The Inquisition Takes Flight
Despite Edgar’s assertion, the rest of the group was not convinced that heading south was the best course, given Myrddin’s express instructions to them earlier in the day. Sophia in particular felt that they should follow the druid’s advice, and that the aid he was sending might not be able to find them if they went in the opposite direction. Storm however was gravely wounded from their encounter with the dark elves earlier in the day, and was determined that they should head for the safety of the city rather than press on deeper into the wild. In the end, Storm and Edgar convinced the lady and her bodyguard that the route south was the safest, but on condition that they did not travel on the road for fear that the sithe hunting them might also be on the trail.
Leaving the road, Storm and Sophia had to dismount from the remaining two horses and lead them through the difficult terrain. For the rest of the day, they pressed on south and east, through heavy woodland, making slow progress. As night fell, Edgar suggested that they must stop, as it would be all too easy for a horse to break its leg in a rabbit hole or go lame if they pressed on in the dark. Taking the advice of their guide, the companions made a cold camp, setting a double watch throughout a nervous night. Tector and Sophia took the first watch, but the big warrior became concerned about the injured Storm taking watch with Edgar and took his place. As it happened, the night passed uneventfully, and Storm felt the better for a full night’s rest, though the lack of sleep took its toll on Tector.
After a cold breakfast, Sophia channelled some of her healing power into Storm, restoring his vitality for the day ahead. Then the group discussed their next move, asking Edgar how long it would take to reach Durham. “Three days it took us on the outward journey,” he said, “but the return will take us six or seven if we keep to the woods and stay off the trails.”. This prompted a debate among the three friends, who wanted to get back to the safety of Durham as quickly as possible. Again taking Edgar’s advice, and hearing that it would make little difference in any event if their hunters had hounds to track them by scent, they decided to follow Tector’s suggestion, taking to the road during the day but hiding in the woods at night to reduce the advantage granted to the sithe by their ability to see in darkness.
Heading back onto the road, the group made much better progress without the constant battle through the undergrowth of the previous day. They had been walking for an hour or so, with Edgar and Tector leading and Sophia and Storm on the two horses behind, when they spotted a figure in the trees to the side of the trail ahead. A dark elf crouched by a tree, long black hair tied back, wearing a grey-green cloak over russet brown leggings and padded leather armour. Their attention was grabbed by the sithe’s striking composite bow, crafted from many layers of an unknown black wood. As they noticed him, the dark elf nocked two arrows and let both fly simultaneously, one at Tector and the other at Edgar. The big man responded with incredible reflexes [20 on his dodge roll!], sidestepping one arrow while pushing Edgar out of the path of the other.
Almost in the same movement as he let fly the arrows, the dark elf scout sprang to his feet, sprinting back into the woods while letting out a piercing bird-like cry. Somewhat stunned by the suddenness of the attack, the companions heard the baying of hounds in the distance. There was something unnatural about the sound though, like fingernails being scraped down a blackboard. Edgar paled, muttering, “those are like no hounds I have ever heard.”. Tector asked whether it would be best to head back into the woods, but Edgar felt their horses would be slowed more than the pursuing hounds. The gamekeeper mounted alongside Storm on Tector’s destrier and they nudged it into a trot behind Sophia on her white palfrey, with Tector jogging along at the rear.
Despite making the best pace they could, without enough horses it was impossible for the group to outrun the hounds, and fear began to course through their veins as they heard the unnatural baying draw closer and closer. After a few minutes, they heard a fearsome snarl close at hand, and Tector turned to see a huge grey mastiff with glowing green eyes bounding along the trail towards them, with two more visible some way behind.
With no chance of outrunning the demonic hound, Tector turned to face it just as it pounced, throwing himself aside as it launched itself through the air toward him. It landed behind him, near his mounted companions and Edgar’s sole remaining hound. As the other two mastiffs bounded towards them, Sophia narrowed her eyes and focused her will on one of them, forcing aside its alien consciousness and compelling it to swerve, sinking its fangs into its neighbour! As the two demon hounds went down in a flurry of teeth and claws, the companions noticed movement in the woods behind them, and an arrow flashed past them, igniting as it flew towards the two hounds, before slamming into one of them and exploding in a fireball the engulfed them both!
Sensing his chance, Tector turned and charged the first mastiff that had landed behind him, seeing that it had its teeth clamped around the neck of Edgar’s hound. Flinging the lifeless dog aside to meet the warrior’s charge, the demon hound took a massive overhand axe blow to the ribs, its green blood spilling out onto the road from a gaping wound. To the side of the road a tall, slender elf-maid with long blonde hair and green eyes stepped from the trees. She wore fine leather armour with a mithril breastplate, leather bracers inlaid with copper patterns, a deep burgundy skirt over grey leggings and a sky blue scarf. Gesturing with the fine yew longbow in her hand, she yelled ”run!” to the companions.
As her horse backed away, Sophia responded by firing an arrow at the hound Tector had just wounded. It flew wide, and the hound lunged at the big warrior, crunching its great jaws closed on his leg. His armour absorbed some of the force, but the leg was still badly bruised. Edgar began to turn Tector’s destrier to head north along the road, while Storm, sitting behind him in the saddle, conjured his whirlwind on the two hounds in the middle of the road. One managed to evade the maelstrom, but the other was flung aloft, slammed into a tree, and then crashed back to the ground, broken. Tector swung again at the first hound, but missed, and finally heeded the command of the elf-maid to run, activating his Brooch of Mithras to give him an adrenaline surge as he turned to flee. The elf-maid sank an arrow into the first hound as it sprang after him, slamming into its damaged side and sending it sprawling off the path, lifeless.
Sophia and Edgar both spurred their horses north along the road, looking back to see Tector sprinting after them. As they watched, the elf loosed another arrow at the last remaining hound. It sparkled with electricity and slammed home with a crack of thunder, dropping the last hound, twitching, to the floor. The elf turned on her heel and raced, fleet footed, after the companions, catching up with Tector in a few moments and urging the companions on.
After a few minutes, the boost from Tector’s brooch began to wane, and he could no longer keep up the blistering pace set by his mounted friends, though it did not seem to trouble the elf-maid. Seeing his steps become laboured, she called the group to a halt. “You must be Sophia, Tector, and Storm,” she announced. “Who is this?”. As they introduced Edgar as their guide, the elf inclined her head. “My name is Sian. They call me ‘the Swift’. Myrddin sent me. By the Dagda, why on earth are you here when Myrddin told you to keep heading northwest?!”.
As Tector and Sophia began to blame Storm for their departure from the druid’s instructions, Sian interrupted them. “We have no time for this. You are being hunted by Lahm Sealguire, a sithe Hand you cannot hope to stand against. I willl escort you to a druid grove a day’s journey from here, where you will be safe. But we cannot outrun the hunt with only two horses. We must get off the road and throw them off our trail. Go. That way!”. She gestured into the trees to the west, and reached for a skin of liquid in her pack, which she began to spray over the road as the group dismounted and moved into the woods.
As they hurried on, Sian caught up and Sophia asked what the liquid was. “Something which, I hope, will throw their hounds off our trail. But their scout, Jarleth, can follow most tracks, so it may not buy us much time.”. Heading deeper into the woods, the land began to drop away from them and they found themselves rushing down a steep ravine. Tector and Sophia were able to keep their feet, but Storm hit his head on a branch and fell, tumbling down the slope and sliding into some rocks at the bottom.
Helping him up, the companions hurried onward, following the rocky course of a stream. The uneven footing meant they still had to lead their horses, and they trotted along the stream bed at a steady run. Storm, finally seeing some clear sky through the trees above, leapt into the air and flew above his friends, looking out for pursuit but taking care to stay below the treetops. As they trotted along, Sian told them more of the two sithe Hands they faced. Lahm Scath, Hand Shadow, was the Hand they faced in Durham, one which was well known to Sian as she had faced them in the forests of Northumbria just a few weeks before. She mentioned that Scath was led by Uathach, a terrible enchantress taught by Morgause herself.
She explained that they were now being pursued by Lahm Sealguire, Hand of the Hunter, led by the demonologist Lorcan the Cruel, an apprentice of Morrigan. His demonic mastiffs were handled by Kazimir, a huge and brutal kurgen, and the Hand’s implacable pursuit would be led by its scout, Jarleth, a consummate tracker. She also mentioned the threats provided by Sealguire’s storm sorcerer, Geimrheadh, and its heroic young warrior, Roarc.
The group ran on, for hour after hour, occasionally slowing for people to catch their breath but not daring to stop for food or drink. Legs became heavier and heavier, and lungs began to burn, particularly for Storm and Sophia, who were not used to the terrain or to such extended physical exertion. Sophia stumbled, tripping on rocks in the stream and getting soaked before dragging herself onward. Soon after, Storm was forced from the sky as his wings began to cramp. They slogged on slowly, but Sian became increasingly anxious that their pace was not sufficient to stay ahead of the experienced hunters of Lahm Sealguire.
Eventually stopping the group, she looked at each in turn. “At this pace, we will not reach the grove before the hunters catch us. Our only choice is to change course and make for the town of Hexham. I may not be welcome there, but you can take refuge in the priory while I seek more aid.”. Storm remembered hearing of Hexham Priory during his education at York Minster, and recalled it was a powerful church and monastery, led for many years by Prior John. He also recalled that it lay outside the County Palatinate of Durham, and that Prior John had been appointed by the Archbishop of York.
After a short rest, they began to climb the steep bank of the ravine. As they did so, they heard once again the baying of hounds in the distance. Storm called upon the north wind, and the chill breeze lifted him and Sophia to the top of the steep slope while Tector, Edgar and Sian led the horses up it. Hurrying onwards, the trees began to thin as they moved higher, before they emerged completely from the treeline and pushed on up hill and down valley. Sophia mounted her palfrey again, and Edgar and Storm rode Tector’s destrier, while the big warrior and the elf-maid trotted alongside.
As they moved up another hill, they saw two hounds emerge from the treeline behind them and lope rapidly toward them. Sian stopped, cursing that they were too close. “I will drop back and ambush them, buy you some time. Take these,” she said, handing Tector three berries and a red-hued arrow. She quickly explained that the arrow would explode in a fireball on impact, and urged them to use it if the hounds closed on them. The berries would need to be eaten for beneficial effects: the blackberry would heal, the strawberry would provide a burst of speed, while the gooseberry would cause the consumer to vanish from sight. “Hexham is over the next hill from this one. Once in the Priory you should be safe, at least for a while. I will fetch reinforcements.”.
With that, Sian sprinted to a stand of trees to one side, while the group spurred their horses over the crest of the hill and into the valley beyond, Tector hurrying alongside them. Sian clearly had some success in slowing the pursuit, but as the group rushed up the opposite side of the valley, two hounds crested the hill and began to bound towards them, gaining fast. Sophia leaped from the saddle, nocking Sian’s red arrow in a fluid motion as she sought steady footing, and loosing at the hounds as they closed. With an incredible shot she fired the arrow straight down the throat of one hound, blasting it apart in a flaming explosion which also scorched its companion. [Tilly rolled a 20 on a 3d6+4 fireball!]
At the top of the hill just ahead of them, the sithe scout Jarleth popped up from behind some large rocks, loosing a black arrow at Sophia’s back. Storm called a warning and she ducked in the nick of time, the arrow going harmlessly over her head. Tector charged the remaining hound as it bounded up the hill, missing at first but catching it a solid blow with the return swing.
Fearing that their route to Hexham would be cut off, Storm unleashed his ice javelins at Jarleth. Two slammed home, while the second exploded alongside him, showering him with icy shrapnel. The dark elf screamed in pain and ducked back behind the rocks.
The remaining hound sprang at Tector, raking him with its claws and biting his shoulder. The warrior was rocked backwards, but managed to keep his feet under the onslaught. Jarleth peered through the rocks, firing an arrow which struck Sophia in the shoulder, hurting her quite badly. She responded by casting her slumber magic on him. The dark elf managed to shrug off the worst of the spell, but his speed was clearly affected by Sophia’s magic.
Noticing the huge kurgen Kazimir emerge from the trees with more hounds, Tector realised that they were in grave danger and decided he needed to finish things quickly. Invoking the power of his armour to imbue his axe blade with freezing cold, he unleashed his most brutal blow on the mastiff, separating its head from its shoulders. As its green ichor turned the grass black, the sithe warrior Roarc emerged to stand alongside the kurgen a few hundred years down the hill.
Seeing Jarleth still lurking in the rocks, which they would have to pass by to reach Hexham, Storm conjured his draconic lightning. It leaped high in the air before swooping down on the sithe scout, electrocuting him into unconsciousness. [Another 20 from the group!]. Storm then flew from horseback and over toward the rocks.
As Kasimir unleashed another hound to lope up the hill, Roarc ran rapidly forward, nocking a blue-fletched arrow and letting fly at Sophia. It crackled with electricity in mid-air before erupting into a stroke of lightning that slammed into the noble lady, wounding her badly. In response she mounted her palfrey unsteadily and spurred it over the crest of the hill, with Tector sprinting alongside and Edgar following at a gallop.
Landing next to the rocks, Storm grabbed Jarleth’s black composite bow from beside the scout’s prone form, before launching himself into the air once again and swooping down the hill after his companions. Seeing the walls of Hexham in the valley a mile away, Tector pulled himself up into the saddle of his destrier behind Edgar, and they galloped across the bridge over the Devil’s Water, heading for the safety of the Priory with Sophia alongside them and Storm flying above.