Oathkeeper, Part Two - Baelrauch
In the very darkest hour of the night, Sophia awoke, feeling disoriented. A beautiful female elf kneeled by the side of her bed, fair hair and stunning green eyes reflecting the faint light of the mistletoe berries. The elf maid smiled, holding out her hand to reveal a small but exquisite crystal bottle, half full of a shimmering silver-blue liquid.
“You face a terrible danger in a few short hours,” she said in a throaty, musical voice. “This will keep your hand steady and your eyes sharp. Drink it a few moments before you loose your arrow.” With that, the beautiful elf handed the bottle to Sophia, who murmured her thanks before falling back into a deep sleep.
The three friends awoke as the first birdsong twittered through the trees. Incredibly, despite their short rest, all fatigue and injury seemed to have left them with the night, and each felt refreshed, calm and focused. They ate a breakfast of fruit and nuts, Tector remarking wryly that he thought the elves must be vegetarians.
Myrddin joined them as they finished breaking their fast. “It is time,” he said gravely. “The Baelrauch approaches Ard Tursa and we must face it soon. Follow me.”
The Druid led the companions along a forest trail at a fast walk. They passed through a settlement which was buzzing with activity. Armed and armoured elves, both male and female, were moving west at speed, in small groups or in pairs. Younger elves, clear strain on their faces, were leading small children to the east, chivvying them along as best they could. On the steps of one home sat a tawny satyr, playing a mournful dirge on his pipes as they passed.
Continuing on, the companions followed the battle-ready elves heading west along a broad path. After a few minutes they passed by a grove of ancient oaks, and caught a glimpse of humanoid figures among the trees. They appeared to resemble human or elven females in many respects, but with more angular features, sinewy muscles, bark-like skin and tangled green hair. Clearly in great distress, they were weeping and crying, each clutching a great oak as if her life depended on it. Myrddin turned to the companions, an anxious look upon his face. “The dryads fear for their trees, for if their tree dies, they die.”
Speeding up to a steady run, the group followed the forest path for perhaps half an hour, before emerging into a clearing where a score or more elves stood with bows in hands. Dienwe was speaking with Iáidreacht in a low voice, flanked by Gwyneth and Hethwyn. She looked pale and drawn, her usual air of serenity replaced by a palpable tension. The tarbhean general turned to them. “The Baelrauch is approaching at speed,” he growled. “Scores of lesser demons roam for miles around it, surging ahead, flanking, or trailing in its wake. Our warriors have tried to slow its advance, to no avail.”
Iáidreacht looked round at the elven warriors in the clearing. “We are your shield,” he went on. “We will get you into the path of the great destroyer and protect you from the lesser demons. Stay close!”
They moved off through the trees in silence, flanked by elven warriors. After a few minutes the sounds of battle floated faintly to them on the breeze from somewhere far ahead. They quickened their pace, and the elves fanned out ahead of the Queen and her companions, spreading out to both sides as they did so.
The battle grew closer, the shouts and screams of defenders jumbled with the terrible cries and roars of Morrigan’s creatures. The flanking elves moved further ahead in the trees to either side, and Dienwe’s Hand found themselves at the edge of a large clearing, alone. The Queen’s eyes closed. “It will come this way,” she murmured.
A warning shout sounded nearby, and the companions saw movement in the trees to the left as something twisted advanced. They heard the twang of multiple bow strings and a ragged bellow as arrows hammered into the creature, but they could see no more.
Ahead of them, a creature with a humanoid body but the head, wings and claws of a vulture soared above the trees and down into the clearing.
Spying the group, it let out a high-pitched screech and swooped toward them. Storm reacted the fastest, hitting it with a lightning orb that fizzed across its leathery hide. It pulled up, a sinuous tail lashing out and unleashing a volley of bone spikes directly at them. Most of the group were fast enough to dodge aside, but Sophia stood rooted to the spot! Tector somehow threw himself in the way, and they deflected harmlessly off the mithril scales of his armour.
Myrddin gestured and a lightning bolt arced from the gem atop his staff, slamming into the vulture demon and hammering it backwards, convulsing. Sophia pierced one of its wings with an arrow, and it fell clumsily to the ground. Hethwyn began a low chant, and a faintly shimmering field of light enveloped the group, as Storm unleashed a firebolt from his wand. The demon rolled aside with incredible speed, avoiding the flames and surging toward them. As it closed, Dienwe stepped past Gwyneth, raising her arms high and bringing them down, forward and to either side in a sweeping motion. Silver light flowed out from her like a wave, washing over the creature, disintegrating it into dust.
The companions gaped at each other, half-smiling, half-stunned, and caught their breath. The exchange had lasted mere seconds. Sounds of battle had faded to their left, but to their right they could hear fierce fighting, punctuated by the rallying battle-cry of Iáidreacht as he urged the elven defenders to regroup.
The light from Dienwe’s spell had barely faded when a four-legged apparition burst from the trees on the other side of the clearing. The horse-sized grey beast surged toward them, unnatural sinews straining as it bounded forward.
It barely stumbled as a lightning orb from Storm caught its right foreleg, then roots burst from the ground at a gesture from Myrddin, grabbing at the creature while Tector and Gwyneth both charged to meet it. The demon dodged Gwyneth’s flaming blade with sinuous grace, but Tector sliced a great gash in its side with his greataxe.
Hethwyn began to chant again, and each member of the group noticed a faint silvery glow emanating from their skin. Sophia, standing behind the abjurer, hit the creature with an arrow as it flailed to escape the grasping roots. Growling savagely, it tore into Tector, leaving two bloody rents in his armour as the Dragonknight realised that he too was held fast by the tendrils of Myrddin’s spell. Standing back at the edge of the clearing with Sophia and Hethwyn, Dienwe pointed her finger at the demon. Silver light seemed to flow down her arm, coalescing at the tip of her finger into a dart of blinding intensity which arrowed into the side of the flailing creature. It seemed to freeze for a moment, before exploding in a gout of silver light and darkness. Tector and Gwyneth were both caught in the blast, but barely had time to recover before they felt the ground shake beneath their feet.
Dienwe closed her eyes. “It comes,” she breathed. Looking up, they felt the ground shake, again and again in a steady rhythm, before seeing a gargantuan creature crashing through the trees toward the clearing. Above the treetops they could see its terrible horned skull and flaming mane, and they caught the sharp tang of sulphur on the breeze. Within seconds it was upon them, the trees ahead disintegrating into dust as it touched them, every step sending a shuddering quake through the defiled earth.
The companions quailed as its vast form surged into the clearing, its 40 foot high body seemingly formed from volcanic rock and blackened steel, animated by searing flames and trailing massive iron chains in its wake. Sophia ducked behind a tree, quaffing the silvery-blue potion from its crystal bottle. Suddenly her vision sharpened in focus, time seeming to move in slow motion as every detail stood out in sharp contrast. To everyone else, the next six seconds passed in an incredible blur.
Standing with her prophesied Hand and flanked by her two bodyguards, Dienwe spread her arms wide, and a solid wall of shimmering light formed across the clearing, blocking the demon’s path. It thundered forward, hammering into the barrier and smashing it into a million shards, sending the elven Queen reeling as if she had been struck. Tector, Gwyneth and Myrddin stood in front of her, with Hethwyn and Storm to either side, as Sophia cowered behind her tree and nocked Saiget to her bowstring.
Tector fired his crossbow, and Storm unleashed three ice javelins, but the Baelrauch dodged them all effortlessly, moving with supernatural speed for such a huge creature. As it closed on them, its baleful gaze transfixed Storm and he stood rooted to the spot, stunned in horror. A battle-cry sounded from the right as the massive demon unleashed a gout of flame, which burned Tector horribly, and as it reached for Gwyneth, Iáidreacht charged in from the side, bellowing, and slammed his mithril greataxe into the demon’s huge leg. The Baelrauch let out a deafening roar, but the companions were shocked to see the greataxe disintegrate in Iáidreacht’s grasp. The demon reacted with blinding speed, spinning round and catching the tarbhean with a back-handed slap. The great general’s mouth opened to scream, but before he made a sound he was blasted into swirling dust.
The companions recoiled in shock, Myrddin recovering his wits the fastest and calling nature’s blessing upon them all. In the crucial split second Iáidreacht’s life had given them, Hethwyn conjured a translucent wall that caused the Baelrauch to stumble as it turned back toward the group. Gwyneth steeled herself and stood firm in front of Dienwe, preparing to die for her Queen, as Sophia stepped out from behind her tree.
Drawing the string of Dienwe’s bow, the runes along its length bright with a silver glow, the enchantress archer felt every nuance of the sorcery at play: the ancient ash heartwood of the bow from feted Bile Tortan; the ebony and mithril heart of Saiget, an artefact from a distant land; the calm concentration bestowed by Anam Craob and the steady hand proffered by Áilleacht’s grace; a oneness with the world around her from Myrddin’s blessing; and the extraordinary clarity granted by the potion of the mysterious elf maid. She sighted along Saiget’s ebon yard, at the dark flame in the heart of the Baelrauch’s chest, and took a deep breath. At the last, through all the sorcery upon her, she allowed her own skill to shine though, exhaling slowly as she loosed the ebon-pointed end.
It struck home. Time stopped, and the Baelrauch stiffened, before exploding in a vast gout of flame and darkness which engulfed the clearing. Dienwe and Hethwyn were protected by the abjurer’s sorcery, but the others were not so lucky, the life sucked from them by darkness even as they were burned by flame.
Screams and groans rent the air, which was filled with the scent of death and charred flesh. Half blind and stumbling to his feet, Tector called upon God’s power, His healing light burning away the last of the Baelrauch’s shadow and relieving the worst of his companions’ injuries.
Their ears ringing from the blast, they saw, rather than heard, Myrddin croak “fall back” from between burned lips. As they withdrew to the safety of the forest the last thing they saw was another demon, this one with the body of an elf atop the legs of a giant spider, bursting from the undergrowth into the scorched and blasted clearing, only to be pinioned by a score of elven arrows.