Written by Todd Jensen.
Story idea by Todd Jensen.
CASTLE WYVERN, SCOTLAND - A.D. 973.
"Banquets", thought the Archmage in bitter disgust, as he sipped his wine. "Nothing but a waste of time."
It was another court function this particular night, which had interrupted his studies and resulted in his being trapped at the high table in the great hall of the castle, seated with Prince Malcolm and his leading nobles. Sir Geoffroi de Lamord, an envoy from Duke Richard of Normandy, had just arrived at Wyvern, on his way to Scone to speak with King Kenneth there. Needless to say, the high rank of the guest had ensured a great feast being called for as a means to honor him. And equally needless to say, Prince Malcolm and his seneschal had never even considered the possibility that the Archmage had better things to do that evening than sit for over an hour in the great hall with a gathering of illiterate warriors, listening to their endless bragging tales about their exploits in battle or in hunting, and fuming impatiently all the while.
"And while I am held here by my fool of a patron, the Lord Sorcerer is no doubt hard at work finding another way to humiliate me." He silently gnashed his teeth at the mere thought of his rival from Northumbria, with his ever-so-superior aristocratic demeanor. "The first thing that I will do, once I finally get my hands on the Eye of Odin and the Phoenix Gate, is to turn that sneering conjurer into stone and have him pushed off the highest battlements in all Scotland. That will truly be a sweet sight to my eyes."
As far as he could tell, there was only one consolation in all of this. His investigations had already convinced him that the Phoenix Gate was indeed in the possession of the Duke of Normandy, as a family heirloom. That meant that he had to learn all that he could about the Normans and particularly their ruler, in the hopes that he might someday discover a means of maneuvering the Gate into his possession. So he would have to carefully observe the Norman ambassador, Lamord, all throughout the feast, and never once miss anything important that he said and did. Who knew what use he might be able to make of it?
The ambassador was speaking even now to Prince Malcolm, and the Archmage turned his full attention to the man's words.
"So tell me, Your Highness," Lamord said, "why it is that your castle should bear the name that it does? 'Wyvern' is a most unusual name to bestow upon a royal stronghold, surely."
"In truth, I do not know, Lamord," Prince Malcolm replied. "All that I know is that this castle was given that name after the hill upon which it stands. Even before men came here to build this place, the hill was named Wyvern."
"I see," said the Norman ambassador, nodding. "Well, does your advisor know? The Archmage, I mean? He is, I understand, a very learned man."
"Indeed he is," said the Prince. He turned to the old sorcerer, and said good-naturedly, "Well, Archmage? Can you enlighten us?"
The Archmage cleared his throat in a dignified fashion, and arose. "Ah, yes," he said. "The secret of Wyvern Hill. In truth, there is good reason for the name, almost as certainly as there is good reason for any place to bear any name. But of such things, it behooves me not to speak. For the history of this hill is a most ancient and arcane one, and not to be shared with the ears of those who have not been initiated into the Great Secrets. For the safety of your bodies and your souls, I dare speak no further." And with that, he sat down again.
"I see," said Lamord, seeming disappointed. "Well, I have also heard that there were gargoyles dwelling upon the hill in those days, and their descendants still live within the walls of your castle. Perchance I might inquire of them?"
"I doubt that they would be able to give you any aid," said Prince Malcolm. "They have no names for anything, and certainly not for this hill or castle. It was the race of men who named the hill, not the gargoyles. In any case, the gargoyles are wary of strangers, and I doubt that they would willingly hold any converse with you as yet, not until they had come to know you better." He sighed. "If only Brother Edmund was still here!" he added. "He could have asked the gargoyles, and received an answer from them, had they any to give to him."
Lamord nodded. "I see," he said. "Well, perhaps in your brother's court at Scone, there may be a scholar who can give me the answer. Although it is surely a paltry thing, compared with the great matters that I and the King must speak on."
Prince Malcolm nodded. The conversation soon turned now to those "great matters", regarding the efforts at encouraging friendship between Scotland and Normandy, and how these efforts might be helped. But the Archmage was barely listening now. His thoughts were turned to a different matter.
"Wyvern Hill," he murmured to himself. "Wyvern Hill."
* * *
It had been two hours since the feast had finally ended and he had left the great hall to return to his laboratory, and the Archmage was still searching through his books, seeking any mention that he could find about dragons or wyverns in Scotland. So far, his search had proven fruitless. He had discovered many passages indeed about dragons in his various tomes of hidden lore, but none of them seemed relevant at all to him. He was beginning to feel thoroughly disgusted.
"Useless!" he cried, slamming another book shut. Its chapter on dragons had concerned itself almost exclusively with the old Viking myth about Nidhog, the great serpent who had been imprisoned by the gods beneath the World Ash-Tree of Yggdrasill, yet who incessantly and patiently gnawed away at its roots and would even survive the cataclysm of Ragnarok when it came, to trouble the generations that would follow it. And the book that he had read before it had dealt exclusively with the dragons of distant Cathay, focusing in particular on one that had been held by the caliph of a distant city at one point for his private menagerie. Not a mention in it about any hills in Scotland, however. And now he had only one book left to consult.
This was all beginning to annoy him. He had initially become curious enough about just why this hill was named after a wyvern to decide to carry out some research on the matter, once he had left the great hall. He had become all the more intrigued when he had remembered also the favorite oath of the local gargoyle clan, "By the Dragon!" There must be some connection there; he was certain that there was. And yet, after making his way through his collection of arcane volumes, the finest that there was anywhere in Europe north of Rome, he felt no wiser on the subject than before. Even the Grimorum Arcanorum had been unable to shed any light on it.
Grumbling sourly, he opened the last book, and began to page through it. He was halfway through it when he at last came to the subject that he had been so eagerly seeking, and began to read it hungrily.
"I have also learned," the author of the book had written, "that upon the western coast of Scotland, in the days when the Picts still dwelt there and called it their home, there once dwelt a great wyvern. This mighty beast roved throughout the north often, devouring cattle and sheep, and sometimes even maidens. But when it grew weary of such wanderings, it would return to its home, a lonely rocky hill beside the sea. And, travellers tell, this hill was named after it, and still bears its name to this day."
The Archmage nodded with interest. "So there truly was a wyvern here once," he said to himself. "But what became of it?" And he read on.
"Now," continued the book, "although the wyvern would seat itself upon this hill when the weather was fair, gazing out over the sea and resting, it also had a sleeping-place, a cave near at hand. And this cave was said to be an enchanted place, filled with ancient magics of the most awe-inspiring kind to be found anywhere in Britain. Indeed, only the Crystal Cave of Merlin Ambrosius upon Bardsey Isle could vie with it in reputation, and it is said that even Merlin's might was as nothing compared to the marvels and terrors to be found within the wyvern's lair. But only the wyvern would ever venture far into this cave, and none else dared go to it. And it was not only fear of the great beast which kept men away.
"Now, there came a time when the wyvern grew especially hungry, and raided the lands of the northern Britons, ravaging the kingdoms of Strathclyde and Lothian for food. And it was in the time that Arthur Pendragon ruled over the Britons, and held court at Camelot with his knights of the Round Table. Now, when word reached the King of the wyvern's depredations, he cried a quest before the Round Table, that one of his knights ride northwards and slay the dragon.
"And it was the noble knight Sir Severause le Breuse who claimed the quest. Now he was no famed champion as was Lancelot or Tristram or Gawain, when it came to feats of arms against his fellow knights, in battle or in tourney. But he had great courage to encounter giants and dragons and wild beasts, and had overcome many of them already, in his years spent in King Arthur's service. So he took the quest, and rode northwards to encounter the wyvern and slay it."
It was at this point, to the Archmage's disgust, that the chapter ended prematurely; the next couple of pages had been torn out. "That fool Ian's work, most likely," he grumbled. "I should have dismissed him much earlier! The little guttersnipe probably used the parchment to blow his nose upon!" He ground his teeth in anger, and clenched his fists.
Then he suddenly became still. A thought had just occurred to him.
"If Wyvern Hill was indeed that firedrake's home," he said to himself, "then there is only one cave that could have served for its lair. And I know where it is."
His eyes gleamed eagerly as he thought about it. "Dragons always keep great wealth in their caves," he said to himself. "And often, their hoards contain objects of great power. What if that wyvern's hoard was just such a one?
"And it could still be there," he went on, pacing back and forth in his study eagerly. "Indeed, it must be. The wyvern must be dead by now, or else I would have seen some sign of it before. But even if Sir Severause had slain it, he would never have claimed the treasure; all of those knights were too foolish to enrich themselves with the hoards of the dragons that they had slain. No, the wealth must remain in that cave still. And maybe - "
He smiled at the mere thought of it. "Maybe the Eye of Odin is there."
He spent the rest of the night mulling over one decision: should he go to the cave, to search for the wyvern's hoard, or not?
The essential problem, he thought to himself, as he paced back and forth across the floor of his study, was that he could not be certain if the wyvern was dead or alive. Granted, there had been no reported sightings of it since the days of King Arthur, five hundred years ago, so far as he knew. That did not mean that it was no longer dwelling there, alive. Sometimes dragons and wyverns could hibernate for many years, even centuries. Suppose that the fabled wyvern was sleeping in the heart of the cave even now, still guarding its treasure, ready to awaken if somebody removed even the smallest item from its hoard? It was a prospect that did not appeal to him at all.
But if it was indeed guarding the Eye of Odin - and for all that he knew, it could indeed - then he could not afford to leave the cave unvisited. Without the Eye, even if he could obtain the Phoenix Gate, he would still be unable to secure his place as the mightiest sorcerer of all time, more powerful than even Merlin himself. Worse yet, what if some other wizard were to enter the cave, overthrow the wyvern, and seize its hoard for himself? Suppose that this wizard was the Lord Sorcerer? The mere thought of the Lord Sorcerer wielding the Eye of Odin and sneering triumphantly at him was enough to give him a very uncomfortable feeling indeed. No, he could certainly never permit such an event to happen. He would have to obtain the hoard himself, at all costs.
He briefly considered the notion of sending somebody else to investigate for him, to learn if the cave was inhabited or not, but immediately discarded it. The only person that he could send now was that red-haired female gargoyle who now served as his apprentice, after all. She was at least somewhat abler than Ian had been - not that that was saying much - but even her he could not entrust with this mission. She might not recognize any magical object of great worth in the treasure, if she were to find it, and therefore could leave it behind. Worse yet, suppose she decided to betray him, and keep what she did find to herself? He certainly considered her entirely capable of it. He did not trust her at all. Indeed, he doubted that he could trust anybody to serve him honestly upon this mission.
No, there was only one thing to do. He still did not like the prospect of facing a wyvern, but he would have to brave the peril all the same. If he wanted to recover anything from the cave, he would have to go himself.
* * *
Leaving Castle Wyvern in the morning, at least, was no difficulty at all. The gargoyles had already taken up their perches upon the battlements, to turn to stone at dawn; they would not be able to question him. And the human guards let him pass over the castle drawbridge without question; none of them would ever dare challenge him. So he made his way towards the cave, unhindered.
As he lit his torch at the cave's mouth, he still felt a few uneasy qualms at entering this place. It was not just the wyvern that troubled him. He had learned other things about this cave through his studies, ominous things. The legends that had gathered about it were not comfortable ones. He had heard of how the Picts, in the days when they had still inhabited Scotland, had held strange and eerie rites in the upper portions of the cavern - but even they would not venture into its depths. Their legends spoke of it being an abode for unnatural things, demons of the worst sort. Not even the boldest of their wizards would dare to encounter such beings. And the Archmage, particularly after his having beheld the Nuckelavee two years before, was hardly inclined to scoff at such things.
Still, press forward he did, trying not to look long at his surroundings. Briefly, he noted how past generations of Picts had shaped the cavern, giving it a paved floor and sculpting the heads of demons or tribal gods - he did not know which and did not care - upon the upper walls. Even a hundred and fifty years after the last of them had been overthrown by Kenneth Mac Alpin in his conquest of Scotland, their work still remained clearly-shaped and hardly the worse for neglect. Perhaps magic had indeed had a role in its creation, as the legends had suggested. If this was not such a perilous place, he might well have stopped to examine them much more closely to see if he might be able to learn anything useful. Instead, he hurried on his way.
He did pause, however, after passing some very strange carvings upon the wall, to note a blank space following them, and to stare at it for a few minutes. That portion of the wall felt as though there ought to have been something there, something sculpted into it, but no hammer or chisel had ever touched it, so far as he could tell. He wondered why it had been left in its original state. Had the Picts been interrupted in their work upon it? Certainly, he felt that it was almost crying out for some sort of adornment there. But what sort of design should it be?
An image suddenly surfaced in his thoughts at that moment: himself, standing in triumph over a fallen adversary, victorious through his own might and cunning. But who should this defeated foe be? The Lord Sorcerer, perhaps? He certainly had possibilities for such a role. I'll give this more thought, he decided, once I finally have the Eye of Odin, and can fulfill that role properly. In the meantime, he hurried on.
As he continued deeper into the cave, the stone shaping of the Picts was left behind, and he was left with only the natural stark grandeur of the underworld. Great stalagmites rose up all about him, and stalactites dangled from the vaulted ceiling above, slowly dripping water. It was a magnificent sight, but he did not even pause to enjoy it. He merely hurried on.
"The chamber must be near at hand," he muttered to himself. "It has to be."
Then at last, he came to a side passageway, which branched off to his left. A faint silvery radiance glimmered from it, catching his eye. He stared at it for a moment, then nodded. "This may be the way to the wyvern's cave," he said. "Let me see." He made his way down it, though slowly, cautiously, and as silently as he might. He wanted to do nothing that might alert the great beast to his coming.
And then the corridor opened up into a much larger chamber, a great cavern whose arched roof stretched up past the light from his torch. And in the center of the chamber were two skeletal shapes, one small, one much larger. He approached them, to have a closer look.
One was a human skeleton, clad in decaying rust-brown armor, the remains of his sword and shield lying beside him. The Archmage looked at it for a moment, then nodded. "So Sir Severause never did return to Camelot," he said to himself, then turned his attention to the other skeleton. As he had expected, it was that of a great dragon-like beast, sprawled upon its side. A rusty lance-head was imbedded firmly in its rib-cage, the obvious cause of the wyvern's death. But it was not the dead wyvern itself that interested him. He gazed, rather, at the floor of the cave all about it, examining its surroundings carefully.
Then he clenched his fists in fury. Apart from the two skeletons, the cave was empty. There was no sign of any hoard to be found. No gold, no jewels, no precious objects of any kind. And certainly no Eye of Odin.
"Stupid beast!" he shouted, brandishing his fist at the wyvern's skeleton. "You never even gathered a treasure! I ventured into this cave for nothing! Why, I could - " He pointed one finger upwards at a stalactite, and shouted aloud, "Fulminus venite!"
A bolt of lightning shot from his finger and shattered the stone formation to fragments, which rained down upon the floor all about him. He paid them no heed, however. Instead, he pointed his finger at another stalactite, repeated the Latin incantation, and watched as lightning blew it apart as well. He then turned towards three large, and rather oddly-shaped stalagmites to his far left, and was about to cast the same spell at them, when he halted. He had suddenly noticed, out the corner of his eye, that the silvery glow that had guided him to this chamber seemed strongest around the wyvern's head. Curiously, he bent down to take a closer look at it.
What he saw was a small and perfectly smooth stone-like object, set directly in the wyvern's forehead. The radiance was coming from it. Fascinated, he forgot all about his anger, and examined it.
"Fascinating," he said to himself. "A 'dragon-stone'. So they do indeed exist."
He had read about 'dragon-stones' in the course of his mystical studies. They were small stone-like objects lodged in the foreheads of all dragons from birth, and gifted, or so sorcerous lore stated, with great magical properties. Indeed, some said that the very magic that the mightiest of dragons could command stemmed from, or was enhanced by, these stones. But their precise properties, few knew. It was very rare for a wizard to be able to obtain one, for dragons nearly always destroyed these stones when they were dying. The one or two sorcerers that he had heard of who had acquired such stones had only been able to do so by prying them loose from the foreheads of the dragons who bore them while they slept.
"Sir Severause must have slain the wyvern so swiftly that it never had the opportunity to destroy its 'dragon-stone'," he mused. "And if that is the case - ".
Eagerly he grabbed hold of the dragon-stone, and tugged at it. After a couple of minutes, it came free from its socket, and rested in the palm of his hand. He looked down upon it, and smiled eagerly, a cold light in his eyes.
"Yes!" he cried, raising the stone high above his head. "I have a 'dragon-stone'! Now which of us is the mightier, O Lord Sorcerer?" He laughed harshly. "Ah, if you could only behold me now, you fool! You'd eat your liver out!"
He then quietly tucked the stone away into the pouch at his belt, and turned around. "Well, at least I have something to bear back from this expedition," he said. "Now to take it back to my workshop, and learn what I can do with it."
He turned about and hurried away from the two skeletons, retracing his steps to the world outside. His satisfied chuckling soon faded from the chamber, as he left it far behind him.
For a moment, there was silence. And then, upon the three misshapen stalagmites in the distant corner of the cave that the Archmage had momentarily considered blasting, small cracks appeared. The cracks began to grow wider and more numerous, and pieces of stone began to fall away. Slowly, three shapes began to emerge from the rock.
* * * * *
A knocking sound came from the other side of the locked and bolted door. The Archmage looked up from the book that he had been looking over, and glowered in the noise's direction. "Go away!" he shouted. "I'm in the middle of important research, and cannot be disturbed!"
"But, Archmage!" protested a female voice, from without. "Is it not time for my lessons?"
The Archmage grumbled disgustedly underneath his breath. "Blast that stupid beast! I'd forgotten her! I should have known that she'd be coming, now that the sun has set!"
He turned to the door. "They will have to wait until tomorrow," he told her sharply. "I am far too busy tonight to attend to you. Now go occupy yourself with other matters, and let me be!"
There followed the sound of his gargoyle apprentice turning about and going back down the stairs again, but he hardly noticed it. "Wretched monster!" he muttered. "Has she nothing better to do than trouble me at this hour? What was I thinking, to choose a gargoyle for my apprentice?"
He continued paging through his book, his sour mood increasing rather than diminishing. "Still nothing," he commented angrily. "Confound those scholars! Could they have not penned a little more about the properties of a 'dragon-stone'? What is the point of obtaining one, if I do not know what I can do with it?"
He had been reading through the various tomes and codices in his collection ever since he had returned from the cave, and now, three-quarters of the way through them all, the only thing that he had been able to discover about a 'dragon-stone' was that Malagigi, court mage to the Emperor Charlemagne over a century and a half ago, had kept one in his possession, and made use of it from time to time. The records, however, had not stated just what use of it he had made, leaving him at an utter loss. If his books were not so rare and valuable, he would have thrown them into the fire in his rage.
"Even the Grimorum has said nothing about 'dragon-stones'!" he cried. "And half of the greatest wizards in the world have written in it! Why could none of them have provided some information that I can use?"
He sighed again, and looked the stone over. "I will simply have to analyze it the hard way," he grumbled. "For there seems to be no other way that I can learn how I may turn it to my advantage."
* * *
"I have to find some better hiding-places," Thersites grumbled to himself. "I simply have to."
He had thought that the niche behind the tapestry was safe. He truly had believed that it was. But Agamemnon had quickly located him behind it, and hauled him out to accompany Diomedes and Ajax on an expedition to the woods. They were to examine the snares set in the forest for any hares that they might have caught, and bring them back to the castle. And now he was trapped in the company of those two, traipsing through the woods, when the Dragon knows what might be abroad.
"We shouldn't remain out here too long, you know," he told his rookery brothers. "Remember the reports that the Prince's foresters have been bringing in about that monstrous wild boar roaming abroad nearby. Suppose we were to encounter it?"
"I don't think that that would be too great a problem," said Ajax innocently. "After all, there's three of us and only one of the boar. We'd surely outnumber it."
"Three to one?" retorted Thersites. "I'd give a great deal, rookery brother, to know how you arrived at those particular odds."
"Oh, pay no heed to him, brother," said Diomedes to Ajax, cutting in. "I know enough of him to guess that it is more the prospect of encountering hard labor that troubles him than the prospect of encountering the boar. Just ignore him, and let us continue to check the snares as we were bidden."
"There's another snare in that clearing," said Ajax, pointing to the east. "Let us see if it has caught anything, shall we?"
The three gargoyles moved towards the clearing, Thersites lagging behind the other two. Then they suddenly halted. Strange sounds were coming from the clearing, sounds such as the gargoyles had never heard before. They paused, and listened.
"What are those noises?" Ajax asked. "Have you ever heard anything like them before, brother?"
Diomedes shook his head. "Perhaps we should investigate," he said. "Though cautiously. Let us see what the makers of these sounds are, before we confront them."
They moved silently towards the clearing, and peered into it, through gaps in the leaves. And then all three of them stared in amazement at the sight before them.
In the clearing were standing three bizarre beings, the like of which none of the gargoyles had ever set eyes upon before. They were roughly man-high or a little taller, and in shape much like that of a human or gargoyle. But they were clearly neither. Some of their features were clearly akin to those of a gargoyle, for they had great leathery wings and long tails, but their heads were anything but gargoyle-like or human-like in shape. They were oversized, with great tentacles dangling from about their mouths, in a fashion almost like that of an octopus or a squid. Their hides were a sickly green in color, and there was an odd and decidedly unpleasant smell about them, enough to offend the watching gargoyles' nostrils.
The strange creatures, fortunately, had not realized as yet that they were being watched by the gargoyles. They were gathered together in a rough circle, making the odd noises, as if they were speaking with each other. But the language that they were speaking in was foreign to the gargoyles' ears, and they could not understand it. They did not even know if it was a language.
"What are they?" asked Ajax in a whisper, as they withdrew from their watching-place.
"I do not know," replied Diomedes. "I wish that I did."
"Well, I've seen enough," said Thersites. "I'm not staying in this wood while creatures such as that are about. I am leaving!" And with that, before the other two gargoyles could stop him, he turned and ran on all fours through the woods, straight towards the castle and in the opposite direction from the strange octopus-headed beings.
* * * * *
"Now, let me see if I understand ya correctly, lad," Hudson said to Thersites, some minutes later. "Ya saw what in the forest?"
"Monsters!" Thersites replied. "They were horrible! Worse than the Nuckelavee! Worse even than the giant spiders!" He ignored a cynical snort from Agamemnon, standing a little to Hudson's right.
"And what did these 'monsters' of yuirs look like, then?" asked Hudson.
"Well, they had wings," said Thersites. "And these huge heads, with tentacles hanging down from them. I've never seen anything like them before, leader! Never!"
"Well, what do ya think?" Hudson asked, turning to Agamemnon.
"That particular one has long been in the habit of creating extremely lavish and colorful excuses to justify his dodging his proper duties," replied Agamemnon. "But this particular tale of his has to outdo all those that preceded it. In truth, I very much hope that you tell no more such tales as this one, lad," he continued, staring straight at Thersites. "Not only because they are a shameful habit for a gargoyle, but also because any future fabrications of yours will seem downright anti-climactic, compared to this one."
"But I am not lying!" Thersites protested. "I really did see them! If you don't believe me, ask my two rookery brothers! They saw them as well!"
"Then we'll just have to ask them when they return," said Hudson. "In the meantime, lad, ya can make yuirself useful by goin' to the north tower and standin' watch there. And this time, no noddin' off!"
As Thersites left for his new post, Diomedes and Ajax glided down from the sky, to land beside the two older gargoyles. "Leader!" cried Diomedes at once. "There are three very strange beings in the woods!"
"Strange beings?" asked Hudson and Agamemnon, both at once. It was Agamemnon who continued from there. "Did these 'strange beings' of yours have heads like octopi, perchance?"
"Yes, they did," said Diomedes, looking astonished. "So our rookery brother told you first, did he?"
"So he was indeed telling the truth," said Agamemnon. "There really are strange beings in the woods nearby."
"Did ye see what they were doin', lads?" Hudson asked.
"They were conferring with each other," said Diomedes. "But about what, I do not know. They spoke in a strange language that our ears had never heard before."
"And have ye any clue at all as to whether they're plannin' to come this way or not?" Hudson asked.
"No, leader," said Diomedes. "Not a clue."
"So what do we do about them?" asked Hudson thoughtfully, turning to Agamemnon.
"For my own part, leader," said Agamemnon, "I would do nothing as yet. We do not know what purpose draws them here, and whether it is a friendly intent or a hostile one. And until we can be certain that they are foes, I would let them be. If they came hither with no evil in their hearts towards us, it would be a very disgraceful thing to attack them."
"Ya may be right," said Hudson, nodding. "It seems that all that we can do now is wait. Wait to see if they will come here or not, and whether or not they mean us harm."
* * * * *
The three winged creatures slowly clambered their way upwards to the top of the rocky hill, and gazed about them. In the distance, the castle lay, a dark mass beneath the light of the full moon, illuminated only by a few torches.
They unfolded their wings, and stretched them out at full-length. Then, leaping off the hill-top, they soared into the night air. Their flight was ungainly at first, but began slowly to improve. And their course took them directly towards the stone fortress below them.
* * * * *
"Three winged shapes are approaching, Leader!" called down Othello from his post.
"What do they look like, lad?" asked Hudson. "Do they seem to be the creatures that the young warriors told us about?"
"They certainly are not gargoyles," replied Othello. "Their heads are the wrong shape for that, for one thing."
Thersites began to slip away from the crowd of gargoyles in the courtyard below, with a look of "If anybody wants me, I'll be hiding in the stables under the hay" upon his face. The others did not notice his departure, though. They were too busy conferring with each other.
"Could they be on their way here to attack us?" asked Ajax.
"It is possible," said Diomedes grimly. "I must confess, I did not like the look of those creatures."
"But we don't know what their intent is," put in Asrial. "Just because they have an unearthly appearance about them does not mean that they mean us harm. They may very well be coming this way only out of curiosity, and nothing more than that."
"The lass is right," said Agamemnon. "If it was Vikings who were approaching the castle, now, I would never doubt their intent for a moment. But those beasties - she is entirely correct. We don't know at all what they want with us. And if they bear us no ill will, then it would be extremely foolish and dishonorable to attack them. After all, most humans consider us unearthly creatures, even the ones in this very castle."
"But if they are planning to attack us," said Diomedes, "and we do not act in time, they may be able to gain the advantage over us. Is it wise to delay?"
"May I remind you, lad, that I've seen far more years than you have?" Agamemnon asked testily. "I believe that I should know what I'm talking about."
"By the Dragon!" Othello cried. "My rookery brother is right, elder. We must attack those creatures at once, before they gain the castle! We must do it now!"
And with those words, he leaped off the battlements, gliding upwards upon the night winds. Diomedes and Ajax quickly clambered up after him, launching themselves as well, and completely ignoring Hudson and Agamemnon's remonstrations. But the others of their rookery generation, including Goliath and Asrial, remained where they were, though watching their siblings with some concern.
Othello rammed himself into the first of the flying creatures, with sufficient force to beat it back. Diomedes and Ajax followed suit with the other two, knocking the breath out of them. But the winged octopus-headed creatures quickly recovered, and swooped back at their assailants. They lunged at them with clawed hands and lashing tails, attempting to grapple them.
"To us, brothers!" shouted Othello, struggling to break free from one of the unearthly creatures' grip. "We cannot let them defeat us!"
With a sigh, Goliath ran up the steps to the battlements, and leaped off the nearest merlon, gliding upwards towards the aerial battle. Roaring as he came, he collided with the monster attacking Othello, forcing it to release its hold upon the white-haired gargoyle. Next, he lunged at the creature fighting Diomedes, while Othello went to Ajax's aid. In a few moments, the four gargoyles had forced the octopus-headed beings to fall back.
The gargoyles landed in the courtyard, a little heavily. Desdemona ran to Othello's side at once. "My love!" she cried. "You are injured!"
"It is nothing," he assured her, although he was not entirely steady upon his feat. "Nothing, at least, that the sun won't cure come the dawn."
"Oh, nicely done, lad!" snapped Agamemnon, advancing upon the young warrior, his eyes coming close to flaring white in anger. "Brilliant! Most sagacious! Now those three beings definitely will be hostile! Have you ever heard of such things as tact and diplomacy?"
"He speaks the truth," said Hudson, giving a disapproving stare at Othello, Diomedes and Ajax alike. "I am ashamed of all three of ye. A true gargoyle warrior never lunges into battle without thinking, and never attacks strangers that have shown no sign of enmity. Ye all acted like hatchlings. And now, because of yuir recklessness, we must prepare for attack. All of us."
As he began to assign each member of the clan to a different post, a look of fear spread over Demona's face. The other gargoyles did not see her slip away towards the Archmage's tower.
* * *
"So what did those creatures look like, Hubert?" Lamord asked.
"Something like a gargoyle, but not quite, my lord," said his servant. "I had a clear view of them from where I stood upon the battlements. Their heads were misshapen things, very different from those that gargoyles have. And they were much bulkier."
"That is most interesting," said the Norman lord, nodding thoughtfully. "I would very much like to see one of those creatures."
"My lord Sir Geoffroi, I would advise you against it," broke in Prince Malcolm concernedly, having just approached the two men. "I cannot permit a guest of mine to endanger his life while he remains in my castle. I pray you, remain here in the hall where it is safe. The gargoyles and my archers will be able to protect Wyvern from these strange beasts."
"I thank you, Your Highness," replied Lamord, "but I know how to keep myself safe. I doubt that I will be in any real danger - unless the castle falls, which I do not believe will happen."
"Whatever you wish," said Prince Malcolm. "I, for my own part, would rather not behold such beings. From all that I have heard of them already, they must be truly nightmarish in form."
"I would very much like to know what manner of being they are," said Lamord thoughtfully.
"The answer to that question seems obvious enough to me," said the prince gravely. "What else can they be but demons?" He sighed. "I would that Brother Edmund was still here. If these truly are creatures of the Evil One that beset us, then his wisdom and devoutness would be worth a hundred archers. But we must make do with what we can."
* * *
"Archmage?" asked Demona, knocking on the still locked and bolted door of his workshop.
"I said, go away!" the sorcerer shouted from within. "What part of that command did you not comprehend, you stupid beast?"
"But, we need you!" she cried. "We are being threatened, by three monsters!"
"Monsters?" asked the Archmage. "What do you mean by 'monsters'? I warn you, if this is some stratagem of yours devised by you to intrude upon my studies - "
"It's nothing of the sort," she said, her voice quavering in her fear, but doing her best to sound bold. "They attacked the castle, but some of my rookery brothers drove them away. The elders think that they will return, however."
There was a moment's silence. Then the Archmage spoke again.
"Perhaps you had better come inside, then." There was the sound of him fumbling with the lock on the other side of the door. "Enter, and tell me all that you know about these creatures that you have sighted."
* * *
"...and so that's why I sought you out, Archmage," said Demona, some minutes later, as she stood before her seated tutor. "For if anybody knows what manner of creatures those were within these walls, surely it must be you."
The Archmage stroked his beard thoughtfully. "Most interesting," he said. "Most interesting indeed."
He rose up from his chair, walked over to his desk, and picked up a parchment scroll and quill pen. He dipped the pen into his inkwell, then scribbled a number of things down upon the scroll with it. That completed, he handed the scroll to Demona.
"See if you can find all the items on this list somewhere in the castle," he said. "I will need them to complete my plans for repulsing these demons. When you have assembled them all - and not before - bring them back to me. Then I will do what I can to protect Wyvern from them. Now go, apprentice! Time is of the essence."
Demona nodded, and immediately scurried out of the workshop. The Archmage closed the door behind her and locked and bolted it once more. Then he sank down into his chair with a sigh of relief, and removed the dragon-stone from his sleeve, where he had concealed it before Demona had entered the room.
"Well, that useless errand should keep her away from me for a while," he said. "Now I can get back to some proper work."
He went back to his books again, paging through them to see what he could find that might shed light upon the unnatural creatures that his apprentice had reported. The first few tomes that he consulted contained nothing, but he finally met with success after trying the Grimorum Arcanorum itself. Near the end of the book, where the writings of the original Roman Mage that had crafted it in Caesar Augustus's day ended and those of later wizards that had once owned the magical volume began, there was an illustration of a bat-winged octopus-headed creature that answered to his pupil's description of the unearthly beings. He began to read the accompanying text, eagerly.
"'I do not know the origin of this particular creature, or what nature it might have. All that I know of it was told me by a Pictish shaman whom I had befriended, and who occasionally met with me to exchange tidings and lore in the ruins of a milecastle beside the old Roman wall in the north. And this is what I was able to learn from him.
"'Many years ago, during the reign of King Constantine of Britain, father to our current sovereign Uther Pendragon, there appeared a great marvel in the west of Caledonia, not far from the place known as Wyvern Hill. First there appeared in the heavens a great flaming star, like the dragon-star from which the High King took his title, yet unlike it as well. It appeared to plummet from the firmament to the earth, and the sight filled the Picts with horror. They believed that it was a sign of great evil to come, and although I do not normally place much trust in the claims of the astrologers, on this occasion I must agree with them. For the falling star did indeed serve as a presage of what was both a marvel and a terror.
"'Two nights later, the three demons, as the Picts held them to be, appeared, and began to make of themselves a plague and a thing of fear to the lands about. They attacked villages, driving the folk who dwelt there from their homes, and consumed their huts with sorcerous green fire. But then, they made one grievous error. They angered the wyvern that dwelt at Wyvern Hill, and its rage was not pleasant. It placed a curse upon the monsters three, and sealed them in enchanted stone, deep within its cave. And there, it is said, they will remain, for as long as the wyvern's power is unbroken. Inscribed by my hand, Blaise of Northumberland, in the sixth year of the reign of Uther Pendragon, High King of Britain.'"
The Archmage closed the Grimorum thoughtfully. "As long as the wyvern's power is unbroken," he said to himself. "Clearly something must have occurred to break that power, or else the creatures could never have escaped. But what - ." Then he paused, understanding. "Yes, of course! The dragon-stone! Once I removed it from the wyvern's skull, that dispersed enough of the skeleton's mystical energies to fulfill the terms of the spell. That is why they are free again."
He rose up from his chair, and walked over to the window, looking out over the castle below. "Well," he said, "I suppose that I shall just have to find some way of disposing of those creatures before they start meddling too much in my work. Gargoyles are bad enough, but if I have to continue fending off those monstrosities, I am never going to get anything accomplished."
* * *
"Archers, shoot!" cried the Captain of the Guard.
The bowmen standing at the battlements aimed carefully, and let loose their arrows at the three winged creatures. The flying beasts swerved neatly from the path of the shafts, however, although few of the arrows even presented any real threat to them; the archers had no more light to help them take aim than a few torches, which was not enough to ensure any true accuracy.
"Again!" the Captain cried. But the bulldog-faced guard named Robbie spoke up just then.
"By your leave, Captain," he suggested, "I would deem it wiser to waste no more arrows in this poor light. It would be better for the gargoyles to serve as our defense now, unless those demons come within range of our swords."
"Hrumph!" said the Captain, scowling. "But I suppose you're right," he added, a moment later. "And it is fitting, in a way. Pit one set of monsters against another. Though I doubt that they'll fare any better than us."
Under Hudson and Agamemnon's direction, the young warriors of Goliath's generation had taken to the air, to ward off the octopus-headed creatures. Or at least, most of them had. Two were conspicuous by their absence: Thersites, although that was hardly a matter for astonishment, and Demona. The red-haired female had gone missing all of a sudden, and none of the other gargoyles knew what had become of her. But Hudson and Agamemnon had decided that, in light of the assault from these strange foes, it was not wise to go looking for her at present. At least there were enough gargoyles in the air to serve as a barrier for the invaders, particularly given that they outnumbered the odd winged creatures.
However, after two clashes and mid-air grapplings, the gargoyles were forced to fall back. Even when Goliath, Desdemona, and Diomedes had all rushed upon the leader of the monsters, trying to bear it down, it had managed to beat all three of them off with a swing from its mighty tail, and the rush of its wings. Goliath was about to lead a third charge upon the creatures, when the intruders suddenly swerved. They hovered in mid-air for a moment, acting almost as though they were trying to hear something, although in the absence of any features upon their heads that could be construed as ears, it was hard to tell. And then, they turned and flew away from the gargoyles.
"They broke off the attack!" said Ajax. "But why?"
"Not broke it off," replied Goliath. "They have changed their target. Look!"
He pointed towards the Archmage's tower. All three creatures were bearing straight upon it.
* * *
"You took your time long enough," said the Archmage sharply to his apprentice, after unlocking and opening the door to admit her.
"Forgive me, Archmage," said Demona, placing her load of odds and ends upon the workbench before her. "It will not happen again."
"Make certain that it does not," he replied. "Now, then, I want you to - "
He broke off his words, however, as a massive squid-headed horror burst through the study window, amid a loud crash and a shower of broken masonry.
Two more of its kind followed it into the room. They alighted upon the floor, and shook themselves for a moment, before turning towards the Archmage and Demona. Then they slowly advanced towards them.
"Get away from me, you filthy monsters!" shouted the Archmage, hurriedly retreating towards the open door. "Get away! I order you to do so!"
The creatures paid his words no heed. However, before they could reach him, a lavender shape hurled itself through the gaping hole that had once been a window, ramming hard into one of them. Goliath struck the beast down, pinning it against the floor.
"No, you abomination!" he cried, as he wrestled with it. "You will not harm any within this castle!"
The other two creatures watched in silence for a moment, then turned back towards the Archmage and Demona. The old sorcerer made a dash for the door, but stumbled in his haste. And out of his sleeve fell a small gleaming stone, which rolled across the floor to halt at Demona's feet.
The young female gargoyle gazed down at it in wonder for a moment, but then, with a sudden gleam of inspiration in her eyes, quickly stooped down and snatched it up. Once it was safe in her hand, she held it out at arm's length towards the two creatures.
"Get back, both of you!" she cried. "Get back! This is a powerful magical talisman! It has the power to banish all three of you! Go now, before I am forced to use it!"
The two squid-headed invaders hesitated, standing motionless before her. Demona was about to advance a step towards them, still holding the stone before her as if it were a crucifix held out to keep a vampire at bay, when the Archmage, having picked himself up, saw it shining in her hand. Forgetting his earlier fear, he charged at her.
"Give that back to me, you thief!" he cried. "That's mine, not yours! Give it to me!"
Demona turned around in time to see him lunge at her, and stepped back in alarm. He seized her hand, however, and tried to pull the stone free from her claws. Demona resisted, jerking her hand back. But as she did so, her grip upon the stone slackened, and it went flying across the room, and over the still-wrestling Goliath and the third monster. With a splash, the dragon-stone landed in a beaker filled with a bubbling green liquid.
Upon its landing, it began to dissolve in the Archmage's potion. Green smoke rose up in vast quantities from the beaker's mouth. The Archmage turned from Demona towards the beaker, and rushed towards it, a cry of horror coming from his lips. "No! Not my dragon-stone! Please, not - "
His desperate cry was suddenly interrupted, however, by cries coming from the three monsters, two closing in upon Demona and the third beginning to overpower Goliath. The standing monsters reeled about like drunken men, clutching at their heads. As for the third, its grasp upon Goliath weakened, and it rolled away from him, moaning and writhing. The lavender gargoyle climbed to his feet, and stared down at it in amazed silence.
Even as the last of the dragon-stone was eaten away in the Archmage's solution, all three creatures collapsed. Their bodies trembled for a moment upon the floor, and then remained still.
"What has become of them?" asked Demona, breaking the silence at last, as she gazed upon the remains of their late enemies.
"I do not know, rookery sister," replied Goliath, sounding equally puzzled. "Perhaps we should simply be grateful that they are no longer a threat to our clan and our home, and leave it at that." He then turned to her. "What were you doing here, anyway?"
"I believed that those creatures might be beings of magic, and so came to beg the Archmage to aid us against them," she said. "I thought that he must surely know what they were, and how they might be overcome. I was about to ask him when they broke in upon us." She was silent for a moment, then added, "Thank you for coming to our help, rookery brother."
He nodded in silence, but the Archmage broke in upon them. "Well, the two of you can kindly depart from this room," he said sharply. "I've had enough winged beasts in here for one night, and I don't want to see any more. Now leave, both of you!"
Demona and Goliath both turned and left, gliding out through the newly-enlarged window without a further word. Still grumbling, the Archmage turned to survey his laboratory.
"That fool of an apprentice destroyed the dragon-stone, before I could even discover how to use it!" he grumbled, clenching his fists. "If that other gargoyle hadn't been there, I'd have given her some proper punishment for her clumsiness! And now I've three monsters to dispose of - ". He suddenly halted, and stared down at the bodies of the deceased octopus-heads. Then he half-smiled in a thoughtful manner. "Perhaps there is a silver lining to all of this," he said. "Those creatures may have some use to them, even in death, if I can only learn what it is. Now - "
The Archmage turned around, to glower at one of Prince Malcolm's pages, standing in the doorway. "You could knock before entering, boy!" he snapped at the youngster. "Have you no manners?"
"Forgive me, Archmage," said the page, almost stammering, "but your presence in the great hall is desired. Prince Malcolm has much to ask you about the monsters."
"Can't it wait until later?" the Archmage protested. "I have a number of things to do here, and - ".
"The Prince demands your presence, and he will not accept a denial," said the page. "I am sorry, sir, but that was his word." He stepped back into the hallway, clearly fearing to be turned into a toad or a newt at any moment, judging from the expression upon his face.
"Oh, very well," said the Archmage, grimacing with anger. "I will come."
He followed the page out of the chamber, still grumbling. Neither of them saw Lamord step from a shadowed corner of the corridor outside, followed by a pair of men-at-arms in his retinue. The three of them quietly gazed down at the corpses lying in the middle of the room. The retainers clearly seemed uneasy, but Lamord had a look of fascination upon his face, if mingled with disgust, as he viewed the monsters' bodies.
"Quickly," he instructed his men. "We have little time."
Goliath and Demona landed on the battlements of the eastern curtain wall of the castle. They looked back at the Archmage's tower in silence for a few moments.
From down below in the courtyard, Hudson was delivering a spirited rebuke to Othello and Diomedes, Agamemnon standing beside him and nodding approvingly, and many of the other young warriors of Goliath's rookery generation listening in silence.
" - an' I hope that ye've both learned something from this. Now, we were very fortunate that those creatures did no harm to any of us or to the castle. But it could have been worse. We don't even know what those beasties were. For all that we know, they might have been magical creatures, maybe even of the Third Race. They could have had power enough to level this castle with but a single word. And they only fought us because ye provoked them. I want ye both to remember that."
"Yes, Leader," said Othello and Diomedes, in contrite voices. Iago, standing near the forefront of the crowd, smirked silently at Othello's discomfiture.
Goliath turned back to Demona, who was looking down upon the assembly in a hushed silence. He wondered if something was wrong with her, some lingering after-effect from the encounter with the strange monsters, and was about to ask her about it. But he never got the opportunity to do so. For Demona quickly moved away from him, and glided across the courtyard to the curtain wall at the other end, to perch on the most remote part of the battlements. He stared after her in thoughtful silence, and then decided to let her be.
* * * * *
"I still have no idea what those beasts were, and I have better things to do than to answer your questions about them," said the Archmage, as he impatiently climbed up the spiral staircase leading to his tower several minutes later, Prince Malcolm still in tow. "I have my laboratory to repair still, after the damage that they wrought upon it."
He opened the door, then gazed inside. A sudden look of shock, horror, and rage appeared upon his features. "I have been robbed!" he cried.
"Robbed?" asked Prince Malcolm. "What do you mean, Archmage?"
"Those creatures' bodies are gone!" replied the wizard, pointing to the blank space in the middle of the floor. "Somebody has broken in and stolen them!"
"Well, that's a small loss," said Prince Malcolm, with a shrug. "I hardly see what you would want with them, anyway."
"That is not the point, Your Highness!" cried the Archmage. "Some scoundrel has crept into my quarters, and stolen from me! I demand that you have this castle searched, to find the creatures' bodies!"
"I am sorry, Archmage," replied the Prince, "but I hardly consider that to be necessary. In my opinion, whoever took the bodies of those monsters - assuming that there was an actual thief - has hardly done us any wrong. In truth, I view their loss as a good riddance for us all." He then yawned. "I bid you good night, Archmage. It is past time that I retired to my chambers."
And with that, he went down the stairs, leaving the Archmage to fume alone.
* * * * *
Sir Geoffroi de Lamord smiled to himself, as he and his entourage rode away from the castle the following morning, and glanced back at the three chests strapped to his pack-horses' backs, three chests that had not been in his baggage when he had come to Castle Wyvern a few days before. He nodded, and twisted the gold ring upon his finger, which depicted a pyramid with a fiery eye crowning its apex.
"The Illuminati will be very interested in this," he murmured, in a quiet voice filled with satisfaction.