With the second initiation task complete albeit having used up massive reserves of mental energy, Manzio picks himself up from the table on which he has been convalescing, admiring the perfect likeness of himself still clutched in his left hand.
The permanently etched satirical grin of the white mask worn by Caledus stares back at Manzio, observing him from across the table. ‘Do you feel sufficiently recovered for the last task?’
Manzio takes a few moments to compose himself, shrugging off the weariness caused by the shadowy magic and indeed the contribution of his own essence to the creation of his magical figurine. ‘I can go on,’ he says as much to himself as Caledus.
‘Good. We should be quick. The dream world can shift quickly and who knows how long we have slept. Later, I will also teach you how to wake yourself from the dream.’
Caledus once again gestures toward his iridescent cube but no sooner has he started to reach out toward the shadowy box when an explosion rocks the tavern. The table in front of Manzio shakes with the vibrations whilst Caledus is on his feet in an instant and moving toward the doorway. As he does so, there is movement in the shadows to his left and Conall Bradach emerges his wicked longsword in hand. With his left-hand, he throws an ebony object onto the floor which shatters with a crackle of arcane energy. Before Manzio can act and as Caledus whirls around to face his fellow Frumentarii, a creature of terrifying proportions steps through a circle of ground diamond and jet stone. The monstrosity bellows with an unnaturally demonic timbre, which strikes fear into both Manzio and even Caledus who is rocked back on his heels. Barely squeezing into the room, the grotesquely muscular, deformed creature has a face of jutting bone and massive rotting horns, saliva dripping with acid, which burns the wooden floorboards. Razor sharp claws of blackened filth and a thick whip-like forked tail further hint at the violent nature of the demonic creature.
Sensing the greater threat to be Caledus, the demon smashes past the table separating the two combatants but succeeds only in crashing into the wall as Caledus seems to blink in, out and then back into existence, not more than a few feet behind the confused, raging demon. However, Conall is clearly wise to this tried and tested trick used by Caledus as he anticipates the move and is therefore perfectly positioned to strike out, just as Caledus is opening the lid of the iridescent cube. He grunts with effort as the longsword bites home (Caledus rolled a 20, which is a 1 in the dreamworld) drinking the energy of the Venetian’s life-force via the metallic veins of his blade. Caledus screams in pain, falling to his knees, as the mask flares to life, shadow billowing forth from his eyes and surrounding his body. The lid of the iridescent cube opens as the body of Caledus transforms into pure shadow before disappearing into the box itself. The lid slams shut.
Manzio faces off against both the terrifying demon, still dripping acid onto the floorboards and the Sithe assassin.
‘Kill him!’ screams Connal. The demon surges forward and for once, Manzio is rooted to the spot in fear. The creature spews a great jet of acidic stench, which splashes into Manzio’s leather breastplate, burning through the flimsy protection and causing terrible pain.
In panic, the young Vesuvian tries to make a mental connection with Heraclief. He briefly touches the mind of the sorcerer but senses a fear even greater than his own. Turning to defend himself from another attack from the acidic demon, he is vaguely aware of an other consciousness, seeking approval to enter into his dream. Manzio has only a split second to decide but some vague sense of familiarity tips the balance and he acquiesces.
Meanwhile, Connal takes a huge two-handed swing at the iridescent cube but is thrown backward by a violent explosive protective seal, which reacts as he strikes the box. Dropping his blade, he swears out-loud clutching his damaged right hand.
Suddenly, there is an enormous detonation emanating from the corridor space through which Manzio arrived. The doorway is blown from its hinges, part of the door splintered into shards as Vulcan’s heavy frame crashes through the door, blasted from his feet, knocking his helmet from his head, blood streaming from his nose. Incredibly, despite his wounds, the massive Danagrim slowly stands to his feet, his legs barely holding him upright. A conflagration of emerald fire ignites in the vacated space of the doorway, Heraclief backing through, his fingers shaping a wall of fire, whilst glancing over his shoulder with fear reflected in his eyes.
‘We must away. Now! The black queen is upon us.’
Heraclief no sooner ushers his warning before a single, commanding voice speaks from the corridor and the flames are immediately snuffed out, followed by the ominous creaking of footsteps on the hard wooden floorboards. Emerging into the room, leathery wings extending like storm clouds steps Morrigan the Black. Badb. Queen of the Sithe.
The oxygen seems to be sucked from the cramped room and the power emanating from the Queen is palpable, with Heraclief, Vulcan and Manzio all pushed back to the very edges of the room by an unseen force.
Barely breathing, the terrified Manzio looks upon the Queen of Darkness and feels absolute despair. Her face is like marble, a mask of stone like beauty with ebony horns laced with traces of shimmering mithril. A steel tiara appears to be locked in place as though the metal has entered into her flesh. She wears a mithril breastplate exquisitely crafted and of ancient make. In her left hand she carries a trident of shimmering, buzzing necrotic energy. The trident head is made from diamond with a circular black Queen chess figurine bound by a disc of mithril at the heart of the intricate design. The wings are huge and muscular; the incongruous masculinity to the femininity of the queen’s body. Her bloodless razor sharp lips sneer as she steps forward, huge demonic fangs revealed. A word of arcane power is muttered and a thick shadowy whip materialises in her right hand. It instantaneously transforms into a huge, venomous snake, resting close to the dripping acidic drool of the demon, which awaits the command of the summoner.
Her rasping, Hibernian brogue invades Manzio’s mind and the words are like internal blades stabbing at his brain. ‘You dare to demand allegiance from my servants, Venetian! Out with you from your hiding place in the shadows. they will avail you little.’ The black Queen points her trident at the iridescent cube, which immediately opens upon her command, the form of Caledus reforming like a puppet operated by strings, he is forced to his knees, head smashing into the floorboards, not once but twice, blood splattering the walls and his cowl knocked backwards revealing not hair but rather coalesced shadow much like the medusa!
Through the pain caused by the words of the Badb, Manzio observes the world as though in tableaux. Caledus prostrate. Heraclief, his hands tearing at his head, as though trying to rip the flesh from his face, Vulcan desperately trying to prevent his friend from succeeding by grabbing the sorcerer’s hands. Close at hand, Conall’s eyes shine with triumph, his longsword dripping with blood.
‘…and two of the Fellowship. Where are the other three boy? The enchantress, Templar and Dragonborn?’
Manzio, despite the pain and power of the Queen sees his three friends, sat on the white beaches of Iona and uses the image to lend him bravery. Through clenched teeth, fighting back the tears he responds, his voice thick with emotion. ‘I will never tell you. I would rather die.’
Manzio feels an unseen pressure begin to build on his neck as he slowly asphyxiates. Death closes in. From far away he can hear the voice of the Queen mocking him. ‘That can be granted.’
The power pinning him to the wall is suddenly released, as Morrigan gasps, turning to face the doorway. Emerging from the darkness beyond a huge figure enters the room, his gargantuan size dwarfing even Morrigan, as he stoops to enter. Like a figure striding forth from the Odyssey, a giant with flawless golden skin appears. He wears a simple brown leather kilt and jerkin. He carries no weapons and his eyes burn with a bizarre golden light.
‘Fomorian. How can this be?’
‘I see you are surprised to see me Morrigan the Black. You seem less confident when facing me without your two sisters.’
‘The ancient prison you summoned to house me is crumbling, Witch. I can now extend my powers once again into somnium, as you can see.’ The giant speaks in a softly spoken voice, which belies the great power Manzio can sense. ‘You four, run.’
‘Quick, the staircase,’ shouts Caledus. Heraclief, Manzio and Vulcan need no second warning. Caledus opens the iridescent cube and becomes shadow, which is sucked into the cube before both Caledus and the cube disappear from view.
As Morrigan and the Fomorian giant summon their powers, Manzio notices that Connal gives him a last murderous glance before twisting a ring on his left index finger, also disappearing from view.
The three remaining Frumentarii scramble onto the same rooftop used earlier for his second initiation task. Caledus is already stood in place above them urging for all haste to be made.
‘Quickly. We have little time. Connal has betrayed us. I will meet you in Hibernian for Connal must die. Vulcan, you will be required too. Ajax, let us say that your initiation is at an end. Welcome to the Frumenatrii.
To break the dream, you must be brave. I will show you the way. Until we meet again, may the shadows protect you.’
With that, Caledus hurls himself from the rooftop. In horror, Manzio watches as the Venetian assassin plummets to what must surely be his death but just as he strikes the pavement below the body disappears from view.
Manzio has little time to be confused as the building once again shakes with the vibrations of enormous powers unleashed below his feet. Fire is raging on the outside wall. Vulcan shrugs his shoulders. ‘I guess we jump. May the Gods protect you both until we meet again.’
Vulcan jumps from the roof and also disappears from view just before his body strikes the cobble stones below.
Finally, only Heraclief and Manzio remain. ‘On my count,’ says the tall sorcerer. ‘3, 2, 1…now.’