Atonement Part 6
Just before dawn, the Shadow Cloaks returned from their duty, waking the Nemesis for their own shift. The exhausted ‘hand’ quickly took to their bedrolls and were asleep before Caledus and and the others had even left the room.
In warm, arid conditions the group left the shadows of the Palace and quickly felt exposed and alone on the barren hills upon which they fulfilled their task of keeping watch. Around noon, as Vulcan distributed the day’s food supplies, Caledus called a meeting behind the relative protection of a huge stone boulder, which clung precariously to the hillside.
‘Now, let us plan. I can use the Iridescent Cube to imprison a target. And possibly more than one. Let us examine our possible choices. Ajax, you talked yesterday about splitting up and I have given this much thought but ultimately I’d be reluctant to divide our force.
We must kill Pertinax and our best chance of achieving this is with a united strike.
We infiltrate the chamber of Pertinax, activating my silence power if possible. I then attempt to imprison him. I can make two attempts only. If that fails, we all attack with our greatest powers. We must finish him quickly.’
‘If Vayana is there will you try to imprison them both?’ asked Vulcan.
‘Yes, if possible but we must not be distracted by her. Pertinax is our focus.’
Heraclief had clearly been thinking about what Caledus had said of his powers and sought further clarification. ‘Will Pertinax know of this power? The shadow cell you described?’
Caledus shook his masked head, the mocking grin speaking louder than words.
‘What if we set one figure outside of the magister’s room? Eircc. If he hears, we need to eliminate him quickly.’ insisted Ajax.
The group thought about this suggestion before Caledus continued. ’How about this? I use illusion to disguise myself as a magister. I take a message to summon Pertinax. That way we separate him from Vayana and then try to imprison him on the stairwell. If that fails, we have two of you above, hiding at the end of the corridor and two below.
The challenge is timing. Merlin’s distraction is set for tomorrow evening. But I don’t know when?’
’I’d also add that the Scarack is not in his caravan and doesn’t appear to be at the Palace. Neither is Morrigan. I think something may have already started.’ responded Heraclief
‘It will have done,’ said Caledus, curtly. ’When the druid came through the blood gate.
Ideally, if we can return to our quarters, as though nothing has happened and then wait for the distraction. We then head up to the Palace.’
Again, it was Heraclief to respond. ‘We must make sure that we are not too late for Pertinax may be called to serve the Scarack Filidh and we miss our chance. On the plus side however, he is more likely to expect a message.’
For a short while the group sat and thought through the plan before Heraclief once again had suggestions to make.
‘I must be careful, given the flammable nature of my powers. I should be used as a back-up. As a last line of defence. Possibly with Corinius? I’d suggest we deploy Ajax and Vulcan upstairs in the shadows. I will use my flame arrows and missiles. They are more direct, although less powerful than the more spectacular area of effect spells such as fireball.’
‘Agreed,’ responded Caledus. ’I should also explain that the cube has six sides. It is my hope that there is a maximum of six shadow cells, but we shall see.
In the event that I fail, Ajax, your role will be crucial. Get in behind quickly and strike hard.’
The duty passed uneventfully and it was already dusk by the time the Nemesis Legion returned to their sleeping chamber. Una was waiting for their return and approached Caledus upon their arrival.
‘Anything to report?’
‘No,’ said Caledus shaking his head. ‘All seems as it should be. Have you heard anything?’
Una stepped a little closer, looking over her shoulder to see if she was being watched. The other Shadow Cloaks were already preparing to leave. ‘We hear that there is an incursion. In Catakaroum. Troops will be leaving later today. I’d suggest you get some sleep. You may well see some more action tomorrow.’
For a few hours, the group slept fitfully, although Vulcan left to look for supplies, thinking ahead to their escape and having already spent a considerable amount of time seeking out the Grey Cloak magisters. Equally, Corinius periodically sat up to stretch his pained leg.
Ajax was unable to sleep and instead, as was so often the case, sought out his friend Heraclief, whispering in the darkness. ’I’m worried. What if this goes wrong?’
Heraclief shrugged in response. ‘We enter the shadows and flee. But surely we have no choice? We must clear your name with the church. You can run to the furthest corner of the world and it will make no difference. They will find you. This is our chance,’ he urged.
At last Caledus, sat up and went to rouse the group but found that everyone was already awake and ready. With Caledus leading and Ajax and Vulcan positioned strategically at the back, Heraclief and Corinius in the centre, the Nemesis Legion set off into the Rock.
It did not take long for the five to retrace the rendezvous route of only a day earlier and having made their way through the forested gardens, they veered off to the left, making their way inexorably onto the side of the hillside leading to the Western Keep. Notably, there was much more troop movement than before although luckily for the Nemesis, all the movement was flowing in the opposite direction to their route.
Having situated themselves on the steepest side of the hill, leading up to the Keep, Caledus once again called upon the powers of the Iridescent Cube and deepened the shadows surrounding the group. Next they made their way to the walls, opposite the expansive and decidedly dangerous looking moat surrounding the Keep.
Each member of the group summoned their Shadow Walk, taking to the Shadow plane before crossing the moat and entering the western wing of the castle. Edging along the outside of the corridor space, once again viewing the world through a veil of shadow, two blue robed magisters passed in a hurry, never noticing the deepened shadows in the corner.
Waiting for some time, Caledus, Vulcan and Ajax continued up the staircase whilst Heraclief and Corinius waited below.
Vulcan and Ajax quickly positioned themselves in the shadows beyond the door of Pertinax.
Left on his own, Caledus used his illusory powers, the robes turning blue whilst also attempting to create white hair, a pointed nose and ears, in the Sithe style. Satisfied that the illusion had held by examining himself in a small hand mirror, he turned, nodded once to where the other two Nemesis legionnaires waited in the shadows and knocked heavily on the door.
‘Who is it?’ responded a sleep deprived and heavily accented voice from within. "Jesus!’
‘Magister my lord. You are summoned.’ said Caledus, in an uncanny, high pitched Hibernian brogue not dissimilar to the magister they had met in the Great Library.
Wait a minute.’ The sounds of metal could be heard from within as Pertinax armed himself and also the voice of a female, although Caledus could not hear what was said within.
Stepping away from the door, Caledus stood side on, the Iridescent Cube concealed in his sleeve and rested on his left leg, which was positioned furthest away from Pertinax, should he come to the door.
The door opened and Pertinax stepped out, stood in his magnificent mithril armour and strapped to his side, his legendary sword, lifestealer. However, something new was visible too. Carried around his neck on a thick metal chain was a battered, ancient looking drum made from leather hide and wood.
‘What is it?’ demanded the Sithe warrior, his blood red eyes intense as ever.
‘Follow me. You are summoned to the Palace.’
‘The Queen has returned?’
‘Yes Sir. Come. I have been asked to bring you with all haste.’
Rolling his eyes, Pertinax shouted back into the room. ‘Vayana, I’ve got to go.’ With a sudden thought he turned back to the disguised Caledus.
‘For my Lady also?’
‘My orders were for you only my Lord,’ said Caledus, not meeting the eyes of Pertinax and remaining stood to the side in a position of deference.
At the door, Vayana Moonlight appeared and kissed Pertinax on the cheek, before whispering a sweet nothing into his ear.
Caledus, had already turned away, walking towards the staircase providing the two with some privacy. He waited for Pertinax to catch up before beginning to walk down the stairs. He had reached the ninth step, calculated to precision in advance, when he turned and activated the Cube.
In shock, Pertinax threw himself backwards against the stone wall, narrowly avoiding the shadowy vortex threatening to suck him into the shadow cell. Horror began to dawn on his face as the illusion faded, revealing the telltale mask of Janus. He turned in desperation to the drum around his neck, which, with a single, gaelic command quickly began to vibrate and then, erupted in a sonic explosion.
Whilst Caledus was not positioned exactly where Pertinax had expected, his body was still knocked backward onto the opposite wall, although he quickly recovered.
Ajax and Vulcan made their way down the corridor and onto the top of the steps but waited, preparing to see if Caledus could successfully use the cube as per the plan.
‘You signed an oath in shadow and blood, which you betrayed, to your eternal cost!’
Caledus opened the box for a second time and this time, the shadowy vortex intensified. Pertinax screamed out in horror but even his legendary speed was not enough to avoid the shadowy tendrils, which reached out like grabbing arms, catching his legs then torso before his entire body disappeared like smoke within the Iridescent Cube. The lid snapped shut, preventing any chance of an escape.
From below on the staircase, Heraclief came into view. ‘Did you get him?’
‘It is done,’ responded Caledus, a note of finality in his voice. ‘Let us return to the shadows my friend. We have more work to do this night.’
Through the shadows, blue robed magisters rushed up the staircase and from above, not far from Vulcan and Ajax, albeit separated by a plane of existence rushed a dark robed magister, whom Ajax remembered only too well.
Waiting for the others, Caledus decided to take no further risks, especially as Eircc had stopped and was beginning to investigate his immediate vicinity. He ordered the group to exit immediately, albeit in a clumsy manner via the wall, halfway down the steps. As they did so, it was clear that there was already a great deal of action at the gates of the Keep but they did not tarry. Instead, the group moved at pace, circumnavigating the hillside, then dipping back into the forest before picking up the trail, which had been used on the eastern side of the hill leading to the Palace, when they had exited a night earlier.
It did not take long for them to reach the vast iron walls. The group made their way through the walls, still using the shadows and keeping as far away as possible from the Constructs and two giant statues at the entrance. Entering the deserted throne room, the group squeezed their way into the cylinder before ascending into the stinking circular room scattered with the bodies of dead warriors.
‘The right hand staircase,’ said Caledus pointing ahead for the benefit of Vulcan and Corinius, a trickle of blood visible from his nose after the sonic explosion activated by the drum of Pertinax.
Even through the veil of shadows, the appalling smells of the room above accosted the senses of the group long before they stepped out into the spherical room in which the Young King and John Comyn were held. The room remained deserted in the centre but on the periphery, five figures remained in holding cells, including a middle-aged human woman, not visible on their last visit but clearly in a terrible state, one arm hanging uselessly at her side.
‘Wait here,’ instructed Caledus. ‘Remain in the shadows whilst I get a sense of what we have before us.’
Exiting the shadows, Caledus carefully left the relative safety of the dank stairwell and was immediately struck once again by the smell, which permeated the room. Training his senses to ignore the distraction, however repugnant, he stepped a little closer to the holding cells. He did not have to go far. To his surprise, he quickly began to sense the very same magical energy, which he used so effectively in his worn work.
‘Illusions?’ he whispered to the silence.
Extending his senses further, Caledus began to feel the enormous power of the magic incumbent upon the space in which the cells were visible. Although he could not break through the illusion itself, he had a strong suspicion that the cells were in fact, not real.
Backing off and then reentering the shadows, Caledus reported what he had seen to the others.
‘My concern,’ responded Heraclief, is that we are running out of shadow time. It is imperative that we keep some if we have any hope of escaping the fortress unseen.’
Caledus nodded. ‘Fine, let’s exit now but stay in the shadows in the stairwell. But first, let me remind you both that this is a significant risk. We can either leave now with Perrinax or roll the dice. What do you want to do?’
‘I think we have no choice, or perhaps I have no choice,’ Ajax corrected himself, ‘but it has to be fast.’
‘Very well. Then let us proceed. If you all flank me, I will walk up as close as is needed to the Young King’s cell and then activate the cube. As with Pertinax, I will attempt to lure him into a shadow cell, pivot and then do the same with the Priest. Once that is done, we will immediately exit. Back into the shadows and out. Let us pay no further attention to the others, it is simply too risky to remain any longer than is strictly necessary.’
Heraclief had been stood, looking at the holding cells whilst Caledus outlined his plan and now turned back to the group. ‘Can the cube dispel illusions? Clearly it can create them so perhaps this power can be reversed.’
‘Possibly. Let me try.’
Caledus reentered the room and opened the Iridescent Cube, the shadowy tendrils like smoke, embracing his touch. Combining his own powers with the cube, he attempted to extend his energy outward in an attempt to shred the illusion but the powers placed upon the room were too powerful, even for the combined power of Caledus and the cube.
Turning to face the others he shook his head.
Heraclief and Ajax stepped forward, the young Vesuvian leading the way. ‘This is my quest. Let me try and then if it goes wrong, you four can escape.’
‘Like your father Ajax, you are not short of bravery but we are in this together.’ said Caledus. ‘We are the Nemesis Legion. Flank me.’
‘Here we go,’ blurted Vulcan, patting his huge battleaxe.
Caledus strode up to the cell holding the Young King and once again, activated the Cube, attempting to suck him into a Shadow Cell. The shadows surged upward, like smoke but crackling against an antithetical form of energy surrounding the cell. Gradually, bit by bit, the illusion crumbled. First the holding cell and then the entire room gave way so that the true dimensions of the space in which the Nemesis stood, become evident to the group.
In fact, the group were situated in a huge, grandiose room, the ceiling almost beyond sight above their heads. Floating in the air, suspended, they could see a number of giant bird cages, including one caging the Young King, not more than 30ft above. Elsewhere, John Comyn was held in an identical second giant bird-cage, made from iron.
Beheaded bodies hung suspended from the ceiling, feet wrapped in iron cables, arms tied behind the backs of the deceased with upwards of forty figures dangling like horrifying Gothic chandeliers. Beyond the figures, suspended in the ceiling was an enormous black shard. Both Heraclief and Ajax exchanged glances, having seen this extraordinarily powerful artifact in action before, or at least, a much smaller version of it during the battle for Newcastle.
‘Valuminight!’ echoed the friends.
Caledus, studying the stone, could see that that it was locked into some kind of docking station. Moonlight from above fed down into the gemstone and it resonated with power.
‘I do not like this,’ he mumbled.
As the group slowly began to take in their surroundings, they noticed that they were actually stood in about 2ft of black, reeking water.
‘I can levitate you up to the cage of the Young King,’ said Heraclief, ignoring both the water and intense stench.
Caledus nodded. ‘Quickly!’
As Heraclief slowly began to use the power of his earring to ascend, both men could increasingly feel the power of the valuminight above bearing down on them. They quickly felt a throbbing headache develop. Blood spurted from Heraclief’s ear whilst simultaneously, blood trickled from the nose of Caledus and out onto his mask.
Bit by bit, the pair reached the Young King and Caledus, wearily, fighting the almost gravitational pull of the black gemstone above his head, activated the Iridescent Cube. Given that the King did nothing to avoid this effect, staring out soullessly, once again, the Venetian was successful and with a snap of the lid, the Young King disappeared from view. Caledus breathed in a huge sigh of relief, mirrored by those watching anxiously below.
Quickly the pair descended, glad to reduce the terrible power of the gemstone but as they did so, a third birdcage spun around to face them and within, a wizened old hag with black talons sat, staring fitfully out at them. Pointing one of her arthritic fingers, she spoke with a rasp voice:
‘You must escape. Atlantis has fallen! The Dagda cannot hold for much longer. The bitch, she wants Tuan but she cannot have him. She will never have Tuan. Never! I will drown him with my own eyes rather than let her have him.’
‘Who are you?’ demanded Caledus.
‘Atlantis has fallen. The fickle Gods have deserted us. You must escape.’
‘Who the hell is she?’ said Heraclief looking up fearfully. ‘Do we need to get her out as well?’
Calmly, Caledus, wiped the blood from his mask, with the back of a black handkerchief and then nodded. ‘It could be advantageous but let us remain focused on the task at hand. First, Comyn.’
The pair positioned themselves beneath the cage of the priest. Heraclief tried to steel himself against the force of valuminight pressing down on him, whilst Caledus concentrated on the job at hand. Activating the Cube, this time, the shadows coalesced but quickly flickered and died, much like a dampened candle flame.
In frustration and desperation, Caledus used his talons, gripping the bars of the cage and with extraordinary strength was able to bend the bars just enough to grab the emaciated figure of the priest, who cried out, as though expecting to be struck but otherwise, allowed himself to be pulled unceremoniously through the bars and into the taloned hands of Caledus.
Descending back into the vile stench of the water, Vulcan took hold of the Priest, throwing him over his shoulder with ease.
‘What about the crone?’ asked Caledus, thinking aloud.
‘No, we’ve got to go,’ urged Ajax. ’We’ve wasted enough time.’
‘Be quiet,’ hissed Corinius. ‘Listen. Way up above.’
At first the group could only hear the wailing of the old Crone but as she silenced, they could now clearly hear the sound of heavy, metallic, booted feet on the connecting bridge, way up in the ceiling.
‘We must flee!’ urged Ajax.
The group rushed down the stairs without a backward glance and back to the cylinder.
’How do we get out of here with Comyn? demanded Caledus.
’Think. What do we have? added Heraclief, the group close to panic.
‘Invisibility’ suggested Ajax. ‘Perhaps Vulcan could use it?’
‘I could use shadow invisibility,’ responded Caledus. ‘But it would not last long.’
Corinius, almost reluctantly added his own suggestion. ‘I have a one off gift from the Lady that may suffice and see us out of the fortress with the Priest. A shadow trap: a lesser version of your own power Caledus.’
‘Another debt you will owe, Ajax,’ gesticulated Caledus. ‘But it seems the best chance we have to escape unnoticed.’
‘I do this for your father, Ajax,’ said Corinius, selecting his words carefully. ‘He saved my life on more than one occasion.’
Corinius reached out using what appeared to be a stick of charcoal and asked that the body be placed inside the outline, he intended to draw on the floor. Having completed this task, he reached out his powers and a shadow passed over the priest…he was gone! Reaching into his robes, Corinius removed a glass cylinder, which appeared to contain a shadow and placed a cork stopper in the top. ‘It is done.’
The entire group reentered the shadow plane and exited the Palace, using the same route used earlier that night. Cutting across the hill, wreathed in shadow the Nemesis Legion made their way out of the fortress and onto the arid hills. They had travelled for less than half an hour and had dropped back out of the shadow plane when a figure approached from behind.
‘Ajax, is that you?’
Ajax, suddenly aware that he had been exposed by the moonlight, could see Cal Doonen, stood less than twenty yards away on top of a great jutting boulder.
‘Are you OK boy? What are you doing out here. It’s hours until your shift starts.’
‘I was just making sure everything was OK. I’d heard something had happened.’ replied Ajax uncertainly.
Cal Doonen did not have time to respond, when Caledus stepped out of the shadows behind and interjected. ‘Have you seen him?’
‘Caledus! Are you all here?’
’The druid. Have you seen him?
‘Merlin?’ responded Cal Doonen, shock registering in his tone.
’That’s why we’re here.’
‘No. Why is he attacking? What have you heard?’
‘We were told to come to this area. That he’d been sighted. Did you send for us?’
‘Us? No.’ said Cal Doonen, clearly confused. ‘Who ordered you out? Also, Una returned a while ago, did you not see her at the gates? Is an attack expected?’
‘There is chaos back at the Fortress,’ insisted Caledus. ‘Some kind of infiltration. A rumour that Bradach has been killed or taken. That the druid is behind it. We were then told to come out here and that the druid may be fleeing in this direction. Have you seen anything? Anything at all to raise your suspicions?’
‘No. Nothing, ’ said the bowman. ’I think we need to spread out. I’ll go get the others.’
‘Good thinking,’ said Caledus. ‘We should take opposite directions. You take east. We’ll take west. Let’s circle round and meet back at the fortress.’
‘OK. Send one member of your group. We’ll send one from ours in a couple of hours. Meet back here?’
‘Agreed,’ confirmed Caledus. ‘Farewell.’
The Nemesis Legion set out into the night with only a short time remaining before dawn.