The Winter Assault

Part 5

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

12/24 – 7:50p.m.

“Omnes gentes plaudite,
Jucenes dum sumus,
Gaudeamus ingitur...”

Rickkter hung off Misha’s shoulder, breaking the song and holding his side with his free hand as he contorted in laughter. “No, no, no! You’ve got it all wrong. You need to roll the r’s.” The raccoon had been trying to teach a group of the Longs some of the old drinking songs he knew. Of course none of them knew the languages Rick did, and the translations of the songs tended to lack the same punch. “What you said instead was... well I don’t think it would be physically possible to do that to yourself!” The rest of the group continued to laugh.

“Never underestimate people here, Rick,” chided Kershaw. “After all, I’ve seen some of the female felines here do some really amazing contortions.” His muzzle contorted in a smirk. “Though I won’t tell you where.” The rest of the chorus roared, Finbar almost falling over when he went to take a drink of his ale. That caused the rest to laugh harder and almost join him.

They did eventually laugh themselves out. “Okay, okay, one more time,” said Rickkter, wiping at his eyes. “And remember it’s ingitur, with an rrrr. From the top.”

The chorus never had the chance to resume as a horrendous clatter of metal on stone caused everyone in Long Hall to turn to the door. Madog practically flew in through the door, digging his claws into the flagstone to stop himself. Every single pair of mobile ears in the room went flat against their owner's skulls, those that could not do so were covered by their owner’s hands from the horrible screech caused by the mechanical fox’s aluminal claws carving furrows in the floor. He stopped right before Misha, sitting down on his haunches and thumping his tail on the ground in a very aggravated fashion.

“Argh, Madog!” growled Misha as he rubbed one of his ears. “What do you think you’re doing coming in here like that?!”

“Na Tol, Fala sha!” the automaton shouted as he jumped up on his hind legs, turning himself around much like a real canine would when excited.

Misha moved from under Rick’s arm and grabbed Madog by the snout, settling the metal animal down. “Madog you need to speak a language that hasn’t been dead for five hundred years.”

Madog jerked his head free and started yipping and dancing in circles once more.

“I think he’s been sipping too much oil,” someone commented and the group laughed.

“Attack, Papa! Lutins come now! Hurry Papa, hurry!” Madog said sitting down in front of the fox.

All conversation in the hall dropped to silence, the eyes of all guests fixing on the metal fox where it sat on the floor. Rickkter wiped the side of his muzzle with the back of a paw and straightened up. “What?”

“Lutins attack!” repeated Madog. “Big army coming, will reach the walls soon now!”

Rickkter placed one finger on his head, closing his eyes as if in deep concentration. The rest of the room was humming with whispered conversation. “That’s not possible. I was out in that stuff this morning and it would be suicide to march an army through it.”

Misha chose to ignore the raccoon. “Are you sure?” he asked, leaning down towards the automation. “How do you know this? Who told you?”

“Kyia told me,” Madog replied, bobbing his head. “Told Salius and me to go warn people. He go to chapel now.”

Misha didn’t move for a moment, seemingly lost in thought. Then he turned back to Rickkter, causing the raccoon to wince. “Aw, hell no.”

“EVERYBODY SUIT UP!” Misha yelled at the top of his lungs. “SEEMS WE’RE GETTING UNINVITED GUESTS! I WANT BOTH TEAMS ASSEMBLED IN TEN MINUTES AND READY TO GO.” The entire hall erupted in chaos as Longs and their companions broke ranks at once and scattered in every direction the fox shouted over the din. “TRIPLE THE GUARDS. I WANT TEAM LEADERS IN MY OFFICE IN FIVE MINUTES!” The hall was a mad house as keepers tried to follow the fox’s orders. Through the crush of it all, Rickkter and Kayla managed to find each other.

“What are you going to do?” she asked, her arms up against his chest and clenching his doublet.

Rickkter ran his paw over his head, raking the fur as he looked out over the chaos. “Great maker, I have no idea.” He suddenly seemed to realize Kayla was there. Rick took her by the shoulders and moved her over to a nearby wall. His face bore an expression of subdued panic as he looked down on her. “Kayla, listen: I want you to get someplace safe. Go to the Lightbringer temple. I’ve seen the wards on that place, it will take a lot to break in. Go now.”

“And what about you?”

Rick was looking off over the nearly dispersed crowd. “I’m going out there. If this is true, they’re going to need someone who can seek out the enemy in all this snow.” He rubbed her upper arm. “Just get yourself safe, okay love?” He started to head off before she could answer.

The skunk jerked him back with a quick pull on his lapels. “Damn it, Rick, I’m not going to run and hide! Last time Nasoj invaded I hid out from his armies, and this is what happened to me. That time I lost everything dear to me! I won’t lose you this time.”

Reaching up, Rickkter tenderly stroked her cheek fur. “And I don’t want to lose you, love. But I can’t just sit by.” He rubbed his paw through her fur a little more. “I do know something you can do then; no one besides us knows of what’s coming. I want you to go around and warn anyone you come across. I don’t know if they’ll believe you, but they have to know. Tell them to get to the Temple or perhaps the Cathedral. Anyplace secure.” He bent forward and kissed her gently. “And if you see any Lutins, if they do get through, I want you to run to one of those places as quickly as you can. I couldn’t stand losing you either.”

Kayla cupped his paw in two of hers, pressing it to her face once more before letting go. “Okay, love. You had better get back quickly though, you hear me?”

He smiled. “I will.” Slipping his paw from hers, he gave her a final wave and went out the door at a quick jog. However, the smile was quick to fade. It was replaced by a slight snarl at the very notion of what he was doing. An assault in the middle of winter? Great Maker, Rick thought as he raced up a flight of stairs, perhaps Nasoj was as insane as people said he was. No other general would tolerate the loss of life any army would sustain in this kind of weather. Abruptly the sounds of panicked preparation from the Long House dropped away, and when he crested the top of the current flight of steps Rickkter found himself just down the hall from his quarters.

“Thank you, Kyia.” Rickkter wuffed as he opened his door. Well, at least one thing was going right for him. Once in the room the raccoon turned around several times, raking his paws through the fur on his head. The first thing to do was take care of the clothing. His claws made quick work of the buttons and laces that didn’t want to come fast enough. Damn, that was going to cost to get repaired, but at that moment all he cared about was getting into his old tunic.

Phet, damn that smelled, he reflected as he pulled it over his head. But old clothing was the least of his problems. Right now the biggest was the alcohol he had consumed, causing him to fumble with the catches on his mail shirt. Have another drink, you’re not going anywhere for a while. Right, sure! Stupid, stupid, thrice damned little green fucking monsters have to pick Christmas EVE in the middle of the worst damned BLIZZARD the valley has seen in years to stage an attack! Oh, he could see this whole incident, on both sides, going right down the privy! Damn, damn, damn!

Eventually he managed to get himself into some semblance of battle readiness. Sliding his katana into his scabbard, he headed out the door. He stopped and turned back from the top of the stairs to go and strengthen the wards on his quarters. Normally they would just repel intruders who got too nosey, increasing severity until reaching lethal levels. Most people would become discouraged long before they reached that point. Rickkter removed all of that. If anyone tampered the spells on his with his room now they wouldn’t live long enough to realize how bad an idea that was. Then he moved on to the armory.

12/24 – 8p.m.

"We honor you, O Lord of Creation!

We lift you up, O Father of All!

Maker of Man and Earth and the Heavens,

Oh, Most High God, now answer our call!"

The acolytes sang beautifully, sweetly, as they lifted up the song of praise to the Iluvatar. Raven looked on with satisfaction at the choir's performance, both those who sang and the musicians who accompanied them. Letting her eyes drift to the audience, Raven saw that they, too, were moved by the hymn, each person's gaze fixed on the singers behind the altar. There was no question, she thought: Celine's idea to include music in tonight's program had been simply brilliant. Music penetrated the heart, touching the innermost parts of a person in a way few other things could. She would have to thank Father Hough someday for giving them the idea.

If he survives. Raven frowned at the thought, another wave of something entirely too much like fear washing over her. For all Kyia's power, even she could not predict when Nasoj's army would attack. With the Prime Minister warned, there was nothing left to do but wait to see how the lots fell. Kyia, if any have left their arms within the alcove in the vestibule, please see that they can reach them when the temple doors are closed. She thought fervently as she bowed her head to the music, And the same for those in the Chapel, she added as well. Despite their theological differences she counted the young Paltidor and his flock as much her friends as those who crowded her own temple.

Raven hated that. This feeling of powerlessness, of knowing what was about to happen and being unable to stop it, sickened her more than anything else she could think of.

Forcing such thoughts from her mind, Raven stepped up to the altar again as the acolytes finished their hymn. She applauded for them, the audience following in kind, and Celine flashed her a smile as the singers returned to their positions at the front and back of the temple. Raven waited for them to be seated before speaking.

"I would like to close this ceremony tonight with a time of personal worship," she said. "Since the All-Father, in his infinite wisdom, has chosen not to reveal himself to the priesthood, it may be that the best way for us to approach him is as individuals. Our musicians are going to continue playing now, and I encourage all of you to spend this time in prayer and meditation on the glorious mystery of the most high god."

She motioned to the players, and they began a new tune— quiet, thoughtful, and reverent, the music filled the hall as men, women and children bowed their heads to pray.

Thirty-five seconds later, the alarum sounded.

12/24 – 8pm

I whimper, and look to the hole in the wall that lets light in. The wall-that-I-can-see-through has been moved a little, so that I can smell the cold air, but He has made me stay inside. He is bigger, so I must obey him. But I do not like it. I should be with Him, and His mate, and The Female. I should not be alone.

And no matter how much His mate cuffs me, scentmarks are good things.

I smell a little of Him through the opening to outside, though not as much as there is in here. I can almost smell His mate. They smell happy. But I cannot smell The Female. She is still not here.

Then, I smell something else. It is not Him, or Her, or His mate. It is not food. What is—

My tail curls under as I remember the smell. Badsmell. Badsmell brings Badthings. Badthings that can hurt, and kill, and ...

I scratch at the movingwall, but it does not move. He has made me stay away from the wall-I-can-see-through, so I cannot go through there. I must get to Him! I must tell Him! Badthings are coming!

Someone moves the movingwall from the other side, and I am free! I follow His scent and His mate's, to the eatingplace, and lose them. Too much scent, too many! Too much!

Noise! Fightnoise! But He is not here! Where ... ?

Her! I must go to Her! She is My Female, and I must protect Her!

I scatter the others as I run through the caverns to the specialplace where I remember Her. Her and ... the Other. But She must be protected! She must be warned!

I turn one more corner, skittering on the smooth notground, and run inside the specialplace. She is there, and I place my paws upon Her and give the whuffle of parentcall. I must protect you, Female! Badthings come! BADTHINGS COME!

The movingwalls behind me come together with a noise like many rocks.

12/24 – 8pm

At first, the sound was greeted with confusion— it had been seven years since the general alarum had last been sounded, and there were many Keepers in the temple tonight who had never heard it before today. But then the shouts and screams of battle began to echo up from the curtain wall below, and confusion rapidly turned to fear, stunned disbelief, then anger.

"Stay calm, everyone!" Raven called out, using one of her favorite clerical tricks to make her voice echo unnaturally through the room. "No one move! We do not want anyone getting hurt! Stay put and listen to me!"

The trick worked: all eyes turned toward Raven. For ten seconds, nobody moved.

In the space of those ten seconds, a terrified and very familiar-looking wolf came racing through the doors of the temple, yowling as if every daedra in all nine hells were on his tail. He raced down the center aisle, heedless of everyone there, and made a line straight for Raven.

He was halfway to her when the outer temple doors swung shut with a thunderous boom.

The people in the audience jumped at the roaring crash and turned to look at the doors as if they had betrayed them. The wolf raced the rest of the way towards Raven and began pawing at her frantically. He was whining forlornly, desperately, and Raven's arms went up in an instinctive defensive posture. Her ears flattened, and her lips began to curl back in a snarl.

"Wand'rer!" Lurene called, rushing to the animal's side. She wrapped her arms around his neck and held him back, giving Raven the time she needed to regain her composure. Placing a hand on his head, she drove a shaft of consciousness into his mind like a sharp grey knife.

"Relax!" she ordered, forcing the thought into the middle of the swirling torment of his mind. Immediately the wolf stopped struggling, fell to the floor with a soft whuffle, and fainted.

"That was a bit much," Lurene observed.

"He'll be fine," Raven said curtly, turning her attention back to the panicked audience. By now some were pulling desperately on the outer doors, trying to get out, but the massive wood-and-metal panels refused to budge. They might as well have tried to pull open a piece of the stone wall. Stretching out her arms, the Lightbringer raised her voice and addressed the crowd.

"Listen to me!" she shouted.

For the most part, they did. After a moment, she continued.

"Metamor is under attack by Nasoj," she said, in a voice that brooked no argument. "Even now, an army is storming the Keep. Kyia, the Spirit of Metamor, has sealed the temple and placed a warding spell around it. Nothing can get in, and no one can get out."

Voices were raised in protest at this, but Raven silenced them with an uplifted hand. "After the Battle of Three Gates, we made provision for the temple to serve as a sanctuary should something like this ever happen again. In our storerooms are food and drink enough for everyone here, and we have access to a cistern for all the water we need. There are mats for those most in need of them, and blankets for everyone. We are well prepared, I assure you."

A few swords and other weapons were raised above the crowd, “We’ve weapons, Lothanasa, let us out so that we can help!” a panic-edged voice cried above the mumblings of the crowd.

Raven was thankful for that small blessing, but not for the would-be heroes among the crowd. "Now, I shall do my best to find out what is going on, and what we can do about it. But until we know our situation I cannot open those doors. I ask you to keep your heads and respect those around you. Those with weapons I ask to form a watch and prepare to defend us should the temple come under attack. Celine?"

"Aye, Lightbringer?" the blonde girl replied.

"I want you and the other acolytes to begin leading people down to the Archives— there will be more space for everyone down there, and I want this level cleared within the half-hour. Take people down to the second level if you must, but no further. As for the rest of you," the priestess added, turning her attention to the townspeople, "I expect you to listen to Celine and the other acolytes and do exactly as they tell you. I should have more information for you in the morning. Acolytes, meet me back here as soon as the temple is cleared. That is all."

Celine and the other acolytes moved swiftly into action, directing small groups of people out of the hall, down the corridor and into the side passageway that held the staircase to the Archives. The townsfolk followed quietly, numbly, most of them still in shock over this frightening turn of events. Raven watched them go, then turned her eyes upward to the ceiling.

"It was only a matter of time," she sighed. "He was bound to try this again."

"Can we win?"

The Lightbringer turned her gaze on Lurene. The young woman looked more frightened than ever.

"I don't know," she said, honestly. "But by all nine hells, he shall not find us an easy target. You are new to Metamor, Lurene, and you have not seen the tenacity of a Keeper whose home is under attack." Her voice and eyes grew hard, as her mind drifted back to the battle of seven years ago. "We will fight with every weapon at our disposal, down to our very teeth and claws if needs be— every ounce of strength, every drop of blood— and we will make him pay dearly for every inch of ground he takes. And if we fall..." Raven turned and looked out the window. Beyond that veil of snow lay the Giant's Dike— and beyond that, the domain of Nasoj, full of dark and evil creatures eagerly awaiting the chance to storm through the lands of men.

And Metamor Keep was the only thing that stood in their way.

"If we fall," Raven murmured, "the world will tremble at our passing."

12/24 - 8:05pm.

The Lutin is a pretty sizable one; fairly large compared to most. He's missing the tip of an ear through circumstances that are unknown and currently unimportant. He has a large, nasty looking scar on the side of his face, partially obscured now by the remnants of a small child's snowball.

He's also got a very, VERY big sword. And he doesn't look very happy at all.

Jono also discovers pretty quickly that this Lutin is plenty fast, too; he doesn't even have the time to yell out a warning to Derek before it charges him, swinging the sword in a wide arc and growling revenge.

But Jono is faster still.

Jonothan Hand's profession, before having his voice box burned out by vengeful Questioners and later restored by the Curse at Metamor, has been that of the traveling tavern bard. It's a very rough-and-tumble way of life; not only can the road be quite perilous for a simple pair of travelers, the taverns themselves can get quite rowdy. Taverns are often frequented by large warriors; big, violent individuals who can alternately be the most placid or the most dangerous people in the world when they get into drink. And the stories that Jono tells more often than not can sway the balance. Oftentimes, he's able to keep crowds calm and entertained, but sometimes he makes an error, and then he and Joanne are in serious trouble.

From this, Jono has learned two major things about life on the road. One is to always know how to fight in hand to hand combat, so as to keep a warrior from overpowering you.

The other is to always have a weapon of some kind available, because not all taverns make you check weapons on entry, and not all warriors play fair.

Jono has another thing to thank the Curse for besides his restored voice; he's a big cat, and big cats have very sharp claws. So he knows exactly what to do when the Lutin charges. He takes a sidestep and swoops in close to the charging Lutin before it can swing, catches the hand with the sword in it with one paw, and with the other unsheathes his claws and guts the Lutin from top to bottom in one powerful stroke.

The Lutin hasn't even hit the ground yet before Jono has turned and yelled "Derek! Get to the gate! RUN!"

"PERRY!" Jo cries. "That's not "

But Perry has already noticed and is charging forward, one hand on his sword hilt at the Lutin band further up down the hall. "For the Duke! For Metamor!" he cries, leaping at them and curling into a rolling ball headed straight for them.

Perry, as a contrast to Jono and Jo, has never been outside of the Keep. He was born and raised in the Metamor village, watched his parents go off to the Battle Of Three Gates and saw only his mother - now his father - return, and became a prickly beast a year later at the remarkably early age of 13. A quarter of a year later he became one of the youngest new members of the army of Metamor. In keeping with generations of his predecessors, he's been fiercely loyal to the Keep and to the inhabitants within, and he would willingly die to protect any Keeper, so he throws himself in this fashion towards the enemy while Joanne is getting the kids to safety in Jono's rooms.

Ultimately, though, he prefers not to die; he figures he can save more Keepers if he's alive. Which is why his usual method of attack involves taking advantage of what the Curse granted him.

Four of the eight Lutins fail to get out of the way and fall as he plows through them, stuck dozens of times by the spines and left bleeding on the ground. Then when his feet touch ground again he leaps up into a somersault, landing away from the remainder, turning and drawing his sword. He doesn't bother wasting breath with words; instead, he swings at the first Lutin to charge, catching it along the side of the head and splitting the skull.

The three left seem a little more swift than the fallen - obviously in both dexterity as well as mental agility, else they'd be with their fellows on the ground - and don't all charge at once. Instead, one steps forward and takes a swing while the other pulls and throws a knife at his leg. Perry manages to quickly parry both blows (sword with sword, knife with spikes), but it's clear that he's suddenly out of his league.

Fortunately, he's not alone.

Joanne has been traveling with Jono for a good part of her life, and his too, ever since they were both young children not much older than those rushing into Jono's rooms now. She lost her entire family - including both her parents, her brother and sister, and the Apothecary they all ran - to a marauding Inquisitioner band when they discovered that her Lothanasi mother was trying to reconcile the two religions, and no true Inquisitioner could dare allow that, of course. She met Jono that very night of her escape, traveling with his parents, and since then has been using her knowledge gained in the Apothecary to keep Jono healthy after particularly rough shows, and occasionally even assisted him in the performances. And in living alongside him, and treating his wounds, she's also learned to keep a weapon always close by - preferably one that will keep the enemy from using his weapon back against you.

Therefore she's very glad of what she escaped her burning home with all those years ago. She had only three things - her life, her clothes, and a pair of throwing daggers that she retrieved from behind her father's desk while he fought off the Questioners, yelling at her to run.

The two throwing daggers are rather remarkable, however; they're an old family heirloom, owned for generations, and kept about them at all times. The reason for this is pretty simple; they are immensely powerful magical artifacts. She almost never tells people about them, however; the only presumably other living beings who know of them are Jono, and one of the Glen scouts named Marcus, to whom everyone seems to think she's betrothed. (She's not, but they've discussed it.)

As a result, when she flings one of the daggers at the rearguard Lutin, and it becomes a bright streak of flashing light that drives through the Lutin first on the way there, then again on the way back to her paw within a very brief flicker of time, everyone is caught off guard.

They're used to it by the time she uses it again on the second Lutin, however. Excepting, of course, the third Lutin who was in front of Perry, who barely has time to note the fall of his fellows before Perry's sword cuts down through the top of his head, dropping him instantly.

"Perry!" Jo yells, re-sheathing her dagger. "C'mon!"

The hedgehog evidently doesn't need the encouragement, as he quickly sheaths his sword and runs quickly back towards Jono's rooms as the last few kids enter, with Dana among them.

The armory was... chaotic, to say the least. The only one who looked to be controlling it in the least was Jack, and he was passing out the weapons.

“Okay, who’s in charge here?” Rickkter yelled out.

A burly woman reached up from one of the larger crowds and waved him over. “Who are you?”

“Captain Henrietta Marcusson.” The captain had the face of a veteran changed in the original battle of the gates; while having the expected feminine lines, it was still crisscrossed by a fine network of wrinkles and battle scars. At least that gave some indication that she knew what she was doing. “Who are you and do you have any idea what’s going on here?”

“War mage, Rickkter. Alas I do know what’s going on.” He reached back to scratch at his head. “It seems that we’re going to get a Lutin army of undetermined size knocking at the doors to the keep. Kyia told that to Madog who in turn told Misha.”

The other soldiers began to mutter amongst themselves. The captain held up her hand and silenced most of them. “That’s what I was told as well. How reliable is that?”

“I was there.” Rickkter wiped his face with his paw. “It was serious enough for Misha to scramble all the Long Scouts.” The captain cursed. “Tell me about it. So you’re in charge of this section?”

“Aye. Though you outrank me,” she said, noting the rank cluster on Rick’s left upper arm. Full wizards like Rickkter wore an insignia with three gold, five silver, and nine platinum stars in a tight circle within the center of the rank cluster. In addition, he carried a field rank of major, designated by crossed swords on a shield with a crown above. Her own of Captain, was two crossed swords on a simple kite shield.

Rickkter shook his head and looked off at the outer door. “No, this is your show. I have no experience with winter warfare.”

The captain nodded and turned to the rest of the troops. “Okay, listen up! This is how the situation now stands: We have an unknown number of Lutins making an attack on the Keep itself. No other warning from any of the towns, villages or outposts further north have been received, and if it weren’t for the fact that Kyia herself decided to tell us, I would dismiss it as a hoax. Until now, attacking in the middle of a blizzard would be unthinkable.” A few more keepers had trickled into the armory and were listening to what was being said. “The good news is that I see we have a lot of animal morphs with us. From what we all know of that kind, their sense of smell should give us an edge. Though with Lutins I don’t know if any of us can help smelling them.” There was a collective chuckle, but the tension was still there. “We also have a mage with us, a fully ranked wizard. His skills will enable us to track this attacking ‘army’ despite the blizzard and eliminate them all the quicker. Now I know this is late notice for all of you, but let’s get out there and get this over with!”

12/24 - 8:10pm.

Derek is running. Running as fast as he can possibly go.

Two minutes ago - a small eternity to his young mind - he was playing outside with his big friend Uncle Jono (the panther immediately behind him), hiding while Jono was calling for him to come inside, ready and with a snowball to fling. Back then, he was a True warrior, talented and capable and ready to fight off anyone and anything.

But the Lutin changed the rules of the game. The instant his blood became visible was when everything went so wrong.

Now it's all for real. The bad guys are HERE NOW. And Derek is frightened badly. For all his prowess as a warrior, he's never been in an actual battle. He's never seen blood before, never held an actual weapon before. All he knows are snowballs, and as the Lutin demonstrated so very clearly, snowballs don't help against the bad guys.

And Derek is terrified; all he knows is snowballs. So he is running.

Jono is right behind Derek, his eyes flickering back and forth, searching desperately for any remaining Lutins that might check up on their fellow, whom he left in a large steaming gutted heap in the snow but a minute previously. His claws are no longer dripping blood - he wiped them off quickly in the snow, so as to make it just a bit harder to track them to that gate, even though it likely doesn't matter - but his mind still retains clear memory of the Lutin he just killed. If there's one there's going to be more, and if the alarm sounds then we're ALL in VERY serious trouble.

He's not questioning the alarm; conceivably it could be a prank, but no prank like this is so elaborate as to include actual Lutins. Which means, of course, that as crazy as it would seem, they're being invaded.

Add to that that Kevin's warming spell is starting to wear off, and the cold is starting to seriously get to him even through his thick clothing and fur, and it's clear that Jono considers this to be a very grave situation.

So he runs also, and he is also scared, making him a little less unlike the young child whose life he just saved.

"KIRRRRK!" Jono screams at the top of his lungs as the gate starts to come into view beyond the blizzard. "GET THE DOOR OPEN!"

Kirk, thankfully, has already seen the two coming and is currently screaming at the gate guards. "There's two keepers out there! Open the doors! They need to get in!" Compliance takes only a few seconds, and then Kirk is there, hefting his massive battleaxe with four guards behind him, keeping a watch out for any Lutins as the child and cat race for the doors, and safety...

They're about three quarters of the way - forty feet left to go to the gate - when the platoon of Lutins appears as if by magic, not twenty feet away.

12/24 - 8:15pm

Ryuo jolted awake, forcibly separated from the blissful calm of his meditation by the ringing of bells. Calming himself from his initial startlement, Ryuo assumed that the bells must be tolling for the ceremonies, drawing the attention of the gods to the festivities. Smiling, he listened as they tolled out to the heavens, barely overcoming
the voice of the angry winds outside. As he sat and listened, another set of bells, like clanging iron bars, joined the first, and voices could be heard. The smile disappeared from Ryuo's face as he recognized the sounds -they were the sounds of battle.

Quickly Ryuo stood, looking towards the door. Metal plates rattled as he rose; he had not doffed his armor upon returning home, except for his helmet and mask, which had been placed on a shelf, and his shoulder guards, which were awkward under the fur and straw clothing he had worn to stay warm during the storm. When he had come home, he had simply seen no need to remove it, and so had gone straight to his studies. It seemed as
though such an action -or inaction as it may be -would soon prove fortuitous.

Ryuo ran to the door and slid it open, but the gust of air that burst in reminded him of the arctic temperatures outside, and he closed the door quickly. Looking to the closet, he quickly garbed himself in his winter clothing, realizing that every second he missed would be another second of advantage to whatever enemy he might be facing.

Clothed against the fierce cold, Ryuo hurried out into the blizzard's icy clutches.

December 24th 8:15

The torches lining the corridor rippled madly and died as a door at the far end was wrenched from its moorings allowing the winter gale to howl into the castle’s interior. Murikeer felt the cold blast of air flatten his fur and continued to stride forward. The distant doorway became a dim gray silhouette of light occluded by a rush of shadows spilling in from the winter cold. Murikeer sent witchlights speeding down the hallway causing a stir of consternation among the clustered Lutins surging into the Keep. The ones in front, startled by the small sparks of blinding brightness, staggered to a halt and covered their eyes against the glare only to be shoved forward by those crowding in behind. Murikeer did not pause, scanning the mob for any humans who might be the object of his vengeance. He saw only a score of tightly clustered Lutins, a huge ape-like troll shuffling into the confined space behind them, and behind the Troll the head and shoulders of a Giant looking in to see what had stopped the crowd.

“Thorne?!” Murikeer bellowed as he approached, finally stopping a few dozen paces away. The Lutins gaped at him and conversed between themselves in their simple, guttural language. A few of them raised bows and loosed a desultory volley of arrows at the lone Keeper barring their progress. None of the arrows found a mark, swaying in their flight to either side to clatter off of the stone walls or thunk meatily into wooden timbers. Murikeer did not move, his head tilted slightly to one side and a quizzical look on his face with one brow slightly lifted.

Spying prey the troll began to snort and bellow, pushing angrily at the mob of Lutins between it and its prey. Murikeer shifted his attention to it, and the giant beyond, blocking his search. Raising one hand he extended his thumb and fingers upright, bracketing the thrashing troll between them. He sent the vast pool of magic rushing through him into the stones of the Keep and then, abruptly, brought his fingers together. The walls groaned and lurched sending a cascade of dust down upon the heads of the attackers. They looked up in surprise and some began to run toward Murikeer, unable to flee because of the troll and giant blocking that escape. With a final shriek of tortured stone the walls crashed together violently. The deafening clap of stone against stone and thundering snap of sundered beams drowned out the screams of the doomed. A font of gore sprayed down the corridor, coating a single Lutin to stagger out of the deadly press before it closed, and spilled in a messy flood across Murikeer’s naked paws. A thick pall of stone dust hung in the air and, save for the ragged breathing of the lone survivor and pattering of falling stone fragments, all became silent.

The lone lutin fell upon its face and slid a few feet in the morass and Murikeer reached out with a single hand, clutching his fingers and yanking the lutin into the air at a distance of thirty feet. It smacked the wall and ceiling with a pained cry before floating toward the enraged skunk. “Anum eral!” Murikeer growled in their native tongue, learned from one of their own kind in his recent past. He spared not a thought for Keletikt in his rage; if the young shaman was among the attackers he would die as swiftly as any other should he cross the skunk’s path. “Anum humans!? Nad, nad!” he slapped the stunned Lutin against the wall to rattle its brains into functioning. Gore spattered off of the moaning Lutin and it dropped its sword when Murikeer’s magical grip drove it against the wall one last time.

“Ghela num! Humans des grull!” It was not traveling with humans, it claimed piteously. “Humans sho erum Lutinatum ta!” They were with other Lutins, but not these Lutins.

“Magi, ah? Nad?” He shook the Lutin in the air, violently, causing its limbs to flail. “THORNE, ahai?”

“Anag Moran, anag thorne!” it cried, not knowing them.

Murikeer’s eyes narrowed and he tilted his head slightly to one side, “Moran? Asare gaeh, Moran?”

“Moran, shaman, martuuth!” At that the skunk’s tail bushed and his brows shot up. Dark mages of spirit, like the Shamen of the Lutin tribes. That could be many things, but understanding that Nasoj was behind this entire assault Murikeer knew it could be but a single sort of dark mage; Moranasi, servant priests of Ba’al.

“Ahai Moran!?” he snarled angrily, “Martuuth shaman, ahai!?”

“Anag, anag!” squealed the terrified Lutin, clutching at itself trying to escape the invisible bands of Murikeer’s magical grasp.

With a snarl at the Lutin’s complete ignorance he closed his hand firmly into a fist. The lutin let out a startled shriek that was silenced as the magic binds holding it aloft clenched at the mage’s whim, crushing it as easily as a berry. Murikeer ignored the fresh spray of gore and let the corpse fall with a wet splash and, with an impatient shove of magic, yanked the walls apart. Unidentifiable gibbots of flesh fell or slid down the cracked stones as Murikeer strode down the newly opened corridor. The corpse of the giant, sans head and shoulders, lay before the door and he climbed over it to continue his search.

Excerpted from the journal entries of Jacob T Fox
January 27th, 708CR.

My head was... spinning. Or was it the room itself? No, it couldn’t be the room. My rooms don’t move. I live in town, in the small home of my parents, not in the Keep. Crazy place there anyway, always shifting and changing. Not like here at all.

Ah, ow. I really should have taken better care to remove the edges on that table when I made it. Oh, well. It’s served me well, much like the rest of my house. Sure, some may call it a shack but it was my home and my parent’s home before that. Just one room, a bed, table and chairs I made myself. Few other things. But it’s mine. All mine! Though unlike my parents I’ve been able to put what little extra money my writing has generated towards repairs. The roof no longer leaks on my head when it rains hard and there is only a small snowdrift in one corner of the house despite this blizzard that’s going on outside.

Gods, that blizzard is crazy. I almost didn’t make it back from Myra’s house in the pitch black and the blowing snow. Why, oh why didn’t I stay longer? Yes, it was crowded with her entire family there, but it was more a feeling of closeness than crowding. And it’s been... gods, I can’t remember when the last time I felt like that was. Certainly years before with my parents.

Whoa, whoops. Yes, I think my home must have been relocated to the Keep for today. The furniture seems to be rearranging itself on me. I did not put that stool there, no.

But at least my bed is where I left it. Ah, this mattress has never felt so nice. Good thing I managed to save enough for a new straw one this year. Ah, yes. Wonderful feeling to have something firm to sleep on. My old one was so worn and emptied I felt the wood struts of the bed digging into my tail every night. At least mom’s quilts are as warm and thick as ever. Tucking them up around my chin I curl my bushy tail over my legs and settle down for the night.

Ah, yes, this was a good Christmas. Now if the darkness would only hold still long enough for me to drop off...

12/24 - 8:15pm.

The kids are all huddled in the corner, some whimpering quietly, when Jo remembers Jono.

"Oh, gods, Jono and Derek are still out there!" She grabs her herbary bag, then quickly runs over to Jono's travel pack and unhooks his whip from the side, then runs for the door. "Dana, Perry, keep watch over the kids; I need to get to Jono..." She quickly dashes through the door and shuts it behind her before anyone can argue.

Before Jono and Derek can react, Kirk is already charging, his war-axe in front of him and poised like he might his horns if he were to assume full bull form.

Back in the olden days, Darren and Kirkland Russell were best known as the two rowdiest brothers in all of the Keep. Darren, the elder, was the big, hefty defender, and Kirkland, the younger, a small but clever troublemaker. They also enlisted early into the Metamor army, just in time for the Battle Of Three Gates.

Kirkland became a gigantic bull morph, larger than Darren had ever been able to manage. Darren became Dana.

Ironically, the curse managed to bring the ex-brothers (now simply brother and sister) even closer together, as Kirkland lectured Dana on the importance of speed and stealth, while Dana gave tips to her brother on how to fight with muscle and mass. Both learned their lessons quite well.

So Kirk is quite prepared for the Lutin as he charges into it, axe first, flinging it by the top of the axe's head nearly twenty feet into the air with a mighty bellow. Then he turns, rotates the axe, and sends another leading Lutin flying into the sky, this time with the blade, showering droplets of Lutin over the platoon behind.

The platoon, predictably, scatters.

"MOVE!" the giant bull morph screams to the two keepers. In reply, Jono reaches down and scoops up Derek, then charges as fast as he can possibly go for the gate, archers standing by and watching them run, arrows at the ready. Kirk follows up right behind them, bellowing defiance at the Lutins to try and keep them spooked a little longer. But the Lutins are a little too swift for that to work forever; they're already regrouping and starting to move.

Kirk does not have to bellow orders to his archers; he gave orders before he moved out. They hold their fire still, knowing that the wind is likely to throw off their aim a great deal and unwilling to endanger their commander and his two charges. But the Lutins are very, very close...

Then Jono and Derek charge through the gates, and Kirk is close enough that they don't have to worry. Instantly four arrows fly into the small mass of Lutins, wounding at least two of them. This doesn't slow them down, but the next two volleys come off almost on top of each other, and this does scatter them long enough for Kirk and another guard to shove the doors closed and drop the bar to keep them shut.

"Good work, everyone," says Kirk, watching as Jono and Derek fall to the ground, both gasping for air after the hard run.

It's at about this time that they hear the explosion.

Jo also very clearly hears the explosion, given that it's right behind her. Naturally, she turns around. And there she sees the one Keeper who she saw fall just a few minutes earlier, half sitting up, hand extended, watching a fireball - obviously the result of said explosion - dissipate.

So she starts running in that direction. "Hold on, I'm coming!" she yells, watching as a few charred-looking Lutins get back up, a little wobbly on their feet, and start towards the Keeper mage, reaching for her daggers as she does so...

Jono's ears prick as he hears something familiar. "Jo!" He hands Derek over to the bull morph. "Get him to my rooms; you know which ones they are. I'm going to get Jo."

Kirk nods, picking up the still-exhausted Derek easily, and then heads in the same direction as the cat as he charges towards his companion.

Three flashes of the dagger and the charred Lutins are no longer a threat as Jo drops down, skidding a bit on her legs to get to the mage, her herbary bag already off her shoulder. "Okay, I'm here, you're going to be all ri- " Then she recognizes the face.

"Er... hello again. I trust Jeremy's all right?" Kevin asks, looking a little worse for his usage from the wounds around his arms and muzzle.

Jo nods quickly, getting out a small vial from her bag. "He's in Jono's rooms with Dana and Perry. They should be okay," she says as she opens the vial. "Brace yourself, this is going to hurt," she warns the mouse as she dabs a bit of the vial's contents over the mouse's wounds.

Kevin breathes in sharply, clenching his eyes closed and grinding his teeth together with each contact against a wound... then opens an eye again, and tenses up, this time definitely not from pain. "Ummm... Jo..."

Joanne looks up to see two more Lutins virtually right on top of them.

Jono turns the corner that instant just in time to see Jo pull one of her daggers and send it through the nearest Lutin. But the second is much, much faster than anyone suspected, and so Jo has barely gotten the knife back when it's already swinging at her. She has time enough to catch the sword hand - with both paws - but that's it.

"JO!" Jono yells, spotting his whip next to her herbary bag, right behind her. "Kick the whip towards me!"

She braces, then thrusts her leg backward, kicking the whip and sending it skidding towards Jono, just before one punch from the Lutin's unoccupied arm stuns her briefly, dropping her to the ground, leaving the Lutin free to swing.

But Jono has already leapt forward into a somersault and grabbed the skidding whip.

Jono's whip is one of the more curious weapons they own. On first glance, one might think it a relatively normal rope whip, of the type usually used to control unruly beasts (or, in the darker parts of the world, slaves - something neither Jono nor Jo ever condone). But this whip has hundreds of strands of very flexible but immensely strong metal woven into it, making it virtually impossible to cut.

That and at the end there isn't one strand of rope, but three six-inch strands, each terminating in a large steel bearing.

One stroke with the whip and a loud crack comes from the bearings as they meet roughly in the center of the Lutin's skull, crushing it completely. It falls to earth with an equally loud THUD.

By this time Jono has already recoiled the whip and is helping Joanne drag Kevin away to safety.

12/24 – 8:30pm

As Ryuo ran through the courtyard, following the faint sounds of clashing metal, his mind raced with what he had to do. His first thought was to head for the gate into the lower town, and he headed in that general direction, or at least as close as he could follow in the pure white conditions. Ice and snow flew at him, the storm pelting him with debris.

Peering through the snow, something seemed to glint in the distance. Ryuo hurried forward and saw that it was a building that seemed to have caught on fire. In a brief moment of clarity through the whipping snows, Ryuo realized it was the Keep's stables; the whinny of panicked horses reached Ryuo's ears from the burning buildings. Realizing that his own steed was trapped in the blazing inferno, Ryuo knew there was not a moment to lose.

Running at full tilt towards the orange glow in the night, Ryuo almost tripped over the Lutins who waited outside. The green goblins were just as surprised, and their reactions were sluggish in the blizzard conditions.

Ryuo cut down two before they could turn about, and a third was caught with a downward strike as he began to raise a weapon to strike. Hurrying past the bodies, Ryuo ignored the others outside for the moment, rushing into the stables, his attention focused on Kaze, with whom he had crossed half a continent.

As he came upon the front of the stables, Ryuo could see several horses lying dead in the snow, having been the victims of Lutin weapons. Though already covered in a thin layer of snow, Ryuo could see that neither of them were his own precious steed.

Inside the burning stables, it was a mess. Horses were obviously panicked, and Ryuo could see a band of Keepers, led by a rooster, it appeared, speaking soothing words to some of the panicked animals. So intent was the rooster on calming the great beasts that he did not see the saber-wielding Lutin about to slice into him. The creature had apparently snuck into the burning stables for some inane reason -perhaps a dare, or perhaps just suicidal.

Ryuo gave a shout, and the rooster turned, his beak dropping open as his eyes went wide. The Lutin's saber flashed downwards, but it never reached its intended target. Instead, Ryuo's own tanto sprouted from its back, causing it to falter and fall to the ground. Ryuo finished it off with his long sword, and then took up the tanto, wiping it off quickly and resheathing it.

The rooster said something that Ryuo could not understand. The rooster pointed to the horse, and then pointed outside, making an image of a house. Ryuo simply nodded, realizing that the horses would need to be evacuated from the burning building. That couldn't happen with the Lutins outside, however. Ryuo ran through the stables, and found his own steed. Patting him on the neck, Ryuo grimaced as he realized that he would probably lose his tack in the blaze, but there was little time. Ryuo opened the paddock where Kaze stood, and led him to the door.

"Wait!" whispered Ryuo to his steed. Kaze stood stock still despite the flames, just has he had been taught. Ryuo grinned and gave Kaze a reassuring pat, and then turned to the rooster. "Ready. After us... go," he said with his broken speech.

Suddenly, Ryuo jumped back out into the cold. The Lutins had formed up a half-circle around the stable, but Ryuo's charge broke their formation. Shining steel flashed from the darkness, cutting through a raised spear and into the bony skull below. A sword missed as he stepped back to withdraw the blade, and then a circular, continuous sweep took out four more of the creatures. Turning around he could see that he had made it through the line, and now, all of the green heads turned towards Ryuo. It was exactly as he planned.

"Come!" he yelled in his native Yamato tongue. As he cut down another Lutin, a shape resolved itself from the darkness. Like a night-mare of legend, Kaze rushed outside and began attacking the surprised Lutins, many of whom threw up their hands as Kaze's hooves rained down on them, trampling green bodies underfoot. As rider and steed worked together in the snow, both fighting as best they could, Ryuo yelled out again into the storm. "Now!" he cried in vulgar language of Metamor.

The hooves were thunderous as horses were rushed from the building, following along the path Ryuo and Kaze had cleared. As the last of the first wave left, Ryuo cleared the attackers from Kaze and made a motion with one hand. Kaze broke from the fighting, following the rest of the horses off to safety. As they disappeared into the white darkness, Ryuo continued his own fight.

The white snow was blinding, and the roar of the wind deafening. Ryuo had never before faced such adverse conditions; no opponent before had been so suicidal as to attack in the middle of a blizzard. Ryuo sliced downwards, severing through a Lutin's arm, he then turned and brought the blade up to the creature's face, slicing through the lower half of its jaw and sending it screaming to the winter snow's icy grasp.

If Ryuo was having trouble, he could at least console himself that the Lutins were just as bad off, if not worse. They had not practiced blind-fighting in light-forsaken caves, nor had they the discipline of his own training. His sword flashed out into the night, and it seemed to catch the Lutins just as they came into view. Two sets of eyes went wide as the sword swung horizontally towards them. Then, the four eyes sailed into the darkness, freed from the headless bodies that slumped to the ground.

Ryuo gave little thought to their deaths, but rammed the sword backwards, catching another Lutin in the gut, he then stepped to his left and rose, causing another Lutin to fly past him; Ryuo caught him in the back with the down stroke of his raised sword.

Ryuo could not see the blood that he had spilt, but he could smell it faintly from the quickly cooling bodies of the Lutin corpses. If this many Lutins were already inside the walls, they must have made it inside the Keep by now as well, Ryuo figured. That meant the Duke was in danger. Glancing once more to make sure that there were no more Lutins in the immediate area, Ryuo turned back towards the snow-obscured spires of the Keep, racing for the nearest gate, and hoping he was not already too late.

12/24 - 8:30pm

The wind was like a hard slap in the face as soon as Rickkter stepped through the door. While he would have preferred that it helped to sober him up, all it served to do was remind him how rather underdressed he was and set his teeth chattering. Pulling his tunic tighter about his neck, Rickkter hunched his shoulders and continued onwards through the snow. The light from the door behind him was fading quickly and the large braziers that designated the main gates beyond the stables were hardly more than indistinct orange blotches in the night. At least when they passed through the long archway Rickkter saw other soldiers scrambling to man the walls. Well, that’ll help should any Lutins get by, he reflected briefly.

The wind outside the walls was worse than inside, and Rickkter made a vain attempt to block it with a paw as he turned his head away from it and hunched over. Fighting in this was going to be a royal bitch. Especially considering they had made their way a good distance into the woods. Well, hopefully his magic would offset that. Reaching out with his mind he began to draw in the manna.

No, that wasn’t right, thought Rickkter as he pulled the energy to himself. Something else was consuming manna from the whole region and in quantities he could scarcely believe possible. It was also impairing his own ability to draw on that energy. He was about to cast out his probes to determine where it was coming from when the captain snapped him out of it.

“Well, mage,” she hollered over the wind, “time for you to do your thing. Where the hell are they?!”

Nodding, Rickkter closed his eyes and turned his back to the wind in order to concentrate. A small snarl came to his muzzle and he twisted his head more to the side, forcing himself to scan further into the darkness. Marcusson was about to ask if anything was wrong when the raccoon snapped up his head and sucked in a breath through his teeth. His sword was out in a blink and he started backpedaling through the snow, his head whipping around. “Captain, get your men back to the walls now. Before we’re all killed.”

Captain Marcusson turned and peered out into the darkness and snow. “Damn, are you sure it’s that bad? How many of them are there out there?”

“That’s the whole problem,” Rickkter hollered at her. “I don’t know how many are out there! I can’t sense anything six feet in front of my fucking face! And even that’s a stretch. This whole blizzard is one gigantic spell designed to inhibit any magic besides its own and probably its casters. That’s why we never heard anything of this army from the outposts and watchtowers; they couldn’t tell us, even if they wanted to!”

He could barely hear the captain curse over the wind. “That’s definitely going to complicate things. We’ll need to set ourselves into ambush positions, using the drifts for cover.”


“You heard me! We’re staying out here and we’re going to meet them. The snow may limit sight and magic, but they’re under the same limitations. Now I suggest you find a way around this field of theirs before they show up.”

Rickkter rounded on her. “Damn it! Listen to me! You’ve got to pull back now! Fortify the walls, deploy the men along them and make the stand there!”

“NO! We’ve got to make a stand before the walls.”

“Doing it out here is crazy!” yelled Rickkter as the wind tore through his cheek fur. “They’ve got the advantage of surprise, no matter the fact that we know they’re out there; they’ve almost certainly got us out numbered; and between the snow and the dampening field that they control, they’ve effectively blinded us! Turn back now before the men are all killed!”

“You said you had no experience with winter warfare, Rickkter, which is why you should let me handle it!”

“Even the blindest grunt can see that this is suicide! Now pull the men back now, Captain! Before I make that an order.”

Marcusson opened her mouth as if to counter, only to have her attention diverted like everyone else by the sudden disappearance of the blinding snow. Left in its place was a line of Lutin warriors holding torches and gazing at the bedraggled keepers. Their line was more a mob as they looked into the momentary lull and met the angry stares of the attacking army. In the shadows close at his left Rick could see the walls of the keep, defined by the line of unwavering mage-lights along the crenellations. Among the steady white glow of the magical illuminations Rick could see the dimmer, flickering motes of torches.

“Ah, shit,” Rickkter muttered.

12/24 - 8:45pm

As Ryuo approached the gates he found them slightly ajar. Rushing forward, he sensed an aggressive presence to his right side. Unsure whether it was friend or foe, he blocked upwards, twisting around and rolling into the Keep. Metal caught metal and flashed briefly. As Ryuo rose, the attacker pushed his advantage, and Ryuo had no choice but to defend himself.

The man appeared to be a human, although he was dressed in furs from head to foot. In one hand was a broadsword, the favored weapon of most westerners, it seemed. This one was slightly larger than others Ryuo had seen, and the man wielded it with two hands. One of those hands had a small, round shield attached to it just below the wrist, as Ryuo deflected the blow with a wrist cut, the shield caught his blade, the man then raised his arms to block the blow to his head. However, his arms were out too wide, and Ryuo's sword was deflected only partially, cutting into the upper flesh of the muscled appendage.

The man screamed— whether in rage or pain, Ryuo could not tell— and brought down his sword with a speed that almost caught Ryuo off-guard. Built-in reflexes saved the eastern warrior as he stepped to the side, letting the great sword miss him by barely an inch. Taking the warrior's momentum, Ryuo reached out with his hilt and pulled slightly down and back.

Arms foundering, the warrior's eyes opened wide in surprise as his center of balance was lost. Pitching forward, he had to throw his hands out to catch his fall. In this moment of weakness, Ryuo struck, his sword cutting deep into the man's neck, as though he were the second at a ritual suicide. The man's head bowed forward, the vertebrae disconnected, and his head hanging on by no more than a flap of skin and his exposed trachea. His arms went limp, and he fell completely to the floor.

Ryuo took only a brief moment to close the doors of the gates. He could see that the doors had been forced in, and could not now be properly barred against intrusion. Cursing under his breath, Ryuo toppled a nearby statue in front of the doors, hoping that would hold any more invaders for at least a while. He then headed off into the belly of the Keep.

As Ryuo ran through the halls, he could see they were soaked with blood. Lutin and Keeper bodies littered the floor; most of the Keepers appeared to have been caught completely be surprise.

Glancing down at the blood-soaked floor, Ryuo could see some faces that he recognized; almost all of them people he had seen on patrols, or guarding the walls of the Keep. He didn't know their names, but the death of each one was another blow to his sense of honor.

It was not that they were gone that upset the bold Inari; he had hardly known most of them, and besides, death was only the inevitable conclusion of Life that all warriors shared. It was, instead, how each death seemed an affront to him and the promise he had made when he had first arrived at the Keep. He felt somehow responsible -perhaps if he had only paid more attention to the signal, and recognized it for what it was, he could have stopped some of this.

A grunt ahead of him brought him to a halt, his battle-sense freeing him from his moment of self-deprecation. Ahead was a band of Lutins, licking their bloodied weapons. A pile of Keeper bodies lay beneath them. They seemed to be trying to decide which passageway they should follow when one turned to see Ryuo. Twin golden orbs of hateful spite turned towards the fox, and a sadistic grin exposed bloodstained teeth. Laughing, it knocked one of its companions with a backhand, and the rest of the Lutins turned to look down the corridor as well, the grin spreading to all of their faces. Gleefully, they advanced, hoping that the Keeper would run, so that they could revel in the chase.

Ryuo stood his ground. The first two creatures that approached carried short spears, just small enough to be of use in the tight confines of the inner hallways. Working with amazing coordination, for Lutins, the pair advanced, causing Ryuo to take a quick step backwards. The retreat only encouraged the bloodthirsty fiends.

Shooting out from the left, the first Lutin lunged at a perceived opening in Ryuo's defenses. Having anticipated the move, Ryuo pivoted to his right, opening a path for the spear to continue forward unimpeded. Grabbing the haft of the spear with his left hand, Ryuo extended along its chosen path. Using the creature's moment of imbalance, Ryuo pivoted once more, coming behind the creature and throwing an arm around its scrawny neck. His right hand struck with his long sword at the second spear-wielder. As the Lutin's skull split open, Ryuo twisted quickly, breaking the first Lutin's neck.

Yet even as their comrades fell, the others rushed forward. The hallway left precious little room for any lateral maneuvers as a third Lutin's sword struck down. Ryuo raised his right hand, dropping the katana's blade as he did so. Stepping forward, he caught the Lutin's blow and used its momentum to turn his own in a wide circle. Bringing up his left hand for added power, Ryuo stepped forward and to the right, bringing the blade down to cut into the flesh of the Lutin's back.

Raising his sword to the ready once more, Ryuo was forced to step back again to dodge a spiked mace. As the mace swung past, Ryuo reversed his momentum, taking the offensive. His sword trailed off to his right as he stepped into another Lutin's sword, catching the attacker at the hilt. Drawing the sword and wrist down and around, he brought it up to parry a second swing of the spiked mace, trapping both weapons in the air. Pressing both weapons high, he shifted his grip on the katana and turned, simultaneously slicing through both bellies, spilling gray-green intestines onto the floor like a nest of writhing worms.

Standing victorious above the five bodies, Ryuo spared only a moment to look at the many bodies lying about. A fair number of Lutins had been killed before Ryuo had arrived, but it had not been enough. Looking over the dead Keepers, he saw there was nothing he could do for them anymore. Quickly and smoothly he wiped clean the gleaming steel of his death-dealing blade, and continued on into the Keep.

Oren was still small when he came bounding down the stairs. He motioned for Gornul, who followed him into the minister's chamber.

Once inside, Oren closed the door and shifted back to his taller, humanoid form. "Gornul," he said. "I want you to go into the Keep and to the Follower sanctuary. Find Father Hough. Tell him that I will be sending our congregation in a few minutes. They will be arriving believing that he has sent us a special invitation to meet together."

Gornul projected an image of a knife held by a clenched fist; his symbol for danger.

"Yes," Oren replied. "Although we don't know the nature yet. I don't want to panic anyone. Tell Father Hough to get ready to receive visitors. I'll send them over in a few minutes."

A few minutes later he was standing in the entrance to the tower’s main room. "Attention everyone! Can I have your attention, please? I've just received word that our brothers, the Followers, have asked our Immerser congregation to join them for a special celebratory service. They'll be starting in an hour or so. If anyone wants to attend, I'd recommend heading over now."

As Oren had hoped, the assembly began shrinking as one by one, the celebrants made their way to the door. Each time one of the Hipocci warriors came by, he'd politely ask them to wait around a bit.

There were a few stragglers who simply wouldn't take the hint. Blake and Shamgar stood around being snugly. Desuka stayed behind, demanding to know why, as the worship leader, he had not been informed of such an invitation.

Oren, when he was satisfied that all had left who were going to, got set to announce what he had learned from Leo.

He didn't speak, he was silenced by the ringing of a distant bell.

"The alarm!" cried Shamgar. "We're being attacked!"

"TO ARMS!" Oren ordered, but it was too late. The door gave a sudden thunderous crash and burst open, spilling a disjointed flood of little green murderers into the building.

Oren was cut off from his friends by the Lutins. There was no way he could fight them all, especially unarmed. He had no choice but to flee up the stairway and hope that the others found their own way out.

Upward the otter ran, Lutins hot on his heels. There was no time to even stop at the armory to obtain a weapon.

When he reached the sixth floor, the tower shook, as though it had been thumped by a giant hand. This made the Lutins stumble, allowing Oren a few precious seconds to put distance between himself and his attackers.

"Oren!" called Natalie from the top level. "What is going... OH!"


The lass obeyed, rapidly changing from a small draconian to a ten-foot tall dragon. Oren trusted her to read his intentions, and so, becoming as small an otter as he could, he ran and leaped out over the side of the tower. Fear gripping his heart, he could only watch as the snowy ground loomed ever closer.

A pair of enormous hands saved Oren from certain death. He let out an adrenaline-powered whoop as he zoomed over the landscape, hang-gliding from a dragon.

"Where do we go?" called Natalie, her voice quaking.

"To the river! There's an emergency meeting place there!"

She soon saw what the otter meant. He directed her to a very carefully concealed cave near the bank of the river. It was so covered in growth that, even with the leaves long gone, it would have been impossible to spot from any distance.

Inside they were relieved to find their friends and allies. A few were trembling with fear, Blake was holding a little green hand in front of her face and chanting "I got one! I got one!" like a mad woman.

"Oren!" called Jesse.

"Thank Yahweh, you're all right!"

"Me? I was afraid I wouldn't see YOU again! That earthquake..."

"Was me making an escape route," Jesse said with a smile. His smile quickly faded, however, when he looked past Oren at the keep. The others came to stand beside him, one by one, gawking at the sheer horror of the scene before them.

Metamor Keep was being invaded by the armies of Nasoj.

And in the lighthouse which the Hipocci called home, the light flickered and died.

"Our home," whispered Sambrea, one of the younger warriors. "It's the fall of Hipocc all over again, and we were powerless to stop it."


The cry came from Alyxander, Oren's nephew, a lad even younger than Sambrea, who was not even of age to be changed by the curse. Finding all eyes upon him, Xan explained his outburst. "When our village fell to Devil's Strand, we ran away and hid in caves in the wilderness. What did that get us? Nothing! It sure didn't do a thing to rebuild Hipocc. Now we have a second chance. I for one know what I'm going to do. I'm going to get me a weapon, and I'm going to go in there and TAKE BACK OUR LIGHTHOUSE!"

"He's right," said one of the older Hipoccians. "We've got to take it back. For Metamor!"

"For Metamor!" Shamgar echoed.

"For Metamor!" voices chorused.

"Heh heh!" Blake chuckled as she waved her trophy about. "Let's stick it to them little green guys!"

And so the planning began.

The sharp peals of the bell barely penetrated through the thick walls of the Keep into the library and through the thinner ones of Fox Cutter’s personal office, so normally he never heard them. Sitting where he was, in one of the overstuffed chairs near the back of the bottom level of the library, contentedly reading over a few favorite tales in the children’s storybook that he had been using all day, it took a few minutes for the bells to impress their purpose on him. His first reaction was one of baffled disbelief. Alarm bells on Christmas Eve? Who in their right mind would be attacking now, and in the middle of a blizzard of all things?

Fox closed the heavy tome and set it beside his chair, focusing more of his attention on the bells. No, they were still ringing. That would mean it wasn’t some sort of drunken prank. But the alternative was equally unthinkable.

Leaving the sanctuary of the brightly burning reading lamps behind, Fox made his way though the well known maze of shelves up towards the large windows that went all around the third level of the library itself. It was a long trek up the flights of stairs, but not something unusual for him. He was thankful that the rest of the lights in the library at this level had been extinguished when he had chased the last few people out a half hour ago or so, so it was easier for him to see the outside.

Not that there was a lot to see. White. Everywhere he looked, blowing white. Damn, this was a full fledged blizzard, who in their right minds would be out in that? he wondered yet again. Perhaps Nasoj was crazier than anyone else had him figured for. Finally reaching the window itself, Fox cupped his hands over his eyes and pressed up against the ancient glass. Patiently he stood there gazing into the blackness and blowing white, hoping that his eyes would adjust enough to pick up something of what was going on outside.

The alarm bells still hadn’t stopped ringing. And Fox had a bad feeling of what would happen when they finally did.

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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