Part 4 Dopplegangers
Finding himself alone within the castle, Manzio considers his options and decides that he will attempt to climb higher so that a better view of his surroundings can be found and hopefully an escape route back to his friends. Looking around the room he spots a doorway in the corner and makes to leave. As he walks toward the door he passes a large ornate mirror and for a split second has a strange sense that his reflection is not quite in sync with his own movements. He stops and looks more carefully at the mirror but does not notice any further discrepancies.
Exiting the room via a latched, oaken door he finds himself on a spiraling staircase, which extends both upward and downward. Choosing to climb he quickly establishes a strong rhythm and makes short work of the stairs, passing two landings leading to ornate doors before finally reaching the top of the staircase. Searching the roof he has little problem locating a metallic catch, which releases the roof, a wooden hatch in an otherwise stone roof. Climbing carefully and cautiously he finds himself alone on the roof looking out upon a huge keep and the two matching towers set a either side of the central structure. Beyond the castle and hugging the back walls not more than 15ft away from his current position is an ominous grey mist.
Judging the distances involved and complexity of the climb, Manzio figures that his best bet is to descend the tower on the outside wall hoping to reach the unseen ground below before making his way back to Ross and Heraclief. This route descends down into the grey mist but the Vesuvian judges that the climb is worth the risk. Lowering himself from the upper crenellations, Manzio begins carefully descending, feeling out footholds and perches for his gripping fingers. He makes good progress until he hears the sound of a bowstring followed by a staggering pain as a black arrow sinks into his left shoulder. In pain and shock, he loosens his grip and begins to fall. Fearing his death is near, he enters the grey mist and is certain that his body has entered the realms of the dead as hideous, desiccated pale faces reach out hungrily for his touch, extending twisted, broken limbs toward him. Screams and howls of pain bombard his senses as all the while he feels as though his body is hurtling through space. Suddenly, the grey is dispelled by a bright emerald explosion. His head jerks back with a shattering pain, as blackness surrounds him. He is vaguely aware of hands and water dripping down his face, neck and body, as well as water entering his throat, fingers massaging desperately in an attempt to make him drink.
‘Come on boy, don’t give up on me now. Drink!’
Once again regaining consciousness, Manzio opens his eyes to feel a sense of numb uselessness down the right side of his body. He catches sight of Heraclief as the tall sorcerer empties his healing water on Manzio’s exposed right arm and hip. Slowly and very painfully feeling returns to the right hand side of his body. Heraclief searches inside Manzio’s own backpack and finds his Avalonian bottle. Again, he makes Manzio drink, with bit by bit, strength and vigor returning to his body. Finally, Manzio is able to stand, unsteadily at first and more securely as he regains his composure.
Heraclief and Manzio quickly tell one another of all that has transpired since Manzio embarked on his reconnaissance mission. The sorcerer’s relief at saving the assassin’s life is shortlived as Manzio describes his decision to touch the standing stone.
‘What foolishness possessed you boy? I asked you to make a full circuit of the stones without entering. Why would you want to touch one? These stones are surely ancient, enigmatic constructs that pre date even the elves. What business do you have activating what you do not understand.’
Calming down slightly, Heraclief proceeds to recount his own story. It appears that he and Ross were surrounded in the horrid, nightmarish grey mist, shortly after Manzio embarked on his reconnaissance and subsequently separated with Ross thrown into the air as the ground shook, some earth rising up and some sinking into the ground. Walking through the mist, attempting to avoid craters formed by the mini earthquake, Heraclief had eventually entered a courtyard only to see the body of Manzio descend at high speed out of the mist before smashing sickeningly into the flagstones below.
‘I thought you were dead boy. Without the healing waters you most certainly would have.’
Reflecting on their predicament, having exhausted both of their healing waters in saving Manzio’s life, the two try to make sense of the situation. With Manzio’s description of the site gained from his momentary visit to the top of the nearest tower, Heraclief confirms the Vesuvian’s own suspicion, namely that the two towers are huge versions of Morgause’s rooks. As Heraclief is finishing his analysis of the situation, Manzio notices a figure dressed in identical robes to Heraclief emerge from the mist. He hesitates seeing Heraclief and Manzio and twists his earring. Wondering what has just happened the two are suddenly engulfed in emerald flame as the fire hits them from behind. Manzio screams in pain as his clothes ignite and even his hair catches alight. He rolls on the paving stones, before desperately finding some drinking water in his pack to eradicate the flames. Meanwhile, the inured Heraclief fires back at his Doppleganger, returning like with like, blasting his assailant with flame before using his earring to dimension door to safety. Calling from within some double doors inside the keep, he urges Manzio to join him. The assassin, still struggling from the detonation of flame begins to run, speeding across the courtyard but as he does so a second figure emerges from the mist and to his astonishment he sees himself moving in for an attack. Concentrating only on reaching his friend, Manzio has just enough of an advantage to reach the double doors in time. Heraclief has just enough time to close the doors before Manzio’s Doppleganger slams into them.
Having reached safety, Manzio collapses onto the floor, his terrible burns overcoming him. Simultaneously, footsteps are heard from the corridor behind them and Heraclief stands over the burnt body of his friend, ready to protect him. The double doors behind take a huge hammering from some force wielded by one or both of the dopplegangers but the doors hold.
Emerging from the shadows, his bow drawn, Ross approaches, his right arm bleeding quite profusely from what appears to be a sword wound. ‘Friend or foe?’ he demands, sweat pouring from his face.
Heraclief nods toward the double doors…its us, not our dopplegangers if that’s what you mean. They are at the doors. We need to move Manzio, he is in a bad way. Running over, Ross reveals his healing waters and proceeds to make Manzio drink. He also splashes some of the previous elixir onto the burnt and singed head of the young assassin. For the second time in short succession Manzio feels strength and vitality return, his hair growing back on his head and scarred arms at remarkable pace. Once again, he stands, his legs groaning in protest but with another huge blow to the double doors behind him, the assassin forces himself to run.
As the three hasten through a large, open planned room they note that they are surrounded by vast menhirs which have punctured the stone floor and appear incongruous within the confines of the castle. Heraclief hypothesizes as they hasten past the bizarre stones:
‘These dopplegangers must surely be part of the White Queen’s defences here at Brodgar but it is my belief that we are witnessing an illusion of sorts. Enchantments so to speak.’
As he finishes his sentence, Manzio has a feeling that the brick work seen building at high speed when the castle first appeared is now disappearing in reverse. The walls and brickwork with their accompanying decor disappear in the blink of an eye and the three find themselves stood within the ring of Brodgar itself. The stones pulsate with a palpable power but they are as nothing compared to a presence situated behind the three and which Manzio senses long before he turns to confront the source of power.
Standing no more than 20ft away is the most beautiful woman Manzio has ever seen dressed in regal, royal silk, spun in the purest form of white. She wears no jewelry or accessories to detract from the beauty on display, save for a black Crystal, much like a heartstone, which is situated on a Mithril choker around her alabaster white neck. She radiates with a vibrant, bright light and Manzio has to shield his eyes from the illumination cast. She speaks with a beautiful north eastern Scottish lilt and the words seem to wash over the young Vesuvian like a soothing tonic to banish the nightmares experienced earlier in the day.
‘You are well informed Emerald Eyes but let me elaborate for you. The ’dopplegangers’ to use your own rather crude Germanic term, are a semblance of your own being.’
The three stand, statuesque unsure how to react or what to do. Manzio senses a terrible vibrating power ripple as though distorting the reality of their surroundings. The figure floats over the surface of the grassy ring, her feet elevated a few inches above the turf. As she floats effortlessly toward the enraptured three, she continues to address them, her Elven features now visible through the blinding light.
‘…there is good and evil, both dark and light in all creatures. When you walked uninvited into the ancient ring of Brodgar, you triggered a separation of your souls. The darkest recess of your entity stepped forward with only one wish…that of survival and to replace you. Such has always been the case for me. Yin and yang…my sister and I. The black queen and the white queen, though you know doubt think I am a monster like my sisters?’
Once again, the white Queen pauses and Manzio feels a desperate desire to bow before this regal and surely much inappropriately and unfairly maligned Queen of beauty. Heraclief does likewise though Ross continues to resist the sensation battling with gritted teeth and hatred in his eyes. Suspicion grows in Manzio that perhaps it is the Doppleganger of Ross and not Ross himself stood beside him.
The Queen rests her gaze upon Manzio and he immediately feels a sense of ecstasy that he should be the recipient of her gaze. Looking at his singed robes, she notes the St Christopher wrapped around his neck and a slight ripple of disquiet can be felt.
‘That would explain how you have so often resisted my attempts to track your progress,’ she says, pointing at the amulet. ‘A powerful gift, a gift given by Roger de Pont L’Évêque no doubt.’
Manzio nods. ‘It was my Queen.’
‘Then tell me all…why were you sent? Do not fear Manzio…I am merciful and a great ally should you choose to trust me.’
Manzio, ignoring the strangled protestations of Ross, proceeds to candidly outline their plans in entering Skara Brae and then The Ring of Brodgar. He finishes with a simple statement of fact. ’We hoped to create war between the black and white queen. ’
Smiling, the queen extends her hand. I recognise your weapon young Manzio. It was once a gift to one Lord Farquar. May I?’
Manzio hands the Queen his sgian dubh. ‘Yes my queen, I stole it from Lord Farquar after killing him first.’
The Queen smiles, chuckling to herself and then speaks words of magic as the blade begins to glow with spidery runes, which quickly fade. ‘Give me your hand and swear loyalty to me. Quickly, time is short and I have much to do.’
Manzio acquiesces, offering his upturned palm. The queen cuts his palm with the blade, once again speaking words of magic and sprinkling a fine offering of quiksilver.
‘It is done. Now you,’ she says looking toward Heraclief. Reluctantly, Heraclief holds out his hand, a look of confused bemusement on his face as though some great betrayal is taking place. Once again, the queen completes the act with clinical precision and motions for Manzio and Heraclief to clasp hands.
‘The bond between you is strong.’
Turning, she faces Ross last.
‘…and finally you, Ross Quilhaven.’
Ross, his eyes protruding in his head as though from a great pressure and perspiration pouring from his face, grits his teeth, spitting out his response.
‘I would rather die than serve you.’
For a moment, the Queen’s calm visage cracks and to Manzio it feels almost as though he has glimpsed a tempest approaching on the horizon. A jolt of annoyance surges through the assassin as he considers the foolishness of his friend’s challenge. Once again, he wonders if the figure before him is the Doppleganger of Ross.
‘Very well, your wish is granted.’
Morgause jerks her neck to the right accompanied by a sickening crack, as Ross is thrown from his feet, the limp form flopping to the ground his neck positioned at an impossible angle.
Stunned, Manzio and Heraclief stare down at the lifeless eyes of their friend.
‘You will continue with your mission and will depart with my blessing. However, I demand one minor change, namely that you attack my sister’s domain and not my own. Her layer lacks its usual protection and unknown to her, the Young King is already en route to Ireland, even as we speak. You will join with the Young King and serve him in the attack. Is that understood?’
Manzio nods, Heraclief a little more slowly also nods, his eyes still on the corpse of Ross.
‘You depart immediately using the standing stones of Brodgar.’
With a flourish, the Queen floats across to the nearest standing stone activating the circle with a touch. A vortex of energy begins to coalesce around the stones, moving slowly at first and then with increasing pace and a violent surge of wind. Finally, the two are swept up and violently thrust into a surge of midnight black energy. For a split second they both see a black reflective surface, like a mirror infused with starlight. Time is suspended.
‘Do not fail me…’
…then, they slam into the fertile ground of another standing stone circle far from Orkney.