Friday, 9 October 2015

Chapter 2 - The Master

The last gasp of sunlight sighed as dropped below the horizon, the shadow of dusk consuming the sky. The soggy marsh swelled water through the holes in her stolen boots, as Willow gazed towards the foreboding manor. She was exhausted and filthy, but free. Her bones ached as she trudged through the mud, the severe lack of sleep draining the last strength she had. With no clue what these mysterious benefactors wanted from her, and no other real options, she squared her shoulders and marched on. Some of the others seemed wary or scared, unsure what the future held for them, whether it better or worse than the confines or swift promise of death that Branderscar had offered. Grumblejack on the other hand, pushed ahead to the cast iron gate with no hesitation. As he swung the gate open with ease, the breeze whipped his hair aside and Willow would have sworn she noticed small horns protruding from his forehead. Slowing her steps slightly, she hung back from the door, fingering her poorly made dagger and preparing for anything.
As the manor door opened, a strangely beautiful woman stepped out with a smile. The menacing aura that surrounded her betrayed her polite and warm greeting. Her eyes searched the newly escaped prisoners, and landed upon Pellius.
“Darling, what took you so long?” she said, a dastardly grin in contradiction to her soft fretting voice, “I was worried and beginning to think you weren't going to make it.”
She looked the rest of the group over in slight disgust.
“Slaves!” she bellowed behind her, “See our honoured guests to their chambers. They are to meet with the master, and they most certainly cannot appear in front of him looking so… vile.”
Although Willow could not honestly disagree with her observation, standing in the dirt covered dressed in a bloodied guard uniform, she still chafed at the insult.
“Make yourselves presentable,” she sneered, “And the master will see you when he is ready. He commands that you enjoy his hospitality, and help yourself to the waredrobes he has arranged for you.”
The slaves came rushing out of the doors and began to faun over each of them, heads bowed in subservience, mutterings of respectful greetings. The idea of a bath had Willow almost in tears.
As she was escorted through to the west wing of the manor, she felt almost at home in the stunning halls and beautifully decorated passages. Exquisite oil paintings in golden frames lined each wall, immaculate woven runners lined the floors. When the door to her luxurious bedroom opened, a smile lit up her face. An elegant four post bed stood centre of the room, draped with shining silk sheets, plump feather pillows and intricately embroidered throw rugs. A smart looking sitting area to the left, arranged with taut leather couches and an exaggerated number of glass beaded cushions, surrounded a mahogany oak short table displaying a fine ceramic tea set. To the right was an open door leading to a large bathroom tiled from floor to ceiling. The centre piece of the room was a lone standing claw-foot bathtub as high as Willow's hips. She had to bite her lip to stop a whimper from escaping.
She turned back to the slaves and demanded a bath drawn immediately. In a politer voice she requested food and plenty of wine to be served in the bathroom when she was ready.
Stepping into the steaming water was ecstasy, she submerged her entire body and simply floated there. The two male slaves scrubbed her from chest to toe, while the female worked delicately with her hair. Once her skin was clear and red, free of the filth she had been living in, she demanded the bath be emptied and refilled so she could soak properly. While the slaves got to work Willow sat at the vanity and stared into the mirror. What she saw staring back was but a shadow of herself. She was born to be so much more.
The slaves scurried about, efficiently lugging bucket after bucket of boiling water into the room. Stepping back into the bath tub, Willow felt every muscle in her body clench and relax. She sipped fragrant spicy wine while the men massaged her legs and arms. As she drank, she felt her wounds closing over, looking down she watched the sore weeping skin around her brand knit together and heal, leaving a solid white raised scar in its place. It was more than contentment that she found herself in. As the searing broth burned away the filth she felt that lingered beneath the layers of her skin, she floated atop the water in a languid state of bliss. She soaked for the better part of an hour, while the female slave gently worked through what was left of the knots in her hair, rubbing through oils made from liquid myrrh, cinnamon and cassia. When her skin was pink, soft and subtle, she dried and explored the opulent wardrobe she had been provided. Garments in every colour, made from every material she had ever heard of. This was a wardrobe to rival Willow's own. She selected an elegant silk black gown, high neck and long sleeve, with a plunging drop down the back and a completely socially inappropriate slit up one thigh. It was perfect. A perfect fit, hugging into her slender waist, flaring out and flowing down to the floor. She knew not how this mysterious master knew her so well, little did she care as she eyed her figure appreciatively in the mirror. While her hair dried, she powdered her pristine skin, applied a modest amount of carmine to her lips and a thin line of kohl to her eyes. She lifted her hair into a spiralling weave, braiding the tail and fastening it with the golden pin that had been left for her on the vanity. She smiled as she gazed at her reflection. Elegant, and beautiful. Just how she was meant to be. She didn't know what the master wanted from her, but it would have to be horrendously awful for Willow to think of turning down this kind of treatment.
After slipping her feet into a pair of blood red leather heels, Willow flowed down the hallway towards the east wing. The female slave led her across the affluent wings to the master's waiting chamber. She perused the finely bound leather books, marvelling at the rare pieces in his collection, as she heard the heavy stride of a man entering. She turned gracefully, inkling her head to Pellius. Her eyes raked over his fine physique and figure dressed in a high necked colonial jacket, smart black trousers and gleaming leather boots. She batted her eyelashes as she complimented his dashing attire.
“You also are looking splendid this evening, my lady,” he said as he kissed Willow's hand.
The corner of her lip quirked, "Such manners."

A short while after the last of the group had entered the room, the mistress who called herself Tiadora, beckoned them into the master's attendance. Without hesitation Willow stood and glided into the room with her re-found confidence. She was led into a beautifully appointed office, richly decorated with dark wood and sumptuous brocade tapestry. But a sight behind the grand desk, made her heart skip a beat.  A man, draped in black and red robes adorned with a large red inverted pentagram in the centre of his chest. With a gaze so intense, she found it impossible to take in anything else. Hitching her breath, she slinked into the room as the others filed in beside her. While he eyed each of them, the respite from his gaze allowed her to scan her sight across him. His head was closely shaved, above his consuming and ebony welled eyes were dark thick eyebrows and a sharp black goatee.
There was something else about him that had Willow still short of breath.
She had always had a strange connection to the powers of the nine layers of hell. It had taken her years to discern what it was. But as she grew to be a woman, she started to understand what she was feeling. She knew she could feel the touch of Asmodeus. Whether in a place or a person. She could feel the infernal blood within their veins, like a pulse or beat of a drum. She felt His burning heat, as if hell itself enveloped her for brief moments. It felt like a fleeting searing kiss. This was no kiss, this man had her blistering and sweltering in places no lady should rightly think about. As he his gaze drew to her again, the feeling flared, and Willow had to clamp down on her lips to stop from gasping. The corner of his mouth turned up in a sly and knowing grin.
“I believe you to be the first to ever escape from Branderscar Prison. Well done! Of course, you had help from the outside,” he said with a wicked grin, in a deep and rasping voice, “But enough with the pleasantries. You must be curious why I’ve helped you. Rest assured this is no random act of altruism. I have brought you here for a reason. My name is Cardinal Adrastus Thorn. I am the last high priest of Asmodeus left on the island of Talingarde. Once the Prince of Nessus was rightly revered alongside the other great powers. Now, the king of Talingarde has become a puppet to Mitran fanatics who wish to destroy any religion that does not bow to their insipid sun god.”
His lip curled in revulsion, mirrored by Willow’s own.
“For their blasphemy, I will see the same people who imprisoned and condemned you suffer. I understand what you went through for I have faced it myself.”
With that, he pulled down the sleeve of his robe to reveal his own runic brand, identical to the one they all bore.
I am going to burn Talingarde to the ground,” he snarled in ferocious wrath, “And from the ashes I will build a new nation that knows its rightful master. I cannot do this alone!”
As he spoke, the air within the chamber thickened. His eyes lit up with a frenzied scarlet glow, his voice echoing through the chamber in rage.
“I seek servants worthy of our Infernal Father's majesty,” he rasped, “Have I found them in you?! Join me! Swear fealty to me and to Asmodeus! Put aside forgiveness and I shall give you vengeance! Put aside mercy and be made powerful! Put aside peace and become my harbingers of war! What say you?! Will you swear your allegiance or will you burn with the rest of the blind fools?!”
The blood coursed through Willow’s veins, her heart soaring, her mind was more than made up. She stepped forward and knelt in front of the Cardinal.
Staring deep into his eyes she said breathlessly, “I will join you, I will serve you as I will serve the Prince of Darkness.”
The wicked grin grew along Thorn’s lips as he inclined his head. She stayed where she was while he eyed the rest of the group. One by one they each agreed, some more reluctantly than others.
“Excellent!” he declared, “Let us make it official!”
With a rasping incantation, two copies of a long detailed contract appeared by him. Though Willow listened intently to his words as he read aloud the terms of their servitude, she could hear the thundering of her own panting breath.
She was to be Bound. To adhere to four loyalties. First to Asmodeus, to do everything she could to further his cause, to obey him and his principals. Second to her Master, the Cardinal, to do his bidding and serve him faithfully. Third to her companions, the group of Forsaken soon to be bound along side her. And finally to herself.
"For Asmodeus is the Lord of Ambition," he crooned, "And to serve him is to strive to be better, to be the best, the strongest and the most powerful."
Willow had scripted a lot of contracts in her time with the mayor. Most of which she had twisted in clauses and conditions to take advantage of the weak minded souls she was scamming. But this contact was perfect. There were no loopholes. There was no negotiating. It bound her to Asmodeus, in the only way she was not. There was nothing that would stop her from signing. She stood with a grin, determination cementing her will, as she approached him with her chin high. He reached into his robe and pulled out a long thin silver dagger.
“These things are usually best sealed in blood, don’t you think?” he said with a devilish smile.
Willow's heart was trembling within her chest, her eyebrow arched as she took the blade and made a thin cut along the tip of her index finger, never breaking eye contact. She stared deep into his eyes as she scrawled her long elaborate signature, and with each loop the Cardinal's grin widened. Unconsciously, she drew her bottom lip into her mouth and firmly bit down. As she finished with a dot upon the second scroll, she sensually licked the drop of blood from the dagger. Still looking into his consuming gaze, she dexterously flipped it pommel first and handed it back to him. Grinning, she slinked to the side, watching the alluring man of hell, while the others signed their souls away.
After everyone had scrawled their names upon the binding contract, Thorn clasped his hands together in satisfaction.
“Well done,” he said, a strange pride in his tone, “Your first command: prepare yourselves. Stay within the manor. You are still hunted by the Talirean soldiery. In three days we begin your training. Until then, please enjoy all my estate has to offer.”
As the others filed out of the chamber, Willow couldn’t stop herself from appraoching the Cardinal, wicked intent on her face.
“If there's anything else I could do for you in those three days," she said sinfully, meeting his intense gaze, "I’d be happy to accommodate. Willing, one might say.”
His gaze deepened for a moment, with his devilish grin returning he spoke at almost a whisper, “Child, I think you're asking for more than you can handle, much more than you realise.”
Willow's lip curved into a dark sinuous grin, “For now, perhaps,” she mused.
As she sauntered out of the room, she could feel his consuming fierce gaze following her, giving him one last lustful glance before closing the door.

She took a moment to catch her breath and calm herself before following the others to the parlour. Relaxing within the lavish and comfortable room, she sat in conversation with Pellius, laughing and flirting while sipping on more of the house fine wine.
“I think a proper introduction is in order. I must admit, I’ve never met people under such peculiar circumstances,” she said with a wine giggle. “I am Willow Miryah Monteguard. Condemned disgraced daughter of Bartley Monteguard, Duke of Keldenryn. Traitorous harlot wife of Audric Talrish, Knight of Alerion. And, apparently, trying to assassinate the dear Princess, and wipe out the Markadian line, isn't something a proper lady should do!” she said with mocked surprise.
Pellius laughed and raised his glass inrepsonse.
“I am Pellius Albus,” he said formally, “From the far lands of Cheliax. I landed upon the shores of Matharyn and was accused and arrested for the crime of heresy. The guards upon the dock took a single glance and called for the watch. Apparently crimson eyes are a sin.”
Willow smirked, leaning towards him, winking and whispering, “Do not worry handsome, some women find crimson incredibly attractive.”
Teelee piped up and introduced herself simply as Teelee from Rahadoum, who had been captured and charged with slavery when she docked ship and her slaves went to the local authorities.
Willow couldn’t help but laugh and cock her eyebrow, “Maybe you need a little help in proper disciplining, I can help with that if you like.”
Garvana began a lengthy tale about the death of her father, the burning of her house and strange scorch marks appearing from the abyss. A slight silent pause went over the room before Willow raised her glass and called with laugh, “Cheers to that.”
She relaxed back in her chair and looked over to the old man, “And what did an uncouth sir such as yourself do to end up here?” she said mockingly.
“Killed little whelps like you,” he snapped.
Willow raised her eyebrows and paused. A slender length of gold was pinned into her elaborate braid, and would take only seconds to detach and ram through his throat. Thinking of the contract she had just signed, she realised that it might not be the brightest idea she'd ever had. So she simply smiled and sipped her wine. The high road may be boring, but visualising her pretty golden pin sticking out of his jugular, was satisfying in itself.
The rest of the night Willow spent swapping stories with Pellius, the content growing more iniquitous and crude with each glass of wine. After six bottles were gone, and Willow noticed her tongue getting looser, she knew it was time to retire for the night. She was happy to share harmless light banter and her dark sense of humour with these new companions, but she didn't trust them completely. Even Pellius, with his disarming smile and witty charm; Willow had known his type before. Right now they were all she had, and she would make the most of that. But there were some things she would keep closely guarded. They all had secrets, and there was only one entity she would share hers with. Asmodeus would keep her secrets, and she would keep his.

As duck approached on the evening of the third night, the master called for the bound. Willow held her breath as she entered his room and as his heated gaze settled on her she felt the fire burning deep inside her. He greeted them with his devilish grin and handed each of the group an iron circlet and a silver medallion.
“The iron circlets allow you to move amongst your enemies as one of them,” he said from behind his great dark wood desk, “The silver amulets will remind you of your true loyalties. You have done well to escape from Branderscar and to accept my offer. However, you are still not ready for my service. Tiadora will lead you to the basement of this domicile. There you will find nine chambers each more dangerous than the last. Somewhere hidden within these chambers is a pendant of silver and sapphire. Recover the pendant and bring it to me. Let nothing and no one stand in your way.”
He from his desk, looking out of the manor house window across the grey moor.
“It is almost dusk,” he warned, “You have until dusk tomorrow to bring me my prize. Do not fail me.”

The group was ushered out of the room and shown the way to the basement. Teelee lit both Garvana and Pellius’ shields with magical light before the five of them filed in down the pitch black tunnel. A set of stone stairs led down into the depths, through an archway and into an unfurnished chamber beyond. An inscription upon the archway in the common tongue caught Willow’s eye.
“Deception is a tool,” she read aloud, “Self-deception is death. Deceive always thy enemy but never thyself.”
The room beyond was lit by a small oil lantern hanging from the center of the chamber. A single doorway sat to the east, a plain wooden plank on a simple hinge. Willow crept into the shadowed mist of the chamber, each step controlled and light, testing for any soft change indicating a pressure plate. Deception was her tool. It came naturally to her, so she tried to formulate her strategy around the way she would use it to trick and ensnare her prey if the roles were reversed. She prowled on light feet towards the door on the eastern wall, cautiously eyeing the hinges and locking mechanism for any sabotage or traps. As she stepped on the stone in front of the door, she felt the distinct sinking of a pressure plate, leaping to the side with swift grace narrowly avoiding the drop as the stone slab fell away. She wobbled on the edge of the gaping pit before a firm hand grasped her own and pulled her from her fall.
"You're quite nimble, my lady," Pellius said charmingly.
Willow smirked, "Not quite nimble enough it seems."
The door slowly swung open to reveal a continuation of the stone wall behind it. Willow cocked an eyebrow and thought for a moment. Following a hunch, Willow began to trace her hands along the stonework, feeling for any discrepancies or prostitutions. Her instincts had been correct, the group indeed found two hidden doorways disguised in layers of the stone. The northern door lead to a small darkened chamber, a single glimmering jewel sat upon an altar, filled with a magical substance that Teelee identified as alchemist's ice. The southern door led the group into the blackened caress of another chamber.
“Following the herd is for fools,” she squinted as she made out the next inscription, “Fear not their icy derision. Instead, fear only thy Infernal Lord.”
Inside the stone chamber, there were four doors, each facing a cardinal direction. The interior of the chamber shivered a strange cold. The western door throbbed in a strange pulsating violet mould, it's growth seeping out of the door's hinges and handle, it's thrumming beat releasing wisps of chilled air. Suspicious as always, Willow inspected the other doors. At first glance, the doors appeared harmless, a much more promising prospect than the festering perse growth. But on closer inspection, hidden within the wooden frames of both clean doors were coin sized circular holes, about the size cut for spears.
"They're rigged with traps, be cautious," Willow said to the group.
She stood in the centre of the room thinking of the inscription. The herd would have followed chosen the safe looking doors and shied from the feral mass covering the western door. Willow found the use of the word icy quite peculiar, also noticing how much colder the room was when she stood close to the mould. As the thought formed, before she had a chance to speak, lit torches flew towards the mould.
"No!" Willow yelled.
As the flames made contact with the pulsating cluster, it violently contracted, spreading and swelling as it doubled in size. Willow was hit with a freezing blast that seeped into her skin, her joints aching and her bones throbbing.
"Garvana! Throw the alchemist's ice!"
With a slight frown, Garvana pulled the jewel from her pouch and hurled it at the oozing mass. Just as quickly as it had grown, the mould began to shudder and fester, shrinking in on itself until it dissipated completely, leaving the doorway empty and clear.
"Very clever, my lady," Pellius said quietly.
His disarming grin made Willow's breath hitch.
“Thou hast made thy own path,” Garvana recited from the wall beyond the open door.

They made their way through a labyrinth of other chambers, procing their worth as they overcame each obstacle in their way. Arcane darkness blackening each passage, twisted and alien creatures hidden within their depths. They faced the undead men with their water rotted corpses left sprawled in a decaying mess across the cold stone floor. They managed to dismantle and capture one of the mithral cobras that tried to rip through flesh with it's razor sharp metal fangs. Willow was riddled with anticipation as they approached the chamber marked by cruelty. Opening the door, she frowned as she saw nothing but a torture rack sat in this room. She didn't miss the way Pellius' mouth quirked up in a small grin at the sight of the torturing equipment.
"Is this what you did?" Willow asked him quietly, standing by the door, "Back in Cheliax."
He turned to her with a slightly sad smile of nostalgia and nodded. Willow couldn't was curious about him, there was little point denying that she found him incredibly attractive. Yet he did not seem the usual type of torturer. Callous men, sadistic and cruel, seeking pleasure in the infliction of pain on others. He was stern and certainly seemed impeccably disciplined, qualities she found completely endearing. But as she turned away from him and returned to their task at hand – her mind continued to churn as it always did.
Looking further through the room, she began to run her hands along the stone, looking for another passage or component to this lesson. Reaching the eastern corner, she found a slender crack in the wall, almost invisible to the naked eye. Pulling the wall open, she was greeted by an odd sight. A small boy dressed in the garb of a squire, barely older than fifteen, sat huddled in the corner. He looked up at Willow with terror in his eyes. For a moment, she thought he recognised her, but he merely shook his head and began to mumble.
"Calm down child," said Garvana soothingly, "Tell us who you are, and what you are doing here?"
It took sometime to settle the child, but Garvana was patient and comforting. Willow stood back against the wall next to Pellius, frowning at the strange sight that she felt was a complete waste of time. Though as he spoke, she stared at the crest marking his robes. She heraldry was painfully familiar, but she could not pinpoint the bloodline. His story was that his knight had been fighting the cardinal, and that he had panicked, fled and escaped. Willow raised her eyebrows at that, a smirk lifting her lips. This child was here as a test, planned completely by the cardinal. She smiled at the ridiculous thought of this pathetic child escaping those soul penetrating eyes. The boy agreed to come along, believing he'd found allies and friends. Garvana seemed to take him under her wing, guiding him through the maze of Thorn's test. Willow didn't care what the child did, as long as he stayed out of her way.

“Suffer not the fool,” she read from the inscription on the farthest southern wall, “Stupidity is our faith’s cardinal sin.”
The door opened wide into a blackened dim chamber, a single oil lantern burning low, hanging form the stone ceiling. A single podium sat centre of the room, atop it lay a pendant of silver – a dragon with sapphire eyes. A sudden flare of suspicion swept through her body. This was too easy. Surely a man as powerful and dominant as the cardinal would require more of his acolytes. Surely escaping the prison was more challenging than this. She told the others to wait as she crept up to the pendant, checking every stone and crevice along the way. By the stairway on the eastern wall she noticed a slit along the base, an indication of a deadly trap, possibly a spring loaded board or a large swinging blade. Carefully, she inspected the pedestal, looking for any signs of sabotage. No pressure plates, no poisoned spring loaded spikes, no trap doors. Gingerly, she reached for the pendant and grasped it in her hand. Nothing happened. Definitely too easy, she thought to herself. She threaded the pendant around her neck, cautiously prowling through the rest of the chamber. After tediously feeling over each stone, calling the others into the room, Willow finally found a single stone out of place. The solitary brick was slightly smoother than the rest, indicating it had been buffed by regular use. She gently pressed the stone in, springing back and readying herself to defend. Darkness was all that greeted her. The group followed the winding maze of tunnels until they arrived at a sturdy iron banded door. A heavy brass key hung upon the wall under their final message.
Serve thy master well,” she recited, And be rewarded.
Willow inserted the key into the lock and hefted the door open. What she saw made a grin split her face from ear to ear. A single man standing in full plate armour in the centre of the room. Sir Balin of the Knights of Alerion. Not just any knight. He was the knight who broke down her bedroom door, slammed her to the ground and arrested her, all while her heartbroken husband watched. He was the one who dragged her to the waiting cell by her hair, stripped off her night gown, left her naked and spat on her bare skin. This was the man her husband had confided in, and was the man responsible for Willow's arrest, conviction and sentence. This man was her vengeance.
As Sir Balin saw the group he began to question what was going on. As his eyes drew to Willow, his face drained of colour, and a look of rage swept over him.
“YOU!” he yelled, “What in Mitra's name is going on here?”
“Oh dear Sir Balin," Willow chuckled, "I see your Mitra has left you in my hands. Such a generous gift. How does it feel to know your precious Shining Lord has abandoned you?”
Willow crept into the side of the room, winking at Pellius as she passed.
“What foul sorcery is this?!” Sir Balin shouted, “Mitra preserve me!”
Willow laughed, a foul and wicked gleam to her voice, “Mitra will bring no salvation, Asmodeus will grant me vengeance!”
He recoiled from her, “I know not what devilry has allowed you to be free, but I swear by the Shining Lord that I will right this injustice!”
He charged at Willow and cleaved with his sword, but she was too quick and ducked under its swing. She flipped and dove in behind him, laughing as she drove her dagger into a slit in his armour. Pellius charged forward, sword over head, and smashed it into the Knights chest. Sir Balin was knocked back by the blow but kept his footing as he failed to parry. Garvana leapt forward with a mighty swing and brought her sword down into his shoulder.
Willow was watching the look on fear and confusion on Timeon’s face as his former knight battled his rescuers. She wasn't paying attention as Sir Balin's sword came down carving into her shoulder. She cried out in agony, before she slammed her teeth shut, the wound splitting open so her bone protruding through. Better than most, Willow understood there was no pleasure without a bit of pain. With a deep breath she embraced the throbbing ache and let it feed her anger. Slashing her dagger forward into the slit on the other side of his armour, driving it deep into his ribs. His scream of agony was music to her ears.
Staggering slightly and heaving breath, Sir Balin seemed to gather his strength.
“MITRA GUIDE MY SWORD!" he bellowed righteously, "If I am to die for you, let me take this harlot with me!”
A sickening wave of holy energy surged towards Willow, wrapping its tendrils of goodness tightly around her, forcing a dry heave from her throat. Empowered, Sir Balin cleaved his sword towards her. At the last second she managed to bend backwards from the blade, as it skimmed the tip of her nose, and slammed into the wall shattering a large chunk of stone into a shower of shards. She could see the torment in his eyes at the prospect of leaving a naïve impressionable child like Timeon in the hands of Asmodeans. In a last desperate attack, he span and hacked his sword straight down into Timeon's skull, splitting it in two as the child collapsed to the floor. The old man came out of no where, lunged through the carnage and with an almighty jab swiftly impaled the Knight straight through the chest.
He sank to one knee, dropping his shield, barely holding himself up with his sword. Coughing through the pooling of blood as he struggled to breath.
“I am sorry, Mitra forgives you Timeon,” he spluttered, closing his eyes.
Willow grabbed him by the hair and slammed his head back into the wall, baring his throat. His eyes flew open on impact, and she smiled down at him and drew his sigh to her own.
She held the blade to his throat and whispered, “Mitra could not save you. Mitra cannot save anyone from the reckoning we will bring.”
She hacked deep, and with a cascade of crimson she carved across Sir Balin's throat. She held him close, and watched the life drain from his eyes. Vengeance was sweet. Vengeance was hers. She grabbed the pendant from around his neck before allowing his body to slump to the floor. She turned the pendant within her fingers and read the engraved Mitran prayer on the back. A silver and sapphire pendant. Clever, Willow thought. Her lips pulled into a grin as she slipped it in her pocket.

The Cardinal was still seated at his desk as they entered his office.
Looking up from his work, he said, “You've returned.”
“Indeed,” Willow replied with a smirk.
“And my pendant?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
Willow unlatched the first pendant from her neck and handed it to him. He lifted the stone in front of the light, carefully looking it over. He seemed about to speak when he suddenly threw it down and smashed the pendant into his desk. A shower of blue crystal and silver shatters littered the floor.
“Silver, yes. Sapphire, no. Do not disappoint me, tell me you have something else.” he said, almost in warning.
The rest of the group looked slightly lost and worried, but Willow only grinned. She reached into her pocket and pulled out Sir Balin's pendant. She dangled it by the chain and slowly lowered it into the cardinal's outstretched hand. Willow saw the corner of his mouth kink up in a smile as he turned the pendant over and examined it. He stared into the sapphire as if in contemplation, utterly silent for a moment.
“A pretty enough thing, eh?” he mused, “This is a holy symbol of Mitra in particular the sort favored by the Knights of the Alerion. But I suppose, some of you already knew that. Remember this symbol. This is the mark of those who destroyed our faith and sought to banish all trace of our Father from these shores. These, my friends, are your enemies.”
He tossed the pendant back to Willow.
“Keep it,” he said, “It may aid you in disguising yourself.”
He looked up at the group and smiled, “You have done well. Escaping from Branderscar Prison, slaughtering Sir Balin … yes, you are worthy. Now, let us complete your training...”

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