Scott heard a muffled scream cut off from far off in the darkness. From out of the shadows near Don's right shoulder Dog appeared with the sudden speed of a match struck in the darkness. Don looked the big dog in the eyes and Dog communicated with low whines and prancing. “The boys are in trouble! Justin has been taken by something. Wolf is looking for him,” Don made a low sound in his throat. “I'm going back with Dog taking the shadow-path. Angel, you bring the rest as fast as you safely can.
Don took two steps and before his foot came down the second time he and Dog faded into the shadows. The shadow-path was a weird world unto itself. No time passed in the real world and the distance between the two points was not dependent upon the physical distance in the real world. In this case it was ten quick steps through the flat cracked plain of the shadow-path. A creature that haunted the path attempted to hold the two, whether for a toll or to attack Don never knew because Dog's red eyes blazed with fury at the attempted delay and slashed with one snap of its great jaws. The shadowling shrieked like a damned soul and fell back dead or dying.
Dog had warned Don of the nature of the trap laid for the unwary traveler. The center of the trap was a lightning blasted oak with webs of magic laid out in a complex pattern. The pattern served two purposes. It was an effective way to waylay travelers and it also constituted a nested network of black magic. It had been years since the lightning struck and the brambles grew up and in all that time something horrible had been laying webs of spells like a malevolent spider all around the little copse.
************* **************** ***************
A fighting knife appeared as if by magic in Andy's hand certainly one of Dodge's reflexes. “Okay, you nasty piece of work. Let's see how to weave my way through there.”
Dodge had a near perfect memory and instinct for where to place his feet and how to move but he was already caught in the web. Could he get himself out? And could he do it in time to save his friend?
Andy began careful steps avoiding the tendrils of magic that were strung across the area moving towards the stump.
“Stop,” a voice commanded him and Andy would have jumped out of his skin but Dodge's reflexes kept him carefully in place. It was his Granddad Don with Dog next to his side.
“This is what we do,” Don said soothingly. He had his dragon horn bow in his left hand with an arrow nocked and ready to shoot. The cover was back from the quiver exposing the red fletching and sheep-horn nocks on the arrows, “The rest are coming fast as they can. Where's Riddick?”
Andy realized he had lost sight of the wolf while he was in the trap, “I don't know. Trapped in here maybe? Maybe he's gone inside the stump after Justin.”
“So it was Justin we heard,” Don replied. “Okay, we'll pick up Riddick along the way or Angel will find him when she gets here. I made a quick and dirty shift through the shadows here following one of the Hag's trail she has left. The rest of us are following Angel here.”
“A hag?” Andy asked, “I thought they were water creatures. Every once in a while one would sneak in under Riverton and grab kids until somebody killed it. If it eats kids why did it lure in Justin?”
“Two reasons at a guess,” Don replied quietly as he navigated towards the stump pointing out where to step for Andy as they went. Dog had disappeared but Don appeared unconcerned. “First is that she's hungry. Hags are always hungry. Second, Justin is a kid and so are you where it matters. You guys must look like a smorgasbord to the hag or hags. You never know how many you're going get in a nest like this. They're out in the middle of nowhere they have to make do with whatever comes along. And they need to hide from big groups like the Tuathe De or even a Traveler caravan. Half Orcs sometimes roam through here in raiding parties or fleeing their endless tribal wars and maybe a goblin troop every decade or so but I guess they ambush animals most of the time or lone travelers going to the Chapterhouse or on their way to Bridgetown.”
“Oh, so we really stepped in it,” Andy said subdued. He was scared but determined not to show it. “Just hags?” he asked hopefully.
“Nope, we better keep our eyes peeled for other critters,” Don replied, "Ogres for sure at least one of them and something I've never seen before. Something small and quick that goes on both two legs and four when convenient. They have long claws or talons.”
“Of course they do,” Andy replied quietly. “Yeah, sure. I lived with you guys in camp too long. I forgot how these things go.”
“It's the same number of predator to prey ratio as in the real world,” Don replied, “It's just that there are still predators here that prey on humans.
“Now we need to be quiet,” Don said in a hushed voice. Nothing carried quite like a whisper so both avoided it.
“Dog,” said Don almost silently and the big white dog seemed to form out of the darkness at Andy's elbow then melted into the shadows as they approached the tangled brambles around the stump.
Andy pulled another knife in his off hand holding it with the flat alongside his arm. His other knife was held low so as not to catch the light.
A shape like a large child clad in cast off rags pounced from the darkness at Andy and he shifted his weight to avoid the spider-like arms with black iron claws at the end of each finger. The creature scored a line along the edge of Andy's leather armor slicing deep and catching the tunic beneath. He could feel the cold as the rents in his armor let in the night air.
When the beast attacked it was as if a signal because it began shrieking like a demented monkey and its voice was joined by others in the darkness near them. As it slashed at him, Andy instinctively stabbed upwards into the creature's groin and hammered a series of quick stabs in the exposed armpit of the ragged attacker.
Andy couldn't get a look at its face as it was hidden in shadow by a shock of tangled and matted hair. Only the eyes were gleaming in the shadows. However, the strikes were telling as the creature launched another attack trying to spread both arms wide but was unable to lift one arm and stumbled into the brambles at Andy's feet. Andy finished him with a quick stab to the heart beneath the rib cage. At that Andy began to feel a thin trickle of blood where the razor sharp claws had just sliced his skin and the wounds began to sting.
When Andy was attacked two other ragged iron-clawed scarecrows had attacked Dog and another attacked Don. Don loosed his first arrow towards the one attacking him striking it in the eye with the sound of a mallet driving a spike into a wooden block. He fired twice more in three seconds pinning the first scarecrow attacking Dog through the neck and center torso without pause to aim.
Riddick appeared from out of the shadows and between Dog and the wolf they tore the other shrieking monster to shreds. Between the two of them an arm and a leg both were ripped free.
“Oh, God!” Andy breathed too wound up to scream. “What are these things, Granddad? Are they goblins? I want to go home!” Andy was a pre-teen boy who had just killed something up-close and personal with a pair of razor sharp knives.
“It's okay,” Don told him, “Keep your eyes open but just breathe. You'll be okay.” Don knelt with his left hand holding his bow with a nocked arrow and quickly examined the creature he had shot through the eye.
“No, not goblins. Not even something related. It's a Hagboy,” Don explained, “they're the children of the Hags. You don't want to know how they're conceived.”
“What?” Andy was young and Dodge was still a teenager without any kind of formal education.
“Never mind,” Don said soothingly, “These are dead but there might be more.”
“Oh please, I want to go home!” Andy said plaintively.
“You want me to have Dog take you back to the Tuathe De camp?” Don asked, “He could do that pretty quickly.”
Andy thought of his friend in the hands of something worse than whatever it was that he had just killed. He paused for a few seconds then he answered he was shaking a little but his voice was clear and firm, “No, we'll get him out of this. I got him into this.”
“Good boy,” Don said encouragingly, “Let's move closer but follow where Dog and I lead.”
Riddick came up and nudged Andy's hand avoiding the knife then joined Dog as they quartered the area in a searching pattern. Both Don and Andy were quieter than the wind through the tall grass as they slipped towards the stump. Don trusted Dog to watch for traps and kept his own vision on the edge and behind without stopping to focus on anything searching for patterns and motion. Andy was watching their path more closely for physical traps and used his stone again. “I think they know we're here.”
************* ************** ***************
Angel was worried the distance was exactly wrong. Too far to run quickly but it would take longer to saddle the horses and ride there as it would to simply run. Then Michelle stood and gave a piercing whistle. A paladin's mount was unlike any other horse and they had a special bond. The mount was always there for the paladin when needed. In this case a greater magic or power was watching for them as all of their horses. Michelle's steed, Graywind, arrived with all of the horses saddled and ready to ride. Michelle leapt into the saddle and leaned forward giving Graywind free-rein and urged him to greater speed. The stallion appeared as an exemplary specimen of a Tuathe De charger. He was a shimmering silver dun with black mane and flowing tail. Graywind was far more than that however. He was intelligent, swift, and utterly fearless. Michelle led the charge across the moonlit grassland at a gallop trusting Graywind's instincts and vision.
Michelle drew her long-hafted halberd from the socket on her saddle and bent over Graywind's neck urging him to greater speed, “Come on, boy,” she coaxed him as she slackened the reins more to give him the freedom to run.
Scott watched Michelle pull out ahead of the rest of them passing their guide Angel. He wanted to call her back but the boys were in danger and he wanted help to get there as soon as possible. Angel was about to call a warning to Michelle when Michelle rose up in her stirrups raising both arms above her in a 'V' the halberd pointing towards the sky. She shouted a command, “Dia Uachtanna sé!”
The curving blade of the weapon glowed like a second sun for a long moment throwing a wave of light and force forward in an arc towards the blasted thicket. Everything stood in stark relief as if illuminated in a klieg light for a second or two. A massed shriek came from a dozen throats and great roaring in pain from others. The light exposed the scarecrow like hagboys who as one flinched from the light most falling to the ground and all covering their eyes and cowering. It also illuminated two great ogres who had been hiding camouflaged by magic. Those giant monsters covered their eyes but were enraged rather than seriously hurt as were the hagboys.
Angel sent an arrow winging forward every time her horse was at the peak of its gallop where all four feet were off the ground. The timed shots came every second or so and were accurate as if she were sitting on the horse standing stock still.
Before his horse came to a stop, Allan launched himself feet first from the back of his horse planting a kick with both feet in the pit of the nearest ogre's abdomen. Allan carried a spiked steel shield with his bottom left hand, a spiked axe above it, on his right Allan had a spiked steel gauntlet on his lower right hand and a short spear with his upper right hand. Allan had struck with the axe, and spear before the ogre struck the ground stuffing his steel sheathed fist into the gaping maw breaking teeth before driving the edge of his steel shield down into the flat bridge of ogre's ape-like nose crushing down into both eye sockets. The ogre roared in pain before the axe whirled up and back down taking the head off in one blow.
Katie began playing an enchanting tune that further confused and beleaguer the already dazed hagboys. The scarecrow creatures began swaying in place, their limbs moving like a man drowning, while looking about with a dull look in the flinty little eyes. The same song encouraged her companions who went through the confused hagboys with the competent air of a farm wife killing chickens.
A hag all long hair and iron talons half again the height of a tall man sprang out of a tangled bramble right at Shandra in the saddle. Shandra dropped over the opposite side and both sets of razor like claws sliced through the air where she had been sitting. One long talon sheared off a length of Shandra's reins just below where her hand had been holding the leather.
The hag twisted to her feet with the speed of a viper to be met by the golden sheen of Shandra's blade. Shandra sliced and sprang to her left sweeping the blade along the inside of the hag's long arm. The arm dropped to the grass and black blood fountained in the moonlight. The talons flashed again and were met by the long two-handed weapon. It sheared through the wrist and back across leaving a bloody stump and the hag's head went bouncing through the grass.
The second ogre came bellowing in pain out of the thicket and squared up with Scott. Scott's steel teeth flashed in a tiger's grin as he went to work on the giant creature. Two quick kicks drove the ogre to his knees snapping both bones in the lower leg on one side leaving the ogre's leg flopping like the end of a flail. It fell to one knee leaving it a head taller than Scott.
Sean released the flail head and chain from his staff whirling it with a vicious wasp-whine before it smashed across the back of the ogre crushing its kidneys on both sides with a crack as vertebrae snapped. “Deus VULT!” Sean cried as he threshed the back of the ogre, clockwise then counter clockwise as the steel flail rebounded. The ogre ducked with pain its back hunched. The last sound it made was a cavernous gasp of agony cut short by Scott's armored elbow smashing the arc of its jaws on both sides top and bottom. The head spun popping bones in the barrel thick neck.
Scott saw Don and Andy at the edge of the oak tree and waited until Don gave him the 'all clear' sign before cautiously approaching. “What's happened here?” Scott wasted no time.
“Hags' nest,” Don replied. “One of them has grabbed Justin. I'm going in to get him out.”
“Okay, I'm with you,” Scott replied, “Shandra, Allan you watch our backs here with Katie, Andy and Angel.”
“Sean, Michelle, you have the power to defeat their sorcery and witchcraft. We'll need you on the inside.”
“I'm coming too,” Andy added, “You need somebody to spot traps and disarm them and I am the best. Justin's down there somewhere and it's my fault.”
Scott thought for a moment then nodded, “You're right. I don't like it but you're right.”
Michelle opened her mouth to protest then shut it and nodded before continuing, “Agreed but Don, then Andy. You'll just have to look past Granddad. He can spot traps too. He was Captain of the Elven Queen's Guides and is a Shadow-Warden. He's not as good at it as you are but I'm not putting you out there first.”
Scott nodded, “I'm next then you. Sean brings up the rear.”
“I need a full fist of Zwerg guardsmen,” Scott said.
“Or a company of Guides,” Don added.
“Or a lance of Paladins,” Michelle replied.
“Or an Order troop of Brothers,” Sean put in his wish.
“Might as well wish for an Imperial Legion with an auxiliary of Church warrior monks,” Scott finished "But we have what we have and that's not nothing. We're not just an old cop a bus driver and a Sailor and a Marine. By itself that would be something. But we're much more than that. We've done this before.”
They contemplated the lightning-blasted oak and the big black crack in the side gaping like a dragon's jaws. Waiting wouldn't make it better.
Don nodded, “Okay, Dog,” he called and the big white beast slipped quietly into the crack. Michelle closed her eyes for a second and a wan golden light came from the cross on the front of her helm. Sean nodded moving his lips and a similar light started from in a halo around the top of his own helm.
Don cased his bow and arrow and drew his knife and tomahawk from his belt following Dog closely through the crack, “It goes down fast. Watch your feet.”
The interior of the tree went from burnt wood to hard packed dirt quickly and within a single step Don could smell the rotting blood and unclean stench of the hags' den hidden from the outside by magic. Andy came behind and paused to gather his bearings before moving on. Both he and Don were outlined by the light behind them in dim lit silhouettes but it was clear that there was already an eerie light coming from algae dripping from the walls. The walls were bare dirt with thin trickles of algae, rootlets winding their way down and deeply scored marks. The tunnel quickly grew wider, wide enough for an Ogre to walk hunched over. Hags could be quite tall with long bony arms and legs. Ogres were thicker but could maneuver through tight caverns some could change their shapes at will to allow them to get into and out of tight areas.
Scott saw Don scanning the walls, ceiling and floor for sign and tracks while Andy watched for traps. Scott was watching both of them. He was not surprised but still pleased at how well he could see in the dark tunnel. Side tunnels opened to either side and they passed them with the precision of a military close quarters battle squad. One or two covered the side passage until all of them were safely past. The trail kept leading straight into the ground a rough scratching came from the rear and Scott could hear Sean spin and the flail whirl with a crash of chain and the sound of an iron billet striking a water filled gourd. Scott smelled the rotting pus stench of a giant spider and felt the back of his legs lightly spattered with a gooey liquid. Michelle spun on her heels and stabbed backwards skewering a leaping shape in the blackness. The dog-sized spider was caught on the broad halberd blade and Michelle brought it down slicing through the rest of the spider's body.
Sean made a disgusted sound low in his throat as he wiped the goo from his face.
Michelle put one hand gently on Sean's shoulder giving him a squeeze and they turned back to the trail.
They continued for another minute or two and Andy made a low sound causing Dog and Don to stop. When he had their attention Andy pointed to a spot on the ceiling that Dog had already passed. Don kicked himself for not seeing it first. It was a false spot cleverly concealed with magic and natural skill. Don looked at Dog and made a fist then flattened his hand very slowly then pointed behind Dog with his chin. The dog sank carefully and backed up a couple steps away from the trapdoor.
Don had his tomahawk and fighting knife out. There was little room for archery. He started to back up and to the side when the trap sprang and a wave of darts shot from the spider hole first. Dog and Don leapt backward and to the side as Andy went the other direction to the right. Their weapons flickered in their hands like silver flames in the darkness batting the darts out of the air with metallic --tings--. Behind them Scott snatched a dart out of the air before tossing it to the side.
Swinging out of the hidden spider-hole like monkeys swarming out of a tree came a trio of hagboys. The trio drove at Don and Andy. Don had his hands full keeping the razor sharp talons out of his flesh as well as their snapping teeth. Andy kept one of them back with feints of his daggers. Sean said something forcefully in a magical tongue and two of the creatures dropped their limbs wrapped around their torso like a dying spider.
Dog jumped on the back of the third scarecrow and crushed the bones in its neck with a single snap. Scott stepped forward and stamped on the head of one of the curled up hagboys while Michelle sliced the head off the other.
“I didn't think you'd be able to use that in here,” Scott said quietly to Michelle nodding at her halberd while Don and Andy checked each other for a missed dart.
“Corpse Tongue,” Andy said sniffing one of the darts. “Nasty stuff.”
“I didn't expect them to greet us with scones and tea,” Michelle replied equally quietly.
They continued down finally turning into a broadening pathway to the right when a shriek of pain came out of the darkness down the tunnel. Andy jumped forward, “It's Justin!”
******** ***************** *****************
Justin felt a hand stinking like a week old corpse and hard as an iron framed saddle clapped across his mouth while several pairs of arms pinned his hands to prevent Justin from casting any simple spell that required merely a gesture or a single syllable. The hagboys were horrific by themselves but the hag was infinitely worse.
She or it. Kantrus had heard whispered rumors and read half-forgotten lore of the ancient evil called "Hags" by men. Rumors that spoke of evil existing before man, before the gods, before light itself that had clung to survival in secret in the dark places between realities. Evil beyond what mere mortals or even demonic forces could understand and to truly understand meant madness then death but the lore hinted that perhaps death was better than knowing.
In the dim half-light the hag was at least seven feet tall with black eyes that wept black pitch like fluid. The rest of her face was hidden by the shadows and her filthy hair through which only the shining gleam of her steely teeth could be seen and the horror of her eyes. The hair was down to her knees in back and tangled into nasty dreadlocks like streamers matted with sticks, dirt, and crawling with vermin. The hag tore a filthy strip from her loincloth and stuffed it into Justin's mouth then the hagboys bound his limbs with ropes made from twisted cedar roots.
“A tasty treat to be sure,” cooed the hag. "But we need more and to share," she added.
The hagboys gibbered with imbecilic joy at their mistress' words. Justin was rushed down the twisting dimly lit tunnels carried by the hag. Justin figured she didn't trust the hagboys with fresh meat.“Oh, this one will hang in the corner nicely,” the hag muttered to herself. Justin became aware of a blasphemous chanting and shut it out with prayers of his own rather than surrender his sanity to the monstrous half-heard whispers and tittering of the hag and her slave spawn. The steel taloned monster shoved Justin head-first into a woven sack and he could feel the magical wards and restraints on his own movement and magic. Foul necromancies had gone into weaving the sack holding him. Justin could smell and feel the fear and despair of the children that had been imprisoned in the sack before him. The hagboys began beating the outside of the sack both to amuse themselves and to disorient Justin to prevent him from focusing to use his magic. Justin hung on grimly and was determined to chant a spell as soon as he was able. However, he thought ruefully to himself that if they kept up their beating he might not be in any shape to cast a spell when the hagboys finished with him, assuming they ever tired of their "play." an old lullaby that his elven mother had sung to him centuries before. In his memories her face looked like his adopted mother Michelle and something like his birth mother and something like all the kind grandmothers and aunts who had cared for him. The lullaby was a human prayer translated into Elvish something mothers sang to babes to chase the night away.
A Mhuire na nGrast, a Mhathair Mhic De,
Go gcuire tu ar mo leas me,
Go sabhala tu me ar gach uile olc
Go sabhala tu me idir anam agus corp
Garda na nAingeal os mo chionn
Dia romham agus Dia liom
Justin realized that he had worked the gag out of his mouth or the hagboys had knocked it loose and he was singing the old song when one of the hagboys landed a lucky blow that struck Justin on the mouth.
The blow shocked his senses and brought him back to the here and now. Somehow, Justin knew that his mother was close. He could feel the bond that he had with his mother had survived becoming a different person and coming to a different universe. Some bonds were stronger than space and time was immaterial to them. Justin screamed a loud shriek of pain and anger.
In answer he heard the battle cry of the Tuathe De torn from his father's throat, “Lámh Láidir Abu!” Followed by his mother shouting, “I'm here, Justin! We're here!” The voices were close, close enough to give Justin hope and he shouted back heedless of the blows the hagboys landed or the hags' chanting a spell, “Mom, Dad, I'm in here! Help, look out for the hag and her spawn!”
He could hear the sounds of battle and all at once the hagboys left off with their "fun." Justin concentrated for just one moment and snapped out two quick syllables the bag became dust and Justin dropped to the floor banging his head on the hard-packed dirt. Through the haze of pain and even in his dizzied state he could see the terrible scene. Hags and their ogre allies were gathered in a cavern lit with a ruborous light. A low fire burned down the middle of the cavern with spits for roasting their victims whole across the coals. The room was filled with hagboys, great ogres, the rail thin and shaggy-haired hags and others that had come to share in their monstrous feast. Human witches, savage cannibal goblins, and other creatures hid in the shadows waiting for scraps from the hags' board. Into the blood-curdling tableau his family hammered their way through the entry guarded by the monstrous brood.
His father had swept into the room in a hurricane of flashing gold, tomahawk and knife ripping through the ragged gibbering hagboys like a threshing machine heedless of the streaming cuts from their iron claws. Blood streaming from a dozen wounds the shear fury of Don's onslaught forced the hagboys to give way. Behind him guarding his flanks was an apparition from a nightmare, the white furred hellhound tore into hagboys, his eyes blazing red beacons of hellfire promising death to all in reach of his blood stained fangs.
The great ogres moved to intercept them and Scott launched himself into them like a living cannonball. He hammered them back with his fists and feet shattering bones and crushing flesh beneath his mallet-like fists. Sean followed Scott's lead and covered his back with great sweeps of his steel-shafted flail bursting heads and torsos in showers flesh and blood.
The true threat to the hags and center of the battle was Michelle using her halberd to slash, stab and batter her way through the hags themselves. She strode purposefully like an armored juggernaut dealing death at each step forcing the horde to give way before her. The Paladin stood like an avenging angel her glaive mired in blood and gore from butt spike to blade tip and her armor dripping with grue.
The ogres and hags were by far taller than Michelle but to Justin's eyes she loomed above them promising death and retribution. One of the hags shrieked and took a frog-like bound towards Justin whether to kill him or hold him to ransom he could never say because Sean lifted his hand in a gesture as if to grasp an apple from a tree his hand glowing with a golden light then brought his clenched fist downward abruptly.
The hag's head exploded in a gout of gore and bone. The chief of the coven stepped forward, “You cannot save the boy he is -”, Michelle interrupted her with a gesture and the hag gagged on her own words.
“Get away from him you, Witch!” Michelle ground out her teeth bared in fury. Her words amplified by the Power she channeled hit the unclean horde like a thunderclap. The hags stunned, drew together away from the armored paladin.
Dog and Don disappeared from the midst of the battered hagboys who were left gape mouthed in wonder and they appeared next to Justin. Don held his dragon-horn bow in one hand with an arrow nocked and helped Justin to his feet with his other. Dog, his eyes redder than the blood dripping from his fangs stood on Justin's other side and the young elf pulled himself up with one hand on the hellhound's muscled shoulder.
“We have your people in our hand,” the hag gloated, “they are trapped there. No magic can escape from this cave!”
Michelle's laugh rang out like a silver bell pushing back the darkness, “Trapped in here with you?”
She gestured with her halberd like a queen with her scepter, “You are trapped in here with us!” Her laughter was as glorious and terrible as sounding of an angel's war horn. The hags looked around and realized that they were alone in the center of the room. They alone had not fled to the far corners of the cavern or lay dead in heaps scattered all around.
A voice began chanting in the darkness raising fell shadows and the dragon-horn bow sang twice sending two arrows slamming into the darkness. The voice was abruptly cut off by the crack of an arrow driving into a skull.
“Just because I haven't killed you yet, does not mean you're safe,” Don said in a conversational tone towards the creatures cringing in the shadows. “Next one that so much as thinks about a spell will get a visit from Dog here. And he's not kind and gentle like me.”
The hellhound's snarl was bones ground between millstones and his slaver smoked as it dripped on the earthen floor of the cavern. Damned souls that had given themselves to the Pit drew back from the beast that coursed ahead of the Wild Hunt.
The hags were creatures of the shadows and the dark. Dangerous to the weak or unwary but here they were in the position of a fox who had set himself for a hare and had pounced on a lion.
Although steeped in the depths of pre-human evil the guests at the interrupted feast were not fools. Those that could ran, flapped, or slithered towards the exits. Those that could not huddled back into the shadows in the corners of the vast cavern. The hags hissed at the deserters baring their fearsome teeth and more terrible eyes. Eyes filled with evil so foul they oozed the black pitchy essence of congealed sin down their scored cheeks. When a hag bolder or foolhardier than the rest raised her voice to curse those slinking from the light, Sean raised his hand again and brought his mailed fist down. The hag's head cracked like an egg and she dropped to the floor. The rest quieted hiding their eyes from the brilliance shining from the paladin.
“I challenge you paladin,” the chief of the coven stepped forward, “me for mine and you for yours. If I win we go free and take the boy. If not, you take the boy and leave. No magic, no powers just your pointy stick set against my own strength of fang and claw.”
“What say you paladin? Do you fear me?”
“I fear neither your dark necromancies nor your iron nails. I warn you if I win I will cleanse this cavern with the Light of God. It will burn into the deepest shadows and there will be no escape.”
“So be it!” the iron-taloned giantess shrieked and sprang forward. The hag's bound would have shamed a starving wolf but Michelle met her with the golden hued blade cleaving deep into the hag’s shoulder. It would have killed any human but the hag was made of sterner stuff and began circling for an opening her right arm hanging nearly to the ground useless. The paladin shifted her back foot to keep the blade of the halberd angled at the hag's chest. The hag knew that this was no time for feints or half measures it was all or nothing and she threw herself forward onto the blade of the halberd. Transfixed by the blade the hag's long arm, thin but tough as an old oak root reached Michelle with a rake of her claws that scored a line down the side of her helm and drew blood from her face. Michelle abruptly pulled forward with the hag's motion and jerked downward freeing her blade and slamming the hag into the floor.
Before the monster could right herself with her crippled arm Michelle stomped down crushing the filthy shaggy head under her boot heel.
“Lig a bheith ann solas Dé” she shouted her voice ringing throughout the cavern. Light blasted out in a wave before her nearly solid in its force. It swept over the monsters in the cavern like a tidal wave striking sandcastles destroying them utterly into ash and dust blown away as by a gale.
Don turned to Justin hugging his son tight before Don slid to the ground eyes rolling back in his head. Justin, head swimming from his own battering saw his father covered in slashes and ripping cuts from the claws of the hagboys.
“Mom, help!” he gasped out before sliding to the floor himself. Sean reached the two first and quickly shucked his mailed gauntlets to gently place a hand on each side of his father's head. Gentle white light washed over Don and the wounds closed turning to pink scars before fading into nothing. No mar was left on the archer's tanned frame but he lay still his eyes closed.
“Don't worry, Justin,” Sean said with a weary smile. “Dad's okay, he just lost a lot of blood and nearly killed himself just by taking the shadow-path. He just needs rest.”
Michelle reached out and placed her bare hand on Justin's cheek again the healing light glowed, Michelle's more golden than Sean's but the effect was the same. Justin's head cleared and his bruises disappeared. Justin shook his head, “I feel like I could kick all of their ass – I mean rears by myself.”
“Not just yet,” his mother laughed gently. “Let's get Dad back to the surface and make sure everyone is okay up there.”
“We really are, Heroes here,” Scott said wonderingly. “I mean I knew we had to be tough and the game said we were heroes I just never thought what that meant for real.”
“Maybe we can stop the Nazis.”
“We will,” Sean replied as he helped Scott pick up his father making a litter from his own cloak and spears discarded from the creatures that fled. “I don't expect it to be this easy though.”
“Easy!” Andy exclaimed, “This was easy? Granddad and Justin nearly died!”
Andy looked around and asked Justin, “Where’s your dragon?”
Justin sighed, “I don’t know. He wasn’t grabbed with me, I think he followed Dad into the shadowlands. He didn’t come out.” Those nearby paused for a moment to reflect. That little dragon could have been any one of them. Now he was lost in the shadowlands a place he was unlikely to ever survive.
Sean got people moving again speaking first to Andy. “We will beat them because we have to,” Sean said to Andy. “You should have stayed home but you are here now and there is no changing that. I don't want Dad trying to travel the shadow-paths anyway for a while. They're dangerous at any time and this area is a rats' warren of trails that lead to bad ends. I can feel the lines of evil like a tangled ball of barbwire even without using active spells to scan it. So until we get to the Chapterhouse you're sticking with us.”
“Let's go,” Michelle shepherded her family back to the surface where they found Allan, Shandra, Katie and Angel standing or in the case of Allan leaning against a stump amidst the remains of a terrible battle. Ogres and goblins were leavened with more exotic monsters. Andy took a look at one of them in the bright moonlight then looked quickly away his mind reeling.
Sean was made of sterner stuff or perhaps his time in the Marines had tempered him somewhat, “God's Mercy,” he said quietly. “Hey, is that a vampire?” Sean asked Allan.
“Yeah, Katie broke its attempt to control my mind and Angel well you can see what Angel did.” And Sean could see the pair of arrows their shafts touching skewering the monster's heart and another piercing its eye. The head lay severed a yard from the rail thin body.
“There's no kill like over-kill,” Sean said offering his fist to Angel who responded with a weary bump.
“This was more than I ever want to do again,” she said quietly, “but I guess we're going to have to. It's not like the Nazis are going to stop because we ask them nicely.”
“Or even send them a sternly worded letter,” Allan said with a wan smile.
“Hey, just ignore what I did,” Shandra joked with her brother. She was standing leaning on her Dair Maegair.
“Looks like you did all right for yourself,” Sean nodded with approval at the giant carcass of something with far too many heads and a shaggy bear like pelt. Shandra had brought the barn-tall monster down with expert blade-work that much was obvious to Sean's experienced eye.
His sister answered him with a grin, “Looks like grandma's stories of trolls were true. I wonder if it will turn to stone in the sunlight?”
“We won't be here to see it,” Sean replied. He noticed that Katie was looking more shaken as the events were over and she had time to think about what happened and what could have happened.
“It's weird,” Katie said in the same quiet tones, “my music has power, real power. That thing,” she shuddered at the remains of the vampire, “I just knew that it would take over our minds like we were puppets and I just knew what I had to do to stop it. How could I know that?”She started crying, “It was trying to get into our heads and it was awful. It was tearing at my mind. I feel filthy--it was the worst!”
Her brother Scott hugged her and patted her back. She was a head taller than her older brother now but she clung to him as if she were in a raging river and he was the only solid thing in the world.
“We need to get away from here,” Sean said taking charge, “Andy, you and Dog round up the horses. Dog, you do what he tells you, he's in charge.” The big hellhound looked like a massive white dog now rather than part of the pack of the Wild Hunt but he locked eyes briefly with Sean before giving an eerily human nod.
Michelle found herself hugging her son Justin and murmuring comforting words to him. She turned to Shandra and Allan, “Do you think you can get Dad up and around? We need to get out of here as quickly as we can. I don't know what scavengers might be attracted to this battle or who might think to bring back their 'big brothers' to take care of us, so let's get moving.”
“He's not my father, thank God,” Allan muttered but he quickly checked on his friend using the same kind of healing powers that Sean had earlier. Shandra supported her father's head as he sat up and Allan gave him a drink from his small canteen at his belt.
Don's eyes flickered open and he grinned at Allan, “We got our boy back. Is everyone else okay?”
“Katie's shook up but I think she'll come out of it. Even if she doesn't we're getting out of here as soon as the horses are rounded up,” Allan replied, “Your girl did good. 'Little' Shandra kicked the hell out of the biggest mountain troll I've ever heard of.”
“That's my girl!”
“It was nothing.” Shandra replied.
“Oh, well forget what I said,” Allan grinned, “a little girl with a willow switch could have chased it off.”
With the help of his daughter and his friend Don got to his feet. Through his laughter he grinned at Allan, “That water is at least half whiskey.”
“At least,” Allan agreed, “It puts hair on your chest. Which means you don't get any,” he added to Shandra before doing a verbal rim-shot, “ba-dum bump.”