Late in the afternoon, a cloaked figure walked along the road, many miles north of Metamor Keep. Lowenherz had seen the battlefield on the previous day, but did not want to linger there. He normally would try to act as a trader, to gather information, but the town below the Keep had been ravaged by the fighting. It would not be fit for commerce for several weeks.
Hearing that Nasoj's broken host had fled north, he decided to follow them. At night, he had flown north as a manticore, seeing the Midland troops rounding up shattered elements of the army, catching those who were too slow to escape. Once he was well ahead of them, as flying over drifts of snow was much faster than trudging across them, he landed. That morning, he resumed human form, and observed soldiers fleeing towards him from the south.
Now, he was near a small river, flowing west towards a large lake. Lowenherz was not eager to reach its northern bank, as he could see a band of lutins camped there. They were busy building barriers along the road, and displayed much more order than the routed remnats of the wizard's once mighty army. The highway was obstructed by a wall of thorns south of the stream, and brambles appeared to block it on the other side of the ravine. Perhaps this was the work of Nasoj, for only sorcery could produce such plant growth in mid-winter.
Lowenherz had been able to mingle with some of the fleeing men quite easily, as they were not interested in his identity, only in the quickest way to get away from the Metamor Valley. Many of them were angry at Nasoj for having ordered this futile expedition. Some were afraid, mentioning how the wizard had experimented on people in Hornulaq, partially transforming them into beasts. But most just seemed in a rush to get away.
As the sun started to descend into the western sky, Lowenherz remembered that he would need to leave soon. He planned to fly over the barrier at night, to discover if Nasoj's power was still intact further north. For now, as he still had some time before sunset, he would follow the fleeing men down a new road, carved through the snow east of the river, leading into a forest. In the distance, he could see a black castle looming over the end of the path.
Glancing at the throng milling in front of him, Lowenherz spotted an armored figure. Could this be one of Nasoj's commanders? He didn't want to be discovered by the wizard. Even worse, the man appeared to be walking directly towards him. Could he have been noticed? Lowenherz remembered that his face had somewhat leonine features, during the daytime, especially if he did not maintain mental control. Perhaps his usual focus had been disrupted by the cold, and the chaos he had seen during the past two days.
As Lowenherz carefully tried to move off to one side, attempting to be as inconspicuous as possible, he saw the man drawing closer and closer. This definitely was not good. How had he been noticed?
Finally clear of the path through the snow, Lowenherz struggled up the edge of a snowdrift. The man was only a few yards a way, but now no longer seemed to notice him. Perhaps he had been looking for someone else. Once Lowenherz crossed the drift, he felt relatively safe, as several feet of packed snow now separated him from the road.
Relieved, Lowenherz stood on the side of the high snowbank, but suddenly heard an unexpected question: "Are you also an enemy of Nasoj? I sensed your presence, so I felt I should find you, as any ally is needed." He turned to see the man in platemail armor standing directly behind him. How had he moved that quickly? This was quite surprising. Perhaps it was a trick.
While Lowenherz tried to think of an answer, the man continued: "I can tell that you are not entirely human. Many have been cursed by Nasoj's evil magic in this land. Perhaps you are one of his victims." As Lowenherz looked directly at him, he saw his ears elongate and grow fur. His jaw also began to stretch, and his nose rapidly transformed into a wolf's muzzle.
In a few seconds, the process reversed, and the man's features resumed a fully human appearance. "As you can see, I also know of Nasoj's sorcery. The men here know me as Valaric, and I am trying to rally this wreck of an army, so we can defend our homes against the wizard's wrath as well as the beasts from Metamor."
Lowenherz decided to respond: "By Akkala, I did not know that others were seeking the downfall of Nasoj. I have been dedicated to the destruction of the agents of evil ever since I was cursed with the shape of a manticore at night. Ever since then, I have been known as Lowenherz. But why are you concerned about Metamor? Are they not also opposed to the wizard?"
Valaric's face momentarily contorted when Lowenherz mentioned Akkala's name. The lion-man wondered if Valaric had limited control over his transformation, and was still struggling to remove all lupine features from his face. But this only lasted a second or two, and Valaric answered: "The warriors of Metamor have fought nobly against Nasoj but they are under a strange curse. It is said that madness results from extended contact with the dark powers of that place. There are also said to be evil items there, with their own diabolic influence. Survivors of the battle have told tales of a fox-man wielding a great black axe, acting as if he were possessed by a spirit of wrath. Indeed, one man claimed that a wraith appeared from this weapon, showing its dark nature."
Lowenherz had also heard some of these stories during his brief stay in Metamor. "The Metamorians do appear to be great fighters, but flawed. I was told that the lutins were able to breach the walls only because of the treachery of one within the Keep. Also, the Keepers seem unwilling to fight Nasoj beyond their valley. One of the Midland soldiers told me that they are following the words of an ancient prophecy, predicting that the wizard will reign for hundreds of years to come."
Dismissively, Valaric said: "Prophecy? Nasoj's doom is certain. After this battle, no one will be willing to fight for the wizard. Even now, we are recruiting these men for our rebellion. Food has been gathered in the forest for them, and we are amassing weapons at the castle. Soon, we will begin our campaign to free this land from Nasoj."
Lowenherz was glad to hear this news, but was somewhat suspicious of Valaric's words. Why would an army switch sides this quickly? Why was the road blocked? Surely the wizard would not want to slow the escape of his own men.
Valaric resumed speaking, as he pointed to the sun, starting to set on the western horizon: "I can tell that you cannot retain human shape for much longer. You should move away from here, so the men do not spot you and think you are a blood-crazed demon from Metamor. Even better, as a manticore, you should be able to easily deal with the lutins scattered to the east. If you drive them into the forest, my men will be prepared to deal with them."
Lowenherz considered these words briefly. Something seemed wrong. No one needed to order him to hunt lutins, but this Valaric seemed intent on using him like a dog, for herding them around. Why would he want them "driven" into the woods, and not killed?
"The sun will set soon, so you better leave quickly. Before morning, you may want to fly north to the shore of the lake. A trader might be appreciated in the small town there, called Starven. The men of the town appear to oppose Nasoj, and I have left a detachment of non-human creatures nearby to guard it from the wizard. Don't worry about them. Even though they don't like humans very much, they are dedicated to the cause of freeing this land from Nasoj's tyranny."
Shortly after sunset, a manticore flew over the snow-packed fields well east of the road. Lowenherz remembered Valaric's words, but had no desire to herd lutins, only to kill them. But was this wrong? He remembered Valaric's comments about the fox-man with a bloodlust curse, and the magic axe with the evil wraith. Perhaps Lowenherz was also being driven mad by Nasoj's dark magic. He began to regret the many times he had hunted lutins. By Akkala, he wished he had more control. Perhaps he could discover how Valaric was able to shift his form at will.
Meanwhile, Valaric had returned to the north side of the stream, inspecting the lutins' work. Some of Lilith's draconian mages had cast spells on the road, helping to divert traffic towards the Dark Keep. There, Lilith's human followers would be ready to recruit Nasoj's soldiers to her cause. If words didn't work, abundant food had been provided, all brought from the Black Woods. It was enchanted with Lilith's magic, so any who ate it would soon become her subjects. Judging from their hasty retreat north, most would be very hungry, so Lilith would soon have many new recruits.
Valaric's platemail armor had now been cast down alongside the road, where it was being guarded by two draconians. Black Fang was very tired of this shape, and eager to assume lupine form. He found being encased in metal much more unpleasant than wearing fur. Moments after shedding the last of the uncomfortable human clothes, he rapidly transformed into a wolf.
About an hour later, Black Fang spotted a dark shape flying north, heading up the road towards Starven. It must that troublesome manticore! Ever since he heard Lowenherz mention Akkala's name, Black Fang knew he would not fit well into Lilith's plan. But perhaps he could be drawn to her, as part of his nature was clearly that of a predatory beast. Manticores were always said to be difficult to control, but perhaps Lilith could personally intervene to gain his allegiance. But that wasn't Black Fang's problem. He needed to watch for the fox with the black axe.
Late at night, a band of lutins moved through the deep snow, well east of the Dark Keep. A pack of moondogs followed, aiding their mission to track down Lilith's prey. The beasts moved silently across the frozen plains, making no sound save for the crunch of snow under their paws. The other lutins in the area fled quickly, not merely from their panic after Nasoj's defeat, but also due to a feeling of fear radiated by mere presence of the moondogs.
The lutin chieftain paused next to a tree, where the clan had planted their standard, a banner bearing the image of a moondog. In the distance he could see a mob of Nasoj's lutin rabble, quickly pursued by a humanoid warriors in dark clothing. He assumed their pursuers must be the Long Scouts from Metamor, chasing the remnants of the wizard's routed army out of the Metamor Valley.
A draconian appeared nearby, and said: "We have spotted the fox-man. It can be no other, for he carries a great axe, as black as the depths of the forest. He is consumed by wrath, and chases Nasoj's lutins well ahead of the other Long Scouts."
The lutin replied: "We don't fear Whisper. Nasoj's slaves run away, but Lilith's moondogs will slay him. He will take no ears. The Queen's lutins can beat any Long Scouts."
The draconian turned, and said: "You are under strict orders not to kill him. Black Fang will punish you if you try. Also, we don't want to fight the Long Scouts. We just want to separate the fox from them, and capture Whisper."
In the valley below, the frightened lutins fled, their figures only briefly visible against the white background. All but one of the Long Scouts followed them into the woods. By moonlight, the draconian could clearly see the last pursuer against the snow. His chainmail reflected light off the snow where it protruded beyond his clothing. Lilith's lutins could see him carrying Whisper, the great axe, but were not afraid. All other paths leading to the Dark Keep from this direction had been blocked off with logs and piles of snow. He would be forced to choose this road, and walk right into their ambush.
As the axe wielder started up the path towards the Dark Keep, the lutin leader said: "We are Lilith's own clan of Moondog lutins. We don't fear Whisper. We bring fear. No ears for Metamor tonight! We'll take fox ears to the Queen."
The draconian's eyes focused on the lutin. He then said: "Do you really intend to fight him? He is well armed, having a long bow and sword as well as a magic axe. Remember your orders. We don't want a battle, just to trap him."
The cloaked warrior continued down the road. All could now see his blood-splattered axe, stained red from making short work of some unfortunate lutins earlier that night. While the draconian said he was a fox, no one could see his face. A brown cloth covered it, with bits of chain mail shining underneath.
The draconian watched him trudge up the hill, and said: "It's time! Attack now."
The lutin waved his clan forward, and shouted: "Fear us! We don't fear Whisper. You won't get our ears."
Seeing a small group of lutins emerge from the woods in the front of him, the ear-hunter paused, holding his heavy axe in front, and began to hurry up the slope. He rushed forward on the path, eager to strike them, oblivious to the huge bank of snow next to the road. Draconians hidden beyond the drift waited silently, for they need to lunge forward at the right moment. Their tails twitched in anticipation, as their claws held wooden planks, ready to shove tons of snow onto the path.
Then, the right moment came. The lutin-pursuer reached a deep furrow in the road. This was the perfect place to topple the snow on top of him. In a second, the draconians all pushed together, sending the entire bank of snow into the road. The warrior from Metamor, filled with bloodlust, racing forward to catch the lutins, barely noticed the collapsing snow. But then it hit him, crashing into his shoulder bearing the black axe. The axe was torn from his hand, and thrown several feet forward.
The lutins cheered as their nemesis was buried in the snow. In only a few seconds, he could not be seen, as he was entombed beneath feet of snow. The draconians' work was thorough, for they had practiced this maneuver on Lilith's road through the Black Woods. The second part of their plan was already underway, as a reptilian mage walked down the path to create a hedge of brambles. They didn't want any of the other Long Scouts to interfere. Soon, the snow-choked path would be indistinguishable from the rest of the hill, and concealed by thorns to prevent immediate aid.
Other draconians appeared from the woods, dragging a wagon. They needed to act quickly, in order to bring the axe to the Dark Keep by daybreak. The lutins also pressed forward, exulting over the snow covering their fallen enemy.
The lutin leader said: "Dig him out. We'll take his ears. We'll smash Whisper too."
The draconian snarled, and said: "You have no idea what Whisper is. Don't go near it. Black Fang himself told us where to put it. No one touches it. And no digging either. Your work here is finished. Lilith will reward you."
The lutin leader was pleased to hear the draconian mention his Queen's name, knowing that she would be happy at the capture of Whisper. Then, the lutins heard wolves howling in the distance. They disliked the sound, for they admired the silence of their own moondogs. A great dire-wolf could be seen watching them from the top of the hill, not far from the Dark Keep. The lutins and moondogs moved off into the trees, realizing that Black Fang wanted the draconians to handle this alone.
Just after the moondog clan withdrew into the forest, the draconian commander spotted the Long Scouts in the distance. They had returned from pursuing Nasoj's lutins, and were probably searching for their lost comrade. He could barely make out their shapes, for Oblineth was active, sending her fury across the frozen land. Icy winds lashed the forest, making it hard to distinguish the snowflakes falling from the sky from the white clouds blown off the ground.
The draconians finally shoved the axe into the wagon by prying it forward with a long plank. With difficulty, the draconians hauled the cart through the newly fallen snow, dragging it across the drifts piled into the path by the sudden squall. Finally, the tempest eased, and they could faintly see the Dark Keep's black shape in the distance. Now, they needed to move their load quickly, before anyone from Metamor could attempt to reclaim Whisper.
As the first morning light appeared dimly in the east, the draconians reached the castle. Soon, their precious cargo was transferred to a crew of skeleton men. A band of Lilith's trusted servants escorted them as guards, and immediately headed north, heading for the road between Starven and Lik. A new path had been cut from this road down to the Dark Keep especially for this purpose, so Lilith could rapidly move troops and supplies between the Nexus and her new base, on the edge of the Tauremorna. Before the sun cleared the horizon, they were gone, dashing off into the forest to deliver the axe to the Vampire Queen.
Meanwhile, a party of men marched through the snow in the valley below the Dark Keep. Weeks before, they had left Bremen on behalf of Nasoj, enlisting in his campaign to capture Metamor Keep. Seeing the wizard's vain plan unravel during the badly planned campaign, they had begun to doubt his power. Then, any faith in Nasoj was dispelled when the battle ended in a rout, and they had to flee from the Metamor Valley, pursued by Midland troops.
Famished from escaping their pursuers, the Bremen regiment had found welcome supplies of food on the road to Starven. They had hoped to reach Nasoj's supply depot in the town itself, but were surprised to find provisions on the edge of the forest, near the burned castle called the Dark Keep. Other humans from the wizard's shattered army also arrived, learning that a noble from Lik, named Valaric, was organizing a revolt against Nasoj.
While this had only happened on the previous day, it already had affected them. At first they didn't think much of Valaric's words, as no one had dared to challenge Nasoj's power. But they really didn't care, as getting food was all that really mattered. They expected salted fish but were surprised to receive fresh food, which Valaric claimed to have taken from stockpiles in the forest.
By evening, they had decided to follow Valaric. Every time they ate some of the food, his words seemed to become more persuasive. If a noble from Lik was willing to oppose the wizard, the uprising could work. For Lik was a vital town in Nasoj's realm, the source of most of his wealth. If only a fraction of Valaric's claims were true, Lik was ready to rise up against Nasoj's tyranny, and start a new era of prosperity for the Giantdowns.
Just after sunrise, Valaric appeared at the camp of the men from Bremen. They were eager to hear his words, wondering how they could help his effort to defeat Nasoj. All listened as he began to speak:
"Men of Bremen, I have a special mission for you. We need any ally we can get in our fight against Nasoj. We may find one in the valley below, a noble warrior trapped in the snow by Nasoj's lutin bandits."
One officer from Bremen spoke: "We hate the lutins! They always raided near our town, stealing wood and fur shipments we had spent weeks assembling. Now, Nasoj cannot control them, leaving them free to loot our homes. We are happy to aid anyone who is a foe of the lutins."
Valaric continued: "This warrior is a Long Scout from Metamor. While you recently battled Metamor Keep, you know that the Long Scouts have fought the lutins for many years. Now, you share the same cause. He was pursuing the lutins through the snow when they ambushed him, stealing his weapons. Leaving him for dead, the cowards fled into the woods. We don't know why the other Long Scouts did not find him, but they may have just lost sight of his tracks in the blinding wind and drifting snow."
Another man from Bremen said: "We will find him. Any victim of the lutins deserves to be rescued."
Valaric then said: "When you find him, invite him to the Dark Keep, so he can see that we are no friends of Nasoj. Explain that we want to help anyone who is harmed by the wizard's lutins."
The Bremen troop then left to find the lost Long Scout. Wading through deep snow, they came across a path indented deeply with wheel ruts. Continuing downhill, they spotted an obstruction in the road. This must be the site of the lutin ambush. Some of the men began to remove the snow, while others pulled scattered branches off the pile. They had a great deal of experience in this work, from hauling Bremen's trade flotillas of oarwood logs across the Giantdowns.
Finally, they could see him, as bits of brown cloth and chain mail stuck out of the snow. He must have been surprised several hours ago. As he started to struggle free, the leader of the men of Bremen decided to introduce himself.
"We have rescued you from the trap set by the lutin poltroons. The craven cowards robbed you, and then left you here to die in the snow. But the noble Valaric told us of your plight, so we have saved you from the snow. Come with us to the castle, where there is plenty of food. Anyone who fights against the lutins is our friend."