[Vfw-times] Mk Winter Assault part 32

COkane8116 at aol.com COkane8116 at aol.com
Thu Sep 20 02:41:20 CDT 2001

Laura, Arla and Allart gratefully accepted the plates of hot food and the 
cups of tea. It had been a long time since any of them had eaten a hot meal. 
Laura had just taken her second bite of food when Hough sat down next to her. 
Behind him stood the Duke. The boy priest and the equine Duke both looked 
tired and worn out.

   "Lisa will live," Hough said quietly. "The great one saw fit to answer my 
prayer of healing." There was a sense of awe in his voice despite his obvious 

   Relief flooded through her body. "That's great to hear."

   "What about her arm?" Allart asked between bites of beef.

   Hough shook his head sadly. "Her arm was too far gone to save."

   "I figured as much," Allart commented. "That monster didn't leave much for 
you to work with."

   "I'm happy she'll live," was the collie's statement. "We can worry about 
her arm later. What about everyone else?"

   "They're all fine," Hough answered. "Even that giant wolf. She's already 
eaten several pounds of meat. Ralls is getting some sleep, and Meredith is 
looking in on Lisa."

   Thomas shook his head. "Dire wolves," the stallion said amazed. "I never 
expected to see a live dire wolf in Metamor. Certainly not a score of them as 
our allies."

   "War breeds strange allies," Hugh intoned.

   "Indeed," the duke replied. "It also breeds strange enemies. Do you know 
what it is you fought?"

   "Werewolf," Allart answered calmly drinking a mug of ale.

   "Evil creatures," Hough answered. "Must have been very powerful to do this 
much damage to the Long scouts. The prayers and blessings I did should stop 
any of you from becoming a lycanthrope," Hough said.

   "I hope so," Laura commented dryly. "We've got enough problems already."

   "It will," the priest said confidently. "As long as it's done before the 
first full moon the disease is removed. We have dealt with such things 
before. What did you do with body?"

   "Burned it," Arla explained. "Doused it in oil and made sure it burned 

   "Good," Hough said. "I wonder who he was? How he came to have the curse?"

   The collie shrugged. "From what Crooked Jaw tells me, the pack has been 
controlled or bullied by him for years. He was definitely working for Nasoj."

   "Nasoj collects evil people the way manure attracts flies," Allart 

   "They flock to vile cause," Thomas added.

   "I don't think Nasoj found this werewolf," Arla commented. "I think he 
created it with magic."

   "What makes you think that?" Allart asked.

   "Strong Jaw called him magic born, " the canine explained.

   "I have heard of forbidden magic that can be used to create 
werecreatures," Laura commented. "But no normal wizard would use such magic, 
it's too dangerous."

   "Nasoj is no normal wizard," The Duke said. "He delights in the most foul 
and dangerous as long as it aids his victory."

   Arla nodded. "It's lucky we killed that thing before it had a chance to go 
on a rampage."

   Thomas shook his head. "I don't think it was chance it attacked you."


   "You say the werewolf had been controlling those wolves for years and they 
get into the keep and he just lets them wander off?" the Duke asked.

   "Then what did he do?" Allart asked.

   "He used them as bait," the horse morph answered. "He knew if he waited 
long enough we Keepers would find them and send someone to kill them."

   "Some one powerful like us Longs or a group of knights," Arla added.

   "Then while we were busy killing the wolves he would attack us from 
behind," Allart commented. "A smart plan. But things went wrong when we 
didn't attack the wolves."

   Hough smiled. "That creature never considered that you might befriend the 
wolves instead of killing them. Love won out over hate."

   Allart laughed. "Yes, love won out. Love of food." The whole group laughed 
at that. 

   When the laugher died down Hough spoke, "When are you going out again?"

   "Within the hour," Laura answered.

   "You can at least sleep for a few hours?" Hough asked.

   Allart shook his head. "No, Nasoj and the lutins would rest and neither 
can we. The fight continues."


One of the things Jono has always strived to avoid is the story cliché. While 
he recognizes the value of allowing for a few expected variables - the good 
guys always winning, for example - he also is very aware of the fact that a 
story whose whole course is completely known is one that is not nearly as 
effective. For how can one be enthralled by the presentation of the story if 
they know the story already? How can they stay with their attention to the 
storyteller without that lasting mystery of what is about to happen next?

The problem with this is that Jono's stories are often based on real life 
events. And while a crafted story can be made to avoid these problems, 
occasionally reality will intrude in such a fashion that it becomes 
unavoidable to tell the story without resorting to this.

He is reflecting on this because he has just experienced a particularly fine 

Only fifteen minutes previously he was getting his confidence back. The 
tunnels have still been going, none of the kids are feeling all that tired, 
his fellow 'grownups' (he still chuckles a bit to himself as he thinks of the 
children's word for them, despite the situation) are all alert and ready, and 
they've been safe from any Lutin attacks. As a result, he'd actually gotten 
to the point of believing that this was it; the last of their problems was at 
the Mill Tower, and that nothing else could stop them. He even went so far as 
to say this out loud to Kirk.

This, of course, was before they came across the door.

They'd run into several other doors along the way, of course, and most of 
them opened quite easily. But this one was different in a very significant 
way. Specifically, it was heavy. Very, very heavy. Kirk and Jono together 
made an attempt to pull it open and it didn't even budge.

So they can't get out through that door. And for some unknown reason, the 
keep's variable geometry isn't doing a thing to help.

This is why Jono is now where he is. He's standing in a corner in the cellars 
of what looks to be some kind of bakery next to Kevin who is preparing to 
chant his warming spell Again, watching the kids huddled in a corner with 
Dana and Jo, while Perry, poised on the end of a 'staircase' put together 
from grain sacks, slowly lifts up a trapdoor and peeks out, Kirk standing 
nearby in case of alarm.

Jono is, suffice to say, not pleased at all by this development.

"Looks clear," comes Perry's voice from the trapdoor. "Help me up and I can 
get a better look of the place." Kirk obliges, leaning down to catch Perry 
around the sides and heft him up, mindful of the spines, allowing the 
hedgehog to climb up.

There's a brief silence as Perry presumably looks around, then... "We're 
clear. Start bringing folks up."

It takes but a few minutes to move enough grain sacks to extend the staircase 
high enough, and then they start hefting kids out, Kirk at the bottom and 
hefting up, Jono at the top and lifting the child up and to the floor.

There is one positive effect of this detour, at least, as Jono notices when 
he first gets up. The bakery, remarkably, hasn't been raided yet; there's 
plenty of bread in the kitchen. So once all the kids are up he brings them 
all over to the kitchen areas and starts passing out bread rations, reminding 
everyone to stay quiet. The Deal's still going on. Unfortunately (or perhaps 
fortunately), there isn't any actual pie around, so he can't reinforce the 
idea. None of the kids seem to notice, though.

Jono is starting to get weary, despite the few hours of sleep he's gotten. 
Just twenty-four hours ago he was with most of these kids telling them the 
story of Alexander of the Northlands and his faithful friend Randolph. Back 
then, the world still had a measure of sanity. Kids were happy and growing 
up. He was active and telling stories he'd learned in his youth. Jo was 
preparing for them to go see the Lothanasi ceremonies for the first time 
in... gods, it's been almost six years, hasn't it? Perry would most likely be 
joining them there. Kevin and Jeremy would have been off to see Father Hough. 
Kirk and Dana would be staying at the gates, resolute and determined to keep 
the Keep safe from until about fourteen hours ago had seemed a merely 
symbolic threat.

And then, of course, he had to go and get Derek. And this, of course, is the 
very moment that damned wizard they always blabbered about decided to show 
up. And then, of course, he finds himself playing Uncle to two score kids 
with only Jo and four others to help defend three others, he corrected 
himself. Kevin hadn't been able to gather together enough mana for any of his 
attack magic's ever since this whole mess started to come on.

Jono slumps into a nearby corner, suddenly unable to stand under the 
responsibility he's been carrying for the past twenty-four hours. Then he 
closes his eyes, breathes in deeply, and tries to get himself to relax. We're 
going to make it. Everyone is going to make it. Every. Last. One.

Then he opens his eyes to see one of the children - Andrea, if he can recall 
the name right - staring up at him.

"Uncle Jono, could you tell us a story?" she asks timidly. Still 
whispering... the kids are obviously very determined to get their pie.

A weary smile. It is time for story time, isn't it? And he could use the 
chance to relax... "Give me a moment I'm not ready to tell a story; I need to 
figure out which one I can. But sure."

Andrea looks quite pleased. "Thanks, Uncle Jono!" She almost slips on the 
last word, but then quickly goes back to a whisper, obviously she's thinking 
about the pie still. Then she heads off.

That, also, has Jono worried. One of the kids slipped this morning, and while 
it didn't put them in danger, it very well could have. He's going to have to 
talk to Josh and the folks he recruited, make sure that all the kids stay as 
quiet as they possibly can for sure. Even if the Deal gets broken once, he 
needs it to be clear that they have to stay quiet.

But why keep focusing on that? He needs to tell a story.

And suddenly he's got just the selection.

With a smile, Jono gets up, heading for the kitchens where the kids are. Best 
not to delay. After all, it's time for a story.


As their walk resumed, so resumed the silence and the never-changing tunnel.  
It stretched on before the rat in a way that was almost maddening after a 
fashion.  Any change from the endless dark passage would have been welcome, 
even a sudden army of Lutins pouring down the tunnel en masse would have been 
relieving to Matthias's nerves.  The feeling of being trapped in this endless 
corridor was rather oppressive of his mind, and it reminded him far too much 
of his feral flight down the fissure many months ago.  He'd had no idea if he 
was ever going to escape that ever-present blackness and twisting crack 

Shaking off such thoughts, he decided after a short bit to distract himself 
with talk.  He doubted that any Lutins would invade this way, after all, 
there had always been talk of tunnels beneath the Keep coming out into the 
valley, but almost none of them were known, and those that were, were 
blocked.  So, with that knowledge safely in mind, he felt there was no harm 
in speaking quietly.

Glancing back at the black-robed Sondeckis, he asked in a quiet voice, "So, 
Krenek, what do you think of Metamor so far?"

Zagrosek chuckled lightly. "What do I think of it?  Well, it appears to be a 
rather exciting place." He waved one hand as he shook his head, ticking off 
on his fingers, " So far, I've been set upon by an undead wizard, a Shrieker, 
and a host of these disgusting little green-skinned Lutins.  I've slept in an 
ancient wine-cellar with a handful of talking rats, and now I'm walking down 
an endless hallway through a mountain." He snorted as his hand closed into a 
fist, then fell at his side as he laughed hollowly.  "I should have come here 
long ago to relieve my boredom!"

Matthias did have to laugh alongside his friend at that. "It's normally not 
this tumultuous, I can assure you!"

"I'm sure.  From what I have seen though, it strikes me that this is one of 
the most pleasant places I can think for any to spend out the remainder of 
their life.  I think it a pity though that once here, one can never leave if 
they so choose.  You Keepers have a solidarity that I wish others possessed 
as well.  You fight together, not because of hatreds, but almost in defiance 
of it.  A very noble aspiration, I think."

"You give us more credit than we deserve," Charles added wryly, idly lifting 
his chewstick and nibbling at it in a vain effort to distract himself from 
the interminable march. "We fight so boldly together because it is the only 
way we'll survive."

"Possibly," Zagrosek murmured, as if he too were chewing on something. 
"Still, watching you with those other rats really set me thinking.  You 
looked natural together, as if you all belonged where you were.  I don't 
quite know how to put it into words, but you were very comfortable as you 

Even thinking about his fellow rodents made Charles yearn for their 
companionship once again.  Taking a moment to chew at the end of the walnut 
chewstick, savouring the pleasant flavour, he collected his thoughts on the 
matter.  What Zagrosek had told him was plainly true, a fact that he had not 
given much thought of late in fact.

"Well, I've found that most of the animal morphs here at Metamor prefer the 
company of their own species in a way that they can't easily describe.  Oh, 
there are many couples here of different species, but there are also many of 
the same.  My betrothed is also a rat, and the Lord and Lady of Glen Avery 
are both squirrels."

"When is the wedding going to be?  And are we invited?" Zagrosek asked, 
nudging him slightly in the ribs with one finger.

Charles laughed slightly. "Kimberly and I haven't decided that quite yet.  
We'll see about that latter, once this is all over." He then took a breath 
and went on. "There are eight rats here at Metamor, and we've tended to stick 
together for the most part.  You've met five of them, including myself now.  
The other three are my fiancèe, one of the Head's of the Writer's Guild, and 
a knight.  We're a motley bunch, but we stick together.  I can't explain it 
any better than that I think.  If you stay here long enough, you might get a 
chance to understand."

Zagrosek nodded slowly at that. "It would be interesting to see what I would 
become should I stay, but I do not think I am ready to find out quite yet.  
If there is no choice, I am willing to accept that, but I'd rather not have 

"Most wouldn't," Charles said softly, staring at the black before him, 
wishing that it would change in even the slightest respect, but it kept on 
going, as endless as it appeared.

However, Zagrosek said nothing after that, instead simply holding the lantern 
near the ceiling of the passage, shining down before the rat.  The dry air 
was beginning to grow stale to the four of them, almost noxious.  Charles 
wished that his friend had not stopped talking, for he could feel his 
imprisonment in this tunnel begin to weigh heavily on his shoulders, as if 
the entire ceiling had come to rest there.  He did not dare let the oil in 
the lanterns be spent more than half, for being trapped here in the dark 
would surely push him over the edge, no better than a common rat, except that 
this one could bite very, very hard.

He reminded himself of the travails of Prince Phil, their lapine chief of 
intelligence.  Every night, Phil had to be locked inside a wire cage with hay 
and food in case he woke the next morning as just a simple bunny.  How was 
Clover taking that fact now that they were married?  Surely she was not going 
to be sleeping in the cage with his Highness.  No details of the arrangements 
of their married life had been disclosed, so the rest of the Keep was left to 

And it made Charles wonder how he would deal with being only a rat in mind as 
in body.  It wasn't so much as how he would deal with it, he'd simply act 
like a normal rat, but how those who cared about him would handle things.  
They might cage him, as Phil had been done, if he hadn't crept off into some 
quiet corner of the Keep never to be seen again, until one of the felines 
captured and ate him - that thought made him shudder visibly.  He imagined 
that Kimberly would probably care for him, tears in her eyes as she called to 
him, and he barely even able to recognise his own name.

Tears nearly fled from his own dark eyes at the thought of her subjected to 
such daily torment, to see her beloved but to find her love unrequited.  It 
would be as if he were dead, only his corpse was left to rot in her chambers 
instead of being buried.  If it came to that, he might ask Misha to kill him 
to spare Kimberly that terrible pain.  That thought alone brought a chill to 
his cheek fur, one that took him a moment to realise was not wholly 

As he let thoughts of being completely a rat pass from his mind, he realised 
that the chill did not come from his own imagining, but instead was caused by 
a slight breeze passing him by, one that was colder than the surrounding air. 
 He blinked a few times an stopped in his tracks, peering ahead at the 
endless corridor, certain that he smelled something other than the dry 
mustiness that had pervaded his nostrils for almost half a day.  Zagrosek 
stopped behind, asking a question that Charles did not listen to, while he 
tried to catalogue that odour.

A smile crept over his muzzle then as his mind finally brought the pieces 
together, the culprit's name escaping his lips, "Snow."

"What?" Zagrosek asked, looking ahead in bewilderment.

"Snow, I smell snow!" Charles said, a bit excitedly, and louder than he 
really aught.

"You do?" Jerome cried, his own voice rather exuberant.  

"And I feel a breeze coming this way.  Don't you?"

Garigan was the first to nod to that, as it was easier for him to notice the 
way it moved his fur and whiskers.  But both Jerome and Zagrosek acquiesced 
only moments later. "There must be an opening somewhere up ahead," the thick 
Sondeckis at the rear of their little group pointed out.  His broad face 
could barely contain his smile.

Zagrosek nodded, but he appeared dourer. "We must be quiet then; if there is 
an opening, then the enemy may be lurking about.  No need to alert them that 
we are here."

Charles nodded and kept his muzzle shut, though his whiskers did twitch with 
glorious anticipation.  After waiting so long, and walking so far, it was a 
wonderful relief to know that they might soon be walking out under the sky 
again.  The darkness, as if in protest, only appeared to grow thicker about 
them, clutching at them as if to keep them locked in that tunnel for all 
time.  Yet they pushed on for several more minutes, undeterred, but renewed.

And soon, they saw a pinprick of natural light streaming into the tunnel from 
its end.  The black stone abruptly stopped, and thick rubble lined the 
opening.  A trickle of snow had collected at the base of the opening, falling 
through that tiny crack.  Yet, by the light they could see pouring through, 
they knew that it was both daytime, and that the blizzard had lessened 

Being the tallest, Zagrosek and Jerome set themselves to moving the old rocks 
that had piled in front of the doorway.  Drifts of snow poured down in upon 
them, as did that bright light.  Charles and Garigan both shielded their eyes 
as the sun's rays fell in upon them even more.  And as he peered past the two 
Sondeckis at that lovely celestial sphere, a terrible thought clutched the 
rat's heart.

"Why is the sun in front of us?" he asked, trembling, and not from the chill 
that was blowing in with the snow.


End part 32
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