At first Manzio thought he’d entered the ocean but the water surrounding him was not the freezing sting of the North Sea. Instead, a warmth spread throughout his exhausted limbs as he floated effortlessly through the ether. He could not breathe but somehow did not feel the need. A small part of his brain still worried. What of Richard, Matilda and Remus but he was unable to grasp these thoughts for long and they floated away from his conscious, like clouds drifting on the horizon.
The assassin was not sure how long he floated through the watery void. He no longer cared. Slowly, he could feel sleep settling over him like a comforting blanket and inexorably lost all sense of space or time.
…a sting of cold brought Manzio back to his senses! His head had broken through a circular hole of ice in a cylindrical, underground chamber. With a start, he realised that he knew exactly where he had arrived. The York catacombs!
He was followed immediately by Richard and Matilda Umfraville and then finally, Remus. After a look of stunned disbelief at their unlikely delivery from the hands of death, each embraced the other, Matilda and Richard holding onto one another both in tears.
‘I thought I’d lost you brother.’
After the initial euphoria of their escape had passed, all four survivors turned to more pressing matters. Where were they? Plus, dripping wet, each could feel the extreme cold once again beginning to bite.
‘We are under the streets of York,’ replied Manzio. ‘These catacombs serve as an aqueduct. I have explored them with the Fellowship, though Storm, Sophia and Tector spent much more time eradicating some of the threats, which lurk below.’
‘That is incredible,’ responded Richard. ‘I had no idea.’
Matilda voiced the obvious question on the lips of the others. ‘Manzio, can you get us out of here? Do you know the way?’
Manzio considered the question carefully before answering. ‘Yes, I think I can remember. Follow me.’
The group moved quickly still discussing their remarkable delivery through what Manzio confirmed as the powers of Avalon, though the young assassin still looked troubled.
‘Are you OK lad?’
Remus walked with the Vesuvian, his weathered, taciturn face turned towards the scout.
’I’m worried about Nimue,’ he confessed. ‘I have seen that terrible spell used before on my friend Uther at Vindolanda.’
Remus nodded solemnly, before sighing.
‘Aye, it didn’t look good right enough. Not helped by me turning tail and running like a coward,’ added the Danagrim, his voice full of self reproach.’
Manzio, turning to face Remus, simply shrugged. ‘Believe me, I have seen the bravest run. That had nothing to do with you but was simply overwhelmingly powerful magic. Don’t beat yourself up about it.’
For several hours the four journeyed through the twisting, turning tunnels beneath York. Manzio concentrated on remembering his conversations with Storm. The dragonborn sorcerer had meticulously mapped the complex and Manzio had taken the time to peruse the maps in detail.
By the time the group finally surfaced just outside the Minster, it was increasingly difficult to proceed given their extreme cold and wet clothing. Manzio recognized Father Geoffrey as they approached York minster, the big priest clearly shocked to see such a bedraggled group reach the church doors.
‘Inquisitor Raphael! Matilda and Richard Umfraville! What in heaven’s name has happened to you? Quickly inside before you catch your death in cold.’
With Remus also permitted to enter, all four were provided with hot baths and fresh clothes. Father Geoffrey himself brought food from the kitchens, though full of apologies for the spartan fare offered.
‘We have had to ration the food,’ he confirmed. ‘This endless winter is surely the Devil’s work?’
Later that afternoon and once again warm, sat in front of a roaring hot fire, the four made plans for the following day.
Matilda, Richard and Manzio agreed to visit Baron Percy, whilst Remus would seek out the Danagrim merchants in an attempt to once again travel north.
After the others had retired to their quarters, Manzio sought out Father Geoffrey.
‘How is the Archbishop, Father?’
The old priest’s shoulders slumped his face visibly paling.
‘Not good, I’m afraid Inquisitor. He still remains comatose and yet to regain consciousness. We continue to pray for a miracle and would ask that you pray for him too.’
Manzio nodded, thanked Father Geoffrey for his kindness and with great sadness thinking about the Archbishop, Nimue and the fate of his friends, Heraclief and Myrddin, entered a fitful sleep.
The following morning, Remus met with the other three to see them off. Manzio had just embraced the big Danagrim when he felt the now familiar sensation of his boots tingling. The solstice stones were calling him.
’I’ve got to go,’ he shouted. ’Don’t be alarmed. I think it is Myrddin. Until we meet…’
He never had the chance to finish his sentence as his body was spun head over heels before slowing, dropping through a spinning void and landing heavily on his knees. For a moment he could not move, so powerful was the urge to vomit but the dizziness quickly subsided, just as the strong arms of Heraclief helped him to his feet. The two friends embraced.
‘It is good to see you my friend,’ said Heraclief in a voice thick with emotion. ‘I thought we had lost you for a moment.’
Looking around, Manzio was relieved to see Myrddin facing him, though with a look of concern, not happiness.
‘Where are the others?’ questioned Myrddin. ‘Welcome Manzio but I must ask your leave. I am sure you have much to discuss with Heraclief? I must speak with Dienwe.’
The two companions sat and waited for Myrddin whilst recounting all that had transpired since their parting. Manzio was shocked to discover that nearly two weeks had passed.
‘How can that be?’ he reasoned.
After completing their respective tales, Heraclief offered a theory. ‘I think it was your journey through Avalon. You say that you felt completely healed by the time you arrived in York. I can only speculate that time is relative in the other-lands. In short, it passes more slowly.’
The two had little more time to analyse the incredible events before Myrddin returned, walking in a hurry.