Staff of Winter, Part Six - Cothu
After an exhausted yet broken night’s sleep, the companions ate a breakfast of dried meat and hard bread, and wet their dry throats with water from the Brutensten waterskins. After praying, Tector called down the Blessing of the Lord, bathing all of them in its golden healing light and salving their wounds.
Egil stretched his massive arms. “Thanks fer the blessin’, lad,” he said to Tector. “That’s eased some o’ these bloody wounds. Shall we get ye tae yon hill, afore we take oor leave?” The companions agreed, and they broke camp, setting off across the broken landscape as the sun rose, climbing above the jagged rocks around them and into the smog-filled sky.
The Brutensten again led the group on the smoothest route through the landscape, and by the time the sun had climbed high into the sky and was beginning to burn through the miasma above them, they had reached the foot of the hill. Atop it, they could see a jagged ring of standing stones, standing in silhouette against the sky.
Einar looked at the three friends and swung the leather pack from his back. “Alreet. I reckon ye held up your side o’ the bargain, now we got ye to yer hill, we held up oor side o’ the bargain. I ken ye dunna ha’ any food or water, so ye’ll have mine. I’ll share wi’ me brothers here. Keep ye alive at least, gi’ ye a chance of getting back from here.”
The companions thanked him profusely. Einar just grunted in return, and Egil broke the silence. “It’s been a privilege and an honour travelling wi’ ye folk. Ye’ll gae doon in legend in the annals of the Brutensten clan, an’ if ye ever find yerself in oor lands an’ in need of aid, ye shall have it.”
With that, the Brutensten champions embraced each of the companions in turn. “Fare ye well. May the Aesir smile upon ye!” called Torben, as they marched back into the jagged landscape.
After some hesitation, Storm took to the air, flying over the hill as his friends began the steep climb to the top. Storm noted that the summit was unnaturally flat, with a sparse covering of tough grass. A ring of well-spaced stones stood in a circle, a few feet in from the edge of the flattened area, enclosing most of the summit within its circumference.
Tector and Sophia reached the top of their climb and paused for a few moments. Hesitant to enter the stone circle, they began to walk around the edge of summit, outside the ring. Flying above, Storm felt the presence of powerful magic atop the hill. Probing further, he was able to distinguish two distinct sources of enchantment. One emanated from the standing stones, and was similar in nature and in strength to the magic the dragonborn had experienced with other standing stones such as those in Uaine Dachaig. The other was somehow more distant, almost buried: traces of incredibly powerful magic, tinged with the life and vitality of nature, yet somehow linked to the enchantment of the stones.
Storm landed among the megaliths and walked over to stand before one of them, placing his clawed hand upon it. He felt the magical energy vibrating within it, and sensed enchanted threads extending from it, connecting to the earth, and through that to the whole of Annwyn. He sensed traceries reaching out into other realms beyond, and was reminded of Myrddin’s exposition on the Otherlands and their connections to the Earth and one another.
Having walked the perimeter of the stones, Sophia stepped within, and extended her mind, attempting to find Crann na Beatha. She felt strands of life somehow entwined with the magic of the stones, and sensed that, if she was worthy, she might be able to use those strands to ‘pull’ the life-force from beneath the land.
As he probed further through his connection with the stones, Storm sensed that there were different ways of using their magic in addition to the familiar power of transportation. He explored the threads of enchantment, focusing on the magic of life, but was unable to isolate and follow it.
Sophia joined the search, focusing on the power of nature in an attempt to find Crann na Beatha. She sensed that her power alone was insufficient but that, united with her friends, she might be successful in using the magic of the stones to pull one of the enchanted threads linked to the Tree of Life. She called them to her, explaining her plan, and the companions linked hands, pooling their power to draw the thread of life magic toward them.
They made a huge effort, locked in concentration for long minutes, trying to focus on and draw through the life magic of the Tree. But it was not enough. Exhausted by the mental strain, the companions stopped to think about their approach. Sophia suggested that they use the power of their Solstice Stones to enhance their enchantments, and her friends readily agreed. Each of them drew on their own strength, channelling their magic through their Solstice Stones, and sensed an incredible power pulsing through them.
Whereas previously they were too weak to take hold of the thread, with the power of the Solstice Stones they were able to grasp it tightly. Slowly, painfully, they used this immense power to drag the thread toward them. As they did so, they felt some kind of bond begin to form between themselves and the life-force they were drawing on, as if they had passed some kind of test and proved themselves to be worthy.
Very slowly, in the dead centre of the standing stones, the earth began to move. The companions watched for long minutes as a rounded mound, around six feet long and three feet wide, gradually began to form. Lush grass sprouted from it, as if life were bursting from within.
As they watched the mound grow, both Sophia and Storm caught a flicker of flame in their peripheral vision. They turned, and saw a tough-looking danagrim emerging onto the summit of the hill. He was holding a greataxe that blazed with fire, and was accompanied by a massive three-headed ebony black hound which had flames spewing from its eyes and roaring from its three slavering maws.
Sophia hesitated, and the danagrim raised his greataxe, pointing it at the group as the flames engulfing its twin-headed blade intensified. Sensing danger, the enchantress quickly reached out, manipulating the minds of the two newcomers and attempting to put them to sleep. But her spell was rushed, and she did not have time to focus her power properly. Both blinked, and reeled a little, but neither was fully affected by the enchantment. The hound growled and moved forward sluggishly.
Storm took to the air once more, snapping off a hurried lightning orb that fizzed wide of the danagrim. The flames from his greataxe surged toward the group, and a huge fireball exploded in their midst. Sophia managed to throw herself behind Tector, shielding herself from the worst of the blast, but her friends both took the full brunt of the flames.
Ignoring the stench of his own scorched flesh, and gritting his teeth against the pain, Tector uttered a prayer and fired his crossbow at the advancing hound. The bolt slammed home, lodging in its side. Sophia moved forward, channelling her sorcery, targeting the danagrim’s flaming greataxe and attempting to dispel its magic. To her chagrin, the enchantment went awry, dispelling the enervating effect she had previously placed on her sturdy foe rather than the magic of his axe!
Circling in the sky above, Storm launched draconic lightning which swooped down on the danagrim. His target noticed the incoming attack and tried to lunge aside, but the lightning dragon banked, tracking his movement and striking his shoulder. Lightning crackled across his armour, and the hair of his beard went rigid with shock.
The huge hellhound bounded toward Tector, its flaming jaws snapping at him. Despite the Dragonknight’s valiant defence, he was bitten three times. He was never more grateful for the protection of his mithril armour, which surely saved his life, and despite being horribly wounded he somehow stayed on his feet.
Behind the hound, the danagrim stepped back, beginning a low, guttural chant and holding out his blazing axe. The ground in front of him began to burn with heat, glowing from within, the rock quickly melting, writhing and rising up.
Barely able to stand, much less swing his weapon, Tector activated his Brooch of Mithras and felt its steady trickle of healing magic begin to flow into his ravaged body. As the strength returned to his arms, he evoked holy radiance on his blade and slashed at the fiery hound, slicing deep into its side.
Sophia looked on as, behind the hound, a magma elemental formed from the molten rock, surging upright and standing more than ten feet in height.
Worried about Tector, and thinking quickly how to counter this new threat, the enchantress reached out with her mind, urging the hound to attack the elemental. She was distressed to find that her magic failed, the hound’s consciousness perhaps too alien for her to understand and influence.
Seeing the elemental begin to move toward Sophia, Storm swooped above it, opening his jaws and unleashing a torrent of freezing breath which engulfed the top half of the creature. In many places the glowing magma instantly cooled and darkened, and as the elemental moved this newly-formed rock cracked and broke. The dragonborn flew on, banking sharply and hurling a lightning orb sideways at the same target, the impact smashing away some of the newly-formed rock.
The hound snapped at Tector again, the jaws of two of its heads clamping down, one on his right leg, the other on his left arm. Mithril scales punctured his flesh and blood began to flow from fresh wounds. He staggered, but somehow managed to stay on his feet. Seeing the big warrior falter, the danagrim hefted his flaming greataxe in both hands and advanced into the circle of standing stones.
Circling round once again, Storm noticed the standing stones begin to blur, and felt the transportation enchantment of the stones begin to operate. Something was happening! As he watched, the air at the centre of the stone circle, close to Sophia, began to coalesce into a tall, gaunt figure, clad in a white hooded cloak. Storm immediately recognised the distinctive appearance of Sioc!
Glancing around, the newly-arrived ice sorcerer quickly took stock of the situation. Focusing on the advancing magma elemental, he extended his arm before emphatically clenching his fist. A ball of ice coalesced in the air and immediately exploded in a storm of freezing shards. All three enemy combatants were caught in the blast, but the elemental and the hound were most badly affected, ice shards piercing them in multiple places. The danagrim, a little further away from the epicentre of the blast, shielded his face and avoided the worst of it.
Beside Sioc, another figure emerged from the shimmering air, a rugged danagrim wearing battered armour and wielding twin axes.
He looked around, taking in his surroundings and immediately focusing on the other dangrim. “Betrayer!!” he bellowed, followed by a stream of curses.
“I’ll ‘ave ya now, ya guts are mine!” he continued, charging forward. He sought to engage the target of his fury, but the magma elemental moved across to intercept him. He slashed at it with his twin hatchets, and one of them smashed a chunk of solidifying rock from its side.
Tector was grateful for the continuing flow of healing power from his Brooch of Mithras, and slashed at the hound again, but his strike was weak and slow. Sophia focused on their danagrim foe, projecting an overwhelming vision into his mind: a host of danagrim surrounding him, shouting “We have you now, traitor!” He cried out in anguish, looking around frantically and swiping with his axe at his illusory tormentors, momentarily oblivious to his real foes.
The magma elemental struck at the raging danagrim, its massive flaming fists swinging down. One hammered into his shoulder, spinning him, and the other smashed into his side, buckling his armour. He was knocked to the ground, bellowing in pain, but showed amazing agility to roll quickly back into a fighting position, crouched with his axes ready to attack.
Still flying above the fray, Storm circled behind the danagrim, who was still failing at unseen enemies, and unleashed three ice javelins at his back. All of them slammed home, piercing through the armour at his leg, shoulder and back and smashing him to the ground.
The hound circled Tector, biting him again and again, but somehow the dragonknight refused to fall. Behind them, the danagrim pushed himself agonisingly to his feet, blood flowing from triple wounds as the ice javlins melted away. Grasping his greataxe vertically in both hands, he raised his arms above his head and let out a guttural cry of “Flammasmede!”
The fire on the blade of his axe erupted out and downward, enveloping him in a pillar of roaring flame. For a moment the companions saw his face through the red-orange glow, and he looked straight at Storm. “The Black Queen will have her revenge on you!” he snarled, before the fire engulfed him utterly and then vanished, leaving nothing more than a scorch mark on the ground.
The remaining danagrim let out a frustrated roar. “Hagen, ya coward!!” he screamed. While his companion raged, Sioc walked forward, placed his hands on his chest and then moved them away from his body, extending his fingers toward their remaining foes. As his spell took effect, both the elemental and the hound shuddered. The hound’s flames dimmed, while most of the visible magma of the elemental immediately solidified into rock. It juddered to a halt for a moment, before forcing itself into motion once more, each movement breaking apart its solidified skin and sending chunks of broken stone tumbling to the ground.
The berserking danagrim struck at the magma elemental again, one hatchet cleaving deep into its neck and the other smashing its head from its shoulders. Its rapidly solidifying body remained, motionless, its dark stone feet rooted to the ground. Nearby, Tector put the last of his strength into a brutal overhead swing, opening a terrible rent in the hound’s side. Seeing her former bodyguard stagger, Sophia rushed up behind him and channelled healing into his burned and bloody body.
Storm circled above and behind the hound again, sending a thunderbolt crashing into its back, right at the point where the Dragonknight’s axe had cleaved an earlier wound, and the impact snapped its spine, driving it to the ground.
The raging danagrim sprinted past the silent form of the elemental, over to the blackened circle his compatriot had left behind when he disappeared in a column of flame. Finding no trace of his foe, he began to smash his hatchets into the scorched earth in a berserk fury, swearing at the top of his voice.
Sioc walked across the sparse grass to Sophia and Tector. “Well met,” he said, warmly. “Please, forgive my companion. This is Einar, of the Stålsmede, the Steelforge clan. The danagrim with the flaming axe is his elder brother, Hagen, who now calls himself Flameforge. He betrayed their clan to Morrigan, in return for great power. I am glad we were able to get here in time to aid you.”
Storm landed nearby, and the companions exchanged warm greetings with the dragonborn they had liberated from Morrigan’s fell sorcery. Meanwhile, Tector turned his attention to the mound that had begun to form before they were attacked. While the battle raged, a twig had sprouted from the centre of the mound. It was still growing, rapidly enough to be visible to the naked eye. As the group watched it grow, Einar eventually came stomping over to Sioc.
“We should give chase, get after him,” the warrior growled.
“I am sorry my friend,” replied the dragonborn. “We have no way of knowing where Hagen has gone, and we might not be able to follow, even if we did.”
The danagrim let out a frustrated growl and stomped off around the stone circle again, muttering to himself.
The twig continued to grow from the centre of the mound, and the companions began to realise that something was pushing up from within the mound. The turf began to part and be pushed aside, and a gnarled, branch-like protrusion emerged. Gradually the whole mound erupted upwards, in slow-motion, as a tree-like humanoid figure stood and cast off the earth and turf covering it.
“Hello,” said Storm.
The figure turned toward the sound of the dragonborn’s voice and blinked. It swayed, as if in the wind, and its eyes met Storm’s, staring at him for long moments.
“Can you walk?” asked the dragonborn.
“Er . . .well . . . I think so,” replied the figure in a hesitant, female voice. The companions noted that her words did not emerge from her mouth but sounded directly in their minds. She tentatively lifted one branch-like leg before taking a few steps, shaking the earth from her gnarled feet. “Yes. I can walk,” she said.
“Are you the Tree of Life?” inquired Storm, wasting no time with niceties.
The figure seemed confused, glancing around, unsure. “Er . . . I don’t know. I am named Cothu. I . . . where am I?”
“You appeared to sprout from the ground after we linked with the standing stones around us and tried to summon Crann na Beatha,” replied Storm.
Cothu blinked slowly. “Who are you?” she asked.
“Oh, we came here to find the Tree of Life so that we can break some magical defences, recover a powerful artefact, and defeat some evil people,” answered the dragonborn.
“Evil people? What evil people?”
“The Witches. Have you heard of them?” said Storm
Cothu seemed confused, so the companions began to tell her about the Witches and the threat they posed. Tector explained that they turned life to death, and Storm gave the example that if he died, they could bring him back as a mindless dead slave.
“You fight this evil? Why” asked Cothu.
“We believe in life, not death,” replied Storm. “Sometimes, those who want to destroy life must be sacrificed so that we may save thousands more.”
“It is good, to help life,” said Cothu, a note of gentle determination entering in her voice. “I do not know how I can help you, but I will try.”