chapter 1: evil endured
Oren was thankful for being furry. The chill which hung in the autumn air had bitten the otter's nose all through the night. The fact that she slept in the form of a six-year-old girl did not help matters. Twice during the night she had gotten up and warmed herself by Gornul's oven.
The dungeons, Oren pondered, had been dank, musty, and slightly chilly. For an otter, it was perfect. By comparison, moving back into his old apartment with the dry air and bitter chill of oncoming winter seemed like punishment.
Hoping that the added size would warm her, Oren concentrated on becoming his old self. It was difficult. His natural antimagic made it very difficult for him to exercise any control over his personal curse the way others did. But change he did, first becoming a teenager, and finally becoming a man. He observed his reflection in the water of the fish pool. It was still frustrating to him that he was smaller, weaker and more effeminate than he had been when he moved to the keep, to say nothing of the fact that he would forever be half otter. Still, it could be worse, he supposed. He had largely managed to control the speech impediment which his first curse had placed on him. Perhaps the second might in time show reduced effects as well.
Oren was just about to grab a fish for breakfast when he heard a knock at the door.
"Who could that be at this hour?" he wondered aloud. He hastily put on his vest and briefs to make himself decent.
Opening the entrance door, he was surprised to see Caroline, looking wide awake but not chipper as she usually was. This was understandable, naturally. The bandages wrapping her hands were a constant reminder of the horrible attack which had left more of the woman broken than just her fingers. The thick morning fog which framed her seemed to mirror the greyness of her mood.
"Hey... Sister..." said Oren, hoping to elicit a smile.
"Hi, Oren." Caroline responded. Her smile was less than enthusiastic. "Something's happened that I think you should see. Gornul, too."
"What is it? Is someone hurt or something?" Immediately, he regretted the phrasing.
"Not quite so drastic, but significant. I think you'd better see for yourself."
Feeling very curious, Oren woke his sleeping friend, enjoying the warmth of the horno as he did. The two of them then followed Caroline out, with Oren stopping only momentarily to secure his cape and wrap it around himself as protection against the cold and the fog.
Caroline led her friends all the way to the main gate of the Keep and beyond. Her pace was slow and agonized, causing Oren to wonder what could be so important that his battered friend would travel such a distance in her condition to fetch him.
"Barney and Rashim had come to take me for an early morning stroll." she began, as if reading his thoughts. "They thought it might make me feel better to get some exercise. We had gone out to the river. That was where we found..."
Caroline was silent for a moment. "I thought I should be the one to fetch you." said Caroline. "I know how much you..."
"How much I what? What is it, Caroline?"
The woman fell silent for a moment, looking as though she desperately wanted to release some bit of information which was simply too painful. Through the murky, almost tangible fog, the three strode up toward the river. There, they met up with someone Oren had not seen before. "Oren, Gornul," said Caroline. "This is Light."
"Light Carter." said the woman, a rather attractive Eurasian otter with a sack full of herbs around her neck. Her accent, Oren found, was amazingly similar to his own.
"Pleased." said Oren, kissing Light gently on the hand.
"Light is an herbal healer." said Caroline. "She sort of joined up with our little lutrine club while you were in the dungeon."
"Healer?" Oren repeated. "Is someone sick?"
"In a word, yes." Light began walking in the direction of the river. From the fog, three shapes began to form. One was the small form of Barney, the fishkeeper. The second was the large form of Rashim. It was the middle one that grabbed and held his attention, though. A sixth otter, a sea otter, portly, and yet somehow very shapely, lay on the ground, clutching her stomach and moaning. The face and the form were foreign, but the clothing and the voice he knew all too well.
The sea otter looked up. "Oren?"
"It was... the water."
"The water? The polluted water you brought from home? You drank it?"
"Yes, Oren. I wanted... I wanted to be like you."
The Hipoccian cast his gaze to the faces of his fellow otters, all downcast, while his mind searched for the next question to ask. "How much did you drink?" he asked.
"All of it."
Tears formed in Oren's eyes. "Help me get her up." he said to Rashim. "We need to get her to the healer right away."
Healer Coe did everything he could for Ana. In the end, however, there was only one thing to be done. He found it necessary to send for someone better trained than he in the magic arts.
Wessex rubbed his undersized hands together nervously as he delivered the news to Oren and his friends.
"I'm not going to sugar coat this for you." he said in a manner which seemed very odd coming from the mouth of a little boy. "The amount of magic now in Ana's system is incredible. Obviously, we've all seen what just a little drink of this polluted water can do to someone who is inherently antimagical. An entire jar is going to do far worse. Unfortunately, most remedies for problems of this nature would by canceled out by Ana's own antimagic before they could take effect. The only way to fight these magical toxins is to boost that antimagic until it has a chance of saving her on its own."
"If we don't?" Oren asked, fearing the worst. He was not disappointed.
"If we don't, then within a fortnight, her human side will dwindle to nothing. In a week, she'll be a normal sea otter, both in body and mind. After that, the magic will continue twisting her body. In two weeks, she will be dead."
Oren put his hands over his face. Tears came which would not be held back.
"I WILL save her." he vowed. "I will."
Rupert was a gentleman. He had always been a gentleman. However, he was also a gorilla. More than that, he was a gorilla commando in the Whales marine force. This meant to Oren that his calm and gentle demeanor gave no reassurances whenever the great ape answered the door for his employer, Phil.
Oren hesitated for just a moment before saying "I... I need to speak with..."
Rupert held up his hand. He made a pair of gestures which let the otter know that Phil was speaking with the duke and should not be disturbed.
"Actually," said Oren. "It's you I need to speak with."
Rupert pointed to himself, a mild look of surprise on his face. He bade Oren to state his business.
"It's my girlfriend... Ana. She's... she's very ill. She's suffering from magic poisoning."
Rupert wanted to know what he could do, and so rolled his open hand around to ask him to continue.. Oren only understood the question because his conversations with Gornul, his mute roommate, had taught him the meanings of gestures. However, it was clear enough.
"When you retrieved the evil urn from Loriod's castle, you disarmed it with an antimagic powder."
The ape's eyes went wide. He shook his head insistently and explained with a finger across his neck that the powder would most certainly kill her.
"It wouldn't." Oren replied. "She's Hipocci, just like me. Her body can handle the antimagic, and in fact, it may be the only way to save her life."
After a long hesitation, Rupert led Oren inside. He did his best to explain that yes, he did have a very small amount of the powder left, but it wasn't something which he would give out to just anyone. It was very expensive, and would be deadly to anyone without a Hipoccian's tolerance. This took several very long minutes in which Oren repeatedly shook his head in confusion before he finally got it.
"I know how dangerous antimagic is, especially since Achin nearly died from it. And I promise to pay for it, whatever the price."
"You couldn't." Rupert said with a shake of his head. Leaving Oren in the foyer for a moment, he went to his personal chambers and returned with a small stoppered vial. He handed this to the otter, explaining with his hand gestures over his heart that if the powder could save the woman's life, it would be worth the expense.
Oren tearfully hugged the gorilla, which caught the butler off-guard for just an instant. With a smile, the ape pat the otter on the head.
A voice drifted in from the next room. "Oren? Is that you?"
The otter quickly went to the doorway, where he saw Phil and Thomas huddled over a pad of notes. With them, looking very nervous, was Vitra.
"Your Grace." Oren responded. For good measure, he added "Your Highness. My lady."
No one directed him to be informal this time.
"Oren, please come in." said Phil. "I believe that you can be of some help to us on this matter."
The otter obeyed and took a position by the others, being seated only when he was bade.
The Duke turned to Oren, his ears forward in an expression of urgency. "Vitra has been telling both Phil and myself what she knows of the enemy's plans. I would like you to hear this, as well, as it seems to come very close to you." Turning to the Zorilla, he said "Would you begin again, for Oren's benefit?"
Vitra nodded politely. "As you know, My husband, Ushka, was impressed into service of Nasoj as fire-mage. When he was killed, it was when trying to recapture escaped darkling. I find out from him that there are many darklings Nasoj is holding. He plans to release them into keep when time is right."
"How does that involve me?" asked Oren.
"At same time, Nasoj is making allies in land of the south. In place called 'Devil's Strand'."
"Hipocc's only neighbor." Phil added.
"Their magic is very, very great, and very, very evil. More great and evil than Nasoj."
Oren nodded. "Up until now, it's been the Hipocci who have held the Stranders at bay."
"Until Hipocc destroyed." Vitra corrected. "Now Strand is getting ready to move out and conquer world, but they not do it alone. That where they need Nasoj."
Oren sat quietly and waited for an explanation.
"It like this: Devil's Strand has very powerful spell, but spell can only be cast when time is right, and certain things must be just right. Both place where spell is cast and place spell is put over must be dark."
"And Nasoj is sending in the darklings to 'kill the lights', so to speak." Thomas surmised.
"Exact. Then when spell is finished, Metamor Keep has no more defense. Walls become brittle like cracker. Armor and weapon turn into dust. Magic no work for us. Even will to fight is gone. It spell so powerful and bad it make even Nasoj wet himself."
"The course of action seems clear." said Phil, twitching a foot, nervously. "We must prepare for a battle against the darklings while at the same time, we send a force to Devil's Strand to prevent the spell from being completed."
"And you want me to lead the expedition, is that it?" Oren asked.
"There are only four people in the keep who know the area. You are by far the most qualified to act as a guide." Thomas explained.
Oren nodded. "It would be an honor." he replied. "And it happens that I was on my way to Hipocc to begin with."
"My dearest, Ana, lies in the healer's surgery in a truly awful state. I must bring medicines from our homeland or she will die."
"What happened?" asked the rabbit, looking quite concerned.
"At this moment, I have no idea why she did it, but she drank a massive amount of water polluted by magic. It is the same water which did this to me." he gestured to his lutrine form.
"I am sorry to hear that." said Phil. "If there is anything I can do for you and her, just let me know."
Oren placed his paws in front of his face and attempted to interlace his fingers, momentarily forgetting that his hands were webbed. "I would like you to come with me." he said.
Phil blinked as if he had been slapped. Thomas shook his head in surprise. Rupert appeared at the door and looked as if he were ready to thump someone.
"I'm... I'm needed here." said Phil.
"I don't make this wut wut request lightly." said the otter. He flushed a little when his nervousness began to make his speech impediment resurface. "My mission to chrrr Hipocc is twofold now. If we are to prevent Devil's Strand from casting their spell, we will need help. We will need to Rally the remnant of Hipocc to our side. I believe that Phil will be able to do this. Despite his rabbity form, he is a prominent political figure, a military leader, and overall, a charismatic person who can manipulate words to achieve any desired effect."
Phil was blushing, now.
"Secondly, there is the Prince's safety. We know that the keep is going to be coming under attack by darklings. These are nasty monsters which will test the skills of many a keeper. If the mission to Hipocc succeeds, there will still be the darklings to contend with. If we fail, anyone still within the keep will very likely die. Prince Phil will actually be safest with me."
"Of course. You would come along as well. I wouldn't have it any other way."
Thomas flicked his ears. "I sense that there is more."
Oren nodded, but hesitated. "I know that you are one who believes in prophecy. There is one from my homeland which I believe refers to Phil. In fact, it was Phil himself who helped me to apply the prophecy."
"I would like to hear this prophecy." said the Duke, ears settling in the forward position.
Oren settled back and quoted.
In times that shall come 'round once more
came a child-like warrior
orphan boy of mean estate
drink a drop and change your fate
"At present, I am very childlike. My parents are believed dead, and the last line must naturally refer to my original transformation."
wander now to where you will
to the castle on the hill
seek ye there the ones who chew
with their secrets, one and two.
"The Castle on the Hill is, without a doubt Metamor Keep. The 'ones who chew' are a pair of rodents, of course. Rodents with secrets. Though I won't share with you what I learned or how I learned it, I know for certain that these two are Charles and Phil."
Ask your riddle, play your game
share with them your special name
secrets two and secrets none
now are three and three are one
sand and flame and zero score
quoth the child-like warrior
"The first two lines are instructions to me to relate this prophecy, which I have. The subsequent four lines I have very little clue about. It seems clear, though, that whatever I am to do, I am to do with them."
add to three another two:
painting-mind and heart-is-true
all return to evil's shore
with the child-like warrior
"Heart-is-True is my friend, Jesse Roo. Painting-Mind is obviously Gornul. Evil's shore would have to be Devil's Strand."
darkest times shall come again
evil that was one is twain
by the rising of the sun
so shall darkness be undone
"Until just now, I couldn't figure out the meaning of that second line. Now, I believe it must refer to the alliance between Devil's Strand and Nasoj. Darkness is mentioned twice. We know this to be a prerequisite for the spell the Stranders are casting."
Go back again when all is still
to the castle on the hill
sing and play and have your fluff
time will come 'round soon enough.
"In this stanza, I believe that Fluff refers to Phil's little fluffy tail."
"You what?" said Phil.
"Okay, so I don't. I'm sorry. The tone was ppprrrrrr getting way too serious in here."
Thomas made a disapproving face. Oren laughed aloud, and then dropped his face into his paws and began weeping.
"Oren?" said Vitra. "You be okay?"
The otter was shaking visibly, now. "I'm sorry." he said. "This is difficult for me. For a year, now, I've had no home outside Metamor Keep. I never thought about home, not even when Ana came practically knocking on my door. I've known for some time that I would have to go back there, but the very thought is more than I can bear."
"You don't have to go." said Thomas. "There is always Blake or Felice."
"Felice wants to go back even less than I do. And Blake? I'm sorry, but Blake is not someone I have complete trust in, yet. It's not that I don't trust her penitence, but she's a moron."
The horse nodded, emitting a chuckle that was devoid of humor.
"I'll be all right." said the otter. "Now, if there is no further discussion for the time being, I must take this powder to Ana.
Bowing politely, Oren slipped out of Phil's apartment and into the hallway, where he broke into uncontrollable sobbing.
chapter 2: evil answered
"Go ahead, Love." Oren whispered. "Drink it all down."
Ana did as she was bidden and swallowed the entire cup of black liquid. Not a single drop remained in the cup. "What was in that?" she asked.
"Antimagic." Oren replied. "A unique variety from Whales. It took close to forever to figure out how to give it to you without it flying off and sticking to the walls of the Keep.
"It feels tingly." said Ana. Oren was afraid for a moment that the foreign antimagic might indeed yet prove harmful, but then realized that if it was, Ana would not have lived long enough to say "it feels tingly".
Oren left the surgery feeling helpless and frustrated.
Charles was just getting back from a lovely, scenic stroll with Lady Kimberly. Actually, it wasn't scenic at all. The fog had prevented either of them from seeing anything far in front of their faces. And yet this same fog had made things all the more beautiful, he thought. The world was muted under a blanket of white which wrapped itself around he and his lady, making it seem like they were the only two people in the world.
Until Oren showed up.
Kimberly was startled by the otter's appearance. The new thinness of his face gave him a haggard and severe countanence. His cape, dampened by the watery miasma in which he stood, clung to his arms like skin to starving bones.
"Good morning, Oren." said Charles for both of them. "Are you well today?"
"I am not." the otter replied, plainly. "I need to speak with you, Charles."
The rat glanced at his lady.
"You may hear this if you wish." said Oren to Kimberly. "But I forewarn you that I bring distressing news."
Kimberly elected to stay.
"I need you to accompany me to Hipocc, Charles."
"Now?" asked the Rat. "But I have duties which..."
"I'm asking on the authority of Duke Thomas himself. It is vitally important to the safety of Metamor Keep that a contingent be sent to my homeland."
Charles nodded his understanding. He had learned about the darkmen during Oren's trial, and of their connection with Devil's Strand. He'd never expected, however, to be called to appear there in person. "How soon?" he asked.
"Immediately. There is a second reason the trip must be made."
"Ana is dying."
Kimberly let out a gasp. "Oren!" she exclaimed. "I'm so sorry."
"Thank you, M'lady. Your concern is a comfort. If she does not get medicine within the next two weeks, she will most certainly die."
Charles managed to smile. It was not a smile of mirth, but of courage and sympathy. It caused Oren to ponder the irony that he always knew the rat to smile more often when the situation became severe, while he himself had been slowly losing his sense of humor.
"I'll go, Oren." said Charles, simply.
"Thank you." Oren responded.
Kimberly looked into the eyes of her beloved. "Be careful, Charles. Come back to me safely."
At this, Oren did smile. "I have it on the word of the prophets that he'll be returned to you unharmed. Now, if you will excuse me," he said with a bow. "I must make haste to Lorland."
Kim Roo was surprised to see Oren at the front door, and wondered for a moment that the otter was still bare-legged as the fog began to condense into frost on the trees outside. "Come in!" she insisted. "Come in, Oren, before you catch your death. I'll fix you a mug of ceyenne tea."
"That sounds delicious, Mrs. Roo." said Oren, seriously tempted. "However, I cannot stay long. I've come to talk to Jesse on a matter of some urgency."
Kim motioned to the partition which served to distinguish Jesse's room from the rest of the house. Peering around it, he found the young kangaroo lying on his bed massaging both shoulders.
"Rough night?" asked Oren.
"Very." replied Jesse without rising. "I was laying bricks until the fourth hour last night. Building things is a lot more taxing than blowing them up."
"I'm glad you feel that way." said Oren.
"I may have need of your destructive capabilities. The time has come for..."
"You want me to come to Hipocc with you?"
Oren shook his head in surprise. "How did you know that?"
Jesse was now up off the bed and bouncing on his toes. "I've been given these powers and told to wait in reserve until Metamor Keep needs me, as all my ancestors have done for generations. Don't you think I'd be keeping an eye out for whatever it is that lets me fulfill my destiny?"
"Well... honestly, no."
"Easy for you to say. All the prophecies about you put you right in the center of the action."
Oren shook his head once again. "ProphecieS?" he echoed, emphasizing the plural. "What do you mean? There's more than one?"
"You don't know?"
"If I knew, I wouldn't be asking!"
"Oh, right." As he talked, Jesse began hopping around the room and collecting personal belongings and stuffing them into a sack. "You know that I'm one of the lucky farm peasants who can read, right? Well, as soon as Loriod's library became public property, I started reading whatever I could get my mitts on. I found at least two prophecies that I'm sure are about you. 'The Otter and the Weasel' is a good one. Funny, too."
"I'm sure it's fascinating, but..."
Jesse cinched the sack closed and announced "I'm ready!"
"That was fast."
"I told you, I've been ready for this, now lets go!"
Oren returned to his home with Jesse Roo in tow, making the journey in silence, pleased not to need, for the moment, to speak the horrible news of Sawana's failing health.
When Oren found Gornul, the dragon was in their shared apartment. He was perched by the side of the fish pond. Over his open hands a fish was draped, recently killed. Gornul's mouth was drawn back in an expression of anxiety and sorrow, and his eyes betrayed feelings of helplessness. At first, Oren didn't know what to make of it. The fish had always been food to the both of them. Neither of them had ever shown any remorse at killing a fish to eat it. In fact, Gornul loved eating fish. Why did the passing of one make him sad?
Then, all at once, he understood. The dragonettes were people who thought and understood the world in pictures and symbols. To him, the passing of life from this fish was a perfect picture of what was going to happen to Sawana. Unable to do anything else, he would be forced to watch his best friend's beloved slowly slip away into an incremental death in the body of a sea creature.
"Don't worry." said Oren in a soft voice. "We'll save her."
Wagons were loaded during the night. The need for haste was obvious to all involved, and so a caravan had been made ready to travel by dawn. Inspecting the front vehicle, Oren found his sister, Felice, in the driver's seat.
"Felice," said Oren. "It is not necessary that you return home with me."
The woman smiled at her brother's unusually serious and somber tone. "Oren, what do you think I came here to the Keep for in the first place?" she said.
"It's simply that..."
"Little brother, come up here, sit next to me, and relax."
"I can't. I have to see that the wagons are loaded and that everyone who's coming is aboard." He almost managed to turn away and leave when Felice caught him by his cloak. "Rupert is taking care of that. You come up here and wait for him to report to you."
The otter sighed. He hated it when his sister was right like this. Climbing onto the seat next to Felice, Oren sat ramrod straight in anticipation of the journey.
Doing as instructed, Oren allowed his shoulders to hunch a little as his appearance became slightly smaller and more feminine. Still, he could not help but gaze back at the other wagons. The second one would be driven by Rupert himself, with Prince Phil safely at his side. The third had Jesse at the reigns with Charles climbing in beside him.
Six security guards stood ready to enter the middle wagon behind Phil. They were all bedecked in scarlet tunics bearing the mustang crest of Duke Thomas. This made Oren slightly uneasy, reminding him of one of his favorite story series in which security guards who dressed in red always seemed to die prematurely.
Desuka had come along as a mess cook, and rode in the wagon behind Felice. Oren had insisted that it wasn't necessary, but when Thomas had told his new friend, Emperor Ku about the trouble which he was expecting very soon, the Emperor had insisted that Desuka, Mong Ho and Ye be split up, one with the departing contingent, one down in the Keep, and one at Thomas' side, to enable instant communication. Ku himself would use his countrymen's link to him to coordinate reports.
Gornul perched on the wagon cover above Oren's head. He was ready to go at any time, having said his goodbyes to his family. Qualin had wanted to come along as well, but Gornul explained that he would be needed to protect the tower and their family from the darklings once they came.
A fourth wagon was added to the caravan shortly before dawn. This one was driven by Shamgar, with Blake riding "longbow" beside him.
Oren jumped out of his seat. "Who told her she could come on this mission? The last thing we need is a bumbling Strander assassin gumming things up!" He made no attempt to keep his comments from anyone's ears, not even Blake's.
"I told her she could come along." said a voice from inside the wagon. A lutrine head stuck out. It was Light the healer. "We're bringing Hipocci refugees back, right? Our enemy is devil's Strand, right? We're going to need someone who knows what Stranders can do and how to treat it. That's why I asked her to come along."
Oren looked inside the wagon. Light had set up a mobile hospital inside. The sight brought his mind around to Ana, laying in Coe's surgery, slowly losing her grip on life. He wanted desperately to bring her along, but Wessex had insisted that travel would probably kill her. Time was short, Oren realized, and an argument now would not do a thing to get Ana's treatment back any sooner.
Rupert walked up to Oren in his loping hopping-on-the-knuckles gait. Using a pre-arranged sign, he signaled that all was in readiness.
"All right, let's MOVE 'EM OUT!" bellowed the otter, his businesslike demeanor gone.
The main gates parted, and the small convoy made its way to the south, as the rest of Metamor Keep braced for what was to come.
chapter 3: evil opposed
Horses have to sleep sometime. This was a fact which Oren totally loathed. He wanted to get to Hipocc, and he wanted to do it NOW, but their only means of locomotion had other ideas. Pacing back and forth across the campsite which had been pitched, the otter seemed like he was going to wear holes in his flippers.
Desuka ladled out a bowl of ramen and handed it to Oren the next time he came by.
"Thanks, Desuka, but..."
"No but. You sit, eat. Besides, I have news of your sick friend, I believe."
The panda bade Oren sit, then was seated himself. A second later, the image of a color- shifting fox in golden robes seemed to replace him.
"Emperor Ku!" declared Oren as he bowed as deeply as his seated position would allow.
"The childlike warrior. Greetings, noble one." said the emperor, returning the bow. "I have good news from Ye and Mong-Ho."
Oren waited politely.
"Mong-Ho tells me that your lady friend is doing very well. The curse of the Keep, she says, may actually be slowing the magic poisoning in her system. She reports that Sawana is comfortable and busying herself with reading."
"Well that's good news, at least."
"Ye wishes you to know that Vitra has been speaking for countless hours with the Duke concerning the coming attack. She is very tired, but doing well, and she sends you her love."
Oren blushed visibly.
"Ah," said Ku with a smile. "I have stumbled across that wonderful dilemma of youth. Too many ladies and not enough young man to go around."
"I apologize," said the fox, holding up a paw. "I shall not tease you further. Forgive an old man his odd sense of humor."
"There is another matter, but it is for Desuka to hear. Would you excuse us, please?"
Oren made a show of disappearing into the one of the wagons, only to emerge unseen a moment later in the form of an otter kit. The young mustelid put her ear out and listened as the image of Ku addressed Wasoko Desuka.
"You should know that things are going badly for our kingdom. The entire eastern side of Khumar now belongs to Aqualo. Fortunately, we have gained a small respite with the slaying of one of his captains, but we are certain that he is planning to attack again with renewed vigor."
"What of Arik and Chinso and their quest to find allies?"
Ku sighed sadly. "We have not seen nor heard from the beaver nor the dragon in many days. I choose to believe that fate is leading them to some place far away where they are needed, but others fear that the worst has befallen them."
"Do you have anything for a headache?" someone said. Oren jumped and whirled around. Barnaeus stood there, rubbing his temple with one of his squid tendrils. "Oh." said the aged guard. "Sorry, I thought you were Light."
Without missing a beat, Oren stood on her hind legs and put a paw on her stomach, saying "Yes, I know, I need to lose a little more baby fat, don't I?"
The squid-man laughed heartily, getting a slightly sharper pain in his noggin as he did.
Oren didn't see Charles standing nearby, scribbling hastily on a sheet of parchment with a graphite rod.
Duke Thomas was not the sort of man to surround himself with bodyguards, but right now, he was making an exception. He remembered the terror which he had felt when the first Darkman had entered his private chambers months ago. It had taken an enraged red panda who ignored pain to take the creature down. Desuka was away, now, but Thomas had made sure that extra torches burned everywhere in the Keep, especially in the palace. Jars of Chemicals designed to extinguish darkfire stood ready on every available shelf. Guards in heavy leather armor stood at the ready to battle the coming monsters.
An eerie quiet descended over everything. Thomas, together with Thalberg and Ye, went slowly to the window to see why it had become so quiet.
Everyone who happened to be outdoors paused and stood stock still. Something truly evil was coming, and it was tangible.
With a thousand soul-piercing shrieks, the ground erupted into dozens upon
dozens of horrifying black shapes pouring out into the night. Humanoid
darkmen, flaming darkfires, terrifying night hounds, parasitic black
shells. The invasion had begun!
Oren had been dozing among the food supplies in an attempt to make up for several sleepless nights. She was startled awake by the sound of her name being called out by her sister. Growing quickly to his full morphic form, Oren scurried to the front seat.
"There are a couple of dangerous looking characters standing in the road up ahead." said Felice. "What should we do?"
Oren rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and peered down the road. He could see two people there, both tough looking and armed. "Offer them a ride." he said.
"Do you realize who that is?"
As they drew closer, Felice found out that she could make out a little more detail. The shorter of the two men wasn't a man at all. It was actually a large rat. The larger one wasn't a man either, but a woman with a false mustache. "Are they ours?" asked Felice.
"Oh, that's right." said Oren. "You wouldn't know them. That's Sir Samantha and Sir Saulius, two of the bravest knights of Metamor Keep."
A snort came from somewhere behind him. Apparently, one of the guards didn't agree with his assessment. The otter called the guard up to the front wagon. The one who had vocalized his doubts was a boy-man by the name of Kaj.
"What part precisely are you harrumphing?" Oren asked.
"Those two? Brave?" replied Kaj. "Samantha ran off and became a hermit after the battle of the three gates. Saulius hid himself away in the dungeons and had spells during which he lost his mind completely."
Oren hopped down from the wagon and walked beside Kaj. "It's easy to think that, but consider for a moment who these people were. Knights. The warrior's warrior, the fighting nobleman. These people were used to going where they wished and always being in control of their situation. Suddenly, in a few seconds' time, they find that they are no longer in control. Their very bodies have been altered against their will, and the lives they knew completely lost. You, Kaj, could at least pass for a man if you so chose, albeit a very young and small one. Samantha has become a woman and Saulius a rat. They'll never again know true respect outside of the Metamor Valley. Personally, I think that they've done very well to adjust as they have at this point. Any lesser man would still be locked away, crying in self pity."
Kaj nodded, thoughtfully. "I suppose it helps that the recent bout of small crises has given them something to turn their attention to."
"Exactly." said Oren, thrusting a finger in an almost accusatory way. "The courage was inside them all the time. It just needed an opportunity to come out and do its thing."
"HO, CARAVAN!" called Samantha from up ahead.
Gornul instantly glided forward to meet the female knight, as Charles leaned to the side to peer around the front wagon and wave to his fellow rat.
"Ahoy, you two rapscallions!" called Oren, playfully. "What brings you out this far to harass innocent travelers?"
Samantha grasped Oren's hand as they met. "Lutins." she explained. "We were tracking a band of them who managed to get through the valley."
"Varlots, all!" exclaimed Saulius. "And sooth, we would have smitten yon verdant adversary, but for the fiends' elusive nature."
"In other words, we haven't caught them, yet."
"It isn't hard to put two and two together." said Felice. "Those lutins are on their way to Devil's Strand."
"How long have you been following them?" asked Oren.
"Our venture hath been nigh half a fortnight." replied Saulius.
"A week? You must have left right before we did," Kaj noted.
"Hop on." Oren instructed. "Our goals, it would seem, are the same."
Samantha and Saulius exchanged a nod and mounted the transport.
The first night of the darkling invasion had been chaos. Vitra's advance warning had saved many lives, but many had still been lost. It was not possible to walk about the keep without finding a body which had been frozen or maimed. One poor woman had gone insane when she had awakened to the scintilating aroma of frying chicken, only to discover her husband's formerly feathered body lying on the doorstep, still ablaze in pitch black flames.
The bells of the Follower's sanctuary tolled a long and sad requiem for the slain.
For Misha, however, it was not time for grief, but for action. The darklings could not bear the light, it was said. They had retreated from the sun by fleeing into the cellars, and from there, into the catacombs. The long scouts followed, seeking to diminish or even exterminate the enemy in their weakened state.
Kayrok was uneasy. He had been uneasy since he had been assigned to Devil's Strand, but this was different. It was almost as if he could feel the presence of some semi-sentient force which sought to consume him and his men. Putting a leathery green hand to his ear, he listened. In the predawn stillness, there was nothing out of place. The unease, however, would not abate.
The commander called to one of his men. "Sujan!" he called.
"My leader?" replied an especially small lutin who stepped forward, seemingly without fear.
"Sujan, I heard that you have been studying the magic of our allies."
"Aye, Sir." responded the small one as he puffed out his chest with pride.
"I need someone who is capable of flight, Sujan. Have you mastered the self transformation spells?"
Sujan dipped his head. "I could turn myself into a bird, my captain, but I believe that Sytet would be of greater service to you. He is of rare werebeast stock, and able to change himself into a bat."
"Is he really, now?"
Sujan dipped his head even further, only to have Kayrok lift his chin. "You seek to share your glory with others, and not to glorify yourself. You prove yourself to be of great value to me when you do this." said the lutin commander. "I do not forget the unselfish deeds of men under my command, no matter how small. You make me proud, Sujan."
The little magician beamed as he went off to fetch the werebat.
Kayrok smiled to himself despite his unease. He knew that he had been
given this assignment because his superiors in the north sought to be rid
of him and his strange ways. They sent him every reject they could find.
The intellectuals, the freaks, and so on. And yet it was this very
assortment which served him best. He knew how to bring out the hidden
power and potential of these misfit lutins, and it was this which would
give him victory over the unseen menace which presently so darkened his mood.
The caravan had recently passed the shore of the lake where Oren had once spent his first night in exile. Hipocc would not be far.
Rupert pulled his wagon up next to the lead. After catching Oren's attention, he pointed skyward with a thick index finger.
"I can see something, but what is it?" asked the otter as he followed Rupert's gaze upward.
"It's a bat." Felice declared.
"A bat in flight this time of morning?" Samantha commented. "Highly unusual."
"Methinks yon fluttermouse portendeth the evil which doth surely lie ahead." Saulius added.
Oren handed the reigns to his sister and jumped down from the cart, moving backward until he was beside Jesse-Roo. "Jess, can you see that little black spot up there?" he asked.
The kangaroo craned his neck. "Sure can." he replied. "Looks like a bat or a wyvern."
"I think we have a spy. Notice the way it keeps circling back over head?"
Jesse cocked his arm like a crossbow. "Want me to..."
"If you wouldn't mind."
Jesse-Roo said his incantation softly, whispering the final syllable. A jot of silvery light shot from his claw into the morning sky. The roo's aim was impeccable, and the missile produced a loud popping noise when it connected with the bat's wing. Oren grimaced, knowing that the sound would be that of the bat's wing bones exploding.
Even as he watched the beast fall from the air, someone at the front of the convoy began calling his name. Rupert had brought his wagon to a halt, impeding the rest of the caravan as a large, savage beast stood in the road as if to challenge them. Seeming to be a large reptile without hind legs, it bared a maw full of sharp teeth and licked its scaly lips with a snaking, forked tongue. Phil sat beside his bodyguard and trembled at the sight, even as Charles took up a position beside Rupert to protect his smaller friend. There was no doubt at all that the strange creature was hungry and ready to attack.
Oren strode out in front of the others, with Felice right behind him. "Easy, girl." he cooed, soothingly. "I won't bite you if you don't bite me."
Felice strode ahead, apparently much bolder than her brother. She scritched the creature's head and said "Hey, there, Sandy. How ya doing?"
Rupert gave an inquisitive grunt.
"Sandy, do you remember my brother, Oren?" asked the woman.
The reptile seemed to smile. "Storyteller!" it cried, happily.
The otter seemed dumbfounded that the creature spoke.
"This is Sandy." Felice explained. "She was one of the local children until some Stranders turned her into a thirdak."
"They wanted to cut me up for a magic spell!" added Sandy, indignantly.
"I have a question." called Light from the rear wagon with her paw raised like a child in class. "What's a thirdak?"
"The Hipocci pet of choice." said Oren as he gave Sandy a friendly scritch under the chin. "They eat magic, and so they're natural allies and bodyguards against Devil's Strand."
"Yep yep!" Sandy agreed.
"What are you doing out here, little friend?"
"I was hungry. I came out looking for some magic to eat. I smelled lots of magic over this way, so I came, and I found you. You guys are really, really magical, and you're making me even hungrier."
Felice went to one of the wagons and got out a frying pan. It was a magically charged pan, embellished with a simple spell which would allow it to cook without a fire. It seemed as though Felice was going to cook the beast dinner, but instead, she gave the pan itself to the thirdak, who chomped it down as easily as if it were cheese.
"Oh, this is absolutely delicious!" said Sandy around a mouthful of magically imbued tin.
"You know, you shouldn't have wandered out this far by yourself." said Felice as she stroked Sandy's neck. "Wandering off alone is what got you turned into a thirdak in the first place."
"And yet, it may be to our advantage." said Oren. "You can show us where our people are hidden."
Sandy seemed to hesitate. "Mommy told me not to tell anyone where the camp is."
"It's all right." said Oren. "We're friends. We're not going to let the Stranders know. We're here to help."
Felice wondered if she should point out that she already knew where the refugee camp was.
"Follow me." said Sandy.
Sytet came to deliver his report, doing his best to ignore the throbbing pain that was emanating from the strips of meat which hung where his fingers had once been.
Kayrok looked horrified at the wound which his underling had received, though any lutin commander worth his salt would be made of sterner stuff. He made a show of fussing over the soldier's wounded hand.
"I am of werebeast blood." Sytet said by way of dismissing aid. "The hand will regrow."
"It won't regrow properly if you don't get it treated properly." said Kayrok. "Tripe! Foxtooth! These two are versed in the medical arts. They are healers."
Sytet snorted indignantly, forgetting the fact that he was addressing his commander. "In my homeland, we had no need of healers. A lutin who could not care for his own wounds was left to his fate as a weakling."
Kayrok placed a rough, green hand on Sytet's shoulder. "If this were any other company, I would agree with that philosophy, my loyal werebat, but it isn't. The fact is, I need you. Every lutin here is important, and you, especially, with your unique gift of bodily transformation. I can't take the risk of you becoming permanently injured because of something that never should have happened. I NEED you, Sytet!
His chest puffed out in pride, Sytet offered his hand to the two healers, obediently.
"Now then." said Kayrok. "Report."
"There is a caravan approaching from the northeast. They appear to be primarily keepers. They travel in four wagons, and their numbers include two knights and six armed guards. Prince Phil of Whales rides with them, I believe, as does the thieving rat, the dragon-spy and one who fits the description of the childlike warrior."
Kayrok beamed. "You have done excellent work, friend Sytet! I knew that I could count on you!"
Sytet smiled, eminently pleased with himself, and sat quietly as Tripe and Foxtooth bandaged his injured hand.
Kayrok was pleased with himself as well. This was one command which he would truly enjoy.
Danielle wondered for a moment why she had ever accepted a position in the long patrol. Why had she taken a job that had her skulking around the catacombs beneath the keep with a handful of others, trying to track down vicious monsters? She knew the answer, of course. Even though her heart might still be somewhat attached to her birthplace of Pan Mir far to the east, Metamor Keep was her home now, and she was going to see that it remained that way.
Following her instincts, she had separated from the group a moment ago to try and track down a being which left a trail of tangible evil. The feeling was unique, she thought as she followed it. It seemed malicious, and yet... empty, as if all thought and emotion had been scooped out of it. It was a feeling one might sense from a giant maneating insect, if one ever encountered such a thing.
There was a glimmer of motion. In the dank and murky grey, a darker shadow moved.
"Danielle." called a hollow voice.
The pine marten's fur stood up straight as every survival instinct screamed at her to flee, but she stood her ground and made ready to attack. As soon as the creature was in view, she would trap it using her eldritch shields and render it helpless.
"danielle. come to me. be made complete." called the hollow voice.
Dropping her torch, Danielle took a step forward. She understood now what the creature was offering. To be complete, it...
She shook herself back to rational thought, and was immediately gripped by even greater fear. How had the darkling managed to break through the defenses of her mind? How?
What happened next was too quick for anyone to follow, much less react to. A million black tendrils shot forward and wove themselves around Danielle's body. In the space of a heartbeat, the darkling had completely enveloped the marten.
"Yes!" exclaimed the monster. "I can feel your power within me! You will be a wonderful host, my little Danielle! We will wreak splendid havoc together!"
Danielle tried to scream, but her throat was not under her own control. The darkling controlled her voice. It controlled her arms and legs. It even dipped down into her thoughts and drew upon her knowledge of magic, but it didn't stop there. It probed cruelly all around inside her mind, bypassing the barriers as easily as one steps through an open door.
Perhaps for the first time, Danielle knew true fear.
"Can you see?" asked Faith. "What's going on down there?"
"Shh." Naomi replied. "There's a caravan coming this way. It must have come through the pass from the north."
"You don't think it's those awful little green things, do you?"
"No... No, there's a rat driving one of the carts!"
"A giant rat!" Naomi affirmed. "There's a rabbit... an ape... they're being led by a thirdak."
Faith strained her eyeballs to try to see the creatures in the valley below as they wended their way through the ruins. "I think I see one. Yeah, it's an otter. It's an otter walking on two legs, and he's wearing a warrior's uniform!"
"Very funny, Faith."
"I'm not joking, Naomi, look!"
She looked. "Well I'll be!"
"I know who it is." said a voice behind them. The women turned to see Keet, the baker. He had a patch over one eye and his arm had been rendered useless, but despite his physical condition, he seemed to bubble with enthusiasm at the sight below. "That's Nerr's little boy down there. Oren, the storyteller."
"How do you know that?"
"There was only one warrior who managed to survive the battle that destroyed Hipocc, and that's because he sent himself into exile. He took a drink of polluted water and turned into an otter. I spoke with him the day before he left, as his voice was changing. I thought he was on a sugar high at the time."
"You really think it's him?"
"He's come to bring victory with the dawning of the sun."
Both women turned to stare at Keet.
"Well don't you ever read your nursery rhymes? You've got to know... THAT is the childlike warrior!"
Faith leaned on a rock. "He's supposed to have four companions. I count at least a dozen."
It wasn't long before Sandy came bounding up the hillside to the refugee camp. "I found Felice and Oren!" she proclaimed. "And they got people with them to help us! They got knights and a prince, and a healer, and soldiers, and a big hairy monkey who's a marine..."
Slowly, with the remainder of the caravan behind him, Oren approached the camp.
The one known as "Mist Ocean" sat in the middle of her meditation chamber as soft music caressed her ears and aromatic incense fondled her nose. The ceiling above her displayed a serene night sky, despite the dawning day outside. She felt totally serene and in harmony with nature and the universe. It was like being as innocent as a newborn babe. Of course, the reason for that was that the serenity spell was powered by the life force of a newborn babe. She allowed herself a smile of thanks to what would have otherwise been a healthy son. This moment would not be possible without him. Feeling just a little curious, she rose and strode over to his pen. The infant lay on his back, gaunt, but not emaciated, eyes staring at the ceiling without taking anything in. The boy would live to provide a few more seasons of peace.
The door swung open. A small green man in armor entered.
"Kayrok!" came the melodious voice of Ocean Mist in acknowledgment of the new presence. "I was beginning to wonder if you were coming."
"We were followed." the lutin answered. "It was necessary for us to... to give... a pair of Keepers... of knights... slip... away from..."
Mist passed her hand over the infant. The stars, the music, and the incense ceased as the baby began to cry in exhaustion. Its voice could not be heard, however. A silence spell ensured that such an inconvenience need not be endured.
Kayrok shook his head as though he were shaking off the effects of a drug.
"It's the serenity spell." said Mist Ocean. "It has that effect on the unprepared. Now then. What have you to report?"
"We were followed by two knights from Metamor Keep. We managed to lose them, but I was later to discover that these knights had made a rendevous with a caravan making its way toward Hipocc."
"I see. And was there perchance, an otter in this caravan?"
"There was, my Lady. Two, in fact."
"And one of them was dressed in the uniform of a Hipocci warrior."
"I... I have reason to believe so."
Mist Ocean beckoned the lutin to follow her into the next chamber. "Look here." she said, indicating a pool of water in the center of the room. "I've been keeping an eye on Metamor Keep for months now. After all, it wouldn't do to be ill prepared."
"Simple really. I put a double vision spell on a particularly bad assassin and sent him off to kill the childlike warrior. So far he's done everything but. This is, of course, exactly how I planned it. My assassin has defected, and now acts as a spy without his knowledge. Plus, he sends me back some really entertaining images involving that manly rhinoceros."
"My Lady, should we not be attending to the current problem? The Keepers are here. Now. Our plans to disarm Metamor keep are threatened."
Mist gazed at Kayrok. "You're incredibly well spoken for a lutin, you know that?" she asked.
Kayrok stifled a grunt of frustration.
"I would not worry about them. They are led by Oren, the son of Nerr."
Mist Ocean walked to the back of the room and pulled back a curtain sharply. Behind it was a man. Naked but for a loincloth, he hung, bleeding from an enormous wooden cross. Nails had been driven through his hands and feet, and his head pierced with thorns.
"Do you like it?" asked Mist. "I thought it would be poetic to keep this one this way, as a reminder of exactly how his god died. Of course, I had to cauterize his wounds to keep him from bleeding to death, as I need him alive."
The man on the cross looked up with piercing, burning eyes. "My God yet lives." he declared in a voice free from spite. "You will learn this very soon."
"Oh will I?" asked the sorceress. "Where is your god, now? Why doesn't he take you away from here?"
"I am here in your clutches to serve a purpose. The more you torture me, the more you ensure your own destruction."
Mist Ocean seemed uneasy as she pulled the curtain back into place.
Kayrok fought a bubble of bile which rose in his throat. "Who?" he asked, simply.
"Why, Nerr, of course. This is the father of the childlike warrior."
"It was horrible." said Leo, a youngster who was almost of fighting age. "It was the tailor, Bari, who betrayed us. He canceled out our barriers and allowed the Stranders to overrun us in the middle of the night. Our warriors fought valiantly, but it was hopeless. By the time they were marshaled, the Strand already controlled all the strategic positions. Our watchmen had all been killed, as had the entire assembly of elders. The warriors went soon afterward."
"But their magic..."
"Was supplemented by lutins and ogres. Antimagic does nothing against an ogre with a mace."
"I'll second that." said Beetle, an elderly man whose leg was splinted and cast due to an ogre's handiwork.
Oren wanted to hear more, but the morning air was split by a thirdak's roar. Reacting instantly, both the Hipocci and the fighters from the caravan rushed to see the cause of the commotion. Rounding a hillock, they found Charles, eyes wide, back pressed up against the steep hill. Directly in front of him stood a growling Thirdak.
"Spellsipper, heel!" one of the women called out. The beast looked over to acknowledge the command, but stood his ground.
This time the beast reluctantly obeyed.
"I'm sorry!" said the woman. "I don't know why he acted like that. Are you carrying anything magical on you?"
Charles gave a nearly embarrassed "yeah" and pat his pocket, giving no
specifics. Oren noticed that no object made its form apparent through the
Binge hadn't been with the Longs for more than a few months. Before his arrival at Metamor, he hadn't even been a fighter, having been much too fat. However, since becoming a ten- year old with a high-gear metabolism, he'd discovered that he was quite good at combat now that he could execute the moves.
He thought himself a brave and clever sort. That was what prompted him to go looking for Danielle when she came up missing.
He found her, all right. At least, he found what seemed to be Danielle after being dipped in molten tar.
"Hello, feedbag, boy." the thing that seemed to be Danielle called. "How do you like my new outfit?"
Binge pondered for a moment whether he could take this creature. He ran through the descriptions on the darklings in his head. He understood that this was a black shell, and that Danielle was trapped inside it, helpless and afraid.
"Take courage, friend." said Binge. "I'll get help." He turned and bolted down the corridor, only to run smack into an invisible wall.
Inside the shell, Danielle thought to herself what a novel way this was for her shields to be used.
"Don't leave yet!" said the shell. "There is someone I want you to meet!"
With a bloodcurdling shriek, a black flaming figure shot up through the floor. Its inky flames seemed to burn hotter as it came toward Binge, its fearsome claws reaching for his tender, unscarred face...
"The spell is to be cast tonight." said the woman known only as "Teacher". "Since your arrival here at our refugee camp, I have been pouring over this ancient copy of the rhyme of the childlike warrior to see if there is any clue as to how to strike at the Strand."
"Anything?" Oren asked, simply.
"Unfortunately, no." said Teacher as she passed the text to an inquisitive Phil. "I'm convinced that the secret lies somewhere in these two lines, however." She pointed to part of the text.
Phil tried to read it, but had difficulty with the strange script used by this remote people. "Sond... sand... kan... flim... anzeeedo... Oh! Sand and flame and zero score. I remember that part."
Oren looked at the words for himself. Interesting, he thought, that the prophecy spoke about him quoting that part of itself.
"This doesn't say 'Sand'." said Oren, thoughtfully, almost subvocally. "It says 'Sondeck flame and zero score'." He looked to Charles. The color had drained from the rodent's ears, but seemed to pool in his eyes. His face was a mixture of shock and anger.
Oren slapped himself mentally. He wasn't supposed to know about the sondek! He stared at Charles, mouth open, at a loss for what to say.
Upon returning to his men, Kayrok called to one of his subcommanders, Redfoot.
Redfoot was of the Carnak tribe, known throughout the northlands for their clever and innovative use of body parts for practical and aesthetic purposes. Around the back of his neck, he wore a weapon made of two arm bones tethered together with dried intestine.
"Redfoot," said Kayrok. "There is a matter I need to discuss with you."
"Sir?" Redfoot responded, respectfully.
"The leader of our allies has a plan to keep the Hipocci at bay, but she requires our assistance. We need a way to leak specific information to the enemy. How do we do this without them suspecting a trap?"
Redfoot looked around. "Send the werebat." he said. "He is already wounded and will be easy to capture. He lets himself be taken prisoner, he feeds the enemy the information under mild duress, then we mount an operation to rescue him, covertly."
"Well done." said Kayrok. It was all exactly as he had planned it himself, but it was necessary to allow Redfoot to feel that his intellect were being put to good use, and thus allow him to share in the glory. Let the other commanders have their squads of squabbling brutes. Kayrok had brains, loyalty and teamwork in his. That was all he needed.
A moment later, he was speaking to Sytet, pulling at the were's heartstrings, tossing about the lofty lutin ideals of glory and sacrifice and honor until Sytet would have flown straight into the gates of Hell for his master.
Off the bat flew.
chapter 4: evil suffered
"So all this time, you've been spying on me, Oren?" said Charles in a harsh whisper as Oren met him around the far side of the wagons.
"Yes..." replied the otter, hesitantly. "But it's not like I was doing it to hurt anyone. I was just looking in on my friends in order to stay in practice."
"And so you practiced on me?"
The rat ran his hand across his forehead in a gesture of frustration with the lutrine. "You know by now, then, that I have a number of secrets which I don't want anyone to know."
"I know quite a few secrets from many different people. You'd be surprised what I know about Rickkter. But I've never spread anything around."
"Not true. I read the prophecy in the original Hipocci because Phil couldn't. You're the only one who knew that my glance connected it with you."
At this point, Charles let out a rather inhuman squeak of anger. "Confound it all, Oren, can't you see that what you did is just plain wrong?"
The Hipocci was half dumbfounded. He'd never seen Charles like this before.
"You've no regard for others, Oren. You've shown that to me since the day you arrived at the Keep."
"I've got a list at home as long as my arm of things you've done. Like how about the time you yelled at Gornul until he left you and started following me around the Keep?"
"What? Charles, that was months ago!"
"It's just one example of how you have no concern for anyone but yourself."
Oren slowly turned his tail on the rat. "I can't believe you kept a record of my wrongs. A friend doesn't do that kind of thing."
"No." said Charles, barely containing his rage. "You don't go and turn this around on me."
"And why not?" growled Oren, whipping around, his face the very picture of anger. "You dare to call yourself a follower and yet you've kept a record of my 'sins'. You ought to be ashamed!"
For what seemed like years, the two mammals stood and faced each other, eyes red with contained rage, teeth bared, each one tensed for a fight. Oren wondered for a moment exactly what the Sondeck might do to one with a magical immunity, should Charles deign to strike him.
At last, Charles pulled himself up straight. "This is foolish." he said. "We have a mission, here. We can't afford to be fighting each other."
Oren assumed a more dignified bearing as well. "All right then, rat. We'll speak of this later."
When Binge was found by his fellow longs, his face was a mass of charred meat. His screams had long since died into whimpers, and his mind proved unable to endure the pain which he had suffered intact.
"Shell took her!" Binge babbled. "Took her away, away to where they went. Dark fire burn little Binge. Shell took her away. Darkfire burn. Shell took her."
Misha instructed a pair of women to get Binge up to a healer. "And keep your torches about you!" he called after them.
Even as the hastily appointed paramedics left the scene with their patient, a burning, black face emerged from the wall.
With a swift but certain motion, Misha reached for two bladders hanging on his belt and squirted their contents onto the darkfire. The creature screamed in agony as its flame was extinguished by a rapidly forming foam, then fell to earth as a pile of black bones.
"Thank you, Ye!" whispered the fox. "All right, now, troops. That black shell is down here, somewhere, and it has Danielle. I want it captured. Bring anything that will burn down here. I want fires going in every corridor. I want this place so well lit that nothing which thrives on darkness will be able to even think of escaping."
The Longs acknowledged the order and set about the task.
Jemma, one of the village girls, had set up a number of stones in order to give the Keepers an idea of the layout of Devil's Strand. "This is the village square, over here." she pointed out. "This is where they'll most likely be casting the spell, since it's going to take..."
Rupert was fishing something out of his pocket, but he twirled his hand to instruct Jemma to continue talking.
"Uh... going to take almost everyone they have. There will most likely be a special... sacrifice beforehand. That means a public... ceremony... with... cannibal..."
Rupert was twirling a bit of rope with weights on both ends. With a sudden twirl, he let the rope fly. It wrapped itself around an ugly looking creature hanging from a tree, knocking it to the ground most painfully.
Several young Hipocci were on the creature instantly.
"Cripes!" declared Leo, who pinned down its wings. "That's the biggest bat I've ever seen!"
"That's no bat." argued Xan. "Have you ever seen a bat with green lips?"
"It's a lutin." said Oren, simply. "Let me guess. You would be of the Bloodborne tribe, wouldn't you? You might even be Vitra's cousin."
"Evil Keeper!" Sytet screamed from his chiropteran throat. "Sytet kill!"
Jesse rushed over to help contain the creature. "All right, guys, what do we know about this creature so far? Let's see if you've been paying attention."
"His name is Sytet of the Bloodborne tribe." said Leo. "He's a lutin who's somehow turned into a bat."
"He's got more passion than self control." said Xan. "And he's working wounded. Those bolas didn't do this damage to his wing."
"Why you talk about Sytet?" asked the bat. "No talk about me!"
"He's had some contact with humans." said Leo. "His grammar is off for a lutin. It's like a mix of lutin and human."
Sytet lay still, now, his eyes and ears wide in a fearful expression.
"He understands that our being able to draw information about him gives us power over him." Jesse noted. "Somehow, he's learned the importance of applied knowledge. That's something they don't usually teach in goblin school."
"Let Sytet go! Let I go!"
"He's putting on a show." said Phil, popping only his head above the side of one of the wagons where he had gone to hide from the bat.
"What do you mean?" asked Jesse.
"He said 'Let I go'. A moment earlier, he used the word 'me'. He's playing stupid for some reason."
Rupert grunted as he put his massive arm protectively around his prince.
Oren strode forward and put the butt of his staff to Sytet's throat. "All right, Bloodborne. What's your game? Plain Common, now. And if I sense any lies, your windpipe is history."
Sytet seemed to relax. "The deception was not my idea." he said, plainly. "I am a werebeast, and I am strong. I have no need for telling lies."
"Get on with it, then."
"I was sent here to let myself be captured in order to give you a piece of information. Your father is alive, Hipoccian. He is held hostage in the hold of Mist Ocean. If you prize his life, you will abandon your struggle against Devil's Strand."
Oren backed away. His dream came flooding back to him. He remembered watching the slain Hipocci warriors departing to the afterlife, and being told that his father was not among them. So he truly was alive!
"Go back to your master." said the otter. "Tell him that he wins. I'm calling off the fight." With an angry hum, he threw his staff to the ground.
Sytet discarded the bolas and flapped away.
"Oren?" said Felice. "You can't be serious about giving up the fight."
The otter shook his head as he picked up his staff. "Not a chance in Hades. We're going to rescue Dad, and then we'll destroy the Strand."
chapter 6: evil targeted
"Here's the plan." said the only remaining Hipocci warrior as he pointed to the dirt map on the ground. "Sytet's commander is here for the express purpose of keeping us out of the Strand's hair tonight. We can assume this. He's not going to be satisfied with our faked concession. Now that he knows where we are, he's going to come down here and attack the camp in order to keep us busy. When he gets here, he's going to find a camp full of people. That will be Gornul creating the illusion of people while we make our way towards the enemy.
Rupert, I want you to be in charge of the first group. You'll go around the north side and come down near Mist Ocean's hold. Take Felice with you as a guide. Take both of the knights, the six guards, and six strong Hipocci boys and girls.
At your earliest opportunity, make as much noise as you possibly can. Grab their attention and keep it. Be as disruptive as you possibly can. And... if you should find my father, all the better. However, I'm not counting on his being alive once this spell gets underway."
Rupert looked down at his employer, obviously distraught at the thought of leaving him unguarded.
"Desuka, you're in charge of the second group. You'll be taking the rest of the camp in the wagons and circling around to the south. Go around the lake, come up and stop about a quarter mile east of the Strand. You'll be our food and medicine team once we're out, as well as our emergency backup if anything goes wrong." In a quieter tone directed at Desuka, but loud enough for Rupert to hear, he added "And whatever you do, keep Phil safe. He's our resident inspirational figure."
The ape allowed himself a smile of relief. For all of his flaws, the Panda was an excellent bodyguard.
"I'll be taking the third group in from the west side. Jesse... and Charles," he added after a moment's hesitation. "You're coming with me. We're going to go straight into the town square and do whatever we possibly can to break up that spellcasting. Gornul, as soon as the lutins have seen through your illusion, come and join up with us. Let them follow you. A band of lutins can't do a thing to help the spellcasting go smoothly while they're trying to kill us."
"Oren..." said Phil, hopping up beside the otter. "I know you want to keep me safe, but I have to come with you."
Oren shook his head in disbelief. Was this Phil the rabbit? Phil being brave? "But..."
"The prophecy, Oren. You need me."
"I've never been one to base decisions on prophecy." Oren lied. "Think of what Thomas would do to me if you got hurt." He deliberately avoided saying "Killed". "Not to mention Rupert. Or Clover, for that matter!"
"I am thinking of them." said Phil, beginning to tremble slightly. "That's why I have to come."
Picking up the rabbit prince, Oren handed him to Desuka. "Make sure nothing happens to him."
Phil protested, but in the end, the panda won out and placed him safely in the wagon.
Misha held his torch as high as the low ceiling would allow. As surely as his name was Misha Brightleaf, he'd track down and free Danielle.
"Peekaboo! I see you!"
The fox whirled to see the inky black form of Danielle behind him. Immediately, he thrust his torch forward at the monster's face. The blackness seemed to shrink away. He could hear gasping and a strangled voice calling "Misha, help me!"
The torch fluttered. Misha risked a glance backward to see a darkman, his faceless head thrust forward in a pantomime of blowing out a flame. A freezing wind emanated from the place its mouth should have been, extinguishing the torch.
Tossing the torch away to free both hands, Misha drew his axe. Even in total darkness, it proved a formidable weapon, and for a few moments, he managed to keep both monsters at arm's length.
Then something most extraordinary happened. An enormous hand gripped the fox. He yelped in alarm as his entire torso became ensnared. Seizing the opportunity, the darkman leapt upon the helpless captain of the longs, its ice cold skin blistering Misha beneath his fur.
"Surprised?" asked the shell. "Did you know that Danielle had these powers? She never used her skill at creating magical force barriers for anything other than armor, but I know how to wield her power!"
"What?" the shell demanded in alarm. She whirled around to see half a dozen long scouts carrying covered lanterns. With a synchronized motion, they removed the covers, allowing light to flood the corridor.
In a scream of pain, the darkman vanished completely. The shell bellowed in rage and dashed away down the passage to the safety of the shadows, carrying a helpless Danielle with it. "Stop struggling!" the being hissed. "You're mine! Your soul is mine, now! You are nothing but my internal organ!"
"It's weak!" Misha cried between heaving breaths. "After it!"
"I have to ask," said Jesse as he trudged along between Oren and Charles. "What exactly is it that we're going to do in order to break up the spell casting?"
"I don't know." Oren replied.
Charles knitted his brow. "Oren, you amaze me." he said.
"DON'T ...push me, Charles." Oren responded.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"Look, rat... my girlfriend is dying. My father has been kidnapped. I just saw my hometown lying in ruins, my people living like lutins, and what's more, if I fail with this mission, everybody DIES! The last thing I need is further pressure from you!"
Jesse slowed his pace to walk behind the combatants.
"And you don't think I feel the same pressure? Your world is threatening to collapse underneath you. Well so is mine, Oren. If we fail, everything is gone. Yes, your beloved is dying, and I'm sorry, but if we don't make it back, my fiancée will end up just as dead."
Oren paused, his brows smoothing and his tail going still. "Fiancée?"
Charles seemed to quiet as well. "Not quite, actually. You asked me once when I planned to propose to her. I was planning to make it next week. I'm..."
Charles didn't finish. It wasn't his way to express the emotion which he was feeling.
"Afraid." Oren finished. "You're afraid that you'll never get the chance."
The rat nodded, his facial features tightly squeezed, as if the admission caused him great physical strain.
Oren wanted to reach out and comfort his friend. The time, however, was not right. He still felt betrayed, and knew, on a more intellectual level, that Charles did, too.
The three of them continued walking in silence.
Rupert made a point of knowing the names of everyone he was going into battle with. He would not be able to say them, of course, but it helped to create a sort of comeradery which they would need to work as a team.
Among the guards, there were Kaj and Kilix, the boys. There were Jonathan and Daniel, the two burly amazons, and there were Barnaeus the old squid and Andrew the stegosaurus.
Among the Hipocci were Two older boys named Leo and Xan. Behind them walked two healthy young women named Sambrea and Naomi. The last two were an elderly but strapping man named Dekay and the young one on whom he perpetually kept one eye, the thirdak named Sandy. There was much objection at first over sending such a young child into battle, until Sandy made it clear that while she was in the thirdak's body, there was almost nothing the Stranders could do to her.
There was of course, Sir Samantha and Sir Saulius. Both seemed far more alive than usual. One could almost hear the blood rushing through their veins.
Felice, however, did not share the knights' joi d'vivre. She was tense and alert, but not out of any sort of joy at getting back into action. Her underlying emotions were rage and fear.
Perhaps a fight song might lift her spirits. Certainly, it could do no harm to the morale of the others, and it would further their goal of attracting attention. Rupert gestured to Samantha to try to get her to sing something. It took several minutes for the knight to understand, but once she got the idea, she nodded and smiled as her husky alto voice rang out:
"When there is trouble who do they call?
Who are the ones who never will fall?
Who can take a curse and never even blink?
Who boldly plunges on and never thinks to shrink?
Who makes the most of being beast so wild?
Who can slay a horde as a woman or a child?
Who saves the day from their own front door?
The warriors of Metamor!"
After a moment of thought, she amended the last line. "We're Hipocc and Metamor!"
At Rupert's encouragement, the others took up the song, timidly at first, then with hearty gusto as they approached the enemy village.
A tangible barrier stopped the group momentarily. Without missing a beat, each one produced a magic cancellation charm. The Hipocci walked through the magical barrier surrounding the town, followed by the Keepers, who had only slightly more trouble.
Rupert wanted to snap out something like "All right, boys and girls, we're here to create a diversion. Let's give these blighters the biggest diversion we've got!" Naturally, he didn't. Instead, he pounded his chest with both fists and issued forth a gorilla roar which made even his comrades' blood freeze in their veins.
The Stranders were slow to respond. Of all the contingencies, no one had been contemplated the arrival of a handful of marauders led by a great ape. For the first few minutes, at least, the allied warriors were enjoying themselves.
A bush on the outskirts of the refugee camp made its report to Kayrok. "The Keeper caravan left in an easterly direction less than an hour ago. However, a large number of both Hipocci and Keepers have stayed behind."
Kayrok could barely make out the form of Norebo within the talking bush. Scrawny the lutin from the ironfoot tribe may be, but he was a wiz at disguises. "Anything else to report?" asked Kayrok.
"Go on. If you have something, I wish to know."
"I've noticed something odd in the camp. People appearing in a certain place only to show up in another location seconds later."
Kayrok stared toward the camp. "Good work, Norebo. Lutins, stay here." The dark green commander instructed as he walked toward the enemy. Striding along as though he belonged there, he walked right up to a pair of humanoid rats... and through them.
"It's an illusion!" called Kayrok. "There is no one here. Look at the tracks on the ground."
Instantly, the existing tracks multiplied. Wheel tracks and footprints littered the dirt.
"Hornbeam!" called the commander.
"Here, Sir!" replied a wispy looking lutin.
"There is a psionic being somewhere in the vicinity which is projecting false images into our minds. Use your nose to track it down and destroy it!"
"As you command!"
As he had been instructed, Gornul beat a hasty retreat, eager to leave the lutins behind and rejoin his friends.
"There." said Kayrok. "The tracks are clear, now. The enemy went in three directions. A large band of fighters to the north, a smaller group to the east, and the caravan around the shore of the lake."
"Do we follow the fighters, Sir?" asked Sujan.
"No. That's what they're expecting. They want us to follow and create utter mayhem trying to fight them in Devil's Strand. It's what I would do. No, we follow the caravan. That's where the civilians will be. The old, the young, the wounded... We capture the caravan and the fighters will come to their rescue. We'll face them on a battlefield of our choice and on our own terms."
"Brilliant!" cried Sujan.
"Don't kiss up to me." said Kayrok, lightly. "You've got a brilliant mind of your own, and you're of much more use to us all if you exercise it."
"Yes, Commander." said Sujan, simultaneously abashed and proud.
"Lord Kayrok!" someone called. It was subcommander Redfoot. "Kayrok, we have a problem!"
"What is it?"
"It's Dimtorch, Sir."
Kayrok massaged his brow. There were few lutins who considered a lack of intelligence a significant weakness. For Dimtorch, however, they made an exception. He truly lived up to his name, and thus far, had proven to be so thick in the skull that his chief purpose to date was to act as a humanoid shield for his fellow warriors. "What did he do?"
"He drank from the lake, Sir. Just like Mist Ocean warned us against."
As redfoot was delivering his report, a huge beast came lumbering into the camp. It looked like a blue polar bear with a dolphin's tail, except for the finlike ears on its head. "Dimtorch sorry." said the beast. "Dimtorch not mean to make boo boo."
Kayrok studied the beast which Dimtorch had become. With his newfound bulk, claws, teeth, tough hide, and obvious aquatic prowess, he began to make Kayrok think that Dim's stupidity might just have some advantages after all.
When Gornul caught up with the others, he replayed the scene at the camp.
"He's going to go after the caravan." said Oren.
"How do you know?"
"This Kayrok fellow was studying the tracks in the dirt. He's going to see that the bulk of us went with the caravan."
"Phil..." Charles whispered.
Oren paused. For a moment, he turned towards the lake, gazing out at the point where the caravan would be.
"We don't know it for sure." said Jesse, calmly.
Oren wavered. He thought that if he had to choose between an individual and the Keep, the choice would be obvious and easy. Yet the thought of being blamed for the death of the Prince of Whales was rather heavy. He started back.
It took the four Keepers a moment to figure out where the voice had come from. It was Phil, the rabbit, hiding behind a bush and trembling.
Oren would have been livid were he not so surprised. "Phil, what are you doing here?"
"I followed you." said the rabbit as the otter brought him out into the open. "You need me. Your people's prophecy says that you need me."
"The Stranders' spell is vulnerable to light. I've been studying fire magic. I haven't told anyone until now, but you need my new abilities."
"Phil, we're going to be putting ourselves in mortal danger!"
"I know that, Oren!" said the rabbit, now trembling so hard that he looked as though he were in the middle of an earthquake. "But Clover is in peril as well. If we fail, my beloved will die."
"I understand." said Charles. "All this time, my thoughts have been of Lady Kimberly."
Gornul flashed an image of his girlfriend, Natalie.
Oren nodded. "And of course, the chief reason I am here is for Ana."
"Don't look at me." said Jesse. "I'm a happy bachelor."
"Does Rupert know that you're here?"
"No. He doesn't realize it, but Desuka is watching over Zuzu's pet hare, Nibbles."
The otter would have chuckled, except that he was too busy being so amazed by this behavior which was so abnormal for the self-proclaimed cowardly rabbit-prince. The events of the past season were bringing out a part of Phil which even he might not have known was there. Indeed, it seemed as if everyone was changing. Even Oren himself had become so incredibly serious and sober. It was as if... With his back to the others, Oren chuckled to himself.
"What's so funny?"
"I'm not childlike."
"What? But you are..." said Jesse.
"No. I've allowed this whole experience to change me for the worst. I've become some sort of brooding war chief."
Charles came up behind Oren. "It's easy to do. We all..."
No one expected what the otter did next. Lifting his hands to the sky he cried out "I AM OF YESHUA! No weapon formed against me shall prosper! I will not be manipulated by the evil one!"
Only Phil seemed to display confusion at the outburst.
Turning to Charles, Oren said "My dear friend MattRat, I wish to say I'm sorry. I should never have spied on you."
Charles smiled weakly. "And I apologize for keeping score against you."
"I've been a fool. I've allowed my spirit to be chained by the evil one." Right then and there, he prayed aloud. "Father, protect my... our spirits and our minds from the attacks of the enemy." Looking back at Charles and Phil, he said "My friends, I want to pull down all the barriers between us right now. With your permission?"
Charles hesitated, but nodded. Gornul and Jesse would have to know, soon.
"My friends, we have five unique and powerful abilities represented, here. You know of mine. I am almost completely immune to magic. Like all Hipocci, I am also highly trained in magic negation. Unlike my kin, however, I have had time to study magic in detail at the Keep, even though I am incapable of performing it.
Gornul's power you also know. He is a psionic with the ability to generate images with only a thought. His ability has also been augmented by special knowledges only found at the Keep.
Jesse Roo is the last of a line which has been held in reserve for this moment. His eldritch missile spell has been one of the most carefully guarded secrets in Lorland until his power was made public at the trial.
Phil has recently begun the study of fire magic. His previous experience as a firemaster gives his a double dose of power, one magical and one scientific.
The rat cringed, visibly.
"You may have heard me refer to Charles as the "Rat of Might" on occasion. This isn't a jest. He has a powerful source of magic within him which makes him incredibly strong. Jesse, Gornul, this secret you must guard with your lives. You know because you need to know. Tell no one."
Both the kangaroo and the dragon nodded. Phil still seemed somewhat bewildered by the whole affair.
A gleam came to Oren's eye. He was struck with an idea, and as he set about explaining his idea, the old Oren, the one who had once risked life and limb on little more than whimsy, began to show through once more.
chapter 7: evil destroyed
Felice was enjoying herself immensely. Being a woman, she had never been expected to raise a weapon against her foe, but now that it had become necessary to do so, she found that she actually liked the action and the danger. Of course, impaling a few of the people who had killed her family didn't do a thing to dampen her spirits.
Samantha and Saulius seemed likewise energized. The years each of them had spent in their respective self-imposed seclusion had made them seem un-knightly in the past. Samantha had spent become sedate and apathetic, and Saulius had been alternately brooding and delusional. Being here in the heat of battle brought back a fire to the eyes of the woman and the rat that seemed inextinguishable.
While the knights and guards dealt with the swarms of Stranders, and the Hipocci nullified any sort of magical attack, Rupert gained entrance to Mist Ocean's hold by knocking on the door and opening it in one fluid motion. After having its security spell disabled, it seemed little match for the hand of a great ape.
Rupert pondered this as he dispatched a pair of alarmed servants who met him from inside. The Strand seemed rather ill-prepared against an attack from people who were naturally immune to magic. But of course. He had heard it said that the purpose of Hipocc was to contain the Stranders, not to destroy them. Hipocc had no reason to attack the Stranders on their own turf. Consequently, such an attack was never anticipated. Especially not a combined attack of Hipocci and keepers. It seemed more likely that the people of Devil's Strand built defenses against each other. This notion was reinforced by the fact that Rupert had never seen a less organized fighting force in his life than the one he was facing.
As he pushed on into the citadel, Rupert heard Felice questioning one of the supposed guards. "Where is my father?" she yelled. "Where is Nerr?"
In the spirit of cooperation, Rupert picked up the recalcitrant Strander by the back of his head and growled low at him.
"The vision room! Just outside the meditation chamber! Down this hall, last door on the inner wall!"
As a reward for his services, Rupert let the man live. At least until Kaj got to him.
The door to the meditation chamber proved to be as stubborn as the first, which meant that it went down with a ward and a single strike. As soon as they entered the room, all eyes fell upon the child caged in the corner.
It was Saulius who picked the child up. His rodentian face reflected the full horror that he felt as he hefted the boy's featherweight body and felt his ribs through his skin.
"Give him here." said Felice. "You need your hands for fighting."
"Verily I say thee, that the fiends who hath inflicted such hunger and pain upon yon babe shalt not be suffered to live!"
After handing the child to Felice, the rat charged into the next room. Samantha was right behind him. However, their righteous rage would go unsatisfied. The room held only a reflecting pool and a large, blood stained cross.
"Where is he?" Felice said, not knowing that she was speaking out loud.
"There!" said Jonathan, pointing her sword at the reflecting pool. An image of the bloodied Nerr was showing in the pool.
"Where?" cried Felice as she and her companions crowded around the pool. Their proximity broke the spell, and the pool became nothing but ordinary water.
Felice swore under her breath.
"It was definitely outside." said Kilix. "Looked like it might have been in the town."
"Oh no!" cried Naomi. "They're going to sacrifice him for their spell!"
Forest was patrolling the town square for trouble. Back and forth he paced. Every so often, his patrol would take him past the fertility statue. He didn't usually pay attention to the thing, but on this last sweep, he noticed something odd. The statue depicted more than a dozen animal spirits engaged in overt sexual activity, anatomically correct and in full color. His eyes scanned the tiger, the fox, the wolf, the rabbit, the deer, the otter... the otter was wearing a Hipocci uniform.
Instantly, Forest turned and began jogging away. A moment later, his head exploded.
"I'm getting better." said Jesse.
Charles was having difficulty holding down his last meal. "The man's head... you..."
"I didn't mean to make such a mess. Are you ready?"
"I'm ready. Gornul?"
The dragon nodded and looked to Oren.
"I'm ready. Phil?"
The rabbit gulped and shook his head. "No, but let's get it over with."
The sky overhead was darkening quickly. Already, the first stars were showing, though they were quickly being blotted out by an unnatural cloud cover.
"Keep your eyes open for Stranders." said Oren. Glancing about to make sure all was clear, he went out and started drawing designs on the ground with his claw. Each design was a cancellation rune. Together, they would form a barrier which would prevent unwanted magic from passing through.
"Now," said Oren. "Gornul, you must follow my finger exactly. I can't make this circle spell, but you can, using your projection."
The dragon obeyed. The spell was a simple one, requiring little concentration on his part. The circle would take any energy directed at it and channel it inward. "All right." said Oren. "Jesse, you start." The roo said his spell aloud this time. He wanted to make absolutely certain that there were no mistakes. A missile flew from his hand. As it entered the circle, it seemed to pick up speed, racing for the center. The ball of light exploded, but silently turned inward, changing to a roiling mass of ceaseless explosion and implosion. Another missile followed it, followed by a third and a fourth. All was going according to plan. Then Nerr arrived. He was bloody and bruised, barely recognizable as human. His nearly dead body was being hauled along between two Stranders, who were accompanied by about fifty others.
The darkness in Metamor Keep was more than oppressive. The shell who had enveloped Danielle had taken a sort of chaotic command over the horde of darklings. She was now systematically going through the Keep, extinguishing every conceivable form of visible light. With every flame that met its death, the invaders grew stronger. And where the light was too intense for the darkmen or nightbeasts, the darkfires would come, absorbing the light into their ebony black flames.
Sandfur was a brave and unusually quiet Long scout. However, after seeing one of his companions possessed and the other scarred for life, some of the quietness was leaving him.
In order to have a ready source of light with him, Sandfur had impressed Qualin into service. As the dragon clung to his shoulder, the scout raced about after the darkmen and recited in a steady stream of babble the story of just how he had come to be half raccoon, half child.
The situation seemed almost hopeless. Just as Sandfur managed to douse a darkfire with Ye's special foam, half a dozen darkmen surrounded him. Behind them stood a black shell, filled with the awesome form of Og, the knight from the east.
"Og!" Sandfur whispered.
"Og is no more." said the shell. "All that he was is now part of me."
"Stay back! I have a dragon!"
The Og-shell laughed. "That's not a dragon. THIS is a dragon!" With that, he called up a second shell. This one had definitely overtaken the body of a full-sized dragon, though which one, he could not say. Sandfur shook. If the firebreathers were not safe, who was? Sandfur looked to the tower where Qualin's family had recently moved in.
Then he got an idea.
The raccoon boy barreled out between two darkmen, the fur on his arms freezing and crumbling as he came in contact with their icy hides. The enemy seemed quite bewildered.
"After him, you faceless idiots!" bellowed the Og-shell.
Desuka had pulled the wagons into a circle just in case trouble came. He was not disappointed. The lutins had appeared suddenly and viciously. Desuka, however, met the attack with equal viciousness. As his fur changed to deep, deep red, so did the world around him. A blood rage so astounding came upon the panda that even the Keepers and Hipocci were deathly afraid. Light tended to the wounded, which were many. With her medical skill, she managed to fend death off completely. There were no losses among the "good guys".
Unfortunately, the same could be said of the lutins. When one became unable to fight or was about to go down, another rushed in to defend him and take his place. Though Desuka, and later Blake and Shamgar, fought ferociously, the situation was deadlocked.
"I'll hold these guys off!" said Oren. "You four finish the mix!"
"You can't possibly..." Charles called.
"I have to!"
Six Stranders rushed forward, only to be silenced a moment later as they came to a halt. Oren smiled, amazed that one skinny otter could be so intimidating. Then he felt ape breath on the back of his neck. "Felice?" he said, without looking back.
"I'm here." his sister's voice answered.
"Let's rescue Dad."
Trusting in his allies to guard his back, Charles added his magic to the mix. Streams of physical force poured from him, mixing with Jesse's stream of missiles. The constantly roiling explosions became smaller, tighter, more intense. "Your turn, Phil."
There was no response.
Charles turned to see his friend trembling, paralyzed with fear.
"Phil!" Charles cried. "Phil, snap out of it! We need you!"
The rabbit only stared and shook.
"Please, Phil! You were right! We need you! Come on, Phil, don't drift out on us, now!"
Rupert dropped the Strander which he was swinging over his head. Phil was here? But how? He had seen him leave on the caravan. Ignoring these questions, the gorilla strode across the battlefield to his employer.
"Grunt?" said Rupert.
Phil looked up.
With absolute calm, Rupert put his hand on Phil's back and gestured to the magic circle. He had no idea what was going on in there, but he knew that Phil was playing a necessary part in it. He would do his best to help his master do his duty, as any devoted servant would.
"I... I can't remember... is it..."
"LAKEEPO!" shouted Oren.
After that first word, the rest of the spell came to the forefront of Phil's memory. He spoke the words softly, but their power was undiminished with volume. As he finished the litany, a stream of fire shot from his fingers into the circle.
The three powers intertwined within the circle. The force generated by the Sondeck compacted the fire, which intensified the explosions, which fed the Sondeck's force. Even when all three of the Keepers stopped feeding their power into the circle, the ball of energy continued to grow.
Oren was determined to get to his father, but Nerr always seemed to be maddeningly just out of reach. There was always one more Strander between the two of them. At last, it looked like he was going to make it through.
Then IT arived.
It was vaguely similar to an otter, but with the bulk of a polar bear and the tail of a dolphin, along with other parts that didn't even belong on a mammal. It roared, shaking the otter to his bones.
Mist Ocean congratulated herself on her cleverness. Events were unfolding just as she had planned. The Hipocci were all preoccupied over in Devil's Strand, and the bumbling lutins were out of the way, leaving her and her company of elite mages to perform the spellcasting right here in the remains of Hipocc.
No one would look for them here. There would be peace enough for the work to come. The darkness was total. Only a magic spell allowed them all to see. A sacrifice would not be necessary. There was power enough to be harnessed from the past slaughter which had taken place on this very spot. Soon, the moment would be just right.
Demons swarmed about the place where Mist ocean stood, their presence foul and malicious. They brought news that the Keep was nearing a state of total darkness, and that the time for casting would soon be upon them.
Oren was taking a beating. So was anyone who tried to come to his aid. The blue creature seemed to be getting bigger and stronger with each passing minute. His skin became like that of a shark. His talons were like a gryphon's, and getting longer. Oren lay on the ground, the beast looming over him, ready for the killing strike.
A rib tore through the creature's skin.
Howling in pain, the thing leapt back. A second bone shot from it's elbow.
As everyone watched in fascination and horror, the creature's mutating body continued to tear itself apart.
Oren almost didn't see the others running. He stared at the body of the creature until Rupert shoved him forward.
Oren looked back to see that the fireball was expanding beyond the boundaries of the circle. Without a second word, he broke into a panicked run. He looked back just long enough to see the fearsome beast be consumed by the growing ball of flame.
With darkmen hot on his heels, Sandfur bounded up the stairs of the Lighthouse. Up and up he went, heedless of the tiring muscles in his legs.
On the top floor, he saw what he wanted. A circular pit sat in the middle of the room, filled with wood and charcoal. Above it sat an odd-looking machine. Misha had built the thing in his shop, working from an idea that had lodged in his brain. Even he didn't know what its purpose was, but Sandfur knew.
It all fit together.
Oren built this tower, and he didn't know why.
Misha built this machine, and he didn't know why.
Bradfox brought it up here, and s'he didn't know why.
The dragons moved into the top level of the tower, and they didn't know why.
It was all for this one moment.
"Get that fuel lit!" Sandfur shouted to his companion as he closed and locked the door. That bought him no time. The darklings walked right through the closed door. Others rose through the floor. Still others had climbed up the tower from outside.
Qualin had begun the fire, but he knew what was likely to happen. The darkfires would come forward first and subsume the fires into their black blazes.
Then the machine began to turn.
The hot air from the fire was making it move. The bent blades on the center wheel set into motion a sequence of gears which caused the whole assembly to rotate slowly. One side reflected the fire's light. The other side focused it into a tight beam, which began slowly sweeping over the room.
Wherever the beam hit a darkling, the creature became contorted in agony for the briefest of instants before it simply vanished from existence.
The sole darkfire who had come up the tower raced to consume the light. The concentrated beam proved to be too much for it, though. When it tried to turn the light into heat, there was the sound of a firecracker exploding, and all that was left of the creature were a few scattered black fires which were quickly killed.
Down below, darklings shrieked in terror as light flooded through the keep.
The Danielle shell writhed in agony as the light swept over it. "It's all your fault!" it screamed. "You should have gone after the scout with the others!"
The shell who had enveloped Og could not reply. Its head had ceased to exist. "Get off of me! Get off of her!" the giant bellowed.
With the next sweep of the beam, the dark shell was forced to comply. There was nothing left to cling to the marten.
Mist Ocean became perplexed. It was the middle of the night, and yet the sun seemed to be rising, scattering the darkness which she so desperately needed for her spell. In fact, the rate at which the brightness was increasing seemed beyond astronomical. Her associates were beginning to panic and run. She herself turned around just in time to be taken by a wall of flames.
"Move!" screamed Oren as he approached the wagon train. "Get going! Now!"
After seeing the enormous fireball which threatened to overtake the approaching group, Desuka snapped into action. "Drive! Drive!" he shouted, his red panda form still dominant. "Help friends onto wagons and go! Go! GO!"
Kayrok stood transfixed for only a minute. "Truce!" he cried. "Take us with you! We will help you escape!"
Desuka only answered with a nod of his head.
Urging the smallest and slowest of his crew onto the wagons, Kayrok and several of his fastest lutins grabbed the smallest of their enemies and ran.
For what seemed like an eternity, the wagons raced, with the lutins running beside them like so many dolphins escorting a ship.
It wasn't until they were well outside the valley that the enormous ground-based star finally stopped swelling and began to expend itself. Panting in exhaustion, Kayrok turned to Oren and Desuka. "You... have saved... the lives... of many... of my men."
"And you have saved many of ours." Oren replied. He looked around and took stock, noticing as he did that Kayrok did the same thing.
"We suffered no casualties." Oren noted in amazement.
"Nor we." replied the lutin. The Stranders, however...
There was no question about it. Not a single Strander remained. The entire town had been vaporized in the creation of the landlocked sun. The entire valley had been destroyed, both Hipocc and the Strand.
"The antimagic!" Oren cried out, suddenly. "I didn't get the antimagic for Ana!"
"Not to worry," Blake chimed. "Before we set out, I suggested that everyone stuff their pockets. I didn't think we'd be returning to camp. Here!"
She tossed a vial to the otter. Oren caught it and kissed the stopper as though it were long lost kin. The thought brought another concern to mind. "Father?"
"Here, Son!" called a weak voice. A hefty half-lutin carried Nerr to his son. "I made it out okay, thanks to your green friends."
Oren embraced his father and wept openly. He stood like that for ages, only dimly aware of when Felice's arms entwined with his own.
When at last, the embrace was broken, Kayrok stepped forward to address the otter once again. "Oren, son of Nerr, what I have seen here causes me to doubt the things I have been told about keepers. You are an honorable enemy. I wish you well until we meet again."
As the lutins went their way, Oren turned to his companions and said the
words everyone had waited so long to hear. "Let's go home."
chapter 8: evil remembered
Nerr did his best not to squirm as Light ministered her healing herbs to him. "You're lucky to be alive." she said. "Now hold still."
"I still can't believe what those people did to you." said Oren.
"They've done a lot worse. Take the baby Felice rescued. Used as a power cell and starved almost to death."
"I'm just happy you're alive!"
"And hope to be for a long time, yet."
"WAGON TRAIN AHOY!"
Oren stuck his head out of the mobile sick bay to see who was shouting. It was an old woman standing by the side of the road.
"Can you spare room for a weary traveler?" she asked as the wagons pulled up. "I can work for my passage. I see you have wounded. I am a healer by trade."
Seeing no harm in it, Oren helped the old woman up.
"Lost!" Moaned Sujan. "All is lost!"
"All is not lost." said Kayrok in a reproving manner. "We are alive, every one of us, save the unfortunate Torch. We know much about the enemy that we did not before. And we have something else."
Kayrok pulled the cork from a bottle. It gave off a heavy, almost sickening peppermint scent. "Seemings exchange potion. When two people are splashed with this potion simultaneously, followed by a generous amount of water, any clothing, hair styling, make-up, even appearance- altering spells are instantly transported to the other person."
"So what good does that do us?"
"Several of our enemies took plunder from the Strand. Among them was a bottle of this extract. By this time, Norebo will be aboard their caravan, telling them...
"This is a powerful potion. When used at the stroke of midnight under a full moon, it can break even the most powerful curse, for a very short time. Would you like to be a man once again, Mister Oren?"
"I... I would..."
"Just pour this over you at the stroke of midnight under a full moon, then splash yourself with water. But tell no one what I have told you, for everyone will want to break their curse, and they will fight over the potion."
Ku smiled smugly. He had witnessed the destruction of the valley where Devil's Strand had once been through the eyes of Desuka. What's more, he had managed to save the images onto a magic viewing crystal. With a wave of his hand, he teleported the crystal away to the warlord Aqualo. It would be good for his overinflated ego to witness the destruction of a stronghold of evil. With any luck, it would find its way back to Qor. The images would serve as a slap to the back of the head to the evil conqueror.
The fox emperor strode out of his gardens and into the temple where a celebration was in full swing. It was a red letter day for the side of good.
The moment the caravan reached the Keep, Oren raced in and found his way to Healer Coe's. The raccoon met him at the door.
"I've got it!" he cried. "I've got the antimagic! Let's get it to her, quick!"
The healer did not move.
"Come on, Coe, I've got the stuff! Let me in."
The otter's blood froze in its veins with realized horror. "No!"
"It happened last night, while you were still on the road. We did everything we could, Wessex and I. It just... it wasn't enough."
The vial fell from Oren's paw. He couldn't believe it. As he stood there, shrinking, he tried desperately to convince himself that it was all a nightmare.
A gentle paw touched his shoulder. "I with her, Oren." said Vitra's soft voice. "Achin here too. She not die in pain."
Turning his muzzle to the sky, Oren screamed in rage, in anguish, and in despair, until his voice was completely spent, and nothing was left but a small, sobbing little creature.
All the rest of that day, and all through the night, Vitra stayed with Oren and held him, sometimes her.
Understandably, Oren did not attend the celebration of the salvation of the Keep. He stayed inside and kept to himself. It was mostly Jesse who helped to get the Hipocci refugees settled in. They would stay in Oren's tower until they'd had sufficient opportunity to build their own houses. He also took it upon himself to arrange for military training for the able bodied. As a race of people accustomed to war, they would make excellent minutemen. Their resistance to magic wouldn't hurt, either.
It was Nerr who was the first of the Hipocci to be changed by the curse. His weakened state had left him more vulnerable to magic than the others, but the curse quickly healed all of his injuries as it transformed him from a man into a talking dolphin. Felice was next, owing to her time spent at the Keep, most likely. Before long, she was turning into some kind of winged manticore or sphinx. The others soon followed, almost all of them displaying some sort of mixed transformation as Oren did.
It wasn't until a few days before Christmas that anyone but Vitra saw Oren. It was surprising enough that he had come out of hiding. It was even more surprising what his first words were. Having made his way to the follower cathedral, Oren located Father Hough and said "Vitra and I wish to be married."