Staff of Winter Convergence, Part Three - The Ring of Brodgar
Beyond the monolith, the air was still and crystal clear. In the centre of the ring of stones, perhaps fifty feet away, they could see a huge pillar of ice, fifteen feet high and five feet across. Cautiously the Fellowship, led by Tector, set foot within the Ring of Brodgar.
Storm reached out with his mind, attempting to discern whether any magic was operating within the Ring. His senses were overwhelmed by incredibly powerful winter magic. The very essence of ice, snow, frost and storms permeated the Ring, overwhelming the dragonborn’s ability to sense any other enchantment.
Heraclief called the Fellowship together, shouting at the top of his voice to be heard above the blizzard. “Do not touch the stones! Manzio and I have been here before, and when we touched the stones, illusions were triggered. When we enter, do not even brush against them.”
“Remember what Myrddin said,” the sorcerer continued. “Once we are within the Ring, we are completely reliant on Cothu to survive. Now, what do we want to do with the Staff: are we going to try to retrieve it, or should we simply destroy it?”
“Retrieve it, if we can,” insisted Storm. “If not we should destroy it.”
“As soon as we penetrate the circle of stones, we will be attacked,” predicted Heraclief. “The White Queen will not leave the Staff undefended. This could be the strongest challenge we face.” The companions nodded.
Manzio spoke up. “I think we should just destroy the Staff as soon as we get in there.”
“I wish now that we had taken the time to speak to the elves about this artifact,” said Heraclief ruefully. “We know nothing about it.”
“It was crafted from the thigh bone of an ancient frost drake, a great wyrm,” replied Storm. “I don’t think it is inherently evil.”
Heraclief nodded. “I suggest we proceed. If you have any protective magics, now may be the time to use them. And we should be mindful that, whatever we think we see in there, the reality could be very different.”
Tector grimaced. “I am very badly injured,” he muttered.
Sophia shook her head. “I’m sorry, I can’t do anything for you.”
Heraclief looked over the big warrior. “You have certainly taken a beating. We may need to approach any battles we face a bit differently; we cannot just throw you to the front as we usually do. Storm, you and I will need to deploy our sorcery quickly. Please remember, many of my powers have a wider area of effect, and if you charge ahead you may be caught in the blast.”
“Sophia, can you drop back and protect Cothu?” asked Heraclief. Sophia nodded.
“Manzio, get around the flanks,” the swarthy sorcerer commanded. “Use the shadows if you have to.”
Tector asked Heraclief about the defences they had faced on their previous visit, and the sorcerer described the chess piece constructs, built in Trondheim by gnomes in huge metallic likeness of chess pieces, but imbued with different magical powers including fire and ice.
“Listen, we are freezing,” said Heraclief urgently. “And every moment we delay, the Hand of Unity has to hold a little longer. We need to move.”
The Fellowship nodded to one another, eyes full of determination. Tector faced the Ring and hefted his greataxe. “If I am possessed, please knock me out. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
With that, they stepped between two of the megaliths and into the Ring of Brodgar. They felt the temperature drop dramatically, and after the noise of the howling blizzard outside the Ring, it was deathly silent within. It was painfully cold, and they could only imagine how bad it would be without the protection afforded by Cothu.
“Keep your wits about you,” said Heraclief.
“We need to move fast, an alarm has probably already gone off,” replied Sophia.
The companions walked over to the pillar of ice at the centre of the Ring, drawing to a halt a few feet from it. Feeling the bitter cold, Tector activated his Ring of Binding, invoking protection against the elements.
They could see that the pillar was translucent, and they thought that they could make out something solid in the very centre. Wary of the protections that might have been laid upon the pillar, the companions debated how to approach it. Storm suggested that Tector and Cothu should try to break it open, while Heraclief mused that he could try to melt the ice with his flames.
Suddenly three figures appeared, a few feet away from the group. In the centre stood a tall, slender female elf, wearing a simple white dress. She had long golden hair held in place by an elaborate golden circlet. Surrounded by a faint white glow, she was probably the most beautiful person any of the companions had ever seen.
To her right stood a tall, broad shouldered figure, hooded and clad from head to foot in black. His right hand clasped a fine elven bow, fine yew wood inlaid with mother of pearl. Across his back was strapped a fine two-handed sword in a decorative leather scabbard.
To her left, closest to the companions, stood a tall, imposing knight dressed in magnificent but archaic armour, with a golden circle emblazoned on the dented and tarnished breastplate. A cold white energy seemed to emanate from him, as if we were, somehow, even colder than the freezing air around him. In his right hand he held a blackened longsword of the finest craftsmanship.
Morgause’s gaze swept across the companions, and she smiled. “How sweet,” she breathed. Then she snapped her fingers. Suddenly, they were all rooted to the spot, completely frozen, unable to move or speak.
Morgause slowly walked across toward them, followed by the two warriors. “How kind of you to bring the Tree of Life to me,” she smiled.
Cothu moved, slightly. Morgause looked at her, still smiling. “Are you really the legendary Crann na Beatha?” she asked.
“My name is Cothu. Why do you hide your ancient bearing behind a façade of youthful beauty?”
A slight frown marred the flawless features of the White Queen, and she turned from Cothu to Sophia.
“Sweet girl. We have spoken before, but only in dreams. And now you are here. You are so talented Sophia. You will make a wonderful apprentice. I can teach you the secrets of the mind. The power of love, and hate. The talent of distant sight. And even eternal life. Would you accept these gifts, of your own free will?”
Sophia felt the enchantment binding her relax slightly, allowing her to speak. But she stayed silent.
“I understand,” said Morgause softly. “You have conflicting emotions. Loyalty, friendship, family. These are all important things. But I offer you the chance to change the world, Sophia. Take your time. We are not going anywhere.”
Sophia hesitated, the White Queen’s gaze locked upon her. To the side, Tector noticed the air begin to shimmer. Morgause’s black-clad companion also seemed to notice, turning toward the disturbance, instinctively raising his bow and drawing a black-fletched arrow from his quiver. As he did so, his cowl fell back, revealing the features of their old companion, Ross Quilalen!
Six figures suddenly appeared from the shimmering air. Morrigan and the entirety of the Scarak Filidh: the Scarak, Conall Bradach, Mara mac Keth, Vayana Moonlight, and a dark-clad figure they had not seen before.
The Scarak pulled a blackened horn from the rough rope belt holding up his leather breeches. Morgause and the ancient knight next to her glanced round, noticing the newcomers.
Morrigan spoke, her voice twisted in fury. “Caught red-handed! This time even Morgana will not overlook your treachery!”
The White Queen looked confused, for a moment, and then shook her head, beginning to respond in a patronising tone. “Oh, I assure you, dearest sister…”
But she was cut off by a command, barked by Morrigan to the Scarak: “Do not let her speak!”
Blowing on the horn of blasting, the Scarak unleashed a thunderous eruption of devastating sound. Ross was smashed backwards, Morgause knocked to the ground by the force of the blast, and the ancient knight stumbled.
For a moment, time seemed to stand still. Eldritch power sparked through the hair, and each member of the Fellowship felt a shiver down their spine as every inch of their being told them to flee the overwhelming sorcery on display in the Ring of Brodgar.
Morgause pushed herself to her feet, the only visible effect of the blast a trickle of blood from her nose. Then all hell broke loose.
Ross shot the Scarak with a black arrow, which struck the giant in the stomach. It pierced several inches into the flesh, and then seemed to writhe and burrow into the giant, until it disappeared completely into his body, causing the cyclopean monster to roar in agony as the terrible enchanted arrow bored deep into his body.
The ancient knight advanced on Morrigan. She raised a hand, fingers upward, and black tentacles burst from the ground in front of her, grabbing the knight’s legs and arms before he could strike. He sliced one of them with his ancient sword, cleaving it like a hot knife through butter, but there were nearly a dozen more holding him back.
Morgause cast her gaze across the Scarak Filidh, as Morrigan moved forward, her wings twitching, brandishing the trident in her hand. The White Queen’s fingers moved, gesturing subtly toward the Scarack Filidh, and the companions saw the Scarack’s eyes roll back into his head. He stopped screaming, brought the Horn of Blasting to his lips, turned, and unleashed another blast, this time at his allies!
Mara was smashed to the ground and lay there, barely moving. The others were all hurt by the blast but remained on their feet.
Realising what her sister had done, Morrigan gestured to the sky, and the companions heard a high-pitched whine as a meteor plummeted to earth, flying directly toward Morgause. The White Queen threw herself aside, and the fiery missile smashed into one of the standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar, shattering it in an explosion of flame and stone shrapnel.
Recovering herself, Morgause continued to make small hand gestures, like a puppet master. The black-robed dark elf with the Scarak Filidh drew two jagged obsidian daggers from his robes and began to move toward Vayana Moonlight. She held out a pale hand and barked out a word in Celtic, and his movements suddenly became slow and jerky.
Behind the Scarak Filidh, another figure strode out of the blizzard and into the Ring of Brodgar. He was an old man, but looked very tough, muscular and athletic. His chest was naked, with a blue cloak flowing behind him.
The Scarak noticed the old man advancing into the Ring, and moved to intercept him. The fifteen-foot cyclops aimed a massive punch at the old man, a huge fist slamming into his face. He flinched, a dark bruise appearing on his cheek, but incredibly stood up to the blow. In response, the old man sidestepped behind the Scarak, moving with the force of the punch, and drove both his hands into the giant’s back, sending it flying through the air and slamming into one of the standing stones with such force that it broke in half. The Scarak lay on the floor, in the rubble of the smashed standing stone.
The old man looked around, evaluating the scene. His eyes rested for a moment on the Fellowship, and they suddenly found themselves released from Morgause’s enchantment!
Manzio turned to Tector. “Now’s our chance. We need to seize that staff. Should we break the ice or try to melt it?”
“Manzio, let’s try to get Ross. He’s our friend,” said Heraclief.
The Vesuvian nodded and darted round the outside of the Ring, his boots giving him incredible speed and allowing him to draw close to his old companion, who was still on his knees, nocking another arrow.
“Ross, its Manzio,” said the young Vesuvian. “I know you have been possessed. You must fight it. Be strong! I’m here for you.”
The ranger ignored the assassin, looking for a shot. Meanwhile, Tector turned to Heraclief. “Should I break the ice?” he asked.
“Wait,” replied the fire sorcerer. “Let me speak with Saemundr”.
The old man was striding toward the pillar of ice. Heraclief called to him. “Saemundr! How do we destroy this thing? We need to get the Staff!”
The old man strode up to the pillar of ice, his deep voice rumbling “Watch!” as he slammed a massive piledriver blow into it with his fist. A look of shock crossed his face as the pillar shuddered but did not even crack. He looked down at his bloodied and mangled fist, grimacing in pain.
“Let me try fire,” said Heraclief. “Fire combats ice.”
The sorcerer stepped up to the pillar and channelled a blast of flame into it at point blank range from his outstretched hands. A two-foot diameter circle of ice melted away, to a depth of around one foot. Heraclief smiled at the breakthrough. “This is how we do it,” he declared.
Meanwhile, the Scarak pulled himself out of the rubble, bloodied and bruised, and a hideous transformation took place. His body shuddered, his head snapped back, and as the companions had seen at Vindolanda, another pair of arms erupted from his back. He bellowed, and his four arms thrashed, as he stomped thunderously back toward the battle.
Tector moved protectively in front of Heraclief, wary of any attacks. Sophia took Cothu by the hand and moved her gently away from the front line of the battle, close to the pillar of ice at the centre of the Ring. Heraclief turned to her. “Just be careful with the flames,” he warned. “Make sure Cothu is not too close.”
Storm moved to the side, seeking a better angle of attack, and cast a thunderbolt at the pillar of ice. He aimed carefully for the same spot that Heraclief had melted with his flames, and it struck home. But the dragonborn was disappointed to see that it only smashed away a little more ice.
Cothu gently removed her hand from Sophia’s grasp, and walked a couple of paces to the pillar of ice. She placed her arms around it, as much as she could given the size of the pillar, and pressed her body into it. To the side, Morgause surveyed the battlefield, hands still moving in an intricate dance, the Scarak Filidh fighting one another.
The Scarak moved forward, the black cloaked figure moving around to attack him. Connal charged at Vayana, brandishing his huge sword. As he closed on her, she played a chord on her elaborate Irish harp, and his blade bounced off an invisible barrier as it swung toward her neck.
Watching the combat, Storm was surprised to sense an extraordinary power emanating from the old, bare-chested man, a power he had been close to before, in Ben Nevis!
In front of them, the ancient knight sliced his way free of the grasping black tentacles and advanced on Morrigan. She raised her trident defensively.
To the rear of the Fellowship, on the other side of the Ring from the melee, the air shimmered once again, and five Swordwraiths appeared. Behind them, Morgana floated, her feet twelve inches above the frozen ground, clad in a long, black hooded cloak. Her features were ravaged, and her left cheek marred by a ragged, bloodless scar. The companions were reminded of their friend Uther and his heroic sacrifice at Vindolanda. She was flanked by an invictus infernus, its huge pollaxe emanating a sickening greenish-black energy.
“Stop!!” she bellowed, a deafening roar above the din of battle. Everyone froze and turned toward her.
“Gawain! Stand down!!” she ordered the ancient knight. He lowered his blade, and stepped quickly away from Morrigan.
Morgana looked from Morrigan, to Morgause, and back. “You fools!” she spat. “You are so focused on your own petty squabbles that you overlook the enemies in our midst!”
In front of her, the five Swordwraiths fanned out, floating forward to engage the Fellowship. “This is ridiculous,” breathed Manzio.
Morgause nodded to Morgana and dropped her hands to her sides. Each member of the Scarak Filidh jumped, as if stung, then looked around in confusion, shocked or bewildered at their actions.
“I don’t know how it can get worse than this,” thought Manzio, fighting a rising panic.
Just then, an owl plummeted out of the blizzard and into the Ring of Brodgar, almost crashing to the ground as it struggled to right itself after the buffeting of the winds outside. It pulled up from its dive and landed next to Sophia, rapidly transforming into the familiar figure of Myrddin. As the Druid completed his shapechange, Morgana advanced on the Fellowship of Fate, and the Swordwraiths raised their razor-sharp blades. “You have meddled with my plans for the last time,” she said in a low, threatening voice.
Myrddin stepped forward. “The prophecy is true, Morgana,” he said with a slight smile. “Everything that was foretold is coming to pass. You can no longer deny the power of fate.” He moved his hand, and each member of the Fellowship felt a surge of energy from the ground beneath their feet, sharpening their senses acutely.
Morgana sneered. “I am tired of your interference, old man. Time for it to end. Permanently.” She extended her arm, finger pointing directly at the Druid. KILL!!!”
The Fellowship let out a collective gasp as Myrddin’s head snapped back, his neck breaking. He was thrown back 30 feet, slamming into the ground close to Manzio and Ross with a terrible thud. He lay there, head at an unnatural angle to his body, still and unmoving, blood flowing from his eyes, mouth, nose and ears.
Sophia choked back tears as the Swordwraiths moved to attack. Manzio was the first to respond, throwing himself down beside the still form of Myrddin. He felt desperately for a pulse, but there was nothing, and he was stunned by the overwhelming knowledge that the Druid was dead. Wishing to protect Myrddin’s artifacts and potentially secure a means of escape, the assassin reached out and took hold of the Solstice Staff.
Taking stock of the shocking turn of events, Heraclief noticed that the pillar of ice was melting rapidly, water running down from the areas where Cothu was in contact with it. Tearing his eyes away, he focused on the Swordwraith bearing down on him. With a thought, he conjured an efreet guardian immediately in his assailant’s path. It swung its flaming scimitar, cleaving a burning hole in the shadowy form of the Swordwraith. The flame sorcerer then activated his earrings and floated up into the air, evoked a burning wheel of flame as he did so. It careened across the battlefield, smashing into two of the Swordwraiths before narrowly missing Storm, burning him on the way past.
Sophia reached out with her mind, attempting to terrify the Swordwraith advancing on her. Something told her that such creatures probably did not feel fear, but her enchantment was so strong that it caused the wraith to hesitate a few paces from her, blade held upright and ready to strike.
Close by, Tector stepped in front of Cothu, beneath the levitating Heraclief. As a Swordwraith came within range he called the light of God onto his blade and slashed. It swayed backward, quailing from the light, and just managed to evade the strike.
Storm drove his wings downward, propelling himself into the air and away from the Swordwraith that was bearing down on him. He flew past the melting pillar of ice and over Gawain, toward the prone form of Myrddin. Meanwhile, the old man that Storm knew to be Ice turned away from the pillar and toward another advancing Swordwraith. He opened his hands in front of himself, and a torrent of razor-sharp shards of ice flew out from them, engulfing the Swordwraith for several seconds. It was pushed back 20 yards and shredded, the shadowy aura blasted away and its yellow eyes dimmed dramatically.
Then, as one, the Swordwraiths struck. The first slashed at the efreet, which dodged the first strike of its razor-sharp sword and parried the second. The second, in front of Sophia, continued to hesitate under her spell. The third lunged at Tector, driving its blade point-first through the Dragonknight’s armour and inflicting a grievous wound on the big warrior. The fourth, severely weakened, swept back toward Ice, who easily dodged its slashing blade. The fifth engaged the efreet from the side, slashing through its body and dimming its flames.
Manzio’s gaze was drawn back to Myrddin, as the dead Druid’s body began to glow with a white light. As Storm flew toward them, it rapidly intensified to a blinding glow, and the dragonborn was forced to shield his eyes. An eldritch wind blew up, gusting across the battlefield, buffeting Storm’s wings. Even Morgana was forced to shield her eyes, and the Swordwraiths seemed to hesitate, the brilliance of the light anathema to them.
Meanwhile, Gawain and the Scarak Filidh were advancing toward the pillar of ice and the members of the Fellowship clustered around it. Behind them, five figures swept out of the blizzard and flew into the Ring of Brodgar. Grungi led them, his heavy mithril armour shattered at the shoulder and chest by what must have been superhuman blows. As he landed, he swung his lightning charged hammer into Conall’s chest, knocking him backwards, shocking him and causing his long white hair to stand on end.
Sioc landed to Grungni’s left, hurling a spear of ice at the black-robed sithe. It missed and struck the ground behind him. Prince Connal dashed in. The Scarak tried to grab him, but the sithe prince span away, pirouetting around the giant and lashing out with his longsword in a single fluid motion, just catching the cyclops with the point of his blade across the thigh. A thin cut opened and blood bloomed from it, streaming down the giant’s leg.
Up above, Tegan gestured. A huge gust of wind picked up Vayana Moonlight and flung her across the battlefield to the other side of the Ring, where she crashed heavily to the ground. To Grungni’s right, Mary of Stamford charged at Gawain, her spear shimmering and sparking with silvery light. She stabbed at him, but he brought his blade up with inhuman speed, knocking the spear away.
The blinding glow from Myrddin’s body faded, but Manzio and Storm noticed that his skin was still glowing slightly. Then, incredibly, the Druid stood, and reached for his twin staves. He was changed, aged greatly, skin lined, hair and beard bleached white.
Morrigan looked on, stunned. “No! It is not possible!”
“Yes,” replied Myrddin, staring her down. His voice resonated with power. “I have returned, at the dawn of a new age. I am Merlin, in the fullness of my power of old! Mage to the last High King, Arthur of Camelot! High Druid of Avalon! And Bane to the Badb!”
Morgana’s face twisted in rage, her hands flexing like claws. “I am death incarnate!” she snarled. “You cannot stand before me, old man!” Her lips curled, and she lashed out toward him with ten writing tentacles of purple-black energy that arced up, over the heads of the Fellowship, before lancing down at the Druid behind them.
The companions had all seen this before, at Vindolanda, when Morgana had attacked the Archbishop. They remembered, only too well, that his defences had crumbled in seconds. This time, Morgana’s power seemed even more intense, fuelled by an incandescent rage that was not present at Vindolanda.
Merlin crossed his twin staves in front of him, and a pale semi-circular shield of bluish-green energy appeared in the air above and before him. Morgana’s tentacles slapped and sparked and struck into it, fizzing and writhing against its surface. The impact forced Merlin’s feet to skid backwards on the icy ground, but he stayed on his feet, and his glowing shield held.
While the Fellowship looked on, awestruck by the display of magical power, Morrigan extended her finger toward Ice. He doubled over, and steam began to rise from his body and billow from his mouth and nose. “Aaaaagh!!” he screamed, forcing himself upright. From each of his hands, a vortex of freezing water jetted outward, catching one of the Swordwraiths and engulfing Morrigan and Gawain. The Swordwraith’s shadowy aura was extinguished, and its helmet buckled inwards, its blade suspended in mid-air momentarily before exploding in shards of steel. Morrigan and Gawain were both covered in water which instantly froze, covering them both in a sheen of ice. Ice doubled over again in agony as steam continued to pour from his mouth and nose.
Manzio looked at Ross, who seemed overwhelmed by the events of the battle. He had an arrow nocked, and appeared to be looking for a target. The Vesuvian spoke to his friend again. “It’s ok Ross, I’m still here. It’s all going to be fine.” Again, Ross ignored the assassin and continued to scan the battlefield, noting the airborne figures of Storm and Tegan. He aimed at Storm, and was about to loose his arrow when Manzio tackled him from the side, knocking him off his feet.
While his efreet engaged two Swordwraiths, Heraclief tried to blast one of them with missiles of flame, but his aim was off and he succeeded only in scorching the frozen ground. Sophia lunged at the Sworwraith in front of her, stabbing deep into its shadowy form with her rapier. She noticed that it was still not moving, or responding to her attack. Glancing round, she saw Morgause staring intently at the two of them. However, the White Queen was distracted by a cry from Ross as Manzio knocked him to the ground. She turned her attention to Manzio, who suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to run around Merlin’s shield and stab him in the back. The assassin moved toward the Druid, twin daggers in hand.
Tector, grateful for the protection of his Key of Binding against the Swordwraith’s deathly aura, called upon the surge of adrenaline from his Brooch of Mithras and slammed his greataxe into the midriff of his foe. He felt shockwaves flow up the haft and into his arms as his huge blow impacted deep within the wraith, and saw the yellow glow of its eyes dim significantly.
High in the air over the battlefield, Storm swooped down on Morrigan, unleashing his dragon breath. She noticed him bearing down upon her and threw up her arm, conjuring a dome of flame above her. Storm’s freezing breath struck the shield, extinguishing the flame but failing to reach the Black Queen. Banking away, the dragonborn hurled a lightning orb at the Badb but it went wide.
Ice strode toward her, conjuring a huge shield of ice, which he smashed into Gawain, hammering him aside. Morrigan shattered the mantle of ice on her skin with a flex of her massive wings. She looked up at Storm, gestured, and her huge snake appeared, lashing out at him like a whip from her hand. Its dagger-like fangs punched through his scales, drawing blood and pumping a horrific poison into his veins. He gasped in pain as it burned through his body, weakening and disorienting him.
Tector looked around, checking the pillar of ice, and saw that it was melting very rapidly, water pouring off it and pooling at Cothu’s feet. Within, he could quite clearly see a staff.
On the other side of the battlefield, Prince Connal continued to evade the Scarak, drawing blood with another slash of his blade. The black-robed sithe advanced on Sioc, who backed away to the edge of the standing stones. Grungi drove Conall Bradach backwards under a flurry of blows from his hammer. The sithe hardly seemed able to retaliate, but when he did his blow bounced harmlessly off the danagrim’s armour.
Mary was badly wounded, having sustained nasty bruising on her face before she arrived in the Ring of Brodgar, and had been slashed twice by Gawain’s blade, once on the leg and once on the torso. Although on the back foot, she took advantage of Ice’s intervention, lunging forward as Gawain was knocked aside and plunging her spear into his arm. He flinched away, and the companions heard a high-pitched, keening wail as the magic of the Spear of St Peter had an effect beyond the apparent stab wound.
The Swordwraiths attacked the Fellowship once more. Two of them lunged at the efreet, but it sidestepped and parried their attacks with ease. The Swordwraith that had hesitated finally sliced at Sophia, and she just managed to evade the thrust of its sword. She was sickened by the close proximity of the Swordwraith’s deathly aura. The final Swordwraith pressed the attack on Tector. He blocked the first blow, but the second pierced his defences. Although his armour absorbed some of the blow, the Dragonknight was now very badly injured. He did not think he could stay on his feet much longer, certainly not if it took another blow.
Behind him, the melting of the pillar of ice had dramatically accelerated, and it was collapsing in a flow of water, revealing a staff standing upright within. The Staff of Winter.
Merlin strode forward toward Cothu, while Ice looked up at Storm. “You must get the staff, lad!” the latter shouted, before advancing on Morrigan.
The Black Queen gestured at the old man, her palm turned upward and fingers bent. Ice’s limbs snapped backwards, and a grimace flashed across his face. However, instead of being flung on his back with all his bones breaking, he stood against the onslaught, his muscles and tendons standing out, almost ripped from his body with the strain. He let out a huge bellow, pulling his arms into his body, and seemed somehow to be resisting Morrigan’s terrible magic.
Still under the spell of Morgause, Manzio advanced on Merlin, ready to plunge his daggers into the Druid’s back. Perhaps something of his personality remained free of her domination, as he somehow turned his first blow and missed. But the second strike was true, plunging into Merlin’s shoulder. Manzio pulled the dagger free, and was stunned to see that the Druid’s blood ceased to flow from the wound almost immediately. Still pushing against Morgana’s necrotic tendrils with the glowing shield emanating from his twin staves, Merlin closed his eyes and the puncture wound from Manzio’s dagger healed in seconds.
Heraclief shouted down to his friends below. “Tector, Sophia! Protect Storm while he gets the staff!” With that, he launched a burst of emerald flame at one of the Swordwraiths. It gracefully swept aside, avoiding the blast.
Getting to his feet, and with no-one there to stop him this time, Ross loosed another arrow at Storm as he flew toward the now-exposed Staff of Winter. The dragonborn noticed and evoked the power of his Key of Binding, conjuring a shield of force to intercept the missile as it sped toward him. The shield sprang up in the nick of time, deflecting the arrow just past Storm’s shoulder.
Sophia stabbed her foe once again, while close by the efreet also slashed a Swordwraith with its fiery scimitar. Both continued to feel the ill effects of their opponents’ deathly auras.
Nearby, Tector called freezing cold from his armour onto the blade of his axe and unleashed a massive overhead blow on the Swordwraith circling him. It struck home, cleaving the wraith’s helm in twain. The two pieces of metal clanged to the frozen ground, the shadowy aura dissipated in seconds, and its blade stood upright in the air. Knowing what was coming, Tector hurled himself to the ground as the blade exploded, the steel shrapnel passing above him and raining down harmlessly on his Solstice Dragon Armour.
Storm reached into his robes, taking out the peach of fortitude he had been given by Gwydion, and quickly took a couple of bites. He felt strength return to his battered body and flew down to the ground, next to Merlin and Cothu. The dragonborn grasped the staff in his hands, and for a moment bitter cold flowed into him. He felt its ancient power, flowing from the femur bone of the ancient great wyrm, Blizzard, and instinctively knew that this was the Staff of Winter. Instantly, the temperature in the Ring of Brodgar rose by several degrees, and the bitter cold, that had been held at bay only by Cothu’s magic, dissipated as Storm lifted the staff from the melting pillar of ice.
“What should I do now?” called Storm.
“Get out of here!” answered Heraclief urgently.
Merlin was still pushing his glowing shield toward Morgana, driving back her necrotic tendrils. He called out in celtic, and think vines burst from the frozen earth, rising up Morgana’s legs, wrapping around her and grappling her, trying to pull her to the ground. She snarled and closed her eyes, focusing. Her necrotic tendrils pulled back from Merlin’s shield as she did so. The vines slowed, stopped, turned black, and crumbled to dust in a matter of seconds.
“Fellowship!” called the Druid. “Come, grasp the Solstice Staff. I can hold off Morgana for a time, but even I cannot save you from the combined might of the Badb, should they unite against us. Come, quickly!”
Still holding the Solstice Staff aloft, Merlin touched Manzio with the blue-white egg at the top of his other staff before he could react. The assassin felt himself released from the enchantment of Morgause and immediately grasped the Solstice Staff. Heraclief descended quickly to the ground and did likewise.
Ross let fly another arrow, this time at Manzio, the closest target. It pierced his side and he gasped in pain. Sophia backed away from the Swordwraith facing her and dashed across to Merlin, grasping the Solstice Staff. Storm, holding the Staff of Winter, quickly followed.
The Druid held his other staff aloft, maintaining his glowing shield as Morgana’s necrotic tentacles writhed in the air above it. Looking around, he locked eyes with Morgause. Despite everything, she was smiling, and shook her head. She made a gesture, and those grasping the Solstice Staff felt their limbs begin to freeze. But something emanated from Merlin, and they felt a great mental strength they did not have before. Heraclief and Storm were entirely unaffected by the White Queen’s enchantment, but Sophia and Manzio felt a strong desire to stay in Orkney rather than go with Merlin.
Tector effortlessly lifted Cothu and carried her over to Merlin. Placing her hand on the Solstice Staff, the Dragonknight noticed a glazed look in the eyes of Sophia and Manzio. He quickly grabbed Manzio, and Storm did the same with Sophia. The Solstice Stones began to glow.
Tegan, still airborne above the Ring of Brodgar, lifted her hands and each member of the Hand of Unity was swept up into the air by a huge gust of wind. In seconds they were flying away at speed, and the Fellowship noticed that the great blizzard dome that surrounded the Ring was gone.
Morgana’s necrotic tendrils slammed down into Merlin’s shield once more, but it held firm. The Ring of Brodgar seemed to be spinning around the Fellowship, faster and faster, in the blurred moment before they disappeared into the ether. Nearby, Ice back-handed Morrigan across the face with his frozen shield. Her head snapped back, and she spat blood onto the frozen ground. The last thing they saw was the Black Queen, with a look of utter fury, extending her finger, bearing a ring of black obsidian, and pointing it straight at Ice. Then they were tumbling head over heels through the ether, nausea washing over them.
After a few moments, the sense of intense motion stopped. It was warm. Each of them felt the sun on their faces. They opened their eyes, and found themselves in a circle of standing stones, on top of a steep hill. Birds were singing, and it was a beautiful day. The five members of the Fellowship of Fate noticed that Cothu was no longer with them. Merlin looked around the group, unperturbed, and smiled. “Now….”