The Winter Assault

Part 6

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 - 9pm.

"Okay, where do we go from here?"

The scene is a muddled one at best. In one corner are huddled some two score children of the Keep, a few of then cowering and shaken, many of them puzzled and not knowing what's going on but silenced by the appearance of Jeremy's dad. Kevin is in the opposite corner, looking like he's been in pretty bad shape, but getting slowly better as Joanne binds his wounds - Daemion watching closely as she does so. Derek is clinging to Kirk and refusing to let go; Kirk himself is standing awkwardly in the corner, uncertain of how to deal with Derek and just holding. Dana is next to her brother, patting at Derek's head and cooing, trying to make sure he's all right. Perry is at the door, sword at the ready, a grim look on his face, clearly ready to deal with anything that might come through that door with evil intent.

And pacing back and forth at the front of the room is Jono, hands behind his back, looking most worried and uncertain. It is he who has just spoken, and is continuing to speak.

"We can't get to the Lothanasi temple from here; the Lutins almost certainly have that place surrounded by now and we can't keep track of all the kids while fighting. Likewise for the Ecclesian Chapel; it's even farther away, and also likely to have been an early target. Long House is probably going to be in dire straits as all the Longs were partying and so probably aren't fully prepared for an invasion. The Banquet Hall is going to be locked up tighter than a Seuliman ruin, the village can easily be burned down, and the Duke's Tower will probably be rubble before we get there. That blocks all the major defensible points in the Keep."

"There's the network of tunnels under the Keep," Kirk points out. "The Lutins aren't likely to go deep into there; it gets pretty dangerous for them."

"What's dangerous for the Lutins is also dangerous for our kids," Jo points out, looking up briefly from the mouse's wounds. "We have to keep that in mind."

"Right," Jono says. "We can't stay in the tunnels, but they're probably safer than this room. We can keep that option open as a possible exit path if necessary. What else?"

"Towers along the southern walls are likely to be pretty well defended," says Perry, barely even looking up. "The gatehouse and killing ground area are always well manned. They're also more likely to be attacked, but at least there'll be more good troops there to keep the enemy busy."

"So we head south?" Dana asks.

Kirk nods. "Would make sense that the Lutins would come from the north and get in earliest way possible any ways, especially in this weather. South is likely to be the safest direction."

"Okay," says the cat, standing up straight. "Here's my plan. We'll have to be exposed for a bit, but we can probably make it. We're within about fifty yards of the Inner Gate when we start from the South Gate, so we can probably make it, and there's almost certainly an entrance to the tunnels there that we can reach. Once we're there, we take the tunnels as far south as we can go 'till we find a good resting spot, and we all take watches while the kids get some sleep. Then, Christmas morning, we get back up, keep taking the tunnels until we get to the Killing Ground area. We ought to be pretty safe there. If not, we can keep going along the tunnels and, Kyia willing, that'll get us to the nearest fortress outpost; we can certainly hole up in there. Anyone have anything to add?"

"Fifty yards across the snow? That's going to be a bit of a stretch, especially for the children," Jo says.

"I know it's risky, but it looks like the best option we have," counters Jono. "The Lutins are going to want to spend less time fighting and more time pillaging, so we may have a better chance of it if we move while they're doing so."

Kirk nods. "Agreed. The Lutins are mainly cowards at heart; they prefer to spend their time stealing."

"All right..." Jono takes in a deep breath, then heads over to the kids and kneels before them. "Okay, everybody, we're going to have a bit more trouble before we're through, but then we're going to be safe. But it's really, really important that the bad guys don't hear us. So I'm going to make a deal with you all."

He spreads his paws wide - this is going to be something of wonderment. "When we get out of this, and all the bad guys are away from Metamor, if all of you - every single child - manages to stay quiet and not disturb the bad guys, Everybody gets a Big slice of blueberry pie when we get back!" He grins widely, trying to downplay the danger. _Can't let them get frightened..._

One child speaks up. "Um... Uncle Jono?" Her voice sounds rather shaky.

Jono looks at her concernedly. "Yes, Sara?"

"I... I don't like blueberry.." she says in a timid voice.

Jono chuckles, smiling again. "Okay, any kind of pie you like!"

The faces of all the children in general became much brighter. Success. Now for the hard part...

"Okay, I have to go work with the other grown-ups; we have to get ready to go. When we get outside, I need you to run and run and run as fast as you possibly can along with Dana over there and Jo all the way to the Inner Gate, you understand? You need to keep up, because there are lots of bad guys who like to eat little kids who will try to get you if you slow down. But Kirk and Perry and Jo and I are all going to do our best to make sure that none of you get eaten, because you all have big pieces of pie that need to get eaten and so we can't let the bakers down. Okay?"

There is a chorus of nods. Some of the kids look a little more worried now, but not too much - this is big Uncle Jono, he's been part of lots of stories that he's told us, he just saved Derek from getting eaten, sure he can take care of me .

"Okay? Great!" Jono gets back up. "All right, folks, let's start gearing up. We leave in ten minutes."

12/24 - 9:15pm.

Perry opens the door a crack and peeks out one way. Then he opens the door a little more and looks around it.

"No Lutins. We're clear," he whispers.

"Okay," comes Jono's whisper from behind. Perry steps out, followed closely behind by Jono. They both take up positions each watching an end of the corridor. Then Kirk starts heading out, followed by a stream of children, Kevin walking among them, with Jono staying in front while Perry stays in place. Dana and Jo bring up the rear of the stream, Jo closing the door behind her, and then they head off, with Perry bringing up the rear.

Each of the children keeps completely silent as they move along - nobody wants to miss out on their chance at a slice of pie. Kirk and Jono trade positions, Jono now slinks along as quietly as any cat, coiled whip in one hand, while Kirk stays in front, ready to greet either his fellow troops at the gate, or an ill-fated horde of Lutins. Jo has one of her daggers out and Dana has her sword drawn; Perry doesn't, but his paw stays on the hilt, just in case.

As soon as they turn the corner, a "Who goes there?" comes from the direction of the gate.

Kirk relaxes. "That's Barklund. We almost certainly still own the gate." Then he calls back. "Commander Kirkland Russell, with party of over two score."

There's an audible sigh of relief, and then three soldiers appear from various places of concealment. "Commander, glad to see you're still all right."

"Likewise for yourself, Corporal. What state is the gate in?"

"Holding, sir," the soldier reports. "They stopped banging on it about five minutes after you left; we think they were ordered to the Duke's Keep instead. We're not terribly close to any major gathering spots, so we think it likely they want the manpower elsewhere, sir."

Kirk nods, then waves everyone forward. Kevin notes the signal, gives the same to the trio in back, and they head for the Gate, Kirk explaining their plan to Barklund all the while. Jono turns to the kids and puts his paw to his lips, indicating silence. The game is still going, and so the kids don't speak.

The doors don't look damaged at all when they finally get there, and nobody is banging on them. "So far so good..." Jono says softly as Dana moves up to join him. "Everyone ready to get moving?"

"Just about." Kirk turns to Barklund. "Okay. You're in charge of this gate while I'm away. Hold it as long as you can until relieved. If this proves impossible at any point, you are to abandon this place and take all available weapons and men to the Banquet Hall, where you should receive new orders. If the Banquet Hall has been evacuated, your next destination should be the Chapel. Is this understood?"

"Sir!" Barklund says, standing at attention. "Orders will be carried out exactly as you say, sir."

"Good." Kirk nods to the Corporal, then turns towards the doors. "Be prepared to open the doors on my order, and reclose them on Corporal Barklund's!" he yells to the gate crew. There is a chorus of "Yes Sirs!” as the orders are acknowledged.

"Everybody get ready to run!" Jono says to the kids, who are even now gathering up into threes as discussed before, several of them very scared, but all of them determined not to let Uncle Jono down. "All ready?" There's a chorus of nods. "Ready in back?" Jono calls to Perry and Jo, who also nod. "Dana?" She nods. "Okay, Kevin, do your thing..."

Kevin closes his eyes, breathes deeply, and then begins to chant, recasting the warming spell he'd had running earlier. "Got it. We're all ready to go..."

Kirk lowers himself down so his horns are pointed outward, breathing heavily, preparing himself. "Barklund?"

"Sir. Good luck, sir."

Kirk nods, then calls out.


The doors have barely swung open before Kirk has taken off, bellowing and charging like any other enraged bull, clearing a path for the children.

"LET'S GO!" screams Jono, and with that he and Dana are off, with nearly fourscore children running as fast as they have ever flown in their lives after Uncle Jono.

Rickkter’s ears rang with the peal as his sword connected with the cheap steel of a Lutin sword. The Lutin swung again and Rickkter blocked again. This time, though, he was able to get his sword past his opponent’s and bring it down right into the Lutin’s little green face. The jarring feel of cracking the thick skull was still lingering in Rickkter’s arms as he pulled the blade free and ducked another attack, using the katana to slice open that Lutin’s belly.

The guts of that one steamed on the fresh snow at the raccoon’s feet as Rickkter straightened up. Around him were the bodies of almost ten Lutins, but also three keepers. Fortunately he was able to catch his breath and make a quick survey of the battle. And his only impression was that it was turning into a slaughter; for both sides. The snow was swift returning as well, beginning to reduce visibility once more, the cold wind howling against the unyielding stone of Metamor’s walls.

Growling, Rickkter threw up his arms and cast a quick lightening spell into the enemy horde. It was both a good and bad thing that he didn’t have to aim. The strike arched from his fingers and into the Lutins, throwing up bodies from the impact. But this was a special lightening spell, a particularly nasty one. Instead of just hitting once, it kept bouncing along in a line, further devastating the opposing army. He couldn’t admire his work any further, as a group of seven Lutins demanded his attention. Growling curses in human tongues and as a simple raccoon, Rickkter fended off two of them as the rest attempted to circle. A feline growl behind him heralded the arrival of a cheetah morph, who took on three more himself. The cat’s lighting reflexes and light sword were probably what saved him long enough for Rickkter to come to his aid. The two proceeded to finish off the last Lutins without a great deal of difficulty. Nodding to each other, the two soldiers departed for new battles.

Drawing in some more manna, though not even close to what he would have liked, Rickkter cast off a half dozen fireballs. His reasons for using fire were twofold: first that burning soldiers created wonderful disorder amongst an attacking army, and second that he needed the light. What that light showed him was that his own forces were being totally and utterly overwhelmed. He saw a burly keeper drive his sword into the chest of some poor Lutin only to have a much larger Lutin come in and cut off his arm with a battle axe. Not more than ten feet away a stallion was dueling a human mercenary. The mercenary managed to work his sword above the stallion’s and drive it down through the horse’s muzzle. With a horrified scream, the keeper dropped his weapon and sank to his knees, his hoof-like hands reaching for his shattered face and past the crimson waterfall that had sprung from it. The stallion’s screams were quickly silenced as the merc’s sword plunged into his chest. Turning his head to the other direction, Rick saw a mink dueling a Lutin with a pair of swords. Aiming high with one sword, the Lutin forced the mink to block one, allowing him to stab into the keeper’s side, between the plates of her amour. She fell to one knee with a shriek that was cut short when the Lutin yanked free that sword and used both to cleave her head from her body. The head had not even bounced twice before he was dropped as well by a bolt of pyrokinetic magic launched from Rickkter’s fingertips.

The raccoon shook his head at the scene, his feet taking his backwards over the crimsoned snow. No, no, this was all turning into one monumental foul-up. Damn near tripping on a body, Rickkter looked down to see the face of captain Marcusson. Her breastplate had an ugly gaping wound made by a battleaxe. A curse wuffed past his lips before a Lutin battle cry snapped his head up. Bracing his katana horizontally with both paws, Rickkter blocked the blow, then dropped his right arm and swung the blade around, angling right between the loose plates of his attacker’s hardened leather armor. That was it, no more.

Turning, Rick grabbed a woman by the sleeve as she ran by him. He made out her rank, two arrows, one facing up the other down. “Corporal, where are you going in such a hurry?”

“To the east front,” she replied. “My lieutenant ordered it.”

Rickkter shook his head. “No, negative. Your orders are now changed. Continue on, but pass on word of a retreat to all those you see. Fall back to the keep as fast as they can. Most of the command has been killed and the rest of us are about to follow suit, do you understand?”

Her eyes were huge as she nodded her head.

“Good, now go!” Rickkter waved out his arm, a monstrous tongue of flame leaping from it to engulf a good fifty feet of the enemy army and leave the ground flaming in its wake. Taking the cover for what it was, the corporal ran off, shouting her new orders to any she encountered.

Snarling, Rickkter did something he had done often enough in his life: he turned tail and ran, vanishing into the darkness.

There's certainly more than a few Lutins around the Inner Gate when they get near.

"Not far now!" Jono cries to the children, some of whom are stumbling occasionally but always helped up by his or her fellows. "The bad guys are over there, but we're almost at the end!"

The kids keep running, many of them very frightened now. This must have been what Derek felt like, many of them think, when he was getting away from the bad guys with Jono. Running as fast as he could to get to safety. Nobody is questioning the King of the Snowfields' courage now.

Derek, for his part, is keeping up admirably. This is now practically old hat; he's been here before. He knows that none of the grownups are going to leave him behind. Inexplicably, though, he's still frightened, and he wonders about that. Aren't the grownups going to keep them safe?

Then he realizes just how hard that would be for them when he sees the platoon from before. Coming RIGHT BACK AT THEM.

He turns to Uncle Jono, to warn him, but Jono's already seen them and is shouting to someone. "Perry! Jo! The platoon over there... need them dealt with!"

Jo and Jono have prepared for this, of course. She's already reaching for one of the vials.

Joanne is, of course, ultimately a kind of alchemist. Not a true mystical alchemist like Pascal, but she can do similar effects with various combinations of natural ingredients. One of the most potent she's ever discovered involves something that she found quite by accident when researching into something that would be much more effective at creating a smokescreen— smokescreens are useful tools to a showman like Jono. The end result did produce smoke, ultimately, but only after a spectacular show

Take a bit of Daemon's Ash and add a tiny amount of powdered Northern Fireleaf. Add a small amount of liquid as a mixing base, close up so no more air gets in, shake up to mix, and then get it as far away from you as you can, unless you want to be singed by the result.

Said result is a wildly colorful display of lights and flashes that can very easily temporarily blind at least anyone looking directly at it. It won't really injure anyone unless you're touching it as it goes off (in which case you might get mildly singed), and in this case there's the additional danger of getting cut by shards of flying glass as the vial explodes, but beyond that it's a psychological weapon, meant to make the enemy think that they're just about to die spectacularly.

It is one of these that Joanne tosses at the approaching platoon when they get within ten yards, causing the Lutins to temporarily vanish under a maelstrom of loud crackles and bangs and flashing lights.

...But these Lutins have already faced down Kirk, and are no longer that easily intimidated. Or at least that's what has to be assumed when it's clear that they haven't stopped coming.

"PERRY!" Jo screams, stopping to pull both her daggers and let them fly, cutting down two of the approaching Lutins. The hedgehog is already going to work, though, barreling into them at high speed with a battle cry in his throat.

He leaps, starts to roll, and manages to get about ten or so feet before the snow stops him, right in the middle of the Lutin platoon, of whom about four start hacking away at the quills while he stays curled up, unable to uncurl without getting stabbed...

Joanne curses loudly, putting her dagger through one of the pairs approaching her. "Jono! Trouble!"

Jono turns, curses as well and starts running past the kids, yelling to them, "Keep going! Follow Kirk, he'll get you to safety!"

Jo manages to take down one of the four assaulting Perry with another toss before the Lutins close... five of them left for her. Her first move is to leap and somersault backwards, gaining a little more space to toss both her knives again, dropping two as the other three come on. She fakes to the left, then starts for the right and throws again, dropping another Lutin... and then the other two pounce.

Jono is too busy heading for Perry, whose spines still haven't taken much damage but who himself is beginning to look a little worn; the heating spell is getting taxed, and he can't keep warm if he's staying still. So Jono helps him out by pouncing on one of the Lutins, keeping it occupied, freeing Perry to make his move.

And quite the move it is - he uncurls just enough to get his feet on the ground, then somersaults backward, impaling the Lutin behind him on his spines and rolling back before the one in front can strike at his belly. By the time the front Lutin has caught up with Perry, he has his own sword out and is swinging. One blow, and the cheap metal of the Lutin's sword breaks. Perry's sword doesn't, even as it goes through the Lutin's windpipe.

Joanne during this time is dropping down and leaping forward, going between the two Lutins to try to neatly evade them. They're not that dumb, though - one of them catches her with a blow - but they're not swift enough to take full advantage, either - the blow is merely with a fist, not a sword. She goes down into the snow, but manages to right herself, flinging one of the daggers again as she turns and dropping another Lutin. One more left, stabbing down at her... she rolls to the side, quickly gets to her feet and somersaults forward to avoid another swing of the blade, which gives her just enough time to throw again - and the last Lutin goes down.

Total elapsed time of battle, about forty five seconds.

Kirk finally gets to the door, and tries to pull it open; unsurprisingly, it's locked. "This is Captain Kirkland Russell from the South Gate detachment!" he bellows in the most powerful voice he cam muster. "I command you in the name of Duke Thomas to open this door!"

The door opens. "Get in! Hurry!" yells one soldier; he looks something like a rat, but Kirk isn't taking the time to watch; he's directing the children into the tower. "Hurry up, c'mon! You've almost made it!"

And then one stray arrow from the battle off to their collective right flies and strikes Jeremy in the back before he can react. And he falls to the ground, too shocked to keep running.

"JEREMY!" Kevin screams! "Gods no... Jono! Get Jeremy!" He starts to summon up another fireball to fling at the Lutins... but... “It's not working? ...Oh, gods, the blizzard,”

"Get in! We have to get in now!" the mage then screams as Jono runs by Jeremy, scooping him up as he does so, Jo and Perry in last pursuit, the last few kids right in front of them. Two more arrows land among them... no... the Lutins are aiming for them...

And then Josh and the last three make it in, then Jono and Jo and Perry, and Kevin can rush in while Kirk throws the door shut once more.

With the acolytes faithfully obeying Raven's instructions, it took slightly less than half an hour to move all of the townspeople to the first two levels of the Archives. Half an hour after that, the acolytes had taken stock of the supplies available to them and distributed blankets to those most in need of them. That task completed, Raven called Merai and the temple assistants together in the now-empty temple hall.

"The larders are nearly full and well-protected with preservative spells," Celine reported. "We can feed these people for as long as a week, if we ration it properly."

"The cisterns are all clean, as well," Merai added. "We have plenty of drinking water, if the Keep's plumbing should somehow fail."

“We have enough clothing and blankets to go around, perhaps twice over, so some can be used as bandages if we need them.” One of the other assistants offered, “We’ve also got a good stock of medicines and herbs collected this past fall, and soap. With snowmelt we should have enough water to actually bathe.” At the odd looks she received from some of the other assistants the young ocelot hunched her shoulders and frowned, “We are all going to need to bathe, or we’ll start getting sick.” She said quietly, defending her statements.

“She’s right.” Raven countered quietly as she placed her hands upon the altar. "Excellent," she continued with a small nod of satisfaction. "We are well-prepared, as I had hoped. You have done well, my friends, all of you."

"Mistress?" Jonathan Caroway raised his boyish hand, an uncertain expression on his face.

"Aye, Jon?"

"What shall we do if the battle lasts more than a week? Or if the rest of Metamor falls?"

Raven bit her lip in a solemn frown. "Metamor shall not fall," she said firmly. "Kyia will see to that. No army has ever occupied this castle uninvited for long. If the battle lasts for more than a week, we shall have to look for provisions elsewhere— but we'll cross that bridge if we come to it."

"Will we truly be safe here, Mistress?" an older-looking horse-woman asked. "You know what befell us the last time Nasoj attacked." Her expressive ears twitched, backing as she swished her ornately braided tail pointedly.

A sudden chill fell on the circle of Lightbringers. Most of them remembered all too well how the priests and acolytes left behind in the temple had been slaughtered while the survivors were out working as field clerics. No one was quite sure how it had happened, but it seemed likely that a wraith had somehow eluded Kyia's watchful gaze and snuck inside the temple chambers.

"We're safer than anywhere else we could be, Mabel," Raven said with a sigh. "Make no mistake, we will all be targets in this battle. The wards Kyia has placed around the temple this time are powerful, and should be enough to discourage any opportunistic wraiths or other fell creatures. Merai, you and I will place protective blessings on the acolytes as an added measure of protection."

"As you say, Sister Raven," Merai agreed, nodding. "Mayhap we should also place a watch on this level, since this is the only place that an enemy could enter. A wraith is easily dealt with if it is spotted in time."

"A good idea," the wolf-woman said. "Celine, appoint someone to draft a schedule of guard duty, and see what we have in the way of weapons. Schedule acolytes to serve meals to the congregation, as well."

"Aye, Mistress. I'll have a schedule for you before dawn."

"Thank you. After Merai and I have finished the blessings, I'll be giving her charge of the temple for the time being."

"Where will you be?" the younger priestess asked, frowning.

"In my chambers. I shall consult with my sources and do my best to gain a clear picture of what is happening. If possible, and the gods willing, I shall summon aid for Metamor, as well."

Merai nodded, clearly not quite understanding the specifics of what Raven had in mind but not wishing to debate the matter further in front of the acolytes. Of course, Raven had not yet told her of the secret lines of communication used by the Lightbringer High Priests, so she did not expect the young cat-woman to grasp all of it.

"Are there any other questions?" Raven asked, looking around the group.

Some of the acolytes exchanged glances. "What should we do when we are off-duty?" someone asked.

"Pray," the high priestess said firmly. "Spend time with your families, if they are here. Comfort and console those who need it. See if there are any storytellers or other entertainers among the congregation that can keep the people distracted to some degree. There’s more than enough reading material in the archives to go around. Most of all, keep an air of optimism about you— those people down there need to see your strength, not your fear. Anyone else?"

There was a moment's silence. "Very well, then— everyone line up. Merai, let us see how quickly we can do this."

Dan pushed his way through the mass of people hurrying though the winter darkened hallways of the Keep. Incredible as it had seemed to the insect morph, the alarms had sounded. The idea that someone was stupid enough to attack Metamor in mid-winter, let alone in the middle of the blizzard that was raging outside the stone walls was ludicrous. Yet the bells and horns were sounding. Someone, or something, was trying to breach the outer walls.

The alarm had interrupted a planning meeting between the botanist and one of the Duke's bureaucrats, discussing some plans for a new garden to be constructed on the grounds of the Upper Keep. Plans that Dan felt could safely be shelved until after the holiday season. Yet, as if there was nothing special about the time of year, the bureaucrat had insisted that the meeting had to be held on that day. He felt almost sorry for the clerk, seemingly having nothing better to do than spend the holiday season working. Though he had not planned anything special for the Christmas. Just a quiet dinner with a few friends. Still, Dan was annoyed that the man had little enough of a life that he scheduled work in what was a time for celebration. Dan had almost been glad when the bells started to sound. It gave him an excuse to escape from the annoying child whose only purpose seemed to be telling Dan how the gardens must look.

Now he was pushing through the corridors, making his way through the multitudes of others. Soldiers rushing to their posts, some with armor half on, covering gaily colored holiday dress. Messengers scrambling to deliver news and reports. Civilians moving to the secure shelters, safe havens in case the walls fell. A general sense of panic and fear filled the air as people rushed around, not quite sure what was happening outside. Through this chaos Dan moved, making his way towards the Lower Keep and the armory.

The armory, where he'd meet up with his reserve unit, be issued weapons and, if needed, join the regular guard in the defense of his home. If he could even make it across the Keep, through the throngs of people choking the halls. With a grimace, Dan shoved past a bottleneck as people crowded around the door leading to one of the cellars designated as a shelter.

As he approached the junction connecting the Upper Keep to the lower, a hand grabbed Dan's shoulder as he struggled through the crowd. Turning, he found himself facing an angry looking cat in the uniform of a keep guard.

"Get to the shelter. No time to get personal belongings." shouted the solider over the crowd, in a voice that sounded as if he had been yelling the same phrase a lot recently.

"I'm trying to get to the armory. To join up with my unit." explained Dan, shouting to be heard over the throng of the crowd around them.

"Sheesh. Haven't you heard? They say the outer walls aren't going to hold much longer. We've got a full scale assault going on here. You don't have time to make it to your unit." said the guard, before turning to a large man wearing the uniform of an officer of the Metamor guard. "Captain Christoff, Sir. We've got a soldier separated from his squad here. What should we do?"

The officer walked over to join Dan and the guard. Looking the insectoid over, Christoff asked "What is your name and what unit are you with?"

"Dan D'Alimonte, with the 33rd irregular infantry, Sir."

"A reservist?"

"Yes, Sir."

Christoff seemed to ponder for a moment before continuing. "Well, we're going to need every warrior we can get," he decided, then turned to the guard. "Jace, see that he gets a weapon. We're almost done here. Once everyone is in the shelter, we'll head over to the entrance to the Upper Keep and join the defenders there."

"Sir, are we not going to help the men on the walls?" asked Jace.

"The walls aren't going to hold much longer. Apparently, there is a whole Lutin army hitting them hard. I've gotten orders not to leave the Keep. We'll fall back and leave it to the stones of Metamor herself to protect us."

"And the grounds?" added Dan.

"Not in this weather. Too cold, and in the dark, with the snow flying it would be almost impossible to tell friend from foe until you stuck a sword into them. We're going to force the invaders to stay out in the storm. By the time they could breach a gate, they should be half dead."

Dan was hastily equipped with a spare spear and a few scraps of armor that he could make use of. He began to help get the last of the stragglers into one of the many cellars designated as emergency shelters. As he directed people down the narrow stairway and through the heavy wood and iron doors, a thought of something forgotten nagged at the back of his mind. Busy, Dan pushed the thought from his mind as he occupied himself with his duty.

They had cleared that halls, and Christoff was splitting his company into two squads, one to stay and guard the shelter and one to join the defenders at the doors to the Lower Keep. In a flash of realization, Dan's heart dropped. The nagging thought flooded back into his head and made itself clear.

"Captain! Captain!" he called out suddenly. "There is still someone trapped outside. One of my friends."

"What do you mean?" asked Christoff, looking up from consulting with one of his lieutenants. "Anyone with any common sense wouldn't be outside in this weather, and even if they were, they should know enough to get inside when the alarms go off."

"Not if they don't have that choice." said Dan, hastily explaining to the solider about Laracin. The treemorph, asleep for the winter and trapped in the soil by his roots, would be an easy target for the invaders.

"Maybe they will overlook him, thinking he is only a regular tree or something?" suggested Jace.

"No. Dan is right." said Christoff. "If they have to lay siege to the gates for any length of time, then they are going to need firewood for warmth. Anything burnable will be burned."

Dan only nodded in agreement.

"So, what are we going to do?" asked Jace.

Christoff turned to face his men, raising his voice to be heard.

"There is still one Keeper stuck out in the cold, folks." He called out. "I'll be damned if I am going to leave him to die at the hands of some dirty Lutin. Any more volunteers?"

The captain's face broke into a smile as all around him hands, paws and weapons were raised. Every solider not entrusted with the safety of the shelter had volunteered. Forming them up, Christoff began to lead the small band towards the nearest door outside, proud of the courage shown by the fifteen men behind him.

Nestled in the crook of the overhanging banister in the choir loft, Vinsah stared down at the assembled Keepers filling the pews. His brown animal eyes scanned along the floor of the Chapel in Metamor and found the boy priest Father Hough dressed in the bright purple robes of the Advent. He was standing before the altar, the phylacteries spewing incense about him, a familiar aroma that was strangely sweeter than the racoon recalled it. His small hands lifted aloft the wafer of bread, and began to call out the traditional blessing, and Vinsah found his own muzzle moving with the words, long since committed to memory.

He’d left Healer Coe’s apartments several hours earlier, sneaking along a small railing outside his window to a parapet a few ells away. With the wind and snow howling about him, he’d barely made it across without slipping, but his sharp claws had a firm grip, and for once he was grateful of the form Metamor had given him. However, this ceremony was special -- the Yahvice as it was called still in Yesulam – the celebration of the birth of their Saviour Yahshua.

Though he mouthed the words, as best as his full animal shape allowed, his mind was not upon them. It was a week more before the New Year was upon them all, and he still had yet to decide what to do. Healer Coe’s demand that he rejoin the world by then was his only concern, and the two options that lay before him were not ones that he wished to employ. The first was to reveal that he was indeed the Bishop of Abaef, transformed into a raccoon, a mere animal. Yesulam would likely condemn Metamor in fury, himself as well as Akabaieth’s mission.

Of course, it did not help matters that the former Patriarch had been murdered on Metamor’s soil. Whoever the new Patriarch was – and with a tinge of regret he realised that if he was still human, it would have been him – he was surely not going to look favourably on this northern province of the Midlands, no matter what Vinsah did. Yet, to have a Bishop be struck down as he was, would be interpreted as a sign from Eli that this place should be destroyed or at least something akin to that. Grimacing, his dark nose turning in distaste, he realized that had he been in their position, he probably would have done the same thing.

Pushing such unpleasant thoughts to one side, the other possibility that he could embrace began to fill his mind. Brian Coe had suggested he abandon his old self and take on a new identity. Nobody would question it, and even if they realised that it was a lie, most would respect his wishes to keep the reality a secret. It was an attractive idea, except for the fact that it involved him telling lies – though apparently he was halfway decent at it – and choosing a new name. The one that instantly sprang to the front of his mind was one that he wished to avoid.

The worst part about it all was that he had already called himself by that name, by Elvmere. That other racoon Rickkter had been most insistent that he give a name, and that had been the only one that would come to his lips, as if it had pushed its way to the front of his tongue, keeping the rest back. How many would remember that name and his face? How often would people call him that after he did reveal himself? The thought of such was unbearable.

And so, Vinsah had come here to the Chapel for the Yahvice, hoping that the familiar ceremony would calm his mind, and focus his thoughts. Yet, all it managed to do was bundle them tighter and tighter into knots, and get his fur soaked! He did not know how much snow he’d shaken from his grey coat when he’d settled himself in the choir loft. He’d spent the first ten minutes of the service shivering and curled up as tightly as he could as it was!

How he longed for the warm sun of Yesulam, it would dry his fur quickly. Of course, were he in Yesulam, he would not have fur to dry. He would still be a man, Vinsah, the Bishop of Abaef. Yahvice would have come and gone already, for the day comes sooner in that land than in Metamor, being many leagues eastward. In fact, he would have been standing out on the streets of Abaef, facing the desert with his congregation all about him, holding bright white candles to the stars and singing praises until the morning sun diminished those twinkling lights.

With a bit of a chuckle, he recalled how one Bishop had thought that such festivals should be done away with, as their origins were found in other false religions. While the Festival of Lights was something that existed elsewhere, Vinsah always enjoyed standing with his people in choruses of affirmation for Eli. The Christmas time may have been decided upon to coincide with pagan holidays, as had been accused, but what better time to bring the light of Eli into the world than upon the day of the year with the longest night?

Even as he dwelled on that bit of symmetry, he felt a cold shiver race up his tail and spine, settling behind his rounded ears like an uncomfortable itch. It was not the same chill that permeated the air outside, and throughout much of the Keep, at least, where there were no fireplaces. His own room was a bastion of frost, despite the abundance of covers and cloth that he draped himself in while there. Many nights he would bundle tightly, shifting into a smaller more compact form to hold in his own body heat, sharp teeth chattering while his black nose peeked out from under the agglomeration of quilts that nearly threatened to smother him.

Yet Vinsah knew that the bit of ice that had come across his back was not the sort brought on by the weather, no matter how far north one travelled. This was a different sort, the kind that presaged the arrival of things that were best not mentioned. He scanned his dark brown eyes about, the whites showing at the corner of the mask he wore. Placing his small five fingered paws atop the granite railing, he peered about the Chapel, scanning the dark stained glass windows and the colonnades before them. Things stirred about them, silent, silvery shapes that twirled about their crenulated surface, darting and winding down towards the base and the pews where sat the Keepers, unaware of their presence.

Vinsah opened his muzzle, fright filling him with that same icy, leprous touch. All eyes in the Chapel were on Father Hough, or towards the floor, or simply closed while the prayers over the sacraments were given. None save Vinsah could see these abominations slipping unmolested through their ranks, brushing them by, filling them with that same cold dread that had come upon the procyonid Bishop. With a start, that lone animal watching from the choir loft knew the target of these incorporeal spirit’s malice – they were striding towards the young priest, towards Father Hough.

Vinsah nearly gasped aloud once he knew that, but he kept his animal cry in check. It was likely that Father Hough would notice them before they came too close, but that was not a chance that he could take and still respect himself afterwards. He was, despite his bestial appearance and sometimes demeanour, still a priest, nay a Bishop, of Eli. He had responsibilities as such to see to the care of his Follower brethren. This included protecting them from the world of the unseen, of the spirits.

It also helped if he could speak aloud, and so Vinsah willed himself to change, to rise up above his animal shape and into something resembling a man. Though he still possessed the fur, the long striped tail that would dangle about his ankles, and the teeth and claws, as well as the face of a racoon, he cared not, for he was still a man, and could speak like a man, and think like a man. And in the end, that was all the he would need. There was little question in Vinsah’s mind at that moment that Eli would know his voice no matter how oddly it was formed.

Standing before that granite rail, he peered out over the Chapel, gripping the stone tight between his paws, naked and bare for all to see, including the spirits. But he did not concern himself with modesty now, for the spirits were nearly upon Hough, who appeared to only just now notice them as he lowered the sacraments once more to the altar, the prayer finished. Their filmy substance avoided the altar, circling around behind it as if it repelled them, viscous fangs appearing in their nature, as if formed from the very air.

And then, the back door burst wide, an explosion of wrath as men poured through, bearing weapons and terrible malice. They advanced on the young priest, and the rest in the Chapel. The knights who were seated among the congregation rose in a shuffle of boots, hooves, and claw tipped paws, shouting cries of anger at the blasphemy this represented, and rushed to engage them. Their weapons left in the apse by the great, vaulted doors, the knights and soldiers of Metamor were unarmed, but that did nothing to deter their swift reaction to this new threat. They snatched up whatever was convenient as they surged toward the intruders, slowed only by the terrified retreat of non-combatants. Looking over it all from his vantage the Bishop realised there was nothing he could do to counter this new threat, even if he did have a weapon. He did have claws and teeth, he reflected momentarily, but quickly diverted such things from his mind. The thought of sinking either in a man’s flesh was too terrible to contemplate.

His voice however, betrayed none of the anxiety his mind felt. “Hear me spirits of darkness! You seek the wrong man, for I am a Bishop of the Ecclesia, and can destroy you! Leave the boy alone, but come for me, if you dare!” Over the sounds of swords clashing, it was clear that the people in the Chapel, crying out in terror and clutching together for protection did not hear him. Yet, the spirits were not of flesh and blood, and turned ghastly apparitions in his direction, sifting through the air towards the choir loft while Hough ducked behind the altar, crying out in the name of Eli.

Suddenly, that chill raced down his spine as he felt something unholy draw across the fur of his back, making it stand up as if called to attention. Turning his head to one side, brown eyes gleaming with the frost and the leap of terror, he saw another such apparition, a mocking visage that parodied man. A simulacrum whose façade had been tortured with hate. Foul eyes formed from the mist laughed at him, and a voice whose utterance must have originated in Hell spoke with wintry touch to him. “A beast pretends to be a priest! You have no power over us Elvmere, for your Ecclesia has cast you out.”

The use of that other name startled him, making his fur shiver even more. The racoon trembled even as the gaseous tendrils roped about his tail and chest, stroking the grey flesh beneath his pelt. They nearly wrapped themselves completely about him, massaging insidiously every aspect of his body, sending erotic thrills through him as they excited parts of his flesh that had been denied for thirty years. Yet, he caught such flaring emotions in his throat and spoke, “They have not, you lie! You are servants of something unholy, and I will not tolerate your presence in the House of Eli! Be gone from this place, in the name of Yahshua I cast you out!”

The spirit gave a mocking laugh then, coating his extremities in that greyish translucence. Something spectral tapped his nose, and those baleful eyes filled his own. “No, Elvmere, you do not possess that power anymore. You wanted to face us, and so you shall. We will turn you into that beast and leave you raving inside this flesh before we finish with you and turn to the others.”

Vinsah could see the other ghostly apparitions crawling in and out of the choir loft railing, snaking their way towards him, encircling his flesh as this first had done. He shuddered, the overwhelming urge to give into the bestial urges that began to course through his body was terrifying his mind and his heart. A swelling in his loins caused him to cry out in anguish, as the flesh rebelled against his will, desire overflowing reason. And yet, on some carnal level, he yearned for it, yearned for this release, this breaking of oaths which had bound him, to truly embrace the feral nature Metamor had blessed him with.

With the spirits clustered so close, obscuring all other vision but what they wanted him to see, he could feel a single hand reaching out for him a single image cascading from outside of them, offering a slender ray of hope. There, amidst the turmoil that coalesced on all sides came a brilliant light, a visage of austere beauty that made his heart cry in joy, for it was his relief and sanctuary even more than this Chapel could be. Another face came to him, that of a woman, radiant with dark silvery hair that billowed about her shoulders. Her hand was burning with a white nimbus, and he reached out for it with his paw, the grey-black fur appearing to whiten as it approached.

Then they clasped, and that surging sexual frustration fell away, his loins irrelevant once again. From out of the well of his heart and her presence he cried out, breaking the lustful enchantment that had been woven about him. “No! Deceivers!” They flinched at the power in his throat, the terrible caresses ceasing. “You fools, no man can take from me what Eli has given! That is Eli’s purview only! Begone I command you, in the name of Eli and his Son Yahshua, I command you to begone from this place and return to your master in Hell! Begone!”

The baleful eyes, at once full of contempt and malice, were filled with fear and despair as they recoiled from him, flinging their insubstantial forms from his flesh, crawling like sick beasts from a predator. The milky shades began to whither, until even their cries dwindled into incoherency. “Begone! In the name of Yahshua son of Eli, begone!” Vinsah repeated, his voice hot with sudden passion, even as he continued to view that radiant face, smiling down upon his mask.

With final shrieks of anguish, the spirits disintegrated into the walls, the film dispersing into nothingness, and warmth filling his body once again. He breathed a sigh of relief, his chest heaving as he leaned against the choir loft railing. Strangely, the granite was warm beneath his palms, as if by a fire. Her face was still there, that nameless woman smiling down upon him, her hand gently cradling his muzzle by the chin. “My Elvmere,” was all she said, and then, she too was gone.

Gasping again, he peered out over the Chapel, his eyes seeing the world as it was once more. The fight appeared to have been finished, Father Hough still clutching one side of the altar, while the knights and soldiers were carrying the bodies of the slain to one side. There were also those in the crowd who were looking up at him, their faces curious. Though many wore the heads of animals, he could still see that all too human expression in their eyes.

A moment later, and Father Hough was noticing him, staring up at the racoon perched in the choir loft where there had been nobody before. “Who are you?” the boy called out, his high tenor nervous.

The moment of his decision had finally come, and with a start, Vinsah knew there was only one choice he could make. His muzzle broke into a wry grin as he peered down at his junior colleague, pondering for a moment at the boy’s real age. If he did not say it, how could they ever guess his now?

Summoning his voice once more, the rasp of his tongue against his pointed teeth clear, he cried out so that everyone in the Chapel might hear him, and know who he was. “I am Vinsah, the Bishop of Abaef! And I stand with you now, as a Metamorian, a Keeper for all time.” The sudden look of joy on their faces reminded him of the very first day of the Patriarch’s visit. And in fact, he felt as his former master Akabaieth were not also smiling fondly down upon him from some heavenly sea as he sailed the course of his afterlife.

Finding a similar smile perched upon his muzzle, he descended the stairs at the back of the choir loft to join his comrades in the Chapel, not as a priest of a foreign land, but as their brother. Despite the peace that came from the resolution of his personal conflicts, Vinsah found exultation fleeting, for from beyond the walls of the chapel came the muted tones of a ringing bell, swiftly joined by others as alarms rang across the Keep.

12/24 – 10:20pm

“Don’t worry, son. It’ll be alright.”

“But it hurts so much,” whined Tim through his clenched muzzle. The wolf’s ears were pressed flat to his skull and his eyes were screwed shut with the unrelenting pain. His paws clutched tightly at his side, where no wound was visible.

“I know, I know,” whispered the handmaid as she stroked the thin grey fur of his head. She had been caring for the poor boy for the last little while, ever since they had last attempted to break the siege on the throne room. He had been one of the lucky ones, suffering no wounds in the assault. He was also the personal page of Duke Thomas and she was there under his orders. Still, she wished there was something she could do to alleviate his suffering.

A light equine musk filled their nostrils and she turned around. “How is he doing?” asked the very noble she had been thinking of.

“Getting worse, I’m sorry to say. Is there nothing that can be done?”

“We’ve seen to Ayeoys’ wound as best we can in these conditions.” Thomas shook his head, his once pristinely combed mane shaking about. “If there just weren’t so many of those little bastards outside we might have been able to push through and get out of here. As it is, we’re barely holding our own.” He snorted in disgust.

“It is really... really that bad, m’lord?” Tim asked, his voice tight with pain.

Thomas immediately realized his gaffe, though while he managed a half smile on his face, he couldn’t keep his tail from flicking in agitation. “No, it’s not really that bad, Tim. I’m just... angry and frustrated at what’s happened, that’s all.” He saw the wolf convulse in pain and clutch tightly at his side again. “I’m going to check on Ayeoys again. Gabriel will stay here with you and try and keep you comfortable.”

Tim could only nod in reply, his face a total mask of pain. His lips were drawn up over his teeth and his ears were flat against his head, the pain causing him to ball up further, his tail curling between his legs. Thomas sighed to himself as he turned away.

When he had ordered that attack, he had had a sinking feeling that it would be a bad idea to send the twins along with it. But they had needed all the swords they could get. Almost all at the formal dinner had been nobles and none were dressed for a fight. A few had swords, but even the majority of those were for show only. It was a credit to the regular guards that they were able to hold off the attackers. But even so, they had been badly beaten. Six had died between their initial assault and the Lutin’s two subsequent retaliatory ones. Just over twice that were wounded and being tended to as best they could be given that none in the room had any healing skills beyond that of a half-trained field medic, or possessed had any magic that would help things. They had to make good with the rags of once rich dresses and good intentions.

As he walked across the room he encountered Corvin, a baron out near Mycransburg and old friend. And the schnauzer was also a renowned drinker, partaking rather heavily ever since the siege started. Which gave the stallion lord an idea.

“Corvin, come here.”

The dog perked up his ears and sauntered over, a half filled bottle of wine clutched in one par. “Yesh, m’lord?” he slurred.

“I want you to do me a favor. There is a wolf over there,” he gestured at Tim, “who is a lot of pain right now. I want you to see to it that in a little while he’s too drunk to feel anything. Understand?”

Covin bobbed his head up and down, his floppy ears shaking. “‘Course m’lord. Always said that a drink can cures what ails ya.” He patted Thomas on the arm and meandered his way over to Tim and the handmaid. Thomas just sighed and continued on his previous journey.

The heavy, coppery tang of blood reached Thomas’ nostrils as he neared the section of the throne room they had set aside for the critically wounded. There were too many here, he sighed, too many old friends and loyal protectors. Of his personal guard one had lost the use of his hand, another had lost an eye. Amongst the others there were various stab wounds, slashes, broken limbs. Thomas stopped and looked down at the young tiger at his feet.

Ayeoys looked worse than Thomas remembered from the last time. The puncture wound on his side had soaked another of the thick makeshift bandages, which was currently being replaced by their one real medic, Maxwell. The young female soldier spared him a quick glance from her work to nod and mutter a simple greeting before returning to her grisly task.

The page had not been in the vanguard of the attack, and he had even managed to kill a few Lutins before the retreat was sounded. It was as Ayeoys was running back to the safer confines of the throne room that he had been caught in the back by a Lutin spear. It had been a poorly aimed shot, but nevertheless it had speared him through his gut on the right side of his body. At least it had gone all the way through and had a smooth shaft, so it had not been a difficult task to pull it from his body. Ayeoys only screamed once before passing out, along with Tim.

Healing the wound, though, was another matter entirely, Thomas recalled as he squatted down next to the boy. There had been a lot of bleeding at first, but through judicious use of the thick cotton liners from the dresses of several of the patrons of the evening’s feast they had managed to stop the worst of it. But looking at the round hole in the soft white of the tiger’s belly as Max cleaned it with water, Thomas saw that the bleeding had not stopped altogether. It was still lightly oozing, even several hours later. Damn, why did this have to happen to one of his pages? They were barely men yet; newly changed and unused to their new bodies. Clumsy, hardly any real threat. He frowned and shook his head slowly. That made them easy pickings for a mob of savage Lutins.

“How are you feeling Ayeoys?” he eventually managed to ask as he hunched down and took the page’s paw in his own three-fingered hoof.

“It hurts, m’lord,” he mumbled. His eyes were closed, but not tightly, though his ears were flush with his skull. “Feels like my whole belly is on fire.”

Thomas was saved replying when Max spoke up. “Well, I’m done with the bandages. You’ll be glad to know that the bleeding’s almost stopped. Just hold on a little while longer and we’ll get you some help.” She looked up briefly at the duke. “I have to go check on the others now, Ayeoys. I’ll leave you two for the moment.”

“Well, that certainly sounds encouraging, doesn’t it?” said Thomas as he turned back to his page.

“She says that to everyone,” Ayeoys whispered. He tried to jerk his paw away. “I’m very tired, m‘lord. Please, I just want to sleep.”

“Call me Thomas. And you can’t go to sleep right now. I need someone to talk to. I’m weary of listening to these nobles around us bicker and argue.”

Ayeoys’ whiskers twitched in a failed smile. “Rather you don’t want me to fall asleep, because you’re afraid I won’t wake up. Max has had to keep stopping by to make sure I don’t drift off.” The tiger tilted his head over and opened his eyes, looking in the direction of his brother. “Tim’s still feeling it, isn’t he?”

Thomas nodded once and swallowed. “He is. Are you... are you sure there’s nothing you can do to block it?”

Panting lightly, Ayeoys shook his head. “I’ve told you we’ve always been linked like this. Everything I think, he knows. Even things I see and hear and... feel.” Ayeoys closed his eyes and moved his head back. “I wish there was something I could do, but.... I can’t.”

“That’s alright, Ayeoys. You just have to stay there and keep awake. We’ll be out of here and find someone who can help you before you know it.”

“You may be able to lie to Tim about that, Thomas, but you can’t lie to me. It’s my body, I know that I can’t last much longer.”

“Don’t say that, Ayeoys.”

Ayeoys opened his eyes, deep amber like most tigers. Thomas saw they had an unfocused quality to them. “I don’t want to die, Thomas.”

“I know, son.”

“What’s going to happen to my brother? We’ve been linked like this since we were born. What’s going to happen when I’m no longer here?”

Thomas tried to bite his lip. “I don’t know.”

“Do you think any of us will survive?”

“I don’t know.”

Ayeoys turned his head away. “Then just leave me to sleep,” mumbled the tiger, the very tip of his tongue darting out to lick his nose before his eyes closed once more.

Thomas opened his mouth as if to respond but no words came out. Instead he closed it and looked away, back at the room half full of ragged nobility and disarrayed remains of their once party. It was once a bright and gay event, but now the torches and lamps showed a room of frightened and entrapped people.

The duke felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up at the face of one of his personal guards, one of the red stallions. “My lord, the ambassador wishes to speak with you. I’ll take over here.” Thomas looked past the guard at the lemur then back, nodding. “Hey, Ayeoys, did I tell you this joke I heard the other day?” said the guard as he sat down to replace Thomas.

The horse king offered the young tiger a pat on the paw before wishing him well and standing to depart. As he headed over to Yonson he kept looking back at the two soldiers, the one dying and the one trying to keep the first one’s mind off it. His hoof went to rub at his mouth in a very human gesture.

“I wish I could have done more for him, but I specialize in weather magic. I’ve never had reason to learn healing,” said a calm, rather subdued voice behind Thomas. The lemur had his arms folded across his very ornate purple tunic, cradling his oak staff in the crook of his arm. He had brought the staff with him simply from habit. He had been preparing a spell all day and had just taken it with him out when he went to the dinner. And in all honesty, he was quite glad to have it now. Thomas was still looking back at his page and rubbing his chin as his tail flicked about a little. “My lord?”

Thomas turned back, his hoof still on his muzzle. “I... I’ve never been that close someone who was dying before, Yonson. I’m not sure how to deal with such a thing.” His ears flicked, turning forward, then backing as he heard the subdued laugh of the soldier kneeling at the stricken page’s side, “I’ve seen death, and plenty, but never before have I faced anyone in the moments of their death.” He shrugged, holding up his thick-fingered hands helplessly, “I’ve only seen the corpses or the living, never anyone half way there.” His hands dropped, “And never before one whose name I knew, whom I knew personally.”

“It never is easy to deal with.”

“I believe you had something to talk to me about, Ambassador?” said Thomas as he looked back to the lemur, clasping his hoof-like hands behind his back to keep them from fidgeting. He straightened up and assumed something of his usual, business like manner. Anything to take his mind off what he had just seen.

Yonson’s tail was arched up in a lose question mark shape and wagged slightly side to side as he talked. “I believe I may have found a solution to the problem of this blizzard they’ve blinded us with.”

“You’ve found a way to dissipate the blasted thing?”

“Um, not quite, Thomas. The storm is simply too big for that. Eliminating it in such a fashion would play utter havoc with the weather patterns around the Keep for years to come.” Thomas’ ears lowered until they were sticking out to the sides in displeasure. “But I can let the storm continue on its normal course. If I can get outside, I should be able to overcome their influence and break the anchor keeping it over Metamor.”

“But you have to be outside to do it.”

“Yes, I have to be outside to do it.”

Thomas rubbed at his chin once again. “There is one way out of this room,” he finally admitted, his voice low enough so that only the weathermonger could hear it. “It’s meant for emergencies, so that the ruler could be evacuated in case a situation like this arose.”

“So why haven’t we used it to get these people out of here before now?” Yonson asked in an equally low voice.

“Because it doesn’t lead to anywhere inside the Keep. Do you know of the small garden terrace a story above this one? The one with the large clearing that extends all the way to what most people notice is an oddly reinforced wall?”

“Yes, I’ve been there. Weyden took me there shortly after he was transformed. Jessica showed it to him, and I agree with them both, it’s a wondrous view from there. Why do you mention it?”

“Because the passage way comes out there, in a small thicket of trees off to the east side. The whole thing was designed so that a dragon could land and take off quickly. It’s situated far from any area where an enemy could gather and be a threat. Were we to use that exit, we would have no way to protect these people should the Lutins discover us.”

Yonson was nodding. “That makes sense then.”

“What I want to know is if that would be sufficient for your needs to cast the spell?”

The lemur sucked in a breath through clenched teeth, his muzzle drawing up as he did so. His ears rocked back and his large, amber eyes expanded until the whites were visible. “I... really wouldn’t want to try it. This storm, from what I’ve been able to feel trapped inside as we are, is a very complex spell. I might have been able to warn you of it earlier but I was deeply involved in my own preparations for casting a spell tonight. As you know, that’s why I have this,” he said, gesturing to his staff. “No, I want to get as close to the storm as possible first.”

“Do you think you could make it past the Lutins we have roving all over this place?”

Yonson gave him a very predatory grin, an oddity on a ring-tailed lemur. “Yes, I think that my guards and I can handle anything we run into.”

“Okay then. Get them together, I’ll show you the passage.”

The passage was located in a small alcove off to one side of the throne room. It was ill lit and contained nothing that would give anyone any real reason to spend time near it. At least no one but the Duke, the purple robed ambassador, and his four bodyguards. Thomas reached back behind the statue of the warrior king who guarded it, his thick hoof-like fingers fumbling with the catch before finally managing to trip it and let the statue swing out of place. Larssen and Maud were quick to open it the rest of the way, relieving the narrow, back entrance. Humphrey and Deth kept watch to ensure that none of the other keepers would notice the disappearance of the ambassador. Deth was leaning his shoulder against the wall and using the long, ornate dagger he kept at his belt to idly clean his fingernails. Anywhere but Metamor a fourteen old boy seen doing that might seem a little odd, or sinister.

“It’s a direct route, so just follow it and you’ll be in the garden in no time. However the door to outside can only be opened from the interior, so you won’t be able to get back in. My advice is to head to the chapel. As you know, that’s where the rest of us are planning to go, should we finally escape here.”

Yonson nodded, shifting his staff about in his paws. “I understand, Thomas. I’ll be waiting there for you when we’ve finished our end.”

“Good luck then.”

The lemur and his attendants did not even spare the noble stallion a glance back as Thomas swung the portal closed behind them.

Illumination was not a problem, at least not for Yonson. He raised his staff up above their heads, a ball of white witchlight igniting at its tip. Maud was quite thankful for that, as it made her job of walking point easier. Not that she needed much guiding. The corridor was made up of solid blocks of the same masonry that made up the exterior of Metamor and was only wide enough for them to proceed single file. Behind her was Larssen, the ambassador behind him, then Humphrey and Deth. Larssen had to crane his neck over, as the ceiling was not quite high enough for the giraffe morph to walk comfortably erect. They walked for a short while before encountering the winding stairway to the next level. After reaching the top, the door was just within sight. The release mechanism was simple enough to trip and soon all five were standing out in a grove of small cedars, being buffeted by swirling winds and snows.

They resumed their previous positions, each flanked out to protect their ambassador, all with steel drawn. Yonson was somewhat thankful for the protection Humphrey provided from the winds as he raised a paw to keep the flurries out of his eyes. Having been turned into a husky, Humphrey was not overly bothered by the chill weather. At least the entrance back to the Keep was just across the open courtyard, the lemur reflected. When he had first seen the garden, it puzzled him why the entrance would be a corridor that curved back around towards the wall before opening into the gardens. Now that he knew it to be a covert extraction point, it made perfect sense. There was less chance of an attacker or assassin spotting one before they were seen themselves.

“Where to now, Ambassador?” asked Larssen once they had reached the shelter of the corridor. All were shaking the quickly accumulated snow off their coats or robes.

“Up. Central tower if we can get to it, any other one if not. I want to be close to that storm.” He turned about and brushed off a little that still clung to his tail. “I also want us to stick to servant’s passages and any hidden passages that we know. Maud, are you familiar with those parts of this level, can you get us to a passage quickly?”

She nodded, tucking a stray lock of her brown hair behind her ear. “Kyia is usually good about that kind of thing. Also, I have a sinking suspicion that all might not be well with her. Else why would that army still be outside the throne room? She’d have just transported them to another part of the Keep.”

Yonson’s tail flicked in acknowledgement, “I’ve been getting some strange feelings from the Keep as well. Our attackers have already shown they can employ some very powerful magic against us. Let’s be on our guard, even more than usual, understood?” He received nods all around. “Okay, let’s move out.”

They found the servant’s passage easily enough and quickly made their way up through several stories, Yonson’s witchlight once more lighting their way. Maud was thankful they had all chosen an elegant uniform as opposed to some form of gaudy dress for the evening, as it made such activities as these easier. But the weather had been more a factor in that; light shirts and leggings did not go well with snow and sleet. But the tailors at Metamor were quite good, fashioning fitting uniforms for such weather, complete with the emblem of du Tournemire, a white unicorn grazing in a field, emblazoned across the left chest. They all stopped upon reaching a small landing, Maud calling them up short before a doorway. She silently lifted the latch and made a speedy check of the hall beyond.

“Ambassador, I know of another passage close by that will take you to the top of the central tower. The passage turns into a maintenance access that leads directly to the roof. Some of the keepers use it for... amorous encounters.”

Yonson nodded back at her, though his head was cocked to one side and his ear folded over from that last part. “How far?”

“Down a corridor, around an intersection, then twenty to fifty yards, depending on Kyia. From there, it’s straight up to the roof of the tower.”

Giving the go ahead with a simple nod of his head, Yonson fell into formation with the rest of them. Each one was doubly alert now, as the main halls of Metamor didn’t provide anywhere close to the security of the narrow servant’s passages. Despite most being animal morphs, the five didn’t make a sound as they hurried down the hallway. Deth was taking up the rear once more, the hand holding his long, elegant dagger flicking back and forth across the hall as the kept watch for anything. As a child, he had the best reflexes and eyesight for the job. Humphrey, who was just in front of him, backed him up with hearing and smell. Larssen had an unobstructed view over Maud’s head, something the ambassador idly wished he had over the giraffe at that moment. Yonson was about to count their good fortune when they rounded the corridor into the massive Lutin patrol. The keepers all stopped dead in their tracks as the Lutins fifty feet in front of them began to advance.

“Ambassador, get behind us,” said Humphrey as he stepped in front of the lemur, his short sword braced in a defensive manner. Larssen drew his sword and joined the husky. Maud clasped Yonson on the shoulder and seconded Humphrey’s motion.

“I assure you, there’s no need for that,” Yonson said as he shrugged off Maud and shouldered his way past Humphrey and Larssen. “I can take care of this little bunch myself.”

Maud was about to protest further when Yonson swung his staff up over his head, lightning dancing up his arms and along the oak rod. Some of the attacking Lutins hesitated at this, several backing up. The purple runes upon it, which always glowed faintly, suddenly flashed into blinding white brilliance and the energies caressing the lemur and his staff began to crackle and rumble angrily. A moment later the lightning leapt from where it coiled about the staff and the mage and took to the hallway.

Maud idly wondered if her job was really all that necessary.

The guards at the door were surprised to see a group of armed soldiers wanting out as Dan’s small coterie arrived. At first the officer in charge refused their passage, thinking they were trying to make their way to the outer walls. After Christoff explained that they were on a rescue mission, they were reluctantly allowed to pass. The door guards informed the captain that there were probably small bands of the enemy already roaming the grounds, though, as far as they knew, no large force had yet formed inside the curtain walls.

"As soon as we see Lutins out there this door gets locked and barred." explained the guard coldly. "No matter which side of it you are on."

The door was unbarred and opened, and two soldiers slipped out quickly to make sure the way was clear. While waiting for their return, Dan leaned his borrowed spear against the wall. Reaching into his robes, he grasped the small amulet around his neck and spoke the trigger phrase. Suddenly, he was surrounded by an aura of warmth that immediately began to sink into his skin. Dan found the heat revitalizing, though the thought of having to step out into the frigid night put a damper on the feeling. Pulling his heavy robes tighter around, Dan began to steel himself for the effects of the cold.

The scouts returned, reporting that no enemies had been seen, though visibility was extremely poor. Twenty paces at most. The snow was piling up on the lawns and pavement, and the temperature was dropping quickly. The sun had already disappeared behind the mountains, leaving the yard draped in shadows. Torches were not taken lest their light attract the attention of unwanted eyes.

Stepping through the door and into the dark, the small band found themselves at the base of one of the huge spires that formed the Upper Keep. Beginning to circle the tower, they moved slowly. The snow was deep and constantly shifting under their feet as it was blown across the pavement by the winds. Across the icy stone they walked, scanning the whiteness that surrounded them for any signs of the enemy. Occasionally, someone would stop, thinking they had seen something, or maybe heard the sounds of battle over the howl of the wind. Yet the storm revealed nothing to them, alone in the frigid weather.

They slowly continued their trek through the dark, following the wall of the tower. It was a route familiar to Dan. One he had followed many times on visits to his earth-bound friend. Though never before had he made the trip in a blizzard while surrounded by the enemy. After a few minutes, a wall emerged out of the darkness.

"This is the wall of Laracin's Yard. It runs from here, and curves around to meet the main wall that divides the Palace grounds from that of the Lower Keep. I think it used to be some sort of private garden for a prince or some such." Dan explained to Christoff, speaking up to try and make himself heard over the wind. "I guess it still is, in a way."

Dan led the soldiers to a tall stone arch in the wall. Though the arch appeared to have been gated at one time in the past, the only sign that remained of the doors were some rusted hinges whose corroded bolts were barely holding them to the stone. Leaving two of the soldiers at the portal as watch, the rest of the group entered the yard.

The surrounding walls provided some shelter from the gusting winds. Even with the shelter, the storm still raging around them causing the surrounding to fade into a dull gray. The raised archway that ran around the garden was almost invisible. The garden plots that filled the yard were bare. Except for a few leafless skeleton-like trees and the short stone walls surrounding them, they were indistinguishable from the wide paths that snaked between them.

In the relatively calmer weather of the yard, the soldiers began to spread out. Most looked towards the reason that they had journeyed from the warmth and safety of the Keep. Standing in the middle of the yard, as he had for the last eight years, was Laracin. A black silhouette against the dark gray sky, his bare, knobby branches could be seen reaching into the night's sky.

"How the hell are we supposed to move that?" Dan heard one of the soldiers mutter as she looked up and down the larch morph's trunk.

Dan followed her gaze. Laracin stood the height of almost five men, stretching far above the heads of all assembled. Picking up a pick axe from a small alcove in the wall, Dan handed it to the solider. "Now we dig."

"I don't want to be stuck in a cul-de-sac like this place once the Lutins take the grounds. The other entrances will already have been sealed, and we wouldn't be able to fit the tree through them anyway." broke in Christoff. "Let's get to work people!"

Quickly distributing the few tools stored in the alcove, they prepared to start digging. Dan started by marking out a circle in the snow-covered earth.

"Dig along this circle. Hopefully that will leave Laracin enough roots to survive in the spring. The first foot or so of soil is going to be frozen solid, like rock, so let those with the picks work on it. Once we're through that, those of us using shovels, spears, swords, whatever, can join in."

Even as he gave his instructions to the soldiers, doubts began to flow through his head about whether Laracin would even survive his rescue. Even though the treemorph was asleep at the moment, the damage done to him in digging him out might be more then his system could take. Would it be better for them to 'rescue' him now, just to have Laracin die slowly as he came out of dormancy the next spring? Or would it be kinder to leave him to a quick, unconscious death in a Lutin cooking fire? Forcing those thoughts from his head, Dan cleared his mind for nothing but the task ahead.

The dirt was frozen soils making digging hard. The ice made the ground as hard as granite. The few shovels and picks were quickly pressed into service, with others hacking into the ground with what ever they had on hand. The sounds of metal clanging against the hard soil could be heard all around the leafless tree. Chunks of frozen earth began to pile up as they cut deeper into the earth. The circular pit grew around the tree. As they reached farther into the ground the soil began to soften, becoming more yielding to their efforts.

The work kept most warm, even in the bitter cold, though Dan was beginning to feel the icy tendrils slipping around his defenses. His body, unable to generate its own heat, was at the mercy of external sources; something that was in short supply where he was. If he had not been making use of the magical charm the temperature would have incapacitated him minutes after stepping through the door. Even now, he could already feel his responses begin to become sluggish.

"I don't think we're going to get it any better then that." called out Dan, inspecting the trench that encircled Laracin's trunk.

Jace pulled a canteen from his belt, took a quick swig and then offered the container to Dan. Taking a quick swig from the container, the grasshopper shuddered as the ice cold water flowed down his throat.

"So, what happens now?" asked Jace.

Dan pondered his answer while watching Captain Christoff talking with the sentries that had been left watching the door.

"We've cut through most of Laracin's roots." he explained, mentally wincing at the thought of the damage done. "Now we just have to cut under him to free the last of the roots, lower him to the ground and then carry him back to safety."

"Sounds easy enough." responded the young man.

"I hope so."

Christoff had finished checking with the sentries, and moved over to join Dan and Jace. "We don't have much time from the looks of it. We've been out here almost twenty minutes. The sentries haven't seen anything yet, but they can hear fighting all around. I think that the enemy is all but moving freely over outer walls. Soon the grounds are going to be flooded with a Lutin horde."

"Curse Nasoj for this." swore Jace. "If it wasn't for that damned wizard then those little green bastards would have never been able to organize enough to form an army."

With only a nod in acknowledgment, the captain called the troops back to work. A pair of ropes were tied around Laracin's trunk, guidelines for his decent. While the rest of the men took up the line, Dan, Jace and Christoff worked to cut through the last pieces of earth and wood holding the treemorph in his bed.

Christoff, using the butt of a spear as a lever, began to pry Laracin from his hole in the ground. Slowly, his trunk began to tilt. The slack on the ropes disappeared as the soldiers held them taunt against an uncontrolled fall. With a shudder and final sharp crack, the earth gave up its prisoner. The full weight of the tree fell on to the ropes, dragging those holding them across the icy stones. The slow decent began to speed up, only mitigated by the mass of those on the ropes, until Laracin's body came to a rest on the cold ground.

Quickly, the ropes were wrapped around Laracin, pressing his branches as close as possible to his trunk to make carrying easier. Dan winced at the sound of wood cracking as the frozen twigs bent under the rope, some breaking. The ten largest among the small company lined up either side of the fallen Keeper, hoisting his wooden body onto their shoulders.

The remainder, Dan and Jace among them, readied their weapons. Taking the point, the seven armed Keepers passed through the gate and back into the maelstrom of the Keep grounds. Slowly leading their encumbered comrades through the snow, they began to follow the wall, leading them back to Metamor and the safety of its walls.

Daemion is right in the middle of a scene of disorganized chaos.

Several of the kids are crying in absolute terror right now; many of them are obviously very badly shaken from the ordeal they just had to go through. Daemion is doing better than most, though; he listened to Uncle Jono and he considered what all could happen, and he went out and did it. And Uncle Jono did help beat the bad guys, but that Perry guy and Uncle Jono's friend Jo also helped lots.

What has Daemion spooked is that even the grown ups are looking scared now. Jeremy's dad looks especially bad... but then again, Jeremy got shot, so you can kinda expect that.

"He's wounded!" Kevin is screaming. "You've got to help him!"

Jo is already pushing her way through the children over to Jono, who still has Jeremy in his arms. "Set him down, I need to get that arrow out... Jeremy, are you feeling okay?" He doesn't respond, instead looking pretty listless. This is a bad sign; patients that don't feel good usually don't end up all that good. "I need some of Jeremy's friends to help me out here," she says, looking up at the kids.

Friends, she said. She needs help! And he knows he *has* to. He's the one who's going to be a healer too, someday... so before anyone else can volunteer Daemion jumps forward. "Need somethin'?" he asks. This is his big chance.

Joanne has her herbal bag out already and is getting out the materials for one of her bandages. "Daemion. Kevin, you too... I need you both to talk to Jeremy, keep him talking back to you, so he doesn't think about hurting, otherwise he's going to hurt more." Kevin nods and puts his hand on Jeremy's shoulder, looking very worried.

Daemion settles down next to his fellow snowfield veteran, looking concerned. "Hey, Jeremy, you doing okay?" he asks, getting a listless shake of the head. "Harder to dodge than the snowballs?" he asks.

Jeremy manages a smile. "...yeah..."

Joanne is muttering to herself, examining the wound. "Nothing serious hit, arrow isn't poisoned just a compress, maybe. Okay, I'm going to have to pull the arrow out," she calls out. "It's going to hurt him a bit more, so he has to be ready."

"She's got to get the arrow out, and it'll hurt more, but only briefly," Kevin tells his son, hand still on shoulder.

And Daemion watches, realizing concretely for the first time that this is serious stuff.

Of course, this was pretty much set from the beginning. That's actual blood from Jeremy's back, and he's got an actual ARROW stuck in his BACK! This is definitely the Real Thing. This is what real Healers do. There's Joanne, back there preparing to help treat the wound. There's Kevin, sitting next to Daemion, hand on shoulder like Dads always do and Jeremy's sitting there, looking listless still.

And Joanne said that that was bad! That's something to do. He has to get Jeremy talking, thinking about something. What is it that Jeremy always does?

Dares. Jeremy loves to make dares with people.

So Daemion settles back down next to Jeremy, looking at him very seriously, straight in the eye, like you Always do for this sort of thing, and says just barely audibly, "Dare you to stay quiet."

Jeremy grins, then clenches his eyes shut. "You're on."

To his credit, Jeremy doesn't scream when the arrow is pulled. He visibly winces, and tears roll down from his face, but he doesn't scream. "...told ya so..." he tells Daemion. Daemion knows that this is the part where he's just lost the dare, so he does his best to look grumpy. Of course, inwardly he's grinning in triumph. I got him to keep from screaming!

"All right, now I need to put the compress on, and then bandage the wound," Joanne says. "It's going to hurt a whole heck of a lot but then it'll stop."

"She's got to make the pain stop coming, so she's going to make it All come at once, but then it's going to run out, so you're going to be fine," Kevin tells him.

"Double-dog dare ya this time," adds Daemion. If it worked once...

This time Jeremy does let out a quiet "ow!" when the compress contacts his wound, but he keeps it quiet. "Beat you again," Jeremy says, obviously worn out from the ordeal, but grinning triumphantly up at Daemion.

Daemion, however, is grinning back. "Yeah, turkey, guess you did." And I got to be a real healer. He only barely takes notice of Kevin chuckling and saying something about "now we'll both have war wounds to remember" - his focus is completely on his friend, who he just helped.

Yeah. I'm gonna be a healer.

It was some time after Yonson had departed that the Lutins had made a renewed effort to force their way into the throne room. That time, though, he knew their defences could no longer hold. Thomas had ordered everyone who could to help transport the wounded out through the secret hallway. Since they would have all been dead otherwise, he saw no further reason to keep it a secret.

Aside from a small escort contingent, the rest of his guards had stayed to hold off the invaders as long as they could.

Thomas had insisted on being the last one out of the room, over the objections of his Steward, the alligator Thalberg. Duke Thomas however, had insisted. Unlike most of them, he was still capable of fighting back, should the need arise.

Besides, there would be a good number of warriors at the Cathedral, which should have only been a short distance away from the entrance to the garden.

Should have been, but strangely, was not.

Laracin’s rescuers had almost reached the Palace tower, coming around the last corner in the wall, when they ran into a small band of Lutin warriors. Jace, leading the escort, shouted out in surprise and warning as they appeared suddenly out of the dark. The Lutins seemed just as surprised to encounter the Keepers, and both sides stood there, staring at each other for a few seconds.

Jace reacted first, swinging his spear down on to the unprotected head of the nearest Lutin. That broke the stand still as both sides readied their weapons and joined the melee.

Dan raised his spear, facing off against the Lutin closest to him. It had been almost two years since he had been in a real fight with the minions of Nasoj. He had kept up in his training as required by his limited service, but had not had to put the training to use in that time. Even the infrequent patrols he had taken had been quiet.

Now he was plunged back into battle. As the fray began, the battle around him seemed to fade out, leaving only him and his opponent. The short green monster in front of him lunged at Dan with its blade. Leaping back, Dan dodged the blow causing the sword to miss and cut a jagged hole in his robes. This brought a sudden realization to Dan. Other then the natural toughness of his shell and the several layers of wool he had on, he was not wearing any significant armor, leaving him vulnerable to a stray blade.

Parrying the Lutin's next thrust with the shaft of his spear, Dan countered and jabbed at his opponent. The spear tip glanced off of one of the few pieces of metal armor the Lutin was wearing, deflecting off and doing no damage. Off to his side, Dan saw one of his companions go down under the blow of a club. The Lutin baring the club, satisfied that the soldier wouldn't be getting up again, turned his attention to Dan.

Now facing the attention of two Lutins, Dan fell back, putting his back to the wall. Making the mistake of trying to parry a blow from the one carrying the club, Dan grimaced as the shock traveled up his arms, almost wrenching them from their sockets. The wooden shaft of the spear fared worse, shattering under the impact and falling to the ground from his nerveless fingers.

Dan could not believe it, but his opponents were laughing, taking joy in his fear. Sensing an easy kill, they moved in quickly, pushing against each other, trying to be the first to end his life. Drawing forth his belt knife, Dan stood ready to face them, a strange sense of calm settling over him. If he died on this night, he fully intended to do it with Lutin blood on his hands.

The approaching duo saw the knife. They even pointed to it and laughed. The one with the sword pointed to the knife again, then held his hands apart at the approximate length of the Keeper's blade. He then pointed to his sword and indicated the length of its blade. Both of the attackers found this highly amusing.

Their laughter was interrupted as the one holding the club found a spear jammed into his chest. The other Lutin spun around, staring at his dying companion spitted on the end of Christoff's spear. Seeing an opening, Dan leapt at the other, embedding his knife in its throat before it could react. Dan grimaced as the sticky blood ran over his hand, soaking into the wool of his glove, its heat almost burning against his skin. He watched with morbid fascination as the life gurgled out of the Lutin, spreading out in a crimson stain in the snow.

"Come on. We have to get out of here before more come," urged Christoff, pulling the insect morph to his feet.

Dan looked around the battlefield in a detached haze. Bodies littered the ground. Mostly, noticed Dan, Lutins. He knew he should be relieved, but for some reason he was not. In fact, he did not feel much of anything. The world around him was in a haze. Suddenly a new feeling rushed over him.

"Cold." he gasped before collapsing unconscious into Christoff's arms.

Fox slipped through the back hall of the Keep, staying hidden from the Lutins that were swarming the place. Loud, smelly and noisy, it was a simple matter to stay out of their way well before he could even see them.

He had seemingly been on his feet all night, since the assault on his home had begun. Moving freely throughout the Keep, while others were pinned down, he was attempting to locate the major players of the Keep, hopefully to bring everything together so this battle could be ended.

The corridor he was currently in was lit by the soft light of lantern that shed its light over the hallway and gave an eerie quality to the stones.

He rubbed his fingers along his neck, where the small dagger hidden inside of his collar was chaffing against his fur. He hadn't worn these clothes in the years since he had arrived at the Keep, and they no longer fit him.

Nor did he fit them. He had become his new self of the Keep librarian so thoroughly that he no longer thought of him self as an assassin, or even an ex-assassin. To return to the reins of the job at this time was startling to him.

It was necessary, though. The Lutins in the Keep had most of the people pinned down, and someone had to do reconnaissance. Fox had yet to find anyone to report to, but he suspected that wouldn't last much longer. He had to run into someone with authority sometime soon.

Slipping past another wandering Lutin, he started down a short stairway. About halfway down he heard voices in the distance. Nothing he could make out, but they sounded urgent, and were definitely hushed.

He moved slowly down the rest of the steps, the pads of his bare feet making little noise. He stood in the shadows at the bottom, eyes narrowed, glad for the improved night vision his form gave him.

Five humans were huddled a hundred feet away. Crowded tightly around each other, they whispered with some force. Each one was armed with swords, and a few looked dangerous. Help from outside perhaps? Or was that too much to hope for.

The group pulled back, and a woman behind the group started giving orders, pointing in different directions. One person went down each hall, for a second leaving the woman standing by herself.

In that instant Fox got a reasonable look at her face. He almost panicked, and did jump back slightly, but landed smoothly enough that he made little noise. If she was here, this was not help! He suspected it would be a direct attack against the Duke.

And one of her men was coming right towards him. He took a deep breath, steadying himself as he pulled a long dagger from his belt. He had no choice, he had to kill all five of these. He was counting on his ability to navigate the Keep to take him to each one. She would be the last, though — she had to be.

Slowing his breathing down, he pressed himself against the wall. Holding perfectly still, he starting counting his heartbeats. The man came closer, and closer, then walked past without even noticing that he was there. With a single move, so practiced that it was an act of thought, not will, he lunged forward, grabbed the man by his hair, and stabbed his knife through his neck, severing both the artery and windpipe in one swift move.

Still, there was much more than the normal amount of blood. That was to be expected, he was years out of practice. It had been so long since it had been on his hands that Fox started to feel a bit ill. Placing a paw against the wall, he took deep breaths, calming himself. Now was not the time to go about getting sick; he had a job to do.

Wiping the dagger clean on the back of the man's shirt, Fox started down the hallway. Reaching the intersection where they group had split up, he picked one semi-randomly, and started down it.

He moved with as much speed as he could, while remaining stealthy, which wasn't very fast. The claws on his toes had a tendency to click when he went above a fast walk. He tried to keep it quiet, but found that it was almost impossible; it was the price he paid for moving without shoes.

It took a few minutes, but he managed to catch up with the next assassin. Slowing once he saw him, he moved as silently as he could. When he was only a few feet away, he slowed his pace further, creeping up on the lone figure, dagger held at the ready.

He must have done something wrong, because his target spun around. His hands latched onto Fox's arms, and he rolled back, throwing Fox down the hall. Fox's dagger went skittering off on the stones, but he already had another one in his paws as he rolled through the fall, and up into a crouch.

The two glared at each other over the short distance. Each one judging the other, as they both shifted their weight from side to side. Fox wasn't sure how long he could stay in this standoff. He still had three more to go; the human, on the other hand, could keep this up as long as he wanted.

So Fox acted first, faking forward, then jumping back. The human reacted fast, twisting around to block the fake attack, but in the same move lunging at where Fox should be.

Fox was a few feet away. He grabbed the assassin's arm and twisted it hard, throwing out the weapon that was in his hand.

The human spun around, twisting Fox's arm back, while wrapping his own around his neck. Fox gasped at the suddenness of the move, trying to claw at the man on his back with little luck. He resorted to more forceful methods-- he threw his back against the wall.

The human gasped, the sharp sound of his head connecting with the stone wall filled the corridor. His grip relaxed around Fox's throat, but instead of moving away Fox reached for the assassin's belt, and pulled out his short sword.

Drawing it up under his shoulder, he slammed it into the human's chest. Putting his weight on the sword's hilt, he pulled it down, cutting through the man's chest plate with a snap, and burying it in his gut.

Rolling away from the body, Fox gasped. Two down, three to go... if he didn't get sick first. He held back his bile, taking a few breaths to calm himself. The smell of blood was much stronger than he remembered it ever being. An enhancement brought on by the curse no doubt. At that moment he didn't appreciate it.

Standing, he turned towards the body, intending to retrieve his dagger. At least that was the plan... instead, he found himself face to face with the assassin's leader.

She smiled, her eyes sparkling as she summoned a light. He winced slightly at the suddenness of the spell, but tried not to show it.

"You killed two of my men," she said in an accusing tone of voice, that was yet somehow playful. She stepped closer, until she was an arm's length away from him, confident that he wouldn't attack her. She was right; for now, Fox wanted this confrontation to play out before he attacked her.

He shrugged his shoulders, his tail flicking back and forth. "Not that you care," he commented, in a stern, harsh tone. She flinched like she had been hit. "I'm hurt, really I am. I do care about them... but your little game has provided me with more money."

He snorted. "Always money! I see you haven't changed at all. You still gloat to people when you should be killing them."

She tapped the bottom of his muzzle with a blade. "I'm not your normal killer, my dear animal. I have class, style--"

"And an ego the size of Mt. Kara," Fox quipped, with a smile.

That brought her up short, more than his original comment. "How dare you speak to me like that," she protested. Her reply lacked force, but clearly carried her indignation that anyone would even talk like that to her. So much so that she lowered her dagger to chest level.

Fox laughed. "What, you don't remember your husband?" he asked with a smile.

Her face fell, "Kell, is that you?" she asked in soft wonder.

"In the fur, Ki, and I'm Fox now."

She swore. "How dare you call yourself my husband," she said with a growl, "you never showed up at the wedding!"

He waved his paw down the hallway. "I got waylaid."

She snorted, stepping back, dagger in hand. "Damn it, what are you? The horse-king's private killer?"

"Nope," he said with a slight bow, producing a dagger of his own. "I'm the librarian."

Ki laughed, but it was short, and ended quickly. "I always knew you had a soft heart."

Fox shrugged, flicking his ears as well. "People change."

She nodded, "Yes people do! I take it you're not going to join me, you're going to protect the Keep." She wasn't asking a question of him, she was stating the obvious.

He nodded.

"Damn it, that means I'm going to have to kill you. And you look so good in fur," she said with another laugh.

"Or me, you," Fox answered, "It's just like they always said, isn't it? One of us will not survive this encounter."

She took a step back, glancing down the hallway. "A question first-- do you still love me?"

He nodded. "Of course. But you're here to kill the Duke, and I just can't let that happen. I'm sorry it has to be this way."

"So am I," she answered, shaking her head slightly, turning out her magical light as she did so.

In the sudden darkness, Ki was just a shadow, a figure in the black. He could forget who she was, and concentrate on what he had to do.

She started running down the hallway. A good choice—right then and there was too obvious a place to start the fight. Fox went after her, moving as quietly as he could, allowing her to get ahead of him.

He wasn't too worried, though. He took a side passage, one that moved in a long curve, coming out at a place that was ahead of her. Quietly, he thanked his Gods for allowing him to easily navigate the Keep, before he moved towards her.

Ki wasn't there. She should have been, but she wasn't. It wasn't until she was attacked from the side that he realized what she had done; blended herself with the shadows.

He rolled as he fell, landing hard enough on his side that something cracked. He let out a yelp of pain, but was still able to move out of the way as Ki came down towards him slashing with her dagger. She only grazed the side of his chest, cutting open his skin.

His own blade was out and in the air, meeting her arm, and digging across the muscle. She let out a yell of her own, and punched him in the muzzle.

Fox threw his own punch, but she was gone already, on her feet and running again. "Damn it!" she called back over her shoulder. "That was my good arm."

"Of course," he called back, pulling himself to his feet, wincing as the broken rib grated against itself.

She responded with a short "Ha!" before disappearing around another corner.

He shook his head, trying to lose the pain in his muzzle from her punch, it faded slightly, but he suspected it was injured as well.

It was back to the chase. This time he decided to do something a bit different. He once again cut around her, moving though the Keep's hallways with an ease many would envy.

Once more he was in front of her, but he did not step that way. Instead he drifted back down the intersecting hallway, hiding in the shadows.

He waited quietly, holding his breath, listening to her echoing footfalls as they approached him. A second later her figure passed in the darkness; Fox didn't move, though. This was surely a trap, she would not let the sounds of her travel carry like that.

Biding his time, he continued to wait. No more than half a minute later, another figure appeared, this one moving quietly, barely touching the floor.

Fox charged, knife and claws out. Ki saw him at the last second, twisting around to defend herself. Fox arced his dagger over his chest as he landed, slicing through her clothing, and into her left breast. She rolled as he attacked her, throwing him off before he could reach her heart.

He landed in the hallway on the far side of the intersection, sliding on the stones. He was on his feet almost before he came to a stop, weapon held to attack, as he started a new charge.

There was a flash, and he was presented with a wall of flame. He tried to stop, but found the floor had become like ice, sending him sliding into the flames.

They were hotter than any normal flame, burning through his clothing, to his fur, then his skin. They left burns down his side and back as he fell through them. He crashed to the floor on his shoulder, flipping over and landing on his burnt back.

He let out a howl of pain, then Ki was on him. He rolled, and rose to a crouch, pulling a new blade from his clothing, but she wasn't above him. He twisted around, but a new attack came from the side, throwing him to the ground, as he felt a blade rip through his tail.

His first reaction was to kick at her, before he let out a new yelp of pain. She danced away, holding the bottom third of his tail in her hand.

Fox growled, pulling himself to his feet, glaring at her. She smiled, throwing up another flame wall, then another, and another. He was boxed in the intersection, no way out.

"You stay put, hon," Ki called. "Maybe once this is over we'll get together for dinner."

"You shouldn't spare my life," he growled to her, dropping to the floor, dizzy from the shock. He forced the pain down, though; he couldn't fail now. Instead he took the ragged end of his tail and shoved it into the flame. He bit back his scream of pain this time.

Ki didn't respond to his statement, but he could hear her running down the hallway. He pulled the end of the tail from the fire, finding it in even worse condition, but no longer bleeding.

Rising to his feet, he judged his new balance. Finding it lacking, but not severely so, he then turned his attention to the fire.

Only one way out, and that was through. Swearing to himself, he moved all the way back to the far wall of flame, before running and jumping through the front one.

This time the flame wasn't as hot, perhaps because it was spread thin over the four walls, but it burned him nonetheless. He ignored it, and hit the ground rolling, then was back in his feet, once more at a dead run.

He couldn't keep doing this-- the next encounter had to be the final one. He knew they were close to where Thomas was, a place he had avoided to prevent himself from being ordered to do, well, pretty much what he was doing right now.

There was one last place he could make a stand against her; just outside of the Duke's location. It wasn't going to be easy, but there was nothing else to do.

This time he wouldn't bother trying to get ahead, it wouldn't work. Instead he was going for a simpler approach. He kept after her, slowing down a bit as he got too close, but not within seeing distance.

Ki would be expecting another attack from the front or the side, not from behind. Not after the last time. Anyway, an attack from behind wouldn't work. He had just one chance.

As they neared the proper spot, he started running again, straining to keep his claws from clicking on the floor. He got closer to her, seeing light filtering up from the stairway before her.

Finally he burst into a hard run, using all of the remainder of his strength. She heard him coming, and turned to face him, only to have his shoulder slam right into her chest, forcing her back farther down the hallway, right onto the steps.

They fell together, both fighting to get a weapon as they crashed down the stone steps. Each time they hit caused a new yelp of pain. Fox felt his leg snap as Ki fell on it, twisting in an entirely wrong way as they landed on the hard floor.

They both pulled apart, weapons drawn. Ki was panting, a long and thin dagger in the hand of her unwounded arm, her chest covered in blood. She looked unharmed from the fall, as far as he could tell.

Fox pulled out his last dagger, a squat one, made for close quarters fighting. It was then he realized that just as his dagger was once a gift from her, and the one she held had come from him. The light in the room caused it to shine slightly.

"It ends now," he whispered.

"Yes," she said, smiling. "How appropriate that it's with the weapons we gave to each other."

"A question first," he said, pulling himself to his knees. "Do you still love me?"

She gave him a sad smile. "Yes, with my heart and soul, just as I always did."

"Please surrender?" he whispered, "I don't want to kill you."

She shook her head, "You know I can't do that."

"I know," he answered, wiping away a tear that was starting to run down his face. "I will bury you at your home," he whispered.

She smiled. "I will bury you there, Kell," she answered.

He nodded, taking in a deep breath. "Good-bye."

"Good-bye," she responded.

They attacked as one, both moving toward each other almost as if it was planned, daggers clashing in air as Ki punched at his heart. Fox executed his attack differently, sinking his teeth into her arm, biting deep into the tendon, and pulling his head back, tearing at the skin.

She fell back, slashing at his face before the dagger was lost from her hand. it cut up the right side of his muzzle, shearing off the center two whiskers at the root.

Fox swung his dagger down, slamming it into her chest, right into her heart. She let out a ragged scream, gasping softly as she died.

He didn't move, just stayed on her body, holding the dagger, crying to himself as blood dripped down the end of his muzzle. He told himself over and over again that he had to do it, he had no choice.

One of the large doors of the room opened, and a guard peeked out, a perplexed look on her face.

"There's two more assassins," he gasped, rolling off Ki's body.

The guard vanished, and the two doors opened wide. "I know," Thomas said, looking slightly haggard as he stepped out of the room. "We've already run into them."

Behind him, Fox could see dead bodies in the room; two he recognized as the assassins, the others he couldn't tell.

"That's good, sir," he said with a sigh. "This was their leader," he said by way of explanation for the body in the room. He sighed softly, suddenly feeling drained of all emotion, all feeling, darkness beginning to creep in around his eyes.

"We are moving to Father Hough's Cathedral," the Duke said, looking over Fox. "We will be safer there."

"Good," he said, starting to feel light-headed.

"He needs a healer," someone in the background said, Fox wasn't sure who.

He nodded in response, falling onto his hands. "Yes. Not a Lightbringer though; that would be bad." He tried to say something else, but finally fell onto his face.

As darkness wrapped around him, the last thing he heard was someone commenting on his condition. He didn't hear all of it, but they did say that none of his visible wounds were deadly.

He thought that was a good thing, as he drifted off into his dreams, to spend them with his wife.

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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