The entry of the cavern opened from the steep, rocky hillside like the maw of some ravenous giant, dwarfing the two musteline creatures standing before it. Neither had the appearance of a true animal of their species, being several times larger than normal representatives of their species. They both also stood upon their hind legs as if it was perfectly natural to them, which it was. One was a skunk, his monochromatic fur dulled by days of travel through the ravaged landscape, spring rain, and mud. He was shorter than the mink that stood beside him, her head angled up as she took in the enormity of the cavern before them. Neither of them wore anything more than the belts, bandoleers, and packs necessary to carry what they needed to survive the harsh northern wilds. Around them a fitful spring drizzle wet the land, slicking their fur down against their bodies as it added still more water to the quagmire at their feet.
The mink's tail lashed from side to side as she turned her gaze from the inky blackness of the cavern to her partner, who stood quite still as he peered into the darkness. Not even the lush curl of his black and white tail moved. "You're going in there?" she asked, rubbing the pommel of her shortsword with one hand-like paw. The skunk nodded with a single twitch of his long tail. Hooking his thumbs under the straps of his backpack, he stepped forward.
"We are, both of us." Murikeer responded as he called up a witchlight and sent it bobbing ahead of them, banishing the darkness and sketching the features of the cavern in sharp relief. Shadows shifted and writhed as the light drifted deeper, followed by the two bipedal animals. Muri, unruffled by the oppressive weight of the earth surrounding him, and Llyn shortly after him, her head ducked as if she expected the walls to come crashing down at any time.
Within the cave the quiet hiss of the rain quickly faded into an eerie, haunting silence broken only by the chuff of sand under the paws of the two intruders as they made their way ever deeper into the huge cavern. Very soon the dingy grey light of the world outside faded away, leaving only Muri's lazily moving witchlight to illuminate their path. Llyn moved close at his heels, her eyes darting from shadow to shadow as her hackles stood on end. Muri never looked back as he watched where he placed his steps, shifting his attention between the physical realm to the shimmering play of energies that defined the realm just beyond, where the life of the land flowed around them, much curtailed due to the destruction of the forests that had once carpeted these very hill into which they moved.
"What." Llyn spoke after several long minutes of walking, her voice harsh and loud in the cloying silence of the huge cavern. She winced, her words falling abruptly silent as she cowered away from the raucous echoes that assailed her with strangely warped repetitions of her own voice. She crowded even closer to Muri, so close his tail pressed against her fur as she leaned forward to attempt her question again in a harsh whisper, "What are we doing in here?"
Muri did not look back, his voice softer, but no louder than her own, "Seeking help for what I need to do." he answered, looking around. The thin streams of shimmering energies came together deep within the cavern, creating a brightly glowing node of energies before flowing off somewhere Muri could not follow; directly into the heart of the hill. Above that tight bundle of mingling energies was a flat ledge of pale stone, created long ago by a small, mineral rich upwelling of heated water. He let his witchlight drift over to hover above the table rock as he stopped, Llyn stumbling into his back with a quiet churr of inquiry. "This is as far as we need go."
"Good." Llyn hissed, nodding vehemently as she gazed around with wide eyes. Impossibly tall, slender spires of stone stood up from the floor on all sides, paired with long, narrow spikes of stone that descended from the ceiling lost in the shadows high above. Occasionally these spires and spears met, creating a pillar of slender, pale stone that left Llyn utterly mystified, and somewhat awed. If any of those spears were to break free while they were anywhere near the results would be devastating, if not lethal. The cloying sense of the hill's great weight pressed in tightly about her, despite the vaulted openness of the huge chamber, making her fur itch and her skin crawl.
During her gawking examination of their surroundings, Muri had moved over to the flat expanse of the table rock, unslinging bow and pack as he did, and setting them at the foot of the ledge. Kneeling, he began digging through his pack, setting the contents here and there around him.
"I'm going to need your help in this, Llyn." he called over to her, breaking her out of her growing, gnawing fear. She quickly crossed over to where he was working, looking down at him curiously. "While I'm down here I'll need you to stand guard, lest some lucky Lutin patrol find us out." he continued as he began setting a few of his possessions upon the flat surface of the stone. "And to hunt."
"Not that there's much to hunt other than what rabbits that escaped the foragers." Llyn commented, looking at the odd assortment of leather packets and containers he was setting out. She'd seen them before, but never identified the contents of even a quarter of them. "What are you going to do?"
"Speak with the spirit of the hills if I can."
"The what?" she asked sharply, surprised. He knew these Lightbringers could do some pretty creepy things, but talking to the earth made no sense to her.
"If I can learn her name, or otherwise call her forth, I'll beg a boon of the nymph of this cave, or hill." he said as he began repacking the items he was not going to be using. Unslinging his bandoleer, he set it aside, kneeling before the stone slab wearing nothing more than his own fur and the assortment of oddments dangling from around his neck. Picking up one of the sachets, he carefully opened it.
"What can she do, this... spirit?"
"Give me a great deal more magic than I can hope to hold of my own." Muri offered as he drew out a small pouch of carefully packaged incense and its burner. He had an achingly small amount of the stuff, though by carrying less of any one particular mix he could possess a broader number of differing ones. "And I am going to need a great deal of magic for what I am planning." Blowing old ashes from the burner, he rubbed it clean with his thumb and set it in the center of the slab. From another container, a round one about the size of his paired fists, he withdrew several short, thick white candles. "I'll also need you to watch the road when you can, so that I know when the citadels get closer. They're not all that far behind us, but because of their slow pace I think we'll have a day, maybe more, before they get here.
"The spring equinox will be in two days, so I am hoping that most of the Lutins will be distracted by their springfest rites, but I'm also going to try working that to our favor."
"Summoning a Lutin of some power." he glanced over his shoulder at her, his face etched with the harsh shadows created by the witchlight hovering over the table rock, only the white gleam of his teeth breaking the inky black. Llyn looked at him for several long moments, her brows drawn into a scowl at the idea of actually consorting with a Lutin, of power or a peon regardless. Muri reached up to his neck where hung a medicine bag, an amulet, and a single pale brown bone from some small creature. Taking up the leather braid holding the bone, he held it up for Llyn to see. Her lips quirked distastefully at the disgusting little item... to think that something she would have discarded from her dinner table would be carried around one's neck was rather disgusting. She was glad she had not looked too closely at his possessions before.
He was a marvelous looking specimen of his kind, of that she had no doubt, honed by years of living upon the land. He was also quite considerate, almost a gentleman, for he never treated her as more than what she was, a scout. Many she had worked with in the past could not see past her feminine nature to what she could actually do. Add to that the fact that he never made so much as a single remark toward her in the manner of male to female, though she had left him plenty of opportunities. Hell, they were neither one wearing any garments whatsoever! She wondered again, as she had before, where his preferences lie.
Yet... his magic was a balance that tilted the scales against him, leaving her wondering if she should pursue him, or move away.
"This is a summons trigger, only a beacon, not a 'poof-you-are-here' type thing." Muri explained, letting the bone drop back to his chest, "I break the bone and he knows I'm calling, and where I am." he shrugged, turning back to his preparations, "If he responds or not is entirely his choice."
"His?" Llyn queried, although she felt she knew the answer. He knew a Lutin, personally, as some sort of friend or ally.
"Keletikt, a Lutin shaman." Muri said as he drew out a circle upon the stone with a dark powder that had a sharp, earthy aroma redolent of cedar.
"Consorting with the enemy?" she asked with a lightness in her voice that was not in her heart.
"He's not my enemy, though he may be yours." Muri turned from his work and leveled a flat look at her, "I have never been to the Keep, so I do not have the enemies you folks do." he shrugged, watching her, "As a whole those Lutins may be my enemy, but among the throng there are always those that one may not see as an enemy. Kel's one for his people, and furthers their goals, but he has never exposed me to them."
"What do you two share?" Llyn felt rather uncomfortable under his hard, level stare, her hand going once more to the pommel of her sword, as if it would give her strength.
"Knowledge." Muri replied flatly, then turned back to his work, the line of his shoulders and the tension in his back revealing his unease, "As you and I do, we cooperated to survive a harsh situation, and from that came a truce between us. From that came an allegiance, and learning."
"What could he learn from you, or you from him?"
"Magic. He taught me to see the energies of the land, and I taught him illusions, some elemental magics as he taught me how to live from the land." Muri sketched small runic symbols with a fine, pale ochre powder. They were Sathmoran runes, taught to him through rigid and sometimes harsh tutelage by his old mentor. That was a magic utterly alien to the Lutin magic he had learned, but the two worked well enough in conjunction, and Muri was often amazed that both sometimes had the same common root intonations or precepts.
"Pretty much." Muri brushed his hand across his thigh as after carefully packaging away the small pouch of ochre, "I'm going to summon him just before I start this ritual, so I will need you to let him in alive." he said as he began setting up the candles, five in all. One to the northern edge of the circle, in the tight circle created by a channeling rune. One to east, in a rune of centering, another to west in the center of a communion rune. The final two to the southeast and southwest, where two different versions of the same purpose rune, entreaty, were drawn in the fine ochre powder.
"If he brings friends?"
"I doubt he will." Muri stood and examined his work closely, "But if he does, make sure only he comes into the cave."
"If he brings one of those damned dogs?"
Muri looked up, his tail fluffing, "If it enters the cave, kill it." Llyn nodded grimly in response, grasping the hilt of her sword.