Clive rushed over to where Alice was one her knees cradling their elven friend. He was trying to remain calm, but his worries were bubbling just below the surface.
“Is she breathing?” he asked, with a note of panic sneaking into his voice.
Alice nodded silently, concern etched on her face. Clive approached and knelt down beside them. He reached over and brushed a lock of hair away from Cecilia’s face. She was still unconscious, but at least she was breathing. He attempted to lift her from Alice’s arms, but the woman growled defensively at him. He raised his hands in surrender.
“I’m not going to hurt her; you know that. The danger has passed, and we need to examine her for any wounds she may have obtained from hitting the wall. Please…let me take her from you, just for a moment.”
Alice glared at him momentarily, and her expression slowly softened from anger to gentle concern. She looked down at her friend and nodded again. Clive gingerly lifted Cecilia from Alice’s arms, and immediately noticed blood smeared all over Alice’s dark arm. He shifted the elf to look for the source of the blood, and saw a large gash on the back of her head. Her light hair was matted with blood where her skull had smashed against the rocks. Not seeing any other injuries, he laid the elf back in her partner’s lap and quickly removed his shirt. He wrapped it carefully around Cecilia’s head and stepped back.
“Keep some pressure on that wound; the bleeding should stop soon enough.”
Alice laid her friend’s head in the crook of her elbow and sighed. A single tear escaped her eye, and with her free hand, she angrily brushed it away.
“Don’t you go dying on me now, songbird; we’ve been through worse than this and come out of it no worse for the wear. It would be a crying shame if you went and left me now.”
Clive placed his hand on the woman’s shoulder.
“She’ll pull through. Once we find the coven, we’ll have a couple of them take a look at her; there are probably some things they can do for her to help speed up the healing process.”
Alice took a deep, quivering breath and regained her steely composure. She pointed to Alistair and Mordecai with her chin.
“Go,” she said quietly. “There is nothing more you can do here. They need you more than we do right now.”
Clive nodded and softly patted Alice’s shoulder as he stood up. He jogged over to where the men were searching the solid rock wall for an opening. With the exception of the door that led to the passageway they had entered through, there appeared to be no other way out of the arena. Alistair stepped back from the rock face, visibly perplexed. He glanced over to Clive as he approached.
“We must be missing something; there has to be a way out of here. There must be a lever or a handle here somewhere that we are just not seeing.”
Mordecai wiped a drop of sweat from his brow. The temperature inside the mountain was beginning to rise to uncomfortable levels, almost as if there were a fire burning deep underground, turning the arena into an oven. He stepped over to where the other two stood to make a suggestion.
“Now, I don’t mean to point out the obvious, but this whole area is steeped in magic.”
Clive and Alistair turned their gaze to the tracker, waiting for him to continue.
“So, since the people who built this place were so well versed in the arts, have you considered maybe we’re looking for a magical door of some sort, maybe one that can only be opened through the use of an incantation or a password?”
Alistair cracked a slow, sly grin.
“You may be on to something, my friend; I am somewhat ashamed that the thought had not yet occurred to me. We may have been looking for a lever when we should have been looking for something a little more ethereal.”
The man stretched out his arms in front of him and closed his eyes. Blue sparks arced between his fingertips, buzzing like a hive of bees as he focused his mind.
“Show us your secrets and reveal to us your pathways, ancient ones. Open!”
The sparks leapt across the room to the wall, striking the rock with vengeful force. The stones groaned, and a slab began to slide back and to the side, revealing a long hallway, lit by the same kind of torches at the entrance to the cave. Mordecai and Clive blinked and looked at one another, utterly dumbfounded. Alistair turned to them, with the same sly grin as before.
“Uh, well now…that was…surprisingly easy,” Mordecai stammered.
Alistair chuckled. “The natives were a strong people, but they liked to keep things simple. They found long, complicated spells and incantations to be cumbersome, so they tended to use simpler magic whenever possible. I imagine any number of revelation spells would have done the trick.”
Alistair winked, and Clive reached to adjust the collar to the shirt he had forgotten he was no longer wearing.
“I suppose we should be on our way, then,” Alistair quipped.
With Alistair in the lead, the three of them made their way down the long hallway. They quickly came to a fork in the road; one way led up a flight of stairs, presumably to the seats above the arena. The other sloped downward, and a wooden door was just barely visible from where they stood.
Glancing back and forth between the two, Alistair nodded to the downward path.
“Very well, it would appear that our way has practically been mapped out for us. Quickly, now!”
They broke into a trot down the hall, throwing the door open so quickly the hinges barely had time to announce their presence. Once inside the door, the hall continued on, winding and turning, with several offshoots leading in various directions. Before the three of them could decide where they would look first, a voice was heard from farther down the way.
“Leave us alone, you bastards! Haven’t you tortured us enough? What more could you want with us?”
Alistair cleared his throat. “Melinda, is that you?”
A shuffling could be heard as if someone had stood up quickly from the dusty floor.
“Alistair? Do my ears deceive me, or have you truly come for us?”
Without answering, the three of them ran down the hall towards the voice. They rounded a bend, and found a series of rooms that had been recently fitted with steel prison bars, forming large makeshift cells. In the first cell sat eight women, all in varying degrees of disarray. Some of them appeared close to death, while others, including Melinda herself, appeared to have suffered their captivity more gracefully than their sisters.
Alistair approached the bars and grasped the middle aged woman’s hand as she reached out through the bars of the cell. Her brown hair had streaks of gray running through it, her dress was tattered, and there was dirt on her face, but her steely gray eyes betrayed the strong defiance that had surely kept her alive.
“Fear not, my dear, we shall have you free of this prison in mere moments,” he said as he gripped her hand.
Mordecai loaded his revolver and spun the cylinder quickly.
“Y’all step back, now,” he grunted.
He stood to the side of the cell door and fired a round into the lock, blasting in clean off the door. The cell swung open, and the men rushed inside to help carry the members of the coven who were unable to walk.
As they got the wounded women to their feet, Alistair was shocked at the condition they were in.
“Dear god, what did they do to you, Melinda?” he asked in horror.
Melinda laughed dryly. “Trust me, old friend, you don’t want to know.
The group limped and stumbled their way out to the arena, where Alice still waited with Cecilia in her arms. Those who still had strength left in the coven saw this and walked over to see what help they could be after they set their sisters down on the floor. Melinda stood to the side with Alistair and watched as a couple of them uttered quiet incantations over the unconscious elf. After several minutes, Cecilia stirred in her sleep and mumbled something in her native tongue.
“She is going to live, but she is badly wounded,” one of the women said quietly. “we have done what we can to help her along, but now the best thing for her is rest.”
Alice snorted. “And that’s the one thing she won’t get; we have to get out of here and down the mountain first.”
“Pardon me, but that raises a rather important question,” Clive interjected. “How exactly are we going to get out of here? The path is blocked, and it does not appear that there is enough energy left among us to break the barrier curse and move the stone.”
Alistair turned and placed his hand on Clive’s shoulder. “I would not worry about that; I believe you have underestimated the power of collective magic.”
Clive was puzzled. “How do you mean, sir?”
Alistair motioned with his hand for Clive to look around the room. “As tired as we all are, I would still imagine that there is enough power and knowledge in this room to accomplish the task at hand. If given a moment, I am sure that the coven would be willing to help us, or at least some of them will. If we gather our strength together, there should be enough left within us that we can break the spell. Druid magic may be strong, but it cannot withstand the might of those gathered here. Even with Alice tending to Cecilia, we will find that our collective strength is more than adequate.”
Clive nodded, and after several minutes, Alistair gathered those who were able in front of the stone. Altogether, it was Alistair, Clive, Melinda, and two others from the coven. They all lifted their hands in the direction of the stone, ready to perform the necessary ritual.
“Close your eyes and try to relax; let the magic flow through you, let it wind around you and gather among you. It will be a strange sensation as it begins to flow, so try not to tense up. Remain focused on the task at hand; listen to the incantation as I cast it, and when you feel it start to pull on your strength, give yourself to it. Put all your strength into it. Once it starts to take effect, you must balance being both calm and forceful with it. Some of you have never done this before, so it will be uncomfortable, but trust your instincts. As wielders of magic, you will know when the right time to push and when to hold back.”
Everyone nodded and they closed their eyes. Alistair cracked his knuckles.
“Alright, old boy, let’s see what you’ve got,” he muttered to himself.
Mordecai looked on in wonder as the incantation began. Alistair started off with a whisper, and a slight wind picked up within the cave. He was uttering the same strange phrase over and over, but Mordecai couldn’t quite make it out. Slowly, Alistair raised his voice to a speaking volume, and purple smoke appeared, swirling and floating around the spell casters. Mordecai still was unable to decipher what Alistair was saying; as he spoke, the wind picked up more and more, carrying all but a few syllables here and there.
The wind whipped into a frenzy, howling all around the arena. The smoke grew thick and dense. Alistair’s voice lifted to a shout as he continued to chant the words of the spell. Suddenly, he pulled his hands in to his chest and violently thrust them back out in front of him. The spell casters were immediately enveloped in a smoke so dense that they could not be seen from the outside. From the swirling cloud of smoke burst five figures made of smoke and mist; a fox, a wolf, two does, and an otter rushed from the cloud towards the stone. They appeared to strike an invisible barrier just before they reached it, and they exploded into a plume of red and yellow sparks.
The wind picked up its urgency, somehow taking on even more fury than before, and the animals appeared again. Three more times they rushed the invisible wall only to be turned away. The fifth time, however, they burst through it, and they continued forward, striking the boulder that barred the way. The giant stone shattered with a loud crack, blown into millions of tiny pieces. The wind died immediately and the smoke dissipated; the spell casters fell to the ground, their strength spent.
Mordecai rushed over to them as they struggled to sit up. Sweat dripped down their faces, and they were out of breath. Each of them looked to where the stone had been mere moments ago and then glanced at each other. They had done it; they were free.
The group rested for several minutes until they had the strength to walk again, and then the coven and the Gatekeepers helped each other up. They slowly made their way out of the cave. Once they were outside, they paused to rest again. Several of the women wept at the sight of the early morning sky; most of them had wondered whether they would live to stand under the clouds ever again. When everyone was ready, they walked down the steep path back to the burial ground.
As they walked through the ring of stones, the guardian rose out of the ground ahead of them. They stopped, wondering if they would be forced to endure the trials once more, but after a moment, the guardian silently bowed his head and stepped to the side, allowing them to pass. Once they were beyond the cursed ground, the rest of the walk down the mountain was calm and peaceful.
They reached the base of the foothills just as the sun had fully broken the plane of the horizon. Alistair motioned for everyone to sit down and rest, and he gently laid the spellbinder that was holding onto his arm down in the grass. He then stood tall and raised an arm to the sky. A raven dropped from the clouds above and landed on his outstretched limb. He tenderly stroked its head with his index finger.
“Tell our friends that we have returned and we are in need of their aid,” he whispered. “Tell them to come quickly, as our strength is all but spent.”
The black bird tilted its head to the side and launched itself from his arm. Alistair collapsed onto his back, breathing a heavy sigh. Everyone sat without speaking, almost too tired for conversation, as they waited for the return of the Ravens. Soon enough, their friends arrived with their mounts. The leader dismounted quickly and approached Alistair. He saluted the Gatekeeper, placing his right fist over his heart and bowing slightly.
“Great One, Lucrezia has sent us in response to your call for aid. She has dispatched us to bring you back to our encampment. There, you will be fed and clothed, your wounds will be attended to, and you will be provided with a safe place to rest until you are well enough to travel to your homes.”
Alistair stood and smiled, returning the salute. “Your kindness is always appreciated. How far is your camp?”
“Not far; by horse, it is perhaps a ten minute ride.”
Alistair nodded and turned towards the group still on the ground. “Take those who are unable to walk by horseback and leave us one or two of your men to guide the rest of us on foot. Tell Lucrezia we will arrive shortly.”
“Very well; when we have dropped off your friends, we shall return for the rest of you. We shall not be gone long.”
The elf looked to his men and gave a sharp nod. They helped those too tired or badly injured into saddles and rode away. Alice refused to be separated from Cecilia, and thus rode with the advance group to the Ravens’ camp. This left Alistair, Mordecai, Clive, and Melinda to walk with two of the Ravens back towards the encampment. Ten minutes later, they were met once more by the mounted group, returning as promised. The remaining ride was short, as they had walked most of the way by the time the others had been able to come back for them.
When they dismounted, the camp was buzzing with activity. The wounded were being tended to, clothes were being washed and repaired, and food was being cooked. The next few hours went by like this, and by the time everyone had been properly been taken care of, the sun had passed high noon and was beginning to dip in the sky. They all found themselves around the fire at the center of the camp, each with a cup of hot soup in their hands. Alistair recounted the tail of their adventure to Lucrezia, and when he had finished, there was silence for a moment. There was one question that remained on everyone’s mind when all was said and done, but none seemed willing to ask it.
Their thoughts were disturbed by the sudden appearance of Cecilia stepping into the circle. She had awoken some time before, but had spent the last hour sitting behind everyone, listening to the tale be told. When she walked into the circle, she made her way over to Alistair. She looked very much like a small child, as the shawl that hung over her shoulders hung down almost to her ankles, accentuating her diminutive size.
She went and stood directly in front of Alistair, silently looking him dead in the eyes for a moment. After a moment, she smirked.
“Ali, I believe we are missing a key part of the story, one you have expertly kept hidden from us thus far. Yet, with all your storytelling prowess, you have been unable to hide its existence from us. There is a tale you have yet to share, old friend.”
She reached up and softly poked him in the nose. “What say you share the rest of the story with us?”
Alistair smiled softly. “It is good to see you up and walking again, Cece. You had us all quite worried there for a while.”
Alistair sat back and breathed deeply. “Well, I suppose this is as good a time as any to tell you. It is a long story, though, so I suggest you settle in. You see, my connection to the Dark Druids goes back centuries, back to when I was still in Scotland.”
Cecilia sat down next to Alice, who hugged her firmly from the side. Alistair took a sip of his soup and screwed his eyes up to the sky as he thought.
“Ah, where should I begin…eh, I guess it all really began in 1299 or so. The Gatekeepers had assigned me to be the liaison between the Druids there and the Gatekeepers…”