Siege of the New Castle Part 6
As the emerald cantrip, detonated high above and slowly began to fade, Achilleus the Golden commanded the remaining Danagrim, accompanied by Heraclief, Myrddin, de Bois and Baron Umfraville to move out, plunging almost immediately into tight subterranean tunnels of ancient origin.
It is not long before Myrddin catches the Holy Protector and wastes no time on pleasantries.
‘What is the plan Achilleus?’
Staring straight ahead, Myrddin at first thinks that Achilleus has not heard his question and is about to repeat himself when the Holy Protector shrugs.
‘We will defend the lodestone, as our oath dictates.’
His staff, reverberating on the stone floor with each stride, Myrddin glances back at Heraclief, the tall sorcerer raising an eye.
‘With all due respect Holy Protector, what is to be gained from this final stance? The bravery of the Danagrim cannot be questioned and the entire North is indebted to your resilience but we need you in the times to come. Not just you but Decius, Paulinas, Cole and any other veteran we can rescue from the New Castle.’
‘We swore a vow!’ retorted Achilleus. Not to one but two Emperors. Some of the Danagrim at this wall follow in the footsteps of their forefathers, from father to son down through the years. They gladly give their lives in defence of the sacred stone.’
For a moment, the two walk in silence, accompanied only by the sound of creaking armour and the clunk of Myrddin’s staff.
Finally, Myrddin responded.
‘Who were the two Emperor’s you swore allegiance too?’
‘Emperor Hadrian,’ stated Achilleus. ‘And Emperor Severus when we renewed those vows.’
‘Septimus Severus!’ exclaimed Myrddin. ‘Now that is a strange coincidence. Did you know that he was buried beneath the catacombs under York?
Achilleus. He is stirring from his long sleep!’
Achilleus stopped and turned to face the druid. His vibrant blue eyes boring into Myrddin as though attempting to divine the truth of the druid’s words.
‘It is true,’ confirmed Heraclief. ‘The Fellowship of Fate was in the very same catacombs not more than a few months ago. I sensed a great power.’
The Holy Protector looked from Myrddin to Heraclief.
‘I will think on what you have said but first we will do our best to defeat the enemy.’
The group made good progress through the extraordinary interior, whilst Heraclief noted Decius drop back to the very rear of the defenders, activating mechanisms, which triggered a series of magical barriers.
‘What are they?’ asked the curious Heraclief, as the third chromatic barrier is secured.
Decius, noticing Heraclief as though for the first time, says nothing until the two have once again set off behind the others.
‘The lodestone offers many protections. The White Queen will need to expend a great deal of energy just to reach us in the interior. The closer we draw to the source of power, the more ferocious the protections.’
‘Were they the same at Vindolanda? I remember the explosion when Ice and the dracolich detonated one.’
Decius turns to face Heraclief, now with genuine interest. ‘You witnessed this?’
‘Yes,’ responds the tall sorcerer. ‘With Myrddin and the other members of the Fellowship.’
‘Yes indeed, I fought with Storm, Sophia and Tector here at the New Castle not more than a few months ago, though I confess it feels like a lifetime. They fought with great bravery.’
There is a comfortable silence between the two as they catch the small group ahead.
‘I do not know.’ Decius turns once more to face Heraclief. ‘In answer to your question about the Vindolanda lodestone.’
The sorcerer nods.
‘Each of the three lodestones was protected by a century of Danagrim and sworn to secrecy. The entire Vindolanda century was stationed below ground and according to the Holy Protector, none survived the impact of the dragons.’
A huge explosion sounds in the distance back the way the group passed, shortly before. Almost immediately, ten Danagrim legionaries pass Decius and Heraclief taking up a protective cordon. Shields interlinked they begin to walk backwards keeping a watchful vigil on the tunnel ahead.
‘The pursuit,’ confirms Decius. ‘We must hurry.’
Twice more in relatively close succession, the sound of detonations carries to the group ahead.
Finally, the survivors reach their destination. The tunnel simply ends with a single, gigantic polished obsidian boulder blocking the way ahead. Decius makes his way to the front and whispers a single word in a powerful, ancient language.
The giant boulder begins to move inexorably to the right, with walls on either side reduced to the floor and the boulder sliding perfectly into a circular space cut meticulously into the rock face and just able to accommodate the size.
The remaining survivors, some evacuees of both Vindolanda and the New Castle enter the cave ahead. The sound of pursuit can be heard close at hand with booted feet.
‘Quickly, into the cave’ urges Achilleus.
Waiting to see if the boots are those of Danagrim legionaries, Decius, Cole and Achilleus delay as long as possible before the huge figure of the Jarl comes into view.
With a single word, Decius commands the boulder to return into position, the great stone moving silently and seamlessly.
‘Behold, Ulmus Minor, the Black Elm. Once known as the Iceni Elm. A rare gift from our Elven cousins.’ proclaimed Achilleus with obvious pride in his voice.
The interior of the cave is warm and verdant with lush green grass underfoot. At the heart of this gargantuan, clearly inter-dimensional space is a huge tree. The Elm majestically rises up over 100ft into the air, though the only light source comes from the very back of the cavern. On closer inspection, this light represents a bizarre mirror image but made from a window of liquid, rippling water, like a huge aquatic painting. The image of the Elm, like a great water colour reflects back as though just beyond the frame itself.
However, the survivors have little time to enjoy the idyll before another huge blow reverberates from the solid boulder behind them.
Without instruction, Paulinas begins working an elaborate spell within the hinges at exactly the point at which the huge boulder connects with the hillside through which the survivors entered the cave. The legionaries form up in orderly ranks behind, sharpening weapons, shields rested in the grass at their feet. Centre front of the phalanx, Mars and Cole stand chatting as though merely passing time on watch duty. From inside his armour, Cole takes a long swig from an ornate hip flask and then passes it to Mars, the two muscular Danagrim smiling in appreciation as the fiery whisky settles.
Behind the legionaries, de Bois and Umfraville embrace in a bear like hug, before turning to face the polished, seemingly immovable obsidian portal.
Decius has retreated to the great Elm tree and with him Achilleus. At first, Myrddin and Heraclief simply observe the others as they prepare for the final battle but then, his curiosity clearly piqued, Myrddin turns to approach the two Danagrim leaders, Heraclief close behind. Unbelievably, the tree is situated behind a trapdoor fashioned seamlessly into the earth. Decius releases the catch and is followed by the other three.
Descending a tight downward passage, with only the emerald light of Heraclief to illuminate the four, they descend via superbly crafted stone steps. Decius and Achilleus seem completely at ease in the darkened, subterranean environment and barely seem to need the light as they stride confidently ahead. The twisting passage then cuts back on itself in long, zig zag angles. The light from Heraclief and Myrddin reflects massive hieroglyphs brandished upon a perfectly smooth almost alien stone, possibly even metallic surface.
It is not long before they reach a flat passage and then a domed archway. Beyond, the four can see a small circular room. The air is stilted and a dust undisturbed, quite possibly in centuries provides a rustic ochre sheen to the chamber.
‘Is this a mausoleum?’ asks Heraclief.
A marble plinth is visible in the half light and rested upon it a figure, bearing what at first appears to be a much smaller version of the polished jet-black stone blocking the enemy from entering.
Decius beckons for the others to wait and walks forward.
‘The final guardian,’ says Decius in a barely audible voice. ’
The last of the three great lodestones’ echoes Achilleus, as though the two are reciting an ancient verse.
Achilleus turns and faces Myrddin. ’Do you recognise the last guardian Druid? There is a reason why this was always going to be the most difficult lodestone to fall. The reluctance of the White Queen is to some extent, understandable.
‘You may enter,’ commands Decius.
A little uncertainly, the Druid advances into the small, dusty circular chamber. He walks into the half-light and stands at the side of Decius. Looking down, he sees a bearded figure. The pale, spectral figure wears a silver helm, closely fitted to his head and in the silver light, inlaid with intricate matrices of Danagrim runes, much like those carved into the walls outside the chamber. The figure clutches a staff in his right hand, a circular globe in his left.
‘It is time!’ commands Achilleus from the archway. ‘The enemy has penetrated our defenses. She comes.’
Indeed, the sound of explosive detonations can be heard above ground as the battle commences.
Back in the chamber, Decius looks once again at Myrddin. He rests his hand on the lodestone, which flares, revealing twin sources of inner heat, as though two beating hearts lie within the stone.
‘Look into the eyes of the dragon and despair!’
The figure opens his eyes, which are ablaze with an inner fire.
Myrddin screams, clutching his head in pain.
‘What have you done to him,’ cries Heraclief, the emerald flame surrounding his body like a halo of retribution but Achilleus blocks the way.
‘Myrddin must face his past and become what he was, not what he is now.’
‘You speak in riddles,’ retorts Heraclief angrily.
Within the chamber, Myrddin is climbing to his feet, the figure resting on the plinth has been burnt to ash although the staff and helm remain. The stone is carefully cupped in the massive hands of Decius.
Uncertainly, Myrddin extends a hand and clasps the helm, slowly, inexorably placing it upon his head. Almost immediately, his eyes flare within an intense blood red.
‘The Helm of Taurus.’
Snatching his staff from the plinth, Myrddin makes for the entrance. This twisted, gnarled staff is made from Elm wood and is unremarkable save for two distinct features:
Atop, the wood is carved into a holding chamber, much like a talon, which houses a bright, glowing azure blue gemstone, shaped much like an egg. Also, the grip contains a set of Elven characters, which blaze with an emerald green light as Myrddin clutches the staff, one now in either hand.
Behind, Decius and Achilleus embrace.
‘You are the last guardian now, my old friend. Guard the lodestone well but if she makes it through, you know what to do.’
Led by Achilleus, with Heraclief still looking suspiciously at his radically altered friend, the three companions retrace their footsteps, the sound of battle heard clearly overhead. Bursting back above ground through the trap door entered earlier, they emerge just as a handful of legionaries make a heroic final stance. Dead bodies are scattered across blood stained grass. At the far side, the giant obsidian boulder has been smashed to pieces, with black rubble flung far and wide, further casting a stain on the pristine, lush grassland.
The terrifying apparition of Morgause, White Queen of Norway and Caithness, stands watching the melee with a resigned, almost melancholy expression. Next to her stands the half-elven archer, Ross Quilhaven. He calmly picks off Salinor cut off from the others with a jet-black arrow, which finds its target powering through metal and flesh, a flash of white light visible as the clearly magical weapon stills the defender.
Norwegian dead scatter the battlefield but clearly these are toughened veterans as the ratio is even. A handful remain on either side. The Jarl is surrounded by four. Two of the Nordic warriors are clearly twins, both fighting with twin axes and with exposed runes on chests. Both have short blonde hair and matching goatee beards although one has blue eyes, the other extremely unnerving black eyes. In the centre facing Cole and Paulinas, these two Norwegian Danagrim have clearly already exchanged several blows each, the blue eyed Northman bleeding heavily from a leg wound.
To the side, a Norse woman. Although sinewy and supple, she surprisingly favours a double handed weapon, which is dripping with blood. Her murderous gaze is fixed on Mars.
Finally, a heavily armoured figure, his face a bizarre hybridization of elven and araken features. Fighting with a huge broadsword, his hair swept back in thick wiry dreadlocks, the muscular figure eyes the enemy warily considering his next move.
Cole and Paulinas remain resolute with Mars having dropped back behind, his face a barely recognizable bloody mess and his left arm sporting a debilitating injury, hanging uselessly at his side and barely still attached to his shoulder.
With the grim faced Danagrim, de Bois and Umfraville, ashen and battered, remain. De Bois is barely able to stand whilst the Baron seems intent on attacking the Elven-Araken half-blood.
‘Rodel! I’ve waited many years to face you. A blood feud is not forgotten south of the border whilst you skulk and hide behind your Queen,’ shouts the Baron, pumping his old legs forward to engage in melee once again.
Back at the tree, Myrddin and Heraclief have only moments to take in the battlefield before the action resumes.
Paulinas is the quickest to react and despite his advancing years, successfully drives back the darker eyed twin with some deft placement of his gladius. However, the Viking is not slow to respond, a blackened tattoo flaring on his pectoral muscles before a coating of ice forms on the twin mithril axes with one and then a second finding their mark, punching great shards of ice into the tarnished and damaged armour worn by Paulinas.
Close at hand The Jarl bellows in fury as Cole ducks and dives beneath the lethal ice axe of his giant opponent. Cole manages to step inside the giant’s huge blow and strikes out with everything he still has remaining, opening a sizable cut in the Jarl’s exposed thigh.
Concentrating his efforts, the Jarl’s riposte is immediate, as a bolt of lightning slams from above as though summoned by the giant from the unseen stratosphere, smashing even the indomitable Cole to the ground. On his knees, remarkably, he is able to then parry what must surely have been a killing blow from the ice axe of the Jarl.
Heraclief, his eyes on Ross, considers his next move carefully. Not wishing to kill his old friend but determined to counter his powerful ranged abilities, Heraclief summons a fireball, the swirling emerald globe flashing between the warriors in front and then carefully detonated just to the left of Ross and not far from the White Queen. Morgause simply stands to the side, whilst the flames fail to touch her and our snuffed out with no more effort than a candle. Ross however, is set on fire, his attack disrupted whilst in panic, he concentrates on dousing the burning hot emerald fire aflame on his leather armour.
No sooner has Heraclief launched his fireball than Achilleus once again summons the white hot intensity of the Spear of Samson into his hand. With no more than a few strides run-up, he hurls the spear with superhuman strength toward the White Queen. The Queen’s slight smile changes to a look of horror as the weapon penetrates her defences for the second time in less than a day! Whilst not striking her directly, the white hot light seems to seep inside her force-field, the Queen gasping in pain before stepping to the side her gaze intent on the Holy Protector. However before she can react, Myrddin presses the slim advantage gained by Heraclief and Achilleus, summoning a blizzard of freezing cold ice and sleet, which blasts out toward the Queen and Ross. At first, the effect seems to have been centred incorrectly but as the druid’s amulet flashes with a glint of vibrant green energy, Myrddin concentrates on re-positioning the howling, icy gale. Having only just recovered from the emerald flames, the antithetical ice based attack has a huge impact on the half-elven ranger, driving him back towards the smashed remains of the obsidian boulder. Morgause grits her teeth against the freezing wind but is able to resist the worst of the impact before finally readying herself. In response, she simply disappears…
Back in the melee, de Bois is finally overcome by the blue-eyed twin. The younger, stronger man channels the energy of ice through his deadly, fast axes, a shard of ice deflecting from his blow and pinning the old Templar to the ground. In desperation he tries to parry the killing blow, successfully deflecting the first axe, but blindsided by the second, which smashes into his skull, a sickening rent of bones snapping before the knight is stilled.
Remarkably, given the debilitated state of Mars, the defenders are able to hold their own on the other flank, with Baron Umfraville and Rodel parrying blows and Mars refusing to yield ground to the female Viking warrior. The big Danagrim is covered in blood from his injured arm but still has enough strength to strike his blonde-haired assailant though the blow is unable to penetrate her breastplate.
Morgause reappears, just as the Danagrim centre begins to buckle. Not more than twenty feet from Myrddin and Morgause, she confidently begins to stride forward her eyes never moving from Achilleus. With a single word, the Holy Protector suddenly seems confused and slowly turns to begin walking back toward the tree entrance. Fearing the worst, Myrddin uses his solstice staff, the blue gemstone suddenly vibrant with light, which is pointed toward the advancing Queen. For a split second, she hesitates as though in discomfort, touching her stomach but simply exhales, expelling the druid’s spell, her breath sheer condensation despite the warm surroundings of the cave interior.
Behind Morgause, Heraclief uses his levitational powers, his left earring activated with a golden glint. Quickly he rises up into the air and summons one, two, three, four, five emerald missiles which blast outward toward the Queen but with a dismissive wave of her left hand, each detonates harmlessly on an unseen barrier surrounding her body.
The situation quickly deteriorates from bad to worse as both the Jarl and Black Eyes surge forward, the latter now free to flank his opponents. Only Paulinas and the Baron hold the line. Seeing the desperate situation, Mars steps inside the female Viking’s double handed blow, reaching out his left hand to grab hold of her hair. Shocked, the woman makes a fatal error by hesitating, which gives the big warrior just enough time to smash his axe upward, catching her unawares and ripping through her jugular nerve, blood spraying in an arc and catching the nearby Paulinas.
Cole, trying to stop the barreling run of the Jarl and still on one knee desperately slashes out at the giant’s bleeding leg and once again connects but a backhanded blow from the Jarl, catches him on the side of the head, metal and axe driving through his exposed flesh and killing him instantly. Mars throws himself in the Jarl’s path with a defiant grunt but the big warrior is spent and his clumsy blow is nonchalantly parried by the frost giant.
With the net closing fast, Myrddin summons nature itself to come to the aid of the beleaguered group. A thick entanglement of foliage and roots erupts from the ground scattering soil in a thick cloud of dust. Whilst unsuccessfully holding the White Queen in place, it does however slow her advance. Achilleus remains statuesque, stood just outside the trap, dazed and confused.
Heraclief, his fury at seeing Cole’s death directed toward the frost giant, unsheathes his wand of fire, firing a blazing, red hot bolt downward and into the exposed back of the Jarl. With a howl of pain and rage a blackened scorch mark appears before the giant catches the backtracking Mars with an enormous two handed blow, his axe flaring with a renewed double edge of ice. Unable to move his left arm, the blow severs the arm of Mars completely, the huge Danagrim finally crashing to the ground, his lifeblood spilled into the broken soil. However, the Jarl, off balance, is caught in the twisting, network of vines and enraged to find himself held rigid and vulnerable to attack.
The White Queen was now stood no more than 10 feet of Myrddin. Beside her, the muscular Achilleus stared into space a look of confusion still evident on his golden face.
‘So, you wear the Helm of Taurus once again. Merlin.’ The softly spoken Morgause had the trace of a north eastern Scottish brogue, a slight smile on her astonishingly beautiful and radiant face.
Myrddin, refusing to be engaged in conversation simply ignored the enchantress and instead concentrated solely on summoning his next spell.
‘Wait!’ commanded Morgause. ‘Enough bloodshed. I presume Decius now carries the lodestone? It is clear that you will fight to the very last and I recognise great bravery when I see it. I will call off the attack. You will tend to the dead bodies of your fallen brethren as will I.’
At first, there is stunned silence, Heraclief and Myrddin exchanging a glance of hope whilst the survivors on both sides, eye one another suspicioulsy.
‘Very well,’ nodded Myrddin, seizing the olive branch offered. ‘Then release the Holy Protector.’
The dead bodies of the fallen were quickly retrieved, Morgause and her group gathered in the doorway amidst the rubble of the shattered obsidian boulder.
Then as requested, with a snap of her fingers, the glazed look of Achilleus was gone, his eyes once again alert.
Likewise, Myrddin released the Jarl, with a wave of his hand the thick vegetation crumbling to dust.
‘What the hell happened?’ demanded the Danagrim leader.
As if in answer, the White Queen could not resist a parting shot.
‘Know that I chose to spare you. I am not like my sisters and have decency though you may not believe me. After all, Achilleus, you were at my mercy.’
Morgause then turned to face the druid, a slight smile radiating from her beautiful face. ‘It is good to have you back in the game Merlin. Your role as Dienwe’s pawn was not becoming for one of your stature. It was always more fun when you were a key player.’
With a word, the group vanished, leaving Achilleus to look on with disbelief.
Myrddin quickly called Heraclief and Achilleus together. ‘I have an idea for getting us out of here. I plan to use my solstice stone whilst calling upon the stone carried by Heraclief. The power of my stone is primarily devoted to summoning but I may well be capable of reversing the power. I think it is worth a try.’
Slowly, the battered and ragged group of survivors finished saying their goodbyes to the fallen whilst Achilleus went to find Decius. Gerald de Bois, Cole and Mars were laid under the great elm, the other dead figures respectfully, alongside.
Later, with Decius now returned to the group, the survivors of the New Castle stood together looking toward Myrddin.
‘All of you grasp my staff.’
Extending the staff in his right hand, Myrddin allowed the group to make contact with the twisted wood before concentrating his powers. Heraclief, stood to his left, did likewise attempting to channel energy capable of supporting the teleportation process.
At first nothing happened as Myrddin reached out his senses via the solstice stone seeking to find the Ley lines capable of transporting the group through space. Then, slowly, a vortex of energy began to rise up, gradually pulling each member of the group into a spinning centrifuge of chromatic light.
The last to enter Myrddin and Heraclief could feel the inevitable gravitational pull of the spell but at the last second both sensed a shift in their direction. For an instant, the Druid and sorcerer looked toward each other in shock and horror before they too were flung like pebbles into a roaring torrent of teleportive energy.