Story Concept by Damien Tobin, Todd Jensen and Brian Dumlao
Written by Christi Smith Hayden
Previously on Dark Ages.....
Thersites: "Can reading reveal other wonders?"
Edmund: "This is only the beginning."
Gargoyle: "Would you teach us?"
Edmund: "Of course I can teach you."
-- "Links to the Past"
An excerpt from Brother Edmund's journal:
"As I write this, a peaceful calm settles over Castle Wyvern and all who dwell here. The night is quiet with only the familiar sounds of the gargoyles echoing around the towers. Having had no reports of bandit activity from the Captain of the Guard, the Leader has allowed some of the younger gargoyles free time to go hunting in the woods and replenish the castle larder. They seemed to relish the change from guard duty and went off in good spirits.
"Studious Asrial has sequestered herself in the library, no doubt deep in a story of ancient times. I have been worried about her since her mistreatment at the hands of the masked bandit, who we now know as an outcast gargoyle from the Wyvern clan. Always a quiet lass, Asrial has gone only as far as the practice field in the company of her siblings and returns immediately to the castle afterwards. As far as I know, she hasn't even dared to return to either of her workshops, the one in the tower or the cave below the castle. This startling change of heart has the Leader and his mate concerned and I must confess, myself as well.
"The human inhabitants of Wyvern also are enjoying this peaceful respite from the bandits. When I left the solarium this evening, Prince Malcolm had challenged the Archmage to a game of chess, who accepted with surprising good humor. If appearances are to be believed, the Prince and the court magician should be engrossed in the game for quite some time. As for myself, I promised a story for my threesome of gargoyle children and unless I miss my guess, that is the scratching of their footsteps coming towards my chamber now.
"Only one thing troubles me. Why does the old phrase 'the calm before the storm' keep going through my head?"
* * * * *
Flickering shadows danced across the arcane contents of the Archmage's chambers, creating ghosts and monsters of light and darkness from the light of the flickering candle held in one blue-skinned fist. She had flown by the lit windows of the solarium and noted the Archmage playing some human game with Prince Malcolm. The lure of exploring the sorcerer's inner sanctum had been impossible to resist. The crimson-haired gargoyle found herself tingling all over with the thrill of venturing into forbidden territory.
Even in her hatchling days, Demona had been drawn to tales of magic. She'd listened breathlessly to Brother Edmund's stories of magic users of old, from Circe, the sorceress who turned sailors into swine, to the great exploits of Merlin. The Archmage always kept to himself and frankly, the scornful looks he gave the clan chilled Demona to the core. She could only imagine what he would do if he knew a gargoyle was in his room.
A drop of hot wax splattered against her skin and Demona hastily set the candle down in a shallow earthenware dish filled with the stubs and spent wax of many tapers. A brass brazier filled with glowing ashes provided light on a table cluttered with several pots containing dried herbs and roots. An open book stood nearby on a tall bookstand. Eagerly, the young gargoyle peered at its pages.
Moving her lips slightly as she read, Demona marveled at the simplicity of it. The book was open to a section on how to make various charms. There were charms for strength against your enemies, to gain wealth and power, to gain immortality -- Demona snorted at that.
"To live forever?" she said out loud. "What would be the point of that?"
She read further down the page, lingering a bit over the love charms. It was tempting, terribly tempting but unlike her sister with the split wings, she anticipated no problem in dealing with the choice of a future mate. She would have the best and the strongest of her rookery brothers when the time came. She would see to it.
" 'A charm to protect one's hearth and home against all danger,' " she read thoughtfully. The spell itself seemed as easy as one of the cook's recipes and Demona had been assigned kitchen duty enough to know how to do that. She bit her lip and looked around pensively. All was quiet. She was alone. What would be the harm? All the things she needed were on the table, from the small earthenware pots of herbs to the glowing brazier.
Carefully tracing the words on the page with a talon tip, Demona assembled the ingredients and put them in a shallow metal dish of clear water on top of the brazier. "First," she said aloud, "seven buds of the balm of Gilead. Second, dried blossoms of carnation."
She sniffed the fragrance on her fingers and smiled. Anything with flowers in it had to be good magic, so she threw in an extra handful. "Next, club moss and a pinch of devil's shoestring." She paused and frowned. "Hmmm, is that a human-sized pinch or a gargoyle-sized one?" Scowling at the clump of shredded dried root between her fingers, Demona shrugged and tossed it into the mixture.
"Berries of rowan, red and bright. Strength of thistle to give it might," Demona intoned, adding the final elements. "Ouch!" she exclaimed as a thorn pricked her thumb and she accidentally shook extra thistles into the potion. The strange brew began to bubble and boil, hissing and producing strange-colored smoke. The buds began to erupt with loud pops, one after the other.
Alarmed, the blue-skinned gargoyle snatched away the metal dish and flung it discus-style out of the window, sailing it far out over the ocean. She let out a shaky breath but before she could relax, Demona heard footsteps out in the corridor. She grabbed her candle, ignoring the splash on hot wax, and dove for the window.
* * * * *
The Archmage paused on the threshold of his room and sniffed. He frowned, his eyebrows coming together like a vicious moth over his eyes. "Luminus," he said with quiet force, holding out his hand. A globe of light appeared and he cast it into the room. The ball of energy bounced high around the walls, igniting resin-soaked torches in wrought iron holders before returning to the sorcerer's hand. He snapped his fingers and the animate light disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Everything seemed as he had left it -- the table, the dying embers in the brazier, the open book in its holder. The Archmage clucked at the mess he'd left on the table. There were a number of suitable lads on staff available to serve as his assistant, if not intelligent to be an apprentice, at least capable enough to keep his quarters tidy.
He began to put away his herbs in a cupboard. His collection was as extensive as Brother Edmund but their use extended into the arcane. The Archmage mumbled to himself as he put his mystic ingredients away in order of their usage.
"Carnation, a protective flower which brings power and strength. Club moss, rowan berries, and devil's shoestring, also powerful and protective herbs. The balm of Gilead, for manifestations of the dark forces, and thistle, for the calling of spirits."
He started to put the last jar away, but frowned and drew it back to look inside. "Hmmm, I must have used more than I thought in my last spell. I shall have to gather more."
The ashes from the brazier were dumped into the fireplace to be taken away later. He was returning to the table when his foot slipped on something on the floor. On closer examination, the Archmage discovered it to be candle wax. He followed the direction of the drip trail and found himself led to the open window. There were two more drops of wax on the sill.
The Archmage looked out at the castle's nocturnal inhabitants sailing through the night sky. He stroked his beard and murmured, "It seems I've attracted a curious gargoyle. Definitely something I'll want to keep a watchful eye on."
* * * * *
"--the poor barber had to tell someone his secret or burst. So he went to the river, dug a hole and knelt down to whisper, 'The king, my master, has the ears of a donkey!' The barber filled in the hole and went home, feeling much, much better. But the river god heard the secret and whenever the wind blew across the open ends of the reeds that grew on the river bank, they would sing, 'The king has donkey ears! The king has donkey ears!' And the king had to hear that for the rest of his days. The End."
The three little gargoyles were rolling around on the floor, overcome with childish giggles until their bellies shook and tears shone in their eyes. The chubby one reached out and grabbed his reddish friend's pointed ear. "Hee-hee, donkey ears!" His only response was to be leaped upon and wrestled until they both collided with the wall.
The smallest of the three, and Edmund thought privately, the most clever, leaned against the cleric's knee. "Could that have really happened?" he asked earnestly.
Edmund closed his book and looked down into a pair of huge, dark eyes. "What do you think?"
The web-winged hatchling thought carefully. "No," he said finally, "but reeds can sing. The clever female with the spiral horns made me a whistle from a river reed once but it broke." He pooched out his lip. "She said she'd show me how to make another the next time we went to the river but now she never wants go."
"I know," Edmund said, patting the youngster's shoulder. "She's just a little sad right now."
"What would cheer her up?" the greenish hatchling asked wistfully.
Brother Edmund was trying to think of a good answer when Deborah, the leader's mate, appeared in the doorway.
"Och, there ye be, ye little imps! 'Tis time for yuir lessons with the Elder." She deftly separated the wrestlers and sent them out into the hallway with a friendly swat on their behinds. She crooked a finger at the remaining hatchling. "Come along now, dinnae keep him waiting."
"Good evening, children," Edmund called. "There'll be more stories on other nights."
Curiously, Deborah remained in the doorway as she watched the hatchlings walking away. "Brother Edmund, I'd like to talk to ye about summat, if ye have a moment."
"Of course, I'd be glad to. What is it?"
The aquamarine gargoyle sighed and crossed her arms. "It's about our clever lass. I dinnae know if ye've noticed, but she's just nae herself. Her brother, the lavender one that's so fond of her, he's tried and tried to get her to interested in her gadgets again but she wouldna hear of it." Deborah shook her head. "She seldom shows any of her old spunk. Brother, it's like th' life's gone right out of her."
"Yes, I've noticed. Your warrior trials are coming up soon, aren't they?"
"Aye, she'll need all her wits and courage about her to pass the rites of passage." Deborah looked at Edmund and spoke frankly. "If she fails, she'll never be considered a warrior, never given an adult's duty. I hate to say it, but she's only goin' through th' motions."
Edmund nodded. "What can I do to help?"
"I was wonderin' if ye might have a word with th' lass," Deborah said slowly. "'Tis not me place to pry, but nae long ago, ye faced summat similar an' perhaps ye could share th' cure, ye know, whatever it was that helped ye come back to us."
"Well, I could try," Edmund said, standing and hearing his joints pop. "She tried to help me when my spirits were low. It's high time I returned the favor."
* * * * *
Every light in the library was lit and a few extra lamps had been brought in to chase away the darkness. The Benedictine monk standing in the doorway could not recall ever seeing a room so completely devoid of shadows. In the very center of the artificial brightness, perched on a high stool was a female gargoyle with spiraling horns. She looked up with a start at his sandaled footsteps, her brown eyes wide like those of a frightened deer.
"Good evening, my dear," Brother Edmund said pleasantly. "What are you reading tonight?"
She blinked and regarded the book in her lap absently. "Oh, a Roman poet named Ovid. The Latin gave me some trouble at first but I understand it better now."
Edmund walked around the room casually. "There's certainly enough reading light in here." He examined an oil lamp mounted to the wall, modified with a concave piece of polished metal behind it. "This is interesting. This part of the room seems brighter. Your work, I believe?"
"Oh, yes," Asrial said eagerly. "I discovered that if you reflect the light off the shiny metal, it puts more light into the room instead of wasting it. And it keeps that ugly soot from the smoke from sticking to the wall."
"That is clever," Edmund agreed. "Once I point this out to Prince Malcolm, he may want you to make more of these reflective lamps. Why, just the other day, he was complaining that the main hall was entirely too gloomy. He --" Out of the corner of his eye, Edmund watched as Asrial's face crumpled. "Why, what is it, child?"
Asrial turned and walked away, in the pretense of putting her book back on the shelf. "I can't." She took a ragged breath. "I'd have to go down to the cave. All my blacksmithing tools are there and my little forge and -- and," her head lowered, "and that's where he--" Her words were obscured by barely contained sobs.
Man of the cloth or not, there was something about a weeping female that brought out Edmund's nurturing side. He took out a clean handkerchief and held out it out to her. Asrial stared at it blankly before burying her face in his shoulder. He patted her gently on the back until she hiccoughed and her crying subsided.
"Let's get some fresh air, shall we?" Edmund suggested gently and steered Asrial from the room. In a few minutes, they were out on the parapets overlooking the sea. They stood silently for a very long time, just letting the ocean breezes blow across their faces and listen to the methodical crash of the waves on the rocks below.
"Would you like to talk about it?" Edmund asked quietly. "I won't tell another soul."
Asrial looked down at her hands, twisting the end of her woven belt in her fingers. "I don't why but," she paused and steadied herself, "every time I think of going down to my cave, a cold chill grips me and I can't seem to breathe. All I can think of is that he was there, in my special place. I used to feel safe there, I could do anything I wanted, build whatever my mind could come up with and, oh, Brother Edmund! I miss that SO much!" She looked at him, tears again in her eyes. "When I'm making things, that's the only time that I feel I'm really me. Without my gadgets, I'm nothing."
Edmund nodded. "I know," he said, taking her hand. "I know exactly how you feel. A very important part of your life was violated and you think you will never be able to get it back again."
Silently, Asrial nodded.
"When I had to defend myself against that bandit and I killed him, my faith was shaken. I took an oath to do no harm to any living creature and in that one moment, everything I believed in was turned to dust. I was taken back to a time I was not proud of and I was afraid that I would return there forever."
"What did you do?" she asked softly.
"I mourned my loss but my friends comforted me and reminded me that I was needed and I was missed." Edmund smiled. "I pulled myself from the darkness of despair and discovered I was a little wiser for my troubles. You have every right to feel afraid but one day you'll stop being afraid. Until then, you're not alone. Your clan is here for you and so am I."
Asrial considered his words carefully. "Promise?" she asked.
He patted her hand in his. "I promise. One night you'll wake up so anxious to make some gadget that you'll be down in that cave without a second thought."
The spiral-horned gargoyle said nothing but she squeezed Edmund's fingers and graced him with a small, glorious smile. They returned to looking out at the sea, not needing to say anything more.
* * * * *
Far below the cliffs of Wyvern, beneath murky waves, the remnants of the forgotten potion drifted on the ocean currents like a pink mist. Fishes swam away from the strange taint in the water as it filtered further down still, into the offshore trench where only the strangest marine creatures dwelled in darkness.
The barest trace of the strange brew tickled a set of gills.
One blood red eye opened.
* * * * *
The gray gargoyle who wore the breastplate had saved her a place again, Demona noted, as she sailed in to roost for the day. He was a likable companion and pleasant enough company. She gave him a winsome smile upon landing. "Thank you, brother. I do so like roosting on the east side of the castle."
He answered her smile with one of his own. "It's nothing, sister. I like to see how well your hair matches the color of the rising sun."
At that moment, a movement in one of the tower windows caught her eye, and Demona glanced up. The Archmage was leaning against his windowsill, looking at the gargoyles nearest his tower. Her mouth went dry instantly.
"Sister?" Her companion was looking at her curiously. "Is there something troubling you?"
Demona pressed her lips together and turned to face the sun. "No, everything's fine." The first pale rays of daybreak set her worried expression in stone.
* * * * *
The sediment of countless ages shifted as the sleeper roused itself from its centuries-old slumber. Slowly and deliberately, it tasted the delectable flavor of Demona's concoction. New sensations fired old passions as the potion circulated throughout the creature's body.
It edged forward, following the trail of the irresistible potion.
Following it out of the ocean's depths.
To Castle Wyvern.
* * * * *
The Captain of the Guard came out into the midday sunshine and stretched. He had lingered over a hearty meal with good company, a rare pleasure since the masked bandit and his band of thieves had appeared within the Wyvern protectorate. Glancing around, he noticed two of his men craning their necks as they looked at something far out over the ocean. He frowned and headed their way.
"What is it?" the Captain grumbled. The two guardsmen on the seaside battlements looked uncertainly at each other. They each looked to the other to say something, until one finally came forward.
"Take a look at the sea, Captain."
The Captain looked down in the water. He noted a strange pinkish coloration swirled in the surf, probably some debris in the rocks, but he saw nothing else out of the ordinary. The Captain was about to say he could see nothing, when he caught it. The sun glinted, steel bright, off the ocean making it hard to see anything, but he could see the strange shape bobbing above the waves in the distance.
"A Viking ship?" the second guard asked worried.
"Could be," the captain grunted and squinted to see better. It looked like the prow of a Viking longboat, but at this distance it was little more than a bump on the horizon. As he watched, the thing suddenly dipped under the waves and re-appeared a few feet ahead. "Hmmph. I dinnae know what it is," he muttered, "but I dinnae like th' look of it."
"What should we do, Captain?" the first guard asked.
"Keep an eye on it. If it comes toward th' castle, sound th' alarm," the Captain ordered. "I'll go tell Prince Malcolm."
The guardsmen snapped to as he passed by, re-entering the castle. They looked back at the bump on the ocean and the trail of rose-colored water below. This was clearly an ill omen.
* * * * *
"Are you quite sure it was not a Viking ship?" Prince Malcolm asked for the third time.
The Captain stuck his thumb in his belt and straightened to his full height. "From what little I saw of it, your Highness," he said curtly, "it did not ride in th' water like a boat. In fact, it reminded me of th' way a seal swims."
"A seal?" Brother Edmund queried. "I did not know seals were common to these waters."
"Not often, Brother," Prince Malcolm explained, turning partially to face the monk. "Our beaches below the castle are too rough for seals but we often see them swimming past to more favorable sites farther up the coast."
"Aye, an' the fisher folk are glad of it," the Captain said. "Th' less fish th' seals take means more for our table."
The prince rose from his chair. "It's been some time since I've watched seals at play. They're amusing creatures, Brother. You must come and observe them with me."
"I should be delighted, your Highness." Brother Edmund let the ruler of Wyvern precede him as they followed the Captain of the Guard out to the battlement. They were not yet not of the main hall when a wide-eyed guard rushed in.
"Captain!" The man hastily bowed when he saw Prince Malcolm. "Yuir Highness! That thing - that thing we saw earlier, it's nearly past th' breakers! Ye mus' come see it!"
Commoner, noble, and cleric alike ran out to the seaside battlements. A small of guardsmen and castle servants were gathered at the wall, the expressions on their faces ranging from fascination to horror.
"Make way for th' Prince!" the Captain bellowed at the top of his lungs. The crowd at the wall parted, making a space for Malcolm and his party.
Young Robbie pointed to the crashing waves below. "It dove down when the waves grew too fierce for it," he said loudly to heard over the curious voices of the other spectators, "but we could see it rise up and spout water into the air."
"Then, perhaps it is not a seal you thought you saw, Captain," Prince Malcolm reasoned, "but rather a whale."
A sudden breeze off the ocean sent a foul odor over the assembled crowd. Eyes watering, Brother Edmund covered his nose and mouth with a fold of his cowl. "What is that stench?" he asked through the course wool cloth. "It smells like spoiled fish and rotten eggs covered with mildew."
Prince Malcolm glanced at the monk, his face turning a most ignoble shade of green around the edges. "Please, Brother, must you be so descriptive?"
"I beg your pardon, your Highness."
"Captain! My Prince!" Robbie shouted. "Look there! Something's comin' out of the sea!"
It was the most singularly grotesque creature Brother Edmund had ever seen, a creature from the realm of nightmares. If he had to describe it, the closest he could come to it would be to say it looked like some sort of aquatic centaur. The main body was like that of a Clydesdale, the big-boned horses that wagoneers used to pull their heavy loads, but instead of feet, the stout legs ended in flippers like a seal. A barrel-chested torso with powerful arms rose from the front of the body to support an over-sized head, flopping obscenely from one shoulder to the other. The face was hideous with one large blood-red eye over a wide mouth, rimmed with row after row of dagger-like teeth.
The most repulsive thing of all was that the monster rising from the sea had no skin. It appeared to have a slimy, gelatinous coating that glistened in the light. Brother Edmund leaned forward with a healer's fascination, for he could see the corded muscles twisting and stretching as the creature moved up the rocky beach. White sinews and yellow veins showed plainly against the red flesh.
"Fascinating," Edmund breathed in a hushed tone. "Absolutely fascinating."
The Captain snorted. "Ye've got strange interests for a man o' th' cloth, Brother."
"Say what you will," Prince Malcolm said, "this is clearly a creature of otherworldly origins." He looked at his Captain with a hard gaze. "Fetch me the Archmage."
* * * * *
Deep in his study of the Grimorum, the Archmage had filtered out the excitable voices from the outside. He licked his finger and was preparing to turn the page when his nostrils twitched. It was a most vile scent and for a few minutes, he made a quick check to see if his myriad assortment of potions were all tightly corked. Satisfied that the stench was not of his doing, the Archmage went to his window and looked out.
What he saw made his eyebrows rise up in surprise. "By the stars!" he exclaimed softly. "I didn't know any of them were left."
Returning to the Grimorum, the sorcerer marked his place with a handy sliver of parchment and turned back to the first of the book. He was vigorously reading and making notes when he was interrupted by a young guardsman.
"By your leave, sir!" the red-faced messenger gasped. "His Highness, Prince Malcolm, requests your presence in the Great Hall!"
The Archmage looked up balefully. "Yes," he said. "I rather expect so."
* * * * *
Lurching from the foam of the receding waves, the strange creature from the ocean depths came higher up the beach. Its massive head rotated slowly so that the single blood red eye could examine every nook and cranny of the rock-strewn beach. Unexpectantly, the wide mouth opened and a meaty, triangular tongue was extended, almost, it seemed to curious onlookers, as if the thing was tasting the air.
Awkwardly, moving first the front half of his body and then the rear, the sea monster made almost a straight line for the steep cliff below the castle. It put its face close to the rock face, looking like a dog sniffing. Again, it extended its thick tongue, this time, licking the stone in front of it. Without warning, it lifted its head back and bellowed an eerie, deep, undulating howl of defiance.
Turning first its head and then its body in shifts, the skinless nightmare began a slow, deliberate march up the narrow path to the castle.
* * * * *
Prince Malcolm looked up sharply as his court magician entered the Great Hall. The robe figure approached at his own pace, carrying a rolled parchment. The prince tapped the arm of his chair impatiently. "Archmage, I assume you know why I've summoned you?"
The sorcerer made a dutiful bow. "You wish to know about the Nuckelavee."
"Th' who?" the Captain of the Guard asked.
"The Nuckelavee." The Archmage regarded the Captain as if he were a child. "I was quite surprised to see that one had survived. My brother sorcerers throughout the ages had thought they had perished in the Great War."
"War?" Prince Malcolm straightened in his chair. "What war?"
"Centuries ago, the Third Race quarreled and divided themselves into two courts -- the 'Seelie' meaning 'blessed' and the 'Unseelie' meaning 'damned.' Their leaders were once close companions but had become bitter enemies." Archmage looked coolly at his audience. "Their disagreement became a great war that changed the face of the world."
"What was their quarrel?" Brother Edmund asked, his fingers itching for quill and ink.
"It is uncertain," the Archmage answered. "but it is rumored that a woman was at the heart of the matter. The account is written in one of the earliest sections of the Grimorum Arcanorum and I had not time to translate it in its entirety, only the section about the Nuckelavee, which I recognized from a blurred drawing."
Another ferocious cry echoed from outside. All turned their heads in the direction of the sound and as the echoes began to die down, the Prince asked, "And what exactly does your Grimorum say about this creature, Archmage? Why is it here at Wyvern?"
The sorcerer unrolled the parchment and perused his notes. "According to ancient lore, the Nuckelavee was created by the magic of the Third Race for the sole purpose of destruction. Once it has set itself on a scent, it destroys all in its path."
"But why Wyvern?" Malcolm asked insistently. "We have no quarrel with the Third Race."
The Archmage frowned. "Of that, I am uncertain. It is written that the Unseelies who created the Nuckelavees found them difficult to control and ultimately resorted to luring the creatures to their target. A Nuckelavee must be ...summoned." A bushy eyebrow raised suddenly and for a few seconds, the sorcerer appeared lost in thought.
Robbie ran into the Great Hall, his face flushed and excited. "Prince Malcolm! Sire, th' thing is comin' up th' cliff path!"
"Are ye sure, lad?" the Captain demanded.
"Aye, Captain. It's comin' to th' castle, that's for sure."
The Captain glanced at Prince Malcolm, who nodded. "Tell th' men to get everybody within th' walls. Send a rider to tell th' workers in th' fields. Hurry, lad!" He glared at the Archmage. "Does it say how to kill th' bloody thing?"
The sorcerer scanned the parchment. "I did not get the entire story translated. I will have to return to my chambers and research it further. Know this, Captain -- the Nuckelavee is a creature of magic. Ordinary weapons will not have much effect on it. It dwells in the deepest part of the ocean so it is far stronger than it looks. Advise your men to keep well back. It can rend them asunder without a single thought."
Brother Edmund wore a shocked expression. "How can anything be so lacking in moral consciousness?"
"It is a thing, monk," the Archmage said scornfully. "It has no soul for you to save." He turned, his scarlet robe swirling around him dramatically. "I will return to my chambers and search the Grimorum for some clue on how to stop it." He stalked out without another word.
Prince Malcolm stood. "Captain, go see to our defenses. Brother Edmund, make ready the infirmary. There may be causalities." The prince started walking away. "Chamberlain! Come with me, we must make ready!"
A wayward breeze wafted a whiff of the creature's vile odor into the Great Hall. Brother Edmund crossed himself and hurried away to see to his duties.
* * * * *
"Here it comes," the Captain said quietly. He glanced at Prince Malcolm who stood at his side, clad not in his usual finery, but in chainmail with a guardman's leather tunic and helmet, sword in his hand. "Are ye sure want to be here, yuir Highness? I dinnae know what to expect from this beast. It could be dangerous."
"This is my castle, Captain," Malcolm answered. "I will defend it no matter what attacks it."
They watched as the Nuckelavee lurched up the steep incline from the cliffside beach. It moved awkwardly on land, hunching its tremendous body until it was almost doubled and then springing forward. Baying like a hound on the scent, it continued steadily towards the castle.
A small group of guards were pushing a few wagons in place to serve as makeshift barricades. The Captain of the Guard leaned out and bellowed at them. "All right, men! Get back inside! Hurry!"
Robbie was down at the main gate, counting the men as they ran in. When he was certain, he yelled at the gatekeeper, "That's th' lot o' them. Close th' door!!"
The gatekeeper and a few guards pulled the massive gate shut, sliding a stout oak beam in place. A second group of guardsmen rolled two more wagons against that, as a precaution.
Up above the gate, Prince Malcolm and the Captain had returned to watching the Nuckelavee's progress. The creature was stopped at the first of the wagons. It looked the vehicle over, sniffed it, even tasted it before screaming indignantly and hurling it away. The wagon landed as a pile of shattered timbers and straw against the castle, one wheel spinning on its broken axle.
"Did you see that?" Malcolm breathed. "It's as strong as a gargoyle."
"Aye," the Captain grunted, casting a sour look at the stone sentinels lining the castle walls, "but even they can't stand a well-placed arrow in the ribs." He held up an arm and glanced at his men. "Archers!! Arrows away!"
Whistling through the air, a storm of arrows rained down on the Nuckelavee. The majority of them bounced off but the few that did strike the target, did not stay there. The creature merely shrugged, flexing its muscles at random and popping the arrows free. They slid down its slimy hide to the ground as the sea monster proceeded to the next wagon, throwing it aside and howling.
Prince Malcolm frowned. "It would appear that the Archmage is right. Ordinary weapons do not mean much to this creature."
"All it means, your Highness," the Captain said, "is that we've only begun to fight."
The last of the wagons went flying. The Nuckelavee opened its cavernous mouth and bellowed defiantly, the foul stench of its breath overpowering. It raised its massive fists and pounded the heavy oaken doors, sending tremors throughout the front wall of the castle.
"Pour th' pitch on it!" The Captain shouted, as he fought to keep on his feet. "Burn th' bloody thing!"
Two guardsmen with thick leather gloves tilted a wrought iron caldron over the side of the castle wall and poured boiling pine resin on the creature below. Vile-smelling clouds of steam rose up as the hot pitch hit the moist, gelatinous hide of the sea monster. The Nuckelavee was hidden from view for a few seconds, screaming hideously.
"Poor thing," Prince Malcolm said. "It's a terrible way to die."
"I wouldna go for feelin' sorry for it yet," the Captain said. He thrust a hand out, pointing. "Look!!"
As the steam cleared, the watchers found themselves watched. The large head was tilted back, looking straight up at the men on the battlements. Its silent baleful stare was unnerving. Peeling its rubbery lips back from its pointed teeth, it hissed and the sound put a cold chill through all who could hear it. The Nuckelavee dug its fingers deep into the wood and methodically began to tear down the castle gate.
* * * * *
At the first screams, Brother Edmund came out of his infirmary at a dead run, a satchel of first aid supplies strapped across his chest. His progress was hampered by many of the castle's noncombatants running away to safety. By the time Edmund made his way out to the courtyard, he found himself in a battle zone.
The sea monster had successfully clawed its way through one of the panels of the gate. Now that he was standing on ground level with the Nuckelavee, Brother Edmund could see how enormous it really was. The creature stood twice the height of a man and its chiseled raw muscles rivaled the mightiest gargoyle. The foul stench which the monk had only experienced at a distance, was a malevolent presence all to itself.
A line of guardsmen with seven-foot-long pikes, stout spears topped with sharp axe-heads and wicked spikes, were trying hold the Nuckelavee back. The beast growled and swatted at them as if they were insects. One man got in a little too close and the blood red eye gleamed as its clawed hand ripped into the man's side.
"Here now!" Robbie cried and rushed in, swinging in with his pike. "Let him go, you demonspawn!!" The polished axe blade bit into the monster's shoulder, spurting black blood that hissed like acid on all it touched.
The Nuckelavee howled and turned its attention on Robbie. In the blink of an eye, it jerked the pike free and knocked Robbie off his feet. The brave guardsman held on to his weapon and was flung around like a dog shaking a rat.
"Lad, don't be a fool!" Brother Edmund called out. "Let go!"
Robbie called back, "Someone get Donal! He's nae movin'!"
Brother Edmund looked and saw that the monster's first victim was lying in a crumpled heap on the ground. He dashed in and began dragging the fallen man away. The Nuckelavee saw the movement and struck out at the monk with his front flipper. Without thinking, Edmund snatched up a spear and whapped the questing appendage as hard as he could. The creature bellowed and threw Robbie across the courtyard, giving Edmund time to pull the injured man out of harm's way.
"Brother," Robbie panted as he staggered over, his arm hanging limp at his side, "that was a bloody fool thing to do."
"Then we are a fine pair of fools, we two," Brother Edmund said as he made a quick examination of the unconscious man. "He's had a bad knock on the head but his helmet's saved him a cracked skull." He lifted the torn tunic and examined the wound. "I'll have to put in a few stitches but it's not deep. He'll live."
"Och, I'm glad to hear it. Donal has a wife an' two little ones at home."
The cleric got up off his knees and probed Robbie's arm. "And you've dislocated your shoulder." The Nuckelavee howled and Edmund took advantage of Robbie's momentary distraction to shove his arm back in place. "There you go, good as new."
Robbie scowled at Edmund and said ruefully, "Ye dinnae have to be so rough, Brother, but I thank ye."
"Don't thank me yet," Brother Edmund said as one of the castle serving men trotted out with a long board to use as a stretcher. "This isn't over, not by a long shot."
* * * * *
The last sliver of the setting sun sank into the fiery surface of the ocean. From vantage points all over the castle, gargoyles burst from the stone shells of their daytime rest, roaring back to life.
Thersites was stretching out his arms and yawning when he paused, his beak still gaping open. He took a deep sniff and grimaced. "Eeeeeuwww. Please, somebody tell me that's not coming from the kitchens. Because if it is, I'm eating out tonight."
"No," Ajax said, flicking an errant stone chip from his tunic. "That smell is coming from the front of the castle and look, the Guard is out in full force." He glanced up at the tower. "There goes the Leader and his Second now, to meet with the humans on the forward battlement. Come, brother! I sense a battle in the making."
"Oh, joy," Thersites sighed as he watched his crested brother sail off. "I would have preferred food-poisoning, thank you very much."
Two levels down, Asrial was frowning and holding her nose as she leaned over the wall with Goliath, looking at the Nuckelavee. The creature was at the castle's main gate, literally tearing it apart. Several timbers had been torn free and only the efforts of guardsmen with spears were keeping it out.
"I've never seen anything like it," Asrial commented to her tall lavender brother. "Where did it come from?"
"I do not know, sister," Goliath rumbled back. "I doubt it was ever meant to be seen by anyone outside of a nightmare."
A whooshing sound diverted their attention and the two young gargoyles looked up to see the brown-skinned Leader and his aqua-hued mate swoop down to the Prince and his party standing a few yards away.
"Prince Malcolm," the gargoyle leader said, bowing politely, "I see you've been havin' a wee bit of excitement today."
"You could say that," Malcolm replied dryly. "The creature is the Nuckelavee. As to where it came from and why it's here, we do not know. In the last hour, it has been trying to break into the castle. My men have been able to hold it at bay but it's incredibly strong and has hurt several guardsmen by grabbing them by their spears and hurling them against the castle walls."
"We'll put an end to that right enough," Hudson said. He glanced at the gargoyles that had sailed in to gawk at the monster at the gate. "I want two squads to attack this beastie. I'll take the older warriors wi' me to attack directly and my Second will take th' young ones to defend the castle from within."
Deborah gave her mate a steady look. "Aye, we'll back up the guardsmen in th' courtyard." She turned and began picking her trainees out of the crowd, selecting Goliath, Ajax, Othello, Demona, and a few others. Her eyes passed over Asrial and the barest trace of a frown crossed her face. "And ye there," she said, crooking her finger at Thersites, "I know ye could use the combat experience." The aquamarine gargoyle jumped up on the inward-facing wall. "Young warriors, follow me!"
Thersites raised his eyes skyward and muttered as he passed Asrial, "Why couldn't I be the one the Bandit captured? Why?"
A hurt, angry expression came over Asrial's lovely features. Her brother with the twisted horn was only complaining as was his habit but his words were more hurtful than he knew. They were the truth. Asrial had watched the Second consider and dismiss her in the blink of an eye simply because the Second had lost faith in her.
"Your Highness!" The Archmage came out onto the battlements, his robes billowing around him as he walked briskly towards the ruler of Wyvern. "I believe I have found a way to defeat the Nuckelavee."
"Yes?" Prince Malcolm asked. "Quickly, what have you found?"
"According to one of the earliest writers of the Grimorum, Unseelie creatures were created with a weakness to one of the four basic elements - earth, air, water and fire."
"We already tried burning it with hot pitch," the Captain said scornfully. "It just made it angry."
The Archmage gave him a withering glance. "Fire is not is the Nuckelavee's enemy. Water is."
"Let me finish. The Nuckelavee is a sea creature. Like most things in the ocean, it cannot abide fresh water. To drink it would be like taking poison, to immerse it in fresh water would be like dropping it in acid."
"Are ye suggest that we give th' thing a bath?" the Captain asked incredulously.
Prince Malcolm stepped between his two advisors. "No, if I understand correctly, all we need do is soak the creature thoroughly. How much water would it take?"
The Archmage's eyes grew unfocussed as he made some quick calculations in his head. "An amount equal to the body mass of the creature, preferably delivered all at once. Otherwise the creature will heal itself and double its efforts to destroy Wyvern."
The men had just exchanged a variety of concerned and inquisitive looks when a female voice interrupted.
"Y-your Highness? I think I can help."
Prince Malcolm turned and looked at the young gargoyle with spiral horns standing there. He recognized her as being the one that kept making things. "Yes? Do you have an idea?"
She swallowed. "Well, sir, I have a large piece of oilcloth. I made it into a large pouch for, well, it really doesn't matter what I was going to use it for, but it's watertight and it could hold that much water. Several gargoyles could hold it between them and fly down to drop it on the creature."
"Archmage?" the Prince asked sharply.
"Yes," the sorcerer answered, regarding Asrial thoughtfully, "the creature's suggestion has merit."
"All right then," Malcolm said firmly. "Time is of the essence. Captain, organize your men to form a bucket brigade. We'll want to bring the water up here so the gargoyles will have a high enough place to launch from. Archmage, I'd like you to inform the Chamberlain to have all able-bodied members of the castle staff to help as well. I'll tell the gargoyles the plan and you," he pointed at Asrial, "go get that oilcloth."
* * * * *
Her heart started pounding in her ears halfway down the cliff face. "Stop it," Asrial told herself firmly, "You have to do this. You can do this. Everyone in the castle is depending on you." She kept repeating this to herself all the way down until she sailed in for a landing in the mouth of her cave.
She took a deep breath and then another. Her hands were like ice and in the back of her mind, she could still hear his cruel laughter, smell his scent, feel the rip of his talons across her face.
"Stop it," she told herself, "Stop it right now." Asrial forced herself to take a step forward. Nothing happened. She took another step. Still nothing.
"See there? It's all right." Asrial came further into the cave, dreading seeing the mess her workshop away from home had been left in since that terrible night. She was quite surprised at what she found.
Someone had been here. All of the clutter and chaos was gone. Her baskets and boxes of useful things had been neatly stacked against one wall. All her tools were put away in the rack she had made for them. Even the sand floor had been swept clean of tracks. On her workbench, there was a scrap of parchment pinned under her favorite hammer. Asrial picked it up and read the note, in clumsy letters clearly written by someone who was still learning.
"Dear sister, I hope you do not mind but I have cleaned your cave. I hope it makes you happy." The note was not signed but Asrial had a good idea who had written it. His faint scent clung to the paper.
Smiling, Asrial tucked the note inside her tunic and began digging around for the oilcloth she'd been sent for. She found it quickly and tucked it under her arm. Before she turned to go, she took one last look around her cave. She smiled and let out a satisfied sigh.
"Don't worry, cave," Asrial said out loud, "I'll be back."
Then she left to join the others.
* * * * *
Another panel of the gate tore free and the Nuckelavee could twist its torso through the narrow opening, giving it two hands to fight the castle's defenders. Deborah and Ajax snatched up some discarded pikes and joined Robbie and his guardsmen in trying to hold the beast back. The obscene head rolled forward and it roared its defiance at them.
Thersites paused as he was helping Brother Edmund to move an injured man inside. "Isn't there any way to sweeten that creature's breath? Perhaps some mint from your garden, Brother?"
Edmund eyed the young gargoyle with hidden amusement. "I imagine sea monsters don't clean their teeth very often. Are you offering to do the job yourself, my young friend?"
"Certainly not!" Thersites huffed. "It probably picks its teeth with scrawny gargoyles like me. I wouldn't presume to give the thing ideas!"
"Where did this creature come from?" Goliath asked as he deflected a heavy chunk of wood hurled their way.
"We're not sure," Brother Edmund replied, "but the Archmage said the monster has to be summoned."
"Who would want that to come for a visit?" Thersites asked incredulously.
Nearby, Demona froze. She knew from the humans that the Nuckelavee had come from the sea and acted like a dog on a scent, making a straight line for the castle. She had tossed her first attempt at a magic spell in the ocean and the Archmage's window was directly above the rocky beach. She shook her head to clear it of such distracting thoughts and snarled as she snatched up one of the human weapons, joining the others in driving back the monster.
The bearded elder swooped down and pointed at Goliath, Othello and Diomedes. "You three! Come with me!"
Goliath and his rookery brothers followed the elder up to the top of the battlements. Four of the older warriors were already there holding up the corners of a large piece of oilcloth. A line of humans were passing buckets of water from the castle well, gradually filling up the makeshift oilcloth carrier.
"Take your places," Agamemnon ordered. "It's going to take precision flying but we're going to drop this on that monster."
"Water?" Othello asked. "Plain water?"
"Aye, lad, I know what yuir thinking," Agamemnon said wryly, "but we're going to do it anyway."
The Archmage eyed the rising water level critically. "Your Highness, I believe we are ready."
Prince Malcolm leaned over to look at the battle below. The combined effort of the castle guardsmen and the gargoyles were pushing the Nuckelavee back out of the gate. "Yes, let's do it. There will never be a better chance." He regarded the gargoyles preparing to launch with their odd cargo. "It's up to you."
Agamemnon nodded. "All right, lads, all together." They carefully lifted the oilcloth and spread their wings simultaneously, running off the edge of the castle. Angling in, they saw the Leader and the Captain pulling their forces back. Swiftly, like a training drill, the team of gargoyle swept in over the Nuckelavee and dropping the oilcloth in stages, drenching the hideous creature.
The Nuckelavee screamed, a raw primal wail, when the water hit it. The clear slimy covering began to bubble and boil, turning opaque as steam began to pour from its body. As they watched in horrified fascination, the creature from the sea shriveled up and collapsed in on itself. Soon all that was left was a bubbling, evil-smelling puddle of slime.
Brother Edmund looked through the mangled gate and clucked. "Evil creations always meet bad ends."
* * * * *
An impromptu celebration was held in the dining hall, and for once, the humans and gargoyles of Wyvern had no problem dining together - once the evening breeze had blown away the last of the Nuckelavee's vile stench. Most of the humans ate and went off to a well-earned rest but a few remained to socialize with the clan.
"And you went down to your cave by yourself?" Brother Edmund smiled gently. "It wasn't that bad, was it?"
"No, you were right, Brother." Asrial nibbled on a morsel of bread. "I was scared at first but someone," she glanced in Goliath's direction where he stood talking with Diomedes and Demona, "had made everything clean again."
Edmund followed the movement of her eyes. "It was very thoughtful."
"Why do you suppose he did it?" Asrial lowered her eyes for a moment. "It's not like I'm anybody special."
"I think that you are special to him, my dear," Edmund said, "and that's all that matters."
Asrial rolled her eyes as if she didn't quite believe the monk but a little smile played upon her lips.
Diomedes glanced over his shoulder. "I see the good Brother has put a smile on our clever sister's face," he said casually. "It's a welcome sight, is it not, my brother?"
The tall lavender gargoyle craned his neck to see for himself. "It is, indeed. I have been worried about her. If you'll excuse me?" He caped his wings around his shoulders and headed in Asrial's direction.
The gray gargoyle with the breastplate took a seat next to Demona who was staring moodily into her soup. "Finally. I thought he'd never leave." Diomedes smiled at the crimson-haired female. "Are you all right? I thought you did very well in battle tonight."
"Hmmm?" Demona looked up with a start. "Oh, that. I really wanted to put an end to the whole thing, that's all. I don't like loose ends."
Diomedes laughed. "That's a curious way to look at it."
"It doesn't really matter," Demona said with a shrug. "It's over now, and that's that." With that, she donned a pleasant expression and gave her breast-plated companion other things to think about.
* * * * *
The Archmage rose in the pre-dawn hours from a troubled sleep. He had spent several hours trying to determine how the Nuckelavee had been summoned. His final conclusion was that it was the result of badly brewed potion. Several of his herb pots were lower than he had left them and a dish was missing. He had scried for the identity of his mysterious novice but all he had received was the shadowed image of a gargoyle.
Leaning against his window ledge, the Archmage watched the gargoyles of Wyvern spiraling in to take their daytime roosts. He was intrigued by the thought of a magic-using gargoyle and scrutinized the arrival of each one, looking for some sign of talent. Finally, he gave up and turned to return to bed.
"No matter," the Archmage muttered, "The magic will claim its own."