Welcome to The Lutin Chronicles, a fantasy series based on the collaborative series Metamor Keep.
This site still has a few rough edges. Pardon the digital sawdust.
The Lutin Chronicles, conceived by Oren Otter, is based on Metamor Keep, a story series conceived by Copernicus, owned by Chris O'Kane, and written by a myriad of writers.
The Lutin Chronicles focuses on Captain Kayrok, an officer in the lutin army whose defeat in battle has disgraced his name throughout the lutin army. Assigned a company of rejects and misfits, Kayrok has been shipped off to the furthest reaches of the forest darkness and given the impossible task of digging a pass through the mountains into the southlands, a task at which he is expected to die trying.
Penance and Retribution is the story from Metamor Keep which introduces Kayrok and the first members of the Omega Company. The story of The Lutin Chronicles picks up after the events in Penance and Retibution**. **[Noted by Webmaster. Requires author confrimation.]
The lutin Chronicles
Chains of Command
by Oren Otter
Fifteen years had passed since Kayrok and his omega company had been exiled to the Forest of Darkness. Immediately, the compassionate captain began turning punishment into oportunity. He deposed the local tyrant, imposed peace upon squabbling peoples and built a kingdom in which the normal ways of the goblin peoples had been supplanted by traditions of peace, harmony and cooperation. Kayrok himself was technically the high king, but never chose to use this title, instead referring to himself as the council chairman, or more usually, just Captain. While carving out a pass into the southlands, additional mining operations had made Kayrok and his entire troop independently wealthy. They all enjoyed a life of prosperity as they traded with the neighboring lands of Wadogo, Marai-Uthra and Prendor. Even the gnurls, nasty little goblins about the size of a hand, had decided to start trading with the lutins instead of hunting them. Free from the constant threat of combat, the new kingdom had begun to grow technologically, using magic and science to create amazing machines, such as the radio, the train, and even the airship. It was a golden age like none lutin kind had ever seen before.
New cities had been joining the federation at the rate of about one a year. Shortly after the underground lake had opened up, a tribe of exiled keepers had moved in north of the highway between Iceberg and Singing Pony, creating the town of Laughter. The town was populated mostly by otters, and boasted some of the most excellent waterslides. Their mayor was none other than Oren of Hipocc, the keeper who had once saved Kayrok's life at the battle of Devil's Strand.
Next came Prosperity. After fifteen years, some of the older goblins found themselves growing so old that it was getting difficult to work. This seldom happened in goblin society, and no one was quite sure what to do, so kayrok consulted with the human Count Dupris, who suggested the formation of a retirement village just across the lake from Sun Harbor. It was a location that boasted large collections of wildflowers, such as celandine, wolfglove and eidelweis, giving it a placid feel. The older folks found ways to spend their fortunes and the younger folks, a way to earn theirs caring for their elders. Chara the bear spent a lot of time there. She and some of the other creatures from Bounty were teaching the old folks, both male and female, how to sew.
The small village on the south side of the underground lake had grown significantly. Southbend, so named because this was where the pass bent to the south, had turned into a major metropolis, with towers stretching up through the roof of the cave into the mountains above.
Then there was Oom. Oom was... well... Oom. There wasn't anything very special about the town, which lay beside the river west of Intersect and North of Iceberg. Oom was a modest town of mostly small homes belonging to norkers, bhuka and tommyknockers. The one unusual thing about Oom was that it was just within the territory of the werewolves. The werewolves were kin to the people of Prendor, and constantly patrolled the forest against threats to the Prendoran people. The people of Oom welcomed the werewolves and began building inns and restaurants specifically to cater to them, often providing free room and board in exchange for working security.
Other cities within the federation had also continued to grow. Point Grove was now a bustling city. Mountainshade was a sprawling urban landscape. Dimtorch was unrecognizable as the military camp it had once been. Even the simple huts of Anhunger had become elaborate treehouses. Solace and Rider, free of the feud that had kept them apart for so long, were starting to grow together, and Fargone was no longer far gone.
The only part of the federation that remained difficult to access was Sky Valley. Unless you were a Yarasa or a pegasus or some other flying creature, there were only three ways to get there. The first was to take the airship. The second, a series of dangerous stairs and ladders up the side of the cliffs. The third, a long trek through dark caverns, up a winding staircase and across the barren plateau.
That's not to say that Sky Valley wasn't growing as well. Numerous tall buildings had sprung up with airship piers, and the castle's main tower had increased in height so that it could be seen from everywhere in the federation. That was part of the problem. Building materials were in high demand, and it was difficult to transport such heavy loads any of the three aforementioned ways. Something different had to come into existence.
Enter Niblik. Niblik was a very small lutin, not much bigger than a gnurl. Even Pip had looked large next to him. However, he was a very intelligent lutin. When Nasoj' army had disbanded, most of the lutins had either gone home to their tribes or sought employment within the Lom Shi'un dynasty, Niblik had no way to support himself. He wasn't very strong compared to other lutins, nor was he skilled with a weapon. Most of his duties within the lutin army were menial in nature, such as mucking out stables. What Niblik did have, though, was a head full of ideas. When he learned about the strange nation where smart lutins could thrive, he set out at once to make his fortune there. It had been slow going at first, picking up a few coins here and there by reading to a trio of giants or working as a scribe in Rider. As the cities underwent their growth spurt, Niblik found work as an architect. With his accumulated earnings, he bought a plot of land north of Sky Valley, below the cliffs between Fargone and Punishment. Not long thereafter, he was coming to Kayrok with blueprints.
"What exactly am I looking at?" asked the captain as he stared at the plans.
"It's a city." replied Niblik. "A vertical city. Everything is inside these towers. See, industrial areas are here, here, here and here. Commercial zones are concentrated here, here and here. Then you have residential, agricultural..."
"Wait... how can you have agrigulture inside a building?"
"I call it water farming. Most people don't know this, but plants can grow very fast if you reduce the dirt to almost nothing."
"Really?" Kayrok was incredulous.
"Really. I have a glass house on my property that's warmed by steam and has rows of banana trees growing in little more than water. They're producing new crops of fruit constantly."
"Banana? I'm not familiar with those." said the captain.
Niblik was prepared. He took a yellow-brown fruit from his pocket and peeled it. Kayrok took a bite and could not believe his tongue. The flesh of the fruit was so sweet, so creamy and smooth, so aromatic and flavorful, that all other fruit seemed to pale in comparison. Niblik was sure he had him hooked. "Now here's the selling point." said the architect. In the middle of each tower is a device. I call it an 'elevator'."
"And what is that? Some sort of airship?"
"It uses steam power to lift a car up a vertical shaft. Tired of climbing stairs? Just step in, push a button, ride all the way up to the top and get out. Best of all, the top floors of these towers will be above the cliff tops. You'll be able to step outside and walk to Sky Valley."
"You've convinced me." said the Captain. "I'll invest in your tower. Put me down for half of your budget."
"Thank you, Sir!" beamed the former stable-mucker. "You won't regret this!"
* * *
Feather hummed to herself as she filled a trio of mugs from the beer keg. She really enjoyed her work these days. While she did miss working for Splim, for a kinder boss no lutin lady ever knew, it was fun and a little bit exciting to be the owner of her own tavern in Oom. As she worked, a stranger entered and sat down at the bar. He was a greasy gray-green goblin wearing dirty clothes, apparently from up north, possibly within the borders of the Lom Shi'un. He was a full-sized goblin, much larger than a lutin. He looked around at the room full of humans and quickly decided that none of them were a threat. "Hey, bar wench!" he called.
"I'll be with you in a moment, Sir." replied Feather.
"Hey, I've travelled a long way and I'm thirsty! I want some service!"
"And I'll be with you in just a moment." the proprietor repeated, walking past him carrying a tray full of drinks.
The goblin reached out and grabbed at Feather's sleeve. "Don't you ignore me!" he growled, but no sooner had the words left his lips than Feather, without spilling a drop, grabbed his hand and twisted it backwards, breaking at least one finger.
"Rule one of the Stone Jaguar Inn is that we always keep our hands to ourselves. Now sit down and be patient while I wait on the customers who were here before you."
The goblin called Feather something unrepeatable, then shouted "I'll kill you!" as he drew his dagger. The room instantly changed. Each and every human in the place ws suddenly transformed into a snarling wolf, their angry, penetrating gazes fixed on the newcomer. Only a handfull of lutins remained, calmly watching the scene unfold.
"What did you say your name was?" asked Feather.
"Ribrip." replied the goblin, not daring to move a muscle beyond his face.
"Ribrip, allow me to introduce you to the Bluetalon Squadron. They're regular customers, and they're my friends. They're also a very impressive pack of werewolf warriors. I've seen them rip a bear apart in fifteen seconds."
"Thirteen!" someone corrected.
"Thirteen. You get my point. Now, Ribrip, would you like to rethink what you were about to do with that blade?" The goblin very slowly and deliberately sheathed his weapon. In response, the wolves slowly transformed back into fully clothed men and went back to their drinks and conversation. "Smart choice. Now sit down and I'll be back in a moment with some ice for your finger."
Ignoring the pain and declining the ice pack, Ribrip ordered a beer.
A lutin who had been at the bar for a while complimented the lady. "That was impressive."
"I owe it all to Captain Kayrok." replied Feather.
"Oh? And who is he?" askedthe patron.
"He's only the high king of this land. He taught me that it's okay for a woman to learn to defend herself. Of course, having werewolves for friends doesn't hurt."
"What's your name, miss?"
"Feather. And you?"
"Wolf." replied the customer.
Someone laughed. "That's nearly everybody in here!" That elicited a few chuckles.
"Which would make me the only wolf here who isn't a wolf." he responded. "But I assure you, my tribal name of Spinebreaker is much more literal in nature."
"Wait..." said one of the lutin men. "Wolf Spinebreaker? As in GENERAL Wolf Spinebreaker?"
"You've heard of me, then?"
"Of course I have. Who hasn't heard the story of how he won the battle of Ilyek with only sixty men?"
"It was fifty-seven, actually."
"Or how he bested a draconian commander with a rusty spoon?"
"Tall tales. It was a rusty knife."
The local patron shook his head. "No way you're him. I don't believe it."
The general smiled. "Would you like me to prove it?"
"Prove it? How?"
Wolf put his elbow on the bar. "Arm wrestle me."
"Arm wrestle you?" the other lutin echoed.
"One simple no-holds-barred arm wrestling match. I win, you admit I'm me and pay my bill. You win, I'll change my name to Stinky McFartpants."
"You're on." He clasped Spinebreaker's hand and began to push. With his free hand, the general grabbed the other lutin's nose and twisted, slamming his hand down onto the bar as he recoiled. "What the Everdark?" the loser exclaimed.
"First rule of military strategy, friend. If you ever find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics stink."
"Besides," said Feather. "You did agree to no-holds-barred."
"I did, didn't I? Well then, Put the man's drinks on my tab, Feather. Pleased to meet you, General. I'm Lorch Neathmound."
"Mutual." said the general.
"So what brings you to Oom?"
"I heard there was a lutin army base around here." said Wolf. "I'm here to take it over."
* * *
Niblik tossed about on his bed while, in his dreams, he found himself in a dire predicament. He and Captain Kayrok were standing at the top of the Havensreach tower, whose top, despite not having been built yet, reached far above the clouds. There were no walls, not even a guardrail, and one look over the edge of the tower made the architect sick to his stomach. Rain was pouring down. Both Niblick and Kayrok were absolutely drenched. Both were eager to go down inside the building, but the only entrance was on the other side of a ferocious beast. He could not tell what it was, for it was dark and its form was obscured by dark shadows cast by nothing in particular. The beast began to move slowly, its eyes fixed upon Kayrok. It crouched, preparing to strike. Niblik did not pause to think. He had to save his leader. With a ferocious shout, he darted forward and slammed into the beast, driving it backwards and over the edge of the tower roof. Niblik screamed as he and the beast fell to certain death, but no sound issued from his throat.
Niblick awoke in a panic. He found himself back in his own bed, which had been soaked in his sweat. The nightmare had seemed so real, and yet, even now, it was fading from his mind. Composing himself, the architect washed, threw on some clothes and set to work. He wanted to get some building in before meeting with some potential backers in Sun Harbor.
* * *
Kayrok was enjoying a breakfast of wheat meal and chota in the open air of Dimtorch's town square, going over the daily reports as he savored his food. "I see pearl sales are up." he commented to Sytet and Point, who were seated to his left and right, respectively.
"Yes, Sir." said Sytet. "From what I heard, they are being used as a spell component in Khumar. The coastlands have been supplying them, who are in turn being supplied by the bhuka tribes, who are in turn being supplied by us."
"That's good news for us." said the Captain. "But bad news for Khumar. The price will be exorbitant by the time they reach Khumar, and the Khumari are the only thing keeping the Qor horde out of Galendor. Cut the price of pearls by ninety percent."
"Are you sure?" asked Sytet. "The miners aren't going to be happy about that."
"Where is our iron ore going?" asked the captain.
"Primarily to Kendalas." Point recalled. "To make weaponry."
"Raise the price of iron." said Kayrok. "Kendalas can afford it, and it might encourage them to make fewer weapons."
"Speaking of iron, I wanted to let you know," said Point. "Smallbeard believes he has found a formula for steel that doesn't rust. He's calling it stainless steel."
"Because it doesn't rust, I suppose."
"No, after the new ironworks employee who accidentally discovered it. They gave him the nickname because he hates getting dirty. Why he's in the ironworks, I'll never know."
Kayrok was about to say something humorous in response when his attention was distracted by a goblin walking into the square. "Is that who I think it is?" he asked, half agape.
"Who do you think it is?" asked Point.
"It couldn't be." said Sytet. "What in the world would bring him HERE of all places?"
"Bring who here?" Point askjed again.
"It is him!" Kayrok jumped up from his seat, almost spilling the last of his chota.
"It is WHOM?" Point demanded.
"General Wolf Spinebreaker!" Kayrok called, walking out to meet him.
The general stiffened at the sound of his name and the sight of the lutin rapidly approaching him. "You must be Captain Kayrok." he said.
"I am." said the captain. "How did you know?"
"You were sitting in front of the CQ between a cyclops and lutin who has all the hallmarks of a werebeast. That fits exactly what I was told to look for."
The statesman reached up to shake the general's hand. The general hesitated only a moment before recognizing the foreign gesture and reciprocating. "Quite a place you have here, Captain. Most impressive."
"Thank you, Sir. But I can't take credit for this. Many hands and many minds built this empire. So if I may ask, what brings you to Dimtorch?"
Wolf put his hands behind the small of his back and began to stroll, gazing around at the buildings as he went. "Not much work for a man of my talents since the army fell apart. I've been working as a mercenary here and there, but work has been thin and I've had no steady income. A few weeks ago, I heard about a place where a goblin like me might easily make his fortune, so I came down here to see what might be available."
"Well, Sir, while we're not presently at war with anyone, I'm sure we can find something for you. There's no shortage of work to go around. Here." He reached into his pocket and produced four large, gold coins. "This will help until you get settled in."
"I did not ask for money, Captain."
"I am aware, Sir."
"Are you this generous with all your newcomers?"
"Actually, yes. Resources are so plentiful here that advances are part of the standard employment plan."
"Most interesting." noted Wolf, placing the coins in his own pocket. "Then I shall endeavor to find work quickly and justify the advance."
"Do you have a place to stay?" asked the captain.
"Not as yet. I assume you have barracks available?"
"We do. But I have a better idea. We have guest houses for visiting dignitaries. I'll put you up in one until you have a place of your own."
"That seems almost decadent. Nevertheless, I will take you up on your offer."
"This way." said Kayrok, showing the general to his quarters.
"Are you this hospitable to everyone?" asked Wolf.
"We try to be. Everyone is welcome here as long as they live in peace. That applies to you as well, Sir."
Sytet breathed a sigh. Point asked what was wrong. "Visiting generals are always trouble." said the commander.
"He seems nice enough." Point observed.
"That's exactly what worries me. You don't get to be a general in the lutin army by being nice. You get sent to the wilderness to die in a futile quest."
* * *
Niblik wiped sweat from his brow as he looked out from the current top floor of his building. All about him, workers were bustling. Nearby, a dwarf was pouring liquified steel onto a joint to fuse two girders into one. It never ceased to amaze him the things dwarves could do with metal. He never would have considered many of the techniques they were using, but as long as the tower was getting built, he wasn't going to complain. A rumbling in his stomach confirmed what the sundial was telling him. It was time to break for lunch. He signalled the foreman to pull the whistle and dismiss the workers. Looking forward to a good meal, Niblik descended and boarded a train with several members of the workforce bound for Splim's. A ham sandwich and a pint of icy lemon beer seemed just the thing to help him cool down.
The architect entered Splim's and made himself comfortable. "Lemon beer." said Niblik to Snowhare as she approached.
"Oh, so sorry." said Snowhare. "Haven't you heard? There's a lemon shortage. We haven'ty had any for three days."
"Then what's that?" asked Niblik, pointing toward the kitchen. In the window to the kitchen sat a large basket of lemons.
"That... was not there a moment ago." said the waitress. "But what's life without surprises? One lemon beer coming up!"
General Wolf sat at a table at the far end of the hall, drinking something that probably would have killed anything less massive than a lutin. Or than a bugbear, for that matter. Redfoot sat next to him, nursing a shot of something vaguely green. "It's ungoblinly." said the general.
"What is?" said the subcommander.
"All this building. It's not how goblins do things. We don't make, we take."
"It's worked pretty well for us so far." said Redfoot.
"Worked pretty well?" Wolf repeated. "All this living the high life has made you soft. You wouldn't last a second in a real battle."
Redfoot scowled. "I've been in enough battles that..." Wolf interrupted by pulling his dagger and in a blur of motion, held it to Redfoot's throat. "You see? No reflexes."
"This isn't a real battle. This is you showing off, and if you were to kill me now, it would be a homicide, not a battle."
"Homicide?" exclaimed Wolf as he sheathed his blade. "That's a human word. Are you so soft that you've turned into a human?"
"Not soft." said Redfoot. "Sneaky." The geneal felt the point of a weapon against his stomach. He smiled. "Well played! Now here's a true goblin!"
Redfoot forced a smile. He didn't like this fellow, but because he was a superior officer, he refused to let his disdain for General Wolf to show.
Across the dining hall, four lutins sat, watching the general as they ate. Their names were Grammich, Bughug, Treff and Rokbarf. They were among many lutin soldiers who had come to the Federation seeking employment when the army disbanded. They were still officially soldiers, and were under Kayrok's command, but it often chafed. "I like him." said Grammich. "He's a true lutin."
"Ain't we real lutins?" asked Bughug.
"'Course we is. But Wolf there, we could be free to be ourselves if he was in charge."
"I miss the old ways." said Treff. "Pillaging, slaughtering, all the things that make life good."
"Those days are behind us, fellows." said Rokbarf. The group noddd sadly and stared down into their meals.
"Hey, guys." said a fifth lutin. "Why so glum?"
"Hey, Hobbles." replied Grammich. "We was just thiunking how great it could be if Wolf was in command."
Hobbles sat with his friends. "Who says he's not? Kayrok still calls himself a captain. Generals outrank captains."
All five lutins smiled ominously.
* * *
The afternoon had passed slowly and Kayrok was growing more and more bored with his administrative duties. "Intersect, intersect..." he mumbled to himself as he rummaged through sevral stacks of papers. "Where did I put Intersect? Ah, here it is. Tax revenue from Intersect, forty copper. What? That can't be right. With Anser's income, it should be more than ten times that amount. Point! Get..."
Whatever he wanted Point to get, it was cut off by an incoming signal on his crystal ball. "Captain Kayrok! Calling Captain Kayrok!
"Kayrok here." answered the lutin. In the ball, he saw the face of Queen Cerise of Prendor. "Your majesty. How may I help you?"
"Captain, I have just received word that an attack on Prendor by the Burning Sun may be imminent. Our forces are spread thin right now. Our king is away, helping to protect the territories of allied werewolf packs. Could you spare some men to temporarily bolster our numbers?
"I will send as many as I can." said the captain. Turning to Sytet, he said "Gather up all active duty personel as well as the reserve forces in the western towns." He paused for a moment as a distubance outside the CQ distracted him. "Tell them that I want them to be... ready to ride at... Eight? What the blazes is going on out there?"
Kayrok stepped out of th office to see, and more importantly, hear, General Wolf Spinebreaker verbally abusing one of his men. "ARE YOU AN IDIOT, SOLDIER?"
"No sir." said the abusee.
"Don't you talk back to me. When you stack that firewood, you stack it bark UP!"
Kayrok stepped in. "Hey, hey! What is going on here?"
"This moron is stacking cordwood bark down. Is this the kind of incompetence you allow in your troop?"
"General, that wood is going to Cephas. It's going into the furnaces there. It doesn't matter how the wood is stacked because it won't last long enough to make a difference. but more importantly, why are you harassing one of my men?"
"I am a general in the lutin army, soldier! I will..."
"Exactly." said the captain. "We have a lot of those here. Urik? He's a general. Fugu, he's a general. Jor, Jun, Udge, all generals. I call myself Captain, but I am the chairman of the Federation council and commander-in-chief of this military."
"You expect me to recognize that? This 'federation' is something you made up. When you were exiled here, you were a captain, and that is ALL you are, as far as I am concened."
"Very well, SIR." said Kayrok, his voice dripping with contempt. "If I am a captain, that means you do not give orders to my men. I am their direct superior. You want to harass them, you go through me." Either way, you will kleave that soldier alone. Is that clear, SIR?"
"I could have you killed for speaking to me that way." Wolf threatened.
"And I could do the same." said Kayrok. "Let's not have it come to that." Then he went back into his office. The crowd which had begun to form to watch the fireworks started to disperse, but not too quickly for Wolf to read their expressions and know he had not completely lost this exchange.
* * *
The Alpha Omega Federation had a very small standing army, but when the call went out for the reserves, the numbers swelled considerably. Giants, cyclopses, animals large and small, humans, ogres, dwarves, gnomes, and every species of goblin imaginable, stood ready to rush and defend Prendor. And unfortunately, that included General Wolf. Horses and ponies stood ready to get them there, and where equines were insufficient, steam-powered troop transports would do the job.
"We can reach Prendor in about twenty-four hours if we ride fast." said Sytet.
Kayrok mulled it over. "No. The troops would be exhausted and unable to fight when they arrived. We'll stop and take a breather halfway."
Wolf sneered. "These men are weak." he commented. "A lutin doesn't need to be coddled in order to fight. We should ride straight through!"
Kayrok looked at Wolf, then back to Sytet. "My orders stand."
* * *
Marcon Prox soared high above the traveling army. "Why yes," he said to someone who wasn't there. "It is a gorgeous day for flying. Too hot? oh, but that's what makes it so great. The thermals are absolutely excellent in summer. No, I don't mind. Being turned into an eagle was the best thing that ever happened to me. What's that? Immortality? Yes, I suppose that does have its advantages, but everyone assumes that because you can't die, you can't feel pain. I mean where do they get that? Hey, Marcon, can I stab you to see you resurrect? Well, of course I say yes. You can't disappoint the kids, now can you? What do you mean numb to pain? I'm not numb, you're numb. And get that cloud out of your beak. You don't know where it's been."
"You brought the bird?" asked Wolf, gazing into the sky disdainfully.
"That bird is Marcon Prox, the famous explorer." said Kayrok.
"I don't care if he's Nasoj himself. That bird is as mad as a mongoose on free chota day."
"He can hear you."
"What are you going to do when you reach Prendor?" asked the general.
"That depends. I need to know the situation. That's why Prox is here. He and several of the Yarasa are going to provide intel."
"What do you need to know? We're going there to fight. That's what an army does."
"Trust me." said Kayrok, doing nothing to hide his annoyance. "It works."
* * *
Ithuba sat within his tent on a ramshackle throne. Today was the day the Burning Sun would take Prendor, and they would barely have to lift a finger. Such was the genius of his new advisor, Sujan, who stood at his right side, elborating on his plan.
"Chief," said an ogre who uncerimoniously entered the tent. "An army is approaching from the southeast."
"Whose army?" asked Ithuba.
"Lutin army." said the ogre. "With lots of others mixed in."
"Kayrok's army." said the chief with just a hint of worry.
"Do not be alarmed." said Sujan. "This is exactly what I have planned for. It is time to begin."
Ithuba stood and marched out to the front of the tent. Stepping out, he shouted "SHADOWFOX! GOR!"
A hideous little humanoid ran up and bowed to Ithuba. He was dressed all in red, and his face was heavily scarred. He looked like a gnome who had been thrown into a smelter. "At your sevice, Sir." said the creature.
"Where is Shadowfox?" th chief demanded.
"Right here." said the anthro fox an inch from his ear, causing him to jump in fright. Though he was a humanoid fox, there was nothing lovely about Shadowfox. Everything about him was ugly. If you tried to stare at him, your eyes would rebel and find something else to look at to protect themselves. This was to his advantage, because it aided the use of his strange mental power. No one noticed him. When people saw him, they simply ignored him, their brains writing him off as someone else's problem.
"Stop doing that." said Ithuba. "It's time. You know what to do."
Shadowfox picked up Gor and let him ride on his shoulder. He then walked calmly toward Prendor. The two of them walked brazenly past the guards at the city gate, both of whom continued to stare off into the distance. They walked past the guard dogs, who sniffed the air and decided that the smell was not interesting enough to pursue. They walked past the castle guards, past the castle staff, even past the queen herself, right into the royal nursery. In his crib lay the little prince, staring innocently up at the intruders. Shadowfox felt a flash of remorse for what he was about to do, but it passed quickly. Taking the baby in his arms, he walked right back out. Gor, meanwhile, went to see the queen. "Your majesty." he said in a greasy tone, removing his hat and bowing low.
"Who and what are you?" asked the queen, unafraid of this little man.
"I be Gor. Wanderer, adventurer, thief, and of course, leprechaun."
"You are far from your native lands." said the queen. "What are you doing in my castle?"
"Oh, making trouble, earning a bit of gold."
Queen Cerise began to grow, becoming more wolf-like. "State your business here." she demanded.
"I'm so glad you asked. What I want, your majesty, is you."
"As if." said the queen, who became larger and furrier.
"Let me explain. At this very moment, my friend the kitsune, has your son."
Cerise grew into her batle mode, towering over the leprechaun. Her clothes vanished to reveal fur, which coated a form with the strength of a gorilla and the claws of a grizzly bear. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY SON?" roared the queen.
"Relax, your majesty. He's safe. But you'll never find him on your own." At that moment, a baby's wailing cry filled the halls, but try as she might, Cerise could not figure out where the sound was coming from. She leapt at the little man, but he disappeared in a puff of smoke and reappeared a few feet away. This happened several times before she realized trying to attack him was futile. Gor laughed cruelly as the queen withered back into her human form.
* * *
Kayrok began selecting specific individuals for an assignment. "Bill Mapleroot. Front and center. Gaz Iceheart. Jun Thunderfire. Thnad Shardfall." As he called the names, Sytet approached carrying a white flag.
"What are you doing, Kayrok?" demanded the general.
"I'm going to send a small party over to the Burning Sun to parlay and ask for terms of peace."
"That's the coward's way." said the general.
"This is MY operation, general, so kindly let me do my job."
Sopok approached his father. "Dad, if you're going to send a Yarasa, send me."
Kayrok supressed a scowl. "Gaz is qualified for this task, son."
"But I'm more qualified. I'm the chairman's son. I know diplomacy. I can negotiate. Plus, I'm a way better flyer than Gaz is and a better fighter if it comes to it."
Kayrok no longer supressed that scowl. It was precisely because Sopok WAS his son that he didn't want to send him, but he simply couldn't argue. Sopok was right, and it would be wrong to give him special consideration. "Go." he said. 'But be very careful."
Ithuba was consulting with messengers from far-flung chapters of his horde when the trio of lutins showed up carrying the white flag. "Whoa, what's this? A surrender?"
"We are here to parlay." said Sopok. "What will it take to halt your attack on Prendor?"
"Now why ever would I want to stop the attack on Prendor?"
"If you proceed with this attack, you will be stopped by the combined forces of Prendor and the Federation."
Ithuba laughed aloud. "HA HA HAAA! No."
"Perhaps if we could..."
"These three bore me." said Ithuba. "Put them in cages. We'll use them for games, later." With that, they were hauled off and locked away.
* * *
Algene huffed and puffed as he climbed up the tower. It had been a while since he spent his days wandering the northlands, and he was getting to be a bit out of shape. The bottom levels of the western Havensreach tower were already finished and had construction workers living in them. Sunstones and lanthanil shone on the garden floors, and thanks to Mara, a crop of bananas was already available for harvest. Algene enjoyed one as he trekked upward, thinking to himself how wonderful it tasted, unlike those weird, shockingly yellow, seedless things which passed for bananas down south. Those were more like potatoes. When he reached the current top of the tower, he saw Azpat there, sitting on the edge and looking out at the Federation lands below. "Hello, Algene." said the toxicologist, smiling his cherubic smile.
"Good day, Azpat." replied the cyclops, sitting down next to him. "Enjoying the view?"
"Oh, yes." the lutin replied. "From here, you can see all the way to Spiritfell. Sometimes I like to come up here and just think when it's really quiet."
Algene looked around. "Shouldn't there be construction going on today?" he wondered.
"There is, on the east tower. This crew all fell sick."
Algene's eyebrow lowered. "Azpat, did you poison them?"
"No, no." Azpat replied. "I don't do that any more. They just have a twenty-four hour flu. They'll be fine tomorrow."
Algene frowned and nodded. He'd had the flu and almost died from it, but for Chara's loving care. "Wait." he said suddenly. "Did you give them that flu?"
Azpat's smile faded. "You're the seer. You know I didn't."
Algene shook his head. "My senses are powerful, but I have never once seen you poison anyone or anything. Not once. You're just that sneaky."
"Why thank you."
"So that's why I came up here, to ask you, did you do that thing I asked?"
I absolutely did. I've been doing it for months."
There was silence for a bit "How goes the battle?" asked Azpat.
"I don't know." Algene admitted. "When I try to look, all I see is darkness. It's very disconcerting. Something is blocking me."
"That's too bad. I wish I could be there."
"If it's any comfort, you'll be there in spirit." said Algene, chuckling a bit at his own pun."
"Why yes." replied the poisoner. "I do believe I will."
* * *
Three of the bandits from the Burning Sun snuck around the wall of the city. "Over here." one loudly whispered.
"You find something, Zayn?" asked the second.
"Look. See how the trees are really close to the wall on this side? There's one that actually overhangs the city wall."
"We can climb up and drop down right onto the wall." said the third.
"Good job, Zayn." said his comrade. The three barbarians set to climbing the tree. One by one, they climbed out onto the branch and dropped down onto the wall, and right between two heavily armed groups of goblins.
* * *
Sopok looked out through the bars of his cage. "Well, that didn't work." he mused with a little more cheer than anyone had a right to expect.
"We'll be all right." sain Jun. "Your father picked us for exactly this situation."
"Now?" querried a small voice within Jun's robes.
"Not yet, Bill. Wait until the guards are distracted."
The gnome obediently sat and waited. He wasn't happy about it. It was getting hot in that pocket.
Hours passed. The lutins bided their time. Finally, the pair of barbarians who were guarding the cages started to nod off in the warm sun.
"Now." said Jun as he pulled out the gnome and set him down. At six inches tall, Bill was an unusually small young man, even for a gnome. That made him perfect for this moment. He slipped easily through the bars of the cage. Nearly unseen, he crept closer and closer to the keys held by the sleeping guard. There was a puddle in the way, and he'd have to get his foot wet, but that didn't phase him. He set his foot into the puddle. It stuck.
"What's the holdup?" whispered Thnad.
"It's glue!" exclaimed the gnome soto voce. "I'm stuck!"
"Plan B." said Jun. He recited a spell which would have been useless under normal circumstances, causing him to teleport three feet to the right. Thnad put on his charm which gave him the physical form, including size, of a fox. Sopok turned into a bat. Both slipped out through the bars of their cages before Sopok shifted to a slightly larger size. It wasn't optimal to let the enemy know that they had these abilities, but now there wasn't a choice.
"Hey! The prisoners! They're escaping!" someone shouted.
Sopok grabbed the gnome with his feet and took off, leaving his shoe stuck to the ersatz puddle. "They were expecting me!" exclaimed Bill. "How could they have expected me?"
Jun cast an invisibility spell which would last until he was back in the camp, and a levitation spell which would prevent the leaving of footprints. Thnad simply ran. Meanwhile, Norebo watched the escape from just outside the camp, completely unseen. As Jun ran, his feet barely touching the ground, his toes struck something. It exploded, sending a spray of colored powder into the air. Jun looked doen at his hands. The colored powder hung in the air in the form of two hand-shaped shells. He was visible! Burning Sun warriors were soon upon him. Defending himself, the mage turned several of them intio frogs, but was ultimately unable to escape, and was soon bound and gagged. Thnad raced through the forest, but it wasn't long before he tripped a snare trap and was hanging by his hindpaw from a tree. As he dangled, the charm fell from around his neck, and he returned to the form of a lutin. The rope holding his leg was now impossibly tight and cutting off circulation. Sopok was afraid, now. He held tightly to the gnome in his feet and flapped for all his might. He didn't even see the tiny strands of the net which had been strung out in his path.
* * *
General Wolf was very pleased with himself as he led his captives back toward Prendor. "Captain Kayrok." he addressed. "While you've been playing diplomatic games, I've caught three of the Burning Sun attempting to enter the city."
Kayrok's attention went not to the enemy, but to the lutins who were accompanying the general. "Who authorized you to take soldiers from here?"
"They volunteered, Captain." said Wolf.
Kayrok was visibly irritated. "No one is to leave base again without specific authorization from me."
"Or me." amended the general.
"NOW SEE HERE..." exclaimed the captain, but whatever he was about to say, it was cut short by the sight of a dozen Burning Sun barbarians coming out of the forest. With them were Thnad, Bill, Jun, and his own son, Sopok. "Son!" he gasped.
Ithuba stepped to the front. "KAYROK!" he shouted.
Kayrok advanced to face the horde leader. 'Ithuba." he spat.
"You know my name." said the barbarian. "But of course you do. That's what you do. You gather intelligence. You find out all you can about your enemy. That's what HE was doing." Ithuba signalled to one of his men who produced a large, dead bird, a crossbow bolt protruding from its chest. It was uncerimoniously flung onto the ground. "Two can play the intel game, Kayrok. I know all about you. I know all your tricks, all your quirks, all of your strengths and weaknesses."
"What do you want, Ithuba?" asked Kayrok, testily.
"A prisoner exchange. Four of your men for three of mine."
Kayok thought for a momet, carefully considering whether it could be a trap. In the end, he could only say "Agreed."
"What are you doing?" hissed General Wolf. "We have every advantage. We have fortifications. We have the numbers. We have their leader dead in our sights."
"And he has my son."
"Sopok volunteered for this mission. He knew the risk he was taking."
"Silence!" ordered the chairman. "Send out the first prisoner."
One human barbarian made his way across the field while Jun came the opposite direction. He picked up the impaled body of Marcn Prox as he came. When he was rejoined to his people, he pulled the bolt from Marcon's chest. The bird gasped and sputtered. "That's going to leave a scar!" he wheezed.
Thnad was allowed to go next, carying Bill. His charm had been confiscated. It was almost bizarre seeing him without even a tail. He snarled at the second barbarian, who snarled back.
Sopok was last of all, exchanged for Zayn. Kayrok welcomed his son back, then focused his attention on Ithuba. "What happens now, Ithuba?" he called. "We still have the advantage. You can't take Prendor."
"You are going to hand over the city to me." replied the human. "I'm even going to be gracious and give you an hour to evacuate."
"Why would we ever do that?"
Ithuba snapped his fingers. The barbarians brought out a cage. In it was a wolf wearing a familiar red cape. Her face bore an expression of complete defeat. Carrying her cub, Shadowfox appeared right behind. "If you ever hope to see Queen Cerise or the prince alive again, you will walk away.
"Don't do it, Kayrok." said the general. "You can't let the lives of two people cost you the city."
"We have no choice." Kayrok answered. "We can't spare the queen or the prince. If we sacrifice either of them, we lose Prendor as an ally anyway, and the werewolves will turn against us."
"Your orders, Sir?' asked Sytet.
"Tell the Prendorans to evacuate."
True to his word, Ithuba allowed Prendor exactly one hour to get away. Shadowfox disappeared after handing the baby off to a human. No one noticed, as no one ever really noticed him. No one except Norebo.
* * *
"Veklon!" Shadowfox was alarmed at the sound of his true name. He was also surprised at the sudden disapperance of the entire world. He stood on nothing, surrounded by nothing, with nothing overhead. Nothing, that is, but the one who had spoken his name. He turned around to see a small, green man in a cape with a stiff, upturned collar.
"Norebo. I thought I smelled you." said the fox man in an echoing, chilly, distant-sounding voice.
"What are you doing here, Veklon?" Norebo demanded.
"Serving my own agenda, same as you."
"You have been using supernatural powers." said the lutin.
"I have been using only the powers native to my form in this world; those of the kitsune."
"You violate the very rules of engagement by becoming a magical creature."
Veklon's clothing disappeared as he dropped to all fours and transformed into a many-tailed fox to taunt Norebo. "The rule, as I recall it, was no supernatural creatures. The kitsune is natural to this world, and is a native of the eastern coastlands of Galendor. I've committed no foul."
"And what about that leprechaun?"
"Ah, yes. Gor." said Veklon as he paced. "I picked him up on an island off the eastern coast of Fan Shoar. He likes to travel with me, causing mischief and collecting gold. But Gor is not me. If he makes use of his own magical abilities, I am not to blame."
"It's a violation of the rules of engagement and you know it."
"Get off your high horse." hissed the kitsune. "What about you, marching around with that army of yours, with wizards and seers and thurges and ghasts. Your side is dripping with magic, hypocrite."
"None of which I recruited."
"Oh, didn't you? What about Spectaculo? What about Pureheart?"
"Neither one bearing any significant power when I found them."
Veklon jumped up into his humanoid form once again. "You exploit loopholes the same as I do."
Norebo's face darkened as he crossed his arms and leaned back against nothing. "So do we just throw the rules out the window, then? Do we revert to open warfare?"
Veklon considered this for a moment. "No." he replied. "The results of that are... counterproductive."
For a moment, the two just stared at each other. "You know what open warfare means. Your masters want something left to rule."
"And yours have this whole 'sanctity of life' thing." He thought about the devastation left behind the last time. His side wanted to rule the world, not destroy it. If it came to an all out fight, there might be nothing left, and he would surely be punished severely for the being the cause of end of the world. "Fine. I'll take the form of a more mundane being. But you must give something up as well."
"I'm not the one violating the rules."
"The army that suddenly appeared at the slave mines. Are you going to tell me that wasn't you?"
Norebo suddenly lost a lot of his bravado. "What do you mean?"
"I know what you did, Norebo. If we can't stick to the rules and the world gets destroyed, you'll be as responsible for it as I will."
"My form is already mundane." said Norebo.
"I know. But there are other things you can give up."
* * *
The ride home was a depressing trip. Ithuba had been true to his word. Prendor was taken with no bloodshed. The queen and her son were released once the horde was firmly ensconced in the city. Kayrok rode with his head down the entire way. Queen Cerise said little. She thanked Kayrok for his efforts, and for preserving the lives of her people, especially her own son, but her words did little to raise his spirits. It didn't help that the Prendoran refugees travelling behind them were grumbling over the loss of their homes.
If Kayrok was depressed, Sopok was downright loathing himself. He blamed himself for getting himself and his team caught, and for the loss of Prendor. Never mind that the Burning Sun aleady had the queen.
Arriving back at Dimtorch two days later, Kayrok charged Sytet and Point to find housing for and to supply the refugees. The captain himself was exhausted and emotionally drained. He lay down to rest, but sleep didn't come. He simply couldn't avoid thinking for hour after hour about his failure. Eventually, sleep did give in to Kayrok's persistence and brought him into dreaming, but his dreams weren't restful. They were rehashes of the loss of Prendor, happening again and again. This fitful sleep was interrupted when Kayrok heard his name. He awoke to see a face floating in the air. It was a drow elf. One of the people of Marai-Uthra. It was a sending spell, a one-way message. "Urgent messge follows." said the face. "Marai-Uthra under siege by Burning Sun. Walls already breached. Can't hold out much longer. Help urgently requested. Please, Captain!"
It took a moment for Kayrok to process this. There was no alliance between Marai-Uthra and the Federation. Their relationship didn't extend much beyond organising swackball games against one another. The drow were very proud people and unlikely to call for the assistance of anyone, let alone non-elves. The situation must have been very dire. "Sytet!" he called. "Round up the troops again!"
The army was soon gathered in the square. Despite the weather just beginning to rain and a feeling of depressing from their recent loss mixed with lingering tiredness, they were willing. Kayrok quickly explained the situation, then began outlining a battle plan.
"Captain Kayrok!" shouted General Wolf., with undue emphasis on the man's rank.
"What now?" replied Kayrok.
"In light of your recent complete failure at Prendor, I am relieving you of command. I will be taking contol of this operation."
"I said you are relieved, Captain." Again, the emphasis on "captain".
"I have had enough of this. He turned to the two closest soldiers. "Ispar, Zanzu, take the general to his quarters."
Ispar and Zanzu did not move.
"Sergeant Grad!" Kayrok barked. The sergeant, likewise, did not respond.
"It's no use, Captain." said the general. "The troops have chosen who they are going to follow. Now either fall in or get out of the way."
Kayrok's green face was turning reddish, but for all his anger, he could think of no option that would result in him gaining control of this situation. "Point!" he barked.
"Sir!" replied the cyclops.
"Saddle mounts for us both, and prepare to follow general Wolf."
As they rode out to Marai-Uthra, Sytet said to Kayrok "Just so you know, all of our original troop supports you, Sir."
"So you, Hornbeam, Norebo and Redfoot." Kayrok responded.
Sytet frowned. Was it really just the five of them left? He did some mental memory searching. Dimtorch died of magic poisoning. Sujan had been dishonorably discharged. Foxtooth had been killed at Furbluffs and Tripe retired, still mourning for his best friend. Qlin was killed by the invadng giants, being replaced by his son, Qlin the younger. That was indeed half the number of those under Kayrok's command at the moment of exile. Suddenly, the soldier felt very cold.
When the federated army came into view of Marai-Uthra. the breach in the walls was clearly visible. An entire section of the city wall had crumbled. Both black and white elves could be seen. It seemed the drow had called upon the wood elves for aid. The situation must have been dire if drow elves and wood elves were working together. Elfin soldiers were gathering up the dead and sealing the breach as best they could. A drow dressed in plate armor came to meet them at the city gate. "Captain Kayrok." he said with a bow. "I am Captain..."
"I am General Wolf Spinebeaker. I am the commander of this army." Wolf interrupted. The elf captain paused, looking confused.
Kayrok hesitated. "For the time being, General Wolf is indeed in command of this army. Speak with him."
"I am Captain Dugalak Srathim, commander of the army of Marai-Uthra."
"What is the situation, Captain Dugalak?"
The elf bristled at the use of his first name, but brushed it off as lutin convention. "Both sides have suffered heavy casualties. The Burning Sun have withdrawn to rest and regroup, but they will be back. Our numbers are down and our walls breached. Supplies are dangerously low
"Set up camp around the outside of the breach." Wolf told his officers. "Make that spot as secure as you can." Then he called out "I need three volunteers! Human ones! You, you and you." The humans he chose were Jorgenson, Ikumok and Marcus.
"What do you intend to do?" asked Srathim.
"I'm going to take a page from Captain Kayrok's book. I'm sending these three in with a peace offering."
"Why these three?" asked Kayrok. "They're purely inactive reserve. If they get into trouble, they won't be able to fight their way out."
"A forager, an adventurer merchant and a man who lived with the Lom Shi'Un? They can handle themselves."
"We'll be all right, Cap." Marcus reassured him.
"I have a specially prepared set of gifts for you to take to the Burning Sun." said the General. "See that you treat them with care. They are... fragile."
The three humans marched away into the woods. The rest of the army waited patiently. After about ten minutes, Kayrok turned and asked "What gifts did you send?"
"Something homemade." replied the general. "Three high explosive bombs which will go off when the boxes are opened."
"WHAT? The humans will be killed!'
"Three humans to save a city."
"Do they know what they're carrying?"
"Of course not. If they did, the presentation wouldn't be believeable."
"We have to save them!"
"AT EASE, CAPTAIN!" barked the general.
"At ease my eye!" Kayrok started walking. Wolf barked an order, causing Tiro and Zan to block him with their swords. Kayrok backed off. He wasn't going to win this. But he wasn't out of resources. An imperceptable twitch of his face relayed an order to Sytet.
Meanwhile, Shadowfox slunk unseen in the shadows. He fully intended to relinquish his kitsune form, but he never specified when.
Another twenty minutes passed. There was a shout. In fact, there was a great deal of shouting. It was the Burning Sun. They were coming from the northwest, on the opposite side of the city. "ALPHA TEAM, ATTACK!" shouted Wolf. Half of the army ran into battle. The other half stayed behind to guard the breach.
Kayrok was standing with his sword in his hand, ready to do his duty and defend the gap, when Splin came up to him. "Sir, the trees say that the Burning Sun group isn't the group from here. Those men are coming from Furbluffs."
The captain's eyes went wide. He spoke into his radiant. "General, it's a trap!" No response. At that precise moment, the first group of Burning Sun rushed out of the forest, catching Wolf and his Alpha team in a pincer maneuver. They would be decimated in short order. Kayrok swore as he led Beta team to rescue their comrades.
Moments later, there was the sound of fighting within the city. Some of the horde had made it inside. "Barga! Urik!" called Kayrok. Follow me!" The three raced around the wall.
BOOM! The city was shaken. Rubble flew everywhere. Buildings collapsed. Elves were sceaming. BOOM! BOOM! Marai-Uthra was falling to pieces from the inside out.
General Wolf was losing. "Fall back!" he ordered. "FALL BACK!"
The Federated army lost that day. It was the most humiliating defeat they had ever suffered. Sytet would later inform Kayrok that when he saw the captain's face twitch, he sent Marfik the squirrel to run and warn the humans about the bombs, but he never made it. Later on, an elf would find Marfik's body, mauled to death by a large fox. The Burning Sun somehow knew about the bombs. They had forced Marcus, Ikumok and Jorgenson to enter the city and had somehow set off the bombs while the humans still held them.
Kayrok did not eat. Not during the trip back, not upon arriving home. He went to bed hungry and lay there, staring at the ceiling. Sinking deeper and deeper into depression, he finally fell asleep.
In his dreams, Kayrok found himself in a garden, sitting on a bench. It was lovely and tranquil here. He breathed deeply, inhaling the aroma of the flowers. Someone came walking along the garden path toward him. It was Norebo. "Hello, Captain." said the spy.
"Norebo! Won't you come and join me?" said Kayrok. Brushing his cape aside, Norebo sat down on the bench. For a moment, neither one spoke. They simply sat and enjoyed the garden, until finally, Norebo said "Captain, I have something to tell you."
"Please, feel free." replied Kayrok.
"Captain, you probably won't believe this, but I am not a lutin."
Kayrok smiled. "I wondered when you were going to get around to telling me."
Norebo seemed surprised. "You knew?"
"I don't know the details, but I could tell that you had a secret you were just dying to let out.'
Norebo chuckled. "I keep underestimating you, Captain."
"So, what are you, then?"
Norebo took a deep breath. "Old." he said. "Very, very old."
"Are you a changeling? A spirit?"
"No. Not a fairy or a spirit. My kind existed even before some of the beings who call themselves gods. I suppose you could call us titans."
"You're a bit short for a titan."
"Heh. The myths do paint us large than life. We're... adaptive."
"So why have you taken the form of a lutin?"
Norebo leaned forward and rested his elbows on his legs. "There are forces active in this world. Forces of light and forces of darkness."
"So I've heard."
"Just as some lutins choose evil and some lutins choose good, so some of my people decided to follow darkness and ohers to serve the light. We have been at war for many thousands of years. The problem we come to is that if we fight each other openly, the devastation is unspeakable."
"I would think the dark side would like that."
Norebo shook his head. "They don't want to destroy the world." he said. "Destruction would end it all too quickly. They want to rule you. Corrupt you. Make you suffer. So instead, we have very strict rules of engagement. We can interact with the people of the world in forms like these. Lutins, humans, elves, and other local creatures. In this form, I am allowed to influence events in order to help your side, but I am not allowed to do anything I would not be able to do were I a real lutin."
"And you did, didn't you?"
Norebo hung his head. "The army that appeared out of nowhere at the slave mines. That was my doing. If I hadn't intervened, the slavers would have killed you."
"Thank you." said Kayrok. "But I sense there is more."
"Yes. Another of my kind is here. His name is Veklon, and he is aiding the Burning Sun."
"Oh my. That explains a lot."
"I have taken steps to limit his abilities, but..."
"There's a cost."
"Yes. There is a cost. I made a deal with Veklon. He will assume a new form with less power, but so must I. I will be giving up my ability to communicate."
"Norebo, I'm so sorry."
"You won't remember this dream." said Norebo. "I just..,. I wanted to say good bye, I suppose."
A tear rolled down the captain's face. "I've lost so many. Must I lose you too?"
"I'll be back, but you won't know it's me. You'll 'remember' that I was killed in the battle of Marai-Uthra."
Both men wept.
"There's something else you should know." said the titan. "If one of us is killed, we cannot return. At least not right away. We must remain outside the world for approximately fifty years."
"Why tell me this if I won't remember this conversation?"
"I don't know." Norebo admitted. "I suppose there's really no point in telling you any of this."
Kayrok didn't reply. He simply sat on the bench in the garden and enjoyed the now.
* * *
Morning came too soon. Kayrok checked on Sopok. The boy was still sound asleep. He would let him continue. The captain walked out to the porch and sat, looking out at the town square. He couldn't help thinking of the friends he'd lost. Marcus the trader, who had introduced the lutins to Shanar-Kallas. Ikumok, who had saved his son's life. Jorgenson, a friend of many in Steamville. And worst of all, his good friend Norebo. There had been many others lost that day, but none stung so much as the loss of one of the original Omega squad. There were only four, now. Who knew when there would be three?
A dog came wandering through the square. He was gaunt with long, thin legs and floppy ears, obviously malnourished. He came up to Kayrok and stared up at him with sad eyes. "Hello boy." said the lutin. "You look like you could use a bite." He went into the CQ and returned with some cheese and a bowl of water. The dog took the cheese gingerly in his teeth, then gobbled it down with gusto. "Do you have a name?" Kayrok inquired. The dog wore no collar. "Well, I have to go." said Kayrok. "There's much to be done." The dog got up and followed. "Go on, now." said Kayrok with a shooing motion. "Go on home." The dog simply whined. "You don't have a home, do you?" asked the captain. "Well... I suppose we have room for one more. But what do I call you? Rex? Fido? Spot? No. I know. I'll name you after a hero. Yeah... that one just seems right. Come, Norebo."
The dog smiled broadly as he followed Kayrok into his new home.
* * *
Kayrok busied himself dealing with the issues that came with the recent loss. There were funeral arrangements, ressignments, and alterations to security which came with the changes in the enemy's positions and strengths. Of course, General Wolf was in charge now. All if this would require his approval.
It was around noon that there was a knock on the door. It was Point who opened the door. "Captain," said the cyclops. "I think you'd better come and see this."
The Federated army was assembled in the square. In the forefront were the lutins, but there were also the goblins of Rider, the gnomes of Solace. The humans of Sky Valley. The tragso. The nilbogs. The giants. The dwarves. And standing behind them all were Algene and Chara. What was most amazing was that every single one of them was wearing a forest green uniform. The lutin army didn't even HAVE uniforms. "What's all this?' kayrok asked, bewildered.
Sytet, who stood front ant center, fired off a crisp salute. "Sir, the troops have something they wish to say."
"Permission to speak granted."
"Private Zin, step forward and report!"
Zin stepped forward and saluted. Kayrok returned the salute. "Sir, we have acted foolishly." said Zin. "We allowed our loyalty to be swayed by General Wolf. The general's actions at Marai-Uthra are not those of an honorable man. We lost many good people because we were willing to follow a leader who willingly and needlessly sacrificed our own people. We will not make that mistake again. We are prepared to swear our loyalty to you alone as our commander-in-chief."
Kayrok was dumbstruck for a moment. Finally he said "Then I, too, will do my utmost to prove myself worthy of that loyalty. But tell me, where in the world did these uniforms come from?"
Chara waved from the far side of the square. "I've had the old folks in Prosperity working on them for months, for just this moment." Of course she did.
General wolf watched all of this from the windows of his quarters. He dared not go out at that moment, but the more he watched, the more his face turned purple.
* * *
Rakthar laughed aloud as he strolled through the corridors of the castle at Prendor. The cooks would be serving delicacies from the Prendoran larders today. He was looking forward to helping himself to something tasty. Feeling thirsty, he went to open a water jar by the kitchen door."
Another of the horde's barbarians slammed the lid down. "Don't drink that." he warned.
"Why not?" Rakthar demanded. "I'm thirsty."
"It's from the river. Ithuba got a tip-off that the river water has poison in it."
"Well what are we supposed to drink, then?"
"Ain't nothing wrong with the wine!"
Rakthar laughed again and broke open keg of wine.
In the dining hall beyond, Ithuba was congratulating himself and his men. "Furbluffs, Prendor and Marai-Uthra." he crowed. "We'll be taking Taikroisa next! Ha ha!" He took a gulp of beer to reward himself for being such a good warlord.
One of his warriors came in from the courtyard. "Hey boss," he said, holding a folded piece of paper. "A bat just dropped this. It's got words on it."
Ithuba examined the paper. "Who here can read?" he inquired.
"I learned some reading when I was a lad." said a hordesman with a wooden leg. "Lemme see." He examined the paper carefully. "Neh... neh go tee... Oh! It's from them lutins! They wanna negotiate a surrender afore we comes and destroys everything!"
Ithuba considered. "Could be a trap. Ey! Sujan! Is it a trap?"
"Unlikely." replied the strategist. "They tried to fool you with false gifts at Marai-Uthra. They will not make the same mistake twice."
"It says there'll be unlimited free beer." the reader told him.
"LET'S GO, BOYS!"
* * *
The meeting took place at Splim's. Ithuba wasn't worried in the slightest about a trap. A large number of his people were here with him. In fact, once they got word of the promise of free beer, the leaders of the Furbluffs and Marai-Uthra groups insisted on coming as well. The group was enormous, and they intimidated the entire city. Everyone was dismayed to see that as Ithuba strode into town, Sujan was at his right side. Dismayed, but not surprised. Sujan's presence in the burning sun explained a lot. On the leader's left was a troll who looked strangely like Shadowfox.
Kayrok and the leaders of the Federation sat on one side of the negotiating table while the Burning Sun sat on the other. "Are you prepared to discuss terms of surrender?" asked the captain.
"I'm not a rash man." said Ithuba. "Leave the women, and I'll let the rest of you leave alive."
"That's not acceptable." said Count Dupris.
"You should be glad I'm offring you anything." said Ithuba. "We don't normally make deals. We just came for the beer. Speaking of which..."
Snowhare came out of the kitchen with a pushcart bearing mugs, followed by Splim with a keg of beer. One of the barbarians got up to help himself. Ithuba barked once and the man sank back into his seat. Ithuba was in charge here, and he would make sure everyone acknowledged that fact. No one would dink before he did. Snowhare filled a mug and gave it to him, but as she did, she whisperd in his ear "The cups are poisoned."
Poisoned? But that would mean the Federation men would be poisoning themselves. The barbarian waited. He noticed that the mugs were two colors. Every time Snowhare served one of his men, the mug was yellow. The enemy were only being served with mugs that were green. The other barbarians waited as well. No one would drink before he did. "Captain," said Ithuba, coolly. "Why don't you take the first drink?"
"Oh, but you're our guests, You should..."
Ithuba rose and slammed his fist n the table. "DRINK!" Kayrok cringed a little and obeyed, taking a deep swig of his beverage. Ithuba sniffed his. There was the distinct smell of almonds. He grabbed Kayrok's. No almonds. "I think we like the green mugs better." said the horde leader. "Boys, trade!" The Burning Sun did as commanded. Ithuba downed his first mug of beer, then called for more. The rest did likewise. The Federation representatives likewise drank theirs. After his second helping, Ithuba was ready to talk. "As I said, I'm not uncivilized. I'll let your people live." He paused. "I'll even let... some of you... stay as slaves..." It was getting hard to breathe. The warlord looked left and right. All of his men were having the same problem. He tried making a fist, but his fingers were weak and slow to respond. "WHAT IS THIS?" he bellowed. "You have poisoned us! But how? We drank from the green cups!"
"About that..." said Splim. "All of the cups were poisoned. The almond smell was actual almond extract."
"We needed you to think you'd outsmarted us." Kayrok explained. "The actual poison was essence of wolfglove."
"But... you drank too! All of you!"
Azpat appeard in the kitchen doorway. "But they have me." he said with his innocent yet creepy smile. "See, I've been putting small amounts of wolfglove into the water supply. A beautiful poison. Colorless, odorless, tasteless, but if you take it in small doses, you build up a resistance. Our people have been developing an immunity for the last six months."
"You... cheat..." Ithuba struggled to speak. He was attempting to draw his weapon, as we all his men, but they were all becoming too weak and stiff to fight.
"Oh, I never cheat. I warned you that the river was being poisoned. I had Snowhare warn you that the cups were poisoned. See, it's no fun if you don't play by the rules.
The barbarians were falling to the floor, now. Only Sujan, who had drunken only a little bit, remained upright. He, too, however, was gradually succumbing to the poison's effects. "Captain." he said.
"I obviously haven't much time left, so I need to tell you this quickly. I haven't been helping the Burning Sun."
"Oh?" was the only reply.
"When I betrayed you, the shame I felt... the guilt... I liked it. I just wanted to feel... anything. But that feeling grew. I... WHEEZE... I was overcome by it. So I went and... WHEEZE enlisted with the Burning Sun as their strategist, spoecifically to give them bad advice."
Kayrok stood and walked around the table to stand next to his former first officer. "Sujan, you betrayed them?"
"I knew you would spring... WHEEZE... a trap. I told them you wouldn't."
"You knew the green cups were poisoned also? Why did you drink?"
"If I hesitated at all, Ithuba would have known. I had to make him believe I thought it was safe."
Kayrok was cradling his old friend's head, now. "You gave your life. To save us."
"Sujan, if there is anything I can do..."
"Tell me... I did well."
"You did well, Sujan. You're a hero."
Sujan smiled. The last emotion he ever felt was a sense of satisfaction and pride. He felt good as he exhaled his last breath.
After closing his friend's eyes, Kayrok drew his sword and stepped out the door. The few barbarians which Ithuba had posted outside to stand guard were quickly dealt with. "TROOPS!" he barked. "ASSEMBLE!" Soldiers poured out of the buildings of Mountainshade and stepped into formation in the town square. Kayrok was putting on his own uniform coat as he announced "The leaders of the Burning Sun and their most fiersome warriors are dead! Today, we will retake Marai-Uthra! Tomorrow, Furbluffs, and the day after, Prendor!" There was a mighty war cry from the lutins and their allies.
* * *
It had been six days since Kayrok and his men had marched into the forest. General Wolf had tried taking control of Camp Dimtorch, but those who remained weren't having it. Wolf was persona non grata here. So instead, Wolf turned his attention to a bottle. The bottle would obey him. At regular intervals, he sent liquid troops down inside of himself to fight the anger and depression. Unfortunately, the enemy was winning. The more Wolf drank, the angrier and more depressed he became. When he was completely sozzled, the general stumbled down the road to punishment, looking for any leftover troops he could command. No one was there. He continued on to Havensreach. Construction of the towers was proceeding at a slow pace, owing to the large number of workers who were also reserve military and thus had gone to war with that accursed Kayrok. It was starting to rain when Wolf stared at the towers. "It's not goblinly." he muttered. "IT'S NOT GOBLINLY! This DECADENCE! Look at you people... Living in luxury in your towers of glass. You're all WEAK! You're all SOFT! STOP this! I command you! QUIT BUILDING this thing! It NOT GOBLINLY!"
* * *
Morale was high as the army returned home. Prendor was once again in the hands of the Prendorans. Furbluffs would be quickly repopulated by the talking animals who chose to return. Marai-Uthra would be rebuilt. The wood elves even dropped their bad attitude and quit hating the lutins. All that could be set right had been.
Iceberg was the first town the army came to upon their return, being the furthest west along the highway. It was there that they received news of what was happening in Havensreach.
When Kayrok arrived at Havensreach, he found that a great deal of the construction equipment had been smashed up, as had many of the glass windows on the ground floor of the tower. Several of the construction workers lay on the ground, severely injured, but alive. At the door of the tower, with a wrench in one hand and a sword in the other, stood a very drunken Wolf Spinebreaker. "YOU'RE ALL WEAK!" he bellowed.
"Wolf, put down the weapons. You're drunk." said Kayrok as he slowly approached.
"I'm not drunk! YOU'RE drunk!"
"Stand down, General." Kayrok drew his sword. Wolf swung wildly with his own. The collisions between the two were jarring. After the first few blocks, Wolf sent Kayrok's sword flying to the side, but his grip faltered and his own was not far behind. Before Kayrok could retrieve his weapon, Wolf rushed forward, holding the wrench high. Kayrok tackled him, knocking him to the ground. The two of them wrestled, Kayrok being hit in the back with the wrench several times. Kayrok pulled himself away and rose to his feet, but so did the general, who body slammed him through the tower door. They grappled. Wolf got in several very cheap shots. Despite searing pain, Kayrok fought on.
"We shoiuld help him!" said Point as he watched from next to the tracks.
"No." said Sytet. "This is a battle between alphas. If Kayrok is to truly be leader, he has to do this himself."
"You lutins are insane!"
"I know, I know. But it isn't about pride or glory. It's about what his men think. Trust me, this is Kayrok's fight."
The two lutins struggled. Wolf kicked Kayrok away, causing him to stumble into the elevator. He'd had the wind knocked out of him and needed moment to recover, but Wolf was charging at him, wrench held high. Kayrok tried to buy time. He grabbed the control lever and pulled. A steam engine roared to life and the room he was in began rising. It was too late to escape. Wolf jumped on. He punched the captain in the gut and then did an uppercut to his face. Kayrok's nose was broken and bleeding, but he was not giving up. He put his leg in front of the general and swept his arm to the side like a dramatic actor, forcing Wolf to the floor. On and on they fought, the elevator rising ever higher. Up it went, past the top finished floor. Up, up, toward the top of the cliff. Wolf raised his wrench high and brought it down toward Kayrok's head. The captain dodged to the right. Wolf hit only empty air and stumbled forward. In his drunken state, he could not stop himself from falling forward, right out of the elevator. Kayrok lunged to grab him, but it was too late. General Wolf Spinebreaker slammed into the floor below and died.
Kayrok lay on the floor of the elevator, gathering his strength. Niblik, meanwhile, ran up the inside of the tower as fast as his little legs could carry him. He ran out onto what was effectively the roof, where Wolf's body lay. He pressed a button next to the elevator shaft, and the device descended. Kayrok stepped out. "Captain, are you okay?" asked Niblik.
"It's hard to breathe." replied Kayrok.
"Not surprising." said Niblik. "You took quite a beating. We should get you to the hospital."
"You might want to think about putting some doors on that thing, by the way."
"I'll do that."
Neither one noticed Wolf waking up, getting to his feet, and preparing to run at them. Not until Niblik happened to glance to his left. He bellowed a war cry and lifted his wrench to strike, but Niblik tackled him about the knees. "NIBLIK! NO!" shouted Kayrok, but the two of them went over the side of the tower. The ground finished what the floor had started. This time, there was no room for doubt. Wolf Spinebreaker was dead, and Niblik's broken body lay there with him.
* * *
The conflict was not over. The Burning Sun was not one unit. It was not two or three. It was a horde with many, many groups spread out over a large area. Skirmishes were many, but with each one, Kayrok's army became better and better. But life was not all fighting. There were good times as well. Times like these when Kayrok had a moment to sit in a rocking chair on the porch of the CQ and enjoy the view during a quiet moment. The towers of Havensreach were finished, and Kayrok could see the tops of them, though thjey were miles away. Each one was one hundred stories tall, not counting basement levels. At the 87th stories, one could step out onto the plateau, and from there, walk to Sky Valley. Niblik wanted to name one of the towers after Kayrok, but the captain politely declined the honor, so the western one was named Gravelsong tower, and the eastern one Kofak tower, after his two closest companions.
Across the square, Chow was exiting the hospital. He'd just taken his son for a checkup. The boy, whose name was Mem, took off across the square due to a sudden fascination with Kayrok's dog, making his father chase after him. Mem's feet were lion paws. He had a long tail, whiskers, and fur on his chest and legs. The rest of him was definitely goblin. He looked like a sphinx. He was absolutely adorable. Chow caught his son and scooped him up, despite protests of "Wanna pet goggie!"
Kayrok looked down at the dog, who was far less thin than he had been when they met. Norebo was sleeping, paws twitching slightly. "I wonder what he's dreaming about?" said Kayrok to no one in particular.
* * *
Norebo stood in his current form, the form of a dog, before a large, winged sphinx. "You have taken on a very seious limitation, Norebo." said the Sphinx.
"It's good to see you too, Aruda." replied the dog.
"That I delight in your presence is a given, my friend." said the sphinx. "But I am filled with concern for you. How will you complete your work now?"
"Events are set in motion." answered Norebo. "It will be difficult to stop them now. Velkon stood a good chance of making that happen. I had to agree to this deal or he could have destroyed everything I have worked for."
"He is furious." said Aruda. "He says you tricked him into becoming a troll, knowing he would immediately be poisioned.
"It was his idea. Though I suppose I'll have to deal with his misplaced desire for vengeance in about fifty years."
"Do you need me to come and help you?" asked the sphinx.
"No. You're sorely needed where you are."
"I wish you good fortune, my friend."
"And to you."
* * *
Norebo seemed to have stopped dreaming, and simply lay snoring, his paws still. Someone else came out of the hospital. It was Niblik. Kayrok rose to greet the small fellow as he hobbled along. It was good to see him out and about. He was worried the architect might never recover.
* * *
Deep in the forest, a strange figure danced a weirdly compelling dance. He was a strange sight to behold. While his left arm was normal, albeit very strong, the right arm was made of twisted branches. In each hand was a knife. The blades flashed as the person did his strange dance.
"You impressive." said a nearby gnurl. "We think you ready."
The man paused and turned to address the gnurl. It was none other than Mumbor. He was not the same man who had gone missing in the battle against the giants. He was strong, slender, agile, and there wasn't a single sign of allergies anywhere. "Thanks to you, I am." he replied.
"Who you, and what you going do?"
"I am Mumbor Riverby, warrior, and I am going to kill Captain Kayrok."