Murikeer slowly lowered himself back into a crouch after looking over the top of a large stone slab against which he and Llyn rested. He let a chuff of air out past his lips, blowing water from the fur of his upper lip, giving his head a short, firm shake, spraying water from fur and whiskers. All around them the heavy, drumming roar of a hard spring downpour turned the normally quiet forest into a waterfall. He was soaked to the skin by the chill water, but there was little he could do about that. He was no weather mage.
The sky had been overcast, the color of tarnished steel for the past several days as they made their way north. Murikeer had often wondered if he had made a mistake in accepting the female mink's company in his trek. For all of her stunning beauty she was not a creature of the forest; she was noisy. Many times he had winced at the racket she made following him along the most basic and clear of trails. The snap of twigs and crush of dead leaves revealed her attempts at stealth with every turn. She was also slow.
Her legs were shorter than Muri's, though she was probably a good hand taller than he was, which shortened her stride. Even before his father's disappearance Muri had learned how to walk in the forest without disturbing it, how to move rapidly yet quietly. Since adopting his new form and coming to live in the unknown north he had picked up a certain stride. A long, loping gait that covered ground rapidly, but that did not tire him commiserately. After a mere two hours of that she had been left panting and groaning, her legs nigh to cramping.
Since that moment Muri's stride had been shortened, his lope becoming a walk. Tension sang through his nerves for speed, a need to go north that was as powerful as the pangs of hunger due a starving man. Sleep was shortened, fitful and restless. Only the danger of moving in the moonless darkness of the past few days had forced him to stop with the setting of the sun and not move until its rise the next morning. Even then he ached at the delay.
His temper had grown short, causing him to snap at his companion with nearly every broken twig or gasp elicited after a stumble. She had, for the most part, kept her tongue, nodding at his sharp words as she tried to catch her breath and keep up.
For her part, Llyn knew that she was not his match in the forest. She had once thought herself a damned good scout, quiet and stealthy in her pursuits, swift in getting to her patrol and back. But this fellow, this skunk, made her seem the child. He was a ghost, pure and simple. He moved through the wood with a silence that was eerie, making her quite aware that her once superior talents were nothing when it came to the true dwellers of the forest.
She also sensed the urgency in him, the ever-present desire toward a destination that she could not fathom. Apparently neither did he, a fact with came as some surprise when she asked. His desire for haste and care lent an impression that he was trying to beat a time, to arrive at some point before something happened there. He did not explain the why of his haste, either, no matter how she asked. He apparently did not know that either.
"How many?" she whispered as she rested her back against the cold, wet side of the boulder. She did not mind the cool rain sluicing from her fur, turning its usual mahogany to near black. The water did not penetrate to her skin, she was not chilled. She could see that he was, though, by the shake of his shoulders and the irritated look in his dark eyes. He shook water from the fur of his head as he crouched down.
"Twelve that I could see." he whispered back, fingering the haft of his pickaxe. A strange weapon, she thought, not one appropriate a warrior or a woodsman. Had he been a miner before the change? She had been unable to engage him in much conversation during his rapid northerly hike. They had nearly stumbled upon this small band of Lutins sheltering under the huge, broad limbs of a northern spruce tree, protected for the most part from the worst of the rain.
Over their heads the slate grey sky brightened momentarily with a jagged flash of lightning. Seconds later the loud, crackling rumble assailed their ears, drowning out for a moment the roar of the falling rain. At least in this she did not make so annoyingly much noise, they both thought to themselves at the same instant.
"Fight, or run?" she asked, her own hand wrapped around the hilt of the shortsword at her side. The Lutins that captured her had taken her sword, daggers, bow, and bolas before bringing her before the human leading their patrol. Rather than killing her, though, they had taken her back to a base camp of sorts and turned her over to a triumvirate of mages heading south with a huge wagon. The cage had possessed a Lutin at the time, gibbering and frenzied, beating itself against the bars in a manic attempt to free itself. Its skin had been oddly yellow, the color of sulfur, rather than the dingy grey-green of the others.
The mages had gladly taken her from her captors, slaying their caged Lutin out of hand and tossing its twitching corpse into a passing creek as they divested her of what clothing she wore, her empty swordbelt, and gloves. A Lutin had grabbed her gloves, but the rest had been stowed in the back of the wagon, and she had recovered those items after being freed by the skunk now crouched upon the wet ground next to her. The sword she carried had belonged to one of those mages, and she thought it fittingly appropriate that it would be turned to slaying those that had served the mages.
"Run, if we can get past." Muri nodded, angling his head toward the opposite end of the boulder, "The best time for us to win past their lines would be in this rain, which masks us." With that he stood in a stooped half crouch, arranging his bow across his back, and began working his way onward. Like the water soaked discard of a child's toybox, his tail arced into the air behind him, the fur matted flat with water, looking much the worse for wear as rain streamed from the underside of it. Llyn assumed a much easier mode of travel, shifting just enough to give her body some flexibility and slunk along behind him as only a member of the weasel family could.
For another hour they moved in relative silence but for the hiss of the rain around them, neither saying a thing as he picked the path and she kept close behind him, occasionally checking their backtrail or flanks when she had an open view through the forest and rain. Thus it was that they were not caught totally by surprise when, half way across a small clearing, a handful of stocky, rain soaked Lutins entered just to the side and behind them, apparently unaware of them.
With a hiss, the lead Lutin threw up it's arm upon spying the two keepers sneaking through the clearing, preventing the rest of his small, bedraggled troupe from giving a yell and charging. He unlimbered his bow as quickly and quietly as he was able, as did the two others with bows, and strung it. It was at that moment that the second of the Keepers looked back and spotted them.
"Mur! Lutins!" Llyn cried as she turned herself about, body twisting double in the middle as she altered her direction toward the Lutins, standing as she did, and drew her sword. With a curse, Murikeer spun, bringing up his pickaxe. The rain had forced him to unstring his bow, and he was left with nothing but melee weapons. With a burring hiss, he charged, fast upon the heels of his companion, spinning the pickaxe over his head. Shimmering blue light gleamed from the runes carved into the weapon, giving the Lutins a start when the came to the sudden realization that they were dealing with a mage.
Bowstrings thrummed as arrows were loosed, but none found their mark as the mink closed upon them. Muri managed to dodge aside in time to avoid being spitted, bringing the pick down and across, striking the legs of the lead Lutin with the side of the weapon. The Lutin gave a yelp of pain as the hard stone hammered into its knee, but managed to remain standing as it turned the only weapon in hand against its attacker.
Muri grunted and hissed angrily as the bow hammered his upper arm, sending a wave of dull pain through his shoulder, and gave the pick a twist. With a great heave, he locked the narrow pick end of the tool behind the Lutin's knee and dragged that leg forward and upward, dumping the luckless beast to the ground. He jumped, literally, upon the Lutin's chest, planting both feet and jumping again, driving the wind from his victim. reaching to his bandoleer, he drew the skinning blade Keletikt had given him and plunged it into the squirming Lutin's blocking arm.
From the corner of his eye, Muri could see that Llyn was a blur of motion and glimmering, wet steel. Lutins screamed and scattered at her onslaught, a series of high-pitched, ululating war cries escaped the raging mink's muzzle as her blade became a dervish, laying down foe after foe. Muri withdrew his blade, jumping once more upon the Lutin's chest, hearing the sharp, muffled crack of breaking ribs. The Lutin groaned and burbled, his arms going slack as consciousness fled, the blade sinking home in its throat chasing life away as well.
Muri stood from his kill to see three other Lutins lying scattered about like the discarded toys of a child's tantrum, the dim silhouette of the mink fading as she pursued the last of them through the trees. With a curse, Muri gave chase.
He managed to find her some hundred paces further, at the fringes of another clearing, beset by no less than seven more of the short, gnarled creatures. Swords and spears clattered and sang, their deadly conversation muted by the drum of the rain. Three lay dead at her feet as she held the short blade in both hands, beating back the attacks, but unable to make much more headway against them for the sheer volume of her foes. Muri tipped the scales, charging in at full bore and sending two, which had never seen him arrive, sprawling to the ground. Spinning, Muri swung his weapon single handed in a wide arc, meaning to push them back rather than strike, but managed to catch one that was unable to retreat in time. With a crack and a bright flash the Lutin let out a startled scream which swiftly gave way to the last gasp of life, a hole rent from shoulder to throat by the passage of the weapon and its magic.
Llyn darted froward, ending the lives of the two attempting to rise from the grown where they had ended up after Muri's rush. Yet another lay dead where she had made her stand, leaving only three. Two stood side by side, one of them being left handed, and made to defend themselves as the third made a dart at Murikeer, who's weapon was still entangled in the shattered bones of his target. Twisting slightly, Muri's tail came up and across as the Lutin's short, curved blade arced in for a lethal slash.
Tail met blade, deflecting it aside, as Muri continued his spin, letting go of his pickaxe. The simple iron blade that the Lutin carried had been unable to slice through the thick fur of the skunk's tail, leaving the beast vulnerable as Muri turned. Lashing out, Muri backhanded the startled creature solidly, standing on one paw as he spun about. His tail followed his hand, wrapping around the Lutin's head, batting aside the blade which came up to parry. Using the momentum of his spin, Muri jerked the Lutin right off its feet, tossing it at the feet of the Mink.
Trying to gauge a way through the flashing pair of blades and single shield held by her teamed opponents, Llyn was rather startled to see a disoriented Lutin come sliding over toward her on its back, blade pointing up into the air at nothing. Taking a short hop to the side, she inverted her blade and pinned the Lutin to the earth as a scientist might pin a butterfly to a mounting board. She swiftly withdrew her blade as the Lutin let out a howl, clutching its chest and dropping its weapon.
Muri recovered his own weapon, the rain causing the blood marring the shimmering opal head to run in thin red streaks down the haft as he stalked toward the last two Lutins. Llyn held aloft her own blade, which was also stained with thin red streaks from her victims, holding it before her face and snarling across the steel at the pair.
With a loud, rolling shriek, both Lutins charged right for the skunk. The Lutin with the shield swung it high and wide, striking aside Llyn's slash as they came at Muri, sword and spear held at the ready. Muri, rather startled that they would come for him rather than the much more threatening mink, halted his advance with a start. The Lutins knew a mage when they saw one, though, and considered him much more of a threat than the sword wielding mink.
Muri twisted aside to avoid the thrust of the shield carrier's spear, bringing his pick across to parry the other's sword. Weapons locked and clattered, but no wound was struck. Turning to put Muri between themselves and Llyn, the two battled on. The spear thrust in high to one side while the sword swung in flashing, lethal arcs to the other side. Muri parried and retreated as best he could, quite overwhelmed by the pair's well coordinated assault.
The rain slick ground proved to almost be his undoing as his paw came down on an especially thick swath of mud and sent him sprawling backward. The spear whistled across rather than thrusting, missing his muzzle by inches as the sword came in low and fast, rattling across the haft of his pick before he landed hard upon the waterlogged ground with a startled grunt. Llyn stepped to his aid immediately, batting aside the spear with such force she nearly disarmed the Lutin, her blade flashing down and across the ring from the other Lutin's blade with a peal like the ring of a church bell.
Kept at bay by the shield, she was unable to penetrate their defenses, but kept them back, giving Muri a chance to get his paws back under him and rise. A low growl in his throat, he moved up to her off shoulder, pick in hand, and waited for a chance to strike.
It came moments later as Llyn once more hammered the Lutin's thrusting sword down and away, leaving him open for a heartbeat. Her return stroke cracked upon the shield as she leaned away from the spear, moving in close. Muri brought up the pickaxe and thrust, twisting the broad head to slide past the edge of the shield and hammer soundly into the sword wielder's face. The Lutin let out a shrill cry as the bone of its nose gave with a shattering crunch. Turning the pick, Muri pulled back, catching the edge of the shield and pulling it out of place.
Llyn did the rest with quick, brutal ease. Her sword put an end to the sword wielder's agony with a thrust to the throat once the moved shield gave her an opening. Grasping the edge of the shield herself, she leaned over and slid the blade into the ribs of the startled spear wielder, then gave it a hard wrench to one side, nearly lifting the doomed Lutin from the ground.
Muri stopped then, staring around him in bemused wonder. Killing the occasional lone Giant had been nothing like this... this... slaughter. He dropped the end of his pick down, leaning upon the butt of the haft as he looked at the death throes of the sword wielder, still clutching its face, more pained by the shattered nose than the rent in its throat. He gave a blink and a start at the hand that came to rest upon his shoulder.
"This your first battle?" she asked gently, quietly. Muri turned, seeing her face close by his own. Water ran in long rivulets down her brow and muzzle, heavy drops dangling from the ends of bowed whiskers. Her brown eyes were gentle and caring, despite the last tinge of blood slowly being washed from one eyebrow. Not her blood, he saw, and could not help but wince, but he shook his head negatively.
"No." he whispered as he shook his head, "I've had many battles." he picked up his weapon and checked the stone head. The runes were still crisp and clear, no cracks had appeared around the socket where wood and stone were joined. "But never like this." he waved the end of his tail listlessly at one of the twisted, agonized corpses. Llyn nodded, one ear flicking away a drop of water, as she turned, the hand upon his shoulder guiding him along.
Toward the north. They left the clearing moving slowly, not bothering to cover their tracks. The heavy downpour obliterated them moments after their passage.
A few hundred strides into the forest Muri staggered to a stop, the pain in his side finally burning through the adrenaline of the fight. Like fire the pain seared through his wandering thoughts, bringing him back to the present with a pained bark. A couple steps behind him, Llyn was quick to catch up, and only then, when he turned his attention to it, did she notice the cause of his pain.
A long, clean gash in his waist from some lucky Lutin's blade. "Damn, one of the little bastards got you." she muttered as she knelt and examined the cut. Muri growled at her rather amazing grasp of the obvious, leaning heavily upon his pick as she poked and prodded the gash, suppressing several yelps. "It's not deep, but it'll need binding." she stood and glanced around, but the rain shrouded forest did not give up its secrets easily.
"We'll have to find some shelter." Muri hissed through his chattering teeth, unable to continue his internal war with the chill of the water soaking through his fur. He staggered on, peering into the rain shrouded gloom for some form of shelter. Llyn walked close at his side, ready to lend support, but likewise keeping an eye open for some form of cover.
They found it in the form of a huge outcropping of time worn stone thrusting up under a stand of trees. A thick stand of corpse bramble concealed it from easy detection, but a lucky gust of wind had blown the pale white branches aside long enough to reveal it to them. Fighting their way through the tight embrace of the corpse white bushes, they collapsed into the relative dryness of the interior.
Regardless of her protestations, Muri was quick to summon a small flame, reaching into the earth for the nearest trickle of energy and binding the magical flame in place, a flat stone in the center of the shelter serving as a ground for the quickened magic. The light was plainly visible to anyone beyond the sheltering fingers of the corpse bush, but the rain muted the light from detection at a distance of more than a few paces.
"This is going to take me some time." he explained, removing his bandoleer and pack, moving up into the furthest corner of their shelter, sitting with his legs crossed, the warmth of the fire beginning to work at the chill permeating his being. He knew the fire was more for her benefit than his, for when he embraced his magic and turned it to healing he would heat up in a hurry. "And I'll be a bit unresponsive." he shrugged and smiled with one corner of his muzzle, "So if aught happens, drag me out of here."
Llyn watched him quizzically and nodded, knowing nothing of magecraft. With a nod and a sigh, Muri focused, banishing with some effort the distractions from without, to better understand the within. He focused inward, upon his body, separating himself from the fitful blue-white glow of the energies coursing around him. It took some long moments to attune himself with the energies and patterns of his own body, seeking the disruption which was his wound.
A ragged tear in the pattern of the physical, a whole into which all the resources of his body poured in its natural attempt to undo the harm. Muri settled into that flow, taking control of his bodily responses, adding what magic he still possessed to the effort. Being foreign to the body, power was never unconsciously taken up in the repair of the self, he had been taught, forcing the holder of the power to take conscious control. Muri had never shown a particular penchant for understanding the patterns of others, only his own, thus he could mend his own wounds, but had never been able to do much for another's wounds.
Meanwhile, watching Muri sink into his trance, Llyn let out a sigh and looked out into the rain. The glow of the fire glimmered and shone like a curtain against the grey haze beyond the edge of the stone outcrop which was, thankfully, at a higher elevation than the rest of the forest. The water flowed away from it, leaving them in relative dryness. She shifted herself a little closer to the heat, snagging Muri's pack with her foot and dragging it closer. She opened it and began rooting around to see if he had anything useful for her own scrapes and scratches.
She found bits of carefully packed leather, sinew lacing, small sharp bits of bone or stone she assumed to be needles used to work leather. Several packets of herbs still dry, wrapped carefully to keep them separated and preserved. A gleaming steel Metamor arrowhead, which was something of a surprise. It was not a regular style of arrowhead at that, possessing a small groove on either side of the tip. It was smaller, more slender, and slightly longer than a common arrowhead, designed to penetrate chain armour or leather. The grooves were designed to carry poisons.
It was one of Jylian's peculiar arrowheads, specific to her specifications. Llyn found it amazingly odd that this skunk had come to posses one of the bat's arrowheads. Setting it aside, she returned to her examination of the bag, coming up with several items she cold not identify, but assumed to be more things for his magic. She took out a carefully rolled satchel of worked stone arrow and spear tips. Some were worked from an eerily blue hued stone like the head of his pickaxe, each one carved with runes in a language she could not read. Others were of more conventional make, pale chert napped by Giants or Lutins, which the skunk had most likely taken from slain foes.
At the very bottom of the pack, carefully arranged to support one another and the weight of the pack's contents, were several leather containers which held various salves. She could identify a few by smell or looks as being very similar to salves used at Metamor, and rather common elsewhere. She figured he had somehow magiced them, but assumed them to be otherwise unchanged from their basic natures. Gently removing one, a pale yellow cream smelling strongly of mint, she carefully began dabbing it on her numerous small wounds.
He had magiced it all right, she found out rather rapidly. The effects were stunning, and nigh instantaneous. Flesh mended, pain vanished, and fur began to regrow within moments of a tiny application of the salve. She used a very small amount on her various hurts, removing almost all marks of the battle, even the bruises left from her first encounter, when she had been captured.
She thought about using it on the skunk's cut, but felt it would not be wise to affect whatever he was doing to himself in his trance. She knew enough of the stories about Metamor mages to even think about attempting to distract anyone working magic. She returned the container to Muri's pack, replacing the items she had removed, while watching him out of the corner of her eyes.
He did not move, save for the shallow rise and fall of his chest. His head was bowed forward, hands resting limply in his lap as water dripped from his whiskers. She could see that his would was looking better; the bleeding had stopped, and it appeared the flesh was knitting. Llyn smiled at that, a handy talent, as she made herself comfortable to one side. She sat where she could see him in her peripheral vision, which for a mink encompassed a rather broad area, and turned her attention toward the rain shrouded forest beyond the limits of their shelter.