The Test of Strength
Once again opening the Iridescent Cube, Manzio observes with a mixture of trepidation and curiosity, as Caledus calls forth a rope, which appears to move unaided in his taloned gloves.
’The umbra funiculo is made of coalesced silhouette and enables users to ascend a narrow shaft of shadow although the physical concentration required is gruelling. Only the most self-disciplined can use it,’ says Caledus his mask suddenly a visage of mocking satire as he turns to observe the impact of his words.
‘Your task is to use the rope to reach St Mark’s Campanile. You must not touch the ground. When you reach the belfry, you will find the female representation of the city. Enter the shadows to converse with our patron and then complete the bidding of our Venetian Lady. You may return by foot. Do you understand?’
Manzio slowly nods his head, his gaze still fixed on the rope.
‘Also beware. Strength is more than simply your physical power. As with the first task, I will ask you what you have learnt if and when you return.’
With that, Manzio is led up the ramshackle steps of a narrow stairwell positioned at the very back of the building. Pushing on a trapdoor overhead, Caledus leaps through the opening like a gazelle, standing patiently, enveloped in shadow, looking out from the rooftop across the city. As Manzio follows, Caledus points to the west and Manzio can just about make out a single structure towering above the city.
‘St Mark’s Campanile’ confirms Caledus, his body a silhouette set against the low hanging mist of the dragon’s breath. A considerable distance and the need to traverse many buildings lay between the two.
Taking the umbra funiculo from Caledus, the shadow rope wraps and coils tendrils around his left wrist, binding with his skin tightly and not a little painfully too. Yet newly discovered strength flows through his veins as the shadow melds throughout his arm. Looking up, Manzio spots the closest building and decides that it is a little beyond jumping distance so flicking his wrist, he sees the shadow unravel snaking out and binding with a thatch of roof across. The shadow rope becomes an extension of his left arm, forming an ever shifting bridge upon which to traverse. Leaning forward, his entire body is immersed in shadows, which climb his body like vines. Feeling as though he has entered a narrow shaft of darkness, he makes slow progress on his stomach, squirming toward the hazy reflection of the real world or even, the dreamscape beyond. He successfully reaches the thatched roof, which barely carries his weight. Carefully, he edges around the slightly more supported outer layer, making his way into position so as to see the larger building opposite.
Ten buildings stand between Manzio’s starting point and St Mark’s Campanile. The mental exertion is tremendous as he quickly discovers that the rope is literally an extension of his conscious thought. On three occasions, the shadow bridge begins to unravel as his concentration wanes but little by little, he makes his way closer and closer to the objective.
Finally, Manzio is able to traverse the penultimate building and can now see the final challenge ahead. The angle of ascent leading up to the belfry of St Mark’s Campanile is sharply steep. Looking down, he can see that the tower is located in a piazza (San Marco) Staring at the tower, he estimates the height to be more than 300 feet. It has a simple form, the bulk of which is a fluted brick square shaft, above which is a loggia within which he presumes is the belfry.
Once again he concentrates on the mental connection forged with the umbra funiculo. Bit by bit he is able to will the shadow upward until finally it creates a wickedly sharp trajectory. The ascent is gruelling both physically and mentally. But, with his muscles nearing exhaustion, Manzio finally feels the reassuring stone rim of the loggia and is able to slump into the belfry.
After taking some time to recover, Manzio takes stock of his new environment. Looking up, he spots that the belfry is topped by a cube, each inscribed with a sigil of alternate faces. One in particular catches his attention as it contains no mark and is simply a plain dark façade. From within, he senses power. Deciding quickly that the single face of the cube marks the gateway into shadow, he once again projects the umbra funiculo outwards and is satisfied to find the rope rigidly reaching into the void. He is unsure whether his physical presence is moving into the cube or rather that a subconscious connection has been made. Regardless, he is aware of entering the space within. He is immediately engulfed in shadow and after his eyes adjust to the half-light, begins to make out a massive, shifting dark throne.
Moving toward him, Manzio sees a creature of wreathing shadow, a hybrid fusion of muscular, snake like draconian tail and a human female form from the waist upward. Manzio blushes to see the nudity of the form, although his eyes are drawn to the vicious draconian claws and thick, reptilian forehead.
‘Welcome Manzio of Naples. You are not the first from your family to enter my realm. Be reassured. You will find that the shadows are quite literally part of your blood and each time you return the link is more powerful and intoxicating.
I see you carry the umbra funiculo. Such conduits will not be required for long. Soon you will enter the shadows of your own volition.’
The creature appraises Manzio, her face barely visible within the shadows. Manzio notices for the first time, that he can identify only a single golden iris with an almond shaped eye fixed upon him.
‘I am Kampe. Known to some as the dracaena or the Venetian Lady to others. It is apt that your induction should take place within the dreamscape. For shadow and somnium have always been akin. The powers of the Frumentarii are enhanced in shadow, enhanced again within somnium. But I can feel that you sense those changes. You are capable of much within these realms that you cannot achieve in your usual reality. You feel it? Yes…’
Manzio nods, unsure how to respond when faced by such a powerful entity.
‘What I offer is a new pathway for you. The perfect fusion of speed, strength, intellect and illusion. I offer you the ancient powers of illusory shadow. Although your Father preferred to define the process as a conjuring.
However, first you must learn to summon shadow to do your bidding. Such a process is symbiotic for the shadow may from time to time, summon you. To create this bond, you must give of your life energies first. From this point onward, a part of you will always belong to the shadows. It is not a step to be taken lightly so you should consider this carefully. You should also understand why magic wanes from this world. The Elder races have been driven into self-contained pockets, maintained by massive reserves of magical energy. You would become an ally in maintaining these borders. I grant you time to consider all that I have said.’
Manzio is left to consider Kampe’s offer. Once again, he cannot help but reflect on the surreal nature of the meeting, when his physical self is far to the north. At first the Vesuvian is unsure of the offer and senses the return of the draconic Venetian, as though his thoughts are exposed to analysis.
‘Lady Kampe, I thank you for your kind offer and given that my father made this choice, I am happy to commit myself as you request. But first, I would ask a question. Would I gain access to the dream world?’
‘No,’ responds Kampe categorically. ‘Our current meeting is made possible by the great wyrm’s breath. Entering the world of dream is a power far beyond you under normal circumstances though there are some able to wield such gifts. What I offer is the shadow path.’
Once again Manzio nods. ‘Then I am satisfied to proceed.’
The draconic single eye appears to expand and illuminate in anticipation. ‘Then I bid that you merge with my power using the umbra funiculo and then together we will forge. What would you will the shadow to do?’
Manzio considers his options and in particular his father’s description of conjuring shadow. Slowly, an idea begins to form.
‘Is it possible to conjure a likeness of myself, which attacks my opponents from behind?’
The face of the Lady smiles, the eye digesting this information greedily and not for the first time, Manzio is glad that he is not facing such a power in combat.
‘Interesting idea, although I would suggest one correction. You will conjure a shadow in your stead, whilst you use a short range shadow door to appear behind your enemy. This I can grant, although we will need to forge a perfect likeness of you from the shadows.
Extend the umbra funiculo and let us begin.’
Manzio once again musters the energy to animate the shadow rope, fighting off the keen sense of mental exhaustion and fatigue, which threatens to break his concentration. The rope seems to be attracted to the swirling shadows orbiting Kampe and quickly Manzio begins to feel the extraordinary power pulsating from the draconic form.
In response, he can sense his heartbeat quicken and blood rush into his left hand, the energy transmuted into shadow through no urging of the Vesuvian but rather from the will of the Venetian Lady. The effort of maintaining concentration becomes ever greater as the construct is painstakingly shaped and just as he is reaching exhaustion, the connection is withdrawn and he can feel himself tumbling forward his mind entering a space of limbo somewhere between sleep and the dream world.
‘Wake up, Ajax. Your work is yet to be completed.’
Manzio wakes to find the mask of Caledus staring back and a strange sensation buzzing in his left hand. Looking down, he sees a miniature likeness of himself, conjured from shadow, clutched in his grasp.