February – Roughly 1 month after Winter Assault and the story Counterstrike.
Meredith pulled the robe tighter about him and sighed, his fogging breath billowing out in the soft breeze that passed over the stoop where he stood. The bear blinked his beady eyes as the sun came out from behind the clouds briefly, turning the snow covered grounds of Metamor into a dazzling expanse of glare.
He shivered, and gathered his robe tighter about him, irritated at the sensation. Meredith hurt, a deep seated pain that emanated from inside. The powerfully built ursine body under the robe was swathed in bandages of various types, covering souvenirs from his battle with an ogre. Even walking hurt, but he just couldn’t stay cooped up in his room he had to see daylight. Even the pain just helped him remember that he was truly alive.
Of course, if Elisha caught him standing out in the snow, he wouldn’t be for much longer.
Thoughts of his wife’s scoldings made him smile which made his jaw ache as he turned to shuffle slowly back to the door. Even pulling the heavy, oaken door open made his body protest, and once through, he didn’t immediately close it. Even with his poor eyesight, the multitude of glowing pinpoints turning in his direction were clearly visible, even if their sources were not.
Pulling the heavy door closed, he let his eyes slowly adjust to the dim light of the fireplace and the scattering of torches that lit the small room he was in. The windows were all shuttered against the weather, leaving Long Hall in warm darkness. Dark but not unoccupied.
The Dire wolves had made themselves quite at home in Long House, Meredith mused to himself. They still gave him a bit of a shiver. They were huge! And the room was fairly full of the horse sized wolves. Most of the powerful hunters were asleep, crowded near the large stone hearth, or in small communal groups. One giant male, larger then the rest, lay by himself, idly gnawing on a large leg bone, probably from a cow recently slaughtered.
The beast looked up at him, blinking large golden eyes languidly, before returning to his prize. All the wolves were spending most of their time sleeping. Just looking at them made Meredith yawn in sympathy. Without another glance he shuffled through the hall, the wolves paying him no more mind then he did them. As far as the keep was concerned, they were all Keepers here, and so each gave the other no trouble.
Meredith was lost in his own slow ponderings of the ramifications when a tremendous boom made him jump, then hiss in discomfort as his knee throbbed black agony at the movement. Taking a sharp breath, he leaned a hand against the wall as fast, uneven footsteps echoed down the hall.
“I want them all!” The half snarled bark reached him a second before a bandaged and heavily limping storm of raw fury blew passed him at the junction with the inner hall of Long house.
“Misha?” Meredith rumbled questioningly, but the fox didn’t seem to hear. More footsteps followed as Caroline and Ralls followed in the wake of their captain’s fury, trying to catch up with a wounded man neither of them should have trouble catching.
“Misha! Wait! You need to calm down!” Caroline’s voice echoed back to the befuddled bruin as all three vanished around a corner and even the noise of their passing faded away.
“What?” Meredith muttered into the silence, blinking his eyes in confusion. He heard a whisper of movement behind him, and saw the Dire wolf Alpha sitting looking at him, the bone forgotten as the lupine stared hard at him, as if seeking an explanation of this intrusion.
Meredith found himself shrugging under that gaze. “ Don’t look at me, I don’t know what’s going on,” He rumbled gruffly, before with a sigh, he shambled slowly off to find out.
“And then the quarter turn...” Teria demonstrated with patient slowness. “Remember the proper way is a smooth turn of the wrist culminating into a swift flick as if throwing a dagger.” She slid her right hand through the complicated gesture, watching with an encouraging smile as Danielle attempted to follow the movement.
Finbar watched in silence from across the room where he sat, swiping an oiled cloth one last time over the bindings on the dagger in his hand, even though the weapon had been immaculate for at least half an hour.
‘Danielle was not clumsy’ he continued to tell himself that, watching her try the final move once more. Her heavily bandaged hands were stiff and painful to work through the motions. The pine martens concentration showed in the intensity of her eyes and her discomfort in the set her jaw.
The large room was sparse of furnishings but heavy in equipment; long racks of weapons and tables of various gear lined the walls. The floor was bare stone save for a few mats where sparing and practice took place, such as where Teria and Danielle stood, with Finbar settled on a bench to watch.
The only other occupant was Teria’s partner Ferwig. On another mat he went through a complicated practice with a quarterstaff; the stave a blur of motion about him as he calmly went through the routine. The hyena morph seemed to look at nothing as the rod thrummed through the air about him.
The door slammed open, startling them all as Misha stormed into the chamber. “I want them assembled in twenty minutes! ALL of them!” His booming voice echoed off the walls as he limped across the chamber at such speed that he all but knocked Danielle down as he passed through the spot where she was standing.
Finbar jumped up catching the pine marten as she stumbled in surprise. He glared at Misha for that callousness just as Caroline burst into the room with Ralls a breath behind her.
“Misha!” The otter called after him in voice that was thin and a little hoarse.
Misha ignored the plea in that cry as he turned to where Teria stood, Ferwig stepping up beside her, the staff balanced over his shoulders as he looked on perplexedly. “Teria, Ferwig, I’ve got a job for you.” He pushed on, despite a frustrated huff from an out of breath Caroline.
“Three thousand in gold. Each. Report to the briefing room in twenty minutes!” With that clipped off statement and with no further time spent to see if they understood and agreed, he was off again. Storming across to the door to his office, opening it and stepping through, the door rattling on it’s hinges as he slammed it behind him.
The room was silent, save for the soft panting of Caroline and Ralls. The otteress looked to the healer entreatingly, and Ralls nodded, his eyes showing the open worry of the woman he had once been. Caroline patted his arm and he turned and strode from the room as Caroline bustled quickly towards Misha’s office.
“Caroline!” Danielle caught her sleeve, stopping her rush for a moment. “What’s going on, what’s happened?!” Her voice was shrill with her shock at such a tableau and Finbar clutched her tighter, comforting her as he could.
Caroline barely spared them a glance, and her eyes were so hard that Danielle recoiled, letting go of her as if she’d been burned.
“They stole it,” Caroline replied tightly, before she strode on to the door, jerked it open and shut it with a slightly quieter slam.
The sound of muffled voices raised against each other from within the office made those gathered all wince a little.
“ It?” Danielle asked. “What did they take?”
“Whisper,” Ralls explained.
“What is Whisper?” Ferwig asked, concerned.
Finbar’s answer was plain and blunt, “It’s his axe.”
“All this yelling over a simple axe?” the wild dog mage asked incredulously. “He has an armory full of magic weapons.”
Danielle wasn’t so calm. She had seen what that weapon could, do all the Longs had.
“That axe,” Finbar replied in stilted tones that betrayed some fear, “was the one he used during the counterstrike.”
“The one he summoned a demon from?” the canine asked in a hushed voice showing fear for the first time.
Ralls nodded in response. “And now Nasoj has it.”
“Oh shit!” Ferwig snarled. It summed up everyone’s thoughts perfectly.
Misha stormed into his office, never had he been in the grip of such a rage, a berserk fury that tinted his very soul the color of blood. Even as the door reverberated behind him he was already tearing through the stacks and rolls of parchment on his shelves. He was searching for the maps, the charts and the scouting reports he would need. Why couldn’t he find them!?
The door opened behind him, and this time the slam of it irritated him.
“I’ve already given my orders! Get everyone together! All the Longs, plus Rickkter, Andre, George and Edmund!” He spoke at whomever it was who had come to bother him. Keeping his voice tight and in control, businesslike and several degrees colder then ‘mean’.
“You will stop raving and listen to me for once Misha Brightleaf!” The feminine voice brought him around like a crossbow bolt, his eyes wide with shock as he beheld its owner as if seeing her for the first time. “ Now is not the time for insanity! We have to think this through!”
His vision swam scarlet again, his rage lifting his hackles and his lips into a snarl. “Damn it all! I KNOW what I’m doing!” He whirled back to the shelf, the map he was looking for evaded his searching gaze again, and his eyes fell on a dagger on the shelf below. Grabbing the blade the fox fumbled open the box next to it and pulled free a palm sized whetting stone.
He needed a sharp blade more then he needed a map, his fevered thoughts told him. The whizzing scrape of the blade against the stone a metronomic counter-point to his thoughts. Yet even as he sharpened, his hands trembled, the blackness of his despair threatening to overwhelm him. No matter how he honed, this dull stick would never be as sharp as he needed… as… as she was!
NO! He couldn’t break, not now… take the rage, use it. His world flooded in crimson and scarlet again… the color that foul mage’s blood would be when Misha bit out his throat!
Behind his back, Caroline shivered at the unnerving sound of the blade against the stone. She stepped forward, reaching a trembling hand out towards Misha’s shoulder. “Misha, talk to me…”
She drew back as Misha whirled, growling, his face distorted and so alien that she felt sure it was a different person in the room with her.
“I said, GET EVERYONE TOGETHER! ALL OF THEM! NOW!”
Caroline fell back a step before his shout, he’d never raised his voice to her like that, he never raised his voice to ANYONE like that. And amidst her shock and hurt, her own spirit flared against that cruelty her eyes flashing fire as she bared her own teeth in response. “ You want everyone? Fine! All the able bodied will be waiting for you in the council chamber in twenty minutes. Sir.”
“I said everybody, and I meant EVERBODY! All the Longs, Every Last ONE!” Misha roared in response, his hand chopping the air dismissively as he turned back to his whetting only to be slammed back into the cabinet that held his maps by a hand grabbing his shoulder and twisting him around, in the suddenness, he forgot his wounded leg and yelped as he tried to put his weight on it. He staggering back against the shelves, collapsing one with his weight.
The tumble of precious rolled maps to the floor was followed by the crack of the whet stone shattering on the floor as he dropped it, staring in bewildered surprise at Caroline.
“I will NOT drag anyone out of bed who can’t sit UP let alone STAND! You want to kill yourself? FINE! But you won’t murder anyone else with this… this… madness!”
Whirling so he couldn’t see the tears in her eyes, as much of anger as sorrow as she stormed free of the room and it’s occupant. The slam of the door this time was heard from across the Long house, and the weary and the wounded alike, knew that everything was not alright, even if only a few of them knew truly why.
Misha stood in shambles of his office, clutching at the edge of the shelf to keep himself upright. His gaze directed at the closed door, and the empty space that Caroline had occupied as he tried to pull the chaotic shreds of his thoughts into some sort of order.
“This had better be good,” Rickkter commented in cold tones as he walked into Misha’s office. “I don’t . . . .”
“Shut up and sit down,” Misha ordered, interrupting the raccoon.
Rickkter started to reply but he looked at Misha and saw a dangerous and wild look in his friends eyes. One that he had never seen before. He did as he was told and quietly took a seat.
The room was crowded and Rickkter took stock of the rooms occupants. Besides Misha and himself in the room were Caroline, Finbar, Danielle, George, Padraic, Edmund the paladin and his second in command Lady Terrant. Also present were Ferwig and Teria. That surprised the raccoon. Why would Misha have those two mercenaries here?
Caroline was seated close to where Misha was standing, the worry plain to see all over her body. Finbar was already dressed in the camouflaged armor unique to the Long Scouts. Across is back were strapped a pair of long swords. The two straps that crossed his chest held no less then eight daggers. Not a good sign. It meant the ferret was expecting a fight soon.
Danielle was seated next to the ferret. Nowadays the two were inseparable. She was dressed a flowing robe of blue and green. It was good to see that her hands were no longer bandaged and didn’t seem burned but the fur on them was distinctly shorter then on the rest of her body. He wondered if there was any permanent damage that would inhibit her spell casting ability.
But those were minor details. As Long scouts he expected them to be here. What truly made Rickkter nervous was the fact that George was here. The black backed jackal morph was dressed in a nondescript tunic and pants and had a cutlass dangling from his belt. Getting George to come to any meeting was difficult. It meant something important was happening.
It was odd for Edmund and his second in command to be involved with something the Longs were doing. The paladin had limited himself to prayers and helping his people deal with the changes the curse had inflicted on them. That alone was enough to keep anyone busy. Still he seems to have adjusted to being a cheetah well enough. Misha had taken a liking to the paladin and he had fought well at the battle of the ford back in January.
The woman with Edmund seemed calm enough but Rickkter had heard rumors that Terrant had been having difficulties adjusting to womanhood. Even wearing shapeless and baggy clothing Rickkter could see that she was quite beautiful.
His eyes wandered back to Ferwig and Teria. The hyena morph was as usual dressed in a kilt and little else. Ferwig’s eyes met Rickkter’s briefly and he nodded to the raccoon. He exuded an aura of masculine strength and calm that many women found attractive. But unlike so many men who acted tough and able to handle anything Ferwig WAS tough and able to handle anything.
Standing next to him with her arm threaded through his was a female, canine morph. Her whole body was covered with a short, fine fur that was colored with large patches which were light brown, black and white in color. Her canine head had a black muzzle and large ears that swiveled about. A black stripe ran from her muzzle all the way up her head, between those large ears and down her back to a long tail. The wild cape dog morph was effecting an aloof air as is she knew everything and could handle any problems. She exuded an aura of sensuality and power. Rickkter couldn’t help but chuckle at the story of how she had been captured by George during the Yuletide attack. Teria had been knocked unconscious by a thrown dinner plate. The raccoon wasn’t sure which wound probably hurt her the most; the one to her head or the one to her pride.
Misha seemed to have been only waiting for Rickkter’s arrival, because the fox immediately turned to the room at large. “ The reason you’ve all bee..” A shadow at the door and a soft scrape drew the Patrol Leader’s attention and he paused, turning back to the entrance.
The oddly shaped visitor was wrapped in a gray cloak against the chill, but easily recognizable, as was his burden. Misha had the grace to blink as David ducked into the chamber silently, tenderly carrying a mass of blankets and bandages in the rough shape of a Keeper.
“Arla, you shouldn’t be out of bed!” Caroline hissed from where she sat, eyes glaring accusingly at the insect-morph and his burden. “David, what in all the hells possessed you to get her up!?”
Arla hissed a little in pain as David shifted her to seat her in a chair near the fireplace, a chair hastily vacated and shifted to accept its occupant. “ D-don’t blame David. I was already halfway down the hall by the time he found me. I may not be going on patrol for a while, but I had to get out of that room!” The collie-morph seemed small and fragile swathed in blankets so. But beyond her broken ribs, she had come down with a rather nasty cold, and the chills were bad enough that she needed the extra warmth.
David turned his inhuman head towards both Caroline and Misha, nodding apologetically. “I felt if she was going to get here despite all reasons to the contrary, it was best she get here quickly.” The ant-morph’s voice was thin and soft, and Misha couldn’t tell if it was intentional, or fatigue that made it so. The insect patted Arla’s shoulder and her paw covered his almost skeletal fingers for a moment as she smiled her thanks. Wrapping his cloak more tightly about him, David stood and gave the assemblage a slight bow, before heading for the door to make as graceful a departure as he could.
The sound of his name made him pause at the door, turning silently to look at the speaker. Misha indicated one of the few empty seats left around the table. “Please, stay. I’d appreciate you being a part of this.”
The ant hesitated for a moment. And even through the clamor of his own problems, Misha couldn’t help but wonder what he had missed. The Keeper who slowly returned to the table to take the requested seat bore almost no resemblance to the vital and energetic man he knew.
He pushed those thoughts away. Later, much later he would worry about that. Right now his people needed to know the catastrophe that had befallen them, and what they needed to do to fix it.
“Err… Thank you all for coming.” He belatedly remembered how hurried this had all been, and inclined his head to the others present. Casting an apologetic glance at Caroline, he could only hope she would forgive him his outburst earlier. Her eyes did soften a little, but her posture didn’t relax as she gave him her attention.
He drew a soft breath, trying to think of how best to continue. “Two days ago,” Misha started calmly, “we were near Starven working with the locals when I was ambushed and lost . . . lost,” he stuttered and then fell silent. “Her,” he said finally.
“Who?” Edmund asked.
“Please tell me you don’t mean the axe?” Rickkter said nervously. Already there were rumors running around the Keep. Very unpleasant rumors.
All the fox did was nod in reply.
He ground his teeth for a moment, feeling the heat of his anger building even as he forced his voice to remain steady as he bit out the words.
“Whisper has been stolen.”
It took a long, long time to restore order so he could continue.
Rickkter muttered a curse under his breath. “Who has it?” the raccoon mage asked afraid of the answer.
George muttered a string of curses in several languages some of which even Rickkter didn’t recognize.
Even the usually calm Edmund looked disturbed.
“We have to get it back,” Rickkter said calmly. “Immediately.”
“Where is it now?” George asked.
“I don’t know,” the fox answered in a tone full of anger and pain. “But I make a good guess where he’ll take it. His Dark Citadel. If we move fast we can intercept them before they get there.”
“How do we find it?” Finbar asked.
“When we get close enough I’ll know where she is,” the fox answered.
“I can tell you that she is north of here within a weeks ride. They already have a two day head start. They wouldn’t have that except I was forced to come back here,” Misha said in cold tones.
“Don’t start that argument again,” Finbar countered. “How far do you think you would have gotten in the shape you were in?”
“About a mile,” the fox admitted, his voice softer then before. “I can’t help it. I HAVE to get her back no matter what the cost.”
“That is the curse of the weapon talking,” Edmund commented. “Not you. That thing has you under it’s will. That is dangerous.”
The fox nodded his head. “I understood what I was getting into when I first took the axe. It’s part of the whole deal. If you want the power of the axe you have to guard it from any evil. Even if it means your own life.”
“Is it evil?” the paladin asked.
“No,” the fox answered instantly. “But her power is immense and I don’t doubt Nasoj’s ability to twist it to evil.”
“How much power does this weapon have?” Ferwig asked, speaking for the first time.
“She created at the height of the Kkarrt empire by one of the last of Tnu Sha Ne mages and is over twenty seven hundred years old.,” Misha explained.
“Tnu Sa Ne?” Edmund asked, confused.
“Soul binding. The common name is Runic magic.”
“You mean that is a real runic weapon?” Teria asked, shocked and surprised. The aura of confidence shattered. It was the first time Rickkter had seen her display any real emotion. “Impossible. No runic weapons still exist.”
Rickkter shook his head. “It’s true.”
“That still doesn’t answer Ferwig’s question,” Edmund commented. “How powerful is it?”
“Whisper has many powers,” the fox explained. “One of it’s lesser powers is the ability to cut through anything. ANYTHING!” Misha said coldly. “Wood, steel, stone are nothing to her edge. And no spell no matter who casts it can withstand it. Not even Rickkter or my brother Brian could block it. Grandfather beheaded the dragon Stearc the invincible with one blow. I can’t really tell you how powerful she is but Kingdoms have been won or lost because of her.”
“Does it have protection of it’s own?” Ferwig asked.
“It does. Merely touching her would probably kill you,” he commented while looking at Teria. There was just the faintest hint of contempt in his voice. “But I’m sure someone as intelligent and powerful as Nasoj will find a way around her defenses. Just being able to take the axe away tells me that he already knows a lot about the her.”
“How long do you think it will take Nasoj to understand how to use the axe?” Edmund asked.
“I think he already knows how to exploit it,” Rickkter commented. “And has something specific in mind.”
“What? Why do you think that?” Finbar asked.
“He was after the axe,” Rickkter explained. “He could have killed Misha but didn’t. Instead they took the axe and fled. The entire ambush was designed to separate Misha from help and disable him. Misha wasn’t the target. The axe was.”
“Nasoj isn’t stupid,” Caroline commented. “Evil and greedy but not stupid. He must realize that he can’t control the axe for very long. He must have something specific in mind for it.”
“But what?” Misha asked. “Everything he does is trouble for someone, especially Metamor.”
Edmund shook his head. “There is no end to the ability of evil to cause trouble.”
“Why not simply destroy it? Or hide it someplace no one would ever find it,” Ferwig asked.
Misha shook his head. “I doubt he could do it. People a lot more powerful then him have tried and failed.”
“Besides,” George commented. “He’s too greedy to allow that much power to slip from his grasp.”
“We need to move fast,” Rickkter commented. “The longer he has the axe the more trouble he can cause. A small, well armed group moving fast is our best bet. If we don’t get the axe before they reach the citadel we’ll have to sneak in quietly.”
“It’s probably already there,” George said. “Or it soon will be.”
“Getting in won’t be a problem,” George said calmly. “Getting out will be. Once you have the axe Nasoj will throw everything at you to keep you from getting out.”
“He will be expecting you to try and get the axe back,” Rickkter said. “And will have planned ways to stop you.”
“All I need is Whisper in my hands,” the fox muttered coldly. “And NOTHING will stop us.”
Rickkter opened his mouth to reply but suddenly the door opened behind him and a figure entered.
The wolverine standing there was dressed solely in a pair of pants but what first caught his attention was the white, hand shaped blaze on the intruders throat. He stood there for a moment obviously confused.
“This isn’t father Hugh’s room,” the wolverine commented, confused.
“No it isn’t,” Misha replied. “What are you doing here Eldrid? And where is your guard?”
A badger dressed in leather armor and carrying a sword and shield stepped into the doorway next to Eldrid. “What happened?” she asked looking around. “We were just in the cathedral and now we’re here.”
“You two got lost, now leave,” Misha said in a tone as cold as ice.
“We were NOT lost,” the wolverine countered with an edge of anger in his tone. “We were in the cathedral.”
“Well your not there now,” George answered before Misha could. “It’s just Kyia playing tricks on you. Please leave.”
“Yes sir,” the badger answered as the two backed away quickly. “I’ve never gotten used to all these walls and doors moving about,” the she commented to the wolverine. “It’s not natural.”
Misha slammed the door shut. “Now if we are done with all the interruptions.”
“We can fly there,” Rickkter said. “Till we get close then we’ll have to walk the rest of the way.”
Misha nodded. “We can fly north as Kelm and land just south of there. From there we walk. The hard part will be that walk. The citadel is very well guarded. Once we get close we will have to scout out a weakness and use it to get in.”
Rickkter nodded. “What if there isn’t a weakness?”
“There is always a weakness,” Caroline interjected.
“The citadel of Nasoj,” Misha explained. “Is located appropriately enough in the Death mountains in the center of the richest part of the Giantdowns. The fortress is at the end of a long, narrow valley. At the head of the valley is the city of Nasojassa. The valley has only the one entrance and that is guarded by a wall sixty feet high and twenty feet thick.”
“The citadel itself consists of a single massive tower that stretches over four hundred feet into the sky. There are no entrances visible at ground level. There are nine evenly spaced openings above ground level. One hundred feet above ground level.”
“How do you suggest we get to those?” Rickkter asked.
“There has to be other ways in,” Misha explained. “We’ve gotten some information that there’s at least one tunnel used by Nasoj’s Lutins and servants.”
“All of them can’t fly,” Finbar commented. “Has to be a back door somewhere.”
Rickkter shook his head. “Not necessarily,” the raccoon commented. “Mages like Nasoj can be peculiar. The only entrance might very well be above ground.”
“I don’t know a lot about the citadel but I do know someone who does. Metamor has been spying on Nasoj for a long time.”
“Andwyn,” Rickkter commented.
“Who is Andwyn?” Teria asked.
“The Dukes master of spies,” Caroline explained. “He took over the position after Phil left.”
“He knows a lot more about Nasoj then he’ll ever admit too,” Finbar commented. “And what he doesn’t know he’ll pretend he knows.”
Misha nods in agreement. “But I’m sure he’ll tell me some of that information if it involves a strike against Nasoj himself.”
“Who wouldn’t approve of an attack on Nasoj. Everyone wants to see him dead,” Ferwig says.
“Remind me, what’s the price for Nasoj’s head up to now?” Rickkter asked and his lips pulled back in a grin.
“Don’t get too excited Rickkter,” Misha countered. “People like Nasoj rarely risk their own lives. If he did Nasoj would have led the assault on the Keep during the Yule instead of sending his lackeys to do it.” There was a note of disgust and contempt in the foxes voice.
“Even so,” Teria commented. “The tower will be well guarded.”
“If you’re afraid, you can always stay home,” Misha countered coldly. His anger barely contained.
“And loose six thousand gold pieces?” she taunted.
“If there’s an entrance we can find how do we get in?” Rickkter asked. “It will be well guarded with sentries and wards.”
“I have an idea that won’t fail,” Misha countered.
“Which is?” Rickkter asked.
“Which is something I intend to keep secret until we need it,” the fox said enigmatically. “The less said the better.”
“Who goes,” George asked, changing the subject. “Besides you?”
“Finbar, Caroline, Padraic, Edmund, Rickkter you too George,” Misha answered.
“Not me,” George commented.
The fox looked shocked and surprised at his friends statement. “I need you,” he countered.
“I know. But the Keep needs me more.”
“How can you say that?” Misha asked with the anger rising in his voice.
“Who will run the scouts while you are gone?” the jackal answered calmly. “We were going to bring in those recruits tomorrow. Who will lead their training? Or should I send them out untrained.”
Misha didn’t speak for a long time as he struggled with his anger and rage. Finally his common sense won out and he calmed own.
“I am well aware of the axes worth but we cannot both leave the keep,” George said calmly looking Misha straight in the eye.
“I understand,” the fox said quietly.
“Why us?” Teria asked suddenly. “I find it hard to believe you actually trust us.”
“I don’t trust you,” Misha replied calmly. “But then again I don’t fully trust Rickkter either but I need all your skills. And you were the first people George mentioned when I told him I was going north to raise havoc and kill things.”
Teria nodded and Ferwig gave a short laugh.
“We will also need the rat,” Rickkter said surprising everyone, including himself.
“Of course,” the fox commented slowly, surprised. “We can stop at Glen Avery on the way.”
"Why did you suggest Charles come with us?" the Caroline asked.
"Well, I figured if I'm going to die, I'll take him with me."
“When do we leave?” Ferwig asked, speaking for the first time.
“In two hours. We’ll leave from the courtyard attached to Long house.”
“Can we get enough fliers in two hours?” Caroline asked.
Misha nodded. “Good question. Make that four hours. Let me make this clear. This is not going to be easy. It’s going to be very dangerous and bloody. If you don’t want to go I won’t hold it against you. Whoever wants to go should be in the courtyard in four hours ready for a long journey and a tough fight.”
“No,” George interjected. “At least two days.”
The fox scout scowled at the old jackal but George seemed unruffled.
“The extra time will let us be better prepared,” Edmund added.
“NO!” Misha countered. “We cannot wait that long. We have to strike now!”
“Two days,” George answered. “you can’t go out unprepared. You’ll just fail and get everyone killed.”
Looking around he could see Rickkter’s head nodding in agreement.
“All right,” Misha snarled. “One day from now we leave at dawn.”
The group started to break up, to get ready for the journey.
“Rickkter,” Misha called out to the raccoon who was almost through the door. “Bring HER with you.”
Rickkter paused. “Her?” the raccoon asked. Confused. He couldn’t mean Kayla could he?
The fox didn’t speak but simply held up his hand and waved all five fingers. Then he clenched his fingers together leaving his thumb and pinky extended.
The mage nodded in understanding. “Of course. I doubt I could keep her behind even if I wanted to.”
Ferwig and Teria looked at each other in confusion.
“Don’t ask,” Misha ordered before either of them could speak.
Misha stared out the narrow window of his office at the setting sun, suppressing his rising wrathful impatience. A full day! They wanted two days to prepare! At least it was just one. And even that wait drove him nearly into a fury. How much more time must he lose?!
He thought back to the fight he had with Caroline right after the meeting. The things they said to each other had… not been pleasant. And he knew he had hurt her when she whirled away and left. But he couldn’t bring himself to follow her then… why couldn’t she understand? Why couldn’t any of them?
His thoughts were interrupted as the door to his office creaked open, sounding as old as he felt. “I left orders that I..” He snarled without turning to see who it was.
“…was not to be Disturbed. Yes, I and half the Keep are quite aware of that.” The voice was familiar, gruff, and dryly chiding. He remembered that same voice chiding him in the same way for a sloppy show with a quarter staff one foggy morning oh so many years ago. While his head was still pounding from the almighty whallop he’d been dealt thanks to his poor defense.
The scruffy, hard-bitten Jackal padded into the room almost silently, kneeling to begin collecting the rolled papers that still lay strewn on the floor. “This is no way to treat maps, you young gnat.” He growled, gathering them up and straightening the shelf they fell from, setting them back in place with a deft pat.
“Don’t start with me, old man.” Misha growled back, still not turning to face him. “I know what I’m doing.”
A bark of laughter was followed by a derisive snort. “Ha! You need to practice that a bit more, if you expect to sound convincing. Even if it’s only yourself you’re trying to convince.”
Misha bit back a harsh retort, putting a damper on his flare of resentful anger. “I trust you came for some other reason then to assess my mental state?”
“Well some fools seem to think I can talk some sense into you. But we both know how much of a chance that stands, now don’t we?” The scrape of steel against stone from the floor was sharp in the silence that followed that remark.
George let the silence drag out, not saying anything more as he examined the dagger. “You’ve damned well ruined the balance of this, y’know.” His comment delivered in a softer, less accusatory voice. Misha turned, surprised at the comment as he saw what the Jackal was holding, grey eyes no longer watching it, but regarding Misha steadily. “Be careful you don’t grind the fighting edge off your people like this.”
Misha ‘s ear laid back flat against his skull. “Of everyone, I expected YOU to understand! I have to get her back! You know what she could do!”
“Aye! I happen to think I do! But I also know that you’re supposedly the only one who can rightly use her while yer alive! And rashly turning yourself over to Nasoj, especially wounded is stupid and a quick way to die!”
Misha shook his head. "I know the pull she has on me but Nasoj is a ruthless, brutal megalomaniac and letting anyone like him have access to that much power is dangerous. All my instincts rail against letting him keep it for even a minute."
"Don't misunderstand me George. She is a weapon of war. Death and destruction follow her like crows over a battlefield. But considering what Nasoj has tried to do in the past, I wouldn’t put it passed him to try tampering with an artifact like Whisper!"
George snorted and shrugged. “You’re likely right, and I know there’s not a chance of keeping you from going. I think the plan is daft, and that’s its best facet! Nobody would think for a moment anyone would be quite this stupid, so it’s probably got as much chance of working as anything else.”
The jackal set the blade down, and clapped Misha on his shoulder, making the fox wince. “Just go easy on your people, alright? You’ll accomplish little if you recover the axe and ruin those who care about you in the process.”
He walked to the door but stopped. George turned and looked at Misha who hadn’t moved. “You’re not a young pup anymore Misha. It is time for you to stop wasting your life and settle down.”
“This from a man who did spend his whole life wandering and killing?” Misha countered.
George nodded. “Don’t make the same mistakes I did. Especially with that axe. You’re going to have to choose between her and Caroline.”
Misha sighed. “I know.”
Misha opened the door and started to step through into his apartment but stopped. This wasn’t his apartment. This room was small barely large enough to hold a bed and a table and chair. Light streamed through a large window bathing everything in it’s warm glow.
Seated on the bed was Eldrid and the female badger who had been guarding him earlier but she was a good deal less formal now. Her shield was resting against the bed upon which lay her sword still in its scabbard. Her armor was draped loosely across the end of the bed. and she was only wearing the cotton tunic and pants usually worn beneath the armor. The wolverine had both arms around her in a tight embrace.
“Amelia, when I said to watch him closely I didn’t mean THIS closely,” George commented dryly.
The two lovers broke apart quickly and with some embarrassment. The woman quickly buttoning up her tunic which had been open.
“You were to guard him,” Misha said angrily. “Not bang his brains out.”
“She is guarding him. You can bet he won’t be going anywhere for the next few hours,” George commented dryly.
The fox fixed the jackal with a glare that could melt steel but George didn’t wither.
“Relax Misha. She’s been off duty since dawn,” George said firmly.
Misha relaxed slightly.
“What are you doing in my room?” Amelia said calmly.
“Your room?” Misha asked in a confused tone. A quick look of the room confirmed that wasn’t his. “This was supposed to be MY room.”
The fox stepped backward and looked around at the hallway he was standing in and reassured himself that he WAS still in Long House. “That’s twice I’ve run across you Eldrid.”
“Meaning what?” the wolverine asked. “I’m not doing it deliberately.”
“Kyia is,” George commented.
Misha didn’t speak for a moment but stood silently. “What type of power did you have among Nasoj’s people?”
“They knew who I was. They didn’t like me but they respected and feared me,” Eldrid answered.
“If you gave them an order would they follow it?” the fox asked.
The wolverine morph shrugged. “Depends on the person. Most Lutins would just run away when I came near. But they would scramble to do anything I told them to. His human servants were different. Most would reluctantly follow my orders but his Druzhina showed me nothing but contempt.”
“The Druzhina are his hand picked bodyguards and reflect Nasoj’s personality. And he shows contempt to EVERYONE,” Misha commented.
“Most of his Druzhina are dead now,” Amelia commented.
“Not all of them,” the fox corrected. “We killed a lot of them but he still has many more.”
“Did you ever visit Nasoj’s citadel?” George asked.
“Several times,” was the answer. “I never liked being there. The thing I remember most about it is the oppressive feeling of the place. It made my skin crawl. And that there are no windows looking out.”
Misha nodded his head. “How did you get in?”
“A magic portal. We stepped through a door in one tower and wound up in the deepest cellars of the citadel.”
“Could you find this door again if you needed to?”
“Easily. The tower it’s in was colored jet black and over a hundred feet tall.”
The fox fell silent for a long moment before speaking. “Be in Long house in tomorrow at dawn,” he said finally. “And be prepared for a long trip.”
“You’re taking him?” George asked, the surprise plain to hear.
“I have a choice?” the fox answered. “Kyia wants him to go. Who am I to argue. Besides no one really knows he was taken prisoner. He could move about openly and claim he somehow survived the fight at the camp.”
George nodded in agreement.
“What are we going after exactly?” the wolverine asked. “And where are we going?”
“We’re going after Whisper.”
“What is Whisper?” he asked.
Misha paused for a moment. How would Eldrid react if he told him who – what Whisper was? After all the axe had tried to kill him by draining the very life from him. It HAD killed his friend that way. The wolverine had a white hand shaped mark on his throat from where SHE had grabbed him. Memories of that scene gave Misha nightmares, he couldn’t imagine what it did to the wolverine morph.
“It’s my axe.”
“Her?” Eldrid asked in a barely audible whisper as his whole body stiffened.
Misha nodded his head.
Eldrid didn’t answer but simple stared off into space. He was shivering violently.
“I don’t care what Kyia wants,” Misha said softly. “I won’t force you to do anything you don’t want to. I’ll leave the choice to you.”
Still there was no answer from the wolverine.
“You understand?” the fox asked. When that didn’t get a response he touched Eldrid on the arm.
The wolverine jumped back in surprise and stared at Misha’s outstretched hand with wide, fear filled eyes.
“You can’t live in fear for the rest of your life Eldrid,” the fox said calmly. “But the choice is still yours. I could use you. I’ve seen how good a fighter you are. And I’ve got the scars to remind me,” the fox touched the scar that ran across the left side of his face to where his left ear used to be. There was only a mangled stub instead of his ear. Eldrid’s axe had done that damage. “And your knowledge of Nasoj’s army and how it works would be a great help.”
“We’re leaving at dawn from Long House be there ready to travel if you decide to go. If you don’t, I’ll respect that decision.” With that the fox turned and left followed closely by Rickkter. It left Eldrid standing there lost in his own thoughts.
Do you think he’ll go?” George asked.
The fox shrugged. “No telling. I hope he does. His skills with an axe would be very useful.”
The wolverine stood in front of bed and stared at the contents lying on the floor at his feet. A servant had brought them to him a short while ago. A suit of full chain mail armor, a helmet for a wolverine shaped head, a backpack, a dagger, his massive battleaxe, a long, narrow bundle carefully wrapped in fine, waterproof leather and several other smaller packages similarly wrapped, all lay together. All of this was on top of a large piece of canvas that was spread over the floor. Placed next to that was another leather wrapped bundle a bit larger then his backpack.
“What’s wrong?” Amelia asked as she wrapped both arms around him. “You’ve been standing there for ten minutes.”
“This is my whole life,” he explained wistfully. “ All of my belonging are here even my field tent. The only things missing are my horse and saddle. And those didn’t survive the battle.”
“And?” she asked.
“It’s nothing. All I have to show for twenty years of fighting and trailing the pike is some armor, a few weapons and a handful of gold.” He picked up one edge of the armor fingering the links of mail. “Nasoj had this armor made specially for me just after the change. It’s even been enchanted to better protect me.”
“You’re not going to wear it?” she asked.
He picked up the chain mail armor and dropped it on the floor. “It has Nasoj’s magic in it. Somehow it feels dirty.”
“You can’t go stark naked,” the badger exclaimed.
He laughed for the first time in many months. “It would be a great surprise to Nasoj but you’re right. But I can’t wear that armor anymore. It didn’t help me that night in the camp. Nothing did.”
“The Keep has a well stocked armory, they’re plenty of armor and weapons there. I’ll help you pick the best,” she offered.
He just shook his head. “No need. I have both already taken care of.”
The wolverine picked up the package that lay on the floor and dropped it on the bed. “Five years ago I helped save the life of a chieftain of the Turi, a small clan living in the lower foothills of the Great Barrier mountains north of where I was borne. In gratitude he gave me these,” he said and patted the unopened leather bundle. “And these,” he added and patted the long, narrow bundle.
“I never used them. I thought the armor and weapons I already had were better.”
Eldrid picked up the long bundle and opened it carefully being sure not to tear or stretch the leather. “They are called Anyon and Aodhan which means Anvil and Fire but I call them Kith and Kin,” he said and peeled back the last flap of leather revealing the contents.
The sword had a blade that was a full three feet long from point to hilt and was twice as wide as usually seen on a sword. The hilt itself had a loop of steel running one end to another forming a basket or hand guard. A very unusual feature on a bastard sword.
Beside the bastard sword was a second one that was a lot smaller. It was barely two feet from the tip of the hilt to the point of the blade. This short sword was just as richly decorated as it’s larger cousin.
“These are beautiful,” Amelia said in awe. “I’ve never seen designs like these,” she said tracing a complex twisted knot engraved on one blade.
“The Turi are an ancient people,” the wolverine explained as he opened the other bundle. What he removed from the package seemed to be all leather, wire and metal plates. “They’ve held onto the old ways and speech. Some people say they haven’t changed since before the rise of the Seuliman empire. My own people are of the same stock but we’ve long ago changed our ways and words.”
You’ve had them five years and you’ve never used them?” she asked in surprise. “Why?”
“I used the weapons a little bit but I just never felt comfortable with them. I was an axe man. And the armor,” he said and held up the bundle of leather and metal plate. ”Never did fit me. The chief said that when I was ready to use them I would use them. His exactly words were; ‘ When the old blood speaks to you.”
“And now it’s speaking to you?”
“Yes. It’s time I used them for what they were intended for, stopping evil. And now the armor DOES fit me.”
“You’ve decided to go,” she said. It was more a comment then a question.
He nodded solemnly.
“Why?” she asked in genuine surprise. “That thing tried to kill you. It almost sucked the life out of you.”
“Misha is right. I can’t spend my entire life being afraid of something no matter how powerful it is. The nightmares won’t end till I face those fears. And that means facing her.”
He wrapped both of his massive, well muscled arms around Amelia. Long, sharp claws capable of shredding her flesh just barely touched the skin at the base of her spine. Amelia shivered. He knew that she loved that feeling. There was nothing between them except their fur. Their clothing lay in a heap on the bed.
“Please don’t get yourself killed,” she said tenderly resting her head on his chest. “I love you.”
“You’ve only known me a month,” he commented in surprise.
“I still love you.”
Amelia wasn’t the first women he had taken to bed. A lot of his coins had going to various houses of joy but it wasn’t just the sex he liked. Eldrid had been alone most of his life but being with her felt right. It was one of the few things he’d done recently that did feel right.
He caressed her soft face. “I love you,” he said softly.