That night, as the new year started, the people of Starven discussed recent events. Marcomir and Cnivagild cleared the snow from the lake bank, making a large enough area for a fire. Others camped nearby, watching the road for trouble. More lutins were seen roaming near the road, but they never ventured far from the foreboding forest east of town. Some villagers found this uncanny, as the lutins seemed to be restrained by an invisible wall.
Hearing something rustle in the trees late at night, Cnivagild said: "What do you think that was? More wolves? Or a lutin? Perhaps we should organize a hunting party. I bet we could sell wolf pelts for a lot more than salted fish."
Marcomir answered: "Probably lutins. Those pointy eared freaks are always plotting something. Back before Nasoj came, there was always a risk of lutin raids in the winter. Whenever there was lots of ice on the lake, they were sure to attack Starven."
Marcomir paused upon hearing a sound out by the road. Shapes could be briefly glimpsed in the shadows. Holding a torch, Cnivagild said: "It's a whole bunch of lutins, digging in the snow." Spotting more movement nearby, Cnivagild added "They've got a bunch of their pets too. More wolves, I'd guess."
Hearing something rolling, Marcomir said: "Perhaps we should alert the rest of Starven." A few villagers had walked away from their fires, watching the lutin activity. They wondered if a raid was starting.
"No. They are just after the wagon." Cvinagild answered. The lutins rapidly faded into the darkness, as they trundled the wagon down the path into the Black Woods. A few howls echoed across the plain, but soon all was quiet again.
The next morning, skies finally cleared. As Bragamund walked out to the road, to thank Oblineth for her lenience, he spotted a ragged band of lutins approaching from the south. Others also saw them, so soon the people from Starven lined the road, ready to stop any attack. Archers stood at the edge of the barges, watching for any hostile moves.
As the lutins drew closer, it was evident that they were not ready for combat. Few carried weapons, and most bore fresh wounds, recently inflicted in battle None appeared to have any swords. They were moving as quickly as they could through the snow.
As the leader of the lutin band approached, Marcomir moved forward to the road, flanked by several men carrying spears. He immediately noticed that the path to Lik was entirely clear of snow, with fresh wheel ruts carved into the frozen ground. At once, he remember the lutins dragging the wagon away at night. They wouldn't take anything else of value.
"Stop. What are you doing here? Where is the rest of Nasoj's army?," Marcomir said.
The lead lutin said: "No more fight for Nasoj. Too many killed. We run away. Give us food."
Cnivagild glared at the lutin: "We don't give anything to deserters. Go back and fight, and maybe we'll give you some if you return."
Cnivagild began to regret his words as he noticed more lutins emerge from the woods to the east. They beckoned to the new arrivals, who promptly turned off the road. Soon, they joined their comrades in the forest, and faded away into the trees.
Marcomir turned to Cnivagild: "It looks like Nasoj has failed to open the pass again. If he had won, the lutins would be busy plundering the Keep. We'll probably see more stragglers soon, as the lutins won't want to stay with a defeated army."
Meanwhile, Lilith's forces were busy near the Dark Keep, an old abandoned fortress a few miles from Starven. The Vampire Queen's magic had created a thick, tangled wall of brambles nearby, designed to direct fleeing remnants of Nasoj's forces into her forest. The Tauremorna itself had grown, helping to obstruct the flight of the shattered army, drawing it into the nexus.
Nasoj's army had burned the Dark Keep several years ago, but it still could be useful once its defenses were repaired. Skeleton men rapidly cleared away rubble from the sides of the black stones lining the curtain wall. Others placed logs with sharpened points along the edge of the encircling ditch, preparing it for possible attack. Lilith intended to hold her new territories.
In the central tower, Lilith's minions detained a human prisoner. Lutins were relatively easy to control, so Lilith had ordered any of them to be sent into the forest. Soon, they would be her willing slaves. Humans could be more difficult to deal with, so she wanted to deal with them more carefully. In the past, Lilith had converted some of her captives into vampires, and killed those she did not find useful, using their souls for her dark magic. But now, she had a more complex plan prepared.
A large gray wolf climbed up the steps to the tower. A draconian captain was waiting for him at the top, ready to report on his interrogation of the captive: "Lord Black Fang. It appears to be one of the humans from Lik. He ran away from the battle faster than the others, so he's the first one we've caught. Nasoj should never have trusted these fools."
Looking intently at the prisoner, Black Fang noticed a small pouch hanging by his side. Flexing his wings for a moment, the draconian continued, "We think he was carrying jewels back to Lik, without permission. So he's both a coward and a thief."
The prisoner winced at this remark, "I was ordered to save these gems, so they wouldn't be taken by the Keepers. But I took the wrong path in the snow, and ended up here, after your skeleton men surrounded me. How dare you detain Valaric of Lik! I'm one of Nasoj's trusted servants. He will punish you for this."
Irritated by this insolence, the draconian's reptilian eyes glittered: "That's not a likely story. Ba'al was a fool to make such an effort for an idiot like Nasoj. We've had agents watching the battle. All of his Moranasi are dead. You just ran away to save your own skin when you saw things were going badly. But you came to the wrong place."
Black Fang padded over to the plate armor, stacked next to the wall by the draconians. Only the rich men of Lik could afford it. He then tried to mentally recall the prisoner's face. If Valaric really was an important person in Lik, it would be useful to emulate his form closely. Shapeshifting spells were most effective if blood was used, so physical contact might be needed.
The draconian's tail flipped back and forth, carefully monitoring the human's motions. As he saw Valaric reach for the pouch with his right hand, the draconian lunged forward, and pressed a claw into his neck: "I don't think you're a magic user, but I don't want to take any chances. We'll take your hand off that pouch one way or another." Valaric struggled briefly, but other draconians soon ran into the room, pinning him to the ground.
Black Fang now walked forward, baring his teeth as he approached the terrified man. With one fast bite, he tore off Valaric's right hand, and held it in his mouth. The bag dropped to the ground, and a number of crystals spilled out of it, shimmering in the light against the ebony stones of the Dark Keep. Blood oozed next to a ruby, both glistening red from the rays of the dim winter sun.
As Valaric slumped into a corner, the draconians attended to Black Fang. After only a minute, he spat out the hand. While Black Fang enjoyed eating human flesh, he was mainly interested in the blood. Black Fang wasn't a vampire, but found blood very useful when performing a metamorphosis into a target creature. He could now sense the essence of Valaric's being.
More draconians arrived, and walked over to Black Fang, carrying a cloak and other articles of clothing. Black Fang's fur began to rapidly recede, as his lupine form started to shift into a human pattern. Valaric stared from the corner, blood pouring out of his truncated right arm. The last thing he would see was a wolf's muzzle reshaping itself into the contours of his own face.
The draconians draped the cloak over Black Fang, who struggled onto two feet, walking to inspect the plate armor more carefully. "Oblineth must really be happy with herself, with the great freeze and blizzard. Hand me more clothes, as I have forgotten how cold it is to be human in mid-Winter. I've been a wolf for too long," Black Fang said to the draconians. Then, gesturing at the unconscious prisoner, he added, "Kill him, but use a necromancy spell. We can slowly burn the flesh off his bones to get more information. He might be useful when we attack Lik."
The draconian captain immediately obeyed, slicing Valaric's throat with a sacrificial knife. Other draconians carried the corpse off, heading to a chamber in the Dark Keep used by a mage skilled in necromancy. Black Fang turned to the draconian captain with new orders: "I must leave now, to carry out Lilith's plan for Starven. You have a very important role here, as you must watch for a certain fox. He is one of the beasts from Metamor, and is sure to pursue Nasoj's fleeing host. The Queen has discovered that he wields an axe which has great power, and wants to separate him from it. This weapon is easy to identify, as it is jet black and about five feet long. Our agents have been given this description, and are ordered to report to you. If you spot it, inform me immediately, because it will be vital to drive Nasoj's men out of Lik. This axe is protected by arcane magic, so we will need to act carefully to seize it quickly, and not give the Keepers a chance to regain it."
Shortly after noon, stragglers from the long battle began to arrive in Starven. They told tales of how they had been pursued by men from the Midlands, and how the lutins had fled when it became evident that the campaign was lost. Marcomir was not sure what to make of these stories, suspecting that they were only excuses concocted by deserters. However, it was good to get any news, even if it was inaccurate.
As shadows began to lengthen across the snow, the villagers noticed movement on the road to Lik. They could see someone was riding a horse, accompanied by a large band of followers. As the group drew closer, Marcomir saw that the rider wore platemail armor, and carried a large sword with a double-edged blade. His mount was charcoal black in color, and had glowing red eyes. Could this be another Morinasi? Only a powerful mage could command a darkhorse.
The mysterious horseman stopped on the edge of town, at the junction of the main road with the formerly abandoned path to Lik. He was followed by throngs of lutins, as well as strange reptilian creatures, whose scales glittered in the light reflected off the snow banks. The lutins marched in tight columns down the path, moving to either side as they left the woods.
Bragamund struggled up the slope to the road, hoping to get a closer view. He was a bit nervous after his previous encounter with the Morinasi, but eager to please anyone who might have magical powers. Perhaps he would do better if he immediately displayed his deference. As the rider dismounted, Bragamund fell prostrate in the snow in front of him, saying "The daedra have favored your journey, for the snow has finally relented. We are honored by your presence. Thank Ba'al."
The armored figure seemed pleased at Bragamund's first words, but flinched when Ba'al's name was mentioned. His steed was led away by a pair of lutins, who walked back with unblinking stares. The people of Starven watched the arrival of more lutins with increasing dread, fearing what might happen. Cnivagild, who had just arrived, noticed that the double-edged sword was unusual, of a type that was only manufactured in Lik. Could he have come from the battle? Eager to get find out, he said: "Aren't you from the Lik trade guild? I heard that one of their leaders, Valaric, commanded a detachment at the battle. What happened? Are you Valaric?"
The newcomer answered: "The same. We were betrayed by Nasoj, in his foolish campaign. The daedra have deserted him, so we now have a new leader. She will bring you freedom, and the favor of the daedra." Cnivagild felt very uncomfortable as Valaric looked directly at him with a penetrating gaze. Cnivagild thought there was something quite odd about Valaric's green eyes, which seemed to turn maroon for a moment.
Rising to his feet, after backing away from the Valaric, Bragamund listened intently to these words. Many had suspected something was wrong when Nasoj's army had not marched under Ba'al's standard. The long period of snow and clouds had strengthened these doubts, as Nasoj's campaigns were normally favored with fair weather. He was intrigued by Valaric's answer to Cnivagild. If he really was a man from the trade guild, how could he ride a darkhorse?
Bragamund then decided to speak: "How did you get away from the battle if you were betrayed? The road to Lik has been abandoned for many years."
The man the villagers now knew as "Valaric" answered: "We fled into the forest pursued by beasts from Metamor. The main road was blocked by the snow, and we were short of food. But we met a lady in the forest who gave us supplies, and promised to avenge our loss. For she was Queen Lilith, who rewards those who serve the daedra loyally, and sends traitors to their doom."
Bragamund recognized this word, for he had heard about the daedra of the forest. He glanced at the lutins, and noticed they were standing immobile on the edge of the woods. He immediately responded to Valaric: "Praise Lilith for your safe journey. We will honor the Queen for keeping the lutins away from our town."
Valaric looked pleased at this comment: "The lutins fled from the battle. Our Queen rewards those who do her bidding, but punishes those who fail to meet her expectations. They are now her thralls, and will not bother you unless our goal is not achieved. Our enemies are approaching from the south, and would be here already if not for the snow. We must make a defensive line on the river south of Starven, to stop the beasts from Metamor. Any who do not help will feel Lilith's wrath." As Valaric finished speaking, he grinned, showing pointed teeth, with canines elongated in a very non-human manner.
Cnivagild listened carefully, wondering what was going on. He was surprised to be addressed by the stranger. "Queen Lilith will bring new prosperity to this town. She has reopened the old road to Lik, and will bring its wealth here, if you fulfill her commands. She knows of your service in previous campaigns against Metamor, and has directed me to give you tokens of her good faith." Valaric reached into a pouch and handed Cnivagild a huge emerald, with a striking green glow.
He next walked over to Bragamund, giving him a ruby. The cleric was quite surprised, and relieved that he had not been magically attacked. As he first held the gem, he noticed that the ruby seemed to have a small amount of blood on it. As he turned away, Valaric muttered, "That's so you can perform a proper ritual. Lilith always wants some blood from her servants."
Marcomir remained skeptical of Valaric's words, and increasingly concerned about the large number of lutins gathered on the edge of town. A new band arrived quietly, carrying a banner with a large hound on it. These lutins were accompanied by a pack of long legged dogs, and appeared to be moving in a stealthy manner, unlike the others. If they weren't Lilith's slaves, perhaps they had voluntarily joined her cause. As the lutins moved by the edge of the woods, the animals did not make a sound, but seemed to emanate an eerie feeling of coldness. Marcomir shuddered as he watched them, fearing that it was about to snow again.
Valaric turned to Marcomir, "Do not be afraid while you are favored by the Queen. We need your men to bring the catapults from the barges, so we can defend this town from the invaders. Our lutin slaves will slow the attack, so we can prepare a defensive line at the river. Meanwhile, the draconians can guard Starven from raids."
Marcomir answered: "Raids. From lutins? We've defended ourselves in the past."
Valaric was clearly unhappy at this response: "Our scouts have reported ferocious attacks by a fox-man, one of the beasts from Metamor. He carries a great black axe, which you cannot mistake for any other weapon. If he comes here, inform the draconians, who will report to me. This vulpine menace has great power, so the Queen has a special plan for him."
Marcomir wondered what this plan might entail. He assumed the draconians were the humanoid reptiles walking towards the hill above the lake. He uneasily watched them stretching their wings in the cold breeze. They must be magical beasts, for no reptile would be active in mid-winter. He then said to Valaric: "So, you're not staying here to personally command them?"
Valaric turned abruptly: "No! I serve my Queen, and must defend the river from attackers. I do not care for salted fish, so I will not stay here. Lilith is generous, so she will send food to Starven from the forest. I'm sure you will like it better than whatever rations Nasoj left for you. All I need is for you to work with the draconians. If you cooperate, the Queen will reward you, and commerce will be open from Lik. If not, you will discover the consequences of angering the daedra."
As Valaric moved away, Marcomir felt very uneasy. Something did not seem right. Valaric's ears appeared momentarily to be furry and pointed, but that must be a trick of the light. Marcomir had probably been looking at the snow for too long. He then joined Cnivagild, and walked back to the barges.