Counter Strike

by Christian O'Kane

Misha found the Duke's audience chamber a lot more crowded then he had expected. People of all shapes, sizes and species were massed into the small room making it hard to move around. Some of the faces he recognized, others he didn’t. As he pushed his way through the throng he looked carefully at the people around him.

He noticed all the people fell into one of two categories; Keepers and visitors. It was easy to tell the difference between the two. The Keepers were all battered, worn, and weary looking. Many were wounded, some looked just tired and all looked haggard.

Standing in the center of the room, in front of the large table was the Duke. The black stallion was dressed in a hose and doublet of dark blue that looked wrinkled and worn. His mane usually carefully combed and braided was a tangled snarl. His ears were drooping forward unlike their usual perkiness. The horse looked tired. Misha was sure that the equine hadn’t slept well in many days. Few keepers had slept much over the last few days.

Flanking the Duke was Raven and Father Hough. The Follower was dressed in the simple black robes of his order, a wooden cross dangled from a simple wound string that hung around his neck. To the fox he looked to be strong and healthy. He was glad to see that the wraiths that had attacked the priest had failed. The face that smiled at him was tired and care worn in spite of its apparent youth.

The Lightbringer priestess seemed far different then he had ever seen her. It was not her dress; he had seen her wearing the fine robes of her order countless times before. The changes were more subtle; a matter of how she held herself, the wolf seemed more, open, almost warm. Her whole body wasn’t held with the same rigidity and formality that he had always seen her use. Instead she stood with softness and an ease that he had never seen with the wolf. It was a far cry from her usual cold, icy demeanor. He wondered briefly if the rumors he had heard about her and Wanderer were true. Perhaps the Ice Queen had finally found a heart. Still there was little time for such thoughts. Too much to do.

Looking about he found George standing off to one side. He was dressed in his battered plate mail armor. The jackal hadn’t even bothered to clean the blood and dirt off of it. At his hip on a fine leather belt was his cutlass and boarding dagger. The jackal looked none the worse for whole affair. He certainly looked a lot better then the first time Misha had met the old bandit. At least this time they were both on the same side in this battle.

Rois and her three students were standing off to one side, with the triplets looking around at the various folks. Colin was the first to pipe up, "There sure are a lot of people here, ne sensei?"

"Indeed," came the reply from the centauress.

Aisha, meanwhile, was watching the door, "Hey look! Here come the long scouts."

Misha gave a short nod to the centaur and her students.

Scanning the crowd of keepers he saw many that he recognized. He saw the Lord Avery and Lord Barnhardt standing side by side. That was a surprise, seeing as the two had been feuding for years over a particularly rich section of farmland. The squirrel and the salamander nodded to Misha when he looked at them. Avery was dressed in a forest green doublet and a brown pair hoses. He looked rather subdued and not his usual chipper self. Misha had heard that the Glen had survived with little damage. They had even managed to cause some havoc of their own. He wondered what type of loses they’d suffered. How many dead?

It was hard to tell what the Lord Barnhardt was thinking. The salamander was bundled up in thick furs and wool in spite of warmth of the room. Misha could understand. Reptiles don’t like cold weather. Under all that clothing it was hard to judge the nobleman’s state of mind.

Jessica and a half a dozen of the Keep’s captains and nobles who helped fill the rest of the room. All looked equally battered and worn. They moved about with the slow, irregular movements of a person who has gone beyond being tired and is only staying awake through sheer mental effort. The fox saw many familiar people, some friends others merely distant acquaintances.

He noticed the young son of Sir Philton standing nervously in one corner. The young man was barely nineteen years old and seemed ill at ease in his armor. He was talking to a burly boar whose gray bristles were liberally sprinkled with silver. This was the young knight’s first real test in battle. Although Turrel was supposedly in command Philton had sent his most experienced warrior to ‘guide’ the young knight. The domain his father ruled was a village of some two hundred people and the troop of soldiers consisted of ten soldiers leading twenty militia wielding spears, but to Misha even a group that small was a welcome addition to the army.

It took a moment of searching to find Rickkter. The raccoon was leaning into a corner, head down, probably brooding. He had a large black cloak drawn tightly about him but in spite of that Misha saw that raccoon’s fur had been cut away in several spots revealing the ugly scars of freshly healed wounds.

The visitors were easy to pick out; aside from the odd dent or tear all seemed fresh and clean and they moved about with a fresh, active gait. Some nervously looking at the room around them, others at the strange forms of the people they had come to rescue. Many stood in groups talking idly among themselves as if they were still safe in their homes, far from danger.

Many of the strangers were plain humans, obviously from the south. Some had probably come at the behest of the Lightbringers. He recognized the heraldic markings they wore and noted with some satisfaction that many noble houses were present, some quite powerful. A few he noted with satisfaction were from Marigund, his own homeland.

In the corner stood a group of four men who caught the foxes gaze. They were all dressed in black tunics, edged with silver. The rampant silver and gold griffin of Liena was boldly emblazoned on their chests.

That surprised Misha, not less then a month before the ruler of that country had been openly demanding that the ‘Demons of Metamor be cleansed from the world’. And yet now his knights stood in the same room with those demons planning to fight as allies. The fox shook his head at the incongruity of that. One of the four, obviously the leader by his bearing looked straight at Misha with a cold, hard gaze that made the vulpine shiver. He had seen more warmth and love in a lutin. He made a mental note to keep a close eye on those knights to be sure they only killed Lutins.

“Wow, everyone is here,” Caroline muttered under her breath. “Even Lord Cybury.”

Misha turned to the otter that was standing next to him and she nodded towards a corner of the room.

He looked in the direction his love indicted and saw Lord Cybury of Mycransburg talking with George. The woman’s lush, brown hair was tied in long braids that dangled around her face. Misha noted that the chain mail she was dressed in had been hastily repaired with wire in several spots and her helmet was no where to be seen. The tabard she usually wore over her armor was missing; the only traces were tattered bits of green cloth clinging to her shoulders.

Misha suddenly thought of Wessex. The Ard’Kapler family had ruled Mycransburg for generations until the entire family had been slaughtered during Nasoj’s last attack. Only Wessex had survived and he had refused to carry on the family obligations. Thomas had appointed Cybury to take over the devastated town and its holdings. He tried to understand in his mind what had happened to Wessex. From what Matthias had said the mage hadn’t died at the hands of a lutin. But nothing the rat had told him made any real sense. It didn’t bode well.

“She looks like she’s been to hell and back,” the otter commented breaking Misha’s train of thought.

“Not surprising,” Finbar said coming to stand next to Misha. “Considering how often they’ve raided her town in the past few years I’m surprised she managed to come at all.”

Misha nodded turning his mind to more pleasant thoughts. “She’s come with over a dozen knights and two score infantry. I’m pleased to see them.”

“They’re all tough fighters,” Caroline said.

“The fact that the town still stands at all is testament to that,” Misha commented. “They were among the first to arrive in response to our call for distress.”

Finbar laughed, “That has to be a first, Mycransburg riding to the Keeps rescue.”

“Misha,” Duke Thomas said beckoning the Long Scout forward. “I’m glad you’ve come.”

The fox bowed formally, “My apologies, Duke Thomas. I was seeing to my wounded.”

“No need to explain Misha,” the stallion answered. “Your Long Scouts have done a lot and paid a hard price.”

“We all have,” the fox answered, the weariness creeping in suddenly. Slowing his speech down.

The stallion pointed to the opposite end of the table. Standing there was a stranger Misha had never seen before. His bearing and demeanor told the Long Scout that he was a nobleman. His armor was made up of the finest steel hammered into large plates. The plates were carefully fitted to its wearers form, giving maximum protection and freedom of movement. This was the armor of a high nobleman. Few others could afford it. Cold, steely blue eyes stared at him from under a head of carefully combed black hair.

The large helmet that sat on the table next to him was topped by a figure of a rearing leopard edged in gold leaf. The complex heraldic pattern on his tabard was done in red, white, gold and silver and told of a long genealogy stretching over many generations. Overlaying that was a symbol resembling a gold letter E, with the points facing down to the floor. This man was a Duke at least, perhaps higher and the gold symbol meant he was of royal blood probably the third or fourth son of some king. “This is Lord Bidwell, leader of the fine knights coming to our aid.”

“Lord Bidwell this is Sir Misha Brightleaf, knight of the order of the axe and bow,” the Duke said pointing the fox. Misha gave a deep bow to the Lord who returned it with a shallow one. The nobleman looked at the fox with a cold, disdainful stare. Misha could imagine what this nobleman was thinking. The royal knight was dressed in the finest armor and clothes imaginable and he had just been introduced to a dirty, scruffy, gamey smelling animal-man dressed in battered chain mail. Misha looked more like a bandit then a knight of high rank and birth.

“What have you learned about Nasoj’s forces?” Thomas asked.

“So far I’ve identified twenty lutin tribes and I estimate there was at least four thousand Lutins, and some four hundred human troops involved in the attack.” He spread a map open on the table for all to see. He weighted it down on either end with daggers to keep it from rolling back up. “There is no organized resistance south of Giant’s Dike. All we’ve found is a few scattered bands of stragglers, all headed north.”

He tapped a line on the map that represented the dike, his finger touching the center of that old Sueilman earthworks. “Nasoj has mustered an army of around two thousand. So far he hasn’t moved south of the Dike but he’s driven off all our efforts to move north of it. Most likely he’s trying to buy time for reinforcements.”

Lord Bidwell nodded his head. “A sound strategy. What’s the composition of his troops?”

“At least two thousand Lutins, some forty ogres, four giants and at least three hundred humans, mostly infantry,” the fox answered. “I don’t know how many more forces are moving south to reinforce them but sources estimate at least another thousand will be there within two weeks.”

“What sources?” a knight standing near Bidwell asked.

“We have identified a force of some three hundred Lutins mounted on a mix of dire wolves and ponies camped at Massacre rock,” the fox said ignoring the question.

“Sir Ellingwood asked you a question,” Lord Bidwell said in a cold, domineering tone.

“I heard him,” Misha answered in clipped tones, edged with anger. Caroline and Finbar shifted nervously, they knew what that tone of voice meant.

“Then answer him,” the nobleman commanded.

Misha’s ears flattened against his skull and he bared his teeth as he opened his mouth to answer but Caroline spoke first. “Most information is from the Keeps own scouts plus others.”

“By others you mean spies,” Ellingwood said, the contempt plain for all to hear.

Thomas rapped on the table with the hilt of a dagger silencing everyone. “Where the information comes from is of no concern as long as it’s accurate.”

“How do we know it’s accurate?” Lord Ellingwood asked. “False reports have destroyed other armies.”

“My scouts are the finest in the world,” Misha said mixing pride, anger and pain.

“If they’re so good,” the knight asked. “How is it that you didn’t see the attack coming until those monsters were climbing the walls?”

Misha’s ears laid back and he uttered a deep, animal growl and his hackles rose up as rage boiled through him. He slammed his gauntleted right fist into the table and the loud crack of wood splitting echoed through the room making everyone jump. Then just as quickly, his whole body sagged in despair. Without a word he turned and walked to the window. Looking out he could see the charred remains of the lower ward. Smoke still curled up in places. A monument to his own failure.

A deathly silence fell over the room and no one moved or spoke for a long time.

“The most dangerous enemy isn’t the one in front of you but the one behind you,” Father Hough said finally breaking the silence.

The cold, calculated look of the royal lord disappeared, replaced by surprise and shock. “I apologize for my knights rude question, we meant no harm,” he said with genuine feeling.

“You couldn’t know,” the fox answered in a whisper. “No one did. Not even me, but I should have.”

“What does the valley north of here look like?” George said, his soft words booming loudly throughout the room. Several people jumped at the jackals voice. “How much damage did they do?”

No one spoke for a moment, unsure of what to say or do. The jackal turned to his friend, “MISHA!” he shouted. “What does the rest of the valley look like?”

“George,” Caroline started to say.

“THE DEAD ARE DEAD. Now isn’t the time to worry about past mistakes,” the jackal snapped back harshly. “We need to worry about the living.”

Misha sighed with resignation. His friend was right. There would be time for guilt and second guessing later. “Majority of the towns and villages survived. Most only suffered minor attacks and raids. Only one town was destroyed; Tarrelton. It was leveled completely.”

“It was in the line of march,” George commented. “It’s on the Sueilman road just north of here. The Lutins had to pass through it to get to the Keep.”

“What about the people there?” Hough asked.

“Most were taken captive,” Misha explained. “Cavalry caught some twenty human slavers trying to take the townsfolk north.”

Ellingwood shook his head in disgust. “Slavers,” he said in disgust. “They should be hanged.”

“I slit the throats of the ones stupid enough to surrender,” George commented cheerfully. “Is that close enough?”

The knight looked at the jackal with pure horror on his face.

“This is a fight to the death,” Caroline said in a voice as cold as a tomb answering the knights unasked question. “Anyone who fights for Nasoj deserves no mercy. Even a quick death is too good for them.”

“Everyone deserves mercy,” Lord Bidwell said.

The otter slammed her fist onto the table, making everyone jump. “NOT THEM!” she screamed shaking with rage.

The man just stared at the otter in surprise, his jaw hanging open. The change in her was so fast and total that it scared him.

“You are not aware of the evils Nasoj and his minions have done,” Thomas said calmly. “Any who work for Nasoj have no honor and are the vilest of humanity.”

“The leader of Nasoj’s army is Baron Calephas,” Misha said without turning from the window.

Bidwell stiffened noticeably. That was a name he knew all too well.

“I thought he was dead,” someone asked.

“Oh no,” Thomas commented. “He has the disturbing habit of surviving.”

“We’ll kill him,” Caroline said calmly, in an iron hard voice. No one doubted that she truly meant it.

“Back to my question,” George said calmly. “What about the valley north of the Keep? What about Mallen, Mycransburg, Lord Barnhardt’s castle, Glen Avery? And what about Outpost?”

“All were attacked to one degree or another,” Misha explained as he returned to his place at the table. “Mallen was hit hard as was Glen Avery but most of the damage was material. The flames from Mallen were seen in Mycransburg and the defenders beat them off easily.”

“We were attacked by over two hundred Lutins and killed half of them,” Lord Cybury explained. “The rest fled but most didn’t get very far. It would have been a hard fight if they hadn’t been all dead drunk.”

“Drunk?” Thomas asked, incredulously.

The woman nodded. “It seems the first thing they attacked in Mallen was Briar’s brewery.”

“Evil always destroys itself,” someone intoned.

“Not always,” George added. “Sometimes we have to help them along a little.”

“What we need to decide,” the Duke said. “Is what our next move will be.”

“We attack,” Misha said calmly. “We take our army north of the Dike and kill as many Lutins as possible.”

“This won’t be a leisurely hunt out in the woods,” Bidwell said sarcastically. “This will be a bloody fight.”

“A campaign in this terrible a winter will be almost impossible,” Ellingwood commented. “Not everyone has the luxury of having a fur coat covering them. We’ll loose more to the cold then to Nasoj. And Calephas may be a monster but he will stand and fight.”

“I am fully aware of the problems of fighting in winter,” the fox answered. “But we can’t wait till spring. If we want to break Nasoj’s hold over the Lutins we need to hit them now, while the memories of their dead and his defeat are fresh in their minds.”

Misha noted that many of the people in the room nodded in agreement, both keeper and visitor alike. “But Lord Ellingwood is right. This winter is too terrible to be out in for long.”

“A short strike,” Lord Bidwell suggested. “A fast move north to deal with that monster Calephas and his army.”

“Agreed,” Thomas said nodding his head. “That should disrupt Nasoj and cause panic among the Lutins.”

“There’s already panic among most of the Lutins,” the fox commented. “One more defeat will permanently destroy his hold over them.”

“We can keep him off balance till spring with raids and skirmishes,” George commented.

“We’ll need to concentrate on Nasoj and what tribes he manages to keep loyal,” Misha added.

“Will many betray him and desert?” Bidwell asked.

“Most will,” the fox explained. “This is the second time Nasoj has promised them a major victory over us and failed. I doubt if he’ll be able to keep a quarter of the tribes loyal. Lutins respect power alone and will only follow a leader who wins.”

“Nasoj hasn’t given them the easy victory and plunder he promised,” Finbar added.

“This time he attacked us with some four thousand Lutins,” Misha said. “Eight years ago he attacked us with an army five times that size.”

“Most of the greenies decided to stay warm at home this time,” Finbar snickered.

“And who says Lutins are stupid,” George commented sarcastically.

“The plan, is to head north clearing any remaining Lutins south of Giants Dike,” Thomas announced. “Then destroy the Baron’s army before it can be reinforced to any substantial degree in one massive strike. For this we’ll need the entire army.”

“I agree and disagree,” Rickkter said stepping out of the corner. “True, we need to hit Nasoj now before he can recover. Waiting till spring will be too late but maneuvering a force of several thousand in the snow and mud will be a difficult task. We’ve learned from prisoners taken their army suffered almost thirty pre cent losses just on the way down here, and they were protected from the worst effects of the snows by their mages. A better strategy would be a small strike force mounted on dragons. Such a force would be small, fast and hard hitting. Attack critical outposts, supply lines, and targets of opportunity. Give them reason to fear us. I’ve done similar raids before and they are devastating.”

“Too small,” Misha countered flatly. “Even mounted on dragons a small force can only do so much damage. The baron could scatter his forces into the woods and we wouldn’t kill even a quarter of them.”

“Dragons?” said one of the knights of Liena, speaking for the first time. There was surprise in his voice and on his face. Surprise and a tinge of fear. “How many dragons does the Keep have?”

“At least three,” Rickkter answered. “And one who’s a dragon part time.”

“Part time?” the knight asked, confused.

“That’s Cerulean,” Caroline explained. “He was born a dragon but the curse effected him in a strange way. During the day he’s a dragon. At night he changes at random.”

“Strange magic,” someone muttered.

“The strange is normal at Metamor.”

“Metamor IS strange.”

“What forces can Metamor muster?” Ellingwood asked.

“Four hundred, twelve knights, squires, sergeants and men at arms all mounted,” Thomas answered. “Plus sixteen hundred infantry including some two hundred archers, the rest sword, spear and pike armed. Plus another two hundred or so scouts.”

“Also three dragons and forty five other flyers including eagles, hawks and a griffon,” Thalberg added.

“I have at my command eight hundred, fifty seven knights and men at arms and two thousand, four hundred, fifteen foot soldiers,” Lord Bidwell explained. “We also bring with us twelve knights of the feather and claw.”

Misha was impressed. It was rare indeed for those gryphon riding knights to stray this far north.

“Scouts will be the most important part,” George announced. “They’ll be a lot of loose bands of Lutins drifting about. Not really loyal to Nasoj but looking for any opportunity for plunder.”

“Brigands,” Bidwell muttered. “They follow any army like scavenging jackals.”

George gave a small growl and Bidwell looked at him with unabashed embarrassment. “My apologies Sir,” he said to the black backed jackal morph.

“The army will be dived into three parts,” Thomas said calmly. “Moving half a days march ahead of the main body will be an advanced force of one hundred. Their job will be break up any roadblocks or ambushes set to catch the main body. Surrounding the both the main force and the advanced force will be a screen of scouts.”

“We should have a force of knights and infantry,” Bidwell said, “separate from the main body. So that if the scouts find a band of brigands they can move against it without having to wait for orders. With bandits you have to move fast before they run away.”

George nodded in agreement. “You have to hit them hard and fast. We’ll need an experienced and skillful man leading the advanced group. Someone who knows bandit fighting and won’t go blindly charging into the first trap the Lutins set.”

“I know someone,” Ellingwood commented, ignoring the implied insult. Many knight’s limited knowledge of tactics could be summed up in one phrase - There’s the enemy. CHARGE! Most didn’t live long enough to understand the depth of their stupidity. “A courageous fighter but one who knows the wisdom of caution. Sir Edmund Delacot has survived many an attempted ambush by brigands.”

“We can have the Long scouts nominally attached to Sir Delacot. They’ll be moving ahead on their own removing any trouble before it can occur,” Thomas said interrupting the two.

“I’ll give him some of my regular scouts to help,” the jackal said. “They are going to need the extra sword arms.”

Thomas nodded. “Good idea. Misha how many Longs can you deploy?”

All eyes turned to fox who was standing by the windows staring out to the town below.

“I want to take War Wolf and her three sisters with us,” Misha announced suddenly as if he had not heard the stallions question.

“You want to take what?” Thalberg asked, surprised.

“War Wolf,” the fox answered.

“No,” Thomas replied in a firm tone. “I will not see that used.”

“Who is War Wolf?” Ellingwood asked.

“What is War Wolf?” Bidwell asked.

“If we wish to destroy Nasoj’s hold on the north we need its potent magic to break down the walls of his strongholds,” the fox said.

“NO!” Both Raven and Thomas shouted in unison.

“We won’t use it,” Misha said. “The Baron has been building fortifications and there are at least two large castles he can fall back on. If he gets in those he can hold us off easily for months. That will give Nasoj plenty of time to send reinforcements. But with the threat of War Wolf he HAS to come out and fight an open battle.”

“That thing is an abomination,” Thalberg said. “It should have been destroyed long ago.”

“It CAN’T be destroyed,” the fox countered. “That’s why we need it. Even if Calephas does decide to hold up in a castle The Wolf will easily destroy it. One way or another, it will help defeat the Baron.”

“WHAT IS WAR WOLF?” Ellingwood screamed.

“Evil,” Raven intoned solemnly.

“Evil is in the application, not the device,” Rickkter countered. “The Baron must realize that his army stands no chance in open battle. His best chance is to tie us down to a siege. But with War Wolf a castle will become a death trap. He has no choice but to fight an open battle.”

“Cities have been destroyed by it,” Raven countered.

“That’s just my point,” Misha retorted as he walked back to the table. “Just the rumor we have War Wolf will empty most castles. If we wish to really destroy Nasoj we need its power.”

“There are many ways to take a castle. You took Stepping Rock without it,” Thomas commented.

“That was when I had fourteen Longs,” the vulpine replied. “After this disaster we simply don’t have the strength anymore. We need The Wolf. I know how the Baron thinks. He won’t fight an open battle if he can avoid it. We have to draw the bastard out into the open to kill him.”

“It will provide the extra edge we need. And this time they will be expecting such an assault. Baron Calephas is many things but not a fool. He will be prepared for another such attack,” Rickkter commented.

Misha tapped a spot on the map about two days ride north of the Keep. “That is Ithicaelle Naghim – Wraiths stronghold. It was from here that the army that invaded the keep came from.”

George nodded in agreement. “It’s been a major base of power for Nasoj for over a decade. From there he dominates most of the southern Giantdowns.”

“If we destroy it all the southern tribes will surely rebel and his hold over the region will be broken permanently,” Misha added. “Until now it’s been too strong for us to attack. With this army we can lay siege to it and with War Wolf we can knock down it’s walls and take it.”

“That artifact is an evil that needs to destroyed,” Raven said calmly. “Nothing but pain and destruction follow it.”

“War Wolf has the power we need,” the fox said coldly. “Without it a lot more Keepers will die.”

Thomas closed his eyes and was quiet for a long time. When he opened his eyes again he seemed to stare past the vulpine and out the window. “I will need to think longer on using that item,” he intoned in a deep tone.

“When do we leave?” George asked. “There is the Curse.”

“The day after tomorrow,” Jessica answered, speaking for the first time. “Moving at a good pace should put the army north of Giants Dike and out of the range of the curse before it can effect anyone.”

Thomas looked at Lord Bidwell who nodded in reply. “Good,” the stallion said. “Then the advanced force will leave before dawn with the army itself following at noon.”

Misha nodded. “And then we can get down to the business of killing.”

Walking back to their rooms, Drake walked ahead of the group suddenly, then stopped and turned, "Sensei, we want to go on this mission."

Rois stopped, staring at Drake, then scowled, "No. You three aren't ready for this kind of mission yet."

"Sensei," piped up Colin, "excuse me, but I disagree. Didn't we prove ourselves during the fighting here in the Keep?"

"That was fighting indoors," countered Rois, "with the variable geometry of the Keep on your side."

It was Aisha's turn to speak now, "But sensei, they'll need all the help they can get. And our magic could be very useful in this battle."

“Aisha does have a point there,” Rakurai interjected, privately to Rois’ mind without speaking. “Their magic is quite powerful, it may even be a deciding factor in this battle, but only if you let them go.”

“Rakurai, they're only children! You're saying I should send children into battle?” the centauress thought back. While Rois was having her own inner dialogue with the other mind that shares her body, the triplets stood there, looking expectantly at Rois for her reply.

“They may be children, but to not use such power as they have in this battle would be foolhardy,” retorted the mental voice of the unicorn.

"Sensei," said Drake, "we won't take no for an answer."

Rois smirked, "Fine, I'll ask Misha about it, but if he says no, I will hear no more about it, understand?" The three nodded in agreement. "Get off back to your rooms then, and I'll go ask Mr. Brightleaf."

The private chambers of Duke Thomas were quiet, neat and orderly. Lord Philip Bidwell found that reassuring in light of the destruction he had seen elsewhere. At least this one little piece of the Keep had escaped destruction.

“It’s very good to have you here Philip,” Thomas said as he took a seat in a large, plush chair. “We couldn’t have survived without your help.”

“I’m delighted to have helped defeat Nasoj again,” the Lord replied taking a seat opposite the equine.

Thomas fell silent as the steward came into the room bearing trays of wine and food. Philip took a cup of wine and some of the cheese from the silent steward. The Duke took a large cup but didn’t drink. Instead he just stared at the back of the retreating steward. He continued to look at the closed door the boy had gone through until Bidwell spoke.

“How are you feeling Tom?” the man asked, concerned.

The stallion sighed loudly. “They were identical brothers and BOTH had been working here for months before we realized there were two of them. Now one of them is dead.”

“Do you know how many were killed?” Philip asked in a soft tone.

“We are still counting but I believe around one in fifteen.”

“Good Lord, that could be mean over a thousand dead.”

Thomas nodded grimly in agreement.

“We will get revenge for their deaths.”

“No,” The Duke countered. “Revenge is hollow. I won’t see one more of my people killed for something as worthless as revenge.”

“The otter and the fox don’t seem to think so,” Philip countered. “She wants to kill every lutin in the world and Misha would help her every step of the way.”

“Caroline has a very good reason for her hatred,” the horse morph said. “She was captured several months ago by Lutins loyal to Nasoj.” His voice faltered. “The physical wounds healed quickly enough but wounds of the heart heal slower. Misha had only just agreed to let her go back on patrol when Nasoj attacked.”

Bidwell shook his head. “The evil of Nasoj never fails to surprise me.”

Misha wandered down one of the numberless hallways of the keep, his mind on the battle before him.

A female voice said, "You know it's going to be a massacre, don't you? Always is when that thing is involved, isn't it?" Rois was standing there in the hallway, but her three students were nowhere to be seen.

"What thing?" the fox asked. "You mean War Wolf?"

"Yes," she replied, "War Wolf."

"This is war, and there's already been a massacre. Right here at Metamor."

She sighed and nodded slowly, "Yes, I's never pretty, is it?"

He just nodded as well. "This coming campaign will be a nasty one."

"Yes it will... Aisha, Drake, and Colin have told me that they refuse to be left out of this battle," the centauress replied, with an indeterminate expression on her face.

"Children have no place on a battle field," said the fox, "But - I've heard about the magic they wielded defending our home."

Rois nodded, "They are all three strong mages, apart they are decent, but together, they are quite formidable. They've surprised me many times over with how quickly they learn and how powerful their magic can be."

She paused for a few moments, then continued. "They may be children, but to not use such power," she trailed off, sighing again, her tail swishing agitatedly, "We need to use everything we have."

"It's dangerous for children to have such power," came the vulpine's retort.

"Quite... the only thing we can do is to teach them how to use it wisely... teach them restraint, compassion..."

Misha simply pondered for a moment before speaking, "My heart tells me to keep them safe here at the Keep, but we need every bit of help we can get." He then continued in a whisper, "Children, God help me, I'm sending children into battle."

Rois nodded slowly, tears slowly starting to run down her face, she quickly wiped them away.

"What magic will they be able to use?" Misha asked.

"They," she sniffed, her nose running slightly from the tears, "know mostly elemental spells. However, Colin has his mental powers, and Aisha has a knack for weather, though she still needs to work on control."

Misha then asked a question which made Rois stop and ponder, "They can summon an elemental?"

Rois stood there, blinking for a while, then finally replied, "I think it may be possible, yes, though they haven't done it yet. Such a spell would normally only be used in desperation, as it is very draining."

"What we need is killing power," he says. ""We need magic that can knock down castle walls and kill soldiers." While he was speaking, Rois walked slowly towards the fox, until she was standing right in front of him.

Rois nodded slowly, "They can do it, I'm sure... I..." Her tears started running again. She quickly wiped them from her face, and sniffed.

"This won't be easy. For any of us."

"I know, Misha." She stamped a hoof in annoyance, "Dammit, I'm sorry for crying like this Misha. I'm just afraid. Both afraid that they will be traumatized by this, and yet afraid that they won't. That'll they'll just kill without feeling, and never think twice about it. I... I love those three like they were my own."

The fox didn't answer at first but stared off into space, "How old are they?" he queried, seemingly out of the blue. "I killed my first person at age 16," the fox admitted before Rois could reply.

"I'm sorry. "

"A knight from the kingdom of Selerna at the Battle of Blue river."

"How did you feel at the time?" she asked.

"Sick, excited, and God help me, proud. But I adapted, and realized that there was no choice. It was war, and if I hadn't killed him he would have killed me or one of my friends. I'm good at killing, but I've never grown to love it."

The centauress nodded, "I guess that's what matters, isn't it?"

"True," he looked up at Rois, "One day we'll be rid of Nasoj and then perhaps we can live in peace."

"I look forward to that day as well." Rois then leaned down and gave Misha a quick hug.

The surprised fox returned the hug, "They'll turn out fine. They've had a good teacher."

That elicited both a smile and a slight blush at the compliment from Rois, "Thank you."

Misha smiled -- for the first time in many days.

The grounds they were walking on were as familiar to the Scouts as the backs of their hands. In better days it had played host to countless fairs, tournaments and celebrations over the years. It was here that Meredith had seen his sister get married under a bright summer sun. It was here during a summer fair eleven years ago that Alec had proposed to Lisa. A scant few months ago Misha and Caroline had flirted and snuggled together under the moonlight after winning the archery tournaments. It was where they had seen Matthias take part in a joust. All held fond memories of this field and the things that had happened there.

The land at the foot of the Keep in those days was usually covered with bright tents and filled with people moving about laughing and relaxing. The tents that were there now were just as brightly colored and the ground once covered with soft white snow was now churned to a sea of mud. But the people that moved about weren’t here for fun nor were they relaxed. They moved about with a quick gait that spoke of nervousness and a dislike of their surroundings. A glum and nervous atmosphere hung over the place like a fog that had rolled down from the north.

In front of one tent two men in full plate mail armor sparred with each other. Their blows were swift and aimed to hit the other but measured to not cause harm to either. The ringing sound of the sword striking sword or armor sounded like the hammer blows of a smith working on an anvil.

Nearby a group of pikemen drilled in close ordered ranks, their bodies moving about in perfect symphony as if all forty shared but one mind. The fine, steel points of their pikes wavered not an inch as they moved. Sure signs of well trained and experienced troops.

Misha, Caroline, Padraic, Finbar and Danielle were at the head of a group of twenty scouts. All moved slowly using the care and caution they would have used if this camp had been full of Lutins instead of humans. No one felt comfortable. Misha couldn’t help but notice the looks they were getting from the soldiers around them. The once steady pikemen now hesitated and faltered and heads twisted and craned to look at the keepers. Their minds no longer on the drill but the strange animal men that walked nearby. The duelists had stopped their play fighting and now stood openly gawking. They were the only Keepers in sight, everyone else was a human up from the south. Visitors and Keepers alike uneasy about this alliance. Neither was sure if Nasoj was the only enemy.

“How far to the tent?” Finbar asked.

“Too far,” Caroline muttered under her breath.

“Caroline,” Misha said calmly. “These people are here as our friends.”

Finbar looked at a group of ten knights who were training with swords. Dressed in full armor and each carrying a long sword in one hand and a large shield in the other. Paired off against each other they sparred back and forth. They stopped and starred at the Keepers in undisguised hatred. “Tell them that.”

Suddenly one the flap of a tent flew open and a figure stepped out. He was dressed in the armor of a full knight. “Sir Terrant. I ordered you to conduct more training not gawk like little children.”

One of the knights saluted, “Yes sir.” The knights again resumed their practice but most seemed more interested in watch the keepers then in fighting.

Misha turned away from the knights and looked at the man who had given the orders. His armor was plate mail like Lord Bidwell and perfectly clean, pristine, devoid of the slightest dent or scratch. Hanging from a plain, brown leather belt was an equally plain scabbard. The hilt that protruded from the scabbard was made simple wood devoid of any decoration.

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. The scout couldn’t see the man’s face because of the great helm that covered his whole head.

“My name is Sir Edmond Delacot. Protector of the innocent and defender of the faithful and a Knight of the Order of the Protectors,” the figure intoned coldly.

“Terrific,” Finbar said sarcastically as he walked up to stand next to his leader. “A Paladin. As if we don’t have enough problems.”

“Sir?” the paladin scowled at the ferret, “Who might you be?”

Danielle cut off Finbar’s retort with a sharp jab of her elbow.

“He is Finbar, a fine and courageous soldier in the Dukes service,” Misha answered. Then he bowed to Delacot. “My name good sir, is Misha Brightleaf, Knight of the order of the axe and bow.”

The armored paladin looked at the fox morph standing in front of him. Misha was dressed in chain mail armor that had been covered with camouflage colored cloth. A large hood dangled down from the back. In his hands was a tremendous, jet black double bladed battleaxe. Misha could imagine what was going through his mind. “Sir,” he said and gave a shallow bow. “I’ve come at the behest of High Canon Elsdon who wished to help against the great evil,” the paladin answered without showing the slightest trace of any emotion, not even surprise at being approached by such an odd group.

Misha extended his hand in greeting. “It’s a great pleasure to meet you Sir.”

The knight extended his own hand without any reluctance and the two shook hands. The paladin’s grip was strong without being overpowering, just enough to hint at the strength in his muscles. “It’s a pleasure to meet you at last Sir Misha. And Lord Bidwell has informed me of our partnership in the upcoming campaign.

A figure pushed its way to the forward to stand next to Misha. The short mongoose was dressed in leather armor, studded with steel studs. He was wearing brown leather boots and a wool jerkin decorated with the rearing horse emblem of the Duke. The fox recognized that the Mustelid was dressed in the uniform of a common foot soldier in the service of the Duke. The only thing missing was the usual short sword. But with the two-inch long claws that were attached to the mongoose’s gloves a sword wasn’t really needed.

“A real paladin?” the mongoose asked with awe in his voice.

“Oh yeah, Arister,” Finbar said sarcastically.

Danielle poked the ferret hard in the ribs again silencing him. “He has been gracious enough to help us. The least you can do is be polite.”

“Polite?” Caroline asked. “Why should he be polite to strangers when he’s never been polite to his fellow keepers?”

The paladin ignored the ferret and turned to Arister. “I have had the privilege of being in the Great One’s service for ten years.”

“We’re here to help train your people in fighting Lutins,” Misha explained. “Also seeing as you will be leading the advance elements we need to coordinate your troops and my scouts.”

“My people are already accomplished fighters,” Sir Edmund countered. “They have defeated many enemies.”

“Not Lutins,” Finbar interjected.

“We have fought in countless battles and Sir Edmund alone was responsible for defeating the King Carlisle in battle during the battle of Red Brook,” a figure asked as it walked up to the group. Misha saw that it was the tall knight called Sir Terrant.

“Fighting humans is on thing one,” Misha explained. “But it means little when you’re fight Lutins. Perhaps a small demonstration? I can see exactly how good you really are.”

The people quickly spread out and stepped back forming a ragged circle of open ground. Standing on opposite sides of this circle stood Misha and Sir Edmund. The paladin was still dressed in his plate mail armor to which had been added a large kite shield that alone covered two thirds of his body. In his right hand was a broad sword with a blade that was three feet long.

Misha had striped off his armor and wore only the pants and leggings aside from his gauntlets. For weapons he carried a long sword in his left hand and a dagger in the other. “To first blood?” the fox asked as he nonchalantly flexed his arms and legs.

Edmund nodded in agreement. “If need be I can provide healing should the wounds prove deep.”

The fox didn’t answer but continued to stretch and flex his long legs and arms ignoring the implied threat and warning. He even went so far as to turn his back on the knight.

“Ready?” Sir Terrant asked to the vulpine’s back.

“Ready,” Misha replied without turning around.

The knight looked to the paladin.

“I am ready,” he said answering the unasked question.

Terrant looked at Misha again who had stopped his movements and was calmly examining his dagger in an almost casual manner.

“What are you waiting for?” Caroline asked from the sidelines.

Sir Terrant looked from fox to otter and then back again. “Begin,” he finally said.

Sir Edmund almost missed it. One moment Misha was just standing awaiting the order and next the morph had sprinted the fifteen feet distance between them and was lunging at him with both sword and dagger.

The scout’s long sword brushed aside Edmunds large shield as the dagger drove straight for his face. Backpedaling the warrior was barely able to dodge the blade as it slid past his check, missing the skin by mere inches. He lashed out with own sword but the lithe fox easily avoided the blade. Rather then press his advantage Misha retreated just as quickly as he had attacked.

Then the scout relaxed and planting the point of his sword in the earth and leaning on it he announced, “I win.”

“WHAT?” Edmund blurted out.

“Look at your ankle,” the fox explained.

Looking down the paladin saw a small puncture in the armor plate protecting his right leg. A small trickle of blood came from the opening. “How?”

Misha lifted up his left foot revealing the short blade attached to the tip of his boot. “First blood goes to me.”

“THAT’S NOT FAIR!” Terrant shouted. “That’s hardly a wound. It’s a mere scratch.”

“A scratch could kill,” Finbar commented. “If the blade that made it was poisoned or smeared with shit.”

The color drained from Terrant’s face and he moved forward towards Edmund but a wave of the hand from Misha stopped him.

“No need to worry. The only thing on the blade was a little rust,” he said as he walked up to the paladin. “Lutins don’t fight fair. They use every dirty, nasty, little trick they can come up with. And smearing all sorts of nasty and poisonous things on their weapons is one of their favorites.”

“Along with ambushes, traps and assassinations,” Caroline added.

“You may fight with honor,” Misha explained. “But Lutins never will. They’re hardly the craven little cowards most fairly tales make them out to be.”

Edmund nodded solemnly, “these are the creatures who destroyed the Sueilman empire and over-ran the entire Midlands.”

“They’re vicious, nasty and tricky. They’re also hardy, tough, creative, imaginative and hard working when they want to be. But above all else they are survivors. Lutins have survived catastrophes that would have wiped out the human race long ago.”

“The Lutins will fight,” Misha explained, “but they won’t make an open stand. They’ll fight a thousand little ambushes and sneak attacks. They’ll slaughter anyone foolish enough to walk around alone and at night they’ll try and sneak in and slit the throats of the sleeping.”

“They might fight like thieves but we don’t,” Terrant said.

“True,” Edmund added. “But we must learn how to defeat such thieves.”

“Lutins can be defeated. We’ve been doing it for centuries,” Caroline commented.

“Then we have a lot to learn and little time to learn it in,” the paladin said.

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