The chapel was quiet. The pews so recently full of people were now empty. A soft stillness filled the place that gave it a solemnity and warmth that buoyed the soul. Only a solitary figure was in this place, enjoying and needing the solitude it gave. The man wasn’t seated in the pews, instead he was kneeling in front of the altar. The tabard he was wearing over the armor was dark blue and had a huge, gold Follower cross embroidered onto it. He wore the tough and expensive plate mail armor of a nobleman but his belt and sword were as plain as any peasant’s tools.
Sir Edmund was tired, more tired then he had ever been before. An intense weariness that weighed down upon him, slowing his movements and his thoughts. The campaign north had been short, barely a week long but there had been an intensity about it that had surprised him. But the marching and even the fighting itself was the least of it. He had been through countless campaigns before, ones lasting months and years. Each branded him with scars both physical and mental that would last with him till the day he died. Yet all of that seemed to pale in his mind. His thoughts didn’t fall upon the fighting of less then a week ago. Instead his mind kept returning to those haunted ruins and the ghosts in it.
The paladin was surprised, he’d thought himself alone. Looking around he found a small boy of around ten years old standing close to him. The child was dressed in the flowing robes of a Follower priest and had dirty blonde hair. His brown eyes seemed somehow far older then the youthful body they were a part of.
“I’m Hough whom the Great One has blessed with leading this house of worship.”
“My name is Sir Edmond Delacot. Protector of the innocent and defender of the faithful and a Knight of the Order of the Protectors,” he answered politely.
“You’re the paladin who helped Misha,” the boy answered calmly and bluntly.
The knight nodded in agreement. “I did little to help him, the fighting was over by the time we reached them. There was some tough fighting though and my people fought well.”
The boy nodded. “I heard that many good people died.”
“Too many,” Edmund agreed. “What does it feel like to change?” the man asked suddenly in a quiet voice.
Hough shook his head, "It is different for everyone. For some, it feels like taking a warm bath. For others..." he will paused for a moment his voice trailing off into painful silence. "It is very painful."
“Should I stay?”
The young looking priest shrugged and shook his head, "I don't know. It is not an easy decision. If you delay in making it, it will be made for you though. You’re thinking of staying. Why?”
“Father . . ” Edmund started to say and hesitated at a loss for words. “I saw ghosts in the ruins.”
“I’d heard that the army had gone through Haunted Woods but what does that have to do with your staying and letting the curse take you?”
"I don't know," the paladin answered bluntly. "But I cannot just abandon them. I HAVE to do something for them."
"Well, if you feel that to serve them best you need to stay at Metamor, then you should. But if that is merely a convenience to you, then you should carefully consider what you may be about to do."
The audience chamber was still being cleaned up. The furniture was torn and battered. There were burn marks everywhere, and several ominous looking dark stains. Misha, George, Finbar and Lord Bidwell slowly filed in as a hush settled on the room. All four of them looked weary and exhausted, even the proud knight.
Thomas turned from talking to his aid and watched them approach in silence. The left side of Misha’s face was covered in a bandage and he carried his battle axe in a hand that dangled almost listlessly. The ferret next to him walked with a noticeable limp in his right leg. The tall knight didn’t look so resplendent. The rearing leopard adorning his helmet had been smashed and there was a large dent in the breast plate of his armor. Of his bright red and white tabard there was no sign. Only George looked unaffected. The jackal seemed unwounded and moved easily. The group stopped a few feet from the Duke.
Misha lowered the head of his axe to the pavement. Then he wearily rested his head against the butt for a moment before looking at the Duke.
“Lord Thomas,” the fox said in a bone tired voice. “I report that the Keep has been cleared and there are no lutins left alive in the valley.”
The stallion sighed, relieved. “The cost?”
“Not completely sure, Sir,” Lord Bidwell answered. “The lower town is in complete ruins. The towns of Glen Avery, Mycransburg, Ellingham and Mallen have been raided and almost destroyed but most of the people are safe. Lord Barnhardt’s castle, Loriod’s fortress and the castle known as the Outpost all withstood attack and held out.”
“How many dead?”
“At least eight hundred, perhaps a thousand dead,” Misha answered. “At least twice that number wounded.”
Thomas closed his eyes and shook his head. “Gods protect us.”
“How many lutins?” Someone asked.
“We’ve counted at least three thousand dead in or around the Keep,” Misha replied.
“We’ve seen lots of dead lutins between here and the Dike,” George added. “There’s no telling how many are lying dead under the snow. We won’t know till the snow melts. I doubt we’ll ever have an accurate count.”
“Could easily be another three or four thousand,” the knight commented. “This is a great victory. I’ve counted the standards of at least nine lutin tribes. Plus another thousand killed at the ford.”
“The cost was too high,” Thomas announced.
“No it wasn’t,” Misha said, speaking loud and clearly for the first time. There was a ring of determination and pride in his voice in spite of the weariness. “We’ve killed six to seven thousand Lutins. Eight years ago Nasoj attacked with twenty five lutin tribes. This time he came with twelve. The mage’s hold over the lutins has been broken permanently.”
“But Nasoj is still alive,” Thomas commented.
“His days are numbered,” the knight said ominously.
The room was a lot smaller then the Dukes meeting chamber but it didn’t have to hold too many people. The space was just big enough to hold a table capable of seating a dozen people with a little extra room for a large cabinet, a desk and a smaller table that sat against a wall. The large table held a map of the Giantdowns with all the cities, castles, strongholds and lutin tribes marked on it in various colors and symbols.
The smaller table held a bottle of wine, several glasses, a loaf of fresh bread, a platter of beef and a platter of various vegetables. But few of the people present were eating.
At the head of the table sat Misha, at the opposite end sat George, in various seats on either side in between was Jessica, Finbar, Rickkter, Lisa and Diane, George’s assistant. Seated next to Misha was a brown bat morph dressed in a dark blue tunic.
Misha pointed to the bat, “I would like to introduce Andwyn. He is sitting in for Phil since the rabbit is busy. He did a lot of work in the field before Phil called him home. Since then he has been working for both Phil and Thomas.”
“This meeting is to figure out exactly what went wrong,” George said calmly. “And what went right.”
“That Nasoj attacked wasn’t a surprise,” Andwyn commented. “His timing was. He deliberately attacked in the worst weather imaginable.”
“It was one of the boldest and cruelest moves I’ve ever seen,” Misha added. “Attacking in the middle of a blizzard certainly caught us by surprise and came within a hairs breadth of succeeding. And it also killed half his army. Three thousand Lutins died before they even reached the Keep.”
“That storm was no accident,” Rickkter commented breaking Misha’s train of thought. “It was created by one of the most powerful spells I have ever seen.”
“It was long in the planning and execution but very well carried out,” the bat added. Andwyn had a glass of some red liquid in his right wing claw.
The fox knew the bat only by reputation. He ‘d been a spy for years. Even spent two years in Nasoj’s citadel disguised as a regular bat. Phil had to order him out when things got too dangerous. Misha had heard of his exploits But knew little about Andwyn himself. He wasn’t even sure what species of bat he was. Was he a fruit bat or a vampire bat? In that glass could be fruit juice or blood. No, it couldn’t be blood, it was the wrong color and consistency and it didn’t smell like blood. Still Misha pondered about what was in that glass.
“Before the attack itself a score of assassins infiltrated the Keep and went after important people,” Misha said. “They attacked the Duke, Father Hough, Raven, Pascal, George, Rickkter and Wessex.”
They were a mixed lot,” George explained. “Fighters, mages, thieves, even a group of professional assassins. Hired blind in the south, none knew their target till they reached the keep.”
Misha nodded. “They came close to getting Hough and George. The ones after the Duke were killed before they got even close. By Foxeris of all people.”
“The librarian?” Finbar asked, surprised.
“I always knew that he was hiding something,” George said with a chuckle.
“What happened to Pascal?” the bat asked.
The fox chuckled. “Unhurt. She gave the first two through her door a face full of two foot long quills and the rest fled.”
“They killed Wessex,” Jessica said suddenly.
“Is there any doubt as to his death?” Lisa asked. “There’s no body.”
Misha shook his head. “None. But I’m not too sure that it was the assassins that got him. First he was killed by having his throat slit. Then he was reanimated as undead and summoned the Shrieker. Anyone who could kill a mage of Wessex skill and then reanimate his corpse has to be powerful.”
“Powerful, evil and crazy,” Rickkter commented. “But who would want to summon a Shrieker deliberately? Not too many people of that power level.”
“I don’t know. I’m fairly certain it’s not Nasoj, but it could be someone working with him.”
“Why do you say that it wasn’t Nasoj?” Diane asked.
“Nasoj has never displayed such power in necromancy before and besides it just doesn’t feel like how Nasoj does things. He’s never before used, summoned or even controlled undead. His power has always rested with the Lutins. The curse was cast only through the direct help of a daedra..”
“We need to talk to the rat and get more details,” George said.
“When will that be?” Diane asked.
“When this stupid trial is done,” Misha answered in a cold tone.
“What happened up north?” George asked, changing the subject.
“The army we faced at the ford was almost three thousand strong,” Misha said.
The bat put down his glass. “Why didn’t Nasoj use those in the attack on the Keep? It would have changed to whole course of the battle in his favor.”
“My guess is he couldn’t,” the jackal answered. “They were supposed to be there but the weather held them back and they missed it. Once it became clear that the attack on the Keep failed he used them to buy time for him to regroup his forces. Having them hold the ford was a good tactical position for a battle.”
“Hardly a battle,” Diane said. “Only a handful actually fought. The rest just fled.”
“Three hundred of Nasoj’s Druzhina, his own personal guard were there. They put up a ferocious fight.” Misha added. “The fact that they were there was a surprise. I didn’t think he would sacrifice his only truly loyal troops.”
“A desperate move,” Andwyn said. “After the defeat here at the Keep he needed some sort of victory to prove to the tribes he was still a powerful leader.”
“That failed miserably,” Diane said.
“Agreed. It changes everything,” the fox commented. “He’s completely lost any hold he had over the Lutins. They’re already in full revolt but the real bloodshed will come in spring. By June I doubt he’ll have anything left within a week’s ride of Giants Dike.”
“That brings up the question – Who attacked Ithicaelle Naghim?” Diane asked.
“Very good question,” the bat asked.
“Ithicaelle Naghim, is more often called Wraith’s Stronghold,” the fox commented. “The fortress itself is huge and covers an area of over 3 square miles. It’s the size of a small city. The curtain wall alone had forty towers. It had a thousand man and three thousand lutin garrison. Not to mention giants, ogres, dragons, wyverns, dire wolves, and all manner of evil things. At its core is Ithicaelle Mughre Wraiths tower, a two hundred foot tall tower of black stone and a sickly green colored mortar.”
“From there Nasoj controlled all of the southern Giantdowns,” Misha continued. “Countless raids and attacks on Metamor have come from there. Undoubtedly it was there that the Yuletide assault on the Keep was planned and staged from.”
“The same night we attacked the army at the ford another army attacked the Stronghold itself,” Diane said, picking up from where the fox left off. “We have identified sixteen tribes numbering six thousand Lutins, twelve giants and some twenty three ogres. The place fell after a battle that lasted till barely a hour after sunrise.”
“The looting is still going on,” George commented as he sipped on some red wine. “But the army began to break up almost instantly after taking the place. Each tribe took whatever they could grab and went their separate ways.”
“Thankfully it was only a temporary alliance,” Misha said. “I’d hate to think what type of havoc an army that size could have caused.”
“An alliance that large was a long time in the developing. It would have taken months just to get all sixteen tribes to agree to work together,” Andwyn commented.
Misha nodded in agreement. “Plus it would have taken someone who was a powerful leader and was good at diplomacy.”
“And a fine strategist,” Rickkter added. “Months before the actual attack he found out about it and guessed correctly that it would fail.”
“What makes you think he just guessed?” George commented. “Maybe he helped it fail.”
“True,” Misha agreed. “If he had the skill to unite sixteen tribes he could easily use that skill to help Nasoj instead of attacking him. A few words of promise or threats would easily have convinced many tribes to join Nasoj’s cause.”
“But he didn’t use it to help Nasoj, he used it to help himself,” the bat added. “We need to find out more about this person. But from the facts we can guess a few basics things. He must have been closely involved with the planning of the attack itself.”
“You keep saying he,” Diane said. “It could have been a woman. Brugusuid was the Castellan of Wraith’s stronghold until last year. She would have been in a perfect position to betray it and she would have known all about the attack on the Keep.”
Misha shook his head. “She was at the camp during the ambush,” the fox explained. “I doubt she would be there if she was involved in betraying Nasoj.”
“What happened at the camp?” George asked.
“We ran into a very, well planned, very well executed ambush,” Rickkter answered. “Someone went to a lot of effort to kill us.”
“Did you examine the scene of the ambush?” Andwyn asked.
“Yes,” Misha said as he nodded his head. “But we didn’t have time for anything more then a cursory look.”
“The entire camp was a trap,” the ferret commented. “There were about two hundred Lutins in holes disguised by magic to look like plain ground.”
“Very powerful illusionary magic,” the raccoon added.
“Also there were four animal morphs,” Misha said. “They looked like Keepers who’d been hit by the animal part of the curse. Two panthers and two wolverines.”
“The cats were superb sword fighters, trained in an eastern style that’s rare in the Midlands,” Rickkter commented.
“And the wolverines were axemen,” Misha added. “VERY well trained. Somehow Nasoj convinced or forced them to allow themselves to be changed.”
“My guess is that the cats and the wolverines, like those at the ford were intended for the attack on the Keep. Most likely they were supposed to be part of the group that snuck in just before the attack. But when they got held up by the snow, they were used in the ambush instead,” Diane commented. “As to who planned it, I’ve no idea.”
“Who set up this whole ambush?” Andwyn asked. “And why?”
“In the camp a Lutin chief mentioned The Four,” Misha said.
“The Four?” the bat asked. “That’s a name I’ve never heard before.”
“Neither have I, but they talked about them as if they were powerful generals and still loyal to Nasoj,” the fox commented.
“They didn’t care about the battle at the ford,” Rickkter said. “The Lutins exact words were ‘They’re crazy. Too busy with their own plan to worry about the battle.’ The battle was merely a distraction. They knew that you would go after the general in command Misha and used her as bait. They deliberately set out to wipe out you and the Long scouts.“
“Came damn close to it too,” Finbar said.
“We need to find out more about these Four,” Misha said. “They came closer to killing more Long scouts in one battle then anyone else has in six years of trying. Even during the Yule attack we weren’t so close to being wiped out.”
“We know there are four of them, one an illusionist,” Lisa said. “Hiding two hundred Lutins so well takes a lot of power.”
“What of the other three?” Rickkter asked.
“The one who confronted me in the camp,” the fox started. “He killed one of those cat creatures and saved my life. How does he figure in this? Whose side is he on? Could he be one of them?”
“Describe this man,” the bat ordered.
“Tall, with white hair, wearing red flowing robes, carrying a sword with a curved blade and sharp, nasty looking points. Although he saved my life I have to feeling he was involved some how.”
“True but how was he involved? If he helped set up the ambush why save your life?” Lisa asked. “And if he wasn’t involved in the ambush what was he doing there?”
Misha shook his head. “I’ve no idea.”
“You are assuming that the Four are responsible for this ambush,” Lisa commented.
“If not them then who did?” the fox countered. “This was not a spur of the moment idea. It was a long time in the planning.”
“We need more information on these Four,” the bat said. “And on the ambush itself.”
George nodded in agreement. “I’ll send people back to the camp.”
“You took one prisoner correct?” Andwyn asked.
“Yes, a wolverine morph by the name of Eldred,” Misha answered. “But he’s said very little. We just haven’t had the time to properly question him.”
“Where is he?”
“In a cell in Long House,” Finbar answered. “He’s been pretty tame since we brought him in.”
“He came within a hairs breadth of dying,” Misha answered.
Finbar shivered and shook his head. “That THING almost sucked his life out.”
The hair on Misha’s neck raised and he pointed a finger at the ferret. “Be careful what you call her. That ‘thing’ as you put it saved all of us.”
“Yes Sir,” he said meekly.
“Relax Misha. Your stunt at the camp spooked everyone,” Rickkter interjected.
Misha ruefully nodded. “But it worked!”
“I will help you question Eldred. He will be able to answer many of our questions about The Four and this ambush,” Andwyn ordered. “Also I want you to talk to Varnal. He might be able to tell us about the assault on the Keep and the Four.”
“Varnal?” Misha asked, surprised. “I’d forgotten about him. He should know more about this. If he’s still alive.”
“He is alive and well and still being held by Lightbringers. The mage might have been involved in the planning.”
The fox shook his head. “No. He would never have been involved in that attack with the fetish stone if knew about the Yule attack. There was just too great a risk of him being captured.”
George nodded in agreement. “Varnal was worthless to Nasoj. If he succeeded good. If not then there was no major lose.”
“Agreed,” the bat answered. “But he was in Nasoj’s service and will have seen things. He might know more then he realizes. Clues that could be vital to us.”
“I’ll talk to him tomorrow,” Misha answered.
George was surprised by the knock on his door. It was late and he hadn’t been expecting anyone. If the knock had surprised him, the person who greeted him on the opposite side of the door surprised him even more.
“Edmund?” the jackal asked in surprised.
The paladin looked odd in the long blue and silver robes instead of his usual plate mail armor. For the first time the paladins look of confidence was missing. He shuffled from foot to foot several times and refused to meet Georges gaze.
“What does it feel like to change?” the man asked in a quiet voice.
“You’re staying aren’t you?” the jackal answered after a long silence. “But the curse scares you.”
Edmund nodded slowly. “I’ve fought many enemies in my time. Faced fearsome dragons and fought the chilling terror of the undead. But I cannot overcome my terror of this curse.”
“Why ask me?”
“Misha was here during the original casting and Father Hough did not stay voluntarily.”
“And I did?” George asked.
“I’ve heard tales,” the paladin commented. “George the Cutlass.”
The jackal laughed. “You know better then to believe bar talk.”
“Hardly the talk of drunken soldiers. I remember the indignation when Duke Thomas gave you sanctuary. Letting such a brigand and a mercenary go free,” the paladin explained. “The price for bringing back your head in Elarial is still at five thousand gold coins.”
“I doubt anyone would be able to collect that prize now. Who would recognize it,” the jackal man said as he brushed his large canine ears. “Are you here to try?” he said calmly.
It was Edmund’s turn to laugh. “I knew who you were before I even arrived here. A knight of the order is to be above the collection of such blood money. That price was only set because you fought for the loosing side in a dynastic war.”
“I thought I knew who you were but this respected and honored noble I see before me now is not the George I knew. George the Cutlass was hard, vicious and cared for no one but himself. You’ve changed. And do not mean the fur that now covers you.”
“The curse didn’t change me,” George countered.
“Then what did?”
The jackal turned and walked over to a large over stuffed couch. He sighed loudly as he dropped down into it. “Time did,” he said in a tired voice. “I got old, Edmund.”
The paladin walked slowly up to where to old bandit sat. George’s eyes were closed and he was just slumped into the soft cushions. Edmund noticed that most of the coverings of the furniture were scorched and burned. He was reminded of how on the holiest day of the year Keepers like George had been forced to fight for their very lives.
“I was getting old and I had nothing to show for it except a lot of scars and a bad reputation. When Misha sent me a message that there was a job for me here at Metamor, I came. I still don’t know what attracted me here.”
He looked up at the knight. “I’ve never known a true home. My whole life I have wandered from place to place. Fighting for everything, even for the clothes I wear. Metamor is the ONLY place where people have made me feel at home. They didn’t care that I couldn’t recite my heritage back a score of generations. Metamor is the first place I’ve ever truly felt at home. So I made the choice to stay.”
The hall was simply decorated, the floor was a fine, gray marble heavily veined with lines of red, blue and green. Walls of the same material were covered in places by banners and flags carrying the emblems of people and groups long dead.
Edmund stood at one end of the hall where the floor was raised several steps above the rest of the room. Standing quietly in ranks and files were the one hundred twenty men who followed his command.
“After much prayer and contemplation I understand what the Great One wishes of me,” the paladin intoned solemnly. “My work lies here at Metamor Keep and the poor souls trapped in the ruins north of here.”
A murmur ran through the assembled men but it died down when he held up his hand.
“I understand how difficult this is and the hardships it will entail. This was not a decision I have made lightly. I am well aware of the curse and the effects it will have on me and all who stay. So I can’t order you to stay here. Each of you must decide for yourself. In a day Sir Mursry leaves for the south. He is a bold and devoted Follower who is doing the Great One’s work all over the Midlands. If you choose to depart he is a fine man to follow.”
He paused to allow that information to sink in before continuing. “Metamor is the place I am going to make my home. Cleansing the ruins of its curse and freeing the spirits trapped there will take a long time. And times here in Metamor and the Giantdowns are troubled. There will be much work for all here.” He smiled. “There is room here for us all to finally stop our wanderings and make a home where we can raise a family and live in faith. Importantly here we can really make a difference. But that decision is for you to make. This choice is your own.”
The Lightbringer temple was quiet. The last time Misha had been here was during the holiday attack. Then the place had been packed full of refugees. In his mind he could still see and hear them crowding around him asking about people. Asking, pleading, begging for any scrap of hope of loved ones. He wondered how many had ultimately had joyous reunions and how many were now in mourning.
“The one you are looking for is through here Sir.”
The acolytes words broke the fox from his reverie and brought him back to reality. The young girl had stopped in front of a wooden door. She opened it and stepped through.
A tree shorn of leaves adorned a small courtyard open to the sky. The snow and ice had been shoveled away revealing a circular path made of blue and brown stones. Tucked under the tree was a bench made from slabs of white stone smoothed only on the top for an easy resting place.
Perched on the bench was a young girl of ten years of age who was wearing a long sleeved, blue dress and tall boots and had her long, red hair tied back in a pony tail. She didn’t seem to see the new arrivals but was concentrating on the ground in front of her. Sitting at her feet was a small squirrel, slate gray in color that seemed translucent. Misha could actually see right through it. The paving bricks beneath it vaguely visible through the smoky body.
Misha blinked and shook his head. The illusionary animal shimmered and vanished.
“That was very good,” a voice said. “Next time we’ll try and animate it.”
The Long scout looked around for the source of the voice. There sitting next to the girl was red fox with its tail curled tightly about its legs. This was no Keeper but was Varnal, the mage was once in the employee of Nasoj. His plan to capture a Keeper had failed and left him trapped in the body of a fox. Brought to Metamor the Duke had sentenced him to spend three years that way. Maybe it would teach him some morals and compassion. Misha doubted he would ever learn either.
The fox looked at Misha for a moment then to the girl. “We’ll take up the lessons again tomorrow, Deala.”
The girl stood up and lightly curtsied to the fox. “Thank you sir.” Then she quietly left the courtyard taking the acolyte that had brought Misha here with her. It left the two vulpine’s alone.
“You’re teaching the girl magic?” Misha asked, surprised.
Varnal gave a vulpine shrug. “Why not? I can’t cast it and I can at least earn some money.”
“Money for what? You’re an animal. What could you need? A new collar?”
“Some wine, a nicer bed and perhaps some sweetmeats to snack upon. I’m tired of water and cold meat,” the animal mage explained. “Also she really has the gift. With training and patience she will be a fine mage.” There was a softness to his voice that surprised Misha.
The scout sat down next to Varnal. “Did I detect a softness there?” Misha asked as his hand rested on the hilt of a dagger.
“Her father didn’t survive the Yuletide attack,” came the simple answer.
“But you did.”
“Yes I did,” came the answer in short, clipped words. “But I shouldn’t have.”
Misha gave Varnal a puzzled look.
“It all makes sense now. For months we were training and he was lavishing all sorts of ‘gifts’ on us. Weapons, new spells even special protective amulets. I realized that he was planning an attack on Metamor. I was expecting him to attack in the spring, after the snow melted and the mud dried up.”
“So were we,” Misha commented ruefully. “And it cost us one thousand dead.”
“It cost me nine of my friends,” Varnal added quietly. “I spent most of the twenty sixth identifying what was left of their bodies.” The fox fell silent for a moment. “They were nothing but fodder to him. Just there to cast spells. No one cared if they died so long as they killed many Keepers before hand. I would have died with them if you hadn’t captured me.” The fox shook his head. “My life was saved by my worst enemy. Strange how fate plays with us.”
Misha nodded in agreement. “Fate can deal us a strange hand sometimes.” He paused for a moment. “Two complete strangers killed one of my scouts and saved the lives of over five hundred Keepers.”
“That was unexpected,” Varnal commented. “I expected there to be traitors among the Keepers but never one of the Long Scouts.”
“What do you know about The Four?” Misha asked steering the conversation away from that painful subject.
“I’ve heard you fought them, and even survived their ambush.”
“You know about that?” Misha asked suspiciously.
“Everyone in the Keep is discussing the creature you summoned at the camp. Most think it was a demon.”
“And what do you think she is?”
The fox gave an almost human shrug. “I’m not sure. But I do not think its like has been seen centuries.”
Misha chuckled. “True. But she did save my life and the lives of all my people. What do you know of the Four?” He asked suddenly changing the subject back.
“I’m surprised they weren’t involved in the assault on the Keep itself.”
“Bad weather. That blizzard the Moranasi created worked far too well. It stopped his reinforcements. That was the one bright point in that whole stinking battle.”
“I wonder how many died on the trip to the Keep?” Varnal asked.
The scout shook his head. “No telling but come spring I think we’ll be finding their bodies all over the valley. A rough estimate two, maybe three thousand. I don’t think we’ll ever really know. But back to my question. What do you know about The Four?”
Varnal didn’t speak at first but just stared at the ground for a moment.
“They were his elite guards once but now they are his trusted lieutenants. They are Kagnio, Eule, Phearsome and Bakuda.”
“Kagnio is tall with long, white hair and usually has a evil grin upon his face.”
“Does he wear red robes and carry a sword with a curved blade with many, sharp points?” Misha asked.
“Yes but – the sword he usually carries has a hilt that is highly decorated and extremely intricate, the blade itself is extremely long thin and black. Definitely very powerful magic. You’ve met him?”
“At the ambush,” the scout answered curtly.
Varnal didn’t press the matter but simply continued with his description. “Eule is pale but very beautiful with black hair pulled tightly into a bun, in the eastern style. She is a powerful mage. Phearsome is a big brute that looks one of the sea raiders out of legend. I think he could wrestle an ogre to the ground alone. He is covered with tattoos all over his body, each being distinctive and unusual. The strangest of them is Bakuda. He wears a cloak and a highly polished mask shaped like a human face. All of his flesh is covered with cloths, armor or bandages like a mummy.”
“Is he undead?”
“I’m not sure, but he is VERY powerful. All of them are powerful, each in a unique way. You said you fought Kagnio in the ambush.”
“No, he saved my life. He killed one of the panthers that was about to kill me.”
“WHY?” Varnal asked.
“That is what I want you to tell me. Why would he go to the trouble of setting up such an ambush then spoil it by saving my life.”
“Are you definite that The Four were responsible for the ambush?”
Misha just nodded.
“I know they are loyal to him in some ways but each seems to have their own agenda.” The fox paused for a moment. “Tell me about the ambush and leave NOTHING out. In return I’ll tell you everything I know about The Four.”
The scout sat down next to the animal mage. “Fair enough.”
Long house was full of sound even if it wasn’t full of people. The grand area called Long hall played host only to a group of twenty children who were playing there. Some were the children of Long scouts or of people who worked for the Longs. Others were the children of other Keepers. All played together quite happily, running and shrieking around the great open space. They paid little attention to anything else.
Two figures emerged from a side door and moved nonchalantly into the center of the hall. Both moved with an air of certainty that spoke of seasoned veterans who could easily handle themselves in any situation. The man was tall, with hard eyes that stared at the world from beneath a tangled mane of hair. His body was tough and well muscled and bore the scars of countless battles.
Gold rings decorated his ears and hands. He was dressed scantily, merely a cloth of soft leather edged with silver thread and gold covered his loins and a brace of leather straps on his hips. Both were covered with gold buckles and hooks. In combat weapons would hang from those hooks but now they were empty.
The woman was shorter but only just. Thinner then him, her skin was darker and her black hair was cut short, close to her head. She was dressed solely in a loin cloth and several pieces of strategically placed strips of black leather and gold buckles and rings. Long gloves of the same leather covered her arms to above the elbow. The outfit covered just enough to keep from being arrested for public nudity, but just barely. It showed off every smooth and supple curve of her slim form. Her body bore not a single scar or blemish in spite of many years spent as a mercenary. Her flowing black hair had been meticulously braided with gold, silver and platinum ribbons and rings worked into it.
With the cold winds of winter blowing outside and with the snow still piled hip deep outside the two mercenaries should have been cold but Long Hall was as warm as a spring day. Only the faintest hint of a cold breeze reminded them that winter was still about and that bothered neither of them.
In the man’s hands was a staff, longer then he was tall and made a light colored wood. Ferwig would have preferred to use Gruffydd but the spear was safely locked away in the Long House armory. Considering that less then 2 weeks ago he had been snuck into the Keep to kill many of the Keepers, Ferwig was lucky to just be alive. He and Teria at the moment seemed to be in suspension. Officially they weren’t prisoners and were allowed free reign of Long House and the Keep but all their weapons and magic items were kept out of reach. Also he had noticed that they were never alone. There always seemed to be someone nearby watching them.
Teria showed no outward sign of being bothered by being watched but Ferwig knew it did bother the woman. They had been together far too long for him not to notice. She was covering it well enough for the moment. But being watched was a minor annoyance. What really bothered her was boredom. They were fed well and they were allowed to go pretty much where ever they wanted to but there was nothing to do. Even sparing matches in the Great Hall had lost their attraction.
“I can do it myself,” a male voice suddenly said loudly.
“Of course,” a soft female voice answered with a hint of disbelief in it.
Turning to the source of the noise they saw two animal morph keepers fumbling with a pair of pokers in front of a small fire place. One was a lithe brown ferret, the other was obviously female and wasn’t a ferret but of some closely related breed. The ferret had his left arm in a large bandage that stretched from wrist to shoulder. A sling kept the injured limb still. The two were trying to stoke a fire to life with little luck.
Teria muttered the words of an incantation softly and wiggled her fingers in the air. There was a soft whoosh and a ball of light raced from her fingers in the direction of the fireplace and the two keepers. It struck a log which burst instantly into flames.
The ferret whipped around, a dagger in each hand.
“Oh come now Finbar, you can’t be afraid of a simple fire cantrip.” Teria said mockingly and with a flick of her fingers sent a ball of light towards the ferret.
Ferwig didn’t interfere, he knew that she was simply having fun and the spell she had cast would only create a flash and some sparks. Harmless.
The ball of light was less then a foot from the ferret when the female with him acted. Danielle waved her hands and the ball of light shot straight up into the air before it winked out.
A broad grin crossed Teria’s face. “A MAGE!” she crowed in delight. The woman flicked both hands several times sending half a dozen balls racing towards the two mustelids.
Danielle easily fended off all of them with ease.
Teria narrowed her eyes and shot off three more balls. These were larger and danced and looped around each other as the streaked towards the pine marten.
The pine marten managed to easily deflect two of them with waves of her hand in spite of their erratic movement. But the third missile struck her hand in a shower of sparks. She yelped in pain and shook it to make the sting go away.
“What happened?” Teria asked in genuine surprise. “You should have easily stopped that one.” She walked towards Danielle, Ferwig following close behind in case the ferret objected too strongly.
“I am still recovering,” came the simple answer.
In a moment the two mercenaries had closed the distance between them. At this close range he could see that Danielle’s right arm was bandaged. Teria took hold of the pine martens left hand and held it up to inspect. Ferwig saw that all the fur had been burned off up to the elbow and the hand itself was covered with burnt and blistered skin.
“No wonder you couldn’t stop that last one. What did this?” the leather clad mage asked.
“A fire sphere,” was the answer.
“She saved all of our lives,” Finbar interjected forcefully.
“Just barely,” Teria added.
“But enough,” Ferwig added. “I didn’t know any of you Longs knew magic.”
“What level of skill do you have? I have attained the eighth plateau according to the Cuerth college of Magic,” Teria asked excitedly.
“My skill is limited,” Danielle explained.
“Who have you trained under?”
“No one. I have learned a learned most myself.”
“No one?” Teria said shocked. “What spells can you cast besides shield?”
“Little. A spell of silence, and one to help detect traps, plus one to make better vision in darkness. But I have little reason to use that last one. My present body sees very well in darkness.”
The woman’s face brightened and she cheered up instantly. “Well I can help you there.”
“And what do want in return?” Finbar asked in a hostile tone.
“Tell me what this is?” she said calmly and slowly removed the glove from her right arm. The skin beneath was covered with short fur that was covered with large, irregular black, brown and white spots.
“That’s the curse of course,” the ferret replied in a delighted tone. “You’re changing into some sort of animal.”
“I know that,” Teria commented sarcastically, “but what kind?”
Danielle gingerly touched the changed portion of the woman’s arm with one finger. “A cat of some sort.”
Finbar shook his head. “Not with those spots.”
“An antelope perhaps,” Misha said walking up to the group. Ferwig hadn’t heard the fox approach. A fact that made him nervous. “What do you think honey?”
A tall, brown otter walked up and peered at the arm. Ferwig hadn’t been aware of the her approach either. All Longs it seemed moved with an un-nerving silence.
“Definitely a predator of some sort,” Caroline commented. “A bird perhaps?”
“Not with that fur.”
“I’ve heard of birds with fur, like a griffon.”
George pushed through the group, shoving Ferwig aside. He grabbed her arm and licked the spotted fur on Teria’s arm. “A dog or wolf.”
She pulled it back in disgust and tried to punch the jackal morph dead square in the muzzle.
Almost casually fending off the attack he reached into a pouch and pulled out a dozen coins. “I’ll bet all this that it’s a dog or wolf.”
“I’ll see that bet,” Misha countered. “It has to be an antelope.”
“I’ll bet twenty gold that it’s a cat,” Finbar added.
“Since we’re all betting,” Ferwig commented. “And I’ll add this.” The fighter turned around revealing a mane of hair running down his neck. It was short, thick, black, bristle like hairs totally unlike a horses.
“I’ll bet twenty gold that he’s one of those stripped zebras,” Finbar shouted out.
“Ten that it’s a boar or some sort of pig.”
“Twelve that he’s a hedgehog or porcupine.”
“I’ll take all those against me becoming a hyena,” Ferwig said boldly.
Teria scowled at him but he just smiled and patted her on the shoulder. They were no longer bored.
Sir Terrant Gattaway stood outside the door to Sir Edmund’s apartment. It was a modest thing, made of a dark wood with hinges and lock of brass, now green with age. Only a simple wooden plague with the words “Sir Edmund Delacot” told all who was within.
Terrant had known Edmund for almost a decade. In that time they had traveled the entire breadth of the Midlands. From skirmishing with Lightbringer fanatics on the border of the Sathmore empire to fighting eldritch horrors in Elderwood. They had even guarded caravans traveling across the Desert of Dreaming and fought pirates on the sea of stars.
Nothing they had done before matched what they were doing now. Fighting bandits, raiders and fanatics didn’t scare him. If it was time for the Black Dog to come for him, so be it but deliberately letting a curse take hold of you that was something else. Still Edmund was right, they were desperately needed here. Here at Metamor they could make a big difference. Just burying the dead would be a difficult task.
He opened the door slowly and found the paladin seated at a small table reading his private copy of the canticles. Edmund looked up at Terrant with a somber expression. “You’ve decided?”
“How many have decided to stay?” Terrant answered, changing the subject.
“Two of my knights and fifteen of the foot soldiers have decided to go with Sir Mursry,” came the answer. “But we have over a score of people have volunteered to stay with me.”
Terrant shook his head in surprise. “It seems you are not the only one who thinks this place is where they are needed.”
“It is a new place,” the paladin explained. “Here a person can make a new life for themselves and not be bound by old social prejudices.”
“Do you wonder what you’ll change into?” Terrant asked.
“Does it matter?” Sir Edmund answered enigmatically. “The canticles say that from dust we were created and to dust we shall return. Our form matters not, only the soul within.”
“True,” Terrant answered. “I hadn’t considered that.”
“Have you decided?” the paladin asked.
“I have followed you for ten years. I see no reason to stop now.”
“Are you coming out?” Finbar asked to the closed door.
“Teria” Danielle said to the closed door in front of them. “You are making me worry.”
“I’m fine,” came a muffled voice.
“Why don’t you just admit you changed and come out,” George added in an irritated tone of voice. “You can’t be THAT ugly. Besides we want to know who won the bet.”
“NO!” came the voice from beyond the door.
“Terry,” Ferwig said softly. “You promised Danielle a lesson today. Now come out.”
“What part of no don’t you understand,” Teria said through the door.
“A battle hardened mercenary that’s fought and killed men twice her size and she’s afraid how she looks,” George commented to no one in particular.
“She knows more beauty spells then fighting spells,” Ferwig said laughing.
From beyond the door came a low hissing noise like the sound of air escaping from a pipe.
“Uh oh!” Ferwig said and suddenly ducked.
A hole the size of a fist appeared in the door and something heavy and solid flew over Ferwig’s head to shatter against the wall behind him.
“She’s trying to kill you!” Finbar said looking at the sizable pockmark in the stonework.
“No, she deliberately aimed high,” Ferwig commented. “Come out Teria. Aren’t you curious to know what I changed into?” he ordered, sounding annoyed.
A long silence followed and then there was the sound of a bolt being drawn back. The door creaked loudly as it swung inward on its hinges revealing slight figure standing behind it. The person seemed to hesitate for a moment before stepping through.
The figure that came through the now open door had the same height and slim build as Teria but little else. Her whole body was covered with the same sort fur they had seen before. It was colored with large patches which were light brown, black and white in color. Her canine head had a black muzzle and large ears that swiveled about. A black stripe ran from her muzzle all the way up her head, between those large ears and down her back to a long tail. The curse had changed her body but it had left her the same, supple erotic curves as before. Indeed it seemed to enhance it. Ferwig noticed how the shape of her breasts, now covered with white fur had been boosted by cleavage now colored black. He liked the effect.
“What am I?” Teria asked. “I know it’s a dog but of a type I’ve never seen before.”
“A Wild Cape dog. They live in the far south, on the savannah of the Flatlands,” George answered.
She didn’t seem to notice the people staring at her. Instead her eyes fell upon Ferwig, the fighter she had spent the last ten years of her life with. He was a muscled and powerful as ever, but covered with a gray-greenish fur that had black spots randomly scattered across it. His canine head had the same pattern except for the mane of thick bristly fur that was colored black as was his muzzle. He was a hyena.
“I won the bet,” Ferwig commented.
Teria laughed for the first time all day. “How much did you win?”