Ulaid Part 1
As the spinning vortex of light finally begins to dissipate, Manzio and Heraclief find themselves surrounded by a sickly green gas the like of which they have seen before in the battle for Vindolanda. Ghastly memories of the Pictish lich, Callus return to them and they cough and gag stumbling from the single menhir from which they appear to have emerged. As the two return to their senses, they scan their environment seeing that they are situated on top of a gentle mound. As they back away from the menhir, the stone continues to emit the green gas like steam from boiling water.
Suddenly returned to his own mind, Heraclief screams with rage and drops to his knees, sobbing. For quite some time he is inconsolable but eventually pushes himself from the sodden dirt and vows vengeance on Morgause. As he does so, an agonising pain rips through his right hand palm, debilitating him and pinning him to the ground.
‘I pity you sorcerer for I see that you have entered into a deadly pact with one of the Badb. A pact, I suspect that you did not enter into willingly. Such is the power of the Badb.’
The voice carries eerily, as though a lament or grieving sound echoing from history itself and emanating from the ancient stone.
Heraclief looks toward the stone menhir. ‘Identify yourself…who is it that speaks from stone?’
‘That is of no importance and my name is long forgotten,’ says the anonymous voice, as though carried through a ghostly tunnel.
‘How do you know of Morgause and her enchantments?’ asks the tall sorcerer, his tone instinctively suspicious.
The voice is silent and then speaks.
‘I sense the enchantment. It is of an ancient kind which binds the subject to the will of the sorcerer. Yet there are things that even the Badb are not aware of and in teleporting you to Cuchulainn’s Standing Stone, your wits have been restored.’
Manzio and Heraclief, moving further from the stone discuss the validity of the claims made. The assassin bids Heraclief follow him from the exposed summit.
‘Can we trust him Heraclief?’
The sorcerer shakes his head and gives this considerable thought. Manzio notices a sadness reflected from those striking, shimmering emerald eyes, not previously detectable before the death of Ross.
‘The entity has already cleared our senses of the enchantment or at least part of the effect. We are far from home, short on allies and have few other choices. For better or worse, my instincts tell me to trust him.
Returning to the stone, which continues to exude a sickly gaseous mist, the two stand as close as is safe, making sure not to inhale the fumes.
‘I sense that you are unsure of my intentions. That is wise in such times. Perhaps I can persuade you that we have a common foe by granting you three questions. I give the gift of knowledge for it is all I have to offer.’
Taking a few moments to consider this surprising offer, Manzio is the first to pose a question:
‘Can you tell me what the situation is here in Ulaid?’‘A sensible choice of question young Vesuvian. You seek to be as well informed as possible before striking out from the Stone. Then let me tell you that Henry the Young King has made landfall at Dundalk on the Muir Eireann, about 50 miles south of Downpatrick. With him are Geoffrey II…Duke of Brittany, Philip Count of Flanders and Baldwin the V, Count of Hainaut, Flanders & Namur. He also travels with the infamous William Marshal his Knight at arms.
You are in a perilous position but less so now that at least some of the enchantment has been lifted. Assassin, beware the dagger that you wield. It is has been blessed by the Badb…such items are powerful but possessed by necrotic energy. Beware, lest it consume you and turn you into a creature of the night.’
Nodding, Manzio carefully considers this advice as Heraclief steps forward.
‘Morgause has bid that we join with the Young King and strike out at Morrigan. What would you have us do?’
Once again, the entity does not respond immediately.
‘An equally intelligent question Emerald Eyes. Do not join forces with the Young King. I foresee that his quest is doomed on more than one count. Instead, find the ancient doorway to the abandoned fortress of the Tuatha De Dannan on the Hill of Tara. This was once the gateway to Tír na nÓg.
If you would rid the lands of Morrigan the Black and send her back across the sea to her sisters in Scotia, you must reunite the four ancient talismans of the Tuatha De Dannan. The Stone of Cuchulainn must be linked with The Stone of Destiny by the rays of the rising sun but first of all, the stone must rise from its captivity. Then, The Sword of Light, The Spear of Victory and the Cauldron of the Dagda must be returned.
Start with the Standing Stone of Destiny on the Hill of Tara…for the stone of our High King is hidden by the hand of Morrigan. Find the concentric stone pattern on the hill and wait for the full moon to light its surface. Give the blood of ye both and ye can enter into the ancient ruins of Tara. Find the stone but beware, for it is guarded by 8 pawns…Morrigan’s Fenians.’
This time, it is Heraclief’s turn to consider the words of the entity and before he is able to consider the crucial third question, Manzio follows up…
‘How do we get to Tara Hill?’
‘The distance between Cuchulainn’s Stone and Tara Hill is less than a day by foot and half that by horse. Follow the brightest star in the sky and seek the largest hill in this region and you will come to the ancient doorway. Until we meet again, I wish you well.’
With that, the gases fade and the stone returns to a dark silhouette lit only by the full moon.
The two heroes are without horses and therefore forced to travel by foot. However, the events of the last day eventually catch up with the pair and they are forced to camp shortly before dawn, though the hill described by the entity within the stone is now clearly visible in the distance. Notably, the region seems under populated with only the occasional village spotted en route.
Manzio takes first watch but quickly falls asleep. Much later he is woken by Heraclief well after the sun has risen! Realising that the two have not eaten in hours, they share two days worth of rations, chewing on dried meats and a goat’s cheese well past its best. By foraging, Manzio is also able to find some wild berries, though as September has come, these are already past their best.
It is midmorning when the two finally strike out for Tara’s Hill. The region is completely devoid of villages and a rather desolate place. As midday approaches, they complete the climb, enjoying a world earned drink from their water canteens when both are startled by the squawk of a raven leaving a tree situated at the very summit. Before they can react, the bird has quickly gained altitude and flown off toward the north. Manzio and Heraclief exchange a glance…the unspoken look that this does not appear to be a good sign.
Unable to do much about the raven, the two make camp away from the summit amidst a clump of stubborn trees, clinging to the slopes of Tara Hill. The day passes without incident and later that night they once again seek out the summit. Surprisingly it is Heraclief, not Manzio who finds an unusual pattern of grass, which, illuminated by the moon has a concentric aesthetic. Drawing blood with a sharp blade, they drip blood into the pattern, which transforms before their very eyes. Both experience a disorientating shimmer, much like a heat haze, as though entering into a hidden dimension and see the grass transmute into stone. Before them, a winding staircase leads downward into the darkness. With the silvery light of the moon providing only a faint glow, a narrow but beautiful staircase spirals at their feet. Requiring further light, Heraclief summon a basic cantrip of bobbing emerald flame and leads the way. An eerie green light is reflected from the darkened cave walls as they descend.
For nearly an hour, the two continue downward until finally, they reach a hard, subterranean floor. The moonlight has now faded and the chamber entered is at first utterly dark, save for the luminous green flames of Heraclief. There is only one visible exit, passing through a narrow domed entranceway in the distance but as the pair grow accustomed to this new darkness, a breath-taking cave begins to materialise in which the dark walls shimmer as though with stars. It is one of the most beautiful sights either companion has ever witnessed and for quite some time they are mesmorised.
As the twinkling stars illuminate the vast chamber before them, Manzio notes the trapeze like stone bridge, which spans a dark, smooth flowing canal below. Whilst confident of his own abilities to traverse the space, he asks Heraclief to go first so that he is available to catch the tall sorcerer in the eventuality of a fall. Slowly and carefully the two span the chamber guided by the light glowing from an entranceway at the far side, beyond the domed, celestial zodiac above and either side. The two feel diminutive against such an eternal backdrop, Heraclief’s shuffling boots the only sound in an otherwise soundless world.
Finally, they successfully reach the doorway of light which is bathed in a radiant golden glow as though somewhere above, the light of the sun has somehow been tapped and used to flood the space beyond. This light is blinding at first, as though passing through a cascade of bronze but as the two move beyond, they find themselves in a gloomier setting. Vast stone archways support the ceiling far, far above like the bones of some vast stone Goliath stretching before them as far as the eye can see. Like an abandoned cathedral, the light penetrates only the occasional space, whilst most of the landscape in front is filled with darkness. Tributaries perhaps emerging from other hidden spaces now join the canal seen in the previous cave, whilst a web of bridges span the dark, rather ominously faster flowing water below. Thankfully for Heraclief, the bridges are considerably wider than those previously crossed and he is able to relax a little as the two prepare to move further into the mysterious, Gothic structure.
At first, the two make good progress although after they have crossed about a quarter of the space between the golden doorway and bluish tinge in the distance for which they are headed, Manzio notices some shadowy, fluttering shapes above. No sooner has he pointed these out to Heraclief than four plummet from the gloomy light of the archways overhead and head at high speed towards then. As they get closer, it is clear that giant bats are about to attack! Manzio, as ever is the first to act, his crossbow set in the blink of an eye and then a bolt fired all in a graceful flow of motion. His aim is true and the bolt pierces the first creature on the tip of its wing, slowing its pace dramatically. The other three push on, one taking a wider approach and the other two attacking as a pair. Heraclief sends his now familiar opening gambit, the fireball into the path of the oncoming pair, the detonation also encompassing the slowed third, first caught by Manzio. At first the emerald fires erupt on the wings of the birds, their shrieks echoing in the domed rooftops far above. The bat first hit by Manzio now backs off, returning slowly toward the rooftop whilst the other two seem to absorb the fire into an aura of darkness that surround them. Finally, they attack, whilst Manzio lets loose another quarrel, one again finding its target as the bat taking the widest route toward the pair is caught full on. It shrieks in pain but maintains its altitude although clearly weakened. Two of the bats attack Heraclief, the second slashing razor sharp talons into his exposed left arm, as he attempts to fend them off, another spell in the making. As Manzio watches, he is shocked to see his friend collapse, barely staying on the bridge, his left arm dangling perilously over the side and close t the rushing, black waters below.
In panic and suddenly outnumbered as the third, injured bat joins the fray, Manzio unleashes his sgian dubh. An ominous energy pulses through the arm of the assassin. He attacks the two bats closest to him in a blur of movement, striking home with the second blow, a bolt of electrical energy flowing through his arm in an unpleasant kickback. To his astonishment, the chest of the bat, turns to dust, the now pathetic creature flopping into the fast flowing waters below and quickly carried away.
As the two remaining bats regroup ready to attack again, Manzio slips on his ring of invisibility. With him seemingly gone, the two make to attack the prone body of Heraclief, still slumped over the side of the bridge. With the bats turned away from him, Manzio is able to attack from behind but is too eager, slipping on the bridge and reappearing just in time to regain his feet ready to defend his friend. The two bats attack in concert, striking home with blackened talons, once and then twice. For a second it is as though the world has suddenly slowed and then, Manzio falls to the ground, desperately trying to fight the effects of poison. His last sight before sleep takes him is of a Sithe warrior, dressed in magnificent armour and with flowing white hair, rushing from the shadows…
‘Wake up boy, this is no place to sleep.’
As Manzio comes too with a sickening jolt, he sees that Heraclief is also awake, although only slowly regaining his footing. The tall Sithe warrior with striking red eyes and a magnificent sword at his side, looks Manzio in the eye and extends his hand.
‘Conall Bradach is the name.’