The temple stood in the middle of a clearing in the Scottish forest, rising up three stories into the air. It was a humble structure, meant to compliment the surrounding forests, rather than tower over them. The stones and beams that made up its walls had all been gathered from the surrounding area, reverently gathered by the Druids who wished to live amongst the land that they loved so dearly. In truth, it looked more like a small German cathedral, with a steepled roof and one lone tower of stone rising higher than the rest of the structure. Humble, and yet strong and graceful, it stood watch over the woodlands and their inhabitants.
Alistair stared out over the wooded valley below as he sat perched at the highest point of the temple roof. He liked to climb up there and think; he found the view and the isolation to be soothing, and together, they provided the perfect atmosphere for relaxation and reflection. It was quiet here at the Temple of the Moon, the Druidic temple in Scotland. The Druids had other camps throughout the country, but this was the main focal point for their operations in the region.
It was no wonder why the Benandanti (the Latin name for the Druids) had chosen this place as their home; not only was the location strategically placed, it was absolutely beautiful. The temple sat on a small hill, surrounded by a lush forest of ancient trees. The Druids were quite fond of wooded areas, and regarded them as holy and sacred places. They had planted a small garden next to a grove of wild cherry trees on the edge of the woods, and the soft scent of the cherry blossoms and the herbs in the garden wafted up softly to where he sat. A short step beyond the garden grew the mighty oak and ash trees that stood like silent guardians around the temple grounds. The branches creaked and whispered to one another, even though there was no wind apparent. The sweet sounds of the songbirds serenaded him as he closed his eyes and leaned back, allowing the warmth of the sun to bathe his face with its fading afternoon rays.
Alistair smiled to himself, purely content in that moment. In all his years with the Gatekeepers, he had travelled to many beautiful places, but this was by far the one most dear to his heart. Perhaps it was because it reminded him so much of his childhood home; as it should, since his father’s house was a mere half-day’s ride from the temple. His mind wandered to his time as a Gatekeeper; it had been fifty years, almost to the day, that he had been counted among their number. He reopened his eyes and looked down at his hands; it still amazed him that he was, by normal human standards, a very old man, at the ripe age of seventy-five, yet he still appeared to be in his mid-twenties. Entering into the Gatekeepers meant being steeped in all sorts of ancient magic, and one of the side-effects was the aging process was slowed almost to a stand-still. He was unsure if he was truly immortal, but at the rate he was aging, he would most likely outlast all of creation by at least a few centuries.
After his training, the Gatekeepers had assigned him to be the liaison between the Druids and the Gatekeepers in Scotland. He had spent the last fifteen years living peacefully and quietly among them, growing accustomed to their way of life; it was a slower pace than anywhere else, and they lived out their days with a reverent grace that Alistair found to be rather endearing. He loved the lifestyle and the mindset of the Druids; he hoped that he could spend centuries among them, dwelling within the peaceful confines of the Temple.
Suddenly, he felt uneasy, and was pulled from his thoughts, back into the present moment. He noticed that the birds had all but ceased their singing, and the air felt tense and electric, as if lightning were about to strike. He swiftly climbed down from where he sat, and the moment his boots touched the ground, a bolt of red flame fell from the sky and scorched the trees on the edge of the clearing.
Alistair tensed and clutched the hilt of his sword, anxiously awaiting to see what emerged from the shadows of the wood. Several moments passed before three rangers stumbled out of the treeline, blood-soaked and with terror in their eyes. The foremost of the three stumbled and fell into Alistair’s arms. The other two men fell to the ground, having succumb to their wounds. Alistair knelt with the man in his arms, holding a hand to the gaping hole in the ranger’s chest, trying to staunch the profuse bleeding.
“What is it, brother? What chases you?” Alistair asked, with a pit growing in his stomach as he began to fear the worst.
The ranger’s eyes frantically bounced around before locking onto Alistair’s face. The man trembled, and his voice wavered and cracked as he replied, “They have come…they are not six steps behind…”
Alistair felt his heart drop even further. “….who? Who is it?”
The man’s entire body shook violently, and he closed his eyes, painfully drawing one last breath. “An army of our dark brethren have arrived; the Dark Druids have come to lay siege to the Temple of the Moon.”
The ranger exhaled what little breath he had left and went limp. Alistair gently laid him down and looked to the trees. No one had emerged yet, but he could feel the darkness gathering just beyond what he could see. He withdrew his blade and rushed to the door of the temple, tripping and falling on the stair case in his hurry. He threw the doors open and called out to all who could hear him.
“We are under attack! The scouts have brought report of an assault by the Dark Druids hastily coming this way!”
Immediately, the inhabitants of the temple began to gather around him, asking dozens of questions all at once. Before he had time to respond to any of their queries, however, he was viciously thrown forward by a second firebolt landing at his feet. He shook off the dizziness in his head as quickly as possible and scrambled to find his fallen blade. He stood and faced the entryway, and mounted on black stallions and wearing thick black cloaks which hid their faces, sat the army of Dark druids, just as reported. They stood stock still, almost tauntingly, and Alistair looked around at the devastation the firebolt had caused.
Bodies of men, women, and children lay scattered around the doorway, and the doors themselves had been blown clean off their hinges and lay smoldering just inside the threshold. Smoke and haze rose and swirled around, adding to the malicious, mysterious air that surrounded the silent attackers of the temple. Behind him, Alistair could hear the remaining residents rushing towards him.
An older man came to a halt at his right, and he knew without looking that it was Logan, the leader of the Druids. He withdrew his blade and pointed it towards the assailants.
“You have pounced upon my home in a rather unruly manner; I suggest you take your men and go back to the hellhole from which you have escaped, before the full vengeance of the Druids falls upon you, lads.”
The front line of hooded horsemen laughed darkly, and one of the men removed his hood, revealing a bald head and a scarred face. He grinned wickedly back at Logan and Alistair.
“Where are your manners, old man; won’t you welcome old friends into your home?”
Logan gasped, and he gripped Alistair’s shoulder.
“My son,” he said quietly, “under different circumstances, I would say we must defend this temple to our last drop of blood, but against a man and a force such as this, I believe it is wisest to retreat and live to fight another day.”
Alistair grimaced. “But…”
Logan gripped tighter. “This is not a battle we can win. When we are under a brighter sun, I shall tell you the whole truth, but for now, you must do as I say. RUN!”
Logan spun Alistair around and shoved him, firing off a smoky, purple bolt from the tip of his blade towards the riders. The bolt struck the ground and stirred up a whirlwind at the top of the steps, just in front of the horsemen, which acted as a barrier between the riders and the Druids. Alistair and Logan ran to the back of the temple, urging the others to grab their weapons and flee with them. Behind them, they could hear the shouts of the enraged Dark Druids, and the bald man could be heard above all else.
“RIDE THROUGH NOW! Do not let them escape! We will bring this roof down on their HEADS before we let them get away with their lives!”
There was a loud crack, as if thunder had struck overhead, and the entire front wall of the temple exploded into millions of pieces of wood and stone. The Druids of the temple raced with all the speed they could muster out the back end of the building as the debris from the blast rained down upon them. The mounted men urged their steeds through the whirlwind, with most of them being thrown from their horses. The spell lasted long enough for the Druids of the temple to escape the building and race towards the stables.
Without bothering to saddle their horses, they jumped onto the backs of their mounts and urged them into a gallop as soon as they were out of the stalls. As they cleared the stables, a volley off arrows came hurtling down on them, taking out several of their already thin number. The Dark Druids had managed to push beyond the whirlwind and were attempting to take out their enemies before they could reach the trees.
“Onward, into the forest!” shouted Logan. “If we can get into the wood, their arrows will not be able to reach us!”
The trees lie nearly two furlong’s from the doors of the stables. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t seem like very far, but with death quite literally raining down on their heads, it may as well have been forty miles. The horses sensed the urgency of their mission, and plowed ahead with all the strength they had, dodging quickly left and right around holes in the ground and small boulders as the barrage from above whistled by, far too close for comfort.
They had almost reached the forest, when a single arrow dropped from the sky and struck Alistair square in the shoulder. The surprise and the pain nearly knocked him off his mount, but he clung with his good arm to the horse’s neck, thinking of nothing but holding on for dear life. They passed through the first line of trees, and the arrows ceased.
Knowing that their enemies would be quickly behind them, they pressed on through nightfall, and they did not stop until they reached a Nemeton of the Druids just as the moon began to dip and the sun peaked above the horizon once more. They slowed their steeds to a halt, and the men slid quickly from their backs, with Logan calling for help as Alistair slumped to the ground, weak from the blood loss and the long ride. He was fading in and out of consciousness, and the last thing he remembered before he was swept away into a fevered dream-state was a woman firmly grasping the arrow in his back, and saying softly to him, “This is going to hurt worse coming out than it did going in.” She ripped the arrow from his shoulder, and as the white hot pain shot through his entire upper body, Alistair fainted dead away.
When he awoke several hours later, he found himself on a small cot, in a room by himself. His shoulder was bandaged, and his arm was hung in a make-shift sling. He stood slowly, still somewhat dizzy from the events of the night before. He made his way out to the main room, where Logan and Quinn, one of the rangers who had not been on patrol duty at the time of the attack, were sitting at a table with the woman from before and several other people. From what Alistair could hear, it sounded as if Logan was finishing up the telling of their tale. Everyone turned to face him as he approached the table, and he waved his good hand half-heartedly in silent greeting.
The woman smirked. “Well, Logan, it seems you were right; he IS made of tougher stuff than I thought.”
Alistair looked quizzically between Logan and the woman, and both smiled softly. She continued, “You’ve only been out for a few hours, and here you are, walking around almost as if nothing had happened. You were nearly on death’s doorstep when you arrived on mine, and somehow, you pulled through, despite riding all night with that nasty wound.”
Quinn nodded at Alistair. “The Gatekeepers are known for more than just their magical prowess, m’lady. They are very hard to kill, as our enemies will swiftly learn.”
“Quinn, my dear boy,” Logan scolded gently, “striking back right away may not be the best move. I believe we should wait for our moment; an opportunity will reveal itself when it is most ripe.”
Quinn huffed and sat back with his arms crossed, his jet-black hair falling over his eyes, further adding to the dark-and-brooding look he always had. Alistair gingerly sat down, and sighed.
“Alright, I’m assuming I missed the part of the story where you tell everyone who that guy was?”
Logan nodded once. “Indeed you have, but I am not opposed to retelling it for your sake. The man’s name is Buchanan, and he is known as the Firebrand; I’m going to assume you can guess why.”
Alistair nodded. “It was his fire spell that destroyed the temple, then?”
“Indeed,” Logan replied. “He has always been known for it; I have never seen a sorcerer who could wield flame with the amount of force and precision as Buchanan.”
Alistair tilted his head and furrowed his brow. “How do you know him, exactly?”
Logan leaned back and stroked his moustache. “Long ago, before I was chosen as the leader of the temple, he was my pupil. He was my most gifted student, capable of magic more powerful than any I had seen in one his age.”
“How did he fall in with the Dark Druids?”
“Well, as I’m sure you know, many of the elders of the Dark Druids were once Druids of the light, as I am. When I was young, a faction of the Druidic Order began to delve into the darker arts, believing that there needed to be balance between darkness and light. They believed that for every life that was nurtured and seeded, one must be smothered and snuffed out. They began practicing the most deplorable of the darks arts, and started staging assaults on unsuspecting towns. They were quickly captured and brought before the Scottish Druidic Tribunal to face judgement for their crimes; the Tribunal was a trap, as the Dark Druids had fully intended to be captured and tried in order to destroy the elders of the Druids and start the order anew once they were gone.”
Alistair rubbed his wounded shoulder. “I know all of that, but what does it have to do with Buchanan?”
Logan’s face fell, and the memories of his former student flashed through his mind. “Buchanan was drawn to their power; he sought to become the strongest sorcerer in Scotland, and he found their beliefs of the dark arts to be a means to that end. He believed the best way to protect people was to subject them to fear; he thought that the only way to keep the people from hurting each other was to terrorize them to the point that they were afraid to lift a hand against one another. His initial motives were pure, but severely flawed, and eventually his thirst for power overcame him. He grew increasingly violent, and withdrew from the order when he came of age. He sought out the Dark Druids, who welcomed him with open arms.”
Quinn snorted. “If you knew there was darkness within him, why didn’t you eject him from the order before then?”
Logan sighed. “I believed that he could be turned back to the Druid way. I was convinced that he would see the error of his ways and, in time, would learn to mellow the fire in his belly.”
Quinn was incredulous. “So instead of stopping that monster, you continued to arm him? You made him one of the most powerful people you had ever met and then simply let him walk right into the arms of our enemy?”
Logan lowered his head and sat silently for a moment. “I had a chance to stop him. When he first left, he attempted to kill those who lived in the Nemeton with us. It came down to a duel between the two of us, and I could not bring myself to kill him, even knowing how far he had fallen. I still had hope that he would return peacefully. I let him live, and in return, he has done nothing but become a thorn in my side.”
Alistair shook his head. “If he’s such a problem, why have I never heard of him before?”
Logan lifted his head once more. “Since he has become the Firebrand, he has been meticulous and methodical, only coming out of the woodwork to fight battles he knew he could win. He has been silent for the last fifteen years; the last altercation we had with his forces was the very reason you were assigned to the temple. I did not feel the need to inform you of any of this, as during that battle, he was badly injured. I had hoped he had succumbed to his wounds, and was no longer a threat.”
Alistair began to put the pieces together in his mind. “But you had a lingering fear that he would still return, and that’s why you asked for a member of the Gatekeepers to be assigned to the temple.”
Logan nodded silently.
Alistair continued. “So, if we take out Buchanan, then the Dark Druids are crippled?”
The woman spoke once more. “Yes and no; he is their general, but their leadership has yet to rear their ugly heads. Eliminating the Firebrand would be a heavy blow to them, but it would not remove them from the situation. They have a sizeable army, and from the tale Logan has told of the attack on the temple, they are quite confident in their size and strength right now. We may have found ourselves on the brink of a war that we are far from prepared for.”
Alistair shifted uncomfortably. “Pardon me, but I do not believe we have been properly introduced, madam. I am Alistair, a member of the Gatekeepers; and you are…?”
The dark haired woman smirked. “I am Aria, daughter of Wallace of Bruce, leader of this Nemeton.”
Alistair bowed his head. “A pleasure to meet you, officially.”
Aria dipped her head in return, and Logan cleared his throat.
“I believe the best course of action right now is to sink into the shadows until we have recovered our strength and come up with a plan for recovering the Temple of the Moon, if there is anything left of it to recover. Aria, send messengers to the surrounding Nemetons, and inform them of what has transpired. Tell them to be ready to evacuate their homes and go into hiding.”
Aria nodded sharply and excused herself. Logan sighed and looked to Alistair. The weight of the situation was etched across his face, making the man appear to be far older than he was. After a moment of silence, he said quietly, almost to himself, “I do not know what is to come. I am afraid we must permanently leave our former lives behind in order to fight this menace. I only hope we can overtake them before they burn every living tree to the ground and cut short every life from here to Arthur’s kingdom.”
Logan stood and walked towards the front door; he paused with his hand outstretched to the handle, and turned back to those at the table. “We will stay until Alistair is ready to travel; as soon as he is, we retreat back into the trees.”
“And what then,” Quinn asked quietly.
“Truly, I do not know…” Logan whispered. He then left the house, and the door closed swiftly behind him.