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The Wrath of the Gods

Chapter Text

Roscoe leapt across the river bank and landed with a thump on the other side, Stiles was hanging on grimly and he urged the spectral bear to run faster, ignoring the affected grunts and pants that emerged from Roscoe’s snout. He had limitless stamina, able to run and jump and sprint without stopping for days at a time, but Stiles found it disconcerting to be riding on top of a completely silent mount. It was alarming enough to be able to see the ground racing under him whenever he looked down through Roscoe’s glowing blue, see-through body. But Stiles didn’t have a choice about the hard pace they were setting; he had to return home and discover what had happened to Korey and Yeshua.

“Scotti must have lost his mind,” Stiles muttered darkly as they left the flat plains of the twins’ territory behind and entered the vast woodlands that spread across much of the southern lands. “Why else would he do this? Why risk angering the gods by casting out the real Guardian of the Nemeton? He must…” The druid trailed off as Roscoe slowed down, his short ears perking up in caution. “What is it?”

“Brrumph!” Roscoe snorted and nodded across the clearing to some bushes. He padded closer to a barely visible pile of clothing poking out from the branches. There was a rustling of the undergrowth nearby and Stiles threw himself to one side rapidly, falling off the bear and rolling over and over in the scattered leaves of the forest floor as his instincts screamed at him. Roscoe roared as a loop of rope tried to snare his paw, the material passing through his ghostly form instead.

Stiles shook his head and scrambled to his feet, looking around the clearing as a group of men and women emerged from the trees. They were filthy; covered in mud and moss and dark swipes of what the druid thought was animal blood. Armed with rough spears and short, dirty swords, they hunched low, as though waiting an opportunity to attack. Bandits. He stood his ground as Roscoe backed up against him and Stiles drew himself up to his full height.

The druid dusted off his white robe and looked at the approaching bandits with distain. “Know ye not what I am? And which gods I serve?” Stiles let the sleeves of his robe hang down, the silver thread of complex symbols glittering in the sunlight. “Mighty Aed will strike you down, and The Dagda will forever scatter your bones across the earth, cursing you to wander forever, no relief granted by death should you be so foolish to draw iron against me!”

“Fancy words,” The leader, judging from the gold rings and torcs that decorated his arms and fingers, moved ahead of the group, pulling out a long, copper dagger, the edge dulled and chipped from seasons of use. “But we have long forsaken the gods and been forsaken by them. Copper cuts just as well as iron, now hand over your valuables, druid!”

“Maybe we should listen to him-”

“Shut up!” He backhanded the bandit that had spoken up and gestured threateningly at Stiles. “Do what I said!”

“I have little time to waste words with you, cretin.” Stiles growled dismissively and looked at the forest floor around him, studying the way the roots had pushed their way up to the surface and wove across the clearing. He was vaguely aware of the bandits moving towards him, their weapons drawn, as Roscoe snarled and prepared to fight. “Hold, old friend, there won’t be any need for your claws. Fás!

Stiles shouted the word as loudly as he could, the syllable morphing from a cry into a deep, terrible growl. The druid clenched his fist as the magic of the runes on his robe came to life, a searing rush of power that would be spent in a matter of moments. He grinned as he felt the forest react around him and the roots of the trees un-burrow from the earth; long, pointed tendrils waving in the air before stabbing down, punching through the chests of the two bandits closest to him. Stiles watched in grim pleasure as the group scattered with cries of alarm, the roots of the trees responding to his directions, spearing all of the bandits, save their leader.

The druid opened his hands, using the fading magic to wrap the thickest roots around the leader’s neck and limbs, dragging the man over to him. Stiles grunted as the runes faded and the power slipped from his grasp. The roots stiffened and went still, holding the bandits in their grisly cages as blood rushed from broken ribs and torn organs to splash on the ground. Stiles reached into his travel sack and pulled out a long, silver dagger. “You would have robbed me and left me for dead, if you did not choose to kill me yourself. Your crew is dead, and I could let you go, let you spread word of what happened here so that others can understand the perils of attacking a druid or a darach. Though I wonder where you find people as monumentally stupid as you…”

“Let me go!” The leader struggled and groaned in pain as the rough surface of his bindings dug into his flesh. “I’m going to-”

“Die.” Stiles cut across him shortly. “That is what you are going to do, and your unworthy blood will grant me the necessary strength I need to find my friends and end this madness. Even if it requires a leap through the jaws of insanity to get there.” The druid clenched his teeth in preparation for the strike, raising the dagger before Stiles rammed it into the bandit’s neck, blood fountaining out and onto the forest floor. Stiles stood back and raised his hands up, waiting for the spreading blood pool to deepen. It is the only way to stop more death, Aed forgive me.

“Mighty and terrible Balor, King of the Fomorians, god of death and drought and blight, I have invoked you once before with an offering of blood and flesh and bone. I do so now to ask your blessing once more,” Stiles wet his lips as the air grew heavy around them and he could feel the evil god’s presence enter the clearing. “Grant me the ability to move between my enemies cloaked in shadows so that none may see me unless I bid them to. Grant me this boon and I shall make good on my promise of giving you fields of blood and death, so you may be reborn into this world again!”

The air in front of him shimmered and Stiles could hear Roscoe whimpering and crouching down behind him. A field of stars appeared, each slowly winking out of existence until there was nothing but inky black sky and the slowly emerging shape of a grassy mound ringed in bright white stones. Stiles didn’t look away as the grass burned and a single, red-orange eye was revealed. He could feel the intense heat of the gaze causing his skin to flush, but still the druid held his ground. “Balor…”

Suddenly the images vanished, and Stiles was alone with Roscoe in the clearing, only the pool of drying blood in front of him was any indication that the bandits had been there in the first place. The druid shivered and patted Roscoe reassuringly, climbing onto the spectral bear’s back. He pressed his knuckles against the burning skin on his face and swallowed hard. “It’s done.” Stiles could feel the power and magic swirling around him, a layer of shadows lying on top of his skin as the ethereal bear began to run again, this time going faster, as though to escape the horrors of the sacrifice it had just witnessed in the clearing.

 

It was two days later, near the setting of the sun, when Stiles finally crossed over into his clan’s territory. The fjord across the wide river that separated them from the mountain clan’s lands was unguarded, a strange occurrence during the war season, but then, the river itself was little more than a trickle flowing west. Stiles stared at the thin, anaemic stream and tall, dried earth riverbanks on either side, fish flapping urgently in the shallow water. “What magic is this? Not a cycle of the Moon has passed since we left for the gathering of the clans, the water level should not have dropped so much. Not even in the height of the hottest summer can I recall the river drying out so much…”

They continued along the bank, heading towards the pillar of smoke that hung in the still air, some distance off, signalling the clan village. There was no birdsong, no chattering of the insects around them, just a heavy, oppressive heat that weighed down all movement. His heavy, woollen robe was damp with sweat and Stiles rolled up the sleeves as he glanced around, noticing the yellowed grass and drooping trees. While Éatán and Aiden’s lands were hot, they were as the coolest mid-winter day compared to the stifling hotness that filled the Guardian clan’s lands. The druid frowned again, looking up at the sun near the horizon, the blazing disc of fire still burning his skin and causing his face to heat, despite being so close to sunset.

“Gah!” Stiles groaned and directed Roscoe to stop next to a bush that still had some foliage left. He slid off and patted the bear’s head affectionately. “Wait here while I investigate the village.” The blessing that Balor had granted him was waning, easily replenished with a fresh sacrifice, but Stiles knew all too well the dangers of such a pattern of boon and death. Instead, he concentrated on holding the last vestiges of the magic together in his hands and pushed them together over the surface of his head as though pushing back a hood. The magic flowed and stretched, covering him in cool, if cloying, shadows, hiding his presence from the eyes of mortals.

Stiles smiled as Roscoe looked at him strangely. “Relax, my friend, I’m just stepping into your world for a while.” The druid moved forward carefully, rounding the bend in the road to see the tumble-down walls of the clan’s village. It looked almost the same as when he left, but the roundhouses were still, only the Chieftain’s home had a fire lit, judging from the smoke that drifted lazily upwards in the windless air. Stiles frowned as he slipped past the warriors guarding the entrance to the field, their figures slumped and expressions miserable. He was able to see the sweat dripping down their muscular bodies as they clung to their spears in order to stay upright.

Their discomfort was quickly dismissed by the druid as he approached the big hill that overlooked the settlement. The rise was normally used for celebration or warning fires, the flames visible all across the clan’s territory. But the verdant green slope was now marred by a dusty trail that led to a series of tall poles driven into the ground at the summit. “No…” Stiles shook his head in disbelief and horror as he climbed the path, finding the naked and beaten body of Korey tied to the first pillar. The other poles had been occupied, but bloody smears told Stiles all he needed to know about their occupants’ fates. The druid felt anger flare in his stomach, and quickly dampened it, he wouldn’t be able to help Korey if Scotti and his warriors caught him.

“What have they done to you?” Stiles muttered as he approached the pillar. The blacksmith’s face was swollen and cut, rivulets of dried blood running down his neck to his chest, which rose and fell slowly as he slipped between consciousness and fevered sleep. His arms were tied above his head, pectoral muscles stretched taut, while Korey’s feet were lashed together and resting on a step that was slightly too low for him. This isn’t just imprisonment, this is torture…what happened to you, Scotti? Stiles swallowed hard and glanced around, trying to reach a decision. He could cut Korey down and carry him out of the village, but the warriors would notice him, and Stiles didn’t want to spill any of the clan’s blood if he could help it. They are only following Scotti’s orders after all…

The druid blinked and stepped away from the pole as he heard the sound of footsteps approaching the summit. Stiles felt his stomach clench tighter as Liam led a trio of warriors over to Korey, one of them bearing a jug of water and a ladle. So, Scotti no longer thinks you are being controlled by magic, eh? I wonder what changed his mind and why you still serve him? He watched as one of the warriors boosted Liam up so he was the same height as Korey, the house wolf offering him a ladleful of water.

“Uh, urgh,” The blacksmith winced as Liam poured the rest over his face and torso. “Liam…please, get me down from here…please, I-Ah!”

Korey’s words were cut off when one of the other warriors slapped his thigh with the flat of his sword and raised his hand to hit him again. Stiles watched in furious silence as the beating continued. He could almost feel Balor’s voice on the edge of his hearing, encouraging him to strike down the torturing warrior and use his blood for power. As his rage built, Stiles began to whisper the words of a spell that would cause the unfortunate clansman to bleed to death from his eye sockets. “ Spirits of old, curse of the death, blind him with blo-

“Stop!” Liam cried out suddenly, pushing the warrior away. He glared at the man and looked guiltily at Korey. “The Chieftain wants him alive! I…I have to go, c’mon!”

Stiles let the spell slip away and shook his head sternly as he watched Liam mutter an apology to Korey before walking down the hill with the other warriors. Once he was sure they were alone, Stiles released the last of Balor’s magic and appeared in front of his friend. “Be silent, Korey, we do not have much time.”

“Stiles…” The blacksmith muttered through dry and cracked lips. “You came back.”

“And I will again, but there are too many warriors about, too much blood could be shed. The clan would never recover if we go to war with ourselves.”

“I don’t want that,” Korey shook his head slowly. “I never wanted it, I thought I could-”

“Hush now.” The druid reached up and touched one of Korey’s feet, letting a burst of magic flow through his arm and into the man. “I will be back for you, I’ll bring Theodric and Iordáin and we will free you and the others who resisted Scotti. For now, this should ease your pain and heal the wounds under the surface.”

“There’s no one else left who resisted.”

Stiles bowed his head at the words, sighing heavily. He glanced over his shoulder at Korey one last time before sliding down the other, steeper side of the hill into a gully that led to the river. “I will return for you, Korey, I swear it.”

Chapter Text

The stars were still bright as the sun began to rise in the eastern sky and Stiles slipped off Roscoe’s back outside the home of the darach, Theodric. He rubbed his weary eyes and breathed a sigh of relief when Theodric’s door opened with a rush of light and the smell of roasting meat. Stiles smiled ruefully as his stomach rumbled, there had been little time to eat on the road; a handful of berries here, a crust of bread there. Roscoe reared up onto his hind legs and vanished with a pop, leaving behind nothing but a small, perfectly proportioned blue bear statuette which Stiles stooped over to collect. “Ah…”

“Stiles!” Theodric gripped his arm firmly and gestured for Iordáin to help him guide the druid inside. They pushed him into one of the chairs by the hearth and Yeshua offered Stiles a cup of sweetened mead.

“Drink it!”

“At least you’re alive,” Stiles nodded at his acolyte and accepted the cup. “You need to tell me-”

“It can wait.” Theodric broke in, crouching down next to him. The darach studied Stiles intensely and pushed up the hair falling across his brow to place a hand against his forehead. “You’re hot, burning up, maybe.”

“No, it’s not a fever.” Stiles waved him away. “Only sweat from the road and the heat from the sun. I am surprised that you have your fire lit, Theodric.”

“Heat?” Iordáin frowned. “We have had some sunny days, but the weather has been mild, last night being full of chills.”

“What?” Stiles stared at them and sat upright. “I have come from the village, all of the clan’s lands are stiflingly hot, a haze upon the ground even in the darkest of the night. I could feel my skin burning when I took off my robe, a torture to put it back on, but better than suffering the peeling affliction.”

“But you did not cover your face, Stiles.” Theodric hummed unhappily at him and turned towards Iordáin. “Get me the two green pots that are submerged in the cold water at the back of the cave.” Once the hunter had left, the darach turned to Yeshua, “I trust Stiles has taught you the basics of healing and medicines?”

“Yes, some.” The acolyte nodded nervously under Theodric glare.

“Hmm, it’ll have to be enough.” He waited until Iordáin had returned and placed the two pots down on the stone floor, plucking their lids off quickly. Theodric offered one to Yeshua and dipped his fingers into the other, smearing the green substance across Stiles’ face without waiting for the druid’s approval. “A cooling gel of apple and witch hazel, my own recipe, you know.”

“Really? You?” Stiles cracked open an eye as he almost dozed off under Theodric’s gentle fingers. “And what fell beast does it summon when not being smeared across people’s faces?!”

“Nothing, perhaps you should consider that maybe I’m turning a new leaf.” The darach smiled at him and wiped his hands off. “The other pot contains cooled oatmeal, mix with water and-”

“I know the rest.” Stiles shook his head and pointed for Yeshua to put the pot down. “But we have no time for soothing balms when our friends are in danger.”

“You said you saw the village?” Iordáin asked eagerly, standing behind Theodric. “Any knowledge you have will be of great use to the raiding party.”

“Raiding party?!”

“Uh, when Yeshua arrived at our village a few days ago, he brought word of what had happened,” The hunter explained, glancing at the acolyte. “Tell him what you told us.”

“Um, it was after the festival of Beltaine had passed and Liam and Korey had returned from the other clans.” He swallowed hard. “But I had noticed the signs earlier; Scotti was distant, cold, as though he resented my presence and would no longer let me help his wives with his children, said he did not want magic near them. Once the blacksmith and the warrior came back, that’s when everything changed. It was as though Scotti had lost his reason, ranting and shouting about the influence of the druids and, err, you, specifically. He said that magic would destroy us all and that we had to cast it out, gods be damned.”

“Hmm, and this was after he had returned from the Divide?”

“Yes, he declared you and anyone who agreed with you exiles and that you were to be banished from his lands. He said that you wanted to take control of the clan, that you had embarrassed him in front of the other chieftains and now it was his turn to punish you.” Yeshua nodded at the fire. “That’s when I left to make contact with you. As I was crossing the village I saw Liam arguing with Korey, and Scotti was approaching them. Korey had a hammer in his hand, I could see him shaking his head, and that’s when their swords came out.”

“And then you contacted me,” Stiles sighed. “Do you know if any resisted?”

“A few, others ran, some heading for the solitary roundhouses scattered across the territory, they’re probably still hiding out. As for the rest, I’m not sure, a handful joined me, and we managed to reach the safety of the mountain clan.”

“Who are now apparently planning a raid?” Stiles turned to Theodric and Iordáin. “What is the meaning of this? The alliance-”

“Is all but dead, Stiles.” Theodric shook his head. “Without the god-weapon, Ceartas, we do not stand a chance against Findabair’s army.”

“Not to mention the fact that Coltún and his clan manipulated this from the beginning.” The hunter added darkly. “My Chieftain, Fionn, does not want war, but he will not let the body of a master smith lie in the dirt. We are to find Korey’s remains and bring them to the mountain.”

“It is not so dire yet,” Stiles argued, looking at each of them. “Korey and Liam are alive. Well, Korey is being held captive; tied to a pole at the front of the village, but-”

“What?!” Iordáin barked at him and turned towards the door suddenly, “Come, we must tell my Chieftain and the raiding party. The killing of a blacksmith is bad enough, but if they should see Korey strung up before they enter the village, I fear that there will be a bloodbath on our hands!”

 

Stiles glanced between Iordáin and Fionn, the Chieftain of the Mountain Clan’s expression getting grimmer and grimmer. He leaned against Theodric’s shoulder as they stood back from the raiding party. “What are they discussing, do you think?”

“They’ll launch the attack, err, rescue anyway.” The darach corrected himself quickly at Stiles’ arched brow. “But I think Iordáin is trying to convince Fionn that with Findabair breathing down our necks, war with the Guardian Clan is not in our best interests.”

“Hmm.” Stiles smiled slightly despite the situation they were in. Our? How quickly Theodric has settled into his role among the smiths! “I didn’t tell you everything; Korey’s wounds are severe and I was afraid that without your aide, Theodric, I could not heal him enough to make him last the journey to your home.”

“That’s why you left him there?”

“I said we would return!” Stiles snapped, hearing the resentment in the darach’s voice. “I had hoped you and I could accomplish it, perhaps with help from Iordáin and Yeshua, not a group of warriors dressed in bronze and wielding iron swords, their Chieftain baying for blood.”

“You assume that he will still be alive by the time we get there tomorrow.” Theodric replied in a tight voice. “It takes almost a day to travel to the village on foot, and if what you said about the change in weather is half as accurate, then these warriors will be too weary and weighed down to put up much of a fight.”

Stiles was silent for a long time, glaring at the embers of the nearby forge. Finally, he nodded and said, “The last time we attempted that teleportation spell, we moved half the roundhouse from the village into the cursed lake. Scotti vowed never to forgive me for losing his solid gold pleasure-stick.”

“I doubt the loss of that well-used object is what’s causing the current crisis, Stiles.” Theodric patted his shoulder. “But we’re both much more powerful now, and we have much greater need than before.”

“I-”

“WHAT?!” Fionn’s roar echoed around the forge at the heart of the mountain. His face had gone bright red and he lurched over to his warriors, picking up an iron longsword and ornately made shield. “Korey is a master among smiths! To hang him from a pole is all but a declaration of war!”

“He is not of your clan.” Stiles stepped forward, shaking off Theodric’s calming hand. “He is of mine, and we will get him back, but I will have no killing, no death, no blood, save for what is forced to be shed. You will defend yourselves only.”

Fionn scowled at him, fury in his every movement, but after a moment of silent glaring, the smith sighed and nodded. “Very well, master druid, I will not argue with you. But we will not leave that village until Korey is with us and the iron from our alliance is back in our possession.”

“That could be a problem.” Theodric spoke up, moving to stand next to Iordáin as he came over to the group. “The forge is next to the main entrance of Scotti’s roundhouse. But I wouldn’t worry, they don’t have the knowledge or skills to purify and extract it into raw metal for forging. It will likely just sit there, we can organize the retrieval of it another time, Korey must be our priority for this raid.”

“Agreed.” Iordáin nodded firmly as Fionn looked at him. “He is our friend, even if tradition did not demand his freedom.”

“I’ll prepare my warriors then.” The Chieftain turned away. “I would appreciate it if you could come up with a suitable distraction, master druid, master darach. If no blood is to be spilled, then we must be able to approach this hill in stealth and silence.”

“I’ll talk to Scotti directly.” Stiles said, glancing at Theodric. “You get Korey out, I’m not sure about Liam, he may still believe in Scotti, or perhaps there is another reason why he has not freed Korey on his own. Yeshua?!”

“Yes, Stiles?”

“Gather these ingredients for us, Theodric should have what you need in the village stores.” Stiles instructed his acolyte as the darach walked over to the raiding party to explain the purpose of the spell they were about to cast. “I need ten roots of the fireweed plant, a pot of the dew of a summer’s morn, three eggs of a speckled nature, and one bowl of pure silver. Bring these to the center of the village and I will join you there.”

 

A few minutes later, Theodric was standing next to Stiles, watching the druid’s acolyte balancing the various reagents in his hands and wobbling towards them. He accepted the fireweed roots and handed one to Stiles, leaving the rest in a pile next to the silver bowl. Both of them worked in silence, quickly etching out the runic pattern and shapes onto the smoothed stone of the mountain village’s center. The roots crumbled and formed chalky lines of burnt orange, Yeshua following Stiles’ instructions to grind the remainder up and place them in the silver bowl.

“That’s enough.” The druid completed a large circle around the outside of the complex markings and gestured for Fionn and the warriors to step inside the ring, Yeshua and Iordáin standing next to him. He nodded at Theodric and the two of them sat down opposite each other, the silver bowl placed between them. Stiles poured in the dew from the pot and they each cracked an egg into the bowl, the third egg being pulled apart by them both. “Now, are you ready?”

“We need to focus, you on the clan’s village, me on this one.” Theodric said, holding his hands over the mixture. “Something that we both associate strongly with the location, that’s where we went wrong the last time; we were both thinking of home.”

“Fine, I have the place fixed in my mind.” Stiles nodded, mimicking Theodric’s gesture. “We say the words together…now!”

Dóiteáin!

Uisce!

Domhan!

Aeir!

Eilimintí an domhain, ceangail dúinn anseo! Scaoileadh linn ann!

There was a blinding flash as the mixture boiled and bubbled in the silver bowl, the two magic-users reaching inside and clasping each other’s hand. Theodric grunted as he felt his feet lift from the ground and his entire body go weightless, as though floating in a pool of water. There were cries of alarm from the warriors behind him, but before he had time to calm them, his legs hit the ground and Theodric fell over.

“Ugh, that went better than last time.” Stiles groaned, staggering to his feet. They were standing in the middle of the forest, yellow grass underfoot, the first rays of the sun beginning to lance through the trees. The ground glowed for a moment, holding the pattern of the runic markings before fading away entirely. The druid grimaced at the melted silver bowl and looked over at Theodric, “We knew it was a one-way journey anyway.”

“Mmh, perhaps.” The darach muttered, distracted as he stepped away from the group and further back into the forest. “This is the edge of the Guardian Clan’s territory, is it not?”

“That’s right,” Iordáin nodded, moving to stand next to him. “I…woah!”

“What is it?” Stiles frowned and hurried over, feeling the change in temperature almost at once. The Mountain Clan’s side of the forest was cool, dew wetting the blades of grass along the forest floor. Stepping back into the Guardian Clan’s side was akin to walking into Korey’s forge when he was tempering swords. Stiles exchanged a worried glance with Theodric and gestured for the raiding party to advance. “Worse than I had feared.”

“Let’s just find our friends and get out of here.” The darach muttered, rolling up the sleeves of his robe.

 

“Hail, Scotti! Chieftain of the Guardian Clan, Protector of the Nemeton!” Stiles announced as he and Yeshua walked up the center of the main roundhouse, an escort of familiar warriors on either side. The air inside the building was thick and stifling, made hotter by the blazing fire that filled the central hearth. Stiles passed it by and kept moving, approaching the makeshift dais that Scotti sat upon, his figure sprawled out over several carved chairs.

The Chieftain was clad only in a short kilt of pleated leather, his skin slick with sweat and covered in dark red stains, soot or blood, Stiles could not tell. There were heavy shadows under his eyes and Stiles didn’t see any of the natural light that normally infused them with color and joy. “Uncontested ruler of these lands, I, the druid Stiles, have come to ask forgiveness for whatever slight I have committed that has prompted these terrible events.”

“Bah!” Scotti grunted at him.

“Will you not speak with me as we once did, old friend?” Stiles asked, glancing around, eyes raking over the shadows to see Liam and Malia shrinking back from him. “What stories have you been told that these others fear me so?”

“Don’t try and hide your purpose with words, druid!” Scotti spat at him, hunching upright. “You tried to wrest control of my clan from me with them! You gave orders that were mine alone to give! You stole my mind to perform rituals and blessings!”

“Blessings that you asked for.” Stiles fired back, letting his composure slip for a moment before he managed to pull back. “But you are right, I took over the position of Chieftain when I should not have; better that the fields lie fallow and the crops unplanted, hmm?”

“Lies,” Scotti mumbled, shaking his head as fresh lines of sweat dripped down his forehead and neck, spreading out across his muscular chest. “As usual you seek to confuse us with lies and falsehoods, none of them will believe you now, Stiles!”

“Hmm,” The druid nodded slowly, watching Liam frown and slip away. Our time grows short, you had better have Korey off that pole, Theodric! “So, what truths would you like to hear?”

 

Korey gasped in pain as his bonds were suddenly cut and his arms fell to his sides. He had lost the sensation in them after the first day and his muscles felt like dead weight. A damp cloth was pressed against his forehead and eyes and Korey blinked them open to see Theodric and Iordáin smiling at him. “Wha…”

“Rest easy, we’ll get you down.” The darach whispered and disappeared from view.

Korey didn’t reply, his throat feeling like the surface of a whetstone, dry and rough and sore. Iordáin was holding him up and Korey tilted his head down to see that the hunter was standing on the shoulders of a woman he didn’t recognize, well, not exactly. He frowned and looked around more, the faces were familiar to him, though they were not of his clan. Oh! Korey felt his sluggish thoughts coalesce and he nodded at the warriors of the Mountain Clan, their armor-bound figures different from the last time he had seen them dancing and drinking in the heart of the mountain during the festival of Beltaine.

Their swords were drawn and by the time Theodric had freed him from the last of the tight lashings, Korey was able to see the furious expression of Fionn, the Chieftain of the smiths, standing protectively in front of him. Several of the warriors were waiting with a makeshift stretcher and Iordáin carried Korey over to it. He accepted the press of a water flask to his lips and greedily gulped down the sweet, cool liquid until Theodric placed a hand on his shoulder. “Ugh, ah, Stiles…”

“I know,” The darach smiled at him, gesturing at one of the warriors to place their cloak over Korey’s injured body. “He’s with us, well, with Scotti at the moment, buying time for your rescue. I need you to hold on, Korey, once we reach the safety of the forest, Stiles and I will heal your wounds.”

“What about…Liam?” The blacksmith managed, tilting his head back as the group prepared to go. “Where’s-”

“Hey!”

A loud shout caused Korey to turn over, ignoring the spears of pain that lanced through his torso, seeing the house wolf stop at the base of the pillars. Liam had his hand on his sword, but the Mountain Clan’s warriors were already forming a defensive barricade around the stretcher. “Liam?”

“Korey, I…”

“Come with us, Liam.” Korey whispered, Theodric’s nod allowing Liam to approach the stretcher. “I know you didn’t mean any of what happened, that you had to pretend so Scotti wouldn’t put you on the pole next to me.”

“Um, it’s more complicated than that, Korey.” Liam wouldn’t look directly at him. “Scotti is my Chieftain, we’ve been friends since before I could hold a sword, I can’t just leave him.”

“Stiles isn’t trying to take over the village,” Korey mumbled, slumping back onto the stretcher as the darach fussed around him. “Scotti is lying, confused. He can’t see clearly anymore.”

“Maybe, but-”

“Enough,” Theodric cut across Liam. “We have to leave, treat his wounds before they fester and rot. Are you coming with us or not, Liam?”

“I…no.” The warrior hung his head. “I have to stay here, even if Scotti is…I have to look after his wives, the children, keep the others safe if their Chieftain can’t.”

“Very well.” Iordáin grimaced as he touched his fingers gently against Korey’s throat. “He will be with us, come to the mountain should sense find you.”

 

“He’s gone!” The shout echoed up from the entrance of the roundhouse as Stiles was patiently listening to Scotti’s increasingly erratic list of things he had done to offend the Chieftain. “The smith is gone!”

“What?!” Scotti glared at Stiles, reaching for his sword. “So this was all just another trick?”

“I meant what I said, Scotti.” Stiles raised his hands in peace. “I was sincere in my apology; I did not mean to take your place as Chieftain.”

“Instead, you’d take my blacksmith!” The Chieftain staggered upright and pulled the gleaming sword out of its scabbard. “That sounds like treachery to me!”

“Spill the blood of a druid in this place, so close to the holy Nemeton, and a thousand seasons of bad luck will follow you and all your children!” Stiles yelled out as the other warriors followed Scotti’s lead, iron and bronze blades pointing at him and Yeshua. “You will let us leave peacefully.”

Scotti stared at him for a moment, resentment evident on his face until Malia approached him and shook her head. The Chieftain glanced at her and sighed. “Fine, leave then.” The sword was flung unceremoniously onto the ground and Scotti sat back down on the chairs, pulling Malia into his lap with him.

Stiles gestured for Yeshua to back off and followed his acolyte down the center of the roundhouse, still locking eyes with Scotti even as the Chieftain slipped a hand into his crotch and pulled out his aroused member. The druid averted his gaze, turned around, and strode out of the roundhouse. This isn’t over, Scotti, stew in your malcontent for now. But next time, it will be you coming to me seeking aid and forgiveness.

Chapter Text

“Set him down over there. Gently.” Stiles’ voice was distant, urgent, Korey could barely hear him, his eyes blinking slowly as the searing heat that had been assaulting his body for the last few days lessened its intensity, finally vanishing into a dull, throbbing glow that sunk through his skin. “That’s it, Yeshua, get water from the river, it’s close by.”

“What are you thinking?” Theodric asked, standing over Korey’s body, his expression pulled into an angry scowl. “He might as well have been set alight, I have never seen the peeling affliction this bad.”

“His skin will heal, but I fear that his heart will not handle the strain any longer, there is a burning fire at his core. It must be quenched.” Stiles crouched next to the blacksmith and pressed the back of his hand against Korey’s forehead. “To cool him normally will take time.”

“Which we do not have if Scotti decides to come after us.”

“I do not think he will,” Stiles stood again and looked around the forest. They were gathered near the border between the two clans, staying on the Mountain Clan’s side, but Stiles could see the shimmer in the air towards Scotti’s village. “Though even if he did, it would not matter.”

“I know.” Theodric replied quietly.

“I think I might have a solution however…you there!” Stiles pointed at one of the warriors. “Use that pick on your belt to dig a trench around Korey’s body, not too deep, not too wide, a simple channel that will hold water. The rest of you, follow Yeshua to the river; use whatever containers you have on you to gather water and bring it back.”

Theodric frowned as the warriors nodded at the druid’s authoritative tone and hurried to obey. His brow evened out as the set-up made sense to him. “Ah, you mean to try an infusion technique? Don’t they normally take hours?”

“There is more than one way to perform this particular spell.” Stiles replied cryptically. “But we do not have hours to spare. Ah, good.” He crouched down next to Korey as the selected warrior finished digging the trench around the smith’s body. “Now, Korey, this will feel very strange, it may sting a little, but be not afraid, you’ll feel a lot better afterwards.”

“Pour the water into the channel.” Theodric directed as the rest of his clan returned from the river with Yeshua. “And stand back.”

“Hmm.” Stiles closed his eyes and extended his hands over Korey’s body as the liquid flowed around him. “Ready? You may need to hold him.”

“Yes, I understand.” Theodric nodded, his jaw tightening and eyes widening as he heard the words Stiles had begun to say. They were not the calming syllables of prayers to Aed and Donn, but something older, harsher.

Bolack nar, mean as dar velar. Oh ariva near av vasti gar! Barch ve, ar nar vu aster gar! Merm ni! Merm ni!” Stiles flexed his hands as the words tumbled out of his mouth and the sky above them grew a darker. The water boiled and roiled in the channel around Korey before leaping upwards and sinking into the blacksmith’s body. “Merm ni!

“AH!” Korey screamed out, thrashing around as the now silvery liquid penetrated his skin and lanced deep into his chest and arms. There was no blood and a moment later, Korey went slack, his chest still heaving, but his expression calming from panic to bliss.

Onur an, nar vanock. Balor gun nas da verna! Yer ar qun ni ah. Qun ni ah. Qun ni ah...” Stiles whispered the final words and the liquid withdrew from Korey’s body, no longer silver, but a mingled black and red, the sickness and pain of his wounds carried with the water. The druid lowered his hands and bowed his head, exhaustion pulling at him. “It is done.”

Theodric glanced between Korey and Stiles, gesturing for Yeshua to check on the smith as he frowned and whispered, “The Fomorians…”

“His breathing is normal, his wounds are cleaned and purified!” Yeshua cried out from next to Korey.

“Good.” Stiles stood up as the warriors smiled and nodded respectfully at him. “Yeshua, go find rash-vine and bring it back, Theodric and I will find the thunder-root. We can make a sleeping potion that will keep him comfortable until we return to the village and give him something to eat and drink. Theodric?”

“Oh, I’m coming.” The darach followed Stiles away from the others and waited until they were out of earshot from the group to grab his arm and pull the druid to one side. “What magic was that? How did you-”

“You said it yourself.”

“The Fomorians? Hmm, Stiles, they are not our gods.”

“Magic is magic.” Stiles replied sharply, glancing about the undergrowth. “Does it matter whose gods are called to fuel it? Or from whence it came? We would have been waiting hours for the traditional infusion technique to bear fruit. Korey is healed, what is the problem?”

“Invoking their gods and power is not wise-” Theodric began, but Stiles cut him off with an exasperated sigh.

“Why not?! We are druids! If not us, then who else can be trusted to wield their power to the benefit of our clans?” Stiles glared at him. “You have spent too much time among the Mountain Clan of late, Theodric, making potions and poultices and forgetting that you are meant to be a darach!

“Sounds to me like the only one who is forgetting his alignment is you, druid!” Theodric shook his head as Stiles folded his arms. “This is not the first time we have talked about the Fomorians, Stiles. You are losing yourself in ancient and evil magics just to match Findabair, are you willing to destroy yourself as well as her?”

Stiles was silent for a few minutes, his eyes hard. Eventually, he glanced back towards the clearing where they had left Korey and the others. “Yeshua will make a good druid, maybe he won’t have the years of experience that we had when assuming our roles, but there will be many tests and trials ahead that will grant him valuable knowledge. Now, come along, we still have to find that thunder-root.”

The darach frowned at him, but remained quiet, following Stiles deeper in to the forest, his brows furrowed in concern. So, you aren’t planning on coming back after this war?

 

Korey blinked his eyes open, dreams fading as Theodric’s ceiling came into view, the beams criss-crossing each other to support the roof before fading into stone where the construction melded seamlessly with the cave. He rolled onto his side and looked around the house, seeing the fire blazing in the hearth, the crackling of dry branches was still loud, a sure sign that someone had just placed them on top of the embers. Korey pushed himself off the bed and walked across the flagstone floor to stand in front of it, stretching his arms above his naked body and yawning loudly as he pushed himself up on his toes, arms falling to his sides again.

He craned his head to look out the open door of the house, seeing the sun shining brightly on the strip of green grass outside, a glimpse of blue sky visible when Korey crouched down to warm himself a little more intimately. Mid-summer was upon them now; days of sun and clear skies, the occasional rain shower to keep the crops watered, though neither Theodric or the Mountain Clan seemed to grow much wheat, their food coming from the hunters like Iordáin. He stood up again and re-traced his steps back to the bed to find his trousers. Slipping them on, Korey reached for his tunic as Yeshua stepped inside with a grunt. “Morning.”

“Morning, Korey.” The acolyte placed a heavy basket of herbs onto the table and gestured at the bread and cold meat nearby. “You should eat, they’ll be worried if you don’t.”

“I will.” The blacksmith nodded and finished dressing, pulling on his boots. “Are you going up the mountain?”

“Stiles wants me to tend to the other survivors from the village; Ailis is having her child soon, with the father being…”

“Back in the village, I know.” Korey replied gloomily. “Well, um, I’ll come with you.”

“Good, Chieftain Fionn will be happy to see you.”

“Mmh.” Korey grabbed a chunk of bread and several slices of cured ham before he followed Yeshua out of the roundhouse and into the bright, summer sun.

 

The central chamber of the mountain rang with the sound of hammers striking iron and the hiss of metal being quenched in water. Korey wiped his brow as he entered the forge, Yeshua having left him at the mouth of the tunnel, the dry heat hitting him hard as he shed his cloak and rolled up the arms of his tunic. The smiths of the Mountain Clan numbered into the twenties, more than Korey had ever seen working in one place, but he recognized that most of them were also warriors, Fionn having explained that they did not have the people to devote exclusively to one role or another. He watched one of the younger smiths work on a piece of iron, pulling it from the forge when it was glowing orange, almost white, and then resting it on the edge of his anvil, hammer poised to strike the blow.

“Thoughts?”

“Oh!” Korey blinked and turned to see Fionn smiling at him from the center of the room. He walked over, leaving the young smith to his task. “No, I was simply watching.”

“Hmm, like you do every day.” The Chieftain led him over to the long, arcing anvil in front of the forge to where the hammer of Goibniu, legendary smith, rested at its center. “And each day I wonder if this will be the one where you pick up your tools and show these boys a thing or two about bending iron to your will!”

“I…” Korey mumbled, trailing his fingers over the ordinary hammers and staring into the white-hot embers of the forge. “I can’t. I was at my forge when it happened, when Scotti and the others drew their swords and started talking madness about Stiles. Liam just stood there, only intervening when Conor suggested that they should exile me too.”

“Exile?” Fionn frowned. “This is the first I have heard of this, you have said previously that they captured you?”

“Liam didn’t want me to leave.” Korey kept looking into the flames as they wrapped around a piece of unburned charcoal, turning it red and then white, a tongue of fire dancing along the edge. “Some of the other warriors said that the ones who disagreed with Scotti should be allowed to leave, but the Chieftain didn’t like that. He said everyone had to stay except the druids. Conor disagreed with him and helped the others flee towards the mountain and river clans’ land. He was the first one Scotti killed; ran him through, right there in front of everyone. No one talked about leaving after that.”

“To kill your own clansmen, hard to come back from something so terrible.” Fionn placed a heavy hand on Korey’s shoulder and squeezed. “But it was not your fault.”

“I had a hammer in my hand; the heavy kind, made for doing rough work on the blade before forming the edge. I could have intervened then, I could’ve-”

“And you too would be dead, Liam’s word or no.” The Chieftain shook his head slowly. “We would have lost a master smith, it is a terrible thing to see a warrior die needlessly, but it is worse to see a smith’s hands fail him.” Fionn looked at his own and curled his fingers inwards. “I know that better than most.”

“Ah!” A cry from behind them forced the two smiths to look up, the younger man Korey had been watching earlier had just leap backwards out of the way of a shower of sparks, the blade of the sword he had been shaping having crashed to the floor from the anvil. He made to pick it back up, but Korey rushed over and waved him away.

“No! You’ll burn yourself!” He glanced around and noticed two long tongs nearby. “Here, take one, and I’ll take the other; yours probably heated up since it’s too short and there’s no resistance on your handles.” Korey explained as together they managed to lift the red-hot piece of iron back onto the flat of the anvil.

“Thank you.” The young smith bobbed his head, short-cut red hair slick with sweat from heat and embarrassment. “I’ll be more careful next time.”

“Come here.” Korey gestured for him to stand in front of the anvil and handed him the hammer. “It’s your stance, your legs are too close, and you stay too far from the edge. It won’t hurt you if you can keep a firm hand on the cool end. See?” He demonstrated for the youth and smiled when the man copied him. “Here,” Korey stood behind him and guided his fingers to better grip the hammer, running a hand up developed muscles to grip his shoulder. “And, that’s it, spread your feet a little more. Good. Now try.”

“As you say.” The youth struck the iron bar and a shower of sparks filled the air, spitting into the space in front of him. He smiled at Korey. “Thank you, master smith.”

“Err, you’re welcome.” Korey mumbled, watching him work, trying to focus on the metal and not the smith. Been too many days since I relieved that tension…

“Even if you never forge again, perhaps you should continue to give your wisdom to the others assembled here, master smith.” Fionn smiled at him and Korey returned the grin. “It certainly sounds as though we need to change how we forge our hammers though.”

“I can show you what I know.” Korey smiled again, happiness blooming in his chest for what felt like the first time since Beltaine. He followed Fionn back over to the forge and glanced at the gathered hammers. “So, to begin with…”

 

“Korey! Over here!” Iordáin called out to him as the smith was leaving the tunnel. The hunter had his travelling cloak wrapped around his waist, leaving his muscular chest bare and arms exposed to the sun. A long dagger was strapped to his thigh and he carried a quiver and bow in his other hand.

“You’re going hunting?”

“If I see any game, but mostly to check the traps down at the river’s edge near to where it meets the lake.” Iordáin explained, falling into step with Korey. “It’s only a little way from Theodric’s house, if you want to come along?”

“Where is he anyway?” Korey glanced around Iordáin and frowned. “I haven’t seen him or Stiles since last night.”

“They’re at the meeting place, Fionn gave them one of the tumbled down houses at the edge of the mountain.” The hunter explained, pointing to the ruin nearby. Stakes had been driven into the ground around the house and the tallest of them was given over to hoisting the banner of the Mountain Clan; blood red with an iron-colored hammer at its center. The fabric twisted and twirled in the wind as Korey stared at it. “You haven’t heard, have you?”

“Heard what?”

“The Keepers of the Divide are coming here.” Iordáin replied as they began their descent along the stony path. “Coltún and Lidia are to arrive later in the day to meet with Theodric and Stiles. The focus of the Alliance has moved here in the absence of Scotti’s co-operation.”

“That’s one way of putting it.” Korey muttered darkly. “Why are they coming here though? Stiles knows that they were responsible for…whatever happened to Scotti. Wouldn’t they know that we know?”

“Perhaps, I’ll leave that sort of trickery to the darachs and the druids, Theodric knows what he’s doing though.” Iordáin pointed to the lake, just visible from their position. “I told them to meet us there before the sun enters its downward spiral, a swim in the cooling waters should keep the fires of war from igniting.”

“But not cool the passions?” Korey smirked at him and swept his eyes up Iordáin’s bare chest to his twinkling eyes. “I forgot my cloak that last time we went to the river, but, uh, you and Theodric were otherwise engaged and I didn’t want to intrude.”

“Well, you could have, we wouldn’t have minded.” The hunter nudged into him playfully as they continued down the mountain towards the meadows and the forest. “Unless you stayed to watch?!”

“No!” Korey shook his head quickly. “I just…I know Theodric spends some days and nights in your home, but me and Stiles and Yeshua are all in his house, I didn’t want to impose on the little time to yourselves that you managed to get.”

“There’s always next time!” Iordáin smirked and gestured to the right. “We’ll clear the meadows first, see if there are any rabbits or deer nearby, maybe forage some of the early fruits and berries if not.”

“Sounds good.”

 

Stiles looked up as soon as he heard Theodric clear his throat and sit a little straighter in one of the two chairs that were placed side by side against the intact wall of the ruined house. He could see them approaching now, the Keepers of the Divide, Coltún and Lidia and a dozen warriors with them. They were dressed in golden reflections of their Chieftain; bare skin and slick musculature on display. Stiles glanced at the Mountain Clan warriors standing next to the entrance and nodded. “Let them pass.”

“Do it.” Theodric ordered when they looked at him for confirmation. “Coltún is confident, I’ll give him that.”

“Brazen.” Stiles muttered, waiting for the Chieftain to arrive fully. He looked at Lidia, brows furrowing as she didn’t keep his gaze, staring at the ground instead. Her face was worn, haggard, eyes dark and bloodshot. The druid held up a hand as Coltún stopped in front of them. For all that the handsome man tried to hide it, Stiles could see a fear in his expression that hadn’t been there before. He remained silent, letting Theodric speak instead.

“The Chieftain of the Mountain Clan, Fionn Mac Gabhann, has empowered me, the darach Theodric, to speak on his behalf.” Theodric began, glancing from Coltún to Lidia. “I welcome you to our village and offer assurances that no blade will be bared against you here unless you should draw it first. Food and water will be made available to you once our meeting is concluded. Under the terms of the Alliance entered into by the clans to defeat the dread sorcerer Findabair, we recognize the necessity of defending the Divide, and welcome you in the name of war preparations.”

“One of the few reasons you are allowed to be here.” Stiles growled, glaring at them. “Say your piece and begone!”

“What Stiles means to say-”

“We know what he means.” Coltún muttered, untying his sword scabbard from his belt and dropping it to the floor. He continued to speak as he unpinned his cloak and let that flutter to the ground as well. “I freely admit that I used pleasures of the flesh and foul words to sway and influence Scotti, Chieftain of the Nemeton Clan, to unbalance him and push him to divide his clan so they would be weak enough for my warriors to destroy after Findabair had been defeated.”

“Really?” Stiles exchanged a quick look with Theodric. “And why would you admit to such treachery?”

“I did not think it would cause blood and death so quickly or invoke the fury of the gods!”

“Blood and death are on your hands, that is true.” The druid muttered. “But I think the final one is not your fault. Scotti drew that the ire of the gods on himself. And yet you have not really answered me, why admit to all this? What do you hope to gain?”

“Protection.” Coltún whispered, stripped down to his loincloth, the Chieftain knelt before Stiles and Theodric, getting on his hands and knees, head touching the ground. “Lidia has foreseen my death, and only you can stop it, either of you.”

“Is this true?” Theodric glanced at the woman as she nodded slowly. “What details do you have to prove such a claim?”

“It came to me at night, a dream of terror and death and rivers of blood.” Lidia stared straight ahead as though she was reliving it. “Screaming horses and pillars of smoke stream across a verdant field near the Divide. Men and women are dead around us; warriors from all clans gathered to fight against the Halh clan and Findabair. Her creatures have been destroyed, monsters from below the earth, the werewolves of the other clan killed and wounded. So much death all around me, and from the center, the concentration of the dead, that is where…” She trailed off and looked knowingly at Stiles before turning back to Theodric. Lidia gestured at the still kneeling Coltún.

“I see my Chieftain standing next to the leaders of the other clans, all in a row, facing a figure in a long cloak, his entire body shrouded, the head is covered with many layers and he raises a cruel shard of rock, swings it in one long motion and slices the necks of the Chieftains, spilling their blood onto the ground, watching it run down the field towards the center.”

“And then?” Stiles asked quietly, hunched forward in his chair, staring at her intently. Theodric frowned at him but listened to the rest of Lidia’s story in silence. “What happened then?”

“I am not sure, there was a blinding flash of light and everything turned to flame.” Lidia paused and gestured at the mountain behind them. “But not like the fires of the forge, this was a blaze of warmth and comfort, a soothing panacea that rolled over the battlefield and, and then I do not recall what happened next.”

“Yes,” Stiles whispered, leaning back in his chair, seemingly satisfied with her answer.

“So, you want our protection from this fate?” Theodric asked in the silence that followed. He gestured at Coltún’s smooth, tanned back. “Get up, Chieftain, I would have you address me face to face.”

“As you wish.” He mumbled and stood. “Lidia said that the armies of the clans were in different places, that some had arrived later than they should have.”

“Perhaps because they didn’t trust you?” Stiles suggested with a smirk. “I wonder why?!”

“What can I do to fix what has happened with Scotti?” Coltún asked earnestly. “There must be something I can say that will bring peace to your clan. Or perhaps some task I can perform to garner your favor. I’ll do anything!” Coltún let a hand drift down towards the bulge at the center of his loincloth and gently rubbed the palm of his hand over its thickness. “Anything, Stiles.”

“Hmm, the threat must be dire indeed if the great Chieftain Coltún would offer himself as tribute to a druid.” Stiles pursed his lips and ran his eyes over the man’s oiled, muscular body, unable to deny a certain desire unfurling itself in his stomach. But he shook his head a moment later. “Pleasures of the flesh are what got Scotti into this mess, though he will not see reason until his village has suffered the gods’ displeasure enough to force him to come looking for a druid to placate the offended deities. When that time comes, you can tell Scotti about your plans and your schemes to take his lands from him in person. Perhaps he will be merciful and give you your life then, if that is the case, the Alliance will continue to support each clan fully. And we will battle Findabair and her terrible army as allies, stopping this vision from coming to pass.”

“I concur with your judgement.” Theodric replied when Stiles and Lidia looked at him. “Return to the Divide, we will send word if and when Scotti arrives here.”

Chapter Text

It was cool among the trees, a light wind gliding across his body and lifting the edges of his cloak as Iordáin stalked through the knee high grass of the meadow to his right, the long, slender neck of a deer not far off. Korey looked away as the hunter pulled back his bowstring and the arrow flew through the air. The muttered curse meant Iordáin hadn’t hit anything and the smith smiled slightly, walking away from him and through the forest towards the point where the river met the lake a short way off.

Mid-summer used to be Korey’s favorite time of the seasonal cycle; long hot days, cool short nights, and a feeling of lightness and contentment that seemed to flow through the village. The crops were growing without the constant attention they needed as before Beltaine, the animals were old enough to look after themselves, and the forge was pleasantly busy. Korey should have been spending his time making new swords or spear tips, perhaps the crafting of metal pots or other houseware, or maybe just turning his talents towards the creating of jewellery for a warrior to impress his lover. But he was doing none of those things, the mere thought of picking up a hammer again made his fingers tremble. Korey sighed and slowed his pace, turning to look back at where Iordáin had stooped to retrieve his missed arrow. The hunter gestured, and Korey nodded. “I’ll see you at the river’s edge.”

He continued to walk under the shade of the trees, his mind turning towards his and Liam’s professed plans for these long days; adventures and expeditions to far off places, both real and imaginary. They were to retrace Iordáin’s steps to bring them to the coast; to see the great water from where Stiles had said the door to the Otherworld was always open. Korey had wanted to search the silver sands that stretched along the shore for bright rocks and glittering gems that may have washed up from the gods’ home, while Liam said he would have been content to get his feet wet and discover if the water was truly filled with salt as the stories went.

But that wasn’t happening either, and Korey despaired of it ever happening now. It wasn’t so much that he did not expect Scotti to come to his senses and Liam along with him, but more that things had changed too much. Liam was not the warrior Korey had thought he was; his support of Scotti even after the Chieftain had killed Conor was like a knife in Korey’s stomach. He hadn’t known the other warrior well; sharpened his sword a few times and Korey had noticed Conor’s clever eyes on him more than once, but they were never friends. Liam had been silent throughout the confrontation, saying nothing when Scotti spoke ill of Stiles, casting his eyes down when Korey spoke up and reminded the Chieftain of the powerful blessings the druid had secured for them in the past. But it didn’t seem to matter: all Scotti saw were enemies and allies. Korey knew that Liam could never face being against Scotti, but it still hurt that Liam chose the Chieftain over him.

“Korey?”

“Huh?” He looked up, blinking as he found himself at the edge of the lake, Iordáin standing knee-deep in the water already. “Oh, got lost in my thoughts…”

“Happens to us all.” The hunter smiled at him and gestured towards the wet baskets on the shore. “Those are broken, we’ll leave them there for now, but there should be some full ones around here somewhere. If we take them out, one of the other villagers will collect them and reset the traps this evening.”

“How deep is the water?” Korey asked, sitting on the sandy ground and pulling off his boots.

“Hmm, could be waist high on you.”

“Better roll up my trousers then!”

“Or you can take them off?” Iordáin grinned at him, nodding at where he had left his cloak and weapons in a pile near the grassy bank. The hunter reached down and undid the ends of the short, leather kilt that covered his crotch and made his way back to Korey. “Only if you want to.”

“Um, that seems like the wisest thing to do.” The smith nodded, eyes locked onto Iordáin’s body, gaze trailing down tanned skin to rest on the impressive member between his legs, the leather covering tossed to one side as the hunter placed his hands on his hips and leaned back, water lapping at his ankles. Korey smirked and stood up, undoing his cloak and placing it over his boots, tunic following a moment later, before he tugged down his trousers and added them to the pile. They were both naked now, not the first time he had seen Iordáin in all his glory, but that time Theodric had been on Korey’s other side and they were under the sheepskins, about to give in to their desires. “What now?”

“Come on, I’ll show you.” Iordáin gestured for Korey to follow him back out into the deeper water, and true to his word, the cool liquid was lapping at Korey’s midriff by the time they stopped moving. “The cages are along the bottom now; still sandy and the flatfish we catch seem to like that.”

“Uh huh.” Korey nodded distractedly, staring at the way the tip of Iordáin’s thick cock kept glancing across the surface of the water as they shuffled around. He was about a head taller than Korey and the water didn’t cover his dick or balls at all. Not that it was doing the smith any favors, Iordáin looked at him with a smirk, seeing Korey’s raging hardon through the glassy surface. “Apologies…”

“Don’t be.” Iordáin smiled and moved closer to him, ripples spreading across the lake. “But perhaps you can move to one side? There’s a basket at your feet.”

“Ah, I feel it.” Korey mumbled and backed away, watching Iordáin bend over and reach through the water for the trap. The man’s arms stretched out, biceps pulled taut as his hands grasped the top of the cage, before flexing again when Iordáin took the basket up to the surface. “Impressive!”

“You haven’t relieved the tension for a few days, have you?”

“It’s showing?”

“Of a kind.” Iordáin grinned and waded close enough to the shore to successfully throw the basket onto dry land. He looked over his shoulder and Korey quickly averted his gaze, eyes having been locked onto Iordáin’s tight ass cheeks a moment earlier. “I know you miss Liam and that your relationship with him was more than casual lovers, unlike most in your clan. Even if things were left awkwardly, I’m sure that all is not lost.”

“We will have to see about that.” Korey muttered, slipping a hand down his chest to fondle his almost painfully hard cock. “But it’ll take time, and who knows when I’ll get to spill my seed on his skin again. The ties of lover are important, but our clan has always held that the ties of pleasure are more so.”

“So, you won’t refuse us if Theodric and I offer you a place inside us this evening?!” Iordáin smirked at him and returned to stand opposite Korey. He reached out, placing his hands on Korey’s waist, fingers sliding over the curve of his ass and pulled the blacksmith towards him, grinning when Korey’s hands reached out and gripped his arms, partly for balance. Their cocks brushed against each other, Iordáin’s hardening rapidly, matching Korey’s dick in size, though it was a little girthier around the head and shaft. “Mmh!”

“Ah!” Korey moaned, pushed against him, the water making it easy to slip and rub their cocks together. “Fuck, I’m close already!”

“Hmm,” Iordáin stepped back and Korey scowled. “Be calm, the place where we’ll be meeting Stiles and Theodric is much more private than here; a quiet inlet further along the lake’s shore. We’ll make sure you get your release!”

“Ugh, you better.” Korey mumbled needily as he followed Iordáin back towards the bank, eyes sliding down the hunter’s strong back to rest on his ass cheeks again. “Ahh…”

 

“All fifteen were accounted for, I made sure of it.” Theodric confided to Stiles as they walked along the lake’s edge, the sun was a fiery ball in the sky beside them, slinking lower towards the horizon. “Can’t be too careful, you know.”

“Lidia stayed on the mountain until it was time for her and Coltún to leave, she didn’t go near the livestock pens, Theodric.”

“Ah, but you can never trust a woman of the sídhe, Stiles.” The darach glanced around suspiciously as though he expected Lidia to be listening from behind a tree. “I have never forgotten all those sheep they stole…”

“I am aware.” Stiles replied shortly, gesturing at a cleft tree in front of them. “Turn left at the fork, isn’t that what you said?”

“She was probably here just to count how many we had before the actual aes sídhe come for them…what?” Theodric looked up and nodded. “Oh, yes, Iordáin said it’s just over that rise.”

“Quite far from the village, is it not?”

“I suppose,” The darach looked back at the mountain behind them, its dark stone contrasting strongly with the deep blue sky. “Though it does mean few villagers wander this way and we will have ample opportunity to swim and, ah ha, play with one another!”

“Hmm, true.” Stiles cocked his head as he heard the sounds of water splashing and Korey’s musical laughter nearby. “It seems we have arrived.”

“I’ll admit that I have been looking forward to this all day!” Theodric grinned at him and pulled his black robe over his head, folded the garment carefully and then ran ahead. He was completely naked under the fabric and dived into the water as soon as he crested the rise, joining Iordáin and Korey already swimming in the clear lake water.

Stiles took a more measured approach, walking along the shoreline until he entered the inlet. The sun shone directly onto the water and sand here, the high bank on one side and trees on the other formed natural wind breakers and the resulting triangle of sand was hot instead of merely warm. The druid sat down near the bundles of clothes and undid his foot-wrappings before hoisting up his white robe and placing it next to him. Unlike Theodric, Stiles wore a number of light under-garments, covering his legs, chest and crotch. These were each removed carefully until finally he was as naked as they were, the sun providing welcome heat on his body. He waited a moment before heeding the calls of his friends and joining them in the warmed water.

“We were beginning to think you were merely going to dip your feet in, Stiles!” Theodric splashed at him as Iordáin and Korey circled around to his back. He moved closer to the druid so he could whisper quietly in his ear. “Iordáin has been telling me that Korey is in desperate need for some pleasurable release! Are you interested in healing his longing aches?!”

“I imagine that will require a lot of rubbing, hmm?” Stiles smirked and relaxed, so he was able to float on the water, hands and feet waving up and down to keep himself from sinking. “Are you sure it wasn’t that which you have been waiting for all day?”

“War planning takes its toll, we all need the release of tension, Stiles.” Theodric swam over, lingering on his stomach, feet touching the bottom from time to time as he cast an eye across the druid’s body, gaze sweeping low to his limp cock. “Or maybe you don’t?”

“I have other things on my mind.” Stiles let his body sink so he was standing upright in the lake. “Iordáin? What is that over there?”

“Hmm?” The hunter turned away from where he was chasing Korey to follow Stiles’ raised hand and pointing finger. “Oh, this is the edge of the territory claimed by my clan, the wild lands stretch from the other side of the lake to the ocean. But that is The Path of The Dagda, master druid, a sacred way through the forest to an ancient grove. They say that the gods once met there and The Dagda Himself will appear to the most faithful who walk it. I have not been to the grove, but the stories tell of powerful magic that is able to test the affinity of those who try to enter.”

“And?”

“And, um, only the true servants of the druidic ways may approach.” Iordáin finished, and Stiles nodded.

“Thank you.”

“Hmm, perhaps enough play for now?” Theodric suggested and gestured at the shore. He caught Korey’s gaze and grinned, “Or maybe a different kind of play?”

“Not for me.” Stiles shook his head, his eyes never leaving the line of trees that Iordáin had been talking about. “There is something I must do, I trust that Korey will be safe with you?”

“Of course.” Theodric nodded slowly, disappointment dropping into his stomach as he watched Stiles turn from them and walk back towards the shore. His concern was blotted out a moment later when Korey jumped on his back and slid off, hard cock slipping down smooth skin to rest against Theodric’s crack. “Well, you’re not shy in your intentions, huh?”

“Not a bit!”

 

The sun shone down on them, still quite high in the sky, golden rays of light falling on wet skin, drying them easily. Korey rolled onto his side and regarded Iordáin and Theodric critically. Stiles had left them a few minutes ago, but the other two seemed content to just lie in the sun. Their naked bodies caused Korey to reach down and fondle his half-hard cock as he watched the way Theodric’s barrel chest moved up and down slowly and Iordáin’s strong arms were crossed under his head, the smooth flesh bulging upwards and pulling his pectoral muscles tighter. “Um, Theodric, you said…”

“Haha, that tension must be chewing you up, huh?!” The darach laughed and sat up, grinning as he saw Korey all but fisting his cock in front of them. “We better relieve the pressure before you erupt! Iordáin?”

“Mmh? Oh.” The hunter sat up too and smirked at their eager expressions. “This is a dangerous situation, is it? Very well, come closer.” He waited for Theodric to move into range and reached for his lover, one hand tilting Theodric’s face to one side so their lips could touch. “Mmmh!”

Korey watched them in silence as the two young men kissed, his hand slowing on his cock as memories of him and Liam surfaced. But the smith shook his head clear and shuffled closer to Theodric and Iordáin, smiling when they broke apart and welcomed him in between them. Theodric pushed Korey down onto the sand, heat from the warmed grains on his back and ass as the darach planted a row of kisses along his neck towards his collar bone. Iordáin was running his hands over Korey’s chest and stomach, fingers splayed as he coasted across the smooth, slightly sweat-slick skin. The motions were comforting, and Korey moaned, stretching his body out, hands raised as he blocked out the sun. One hand found Theodric’s head and he gently urged the darach towards his cock. “Please!”

“I’m getting there, Korey, relax.” Theodric smirked and lowered himself onto the warm sand. He continued to kiss his way down the smith’s body, lips brushing against the skin that Iordáin had just caressed. Theodric nodded at his lover and together they sunk lower until they were facing each other, only Korey’s hard cock between them. “Shall we?”

“Let’s!” Iordáin grinned at him and they both moved forwards, their lips parted and tongues ready. “Mmph!”

“Ahh!” Korey moaned loudly as soon as Iordáin wrapped part of his mouth around the base of his cock, a second moan following quickly as Theodric mirrored the action on the other side of his dick. He continued to moan and mumble and groan with gasping pleasure as the other two glided slowly up his cock, slurping loudly and slapping the shaft with their tongues, until finally, Theodric and Iordáin met at the head and swiped their tongues across the tip and into each other’s mouths only to slide back over Korey’s sensitive glans. “Mmh, aw, yes!”

Iordáin smirked at his lover and their lips managed to press against each other again, Korey’s shaft still trapped between their chins, spit and precum drenching his cock. He pulled back to let Theodric suck on the length in its entirety, moving back up towards Korey’s head when he felt an impatient hand tapping his pectoral muscle. “Are you sure? We can just focus on you.”

“I want to.” Korey moaned, thrusting up into Theodric’s mouth as he gestured for Iordáin to straddle his upper torso, head tilting back, so he could stick out his tongue and press it against the hunter’s thick cock once it came close enough. “Mmh! So big!”

“That’s it,” Iordáin whispered, one hand supporting Korey’s head as the smith started sucking him fully, bobbing back and forth with enthusiasm. His other hand reached back to run through Theodric’s short hair and guide him up and down on Korey’s dick. “Fuck, yes!” Iordáin groaned, grunting loudly when he looked down at Korey’s eager expression; his checks blown out with the girth of the cock he was slurping on. “Uh, yeah, Korey, suck it!”

 

Theodric got on his hands and knees, presenting his ass to Korey and Iordáin, smirking slightly as he looked over his shoulder and saw the smith arching a brow at the hunter. “Well, who wants to have the first go?!”

“Korey?” Iordáin glanced at him and nodded. “I can wait.”

“That’s not what I want…” Korey flushed and looked deliberately at the hunter’s cock. “I mean, yes, I want to fuck Theodric, but, well, can you fuck me at the same time?”

“If that’s what you want.”

“Great!”

“Here.” Theodric shuffled forward and pulled a small clay pot from one of the pockets in his robe, handing it back to Korey. “I thought we could use a little extra assistance in case Stiles decided to wait with us, unlike him, I came prepared!”

“I can see that.” Korey exclaimed, hands spreading Theodric’s ass to look at the smooth pucker, his hole slightly red and already slick. The young man slipped a finger down the crack and teased the outside of Theodric’s hole for a moment before pushing it inside. There wasn’t much resistance and he pressed a second finger along the first, both seated easily in Theodric’s ass. “Mmh, that’s going to be fun to slide into!”

“It’s already fun for me!” Theodric moaned, pushing back onto Korey’s intruding digits until he was rubbing up against the knuckle of his hand. “Aw, yes! Oh, I need it now, Korey!”

“You’ll manage to get-” Korey began to ask the hunter behind him.

“Go!” Iordáin grinned and gently pushed Korey forward as he picked up the pot of special liquid from the sand. The hunter smeared the slippery substance onto his fingers, watching eagerly as Korey removed his own fingers and filled Theodric’s ass with his thick cock in one smooth action. “Wow!”

“Mmh!”

“Aw!” Korey cried out, sinking down onto Theodric’s back as the entirety of his dick slid inside the clenching space, his way slicked by the darach’s earlier preparations. “Oh, gods!”

“Oh, that looks amazing!” Iordáin groaned, staring at Korey tightening ass and grinning as the young man relaxed, his smooth hole becoming visible again. The hunter’s cock was already painfully hard and slick with precum and Korey’s salvia, so he used the contents of the pot to open Korey’s hole; jabbing fingers parting the tightness of his ring and causing the smith to moan and shiver and rabbit furiously into Theodric each time Iordáin added another finger or flexed those already inside to make room for his cock. “You’re tight, Korey, are you sure you want me to fuck you?”

“You’re not much good in the Big Dick Clan if you can’t take it as good as you can give it!” Korey panted as he straightened up and began moving in and out of Theodric’s ass at an even pace. “Push into me and you’ll see I’m no virgin!”

“If you’re sure…” Iordáin muttered, feeling his stomach clench and his heart beat faster as he watched the smith grip Theodric’s waist and pound his ass harder for a few moments. The darach was moaning and groaning too, a regular sound of pleasure interrupted by cries of satisfaction or calls of their names. “Here I go.” Iordáin waited until Korey stilled and he could hold the smooth ass cheeks open, letting the rim of Korey’s hole catch on the wide head of his cock. The hunter moved one hand up to grip Korey’s shoulder, the other sliding to his hip, ass cheeks tightening around his slick shaft. But it seemed this slow pace wasn’t satisfactory for the smith and Korey rammed himself backwards suddenly, impaling himself on Iordáin’s big cock. “AH!”

“Oh yeah! Oh, you’re filling me so completely, Iordáin!” Korey moaned and pulled Theodric’s ass backwards too, so he was fully pleasured on either side. “Oh, yeah…aw, aw, yes!”

 

Theodric could feel Korey getting close to cumming, even if he hadn’t heard the needy panting and moaning in the younger man’s voice. He clenched his ass tighter every time Korey pulled back, squeezing more precum from his dick and getting rewarded with a pleasurable groan when Korey ploughed hard back into him. Theodric groaned along with him, the extra pressure from Iordáin’s cock in Korey’s ass adding to the pleasure and intensity of their fucking. “Oh! Aw, yeah, Korey!”

“I’m not gonna last much longer!” Korey cried out, bouncing between Iordáin’s thick cock and Theodric’s tight ass, his own dick was pulsing with pleasure and lust. “I’m not gonna…ah! Aw, yeah! Aw, yeah, Theodric! Aw! Aw!” Korey moaned loudly and collapsed onto Theodric’s back, Iordáin pressing them close as the blacksmith’s hips pounded in and out of the darach’s ass, pumping him full of cum, while his own ass milked Iordáin’s dick at the same time. “AW! Fuck, yes! Awww!”

Theodric grinned as Korey seemed to cum forever and ever, his moaning and panting drowning out the sound of the wind in the trees as Korey’s thick cock bounced and throbbed in his tight hole until at last the younger man pulled out of him, the wet slap of his flesh on Theodric’s ass was enough to make the darach’s cock jump and his dick spasm with precum. “Fuck! I’m practically cumming already!”

“Roll over!” Iordáin called out as Korey pulled himself off his ass and made room for the hunter to move between Theodric’s legs. Instead of just handling himself and shooting his load over his lover’s chest and face, Iordáin grinned at Korey and pushed cock inside Theodric’s already used ass. “Ah! Wow, so tight and slippery! And yet so full!”

“Aw, Iordáin!” Theodric moaned, his hand jerking off furiously as he wrapped his legs around the hunter’s ass, feet crossing to hold him in place as Iordáin delivered several deep, powerful thrusts. His free hand was on his lover’s arms, fingers racing over muscular flesh, heated from the sun. “Oh! I’m so close!”

“Wow!” Korey muttered, his cock hard again as he leaned over Theodric’s shoulder to watch Iordáin pull out and push into the sloppy asshole with renewed vigor, frothy cum visible along the thick shaft, his cum. He began to copy Theodric’s motions, sweat on his hands helping his foreskin to move faster over his cock. “Ahhh!”

They were all moaning now, Iordáin suddenly going still from the waist up, his hips thrusting into Theodric as more cum flooded the darach’s hole. This seemed to be the signal and Theodric erupted next, cum flying out of his cock in thick sploshes and covering his tanned skin; creamy white ropes splattering against his chin and face, his shiny pectoral muscles made more so by the second volley, while the third flooded out onto his contracting abs. “Mmmmh!”

Korey watched it all with mounting lust and desire, his gaze sweeping from Iordáin’s pleasured expression and still pumping cock, to Theodric’s gasping mouth and cum-slick torso. It was too much to bear and before he could warn him, Korey was shooting his second load all over Theodric’s face and body. “Awwww!”

 

It was later, once he had washed off and left Iordáin and Korey to relieve more of their collective tension, that Theodric ventured along The Path of The Dagda. The trees that lined the way were tall and old, wide trunks and heavy boughs, creaking in the wind, though they cast a cool shadow over him. It was more like a tunnel of leafy green than any clear path towards a destination. But Theodric could feel the magic in the air, an intensity of sensation that made the hair on his arms stand on end.

He walked along the clear ground in between the two rows of trees, frowning when he realized that it was not earth under his feet, but rather moss-covered stones, each larger than a man and many times as heavy. The darach shivered slightly, feeling an unwelcome presence around him, but Theodric pushed on, glancing over his shoulder every few seconds, yet seeing nothing.

After several minutes of following the path with a growing sense of unease, he was able to see a clearing at the end of the tunnel of trees and Stiles’ voice carrying from it. Theodric was about to smile when he realised that the words were indistinct. Before he could question the strangeness of the situation, the darach collided heavily with something that was invisible. “Ah!” Theodric glared at the air and backed off as he reached out to touch the hard surface. “What in Donn’s name…”

The darach spread his arms outwards and grimaced when he found that he had somehow walked into an invisible box, his fingers catching on some sort of hardness that infused the very air itself. But the plants at his feet were able to sway back and forth in front of him with no ill effects. “Magic. Some kind of barrier.” Theodric frowned and looked up, backwards the clearing. He could see Stiles now, talking to…something. The figure in front of the druid was obscured by a blazing golden light, only revealed when Theodric concentrated harder. It was a large man, tall and strong, with a flowing, braided beard that swept down as far as his stomach and was of a burnished bronze color. The man’s face was hidden by a cloak but Theodric felt his stomach clench as he glanced between the staff in one of the man’s hands to the great cauldron that sat on the ground next to him. “Is it really…? But, it has to be, that’s the lorg mór and the coire ansic, it can only be The Dagda Himself!”

 

Stiles nodded as he listened to the god’s instructions, stiffening when a pink ripple of magical energy washed across the clearing. “Findabair?”

“No.” The Dagda shook his head, a smile touching his lips. “Although it is a darach, a friend of yours, I believe. He will be released once our words together are finished.”

“He’s probably worried that I am descending a dangerous path.” Stiles gestured aimlessly about the clearing, a blood-stained sacrifice stone almost visible through the god’s not-quite-see-through body. “I don’t like lying to them, and I especially don’t like leading them down this road. It will end in horror and blood and too many graves to count.”

“We both know the perils of ignoring this threat, Stiles,” The Dagda sighed. “We have both seen what will come to pass should Findabair succeed in raising Balor from his prison beneath the cursed lake. You must continue to act as though you share her desires and undo the warding around the place his devastating eye lies. Only then can he be unleashed once enough blood has been spilled in his cursed name.”

“And You truly believe that summoning him on the battlefield will be a better alternative than raising Balor in her own village?” Stiles frowned and nodded as the god simply looked at him. “I would confront Balor myself and-”

“You would die, he can be defeated only by one of the Tuatha Dé Danann.” The Dagda reached out and placed a hand on Stiles’ shoulder, golden light spilling from his flesh and sinking into the druid’s robes. Powerful sigils flared in runic patterns around Stiles’ shoulders and down his chest. “There, you are protected, I am relying on you to call me forth when the time comes, I need you to stay alive. Together with my son, Aed, we will destroy Balor forever.”

“As You say, it will be done, master.” Stiles bowed before the god, watching as The Dagda picked up his magical cauldron with his free hand and waved his staff in the air, a door to the Otherworld opening with a flash of white light. By the time his vision had cleared, The Dagda had vanished, leaving Stiles with heavy thoughts. “If this is the way it has to be, then I will do as He asks. Now, how to deal with Theodric?”

 

Theodric had been watching him all morning, the darach twitching nervously every time Stiles looked at him. Stiles was just about ready to ask him straight out if he had followed him to the grove at the end of The Path of The Dagda when two of the warriors assigned to help them plan for war approached. “What is it?”

“Master druid…the Chieftain of the Guardians of the Nemeton Clan is here.”

“What?!” Theodric looked up sharply and glanced at Stiles before addressing the warrior. “Are you certain, Rory?”

“Yes, master darach.” Rory nodded and pointed towards the path that led up the mountain. “They begged for water as soon as our patrols came upon them; the peeling affliction has wounded them terribly and they are…wretched.”

“Thank you.” Stiles dismissed him, frowning at the warrior’s evident revulsion. “Thoughts, Theodric?”

“Rory’s wife is a smith, he was one of the ones who came with us to save Korey,” The darach explained as they walked towards the mountain’s edge. “It may simply be that he has no love for those who would harm a master smith.”

“Perhaps, although who knows what punishment the gods have delivered onto Scotti for his sacrilege?”

You, probably. “I believe I see them now.” Theodric pointed at the rising cloud of dust from halfway along the path, ignoring the thoughts that skittered across his mind. “Do you wish to greet them from here?”

“No.” Stiles’ expression hardened. “Scotti greeted me from raised seats, we will greet him from our own.”

“Err, if that is what you wish.” Theodric followed him back to the ruined house and sat next to him. “Are you as surprised as I am that he came to us first? And not to Coltún? Or even Íosác? I would have thought they would have been preferable to us, to you.”

“Coltún would have turned him away, even if his deception was not confessed. That Chieftain is as selfish as he is vain; he would never help out of kindness. And the River Clans are unknown to Scotti, I doubt he would trust them for aid.” Stiles dismissed the question and looked up as Korey arrived, Fionn and a group of heavily armed warriors following him. “I take it you heard?”

“Yes. Is Liam with them?!”

“I don’t know.” Theodric gestured at the group arriving at the top of the path. “Better to wait and see, hmm?”

“Yes, of course.” Korey leaned against Stiles’ chair as Fionn stood beside Theodric. He shaded his eyes and peered through the dust cloud hopefully.

 

Stiles steepled his fingers as the dirty, ragged Chieftain and his warriors were shown into the tumbled down house, his expression kept carefully neutral. Theodric was looking at him expectantly and Stiles took a deep breath. “The Chieftain of the Mountain Clan has empowered me, the druid, Stiles, to speak on his behalf. Who has come before us?”

Scotti threw back the hood that was covering his face forcing Stiles to grimace as he looked at the angry red skin and unpleasant blisters that covered the Chieftain’s face. “It’s us, Stiles.” He gestured to the hooded figures on his left and right, not meeting Korey’s eyes when the smith glared at him. “Liam and Malia too.”

“And why are you here?”

“You have eyes,” Scotti rasped, his throat sounding parched. “The gods’ fury has ravaged our lands; our crops are dying, the soil has turned to dust, the animals are sick with a plague that no one knows how to treat. The oppressive heat has caused this,” He gestured at his face. “These wounds are fresh, a result of our venture to seek you out. Only a druid can reverse this curse, I see that now.”

“You want me to return?” Stiles asked carefully, standing upright and walking over to Scotti. He looked into the Chieftain’s eyes and frowned. “There is something different about you, some…returned wisdom?”

“You were right, Stiles.” Scotti’s hand darted out and grabbed his shoulder, prompting the drawing of the Mountain Clan’s swords, the warriors moving aggressively forwards.

“Easy.” Stiles raised his hands in peace. “Talk to me, Scotti.”

“The gods will not answer our prayers and the mighty Nemeton refuses all offerings of blood; be they animal or human. The knife will simply not strike flesh.” Scotti whispered urgently, his grip tightening. “There is more, whether a blessing or a curse, I do not know; only that with its shrinkage, my wits have returned to the same sharpness as before we began seeking blessings to enhance the clan’s fertility.” The Chieftain winced as Stiles tilted his head. “Let me show you…”

“Aed above!” Stiles muttered as he stared at the small cock that now hung between Scotti’s legs, his massive length and girth stolen away. “The wrath of the gods is terrible indeed!”

Chapter Text

Stiles looked back up at Scotti and his expression hardened once more. The druid pursed his lips as the Chieftain parted his own, about to speak, but Stiles spoke first. “Fionn, is there somewhere Scotti and I could talk alone? The air does not need to be cleared in full view of both clans, hmm?”

“As you say, master druid.” Fionn frowned at Scotti but gestured over his shoulder. “You can use the Cave of the Ancestors, it is where our previous darach lived, a quiet place to be sure.”

“That will do,” Stiles nodded. “Theodric? Your counsel would be welcome.”

“Of course, Stiles.” The darach stood up and walked past the group, following Fionn’s guiding hand.

“Scotti, bring Malia or Liam, I’m sure it will help if we each have someone we can rely on.”

“Right.” The Chieftain murmured. “I’ll see you there.”

“Hmm.” Stiles glanced at Korey as he turned to leave, seeing Iordáin place a comforting hand on his shoulder but the smith moved away from him and towards the shortest of the three hooded figures in front of them. “When you’re ready, Scotti, come to the cave.” The druid followed Theodric, the two of them walking silently side by side until the darach stopped in front of a stout pair of doors built into the mountain. Theodric pulled them open with a creaking sound that set Stiles’ teeth on edge. He nodded at the cave beyond. “This is it?”

“Yes,” Theodric batted away the cobwebs that lined the entrance to the dark hole, pointing at stacked braziers around the interior. “I’ve been here once before, but I decided to keep my home instead of moving up here.”

“It is often a good thing to have some distance from the clan you serve.” Stiles said absently as he waved his hands in a broad sweep. “ Dóigh!” The braziers suddenly erupted with flames, dancing orange and green lights illuminating the cave. There was no furniture, save for a large round table and squat stools, as well as a strange metal dish that caught Stiles’ eye in the far corner. “What is that?”

“I am not sure.” Theodric glanced at the bowl and shrugged. “Something left by the previous occupant, I think. Why? Do you know what it is?”

“Perhaps.” Stiles approached the dish, looking at its dull copper exterior and running his hands along the inside rim, polished to a deep, gleaming gold. There was a small amount of liquid at the bottom that shone brightly and reflected warmly on his face. “I cannot be certain, for I have seen such things only in the Otherworld, and only-”

“Stiles?” Scotti’s voice cut across the druid’s quiet murmurings and Theodric pulled away, annoyed.

“Yes, come inside…Chieftain.” The darach hesitated on the title, seeing the flicker of discomfort on Scotti’s face. “And Malia too, of course. Good to see you again; Stiles has told me that you have regained much of your speaking ability.”

“Master darach.” Malia bowed shortly, a smile touching her lips when Scotti copied her a moment later with a swift bob of his head. She looked at Stiles when he returned to the table and her expression grew more serious. “Master druid, I thank you for giving us this opportunity to speak with you. I hope that healing of our clan can begin tonight.”

“Hmm, thank you for your words, Malia.” Stiles replied, sitting down and gesturing for the others to do the same. “But I am curious; when I was exiled from the clan, I was given to believe you had simply decided to become another of the Chieftain’s many lovers. Why do you speak for him now?”

“I do not speak for him.”

“She speaks for the women and the children,” Scotti explained, looking at a point several inches to the right of Stiles’ ear. “The farmers and the traders and the craftsmen. It is Malia and Liam that convinced me to, hmm, swallow my pride and come to you for help, Stiles.”

“After Coltún and Lidia turned us away, of course.” Malia said sharply, glancing at Scotti. “Some allies they turned out to be.”

“He manipulated me, easy to do under the circumstances.” The Chieftain admitted with a grimace. “And I fell straight into his trap; bad enough that I exiled my druid and his acolyte and a dozen of my own people, but there were…deaths.”

“We know.” Theodric spoke sharply, shaking his head. “Korey told us about Conor, as well as what you did to him and others. If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed a man would do that to his own clan without Balor possessing him!”

“Easy, Theodric.” Stiles placed a calming hand on the darach’s arm. He looked at Scotti. “We both know what has been done, and I think we both know why. Coltún sought to push us further apart and after Findabair was dealt with, he would use that instability to divide and conquer all the lands from the Divide to the River Clans.”

“You know everything, then?”

“Almost.” Stiles rested his elbows on the table and waited until Scotti met his eyes. “You said that the sacred Nemeton would not permit you to cut the neck of man or beast to offer as sacrifice? What exactly did you say that upset the gods so much, Scotti?”

“Does it matter?” The Chieftain flushed, swarthy skin going darker. When the druid and darach both looked at him expectantly, Scotti groaned and looked at the table as he spoke. “I do not recall when it was, though it had to have been before Liam and Korey had returned, maybe the night after I got back from The Divide. I was in my part of the roundhouse, wives around me, the children being looked after by the women as Yeshua performed the Beltaine blessings and offerings. I had Ceartas in one hand and my cock in the other, parading around. I remember shouting out that I was…”

“As big as the gods.” Malia took over, her voice a little too close to amused for Scotti’s liking. “That even The Dagda would be jealous of your enormous cock! That you alone would spread your seed over the southern lands and sire dozens of children to carry our clan to glory not seen since the days of the Tuatha Dé Danann themselves!”

“Yes…I remember that now.” Scotti mumbled, his complexion paling as Stiles and Theodric exchanged a worried glance. “Was that before or after the-”

“Before,” Malia nodded firmly, unconsciously rubbing her hip at the memory. “Definitely before the multiple mountings! But, um, you said your dick and your magic sword should allow you to rule all the land and that uh…oh, it was something to do with Brú, Brú something, I don’t-”

Brú na Bóinne,” Stiles whispered, hands clenching into fists hard enough that his knuckles shone white in the gloom of the cave. “Brú na Bóinne, Scotti! Do you not know who dwells within that sacred mound?!”

“Be calm, Stiles.” It was Theodric who placed his hand on Stiles’ arm this time and cast a weary look at Scotti as the druid shook with anger. “You do know what he’s talking about, don’t you?”

“The Dagda, I know.” Scotti mumbled, shame rolling through him. “That’s why we’re here, Stiles. The gods took back their blessing, I do not know if it is just me or my warriors too; they will not say. But I need a druid, a powerful druid, to break this curse, it is beyond anyone else, it has to be you, Stiles!”

Stiles released a heavy sigh and glared at the table in between them. He could feel Theodric’s eyes on him, Malia’s carefully held breath, Scotti’s hopeful expression darting from him to Theodric. Finally, the druid looked up and nodded. “Very well. I will do my best to cleanse this offense from the eyes of the gods. It will need to be a spell of balance and blood, so Theodric will have to come with us to the Nemeton. Sacrifices will be gathered, but I know of a way to find them without further diminishing our clan. However, do not think that you and I have finished our words about my exile, Scotti.”

“Exile?! No! No more exile!” The Chieftain gushed. “I can’t wait for you and Yeshua and the clan to return! And Korey too, of-”

“No.” Theodric cut across him firmly. “You can have the others back if you want, but not Korey.”

“I need a smith: we have a war coming!”

“If you try and take him, Fionn and his warriors will…not allow it.” The darach replied carefully. “But we should ask Korey what he wants and where he wants to go; stay here, among fellow smiths and other masters of metal and the forge? Or sharpening swords and making armor for those warriors who barely see him as more than a hammer? Not to mention what you did, Scotti.”

“I know, but-”

“We will settle this later.” Stiles broke in, shaking his head. “Theodric, can you go and find someone to bring food and water. There is much more to be discussed before I attempt to undo such a grave offense against the gods.”

“Of course, Stiles.” Theodric replied curtly after glaring at Scotti and walked towards the entrance of the cave.

 

Korey looked up from where he was standing at the edge of the mountain when he heard footsteps behind him. The nervous intake of air told him who it was without having to turn around. “Are you as afflicted as Scotti is, Liam?”

“The gods spared no one, Korey.” Liam replied quietly, lingering slightly out of the smith’s vision. “Though maybe they haven’t quite exacted enough from me.”

“What do you mean?”

“When the days were too hot to go outside, to do more than lie on my bed and stare up at darkened thatch, you were always on my mind.” The warrior shuffled forward so Korey could see him when he turned around. “I failed you.”

“I won’t argue with that.” The blacksmith huffed, expression hardening as he threw his mind back to the days spent lashed to the pole. Liam had…tried to intervene, but Korey often wondered just how hard the warrior had actually attempted to sway Scotti’s mind. He sighed and turned around, so he could look at Liam properly, or at least, at the hooded figure’s shadowed face. “What do you want of me?”

“Forgiveness?” Liam took a step forward, hand upraised, before faltering and stepping back. “No, I know that will take time, lots of time. I do not expect you to accept the suffering I have endured at the hands of the gods as payment of the debt I owe you.”

“What do you propose instead?”

“Come home with me, with us!” Liam enthused, gesturing at Korey excitedly. “If you do, I’ll tell Scotti and Stiles and everyone that we’re going to be bound to one another, like we talked about that time by the Star-Gazer’s Lake over the hills to the south-east, do you remember?”

“Of course I remember that night.” Korey whispered as he shook his head. “Why would you bring it-”

“Because then we’ll be together forever, and you’ll be part of the clan, just like you always wanted, right, Korey?”

“Pff!” Korey laughed hollowly and glared at Liam. “Don’t you remember what happened the last time I was around Scotti and the other warriors? You expect me just to go back with you and forgive everything because Stiles seems to be entertaining that possibility? Damn it, Liam, why are you warriors always the same?”

“What?!” Liam gasped and took a step back in surprise, darting sideways to avoid falling off the cliff. “What does that mean?”

“You and Scotti; you’re more alike than you want to believe.” Korey replied bitterly. “You expect that I’d forget that you barely helped me, that you went along with Scotti’s plans, that you stayed behind? And now you turn up here, and suddenly, I’m meant to forgive you and go back because the ‘clan accepts me now!’”

“No, no, Korey, that’s not-” Liam tried to interject as the blacksmith’s voice began to get higher and more attention was paid to them by the nearby warriors of the Mountain Clan.

“Yes, it is, Liam.” Korey glanced to one side as he saw Iordáin and Fionn standing together, both of them looking his way. “I’m not coming back with you, I’ve found a new clan, one that will accept me for who I am, not the craft I practice.”

“Korey, no, come on, Korey!” Liam reached for him as the smith moved away without another glance. “I’ll make it up to you, I’ll do anything!”

“Can you turn back time to when you made the wrong choice?”

“What? No, of course, not!”

“Well, then, you have your answer.” Korey muttered and continued walking back towards the Chieftain as Liam called his name and became increasingly upset. The blacksmith refused to turn back though, his shoulders setting, and lips pressed into a grim line. Once he had passed around one of the houses and out of Liam’s vision, Korey stopped and shut his eyes tight, suppressing the tears that threatened to burst forth as his chest quaked and shook with repressed emotion. “Agh!” He jumped as a heavy hand landed on his shoulder, but the reassuring tone quietened his pounding heart.

“It’s alright, lad.” Fionn pulled Korey into a fatherly hug, holding him tight until Korey began to cry in earnest, sobs wracking his body, the sound lost in the Chieftain’s mighty bronze breastplate. “Let it all out now, that’s it. Take the edge off the pain like you do with burr of a rough blade. There you go, that’s it.”

“Apologies,” Korey muttered, pulling away from him, his face flushed and vision blurry. “I, I didn’t mean…”

“I told you that it was all right.” Fionn placed his hand back on Korey’s shoulder and guided him towards the open mouth of the tunnel that led into the forging chamber. “You’re with your family now, Korey, and we of the mountain always care for our own. We celebrate together in times of joy, we fast together in times of sparsity, we mourn together in times of loss; but most of all, we hammer together when there is anger to be taken out on metal. Do you think you are ready to take up the smith’s greatest weapon once more?”

“Yes,” Korey murmured, rage and grief and happiness all swirling around together inside his chest, looking for an escape route. His hand clenched tight, missing the reassuring weight of a hammer. “I think I am.”

 

Theodric followed Stiles into the Nemeton grove, the yellow grass crackling underfoot like dry straw. The sacred space looked almost the same as the last time he had been here; standing stones in a circle around the tree, their tips bone white in the blazing sun overhead. The Nemeton itself was as magnificent as he remembered, the drought and heat not affecting its thick roots and full branches crowned in verdant leaves. It was just him and Stiles in the grove, Yeshua had remained on the mountain, and Scotti and the others of his clan were forced to hurry into the shelter of their roundhouses as soon as they entered the village. Theodric was thankful for his herb bags when the stench of their boiling, rotting skin hit his nostrils.

Now, however, it was calm, peaceful, the ideal moment to ask. “I followed you, Stiles,” He saw the druid pause over the altar, hands outstretched. “Along the Path of The Dagda, later, after Korey and Iordáin and I had our fun. But I saw enough.”

“Did you, Theodric?” Stiles whispered softly, his hands resuming their skimming motion over the stained stone surface. “And what is it that you think you saw?”

“His cauldron, His staff; we may serve different parts of the pantheon, but I know the most powerful of the gods when I see Him.” Theodric replied, keeping his expression determined as Stiles turned around to look at him. “I couldn’t hear you however, some trick or defense?”

“Yes, to keep out the prying ears of darachs and other…things.” The druid admitted slowly. “The seeds of the war that is almost upon us, Theodric, were planted long before either of us were alive, and Findabair’s rise was only the beginning along a dangerous road towards the resurrection of an ancient and terrible creature. One moment.”

“What are you doing?” Theodric stared at Stiles as he raised his hands and the white fabric of his woollen robe began to pulse with golden light. The darach grimaced and was forced to grit his teeth, blocking his face with his arm as the wave of powerful magic washed through him with an intense, almost scalding burn. When he opened his eyes, he and Stiles were encased in a transparent golden bubble that left only a stretched arm of distance between them. “Stiles?”

“So Findabair cannot hear us, her spies are everywhere, even here.” Stiles nodded to the patch of scraggily bushes behind Theodric, a ghostly blue form hovering in the air above it for a moment before an expression of horror flashed across its face and it twisted into nothingness. “She controls the magical energies of both Nemetons in the northern lands allowing her spells to be much more effective than mine. But she is not invulnerable and once we lure her out-”

“Stiles!” Theodric glared at him, “Get back to the ancient and terrible creature! You mean Balor, right? The god that you’ve been invoking all over the place recently?”

“When The Dagda first came to me in a vision, he showed me many paths to the future, including the one we are on now.” Stiles explained, choosing his words carefully. “He told me that Findabair’s magic was funnelled into one path and one path only: the liberation of her master, Balor, from his prison beneath the earth. To do this, she would need to conquer the southern lands and, in particular, gain control over this village and its Nemeton. Only then would she have the power to break the wards of Balor’s prison and begin the ritual to return him to the world.”

“Uh…” Theodric stared at him, lips pulling into a smirk until he saw Stiles was serious. “Please tell me there’s a ‘but’ coming?”

“The Dagda and His son Aed will take physical form, here, in our world and do battle with Balor. This time they will not trap him, but instead kill him once and for all; scattering the pieces of his body across both this world and the Otherworld, so that none may restore him ever again.”

“I feel like we’ve skipped a stage.” The darach frowned as Stiles nodded and looked at his feet. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”

“Once this curse is lifted, Scotti will grant me possession of the god-forged blade for a night, he will not question me as to why, especially with the rains falling on his village.” Stiles gestured at the sky, his expression grim. “I will go forth to the cursed lake nearby and undo the protective wards that have trapped Balor’s eye within from the moment of his last defeat.”

That’s what is inside?!”

“I think our old master knew it,” Stiles shrugged. “But that is why I have been praying to Balor and invoking his name, with Findabair’s aid I have power enough to break the wards. We have…communicated through magical means since I broke her curse of endless winter. She needs me to break the wards on my side, so that when we go to battle, she can cast her sacrificial spell and use the blood spilled to bring Balor back to life. She does not trust me, of course, and expects that I want Balor’s blessing for myself. We will do battle once the god is raised and I will finally have the chance to destroy her!” The druid snarled and clenched his fist, before taking a breath and looking at Theodric. “I know this is…not what you expected.”

“Understatement.” Theodric muttered, blinking his eyes and staggering backwards into the unanticipatedly hard barrier of golden light. “Uh, deception? Half-truths? Working with the enemy?! Your most hated enemy?! Stiles, surely the gods do not want this! Think of all who have died, those who will die!”

“The gods ask much of us, Theodric, more than a mortal man can bear, I suppose.” Stiles turned away from him, eyes faraway. He sighed and glanced back at the darach. “We will have some measure of control over the conditions in which Balor returns, instead of Findabair killing everyone in the northern lands to resurrect him in her village as was her plan when we first spoke. I convinced her that a god such as Balor would want the blood of noble warriors fuelling his rise, not filthy slaves and mute adherents.”

“I guess you have a point.” Theodric admitted uneasily, the faces of Iordáin and Korey flashing before his eyes as Stiles nodded and released the bubble. “We’ll need to speak of this more, Stiles.”

“Yes, there is much work to be done.” The druid smiled tightly. “But it will have to wait, I can feel Roscoe returning to me now. And I believe he has what I need for this ritual.”

“Oh?” Theodric turned around, eyes widening as he saw the bushes shaking and the spectral bear emerging snout first. There were three figures tightly bound on Roscoe’s back, their torn hide tunics and dirty skin marking them as bandits. But it was the man who walked on Roscoe’s other side that caught the darach’s attention the most. He was tall and muscular, well-build upper torso visible entirely as he was clad only in a long, trailing cape of forest green that wrapped around his waist and hid only the girth of his cock. His black hair and bright eyes gave him a softer look than his strong, angular jaw suggested. “And who is this?”

“You have your hunter, Theodric,” Stiles said as he walked across the clearing and gripped the man’s arm warmly. “And I have mine. I’d like you to meet Gaibriél.”

 

Stiles nodded happily as Gaibriél placed the three captives on the altar in a triangular formation. “Good, you got the elder.”

“Hardest to find; old bandits are usually dead bandits!” The handsome man grinned at him. “But you know you can rely on me, Stiles. The boy is fully grown, but not yet a man by bandit lore; his blade is a virgin, unstained by blood. He was easy, and the woman untouched by no man was with him. Whether they be brother and sister or not, I do not speak enough of their tongue to know.”

“And you are sure she is a virgin? And I do not speak of her blade.”

“Don’t you trust me, Stiles?” Gaibriél’s brows rose in a manner that Theodric found oddly irritating when the expression was directed at Stiles, the hunter was too familiar with the druid, but Stiles treated him as though they were old friends. “Of course I checked to see.”

“Uh huh.”

“Do you think that was pleasant for me either?! Ughh!” Gaibriél shuddered dramatically and finished aligning the struggling boy according to Stiles’ pointing finger.

“I suppose not.” Stiles glanced at the scowling face of the darach across from him, a smirk touching his lips. “Gaibriél came through the village not long after you were exiled, Theodric, he is a hunter of men. Usually chasing those who flee from justice or are eluding the judgement of clan or druid.”

“I have heard of such people.” Theodric replied stiffly, arms folded across his chest as he watched the half-naked form of Gaibriél with jealous eyes. “I did not know they performed tasks such as these though?”

“Anything for a pouch of gold.” Stiles smiled at Gaibriél and handed him the bag. He frowned when the hunter shook his head and refused. “Why? You are an adventurer as much as anything else.”

“You helped me when you didn’t have to, when no one else would.” Gaibriél glanced uneasily at Theodric before looking back at Stiles. “I said I would come to your aid whenever you needed me, no matter the task you required.”

Theodric pursed his lips, tilting his head slightly as he heard a familiar tone in Gaibriél’s words. The darach stepped back suddenly as Stiles flushed. Oh…

“Thank you, I will not forget this.” Stiles smiled at the man hunter and gestured at the altar. “Do you wish to leave before the ritual? I can promise you a warm bed and your fill of meat and mead should you stay however; the clan will be grateful.”

“Well, I won’t say no to that!”

“Good. Theodric? I’m ready to begin…um.” Stiles looked around, but the darach had disappeared. “Theodric?”

“I’m gathering the clan!” He was on the other side of the clearing, heading towards the village. “I’ll be gone a while, uh, take your time, enjoy yourselves!”

“Ugh.” Stiles sighed as Gaibriél laughed quietly and sat down next to him against the cool bark of the Nemeton, both silent as they watched the struggles of the bound captives on the altar in front of them.

 

The sun had set by the time Theodric returned with the clan, torches carried away from their burnt and peeling faces, hoods and clothes shed as they all stood together in a group, huddling and naked, desperate for any cooling breeze. The once proud clan of big-dicked warriors were meek and mild, none daring to match Stiles’ gaze. Liam stood slightly apart from them, and with Korey having stayed in the Mountain Clan’s village, Stiles had gathered that their parting was far from jovial.

Scotti nodded at him and laid down Ceartas before the altar, the blade gleaming with a golden hue reflected from the burning torches. “Master druid Stiles, we, the Guardians of the Nemeton clan, ask your forgiveness and that of the gods for the treachery and divisions that I created among us.”

“Of course, Chieftain Scotti.” Stiles replied in the stiff formal tone that he used for judgements and resolving disputes. He saw Scotti smile a little and carried on. “It will take time for the clan to heal and for bad blood to wash away, but that can only happen in the light and glory of mighty Aed and merciful Donn.”

He turned away from Scotti and nodded for Theodric to stand next to him, both holding their hands out towards the Nemeton and the altar. “Oh, great patrons of this clan, look down on their suffering with mercy and relieve them from their ills! They have learned the error of their ways and will never again seek to usurp the greatest of all gods, The blessed Dagda!”

There was a murmur of surprise and alarm from behind them and Stiles looked up, seeing a silvery mist dance and twinkle in the night sky. He smiled and thrusted his arms into the air. “As You are with us now, Chieftain of all the gods, accept this offering of blood and bone and flesh to sate your appetite and deliver redemption to the clan of Scotti! Though you refuse weapons of stone or bone or metal against this flesh, take them instead with magic!”

Scáileanna!” Theodric cried out in a harsh tone, his hands flung wide over the struggling captives. There was an unearthly wail and black smoke rushed out from around the Nemeton and up over the now-thrashing figures. The darach snarled wordlessly and stabbed down as though he was holding an invisible dagger, Stiles mirroring him at the same time. Screams rent the air as the smoke curled and roiled around unnaturally, animalistic sounds and flashes of red and purple lit the area in front of the Nemeton. Theodric stayed where he was even as some of the naked warriors behind him jumped back when tearing noises reached their ears; flesh rending and bones cracking, bright, crimson blood slopping over the sides of the altar to soak into the ground around the Nemeton as the gods took their fill.

There was a noticeable change in the air in the moments after the screaming stopped; no longer was it hot and stagnant, but cool and light. A faint breeze began to blow through the trees, swiftly turning into a calming wind that soothed sun-blasted skin. The sky overhead darkened as the stars were obscured by suddenly dense storm clouds and a moment later Stiles felt the first drop on his head. He ignored the cheering and excited clapping behind him, looking at the blood-stained altar as Theodric’s concealing fog blew away and the grisly remains of the gods’ feast became visible. This…a thousand times this on the battlefield to raise Balor. A terrible price to pay so that their clans live on after them.

The druid blinked as Gaibriél approached him, the man offering him a respectful smile as the clouds released their downpour on them. “Are you staying then?”

“Until the weather clears,” He followed Stiles over to the sword, watching as the druid bent down to pick it up. “But perhaps I can stay a little longer, lend my skills to the war that you’re fighting?”

“I would not wish that on you, Gaibriél.” Stiles examined the sword, nodding as he saw that the edge was undamaged from the time Scotti had tossed it to one side. “I fear that the battles to come will exact a heavy price in blood.”

“Hmm, I became an adventurer and man hunter because I did not like anyone telling me what I can and can’t do,” Gaibriél smirked and nudged Stiles playfully as the rest of the clan gathered around Theodric, hoisting him up into the air, and carrying the protesting darach triumphantly towards the village as rain hammered into the ground around them. “Although, I may make an exception for you!”

“That path leads to nothing but death and despair.” Stiles murmured softly, old feelings and emotions flaring in his chest. He shook his head to clear it and nodded after the retreating clan. “Go to them, get your fill and regale them with stories of your adventures.”

“And you?”

“There is a promise I must keep.” Stiles gripped Ceartas tightly and looked at him. “But, if you insist on being stubborn, I will be spending the night in the druid’s roundhouse on the edge of the village. It’s the one closest to the Nemeton, I’ll have a place for you to lay your head.”

“Until then.” Gaibriél grinned at him and headed after the retreating backs of the jubilant villagers, leaving Stiles alone with Roscoe.

“Come along, my old friend, those wards won’t undo themselves…”

 

The rain was still falling heavily when Stiles and Roscoe arrived at the cursed lake. Even though the wind was blowing briskly against the reeds at the edge of the startlingly blue water, the waves continued their endless churning in the opposite direction around the utterly still point at the center. The spectral bear whined and sat down at the beginning of the wooden jetty with a thump. “I know.” Stiles smiled sadly and patted his broad head affectionately. “As soon as I do this, Findabair will recognize that the time for war has come and Balor will be ready to be called forth once again.”

“Grrr.” Roscoe growled half-heartedly.

“Yes, my old friend, but stay here where you will be safe.” Stiles nodded, turning away to unsheathe Ceartas. He walked out onto the creaking wood and felt the baneful influence of the Fomorian god seep into him, questing fingers diverted successfully to the place in his mind that Stiles had built to deceive Balor that he was a loyal subject. This was the most dangerous part, the part that could get them all killed before Aed and The Dagda were ready to strike Balor down should his deception be discovered.

The sensation passed, and Stiles felt his muscles become imbued with unnatural strength and energy, allowing him to stride confidently out towards the end of the jetty. The druid clasped the god-forged sword in both hands and swung it around so the point was facing down towards the water. Stiles closed his eyes and began to speak in the harsh tongue of Balor’s magic. “Bair na gu noon! Bair na gah rae! Eska Ver! Eska Ver! Eska Ver!

With the final word, Stiles plunged the sword downwards, the blade causing the water to hiss and bubble violently as he pushed it all the way under the frothing surface and into the hard ground just below him. The druid released the hilt and stood up slowly, a howling noise screeching forth from the center of the lake even as the water went absolutely still. “Hmm.”

Stiles walked back to the shore and shrugged at Roscoe, “I think that did something.”

“Hrrrh!”

“Huh?” Several shield-like objects had risen from around the perimeter of the lake, ghostly grey and shimmering in the night air. Stiles frowned and stayed still, watching as a slow ripple began to spread out from where the sword was still thrust into the bottom. “The wards…of course.” The druid bowed his head as the first one exploded in a shower of brilliant white sparks, the force of the detonation pushing Stiles back against Roscoe. The spectral bear wrapped a heavy paw around him protectively as the explosions continued with keening screeches. Stiles remained cowed as the remainder of the wards failed and vanished from sight.

Though he had felt Balor’s presence many times before, Stiles had never experienced it so strongly as he did once the protections were lifted. It was as though the Fomorian was standing next to him, strength exuding from the powerful figure. He had to shake his head vigorously to make the sensation lessen enough to get away, staggering back into the wild, unplanted fields that bordered on the cursed lake. As Stiles rested on the dry-stone walls, he looked up through the dark storm clouds that continued to dump rain onto the village.

Zinggggggg!

“Ah!” Stiles threw himself to one side as the sword was launched from the center of the lake and fired backwards like an arrow to clatter on the ground next to him. The water churned and frothed, pulled up into a towering cone as green lightning flashed through its center. Stiles had just enough time to stare at the marvel before a black shape erupted from the middle and flew straight up into the air, the water crashing down into place again, their raging torrents quietened. He tracked the shape through the sky until it was lost in the forests to the north, scything across the clouds towards Balor’s true servant, Findabair.

The druid stooped down and picked up the sword, returning to the village in silence, Roscoe padding along beside him. No going back now, we have to fight them, and finally, I will have the opportunity to avenge my clan’s death at your hands, sorcerer!