The Winter Assault

Part 7

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

Oren of Hipocc stood with his feet ice cold in the snow as he somberly took a head count to see who was currently assembled and who was available to attempt to retake the tower.

Shamgar the rhino was there. He was a tough bugger, able to take a scimitar in the brainpan and come away thinking that his opponent was being playful. Unfortunately, his head was nearly as thick inside as it was outside.

Shamgar's girlfriend, Blake was there. She was trained in the ways of the assassin. Unfortunately, she was truly bad at them, and at present, she was a blithering lunatic, all of her attention focused on the severed Lutin hand which she'd managed to claim.

Desuka was patting himself to keep warm. The panda was an indoor man, accustomed to life among artisans and scholars within the Temple of the Creator. He was a gentleman, not acclimated to cold nor warfare. Still, there was the rumor that the tinge of red in his fur was a hint at the savage beast he transformed into whenever he became enraged.

Jesse Roo stood at attention, looking very serious. This gave Oren cause to worry. The kangaroo was a formidable fighter, with a unique magical weapon few could match. However, his lack of frivolity spoke of a troubling deep down. Oren thought he knew what it was. Jesse's mother had remained in town, and might very well have already been killed.

Natalie sat perched in the bare branches of a tree, watching in the direction of the Keep and the lighthouse for any sign of activity. She was also a very valuable asset, being not only a dragon, but a magician who specialized in shrinking her enemies. Of course, Natalie wasn't a fighter. Her special power was only ever employed as a means of escape.

Xan, Leo, Sambrea, and a handful of others from Oren's homeland stood ready. They were the young Hipocci warriors, untrained and untested in battle. They were willing, but were they able?

Lastly, there was Oren himself. Would the otter be able to lead this group and retake the tower which was their home? He prayed that he could.

"All right, lads and lasses," said the otter. "We're going back into the Lighthouse to reclaim it. Now, it stands to reason that a direct assault will be no less that a total failure, so we're going to be sneaky. Here's what we'll do..." As he elaborated the plan, some people began to smile, some to frown and shake their heads in dismay. However, all agreed.

The soldier he saw earlier is not any kind of rat; Kirk can see that clearly now. Rats don't have wings. He's looking at a bat.

"You are?" he asks.

"Corporal Mortimer Jahnsen," the bat replies. "Serving under Captain Breckenridge. Where's the rest of the South Gate guard, sir?"

"Back at the Gate," says Kirk, peering about the tower while he fills the Lieutenant in. "They're holding it as long as possible, at which point they sync up with everyone at the Banquet Hall.

There really isn't much to see in the tower, he notes idly; most of the kids managed to discover that rather quickly. The only major points of interest consist of two sets of stairs leading upward (rotating up clockwise as always), one presumably to various archery posts in the wall of the tower, the other leading to other floors like this. There's also a heavy wooden door which they just came through, barred shut now and thankfully not being pounded on. There's also several barrels off in a corner, presumably holding water or food or similar supplies, and a staircase heading down. This last is currently populated with children as they head downwards towards the cellars, and the tunnels connected therein.

"So you're just passing through, sir?"

"Heading for the tunnels, right," Kirk tells him. "Southward bound. How're people holding out here?"

"Making it as hard as hell for them to get through, sir!" the corporal says proudly. "No way they're getting through Our gates." Jahnsen is obviously a very young soldier; perhaps he enlisted a few months back.

"Right," Kirk grins, giving the corporal a punch on the shoulder - light by his standards, but Jahnsen definitely notices. "You tell everyone I said to make it as much hell for those Lutins as you possibly can."

"Sir!" Jahnsen says, saLuting smartly before heading up the stairs.

"Good kid," Kirk mutters to himself before he heads down into the tunnels.

12/24 - 11pm.

They're not nearly as bad as everyone swears they are. Nearly. The walls are like black pearl, in some areas nearly reflecting the light from Kevin's pseudo-witchlight. Of course, they'd all be shrouded in utter blackness if ever the light went out, and the only sounds are those of dripping water and shuffling footsteps as they move along, so madness could very easily claim any one of them if they were alone here. _At least I'm not alone, many of them think to themselves.

Several of the kids are yawning widely, clearly very tired - most of them have bedtimes around 9, and it's well past that, but they still haven't found what looks like an appropriate resting spot.

Jeremy seems to be doing okay after his small encounter; he's been in pain but it's gone, Jo has told him that he's going to be all right - she said something like how the arrow glanced off a bone and manage to miss most of the organs, but he has no clue what she's talking about there - and so he's feeling Real good. _I've been in a battle, I was wounded, and I survived! has been the prevailing thought on his mind for quite a while now. At this point, though, he's thinking less and less of all the medals Duke Thomas is going to give him for being a wounded war hero, and thinking more of when they're all going to sleep. Of course, he doesn't mention this. The Deal is back on - Uncle Jono said so just before they entered the tunnels - and he doesn't want to risk losing a chance at the promised pie. And besides, no true war hero is ever tired at 10pm.

Jono, if he was aware of that thought, and thinking straight himself, would likely disagree with this notion. He's been keeping himself very busy for the past couple hours keeping kids out of harm's way as best he can - and, he hesitantly admits to himself, doing a fairly decent job, excepting the arrow that hit Jeremy but you couldn't have stopped that arrow, Jono even if you were there you wouldn't have seen it coming._ Still, he feels doubt about his abilities now. He keeps focused outward, ears up and listening for any possible sign of advancing Lutins that perchance might have discovered this tunnel, determined not to lose or allow to be hurt any more of his charges. _Should have seen it coming..._

Derek didn't see it coming either, and he was right next to Jeremy that instant. He seems pretty recovered now from his earlier adventure out with the Lutin he pasted with a snowball (_if that had been a real weapon, he'd be Long gone!_ he thinks to himself; he can exhibit bravado now that he's not face to face with them anymore) but still wonders about that moment from before with Jeremy. Of course he knew he had to keep running; there was nothing that he could do for Jeremy, and he knew darn well that there was no way Uncle Jono would ever leave Jeremy lying in the snow. _But doesn't a real warrior defend his comrades in arms?_ He could have taken the arrow down with a snowball, if he'd had a little time to get the snowball together and see it coming... that and if he hadn't been particularly obsessed with running as fast as he could at the time.

Daemion is feeling no remorseful feelings whatsoever. _I can be a Healer! I really can help save people!_ He'd certainly proved that beyond doubt... right there, with one of his best friends hurting, in front of his dad and the healer Joanne, and he did it! He feels he's got reason to be proud; the last time he asked an actual Healer about what made it so difficult, he'd been told that the biggest problem was being able to relate to the people and to have the energy to help them; mixing the compounds that did the curing was simple compared to that. _And I just pulled that off!_ He's not thinking, of course, that the circumstances were relatively good for this sort of thing (he wasn't doing the fixing, this is a friend of his and thus someone he knows... details like that). That would only discourage, and he doesn't Want to be discouraged. He's going to be a Healer, and he knows it now.

All Kevin knows at this point is that they are all in very, VERY serious trouble. _That storm is not natural!_ He said as much to the others while they were assembling just outside the tunnel. For the first time ever since his apprentice days, he was unable to draw on the manna needed to cast a spell. And in the same instant, it was all too clear why. _They've thrown this storm at us and cut off our manna supply in the process... dear Gods, we are all doomed ..._ He's extremely nervous because the vast majority of his ability to defend himself is through magical attacks and defenses. He's always been able to provide proper support to anyone who needed it just through his talents with the fire and lighting magics, and now... _now nobody can provide magic support. Nobody except Nasoj and his friends._ He sees this as (quite possibly correctly) the stroke that will kill Metamor, and so it's all playing out in his mind... the hordes sweeping over the Keep, flowing into Midtown and the Northern Midlands, then down through Ellcaran and across to Elvquelin, through Kelewair and Salinon... destroying all they see, defiling every place... _dear Gods, we are all doomed..._

Joanne is thinking quite the opposite. _We still have hope. The Glen is still free._ She's absolutely certain of it. She still clearly remembers her amazement at how well hidden the place managed to be, even After the stories she heard about it from Garigan. _And I didn't even manage to check up on him yet!_ she realizes, wondering about what her friend might be up to. Knowing him, of course, he's almost certainly eager to check up on the Glen, even though (to her) it's perfectly obvious that there's no way Nasoj could possibly find and defeat them. After all, the villages are in ruins. He knows he destroyed the place. He wouldn't bother checking, even in the summer, and this storm would clearly mark such activity as extraneous. There's no way they could be in any danger. _The Glen is still free. We'll get through this. There's still hope.

Kirk's only hope is that they'll be through with these damned tunnels soon. _I swear, these things take forever!_ Even in the back of his mind he knows that they haven't been travelling all that far; if they were aboveground it would take just as long an amount of walking, except they'd have things to occupy their Attention so it wouldn't Seem as bad. Villagers, homes, folks on the walls to wave to and shout "Halloa!"s to... _But that's in peacetime. Right now all that would occupy our attention is those foul Lutins._ So even though he can't stand these tunnels, he knows it's the best option for the kids, and so he begrudgingly follows them.

Perry, as a counterpoint, follows quite willingly. _These are children of the Keep. They are my Duty._ He's always been one to take Duty seriously; back in the days when he was a little one not much older than these kids he remembers quite clearly how his Dad - his actual Dad before the Battle of the Three Gates, not his mom-turned-Dad - used to lecture to him. "The men, and mayhap in the future the women who have and will rule this realm shall and must always be of good heart and intention. Be it that they Are of such heart, you must follow and defend them and those they rule to the best of your ability; be it that they are otherwise, you will seek to insure that those next in line of good Heart are defended, for in time all rule reverts to the Wise and the Just. This is your responsibility and your Duty as a warrior to be, and the way of our family for generations." Perry, in keeping with these words, has loyally followed Duke Thomas for all his life ever since he was old and fit enough to join the Keep military, and he has never felt regret. He knows he is part of a greater Whole, and nothing dissuades him from his part in it.

Dana is still wondering what her part in this debacle is supposed to be. _How did I get involved in this?_ Of course, she can think of the obvious - her younger brother (she never thinks of him as her little brother anymore) Kirk had her under his command at the South Gate - he's always been the clever, commanding one - and she kept with him when he went off to assist Jono, and thus somehow ended up tagging along. But she's not all that effective in these circumstances; since her becoming herself rather than himself, she's gotten excellent at general swordplay, and thus can easily fight off individual Lutins or even pairs of them for hours without breaking much of a sweat; thus her position as a Gate guard. _But here..._ She only managed battle out in the open as Darren because her size at the time intimidated enough that few had the courage to charge, and now as Dana it's even more difficult for her to move in the open properly. She could probably fight in the tunnels, though. Hopefully she won't have to put this into practice.

All Josh is practicing at the moment is blank mindless terror. Josh is too young to think of much more than one thing at once, and right now that thing specifically is all the bad guys out there who are going to eat him. _But Uncle Jono's here_, he reminds himself. _Uncle Jono can beat any bad guy!_ So when Uncle Jono says that they can stop here for the night, he will stop. Because it's Uncle Jono.

Jono's only just getting started about thinking about stopping when suddenly the tunnel turns a corner - for the first time in all this time - and they find themselves in what looks to be a cellar of some kind. In one of the far corners is a large pile of hay that stretches out across most of the floor; the other corners are filled by large sacks of what could be grain stacked all the way up to the ceiling. Said ceiling looks to be made of... wood? Jono gestures to Kevin, who raises the witchlight... yes, it's wood.

"Anyone know this place?" Jono asks, his voice just hovering at the whisper level.

"Cellar of the mill tower," Kirk replies, also whispering. "I think this might be a good place to stop. The kids are getting tired."

Jono nods, then turns to the kids. "Okay, everyone," he says, talking only barely above a whisper. Various kids stop and tap others on the shoulder so they can all pay close attention. "We've found ourselves a nice safe spot to sleep tonight. The Deal's still going on, though, so I need everyone to be quiet. There's a pile of hay over there so you can get some of that to sleep on. Sleep well, everyone!" He tries to keep his voice cheery, but it's difficult when you're trying to keep your voice down. Still, the spirits of the children seem to be adequately raised, and so they head over en mass to the haystack, gathering bits of hay for places to sleep.

Jono turns to the others. "Watches?"

"Dana and I, Perry and Kevin, you and Jo," Kirk says quickly. "I think you two ought to take third, Perry and Kevin take second, while the two of us take first. You're all very tired from the ordeal, and need to get your sleep."

Jono doesn't argue; instead he simply nods. "Agreed here."

Nobody else voices an objection, so Kevin sets the stone projecting the pseudo-witchlight down in the center of the room so the two on watch can see, and then Kirk and Dana each pick a spot opposite each other, leaning against the sacks of grain as everyone else settles down to sleep.

The four men who were still surrounding them scanned cautiously from side to side, two at his front, and two behind. Thalberg walked at the Duke’s side, his massive tail swaying nervously behind him. The alligator clutched his left arm with one hand, pressing the sleeve of his official robes against a bleeding gash. The stain appeared only as a darkening of the satin, a wound that he refused to let anyone else see. Nor would he allow Thomas out of his sight, having refused to go with the rest of the wounded from the Throne room as they were sent ahead to the cathedral. In fact, he gained that gash when he’d leapt in front of a Lutin’s blade before crushing the monster’s head in his massive jaws.

Thomas stared wanly at his friend of so many years. Though Thalberg was often cantankerous, and usually very insistent about being his Steward first, there had been times on those bitterly cold winter evenings when they had just shared a drink together and watched the festivities, or talked of the times when they were children. Posti had been with them in those days, and this would have been the first winter without him. The attack only seemed to highlight the former Prime Minister’s absence, like an open wound that had become infected and began to spread.

The hallways were dim, many of the torches that hung in the braziers had been extinguished. Kyia must have diverted the wounded to another hall, to allow them to reach the cathedral quicker. But why had she not left the way intact for him? The Duke noticed several of the tapestries had been torn down, and those that hadn’t had either been slashed to ribbons or defiled by the Lutins. Thomas grimaced as he surveyed the rampage and wanton destruction, knowing that it would tear Malqure’s heart to see it, were he still alive. Some of those tapestries had been in the Duke’s family for generations, and some had been even older. A few were untouched, but only a few.

Already, thoughts of how he could make Nasoj pay for this latest atrocity were going through his mind. He flicked his ears in greater annoyance at each work of art that he saw ruined. The damage had been not nearly so terrible the last time this had happened; the Lutins had never really managed to get into the castle itself the last time. Might they succeed in destroying them all? He hoped not, but his heart was heavy with that fear.

A glance from Thalberg and those menacing yellow eyes told him that his Steward felt the same thing. Yet, they also told him more, a worry that even should they push the Lutin hordes back, would they have enough fighting force left to strike back? And who would lead the fight? How many of his good soldiers would be gone after this was over? Those questions only made his heart sink even further.

The two guards before them moved quietly along the carpeted floors. Thomas himself had soft shoes placed over his hooves, so that he could move silently as well. The clatter of his hooves on the stonework would resound through the halls, and so many years ago he’d had these socks made to muffle that noise. The worked quite well, and aside from that one Lutin band they’d stumbled across, they’d seen nobody since.

But just as he was dwelling on that, the clinking sound of armour approaching came from one side passage. The four guards tightened their grip on their weapons, while Thalberg tensed visibly, his jaw hanging open in case he needed to bite again. The foul aftertaste of dirty Lutin still permeated the alligator’s maw, leaving him with an oily, ill sensation of disgust. The goat standing before him held up his paw, and raised one stubby finger, and then pointed around the corner, his short tail wagging in anxiety. The stoat at his side rolled his long daggers about in his paws and nodded.

The boot heels continued to sound though, and ere long, out strode a man dressed in plate armour, bearing a sword and a shield. He turned to face them, his visor down, so that all they could see of his flesh were his eyes, and wild eyes they were, consumed by some unseen desire that would not be denied. His armour was mostly ceremonial apart from the white cross emblazoned on the front, while upon the escutcheon was a white bend sinister across a solid green. It only took the Duke a moment to recognize the heraldry. The sword and shield he carried were considerably more serviceable in appearance.

“Yesulam,” he muttered as he stared at the knight in that single moment as the man had turned to face them. “Why is a knight from Yesulam here?” he called out, his voice carrying slightly, but not far enough to attract any attention the clattering of the knight’s mail had not already brought.

“I came to claim thee,” the voice inside that polished helm spoke, dull but intent, indicating the Duke with the unwavering point of his polished longsword. The two guards stiffened and advanced upon the knight, who had strode forward, his own sword fresh and without stain or nick. Thalberg interposed himself between the knight and the Duke, while the two guards at their back charged forward to meet this new adversary.

The goat swung his sword in from the side, but met the knight’s shield with a metallic whack, while the knight’s blade thrust forward towards the stoat, who parried it with both of his narrow blades. With a heave, the knight threw back the goat, sprawling him against the wall, then sliced his blade upwards, neatly severing one of the stoat’s arms just above the elbow. The mustelid cried out in agonised horror, falling backwards, blood drenching his surcoat even as he gazed at the lifeless limb that had landed with a wet smack upon the damask carpet.

The metal of his armour clanking with every movement, the mysterious knight slapped the goat’s head one more time with his shield, and then turned his attention once more upon the Duke. The other two guards however, had jumped between them all. The first, a woman, thrust at his helmet with a slender blade. The knight lifted his shield, ducking low, and let the sword ineffectually screech off its smooth surface. Thrusting his broad sword even as he blocked the woman’s strike, he speared the ankle of the spaniel that had tried to come at him from the side. Yelping at the pain, the spaniel jumped back, only to collapse as the paw gave out from underneath of him. Turning then, the knight slashed his heavy sword across the woman’s lighter blade, which shattered just above the hilt without slowing his strike, and opened her abdomen as neatly as a surgeon’s blade, spilling her entrails out in a viscid surge as she sighed and crumpled to the floor on top of the goat’s prone form.

Thalberg snatched up his own blade then, pushing the Duke back a pace, and he spread his arms wide, his jaw dropping to expose the rows of sharp teeth. The knight paused then, as he kicked the cringing spaniel’s head with his steel-toed boot. He rubbed the pommel of his blade with his gauntlet, the wild eyes narrowing as he considered this massive foe. And then, he charged forward, shield held high and his sword arm moving low.

The Steward stepped back a pace, bringing his own sword up underneath, trying to slide it around the shield. But the knight was well trained, and dropped his shield to counter the blade, as he sliced upwards, striking at the alligator’s arm. Despite the fact that he was a reptile, and covered in several layers of cloth, he was able to move out of the blade’s path, but the effort cost him his own blade as the knight changed his strike slightly, hammering the hand basket of the alligator’s blade soundly, sending it humming away as the reptile’s sword hand went suddenly numb. Hissing, Thalberg snatched that hand back before it got severed, and struck out with his other, raking his claws across the knight’s visor so hard that it twisted half around on his head.

Suddenly blinded, the knight from Yesulam stepped back several paces and slipped slightly in a pool of blood, dropping his sword as he reached up to readjust his helmet. Thalberg surged forward in that moment of weakness and grabbed at the knight’s shield with both of his hands and yanked at it, intent on dragging it off the knight’s arm, or dragging the knight of his feet if luck were with him. However, he did not expect the knight to actually give it over. Thrusting out with his arm, the knight shoved the shield into Thalberg, sending the alligator crashing into the near wall. Lifting his helmet from his head, he revealed his face, fraught with fury and pure desire. Beneath the canopy of long dark hair, amber eyes flashed.

He swung his helmet against the side of Thalberg’s head suddenly, smacking him across the cheek and red blood began to flow from beneath the yellow green scales. The alligator was not finished however, and threw the shield off of his chest, then snapped his jaws at the knight’s face, which was now exposed. The knight took a step back, leaning away from those horrible jaws, and caught the folds of the Stewards robe with one hand. He yanked hard upon the fine, tattered robes, pulling the steward close for a brief moment, their eyes locking for a brief flash of time. Thalberg let out a sudden croak as he was spun about on his feet, falling face first against the wall, slapping his head right between the eyes. The mysterious foe then reached down, retrieved his sword, and with one swipe, sliced through the gown and into the alligator’s back.

Duke Thomas stared, aghast, as his old friend slowly slumped against the wall, leaving him to face the rogue Knight of the Ecclesia alone. He had no desire to abandon his friends and servants, yet he was no fool either. Whoever this knight was, it was clear that he meant to kill him, though Thomas could not fathom why a knight of Yesulam would desire such a thing. He cast a momentary glance at the weapons scattered about on the floor not far away, then discarded the idea. He was passably decent with a sword, but this knight was something else altogether. Thomas knew that, having dispatched four battle hardened veterans of the Three Gates, the knight would make very short work of him. Turning on his hooves, Thomas fled down the corridor, intent on escaping the man. Surely an armoured knight could not outrun a horse who was intent on escaping. Yet a sudden pain tore into his back and he fell forward onto his face, bruising his sensitive nose.

He clambered once more to his hooves, forcing himself to run despite the terrible pain in his back. It did not eel as if he’d been stabbed, more like he’d just been hit by something. Taking a quick glance behind him, he could see the knight racing after him, retrieving his helmet, and hurling it once more at the Duke’s back. Though he tried to jump aside, he was to late, for the solid thwack sent him spinning, tumbling to the stone floor as the weighty steel slammed into his face. A new ache greeted him, one in his jaw as he moved it about. One of his teeth had been broken.

He looked back, perhaps to grab the helmet and make off with it, but as he looked up, he could see the knight only a few feet away, picking it up once more. The gaze on the broad face was one of triumph. “Thou aren’t going to make me hurt thee anymore? ‘Twould be a pity to damage a fine stallion such as thyself.”

Thomas felt fear and a great anger building in his chest as the knight stepped closer. Tensing his legs he pulled them closer to his body as he lay there, watching the knight approach smoothly, idly noting that the human was not even breathing hard yet. With a snort he kicked at the knight’s shin, but his hoof only met empty air as the man danced nimbly aside. Pulling a knife from his belt, he pressed it firmly against the Duke’s neck. “Thou art going to allow me to slip this upon thy head, or I shalt kill thee.” With his other hand, he produced a rather ordinary-looking halter.

Thomas took one look at it, and glowered, “Never!”

The knight shrugged and then pressed the blade of the knife firmer into the Duke’s neck. Wincing, Thomas let out a pitiful whinny, before he nodded softly. Instantly, the knife’s edge was drawn back a bit, and he could feel the other hand lifting up his muzzle. He open his lips and tried to bite at it, but the hand was gone in a moment, and a fist slammed down into the side of his head, making his sight swim.

While the Duke tried to resolve the multiple images of the knight into one cohesive whole, he felt the leather against his head again, and he pulled back, trying to get away from the vile thing. Yet the knight placed his other hand at the back of his head, and forced it on, tying the cinch tightly, fixing it in place. And then, even as he stared past the straps over his nose, he saw the man tracing something on his forehead with a single finger. A sullen blue nimbus filled his vision for a moment, and then his body was on fire! Agony raced through his limbs, wringing an agonised gasp from his chest as he fell on the floor and convulsed in a vain attempt to escape the pain.

Thrusting back away form the man, Thomas squirmed, trying to draw his hands up to his face to rip the halter off. Only, as he looked down, he found he no longer had hands, only the hooves of his full horse form remained. With a rending pop the clothes on his back tore from his body as his flesh stretched and grew. He whinnied in terror, thrashing about as he managed to rise to four limbs, kicking at the air, trying to shake the awful fire from his body.

And then the pain was gone, leaving him nothing more than just a horse wearing a halter over his head, standing in the hallway with the knight looking on rather pleased with himself. He turned his mind towards changing back into his morphic form, but that fire exploded over his flesh once again, causing him to fall back to the ground to writhe in agony. As he lay there, he let go of his desire to be anything but the horse, and the fire subsided, leaving him with a strange sort of calm, one that did not feel natural at all.

He breathed slowly as he lay there, his tongue working at the broken tooth, until he had managed to push it out of his mouth around the cold metal of the bit that he’d been forced to take. Try as he might, he could not get it out. His eyes glared up at the knight, and he once more climbed to his legs, intent on charging the knight. He knew that he could kill this man, horses were not weak by any standards.

Yet, the man just stood there, and smiled to him, and spoke one soft word. “Stop.” Instantly, Thomas’s hooves sealed themselves to the ground, every muscle in his body stiff. He burned with the desire to strike out at the man with his forehooves, yet he could not even lift them. The knight then walked over to his side, standing just as tall as Thomas. He pulled one of his gauntlet’s off and began to gently stroke through Thomas’s mane, ruffling it gently between his fingers. “Thou art a beautiful stallion, and thou shalt sire horses to make the clans of the Steppe feel shame.”

Thomas’s eyes went wide at that pronouncement, realising that this man intended for him to spend the rest of his life as a simple horse like every other. He wished to run, but his body would not respond. The man walked back down the hall, retrieved his equipment, replaced the helmet, and then took the lead to the halter in one hand. He clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, and suddenly Thomas found himself walking beside the man at a slow trot. Whatever enchantments were in this halter, they had completely reduced the Duke of Metamor to an obedient and tamed horse.

12/24 – 11pm

Two figures moved slowly down the corridor. Both moved with a care and stealth that bespoke many long years of ambush and fighting. Coming to an intersection they stopped. The man in the lead was tall, with hard eyes that stared at the world from beneath a tangled mane of hair. Gold rings decorated his ears and hands. In spite of the relative warmth of the Keep, he was dressed in a thick fur coat. In his hands was a spear longer then he was tall. Gold covered the blade at the tip and runes covered the wooden handle. This was no mere throwing weapon but a potent close combat one. In the hands of a veteran like this it was a deadly weapon.

“Ferwig, we are close to him,” said the woman behind him. The three rings in her right ear jingled as she nodded to emphasize her point. Like her counterpart she was dressed in heavy furs. Unlike him she carried no obvious weapons.

“How close Teria? Which way?” Ferwig asked.

Her gloved hand pointed to the left, down a hallway. “In that direction forty feet. Around a corner,” she answered in a confident voice. She always sounded confident, even if she wasn’t.

The man nodded and moved off in the indicated direction. In a moment they reached a corner and both stopped. Ferwig quickly peered around the corner and then pulled his head back. “There’s nothing there,” He told her. “No guard, no sentry post, not even a door.”

Teria closed he eyes and muttered an incantation under breath. She stood unmoving for a moment, then pointed off in the direction they had just come from. “Now it is that way, thirty yards.”

Ferwig muttered a curse under his breath and started off back down the corridor. The weird magic of this place was unnerving him. He knew it was unnerving Teria as well, but she would never admit it. They had entered the Keep with four others but Ferwig and Teria had lost them. No dramatic fight or insidious trap, Ferwig and Teria had turned a corner and lost sight of the others for a moment. They turned back around the corner and the others were gone, and so was the corridor they had been in. All they found was a door leading to an empty room. No amount of magic could turn up any trace of what had happened to the other four. They couldn’t spare any time to search for them, they simply had to push onward without them.

They had gone about twenty feet they came to a door set in one wall, a door that hadn’t been there before. The sign on it read simply “Patrol Master” in gold inlayed lettering. Below those words was the image of a bow and a boot, also in gold inlay. No guards blocked their way.

Teria passed her hand over the door and its knob with her eyes closed. She opened her eyes and looking at her partner, shook her head, indicating that the portal was not protected by any magic or traps. Ferwig gripped his spear and nodded his head towards the door.

The woman calmly began a quiet incantation, moving her hands in small circles, until a dull red glow started to eminent from her fingertips. Ferwig kicked in the door with a heavily booted foot.

Teria pointed her hands into the room, “FA SHUM,” she shouted and the glow shot off her hands and raced through the open doorway. A brilliant flash of light and dull boom lit up the room and flames licked at the doorframe for a moment, then died down. Spear in hand, Ferwig rushed through the door with Teria close behind.

12/24 – 11pm

When Ryuo finally arrived at the doors to the Duke's chambers, he noticed the doors were ajar. Attentive to any possible threats, Ryuo threw open the door and looked into the room.

It was a mess. There had obviously been fighting here, earlier; there were bodies all over the place, most of them Lutins. Their bodies seemed to have been left where they had fallen, and pools of tepid blood covered what could be seen of the floor, drawing a morbid mosaic upon the slate gray stone floor. Lifeless eyes stared at Ryuo from a myriad of faces, but the Duke's was not among them. This did nothing to assuage Ryuo's fears, however, as to the Duke's well-being.

Turning to leave and continue his search for the Duke, a stir caught Ryuo's attention, accompanied by a pained groan. It came from a limp form in the corner, which Ryuo had not noticed before. As it sluffed off the dead weight of a Lutin corpse, Ryuo recognized the gold-furred pelt of Gil, one of the Keep's Regulars.

Another groan escaped Gil's lips as Ryuo propped him up, slowly bringing the groggy lion back to consciousness. Slowly, the great cat opened his amber eyes and looked up at the fox's concerned face. "Ae-Aeryl?" He asked, squinting his eyes. Ryuo looked blank for a second and then glanced around. Lying behind an overturned desk was a human male—another one of the regular guardsmen of the Keep Ryuo had come to know. A broken short spear was protruding from his blood-soaked doublet. Ryuo turned back to the lion and shook his head.

Closing his eyes, Gil sighed -which brought forth a sharp gasp as pain flooded his leg. Gritting his teeth, Gil grabbed at the offending appendage, drawing Ryuo's attention to the blood-soaked limb. The lion's pants were soaked in blood, but beyond that he could not tell what was wrong.

Grabbing the fabric of Gil's trousers on either side of the leg, Ryuo tore the blood-soaked cloth open, exposing the limb beneath. With the obscuring cloth removed, Ryuo could easily tell that the limb had been broken. Gil hissed with a sharp intake of breath as Ryuo tried to clear the wound, but he refrained from crying out.

Ryuo worked quickly, stripping off his belt-like sash and removing his swords from their scabbards. Carefully he placed his scabbards alongside the leg, and gingerly lifted it up, using his silk sash to create a temporary splint for the injured lion. As he worked, he put his own questions to Gil.

"Where is Duke?" Ryuo managed to ask in his broken speech.

"At the cathedral... I think." Gil said between gasps, "The others took him... they're... keeping him safe."

Finishing the knot, Ryuo contemplated what Gil said. At least the Duke was not amongst the dead. "Where is Ko?" Ryuo asked next, turning his thoughts back to Gil's injury.

"I don't know," Gil said, still panting, "Probably with the Duke." Ryuo nodded at this, then looked down at Gil. The lion morph was too large and heavy for Ryuo to move anywhere, and if they were caught in the hallway they would both be sitting ducks. He needed a second person to help move the injured lion.

Holding up the short tanto, Ryuo handed it to Gil. "I go and come," he said, "Wait. I go and come." Ryuo looked around the room, examining the layout. Carefully he moved some of the furniture around, obscuring the lion. Nobody entering the room would think twice that there might be someone in back, perhaps keeping Gil safe from the Lutins loose in the Keep. If they did find him, well, he had the tanto. At least he could kill himself before they could get to him.

Taking one last look at the room, Ryuo took off for the Cathedral. There, he hoped, would be someone who could help.

Thalberg forced his eyes open as he clawed at the wall to rise to his feet. The slash had forced him to his knees, and then his vision had gone dim as he lay there slumped against the stonework. Turning his head to the right, h could see the four guards lying upon the ground, blood splattered over their flesh and across the carpet. He couldn’t tell if any of them were alive just from a glance. Duke Thomas, and the mysterious knight of Yesulam who’d attacked them, were nowhere to be seen. With a terrible gnawing fear he suspected that Thomas’s head would soon be decorating some Lutin general’s banner.

Glancing at the four prone forms, he peered at the blood, and then passed them down the hallway. His memory was acute, even if his mind had been wavering in and out of consciousness, but he knew that Thomas had been standing farther back away from the guards. If he’d been killed, where was the blood to indicate where he’d fallen? A sudden thought struck him and he breathed slightly easier as he dug his claw tips into the masonry. Perhaps Thomas had been wanted alive as a present to be brought back to Nasoj? If that was so, then perhaps he could still be rescued.

Turning his head in the other direction, back towards the Follower Cathedral, he tried to move one foot forward, but found he had no strength left in his legs. Collapsing, he fell to the floor with a pained hiss and a muffled whump, the thick folds of his ceremonial robes protecting him from the impact. However, his back sent a dull crushing ache through his mind. The wound was not terribly deep, or otherwise he would already be dead, but it was still agonising. Reaching forward with one green-scaled hand, he gripped the stones and pulled himself close to the wall, and towards the bodies of the four guards.

The woman was clearly dead, as half of her organs lay upon the goat’s motionless form. Reaching out his hand, Thalberg pressed his palm against the narrow face of the goat, and could feel warmth still within the flesh. His grin crept up a bit, though only imperceptibly. As a reptile, he lacked detailed facial control, but what little he did have, he preserved as often as he could when alone. Turning to the other two figures, he could see that the spaniel’s skull had been cracked from the kick, and he doubted very much that he would live long enough for even magic to save him. The stoat however had managed to tie a ribbon around his severed limb before passing out.

Crawling closer to the musteline, Thalberg gripped the ends of the ribbon in his hands, and with a tug, made sure that it was tightly bound. Perhaps he would survive, but only if the Steward could reach the Cathedral in time. Patting the dog on the side of his cheek, he gripped the stone work and began to pull himself along the floor down the hall, one aching foot at a time. Hand over hand, he tugged and clawed, scratching the stone at times as he drug his immense weight behind him.

He briefly considered climbing on to the carpet, but dismissed the notion almost as soon as he had thought of it. His clothes would catch and drag on the carpet, and he was just as likely to drag the carpet to himself as he was to drag himself towards the Cathedral! And Thalberg needed his clothes to keep him warm, otherwise he might slip back into torpor and never come out again. And if that happened, any hope of saving Thomas could be lost. He’d served the Duke for too many years to allow any pain or discomfort stand in his way to protect him. Grunting, his thick tongue pressed up against the long roof of his mouth, he continued forward one hand after another.

The hallway twisted and turned before him, as if it were being warped by unseen hands. Yet Thalberg knew that it was just his own eyes and delirium playing trick son him. With each painful tug he drew himself forward upon his belly into that miasma, that ever changing hall. Beneath his claws he could almost feel the floor move, undulating beneath him like a snake, writhing like a mass of earthworms in a fisherman’s pail. Blinking, he tried to abjure those fearful images, tried to force the hallway to solidify and remain still before him. Yet that only drug up further images, images of things that he knew were not really there.

He could hear the laughing voices of children running through the halls. Thalberg let out a sullen groan as he drew himself forward, watching the shapes of those little boys and girls materialise before him. Dressed in brown knickers, except for one young boy whose fabric was made of vibrant blue, the children were kicking some soft leather ball through the myriad of halls of the Keep. There was one other lad, much taller than the rest, and older, who appeared to be rather nervously watching the boys, the one dressed in blue in particular.

Crawling at the stones, the painful visions of memory gouging his heart, Thalberg tried to reach out, desperate to stop what he knew to be coming, to unleash a warning to the children to stop them from their play. He could feel the floor cold even through the folds of his garments, bitterly cold as that day had been, and so to was this day. They should never have been allowed to play ball inside the ever-changing Keep. Yet there he stood, watching them, knowing it was foolishness, but unwilling to speak his thoughts to stop it.

He let out a terrible bellow as he saw the boys kick the ball around a corner, and towards where the open staircase led off the promenade. The ball skittered off one balustrade, and lay on the edge of the stairwell, resting on the thick, embroidered carpet and waiting for a boy’s foot to send it careening off again. Thalberg, bellowed in terror as he tried to reach the children, the injury to his back pressing him firmly to the ground like the alligator he was every time he tried to rise, as if crawling upon his belly were punishment for just standing by and letting the tragedy occur.

Two of the boys, the blue clad one and a friend, both went for the ball at the same time. But the one in green, a smart looking boy, with bright blond hair, and pudgy face, slipped on the stones and cried out in surprise, grabbing the blue tunic of his friend, before toppling both of them down the staircase. The young man then darted forward, racing down after the tumbling children, but his efforts were in vain. When he reached the bottom of the staircase, the blue-clad boy’s arm was twisted in a way it should not have been, and the other boy lay with his head cracked open along one side.

Thalberg, beat his fist upon the ground, a thick sob coughing up from his chest as the images began to melt back into that ever shifting hallway. Why hadn’t he spoken up, he could have stopped it all? He would not keep his thoughts to himself, no matter who he had to speak them to, or what the consequences of his opinions might be. He closed his eyes, trying o wipe those children from his memory, but though they had faded from sight, they still remained clear to him, as clear as if it had just really happened.

He’d told the Duke he shouldn’t send so many men with the librarian, he’d been most insistent about it, but again, he’d just stood there and went along with the foolishness. Now his liege was taken by that knight, suffering some unknown fate, while he crawled like a simple reptile through halls he wished to forget. Could he ever forgive himself should Thomas die? Thalberg did not know, but he doubted that he could.

Grunting, he threw out his claws once more, dragging himself around the last corner before the Cathedral. The wide double doors were closed, probably barricaded as well. Yet he had to reach them and get those inside to open them up. He was the Steward of Metamor, he would do everything he possibly could to save Thomas’s life, even though it was his fault he had not done so sooner.

Yellow eyes watching those double doors twists and warp, he reached out his other arm, dug the claws into the space between blocks, and dragged his belly and tail over the stones. His breath came heavy, and he could feel the soaked garments cling to his back, rubbing against the cut, and intensifying the pain he suffered with every motion. Yet he kept his eyes focussed on that door and the evanescent braziers on either side. No fever dreams would distract him now, no painful memories would call him to days of old. He would reach those doors.

One block of stone at a time, they grew closer, and yet they also seemed to twist away from him, as if some higher power wished to deny him his one chance for redemption. It was true that he was a Lothanasi, though he only attended the important celebrations, as his duties took up much of his time. And even so, he rarely offered supplication to the gods, preferring to rely on his own council as his father had instructed him and his younger brother.

With a sudden pang, that stairwell was before him, and the two falling children tumbling head over heels to the veranda below. He reached out one green-scaled hand, as if to catch them and draw them back up, but they fell away, crashing to the bottom as before, as they had every time he’d turned his thoughts to that day. The young Thomas lay there in his blue silk with a broken arm, while Thalberg’s own brother lay, his life seeping out as quickly as the blood flowed from the crack in his skull. His council had advised him to allow the boys their fun despite the possibility of accident in the halls of the Keep. His own council had advised him not to argue the point further after Thomas had declared for the third time he was sending three of his men with Fox Cutter. How trustworthy was his own council?

He tried to bellow in anguish, but his throat only allowed him to cough weakly. He turned his mind towards the gods, gods he had neglected in his pride and stubborn persistence. Reaching out his claws once again, he called out to them as well, seeking strength to continue forward, and safety for his liege from whatever evils that knight may think to visit upon him. He did not know how it would be possible, but he even asked for the Keep’s help itself, hoping that she could assist in the thwarting of that man. Yet, he could not remain focussed solely on even the gods for long, they would have heard him anyway. He needed to reach the Cathedral doors.

Yet when he opened his eyes, he saw that the doors were there before him, as if he had been picked up and deposited before them. Balling his hand into a fist, he beat upon the base of them, a dull thud resounding back along the hallway. He would not question the good fortune given to him, but offered thanks up to the gods, never once considering the irony that they had helped him to the house of worship for a rival faith.

He continued pounding for nearly a minute before the door was opened and a sword point thrust into the air above his head. Glancing up, he could see another knight bearing the escutcheon of Yesulam. For a moment he felt a brief flare of panic at the sight. Had they come to claim Metamor as well, for their Mother Ecclesia, and cast out all those that were not of their faith? He cast that fear aside almost as it fell upon him, for he was not looking upon the fair face of some young, idealistic knight. Rather he was staring, past the heraldry, at the a face that had lost almost all vestiges of humanity, leaving the knight with the tapered muzzle of a rather large deer. “Thalberg?” he heard from the cervine throat, before the doors were pulled wide, and several armoured men bearing sharp weapons ventured into the hall, while several soft, gentle hands gripped him beneath his arms and dragged him inside the Cathedral.

He could see Father Hough flanked by a racoon dressed in a simple priestly cassock standing just a short distance off. The young boy gazed at him with concern. “What happened, good Steward?”

“We were coming here,” Thalberg said quietly as he lay there, the gentle hands pulling at the folds of cloth on his back to expose the wound. He winced as the fabric dragged over the cut again. “A knight attacked, and took the Duke.”

“What?” several voices exclaimed.

“Is he dead?”

“What about his guards?”

“Where did he take him?”

“Is he alive?”

Thalberg just coughed in anguish. “I don’t know.”

The raccoon knelt beside him and examined the wound. Thalberg stared at his face hard, but could not place him. With a soft whisper, he placed his paw upon the exposed scaly back of the Steward, and began to chant very softly. A litany of some sort, but different than any the Steward was familiar with, in the old tongue favoured by the Followers, but there was a power in those words, which came to the alligator’s realization with some surprise. Thalberg felt a warmth spread through him then, as if he were wrapped in blankets soaked in hot water. With a bit of a start, he realized that the pain in his back was gone, though he still felt terribly weak.

“You should live, Steward Thalberg,” the raccoon said then, offering him a slight grin underneath his furry mask. “Now who was this knight that took the Duke?” Thalberg could sense the many Keepers who crowded close to see and hear what he had to say. A few were cut and bruised, but it appeared that they were safe here at the Cathedral as Thomas had hoped.

“He was–“ Thalberg peered closely at the stag that had greeted him at the door. “He was a knight of Yesulam.”

There were several gasps and shouts of “Impossible!” from the crowd. Yet Thalberg shook his head. “I know what I saw, and I think I know his name.”

“Who was it?” Sir Egland asked, leaning in closer. “And how could a knight of Yesulam come all this way, and why would he be interested in the Duke?”

“One body was missing from the Patriarch’s camp after it was slaughtered, a body of a knight had been carried off. It is possible this is the same man.” Thalberg ventured quietly, letting his voice drop so that the proclamation did not carry beyond the acute hearing of those closest to him.

Egland and the rat Saulius looked at each other with sudden apprehension. “Bryonoth?” Egland whispered, his skin suddenly shivering.

“I think so, he spoke as a Flatlander. His accent was unmistakable,” Thalberg said before he was given over to that racking and wheezing cough again.

“But why would he take the Duke?” the racoon asked, his face bemused.

“I don’t know, I just know that it was him.”

Egland stood erect and looked down at Father Hough and the racoon. “I’m going after him and I will rescue the Duke.”

“Thou shalt have myself as a companion,” Saulius declared hotly, rubbing the hilt of his sword with one paw. He was joined by at least ten other soldiers standing close by who insisted upon going.

Father Hough shook his hand and held out his hands. “We cannot send all of you, we need you for the defence here. I’m afraid if we spare too many men for this, you may still fail, and the hordes of Lutins will crash in her and slaughter us all.”

The racoon nodded his assent. “Father Hough is right, I would only send as many men as is absolutely necessary.”

Thalberg coughed again and then gripped the hem of the racoon’s robe. “Thomas’s guards, some are still alive.”

Hough grimaced. “Eight men then. Egland, you and Saulius should go, as you both knew Bryonoth. Six others will be drawn by lot, four of which should carry the guards back here so that we can heal them. I know it is not many, but it is truly all that can be spared for this.” The boy spread his hands apologetically at that.

Egland shook his head, the massive antlers that rested atop them slicing the air neatly. “Four should be enough, as long as we do not walk into a horde of hundreds of Lutins. And even if that happens, I think we could outrun them. Though the thought of showing such cowardice pains me, we cannot save the Duke if we are dead.”

Thalberg did not hear any more after that, as the sullen pain in his back, and the terrible exertion he’d undergone to reach this place had taken their toll on his mind. With a hopeful sigh, he allowed himself to drift into unconsciousness.

When the woman and her small group of soldiers had left the four Sondeckis alone in that intersection, the bodies of Lutins strewn about their feet, their minds began a new journey, despite the exhaustion that they all felt deep in their bones. After facing what had become of Wessex and the Shrieker, finding this new threat, one that promised to swallow them all and destroy everything they cared about, they discovered that they each possessed reserves of will that had heretofore been untapped.

“Well,” Charles said, retracting the Sondeshike into its compact form, “we’re going to have to do something about this. If Nasoj is moving his troops into the city, then we will have to hold the Keep.”

“We can certainly help kill these Lutins,” Jerome said, nudging a green head with his foot. “But we don’t even know what’s going on out there. We need some specific goal to rally around, not just killing random groups of Lutins. We need a plan of action, and others to follow it through with.”

Zagrosek rubbed his chin thoughtfully, tapping the ferrules of his Sondeshike upon one foot. He then cleared his throat and looked to his friends. “I would say our best bet is to find some safe haven that we can defend and launch counter-attacks from for now, and then, once we are sure of the situation, make more elaborate plans. I’m sure there are places in Metamor that would be fitting for such, assuming that they haven’t been overrun already.”

The rat nodded, rubbing one paw through the fur of his bare chest. The tips of his brown fur had been singed in the fight with the Shrieker, though most of it was undamaged, for which he was grateful. “I know a good place for that. Though, I want you two to know, that by staying here you risk ending up like myself. We can not know how long this siege will last.”

Zagrosek shrugged, as did Jerome after a moment. “We are Sondeckis, and we are friends. If we must become animals, then so be it.”

Charles grinned, his two large incisors prominently displayed at the front of that smile. “Then let’s go, there’s no time to waste.”

Garigan shook his head though, his eyes very uncertain. “I’m not going there, Charles.” The ferret declared quietly as a slow trickle of blood crept down from one corner of his muzzle. The damage to his teeth lent an odd lisp to his voice that in another circumstance may have been humorous.

“What?” Matthias asked, turning to face his student in surprise.

“I’m not going to the Long House, I know that is what you have thought of. It would be the best place to hold, you are right, but there is something else that I am thinking of. I want to go back to Glen Avery. If Nasoj is attacking, then his forces had to pass by my home. I have to know if it is still there.”

“Glen Avery?” Jerome asked, looking between the two Keepers, neither of which paid much attention to him at the moment.

“Garigan, that is a five hour carriage ride to the North. Even in the summer, with Nasoj’s army out there, it would be extremely dangerous. There is a blizzard all around us right now, and the temperature is too cold to go walking around in. We have to go to the Long House. The Glenners can take care of themselves.”

Obstinate, the ferret glared back at the rat, the expression exaggerated by the blood smearing his chin. “When I came here to Metamor, it was under your promise that I could leave at any time I choose once I became a green; once I could control my emotions. I choose now to leave Metamor, and to leave your service. I will go to Glen Avery, no matter what snowstorm is out there, and no matter how many Lutins Nasoj has stacked in my way. Nothing will keep me from my people. Nothing!”

Charles looked at the face of determination his student wore, and remembered well his words to Garigan when he’d first taken him on as his pupil in the Sondeck. Never had he thought they would come back to haunt him like this. Unable to look into the drown eyes of the ferret, he turned instead to Jerome and Zagrosek, who stood quietly, watching them both with a curious gleam in his dark eyes, waiting to see whose will would come to fruition.

“Well, you both can find your way to the Long House. Just head back to the Sondeckis Shrine. The other door leads into the Long House where you will find a fox named Misha. You can help with the defence there.”

Zagrosek peered curiously. “What are you going to do, Charles?”

“I’m going with Garigan to Glen Avery.” The rat declared, looking to his student. Garigan started at that, his stubborn eyes giving way to both surprise and delight. “I do not believe he could make it on his own, and so I will go with him to see to it that he makes it safely home to his people. We’ll help with whatever needs to be done there to repel this invasion.”

Jerome shook his head. “If you are going to this Glen, then I am too.”

“And me,” Zagrosek crossed his arms. “After seven years, we’re finally together once again, you aren’t getting rid of us that easily! Besides, four have a better chance of making it through this than two.”

Charles and Garigan exchanged glances, both of them filling with their new-found unity. The rat then peered back at the two human Sondeckis and nodded. “All right, the first thin g we need to do is head back to my quarters. It’s awfully cold out there, and we’ll need warmer clothes.”

Jerome laughed slightly. “Do you really think you’ll have anything in our size?”

“You managed to get here in this storm didn’t you?” Matthias replied, smirking, even as he set out down one of the passageways, scanning up and down the lamp lit corridor for signs of passage or ambuscade. “Come on, let’s not waste time. We have to get past Nasoj’s forces too, remember! That’s not going to be easy either!”

The other three were quick on the rat’s heels, Jerome at the back, casting his eyes down the passageway behind them, and at the bodies still piled unceremoniously in the hallway. They would eventually be cleaned up he knew, but for now they were a testament to the battle that had begun all around them. Already they could hear the distant, muffled din of other battles coming from all directions, none of them close enough to let the four intervene. Zagrosek and Garigan were between the rat and hulking human, both eager and prepared for whatever lay ahead as Charles forged the path. Their hearts were stirring, the apparent ceaseless energy of the Sondeckis quite discernible in each. These were the moments that they trained for, and even that they lived for.

When they reached a wide staircase, Charles peered down the smooth steps, noting the way the shadows moved along either wall as the torches flickered in a small breeze. It was cold, so they knew that somebody had opened a door or a window nearby. Yet only the dry scent of snow rose to them on that wind, nothing else. Uncertain, the rat descended the steps anyway, taking them one at a time, clutching the compact cylinder that was his Sondeshike, running his claws across its smooth surface. It was cold, like the wind, but when he extended it, his own energy would warm it.

Halfway down the steps, he thought he heard a noise from below, some muffled voice. Holding up his paw to the others following after him, he peered closer into the subtle light. No other sound came to him as he waited, is breath held in check within his chest. All that he could hear was his heart thumping in his chest, threatening to break through his rib cage and spill out onto the floor. His tail drew in close to his legs, the scalded section stinging slightly as it ran across the fabric of his breeches. Finally, he slowly lifted one foot-paw, and began to measure his way down the steps again

Before he had set that paw back upon the granite steps though, a sudden muffled clanging rose to him from the other side of the hallway. Drawing his claws back from the stone, he quickly and silently darted to the other side of the staircase, pressing his back to the wall, feeling its chill touch reach through his fur and send a shiver down his spine.

Doing his best to ignore the discomfort he signalled to the others to wait, but be prepared. He found himself unconsciously using the Long Scout signals, but apparently, his meaning was made clear, as Zagrosek nodded, holding out his extended staff in both hands. Charles did not dare extend his own though, at least not yet, for it would ring like a man drawing a sword, and alert whoever waited behind that wall of his coming.

Finally, standing upon the last step before the wall turned, he heard that muffled slap yet again. The cold wind blew past his face, disturbing the fur on his muzzle, and making his whiskers twitch in annoyance. It was nearly enough to make him sneeze, but he held his breath in check still. Pressing his teeth tightly together, he spun about the corner, extending the Sondeshike as he did so, and drove it home into a large bundle of cloth that was swaying in the wind.

Blinking, he scanned up the curtain to see white plumes of snow filling the space behind it, and an unlatched window opening and swinging on the wind, banging against a crude steel grapnel and broken length of hemp rope that had caught in the hinges. A small smile broke out onto his muzzle as watched the snow settle about his feet. Reaching forward, he freed the drapery, and pushed it aside, then pulled the forgotten climbing aid into the stairwell and set it quietly against the wall. He grabbed the window latch and sealed it, closing out the chill wind.

Turning back up the staircase, he motioned for the rest to come down, trying not to laugh at his foolishness. “It was just a window. You can breathe again.”

Zagrosek grabbed the curtain and drew it across the snowy pane. “Are you crazy standing in front of this thing? How did you know a Lutin wasn’t watching?”

Matthias peered at the thick hemp and shook his head. “I doubt anybody could see through the blizzard. However, you are right, that was foolish of me. I’m thrice a fool in fact. Lutins could very well have been standing behind that other wall and left this open to trap any unsuspecting Keepers.” Curling his paws about the extended Sondeshike he sighed. “Well, my room is just down the hall. Let’s keep moving.”

It did not take them long to reach the familiar wide oak door that led to the rat’s chambers. Garigan rushed into his own chambers just inside, and disappeared around the corner. Jerome was quick to follow him, but nodded as he saw things were in order. The ferret was peering into his mirror and looking at the cut along his gums where his front two teeth had been. He blanched in distaste before looking away.

Charles reached into his closet and drew out some of his thickest clothes and began to slip them on. “I have to let Misha know where we’ve gone, that way they won’t worry about us too much. Can you hit the bottom of my ink bottle a few times, Krenek? It was getting a bit dry the last time I used it.”

Zagrosek picked up the small black bottle from Matthias’s desk and began to shake it, tapping the flat bottom with two fingers. He watched the rat pull on two tunics and another pair of breeches, this one reaching down to his ankles. “Do you have boots?”

Charles shook his head forlornly. “No, with paws like these, nothing fits comfortably or effectively. “ The rat lifted one leg and splayed his long toes out to demonstrate. “I do have some thick socks I sometimes wear, but on ice I would have trouble standing in them. No, it is best that I go barefoot.” Luckily enough his rodentine paws were better able to withstand the cold than human feet, the blood circulation in them reduced to the merest of warming trickles when he was about in cold weather.

Grunting, Zagrosek set the ink bottle down, and pulled his black cloak from inside his tunic. “Well, I just hope this wind dies down some, otherwise we’re going to freeze to death before we make it halfway.” He drew the black cloak over his shoulders, until the robe was dangling at his shins, the symbol of the Sondeckis proudly gazing back at the right from the man’s breast.

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Charles said, even as he pulled his own black cloak overtop of the double layered clothes. “There might be a way to reach Glen Avery without spending much time outside. I just hope they’re okay. We’ll need their help to find it!”

“Who?” Jerome asked as he climbed into his robe, drawing it tightly about him. The soot from the fire in Wessex’s quarters still clung to the thick wool. “Who’s help do we need?”

“Some of my fellow rats,” Charles said, a grin crossing his muzzle that he was not aware of. “The cellars here at Metamor are quite extensive, nobody has explored them fully. I have some friends that have lived down there for several years now. They know them pretty well, and if there is a way out under the walls of the Keep heading towards Glen Avery, they would know about it.”

Garigan came back out of his room, his green robe drawn tightly about his chest. His tongue was licking absently at the cut, cleaning up the blood on his muzzle. “We might be able to get past Nasoj’s army that way.”

“True,” Charles said, nodding, even as he moved over to his desk. “But then again, Nasoj might be using those tunnels as well to move his troops in.”

Jerome looked to Zagrosek and then back to their furry companions. “We’ll need hooded lanterns then, so that they won’t see us coming. Do you know where we can find some?”

“No, it is too dangerous to go look for a pair. I have two lanterns myself here, the one on my table and another beneath the desk. We’re just going to have to do the best we can with those.”

Zagrosek picked one of the brass lanterns up in his hands, turning it over and peering at the wick inside. “How much oil are in these?”

The rat shrugged, peering at them curiously. “I’m not really sure. I filled them up a month ago, but you best fill them up again. My oil flask is in that cupboard by my bed.”

While Zagrosek was searching the cupboard for the aforementioned oil, Jerome was reaching into the desk to find the other lantern. It was sitting inside the drawer as Charles had promised, and soon the two of them were one again brimming with the slightly aromatic fluid. The Sondeckis pondered the oil container for a few seconds before setting it aside. There was too little left in the container to warrant carrying it. The rat of course was scribbling out a short message on a single scrap of parchment. The ink had dried a bit, and he hit the bottle a few times himself before he was able to finish.

Once finished, he gazed about the room and grimaced. “I put the message in code, Misha will know what it means, but even so, I don’t want the Lutins finding it first. Garigan, can you hand me my sword?”

“Since when did you use a sword?” Jerome asked, even as the ferret grabbed the short blade from behind the basket of chewsticks in one corner.

“Since I became a Long Scout. Misha insisted. I’m not that bad apparently.” Charles hefted the weapon a few times in his paws, and then gazed at his desk, his scent turning melancholic. Then, muttering a short apology to the piece of furniture, he brought his sword down into the frame, splintering the hickory. He raised his blade again and slashed at the wood, destroying his dresser once again.

12/24 – 11:30pm

Blades flashed, and bodies fell inside the now crimson corridors of the besieged Keep. Coming from up ahead of him, Ryuo heard the clash of blades and shouts of battle. Leaving his most recent kill sprawled out on the floor, Ryuo dashed forward to investigate.

Rounding the corner, Ryuo found a group of five of the Keep's warriors holding off a group of Lutins. Behind them stood a stooped, elderly woman who had interposed her frail body between the fighting and three young children; the wide-eyed confusion and fear on the children's faces led Ryuo to believe that these children were not youthened adults. As Ryuo watched, kept from the battle by the Keepers before him, the five warriors beat back the horrid beasts, but the battle was taking its toll.

As the warriors advanced, they were forced to step over the fallen bodies of two of their own as well as a slew of invaders. Even as the last Lutin fell, it lunged desperately with its spear. The wicked, metal tip caught one of the Keepers— a pig morph named Jonathan— on the leg, ripping a deep wound into his calf. As Jonathan screamed, dropping to the ground, a talbot morph swung and the last Lutin's head went rolling down the corridor.

As Toby helped Jonathan to his feet, he looked down the corridor. Through the blood that flowed down his face he could see the armored fox, and a smile broke out on his face. "Ro! Am I glad to see someone like you here!" he exclaimed.

Ryuo inclined his head slightly in greeting, and then began to speak, using what sign language he could to try to make his point clear. "Gir, hurt leg. In Duke of room. Bring...." Ryuo fumbled with the right word, "to Coe."

Toby nodded soberly. Turning back to the other four he said, "How's Jonathan?" The pig morph was on the floor, obviously in pain. The other warriors were attempting to staunch the blood that poured from the wound. One of the warriors, a large man with brown hair and a full mustache, looked up and shook his head.

"He's not going anywhere, I think it sliced into the bone." the man said.

Toby thought about it for a moment. He remembered what Ryuo had done before, and came to a decision. "Alright, you three, take Jonathan, Mrs. Wilkes, and the three young ones to the Chapel. Hopefully we can meet up with the rest of our men there. If not, find out who's in charge and follow their orders. If the Cathedral is blocked, don't attempt anything stupid. Either try for the Lothansi temple or find some place to hunker down until reinforcements can find you. I know we all want to take some Lutin heads, but the kids come first. I'm going to go with Ro here to find Gil— hopefully will meet up with you in the Chapel. We're gonna all have a nice warm toast together at the Deaf Mule when this is all over, and I don't want any of you to miss it!"

Toby's energy seemed to infect the rest of the warriors, who stood just that much straighter as they took off down the hall. Toby watched them for a while, catching his breath from the moment of action. Turning to Ryuo he commented, "Looks like you've grown a little about the waist there." A bright smile and a light laugh accompanied the comment, aimed at the obese appearance of Ryuo's unbelted armor.

Ryuo stared with a nervous smile, completely lost as to what Toby had just said. His confusion only made the Talbot laugh harder, with a slight bark. "Never mind." Toby apologized, "Let's go. Show me where Gil is." He made sure to carefully enunciate the last bit so that Ryuo could understand, which he did. Together they began to backtrack along Ryuo's original path.

As they started Toby posed another question: "The Duke, is safe, no?"

"Yes. Last I heard." Ryuo said.

"And now that I'm with you, I know I am, too," Toby replied. His barking laugh echoed through the corridor as the two ran through the Keep.

The job offer had couldn’t have come at a better time for Teria Mandessor and Ferwig Jirow. Times had been hard for them. They had been part of a very good bandit gang, until the leader took an arrow in the throat from an army archer. The two had taken what they could and fled. They had wandered a bit until falling in with a mercenary band that had been selling its skills among the various confederation duchies and would be kingdoms. They had lived the good life then, with the constant fighting among the small fiefdoms, mercenaries were very well paid and the looting was very rich. Then Emperor Koravelia won the battle of Do Won River and ordered that all mercenaries be put to death finally ending twenty years of constant fighting. So again the pair had fled, this time much poorer then before. After a few poor paying jobs as bodyguards and poorly paid caravan guards they had found themselves in a dreary midlands town, broke. That was when they had been offered the job.

“It’s a simple hack and burn raid,” the warrior had said. “You go in ahead of an invasion and destroy everything you can find. Make things easier for the invasion to succeed. For that we’re offering you plenty of gold, and all the loot you can grab.”

The details that had been left out was they weren’t to just raid the countryside near a castle and cause chaos to draw out the guard. They were to attack a castle itself; always a dangerous and bloody business. What they didn’t find out till they reached Midtown was the fact that the castle was Metamor Keep. It wasn’t bad enough that the people at Metamor had a reputation of being formidable foes, but the rumors of the curse scared even the most fearless. It took a lot of fast talk and a lot of free flowing gold to convince most to stay. Teria and Ferwig had stayed, the money offered would let them live comfortably for a long time. The two mercenaries were put ill at ease by the fact that they would be allied with Lutins and the northern hordes under the dark mage Nasoj’s command, but the gold had been paid up front. It weighed heavily on their choices, which were few at the time.

The job they had been given was a simple one, they were to kill the Patrol Master, a jackal named George. This dog like head of scouts was a brilliant strategist, so they had been informed. His scouts had wrecked havoc on their employer’s forces. Time and time again Lutins had headed south only to be ambushed by Keepers directed by the Patrol Master. The man had one weakness; he never fought but remained in his very well appointed apartment eating and drinking.

The spy had described the jackal as an old, out of shape ex bandit getting fat and drunk. Neither of them trusted the spy’s report; no traitor could be trusted. After all if he betrayed one leader for money and promises of power why not a second? Nasoj’s agent had made it sound simple. All they had to do was crash into George’s apartment and kill him while he was drunk from celebrating, an easy job.

It was going to be a good deal more hazardous then even they could have thought.

The sight that greeting them as they entered the room was of destruction; furniture, statues, and other debris lay scattered everywhere. A fine tapestry on the far wall was burning; below it a couch lay overturned, also burning. There was no sign of anyone, living or dead.

Teria closed her eyes and began to chant, “Mi nana fulm . . “ but she never finished the spell. Suddenly the couch tumbled forward and a figure stood up, its arm moving as it threw something. The woman mage caught the large dinner plate square between the eyes and she fell backwards without a sound.

Ferwig didn’t waste time or words for his fallen partner, but rushed straight at the figure, his spear point aimed straight at the persons heart. As he got closer to the figure he saw the tan and black fur that covered the nude body and the canine head that was now silently snarling at him. He also saw that the jackal carried only a dagger.

When Ferwig was within an arms length, George caught the point of the spear with his dagger, pushing it harmlessly to one side. Then the canine lunged forward and bit Ferwig on the right arm with all his might. The man let out a shout and dropped the spear as his leapt backwards. With blood pouring from his arm he drew a sword with his unhurt hand.

The jackal sidestepped to the left until he was standing next to a large fireplace. With a swift move he grabbed two weapons from the mantelpiece. Now facing Ferwig was a jackalman armed with a cutlass and another blade that was too small to be a sword but too large to be a dagger. Holding both weapons close to his body the canine advanced on his enemy.

Ferwig lashed out, stabbing straight forward right at George’s stomach. The jackal deflected the blade with the oversized dagger and slashed at Ferwig’s neck with the cutlass. The mercenary had dodge backward to avoid having his throat sliced open. Again Ferwig lashed out, this time bringing his sword downward in a arc aimed at George’s legs. There was the loud ringing of steel on steel as George blocked the sword with the cutlass and then lashed out with his other blade. Ferwig felt the pain as the end jabbed through his fur coat and into the skin beneath. He gave the jackal a short, fierce punch to the snout as he lurched back, dazing him for a moment.

The soldier pressed his advantage stabbing at the jackal, forcing him to dance backward trying to stay away from a killing stroke. Then there was the ringing of steel on steel again as Ferwig’s blade was deflected. Ferwig dodged a stroke from the cutlass that would have ripped out his innards, trying to stay out of reach of the jackals two weapons.

Then George misjudged and swung a little too far with the cutlass leaving himself open for a moment. Ferwig gave a short slash with his blade and was rewarded with seeing blood trickle from a wound on the animal man’s chest. Not as large as the mercenary would have wished as the jackal’s fur blunted most of the slash. The wounded keeper didn’t make a sound but lashed out with both of his own weapons and Ferwig had to leap backwards to avoid being cut.

The mercenary dropped to one knee, his sword clattering from his hand as pain lanced up his knee where he had landed on a small carved stone. As George rushed him Ferwig picked up his spear from where he had dropped it. The jackal skidded to a halt just inches from the point that Ferwig jabbed at him. The canine’s arms windmilled as he tried to regain his balance. Standing up, Ferwig rushed his opponent before he could recover. The razor sharp, gold tipped point came within inches of the Jackals stomach when George crossed both his weapons in an ‘x’ before him and scissoring the tip of the spear between them. With one swift movement he pushed the point harmlessly aside and kicked Ferwig in the groin with all his might.

The mercenary let out a gasp of pain and staggered back as a throbbing wave of agony bloomed between his thighs, his knees going weak as the end of his spear wavered. He looked up to see the jackal swinging the cutlass at his face, not point first but hilt first. He had a moment of surprise before the brass wolf’s head on the hilt caught him across the face. He joined his partner on the floor in unconsciousness.

12/24 – 11:45pm

At first, Gil was worried that the opening door was more Lutins, coming to finish the job they had started earlier. However, his fears were assuaged by the familiar, friendly voice of a well-known Talbot morph. "What ho! Gil," called Toby, hastily looking through the furniture and hoping that he and Ryuo had arrived on time. As he approached, Toby saw the impaled Aeryl and quickly averted his gaze. The sudden attack had caused too many deaths already this night, and there were only going to be more before the invaders were repelled.

Turning to face the corner of the room, Toby saw Gil, his face breaking into a smile at seeing the old cat still alive and kicking -well, alive at least. He surveyed the broken leg, sandwiched between the black lacquered scabbards of Ryuo's swords, wrapped together with the fox's blood-stained sash. The shiny gleam of the lacquer seemed out of place in this room of ruinous destruction. "Hmm, you don't look so good." Toby stated.

"I thank you for the excellent diagnosis, doctor," Gil said with more than a hint of sarcasm laced into the pain. "Seriously, 'tis not so terrific as all that. My opponents did much worse, let me assure you." Gil hissed in pain as he shifted to a better position, accidentally jarring the leg.

Toby looked around the room, peering carefully at the furniture and generating an idea. Finally, he seemed to come to some inner conclusion. "Alright, Ro, I need that tapestry." He pointed to the one on the wall. "Lay it out, here." he added, gesturing so that Ryuo would understand. The ensanguined warrior acknowledged with a nod and went to work pulling down the expensive tapestry from the wall. As he did so, Toby went to work on the furniture, using a fallen axe to cut into the wood and make two, hopefully sturdy, poles.

Glancing at the tapestry, Toby grabbed one edge and folded it so that it was a little more than two meters long. He then lay one of the poles lengthwise along the tapestry. Folding the brocade over the pole, he then placed the other pole down as well. Folding once more, he motioned to Ryuo again. "Let's get it next to Gil, and then we will try to move him onto here.”

Ryuo seemed to understand, and picked up two of the poles. Moving the hastily made stretcher over to where Gil lay, the two gingerly picked the lion up and moved him onto the fabric bed. Ryuo gave him his swords to hold onto, since he had no place to keep them himself. "Well, let's go, and hope we don't run into too many Lutins on the way." Toby picked up his end at the back, allowing Ryuo to take the lead. "If you would do the honors..." he said with a nod towards the door. Together, the trio moved out into the hallway. Toby looked up at the doorway as he left and whispered, "Kyia, we would really appreciate it if we didn't meet any Lutins this time through."

Carrying their wounded companion between them, Ryuo and Toby could hardly believe their luck in the hallways of the Keep. They had only seen one group of Lutins, and those had passed by without much of a glance down the dark corridor the trio stood in, stock still. Together they watched twelve Lutins and several humans race through the Keep, although the trio had no idea where they might be headed. Choosing discretion as the better part of valor— and not wishing to get into a fight while both hands were occupied— Toby and Ryuo wisely chose to go down a different passageway.

Making it to the Cathedral, both warriors were relieved. They knocked on the doors, and after a brief interrogation, they were let in. Inside, they could see the many people huddled in the pews while warriors waited at the door. Coe was here and ran over as soon as someone informed him of the wounded lion. He motioned to have him set down over by one wall.

"It's a broken leg, we think." Toby said, "Ro found him in the Duke's chambers -he must have arrived after the Duke had left."

"Yes, there's apparently been some assassins in the Keep as well as the regular soldiers." Coe said, "What about you? What news have you brought?"

"Nothing good." Toby said, even his usually energetic voice sounding heavy, "I know at least twelve men who are dead, and a good deal many others that are wounded. Me and a few others were caught in one of the Keep's shifts and separated from the rest of our squad. Fortunately, so were the Lutins we ended up with. They didn't last long." His face split into an evil grin for a second, and then changed along with his tone, "Speaking of which, have Jonathan Wright and the Mrs. Wilkes made it back here yet?

Coe looked up. "I don't know, but I haven't see them. Are they in trouble?"

"Hopefully not," Toby said, although the worry was evident in his voice, "I told them to hole up if they couldn't make it here, hopefully they're still somewhere in the Keep." He didn't need to add, 'alive'.

Coe nodded as he got to work on Gil's leg, "There's a lot of people unaccounted for. Right now we are all trying to gather and hole up. Tomorrow, who knows." Coe had finished unwrapping the leg, and handed the whole setup to Ryuo. "I think you'll be needing these."

"Toby!" a new voice called out from behind. The talbot turned to look and found him at eye level with a huge chest. Slowly, he looked up at the grinning face of a large moose morph. Elcuared grinned. "Glad to see you, ya mangy dog. I'm glad you two arrived. We're gathering what forces we can and I've been asked to get a group of men together, you want on?"

Toby grinned, "As long as I get to kill a few Lutins I'll be happy." They both smiled. "By the way," Toby continued, "Let me introduce you to a friend of mine. I think that you will definitely be glad he is with us when the fighting goes down." Toby gestured towards Ryuo. "Ro, Elcuared. Elcuared, Ro. He's not too hot with the language yet, but he definitely knows how to speak the language of steel." Ryuo bowed as he was introduced.

"Glad to meet you," Elcuared said, "Well, its been a sudden attack, but we're still here. It's going to be a long, hard night, but we'll make our way through it. No matter what happens, we won't go without a hard and bitter fight."

"Heck!" Tony piped up, "We might even make it out alive!"

December 24 – 11:30pm

The Lutins were in full rout, half of their number left in a tangle of shattered limbs after they made a foolhardy attempt to run him down en mass. After realizing that the tattered, ragged looking keeper was more than they bargained for the remainder turned and fled with Murikeer running swiftly in their wake, picking them off one at a time with shrill, sizzling bolts of arcane force. There were still almost a full two score of them, reduced singly as he tried to catch up to capture one of them for further interrogation. Those few he had caught unawares alone or in small groups had proven as uninformed as any other, save that their chieftains had brought them at the great overchief Nasoj’s command. The opportunity to destroy the nest of their most staunch foes they had formed a fragile peace between the tribes and heeded his call.

They were always the same empty words, the lack of worthwhile information about Thorne, his circle, or the Moranasi spoken of by the first hapless victim of the enraged skunk’s interrogation.

Charging around a corner in pursuit of the mob he slowed quickly when he realized that they had been halted in the middle of a long corridor. At the far end, blocking the single massive arch that lead to yet another crossing corridor, stood a man and a great black horse. Murikeer noted that the distant human wore the colors of a Papal Knight, strangely out of place in the chaos following the Patriarch’s murder, but he was not Lutin nor a northerner. “Akek laron!” he bellowed causing several heads to turn in his direction. Bows were raised and arrows hastily lofted toward both ends of the corridors as the Lutins tried to break the immobile barriers of Mage and Knight. Those loosed toward Murikeer slid sideways smoothly and missed him entirely while the Knight merely raised his shield and moved to stand before his steed to intercept the futile attack against his heavy mail. “Akek! Ahai magi?” Murikeer challenged as he stalked down the corridor, both hands held out from his side and glowing with blinding orbs of sizzling energy. He reached out and grasped at the potency of Metamor’s magical flowes, pulling them into himself with some strain. There was something wrong there, but he discounted it in the face of foes near at hand. “Ahai Thorne? Martuuth shaman?”

With a blood chilling cry the Knight lurched into motion, charging toward the milling mob of Lutins with the thundering horse close behind him. The Lutins let out a gibbering cry of panic and tried to scatter but, other than toward the charging Knight or the proven deadliness of the mage at their back, they had nowhere to go. Murikeer burned down two of them with arcane lances of searing energy and the Knight swept those who ran toward him down with a mighty swing of the gleaming sword in his hand. Lutin bodies bounded in all directions before the Knight and the flailing hooves or biting maw of the horse. Others were lifted by Murikeer’s magical grasp and dashed violently against the unyielding stone of the walls.

In moments the slaughter was over leaving mage and knight alone amidst the last dying twitches of the vanquished regarding each other. The Knight continued to stride through the wreckage without pause, the eyes Murikeer could see through the viewslot of his heavy steel helmet wild with battle lust. “Sir Knight, have you s –“ Murikeer began and then let out a startled chirrup of surprise, dancing back out of range as the Knight’s sword thrust at him with blinding speed. “Hai!” he leaped back and stumbled over a corpse as the sword was swept at him. He threw both hands forward and hammered the Knight with a pulse of kinetic force, pushing him back against the breast of his black mount. The beast wore nothing more than a simple golden halter and its eyes were white rimmed and filled with the same ecstatic bloodlust as the Knight. Raising his sword hand to right his helmet the Knight stepped back alongside his steed and with smooth efficiency swung up onto the black beast’s broad back.

“CHARGE!” the Knight bellowed, leveling his sword toward the startled skunk. The horse snorted a plume of thick mist and surged forward with a clatter of hooves. The occasional crunch of the charger’s weight on a fallen Lutin muted the thunder of those hooves intermittently and Murikeer yielded the corridor to the unstoppable momentum of steed and Knight. He dodged to the rider’s shield side and, as they charged past, was thanked for his aid with a punishing smash from the green liveried steel that sent him crashing back against a wall. His last sight of the pair was the horse’s black tail streaming behind it as the two careered down the corridor and into the darkness. Stunned by the blow Murikeer slumped and an altogether different darkness swam up to pull him into its embrace.

It felt good to be out of the cold and biting wind for a change. The harsh winter weather had taken a hard toll on every creature. The pack was not happy. They had been forced from their nice warm dens out into the terrible storm and then the long trip south had almost killed them. There had been nothing to eat but frozen Lutins and the occasional human. The cold and snow was the worst part, it was almost more then even a dire wolf could survive. Still, in spite of everything, all twenty of the pack had made it alive to this big, stone place.

The gateway the pack was standing in was full of all sorts of interesting tidbits to eat even if the Lutins had gotten all the good pieces. But all too soon Gershak stopped their eating.

The Lutins pointed down one of the numerous corridors “You want food? You hungry from long walk?” he taunted. “Down that hall is many keepers to eat. Any you catch, you can eat.”

That was all the giant wolves needed to hear. The male Crooked Jaw tilted his massive head back and let loose a deep, loud howl.

Deep inside the castle Keepers everywhere stopped and listened to the powerful howls of the pack that seemed to echo from all directions. It sent a chill of fear down the spines of all who heard it. There was no doubting what that sound meant; there was a dire wolf pack on the hunt.

"How does it feel?" asked Jesse as he put the finishing touches on Natalie's disguise.

"Like I'm covered in mud and leaves," replied the dragon-girl.

"This will never work," said Shamgar. "She doesn't even look like a bird."

"Hold on," said Oren as he plunged an arm into the icy river. He pulled it back with a shell in his paw, which he stuck on the end of Natalie's nose.

"I peel lig ad idiod," said Natalie.

"We are ready," said Desuka, taking his place next to Blake.

"WAIT!" cried the assassin. "Are you sure you can reverse the spell?"

"Oh sfure," said the dragon around her clamshell beak as she began to twiddle her fingers, causing sparks to form.

"Good," Blake responded, and returned to fondling the hand.

"I mean, there has to be a way, right?"

Both Blake and Desuka gave a surprised "huh?" before rapidly assuming a height of one inch tall.

"Oren!" cried Jesse. "The storm is gaining strength again! We need to get on with this!"

The otter turned to his rhino friend. "Go help the warriors down the tunnel."

Shamgar nodded and obeyed, making his way deep into the back of the cave, where the sounds of digging and scraping of frozen earth could be heard.

"Jesse, you too. They're going to need you in the front."


Oren squinted through the blowing snow to try to make out the tower, which was visible only as a darker shadow against the inky darkness outside when he could see it at all through the howling snow of the blizzard. "The armory is going to be two levels below the upper window."

"And two levels above the lower one," said Natalie as she picked up the tiny forms of Desuka and Blake. "We know. We've lived in the tower as long as you have."




Into the blinding torrent of ice and snow Natalie flew, covered in leaves and mud, already frozen nearly numb. High into the air she forced herself, buffeted this way and that by the constant shifting of the powerful winds. Memory and natural instincts were all she really had to guide her through the icy gale toward their destination. Gradually, the form of the lighthouse came into view. Closer she came... closer... closer... SMACK!

"What were that?" called a Lutin from inside the tower.

A hideous, green face popped out into the storm. "It's just a stupid bird what flew into the tower in the storm. Heh! There it goes, sliding down the side! Hoo, it broke it's beak so it did! I think I might go out and see if I can find it. It'll make good eatin', so it will!"

"You'll stay here, you dimwit," said the first Lutin. "We gots our orders. No one leaves the building until we breaks into the weapons room."


So intent was the Lutin on the "bird" sliding down the outside wall that he did not see either of the two tiny figures which had climbed through the window right under his nose.

"I'm gonna take a finger from that one," Blake whispered to herself as she skittered along the floor beside the panda. "And an ear from that one... and a foot from that one... and from that one, I'll take his little..."

"Blake, you sure you up for this!?"

"I got my first kill ever, panda-man! I'm ready for anything!"

"Then shut up and get to hole in floor!

Blake considered being offended, but the fact that Desuka's white fur was taking on an ominous orange tone made her reconsider. She put her hand in her pocket and followed.

The Hipocci youth were getting exhausted working so hard to extend the rear of the cave. Several of them pleaded with Oren and Jesse to let them rest, stating that it would be no use to send tired warriors into battle.

Oren responded by dismissing the two most fatigued diggers and taking their place, chopping away with his sharpened stick like a man possessed. Everyone stopped and stared at him.

"What are you stopping for?" cried the otter in an uncharacteristically terse manner. "We've got to get as close to the tower as we can! DIG!"

The others resumed, somewhat fearful at seeing their leader like this.

"Okay..." said Blake as she poked her head down onto the next level. "I can see a hole in the next floor down we can use, but how in the world do we get down there?"

"Like this." Desuka replied. He slipped down through the hole and plummeted straight down toward the floor. The panda landed on his feet and beckoned his companion to follow. This she did with her heart leaping up behind her eye sockets.

"How in the name of Ramphon did we just survive that?" she asked in amazement.

"Smaller creatures fall farther safely. Fact of science. You trust Desuka."

The panda turned and scurried away, leaving Blake whispering "What a wild man!"

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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