Morrigan Strikes Back
With Adomnan’s help and the abundant number of priests operating via the cave systems on the eastern coastline of Iona, a small sailing craft is prepared and the six companions are rowed across the narrow gap separating the island from Mull. The trip is quick and before long the young acolytes offer a prayer for the group’s safe return and turn their boat for departure. The freezing conditions and thickening snow mean that the boat is quickly out of sight, swallowed up in mist and a blanket of snow.
Led by Tuan, the Danagrim followed by Heraclief and Manzio stiffen their resolve, walking into the biting wind following the track back to the standing stones. Manzio is thankful for the fresh food supplies provided by Adomnan and eats en route, knowing that his next meal could be many hours and possibly even days away.
As they reach the Druidic stones, final best wishes are made, Nessa strangely subdued. She turns as though to make a final remark or deliver a warning but shakes her head, clearly thinking better of sharing her thoughts. Tuan wastes little time in summoning the energy required to open a gateway. The Danagrim hasten through the opening and are quickly gone. Manzio and Heraclief turn away from the blinding light generated by the teleportation as Tuan searches for the particular portal linking Iona with Iceland whilst the two simply await their turn. Suddenly an explosion erupts from behind Manzio hurling him from his feet as he is blasted back several yards. Stunned and his ears ringing, he notes that Heraclief is no less injured, blood running freely from the sorcerer’s nose and his eyes glazed.
As Manzio gets unsteadily to his feet, the world seems to accelerate in a rush and he is suddenly aware of several assailants, all emerging from the bright lights of the teleportation stones, which crackle ominously with fluctuating surges of energy, as though dangerously out of control. He barely has time to draw his blades before the familiar face of Henry the Young King is upon him, his left arm ending in a hideous giant snake, the head lunging forward, acid dripping from its fans, whilst the right hand wields a magnificent blade with a mirror like surface and chrome finish. Manzio, stunned by the explosion is slower than usual to react and feels the King’s sword bite deep into his shoulder blade as he desperately attempts to manoeuvre his druidic blades to parry the strike. The blade seems to kick whilst wedged into his back, a bolt of sickly energy crackling from the crimson gemstone, further sapping the Vesuvian’s strength and his heart accelerating wildly as though touched by death itself.
Not for the first time, Manzio’s boots save his life, kicking into life moving him away from danger and providing some measure of breathing space. His druidic daggers in hand, Manzio summons the healing from his blades and feels warmth spread through his veins and into his leaking shoulder, blood clotting accelerated. Simultaneously, he quickly glances to his left and right. To his left, Tuan is backing away from a huge hulking metallic construct, which towers above the battlefield making even the knight look diminutive by comparison. A metallic colossus, towering at over 12ft in height! The construct covers the ground in huge strides but looks slightly unwieldy given its huge height. The metal has a crimson hue and at the joints a burning red and in places white hot fire seems to churn under the surface. Burning, merciless blood red eyes stare out from the huge almond shaped eye sockets. In the construct’s left hand is held a huge 8ft tall standard bearing the sigil of a black skull. However, the standard tapers toward the ground forming a wicked, razor sharp spear tip, which crackles with necrotic energy. The skull standard shifts on the plain white fabric as though animated. The jaw opening and a purple, black light within. Manzio shudders as the ground reverberates in tandem with the metallic strides of the colossus. Waves of necrotic energy pulsate with palpable force from the Construct, causing Manzio to feel nauseous.
To his right, Heraclief is slowly standing to face the new threat, his face covered in blood. As he does so, Manzio gasps as he spots Conal Bradach appear close behind the tall sorcerer, emerging from the shadows before attacking with his longsword. Despite Manzio’s warning, the strike sinks through the emerald robes penetrating Heraclief’s flesh. The sorcerer screams in agony as the longsword is ripped from the wound, Conal’s face flushed, a grin splitting his maniacal face as he prepares to strike once again. However, the Sithe is too eager and slips in the slushy snow giving Heraclief just enough time to summon his flames. For a split second, the two eye one another across the battlefield.
‘Shit,’ says Conal.
‘Combust,’ retorts Heraclief and a conflagration of emerald flames explodes from Conal, the Sithe screaming in agony and throwing himself into a snow drift gathered to one side of a standing stone close at hand. The flames hiss and are gradually extinguished as the Sithe burrows into the healing snow.
Not far from the standoff between the League of Shadows assassins, a titanic struggle is waged between the Construct and Tuan. Tuan’s Tuatha de Dannan artifact is ablaze in his hand. Twice he catches the Construct with blows worthy of felling even the toughest warrior. One metallic arm hangs uselessly on the arm of the Construct but internally, a quicksilver arm forms as though a living creature of shifting, red hot metallic fluid dwells within. As Tuan turns and pivots, Manzio can sense the deathly aura of the creature like needles on his skin, as though human flesh is repulsed by the necrotic energy. The right gauntlet is suddenly jettisoned from the Construct’s arm, smashing into Tuan’s shoulder, the knight grunting in pain although his extraordinary armour has clearly absorbed some of the force, as Tuan immediately throws himself back into the melee.
Manzio, believing that he has some time to prepare for his next move, dons the cloak of darkness but as he does so, a razor thin beam of crimson light shoots from the gemstone set within the Young King’s armour, narrowly missing the Vesuvian. Remembering the tactics used by Sophia previously, Manzio tries to connect with the soul of the King himself.
‘My lord, you must fight the demonic hold within you.’
However, Manzio lacks the psionic powers of Sophia and the Young King closes the gap seemingly unmoved by Manzio’s appeal. With no other choice and still badly wounded from the Young King’s sword, Manzio uses his crossbow, taking aim specifically at the gemstone. The shot rebounds harmlessly from the armour of the King having missed the gemstone by quite some way.
From the safety of the iridescent globe and backing off to the periphery of the standing stones, Manzio takes stock of the battlefield, scanning the area for further threats. Tuan and the Construct exchange extraordinary blows, the knight opening a tearing shred within the Construct’s metallic carapace with his blazing sword. In riposte, the metallic monstrosity continues to exude a sickening aura whilst attacking Tuan with black, purple energy which blasts out with pinprick energy from the fiery eyes beneath the visor of the colossus. Tuan is rocked on his heels but recovers and wearily prepares for the next attack.
Emerging from the wreckage of the outer carapace is a very different inner core construct. Wreathed in burning hot white light, which shimmers like the interior of a furnace, the metallic quicksilver underneath seems to be liquid metal. Still a huge 10ft, the creature has human features, which shift and writhe as though permanence is not quite possible. Turning to face Tuan, the right arm suddenly forms into a claymore, the left into a quicksilver shield. A heat haze shimmers from both.
Tuan shrinks visibly from this hellish new threat and barks a command over his shoulder. ‘Heraclief, Manzio…get to the gate.’
Meanwhile, with the advantage of ranged attacks, both Manzio and Heraclief are able to attack their opponents. Heraclief extends his fingers and five firework missiles hiss through the air slamming into Conal and driving the Sithe assassin to his knees, his hair ablaze with emerald flames. Manzio is also successful using his crossbow and catches the Young King with an outstanding shot (critical!) which catches the Henry in the groove between his neck and collar bone. The King merely grunts and rips the quarrel out with his one good hand, the snake attached to his left arm spitting venom in a blind fury.
Conal, crawling on his knees suddenly disappears from view as though he has simply merged with the snowy rocks to his left. However, Manzio has no time to consider this as he obeys Tuan’s order by edging closer to the crackling, unstable energy of the teleportation gateway. He catches a glimpse of sunshine and fields on the other side of the blazing gate but has little time to ponder this potential location as the quicksilver form is backing into his vicinity. Unable to resist and keen to aid Tuan, Manzio attacks, his druidic daggers in either hand. His first attack is successful punching into the back of the bizarre, shifting form of the Construct warrior. He immediately feels the deathly aura of the creature on his left hand and in shock removes his hand, which immediately aches. He is so shocked that he never even delivers the attack with his right handed dagger.
Suddenly, to his right and within the shadows, Manzio hears the sound of a blowpipe. To his horror, he sees Heraclief clutch at his neck and then collapse into the snow. Manzio removes his cloak, revealing the burnt face of Conal Bradach. The Sithe is quickly storing his pipe and reaching for his longsword.
‘This one is for my brother, circus clown,’ growls Conal.
Both combatants move with dazzling pace, Manzio like a dancer, pirouettes his blades bouncing harmlessly from Conal’s magnificent mithril armour. In response, Conal’s blows are less graceful but delivered with a surgeon’s precision, striking out for the least protected areas of Manzio’s body, including his neck, the Vesuvian desperately parrying the blows. However, the Sithe begins to tire having been unable to penetrate the defences of Manzio and still severely injured from not one but two of Heraclief’s emerald detonations! Both begin to back away. Looking to his left, Manzio sees Tuan also using a defensive ploy as both the quicksilver creature and the Young King attack simultaneously. For the first time in their time together, Manzio is horrified to see Tuan being driven back, step by step away from the gateway.
‘Manzio, in the name of Crom Cruach, get Heraclief and get the hell out of here before it is too late,’ implores Tuan, a note of desperation in his voice.
Disregarding the danger, Manzio selflessly sprints across the battlefield grabbing Heraclief’s lifeless body. He notes the spread of a blackness on the sorcerer’s shoulder but has little time to remedy the threat. Calling upon his remaining strength, he is successfully able to sling Heraclief over one shoulder and makes his way slowly toward the Gateway, scanning the area for Conal. The snow is falling in ever thicker waves and for once the failing visibility serves his purpose. Manzio is able to make his way into the blinding light and for a split second he senses another presence of great power holding the way open for him. Then, he is through, the warmth of the sun on his neck.
Seconds later, bursting through from the blinding light of the stones, the battered Tuan emerges, stumbling before steadying himself. He turns facing the portal and begins to chant his armoured hands both outstretched palm facing the stones as though mentally barring the way. His commands become ever more powerful and Manzio senses that he is drawing upon the power of the earth surrounding them as a heat haze begins to shimmer from the surrounding grasses.
Finally, the blinding light dissipates, Tuan falling forward catches himself on one of the tall menhirs, his shoulders slumped in exhaustion. Waving away Manzio’s offer of help the big knight, he takes a few seconds to steady his heavy breathing, which seems amplified within the black mask. Then he crouches down next to Heraclief, examining the spread of the dark, purple wound, which covers the sorcerer’s shoulder and even part of his arm too.
‘Do you have any remaining healing Tuan?,’ beseeches Manzio.
‘Do I look like a healer boy?’ The knight scans the area, noting the tallest building in the distance. ‘There. A church. Come, we must away from here. The portal is sealed for now but it will not take Morrigan long to find a trace of our passing and open it once again.’
For the first time, Manzio is able to take in his new environment and immediately notices that warmth and sunshine has returned. Not far from their position, a little less than a mile away he see farmers running for the local town. A plough pulled by a single, aged oxen stands idle in the ridge and furrow farming taking place on the open landscape.
Tuan has Heraclief’s body and is already running toward the settlement in the distance, though stumbling in weariness, his legs looking far from steady.
Eventually the three make their way into the nearby town. Some of the dwellings remind Manzio of the Viking settlements seen previously in Orkney. The largest construction is the church, which is an odd hybrid structure of stone and turf. Tuan makes toward it, the inhabitants of the small town eyeing the newcomers suspiciously from within their dwellings, traders hurriedly removing their stock from the streets and even the local tavern closing and then barring the doors shut.
As they reach the church, Manzio notices that stood at the top of stone steps leading up to the tall doors made of birchwood stands a figure. The tall, strikingly handsome priest wears an alb of brilliant pure white as is the amice, save for an embroidered cross sewn from dyed, red tweed. He wears an orange stole as a sign of high office and a beautifully sewn maniple around his neck decorated with a golden trim. The crozier held in his right hand is a foot taller than the man himself and not unlike the Whithorn Crozier in make but less elaborate in design.
‘Welcome to Skálholt strangers. I am Thorlak Thorhallsson bishop of Skálholt and one of the three godi charged with responsibility for southern Iceland. However, I see that you come with great need so proper introductions can wait. Bring your friend’s body into the house of God.’
Heraclief’s body is prepared by priests using a mixture of (holy) water from a silver chalice and a sticky ointment made from ground animal bones. Then Thorlak opens his bible, flicking to a pre-marked page before chanting, his left hand held close to the alarmingly darkened skin of Heraclief’s shoulder and arm. The chanting continues with other priests joining Thorlak in a choir and slowly a golden light begins to spread from the bishop’s hand. Sweat is freely trickling down his face, as though Thorlak is engaged in an unseen battle.
For several hours, the process continues, Thorlak occasionally taking short breaks to re-hydrate and replacing the bible for his crozier for the third assault on Heraclief’s injuries. It is only after the third attempt that Thorlak finally comes to sit with Manzio and Tuan, his garments soaking wet from the exertions of his healing.
‘The battle is over and though the enemy was strong, God has once again shown his strength. Your friend is out of danger for now but will need rest. My priests have prepared a bed for him in which I will permit him to convalesce though I sense he is not of the faith.’
‘Thank you for your efforts on our behalf Bishop Thorhallsson’ says Tuan ‘but we will not inconvenience you for long. Whilst we stay under your roof, your whole community is in danger. The man you have aided is known as Heraclief, I am Tuan and this is Manzio. We are on a quest to rid Hibernia of the Black Queen, Morrigan, one of the Badb of old. We seek the Dagda’s cauldron as the final, most powerful Tuatha de Dannan jewel and with the four will wage war to rid us of this tyrant.’
Bishop Thorhallsson simply nods as though this news was not unexpected.
Inside, the space is cooler and darker with candles lit either side of a large rectangular nave, adding to the natural light illuminating the darkness in shafts of shimmering dust.
Several priests are at prayer, toward the front of the church, kneeling on cushions positioned in front of a large wooden cross, which sprouts like a tree from a block of stone which forms a large, slightly imposing alter.
‘My dreams have been peculiar of late as the Lord has granted me visions and I believe your story. But I am exhausted and our council must wait until I am recovered. I am aware of the risks you bring to Skálholt but I would rather you rested here until the morning. We aid those with justice in their hearts.’