It was a small and unusual group that made its way cautiously down the trail. In the lead was a woman barely five feet tall, thin and looking to be no more the fourteen or fifteen years old. But looks are deceiving in Metamor valley. This young girl was actually thirsty two years old and married with two children. What was not a deception was her missing right hand, bitten off by a werewolf over a year before. Lisa Ringe had spent many months recuperating and adjusting to having only 1 hand. After that she found herself doing less dangerous tasks like commanding the array of soldiers and servants that guarded and made Long House work. She understood that her days of going on dangerous patrols were over. Part of her was sad at that. Lisa missed the excitement but she did not miss the pain, the numbing cold and the long days away from her family. Now the woman saw her husband and kids every day. When it rained Lisa could go inside rather than having to hunker down and just take it. And the best part was each evening she could share a warm bed with her husband Alec. Lisa turned and looked at the three people following her.
Trailing at the rear of the group was a tall, muscular woman. Her brown hair was cut short and her body had the trim fitness of a person used to working outdoors a lot. The woman was carrying a spear that was as long as she was tall. Lisa caught Georgette's eye and nodded her head. The woman nodded in reply. Long years of working together had made their actions almost instinctive. Lisa had asked Georgette if everything was all right and the woman had responded that it was. If there was something wrong the spear carrying scout would have responded with hand signals.
Walking right behind Lisa was a figure that was unusual even by the standards of Metamor Keep. He had a humanoid body that was short but well built. What was truly odd was that he walked on four legs like a centaur and he had a human like torso but this Keeper also had four arms to match the 4 legs, And where on a centaur there would be a tail there is a huge abdomen covered with specially made leather armor. His whole forehead is covered with eyes that look like domes or goggles and that was above a flat face with two large fangs protruding from it. His whole body was covered with a bristly brownish-tan fur. Nelis had been given the animal portion of the curse but one rarely seen - he had changed into a jumping spider. Insect and spider morphs were rare among Keepers and Lisa knew of only one other spider. Still as odd as he looked Nelis was an excellent scout and the curse had actually given an extra set of arms. Also the odd arrangement of his eyes meant that he could literally look in all directions at the same time. A very useful thing for a scout.
Walking a short distance behind the arachnid was a more normal looking person. A woman of average height and with a slim build. Her sandy blonde hair hung loose but was cut short enough to keep from interfering with her sight and hearing. The leather armor the woman was wearing did little to hide the muscles that showed under her skin whenever she moved. Those spoke of long years spent exercising. Her tanned and weathered skin told of many days spent in the wilderness. A fact confirmed by the ease and smoothness of her movements. This forest was no new, strange environment but an old friend. One known from long years of close contact. Dangling from her belt was a short sword in a leather scabbard. On her back was a quiver with a score of javelins in it. Lisa knew Kelyn and had recommended to Misha that the woman become a Long Scout. She was delighted to see that Misha had picked her to try for the Long scouts. But in spite of their friendship Lisa would not go easy on her friend. The woman had to prove she had what was needed to be a Long scout. Which was why Lisa and Georgette were out here in the woods, testing the two new recruits.
Suddenly Lisa heard a soft chime. It was a clear and crisp sound that echoed in her ears but did not echo in the woods around them. She turned to see all of three of her companions standing stark still. She could not guess what Nelis was thinking as his spider face displayed no emotions but there was a look of surprise on Kelyn's face.
"Did I hear a bell in my head?" The woman said slowly.
"We all did," Georgette responded.
"It was a sending spell Misha uses occasionally," Lisa added. "To get our attention."
"What does that mean?" Kelyn asked.
"It's a sit and stay order," Lisa explained. "That means we go to the closest safe hole and stay there till told otherwise."
Nelis cocked his unusual head to one side. "What's a safe hole?" He asked as his many eyes glittered at the woman.
"When the Longs first started we weren't sure that the Keep could survive another attack by Nasoj," Georgette explained. "So we created a score of safe hideouts where we could go if the Keep itself was overrun."
"They're scattered all over the valley and we even have a few in the Giantdowns," Lisa commented. "But the only ones who know exactly how many and where they are is Misha and George."
"So where do we go?" Georgette asked. "What's closest?"
Lisa pondered for a moment before answering. "Ancil. We can go visit Ancil."
Georgette nodded. "Sounds good. It's nice and isolated."
"Where are we going?" Kelyn asked with a look of curiosity on her face. "And who is Ancil?"
The woman smiled. "We're going to visit an old friend." She turned and started walking up the trail.
"A real old friend," Georgette responded enigmatically and then she followed after Lisa.
"Why are we going there?" The spider asked as he scuttled along.
"We've been ordered there by Misha," Lisa explained without looking back. "He didn't give any reason."
"It could be a test or a real emergency," Georgette added and shrugged. "We can't be sure but I think it's just a test of some sort."
"Doesn't it bother you not knowing?" The woman asked.
"Yes," Lisa answered honestly. "But I know and trust Misha. He has a good reason to order it. We'll find out soon enough."
Twenty minutes of climbing up the hill brought them to a pile of boulders tucked in among a large grove of trees. Lisa walked up to the boulders and started to try and move one of the smaller rocks with her one hand. The others joined in and soon a small gap appeared between two of the largest boulders.
"So," Nelis said slowly as he stared at the dark opening. "This Ancil is in there?"
"Yes he's there," Lisa replied. "He likes the peace and quiet. Now wait here till I check to see if things are clear." The woman got onto her hand and knees and crawled into the dark opening.
There was a long moment of silence before she reappeared. "All clear!" Then she vanished back into the darkness.
The inside of the cave was dry and warm after the rain outside. The walls were of rough stone and the floor was as well. Nelis settled down into a dry spot and looked around. The cave was long and narrow - just wide enough for everyone to sit side by side with some space between them. The spider morph noted that it led deeper into the hillside. He also noted no sign of anyone but themselves.
"So where is this old friend Ancil?" Nelis asked a little nervously.
Lisa pointed deeper into the cave. "That way. Go say hello but touch nothing."
What little light there was in the cave did not penetrate this far back and the only light came from the small light stone in his hand. Its thin light cast shadows that danced around the walls, ceiling and floor. The light illuminated a figure that rested on a small shelf in front of them. The figure was curled up and had skin that was browned and shriveled like ancient parchment. Its hair thin and stringy like the fringe of a rug that had lain unremembered in some dark corner for far too long. Over it all was a thick layer of dust that told of centuries of undisturbed rest. He noted a few clay and wood bowls filled with brown and black lumps and dirt that might once have been food. Laid out next to him was a long piece of wood, darkened with great age. Nelis didn't know who this person had been in life but he had been dead for a very long time. "This is Ancil?"
"That's what we call him because he reminds me of my Great uncle Ancil," Lisa explained. "But he looks better then my great uncle."
"What's he doing here?" Kelyn asked. The woman was crowded close behind the spider and was peering over his shoulders. "It looks like he's laid out for a funeral."
"It's a burial. We found him three years ago, when we were setting up caches all over the valley," the woman explained. "Misha says he's been here at least eight thousand years. Under no circumstances are we to touch him or even think of touching him."
"Is he undead? Booby trapped?"
"No but Misha did put a few spells on to protect it," the Long Scout replied. "And we have no right to disturb him."
He examined the ancient body more closely. "It almost looks like he's asleep. Any idea of who he is?"
"It does," Lisa commented. "But as to who he is we've no idea. They didn't leave any name or anything to identify him. What we do know is that he was an archer."
Nelis pointed to the piece of wood laying next to the body. "That's a pretty good composite bow."
Kelyn smiled and nodded. "It is a good bow but where are his arrows?"
Lisa shrugged. "They didn't last as well as the bow did."
The spider morph was silent for a moment as he examined the figure with the calm look on it's face. "Can he really have been laying here all this time?" The male scout asked.
"No telling but he certainly looks old enough," Lisa answered. She hadn't gotten too close to the body and was standing near the entrance.
The spider waved a free hand at the body. "How is it he hasn't decayed? A body shouldn't last like this for very long."
"They must have prepared the body somehow," Kelyn answered. "I've heard that in ancient Kkhart they used to mummify bodies and they've lasted for thousands of years."
"I wonder what the valley was like back then," he asked. "I wonder what the Keep looked like."
"Now that is a good question," Lisa added. "Too bad we can't ask him." The expression on her face changed to a serious cast. She reached into a coat pocket and produced a small rectangle of bronze. He noticed that the piece of metal was vibrating visibly. "Excuse me but that's Misha calling."
Lisa settled down into a corner of the cave with her back to the wall. In her hands was the odd piece of bronze. She covered the metal with her hand and closed her eyes. Soon the sounds of the cave faded to a soft whisper.
"This is Lisa," The woman said. Using this spell always worried her. She was always nervous about someone else somehow listening in.
"Lisa!" Came the excited voice of Misha. The fox who was in command of the Long scouts sounded more excited than usual. "How are your people doing?" He asked bluntly.
"Fine," she responded. "The trainees are coming along nicely so far."
"Are all of you healthy?" He questioned. "Anyone showing the slightest sign of sickness?"
"We're all fine here," she answered slowly, unnerved by her leaders questions. "What's wrong?"
There was a moment of silence. "There's no easy way to put this," came Misha's voice in a calm tone. "It's plague. Many people have gotten sick and six have died."
"PLAGUE!" Lisa said, shocked. She leaned back against the wall as a thousand thoughts and feelings raced through her mind. All she could think of was her family, Alec, Eric and Lucy.
"Don't worry Lisa we're taking good care of your family," Misha said reassuringly. "We have all the families in Long House and all are healthy."
Lisa tried to relax a little but she couldn't help but think of her family. "What happened?"
"We don't know all the details yet," Misha answered. "But I'm not taking any chances. "You and your team are to stay there and keep clear of the Keep. At least for the time being."
The woman nodded her head slowly. "All right."
"I know this is a lot to accept in one piece," Misha said slowly. "But we're doing everything we can to help. I'll contact you when I have more information and new orders. I have a lot more people to talk to so this is good bye at least for the moment."
Long House. It was a place that many people talked about but few actually visited. Until the Yule attack had made it famous only a small handful had known it even existed. Long house was not an actual house. It wasn't even a separate building. In reality it was a series of rooms, halls and corridors in Metamor Keep. But it might as well have been a separate structure. Unlike the rest of the magic keep where the walls shifted and moved these remained together. There was only one entrance and it was heavily guarded. Once that entrance was shut Long House was closed and the entire complex was cut off from the rest of the Keep.
Long Hall was crowded. Every adult in Long House was there standing patiently to find out what was happening. The group was abuzz with rumors about what was happening outside. In the center of the massive hall a large brown bear morph stepped up onto a small platform. The ursine was wearing tunic and pants both of a dark blue color. His shoulder patches had an axe and bow crossed in white on a background of dark green. On each cuff was a gold paw print with claws. It marked Meredith Bartelli as an noncommissioned officer in the Long Scouts. He raised one of his massive paws and the crowd hushed.
"As you have probably heard there is talk of plague," Meredith said in a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone. "Well. It's true. I've talked with Misha and Duke Thomas and it has been confirmed. At least a hundred people in Euper have fallen ill and at least five have died."
The room erupted in a loud buzz of voices. People talking to each other and shouting questions to Meredith. "PLEASE! Calm down!" He shouted but it was several minutes before he could quiet the group down and continue speaking.
"I do not have any more information but when I do I will pass it along," the bear said trying to act more calm and brave then he actually felt. "What I do have are clear orders from Misha and the Duke. We are to close and bar the door and go to full lockdown. What that means is from this moment on no one can enter Long House."
"This order extends to everyone. No one gets into Long House. Not even the Longs who are already outside."
"Even Misha?" Someone asked nervously.
"Even him. That was confirmed by Misha himself," Meredith responded and gave a small laugh. "That order includes the Duke as well. Not even Duke Thomas can come in. This is NOT a decision taken lightly," the bear snarled. "I don't like hiding from any enemy even something as deadly as a disease. But we have all taken an oath to protect and defend Metamor and her people. This plague is just as deadly a threat as any Lutin attack. We are again playing the final stronghold. Just like during the Yule attack. And just like in the Yule attack we must bar our door and hold off any attack."
There was a lot of murmuring in the crowd for a moment. "How long will this last?"
"Till it ends," the bear responded simply. He pointed to the one door that lead out of Long Hall. "Until then that door remains closed."
The door slammed shut with a resounding boom that seemed to echo all through Long House.
"Plague!" Kelyn exclaimed. "Her voice sounding loud in the tight confines of the cave.
"WHAT?" Nelis shouted. "How many people have died? Who died?"
"Misha said six were dead but didn't give any more details," Lisa responded calmly. "He didn't have any more information."
"How is my family?" Kelyn asked and leaned closer. A look of fear in her eyes.
"Your family is fine," the one handed scout replied. "All of our families are safe in Long House and in good health."
The whole group relaxed at those words. "The Longs always take care of their own," Lisa commented. "Even you raw recruits."
That small joke earned a faint smile from Kelyn. She and Nelis were veteran scouts with years of experience. So they were far from raw recruits.
"Any idea how this plague started?" Nelis asked nervously. "Everyone was healthy when we left."
Lisa shook her head. "Misha didn't have any details but I'm sure he'll pass along whatever he does find out in due time."
"I want to talk to my wife and kids," the spider morph announced in a firm tone that left little room for debate.
"So would I," Georgette added.
"I'll tell Misha the next time he contacts me," Lisa responded. "That we all want to speak with our families. Until then we wait."
"And worry," Georgette added.
"I have new orders for you," Misha said in a tone that was far colder and formal than Lisa had heard before. "The plague is getting worse and the Duke has ordered a complete quarantine. No one is allowed out of the Keep or Euper. You are ordered to stop anyone from entering or leaving. You're to use any means necessary."
The woman stiffened. "You mean if someone tries to leave we kill them."
"No," Misha answered quickly then there was a moment of silence. "Well. Warn them off first. If that doesn't work force them, Only as a last resort do you attack. But we cannot let this plague spread beyond the valley. If it does it could spread throughout the entire Midlands and thousands could die."
"I understand," Lisa responded with anger in her tone. "But I don't like it."
"No one likes this," Misha countered. "But it has to be done. I'll contact you when I have more information. If you don't hear from me in a week, consider me dead and Finbar in command."
Lisa stiffened at those words as it drove home how serious things really were. "I understand sir."
"Don't be so glum," Misha said trying to sound calm and confident. "We have things under control here. Take some time to discuss this with your people. I'll contact you shortly with more details and orders. Till then sit tight."
"Take care of my family!" Lisa said softly. "And give them all my love."
"I will," Misha responded. And with these words Misha was gone, leaving a troubled woman pondering his words.
"They cannot expect us to kill fellow Keepers?" Kelyn snarled and shook her head.
"They're friends and family," the arachnid added.
"Do you want to see the plague spread to the rest of the valley?" Lisa responded calmly.
"No," the woman answered slowly. "Of course not but killing Keepers is wrong."
"Of course it's wrong but we don't really have a choice," Lisa countered.
"Everything about this is wrong," Georgette commented. "I want to be home with my family but I know I'm needed more here. And I know Misha will take care of my family. He'll take care of all of our families."
This woman keeper had been touched by the curse and changed into an animal that usually inhabited the warm jungles of the south; an ocelot. So Elisha Bartelli was wearing a thick, wool dress in spite of the relative warmth of Long House. At the moment she was searching for one person.
She found her husband standing in a small room off of Long Hall. Crammed with several desks, chairs and the like its walls had a dozen maps on them. It was Misha's official office although the fox spent as little time as possible there. But with Misha outside Long House it was now technically the office of the highest ranking Long scout and that was Meredith. The ursine was standing in the center of the room just staring into space.
She walked up to her husband and wrapped her arms around him. He didn't speak but simply kissed her hand gently.
"How are the kids?" Meredith asked.
"Fine," Elisha answered. "A little upset but I managed to calm them down. How are you doing?"
"Tired," the bear answered. "And a little scared. I don't know what to do. All these people are depending on me. Lutins, ogres, trolls, those I can fight. I know how to kill them but how do you fight something you cannot touch or see?"
"Trying to keep things calm is a good start," the feline said and rested her head on his back. "You should have Jotham check everyone for any sign of illness. Be sure the plague isn't here already."
Meredith turned around and looked at his wife. "That won't be easy," Meredith answered. "We have over sixty people here."
"We're not going anywhere," she said by way of response. "And if everyone is checked it will help put everyone at ease. They won't go around jumping in panic every time a person sneezes."
"I'll be checked first," Meredith said. "Then you and the kids. I won't make other people do something I wouldn't do myself."
"Also all of the open spaces of Long House should be checked and cleaned," Elisha said. "Break people up into groups to sweep and clean all the rooms and halls."
"We do have a full staff that does just that," Meredith countered.
She shook her head. "No, not a regular cleaning. I mean a full cleaning. Get into all the odd corners and closets. Leave the plague no place to fester."
"Having people do all that won't stop the plague," Meredith said with a shake of the head.
"True," Elisha said. "But it will keep them busy. It will keep their minds off of the plague."
The ursine looked at his wife with his head cocked to one side. "I'm not sure I believe that."
"And this place needs a good cleaning!" the ocelot added.
"That I believe."
"Seriously," she said and laid a hand onto his chest. "It might not help but many will think it does. And that will help calm people's fears. And right now our biggest threat is fear of the plague. Not the plague itself."
He hugged her tenderly and kissed her on the muzzle. "I married the smart one."
"How are you doing Lisa?" Misha asked in a serious tone.
"All right," the woman replied curtly her tone making a lie of her words.
"You've discussed the orders with everyone?" Misha asked softly. His voice was coming to her mind courtesy of a sending spell. Usually Misha used a spell that allowed face to face contact even over a long distance. But not today. Only his voice came to her. The reason for this remained unknown to her.
"We have," was the woman's short, curt answer.
"And?" Misha snarled. "Out with it woman. I'm not in the mood for sullen silence and word games."
"We're not happy with the idea of killing fellow Keepers," she answered sharply.
"Do you honestly think that I am?" Misha snarled. "Do you think I want to see fellow keepers dead by our hands? We lose enough of them to Nasoj and the Lutins. But we need to contain this before it spreads any further."
There was a nervous tone to that last line of Misha's voice that made Lisa hold back the angry words she had in her mind. "Any further?"
"The latest count have over a hundred sick," the scout leader answered in a whisper. "And ten dead."
"Our families?" She asked in a whisper, afraid of what answer he would give.
"They're all fine. I've had all of Long house cleaned and everyone checked. No one is sick," Misha answered.
"Yet," Lisa added.
"And I intend to keep it that way," Misha responded. "No matter the cost Long house and it's people will stay safe."
"We want to talk to them," Lisa said. "At least a few words."
"They're safe," Misha responded.
"I know," Lisa answered. "I trust you but to put our minds at ease we need to hear their voices."
"All right," Misha said simply. "I'll set it up but it will take some time. I'll talk to Meredith the next time I contact Long House."
"Where are you?"
"Moving around a lot," the vulpine responded in a tired tone. "The Keep, Keeptown, Euper."
"Not Long House?" Lisa asked, surprised.
"No," the fox responded. "I've been in contact with too many people to go inside. No one gets in till the quarantine is lifted. Not even me."
The realization that Misha was in the same situation as they were eased Lisa's fears a little. And yet it also made her wonder just how bad things really were. "I understand."
"I need you to take your team east to the river," the scout leader ordered. "We've had rumors of dead bodies floating down river. Also I want you to be sure no one is traveling up river towards the keep. We've reports of some idiot headed up river."
"Up river?" Lisa asked incredulously. "You mean TOWARDS the plague zone?"
"That makes no sense," Misha responded, "But we've had enough reports from trustworthy witnesses to make me think it's real. If it is real then there is no telling what their motives are so beware."
She sighed deeply and shook her head. "You mean our task is to fish dead bodies from the river and intercept a group of crazy people?"
"Yes," was the short answer. "Unless you want to just sit in that cave and do nothing but talk to Ancil."
The woman laughed. "I'd rather have Ancil but we'll set out immediately."
"Good. I'll contact you when I have more news," Misha said. "Be careful."
"Meredith?" A voice asked. "Can we talk?"
The ursine turned to the source of the voice. Standing in the doorway were two figures. The one closest to him was a woman of medium height. Her tunic had short sleeves leaving bare her well muscled arms. Sandy brown hair cut short framed a weathered face that held bright green eyes that darted about and missed nothing.
Standing right behind her was a tall. stocky feline with the shape and build of a lion but with no mane and whose fur was the same gray as a foggy day. Meredith had never seen the feral species in the wild but the Lutins feared and respected it. They called it the Kalanshi - which meant Cave Lion. Being a bear meant that Meredith was big and stood over seven and a half feet tall and over weighed over 800 hundred pounds. He was used to towering over people. He stood a good two feet taller than Misha. But when he looked at Merrow he was looking at someone who was his own height and weight. He understood why the Lutins feared the animal.
"Elissa, Merrow," the bear said solemnly. "Of course. Come in!" He waved his hands towards pair of chairs.
The two moved into the room but did not sit down. "We're here about the orders to stay here," the woman said. "Merrow and me have been talking it over."
"And you have some questions?"
"We don't like the order," Merrow said. The felines ears were flicking about and he seemed edgy.
"No one does," Meredith responded slowly. Unsure of where the conversation was leading.
"I wish this was some sort of elaborate test," Elissa said with a shake of the head.
"So do I," Meredith commented. "But this is not some great play. It's all too real."
The feline shook his head. "I was expecting training to be a Long scout to be tough but not like this."
The bear gently patted the feline on the back. "At least you are getting more than Padraic did."
"Oh?" Elissa queried. "How long was his?"
"It consisted of 'Padraic take your gear and report to Misha in Long House." was the answer.
"That's it?" she asked, surprised.
The bear nodded slowly. "During the Yule attack we needed people and he was there."
"That's the only reason he was chosen?" The woman asked surprised.
"No, Misha and George had been considering him for a long time. Just the way we've been trying to get you both into the Longs."
Elissa shook her head and laughed. "We picked the wrong time to finally say yes."
"Not the wrong time," Meredith responded. "Just think of it as an unexpected test of your skills."
"What test?" Merrow asked. "We're safe in here while our families are stuck out there. In danger."
"We want to leave and go outside," Elissa added.
"All right," Meredith said simply. "I'll speak with Misha right away. Once you leave report to Misha after visiting your families."
"That's it?" Elissa asked, a little confused.
"We are all volunteers here," the ursine responded. "We won't force you to do anything. And I agree that you'll be more help on the outside."
At this early hour of the morning a light fog still clung close to the ground blanketing the valley floor and the river with a gray shroud. The tall mountains that lined the valley walls kept much of the valley in shadow. It was almost mid day before the fog burned off revealing the last bits of the river.
Long before then the scouts could see the group of soldiers camped out on both sides of the river. They had strung a large, thick rope across the river, blocking it. The rope was a simple thing and was hardly a serious block as it could be easily cut with a knife. A more serious obstacle to traffic was the spears and javelins of the soldiers.
Lisa felt a tap on the shoulder and turned to find Nelis pointing off to one side of the assembly. She looked to where the spider was pointing. There he spotted a small group of soldiers in the midst of a large and animated argument complete with screaming and arm waving. The woman had no doubt what the argument was about. It seemed the soldiers had received the same stop or kill orders they had. After several minutes of yelling and screaming and lots of arm waving one of the solders punched another dead square in the nose knocking the man to the ground. Everyone froze. "NOW GET BACK TO YOUR POSTS," the soldier (obviously an officer) shouted loud enough to be easily heard across the river and uphill to where the scouts were watching. The rest just stood there for a moment then slowly dispersed. The officer stood there with an angry scowl on her face and silently watched all of them.
"We need to keep a watch on that officer," Lisa ordered. "And all her people."
"Agreed," Georgette responded.
It was a small group that clustered around the only exit from Long house. Just Meredith, Elissa and Merrow. A little further back stood a small cluster of a half dozen people all of whom had like the two scouts decided that staying was not for them.
"I can understand all of your reasons for leaving," Meredith said to the group. "And I hold no grudge. I do wish you all the best and expect to see you back here when this is all over."
Merrow heard the crowd long before it came into sight. At first all he heard was a low murmur but it swelled with each step forward. Ahead the road was filled with people. Loud, angry people. Some were shouting, others were shoving and pushing trying to get forward towards the gate. He could see that the gate was closed and caught sight of a dozen soldiers standing in tight lines in front of it.
"I SAID NO!" A loud voice could be heard over the noise of the crowd.
In spite of the roar and chaos Merrow recognized that voice and moved in the direction it had come from. The crowd pressed thick around him keeping him from moving forward.
He tilted his head back and let loose a deep throated roar that drowned out all other sound. "GET OUT OF MY WAY!" The crowd around him parted instantly as people tripped over each other to get away from the angry feline. Suddenly nothing stood between the feline and Misha. The fox was standing in front of the soldiers who were defending the gate. The fox had the massive black battleaxe in his hands. There was a terrible glint in Misha's eyes and his lips curled back to bare his teeth.
Quickly Merrow made his way up to Misha. "Reporting as ordered."
"Good," the fox said without taking his eyes off the crowd. "We need your help. Fall in with the group. He started to say more but the crowd surged forward.
Misha snarled and raised his axe over his head. "No one leaves," Misha said in cold tones.
"I have to leave!" A man shouted. "I have a family to care for in Midtown."
"How do you know you don't have it already?" Misha countered.
"I can't stay here. The curse will change me," the man said with true fear in his eyes and voice. "I can't help them if I'm a child."
"You cannot help them if they are dead of plague," Merrow said coldly. "Which would you rather have? Dead or changed?"
"Do you want to risk killing your children?" Misha shouted. "Just because of the curse?"
The crowd had quieted down from a roar to a low murmur.
"Well," the man said slowly.
"Go back to your rooms," Misha said in a calm, friendly tone. "No one is happy with how things are going with this plague. But we need to remain calm. If this plague escapes into the Midlands it could kill hundreds of thousands. Everyone you hold dear out there," he said and pointed at the closed gate. "Could die. Who here wants to be responsible for that?"
The crowd was silent now as they pondered his words.
"I too have family out there," the fox said calmly. His words were soft and warmly said but there was a firmness that spoke of strength and determination. "And if I have to stay here and risk dying so be it. I'll do what needs to be done to protect them. Now disperse. Go back to your rooms and homes." He paused a minute but the crowd didn't move. "DO IT NOW!"
No one moved for a moment and Merrow was sure there would be a riot. Then two people off to one side turned and walked away. Slowly, painfully slowly, in ones and twos the crowd slowly broke away and faded back into the town.
Misha stood there through it all, as still as stone with that massive battle axe in hand. Only when the pavement in front of him was empty did Misha finally relax. He dropped the head of his axe onto the pavement and then leaned on the handle.
Merrow walked up to Misha. "You handled that well."
The fox stood up straight and looked at the new arrivals. "Thank you. How are you doing? Any problems with you or your families?"
"No," Merrow said. "Thankfully."
"Have you seen Elissa?" The fox asked.
"No," he said. "But we were to meet here."
“All right get over to her home,” the fox ordered. “Find out what happened.”
Elissa’s first hint of trouble was the smoke wafting around the corner. She drew her sword and started running. When the woman reached the corner she stopped and leaned against the building for a moment. Then she cautiously peered around the corner.
Half way down the street small three story timber building had smoke pouring from the windows. In front of the building a large mob was just standing there watching it burn. She recognized the building as belonging to her neighbor Alicia Carlu.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Elissa shouted to the crowd.
The group turned towards her and she expected the mob to charge her. Instead she saw the last thing she expected.
There at the front of the group stood Alicia Carlu. She had her back to the burning building and was holding off the mob by waving her spear about. Elissa saw that many in the crowd were carrying buckets filled with water.
She walked towards the woman. “Alicia?” Elissa asked in a confused tone. “What are you doing?”
“The plague struck here today,” she said slowly. “And we’re burning it out.”
“But that’s your own home,” Elissa whispered.
“We can’t let the plague escape,” the woman said with a dazed look on her face.
As she got closer she could clearly see that the woman was sick. There was a wild look on the woman’s face.
“She’s set fire to the building and won’t let us get close,” one of the crowd shouted.
She slowly moved closer. “Where’s your family?”
“They’re safe,” one of the crowd said. “At least they are until the fire spreads.”
“Alicia, We need to put out the fire,” the scout said slowly and took several steps towards the woman.
“NO!” Alicia snarled and jabbed the spear at Elissa.
The scout easily dodged the weak attack by the woman and lunged forward. She lashed out with her sword and hit the sick woman in the face with the hilt. Alicia went tumbling to the ground and lay there unconscious.
“HURRY!” Elissa ordered. “Put out the fire.” Several people rushed towards the two but the scout waved them back. “Keep away. If she’s got the plague no need for anyone else to get sick. Someone go tell my husband!”
“I’m already here,” came the reply.
The initial excitement soon gave way to long days of boredom and uncertainty. The threatened hordes trying to escape never appeared. Nor did any corpses come floating down river. Still it left the doubt and worry about what was actually happening back at the Keep.
The end of the strain of uncertainty came quietly. A simple message from Misha. Everyone waited anxiously as Lisa spoke with the Scout leader. They all waited silently as a thousand different worries raced through their minds. Finally she opened her eyes and smiled at them. "It's over. Thank God. We're headed back to Long House for some family reunions and a debriefing."
There was a collective, great sigh of relief.
"What happened?" Kelyn asked.
"Misha didn't go into details. just that he'll explain back at Long House," came the woman's explanation.
"Our families?" Nelis asked.
It took only a scant few minutes of hasty packing before the group was ready to leave. The group made its way from the small cave with its silent occupant but Nelis lingered behind. When he was alone in the cave he carefully made his way to the back where the strange occupant rested, the same way he had for many millenia. "My apologies Ancil for disturbing your peace," he whispered to the body. "And I have a gift for you for being such a gracious host." He took a half dozen arrows from his quiver and placed them next to the remains of the bow. "Every archer needs a bow and good arrows."
Nelis popped out of the cave a few moments later and walked up to the waiting group.
"Let's go home," Lisa said. And with those words they turned and eagerly headed to Metamor Keep and home.