The Winter Assault

Part 28

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

12/28 - 6pm

Charles watched Metamor Keep draw near from his perch on the wagon. His journey back from Glen Avery had flown past as if it had never occurred. His thoughts were astir of the heavenly face he hoped to find still smiling, and of his last moments beneath the mountainside in Lars’ brewery. The messenger had arrived bearing the news just after noon, and the entire room had erupted into shouts and cheers for joy, and more ale. He distinctly recalled Baerle’s reaction, as he had been sitting with her at the time — having finally convinced her that he was well enough to be walking about. Her face burst forth with joy, but also with a sense of longing that could not be swept away by mere victory.

Of course, Charles had immediately demanded that he be allowed to return to Metamor, as it was now safe. Their reactions had been what he’d expected though.

“Absolutely not!” Baerle had shouted, poking him solidly in the chest with one claw. Through sheer force of will he had only grunted at that, instead of wincing as he had so often done before. “Just because the Lutins have left the Keep, doesn’t mean there aren’t some still in the woods. And you are in no condition to go out fighting if you happen to run across some.”

“She’s right, young man,” Mrs. Levins had told him, waging one of her short fingers in his direction. “If you just wait one day more, I am sure that the forests will be clear, and you won’t need help walking about then either.” From her tone, he had known she was still upset with them both for allowing him out of his bed.

Charles, however, was not going to be waiting this time. He had to know as soon as possible whether Lady Kimberly was still alive. So he had just shrugged and said, “Well, I’m going anyway. The only way you are going to stop me is by holding me down and breaking my legs. I think you will find that rather difficult to do.”

Baerle had then scowled, her long tail twirling about the chair leg she sat in. “You are going to be stubborn about this aren’t you?” Her whiskers had twitched in annoyance, and something else crossed her eyes that the rat was still not sure he understood.

“Yes I am, so I suggest you allow me to do what I must. I’ll need a wagon and a horse, but that will be all.”

She had then crossed her arms, “Well, if you are going to be stubborn about this, then I am going with you.”

“No you are not,” Charles said, slapping his paw on the table for emphasis.

“Yes I am,” Baerle retorted, much to the amusement of the other patrons. She stood up and leaned over him, pressing her claw into his chest. “And I will hear no arguing out of you about it. Either I go with you or I break your legs, and I think you will find it rather difficult to keep me from doing it!”

Hearing his own words back at him the rat had grimaced, then reluctantly agreed to allow her to accompany him. In retrospect, though, he was glad she had insisted, for it was nice to have company on the long ride from the Glen to Metamor. Not that he noticed much of it, as he was so concerned with what would happen once they arrived. Baerle often tried to get him to talk about it, but he refused to do so. Even speaking it aloud made him fear it would become real.

So, while she managed the horse, he rode in the back of the wagon, watching the towers of Metamor rise before them, bright in the afternoon sun, the clouds having long since vanished. Bands of Keepers watched the roadside, and every now and then they would wave and greet each other, but it was quick, for the rat would not tolerate any delay that kept him from his Lady. Yet, at the same time, should his Lady have been killed he wished never to know of it, to have such knowledge kept from him forever. So when they drew up to the gates at last he felt his heart pound in both exultation and abject fear.

They were allowed entry to Metamor by a small host of rather studiously jubilant guards, and what they found there was terrible, but joyful. Beyond the gates the snow was stained red in so many places that it resembled one of Gregor’s special frostings. Where the bodies still lay strewn the stench of death was nearly overpowering for both of them. Yet that paled in comparison with what had been done to the town. Homes were in ruin from one end of the city to the other. Roofs had holes burned in them, windows smashed, and foundations destroyed. There were quite a few still standing, but the desolation was everywhere that they looked.

The castle itself, though scarred, appeared to have been spared most of the strife that had crushed the rest of Metamor. Walls were splattered with blood, but many diligent Keepers were already cleaning it up. Even one section of the roof to the Deaf Mule had been caved in, but even walking close to it, the sounds of merriment and celebration could be heard within its walls.
As they drew near they saw a vague shape step up to the door and cast out an armful of charred debris. It took Charles a long moment to identify the remains as a chair.

A heap of similar debris had already accumulated by a shattered window. The remains of chairs and tables littered the muddy snow like the burnt bones of some holiday feast. The face of the once revelrous place was stained black around the door and windows, testament to the final moments of the venerable Mule. The building itself seemed sound, the stones undamaged from the fires within. Even the roof, heavily laden as it had been with snow, was relatively intact, with only a few gaping wounds open to the sky.

As they passed by it, two figures very familiar to the rat stepped out from the main door, muttering imprecations as they struggled to drag a massive construct of charred wood through the door. In a moment of shocked horror Charles identified the pool table, its legs and felt gone entirely, the filigreed carvings burnt and smashed. All that remained of the heavy wooden table was the body, too damaged by fire to recover. Charles stopped Baerle, and then called out to them, “Nahum! Tallis! You’re alive!”

They both turned their snouts at the sound of his voice and cheered. “Charles! Good to see you too! Where were you in all of this mess?” The remains of the pool table fell with a weighty crash into the snow to one side of the door, instantly forgotten.

“I was at Glen Avery, but that’s a story for another time. Where’s Lady Kimberly?”

“She’s at the Chapel,” Nahum said.

“At the Chapel?” Charles asked, a sudden fear coming into his voice. No, it couldn’t be true—

“Not like that,” Tallis interjected quickly, running one paw through the curly hair atop his head. Soiling the already soot-stained fur even further. “She’s there praying for your safety. She’s quite alive, and unharmed.”

Charles breathed a sigh of relief and smiled, offering a quick prayer of thanks, one that he was sure he would be repeating many times over before the day was done. “And where are you two off to?”

“The Writer’s Guild once we help Donny get the taproom cleared out here. We’re going to survey the damage this evening before we continue celebrating. I suppose you are going to be too busy elsewhere to join us, eh?” Nahum asked, winking at him as his lush tail twitched happily behind him.

“Indeed,” Charles exulted, feeling as if he could float into the air. “I’m glad to see that both of you are still alive. We shall talk again!”

“Take care, Charles. You must tell us your story of how you ended up at the Glen sometime!” Tallis suggested, even as he turned and disappeared into the shadowed interior of the Mule. The muffled sound of breaking wood and rapping of hammers drifted from within, revealing that there were many others there lending their hands and paws to the resurrection of Metamor’s most famous tavern.

“I shall, have no fear of that!” Charles shouted after them, his face abuzz with wiggling whiskers and elated grins.

That was when he noticed Baerle’s half-formed scowl. “Who is Lady Kimberly?”

Completely oblivious, he blurted out, “Why, she’s my fiancée.”

Baerle’s mouth fell open a bit at that, and then closed, her eyes showing shock, regret, and then anger. And in another moment that anger had developed into fury. Before he could even react, her paw came across his face, slapping along his cheek with such force that it rocked the rat backwards a few paces. She then turned, crying, and ran back the way they had come, towards the gate.

“Baerle!” Charles cried out, completely taken aback by her reaction, one paw coming reflexively to his assaulted cheek. He started to run after her, but his chest began to cringe at that. The truth was, he could only just barely walk. Running was simply not an option, even at this point. Gasping, he watched her form dwindle among the wreckage of Metamor, totally unsure of what had just happened, or why. Hurting Baerle was one of the last things he had ever wanted to do, and yet somehow he had managed just that.

“Oh, you’re still alive,” a voice from behind him said, half in mocking disappointment, the other half still too delighted at victory to truly care.

Charles grimaced and tried to bite back the snarl that wanted to escape his throat. Turning around, he saw Rickkter standing just outside the entrance to the Mule, his arms hanging down by his sides. A part of the rat wanted to just walk away from the contemptible raccoon, to find Kimberly, and forget about everything else. Yet another part told him that to do so would be foolish and dishonourable. The words that Zagrosek had levelled at him before the attack came back to him, and he knew what he had to do.

“If you would care to listen, Rickkter, I would like to apologize for stealing this from you.” He reached into his tunic and pulled out the compact Sondeshike. With a bit of reluctance, he held it out before him, offering it to the Kankoran. “It is yours to keep, it was never mine, and I would like to amend the wrong I committed in taking it from you.”

Rickkter stared at him as if he were offering him a poisonous viper. “Is this some sort of sick joke on your part?”

“No joke,” Charles said, holding the Sondeshike out. “But to show you that I mean what I say- ” and the rat kneeled somewhat painfully before Rickkter, bowing his head low, and held the weapon of his clan out to an enemy of his clan. His heart trembled with concealed rage, but another part of him felt vindicated by this, as if he were taking part in confession and penance.

After a moment he felt the raccoon grasp it from his paw, his claws momentarily biting at the rat’s flesh, but drew no blood. He then heard the weapon extended, the cool tip of it coming to touch lightly just below one of his ears. Looking up at the raccoon, he offered a conciliatory mask, desperate not to show the least vestiges of his rage.

“I ought to just kill you and end this feud now.” Rickkter growled, glaring meaningfully down the length of the shaft at him. Charles had no doubt that the Kankoran had every intention of doing just that.

“Oh, I don’t recommend that. You see, I’m heading over to see my Lady Kimberly. She would be quite wroth with you, and there is nothing more fearsome than the wrath of a woman scorned.” Even as he said the words, he remembered the look on Baerle’s face just a moment before she slapped him and ran away crying. Had she really felt that way towards him, and had he really been so blind as not to see it?

Rickkter appeared for a moment bound to laugh at such an audacious statement, for clearly Kimberly could do nothing to hurt him. Yet the laugh died on his muzzle and the expression of contempt was replaced by one of curiosity mixed with uncertainty. He retracted the Sondeshike and slipped it within his cloak. “Go to your Lady. I could deny no man that, not now, and not even you.”

Charles stood then, and bowed his head in a show of respect, though his mind rebelled against the very notion of showing respect to a Kankoran. “Thank you, Rickkter.”

The raccoon scowled at him. “Know that this does not mean an end to our disagreements.”

“Perhaps a tempering of them?”

Rickkter stared at him, his muzzle contorted into a most unpleasant scowl. Finally, he crossed his arms and nodded his head, “Perhaps.” He then turned and stalked off into the ruins, his long striped tail flitting behind him.

Charles breathed a sigh of relief before turning himself and heading towards the nearest entrance to the Keep. He was walking as fast as he could, desperate to reach the chapel while he forced the complaints of his pained chest into abeyance for the moment. The Keep showed favour upon him by making his travel short, for barely a minute after he had entered her walls the Keep brought him to the double doors at the entrance to the Chapel.

Taking a deep breath, he pushed through the doors and stepped into the mostly empty chapel. There were a few petitioners still in the pews, but only three figures caught his eyes. The first was another raccoon that was quite familiar. He was near the double doors, wiping up some blood that had lain spilled upon the tiles. Had the battle come so far, he thought fleetingly, that there would be blood upon the very stones of the chapel itself? The second and third were sitting together, both with their heads bowed and praying — Father Hough and his Lady Kimberly.

Before he had a chance to cross the aisles to greet her, however, the raccoon looked up and accosted him. “Oh, you’ve been expected, Sir Matthias.”

His whiskers wiggled slightly at the appellation. ”Elvmere, isn’t it?” he asked, remembering the raccoon from the Deaf Mule that one evening.

The raccoon winced at the name. “Ah, no, I’m afraid that was a bit of deception on my part, one that I will ask your forgiveness. You have seen me before, but I was human then.”

“Then who are you?” Charles asked, a bit impatiently. It was obvious that neither Lady Kimberly nor Father Hough heard them speaking, as their heads continued to point towards the altar.

“I am Vinsah, the Bishop of Abaef, and one time aide to the late Patriarch Akabaieth. I imagine you are rather surprised.”

Charles blinked a few times, and then laughed softly. “Wonders will never cease. Now if you will excuse me, I must go see to my Lady.”

Vinsah nodded, and then returned to his scrubbing, his striped tail flicking from side to side, much like Rickkter’s had done. Charles stepped past him and walked steadily up the aisle, his eyes never leaving her heavenly frame, perched there against the pew, kneeling before the altar and praying. He could barely contain his joy, and tears began to flow from his eyes, wetting his muzzle again, even as his heart threatened to burst from his chest.

Finally, standing at her side, he leaned down and rested his paws on her shoulders and spoke softly into her ear, “I love you.” She turned slowly, as if his words had not immediately registered, and stared back into his face, her own stained by salty tears, and blinked. She swallowed a sudden breath as she suddenly realized that it was no apparition that stood so close at hand, then she cried out in abundant joy and wrapped her arms about his neck and hugged him tight, reunited at last. Father Hough just looked at them with a smile before he returned his attention toward the altar and nodded his head as he offered up a quiet prayer of thanks.

Evening had arrived, though in the darkness of the storm little difference could be noticed in the flickering torch light of the Lightbringers' temple. An acolyte made her way through the flickering shadows, turning towards the food stores to gather some supplies for the evening meal. Heads turned in the sanctuary as the creaking of the door opening was followed by a startled

A small crowd quickly gathered around the opened portal, some brandishing weapons, some peering into the store room with curiosity. Standing in the middle of the room was the acolyte, a dropped sack of flour lying by her feet, a surprised look on her face. Across the room from her stood a conspicuously naked mouse morph, strange in the coat of blue, white and orange feathers covering his body, smiling a little embarrassedly as he looked upon his discoverers.

"Uh, could someone get me a robe? It is a might chilly in here, even with the feathers," he said with a weak chuckle, reaching down to pick up the forgotten flour. "Now, I don't suppose that you need any help in the kitchens?"

The hall was in shambles. When they had first been brought through on the way to Long Hall it had been a large empty room, now it was a battlefield. At least it had been one. Dead bodies lay scattered everywhere, amidst wreckage and debris. Most of the dead were Lutins but a few were Keepers.

Along with a score of other people the two mercenaries sorted the dead. The bodies of Keepers were carefully removed and taken away to be buried. The Lutins were piled onto a cart. When the cart was full it was taken to an outside courtyard and the contents burned.

Ferwig searched the body of a Lutin, most of whose stomach had been ripped open. He found a dozen coins of a different sorts, and a gold candlestick. He casually tossed them into a pile with the other items they had found. The Lutin also had a dagger and a short sword. Both weapons were of good quality and obviously not made by the Lutins. He removed the scabbard for the dagger from the Lutins belt and calmly attached it to his own.

“Stealing from the dead?” Teria asked.

“It’s a fine blade, no sense it going to waste.”

“Why bother with a Lutin weapon?” the mage asked. “The keep has plenty of better ones.”

“This wasn’t made by any of these green skins. And neither was this sword,” the fighter explained as he picked up the short sword. “I wonder where it came from?”

“Hard to tell,” Teria said. “Probably looted from somewhere.”

A figure walked up to them. Ferwig recognized the feline morph instantly. Janet was dressed in her armor but it was open at the throat revealing that it was bandaged. She placed a silver ring on the floor in front of him. Then she hugged the fighter tightly. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “Thank you for saving my life.”

Ferwig smiled. “No problem. The magic in that ring has saved me more times than I care to think about. I’m just glad you realized what I was doing.”

“Your death scene almost fooled me too,” Teria said. “You’re an excellent actress.”

“Thank you,” Janet replied and then fell silent for a moment. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful but why did you do it? Why change sides?”

Ferwig shrugged. “I guess we couldn’t stand the idea of fighting an old friend like George.”

“Is that all?” Misha said walking up to stand next to Janet.

“Well, it didn’t take much to see who would win this battle,” Teria commented. “And it pays to be on the winning side.”

The fox nodded. “I’m flattered by your faith in our abilities, but it was a close thing. What’s your real reason?”

“Does it really matter?” Teria answered enigmatically.

“I guess it doesn’t, “the fox answered, surprising Ferwig.

Any comments the fighter had, were cut off by the loud squeaking of cart wheels. All turned to see a two wheeled cart piled high with Lutin corpses moving across the hall floor. Pulled by a pony it slowly creaked through a large double sized doorway to an outside courtyard.

“Where did that door come from?” Teria asked quietly.

“Last night we were several stories above ground, now we’re at ground level,” the fighter asked.

Janet laughed. “Kyia is just helping us clean up.”

“Kyia?” Ferwig asked. “She controls the keep?”

“She IS the Keep,” Misha explained.

“What? Teria said, surprised. “Then the old legends have some basis in truth.”

“All the halls and rooms in the Keep move about,” Janet explained.

Ferwig shook his head slowly. “No wonder we had so much trouble finding George’s room. The Keep itself was working against us.”

“We don’t even have to repair the damage done in the battle,” Janet said and suddenly a sad look crossed her face. “All we have to do is bury our dead.”

“Any idea how many Keepers were killed?” the fighter asked.

“Too many,” Misha said in a whisper. “And many more are wounded. Out of fourteen Long scouts, two are crippled, ten are wounded, one is dead.” The fox closed his eyes and sighed deeply. “And one was a traitor.”

“I’m sorry about the condor,” Ferwig said quietly. “He must have been a friend.”

Misha shook his head and then looked at one of the windows through which sunlight was shining. “I thought he was a friend, but he wasn’t.”

“Shame,” Teria commented. “The young fool only wanted power and riches. He had a good thing going here already and he threw it away because of greed.”

“A moral lesson from a mercenary?” Janet commented. “That’s an oddity.”

“Why?” Teria asked. “Who better to know greed than a mercenary?”

“Good point,” the feline agreed.

“When did you first arrive in the pass?” the fox asked changing the subject.

“Two full days before the attack,” the mage answered. “Why do you ask?”

“That means you’ve been in Metamor for six days. We need to get you on your way and out of the valley by tomorrow morning,” Misha commented. “I have a small cache of gold that should pay you well enough.”

Teria coughed lightly and Ferwig shifted nervously. “We were hoping for some permanent employment here at Metamor,” the mage said softly.

“You realize that the curse will change you?” Janet said, surprised.

“We know that,” Ferwig countered, smiling. “As long as we get paid.”

Misha found the jackal in his office slumped in a chair eating a meal. The canine’s armor lay piled neatly on a nearby table. The fox noted the dents and cuts in the metal. All he could see of George was from the waist up but he had little doubt that his old friend had stripped completely and was wearing only his natural fur as a covering. He also noticed a few new wounds and many bruises amidst that tawny fur. The fighting had been tough on his old friend. It had been tough on everyone.

The plate in front of George was piled full of all manner of food, mostly meat but with a goodly amount of vegatables. A large mug of ale sat on the table next to the plate. George looked up at the fox with eyes that were scarcely slits and returned to his food without comment or greeting. He was eating with a slowness of motion that bespoke great weariness – both mental and physical. Each forkful of meat was chewed slowly and with great care as if the fate of the world depended on each bite.

The fox sat down next to his friend and took a swallow of ale. The jackal reached behind him and when he turned back around he held a plate covered with a towel. George placed it in front of the fox.

Misha knew what it was even before he pulled off the towel. The platter full of meat and vegetables looked good and smelled even better. Misha dug into the food with surprising gusto. He hadn’t realize how hungry he had been.

Neither spoke until the food was gone and only the ale was left.

“How did things go?” George asked as Misha finished the last of the beef.

“Bad,” Misha replied. “All the Longs are down.”

“Any dead besides Llyn and the other one?”

“No, thankfully. But Lisa lost her arm, Arla, Kershaw, Allart, and Meredith are all badly hurt. Everyone else has a wound of some sort. Except for Caroline, Padraic and myself. What about here?”

“Not too bad,” the jackal said and paused. “Except for HIM. You hear all the details yet?”

“Yes. Diane filled me in.” The fox shook his head in shame. “How many did we loose to that bastard’s treachery?”

“Eighteen died in the fighting, but it could have been a lot worse if the two mercenaries hadn’t helped.”

“Amazing,” the fox said shaking his head. “Complete strangers save us all from one of our own. You find his body?” Misha asked.

George nodded. “About an hour ago while we were clearing debris. What do you want me to do with it?”

“We’ll give him a proper burial later on, after Llyn’s.”

“Bury him?” the jackal asked, surprised. “Why? He was a traitor.”

“He was a Long Scout,” the vulpine responded. “And no matter what, the Longs take care of their own.”

The day was as bright as it was cold out. It was the first one of this year that I had seen with my own eyes. Usually I see the first days through my window, the streaming sun having crossed my face after being tinted by coloured glass, and rising me from my sleep.

At a touch, a large drop of cold water falls from the broken piece of glass.

The window is gone now. So is most of the wall. And the bed. The house that I grew up in, everything that I or my parents ever owned reduced to ash.

But, perhaps not, I think, stepping over some of the debris, the snow crunching under my paws. When the house next to mine went, a fair sized pile of debris fell into mine. I start pulling at the cheap, blackened lumber, tossing it off to the sides. There's part of the small pantry cupboard that I used to own. That's smashed. Damn, there in the snow is part of mother's favourite tea cup.

I have to grunt and strain, trying to get the largest section of the burned wall up and off. Perhaps if Rickkter or one of those rats were here, then it would be easier. But no, I'll do this on my own. Getting a good grip with my paws and lifting from the knees, I finally manage to slide it off the desk and clothing chest underneath.

My heart sinks as I see what's left of it. What the fire didn't consume, the wall pretty much smashed. Almost all my clothes are gone, the rest are in rags torn to bits. But none of this is why I came back. Getting down on my knees before the ruins of my writing desk, I begin to paw through it.

The bottom shelf... the bottom shelf doesn't look all that damaged. I tug at the handle. No, not damaged, just buried. I scrape frantically at the dirt, ash, and snow. Finally it comes clear. Inside, is my prize.

I give it one brief look over before clutching it to my chest and laughing joyously. It's still here!! It's still here and it's still intact! A little singed around the edges, but not destroyed. Falling back on my ass in the snow and ruins, I hug the manuscript to my chest as through it were a lost child. My writing is about the only thing that means anything to me in this world, something that I don't know what I'd do if it were destroyed. But it was not!

Wiping at my eyes, I realize I've been crying. Slowly, I rose up and saw the town's charred ruins and I realize that we must rebuild. So much to rebuild, where would we ever begin?

Ten men and women waited just inside the gates of the Keep. The winds had died down, but the air outside was still bitter cold, and few looked forward to going out into it. Still, they had to keep up the assault. With most of the Lutins pushed from the Keep, it was time to look at taking back the town. While others went to the wall, small bands like this one were being sent out into the town to clear out the town as best they could, to prevent any Lutins from attacking the Keepers from behind when the final push came.

Elcuared drew himself up to his full seven-foot height; luckily his antlers had been shed for the season or he might not have been able to fit through some of the corridors at all. He towered over the four and a half-foot Ryuo, but then again, he towered over just about everyone else as well.

"You all know what's happening, I hope. The enemy is being attacked from the outside, and the main forces have pushed through the gates. We fear that there may still be some Lutins holed up in buildings within the town, however, and we don't want them to come back and bite us in the arse later on. Our mission is to clean out any Lutins we find in town, and to rescue any citizens that may have been stuck outside of the Keep during the invasion. Are there any questions before we move out?" The towering captain looked around at the group of combat hardened warriors. It wasn't a pretty group, with bloodstained armour and weapons everywhere. The cloaks that many wore for warmth were torn in a myriad of places, and the granite visages were chipped and dirtied. Still, there was a strong, silent agreement among all of them that by nightfall no invader would remain in their home.

Seeing only grim determination on their faces -even that of the normally smiling Toby -Elcuared nodded. "Alright then folks, what are we waiting around here for? Let's move out!"

Together, they moved out of the Keep and into the snow, making for the outer gate that separated the Keep and town of Metamor. As they trudged through the snow, often being forced to cut their own path through glistening white powder up to their knees, they could see lumps that most could only assume were bodies that had fallen and been covered in the blizzard earlier. Despite a conscious effort to avoid them, they occasionally stumbled across a frozen, bloody visage staring hauntingly out from the drifts. Most of them were Lutins, but one in particular caught Ryuo's attention.

The mound was larger than the others, and as they passed by, a small breeze blew some of the snow off of the contents below. Staring out, eyes glassy, was the rooster Ryuo had seen in the stables earlier. The rest of the mound seemed to be made up of the horse that he had apparently been trying to save. He must have become lost in the blizzard, Ryuo realized, and sighed. Death was only part of life, and he excepted that. Still, he had a feeling down in his stomach as though the fates had somehow betrayed him.

Rationally, he knew that was not true. Both he and this frozen fowl had fought for the lives of the horses and the others in that stable, each in their own way. He had gone down in that fight, like a warrior, and with honor. Ryuo committed the face to memory, and vowed to get a name so that he could offer incense to the rooster's spirit when he next had the chance.

The troops pushed past the snow-covered corpses that littered the frozen wasteland between the Keep and the town, and on to the gates. Although the men and women at the gates were once more members of the Keep's military, many grisly reminders remained from the first night. Blood and entrails were frozen to the walls, where men and women had died, some without any warning that the enemy was about. Although most of the corpses had been cleaned up, there were some things that would take more effort than could be devoted just now.

Passing through the gates, the patrol headed off into the town.

The streets of Metamor lay empty except for the bodies and blood-soaked snow that reminded everyone of the battle that had been raging for the past several days and nights. By now, everyone had closed their minds to the sea of familiar faces that stared back at them from the snow; they were fortunate that there were fewer in the town than had been closer to the Keep itself. Bodies were now little more than faceless lumps of meat as the Keepers' own minds shut themselves off from the horrors of war.

Most of the houses the patrols checked were found clear of anything, living or dead. Fortunately, the majority of the Keepers had been either at the Follower or Lightbringer services, and both places had been well defended from the invaders. Those that had not gone to the service had quickly tried to make their way to one of the shelters if they could, dropping everything as the dreadful alarm had tolled its fearful notes throughout the town.

Other citizens had not been so lucky, however. For whatever reason they had stayed in their homes, or been slow in escaping to the shelters. This was usually either an inability or unwillingness to go out into the storm -which also claimed its share of victims. One well-known, age regressed merchant was found in his townhouse holding a bag that had been filled with all of his gold, gems, and silverware. His greed had bought him a Lutin club, bashed into his skull.

Another family had apparently tried to hide from the invaders by rushing up to the attic. All five had been slaughtered cruelly, one by one. When the patrol found them, the children lay dead in their own pools of blood, uncomprehending fear frozen on their lifeless faces as they stared, pleading for help from their parents across the room. The mother was bent over a Follower Bible, which she held in her fur-covered hands. A wooden crucifix had buried itself into her palm. The father was strung up from the ceiling next to her, and from the lacerations on the body, it could be easily seen that he had been tortured extensively before dying.

Other houses held equally grisly displays, but they were fortunately few and far between. By the time they made their first contact with a Lutin tribe in the city, everyone in the patrol was ready to pay them back tenfold for every wound they had inflicted in their malevolent sport.

The first sign of any activity was the poorly fletched arrow that sailed on an unstable course through the air and into the snow at the feet of the patrol. Following the trajectory, everyone could see the Lutin archers leering down from the second story of a nearby inn. Reflexively, everyone dived for cover as a downpour of deadly wooden rain followed the first, hurried shaft.

"Thank Artela for impatient enemies." Toby told Ryuo as they plastered themselves flat against a wooden wall. Ryuo's eyes showed little or no comprehension of what Toby had said, instead focusing on the inn and the surrounding terrain. Using the metal head of the glaive he carried, Ryuo pointed to a small alley that seemed to lead behind the inn. Toby nodded, understanding the fox's intent, and then looked over to where Elcuared and a few others were also hunkered down. Getting the moose's attention, Toby signed him a plan. The moose signed back confirmation and the go ahead, and then turned to say something to the others with him. The four archers with the patrol all prepared their bows and nocked arrows from the quivers at their hips. Once they were ready, they all stepped out into the street and fired up into the inn.

Toby and Ryuo broke into a crouched run as soon as the arrows left their bows, making all speed for the alleyway, and then ducking inside. With their distraction accomplished, the four archers stepped back into the safety of the wall as arrows rained down on them once more.

Inside the alleyway, Ryuo and Toby were careful to use all possible stealth. They walked slowly so as to minimize any jangling that might come from sudden movements, and kept themselves bent low and close to the wall, so that they didn't have any Lutins watching them through the windows on the side of the building. Slowly they worked their way behind the inn, and into a rather large yard that included an outhouse and log pile, among other things. Ryuo and Toby both looked around to see what kind of a plan they could formulate.

The inn was two stories, with an attic, no doubt. It appeared that the back near the alleyway was the kitchen, and there was only one window that could be seen here, as well as a single door large enough to fit a tun of wine through. Upstairs there were several windows that looked down onto the courtyard, but the shutters were closed on all but one. No faces could be seen at that window; presumably, all those inside were focused on the front of the building. On the far side of the building from where Toby and Ryuo stood there was a shed large enough to hold four horses, and a carriage. A snow covered wagon was buried next to the back wall of the inn.

The two seemed at a loss for how best to go about this planned rear attack, until they looked up once more. Toby grinned as he saw the thick layer of snow that sat precariously above them, ending in a wickedly sharp series of icicles, some as long as his arm. Looking over at a stack of barrels peeking out of the snow near the derelict wagon, Toby tapped Ryuo on the shoulder and gestured something to him. Together, they got to work.

Inside the inn, the Burnt-bones clan hollered at the cowardly Keepers hiding outside. The warriors had a running bet as to who would be the first one to drop any of the animal freaks; currently the pool was running high in favor of Rounder, the acknowledged best archer of the group.

Upstairs, a small group of warriors cheered and jeered the archers who stood with bows ready to pick off any Keepers foolish enough to try once more to step out into the street.

In what had been the inn's downstairs common room, Walking Death sat and watched the younger generation as they reveled in the glory and honor that would soon be theirs. This was not his first encounter with the Keepers; nor would it be his last, he thought with a sigh. The invasion had been going well, but it was taking too long. Now the Keepers had retaken the Keep and were moving back into the town. After this latest encounter, the tribe would have to find some way of retreating out of the city without Nasoj's mages disciplining them for running away. Unconsciously, Walking Death rubbed his gnarled fingers through the fur of his bonded companion, who lay at his side.

The moon dog shared his master's frustration, growling deep in his throat. The spirits of this place were neither friendly, nor easily controlled. Most seemed openly hostile to the Lutins, but that was to be expected. The defiance of this piece of rock and the vermin that infested it felt like a sting against their collective being, however, and being forced to retreat only made the sting worse. Wanting nothing more than to jump outside and rend the Keeper's limb from limb for such indignity, the moon dog curbed his passions in deference to his chosen lord. The shaman assured him that there would be plenty of blood to drink, if they were only patient.

Suddenly, the rear door of the inn was thrown open, and metal flashed like a viper, striking down the two Lutins who guarded the door. A black demon, clad in long, black, armored scales like a wyrm's belly stood in the open portal, its black form a stark contrast to the blinding white of the snow outside. Taking only a moment to pause in silent challenge to the Lutin tribe, the beast began to attack.

Walking Death had never seen anything like this. The golden horns on skin that looked like steel. Its face was a black, frozen visage of horror, and it was covered in iron scales. It's arms looked like lizard skin, dotted with sharp, circular protrusions. Its legs were bent backwards like an animal's but it wielded a polearm with two hands, and two vestigial wings seemed to be folded against its back. Although the details were hard to make out due to the glare of winter snows, Walking Death was sure that the Keepers had summoned one of their unholy monsters to attack the clan from behind.

As the warriors came into range, the first pair fell to the golden-horned beast's glaive, which it wielded with supernatural strength and speed. The warriors gained strength and courage from their numbers, however, and rushed towards the threat. As the warriors pushed the hellish creature back, Walking Death began an incantation. Though it would tax his power -and require a living sacrifice from the clan -he had long ago, in his brash and adventurous youth, acquired power over a powerful spirit of war. Now, he knew that he would have to call it forth; the demon his tribe faced would not fall under their blades, but they could at least delay it for a time. Chanting the ritual that would call the spirit forth from his prison and bind him to the shaman's command, Walking Death reached out into the spirit world.

Ryuo backed away as the Lutins surged toward him, his polearm deftly weaving back and forth, keeping the Lutins at bay and occasionally striking out through an opening in the wall of blades they presented to sink into tough, green flesh. Behind the warriors, Ryuo had glimpsed an older Lutin with a large wolf or dog by his side, but his attention was not focused on them at the moment.

Backing out into the inn's back yard, Ryuo tried to prevent the Lutins from surrounding him, keeping them just below the ice-laden eves. As the Lutins surged forward once more, Ryuo spared a brief glance up above them to the roof. Looking down on the scene from above, Toby held to the roof with one hand, digging it into a crack, while he used the other to sweep out with his spear. The newly fallen snow gave way, sliding from the slanted roof in a huge, white sheet of ice. The Lutins below barely had time to look up before they were crushed under its weight.

The muffled cries of startled and outraged Lutins echoed from beyond the now blocked rear entrance as Ryuo finished off those Lutins lucky enough to escape the miniature avalanche. Toby, from his perch on the roof, listened as Lutins ran downstairs to see what had happened. When he could hear no more footsteps upstairs, he smashed in the window, swinging up and into the second story. As he had expected, only the archers were left and he dispatched them with ease. He then picked up one, small bow and fitted it with an arrow which he tied a white piece of bed sheet to, firing it out into the street. After signaling the others, he dropped the bow and picked up his sword to await the Lutins who would inevitably be coming for him.

Outside, Ryuo was waiting as well. Slowly, the Lutins were digging themselves out with their spears. They had managed to make a hole large enough for one Lutin to get through, but had quickly seen that such a tactic wasn't going to be very fruitful. While others worked, most of the Lutins aimed their spears through the hole, in case the metal shrouded demon should try to interfere.

Then, without warning, the digging stopped. Ryuo cautiously took two steps back, and as he did so he heard a scream, which quickly died to a wet gurgle. A rumbling roar seemed to shake the house, and as Ryuo held his stance, the wall of snow before the inn door flew outward, scattering ice and bodies across the yard. Ryuo threw up an arm to shield his eyes, and when the miniature blizzard had subsided he found himself facing a creature from the realm of nightmares.

Steam rolled off of the armoured body as the demonic beast stepped forward. Its feet were like those of a bear, each one sporting four sharp, wicked claws. A whip-like tail thrashed violently behind it, as though eager to find soft flesh for its bulbous, barbed needle. Four overly-muscled arms sported an array of sharp spines, and was covered like the torso in a thick, lizard-like skin that was as black as a cast-iron pot. Two skeletal wings unfurled as it stepped forth from the cramped doorway, reaching out as though to take to the sky. Yet its orange, glowing stare never wavered as it glared out from deep-socketed eyes.

Above the glowing eyes, two horns spiralled up from the head, which seemed like a terrific, emaciated skull. Sharp, horrifying teeth—as long and as sharp as knives—sat in powerful, square jaws that seemed almost completely devoid of flesh outside the black tendons that held it to the rest of the demon's head. A forked tongue snaked forth as it let loose a sibilant challenge to the eastern warrior.

Ryuo returned the challenge with silent, grim determination as he levelled his glaive into position. Together, the two stood for the briefest of moments, each considering the other, and then it began. Ryuo's glaive whirled as the beast attacked; he parried and dodged blows while looking for an opening to attack. Ryuo's mind could barely track all of the possible intentions of attack the creature made, and several times the barbed tail grazed his wide shoulder-plates. The monster seemed a flurry of sharp points, and it was all Ryuo could do to hold up under the onslaught.

Finally, Ryuo saw his opening, and he swung just as all five appendages paused in their return swings. Metal slashed across the demon's chest, but it did not penetrate. Instead, the glaive only glided across the thick skin, sounding as though it had been pulled across rough stone. Cursing, Ryuo stepped to the side as the tail whipped around, sending him once more on the defensive.

While the glaive clashed with the armoured limbs, Ryuo searched for some other sign of weakness in the nightmare he fought, but the attacks came too quick and too strong. Ryuo continued to parry and dodge, trying to keep the beast to one side, and taking two of its arms effectively out of the battle. However, this was a delaying tactic at best, as the two travelled through the snow-covered courtyard in a deadly circle of flesh and steel.

Despite his use of the glaive, Ryuo quickly came to realize that the beast before him had too much of an advantage in the spacious yard. Quickly, Ryuo switched tactics, manoeuvring himself instead into one of the numerous alleyways. A dark chuckle escaped the skull-like face as Ryuo retreated, for the creature believed his actions were taken out of fear. With a homicidal single-mindedness of purpose, the hulking creature followed Ryuo into the narrow space.

As soon as the creature entered the tight space between the buildings, Ryuo could see he had been right. Drawing a little farther back, Ryuo took the offensive, aiming for the joints and the softer flesh under the limbs. Ryuo deflected the lower left arm up and into the air, and the lack of space caused it to entangle the upper arm for a brief, vital second. With the left leg now exposed, Ryuo delivered a powerful downward swing. The demon howled in pain as the sharp metal finally bit into flesh, and grey ichor flowed from the wound. The flesh was strong, however, and the glaive only nipped a shallow wound.

In rage at the impudence of this thing before it, the demon tried to retaliate, swing across with a quick backhand that Ryuo barely ducked. The warrior then pushed the upper right arm down and to the side, opening what seemed to be a small, tender area near the shoulder joint. Ryuo slashed into it with the glaive, and once more, the malefic fiend howled in acrimonious umbrage at the insolent mosquito that would dare harm it.

Air swept past Ryuo as he again ducked the mighty hand that flew out at him. However, following closely behind were the two lower appendages, punching out simultaneously. Ryuo tried to dodge, but he could not avoid them both. Bracing himself, he took one raking set of claws against his armoured chest, but the blow sent him reeling back. Looking for purchase in the snow, he found none and fell backwards, slipping on a hidden patch of ice.

Fierce eyes glowed as the demon struck down, and Ryuo raised his glaive to press back at the creature, hoping to keep the creature at a distance. The tip caught the midnight monstrosity in the upper left shoulder, plunging its metal head into the creature with a sickening crunch, as his demonic assailant impaled itself. Yet the glaive hardly slowed the beast down as another huge fist caught Ryuo across his banded body armour. Supernatural knuckles contacted with lacquered metal, which dented under the impact. Only the padding of silk braid and the glaive's intercession saved the fox from certain death. As it was, Ryuo could taste blood the blood that leapt to his mouth, forced up from some internal injury caused by the tremendous blow.

Raising up a hand to its shoulder, the diabolic spirit broke the polearm with a massive, clawed hand, snapping it like a toothpick. It then roared in pain and anger, arms flailing out to the side and smashing into the wooden walls of the nearby buildings. Ryuo seized the moment of its blind rage, quickly backing off and rising once more.

Standing, Ryuo drew both swords and faced the creatures once more. Pain stabbed like a nail into his side, but he pushed it off into the corner of his mind. Survival came first.

As the demon roared out another challenge, Ryuo could see it weakening. The head of the glaive remained jammed into the creature's shoulder, and that arm hung limp on the beast. Having disabled two appendages, Ryuo knew he had won a great advantage. Still, the close range his swords would require meant the oriental warrior would be forced to step further into the giant's reach.

Taking the offensive, Ryuo leapt into battle like a wounded wolverine, swords striking continuous blows at the black bladed arms. As metal contacted the demonic arm spikes, sparks glittered in the darkness of the alleyway, showing bright against the dark flesh. The beast could not, limb for limb, match the speed of Ryuo's weapons, but neither could the inari safely approach with the third limb still mobile. Arms and blades were a blur in the cold winter air, as each combatant looked for a moment of weakness in their opponent's defence.

Despite his skill, Ryuo found himself beginning to tire. He knew he couldn't keep this up forever; the deep snow pulled at his legs, and the continuous attacks were taking their toll on his arms. The energy required to keep the pain away was also taxing his reservoir, adding to the total drain on his system. Studying his opponent's attacks while he defended, Ryuo tried to formulate a plan.

In a flash he saw his chance. Timing the blow just right, Ryuo dropped to his knees as the upper right arm went sailing overhead. Stabbing upwards, he sliced into the soft flesh of the leather-skinned abomination's underarm, severing muscles and cutting into bone. The near-severed arm fell limp, and Ryuo was forced to throw himself back as it dropped like a black, fleshy pendulum.

Rolling back, Ryuo lost his grip on the short sword, which remained lodged in the creature's armpit. As Ryuo stood he could do nothing to block the wild arm that swung out towards him. The impact lifted him from his feet, sending him sailing through the air. He probably would have been knocked unconscious had the conditions been any different. As it was, Ryuo landed in a deep drift of snow that broke and cushioned his fall. It was not enough to totally save him from injury, however, and Ryuo once felt the familiar, coppery taste of blood on his tongue.

Ryuo had barely a moment to gather his breath before the demon rushed towards him once more. Again he steeled his mind against the pain. 'There is no time to bleed,' he realized, and rolled off to the side as two hands ploughed into the snow bank he had just vacated. Rising to his feet, he cut a grazing shot at the beast's legs, followed by a lateral slash aimed to cut into the creature's thick stomach plates.

It felt like cutting through thick, hardened plates of leather, absorbing the force of the blow. As the metal pulled through the flesh, cutting with an edge that would put some razors to shame, Ryuo felt it grind across the ribcage. The vibrations jarred through his arms as he put all of his strength into it, but the bones could have been made out of iron for all the good it did him. As he finished the stroke, Ryuo backed away from the creature to consider what to do next.

Apparently thinking the same thing, the huge creature did likewise, having gained some sense of caution after the multiple lacerations it had already received. Its eyes hardened, never moving from Ryuo as it reached up and finally pulled the head of the glaive out and tossed it to the ground. Unsure of what to do next, both combatants just stood there in the silence of the battle that was raging in the nearby inn.

The sound of his fellow warriors braced in their own mortal struggle lent strength to Ryuo's own battle. For all he knew they were facing a similar beast. Seizing hold of the hurt, and gathering his energy about him, the fox focused his life, training, pain, and experience into the meter of steel he held in his hands. Raising it high, he let out a fierce yell and then cut the air with two sharp, blinding sweeps.

Orange eyes watched the fox in confusion, which widened into astonishment as it glimpsed the blade sweeping through the air. Without thought it brought two massive arms up to shield itself from the force of the distant blow, which pushed it several feet back into the snow with an unnatural force. Lowering its guard from the sudden attack, it had no time to register the fox slashing in mid-jump before the frozen world shattered into a million pieces.

Ryuo landed in a crouch, having pulled the sword down with his own weight, thus splitting the sable skull. Bile and brains poured from the head like yolk from a cracked egg as it fell backwards, a scream caught unformed in its throat. Steam began to spew forth from the gaping wounds as the body fell, and Ryuo had to throw up an arm to shield his face from the sudden heat as the entire corpse was incinerated.

Pausing only a moment to catch his breath, Ryuo watched to make sure that there was nothing more forthcoming from the steaming pool of melted snow that had been the raging demon. Satisfied it was no longer a threat, Ryuo picked up his short sword and made his way back around to the rear entrance of the inn. There were no Lutins here, having been diverted to the front of the building, and Ryuo was able to slip in with no problem.

Taking in the situation, Ryuo could see the Keepers still battling to get past their initial position in the inn. The patrol had grabbed a foothold just beyond the door, but the Lutins, who had pushed tables and furniture in front of the door to make an artificial bottleneck that the Keepers would have to navigate, had apparently halted them there. One human female was propped up against the front door, obviously wounded, which drew Ryuo's thoughts to his own wounds as he unconsciously felt his dented armour with one hand. He hoped that he could find someone to repair the armour here; of the internal injuries he had no time to feel concerned at the moment.

The Lutins were so busy keeping the Metamor patrol pinned down that they didn't see Ryuo until he started laying into them from behind. That certainly got their collective attention. Caught between the Keepers and this iron-faced apparition of death, the Lutins were thrown into confusion, unsure of where to turn. That gave Elcuared and his team the break they needed to move in, taking advantage of the sudden disorganization.

Ryuo took down four Lutins as they rushed him, his sword tracing smooth, circular patterns as it cut through glaucous flesh. The elegant metal edge seemed not so much to strike as to flow, as though it were part of a deadly dance. The Lutins, for their part, allowed themselves to be led through the fatal footsteps, seeming to raise or lower their guard in perfect harmony with the expertly timed cuts.

The four fell like dominoes, and Ryuo had a moment of peace. The other Lutins had been fully engaged by the rest of the Keepers, and Ryuo could see that none of them were in serious need of help.

A cry of pain from behind him caused Ryuo to spin quickly. A second yell guided him to the stairs, and Ryuo rushed upwards as fast as he could manage. Reaching the top of the staircase, Ryuo found the source of the screams.

A gnarled Lutin dressed in a loincloth and some sort of skull headdress stood over a limp, bloody form. The huge canine that was his companion was gnawing on one leg, which twitched as Ryuo watched. Seeming to find pleasure in the squirming victim, the moon dog dragged Toby's battered body into the center of the room while the Lutin rummaged through pouches on his feather and bone necklace.

"Stop!" Ryuo cried, instinctively, rushing forward despite his own pain. The Lutin looked up in surprise at the charge, his face registering an instant of fear. That emotion quickly fled as Ryuo rebounded from an invisible barrier. The Lutin flashed an evil smile that exposed his yellow and rotting teeth. As Ryuo picked himself painfully off the floor, the giant dog reached down and picked Toby up by the tail. Toby screamed as the moon dog shook the talbot morph like a giant chew toy.

As Ryuo watched from the other side of the barrier, Toby went flying off into a corner of the room, his tail still hanging from the moon dog's mouth. Blood dripping from the severed appendage, the evil creature brought the tail to its Lutin master. The old Lutin took the tail and began using its still dripping blood to inscribe something upon the floor.

Rage boiled inside Ryuo at this assault on the honour of his friend and companion; bobbing the tail was the most heinous of punishments that could be inflicted in Inari society, as it stripped them of all status and prevented them from ever rising again, as their tails would not grow back. Those to whom this had been done—on purpose or through accident—often took their own lives rather than live with the shame. Those that did not often fled to the other kitsune clans, becoming outcasts and traitors to their own kind.

Such dishonour on one undeserving of it required revenge. Once more focusing all of his emotions into his blade as he had learned from his master, Ryuo slashed violently at the invisible wall. A trail of white light seemed to follow the blade as it swept down and across. For a moment the invisible barrier glowed a deep magenta, and then it sundered in a silent shower of magic.

Shaman and moon dog looked up in surprise as the ward failed. Neither had suspected that the warrior would be capable of countering their magicks, and it only confirmed the Lutin's previous suspicion of Ryuo's diabolic origins. Echoing his master's thoughts, the moon dog growled, hackles rising, as it interposed itself between the shaman and this spirit of silk, steel, and blood.

As the moon dog approached, Ryuo felt a wave of emotion sweep over him. His mind turned to thoughts of his death—grisly and gruesome. Unspeakable horrors ran through his brain, chilling him down to the very core of his being. He saw visions of his honour being stripped from him—of becoming a tailless creature with no home and no purpose. Ryuo knew with absolute certainty that there was nothing he could do, and he could not survive this battle.

Yet it was there in that dark well of despair that Ryuo found hope. If he did not survive this battle, his honour would be saved. He would live his life like the bright blooming cherry blossoms—as a true samurai.

Accepting his ultimate fate, Ryuo lunged at the moon dog without thought of self-preservation. The startled beast dodged angrily out of the way as it realized its induced fear had not brought its opponent to his knees. Eyes red and bloodshot, it lashed out with two plate-sized paws, attempting to bring down its armoured opponent. Instead of retreating, however, Ryuo matched charge for charge, ramming his shoulder into the dog's protective underside. The malevolent monster squirmed and twisted out of the way of the deadly blade, attempting a parting snap as it twisted out of the way.

While the moon dog retreated, Ryuo continued to advance, but was suddenly brought to a halt before the vicious beast by an incredible pain in his chest. Grabbing at his side and chest with one hand, Ryuo fell to one knee. Inside his scarred and dented armour, a giant weight seemed to be pressing itself into his heart, crushing and squeezing the life out of it. Even trying to push the pain aside, Ryuo could do nothing except gasp for breath.

Just then a movement caught the tortured vulpine's eye, and an arrow sped out from the corner of the room, piercing the leg of the incanting shaman. Immediately, the magic-worker cried out as he lost his concentration on the deadly spell he had attempted to cast. Ryuo's strength came rushing back just in time as the moon dog attacked.

Ryuo's sword was a flash of light as it rose, taking the moon dog's head off at the neck. The bloody head sailed through the air as its body ploughed into the ground, blood coating everything. The head hit the wooden planks behind Ryuo with a soft, wet thud, rolling with sickening slurps to the top of the stairs. There it paused briefly to turn its glazed, lifeless eyes back with uncomprehending disbelief to the still-living occupants of the room. Then, lolling backwards, it finally rolled off the edge and down the stairs like a soggy, ripe melon.

The old shaman seemed physically struck by the moon dog's death, falling to his knees as the power of the severed bond overwhelmed him. All thoughts fled from his heart, leaving his eyes grey and empty. Beneath the vacuous stare, the old Lutin's mouth hung open in a mute cry of cry of bereft pain.

Ryuo walked cautiously over to the now docile creature. As it kneeled, gaze focused on the fateful staircase that had brought his death, Ryuo took a step behind the ancient Lutin, raising his sword high. With a determined finality, the blade cut down through the scrawny neck, dealing the broken shaman the merciful peace of oblivion, though it was more than he deserved. As the body fell, Ryuo wiped the blade clean, returned it to its sheath, and hurried over to wear Toby lay, a Lutin bow in one hand. Tenderly, Ryuo helped the wounded Talbot to stand.

Downstairs, the rest of the patrol was gathered around the bloody cranium at the foot of the stairs. Silently, they watched as the fox and hound descended together both awash in blood and gore. Others rushed toward to grab Toby and help him to the door. As he passed through the ranks of men and women, a slow rhythm began, as those around them began to stamp their feet and rattle their weapons. Small at first, it rose to a thunderous roar as the hero of this small battle was carried outside. A smile spread from ear to ear as the talbot lapsed into unconsciousness.

Ryuo watched them carry Toby out, assured of his safety. Looking around, he realized that all of the Lutins had been neutralized. A strange, draining sensation began in his limbs, starting as little more than a tingle. As the energy of battle left him, he found none of his own to fall back on. With pain and fatigue rushing in, he began a slow drop to the floor. Faces blurred as they turned and rushed to catch him in a surreal parody of life.

And then there was darkness.

Ryuo awoke to the familiar sight of the infirmary and immediately tried to rise. A jabbing pain in his side caused him to lie back down, however. Reaching up a hand, he could feel the bandages that were wrapped around his side, holding broken ribs in place.

Turning just his head, Ryuo looked around at all of the others in the infirmary. The suffering was tremendous, with all sorts of grotesque battle wounds, and most of the patients had no better place to lie than the floor. Groaning from outside indicated even more patients awaited treatment outside.

A familiar voice caught Ryuo's ears, and he turned his head gently back to see Toby standing beside him. The fox grinned to see the bandage-covered Talbot up and moving again.

For his part, Toby was feeling quite well. His right arm and leg were broken—and of course there was the matter of his severed tail—but all in all he was doing well. Looking down at his eastern friend he said, "Well, we made it."

The oriental warrior's stare let Toby know that he was not up to deciphering language just yet, but the fox returned the spirit of the comment with a friendly smile. He then lay his head back onto the pillow. As he did so, Toby's gaze swept over the vulpine's body.

The bandages covering his broken ribs stood out quite prominently on the furred chest. Toby wondered what had caused the wound, since he didn't remember the Lutin or his pet monster inflicting anything like that during the fight inside the inn; of course, Toby had not been paying that much attention to the details at the time. Still, Toby doubted that a Lutin could have caused it; he had seen the fox in battle and doubted Ryuo could do so poorly against the ill-trained Lutins.

Other than the ribs, there were no obvious external injuries other than bruising and swelling. Most of it appeared to be internal injuries and extreme fatigue. Whatever he had done with his sword to cut through the Lutin's spell, it seemed to have drained him physically. Still, he should recover quickly with good treatment—maybe sooner if they thought he would be vital to operation elsewhere. Toby had little doubt that the fox would be a great asset as the Keepers continued to push the enemy back, but magic for healing was limited, and so many tough decisions were being made.

Continuing with his inspection, Toby realized that it was the first time he had really seen the fox's body. He had, of course, seen him walking about in his long, voluminous eastern clothes, but they seemed to hide all but face in their immensity of space, and in his armour one could see even less. Here, laid out on the table with just a loincloth and bandages for modesty, Toby saw the fox's curious body.

Looking him over, Toby did a sudden double take. He blinked his eyes and rubbed them with his good hand, but it didn't change the sight of the two, bushy tails that he could clearly see beneath the fox. He thought back, but could not ever imagine seeing the fox with any tails at all. They must have been hidden in the skirt-like trousers that the fox always wore, he figured. Toby shrugged off his morbid curiosity, figuring that it was probably something to do with the Curse and the magic of the Keep. In truth, Toby cared little what the fox looked like—he'd be proud to call him a friend.

Ash fell from blackened pillars, staining the pure white snow beneath like the remains of a cremated god, the ruins of the fire-savaged Deaf Mule stood as a stark reminder of everything that had been lost. Not a single person remained who couldn't recall at least one friend or loved one who had fallen to Nasoj's sudden winter assault.

Protected from the freezing cold by several layers of leather and fur, alone figure stood amongst the ruins. He looked to where the bar had stood and could almost imagine it was there once more. Sounds seemed to linger in the air like unforgotten ghosts of the previous patrons. Toby wondered if somewhere, on some plane of existence, his fallen friends weren't gathered together in the ghost of this place that held so many memories. No doubt they would raise their glasses to every new soul that passed through the door, and together they would share an eternity of tales, friendship, and fine wine.

Carefully, Toby poured himself a glass of dark, red liquid, holding the cup gingerly in his injured hand. Setting the open bottle in the snow, he took the wine in his good hand and raised it in a toast to those phantom spirits.

"Did I miss the party?" asked a deep voice, interrupting the solitary salud. Hobbling on one leg, the canine turned, unsure what to expect. His eyes widened in glad surprise at what he saw.

"Don't look at me like that," said Jonathan, hobbling over to the dazed Keeper, "I ain't dead yet, and you did tell everyone we were gonna meet here when this was all over."

Toby's phantom tail wagged furiously in joy. "Jonathan! I can't tell you how relieved I am to see you." Toby would have hugged his porcine pal. "When you didn't show up at the Cathedral, I feared the worst."

"We were caught by a Lutin force inside the Keep," Jonathan explained. "We followed your advice and held up in a room until reinforcements finally got us out."

"But your leg..." Toby started. Jonathan cut him off with a wave of his hoofed hand.

"There was nothing that could be done. Even if I had made it to Coe, I doubt he could have fixed it." For the first time during their conversation, Toby looked down at his friend's leg, which was completely missing below the left knee. In its place was a wooden peg that looked like it had been rather hastily fashioned from a piece of furniture.

"I'm sorry..." Toby began, but once more Jonathan interrupted, this time with a laugh.

"I already said there was nothing anyone could have done. Besides, I always said I never looked mercenary enough for this place. I guess I just should have kept my mouth shut." The twinkle in his eye and the lightness carried in his deep belly laughter seemed to warm the air a few degrees. For a moment, Toby could put all the horrors of the fighting behind him.

"Let's toast then!" Toby said, reaching down and handing the bottle to his portly friend. Jonathan took it in his hand, having had a good seven years of practice using his parted hooves for such tasks. "To all those who died, and all those who lived. To the good times we share together, and to the comfort of those in need. To long life and happiness."

"...and strong legs!" Jonathan chimed in.

"Hear, hear!" shouted Toby, and the two raised wrists together, there in the burnt out establishment. As the crimson liquid slid down their throats, both friends knew that they and the Keep would be all right.

Winds howled and snows blew fast and furious inside the magical winter storm. Outside, the ranks of Nasoj's army waited, most of them huddling around fires or inside tents. Although the brunt of the storm was centered on the Keep itself, the armies still had to deal with the extreme temperatures on the fringe of the thaumaturgical vortex. Some of the mages had provided themselves and their personal attendants with spells to keep them warm, but most of the army was left to their own devices. Nasoj had little care for the comfort of his troops in his maniacal obsession to obliterate the Keep that continued to stand defiant against his plans.

One such group was huddled around their depraved master, who sat, fuming, on a three-legged campstool. A single hand traced the scar that ran up and down his face as he listened to the report from his servant.

As were most of the others, the messenger was clad in dark blues and blacks, his face hidden from any possible observers. The paranoid ninja often had strict rules about being seen outside of their shinobi clans. The group here was no exception.

"The mission is complete." the leader reported, "We managed to enter the castle and leave in the confusion without any leaving any witnesses but the one."

"Good work, Itoshi." the aged mage said, praising his servant, "And what about the Inari? You did track him here, did you not?" That had been a bit of luck; he had been quite afraid that his resources would be split in taking revenge on the self-righteous beast that had dared to defy him. The memory of his insult brought back the pain, and instinctively a hand went to his lower back.

Scars could still be felt after months of healing. His sudden escape to Nasoj in the west had been seen, at first, as failure, and he had been nearly flogged to death like some kind of homeless cur. Only the proof that his labors had been successful had kept him alive.

That had been a mistake, but one the Western mage would not realize until it was too late. For now, the alliance between the two would remain.

"The Inari could not be found." Itoshi reported flatly, bringing a frown to the wizard's face. It quickly vanished however; the Inari would stay, he believed, if his intelligence was reliable.

"Very well." he said in a dismissive voice, waving one hand.

The assassin did not move, however. "Master..." he instead said, seeking leave to speak.

The sorcerer scowled at so brash a move. "What is it?" he asked impatiently.

"I do not mean to trouble you further, but my men...." Itoshi left off for a brief pause, "Some feel that the curse of this place may compromise their skills."

"Are you doubting me?" The mage asked directly, his voice raised with a scolding tone. He should have Itoshi disembowel himself right now for such an implication.

"Never my lord." Itoshi said, "We have promised our lives to you in exchange for the ultimate destruction of our hated enemies, but..."

"As you said, your lives are mine." the mage said, "It is not your place to ask questions what I will do with them." How dare they feel so bold. Still, he should put their fears to rest, "I would sooner let the edge of my blade tarnish than let your skills go to waste. And when we return victorious to Yamato, I shall deal with your enemies. Now go!"

As the ninja leader left, the old mage had to fight to keep a smile from his face. He would deal with their enemies, just as he would deal with them. The two clans had no idea that he had set them up against each other, and once he was finished with them they would be allowed to tear each other to shreds, leaving no challengers to the power that rightfully belonged to him.

Letting out a puff of cold air, the mage rose from his seat and turned back towards his tent, which had better wards against the cold and storm than the outside camp. His guards, all dressed in footmen's armor, closed ranks and followed him, setting guard just outside as the mage entered his temporary sanctum.

Laying himself down upon the magically heated tatami mat that was his
sleeping mattress, he rested his head on the wooden pillow. As he drifted to sleep he told himself that the invasion wouldn't work. Then they would regret shoving him off to the side. Then he would show them he was more than just some contingency plan.

In his dreams, he saw the humbled Nasoj bowing before him as he ordered the execution to begin...

It takes almost two hours for them to get back home.

They’d heard that the Lutins had been cleared out even the day before, but Travis had insisted on keeping them at the fort a day longer, just to be sure, and Jono wasn’t about to argue; he’d been thinking the same thing.

It’s definitely a long walk, and a very tiring one, even with most of the snow starting to melt. Every once in a while a few of the kids have to be carried, but Jono and Kirk easily meet the challenge.

They’d had Jahnsen fly ahead again, of course. Would be ideal for the guards to know that the army marching on Metamor’s gates is of their own.
That way also the parents can be ready.

They get through the gates just a little past dinnertime. The parents waiting by can seem them almost all at once. There’s the feline bard, still with a slight limp from where he was reportedly grazed by magical fire of some kind. Despite that, he’s still smiling, carrying a young boy and a little girl, both of whom look very exhausted as he walks in.

Right next to him is the Glen vixen, her clothing and fur all tattered, though clearly her soul came through, as she’s also got a smile on her face, leading one of the boys with her. He must have started to grow up during the ordeal, they figure, because his ears are both white and furry, and very similar to his companion’s.

Just a little bit further behind is the giant bullmorph guard who’s Very easy to recognize; he’s got his massive battleaxe slung, and has ...oh my, FIVE children with him; two in each arm, and one riding on his head, holding onto the horns, looking like he’s having the time of his life.

His sister’s not too far behind, in among with the kids, constantly turning to keep an eye on their little army, making sure everyone’s around. There’s also that history-obsessed mage with her, doing much the same thing; probably keeping them warm with one of those spells or somesuch.

And bringing up the rear, almost unoticable, is some hedgehog type that few really recognize, though many do instantly understand the look of single-minded determination on his features. His shoulder’s in a sling, but it doesn’t seem to have slowed him down any.

And finally, of course, there’s the masses of children in their midst, who, acting very improperly for an army, break ranks and charge their parents as soon as everyone’s inside.

As Jono would put it: and thus were the Children of the Keep saved from Disaster at the hands of the Invasion.

And here this story ends.

Everything was being buried in the night. Gently eased into slumber under the soft embrace of a blanket snow. There were those that desperately disturbed that slumber, fearful that they might be lulled into sleep them selves and spend all eternity under the snow

They all walked slowly through the snow through pine filled forests, making their way into the northlands, hidden by a veil of illusions A female enchanter with a vendetta, a battle wizened berserker, a creature masking itself from the world, and a mysterious man in red, his long hair like the snow.

Lutins here, Lutins there row after row as far as anyone could see. Bobbing up and down through the snow alongside the four. Heading straight into the wind the former luxuries they enjoyed were now completely gone. They cold hungry and shivering, but they were alive, that was their only luxury they could be thankful for. Nasoj's armies have fallen once more

Crunching, panting, grumbling; the army of the four winds was unhappy. Forward, grumbling and scheming. Mutiny and desertion were on many minds. Northward, walking struggling. White powder was dusted upon them all.

“Mother,” mumbled the lady Eule, “Mother I’m sorry.”

She walked a distance away from all, through the snow, northward. Her speech falling into a flurry of incoherent mumbling.

“I’ll finish this,” she began repeating “I’ll finish this, Raven I’ll finish this.”

Kagnio, the man in red, watched from behind in mirth as Eules’ speech continued descending into a realm that no human could comprehend. Nasoj failed, thanks to his vote this final remaining force escaped behind a wall of illusions never to be seen instead of contradicting Nasoj’s pathetic orders and backing up the other forces without order.

The wizard would lose power because of this. He’d lose respect lose power, he’d become desperate and dependent. He’d end up giving the Winds and himself more and more freedom and power to go and do whatever they pleased; this was well calculated into Kagnio’s plan.

He felt overjoyed at all this confusion and grief. It benefited his plan, by blinding all those who could potentially become obstacles. The grief, pain, sorrow and anger all made a perfect distraction.

In the snow, in the distance, a stray Lutin awkwardly stumbled through the snow away from the rest of the forces belonging to the Four Winds.

The white haired man smiled at the site. Kagnio has always abhorred boredom and this was the perfect opportunity to enjoy himself for once.

Perfect he thought, completely perfect. Slowly he brought up his hand and pointed towards the fleeing Lutin. I’ll use the magical spell Din’s Thread he thought, fast silent and precise he won’t even know what hit him. He smiled wildly a gleam of gleam of shear joy visible in his eyes. I’ll aim for the heart, no too quick, the neck, oh yes the neck. I’ll shatter his spine immobilize him and make certain he doesn’t talk as well, then he’ll fall over into the snow and slowly bleed, he’ll stain the snow a delightful crimson before freezing to death.

The man in red chuckled to himself before whispering the incantation that would surely end a life. Moments later a thin red streak slipped through the air piercing the wind, the snow, the darkness of the cold cruel night. A single last life was silenced that night, its earthly body broken and limp, halfway between life and death. In the night surrounded by pines and slowly buried by snow, a lone Lutin cried out as his former comrades walked passed him, ignored his garbled pleas.

One man in red disappeared over the horizon, laughing in blissful joy.

For all the Longs it was time for a much needed break. The assault had been beaten off and all the Lutins in the Keep killed. Already they were planning a counterstrike to get revenge. But those strikes wouldn’t take place for several days, so the Long scouts had a rare moment to relax as a group. It was a frighteningly small group. Only Caroline, Misha, Finbar, Danielle, Jotham, Padraic and Georgette were fit for duty. The room was very quiet, the scouts bodies were on the upcoming fight, but all had their thoughts on their missing comrades; Kershaw, Meredith, Lisa, Ralls, Allart, Jotham, Llyn. Everyone missed Llyn, but the traitor loomed large in every ones mind. No one could understand how one of their own could betray them so utterly. It cast a dark pall over everything, only one person seemed happy, Finbar.

The ferret was seated at a table drinking a bottle of wine and humming to himself. Perched on the table next to him was a large burlap sack. Unable to contain her curiosity Danielle sat down next to him.

“You are in good spirits,” she said.

He nodded. “Yes I am. Yesterday I fulfilled a life long dream of mine and my mother.” The ferret patted the sack. “I’ve even got her a present.”

“May I ask what it is?” she asked politely.

He hesitated before answering as his smile faded away, replaced by a worried look. “I don’t think you’ll understand,” he said in a quiet voice.

Confused and a little insulted she stood up and started to walk away. Finbar grasped her on the arm, halting her motion. “I’m sorry.” He touched the bag with his free hand. “Go ahead and look but please understand.”

With a little trepidation she undid the cord hold the neck of the bag closed and peered inside. She recognized one item of its contents quickly. “You have a Lutin’s head?”

“Not any Lutin, Selig’s head,” Finbar said with obvious pride.

“Interesting,” she answered. Taking trophies was a common enough habit. Misha collected ears, so why not the occasional head. After all Selig was a famous general. Finbar had a right to be proud of killing him. There were several other items in the bag that she couldn’t identify. “Finbar what are those two round things and that long . . “ Sudden recognition occurred. She let go of the bag and staggered backward. Grabbing hold of her muzzle she fell the bile rise in her throat.

Everyone in the room rushed to her aid. “What’s wrong. What’s in the bag,” Jotham said and peered in the sack. He cursed loudly and threw the bag across the room. “THAT’S SICK!” He shouted at Finbar.

Jotham moved towards the ferret with his fists raised. Misha stepped in front of him and barred his way. “That’s enough. Sit down and calm down,” he said in the cold, hard voice of a leader.

“But Misha he doesn’t have just Selig’s head in there. He’s got . . . “

“I know what he has in there,” Misha said interrupting him. “SIT DOWN.”

Finbar retrieved the bag from where it had come to rest. “You don’t understand,” he said in a voice cracking with pain. “None of you do.”

“I do,” Misha said calmly.

Danielle looked at the ferret and realized he was crying. Now truly confused she helped him back to his seat unsure of what else to do.

Misha picked up the bag and carefully placed it on the table. It’s gruesome contents didn’t seem to bother him, “I know the whole truth, I think it’s time you told everyone else,” the fox said calmly.

A long silence filled the room as all eyes looked to the ferret who sat still as a grave. He refused to look at anyone, but stared at a spot on the floor for a long minute. Finally he pulled a small dagger from its sheath and held it up to the light. It was an odd weapon. The blade was shaped like a leaf, complete with the veins etched into the metal. The hilt was intricately carved from ivory to look like twisted vines. A fine weapon, and worth many gold coins. “This belonged to my mother’s husband, the man who should have been my father.”

“He died a little after midnight on August twelfth trying to defend my mother from a group of Lutin raiders. She was raped before his body was even cold,” he said coldly. “I was born nine months later.”

Caroline gasped and started to say something but Misha touched the otter on the arm and stilled her question with a shake of his head.

Finbar idly twirled the blade in his hands for a moment before he continued. “Momma says she wanted to kill me when I was born but didn’t.” He held up the blade in front of his face. “She was going to use this very dagger. She actually had the blade to my chest when I was barely a day old.”

“What stopped her?” Danielle asked in a whisper.

“My mother says she looked into my tiny, little, newborn face and I smiled at her. All the anger drained out of her. After that she couldn’t think of harming me.” He shook his head. “Sometimes I wish she had. My childhood wasn’t easy. Everyone in the village knew I was the bastard child of a Lutin rape. Most never let me forget it. Some simply ignored me, acting like I didn’t exist. Mom tried not to let it effect me, but it did. I remember the nights she used to wake up screaming and crying. I remember how she would always carry a dagger with her, in case she was ever attacked again. She always used to wear high collars on her dresses, no matter what the weather. I never understood why until one day she tore her dress while working in the fields. Then I saw the small branding scar on her neck. It was shaped like a human skull with the front teeth pointed like a the canine teeth of a wolf.” He stopped talking and shook his head. “It seems my father wanted to mark his conquests.”

“All Lutins should be killed,” Caroline said in a cold voice. She didn’t have any scars as obvious as Finbar’s mother but she had scars all the same. Ones just as painful.

“I did come up with a way for her to finally get rid of it.”

“How?” Danielle asked.

“Simple, a piece of hot metal made the skull mark, so all it took was another one to remove it.”

“You mean she deliberately touched a hot brand to herself?” Jotham asked, shocked.

“What’s a little pain compared to what she had been through already?” Caroline commented calmly.

No one could argue with the otter’s logic and Finbar continued his story. “Mom and the other adults weren’t the worst, the other kids were, they tormented me constantly. But I grew fast, faster then them, and I was stronger too.”

“They must have made your childhood sheer torment,” Caroline said.

Finbar nodded. “I was chased, beaten, and picked on constantly, until I turned eight. Then everything changed. On March twelfth a group of boys twice my age came after me. They had just come of age and were celebrating being men. There were five of them but I had this,” he held up the leaf bladed dagger.

“You killed them all?” Danielle asked, surprised.

The ferret shook his head. “I just cut them a little. Most of the damage I did was with my fists and feet. They broke my arm but not one of them was awake when I left the alley.”

“You were attacked by five boys and you won?” Padraic said, surprised.

The ferret nodded. “It was a tough fight but I beat them all,” he said with pride.

“How did the rest of the village respond? I bet they weren’t happy.” Jotham said.

“I’m surprised they didn’t hang you,” Caroline commented. “What did they do?”

Finbar laughed. “They did nothing. The boys claimed that that some gang from another village had attacked them.”

“Why lie?” Danielle asked.

“Why would five, sixteen year olds admit that they had been beaten up by a eight year old Lutin half breed?” Finbar answered. “Everyone knew the truth but the whole village acted like it hadn’t happened. No one bothered me after that. As a matter of fact many people actually started treating me better and I was admitted to the town militia. Mom let me keep the dagger and I quickly earned the nickname Blade.”

The ferret took another drink of wine. “You know the rest. I joined the army when I was old enough and found myself in the scouts. The scouts allowed me to take revenge for mom’s pain. Soon I found that I had more kills then anyone else and people were calling me hero.” He laughed. “Even one of the five guys I had beaten up called me that. ”

Jotham pointed to the sack, “Why the gruesome trophy, you’ve never taken anything before, not even an ear?”

“That fight in the barracks lasted for hours and yet all of it seems like a blur to me,” Finbar said. “I barely remember most of it but the fight against Selig is clear in my mind down to the tiniest detail. I think I’ll remember it my whole life.”

The fighting inside the small fort was at its height and it swirled all around Finbar but he saw none of it. He only had eyes for the battle in front of him. Danielle, Georgette and himself stood back to back in a tight circle fighting off a score of Lutins. Standing just out of reach was Selig, standing and watching the fight.

Suddenly two of the Lutins in front of him fell to the ground with arrows in their chests and there was nothing between Finbar and Selig. For the first time in many years Selig the slaughterer was alone with no one to fight his battles for him.

Without hesitating Finbar stepped over the still twitching bodies of the Lutins. He stepped past the headless corpse of the wizardress being sure not to slip on the gore that had been her head.

The general stood waiting for him with a short sword in one hand and a shield in the other. His plate mail armor was pristine, no scratches or dents marred its polished surface. This general preferred to let others do the fighting for him, but Finbar had no illusions as to it being an easy fight. One doesn’t become a leader of Lutins without being a very good fighter.

With a short sword in one hand and his mother’s dagger in the other he stopped in front of the Lutin. The general had his visor down and all Finbar could see of his face was two eyes showing through the slit. He could feel those eyes staring at him, their owner taking measure of the ferret.

Finbar lunged forward lashing out with his two blades. He pushed the shield aside with his sword and plunged the dagger straight at Selig’s heart. The blade came to a jarring halt as it hit the hardened steel of the breastplate. The weapon skittered along the metal shell without penetrating.

Selig jabbed with his sword and the ferret dodged backward to avoid its cutting edge, but he wasn’t fast enough. He felt a searing pain along his ribs as the Lutin’s blade cut through flesh.

Taking a few steps backward Finbar risked a glance at his wound. The leather armor he was wearing was torn on his left side and he could see blood welling up like water at a spring. He had never liked wearing the heavy restrictive armor plate armor that Selig was wearing. It was bulky and too noisy for his liking, but right now his simple leather coat reinforced with steel studs was hopelessly out classed.

Without warning Selig rushed at Finbar. The ferret expected him to lash out with his sword but instead he hunched down behind the shield, using it as a weapon. He hit Finbar with his full body weight sending the fighter flying.

The Mustelid landed hard against a wooden post as thick as a sapling, snapping it off at the base. Dazed, Finbar shook his head to clear the confusion from his mind. Suddenly a shadow loomed over him and looking up he saw the form of General Selig looming over him, sword held high.

It was in that moment that time seemed to slow down, things moving in slow motion. His sword was no where to be seen, but the dagger was resting mere inches from his right hand. What could he do with such a small weapon against plate mail? That type of armor was immune to such a weapon. Looking up he could see Selig draw his sword back for a killing stroke, taking a step forward as he did. It was at that moment that Finbar saw his chance in one small fact; plate mail armor doesn’t protect everywhere.

With the dagger in hand the ferret lunged forward and drove the blade up into the one point on the general not protected by a plate of steel; his groin. Finbar felt the blade cut through the chain mail and sink into the soft flesh behind it.

Selig let out a squeal of pain and dropped to his knees as his sword clattered to the stones. The ferret lashed out a second time, driving dagger through the vision slit in the helmet. There was the crunch of bones cracking and the Lutin dropped to the ground, dead.

Finbar turned to corpse over with a kick and opened the visor with the point of his blade. The ruined face of the general stared back at him, recognizable in spite of the damage. “My name is Finbar,” the ferret said to the corpse. “I’m glad to finally meet you, father.”


“Daddy, you’re dead?” asked a small voice.

The storyteller stopped in mid gesture and looked towards where the voice came from.

A little skunk girl with eyes full of tears looked up at him.

He bent down and picked up his daughter and ever so gently placed her in his lap. “Do I look dead?”

“No,” she answered. “But you said . . “

“I’m not dead.”

She didn’t seem to sure but she had stopped crying.

The storyteller gently kissed his daughter on the muzzle, stopping her from completing her question. With a soft, tender touch her dried her tears.

“Do I feel dead?”

“No,” she said sounding uncertain. “But if you’re not dead why did you say you were dead?”

“I didn’t say it that, George did,” the skunk explained. “He thought I was dead.”


A long moment of silence followed as the girl just stared at him.

“What’s wrong now?”

“How did you live after being blown up?” she asked.

He again kissed his daughter. “I’ll explain. In due time.”

“When Papa?”


“How soon?”

He stared at his daughter for a moment before he started to speak.

Misha could smell the hospital long before he reached it. It was the smell blood, fear, sweat and death all rolled into a single scent that made the fox shiver. But if the smell was bad, the sounds were worse.

At first it was a faint murmur just barely above a whisper that tickled at the edge of recognition. But it quickly grew louder and stronger and all too soon he recognised the groans and crying of the wounded and dying. That sound made him shiver.

He arrived at the entrance to the hospital a lot faster then he had wanted. He could easily picture in his mind the scene that awaited him on the far side of the door he now stood in front of. He could imagine the wounded and dying filling all corners of the place. The weeping and the crying, and the smell. He would rather face a thousand Lutins barehanded then step through that door but he had too.

Taking a deep breath he opened the door and stepped into hell. Reality was worse then his imagination. Far worse.

What had been a small, warm and friendly place was now a place the size of Long Hall that echoed to the moans and cries of the wounded. o matter which way his head turned he saw people in pain. Stepping gingerly over a woman with both legs missing below the knees and sidestepping around another whose whole chest was bandaged. Catching sight a small child whose head was bandaged he deliberately looked away but in his mind he still saw the little boy laying on a blanket. He sincerely wished that it was an adult who had been cursed with childhood and not a real child. Somehow the his mind just refused to believe a child could survive such a wound. Thinking it was an adult made it easer to bear. Slightly easier.

Misha was spared any further images when Coe walked up to him. The raccoon looked exhausted and haggard. Like he hadn’t slept in days, which was probably right. The weary healer turned around and motioned for the fox to follow.

He had to step carefully to catch up to the slow moving Coe. Placing each paw step carefully to avoid stepping on someone. He tried to concentrate on something other then the people around him. “When and where was he found?”

“The arriving relief found him laying in a snow drift more dead then alive,” came the slow, tired answer. “We didn’t know who he was until Ralls came to help and recognized him.”

“How did he survive? How did he survive that explosion and falling two stories?

The raccoon stopped at a door. “The snow. He landed in a deep snow bank.”

Misha nodded. “It was deep enough to cushion the fall and wetness put out the flames.”

Coe turned to door knob and opened the door a crack but did not enter.

As the raccoon turned to go Misha stopped him. “If I can help you in any way, feel free to ask.”

“Thank you,” he said and slowly, mechanically began to move among the wounded. So many wounded.

The door swung open fully at the merest touch of Misha’s hand moving silently on well oiled hinges. It revealed a room a small room whose walls were painted a warm shade of blue. A lamp set on a table cast a soft glow over the bed next to it. Resting in the bed was a small, figure. Only the head and shoulders of the figure was visible, the rest was covered by a blanket. He didn’t look too bad at first the only sign of injury was a patch over one eye. It was almost like the skunk morph was asleep.

Seated in a chair next to him was a young girl. She had hair as silver as the finest metal, eyes as gray as the keeps stone walls. She was wearing a white diaphanous dress that hung about her like a cloud. She didn’t seem to notice Misha’s arrival but just kept holding his hand and looking at his face. On her face was a mix of pain, concern, and a weariness that seemed to extend through the ages itself.

Carefully Misha padded over to the bed and looked at the figure closely. He wasn’t sure what to do or say. “I don’t know if you know but you saved a lot of lives Muri,” he thought silently to the unmoving figure.

“Will he live?” He asked bluntly. In other times he would have bowed and been in awe of her presence but now he was just too tired.

"He will," Kyia answered softly. "Though it will take time for him to heal in body and spirit.." She closed her eyes and lowered her head. "He has lost the one that he loved. That is not a pain that is swift to mend."

The nymph looked down at Muri, stroking the fur around his ears gently. "He is still so young," she said sadly. "Too young to face such pain."

"We've all been hurt. Time heals all wounds.”

Kyia looked up at him, eyes filled with wisdom and pain that belied her childlike body. "No, it doesn't," she said soberly. "But with time we learn to hide the scars."

Misha rested his hand gently on the small woman’s shoulder. “Remember that the Great One is with you both,” Misha prayed.

She looked at him with eyes that seemed to be older then eternity. He wondered how many friends she had seen die over the countless generations. How much deaths had she witnessed?

She gave a slight smile and turned back to Muri.

Padding softly Misha backed out of the room. As he closed the door his last sight was of Kyia still holding Muri’s hand. Both we’re as still as some great painting.

It took Misha two hours to find her. He made two complete circuits of Long House, the Chapel and even the Lightbringer temple. Finally he found her and Will picking through the ruins of their house.

Without warning he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her. Lifting completely off the ground in the process. “I love you Caroline.”

She cooed with delight and eagerly returned the kiss. He hugged her even tighter.

It was a very long time before he let go.

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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