The burning of the temple
The smell of smoke, darkness, crawling, blackness, air.
Dian Cecht coughed and spluttered as he dragged himself crawling and blackened out of his escape tunnel. Gasping at the fresh air.
“Well it’s good to see you again, old friend” A mocking voice said above his head.
He turned over, scrambling in the ashes, stunned to hear the familiar voice, his face black with soot and his eyes wide and frightened. He waited on his knees in the dark for the shapes to emerge from the smoke laden sky.
“Y-you!” Dian Cecht mumbled grasping at a clump of black earth beneath him.
“Me” Bres smiled atop his horse, his men behind him, looking down at the great healer.
Dian Cecht lowered his head, his hands splayed out in front of him. “You’re too late, she’s already gone from here, a day’s ride ahead of you, you’ll never find her.”
“Of course I will, you’re going to help me” Bres laughed and crossed his hands over his saddle.
Dian Cecht put his hands on his thighs and looked at the dirt knowing that he was right. “I may be a coward, hiding in that place but you! You are cursed by all the gods for desecrating that holy site!”
“Desecrating? Me? The king of Inish Veil?” He laughed looking around at his men. “Surely you are mistaken, it was a mere accident. So many candles in Newgrange, this was bound to happen sooner or later. A little mouse must have knocked one over and set fire to some old dry parchment and woof! The whole temple up in flames” His men who chuckled, all but one. Ogma gritted his teeth holding his hand to his ear wishing that both his ears were cut off and his eyes gouged and his tongue pulled.
“You should kill me now” Dian Cecht said almost begging, his hands tightening above his knees.
“Why would I do that, we’re in need of a good healer, we have a wounded man after all, Ogma show him your ear” He said turning in his saddle. Waving Ogma to approach.
Ogma tried to smooth out his face. Remove any of the disdain he was feeling as he removed his hand from his head showing Dian Cecht the place where his ear ought to have been.
“I can’t grow back an ear, not without my lab that you just burnt to the ground” His tone suddenly changed from wounded animal to righteously indignant.
“Tsk tsk, these accusations are very dangerous, we all agree it was just a mouse, don’t we” He said to his men who nodded and laughed.
“That temple was-“
“That temple was here long before us. Some robed fools with long beards decide it has mystical significance, it means nothing to me - or the mice as it seems” He laughed.
“So what is to be? Will you come with us or return to your burning temple?” Bres asked, already knowing the answer but enjoying it all the same.
Dian Cecht face gave up an elasticity it once had and he slumped visibly. “I will”.
“Good, take him” Bres instructed one of his men turning his horse to ride on along the path.
“You didn’t have to do that” Ogma said through gritted teeth holding his ear once more, looking past the king.
“No maybe not but you’re yet to understand the stakes of this game, allow me your trust in this matter.” Bres said softly.
“You could have talked to him.” Ogma said through gritted teeth.
“I just did talk to him” Bres smiled “What’s one dusty old tomb?” Bres breathed in heavily looking out at the lush pastures, the sweetness of the dew mixing with the bitter scents of smoke and ash.
“It sits in the shade of the stone of destiny itself” He cursed.
“And yet the stone is untouched as it rests on the hill of Tarah, do you wish to make a pilgrimage to it brother?” Bres turned his head, his voice full of scourn and accusation and derision. His eyes scanning Ogma up and down as if it was the first time they’d met.
Ogma could say nothing, his tongue seized in his mouth. His anger simmering below the surface of his stony grey flesh.
“We don’t have time to sit around flapping our gums, the fate of Inish Veil is at stake.” Bres straightened in his saddle, pulling at the reins of his horse, looking over the horizon.
“How is that?” Ogma shrank from him, his face twisting.
“Your job is to follow my orders, not to question them, now ride on!” Bres said sternly.
Ogma grimaced, swallowing his pride. “Yes sire.”
“It was the Fomori.” Abhartach said, his eyes fixed and glassy as if he were manically reciting a nursery rhyme.
“That fairytale again” Birog scoffed.
“It won’t be like last time” Abhertach scolded, looking at Birog as if she had grown another head. “They have a new king. In the time of Nemed they used force, might was all they knew. They forced the people to submit, enslaved them. They put a tax on them; two thirds of their corn, two thirds of their milk. And two thirds of their-“ Abertach’s jaw grew tight and he swallowed, his throat clacking dry.
“-Children” Birog shuddered.
“You know the stories then? You know what happened. “His eyes lit up and the dwarf became enervated with wild hand gestures. “The people, our ancestors the children of Nemed rose up and killed one of their kings in his tower, Conand. But their other king Morc retaliated and decimated the people of Nemed with a great wave and a plague that came from the sea. A cataclyism that scattered our people and changed us forever.”
“You expect us to believe all this?” Birog tutted.
The dwarf narrowed his gaze, his brow furrowed in disdain. “I don’t care what you believe, but I know it to be true.” He sputtered tapping a fat hairy finger adorned with an elaborate and gaudy gold ring on his desk. “They never went away they were always here, waiting, we disturbed them. But they’re smarter now, smart enough to have their kin sitting on the throne of Inish veil.”
“Bres” Cur snarled, the hairs on the back of neck sharpening themselves against his rough skin. Knowing it to be true, wanting it to be and making it so.
“He’s a fomorian? Impossible” Tuan laughed.
“Half on his fathers side. His mother, the whore, Eri, daughter of Delbaith. She had a trist one night with a passing sailor on an island. Little did she know she had been impregnated by a fomorian as he was not hideous like the rest. Cursed to live under the sea with the beasts but cursed doubly for being beautiful despite them.”
“What do they want?” Cur asked with a grim certainty which disturbed his cohorts.
“Don’t do you understand?” Abertach gestured wildy spreading his hands out on his desk. “They already have it, they have us, they rule us from beneath the waves, with their puppet on the throne. They keep us here like dumb livestock and feed on us whenever they see fit, we are but cattle to them.” His ramblings were so frantic now, a white foam had built at the corner of his mout.
Birog sniffed “Sea salt” she said dazedly.
Abhartach’s cheeks hollowed and he turned abrubtly to look out of the window in horror. “The myst, oh goddess no, we had a deal!”
Then came that noise again from the Birog’s side, the sword sang in that guttural language. Without thinking she moved her cloak aside and drew it an inch.
“You fool” Abhartach said. “You have his sword, and you brought it here?” He bellowed, his eyes glazed in terror.
“I don’t understand!” Birog said dazedly.
“It talks and it listens, he’s listening!” He shouted and lent over his desk.
“Who?” Cur said deadpan, his voice rising over that of Abhertach’s terrified rambling.
“Tethra! Damn you! You’ve damned us all! KILL THEM!”
The second guard at the door was on Cur like a flash sticking a dagger in his neck all the way and jostling it about cutting and spurting blood. Cur looked up at him grinning his eyes burning with righteous violence and with a grim savagery that took his senses he didn’t think to reach for his weapon. Instead choosing a more direct approach.
He screamed as he thrust his open hand into the dwarves face hooking and gouging his eyes sockets and squeezing the rage boiling up and raditating from his fingertips scratching at the bone and soft tissue behind his eyes.
The dwarf squealed like a maid losing her virginity to wild boar and lost all will to dig the dagger in any deeper.
The crossbowmen aimed and let loose Cur used the body of the dying dwarf as a shield.
Tuan changed into a ram and knocked one of the dwarves through the window, the glass shattering below, his body falling with a heavy thud.
The last bodyguard, the one with the missing fingers and the grudge against Cur tried to knock another bolt into his crossbow but the missing fingers made it fiddly work and he dropped the bolt.
He threw the bow to one side angrily and draw a serrated knife and lunged at Cur with a tired cry of a pastured buck.
Cur batted the blade away like it was a wet butter knife out of the hand of a child. He drew the knife from his own neck and pinned the attackers hand to the wall. The dwarf didn’t scream, just flailed and strained against the knife and then gave a look of impetuous resignation as Cur draw his cleaver.
The first blow was enough. He sunk it deep into the dwarfs temple the wide blade cleaving his face wide open like a ripe fruit. Then with the slow measured chops of a sadistic butcher he took off the arm. Then hit him across the collar bone and then the neck. Then the chest hacking for no other reason than to hear the sound of bones splitting and feel the weight of the blade and the spray.
Abhartach remained motionless in his elevated seat, speaking softly as if to himself. “They’ll kill us all now, slaughter us like pigs in our sleep if we’re lucky.” He said dreamily as he went into a draw and drew a small knife. “I had a good run” He said whimsically as he slit his own throat. His body flopping against his seat, convulsing before falling on the floor and flopping like a fish.
For a moment there was only the muffled sound of the revelers beneathe their feet. Then there was sound of moving furniture creaking and a terrible scream and breaking glass.
Outside the bodyguard who had fallen through the window was regaining consciousness. Covered in glass and feeling like he’d been trampled by a bull he looked around but could see nothing, not even the hand in front of his face. All around was a blue mist that smelled like sea foam.
All sounds too were encased in the mist and even his own voice seemed to be lost in it, but then there was a sound. An unusual chattering noise and then all at once there was pain. Horrible biting scything burning pain all over his body as he was torn apart by unseen claws in nary the time it took to cry out.
Then there was a humming only faintly outside but more so from the sword on Birog’s hip. The sword was humming the same tune.
Cur looked at it and cursed under his breath.
“He’s luring you out, it’s a trap.” Birog wailed grasping pointlessly at the air.
Without saying anything Cur leapt from the window into the mist below. Parting only briefly to allow his bulk.
“I’ll see if I can get a birds eye view” Tuan said taking the crow shape once more and darting out of the window after his charge.
“Goddess dammit!” Birog cursed left alone in the company of corpses.
Birog went back through the door and down the steps into the tavern of which seemed deserted when only a moment ago it was full of life and debauchery. Now it was dark and in a state of desolation. The furniture tipped over, tankards broken on the floor on top of glass and blood and that smell of seawater. The fire was dying and stank of burnt blood.
She daren’t stare too long into the darkness but she could sense magic, her torque hummed with an ominous tone. An old vile magic long and best forgotten.
In the streets Cur’s senses were useless, there was no sound but that inhuman humming melody that seemed to be carried not by tongues but the mist itself. All around him. He could smell and taste nothing but the salty sea air and could see not even a foot in front of his own face. Only the building searing pain in his scar told him that it was magic.
Still he walked slowly through the mist following the melodious humming.
Until it stopped.
He froze listening for it again, or breathe or a footstep but heard nothing.
But then a light mocking laughter.
“I was wondering when I would see you again” The voice said so clear and crisp against the silence of the night.
Cur said nothing, holding still and quiet waiting for the voice to reveal itself.
“Don’t you remember me?” The mist parted and a lanky figure in a cloak appeared before Cur.
Cur felt his blade slide from his sleeve and into his hand, wrapping his strong fingers around the broken haft.
The figure approached and then stopped, tossing his hood back.
Cur said nothing as he looked upon the visage as the one he met in the woods. The messenger, someone he’d come to believe a noble son masquerading as a petty thug.
“What was it I told you my name was ’Gwintel, Gwenblithe? It doesn’t matter, many names.” He swept his hand, the hand which Cur had maimed, now completely healed without a trace of scarring, over his face which changed as it passed “Many faces”. He smiled with his new face, that of a young woman and then back again to that of an old man.
“Tethra” Cur snorted as if saying his name would banish him in some small way.
“Yes that’s right- Abertach has a big mouth for a spy master, more like a fish wife, one more loose end.” He sighed, smiling wickedly, revealing small pointed teeth like a fish. “I believe this little cloak and dagger game we’ve been playing is coming to an end soon.”
“A war is coming” Tethra stated. “You served us unknowlingly, would you like a chance to do so knowingly? I’d think you’d jump at the chance to strike back at these- ‘people’- after what they did to you- king in rags.” His face was cold and wet looking nomatter it’s shape, emotionless, with dead black eyes.
Cur’s back raised hearing that title, his heart beat quickening and his blood simmering. “Help you snare children?”
Tethra laughed “Is this your conscience speaking, these are the children of your enemy, did they spare your children? Or is it just out of pride?” He pursed his lips “I’d say pride, you have a lot of that, that was your downfall.”
Cur said nothing.
Tethra sighed. “So be it, I wont ask again, you should have just died in the woods like you were supposed to. You should have died on the battlefield with your brothers like you were supposed to”
Cur clenched his jaw but a part of him couldn’t disagree, he had spent years wishing he had died then, died in honor with his brothers by his side. Instead of limping on as a shambling monster, a ghost of his former self.
“But you can die here, now!” Tethra said coldly, but with an almost warm lilting tone at the end as if it was an offer of charity, of mercy.
“Firbolg!” A woman’s voice called out.
“GO!” Cur shouted back.
Birog made her way through the mist, her torque glowing as a guiding light cutting through the mist.
“What do we have here” Tethra said. He raised his hand slowly and then with a slight movement of his fingers and some whispered words. The sword on Birog’s hip violently ripped from the sheathe and shot into his hand so fast it was as if it had fallen from the sky. “Many thanks for returning my blade, it’s of no use to you now- where was I?” He started humming that tune again and grinned. “Oh that’s right, goodbye, King of the Firbolg”
He continued humming as he faded back into the mist and out of sight.
Cur once again could see nothing and could hear nothing, not even his own breathing.
“Firbolg!” Birog called to him and he could hear her but only as an echo.
Then the pain started.
Strong like a dogs jaw tightening around his legs, sharp teeth carving into his flesh. He could see nothing but the pain told him everything he needed to know. He struck with his blade and felt give and a spray of a thick cool blood.
But then another claw and another mouth on his arm and other leg. He struck them too like a gardener tending a veracious weed. Hacking limbs away wherever he felt them latching and pulling and sucking and biting at his flesh. Like giant leeches hungry for blood and bone marrow.
His eyes were useless but with every hungry bite they gave away their position and opened them up to attack from his curved horrid blade. Splitting them was childs play, their flesh was soft and cut easily, their power was in numbers and blindness of their prey.
His limbs felt sluggish, some kind of poison to weaken, a lesser man would have been dead after the first bite.
Nevertheless they kept biting, incessantly, growing in number. Before long he could feel himself clambering over their small fallen rubbery slimy bodies in the mist hacking away blindly. The barrage was unabating the attackers only growing in number.
“Firbolg!” She cried out once more her torque resonating and flowing forth a burst of light dispelling the mist around her.
Cur was getting light headed now, cutting without thought, chopping only to keep his hand moving. Without thinking, pure instinct and repetition.
“FIRBOLG!” She cried out letting forth a mighty blast of light which swept the streets clear of the mist momentarily.
Then suddenly the pain stopped and the smell of the mist dissipated and he could hear the sound of the wind and feel the sun drying the blood on his face.
He opened his eyes then and saw the Druiddess standing before him. Her eyes filled with terror and disgust and the deepest loathing imaginable.
The barbarian puzzled by her display looked down at his feet and then he knew why she screamed. He swallowed the bile in his mouth, the hair raising on the back of his neck and arms, his stomach gripped by a stolid coldness. His eyes fixed on the pile of bodies laying about him and under him.
The bodies of slain children.