[Vfw-times] MK Winter Assault part 56

COkane8116 at aol.com COkane8116 at aol.com
Sun Nov 18 22:54:56 CST 2001



    At lunch that day a council of war was held in the Lightbringer temple, 
as Daria and her scouts related what they had found to Raven and Merai.

    As it turned out, Brennar had found the most of any of them. Slowly and 
carefully, he described every detail of the guard house he had discovered, 
from the markings on the walls to the color of the girl's hair. He was 
naturally observant, Daria thought; she had chosen well in sending him in as 
their forward scout.
    "It sounds like Brennar found the main focal point for the Moranasi 
spell," Rick observed. "Once they cast the spell there, they could expand its 
range by setting up relays further inside the Keep. Of course, they would 
have to enter an area that was still under Kyia's control before they could 
expand their spell there, so we have a chance for a surprise attack if we hit 
them before their relay is completed."
    "How long would it take them to set up a relay?" Merai asked.
    Rickkter shrugged. "Six of them, working together ... well, I've never 
seen this spell before, but normally a relay would take about ten minutes to 
cast. Of course, there is a lot of preparation that has to be done before you 
actually cast the spell, but they may have servants to set everything up for 
them. That way, they could stay back in the 'frozen' sections of the Keep 
until it was time to perform the casting -- Kyia wouldn't be able to sense 
their location until they were actually ready to set up the relay." 
    Daria grimaced. "That doesn't give us much time. By the time Kyia senses 
their presence, it will be too late for us to get there."
    "Which just means we'll have to know where they're going before they get 
there," Jessica said.
    "Which means more sneaking around," Bradfox muttered.
    "Agreed." Daria took a bite of her sandwich, chewed thoughtfully for a 
few moments, and swallowed. "We'll have to keep watching the perimeter of the 
Enemy's territory, I suppose -- watch for any suspicious activity, people 
setting up magical equipment. I don't see what else we can do, under the 
    "I'll track down Misha and let him know what to look for," Daria offered. 
"He told me how to find him if I needed to."
 "We may also be able to capture some enemy soldiers for interrogation, if 
we're careful," Rickkter said.
    "A good idea, but that may be a little out of our specialty," Garulf 
said. "All this cloak-and-dagger business is more the Longs' area of 
    "Good point," Daria agreed. "Rick, David, why don't you two work with the 
Longs to try and find someone to interrogate. We can use the Key to fashion a 
holding cell for our guest, when the time comes. The rest of us will take 
shifts scouting the front lines -- the Enemy's sections of the Keep are 
mostly frozen now, anyway, so there are only a limited number of ways for 
them to get in or out. Gods willing, we should be able to find these Shadow 
Bringers before they expand their control any further."
    "One question," Brad said, raising a hand. "I don't mean to rain on 
anybody's festival, here, but what do we do when we _find_ these Shadow 
Bringers? If these are the terrible, sinister, unimaginably powerful bastards 
you make them out to be, can we really beat them?"
    There was silence around the circle. All eyes turned to Raven.
    "We can," she said at last. "Not alone, perhaps, but I am confident that 
we will be able to secure divine aid for the battle. Lord Dokorath has a 
long-standing vendetta against the Moranasi; with his help, we shall be 
    Brad took a long drink from his wine. "Let's all pray that you get it, 


Berchem and three other Glenners were waiting outside Lars' brewery for the 
three Sondeckis.  It was still mostly dark out, and the entire grove was 
shrouded in a pale twilight, the littering snow strangely luminescent.  The 
archers were equipped with long bows strung over their shoulders, and quivers 
lined with smooth feathered arrows at their sides, that they might reach them 
easily.  Their faces had been powdered haphazardly white, making it hard to 
notice them when they stood against the trunks of the trees.

The skunk waved the three Sondeckis over with one paw, and they quickly 
stepped through the low snow.  The winds had buffeted much of the snow to the 
sides of the grove, leaving the area around the hillside mostly free from the 
accumulation.  Drifts climbed the trunks of the trees, as if to swallow them 
and bear them down to the earth.  Charles held his arms close to his chest 
and the thick tunic that he now wore.  They'd had to leave the Sondeckis 
robes behind, as they were the wrong colour for this kind of weather.  Though 
it was still night, it would be dawn soon, and they would be visible to any 
competent scout.

The clothes they had been given were thick, and fit relatively well, though 
Jerome found it amusing that he'd had to borrow some of Lars' own shirts just 
to fit over his chest.  The Sondeckis had told the others that if he were to 
become a bear, he'd be enormous.  Even so, the breeches were a bit loose on 
him, and he gripped the belt that held them up tightly with one hand every 
now and then.  Their faces were just as Charles's, smeared with the white 
dust, to obscure their natural colours.  They were three ghosts walking 
silently in the barren winter wastelands, their only life capture din the 
intensity of their eyes.

Charles gave the skunk a brief smile as he approached, his red tongue 
pressing against the back of his large teeth.  He'd long since grown accustom 
to being covered in dusts and dyes, being a Long had taught him as much, so 
its chalk-like scent did not bother him.  He felt a bit of sympathy with the 
mephit though, for nearly his entire body had to be dusted with flour.  Every 
time his tail flitted from side to side, a miniature snow storm erupted from 
behind him.

"Where's Burris?" Charles asked, as he scanned about for the woodpecker who 
was to burn the bridge.

Berchem pointed upwards into the branches far above and then winked. "He'll 
watch us from above, and alert us if any Lutin parties are about.  We should 
be able to walk along the ground the entire way. The Lutins appear to be 
staying close to the roads.  We should not run into any unpleasant company on 
our journey until we near the bridge."

"Good, I'd rather we not run into any opposition until then." Charles then 
glanced back at the two humans standing behind him. "This is Jerome, and that 
is Krenek.  We are at your disposal."

Berchem nodded and then pointed to the three Glenners who had accompanied 
him. "Good, I was wondering what your names were.  I'm called Berchem in case 
you had not heard, and this is Ralph, " he gestured to the stout vole who was 
missing a tooth, "Anson," a lithe arctic fox who had not needed any powder, 
"and Baerle." The last almost appeared to be a rat, judging by the long tail, 
but it was white, and not grey, and her teeth were sharp instead of 
protruding as Charles's were.  It took Matthias a moment to realize that the 
young, female Glenner was an opossum.  She saw the rat staring at her, and 
flashed him a smile that dimpled her furry cheeks.  Matthias quickly turning 
away, trying not to let his blush show through his drooping whiskers.

"Well, now that we know who everyone is, shall we be off?" Charles asked, 
thumbing the button of his surcoat.

Berchem nodded, and pointed off towards one corner of the Glen, "Once we pass 
out of this grove, speak quietly if you must speak at all.  I will lead us 
down the path.  As my men are archers, I would ask that you three cover out 
flanks and rear while we walk.  Can you climb?"

This last was asked of all of them, but Charles spoke for them.  Ever since t
hey had arrived at Glen Avery, the rat found himself their voice.  He idly 
wondered if Jerome and Zagrosek were nervous about being surrounded by so 
many animal-men. "We've been trained to climb most surfaces.  Though it has 
been stone in the past, trees are hardly more of a challenge."

The skunk weighed the answer, but decided against debating that generality. 
"If we find ourselves surrounded by their army, just follow us into the 
trees.  We'll climb too high for them to follow, or observe from the ground 
and lose them that way.  We shouldn't have to, but we shouldn't be forced to 
destroy our own bridge either."

Charles nodded glumly at that.  He'd never been along the road as far as the 
Giant's Dike.  He had been north of the Dike of course, the raid to Stepping 
Rock being the foremost instance in his mind, but they had followed a path 
through the hills on the eastern side of the valley.  And now, he followed 
after the artificially white skunk into those unknown northern hills.  The 
trees closed about them very quickly, casting them into a deep darkness, 
though not one impenetrable to his night vision.  Despite Berchem's 
admonition not to speak once they left the grove, none of the travellers said 
a word at all, and so, in the still calm of a forest gripped by the frost of 
winter, they marched into areas that none of the Sondeckis had ever trod.

Wistfully, he tried to spot the path through the trees that Misha and he had 
traversed while in animal guise to spy on the Lutins in the ravine between 
Mount Kalegris and Mount Nuln over half a year ago.  Yet, it was lost in the 
shrouds of his memories, and obscured by the lay of the winter land.  Should 
he spend enough time at Glen Avery, he was sure he could retrace his tracks, 
but for now, it would simply have to remain a memory.  There had been 
something almost magical about that trek into the thick of the woods, into 
gulches and up to the rise of the hills to overlook the mountains yonder as 
the sun began to shine its first rays upon those lofty peaks.  He had to 
wonder how many more such vistas would he have beheld had he become a scout 
as soon as he arrived at Metamor, instead of hiding from himself at the 
Writer's Guild.

And then, he thought of the grey-eyed fox who had been his mentor in the 
Longs.  In the last eight months they had grown rather close, spent a great 
deal of time together, and had found deep friendship.  Yet, their last words 
to each other had been heated, and ultimatum's had been delivered.  He did 
not want to see everything he had begun to build here at Metamor fall apart.  
The worst bit of it was, none of it would ever have happened had that 
Kankoran not shown up.

His heart beat faster as he trudged through the snow, his eyes scanning the 
long, thick trunks that pierced the sky above.  When he'd helped Christopher 
destroy that small Lutin band back at the end of March, he'd thought his life 
had been destroyed - he'd come within inches of striking the Duke himself 
because of it.  Yet that had only been the rat's rehabilitation, and the 
rediscovery of who he really was, a warrior.  And then, just as he was coming 
to accept that new aspect of his life, that blasted Kankoran arrives, 
brandishing a Sondeshike, and turning everything on its ear.

The list of things that would be better if that man had never come to the 
Keep were endless, as far as Matthias was concerned.  Though he would not now 
have the Sondeshike he held in one paw, at times it felt as if it had caused 
more trouble than it was worth.  It had nearly destroyed his friendship with 
Misha, a fact that gnawed at his heart as he would gnaw on chewstick.  Yet, 
what else could he do about it now?  There did not appear to be any answers 
to that question, which only made the rat more sullen.

And then, he felt a prickling sensation on the back of his neck.  Glancing to 
one side, he noticed that the opossum Baerle was idly watching him as they 
walked only an ell or so apart.  Anson was further past her, while Jerome was 
some distance away.  Zagrosek of course was in the rear, turning to look 
behind them every few steps.  Ralph followed closely behind the white skunk, 
an arrow knocked in his bow, though he held it loosely in his small brown 
paws - though they were about all of him that was his natural colour.

They each of course kept each other in sight so as not to get too far apart.  
In case the Lutins suddenly attacked - though that was not likely, as every 
once in a while he could see a small, dim shadow fly overhead - they would 
need to draw closer together to protect each other's backs.  Yet, Charles 
felt as if the young archer was keeping more of an eye on him than she needed 
to, and he was not sure why.  As he peered back at her, she gave him a 
'and-what-are-you-staring-at' look.  The rat, forced his eyes from her, and 
back to the trees about him, the sharply curved hills, and the shadows that 
lay all around.  For some reason, he felt like she was laughing at him, and 
he didn't know why.

Thankfully, the storm had died off in the night, and so only the occasional 
snowflake descended past their snouts to join its already fallen brethren.  
This let them move rather quickly through the meandering path that Berchem 
chose, winding in and out of clusters of trees, snow drifts, and the 
occasional pile of large rocks that had tumbled down from the western 
mountains in earlier generations.  Upon their tired and worn surfaces, clung 
various lichens and moss, though most of it was shrivelled, long since dead 
from the cold.  Every so often, a patch would stand out, only the barest of 
snow upon them as they held onto the sides of the boulders, making it appear 
to be a mosaic that had been painted, or a menhir chiselled by a forgotten 
hand in a forgotten time.

The lay of the land turned downwards, and Charles noticed that the hills 
along either side of them began to slope upwards, as they winded between 
them, always taking the route that led down into the gulches, and into even 
deeper shadows.  Soon, as the mountains pressed closer to their left, they 
found themselves striding into narrow chimneys through the rock, forcing them 
to stand side by side, and sometimes single-file.  For some reason, Baerle 
had trouble staying on her side of the pass as they walked, continuously 
bumping into his shoulder, and accidentally poking his round ear with the tip 
of her long bow slung across her back.  

At the very least, the snow drifts had been swept out of most of these 
chimneys, or had simply not fallen into them at all, as they collected 
overhead, the roots of trees dangling out over the shallow precipices that 
they descended through.  Glancing up once, he saw Burris perched on one of 
those roots, his long beak turning this way and that about the landscape 
before he launched himself into the chill twilight air.  Of course, when he 
took off, he dislodged the snow collected on that branch, and it had fallen 
onto the rat's head.  He grimaced and swallowed his pride as he brushed the 
flakes off, while Baerle chuckled beneath her breath.  His grimacing stare 
only made her try harder to suppress her mirth.

When they finally emerged from that chimney of course, Charles rather 
adroitly switched sides with Jerome, placing Anson between himself at the 
rather vexatious opossum.  The fox's wintry blue eyes, cold and flecked with 
white about the slit pupil, appeared to try to say something to him, but 
Matthias was not sure if he wished to know.  Looking back at the tube through 
the rock, he could see Zagrosek stepping out of its dark embrace and back 
into the dim twilight that surrounded them even in the more open portions of 
the woods.  The Sondeckis flashed him a quick grin and a nod, before peering 
once more backwards.

Berchem stopped a short while after that as they came to a cluster of hills 
that lay low against the wall of mountains that had grown ever closer to 
their left.  The trees were thinning, not nearly as large as their giant 
brethren back in the Glen, and also permitted more of the faint glow that was 
brightening on the Eastern horizon. To their right the land continued to 
descend a short ways, then began to climb steeply higher before it spilled 
out into the northern reaches of the Valley.  To their North, the Dragon 
mountains began to curve, boxing them in on two sides, tall, angry peaks 
rising up in protest of their journey.  

Turning to face the others, the skunk held out his paws, and motioned for 
them to stop.  They had reached a slight depression, and, as they had been 
walking for at the very least two hours, almost certainly the end of the 
first leg of their journey.  Scanning those hills all around them, he could 
see through a thicket of bushes a small frozen lake half covered in snowfall, 
the rest blown up onto the banks by the winds.  Even as he thought of them, 
they came as if summoned, buffeting his fur and streaming it back over his 
face.  But the powder held fast to his fur, and the elements gave up their 
battle only moments later.

Circling down from the sky, Burris landed in the small copse of trees with 
the seven travellers, and began to shift back into his normal form.  
Strangely enough, his beak, which was already rather long and pointed, 
appeared to grow first, carrying the rest of him upward, as if it was only 
expanding to suit the weight of its heavier burden.  Finally, bright red 
feathers clearly visible, and his plumage neat and orderly, the woodpecker 
glanced over the rest of them, and then turned to the skunk. "The gorge 
starts only ten minutes Northeast of here.  I haven't seen any Lutins, or 
their hounds patrolling this area, so it should be safe to proceed when you 
are ready."

"Has the sun risen?" Berchem asked, crossing his arms before his tunic, which 
had been dusted with the flour as well.

"In another half hour I believe.  The storm clouds are mostly to the South 
now, but there is a thick fog covering many of the hills to the East.  It 
will probably give us some trouble spotting any Lutin forces when we do run 
across them." Burris's beak dipped into his chest feathers and picked at them 
for a moment before his small eyes regarded the rest of them. "You have made 
better time than we had anticipated."

"One always does, when there is no trouble," Berchem added, as if quoting a 
maxim.  He then looked to Ralph , his dark eyes capturing the vole's 
attention immediately. "Would you and Jerome go with Burris to find a path to 
the gorge."

Ralph nodded his thick head, his brown paws tightening about the stout pine 
of his bow. "You'll never know we were gone." The vole smiled proudly and 
then gazed up nearly two feet to the massive Sondeckis who lumbered easily 
through the snow after him, flexing each of his fingers one by one.  Burris 
hopped along after them, shifting to a smaller form in mid hop, and then 
swooping up to perch on the Sondeckis's shoulder.  Jerome looked at the 
woodpecker curiously, but could only sport a wry grin as he disappeared into 
the fold of the white hills.

Charles stepped over to Anson, thumbing his belt idly, ready to simply wait 
for the three to return, but soon heard the skunk calling his name. "Charles, 
would you and Baerle climb up those hills and watch for the sunrise?  I don't 
want to enter the gorge until then.  Lord Avery's forces will be leaving with 
the sun."

"And the plan will work best if we both reach the bridge at the same time, I 
know," Charles finished for Berchem. "We'll keep a sharp eye out for any 
Lutins while we're up there too."

 End part 56
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