“No,” was the emphatic answer. “I will not send my people on such a suicide mission. The griffon shook his massive beaked head back and forth.
“There is no debate on this Philip,” Misha countered coldly, his voice ending in a growl. “We are not asking them to do anything we aren’t going to do.”
“If you are stupid enough to try and get yourself killed in some idiotic quest do not expect the rest of us to follow you blindly.” The griffon countered coldly.
Misha lashed out with surprising speed sending the griffon flying backward into a wall. “STUPID! IDIOTIC!” he shrieked and moved toward the flyer with his fangs bared. The fact that Philip was five times his size didn’t seem to phase him.
Rickkter deliberately stepped in front of the fox. “The longer you two fight, the longer it will take to retrieve the axe,” he said calmly. “And we need his people.”
Misha starred at Rickkter for several moments a blind rage flaming across his face. His whole body shaking with anger. For a very long time no one moved or spoke. Rickkter kept his eyes locked on the foxes. He saw the blind rage and anger boiling there that threatened to explode and engulf them all. Finally the rage subsided but didn’t fully disappear. Instead it simmered in the background of his friends eyes under control for the moment.
“Take care of the Longs and your own equipment,” Rickkter ordered calmly. “I’ll make sure we have our rides on time.”
The fox only nodded. Then he looked at the griffon who lay still sprawled on the floor where the one hundred and fifty pound fox and thrown the five hundred pound griffon. “Be sure your people are there,” he ordered then turned and stormed off.
Rickkter turned to Philip who had not moved or spoken since hitting the wall. The griffons eyes narrowed and he flexed his talons in anger.
“What we are going to do is very dangerous but we have no intention of getting your people killed senselessly,” the raccoon said firmly. “They will have to take their chances like everyone else. But we will only be flying so far north, after that we’ll be walking. Will that be good enough?”
“I’m going with you,” was the griffons only answer.
Rickkter nodded. “The Lutins are the least of your worries. Stay clear of Misha.”
Caroline’s door was shut. It was rare to find her closeted. Misha just stared at the closed door for a few moments, hesitant to make his presence known. He had raised a hand to knock twice now, and couldn’t seem to make himself do it. With a sigh he turned away rubbing at his face.
His footsteps carried him away down the corridor, his eyes closed as he tried to make sense of his thoughts. He didn’t even heed where he was until a heavy wooden door he had just passed scraped open.
“Misha?” The sudden voice made him jerk, his leg spasming painfully.
David held the candle in his grasp a little higher. “ Were you just knocking?” The insect pulled his cloak a bit more tightly around him, and Misha couldn’t tell if the flickering light was tricking him, or if David was shivering slightly.
“I was . . “ he stuttered and looked back at Caroline’s door. “I wasn’t knocking on your door,” he finished. “I’m sorry if I woke you up.”
“I wasn’t sleeping,” the ant mage answered. “I never do.”
“Never?” Misha asked, surprised. “But how do you . . . “ he stopped. Then turned and looked back at Caroline’s closed door.
“I didn’t mean to bother anyone else.”
“You’re not bothering me.” The ant replied. “Please come in. I have a few things to discuss with you.”
Misha looked at a small object in his left hand. He was motionless for a moment. Then he looked back at Caroline’s door which was still closed. Slowly, almost mechanically he carefully placed the precious object into a pocket. Then the scout followed David into his room, closing the door behind him.
Rickkter stepped into his apartment quietly and looked about carefully. The first thing his eyes fell on was the table that rested near the door he had entered thru. So close that his sleeve brushed it’s edge.
The knife rested dead center of the table as if someone had placed it there or perhaps Rickkter himself had casually left it there after coming in. But the raccoon knew that he had last placed it carefully in the protected cabinet. He never left THAT weapon laying around.
The weapon had a thick hilt with an upswept cross guard at the point where blade met hilt. The blade itself was as thick and as long as the kings hand and was straight for most of its length, ending with a diamond shaped point. The entire weapon was a true, deep, black color that Rickkter had seen only three times before.
Rickkter had seen many powerful magic weapons in his lifetime some even more powerful then the knife. It wasn’t even a real dagger even though Misha called it one. The blade was too short for a dagger. Once in the hands of a king of an empire far to the south he had seen two other weapons the same color black. A long spear and a short, powerful mace. He had felt very privileged to see them and when he had acquired the dagger he had never expected to see any more of the Five Sisters. Each of the five was different and had unique powers. All had long and complex histories. Tales told of kingdoms conquered or saved, dragons killed and battles won or lost by one of the five. But of the five one was thought to be more powerful then the rest and was spoken of in awe and fear - the massive battleaxe that Misha had used and just lost.
Frustration bubbled up inside him and finally overflowed into true anger as he stormed over to the table. "I've had you for almost four years now and you’ve fought me every moment. But as soon as you find out you have a sister here, you're raring to go!” Rickkter shouted at the knife.
The weapon ignored his tirade and just lay still on the table as if taunting him, daring him to do something stupid. But Rickkter was not stupid enough to rashly lash out at the weapon. He was not afraid of the knife but he respected it and the powers it held. One mistake could easily get him killed or at least very badly hurt. Misha had specifically asked for it. But he refused to be pushed around by a weapon. Finally he dropped his jacket over the dagger to at least hide it from sight until he was ready to leave.
From a closest Rickkter took out his armor. It was a made of chain mail with a padded backing of padded cloth. Over the mail were places plates of hardened steel over the most vulnerable parts of his body like the chest and arms and legs. Being a raccoon morph meant that his body covered in thick fur, now ever thicker with it’s winter coats. In the hot weather all that fur and the padding made the armor hot and sweltering. But with the Giantdowns still in the grips of late winter all that padding and fur would help keep him warm. Along with the armor he put on a good pair of thick leather boots in the soles of which were steel plates. The plates weren’t very thick but they were thick enough to protect his paws in case he stepped on something sharp or dangerous.
Rickkter moved about the apartment picking up all the items he would need, a long sword, several daggers, some rope, a pair of thick leather gloves, his compound bow and a quiver full of a score of steel tipped arrows. He strapped a machete to his right calf where he could easily grab it when needed.
Located in the middle of one wall was a large cabinet made of a wood that was darker then the stone floor it rested on. The wood was a smooth texture with a grain so fine it was almost invisible to the eye. Two doors were set into the front and were kept shut by an impressive pair of locks made of mithril. Every corner, edge and seam on the cabinet was sealed with bands of mithril held on with nails that were also of mithril.
Opening the cabinet took some time. First he had to lower the powerful spells and wards that covered and protected the cabinet. Then he had to disable numerous traps and finally he unlocked the two locks. Only then could he open the doors and be able to see inside.
Inside this cabinet Rickkter kept his most valuable possessions, weapons, spell books and other magic items he owned along with a small bag full of jewels and gold. Also it was the usual resting place of the knife but only when she felt like being there. But those weren’t the reason he was there.
Sitting prominently on the middle shelf were two weapons resting on a black, lacquered rack, one above the other. The sword on top had a blade some two feet in length, with a handle long enough for two hands to grasp easily. From tip to hilt it was three and a half feet long. The entire sword including the hilt had a gentle curve to it. The hilt was wrapped in black, gold, silver and mithril wire.
Resting below the first blade was a second one which was the same in all respects but length being only two and a half feet long with a blade one and a half feet long. It was as richly and lavishly decorated as its larger sibling.
These two weapons were so much like the knife and so different. All were runic weapons. Created a millennia ago using magic and methods long lost to the modern world. Rickkter understood little of the methods used in their creation. No one did and perhaps that was best seeing as how powerful and dangerous they really were.
Unlike the knife these weapons were older having been created at a time when Rune mages were at the height of their power and skills. And they possessed some incredible power. They could cut through steel, wood, stone and flesh and bone like he was cutting paper. The weapons would also cut through or deflect any spell they came into contact with.
And unlike the knife these weapons LIKED Rickkter and didn’t fight him at every turn. And yet he still found himself examining, testing and prodding that black weapon. It remained as deep a mystery as when he had first acquired it.
Rickkter looked towards the table by the door and he spotted the black weapon resting there in plain sight. The jacket he had placed over it was lying in a heap on the floor. He sighed. In all the years he had held the knife he had never really learned about her. The raccoon morph had used her to absorb some dangerous magic. He had been able to use it disrupt or even bypass various spells without setting off any alarms. But the raccoon wasn’t the first to use it that way. An assassin had used the blade to do just that but had missed a few carefully placed spell triggers on a windowsill he was trying to creep into. Three stories later, his head was cracked open on the cobbles and Rickkter took the knife as spoils.
He had learned much of the blades history since that night but the knife had revealed little of true abilities. As good as she was at disrupting and manipulating spells those were trivial compared to her true powers, Of those he knew little and years of trying had taught him to treat everything he did with her carefully. Still the weapon did seem to tolerate his presence. She may not like him, but she has never tried to kill him all the same. But she had tolerated the assassin too. For a while. Had the man misjudged and missed those triggers or had the weapon tricked him into missing them? Would he someday windup sprawled in some alley in a pool of his own blood when the knife had tired of him? But those were worries for another day. Today they needed each other.
Rickkter walked across the room to where the knife was resting. He gingerly picked up the blade. More then once he had been badly hurt doing just that but today it seemed to be happy to allow him to hold it. He placed the knife in the breast pocket of his jacket and stalked out of the room without another comment.
Visiting Andwyn’s office was always unnerving for Misha no matter how many times he had done it before. It wasn’t Andwyn’s job that made the Long Scout nervous. Misha had gotten along fairly well with Andwyn’s predecessor Phil even with his strange and skittish rabbit instincts.
It was only natural that as the Dukes special scout Misha would work closely with the head of the Dukes spy and intelligence group. Information that one uncovered was gladly passed along to the other. And Phil always found good work for Misha, scouting attacking or sabotaging Nasoj’s plans. That had not changed when Phil had gone home to Whales and left Andwyn in charge. The new chief spy had proven every bit as good as the rabbit had.
Misha stopped in front of a door at the end of a short corridor in front of which stood two guards. The fox scout waited for the two soldiers to acknowledge him before moving forward. One of the two men closely examined Misha for a moment before nodding his head. “You can enter.”
“Thank you,” Misha answered and stepped past the two. He knocked on the wooden door with his right hand. His left was still wrapped in a bandage and in spite a month of healing it was still very tender. It would be months before the scars fully healed and the stumps of his missing fingers would probably always be tender. The strangest part was that he could at times still feel the missing digits.
It wasn’t where Andwyn lived that bothered Misha. The new chief lived in rather modest quarters in the Keep. Just a few rooms along with a small office filled with papers and books was the place Andwyn called home. He was bit confused as to how it was always so neat and tidy no matter how busy. But that was a trivial thing.
“Come in Misha,” came Andwyn’s voice through the thick wood of the door.
What unnerved Misha was also rather trivial when he thought about it in an abstract way. But no matter how many time he told himself that it STILL unnerved him every time he saw Andwyn.
Hesitantly the fox scout opened the door and stepped inside.
The first thing Misha saw when he entered the room was a fine, color map of the entire Midlands. It was a superb work of art. Done to scale and in a score of vibrant colors on the finest linen. Each and every landmark was carefully labeled in gold letters. It must have cost a large pile of garrets but was well worth every coin spent. There was only one thing wrong with it - the map was hung upside down. And not by accident. Every map, picture, painting and drawing decorating the walls was hung upside down. Next to the map was hanging a painting of a seascape. A inverted ship sailed on an upside ocean with upside down gulls flying along side.
Andwyn was in his usual place in the center of the room hanging upside down from a massive oak beam that held up the ceiling. The brown bats, large liquid black eyes fixed onto Misha.
That was what unnerved Misha so much. It didn’t matter if Andwyn WAS a brown bat talking to someone who was upside down was not natural.
“You’ve finally come,” the bat said calmly.
Misha tried to ignore his surroundings and concentrate on what he wanted. “You’ve heard?” he asked.
“I’m the spy master,” the bat answered staring at the fox from his upside down position.
“Then you already know what I want,” Misha countered flatly.
“I know that a very well guarded object was delivered to Nasoj’s citadel several days ago,” the bat explained.
Misha started to pace back and forth and Andwyn’s followed the fox with his head only.
“I need to get her back.”
“Of course,” the bat answered in a slightly condescending tone.
“What I need is information on the citadel, Nasojassa and their defenses, their strengths and weaknesses.”
“I can help,” the bat answered. “But I need a favor from you.”
“A favor?” Misha asked suspiciously.
“I have certain,” and Andwyn paused here for a moment as if pondering what to say next. “People in Nasojassa.”
Misha stopped his pacing and looked at the bat. “I thought all your people there were caught and killed.”
The bat shook his head. “No but I let Nasoj THINK that was true.”
“I did lose some good people,” Andwyn said in a sad tone.
Misha understood the bat’s pain. At some point last year Nasoj had broken the Keeps spy ring in his citadel. He didn’t know how many of the very brave Keepers there had been lost but he profoundly hoped they had all died a quick and painless death. But knowing Nasoj he doubted it. The loss of the agents had let Nasoj launch his Yule tide and gain complete surprise. A lot of keepers had died and no one was sure who to blame. It was hard to blame a person who had probably been horribly tortured to death.
“My people are under considerable pressure,” Andwyn explained. “And until now I’ve been unable to help them.”
“You want me to help them? How?”
Andwyn nodded his head down and up several times. “Yes. I have a long list of items and messages I needed delivered to them. In exchange they will help you get your axe back. But they will NOT,” the bat insisted. “Not risk their own lives or secret identities to do so.”
“As long as I get her back.”
“I wish to go with you,” Terrant said. “I took an oath to serve with you and to help you.”
“You are needed here,” Edmund countered. The cheetah clasped Terrant on the shoulder. Until a few days ago this young woman had been a young man who hadn’t taken the change very well. She was still very unsure of herself. Being left in command was something the male Terrant had handled before. Having the female Terrant in command would give her a much needed boost in confidence. And it was true Edmund needed her here at the Keep. They had over one hundred, twenty soldiers here at the Keep who looked to them both for guidance. Edmund could not abandon them and go off adventuring.
“How are they taking things?” he asked. Edmund already knew the answer but he needed to keep Terrant’s mind occupied.
“Better then I expected,” the woman replied. “There were all three kinds of change but thankfully we had more changed to animals and women then into children.”
She laughed. “Almer has taken to being a woman. She’s dating Ethelred!”
“The knight?” the feline paladin asked in surprise.
The woman nodded in response. “I Think they were seeing each other BEFORE the change.”
“I don’t want to know any more details about that old gossip. Besides I think they make a nice couple.”
She stared at her leader for a few moments before realizing that he had just made a joke. A smirk crossed her face and she broke out into laughter.
“When does the first patrol go out?” the feline asked after the laughter died out.
“Tomorrow morning. Five of our people go out with five of the Keeps cavalry. I am meeting with George this afternoon about it.”
Edmund nodded. “Good. I want you on that patrol.”
“Off course,” she answered. “I doubt anything will happen.”
“Don’t be so quick to say that. The last time you did we got ambushed and it took us six hours to fight our way clear.”
“Terrant,” Edmund said sternly. “I know you and I know our troops. Nothing can happen that you cannot deal with. I wouldn’t send you out if I thought otherwise. Besides George has great tactical skills. Follow his lead and you’ll be fine.”
“George is a bandit.”
“George WAS a bandit. He is a tough, old bandit, who hasn’t survived this long by being stupid or by taking too many risks,” the cheetah explained.
The woman nodded in agreement. “I’m not sure I trust him.”
“Misha trusts him,” the paladin countered. “And I trust Misha. Besides if he does do something wrong you are an adult and capable of taking care of yourself.”
“Even as a woman?” Terrant answered bitterly.
“Being female has nothing to do with it,” Edmund countered. “Do you know which is more ferocious and deadly; a lion or lioness?” he asked. “A lioness,” he said without giving the woman the chance to answer. “And isn’t a female black widow spider more deadly then the male?”
Terrant nodded his head in half hearted agreement.
Edmund clapped him on the shoulder. “Relax. Once you are in the saddle with a sword in your hand you’ll feel like your old self again.”
The woman didn’t answer but simply stared into space. “I hope so.”
They found Eldrid in the armory. He was standing in the center of the massive room looking around. Resembling a lost child looking forlornly for his family.
“I was looking for Long House,” he commented.
“You’re in Long House,” Rickkter explained. “In the armory to be exact.”
“Did you want to be here?” the fox asked.
The wolverine nodded slowly as if unsure of his answer.
“You’ve decided to go?” the scout asked with an undisguised eagerness.
The wolverine stiffened and looked Misha straight in the eyes. “Yes I have,” Eldrid answered in a tone that was as solid and firm as bedrock.
“I’m glad you decided to come,” Misha said with sincerity. The wolverine’s voice and whole stance rang with a firmness that he had never seen before. It was a change that Misha liked.
Even more surprising then his manner was how Eldrid was dressed. The wolverine was wearing armor that seemed to be made up small pieces of steel held together loosely by wire made of steel and iron. Each piece was covered with inlays of swirls and loops made of bronze and silver. The armor covered his chest, shoulders and upper arms fairly well but little else. Aside from the armor and a ring dangling from each ear Eldrid wore only a loin cloth and nothing else. Not even shoes or gloves. He had no need to worry about the cold as his winter coat was in and his thick, wolverine fur would keep him warm. Still no gloves or footwear was unusual, even for an animal morph keeper. Strapped to his back was a massive bastard sword. Dangling from the belt at his hips was a dagger and a short sword. Each sheathed in dark leather that was richly decorated in with all manner of shapes and symbols like that on the armor.
This was quite a change from the last time Misha had seen him in combat. “You’re wearing that?” Rickkter asked. “The last time I saw someone wearing that little she was dancing around a pole in a tavern.”
“What about your armor?” Misha asked ignoring Rickkter.
The wolverine shook his head. “Nasoj gave that to me. I can’t bear to wear it anymore. It feels unclean.”
Misha fingered one of the metal plates on the wolverines upper arm. “Why this design? If you need armor we have a suit that would fit you.”
The wolverine shook his head. “The old blood sings to me,” he answered enigmatically.
“And your axe? What happened to that? Is that unclean too?” Rickkter asked sarcastically.
“I’m not using that any more,” the wolverine answered.
“Why are you giving it up?” Rickkter asked suspiciously. “It’s a powerful weapon.”
“Time for a clean start,” he said and offered no further explanation.
“Fair enough,” Misha commented softly, satisfied with the answer.
“You just abandon fine armor and weapons all with potent magic and your only answer is that it’s time for a change.” The raccoon commented obviously unsatisfied with the wolverines answer.
“Change is good. As long as he fights well.”
“That I will,” the wolverine answered boldly. “I’ve got a lot to repay Nasoj for.”
Misha nodded with approval. “We all do.”
“You’ll have plenty of chance for that,” Rickkter commented.
“Do you have everything you need?” Misha asked Rickkter. “You always have some new toy to play with whenever we go out but I don’t see anything new.”
The whiskers on one side of Rickkter’s face twitched in his expression of a smirk. “Well, I do like to keep things varied to keep my enemies on my toes. I’ve just not been able to find anything yet.”
“You need another weapon?” Eldrid asked in surprise. “I see that you’re already carrying a sword, two katana, two daggers and a bow. Isn’t that enough?”
“I can never have enough weapons,” the raccoon answered as he started walking among the racks of weapons.
“I’ve used the same ones for twenty years,” the fox commented sarcastically.
“Not my fault you have no sense of imagination,” Rickkter countered.
“You know what the axe can do,” the fox answered in clipped, angry tones. “Why bother with anything else.”
“I have my own swords of course,” Rickkter said. “I just don’t like relying on a single mode of attack time and again.”
“What you already have is more powerful than anything you’ll find here,” Misha answered in a soft voice.
Rickkter didn’t speak but he stopped his searching for a moment. His eyes narrowed as he looked at the fox.
“Don’t look at me like that Rickkter,” Misha said coldly. “The only thing keeping you from using HER is yourself.”
“She doesn’t like me,” Rickkter answered.
“She doesn’t trust you. And neither do I,” the fox commented flatly. “Sometimes.”
“Only sometimes?” Rickkter countered. “I must be loosing my touch.”
“Don’t you get tired of being an outsider?” Misha asked.
“Sometimes,” Rickkter answered.
Misha looked at his friend for a moment trying to decide if he was telling the truth or just joking. But the raccoon was as enigmatic as ever and revealed nothing. Before the fox scout could say anything Rickkter turned and walked off.
“I don’t understand him,” the fox said as he looked after the retreating form of his friend.
“He doesn’t understand himself,” Eldrid commented. “Rickkter is lost and he needs time to find himself.”
The Long scout looked at the wolverine with real surprise. “I’ve never heard it described so perfectly. Are you sure you’re not a philosopher?”
Eldrid laughed. “I’ve been called a lot of thing but never that.”
Misha nodded. “Metamor has an odd way of bring out the best in people. Everyone used to call me an axe wielding manic. Now I’m the mage who rebuilt Madog.”
“Madog? You’re the one who built that metal dog?”
“Madog is a fox and yes I’m the one who rebuilt him. You’ve met him?”
Eldrid shook his head. “No, but I’ve seen him several times. To be honest I’ve been avoiding him.”
“Why? Does he scares you?” Misha asked.
The wolverine just nodded in response.
“He scares a lot of people. But don’t be afraid of him. Madog is kindly soul.”
“I heard he ripped a mage to pieces during the Yule attack.”
“That was a Moranasi,” the fox explained. “An evil abomination you can’t really call a human anymore. Madog saved a lot of lives by killing that thing. And yes he literally ripped him apart. One limb at a time.”
Eldrid couldn’t hide his horror and he shuddered.
Misha lightly slapped the fighter on the shoulder. “Relax. Madog might be powerful but he has a good soul and is an excellent judge of character. If you mean him or the Keep no harm he’ll show you no harm.”
The wolverine nodded but didn’t seem to convinced.
“He hasn’t harmed you yet has he?”
“No,” came the curt answer.
“Then don’t worry. If you want I’ll introduce you to Madog some day when you are ready.”
“Some day,” the wolverine echoed.
“Madog’s over a thousand years old so there’s no hurry.”
“I’ve found it!” Rickkter exclaimed cheerfully from across the room.
Walking quickly the two reached where the raccoon morph was standing. In his left hand was a truly odd item.
The weapon that Rickkter was holding in his right hand was shaped like the letter j with the handle on the inside curved part at the base. The short blade that ran parallel to the right side his arm on one side was less then a foot in length and ended with a curved tip. The long portion on the other side was a lot longer and ran almost two feet long and reached well past Rickkter’s elbow. It too ended with a curved tip like the other. The sharp edge ran along the outside of the weapon and was razor sharp. The weapons outer edge was of silver polished to a high shine while the inner edge was colored a deep red. The only markings or symbols on it were on each tip and only on one side.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Eldrid commented. “What do those symbols mean?” he said and tapped one of the emblems on the curved tips.
“That’s Elven,” Rickkter answered. “It means swift. The other means death.”
“Elven? How did it get here?” the wolverine asked.
Misha shrugged. “Only Kyia knows for sure and I doubt she will ever tell us. But there are legends that say the elves had lived in the Keep millennia before humans arrived. It might have been left behind when they left the keep.”
Rickkter stepped back and began to make a series broad sweeping gestures with his arms moving his whole body. Misha watched as the raccoon moved about with a grace and smoothness that surprised the Long Scout. He had never seen Rickkter move like that before. It was like he was watching some graceful dancer and not a warrior wielding a weapon.
“I can see an elf using that,” the wolverine commented.
Misha nodded in agreement. “You use it very well. Are you sure you don’t have elf blood in you? I didn’t know you could move like that.”
“I never could before,” Rickkter answered as he moved about. “The skill seems to be a part of the weapons magic.” The raccoon continued his motions moving faster and more smoothly. “In the past the elves had a group of fighters called War Dancers who combined dancing and fighting into a deadly form of combat.”
“Did that information come with the blade too?”
“It did,” Rickkter answered in a matter of fact tone without stopping.
“I’ve heard legends and stories about them but I never considered them real till now,” Eldrid said. “I always thought it impossible to combine the two but now I believe it.”
Rickkter stopped his dance. “This is very powerful and very old,” he said as he walked over to where the others stood.
Eldrid ran a finger lightly along the blade. “I wonder how many centuries it sat on some shelf gathering dust.”
The raccoon shrugged. “No telling but probably at least a millennia.” He smiled. “I think it needs to be taken out for an airing.”
“Sir,” Padraic said walking up to the group suddenly. Even to Misha’s sensitive ears the rabbit moved very quietly. He hadn’t heard the lapine coming. “I am ready to . . “ and the rabbits voice trailed off into silence.
The rabbit morph walked past Misha and up to Eldrid without another word. He fingered one of the metal plates that covered the wolverines chest. “Where did you get this?” he asked quietly. “I haven’t seen this kind of armor in many years.”
“You recognize it?” Misha asked.
Padraic simply nodded. “It’s armor worn by a Curaidh or a Armunn in the old days before the empire crushed us.” He answered as he continued to examine the armor. “Now it’s only worn for ceremonies,” the rabbit added wistfully. “This brings back many memories of when I was a child.”
“Curaidh, Armunn?” Misha asked.
“A Curaidh is a champion of my people. An armunn is a chieftain.”
“You are of the blood?” Eldrid asked solemnly.
“I am,” the rabbit answered. “Are you?”
Eldrid nodded. “I am. But it’s been long since I acknowledged it. Too long perhaps.”
“Aoigh àrd-inbheach,” Padraic said.
“Bi taingeoil dha,” Eldrid answered slowly.
“You still know the tongue,” Padraic answered, surprised.
“My Grandmother always spoke it but I haven’t since she died. I’m surprised how easily it comes to me. Your people still speak it?”
“Some,” the rabbit answered. “When the empire conquered our people my ancestors fled here to Metamor rather then submit. We keep the old traditions but we are a small group and we have to speak the common tongue to be understood by the rest of the world.”
Padraic looked at how Eldrid was dressed and then at his own clothing. The brown, lop eared rabbit morph was dressed in chain mail armor covered with white and brown spotted cloth meant to camouflage it’s wearer in the snows that covered most of the Giantdowns. He shifted around nervously as if he had an itch. He stiffened suddenly as if coming to a decision.
He turned to Misha quickly. “Sir, is it too late to change?”
“Change what?” Misha asked.
“My dress, Sir.” Came the reply.
“We leave in two hours be in the courtyard at least twenty minutes before then,” Misha answered. “We wait for no one.”
The rabbit spun about and took across the hall at a surprising speed. In seconds he was out of sight. Misha was reminded of just how fast a rabbit could move if needed.
“What does he mean to change his dress?” Rickkter asked.
The fox shrugged. “He’s a big boy now and can dress himself. Besides we’ll find out when he returns.”
The entity was inactive but not dormant, a very big difference. It was angry at being stolen and used for such evil. It would make sure that did not happen again. It needed to return to it’s rightful user, but how? For all it’s great power it was incapable of moving on it’s own. She needed help.
She searched the world around her for a mind that she could use, one not filled with evil and greed. That was hard to do. She found all too many small, petty minds propelling bodies of great power. Still she could use such petty minds to her own ends. Their greed for power and gold made manipulating them so simple. Moving among the many minds in this place she finally found what she wanted. A simple mind that was confused and seemed wrong somehow. Still it was a good mind, there was no evil or greed in it, just strange thoughts. The mind was confused and troubled but this had not been caused naturally. This poor soul was the result of some terrible experiment . That made the entity angry. Someone would pay for that evil.
Again her thoughts went out and it found another mind that she could use. This one was clearly good and it was closer then she had dared hope. And not being so confused he would be easier to work with.
“These two I can use.” With so much greed and evil it was only a matter of time before someone acted in a way she could use. Two and a half millennia of life had taught it patience. She only had to wait.
It was a short wait.
Caroline dropped the last of her clothes neatly on her bed and paused for a moment in front of the mirror. What looked back at her was a creature that was partly a lithe otter and partly woman. She had the basic shape of a human woman including a pair of human breasts and human arms and hands. But her body was covered in the chocolate brown colored fur of an otter. She had a long otter tail, and her legs were the short stubby legs of that mammal. Her head and neck were completely an otters. In many respects it was hard to tell she was anything other then an otter except for her size (she was ten times an otters normal size) and that she walked upright like a human. Like all of those struck by the animal aspect of the curse her human body had been changed into this partly animal one. Many now called this form a morph short for the word anthropomorphic. She liked the word morph it sounded more wholesome then animal-woman. To the south many people would call her some evil demon and try and kill her. She shook her head at the stupidity and stupid fear of people who condemned what they didn’t understand.
She took two small jars from her dresser. One was marked ‘winter white’ the other ‘winter dark’ Opening the one marked White she dipped her webbed hand into the white jell inside and started to spread the dye over her body. She started with her head and neck and then did her tail and her arms and legs. Finally she smeared more all over body but not as thoroughly since her armor and clothes would cover most. Now what had been a brown otter morph was now a white one. Whose now white fur would blend easily into the snow that covered most of the ground in the Giantdowns. Since it was late winter and some of the snow was starting to melt the bare ground would be showing in spots. So her disguise was not finished. After carefully closing the first jar she opened the second revealing the brownish black jell inside. This dye she applied more sparingly daubing it on in only a few places to break up her all white outline. Satisfied with the camouflage she had applied Caroline closed the dark dye jar and then dropped both jars into her back pack which sat on the bed.
Scouts and hunters here in Metamor had been using all sorts of dyes, paints and even mud and sticks to camouflage themselves for centuries. Far longer then anyone really knew. Some say when the first Seuliman legions arrived the locals used them to hide and spring ambushes. Others say it was the Empire that brought the idea here from somewhere else. Caroline didn’t care. That was something for Misha to ponder over. All she cared was that the dyes Pascal made for them lasted a lot longer then old dyes they used to use.
She slipped on a simple cotton tunic and pants. Even with all of her fur the armor always seemed to rub or chaff at some point and the cotton protected her. Over the cotton she put on a set of leather armor that had been made specifically to fit her lithe otter form. It was reinforced with iron studs for extra protection.
Over the armor went a camouflage suit. The Camo suit was made of tough linen colored with the same dye she had just applied to her fur. A hood that could be pulled up over the head, would keep some sharp eyed lutin from recognizing her distinctively otter shaped head. All told with her dyed fur and special camouflage suit Caroline would very easily blend into the snow and woods making her almost invisible. Many times an enemy had come very close, sometimes within arms reach and never seen her crouching down unmoving. She was wearing the winter set now colored with white and black but they also had a summer set with brown, black and green colors. It worked quite well for blending into the forests that covered so much of the valley and the Giantdowns in summer and fall. Finally she slipped on a pair of boots made of a dark leather the sole of which had a small piece of steel sewn into it. The metal provided protection in case she accidentally stepped onto a spiked trap that many Lutins liked to place. All the Long Scouts used armor and camouflage similar to hers. So much so that it was almost a standard uniform for the group.
Caroline moved to her bed on which rested a thick belt, her backpack, large composite longbow, two quivers each holding twenty arrows, a short sword and a dagger both in black, leather sheaths.
She picked up the belt first. This large leather belt was reinforced with bronze and from it dangled various loops and hooks all covered with cloth to keep them from making any noise. She picked up the short sword next and pulled the weapon from its sheath. The blade was a dull gray in color and the metal reflected no light. The blade bore no decorations aside from a crossed axe and bow etched in silver on the hilt. That design was the emblem of the Long Scouts. The blade itself was enchanted to be extra sharp so that it would rip through and slice flesh and bone easier. It also had magic that kept the blade from making any noise when it was used. A very handy thing for a scout whose life depended on stealth. Caroline attached the swords sheath to the left side of belt using a hook and loop put there for just that purpose. On the opposite side she attached the sheath for the dagger.
The otter picked up her backpack. It was a large one. In it was a month's worth of trail rations, a sleeping bag, a first aid kit, tinderbox, two complete extra sets of clothing and another pair of boots. Attached to either side were two canteens. Both were wrapped in thick fur to keep their contents from freezing. All that equipment made the pack rather large and unwieldy. The only saving grace was that it was magic and even fully packed it only weighed a fraction of what it should have.
Caroline picked up the two quivers where they lay next to her bow. Each was a leather bag large enough to hold a score of arrows and deep enough that when the draw string top was closed the arrows would be kept safe and dry. The two quivers she attached to the back of her belt, just within arms reach where she could easily draw arrows from them when the fighting started.
Her final weapon was the most important, her bow. This wasn’t some simple piece of wood with a string attached. Instead it had been carefully crafted by joining four different types of wood along with deer sinew and horn. Even without the magic that had been imbued into it the bow had taken months to craft. Caroline carefully wrapped the weapon in a cloth and then covered that with a thin leather case.
She picked up her backpack but didn’t put it on. Instead she just carried it in he left hand. Caroline slowly headed out of her room and into the main room of the apartment she shared with her father. Until the Yuletide holiday she and her father Will had lived in a small half timbered house in the outer ward of the castle. But now their home like a lot of other buildings in the ward had been looted and burnt to the ground during Nasoj’s attack. Almost nothing had survived except for a small cache of jewels and jewelry Will had stored in the Keep itself for safekeeping.
For the moment they lived in a small apartment in the Keep. Thankfully Metamor’s strange magic meant there was room enough for everyone who had been rendered homeless by Nasoj’s attack. At least Kyia, the spirit of the Keep had seen fit to include a workshop with the apartment. Business was surprisingly good. Many other people had been as devastated as the Hardys had. Few had much money or many possessions left but most had at least managed to save some gold or jewelry. It seems Will wasn’t the only one who had stashed some valuables in a safe place. Now those people were coming to the badger morph to have their jewelry broken up. The gold and silver was melted down and the jewels removed to be sold individually to make money so they could rebuild and start again. It wasn’t a pleasant task for person who had spent his whole life making jewelry but it was all he could do to help.
She found Will standing in front of her door. The badger morph was dressed in a drab looking shirt and pants the front of which was covered by an apron. The apron was brand new and he had just bought it. His old apron, like everything else they had own had been lost.
Caroline wrapped her arms around her father and hugged him tightly laying her head on his shoulder. In spite of all that they had lost she was still very grateful that she still had her father. If he hadn’t come to Misha’s big party the night Nasoj had attacked he would have probably lost him too.
“Take care of yourself Honey,” Will said softly.
“I will Dad,” she answered tenderly.
Caroline walked up the spiral staircase slowly. She never liked climbing such steep, twisting, stone steps. They always seemed to go on forever and her short otter legs weren’t meant for climbing stairs like these.
She kept moving upward even though the stairs seem to go on forever. “Why can’t we meet at ground level,” she complained out loud. Caroline had assumed they would be meeting on solid ground but upon leaving her apartment she had found herself on stairs climbing upwards. It seems Kyia had decided to for them all to meet far above ground level. A person quickly got used to the walls, rooms and corridors of the Keep constantly moving about. It was confusing sometimes but you always managed to find your way to your destination. Even if you weren’t sure exactly how you got there.
After a long and interminable climb the stairs ended in a wooden door. “Finally!” she commented out loud. Caroline opened the door and stepped out into the courtyard beyond which was already crowded with people.
The first thing she noticed was the height. She was high off the ground, VERY high off the ground. She reckoned that they were at least two hundred feet above ground level.
The courtyard was a large one, large enough to hold two full grown dragons but only one could have his or her wings extended. The courtyard itself was crowded with people most of whom she recognized.
Caroline saw Edmund first. The cheetah morph was standing off to one side close to the door. He was dressed in a thick, wool, winter clothes that covered his entire body, even his hands were covered by gloves. Only his head was uncovered and his jacket had a large hood that could be pulled up to cover that. She could hardly blame him for dressing so warmly. Cheetahs were a southern animal and his fur was too thin to keep the cold at bay.
Over all the clothes Edmund was wearing was cloth tabard that was colored a dark blue and had a huge, gold Follower cross embroidered onto it. That marked him as a paladin, a knight who mixed nobility, combat skill and a deep devotion to the Follower faith that was almost as deep as a priests. Some called them the warriors of God, others called them fanatics. No matter what they were called everyone respected their skills as fighters.
She wondered about Edmund sometimes. His devotion to the faith was never in doubt but she had heard the stories about how such warriors were diehard fanatics. Fanatics with a narrow view of things who happily butchered everyone who didn’t believe exactly as they did. But Edmund was the direct opposite, warm friendly and open to new ideas he had actually willing let the curse take him. He had certainly fought well during the counterattack they had fought after Nasoj’s Yule tide attack.
Standing close together in the middle of the courtyard was Ferwig and Teria. Ferwig was the taller of the two standing just a little taller then Teria. The hyena morph looked powerful. Even through the thick, winter clothes he was wearing and his black spotted, gray-green colored fur Caroline could see the powerful muscles of his body ripple as he moved. Ferwig usually wore gold rings in both ears and on all his fingers but today he was wearing just four rings – one on each hand and in each ear.
For once Teria actually had most of her body covered by clothing. Sort of. Teria was dressed in black leather that clung to her skin like sweat that showed off every supple curve and bump of her body leaving little to the imagination. Caroline had worn less revealing clothing to bed.
These two were the direct opposite of Edmund. Edmund was a paladin, devoted to law and order and fighting evil. Ferwig and Teria were Sellswords, mercenaries of the worst sort. All three had arrive at Metamor Keep during the Yuletide attack. Edmund had come to the Keep with the people riding to Metamor’s relief. The other two had arrived with those attacking the Keep. They had actually been paid by Nasoj to kill George! The only reason George hadn’t killed them was that he needed prisoners to answer some questions.
Even so Caroline found it hard to condemn them. In the end when they had to choose between Nasoj or Metamor they had helped Metamor. She shook her head sadly. One of the Long Scouts had tried to betray Long House itself and he had only been stopped by the two mercenaries. Those two had shown more loyalty then one of the Long Scouts sworn to protect it. It was one of the Long Scouts most bitter and sad moments. No one talked about it and Misha had actually forbidden anyone to even mention Baldwin’s name. Caroline looked away from the two trying to get those sad memories out of her head.
Standing off to one side was Danielle and Finbar. The two had their arms wrapped around each other and were nuzzling and kissing oblivious of the crowd of people around them. She was a pine martin and her light brown fur coloring contrasted to Finbar’s brown and black ferret markings. Both had the same slim, lithe forms of their species and their fur was dyed like Caroline’s. Also they were both dressed in armor that was covered with the same camouflaged cloth that covered hers. It covered up any differences between the two that were caused by gender. It was very hard to tell them apart. Only the fact that Danielle’s muzzle was slimmer and sharper then Finbar’s let her tell them apart.
Looking the same didn’t mean they acted the same. Finbar was bold, brash and blunt while she was quiet and soft spoken. Her skills lay with magic and her preferred weapons were bow and throwing axes both distance weapons.
The ferrets skills were with the knife which were preferably poisoned. To be blunt Finbar was an assassin. He specialized in killing people quickly and silently. Yet with Danielle he was gentle and tender in a way no one had seen before. They made a good couple and he wondered how long it would be before they were married.
That brought her thoughts back to Misha. The fox was locked deep in conversation with Rickkter and hadn’t seen her yet. She wondered about him. They had been friends and lovers for almost a year and their love had grown more powerful with each passing day. She had hoped that he was past his wilder days and was finally settling down but suddenly with the lose of that axe he was acting again like a madman.
Caroline walked quietly over to Misha was wrapped both or her arms around him and put her head on his shoulder. He could feel the warmth of his body through the clothes and armor they were both wearing. She closed her eyes and drank in the scent of her lover as the soft smell of fox and human intermixed into a scent she always enjoyed.
The fox morph made a soft yipping noise and tenderly licked her muzzle. Opening her eyes she found herself looking deep into Misha’s own eyes. She could see warmth and love radiating out and her doubts about him vanished. “I’ve missed you so much,” she said softly.
“It’s only been a few hours,” chided here but his voice was soft betraying his love for her. “But I’ve missed you too. You ready to go?”
She nodded in reply. “Are you?”
“Yes, we’re just waiting on Padraic and our rides north,” Misha answered.
There was the loud flapping of wings and Caroline turned to the sound. She saw large griffon landing in the center of the courtyard. This griffon had dark brown feathers with tan tips. The creatures claws and beak were wickedly sharp but it was neither it’s coloring nor claws and beak that caught Caroline’s attention. Was really impressed her was his size. The griffons body was twice the size of a draft horse and his wing span was at least twenty feet from tip to tip. He was the largest she had ever seen. The large creature folded it’s wings and shook itself from beak to tail. Caroline could see the muscles ripple under the fur and feathers he walked towards Misha and Caroline. In spite his massive size the griffon made no sound as he padded across the stones.
Misha gave a short bow to the griffon. “Philip. I’m glad you’ve arrived.”
“Did you think I wouldn’t?” the griffon asked sarcastically.
“No,” Misha answered flatly. “You’re too honorable to do that.”
Madog suddenly appeared standing in front of the griffon. “NO PARKING! The white zone is for loading and unloading only,” he intoned solemnly.
Philip jumped back and squawked loudly in shock at the metal fox’s sudden appearance. His powerful wings beat loudly stirring up a windstorm as his razor sharp claws sliced through the air.
Everyone stepped back from the griffon except for Madog who sat passively through the wild display. The metal fox looked up at the powerful carnivore. “What big teeth you’ve got Grandma,” he commented in a child like tone.
The griffon settled back down to the pavement. “What does that mean?” he asked as unnerved by Madog’s lack of reaction as by his sudden appearance.
Misha shrugged. “I’ve no idea.”
“It’s all gibberish,” Rickkter commented.
With a shake of his head Misha disagreed. “No. I’m sure what he is saying makes sense. To someone. Somewhere. Sometime.”
“Some TIME?” Philip asks incredulously.
“Madog can see and do things no one else can. Sometimes I think he glimpses the future or the past. I still don’t know all of his abilities. To be honest I don’t know how much power is locked up in that little, metal body of his.”
“WHAT?” Philip exclaimed. “And you let him just wander around at will. Something that powerful should be locked up and guarded carefully.”
“Madog has never misused his power. I’ve learned to trust him. Besides exactly how am I to stop him from going wherever he wants to?” Misha countered. “Who has the power to stop him?”
The griffon didn’t have any answer to that and instead just stared at the metal fox who was ignoring all the attention and nibbling on a cobblestone.
“Is he always trying to eat the building?”
Misha nodded in response. “He’ll eat anything that won’t eat him first but thankfully limits his meals to metals and stone. Flesh and blood he won’t touch.”
“Madog!” Misha said to the metal fox.
Madog dropped the partially eaten stone he had in his mouth and walked over to Misha. “Yes Papa?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Papa go away on a journey and I want to say goodbye,” Madog explained.
Misha knelt in front of Madog and lightly nuzzles the metal fox who returned the affection. “Where I’m going it’s very dangerous. I won’t be back for a long time maybe never.”
“Papa come back safe,” Madog announced confidently.
“I wish I was so confident,” Philip commented.