The Winter Assault

Part 9

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

It wasn’t the heat or the crackling of the flames, or even the smoke that snapped Jacob from his restful slumber. No, it was the crash made by part of his front wall as it collapsed that caused the fox to open his eyes then jump to a standing position on his bed.

The house itself was an inferno. The fox wrapped the thick quilt around himself, though not for warmth. This time it served to keep him from going up with the rest of the house. Being waddle and daub, it was going up very quickly. A creak from one of the roof support beams made him snap his head up and see the flames crossing the roof. He was distracted from that sight by the sounds of coarse laughter from outside. Looking, he could make out three Lutins laughing and jeering at him from the other side of the flames. Another creak in the roof demanded his attention again.

Snarling at the Lutins and the fire, Jacob contemplated the rock and the hard place he was caught between; death by fire, or death by sword. When a wad of burning roofing materials fell onto his bed, causing him to barely spring out of the way and the Lutins to roar harder, he pretty much decided to take the hard option. His shovel, where it leaned against the wall near the small pile of the rest of his tools, gave him something to even the odds with those Lutins. Flipping up the quilt to protect his ears, he grabbed the shovel and made a snarling leap through the flames engulfing the front of his house.

The Lutins had not expected him to do that and so were sufficiently startled to give him a decent landing space. Using his forward momentum, he managed to bring up the shovel in time to slap the metal end across the face of one Lutin. He went down clutching his face, leaving Jacob to deal with his two friends. They backed off to either side, quite wary now of whom they were dealing with.

Jacob flipped the shovel around so that the spade end was pointed outwards and he was holding in a classic grip for a quarter staff. He was thankful now that he had training with such a weapon in his time with the militia. Shrugging off the smoking quilt, he folded his ears back and lunged at the closest Lutin with a howling battle cry.

Never having fought a midnight black shape wielding a shovel like he was now, the Lutin was taken quite by surprise. He also had not expected any real fight. Most keepers tended to stay in their homes while they burned as opposed to risking the flames to get to safety. And if they did, few came armed and crazed as this creature. He blocked the first strike, though the shovel almost jarred lose his sword. The Lutin barely got both hands on the hilt before another jarring blow from this crazy keeper rocked the weapon to the other side. Alas, the snow was causing him problems and he was not able to back up fast enough to avoid the keeper’s return swing. The shovel, heavier than the Lutin’s sword and backed with the strength of the angry keeper, hammered through his parry by sheer mass. The night exploded in white before the cold snow collected him.

Snarling like a wild animal, Jacob swung again and again at the stunned Lutin. But it was only on his third strike that he managed to hit flesh, cracking the skull of his opponent with the metal of the spade head. He would have finished the business right then and there but a guttural cry from behind reminded him there was more than one of these little bastards to deal with. The last Lutin’s lunge was met by a thrust of the sharp end of the shovel to his belly.

But the shovel did not penetrate the flesh, for this Lutin was fortunate enough to have a set of some kind of armor on. Instead he was lifted off his feet to fall to the snow like a puppet with no strings, clutching his stomach. Jacob retracted his weapon, swung it around behind him for momentum, his paws sliding down the shaft to the end, then brought it down as hard as he could on the Lutin’s head. The attacker went down with a sick crunch and a small splattering of gore on the trampled snow.

Then there was time to deal with the second Lutin. Not altering his grip, Jacob swung the shovel back around him. Unfortunately the downed Lutin had struggled to his feet and was caught on the side of the chest by the shovel. Still, the blow was enough to lift him from his feet and send him tumbling into the snow a few feet away. The fox was on him at once, bringing down the flat end of the shovel into the startled and blooded green face. The Lutin’s body jerked and spasmed, flailing as it fell back into the snow with a spray of dark blood from the crushed ruin if its face.

The blow jarred Jacob’s arms and snapped the shovel a third of the way up from the spade end. Bringing up the shovel, his ears perked up and his eyes grew wide as he looked at the splintered wood through the snow and by the light of the raging fire. It was hard to say what was more surprising to the fox; the fact that it had broken at all, or that he had hit the Lutin that hard! His ears turned as the crunch of snow came from behind him.

It was well known that lone Lutins are cowardly creatures. The one that Jacob had hit first out of the house was on his feet once again, trying to scramble away from the battle-crazed keeper. Just the mere sight of the creature was enough to enrage the fox, and Jacob hunched over, his ears laying flat against his head as he howled his outrage at this thing that would dare destroy his home. With a quick initial spring, he managed to close the distance between himself and his target in less than ten strides, bringing down the shovel handle against the back of the leather helmet that covered the Lutin’s head. Another wet, grinding crunch and the last of the initial attackers joined his friends. But Jacob kept swinging and swinging at the fallen Lutin, beating the body of the one who had tried to burn him with his home, pouring all his rage out into the assault.

Only when he had exhausted the fierce battle energy did he stop. Panting over the smashed and battered body, his breath coming in white clouds, Jacob could scarily believe he had just done that. A crash from behind him snapped him out of his stupefied paralysis and he looked back towards his house. He was just in time to witness the rest of the roof collapse, sparks and flames shooting out of the sides. The other houses next to his own were also burning by that point. Slumping his shoulders and sighing, he looked at the bloodied end of the shovel in his paw then threw it away in disgust.

In a matter of moments he had lost his home since childhood, his possessions, his half written stories, everything that meant anything to him to fire, and brutally taken the lives of those responsible for it. A swirl of icy wind cut through his cheek fur, making him thankful that he had been too tired to remove his clothes when he had gotten home. Flipping his hood up over his head, Jacob tried to decide where to go from there. And what happened to cause it in the first place! The glint of firelight on steal drew his attention to a sword on the ground. It was dented, dull, rusted, and most definately a Lutin weapon. But it was still a weapon. Hefting the short sword in his paw, Jacob set off in the direction of the main Keep.

Of course, the snow provided most of his problems. Not only the fact that it was cold and stinging, but the fact that it was blowing almost directly across his path meant that he couldn’t look straight ahead. He was forced to trudge through the drifting snow with one paw held up before his eyes and the wind trying to tear the coat and tail from his back. He had made it about a half block before it struck him that he was the only one out in that white hell. None of his rather numerous neighbors were fleeing for the Keep, nor were there any lights on in their houses. Taking a little detour to get a closer look at one of the shops, Jacob discovered that the local candle maker’s was empty, the whole front smashed in. Well, that would explain the rest of the people. As he turned back into the wind, he couldn’t help consider the irony of having the entire neighborhood leave on a mass exodus the one night that he chooses to get falling down drunk. At least he did not need to worry about fighting his way to the keep. At least not yet.

He saw the first Lutin in another block. At least that was what the faint, shadowed blur smelled like. The Lutin had a torch, which he was vainly trying to keep lit while staggering against the wind. Jacob decided to wait until he had passed. Cutting down a small alley he noticed to his left to avoid the wind, Jacob quickened his pace to a jog. Four Lutins, no keepers, no neighbors. Were it not for the fact that his paws were freezing and his ears felt like they were going to break off from the cold he would swear this was one very bad nightmare! As it was, it had the markings of an excellent horror story should he have the opportunity to write it.

The next main street he came out was close to the eastern outer walls. He could make out the warehouses that lined the wall and, much to his horror, one of the main guard towers on the wall engulfed in flames. It was quite a blaze, to be seen through the blowing snow. Jacob was just about to head up the road, sticking close to the sides of the buildings, when the storm suddenly died down around him.

Jacob blinked around, turning this way and that to see what the hell happened. It was explained to him by the arrival of close to fifteen humans, all dressed for the weather, and all looking to have come right from battle. In their center was a woman holding up a staff, the top of which glowed with a brilliant white light. Their arrival so stunned Jacob that the poor fox did not react until they had seen him as well. The leader, the woman with the staff, turned in his direction and told the men, “There’s another one of those creatures. Kill it.” That was all he needed to know, and Jacob was off like a shot, five of the humans fast behind him.

The alleyways back the way he came seemed like a good option to him, so he ducked down there. The downside to them was that he no longer had the blizzard to cover his tracks, the buildings largely blocking the wind. He was just thankful to be an animal fleet of foot and for the head start he had on his pursuers. Their voices echoed off the walls around him as he ran, calling, taunting, threatening him. He ignored them totally, except to gauge where his attackers were coming from. But these mercenaries were better than he had expected, coming at him from more than one direction. And his hopes of eluding them in the alleys ended when he almost ran smack into the wall at the end of a blind alley. He would have gone back but for the brutish human blocking the mouth of the alley.

“Hey guys, I found it!” he yelled before drawing his sword. It was a full long sword, and between that and his own arm length, it gave the mercenary better reach than Jacob. The fox paced at the end of the alley, a growl boiling in his throat as he debated what to do. He didn’t have long to think as two of the other three showed up. He caught a quick exchange asking where the last one was then dismissing it, saying he would show soon enough. The two new arrivals drew their swords and started into the alley.

Jacob snarled loudly at them, his lips pulled up from all his teeth and his fur bristling up on his neck and tail as he took the deplorably made Lutin sword in both his paws. The mercenaries just chuckled at that, their breath coming out in white plumes. Well, if he was going to die, he was at least going to try and take one of them with him. Spreading his legs, he raised his sword and waited.

If he had not been wandering around in the darkness so long the flash of light would not have almost blinded him, Jacob later considered. The mercenary on the left of the trio never got the chance as he was thrown forward, quite dead, by the blast of magic. His two comrades whirled to face the new threat, the one that had been in the middle taking a similar blast to the front. Jacob saw that the body had a large smoking hole in the chest with his heart swinging like a pendulum as it skidded to a stop in the snow a few feet from him.

With two of the humans out of the way he could now make out the shape at the mouth of the alley. Only a mage could have killed those humans like that, and both Jacob and the remaining mercenary knew that. He was charging the mage, sword above his head and yelling some foreign battle cry, as the fox watched. The figure at the end of the alley drew his own weapon and blocked the initial assault before locking in combat. There was a brief struggle before one of the shapes went down clutching his chest. The second bent over to retrieve something; a dagger Jacob believed could make it out before the other returned both weapons to their resting place. The shape started to leave before looking back at the fox. “Well? Are you going to just stand there or are we going to get the hell out of here?”

Jacob just blinked at the stranger who had saved his life, then decided that, yes, that advice sounded pretty good to him. Gingerly stepping past the charred bodies, he ran up joined the other, quite thankful for his excellent night vision. When he reached the stranger, Jacob could see that he was a raccoon, though with a thick coating of show and ice. “You should know, there’s a fourth one of these guys out there.”

“I already know about him,” said the raccoon as he started off. “How do you think I found you? He won’t be a problem any longer. Now come on. I can sense another mage around here, and I’m pretty sure they picked up on what I just did.”

He had seen the other mage and was not about to argue. Instead he quickened his pace and tried to keep up. The raccoon led him down back alleys, places where Jacob stumbled and had to work to pick his way around obstacles. Fleetingly, he wished he was a mage and had some form of magic sight to rely on. Eventually the two came to a large doorway, set back a few feet into a building. The raccoon chose that as he resting place, slumping against the wall, and huddling down as far away as he could get from the wind. Jacob took a seat opposite him.

“Well, I suppose introductions are in order,” the raccoon commented as he blew on his paws in an effort to warm them. “I’m Rickkter, a war mage from the Keep itself. You?”

“Jacob.” He paused, his tongue darting out to lick his nose. His breath clouded from his hard breathing. “Um, story teller, master of nothing.”

Rickkter had been looking out at the alley and promptly did a double take. “Story teller?! What in the nine hells are you doing out here? From what I’ve seen everyone else headed for the main Keep when that army hit the outer walls.”

The fox tilted his head, frowning.

“The, uh, large ugly Lutin army that attacked from the north. The one that chewed through our vanguard, the guards on the walls, and from what I’ve seen most of this damned town.” He blinked at Jacob’s startled reaction. “You mean you don’t know anything about it?!”

Jacob’s ears went flat against his skull. “I was asleep. I had too much to drink tonight.”

The raccoon rubbed his face. “You weren’t the only one.” He turned back to the alley. “Well, our first order of business should be shelter. We definately can’t stay here the night. Do you know this part of the town?”

“I do,” Jacob said with a nod.

“Good. I can keep their mages from sensing us, and I can keep us away from their troops, you just have to tell us where to go.” Rick perked up his ears. “And hope they’ve not burned it down first.”

“True. But a question: how can you feel them but were cut off from coming back for so long? Couldn’t you find your way in this soup?”

“No,” Rick growled. “They had a dampening field that blinded any of us with magic sight, but that’s mostly lifted now. I guess after they hit the keep they didn’t feel it was necessary any longer. And when they did, I found I had gone right by the Keep in the snow and had to turn around. And then deal with those patrolling the parameter to get here. Actually, can you get me somewhere higher? I want to see if they’ve broken the defenses of the Keep itself yet.”

Jacob thought for several moments, rubbing his cold paws as the wind ruffled his tail were it was folded across his feet. “Okay, I think I know the perfect place for you. It has four stories and overlooks most of the houses around it, giving a clear view of the Keep.”

Rickkter stood and told him they should get going now, before any other patrols happened across them. Jacob nodded and led the way out. When they turned the corner of the building, it was right into a blast of icy winter air.

“Why couldn’t I have been turned into a bloody snow leopard?” grumbled Rick as he ducked his head and trudged onwards. The fox was guiding them based almost solely on memories and rumors about Metamor he had been accumulating since childhood. They made it up several blocks and across another one of the main thoroughfares before Rickkter brought them to a stop at the mouth of the alley they had exited.

“What the hell’s going on?” Jacob yelled at the raccoon in order to be heard over the howling winds.

The mage moved over and blinked a few times before turning and retreating into the sheltering alley. “Lutins,” Jacob barely heard him pronounce. “Two groups of them. They appear to think that the other group is of keepers and are trying to kill them off. I’ve seen a few of them engaged in similar conflicts before running into you.”

“But... but surely they’ll realize that it’s their own kind after they don’t see anything but Lutin’s attacking them.”

When the raccoon turned back Jacob could swear he was giving him a sardonic grin, even through the fox couldn’t really see it for the dark and snow. “In this weather they’ll be lucky to see the person they’re attacking as anything but an indistinct blob with a sword. Now can we cut through here or not?”

“Where are the Lutins?” the fox yelled as he turned and squinted into the driving snow. He had no idea how the raccoon could see anything, because he could barely see half a dozen paces ahead of them. The mage put a hand on his shoulder as he leaned close and pointed down an intersecting street.

“That way, fifty paces, heading parallel to the alley we’re in.” It took two repetitions almost in Jacob’s ear before he made out the entirety of the statement.

He nodded at length, “Good. We don’t need to. It’s just up here a ways and the Lutins are working their way south, away from us.”

The raccoon was hunched over, paws resting on his knees. He panted and nodded. “Good. They’re the only groups near us. Let’s get going.”

Natalie lay on the fifth floor ledge for just a moment, in case anyone could see her. Then, doing her best to act like an injured bird, she hobbled around to the opposite side of the tower and waited, wings folded tightly around her as she made herself as small against the cold wind as she could.

December 25, 3am

His chambers somehow did not look the same though they were unchanged as he stood in the doorway and stared at it. He padded into the fore chamber, pushed the door shut on the biting cold of the stairwell, and paced into the sitting room. Warmed by the spells he had quickened into various polished stones on pedestals about the periphery of the room it felt positively sweltering after the numbing cold of the castle’s unheated corridors. He crossed to the writing desk below the balcony that lead to his workroom and library and could bring himself to do nothing but stare at the slender length of pale steel colored silk that lay there, wrapped about the carefully ensorcelled sword he had spent the last month preparing for Llyn. A sword she would never grasp, that would never sing to her deadly martial dance. Somewhere a smith was working on a set of bladed greaves that would have matched the sword; would match, if that metalsmith survived this holiday atrocity.

His hand dropped to the pouch at his hip. It had managed to remain with him through the furious battles he had fought already while little else of his raiment survived. Other than a few tatters at his hips and dangling from his shoulders or about his thighs nothing remained. Of that none of it would ever be mistaken for the expensive silk holiday garb he had donned only hours before. He untied the pouch and opened it, dumping the intricately carved wooden box within into his palm. It, too, had not come through his fights unscathed. The lid was cracked cleanly in half but its golden clasp was still secure. It opened smoothly at a single light touch of his thumb. Within, in a nest of white velvet, was a simple looking ring of woven metals.

Only, they had not always been metals. The dark reddish brown, black, and gleaming white gold had all once been his own fur delicately braided together with Llyn’s own fur. After weaving the complex strands together he had used a powerful transmutation to turn the fur to hard metals. Making each metal distinct within the ring had proven to be the most challenging portion of the crafting, the simple protections he had quickened into it afterward had seemed to be mere afterthoughts. Woodenly he set the box upon the silk wrapped bundle of her sword, one half of the cracked lid dropping like a drunkard’s eyelid over the gleaming metals. Staring at the ring box Murikeer’s breath quickened and his hands clenched into fists.

With a swift turn he swept from the room at a run, the growl of his frustrated rage and grief echoing in the room long after his departure.

"We are in armory!" whispered Desuka as Blake dropped to the ground beside him. Now we find stone..."

"Not yet." said Blake. "I have to find something else, first."


"Trust me!"

Desuka left Blake to whatever it was she was doing and peeked out beneath the door. Two small creatures, wrinkly and gray and vaguely humanoid, stood before the door. Though they seemed dizzyingly tall, Desuka figured that they were about two feet high each. As he watched, the little gray things sent bolts of energy from their fingers toward the door. The tiny valet cringed instinctively. However, the energy was absorbed harmlessly by the door.

"You lazy grugs!" shouted a gruff Lutin. "Why haven't you opened the door yet?"

The wrinkled midgets turned and shouted back. "We thrown every spell we got at this here door! It ain't gonna budge!"

Desuka brought his head in and turned to Blake. "They are trying to break in using magic. They do not know that the tower has antimagic."

"Actually, the antimagic part stops two levels down." the little woman replied.

"How you..."

"I'm a Strander. We notice these things. Normally, the antimagic part of the tower stops right at the ledge on the fifth level. Right now, it seems, the magic and the antimagic are swimming all over the walls and floors like a bottle of oil and water someone shook up."

'Would they not cancel each other out if they met?"

"That's usually the way it works. I don't know what's... AHA! Here it is!


"An antimagical ward, specifically designed for transformation spells. I used one of these when I first came here to hold off the curse for a little while. Didn't work very long, of course. Come on over here."

Desuka was hesitant. "I am told that antimagic is lethal to one not acclimated."

"That's chemical. This is a ward. You'll be fine. Now get over here!"

Desuka obeyed. Blake dragged a necklace with a magical symbol out of a box and placed it on the floor between them. Both touched the ward. Both were instantly large again. Both got a splitting headache when their scalps collided.

Ignoring the pain, Desuka probed the walls, finally managing to find a stone that was just a little bit loose. Taking a sword, he chipped away some of the mortar around it. Once he had enough space, he stuck the sword through.

Out on the ledge, Natalie saw the dark form of a sword blade cut into the air over her head. That was the signal. Down through the blizzard she swept, finding her way to the river and into the cave. "They made it!" she called. "They're in the armory!"

"Excellent." said Oren. "Stay and warm up for a second, then go back and
help them take out the stones from the wall."

"Got it."

"LEO!" bellowed the otter.

"Yes, Sir!"

"Find me a good sized rock, about ten pounds. Jagged, not smooth."

"A rock, Sir?"

"That's right, a rock! Now!"

"Aye, sir."

12/25 around 4am

The mother looked down at her daughter, whose eyes started to water at the absence of the man she had loved since she had first met him at the keep.

"Shush Carolinn," she whispered, "It’s okay, just keep quiet."

Above, the wooden floorboards creaked under the steps of many bodies, smaller than any man. The light flickered through the cracks, as they reached the covered trap door. She prayed into her daughter’s ear, a crooning sound that, for some reason, calmed the girl-child into a doze. All the while, the cellar grew a touch lighter, as the carpet was drawn away from the entrance, and the handle pulled.

She turned away, looking away from the light, shutting her eyes tight, trying to block the light out, or lack thereof, whispering into her baby’s ear as the trapdoor thumped against the floor, followed by nearly half a dozen thumps that followed, surely the bad men coming down the stairs.

Then, all was quiet. She felt nothing, just an oppressive silence. She stopped chanting her prayer, her ears straining as she opens an eye, to find the flickering darkness as before… only the flickering firelight didn’t shine through some of the cracks as they once did, as objects on the ceiling of the cellar above them block out the lamplight.

She hears a soft squeaking sound as the nails in the planks protest soft footsteps quietly, as the dropped trapdoor opens all the way.

The mother flinches, as the light beams down into the cellar, illuminating the area around them as a figure peaks down.

A soft, deep, hope-bringing voice wafted down the stairs to her ears, "It’s all right ma’am. I’m here to help you. I’ll take you to safety."

She looked up at the hooded figure, a metallic silver muzzle just catching a glint of firelight, as golden talons shine gloriously, hand open to help.

The wife ran into her husband’s arms, sobbing in relief in unison w/ her spouse as the cloaked stranger went to a load of supplies sitting in the corner. In addition to the reunited three, 30 people stood milling around the large cellar, located in the rubble of the outer town of Metamor.

The mother looked around, and saw a familiar face of an old opossum, making her way to her.

"Hello, Michelle. Are you all right?" the marsupial asked.

"Ms. Tanner. Oh, it’s so good to see you," Michelle replied, "I almost wasn’t? Who is "

The stranger interrupted, and at the first intake of his breath, a not-even silent hush fell over the room, it just went did calm. He spoke in a hushed tone, his voice capturing the attention of everyone.

"Get your sleep, in six hours we leave. It’s not safe to stay, or to leave after that. I’ll be gone for two hours, seeing what food will be needed. People who have been here awhile, teach your spouses, children, loved ones, friends, and even strangers what I have told you. Get what sleep you can in three hours, then pack up the food, wood, clothing and shelter you can. The trip south will be unrelenting."

Before anyone could raise a question, the cloaked man had disappeared into the blizzard outside, without a sound, even without leaving a stir of air when the door had opened, the precious heat safe locked to the confines of the room. Nevertheless, a chill fell over the crowd, as Michelle looked around at the assembled crowd of men, women, (both human and with animal characteristics), and children. A large number of them were children, whether their ages were in their first decade or past their tenth birthday was unknown to her… but parents held them all, surrogate and natural alike.

"Honey," said Darrel, her husband, holding up his fingers in a sweeping motion, "this means run as fast as you can…."

“Damn!” Egland swore breathlessly as he climbed back to his hooves, using the wall to help him rise. Once standing, he rushed over to the open door, feeling the chill of the cold wind blow into his face. Though it was still snowing, it was not nearly as heavy as it had that morning. It was clear in which direction they had gone, for the long pockets in the snow were unmistakable. Yet those pockets would fill if they did not hurry. But who among them could outrun a horse?

Turning, he looked back to the others, as they rose to their paws, taking stock of their loss. Cassius did not rise easily, and needed Copernicus’s help to stay standing on his hind paws. He grimaced the whole time, pressing what little cloth he did have to his chest wound to staunch the flow of blood.

“I’m sorry, friends, but I cannot continue this chase,” Cassius said reluctantly, a terrible moue upon his muzzle the entire time. “I have to head back to the chapel.”

Egland nodded, and looked at Copernicus who appeared similarly regretful. “And you?”

“I would be of no use to you out in that weather. I’d slip into torpor within thirty minutes, despite all my protection. If it was during the day, perhaps, but not at night, and not with this much snow on the ground.” Copernicus offered him a weary grimace on his rather expressive face for a reptile. “I will help Cassius get back to the Cathedral, and tell the others what has happened so far. Are you going to continue?”

“Yes,” Egland said, meeting Saulius’s firm gaze. It was clear that the rat was bound to go on and rescue his liege. “We have to, though I do not know what hope we have of catching up to a horse in this weather. If we had our steeds, that would be one thing, but we cannot risk a journey to the stables, not with the Lutins sacking the city.”

“Thou art a deer,” Saulius pointed out. “Thou art fleet of hoof in thy natural form.”

Egland opened his mouth to object, but closed it again. The rat was right, it was quite likely the only way they could catch up with Bryonoth and the strangely complaint Duke. He finally nodded and began to undo the cinches holding his armour in place. “You are right, I must shift to my full deer form. You can hold onto my back, Sir Saulius.”

“We can use bits of cloth to help you hold on,” Copernicus suggested, gently setting Cassius against the wall. The bear nodded, and let the lizard leave him leaning there. “I suppose I can sacrifice my outermost layer to such a noble purpose.”

“Thy act is most appreciated,” Saulius said, nodding, watching his fellow knight undress.

Egland felt those eyes upon him very warmly, and though he had never before publically allowed his most intimate parts to be seen, he found the thought of it now strangely exhilarating. There was no shame in being naked when one was already an animal. Lifting his mail off, her deposited it on the ground beside him, and then removed the undershirt that was stained with oil. “I just want to know why Thomas acted like he did. You would think he would resist being made a horse.”

“He probably does not have a choice,” Cassius suggested between breaths.

“Yes, he probably is under some magical control. I can’t see why he would attack us otherwise,” Copernicus agreed, even as he ripped the black fabric robe he’d had on the outside into several long strips.

“Well, how are we supposed to defeat that? We aren’t mages!” Egland decried even as he slipped his leggings off.

“I’m not sure,” Copernicus admitted.

“For a moment, thy friend did recognize thee,” Saulius said softly, his whiskers twitching thoughtfully. He strapped a second sword to his belt, one for himself, and the other for Egland. “Perhaps thou ought to try to find that bit of him again.”

Egland nodded as he finally removed the last of his clothing, standing before them, a two-legged buck in only the flesh and fur. “Well, whatever we may do, we need to catch up with him first. I am ready, are you, Cope?”

“Yes, just shift and we’ll get you two strapped together,” Cope said, lifting several long strips of what had once been a thick black cloak.

Egland nodded, and let his form flow over him, watching as his hands hardened further into true hooves, before his shifting back forced them to the ground with a clatter. His fur was quite thick, and he felt taller than he ha been before, though he knew that was just an impression. Though everyone called him a deer as it was more commonly known, he was truly an elk, broad thick neck, and massive powerful frame in his full form, gave him renewed confidence that they would indeed rescue the Duke.

Copernicus lifted Saulius onto Egland’s back, the sudden weight surprising him. He spread his hooves to capture it more fully, but found that it was not a terrible burden. It probably would have been easier, had the rat removed his armour, but that would have been a foolish thing to do in the long run. And then, as he felt the rat’s claws dig into his neck fur, the lizard began to wrap the straps about his middle, tying them underneath firmly. After a few minutes, he stepped back and nodded. “I think that is secure. My best wishes to you both. May Eli guide your footsteps.”

“And thine as well,” Saulius said in response, before patting Egland on the neck, “Let us be off!”

Egland snorted and turned to face that open door through which the wintry wind howled. Charging at a brisk canter, he leapt out into the snowy night, his hooves finding those same tracts that Thomas’s had, and began to follow the trail around towards the back of the Keep, while the rat kept a look out for any Lutins.

It was not completely dark outside, as there were many bright fires that could be seen in the town some distance away. Burning homes lit the sky a lurid orange as they were reduced to cinders, testament to Nasoj’s greed and quest for power. Egland pondered just how many of those homes still had Keepers inside them when they were set to torch. How many people would come out after this was over and find their precious heirlooms naught more than piles of ash? How many gifts between husband and wife would have been smashed and shattered at the loutish hands of the Lutins? How many lives would be destroyed because of this madness? Egland did not dare attempt to answer any of those questions.

Charging through the snow, he realized that he barely could feel the chill in his present form. He had to leap through the piles of it, just as Thomas surely had to as well, and he still was not moving as fast as he would have liked. Leaving the town behind, he saw that they were circling to the rear of the Keep, where it was closest to the curtain wall atop the ridge that Metamor rested upon. The ground here was stripped bare, the earth littered with the fallen bodies of those that had been slain attempting to secure the wall above. Shattered ladders were cast about haphazardly, forcing the elk to slow his steps as he moved around the thick fall of corpses and broken wood. Some, he noticed, had no injuries at all. They had frozen to death before ever facing a single Keeper. Suddenly, the tracks veered off, and led closer toward the wall. Following them into the darkness that was the rear of the Keep, he could see that they were moving towards the small gate in the rear of the wall that had been put in place only just recently.

The gate was on the steep side of the ridge, which made it nearly impossible to reach. It was little used as well, built to make checking the outside walls easier. From what he’d heard, a mage had left a spell on that wall before, and it had taken months to find it, as nobody would have ever thought anyone would make that difficult walk all the way around the walls of the Keep.

Grunting, Egland drove forward to the gate, following the long strides of the horse that Thomas was. It was only a solitary door in the wall, just big enough for a rider to pass through. The snow around it had been cleared away, apparently in preparation for Bryonoth’s escape. It was slightly ajar, the wind whistling through the crack. Stepping up along side of it, Egland waited, unable to do anything about it himself.

Saulius pressed his claws into the crack, and heaved, drawing it open slightly. Egland then turned about on his hooves again, stepping softly in the comparably light dusting by the door. Pressing his snout into the crack, he wedged it further, before it finally swung wide before them. Cautiously, Egland stepped out past the aperture, peering into the solemn darkness, his eyes distinguishing very little of the snow-slick ridge.

“There!” Saulius cried, pointing his claw of to one side. “He hast switch-backed down the ridge. I shall guide thee.”

Egland nodded and set off carefully down the slope, following the gentler incline that Bryonoth had taken. By taking a constantly switching route, the knight had found a less dangerous way to descend the perilous ridge. Even so, Egland could feel his hooves slipping on the snow as he worked down, taking it as slowly as he could allow himself. Grunting in displeasure, he continued forward, despite the winds that were gently sweeping along the hillside, lifting the snow and throwing it into his face.

Saulius’s frame clutched tightly around his neck, the whiskers rubbing against his flesh as he slowly trotted, blunted by the fur there, even as it blunted the sheets of snow that were cast about both from above and below. The weight of the rat, dressed in his armour as he was, was quite heavy, but not terribly so, Egland felt. It did give him more reason to worry as he moved forward, trying to find purchase beneath the snow on the ridge. If the wrong wind should dislodge his friend even a bit, it could send them both tumbling down the hillside.

At a shout from the rat, he turned about, and began to work down the hillside in the opposite direction. So far, from what he could see, Thomas had had little difficulty in making his way down the ridge only a short time ago. The marks were just his dragging hoof steps, no signs of trouble, no long smears continuing on downwards. Just ever forward, inching down the ridge. Egland kept his eyes on following the path that he could see in the faint light that crept over the top of the ridge wall from Metamor. There were a few torches burning brightly still in that edifice, but far fewer than he would have hoped for.

Yet, even as the cold winds blasted across the forbidding hillside, his thoughts turned elsewhere. Here he was, in the form of a full elk stag, working his way down the hill carrying a knight rat upon his back. Saulius was riding him as if he were but a steed, just as Thomas was being rode like a war horse. Whatever foul magic his friend from the steppes had used on the Duke, it had made of him nothing more than a well-trained animal.

When the curses had originally struck, those like him had become animals in mind as well as body. Would Nasoj attempt to strengthen his original curse once more? Would he, Sir Yacoub Egland, formerly a knight of Yesulam, become nothing more than an elk, running off into the woods to chew on grass and shrubs the remainder of his days? And what of Saulius, clutching his neck as he was. Would he just become a small rat, tossed from the back of the elk only to be smashed against a tree, or crushed from the powerful hooves of a beast in panic as it tried to dislodge the armour from its back?

Even as he continued pondering such terrible deeds, he felt the guiding hand of the rat and his neck, and turned once more. Taking a moment to glance back up the hillside, he could see a bit of light streaming through the doorway before it was swallowed by the forbidding haunt of the storm and the night. It was many ells away though, clearly they were making good progress down the hillside. Turning back towards the path, he trotted along, carefully setting his hooves into the grooves left for him by Thomas’s own resolute march downwards and away from his kingdom.

What terrible thoughts must Thomas be thinking now, the knight wondered as he placed one hoof forward. Surely he cannot be happy about what has happened to him, as long as his conscious mind is still awake. He had heard rumours of fetishes that Lutins sometimes carried that triggered the curse into full bloom, reducing one so afflicted to nothing more than a dull-witted animal. Could Bryonoth have been given one of those to use on their poor Duke? If so, they would be leading back a horse, and nothing more, unless one of the mages at the Keep could lift such a deadly burden and find their liege beneath the equine exterior.

Yet Egland shook his head at that, determined not to see only disaster ahead, determined to find some hope, some glistening ray that would lead them onwards. Bryonoth was not that much farther ahead of them, he could not make Thomas run forever either.

Eventually they would have to stop somewhere, and that is where Egland would catch up with them, and knock some sense into his friend, rid him of this evil influence that he appeared to be acting under. It was clear that something had gotten a hold of him. From all that he had heard, it was the same man who had killed the Patriarch.

A sudden shudder passed through him, even as he turned according to Saulius’s signal. He had failed to protect his former master, the man to whom he’d dedicated his life many years ago. With one blow he had been sent underneath his horse, his legs crushed to the point that he was lucky he could walk today. Lucky, with the help of the curse giving him completely new legs. He had failed once before, he would not allow himself that luxury this time. He was going to save the Duke, no matter what it cost himself.

And then, the ground began to level out. With a surge of relief, Egland realized that they had managed to descend the hill safely. Saulius gave out a short chittering laugh and patted him on the side of the neck. Gazing down towards the ground, he could easily see the path that Thomas had taken southwards. Snorting in new found urgency, he leapt through the snow, bounding with cervine grace into the wintry night, while the rat held on tight, his armour clanking at every hoof fall. Yes, he would save Thomas, that he promised himself.

“Whose rooms are these?” Jerome asked after retrieving the lanterns.

“This one belongs to Hector, one of my fellow rats. I wonder where he could be.” Charles rubbed his chin with one paw, stroking the short fur there.

Zagrosek opened the other four doors along the hallway, and grimaced. “Is this where the rest live? They are all empty too.”

Charles nodded and then cast his eyes back to the Lutins. “They don’t have any blood stains on their clothes. Well, any old ones, so I don’t think these four have seen any combat yet. I imagine that my friends are probably somewhere else at the moment. Saulius is in the Cathedral, that much I know. The other four, I’m not so sure about.”

Jerome nudged one of the Lutin’s with his foot, and then grimaced. “Well, where do they usually go on feast-days?”

The rat shook his head. “Nowhere, they are almost always spending their time in these rooms.” He then stopped and peered back in at the carvings laid out neatly in Hector’s room. “Wait, I think I might know where they are. They might not be there, but it is the only place that I can think of. Follow me, it is not much farther.”

The other three Sondeckis fell into line behind the rat, eyes ever wary for more of the short, green-skinned invaders, and ears ever vigilant lest some untoward noise reach them. Yet, aside from the occasional drip of water upon stone, no sound did reach them while deep within the cellars of the Keep. Their footfalls sometimes tracked through passageways replete with dust, and at others, across mildew and pools of stagnant water. Even so, Charles knew that he must have been right, for he could smell his fellow rodents ahead of him as they neared that ancient and forgotten portion of the cellars.

The door was as he remembered it when Goldmark had shown it to him over two months ago. Old and musty, the oak creaked and groaned within its stresses. The dust at its base was disturbed by many rat-shaped tracks, some significantly larger than the others. From beyond the door, they could hear soft voices whispering back and forth.

Charles smiled and looked to his fellow Sondeckis. “Give me a moment, I need to get them out.” He pulled off his cloak, while both Zagrosek and Jerome stared at him oddly. Their eyes grew even wider as the rat began to shrink, the humanoid features falling away to be replace by the more natural shape of the rodent. Ere long, their friend was nothing more than a six inch long brown rat, nose atwitter as he pawed up into the air at them before scampering beneath the door frame.

The four rats were on the other side of the door in the wine cellar as he had expected. They were sitting around a small table with an old candle lit atop it, drinking from mugs that had not been used in several centuries. Of course, they were each bereft of clothes, as they preferred to keep the door locked to everyone else so that they alone might share in this delightful discovery. However, as they had already imbibed a rather tidy quantity of the wines, they did not notice Matthias had scurried beneath the door until he’d grown back to his usual four-foot size.

“Charles!” Elliot cried, his light-furred face brightening, the splotch of red across his shoulder gleaming scarlet in the candlelight. “What are you doing here? I thought you were going to be in the Chapel with Lady Kimberly and Sir Saulius?”

“I was,” Charles added, stepping over to his fellow rodents, eyeing each of them quickly. “But something terrible has happened. Nasoj is invading the Keep again.”

As one, they shot up, eyes wide with sudden fright. “What?” Hector shouted. “How can that be?”

“I don’t know exactly, but I thin he is using the storm to cover his attack. In any event, I need your help. Nobody knows the cellars quite like you four do.”

Goldmark piped up, for once in his morphic form, standing as tall as he could. “As good as anybody can know a building that constantly changes.” He then set down his mug, and crossed his arms. “Are you saying Nasoj’s troops are in the castle itself?”

Charles nodded, wishing that he did not have to. “We ran across a small group of them outside your rooms. They were trying to steal your things, but we stopped them.”

Julian snorted, his red eyes glowering slightly. “They can have it, there’s nothing there of value.” Hector shot his fellow rat a sharp glare, ears and whiskers backing.

Matthias considered the morose white rat for a moment before looking back at the others. “I need to know if there is a way out of Metamor in the direction of Glen Avery.”

Goldmark blinked. “Is our situation that hopeless that you are giving up already?”

“No!” Charles shook his head emphatically. “That is not why I want to go there at all. My student, Garigan, comes form Glen Avery, and has told me in no uncertain terms, that he is going there to see if his people need help. I am accompanying him, because it is too dangerous a trek for him to make on his own. I need your help in getting out of the Keep though, because it would be suicide to try leaving overland.”

The other four rats looked at each other for a moment, their eyes meeting, speaking silent words that years of voluntary confinement in the cellars had given them. Charles was usually quite adept at understanding those glances as well, but this time, he was not sure if they were discussing possible routes, or attempting to ascertain if the Long Scout was completely sane. Finally, Hector turned back to the other rat and nodded. “There might just be a way. When are you planning on leaving?”

“Immediately, or at least as soon as you four can be ready.”

Julian snorted at that, casting his eyes about the stacks of wine bottles. Elliot however, leaned further forward, his paw reaching out to clutch protectively at his mug. “It’s well past dusk already. You’ll never make it through the tunnels if you don’t get some rest.”

Though he did not wish to admit it, the moment that Charles thought about sleep, he realised that he was very tired. Having done battle with Wessex, the Shrieker, and a couple groups of Lutins had worn him almost completely out. He’d only been able to stay on his feet from the pure excitement coursing through his veins. Idly, he wondered about Jerome and Krenek, both of whom had to trudge through the snow that morning to reach the Keep. They were probably worse off in fact.

Grimacing finally, he nodded to Elliot. “You’re right about that I’m afraid. A little rest would do us some good. Is there any place nearby where we can all fit together easily that the Lutins aren’t likely to find?”

“Here!” Elliot gestured about the room. “With the door as rusted as it is, as long as we keep quiet, no Lutins passing by would think that anybody would be in here.”

Charles thought for a moment. He wondered if the red stained rat’s unvoiced reasons didn’t have something to do with the fact that the wine here was well aged. Yet he didn’t sound drunk, nor had any of the others.

“The only problem is, two of my party are humans. They can’t fit underneath the door like we can.”

Elliot’s face fell slightly at that, and he looked back to the other three, hoping to find some defence for his idea. Hector rubbed his chin thoughtfully, his short paws digging through his brown fur, while his large teeth grated together. Goldmark harrumphed and stared at the door, as if surveying a lovely a girl. Julian however, was scanning with some other intent in mind.

The albino rat’s voice, when he did speak, was curious, missing the usual apathy that Charles was accustomed to. “What if the door were unlocked from the inside? Do you think it would show?”

Charles had to shrug. “I suppose that might work. But the lock is rusted, and we don’t have a key. How do you intend to open it?”

Julian drew his paws across each other, scratching at the claw on one of his thumbs. The Sondeckis noticed that the albino’s thumb claw was longer than the rest, and rather narrow. Even so, as he scratched at it, he shaved it more, narrowing it further. Then, after a moment of quiet examination, he nodded in satisfaction. Crossing to the door, he pressed his face to the lock, feeling inside of it with his whiskers. He shivered slightly, his long white tail twitching unconsciously.

Leaning back, Julian looked to the others. “I think I can open this. Give me a moment.” He then pressed that narrowed claw into the lock, gently fidgeting it about, careful not to break the nail. Charles peered in wonder at the rat who so far as he knew had never demonstrated any discernible talents. And now here he was, picking the lock with his own thumb claw! Yet, Charles knew it to be hopeless, as it was surely rusted solid.

“What happened to your tail?” Goldmark asked suddenly, pointing at the slightly puffy section in the middle.

Charles gave him a pained expression even as he peered at his singed appendage. “It was burned slightly in a fight earlier today. It should be fine, I doubt it will even leave a mark in another two weeks.” He then studied his fellow rats. “You have heard nothing this evening?”

“No, not a thing,” Elliot confirmed. “We’ve just been in here drinking and enjoying each others’ company for the last few hours. Not a soul has come down this way until you and your friends arrived.”

Charles nodded then, and glanced back at Julian who was still fiddling with the lock. “Making any progress?” He kept his tone hopeful, though he knew that it was not likely to open.

“A little, give me another minute, and I think I will have this open.” Julian replied, bending his head even lower of the rusted lock. Charles blinked once, surprised at his fellow rodent’s certainty.

His face bunching up in curiosity, he finally asked. “When did you learn how to pick locks?”

Julian gave a non-committal shrug of one shoulder and continued at his work, calling out to them in a soft voice. “My Father used to lock me in my room for long stretches of time. I hated being confined like that so taught myself a few tricks.” Suddenly, the door began to heave, and he gripped the handle and pulled inwards. “There!”

Zagrosek peered in, his human face almost alien in a room full of morphic rats. And it was then, and only then, that Charles, or any of his fellow rodents, gave any thought to their nakedness. The black-clad Sondeckis did not appear to notice their sudden modesty though, as his eyes stayed mostly upon their no-longer human faces, and not their other prominent features. “Is everything all right?”

Charles nodded, waving to the black pile at the base of the door. “Could you hand me my clothes?”

“Oh,” Zagrosek blinked, as if he had not been expecting such a question. He reached down and picked up the garments, handing them to the rat. “Of course, here they are.”

Jerome was chuckling lightly behind his embarrassed friend, and Garigan was peering curiously at the stacks of wine bottles along the back wall of the room. Charles saw that his fellow rats were jealous of him, having a set of clothing so close at hand. He wondered why now that there were others in the room that covering themselves suddenly became important to them, but had no answers.

Even so, he slipped into his shirt and breeches, donning the robe atop all of it. Rubbing the black fabric, he peered to his friends. “Will you be all right without your clothes? We could always go back and retrieve some for you.”

Goldmark nodded his head. “The passages get colder the further down we go. And to reach the tunnel we need, we will have to go far down indeed. I would like to put something on,” he glanced briefly at the two humans, a motion that only another Keeper would notice, “to keep myself safe from the cold.” Charles was very certain that there were other reasons he wished to cover his loins as well.

“All right then,” Charles said, having no desire to shame any of his friends, so decided to act as if he accepted the response at face value. “Elliot, Hector, you and my two friends here go back to your quarters and grab enough clothing for yourselves and both Julian and Goldmark as well. Garigan, Julian, Goldmark and I will stay here. No need to attract attention to ourselves by travelling in such a large group.”

Zagrosek nodded then, stepping back out the door. By the slight colour in his cheeks, Matthias had to wonder if the man had not become aware of the rat’s modesty. However, his friend glanced down the hallway, and then stepped completely out of the room, Elliot and Hector following after him uncertainly. Their eyes traced across the strange heraldry that the four Sondeckis bore, without any hint of recognition in their eyes.

Habakkuk had always wanted him to be more open about his former allegiance. With a bit of chagrin, Charles realised he’d accomplished that end through his own negligence. However, as Jerome trailed after them, he knew that there was little he could have done about it. Instead, he turned to the ferret and pointed at the door, “Keep a watch out in the hallway. When somebody comes, I want to know if it’s them or Lutins.”

The ferret slunk out the door, his body smooth, and his paws making no noise as they danced lightly across the stone floor. Goldmark watched him, and then turned the other corner, not giving Charles a chance to tell him not to. It was probably for the best though, as now being alone with Julian, he could ask what he wished to.

“Well, the others are gone for the moment. I was hoping you’d tell me what your Father did to you. I’ve never heard you speak of him before.”

Julian closed his red eyes, the white fur rimming them appearing almost ghastly in comparison. “I really rather wouldn’t. It is my burden to bear, not yours.”

Charles sat down next to the white rat, and placed one paw upon his shoulder. “I just want you to know that you don’t have to bear it alone.”

His friend lowered his head, lost in his own thoughts. He made no move to dislodge Charles’s paw, instead, letting it rest upon his shoulder, rising and falling with each breath he took. When his face did rise, long snout that flushed out into a bushel of whiskers at its end, there was a look of profound sadness in his eyes. “Please, I do not wish to speak of it. Do not ask me of it again.”

Sighing, Charles removed his paw from Julian’s shoulder, and sat against the old wood, trying not to press too hard against its fragile surface. In the many years that he’d known the white rat, this had been the first time he’d ever spoke of his past, and of why he came to Metamor. A faint hope from out of the days past had filled him for that brief moment when he thought Julian might say more, but it was gone now, returning once more to its dusty corner of his heart.

“All right, I shall speak no more of it now.” His voice was thin, as if the life had drained from it and left it a desiccated whisper. Julian nodded though, and spoke no more, simply wrapping his arms about his chest, to hold in the feeble warmth his body offered. With the door open finally after all the countless years, the cold billowed in like a conqueror, subjecting its victims to all the fury it had stored since last it had ventured this way. Charles found himself shivering slightly, as if some unseen hand had brought that chill down through his robe and tunic.

Perhaps it was simply a manifestation of their fears realised in so many horrible ways recently that left him cold. The thought of Nasoj invading the Keep was horrid enough, probably one of the greatest fears he’d ever dallied with. Yet, not only was he doing so again, but an undead Wessex had summoned a Shrieker into their midst! Though he had only heard of them in legends, he had known it even before its unearthly howl had nearly blasted their minds into senility. Even the very thought of it only made him shiver more.

However, he did not have very long to wait, for several minutes later, the other four returned with bundles of clothing for the rats. Julian slipped on his trousers and tunic without comment, as did Goldmark, but Elliot and Hector were rather self-conscious, turning their back to the humans as they made themselves presentable. Zagrosek and Jerome both looked to Charles, as if expecting instructions.

Charles did not disappoint them. “We’re going to get a little rest here for a couple hours before we move on. We’ve all had a long day so far, and we need some sleep. It is going to be a long trek to Glen Avery, and the last thing we need is for a squadron of Lutins to surprise us while we can barely keep our eyes open. This is as good a place as any, and the Lutins won’t suspect there are Keepers hiding behind a rusted door this far in the cellars. That is if they even come down this far.”

Jerome scanned the room, noting the shadows that were flung across the walls and the wine casks by the lit candles. “Well, we shouldn’t burn any candles then, they would attract attention. How will we know how long we’ve slept?”

Charles opened his mouth, and then closed it again. That thought had not occurred to him. Down here in the cellars, there were no stars to guide them, and if they could burn no candles, what means of telling time was left to them?

Hector spoke then, his voice soft, but sure. “It takes me roughly an hour to completely gnaw through one of my chewsticks. I measured it one afternoon a few years back, I was rather bored. I’m sure the same would be true of the rest of us. There are five rats here, so we could easily have two of us awake at any time so we could chew for the rest of you. Once we were done, we could wake the others and get our turn sleeping.”

Zagrosek’s eyebrows rose significantly at that suggestion, but he said nothing. Jerome however, was quick to ask, “How many chewsticks do you have?”

“Four of course, five if Charles brought his own.”

Matthias reached inside of his robe and drew forth a slender shaft of burl walnut. He’d recently purchased it, as he found the flavour quite delightful. Now that he didn’t pay taxes to the Keep anymore, he could afford a little luxury in his selection of chewsticks. The other four rats eyed the complex grain of the wood with a bit of envy. Theirs were all made from the gnarly oak which was common in this region.

“All right then, we’ll take two shifts,” Jerome said, slowly settling to his knees on the cold floor. “Two of us ought to be awake at all times.” he said this last to Charles directly, glancing speculatively at Garigan who had his back to the door, and one round ear pressed gently against the wood.

“Good point,” Charles added, nodding and glancing over his friends. “Hector, Elliot, you two stay up with Garigan and I for now, the rest of you get some sleep. Elliot, once everyone has settled in, blow out the candles.”

Julian lay down where he was, curling his hairless tail around his flanks as he lay his head on the jacket that had been brought for him. Goldmark nestled next to him, much like any two normal rats might, to help keep their warmth. Zagrosek and Jerome both rested on their Sondeckis robes, off in one corner of the room. Charles sat beside his student Garigan at the door, sliding his back down the cold stone wall. The scent of rust made his nose itch slightly, but he ignored it, instead watching as Hector brought his chewstick to his teeth and Elliot walked about the room snuffing each of the candles.

Gritting his teeth together, Charles watched the light fade and dwindle with each quenched flame. When it was only a single light shining in the darkness, Charles tried to capture that moment, tried to memorise where all the bottles lay discarded on the floor, where his friends lay huddled tightly in their clothes, and where the old mouldy boxes were strewn haphazardly. Then Elliot’s breath blew past it, lighting his dirty white face for a moment, and then there was nothing; a darkness so complete that even the eyes of his fellow rodents failed to shine.

Closing his own eyes, Charles breathed in deeply, and listened to the breaths of his companions. He could hear the quiet nibbling of Hector upon the wood, and held that sound in his mind, while his back held the wall up behind him. Shivering from a chill he had not felt in a long time, he knew that the hour would not pass quick enough.

Though, it did pass eventually, for which he was grateful. But in that time, memories of something that he had wished to forget kept climbing to the surface of his thoughts, making him nearly gasp in terror. The walls were very cold, and the room was very dark, and were it not for those walls, he would be lost, endlessly wandering in a field of blackness, never again knowing the light.

Yet with each breath, he reassured himself that he was not trapped once more in that fissure as he’d been so long ago. The scents of all seven of his friends filled his nostrils like blessed incense, and even the rust that irritated his nose so was a welcome odour. For they were nothing like the cold dryness of that fissure, bereft of any sensation but the sound of his claws on the rock, and the feel of its chill through his fur. And of course, there was always the monotony of Hector’s gnawing to assist him in maintaining his sanity. Matthias almost longed to hear the approach of Lutin’s footfalls, for at least they would have been something his rational mind could focus on, but alas, they remained unmolested.

At some point though, he was not sure when during that hour, when his heart trembled within his chest, and no amount of scent could possibly hold back the ghastly terrors that lurked, memories of a time when his mind had nearly left him completely an animal, a simple creature of this world with no thought or purpose other than to survive, his paw reached out across the span of the door to find the arm of his student, to feel the warmth beneath the cloth, and the life therein. Garigan reached up with his paw, and they gripped each other for a few moments, holding tight, letting their flesh meet and pulse with blood. The ferret’s paw was furrier than Charles’s own, and he slowly ran his claws though the thick grey, while he felt the back of his own paw massaged gently, as if in reassurance.

He did not know how long they held each other’s paws like that, but it helped Charles fight the madness that had lay hidden within him for so long now. In fact, it almost came as an unwelcome surprise when they ceased to hear Hector chewing anymore. His voice though, was clear, the first real intelligible sound that had graced their ear drums in that interminable hour. “I’ve finished, let us wake the others and get our own rest.”

Jerome yawned when Charles shook his shoulders gently, but aside from that, the others stirred in silence. The two Sondeckis traded places with Charles ands Garigan by the door, while they curled up by the wall, resting upon their own robes as well. He was not sure who was chewing now, but he kept that sound in his mind while he let sleep overcome him. It came faster than he could have thought possible, for which he would always be grateful.

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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