The snow crunched under foot as Airmed skirted the balding woods along the edges of the devil’s ladder. Taking the main path would leave her too exposed and liable to be set upon by bandits or ne’er-do-wells. But Airmed was used to the woods and knew them fairly well and could remain unseen and unheard taking her own path along the devil’s ladder.
The woods were stark and bare of leaves, the trees reaching up at the sun that blackened their bones. A bleaching white sun hung wearily overhead.
The girl was without fear as she hummed to herself calmly to distract from the cold and reddening cheeks. But there was something there on the tip of her tongue, some strange feeling. A twig breaking under foot caused Airmed to notice the stale silence. The whistle of the wind, no birds chirped or hare’s called, just the winds breath sweeping down the mountain.
She turned fitfully and saw nothing and then in the trees there sat a black crow, it cawed at her and flew away.
An unusual sound followed something akin to a wounded animal howl, a scream from a human garbled up in a bloodcurdling roar.
The girl instinctually drew a small short sword from under her furs as if she had her hand on it already. Expecting something evil and blood hungry to be lurking in midday sun stalking her steps.
“Come out now” She said almost to herself. Her eyes filled with fear but also a fatal resolve.
She looked about herself and seeing only snow and trees and dead leaves she relaxed for a moment. But then the noise came again and she could follow it. She trudged through the snow dropping her mead and the other liquid to give chase to the strange sound.
The horrible noise lead her deeper into the forest below the mountain. The noise sounded clearer as the forest became more dense with black ash trees. It lead her to a snowy copse deep in the forest. The sun was still out but it hung low and there was little light from the grey sky that would penetrate the forest. The trees stretching up like blackened skeletal fingers at the dull slate sky.
In the bushes there was movement at it lead the frightened girl to a small hollow or burrow dug into the side of a hill. From the hole blazed two empty white eyes staring at her.
The sound of sea lapping at the shore awoke the once king.
Bres awakened on a beach but where and whence he came he did not know.
“Am I dead?” He said as he opened his eyes and saw only water and sodden brown sand under him.
Bres rose to his knees and looking at the strange ring on his finger it all came back to him.
“Babd” He cried as he clawed at the wet sand.
He squeezed the clods of wet sand between his fingers. “I have nothing” He said “Nothing but this”. The ring seemed to hum strangely and he swore that it glowed for a moment.
Then an unusual sound like a ringing of a resonant bell but from under the sea. The ocean started to boil and bubble like a pot. The sea churning and turning white like that day he faced the last of the Firbolg on the beach and the sea ran white with the blood of his kinfolk. Half kinfolk, ex-kinfolk. He knew then that he should not have backed them into a corner, like he should not have done so with the people of Inish veil.
Something like a fish tail poked out of the water but did not disappear. It continued to protrude getting longer and stranger as it didn’t seem to move. It almost seemed as if it were a carved statue rising out of the unsettled water.
Then it seemed to fan out and get wider as if it were some tiny piece of some giant sea creature covered in a lacquered black shell.
As more and more of whatever it was rose slowly from the water it became obvious to him what it was. In fact seemed ridiculous to him both in not recognising sooner but also recognising it at all in it’s bizarre context.
There was no doubt that now he looked upon the bow of a ship but queer in it’s movement and incredulous in it’s rising. For it seemed almost like Bres was witness to it sinking but in reverse.
The former king of the Tuatha almost felt like a child, dumb struck. Wanting to rub his eyes in amazement as he witnessed the strange ship emerge from the sea. A ship of a design he had never seen before but also somehow seemed familiar to him.
It was black and slick like a deep sea fish and had no sails that he could determine, for why would it need them? Only fins and oars to traverse the sea.
The strange vessel broke ground abrubtly. Shifting it’s bulk on the sand like some sort of huge toad before coming to a stop a foot from where the former king was kneeling. He recoiled slightly and waited in the brief moments of silence that followed. Bres listened cautiously for movement or voices but none came.
A rope ladder was dropped from the port side of the ship, it appeared to be made from seaweed and hair. And for a moment Bres just stared at it.
The girl gripped the small sword tightly in both her hands, too tightly, holding it out in front of her.
The creature’s wide hollow eyes stared blankly at her. It moved slowly out of it’s vile den. It was gaunt and albino in it’s complexion, mud and blood clung to it’s hands and feet all the way to it’s naked body. It’s mouth hung open in a vile empty expression of raw hunger, a face all too familiar. Blood and flesh clung to it’s mouth and beyond it in the den was what looked like a small woolen toy a child might keep close.
The sword shook in Airmed’s hand as she spoke “No it can’t be!”
The creature crawled on all fours, more a beast in the crude shape of a man. Long white hair framed a hideous face that at once might have seemed beautiful but was twisted and cut by branches and fingernails. A revolting bestial imitation.
Whatever it was moaned and howled with a blasphemous sound that was guttural and grotesque and almost human. The thing leapt at her. Airmed fell backwards impaling the thing on her small sword. The monster struggled against it pawing at her with it’s dirty fingers that looked gnarled and chewed off at the ends. As if the beast’s hunger extended to it’s own body. The fingertips were bloody and muddy and gnawed to the bone. They were almost sharpened into vicious claws that scratched at the girls face and neck. As it pulled itself further onto her blade, a vile grey blood vomiting from it’s mouth and the wound the girl had inflicted on it. The rotten foul smelling blood coating the girl.
Airmed could do nothing but try to drive the blade deep and move it around in the hole she had created. But the beast showed no sign of pain at all and chomped at the air in front of the girl’s face. She instinctually pulled her face away keeping her nose by the skin of the monsters teeth.
A long shadow was cast over her, the sound of heavy footfalls either side of her body, she could feel another standing over her. She thought for a moment to call out for help but the shadow cast seemed even darker and heavier than the beast straining to take her life.
Suddenly the monsters erratic head movements stopped as it was caught in the jaws of a much larger beast. The pale monsters mouth still hungry hanging agape in a primordial shock or fear, if it was actually capable of some kind of fear. An enormous gloved hand gripping the back of the creatures neck, holding it like a master might hold a great hound.
A hand blazing silver forced it’s way into the vaguely humanoid creatures mouth, cracking disgusting dirty rotten teeth out of it’s fetid jaws. The fingers of the silver hand which moved as lithely and intelligiently as a regular hand gripped tightly. Seized the creature forcefully under the upper jaw.
What followed was an unbearable guttural noise. Bones misaligning and cracking against eachother. As the head of the creature was wrenched back so hard it’s head was almost torn apart from it’s jaw up. Just under the grotesque sound was a low throaty laughter, more of triumph than of pleasure. The sounds and the movement were like were operated with a grim precise determination. Less of an executions but a culling or a necessary procedure carried out by a stalwart professional who enjoyed his work.
The misshapen body of the creature was released from the clutches of the stranger. He allowed it to slump onto Airmed who recoiled naturally. Disgusted by it’s cold clammy deathlike skin she pushed it off of her and shrank and scuttled away from it.
She stared at it’s lifeless form for a moment and felt pity for it then in that moment, a small feeling of guilt weighed at the pit of her stomach. And then she glanced up at the stranger. He was larger than any elf but his features were obscured by a hooded cloak.
“This face” The stranger said. “Nuada” He hissed as he looked down at the misshapen body of the creature.
The girl stared dumbstruck at the stranger, to hear that name. “How did you-?
The stranger laughed wickedly and said “I have killed it before”. His laugh incredulous and mocking.
“Who are you? What do you want?” The girl gasped.
A strange rattling rustling sound, the creature leapt at the strangers back ripping his cloak from his shoulders. The monster bit deeply into the strangers neck, drawing a thick red blood. Underneath revealed a barbarian, rounded ears, a scarred vicious almost bestial face, one of a kind not seen in this land for many a year.
The barbarian gripped the malformed piteous imitation of the once great king of the tuatha. Holding it in the silver fist that invoked a curious awe in the girl lying prone in the snow. He tossed the abomination down as if it were an annoying animal that jumped at it’s master heel and pressed it’s face into the snow with his boot heel.
The barbarian picked up the girls short sword from the ground she’d dropped during the confusion. The stranger hacked at the creatures limbs wantonly as if he was a hunter butchering game in the field. Slowly and deliberately savouring each long sucking cut as he dismembered the piteous creature. Finally it’s head was released from it’s shoulder with two dull chops that picked up dirt as he pulled the blade back. Finally he crushed it’s skull under his boot.
The girl stared at the stranger curiously as he swung the short sword in the air. Slaking the dull greyish white tuatha blood from the borrowed blade before he threw it down at her feet where he had picked it up.
“Rrr-red blood?” She stammered “You are not tuatha, not an elf, what are you? What do you want from me?”
“Not you girl” The stranger croaked as if his throat had been cut and not healed right. “You will take me to Miach Cecht!”