Staff of Winter, Part One - York
Having vanquished the scorpion construct, Storm continued to explore its lair, eventually sensing a source of electricity in its metallic corpse. He tried to prise off some of its armoured carapace with his dagger, but lacked the strength to do so. Instead he turned to Tector, who was able to penetrate deep into the metal body, finding a large quartz crystal within. Storm removed this, and concentrated for a few moments, sensing that the electricity within could be used to enhance one of his lighting powers. Pleased with his discovery, the dragonborn tucked the crystal into a pocket in his robes.
Accompanied by Tinuviel, the companions quickly made their way back to the Twisted stronghold and, using the power of their Solstice Stones, made contact with Myrddin. They sensed some irritation at the interruption, and Myrddin told them to return to York and await his return. Tector asked Tinuviel if she could take them to the nearest access point in the Catacombs and she led them through familiar passages to the stairs up to the crypt in All Hallows’ churchyard. They turned, bidding farewell to the elven scout. “Farewell, until our paths cross again,” she replied, before disappearing into the shadows.
The door to the crypt was barred from the outside, so Storm used his ring of Dimension Door to transport himself to the other side and lift the bar. Dazzled by the daylight, after so many days in the darkness of the Catacombs, the companions made their way back to York Minster. Their breath froze in the air and they could feel that the chill of the unnatural winter had intensified over the last few days as summer gave way to autumn.
On arrival at the Minster they were ushered into an audience with Father Geoffrey. The companions recounted a short summary of their recent exploits, and Father Geoffrey informed them sadly that Father Benedict had been mortally wounded trying to stop the dark elf hand which infiltrated the Minster and stole the three Keys of Binding from the Archbishop’s study. Storm asked about the Archbishop, and Father Geoffrey replied that he was much the same, comatose and being fed soup to keep him alive, but now little more than skin and bones. He also told them that the Chief Justiciar had arrived back in York the day before, and left word that the group should be sent to him at the Castle if they turned up at the Minster.
They made their way through the icy streets to the Castle, and were saluted by men-at-arms wearing the livery of the King, before being shown into a waiting chamber and provided with refreshments. They waited several hours before being led to the council chamber at the top of the Keep, where they had participated in the meeting between Dienwe and de Glanville several months earlier.
The Chief Justiciar was alone in the chamber, and gestured for them to enter. “You will be pleased to hear that Durham has held out against the undead army of Morgana,” he said with a tight smile. “The siege was broken by a combined attack from the forces of Uaine Dachaig, led by Dienwe and Myrddin, and the English Crown and Church led by myself and the Bishop of Durham. Thousands of undead were destroyed by our magic and the power of the Lord. Morgana did not intervene; she seemed either distracted by events elsewhere, intimidated by the defeat of her dracolich, or unwilling to risk an open conflict with four significant powers gathered in opposition.”
“As a result, the siege was lifted for a time and the English army heading north to relieve Durham, which had been bogged down by a combination of the undead horde and the deep snows, was able to enter the city, filing in through the gates, frostbitten and demoralised. They were in a terrible state. With the arrival of autumn, the freezing temperatures have dropped even further. Soldiers on the road were regularly getting frostbite, and movement is now almost impossible. Food in Durham has been severely rationed, as supplies cannot be brought it. The main rivers, including the Ouse and the Weir, have iced over.”
“I have returned to York in order to plan the next phase of our war against the Witches. The defence of Durham is now led by the Bishop of Durham, representing both Crown and Church, with Gabriel of Canterbury and Maldred Fitzdolfin as his lieutenants. Now, tell me of your activities since we parted at Durham.”
Sophia recounted their role in the destruction of the Baelrauch. De Glanvill nodded. “Well done. The elves fulfilled their promise by aiding us in the defence of Durham, and you played a key role in winning their support. What then?”
Storm continued, outlining how Myrddin had taken them to the Catacombs, they had fought the dark elf Hand, and taken the Keys they had stolen, before defeating the basilisk and the scorpion construct to recover the last two Keys. Storm also mentioned that they had faced a deadly quicksilver construct, which they were forced to flee from, and that Myrddin had trapped it somewhere.
The Chief Justiciar looked thoughtful. “Interesting. I was not aware of these most recent events. So, you recovered all the Keys that were stolen from the Minster?” Storm nodded.
“So you now have all five Keys of Binding?” asked de Glanvill.
“Manzio and his friend have two of the keys,” replied Storm.
“Who is this friend?” asked de Glanvill.
“Heraclief, a fire sorcerer who aided us against the Hand in the Catacombs”.
“And why would you entrust two of the Keys to them?”
“Manzio is an extremely trusted friend, and Myrddin felt that, if we went our separate ways, the dark elves could never gain control of all the Keys.”
de Glanvill nodded. “That seems sensible. And Tector – what of Iona?”
Tector seemed a little taken aback to be put on the spot, particularly as the companions had not intended to mention the events of Iona. Taking a deep breath, the big warrior explained that they had been transported to Iona by a mysterious elf, and then recounted the events that transpired on Iona, with input from Storm and Sophia.
“Who was this mysterious elf that transported you to Iona?” asked de Glanvill. Sophia explained she was an elf who provided a potion that helped her destroy the Baelrauch.
de Glanvill fixed Sophia with his steely gaze. “And yet the truth is that this elf was Morgause herself. I accept that it is difficult to resist her spells, but I must warn you to take more care.”
“Yes, my Lord,” the companions answered sheepishly.
“Now, tell me more of this Hand of Morrigan you encountered on Iona,” demanded the Chief Justiciar.
Storm described the Hand, providing a description of Prince Connal of Connacht, Jean de Carcassone, Sioc and Hakan, including the fact that Connal and Sioc had joined their cause while Jean and Hakan had both been slain, yet also freed from a terrible possession that was torturing their souls.
The group’s memories of the fifth member of the Hand were more vague. Storm recalled that he had a glowing, blood-red gem in his chest, and blasted foes with necrotic energy, but recalled that Manzio had faced him and would have had the best view.
de Glanvill pressed, and Storm recalled that he did get a glimpse of Manzio’s foe as he flew over the Church after pursuing Sioc. He went on to describe the human figure, particularly recalling his long fair hair, the gem in his chest, and his distinctive armour and longsword.
de Glanvill listened intently. “Do you know who that was?” he demanded in a low voice.
“I think it was Henry, the Young King,” replied Tector.
“Then our worst fears are confirmed,” replied de Glanvill, taking in the shocked expressions on the companions’ faces. “The Young King led an expedition to Ireland to challenge Morrigan. His army was defeated in battle and routed, and he went missing. Nothing has been heard of him since. I am very concerned by this news. The Young King, second in importance only to the senior King Henry, seems to have been taken prisoner and possessed by Morrigan. We must rescue him from this predicament.”
Tector turned to Storm. “Do you think there is a way?” the Dragonknight asked.
“We could perhaps dispel the magic in the gem,” he mused. “But it may be too powerful.”
“I admire your courage,” said de Glanvill pensively. “You truly are great servants of the King, and I expect nothing less from the three of you. This is a terribly difficult choice, but I fear we must address the tactical position first, before turning our attention to the Young King.”
“As things currently stand, we cannot win the war against the Witches because of the endless winter that has engulfed us. The crops have all failed, there will be no harvest in the north this year, our armies cannot move, and yet the undead can slog through snows and are impossible to resist.”
Tector interjected. “I think I know what is causing this, my Lord.”
“What?” asked de Glanvill sharply.
“I think it is called the Staff of Winter,” Tector explained. “I think it is in the hands of one of the Witches, and has probably been enhanced in some way.”
“How do you know this?” queried the Chief Justiciar.
“There is a young girl, named Isabel de Neville, who can see into the future. We met her in
Durham. She told Storm about the Staff of Winter, and that it could be found in the far north.”
“Very interesting,” replied de Glanvill, raising his eyebrows. “This is consistent with my own divinations. I have sensed powerful winter magic in the far north, on the isle of Orkney, but have been unable to determine what it is or how to end it. What do you know of this staff?”
“Nothing,” replied Tector. “Only that it is known as the Staff of Winter.”
“We need to find out more,” declared de Glanvill. “I will focus on my divinations, and hope for the counsel of Myrddin, who has great knowledge and wisdom in this area. You must each return to your quarters, and speak to no one of the things we have discussed here. I will send for you when I am ready.”
Over the next two days the companions took some time to recuperate from their recent ordeals and pursue their own interests. Tector prayed at the Minster and trained. Sophia spent time with her father, speaking of the political and military situation in the north. Storm spent time in the Minster library, conducting research into the creation of enchanted items and considering how best to make use of the basilisk eye he had taken from the Catacombs. He determined that he would need a metal and glass orb of some kind to contain the basilisk eye, and would need to spend time and money on research and materials. It seemed likely that it would not paralyse a foe as a living basilisk eye would, but might slow an enemy down for a period of time.
Two days later, the group were summoned back to the Castle. In the council chamber they met de Glanvill and Myrddin. The Druid appeared to be fully recovered from his earlier injuries, and greeted them warmly.
“Congratulations on recovering the Keys of Binding. You have done well. You will be pleased to hear that Roarc and Connal are in Ireland, trying to rally their people against Morrigan. They are both princes of great stature, and I am very hopeful that we will be able to raise an army of sithe to fight the Black Queen in her heartland, distracting her from the war here in England.”
“My Lord de Glanvill and I have discussed the current situation in the north and how we might lift this supernatural winter. It is first necessary to understand its cause. My investigations have revealed that Morgause located an artefact, known as the Staff of Winter, which was crafted from the femur of an ancient ice drake known as Blizzard.”
“The endless winter has been created using the ancient enchantment of the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney to enhance and amplify the power of the staff. By my reckoning, the only way to lift the winter is to remove the staff from the standing stones.”
“I must admit, we were at a loss as to how this might be achieved. However, over the last few days, I latched onto a shred of memory from a former life which has provided a valuable insight. Do you recall that we discussed the Otherlands when we last met, and the pathways through them that enable us to travel in time and space?”
The companions nodded, and Myrddin continued. “I believe that you must journey to the Otherland of Annwyn to recover an artefact known as Crann na Beatha, the Tree of Life, in order to break the defences around the Staff of Winter at the Ring of Brodgar.”
“If it is a tree, how do we bring it back from Annwyn?” asked Tector.
“That is a good question. I am not sure exactly what form Crann na Beatha will take. It is called the ‘tree of life’, but in legend it has taken many forms. I do not know where in Annwyn you might find it, how you will recognise it, or how you will locate it. I appreciate that this is an enormous challenge, but with your wits and enchantments, you are our best hope.”
“Are there any dangers in Annwyn that we should be aware of?” inquired Storm.
“I must tell you that all the Otherlands have their dangers,” Myrddin responded. “Annwyn is no exception. It is ruled by a great lord, Gwydion, and is rumoured to be home to terrible beasts as well.”
“Is this Gwydion evil?” queried Tector.
“Gwydion is a legendary elf prince of many talents; a lord, a warrior and a sorcerer,” replied the druid.
“So there are elves in Annwyn?” asked Storm.
“Yes indeed, and danagrim too,” answered Myrddin. “But remember, these are the Otherlands, and not everything is as it seems.”
The companions nodded as this sank in. “Now, ready yourselves,” Myrddin continued. “We must lift this unnatural winter. Already, thousands have died of cold and starvation. We must make haste. You have the rest of the day to prepare. Tomorrow, I will transport you to Annwyn.”
“Are you coming with us?” asked Tector.
“I cannot,” the druid replied. “Many pieces are currently in play on the board, and I must continue to influence as many outcomes as possible, which puts great demands on my time. And not all my allies are as resourceful as you three. But I will try to send you aid if I can.”
The Chief Justiciar fixed each of the companions in turn with his penetrating gaze. “Myrddin and I are of one mind on this task. You will meet him here at dawn tomorrow. For now, you are dismissed.”
The three friends filed out of the council chamber, intrigued, excited, and with a little trepidation as to what the morrow would bring.