The Inquisition Heads North, Part Two - Hand of Shadow
Early on their fourth day of travel, the group finally arrived at the city of Durham, nestled in a bend in the river Weir, with the great cathedral and robust castle towering over all. Arriving at the gatehouse, they were clearly considered by the gate guards to be members of the elite given their horses and equipment, and were ushered inside the castle.
After waiting a few moments, they were welcomed by Guy de Bulmer, a knight in the service of the Bishop and apparently one of his administrators. They explained their mission, and Guy offered to arrange care for their horses, lodging in the castle, and a meeting with Mary of Stamford. While settling them in their lodgings within the castle he was taken aback to learn that one of his guests was none other than Lady Sophia de Percy, and his level of care and attention was immediately magnified several-fold.
Having eaten and washed following their long journey, the group received Mary of Stamford in their chambers. She was clearly grateful for their presence, and speaking with gentle authority she gave concise answers to their questions about the attack her knights had suffered. In addition to the details provided by the Archbishop, they learned that the horses had been spooked by a hulking presence in the woods by the path and, as the Templars struggled to control them, several were hit by a gout of acid. Simultaneously, a madness seemed to afflict one of her men, who attacked another with his sword, while a crossbow bolt slammed into a third.
Calling upon God’s holy power to protect her men, Mary grabbed the reins of the Carricks’ horses and wheeled them, charging back the way they had come. As the others broke free of the attack, one of her men inexplicably fled, screaming, into the woods (never to be seen again) while another, already suffering terrible acid burns, was felled from his horse by a crossbow bolt. Through it all, she never caught a glimpse of their attackers, though she did notice some unnatural patches of darkness in the trees.
Convinced that the attackers were dark elves, the group began discussing how they could combat them, and how to safely escort the Carricks south. Mary explained that the Bishop of Durham was refusing to allow her to remove the prisoners from Durham, on the basis that they were much safer in the dungeons of Durham Castle than on the road to York.
Mary seemed to see the merits of this position, but the group were less convinced, given their clear instructions from the Archbishop to bring the rebel leaders south. In response, Mary suggested that they discuss the matter with the Bishop’s Steward, Nicholas de Lacy. Leaving them with God’s blessing, Mary returned to the Cathedral. The group, during one of de Bulmer’s regular visits to check on their comfort, arranged an appointment with the Steward for the following day.
While waiting, the friends took the time to discuss their plans, Tector trained and both Sophia and Storm studied in the Cathedral library. Soon enough, they were escorted to the chambers of de Lacy by Sir Guy. Their discussion with the Steward was cordial, particularly given their Inquisitor rings and the presence of Lady Sophia. However, de Lacy was unable to agree their request to take the Carricks south, repeating the position that had been communicated to the group by Mary. The friends reassured the Steward that the prisoners would be safe in their custody, and reiterated the Archbishop’s command, but de Lacy was unmoved.
Returning to their quarters, the friends discussed the meeting with Durham’s Steward and became increasingly riled that he had refused them, particularly given their designation as Inquisitors and the fact that they represented the Archbishop and therefore outranked the Steward and his master the Bishop on this issue. They spoke again with Mary, who agreed with their analysis but suggested that it might be difficult to enforce their view in the Bishop’s own stronghold. The group resolved to press their case again, and a further audience with de Lacy was arranged the following day. That evening, Storm observed the positions of the sun and stars and noted that there were only three more days until the summer solstice.
The friends waited most of the following day to meet again with the Steward. Given her social rank and her inherent charm, Sophia was designated their official spokesperson. She explained to de Lacy that, as Inquisitors and representatives of the Archbishop, they outranked him and the Bishop and that they could remove the prisoners if they wished. Using her enchantments, she then tried to convince the Steward to cooperate with the Archbishop’s instructions. Ultimately, although de Lacy himself was persuaded, he did not have the authority to agree given the express orders of the Bishop. He did however sympathise with Sophia’s arguments and agreed to arrange a meeting with the Bishop himself the following day.
The group then decided to check on the prisoners. Making their way to the dungeon, they first encountered the (largely incomprehensible) castle gaoler, Otto, and then met the young Templar Knight William Hale. Sir William explained that the three Templars who had survived the ambush relatively unscathed – Mary, John of Strensall and himself – each took eight-hour shifts to ensure that the traitorous couple was always guarded by a Templar in addition to the gaoler and his men.
The three companions asked William about the prisoners, particularly Lady Carrick, and urged him to beware of her sorcerous powers. He assured them that she was kept gagged at all times and only the Templars had contact with her to take in food. Satisfied, the group asked to see the traitors.
Each cell door had a small window at head height, barred and covered with a sliding shutter of solid metal. The Templar slid this across and the group gazed on the Earl of Carrick for the first time.
Chained to the wall, weaponless and with his former finery in rags, he was nevertheless an intimidating presence. Storm attempted to question him, but Gilla Brighte would not even confirm his name. Instead he fixed the dragonborn with a gaze that burned with intense hatred, and delivered a chilling litany of threats to the group, promising among other things that his mistress would see their beating hearts torn from their bodies and eaten, their flesh burned from their bones, and their bones ground into dust. Storm faced the rebel down bravely, but his Templar chaperone felt the interview had gone on long enough and slammed the shutter closed.
Moving on, the group looked in on Lady Carrick. Despite being chained and gagged, she sat demurely on the wooden bench in her cell, still clad in her dark emerald robes. Looking over to the door, she raised a single eyebrow quizzically, and then fixed her gaze upon Tector. As she did so, the big warrior felt something tickling the edge of his consciousness. He was rapidly gripped by a desire to protect this poor, defenseless woman, and had a sudden urge to tear open the door and free her. Battling his emotions for a moment, Tector shook his head and pushed these feelings away. Noticing that something was not right with his friend, Storm slammed the shutter closed. The warrior assured them that he was fine, and they drew their inspection to a close, thanking William Hale for his assistance before retiring for the evening.
That night, Storm and Sophia were awoken by a sudden scream in the Cathedral Green, which their rooms overlooked. Quickly waking Tector to the sound of further screams, yells of warning, and shouts of “where’s FitzDolfin?”, they threw open the drapes to see what was happening, and were awe-struck by the scene that confronted them. On the Cathedral Green, men-at-arms, priests and servants ran, panicked, in all directions. Following the pointing arms of many down below, their gazes swept over the Cathedral, to the source of the terror. Atop the highest point, the central tower above the nave, reared a large dragon!
In the darkness its hide seemed black as pitch, with torchlight glinting from its scales. As they watched, its sinewy neck snaked downwards, and its jaws opened, spewing a great gout of liquid onto Cathedral Green below. Having seen enough, the group rushed from their chambers and through the castle. Battling against the press of people seeking refuge in the castle courtyard, they fought their way through the gatehouse and out onto the green.
Almost emptied of fleeing people, the green seemed like a vision of Hell. Bodies lay strewn, mainly on the north side of the green, while some crawled pitifully toward the gatehouse, still attempting escape.
Atop the Cathedral, the dragon reared again, letting out a great roar. As it did so, a beam of silver light lanced up toward it, from the other side of the great church building. It seemed to miss the dragon, but the friends quickly decided that their best course was to rush around the Cathedral, to join whoever was assaulting the wyrm. They took off at a run, skirting the green to the north side, and keeping to the cover of trees where possible.
As they closed on the Cathedral, Storm caught a flash of movement from the corner of his eye, a split second before a streak of liquid slapped into the side of his face. It immediately began to burn terribly, and the sorcerer realised he had been struck by acid!
Sophia and Tector, who were slightly behind Storm, saw that the missile had come from the trees to their right, and Tector noticed a small area of deep darkness just inside the trees, perhaps forty feet away. The group hesitated, staring at the patch of darkness, unsure how to respond. As they considered their next steps, another glob of acid streaked out from the darkness, striking Storm in the chest. The dragonborn collapsed in agony as the acid burned into his scales, and Sophia rushed over to ease his injuries while Tector stepped between his friends and the darkness, shielding them.
Suddenly, a sinister female voice spoke in Tector’s mind, whispering “Your death is upon you!” Terror gripped the warrior’s heart, and sensing he was in mortal danger he fled headlong for the safely of the gatehouse. Sophia responded by reaching into the darkness with her mind, trying to sense her enemies and use her newfound power to turn them against one another. Perhaps because she could not see her foes, or perhaps because they were simply too powerful, she was unsuccessful. Storm called up his whirlwind, conjuring it within the orb of darkness, and was satisfied to hear bodies thumping into trees and the screams of both a man and a woman.
As the dust settled, Storm’s mind was assaulted with a vision: he was suddenly stood atop Ben Nevis once again, with Ice wheeling in the sky above him. As he watched, the huge dragon banked and began to swoop toward the dragonborn. Terror gripped him as Ice opened his huge jaws and a blast of freezing shards exploded toward him. Storm desperately told himself that this was not real, that he was in Durham fighting alongside his friends. His strength of will prevailed, and he shrugged off the vision to find himself still stood in Cathedral Green.
At that moment, a faint cloud of acidic vapour coalesced around Sophia and Storm, and began to burn their eyes, noses and throats. Storm responded by launching himself into the air with his powerful wings, while Sophia ran from the cloud, following Tector toward the gatehouse. As the big warrior closed on the castle, he heard cries from within: “Help, they are freeing the prisoners!”
Shrugging off his fear, Tector turned and Sophia caught up with him. They looked back and saw Storm flying towards them. Behind him, a figure stepped out of the darkness. An old male dark elf advanced, with long white hair and gaunt, pale features, wearing a shadowy black greatcloak and carrying a slender mithril rapier with an elaborate golden hand-guard in his right hand, and a matching stiletto dagger in his left. Sophia reacted immediately, projecting her slumber magic into his mind, and he collapsed to the ground asleep! Tector then shot the dark elf with his crossbow, and his target promptly disappeared! Storm aimed a lightning orb at place he had last seen the sithe, but it did not hit anything.
The friends hesitated for a moment, before a shout from the gatehouse grabbed their attention: “Help! Assassins in the castle! Ware the Carricks!!” The group turned, seeing that the warning had come from a man-at-arms with a head wound and a terrible slash across his abdomen, who held himself upright on one of the gatehouse doors. As the companions ran through the gate toward the castle, Tector stopped, handing the soldier his vial of holy water. “This will heal you,” he told the man.
“God bless you sir!” exclaimed the wounded soldier as he fumbled with the stopper. Not waiting, Tector turned and hurtled after his friends.