Friday, 9 October 2015

Chapter 4 - Reconnaissance

Glistening sunlight shimmered through the windowpane, casting beams of warmth across the wooden floorboards. Willow awoke with a clear head and a determined chin. They required information. They needed a way into the Watchtower and they needed to know what they would face within. The traveller’s inn they had taken up residence in, was a perfect place for that kind of information. While the others skirted about town, Willow headed to the bar at the Inn, dressed in her adventuring gear and a friendly smile on her face. The barkeep introduced himself as Bellum Barhold, the owner of the Inn.
“Lady Kathryn,” she introduced herself, “Of House Fairholm of Matharyn. I am but an adventurer, striding across the country, seeing the sights, and successfully avoiding my marital duties.”
Bellum laughed, “And what can I do you for?”
She saw the impressive range of wine along the shelves, and asked after a recommendation of a fine vintage. Excited and a little thrilled, he whisked off to the cellar, returning with tall bottle of elven red. As he poured her a glass, Willow read the elven script on the label and smiled.
“Forest Elixir, vintage 4715,” she praised, “Such a strong robust red. Beautiful.”
Bellum seemed impressed and complimented her pallet, excitedly offering her a tour of his wine cellar, to which she smiled and accepted. As she admired his selection, such rare, uncommon and exotic wines, she was reminded of her own cellar back home. A strange longing welled in her chest for only a moment, before she shook her and pushed aside her thoughts. That life was done. She would build a new one on the bones of her past.

As dusk fell, the Inn filled with local soldiers and workmen coming to drink their days away. Willow continued her idle chatter with the barkeep as she watched a group of dwarves enter and set up at a table. She listened to them talk in dwarven about their hard days work up at the watch on the trebuchet and the siege weapons. She continued to listen as she asked the barkeep for a round for the table of whatever they were drinking. Willow smiled as she stepped over to the table, putting the round of drinks down, she winked at the dwarf who looked like he was in charge.
Sorry for listening in,” she said in dwarven, “but it sounds as if you lads a rough day.”
The leader looked Willow over for a moment before laughing and agreeing with her. He offered her a seat next to him, introduced himself as Barnibus Eisenbauch and took a swig of his drink. The rest of the dwarves cheered and downed their cups.
So tell me lass,” Barnibus said, “How'd a young kid like you come upon learning dwarven?”
My father is a diplomat to the south, in Matharyn,” she smirked, “I suppose he wanted me to follow in his footsteps.”
One of the dwarves piped up, “Matharyn? What's his name, I might know him?”
The Fairholm’s were only a minor noble family she remembered through her work at the mayor’s office, she knew how unlikely it would be that they would be recognised.
Alright now all the formalities are out of the way,” said Barnibus, his voice turning dramatic, “The real question is! Do you know how to play Hammer and Anvil?”
Willow laughed and shook her head. After she threw in twenty two gold pieces, she was dealt in to the game. She tried to follow as best she could, but the strange and obscure rules had her chuckling at her own mistakes. After two losses, she cheered out as she slapped down her last card in victory and scooped in her winnings. The dwarves laughed and called beginners luck, dealing the next round.
As she played, she made small talk about the dwarves work and got them chatting about the watchtower and its weaponry. Acting fascinated in the mechanics of the siege weapons, Willow pried for more details on the trebuchet and its location, noting the best way to disable it. She made sure not to stay on one topic for too long, drunk or not, she didn't need the dwarves to become suspicious. She asked about sights and people of interest around the place. One person in particular lit Willow’s curiosity. Every Monday, a lady known fondly as Mumma Giuseppe cooked a delicious venison and vegetable stew up at the watchtower for the soldiers, enough to feed all one hundred of them.
How sweet of her,” Willow smiled, “It sounds perfect.”

As the night grew late, and the barkeep called for closing time, Willow approached the bar. As the guests and soilders departed for the evening, and Bellum wiped the counter with a sheet of cloth, Willow sat upon a stool and smiled.
“Seems like a hard night, can I buy you a drink?” she asked compassionately.
He smiled, “Yeah, I think I need it after all that rabble.”
He poured two tall glasses of the Forest Elixir, and toasted a thanks. They sat and chatted about the town and the latest local gossip. Willow listened as he told her the story of the Lord's Dalliance, the long standing rumour of an unfaithful lord, dallying with a young barmaid.
"How scandalous!" Willow laughed in mock outrage.
"It was!" Bellum laughed with her, "Even the name, controversial to say the least! Wouldn't get away with it if we were any closer to the capital."
"I struggle to see it fitting in between the Noble's Hollow and the Fragrant Lily," she joked.
"Indeed," he chuckled.
He refilled their cups and turned his back to wipe down the far bench. Willow reached into her pocket and silently pulled out a vial of poison, smiling easily, sipping from her glass. As he bent down to stack the mugs under the counter, she uncorked and swiftly emptied the contents into his glass. Sipping her wine, she stared out across the room. She laughed along when he made a joke about the very drunken dwarves snoring upstairs while he wiped down their table. She watched him, his footsteps slowing and as his eyelids starting to droop. Acting concerned, she asked if he was ok as he stumbled forward. He mumbled about being tired all of a sudden, apologised and turned to head for the stairs. Willow jumped up and caught him as the poison took hold and he fell unconscious, she was quick enough to catch him seconds before he smashed his face into the ground. She struggled with his weight and lowered him to the floor gently, dragging his body behind the bar, and set off down stairs to explore the basement. After searching the cellar and finding nothing but bottles and kegs of hard liquor, Willow took a bottle of 4675 whiskey and headed up stairs. As she passed the room Pellius was staying in, she noticed the flickering candle light from under his door. Being slightly drunk after the multiple bottles of wine she had drunk trying to keep up with the dwarves, she knocked on his door and leant up against the frame.
“So I might have poisoned the innkeeper,” she said in mock innocence, “And he might be passed out downstairs behind the bar.”
Pellius smiled, “And you need my help to get him upstairs?”
Willow smirked and nodded, “I’m good for helping them down, not helping them back up.”
They got him into his room and dropped him on the bed. Willow patted him down and searched through his pockets, as she pulled out a great wad of keys, she held them out to Pellius with a grin.
“We’ve got fifteen minutes minimum, two hours maximum,” she said as she lifted Bellum’s eyelid to see if they were still glazed, “Depends on how tough this guy is.”
Pellius didn't waste anytime, he took the keys straight to the room Barnibus was staying in. Willow prowled across silently, she muffled a giggle when he clanked the key in the hole, failing miserably in his attempt to be quiet. As the door opened, the overwhelming smell of ale and the booming snore coming from inside, reassured her that the dwarf was still out cold. As she delicately searched his pockets and his body, she rolled her eyes as she pulled out his Mitran pendant. She whipped her head around when she heard Pellius mutter under his breath. She walked over to the desk and smiled to see architect maps of the watchtower. Knowing their fifteen minutes were nearly up, Willow snuck back into the Bellum's room to replace his keys while Pellius made a copy of the maps. As she closed his door silently, she saw Pellius leaving Garvana’s room. She quirked her eyebrow in question, and as he passed he held up a wooden symbol of Asmodeus. She frowned for a moment, watching him enter the dwarf’s chamber. When she realised he was planning to set up Barnibus with charges of devil worship, she sighed internally. She knew at some point they would have to get rid of Barnibus, after all he was the one in charge of fixing the tower, but she had kind of liked the brutish dwarf.
Willow dawdled to her room as Garvana ran off to find the guard. She uncorked the whiskey and took a swig. She sat in silent prayer while the guards came through, finally managing to rouse the drunken dwarf and took him in protest away. She prayed, and as she felt her Infernal Lord’s touch, she let go of her feelings towards the dwarf. He would be punished for the same reason she would be if she was caught. If he knew who she was, he would not hesitate to turn her over for the same fate he was now facing. They all would. She would die for the Prince of Darkness, she would sacrifice herself if need be, and everyone else. She took a deep breath and let him swarm through her veins. She was his, and in the end, nothing else mattered.

The group spent the next few days gathering information, listening to rumours and investigating their truth. Willow had even heard a rumour about a secret passage way from the Lord’s Dalliance to the keep. When she returned to the Inn that evening and slyly asked Bellum about it, he laughed a little too firmly as he denied its existence, and Willow was sure that there was some truth to it. She waited until the middle of the night and everyone was asleep before she started strapping on her gear. As she reached for her door handle she froze as she heard footsteps shuffling towards the stairs. She silently opened her door and saw a silhouette tiptoeing downstairs, so she crept after the figure on light feet.
As they turned left and head down the basement stairs, Willow was right on their tail. She hid behind one of the large ale barrels and let her eyes adjust. She heard the sounds of stone scraping against stone as she watched a part of the wall open, she smiled as she recognised the familiar sound of a pressure stone being activated as the wall closed.
She sat perched behind the barrels and waited. Forty minutes passed before she heard the pressure stone and the scraping again. Her eyes had adjusted enough to make out Bellum carrying two bottles of wine as he passed her on his way up the stairs. She waited until she heard him enter his room and lock the door before she approached the wall. She traced her hand over its surface and found a slightly smoother stone in the left corner. She pressed it in and watched as a pitch black tunnel was revealed in front of her. Willow considered going ahead on her own, but thought better of it; if it did lead to the keep, she may have needed some help. She slipped up the stairs and approached the room Pellius was in. She went to knock but stopped herself as her lips crept into a mischievous smile, and venereal thoughts flooded her mind. She silently picked his lock, and softly pushed on the door. She scoffed as the door stuck on something heavy jammed behind it. She rolled her eyes as she knocked loud enough to wake him. Willow laughed as he opened the door and she saw him holding his massive axe.
“Don't like late night visitors, huh?” she said cheekily, eyeing his axe, “No fun.”
She slinked into his room, closed the door and told him about the secret passage she had found.
“Did you see where it led?” he asked, pulling a shirt over his head.
Willow’s grin came back as she raked her eyes over his sculpted torso, “By myself?”
Pellius smirked and shooed her out the door.
Together they followed the tunnel uphill by candlelight. After a while they came to another stone wall, Willow traced her hands along it looking for a similar smooth stone. When she found it, she leant over and blew out the candle as she pressed the stone in. It opened into a room that appeared as the vault of the Balentyne keep. Filled with long term food rations, water barrels, weapons and mundane gear like candles and blankets. She smiled as she perused the room, it was indeed a brilliant place to start.

While Willow had been busy sourcing her information from rumours spoken by the locals who frequented the tavern, the others had not been idle. Pellius returned with information of the patrolling captain and his men, camped just south of Balentyne. Teelee had learnt of a deathly poison kept within the magister’s chamber in the keep, a vile and putrid broth known as wolfsbane. For their plan to poison Mumma Giuseppe’s stew, they needed a vast amount of the average poison, or something strong enough to spread thin.
“I’ll go,” Willow offered, “While you four take care of the captain and his rangers, I’ll infiltrate the watchtower.”
“That is a very dangerous plan, my lady,” Pellius frowned.
“All the fun ones are, good sir,” she smirked.
“At least you will have the distraction of that bard retinue in town,” he shrugged, “If you are to infiltrate, that may be your best distraction.”
“I cannot see another way,” Garvana said, brow pulled tight, “We need the poison. Are you sure you’re up to this?”
Willow’s eyebrows slowly rose, “I am more than up to it.”

As night fell, and the others prepared to head into the forestry, she braided her hair back and donned her armour and gear. She double checked that she had her poisons and potions, strapping on her daggers and her blow gun, pulling on Pellius' boots. He had lent them to her with a grin, ‘good for jumping and landing’ he’d said with a wink.
She snuck downstairs and met him in the basement. They walked in silence through the tunnel and when they reached the other end, she hissed out the breath she’d been holding.
“Will you pray with me?” she asked seriously.
He looked slightly shocked by her request, but after a moment took her hand and began a short prayer to Asmodeus. As he spoke, Willow could feel the Dark Prince encompass her in a fiery searing warmth, burning her, guiding her.
“Hail Asmodeus,” Pellius finished.
Willow smiled, leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, feeling the fiery wave zap him.
Before stepping through the arched passage, she looked to him and whispered, “Hail Asmodeus.”

Climbing through the trap door in the ceiling of the vault, Willow found herself in the forge.  Drinking down her first invisibility potion, she followed the map they had copied from Barnibus, heading up the stairs on the eastern wall into a room filled proudly with flags marking the lineage of the commanders of Balentyne.
Two guards were leaning casually against the far wall, chatting easily about the festivities and performance that they’d be missing while on duty. Although they weren't paying much attention to their surroundings, they were directly facing the door into the courtyard. Willow did not wish to chance her exit, so she crept passed them and followed the spiral stairs further up into the tower. As she entered an unguarded room of arrow slits, she approached the holes thoughtfully. She guessed it would be a tight squeeze, but she surmised she’d be able to slide through into the courtyard. She did her best to hold in her laugh when she had the most trouble fitting her chest through the slit, and although it took longer than she would’ve liked, with a little shuffling she managed to slide through. Once free of the wall, she fell toward the stones and felt the strangest sensation as the boots pulled towards the ground. As she impacted, she landed in a crouch, eyes scanning her surroundings. Creeping along the path towards the keep, she cursed under her breath as she saw the only way in was through the main chamber. The one room packed with every off duty soldier and staff member as they watched the grand performance. She took a deep breath and clutched her Asmodean pendant tightly. Keeping her breathing even, she focused on each footstep as she took them, lightly transferring her weight from one foot to another. She made it across the hall, weaving silently in between chairs, reaching the side of the front row. As she continued forward, she noted the important members of the watch all lined in the front row. Those she assumed were the captains, the priest and the magister.
As Willow took another step, she was hit with a wave of sickening divine energy. She looked over into the centre of the front row and saw a man with an intimidating forceful presence, staring straight at her. Willow’s stomach quivered in revulsion, and it was only sheer will that kept her from whimpering out loud. She knew instantly that he was the Commander. His eyes pierced through her confidence, his intensity drained the blood from her hands and feet. She froze, clenching her pendant tighter and as she held her breath. When he made no move to stop her, she kept her eyes locked on him as she stepped forward silently. His eyes seemed to follow her for a moment longer before he shook his head and turned back to the play. Feeling the sweat drip from her forehead, Willow forced herself to stay calm and continue on, through the stage curtains and up the stairs into the keep. She leaned back against the wall, catching her rapid breaths, heart racing and blood coursing in vigorous anxiety. He was a man she did not wish to meet alone, nor ever again.
As she gathered herself, she saw the stone brick room guarded by two men. They were stationed directly in front of the door Willow needed to pass through. With no alternative, she slipped out her blowgun and drew her aim. In quick succession, she blew the darts doused in taggit oil, piercing them both in the neck. It took a moment for the guards to realise what had happened, both clutching their throats, slurred words falling from their mouths. Willow quickly drank down another potion, pressed tightly against the wall as they did a sweep of the room seeking their attacker. As the poison took effect, both bodies slumped to the ground in quiet thuds of metal upon stone. She quickly searched the doors nearby and found an empty room, littered with horrible stains and claw marks; much like those seen in interrogation chambers. Willow spied a small inscription at the back of the room scratched into the stone. She smiled as she saw the five pointed star of Asmodeus, accompanied by the sinful words – Send us Vengeance, O Prince.
Willow swiftly dragged the slumped bodies into the room, smiling as she sealed the door.
After creeping along silently, passing the guards and dodging the patrols, Willow finally found the magister's room. As she opened the door, a cold breeze wafted from the chamber. Slipping inside and closing the wooden door, her steps faltered. It was an uneasy stomach that she looked over an ice form, laying upon a table in the centre of the room. She watched as cracks formed along the figure, before slickly sealing themselves. Taking a breath to steady herself, she crept to the shelves covered in vials and alchemical ingredients. When she saw the words Concentrated Wolfsbane, Willow was thankful this magister seemed organised enough to label his poisons. She grabbed the vial and stowed it in her pouch, keeping one eye on the ominous ice form. She didn't linger, tiptoeing out as fast as she could, letting out a sigh of relief once the door closed behind her.
It was on quick and light feet that took her upward to the last level of chambers under the roof. As she crested the top of the stairs, she was met by a set of ornate large double doors. The entrance spoke of great importance. Although was tempted to have a peek, a sickly feeling of dread came over her when the commander flashed through her mind. She had to get out of the keep, and quick. She silently swung the trap door to the roof open, and slithered through the gap. As she gently closed it behind her, she looked up to see the massive trebuchet standing tall looming over the gatehouse. Five guards were standing to the side, shivering and complaining about the cold. Willow felt the chill as her lungs filled with outside air. She approached the edge cautiously as the wind whipped her hair into her face. She took a deep breath and she prayed. She prayed that Pellius had been truthful about the boots. She promised that if he hadn't, she would live long enough to take his head from his shoulders.
She gripped her pendant close and held her breath as she stepped off the ledge. She kept in her breath as she fell and watched the path closing in, only metres from the ground did she feel the boots pulling downward. Dirt and dusk blew up in a great cloud as she landed in a crouch. Though she struggled to breathe, the wind had been knocked out of her chest – she was alive. She quickly prowled across the courtyard, and headed for the door to the flag room. As she reached for the handle, she felt the ripple of arcana as her invisibility vanished. She panicked, grabbing the last vial and pouring it down her throat as she dove behind the cover of the stables. When she looked back into the courtyard, she shivered as she saw the commander standing at the door to the hall, arms crossed, eyes scanning. He made Willow's skin crawl, the fierce righteous might radiating from him like a pulsing wave. He would not go down easy. He would be the hardest part of their task.
Willow shrugged off the awful feeling he gave her and headed back for the door. She silently unlatched the handle and softly pushed it open, doing her best to mimic the wind.
“Damn latch is still broken,” called one of the guards, “Thought those dwarves were gonna fix it?”
As they neared the archway, she snuck by them and headed for the vault without delay. As she dropped into the pitch black room, she lit her torch and quickly pushed in the pressure stone. The scraping of stone on stone sounded as the passage was once again revealed. Willow took off at a run, winding through the darkened path with a grin lighting her face.

“We're really going to do this,” she said to herself with determination, “We're going to take this place down...”

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