The barbarians heart pounded with vicious glee. Keeping in time with the cold wet slap of his own bare footfalls as he ascended the spiral staircase.
Nothing but dim darkness stalked his steps as he heard no sound other than that of his own breath burning in his lungs daring to be free.
It occurred to the barbarian this must be some kind of passage, that was never lit as it was not meant to be traversed often. The girl must’ve carried some sort of lamp to light her way, or if not the creatures of this castle had no need of light. Cur with his only hand balanced himself along the wall as he ascended, attuning his eyes to the murky blackness. He stopped to listen but heard no other breath, no clinking of armour or heavy clad footfalls. Only a slight whistling sound like the last breath escaping a corpse.
He pressed against the wall from which the noises came. The wall relented without much force and slid away. Still it revealed only darkness, but in the distance he could hear the crackling of a fire and the glimpses of dancing shadows.
A tight dead end lead down a grand hallway dimly lit by distant firelight. The barbarian strained to listen for voices but heard naught but the dying fire.
At once he saw it as if a black sheet had been lifted from his eyes; a grand and grotesque fire pit. It gently smouldering in the centre of a huge high ceilinged dining hall.
The barbarians eyes adjusted to the dim light enough to see that the dining hall was not empty. But instead lining the floor were the limp bodies of what could’ve been hundreds of young women.
The Firbolg eyed them coldly, noting their garb, they were young fair women. Some full tables of women with just red hair and another with blonde and another were brown and raven haired. They wore black robes and appeared as Tuatha or even human. Their skin took on a white bluish glow like the scales of a fish and Cur knew they were Fomorian or some mix thereafter.
But more pressingly, they were most certainly dead.
Each their lips wetted with some drink that had been the murderer. The last of the Firbolg did not dwell on this good fortune, Cur merely let out a low mirthless chuckle as he waded through this newly made mausoleum. The door at the far end of the dining hall beckoned him. Cast as it was in the finest bronze and gold leaf with crystalline reliefs in the surface, making it shimmer like that of an undersea gem on a reef.
He placed his hand on it and felt it relent as the wall of the passage has before. He grinned and laughed as he forced it open, chuckling wickedly as he stalked the crystalline staircase. The walls too of the tower were made of an almost translucent stone which no doubt was forged by some form of magic.
The barbarian climbed the tower tirelessly, grinning like the devil ascending from the pit on a crystal ladder. Looking out he swore he could see the black abyss of the night’s through the crystalline stone. The moon full and wide and beaming at him and then suddenly ducking behind a thick cloud bank to hide from the Firbolg’s gaze.
At the top of the tower the barbarian came to a door. A small door which rested ajar but only a crack allowing but a sliver of silver moon light to bleed into the crystalline stair case.
The Firbolg grinned with anticipation. His blood rising and falling with the tide and the moon at his back watching sheepishly, a vile satire he slowly pushed the door open.
The moon shone through a large oval window shaped as if it were a silvery mirror of the sky. The cloaked moonlight hung suspended by a light myst before it fell on a bed fit for a queen, or a princess.
Upholstered in a rich sea green silk, silks of the deepest blues and emerald made up the bedding, they seemed to shine in the moonlight like scale. Each pinprick of light dancing on the material as if it were the bed of a sea covered in precious gems. And the most precious gem a giant emerald that was an eye of a girl.
It was not a trick or an illusion, her hair cleared from her face the maiden was beautiful. Hair as soft and as pale as milkweed but as full and as bodied as the head of a dandelion or a sea anemone. Tustled as it was as she stared dough eyed with her one giant beautiful eye at the barbarian heaving in her doorway. She raised herself on her forearms in her thin white silken night gown. Blinking with her one green eye in the middle of her forehead above a pert upturned nose and pricked ruby lips. Her skin so soft and white it was almost blue, and when the moonlight hit it it seemed to become as translucent as the stone that made up her tower.
“What are you doing here?” The familiar whispered voice said.
But the Firbolg had no sympathies nor words for the girl. For he could hear nought over his own heart beat pounding in his ears and the rushing swelling tide hitting the rocks below. The moon light filling him with purpose as he lurched towards the bed. A sardonic low cackle in the back of his throat rising and a grin spreading across his wicked demon face.
“We bury them here.” Airmed sighed in her lilting voice. She cast her lantern light over a beautiful garden of wild flowers and herbs growing just outside the castle grounds. The earth was bare and raw and looked almost warm to the touch. The snow of the moutain didn’t seem to touch them at all. The flowers were beautiful and of many colours and shapes and seemed almost to glow and move unnaturally as if reacting to a wind and a sun that wasn’t there.
“So many” Ernmas sighed, an odd sadness in her voice that she couldn’t quite place.
“Miach has tried for many years with no success, since before the time of Bres.” Airmed sighed. “Our father tried to build Nuada a new arm with magic and metal. Miach wanted to grow the king a new perfect arm but now he tries the impossible, not to grow a new arm for a king but a new king.” Airmed seemed almost like she wanted to let out a cynical ironic chuckle at first but stifled it out of respect for the princess.
Ernmas nevertheless smiled sadly, stifling her tears as she looked at the many mounds of earth hiding the many dead copies of her father. “You honor them so, at lea- at least” She stammered, her eyes welling. “They can become something beautiful.” She sighed.
Airmed felt a pang of some misplaced sorrow for a brief moment. As if she could feel herself standing over the edge of a cliff face and a bridge not meant to be crossed. Even though it was not her that would be crossing it.“Miach will not want to wait, he’ll begin his work again tomorrow, are you ready for that?” Airmed cautioned, as if there was another option. But the princess knew it was too late to turn back now, far too late.
The princess wiped her moist eyes with the sleeve of her nightgown and nodded slowly to no one “I am”.
“Come now Glas Gaibhnenn, you’re home once more.” The redheaded boy whispered as he tied the end of the enchanted rope that bound the mystical cow to a wooden pillar in the lower stables of the castle. The boy patted the creature on the nose with a wry wicked waxen smile one might see on a shark or some kind of eel that had some object to covet. But not a human child. The creature that was some vile aspect of Balor left the stable. The room lit only with the dim light of a torch in an adjoining anteroom deep in the bowels of the strange squat castle on the rock.
The stable was nought but a store room with some hay on the floor. It was dark and as damp as any cell in the dungeon and a far cry from the lush fields it wondered through freely on the mainland. A simple square space made of the same black masonry as the rest of the castle, wet and cold with the spray and salt of the sea mist outside.
The green spotted cow nevertheless settled into it’s new yet old surroundings in the employ of Balor once more. Chewing some of the wet straw that strew the floor of it’s cell.
The cow mooed, suddenly taken by an urge to scratch it’s ear but lacking the implements to carry out that desire. Resorting simply to rubbing it’s whole head against it’s torso. But that didn’t seem to work and what’s more the cow with green spots was taken by an odd twitch of the ear. Something small and strange, an insect of some kind wriggled it’s way out.
The insect leapt off the cows head and in an instant it hit the ground in the form of a black rat and scurried off towards the light of the anteroom.
The rat skittered slowly and noiselessly along the cold stone of the inner castle, clinging closely to the edge of the wall and the shadows. The rat found itself in a long and winding passage with a rounded domed roof leading nowhere but to more light. It could not discern how deep it was in the castle itself or indeed how deep the foundations of the castle went entirely.
Before long, a seemingly infinite stretch of pathway gave way to the sounds of creatures and machines and chains. And the foul smell of whatever creatures dwelled in the castle. The rat sniffed at the air and listened for movement it’s eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness. It hid snugly on a small outcropping on a grate overlooking some vast cyclopean chamber that seemed to go down an unfathomable depth. It’s size and scope was only hinted at as the rat watched the bobbing of torches. Figures marching back and forth across a series of bridges made of stone and wood which looked centuries old.
In the darkness he could hear the foul creatures that walked on two legs but were not men. Jabbering in some ancient inhuman tongue that was not known to him although he had heard it before what seemed like an aeon ago. The sound of it now raising the fur on the back of the little rat’s neck.
The rat strained it’s senses and peered deeper into the darkness and heard an unsettling whimpering sound. The scraping of small feet, the clanking of bars. Even in darkness the creatures were hideous vaguely anthropoid, some with missing limbs. Some only half a body, some with the head of fish or the limbs of crustaceans, they were ghastly abominations walking as if men, dragging something.
Something that through horrifying realisation could only be one thing but the rat refused to believe it for a moment, but it was a tuatha child. The child was barely conscious and looked starved and ragged but conscious. All the will to fight drained from it as the creatures placed the child in a hanging cage. The cage was connected to a series of rails that disappeared into the darkness.
As the rats eyes adjusted further to the darkness he could see more cages like this one. Many more and more tuatha children or so they appeared, some were quite different in aspect. It was at quite some distance but some seemed to gleam in the dim light of the cavern as if their skin was slick or scaled.
Often the rat had wondered what had befallen the missing children of Inish Veil. Perhaps as food for some beast or a sacrifice to an eldritch god but never would he imagine this, whatever this was.
“This one escaped my queen” A blubbering laboured voice deep in the cavern.
“Escaped?” A hissing feminine voice said thinly.
“Ay the salt water rusts the cages, he had strength enough to break a bar.”
“Then he will make a fine addition” The woman hissed. The woman wore a long black hooded robe. But the rat could see the glint of jagged crooked teeth underneath the hood in a twisted inhuman smile. Without saying a word she began to ring a large bell concealed within her sleeve. The water seemed to respond to this call.
The black murkiness of the cavern slowly began to bubble and boil like an enormous black cauldron. A foul smell that was merely hinted at, clinging to walls started to rise from the inky blackness of the waters that could’ve been fathoms deep.
The smell was something akin to centuries old bone and rotten fish entrails and altogether familiar. Conjuring terrible memories in the rat that had been long since shuffled away.
The gas was visible now in the murk, a thick cloud of vile putrefaction rising from the black water. It completely engulfed the hundreds of caged children hanging over the water. Their bodies writhing and convulsing as they breathed in the gas. Some shrieking in a terrible nameless pain that was not unlike the sound of a child bearing the pain of birth.
“Your army rises my lord, soon your forces will rival Elatha’s and the high king of the femor will tremble before you as you wield the stone of destiny and not he.” The woman hissed.
As if out of nowhere the red headed child with the face of an eel appeared and beside him a black cloaked masked figure. “Do not speak of such things my queen, for our destiny is not set in stone.” The child whispered.
“As you wish husband, but what of the last Firbolg, will he join us? He would be a strong ally would he not?”
“Nay, I fear his hate is too strong, he would be an albatross around our necks pulling us down with him unto certain doom.”
“Then he will die?”
“On Samhain, the old blood will wash the new and the mother of crows will have him at last.” The child smirked.
A sudden shrinking feeling gripped the rat as the air changed again and he felt eyes watching him from the dark and a low guttural raw beneath the waves.
The rat darted away from the opening, scurrying back into the dimly lit passage, it was then he caught the scent he was sniffing for. A scent of sweat and fire and earth, of the Firbolg he owed a debt, he wished to repay this night.
He followed the scent through the labyrinthine castle that made little sense to a mans brain. But doubtless sense to some otherworldly creature that dreamed it aeons ago. If it were not for his keen nose the rat would surely be lost in it’s many twisting and similar looking passageways designed as if to betwixt mortal men.
The rat came upon a vast banquet hall where beautiful maidens lay scattered on the floor like flower petals. The scent of a sweet poison on their lips. The rat scurried hastily through this beautiful mausoleum called by the scent of the barbarian to an open doorway.
Upon the crystalline steps he could hear struggling and the smell of the Firbolg was strong in the air. Tuan took up his human form as he approached the door at the top of the steps.
Placing his hand gently on the sturdy wooden door he felt a sudden breath in his ear and a cold blade at his neck.
A voice whispered “Wait a moment, won’t you?”