The blinding light seems to carry Manzio effortlessly and weightlessly through space at the speed of light. Snatches of pathways are glimpsed left and right; an infinite number of dreams, possibilities and permutations. The shifting landscape threatens to rob the Vesuvian of his sanity but the thought of Heraclief keeps him focused on reality and moving closer to the sorcerer, Manzio can feel his friend through the connection, although he senses a tension and wariness.
Suddenly the light dissipates and Manzio is once again surrounded by darkness. The sharp transition is a shock, like being thrown into freezing water. The pace of his movement slows and gradually the feelings in his legs, arms and body return. He feels his feet on what appears to be a wooden floorboard in a tight, narrow landing of a house. There is flickering candlelight ahead and the smell of incense is heavy in the air. His eyes slowly adjust to the gloom and as he approaches, he can see that a stocky figure is stood at the door. His dark smouldering eyes look suspiciously at the Vesuvian, as he approaches. In a thick Scandinavian, almost Germanic accent, he whispers a greeting.
‘I knew your father. If you are half the man he was, then you have an ally in Vulcan.’
Vulcan is a barrel chested Dangrim with massively muscular shoulders and forearms, taller and even broader than is typical for one of his race. His shaved head bears a number of dark, runic tattoos, his left ear half missing and his dark brown beard tightly braided with leather twine. His other ear is pierced with a figurine size golden hammer and his dark, broody eyes peer out from beneath bushy, beetling brows.In addition to being pitted with blackened forge burns, Vulcan’s massive arms depict the world serpent. He wears a magnificent if not slightly archaic breastplate, which looks almost bronze in make. Strapped to his back, he carries two weapons.One is a massive, magnificently crafted oak-hafted greathammer, bearing a single complex rune on the flat face of the steel head.A golden hammer of Thor, carved with runic symbols, hangs from a heavy golden chain around his neck, displayed proudly over his outer tunic whilst working the forge. A well-wrought crossbow is strapped alongside the hammer on his broad back and a tough leather pouch of bolts is strapped to his left hip, with a similar pouch on his right hip containing what appears to be a large flat stone.
From inside the shadowy room, an elegant, well-spoken and lyrical voice, calls out.
‘Enter, Manzio son of Hermes. You are amongst allies.’
Stepping forward into the room, Manzio finds himself confronted by three figures. At one side of a long banquet table is sat Heraclief. He looks up, smiling as Manzio enters, although his face betrays tension and unease. Manzio freezes in his stride, as he spots Conall Bradach sat at the opposite side of the table. He nods nonchalantly toward the Vesuvian, as though greeting an old friend. He is about to say something but after glancing toward the third figure, sat in the middle of the table, thinks better of it and holds his tongue.
The enigmatic figure seems to appraise Manzio from beneath his striking silver mask. From beneath the narrow eye slits, he has jet black irises, making his eyes somewhat unnerving. He wears a tight fitting body-suit made from wound folds of cotton and a loose fitting cowl made from the same material. He appears to wear metallic gloves with silver talons.
In front of the figure, placed on the table is a single iridescent, rectangular black box.
The figure gestures toward a single seat positioned across from him.
‘Welcome to the Nemesis Legion. Please…sit and allow me to make some introductions.’
Manzio fancies that the man has a Venetian accent. Unsure how to proceed, he looks toward Heraclief, the sorcerer nodding, although a glint in his eye suggests that Manzio should tread carefully.
‘The stout Dangrim you encountered at the door is Vulcan. You already know our sorcerer, Heraclief and I also believe you have been acquainted with Conall, although his name in the Nemesis and the one you will use from this day onward is Pertinax. Finally, I am the leader of our merry group, Caledus.
Let me begin by apologizing for the unfortunate circumstances in which we meet. It would not have been my preference to convene this meeting in the unpredictable dreamscape but perhaps we are fortunate to meet at all, given the dire situation in Britannia.
Secondly and given what Pertinax and Heraclief tell me, I insist on a cessation of hostilities between you.’ Caledus, looks slowly from Pertinax to Heraclief and finally his gaze falls upon Manzio. ‘Do I have your word?’
Manzio nods and Caledus appears satisfied.’
‘Good. Then we can move onto other matters,’ says Caledus relaxing a little in his seat. ‘It is my belief that you all entered this dreamscape because of your current locality. Hvannadalshnúkur is positioned in a rift zone…a doorway or should I say, doorways in which different planes of existence connect. We are currently in one of those planes, namely the dreamscape.’
Caledus, pauses, giving everyone present time to digest this information and then continues.
‘Entering the dreamscape is very difficult and takes years of training…in normal circumstances but you had little choice, for you have entered via the dragon’s breath…Ice, last of the great northern whites, has entered a dream in readiness for the Tuatha de Dannan ritual prepared by the death knight, Tuan Mac Cairill. Such Tuatha magic is heightened in the dreamscape and subsequently, Ice will attempt to shift his essence into human form, very soon.’
Caledus sits forward, placing his silver talons together, once again gazing at the three listeners as though reading their thoughts.
‘But…there are great risks in this strategy, for this is the realm in which Morgause’s powers are amplified, so much so that the Black Queen will not meet with her sibling within the dreamscape. A wise decision.’
Caledus turns to face Pertinax. ‘Incidentally, it would not be prudent to repeat this information when in the company of your Hibernian sponsor. She does not like to be reminded of her weaknesses.’
Pertinax nods, ‘…aye, I can testify to that. She’s been in a rage, so she has.’
‘We are all in grave peril whilst we remain in the dream. Usual sleep only ever enters the periphery of the dream world but the dragon’s presence and innate magical state, means that we have penetrated far deeper than we should have come. The waking world is the inverse of this treacherous landscape and what happens here can impact our waking lives. In other words, if you die here, you will never wake.’
Caledus snaps his fingers and fruit appears on the table in front of all four. ‘There are rules in this world gentlemen. Your imagination is your greatest ally.’
As the four enjoy the succulent fruit salad conjured by Caledus, he addresses Manzio specifically.
‘Your father was a crucial member of the Nemesis Legion, as was his father before. I was sorry to hear of his death. Your family has a long history as Frumentarii: the secret service of the Roman Empire. We no longer swear our vows to Rome as of old but rather to the cities we represent. If you are successful, then you too will choose a city. Do you have one in mind?’
Manzio, still reeling from the information provided is initially unsure what to say but after some thought, responds. ‘Naples. Like my father.’
Caledus nods as though expecting this answer. ’Of course. A crucial city, although outside of the Lombard League in the north, so more difficult to occupy with our people, as your father discovered to his cost. Our current representative is a man forged from metal. Corinius is broken physically but mentally like granite, having been tortured by the Byzantines in Constantinople. He would welcome your support.
However, more of this anon. Your initiation is in three stages. Tests designed to examine your skill and loyalty through strength, intellect and speed.
If you are successful, then you will take a new name and will also assume a new life. Your first loyalty will be to the Nemesis Legion and your second to the city state you select to serve. In your case, Naples. Do you understand?’
Manzio nods, his gaze lingering on the box sat between the two.
‘I see you are drawn to the shadows.’ Caledus reaches forward and takes the black box into his hands, handling the object carefully using only his talons. ‘This is an ancient artifact known as the Iridescent Cube. It has many uses for it is a gateway to the shadow realm.’
Gesturing with a dismissive flick of his head, Conall leaves the room. Heraclief also takes his leave, patting Manzio reassuringly on the way out.
A silence ensues, Manzio aware of the dark irises observing him from beneath the silver mask.
‘Are you ready?’
Manzio nods, reflecting on the bizarre circumstances, which have led him to be initiated via a dream.
‘Focus,’ warns Caledus, placing the box on the table. ‘This is a deadly challenge and you must be ready.’ He flicks the two, shadowy, metallic hinges, which form the opening mechanism, further dark tendrils dissipating and the lid slowly opening.
Manzio’s eyes are glued to the dark void opening up before him, the smoky tendrils gradually forming into substance. The shape of a shadowy asp begins to materialize, the sinewy iridescent form hissing with the sound of smoke.
‘You must embrace the shadows if you wish to join our company. This is a test of loyalty,’ warns Caledus.
Without warning the asp strikes, shadowy fangs sinking into the soft exposed flesh of Manzio. To his surprise, the young Vesuvian does not feel pain but rather a sense of ecstasy run through his veins like magic.
‘The shadow magic is a poison elicited only if you break your vows to the Nemesis League. Heraclief has argued that these should not impinge on your atonement for the death of Christian of Whithorn. I acquiesce. But your vows cannot be made until the other tests are completed first. From hence forward, choose a new name. Traditionally, we select Roman or Greek names.’
Manzio considers carefully and after quite some time has passed, makes his decision.
‘I choose Ajax.’
Caledus nods. ’Apt. Like your mentor, Heraclief and your father you opt for the Greek influence. Very well. But first, you must complete the three stages of initiation, beginning with the test of intellect.
Your first task is to go to the island of Torcello. Enter into the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta where you will obtain some intelligence for me. You must tell me when the church was built but you are forbidden from asking the priests. You must find another way. The answer lies within the church. We need fertile, creative, analytic minds in this organisation.’
Manzio leaves behind the safety of what he thinks is a tavern, given the smell of alcohol and smoke lingering from the floorboards. He exits the building via the back staircase, emerging into a narrow alley. Walking toward the waterfront, he sees dozens of gondolas bobbing on the inky black water. A shadowy figure, almost insubstantial wearing tattered black, stands in the boat, waiting for Manzio. Seeing that he has little choice, the young Vesuvian simply sits and reflects on the bizarre nature of his dream, as he is rowed under the starless night. Beautiful Venetian buildings are reflected in the water and for a moment, he wonders which is more real. The buildings? The reflections? His head spins with the complexity of his predicament.
He is not really sure how long he has been sat in the gondola when he arrives at the island of Torcello. The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is a basilica church surrounded by tall wooden gates. He climbs the gates quickly and decides to make for the front door. A candlelight comes from within and as Manzio approaches, a stooped monk comes to greet him.
‘A strange time of night to visit brother?’says the bald priest within, his rustic brown robes visible in the glow of the candles.
‘Aye, responds Manzio. I come seeking information.’
‘Please, come inside and perhaps I can help’, responds the Priest.
Stepping inside, Manzio has barely set foot within when he is stopped in his stride by the astonishing mosaics covering the walls around him and illuminated by many candles.
Seeing the look on Manzio’s face, the Priest smiles.
’My name is Matteo. Please, let me show you these wonders that you marvel at. I take it you are a pilgrim, newly arrived in Venice? Many brothers and sisters make straight for the cathedral, even within the dead of night. ’
Having introduced himself, the name of ‘Ajax’ sounding strange on his lips, Manzio allows Matteo to show him the mosaics. Whilst all of the art has a powerful effect on him, Manzio is most drawn to the massive commission reflected as part of the main apse.
‘The Virgin Hodegetria,’ announces Matteo. The jewel of our mosaics.’
Manzio observes that the Virgin is isolated against a huge golden background, above a register of standing saints. He is momentarily reminded of Columba. Havin g commented briefly on each of the great paintings, Matteo excuses himself to continue copying a bible by hand, a task which he is methodically completing using a glass reading piece to see, held precariously close to the flickering and quickly diminishing candle beneath.
Turning his attention back to the mosaic, Manzio considers the advice of Caledus, allowing his imagination to reach outward toward the artwork above his head. At first nothing happens but after several attempts, slowly he begins to sense a magical connection with the mosaic. Shocked by this enlightenment, Manzio wonders if Storm or Heraclief feel this essence when summoning the arcane. Concentrating on the Virgin, he begins to feel the enchantment woven into the fabric of the art. As part of this process, he senses movement in the art itself and slowly, Manzio steps out of his body and into the fresco. For the second time in a short period of time, he feels ecstasy as he hears the saints chant and the Virgin Hodegetria, turn her head looking directly at Manzio.
‘Welcome Pilgrim,’ she says, in a beautiful, softly spoken voice, an accent he does not recognise. Her eyes are full of love and humility and for a second, Manzio questions his entire existence, with a notion that he will devote his life to this woman but quickly reminds himself that perhaps this is the enchantment at work.
‘My lady, I come in peace. Seeking information.’
The Virgin nods, as though expecting this answer. ‘I sense that a Saint has marked you with an atonement.’
Manzio nods, sadness negating his feelings of joy in the Virgin’s company.
’Do not be sad. There is love and light enough to banish the darkness. I see the light in you but shadow wages war with your heart.
What is that you seek?’
Manzio, avoiding the Virgin’s penetrating gaze, which he feels sees into his soul, answers truthfully. I seek the knowledge of the cathedral itself and the year it was constructed?’
The Virgin once again nods. ‘That is easy to answer for it was founded by the exarch Isaac of Ravenna in the year of our lord 639. I give you this knowledge freely and bid you well. Embrace the light.’
Manzio finds himself drifting back into himself, the mosaic once again static art, although the enchantment still strong. Shaking his head and thanking Matteo for his help, Manzio returns to the gondola and shortly after arrives to the dark inn, situated close to the waterfront, from whence he started his journey. Retracing his footsteps, he finds Caledus alone in the same room.
‘639AD,’ replies Manzio.
‘And what information did you discover by entering the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta?’
Manzio considers the question before carefully responding. ‘The mosaics are magical.’
‘Indeed,’ responds Caledus with a sneer. ’Propaganda. Waging war for the souls of mankind.
Congratulations, your first task is complete.’