Stacking the Odds and Unstacking the Stones

by Ryx






chapter 1


Murikeer finished his preparations within a day; much sooner than he had anticipated. The next day was spent resting from his efforts, which had left him feeling drained an lethargic. No matter how much power he drew from the node, it failed to fill the aching emptiness that he had felt upon sending Keletikt away. Llyn kept watch upon the road from a concealed perch well within the cavern entrance, not trusting the Lutin to have come and gone alone, or not to have left watchers to pick them off with arrows should they reveal themselves. Despite the skunk's obvious trust in the beast, Llyn was not so easily swayed.

The rain continued through that day, a steady drizzle that turned the stripped earth into a soggy morass of mud. Due to the cave's natural downward slope, a thin trickle of water became a swift torrent through the center of the cave, splashing noisily toward the dark depths as the cave's two occupants took shelter on what higher levels they could find. The rain cut their vision to a bare twenty feet at times, during the heaviest storms, but no further than two hundred feet through the steadier drizzle. Murikeer spent a few hours binding all of his recently made runestones into a larger spell, linking the spell to a twig swept in by the rain. Wrapping the twig tightly in leather, he tucked it into a dagger sheath on his bandoleer. The stones he placed in one of the many spare leather satchels he had in his pack.

Relieving Llyn in the dim evening light of the second day, he watched her back as she splashed through the turbulent rush of water spilling into the cave, utterly heedless of its wet chill. He envied her the dense, waterproof coat she had been graced with in her change. His fur was probably not as hot in the sunlight, being longer and not nearly as dense, but it was also not very water resistant. He dug his claws into the rough surface of the spire she had chosen as a lookout perch and scrambled up to the shattered crest where he settled down, letting himself slip into a semi-trance that would keep his outward senses alert while his body rested as if asleep.

As darkness crept slowly across the land the rains increased in furor, the steady roar of falling water completely silencing the insect chorus of the night, drowning out the call of overjoyed amphibians by its very power. Darkness was not the only thing creeping with steady silence across the land as the rain droned steadily on into the night. There were other things, living creatures which lacked the care or wisdom to seek shelter from the monsoon-like deluge.

One was short, broad of shoulder, with thick arms and bowed, spindly legs. It wore sodden, aged leather of many dirty hues, though they tended to bleed together with the wet and create a uniform blackness against the bipedal creature's dark green flesh. Over its back was a quivverful of arrows, a bow and knocked arrow in its hand as it crept stealthily through the water flowing across the waterlogged earth. A sword was sheathed at its side, proportioned for its stocky form and powerful arms, the hilt wrapped in the same uniformly grey/black leather.

At the upright hunter's side was a hound, its short pelt the color of a summer moon, its eyes the color of ancient ice; a deep blue-white hardness as cold as winter's deadly breath. The dog paid no attention whatsoever to the driving rain, never giving a single shake though its fur was soaked through to the skin with the bitterly cold rain. Likewise the hound's master ignored the cold shower as they stalked toward the vague shadow of the cavern entrance.

To the Lutin apprentice shaman's vision the cave was no different from the hillside into which it was formed, a vague outline in the shimmering haze of energies that seemed to drain into the dark hole as swiftly as the water. The small streams of power, much lessened by the clearing of the land, streamed across the earth invisible to all save those trained to sense it, the Shamans of the many Lutin tribes. No others, not even the powerful magi in the north, knew that this life energy even existed, they could not see the spirit path.

Through his spirit vision the rain was nothing, lacking enough life to be more than a vague fog, easily overlooked in lieu of the more vibrant shimmer of the force lines crisscrossing the land, or the brightness of a lone sentry positioned within the sheltered darkness of the cavern. The hunter stopped some distance outside the cavern, watching that sentry alertly. He never attempted to hide, for he knew that no one could see him through the heavy rain, or hear him for the noise.

*How many, Jizzah?* he asked the hound at his side, kneeling in the shallow water and mud to put one arm across the slender moondog's shoulder. She glared at the same thing that had caught the hunter's gaze, for her sight was always active on the spirit path, though she could also see the physical realm as clearly.

*One.* the bitch returned, a snarl curling her upper lip, revealing sharp fangs and large, rending teeth. She lacked the molars of normal canines, all of her teeth were built to bite and tear, to shred what flesh she chose to consume, never to chew. *Others probably further in the cave.* She licked her muzzle as the water streamed from her jaws in a constant stream. The hunter raised his bow, drawing the arrow back as he sighted the glow of the sentry. *You do not think you can hit him in this?* the moondog snorted, her mental voice acerbic to the young shaman at her side.

*No.* Hizpith replied, lowering the bow as he relaxed the string,



*No, let them come out, then chase them.* the moondog's snarl held a sinister grin of glee as her long, slender tail wagged lazily from side to side. *Feel their fear.* The Lutin mirrored her feral smile with a gleeful snarl of his own, nodding. *They are not Lutin.* she observed after several moments of closer scrutiny of the spirit form seated upon the spire within the cavern.

*They are not?* Hizpith asked in surprise, narrowing his gaze as he attempted to see the silhouette better through the rain and range. He knew that his moondog's spirit vision was an incredible degree more acute than his own, for they were creatures that were half spirit themselves, and half spirit. *Giants?*

The bitch shook her narrow head, *No giants, or trolls. Man-animals.* her mental voice trailed away with a note of confusion, she had never before seen such a confusing mix of man and animal spirit within one soul before. Hizpith, on the other hand, knew immediately what she spoke of, a growl bubbling up from his throat.

*Keepers!* he hissed angrily, very nearly advancing on the cavern, his hand going to the daggers in the bandoleer across his chest. They would serve him far better than the short runeblade at his side, for they would allow him to get close to them; to feel them die under his hands. Jizzah tilted her head slightly and turned her icy stare upon him, waiting for him to finish his statement. *The warders of the southern passes.* he offered, brining up a host of images of half-human animals doing battle with a horde of Lutins.

He had been on a few raids before his shamanic powers had awakened, surviving only by fleeing the fight when things went against his side. A visage that featured prominently in his mental imagery was a fox, of all things, bedecked in some sort of strange cloth-like armour and wielding an axe nearly as long as the Lutin was tall. That battle-monster had nearly cloven Hizpith's head during the last raid he had been on, but a lucky slip had caused the axe's broad blade to miss, and granted the Lutin a few moments to beat a retreat.

The moondog knew well enough of the Warders that lived within the castle blocking the southern terminus of those passes, as she was given a great deal of knowledge on the moment of her summoning. That those warders were half-human animals, though, had been something that she had not grasped at the time, and never known enough of to ask. It had never been likely that she would ever have to face them, so had not bothered to concern herself with them.

That was, apparently, soon to change.

*We wait.* Hizpith nodded, still growling, *I want to taste their fear as much as you, love." he stroked the moondog's head as he began to retrace his steps, heading back to a place where he could hide and still watch the cavern, *I want to share their deaths.*

The rains finally passed sometime late in the night, leaving the sky a pristine blue as the sun slowly rose over the eastern horizon, casting a long shadow out before the cavern entrance. There was no beauty to the view the golden light revealed, only desolation. Stands of ragged bracken and heaps of discarded branches dotted an otherwise featureless landscape sliced by deep gullies carved by the rain's erosion. Through the center of the cavern entry there was a channel some eight feet wide and two feet deeper than there had been the day before, in which water still flowed steadily, though the level had dropped over the past couple of hours. The ground was a thick, dark brown quagmire spotted with pints of dingy green where the few weeds that had taken root were half buried in the mud.

"Morning." Llyn muttered as she waded up through the stream, kicking at the water as she stared out at the desolation. In the distance the road was a wall of earth some twenty feet high, the surface hidden from their view by the rise. Muri looked across at her as she drew close, his tail draped down the back of the shattered spire.

"That's pretty much all that can be said about it," he said with a sigh and a nod, unbending his legs and stretching. "Sleep well?"

"Except for the annoyance of this water crashing through the center of the chamber I was sleeping in, and the feeling that the mountain was about to fall on me, I guess you could say so." she adjusted her jerkin, her belt draped over her shoulder, the scabbarded shortsword dangling down her back. "Anything happen on your watch?"

"A Lutin and moondog came by once, on patrol I would guess." Muri shrugged, scrambling nimbly down from his perch, "They stopped about fifty paces out for a few minutes before moving on."

"Pretty close."

"About as close as I would ever want one of those dogs to get." Muri nodded, walking along the edge of the channel cut by the stream toward the chamber they had stowed their gear in. "The citadels should be along today unless the rain holds them up. And tonight we move on them."

"You still think you can stop them?" Llyn asked, walking along beside him through the center of the stream, the water splashing up around her hocks, an opaque brown with mud.

"I'm going to try." he nodded, pausing, "Care for some gold?" he smiled, pointing to the side of the eroded channel. Llyn paused, following his finger, and let out a pleased churr as she spotted the dim yellow glow in the dirt. Wading over, she knelt and scraped the dirt away, revealing a large, irregular chunk of glimmering yellow. Hefting it, she tossed it up to Muri, returning to her quarrying with zeal as Muri chuckled.

"I don't think its all gold." she called over her shoulder, "Too bad we can't get miners up here, though." she said as she continued digging, excavating a sizeable hole in the side of the channel, tossing its of stone to one side as she worked, "These nasty buggers up here don't really know what they're sitting on." she finally stood, holding in her hands a large ovoid stone that glimmered with a deep blue iridescence. She waded over and set it at Muri's feet.

"Black opal." she proclaimed proudly at the skull-sized lump of stone, "There's fire agate all through that dirt, and bits of gold there to, but not so much." Muri rolled the opal back and forth, whistling quietly through his teeth.

"I rather doubt the spirits of the land would appreciate miners stripping their homes like those Lutins stripped the land." he said quietly, setting the lump of gold down beside the opal. Llyn snorted, shaking her head.

"If I had not seen those three I would tell you just what you could do with those spirits, Murikeer." she grumbled as she went back to pick up the stones she had set aside. Muri, head bowed over the two large specimens at his feet, looked up through his brows at her.

"You did see them, so?" he asked.

Llyn stood in the water, cleaning the stones, "I never did believe all that claptrap Raven was always whispering about, you Lightbringers and all." she examined one of the rocks with a critical eye, then tossed it back over into the hollow she had made in her digging, "But after that little display of yours, I can't say she's such a kook anymore." she scratched one of the other stones experimentally, "I had always thought it was smoke and mumbo jumbo before."

"Raven?" Muri asked as he ran his hand across the smooth, age worn surface of the opal, watching Llyn as she cleaned her small hoard.

"Raven the Lightbringer priestess." Llyn explained as she looked up, her eyes narrowing, and took a few short steps backward. Muri followed her gaze, beyond the entrance of the cavern which was little more than a sliver from their current position. In the distance, walking along the roadway was a force of tall humanoids moving northward. "The general." she nodded her head toward them, "Whatever happens, we don't want to mess with him."

"Why?"

"He can't be killed." Llyn scrambled up out of the channel and crouched nearby, staring around the stalagmites toward the distant force of giants, a train of ogres in their wake, with trolls scrambling along the road's embankment. "It has something to do with his armour, it's magical or something."

"It's certainly magical." Muri affirmed as he glanced at using his magic vision, it was the same aura he had seen about the giant the first time she pointed him out, a complex weave of true magic, but too distant to read accurately. "But why he cannot be killed I don't know. He's not wearing a helmet, and there are huge gaps between his greaves and plate."

"It's the magic." Llyn said again, quietly, as if she expected to be overheard by one of the large humanoids walking up the road. She scuttled backward on her knees until she could no longer see the entrance, then hopped to her feet and hastened into the darkness. Muri watched for several more minutes, until the gargantuan host had moved out of sight, before following.

The grinding, rumbling groan of tortured wood rousted them from their respective pastimes much later in the day, bringing them together near the base of the spire they had been using as a watchpost the last several hours. The first of the massive towers was lumbering slowly down the road, led by its team of surging, struggling horses and giants, the surface of the road visibly sinking as the massive weight of the edifice was pushed laboriously along. Water surged from the embankments of the road as the huge weight of the construction passed, leaving thick, muddy rivulets down the earthworks. The second was slowly coming into view from the occlusion of a distant hill, shortly after the first. The effects of its passing were less than the first, but still visible even to the two observers hidden within the shadows of their cave.

Muri fingered the weighty pouch at his hip, hearing the stones click and slide across one another as he watched the towers. His task was near at hand, and held the very real risk that it may cost him his life. Llyn was stretched out upon the stone at his side, her tail resting against his thigh as she ran her hand along the hilt of her shortsword, anticipating a bloody fight to accomplish whatever it was Muri was going to do with those massive, impregnable fortresses.

Suddenly there was a muted crack from the lead citadel and a massive, dark object soared with ponderous grace through the air from its crenellated top, slamming into the earth of the far hill and throwing up a huge gout of thick mud. Both Llyn and Muri jumped at the sound, their eyes tracking the catapult stone along its trajectory. Moments later a second, and quickly after that two more in rapid succession, lofted their stones into the air. Llyn whistled as all three of the stones landed within a few paces of each other. With the proper timing of all four of the catapults on the tower's top she could see them doing a great deal of damage to Metamor's curtain walls.

Several more times the catapults fired, sometimes singly, sometimes in unison, their targets switching with each volley. Each time, all of the stones landed within feet of whatever their intended target turned out to be. Tree stumps, large bushes, even outcroppings of stone. Then they chose one target and continued pounding it as the tower moved, coordinating their fire as their platform was moving. It all hinted at a high level of expertise and training to achieve such a high level of accuracy.

As the Catapults chose their targets, another weapon, unseen by the observers, began training as well. The rattling crack of the tower's ballistae was almost lost in the louder, whooping thunder of the catapults, the massive bolts from the weapons much harder to see than the huge stones from the catapults. The ballistae were high in the towers, most likely on the highest level below the top, and fired from two arrowloops in the walls. They fired with a similar degree of accuracy as the catapults, but so rapidly it left the observers in complete awe for several minutes.

Then Llyn figured out what was happening, and barked an amazed laugh, "They're on a rotating platform!" she cried, slapping the rock before her with her realization, "Two fire, they rotate the platform, and two more fire. They're reloading even as other pairs fire!"

"As big as those siege towers are, I can believe it." Muri was just as awed, and surprised, as his partner, though equally impressed by her quick grasp of the mechanism. He had been close, but she figured it out much more swiftly. "Those things would be a very real threat to any castle I have ever seen, just a single one would be devastating."

"There are four, plus whatever that bigger tower is for." Llyn pointed to the much taller third tower as it lumbered slowly down the road, a huge wheeled tortoise ponderously progressing across the land.

"The bigger one is for mages, to watch and control the battle." Muri explained, "No drawbridges or catapults, so it'll probably be staying well out of range of whatever Metamor has to counterattack with."

"We have trebuchet, catapults, some pretty damned big ballistae... but I haven't seen the sort of practice on them that whoever is in that tower is doing." She shook her head slowly as the second tower began its own training series, aiming off toward the opposite side of the road as a host of Lutins and giants moved across the 'impact area' collecting those stones and ballista bolts that had not broken and returning to the caravan with them.

"You think that Metamor could hold those things off?"

"One of them, yes, without much trouble. Two would be a challenge... but four? I doubt it, especially if they're using the dark arts as well."

Muri looked over at her, "Dark arts?" he queried, his voice curious,

"They've necromancers or Moranasi in their thrall?"

"I have not a single idea what you're talking about." Llyn said quizzically as she furrowed her eyebrows, "I'm meaning magic, plain and simple."

"There's magic, then there's magic." Muri rumbled, stressing the second usage of the word magic, "I do not practice the black arts, though I am a mage."

"There is a difference?" Llyn said, more a statement than a question, "Nothing against you, Mur, but from what I've seen magic has little use beyond blowing up things and calling beasts into existence that have no proper right to exist." she waved her arm toward the cavern entrance, "Such as those moondog things."

"Many differences." Muri reiterated, "You've never seen anyone healed, or a fallen wall lifted to help free those trapped beneath?"

"Priests heal." Llyn returned her attention to the towers, three of which had cleared the hill which obscured them from view and were firing in unison at a rickety wagon a handful of giants had carried out into the open. "That's the touch of the divine hand."

"Even divine power is magic, merely of a different sort. This 'Raven' of yours heals, right?" he asked quietly.

"I have no idea, I've never been in her presence for more than a moment in the nine years I've been at Metamor. The bitch is pretty reclusive when it comes to the Ecclasia." Llyn stroked her whiskers with the side of one finger, her muzzle quirking quizzically, "She's even earned the nickname 'Ice Queen' because of her distant, cool aloofness."

Muri hissed, turning his attention from the towers to his acerbic ally, "Bitch?" he churred sharply. Llyn looked over at him briefly and giggled.

"She's a wolf."

"A wolf?" for a moment Muri was mystified, then it dawned on him that she may have been affected by the spells as well. "Like us?"

"Like us." she nodded as a barrage of boulders and ballista bolts reduced the wagon to a pile of splinters. "From what I gather she never completed her training as a priest of your faith, but she was all that remained of the Lightbringer clergy at Metamor after the battle. No higher priests have come from the south since the curse was laid upon Metamor." She chuckled as one unfortunate catapult crew was forced to scramble as the arm of their weapon shattered against the crossbrace, sending the basket crashing down quite close to those gathered around to keep the train moving. "Your priests tend to get a little more personal in the battles than ours."

"There's a problem with that?"

"Oh, no, quite commendable in fact." she smiled across at him, "Except it tends to get the wisdom of your order smeared across the battlefield."

"Ahh well." he shrugged, watching as the other crews manning the tower with the crippled catapult quickly and efficiently went to the aid of their comrades, securing the remains of the catapult's sling arm and pulling the injured clear. "Wisdom often has the same price as knowledge."

They watched the work progressing atop the tower, which had not paused in its ponderous progress along the road. After several long moments the catapult was tilted upright and pushed off the top of the tower to crash down to the road behind it. Immediately a large group of giants rushed out and hefted the remains, hustling out of the way before the horse team of the following citadel ran over them. The shattered catapult was deposited near the carcass of the wagon, to be used as another target by the remaining functioning weaponry.

Llyn nodded her head toward the rumbling monstrosities creeping with aching slowness southward, "What wisdom or knowledge do you think we'll get from those?"

"The wisdom not to repeat the process, and the knowledge of our success."

"Or failure."

"If we fail we won't have to worry about wisdom of failure, we'll likely be troll food."

Llyn snorted, lashing her tail, "You can be disgusting, you know that?"

Muri lazily waved his tail and chuckled.

They watched through the day as the five monolithic beasts lumbered steadily southward, urged on by the diminutive creatures that swarmed around their massive wheels. Lutins rushed about in droves doing whatever it was they had been tasked to do as giants labored against their huge undercarriages. The massive work horses were taken from their traces in series and switched out with fresh beasts brought from a huge herd following in the wake of the entire caravan. To the pair of half-animal humans concealed within the shadows of their cave the entire procession had a circus air to it, the lumbering wagons carrying the menagerie whilst the performers brought up the rear.

As the sun reached its zenith the General and his retinue separated from the procession and headed southward ahead of them, most likely to check on the road construction crews, where Llyn had first pointed them out. Shortly after the giant's forces left the activity around the towers changed. The horses were reined in, surging rearward against their traces with great neighs from their deep lungs. Underneath the towers, the giants suddenly switched positions, and began pushing in the opposite direction, their massive feet sliding on the roughly planed wood of the road's surface.

Murikeer quietly cheered, shaking his fist at the distant, shadowed laborers.

"What're they doing?" Llyn asked, watching him curiously.

"Stopping!" he crowed, grinning toothily at her, his short, sharp teeth gleaming in the dim light filtering into their hiding place, "Crossing that dike is a dangerous proposition, and they're not going to do it in the dark." he shifted slightly upon the surface of the stone, warmed by his laying in the same spot for so many hours. "I did not know if they kept on through the dark or camped, but it makes my job a lot easier as they seem to do the latter." He reached up to his bandoleer and tugged free the leather wrapped twig, handing it across to her.

Llyn looked at the offering for a few seconds, not knowing what would happen if she took it, "What is that for?"

"That's the trigger spell." he said, giving the twig a slight shake toward her, prompting her to reach up, tentatively, and take it from his hand, "We'll go out of here after dark, but we will not be staying together." he rolled to his side, sliding down behind the pillar of stone they had sheltered beneath, "I will need you to get across that dike, by whatever path you can take, and wait somewhere on the other side. With luck, I'll find you before dawn.

"If I don't find you by the time those towers reach the mid point of the dike, you will have to finish the spell."

"What?" she cried, holding the twig at arm's length and staring at it with wide eyes, as if she feared it were an asp that may bite her.

Muri reached over and grasped her forearm tightly, "It's my magic, Llyn, all you have to do is break the twig when they reach the half way point." She tried to hand it back, her face pulling into a grimace, "I can't." she proclaimed, looking away. Muri pushed her hand back.

"Why?" he hissed the question, with more confusion than venom, "Your faith will not allow this? To have a chance at stopping something that could cost your Metamor countless lives?"

"My faith, but... not so much that, Mur." she cast a tortured look at him, clutching the twig tightly, "It is your thing to do, not mine."

"You must." he said softly, "I will be placing the magic, if I have the trigger with me and get captured, all will be for naught."

"And if I am captured and you not?"

"I can... trigger the spell on my own, if I have to, but it would take more energy and time than what I have woven into that bit of wood."

Llyn looked at the item in her hands for several long moments, then tucked it into the whetstone pocket of her scabbard, "Where will we meet on the other side?"

"Wherever we find each other." Muri offered, for neither one of them had a concrete idea of what they might face on the other end of the dike, "I can find you a lot easier than you can find me. You have one of those agates?" She nodded, digging into the pouch at her hip. She had taken a couple of his spare satchels from his pack, stringing them on her belt to carry the stones she had found in the earth of the cavern, even the massive opal, hanging at her hip like a skull in a bag. She dug out a few of the small, irregularly shaped orange stones, their fiery colors muted by the shadows of the cavern, and handed them across to him.

Picking out two stones, Muri drew the jade dagger from his bandoleer, "You don't mind a prick, I hope?" he said across the blade. She looked at him with an expression mixed between distaste and horror, eyes wide as her whiskers folded back against the side of her muzzle. "Yes, it's more magic, and blood magic at that, but it can only benefit us." he used the very tip of the dagger to prick his forearm, tracing a tiny cut across his flesh. Folding his fur aside with the blade, he touched one of the stones to the wound, uttering a few short words before taking the stone away and handing it back to her.

Llyn looked at the stone with even more trepidation than she had expressed with the twig, leaning away. Muri exhaled a breath through his nostrils as he tried to keep his tail from lashing agitatedly behind him, "This is a location spell, you hold the stone, and think of me. Since I've put a little of my blood, thus life force, into the stone, it will find me. If I also do the same with you, it will only work for you, rather than just any old moron that happens to pick it up.

"Such as a Lutin with half a brain." he poured the other stones onto the stone next to her elbow, "Most of those working on the road out there are shaman, or acolyte shamans. They would understand the nature of the magic in the stone, because the magic I use and the magic they use are sympathetic; very similar in nature."

"And if you bleed me on that rock?" she curled her upper lip, raising an eyebrow.

"Then only you can use the stone. Even if another picks the stone up and figures out its purpose they won't be able to do anything with it."

"Safer to you, and me?"

"To me, mostly, it will not have any affect for you either way, except for a nick on your arm."

After taking a long, steadying breath, Llyn extended her arm, "Eli forgive me." she whispered with true sincerity, then louder, "I am going to be doing penance for this for months." she muttered unhappily as Muri leaned over and performed the blood rite with the same rapid finesse he had performed on his own arm.

"If your Eli cannot forgive you these necessary things, then he is not a very tolerant lord." Muri observed as he sheathed his dagger, rubbing the stone clean on the fur of his chest and handing it back, "Don't lose it with the others."

"In some aspects he is not, indeed." she chewed her lower lip as she looked uneasily at the stone, then tucked it into a fold of her vest, "I'm sure the spirits you answer to have their own intolerances."

Muri nodded as he looked outside the cave again, where the shadows of evening were lengthening across the land, "In regards to certain thing they can be most intolerant." he agreed, "But not in those things necessary for the survival of their loyal followers." he glanced over at her, "Or concerning your Eli." he shrugged, pushing himself to his hands and knees, arching his back as he stretched, his tail shuddering, "Though in their views toward his followers sometimes, well... things can get pretty tense."

"No doubt." she said as she rubbed her arm.

Darkness had settled fully over the land, softened only by the glimmering of the stars filling the sky of the northlands with their steady, cold brightness. The moon had yet to rise, but even then would offer little light as it was swiftly waning. Before the storms had arrived it was at one quarter, by the equinox it would be a mere sliver of cold blue-golden light. >From some distance away, barely heard, came the steady rumble of tribal drums as the special night was being celebrated by the many creatures working on the road.

True to his word, Keletikt had drawn the main body well away from the towers, coaxing them to pitch their camp in a valley well away from the cavern in which he had met his friend Murikeer.

Finally emerging from their hiding place, Llyn and Murikeer hastened across the open, exposed flatlands between hills, toward the distant road. They ran swiftly and quietly, a simple illusion of light and shadow masking them from any casual glance.

Little did they realize that they were masked from a casual glance, but the only gaze that settled upon them was intent and sharp, ready for their eventual emergence into the starlight. As they ran silently across the open plain separating their cavern from the roadway, a shadow detached itself from its concealment behind a boulder on another hill and drifted rapidly after them. Beside that shadow ran a splash of moonlight across the earth, moving in time with the darker form, never occluded no matter which direction they traveled. Neither made a sound.

Llyn and Murikeer likewise made no sounds as they ran, their items muffled by leather wrappings as they shifted and dangled with their pace, bouncing against the soft fur covering their bodies. Their steps made a quiet, wet splashing as they raced across the land, their tracks wiped clean instants after their passage by the shifting mud. Neither spoke, all words they had to exchange having been traded in the cavern just before they made their way into the starlit night.

Reaching the road, the crouched at the base of the embankment for several moments, gazing around them for anyone who may be wandering the road, either a straggler or a guard. There were no such souls, and their backtrail was clear. Neither of them saw the shadow ghosting after them drop flat to the ground, vanishing behind a low hummock of muddy earth along with the pale yellow splash of moonlight following close beside it.

Their path clear, they scrambled up the steep twenty feet to the road itself, keeping low and hugging the crest of the embankment without stepping out onto the road, which was a pale streak of grey in the otherwise black landscape. The wood was bent upward at the ends, the thick wooden beams warped and twisted torturously by the mountainous weight that had recently passed over them. Once again scanning their backtrail, forcing their shadow into hiding again, they waited a few moments to get their bearings.

Hand clasped arms as they leaned close to one another, "Luck to you." Muri whispered softly, his muzzle less than an inch from Llyn's, their whiskers mingling. Llyn nodded, her breathings quickened, but not labored, by the excitement of the hunt. The race was once again joined, and only the best would see it to the final ribbon.

"Eli's blessing on you, pagan." she smiled, her teeth gleaming whitely in the starshine as she clasped her hands upon his forearms firmly for the space of a heartbeat before releasing him. Clasping the weight of the opal in its pouch at her belt and the hilt of her shortsword she scampered quickly across the hundred foot span of the roadway. Her claws made muted, scratching clicks with each quick step as her dark silhouette darted across the pale expanse of ruined wood. Muri watched her vanish into the darkness, her scent still heavy in his nose, then moved a back down the base of the embankment and began his run toward the towers.

A hundred paces away, Hizpith and his attendant gleam of moonlight paused as they watched their quarry split up, one darting across the roadway while the other, much brighter on through their spirit vision, waited for a time, then began running south parallel to the road. The acolyte Lutin knew that the brighter of the two was probably a shaman in his own right, or at least an acolyte, with the powerful shine of power around him. The other was most likely a warrior, though she had her own magic in items that she carried.

Laying his hand upon Jizzah's shoulder, he watched the swiftly fading shine of the shaman, *Follow him.* he pointed after the glow, *But don't kill him. I will go after the warrior.*

*Do not kill him?* the moondog's cold mental voice cut into his thoughts of the warrior, *Why not?*

*We will share his death, that one.*

*While you slay the warrior alone?* she growled, genuinely angered by his selfishness.

*You are more tightly linked to me than I to you, Jizzah.* Hizpith grumbled at the waste of time their argument was costing, *You can share in her death from where ever you are.*

Jizzah gave herself a shake, from head to hindquarters, before starting after the distant shine of the hastening shaman, *Kill her slowly.* she sent back as she broke into a trot, which would bring her closer to her prey, but not so swiftly as to arouse suspicion. Hizpith nodded his large, gnarled head as his broad mouth broke into a fang-toothed grin.

He had planned on that from the moment the two had parted, but her death was only one of the many things he would visit upon her. He trudged up the embankment and moved across the road at a southward angle, secure that the darkness would mask him from being seen if his quarry happened to look back. Reaching the opposite shoulder of the huge road, he paused, using his spirit sight to locate his elusive prey.

She was no where to be seen, which was hardly surprising considering the time Jizzah had wasted arguing. He gave a shrug as he moved up the road, looking closely at the earthen bank. His night vision was especially keen, far superior to that of the two Keepers, and even better than most Lutins. With a bare hint of starlight and no moonlight he was able to see the world around him almost as if it were nothing more than late dusk. Finding a set of prints in the earth, he knelt and examined them.

They were the pawprints of a mink, but like no mink Hizpith had ever encountered or heard of. They were quite large, the pattern in the earth nearly as broad as his spread hand, and there were only two paws making the print, revealing that the creature that had made them was bipedal. The warrior, then, was a mink, created by the Great Nasoj's spells when they had been laid upon the Warder's castle in the south. Why he had created such beasts was unknown to the Lutin, who considered the power the animals had been given to be far greater than what any animal should be granted. They had also been granted intelligence, which made no sense. If Nasoj wanted to defeat the Warders, then why give their beasts the ability to think and defend the human's own castle?

His lot, he know, was not to question the great mage's motives, he knew. His was but to serve, and he did that quite well. Sliding down the steep hill of turned earth, he began tracking his prey.

Muri felt wonderful as he sped along the edge of the slope of the roadway, finally able to find his pace again after so many days slowed by his partner's shorter legs and softer ways. He could not fault her for them, as one was the effects Nasoj's spell had left her with, and the other was unavoidable to anyone living in any form of advanced settlement. He himself had even been as soft as she, once, before being forced to turn to the forests to survive.

His longer legs covered the ground with great, loping strides, his body leaning forward in a controlled fall that sped him forward. There were no tangles here, the forest having been fully stripped from the land here, down to the smallest shrub and root, leaving little more than muddy earth. The runoff from the road's tall earthen shoulders had solidified into something denser than the morass further away, allowing him to move rapidly without much fear of sinking to his hocks in mud.

Off to his left, over the crest of a hill some distance away, perhaps a half league, was the shimmering, orange glow of many fires. The muted chanting and echoing drums of the assembled Lutins filled the night quiet, adding to the much diminished chorus of insects and amphibians. The forest was home to far more than crickets and cicadas, but without its shelter, most had either frozen, eaten, or swept away in the rain. Thus there were very few left to add their din to the drumming equinox drums of the tribes.

The towers were massive, dark shadows in the dim starlight, solid and silent in the darkness. Only one showed any evidence of life; the mages' tower, its highest level lit by some light source. Shadows moved in that light, revealing it to be positioned somewhere in the center of the huge upper chamber. A fiery glow etched the upper level's details in sharp contrast, the glow likewise broken by the occasional passing shadow. With his keen ears Muri was able to hear the deep, sonorous chanting from the tower.

The mages there, it appeared, were observing their own equinox rites. Under normal circumstances Muri would be doing his own. He gave only a passing regret about missing those rites, as they did not bolster his power by any great extent. For him, it was a communion with the land that was far more intimate than he could ever perform by his own. Missing out once would have little harm, though, especially in his current situation.

With a quick glance over his shoulder, Muri slowed and angled his path up the steep hillside that was the road's shoulder. He paused after a few steps, narrowing his eyes as he turned his attention toward his backtrail. He had thought he saw a glimmer, a pale yellow splash of moonlight upon the flat land between hills, but upon closer inspection he saw nothing. Nor did his mage sight reveal anything to him out of the ordinary, so he passed the vision off as paranoia, and continued his climb. As he lifted each paw, he scuffed down and backward, the claws of his feet digging into the earth and scattering it backward, obliterating the distinctive mark of his footprint.

Reaching the roadway, he laid down next to the massive, warped boards that had once made a smooth pavement for the towers to roll across, and peered over one of the torturously twisted lengths of wood to examine the towers. He breathed a whisper of thanks to the departed Keletikt, for his vision revealed no Lutins to him, nor were there any of the hated moondogs in sight. Even the great horde of horses and their attendant Lutins were not in sight. The dim, blue glow of slumbering giants were the only signs of life he could see. The towers themselves were wreathed in their own magic, the green, amber, and blue shimmering defining no less than three distinct forms of magic to his sight. Most was centered upon the walls and wooden braces under the massive structures, though some could be seen through the various arrowloops and atop the citadels where the catapults were placed.

The mages' tower was alight with magic, almost all of it emanating from the upper reaches, but Muri could pick out no specific dweomers within the coruscating tangle of energies. The weaves he could pick out on the other towers were strengthening and balancing magics, meant to keep the stonework from rattling apart in transit more than anything else. The braces under each of the towers were bespelled to not break as they were pushed upon by the giants now sleeping scattered about below the towers. A spell dropped over them, Muri noticed with a grin, was made to silence their thunderous snoring.

Perhaps it would keep them asleep as well, he hoped, as he did his work. He glanced around himself once more, not noticing anything untoward though a short distance away a still, golden form was crouched behind another warped paving board, watching him with cold and sinister eyes. Moving as stealthily as any stalking coyote, Muri crept along the side of the road, taking the time to affix one spell upon himself as strongly as he was able.

A variation of an illusion spell, it did not work on him directly. Rather, it worked pro-actively on those who might look upon him, prompting them to disregard what they saw, to 'not see' the skunk, nor smell or hear him. The spell was expensive, in terms of energy, but one of the more effective ones he had in his limited arsenal.

Steeling his breath upon reaching the rear of the first tower, he looked over his shoulder, then up at the huge edifice looming over him. His dream came back to him, powerful and preternaturally clear, setting him on his heels with a sharply indrawn breath. The vision of the huge, grey walls of stone sundering the trees of the forest during its inexorable forward progress. The great weight squeezing the very life from the land, unstoppable.

Muri intended to undo that dream, to stop these great beasts before they ever reached their goal, or threatened those who had no true defense against them.

Taking the pouch of slender runestones from his belt, he worked the mouth of the leather open, and moved cautiously toward the undercarriage of the last tower in the long line. Stepping carefully around a giant asleep under the huge fortress, he moved over to one of the huge wheels of stone. Glancing at the slumbering forms around him every few heartbeats, he examined the wheel. A smile crept across his face at what he found.

Cracks. Around the central axle, which was almost out of reach over his head, the wheel was riddled with cracks. Some were large, and covered a large area of stone, while others were quite small, and they were all filled with the dark, viscid grease they used to lubricate the huge slab of stone. The wheel itself was perhaps two feet thick and fourteen feet across and most likely weighed several tons. Yet, in comparison to the crushing weight they bore, they were flimsy things, protected with the slightest of magics.

Taking one of the stones from his pouch, he slipped it into one of the larger cracks, using the blade of his dagger to push it into the stone as far as he was able, to the limit of the blade's length. The action caused a seepage of the dark, rancid grease, but the stone was so stained with the stuff that a little more would hardly be noticeable. Using the blade of his dagger, he pushed most of it back into the crack, concealing the stone he had just slipped into the wheel, and moved on to the next wheel.




chapter 2


Llyn made swift progress, not bothering to cover her tracks as she made a direct line from where she had left Muri to the dike a league away. The road curved slightly around the flank of a large hill, from the northeast toward the south. Llyn ran directly, ascending the flank of the hill where the huge earth-moving beasts had left a steep wall of shattered stone and turned earth, and made her way directly southward. Her only goal was to get beyond the dike before dawn, though she felt that an easy goal indeed. There was no forest to slow her, and no enemies to hide from in the dark. The Lutins, and she suspected the giants as well as whatever other creatures were among the horde, were partying a good distance away to the west, behind the bulk of a distant hill. Occasionally she could see the bright orange spark of a campfire, broken by the forms dancing around it, but nothing more.

For the better part of two hours she trotted southward, the heavy pouches at her belt swaying in time with her stride, thumping her hip soundly whenever she changed her stride to jump some obstacle or to change direction. Muri had thought her rather silly for keeping the massive stones and gold, but they were something she could not pass up. She kept them not for their obvious value, though they would probably fetch a handsome price in the markets at Metamor, rather she kept them for her own. That was her curiosity, mineralogy and geology. Everyone at Metamor had some curiosity, some hobby that they whiled away time with when they were not performing those tasks that were their given profession. For some that was woodworking, or writing (which seemed one of the most popular pastimes there, oddly enough, for a fortified garrison) which she had no talent for. There were all manner of professions kept quiet in the homes of many Keepers who merely enjoyed them as hobbies. For Llyn, she was a warrior, first and foremost, and a collector of rare minerals in her slack time. She had also begun a survey of the valleys around Metamor itself, seeking out deposits of much needed ores. Thus far she had only come across a couple thin veins of copper and one tiny nugget of Mithril in a swift mountain stream.

Before the Battle of the Gates she had been a gardener, which had never sat well with her, and so unattractive that her life was quite empty. Then Nasoj attacked and any hand that could lift a blade was called to the defense of the beleaguered forces defending the central Keep. It was then that she had found her calling, the weight of heavy steel feeling natural to her callused hands, her arms, strong from her years in a garden, could swing a sword or axe with a force nearly equal that of any man.

The change had been a blessing for her, rather than a curse. Its magic had stripped the ungainly weight from her bones, cleared the scars that had marred her face from a childhood illness, and put a coat of fine mahogany fur on her. In a word, the change had made her beautiful, even if it /had/ left her an animal. Her humanity was untouched beneath that fur, and she had embraced her new appearance with a fierce pride that had left many, less understanding of their changes, angry with her. Though those that had remained human, and adult, had gained the ability to look stunning when they chose, many spurned the ability as a capitulation to Nasoj's power. In the past few years that had begun to fade, but there were still the occasional holdout, such as the new lord Leriod, who had chosen the slovenly softness that Llyn had been eager to loose. Llyn would have liked to have remained human given that ability, but could not see herself as a man, which was the lot of those affected by that aspect of the curse of gender transposition. She simply liked being a woman too much, and she preferred males. She somewhat doubted that, had she become a man, she would have started preferring women, and the resulting gender preferences would have been a very problematic sin.

So, becoming an animal was but a miniscule price to pay for gaining a different form of exotic beauty. No longer spurned as an ugly, scarred human, she was courted by more males than she could count. And she was stronger, more nimble, and far swifter than she had ever been before. Her skill with the sword evolved swiftly from 'passable' to 'expert' once she joined the ranks of the Keep's soldiery and began training with some of the best swordsmasters in all of the north. Before she had joined the Long Scouts two years past she had actually begun training others herself, as an understudy to Kwanzaa, the shrew swordmaster. Becoming a Long Scout was merely another step upward for her; once a nameless, unknown and friendless farm hand to one of the few, the best, and the bravest.

She had to amend that... perhaps bravest, but certainly not the best. That woodland creature Murikeer could out track and evade her at every turn, despite her lauded skill as a scout. The only one she could see giving the skunk a run for his gold in the forest was Misha, and even then the contest would be close. Llyn was well known as a tracker because of one particular aspect that many trackers lacked; intuition. She often could put herself into the role of the prey she followed, and often managed to locate the lost tracks of an evasive quarry because she /became/ that quarry in her mind.

Thus, she admitted that her sixth sense, be it intuition, or some other odd sense, was far more acute than average. When she felt the twinge in the small of her back and the rise of her hackles, she knew that something was wrong, and that she was not alone. Llyn dashed her thoughts of Mithril and geology at that sensation, her trot becoming a walk as she altered her path to take her toward a large boulder at the edge of a huge lake.

Circling the boulder, she crouched in its shadow as she tried to quiet her heavy breathing. Her legs gave a twinge, disgruntled that she had not c hosen to walk off the heat of her run. The moon had begun to rise over the far horizon, just a sliver of silvery blue in the bright, cold sky. Llyn, muzzle hanging open as she gulped in deep breaths, looked around the side of the stone, seeking out the source of whatever had keyed her sense of danger.

A sudden wash of fear struck her heart, making her jerk back reflexively though she could not consciously see what had caused the feeling. A moondog? she quailed at that thought, the fearsome beasts were more than she thought she could face, alone. Even with Muri's assistance she had barely been able to down the first one she had ever seen, nearly breaking the skunk's bow over the head of the beast as it had tried to rip at the fallen mage's throat. Llyn scrambled back away from the boulder, her hand going to her sword even as a shadow detached itself from the far side of the stone and advanced upon her.

Strange runes lit the darkness with painfully bright silver-blue light as they raced up the blade her opponent held. The light was not of itself particularly bright, but Llyn's eyes were used to the darkness. She squinted as she hopped to her feet, her own sword letting out a metallic skree as she snatched it from its scabbard. The enemy's glowing blade etched its features out of the darkness. Dark, pitiless cold eyes like the stone gaze of a rat bored into her, the ugly face leering from the light.

A Lutin.

Llyn banished her fear, sensing that it was from within, her own fear, rather than the terror instilled from without by one of those hideous dogs. This was only, after all, one Lutin, and nothing to fear. She had cut down more than three score of the things personally in the past eight years, so one more, even one wielding some ungodly blade, was little threat. She raised her sword before her in the customary salute given to an opponent in a sparring match, making the Lutin pause his advance and steel himself for an attack, not understanding the nature of her motion.

Hizpith narrowed his eyes at the mink as she stood and drew her steel. He could pick out the magic around her with his spirit vision; the leather bundle tucked into her clothing, one of the large pouches at her belt, and that sword. The blade was not hers, he know, for she was no mage. She was a warrior with a stolen blade, a mage blade. He rather thought he would get a handsome reward when he returned the shining steel to its master, who was now working in the mage tower on one of his nefarious spells.

There was Moranasi magic on the blade as well, a binding and protective magic that had prevented the three holding spells he had tried to imprison her with before she went to ground from taking effect. At the time he had not known what the cause of the failures had been, and wasted needless energy trying to recast them. Now his magic was almost depleted, but not entirely, and he was going to have to go at her face to muzzle.

So be it, he mused as he grinned his fang-toothed grin at her and advanced. Taking her down would be most entertaining.

He advanced with his hilt low, the blade out before him like a lance, a test of his quarry's jumpiness. Llyn was well familiar with the approach, and would have advanced the same way had he not initiated the advance. She stood her ground, her empty hand raised up and back to balance her eventual maneuvers as her tail was held rigidly out behind her. She left her belly open, to test his aggressiveness.

Surely enough, she was rewarded by a lightning swift forward thrust. She did not bother to parry the jab, turning slightly as she pulled her midsection out of the sword's line. Being as flexible as a mink was a wonderful thing in a fight, she had learned long ago, and turned it to good use. Her sword flashed down in a short arc, striking the Lutin's blade just above the square guard and sending it wide as the Lutin made a short sidestep and turn, jerking his sword back and up to block her upward riposte. That initial challenge made, answered, and countered, the attacks began in earnest.

The two blades sang and darted, the steel skirling and shrilling as the blades deflected, parried, and blocked each attack by sheer brute force. Llyn advanced, forcing the Lutin to retreat though most of his swordwork was offensive, darting up, down, then at the side, seeking the mink's weaknesses. The second round was purely a testing as the two opponents sought out the weaknesses of the other, a rapid series of skillful maneuvers from two completely different schools of style. The Lutin was a warrior of force and strength, his swings forceful in an attempt to bull past his opponent's parries. He was not without savvy, though, drawing his force when it was apparent his strength was matched.

Llyn was a fighter whose sole style was based on speed. Short, stinging thrusts and cuts rather than full-bore swings that were intended to cleave into the opponent despite any defense. She blocked the Lutin's stronger blows with mere taps of her blade, sending his swings wide or short, using her nimble body to dodge many of the Lutin's strokes without even an attempt to parry, allowing him to waste his strength on the swing and leaving him open as he tried to pull his weapon back.

After several seconds of heated battle they broke off, separating as their swords came up before them in the basic ready pose of their disciplines. Llyn knew she was matched with her opponent, he was no normal Lutin by any manner. He was a master of his short, curved blade. She figured he was a ranking member of their fighters, perhaps a sub-chieftain or instructor. What he was doing here, whilst all of his brethren were partying was a mystery to her. Most likely Muri's shaman friend had lied, and made sure that some guards were posted while they were doing their festival thing. She would have to trade some words with him, if she ever saw him again.

All other thoughts were banished when the Lutin charged in, going on the advance, his sword arcing up high for a crossing, downward stroke with some strength behind it. Llyn knew that she was going to have to change her tactics if she was going to put this ugly fellow down, and stepped in to meet his advance. That alone was a tactic he had not expected, and the sudden switch of her blade from her right hand to her left was another. She reversed her hand upon the blade's hilt, laying the blade along her forearm as she raised her arm to block the Lutin's downward stroke. Coming muzzle to maw with the beast, her right hand balled into a fist and slammed into its hard gut, eliciting a startled grunt as steel met steel, jarring her arm solidly as she reversed and stepped back. She snapped her arm up and turned toward his sword arm, hammering her elbow into the Lutin's ugly face, sending him reeling.

Continuing to turn, she was prepared to ram her reversed blade down into his gut, but at the last possible moment he leapt back, falling into a roll and coming to his feet as Llyn finished her turn and raised her left arm across her body, glaring over her wrist. The blade was still laid against her forearm as a battle rush raced through her, flooding her with a quiet, sinister rage. The Lutin glared at her warily across his blade, prodding the inside of his cheek, tasting the blood where her elbow had caused his teeth to cut into his cheek. With a growl, he placed both hands on his sword and decided to put her down fast rather than work her down.

With a shrill, ululating Lutin war cry the ugly beast closed again and Llyn leapt at him, bringing her blade up to block once again. In the dim light she could see that he had grasped his weapon with both hands, putting all of his strength into the blow. If she tried to block it with her own blade she was going to lose the use of that arm as he either broke the blade, or sent her own blade cutting into her arm. Desperately she adjusted her charge, flipping her sword with a quick motion of her wrist to bring the blade out before her, and came up across the closing Lutin blade. Steel rang shrilly in the quiet darkness as she blocked most of the blow, rolling to the side and past her opponent. Unable to bring her blade up for an immediate riposte against the Lutin's exposed back, she could only retreat as he turned and swung again.

The impact of blade on blade sent shivers through her arm as she bowed under the Lutin's superior strength, directing his sword down and away rather than trying to block the entire blow. The beast was swift, the runes of his sword blurring as he brought his sword back up to block her counterstrike, forcing her back another step. She dodged the following stroke entirely, her blade darting in with a short, upward and across stroke, but only managed to rattle across the thick leather of his jerkin. One handed, his blade darted back across, under her guard, and caught her just below the ribs.

The impact knocked the air from her lungs with a grunt, sending her staggering sideways as she brought her blade back across the block his rapid, short slices toward her off side. It took her the span of several heartbeats to realize that she was not bleeding, that she was only bruised by the hard impact of her foe's glowing blade. He had struck her with the flat of his sword, though she had missed the chance to block his stroke at all. He could have used the edge, but he had refrained.

He wanted her alive.

Llyn quailed at that, fear racing through her veins like ice. She was entirely on the defensive, forced back step after step by the maniacally grinning Lutin as his blade whistled and sang against her defenses. She had been taken alive once before already, though it was not something she had ever reported for fear of being taken from her duties. Four years ago, on a patrol south of the Keep, along the southern borders to guide in caravans and watch for bandits she had been netted in a trap.

Not by any Lutins, no, but by a human. A 'collector', he had called himself, and his motley band of ruffians. Moe, or something along that line, a collector of freaks for his travelling menagerie. He was that, and much, much more. More sinister, by far, than anyone truly knew except the mink he had thrown into one of his rickety wagons. For three days she had been imprisoned by that vile creature. Yet imprisonment was nothing, merely a condition that could be overcome. What he and some of his cohorts had done in the darkness of the night, though, had been far more... lingering. It was not a condition that could be fought against and overcome, for it was a taint upon her very soul, the evil that they had visited upon her in an effort to break her... and sate their ungodly appetites.

It had taken her months to overcome the taint they had left upon her heart, long after the wounds to her flesh had healed, and she had resolved never to be taken alive again. That resolve had seen her through many situations many would have thought hopeless, only broken when the numbers were greater than her strength, and she was overwhelmed. She had thought herself truly doomed with that, her resolve nearly broken, before Murikeer's miraculous appearance. He had been an answer to her most fervent prayers, but why he had turned out to be one of those 'others', a Litghtbringer, seemed a poorly ironic twist.

His intention was also his weakness. He would have to pull his punches, whereas Llyn would not. She growled fiercely and turned the tables, the speed of her attacks doubling as a sort of berserk frenzy filled her. Eyes bright and wild, she spun her blade about in a rapid series of attacks aimed not at her opponent, but rather his weapon. The two weapons rang sharply as she assailed the glowing blue blade, which darted and twisted in an attempt to parry blows that the Lutin thought were aimed at him. He backed up, the shift of the attacks passing swiftly from him to his foe.

Yet it did not last long, for the Lutin soon made the connections, and swung his blade out of reach, knowing immediately what would happen. Llyn took the opening of his defenses and stabbed at him with her blade. Ready for that, the Lutin twisted sinuously aside, giving her a taste of her own technique by hammering his own gnarled, hard fist into the side of her muzzle. His blow was stronger by far than Llyn's first punch had been, and sent her staggering a few steps back, brining up her defenses as the gleaming Lutin blade assailed her.

Whistling and moaning in the wind, her sword suddenly sailed from her grasp, landing with a wet crunch somewhere in the darkness several feet away. The Lutin rumbled happily to himself as he stepped forward and prepared to render his foe unconscious with a few well placed blows from his hard fists. He never saw how she reacted to being disarmed, expecting her to be momentarily off her guard.

She was, indeed, off her guard, totally surprised by the sudden loss of her weapon. With it went the cold, calculating detachment that allowed her to separate herself from the heat of the fight. In the absence of the cool steel came the panic of defeat, of impending doom. He would capture her alive, she knew, and she would have to live through a Lutin doing the same as the humans had done four years ago. It had taken her months to overcome the harm they had caused, but she knew she would never live to heal from the Lutin's evil.

Leaping to her feet, she lunged at the startled Lutin, one hand held back behind her as she made a swing with her other hand at his face. He blocked it easily with his empty hand, across his body, leaving his off side vulnerable for what she held in her other hand. Arcing out and across, her hand came up from behind her back holding a heavy, dark object. The Lutin tried to bring his hand across to block that attack as well, but she had grasped his wrist, leaving only his sword arm free to block, but it was out of position, and he could not turn away from the impending attack.

The pouch struck him fully across the face with enough force to lift his feet from the ground, spinning him about with a sickening crunch. The Lutin's sword went dark suddenly as it slipped from his nerveless fingers, whistling away into the darkness much as her own blade had done. She released the beast's wrist as he crumpled to the ground in an ungainly heap, unconscious.

Llyn staggered back a step, panting, as she dropped her hands to her side, the heavy lump of gold in its pouch dragging at her arm as she backed away from the still form lying on the muddy earth. Without his sword he was merely a heap of shadow in the moonlit darkness, indistinguishable from the stones around him, save for his stench. How she had missed that Lutin stink earlier she did not know, and chided herself for her poor caution.

She knew where her sword lay, by some eerie feeling that could not be explained away she knew it was laying some twenty paces away behind and to her right. It sang to her subconsiousness, calling her back to recover her weapon and finish the fight she had very nearly lost. A need to spill the beast's blood surged through her like fiery anger and she scrambled for her weapon. Staggering across the rough earth in the darkness, she located the weapon after a few moments, feeling greatly reassured as her hand closed around the warm, leather wrapped hilt.

Hefting it, she turned about and very nearly fainted as a wave of terror broke over her, squeezing her heart into a tiny pinpoint of icy cold within her breast. Standing over the indistinct shadow of her vanquished foe was one of the hated moondogs, its muzzle pulled back in a silent snarl as she faced it. Eyes met in the darkness and Llyn was sent to her knees, her vision wavering as she fought back the numbing fear that radiated from the beast.

Yet it did not approach, it did not attack, merely standing there snarling at her as the short hair of its hackles pointed stiffly toward the stars, its tail held rigidly behind it. Every tiny bit of the fear it could project was being centered fully upon the mink, an attack as subtle as a catapult stone. By rights, the moondog's angry pinpointing of its fear should have crushed the single creature's heart, dooming her to an afterlife in the deepest of the many tortured hells, but it did not. The naked blade in her hand glimmered, visible only to the moondog's othersight as it muted her focused power.

With a silent growl the moondog lowered her head, catching the front of the Lutin's vest in hr muzzle, and began dragging him away.

Released from the crushing weight of the ungodly beast's evil power, Llyn could only sway on her knees and cry, a child facing her worst fears, unable to flee because her limbs were numb and unresponsive.

Muri had also felt the cold fear of the moondog's anger as he slunk from tower to tower with the timid, scuttling speed of a mouse scenting a cat. From wheel to wheel he moved, often standing directly upon one of the great slumbering giants as he poked his magic-imbued bits of stone into the cracks of the huge granite wheels. He discounted the fear that Jizzah leveled against him as the healthy fear of someone doing something incredibly, suicidally stupid and getting away with it.

Under the mages' tower, listening to the serpentine, sibilant mutterings that came to him through the edifice's stone bed, he barely breathed. His hackles stood on end with the palpable sense of impending evil that seemed to drip like an ichor from the tower's reinforced structure. The ward, whatever it was, that prevented the spirits from doing anything against the towers was in this one tower, somewhere. He was not about to try entering the tower, though, to find and nullify it. He was walking on the very razor's edge of discovery as it was.

Once past the mages' tower his fear lifted perceptibly, though a goodly degree of jittery nervousness jangled his frayed nerves, causing his hands to shake and his tail to lash despite his attempts to still them. He hastily seated the last few stones into the huge wheels, having none to spare when he was finished, though he had begun with more stones than there where wheels. He had placed two or more stones in a couple of the wheels, that appeared on the very verge of collapse, or seemed overly strong.

That finished, he located the supplies the road crews had been using to paint runes onto the huge slabs of wood. Now that he was able, he had read the runes painted onto the wood. It was a simple rune, Saharidis, used to reinforce things to carry much more weight than normal. It was slightly different, owing to the nature of how they were set into a 'chain' that was not activated until weight was placed upon them.

The 'paint' they were using was some truly viscid concoction that smelled strongly of blood and rotting oils mixed with ochre and clay to give it a strong consistency and made it water resistant. He frowned at the odor, which was not nearly as strong as his own could be sometimes, but was so alien he could not overlook its presence. His own mephitis reek was a constant part of his life, and he had long ago grown used to it. How Llyn managed he did not know, but was glad she did.

With another careful glance around, he took a deep breath, steeling himself for the exposure his next task was going to put him in, and moved out onto the dike. The fear had lifted almost entirely by that time, to a mere sense of caution that did not distract him from his work. He quickly loped a couple hundred feet onto the dike, until he was roughly at its midpoint, and looked at the runes again. They were the same as those used near the towers, daisy-chained together to be activated as the towers reached them. Dipping the rough, grass brush into the paint, he painted only one more, tiny line upon the rune. Casual examination would not reveal the change, but a close inspection by anyone knowledgeable in runes would reveal what had been altered. He had not changed the nature of the rune as it had been painted, merely modified it slightly.

Where Saharidis was crafted to give whatever it was painted on to hold a prodigious amount of weight, the modified Saharidus removed from that same thing the ability to withstand sudden shock. The towers' advancing across the paving stabs would not be halted by a sudden failure of the roadway, but if something sizeable was to fall, the thickly cut slabs would have no more strength than they normally would when not enchanted.

The deep, rumbling bass of the water rushing through the three culverts in the center of the dike was like a constant thunder that vibrated up through the earth under Muri's paws. Swollen hugely by the rain of the past several days, the lake behind the dike stretched off into the distance between the walls of the valley. The level was nearly above the upper curve of the huge culverts, roaring down the stone sleuceways on the opposite side of the dike. Once finished, he tossed the empty paint bucket down the thirty foot incline to the water, where it was swept instantly away, a tiny dark blot against the white roar of the water.

With one last glance back at the unmoving line of huge monoliths standing in the center of the pale, moonlit line that was the road, he turned and loped across to the other side of the dike to await Llyn.

Dawn crept slowly over the land, but activity had started around the citadels long before then as their crews awakened and began their daily labors. Lutins, drunk and grumbling, returned from their all-night festival. Horses were led from a sheltered valley not far from the site of their equinox rites, the herd lessened by a score of the huge animals. Teams were hitched as the Lutins tasked with painting the runes onto the roadway gathered their equipment and moved, en masse, across the dike. They had painted ahead an entire league the day before so that they might have a chance to recover from their revelry before they had to return to their tasks. Of all the Lutins working with the huge towers, their jobs were some of the most important, requiring a high degree of perfection with the painting of sensitive runes and getting them all linked together correctly.

Some distance to the west of the road, Muri rested behind a huge boulder high upon a hillside spotted with huge clusters of the massive stones. He idly watched the Lutins as they trooped southward on the road, some of them staggering more drunkenly than others. Not one of them had paused on the dike as they crossed, meaning that his alterations to the runes had passed unnoticed. He focused on his magics, much as he had been doing off and on since he had finished his work some three hours after the passing of the midnight hour. He felt the magic that was nearby him, on those many items he possessed, and the more distant pull of other magics, those items that Llyn carried.

He had kept tabs on her progress throughout the early morning hours and dawn as she moved eastward, further and further away until he feared she was trapped on the wrong side of the huge lake created by the dike. Just before dawn, though, he had sensed his magics on the southern side of the lake, moving westward and southward, getting closer to the roadway. She was on the wrong side of the road, though, meaning that one of them was going to have to cross the roadway in order for them to meet.

That task would be his, he knew, as she lacked the illusions that would allow her to make it across that broad expanse without detection. As the first of the towers was beginning its slow, ponderous advance onto the dike Muri slipped from his shelter and began stalking toward the road a third of a league away.

He was surprised by a group of Lutins near another hill an hour later. They never noticed him, as they were all resting in the shade of a stone outcropping, most of them dozing off the hangover of the night before. Muri had very nearly slipped into that shadowed alcove when one of them wandered past him to relieve itself on a crushed shrub, sending Muri on a mad, slow motion scramble back up to another shelter. The incident slowed him greatly, as the only remaining avenues to reach the roadway were far more exposed.

Llyn had, at first, quailed at the currents that churned the huge expanse of water barring her from the opposite side of the valley. He had no wish to be swept through the dike and dashed upon the rocks she knew where on the other side, her corpse ending up in the same cataract that they had deposited the other moondog and Lutin in. She headed east, hour after hour, growing more desperate as time passed and the itchy sense of fear between her shoulderblades grew. She knew the moondog had gone, for the fear was her own.

When she saw the gleam of dawn lightening the distant eastern horizon she cast her caution aside and plunged into the cold water. Her double-layered coat of fur kept the wet from her skin, which was all that saved her from the frigid cold of the lake. She swam swiftly and easily, though was swept some distance westward by the surface currents of the dark, muddy water, eventually emerging on the opposite bank less half a league from the dike. She had been swept nearly a league in the crossing, which had been nearly a mile of its own.

Shaking out her fur, she checked her sodden inventory. The most important items, her sword and the stick Muri had given her, were still with her. The rest of her items, though soaked through, were also in place. She had very nearly cast them free in her swim, as they dragged at her, but in the end decided to keep them. She was a good swimmer, and they had not impeded that overly much. She shook out her surface coat as best she could as the sun crested the eastern horizon, giving her a foreboding sense of doom. In the light she could not progress nearly as swiftly as she had at night, and she was still some distance from Murikeer.

Digging the ensorcelled stone he had given her from the wet depths of the pocket on her vest, she held it in her dripping hand and gazed at it, thinking as hard as she could of him. Nothing happened. With a frustrated, impatient churr she shook the tiny stone as if that might shake something from it. She had no idea how it worked, for it was magical, but it was the only thing linking her to him so she had to use it. Closing her eyes, she leaned against the shattered trunk that was all that remained of a once great tree and tried to focus upon Muri's image in her mind.

His physique was easily enough brought to mind, but as before that simple image did nothing. There were other skunks similar to him, though rarer than many other animal forms at the Keep. The only one Llyn knew of in Metamor was some secretary to someone, who was nearly as elusive as most of the Keep's rats. She began adding other things to her mental image of him, the color of his eyes, the bandoleer he wore rather than a belt, from which dangled all sorts of strange things, its pockets and sheaths, the odd daggers at his shoulder and down near his hip. His bow, the quiver and pack he carried.

Beyond that were the other, more detailed pieces that made him /him/, such as the two stray streaks of white in the black fur above his left eye. They were small, most likely an old scar or something. His expressive ears and whiskers and the easy smile that bent the corners of his muzzle. She rather liked that enigmatic, subtle smile, accented by the forward twitch of his small, rounded ears. She easily pictured the other details of his body, none of which had ever been covered by any form of clothing for the sake of having clothes.

The last features she could call to mind were his voice, a soft, baritone burr with a slight Sathmoran accent, that she had heard raised in real anger only once. Then his musk, which was natural for his kind. It was a powerful, lingering scent that was sharp to her sensitive nose, but not as offensive as she would have thought. She had been around animals of many kinds for over seven years, and knew the many, varied musks that each species possessed. Some were stronger, more potent than others, some even rather offensive at times of fear, anger, or any other host of strong emotions. Murikeer's own particular musk was, well, strong, but it was far from the revolting pungency she would have expected. It was, rather, somewhat reassuring in its presence.

She shook her head and chuffed softly, one corner of her muzzle quirking as she opened her fist and looked at the stone. Had she not known that Muri had placed his magic in it, the resulting glimmer that met her eyes she would have discounted as an errant bit of sunlight striking the deep, fiery orange of the agate. She turned slowly, watching as the glimmering highlights upon the stone shifted, pointing steadily southwest. She closed her fist once more and looked around.

The only creatures in sight were the Lutins swarming around the base of the huge towers as they began moving once more. Even as she began heading westward in the direction indicated by her stone the first of the towers was putting its wheels upon the dike. A small avalanche of earth erupted from under the end of the boards that made up the surface of the road, but that was not out of the ordinary and the tower continued moving.

Muri began to feel uneasy as the towers continued their slow, steady approach and he had yet to get close to the roadway. Each time it appeared he wold be able to win clear and make a dash across the road some Lutin or giant would come wandering along, sending him scuttling for shelter. Due to the sheer number of magic using Lutins moving back and forth along the roadway, and their attendant moondogs, he was afraid to use an illusion, or any magic, for more time than it would take him to dash across the road.

Thus it was that the towers reached the mid-point of the dike before he was able to find Llyn, though he could sense that she was not so far away, almost directly across the road from him and at a higher elevation. He just hoped that she could see the towers as clearly as he could, and would do as he had asked. Triggering the spells himself would light him up like a beacon for all to see well before he was actually able to do anything.

The stick Llyn carried had its own glow, but the magic was already quickened, the only glow that would be upon the twig would be the magic of the trigger itself, not the bright glow of the spell's actual casting.

High above and not so very distant, Llyn knelt behind a large, flat slab of shale and watched as the first tower reached the mid-point on the dike and pass. Clasping her hands before her bewhiskered muzzle, she bowed her head and prayed in earnest; for forgiveness of the sin she was forced to permit, for the safety of her companion, and for her own preservation. As the second tower reached the mid-point, she dug out the stick, unwrapping it from the leather Muri had placed around it, and clasped it between her strong paws.

"Eli, forgive me." she whispered as she grasped the stick tightly, then broke it with a savage twist of both hands. A bright light filled her eyes, making her jerk back in surprise. She never saw the effects upon the towers, for the light of the breaking stick had blinded her to the similar light that flashed from beneath the towers themselves.

Nothing seemed to happen. A sudden cry went up from the giants beneath all of the towers, but other than that, things progressed much as they had been.

Murikeer crawled behind a jumble of discarded branches and watched the progress of the first tower beyond the mid-point of the dike with inexorable steadiness. He crossed his fingers as the minutes stretched past, the second tower approaching the same point. "Come on, Llyn, break it." he hissed, his whiskers pulled back against his muzzle as all of his fur lay flat, his tail narrowing as the fur was drawn tight against his skin. His whole body went utterly still as he dig the toes of his paws into the soft earth, clenching his teeth as the towers crept onward, the dull grinding of their massive wheels across wood the only sound he could perceive.

Then he saw the dim flash, washed out by the angle of the morning dawn, in the shadows below the towers. He clenched a fist and pounded the ground lightly, very nearly crying out in triumph as the glow faded and the giants let up a sonorous, startled cry. The shifted about under the massive towers, but were quickly put back into orders by whomever was responsible for their work. Nothing else happened for many long minutes as Muri watched, his focus narrowing to take in the towers alone, like an eagle spotting prey and homing in.

They continued forward without pause, and Muri began to fear that his spell had been too weak, even with the aid the spirits had given him. Drawing his lips back from clenched teeth, he jumped at the sudden loud crack, like thunder, that echoed from somewhere among the towers. Under the second tower the giants let up another startled cry and began to hasten away from the huge pile of rolling stone. The forward left wheel of the tower had developed a noticeably altered steering angle as the central bore shattered, freeing the entire stone slab from its axle. The three towers behind it suddenly began braking, the horses and giants surging against the huge edifice's undercarriage as the second tower continued forward unabated, the slight southward pitch of the road preventing it from stopping without the aid of its crew of giants.

The damaged wheel began to wobble slowly as the tower's progress continued rotating it when a second sharp crack echoed across the distance to the concealed skunk. Under the last tower the giants stirred, but were kept in place by their commander as an unseen wheel on that tower failed. With a grinding crunch, the second tower's wheel broke free, falling sideways and slipping off the edge of the roadway. It slid several feet down the side of the huge dike before falling into the roaring gout of water erupting from the huge stone culverts. Tumbling end for end, it was swept out of sight toward the base of the earthen dam, gouging the stone of the sluice with each rotation.

On the roadway the second tower had achieved a slight tilt toward its front and left with the loss of its wheel and the driver, heretofore unseen on a platform built into the tower above the horses, jumped clear. The second wheel on the left side suddenly exploded with an earsplitting detonation, scattering stone outward from the tower. Down to only its rear left wheel, the tower listed rapidly leftward, spilling stonework from its top as the carefully stacked catapult stones toppled, shattering the upper battlements and plunging over the edge. The catapults on that side were dragged away with the falling stonework as the tower continued its eerily slow leftward fall.

More stone cracked and thundered, the right forward wheel of the tower, unable to take the strain of the unbalanced load, split roughly in half, the axle sheering through the rock like a sword. Horses and fleeing Lutins were crushed when the leading edge of the huge tower slammed into the surface of the road with a huge, shuddering rumble. Wood bowed and verily exploded under the sudden force as the wood, no longer able to withstand the shock of that huge weight landing on it due to Muri's intervention, gave way and the tower plunged into the relatively soft earth beneath. The entire upper level suddenly crumpled forward, spilling stone, wood, and Lutins onto the road below, most of the debris cascading off the westward side of the dike to vanish into the white roar of the water.

The front of the tower seemed to literally sink into the earth of the dike as the stonework caved under the sudden impact with the rather unyielding earth. The whole of the tower continued to lean, digging the forward left corner into the dike deeply before the entire edifice topped ponderously down the side of the dike in a loud roar of falling stone. Water fountained upward as the remains of the tower fell into the sluice, gouging deeply through the stone. Still attached to the shattered undercarriage by their traces, the remaining horses were dragged over the precipice and vanished into the foaming waterfall. All that remained above was one wheel, lying on its side in the huge gouge left by the falling tower.

Below that point, the center of the three culverts had failed, caved inward by the solid impact of the tower above it. Muri had not noticed that failure in his wide-eyed, gawking amazement as the tower went over. It was all he had planned on, but to actually see it happen was... beyond amazing. He gawked as a primitive may watch a volcano erupt far away, oblivious to all save the destruction being wrought. Only when the white foam of the water roaring through the culverts began to turn brown did Muri see that the second half of his intended plan come to fruition.

Earth was cascading into the collapsed middle culverts, swiftly swept away by the water roaring through it. In much less time than he had expected, the entire mid-point of the dike was a valley at the bottom of which was a roaring river of water, rapidly gouging that cleft wider. On the dike above the crews manning the remaining three towers were working feverishly to reverse the huge monstrosities. But the road was in no condition to accept the weight of the towers a second time, the huge wooden slabs warped and twisted beyond usability.

Realizing that the towers were lost, their crews began abandoning them with all possible haste. The horses of the fourth and fifth tower were unhitched and rode away by the escaping Lutins and humans. Giants merely ran under the towers, falling all over one another, trampling the smaller humans and Lutins in their haste. The horses leading the third tower were already scrambling for purchase in the shifting earth at their hooves, the boards of the road's surface shifting under them, then sliding down the steepening slope to vanish into the water below. The remaining two culverts were quickly being eroded by the huge surge of water piercing the crest of the dike, which had stopped foaming save when a bit of debris crashed into it.

Slowly at first, but speeding with each passing moment, the mages' tower began to roll forward as its horse team was left scrambling in the failing earth while the failure in the dike grew wider. Muri lifted himself up to arms' length, muzzle hanging open as the front wheels of the tallest tower hung over open air for several seconds. As the lumber under its middle wheels began to fall away, the tower started into its death fall. With loud cries of animal panic and anguish, the doomed horses vanished into the black column of water tearing its way through the dike. The drag imparted a pin on the falling tower, dragging its crest away from the dike as the angle became too much and stones began falling from its very walls. The leading edge of the tower's carriage struck the water, turning the black surge to white foam as the stones were ripped bodily from the construction.

Muri dropped down with a startled cry, covering his head as a startlingly loud explosion rent the entire upper level of the mages' tower, sending stones in all directions. All around him he could hear the crunch of falling stone, praying earnestly to all the gods of his pantheon that none landed on him. His prayers were apparently answered, for the closest stone landed a half dozen feet away, peppering him with stinging shards as it shattered. The remains of the tower vanished in a white foam, tumbling over and over out of sight into the valley below the dike.

The first tower to have passed the mid-point of the dike looked as if it might actually escape unscathed as its crew worked feverishly, shoving and swearing and whipping the huge draft horses into a lather. Due to the roar of the breaking dike, Muri never heard the resounding cracks of its own wheels falling apart, but he saw the effects. Giants, Lutins, and humans scattered westward as the tower began an eastward tilt, a broken wheel on the east side lifting from the ground, then falling from its axle and crushing two Lutins in a blink. With a rumbling roar of cascading stone, the tower collapsed into the water of the lake, its horses surging and bucking, finally breaking the remains of the undercarriage and racing southward down the road, dragging a few sections of stone supported on one remaining wheel.

The fourth tower's demise was much more protracted as the escaping water reached a sort of balance with the earth containing it, cutting a clearly defined swath through the wide expanse of the dike's foundation, but making less of a valley as it had before. The earth to either side did, though, continue to tumble in huge chunks into the black surge of water, but not steadily. The lip of the erosion did not reach the fourth tower for several minutes, but its fate was easily determined. Slowly the earth was swept from under it and the huge edifice topped gracefully forward, spilling its catapults as it went over. Ballistae shattered the huge drawbridge, tumbling into the water as the top of the tower slid from the lower portion of the tower, splashing into the water with a white explosion a heartbeat before the rest of the stonework went crashing down.

Choosing his chance in the mass of chaotic, running northlanders, Muri cast the illusory appearance of a Lutin over himself and rose from his hiding place. He grabbed his gear to keep it from shaking about too much, and pelted down the hillside, past several parties of gawking Lutins, past those running in utter panic, and dashed across the road. The painting crews were rushing back with all possible haste, their mouths hanging open in shock as they looked across the huge gap in their roadway at the last remaining tower on the far side. None of them, even those actively using their spirit sight, noticed the blue glow of Murikeer darting across before them.

They could not, for there was a surge of bright spirit energy that was racing across the land, a force so swift and startling it caught all of them unawares. The surface of the road at their feet suddenly buckled, the wood warping and bucking like living beasts as greenery shot up from the earth so swiftly that many were ensnarled in it before they had a chance to do more than cry out. Stones shifted and rumbled, cascading down hillsides as the very earth bucked and shook angrily, throwing everyone off their feet. Even Murikeer, running as fast as he might for the distant beacon of his magic that defined Llyn's location, was picked up and bodily thrown to the earth.

Lutins cried out in terror and scrambled for any safety they could find, but all around them the earth writhed like an angered snake. The shamans felt their power sapped from them as the earth reclaimed all that had been stolen from it, leaving them little more than their powerless brethren. Many died under the resulting cascades of stones, others ground between the shifting wood of the roadway, while a few were swallowed up by the wet earth as it turned into a bog at their very feet.

The chaos was complete, striking terror into even the hearts of the fearless. Moondogs yelped silently and howled, unheard, as they cowered, unmoving, wherever the churning earth found them. Abandoned by their goddess in the wake of the earth's ire, they could only suffer through the first horror any of them had ever experienced.

The death toll, however, was less in the end that it may have seemed. The earth, in the end, took relatively few lives from the whole. Throughout it all, the last remaining tower stood, unmoving and unaffected by the anger of the earth around it.