Oathkeeper, Part Three - Unfinished Business
The group retreated at a trot through the wintry forest, fallen leaves cracking beneath their feet. Myrddin led them along a wide trail, and they soon separated from Dienwe and the other elves. They arrived in a glade flanked by hills, with a stream bubbling gently over rocks and down into a pool.
“This is the Pool of Cairde,” he told the companions. “The pool of grace in the English tongue. Bathe in its waters and they will ease your wounds. I will return shortly.” The three friends did as the druid bade them and, sure enough, the enchanted waters seemed to salve away the flaming and deathly conflagration of the Baelrauch’s demise.
As they bathed, the wind picked up from the north and snow began to fall. Myrddin returned as they were scrubbing themselves dry, leading them to the same tree dwelling they had slept in the previous night. “Dienwe, Hethwyn and the druids and sorcerers of my people are reweaving the wards on our borders, that were destroyed by the rampage of the Baelrauch, and I must return to aid them. Please eat and rest. I will return on the morrow.” As he left, the howling wind blew snow in through the trapdoor, and the friends realised just how strongly the gale was blowing from the north. They settled in, eating bread and cheese, as the storm raged outside, before collapsing into exhausted sleep.
The following morning, as the group gazed out over the heavy snow blanketing Uaine Dachaig, Myrddin returned, looking exhausted. “Once again, I must seek your aid,” he explained. “Our druids, sorcerers and rangers are tracking down all the demons which remain within Uaine Dachaig, and one of them somehow roamed deep into the heart of the forest. It was tracked to a cave in the moors near Ard Tursa. A group of rangers went in to destroy it but only one escaped alive, telling tales of the horror within – a pony-sized hound-like creature with six legs, a large mouth of needle-sharp teeth and lashing tentacles that stunned their targets on impact.”
“The more powerful heroes of our people are all deployed in the western fringes of Uaine Dachaig, where a significant number of demons remain within our borders, or reweaving the wards that hedge out our enemies. I need more powerful aid than our rangers can provide in order to be sure of overmatching this intruder without further loss of life. I have no right to ask more of you, since you have already given so much, but many caeltir lives have been lost in the last few days and I am loath to risk any more. Will you aid me?”
“Yes,” came the unanimous reply from the three friends.
Leaving the warmth and comfort of the dwelling, the companions slogged through knee-high snow, with Myrddin leading the way and easing their passage. The storm had eased, and as they walked Storm asked the druid whether he had heard of the Staff of Winter, and whether it might be responsible for the unnatural cold.
“The Staff of Winter?” replied the druid. “Yes, I have heard of it. An ancient artefact of great power. And yes, I suspect it is involved in some way in the unnatural winter we face, although its magic has clearly been enhanced in some way.”
“Perhaps by a Solstice Stone, or by Ice?” suggested Tector.
“Not a Solstice Stone – we and our allies possess all six,” replied the druid. “But there are many gems of power in this world. How did you come to know of the Staff of Winter?”
Storm explained their encounter with Isabelle de Neville in the snows of Durham.
“Do you know anything about the Bloodaxe?” asked Tector. “Isabelle de Neville mentioned that it lies in the Catacombs beneath York.”
Myrddin looked thoughtful as they strode on through the snow. “I have not heard of it,” he replied. “But Erik Bloodaxe was the last Viking king of Jorvik, the Viking kingdom which had its capital at York.”
As the wind picked up once more, blowing snow into their faces, they pulled their cloaks close about themselves once more and pressed on.
After a couple of hours steady uphill climb, they arrived at the base of the great hill atop which stood the Ard Tursa stones. Myrddin led them around its base, until they saw a dark cave mouth stark against the white snow blanketing the hill.
Myrddin turned to the companions. “To have made it so deep into Uaine Dachaig, this demon must be extremely fast, or have some means of evading detection,” he said. “We must try to immobilise it, or at least prevent it escaping, in order to destroy it.”
With that, the druid closed his eyes and the group felt familiar magic at work. First, all the companions felt an increased focus and alertness settle upon them. Then Myrddin’s skin thickened, taking on a bark-like texture. And finally, he laid hands on Tector, and the Dragonknight felt the strength of a bear flow into his limbs. With the merest thought, Sophia activated her Solstice Amulet and smiled as she was surrounded by its pale blue-white glow.
Thus prepared, they entered the cave cautiously, Tector leading, with Myrddin and Sophia behind and Storm bringing up the rear. A confluence of faint light illuminated the darkened granite walls: the flicker of Storm’s floating lightning orb, the greenish-blue glow of the Solstice Stone atop Myrddin’s staff, and the blue-white light emanating from Sophia’s Solstice Amulet and the eyes of Tector’s dragon-headed helm.
As they advanced into the darkness, they came upon a gruesome sight. A pony-sized, dog-like demon, with a wide mouth full of razor sharp fangs, crouched over the corpse of an elven ranger, evidently feeding. Its gaunt frame tensed as it became aware of them, and the pair of long tentacles that snaked out from the middle of its upper back stiffened.
Without warning it sprang at the group with unholy speed, covering the distance between them in a single bound. Tector managed to throw himself aside, but the beast slammed into Myrddin, leaving him floored winded. As it landed, the demon’s tentacles lashed out, over the prone druid. Storm and Sophia somehow both avoided the hideous tendrils, and the dragonborn retaliated with ice javelins. Two pierced the demon’s leathery hide, but the third exploded mid-flight, showering Myrddin with icy shrapnel that lodged in his barklike skin.
As Sophia narrowly missed with a bowshot, Myrddin’s Solstice Stone glowed brightly with a cold light, and the paws of the demon froze solid to the rocky floor. Uttering a prayer to the Lord, Tector stepped forward, holy light blazing along the blade of his axe. It sliced deep into the demon’s side, seeming to burn as well as cut, and black blood flowed freely as the creature yelped in pain.
Then it disappeared. At the rear of the group, Storm suddenly felt its fangs sink into the scales over his shoulder – it had somehow teleported behind him! He whirled, raking it ineffectually with his lightning claws, as the tentacles lashed out once more, this time catching both Tector and Myrddin. The impact seemed to leave them both reeling, as if magic or poison had disoriented them utterly.
Sophia retaliated in kind, projecting her sleep magic into the creatures arrow-sharp mind. It did not collapse but stumbled, just as disoriented as the druid and the dragonknight.
Storm, weakened by poison from the demon’s fangs, tried to press the attack, but his lightning claws were feeble and his dragon’s breath barely affected the creature. Sophia tried to distract it with illusions, to no avail, while Myrddin struck with a bolt of blue-green lightning that crashed into its side with a burning crack! Sensing his moment, Tector unleashed a massive overhead strike which crashed down, cleaving the demon’s head clean in half!
As the demonic creature decomposed before their eyes, Myrddin turned to Tector. “Your axe was superb today, my friend,” said the druid. “Without you, we would have been hard pressed.”
Their task complete, the companions headed reluctantly back out into the snow, which had begun to fall heavily once more. Myrddin’s magic seemed to shield them from the worst of the storm, but all save the dragonborn felt the cold, and it took more than four hours for them to return to their dwelling.
Once warm and dry inside, Myrddin spoke to the companions about the strategic situation in the North. “The elven lands of Northumbria are relatively secure, now that the Baelrauch has been destroyed and our druids and sorcerers are rebuilding the wards which hedge out undead and demons,” he explained. “Although sithe, and worse, are still abroad in the north, and the wards do not keep out living creatures.”
“In the lands of the English lords, Newcastle, Bamburgh and Berwick still hold out, but they are utterly cut off due to the snows, lack of land supply routes, and now the icing up of their harbours. I do not know, but I suspect they will not have supplies to last more than three months. They would have expected to replenish them from the harvest, which will not happen now, and they cannot be resupplied. After that, the survivors will begin to starve.”
“These storms also mean that you will need to remain here a little longer than we planned. Travel by pegasus is impossible in this weather.”
As they ate some bread and cheese, and drank mulled wine against the cold, the druid took his leave. “There is a ceremony tomorrow, at which Iaedriacht is to be remembered,” he told the friends. “It will be led by Dienwe and several of his kin, in the glade where he died. There are of course no remains, which is particularly difficult for the tarbheans, as their traditions call for the dead to be buried in cairns or tombs. You would be most welcome to come, and pay your respects, since you were present at his passing.”
Exhausted by their slog through the snow, the companions soon turned in, as the storm continued to rage outside.
In the dead of night, Sophia was woken by the faint trace of a whisper in her ear. She opened her eyes, and in the faint light thrown off by the enchanted mistletoe berries, she saw the enchanting green eyes and long fair hair of the young elf who had gifted her the potion the night before she faced the Baelrauch.
With a smile, the young elf maid asked Sophia to wake her friends. “Your friend Manzio is in danger on the Isle of Iona,” she told them, in a soft Scots brogue. “He needs your aid, and I can help you to travel there with magical speed.”
“What is happening to Manzio?” asked Tector.
“He faces agents of Morrigan the black,” replied the elf maid.
“Who are they?” pressed the Dragonknight.
“A Hand, led by Henry the Young King, the son of Henry of England,” she replied. “It is a Hand of Morrigan’s former foes, those who were sent against her by her enemies.”
“Who else is in this Hand?” asked Tector.
“A danagrim, a caeltir prince, a man of the Church, and a sorcerer,” she replied. “Now, we must make haste if you are to save your friend.”
The companions quickly dressed and gathered their equipment. The elf maid led them through the deep snow to a clearing in the depths of the forest, which seemed untouched by the snows. At its centre stood a pool, ten feet across, the water unfrozen despite the bitter cold, its mirror-like surface reflecting the dark sky above.
“Stand around the edge of the pool,” the elf maid bid them. “One at each point of the compass, and your gazes on its centre.”
As the companions moved into position, Tector asked the elf maid whether they were going to scry through the pool.
“A good question,” she replied. “We are going to do a lot more than scry.”
“Should we rescue Manzio and bring him back,” asked Sophia, “or should we kill the Hand?”
“You make that decision when you get there, depending on the circumstances you find,” replied the elf maid.
Seeing that they were all in position, the elf maid began a soft chant. The waters of the pool remained utterly still, but somehow the companions felt as though they were moving, circling the pool, slowly at first and then with increasing speed.
They began to feel dizzy, their heads starting to spin as the sensation of movement increased and everything in their peripheral vision became completely blurred. Gradually the sense of motion became unbearable and one after another they closed their eyes, feeling as though they were being thrown backwards yet falling inwards at the same time.
First Tector, bracing himself, then Sophia, and finally Storm, extending his wings as he did so, each simply had the sensation of falling, at speed, through darkness.