January 29, TA 3019/1200AD
The fringes of the storm expanded southwards, spreading outwards from its heart deep in the mountains. WIth it it brought great amounts of snow, of course, along with thick fog and bitings winds: everything to be expected from a winter blow coming down out of the Alps. Those that lived in the region, near the cities of Verona and Trento, simply shrugged their shoulders and went about their lives, having come to expect such things over the course of their lives.
But there was something else in the air. A dark feeling, not dissimilar to the fogs of despair and terror that had gripped Esztergom, Seville and so many other places across Europe. A feeling of deepest dread, like the breath of winter itself was blowing out of the mountains, carrying a cold that cut to the bones. But this wind did not blow down out of the Alps. It seemed to simply...cling to the entire region, as if something was hiding just behind the snow and hail, darting between the clouds and stirring up the storm. A small handful of peasants and hunters that went out into the storm for whatever reason swore that they had seen something in the storm, some kind of great beast that drove the howling winds and chilled the freezing air. Most dismissed such tales, putting the weather down to just being another winter storm from the mountains, albeit a nastier one than normal. They went back to their works without a second thought. The truth, of course, was far worse than their darkest imaginings.
By all rights, the ones that hid inside the storm should have been long dead. And in many ways, they were: all that stirred in what remained of their soul was pure hatred, an eternally burning black fire fed by the will of Sauron himself. Once, long ago, they had been great Kings of Men, lords of the wild peoples from the east. Those people were descended from the ones that the Numenoreans had, while listening to the whispers of the Dark Lord, abused and enslaved, and when Sauron returned, all those centuries later, they had followed eagerly, going forwards under the promise that the blood of Numenor would be spilled by their hands. Their Kings had sworn fealty to the Dark Lord for the promise of eternal life.
The hollow mockery of a life they now lived hardly deserved to be called such, but the former lords made no complaint. Only service to Sauron mattered now, as it had for the past several thousand years. And so it was that the one-time Kings continued their flights, spurring their Fell Beast on through the storm, continuing their endless search.The Ring was near. They could feel it. Its Bearer had passed through the Misty Mountains via the Mines of Moria according to the Wizard Saruman, likely bound for Lorien. Thus, the three Wraiths not assigned to ready Sauron’s armies for war were sent here, to watch the Golden Wood, waiting for the Ring to come out of hiding.
It was to be a long wait. The Wraiths had seen no hide nor hair of anyone within the forest, elven or otherwise, the inhabitants hiding away within the shelter of the trees. The sight of the Nazgul was sharp and long, but the Ring of Air, one of the three great Elven Rings, was even better at obscuring what its wielder wished to remain hidden. And despite all of their power, the Wraiths did not yet have the strength to storm the Heart of Elvendom in Middle-earth by force.
And so they continued in their duties, unmoved by such pathetic things as boredom and impatience, flying constant search patterns above the forest and circling around its fringes. If any of them still had the capacity to enjoy life, that ability was not currently being aroused. Still, the Dark Lord had given them their orders, and they would follow those orders until they either accomplished their assigned task or were sent to oblivion in the attempt. There was never any question as to that.
What there was a question to was what to do if any unforeseen complications were to arise. Say, for instance, if a giant eagle, very clearly carrying something in its talons, were to break out of the storm, struggling to stay aloft, not even attempting to hide itself as it flew south. Rare was it to see such beings out of their eyries, rarer still to see one so ragged. Wherever they were going, wherever they came from, their task was obviously of the utmost importance to those that dared oppose the might of the Shadow.
Sauron was not one to actively encourage flexibility in his thralls (hating when actions were taken that went even slightly against his greater designs, being of the mind that his myriad slaves were incapable of improving what he had already set in stone), but the Dark Lord did value initiative when such golden opportunities knocked. Here before them lay such a chance: whatever mission the Great Eagle was carrying out, well...they would not be given the chance to finish it.
Some among the lesser of Sauron’s forces, orcs and trolls and goblins, might have frozen in such a moment, lost without exact orders from their dark master on how to proceed. But not the Nazgul. They were hunters above all else, the long hand of the Dark Lord. And now before them came the perfect prey. Silently, without even a word being spoken, the plan was devised. One lone Eagle hardly rated their combined efforts. A single Wraith would be more than sufficient for the task of chasing them down. The others would stay here and continue to watch the forest, fulfilling their master’s orders.. With the tasks meted out, the Wraith designated for the hunt spurred his Fell Beast forwards, still staying in the cover of the clouds as he and his mount began to close on the Eagle. The monster moved with unbelievable deftness, like a whisper on the winter wind, moving into a position above and behind the Eagle.
And then, like a hidden dagger, they struck.
Lotario dei Conti di Segni, better known by his chosen name of Innocent III, lay awake in bed, unable to sleep. Not that he was putting up much of an attempt. Too many thoughts passed through his mind, each one demanding his attention in turn, and his head raced to keep up with each one. It felt as though he was standing on the middle of a debate floor as God Almighty only knew how many different people attempted to shout over each other, each one trying to be louder than the last.
It was rather close to impossible to misinterpret the Calling that he had been given, and a (relatively) simple Calling it was: assemble a Holy Crusade by calling together the Christian Lords of Europe and send it out to contain the greatest threat in world history. There could be no denying the holiness of this task: this was no battle against misguided heretics, or even with the infidels and heathens, but rather with the legions of Hell itself! Demons and monsters now walked in plain sight among men, and as the Shepherd of God’s Flock, it was his duty to drive back the wolves!
Yes, the purpose for which he had been Called was clear. The logistics of executing God’s Will were proving significantly less so. This was not an unfamiliar problem to him: he had been dealing with such things ever since his succession to the Papacy, fighting resistance to his call for a Crusade to once more reclaim the Holy Land. He was well aware of the primary issues he faced, and he cursed the politics and greed of men every time that they crossed his mind.
Issue the First: France and England were at each other’s throats. This was nothing new: the two Kingdoms had been trying to kick each other’s teeth in practically non-stop for well more than a century, each trying to wrest from the other control over Normandy and the surrounding counties, many of which had changed hands more times than he could count. They were far too preoccupied with planning to slaughter each other to allow themselves to be bothered with the outside world.
Issue the Second: Many of the more secular princes in the Holy Roman Empire were attempting to undermine his authority (and, as Roman Emperors, they were sneaking increasingly greedy glances at the lands of the Patrimony of St. Peter). If that wasn’t enough of a problem already, there was a brewing crisis within the Empire. The early and completely unexpected death of the previous Emperor, Henry the VI of the House of Hohenstaufen, had left the thrones of both the Empire and Sicily in the hands of his son Frederick, who was currently all of five years and two months old.
Innocent himself currently acted as Frederick’s guardian and de-facto regent of Sicily: the poor boys mother, Henry’s wife Constance, had passed away two years earlier, choosing him to be the child’s watcher. But it was in Germany, in the heart of the Empire, that the trouble was originating. It was not as if the Pope could be elected Holy Roman Emperor, and so now other men scrambled to seize the throne.
Once again, Innocent cursed the greed of man. It had at first seemed that the Duke of Saxony, Bernard III of House Ascania, would be the one to ascend to the throne. However, King Richard the Lionheart of England, not long before his death, had instead suggested the election of his nephew, Otto of Brunswick, Duke of Aquitaine, a proposal that was initially met with general acclaim.
However, this simple suggestion had opened the Pandora’s Box of Roman politics, as Otto was the son of another Saxon Duke, Henry the Lion (a rival to Bernard’s House), and Bernard and his supporters feared that if he ascended to the throne he would allows his family, the House of Welf, to press their claims on Saxon territory. Fearing the loss of their lands, the Saxons now threw their support behind Philip of Swabia, brother of the deceased Emperor, who had come to the election seeking to secure the succession of his nephew, and soon others had flocked to their colors, especially those that bitterly resented Henry’s attempts to make the crown purely hereditary. With their support, the reluctant Philip was elected King.
However, Otto’s supporters refused to accept the result, and three months after the election they held their own conclave to elect Otto as King, as Philip had not yet been coronated. Both Kings were coronated soon afterwards, but neither of them did so by the legitimate process. Philip was elected with the full regalia of the Emperor, but had not been in either Mainz or Aachen (the traditional location) and had not been crowned by the Archbishop of Cologne (the traditional authority). For Otto, it was simply the other way around.
The minor lords of Germany wasted no time in jumping to pick sides. Innocent himself had been dragged into the morass, his guardianship of Sicily (or rather, his answer to the question of how much sway the Papacy should hold over the Kingdom and whether or not Sicily should be integrated into the Empire), pulling him in, and with the death of Richard the Lionheart he had become Otto’s primary backer. The English backed the candidate of their late and beloved King, of course, and the French jumped at any chance to spurn their rival, siding with Philip’s faction. As the months passed, the crisis seemed to grow ever on.
Now, with the Devil’s hordes threatening the whole of the good earth, he realized how little it all mattered. Such disputes, about the possession of lands and the rights of certain factions, meant nothing at all, not against the ending of the world. What would a few more titles and and few more acres do against Hell itself? Innocent was wise enough to realize that the answer was nothing at all. He hoped, he prayed, that the princes of Europe would realize that soon. He sent out the message to all of them, regardless of politics or distance, and he called on the heavens that his warning wouldn’t be ignored.
In the meantime, all he could do was pray for guidance and organize those nations that weren’t seeking to rip each other’s throats out. Without the Germans, and potentially without the French or English, they would be woefully inadequate. In Italy, only Sicily (which Innocent himself effectively ruled) could be guaranteed to send aid, with the northern states such as Genoa, Pisa and Venice being far more interested in undercutting each other than unifying as one. The Kingdoms of Hungary or Poland would have been more reliable, but both were likely soon to be neck deep in Hell itself, if they weren’t already.
Looking further afield, the picture was slightly better, but still not what Innocent would call good. The Spanish and the Norse were brave and ferocious fighters, but Innocent feared that they would be too few in number to make a significant impact. The possibility of calling on their Orthodox brothers to the east brought with it other problems. The sheer distance to the Rus States made even simply contacting them difficult, and coordinating with them near impossible.
The Byzantines were no better, and were in many ways worse. Alexios III Angelos had effectively bankrupted the Empire trying to secure his reign after he had ousted his brother Isaac II from the throne, gutting the once-mighty Roman military, and his methods of paying for doing so with heavy taxation and plundering Holy sights and Imperial tombs did little to endear him to the people. Imperial authority, especially in the outskirts, was crumbling, and Alexios III’s rule seemed less stable by the day. And on top of all of that, there was the Double-Headed Eagle from his vision. Although he didn’t quite say so in his letter, he would have had to have been a blind fool not to at least partially understand the imagery. He wasn’t quite sure what the Eagle going mad ment (although he was inclined to believe that it foreshadowed a coming civil war), but couldn’t mean anything good for Christendom.
The best available forces to Europe, then, came from old plans that had never quite come to fruition. The Crusade that Innocent had been assembling with the intention of reclaiming the Holy Land was still mustering in Champagne, and likely wouldn’t be ready for months. Another attempted Crusade, which Henry VI had been organizing at the time of his death, had had its leadership abandon it after the Emperor’s death and now languished in Tyre after panicking and fleeing there without any steady hands to guide them.
If Innocent did not live up to his Calling here, if he was not the steady and guiding Hand of God on earth, then this Crusade was likely to meet the same fate. It was a terrific weight to bear. He would have to make hated enemies and rival act as friends and comrades, make greedy and petty men put aside everything else and lead them to the, in this case, very literal Gates of Hell. With that in mind, Innocent sent up yet another prayer to God, pleading now for wise hands to guide all of Christendom, if not all of the World, through the dark.
And then God gave him an answer.
Gwaihir the Windlord’s wings beat on, even as it began to feel as if they would fall off at any moment. The Great Eagles were the mightiest fliers in all of existence, unmatched in skill, speed and endurance, and Gwaihir himself was the greatest yet living, but three days of battling non-stop against a ferocious storm, complete with blinding snowfalls, winds more powerful than any in an Age and an apparently endless stream of lightning bolts had pushed even him to his physical limit, aches running through his wings as he flew southwards.
Nevertheless, he continued. The not-quite-voice in his head prodded him forwards, pushing him onwards even as his joints began to burn with pain. He flew on southwards, destination unknown, guided only by instinct as he entered into unfamiliar territory. It was clear that he was no longer in the realm of Middle-earth. Behind him, the Misty Mountains had apparently been dropped into the center of another and alien range. Before him were clearly not the plains of Rohan or anywhere else that he could have flown to from the Silvertine. But still the calling in his mind continued.
At the very least it was readily apparent what he was supposed to do. He carried with him one who’s weight he had born before, the Wizard called Gandalf, Olorin and many other names. He was to deliver him, to who and where he did not know, but he felt that the fate of a rather great deal rode on his ability to get the Wizard safely to his destination. The voice whispered that much. And deep in his heart, his mind and his soul, he knew that it was right. He didn’t quite know how, but he did.
Said voice, usually barely more than a whisper in the center of his thoughts, suddenly screamed the word to him, through every part of his essence. Reacting on pure instinct, Gwaihir rolled swiftly to his right...and in doing so just barely missed being skewered upon the talons of the Fell Beast as it dove past him in deadly silence. The Great Eagle felt rather than saw its passing, a fell wind that promised death blasting past him at incredible speed. It’s silence gave way to a bloodcurdling screech, a sound of fury that its prey had escaped it. But already its rider was pulling on its reins, bringing it around for another attempt at gutting the Great Eagle.
Gwaihir didn’t feel like giving them the chance. As the worm swerved right at its master’s command, the greatest living Eagle rolled hard to the left, dropping towards the ground as he did so. In response, the Wraith slammed his reigns down, forcing his mount into a dive, keen to keep the claws and teeth of his beast pointed firmly in the direction of the Eagle. Both the Eagle and the Beast now began to shoot towards the ground, the latter rapidly closing the distance towards the former. Suddenly Gwaihir’s wings shot outwards, slowing him almost to a halt, and he performed another hard roll. With another angry and terrible scream, the Fell Beast shot past him once more. And once more, there was no time to celebrate: already, the Nazgul was pulling up, reorienting itself to make another attack run.
Normally, Gwaihir would have been thrilled at this prospect. Clearly, this beast would have given him a challenge to revel in defeating, being swift and strong enough to at least pose a threat to him, however miniscule. But he was in no condition for such a battle. He had had almost no rest in the last three days, and even less sustenance. Endurance wise, he was already at the end of his rope. And on top of that, he carried precious cargo, the kind that could not be risked in a duel to the death.
So evasion it was then. As he continued to roll, dive and swerve, always trying to keep the fangs and talons of the beast pointed away from him, Gwaihir considered his options for doing so. It was unlikely that he could simply outpace his opponent in level flight, especially in his condition. He a way to slip away from his pursuer, a method for slipping away from him that would leave Gwaihir clear to carry his passenger safely to his destination. And, unfamiliar as he was with the terrain of the lands below him, he was left with only one option.
The Wraith watched as the Eagle turned northwards, bolting back towards the storm. If the Wraiths could have smiled, they did now, wide and eager. The foolish animal thought that they could hide within the clouds and the snow, thought that they could run away on the fell winds. But there would be no escape. The storm was the domain of the Nazgul, of the Dark Lord Sauron, and it would not aid them in their flight. A horrible sound escaped from the Rider, a harsh mockery of laughter and joy. They spurred their beast onwards in pursuit, their cries echoing throughout the chill night air.
Almost as if listening to the Nazgul’s cries, and almost as if insulted by the Black Rider’s arrogant belief that it was the master of the winds and the snow and the lightning, the storm began to churn as the two beasts approached it once more, flying hard. It started small, almost unnoticeable, the skies dimming ever-so-slightly more, the winds starting to pick up by the smallest or margins, lighting flashing through the clouds just a bit faster. The two combatants hardly noticed as they madly darted all over the sky, each trying to keep the other firmly in front of them as they worked their way deeper and deeper into the storm. They darted through the clouds, tearing through the skies with movements punctuated by sudden swerves, dives and stops.
The Wraith snarled as he pursued the Eagle back towards the mountains. The skill of the beast was evident: every approach that the Nazgul made was countered, their every attack dodged with deft precision, almost as if they could see what was coming before the Black Rider made his moves. In response, he simply pushed his mount ever harder. It was clear that his prey was slowing down, wearing out: every attack he made was closer to landing a hit. It was only a matter of time until a blow struck home.
The Windlord knew this as well. Every move he made that was not a dodge was an attempt to conserve energy, riding on the existing winds and gliding as much as possible. There was no other choice. His stamina was long since drained, and every movement he made sent stabs of pain throughout his entire body. He clutched unto the Wizard in his talons with the last of his rapidly fading strength. The calling in his mind continued to echo, warning him whenever the Fell Beast came too close for comfort and lending desperate strength to his spirit. Even with his entire body burning under the strain, he continued to streak through the clouds, keeping just ahead of his pursuer. But it couldn’t last forever. Something needed to change.
And something did. The winds began to roar. Lightning screamed out of the sky at an ever-increasing rate, thunder echoing off the mountains. More and more snow began to fall, distorting the vision of even the Nazgul and the Great Eagle. They both began to feel it, that something else was within the storm, something far beyond either of them. Or perhaps two somethings.
One was a shadow, a deadly breath on the winds, laughing and mocking as the Great Eagle deeper into its embrace. The air itself seemed to freeze like ice, the snow and hail sticking striking them from all directions, threatening to encase him whole and drag them screaming into the earth. Lightning crashed down from every side, releasing bellowing thunder that’s power was felt in the bones rather than heard with the ears. There was a howling in the dark, a scream from all directions to simply lay down and die.
The other was just the opposite. Where the darkness shouted and wailed, this one whispered. When the ice and the snow threatened to drag him down, it became the wind beneath his wings keeping him aloft. When lightning streaked out of the clouds, it guided him away from the path that the carved to the ground far below. It was the slightest bit of light, cutting in through the surrounding darkness.
As the darkness around them closed in and the light did all that it could to keep the shadow at bay, the Nazgul and the Windlord continued their battle. The Wraith shrieked in fury with nearly every moment, the flaming wrath that was what remained of its heart and soul building up from a simmer into a raging inferno. How was it that this Eagle, this mere beast, could continue to evade the pursuit of his mount!? No matter how great the power of their body or the depth of their skill, the hunt should have been long over by this point. The damnable creature should have been killed by its own exhaustion alone far before now. As the winds howled and the thunder roared, the Wraith’s black heart burned with hate, the essence of its rage and fury pouring out through its shadow of a body.
If the air could have somehow become even colder, they did so now. The winds almost seemed to bend to the pure hatred that emanated from the Wraith like heat from a furnace, the skies themselves bending and contorting into a single column of air, forming a solid wall of wind that centered around the Nazgul as his fury leaked out into the storm. Even the Eagle could no longer overcome the raw anger of the storm now, the circling winds ensnaring them inside the column.
Seeing no escape in punching through the churning wall of clouds and shadow before them, the Eagle now shot upwards, trying to escape the reach of the Nazgul once more. The Wraith roared again, a scream that drowned out even the howling of the storm, and began his final pursuit, furiously pushing his mount after the Great Eagle. His prey would not be allowed to escape, not anymore. The two began to madly climb towards the top of the cylinder, the black walls slowly collapsing in around them, the Eagle in front and the Nazgul behind. With every beat of their wings, through, the Fell Beast drew nearer and nearer...they were 100 paces back, 50...20...10...they were level…
With one last furious scream, the Wraith drew its sword. Even in the dark of the storm and the night, the blade seemed to glow, the malice of its wielder flooding into it. He looked upon the Eagle before him, no longer able to escape his wrath. Now, finally, it ended. With a guttural cry, like that of a maddened feral beast, the Nazgul struck outwards, aiming for his prey’s underbelly.
Shock was not something that a Ringwraith was supposed to be able to feel. Their only emotions were meant to be hatred and its various derivatives such as sadistic glee. Nevertheless, the Nazgul froze as he saw the sword that had flashed outwards to parry his own blow. Their gaze traced the blade backwards from its point, seeing an old (but strong) hand clasped around its hilt, a scarred and blistered arm that lead back to a body that was battered and bruised and worn. The Wraith looked up from there, and found themselves staring into a pair of eyes that pierced back into the darkness, a great intensity burning behind them.
And then time started again. The Nazgul’s blade flashed out once more, as fast as an eye could blink, but again the silver sword was there to meet it, parrying away the blow. The Wraith’s blade struck out again and again, but every attack that the shadow unleashed found itself blocked, every thrust turned aside. With another furious scream, the Nazgul pulled on his mount’s reins, and the Fell Beast pitched hard, attempting to ram the Great Eagle out of the sky.
Again, as it had done so many times before, the Windlord rolled aside, allowing the Wraith to pass harmlessly by. But unlike all the other times, a flash of silver appeared in the Eagle’s talons, and a moment later black blood began to pour from a wound in the Fell Beast’s neck. The Beast spasmed wildly as pain shot outwards from the wound, the Wraith struggling to maintain control of their mount. And in that single moment, with the Nazgul distracted, the Great Eagle shot away, darting into the black clouds. Even as they struggled to keep their mount aloft, a howl of bestial rage escaped from the Wraith, louder than all the wind and thunder, a sound of pure hate that followed the Eagle and the Wizard even as they turned once more to the south, carrying on the fell black winds.
It was a rather odd sight: the Pope, wearing only his nightclothes, running at a full sprint through the corridors of the Lateran Palace. He tore through the halls, his 40-year-old body performing like that of a man half his age as he sped towards the Palace courtyard. He wasn’t the only one running. His guards chased after him, their armor clanking and their breath coming in pants as they thundered after the Heir of St. Peter. They were young and hale men, in their primes and at the peak of fitness, the very best specimens that Europe had to offer, for the Bishop of Rome deserved no less. And even then they struggled to keep pace with Innocent as he darted through the Palace, barely looking where he was going.
His gaze was fixed out the palace windows as he ran, hardly daring to believe what he was seeing. There, in the courtyard, calling out loudly to any that would here, was a massive Eagle, larger than any animal that Innocent had ever seen. He couldn’t always see it, either: the maids and servants of the palace had been woken by the screeching, and now many of them stood slack-jawed in awe as they stared out the windows, vacant and stunned expressions on their faces.
Even with only those brief and often-obscured glances, the Pope sped on, his heart filling with hope with every step he took. There could be no mistake. If this matched what he had been shone in his vision, then God had just answered his prayer for guidance. The Archangel, the guard against the dark, the Sword and Sceptre of God, had arrived. The Lord’s help had come to him.
With a last burst of speed, the Servant of the Servants of God pushed open the doors of the Palace and skidded into the courtyard. The Eagle turned and looked at him at the sound. It’s eyes seemed almost human as it looked him over, its gaze seeming to look far beyond external appearances. And then, after a moment, it nodded, either to itself or Innocent he was not sure, and spread its wings once more. It lifted slowly off the ground, it’s exhaustion evident to all who saw it, but it took flight with little effort regardless, turning towards the north as it gracefully returned to the skies from which it had come.
Looking to where the Eagle had landed, Innocent laid eyes on what he had been looking for. The one before him’s body was cracked and broken in many places, he could see, but they still stood tall and unbowed, seemingly not noticing their myriad wounds. In their right hand was a silver sword, tip resting gently on the ground before them, and in their left they held a white staff with some sort of stone at the tip. A simple white cloth around their waist was their only clothing.
Innocent briefly turned back to the palace behind him, his eyes passing over the frozen and shocked faces of his guards and his servants. Every set of eyes either stared at the Archangel before them all or at the Successor of Saint Peter, silently asking the Bishop of Rome what they should do. Innocent himself wasn’t exactly sure on how to act in this situation, but he still needed to lead.
“Gather the healers!”
That seemed to shock at least some of them into action, a few scurrying off to find the Palace healers. Even with their guest’s divine nature, he was battered and bruised. He would need the aid, as the men of Europe would need his. Innocent turned back to the Archangel, and for the first time met his eyes. A certain fire burned behind them, a fire that filled the Pope’s heart with hope and banished away, at least for the moment, all of his fears.
And with that, Lotario dei Conti di Segni dropped to his knees and praised God.