Staff of Winter, Part Five - A Many-headed Beast
Having traversed the great chasm, the group continued to the west, the Brutensten champions leading them on an uncannily easy path through the rugged landscape. After a few hours the companions’ throats were burning with thirst. The danagrim continued their implacable march – tough, silent, and determined. Eventually Storm called a halt, explaining that they had run out of water and were practically dying, and the Brutensten warriors shared their waterskins with their new allies.
Feeling considerably better, the three friends pressed on. As the day wore on, the broken landscape before them gradually became less rugged, although huge jagged mountains and outcrops of rock continued to loom on either side of their path. Ahead, in the distance, a hill slowly became visible through the miasma. Storm could just make out a jagged silhouette atop its crown, a rough circle of standing stones.
Tector turned to Egil. “How many heads did you say this beast has?”
“They say it has a score o’ heeds laddie,” replied the danagrim.
Looking around with some trepidation, the companions made for the hill, which remained at least an hour away on foot. Their route forced them to skirt around several of the huge jagged rocks that rose into the sky on either side of them. As they drew closer to their goal, passing close to another of these massive stone outcrops, they suddenly felt the ground vibrate beneath their feet. They hesitated, feeling another tremor a moment later, then another, and another. These continued, the tremors getting gradually stronger, like giant footsteps getting closer.
The Brutensten danagrim looked at one another. “Soonds like we might ha’ foond the Margyr,” smiled Gunnar, grimly.
“Aye,” grunted Torben.
Egil turned to the companions. “Ye’d best get yeerselves ready!”
Storm immediately flexed his great wings, launching himself into the air above the group. The three danagrim spread out in front of Sophia and Tector, Egil in the centre, as a huge reptilian head snapped into view from behind the jagged rock, heralding the emergence of a truly massive many-headed beast.
It saw Storm in the air and let out a huge, stereophonic roar from several of its enormous heads, so loud it hurt their eardrums. Alarmed, the dragonborn flexed his wings, gaining altitude and backing away from the beast. He could see, as its squat body emerged from behind the huge rock, with eight sinuous necks holding eight massive heads aloft, that it was easily larger than Ice.
It advanced on the group, its many jaws snapping at the air and bellowing. Thick folds of skin were visible at the point where the snake-like necks joined the body, and as the beast moved forward these began to writhe and heave with movement, as if something within was striving to escape. Suddenly, a horrific humanoid figure emerged from the writhing skin, half falling and half leaping to the rocky ground in front of them.
The group stood their ground, the danagrim gripping greataxes tight in their meaty fists, as another, and another and another of the hideous creatures tumbled to the ground in front of the massive Margyr. Tector recognised them as undead, probably some form of ghoul, as the horrible foes picked themselves up from the ground and rushed the three danagrim. “I think we’re outnumbered,” breathed Sophia, as battle was joined.
Storm reacted first, summoning draconic lightning which swooped up into the air, through the miasma of smoky mist, and slammed down into one of the heads. The enormous creature let out a bellow of rage, hurting the companions’ eardrums. The Brutensten yelled a battle cry in unison and charged forward, engaging the ghouls that were rushing toward them. Egil and Torben each cleaved clean through a ghoul with massive blows, while Gunnar cut off the arm of a third.
Tector moved forward, closing the distance on the ghouls before loosing a crossbow bolt that went over their heads. His target rushed forward, attempting to grapple the Dragonknight with its filthy claws, but a swipe from his greataxe held it at bay.
With a bellowing roar, the Margyr moved forward, the rocky ground shuddering beneath every step. The four rearmost heads reached into the sky, and seemed to spit something large, almost humanoid, from their mouths and toward the group. Sophia’s eyes widened as one sailed over her head and she comprehended that it was another of the ghouls. It landed, arms flailing, behind her, while another catapulted straight at Storm sixty feet in the air! He flexed his wings, banking quickly aside, and the undead cartwheeled past him, landing heavily near Sophia.
One of the Margyr’s heads snapped downward, trying to bite Gunnar in half with its massive jaws. He just managed to throw himself to the side at the last moment, the jaws thumping into the ground as they snapped closed. In response, Sophia cast an enchantment, seeking to confuse the huge beast, but it seemed to have no effect.
From his high vantage point, Storm summoned a whirlwind amid the writhing heads of the Margyr, expecting them to be caught up in the maelstrom and damaged. To his disappointment, it seemed only to enrage the beast further, the tree-trunk thick necks being so powerful that they were almost unmoved by the battering of the wind.
The Brutensten hacked away, dismembering two more ghouls, allowing Egil to charge forward, closing on the head that had missed Torben as it lifted from the ground, burying his greataxe in its neck right up to the haft. The other heads of the Margyr let out an ear-splitting bellow as Egil ripped the axe back out, green blood spurting out over the danagrim warrior and the rocky ground around him.
Tector slammed his greataxe into another ghoul, opening a terrible wound in its neck. It stumbled backward, but did not cry out or give any other sign of feeling pain, and was still on its feet. It lunged at the big warrior, who dodged away but found himself being raked by another of the ghouls which attacked him from the side. Fortunately, its claws were unable to penetrate his mithril armour. Nearby, Gunnar finished off one ghoul, but another leaped onto his back, clawing at his neck with its talons. He hurled it to the ground, cleaving off its leg with another huge blow of his axe.
Behind them, the two ghouls that the Margyr had spat out clambered to their feet and closed rapidly on Sophia, tearing at her with their claws and drawing blood. Another of Margyr’s heads spat one of the undead from beneath its tongue, sending it flying past Storm and slamming into the rocks near Sophia.
Torben charged forward, dodging the great maw that tried to bite him, slamming his greataxe into the side of the head. The beast seemed to bellow in pain and pivot at the same time, another head snapping down at Gunnar, lighting fast. He was finishing off a ghoul and had his back to the great beast, unaware of the attack. Its jaws clamped shut on his shoulder, and he cried out in paid as the teeth punctured his thick leather armour and ripped a chunk of it away, leaving blood flowing freely from the exposed wound.
From his high vantage point, Storm could make out three wounded heads, one scorched by his lightning, the other two bleeding from great Brutensten axe blows. Picking his target, he hurled a thunderbolt, striking the head that had just bitten Gunnar in an attempt to aid the wounded danagrim. The lightning blackened its scales and it seemed momentarily dazed by the assault, giving Gunnar the time to turn his rage on the ghoul which had attacked him, cleaving it limb from limb.
As one of the wounded heads began to draw back, Egil sprinted forward, leaping into the air and spinning around, his arms fully extended, swinging the blade of his greataxe at great speed into the wound he had opened up seconds before. It cleaved right through the neck, and blood fountained into the air as the head crashed to the ground, the neck thrashing wildly for a few seconds before flopping limp to the side.
Torben also struck one of the necks with a huge blow, drawing more blood from a long gash. Tector finally managed to finish off the ghoul that had been slowing him down, smashing through its skull with his axe.
At the rear, Sophia was surrounded by three ravening ghouls. Staying calm, she closed her eyes and called forth the protective power of her Solstice Amulet. The ghouls recoiled as the faint silvery-blue aura emanated from her skin and enveloped her. Thus protected, she ran forward, dodging away from the ghouls and casting an enchantment on the Margyr head Storm had damaged with his draconic lightning. She was frustrated to see that, once again, it had no effect.
The Margyr stomped forward once again, spitting another ghoul from one of its mouths. This time, Storm did not reach quickly enough and the horrible undead slammed into him, tearing his scales with its claws. He was knocked backward by the impact and began to fall to the ground as the ghoul tried to grapple him, but the dragonborn frantically pulled himself free and the undead plunged to the rocks below.
Another ghoul attacked Tector, barely scratching him. Others swarmed around Sophia. She was fast, dodging most of them, and those that managed to land a blow found that their talons did not penetrate the silvery-blue aura surrounding her.
The Margr attacked Torben again. He threw himself aside as one set of jaws snapped down toward him, but another snaked in from the side to bite him, its jaws so huge they engulfed his body from thigh to shoulder. He bellowed in agony as the neck flexed upward, lifting him into the air, before flinging him sideways, smashing him into the rocks twenty feet away. The danagrim warrior lay there, groaning, for a moment, before trying to push himself upright.
Storm stayed airborne, shouting down to the Brutensten. “Do you want a free ride onto one of the heads?”
“Aye laddie, I’ll take that!” shouted Torben, pulling himself to his feet.
The dragonborn summoned his north wind, lifting the dangrim into the air. “Put me on the wounded one, laddie!” he shouted.
Storm catapulted Torben through the air, and one of the Margyr heads snapped up to intercept his flight. But the dragonborn sent the danagrim flying over it, and he landed half way down the neck. Torben used his momentum to drive his axe deeply into the great beast, drawing a thick stream of green blood. The wounded neck thrashed wildly, but Torben managed to cling on.
With a smile of satisfaction, the dragonborn sent ice javelins hammering into another of the wounded necks, piercing it in three places and leaving it swaying unsteadily. Gunnar, with blood still flowing liberally from his shoulder, pivoted around and hammered his axe into the point at which one of Storm’s ice javelins had pierced the neck, cutting so deep that the head collapsed to the ground with a crash.
Egil lashed out with his axe again, landing a glancing blow that smashed a few scales and drew blood. Tector was still pinned down by a ghoul, neither of them able to land a decent blow on the other. Sophia was surrounded by four of the rancid creatures, but they were unable to pierce the protective aura of the Solstice Amulet.
The Margyr took another thunderous step forward, one of the heads plunging down, its jaws closing over Gunnar. They engulfed his whole body, right down to the waist, before lifting him into the air and hurling him aside. He crashed to the ground, armour punctured by huge teeth marks all around his midriff, blood flowing freely from each of them. Displaying incredible resilience, the danagrim simply gritted his teeth, rolled to his feet, and charged back in to attack the great beast once again!
Egil had a chunk bitten out of his arm, while two heads attacked Torben as he rode upon one of the necks. One bite struck home, gripping him round the right hip and trying to rip him free. The danagrim held on, and it succeeded only in tearing leather armour and flesh from his hip, leaving him gasping in pain once more. The last head reared up, spitting another ghoul into Storm, knocking him backwards and down around twenty feet. It raked him with its claws, but he punched it in the face and sent it falling to the stony ground below.
Torben stood on the body of the Margyr, in between its writhing necks, and connected with a massive blow into the back of one of its skulls. The neck collapsed and the head crashed down to the ground, dragging the danagrim along with it. He stood, bracing his legs against the ground to rip his greataxe free of the skull where it had lodged. Gunnar charged back in, swinging a cross-handed blow which the Margyr evaded by lifting its head into the air at the last moment. Egil hacked wildly at the another neck, but it managed to pull back and avoid the blow.
Sophia skewered one of the ghouls with her rapier, while Storm swooped down on the Margyr from above, unleashing his freezing breath. It engulfed two of the heads, leaving a sheen of frost across their scales and slowing them down. He then levelled his Wand of Lightning, aiming a bolt at the head that was attacking Gunnar, but he was trying to gain altitude at the same time and the bolt went wide.
Stepping close, Egil smashed his axe into one of the necks: one, two, three blows in rapid succession, which almost severed it, and the lifeless head crashed to the ground. Gunnar, looking weak from loss of blood, struck a glancing blow on another neck.
Tector ran over to Sophia, pursued by the ghouls that had attacked him. Reaching her, he called out a prayer and the blinding light of God emanated out from his crucifix for twenty feet in all directions. The ghouls stumbled back from it, shrivelling in seconds and collapsing into piles of dust, five of them completely obliterated by the power of the Lord.
The one remaining ghoul sprinted in, leaping on Torben’s back and clawing him before sinking its fanged teeth into his neck. The danagrim screamed in pain and fell to the ground, blood pumping from the artery in his neck.
The Margyr stomped forward another step, the ground shaking beneath its feet once more. One of the remaining heads snaked down at Torben, who was writhing in agony on the ground, biting deeply into his leg. He screamed again, before passing out, blood streaming from his leg, his neck, and the larger injury around his waist.
Two other heads snapped at Egil, both of them striking home from opposite sides, one set of jaws biting down on his left shoulder, the other on his right shoulder. Failing to penetrate his mithril armour, they lifted him into the air, pulling in opposite directions and trying to tear him in half. The danagrim screamed in agony as both his shoulders were wrenched from their sockets, but the mithril chainmail was so strong that it saved his life. The huge teeth were unable to penetrate the shimmering scales and slid over them, suddenly snapping free on either side, leaving Egil to fall to the ground. He lay there, groaning in pain, as another head lunged at Storm with lightning speed.
The dragonborn reacted swiftly, brushing his taloned hand against the Iron Key of Binding in his pocket, conjuring a large shield to deflect the attack. But the Margyr’s head was too massive, smashing aside the shield before clamping its jaws down on Storm’s legs! He cried out as the great jaws shook him from side to side before tossing him away, but he was able to steady himself in the air with his wings in time to avoid crashing into the rocks below.
Sophia ran over to the stricken form of Torben, who was bleeding out on the ground. She skidded to her knees beside him, placing one hand on his neck, which was still spurting blood, and the other on his mangled leg. Golden light flowed from her hands into both of the wounds. The blood flow from his leg slowed to a trickle while at his neck it stopped entirely.
Storm fired a lightning orb at the last remaining ghoul, slamming into the side of its head, sending it sprawling into the grey shale. The dragonborn looked down, seeing that Torben was barely conscious and Egil still lay on the ground in agony, his shoulders at unnatural angles to his body. As he watched, the mithril-clad danagrim rolled over, bashing his right shoulder against a rock. Sophia heard the danagrim grunt in pain as the shoulder popped back into place. Taking a deep breath, he grabbed the other shoulder and yanked it, grunting in pain again as that too popped back into place. The group looked on, awestruck by his incredible toughness.
Meanwhile, Gunnar struck at the head that had bitten Storm, landing two huge blows that sliced through the neck, cutting it down. Only three heads remained, snapping at the group.
Tector finally advanced on the Margyr, calling frost onto the blade of his greataxe before unleashing a brutal strike. The lithe neck swayed backward, avoiding his blow before striking at the big warrior. He threw himself to the ground to avoid the huge jaws. Another head lunged down at Sophia, still on her knees next to Torben, and she rolled aside in the nick of time.
The final head reared up before lunging down at Gunnar, jaws engulfing his body from the chest up, great teeth stabbing through his leather armour. It rose aloft again, shaking Gunnar violently from side to side three or four times, and then hurled him thirty feet into a rocky outcrop. He hit the unyielding surface very hard and slid to the ground, unmoving.
Sophia dragged Torben away from the Margyr, then stood and loosed an arrow from Dienwe’s bow. It was a rushed shot and flew wide. Storm hurled a lightning orb which struck home, drawing another bellow of rage from the huge beast. Tector attacked again, but once again the Margyr was too fast for him, snapping its neck back out of his reach before his blow could connect. Two of the three remaining heads then lunged at the Dragonknight. He activated his Ring of Reflexes, and felt its magic shift him just enough to stop one set of teeth from piercing his armour. The second set of jaws clamped down on him, the huge teeth punching through the mithril scales and drawing a cry of pain.
Meanwhile, the final head shot out toward Storm, jaws snapping down on his chest. He screamed in pain, the jaws clamped down even harder, and he went limp. The mouth opened and he crashed to the ground near Sophia, bleeding horribly. She dashed over to him, and poured healing into his broken body. His eyes flickered open, his whole body wracked with pain, yet feeling as if a charge of electricity had blasted through him. He saw Sophia kneeling beside him, her hands on his bleeding chest. Her face was full of concern, but she smiled as she saw the dragonborn’s eyes flicker open.
Looking directly upward past Sophia’s face, Storm saw the slavering jaws of a Margyr head looming above, about to plunge down on the two of them. Noticing that Sophia was unwounded and still surrounded by the protective aura of her Solstice Amulet, the dragonborn touched the silver ring of Heracliefon his hand and disappeared, appearing again nearly forty yards away. From that safe distance, he launched a lightning orb which struck home, blinding the attacking head in one eye as it plunged down. Even that did not deter its unerring strike, and its huge jaws clamped down on Sophia’s shoulders. There was a loud crunch as it bit down on the solid protective aura surrounding the enchantress, and one of its teeth broke. Some teeth did pierce both the Solstice aura and her chainmail armour, drawing blood, but the wounds were not deep, and the jaws snapped open a split-second later, rising upward with a bellow of pain.
Egil flexed his shoulders with a grimace, then grabbed his greataxe from the floor, striking a glancing blow on one of the heads attacking Tector. The Dragonknight span, bringing all his strength to bear on the neck of the left-most head, his greataxe slicing clean through the neck, decapitating it almost effortlessly.
Sophia rolled to her feet, dragging Torben further away from the Margyr. Then she turned, casting a slumber enchantment at its remaining heads. They did not fall asleep, but were clearly affected by the spell and began to move much more sluggishly.
Still flying at a safe distance from the Margyr, Storm hurled another lightning orb. The foremost head was rearing back to strike at Sophia, and it opened its huge jaws as it lunged down toward her. With incredible accuracy, the storm sorcerer directed the cracking orb straight into its mouth, and the head exploded from within. The neck went slack and it fell to the ground with a crash, raising a cloud of grey dust from the shale.
Egil attacked the last remaining head, but his damaged shoulders were clearly inhibiting him and the Margyr easily dodged the blow. Tector moved to Egil’s side and called on his Brooch of Mithras. Riding the wave of adrenaline that washed through him, he slashed with his greataxe, opening a great wound in its side. In return, the great beast twisted its neck up and over, plunging back down and biting Tector, piercing his armour in three places and leaving him bleeding profusely.
Sophia dragged Torben out of the Margyr’s reach, then loosed another arrow from Dienwe’s bow, calling on the elven piercing enchantment to give it extra punch. It struck home, piercing one of the Margyr’s eyes and leaving it flailing. Storm moved a little closer with a stroke of his wings, launching another lightning orb which blasted scales from the side of the neck. Egil was unable to connect, but another massive blow from Tector’s greataxe sliced deep into the neck where it joined the huge body. It began to fall, but lunged at the big warrior as it did so. As the huge jaws opened he stepped back, letting its teeth close on the rocky ground at his feet before unleashing a massive overhand blow that cleaved the back of its skull in twain.
The neck twitched in its death throes, and the enormous body of the Margyr swayed on its four thick legs, falling towards Tector. He threw himself backward as it crashed to the ground, the impact like a localised earthquake.
Barely taking a moment to celebrate their triumph, Storm quickly flew over to Gunnar, who remained slumped and unmoving on the ground. Feeling for a pulse, the sorcerer determined that the danagrim was still alive. Tector ran over to the fallen champion, uttering a healing prayer and salving the worst of his wounds. Gunnar’s eyes flickered open as Egil walked across, strapping his greataxe across his back. He was limping slightly on his wounded leg, and grimaced in pain with every step.
“Weel, that was a nice wee fight, wasn’ it lads?!” he exclaimed. He reached down, pulling Gunnar to his feet, and they embraced in a huge bear hug. Then he turned to Tector.
“I’ve nivver seen the like ‘o some ‘o them blows, laddie,” he grinned, grasping the big warrior’s hand warmly.
Sophia helped Torben to his feet and helped him hobble over to the rest of the group. “Alreet, lass, I can walk on me own,” he said stubbornly, though all could see it was barely true.
Egil looked at the three friends in turn. “Weel, seems I may have learned somethin’. Ye may know aboot danagrim, and now I know aboot you. Dragonborn, Dragonknight, and the Fair Lady. Ye’ll go doon in the annals ‘o the Brutensten clan. My children and grandchildren will tell tales ‘o yer bravery and yer skill. We are honoured to count ye as our allies, and finally put an end to Margyr Hofud Ator, the terrible beast that has plagued oor clan fer generations. May the Aesir smile upon ye.”
“And on you,” replied Storm, unsure of the etiquette for such situations.
“So, do ye want tae press on to yon hill tonight, or rest up?” asked Egil. They conferred briefly and agreed that, given the terrible wounds that all but Sophia were carrying, they should rest first. They set up camp, and the Brutensten warriors shared their food and water with the companions. Their provisions were little more than hard, dark bread and dried meat, but they were very filling.
Having eaten, Storm curled up in his bedroll, falling almost instantly into unconsciousness. Egil volunteered for the first watch, and the others turned in to get some sleep.