soldiers rushed forward to meet the attackers. Momentarily surprised at seeing so many Keepers in one place but apparently eager for a fight, they hesitated only a moment before leaping into the fray, screaming defiantly.
Somewhere behind her, Raven heard Wanderer let out a quiet whimper.
Hide, hide, must hide, hide from mash, bash, crash, hide from manymanytoomanytoomanytoo ... too ...
She is there, where She should not be. Too much, too fast, too danger! But She is there, fighting the other pack. She stands on two paws and holds them back.
The strange feeling comes as she fights, growing strong like the moonlight, like fire, like prettynoise. What? Whatisit? Whatwhatwhatwhat ...
She falls, a hittingthing knocking her down. Get up, She! Getupgetupgetup ...
He rai ... raises the ... whatis?
I spring on the thrice-accursed Lutin and rip his filthy wrist to the bone, then spit the hand that's attached to it aside. As he scrambles back without it, I look into his eyes ... and from somewhere deep within me comes a rumbling, like thunder in the mountains. Thunder that means ... that means ...
MINE. NO HURT MINE. DIE NOW. DIE NOW, BADTHING. RIP, TEAR, I AM DEATH, I AM BITE, I AM BLOOD, I AM EATING ALIVE ...
... the nearby Lutins seem to freeze at the sight of me, and the warriors around me seize the opportunity to thrust them back toward the door ... doors? I am shoved to the ground from the side, a misplaced boot forcing me to the stone floor. I leave the war to the warriors and turn to Raven.
She is lying still, dazed, her breath is soft, almost not there, her scent ... her ...
She's scent is weak, confused. I ... I ...
I go to her side and try to take her face in my hand. Oh, Raven, Raven, please don't go, don't go, please don't go away ...
... away ...
Raven, please ...
... please don't ...
... don't leave me ...
I'll be a good boy , my mind whispers in desperation, I'll be nice, I'll be good, pleaseohplease don't leave me alone, not alone, oh please not alone again. I love you too much ...
"Wanderer ... "
I blink more fully awake as she speaks.
" ... you're giving me a headache ... "
"Wurrrr ... "
I blink again, my quick retort dying unspoken. Unspoken? What is wrong with my voice? What is wrong with my ... ?
My hand. My ... that's no ...
What ... what's going ... what's going on?
Taking her hand, Merai helped Raven slowly to her feet. She'd taken a nasty hit to the back of the head from a Lutin mace, and had lain on the floor for a good fifteen minutes before she felt like she could sit up. All the while the wolf had guarded her jealously, eyes sharp with human intelligence and tender with human affection. Evidently, Wanderer had returned to the land of the living.
Once Merai and the soldiers took care of the remaining Lutins, the younger priestess took a good look at Raven's head with her aura-sight. Fortunately, it looked like only a mild concussion; Raven would have to be careful not to tax herself too much for a few weeks, but there would be no lasting harm. Merai guessed that the Lutin's rather short stature had kept him from getting a good angle on the blow.
"Thank you, Merai," Raven said, leaning on the cat-woman's shoulder for support.
"Not a problem, Sister Raven." She turned and gestured to the men and women behind her. "Come on, everyone. We shouldn't be far from the temple now."
Slowly the line of battered Keepers continued their journey toward the Lightbringer temple, led by two priestesses and a wolf who looked like he'd finally awakened from a long and terrible dream.
Raven blinked hard, the light seeming to course daggers between the blacknesses. She heard a soft moan, and quickly connected it with her own breath's departure. Blessed Akkala, she thought, what happened out there? She remembered the lutin force chasing after Wanderer ... wading into the fray ... then ...
Pain, she whispered in her thoughts. Pain and darkness. Likely something hit me from the side. Her name penetrated the throbbing at her temples ... and a mad giggle died as she realized one of Wanderer's most ancient jokes, about a priest with a pain at his temples, was utterly horrendous at this moment. Wanderer? What had made her think of ...
"Sister Raven?", the call came again. She recognized the voice.
"I am here, Merai", she almost whispered through the pain in her head. "Gods know I almost wish I weren't, but I am here." She began to sit up.
"Oh, no", said Merai, and Raven felt a hand upon her, pressing her down to the bed's soft tick. "You may be a healer, Sister, but now you are one of the wounded. In that bed you will stay until you have recovered yourself."
Raven elected not to resist, her aching skull more than agreeing. "What was it that caught me, Merai? It feels as though half of Metamor fell upon me."
She could hear Merai stifle a chuckle. "Nothing so great, Sister. A lutin's mace caught you as you turned, but you will be all right ere long."
Raven half-smiled through the persistent ache in her brain. Then, in a moment, she struggled to sit up. "Wanderer!"
"The wolf, Merai!", she said impatiently, "The wolf that brought all those Gods-bedamned lutins down on us! Is he well?"
"Calm yourself, Sister", Merai said, holding her down with what she conceded was very little effort. "That fool wolf is well enough, after all that mess. Look beside your bed."
Cautiously, Raven opened her eyes, turning to the side away from Merai. There, looking up at her from eyes filled with confusion, was the former bard. She sighed in relief. "Gods be praised. For a moment, I could not remember whither he'd gone."
"Aye", replied her fellow Lightbringer. "There were some who'd as soon have tossed him through a convenient window after he brought that coil upon us. But after the way he jumped in after you, we decided he'd earned a measure of forgiveness."
Raven sighed, and relaxed into the bed. Then, a stray thought hit her.
"You're not going to try to get up again, are you?"
Raven smiled a little. "No. I just wondered what you meant."
"The wolf 'jumping in after me'. What did you mean?"
Merai reached over and tousled the wolf's fur, barely gaining a notice from him. "Well, he hung back at first, you know, as wolves do. But when that Lutin cracked you in the head ... " Merai let out a low whistle. "You should have seen the mess! Tore the thing's mitt off at the wrist, he did."
Could it be ...
Questioningly, Raven sent a thin, wavering tendril of thought out to the wolf by her side. Though the pain in her head threatened to break her concentration, still she forced herself to reach out across the space to meet his aura.
What she 'saw' there almost made her forget the pain. Where before there had been a swirling, violent whirlpool, destroying all memory, all stability in its chaos, now there was ... peace.
No, she conceded after a moment. Not complete peace. But now the wavering, fragmented thought that had filled his existence was confined to the merest edges of him, and fading quickly. In its place, there was a placid, ordered feeling, like a forest after a rainstorm.
A strangely familiar forest ... she looked as deeply as she could.
Yes. There, within the depths of him, was the light of Samekkh's daughters, so long smothered by the ocean waves of the wolf's mind.
She realized Merai was speaking. "What?", she asked, bringing herself back to herself.
"You're not overexerting yourself, are you?", asked Merai, looking down at her concernedly. "You're my patient, you know."
Raven smiled. "Merai", she told her friend, "I shall be the quietest, most docile patient you have ever had if you will grant me one thing."
"And what might that be?", asked Merai. "You're not seeing any patients yet, you know, no matter ... "
"No, Merai", she interrupted. "Just bring me someone who can allow my mind to speak to Wand'rer's."
Merai blinked. "Speaking to that wolf again?" She sounded properly incredulous. "Raven, I know you think he'll return, but ... "
"Merai..." she started, then reconsidered. After a blow to the head, Merai might well disregard her aura sight. After all, with concussions ... "Merai", she said instead, "you said that he jumped in to save me."
"That's right", replied the other Lightbringer, once more affectionately tousling the wolf's fur. "Quite the hero, then. But why ... ?"
"Merai, that was not the action of a wolf."
Merai looked askance.
"You may ask the others if you do not believe me, Merai. Wolves run from danger. Not into it."
Merai still looked unconvinced.
Raven sighed. "If nothing else, consider it a way to pass the time before you start asking me what year it is and how many fingers you're holding out to me."
"All right", chuckled Merai, "but don't get your hopes up unnecessarily. It's been some time, you know."
I know, Raven whispered to herself as Merai left her bedside. Gods, do I know.
It took a good twenty minutes, at the least, for Merai to hunt down one of the Keep's mages who had any sort of training in telepathic spells.
The woman placed the enchantment on Wanderer quickly and without fanfare. "I must warn you," she said, "this spell only gives the ability of telepathic speech. It does not confer either the will or the knowledge to use it. It may take some time for him to discover the spell's benefits."
"I understand," Raven said, nodding. "Thank you, again."
The mage nodded and left, and Raven turned her attention to the wolf. Merai watched from a few paces away, curious.
"Wanderer," Raven said quietly.
The wolf looked up and cocked his head.
"You can speak now, Charles," she said. "Just as Christopher does. Direct your thoughts outwards."
There was a sudden gleam in the wolf's eyes. Reaching out with another slender thread of consciousness, Raven sensed the ordered portions of Wanderer's brain collecting themselves, like a person slowly coming out of a deep sleep.
"Charles!" she called softly, projecting the thought into his mind even as she spoke it. A grey mass of thoughts wound upwards out of his mind in response, pushed against the last thin wall of animal instinct and emotion...
And then, in a rush, it broke through.
What has happened?
That was my first thought, I must admit. At first, I remembered nothing.
My hands ... why am I on the ... floor ... what am I ... Raven!
I tried to speak ...
"Rrrr-ra-aw ... "
My voice! Blessed Mother of Songs, my voice! My ... my all! My whole!
"Reh! Reh! Reh!"
My mind filled with anguish as I struggled to make even one recognizable sound come from my muzzle. More than hands, more than instruments, I am my voice! And my voice ...
... was gone. I would be ... be nothing. Nothing at all. Even Raven ... I paused in my futile struggle to look fearfully at her ... even my lady the Lightbringer would turn from me. Without my voice I had nothing to offer her ... to offer anyone. I would be ... I shivered as a cold chill filled me ... alone.
Raven looked at me now, a mask of curiosity upon her features. Perhaps she had spoken ... I would never have heard it. To lose my voice, the one thing that makes me a bard ... even now, it dragged sharply at my mind, as the Lodestar upon a lodestone. I whimpered, all dignity lost.
Intelligence filled the wolf's eyes, but it was mixed with terror and desperation. He let out a few short yelps and groans, still trying to make his mouth behave as he thought it should.
"Charles, use the spell!" Raven said, suddenly feeling very worried at the expression of despair that appeared on the wolf's face. "Speak as Christopher does!"
I blinked at the memories that the teacher's name conjured. Christopher ... walking to see me? It seemed ... but why should he not ...
A picture ... Christopher, yes. Christopher ... sitting in a chair ... a chair with wheels ...
But if that was so ...
I shook my head free of the tangled memory. I needed to think, to understand what had happened, how I had suddenly found myself in the midst of a battle for ... for ...
For Keep and home and Metamor,
The teacher strode in fury fell,
His roar, like any churchyard bell,
Foretold the doom he came before.
I blinked. This was no time to ...
The lutin foe he sought to match,
Their skulls he crushed beneath his paws,
Their bones he broke within his jaws,
As rats chew through a roof's dry thatch.
With a mental cry, I tore my mind from the poem, promising myself I would return to it, promising, promising ...
Promises made and promises kept,
These are the ones for which they wept.
Promises unmade and broken apart,
Shatter the life as they puncture the heart.
My head ached, aching as though a beater's drum tolled out a hunt within my brainpan.
Suddenly the wolf stopped and looked up at her. Raven? The telepathic voice was weak and tenuous, but it was there.
"Charles!" Raven cried again, a smile leaping to her face. "Aye, that's the way! Don't try to speak -- just use the spell."
Spell? he said, confusion flickering in his eyes. What's happened? I ... I remember...
Once more he fell silent, lowering his eyes as a surge of thoughts flowed out from the deepest reaches of his mind.
Christopher ... was ... was wounded ...
A spear to pierce
The walls without,
A spell to work within.
The fighting men of Metamor,
Who give up lives and homes, and tell
The ache in every fun'ral bell,
The hearth and hope we're fighting for.
My head, Mother of Songs, my head! Someone speaks, perhaps Raven, perhaps anoth--
You cannot have my friend, my foe.
I've told you once, the ANSWER'S N-
It comes in a flow as of summer floods ...
To fill the plain
That springtime leaves behind
The voice is without, not within. Raven?
"Wanderer, is something wrong?"
I laugh within myself. Aye, marry, 'tis so ...
'Tis so, and so, and so again,
As gods and goddesses shape men,
As men shape wood, and stone, and clay,
Aye, marry, it is so today.
The ache returns. Ra-raven ...
Wanderer! Now within my head without within without ...
A dam is burst, and so its flow
Is more than any river's spate.
And even so bestows this fate
On any gift that may not go.
My head is like to burst. Music, laughter, stories ... and rhymes, rhymes upon rhymes, stacked upon backs in rows like hoes ...
My head ...
What? What ails you?
Too much ...
A little is good, and there's no need to bluff
When you say that too much of a good thing's enough!
O, Mother of Songs, it huuuuUUUUUURTS!
"Merai! Merai, quickly! There's something ..."
No! I pant, even in my mind, my eyes almost shut with the effort of prose. No! 'Tis not a potion ...
'Tis not a potion to imbibe
That gives me what I now do need.
Send somebody with all good speed
As soon as can, to fetch a scribe!
A scribe! I pant triumphantly. I flow, I burst my banks, Raven! It is too much! But it is Sent, and I would not lose it!
I am here, comes a third voice in my mind, beside my own and Raven's. Tell them to me, and I will record them.
Th-thank ... thank you, lady! Milady, I ... name, milady. I would know your name!
It is Kyia, long-silenced singer. Now let it go.
And, and, andandandandand ...
I release it.
The wolf lay there on the floor for hours, projecting poems and songs into the minds of everyone within range of the spell. Somewhere in the Keep, the Lady Kyia inscribed the bard's words as he gave them, recording for posterity the torrent of inspiration the Muses had suddenly poured into Wanderer. Raven, still tired and aching from her ordeal, listened to the soothing words for a long time before drifting into a dreamless sleep.
How is your head?
Leaning back against the pile of pillows behind her, Raven smiled weakly. "Sore. Much like the rest of me," she added with a chuckle. "My fight with the Moranasi is catching up with me, I think."
Wanderer spread his jaws in a lupine grin. Merai said much the same thing, he "said", the telepathy spell broadcasting his thoughts to her mind. She could have used her consciousness-projection abilities to get the same result, but in her current condition the healers advised against it. Besides, that would have been useless for speaking to other Keepers, and the wolfish bard seemed to have a good deal to say after his months-long silence. Methinks the girl is unused to such strenuous exercise.
"She'll learn," Raven said, reaching out to idly scratch behind Wanderer's ear. Even with his human mind restored, he still found it wonderfully pleasant, especially since he was still stuck in a full wolf's body. "With things as they are in the world today, I suspect she will need to know how to fight, and fight well."
That does seem to be the way things are progressing, Wanderer sighed, crawling a bit closer along the bed to allow Raven easier access to his ears. He let out a little, contented-sounding whuffle. Don't stop.
They lay there in silence for some time, Raven working her hand around both ears and over the top of his head. After a while her hand started cramping up, and she let it fall to her side, looking out the window at the clear blue sky beyond.
"I ... I have to apologize for the way that I've treated you."
The wolf cocked his head curiously but said nothing.
"You've given me so much," Raven said softly, her pale blue eyes beginning to water, "and you've asked for so little. I'm ashamed to say that I took you for granted, that you would always be there. And then, when you weren't..." She paused, wiping the tears from her face. Taking a deep breath, she started again. "I never showed you how much you meant to me ... how much solace and strength I took from our relationship. I tried to hide it— tried to be strong, like I thought I was supposed to be." She turned to look at him, gazing deep into those serious yellow eyes. "I don't think I even knew how much I needed you until you were gone."
Wanderer pulled himself a little closer, the ears flattening back on his head. Raven...
The wolf-woman reached out and hugged him tightly, wrapping her arms around his neck. "I love you, Charles," she whispered. "I'm not afraid to say it anymore. I love you ... oh, gods, Charles, I'm so sorry..."
Hush, Raven, Wanderer said soothingly, nuzzling against her shoulder. There's nothing to forgive. I love you, too. Then turning his head upward, he licked her ear.
"Agh!" Raven cried in surprise, pulling away to look him in the face. The wolf was wearing a roguish grin that she found wonderfully familiar. The priestess grinned, broadly and sincerely, filled with more joy than she had felt in ages.
"You realize there's no being rid of me now, don't you?" she warned him playfully.
Inwardly, the bard laughed. I was just about to say the same thing myself.
With Misha at their head, the group rushed down the corridor as quickly as possible. They moved together in silence, no one needed to urge them onward. All knew that the lives of fellow keepers were at stake. Padraic and Caroline walked side by side with him. Going through all their minds was the question about what was happening at Long House. All of them had friends and family there. Thoughts of them pushed everyone to move faster. To get there before it was too late.
Suddenly the vulpine stopped and peered down the corridor. “Advance and be recognized,” he said to the darkness ahead.
The shapes of Danielle and Finbar materialized out of the blackness and moved towards them. Ten feet from the group, the pine marten morph and the ferret morph stopped. Finbar held up his hands towards Misha, palms down and fingers splayed downward.
Misha mimicked the ferrets gesture but only with his left hand. “Recognized,” he said dropping his hand to his side. “What’s the situation?” he asked as the two joined the group.
“Quiet,” Finbar said.
“Quiet?” Kortel asked.
“Explain,” the vulpine ordered.
“They beat off the attack and destroyed all the Lutins,” Danielle explained.
“It’s easier if you see it,” Finbar replied.
“All right,” Misha answered. “Let’s go see.”
It took a minute of marching to reach the first bodies.
The foxtaur stepped over three Lutin corpses without stopping. He noted the crossbow bolts in their chests and wondered who had done the shooting. It took careful walking to avoid stepping on the caltrops that were scattered everywhere. A few steps on there were three more bodies, also killed by crossbow bolts. A fourth lay nearby with it’s chest ripped open by some unknown weapon.
The next bodies were four piled in a heap in the middle of the corridor. Unlike the previous ones these hadn’t died by missiles. Misha realized that this was where the barricade had been. These four Lutins had been the first to reach it and had died at the hands of spear wielding Keepers. But the wooden barricade wasn’t there nor were any keepers, dead or alive..
Looking up he could see that the hallway was lined with the dead bodies of countless Lutins. In some places it was just a single corpse stretched on the ground. In other places there was a cluster of two, three or fours bodies contorted in death. The foxtaur moved onward. Splotches of blood, and dead Lutins sprawled on the floor marking the slow retreat of the barricade and it’s defenders.
He could easily imagine the savage fighting that had taken place in this here. The desperate Keepers behind the barricade trying to stave off hordes of Lutins and being literally pushed further and further back down corridor. But each foot of corridor the Lutins had had been paid for in blood. With each step Misha could see the bloody reminders of that fight.
Then came upon the shattered remains of the barricade itself. The large table was laying in a heap upon the floor, shattered into a thousand pieces. There was also several large pools of blood as well. One pool was so large that Caroline had to hop to keep from stepping in the blood.
Misha gave faint notice to the corpses as he stepped over them. He’d already passed thirty other dead Lutins.
“Hold!” a voice announced from up ahead. “Who goes there?”
“Misha Brightleaf with relief,” the foxtaur answered.
“Advanced and be recognized,” the voice ordered.
He stepped forward slowly, passing three more dead Lutins in the process. Up ahead he could see the doorway to the hall. He also saw a woman holding a spear looking at her.
“That’s close enough,” the woman ordered and Misha stopped. Brea suddenly appeared next to the woman and ran towards him.
“Misha,” the squirrel said with obvious delight and hugged the foxtaur.
“Is everything all right?” Caroline asked as the group moved forward.
Brea released the hug and the happiness disappeared for a moment. “We survived.”
“Most of us did,” the spear armed woman added.
“I see George’s idea for the ballista worked out,” Caroline said as she stepped into the large hall. There at her feet were three Lutin all pieced by the same spear. The massive three foot long missile had gone through all three bodies before running out of energy.
“It did,” Finbar said as he looking at a spot on the wall. A Lutin was pinned to the wall by one of the javelin sized missiles from the siege engine. The body was four feet off the ground.
“Report,” Misha said calmly. “What happened?”
“They came at us down all three corridors at once, all three hundred of them,” the squirrel explained. “The barricades held at first, but then they started pushing us back by sheer weight right into the hall itself . . . “
Brea was going to die. That much he realized as he parried a sword blow with the dagger in his left hand deflecting the blade downwards and away from his body. The squirrel lashed out with his long sword, catching the Lutin across the stomach. The creature tumbled backward only to be replaced by two more. Around him a dozen keepers fought against scores of Lutins.
They had held the barricades for as long as possible and tried to organize a retreat back to Long house door but things had fallen apart. Too quickly the Lutins had flooded into the hall and cut off their retreat. All they could do was stand in a tight circle in the middle with theirs backs pressed against each other fighting in all directions. There was no chance of winning this battle or even surviving it. All Brea could hope for was to kill as many as possible before he died.
Across the hall he could see over a hundred Lutins rushing the single doorway leading into Long Hall. Already the floor was littered with a score of their dead, killed by the people on the balcony. He could see the ballista being worked and saw it’s massive bolts cut a deadly swath through the invaders, taking two or three at a time.
There were eight Lutins carrying a massive log between them and they were using it to batter down the door in front of them. Each time the massive log struck the door it shuttered under the blow and sent splinters flying in all directions. Arrows, spears, darts and even rocks rained down on them killing all of the green creatures using the battering ram. But a dozen more Lutins rushed forward and grabbed the handles before their compatriots bodies had even stopped twitching. Again and again that massive ram slammed into the door.
With a loud hissing noise and a cloud of steam boiling water poured down from hidden spouts in the wall engulfing a score of Lutins. Their screams of agony filled the hallway for a moment. But in moment more Lutins stepped over the screaming and burnt attackers and picked up the battering ram again and kept on smashing at the now weakening wood and steel door. The fight raged on. Neither attacker nor defender giving up or backing away.
In one corner of the hall a black robed figure stood silent and unnoticed by the combatants who filled the room. He began to move his arms in slow, complex gestures. His voice was soft, barely a whisper and spoke a language that few in the world remembered now. It was long dead to most. At first nothing seemed to happen, then a pale gray smoke began to form. It was thin and wispy, almost invisible first. But it grew in strength and density every second until it surrounded the figures legs like fog in a forest. Then the fog began to move despite there being no wind to shift it.
The gray fog snaked away from it’s creator towards the battle like a smoky snake. It seemed to hesitate for a moment as if trying to decide who to attack first. Then it shot forward towards Brea.
The squirrel had managed to work his way to one of his fellow Keepers, a woman wielding a spear. Now the two fought back to back against a dozen Lutins. He felt something brush his leg and then a burning sensation that ended as suddenly as it had begun. Risking a glance down he saw a gray smoke wrapping itself around the legs of the Lutin in front of him.
Suddenly the fog shot up and enveloped the creature completely. The Lutin let out a shriek of panic and slashed at the smoke with his blade but to no effect. Then Brea saw something that made his blood run cold. Wherever the smoke touched the Lutins skin bubbled and writhed like it was trying to escape the bones that held it. The Lutin collapsed to the floor, screaming and clawing as it’s face just melted away. In a moment the creature stopped struggling and lay still on the stones. Brea watched in horror as the Lutins body just melted away leaving just bone and teeth.
The fog hovered over the bones for a moment, then split into two and went after the Lutins standing on either side. Both backed away unwilling the share the fate of their comrade, but they didn’t get far. In a moment they too were screaming on the floor before dying. The fog split again, this time into four, long, powerful snakes of gray smoke. Brea realized that what ever it was the smoke was growing more powerful with each murder. It death making it stronger.
One tendril of fog shot across the floor to where five Lutins had pinned to the floor. It spread out and simply rolled over all of them at once. It paused a moment then moved onward leaving an unhurt woman lying on the stones amidst scattered bones that had been living creatures a few heart beats before.
He turned his head in time to see two tendrils advance side by side to a score of Lutins. The two swept over them knocking a dozen Lutins to the pavement. None of them survived long enough to utter more then a brief scream. Four tendrils left the Lutins bones and spread out among the fighters.
The squirrel watched in rapt fascination as the strange fog went after the Lutins. One tendril flowed over the battering ram and dissolved the ten Lutins using it against the door. The siege weapon clattered to the floor intact, with hardly a mark on it. It lay amidst the bones of the creatures that had just been using it.
A scream echoed over the battlefield over the din of combat and panic swept through the Lutins, they had finally noticed the fog. By this time it was too late for most of them to escape as the fog had blocked their escape routes. Only the north corridor lay open and Brea watched as the terrified Lutins stampeded for it.
Brea saw one agile Lutin leap over one tentacle of fog and duck under a second and race off to safety. Another one wasn’t so agile and lost a foot to the killing smoke. It didn’t stop the creature or even slow him down and the rodent was amazed to see him hop down the corridor. Others weren’t so lucky as those two. A Lutin tried to dive through the fog and a heap of bones landed on the floor on the other side.
Some twenty Lutins were trapped by the fog in a corner. A solid wall of the deadly smoke advanced on them. Some wept, some screamed in terror, some shouted defiance, and others fell to their knees and pleaded for mercy. Of the three hundred who had attacked so boldly a mere hour ago, only this handful remained. Suddenly the smoke stopped advancing and hovered inches from the green creatures. Then it began to dissipate, slowly at first but then with surprising speed. In a minute it was gone leaving twenty Lutins and seven Keepers standing in a room full of the dead.
There was a clatter of metal hitting the pavement behind Brea. Turning his head he saw a black robed figure sitting on the floor with his back against a wall. The squirrel recognized the black, metal visage of Omega. He never noticed the automaton had even been in the hall. “So that’s where the fog came from.”
Brea looked back to the Lutins and caught the eyes of the leader. “Leave Metamor Keep immediately,” the squirrel ordered in a cold voice. “And never come back.”
The Lutins ran for the doorway without pause. In a moment only one remained, the leader. He stared at Brea for a moment and then turned and walked away without saying a word.
None were needed.
Sir Haestan reined his huge war horse to a halt beyond the gates of Metamor Keep’s inner wards.All about him the last dying sounds of battle were fast becoming fewer and more distant as his men-at-arms, those he could hastily call up in the middle of the Yule night celebrations, roved through the city routing the last small pockets of Lutin resistance. Despite being one of Duke Thomas’ southernmost, and smallest, vassalages the Earl was one of the first to arrive. He had pushed his men cruelly hard through blizzard and darkness but none had gainsaid his urgency. The man had fought for the Duke before, side by side during Nasoj’s last bid to conquer the keep, and paid the same price as any; he had become a moose. His stalwart steed was a monstrous beast and one of the few such that could bear his not inconsiderable weight.
He gazed upon the walls of the Keep and listened to the battles being waged within by the defenders even as those marshaled from the outlying baronies liberated the outer town of Euper and moved on to begin clearing the small city within the Keep’s outer bailey walls; Keeptowne. He wondered what was befalling those within the Keep itself. He had only cleared the area outside the gates an hour before and had yet to feel secure enough with the town to press inward to the Keep itself. A footman trotted up to him and he turned his great, antlered head to gaze down at the man. His large brown ears swiveled forward to focus upon the man, “What news, Lorian?”
“The greater force of Lutins has been routed, milord.” The footman reported after a hasty salute. He was travel weary and battle worn but strong enough not to show his weakness. One side of his helm had been savagely dented and he doffed it as he spoke to his liege. “Landon is marshalling our levies at the southern gate just within ward from the Killing Fields. Do you wish him to hold it and prevent further escape?”
“No, Lorian, let the green vermin flee.” Haestan intoned in the slow, florid voice Nasoj’s curses had left him with. Like himself his son had not escaped the dark mage’s vile touch; he had become a northern deer. “Have him gather his men and join me here.” He looked to the Keep again briefly as he heard a series of resounding crashes. Dust and flame gouted from a series of casement windows along one wall. He tapped his steed lightly with one hoof-like foot and directed him toward the gate. Lorian trotted along beside him and donned his battered helm. “How many lost?”
Lorian, watching the Keep in curiosity just as his liege did, smiled under the shadows of his helm. “None, sire! A few modest injuries but nothing that will be lasting.” The pair made their way through the yawning outer portal and advanced warily into the courtyard of the inner ward. Nothing moved on the debris littered snow. He spied the odd spear or arrow or, gruesomely, a hand or leg thrusting up from the pink stained snow. Beside the gate lay the corpse of some sort of huge humanoid festooned with countless arrows. Lorian gave it an experimental poke with his bloodied sword but it did not move. More fire roared from the casements some forty feet above the ground and the twosome gaped up. Whatever was going on within the Keep’s shifting walls was a battle of some horrific force. Tendrils of crackling energy licked outward from one of the casement windows. “What devilry are they about up there, sire?” the footman asked in awe.
“Magic.” Haestan snorted with a shake of his antlers, “Potent magic. I can only trust that –“ he broke off as a man leaned from one of the casements briefly before disappearing. A moment later he reappeared to leap from the window onto a rooftop below. Haestan drew his sword and spurred his mount forward. Lorian pelted along in the massive stallion’s wake. The man landed hard on the roof and yelped in pain before the shifting snow slid down, bearing him along, to slump from the eaves. Haestan cantered up to the drift in which the man had been half buried face down. Lorian arrived, panting, a moment later while the man painfully extricated his bald, heavily tattooed head from the heap of snow.
“He’s a mage, Lorian.” Haestan snorted angrily, “A northern mage.”
Knowing exactly what his liege was saying Lorian stepped forward as the man, upon hearing them, turned around. Lorian’s gauntleted fist slammed across his temple before he could utter a word. They watched him crumple and the footman efficiently went about binding his arms and hands securely behind him. “Looks like he was in full retreat, sire.” The man chortled as he gave him an overly firm nudge with one booted foot.
“It may be that the old girl is pushing them out.” The Earl said laconically as he craned his head to look up. Another pair of footmen trotted through the gate and, after a pause to locate their leader, came to join them. “See to that vermin, fellows, gag him well and keep him under a sharp eye.”
“Aye, sire.” One of them quipped breathlessly, “Landon is heading this way with your men; he abandoned the Killing Fields to the enemy retreat.”
“Smart lad. Let them go, for now.” The moose-lord muttered, “No sense wasting ourselves picking slivers from our ass when there’s a spear in our gullet.” His mount snorted restively, eager for battle, and lowered his head to snort at the unconscious human. His thick lips twitched and his ears backed as he glared balefully at what he considered to be an enemy. Haesten stilled him from violence with a light touch to his shoulder. As more men began to trickle into the inner ward and join them they watched the upper walls for more signs of battle. They could hear it from one long wing and somewhere in the depths of the castle proper but no one dared try pushing their forces inward without overwhelming numbers.
Haestan looked up as a charger trotted through the gawking men and moved to stand at his side. He nodded his head to the slender, light frame of his son. Landon still had his antlers, he would not shed them until after the second month of the year, and silver glinted from one broken tine. “We got one in full retreat, son.” He nodded toward the mage, who by that time was awake. The man made no motion to flee or speak around the gag tightly drawn across his mouth. Three naked steel blades were held in ready hands within two paces of where he sat in the snow. “Inner fight may be going to Metamor.”
“We can only hope.” Landon offered in his quiet voice. The deer’s lightweight chain armor was torn and bloodied but he still sat proudly upon his steed. “They have done well outside the walls, our arrival cemented a victory that was already tipping in their balance.”
Haestan nodded his large head slowly, his brown ears laying to either side below his broad antlers, as he cast his gaze upward once again before looking to his son, “Would that those more north of us were as swift. How many banners did you count on the field?”
“Too few, father.” Landon sighed heavily with an expressive frown and a twitch of his ears, “Far too few for the lands that Thomas holds.” He shifted in his saddle, “I saw many who bore heraldry of other houses but fell in under banners already here. They came without leave of their liege lords.”
The moose nodded slowly, “Find those who came of their own, they deserve more praise than a cold march home.” He heaved a deep-chested sigh, “Perhaps there should be a reckoning in light of their recalcitrance.” Haeston shrugged his broad shoulders expressively as he cast his gaze upward again. He gaped in surprise for there was a door in the wall that he had not seen previously. The wood was splintered and holes gaped from broken planks. He heard his men gasp as well for, despite many of them scanning the walls for any sign of activity, none had apparently seen the door appear where there had been none a moment before. He tilted his head in some confusion at the odd placement of the door. In the years he had served under Thomas he had never seen the castle spirit put a door on the outer walls.
“After this father, his grace will be too hard pressed merely recover –“ his voice died, tall ears springing up and forward in awe, as a puff of flame scorched through gaping holes in the planks of the door. Flame rushed from beneath it and ran down the facing wall like water and then, with a suddenness that made hardened soldiers and steady war mounts alike start in surprise, the door exploded in a fountain of flame. Sundered wood spiraled through the air trailing flames and smoke and a shape, identifiable as a body only by the flailing limbs and tail, hurtled from whatever hell consumed the room behind that door. The tumbling shape disappeared behind the very building that their prisoner had fallen upon. Landon and a dozen soldiers darted around behind the building while Haestan looked up in numb shock.
“Father!” Landon’s voice called from behind the building. Haestan swung down from his steed and handed off the reigns before trotting in the footprints left behind by the soldiers. He found them circled around a deep drift in the space between outer buildings while Landon knelt beside a steaming depression in the snow. Snow crunched under his heavy feet as he approached. Soldiers moved aside and he waded into the drift to look down into the hollow.
In its depths was a blackened body that moved feebly despite its grievous wounds. Not one spare measure of the unfortunate’s body had escaped the flames and seared flesh showed pink under charred fur. One eye was an empty, ruined pit and the other was so badly burned the Earl feared that the hapless soul would never see again. “He still lives?” the moose lord grunted in stunned surprise. One of the soldiers took a step forward, his helmet doffed under one arm, and gazed down at the piteous sight.
“Milord, shall I end the poor soul’s misery?” the man asked solemnly. His hand rested on the hilt of his sword but he had not drawn it. In more peaceful times he served as the Earl’s headsman, when such extremes were required, or butcher otherwise.
“Akkala’s graze, no, Ramis!” Haestan snorted irritably, “Someone find Aivergne! We need her healing touch, now!” he bellowed. Soldiers scattered and Landon swung back up onto his prancing charger.
“She is tending our men near the Keep gates, I will bring her swiftly.” With that he spun his mount and disappeared in a fountain of snow. Haestan knelt to touch the fallen Keeper’s chest lightly. Whatever sacrifice had brought the unrecognizable man to such extremes was something for the tales of true Bards, he felt. The fallen soul had strode through some fiery hell and survived, that alone was a miracle wrought by the very gods.
He turned his head slightly to look back over his shoulder at the cluster of men gaping down at the torched Keeper. Someone had even thought to haul along their prisoner and even that man’s pale eyes looked haunted. “The rest of you, pray.” He intoned, “Whatever gods you cleave to, let them hear of this fellow’s plight.”
It took a long time to restore order. The fires were extinguished, debris was removed, the wounded cared for and the smoke eventually thinned out and vanished. And then all that was left was the counting of the dead, a long list.
George, Ferwig, Teria and four other soldiers edged carefully down the now ruined and blackened corridor. Halfway down they came to the door where the fight had started or at least where the door had been. Instead of a hallway and doors they found collapsed rubble and debris. The right hand wall at this spot was gone, instead there was a gaping hole twenty feet wide. Cold wind was blowing in bringing with it a thick cloud of snow that was already piling up on the floor. Looking into the opening Ferwig found himself looking out into open air. He could see a courtyard covered in snow and debris laid out far below. “I can see the outside courtyard,” Ferwig said. “The explosion has blown a hole clean through the keep.”
“Any idea what caused the explosion?” Teria asked.
“There was a storeroom full of oil back here,” George explained. “I want to know what caused the walls to collapse?”
“Someone drained the magic out of them,” the mage explained. “Drained it out of them and everything else.”
“I caught a glimpse of a Metamoran behind the invaders,” Ferwig said. “His whole body was glowing with power. Maybe he did it.”
“What was he?” George asked.
“A skunk. That must have been Muri,” George commented. “He was a mage.”
“Any sign of the skunk?” Ferwig asked.
“He must have been killed instantly,” the jackal replied. “No one could have survived that blast.”