Atonement Part 1
Manzio remembered from his previous visit to Ulaid that it was not far to travel from Cúchulainn’s Stone to the blood gateway marking the doorway to Morrigan’s realm. However, Tuan did not take the same path and before long had led the trio into thick forest not too far from the coastline, given the salty smell carried on the breeze.
‘Morrigan has become paranoid and will be vigilant in securing the main entrance to her underworld. However, there are other ways to enter,’ hinted Tuan.
Walking close behind the huge knight, Manzio could see that his armour was splattered in blood. Clearly the bloodshed seen at Cúchulainn’s stone was largely spilled by the Tuatha’s sword. The sword of Nuada!
Heraclief, dropping back alongside Manzio had also noticed the telltale signs of battle.
‘I think war is coming to Ulaid,’ motioned the sorcerer, pointing toward the striding figure ahead dressed in his bulky armour.
Manzio nodded, deep in thought.
‘What about the Nemesis Legion?’
Heraclief considered the question carefully before responding.
’Caledus will have entered the shadows with Vulcan and Corinius. They will have fled Carrickfergus by now, for outside the dreamscape, Malerus surely wields less physical control? It is my belief that Caledus will meet with us on our mission for his main purpose in coming to Ulaid was to visit Pertinax and that means entering the realms of the Black Queen. Thankfully we should have support.
However, we will need to be careful or else Malerus will attack us. In our dreams!’
‘No he won’t,’ replied the booming voice of Tuan. ‘At least not whilst you’re with me.’
It was early evening and the shadows had started to lengthen by the time that Tuan called a halt to their forced march. Remarkably, neither Heraclief nor Manzio felt hungry and marveled as to the restorative powers of the Druidic glade visited during their brief stay in Anglesey.
They had climbed what Tuan referred to as a ‘dun,’ which contained the broken stumps of what Manzio presumed was once a set of standing stones, set upon the summit.
‘Behold, all that remains of Emain Macha, the ancient capital city of Conchobar.’
‘What happened to the city?’ asked Heraclief.
‘Conchobar defied Morrigan,’ stated Tuan simply and would add no more.
After Manzio and Heraclief had rested, the wind began to accelerate bringing with it a chill sting from the sea and rain, which arrived in curtains of drizzle. Tuan seemed not to notice and removed his gauntlet reaching for a sgian dubh, hidden within his armour.
‘Like all of the gateways into Morrigan’s realm, a blood ritual is required. It is my belief that she will have sealed the entrance to all but a single doorway but may well have forgotten this one as it requires Tuatha blood.’
For the next few hours Tuan began preparing an elaborate ritual in which he used a drop of his own blood on each of the standing stone stumps. He then removed a fine powder from a pouch hidden beneath his armour and traced lines from the stones back to the centre of the site where Heraclief and Manzio observed with curiosity.
Finally, Tuan stopped, sitting with his back to one of the stumps. ‘We wait for some moonlight,’ he added, almost as an afterthought.
Manzio was not sure how long he’d been asleep when Heraclief nudged him awake. Wiping sleep from his eyes, he was stunned to find that the entire ring was now connected in a concentric, spectral light, illuminated as though by pure moonlight.
‘The magical gateways of the Tuatha are also expressions of art,’ stated Tuan proudly. ‘Come, we do not have much time.’
Standing together at the heart of the illuminated pattern, Tuan looked first at Manzio and then Heraclief. ‘I have given of my blood, now you must do the same.’
Manzio nodded, quickly and efficiently opening a trickle of blood on his hand with one of his magically enhanced Druidic daggers.
Heraclief was more thoughtful and hesitated. ‘Why do the Tuatha use necromancy in their art?’
Tuan scoffed, the sound like a horse’s snort behind the metallic visor. ‘Not all blood magic is necromancy, sorcerer. The old ways used blood much like expressions of identity.’
Shrugging, Heraclief held out his hand for Manzio, the assassin once again using his elven dagger to open a cut on the sorcerer’s palm and subsequently adding his own blood to the mix.
Slowly, Tuan began an ancient chant in a language like Gaelic but resonating with a deep timbre of power and authority. Beginning to walk forward, all three had the sensation of being led downward by an invisible force, swept up as they were by the concentric illumination, which lit their descent into the underworld of Morrigan Badb.
Manzio had expected to find himself entering the underground city traversed in his last visit to Morrigan’s realm and was subsequently surprised to step out onto a dilapidated, darkened tower roof set high in the mountains. A translucent green glow surrounded the structure as though rising up from a gaseous moat situated at the base.
‘Makes sense, I suppose,’ grumbled Tuan. ‘If you weren’t with me, you’d both now be dead. Ancient Tuatha magic, left to abjure and protect this historic site.’
‘Where are we?’ asked Manzio.
‘This is an ancient laboratory, of sorts. From here the Tuatha de Dannan explored the mysteries of the universe, or multiverse as they discovered. It is this research, which Morrigan apes with such crude and sadistic pleasure.’
Heraclief and Manzio listened intently as the ancient knight talked, beginning to sense the vast longevity to his memories.
‘Morrigan named her administrators as the Magisters of her court but the true Magisters, nay, the great teachers of their time were the Tuatha, conducting research and providing learning to those deemed worthy in their remote sky domes, some of which even operated as Sky Ships, such was the power and grandeur of the learned few.’
Tuan walked across to a crumbling edifice positioned in the centre of the roof, looking up as though seeing some invisible addition to the structure.
‘The sky dome would have once risen above our heads, feeding from both sunlight and moonlight. This power was then diffused into a shard of valuminight, from which the Tuatha distilled their magic.’
‘What became of the valuminight?’ questioned Heraclief.
‘Taken. Stolen perhaps,’ shrugged Tuan, ‘probably by Morgause, for she always craved its beauty and power above all else.’
Tuan turned as though suddenly bored. ‘Come, if we have entered Morrigan’s realm via the seat of Azaes as I suspect, we have a long journey ahead through hostile territory.’
‘Azaes?’ said Manzio, as an aside to Heraclief but the tall sorcerer seemed not to have noticed and was staring ahead toward Tuan as though seeing the knight for the first time.
Tuan led the other two down an exposed staircase, the outer wall having crumbled long ago into the hidden depths of the sickly green gas below. The wind bit into the ancient stone driven in from the breathtakingly beautiful mountains that surrounded the ‘Sky Dome.’
’How large is the Tuatha landmass? asked Heraclief struggling to keep up with the leggy stride of the black knight.
At first Tuan did not respond as he considered the gaseous barrier, extending his arms to take both Heraclief and Manzio by the hand.
‘Do not let go, under any circumstances.’
The three descended into the gas and were immediately accosted by horrid phantasmagorical images of the dead.
‘Ignore them,’ grunted Tuan. ‘No harm can come to you whilst you pass in the company of Tuatha blood. Fear not.’
Thankfully the trio quickly emerged into the open air, the dark foreboding tower and its gaseous protection behind them.
‘When the Tuatha Pionavaguns first arrived in Hibernia, they fought a long and bloody war with the Fomorians native to the Emerald Isle. But in time they yearned for their homeland, no longer accessible and so forged a likeness via an extra planar space. For a time, Tuatha culture flourished but we were few and ever faced internal treachery. Too late we discovered that the Badb were the architects of our original fall from grace and so it was again, as history repeated itself.’
‘What happened?’ asked Manzio, captivated by Tuan’s story. ‘And who were the Pionavaguns?’
‘The second question is far easier to answer. In the ancient language of my people, ’pio’ means survivor, whilst ‘navagun’ is to navigate. In our case, we navigated the seas in an exodus from our ancestral lands. All the remaining Tuatha are refugees, having escaped the cataclysm of our former lands.’
Tuan stopped, as though looking to the mountains for answers and peeling back the layers of time.
‘As for your second question,’ said Tuan, emerging from his reverie. ‘Perhaps that is an answer best suited to another day.’
Disappointed that the usually taciturn Tuan had once again lapsed into his customary silence, Manzio and Heraclief both privately thought on all that had been revealed, barely noticing the breathtaking beauty of the land they were passing through.
’Morrigan’s lands are in the East of the Tuatha creation. We are in no man’s land, emerging via the deserted Dragon’s Back central mountain spine, which separates the east and west.’ explained Tuan.
Such was the altitude that both Heraclief and Manzio found the going tough as they began to descend. Tuan had no such difficulties and was soon far ahead though still visible upon a plateau of ice below.
The pair had just set foot on the huge, spectacular glacier when suddenly, they became aware of approaching figures. At first they were distant specks but it quickly became evident that they were closing the distance at pace.
Rushing to catch up with Tuan, they had just about reached the statuesque Tuatha warrior, just as three giant figures approached.
‘Kraaunkings,’ spat Tuan, with obvious distaste. ‘This is likely to slow us down.’
One of the three hulking figures stepped forward. He was the only one of the trio not to be wearing thick furs. Instead, he wore only a massive leather loincloth, his blueish-grey skin tattooed with a concentric pattern not unlike the one used by Tuan when entering the Tuatha world. He was bald though like his companions wore a simple band of metal on his head. From his back he withdrew a huge broadsword, fully the size of Manzio. Extending the vast blade in a single hand, the Kraaunking began to speak in an accusatory tone, using the weapon as an extension of his right hand. The guttural, powerful language was alien to both Manzio and Heraclief, though it was clearly not welcoming.
‘He says we are trespassing,’ explained Tuan nonchalantly. ‘No doubt he’ll challenge me soon enough. Was once a time when these fellas would have bent the knee to me, Kings or otherwise,’ moaned the Tuatha.
‘Yes, yes, yes!’ responded Tuan in the common tongue, ’you’ve never been bested but I haven’t got time to hear all about your victories. I’m in a hurry.’
With that Tuan withdrew his own sword, which immediately flared in his hand with a thrumming, burning white energy. The three Kraaunkings gasped as one, staring in awe as Tuan’s blade rhythmically purred with anticipation, the Tuatha walking forward confidently to confront the giant.
A little more hesitantly now, his eyes greedily drinking in an open desire to win the Tuatha jewel, the Kraaunking began to circle. Attacking at speed the giant swung his huge blade, which whistled over the head of Tuan, the black knight ducking and then reversing his own blow, delivering an explosive strike upon the weapon of his adversary. The giant howled in pain as a bolt of searing hot energy was conducted up his blade, causing him to drop the sword.
‘Pick it up,’ offered Tuan, taking a deferential stance and backing off to show he intended no treachery.
The giant dived for his broadsword and was quickly on his feet, wild eyed and desperate to land a blow.
Once again, the two circled one another. Then, the giant roared forward, delivering a huge two handed blow, which would have felled a tree. Tuan, far faster than his opponent, anticipated the arc of the blow, stepping back and swinging his sword down hard on the metal of his adversary.
The blade split into two parts as the white-hot energy of Tuan’s sword severed the metal, leaving the Kraaunking holding only a steaming hot, broken short-sword. In pain, he had no choice but to fling the weapon down in rage.
For a moment the two faced off, a silent fury on the giant’s face. However, the two companions of the Kraaunking were already beginning to laugh, unable to hide their mirth.
‘Enough!’ commanded Tuan. ‘Let us pass. We have proven our worth.’
The larger of the two remaining Kraaunkings pulled back his large fur hood, still wiping the tears from his eyes.
‘Angelhoff, stand down!’ commanded the giant. He was much older than his companions with a large, tangled bushy white beard and an enormous shield slung over his left shoulder. At his side, was strapped another huge weapon. The pommel contained a radiant star shaped gemstone, which resonated with a fiery blue glow.
‘I do not know you, stranger nor your companions though I sense that one,’ he nodded toward Heraclief, ‘is anathema to my people in our icy homesteads. His movement through our lands is difficult to gainsay. Though I do not know you, I do know of your weapon. For surely it is none other than the Tuatha jewel, the sword of Nuada?’
‘Then you are the ancient traveller. The homeless one?’
Again, Tuan nodded. ’ I had a home once.’
‘As did we,’ stated the giant. ‘Taken from us and then new lands granted from our generous conquerors,’ he said gesturing to the mountains, ‘although perhaps it is better not to open old wounds.’
‘All that you have said is true, Gorenghast for that is surely to whom I speak, is it not? But now there are few of your people, just as there are few of mine. Old blood feuds should be put aside in favour of bringing vengeance to a common foe.’
Gorenghast looked intently at Tuan, considering his response carefully before responding.
‘Clearly you speak of the Badb, after your long imprisonment?’
Tuan nodded. ‘Harbingers of doom for both our races.’
‘Yet the peace holds in the mountains as it has done so for centuries. My people inhabit the high ground and separate east and west, so why should we challenge the might of Morrigan the Black?’
‘Without her presence you could have better land, more fertile and conducive to your happiness.’
‘Why, can the Witch give us Avalon?’ said the third giant, a tone of bitter resentment in his deep voice.
All three Kraaunkings were such a study in contrast. The bald warrior, still nursing his injured hand, the wise old, bearded figure of Gorenghast and finally the more wild, feral looking third, huge and muscular with a balding pate in the centre and incongruous long straggly strands of hair covering his ears. He too carried an epic weapon, bloodstained and archaic; as vicious a weapon as Manzio has ever seen.
‘We will not aid you,’ decided Gorenghast ‘but I will consent to let you pass through these lands though my authority carries only on the plateau. When you descend into the forestlands, you will be vulnerable. Be wary, the Kurgen sorcerers of the forests do not welcome strangers.’
Tuan nodded and was about to set off, when he turned. ‘You know Ice is free and has returned to his ancient hold in Hvannadalshnúkur?’
All three Giants turned to face Tuan, assessing the validity of his claim but an undisguised flicker of hope and excitement in their eyes.
‘Since escaping from my prison, I have discovered that the Great White was confined using similar power. Our captors were the same. But if you do not believe me, go and find out for yourself.’
Tuan, Heraclief and Manzio set off, leaving behind the three Giants who stood and stared after the departing trio long after they had disappeared on the far horizon.
The plateau was huge! For nearly two days the companions made their way across the permafrost and the mountain range far ahead. From time to time Manzio detected movement on the horizon and suspected that they were being tracked but not approached.
Tuan was once again quiet and said little about their recent encounter. On the second evening since leaving behind the three Kraaunkings, Heraclief broke the silence.
‘Did the Kraaunkings defend their homes in Hibernia against the Tuatha Pionavaguns?’
Tuan’s visor turned to face the sorcerer. Then slowly, he nodded.
‘Yes, the Fomorians, Fir-Bolg, Kraaunkings, Kurgen and many other races of the giant folk. It was a bloody time.’
‘Kurgen?’ questioned Manzio. ‘But they serve Morgana!’
‘Yes,’ responded Tuan ‘but only the remnants of their once great civilization, now splintered across Europe. Unlike the other clans, the Kurgen respect might above all else and see Morgana as the strongest of the Badb. They swore allegiance to the most powerful of their Tuatha conquerors but only when faced with annihilation.’
‘Where are the Kraaunking homes and towns?’ asked Manzio.
‘They live on the plateau,’ responded Tuan, ‘though I have deliberately avoided their homesteads. One confrontation was enough and I have no wish to test my fighting prowess further with these proud people. They are not the enemy.’
The following day, ice finally gave way to melting glacial sheets and the going became much more tricky. Trudging through snow and then slush, the slippery descent led the three eventually into rugged forestland. Like entering a primordial soup of mist and humidity all within the eaves of a darkened space, the eerie quiet soon became unsettling. Having ascended from the valley floor, as part of a steep climb, Manzio probed Tuan further with questions.
‘Surely it is unusual for Kurgen to live in forestlands?’
Tuan, leading the group did not turn to face Manzio but responded nevertheless, without slowing his pace.
‘The kurgen originally dwelt in forests, it is the araken, who favoured the heights. Morgana was wily for she led the kurgen into the mountains of Scotia so they could once again rebuild their armies, the araken being far more plentiful.’
Manzio was about to respond when he heard the familiar sound of a bowstring release. Instinctively he threw himself to the ground.
As Manzio lunged to the left he could feel the close proximity of a black arrow shaft as it sped past, a second followed immediately but thudded into the bark of a nearby tree.
Tuan made a dash to the right, bellowing to ‘take cover’ as he sped into the foliage.
Heraclief was slowest to react and was just about to follow suit when a sizzling, crackling lightning bolt slammed into his side, knocking the tall sorcerer from his feet.
Manzio, reaching up attempted to gain height by grabbing hold of the thick branches overhead. Using his acrobatic capabilities, he quickly scaled the first fifteen feet of the tree before looking left and right, attempting to assess the threat. Further to his right he could hear several voices chanting in unison but was unsure what to do and subsequently waited for the enemy to make the next move.
A sonic explosion of meteoric proportions detonated from further uphill. Manzio, momentarily could see the sound wave before the hillside simply began to subside. At first, the tree in which he balanced, gallantly attempted to hold its roots before it too was swept up in the vast landslide pouring down the hillside. As the tree fell, Manzio leapt high into the air before attempting the impossible! As fast as his boots sped he was unable to keep pace with the falling hillside. Stumbling to his left, Manzio tried to tumble but succeeded only in falling head-over-heels as he plummeted down the ravine.
Landing in a crumpled heap, the Vesuvian initially crawled behind a huge boulder wedged into the stream at the foot of the climb but was dismayed to see his right leg jutting out at a horrible angle, clearly broken. In desperation, he rested both eleven daggers on his leg and attempted to channel all of the available healing into the break. The bone, gripped by magical energy snapped back into position, the pain so excruciating that the assassin lost consciousness…