Ulaid Part 4

Ulaid Part 4

6th September

Whilst Heraclief and Manzio huddled on the banks of the lough, drying out clothes saturated from their swim to safety, the darkness of night quickly fell, the vast tower dominating the distant landscape melding with the all encompassing blackness.

At first, they sat gloomily wrapped in their own thoughts when slowly the sound of voices carried to them from the hillside overlooking their position. Whilst protected by the dell shaped lip in which they were camped, both suddenly become painfully aware of ythe attention likely to be garnered by the emerald flames! With no time to douse the raging fire, they made for the cliff face, flattening their bodies against the cold, wet surface of the crumbling stone.

After some time, they could start to make out a bedraggled column of Danagrim, wild but saturated from the waters of the lough making their way down a zigzagging pathway, clearly making for the fire. In total, 17 figures carrying an array of weapons and armour discarded from their swim, were strung out on the treacherous pathway, crouching low to avoid falling.

Heraclief and Manzio exchanged glances, both nodding simultaneously knowing that they needed the protection of both the fire and the enclosed shoreline against possible threats. Remembering the dying words of the Danagrim from the day before, Heraclief spontaneously decided to take a chance, bellowing up from his secluded position.

‘Hail, stout hearted Danagrim of Ulaid. We gave succour to one of your fallen comrades as we tracked your progress with the accursed Sithe. He bid us aid you in the fight against the Scarack, for this ancient creature is our sworn enemy. We would share our fire with you on this night for we too were shipwrecked.’

At first there was silence above followed by some muttering and discussion between the Danagrim. Then, three figures detached themselves from the pack and descended the remaining distance to the foot of the cliff. As they approached, the dim emerald light reflected by the flames provided a shadowy and eerie outline of the three. The first to approach was a barrel chested figure bearing more scars than Manzio and Heraclief had ever seen. His face, neck and naked torso were crisscrossed with a number of wicked scars and at least one patch of skin clearly blackened when set against his albino skin tone by either acid or fire. In his left hand he gripped a magnificent scabbard with what appeared to be an old Roman gladius.

‘We would indeed share your fire strangers though you will forgive us if we are sceptical of your claims. Allies in this forsaken land are something of a rarity.’

‘That be as it may,’ said Heraclief, ‘we share a common foe. The Scarack Filidh fought us at Hadrian’s Wall and two of their number fell, one to a fellow Danagrim by the name of Achilleus the Golden.’

The Scarred Danagrim nodded. ’I am Bróccan and these are my shield bearers, Rónáin and Blayne.’

Rónáin was a much older Danagrim with sharp looking grey stubble. His teeth chattered and his leather vest was clearly soaked from the shipwreck. Beside him stood a female Danagrim, slim and alert, her dark eyes assessing Manzio and Heraclief as though guessing their intent. Her waistband contained all manner of knives and a small hand crossbow.

Heraclief introduced himself followed by Manzio as the other Danagrim joined their colleagues on the shore.

Bróccan gestured toward the tough looking group gathering behind him:

‘We are the last of our clan, the Sacred Eye of Storm and we, in all probability go to our deaths in the tower of the Black Queen, for we are bound to keep the eye of Balor and it has fallen into enemy hands. Though we share this last night with strangers perhaps it is as Crom-Cruach would wish. Destined in the ragged cut of the lightning, which shapes our destiny.’

Heraclief turned and gestured for the group to follow him. Manzio stepped in just behind the three Danagrim walking ahead with Heraclief and was surprised to find an older female Danagrim fall in beside him. Manzio has to suppress the desire to recoil from the horrible scarring around the woman’s left eye, which appeared to have been removed altogether. Her right eye was a striking sky blue, which held Manzio with a penetrating gaze.

‘You carry an evil weapon boy. Powerful yes but tainted by the white Queen.’

Manzio was astonished by this insight and simply stared into the darkness considering this statement.

‘The weapon serves two purposes. One, to enable a strike upon the minions of the black queen via your hand. Two, it will eventually possess you, so that you are little more than a tool to be used by the white badb.’

Again, Manzio did not know how to respond.

‘Still, I bring good news too. Your elven friend, the half human survived though held against his will by the white queen. He was far too valuable to kill. It merely appeared as though he had been slain by the badb enchantments.’

For the first time in many days, Manzio risked a smile.

‘How do you know all of this? Who are you?’

The wizened face of the old Danagrim splits into a smile, the rotting roots of stained teeth exposed.

’I’ve had many names boy. More names than you have had years but you may call me Nessa.’

The Danagrim joined Heraclief and Manzio, an uneasy truce agreed with the group sat in a ring around the fire, glad of the heat. Staring into the flames, Nessa looked toward Heraclief, her single eye narrowing as though making a connection although she did not disclose her council.

Eventually after a polite exchange it was clear that neither group wished to disclose any further information and gradually, many fell into an exhausted slumber. Heraclief agreed to take a watch, followed by Manzio with neither entirely comfortable with their guests. Quietly Manzio told Heraclief of Nessa’s remarkable insights. The astonished Heraclief suppressed his joy at this news suggesting that Nessa was perhaps some kind of a shaman.

It was just before dawn that the Danagrim began to break camp. It was a humid morning and storm clouds had gathered during the night, dark and ominous in the strange subterranean dimension through which they journeyed. Bróccan thanked Heraclief and Manzio for sharing their camp. Nobody had commented on the unusual emerald flames. As the Danagrim made their way back up the pathway from the shores of the lough, Nessa was the last and stopped momentarily beside Heraclief and Manzio.

‘Today will bring a powerful convergence. Forces way beyond your power will do battle. Your best bet is to remain in the shadows for as long as possible. Stick to your quest for the stone and do not be waylaid helping others. The black Queen guards the stone with great strength of arms, for she has assigned a hand of her Fenians to this task. Seek the garden of destiny, which is situated at the heart of her fortress, surrounded by all the towers of the black Queen. This is my council.’

With the Danagrim finally on their way, the dark clouds ahead seemingly swallowing the entire clan as they made their way across the rolling hills toward the heart of Morrigan’s power, Manzio and Heraclief discussed the incredible insights provided by Nessa. The two were stunned that the Danagrim shaman should be able to distill such information but also agreed that the advice given should be embraced.

Finishing what remained of their now seriously spoiling rations, the two dressed, in clothes dried by the emerald flames. Steeling themselves against the wind, they set off in the footsteps of the Danagrim.

For several hours Manzio and Heraclief made their way closer to the now looming, seemingly impenetrable fortress ahead. Hugging the hillside and what little vegetation clung to the increasingly rocky and barren landscape, the two were swallowed up into the unusually low hanging dark clouds, as though night had fallen many hours early. Rain started to fall as they reached the hills overlooking the massive black towers of Morrigan’s fortress. For a mile in all directions surrounding the huge munro on which the fortress was situated, the land was flat and barren…clearly approaching the great hillside without being detected, would be all but impossible. A single, broad road passed from the approaching flatland before zigzagging up the steep side of the munro to the huge iron gates, protecting the fortress itself.

Discussing the best way to climb the hill undetected, the two agreed that the cloak of darkness offered the best chance of success whilst climbing cross-country avoiding the main road. The potted, pitted landscape provided depressions in which to hide from any guards looking out from the battlements. The climb itself was arduous and both forced to rest as their weary legs finally led them to the huge iron walls surrounding the fortress. Remarkably, they had not been detected.

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The two were just preparing to scale the walls, when sudden movement caught their eye behind. Turning, the pair was astonished to see a large army, moving at pace on the plain behind them, emerging from the darkness of the low hanging storm clouds hugging the highlands surrounding the citadel. At the fore emerged knights muddied and bloody from the journey, some still sporting quarrels protruding from shields.

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Some horses in the fore stumbled with exhaustion. A ripped and in places, shredded coat of arms rippled in the strong winds whipping up from the storm clouds. Heraclief and Manzio recognised this to be the emblem of Henry the Young King!

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Simultaneously, the huge iron gates began to open, the vast hinges protesting against the weight of the ancient barrier. As the gates slowly swung back, an army of Sithe warriors riding slick black war chargers issued forth, many in the front ranks holding beautifully carved, slim lances fitted with adamant tips. At the head of this group was a slim, feminine figure dressed in voluminous black robes. At her side is a magnificently clad knight wearing mithril armour…none other than Conall Bradach! The female figure lowered her cowl as she began to descend the road leading into the lower valley and as she did so, she revealed hideous, thick snakes writhing in her hair! Her rotting skin and desiccated face were fragmented into what appeared to be growths of fungus. However, her most striking feature was almond eyes, which burned with a sickly yellow fire. They looked out upon the army approaching from below, with the snakes also trained on the obvious threat. Behind her, yet more and more dark cloaked black riders poured out of the iron gates swelling the ranks of the citadel.

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Heraclief nudged Manzio…‘quick this is our opportunity to get inside whilst the citadels’ army goes forth to battle.’

Quickly, Heraclief gave Manzio one of his earrings and asked the Vesuvian to use it. He went on to explain how the item worked and subsequently provided Manzio with the opportunity to levitate.

‘But how will you get inside?’ asked Manzio.

Heraclief smiled. ‘Am I not in league with shadows?’

Still rather confused by the enigmatic Heraclief, Manzio decided to follow the plan, taking the ‘cloak of darkness’ before beginning to ascend the wall of Morrigan’s fortress. Upon reaching the parapets, he was lucky not to attract interest from the nearest guard who was stood about 30yrds away facing toward the swelling ranks of sithe warriors and knights on the battlefield.

Deciding to chance his luck, Manzio fired a crossbow bolt from his concealed position in the globe of darkness. Given the huge amount of shadow created by the storm, his globe very nearly blended into the darkness of the fortress. The bolt struck home, smashing into the shoulder blade of the astonished guard.

‘Attack! We’re under attack!’…gasped the guard whilst making for the nearest stairwell.

Not waiting to see if reinforcements would arrive, Manzio began to descend down into the fortress itself. Once inside the vast citadel, there was an enormous amount of activity with troops moving out to reinforce their comrades already setting forth for the battlefield. Everything was built to a monumental size, as though housing giants and Manzio quickly found shadows in which to hide. Passing carefully through the gargantuan courtyards leading into the structure itself, Heraclief grabbed him back against the wall, quickly reassuring Manzio before the assassin had time to strike.

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The two were quickly plunged into darkened corridors lit by a series of burning torches. Above, in the stone ceiling, they could see murder holes periodically situated, no doubt with burning tar at the ready. Indeed, quickly the telltale acrid smell of these battlement defences permeated the smoky air, although equally providing camouflage through which the two were able to pass without being detected. Dark cloaked magisters rushing past barely had time to consider the two figures amongst the many preparing for war.

Suddenly, ahead there was an explosion, which rocked the stone face of the citadel. Initially there was chaos as figures rushed toward the smoke billowing from the turret windows set far higher in the towers above. Heraclief and Manzio used the diversionary tactics, making their way deeper into the citadel, moving quickly through vast corridor spaces passing enormous, elaborate double doors, both to their left and right. Remembering the words of Nessa, they pushed on seeking the gardens in which the stone was situated. A second shuddering blast rocked the very foundations of the stone citadel, with shards of masonry dropping from the ceiling ahead of them, momentarily blocking a large chunk of the corridor. Doors opened to their left and a tall Sithe magister wearing delicate silver rimmed spectacles entered the corridor, shaking his head in disbelief.

‘What in the name of shadows is happening? The Black Queen will be furious when she returns. You two, set to shifting the rubble. Quickly now.’

Manzio hesitated, giving the Magister reason to appraise them properly. His eyebrows arched as he noted the bulky build and foreign garb of the two. ‘Who are you?’

In response, Manzio rushed the magister, spinning high into the air, attacking with his hook blade and catching the tall sithe with a vicious blow to the neck. Blood spirted through the air as Manzio landed on both feet, beyond the magister, quickly spinning to face the elf.

One hand clutching his injured neck, the magister reached into his cloak throwing a metallic grenade toward Heraclief before darting back into the room from whence he came. The tall sorcerer threw himself back toward the rubble but not before catching some splinters along his left arm in the detonanation. Bloodied and covered in dirt, Heraclief quickly regained his feet urging haste before more sithe magisters joined the fray.

Shifting the rubble, the two made their way further into the citadel following corridors, which opened up into lighter spaces with windows facing out toward the tall citadels towering on either side. The sheer size and scale of the complex continued to flabbergast the two as they desperately sought some sign of where the garden of Destiny was situated. Risking a glance out of a high rise window, Manzio looked down and spotted not so much a garden but a mini forest situated several levels below their current positon.

‘We need to head down Heraclief. Toward the towers situated on the western side of the citadel and out of this central structure.’

Once again keeping to the shadows, the two assassins made for a vast, stairwell and were able to make their way down several levels before entering arched doorways leading out into forestland, surrounded on all sides by the citadel. They followed a pathway made from bark and quickly entered the forest itself. Pushing deeper into now woods, it was clear that a battle was taking place, as the sound of arms could still be heard ahead. Manzio suggested that he climb a tree so as to get a better vantage of what was taking place ahead but was frustrated by the thick tangle of branches and vines, which prevented him from reaching the upper branches. He was just preparing to climb down when he noticed a figure flit from behind a tree below, before running straight for Heraclief, the sorcerer, his back to the attacker. He was able to cry out a quick warning before jumping from the tree, using his tumbling ability to reach the ground before quickly regaining his feet.

Recovering his footing quickly, Manzio turned just as Heraclief cried out in pain. The attacker had used Manzio’s own tactic of striking from behind, puncturing through the sorcerer’s cloak and into his back.

Heraclief dropped to the ground, his arm reaching back to staunch the bleeding from his back. However, he passed out in the process, his head supported by the bark of the trail.

‘Not so powerful now are you Vesuvian, without the support of your sorcerer or the Druid and his cronies.’

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Ignoring the bait, Manzio concentrated on the nimble footed sithe facing him. Dressed in a tight fitting black shirt with a matching black hood containing spidery arcane lettering, Manzio was only able to get a glance of his attacker before he disappeared into a globe of darkness. Manzio responded in kind, also using the cover of darkness to conceal his presence.

‘That cloak does not belong to you. Thief…you didn’t really think your antics from Hadrian’s Wall would go unpunished?’

Using the voice of his assailant to guide his aim, Manzio gripped his crossbow firing into the shadows in which the Sithe had retreated. He heard a satisfying gasp of pain as the bolt hit its target. (Rolled a 20!)

The globe of darkness retreated at first slowly and then more quickly giving Manzio the chance to reach Heraclief, covering the sorcerer’s body with the magic of his own cloak. Keeping an eye on the still retreating globe of darkness, Manzio applied pressure to the horrible gaping wound on Heraclief’s back. As he worked he noticed an emerald gemstone, which was virtually on fire resting on Heraclief’s chest.

Desperately trying to wake his friend, Manzio was able to force some water into his mouth by manipulating his neck. Heraclief choked momentarily but this was enough for the sorcerer to regain consciousness although he immediately gasped in pain, clutching tight to Manzio’s chest. Heraclief placed his hand on the emerald gemstone at his neck, the fire seeming to diffuse through his fingertips and spread across his chest and onto his back. As ever the flames appeared to have no impact on the emerald cloak, which remained impervious to fire.

Finally, the pain subsiding a little Heraclief was able to push himself into a standing position and regained some level of composure although his face was drawn and haggard in the half light of the storm raging overhead. There was no sign of their Sithe attacker.

Nearby the sounds of battle continued unabated…a battle cry carrying through the trees with a spine-chilling intensity. Pushing forward and both sensing that time was running out, the two reached the perimeter of a clearing within which a huge battle was taking place. Edging closer, they emerged onto the fringes of a vast clearing. The trees had been removed altogether and in a circular space a single standing stone was situated at the heart of a perfectly manicured lawn. It was carnage! The battlefield was strewn with Danagrim warriors. Petrified; desperate faces ;aghast; just at the chilling moment when each knew with certainty that their life was over, their lifeblood turned to stone. The blood of Danagrim and Sithe created a ghastly mosaic of green and crimson.

Elsewhere, the two assassins were stunned to see familiar faces. The mighty Scarack, crushing the life from another hapless Danagrim before tossing the body aside with disdain. He was surrounded by his Filidh…Manzio could see the two women last seen in his difficult reconnaissance of Carlisle Castle over two months previously. The first of the women was an almost transparent Sithe and in the process of setting up a large harp on the ground. Meanwhile as Manzio scanned more of the battle, the Vesuvian grounds his teeth in frustration as he could see the figure of Quintauch, stiff and desiccated stood at her side, the huge bronze blade at the ready in his outstretched right hand, his lifeless eyes staring ahead, as though awaiting a command. Wrapped around his neck, a drum rested against his rotting chest. The other Sithe woman, dressed in filthy, tattered blue robes was accompanied by a tawny coloured owl sat on her outstretched left hand. From her right hand, a bolt of crackling purple energy erupted from a shard of glass clasped in her palm. The energy ripped into a young Danagrim warrior in the chest, his shriek of pain cut off as he clutched at his throat, ripping deep into his own larynx and suffocating the windwipe in a hideous, bubbling cackle of blood. The woman allowed herself a curt smile before eyeing her next victim.

Bróccan and his shield bearers, Rónáin and Blayne were still alive, as was Nessa. They pushed on toward the heart of the circle but beyond the Filidh, a further ‘hand’ of Fenians had yet to move, staring out with mechanical eyes as the last line of protection surrounding the Stone of Destiny. Manzio, carefully appraised the constructs. From a distance, the adamantium outer armour appeared to be a carapace of Celtic tattoos but equally, the rotating cogs could also be more like tiny clock mechanisms and (quite literally) the driving force behind their invention.

By sheer weight of numbers the Danagrim were gradually being surrounded…only six remained standing and of these at least one was very badly wounded, creating a shield of bodies around Bróccan, Rónáin, Blayne and Nessa.

Having appraised the raging whirlwind of activity to their right, Heraclief bowed his head close to Manzio, his eyes wild with alarm. ‘Any ideas? This looks like an impossible task but we must act quickly.’

Manzio considered their options. ‘Nessa told us to stick to our task. We should focus on the stone.’

Heraclief nodded, an idea coming to him. ‘What if I levitate out above the stone and Fenians offering you aerial cover and then you use your ring. Get to the stone and let’s prey that if we do it will trigger some kind of reaction.’

Glancing back toward the battle, Manzio noted that Nessa appeared to have entered into a trance like state, foam and spittle bursting from her lips as she entered a dance of death, spinning and lashing out at her assailants. Two Sithe fell dead, one with a knife buried deep into his forehead, staring stupidly ahead, having never seen the attack coming.

Returning their focus back to the job at hand Heraclief reclaimed his earring of levitation and once again used the cloak of darkness. Slowly he ascended into the air using the thinning trees as cover. Gradually the shadow, which looked like a particularly low hanging cloud began to move out across the battlefield. Meanwhile Manzio prepared to use the ring but as he was in the process of slipping his ‘lucky charm’ onto his finger he could feel the bite of a blade puncturing his leather armour and drawing blood. As he instinctively moved away, slipping the ring onto his finger he heard a gasp from the Sithe assassin confronting him. The elf looked dumbfounded, his confusion quickly turning to paranoia, as he once again scrambled for the cloak of darkness. ‘What the hell?’

Ignoring his attacker and the pain erupting in his side, Manzio ran at full speed across the battlefield, vaguely aware of the blood trickling down the side of his body. As he did so, the Fenian Constructs immediately activated, mechanical spears and shields forming in either hand. They began to close ranks. As this process was taking place the Fenian stood at the front of his hand and closest to the invisible, racing figure of Manzio suddenly combusted in emerald flames. The creature momentarily moved out of formation clearly confused, giving Manzio the chance to use his extraordinary acrobatic skills to cartwheel high into the air, somersaulting over the lunging jab of of a Fenian spear before astonishingly landing on top of the stone itself. (Rolled a 19)

Almost immediately a white light began to ebb and flow pouring like liquid from the gripping fingertips of the young Vesuvian before diffusing into the stone itself. Veins of light crisscrossed like branches through the menhir whilst a green mist the like of which both Manzio and Heraclief remembered from their teleportation from Orkney to Ulaid, began to billow from the roots of the stone itself.

Emerging from the stone, a magnificent figure dressed in antique armour from a long forgotten age stepped forth as though from another dimension. In his right hand he carried a sword of liquid light. The Fenians attacked, the nearest lunging with his spear, which connected but was rebuffed by the armour. Manzio noticed that the breastplate appeared to emanate with a translucent light and sparked as the spear connected. With a single blindingly fast double handed blow, the sword cut through the mechanical cogs binding the torso of the Fenian to his head. For a split second it appeared as though the enigmatic knight had missed before the Fenian splits into two parts, crashing to the ground.

Pointing his sword at first the Fenians and then the stunned combatants on the opposite side of the battleground, the figure roared a defiant challenge, which seemed to emanate from the ground, so deep was the timbre.

‘Would anyone else care to challenge me?’

The Filidh immediately began to back off. The blue robed sorcerer seemed to become one with her owl and was quickly retreating into the forest. The albino-white female spoke a word of command and her harp shrunk to a tiny size. She quickly pocketed the device and protected by the hulking undead warrior, Quintauch, made for the cover of the woods, accompanied by a handful of Sithe still standing.

The Scarack cast a baleful glance toward the knight but the gaze seemed only to anger him further.

‘The eye of Balor will not avail you, creature of malice. Be gone before I turn my wrath upon thee.’

For a moment, it appeared that the Scarack was considering defiance, his scarred face twisted in a sadistic grimace.

The knight pointed the sword of molten power first toward the Scarack and then the remaining Fenians. ‘Be gone.’

An invisible force seemed to grip the knight’s assailants and step by step they were forced back from the clearing as though engaged in an unseen wrestling match in which they could only lose. The mechanical cogs on the feet of each Fenian began to smoke, turf churning up beneath metallic feet resisting the force set against them.

The Scarack offered less resistance, quickly turning without a backward glance and following in the footsteps of his fleeing Filidh, covering his face with a baggy stained travelling cowl in the process.

Back at the Stone of Destiny, the knight lowered his sword, which seemed to implode inside a simple wooden pommel with little more than a light swoosh.

Only Bróccan, Blayne and Nessa had survived the massacre. Blayne kissed the forehead of the now lifeless Rónáin and closed the grizzled old Danagrim warriors’ eyes with a gentleness, which belied her deadly touch. Finally, Heraclief, Manzio and the three Danagrim faced the knight, his power a palpable and persistent throb.

‘My freedom is tantamount to war. The boy is clearly a tool of the White Queen and with my return, the enchantress has declared war upon her dark sister. There is hope….’

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Burning red eyes looked out from the mask.

‘Time is of the essence. Danagrim, your best chance of regaining the eye of Balor is to come with me. The young King has fallen and the Black Queen even now senses the impending loss of the stone. Touch the stone…all of you. Now!’

Manzio and Heraclief touched the stone, the three Danagrim falling into place alongside the pair. Quickly, the now familiar sense of teleportation began, a swirling emerald light not unlike the magic of Heraclief rotating in a rapidly accelerating vortex. As Manzio clenched his teeth against the nauseating speed of the whirlwind, he risked one last look upon the battlefield and whether a trick of the light or tiredness, he fancied that for a split second, he could see a tall, black figure begin to materialise in the gloom.

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Image Credits:

1. Henry’s Coat of Arms- http://henrytheyoungking.blogspot.hk/2015/01/happy-new-year-to-henry-young-king.html

2. Banshee- https://www.walldevil.com/28296-artwork-banshee-fantasy-creatures-medusa-gorgon.html

3. Knights at the Charge- https://www.pinterest.com/gromwulf/knights/

4. Morrigan’s Citadel External- http://feralfront.com/index.php?topic=920281.0

Ulaid Part 4

Albion Andrew_Brereton iwilliamson