Friday, 9 October 2015

Chapter 1 - Escape from Branderscar

The smell of burnt flesh hung thick in the air, cold and stale musk lingered through the darkened cell. The throbbing of the bruises on Willow's side were what woke her, as she found herself dangling by the wrists chained to a wall. The wound on her wrist still tender, the crisp edges of the runic scar met with swollen red skin. Forsaken they said. Marked for eternity as scum, vermin, traitor. An abandoned soul.
Chains clanked as the forsaken soul to her right tried to brute force her way out of her restraints. An abnormally strong looking female, with a face Willow could almost recognise, was pulling hard on her bonds trying to snap the chain away from the wall. Scoffing internally, Willow knew the Branderscar Prison chains would not be so simple to escape.
Straining her eyes, she looked around the cell to find four other prisoners. The man to her left was tall and toned, he had red fiery eyes with one of those charming faces Willow would have enjoyed taunting back at court.  On his left was a woman whose face had that slightly angular exotic shape, clearly not from the lands of Talingarde. At the end of the row was an older gentleman, his ashing hair and almost wrinkle-less face spoke of a privileged life.
A loud clank to her right brought Willow's eyes around to see a reinforced cell, with a bulking beast of an ogre sleepily swaying side to side. Covered in wounds that had clearly not been tended to, the beast simply sat idle, looking groggy and drugged. The cells stank of blood and faeces, the filthy rags she was barely dressed in stuck to the wall, in places where it had obviously not been cleaned in a while – or ever.
Willow wondered what kind of atrocities the other prisoners had committed to find themselves locked with her in the infamous Branderscar. For it was a place only for the heinous and unspeakable, those who commit great sins against the faith. Those who had betrayed the great and eternal love of Mitra and his chosen mortal vassals. Condemned, each of them faced at best a life of shackles and servitude in the nearby salt mines. Others would await the ministrations of the inquisitors so that co-conspirators may be revealed and confessions extracted. Or, like Willow herself, some would be spared that ordeal. She instead having been brought to Branderscar to face the final judgment. In three days, the executioner would arrive and the axe fell, or the pyre lit.
For the Shining Lord repelled against villainy, cursed the damned and irredeemable, and his people fought tirelessly against the onslaught of darkness. Though Talingarde was in no such dire holy crusade. It was the most virtuous, peaceful, and noble nation upon the material plane. The land was ruled by King Markadian V called the Brave of House Darius. The benevolent monarchy was heavily intertwined with the Church of Mitra, the Shining Lord. Mitra, the god of the sun, of bravery and honor, justice and charity. The Church of Mitra was the preeminent religion of Talingarde. Willow knew it was not always this way. Before the Darians took over, Talingarde worshipped an entire pantheon of deities.
Prominent among those deities was Asmodeus, Prince of Hell, Lord of Ambition and Order. Now though, it was forbidden to worship the Infernal Lord. To do so is to be condemned.
As she hung by her wrists upon the wall, limbs aching in stiff and sore agony, she wondered if heresy lay among the crimes of the prisoners. She had never been revealed as a servant of darkness, she had been smart enough to keep no incriminating evidence within the manor that she shared with her husband. Though little good her precautions did for her now.

Escape seemed hopeless. Willow had been thoroughly searched, though she had not tried to conceal anything. The manacles were clamped so tight her hands were beginning to swell, but even if she could somehow slip her bonds and fly out of the prison, where would she go? Who could she go to? She had brought shame to her family name, so much so that her mother and father had not bothered to show up to her trial. She had never truly made any real friends, only fake smiles and mutually beneficial allies. The only man who knew anything of who she truly was, was the very author of her current fate. Despised, alone and shackled – all that she could do is hang her head in humiliation.
The sound the muscular female was making with her chains brought the attention of the guard to the door, and as he yelled a warning, Willow remained motionless. Once the door slammed shut, she inspected the restraints. Simple enough locks if she had her tools, but tight enough that even Willow's slender wrists could not slip through. Willow contemplated breaking her own wrist to get at least one hand free, but with three days until her scheduled execution, she decided to leave that as her last resort. She did not know where she would go, nor what she would do, but she knew she did not wish to die here at the hands of the Mitran inquisitors.

An hour after she had woken from her restless slumber, the door flung open as the guards entered, led by their captain. The same captain who had laughed as he seared the brand into Willow's arm, who had explained to her in detail how it was going to feel being drawn and quartered. The thought of feeling her blade in his throat surged through her in venomous glee. The shadowed unlit room made sight difficult, but as the torch they carried came closer, Willow’s eyes squinted against the blinding light.
“You there!” the captain grunted, “That’s the scum! Get ‘em unshackled. If any of you makes trouble, they’ll earn a thrashing! Today’s your lucky day, scum. You’ve got a visitor. How you ever warranted such a fine lady is beyond me. Seems she wants to say good-bye. Now step lively. We wouldn’t want to keep her waiting.”
Willow frowned as the handsome man to her right was dragged away. An odd thing, to say the least. Willow had never heard of anyone in Branderscar being allowed visitors. Nor had she heard of anyone who would want to visit a soul condemned as forsaken.
It was short while later that the prisoner with the charming face was dragged back into the cell and re-chained to the wall. A few filthy comments from the Captain, and the cell was locked shut. Two guards had been stationed outside their cage, and after a while they filled the dreary silence with drone conversation about card games and cheaters. Chains quietly clinking to her left had her looking over at the charming man, as a white veil draped from his hand.
“It's a magic veil!” whispered the foreign woman, a thick lilt to her voice, "It has items sewn into it, try peeling it off!"
As Willow’s eyes drifted over the veil and she saw the five pointed star of Asmodeus, her heart warmed. She knew she was not done in this life, she had a much bigger role to play and that she would do great things for him. She knew she was not forsaken, Asmodeus was there for her as she would always be for him. Seeing the lockpick embroidered into the veil cemented her will. The charming faced men offered them to her, and with a wicked smile she set to her own hand restraints. A swift and quiet click of the lock and she could rub her sore but free wrists. She decided the best course of action was to free the other prisoners, if not for help to escape, at least a mighty good distraction while she slinked off into the shadows. The charming looking man’s manacles were as quick and easy as her own, but as she reached for the brutish female's, her nervous fingers dripped with anxious sweat and the long end of the lockpick chinked to the floor. Willow whipped her hands above her head as quick as she could. Luckily, the guards only huffed, assuming the noise was a rat – clearly not expecting any possible way of escape. After a few minutes, and with her feet still retrained, Willow returned to her task of unlocking the chains. The older gentleman was too far away for her to reach, so he would have to wait until she was completely free herself.
She watched the Asmodean star peel from the Veil and come to life. As it was passed to the butch looking lady, she considered the possibility of not doing this alone. Quiet as she could, Willow crept over to the side of the cell where the chains were attached to the wall. Deft hands made short work of the lock, as she quietly dragged the chains through the manacle attached to her ankle. Keeping a sharp ear for any pauses in the guard's conversation, she crept to the other side of the cell and unlocked the gentleman's restraints. With the five of them free, she heard the foreign lady whisper an incantation as the faint sound of battle came from beyond the prison cell. The guards seemed to weigh up the repercussions of not aiding their comrades against leaving the prisoners alone. After a curse, they followed the sounds, rushing out of the room. Willow sprang to the door, quick and swift it was unlocked and open.
“What about the ogre?” said the butch female.
Willow scoffed, “What about it?”
“We can't just leave him here. He could help us escape. Or at least be a decent distraction.”
Again, Willow smiled. Another distraction was always welcome. She ushered the manly woman into the ogre's cell, and carefully set about unlocking the massive manacles on his ankles. The ogre stirred, looking apprehensive and nervous, watching Willow work. The metal fell to the floor with a clank and she got out of the cage as quickly as she could, positioning herself behind the corner cell. Without her blades there was little she could do in a fight, she would have to bide her time and wait for an opportunity. Other items were stripped from the veil, including two daggers, which Willow eyed hungrily. The men were given one each and set about to prepare for an ambush. When the guards entered, conversationally discussing the odd sounds they heard, the prisoners attacked. Swift and precise, the handsome man plunged the blade through the guard’s eye. The other received a fair cut to the throat as he stumbled back, falling into the door and sliding to the floor clutching his neck. Willow pounced forward as the charming looking man tossed her a dagger. She caught it mid air and as the guard spluttered a warning, she cut off his sentence by embedding the dagger through his throat. An odd feeling it was. She didn't have much time to ponder, but she was surprised how remarkably easy it was to end a mans’ life. A sergent outside the door called out to his fellow guards as Willow stripped the bloodied uniform from the dead man.
"All ok," barked the gentleman, "Just bloody rats!"
“I’m Willow,” she whispered in introduction.
With little to no modesty left after spending nights dressed in foul rags covered in her own waste, she stripped naked and put on the guard uniform, trying to wipe off as much of the filth as possible.
“Pellius,” the handsome man replied.
“Teelee,” said the foreign woman, eyebrows raised high and chin lifted.
The brutish female scowled at the gentleman as he took the only other sword, leaving her with the small dagger.
“Garvana,” she whispered to Willow.
They looked towards the gentleman, who merely grunted, “You kids can call me Sir.”
Willow almost laughed, her control keeping hold of her reaction. Even in their humiliating state, some men would always believe they were above all others.
After the bodies were stripped of their belongings, the group set up another ambush. The ogre, who called himself Grumblejack, stood in front of the door while the old man called out to the guard in the next room. When the door opened, the guard was greeted by Grumblejack's fist. He was flung backward, tumbling into the seat behind him. As the prisoners swarmed into the room, his eyes wide in realisation that he was clearly out numbered and over powered. So he sat quietly, trembling slightly as he watched. While the others bickered about what to do with him, whether to kill him outright or whether to lock him away, Willow made the easy choice and approached him from behind and drove her dagger into the side of his neck.
“He can't stop us if he's dead.”
While some of the group looked shocked at her actions, Pellius gave her a disarming grin, one that lit his already handsome face. With a wink, she quickly began stripping the guard.
The group of prisoners began discussing the plan to escape, when the old man suggested someone with quiet feet should scout ahead, looking to her expectantly. Willow raised her eyebrows in disbelief and disgust. If the old man thought she would be at his beck and call, he had another thing coming. He raised his eyebrows back and pointed his sword threateningly at her face while repeating his suggestion. Willow fingered her dagger while staring him down. She pictured with a different fate, if Pellius had not intervened. He pushed in between the two and batted away the old man's sword.
“Forget this,” he said impatiently, “I'll go first.”
Willow eyed the old man for a moment longer before brushing past to follow Pellius down the stairs. As she got to the bottom of the staircase she found him with his ear pressed to the door.
“My lady,” he whispered, “May I ask you to listen, perhaps you can hear what I cannot?”
Surprised and flattered, Willow obliged, pressing her own ear to the door. The sound of a crackling torch was all she could hear, as she was about to pull away she heard a distinct cough from the other side. She signalled the group and they prepared for attack. The old man, who clearly enjoyed his theatrics, played the part of a drunken musical guard. As the door opened, Willow plunged her dagger into the throat of the wide eyed guard while Pellius skewered him on his longsword. As over kill goes, ogres do it best; Grumblejack stepped forward and crushed the impaled man into the ground. Further down the hallway, a guard stood frozen in shock. A sickening terror flooded his face, the fear seeming to stunt his reaction. The prisoners surged forward and reached him before he could flee.
“Do not move, do not speak,” Pellius warned.
He quickly nodded and mumbled incoherently.
As he sank to his knees, he spluttered, “Nobody can escape Branderscar prison, you'll never succeed.”
Garvana smiled, a dark and ominous sight, “Asmodeus will show us the way.”
The guard's skin drained of all colour, with wide eyes he breathed, “Mitra preserve me.”
Willow lent down close to the guards’ ear and with a callous grin she whispered, “Mitra can not save you now...”
As the guard let out a shriek and began to wail, she quickly slashed her dagger across his throat, cutting off the sound in a shower of blood.
The group split up to search for supplies and any information to help them escape, and Willow found herself raiding the armoury and the office rooms. Within the stores, she found the cast iron brands used to mark prisoners as forsaken. Clutching it within her fingers, she smiled. She told herself she would not use it for vengeance; she would use it to send a message.
While she was searched through the desk drawers of the office, she heard the old man fumble around with the door handle to the captain's room and clumsily knock the door open. As a signal horn sounded from the room, Willow clutched her dagger and sprang into action. She pounced into the room and slinked in behind the captain as Garvana shattered a bottle of oil over his shoulder. Instinctively, Willow grabbed a torch from the wall and bludgeoned him, setting the oil alight. The fire spread across his body quickly, as he screeched and wailed, crashing into the wall and falling to the floor in a heap. As his flesh turned charred and crisp, he struggled to roll in an effort to douse the fire. When his efforts seized, his figure slumped and still, Willow pulled free the brand from her belt. She held it over his flaming corpse until it glowed bright orange and pressed the mark into the centre of his forehead.
"It would seem dear captain," Willow whispered, unhinged and wrathful, "That Mitra has forsaken you.”

Coming from the hall Willow could hear the sound of swords clashing. She ran out of the room with her blade in hand, hitched up her uniform pants as she dove passed the guards with a forward flip and sideways roll, she sprang up and lodged her dagger into the top of the closest one’s spine. As the guard fell forward, she saw the others impaled or crushed. She could not help but be relieved that each of the prisoners seemed to have some fighting prowess. Pellius handled the sword with military efficiency, controlled strikes and defensive blocks. Garvana struck out with fierce stretch in each untamed blow. Even the old man pierced quick and true, a duelist style to his swing. Teelee held no blade, but appeared to have a small set of arcane spells she could perform, some of which had already proven their worth.  
Prowling through the long and winding hallways, they searched desperately for any sign of an exit. The stone brick walls were barely lit by torch, dirt and dust littering the floor. They continued through, passing empty cells in eery silence, only the sound of their own feet echoing through the chambers. When they opened the door to a side room, they sighed a breath of relief. A kitchen, filled with fresh vegetables and leftovers of previously prepared meals. A great oversize fireplace lay on the eastern side, a relic of the old castle that was before Branderscar. Shelves filled with plates, bowls and other cooking utensils lined the walls. Over the great flaming stove, Willow spied a sharp long meat cleaver, which she eyed thoughtfully before handing to Grumblejack.
While they rested within the chamber for a moment, and feasted on the much needed food, Garvana ran out the front door yelling about a fantastic plan to lure the warden and the guards. With no more explanation, she was gone. It was only seconds later, multiple signal horns sounded. After scoffing and shaking her head, they crept out of the kitchen door. The courtyard of the castle was adorned by a small fountain, soft green moss coated the sculpted marble, a slight stale scent to the stagnant water. The centerpiece was a statue of the Mitran pantheon’s patron saint of law and order – Saint Dothan the Just. In his outstretched hand was a sword that pointed towards the great hall. At the base of his statue was an inscription that read, thus is justice done. As the prisoners crept passed the statue, they saw a great banner emblazoned with the emblem of Branderscar Prison.
 Sneaking around the back of the cell block, heading towards the warden's tower, the sound of guards yelling and dogs barking had Willow cursing. The thought of leaving Garvana and sacrificing her so the rest of the group could get away, was certainly a delicious temptation. But Willow could not ignore the fact that her possible allies in the world could be counted on one hand. With a sigh, she and the group charged around towards the fighting. When they rounded the corner, they saw her limping towards them, fifteen guards and two great hounds on her heels. Willow saw the warden, an elderly harsh looking man, commanding a sphere of flame and shooting wisping missiles of magic. The prisoners charged to meet their captors, cries of desperation calling across the courtyard, as steel and might clashed.
One by one, the guards were cut down. Their blades and arrows had split open wounds and punctures in each of the prisoners, but after decades of slackening and complacency, the guards were poorly trained and unequipped to deal with the ferocity of desperate vengeance.
Willow knew well that this standard of defence was not always so. When Branderscar was founded, it housed the most heinous of all criminals. The small bands of Asmodean cults were purged from the land like a stain on Mitra's glistening robe. They were hunted and captured, slaughtered and burnt at the stake. The prison once housed the ones they had managed to capture alive, holding them until the judgment of the pyre was ready to claim their souls. The walls of Branderscar were fabled to be filled with the strongest and mightiest warriors, protecting the fair people of the land from the vile villainy of Asmodeus. In recent times, the prison had fallen into disrepair. The guards grew lazy, their defence grew sloppy, their training severely lacking. No one ever escaped from Branderscar, no one ever would. It was a fact that was accepted and never questioned. Willow couldn't help but smile as each guard fell. The Talrien’s complacency was about to be their undoing.
She had her sights on the warden. She took off at a run and with a forceful leap came down over him and hacked clumsily across the back off his neck. Blood showered across the yard as he collapsed to the ground. Willow stood over him, holding him down with her foot. The warden lay helpless on the ground clutching his neck, as the blood pooled from his body and his struggling grew to a still. He was just another sheep, she thought, another blind follower. This is how she would do it. She no longer needed words, all she needed was a blade. Looking down on the warden as the life drained slowly from his face, Willow leant close and positioned the blade to his skin. With one powerful jab, she thrust the dagger through his throat.

They made their way up the winding spiral stairs of the wardens’ tower, they came across the hall of history. The entire floor was dedicated to the history of the, Castle Branding and the subsequent history that led the castle to become Branderscar Prison. It consisted of a series of mostly uninteresting plaques that tell of nobles and deeds so un-noteworthy that even Willow found her hunger for knowledge vanish. Only one of the tapestries held anything of interest, an old brocade tapestry that depicts Castle Branding being turned into a prison with the motto, marked with the foreboding words in celestial.
His judgment cometh,” Willow translated aloud, “And that right soon.”
“You speak celestial, my lady?” Pellius enquired politely.
“I speak a vast amount of things,” she smirked.
His lip lifted into a grin, “Intriguing.”
She looked to him, noting the strong line of his jaw, the harsh lift of his cheekbones.
“You are not from Talingarde,” she observed, less of a question.
“I am not, my lady,” came his smirked response.
When he said nothing further, Willow merely chuckled, turning from the tapestry as they continued their search. The tower held little interest, nothing that would help them with their escape, so they returned to the courtyard under a hail of arrows from the walls. Willow ran to pick up a bow from the body of a fallen guard and began to fire back. Years of hunting trips with the Royal Court were finally proving of use. Although, Willow couldn't see much difference in the mindless creatures she would shoot then and the ones she was shooting now. As her arrows landed true, she saw Garvana struggling to even draw an arrow to her bow. As she fumbled and continuously dropped first her arrow followed by the quiver, flinging her bow string pointlessly, Willow couldn't stop the laugh that escaped. Another few failed attempts had the pair of them keeled over in deranged laughter.
It had been a very long time since Willow had laughed like that. Neither her usual days at work in the mayor’s office, nor her social gatherings with the noble houses, ever yielded any actual fun.  Her husband had never been a particularly funny man. Nor a fun or interesting one. Apart from his status, there wasn't anything Willow liked about him. If there was one good thing about having been caught, it was the memory of the look of horror on his face when he realised Willow was not the weak, pushover he believed she was.
Loosing a quick volley of arrows, she smiled as she realised she’d never have to make love to him again. She often wondered how he had no clue that she was within her own world, wishful dreams of making love to her Infernal Lord. She would envision serving him; he would demand and she would obey. Every time, in the haze afterwards Willow always had trouble telling what had been real and what had been dreamed. She always felt the touch of Asmodeus, along with the cold dead weight of her husband. She snapped out of it and shook her head, drawing a final arrow a letting it fly free. It soared through the air and struck the last guard through the throat.
When they regrouped, she wrapped the few coins, food and supplies she had gathered in a length of fabric and wound it to her side. With no idea what would come next, she faced the looming double doors keeping her from the outside world. Together, they pulled the wooden panels wide, darting through the torrent of arrows that came from the slits on each side of the wall. Quickly, the ran free over the threshold, greeted by the raging sea as it crashed into the road of rocks. Slowly walking along the jagged cliffs towards the gate, Willow found herself grinning. One wrong step would mean a very painful fall to her death, but she had always been nimble on her feet. Each step was like a weight being lifted from her shoulders, her second chance was becoming a reality. The sea breeze whipping her hair around, the salt smell clearing her nose and watering her eyes; it truly was a beautiful day. And freedom tasted damn good. As the group made it to the gate there were smiles all around, even the old man turned to Willow with a wicked grin of his own.
He winked, “But, nobody escapes Branderscar Prison...”

Upon reaching the outside, Pellius turned to the others, a frown upon his brow.
“I was visited by a woman in white,” he began, “She said we possessed a mutual friend who would like to meet with us. The friend was unwilling to visit us in prison, and was the one who gave us the veil.”
“Who is this friend?” Willow asked warily.
“She would not say,” he replied, “Only that once we had escaped we were to cross the moors on the outskirts of town. On the old Moor Road she said we’d see a manor house with a single lantern burning in the second story. That is where he awaits our arrival.”
“I do not like this,” Garvana said suspiciously.
“What choice do we truly have?” Willow said plainly, “I do not have anywhere else to be, nor anywhere else I could go. If he wishes an audience, the least we can do is grant it. I shall take the man of mystery over the pyre any day…”

With little to no other options, Willow was anxious to meet this mysterious benefactor. They trudged through the moors for hours, as quickly as their exhausted feet would take them. Finally, the mansion came into view. There it sat, foreboding and unwelcoming. A tall dark manor, with a single lit lantern in the second story window. There was nothing warm about the place, it felt like no refuge. But it was as close to a sanctuary as Willow was going to get.
She had escaped, she was free. A faint hope lit within her heart. She was being given a chance to prove herself worthy to her Infernal Lord. She would seize it; she would earn her rightful place… 

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