Murikeer was still kneeling before the flat slab of stone as the Lutin stole stealthily in, its blade drawn and held low at its side. Gone were the heavy furs of early spring, replaced by more utilitarian garments of woven tundra grass, and the same heavy boots that had been worn all winter. Across its back was a short recurve bow and a leather quiver of arrows, the fletching made of deep red feathers. Peering over the ledge of a broken stalagmite, its small, wideset black eyes settled upon the back of the unclothed skunk some feet away. Then to the three immobile statues standing some feet away, separated from their supplicant by a broad, flat ledge of stone upon which had been traced an arcane circle. Narrowing its eyes, the Lutin crept into the open, looking about for the other he could smell, but not see.
"A Keeper here." Keletikt rasped roughly, his voice pitched low as he glared around the many shadowed alcoves created by the skunk's witchlight. Muri cast a look over his shoulder and nodded, then returned to his work. "When you get with Keepers?"
"Not so long ago." Muri admitted as he set aside another of the slim stone wafers, picking up one of the last few and resuming his work. The Lutin sidled a little closer, its blade still drawn as he finally picked out the shimmering white signature of the other hiding behind a thick stalactite some distance away. Her blade, glowing with a livid red iridescence to his spirit sight, was drawn, but held low as she watched him. He grinned a most sinister, toothy grin as she started, realizing she had been spotted.
"What Murikeer call Keletikt for? No danger here." the Lutin grumbled, still staring at the Keeper attempting to hide away in the shadows, "'Cept her." he pointed.
"I have a boon to ask of you, friend Keletikt." Muri responded, shifting to look toward the Lutin. He gave the creature a quick once over, noting the fresh scars from some bladed weapon, the blotchy remnants of a bruise on the side of his head. His hands were stained with a blood tinged mud, which was most likely the paint being used on the roadway to prepare it for the weight of the citadels to follow. Keletikt grumbled and looked toward his animalistic ally, his short, pointed ears twitching inquiry toward the skunk. "I need you to take your people aside for the Equinox, away from the towers."
"Why?" the Lutin grunted, his beady black eyes narrowing as he patted the side of one bowed, gnarled green leg with his swordblade.
"I am going to stop them, and do not wish to take more Lutin lives than I absolutely have to." Muri watched that sword from the corner of his vision, never entirely trusting his ally, though nothing had ever been done to warrant his distrust. It was his perceptions of Lutins in general, he guessed, which instilled such paranoia in him. The fact that the blade was of a strange, oddly blue steel worked from hilt to tip in runes also did not sit well with the skunk. There were some powerful dweomers bound into that blade, and Murikeer had no wish to have them tested on his flesh.
"Why stop citadels?" the shaman rumbled with genuine curiosity, as if he could not imagine what would prompt his furry friend to desire to. "Keeper making Murikeer do this?" he growled after a moment, turning his gaze back to the shadows. The unknown female had moved, but it only took him a few moments with his darkness penetrating spirit vision to locate her a few stalagmites away from where he had first seen her, though there was less of her to be seen.
"No." Murikeer offered, following the Lutin's gaze into the shadows, "Nasoj is."
"Nasoj?" Keletikt rasped quickly, scowling, "What him have to do with Murikeer?"
Muri glared at the Lutin, then hammered his closed fist against his chest, "Because he did *this* to me!" he grabbed his tail and waved it in front of the Lutin's face, "I never asked to be a skunk." he flung an arm wide, scattering his stack of finished runes across the surface of the rock upon which they were arranged. They fanned across the table, disturbing his circle, toppling candles and incense burner alike. "I did not wish to live my life in caves hunted by my own kind, Kel, any more than you would wish to spend yours in Metamor's dungeons." The Lutin shambled a couple of short steps away at the sudden uncharacteristic outburst from his ally, eyebrows shooting up his pale green brow.
"Murikeer good, no matter if skunk." Keletikt muttered with a shrug, finally slapping his sword into its ornate sheath, "Better skunk than man." he nodded, "Man no listen to shaman." he tapped his chest with his empty hand. Muri let out a whistling hiss through his teeth as he stood up, turning toward the Lutin. Behind them both the shorter of the three spirits bent and picked up the scattered runestones slowly.
"I do not wish to harm you, or your clan, Keletikt, which is why I ask that you take them somewhere safely away from the citadels when the equinox arrives."
"You fight with Keepers then?" the Lutin looked up at him, his voice holding an odd note which Muri could not grasp.
"I fight with Keepers, Keletikt, against Nasoj."
"And Lutins fight for Nasoj." Keletikt nodded slowly. Muri nodded in return. "Then you fight Lutins."
"I fight any who owe allegiance to the mage who did this to me, Kel." Muri quietly affirmed.
"Then Murikeer now fight Keletikt?"
"Keletikt bows to Nasoj?"
"All Lutins bow to Nasoj, Murikeer, or Lutin dies."
Muri knelt quickly, drawing forth the ornate jade and steel blade his friend had gifted him with barely a month in the past, the blade clean and polished, with no blemishes upon the gleaming steel. Flipping the blade into his hand, he extended it, hilt first, toward the Lutin, "If Keletikt bows to Nasoj and says we are now enemies, friend." he whispered, his hand unwavering.
The Lutin threw up his hands and took several short, quick steps back, "Keletikt no wish to call friend Murikeer his enemy." he rasped hastily, his eyes wide, "Murikeer give Keletikt fire, return lost knowings to all Lutins, a thing that no payment can equal. Give Keletikt power over Lutins." he continued quickly, his shrill, gravelly Lutin voice filling the silence of the cavern, "I go, friend Murikeer, but pledge no to face you in battle, ever knowing you stand opposite Keletikt."
Murikeer laid the dagger back upon his possessions, "Then Keletikt will take his people away, or at least take himself away so that I will not cause him harm in the upcoming battle?"
The Lutin nodded his head gravely, "Keletikt do what Keletikt can to bring away Moondogs, but him only a shaman in training."
"Not a shaman in truth?" Muri asked, surprised. He had always considered the short, ugly Lutin to be an actual shaman in their past visits.
"No shaman, yet. Must prove worth to Moondog clan before become shaman of own tribe." he shrugged one shoulder, "But Keletikt have rare power, may become shaman of Moondog clan itself. Grulkis listen to Keltikt, him high voice of tribe." He turned, shambling toward the entrance of the cavern, "Murikeer go to Keeper place, to Mekamore?"
"Murikeer may." the skunk nodded, "Can learn much there, become true mage at last."
"Mage no like Nasoj." the Lutin nodded, a broken smile splitting his craggy face, "You make good mage, Murikeer, you go and take knowings." he shambled into the shadows at the edge of Muri's witchlight, "Keletikt miss friend."
"Murikeer miss friend Keletikt." Muri called back loudly, his heard sinking as he watched the dim shadow of his erstwhile ally fade, "Khornai vasin, Keletikt rulda." The fear that those would be the last words they ever shared weighed heavily upon him as he sat back down in the sand, bowing his head.
"You really did like that creature." Llyn said quietly as she stepped from the shadows of her hiding place, her gaze still following the Lutin, who was no longer visible.
"He saved my life, and I his. We were as close as our two races probably ever could be."
"Too bad." she commented, "He seemed an honorable little fellow." she sat down nearby, for once not staring at the three silent spirits behind them, and put an arm around the miserable skunk's shoulders, "Regardless of what they are, it's never easy to lose a friend." she whispered, gazing at their paws where they scuffed the sand. She had lost more than a few friends in her life, through disease, persecution, or war. Some of those who cut her most with their passing had not been friends at all, but adversaries.
Much as Muri and that Lutin had been, friends by the skin of their teeth, separated by a gulf of enmity that could probably never be breached.
*He returns.* the numb, cold echo within his head caused Hizpith to crouch down quickly behind the boulder, his sharp gaze upon the entry of the huge cavern below their perch, across in the side of the next hill. His moondog, Juzzih, crouched nearby, her pale moon-yellow hide highly visible in the dark gloom despite the intervening haze of rain. Before the entrance of the distant cave was another moondog, sprawled out on the cold ground as it waited the return of its master. It had been that moondog, Firxas, that sent word to Juzzih, who in turn had warned her master.
Hizpith had been watching Keletikt for many weeks, since his return from one of his many pilgrimages to the great Oarwood forests of the wall, having returned with yet another tiny bit of magic he had not possessed when he left the tribe weeks before. Hizpith had been the favored of Grulkis before the upstart's return from his winter questing with the pelt of a snow cat draped across his skinny shoulders and fire held within his hand.
Fire! Not the spirit calling that the Lutins possessed, which could never amount to more than a spark barely powerful enough to light a fire, but the true elemental magic of fire. That knowledge had been lost to their tribes for countless generations, passing almost entirely into the legends of the past when they had been the masters of the warm south, below the wall. Because he held fire, a talent he had been unable or unwilling to teach any of the others of the clan, he had been granted ascendancy over Hizpith, who had been studying with the clan for over two long, hard winters before the fire-bringer's arrival.
And that upstart, a soft southland Lutin whose tribe had earned no more glory than to shatter itself repeatedly against the impenetrable wall of the southern Keep which barred the southland from them. Hizpith had been born upon the lip of the black glacier, weaned on its bitter cold, and hardened to the burning numbness of any frigid extreme. Even the cold fear created by his bonded moondog was a comfort to him, whereas to the ugly southerner it was a test of wills to see who would be making the commands or taking them, the moondog, or the apprentice shaman.
Hizpith's lips drew back from his blackened, craggy teeth as the Lutin shambled into sight and snapped something harsh to his moondog. The pale silver beast gave a start, then rose, head and tail low as the Lutin waved his hand for the dog to lead forward as he stalked back toward their encampment. Something had transpired within the cavern, something that left Keletikt irate and unusually sharp with his animal. It certainly had not been healing, as Hizpith was still able to see the discolored side of Keletikt's face, where Thurhyde had laid his last blow before Kel's runeblade had slit him thigh to throat.
Watching Keletikt wander away, Hizpith hunkered down behind his boulder again, ignoring the cool bite if the icy rain through his leather jerkin. *See the cave.* He sent to his hound, nodding toward the huge, black hole in the earth. Juzzih raised her head lazily and looked over at him, then the cavern.
*No.* she snorted, short pricked ears laying back against her narrow skull.
*Afraid of the dark, love?" Hizpith sneered at her.
*I give fear, I do not feel it, smear.* her lips pulled back from her teeth and she yawned, *It is late, the day was long, I sleep. Whatever is in the cave will come out, eventually.* she thumped her skinny, long tail upon the wet earth, *Then we kill them.*
"If it was a 'them'." Hizpith growled as he settled down, becoming perfectly still, the drab grey of his leathers and the dingy green of his skin making him blend into the muddy hillside perfectly. Were Juzzih not laying a few feet away an experienced tracker could walk right by the Lutin without ever noticing his presence.