Atonement Part 3
Tuan, Manzio and the barely conscious Heraclief had little time to enjoy their victory. Having been ambushed by a powerful group led by no fewer than three Kurgen sorcerers, they remained exposed, a raging fire ahead started by Heraclief’s explosive emerald flames.
‘Can the two of you still walk? questioned Tuan. ’One of the Kurgen escaped and is certain to bring reinforcements not to mention this forest fire, which will attract attention for miles around. We need to move.’
The trio was forced to circumnavigate what would have been the easiest way to climb through the forest but the heat from the flames was already incredibly intense and they had little choice but to find an alternative route.
The going was tough, caused by both the humidity and severity of the climb. Manzio’s leg, ached from the trauma of breaking and then immediately realigning the bone, although the magical healing provided by the elven daggers did at least mean he could now walk albeit far short of his full strength.
Heraclief was struggling even more so than his younger colleague. Despite quickly bathing his face and arms in the glacial stream, the cuts and splinters caused by the smashed wooden debris of exploding trees remained, having absorbed the main thrust of the kurgen leader’s attacks.
However, the three did manage to climb for over an hour before Heraclief could go no further. After a long rest and as the light began to fade, the three crested the ascent and were met with a magnificent sight. The valley below opened-up before them with tributaries streaming down from the ring of mountains surrounding on all sides before feeding into a vast, fast flowing river which snaked through the plain below. On the horizon stood a set of jagged mountains, which immediately looked familiar to both Heraclief and Manzio.
’Look to the horizon and you will see the great Fortress of the Fomorians, now home to the Black Queen. In between there is still much travel for you must pass through the lands of the Sithe, closest allies of Morrigan. Be on your guard for these lands represent the heartlands of this ancient people. Deep within the forests is situated the legendary city of Montebazaar. It is a city split into two parts: one above ground; the other below. You must avoid the city! Instead, keep to the river until it branches left and right. Follow the river left and you will begin to leave behind the Sithe lands.
Here, I must leave you. First, we are being followed. Many more will follow to avenge the loss of their huntsman. I will sew discord in their ranks and slow their pursuit.
Then, I will head north east to the abandoned halls of Catakaroum. These will be packed with servants of the Badb for she will expect an attack through the Catakaroum gateway into her realm from Albion. It will be heavily guarded but I must meet with Merlin in order to give you the diversion you need when entering the Black Citadel.
If you are successful, bring the Young King and John de Courcy to the coast where I will meet with you. I wish you both luck and remember, keep to the shadows.’
Tuan turned on his heel and ignoring the imploring questions of Manzio, was quickly swallowed by the forestland of the Kurgen.
‘I guess we head for the river,’ shrugged Heraclief, though Manzio could see that the powerful sorcerer was in desperate need of rest and recuperation after the battle with his Kurgen adversary.
‘I guess so,’ agreed Manzio and together the two wearily began to descend searching for somewhere to hide and then recover.
Heraclief woke just as the sun crested the horizon and from within the narrow cave he lay hidden, watching as the golden light quickly gave way to smears of grey. Rain was on the way.
Stretching and then nudging Manzio awake with his foot, the two sat in silence glad to have avoided attack during the night. Both remained tired but no longer exhausted.
Heraclief continued to pick splinters from his arms and legs, most now removed and the bleeding stopped. As he did so, his stomach grumbled.
’I’m starving too.’ responded Manzio.
‘The power of the Druid glade has begun to wane,’ observed Heraclief. ‘We can fish from the river after we finish the descent.’
Drizzle had started to fall as the pair finally reached flatland after following a stream down from the cave in which they had rested overnight, guessing correctly that it would converge with the great river described by Tuan only a day earlier.
The forest was densely packed and for the first time since leaving behind the glacier, a little more chilly. The rain intensified as the two progressed slowly, always keeping the river to their right and patiently seeking the huge Y shaped branch visible from the Kurgen hilltop.
As the pair slowly began to descend through the rain, cloaks tightly wrapped to prevent being soaked to the skin, they gained occasional views of the great forest stretching out in a vast basin before them.
Heraclief’s injuries slowed their usual speedy progress and with Tuan gone, the pace dropped even further. It was late afternoon when Heraclief suddenly noticed movement faraway on the horizon.
‘Look,’ he pointed.
Sure enough, many leagues from their aerial position and at least a day away through thick forestland, Manzio could make out the movement of what looked like a great black snake winding its way through the forest toward the horizon.
‘An army,’ confirmed Heraclief, mirroring Manzio’s thoughts exactly. ‘Heading toward the Dark Citadel, I’d wager.’
Heraclief, perhaps buoyed by the sight of what both presumed to be a Sithe army was about to set off again when Manzio reminded the sorcerer of their as yet, unused healing powers for the day. Quickly, Heraclief used the key whilst Manzio felt the familiar power of the earth itself summoned by his remarkable blades.
Heraclief was able to increase his pace in what remained of the daylight. As the pair took turns to guard their campsite through the night, they opted not to light a fire although hunger was beginning to return with a vengeance after the magical benefits of the Druidic glade began to fade.
Waking Heraclief a little earlier than planned, Manzio tried his luck fishing alongside the fast-flowing river, which they’d reached just before nightfall. To his delight, the Vesuvian did not return empty handed having skewered a salmon leaping in midair with his razor-sharp reflexes and the benefit of his magical blades!
Having eaten the fish raw, the two once again soldiered their packs and set off following the meandering track of the river. It took all day and several spring showers to reach the fork in the river described by Tuan two days earlier. Thankfully, until now they had only encountered wildlife rather than Sithe elves but Heraclief urged that the two avoid the fork itself, seeing it only from a distance through the thick undergrowth and moving as stealthily as possible.
Satisfied that they had taken the correct left hand tributary, the two continued more warily than ever as they traversed deeper into enemy territory and ever closer to the Black Queen’s citadel.
It was fast approaching dusk, the light fading to murk when Manzio sensed movement between the trees to his right and toward the river. Gesturing to Heraclief, he pointed through the trees before both began fanning wide and attempting to walk as quietly as possible, the sound of the fast-flowing river to their right partially concealing their movements.
‘It may just have been the fading light. I could have been seeing things,’ whispered Manzio, suddenly unsure of his senses.
‘We should be careful responded Heraclief. Remember we are deep within Sithe territory.’
Manzio nodded, initially reaching for his Sithe cloak but thought better of his plan, aware that it was not yet dark and therefore likely to draw attention to himself.
Rethinking his strategy, instead, Manzio attempted to use the shadows cast by the trees surrounding him, as he approached the river. Suddenly it seemed ominously silent. Then a sound from behind!
Whirling around, Manzio could see a figure as though emerging from the coalescing shadows of a tree to his left. The Vesuvian gasped, thinking that Conal Bradach had appeared. However, whilst dressed in magnificent armour and sporting the same telltale white hair, this elf held a thick black whip of crackling lightning energy in his left hand. He attacked with shocking speed. The fastest Sithe Manzio had ever met. The whip cracked out with a flick of the Sithe’s wrist and the thick, almost snake like tongue of the weapon crackled over Manzio’s neck burning his skin.
‘Heraclief,’ implored Manzio, still clutching his neck, which burned with a terrible intensity.
Looking toward the sorcerer, Manzio was horrified to see a second dark figure materilaise, not more than twenty yards behind Heraclief. Stepping out from the shadows, the newcomer launched an arrow, which caught the sorcerer in the shoulder, spinning him around before he collapsed to the ground, a black liquid emerging from his lips.
Gasping with fear for his friend and quite clearly facing two powerful adversaries, Manzio backed off a few steps toward the river bank, whilst the Sithe seemed to gather his cloak, which looked to be made from a bearskin and seemed to both grow in size and blur as he approached menacingly.
Using his electrical whip and once again attacking with extraordinary speed, the weapon struck home, catching the back of Manzio’s right-hand and ripping a slice of flesh from the back of his hand. Screaming in pain, the Vesuvian involuntarily dropped his blade, catching the gaze of the Sithe weapon master’s red eyes, which blazed with determination and hatred.
Manzio, turning to his side, holding his bleeding hand, caught sight of yet another adversary. A female Sithe emerged from the riverbank and attacked at speed, her two daggers in hand. Once again dressed in magnificent figure-hugging armour, clearly customised for this particular, beautiful user, the daggers slashed through the air but Manzio, his senses now buzzing with fear, evaded both blows, ducking left and then swaying back, just avoiding the second blow.
Desperately trying to control his growing panic, another figure appeared, this time behind the Sithe elf and Manzio. However, the Vesuvian’s terror was transformed into elation, as the giant, barrel-chested figure of Vulcan appeared. His greathammer, much like Tector, was frozen in ice and with an awe inspiring two handed blow, hammered home into the back of the delicate elf, bones cracking as the metal crashed into the beautiful black armour, smashing the elf to the ground. Blood poured from her mouth as she scrambled for the cover of a nearby tree.
‘Bitch!’ screamed Vulcan, his mouth foaming with fury.
Manzio, seeing an opportunity, lunged for his discarded elven dagger but the lightning fast Sithe holding the electrical whip was too fast. He aimed a kick at Manzio’s hand, delivering another stinging blow, which left the young assassin off balance.
However, just as Manzio had suspected, from behind the Sithe, not more than ten feet away, exiting the shadows stepped the familiar silver masked figure of Caledus. Extending his talon like gloves, five lightning bolts exploded like rockets into the back of the Sithe facing Manzio. Screaming in agony and backing off a few yards so as to face off with both Manzio and Caledus, the elf was suddenly far less confident as his gaze switched between his two opponents.
With a few seconds to spare, Manzio momentarily appraised the battlefield. Furthest away from him and beyond the slumped figure of Heraclief the bowman had now engaged in melee. Although difficult to see from distance, Manzio was confident that Corinius must also be with the newcomers and surely the shadowy figure to the Sithe’s left?
Manzio was about to turn his attention back to the Sithe facing Caledus when he noticed another figure appear close to Heraclief. The attacker was tall and hooded, wearing metallic gauntlets not unlike those worn by Caledus. He silently unsheathed two daggers and carefully began to approach the defenseless sorcerer.
No sooner had Manzio processed this information, when a female sithe descended from the trees about halfway between the Vesuvian and Heraclief. She hovered just above the ground although her eyes remained fixed on Caledus. Raising her arms, almost immediately the sound of buzzing began to grow as a swarm of insects descended like a cloud. As one they attacked the Nemesis leader but could not gain purchase as he moved at astonishing speed, like a dancer evading the worst of the attack.
Further through the forest, Manzio was finally able to properly view the individual battling the Sithe responsible for felling Heraclief. He was relieved to see that Corinius had indeed engaged the bowman. The assassin had backed away from his opponent before letting fly a crossbow quarrel from close range. It hit and detonated, clearly a powerful incendiary device, which knocked the Sithe backwards, his face registering both shock and pain.
Meanwhile, continuing to evade the buzzing, biting swarm of insects which attacked him, Caledus lunged for the Sithe dressed in magnificent armour and wielding a whip. He barely made contact with his metallic, gloved hand but the impact was immense! A vortex of shadow surrounded the Sithe who appeared to be trapped within the darkness before it simply imploded with an audible pop. As the shadows dissipated, the Sithe and his electrical whip had disappeared!
Astonished, Manzio was momentarily left facing the mocking grin of Caledus and his silver mask. The Venetian assassin simply nodded before turning his attention to the female druid.
Once again scanning the battlefield, Manzio observed Corinius narrowly miss an attack from the bowman. His adversary was now fighting with elven blades not dissimilar in craftsmanship to those used by the Vesuvian.
However, Manzio had little time to consider this combat as closer to hand, the assassin draped entirely in black clothing crouched down and attacked the stricken, unconscious Heraclief. 4 times he punched his sharp elven daggers into the sorcerers’ body, which was subsequently thrown upward, blood spurting from an arterial wound.
Gasping and knowing his friend had little time to spare, Manzio reached forward to retrieve his elven dagger before using his figurine, transporting the short distance to Heraclief’s attacker, stepping out from the shadows just to the left of the Assassin.
Vulcan also lunged forward with a great bellow but his female attacker seemed to have recovered a little from the huge blow delivered earlier and rushed out to block his path.
Slightly distracted by the Berserker fury of the Danagrim, the shadowy assassin in front of Manzio turned just as the Vesuvian attacked. His left hand punched hard into the spine of his opponent, the elven blade penetrating the shadow and leather protection worn by the individual whilst the right blade just missed. The assassin lurched back in agony but Manzio, incensed by the attack on his friend drove forward the initiative.
From the side of his eye he caught the bizarre sight of Caledus avoid not one but two huge tree branches, which flailed out from the suddenly anthropomorphically transformed beechwoods behind him.
Manzio had no time to concentrate on Caledus as his opponent withdrew a throwing knife, which he flicked nonchalantly and with supreme confidence toward the Vesuvian before it buried itself just beneath the shoulder joint. Manzio screamed in pain as with a flick of his fingers, the shadowy assassin recalled the knife to his hand, the weapon ripping out flesh as reverse pressure was applied.
Badly injured, Manzio backed off to stand over the bleeding body of Heraclief hoping desperately for support from Caledus, Vulcan or Corinius.
A quick glance in the direction of Corinius confirmed that the shadow assassin of the Nemesis Legion was hard pushed although he did catch the bowman a glancing blow with his shadowy weapons before the two once again began to circle one another.
Looking instead imploringly toward Caledus, Manzio could see the Venetian momentarily disappear from sight before reappearing next to Manzio. He summoned a pair of rapiers, one in either hand but entirely made from shadow. Darting forward, Caledus evaded the defensive thrusts of his opponent before reversing one of his blows with a punch to the kidneys.
For a split second Manzio thought he could see through the illusion, for the blades were surely not real but rather concealed a vicious single spike emerging from the back of his metallic gauntlet. The shadowy figure backing away from Caledus screamed in pain, his robes leaking blood, as the Venetian connected.
With the Nemesis Legion finally assuming control of the combat, Manzio could see that Corinius and the bowman remained evenly matched, exchanging blows in some lightning ripostes. Slightly confused, Manzio also noted that the limp of Corinius did not seem to slow him in battle!
Vulcan, his fury slowly ebbing was finally pushed back a step or two in his attempt to reach Heraclief. The female sithe, her daggers a blur in hand attacked left and right, penetrating Vulcan’s defenses in one of several places in which his armour had been damaged in previous combats.
Manzio hesitated momentarily, caught between trying to stem the blood flowing from Heraclief’s injuries or throwing himself back into the combat. The shadow assassin, dropped back a pace as though sensing Manzio’s hesitation before the Vesuvian threw caution to the wind, simultaneously flicking his hook blade into position. He attacked twice, punching his hook into the exposed neck tissue of his opponent whilst slashing out with one of his elven daggers. The figure screamed in agony, collapsing to his knees and the shadowy protections surrounding his form diminishing. Fumbling inside his black cloak, he removed a handful of blackberries, which he swallowed, the black juice mixing with blood trickling from a cut on his cheek.
Manzio, having tumbled to the side after his athletic attack, climbed back to his feet just as the shadow assassin risked exposing his back as he ran for the safety of the forest.
The Druid, sensing that the battle had turned against her group, blew a single note from an ivory horn at her side. As though summoned, she was quickly surrounded by the insects of the forest and remarkably seemed to become as one with the swarm, disappearing up and over the trees.
The bowman, hearing what was clearly a signal for retreat, backed away from Corinius and attempted to run into the thick forestland to his right. Corinius managed to load his crossbow but was slightly too slow, as the bowman quickly disappeared from view before he was ready to attack.
The female Sithe fighting Vulcan also made a run for the riverbank, comfortably doubling back on herself as the big Danagrim was incapable of pursuing her in his bulky armour.
Manzio, still incensed by the attack of the shadow assassin, began to go after Heraclief’s assailant but was brought up short by a command from Caledus.
‘Stop! Look at yourself. You are cut to ribbons. You must be wiser.’
Ignoring the response of Manzio, Caledus dropped down to his knees next to Heraclief with the other two both joining their leader.
‘We must act quickly,’ stated Caledus.
Caledus began to mutter the words of a strange incantation whilst opening the iridescent cube, which Manzio last remembered from his dreams many months before. From inside the box tendrils of shadow began to reach out for Heraclief at first like smoky fingers and then surrounding the sorcerer before dispersing and returning to the cube.
At first nothing happened and then Heraclief began to cough retching up a foul smelling black ichor. Caledus, touching and then smelling the putrid, black liquid simply nodded.
‘The sleep poison of the Sithe. Such scum!’ as he spat in distaste.
As the sickness passed, Heraclief slowly sat up, looking in surprise at the three newcomers.
‘It is well that we pressed on tonight in our pursuit of you. Fate perhaps? Otherwise, my old friend,’ Caledus said looking at Heraclief, ‘you would not have been the last man standing this time!’