Within The Ermine, a small group of the Light had been dispatched to hopefully slow down the relentless advance of the Dark towards Tandem. Their leader, a fourth level mage named Kara, signalled them to halt. Looking around them, she saw a small clearing and called them over. While the troops cautiously made their way to the clearing, Kara closed her eyes and sent her awareness through the ley lines. Almost immediately, she made contact with the Dark. So, Alric was right. There are a great many Dark coming. She managed to make contact with one of the ghols and cautiously looked through its eyes. All around it lay snow, and masses of the Fallen troops. Breaking the contact, she told the others of what she saw.
"They're at the Stair of Grief," she said. "They're not more than a week from here. We'll move forward some, set up there and wait for them to come." She looked around, caught the nods of agreement from the others. Sending her awareness out again, she searched for a good place to set up. There, at the very edge of her senses, was a faint Presence, so carefully concealed that a lower level mage would have missed it. Directing her awareness in that direction, Kara realised in a sudden shock what it was.
Forest giants.
Forest giants concealed by a Stealth Dream? Forest giants relied on brute strength, not magic. Whoever was concealing the forest giants was good; Kara couldn't get the faintest sense of who it was, or how many forest giants there were. She made a quick decision.
"I sense there are forest giants ahead," she told the others. "I and several berserks will try to find them. Bran of the Iron Skin, Truan of the Hundred Battles and Berel of the Longsword will accompany me, the rest of you will stay here." Waiting until she got acknowleging nods from everyone, she set off.
Up ahead, the Presence was getting fainter. Whoever was there must be at least a sixth level mage, if not higher, Kara thought. Disguising a Presence in the first place was the work of a third level mage or higher, but disguising it was much harder. Even Kara hadn't quite mastered that yet.
The Presence was much closer now. Kara signalled the three berserks into a diamond formation, with her at the point. A faint flickering light came from ahead, like the area was being lit with candles. This close, it was impossible to hide the sound of forest giants moving about.
Drawing her sword, she stepped foward into the clearing, and stopped in amazement.
The clearing was perfectly circular. The trees around the outside of it were of a uniform colour, size and shape. On each tree, a single branch was hanging out, about three meters from the ground. On the end of them were candles.
Casting her eyes to the far side of the clearing, Kara noticed a small hooded figure darting among the towering forest giants. Calling out for him to stop, she started forward.
"Ah Kara," the figure said. "I should have known it would be you that would find my little operation." Kara froze. "Come over here," the voice continued. Kara realised the voice was familiar, but she couldn't place it.
"No," Kara replied. "Not until I know who you are."
"Very well," the figure said, walking towards Kara.
He stopped in the center of the clearing, where the light from the canopy filtered down, giving the impression of a light from the sky shining down. As he moved his hand towards his hood, Kara tensed, and the beserks beside her did the same. She quickly ran through a mental list of who it could possibly be.
The figure in front of her was nowhere near the top of her list.

* * * *

"Alric," Kara breathed. "How did you-"
"There's no time for that," Alric cut her off. "The Dark are much closer than you think, only two or three days away. The forest giants here will assist you in your attack"
Kara was about to reply, but she broke off at a gesture from Alric."Good luck." he whispered, and disappeared. The only thing to mark his presence here was a black mark on the ground where he stood.
Kara shook her head; no matter how many times she saw him do it, she never got used to his ability to disappear into the ley lines. She signalled Bran of the Iron Skin to fetch the others and bring them here.
Once everyone was here, she started talking.
"We have at the very maximum a day to plan our attack. I'm going to use the cover of the forest to hinder the Dark-"

* * * *

A whiff of the air told Kara that the Dark were very near. She lifted her fingers to her lips and whistled. To anyone else it would have sounded like one of the many species of birds that inhabit The Ermine. An answering whistle came back almost immediately, and Kara could hear the forest giants lumbering their way towards the Dark troops. There was a loud clang, and several throaty grunts and groans as the ghols and myrmidons at the head of the Dark army were smashed to pieces by the forest giants, and then the sound of arrows being fired.

The battle for Tandem had begun.

To be continued...