The Stones of Ard Tursa
Over the next few weeks, the Minster slowly recovered from the attack. Several novices and three Templars had been killed, and the ecclesiastical community was in mourning. The Archbishop himself presided at the funerals, and Baron de Percy sent a number of men-at-arms to bolster the guard around the Minster precinct. The wounded were treated in the Minster infirmary, with the worst cases transferred to Clementhorpe Nunnery and the personal care of Mother Superior Constance.
Sophia contributed her healing skills to the efforts of the Minster priests in the infirmary, and also restored the vitality of her friends. The outrageous attack on the largest house of God in the North had shaken the whole city, and the mood was one of caution and concern. The streets were far less busy than usual, and people were sombre. Storm kept to the Minster precinct, and spent most of his time in Lector Joseph’s library, while Tector barely left Sophia’s side as she tended the wounded and went about her duties at the Castle.
During this time, each of the companions began to have trouble sleeping. At first they put this down to the unsettling effect of the attack on the Minster and the undead horrors they had witnessed. But gradually their broken sleep took on a more distinct character. Each of them began to experience strange dreams, of bitter cold and endless passageways, and a sense of danger. Gradually, time wore on, this developed into an uneasy feeling that their Vesuvian friend Manzio was in danger.
The three friends discussed their dreams, and given the common experience they all shared, they were convinced that the danger was real and they should take it seriously. The dreams became more vivid as the days passed, and it seemed clear to them that Manzio was being hunted, deep beneath the ground, and they could sense his fear as he fled from the unseen danger.
At first the companions had no idea where Manzio might be, and felt powerless to aid him, but as time went on their dreams evolved, and began to reveal visions of ancient standing stones. They felt a growing compulsion to travel north, back into the elven forests where they had captured Damien of Orleans. Sophia was quick to remind them of their vow never to return to those lands, but the sense that they needed to act became more and more intense until the friends could think of little else.
Their dreams changed in nature again, and each night, as they slept, the three friends rode north, across the Riccal Bridge and through the elven forest, up onto the wooded highlands of the moors, before ascending a hill topped with a circle of imposing standing stones. They felt the path calling to them, the stones drawing them like a beacon. However, given their positions and responsibilities in York, they could not simply leave the city.
The companions therefore sought an audience with the Archbishop, and explained that, through sorceries and visions, they had determined that Manzio was in danger on his mission to Scotia and requested leave to aid him. The Archbishop was still intent on shoring up the defences of the Minster, and once this was complete he intended to send the companions to investigate how the undead had penetrated the crypt and where they had come from.
However, he trusted the dragonborn and was concerned for his Vesuvian agent, having received no word from him for some time. He therefore agreed to send the group north to investigate, petitioning Baron de Percy to allow Lady Sophia and Tector to accompany Storm on his journey. The Baron agreed, and the companions set off to the north on horseback the following morning.
They set a good pace in the fresh spring air, and late in the day passed over Riccal bridge, where the snow troll had accosted them a few months before. Pressing on, they rode until night fell and then made camp on raised ground a few yards from the road.
Tector had the middle watch, and was yawning with tiredness just after the midpoint of the night when he noticed movement from the direction of the road. Standing, he saw a pair of pale, unnatural glowing eyes moving toward him, and caught the glint of moonlight on steel as the shadowy figure advanced, brandishing a slender greatsword.
The big warrior shouted a warning to his friends as he grabbed his greataxe. The urgency in his voice woke them instantly and they sprang up, facing the menacing figure as it advanced upon them. Suddenly it surged forward, blade slashing out at Tector with lightning speed. The big warrior felt a sickening energy wash over him as his opponent closed, and battled was joined.
Tector was shocked by the speed of his assailant, its five-foot blade slicing through his armour with pinpoint accuracy and drawing blood in multiple places as they circled. The big man unleashed great swings of his greataxe in return, but the figure was able to parry or dodge many of them. When he did strike home, the blade of his axe sank into the shadowy darkness of his enemy’s form, biting into something solid within. At the same time, he was weakened from the debilitating shadow aura of his foe, which seemed to suck the life from his flesh.
As the bull-helmed warrior and the wraith traded blows, Storm and Sophia aimed carefully, striking their attacker with lightning orbs and arrows. Suddenly, Storm felt a blinding pain in his back. Screaming in pain he stumbled forward, before whirling around to see his blood dripping from the dagger of a goblin assassin!
Severely weakened, Storm evoked his crackling lightning claws and slashed at the goblin, tearing its skin with the shocking blades. The green-skinned creature shrank away, readying twin daggers for another assault, and the dragonborn realised that he had felt the acid-coated blade of this foe before, when the Sea Horse had been attacked by goblin pirates on their return from France!
From slightly behind the dragonborn, Sophia skewered the goblin with an arrow, and the two friends combined to fell the assassin with arrows and spells before it could kill Storm, who was sorely wounded.
They wheeled round to see Tector stumbling under a barrage of precise strikes from the swordwraith, managing to parry a few but unable to cope with the blinding speed of his opponent. The yellow glow of its eyes had dimmed somewhat, and they darkened still further when Storm unleashed three Ice Javelins which struck deep into its shadowy form.
Sophia struck it with another arrow and Tector, who owed his life to the healing power of his Brooch of Mithras, unleashed everything he had in a massive overhand strike which cleaved the wraith’s helm in twain. It buckled inward, as if under huge pressure, and the shadowy form seemed to dissipate. The crushed and cleaved helm fell to the ground with a clang, but the razor-sharp greatsword hung in the air, upright, suspended for a long moment.
Tector and Storm exchanged glances, curious whether the weapon was magical, and Tector was about to grasp its hilt when it suddenly exploded! Shards of razor-sharp steel peppered the three friends, and both Tector and Storm, already badly wounded, collapsed from pain and blood-loss.
Sophia tended to them, channelling her healing power to ease their wounds and stop the flow of blood. Having recovered some of their strength, they gathered the shards of the swordwraith’s blade and the assassin’s daggers and wrapped them in cloth. They checked the surrounding area for any sign of further danger before bedding down for the rest of the night.
During their sleep they dreamed again of the standing stones, and woke the next day with a clear vision of the route ahead of them. They entered the elven forests with some trepidation, but although they often sensed that they were being watched, they did not see a soul and were not challenged.
They travelled through the woodlands for most of the day, arriving at the foot of a hill in the evening, just after the sun had set and climbing it as night fell. Atop the hill stood the standing stones that had appeared in their dreams, framed against a clear, star-studded sky.
Leaving their horses, the three friends advanced into the stone circle. A tall, bearded elf emerged from the other side of the stones, into the starlight, and walked toward them with a confident stride. He wore a fine woollen tunic and trousers of olive wool, a green cloak, and travel-stained leather boots. His cloak was pinned with a golden amulet, and he carried a tall staff of twisted oak. As he drew near, they could see him scrutinising them with piercing grey eyes.
“Well met,” he greeted them. “I am Myrddin, of the Druidic Circle of the Caeltir. I am an ally of Queen Dienwe, who I believe you know.” He glanced at Sophia. “I am also a friend of Manzio, and that is why you have been brought here.”
“We sensed he was in great danger,” said Sophia anxiously. “We came to help him.”
“Your friend is safe, for now,” replied the druid. “But he has a dangerous quest ahead of him, and for that he needs your aid. Will you come with me?”
The three companions all nodded their agreement. “Very well,” smiled Myrddin. “Link hands with me. I will invoke an ancient ritual which will activate the power of these stones, transporting us through time and space to the summit of Ben Nevis in Scotia, where our quest awaits!”
The friends linked hands, and the druid began to chant. Little more than a whisper at first, his voice slowly increased in volume. The companions noticed the bright stars in the sky above growing in intensity along with the druid’s words, and began to sense movement, as if the stones themselves were beginning to rotate around the four figures stood at their very centre.
As the light of the stars became more intense, each of the friends began to feel dizzy, head spinning as the sensation of movement increased and everything in their peripheral vision blurred. The gaps in the ring of stones seemed to glow with starlight, like illuminated portals, and the one slightly to the left of due north was particularly blinding in its brilliance. The sense of motion became unbearable and they closed their eyes, feeling as though they were being thrown forwards, toward the brightest portal. Then they were simply falling, at speed, through a whirling maelstrom of light, their stomachs lurching as they tumbled through time and space.