Winter's First Chill - Part VI


And then, what had torn him in two could be seen clearly, before the torches about the room were snuffed completely, unable to survive its proximity. It was completely black, a great statue of obsidian, only this rock did not shine, but absorbed the light, drawing all of it inwards to fuel the fire of its sinew. It was shaped roughly like a man, two arms, and two legs, both spidery and long, as if no meat were upon them. Its face though was its most distinguishing feature, for it had only one feature present. There were no eyes, no ears, not even a nose. All that existed upon that blank apparition was a mouth, a great gaping hole into eternal darkness.

And from out of that hole came the most frightening noise that Charles had ever heard, and he surmised would ever hear again. It shrieked, an ear piercing shriek that made him double over in agony as it reverberated through every cell of his flesh, threatening to break him down into gelatinous goo. The wail forced him to press his eyelids tightly together to hold his eyes in their sockets, and his paws were upon his ears, covering the saucer-shaped appendages for fear that his brains would ooze from them to escape the maddening cry.

And in that single moment of abject agony, he recalled a bit of speculation that Southern scholars had made regarding this stygian beast's cry: It shattered the souls of those who had just died, destroying them and preventing them from sharing in any afterlife. With that sound still ringing through every part of his body, making his motions to crawl away from it and back into the light feeble at best, he was convinced that it had to be true.

In that same moment, after mentally giving himself up for dead after all, they were maybe a few metres from that thing, that Shrieker, in the dark of night, barely able to even rise to their feet the most remarkable thing of all occurred. Lights flared about them on every side, twisting and curving about that creature, burning to give them something to see by. Also, the walls had reformed themselves in a fashion that the rat found nearly impossible to follow. What had once been a hallway, had become a self-contained room with many sides. Yet, he could not convincingly label any of them as the floor or the ceiling. They each were a wall, and each stood at right angles with the rest. But as his eyes traced them out, he realized that there were five distinct walls in every direction he gazed. They each distorted the light, twisting it around the object that had been thrown into the centre of the maelstrom, the Shrieker.

"What in..." Zagrosek began to say, though his voice trailed off as he gazed up at one of the walls, and saw the rat looking back at him, as if he were lying on the ceiling.

"It's the Keep, it has to be," Charles called back, finally drawing himself on his unsteady legs. Turning his eyes inwards towards the seething, but now quiet abomination there, he saw that it too was gaining its bearings. "It's trapped us in this room of sorts with it. The Keep wants us to kill it, or at least to prevent it from leaving this strange space. I say let's oblige it."

Jerome looked up from where he stood only a short distance away, on a pentagonal wall that bent in strange ways as they looked at it. To their eyes, whatever they peered at grew disproportionately closer than everything around it. "You two fight the Shrieker, I'll stop the mage from doing any more harm."

Charles quickly scanned about and saw that Garigan was on the far side of the room, if any part of it could be considered far, trying to scoot back from the creature that was between them, the two front teeth dangling out of his mouth. The fact that he almost looked like a rodent just then the way they protruded would have struck Matthias as quite amusing if not for the fact that a creature of the Underworld was in their midst. Perhaps, should they survive, he would look back on the image and chuckle, but for now, he was fortunate not to soil his breeches.

Zagrosek pulled forth his own Sondeshike, extending it and twirling it experimentally between his hands. To the rat's eye, it spun strangely, bending at odd angles towards the bare ferrules. However, it reminded Matthias of his own, which he brought forth in his paws, the cool metal pleasant to the touch. He could feel the heat that collected against the Shrieker's body singe the ends of his whiskers, but he cared not at this point. The thing before him was something that should not exist, and he intended to see to it that it ceased to.

Suddenly, and silently, it flowed across the walls, darting up each as if it were the floor, taking the right angles in single leaps, darting straight for the rat, arms outstretched. Charles ducked to the side, spinning the Sondeshike and slamming it against the creature's head. Yet, the metal flinched as it touched, the force he pushed through it being sent back at him. Stumbling, Charles fell backwards, landing against the wall behind him, and suddenly finding his perspective altered.

Blinking, he tried to straighten out his new centre of balance, rising on that wall, while the Shrieker plunged straight down towards him. The rat barely had time to scuttle out of the way before it landed, rolling across the hard masonry and coming to stand once more on its feet. No longer waiting for its approach, Charles swung out the Sondeshike, throwing the force this time, and watched it pummel against the emaciated chest, pushing the creature back a pace or two.

Yet, even that was not enough to deter it, or even weaken it apparently, as after only a moment, it lunged or him again. This time, instead of stepping to the side, Charles stood his ground, planting his feet firmly against the wall behind him, feeling the contour of the edge, and the drastic changes it would entail should he topple over it. He let the Shrieker impale itself on the end of his ferrules, hoping that it would sink into the molten flesh, but instead, once again his Sondeshike was repelled by its unearthly glamour.

A sudden searing pain announced the approach of one of its necrophagous hands, and so he leaped backwards. Yet, it came close enough to ignite the tunic upon his chest in a smouldering flame. Crying out, he almost dropped the Sondeshike as he scampered backwards, batting at the orange fire licking at his chest with one paw. He looked up as the thing advanced on him, eyeless face almost gleaming as the light bent about it, skeletal hands reaching in to burn the soul from his flesh.

And then Zagrosek slammed his own Sondeshike like a bat against the back of its head, sending it sprawling onto the nearby wall away from Charles. Even so, the other Sondeckis fell backwards, the force of his blow sent back at him tumbling him from his feet. Yet, that moment of relief was all that the rat needed to climb across onto another wall, and tear the burning shirt from his chest, revealing the bark brown of his fur beneath, the tips blackened by the fire.

Tossing the useless garment aside, His eyes caught sight of Jerome, beating against what had once been the legs of Wessex with his palms, trying to fight away spidery appendages that had shot from the dead flesh. The mage's upper torso was only a short distance away, the wound that the Shrieker had torn through had grown into a set of eight chitinous legs, as if he were metamorphosing into an arachnid, while from out of his back two bluish-grey tentacles had sprouted, whip-like with suckers lining the inside much like an octopus. And his face, his face was no longer recognizably human, twisted into that of a beast.

While, Charles had seen the face of a beast in many of his fellow Keepers, even within his own mirror, none of them had contained that raw mind-numbing ferocity that he found now in what had once been Wessex. His eyes were still the lifeless grey, but the mouth had opened crossways, and jets of some black oily fluid spewed forth, sizzling the masonry where it struck. Charles gasped as that stream began to arc towards Jerome, bending oddly once again in the twisted pathways the Keep had designed.

Yet, suddenly, they diverted, as a new fold emerged in the room, forcing that stream to run about in a circle along several of the walls, only to strike that undead thing in the back, casting a billow of steam into the air, directionless and formless, rising to what lay in the centre, swirling like a mad harlequin. The Symphony that Wessex had drawn into the wall perched in midair, flowing and curling about itself, the ends of the nine chevrons tied together in knots that continuously folded and unfolded, worming in and out of each other in ways that the rat found unfathomable. Black light issued forth from the hole that was at its centre, pressing it in on itself, holding back any other abominations. The steam was sucked into that vortex with a violent hiss. A scream echoed back from that dimensional chasm, faint and malformed, as if issuing from something that was not a throat at all.

However, his shirt free form his chest, he tore his attention away from his friend struggling with Wessex's legs and scanned for Zagrosek and the Shrieker once more. They had moved to a portion of the room only three walls away, the black menace forcing the Sondeckis to retreat in leaps and bounds, as every blow he delivered was only sent back onto himself. Rising once more, he ran to help his companion, jumping at each corner, and then taking a brief moment to regain his bearings. Yet, the more he ran towards them, the further away they appeared.

And then, a swing with one of its arms sent Zagrosek stumbling and falling, rolling away across the floor and across two more of the walls, his own shirt erupting into flames. Grabbing his robe, Zagrosek smothered them as he'd done for Wessex's furnishings, eyes always on the creature that denied the ambient light. Yet, it neither moved towards him, nor Charles. It even disregarded the other black Sondeckis who was even now breaking off the chitinous legs that sprouted from Wessex's lower torso, tearing that half of the body into more pieces. Instead, it turned towards Garigan who was crouching uncertainly on one of the walls.

"Garigan!" Charles cried out, unsure if his voice would even travel across the room like it ought. "Run!"

Yet, the ferret, who had given up trying to force his teeth from his mouth, did not appear to hear, or if he did, was unable to bring himself to obey, whether from fear or from foolish bravery. Matthias instantly thought the latter as Garigan brought his palms before him, and then held them out, open, claws grasping at the air. The Shrieker jumped down the intervening walls, drawing within a few metres of the green Sondeckis, its mouth opening ready to unleash the scream that would shatter the mustelid's soul.

And then, Garigan yanked his arms back, sucking the air with them, and causing a sudden burst of sound to resound throughout the room. Charles quickly covered his ears again, as the thunder rolled through his head, yet what his eyes glimpsed was the most shocking part, for the Shrieker was sent sprawling backwards, tumbling head over heels only to smash against the wall near what Wessex's upper torso had become. Its right hand grasped at one of the bluish grey tentacles, yanking itself to its feet, even while the Wessex-thing howled in freakish anguish, the tentacle shrivelling under that molten touch.

Suddenly, as he watched and knew what his student must have done, not understanding how he could possibly have accomplished a feat, yet for the moment not caring, Matthias found an idea spawned in his mind. "Krenek, this thing repels our blows force for force. Garigan tried to draw it towards himself and it was flung away."

"I saw," the other Sondeckis cried, clutching at his chest with his free arm while the other loosely held his Sondeshike. "But how can we use that to our advantage? We can't just keeping pushing it away like that."

"No, but what if we strike it at the same time from opposite directions? It will repel the force back at us, but not before ripping itself in half. Or at least, that is what I hope."

Zagrosek blinked once, and then he nodded firmly, his black hair a tangled mess. "Yes, it just might work. We have to try at least. I can't think of anything else better."

"Then let's do it. Now before it causes anymore damage." Charles gripped his Sondeshike in both of his palms, finding renewed vigour. He promised himself that if they survived this he would spend more time practising with bladed weapons, as severing a Shrieker's head was reputed to kill it instantly, and just this moment he ached terribly for a sword.

Even though he did his best to sound brave, his heart fluttered as they approached the sepulchral figure that had pushed aside the Wessex-thing. It turned its sightless face back towards them, gazing up around the curving light, its toothless maw gaping in hideous delight. Charles's knees sought to knock together as they stood apart on a single wall, standing their ground while it approached, step by step, staring nearly straight down at them. Above all of their heads, that vortex swirled, the bright light of the Symphony now a viscous blue, smouldering in otherworldly fury.

Charles's breath hung in his throat, perched precariously in that moment between life and death. Leaping to the ground betwixt them, the Shrieker extended upwards, towering over each of them in its dizzying height, a sentinel of black that pierced the veil of reality itself. It's mouth hung open, a scream nestled within the narrow throat, one of such power that the pain still lingered in the rat's bones, and the fear within his sinew. All life flowed into that figure of abysmal darkness, and even the light appeared to wane as it perched there deciding which of them to kill.

Yet, Zagrosek and Matthias could see each other, almost multiple images of each other as they stood around it, fanning out into millions of copies of themselves as the Keep twisted itself around them again, fixing the Shrieker into that one spot. And in that moment when the two Sondeckis leaped forward, their staves extended, and their arms bent to the task, a look bordering on fear appeared to cross the abomination's face.

And then all of themselves snapped back into one, as the Sondeshike's struck at the base of the Shrieker's head, both from opposite sides. Charles and Zagrosek were thrown backwards, crashing against the walls on either side, the breath purged from their lungs forcibly so that they were left hacking for a few seconds. Yet, at the same time, the Shrieker cracked in two in an explosive torrent of darkness that radiated outwards from every point along its middle. A fissure made its ways from its head down through to its legs, severing it into two pieces.

What had been inside the infernal beast had just been a sopping collection of black mucus, that cascaded into the air, before being sucked back into the swirling vortex in the centre of the room. And in that moment, the blue gave way to a hideous red, darker than blood, that glared balefully down upon them all, until it was a shimmering sphere that hung in the air, sucking everything towards it.

The two halves of the Shrieker were drawn upwards, only to be annihilated as they touched that globe, not even a trace of its foul existence remained to sully the world. Jerome finally managed to grab one of the legs of Wessex's lower torso and fling it from him, and as he did so, it was caught on some unseen stream of air, and pulled into that swirling maelstrom. Yet, it did not dissipate as the Shrieker had on contact, yet remained fixed there as if perched for a moment.

And then the sphere became a deep black, yet this one shimmered in the light, unlike that abomination that had come from the tear. The Wessex-thing was hurled upwards as well, collapsing on the gateway, its flesh desiccating and drawing back. Before it was absorbed into that blackness, all the monstrous appendages melted back into the visage of the boy. The eyes, for a single moment, were not that awful grey, but his former blue. And in them, a pleading gaze that was utterly silenced a second later.

Just as suddenly, the room itself began to draw into that vortex, the walls buckling and pressing inwards. Charles flung himself on the floor, as did the others, holding onto the stones, even as the force tugged at their flesh, intent on capturing them as well. And for a moment, as his claws slipped and scarred the stonework, he thought that he would be drawn into that darkness, his soul lost forever among those damned in a way not even his Eli would permit.

But it was a fleeting sensation of fear, for with a violent snap, he was flung into a nearby wall, and where before it became his new floor, this time he slid from it to the ground, firm beneath his paws. Glancing upwards, the Sondeshike tucked beneath one arm, he saw that the vortex was gone. In fact, that oddly distorted room had vanished, to be replaced by an unassuming stretch of hallway, though clearly not the same one that they had discovered Wessex in earlier. Casting his eyes about, he saw his three friends strewn about similarly staring in befuddlement.

"What just happened?" Jerome murmured quietly, breaking the silence that had swept over them.

"I don't know," Charles managed to say despite the ache in his ribs. "But we have to report this to somebody, anybody, immediately."

"Do you want us to come?" Zagrosek asked, pushing himself uncertainly to his feet.

"Yes, I think the time for hiding is over. This is too important to keep secret, even the nature of our involvement in it. A Shrieker appeared at Metamor. I never thought I would see one, much less so far from their traditional place of origin..." His voice trailed off as a new thought occurred to him. Finally, his eyes, burning with newfound terror, rose to meet the three of them. "There is an Ambassador from Marzac here. I would wager he had something to do with this. We have to find him now!"

Jerome had put his hand upon his shoulder once again, the blood having soaked the left sleeve of his tunic. "Shouldn't we warn somebody first?"

"Oh, of course," Matthias nodded, and then looked at Garigan, who was looking back at him, his face still appearing rodential with his front two teeth jutting out painfully from his muzzle. "But first, let's get those teeth out of his mouth, they have to be agonizing. Jerome and I will hold him down if you'll remove them, Krenek."

Garigan grimaced, and then kneeled down on the floor, his paws clenched tightly, the claws digging into his palms. Jerome breathed deeply as he moved to the ferret's left, placing one firm hand on the green-clad shoulder. "You'll need to find your Calm. Do so, and you should not feel this."

Zagrosek peered at the teeth, his hands rubbing over each other in nervous tension. He was still breathing hard from the ordeal that had passed them by only moments ago, and did not appear to like the prospect of performing surgery. "I wish I had a knife, it would make this far easier. I might tear the skin to far otherwise."

Garigan reached down with one paw into his boot, and drew out a short blade. Charles peered at him curiously, for bladed weapons were not a common preference among Sondeckis. Speaking low and with a terrible lisp, the ferret explained, "Living in the Glen, if you do not carry a knife, you are unarmed."

The rat smirked softly and then patted his pupil on the right shoulder. "Find your Calm, Garigan. Find it soon, I do not wish to see any other surprises before this day is done." He then handed the knife to Zagrosek who took it carefully in his hands, running his thumb across the sharp blade. "We'll need to take him to the Healer's after we report this, so that he can receive proper attention. But for now, those teeth have to come out. Don't dawdle."

The black-haired Sondeckis nodded once, fingering the knife in his hands once again. Then, leaning forward, he firmly gripped Garigan's muzzle in one hand. "I can do this in one clean stroke, as long as I'm sure he's found his Calm." The ferret closed his eyes at the words, and breathed slowly, searching inwards for that place in a Sondeckis that shielded them from all forces outside of them, their refuge in harsh times.

To another Sondeckis, the moment when it is reached is clear, for the face radiates that blissful serenity that each knows intimately. When the ferret found it, his ears laid back in ease, and his short tail came to rest against his thighs, while his cheeks lowered, nearly slumping on either side of his muzzle. Zagrosek then lifted forward the skin about his muzzle, and peered at the wound.

It was a ghastly sight, the front two teeth had completely been torn from their sockets, and the roots were visible, drenched in red that oozed from the holes they had left behind. The tissue about them was a bright scarlet, very large and inflamed. Zagrosek set the knife's edge along the back of the tissue and held the muzzle firmly in his other hand. Jerome and Charles pressed their palms tightly against the young Sondeckis's shoulders, holding him steady, their eyes fixed upon that small blade.

And then Zagrosek drew it forward, the tissue buckling from its edge, and slicing in two. Garigan did not move, did not even flinch while the two protruding teeth fell into the black-haired Sondeckis's waiting palm. The appearance of security remained ever enshrined on his flesh. Blood spilled anew, coating the blade, but subsided into the steady drizzle that trailed down his chin fur as before.

Zagrosek set the knife down next to the ferret, and lowered the teeth next to them, as if he were glad to be rid of them. He then shook his head in disgust and turned away, clutching his stomach in one hand, his face gone pale and drained. Charles patted Garigan's shoulder and then stood once more, crossing over to his friend, and patting him gently with one paw as well. "Still you cringe at the sight of Sondeckis blood?"

"I've never liked to see a fellow bleed like that. I'd rather mend wounds than cause them."

Jerome had taken a bit of his shirt sleeve and balled it up, placing it within the ferret's paws, still locked within his Calm. Charles gently squeezed Zagrosek's arm once, and offered him a faint smile. "You did well, Krenek. Now we have to tell the others about what has happened here. Come, let us find someone who will know what to do."

Zagrosek returned the smile, colour slowly returning to his face. He peered at Garigan who was rising to his feet, pressing the already dampening cloth to the front of his face, and grew surer still. He reached down and plucked the knife from the ground and handed it hilt-first back to the green Sondeckis. "Here is your knife. Your mouth should be fine once we can get you to a Healer. Did you wish to keep the teeth?"

Garigan snorted, a bit of blood spattering into his paws. "I suppose." And then, the black-haired Sondeckis retrieved those form the floor and handed him to the injured as well. "I'd always wanted to have a battle scar, but I never thought my first would be missing teeth! Do I sound funny?"

Jerome laughed then, the terrible tension that had clutched around their hearts vanquished in that moment. "Positively bizarre! Now, let us find one of your Keepers so that we can alert them to the possible danger. Whoever killed that boy may still be around. He was dead when we arrived after all."

Charles nodded then, looking up and down the passageway, but seeing no one else. "That is true, we must be cautious. But let us be swift as well." He then turned, and chose an arbitrary direction. He intended to seek out Misha Brightleaf, after all, he was the logical person to report this to, and was probably still at the Long House celebrating. The party had been scheduled to last all night after all.

And besides, if Zagrosek was truly an enemy, though after what had just occurred, he could hardly imagine so, then at the Long House there would be people who were more than capable of restraining him should he turn violent. However, it was something he did not wish to think about, after all, if it had not been for Krenek, they might possibly have been all killed by that Shrieker, and had their souls destroyed by its infernal cry. He shuddered visibly just at the thought of such, and so tried to put it from his mind.

However, they had not been walking for half-a-minute when the sounds of combat flew to them from down one side passage. Their heads turned as one to peer down the grey hallway, a narrow thing that was lit by braziers placed every thirty feet, casting the intervening spaces in sombre shadow. After three sets of sconces, there was a turn, and flickers of light and dark played upon the wall. "What could that be?" Charles said aloud, turning from his intended route to investigate.

Yet, as they reached the second sconce, the other three Sondeckis following along behind the rat, they heard cries of those slain echoing along the walls. Some were human or animal, the clarion call of a Keeper, while others were something more guttural and distinctive. For a moment, his heart fluttered in disbelief, for the rat knew those voices very well. They were the voices of Lutins.

Coming about the corner, they saw two groups clashing swords against armour and spears amidst a crammed intersection. Directly ahead of them was a band of about twenty Lutins, dressed in chain mail and furs wrapped tightly about their hard green skin. They hefted Axes and sabres, stabbing at the line of Keepers that was pressing them from all three sides. Bodies were falling beneath their feet, trampled and given no peace as they lay dying on the cold floor.

Garigan hissed sharply, the absence of his two front teeth making the noise sound all the more serpentine. He dropped the bloody rag to his feet, and reached for the dagger in his boot, completely from instinct. Living in Glen Avery, it was necessary as the Lutins traversed that region on their way to the more Southern towns and villages in the Valley. Charles reached out to stop him, his mind still in shock at the sight of Lutins within the castle itself, but his paw only met empty air.

So, instead, he surged after his eager student, the Sondeshike gripped tightly in his paws. Matthias was not sure exactly when he had drawn it from his pocket, and in fact he wondered if it had not crawled to his paws by itself, anxious to draw blood and crack skulls. However it had come beneath his fingers, he did not truly care, for soon it was extended, meeting the back of a Lutin, and crushing its spine.

Now besieged on four sides by groups of Keepers, the Lutins realized that they were doomed. Yet they fought on, determined to take as many with them as they possibly could. Yet for the few that were able to turn about and face the four Sondeckis, they found no home for their blades or their spears, only pain for their heads, chests, and arms. Bones snapped under the onslaught of the Southern mages; even Zagrosek and Jerome had joined in the fray only moments after the two Metamorians. The black-haired Sondeckis swung his staff about him in vast intricate twirls that appeared to defy logic, breaking poorly fashioned weapons in two, and sometimes even severing limbs as it struck them so quickly.

The battle lasted mere moments before the floor was littered with bodies and blood, most of them Lutin. Charles scanned the group of soldiers who were breathing heavily, wiping the refuse from their blades, worried frowns creasing each of their faces. The leader was not hard to spot, a woman whose eyes bore uncountable years of service to the army in them.

"What's going on? Why are there Lutins in the Keep?" Charles asked, his voice catching in his throat.

"They've come over the damn walls," a marten said, baring his fangs, one of them chipped. "All over them!"

"What?" the rat blurted, his spine stiffening. His tail flitted from side to side in agitation, aggravating the bright pink flesh that had been scalded by Wessex's fire. "What are you saying?"

The woman shoved her sword back into its sheath, scanning down each passageway. "I haven't heard much, but I do know this. Most of the outer wall has been overrun with Lutins. They've been using the blizzard as cover, and have attacked us while we're blind. The town is filled with them, nobody can get outside to rescue the families out there. Including mine." She spat on the ground, tears starting to fill those eyes, but she fought them back, gritting her teeth together in a snarl that many of the animal morphs would have been proud of.

Charles blinked, gazing down at the dying bodies before him, their foul blood mixing with the sweet red of two Keepers who had fallen beside them. Outside the walls, he could almost hear the howl of the winter wind as it raged around the towers of the Keep, buffeting them from every side. They had just come from a battle that the rat had thought could not be surpassed, a fright that had left his heart cold, and he was sure would haunt his nightmares for years to come. Yet now he was hearing news, and seeing the evidence of something that could be even worse.

He looked back into the woman's face, while both Zagrosek and Jerome stood about, confused, but attentive. Garigan was shaking with apoplexy, blood dripping once again from his chin as the snarl in his throat aggravated the wounds. "He's doing it again, damn him! After seven years, he's doing it again!" the marten cried, beating his mailed shirt with his fists, eyes bright red with both anger and terror.

"What?" Zagrosek asked finally, gripping his Sondeshike tightly in his hands. "What is happening?"

"Are you daft?" the woman asked, clearly not realising that he was from another land. And her next words nearly caused Charles to cry out in freakish terror. "Nasoj, the whoreson bastard, is invading Metamor again!"

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