As he sat, Sherwood's sigh would have filled a bucket. "Friends Dwynn and Linna, much would I give to hear an airy story now. For I fail miserably in my understanding of THIS situation." At which point he nodded toward the direction Ceridon had trotted. "Please, Linna, enlighten us... as well as the mood."
"Well, while this doesn't have much to offer on our current situation," Linna said, "it will, I think, entertain--and, perhaps, enlighten.
"A week after that memorable pause in Jopha, Ceri and I were travelling a lonely stretch of road. Frankelin had told us of a shortcut that would reduce our travelling time by a few days--though he warned us it was sparsely traveled. And so it was--we hadn't seen another person for two days. Imagine our surprise, then, when we heard the sounds of a rather sizable group in the woods to the north.
"Naturally, we were curious about what had brought so many people there. So I stripped Ceri of the saddle, stashed it and my bag close to the road, and slipped through the woods toward the noise. Ceri, of course, could watch through my eyes, so she stayed behind to guard our things.
"It wasn't long before I spotted a clearing through the trees, and a number of people moving in it. I found a large maple on the edge of the clearing, managed to climb it unseen, and settled down on a large limb to watch and listen.
"After some study, I figured out that there were two families of nobles there, plus all their attendants--servants, cooks, musicians--and a number of family friends. They were making quite a day of it; they had a pavilion, a picnic lunch, croquet and dancing--everything they needed to make their day in the wilderness seem like it *wasn't* a day in the wilderness. Over the next hour or so, as I shamelessly eavesdropped, Ceri and I pieced together their reason for being there.
"There was to be a wedding soon, to unite the two families--it seemed to have been arranged years ago. Apparently, one of their old pre-marriage customs was to have the prospective bride attempt to lure a unicorn to her--to prove her purity and worthiness and all that. And they'd kept up that tradition even though, as I heard the bride complain, no unicorn had actually shown up for it for generations. Anyway, the families were pleased enough about the upcoming marriage, but neither the groom, whose name was Matthew and who was about my age, or the bride, whose name was Marta and who was about ten years older, looked very happy. *Especially* Marta. She kept flirting--fairly discretely, but it was still quite apparent--with four or five men of her age. But there was one man in particular she focused on. During the croquet game, he knocked her ball through the bushes that separated my maple tree from the clearing, and they took rather longer to find it than was necessary. I couldn't help but notice their rather passionate embrace--and, judging from their talk, they'd gone much farther on more than one occasion." Linna blushed a bit, but retained the mischievous gleam in her eyes.
"The croquet game finally ended, and the Calling, as they termed it, was to begin. Ceri had seen and heard everything I had, and she told me to keep watching. I knew she was up to something, and I had a pretty good idea what it was; I wasn't going to miss it for anything.
"Marta sat near the southern edge of the clearing with a golden bridle in her lap. It was a flimsy looking thing, and far too small for a real unicorn--it wasn't anything more than a symbol, really. Everyone else stood around her in a semicircle. She started calling, 'Here, unicorn! Come to me!' as if she was calling a family pet. It didn't take long for impatience to creep into her voice, and her family started to become restive. It was just at that point that Ceri stepped out of the woods in front of them."
Linna chuckled at the memory. "You should have seen the looks on their faces--it was marvelous! They were all frozen at the sight of her! Ceri looked wonderful--her horn was shining, her coat gleaming, her eyes bright and almost hypnotic. She paced into the clearing with a dignified stride, looking every inch the magical, mythical creature we've all heard tales about. She stopped about ten feet away from the prospective bride, looked her over head to toe, snorted once, turned around, and walked back into the forest.
"There was about a minute of stunned silence...and then the uproar began. Marta began crying--noisily--her parents tried to defend her, Matthew's parents were angrily and ashamedly protesting, half of the guests were trying to comfort Marta, the other half--along with the servants--were laughing. It was sheer pandemonium. I took advantage of all the noise and scrambled down the tree. Just as I reached the ground, Matthew positively bellowed for silence. I'm guessing he hadn't asserted himself like that before, because he got it in short order.
"'The unicorn has not approved this match,' he said. 'You all know what penalty I could demand for this.' Both sets of parents began protesting again, but he overrode them with a loud firm voice. 'However, I won't ask for it--*if* this match is broken and I can marry whom *I* choose.' I slipped away at that point, but I'm sure he got his way. I met Ceri back at the road--she was looking enormously pleased with herself--and after I grabbed our things, we continued on our way."
Garber chuckled, imaging the scene and admiring the quick wits of the young Matthew. "An excellent tale, Linna. It's evident the two of you have a healthy sense of justice--and fun."
He relaxed a little as he leaned back against a conveniently-placed log. He well knew why she'd told that story--Ceridon's behavior was enough to cause everyone to walk on eggshells. But, judging from the stories they'd told about their travels, she hadn't been that way before. 'If Linna stops defending Ceri, *then* I'll worry,' he decided.
At that moment, Elwynn bounded out of the underbrush, her wizard's robe covered in nettles and thorns.
"Heads up, everyone!" she cried, "We've got a pack of wolves headed our way. I think they might be Dire Wolves or maybe Worgs. I'm not sure. They're not acting like a normal pack. There's a purpose behind their movement, I think. I think it would be best if we formed a circle around the wagon. Gather round, all, and get yourselves ready. This could be messy."
"What!" Dwynn shouted as he looked around. "Everyone to the wagon!" He grabbed his stuff and dumped it in the wagon. "Linna, you get on it. We need you protected." Taking a second to take a breath, he added, "Elwynn, is the wagon within the line of traps? Sherwood, what do you know about Direwolves or Worgs?" So saying, he took his huge silvery axe firmly in one hand and gave it a sarcastic grin. Having done that, he offered Linna his hand. "I will stay close."
After giving Dwynn's hand a squeeze, she freed hers from his clasp, bringing hers together to kindle her power. She also stayed right where she was. "Don't worry about me, Dwynn. I helped to get us into this, and I'll help get us out."
'I'll also call in some back-up,' she thought with a bit of grim humor. She aimed a strong lance of thought down her bond with Ceridon. ::Ceri, we need you back here, quickly! There are wolves approaching--a lot of them!::
Her eyes snapped open as Linna's call abruptly interrupted her meditations. ::Wolves?!:: She leaped to her feet, changing in mid-air so that she landed on four legs. Immediately, she threw herself into a headlong run. Something inside her warned that this was out of the ordinary, and boded only ill for their group.
"I know a bit about them both, and none of it good. Let's have fire and plenty of it! And if any of you know any old drinking songs that can be bent to bite our furry friends' egos out there, we should practice, and quick!" As he bent to a log, to force it into a semblance of a circle, he suggested, "Some of us will need to be able to see better; do any of you have the ability to make it bright as day? And if any of you can climb a tree, that might be a safe place for a bit." Stopping to scratch his head in thought, he amended himself, "Well, it will be safe unless orcs or goblins are in cahoots with them!"
"I didn't see any orcs or gobbies," Elwynn said, "Just a pack of wolves. If they were normal they'd shy away from us, but they're closing pretty quickly."
She struck the bottom of her staff to the ground three times and leveled it at the fire. Instantly the light from the simple campfire nearly doubled in intensity, extending the range of sight by several feet.
"They should be hitting the line of traps any second now." Elwynn said.
From somewhere in the woods came the sounds of mournful canine wails and howls.
"Well that got a good number of them!" Elwynn said. "They're still coming though....there! They're splitting into two groups! Look sharp, everyone! Here they come!"
Through his scrying bowl, Hathor watched as the group around the campfire suddenly erupted into frantic action. Something--probably magic--had warned them of the approach of the wolves. He watched the elven woman strike her staff by the fire, brightening it considerably. In the increased light, he took a closer look at the oldest man there, who had a face that seemed familiar...
"Garber!" he suddenly exclaimed. "So what managed to bring you back here?" Though it did make sense, in a way--if you were looking for a guide to this area, he'd be one of the few still alive. But to come back after what had happened...
'No matter,' Hathor thought. His magic nudged the dire wolves into action, guiding the two packs into surrounding the area. Though he couldn't hear anything through the scrying, he sensed when some were lost to traps, and he took a moment to find the rest, bringing the wolves through the gaps in the defenses. He even took an additional moment to admire the working of those traps; Elven magic was always so efficient. But finally, the wolves were in position, and he spurred them on, targeting the elven woman and Garber, yet keeping watch on the others, ready to assess their abilities. If they were more powerful than they appeared, they could well be a threat to his plans. If not... well, then he wouldn't have to worry about them much longer.
The oriental jumped to his feet at the sound of the wolves and Elwynn's alarm.
"The wolves must've been sent by someone," said the former ninja agreeing with the elf-maid as surveyed the area with his ears, "they seem to be too smart to be wild wolves. We need to be armed and ready to fight them off."
Takayoshi looked at his companions, and strapped on his magical katana, with his hands in a defensive stance he backed to one side of the wagon hoping the others will do the same. Then, a thought came to him.
"If they want to hunt," he thought, "then let the hunter become the hunted."
On that note the oriental called off to Elwynn, Garber, and the others.
"Don't worry about me; I'll be back!"
The smiling ninja was the last thing they saw, before he vanished into thin air, and started the hunt.
"Must be careful of Elwynn's traps and not to forget that these are not humans, these are animals with an acute sense of smell. However, if I can lure them away from the camp then they can defend themselves a little easier...I hope."
With that thought the assassin becomes the hunter.
With the spur of Hathor's magic ever in their minds, the two wolf packs slowly advanced toward the fire. Finally, they stepped into the clearing, firelight flashing from their teeth as they growled. These dire wolves were built more heavily than usual wolves, but what they lacked in speed, they more than made up for in power and intimidation. Their eyes locked on the small group huddled around with backs firmly against the wagon. A few of the wolves on one side sniffed the air suddenly, and slipped out of the light. The rest, with one collective howl, flung themselves forward.
Having dropped the tree limb when he heard how near the wolves were, Sherwood turned to his bow and arrow, mumbling low. He strung the bow then, stepping through between body and string, bending the body against the back of his knee and adroitly slipping the string over the tip of the bow. Slowing only momentarily, he picked the only black arrow out of the quiver. He mouthed new words as the string was pulled, yelling at the last moment, "In the name of the Forest Goddess!" Then he released the single shaft. As though lightning had just struck, the shaft sped from his fingers toward the largest wolf... then split into two shafts... then into 4, then 8... streaking toward the leader and those immediately next him. A smoke seemed to be left in the arrows' wakes, though it smelled more of acid than of wood. Just as the arrows hit, a flash DID occur, followed by a deafening concussion of sound.
On the other side of the wagon, Elwynn stood facing the charge of the second pack of wolves. She had counted at least a dozen of them on this side alone, and in the few moments before their attack, she had reached into her hat and pulled out three small figurines. Tossing them to the ground, she spoke a word of power which activated their magic.
Each figurine transformed itself into a large fighting cat. The magical felines resembled common house cats, but were easily the size of Siberian tigers. They were differentiated by the coloring of their fur. One was jet black, another yellow-gold, and the last and largest was fiery red. Upon seeing the wolves, all three cats charged into the pack, hissing, spitting, and slashing at the vicious canines.
Elwynn urged the magical cats onward. "Go get 'em girls! Show 'em what pussycats can do!"
Dwynn had no intention of leaving Linna to take care of things by herself, so he stayed close, hoping she would get herself to the relative safety of the middle of the group. "Linna, spellcasters should not be in the front line. We will get out together." Anger was quickly building in his voice and posture. His muscles trembled and his grip tightened. Then his anger turned inwards leaving him calm and focused, with a deadly look in his eyes. He looked at the wolves as they broke through the last line of bushes. Looking directly at them he picked up a stout branch from the fire in his left hand and took a step forwards to make sure he appeared as the biggest threat. "It is time for your execution," he whispered.
Garber watched, more than a little impressed, as Sherwood's lightning branched into eight shafts, each one burying itself in the seething mass of wolves. But though a couple were bowled over, and several received what must have been painful burns, they were unfazed--and, indeed, seemed to take it as the signal to charge the group.
Garber was quickly busy with his shortsword, slashing at any pelt in front of him. He didn't have time for killing blows, and he soon saw bleeding, limping wolves still jumping into the fray. Nothing seemed to be driving them away, and it was getting harder to keep them at bay.
Suddenly, one of the wolves was picked up by an invisible force, then thrown through the air, colliding with a tree trunk with a back-breaking crunch. It crumpled to the ground and lay still. Garber spared a quick glance at Linna, who nodded, then turned her attention to another wolf. Her eyes were narrowed in concentration, and her face showed the strain as her magic lifted and threw another wolf. Garber quickly turned his own concentration back to the pack, hoping this combination of magecraft and fighting would be enough.
Knowing full well the hardiness of wolves, Sherwood dropped his bow as quickly as the arrow was on its way. Drawing his runed broadsword, he stood his ground as the nearest wolf leaped towards him. Dropping quickly to one knee he thrust upwards, rending the creature's entrails outwards through a gaping wound half the length of its body. Yet even as he pulled his sword free, another of the mongrels jumped on his back, shoving him roughly to the ground. Sherwood began to struggle to roll over, to face his foe, dropping the sword and searching for his dagger.
With the three fighting cats holding most of the wolves at bay on her side of the wagon, Elwynn turned and spotted Sherwood on the ground, with the wolf on his back. She cast a quickened spell upon herself and then leapt over the wagon, clearing it by at least four feet and executing a perfect double somersault in the process. Landing less than a foot from the combatants, she began pummeling the wolf with her staff, seemingly unaware that the force of her blows were being felt to some extent by the ranger as well...
"Bad dog! BAD DOG! Mustn't chew on Sherwood! BAD DOG!"
Being a little further out allowed two wolves to flank Dwynn while a third, big even for this pack, attacked to his front. The axe moved through the air as if it was a feather until it hit the attacking wolfs head and split it top to bottom. Dwynn moved back with the dead wolf's momentum, keeping the one on the left at bay with the burning branch. Its yellow hunters eyes reflecting the glare of the flame and its frustration. This left no defense against the third younger wolf though, so it was quick to jump over its fallen packmate and go for his throat. Dwynn ducked and turned while bringing up the axe forcing the beast to jump over him and turn around. 'At least I am between Linna and these brutes,' he thought.
Having dispatched another wolf, and having glanced quickly to see that DeMorte and Breannyn, with the help of Elwynn's cats, were holding their own on the other side of the wagon, Linna turned at the sound of Elwynn's scolding. Unfortunately, the wolf seemed completely unfazed by it, or by her blows. The young girl regathered her power; as she did so, she sent a quick mental thought to Ceridon--::You'd better get here quickly. Nothing seems to be working to drive them away!::
::Almost there,:: came the reply.
Linna raised her arm, her power levitating the wolf off of Sherwood's back. The power built up, ready to send this one crashing into another tree. But even as the dire wolf flew through the air to its demise, and even as another one leapt in to take its place in chewing on Sherwood--and being pummeled by Elwynn--she saw, out of the corner of her eye, yet another one crouching behind Dwynn, ready to leap!
"Dwynn!" she screamed, desperately trying to gather enough power to deflect it, even as its heavy, bunched muscles propelled it toward him.
Sherwood managed to reach his knife as another blow hit the wolf on top of him. "Oof," managed to slip between his lips just as the dagger's blade slid between the wolf's ribs; a sound made more audible by the timing of Elwynn's blows. As the wolf slid off him, he raised himself up quickly, a large drop of blood hanging off his hand. "Thank-you, m'lady! Your help was indeed timely! Yet let's not delay in routing these louts!" At which point he leapt towards the nearest wolf, sword once again in hand.
Ceridon flew through the forest, cursing herself for having retreated so far from the group. She was using her link with Linna to keep an eye on what was happening; that vision was overlaid on her own sight, creating a disorienting double-vision. She and Linna had practiced using such double- sight before--but not at night running full-tilt through a thick forest. Later, Ceri wondered how'd she'd managed to do it without tripping on a log or braining herself against a tree. But it seemed as if her body had eyes of its own, eeling through the forest at top speed even when her attention was mostly on the battle, seen through Linna's eyes.
Even as her normal vision caught the glow of the campfire, she noticed through Linna's vision, even before Linna did, the wolf ready to leap at Dwynn's back. With a renewed burst of speed, she crashed through the edge of the clearing, leaped over the line of snarling animals, and intercepted the wolf in mid-leap, spearing it with her horn. Her momentum carried her right into the edge of the bonfire that had replaced the smaller campfire. She quickly shook her head, dumping the corpse of the wolf in the middle of the fire, and backed out, shaking sparks from her hair and mane. Ceri whirled around, scanning the clearing, the fire striking blood-red gleams from her glowing coat and horn.
The wolves' demeanor had drastically changed.
They had withdrawn to the edge of the clearing, whining, crouching, trembling, growling. One wolf attempted a foray at Garber, but skittered back as Ceri leaped to block its path. Suddenly, all of the wolves froze in their tracks, eyes seemingly staring at nothing. Then, with one discordant howl, they whirled and fled, whimpering, many of them limping from wounds, leaving ten of their pack members dead.
Ceridon snorted an almost-sigh, hanging her head for a second in an excess of relief. Then she looked around at the others. ::Is everyone all right?:: she sent.
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