As Copernicus expected, Christopher was the last to arrive to the meeting. The bear collapsed into a seat at the end of the table, breathing hard. "Pardon, all. I was..." He looked at Copernicus, whose expression clearly demonstrated that it mattered not why the tutor was behind schedule. Christopher stopped and coughed once, waving a paw dismissively. "Fine. Please, begin."
Copernicus nodded once, then looked around the room at the assembled company. Bryan sat, or perhaps coiled would be a better term, at Copernicus' left, arms in front of him, hands clasped, waiting. Matthias sat next to him, gnawing on one of his sticks, looking bored. Christopher sat at the end, breathing heavily and carrying one of his journals. Next to him sat Landon, a tall thin grey foxmorph who had fought at the Battle of Three Gates. He kept mostly to himself when not on duty, though the lizardmorph had seem him in the Mule on occasion talking with the bear.
After casting his gaze once around the group, Copernicus nodded to himself. "Pardon for calling you all here this late, but an issue has arisen that should be handled as soon as possible. Bryan?" The lizard sat at the head of the table and nodded to the cobramorph.
Bryan raised himself up to a higher position, his equivalent of standing up. "I've jusst returned from the Giantdownss," he started in his soft, silibant voice. "There sseeemss to be a growing Lutin encampment lesss than three dayss' ride from the Keep. It lookss to be almost ssemi-permanent. Tentss have been esstablished and sssome primitive barricadess built." He moved back from the table and, uncoiling his full length, approached a map of the areas surrounding the keep. With a thin hand, the touched the map to the north and east of the keep. "Here."
Copernicus grimaced. "That's too well-guarded from the rear to have been an accidental choice. That says that probably someone else chose it. But whom?"
Bryan shrugged. "I didn't get closse enough to ssee, but I didn't ssmell anything but lutinss in the area. No ssign of aught elsse." He shrugged, his hood opening partially in irritation.
Christopher cleared his throat uneasily. "So, I take it that you want us to clear house, then?"
The lizard nodded. "That would be correct. Bryan's seen the area so he'll be your scout. Landon, you're trained in close combat. At the moment, most of the guard is aiding with the Festival, so I'll be accompanying you. Christopher, you're magical backup."
Matthias twitched his whiskers irritably. "And I? You know my feelings."
Copernicus frowned. "I also know that Lord Thomas has said that all who stay here, with a few noted exceptions, are to carry arms in defense of the keep. I don't recall you being on that list."
Matthias bristled and rose. "That's sidestepping the issue. Just because I'm capable of carrying a sword doesn't make capable of using it." He slammed his stick against the table. "Of what possible service could I be?"
"Word of that incident in the cellar has gotten around, Matthias. You were requested for this job," The lizard admitted a little reluctantly.
"Well, tell whomever did so that I can't do this. I've sworn ne'er to take another life. Do you know what that means to me?" He was clearly agitated, his fur standing on end.
Copernicus spoke softly. "And if the lutins build a force large enough to threaten the keep... and Lady Kimberly's safety? If you won't do this by order of the Duke, will you do it for her protection?"
Matthias did not say anything but just suddenly put his stick back to his incisors. He chewed for a moment, and then put one paw to his face. In a hoarse whisper he murmured, "All right, for Lady Kimberly then."
Christoper cleared his throat, trying to bring the conversation back to its origins. "You know that my skills aren't up to, say, Posti or Magus. Why send me, if you wish magical support?"
At that, Bryan spoke again, ticking off his points on his nimble fingers. "You've sspent more time in the field than either of them. If it sshould become necesssary, you can raisse a ssword in your own defensse. And their talentss will be needed here in casse we fail to return."
The bear swallowed hard. "I like the sound of that not at all. However, like Matthias, I probably have no other alternative. Ergo, I look forward to the adventure." He smiled gamely.
Copernicus chuckled. "I'd like to be out at first light. The sooner this problem is dispatched, the less worried I think we all will be." He looked pointedly at the bear. "That means first light, not first bell." The bear looked a trifle embarrassed, but nodded.
The assembled group nodded, and the lizard sighed. "I hate sending war parties into the field, but 'tis necessary to protect the keep. Gods be with us all, and bring us home safely." He rose, and the group scattered to make preparations for the coming battle.
After three days of steady walking, the lutin camp became visible: an array of small tents at the base of a cliff opposite a steep hill. We secured ourselves and observed the lutins running through drills. From Bryan's hissing sigh it was obvious that the force had grown in the six days since last he saw the camp. I grimaced. Five against thirty with magical support wasn't bad. Five against fifty would be dangerous. But if we went back for reinforcements, their numbers would increase yet again. We needed to act, now.
Bryan looked at the four of us, his small arms tucked against his sides. "I'm open to ssuggesstionss."
I looked at Matthias. "I fear you'll need to use that." I pointed to his sword. "Or whate'er else talents you have." His whiskers twitched irritably, but he said nothing. He had been that way since we left the keep. He'd said barely a word, and even then only in short sentences and very briefly.
Landon looked at me and smirked. "So, Chris. What's up your sleeve to even out these odds?"
All eyes turned to me expectantly. I sighed. "My magical talents aren't--"
Copernicus held up a scaled hand to forestall any complaints. "I would not have brought you if I did not think you up to the task. Now, please stop stalling. Can you do anything to help prior or is this to be up close and messy?"
I raised my monocle and studied first the camp, then the cliff. A few weeds grew unnaturally from its face. "I can perchance bring the cliff down on top of them, cutting their numbers. If you are ready to charge just after the dust settles, they should be offguard and easier to cut down. 'Tis the best I can offer without longer preparation."
The lizard nodded. "It shall have to do, then." He turned to the others. "Bryan, approach from the west, and wait for our warcry. With luck, that should provide you ample targets. Landon, Matthias, with me. And Matthias, your sword will be needed. Chris, behind us. Close only if necessary." He scanned over our eyes, and found readiness. "To battle, then."
Bryan turned and slithered silently into the rocks, vanishing from sight within moments. As quietly as possible, the rest of us descended back down the hill and advanced around it until we faced the lutin camp. Fortunately, the lutins were living down to their reputation and had posted no sentries. Our approach went unnoticed.
Copernicus tapped me on the shoulder and nodded. Time to begin. I reached out with my mind, seeking faults in the rocks. I grasped along the cliff face, tracing out the roots of what scrub grew from it, searching for weak spots. Slowly, I pulled, sheared, rent, trying to create a rockslide.
My already blurry vision began to grey out when a low rumbling started. I felt something give in the rocks and pushed harder, gasping for breath as dust fell from the rocks. A few lutins looked up and began to shout in their gutteral tongue as small rocks began to rain down. From one of the larger tents, a skeletal lutin in ornate headdress emerged, carrying a staff covered in crude carvings. It looked up and screamed as with a last shove the cliff face descended onto the lutin camp as a rockslide.
Roughly half the lutins, those currently drilling and arguing, escaped the landslide but the remainder were crushed under the rocks. I slumped against a fair-sized outcropping as Copernicus drew his sword and, with a raucous yell, charged the remaining lutins. I watched as he, Landon and Matthias waded into combat, hacking at the smallish beasts. I saw no sign of Bryan but on occasion I heard a strangled gurgle as the cobramorph's toxin took effect in some foul creature's body.
So weary and distracted was I by my earlier efforts that I lost sight of the one in the headpiece, until I heard an odd chanting behind me. I turned and drew my sword to strike as something hard and oily struck me in the shoulder. I saw the skeletal lutin hopping about and gibbering insanely. I tried to swing but my sword slipped from numbed fingers as my vision and then my memory went black.
Matthias swung blindly at the lutins before him. He felt sick inside. The only way he'd twisted his oath into permitting this combat was by thinking of what the lutins would do to Lady Kimberly should they gain entrance to the Keep. That alone was enough to make the task of killing easy, and yet he feared setting dangerous precedent. This was not something he could repeat often.
He easily dodged around the clumsy attacks of the lutins before him, keeping Lady Kimberly in his mind as he did so. He knew he could ill afford injury if he was going to protect her. For you, Lady, he thought, but only for you. He tried to not think of how Copernicus had goaded him into this, though he still wished to crack a pool cue over the lizard's skull for it.
Matthias' focus was momentarily distracted by an odd grunting growl behind him. He dispatched the lutin occupying his attention and turned to watch the bear drop to the ground, a lutin in odd garb waving a staff and dancing over him.
"Chris!" The rat sprinted towards the verminous thing, dropping his sword in his haste. Damn, he thought. There's no time! As he closed, he lashed out with his hands at the lutin. He regretted it the moment he did it, but knew there had been no alternative. Both empty palms impacted the thing with a sharp crack. The lutin's body snapped back, bent in unnatural angles, and slammed into the rockface, limp and unmoving.
Matthias knelt over the bear, searching for any sign of injury. He saw nothing, but the bear did have a small lump of what appeared to be coal stuck to his fur near his shoulder. He reached out to pull it away, but it refused to move.
Christopher groaned slightly, and Matthias rose as the bearman rolled over. Slowly, his body began to waver, growing and twisting upon itself as the spell that wracked everyone at the Keep reasserted itself. Within moments, where before lay a bearman in robes now rested only a bear covered in shredded cloth, with a monocle around his neck on a chain. The lump on the bear's shoulder shone black in the light. The bear righted itself and looked at Matthias oddly, sniffing at him.
Matthias tapped the bear lightly. "Christopher, can you hear me?" The bear's eyes moved to meet the rat's, but no recognition came from them. Christopher's eyes had been open, deep and inviting. The eyes before Matthias now were blank, devoid of aught but tranquility. Matthias gripped the bear's shoulder and shook it. "Christopher? For the love of Eli, answer me!" In desparation, Matthias slapped the bear across the muzzle. His head turned down, then raised back to meet Matthias' gaze emptily, wiped clean of any understanding.
Matthias looked at the bear in horror. "Copernicus!" His voice rang out across the combat, echoing against the shattered cliff face.
Fox, lizard and snake together finished dispatching the last of the lutins. Copernicus was bleeding from his left arm and Landon had two slashes to his chest, but none looked as if they needed serious medical attention. When the combat was finished, the three of them hurried over to where Matthias was standing watching the bear.
"What's happened here?" Copernicus' voice cut across the clearing. He studied the bear that had been Christopher as it seemed to study each of the others in turn, the lump on its shoulder gleaming a slick oily black.
Matthias shrugged helplessly. "I heard Chris shout, and then he went down. The lutin over there," he said pointing towards where the broken corpse lay against the rocks, "did something and he just collapsed. And now he has that rock stuck to him. I don't like the look of that thing, but I can't get it off."
Copernicus frowned. "We need to get him back to the keep, and soon. And the rest of us as well." He walked over to the body of the broken lutin and studied the corpse. After a moment of searching, he lifted a pouch and the staff. "I've no idea what these are, but perhaps someone there will have more answers than I."
Landon nodded, learning tiredly against a rock. "I say first we rest, though. We're in no shape to try to return tonight. That arm needs bandanging, as does my chest."
Copernicus nodded. "Very well. We make camp on the other side of the hill. Gather any bounty you can now; on the morrow we force march back to Metamor." He looked at the bear, who stared blankly out at the world. "Someone will need to watch to ensure he doesn't wander off. Whomever is on watch will need to do that too."
Bryan sighed. "Thiss iss going to be a long night."
Raven's head lifted from the altar as Copernicus and the rest of the war party flooded into the temple, half-pushing, half-dragging a docile bear that could only be Christopher into the chambers with them. She noticed the blood staining the bandages of the fox and lizard and rose quickly. "By Akkala! Have those been treated yet?"
Copernicus shook his head. "We've not had the time." He swallowed hard, struggling for breath. "We came to you as soon as we could. We just returned, one member down."
She looked at the bear, acting for all the world as a tamed cub, sniffing and listening to everything with wonder. "I can see that. What happened?"
Matthias recited the events as best as he could recall, indicating the shining black rock apparently embedded in the bear's shoulder. "I've been unable to remove it."
Raven studied the rock intently, one hand going to the twin cross around her neck. She looked up at the others. "What was this lutin carrying or wearing? Any detail could be critical."
Copernicus nodded to Landon, who set the staff and pouch down. Matthias reiterated his description of the skeletal lutin's dress and headpiece. Raven snarled. "Ashes!" She picked up the staff and studied it critically, then brought it down heavily against the stone floor. "Damn!"
Bryan looked at the priestess coolly. "Iss there a problem, Lightbringer?"
The shewolf looked at Bryan. "That is an understatement." She opened the pouch and, carefully avoiding the opening, upended the contents onto the floor. A few feathers, some pebbles, and half a dozen black, oily-smooth marbles fell to the ground. She waved the others back. "Do not touch those, lest you share his condition."
Copernicus and the others stepped away from the pouch and its contents. Raven studied everything that had fallen to the floor, then raised her eyes to the rest of the group. "Leave him here, and leave us be. I will attend to him, but the cost to restore him will be high."
The lizard cocked his head at Raven. "Pardon, Lightbringer, but what's wrong with him?"
Raven Lightbringer scowled. "His soul's been blanked out by the magic that infests this place. Whatever those are," she pointed to the black marbles, "they have a strengthening effect on the curse that touches each of us. Were Mark to pick one up, he would be trapped in swaddling. Princess Mal would find herself a mindless sex slave. And our good sage here has become a mindless, albeit docile, animal. I must negotiate his release."
Landon looked shocked. "What? How on earth did one lutin do this?"
Raven looked at the fox calmly. "One lutin did not do this. One dark force did this, through the body of a lutin shaman. A dark force, I might add, that knew of the magics surrounding Metamor." Her face darkened. "I have my suspicions, but Christopher's well-being must come first. Now, about those wounds."
She lifted the bandages and studied Landon's and Copernicus' injuries. "Neither looks severe, though I would see Brian ere the day is out. Now, leave me be. And leave him here." She pointed to the bear. "I'll see to him. Gods be with you." And with that, she turned her attention to the bear and the stones again.
Raven was almost unaware of when the others left the room, but she did look up when the temple door closed. She walked to the altar and lit the first votive candle, the words to the summoning ritual coming to her easily. With practiced grace, she moved through the steps of the summoning and knelt before the altar, as the room suffused with a soft rose-coloured glow.
"Raven, my child." The voice of Akkala, goddess of healing and light, filled the room with its musical resonance. "Rise."
Raven stood and smiled. "You honour me with your presence, as always."
Akkala smiled. "Why have you called me, daughter?"
The Lightbringer pointed to the bear, sitting placidly on his hind end, staring about the room. "His soul has been blanked, pulled within himself. The magic that surrounds this keep, and its inhabitants, has been forced to the surface by one of these." She indicated the black marbles on the ground. "I wish your help in interceding on his behalf."
Akkala's face fell. "Child, what you request will not come without a price, to you or to him. What you ask can be done, but this goes beyond mere healing of the body. This is a healing of the soul."
Raven nodded. "You know that I have pledged myself to you, my Lady."
"But he has not. Nor has it been explained to him what this will entail."
"I shall, and he will, when he has been restored."
"And if he does not?"
The wolf grimaced slightly at the thought. "I hope, my Lady, that it does not come to that."
Akkala considered for moment, and then nodded. "Very well. I shall explain to you what must be done. A young child will soon come here to this keep, bearing deep scars, inside and out. He must take this boy into his care. His must be the job of healing the child's heart and soul. You may aid him with encouragements, but the task of caring for the child must be his and his alone. This boy is to be his ward, his to raise as his own offspring. He must protect, nurture and care for the child as his own, against any and all odds. Do you understand?"
Raven nodded, puzzled. "Yes, but how will he know the child?"
Akkala smiled, brightening the room. "He will know."
Raven Lightbringer considered a moment, and the nodded. "Christopher should acquiese to that geas." She lifted the staff and presented it to Akkala. "This was found with the body of the shaman."
Akkala took the staff and nodded, studying it. "I can heal him. But I will need your assistance, and his. You will feel weak for some time after this, but it shall pass. Do you accept?"
The wolf nodded. "I do."
Akkala descended to the bear's position and touched one hand to the top of his head, the other to Raven's shoulder. Slowly, the pale rose light filling the room began to brighten. The black rock seemed to suck in the light, glistening like an unholy gemstone. The light rose to a white radiance, dazzling Raven with its light. Lady Akkala shone more brightly than ere she had before. With a flash of pure undivided white, the rock on the bear's shoulder vanished into air, leaving behind a twinned spiral emblazoned on the bear's shoulder, Akkala's personal mark. The staff and the contents of the pouch gleamed white for a moment, and then they too faded into nonexistence.
Raven slumped against the bear, who moaned and rolled over for the first time in four days. Weakly, she rose and staggered to the door, opening it to check the time. The edge of the sun was just creeping over the horizon. A full day had passed during the healing.
She gathered her strength as much as possible and walked to the courtyard. There she found Copernicus, back on duty as always, up with first light. The lizard turned as she approached. "Lightbringer! Is all going well with Christopher?"
Raven nodded. "Yes, he is healed. But there is a price, as always. Help me get him back to his room."
I opened my eyes and found myself in my bed, someone standing at its foot watching me. With a paw that felt heavier than lead, I lifted my monocle to my eye and studied the one studying me. Lightbringer.
"Raven." My voice was raspy, weak. How long was I unconscious?
Raven smiled. "Ah, Christopher. You're awake. How do you feel?"
"Exhausted. Half-dead." I tried to sit up and almost made it, then collapsed back against the mattress.
"You should be fine soon. Akkala said that the weakness would pass. I had to enlist Jack and Copernicus both to get you back into bed from the floor of the temple."
She frowned. "You were struck with some sort of fetish. It attached to the magic affecting you, the magic of Metamor, and enhanced it to such a degree that it blanked out your soul. Akkala had trouble restoring you, you were so far gone."
I nodded weakly. "The lutins have learned to deal with dark gods, then."
Her frown darkened. "No darker than Nasoj. Who, I suspect, is behind this. Where else would the lutins learn of such things?"
I closed my eyes, then opened them again. "You saved my life."
Raven shook her head. "Akkala saved your life. It is to her that you owe a geas, not me." She told me of the child that would come to the keep, my ward. I nodded again.
"Had you not interceded on my behalf, I would be just as dead. I may owe Akkala this geas, but I am in your debt as well. If you have need of anything, you have only to ask."
She looked away suddenly, and I feared that I had overstepped my bounds. "Raven?"
"I'm alright. Thank you." She turned back and put a hand on my shoulder, lightly touching the mark of Akkala that still shone there. "Rest, Christopher. You shall need it, when your ward arrives."
With that, she rose and took her leave of me. I struggled to rise, to follow, but fatigue and weakness combined their forces against me and I fell back against the bed, closed my eyes again, and slept.