Running proved to be problematic quite swiftly for the victorious pair of Keepers, the surging of new plant growth slowing them, often catching them in its rapid expansion. To their good fortune, the new plant-life caused the Lutins, giants, and other northern peoples the same consternation. Those that did see the Keepers were often too distracted to give chase, or attributed the chaos to the Keepers and fled swiftly in the opposite direction.
At first Llyn dragged Muri along by sheer force, disregarding his chuttering protests as he tripped and staggered in her wake, unable to sling his bow or collect the few arrows he had set aside if the need arose for them. Eventually he was able to wring his hand from her grasp and fall into step behind her, crashing through a landscape that seemed eerily, frighteningly alive. It was like no forest he had ever encountered, where the plants whipped and writhed, spreading across the muddy earth like a living, self-mobile carpet of green. Roots burst up from the soil under their very feet, tripping them into masses of newly grown shrubbery or bouncing them from the slender trunks of young trees that had not been there minutes before.
Bruised, winded, and more than a little frightened at the chaos they had engendered, they found a small outcropping of stone freshly opened in the lee of a pile of boulders and scrambled into the shelter it provided. Thee looked up at the huge single slab of stone that formed the roof of the alcove with some trepidation. The shaking of the earth had recently unearthed the huge stone. It was with no stretch of the imagination to contemplate what might happen in the event of another shock; things would get quite messy for them.
Yet no plants grew in the deep shadows under the boulders, and no panicked member of a northern tribe threatened to stumble across them. There had been no apparent pursuit from the giants, which was a definite blessing, as the massive giants would be able to smash through the tangle of plants with a lot less effort than the smaller Keepers.
Muri fell onto his back, throwing his arms out to either side as he gasped for breath, his chest heaving, his tail draped limply upon the churned earthen floor of their shelter. Llyn did much the same, reclining against one side of the alcove as she massaged her aching legs, likewise hanging her muzzle open as she gulped in huge breaths. She tilted her head slightly to one side, a grimace contorting her features as she rubbed one of her ears vigorously with one hand. The noise created by Muri’s attack had been horrifying in its power. It had been so close to her that she was surprised her head had not exploded, or at least begun bleeding from every opening as the giant’s had. As it was, her ears were still ringing, the one that had been closer much more painfully than the other. She glanced up when Muri’s hand reached over to grasp her leg at the calf, his hand trembling a little as it tightened about her leg.
“Thank you.” he churred heavily, still panting, his eyes far steadier than his hand as he gazed up at her, “I can’t believe it worked as well as it did, hon, but your timing was perfect.”
Llyn had to look at him for a few seconds before she gathered the import of the muffled sounds he was making, turning them about in her head as she tried to filter out the annoying tympanic hiss. She nodded once she understood his words, “What happened?” she croaked, very loudly, her throat dry from their run. Muri winced back, startled by the volume of her question. “All I saw was a blue light, then nothing until that first tower started going over.”
“That blue flash was my spell.” He responded, though his mind had gone down another track, spurred by the loudness of her voice. The shatter spell he had employed against the leader of the giants may have damaged her hearing, a fact which gave him a small bit of fright. “It broke the wheels.” He said as he released her leg and fell back. His breathing was slowly coming back, though his throat was still parched. He had lost his waterskin somewhere during their flight, which was a small price to pay.
Llyn nodded after a few moments and went back to massaging her legs, pausing every few moments to rub her ears. Muri frowned, his heart sinking. He could heal himself, but only by focusing his entire will and senses inward, but he could not heal her.
And as far away from any vestige of anyone sympathetic to their kind, or of anything remotely resembling their manner of civilization, it was unlikely she would be able to receive any healing. Once her body began its own repairs, a healer would be unable to correct the scarring that might occur.
For that he would be to blame, and he found that to be an uncomfortable fact to live with.
Save for the occasional rumble of earth falling into the cleft through the dike, the earth soon ceased to grumble and shake, though the sibilant hiss of fresh growth continued well into the evening. Where there had been naught but mud and churned earth with the dawn there was now a dense carpet of new green several feet high. Here and there trees poked up through the shrubbery, swaying and tossing in the sunlight as if tortured by a gale though no more than a breeze blew.
Muri and Llyn remained in the shaded depths of their cavern and silently watched the land change around them as the sun climbed into the sky and fell toward the horizon. Only when darkness finally stole across the amazingly changed lands did the hiss and rustle of growing things finally cease. Devoid of insect and animal, though, meant that only heavy silence came with the night.
“Going to be a long hungry trip.” Llyn commented, stretching out on the earthen floor of the small cave, the steady glow of Muri’s witchlight painting her fur a silver speckled auburn. They had taken a few minutes earlier in the day to smooth the churned earth of the cave floor, tossing aside the worst of the rocks while they had enough sunlight to see them. Thus they would have a somewhat comfortable place to pass the silence of the night through before they started their return trek southward.
“It’s been that way so far.” Muri commented with a smile as he leaned against a boulder tossed off to one side of the cavern entrance by the earthquake. He was outside of the pool of light created by his magical illumination, his silhouette lost against the rough wall of tall greenery recently sprung from the earth just beyond where he sat.
Llyn chuckled softly through her nose as she rested her chin upon her crossed hands and yawned, “That it has, yes, but at least we’re going the right direction this time.”
Muri looked toward her, though the movement was lost in the darkness, “We were going the right direction before.” At least it was so far as he was concerned. It had been a draw he had been unable to deny, but had brought them to a place where the most minor of actions had served the greatest of purposes.
Llyn nodded and yawned again as she stretched, folding up her leather vest and using it as a pillow, “It certainly saved Metamor a lot of grief, I would admit.”
“Go ahead and sleep.” Muri nodded, turning his attention back to the land beyond their small shelter. His spirit vision was no longer effective in finding creatures hidden by the darkness due to the new life flowing through the land. Glimmering like a thin shroud of silk across everything, it was still weak, but would soon regain what had been lost in the ravaging the Lutins had done to the land. “I’ll take watch for now.” Llyn nodded without lifting her head, yawning as she shifted into a more comfortable position and closed her eyes. Muri let his witchlight slowly fade out, the power that sustained it trickling back into the thin flow of the surrounding energies as it winked out. He leaned back against the stone, resting his hands upon his knees as he watched the distant flicker of a thunderstorm developing to the north.
Time trickled by, the minutes becoming an hour, then two, as he watched the slow, stately progress of the flickering lights on the horizon. They were moving roughly south to east, and would strike their makeshift camp sometime before dawn, and most likely flood them out. There was nothing to be done against that, he knew, which would hasten them on their long journey southward in a most disagreeable fashion. Llyn might have the natural water resistance of her species, but Muri did not, and was invariably miserable when it rained.
“You cannot sleep, chainbreaker?” a deep, softly feminine voice asked from the darkness not far away, barely heard above the wind driven rustling of the grasses. Muri sat up suddenly, his fur rising as he whispered up a witchlight, seeking out the speaker.
She was not as close as the voice had seemed, standing just within the line of tangled, swaying new growth at the edge of his light. He knew her immediately for what she was, a nymph of the plains, and relaxed somewhat, settling back against the stone once more. He hissed out a breath and glared at her as he dimmed the blinding glow of his light.
“There is still danger in the land, milady.” He churred, taking a deep breath to steady his suddenly rapid heartbeat. The nymph stepped forward a little more, coming from the protective concealment of the grasses more directly into Muri’s sight, within the circle of light cast by his spell. She was quite comely, as were most of her kind; tall and willowy, with an exotic beauty that no mortal creature could ever duplicate.
“Those that bound us and razed the earth have fled.” She said, her voice a whisper barely audible over the hiss of the grass and the distant grumble of thunder. “The land has been freed by your hand, though it has yet to heal enough to support the variety of life that it once had.” Muri watched the wind stir the long, golden strands of her unkempt hair as he nodded. In the distance a flickering strobe of pale amber light cast her and the grass around them in stark contrast. “You may rest safely, we shall watch over you.”
“My hand was not alone in your freedom, kind spirit.” Muri said, motioning toward the mink stretched out just within the entrance of their shelter, the witchlight sketching her outline dimly against the overall darkness. “Her hand was just as strong as mine own.” The spirit looked toward the mink and merely nodded as a muffled crack of thunder rolled from the north, the voice of the distant light. “We?” he queried, glancing again toward the ominous darkness to the north. Deep within the churning guts of those dark clouds lightning of various colors played and danced. Over their heads the stars winked out, one by one, as the leading edge of the storm clouds occluded them. Toward the east the moon was slashed by thin tendrils of swift moving darkness.
“The land.” The spirit whispered, her voice nearly lost in the growing strength of the wind, “We will see that nothing ill befalls you, or your companion.” She too, turned to watch the approaching storm on the horizon, a smile on her slender, finely framed face. “We have called forth the hand of Dvalin to aid in the healing you have begun.”
“That’s going to flood us out.” Muri commented quietly, not as a complaint, but more as a statement of truth.
“You shall be safe, friend Findahl.” She smiled as she turned more toward the north, stepping into the grasses that dipped and swayed in the growing wind, “Rest, and we shall watch over you and yours.” With that, she vanished into the grass so smoothly that it seemed she had never been there. There was no mark of her foot upon the earth, nor a single blade of broken grass to mark her passage. Muri watched the storm for a few more minutes, relaxing as he let the power of the wind stir his fur and felt the heavy, cool weight of moisture laden air settle upon the land.
Crawling back into the cavern, he stretched out beside Llyn, lying upon his back as he stared up at the dark stone ceiling of their shelter. He could feel the touch of Llyn’s fur close at hand, brushing his shoulder as she breathed. Despite their closeness, and the fact that they had been working together for nigh on three weeks, neither of them wearing more than a vest or bandoleer to cover their inhuman nudity, they had never been closer than they were at that very moment.
Not in a conscious manner, at any rate, where both realized exactly what their proximity might engender.
Muri let out a slow sigh as he let the whispering susurration of the grass and the distant, gentle growl of the storm coax him into sleep.
“Hrisssst!” the sound cut through his dreams with the sudden, startling clarity of an alarm bell, bringing him into a sitting position so fast he nearly fell over, “Muri!” Llyn cursed somewhere in the darkness to his right, “I fell asleep!”
“I told you to.” Muri reassured her, blinking at the darkness stupidly, confused. There was not light, not even a hint. No stars shone in the sky, wherever that was, no lightning flickered. There was no sound, either; only the fading echoes of his voice. There was no wind, no thunder, not even the quiet whisper of the grass. Only his own hammering heartbeat and the shared chuff of their ragged, startled breathing.
“Where the hell are we?” she hissed, her hand smacking him in the side of the face soundly, then grabbing his shoulder in a grip so strong the skunk winced, “I can’t see!” Muri reached up and grasped her wrist, trying to loosen her grip as he steadied himself and looked around futilely. Wherever he looked, only darkness met his eyes. He shifted her perception to his spiritsight, then gasped, recoiling as he quickly closed his eyes, shutting out the blinding sight as he ceased using his spirit sight.
They were in close proximity to a node of energies, far more powerful than he would have expected from the shattered lands. He shook his head to clear away the dancing afterimages of the blinding glow, and summoned a tiny witchlight.
No brighter than a tiny candleglow, it was nonetheless painfully bright to their darkness-sensitized eyes. Both of them looked away from the tiny, yellow mote as it drifted lazily upward, like a lost star returning to the heavens. Eventually the were able to begin making out the details of their surroundings, which were pretty spartan to say the least. They could see no walls, or ceiling. Only the sandy grown upon which they lay, and the large slab of squared off marble a few feet to one side. The stone was littered with all manner of odd debris; bones, leaves, berries, insect husks scattered about the flat surface in seeming random array, no two the same. Something about the stone and its collection plucked fitfully at Muri’s memory, like a listless bard with a broken lute.
He brightened the witchlight slowly, causing Llyn to grumble and turn her head away once more. The expanding circle of light cast by the spell revealed a broad, gradual slope of sand and pebbles leading down to the edge of a mirror smooth surface that stretched out of sight. Walls began to appear, pale stones of many hues, most of which were variations of grey or white, with striations of rainbow hues here and there.
“By the gods.” Muri whispered, his voice tinged with awe, “We’re home.” He said a little louder for the sake of Llyn’s hearing.
“Home?” Llyn rasped, looking around once more, “This is another damned cave!”
“My home.” Muri amended, standing. He helped Llyn to her feet as he wandered over toward the massive slab of marble, careful not to step on the collection of items he had brought here for the wonder of an ancient spirit. “The spirits have brought us to my home.” He grinned toward the flat face of the wall from which Grimshori often appeared at his beck. He reached down and scooped up his pack, “Come, Llyn.” He murred happily as he hastened into the darkness, his witchlight bobbing along behind him. Llyn, already having donned her vest, snatched up her belt and sword, following swiftly lest she be left behind in the heavy darkness once again. She was beginning to truly hate that, the impenetrable darkness that she often woke to in her travels with the skunk. She vowed at that moment that she would never travel again without at least some way to make light.
Even, she muttered to herself, if she had to learn magic to do it.
Muri showed her the cold, dark stream that gurgled down into the lake below, pointing out the large, lazy and blind whitefish moving slowly in its depths. Propped over near one wall was the pole and nets he used to snatch them from the water for the occasional meal, which brightened her mood considerably. Fish was her diet of choice, and luckily the Lutins had not bothered much with the streams and rivers, which had been almost their only source of meat during their hike north of the hordes clearing the forest.
He had her precede him up the narrow chute of wet stone that lead up to his home proper, letting the witchlight glimmer ahead of her as he came up close behind. Smiling a very toothy, gleeful smile, he enjoyed the view, actually pausing and taking a few seconds to look. Without the omnipresent sense of impending doom hanging over their shoulders, Muri could fully turn his mind to the present, and enjoy the company of the female mustelid ascending the narrow passage ahead of him. Shaking his head at his temerity, he once more began to climb.
Skipping ahead of her on light paws, he turned a short pirouette as he waved one arm at the vast central chamber as his swiftly growing witchlight illuminated it. His tail described a long arc around his waist as he spun, dropping his pack on a wooden platform near the entry to the lower caves, “My home.” He smiled, “And most welcome to you.” he bowed, feeling light of spirits with the final fulfillment of his purpose, and their freedom from eminent danger.
Llyn smiled at his lighthearted antics, looking about at the somewhat rustically decorated chamber. Two large, rough hewn tables dominated the center of the chamber, upon which was arrayed a rather amazing collection of odd and mostly unidentifiable objects. A few things appeared to be works in progress, a bowstave, some arrows and poorly knapped arrowheads discarded at one corner of a table. Herbs hung from makeshift drying racks suspended from the downward facing spears of stone that dotted the ceiling, as well as a few other things she did not feel she wanted to look to closely at.
“You created all of this?” she asked as she stopped to look at a hand made chair held together by braided vines. Its frame was mostly twisted, gnarled wood from what looked to be oak limbs. At first glance it looked as it if would be quite uncomfortable, though the wear patterns revealed that it was very often used.
“Everything.” He nodded as he picked a few things up from one of the tables and tossed them into a small, dark hole in the wall, “I sort of had to make do with what I could create with my own hands out here.”
Llyn tilted her head slightly, turning her better ear toward his voice, “Where is ‘here’ anyway?” she asked.
“I have no real idea. I call them the Watchwoods.” He took off his bandoleer and laid it out on the table as he began taking the many objects secreted in its pockets, pounces, and sheathes. He laid them out on the table next to the worn leather harness for later examination and possible repair if needed.
“I guess it’s a good a name as any. How far are we from Metamor?”
“Having never been there, I don’t rightoff know.” Muri shrugged, examining the jade and steel blade of the dagger Keletikt had given him, “Though I’ve seen the passes, which are about a ten day walk from here.”
Llyn rubbed her ear with one hand as if she had not heard his muffled voice correctly,“Ten /days/?” Llyn barked, her eyebrows crawling up her forehead, “We were more than a month north of the pass just last evening!”
“The spirits gave us a grand gift for our help.” Muri nodded as he grinned at her, “The land was too weak to have been able to support us had we walked south.” Llyn nodded, the land had barely supported their northward trek, only their swiftly dwindling rations and the occasional fish had held them over from day to day.
“We’ll have to return to Metamor as swiftly as we can.” She commented, settling into the oddly designed chair. Much to her surprise, it was indeed quite comfortable, supporting her easily, and even allowed her some freedom of motion. One of the shortcomings of chairs originally designed for humans, the lack of a tail slot. Many had been modified since the battle of the gates, but that was a stopgap measure at best, and still not very comfortable. Only ones made by Keepers since the change had any designs for animorph comfort.
Though that almost required making custom designs for each species or individual animorph.
Muri turned toward her, a look of hesitancy and ill ease crossing his angular muzzle, “Metamor? /We/? Why?”
“Because we need to tell them what we saw, what we did.” She claimed, “And because I have no idea where I am, or where I am going.” Muri merely stared at her and nodded, “You’re not coming?” she asked, genuinely concerned. She had developed a certain emotional contact with this reclusive, stubborn skunk, and quailed at the idea of simply walking away. He was unlike almost every other male that she had encountered. Considerate, kind, independent without overshadowing her own need to be strong on her own.
And, in almost a month of working side by side unclothed, he had never so much as made a move on her, which was something she found amazing. And somewhat confusing as well. Did he prefer males? Was that the reason he never seemed to mind their mutual nudity, or was he just so comfortable with his own lack of need for clothing that he saw no harm in another, even if female, being likewise exposed?
Regardless, she wanted to know more.
She desired more, a great deal more, and did not want to leave.
But then, she did not want to abandon Metamor, the only home she had ever known.
For his part, Muri looked pensive, staring at the neatly arrayed items from his bandoleer on the table between his hands. “I… I don’t know.” He said quietly, his tail lowering behind him, not moving. “To tell you the truth, it scares me.”
Llyn leaned closer, straining to pick up his muted speech. She frowned once again at her damaged hearing, but could not curse it too badly, for otherwise she would be dead, “Metamor?”
“The people, the humans.”
“Humans?” she blinked, leaning back as she tilted her head to one side, “What of humans?”
“They caused me no end of grief, and I still have nightmares about those that hunted me for almost a year before I escaped over the mountains.”
“The humans at Metamor are different, Mur.” She offered quietly, “They will not seek to harm you. I’ve lived there my entire life, in the valley and the keep, since before the changes, and I know how they are at the Keep, and the lands that surround it.” She stood out of the chair and crossed over to stand opposite him at the table, “You will find safety and friendship there.” She said nothing of the machinations of the late Leriod, who had indeed been a human of the most repulsive kind.
Muri nodded, looking around the chamber, the only home he had known for two years. It felt like a home, but did not have any of the charm and closeness about him that a home would. It felt more like a camp, as it ever had, something temporary.
And achingly empty sometimes. So very painfully empty.
He did not want that loneliness again, no matter his other fears. He feared being alone a great deal more strongly than he feared even Lutins, or giants… or even humans. He took a long breath, closing his eyes for a moment as he contemplated his situation as it stood. Both past and present, then future.
Moving over to a shelf of stone carved into one wall, he took a leather satchel down and turned toward Llyn, on corner of his muzzle quirking, “A couple of things we must do before we go.”
Llyn beamed at him, brightening as she saw him arrive at his decision. She flicked her tail amiably from side to side as she raised her eyebrows at him inquiringly. The skunk smiled back at her, a vision which never ceased to lift her heart.
“First,” he held up the satchel, “I need a bath.” He churred heavily, “I feel like a mole… a rather smelly one at that.” Llyn laughed loudly and nodded, running a paw over her own unkempt fur. It had been over a month since she last saw even a hint of soap. For all that she was an animal, she did not have the patience or the flexibility to groom herself as a normal animal would. “And secondly, I must say farewell to a friend here.”
Llyn raised her eyebrows in surprise, “Another Lutin?” she asked with a mix of curiosity and trepidation. Muri shook his head.
“Another spirit.” He motioned with one hand back toward the dark entry to the lower caverns, “Shall we bathe, milady?”
Llyn nodded vigorously and followed.