It's here! It's here! The day has finally come! *Dances around waving streamers and bottles over her head* *pauses* *clears, throat* The LAST CHAPTER!! ^_^ YEA!! I know some of you will be sorry to see the story end *coughvixencough* but as all wonderful and amusing things in this world must end, so must this fic. Please, go on and enjoy it, for I have worked my butt off for you peoples and like heck if you aren't going to have a good time!

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Amanda paced the long, narrow halls of the fief where she had lived for the past couple years, over five in all since the very beginning of their adventures in Tortall. So much time had passed, and yet still her dreams of the future bothered her more than anything else. In one hand she clutched the statue of liberty pendent Grandfather had entrusted to her on his deathbed. In the other, she held the handle of the dagger that hung from her belt.

News of Haven's fall as well, and the disappearance of the Lady Knight laid heavily on the young noblewoman's heart among the many other things that were going on. Kel, the same straight-edge girl who had fought her way through the ranks to prove she was as good as-if not better-than all the rest, now deserting her post. It wasn't like her, though the news had been fractured and had been passed along by many others before it had reached her. Surely something big was happening right then, and she almost wished she could be there helping the Lady Knight rather than here awaiting her next set of orders...

The call...the call...the call... The same two words seemed to dominate her thoughts as she stared hazily out a window she had paused by, her unusually foggy brain nearly missing the servant who dashed across the courtyard towards the main gate with a parchment clutched in his hand. Perhaps...what if it was…?

Amanda took off at a sprint towards the front of the fief, the pounding of her booted feet muffled by the thick rugs that covered the floor and the thick soles that she tread upon. Skidding to a halt by the just as the fief's runner boy was about to go for her rooms and wake her, she snatched the parchment from his hands and had it open in one smooth motion. All it said was this:

'The time has come. Defend our boarders well, and Mithros be with you.

Vanget'

"Milady?" called the servant after her as she dropped it in the fire by the door ran towards the hall where all her friends slept. They would have to be roused at once and made ready for the battle at hand!

"Go wake Lady Alyse and Lady Elizabeth!" she called over her shoulder quickly. "And wake the soldiers who are going, the call has come!"

The servant's eyes widened as he processed what she had said, hesitating a moment before leaping into action. "Yes, ma'am!"

Amanda barely made the turn to the hall with everyone in it, the rugs slipping from under her feet and almost making her lose her footing before running down and banging on the doors as she went by them as quickly as she could.

"Get up!!" she cried, stopping in the middle of the hallway as Mouse and Libby ran out into the halls quickly. "Now!!"

"What's going on?" asked Mouse, her dagger clutched in her hand and circles under her eyes showing that the noblewoman had not been the only one to go without sleep.

"The call has come," said Amanda simply. "You're staying behind, so go and get those from the wall duty who aren't and replace them with those who are now!"

Mouse nodded, her mouth set in a grim line. "Aright."

There was a muffled thump from Joe's room, then the sound of someone cursing who wasn't Joe as he opened the door and stuck his head out sleepily. "What's going on?" he asked quickly, blinking owlishly.

"The call has come," she replied, going back over to Vixen's door. "Vixen! Get up right now, we have to..." The words died in Amanda's mouth as Vixen's head appeared from Joe's room as well, a rather cross look on it. "Right."

"What?!" snapped Vixen. "This had better be good, Amanda..."

"The call has come," she said for the fifth time, turning to head back down the hall. "Get yourself prepared, wake Artman, and get out there with your people, we're leaving as soon as possible."

Vixen's retort was lost to her as Amanda began to run again, this time to her rooms where Elizabeth and Alyse found her as she dressed in her chain mail shirt, metal-studded leather over tunic and pants and laced up the gauntlets and greaves that would protect her in the to come.

"You know what to do," said Amanda simply when she noticed their presence by the door, buckling her sword in place and pulling her heavy boots with small spikes on the bottom on her feet.

"Yes, I do," replied Alyse, nodding solemnly.

"You will be careful out there, right?" asked Elizabeth slowly, attaching herself around Amanda's stomach.

Amanda smiled slightly. "Yes, I will. I will see you again, Elizabeth, I promise." She gave the younger girl a hug before disentangling herself and throwing her cape about her shoulders.

"Seeing you again in a wooden box and on a horse are entirely different things," Elizabeth pointed out grimly.

"I will not come home in a wooden box," promised Amanda. "Just make sure I have a home to come back to...one that is whole and not full of Scanran scum. It is only home if what 'family' I have dwells here."

"There will be," said Elizabeth firmly, setting her jaw firmly. Amanda nodded and grabbed her saddle bags and helm, her pike strapped to her back already. "As will we, Amanda."

"Take care of this place, and her," she said to Alyse quietly, squeezing her hand before exiting in the room at a jog and quickly winding her way to the front where Mandie was waiting for her saddled at the head of the column.

"We're ready to go, Ma'am," said one of the Captains, Amanda checking for herself and seeing all 80 who were going other than her, Vixen, and Joe. A few pack horses came with them as well, laden down with coils upon coils of hemp and chains twisted together that some soldiers had been trained to use. Everyone carried with them the food supplies and stuff they would need.

"Alright," she said, mounting herself and situating her saddlebags and weapons quickly.

"Milady," said Toa, drawing up beside her mount slowly. "Be careful, this is one mission you know I think you shouldn't go on."

"You think many things," said Amanda, seeing Levi watching them from his mount with a grim look on his face. "So do others, yet I heed none of you at all. I have made my choice and it will stand. Take care of your place here, Toa, for I have a feeling that we will not be the only ones with a fight on our hands."

"I will."

"Everyone! Let's go!" Amanda nodded towards the fief one last time, then whirled Mandie around and galloped off towards the north and the fate that would await them, each one dreading the two day ride more than anything else in the world and yet somehow also wishing it had already started so it would more quickly end...

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Jon watched as the silent courier road up silently and almost ghost-like into the courtyard of the ranch, use to such displays of mage's charms after having seen them so many times. He met the fellow by the trough as the man let his horse drink a bit before silently handing Jon a parchment with a seal on it and heading back out into the light of the rising sun.

Nodding farewell to the messenger who hadn't exchanged a single word with him the whole time, Jon opened the seal and quickly scanned the note, heading back in to sit at the breakfast table in contemplation.

"What's that?" asked Allie, who was sitting there already sipping a mug of hot coffee to revive her sleep-numbed senses.

"It is time," was all Jon had to say, the thief understanding and nodding quickly before gulping down the rest of her coffee and heading out to mobilize those who were with her.

"We are safe and out of the action, right?" asked Sarah nervously from where she stood by the stove, a pan of hot rolls paused in mid-air from being pulled from the oven.

"Not for sure," replied Jon slowly, tossing the parchment into the fire before ladling himself some hot mush from the pan on the stove. The smell of burning parchemt and wax wafted through the room for a moment before replaced by the usual sent of burnt, seasoned oak. "It is for certain that we aren't the main focal point, but if some should slip through... With news of Haven's fall as well, things are not looking good for places that are supposed to be out of the main action. They were just a refugee camp and now look at them."

"That's why we've got them soldier type peeps living with us," piped up Cor, his words slurred as he tried to wake himself up.

"Hm, they better do a good job for all the food they eat," added Dar crossly, yawning deeply before finishing the bowl of oats in front of him and heading out the door into the main yard.

"Get back here," said Jon quickly, standing up and heading for the door himself. "If there is an attack, I don't want you two boys anywhere near the action. You're going to round the horses up in the field and put them in the barn, then hide up in the hayloft with your daggers and bows just in case."

"Aw...Jon!!" Cor frowned, giving Jon a look of disbelief. "Why are you doing that?!"

"We're going to miss all the fun?!" lamented Dar, his mouth hanging open slightly in shock.

"That's right," said Jon firmly. "Go, now. You will not get hurt in this, aright?"

"Yessir..."

"Understood, sir..."

"Jon, are you sure that's really necessary?" asked Sarah quietly from over by the stove. "There shouldn't be a problem..."

"I'd rather be wrong and safe with them, than right and have them killed," replied Jon quite simply. "If nothing happens, then they got a few days off to lounge around for once. If I am right, then they'll be better protected than they would be otherwise."

"Alright..."

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Vixen leaned forward ever so slightly in her saddle, trying to relieve some of the stress in her shoulders by stretching them out some. The tension hung thick in the air, almost to the point that Vixen wasn't sure she couldn't slice it with a knife if she tried.

The night before had been miserable, a light rain soaking everything enough right after sundown that all of them were wet and chilled to the bone. Today they would reach the spot they had been told to head for, and it made them all the more miserable in going to their fate with a cold breakfast and little sleep rather than a huge feast and a wonderful rest the night before.

She looked at Amanda who was leading them at a swift trot at the head, seeing her sitting up straight in her saddle and trying to be as alert as possible even as the bags under her eyes betrayed her true fatigue. She hadn't slept at all the night before, and little physical rest as well. Not sleeping the few days before their call had come wasn't helping much, either, and if Vixen thought she could get away with it she would drug her food so the young woman would sleep and get some rest before the final battle. The fact that she wasn't eating much made it pointless, though, and Vixen just hoped her friend wouldn't fall off her horse in exhaustion before things were over and done.

The tension seemed to rise with the sun, everyone knowing they would be there soon and seeing the ravine up ahead that lay right before the place they were to meet the Scanrans. She paused when she heard something that sounded like metal on metal and debated on calling a warning...

*slid....thunk* Amanda stopped, pale as the head of the scout that had been to their right flying out of the woods on that side and falling at her horses feet. "Wha....everyone! Over-"

*SMASH* Nine of the metal machines crashed from the woods at their right towards them, hitting straight through the middle of their ranks with their claws soon doused and dripping with the blood of those who had not been fast enough to get out of their way.

Vixen helped heard the horses of those who had abandoned their mounts and gone for the coils of hemp-chain rope that lay at the back. One was already looped around the neck as someone took aim, and Amanda was aiming at one with longbow she had carried into battle as well.

The body of a familiar soldier was thrown at the feet of her mount, the mare rearing up farther than Vixen could hold on and throwing her to the ground. The Queen of Thieves leapt to her feet and say the mass chaos the nine things were creating around her, wondering what in the world she could do...

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Alyse and Elizabeth split the chores of running the fief, the Yamanis lady looking over the defense of their walls and such while Elizabeth watched over the servants with Jennifer's help. The noblewoman didn't enjoy being inside all the time like that, and would rather stay on the wall watching for incoming news of her 'sister' and how the battle might've faired. But Alyse knew she would never leave it if she ever went up there and refused to let her on the walls, preferring to face her wrath and keep her inside instead.

"Toa," she said, standing beside the Captain of the Garrison calmly as he took his turn at guard duty with his men. "How goes things here?"

"Well enough," he replied in a low voice. "Something is coming towards us, though it couldn't be an army for the scout in the tower reported seeing a dull gray roof on something, so probably a group of wagons needing a place to stay for the night."

"Which direction?"

"From the woods."

Alyse frowned. "There is no road there, or even a path, I think..."

"There is a natural one," amended Toa quickly. "It is hard to find, but links us directly with another fief to the west and a few villages along the way."

"Really?"

"Yes."

Alyse studied Toa's face intently from the side. "How come neither myself nor my cousins were informed of this before?"

"Lady Amanda knows of it," Toa assured her quickly. "She has used it before in her own travels. There is nothing to-"

*CRASH*

"What was that?!"

Alyse ran over and looked down, seeing two of the three side gates smashed in and several of the monstrosities of metal lumbering while the guards that should've been standing there guarding them had just vanished.

"Oh no..."

"Get you men together and stop those things!" snapped Alyse, running off towards the fief. "I'll protect the fief and it's people."

"Yes ma'am!"

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Lyssa galloped across the plain, knowing full well that a battle of sorts lay before her, dead ahead. Who it was, she could not tell for the groups had been hidden from her sight by a swath of trees her company was about to round, but the screams of death and pain were undeniable, and she urged her mount on all the more despite the three days ride because of it.

The fief's banner stuck in the ground showed it was the people from Lynx Mountain who fought there, and a glance at a familiar person diving from a blow from a metal thing told her who was leading it as well.

"Grab your bows and get those things as quickly as you can!!" cried Lyssa, seeing Amanda's group was having trouble handling them all. "I know you can get them, and help those people if you can. They are our allies! Charge!!"

She galloped towards the fray and jumped off her mount when she was close enough, grabbing a trailing end of a metal-hemp rope that was twined around one of the thing's claws as it tried to use it to kill it's attackers.

"Care!" cried one of the Lynx Mountain soldiers, running up and helping her hold it as others rushed to take it down. "These ones...they are not like the others."

"How so?!" demanded Lyssa through grit teeth, holding the straining rope with all her might.

"They are stronger and faster," panted the man in reply, shaking the sweat from his eyes. "Perhaps even smarter... we lost many who assumed they were just like before and found themselves to be wrong."

"Great," muttered Lyssa, leaning her weight on the rope as well. "That's all we need...smart monsters..."

"Watch out!!"

"Huh?!?" Lyssa looked up to see a small ground pressed near the edge of the ravine, several of it's members familiar to her. Two metal things boxed them in and a third had just jumped in the middle, a swing of it's claw right then causing the Queen of the Rogue to stumble off balance towards the edge and go tumbling over.

"VIXEN!!"

Lyssa almost let go, then clamped back onto the chain as she noted out of the corner of her eye that Amanda had taken her pole arm and dove after her, wishing she could help in some way as well.

"Duck!!" She and the guy both jumped in different ways as the other claw got free, swinging towards them quickly. She kept her hold on the rope and wrapped it around a tree that was right next to her. She wouldn't be rid of this one for awhile, and maybe by then Amanda and Vixen would've rejoined them at the top. But regardless she promised herself to get over there as quickly as she could...just as soon as this metal thing was dead.

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Jennifer packed the servants into her kitchen, from the farthest corner out as best she could. "Here!!" she called, pulling open another hidden pantry she had remembered that hadn't been filled as of yet. "In here, younglings. Go on...no one can get to you in there..."

The metal things were the only monsters attacking the fief, and by most accounts they were far deadlier than the ones that had attacked before. They couldn't smash through the stone, though, and with the small hallways being the only two entrances into the mainly-stone fief, there was no chance at all that they would be able to reach the people inside without human help.

"I'm going up to the surface," she said to the other head servant who had been helping her at the time. "You know what to do, just make sure they're all still safe!"

"Alright. Be careful."

"You too."

Jennifer raced through the halls, throwing her apron aside and glad she had decided to wear breeches today instead of her usual skirt. Her weighted and metal-banded staff in hand, she flew as fast as she could towards the front of the fief and bursting out the door to see the chaos that reigned there.

Villagers who had been caught unawares by the metal things coming in the opposite side gates now ran about in circles, several caught between two or three with no real definite path of escape. Some had left by the gates that had been smashed in, running down to the deserted village below in hopes of escaping the death inside the walls. What waited for them in the unknown surely had to be better than being slaughtered inside your own fief walls by monstrous metal beasts.

"No!!" cried Jennifer as she saw a small child run in the way of one of the things, jumping at her barely in time to push her to the side of the claw. The call was so close she felt the edge of it snip the back of her shirt, and as she turned around she pulled her staff in front of her to block another claw coming her way.

The metal things claws unable to cut through the iron bands on the staff, it picked it up instead and shook her free of it, tossing the staff aside before going after another hapless victim. Jennifer lay there a moment for her world to stop spinning before getting up and searching for her staff in the melee around her. It was deathly insane...and she wondered if it would ever end...

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Libby swept through their ranks as she could, checking on those who had fallen and saving as many as she could, dragging those who could moved or move themselves back to a small area protected by a few soldiers from both groups for those who needed tending. A few had died while in her care already, and Libby would give anything to be free of the responsibility and burden that had been placed on her.

Artman fought beside those who were still bodily whole just as Libby stayed beside those who weren't, using his powers to the best of his ability to defeat the somewhat 'smarter' metal things before them. He couldn't be sure, but something told him that these things weren't the same as the ones he had fought before were. And it scared the heck out of him.

"Master mage!" cried a scout, coming and grabbing Artman's collar during a lull in the fight. Twenty of ours are trapped between two of those horrible things and a sheer rock face, you must help them!"

"Where?" asked Artman, following as if he were in a haze through the throb roll of the battle around him. He was lead to the place immediately, and already five of the twenty had been slain trying to get free. Artman called on his gift and surrounded the two things with flames, wishing to roast them without fear, but with the others so close he couldn't be sure that they wouldn't die in the process.

"Get that one trapped!" he cried, pointing to the left one as the right continued to try and break free of his control. Several ran to their aid with metal-and-hemp ropes slung over their shoulders. As soon as he was sure they could handle it, Artman let the metal beast free and concentrated all his power on the right one. Calling upon one of the larger spells he had taught himself, Artman hoped the heat wouldn't transfer to those near by as he delicately melted the thing enough so it was trapped and could no long hinder their movements. A hiss of steam came through one of the cracks caused in the domed shell of  a head, and with it came the mournful cry of a child as always.

The other was taken out with a pike through the dome, it's bearer nearly sliced in half as the beast went through it's death throes. "That is only two of many!" he wearily reminded those who cheered joyously. "Go help those who need it now…"

Sagging against a tree, he accepted a water skin from someone nearby and drained it entirely, letting the water disappear down his throat as his gift had disappeared from his body. He wasn't sure he'd be able to perform another spell like that for quite some time, let alone a simple camp fire…

"Master mage!" came another scout, seeking him tirelessly through the melee. "Master mage!!"

"Here!" replied Artman at last, his irritation evident upon his lined, soot-streaked face. "What is it??"

"The other Mage requires your help!!"

"Oh Mithros…"

"ARTMAN, GET OVER HERE NOW!!" He didn't question how she'd sensed his hesitation, or how she had even projected her voice over that kind of a distance, but he did run with all due speed towards her and dropped at her side obediently. You did not question a mage of inhuman powers when they called you, especially one who could shield herself against your spells and burst your heart with a twist of her wrist.

"Yes, Libby?"

"Warm your hands and put them here," she said, placing them just above a man's wound. "Don't move them until I tell you to!"

Artman nodded wearily. Busy work he could do, so he warmed his hands and set them there, trying not to lose his lunch as Libby cleaned and staunched the wound before stitching it up swiftly and cleanly with some strange tan thread that he did not want to name…

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Kyle sat peacefully under his tree, the world outside of the immediate bounds of his clearing nonexistent as he tried to finish writing up his report as fast as he could in a few words as he could with his quickly failing supply of ink. A hawk hurled out of nowhere and managed to slow down enough just in time to land on Kyle's arm without hurting himself or the human too much.

The Wildmage frowned, concern showing in his eyes as he let the hawk compose himself before demanding why he had acted in such a way and how in the world he had gotten free of his coup without the accompaniment of one of the other hawkers in the fief?

'Attackers…' The hawk panted wearily. 'The two-leggers are being attacked and ravaged by some metal beasts…it is a horror that none of the others nor myself have ever seen before!'

'You are sure?!' demanded Kyle, slowly setting aside the note he had been working on while the falcon who was waiting for him to finish shifted on his shoulder anxiously.

'Yes, son of the people,' said the hawk assuredly. 'The young two-legger who feeds myself and my kin set me free, telling me to find the bird-speaker. I assumed he meant you and came as quickly as I could. A foul wind blows from the north, son of the people, death is everywhere among us.'

Kyle immediately got to his feet and tied up the note, attaching it onto the falcon who was with him and sending him on his way before packing his things in any which way they would fit in the bag and starting back towards the fief at a run.

Elizabeth would be there with Alyse, and if this hawk had managed to get free due to the fighting, then things couldn't be good. Enemies inside the walls…he must get to Elizabeth immediately and make sure she was alright! Amanda and the rest would be gone fighting whatever force they would find in that shielded spot…but Elizabeth and the others would probably need his help more than anyone else! If only he hadn't had to leave again so soon, he might be there with her right now protecting her from whatever fate awaited her within those high, stone walls!

"How much farther until we get to the fief?" panted Kyle as he kept on running, refusing to slacken his pace as he began to gasp for air and sweat dripped down his face into his eyes.

'An hours flight, perhaps more for you on the ground,' replied the hawk carefully, giving Kyle a view of the fief in the distance, one that scared him greatly. Great billows of smoke rose from the fief, and he could see figures running around the base of it in chaotic fear as one of the metal things mounted back over the walls and jumped on them, intent upon murdering every last one.

"Must….get there…now…" panted Kyle, gritting his teeth as a horrible sense of dread began to settle in the pit of his stomach. They couldn't die on him like this, someone would still be there when he reached the walls, for surely there must be at least a few within the fief hardy enough to stand against the might of those tings. Still…much could happen in an hour, and there might not even be anyone left when he reached the walls at long last…

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Elizabeth ran along the top of the wall as fast as she could, her long skirts either stripped or torn away a long time ago leaving her legs free to move as they could. Trying not to step on or trip over the dead who covered the walkway, she loaded another dart into her arm-crossbow and took aim at the deadly creature up ahead. Already many had been slain trying to bring down this one as the rest.

Things were not going well with the other groups as well, or so Elizabeth feared as she felt the knot in her stomach settle all the more tightly. Surely, if the Scanrans could spare this many machines on just one fort, who knew what her sister and friends were facing right then. She took aim and pulled the trigger carefully, letting it fly true right between the thing's 'eyes'. One of the other soldiers jumped up and grabbed it, pulling it free and twisting away from the dying thing as it's trapped spirit was released into the air about her.

Grim smiles and a few nods were all she received as she rushed on past, intent upon the next one that was outside the walls, just below where she was standing now. Each one was a chance she might die, as it was with any other fighter against these things right now. She didn't look forward anymore to the last one she would surely face than she had the first, and all she wanted now as peace.

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"Nothing as of yet," said Allie to Sarah's unasked question as she came and visited her at the thief's post at the edge of the ranch. "Not a sign of anyone or thing, from what the scouts say. And if this keeps up for another day or so, we can consider ourselves past the crucial point and those of us from the fief will head back to see how the rest faired."

Sarah nodded understandingly. "Do you think anything will actually happen, though?"

"Like an attack?" asked Allie carefully, scratching her nose with a thoughtful air about her.

"Yeah, or a ambush or some thing," replied Sarah tightly. "Any sort of fighting…I mean…against the Scanrans, that is…"

"I don't know," replied Allie honestly with a shrug. "They aren't a predictable enemy, Sarah-"

"I know that much," cut in Sarah, her eyes glowing slightly with fervor. "I know that it is something that has haunted this war from the beginning, their ability to act somewhat spontaneously."

"Somewhat is the understatement of the year," interrupted Allie, rolling her eyes at that.

"You know what I mean," retorted Sarah grimly. "But despite the fact that we can't predict their every move, what do you think the chances are of them coming here to attack?"

"About as good as anywhere else," replied Allie firmly. "I can't say anymore than that, Sarah. Targets we would deem as useless, they may see as a gain in the war if they're taken out…a Ranch for horses they might consider either something that threatens them or something they ignore. Which is it, I honestly don't know, seeing as how I'm not one of them…"

Sarah considered this for a moment, listening to the sounds of the forest around them as she let what the thief had said sink in… Her ears perked suddenly…something was not quite right…

"Do you hear something?" asked Sarah quietly, back away from the post a few steps.

"No," replied Allie. "I don't…wait…the sounds of the forest animals…"

"Are gone." Both looked at the other, a feeling of dread coming over each as they listened frantically for anything…something that would indicate that there was at least something still alive in the forest.

"Maybe we should head back," suggested Allie hesitantly, her breath nearly frozen in her lungs.

"Maybe you're-"

*CRASH*

Both of them froze completely as an awareness of the huge metal thing looming before them quickly dawned on their fear-numbed minds.

"Uh…Allie…?" whispered Sarah, backing up slowly as the thing began to advance on them, sharp knife-fingers and -toes of the thing glinting in the light of the lamp.

"Um…yeah…Sarah…?" Allie edged back as well, her hands feeling for the handles of her daggers in some hope that they might be useful against the thing. It was a very slightly hope at that…

"…can we outrun this thing?"

"I have no idea…"

"Think it's time to find out?"

Allie jumped back to avoid being chopped in half. "Yeah!!" and took off at a sprint towards the ranch yelling bloody murder as Sarah and the monstrosity that followed them pounding at her heals. It was a nightmare that little kids have on the darkest of nights, but it wasn't one they could wake up from either.

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Mouse ducked on the metal arms, a finger catching the back of her leather tunic and slicing through it like paper. Shouting more orders, she managed to toss the metal-hemp rope under it's belly and roll away as the others secured it in place as best they could with what they had available.

Two to each that held it, and still it was a struggled to keep it still. An arm broke loose as the archer took aim and fired, the arm glancing off the flailing appendage to much cursing of the others as some dove for the rope in hopes of securing it once more. A thief from her squad when down with his head severed from the rest of his body, and a few cried in grief and anger as they dragged the poor fellow off to the side to join the rest of their fallen comrades.

"Take aim again!" cried Mouse, running and holding on herself to the arm that had gotten free with Fang right behind her to help as always. "Son of a meecrob, Lavan!! Hurry it up!!"

"Aye, marm!!" He raised the bow and pulled it back with all his might, shooting the arrow straight through the metal dome. "Ha! Son of a bastard beast…"

"Some one pull it out before we all get sliced alive, here!" yelled Mouse, her feet sliding as the horror filled monster lunged against their hold. 

"Gotta there, miss!" One of the other fellows jumped on it from behind, nearly falling off as he came down the front and yanked out the arrow as he pushed himself away from the beast's teeth. "Ach! Little blaggard…"

"He got ya?" asked Fang, inspecting the fellow's hand as the machine's trapped spirit soared into the sky and left the hulk of a shell there as the only proof that it had once been alive. "Heh, nothing' more'n a slight cut, Sarge. T'will be a'right, if'n ya dun use it agin." She tore a strip from her own tunic and wrapped it up before heading over and helping the others quickly gather the chained-ropes they would need for the next beast.

Mouse surveyed the two they had lost trying to fight this one. "Michlan, and Ostin. Good fighters, they were, Vixen's not going to be too happy in the least about losing them…"

"She t'would be much more unhappy to lose you, her sister, than a thief any day," Sarge reminded her. A few loops of chain hung about his neck, and several more would follow as Fang disentangled them with the help of a few others from the wreckage that was left of the beast.

"Hm, I don't know about that," replied Mouse with a grim smile. "She values me as much as she values you. Any thief of skill in pick-pocketing or lock picking has a value to her. But let's get on, that's only the fourth one down and there are still at least five more ranging about this place. Everyone will be dead before we're through if we don't hurry…"

"Aye, miss."

"Here," said Fang, handing her a dipper of water before continued to loop the chain-rope around Sarge's neck a few more times until she reached the end. "Take a quick lil' nip to the side, then come back'n help us'uns when ya feelin' more rested, ma'am."

Mouse nodded, gulping down the water slowly as she gave her weary limbs a slight respite from the tiresome task of killing those things. It was the only rest she was likely to get for the next several hours, for once the things were killed there would be people needed to help tend to the wounded and the dead.

*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Alyse continued to whirl her fans and send out short blasts of her gift, beating back the hulking-black of metal while those around her continued to escape to the lower regions on the wall and down into the main courtyard where they were ushered into the fief.

She had already blasted one apart earlier, and was beginning to feel the effects of such expenditure as the blasts that she sent out became weaker and weaker. Darting in suddenly from the side, she managed to use her beyond razor-sharp fans to slice off one leg and arm before darting back again to safety. It lurched to the side from the loss of two appendages and nearly lost it's balance all together, a tumble that would've sent it tumbling over the side.

Alyse took advantage of it's laps of attention and sent one fan whirling in it's direction, using the other going in the opposite direction of spin to knock it loose the moment the fan stuck itself in the dome of the hulking-black monster before her. Both landed in the stone to the side and were nearly crushed as the metal monster fell to the side and crumpled like a paper doll as the spirit inside escaped through the tiny slit she'd made.

Leaning against the wall, she wiped the sweat her from hands and rubbed them together a few times to get her stiff joins moving again before picking up the fans and sticking them in her belt after closing them with a *snap*. Her back ached with the effort, and she felt more like she was in her 50's than in her very early  twenties.

Glancing over the wall, she saw the thieves finish off the metal thing they had taken on, and a quick look around told her at least another four, if not five, were still wreaking havoc in the fief. They were going to have to be taken care of. Soon. They were killing villagers and soldiers right and left, and it wouldn't be much of a home if all Amanda and the rest had to return to was a handful of cut-up villagers and some ragged soldiers who'd ran and hid during the fighting.

"Milady," said one of the healers with a nod, a thick-chested man which  had often appeared more like a Captain than a doctor to her. A spear in his hands and a skin full of some tonic at his side clashed slightly, but she accepted his greetings with a nod anyways. The one he held in his free hand was open and smelled slightly of honey and mint…and strange combination as she took it from him and sipped in gingerly, it's unusual warm calming her worn and frazzled nerves. Her aches seemed to lessen greatly, and a strength filled her being like she hadn't felt since the fighting had began. Thank Mithros for healers and their tonics…

"Thank you," she said, wiping her mouth and ducking her head slightly.

"Of course," he said with a quick bow. "There are some trapped behind the fief with another one of those horrid things blocking them in." He re-secured the skin on the other side of his belt. "Shall we?"

Alyse nodded, bringing her fans out once more and giving them a few quick flips to limber up her wrists. "We shall."

*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Lyssa backed up against the back of another of her people, swinging her rapier mercilessly at those Scanran foot soldiers who dared come too close. Right after they had nearly taken care of the metal monsters, and dragged their wounded off to the side to be healed and the dead to be buried, a whole legion of Scanran assailants had come at them from the North.

The Scanrans hadn't found them as 'dead' as they apparently had hoped to, but they certainly weren't as strong as they had been when they'd first arrived. Even now one third of Lyssa's force lay dead or wounded beyond the ability to fight any longer in the battle at hand.

Lunging forward, she stuck the rapier through another Scanran scum soldier before darting back again in time to block another assailant's attack. The ring of metal clashing against metal and the dull thud of broken bodies falling to the ground filled her ears as the coppery smell of fresh blood overwhelmed her nose and she wondered if she wouldn't be sick from the sight of the gore and wounded around her.

Eric cried out as someone got him in the leg with a dart from behind, and Lyssa ran over and covered for him before the masses could overwhelm and trample the Second in Command to death. Supporting him from one side as a friend bandaged his leg with strips from a fallen comrades tunic, she continued to slay those who dared enter within range of her silver-whirlwind of a blade.

"Thank you," he grunted as he put some more weight on it, steadying himself as he blocked blows from a Scanran to his left.

"Don't mention it," she muttered back, thrusting her sword through one enemy's neck before drawing it out and slicing off the head of another.

"Commander, should we fall back?" he asked suddenly seeing another man from their ranks go down in the turmoil.

"We will not abandon those who have helped us thus far in our fight against the enemy," she replied roughly. "Not until they retreat, or every last one of us is captured or dead."

"This is not the time to be going on a 'to the death' rampage," one of the Captains commented lightly, a young woman named Rajah, reminded her quietly as she speared one of the enemy through the middle with her halberd. "I think most of us would much rather live."

"Than fight with it and stick together," ordered Lyssa, shifting her weight so she was supporting Eric more as she felt his leg falter beneath him. "Pass the word, form up back here and don't break formation once you get in it!"

"Yes, ma'am!!"

"You holding up alright?" she asked Eric, feeling him lean on her even more as the time passed on. "We can get you to the healers…" Lyssa looked at him out of the corner of her eye, her words falling from her lips as she saw the determined look on her face.

"I stay here where I belong," he said, grimly keeping himself upright and slaying another Scanran that stood before him, his ax nearly catching Lyssa in the side from where the guy fell. "Beside my Commander."

*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Jennifer dashed around the corner, nearly tripping over her own feet as she skidded to a halt and jumped back from the giant metal monster sitting in her path. Her head became light and woozy when she saw the blood dripping from it's dagger-like fingers, and a lot more queasy from the arm that hung from it's mouth of razor sharp teeth.

"Oh…shoot…"

The thing lunged forward as she twisted out of it's way, the fingers catching the back of her shirt and nearly ripping it from her back as it flew by. Her staff swung firmly in her hands as she used it to strike the other arm away, keeping her body together by mere tenths of a centimeter.

[That this is really big…and really fast…and really scary…why me??] Jennifer's thoughts were interrupted as she was forced to block another swing and jump over the second, her boots barely clearing the blades that intended to cover themselves in her blood.

Behind her was a dead end with a ladder that she probably wouldn't be able to get up before the thing would catch her and slice her to bits, and the only other way through was the small space in between the thing's feet and arms. Maybe…if by some dumb luck…

Jennifer darted forward and ducked low, a few hairs from her head sheered off by the fingers that passed over head as she staved off the other arm just enough to get herself through the gap and into the hall beyond it. Sprinting the rest of the way, she put as much distance between the thing and herself as she could.

A low, heavy thumping behind her told her the thing hadn't given up on her entirely as prey just yet, but she had other more pressing matters on her mind. She hadn't seen Elizabeth, Alyse, or Mouse; and didn't know where she might find them at that point. Mouse would be with her troop, but that could be anywhere in the entire fief. Alyse would be helping people in some way if she could, but still that could be anywhere. The courtyard, on the walls, in the fief itself…you could hardly see twenty feet from you with the many people running about in circles and smoke everywhere from the fires started from torches and lamps knocked over by the metal devils.

Elizabeth, she might have left the fief entirely for all she knew. Road off after her sister and the rest to bring them news of what had happened at the fief. And to come help at once. Not that she was calling her a deserter, but you could never tell what that one was thinking or what she might do next. Patterns of behavior were irrelevant, for she was a pattern of behavior all unto her own.

Hauling herself up a ladder as fast as her weary and sore legs would go, Jennifer reached the top and got herself over the lip of the wall and steady on her feet as the ladder was yanked from it's holdings and thrown to the side, the metal thing that had been following her holding the remnants of it in it's sharply clawed hand as she looked over the edge.

"Heh, can't get me now!!" Jennifer stuck her tongue out it, then froze in fear, the shadow of another creature exactly like the first towering over her left shoulder. She cursed and dashed away from it as fast as she could, glancing back once or twice to see it gaining on her.

"I hate those things…"

*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Libby knelt beside the body of another wounded person from the Scanrans instead of the metal things this time. The machines had all been taken care of, but a force of sixty Scanran footmen came in their place and their shredded defense wasn't doing as well as they had hoped before.

She assessed the injuries of the wounded before her: sliced abdomen, going deep enough to nearly hit the organs. Luckily, none had. But it was still not likely that she would survive through the night if not given proper treatment immediately. Libby sewed up the wound after cleaning it and reconnecting the arteries and veins as quickly as what little was left of her gift would allow her to.

The woman was dragged aside to be placed with the other 'recovering patients' and a young man knelt before her, his wrist hanging at an odd angle and a pained expression on his face. She gave him some leaves for the pain to chew and quickly re-nit the bone enough to keep it together while wrapping it up for extra support. A quick hopeful grin and a scolding to be more careful and he picked up his weapons again, willingly rushing back into battle with other partially wounded comrades who had been fixed up on either side.

Libby wiped her brow and paused for a moment, taking a drink of one of her own tonics while looking at those who lay to the side on the mats that had been made for them. Some were dying as she waited for others who hadn't been cared yet to come to her, and other healers from Lynx Mountain and Lyssa's fort helped with the load in what ways they could. The worst of the cases were sent to her, but the emotional drain of seeing their gray and ashen faces and the pain filled moans in the wind was drawing on her far more than the physical or gift-drain was.

What she wouldn't give to be free of this. These people depended on her to get them through alive, yet she knew that she couldn't keep more than a few alive with her gift. If she healed the worst back to fighting ability she wouldn't be able to take care of those coming after, and choosing who could live and who would die due to their wounds was a choice that was becoming harder and harder to make.

A healer called to her suddenly as another thief from the fief went into spasms of pain, their ethereal cries signaling the sudden closure of their lives. The light would die from their eyes slowly, almost as if they resisted the urge to go. Even through the pain and the suffering, they didn't wish to die. Not that she could blame them, death wasn't the most pleasant of thoughts, but if it ended the pain…

"Easy, easy," she said, recognizing the young man as one of those who fought under Joe. "Settle, thief boy…it's almost through…" She slipped some tonic down his throat and helped the healers support him as he slowly drifted into a deep sleep that he would never return from.

Libby bit back a sob as he went limp, his heart slowly fluttering to a stop and a suddenly cold creeping along his veins. He was the fifth one to die that she knew, and many others besides had passed on this way. The dying and the wounded never seemed to end to the young woman as she tried to wipe off her blood-soaked hands, wondering if they would be dyed the rusty red permanently from it. It seemed as if she would never be able to get them entirely clean again, as if a trace of the blood would remain there forever until her dying day.

Perhaps that day was today.

*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Kyle pounded down the road, running in one of the gates and tripping over the dead body that was lying in the way, to his horror, before he realized it was there. He closed the eyelids of the young boy who had had his legs sliced off and dragged him to the side with tears flowing down his face, his stomach vying to violently revolt all it had eaten in the past twenty four hours without end.

"Must find…Elizabeth," he panted, grunting as he pulled himself up the ladder there by the gate to the wall above. Smoke poured from outbuildings that had caught flame and chaos reigned wherever the eye could see, masses of people running in circles as they were caught between the few metal machines left and other stampeding herds of villagers.

And none of them looked the least bit familiar, either.

"Elizabeth?!" he called wildly, running along the top of the wall as he searched for someone he knew. "Elizabeth!" But no answer came. A few looked at him as they ran by, but he was ignored otherwise. Who wasn't looking for someone, hoping they hadn't fallen in the path of one of those accursed beasts? They had little time or patience to spare with a man who wasn't smart enough to run from his coming death.

Kyle was about to yell Elizabeth's name again when he felt himself go numb with fear as one of the huge metal things came towards him on the wall. He skidded to a stop and turned back around, heading for the nearest ladder and climbing down a few rungs until the danger had passed.

Heading back down the way he had been going before after checking to make sure the monster wasn't headed for him, Kyle kept running, calling Elizabeth's name and occasionally Alyse's or Jennifer's if by chance they were nearby.

"Elizabeth!! Alyse?!"

"Kyle!?!"

"Huh??!"

Kyle looked up to see on of the metal things in front of him, it's back to him as it pressed several men and woman farther and farther back into a crack between the walls and the fief with Jenny at the head trying to keep the beast back as best she could. He jumped from the wall to a rope nearby and swung across the gap, his hawks of the forest coming and confusing the metal beast while he landed on it's back and slammed the pick he carried with him into the domed skull as hard as he could.

The dome cracked slightly, just enough that the spirit that was trapped inside floated out and into the wind with the same mournful howl as usual. The men and women who had been trapped grabbed the chance to get as far away as possible from the three things and ran for cover, for anyplace within the fief that would keep them alive and away from the monsters was better than here.

"You alright?" asked Jennifer breathlessly as Kyle tumbled from the hulk of metal below him, quickly regaining his footing when he was on solid ground once more.

"Yeah," he replied with a quick nod. "Where's the others?"

"Amanda and them left awhile ago…"

"I know about them! I meant Elizabeth," interrupted Kyle impatiently, his tone immanently urgent. "Where is she?"

"I don't know," replied Jennifer hollowly. "I lost both her and Alyse in the chaos, and I haven't found them again since. I was trying to track them down when another one of those beasts came and nearly got me…"

"Then it wasn't your first close call?"

"No, it wasn't." Jennifer paused, licking her dry lips and wishing she had something to drink right about then. "There are still one or two left in the fief, and each one has been getting progressively…'smarter' if you will. It's almost like as one dies it's strength and wit is passed on to those left…"

"Except for that's impossible, right??" asked Kyle in disbelief, everyone around them forgotten as he processed what she had said. "Smarter as the rest die…that could mean a lot of trouble when we get to the last one."

"No kidding," snorted Jennifer sarcastically. "I have to go see if I can help some others. I'll tell Elizabeth to look for you if I see her, alright?"

"Alright, and I will do the same if I see Alyse."

"Thank you. Good luck, Kyle." Jennifer disappeared once more into the dust and smoke, her notched and splintered staff held tightly in her hands.

Kyle nodded, heading off in the opposite direction than she did. "We're going to need it."

*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Amanda finally reached the bottom of the ravine, her left hand hanging at an odd angle as she tried to wrap it up with some strips of leather with her right. The track down after her fallen friend had taken nearly an hour, and Amanda had tried to keep fixed in her mind where it was below Vixen had fallen but it was hard with all the undergrowth blocking her view. Forgetting her injury when she heard someone moan aloud nearby, she called, "Vixen? Is that you??"

"Yeah, it is," came the rough reply. "And with a rather nasty break too, I'm afraid…"

"Wonderful…" Amanda rolled her eyes as she finished her wrist and pushed through the undergrowth to find the Queen of Thieves sitting up slightly with her leg bent in a position that Amanda was sure legs weren't supposed to bend. "Lovely as always, dear Vixie…"

"Shaddup and help me, will you?" groused Vixen, her face white from the bolts of fire that seemed to run up and down her leg.

"Chew this," said Amanda, handing her a small cube of pressed herbs. "And try not to scream…" She took the leg in her hands and felt for the break, waiting until she was sure she had the exact right spot…*SNAP*

Vixen about surrendered to the darkness that gathered at the corners of her vision as the bone popped into place, the leg straight once more. "Son of a meecrob…"

"Steady, Vix," murmured Amanda, quickly setting it with her good hand as best she could and tying off the knots with rawhide strips that she generally carried with her in case of emergencies. "Hm…that ought too-"

*CRASH*

Both young women went white as one of the metal things lumbered into the clearing, it's beady eyes focusing on them immediately with an intelligence that machines should never be allowed to posses.

"I think we're dead meat, Vixen…" whispered Amanda, rising slowly and picking Vixen's pole arm that had fallen with her.

"Really, whatever gave you that idea?!" muttered Vixen sarcastically. "Amanda, what are you doing…?"

"Drawing it away from you," replied the noble, approaching the thing slowly with the weapon held out before her. "If I can, that is…"

*slice*

Amanda turned as white as a ghost as the two halves of the pole arm fell from her grasp, the metal thing's arm still outstretched and not even a foot from her face…

"Gotcha!!!" Joe fell straight down from above and punctured the metal dome of the metal beast with a single thrust of the heavy spear he carried, his momentum giving him the power he needed to do so.

"Mithros, you climb down fast for someone with a broken wrist," said Levi with a boyish grin as he helped Vixen stand with a staff for a crutch. Joe jumped from machine as it crumpled to it's death, coming and supporting Vixen for him as Levi wrapped up Amanda's wrist so it was useful once more.

"They're having a rough time up there, from what I can hear," said Joe almost lightly as he began to walk to the side where the rock face was bare.

"Um, how are you planning on getting her back up there?" asked Amanda quizzically. "It was close to a straight drop…"

*clip clop* *clip clop*

The noble's and thief's mouths dropped as their mounts came into view. "We found another way down," explained Joe with a cocky grin, getting Vixen up on her horse and then getting on behind her before galloping up the hidden pathway to the top. It would be mere minutes before they rejoined the others again…

"Shall we?" asked Levi with a grim smile, letting Amanda mount first and settle Mandie down enough so he wouldn't be thrown before flying up the zigzag path to the top and back into the fray.

 *~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Jon sprinted like a madman from the metal thing behind him, the boys a little in front as they broke into the house, leaving the door swinging on it's hinges. The fight hadn't lasted long, with everyone immediately scattering at the sight of 9 of those things coming from the woods in different directions and only about 15 people there in all, including the boys.

The boys themselves had stayed in the barn as ordered until the metal things had come in the barns with several thieves before them, and they found the lofts weren't safe at all with the things knocking out the support beams like straws. They had left and found Jon, and now they were all running away together like the bunch of cowards they were from the huge hulking metal things that they had no defense from.

"Ha!" said Dar breathlessly as the machine found it couldn't fit through the door. "We're safe!! Na-na Na-na-na!"

Jon paused as the machine backed up. "Hey…maybe it's decided we're not worth the-"

*SMASH*

"Aw, crap!!" The three of them scattered and fled towards the rooms themselves, the metal creature climbing calmly through the widened doorway in the wall it had made with it's claws before coming after them with a vengeance.

"I don't think it was a good idea to make it mad like that," muttered Cor, boosting his twin through the window as Jon kept it back from the door of the bedroom as long as he could with a broom. He was back seconds later and threw Cor out it after dropping the few bits of broom that were left from the encounter. And that was only part of the handle, the rest had disappeared into the thing's mouth and ground to sawdust with it's teeth faster than lightening.

The thing crashed through that doorway as well, Jon hauling himself halfway through before he realized he was stuck. "Son of a- Help!!"

Both twins took and arm and pulled, barely yanking Jon free and tumbling away from the window in a heap before the claw sliced through the window frame where his body had once been.

Jon hauled them all to their feet, dusted himself and the twins off and made sure there were no broken bones before breaking into a run once more. "Let's get out of here!!"

 *~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Joe fixed up the splint some more that held Vixen's leg still before helping her to her feet and giving her a crutch of a branch from a tree. Then, with a whistle that called the ten or so that were left of her thieves to her side, Vixen began to fight against the Scanrans once more. Her short sword flashed in the waning light of the sun, and with her thieves at her side they began to mow down the ranks that came at them with a passion that defied all logic.

"Hold position!" she cried as a few of them tried to break off and tumble into the fray on their own. "Stay together, you're more likely to stay alive that way!!"

The crutch was hewn away from under her arm by a lucky ax stroke, and only Joe's quick reflexes kept the Queen from tumbling to the ground amid the stampeding hoard around them.

Using him as a crutch instead, together they used the other to protect their back in the fight for their lives. Scanrans pressed in around the 13 or so of them left and soon had them cut off from the rest. But the thieves weren't about to give up their position around their Queen, who fought on despite her leg. It was like trying to fight through a mini fortress in the middle of the battle, and those who dared try to break through it were never alive again.

"Vixen, we can't stay in the middle here forever," Joe reminded her breathlessly after several minutes, his weapon running with blood and sweat dripping down his face to soak the tunic he wore. "We need to get back out to the edge to a couple of these can take a rest. Not all of them have gone unscathed as I have…"

"I know," she growled, hewing another Scanran in half while keeping her mind concentrated on what he was saying. "Thieves! Cut to the west and to the trees where the others are, but stay together!!"

Forming a wedge of sorts, they tried to slice their way through the ranks to rejoin the other forces in the area once again, but the Scanran seemed to sense their plans and immediately moved more of their forces between the thieves and the soldiers and fief fighters with the intent of keeping them cut off until they were worn down to the bone and they could kill them at their leisure.

The masses of Scanran fighters continued to pour in between the two, making it seem more and more impossible as the distance widened between them and their goal of the trees.

Vixen wasn't about ready to give up just yet, if ever. "Hold your ground!" she cried when she realized it wasn't going to work. "Stay together, and stay put!! The others will come to us when they can!!" She let out a shrill whistle, hoping Lyssa or Amanda would be able to hear her above the roar and din around them. She needed help of she was going to get her thieves back into some relative cover of the trees, and soon if she hoped to get them all out of here alive.

The ranks thinned suddenly, two horses she recognized charging into the melee with a rider on each back. Mandie and Levi on his gelding both reared when they reached the thieves, then began to head back, lashing out with hooves and teeth at anything or one that dared try their luck.

Making it back to the trees, Levi saluted them and turned back into the fight, leaving them to the cover there where some could rest for a moment. Vixen smiled, then turned back to the fight with a will and thieves on either side. She would remember to thank him later in person, when all the fighting was done and they had hopefully come out on top.

 *~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Alyse and Elizabeth found each other at the front of the fief, pausing there as they made sure the other was still mainly alive and assessed the situation around them. Both were entirely drained to the core, both gift-wise and physically. Soon neither would be able to go on at all. Alyse had lost one of her fans trying to fight a metal thing and had it crushed beneath it's feet, and Elizabeth had run out of her darts long ago.

No weapons, no strength, no gift, and two of those things still running loose did not help their confidence in the least. The villagers had mainly massed within the stone halls of the fief and the soldiers crowded around the last two metal things that were left. Still, death was abroad as the creatures fought with a malevolence and hunger for blood that hadn't been seen in any of their predecessors.

A few were counting the dead and laying them out for burial, and others tried to find those who might yet have a chance and give them some help in finding there way back to the land of the living. Such finds were few, however, as many of the deaths caused by the monsters were fatal upon the first blow or slice.

Mass chaos still prevailed over all, as well, inside the fief were servants were trying to establish some sense of order among those who had taken refuge in there and others doing their best not to faint over the mess they would have to clean when the people would evacuate the halls afterwards. The filth and blood that had been tracked in was astounding, to say the least.

"Where's Jennifer?" asked Alyse after a few moments, seeing servants and villagers she'd known added among the rows of the dead in the courtyard with a shudder. "Have you seen her at all?"

"No," replied Elizabeth with a curt nod of her head. "My guess is she's in the fief helping or somewhere out there." Her hand swept over the crush of bodies before them. "Either way, it will be impossible to find her right now…"

"I hope she's alright, then," admitted Alyse, backing into the shadows slightly as if trying to escape the horror around them. "This…turmoil…it is a deadly kind that several have not been able to escape."

"I know," replied Elizabeth with a tired shrug. "I hope Amanda and the others are fine, as well."

"One must wonder what they had to face if the Scanrans could spare NINE of those things to attack the fief alone…"

"My point exactly."

The two exchanged glances and seemed to say it all within that one look. Whatever was going on with their friends to the north, it was most likely not good. The best they could hope for now was for them to come home alive…and in one piece preferably.

Alyse headed inside to see what she could do to help with the disorder in there, and Elizabeth continued to watch over what was going on outside, soon leaving the steps and heading back into the frenzy. Both had their posts, positions and tasks to fulfill until their friends, comrades in battle, and family returned, and would do the best they could for them until then.

 *~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Lyssa heard something over the din of the battle and jumped up on a boulder nearby and saw their predicament immediately, calling out for the 30 or so fully able-bodied Riders that were left of the several she had brought to come and rally about her immediately. Forming into an axe-like wedge, with Lyssa at the head, they began to press through the hoard before them.

Breaking through at the edge of the battle, they continued on straight toward the reinforcements coming for the Scanrans, mowing through the fifty or so like wheat before the reaper. The Scanrans were taken completely by surprise as they saw the fresh recruits that they had been planning on using to replace those who had fallen not even make it into the main battle, taken out with such for a speed that not a single Rider was lost in the process.

Blades flashed and arrows sung, the Scanrans not even seeing them until it was too late. Lyssa grinned wolfishly when she had finally let out a war cry, spurning her men and women on even more. Taken by surprise and being hit from the side, they had not a chance in the world to face the onslaught before every last one of them was dead. Blood flowed like water and the dead piled upon each other like sheaves of grain from the field to be dried in the sun.

Commander Lyssa herself slew the last living one in the troop before wheeling back around and forming her people up again, running into the battle from behind and smashing into the diminishing Scanrans like a hammer to the anvil. Their lines began to thin between the Riders and the main force, and soon they were able to join their allies without a problem.

The Scanran force was down to half of what it had been, and those left fought with a strength born of desperation and fear. They knew not what would happen to those who escaped afterward if the Scanrans lost, but judging by the fearless expression in their eyes and the brazenness of their actions…it was not something to be desired or even liked in the least…

 *~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Jennifer surveyed the damage as she walked among those who shored up the last of the warehouses that the refugees had lived in. Some had collapsed during the attack from the metal things going in and through them, the supports inside almost completely knocked out and others bent at crazy angles as they barely continued to bear the weight from above.

Of the few that had collapsed entirely, one had been particularly nasty and even as she walked among them they pulled the bodies of those who had been trapped inside from the wreckage. A small girl caught her attention, kneeling over several heavy beams that were in place while sobbing softly.

Putting her hand on the girl's shoulder, Jennifer knelt beside her and asked, "What is the matter, little one?"

The girl sniffled her tears away, wiping those on her face dry with her sleeve. "Ma and pa…they was standing in the place near their beds when the building fell…" she whispered softly. "They told me to stay there with them…they said it was safe…but I snuck out 'cuz I wanted to see the shiny monsters…Tom said they was the most purtyful they he ever saw."

Jennifer frowned, remembering that this was one of the buildings that had had underground shelters for vegetables meats before it had been used as a shelter for refugees. "Hey, you there!" she called, waving over a few burly fellows who had just finished one of their jobs. "Get over here real fast!!"

Recognizing her as one of the servants who was close to the ladies themselves, they hurried over immediately. "Yes, miss?"

"See if you can dig out this area," she said in a low voice, keeping her back to the girl for a moment. "The cellars are right below here, right??"

"Yes, miss, they are," replied the man in charge. "You be thinking some folks might've made it in before the collapse??"

"If they did, they need to be gotten out," replied Jennifer firmly. "I'm taking this one away from the wreck where she'll be safe, and report to the fief if you find anyone alive!"

"Yes, ma'am!"

"Come on, miss," said Jennifer, leading the girl away towards an area where several refugees were waiting together. A woman who had taken charge of kids without their parents approached them with a sad smiled on her face. "You can stay here for awhile, ok?"

"What about my Ma and Pa?" asked the little girl, more tears coming to her red-rimmed eyes.

"I'll let them know where you are if I find them," promised Jennifer, patting her head before turning back to what was left of the warehouse, using her staff as a lever as she helped clear away the debris.

"Miss!!" called one of the men as they pulled away another heavy beam, a small hole showing in the ground. "We found one of them!"

Jennifer came over immediately, her staff in her hand as always. She peered in the whole, taking the candle one of the men had handed her and sticking it in the whole slowly. It didn't go out, meaning the air was still safe to breath as always.

"None of us'ns here and fit, ma'am," said one of the men, rubbing his hand through his hair ruefully. "Tis' a small hole and would take a small body to fit through it…"

"Get me a rope," said Jennifer immediately, removing her over tunic of leather quickly. "I'll go."

"Right away, Miss." They rigged her a harness and lowered her into the gaping darkness quickly, her only light the lantern she had been given and her only weapon her staff as it was lowered in after her.

"Anyone down there, miss??" called one of the men as Jennifer quickly went through the large space, lantern held high and staff held at the ready incase of any unwelcome company found down there.

"No one in this one!" she called back in disappointment. She swung the ladder around as something glimmered faintly in the light. "I see some wooden structure with metal parts on one of the walls, though. What might that be??"

"The in-between ways from one cellar to another," replied one of the men, one whom she hadn't heard from before. "Don't try them miss, they're not stable as far as we know!"

Jennifer weighed her options, wondering how much more time those who might be trapped would have before they ran out of air and hope altogether. "Can you find the other cellars quickly?"

"We're not sure, Miss," replied the headman slowly. "It depends…we're not even sure where the others are located!"

"Toss down a key, then," called Jennifer solidly. "Or a light axe, if you don't have one of those. I suck at using 'em, but I'll get it open and through it faster than you can uncover the rest!"

"But miss-!"

"Just do it!" Jennifer yelled back, quickly losing patience. "And work on widening the hole without collapsing this place, too! Last thing we need is for those who might be alive to die because of your carelessness!"

"Yes, ma'am!"

An axe was sent down on a rope, Jennifer taking it and swinging it carefully at the wooden door. Using what little strength she had left, and with the exceedingly sharp tool it made the work go quickly as she knocked through the half-rotted wood with ease for one who was so tired and small.

"I'm through!!" she called when she had made a hole big enough for her to fit through. She climbed in and kicked out the rest, making it big enough for one of the men above to fit through if they ever got the top hole big enough. Some wood feel from the roof of the cellar as she came back out the hole, nearly hitting her lantern and causing her to go still for a second.

"Are you alright, miss??" called one of the men worriedly when they heard nothing from below.

"I'm fine," she replied bravely. "Just…surprise. Warn me next time you're going to do that!"

"Alright."

"I'm going through the in-between thing now!"

"You're sure you wish to do that, ma'am?"

"I am."

"Then goddess speed and Mithros luck be with you!"

Jennifer clambered into the whole, the tunnel high enough for her to barely stand up straight. Plodding along softly with her lamp held high before her, she stopped when she came to another wooden-door thingy.

This one was even more rotten then the last, and as she lay on her side and kicked at it with all her strength, she felt it give away completely within the first few hits. Something grabbed her legs as the entire thing was ripped from it's hinges, dragging her in and pinning her to the wall as a lamp was help up blindingly to her face.

"Hey!" she cried as she struggled to get free. "Let me go! I'm trying to get you free…"

"Let that young lady go!!" said an old maid, shoving the young men and boys aside as she wrested Jennifer loose from their grip. "Tis' only the head cook, you fools, come to get us free I 'spect!"

"'Pologies, miss," said one of the guys, bowing his head with a wry grin. "Feelin's been running a little thin since we was trapped down here…"

"It's ok," she said, dusting herself off some. "Come on, I know there are some who will be happy to see you!"

"Have you seen a little girl??" asked a worried young mother as she came up beside Jennifer. "About this high, and with the bluest eyes ever…"

"She's waiting for you with some others," said Jennifer, recognizing the description as the girl she'd seen before. "Come on, everyone! Get through this tunnel and up the rope in the next room!"

There were only ten or so in all, but it was ten more alive they they'd originally thought, and that's all that really mattered at that point.

*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Libby closed the eyes of another Lynx Mountain soldier as he breathed his final breath, a cloak pulled over his head and his body wrapped. He was laid among those like him who had died there, awaiting the pyre that would be built for them when it was all over.

Her gift was down to it's last dregs, those around her completely drained already and a one or two, having overreached themselves, were now lying to the side completely passed out. They would have pounding migraines and sore, stiff joints and muscles when they woke, but Libby didn't have the strength to pity them right then so she ignored them entirely.

Another was brought before her as she quickly assessed the damage, deciding within a heartbeat what was crucial and what would have to wait. Arteries sealed…brain clot dissipated…the bruises and broken bones would have to wait…

The man was taken away for further care by one of the others, his legs splinted and the shallow cuts Libby hadn't healed cleaned and bandaged for now. The bruises and such would heal in their own time, but they gave him a does of pain-killers to keep him comfortable and some tonic to knock him out entirely.

Libby's shoulders sagged as she took a quick break, gulping down more of her energy-enhancing tonic and had a swig of the endurance one too. Even with the small boost it gave her, she knew it would never been enough and was careful not to have too much unless she wanted to become addicted to it for the rest of her life. Not that that was likely to be much longer…

More Scanran back-up had arrived, stretching the fight out even more than it had been before. And this time Commander Lyssa had been unable to break free and go charging through the reinforcements like a whirlwind of death. They had purposely boxed her and her group of Riders in at the expense of several men so she couldn't. She certainly hadn't been pleased about it, and killed any who got near enough just to spite them.

Even with the reinforcements, their group was holding up well enough. They were far from fresh, but they could hold out much longer if they had to. More of the enemy had died then them as well, but if any more of those metal things showed up they weren't sure what they would do…

*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Kyle had long since the left fief as was now searching the city, rounding up the few villagers who had ran out there and back into the safety of the walls where they could be protected. All of the metal creatures had been dispatched of as far as he could tell, and if all went well they would soon have a full guard mounted on the walls and near the gates once more.

First they had to be sure that the last of the people were inside the walls, and that's why Kyle was out there yelling for any who might be near enough to hear to come back because it was safe.

The Wildmage felt one of his falcons settle on his shoulder and acknowledged her presence without even uttering a single word.

'You are worried,' said Bluewing, the female that perched there ever so quietly as he wound his way through the deserted streets.

"Why wouldn't I be?" replied Kyle heavily. "They ask me to do this, and there is no way I can refuse, yet I wish to run and seek Elizabeth before it may be too late… None have seen here nor heard from her since the fighting started!"

'Have you found her cousin, the other lady who was left behind? She could be with her, young two-legger.'

"That is not much of a condolence," said Kyle roughly. "I have not seen Lady Alyse, that is true. But neither has anyone else, and the two of them lost together comforts me less than Elizabeth missing on her own. Two people are harder to hide than one, and Elizabeth is very good at hiding."

'Would she have hidden when the metal things attacked?'

"I do not know," admitted Kyle, sighing. "She…it's hard to say. At times she will fight, at others she won't. I have yet to go through the fief, so she might be waiting for me in her rooms as usual. But then again…"

'She might be hurt, and you know not where she is.'

"Exactly." Kyle spotted a pair of kids hiding in an old shop that had probably belonged to their father. "Hey, you two! Come along, it's safe now in the fief, the metal monsters have been taken care of!"

"How do we know you're not just going to kill us when we come out there!!" called the younger of the two stubbornly. His blonde hair stuck out in all directions as he jutted his chin out stubbornly.

Kyle rubbed his head as the older tried negotiating with his little brother, the falcon rubbing her head against Kyle's comfortingly. This was most definitely not his day.

 *~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Amanda threw aside her bow as she ran out of arrows and jumped on Mandie who had been keeping the Scanrans away from her below. Drawing her sword, together they charged into the fray. The noblewoman's left wrist was bound in strips of rawhide with a rough splint around it, the break not bad enough to constitute her pulling out of the battle any time soon. If Vixen was still fighting by Joe's side with her leg bent in two in a place that legs shouldn't bend, then she wasn't going to quit!

The mare and rider flashed through the back ranks of their fighters, Amanda's sword held high and flashing in the light overhead. A hazy mist still lay everywhere, giving the place around them a magical feel as the end of the day came into view and a golden light filtered through the mists and the trees combined.

Breaking into the front lines of the enemy as a wave breaks into the beach, Amanda and the few who had mounted up and rode faithfully behind her broke and scattered the ranks as they plunged in with a will. Her sword sang as it sliced through the air, her gift in full power as it sped through her veins like fire. Blood soon dripped from the same blade that had once flashed in the sun, it's edge dulled with the internal fluids of their enemies that dripped off it freely.

Seeing Levi and the few who stood by his begin to be pushed back, she immediately turned their way and began to force her way through. The Scanrans fell right and left, some leaving a mark upon her but never seriously enough to stop the riding swordswoman from slicing through them like a hot knife through butter.

Mandie was an entire fighter unto herself, hooves flying and teeth flashing she drew as much blood as her master did that day if not more. Blood stained and foam-flecked, she was a sight to see with her tail held high as a banner and mane waving in the air. Both rider and horse worked together as one body, and knew exactly what the other was going to do before they thought about doing it.

Amanda slew a Scanran as it bent over Levi who had tripped and lay helpless on the ground, shoving it's body to the side before dismounting and helping Levi stumble to his feet. "You alright?" she asked quickly, giving him his weapon which had been a few feet away.

"I am now," he replied with a wry grin. "Thanks."

"We're even now," she replied with a curt nod, remounting once more and heading back out into the thick of the fray. "Stay out of trouble, Levi!"

"I'll try."

She smiled slightly at this, but went on, her entire focus on one thing and one thing only: To rid her homeland of the scum that had infiltrated it and make it safe for others to live there once more. That was her pledge, that was her debt to those she protected, and if it was the last thing she was going to ever do, then at least she would die trying.

*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Sarah came sprinting down the road with one of the metal creations crashing through the underbrush behind her, too large to fit down the narrow path and the large trees on either side slowing it up considerably. She came to a crossroads, seeing Allie standing there in the middle with a fearful look on her face.

"Allie!" panted Sarah, stopping beside her breathlessly.

"Which way did you come from?!" demanded Allie suddenly, grabbing her shoulders and shaking them with a wild look in her eyes.

"That way!" replied Sarah , pointing to the one behind her. "Why?! Allie, what's wrong?!"

"I ran this way and ended up here, but it didn't follow me…it's been lurking around the edges and keeping me caged in here…I cannot remember which way I came from, nor which way I was headed…Jon!!"

Jon skidded to a halt in their midst, gasping for breath with a fearful look in his eyes. "Run! It's coming…"

His path, the one Sarah had come down and the Allie had probably come from were all suddenly blocked with the metal creatures. As one, the three of them broke into a sprint for the fourth, and final road, only to be bowled over by the twins as they came at a panicked run from that direction.

"Cor! Dar! What are you-…oh no…"

A final, fourth machine lumbered into view, cutting off all possible escape routes other than straight up as they began to get closer by the minute.

"It was nice knowing you guys," murmured Allie, paler than normal as sweat began to pour down her face. "Because I highly doubt we're getting out of this one alive…"

"I think you're right," whimpered Cor, burying his head into Jon's middle as Dar flung himself at Sarah, both boys breaking down into quiet sobs as they were sure their ends were near. The two young adults did their best to comfort them, and it was all they could do as the monsters drew nearer…their claws outstretched for them…themselves exhausted and hungry…the things getting nearer and nearer still…for them, most likely, it was the end.

*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Vixen and her group were hard pressed once more, reinforcements coming out of nowhere for their enemy as they desperately tried to drive them back as best they could. Archers had been assigned to the trees and picked out those they could, but even their effectiveness was wearing off as more Scanrans pushed themselves into the thick of it where they couldn't shoot without risking one of their own and they themselves began to run low on arrows.

Bodies lay everywhere, both their people and the enemies. Only a handful of the thieves Vixen had brought with her were still alive, and of those that were all had been hurt in some way or other and fought on out of stubbornness or pride for their Queen who did the same.

"How are you holding up?" asked Joe as he saw the sweat pouring down her face, her skin an ashen gray from not resting enough and not eating a single thing since the fighting began. Who could? With your friends lying beside you, blood pouring from their open wounds…food became something that your stomach felt it could do much better without.

"Well enough," she replied tiredly, parrying a blow before countering it with a deadly upwards slice that hit the man's main artery in his neck. "What about you, King of Thieves?"

"Oh, I guess I'm alright," he replied with a rueful grin. "My looks have been scared for life, though. And such fair beauty was mine! I shall be sad to see it go like this…"

Vixen laughed dryly. "Oh well, there's nothing you can do about it now." It was true, for Joe now sported a long slice on the left side of his face from a stray blow that had happened to get through. It didn't bleed much from being so shallow, but the chances of it healing cleanly without a scar were slim and he would likely bear it's mark for the rest of his life.

"Your beauty has yet to be marred," he said smartly, continuing to fight, though he spoke with her like they were out on a picnic of sorts. "Ah, like anything could ever take away from it, oh Vixen of my heart…"

"You've lost too much blood," she said worriedly. "Stop it, Joe, this is very serious…"

"I know," he replied, giving her a quick, one-armed hug. "I am being very serious…"

"Right." She leaned more heavily on her good leg, forcing her enemy back so he couldn't get her at a close range. Blocking, thrusting, swinging, and shifting her weight from side to side; her and the thieves around her were almost impossible to break through they were so close.

Vixen felt herself being drawn back suddenly, a pair of hands pulling her away from the fight. "Hey!" she cried. "Leave me in there with my people…!!"

"Hold still!" commanded Libby, gaining some strength from Artman who had taken the time to recover. She hovered over Vixen's leg, Joe supporting her as she quickly re-nit the bone and strengthened the muscle around it as best she knew how. "There."

"Thanks," said Vixen in surprise, testing her weight on it and finding it was almost as strong as it normally was. "Libby, shouldn't you have saved it for someone else…??"

"We can't have our foxy lady fall," replied Libby simply, shrugging her shoulders before heading back for the wounded area. "Don't break it again, because I'm not healing it for you!!"

"Alright, alright. Thanks, Bunny Woman!" Vixen grinned and jumped back into the fight with a vengeance. She'd get those bastards now that she had both of her legs to use.

"You're quite welcome, Queen of Foxes!!"

*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Lyssa grouped the rest of her Riders together once more, the majority of them still mounted on their horses and weapons drawn and ready for battle. They created the wedge-shape again and charged through the middle of the Scanrans, effectively cutting the group in half and keeping them separated as Amanda's fighters closed in between them and kept the gap open permanently.

Everyone closed in around them like birds of prey, swooping low near their quarry and beating them back as effectively as they could. The Scanrans panicked and nearly broke through the ring around them once or twice, those who did quickly hunted down and captured, often slain in the process or begging for the stroke of mercy were given it without hesitation.

Amanda road up beside Lyssa who stood outside the ring, watching as their people did a fine job of holding them in, cutting them down one by one.

"Shall we?" she asked with a devilish gleam in her eyes, tossing her hair out of her face with a fearless grin.

Lyssa grinned back, feeling the same bloodlust her friend did. "Why not?" Together they charged straight into the middle of one of the ring, a weapon in either hand that broke through enemy around them enough to keep them from being pulled from their mounts. Others came in behind them, keeping clear of the horses but slaying those who tried to escape through the hole that was made as a result of it.

The first circle was quickly collapsed on itself, every Scanran within it killed either in the heat of the battle itself or by the mercy stroke that they begged for without hesitation. Blood ran like water. Blades dripped with the scarlet liquid that dried to a rusty red. People were stained with far more of it than they had had spilt from their own bodies. It was a massacre; and in the passion of their quest to be safe once more, no one really cared.

*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Jennifer, Alyse, and Elizabeth had somehow gathered together at the front gate, each one tired beyond all belief but knowing their duty called them to continue on to their next task. Everyone had yet to be accounted for, and they knew some still hid in the deserted town in fear that the machines weren't really all gone and they would be killed if they moved from their spots just yet.

As the remaining Heads of the ruling family of the fief, Elizabeth and Alyse had to go and find those people, assuring them it would be safe for them to return once more. Jennifer had agreed to go because she felt as long as they weren't allowed to rest, it wouldn't really be fair for her to rest either.

They wandered from building to building, calling in low voices to any who might be near to come out. It was safe now, they could return to the fief. And it was more dangerous for them to remain here, in the open, than it was for them to come back where they could be protected by the soldiers.

Alyse heard something and darted into an alley, seeing someone's shadow flit across the walls. "Hello??"

"You see someone, Alyse?" asked Elizabeth, following her closely.

"I thought I did…"

"Let's go check down the alley," suggested Jennifer, pausing to stretch her back some.

"Yeah, if someone's there, we'll want to find them soon before it gets dark," added Elizabeth, slipping past her cousin and down the fairly large space. Alyse shrugged.

"Alright," she agreed. "Let's go." Together they walked down the alley, their only light coming from the quickly setting sun. The shadows got deeper as they went, an odd sound coming from behind them every now and then.

"No one's here," commented Jennifer as they reached the end and found nothing more than a few crates and rags scattered about.

"Let's get out here," said Elizabeth, turning around slowly. "This place gives me the…uh…"

All three of them froze as one of the metal things lumbered towards them down the alley, it's eyes glowing strangely in the shadows and bladed fingers flashing in the setting sun.

"This can't be good…"

The thing lunged at them, only able to come to a certain point the way the walls came together the farther until it ground against the wall on both sides in a clash of sparks. It turned sideways and scooted down farther at them, slashing at them with it's one arm. They were forced to dodge around each other, all three of them avoiding the arm as best they could with no real solution insight. The creature could keep going much longer than they could, and none of them wanted to stick around long enough to find out what would happen when they would be too weak to move.

Alyse away wiped the sweat that stung her eyes, using the one fan she had left to her advantage when she could. "We're dead."

Jennifer nodded, panting heaving as she blocked the things advances with her staff that would soon be shredded down to no more than  a twig and some saw dust. "I couldn't agree more…"

*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Libby groaned as more wounded were brought before her. Her supply of salves and tonics was quickly dwindling, and her gift even more so. Soon she would be overreaching herself just to reduce the swelling of a hard hit, and there was nothing she could do about it. Artman had given his extra strength to the mending of Vixen's leg, and had nothing else left to give.

The rest of the healers were as dry to the bone, nothing left of themselves other than their very essence which would kill them if they kept going. She could not ask for their lives in exchange for some others, and would not have accepted them had they offered.

The Scanrans were now almost gone, the last few being killed before her eyes as everyone else took an inventory of the wounded and dead before seeing how the other groups had faired.

Of the 60 mounted soldiers that Amanda and Levi had brought with them, roughly 35 were alive. 40 of the horses were still fit for riding or carrying packs, the others killed in battle or lamed from some wound that would leave them out of commission for the rest of their lives. Of the 35 that had lived, a few were still on the boarder of living at all and their number were most likely be down to 30 by the time the next dawn came.

Vixen and Joe made a quick count of their twenty and found 7 to be dead and 2 others nearly fatally wounded. Both had a chance to pull through, but it was likely at least one of them wouldn't make it through the next few days. All but one of their horses remained ride-able or fit for battle, it's back legs hamstringed from a nasty wound and they'd killed the poor beast rather than let it suffer the whole way home.

Lyssa had brought 45 with her, not including Eric, and of those who lived 30 remained. Five of those alive were wounded, but would likely be alright and fit to be moved after a few days rest. All of their horses were fine, being the tough little things that they were, but several would be returning without their masters or mistresses astride them as usual.

A more sheltered area was set up for the wounded and the people tending to them with several large pieces of canvas to make partial tents with fires around the front of it, some food immediately started and guards set on watch as a final crew dragged the Scanrans out for the beasts of the wild to prey on and built a pyre for their own dead to be burned at dawn the next day.

"Your leg's better," said Amanda in surprise when Vixen came up behind her awhile later, everything finally in order and giving them a short chance to relax.

"It was healed during the fight by Libby," explained Vixen with a sad grin. "It's over, you know."

Amanda nodded. "I know. We won. I just wish we could check on the rest, see how they're fairing."

"I know what you mean." Vixen sat beside her at the fire and together they ate the sparse dinner that had been prepared for them. The battle was won, but nearly half their forces lost in the process. It was not something either commander was proud of, but it couldn't be changed.

*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

**Generalized Excerpt from Lady Knight**

{Kel turned. His voice still came from all around. But now she saw him, standing on top of his worktable.

She thrust the pieces of the band into her breastplate. She knew she had to kill him quickly, before he caught her in the mind-gripping spell of his pendent, or with any other magics.

She brought up her glaive in a controlled slash, one-handed, part of the staff lined up against her arm to steady it. She caught Blayce at the knees, cutting the muscles behind them. He dropped, turning visible to her unaided eyes, his control over his invisibility spell gone. Kel seized her glaive two-handed and yanked the blade toward her, neatly beheading the Gallan.

She swayed, exhausted. That was it. The man who had haunted her for nearly six long months was dead at last.}

At that moment, things began happening that Kel, the Protector of the Small, would not learn of until later one. As Blayce the Gallan died, so did his gift, and with him and it every one of his creations that he'd created began to crumble that the spirits they controlled were set free.

Alyse, Elizabeth, and Jennifer were on the brink of exhaustion until the Gallan was killed and his creation dropped like a stone, giving them the ability to scrabble around it and to safety without questioning what had happened at all.

Jon, Allie, Sarah, the twins had been near their death when the Gallan's gift had disappeared and all four of their tormentors collapsed into piles of metal. They ran back to the ranch without wondering what had happened, merely glad for the chance to live.

Every single monster Blayce created was destroyed that day, and every soul he enslaved was allowed to move on to the next life in peace. Kel did not know the magnitude of what she did until later on, but those who were saved were thankful for it for they were certainly smaller than the things attacking them, and Kel has always been The Protector of the Small.

*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

Portals began to open before the 13 who were not on the main battle field as they tried to comprehend what had happened to them, beckoning them forward to go through it and join their comrades from earth one last time…

*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*~~~@~~~*

"Amanda!!" The noble jumped up to see a shining portal open near her seat, Elizabeth jumping through it and latching on her immediately. Amanda hugged her back, then included Alyse and Jennifer in the embrace as they came through as well.

"Vixen? Joe? Allie?"

"Vixie! Joey!" The King and Queen of thieves looked up to see Mouse and Allie come through side-by-side portals of light, the four of them rushing together and soon joining up with Amanda and Elizabeth's group as they went into a giant frenzy of making sure everyone else was ok and hugs and greetings that would've lasted all day if they had had time.

Another portal opened to their right. "Elizabeth?!"

"Kyle!!" Elizabeth tore herself from the group and flung herself at him, enveloping him in a huge hug as he held her as if he would never let her go. Everyone aw'ed and cooed at them, but the lovers were oblivious to any others but the themselves as the final portal opened and showed Sarah, Jon, and the twins into their circle of friends with joy. Lyssa came back from checking on the guards and was welcomed as well, quickly linking arms with Amanda and Vixen. Artman and Libby left their posts and joined in, the whole thing one massive hug in which every person felt a part of and knew they would never be let go again if it could be helped.

"Alright, alright, break it up everyone!!" came a familiar voice over the din as another figure appeared, this one shining herself like the moon and the stars that were taking their place overhead. "The time has come."

At this, everyone got quiet, dreading what she would say next but knowing in their heart of hearts what it was.

"It is time for you to go home."

"Why can't we stay?!" demanded Vixen, stepping forward quickly. "I'm happy here! Happier than I ever was at home. Please, why…??"

"What is done is done!" said Trystan firmly, holding her hand up firmly to avoid further discussion. "I know you have enjoyed, and even loved, during your time here, Queen of Thieves. Yet it is something that cannot be changed."

"Can we ever return?" asked Jennifer, bowing her head slightly in the presence of one who was so powerful.

"It is doubtful," replied Trystan softly. "The book chose you to come, and it will most likely never choose you again. Granted, the book has never been given a choice, but still…it cannot be done."

"Then we must go?"

"You must."

"…I understand."

"Mage Artman and Mage Libby, if you will step forward please," said Trystan clearly, everyone around them watching curiously as she had them stand on either side of her and repeat after her a spell of sorts. Their gifts were entirely replenished and with their newfound strength they created a portal between them, one that would take them home and back to their former lives.

'Opposites collide. Opposites connect.

Mithros given, goddess guided.

Gifts of power, opposites they are.

The opposites will bring us

Home again.'

The amazing blend of blue and red before them dazzled the eyes of everyone around, those who were not involved drawing closer to their friends and loved ones or drawing away to keep to the shadows as best they could.

"You are first," said Trystan, pointing at Kyle suddenly. "You must go backwards from the way you came."

"Wait," said Libby, frowning some. "How will it stay open if Artman and I are gone?"

"Your gift will remain in it until the last of your friends are through," replied Trystan carefully. "That I can assure you."

"Alright…"

"I'll see you on the other side," said Kyle, kissing Elizabeth on the cheek and saying farewell to the hawk who had gone with him one last time. Bravely, he stepped through the portal and disappeared, a hawk feather clutched in one hand and his fief's pendent in the other.

"Trystan," said Libby as she and Artman moved in front of the portal, preparing for their departure. "Pinky, I want to take her with me…"

"It is done," said Trystan, the rabbit appearing in her arms. She handed her to Libby, who hugged the rabbit tight and gave her friends one last hug before waving to her friends in the crowd around them one last time. She closed her eyes and jumped, Artman following her quickly with a grin of relief.

"My turn," said Lyssa, taking off her badge of office and handing it to Eric. "You're the commander now, Eric." She took off her weapons and cape and gave him those as well, keeping only a necklace she'd gotten from friends for midwinter one year and an arrow head from one of her arrows.

"I don't get it," said Eric in confusion, worry and concern flitting across his face as he held her things for her. "Why…Lyssa…you're not…"

"This is not my home world," she said softly, giving him a sad smile. "I'm sorry, Eric, I…goodbye." She stepped through the portal, disappearing in a flash as Eric stood there dumbfounded, his arms numbly holding her things to his chest.

"Bye…"

"I guess I'm next," whispered Jennifer, winding her way through her friends to the front. "Lady Mage…I was wondering…"

"Tigress already awaits you on the other side," said Trystan with a wry grin. "She was rather insistent that she come with you…"

"Really?? Thank you!!" Jennifer turned back to Joe, her facing turning much more somber. "Joe? Could you…give this to Sean for me?" She handed him her necklace, the one with the tiny sauce-pan pendent. "And tell him I'm sorry, and I love him."

"I will," promised Joe, taking it from her solemnly and placing it in his pouch with care. Jennifer nodded and bowed her head, walking quickly towards the portal and vanishing from sight into it's blinding colors. In one hand she held her charm bracelet that Sean had given her, swearing to keep it safe always and to take care of Tigress as the cat had taken care of her.

"Next would be me," said Alyse, her last fan in one hand and the necklace and ring Faleron had given her in the other. With her kimono in tatters and streaks of soot mingled with sweat she did not look like a Yamanis Lady, yet still help the calm and quiet presence of one. "And I suppose, in some way…I'm ready to go home." She strode purposefully through the portal and vanished, nodding politely to Trystan on her way out.

"It's our turn," said Mouse, taking Vixen's hand and squeezing it gently.

"I know." Vixen turned to Joe, giving him a soft kiss before taking her dragon claw pendent and pressing it in his hand firmly. They embraced, then added Mouse and Allie into it, the four thieves who had run the Rogue for so long forced to break their circle at last.

"You're the King now," said Vixen as they slowly let go, touching Joe's face softly. "Take care of them, Joe. You're all they have left, now."

"I will," he promised, choking back his tears as he grabbed her hand and kissed it, wishing he could keep her here with him rather than let her go.

All three removed their weapons and parceled them among those who had come with them, giving a dagger here and their hide-knives there. Jewelry and tokens of friendship and loyalty were parted with. Each kept only a thing or two to themselves, then stepped through the portal with their arms linked, each glancing back one last time with tears running down their faces as they did. And then, they disappeared.

"We're up," said Sarah, stepping forward after pausing a moment. "Dar, Cor…"

"You can't leave us!" howled Dar, latching himself onto Sarah's waist.

"We'll be without a place to stay or food to eat!" added Cor, grabbing onto Jon's as well. The two exchanged looks of exasperation.

"Let go," said Jon firmly, prying Cor off him and giving him a disapproving glare. "You're going to have to grow up, Cor. Sarah and I…we have to go home now." He removed his knife and his dagger, handing one to each. "I'll never see you again, but that doesn't mean I won't think of you."

"But who will take care of us?" sniffled Dar, accepting the dagger slowly.

"I will," said Levi, coming forward and putting a hand on each boy's shoulder. "And when it's get warm, I'll ride with you back to your parent's ranch and leave you there in their care." Levi and Jon exchanged glances, a mute understanding coming between the two. Jon stood and shook Levi's hand silently, smiling slightly before waving one last time to the boys. Together, he and Sarah walked side by side through the portal and disappearing from view.

"It's our turn, Amanda," said Elizabeth, waking Amanda from the trance she had fallen into watching the colors swirl sadly.

"I know," she replied softly, nodding to herself. "Levi, come here." She removed her crest as head of the fief and took Elizabeth's as well, pressing them in his hand and curling his fingers about them carefully. "You are our successor, Levi, for no one could take care of those people as well as you will."

"Thank you," he whispered, pulling the two of them into a rough hug that lasted for a few moments before the sisters drew away towards the home that awaited them. "Here, take this." He removed his father's ring that he'd worn since his death, handing it to Amanda carefully. On it was the fief's shield with small stone set around it, pure silver with gold set around it in some places. "He…I think he would've wanted you to have it more than me." Amanda nodded her understanding, taking off her sword and handing it to him slowly.

"My weapons are yours as well. And if you look in my study you will find a set of journals that tell of mine and my sister's story from the very beginning," she said quiet simply, removing her several daggers and laying them at his feet. "Yours too, Liz."

"Can I keep one dart?" she asked, taking off the crossbow. She also took off some her jewels and held them tightly in one hand.

"One dart."

"Come," said Trystan as the light began to wane. "It is time for you to go home." As the sisters approached the portal she stopped them. "Here is a copy of that which you have recorded, Amanda," she said, handing her a small, leather bound book. "I thought you might like this."

"Thank you," replied Amanda with a slight grin, glancing back one last time and waving to those whom she'd governed over for so long before disappearing from view, never to be seen in the lands of Tortall ever again…

"That which you have seen here is never to be spoken of!" said the Lady Mage, casting a spell on all of them but Joe and Levi as the portal disappeared. "It did not happen, those who are gone were killed in battle or went missing and no one ever found a trace of them ever again."

Leaving everyone in a twilight like state that they would snap out of quickly, she led Joe and Levi to the side, a serious look on her face. "You, however, are not given that luxury of forgetting," she said quietly as she did. "Here is what you must do. Tell those who you must the truth, and the rest the story which I have given the rest here. The King must know, as well as this Sean fellow. Whoever else will know I leave up to your discretion. Understood."

"Yes," replied Joe softly, nodding his head slowly.

"I think so," added Levi, shuffling his feet some.

"Good," she said in a softer tone that normal, knowing these two would be some of those to bear the worst of it. "I thank you, gentlemen. Goodbye." And with that, she too disappeared…

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**Epilogue**

As soon as they stepped through the portal, everyone found themselves where they had been sucked in those many years ago, as old as they had been when they had left with only a few bits and baubles (or a bunny) to remind them of what truly had passed. When they met each other at school later that day, they also knew from the looks they exchanged with those who had been with them that it was real and they were not the people they had once been.

Those around them who had not gone through the portal knew they had changed, but could not pin it as to how and often it was commented that it seemed that several had grown up over night. Once about three weeks had passed, though, and everyone had gotten back into their normal lives they got back into their old habits and those comments went away quick as a wink.

Jennifer did find Tigress after she arrived, as a small kitten who appeared at her door one morning that her parents allowed her to keep after several hours of begging and the kitten refusing to leave period. The fact that she was ever so well behaved helped, too…

Libby got smart and got rid of Artman all together when she saw him the first morning back, but might as well have not bothered dumping him because the moment he tried to cross the street later that day he was hit with a bus and smashed to smithereens, nothing left of him other than a pair of glasses and some hair. The funeral went unattended (even by his own family) and everyone pretty much forgot about him within a matter of seconds.

Kyle and Elizabeth got into a huge fight about 3 weeks after they got back and broke it off, Kyle running off with some hooker down the street to Chicago and never heard from again. Elizabeth went through several rebound relationships, then found herself a nice guy who didn't babble about not being able to talk to birds all the time and was satisfied again, forgetting about Kyle entirely.

Everyone else got on with their lives and stuck close, Lyssa coming down often for visits and everyone becoming closer than they ever had been before. It wasn't just a trip or some crazy happening that they all forgot about in the end. It was something that stayed with them for the rest of their lives, for who could ever forget such a Twisted Tale of being sucked into Tortall???

The End : D

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*sobs* That…it was…BEAUTIFUL!!!! *cries some more, then composes herself* I'm sorry, really. That wasn't supposed to happen…yet it did. Yes, I actually, almost started crying while writing this because the one part was so sad… *sniff* Yeah, what can I say, women are 'emotional'. : P

Thank you's:

Alright, I was going to do this person to person, but I don't have the time or space so…yeah. Sorry. Here it goes~

Cast of Characters~ YOU GUYS ROCK!! I love all of you! (almost that is, and some certainly more than others…: P) Well, I greatly appreciate all of you for letting me torture you all like that! Especially those who underwent lots of it…trust me, you've made it up already with your many senseless beating of me for not getting chapters up fast enough!! (Brenna, I don't get it. You beat me for not putting them up fast enough, then the last one comes and you yell when I get it up TOO fast. You're a very strange person…) Some of you had little or none at all…feel special 'cuz I just like ya to much to do that to you! : ) That or you're just too cute to do anything to you…yeah. Thank you all, and can't wait for some of you to come back the second time around!

Reviewers and Fans~ You guys rock all. You have no idea home much I love you all… *sniff* I'm going to miss your reviews and comments that come with each chapter!! Really, you guys make half the story just by supporting it. I probably would've quit if it weren't for such great fans like you, and trust me when I say that you guys often times pushed me more with your happy notes than the characters did with their beatings. ^_~ Thanks!!

To Anyone Else Who Doesn't Fit In Those Two Categories~ You should fit in one. : P But thank you too, just cuz I felt like it! You should feel special now!! ^_^

And one VERY BIG and SPECIAL thanks goes to *drum roll* Tigress~ You have printed off every chapter that I've written in Twisted Tortallian Tale. (with an average of around 30 pages apiece) and corrected all my grammar and spelling mistakes so I can fix them and get the chapters reposted this next month. WE LOVE YOU!! ^_^

Now for the contest winners that you've all been waiting for!! They are:

            Alex Huish

            Revlis

            Felix

            Tanya Menadue

Congratulations!! If I haven't contacted you already about character positions and such, please send me another email and we'll get that underway! If you have questions, my IM is bluwynd17, and you can reach me most nights after 9 pm.

The correct answers to the questions are listed here:

1.You all got this one right. Yep, I'm Amanda, the fighting noblewoman with a violent streak and a hot temper to boot.

2. The one character not based off a real person is Kyle. I know, Artman is much more hated, and Trystan (who is based off someone I know, actually) seems to be a little…odd. But it's Kyle. Yeah, we know he's a well liked character, but he is made up for the sake that Elizabeth needed a boyfriend.

3. And the final answer is Joe, who was told in two different chapters that Vixen was from another world and due to a relapse in my memory I just happened to put it twice. You know I've made other typos like that before, so deal with it.

That's it my little friends, fan, and characters. This is my last new post under Twisted Tortallian Tale, the one 'sucked-in' fic that shall go down in history. At least in my world anyways. ^_^

LOVE AND PEACE! *_*

crosseyedbutterfly