The Winter Assault

Part 8

by The Winter Assault Writers

Cover | Contents | Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 |
13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | Epilogue

12/25 – Midnight

Terrance was terrified. There were Lutins all over the place. It seemed that whenever he turned a corner there were more of those hideous green monsters running about. What could he do against all of them with only a knife to protect himself with? “I should have gone to the temple service with Daron,” the boy mumbled to himself.

The boy moved through a door and found himself in a kitchen. Various bits of food lay scattered about the counters that gave witness to a hurried departure of the cooks. From a chopping block he took possession of a large meat cleaver. That gave him a small measure of security. “I really should have gone to the service with Daron. Then I . . .” his voice trailed off. He wasn’t alone in the kitchen.

Standing across the room from him was a huge, black wolf. It was as tall as the counter and had to weigh at least a thousand pounds. Behind that wolf a dozen others were scattered around, all looking at Terrance with hungry eyes.

Terrance slowly began to back away holding the cleaver in front of him. The blade seemed tiny compared to the monsters that were slowly following him. The wolves spread out in a semicircle and started to advance on him. He backed into a wall and glanced around. There was a wooden door next to him and he slowly reached for the handle. Five of the monsters rushed him at once and he yanked the door open and ran inside with the wolves hard on his heels.

“And remember, if it is Bryonoth, he was once my friend, I hope he still is,” Egland said as his hooves fell softly upon the carpet just outside the Cathedral entrance. He had grown used to walking upon them in the last two months. His adjustment to life at Metamor was hardly complete, though he had long since resigned himself to it. There were just so many things to become accustomed to, so many differences, that he suspected it would take a year at least before he would be comfortable calling himself a true Keeper.

Yet a Keeper he was, for he had given his allegiance to Duke Thomas after the Patriarch’s death. Sir Saulius and Sir Andre had made sure that he would not loose his knighthood, and he too was among the knight errants now locked in an animal’s form. Even so, he clung to the memories of the past and of the faces that were gone now. Yet here, on this most terrible of days, when his new home was besieged by ghastly forces from the frozen North, two of those faces had returned. First Bishop Vinsah, now masked as a raccoon revealed himself to stop the evil spirits from wreaking havoc in the Ecclesia Cathedral, and now Bryonoth had apparently stolen away with the Duke!

He breathed quietly, the weight of his mail shirt bearing down on his slender shoulders, but thick chest. He was not sure if he truly minded being a deer morph. The antlers as he’d discovered frightened his foes just as much as his blade did, and the diet of fruits and nuts that he tended to favour was one that he had preferred while in Yesulam. His body was lithe, and he found he could run faster than before, despite the fact that his feet had been replaced by narrow cloven hooves. He did often fall on his tail, but he was finding his balance much easier in the last few weeks.

Yet his biggest regret was the difficulty he had in playing his viola. His two thick fingers and thumb with large black hoof-like nails made the sort of delicacy he had once mastered impossible. In fact, his nails were so thick that he tended to press two or three strings down at a time whenever he attempted to sound a note. Dream Serpent, the gentle fop of a tree marten with the strange name, was helping him relearn the art of making music with his chosen instrument, and so far they had made fair progress, but he felt a child again, a vulgar brute, whenever he picked up that fragile bit of age polished wood and set the bow to its delicate strings.

And then, just as his thoughts turned towards the other more intimate lessons that Dream was teaching him, and new friends that the ever smiling musician had introduced him to, they rounded one more corner and found the carnage left behind by his friend. Four bodies lay strewn in drying blood, smeared across the floor in Thalberg’s crawl to the Cathedral. Quickening his pace, Egland reached the bodies, and stepped past them, holding his sword tightly between his thick fingers. “Take them all back to the bishop, he can heal them.”

“Not her,” a young man said, indicating the woman who was laying face down in the pooled crimson. “I’m afraid she’s dead.”

“Take her anyway,” Egland groused.

“Thou wouldst not dishonour the memory of thy fellow Keeper by leaving the body of this lass for foul Lutins to pick over?” Saulius added pointedly, his whiskers twitching as he gazed down at the cooling corpse.

The man shook his head at that, reaching down and gripping the woman’s body underneath her shoulders. “Of course not. The living need our attention more. How many other Keepers will have their bodies defiled by the Lutins in this awful attack?”

“Too many,” Egland muttered, his tongue pressing firmly against his teeth as he worked his jaw side from side in displeasure. “But we have a chance to keep that body safe from such debasement, and so we shall.”

The man nodded, and began to drag the disembowelled woman back along the hallway, while the other three guards were checked over for injuries beyond the obvious ones. The goat stirred when shaken, and though still groggy, was helped to his hind hooves, and managed to walk back towards the Cathedral with minimal assistance. The stoat did not respond, but his flesh was still warm. The spaniel however, did not appear to have much life left in him, but two of the soldiers carried him back to Cathedral anyway.

After the guards had been carried back, Egland began to inspect the area, while Saulius sniffed along the floors and walls, his whiskers twitching feverishly. The other two soldiers that had stayed with them, a large lizard morph tightly bundled in thick cloth and leather and a rather lightly clad polar bear whose presence made Egland a bit nervous, were watching either side of the hall to insure that no party of Lutin’s surprised them.

The bear though, gave out a startled cry, a deep rumbling sound that turned all of their heads. “What is it, Cassius?” Egland asked as he darted forward, always staying on the carpet to muffle the fall of his hooves.

“I think those are the Duke’s clothes,” Cassius pointed with a single claw at a pile of torn and shredded garments, of a rather fine cloth.

Saulius approached them, even as the lizard morph Egland had heard given the name Copernicus stepped forward, bright eyes gleaming in the dim light. He turned the mace he’d taken from the Lutin warrior in his thick hands, a macabre trophy from a fallen foe who had foolishly led an attack against the Cathedral. Leaning over, the rat sniffed at the clothes a few times and then nodded. “They bear the scent of a stallion, our precious liege. Yet, they hath not any more than but a trace of blood upon them.” His narrow muzzle drew up in a disgusted moue, “Leastwise aught than Lutin.”

Egland peered down at them from over top of the rat’s kneeling form, and gently kicked them with one hoof. “Strange, what could cause this?”

“He probably shifted to his full horse form,” Cassius interjected. “I’ve made that mistake myself a few times, and I always shred my clothes like that when I do.”

“But why would he shift?”

“To run faster perhaps?” Copernicus suggested, his thick tail swaying back and forth underneath the thick wool he’d wrapped about it. Egland regarded the lizard for a moment as he considered that, pondering for a moment how he could be so effective when laden with so much cloth, but he had proven himself quite nimble.

“It would be a good idea. I cannot imagine a man dressed in armour could outrun a horse, especially not one as healthy as the Duke,” Cassius added, his deep voice resonating through Egland’s bones and making his neck fur stand on end. Before his change, Egland had been impressed in many ways by the sheer power that flowed through every sinew of the wolverine knight Andre’s body. Yet now, he was unnerved by the presence of this bear for many of those very same reasons. It was that part of being a deer that he did not find appealing, bearing the instincts of prey.

Saulius glanced up at them, his nose twitching. “‘Tis oil here as well.”

“Do you think that you can follow that trail, Sir Saulius?” Egland asked

‘Thou dost know I can, unless the Keep moves.”

Egland nodded and motioned for Saulius to lead them on. “Then let us hope that the Keep should hold its form long enough for us to follow this trail. Cassius, stay at Saulius’s back. Copernicus and I shall watch the rear.”

“Let us move quickly, “ Copernicus suggested. “If Thomas was fleeing, then we’ll have a long trail to follow.”

Saulius nodded, and then set up a rather quick pace, only stopping at intersections or doorways to determine which way the Duke had gone. With his heart filling his throat, Egland offered prayers once again that they would find him safe, and Bryonoth as well.

The chill wind blew through the cracks of the walls. The heavy woolen curtains did little to shelter the chamber's inhabitants from the storm raging on the other side of the stone. Topo looked around the darkened room and shivered, the movement of its other occupants barely perceptible to his eyes. After a relaxing day spent snooping around the Upper Keep's kitchens this was not how he had planned on spending this evening. Savoring a few treats from the citizens' preparations for the winter festivals, he had watched with curiosity as Metamor prepared to pay homage to their gods.

This was the eve of major celebrations for the both the dominant faiths of man at the Keep. As a mouse, he could not even conceive of the idea of religion. The last ten years since he had gained his sentience, he had been trying to understand the concept. In Carreas there had only been one church. A rather devote section of the Ecclesia. In his travels with Anteno before the young man had taken his throne, the were-mouse had seen a few other examples of the faiths of man, though mostly different sects of the Followers found in his homeland. But the Lothansa, they were a totally different faith of man, and to Topo, something new for him to explore.

The idle thoughts of his home in Carreas settled into his mind, the lull of the cold dulling his mind and holding them there. During his time there, he was almost always in hiding. A specter hovering around the palace, only seen in the shadows, concealed in his robes and the night's darkness. None but the Duke's closest friends and advisors knew the were-mouse's secret. Rumors were abound, of course, as is always the way in a ruler's court, but even the most outrageous ones did not approach the truth. In some regards, coming to Metamor had been a good thing. Here he could walk freely down the streets and not earn a second glance besides the few curious looks he got on account of the unusual coloring the Keep left him with. Shuffling closer to the small stove that was the only source of heat in the room, he chided himself. "Hiding once more, you are." he though as he watched the stove, its warmth dying as it slowly consumed the last of its fuel.

It was not how he had planned to spend the night. Not by a long shot. What was supposed to be a quiet dinner with his host and the night spent watching the various manners in which the keepers celebrated their faiths had become a nightmare. A deep hopelessness sat in his heart, a feeling of dread that brought back with clarity memories of his almost execution at the hands of the zealot priest, Malion.

When the bells had sounded, he at first though that they were part of the festival. That idea quickly evaporated as he noted the urgency and surprise that registered in the faces of the few people that he was sharing the corridors with. Watching as they rushed off, the mouse suspected that something was wrong and being unsure what to do, he decided to follow a young chap dressed in Keep livery. Still not fully acclimatized to the strange shifting of the passages, it seemed only a few moments before he lost sight of his guide in the twisting halls. Seeing no other option, he continued to wander, looking down empty
hallways, searching out someone to ask what was going on, the sounds of bells still ringing sharply in his ears.

What was happening around him was unapparent to Topo until, after a period of time, he wandered into a minor hall and saw a small band of short green men standing around at the other side. After a time of not having seen anyone he was startled by their sudden appearance. Their backs to him, he was able to see the ugly little brutes. "Lutins?", he though to himself, his heart beginning to beat rapidly in his chest. This was his first encounter with the creatures that every Keeper he had met held in the highest contempt. Nasoj's savage and brutal foot-soldiers in his campaign against the world. They seemed to live up to their reputation. Their stench was apparent even down the hall, their equipment shoddy and mismatched, clattering about as they shouted at each other in a harsh and guttural language the mouse had never heard before. He slipped back around the corner, heart fluttering in his chest as he realized that some of the weapons they carried had been bloodied.

Quickly Topo ran from the group, hoping that they had not seen him in all their boisterous shouting and bragging. Turning several more corners in a rush, he came to a stop in a cold undecorated hall. Standing in the semidarkness between the widely spaced torches, he paused to catch his breath. "Running madly through the halls," he though to himself as he took in his surroundings in more detail, "is only going to get me killed". The corridors were no longer a safe to be if Lutins had penetrated this far into the Keep. Looking both ways to check for movement, he crossed the hall, pressing through a heavy wooden door there.

Entering the room, his senses were suddenly assaulted by the smell of animals. Blinking to clear even the dim glare of the hallway's torch light from his eyes, Topo glanced around the inky dark chamber. It was fairly large, walls curving with the tower, with tables and shelves holding large cages occupying much of the room. As his eyes adjusted, it became apparent that most of the boxes had moving shapes in them.

The fluttering of wings caught his attention, bringing Topo back to the present. Looking around, his eyes settled on the falcon on the other side of the room as it stretched its wings, tugging at the leather binding holding it to its perch. Shuffling around on his own perch, Topo spread his own wings and looked about the room. He had stumbled into the aviary were the nobles' hunting birds were raised and cared for. He was surrounded by various sizes of hawks, falcons, and even an owl, caged or bound to their perches as they awaited their next hunt. And here he had remained, hidden among the birds, assuming the form given to him by the Keep of a small but brightly colored falcon. Concealed among the mighty hunting birds of the lords of Metamor, at least until the sun rose and would steal that from him.

Most of the birds were fast asleep, totally unaware of what was happening outside their door. All except that peregrine, its glowing eyes surrounded by its white mask, moving around in the dark, pulling at its restraints and generally appearing nervous.

Topo could sympathize with his larger cousin's agitation. His own nerves where on edge, growing more ragged as he huddled in the dark. Many times he heard movement in the hallways, sending a icy tendril of fear running through him. No one had yet entered the chamber, leaving Topo in the dark, both literally and figuratively as to what was happening on the other side of the door. Flexing his talons, digging them into the wood of his roost, Topo ruffled his feather's against a cool draft that blew across him.

Exhaustion taking its toll, Topo found himself dropping into a fitful state that was almost sleep. Shivering on his perch, he closed his eyes and tried to tune out the world around him, imagining warmer, safer climes. A strange sense of calm began to settle in as his mind wandered once more. If he made it to morning, he would be safe. An unreasonable assumption, but one that filtered into his cold laden mind.

Suddenly a loud thud filled the air. Then another, joined by the sound of creaking wood. His eyes flicking open, Topo's head whipped around to center on the door. Chaos began to run through the aviary as the loud noises awoke the other inhabitants, screeches and squawking ringing out as raptors fluttered around, agitated and fighting against tethers, bars and hoods.

With a snap and a resigned groan, the door gave in, its lock and hinges never designed for the stress of several heavy bodies trying to force them. With a blast of the even colder air from the hall, the door swung inwards, a dim flickering light from the torches in the corridor revealing short misshapen silhouettes
standing in the portal. Even in the form of a bird, Topo's underdeveloped sense of smell could pick up their smell. The rancid, stale stink he had first caught earlier that night. His hiding spot had been discovered. The Lutins had come.

Holding still and shivering in fear, he watched them enter the room. Shuffling around, poking though and knocking over boxes and containers, they moved about in the dim light. "Maybe," he though as he watched the shadowy forms stumble through the room in their clumsy search, "if they did not find any Keeper's to slay, the beasts would move on." Maybe he had not been discovered. Maybe he did not have to flee.

That idea was quickly driven from his minds as the Lutins started jabbering excitedly. One of them dodged the beak of the peregrine as it tried to peck at a reaching hand. The Lutin's response was to strike down the bird with its club, chortling in delight as the bird collapsed, its broken body dangling from its leather tethers. Topo felt his stomach tighten as the other walked up to a hooded hawk and snapped its neck, calling over its comrade in their rough speech as the raptor's screech of protest was cut off suddenly. Suppressing a shudder, Topo huddled down on his perch and stared on with horror.

As panic began to gnaw through his little remaining resolve, Topo watched the green-skinned creatures began to pluck the slaughtered birds, excitingly talking to one an other, probably congratulating themselves on their find. A larder. To the Lutins, the aviary was nothing more then a source of fresh meat. Taking in a deep breath at the raspy sound of daggers being pulled from their sheaths, something broke in his mind. With a scream of terror issuing from his break, Topo lunged from the perch that had been his sanctuary from the night's madness, his wings flapping madly as he dove for the open door. Suddenly, the halls of Metamor seemed to be much more hospitable then being stuck in a room with a couple of hungry Lutins.

Looking up from cleaning their catches, the two Lutins snickered and laughed, waving good-bye in jest to the escaping bird. After all, there was plenty more to be had in this place. And they had managed to find it for themselves. Of course, they would tell their chief and fellow tribesmen of this find, but first dibs on the meat was going to be savored.

Topo, intent only on escape, did not even notice the invaders' joviality as he flew through the door, his left wing brushing against the wooden frame sending him careening into the hall. Wobbling in flight, the fleeing falcon bounced off the opposite wall before crashing into the ground. Pulling himself back up to his feet, Topo shook the daze from his head, adrenaline still pumping through him, his heart racing as he gasped for breath. Hearing the voice of the Lutins through the door, sounding happy in their find, set him off again. Without a though he took to wing once more, plunging through a window into the maelstrom surrounding the Keep.

If the corridor had been chill, the outside air was freezing, the cold cutting straight to Topo's bones as the unpredictable winds buffeted the bird from all sides. In his panic, Topo attempted to fly through the blizzard, fighting the gusts and swirling storm around him. The small falcon quickly tired, the cold and the storm draining the strength from him. With a continuing sense of dread, Topo felt about to give up as the adrenaline slowly faded from his burning muscles and let the wind carry him to his fate. "Better then a meal for Lutins," flashed through his mind, just as he caught a glimpse of light through the blustering snow before him. With one last burst of energy, he pumped his wings, the last embers of hope carrying him towards this beacon.

A window. It was a window. He could see this as he slipped into the lee of the tower he had been approaching, the wind lessening a little and visibility improving to the point where he could make out the form of a tower, its shape a dark silhouette in the surrounding whiteness. The last of his strength carried him to the glowing light, propelling the falcon through the window as he collapsed to the floor. Settling to the stones, he let out a long sigh, the air around him almost burning after the ravages of the storm. With exhaustion quickly taking over, he barely even glanced over the empty corridor as he pulled himself to his feet. Concentrating, he just managed to shift out of his bird form, returning to the more familiar shape of morphic mouse. Stretching out sore and protesting muscles, he groaned, leaning against the wall, using it as a crutch as he stumbled down the hall, once more looking for safe shelter.

It was late that night when Raven finally sat down within the Circles inscribed on the floor of her private chambers. She let out a long, deep sigh, all too aware of how tired her body was but still unable to do anything about it. Outside the temple people were fighting and dying to defend this sacred castle. She could not even think of sleep until she had done whatever she could to assist them.

All around the perimeter of the Circles there were candles placed at key locations, all but one of them lit. The lines of power inscribed on the floor glowed weakly, waiting for the final trigger to activate them. Reaching out with one hand, she gestured lightly at the unlit wick, and immediately it flared to life. An instant later the Circles surged with power, Raven felt a flash of light through closed eyelids-

And suddenly she was somewhere else.

In her mind, Raven saw herself sitting in the midst of a field of black. This was a realm without form, where the only things that could be perceived were those she was wearing or holding.

And, of course, the person she had come here to meet in the first place.

Standing up, Raven walked over to the sleeping form. He was a man in his early silvered years, his face creased with fine wrinkles, his skin a tanned, almost yellowish shade. He lay on his side in the middle of the featureless ground, dressed in only his nightclothes. Raven approached him in silence, coming to stand beside his head.

"Holdeman," she said.

The form stirred and muttered, but he did not open his eyes.

"Holdeman," she said again, a bit more loudly this time.

"Uhn," the man groaned softly, rolling over on his back. "What is it?" he murmured.

"Get up, Holdeman," Raven said firmly. "I need to talk to you."

Holdeman sat up, rubbed his eyes, and looked around— his face showing his surprise as his surroundings suddenly became apparent. He turned toward Raven, swallowed uncomfortably, and lowered his head in deference. "Lothanasa," he said quietly.

"You can calm down, Holdeman. You've done nothing wrong," the priestess assured him, momentarily showing an amused half-smile. "I've come to you because I need your help."

The priest of the Midtown temple nodded slightly. Raven knew he hated it when she disturbed his sleep like this, but under the circumstances there was little choice. "What can I do for you?" he asked.

"Metamor is under attack," Raven said, coming straight to the point. "Nasoj has sent an army against us this very night, in the midst of a terrible snowstorm."

Holdeman looked up suddenly at that, deep worry in his eyes. His mouth stood slightly agape for a moment, as if he was unsure if he was truly in a vision-spell or simply dreaming. "... Aye, we've seen the storm approaching us through the valley," he said at last. "Everyone is inside, for fear of when it hits ... attacked, you say? Now, in weather like that?"

" 'Tis insane, I know," the wolf-woman said, waving off the rest of his protests. "No one has ever accused Nasoj of being sane. But mad or not, the attack worked— surprise was almost total, the invaders are inside the Keep itself, and Kyia has sealed us inside the temple for our own protection. Holdeman, we have a few thousand people in this city at best; we cannot survive a prolonged assault. We can hold out a few days, aye— perhaps so much as a week. But even Kyia cannot keep them away from us forever."

The man grimaced, nodding again. "What do you want me to do?"

"Go to the Baron of Midtown and tell him what has happened. He is a vassal of Lord Thomas and will have to come to his aid. We need all the reinforcements he can send, and we need them immediately." Raven's voice was stern. "Do it tonight, Brother Holdeman. Arouse the entire barony if you must, and to the ninth hell with anyone who stands in your way!"

Holdeman swallowed again, clenching his jaw. "I'll see what I can do."

"Good. I shall expect an update in three hours. Cuialye lothan, Brother Holdeman!"

"Cuialye lothan," he answered wearily, getting to his feet at last, one arm extending toward something. A rumpled robe suddenly appeared in his extended hand as he stood.

A moment later the link was broken, and Raven found herself sitting back in her own room. After taking a moment to adjust to the sudden change in posture, she opened her eyes and extinguished the trigger-candle. Rising to her feet, she stepped carefully out of the Circles and retrieved the piece of chalk she had used to draw the vision-spell pattern. After making a few modifications to the target runes, she returned to her seat. There were still five other temples in a position to summon help, and she would visit them all— several times, no doubt.

It was going to be a long night.

The six of them were terrified. Everywhere they turned there seemed to be dozens of Lutins all howling for their blood. Still, they were soldiers of Metamor Keep who had fought Lutins before, so they didn’t panic. They stayed together and tried to find some other keepers. The six were all dressed in chain mail armor, and carried large kite shields that had the rampant stallion of Duke Metamor on the front.

Up ahead they heard a door slamming shut and then the sound of something being dragged. A figure appeared out of the darkness, dragging two bodies along the floor behind it. All six soldiers drew their swords, worried that it was some sort of trick. Suddenly the figure tripped over something and started cursing loudly.

They all relaxed, that voice was well know to all of them. “Sir! Is that you?” one of the soldiers shouted.

The figure stopped and looked at them then waved them forward. “Stop shouting and help me with these two.”

They all rushed forward, crowded around George and started talking all at the same time. “It’s good to see you Sir.”

“There’s Lutins running around in the Keep and we can’t find any other Keepers except you.”

“Have you seen any one else?”

“Where did you get the bodies?”

“Don’t crowd so close,” George answered quieting the group. “Who are you and what do you mean there are Lutins in the Keep?”

“We’re part of the guards for the south gate,” One of the soldiers answered.

“Why aren’t you at the gate?” the jackal interrupted.

“We can’t get to the gate,” came the frightened answer. “Every time we try and go there we run into Lutins. Lutins INSIDE the Keep. Not just a few but dozens of them.”

George muttered a curse. “That explains my two friends here,” he said and pointed to the bodies on the floor.

“Who are they?”

The canine shrugged. “I don’t know, but they tried to kill me.”

One of the soldiers looked at the bodies and was greeted by the woman glaring back at him. “You let them live?” he asked, surprised. George was well known for not bothering with prisoners.

“Oh yes. I want some answers and they can give them to me.” The jackal pointed to two of the soldiers. “You and you each grab a prisoner.”

“Where do we go now?”

“You say the Lutins are in the keep? Are you sure?” the canine asked.

A soldier pulled open a pouch and took something out, a Lutin head. “Is this proof enough?”

George just chuckled. With a wave of his hand and started off down a corridor. “Let’s go.”

“Where are we going?” someone asked as they hustled after the jackal, dragging the two prisoners behind them.

“To Long House. I know they’ll be no Lutins there and we can get some answers.”

Biting down on the bit, Thomas followed meekly after the knight who had not said anything for the last hour except to give him the occasional command, which Thomas followed precisely, despite his fervent desire to do otherwise. They appeared to be wandering aimlessly through the Keep, but always downwards. He’d not had to attempt any stairs, as the Keep had provided them with long ramps to descend, almost as if the Keep were allowing Thomas to be degraded like this. Often he let the question in his mind flow freely, why was this being done, but of course, no answer was forthcoming.

They several times passed by corpses of Lutins and Keepers, strewn in horrific piles along either side of the corridors. His heart would ache with a dull pounding every time he saw one of his own slain, but all he could do was to keep on following the lead of the knight. Yet, it wasn’t until they were on the ground floor that the knight took them anywhere but the varied halls of the Keep. Turning, he opened a door, and commanded Thomas to walk inside. Inside he went, into a blackness that made him shiver in a very equine fashion.

The knight struck a tinder and soon had a brazier illuminated. The door shut behind him with a whump, nearly catching his long tail between the frame. Yet, when the knight lit a small lantern and brought it over, Thomas could see what was in the room, and felt his heart beat even faster. They were standing in a store room for the stables, and various equipment for the care and control of horses was neatly organized along every wall.

“Indeed, thou dost know what this is for. Thou shalt become very familiar with it, my fine stallion,” the knight said mockingly as he ran his gauntleted hand over a dusty saddle. He then lifted it from the rack and carried it over to the Duke. Thomas tried to back away, but the barking command, “Stand still!” froze the muscles in his body.

He felt the weight of the saddle descend onto his back, not particularly heavy, but certainly alien and unwanted. With deft ease, the knight had tied it tightly around his chest, securing it firmly in place. Again, he took his gauntlet off and ran his hands through the Duke’s mane, gently stroking the fur, soothingly. Thomas breathed heavily, his eyes wide with nervous fright as he watched the man’s face. He could see very little within that visage, and that frightened him even worse.

The man suddenly grimaced, however, and then began to look over the racks again until he had come up with several blankets. “‘Tis freezing outside, thou shalt need some protection.” He undid the saddle, and set it aside upon the rack from which he’d taken it. Thomas felt instantly better with it off of his back, for it had felt like a noose tightening about his neck. Yet the moment was fleeting, for soon the man had lain the blankets across his back, and replaced the saddle.

Opening the door, the knight called out, “Back.” Thomas backed up then, his tail flitting from side to side, the terrible weight of the saddle choking his will and crushing his heart. Once he had returned to the hallway, his captor extinguished the lantern and the brazier, and closed the door behind him. Gripping the reins of the halter in one hand, and fitting his foot into one of the stirrups, the knight hoist himself up onto Thomas’s back. Thomas felt his hooves grind into the carpet, and he gnashed his tongue against the bit and the place where he’d lost a tooth.

Clicking his tongue against his teeth, and pulling slightly on the reins, Thomas turned to his right, walking slowly through the corridors of the Keep, obediently following the knight’s commands as if he were a real horse. With a sinking feeling in his heart he knew that he was almost a real horse as it was. Whatever magic was in that halter, it had turned him into an obedient animal, and left only the thoughts raging in his mind to distinguish him from any other horse.

The air quickly grew cold as they approached one of the doors outside the Keep. Thomas was very glad for those blankets, for they did hold the warmth in his flesh, even as he bore up the knight upon his back. Yet was this to be his fate? Was he doomed to spend the rest of his life as a stud to be bred at this man’s whimsy, and to be ridden and constantly be reminded that he was just a simple animal? Would he over time begin to even believe it too? The thought of docilely accepting such a life filled him with even worse dread, yet his body continued to trot forward along the carpeting against his will.

And then, as they turned the corner and saw the doors burst inwards, and piles of snow filling the hall, they also saw a small band of Lutins standing at that doorway. The green-skinned beasts saw them and let out a cry as they charged at the horse and his rider, wielding wicked clubs and spears high in their stubby hands. The knight kicked Thomas in his sides and drew his sword, still holding the rein firmly in his other hand, letting out his own cry, “Charge!”

Thomas leapt forward, his hooves pounding into the carpet and stone as he snorted and ran forward to meet those filthy beasts. The first of the Lutins fell beneath his hooves with a satisfying crunch of bone. The knight severed the head of another, while the other four tried to attack from the flanks, even as Thomas stamped his hooves, and champed in fierce rage at the bit.

With a simple tug on the reins, Thomas turned around, kicking with his hind hooves at the two Lutins now at his back. One of them managed to duck out of the way, the other was tossed against the wall, the armour on his chest caved in fatally. Looking forward, he could see that one of the Lutins was jumping towards his shoulder to sink a knife into it, but the knight brought his boot forward and kicked the beast aside. With a jab of his sword, the other fell to the ground, his head hanging limply upon his shoulders.

The last Lutin gave out a strangled cry and began to run down the hall, his weapons dropped to the ground. With another kick into his sides, the knight commanded Thomas to charge again. His mind flaring with the battle fury, the Duke drove forward, his hooves crushing the stones beneath them, as the single Lutin grew closer and closer. His head turned once to see what the sound was, and then his eyes went wide in freakish terror, letting out a horrific cry of anguish as he tried to run as fast as he could. Yet it was a futile attempt, for soon, Thomas’s hooves met with the Lutin’s back, and sent him sprawling against the ground. A moment later, those same hooves ran across the prone Lutin’s form, smashing the bones to pieces.

Even as he continued to snort from the exertion, he felt a soothing hand at his neck, and a calm voice in his ears. “Thou hast done well.” Upon hearing that, Thomas could not help but look back at the bodies that now lay strewn through the snow littered-hallway. He’d behaved just as warhorse might, and had enjoyed the thrill it had given him. With renewed fear and trepidation, he could only wonder what ythis halter was doing to him. Was it making him not only obedient in every way, but also a regular horse in every way? Would he begin to lose his memories of being anything but a horse?

Before he could even begin to debate those questions, he felt the tug of the reins, and heard the nicker from the knight’s lips. Turning, he began a slow trot back towards the open door, and the wintry blizzard that waited outside. Yet he felt the reins tighten as a set of blurry images rounded the far corner from which they had originally come. He stared at them for that moment, bringing them into focus, and felt joy fill his hear. For they were Keepers.

“Bryonoth!” he heard a light voice call out, as the figures rushed forward, four of them. He recognized the knight Saulius and his new friend Egland. Copernicus was at their back, wrapped in mounds of cloth, while a polar bear whose name he believed was Cassius was right at his side.

Yet the knight Bryonoth did not give the Duke long to ponder, for he had soon kicked his sides and cried, “Charge!” Thomas thundered forward, the din of hoof beats filling his ears, and the new sent of battle flooding his mind. He tried to hold back, as these were his fellow Keepers and friends, but the fury of the fight and the halter’s magic prevented him from doing anything but what the knight wanted.

The Keepers fanned out before him, trying to move out of the way of the charging horse. Copernicus turned his long head to one side beneath the bundles of cloth he’d wrapped about himself and called out, “Don’t hurt the horse, it’s Duke Thomas.” Thomas took some small solace in that they knew it was him, but found his hooves pounding relentlessly forward to smash their chests in, and to crush into the tiling.

Bryonoth swung his word in a wide arc as Thomas reared only feet from them, but the Keepers were quick, and stayed low. Egland and Saulius raised their swords, hefting the flat edge of the blade against the knight’s chest. But Bryonoth turned his own swing, and knocked back the rat’s blade, while kicking the deer in the chest with his armoured foot. While Egland was reeling and trying to catch his breath, Saulius swung again, only to be parried once more. Thomas found himself turning with the bit then, and lashed out his hooves at the rat, but the knight was quicker, and scurried back, his face twisting with desperation.

Cassius came swinging at the knight’s backside with his mace, but Thomas could see the motion out of one corner of his eyes. With a quick jerking motion, he kicked back with one hind leg, grazing the bear’s side, twisting him about as he tried to hold his balance. Yet the ursine warrior recovered fairly quickly, his dark eyes betraying the momentary pain he’d suffered beneath that white plume of fur.

Copernicus, being as tall as he was, had grabbed the knight’s sword arm, and was twisting his wrist, attempting to force him to drop it. Bryonoth, despite all of his year living in the Steppe, and the training he’d undergone at Yesulam, did not have the strength in him to wrestle with a three-hundred-fifty pound lizard. So for a moment he let go of the reins and with his other fist punched Cope square between the eyes. Dazed, the lizard stumbled backwards, letting go of the knight’s arm as he tried to wipe the swirling images from his eyes.

Having caught his breath, Egland slapped the flat of his blade at the knight’s back from his left. Having been too occupied with the lizard to see the deer approaching, Thomas was the only one who could keep his rider from harm. Though he wished to do nothing, his body acted, turning quickly to the side, and slammed his flanks right into the deer’s shoulder. He even went so far as to attempt to stomp hard down upon the knight’s foot, but as his feet were hooves as well, it merely glanced off to the side.

However, Thomas was surely not ready for what came next, for Egland, staring up into his face with desperate need, drove his fist hard into the side of the Duke’s head. Thomas let out a terrified whinny as he toppled to the ground, sending Bryonoth sprawling onto the floor. Pain swelled through his face, and especially in his mouth, as the strike had hammered the bit right into the empty space where one of his teeth had been. Kicking with all four of his hooves, Thomas tried to right himself, blinking with one eye at the bruise that was surely swelling.

Yet, as he did get to his feet, the weight of a rider was no longer present, and as he cast his eyes about, he saw the knight laying upon his back like a turtle, while the Keepers descended upon him, holding his limbs and trying to keep him down. Thomas told himself to stay there, to remain where he was, that his obligation even as a warhorse was ended to this man as he was down. It was time to allow himself to be rescued and restored to his more human shape.

“Ts’amut!” Egland cried out as he beat Bryonoth’s right arm into the ground, resting his chest completely on it. “It is I, your friend, Sir Egland! Please come back to us, Ts’amut!”

Though Thomas did not recognize the name he used, it was clear that Bryonoth did, for a flicker of recognition came into his face, and for a moment, his struggles ceased and a smile seemed to play across his swollen lips. Yet that flicker was short-lived, as some other personality drowned it out, pushing that glimmer back into the depths. The struggle for dominance was quick, and soon settled and won by that malicious nature, as if Bryonoth carried two souls within him.

Leaning forward, he slammed the front of his helmet into the deer’s face, but the massive deer ducked his head and the helmet clattered impotently against the animal knight’s antlers. And then he cried out, “Help me!” Thomas found his muscles compelled to action as he reared and tried to land both front hooves into the bear’s back as he forced Bryonoth’s leg down. Copernicus gave a shout in time and Cassius was able to roll out of the way. But he did not escape Thomas’s bite, for his teeth gripped the bear’s shoulder and tore at the flesh in a fury that he could not ever remember allowing into his heart before. One leg freed, the furious knight twisted his body, bringing the armour plated knee up firmly against Egland’s ribs, forcing a startled grunt from the heavy deer, then again, kicking out as he lifted his chest and kneed him once again, finally knocking the gasping deer away.

Snorting, he spat out the distasteful flesh and fur, even as the bear tried to stop the flow of blood with his other paw. Thomas’s attention was no longer on the bear though, for he had turned toward the lizard who was laying atop the knight’s other leg. Stamping and snorting in rage, he tried to bring his hooves down on his chest, but Copernicus rolled inside, and with a quick punch, drove his fist into the horse’s chest. Thomas spluttered, nearly falling from his hooves again, but managed to remain upright, lifting his hooves for another attempt to kill. But Cope was no fool, and rolled out from underneath him again, and landed another punch into his flanks.

Letting out a whinny of rage, Thomas turned on the lizard, snorting and flaring at his effrontery. However, he heard Bryonoth call to him again, and turned to look at his rider, and heed his call. Bryonoth slammed his gauntleted fist down hard on Saulius’s helmet, making the rat’s head ring with the clanging vibrations. Jumping to his feet, he drew a dagger from his side, and sliced once more at the bear who had interposed himself between the knight and Thomas. Cassius let out a chocking cry as more blood began to stain his white fur, this time from a gash in his chest.

Gripping Thomas’s reins, Bryonoth pulled himself back into the saddle, and kicked hard into the Duke’s sides. With a thunder of hoof beats, Thomas charged down the hallway, and then out into the open air through the door the Lutins had been watching. The snow was bitterly cold, and rose halfway up his legs, yet he did his best to leap through it. The excitement of the battle still pounded through his veins, yet in one part of his mind, all he could do was feel both his home and his humanity slip away. With defeated reluctance, he allowed himself to just be a horse for the time being.

December 25, Cristos Day. 2am.

The stairs seemed endless and Murikeer was beginning to suspect that he would find himself discharged before the very gates of Heaven by the time they came to an end, if they ever did. For several minutes he had been climbing up them wearily, stopping at each arrowloop and casement to look into the howling cold beyond but there was nothing to be seen but the blinding white swirl of snow beyond the frosted panes. Something was seriously wrong with the Keep, he felt deep down in his gut. The magic seemed to be thick, frozen like the world outside, though no less potent. The ease of finding his way from one place to another was less and less easily found each time he fixed a new location to search in his mind. Kyia, he assumed, had her metaphorical hands full trying to misdirect and contain the attackers and had less attention for the scattered defenders. He had seen a few small groups dashing across courtyards or distant crossing corridors but his mission had nothing to do with their own.

He would find Thorne, everything other than that one goal was an enraging distraction. One more distraction came upon him as he paused to look out another casement at the driving snow.

“Ah, heh, gods be damned polecat.” Spat a voice on the steps above drawing his gaze with a snap of his head. A dark clothed human stood several risers above, alone, with a huge sack crudely fashioned from a tapestry slung over his shoulder. Turning his head slightly the man spat onto the cold stone of the stair and drew a curved blade from his belt. His face was smudged, dirty, and his matted black beard was festooned with beads and bones. Scars had been etched into the flesh of his brow and cheeks and were, themselves, wind and ice scoured from his years in the bitter cold of the northland from which he came. Murikeer grinned up at him, a rictus pull of his own blood and dirt crusted lips. At last, a human; a northerner, one who would be familiar with the other humans with whom he had come. “Die, beast!” the northman barked and leaped forward, sword outthrust as he swung the heavy tapestry full of pillage as a secondary attack.

That attack was forestalled abruptly as he slammed full charge into an unyielding invisible force between himself and his animalistic quarry. Before he could recover, or even begin to grasp what had happened beyond the pain flaring up from his own broken nose, he found himself bodily yanked into the air and slammed into the stone of the steps down which he had just charged. The stunning blow caused him to lose his grip on his bag of bounty sending a cascade of silver and gold detritus clattering down the stairs. Another hammering blow, this one into the unyielding lintel of a casement window, dislodged the sword from his other hand. That task accomplished the skunk lifted him into the air.

“Where are the humans who came with you?” Murikeer growled flatly, one hand held out before him, fingers slightly curled as if he were holding a fist sized object. The northerner shook his head and spat blood from his mouth before snarling down at the mage.

“Lilith take ye, abomination!” he spat furiously, “Ah tell ye nothin’.”

With a jerk of his hand Murikeer hammered him against the inner wall of the stairwell, “Where!” he reiterated with a furious hiss.

“Dunno!” the abused northerner yelped, having broken another bone when the stone reached out to smack the wits from him a third time, “Ah left ‘em!”

Murikeer’s gaze dropped to a golden chalice still rolling upon the stair where it had fallen. With a slight motion of his free hand he lifted it in the air until it hovered near the man’s scarred face. “Greed, it befits you.” He said levelly and, with a flick of one finger, slammed the heavy gold across his face. The lip of the chalice cut deeply into his cheek and snapped his head to one side. “Were there mages with your group?” The chalice hovered, blood pooling slowly along its misshapen edge, a few feet from his face. The distorted reflection in its polished curve twisted as the man tried to imagine some way out of his hopeless situation.

“Yah,” he grumbled at length, glaring at the frighteningly alien presence handling him from a dozen paces down the stairwell. It was a mere animal, like so many of the other foes he had encountered since coming to the accursed heap of soft southerner stone. He yearned for the open ice and yurts of his people, suddenly, sensing deep in the pit of his hollow stomach that he would only see them again in the halls of death.

“How many?” the beast asked with a calm that was as frightening as his alien countenance. A calm enemy is one to be feared for they knew their own position of superiority.

“Two ‘ands an’ two, and mo again.” He lied, inflating the numbers of pattern weavers he had seen during their southward trek. They had kept to themselves and slept in yurts of garishly bright colors and cloth so thin it should never had withstood the icy cut of the northern cold. Yet they had always emerged refreshed and arrogant after peaceful nights within, unlike his own kind who slept on the merciless snow as they had since the first Ice of creation. “Minions o’ th’ great king o’ th’ North, all be.”

“Were you among them when the fighting began?”

He shook his head slowly, looking to the golden placeware hovering sinisterly in the air untouched beyond the reach of his hand. Could he only reach it he could cast it at the weak looking pattern weaver before him. “Only me people, Ice walkers.” He leveled a glare at the skunk, “Release me, pattern weaver, ah will return t’ th’ Ice.” He had no such intention; the bounty of the southerner’s softness was beyond his wildest imaginings. With even a single sack full of such wealth he would have become chief of his own tribes, he could barter for the largest herd of reindeer the north had ever seen.

“Was one called Thorne among them?” the chalice hummed as it swept blindingly through the air, missing the suspended human’s nose by a scant breath. He jerked his head back reflexively and winced. The pain of honorable battle was a pain embraced, but this pain, this humiliation, was something he had never before experienced. Even when he had been bound to the wall of the Great Ice for his ascension to manhood had he never felt as powerless. He dropped his hands to his side, stealthily reaching for the skinning dagger concealed under the heavy furs of his parka. “He has eyes of gray, a black beard like you, but comes from the warm lands of the south.”

“Him ah seen,” the man grumbled, “Would be lord, too soft fer e’n the bathing frost!” His fingers felt the hard bone of the dagger’s hilt and he worried it loose from its scabbard.

“Inside these walls?” the skunk asked sharply, his fingers clenching slightly and crushing the wind from the northman’s lungs with a hissing grunt. His vision swam as he gaped for a breath that would not come until the unseen giant’s fist eased slightly. He whooped in a great breath and shook his head to dash the graying flickers of stars from his vision.

“Yah!” he snarled furiously, palming the slender, razor edged bluestone blade. “Him ah seen, be wit ‘is master’s clan.” White teeth gleamed from behind the black furred lips of his captor as he gauged the distance for his throw. Both of the skunk’s hands were occupied with holding him and the chalice aloft, he would not be able to save himself from the blade. “Two ‘ands, them be.” He spat a gobbet of blood from his mouth and grinned revealing what few black teeth he had remaining. “Them’ll kill you!” with a deft flick of his wrist he sent the bluestone blade flickering through the air toward the beast’s breast.

Seeing the motion of the man’s arm Murikeer released the chalice and flicked his other hand violently to the side. He barely registered the glistening blue flash that spun toward him, seeing only the pale hilt of bone, and spun in an effort to dodge the blade. It scored across his ribs and a scintillating crash echoed through the stairwell followed immediately after by a shrieking howl of wind and the fast fading yowl of the man as he plummeted into the howling gale beyond the casement window through which he had been flung. Murikeer continued to spin, staggered by the blinding flash of pain that sliced across his ribs, and sprawled against the casement he had been looking through moments before. He had learned something, at least.

Thorne had a circle with him, and he was not their leader, but there was a score or more of mages that just one greedy northern reindeer herder had seen. If all were of master rank it would make dealing with them an almost suicidal task as a unified group, but Murikeer would take them all on, if it meant he would reach Thorne.

Looking down he spied the weapon that had scored him a few steps down, the blade a pale blue the color of a summer sky. Trudging wearily down he collected it and stared at its blood stained edge for several moments before tucking it under the belt of what remained of his holiday finery. Ignored the glimmering precious metals and stones of the pillager’s spilled bounty he resumed his weary trek up the stair.

“What did you do that for?” Zagrosek asked, his eyes wide with shock as the dresser was reduced to kindling.

“If the Lutins think this room has already been sacked, they will ignore it then, won’t they?” Charles replied, slashing his dresser a few more times before turning to his closet. “Sorry about this, old fellow,” he said, and then hacked away at the wooden doors, crashing them inwards against his summer wardrobe.

Jerome chuckled lightly. “Still talking to your furniture?”

The rat grimaced slightly before turning to his bed, and piercing the quilts and cushions. “I’m going to regret this later I know, but I think I would rather I be the one to destroy my things than to have some green-skinned monster do it!”

Garigan watched him for a moment and then looked back through his door. “Do you want me to do the same to my room?” His voice quavered; obviously he was rather fond of his bed and assorted furnishings.

“No,” Matthias shook his head. “I doubt anybody will look past this room.”

“What if they go into the Shrine?” Zagrosek asked, jerking his thumb over to the other door at the far end of the room. The closet had once been standing before it, but as it was now in splinters, the hidden exit was now visible to all.

The rat shrugged, pulling on his buckler and slipping the sword home in its sheath. “Let them. There’s nothing in there for them to take, and they’ll most likely kill themselves when they try to steal the angel.”

“Good point,” Zagrosek chuckled, and then spun the Sondeshike in his palms, he shrunk it down to fit within his palm. “Is there anything else you need here? It is already late. We’ll have an easier time moving through the woods while it is dark out, so we’d best get moving before the dawn arrives.”

Charles shook his head, scattering the stack of parchments on his desk. He sighed as he peered at the mess littering his floor, wood splinters almost everywhere, mixed in with the papers. He quickly took the one he’d penned for Misha and laid it on top of the torn mattress. “No, I think this will do.” He picked up the ink bottle from the floor, and dashed it against the wall. The dried ink scattered with the glass, littering the back of his room. “It was dry anyway,” he murmured as he crossed over the mess towards his door.

Jerome was the first to step out of the room, peering down both sides of the hall. Seeing that nobody was about, he stepped out into the middle, and motioned for the other three to do the same. Charles was the last to leave of course, gazing at the destruction he’d caused within his own chambers and sighing. He hated having to do it, as so many thing that were in his room had a great deal of meaning for him. There were trinkets of course that he’d left unmolested, and hopefully, the Lutins would as well.

Suddenly though, he recalled one of the gifts that he’d received at the party, a cross necklace fashioned from some milk stone. Murikeer Khannas had made it for him, and it had probably been one of the nicest things he’d received. Coming from the skunk, it meant even more, since he knew that until the Patriarch’s visit, that Muri had not looked favourably upon the Patildor.

“Just one moment,” Charles said, before picking his way back in among the ruin to his desk. Reaching inside the lid that had only partially been caved in, he retrieved the ornament, cradling it within the pink flesh of his paws and let a smile cross his muzzle. Looking back to one corner of his room, he remembered the secret cache that he’d hidden his robe in for so many years. Pressing against the stone, he opened it wide, and set the cross within it. It would be safe there.

However, a sudden premonition filled him, and his paws did not close it back up. Instead, he reached in and withdrew the milky cross again, gazing at it, remembering what it meant, what that sign meant to all Followers of the Way. Upon that cross, his Yahshua had died. Muttering, he closed his eyes, and traced that sign over his chest and forehead. “My Abba, I need you now in this more than ever. Watch over my fellow Keepers in this time, and give us the victory we need. And please let our friends at Glen Avery be all right. I pray this in the name of your son Yahshua. A-men.”

Rising back to his paws, he slipped the cross over his neck, the rock cool against his fur. He dropped the pendant down beneath his cloak and against his chest. Strangely, it was warm on his fur, as if it breathed a life of its own. Smiling once more, he closed the cache, and left his room once more, rejoining his companions. He had a quiet feeling of unease as he did so, but it was very subtle, and he hardly noticed it.

“Now are you ready?” Jerome asked impatiently, casting wary eyes down either passageway.

“Yes, follow me, this shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.” Charles set off on a familiar path, for it had been his habit for many years to walk this way each morning. The halls of the Keep were empty though, as most of the Keepers had been at either the Lothanasi or Patildor celebrations that evening. It had probably been blind chance that they had found that small group of Keepers battling Nasoj’s forces when they had. He could almost imagine Misha’s incredulity when he informed him of the Shrieker and of Wessex’s demise while the fox was preparing for the assault!

They reached the staircase into the cellars without incident, their eyes ever watching the shadows shift and turn about them. Jerome and Garigan carried the two unlit lanterns in their off hands, weapons held ready in their other hands. The halls in the cellar were of course lit much like the rest of the Keep, though more subdued, the torches being further apart. Being a rat of course had its advantages, and one of which was that he could see rather well in the dark, as long as there was at least a little light. So, walking down the cold passages beneath the rest of the Keep, the scent of mould just dimly apparent in the air, proved to be no difficulty for either Matthias or the others.

However, just before they were about to turn the corner down the hall to the rats’ rooms, there was the sound of splintering wood. The four of them stiffened as they heard it come from around that corner. Charles did not feel the warming of the carved stone hanging against his chest as he came to a swift halt, throwing up a hand to signal a halt though the others had already done so. Sliding forward along the wall, Charles sniffed at the air, the scent of Lutins faint, but evident. Grimacing, he hazarded a peek, before pulling back his snout to glance at the others who were drawn up close behind him, their bodies tense.

Charles held up one paw, and raised four fingers, and then nodded at the corner. Both Jerome and Zagrosek nodded in return, while Garigan narrowed his eyes, small daggers appearing in both of his paws from inside his cloak. The lanterns were set at their feet, silent as an undisturbed cave.

Taking a quick breath, Charles plunged around the corner, catching the first of the four Lutins by surprise. They had been smashing at Hector’s door, obviously looting whatever they could find. Nasoj had almost certainly promised them that they could keep whatever they found here, and so this quartet had been industrious enough to try and steal what they could while their brethren died killing the Keepers. However, when the first of them collapsed, his back smacked in two by the force of the Sondeshike, they regretted their greed.

Strangled cries issued from their throats as the other three reached for small swords at their sides, snarling in fury as their comrade fell face down upon the cold masonry. Charles lashed out again with his Sondeshike, breaking the arm of the nearest Lutin. However, the battle was over before the rat was able to swing again. Zagrosek cracked one of the Lutin’s skulls with his own Sondeshike. Slipping sinuously past the rat, Garigan stabbed the Lutin with the shattered arm repeatedly with his daggers while Jerome forced the last Lutin to impale itself upon its own sword.

Glancing at the bodies beneath their feet, Charles took a deep breath before peering into the gaping hole in Hector’s door. The room was empty, aside from the cluttered sculptures across his floor. The light was too dim to make out any detail on the carvings, but it was sufficient to allow the others to see them as well.

Ferwig, much to his own surprise awoke. The last thing he had expected was to wake up. Most people usually don’t bother to take people like him prisoner. With his head ringing he looked around and tried to figure out where he was. He realized that he was being dragged, bound and gagged, backwards down a hallway.

“The man is awake George,” a voice said.

“All right, put him down,” another voice said. “He can walk from now on.”

His movement stopped and his feet were dropped to the floor with a jolt. A figure towered over him and he looked up into the snout of George, the patrol master.

“Stand up and walk,” the jackal ordered flatly.

Ferwig was in no mood to comply and simply lay still and ignored his captor. George calmly kicked Ferwig in the groin, not as hard as the last time, but hard enough. The man screamed loudly through the cloth gag, clutching his groin.

“Get up and walk,” George ordered again and this time the battered fighter obeyed. Ferwig rolled onto his stomach, pulled himself up onto his knees and then slowly stood up. His whole body hurt, especially his testicles and his head. Fighting nausea he had to lean against a wall to keep from falling over.

He felt a light touch on the shoulder and looked up to see one of his guards, a short, lynx woman staring at him. “Come on,” the keeper said in a surprisingly gentle voice. “We don’t have far to walk.” Ferwig briefly considered grabbing the felines sword and trying to fight his way free. Then he saw the cats muzzle full of long, sharp teeth, and her razor sharp claws. She didn’t need any weapons, the curse had given her a very formidable set of built in weapons. Briefly he wondered why she bothered to carry a sword at all. Perhaps out of habit?

The lynx, turned him around with a push of a claw equipped paw, and he found himself looking at Teria, who was glowering at him. The woman didn’t look happy or healthy. The whole of her forehead was one massive bruise, and her right eye was almost swelled shut. Another guard, this one a woman, rudely turned the mage around and shoved her forward. Giving her capture a cold, steel hard gaze, Teria started moving in the ordered direction. All that kept her from cursing her captives was the gag in her mouth.

Ferwig could imagine the mood she was in. With a bruise like that she must have a huge headache and be incredibly angry. The humiliation of being knocked unconscious by dinner plate would make her even angrier.

The trip wasn’t an easy one for the fighter. Every part of his body seemed bruised and battered. The worst was his privates were throbbing and he found himself walking in an odd bow legged manner to ease the pain. It didn’t help much. Still his captors didn’t make any comments or jibes, they moved in silence watching and listening in all directions, no panic, no unnecessary noise. Their home had been invaded by thousands of Lutins and they were cut off and alone. And yet these seven soldiers were moving about as calmly as if they were on a training mission. That impressed the mercenary, these were professionals. Good people to have fighting by your side.

The group came upon two sword-wielding soldiers standing in front of an open doorway. He caught a glimpse of someone else aiming a crossbow using the corner of the doorway as cover.

Ferwig saw the jackal talking to the two guards. “Take some of the tables and make a barricade to block the corridor.”

One of the new guards, a woman, dressed in armor made up of iron scales sewn to felt, nodded. “Yes Sir.”

“Is Misha in?”

“No sir,” the woman answered. “He went out with a team over an hour ago.”

“Well,” the canine said in a calm voice. “As senior officer, I’m in command now.” With a nod of the head the jackal moved forward through the doorway and the small group followed.

In a moment Ferwig and Teria moved passed the guards who gave both mercenaries cold, hard stares. They entered into a small hall, about fifty feet long, and wide. Forty feet above was a domed ceiling with small, glass windows interspersed along it’s length.

Crossing the room they came to the far wall. Set in that wall was a small wooden door, in front of which stood four guards. Over the door was a balcony, that was about twenty feet from side to side. Ferwigs trained eye noticed that the entire length of the balcony was line with battlements. A few soldiers standing up there could control the entire hall against all but a major assault.

The group went through the door and into a small room. The door closed behind them with an ominous thud. He noticed Teria looking up and followed her gaze. There in the ceiling he noticed small holes; murder holes. He could easily imagine the boiling oil or water that could be poured down through them. He quickly moved out of that little death room trying not to look too nervous.

The hall on the other side was larger then the previous one. The stained glass lining one wall threw a kaleidoscope of color onto the entire scene laid out before him. Long Hall was filled with people. They were everywhere, sleeping on the floors, the balcony, even the stairs in the corner held people on each step. He saw people of all sexes, ages and species. Some were sleeping, others eating, or tending to wounded. Ferwig smiled as a group of children raced around in a game of tag, shrieking and giggling. He realized that these weren’t nobles cowering in some privileged hideaway. These ragged and fearful people were simple commoners, just trying to protect themselves.

He saw a what must be an elk-woman stare at him with hate filled eyes. The intensity of he gaze made Ferwig stop and look away from her. Then he was pushed and forced to move on. Unable to resist, he turned and looked back and found the woman still staring at him.

A woman guard slapped him on the face with the back of her gauntleted hand. "Either keep your eyes front, or I'll keep them in my pocket. Understand?" she ordered in a tone full of hate.

Ferwig ignored the threat but followed the order anyway.

George pointed to the two prisoners. “Take those two to a cell. I’ll talk with them later. Beware the woman, she’s a mage.”

“Sir,” the lynx said. “What about their wounds?”

“When one of the long Scout teams come back, have their healer look them over.”

“Yes sir,” the feline answered and with a shove guided the two prisoners away from the jackal.

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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