Killing Time - Part IV

The gatehouse had been cleared by the time Charles finally reached the main hall. He gripped his staff tightly as he moved past several dead bodies, and into the manor proper. Laura and the others would be well on their way to killing any Lutin they came across, so there was no point anymore in simply trying to find them. He would do as they did, kill anything that he saw that was not a Keeper.

Most of the anterooms in the castle were cleared, so he headed towards the inner chambers, following the mental map he had made back at the briefing. There was a small Lightbringer chapel a few rooms away, though it had not served in its capacities as a place of worship ever since Nasoj had destroyed the human settlement here in his march to Metamor. The transom was covered with mould and neglect, and the doors were half open, letting a cold draft blow through. Curling his robe tightly to his chest, Charles squeezed into the chamber beyond.

It was a two-tiered sanctuary, with vaulted ceiling overhead and birds nesting in the rafters. Icons of each of the Lothanasi pantheon decorated the walls, though they had long since been ruined and vandalised in the occupation. Only the caricatures remained of what had one been beautiful statuary. Even though he was a Follower, Charles felt horrified at the debasement of a sanctuary devoted to the praise and worship of the gods. It was clear that the Lutins only used this place to destroy something when they were bored.

The scent of Lutin was faint here, though, and so he continued on inwards, partly from curiosity. He'd never been inside the chapel of a Lightbringer temple before, even one as trashed as this. People had once come here to celebrate their faith. He rested his paw on an overturned pew, pondering who had once sat in those seats.

The sound of metal against metal snapped his head up. From out behind each of the icons, had appeared a group of several Lutins, bearing swords and clubs. Charles scanned the chapel, and saw that they were on all sides. The Lutins had lain in wait for the Keepers to come into this room. With only one, and a rat at that, how could they not easily dispatch him?

Matthias rubbed his paws together, and then swung his staff about a few times before him, standing ready, foot paws wide apart, tail held just off the ground, and the black robe flowing around his body. From every side, they screamed, running towards him, ready to destroy one simple rat who had walked into their clutches. Charles jumped on one of the still standing pews, and threw himself at the nearest icon. The face was too long scarred to even make out the details.

The group of Lutins nearby had been running too fast to slow down, and so he passed them by, landing behind them. With two sharp racks, he smashed the ferrules against the back of the nearest two Lutin's necks, snapping them both. It was too dark to really see what the Lutins on the far side of the room were doing, but as long as he could see those close, that was all that mattered.

Their cries recommenced, and they pressed him against the wall behind the icon, while those trying to attack him stumbled away with broken bones and bruises across their chest. Matthias continued his sharp jabs with the staff, knocking aside weapons, and slamming the end against heads, chests, and arms, even a leg or two when he swung low enough. Being only four feet tall, he was about the same height as most of his attackers, and that gave him quite an advantage. Stooping to strike an enemy was such a hassle.

Though the hickory of his staff was quite stout, Charles had trained with staves much stronger in his days at Sondeshara. He had already broken four while Misha had tested his skills in the past two months. So he did his best to restrain his Sondeck while fighting against the Lutins, though they came in such powerful surges he had a hard time wit it. Finally, he swung the staff in a long arc, colliding with another club, breaking both weapons in two.

Charles dropped the useless shaft and drew his sword, swinging it in long circular crescents, keeping each of the Lutins back away from him. The shouts of pure rage then, turned to dismay as another taller figure waded through the mass of attackers, each waiting their turn to swipe at the rat. Matthias peered into the darkness, and saw a cloaked figure slashing with two long hooked rods through the backs of the Lutins. It was Rickkter.

For the first time in his life, Charles was happy to see the raccoon, who managed to make his way close enough to the rat who was struggling to hold his ground against the surge of Lutins who appeared endless in supply. The appeared to be long metal rods with a curved hook at one end, rather like a fishing lure. Rickkter used them with devastating efficiency, snatching the Lutins' weapons from their hands with one, and then raking the other across their throats or chests. However, with so many of them pressing at his back, they became a bit unwieldy. One of his rods imbedded itself inside the skull of a Lutin trying to leap from one of the icons, and twisted out of Rickkter's paws. Discarding the other inside a green chest, he drew forth his katana, the metallic ring sizzling the air.

The Kankoran took one look at him, reached a single paw inside his holocaust cloak, and cried out, "Catch!" Something bright flew through the air, and Matthias threw his fist at one nearby Lutin, knocking him out of the way without ever touching him.

The object fell into his paws as if it were born there. The rat immediately recognized it as Rickkter's Sondeshike. With a flick of his wrist, he extended the long pole, smacking the butt end into a club-waving Lutin's face. The skull shattered, spreading a foam of milky-red blood across the ferrules of the shaft and down across one side of the rat's fur. Charles blinked in surprise at the force that had detonated with that impact. And then, he decided to put his years and years of training at Sondeshara to use.

While there was no question that Rickkter was eminently skilled with the Sondeshike, only a Sondeckis truly trained in the proper techniques can use it the way it was meant to be. No longer did Matthias simply jab at nearby Lutins, but instead, he swung the shaft about his body in quick arcs, letting it dance about his cloak as if it had a life of its own. Charles spun on his hind paws, leaping into the air, twirling about, crushing chests with each blow that would come from nowhere. The Lutins flung themselves at his back, trying to strike while he was looking elsewhere, but each time, the Sondeshike would drive backwards, splintering skulls and crushing necks.

The rod whirling about him, Charles capered through the sea of flesh, his mind no longer a conscious object, but one driven by the Sondeck. It was the perfect synthesis of flesh and spirit. The pure essence of force emanating from the rat's body, in conjunction with every other Sondeckis who had ever held this weapon. It was as if they fought threw him, meeting every skill, every tactic that his enemies dared to use. With sudden swiftness, counterstrikes stopped a side attack, disarming a Lutin, and not just the blade, only to fly back to his other side, and sweep cleanly through the knees of another advancing group. His eyes did not see them, for he knew where they were by their very presence.

In a few short moments, Charles found himself back to back with Rickkter. Their powers flowed freely, the Kankoran and Sondeckis working in tandem. Charles was sick with the rage it brought, striking fiercer and fiercer at each enemy that stood before him as they circled about the centre of the chapel. Blood splattered with each strike, his simple metallic stave ripping apart the bodies of the Lutins it struck.

Rickkter did just as well, slashing through the exposed bellies of his attackers, their intestines spilling upon the cracked stonework, as they crumpled to the floor in agony. Charles barely had time to consider the skill of the raccoon at his back, but those times when his range of sight allowed him to watch, he could barely glimpse the spinning blade before it imbedded itself inches into the flesh of every Lutin who dared to attack. With each kill, Matthias could feel that long striped tail presses against his own, as if to chalk up his score.

The symphony of death about them continued as they circled faster and faster, their arts from ages old combining to expel deadly force. Those Lutins who stayed too far back for Charles to strike with the ferrules, he threw the force at them, breaking ribs and crunching their organs as they gasped for breath that would not come. Bodies of the dead Lutins littered the ground around them, and hung off the few standing pews left. The war cries of the Lutins turned into screams of fear as their bones cracked, and their skin burst with suppurating blood at each impact.

When Charles saw no more Lutins were willing to attack them, they began to chase after them, both side by side. They screamed and ran, trying to make for the doorway, but only the front entrance was left. With cries for mercy, they cowered when they could not escape, only to find Rickkter's sword point pierce through their throat, or the ferrules of the Sondeshike crushing their heads, spilling out the soppy grey muscle inside.

And then there was only one left. A straggler who'd hidden behind a pew after Charles had shattered the bone in his sword arm. He tried to slink away out the front door, but the two Keepers saw him, and walked their death march towards him, the sword glistening in the pale illumination with the same blood that coated Charles's fur.

Matthias put up one paw as they approached, the Lutin stumbling, bawling for some saviour that would not come. Rickkter nodded and stood back as the rat advanced on the cowering creature. He held his one good arm over his head, his face contorted in a rictus of pure fear. And then the Sondeshike slammed down through his chest, all the way into the floor beneath him. Matthias reached down, and jabbed his claws through the eyes, bursting them in a flood of white pus. Then, he griped the bones beneath, and yanked free the head, holding it aloft by the eye sockets.

With one last peroration of his rage, he smashed the now lifeless head against one of the Lightbringer gods. Hefting the Sondeshike, he gazed about for more enemies, but none were to be seen. And then, with a loud report, the door to the chapel swung open , and a massive figure barged in, his sword fresh with the glint of blood as well. Charles and Rickkter turned at the ready, their mouths crying out in animal fury at this new enemy.

And then, a torchbearer entered the room, following behind the first figure, and showed whose face it was. Andre peered at the blood soaked Keepers with sudden fear, and then concern. "Matthias, Rickkter, what happened here?"

The raccoon was the first to find his ferocity ebb. He kicked the limp arm of a Lutin lying at his side, his chest opened in several gashes. "They died," he said, his voice cold, but sure. Charles nodded once, shrinking the Sondeshike back down to its compact form, and slipping it beneath the folds of his robe. Secretly, he hoped that the Kankoran did not notice this.

The storm had broken that night, and the sun shone down upon them as they rested in a small clearing south of the Giant's Dike. A stream meandered its way through the rocks, pooling in slight depressions, and then continuing on down the slope. They had been walking all morning already, most eager to return home to see their loved ones. Though it was a brighter, cheerier day, still most were morose, speaking infrequently, and even then only a few words.

Charles knelt before the stream, apart from the others, gazing into his shimmering reflection as the water flowed past. The dyes had become corrupted with red stains from the fight in the chapel. He reached a paw to the crusting fur just over one eye, touching what could have been a carbuncle, but was only a slight bruise smeared with mud, blood, and the camouflage.

He picked at a bit of the clump, breaking off a piece of the caked-on debris, and tossed it idly into the river. It began to break apart in the swiftly moving stream, and in moments it had drifted off down to the next depression. Charles watched it until it was gone, though he did not know why.

After the battle in the chapel, Rickkter, Matthias, Andre, and the knights men continued on towards other portions of the castle, finding many stragglers, but dispatching them with ease. Though, nothing quite on the order of what had happened in the hall of the Lightbringers at Stepping Rock Castle. And neither of the southern magicians ever felt the bloodlust that they had there, fighting back to back against the veritable horde. By dawn, once the Longs had regrouped, assured that every being in that fortress was dead, they had been so thoroughly drenched in blood, that it appeared as if they'd been swimming in it.

Glancing over at the Longs, he could see that Misha was still in a confused daze, almost completely unresponsive. How much blood had he spilled last night, the rat wondered to himself. Rickkter appeared unaffected, except for a true look of concern for the fox that flashed over his countenance every time he saw the catatonic Keeper. Charles rubbed his claws against the small piece of metal bundled in his robe. The raccoon had not asked him to return the Sondeshike yet, and Matthias had no intention of making this fact known.

Returning his eyes to the stream, Charles lowered his arms into the water, rubbing them down, trying to remove the blood from the fur. He did not have any soap with him, and the red stains were unsightly, as well as inordinately uncomfortable. Much of the clumping washed away as he massaged the fur of his upper arms, but the general hue remained. Indeed, the stream was momentarily discoloured by his immersion, but the current quickly cleared it up.

Sitting back on his haunches, Charles considered his arms. The blood had stained deep into his fur, and he knew that ti would not be until they returned to Metamor that he would be able to remove it. How many Lutins had died last night underneath his paws? The first few he could recall, but after he'd taken the Sondeshike, it was all a blur. It felt like an entire life had been concentrated in that battle in the Chapel, but one given only in dreams.

Picking at something beneath his claws, he tried to remove the red taint from them as well, but with much the same lack of success. His robe, a simple black cassock that he had donned for the journey, was ruined, but he had nothing else to wear until they returned to the Keep. Yet somehow, to the writer in him, it all was ironic. When they returned home, everyone would know what they had done. He could imagine Lady Kimberly recoiling at his dirtied state, and he would not blame her if she did.

Charles sighed, gazing down at his dishevelled expression in the river before him. They all had taken part in this letting of blood, and very few of it was their own. In gazing into those black orbs though, he wondered how much of the crimson stains happened to belong to their spirit's.

As he watched, another figure's blurred image was reflected in the water. "Sit by the river long enough, and you shall see the body of your enemy float by," quoted the raccoon as he knelt a few metres downstream.

"And old saying," Charles observed. He noticed that Rickkter looked almost as bad as he, the thick fur on his face deeply encrusted with the blood of the dead. His arms were mostly clean, but the rat vaguely remembered those being covered by light armour. "What are you here for?"

"To clean up, same as you." Rickkter reached up and vigorously scratched through the dried blood. It came down on the flowing water like a crimson snow. "I've been thinking about what you said earlier," he commented as he scrubbed a particularly tough clot on his cheek, "about this being the first time in five centuries our sects have co-operated. And for what happened, I think I can see why. If the Sondeck and the Kankoran ever allied, I think there's very little that could stop us."

For some reason, the conversation was just as unreal as the fight had been. It felt to Charles like he was watching it happen to somebody else. Even so, the mere thought of the Sondeckis and Kankoran allying for a common cause was enough to send a shiver up his spine. Having no desire to continue on down that path, despite the incredulity of it all, he posed a different topic. "Misha told me what you did."

"Ah, I see." The raccoon turned and gazed curiously at the fox. Misha sat towards the back of the camp, bloodied and wrapped in bandages. "I see he didn't come though it as well as some."

With a look back himself, Charles was forced to agree, though the vacant stare the fox bore was more unsettling than any of his wounds. Yet what gnawed at him most in that moment was that the Kankoran's previous arrogant attitude had mellowed to civility. "I think this is the first time he's done something of this size. Before Metamor, he was just a siege engineer. During this battle he was consumed with rage, probably something that he's never felt. Or at least, not on this scale. I take it you heard what happened with Hurd?"

Hurd had been the commander of the Lutin forces at Stepping Rock. He had also carried a Metamorian skull as a trophy. From what others had said, Misha had gone into a blind rage, and ripped Hurd's throat out with his bare teeth before tossing his body into the thick of the battle outside the gates. Though Charles had not seen it, he could hardly imagine that it was any worse than what Rickkter and he perpetrated in the old Lothanasi chapel.

"Yes, I did. Crazy." Rickkter moved to cleaning to his ears. "I was talking with him, after the funeral. He's a good leader, but he lacks experience, in my opinion. I think his condition now shows that fact."

Charles took a moment to gaze back at the fox once more. Misha was wrapped in the bandages, some of them stained with the old blood, others fresh. The grey eyes simply stared at the ground before him as he sat slouched over. Will was next to him, trying to talk with the fox, but finding no success. Matthias turned back to the stream, unable to see his friend anymore. How much of the fox's face did he wear? "Perhaps you're right."

"Perhaps it's just that we've just seen too much, you and I," the raccoon said as he stood up and brushed off his clothing before turning and departing.

"Rickkter," Charles called suddenly. The raccoon turned back, his face curious. "Why the sudden attitude change?"

The Kankoran appeared to be thinking about that for a moment before a sly smile crossed his visage. "Call it respect. For a fellow warrior." Then once more, he began to head back to the rest of the camp. He had not asked about the Sondeshike.

Matthias chortled drily at that, a moue settling over his vapid countenance, and rose from the stream. The other Longs were assembling and preparing to continue on their journey. It was still a long way to Metamor.

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