The Winter Assault

Part 4

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



“Damn it!”


“What is this hedgehog doing in the punch?”

“The back stroke!”

“Not funny!”


“Don’t be sorry, be rid of it!”


Yes, it looked like the party was going exceedingly well, Kayla reflected as she returned. From where Rickkter was standing, next to a fox, a wolverine, and four humans – one of whom was wearing heavy leather gloves – it appeared that he hadn’t noticed her briefly slipping out. Of course she had no desire for him to find out, and so slipped through the crowd until she was standing behind her raccoon. His first indication that she was there was when she slipped her arms around his front, pulling him towards her and nuzzling his shoulder, which he indicated with a small yelp.

“Miss me, love?” she murred, nuzzling his back.

“Always.” Rickkter reached back and pulled her around front, resting his arm over her shoulder. “Where were you?”

“Oh, around. I just finally decided to see what all the fuss was about.”

“Well, you certainly did miss a show. Why, one time Misha...” Rickkter stopped mid sentence and leaned his nose down to Kayla’s head and sniffed around the fur there. “Have you been around Muri just now?”

Kayla turned her gaze down to the stone floor. Scent couldn’t be hidden from an animal morph, that was one thing she knew all too well. “Yes, that’s where I just came from. He wanted to meet me in the library, someplace quiet. Private.”

“What did he want that for?” asked Rickkter. Kayla could detect a hard edge creeping into his voice.

“He wanted to exchange gifts and he knew that Llyn wouldn’t like him doing that with me. But he really wanted to do it, and I agreed that we should; he needs to get used to human interaction again.” She sighed. “I wish that he could have stayed here a little longer. He needs to be around others.”

“Well I suppose I can understand that.” Rickkter hugged her close, his voice having lost the edge. “I saw him and that mink of his at the feast, but briefly. Why aren’t they here now? All the other Longs are.”

“Well, two reasons really. First is Muri, of course. He’s still not comfortable with large, noisy crowds, as you know.” Kayla spared a brief glance around the room. “And she didn’t want to put him through all this, and so decided it best that they leave early. The second reason is that she wished to get into proper attire for the Follower ceremony in the chapel tonight."

“Well, that’s too bad for the both of them, I guess.” He turned back to the main spectacle and hugged her with one arm again. “Let’s just hope that you haven’t missed too much.”

By this time Norman had managed to extricate himself from the punch.

“Hey, Norman,” called out Misha. “Are you alright?”

“Fine, just fine,” muttered the hedgehog, sucking a little of the remaining wetness from his arm. “Though I think this batch of punch could use some more spices.”

Misha took the pair of heavy leather gloves from the burly human who had them last. He quickly pulled them on and gave the palms a quick slap. “Well, we can worry about that later, Norman,” said Misha as he moved out onto the empty section of the floor. The fox flicked his paws towards the hedgehog and took up a bowlegged stance, his tail flagging behind him. “Come on, now. We’re not done with you yet.”

Kayla could only groan and roll her eyes as she nuzzled her cheek against Rickkter’s. "From what I remember of Christmas mass, they'll be spending the rest of the evening there," concluded the skunk. "Llyn spent the morning getting a new gown just for the
occasion." Kayla looked down at her own apparel. "I guess she just wanted to look beautiful for Muri."

Rickkter caught her tone and turned her around to face him. “Hey, didn’t I tell you that you look absolutely stunning in that outfit? I know it’s old, I can smell some of the age on it but that doesn’t matter. You’d look just as ravishing now if that dress had been tailored last week.” Reaching down, he used his crooked finger to lift up the edge of her chin. “If I were to give you a necklace today, would it make any difference if I were to tell you that it was once worn by a queen over two centuries ago or that I picked it up from Will the day before?”

Her love’s eyes had a mischievous twinkle to them that made Kayla smile instantly. “Are you hinting at something, Rickkter?”

He leaned down and licked the white stripe between her eyes. “Maybe.”

The female mephit’s laugh was a delighted burr as she hugged close then nuzzled the raccoon that meant so much to her. She looked out over the hall filled with faces of people she had known for years but had only recently come to be friends with; friends who were setting up pins at one side of the hall and talking to a still dripping hedgehog on the other. Briefly she wondered how much stranger this party was going to get in the next several hours or so before it was over. From the look of Misha and the other Longs, she wasn’t going to be making any predictions. Not that it really mattered, she realized as she rubbed Rick’s arm. She had everything she needed right here.

12/24 – 6:30 p.m.

Ryuo knelt upon the bamboo tatami mats of his small room, breathing in the incense and actively thinking about nothing. After hours of study, the oriental warrior was taking a much-needed rest for his heart to contemplate the evening's lesson. Outside, the winds continued to howl as the winter storm that had suddenly blown up battered at the stone walls of the Keep. Ryuo had long since closed the outer wooden shades of his small nook of the Keep. Hidden in a small crack between the towering spires of the Keep, it was spared from the harshest winds of the winter storm. Still, the snow piled high outside, although the paper walls insulated remarkably well.

As Ryuo inhaled another long, deep breath through his nose, the spicy incense floated lazily about his head, circling out to the four corners of the square room. Sitting serenely on his right was a leather bound tome of mammoth proportions. Faded gold leaf on the cover revealed it as a copy of the Ecclessia's New Testament, written with a translated gloss of the North-eastern Ma-yonshu script.

Ryuo was having trouble comprehending some of what he read; a man made of bread and wine? he thought incredulously. Other passages, however, seemed to contain words of wisdom. Ryuo could only assume that this Yashua must have been a truly enlightened individual. His sacrifice was particularly noteworthy as an example of his warrior spirit.

Apparently, it was his birth that many of the others celebrated tonight in the Ecclessia Cathedral. Most of the others had gone to the great shrine of the Keep to have the priestess help them call out their prayers to the gods. Ryuo, however, had felt no draw towards either, and had retired to his room after his shift on the wall. Here he had stayed, reading and meditating while the storm raged outside.

Gathering back his wandering mind, Ryuo stared calmly at the blank wall before him and once more began to send his thoughts into blissful oblivion.

12/24 – 6:45p.m.

The lighthouse was packed that day. The whole tower was cozy and warm, despite the raging storm outside. A great many of the residents were feeling warm and cozy as well. For most of them, it was an exceedingly joyous occasion. It was going to be a real Christmas, complete with feasting, gifts, and happy times spent with good friends. Most of them thought that they would never live to see another Christmas. Their days of hiding in the wilderness after Hipocc was destroyed had almost crushed their hope of living through the year, and yet here they were, singing carols in the lighthouse sanctuary.

Desuka was trying to lead the singing, every now and then forgetting to translate a word. Mong Ho, having had a touch too much nog that night, was launching into a song in her native tongue. Ye just sat there and smiled at her, happy that she was having such a good time.

Gornul sat perched on the back of a pew with Mitok and Qualin on either side. His family had been working hard to keep the fire burning on the top floor to serve as a beacon to those hardy souls who were braving the storm to be at Metamor Keep for the Christmas festivities. Natalie had taken over from them so that the lot of them could take a break and come join the fun.

Jesse Roo was busily sampling the Christmas cookies and recommending various varieties of goodies to Blake Tizzo, who nodded in a polite manner and snuggled up to Shamgar, who had come down from the keep a couple hours earlier, for warmth.

Vitra sat alone in a corner with a cup of punch. Every once in a while, she would hold the cup out to the side. It was obvious what she was doing. She was imagining that her late husband, Ushka, could be here for the festivities. Though Vitra was his wife now, Oren understood that he could not replace Ushka nor diminish the love that was there. Nor should it be so.

Oren understood how she felt. This would be his very first Christmas without his parents, and without many of his loved ones. His sister was alive and present, as was her young son, Alyxander, but she was the only family he had now. Even Ana, the woman he almost married once, was gone.

Everything, both happy and sad, seemed just as it should be. Why, then, did Oren feel so ill at ease?

He could not understand it. Here it was, almost Christmas, and yet the otter could not be merry. Something was simply and basically wrong.

Slipping away from the crowd, Oren headed up the stairs. Up, past the residential floors he went. Up past the armory and the food stores. All the way up to the top level. There, he found Natalie, who had shifted into as human a form as she could get, the better to brave the cold. She was also fairly small, presumably to minimize the area of her skin. Oren knew that this storm had to be rough on the reptiles, especially dragons.

When she noticed him, Natalie smiled and said, "Do you have any idea what's wrong with Leo?"

Oren looked around, but didn't see the person in question. "Where is Leo?" he asked.

"Up on the roof." she replied.

"In this weather? He's nuts."

Natalie tilted her head to the ceiling in affirmation. So, feeling like a moron for doing so, Oren climbed the ladder to the roof.

There was Leo, standing like a statue amid the blowing winds. Oren supposed that he was equipped for such a thing. Like the other Hipocci who had already transformed, Leo had been given a double transformation. He had become a polar bear with the suction-cup feet of a hyrax. Like the otter, he wore only the blue vest and briefs of his uniform, decorated only by his cuffs and the red cape which flapped in the breeze. Even now, it seemed strange to see him dressed like a warrior, when Oren's memories still depicted him as a lad less than ten in his mind.

"Leo?" he asked, shrinking as he approached the bear. He was glad that he no longer had to become female to assume a more lutrine form, for he wanted an excuse to hug the roof as the violent wind whipped past.

"Oren?" Leo responded, raising his voice against the storm. "What are you doing up here?"

"ME?" he called back in a rising voice. "What are YOU doing up here?"

"Looking. There's something out there."

"You see something?"

"No. But I know it's out there. I can feel it."

A chill went down Oren's back which had nothing to do with the storm. He knew that Leo was never wrong about these things. "What is it, Leo?" he asked.

"I don't know, but I think we ought to get folks moved inside the keep. At least the civilians."

"All right. Come on down, Leo."

12/24 – 7:30pm.

Jeremy and Samuel and Derek have always been the undisputed Champions of the Snowball Fight. The three of them always manage the proper style; Samuel manages to make many, many snowballs very, very fast to keep people on their toes, and Derek and Jeremy are uncannily good at accuracy. Jeremy will sometimes get hit back in the inevitable return fire, he's not all that fast but Derek is completely invincible when it comes to flying projectiles of water crystals. To be the One To Hit Derek would be to be the Ultimate, the Greatest, the Snowball Champion Of The World.

Unfortunately for any would-be champions, Derek is dodging snowballs very effectively still, even with the blizzard affecting visibility so seriously that many doubted even powerful Randolph could make his way through. Still, Jeremy's dad, being a Fire mage, manages to keep them all warm in addition to their big warm clothes, so nobody is uncomfortable at the weather, just the defeat.

"Got you again!" Jeremy yells at Josh as a snowball plasters across the back of the young previously-actor's jacket. Josh's response is to start trying to look around, attempting to spot the splotch on his back. Jeremy goes to focus on other attackers, and in so doing keeps himself occupied while Daemion rushes up to Josh and quickly brushes the blotch of snow off his back. "There, you're healed," he whispers conspiratorially to the would-be defeated soldier.

Josh grins, scoops up a snowball and hurls it at Jeremy, getting a direct hit right on the top of his "murderer's" head, whereupon Daemion quickly yells out a "Got you!" so as to keep the deception going. Jeremy's jaw drops in surprise, and turns to see Daemion grinning, while Josh is headed to the side of the battlefield towards the designated 'morgue.'

Jeremy grumbles and heads after Josh, who is sitting down along with his snow-slain fellows near the grown-ups.

"That's a pretty clever trick he's got going, eh?" Perry asks Jono. Perry is a hedgehog morph; a swift and capable soldier who is out here mostly to look after his son.

"Who?" Jono asks.

"My boy over there, Daemion," Perry says, pointing. "He knows his limitations. He can't throw a snowball very well, but he still wants to play and keep things going. So he goes out and 'heals' fallen kids by brushing the snow off, then has them throw snowballs for him. The 'healed' kid usually gets to get his revenge against whoever hit him with the snowball, and Daemion gets to join in," he observes with a chuckle. "He's saying he wants to be a real healer when he grows up too," Perry continues, obviously very proud of his child.


"Yep!" Perry says, beaming. "He's already going over to see Merai at the Lightbringer temple occasionally just to look at some basics, and he was thinking about finding some way to talk to your friend Joanne while she was here." He grins widely. "Be nice to see my boy getting himself educated, for damn sure."

Jo speaks up then, having been silent until now. "I'm sure it would be. Wonderful to see them grow up and go see the rest of the world..."

Perry then turns to the pair. "Why haven't you two, like, ever seriously gotten together?" he asks. "Like, stopped and raised a family, or something?"

Jo raises an eyebrow; Jono laughs. "There's no way we'd be able to have kids between the two of us; our friendship has boundaries, and that's past them. Besides, we never wanted to settle down, really; if not for the Curse we'd not be here still."

Jo then acquires a small smile. "That and I've already got myself a child." She indicates Jono with a cock of the head.

"Oh, pah! Only part-time at best!" Jono protests. "Besides, I could never do better as a little kid than you," he continues, grinning in a mock evil manner.

Joanne responds by leaning down, scooping up a pawful of snow, balling it up and hurling it at the panther, grinning as she does so.

"Ha!" cries Jono as he ducks down to dodge, and the duel is on.

Jono, while ducking, scoops up two pawfuls of snow, balling them up into one as best he can and leaps to the side, hurling the snowball towards Jo in mid-flight. The vixen drops herself, bringing her paw down and up in a wide arc to try and fling a giant scoop of snow towards the cat as he lands, but he quickly turns his landing into a roll out of the way, at the termination of which he grabs up another scoop of snow and sends it in the vixen's direction. She blocks it easily with her forearm and then flings the ball she prepared in her paw earlier while Jono was doing his acrobatics, but he manages to dodge this as well, leaping forward to get closer to the vixen and get an easier shot...

And then POW! and Jono YOWLS in surprise as a snowball slaps him in the side of the face.

He turns to see... young Derek, grinning, another snowball in his hand being tossed up and down. "Gotcha, Uncle Jono."

Perry and Jo, of course, cannot get up from the ground because of how hard they're laughing.

"Yes, yes, you got me," Jono says, suppressing a chuckle. Then he reaches down, scoops up another ball and attempts to hit the laughing vixen in the mouth. She rolls to the side easily, still laughing. The cat grumbles briefly, then mock sighs and throws his hands up, looking to the sky. "I just can't win, can I?" he asks of the heavens while the children in the 'morgue' snicker.

"Nope." the vixen says, still snickering.

Derek takes the opportunity and hurls his other snowball, catching Joanne right on the nose and soliciting a loud yip from the suddenly stricken vixen.

Perry is now pinned to the ground, laughing uncontrollably. Jono looks like he's about ready to join the hedgehog.

And Derek just sits there, grinning ear to ear, having solidified his position as Unsurpassed King Of The Snowfields at Metamor.

12/24 – 7:30pm

The temple hall was more crowded than Merai had ever seen it before, and as she looked over the assembled acolytes and townspeople she could scarcely believe that they could all fit in the room. By her rough estimate, about four hundred people filled the long, vaulted chamber, and there was still space for an aisle leading down the center to the altar at the back. The acolytes had decorated the hall with red and green curtains and bunting, and the wall lamps cast the whole room in a soft, warm glow. There were no chairs; people stood or sat on the floor in small groups, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Raven walked among the visiting lay-people, welcoming them to the temple and generally playing a cordial if reserved hostess. Acolytes stood to either side of the large double-doors, which had been opened wide for the occasion, greeting people as they came in. Behind the altar another group of acolytes were playing music on lutes, woodwinds and lyres, filling the hall with soft and peaceful music.

Merai walked back through the doors into the corridor that led out of the temple chambers, watching as the acolytes collected cloaks and weapons from the townspeople and placed them in one of the adjoining storerooms.

"Exciting, isn't it?"

Merai turned to see Celine smiling at her, green eyes dancing. The senior female acolyte at the Keep, she had become one of Merai's best advisors and most trusted friends.

"It is for me," Merai admitted, moving out of the doorway to stand by the wall. "But I would've thought you've seen this before. You've served here ... what, twenty years?"

The seeming-girl nodded, turning momentarily to greet a pair of women as they entered the hall. "Twenty-two, i'truth," she said. "But I've never seen this many people come for a ceremony before. Usually most of the laity leave it to us to deal with the gods."

"Mayhap it has something to do with Father Hough being here," Merai suggested. "It seems like his presence has awakened a sense of faith in Metamor. Perhaps with the Followers having their own service tonight, our people thought it right to be here."

The blond-haired girl cocked her head. "'Tis possible," she said. "On the other hand," she laughed, "it may have had more to do with Yajiit's little performance last July."

"There is that," Merai admitted with a grin. "Maybe they're expecting another show."

Celine made a look of mock despair. "My god, sister! We've become a tourist attraction!"

They were still laughing at that when the acolyte gestured towards the entrance at the far end of the corridor. "Look there, Merai— you have company."

Merai looked up, smiling broadly as she saw a group of very familiar faces come in. She saw her father, Dana, and her mother, Sandra, along with little baby Thomas cradled in her arms. Missus Caitlyn, one of Dr. Coe's assistants and a longtime family friend, was close behind them, and bringing up the rear...


"Daria!" Merai called back, running to embrace her best friend. The young warrior-woman was dressed in her squire's uniform, which marked her as a knight-in-training with the Knights of the Red Stallion, Lord Thomas's personal chivalric order. The outfit was largely ceremonial, far too impractical for the daily work of a field scout, but it made Daria look noble and mature beyond her years.

"Hello, Merai," Dana said, stepping forward to give his daughter a huge bear hug. "You're looking lovely this evening."

"Thanks, Da." Merai felt herself blush a little, but it was unlikely anyone saw it— her short, tawny fur had a tendency to hide such things well.

Merai greeted her mother and Caitlyn in turn, and after they'd turned over their winter clothes and weapons they made their way down the corridor to the temple hall.

"Where's your da tonight, Dari?" Merai asked, suddenly noticing the big lion-morph's absence.

"Guard duty, if you can believe it," Daria said, sounding disgusted.

"What?" Merai half-laughed in surprise.

"Apparently, a few members of the mages' council have expressed concerns about the storm," Caitlyn explained. "They judge it unnatural, and say something foul may be afoot. Unfortunately Saroth and Electra are both away visiting Magdalain Island, so there is no way to be sure. Master DeMule asked Leon to serve on the first watch— it seems that the guard on the wall is being doubled."

"How strange," Merai mused. "Do they expect an attack?"

"A general would be daft to order an assault in this weather," Dana said over his shoulder. "He'd lose twice as many men to the blizzard as to the guards."

"Still, it can't hurt to be cautious," Sandra observed. "Nasoj has surprised us before."

"Well, he won't surprise us tonight," Daria declared. "Nothing is going to get near a double-guard without being seen."

"… Danger ..."

"I'm sorry, what did you say, Daria?" Merai asked.

"I said that Nasoj wouldn't be able to get an army that close without us spotting it."

"No, I heard that part," the young priestess said. "Didn't you say something about danger?"

Daria frowned. "No, not a thing."

Merai cast a suspicious glance around her, her catlike face soon wearing a frown of her own. "Mum? Missus Caitlyn? You didn't say anything about danger, did you?"

"I didn't," Sandra said.

"Mayhap it was someone behind you," Caitlyn suggested.

Merai looked behind her. There were, indeed, a fair number of people still crowding in behind them. But she felt certain that the voice had come from close by...

She shook her head. "Aye," she said. "Aye, that must be it."

They made their way inside, to a place where the people weren't crowded in quite so tightly, and took seats on the floor in a reasonably straight row. Merai sat closest to the aisle, which had been marked out by a long red carpet.

"Will the Lightbringer be needing your assistance tonight, Merai?" Caitlyn asked.

Merai shook her head. "No, 'tis a simple ceremony, and she prefers to do it herself. My presence is all that is required of me tonight."

"… Danger ..."

The cat-woman's ears pricked up, suddenly alert. She knew she had heard the voice that time ... and it was close. Very close.

Close, and somehow familiar...

"… Danger is coming. Be ready. Danger is coming…"

Suddenly, it clicked.

"Kyia?" Merai whispered. She had only heard the voice once before, during the confrontation with the daedra last October, but she recognized it now.

"Merai," the voice came back in acknowledgement. "Danger is coming, Merai. Be ready."

"What sort of danger?" the priestess murmured, not wanting the people around her to hear.

"Not right now," the nymph answered. "I still have to warn others. Trust Raven, she knows."

"Knows what?" Merai asked, feeling frustrated.

But the voice did not answer again.

12/24 – 7:45pm

Raven was just approaching the altar to begin the service when a sudden, familiar voice called out to her.

"Raven!" The voice was close at hand and urgent, which seemed out of sorts for the owner of that soft voice.

Without even breaking her stride, Raven signaled to the musicians to keep playing, then walked into an adjoining storeroom on the east side of the hall. Keeping her gaze fixed on the shelves, her back turned to the hall, she answered.

"What is it, Kyia?"

"Great danger, Raven. Your mortal enemy stands ready to attack you this very hour."

It was as if an icy hand had wrapped itself around her heart. Choking back the bile that was beginning to rise in her throat, the priestess asked, "Which enemy, Kyia?"

"The dark wizard, Ba'al's servant," the unseen nymph replied. "This storm is a creation of his mages, to cover his approach."

"But that's insane," Raven murmured, half to herself. "The men he would lose to the cold alone- "

"Are insignificant to such as he," Kyia cut her off, her voice unusually harsh. "I know not when they will attack, but they are preparing even now. The assault will come, and soon."

The Lightbringer swallowed. "Is there time to warn the Duke?"

"The Duke's daughter has been warned," Kyia said. "Your friend the bear-sage has caught scent of the enemy's forces."

Raven nodded— Christopher's nose was excellent, and stronger than ever in his recently altered form. "Who else knows?"

"Merai knows to be ready, though I have not told her everything. I have warned my friend Madog, as well."

That brought a quizzical smile to Raven's face. "The automaton?"

"He has warned the fox-scout and the boy-priest," Kyia assured her. "They will be ready."

Raven looked up at the stone walls around her. "What are you going to do?"

"Whatever I can. Do not tell anyone until the alarum sounds— I will protect you and your people."

The priestess turned and began to walk out of the storeroom. Her eyes fell on the window at the back of the apse, and the howling winter storm that raged outside.

"And what about the others?" she asked softly.

There was a pause before Kyia answered. "It will be terrible," the nymph said sadly. "I will help those I can, but many are sure to fall. Do what you can, Raven. I cannot say for certain how this battle will end. I am sorry."

Raven nodded, slightly, once more. "I understand," she murmured. Shaken, she made back toward the altar.

She was halfway there before she caught sight of someone walking swiftly down the aisle towards her. It was Lurene, Christopher's friend, pupil, and apparent lover, and the young wolven woman looked frightened.

The priestess met her halfway. "Lurene," she said, by way of greeting.

"Lightbringer," Lurene breathed, drawing close to Raven's ear. "Chris sent me to warn you— while we were outside, he caught scent of- "

"Lutins," Raven finished for her, her voice barely more than a whisper. "Aye, Kyia herself has warned me. Stay calm— we have prepared for such things as this. We shall be safe here in the temple."

Lurene didn't look any calmer. "What should I do?" she asked.

"For now, take a seat and try not to start a panic." the priestess said firmly. "The prime minister has been warned; that is all we can do for now. The service will go on as planned."

The younger woman looked at her as if she had gone mad. "You're going to hold a service at a time like this?" she demanded.

Raven regarded her coolly for a few seconds. "Would it truly make any difference if I didn't?" she asked. "What else can I do, save start a panic and undermine Lord Thomas's authority over his troops? The decision is his, Lurene, and I shall respect that. And as I said, all who remain here shall be safe."

Lurene looked at her a moment longer, then nodded. Raven gave her a comforting pat on the shoulder, then turned and walked back to the altar.

December 24th, 7:45pm.

The halls of Metamor Keep were cold. They were beyond cold; they were downright frigid. They were merely hallways, after all, not living areas, and keeping them comfortably warm was difficult even in a balmy winter. In the face of a blinding winter storm raging from the frozen north even heroic efforts would have been insufficient to keep the drafty corridors warm. Murikeer considered this as he reached the bottom of the spiral stair descending from his tower chamber. He wore his white and brown silken finery and nothing more yet, other than noting the white mist that curled from his muzzle with each breath, did not seem to be affected by the cold. Even his paws were bare beneath the tied cuffs of his leggings. He paused at the base of the stairs and looked around to get his bearings, nodding to a heavily bundled pair of humans who shuffled by trailing white contrails of breath. They looked at him quizzically as they did and one of them actually managed to mumble a holiday greeting through the thick woolen scarf wound about his neck and lower face.

Murikeer smiled and bobbed his head in reply, once again more than happy that he had been graced by whatever Creator oversaw his fate with considerable talent in magecraft. A simple spell quickened to the scent-damping amulet about his neck provided him all the warmth he would need regardless of the weather. In a leather coinpurse dangling from his belt was another such amulet with the same spells carefully crafted for another. Carefully affixing Llyn’s chambers in his mind he turned and paced leisurely down the hallway. Hough’s service would be well under way by now but Llyn had told him the hour he should come to escort her to attend; eight-o-clock sharp by the Chapel clock. His own memory provided him a highly accurate sense of time and, before he left the library after presenting the chess set to Kayla, he had checked the library’s water clock to gauge his time.

With a good quarter hour to spare he was confident he could reach Llyn’s chambers, and escort her to the service, with minutes to spare.

As he approached a well lit junction of several corridors he spied a pair of forms garbed in rich velvets approaching and smiled. One he recognized easily by the walk and the other, considerably shorter and broad of hip, he knew on sight as well. The pair stopped to warm their hands at the brazier burning in the center of the intersecting hallways and continued their conversation and Murikeer slowed to admire the taller of the pair. She was radiant in a heavy velvet dress of deep green trimmed with dark russet fur that graced her lithe form spectacularly, open at the shoulders and cut along either leg to mid thigh. Her mahogany hued fur shone with a healthy shimmer in the firelight of the brazier. Her back was to him and he let his gaze wander downward from her shoulders to her slender waist, shapely hips, and the ungarbed tail that swayed amiably in the air behind her. Her feet were shod in a pair of suede boots the same hue as her dress. The thought of what she looked like, a familiar vision to him, without the expensive velvet dress, danced through his head making him smile all the more brightly. It was a sight he looked forward to making himself all the more familiar with before the dawn.

As he approached the two exchanged farewells. The shorter, the weapons instructor Kwanzaa, laughed at some jest made by the taller, the Long Scout Llyn and Murikeer’s lover, and walked away down another corridor. Llyn remained at the brazier a moment still warming her hands and Murikeer stepped into the intersection, “You do strike a beautiful image, my love.” Murikeer churred warmly causing her to turn smoothly. She wore a bright smile on her muzzle, whiskers angled up and back and dark eyes glimmering in the shadows cast by the firelight. She looked Murikeer up and down slowly and gave her lips a brief stroke with her tongue.

“You strike the image of a rogue.” She commented as he neared eliciting a good natured chuckle from the skunk. He gave his tail a flick and smoothed down his shirt self consciously and struck a pose. “Show off.” Llyn shook her head and proffered her arm. With a courtly bow Murikeer slid his arm into hers and fell into step beside her. “And to think you come off as so shy.” She clucked her tongue, tail touching his as it swayed behind her. “Playing about with magic again, have you been?”

“Oh?” Murikeer inquired with a chutt of voice, casting a sidelong glance at his taller companion.

“No cloak or even a coat, in this blighted cold.” The mink observed as they moved from the brightly lit intersection into a corridor only fitfully lit by widely spaced torches. The brands guttered fitfully in their vain attempt to push back the cold hardening the pitch about their shafts, plunging the corridor into long stretches of shadow between dim pools of wan torchlight. Murikeer gave a small motion with his free hand and light bloomed brightly above them. Llyn merely sighed at his unconscious reliance on the weakness of his magecraft.

“I added a warming charm to my amulet.” Murikeer explained, delving that free hand into the leather pouch hanging from his belt. Fishing about for a moment, avoiding the small wooden box at the bottom of the pouch, he drew out the long silver chain of the matching pendant he had fashioned. “I made one for you, as well.” He paused and turned to her, holding the silver length of chain to let her gaze upon the glistening orange citrine in its cage of intricately woven silver threads. “Merry Yule.” He had shaped the raw stone into a polished lozenge that glimmered with inner fire under the steady glow of the witchlight. Llyn raised a hand to cup the pendant and gaze admiringly at it, the fire thrown off by the stone gleaming in her dark eyes.

“It’s beautiful, Murikeer, but you know what I think about magic.” She crooned admonishingly.

Murikeer nodded slowly, “I understand, love, the spells upon it are very minor. Heat, and scent dampening, as my own.” He smiled and stepped closer as he raised it to clasp it about her neck. The polished citrine rested perfectly in the hollow of her throat and set a warm golden glow upon her deep mahogany fur.

Llyn’s muzzle quirked slightly, whiskers twitching as she smiled down at him. One of her brows arched slightly as she patiently let him adorn her with the gem, “What, are you saying I stink?”

The skunk chuffed a laugh and shook his head, “Oh, no, my dear.” He smiled and swept his arm toward the corridor again as they resumed their walk, “I love the way you smell. I most certainly do not want anyone else enjoying my pleasures.”

Llyn laughed at his deft dodge and leaned down to give his cheek a stroke with her nose, then let out a chuff of breath. “Augh, Muri, your amulet must not be working.”

They entered a broad hall not in use for the many gatherings taking place, its vaulted ceiling lost in shadows despite the witchlight dancing merrily along over them. “Oh?” he asked. Statues of ancient kings and knights lined the hall. Their shadows stalked silently along the walls to pace the magically illuminated pair walking along their silent ranks.

Llyn shot him a sharp sidelong glance, “You smell of skunk.”

Murikeer tilted his head and looked to her with a quirk of his brows, ears forward. “I am a skunk.” He pointed out cautiously, sensing the rise of her ire.

“Not you, her.” Llyn churred flatly, “You’ve been with her.”

“Her?” Murikeer blinked and sighed inwardly in the face of the mink’s ready jealousy, “I’ve been to the Long House and dined with them, there were many ladies there. I’ve been to the library as well and it was far from empty.”

“Her, the skunk.”

“Kayla?” Murikeer groaned softly and sighed with a shake of his head, “Yes, she was there, with her mate and my mentor, Rickkter. We exchanged gifts.”

Llyn stopped and glared down at him, “You exchanged gifts with her?” she growled archly.

“Of course, is that not the tradition?”

“And where did you go about this exchange?”

Murikeer took a long breath and steeled himself; of all the days she would have a flare of her ever-present quickness to take umbridge at Kayla this was far from the most opportune. “In the library. She gave me a hug, Llyn, nothing more.”

“A hug, mmh?”

“Yes, Llyn. We will be late for Hough’s service, love, please.” Murikeer turned and, with his hand on her elbow, eased her into motion as well. “She is my mentor’s affianced. You have met him, you have dueled with him. Would I court his ire any more than I would court yours, Llyn?”

Llyn stopped again and rounded on him, “Ah, so you’re saying that if she was not betrothed to him…”

“Llyn, no, stop, for Eli’s sake.” He said with a shake of his head, “I’ve no designs upon her and never have. You’re far more what I’m seeking; stronger, more capable, better looking.” He desperately tried to dampen the edge of her irritation.

Suddenly a loud clangor rent the air causing both of them to start, ears flattening, and cast their gazes upward toward the belfry at the apex of the hall. The witchlight darted upward into the shadows to illuminate the session bell that swung in great arcs in its housing. The pull rope jerked, untended, at the pin upon which it had been looped. “The alarm bells are ringing? Now?” Llyn gasped in surprise, “That’s Kyia’s doing, no one is here to ring it.”

“Alarm bell?” Murikeer chuffed in aghast surprise. He had been only a child the last time the bells of Metamor had rung of their own accord; at the last siege each time Nasoj’s forces made a bid for the embattled gates. “We are under attack?”

Llyn cast about looking for the nearest exit from the hall, “If Kyia is ringing the alarm bells then it must be! We must get to the Chapel!”

“Artela’s Arrows, in this gale? Who would make such an insane gambit?” Murikeer recalled the witchlight and wished he had thought to bring at least a dagger to supplement his magic. “We must make for the Long House, that is where the defenders will be marshalling.”

“Long House? The Chapel would be nearer, we must go to its defense!”

“With what, Llyn, we are not armed or armored! Your gear is at the Long House, as is your commander!” Murikeer urged hastily, fixing that thought in his head. “Kyia will secure the Chapel and Temple, but she cannot fight off attackers. That is our duty.”

“SHE is there!” Llyn barked sharply, “That’s why you want to go there, to be with her!”

Murikeer came up short and turned to face Llyn with an aghast hang of his jaw, “Llyn? Kayla has Rickkter! My concern is you, and our home, this Keep and its people, not some skunk claimed by a better fighter that I could ever hope to be! Rickkter can defend her, by Artela’s Bow! Let’s get moving!” Above them the bell continued its clangor unabated, echoed by the distant sound of other bells echoing down the corridors.

“No, you will not be going to her, Mur.” Llyn snarled fiercely, nose to nose with Murikeer.

Stunned, Murikeer could only gape up at her in stupefied confusion for several seconds before a slow sigh hissed from his lungs. “Llyn, you know, sometimes you make it so very, very difficult to love you.” He said softly, whiskers adroop and ears backed. In that moment, even as he uttered those words, he knew that they were the most wrong words he could have uttered at any time in his life. At the same moment he saw a shift in Llyn’s eyes, her focus lifting from his face and over his shoulder into the distance. He started to turn his head, instinctively reaching to sieze the ready flow of magic that infused the entire fabric of the Keep, and the world was split by a blinding fissure of white so bright it seemed blue. It sprang from Murikeer’s breast and leaped to Llyn, tendrils of blinding blue-white crawling up and down her body and causing the expensive green velvet to blacken and char. Her dark eyes widened in shocked surprise and then glowed with that same white radiance as a sound unlike any Murikeer had ever heard before and, in the length of his lifetime, would never hear again; the tortured, seprulchral sound of superheated air being wrenched from the depths of the dying mink’s lungs. She lurched a pace backwards as Murikeer continued to spin, letting the magic of Metamor flood into him unbanked. The crackling roar of the lightening bolt deafened his hearing and scintillating blue streamers arced to the nearest statues, sundering cold stone like glass. Murikeer spied the source of the devastating attack.

The man stood in the arch of a doorway not far away, the light of his spell etching him in stark relief and the cluster of other forms behind him. His hand was extended toward Murikeer and from his spread fingers sprang the electrical attack that passed harmlessly through Murikeer’s body to strike his love. Over that bridge of energies Murikeer met his cold, hard, arrogant eyes.


“Murikeer, lad, I would like you to meet Korten Aufredes, one of Earl Aufrede’s many sons.” Heiorn said amiably as Murikeer stood across the pool table from the tall, muscular newcomer to the old mage’s small school. The cold gray eyes that looked down upon him were full of self-superior arrogance as the older boy crossed his arms over his chest and regarded him. “He calls himself Thorne, and his sire suspects that he has the Talent.” Heiorn was leaning against the far end of the table with one hip, his own arms loosely crossed over his own chest. “I would like you to take him into your tutelage for his initial introduction, until we can test his potential.”

Murikeer looked aside at his mentor questioningly; the newcomer, Thorne, was five years his senior and an aristocrat upon that. Murikeer was merely a commoner. He had three years of schooling already and was the most appropriate to bring a new acolyte into the school, but his age and social position did not make for the best match. He said nothing, however, merely inclining his head in acknowledgement, “I shall do as you wish, Master Heiorn.”

Heiorn unfolded his arms and waved them closer, revealing in his other hand a tiny pewter cup hardly larger than the first knuckle of his thumb, “This you are familiar with, Murikeer.” He explained as he held it up for Thorne to examine, “A pupil’s phial.” He said to Thorne as Murikeer merely nodded, Heiorn already had created one for him. “Give me your hand, Korten.” Thorne looked dubiously from the tiny cup to Heiorn, then over at Murikeer before returning his attention to the phial and reluctantly raising his hand. Heiorn deftly poked his thumb with a needle evincing a small wince. “So long as this phial exists your magic will not harm the instructor tuned to it.” He explained, as he had to Murikeer, while he squeezed a drop of blood from Thorne’s thumb into the phial’s center. He pressed an equally tiny pewter cap upon it and asked for Murikeer’s hand, pricking his thumb as well, but pressed his blood onto the minute sigils engraved upon the phial’s outside and then performed the same with himself. “This I do for the safety of the school, young lad.”


Murikeer sat cross legged upon a stool, months later, and watched with his mage’s vision as a spell was woven by his pupil. He watched as the threads were drawn together and woven into the basic elemental construct of electrical force and began to take up the magic that would empower the spell. With a frown extended a tendril of his concentration and, with a deft flick of a single finger and mental tug, unbound the root construct of the spell. “Damnit, Thorne, you’re trying to pull too much into the spell.” He admonished with a hiss as the magic siphoned into the spell surged back into the flow around them with a discontented ripple. “Or do you want to flatten the entire building?”

Thorn’s lips quirked in an angry moue, “I can control it!” he snapped angrily, flinging his hands out flat to shed the tingling remnants of his construct. Murikeer merely shook his head slowly, long hair brushing the back of his neck. He was almost fourteen years old and Metamor’s touch had not claimed him yet, though it would in only a matter of months.

“It is not a matter of control, Thorne, it is a matter of discretion and appraisal.” He said gently, “It’s a matter of knowing how much you need in the spell to accomplish the task; there is no need to use a maul when a pinprick will suffice.” Thorne merely cast him a withering glance and steeled himself to re-cast the spell while Murikeer watched.


“Master Heiorn, I fear that Thorne is hiding something from us.” He tried to warn in the weeks before he was forced to flee the school as Metamor’s curse began to change him. “He is learning far too swiftly, with too few uneducated errors.”

“He is too skilled for the level of teaching you can provide?” Heiorn had asked as they worked through a challenging game of pool. As ever Murikeer was losing handily, but he was better than most others at the school.

Murikeer’s attention had not been on the game and he lost rapidly, “Far too much, Master. It’s as if he knows all of this early learning material already.”

He only got a nod in the face of his cautions, “Well, we will have to advance him to another instructor and see where it goes.” He said blandly as he re-racked the billiards and prepared to break. “I will watch him more closely, as you caution.”

Less than a month later Murikeer fell under the touch of Nasoj’s curse, laid upon him when he was a child at Metamor during the Battle of the Gates. A band of dark mages had come to the limits of Heiorn’s school, unable to enter because of his powerful wards, and demanded that the ‘demon’ be surrendered to them. Murikeer sensed that Thorne had somehow sent word of his change to them, but had been forced to flee rather than call him out.

The last time Murikeer had seen those arrogant, hard eyes had been over the sights of a crossbow. Horsemen were converging, but it was Thorne who had managed to track him down in the forests at the border of Sathmore and the Southern Midlands as Murikeer fled. He had succumbed fully to the curse by that point and become the skunk he would henceforth be. Only a quick jerk at the string of the crossbow with magic had kept Thorne’s shot from skewering his chest.


“THORNE!” Murikeer roared, a sound that echoed with magically augmented loudness that caused the clanging bell to hum in protest. He flung his hands out, wrapping magical webs around a pair of statues, and brought both hands inward and forward. The statues hurtled from their pedestals and a shadowy form yanked Thorne back from the threshold of the doorway only a heartbeat before the two statues came crashing together in the place he had been standing. Shattered stone blasted across the floor and sundered the wooden frame of the doorway. The entire portal collapsed with a crash of splintered wood and broken stone. Murikeer charged across the Hall, drawing in a fresh flood of raw magic, and seized the stonework of the shattered portal.

“Thorne!” he shrieked, yanking outward at the stone. Blocks and wood flew away at the pull of his unrestrained magical pull, shattering statues and denting walls. But there was nothing in the corridor beyond but darkness and a choking pall of stone dust. “Thooorrrrnne!” his angry roar echoed down the dark corridor followed by a fusillade of magelights and barely contained missiles of raw magic but they illuminated no invaders; the mage and his allies had escaped. Murikeer charged down the hallway heedless of his burnt and tattered silk finery or the destruction wrought in his wake.

12/24 – 7:50pm.


The black cat turns around to see a large bull morph headed his way. "It's almost 8:00! The kids need to get inside!"

Jono blinks, then quickly turns towards the snowed battlefield. "Okay, everyone, it's getting close to time for the ceremonies; let's all get inside now!"

There is, of course, a chorus of "awwww"s and similar signs of depression, but the children comply quickly. Most of the Mommies and Daddies among them wouldn't even have agreed to this if Jono hadn't promised they'd all be at the ceremonies; they might not get to see him again if they miss it. And none of them would ever want to pass up the chance to see Uncle Jono again.

"Everybody!" calls out Jono, heading up towards the battlefield, silently counting each child. One of thirty-eight. Two. Three. Four... "We need to get moving! We're already late, and the Mommies and Daddies don't like that!" Eleven. Twelve. ....that group brings it up to twenty...

Jeremy runs past followed closely on his heels by Josh and Andrea, both still hurling snowballs at him. Twenty-three. "Jo, what's the count for you?"

"Fourteen. Have you seen Derek?" the vixen cries back.

Jono curses under his breath. Derek has always been the troublesome one; usually hiding in a snowdrift or behind a barrel so he can stay out longer. "Derek! Derek, get over here!" Then to Jo, "Get all the rest inside and over to my rooms; they need to get started getting changed. I'll get Derek."

12/24 - 7:55pm.

"DEREK!" Jono yells, now searching around the barrels buried beneath snowdrifts, mentally forgetting that he used to pull this very trick with his own parents. Kevin's spell is going to wear off pretty shortly, and he has no illusions about what would happen to Derek if he gets caught out here too long. "Where are you? Games are done, we need to go if we want to play again!"

No response.

Jono starts peeking in barrels with disturbed snow about them. No Derek. But his nose just barely catches a scent... he Was here.

"Derek! Get Over Here Now!" he yells, starting to track down the scent as best he can in the billowing snow.

Jo is at this time meeting back up with the bull morph guard and another, apparently a transgendered soldier, a sea of kids behind her. Dana, the woman, is currently bringing up the rear to make sure none of the kids sneak away while Kirk stays at the door, waiting for Jono and Derek.

Metamor Keep's variable geometry always dictates that the length of time needed to pass down a corridor to get to your destination is always going to be different, so Jo doesn't have any way of telling when they're going to get there. So she keeps her eyes on the walls, looking for the Seal Of Bardic Immunity duplication Jono carved on his door.

"C'mon, everyone, we have to hurry," she urges the kids. She knows they're going to be late regardless; the kids still have to change out of their winter clothes and into their good clothes for the Ceremonies. Father Hough might shake his head and chuckle at seeing drenched kids in the halls, but she doesn't know about the current Lightbringer, and so it's best to play it safe for everyone.

Then... That's the door, she thinks to herself, spotting the Seal a bit further down the hall. There's a few Keepers moving pretty frantically down at the other end of the hall; apparently her party isn't going to be the only late one...

"DEREK! The ceremonies are starting Right Now! Your parents aren't going to let you come out anymore if you miss them!"

Derek keeps quiet, hunched underneath a barrel, making his two snowballs. This has always been his favorite part of the game. Sure, any loser can be King of the Snowfields here, but He's something special. Not only can he throw and run and dodge, he can also hide. Derek is going to be a real warrior when he grows up, he knows it.

This is just his practice session.

"DEREK!" The voice is much louder now. Jono must be able to track down his scent; he's going to be in contact soon.

“Here we go!” Derek thinks to himself... then he Leaps out from behind the barrel, instantly spotting Jono and another Keeper right there as he lands. He hurls both snowballs, catching both Keepers in the head. Glorious!

"Got you BOTH" Derek cries in joy. He's a real warrior!

Jo gets to the door, pulls at the handle. Locked, of course. Jono doesn't want anything stolen by any of the passersby...

She reaches into her pocket, fumbles with the keys to try to find the right one. She keeps one eye almost absentmindedly on the party down there... there's something odd about them; they're moving quickly, but not going down the hall... then she sees one of them fall down. Tripped?

Both? Jono thinks. I didn't ask Kevin to accompany me... "Derek! C'mon, we need to hurry, or we're going to be Really late!" He then turns towards the Keeper apparently behind him. "I'm quite sorry, sir, he's a bit of a "

“Finally!” Jo inserts the key, twists and unlocks the door. "Okay, everyone inside!" Then she glances up at the party. “Why are they heading towards us? Aren't the halls in the opposite dir “

The exact same thought hits both Jono and Joanne at the exact same time.

“That's not a Keeper!”

And right then, as if in endorsement of the whole scenario, just to show they're not hallucinating, the alarm bells start to ring.

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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