Staff of Winter, Part Seven - The Black Queen
As the companions spoke with Cothu, a clap of thunder sounded overhead. They looked up, spotted a blazing comet in the sky, and were shocked to see it heading straight for the standing stones in which they stood!
Storm reacted quickly, conjuring the north wind to lift himself and Cothu into the air, depositing them on the lip of the hill’s summit, just outside the ring of monoliths. Sophia also dashed outside the stone circle, activating her Solstice Amulet as she ran, surrounding herself in its bluish-white aura.
Tector called a warning to Sioc and Einar before sprinting after Sophia. Einar followed, with Sioc slowest to react. Storm saw the comet plummeting down and feared for his fellow dragonborn. “This will protect you!” he shouted, using his sorcery to form a wall of ice around Sioc. As it solidified from the moisture in the air, Sioc caught Storm’s eye and nodded his thanks, before begin obscured by the solid cylinder of ice..
They could hear the whistling roar as the comet closed in at incredible speed, a fiery ball that smashed into the centre of the ring of standing stones. The ground shook beneath their feet, and a fiery explosion flung earth and rock in all directions, some striking the wall of ice around Sioc and showering the companions beyond.
The fire quickly died down, leaving smoke swirling in the stone circle and the smell of brimstone in the air. A figure stepped forth from the smoking crater, unfurling her vast black wings. The companions’ eyes widened, the blood in their veins turning to ice with the realisation that they faced Morrigan the Black, the Badb, Queen of the Sithe.
Her face was like marble, a mask of stone-like beauty. Ebony horns curved up from her head, laced with traces of shimmering mithril. A steel tiara encircled them, locked in place as though the metal had fused with her skull. She wore an exquisitely crafted mithril breastplate of ancient craftsmanship, and in her left hand she carried a trident of shimmering, buzzing necrotic energy.
Her bloodless, razor sharp lips sneered as she advanced, revealing huge demonic fangs.
“Well done, you meddling wretches,” she sneered at them. “I anticipated that Myrddin would send some of his lackeys here, seeking the Tree of Life, and set the brother of this mewling fool,” she gestured at Einar, “to wait in ambush. I could hardly have dreamed that Myrddin’s plan would succeed, and that you would deliver it directly into my grasp,” she rasped, with a triumphant smile. “Now, hand it over!”
“No.” said Storm, quietly
Morrigan turned her gimlet eye toward the sound, but the dragonborn was stood behind the cylinder of ice he had conjured around Sioc, obscured from her view. Einar, who was stood closest to her, his hands clenching and unclenching with nervous tension, pulled his twin axes from his belt with a sudden motion. “You bitch from hell! You seduced my brother!” he yelled. “Vali and Vidar, the Twins of Vengeance, give me strength!!” he called, as he charged straight at the Badb.
She extended a hand toward him, and a ring on her finger, set with a large stone of glassy black obsidian, suddenly burst into a blinding, searing light. To Sophia and Tector, who were looking directly at her, it was as if the sun had fallen to earth, and despite their attempts to shield their eyes, they were momentarily blinded. They felt a wave of heat wash over them, and Einar’s battlecry was cut off in an instant, replaced by deathly silence.
From outside the standing stones, Storm saw his wall of ice vaporised in the blink of an eye, but it had protected Sioc from the searing heat. Beyond, he could see a scorched cone of grass emanating from Morrigan, engulfing the area where Einar had been. The companions were horrified to see that, of the danagrim and his equipment, there was nothing left but ashes.
Sioc stumbled backwards in shock, half-crouched in terror, moving away from his former mistress, his legs seemingly barely able to carry him, his eyes locked on Morrigan’s terrible visage as he backed away. Her eyes swept the summit of the hill, paying her former slave no heed. On the edge of panic, Sophia quickly stepped behind one of the standing stones.
Seeing Storm for the first time, standing next to Cothu just outside the circle of stones, the Badb locked eyes with him. “So end ALL those who defy Morrigan the Black,” she proclaimed. “Now, hand over Crann na Beatha!” The dragonborn felt a sudden pressure on his skull, as if someone incredibly strong hand their hands around his head and was squeezing hard.
Adrenaline surged through Storm, and he responded to Morrigan’s threat by stepping in front of Cothu, evoking lightning as he did so. His entire arm crackled with electricity, and he hurled a huge thunderbolt at the Badb. It flashed through the space between them with a clap of thunder, but she saw it coming and gestured with her hand, pushing it back toward the dragonborn. Such was the power of Storm’s magic that the Black Queen’s turning spell failed, and the thunderbolt slammed into her chest, sending her stumbling backwards! Her eyes widened in shock, and she grimaced in pain.
Finding her courage, Sophia peered around the megalith and focused on Morrigan, reaching out with an enchantment. She touched the Badb’s mind and felt an unbelievable, terrifying power. On the brink of shrinking back, she heard a voice in her mind. “Think of Queen Dienwe lassie,” murmured Hakan.
The voice of her old friend lent her courage, and she thought of the elven queen, and her bow, and the power that she possessed. Thus inspired, the young enchantress somehow pierced the incredible mental defences of Morrigan the Black, projecting into her mind a conjured vision of Ice, swooping down upon her from above and engulfing her in his freezing breath! The Black Queen was already stumbling from Storm’s thunderbolt, and fell to one knee, screaming “No!!” as she raised her trident above her head to ward off the frost drake’s illusory assault.
Tector brushed his hand against his Key of Binding, calling up its elemental resistance, and charged at the Witch. Despite being down on one knee and focused on the sky above, she was somehow aware of Tector and threw her left hand out in his direction, casting a figurine on the ground in front of him. In an explosive expansion, it transformed in seconds into a monstrous demonic spider, and Tector’s blow sliced into its dark carapace rather than hitting the Black Queen.
Sioc had continued to stumble backwards, obviously fighting down the urge to turn and run. Inspired by the resistance of the companions, he stood his ground, defying the Witch who had tortured him for so many years, and conjured a lance of ice, casting it toward her.
Once again, despite being distracted by Sophia’s illusion, Morrigan seemed to sense the attack and threw up her hand. A shield of flame, five feet across, sprang up in front of her, and the lance of ice went straight through it, melting instantly into droplets of water which showered harmlessly over her.
Her gaze shifting her gaze back to the sky above, the Black Queen snarled “No!!” once again, and shook her head, clearing it of the visions. She looked at Storm, her left hand twitching involuntarily to her scorched chest, her face twisted in hate. “Now you DIE!” she snarled. Her hand moved in a blur, the like of which the companions had never seen before, raw magical power emanating from her like a physical force. She pointed at Storm and then twisted her hand, palm up, fingers curled into talons. The dragonborn was instantly flipped onto his belly, face down on the ground, his arms and legs ripped behind him, the bones of his limbs breaking in multiple places. Close to death, and enduring the worst pain he had ever experienced, Storm could not move and could barely think.
Satisfied with the result of her assault on Storm, Morrigan shifted her gaze to Sioc, a cruel smile playing across her lips. She snapped her fingers, and a terrible, piercing scream tore from the dragonborn’s lungs. He clutched his chest, falling to his knees, as steam billowed out of his mouth and nose.
Through the screams of the two dragonborn, Sophia heard Hakan’s voice in her mind once more. “Have courage, lassie,” he growled, and she felt a tingling sensation on her arm. Looking down, she saw a tattoo on her arm glowing blue, where none had been before. She recognised it as one that Hakan had in life, as a protective blue field covered her skin, hardening it to stone inside the blue-white ward of the Solstice Amulet.
“Thank you, Hakan,” she breathed.
In response, his voice sounded once more in her mind. “Ye cannae hope to defeat this one lassie. Buy time, and get yer friends out o’ here.”
“How?” asked the enchantress.
“I dunno,” he replied. “Make her afeared, heal yer friends, try to get away.”
Steeling herself, Sophia reached out for Morrigan’s consciousness a second time, trying to make her flee in terror. This time the Witch was ready for her, and Sophia felt as if her mind had struck the solid stone wall of an impregnable fortress. Before she knew what was happening, her enchantment was slipping and slicing back into her own mind! She felt fear wash over her, and ducked back behind the stone monolith, but her courage and determination won through and she resisted the urge to run.
Closest to the Badb, Tector invoked the power of his Brooch of Mithras. With the adrenaline surging through his veins, he lunged at the demonic spider, trying to grab it and smash it into Morrigan. But it was too fast for the big man, and he could not get a firm grip on its smooth carapace.
Sioc was writhing on the floor in agony, flames gouting from his mouth between his anguished cries. Storm was still lying face down on the ground, legs and arms twisted behind and above him at unnatural angles, screaming in agony as Morrigan’s horrific magic continued to fracture his bones, cracking his ribs and threatening to break his neck and shatter his spine.
Observing his agony, Cothu slowly bent down toward Storm and touched him with a twig-like finger. The sorcerer felt a strange power flow into him, from Cothu but also from the ground beneath him. It seemed to combat the Black Queen’s magic, the power of the earth itself strengthening his spine and resisting the incredible force of the Badb’s sorcery. He remained in terrible agony, but the pain began to slowly ease as the vitality of the living world seeped into his body.
With the two dragonborn down and Sophia behind cover, Morrigan pushed herself back to her feet, her gaze alighting on Tector, the nearest threat. Palm upwards, she flicked the fingers of her left hand at him. Spikes burst from his bones and erupted painfully through his skin, leaving him severely debilitated.
The Witch glanced around the battlefield, then raised her voice. “You can hide from me, little enchantress, but I can still feel you.” Suddenly Sophia’s stomach turned, and began to cramp. It felt as though something was alive within her stomach, eating her from within! She doubled over, then fell to her knees, hands going to her midriff. In seconds she began to vomit, and was horrified to see that she was puking black spiders! They had bright crimson marks on their abdomens, and crawled over her, nipping at her with poisonous bites. Although the spiders were inside the protective aura of her Solstice Amulet, Hakan’s shimmering blue stoneskin enchantment prevented many of their bites from piercing her skin, perhaps saving her life.
The group had not noticed, in the heat of battle, but the megaliths at each point of the compass in the circle of stones had begun to glow. As the light became blinding in intensity, it caught Tector’s attention, and he saw a figure emerge from the northernmost standing stone. Clad in ancient mithril armour, Gwydion, Lord of Annwyn, looked very different to the forest-garbed ranger they had first met a few days before.
Gwydion’s voice, clear as a bell, cut through the screams of Morrigan’s victims. “Welcome to my realm, Queen of Darkness. To what do we owe the pleasure of your grace?”
The Black Queen whirled round to face the elf lord. “Do not concern yourself with these wretches,” she snarled.
“These three companions are my guests, Stormcrow” replied Gwydion with a half-smile. “As a host, I am duty bound to offer them my protection.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Morrigan snapped in response. “We stand in Domhan Dorchadas, not Annwyn. And this is not your quarrel, golden one.”
“You should not have come here, Badb,” said Gwydion quietly, an edge of menace entering his tone as his hand went to the hilt of his sword.
As he locked eyes with the Black Queen, his fingers closing on the grip of his blade, there was a tremble in the fabric of reality. To the companions, time seemed to stand still, and everything around them happened in an instant.
Gwydion drew his blade and surged forward. Morrigan whirled into action, chanting and moving impossibly fast. She spoke a word of arcane power, and a thick shadowy whip materialised in her hand, transforming instantly into a huge black snake. It lashed out at Gywdion as he sprinted lightly across the sparse grass, its jaws wide open and fangs dripping black venom, striking at his neck. With equally impossible speed, the elf lord sidestepped and, in a single motion, swept his shimmering blade upward to decapitate the snake with a single blow, slicing its head clean off. As part of the same movement he span away, calling “Brea, get them to safety!” as he sprinted across the sparse grass, closing on the Black Queen.
At the same time, Derriol charged in from Morrigan’s right. She wore a fine coat of mithril chainmail that glittered with diamond dust as it caught the light, and held a slender elven blade in her right hand. She leaped impossibly high into the air, somersaulting head over heels, gesturing with her left hand in mid-flight. A bolt of freezing cold blasted out toward the Badb, who threw up her left hand, conjuring a shield of raging flame. The freezing bolt struck the shield, and the two sorceries exploded in a maelstrom of fire and ice. Derriol continued her somersault, over the top of the maelstrom, her curved mithril blade held in both hands above her head. It burst into violet flame as she descended, an overhead blow arcing down at the Black Queen’s head. Lighting fast, Morrigan jerked her trident upwards in the nick of time, catching the flaming sword between its tines with such force that the blade shattered into glowing hot fragments. Derriol landed lightly on her feet and span away.
To Morrigan’s left, Ffreath had started chanting the moment she arrived, arms raised above her head, and the sky above the stone circle was roiling with dark clouds. Suddenly, a deafening thunderclap sounded above their heads, and a huge stroke of lightning arced down at the Witch. She looked up as it descended, gesturing with her trident, and it changed course by a few feet, slamming into Tector! He was blasted to the ground, his limbs trembling from the shock, but the magic of his Key of Binding provided some protection from the electrical energy and he stayed conscious. The dragonknight groaned, pushing himself unsteadily to his feet.
Brea ran lightly over to the still form of Sioc, who had collapsed into unconsciousness, his body still steaming from the terrible heat Morrigan had conjured within him. Dropping to her knees, she poured healing into the prone dragonborn. She turned her head and shouted to Tector and Sophia. “To me! Rally to me!!”
Heeding her command, Sophia dodged out from behind the protective cover of the monolith and sprinted across to the elven healer. Even as she ran, the steam pouring off Sioc’s body slowed and stopped. Close by, Cothu was still bent over the writhing form of Storm, and Sophia stopped next to them. Tector leaped away from the monstrous spider, pain rippling through him as the bone spikes tore further through his skin, and stumbled across to the small group around Brea.
Meanwhile, Gwydion sprang forward, slashing at Morrigan with his glittering blade. She parried with her trident, but Derriol engaged her from the side, slashing with a blade of pure violet flame that curved from her fingertips. On the edge of the standing stones, Ffreath was still chanting, her hands moving in a circle above her head. Thunder shook the ground once more, accompanied by another huge lightning bolt that crashed into the monstrous spider. It was flipped into the air and landed hard, its eight legs twitching from the shock.
Brea removed her hands from Sioc’s chest and looked around at the companions. “Come here. Touch me.”
Sophia and Cothu joined forces to lift Storm. He nearly passed out from the pain of being lifted, but they managed to carry him the short distance to Brea. She placed one hand on his scaled brow, and took Sioc’s taloned hand with the other. Sophia and Cothu moved behind her, each placing a hand on one of her shoulders. Tector limped the last few agonising feet and reached out a hand, touching her arm.
Suddenly the companions felt their bodies begin to change, and could sense that something very strange was happening. They could feel their bones shrinking and shifting, their bodies getting smaller and smaller, their hearts beating faster and faster. In seconds they were tiny, their forms shifted into those of graceful swallows. One of them, a bird with Brea’s striking blue eyes, chirped loudly and flew into the air, circling the others. Each of them quickly followed, flying on instinct, their own minds almost gone, as if only a fragment of their own consciousness remained, compelled by the primal avian urge to follow the flock. They flew quickly out of the standing stones, following Brea to the east. The last thing they heard from the circle of ancient stones behind them was the concussive blast of a massive explosion. None of them looked back.