After the freezing cold conditions experienced during their short and eventful stay in Orkney, Anglesey offered some much-needed respite and recuperation for the Fellowship of Fate.
However, despite winning a great victory and witnessing the extraordinary transformation, which had seen the death of Myrddin and the return of the legendary Druid Merlin, there was clearly going to be little time to enjoy this success.
Merlin led the entire group away from what they now realized was not a ring but rather, twin standing stones. The twins of ‘Penrhos Feilw,’ the old Druid muttered as he set off at pace, urging the others to hurry.
The sun was shining albeit a watery light set low against the horizon. Snow was glimpsed on the mountains not far away, with the lower slopes tapering away into the sea.
Sophia and the battered Tector crowded around Storm as they walked through the squelching, peat surrounding Penrhos Feilw. The dragonborn held the Staff of Winter on high and was congratulated by the others, as the path wound its way perpendicular to a bubbling brook in which occasionally a flash of leaping silver fish was glimpsed in the half light.
The trees quickly began to thicken on either side and it wasn’t long before Merlin had led the group into thick forest of densely clustered, towering oak. From the branches high above, the group caught glimpses of elfin figures as curious children peered down at the bizarre hybrid of races gathered below.
Eventually the companions were led into a beautiful yet ancient grove. The thick oak gave way to an extraordinary shrove of weeping willows; vast and graceful the branches reflecting sunlight much like starlight set against the darkened backdrop of tangled, entwined vines.
‘Welcome to the sacred grove of Penrhos Feilw. Drink deeply from the spring water for it will revitalise your tired bodies, whilst under the protection of our willows, you will rest and sleep will bring energy and renewed vitality.’
With that Merlin, left the grove, without further explanation. The companions were indeed beginning to feel the effects of Orkney not to mention the many other endeavours of recent months and having drunk from the purest, cleanest streams it wasn’t long before the group began to unroll bedding and gradually fall asleep in the glade. Only Tector seemed oblivious to the calming influence of bubbling brook and serene grove, fussing about ‘starving’ but eventually he too slumped into an exhausted sleep.
Manzio could smell the salty tang of the sea. It was cold, with occasional drizzle carried by the wind, which whipped up sporadically and was accompanied by the crash of pounding waves below.
The night was dark, with no sign of moonlight, yet to his right he could see the unmistakable silhouette of an as yet unfinished castle keep, which soared upward like a defiant fist.
‘I could do without this,’ grumbled a familiar voice from the shadows. Heraclief emerged not more than a few feet away from Manzio, though the assassin could barely see his friend’s facial features, such was the impenetrable gloom surrounding the duo.
‘Come on,’ urged Heraclief. ‘We are clearly here for a reason and I’d wager the answers are in the Castle.’
The two cut cross country toward the towering castle walls, taking some time to observe the crenellations, looking for signs of any movement from guards. To their surprise, a figure appeared, throwing down a rope for them to make use.
‘Let me go first,’ said Heraclief. ‘If this is a trap, I can levitate if necessary.’
It did not take long for the sinewy sorcerer to ascend. Beckoning for Manzio to follow suit, the Vesuvian, ever the acrobat, scaled the vertical height with skill and speed, finishing with a flourish by leaping between the crenellations in a cartwheel!
Stood next to Heraclief, not one but three figures awaited his arrival. Two he immediately recognized.
‘Caledus! Vulcan!’ exclaimed Manzio.
The impassive silver mask of Caledus, with the faintest of mocking grins evident, stared back.
‘Welcome! Good. We are a hand, to use the local term. It will be needed in the game that is afoot.’
Confused and exchanging a quick glance with Heraclief, Caledus and the massive Vulcan, were accompanied by a sickly thin, limping third figure who led Manzio and Heraclief off the wall, walking slowly and hugging the shadows whilst descending the stone staircase down into the courtyard below.
‘Allow me to introduce Corinius,’ said Caledus, the masks of all turned toward Manzio to gauge his reaction. For his part, Manzio was aware that Corinius had taken over from his father back in Naples but selected to say nothing.
In return, Corinius simply nodded to both Heraclief and then Manzio before reaching into his cloak revealing a lock pick. Having set to work on a sturdy wooden door set against the wall of the keep, it did not take long before a metallic click sounded and the thick door opened into a storage room. With everyone quickly crammed inside the cramped cellar, Corinius once again locked the door before Caledus lit a candle, setting the thick wick on an upturned plate, discarded by a previous occupant.
‘We five are in great peril,’ began Caledus, ’which is why I felt it was necessary to use the cube and call out for Heraclief and Ajax. We are trapped in the dream of our enemy. This is a milieu in which our adversary is at his most lethal but thankfully he has little notion of our combined ability to traverse the shadows.
The physical embodiment of Vulcan, Corinius and I lay above our heads in the castle of Carrickfergus. We are newly arrived this very day as ambassadors sent by none other than the holy father himself, our beloved Pope, Alexander III.
Yet we were not the first to seek out John de Courcy. For less than three days before, emissaries of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, arrived and remain here now.
The delegation is led by Malerus himself and with the ‘Cancellarii,’ Justus, his most trusted lieutenant and the three Lubeck sisters Hortensia, Fulvia and Octavia.
The mask worn by Malerus is much more than a token of office to the Frumentarii, for it is of ancient make dating from antiquity and the Egyptians. Known as the ‘rswt’ it is my belief that this powerful icon is effectively a gateway between the waking world and the realms of dream. It is an effective tool, for Malerus does not carry out his assassinations in the typical manner. In activating the rswt, we can regard this as an act of war.’
Manzio looked toward Heraclief hoping to gauge the reaction of his friend but to his surprise noted that the sorcerer was wearing a mask. Reaching to scratch his own beard, Manzio had the sensation that some kind of aura surrounded his own face.
’Am I wearing a mask? questioned Manzio.
Caledus nodded. ‘A shadow mask, conjured from my own illusory magic.’
Vulcan patted his axe menacingly and in his thick Norwegian accent, was clearly eager to move.
‘Right then, are we at these bastards or what?’
Caledus rested his hand on the massive Danagrim’s shoulder. ‘Patience, Vulcan. We must be vigilant. Malerus holds all of the cards in his chosen milieu. We must simply survive.’
’Can’t we simply throw ourselves from the castle?’ suggested Heraclief. ‘The last time we were together in the dreamscape, that seemed to work.’
‘Good question. It shows you are thinking Emerald Eyes. The rswt is a different conduit to the dreamscape than the dragon’s breath. It is a race against time for Malerus. He will act swiftly and break the dream himself if he fails for time has relative properties in dream and he will want to meet de Courcy for breakfast as per usual, to avoid any sense of suspicion.’
‘So what is the plan now that we have the other two?’ asked Corinius, his voice almost a whisper.’
‘We access the shadows for as long as possible.’ Caledus paused. ‘Though I fear Malerus will sense us even if he cannot see us.’
It did not take long for the group to enter the shadows. Manzio had the eerie feeling of four other bodies moving at his side but like wraiths, in two dimensions rather than three.
Caledus led the group back out onto the half constructed battlements but could go no further. Manzio, attempting to follow quickly discovered why as he met resistance in the form of an invisible forcefield. Gathering the group, Caledus spoke quickly.
‘Remember my warning. This is the milieu of the Cancellarii, as we can see. He has cut off any escape and is clearly forcing us out into the open.’
There was movement from below and Manzio had his first glimpse of the enemy, albeit through the misty tendrils of shadow separating the Nemesis from their pursuers. The group was led by a massive figure, standing head and shoulders above the rest. Surely the Cancellarii! Dressed entirely in black, he strode with an effortless air of authority and even arrogance. Half man, half construct the power of the rswt was evident to Manzio even at distance and separated by the shadows. An eerie scarlet light leaked from both a metallic tabard at his chest and a matching belt, though the metal was like none Manzio had ever seen before and was of the deepest, iridescent black. Twin blades were carried either side of his waist, the pommels both fashioned from bone. A billowing black cloak swept behind him caught in the wind as he powered forward into the courtyard, followed by four companions.
The man on his shoulder was immediately recognizable to the young Vesuvian and he gripped his eleven blades tighter at the thought of vengeance. Caledus, spotting the aggressive reaction, placed his hand on Manzio’s shoulder.
Finally, the three Lubeck sisters mentioned earlier by Caledus. Each, very distinctive and spreading out behind the Cancellarii and his apprentice, Justus.
The first, like Corinius, walked with a slight limp. On her shoulder was perched a blackbird and Manzio was momentarily reminded of his friend, Ross. What had become of his raven? She carried a blade of slim metal in her right hand and wore a ghoulish black mask.
The second was almost the female embodiment of Manzio. Hooded and dressed in black, wearing a handkerchief of silk over her mouth and nose. Two daggers were unsheathed, the metal dark and threatening, even through the twilight shadows.
The third wore a loose fitting cowl and appeared to carry no weapons. The cowl looked threadbare, her exposed skin marked with dark sores, which covered her hands and even the sections of her face glimpsed through gaping eye sockets.
Malerus suddenly paused as though sensing something. Raising his hand, he commanded his group using a deep throated Germanic accent. Manzio could not understand the dialect but did hear one expression, ‘Die Schwarze Hand.’
Malerus looked left and right, the other four all taking up defensive positions surrounding their leader. Reaching inside his billowing black cloak, he removed a black figurine before throwing it to the ground.
Emerging up from the cobblestones arose a terrible apparition of twisting, writhing shadow and flame. It towered above Malerus, a whirlwind powered by a furnace of barely contained fire.
‘I sense them,’ stated Malerus, using the common tongue as though taunting Caledus. ‘Seek them and drive them out from the shadows.’
Manzio, watching from above in horror, observed as the creature seemed to vanish.
‘Prepare,’ urged Caledus. ‘It will enter the shadows…’
Caledus did not complete his sentence as the shadow creature reappeared not more than 10 feet away from the companions. However, rather than attacking it seemed to concentrate for a split second, an then, emerging from the shadows each member of the Nemesis Legion faced off against an adversary.
Manzio had no time to think and instinctively donned his cloak of shadows, just as a hideous apparition of Uther swung its longsword at his head. Uther’s smashed body was as Manzo remembered him at Vindolanda: a nightmare: twisted, his left arm broken and at an impossible angle, his skull split on one side, his left eye imploded.
With the benefit of shadow, Manzio closed on the undead nightmare and slashed once, then twice with his elven blades, smashing the Templar backwards.
Elsewhere, he was aghast to see Vulcan fling himself to the ground as he faced a shadowy version of Heraclief. The Danagrim was already ablaze with emerald flame.
‘None of this is real, shouted Caledus. You need to disbelieve.’
Raising his talons, Caledus summoned a huge charge of electrical energy, a single lightning bolt discharged from each finger. The bolts were hurled with precision and the lightning hammered into the creature driving it backward and the shadow dissipating greatly.
Meanwhile, Corinius disappeared and reappeared behind the backtracking demon. Using his crossbow, he let fly two missiles but the twisting creature was somehow able to dodge the attack. Seeing Corinius exposed from the others, it disappeared and reappeared grabbing hold of the assassin with tendrils of shadow. The flames spread from the inner core engulfing him, causing a horrible shriek of pain. He was held fast by the creature.
Heraclief, facing the Jarl of Morgause and Vulcan facing Heraclief concentrated for a second and their spectral adversaries disappeared in a puff of black smoke. Manzio, seeing the lead of his companions did likewise, Uther imploding in a foul, acrid gaseous form. Heraclief was the quickest to advance on the demon but seeing the fire, held back his own emerald flame for fear of harming Corinius. Vulcan, was beginning to spit great globules of froth from his mouth as he prepared to assume his berserk form but moved slowly, given his bulky armour.
Manzio, seeing an opportunity began to advance. Suddenly, Caledus appeared behind the creature slashing out with two bizarre looking daggers made from shadow. More importantly, as the demon reared up in pain, dumping the horribly burnt Corinius to the ground, it turned its back on the Vesuvian. Using his boots to cover the distance in the flash of an eye, Manzio attacked.
Seeing a rent in the shadows coalescing around the creature’s spine, Manzio’s powerful left hand drove upward, severing vertebrae with a snapping of bones. As the demon’s head was wrenched back in agony, the Vesuvian’s weaker right hand punched down through the skull, his blade shattering the left eye socket.
Imploding, the demonic creature’s shadow dissipated but not before the fires within were released with a crackling roar. However, Manzio had seen this many times before fighting other denizens of shadow and in a preemptive manoeuvre, had already thrown himself to the side and was subsequently only partially scorched by the roaring flames.
Whilst Manzio got back to his feet, glad to have avoided the worst of the explosion, Caledus and Heraclief gathered around Corinius offering healing to their stricken companion.
Vulcan, still dangerously close to a full loss of control focused on the shadowy figures of the Die Schwarze Hand still gathered beyond the curtain of shadow separating them from the Nemesis.
With Corinius unsteadily regaining his feet, Caledus once again gathered the five together.
‘The Cancellari is aware that we have taken refuge in the shadows. He knows that Corinius, Vulcan and I are here but unaware of your presence,’ he said, nodding toward Heraclief and Ajax.
‘The two of you, position yourself behind them in the shadows, wait for us to exit and confront the Cancellari, then attack. Hopefully you can disturb his concentration enough to break the dream.’
Heraclief and Manzio nodded their understanding with the tall sorcerer using the shadows to circumnavigate the enemy.
’I’ll attack first,’ whispered Heraclief. ‘Be ready and attack from a more acute angle. Do not fail me my friend.’
His heart beat accelerated, Manzio positioned himself, clutching his ring of invisibility in readiness.
Caledus, followed by Vulcan and then Corinius had emerged from the shadows but retained their position on the battlements overlooking Malerus and his four companions.
‘Caledus, you disappoint me.’ The Cancellarii, towered above his four companions, though had to look up toward Caledus. ‘And Vulcan, you simply refuse to select the right side. The winning side, that is. I could do with one such as you in Bergen.’
Turning, Malerus looked last toward Corinius. ’Judging from your sorry state, you must be Corinius. A terrible time you had of it in Constantinople. I sympathize, I really do. Having to deal with savages.
Now, I have you at my mercy. But I am nothing if not a reasonable man and subsequently have two requests:
One, the Hansa grows tired of unnecessary meddling in our affairs both in Italia and via the holy lands. Whilst different factions are to be blamed including the Lombard League in the north, it is Nero to whom I address this warning. Put simply, stay out of our way or Frumentarii or not, suffer the consequences.
Two, Caledus, you have been the guardian of the Iridescent Cube for far too long. It is time for you to relinquish the artifact. To me. Immediately.’
Just then Heraclief stepped out from the shadows.
A huge emerald fireball engulfed not only Malerus but the entire group.
Shielding his eyes from the bright Emerald light, Manzio slipped on his ring just as Malerus, having backed off a few yards, his tabard seeming to absorb the worst of the detonation reached for his twin blades. The metallic blades remarkably withdrew into the lengthy bone grips, forming two bone wands.
‘You again! This is the last time you will meddle in my affairs sorcerer.’
As Malerus extended the bone wands, Manzio struck. His left hand seeking out the exposed ashen grey skin of the Cancellari’s neck. Using the huge seven feet of his enemy’s height as leverage, he wedged his knee into the back of Malerus, wrenching his neck back and slashing across the exposed jugular…
Awaking with a sudden jolt, Manzio and Heraclief found themselves exactly where they fell asleep in the peaceful glade of Penrhos Feilw, with the aged face of Merlin staring down upon the pair, starlight reflected through the occasional gaps created by the swaying weeping willow branches, against the easterly breeze.
‘You have slept long. Such elongated sleep suggests that you have traversed the landscape of dream,’ stated Merlin, more as a statement than a question.
Rather unsteadily rising from the glade, Heraclief embraced Manzio and whispered into his ear. ‘Secundum, Ajax.’
Manzio noted that their three companions remained asleep.
‘Are they OK?’ he asked.
Merlin responded with a dismissive wave of his hand though his keen gaze remained fixed on Manzio.
‘Of course. They sleep on but I will wake them soon. But first, you have a decision to make. Inquisitor.’
Merlin handed Manzio a scroll, written in a precise, crisp hand and sealed with the stamp of none other than the Chief Justiciary!
‘From de Glanvill?’ questioned Heraclief.
Merlin simply nodded, though his gaze never shifted from Manzio. However, the Vesuvian did not notice, as he was already reading the letter.
I will come quickly to the point for time is short and I have many more notes to pen this evening.
As you are aware, remarkable events are taking place not least of which, the blow struck against our enemies in Orkney. Congratulations to the Fellowship of Fate. The north is indebted to you!
As if this were not enough, I must suffer the loss of my dearest friend, Myrddin, only to welcome the return of a living legend, in Merlin. I can scarcely comprehend the enormity of events sweeping the north and yet we must go on, perhaps now with a little more hope.
If this was not enough a second legend returns. The highly-revered Saint Columba. Restored to his resting place in Iona Abbey. A small group of priests battled the ice age weather conditons to reach the sacred isle but disputed your story saying the Abbey is but a ruin.
Nevertheless, Merlin confirms your claims and has even suggested that you have accepted an atonement known only to yourself and the Saint. Whilst it is not for me to challenge Merlin’s claims nor question this private agreement, the fact remains that your assassination of Christian the Bishop of Whithorn, albeit under the effects of a cursed weapon, has created a web of political turmoil and even some calls for your imprisonment by senior members of the clergy.
The fact remains that you need to acknowledge this debt, publicly. To this end I would ask that you embark immediately for Ulaid. Merlin tells me that you have already successfully penetrated the defences of the Black Queen’s fortress and I must regretfully ask that you to do so again. As you are aware, the accursed Badb have captured King Henry the Young King. At present I am attempting to use diplomatic channels to secure his release but there is little to indicate a successful agreement can be met.
In addition, King Henry Plantagenet, second of that name is eager to see the safe return of his former chaplain, John Comyn. Comyn disappeared whilst on a diplomatic mission en route to Carrickfergus, several months ago. It is thought that he may well have been captured by agents of the Black Queen to prevent him from meeting with John de Courcy.
I would therefore like you to once again infiltrate the Fortress of Morrigan. Once inside, you have three tasks:
1. Locate and if possible help the Young King to escape.
2. Locate the priest, John Comyn and if possible help him to escape.
3. Provide a reconnaissance of the Fortress to help facilitate an attack, if a force is mustered in the near future.
I appreciate the risks implicit in this challenging mission but can reassure you that success would almost certainly see a cessation of the hostilities directed toward you by some high-ranking clergy, not to mention the official seal of the church in continuing your work as an inquisitor.
I remind you that this missive should be treated in strict confidence and I highly recommend that you burn the parchment having first committed the content to memory.
May God’s blessing provide you with the wisdom and skill to succeed.
Ranolf de Glanvil
Justiciar to Henry Plantagenet second of that name_
Manzio handed the letter to Heraclief, whilst Merlin continued to observe the two.
‘I took the liberty of contacting the black knight, Tuan Mac Cairill, for he has now recovered from the spell of making. A great power to wield but with it, a terrible price to pay.
He awaits your return at Cúchulainn’s standing stone. Thankfully, he has attested to support you in your quest to recover the Young King and John Comyn. With the power of our three collective stones, I think we have the power to transport you back to Ulaid.’
Remarkably, neither Manzio nor Heraclief felt any sense of hunger though it had surely been many days since last eating. Commenting on this curiosity, Merlin beckoned to the glade.
‘Penrhos Feilw provides nourishment without the need for food or water. If you were to see your reflection, you’d see that your hair has grown too.’
Returning to the twin standing stones of Penrhos Feilw itself, the three companions gathered on the clearest of nights with the stars ablaze in the sky.
‘Fate would seem to decree that we three are not destined to spend long together. Fleeting moments, caught within convergences of great import. She is a fickle Mistress is she not?’
For a moment, the Druid looked reflective but this was quickly replaced with a look of steely determination.
‘You must be careful. I will do my best to create a diversion, distracting Morrigan but if you are discovered within the Black Queen’s Fortress, in all likelihood, there will be little I can do to save you.’
Manzio nodded and sensing that the druid was about to begin the ritual of teleportation, suddenly asked for him to wait. Surprised, Merlin hesitated, as the Vesuvian quickly penned a note to his three friends: Storm, Sophia and Tector. Satisfied, he handed the note across to the old druid. Smiling, Merlin nodded.
‘A fine gesture, young man. You grow in stature. I promise to deliver your note, when the time is right to awaken the other three. However, the two of you, time is of the essence.’
The three companions embraced, the importance and danger of the impending mission obvious to all. Merlin lifted his staff, the solstice stone already glowing with the now familiar azure blue light. Manzio and Heraclief concentrated on their own solstice stones, with the assassin’s boots aglow and Heraclief’s necklace blazing with Emerald light. Both felt a vast surging vortex rise to engulf them and knew better than to fight this extraordinary power.
Catapulted through space and time, Manzio landed first, tumbling to the side whilst Heraclief a split second after, dropped unceremoniously from a height.
Waiting for the nausea to pass, Heraclief and Manzio found themselves back at Cúchulainn’s stone. Close at hand, the Stone of Destiny!
It was dawn, whether of the following day, they could not be sure. Quickly scanning the landscape, it was clear that a battle had taken place quite recently. The ground was frosty but thankfully the extreme magical chill evoked by the Staff of Winter was gone. The frost was sodden in splashes of blood, bodies littered the space just beyond the periphery of the two stones.
Climbing up from behind the Stone of Destiny, a huge figure dressed from head to foot in armour. Tuan Mac Cairill!
‘About fecken time,’ spat the surly Tuatha warrior. Closing the gap in only a few strides, Tuan peered down upon Manzio and then Heraclief. ‘Well you look fine enough.’
Without waiting for a response, the black knight turned to face Cúchulainn’s stone. ‘So we’ll be off then. Hopefully not much longer to wait. God help that black hearted bitch if we ever get you free.’
The apparition of a giant, stood a full fifteen feet in height materialised faintly, as though projected from the stone obelisk. His booming voice, even when only partially visible, reverberated with tangible power. ‘Until then, I will protect the twin pillars. We are connected once again with Penrhos Feilw so the job is made easier.’
With that the Fomorian giant faded from sight though Tuan’s visor remained turned toward the stone for quite some time before finally turning.
’Let’s go but be on your guard. The lands are now crawling with agents of the Black Queen.’