Killing Time

by Charles Matthias

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
shall be my brother.
-- William Shakespeare

chapter 1

Up by the clerestory windows, Charles found the young Father Hough. It was dark in the chapel, only the vagrant sparking embers of the lantern the boy priest held in one hand illuminated the windows. Dawn was still a couple of hours away, and Matthias knew that by the rise of the sun he would be upon the road, heading north into the woods towards the Giant's Dike. Given the events of the past few days, and the missive he had been handed only half-an-hour before, there was no question in the rat's mind what was about to transpire.

Father Francis Hough appeared to be haggard, his alb stained with dust and grime as he cleaned the stained windows on this high terrace. He also looked to be rather tired, wearing a face older than his own by a score or more years. There was a haunted expression in his eyes as he chipped away the debris and murk discolouring the glass. As he entered the main aisle, Charles could hear the monotonous chiselling as his friend worked absently. While climbing the marble staircase to the triforium, the rat accidentally kicked a colonnade with one paw and let out a sharp report of surprise.

The boy priest turned, and shone the lantern down the steps to the lower balcony. "Charles? What are you doing up at this hour? It is just past four; morning services won't be for many hours yet."

The rat nodded, and grimacing at his bruised toes, he continued on up the steps to the clerestory. "I could ask you the same question. Why are you up at this hour of the night?"

Father Hough set the lantern upon a basalt stanchion, illuminating his dirty features. His blonde hair was ruffled, some of it spilling across his face and eyes. He set down the small chisel and shrugged. "I couldn't sleep, so came here. The windows appreciate my efforts at least. I don't have anyone to clean them for me, and I don't wish to ask the Keep for any more of her help. I'm still not sure what to make of Kyia, but everything she has done for me so far has been wonderful."

Nodding thoughtfully, Charles peered at the window illuminated in the light from the lantern. It was a depiction of some scriptural scene, exactly which one, he was not sure. Though he could tell that the Keep had a sense of humour, as one of the figures had fur and a tail. "It is beautiful. I think the Lightbringers claim her as one of their own."

"Would a Lightbringer build this?" Hough asked, gesturing to the dim pews and altar below.

"I suppose not," the rat muttered, flexing his toes again, the pain nearly gone already. In another few minutes, it would be like it had never been stubbed. "How is Emily?"

"As well as can be expected," Hough replied tersely, his face grim once more. The thin line of his mouth drew tight into a rictus, and he turned back to the window, wiping his hands upon the alb. "She asked me to have prayers said for Craig at Service this coming Sunday."

Charles could not hold back his sigh. Craig Latoner had been one of the Long's whom he'd come to know in the past few months. Though he was not a friend the same way as Misha was, his death still brought for the Long in training a pang of remorse. The prairie dog had left behind a wife and two daughters, as well as stunned friends and a sorrowful Keep. Even after all these years, a new death still brought forth tears from most of the Keepers. The fact that he had been killed on a mission only made matters worse.

"How are you taking it?" Hough interjected suddenly. "You did not say much at the memorial service yesterday."

The rat stammered, "I didn't have much to say. I try not to think about the death of friends."

"And why not? It will happen someday."

"It already has," Charles murmured without explanation.

Hough nodded knowingly, though for the wrong reasons. "Craig is someplace better you know."

"I know that, that is not what bothers me right now. And it is not why I am here," Matthias finally found the voice to say what he needed to. Misha's note had been explicit, but the chapel was not far from the Long House, and so he'd made this slight detour, on the hopes that its tenant was awake.

"Why are you here then?" Hough turned back to face him, his eyes searching the rat's countenance. Charles was dressed in a slight outfit, browns and greens dominating its surface. His whiskers drooped, and the fur upon his face was uncombed.

"You remember what Misha did to his arms? What he said at the funeral?" Charles indicated the palms of his paws, and the forearms. Misha had slashed each lengthwise, and wiped his blood across Craig's sarcophagus in his declaration of fealty towards the Latoner family. Neither of them had ever seen the fox do anything quite like that.

From the sudden moue crossing the boy's face, Matthias could tell indeed that Hough had not forgotten. Perhaps even that was all he could remember. "He shouldn't have done that. I don't think he knows how to deal with death."

"What would you rather him do?"

"Accept it and move on. Death is a natural part of life. We are born, we live through joy and suffering, and then we die, taken into the arms of our Abba," Hough turned back to the stained-glass windows, and chipped away a bit more of the dirt clutching the sides of the cast iron supports. "I cannot fault him for wanting to support Emily and her children, but the letting of blood will not bring back his friend."

Charles scowled a moment, the cool air of the morning barely brushing past his fur. "I believe he knows this already. No, you are right, he does not know how to deal well with death. At least not like this. But he is handling it in the way he thinks is best. The only way he can at this point. That's why I'm here, because I too know of the rage that swelters within his heart of Craig's murder, and Caroline's rape."

There was a sudden intake of breath, and Hough's chisel stopped in mid strike. Craig and Caroline had been on a mission together towards the north woods, investigating a small fortress that was rumoured to be a staging point for Nasoj's scouts. They'd been captured, tortured, and finally, Craig had been executed. Caroline however was used as meat, chattel for their carnal desires. They beat and raped her, sometimes several Lutins participating at once, till all that was left was the whimpering and weak shell of the woman that had been rescued in the last week.

When Matthias thought of Caroline suffering at the depraved hands of the Lutins, he could also see the same abominations being perpetrated upon his love. That spurred a rage that he could not control, nor did he wish too. It was the sort of rage that the Sondeck only fuelled the more time went on.

"So, what did you want from me?" Hough finally managed to ask, the chisel once again returning to work.

"Your blessing, Father," Matthias said simply, his face empty of all but the single plea. "It will not be too long before my paws are coated in the blood of Lutins and their allies. I want your blessing on our venture."

"Misha and you seek revenge for Craig's death?"

"And for Caroline's rape."

Hough continued to chisel, his eyes barely illuminated in the pale light coming from the lantern. After a moment, he did turn to face the rat and nodded once, his eyes completely inscrutable. "Who are you going to kill?"

"Hopefully those who did this atrocity."

"So you seek justice for what has happened?"

Charles felt the Sondeck within him flare brightly for a moment. "Yes, we seek to exact justice for what has been done."

"And are you certain that those whom you will kill are the same ones who caused this tragedy?" Hough's voice, though still a contralto, was quite firm.

"Misha appears to be so. I do not think he would act unless he were sure."

"Then I will bless you and those going with you." Hough motioned towards the colonnade beneath them, and Charles descended to one knee. The boy's fingers traced out the symbol of their faith upon his forehead, directly between his wide-set eyes. "I grant you Eli's blessing, child. May Yahshua go with you on your quest."

"Thank you, Father," Charles inclined his head, and then rose to his paws once more. "I must be going now, Misha will be expecting me soon."

"Go then, and watch after our friend. I have come to like seeing him at Service in the mornings. I would miss him were something to happen."

"I shall do my very best, Father." And with that, Charles turned upon his paws, and walked back down the clerestory stairs towards the chapel floor. He could hear the sound of chiselling recommence behind him. From somewhere outside the great stained-glass windows, he thought he even heard a bird sing into the early morning air. How could a sparrow know what death would follow this evening?

The guards long since familiar with his rodential features, allowed Matthias to pass into the Long House without comment. Their expressions were grave, like that of men watching a storm rip through the landscape turn and head their way. Charles wondered if he too bore such a demeanor, but upon seeing the faces of the others already gathered in the main hall, assembling gear and munitions, he knew that it would not be noticed. And even if it was, nobody would consider it remarkable.

Most of the people assembled in the main hall were Long scouts, some he knew, others were only a name still. The rest were various soldiers and friends of Craig and Caroline. There was even a badger clumsily handling a short sword in one large paw that he recognized instantly. It was Will Hardy, Caroline's father.

The rat made his way past the commotion to the distracted man, and called out, "Will, I'm glad you are coming along on this venture."

The Jeweller turned about on his heels, his breeches rumpled from lack of sleep. "Charles, I had wondered if you were going to be here." His eyes then gazed past the rat, smoldering chartreuse orbs that burned with a profound inner need, and towards something undefinable. "I couldn't not be here, after what they did to her."

And he did not have to elaborate further, for Charles understood all too well what had happened. He had seen Caroline, crumpled, dishevelled, and in emotional agony when brought back. Gone was the confident and playful Caroline who he'd come to know and appreciate. Would she ever return? Matthias hoped so, but at this point that was all he could do.

Suddenly, Misha's head popped out of the Long office, and he looked at the badger with determined eyes. "Will, I'm about to start the briefing. I want you to hear this." His vulpine expression turned to the rat, and with that same forceful expression, he added, "Charles, why don't you come in too. This won't take long."

Will followed after the fox, slipping the short sword into the scabbard, the ring of steel a strident cry into the night. Charles ambled along behind them both, finding a small corner of the table to sit at while the briefing went underway. There were a few other Longs in the room, but thankfully the Kankoran was not here. Perhaps Misha had not invited him on this venture? It was probably too much to hope for.

Andre stood just behind him as Misha gathered their attention. The wolverine was already dressed in a thick selection of chain mail, nearly a hauberk as it covered most of his fur. Charles resisted the temptation to say anything to the knight. This was not an occasion for light discourse. What they were about to go through was deadly serious.

The fox's voice was tight, like a man crossing a suspended rope. "You all know why we are here. Nasoj's forces have gone too far this time. I will not tolerate the murder of one of my own, and most especially the degradation of somebody who has become very special to me. We are going to send Nasoj a message. You do not trifle with the Longs."

Charles stifled a sudden mutter as he saw Rickkter come in through the door, his dark mask creased with lines of what was obviously concern. It was clear that he had yet to notice Matthias, or at the very least, he gave no sign if he did. This venture would certainly be more complicated if they had to work together.

There was an unfurled map already laid out upon the desk, and Misha traced out a path towards the Giant's Dike with one claw. "This is Stepping Rock castle. From there his subordinates bully and control the Lutins. Plus, his soldiers have staged countless raids against us. These are the people who staged that brutal raid on Mycransburg last month.

"We estimate the garrison to be about forty humans, and around two hundred Lutins. The castle itself is on a short, low hill and the main defenses consist of a ditch about twenty feet wide and forty feet deep and a stone wall about twenty feet tall. All located on the top of the hill, meaning it's a long, hard climb to reach the walls."

"You plan on taking it?" Rickkter asked, his eyes narrowing upon the map.

Without so much as acknowledging the raccoon's inquiry, Misha continued, his paws laid out against the parchment. "Stepping Rock was built as a manor house about three hundred years ago and it isn't a formidable place."

Before Misha could go on, another voice interrupted. Charles did not see who. "Stepping is twenty miles from Metamor. Who would be dumb enough to build a manor that deep in Lutin territory?"

"It was built at a time of expansion for Metamor and all the Lutins within forty miles of the Keep had been wiped out. Things around Stepping were supposed to be very peaceful back then. When Duke Sedgewick died the expansion stopped and the Lutins began to retake their territory. About thirty years after it was built the manor house was fortified but to no avail. The castle fell after a ten day siege."

A tall weasel then asked, "What does the inside look like? I don't see any towers on the wall or any mention of a central keep."

"The wall has no towers," Misha replied, his voice as emotionless as ever Charles had heard it. "The original human builders threw it up in haste, and the Lutins never bothered to add any. The only tower is the gatehouse. As to the interior structures, we can only guess. The main hall itself was fortified to some degree, and there were the usual buildings near it; barns, stables, granaries. No telling how many are left. The hall we know still exists and is the home of Hurd, the castle's commander and his personal guard.

"Here is the basic plan. The Longs will infiltrate the castle on the south side, farthest from the only gatehouse. We'll move across the courtyard to the gatehouse and take it. Laura, your team along with Matthias will clear the gatehouse and let Andre's force in. Meanwhile, Lisa, Will and myself will move to the central building and kill the castle's commander along with the human troops. With the commander dead, organized resistance should fall apart."

The raccoon interjected yet again. "And what do I do?"

Misha's reply was terse, almost insulting it was so cold. "You do whatever you want. I'm sure you'll make yourself useful." He then turned to the rest of them, his grey eyes frigid. "Let me make this perfectly clear. This isn't a hack and slash raid. We're going to destroy this place. I want nothing left behind when we leave but rubble and dead bodies. Kill everything that moves."

Charles, already dismayed by the frosty tone of the meeting, felt obliged to ask a question he already knew the answer to. "What about prisoners?" His voice was like the summer sun after Misha's icy discourse.

He felt his friend's dead eyes pass over him for a moment, as if in disbelief for what was said. Emotionlessly, they returned to the rest of the group, the fox's lips never even parting once to utter a syllable. "Any other questions?" was all that he said. And the silence hung in the room for several seconds. The rat peeked over at Rickkter, and saw that his enemy's face was distorted oddly by the cold-blooded nature of the declaration. Misha's voice did not break the unearthly silence so much as echo it. "All right. The Longs leave at noon today. Andre's unit leaves tomorrow morning."

His speech over, Misha turned and strolled out of the room like a man walking across the clouds. Matthias could not even be sure the fox's paws touched the masonry as they were so quiet. The others in the room gazed uncomfortably at each other, but the determination had rubbed off upon them. Charles paid none of them any heed, slipping from the room nearly as silently as his instructor.

Preparations continued on in the main hall of the Long House. Armour was being sorted and tested with cudgels and spears. The sheering squeal of swords being sharpened drowned out most of the conversation. Occasionally, a metallic twang would resound as the archers inspected the bows. In one corner, Charles could see a few Longs having their fur dyed brown and green to camouflage them on the mission. The rat would not need a great deal of dye, as his fur was brown already. Still, in an hour or so, he would wait patiently under the careful claws of the Longs while they masked him even further.

The object of his interest though had just disappeared into the armoury. Matthias darted after him, politely refusing a sudden offer to assist him with his armaments from a fellow Keeper. The scent of oil combatting rust filled his nose as he passed beneath the doorway. Misha was already struggling into a chain mail shirt, not even noticing that a small patch of his fur had been caught between two of the links.

"Misha, can we talk?" Charles asked, his voice sounding so small against the cacophony just outside.

"About what?" the fox replied curtly. His attention was wholly given over to lacing the mail up, and freeing the kink of fur, pushing it back beneath his undershirt.

"Why are we doing this? For revenge?" Though he knew the answers all too well, he simply had to ask and be sure.

The fox's head glanced up, the grey eyes as cold as the mortar they stood upon. "Is that what you think?"

Charles did not balk for a moment. "Yes."

"You're right," Misha nodded simply, turning back to the rack, slipping on a pair of heavy gauntlets. His eyes trailed to the rat again. "Part of it is to gain revenge for what they did to Craig and Caroline."

"Part of it? Are you sure that's not all of it?"

The fox's head slipped down to his paws again, flexing them, stretching the armoured gloves a few times to ensure their protection. His voice, though Charles had not imagined it possible, was even colder than before, and caused a sudden chill to race through the rat's fur. "I want to make those bastards suffer for what they did. I also have to show Nasoj and the Lutins that you don't kill a Long Scout and not get punished. Nasoj has a hefty reward for killing or capturing a Long, that's a very big incentive for them to hunt us. If the Lutins learn that taking a Long will earn them swift, brutal punishment, then maybe they won't be so eager to go scout hunting.

"Also, one Long Scout is dead, another has been raped and tortured, and the rest are in shock. My people are angry, horrified, and confused. Soon they'll start to think about what happened to Craig and Caroline, then they'll start to doubt themselves as well. After all, if it happened to those two, it could happen to anyone. I need to stop that train of thought before it starts. What I have to do is distract them, keep them busy, and to remove any doubt about themselves."

Charles licked the back of his incisors, instinctively reaching for his chewstick. "And a revenge raid is your answer?"

"Yes, besides..." Misha's voice finally broke, the chill turning to heat, the death in his eyes to passion. Even so, his words were barely a whisper as he gazed into the floor, through it and to the Keepers that must live beneath it. "There's a rage building in me I can't control for much longer. I need to vent it before it consumes me."

Lowering the chewstick, his own agitation passed, Charles crossed the threshold between them and laid one of his paws across the great fox's shoulder. The cold demeanor was simply his helplessness. "I understand," Charles intoned softly, wishing to say more, but his tongue would not cooperate.

"The party's about to begin, and you two aren't ready yet," a third voice called out into the armoury. They both looked up, and saw Rickkter standing beneath the transom. Charles did his best to hide his sneer.

"Almost ready. I just need to pick out some weapons," Misha replied, shaking the rat's paw from his shoulder, the moment of weakness passed.

Matthias turned to his instructor and nodded. "I'll be waiting in the Hall when you are ready." He then turned and walked past the Kankoran. Rickkter did not stand out of the way, and so their shoulders nearly touched. The sick power of his clan's enemies flowed beneath the fur and skin of the raccoon, almost enough to make him recoil in horror. He had the first time they'd clasped paws, and he was not eager for a second.

Leaving the two behind, the rat sucked in his breath, and walked across the Hall towards the far corner. It was still many hours before they would leave the Keep, but Charles was not going to dilly-dally. With a sour grimace upon his brow, he waited with a few of the Longs to have his fur dyed.

chapter 2

Quiet ranged throughout the forest like a cloak. Charles could feel it wrapping tighter and tighter about his throat, threatening to stifle even his very breath. Each overhanging limb, full with the green leaves of the season, appeared to be reaching down to smother them. The ground, soft with the August rains, threatened to give way at each footfall, sucking them down into a quagmire to silence the beat of their hearts. Though it was only shortly past noon, not even the sun could penetrate this self-made tomb of death and degradation, for barely glimmer's of that radiant disc shone upon the soporific landscape.

They had been travelling for just over an hour, and of course by this time in his training, Charles was once again accustomed to long journeys on foot - or in his case paw. Yet they were a group of Longs with only a few others, most of which were experienced in the ways of the tracker and scout. So, only once in a while did somebody snap a twig, or ruffle a branch, or shake a few leaves loose. Even rarer, a voice could be heard, usually a muffled grunt as they'd stubbed their toe, or nearly tripped upon an unseen root. Every once in a while, Misha would whisper instructions to the leaders, and the message would slowly trickle back to the rear, where Charles found himself along with Lisa Ringe, one of the age-regressed Longs.

Otherwise, it was the silence. The forest itself felt like it knew what was to come on the morrow. The songs of birds did not fill the air, nor could the scattering of deer and elk be heard about them. They waited in the quiet, their bodies frozen in repose as the bringers of death passed them by. Matthias knew he was not alone in his trepidations. Lisa's brow was contorted uncomfortably at the sheer oddity of it. Many times she would cup a hand to her ear, and simply listen. As always, nary a sound returned to her.

Charles, whose hearing had improved greatly since he had become a rat, would have assured her that he would inform her if he'd heard anything, but decided against it. Misha had once told him that as long as you can hear the sounds of the forest, you should be safe - worry most when there is nothing about. Well, there was nothing about, and Matthias was indeed worried.

Taking a moment to peer back at Lisa, he saw that his concern was parallelled in her face. This short a distance north of Metamor they should have seen the woods full of activity. That was the reason Misha had sent them to cover the rear for now, since it was supposed to be relatively safe. Not that the fox would have need to fear them being negligent in their duties should something arise, as both were well trained. Yet, neither wished to be forced to demonstrate that.

They continued on past the green brambles of bush and fern, between thickets slick with mud and into the pines with nary a disturbance. Charles noticed that they were climbing ever so slightly into the hills. They had left the main road even while in sight from Metamor, and had taken the harder path through the forest. The terrain grew increasingly rocky, and they meandered their way around some of the larger formations. The rat fancied that children used to climb upon these stones and play in the days before Nasoj's invasion. Perhaps one day they would again.

A few short minutes later, while Matthias was helping Lisa scramble up one particularly slick rock face, coated in mica and lichen, Finbar turned back to whisper to them both. The ferret looked a bit agitated, his short, blunt claws tracing over the hilt of his dagger. "There is a small Lutin encampment a short ways ahead. It's being taken care of. We're supposed to wait up ahead so we can reconnoitre."

Charles nodded, and then the three of them continued on into the rocks. Finally, they descended down the other side of one particularly steep formation into a little crescent shape depression between the hills. Elms grew out of the side of the mound, leaning slightly over the depression, shading it and casting it into a deep gloom. There were a few others there, including Rickkter who had a scowl across his features - obviously put out at having been left behind when there was some killing to do.

At Lisa's direction, Matthias crouched down low beneath the overhanging precipice. It was mostly soft, wet loam clinging to the hard granite, with moss covering every spare piece of earth. Dark, ghastly things crept in the cracks and fissures down near where Charles huddled. He tried not to lean against the stone, as he did not wish to drench his garments with whatever wetness glistened back there.

Much to his dismay, he was soon joined by Rickkter, who bore a bizarre grin upon his face. Like the rat, the raccoon kept his body away from the back of the crescent wall, while the Longs kept watch over the top of the ridge. He took position beneath the overhang next to Charles, closing his full-length cloak with a single flick of his wrists. "So what injustice is the great Sondeckis going to right?" Rickkter's tone was mocking as usual, but at the very least he had spoken softly, and in the language of the Southlands. It was inconceivable that anyone else in the depression understood him.

Charles reached down and pulled out his chewstick, and gnawed at the tip. "The same one you were, I thought."

The Kankoran appeared to have been taken by surprise by the answer, the contempt turning to a curious frown. "Oh? I'm here at the behest of a friend, two in fact. I do not need some injustice to happen for me to lift a finger to do that."

"Oh, you mean you weren't being paid for this?" Charles asked, his tone angry. Why did he always let this raccoon dig into his fur like that? It never accomplished anything. They were both going to be on this mission for a while longer. Misha certainly didn't need them snipping at each other like this.

"A friend is one of the most precious things one can have. They are different." Rickkter's grin turned to that mocking self-conceit once again, and he folded his arms in front of himself beneath his cloak. "You really don't know full reasons for your being here, do you? You don't even know the real reason I'm here."

Charles so wanted to yawn from boredom, anything to show his contempt for the mercenary. Yet, his own thoughts were turning down a different path. This was not about their disagreements and ancestral hatred. This was about their mutual friend, Misha Brightleaf.

"Rickkter, as much fun as it would be to harangue you, I don't want to do that right now."

"Is the great Sondecki giving up?"

Matthias stifled the glare that he knew was trying to surface. "No, I just think that we are wasting our energies on each other, and not our mutual enemy. Misha asked us both along on this foray so we could help him avenge the death of Craig, and the brutal rape of Caroline. Obviously, they are important to you, just as they are to me. For once, we have something in common aside from our hatred for each other."

Rickkter still appeared arrogant, but it was laced with bemusement. "I suppose not all Sondeckis are irreparably reactionary then."

The rat ignored the remark and went on. "I propose a truce between us, at least for the duration of this mission. We both want to help our friend Misha. We are not helping him by sniping at each other. We may have to fight side by side, Rickkter. As much as I'd rather not, it may come to pass. If so, I think it would be helpful to Misha if we agreed to work together, at least until we return to the Keep.

"This isn't about me, and this isn't about you. This is about Misha, Caroline, and Craig. If they mean anything to you at all, will you not put aside our feud so that we can help them?"

The raccoon's arrogance had left his face, his eyes searching the rat for some hint of duplicity. His striped tail twitched in agitation, but never once did it touch the back of the rock wall. Finally, a sort of bemused grin crossed his features. "You really don't know why I'm here, do you?" The grin broke into a smile. "Why not! We will not be enemies again until we have returned to the Keep."

Rickkter held out his paw from beneath his cloak, palm towards himself. Charles took a look at it before giving it a light swat with one of his claws. "Get rid of the knife first."

With an amused chuckle, the raccoon turned his empty palm towards the rat. "If this is to work, we both have to be more trusting of each other."

Swiftly, Charles took it in a firm shake. He could feel the power of the Kankoran flowing beneath the pads, and it almost made him pull away with nausea. He was sure that Rickkter felt a similar revulsion to his Sondeck. Yet they both held it there for a few moments, their eyes locked upon each other. For the first time since he had met him that one day in the halls of the Keep, the animosity was not in those orbs. He tried to give his clan's mortal enemy a friendly grin, though he was not sure with how much success.

"You may take satisfaction in a bit of ironic history, Rickkter," Charles then remarked, almost affably.


"The last time any from either of our clans cooperated was five hundred years ago when the Southlands were under threat from an army of Shriekers. If so simple a thing as friendship can bring us together, albeit temporarily, then perhaps we are not totally irredeemable."

The raccoon frowned a moment, unsure if the words were meant as mockery. Then, an amused grin crossed his snout. "If either of our old friends heard us speaking like this, they would kill us for treason."

"I won't tell them if you won't."

Rickkter snorted once and then gave the rat a very serious glare. "Understand that our truce is only good until we return to the Keep. I only give this because of Misha. Do not think I will ever again accept such an offer." With that he turned and stood from his seat, his tail swirling behind him. He made it a few paces before turning back to Charles. "If you're interested at all in some of the facts of this mission, about Misha, Carol, and what I'm doing here, then I suggest you go ask the fox about it. Ask him where he got that bruising around the left side of his face." Rickkter gave the rat one more self-satisfied smirk before he returned to the other side of the crescent, his cloak wrapped tightly around himself.

Charles had to suppress a light chuckle as the raccoon returned to the other side of the crescent. That had gone better than he'd expected, although what he had said about Misha was troubling. Just then, all of their heads turned towards the west, from where a muffled scream was sounded, and then silenced. It had been a Lutin. Misha had done as promised with the encampment. Sighing, Charles turned to examine his toes, waiting for them to return.

Of course, it was then that water started to dribble on his head from the overhang.

At least the night held the sounds of the forest within its grasp. Charles laid out on the single blanket nestled underneath the grove of willows, their long branches nearly covering them completely, staring up at the small leaves as they rustled in the wind. Though he could not hear them, he knew that at least four Longs were waling the perimeter and would be all night. They were still south of the Dike, but Misha had insisted that only the Long's be allowed to watch the encampment. Rickkter had objected briefly, then grumbled as he bedded down for the evening beneath an adjoining willow.

The grove abutted a sudden cliff to the north, affording them protection on that side. Small rivulets in the wall of stone served for escape routes should the camp be discovered, as well as mud several mud slides down each side of the hills about them. Apparently, this was one of the few camps that the Longs had ever used before. It was remote enough to prevent discovery form being likely, plus the escarpment prevented scents from being blown northward.

Still, beneath the willow tree, Charles could see nothing. The sound of owls crying out into the night was a comfort though, as were the crickets. In another month, the latter would be gone. As he gazed up at the lazily swinging branches - as a rat, his night vision was fairly astute - he wondered if the stars were shining. He could imagine them flickering in the cold night air, so far away, utterly unreachable. Or were they muted as well, just like everything else had been this day? Were they so aware of the death to come that they refused to shine with their usual glamour?

Matthias tried not to dwell on what had happened. Idly thumbing the tail of his shirt as he lay there on his back, he wished that he could get some sleep. It had been so many months since he had abandoned his vow against killing others and he had changed so much since then. Yet still it gnawed at him like some old wound.

Yet his concern for it was not so much that he would have to kill. It was more a worry about his friend Misha. Was this raid the best thing in the world for him? There was no question in the rat's mind that the fox would go through with it to the very end. But afterwards, once it was all over, what would he do then? Charles grimaced, wishing that he could put the question out of his mind and just find the elusive sleep he yearned for, but like an unwelcome guest, the question remained.

Charles turned over on his side, firmly closing his eyes to the world. His tail circled about the base of his paws in the damp cold. With one forepaw, he pulled the blanket tight against his frame, the woolen fabric thankfully dry. That damp taste in the back of his throat was a sign that more rain was still to come this soggy August.

For some reason, he couldn't help but remember back to the very first time he had slept before battle. It had rained then too. Over ten years ago now, nearly fifteen in fact. They had been on a foray past the Darkündlicht mountains into hills east of Makor. There had been only ten of them, Charles, Krenek, Jerome, Ladero, as well as four other Sondeckis of the red, plus two blacks. The four of them slept together in a cramped tent with their sandals for pillows, and their red robes for blankets. Despite how uncomfortable it had been, Matthias remembered how much fun they'd had on that journey.

That was until they realized that they were being watched and followed by an unseen group. There was always a danger of being attacked while on such a training mission, but it was rare that it ever happened. Matthias remembered his friends's reactions so well that night the blacks had sat the eight of them down to inform them of the threat. Krenek had been contemplative, his dark black hair falling repeatedly in his face. Jerome had been eager for the fight, still bristling with the vitality of youth. Ladero had listened and prayed as was his custom - Charles had adopted most of his religious feelings from his fellow Sondeckis. Matthias himself had been pensive, worried that they might not return to beloved Sondeshara.

They had slowly continued on their trek, the two blacks always double-checking the rear, always finding their pursuers no more than a few leagues behind. They slept only an hour or two each night as they tried to outdistance whoever it was that was tracking them. Charles could remember one morning where he had to be dragged from the confines of his cloak and doused with a pail of cold mountain water before he could rise from the sleep he so desperately yearned for.

Yet no matter how long they walked each day, their pursuers were able to keep pace. Finally, just as they were only one day's ride from the mountains, the blacks came to a decision. One of them, Soud, would stay behind in the rocky crags along their path, and wait for whoever trailed them. If it was innocent, he would do his best to catch up with them in the mountain passes. If not, he would do his best to slow them down. They never did see Soud again, but as they climbed into the mountains, a distant clamour could be heard.

It was then by the fire that night that Krenek made his suggestion. He felt an obligation to Soud, and wished to invoke the Totzesond in his name. The other black, a man named Brothus, for whom Charles lost a good deal of respect that night, urged them to continue on through the pass. But Krenek cajoled and pleaded with the others. Charles was the first to stand by his side that night, as he had always been throughout their childhood.

So, against Brothus's wishes, the eight red Sondeckis decided to seek Totzesond for Soud. They backtracked to a small precipice along the pass and scattered ashes from their fire across the ground. They also used what knowledge they had to design an ambuscade in those rocks. It was not much, but with each of them working together they were all hidden and ready for the morrow. That night had been the first night that Charles had ever really wondered if he would survive the morrow.

They had been Kankoran, all of the purple in fact. Five of them entered that pass in the early hours of the morning, one of them, a rather stolid individual standing at least a fathom in height, held Soud's Sondeshike. The battle though did not last long. Brothus had shown up only a few hours earlier that morning to inform them that they were going to get them all killed, but he stayed to fight alongside them anyway. However, the black was wrong.

One of the Kankoran was thrown from the ledge before he'd realized the attack had begun. The other four found themselves outnumbered, but fought with every fiber of their strength. Krenek though was wild with rage, making his way straight for the man who bore the Sondeshike. Charles had wanted to watch his friend fight, but had been struggling near that precipice with one of the others, a series of fast strikes to his chest, nearly toppling him over.

Ladero had saved him though, with a sudden strike to the back of the Kankoran's knee, brought the purple to the ground. The next strike at the man's neck killed him. Even so, Charles could only vaguely recall that moment when his life had nearly been snuffed. What he did remember was the look of triumph on Zagrosek's face as he wrested Soud's Sondeshike from the Kankoran's dying hands.

After the fight, and they had buried one of the other red Sondeckis who had been slain, Brothus tried to take the artifact from Krenek's hands. Zagrosek pushed the black away with glare. His voice had been hot with contempt, and the words floated up from the pages of memory to fill the rat's mind. "This belonged to Soud, and he died to save us. You would have left that death go unavenged. I called the Totzesond, and I reclaimed justice for Soud. The Sondeshike is mine."

When they had returned to Sondeshara a few weeks later, the rank of purple had been bestowed upon each of them, and the Sondeshike was indeed given to Zagrosek. Brothus ascended to the white a few years later, and began the campaign to destroy the honour their clan had throughout the Southlands. And yet they spent months in mourning for the two Sondeckis who did not return with them.

Charles opened his eyes yet again and peered at the swaying branches over him. Brothus was now dead, and apparently so was Ladero. Jerome was hiding somewhere in the Midlands, and the reports he'd heard about Zagrosek were too fantastic to be true. And he, Charles Matthias, was a rat on a quest with his new clan to avenge another death.

The faint crunching of pine needles echoed outside of the tree. He climbed up to his haunches and peered out between the overhanging branches, and saw the silhouette of a Keeper walking by. It had just been a Long. Sighing to himself, he laid back down on his warm blanket, and curled tightly inside. His mind exhausted, he only managed one last thought before slumber finally took hold of him. What would Misha do should one of the Longs die on this mission? Sleep thankfully silenced the answer.

chapter 3

The sun had not yet peaked the Eastern mountains when Charles crawled from the blankets and peered out at the rest of their camp snug against the cliff face. The willow was damp with the rains that frequented late August, and the morose clouds far overhead heralded only more of the same. He saw Lisa rubbing the sleep from her eyes as she quietly ate a small piece of bread and some fruit while reclining upon an oak root. There were a few other faces he recognized, but neither Rickkter nor Misha appeared to be about.

Quietly pushing aside the nestles, Charles slipped out from under the willow and brought his pack with him. The dye was still coated into his fur, despite the moisture, and caught him by surprise as he saw it again in the dim blues of the morning air. The slick coating of mud and grime that clutched the forest filled his nose with its putrid scent. It reminded him of that cloistered grove between Nuln and Kalegris that Misha and he had scouted on their mission to Glen Avery. It was full of the scent of decaying matter and things already dead, as well as the luscious life growing in its place.

That valley had barely seen the sun, and so it was expected to stagnate. Here though, in the upper hills of Metamor Valley, it was the first signs of the changing seasons. Autumn would be upon them soon. It had come so fast, he'd barely had time to notice. He wondered what his friends at the Writer's Guild were doing. Were they preparing another writing contest? He certainly hoped so, as it was always one of his favourite events at the Festivals.

Reaching into his backpack, he pulled out a slice of bread and cheese, and began to nibble upon them, not letting any of the crumbs fall to the ground. He had not eaten since before they'd left the Keep. Misha had wanted them to travel light and fast, so he'd only packed few meals. They would probably not return with the same urgency that they had come, so had only allowed himself this one breaking of his fast before the battle.

The bread was dry, but at the very least it was still fresh. To date, he had managed to avoid any food quite as bad as when he'd been sailing on the Arrow. He shuddered at the memory of those worm-infested crusts. With thanks, he bit deep into the soft portion of cheese, and savoured its sweet flavour. It was not much, but at least it did not turn his stomach.

When he peered up at the rest of the camp, he saw Rickkter scrambling out from beneath one of the other willows spaced along on the upraised ledge. The raccoon was already dressed in the dark cassock, the cloth drawn tightly about his frame. The tip of his striped tail poked out from beneath it as he made his way across the stones. Just as he was about to sit upon another of the oak roots, he noticed the rat idly watching him.

Rickkter walked over then, his voice low, and again in the Southern tongue, "I've been wondering about something for a while now. Isn't it against your clan's rules to enact a totzesond for one not of the Sondeckis?"

Charles finished the last of his bread, and maintained his calm demeanor. It was too early in the morning to let himself be bothered by the Kankoran. They had a truce, and he intended to honour it. "Yes, it is."

"So why are you here?" Rickkter asked, bending over slightly, but refusing to sit upon the same outcropping as the rat.

Matthias didn't see any harm in being open about this, since the reasons were rather visible. "I'm not just a Sondeckis anymore, Rickkter. I'm joining the Longs, and I owe an obligation to each and every one of them as well. From what I have heard, you've belonged to more than just the Kankoran yourself. You've served in armies, and now you serve in the patrols and the Metamorian Army. Surely you know that you are indebted to each of them as well."

Rickkter snorted once, though the usual contempt was not in it. "I'm a mercenary; I'm not going to risk my neck just because some idiot managed to get themselves killed. My obligation to them ends when they pay me." Then his eyes hardened a moment. "You still haven't answered me. Why did you break your own clan's rules?"

Charles favoured him with a lop-sided grin. "But I have not. I've not called the totzesond. I do not need to in order to avenge those I care about."

The raccoon appeared to be lost in thought for a moment. But it was a very brief moment, for soon he was upon his hind paws again, his arms bundled in the cloak. "So you do not feel there has been a death of justice?" he asked incredulously.

"Oh, there has, but it is not my place to call that. That is Misha's, and I think you very well know how he feels."

Again, the Kankoran snorted, and then shook his head. "Ask him what happened if you really want to know how much your justice has died in these lands. There he comes now."

Charles followed the pointing claw and saw the fox surpassing the rise followed by another Long. When he turned around, he saw the back of Rickkter's head as the raccoon moved away, leaving the rat to his own devices. Matthias grimaced, closed the drawstring on his pack and hefted it over his shoulder.

It only took him a few steps to catch up with Misha, whose face was devoid of anything but intent. True to the raccoon's word, their was a slight discolouration and swelling on the left side of his muzzle."Misha, can I talk to you alone for a moment?" Charles asked in his softest whisper.

With hand signals, the fox pointed to a small alcove in the cliff face, and he bade the other Keeper continue on without him. Once they passed the Giant's Dike, none of them would speak aloud, only in hand signals. In his two months of training so far, Charles had learned most of them, but he was not nearly as quick with them as the rest of the Longs were.

Like everything else on this mountainside, the alcove was wet and sticky. Mica coated the underside of the rocks, and moss clung to every bit of damp earth that the rat could see. A distant rolling thunder sounded just over the hills to the South.

"What is it?" Misha asked, his paws quicker than words.

The rat tried to speak with hand signals, but was not completely sure how to convey his meaning, so switched back to spoken language, albeit spoken very softly. "What happened to the side of your face?"

"It was bruised in a fight, nothing more." Misha replied, his own voice low. The grey eyes were nearly lifeless with his glacial desire for revenge. Yet they twitched uncomfortably at the question, traitorous pariahs revealing the fox's duplicity.

"I think there's more to it than that. I deserve to know."

The fox glowered downwards, the shade falling across his face, giving him a ghastly countenance. "We do not have the time for this."

"Yes, we do," Charles assured him. "Most of the men here are still waking up. And we will have to wait for Andre anyway. You might as well tell me now. I'm not going to let you walk away without telling me."

Misha grunted, and folded his arms across his chest. One tip of his claw thumbed a dagger sheathed there. "You and Rickkter are more alike than you know. He said much the same thing to me that night."

"What night?" The comparison slightly irked the rat, but he did his best to ignore it.

"The night they brought Caroline back," Misha's voice turned soft then, unable to gaze at Charles anymore. "I was so mad, I wanted to head straight out into the woods and just kill anything I found. I would have walked to my own death had Rickkter not stopped me."

"How did he do that?"

"You do know that it was Rickkter who found Caroline?"

Charles swallowed the bile in his throat. "No, I had not."

"She'd been tied down to a bed, her fingers broken, her body bruised and beaten repeatedly. And then they had raped her, one right after another. She would have died in another day or so had Rickkter's team not found them. It was a sweep and clean operation, so those responsible were already dead. I just could not stand the fact that my chance at revenge had been snatched away."

Again, the rat blanched. The single thought flowing through his mind was the image of that being done to Lady Kimberly. A fire kindled inside of his heart at the prospect, the same one that Misha must have been feeling that night; only for the fox it was real. "Rickkter stopped me though, he found me at the main armoury. I did not use the one in the Long House because I did not want to be discovered. When words did not succeed in changing my mind, he used force. Rickkter gave me this to save my life that night."

Charles wanted to say something, anything, but his tongue would not work. Instead, Misha continued his soliloquy."His intervention has allowed us this chance to strike at Nasoj, and to deal a deadly blow. Those who hurt Caroline and killed Craig are already dead. Now, I will exact my price for their pain. Is this what you wanted to know?"

Numb, the rat nodded, finally finding his voice again. "Yes, that is it. Thank you." He stumbled from the alcove, and leaned over his pack. Misha walked over towards the other Longs, no longer even noticing the rat. Rickkter was nowhere to be seen, and for that, Charles was glad. Turning back to the alcove, he vomited his meal in one spasm, tears of anger fresh in his eyes.

His first sight of Stepping Rock Castle was that of an old mouldy wall stretching up from the forest floor. A light drizzle soaked their fur, pelting off their armour. It was too dark to see anything else of the castle, but Misha assured them all that this was the place. Charles, being a rat, could see rather well in the darkness, but the rest of the battlements simply drifted into a lulling haze past the first set of cardizans.

Of course, like all castles, there was an open stretch of ground between them and the wall. Kneeling down in the brush just within the trees, each of the Longs held ready their bows. Charles had never been much for archery in his younger days, but was finding the practice of it quite invigorating. His claws held the nock of the arrow gently against the thick cord, as he scanned the roof of the crenellated wall. It wasn't even his bow, but Finbar's. The ferret would have no use for it though until they began the descent into the courtyard beyond the wall.

Lisa and Finbar scampered out into the darkness, crossing the short distance with no alarum sounded. There had been a guard atop the battlements, but in the dim illumination, it appeared that he'd continued on his rounds. With her two short swords slapping gently against her thighs, Lisa began the ascent, Finbar right along side of her. It was clearly obvious to Charles that while the ferret scampered up the length of the crusty wall, Lisa had a bit of trouble. He wondered if the handholds were too slick for her to grip tightly enough, only being fourteen years old and with smaller than normal hands.

Yet he tried not to watch them too closely, but instead upon the top of that wall. A bit of rain splattered down his face and roll into his eyes. Grunting to himself, he brushed it out with his shoulder, but kept his bow aimed. If something did happen, he knew that he would not be the first to release his arrow. He simply did not want to be the last.

Thankfully though, nothing happened, Lisa and Finbar managed to scale the wall without the tocsin sounding. As Charles waited for the ropes to be dangled over the side, the figure of the Lutin returned. Walking calmly across the causeway, his yellow eyes cast about, though slovenly. And for a brief moment, a second figure appeared behind him, this one sinuous, with a pronounced snout. The Lutin's head snapped back as a knife plunged through the back of his neck. And then, both figures were gone. The ropes fell across the wall shortly thereafter.

Charles slowly released the cord, taking the arrow and replacing it with the others in the quiver just slung over his shoulders. He then draped the bow across one shoulder as did the other Longs and waited for his turn to climb over the wall. Two by two, the Longs and the others Misha had invited made their way across the field, and up that first wall. Patting his side, the rat checked each of his weapons. The short sword that was standard issue was still buckled to his side, though Matthias only intended to use that if he had no other choice. The quarterstaff made from fresh hickory was slung across his back as well, but he preferred the feel of it in his paws. He traced a claw over the brass ferrules at the top of the staff; it would serve to cave in a few chests quite effectively.

When his time came, the rat nodded to the last two waiting behind, and scampered across the field. For some reason, he found himself scaling the wall opposite Rickkter. The raccoon noticed as well, but it was too dark to tell what his expression had been. Charles climbed even faster, determined to outpace his rival. But the raccoon was quite adept at scaling old, mouldy castle walls, and so they came toppling over the parapet at the same time.

The rest of the Keepers were crouched low along the causeway, their mouths frozen into a silent stare, their hands saying everything that was needed. Finbar held his own low to the two, and they intuitively understood. Sitting upon his haunches, the rat cast his eyes about until he found the dead Lutin. The scent of blood was muted in the light drizzle, and was quickly being washed away. He rubbed at the cloth of his robe, pulling it tightly about him. It was already soaked, hanging heavily upon him, and it only chilled him more to have it close. Yet its black fabric was a comfort to him if nothing else.

A tap at his shoulder made him spin about deftly, but silently. It was Finbar, the ferret was pointing at the bow and quiver. Charles unslung the quiver and handed it the Long, as well as the stout bow. Finbar nodded in thanks, and then turned back to the inner bailey. Matthias then drew out the staff, gripping the tight hickory beneath his paws. This was a weapon he was much more comfortable with.

The descent into the courtyard went just as effortlessly, and soon, all of them were huddled next to the wall, the buildings inside Stepping Rock castle glowing faintly with torchlight. It slept in the lull of the pitter-patter or rain upon the slate tile roofs, unaware of who had just arrived uninvited. Finally, the ropes were drawn in and Lisa motioned with her hands, "Ready to go, everyone is here."

Misha gathered their attention with his deep grey eyes. Even in the dim light, they appeared to glow with a fierce determination. His palms drew together, and then slow separated, the signal for head out with your teams. Charles swallowed once, digging the ferrules into the ground, trying to obscure their natural shine. The rain had washed away the grime he'd coated it with earlier.

The fox then crossed himself, and Charles thought back to Father Hough's blessing of so long ago. "And Eli go with you," was all that Misha had said, and it was all that needed saying. Turning, Charles found the other members of his team already starting on their way to the gatehouse. With one last look over his shoulder, he left Misha behind. He wondered just how long it would take for the killing to begin.

The gatehouse was their main objective, but to gain access to it, they needed to cross a field that was littered with Lutin huts and other ramshackle attempts at buildings. There were very few lights, as the rain had doused most of the torches that were spaced around the camp. The entire field was silent, and no sentries were visible. Charles gripped his staff tighter as he cast his dark eyes around the camp. There was simply nothing there. It felt like they were already dead, but he knew that was nonsense. They were probably just asleep, or hiding.

A quick conference of eyes and a single hand motion from Laura, a tall female whose face was darkened with the paint, indicated that they would pass around the camp. As they moved around in a circle, the rat could feel their team leader's eyes upon him. He did not return the gaze, instead trying not to breathe in the awful stench that encompassed the Lutin village. It reminded him of the streets of Arabarb far to the north. But then he'd been unarmed, and crawling about so close to it as a rat. This was not nearly so bad.

Pulling his robe tighter, he grimaced as it began to fill with rain again. He'd squeezed most of the water from his robe, and it hung much more comfortably from his shoulders now. He had not realized how quickly it could collect the moisture. Of course, growing up in a desert, he had not much experience with rain and this cloth. Squeezing one corner of it, he watched it drip onto the mud. Once they'd secured the gatehouse, he could give it a thorough emptying.

His head shot up at the sound of a dog barking. Gazing ahead, a small mangy dog had let up an alarm, its eyes looking at them in some fright. Arla crept forward, her canine form suiting her best to this situation. The arrows that had so quickly shot up, lowered again as the collie bared her fangs and wagged her tail in greeting at the other dog. The first stopped barking, and meekly rolled onto his back, exposing his belly in submission.

Charles let a small grin cross his features as Arla patted the dog's belly with one paw, gently massaging it and soothing the disturbed creature. The six of them walked on past the prostrate animal, who began to trail after them as they went. Digging his claw into the wood, the rat tried not to think about their new companion, hoping that it would not betray them at just the wrong moment. Arla appeared to be slightly pleased at its company, but the other Longs gave no indication.

Circling the camp did take time though, and once again, Charles found himself smearing the ends of his staff in the mud. This whole adventure had been one dreary day followed by another. The rat would be glad when it was over, or at least he hoped he would. From what he understood, this was the first time in many years that so many of the Longs were on the same mission together.

They found a long road stretching out of the camp in their path. It was abutted on both sides by low lying stone walls. They crouched behind the first, taking a few moments to glance over the edges and then back to each other. The dog appeared to have laid down somewhere back behind them, for which the rat was secretly glad.

"Can we go around it?" Matthias signed. If it were his choice, he would never expose himself so openly as that road. Of course, that could have something to do with his being a rat, but he did not dwell on what instinct told him was best.

Laura took one look and then shook her head. Her hands signed just as quickly, "No, there's no telling how long it is and besides we don't have the time. We'll cross it one at a time. I will go first."

The girl stepped over the wall, glancing to both sides. The road was as empty as the sky was of stars that night. Charles held tight his staff and his breath as she quickly darted across the dirt road, finally diving behind the other wall. He sighed in relief, even as the next Long began their trek.

Charles waited in silence as the Long crossed the road one by one. Ralls followed swiftly after Laura, sweeping the street with his gaze before joining the girl on the other side. Arla, Meredith, and Allart were soon to join them. As soon as the young boy scrambled over the loose masonry, the sound of singing could be heard coming down the road. Charles crouched lower, a shiver running up his spine and down to the tip of his tail.

A group of what appeared to be forty Lutins were cavorting down the street, singing, laughing, and occasionally striking each other and swearing foul obscenities. They stopped just in the middle of the road, their eyes dulled by drink. The rat grimaced, peering across the open space at the blackened face of Laura. He signed, "Now what?"

"We wait," came the response.

There was a brief fight, and the rat ducked his head beneath the stone wall, all alone in the vast emptiness of the courtyard. The sounds of the scuffle started to die down, and the singing returned once again. Peering over top of the stonework, he saw that the Lutins had broken out several wineskins and were merrily inebriating themselves.

"How long?" Charles signalled with his paws, trying his best to keep his motions muted, so as not to attract the attention of the Lutins. Drunk or not, they could sound the alarm, and that would complicate matters. "It looks like they are going to be here a while."

After a moment's pause, Laura signed, "Can you circle around?"

The rat scanned the area, trying to gauge the Lutin's position, and what brush would make good cover. He might as well circle around the other side of the Lutin village for all the good it would do him! Still, in their drunken state, he doubted they'd notice one extra shadow. If he drew the robe about him even tighter, he'd be nothing but a shadow, and in this blackness, he would cast none himself.

Finally, he motioned with his paws, "Yes, but it will take me a while." He was improving with these hand signals, a fact that lifted his spirits slightly.

"We don't have the time," Laura responded urgently. He could see the frustration in her countenance. They'd not even made it to the gatehouse and already they'd been waylaid.

Though he was loathe to do it, he knew it was for the best. "Go ahead without me, I'll meet you at the gatehouse."

"No. We don't leave anyone behind."

"I can take care of myself," he sent back, glancing briefly at the quarterstaff resting between his knees. "I'll be right behind." L:aura did not appear to be convinced. "Go!" he signed one last time, an urgent motion that he was half afraid he'd made too large. Grimacing to himself, Charles dropped back behind the wall, ending the argument. He drew the staff up in his paws, the stout hickory firm beneath his fingers. It felt good to hold. The moue vanished from his face as he realized that he was now surrounded by a hundred Lutins and no help would come. He rather liked those odds.

Slipping out from behind the crumbling wall, he began to slink down its length. In the distance, he could see the decrepit stone monolith that was the main hall of Stepping Rock castle. He would be there soon. Charles sincerely hoped that Laura and his other new friends would be all right.

chapter 4

The gatehouse had been cleared by the time Charles finally reached the main hall. He gripped his staff tightly as he moved past several dead bodies, and into the manor proper. Laura and the others would be well on their way to killing any Lutin they came across, so there was no point anymore in simply trying to find them. He would do as they did, kill anything that he saw that was not a Keeper.

Most of the anterooms in the castle were cleared, so he headed towards the inner chambers, following the mental map he had made back at the briefing. There was a small Lightbringer chapel a few rooms away, though it had not served in its capacities as a place of worship ever since Nasoj had destroyed the human settlement here in his march to Metamor. The transom was covered with mould and neglect, and the doors were half open, letting a cold draft blow through. Curling his robe tightly to his chest, Charles squeezed into the chamber beyond.

It was a two-tiered sanctuary, with vaulted ceiling overhead and birds nesting in the rafters. Icons of each of the Lothanasi pantheon decorated the walls, though they had long since been ruined and vandalised in the occupation. Only the caricatures remained of what had once been beautiful statuary. Even though he was a Follower, Charles felt horrified at the debasement of a sanctuary devoted to the praise and worship of the gods. It was clear that the Lutins only used this place to destroy something when they were bored.

The scent of Lutin was faint here, though, and so he continued on inwards, partly from curiosity. He'd never been inside the chapel of a Lightbringer temple before, even one as trashed as this. People had once come here to celebrate their faith. He rested his paw on an overturned pew, pondering who had once sat in those seats.

The sound of metal against metal snapped his head up. From out behind each of the icons, had appeared a group of several Lutins, bearing swords and clubs. Charles scanned the chapel, and saw that they were on all sides. The Lutins had lain in wait for the Keepers to come into this room. With only one, and a rat at that, how could they not easily dispatch him?

Matthias rubbed his paws together, and then swung his staff about a few times before him, standing ready, foot paws wide apart, tail held just off the ground, and the black robe flowing around his body. From every side, they screamed, running towards him, ready to destroy one simple rat who had walked into their clutches. Charles jumped on one of the still standing pews, and threw himself at the nearest icon. The face was too long scarred to even make out the details.

The group of Lutins nearby had been running too fast to slow down, and so he passed them by, landing behind them. With two sharp racks, he smashed the ferrules against the back of the nearest two Lutin's necks, snapping them both. It was too dark to really see what the Lutins on the far side of the room were doing, but as long as he could see those close, that was all that mattered.

Their cries recommenced, and they pressed him against the wall behind the icon, while those trying to attack him stumbled away with broken bones and bruises across their chest. Matthias continued his sharp jabs with the staff, knocking aside weapons, and slamming the end against heads, chests, and arms, even a leg or two when he swung low enough. Being only four feet tall, he was about the same height as most of his attackers, and that gave him quite an advantage. Stooping to strike an enemy was such a hassle.

Though the hickory of his staff was quite stout, Charles had trained with staves much stronger in his days at Sondeshara. He had already broken four while Misha had tested his skills in the past two months. So he did his best to restrain his Sondeck while fighting against the Lutins, though they came in such powerful surges he had a hard time with it. Finally, he swung the staff in a long arc, colliding with another club, breaking both weapons in two.

Charles dropped the useless shaft and drew his sword, swinging it in long circular crescents, keeping each of the Lutins back away from him. The shouts of pure rage then, turned to dismay as another taller figure waded through the mass of attackers, each waiting their turn to swipe at the rat. Matthias peered into the darkness, and saw a cloaked figure slashing with two long hooked rods through the backs of the Lutins. It was Rickkter.

For the first time in his life, Charles was happy to see the raccoon, who managed to make his way close enough to the rat who was struggling to hold his ground against the surge of Lutins who appeared endless in supply. His weapon appeared to be long metal rods with a curved hook at one end, rather like a fishing lure. Rickkter used them with devastating efficiency, snatching the Lutins' weapons from their hands with one, and then raking the other across their throats or chests. However, with so many of them pressing at his back, they became a bit unwieldy. One of his rods imbedded itself inside the skull of a Lutin trying to leap from one of the icons, and twisted out of Rickkter's paws. Discarding the other inside a green chest, he drew forth his katana, the metallic ring sizzling the air.

The Kankoran took one look at him, reached a single paw inside his holocaust cloak, and cried out, "Catch!" Something bright flew through the air, and Matthias threw his fist at one nearby Lutin, knocking him out of the way without ever touching him.

The object fell into his paws as if it were born there. The rat immediately recognized it as Rickkter's Sondeshike. With a flick of his wrist, he extended the long pole, smacking the butt end into a club-waving Lutin's face. The skull shattered, spreading a foam of milky-red blood across the ferrules of the shaft and down across one side of the rat's fur. Charles blinked in surprise at the force that had detonated with that impact. And then, he decided to put his years and years of training at Sondeshara to use.

While there was no question that Rickkter was eminently skilled with the Sondeshike, only a Sondeckis truly trained in the proper techniques can use it the way it was meant to be. No longer did Matthias simply jab at nearby Lutins, but instead, he swung the shaft about his body in quick arcs, letting it dance about his cloak as if it had a life of its own. Charles spun on his hind paws, leaping into the air, twirling about, crushing chests with each blow that would come from nowhere. The Lutins flung themselves at his back, trying to strike while he was looking elsewhere, but each time, the Sondeshike would drive backwards, splintering skulls and crushing necks.

The rod whirling about him, Charles capered through the sea of flesh, his mind no longer a conscious object, but one driven by the Sondeck. It was the perfect synthesis of flesh and spirit. The pure essence of force emanating from the rat's body, in conjunction with every other Sondeckis who had ever held this weapon. It was as if they fought through him, meeting every skill, every tactic that his enemies dared to use. With sudden swiftness, counterstrikes stopped a side attack, disarming a Lutin, and not just the blade, only to fly back to his other side, and sweep cleanly through the knees of another advancing group. His eyes did not see them, for he knew where they were by their very presence.

In a few short moments, Charles found himself back to back with Rickkter. Their powers flowed freely, the Kankoran and Sondeckis working in tandem. Charles was sick with the rage it brought, striking fiercer and fiercer at each enemy that stood before him as they circled about the centre of the chapel. Blood splattered with each strike, his simple metallic stave ripping apart the bodies of the Lutins it struck.

Rickkter did just as well, slashing through the exposed bellies of his attackers, their intestines spilling upon the cracked stonework, as they crumpled to the floor in agony. Charles barely had time to consider the skill of the raccoon at his back, but those times when his range of sight allowed him to watch, he could barely glimpse the spinning blade before it imbedded itself inches into the flesh of every Lutin who dared to attack. With each kill, Matthias could feel that long striped tail presses against his own, as if to chalk up his score.

The symphony of death about them continued as they circled faster and faster, their arts from ages old combining to expel deadly force. Those Lutins who stayed too far back for Charles to strike with the ferrules, he threw the force at them, breaking ribs and crunching their organs as they gasped for breath that would not come. Bodies of the dead Lutins littered the ground around them, and hung off the few standing pews left. The war cries of the Lutins turned into screams of fear as their bones cracked, and their skin burst with suppurating blood at each impact.

When Charles saw no more Lutins were willing to attack them, they began to chase after them, both side by side. They screamed and ran, trying to make for the doorway, but only the front entrance was left. With cries for mercy, they cowered when they could not escape, only to find Rickkter's sword point pierce through their throat, or the ferrules of the Sondeshike crushing their heads, spilling out the soppy grey muscle inside.

And then there was only one left. A straggler who'd hidden behind a pew after Charles had shattered the bone in his sword arm. He tried to slink away out the front door, but the two Keepers saw him, and walked their death march towards him, the sword glistening in the pale illumination with the same blood that coated Charles's fur.

Matthias put up one paw as they approached, the Lutin stumbling, bawling for some saviour that would not come. Rickkter nodded and stood back as the rat advanced on the cowering creature. He held his one good arm over his head, his face contorted in a rictus of pure fear. And then the Sondeshike slammed down through his chest, all the way into the floor beneath him. Matthias reached down, and jabbed his claws through the eyes, bursting them in a flood of white pus. Then, he griped the bones beneath, and yanked free the head, holding it aloft by the eye sockets.

With one last peroration of his rage, he smashed the now lifeless head against one of the Lightbringer gods. Hefting the Sondeshike, he gazed about for more enemies, but none were to be seen. And then, with a loud report, the door to the chapel swung open, and a massive figure barged in, his sword fresh with the glint of blood as well. Charles and Rickkter turned at the ready, their mouths crying out in animal fury at this new enemy.

And then, a torchbearer entered the room, following behind the first figure, and showed whose face it was. Andre peered at the blood soaked Keepers with sudden fear, and then concern. "Matthias, Rickkter, what happened here?"

The raccoon was the first to find his ferocity ebb. He kicked the limp arm of a Lutin lying at his side, his chest opened in several gashes. "They died," he said, his voice cold, but sure. Charles nodded once, shrinking the Sondeshike back down to its compact form, and slipping it beneath the folds of his robe. Secretly, he hoped that the Kankoran did not notice this.

The storm had broken that night, and the sun shone down upon them as they rested in a small clearing south of the Giant's Dike. A stream meandered its way through the rocks, pooling in slight depressions, and then continuing on down the slope. They had been walking all morning already, most eager to return home to see their loved ones. Though it was a brighter, cheerier day, still most were morose, speaking infrequently, and even then only a few words.

Charles knelt before the stream, apart from the others, gazing into his shimmering reflection as the water flowed past. The dyes had become corrupted with red stains from the fight in the chapel. He reached a paw to the crusting fur just over one eye, touching what could have been a carbuncle, but was only a slight bruise smeared with mud, blood, and the camouflage.

He picked at a bit of the clump, breaking off a piece of the caked-on debris, and tossed it idly into the river. It began to break apart in the swiftly moving stream, and in moments it had drifted off down to the next depression. Charles watched it until it was gone, though he did not know why.

After the battle in the chapel, Rickkter, Matthias, Andre, and the knight's men continued on towards other portions of the castle, finding many stragglers, but dispatching them with ease. Though, nothing quite on the order of what had happened in the hall of the Lightbringers at Stepping Rock Castle. And neither of the southern magicians ever felt the bloodlust that they had there, fighting back to back against the veritable horde. By dawn, once the Longs had regrouped, assured that every being in that fortress was dead, they had been so thoroughly drenched in blood, that it appeared as if they'd been swimming in it.

Glancing over at the Longs, he could see that Misha was still in a confused daze, almost completely unresponsive. How much blood had he spilled last night, the rat wondered to himself. Rickkter appeared unaffected, except for a true look of concern for the fox that flashed over his countenance every time he saw the catatonic Keeper. Charles rubbed his claws against the small piece of metal bundled in his robe. The raccoon had not asked him to return the Sondeshike yet, and Matthias had no intention of making this fact known.

Returning his eyes to the stream, Charles lowered his arms into the water, rubbing them down, trying to remove the blood from the fur. He did not have any soap with him, and the red stains were unsightly, as well as inordinately uncomfortable. Much of the clumping washed away as he massaged the fur of his upper arms, but the general hue remained. Indeed, the stream was momentarily discoloured by his immersion, but the current quickly cleared it up.

Sitting back on his haunches, Charles considered his arms. The blood had stained deep into his fur, and he knew that it would not be until they returned to Metamor that he would be able to remove it. How many Lutins had died last night underneath his paws? The first few he could recall, but after he'd taken the Sondeshike, it was all a blur. It felt like an entire life had been concentrated in that battle in the Chapel, but one given only in dreams.

Picking at something beneath his claws, he tried to remove the red taint from them as well, but with much the same lack of success. His robe, a simple black cassock that he had donned for the journey, was ruined, but he had nothing else to wear until they returned to the Keep. Yet somehow, to the writer in him, it all was ironic. When they returned home, everyone would know what they had done. He could imagine Lady Kimberly recoiling at his dirtied state, and he would not blame her if she did.

Charles sighed, gazing down at his dishevelled expression in the river before him. They all had taken part in this letting of blood, and very few of it was their own. In gazing into those black orbs though, he wondered how much of the crimson stains happened to belong to their spirit's.

As he watched, another figure's blurred image was reflected in the water. "Sit by the river long enough, and you shall see the body of your enemy float by," quoted the raccoon as he knelt a few metres downstream.

"An old saying," Charles observed. He noticed that Rickkter looked almost as bad as he, the thick fur on his face deeply encrusted with the blood of the dead. His arms were mostly clean, but the rat vaguely remembered those being covered by light armour. "What are you here for?"

"To clean up, same as you." Rickkter reached up and vigorously scratched through the dried blood. It came down on the flowing water like a crimson snow. "I've been thinking about what you said earlier," he commented as he scrubbed a particularly tough clot on his cheek, "about this being the first time in five centuries our sects have co-operated. And for what happened, I think I can see why. If the Sondeck and the Kankoran ever allied, I think there's very little that could stop us."

For some reason, the conversation was just as unreal as the fight had been. It felt to Charles like he was watching it happen to somebody else. Even so, the mere thought of the Sondeckis and Kankoran allying for a common cause was enough to send a shiver up his spine. Having no desire to continue on down that path, despite the incredulity of it all, he posed a different topic. "Misha told me what you did."

"Ah, I see." The raccoon turned and gazed curiously at the fox. Misha sat towards the back of the camp, bloodied and wrapped in bandages. "I see he didn't come through it as well as some."

With a look back himself, Charles was forced to agree, though the vacant stare the fox bore was more unsettling than any of his wounds. Yet what gnawed at him most in that moment was that the Kankoran's previous arrogant attitude had mellowed to civility. "I think this is the first time he's done something of this size. Before Metamor, he was just a siege engineer. During this battle he was consumed with rage, probably something that he's never felt. Or at least, not on this scale. I take it you heard what happened with Hurd?"

Hurd had been the commander of the Lutin forces at Stepping Rock. He had also carried a Metamorian skull as a trophy. From what others had said, Misha had gone into a blind rage, and ripped Hurd's throat out with his bare teeth before tossing his body into the thick of the battle outside the gates. Though Charles had not seen it, he could hardly imagine that it was any worse than what Rickkter and he perpetrated in the old Lothanasi chapel.

"Yes, I did. Crazy." Rickkter moved to clean his ears. "I was talking with him, after the funeral. He's a good leader, but he lacks experience, in my opinion. I think his condition now shows that fact."

Charles took a moment to gaze back at the fox once more. Misha was wrapped in the bandages, some of them stained with the old blood, others fresh. The grey eyes simply stared at the ground before him as he sat slouched over. Will was next to him, trying to talk with the fox, but finding no success. Matthias turned back to the stream, unable to see his friend anymore. How much of the fox's face did he wear? "Perhaps you're right."

"Perhaps it's just that we've just seen too much, you and I," the raccoon said as he stood up and brushed off his clothing before turning and departing.

"Rickkter," Charles called suddenly. The raccoon turned back, his face curious. "Why the sudden attitude change?"

The Kankoran appeared to be thinking about that for a moment before a sly smile crossed his visage. "Call it respect. For a fellow warrior." Then once more, he began to head back to the rest of the camp. He had not asked about the Sondeshike.

Matthias chortled drily at that, a moue settling over his vapid countenance, and rose from the stream. The other Longs were assembling and preparing to continue on their journey. It was still a long way to Metamor.