Iona, Part Two - Saints and Sinners
The following morning, the stiff and bleary eyed group emerged from the blizzard, and the relative safety of their snow holes. Several remained wounded from the encounter with the priest the day before, and Sophia used her healing on Storm and Manzio, while Tector called upon the power of the Lord to salve his own injuries. Tired but with spirits lifted, they set out together through the snow, toward the silhouette of the abbey in the far distance.
Iona seemed deserted and abandoned, and the Fellowship took a little less than two hours to reach their destination, passing through an abandoned hamlet along the way. Approaching the Abbey through the freezing fog and snow, they could clearly make out the impact of countless attacks from Viking raiders. The outer façade of the Abbey was a crumbling relic of a once sacred space, now caved in and almost entirely exposed to the ravages of the elements. The remnants of the building were surrounded by skeletal trees, while further out on either side of the main building, stark black gravestones protruded from the snow drifts.
As the group approached the crumbling remains of the arched entrance, a striking figure stepped out from behind the masonry. They faced an athletically built male elf, wearing ornate plate mail armour, with a shield of similar design strapped to his left arm. A spear in his right hand had a silver point that crackled with lightning, while a longsword with a fine pommel and crossguards hung at his belt.
He set the butt of his spear in the snow, looking down on them from the top of the steps climbing to the Abbey grounds. “State your business,” he demanded.
Surprised, the group stopped in its tracks, uncertain how to respond.
The figure met the eye of each member of the group in turn, before repeating his question.
The York companions looked toward Manzio, and with all eyes upon him, the young Vesuvian took a hesitant step forward.
“Sorry, we did not mean to disturb you,” said the young man. “We were simply going for a walk.”
The caeltir’s eyes narrowed. “Tell me the truth!” he demanded, a note of anger in his voice. “One does not simply go for a walk on this deserted island.”
The York companions once again eyed Manzio with a mix of curiosity and suspicion. “We have been sent to retrieve the Spear of Lugh by the White Queen,” he said. “We believe it is held here in the Abbey.”
Storm, Sophia and Tector exchanged shocked glances at this information, and it did not elicit a friendly response from the figure barring their way, as he lifted his spear in a threatening manner.
As he did so, Tector noticed a dark figure in the shadows of the trees. It emerged from the ruins of the abbey, a half humanoid, half spider abomination. Noticing it, Manzio gasped in horror as he saw that the body of his friend Jean de Carcassone, former Templar commander of Netherby Fort, has been attached to a giant spider’s body, his head fully eight feet in the air, his white eyes unfocused and unseeing. The hideous creature stood behind the elven warrior, an ominous threat of violence given the shortsword attached to Jean’s left arm and the blackened blade in his right.
With his spear aimed at the group, the elven warrior issued a stark ultimatum. “Love will conquer all. I have no wish to shed your blood, but I will do if I must. Go now and do not return. Leave this island and I will spare your lives.”
The four friends looked at each other, wary of the spear pointed at them, believing that it might be the Spear of Lugh itself, and remembering Manzio’s tale that whoever wielded it would be invincible. With these thoughts in mind, Manzio nodded and the group, relieved to have some respite and a chance to rethink given Manzio’s revelations, retraced their footsteps to an abandoned house in the hamlet a few miles back down the track leading to the Abbey.
Entering the derelict building, the friends endured an uncomfortable silence, none of them willing to address Manzio’s revelation regarding the White Queen. Unwilling to challenge the caeltir warrior for the spear, and with unspoken conflict within the group, they exchanged a few words in an attempt to develop a plan to take the spear, but they remained reticent to make a move.
As they talked, the caeltir warrior once again appeared, smashing through the rotten wooden door to confront the companions. The pallor of his visage was even more evident in such close proximity to the group. He addressed them sternly.
“Did I not give you clear instructions to depart this isle?” he demanded. “For the grace of my beloved, I will prevail. This is your last chance to leave peacefully and save your own lives.”
Suddenly, a booming, powerful voice rang out from behind the caeltir. “Stigmata!!”
The caeltir screamed in pain as deep wounds suddenly appeared around his brow, blood welling and flowing down his face. Gritting his teeth, he recovered quickly, backing into one corner of the house, raising his shield and drawing back his spear to throw.
As he did so, another figure moved into the doorway. Dressed in a Templar tabard and chain mail armour, the man was hooded like a priest, his holy symbol emanating light. Pointing a finger at the elven warrior, he uttered the powerful curse once more. “Stigmata!!”
The elven warrior screamed in agony as bloody holes appeared in his hands, then collapsed to the ground as his ankles were pierced, as if by invisible spikes.
Sophia extended her thoughts, attempting to end the combat without further bloodshed. Entering the mind of her adversary, she overwhelmed him with drowsiness and, almost to her surprise, the caeltir warrior slumped down onto the floor, asleep.
“Well done my lady,” shouted the priest. “Brother Templar, tie him up and disarm him. Quickly now!”
While Tector gladly obliged the priest’s request, Manzio, who had taken to the roof in order to gain an advantage over their elven adversary, spied a second threat approaching at speed. He cried out, clearly disturbed by the sight of his old friend. “Jean!!”
The hideous arachnid closed the ground quickly and, although it seemed somehow distracted by Manzio’s cry, it leaped easily onto the roof, ready to attack the Vesuvian. As it did so, the thatch collapsed under its weight and it was forced to skuttle quickly aside to avoid falling.
Taking advantage of this, Manzio hit the creature with a crossbow bolt. Seeking revenge, it surged toward the assassin, but the roof gave way again and this time it was not fast enough, crashing down into the room below.
Tector lunged forward, tearing into the creature with his greataxe, while Sophia once again attempted to make a mental connection with her sorcery. Sensing a spark of human consciousness within the twisted creature, she felt a surge of power from the crimson gemstone embedded in Jean’s armour. Realising that this gem was somehow the source of Morrigan’s hold over the fallen Templar, she broke through the consciousness of the spirit inhabiting Jean’s mind and made contact with the Templar himself for a moment.
“Lady Sophia, Manzio … mercy. Kill me!” cried Jean, his soul clearly in agony.
The shortsword attached to the left arm of Jean began to move, inch by inch, towards his own chest, his arm trembling as though fighting some terrible inner battle. Urged on by Sophia, Tector grabbed the arm and used his enormous strength to force the bladed weapon into the crimson jewel. As the point of the blade shattered the gemstone, a massive eruption of necrotic energy blasted outward, catching Tector full in the chest and hammering him backwards.
Manzio jumped down from the roof, his sgian dubh readied, his face ravaged with grief at the passing of a great knight and old friend. He was about to sheathe the weapon, as Sophia called forth healing to support Tector and Storm, when the priest addressed them.
“I thank you for your aid. You are an unexpected boost to our defence of the Spear. Although beware, three more await at the abbey. This fight is far from over. However, first I would see your weapon, boy.”
Manzio shifted uncomfortably under the penetrating gaze of the priest. “Who are you to request this?” he asked.
The priest did not take his gaze from Manzio’s weapon. “I am Christian of Whithorn, bishop of the isles, and this is my jurisdiction. As such, I ask again to see your weapon.”
Christian closed the gap, and began to mutter an incantation, simultaneously clutching his holy symbol. Stepping back, he shook his head and gestured at the Vesuvian, addressing the rest of the group. “The boy carries an evil blade,” he said, grimly. “It must be removed before ascending the steps to Iona Abbey.”
Christian beckoned for Manzio to follow him outside. As the young assassin complied, the priest instructed Tector to cut the belt holding the dagger. After a moment of hesitation, the big Templar did as he was bid, and the belt and sgian dubh fell harmlessly into the snow. The grizzled old priest nodded, as though satisfied, and then turned to the others. “Come, gather your equipment and let us finish this together. God has clearly sent you to help deliver us from evil.”
In short order the group once again approached the stone staircase leading up to the abbey. Storm took to the skies for a better vantage point, while Manzio took an alternative path, circling around the base of the hill to approach the abbey from the rear. Tector and Christian led the way up the stone stair, with Sophia following behind and Storm soaring overhead.
As they reached the summit of the hill, a tall, gaunt figure in a loose fitting grey tunic, surrounded by a faint white aura, stepped out from the shelter of an archway within the ruined abbey. From his high vantage point, Storm was shocked to see that the figure was a dragonborn with features very similar to his own, save that the silver scales of this one were tinged with orange around the edges, as if glowing from within, and his face was twisted with a pained grimace.
The newcomer seemed to focus on a point in the air between Storm and his friends on the ground below, before extending his arm and clenching his scaly fist. As he did so, a ball of ice appeared amid the companions, exploding and blasting them all with icy shrapnel. Grimacing from the pain, Storm replied with a lightning orb, hitting his assailant, who seemed to focus on the storm sorcerer for the first time and appeared equally shocked by the sight of his virtual twin.
Sophia reached out with an enchantment, entering the mind of this strange dragonborn, attempting to fill him with terror and send him fleeing. Within, she sensed great pain and fear in equal measure. She concentrated, but it seemed he was more afraid of his mistress than the companions, and he resisted the urge to run. Sophia was left with the distinct impression that his pain came from some terrible sorcery deep within him.
Tector charged forward, attempting to close the distance with the strange dragonborn, but a huge figure stepped out from the cover of the ruins and blocked his path. The Templar was stunned to be confronted by a barrel-chested danagrim with powerful arms and oversized fists, unmistakably his old companion Håkan!
The danagrim’s face was almost entirely covered in tattoos, etched into a tough, aged, leathery face. His white beard and hair looked wild and untended, while his eyes were white and lacked focus. He wore a black bearskin, and strapped to his back he carried a set of throwing daggers, all of which glimmered with silver, while in each hand he carried a magnificent throwing axe. On his bare chest Tector noticed the glimmer of a blood red gemstone, and a silvery blue light surrounded his muscular frame.
Tector hesitated, surprised by the appearance of his old ally, and the danagrim charged forward, hurling his throwing axes as he came. One struck Christian, while the Dragonknight dodged the other, before he and Håkan crashed together, exchanging huge blows.
A few meters behind them, in the ruins of the abbey, the dragonborn placed his hands on his chest before moving them outwards, extending his fingers toward the companions. Within seconds, each of them felt a terrible chill flow through their veins, as if their very blood was freezing.
Sensing that perhaps the dragonborn was not acting of his own free will, Sophia sought to free her foe from his tortuous affliction. She focused her sorcery once again, attempting to dispel the evil enchantments upon the dragonborn. This time her will prevailed, and as she drove out the curse, the pained look dropped from the dragonborn’s face, to be replaced by an expression of wonder. He stumbled backwards, taking a moment to steady himself, close his eyes and release the freezing sorcery upon the companions, before turning away and running out of the ruins. Storm flexed his wings, gaining altitude and soaring over the abbey to give chase.
Back outside, Håkan and Tector continued to trade furious blows. As the blue light surrounding the danagrim faded, and the Dragonknight’s axe began to draw blood, Sophia noticed the danagrim’s hand go to his neck, where once he wore a white dragon amulet. She saw that it had been replaced by a black chess piece, which Håkan tore from its chain and hurled to the ground. It shattered on the stone, unleashing a vortex of darkness which quickly coalesced into a Swordwraith that began to slash at Tector with unnatural speed.
With Christian advancing into the ruined abbey, Sophia could see that Tector was hard pressed by two ferocious adversaries. Moving forward, she probed Håkan’s mind with her sorcery, finding that, as with Jean, the danagrim’s consciousness was overwhelmed by an evil presence.
Sensing her intervention, a terrible voice sounded in Sophia’s mind. “Get out of his head!” it snarled at her. Sophia ignored this command and concentrated harder, seeking Håkan’s consciousness through the evil that possessed him. She felt it attack her, seeking to possess her in turn, but her will was too strong. She pushed on with every ounce of her resolve, driving the alien presence into the smallest corner of Håkan’s mind.
“Lady Sophia!” gasped the danagrim in his Scotch burr. “Thank you. You have saved me.”
As his voice sounded in her mind, she saw him raise one of his axes. “After I am gone, I ask that you do two things for me,” he rasped. “First, tell Manzio that I will miss him. And second, be there for Ice when he needs you.”
Sophia nodded, tears in her eyes, before suddenly realising her friend’s terrible intent. She screamed “No!!!” as Håkan’s axe slammed into his own chest, and the blood red gem embedded there exploded in a blast of necrotic energy which hammered her backward.
With tears streaming down her face, she struggled to her feet, staring at the spot where her friend had been just seconds before. There seemed barely a trace of Håkan left. All that remained where he had fallen was a strange gemstone the size of a dragon’s egg that pulsed with magical energy. Looking past it, she glanced into the ruins of the abbey. Blinking away her tears, she was amazed to see twelve slightly insubstantial duplicates of Christian, surrounding him as he advanced into the abbey, protecting his path.
Facing him stood a tall man wearing an unbuttoned black leather coat exposing an intricately designed breastplate with a crimson bloodstone embedded in the centre. In his right hand he carried a magnificent two handed sword fit for a great knight, which he wielded with effortless grace, and his eyes burned with an unnatural white, much like the monstrosity Jean de Carcassone had become before he was destroyed.
Suddenly, Sophia saw Manzio leap down on the newcomer from high to his left, sgian dubh slashing as he flew through the air. His blade caught his foe halfway between his left hand and elbow, cutting deeply. Black energy surged from the blade, and Manzio seemed to recoil from his own blow. Turning in horror, figure looked for one shocked second at his left hand before it turned to dust before his very eyes.
As he bellowed in pain, a disturbance in the fabric of reality blasted Manzio back a stride. A portal appeared, like a rent in the air, and the tall man was sucked through, like black smoke escaping through a chimney. In the blink of an eye he was gone, a snapping sound accompanying the slamming shut of the window in reality.
Hearing the clang of blade on blade and a grunt of pain, Sophia turned back to her friend. Tector was bleeding from numerous cuts, but called holy radiance onto his blade and slashed the swordwraith with a terrible blow that seemed to bite deep and burn away part of its shadowy form. Sophia took her bow and pierced the wraith with an arrow, while Tector hammered it with blow after blow. Finally, the lady pierced its helmet with another shot, and it buckled inward, collapsing in on itself and leaving its slender greatsword hanging, point upward, in the air. Both Sophia and Tector threw themselves aside as the blade exploded, shards of steel cutting into exposed skin.
Picking themselves up, they scanned their surroundings for further threats. They were shocked to see the form of Bishop Christian slumped on the floor just inside the ruined abbey, blood pooling around him. Manzio staggered through the ruined archway, away from the corpse, blood dripping from his hands, before slumping down near his friends, eyeing the pulsing stone suspiciously.
Meanwhile, Storm had battled through the wind and snow, flying over the abbey and down the hill toward the sea. He spied the retreating figure of the dragonborn on the pathway below, and swooped after him. Despite the buffeting of the wind, Storm was faster than his quarry, and it took only a few minutes for him to catch up, flying over the dragonborn’s head and landing a few feet in front of him on the trail.