Friday, 4 December 2015

Chapter 8 - Visitant

Her skin shivered as the chill of the breeze feathered along the sweat covering her chest. Willow whimpered as another fiery wave pulsed through her.
It had been every night since the eve of her fifteenth birthday, two weeks in total, that she had dreamt of a flaming palace with its scorching walls as tall and far as she could see. The paths lined with the ashen remains of what were once people and creatures. In the dream, she would run through the endless hallways, searching for the source of the pulsing heat pulling her closer. She could feel him. She could feel his presence, watching, waiting, taunting. She ran and ran, as far as her feet would carry her, but she never seemed to be gaining.
The wind stirred and blew heavy through her window. The freezing blast on her sweat drenched body had her eyes snap open as she flung herself out of bed. The dreams had been getting more intense, the burning becoming closer to reality, the pain lingering longer after she had left the dream realm. She paced back and forth across her bedroom, panting through a heaving chest. Tonight the burn stayed with her, low and rumbling, making each step difficult to take without moaning. As she paced, she caught her own reflection from the corner of her eye. She gasped, mouth hanging open as she approached it. The room was lit by a fiery red light, beaming from her eyes. Her chest tightened, wheezing as she struggled to draw air.
“Come child,” spoke a soothing seductive voice.
The burning flared out aggressively, forcing Willow's knees to buckle.
“Come to me,” it crooned.
Willow span on her heel and staggered towards the door. She didn't know how, but she knew exactly where the voice was coming from. She gingerly tiptoed down the stairs, groaning as the searing grew and spread through her limbs. She pushed the heavy doors to the library open and stumbled along the bookshelves. Reaching the far side, Willow pulled the hidden leaver firmly and fell back to rest on the ladder. The shelf opened wide to reveal the secret stairway, the inferno raged on as Willow's legs collapsed. She crawled down the spiral staircase on hands and knees, sliding down one step at a time. As she reached for the doors hidden trigger, she screamed out, the burning reaching its apex. Sweat poured from her body, her hair dripping and plastered to her face and neck, her nightwear wet and slicked to her skin. She ripped the dress down the middle, leaving it in rags behind her, staggering to her feet. On unsteady legs she teetered towards the back stone wall, panting in between whimpers, eyes cast down. Without looking up she pressed the five stones in order, starting in the top left corner, tracing out an inverted pentagram. Sucking in a deep breath she closed her eyes and forced in the centre stone. A split formed down the middle of the wall, both sides of stones parting and opening to reveal the Monteguard’s family shrine to Asmodeus. A golden statue immaculately carved in intricate detail formed of their great Infernal Lord. He was depicted as a large towering devil; razor sharp scales layered across his bared skin, large angular horns crowning his head, serrated talons protruding from each finger and toe, a thickened tail with a blade-like barb and long sharpened teeth hanging from his roaring jaw.
Willow had spent a lot of time in here over the years. She would spend hours kneeling in prayer or cuddled by the statues feet in study. There was no where in the world she felt more safe and comfortable.
As the walls opened and the looming statue of the Prince of Darkness was unveiled, she was knocked back with the force of smouldering heat coming from the room. Draped sensually at the feet of the statue was the most beautiful woman Willow had ever seen. Long black hair floating in midair, long black eyelashes fluttering almost in slow motion, and a stare so carnal it had Willow blushing. So achingly familiar she seemed. Willow struggled deeply, grasping for an answer just out of her reach, this woman felt more familiar to her than her own parents.
“So beautiful,” the woman breathed.
As the words found Willow's ears, her knees collapsed as the surge of blissful agony ripped through her body. She whimpered as tears flooded her eyes, the burn so painful, yet euphoric.
“Breath it in child,” commanded the woman, “Draw it deep within you. Harness it, use it, control its power as only you know how to do!”
Willow let the words sink in, finding the strength to breath. She drew in every ounce of willpower she had, pulling the pain deep down, letting it swim freely through her veins. She forced it into her legs and demanded they stand. She forced it into her neck and demanded it lift her head. She forced it into her eyelids and demanded it stare back at the woman, drinking in the sight of her.
“Remarkable,” the woman whispered, “I've never seen it mastered so quickly. You may be the one… Let me take a look at you.”
Willow felt her feet leave the ground, her body became as light as a feather, her arms stretched wide of their own accord. She turned gently, levitating just above the ground, spinning in a circle while the woman looked her over.
“Marvellous,” she breathed, “Such a beautiful creature.”
She lowered Willow back down and leant back against the statues base. Willow stared back at the woman and struggled to string any words together. Hundreds of questions were racing through her mind, but the aura the woman was giving off was so distracting, Willow struggled to hold on to a single thought.
“Who… are you?” she stuttered.
The woman smiled.
“Such strength of will,” she mused, “Who I am child, is of no importance right now. Who you are, and who you will become, is.”
The woman pushed off the base of the shrine, gracefully floating to the ground. She approached Willow, flowing rather than walking, reaching out a hand to caress her cheek.
The inferno blazed inside Willow’s lower stomach, scorching deep, expelling a moan of ecstasy.
“Trust no one and nothing, but this!” she commanded, “Always trust this, let it be your guide. Follow where it leads, for it will lead you to greatness. It will lead you to his side, where you were destined to be!”
As she stepped away, she gave Willow a last longing look before rearing her hand back, striking Willow in the face. As it connected, Willow flung herself up from the bed. She sat, twisted in her sheets, sweat drenching the bed. She leaped from the mattress and ran to the mirror. No red glow flooded the room. She struck a match, lighting her lantern by the vanity. She scanned her reflection in awe. Her naked skin was flushed and pink, her black hair was askew, soaked and slicked to her body, her nightwear strewn about the bed. But as she traced her hand across her cheek, she smiled. Four raised ridges along her cheek, red and swollen, in the shape of a handprint.
Staring into her own eyes, she sighed and whispered, “Hail my Infernal Father, Asmodeus.”

They would visit once a year, and every year it would begin in the same way. For two weeks after her birthday, Willow would spend her nights in a blazing frenzy. She would battle with uncontrollable sexual urges and deep seeded masochistic desires.
Each year after the two weeks, Willow would wake in a dream, creeping down the stairs into the sanctuary. One of them would always be there, waiting for her. Each one stunningly beautiful in her own way, each as painfully familiar as the last. Willow was never visited by the same woman twice, but the aura they carried was identical. They taught her of the power a woman carried in between her legs, the power that came with the confidence and knowledge of this.
Her last birthday had been different. She may have woken the next morning without a mark on her, but inside she had changed and grown. As she had entered the shrine that night, in her usual dream state, she was grabbed by the throat and forced to the ground. Her body had fallen limp and obeyed without question.
“There is great pleasure and power in pain dear child,” spoke a husky deep female voice, “Learn to master it, learn to harness it, and you will be unstoppable.”
Willow was dragged into the room and strung up by her wrists. A tall sturdy woman, a power house of beauty and strength, stood over her with a long leather whip.
“To achieve order,” she said sternly, “There must be obedience. To ensure obedience, there must be punishment.”
Willow clenched her teeth, refusing to make a sound, as the woman lashed the whip back and forth across her bare ribs.
“To simply accept this punishment is submission. To embrace this punishment, feed from it, harness it… That is obedience. And there is great power in rightful obedience.”
The woman smiled at her, something close to pride shining from her eyes as she selected a second whip. This blackened whip was hardened with wax and embellished with a single metal blade barb on its tail. The whip struck deep, splitting the skin, leaving a trail of welted slashes in its wake.
“We do not submit,” she said fiercely, “Submission is surrender, weakness! We choose to obey those who are greater than ourselves! There is great power in truly understanding your place in existence.”
As the lashes continued and Willow's blood pooled along the floor, she felt herself growing weak. Her grip on the chains faltered and she slipped, dangling freely from the bindings. Her head hung low, her breathing slowed, as she struggled to stay conscious.
“Wake!” barked the woman, lashing her viciously across the chest, “Embrace the pain! Draw it in, pull it deep inside and FORCE IT BACK OUT!”
Willow inhaled deeply, welcoming the pain, letting it swarm her insides. She crushed it further into herself, and with a surge of willpower, brutally forced it outwards. In one swoop, Willow swung her body up high enough to loosen her bonds so she could free her hands, as she swung back down she flipped and landed in a deep crouch poised to attack. In a breath, she had flipped in behind the woman, lifting her dagger from its sheath and forcing it up against the woman's throat.
“Ha!” the woman exclaimed with a smirk, “Blind obedience is submission, it is for the weak. You my child, are most certainly not weak.”

Leaning up against Pellius’ solid chest, laying along the port side of the ship staring up at the night sky, Willow felt the sweat drip down her chest. It was her birthday tomorrow. Twenty five years old. If tradition held, this would be the tenth visit she had received.
She shivered as the sea breeze blew along her sweat covered chest. She would have to spend almost the entirety of the two weeks cooped up on the ship with a dozen other people. Already she was having trouble controlling it, even though the symptoms had yet to manifest completely and the dreams had not begun.

They were headed for Farholde, the northern most colony of Talingarde. Willow had travelled to Farholde as a child, her father having been called across for business. They had come across during one of the infamous floods, the nine tall hill tops surrounded by the overflow from the Great Lake, boats and rafts the only connection to each part of town.
Tiadora had told them little of their mission, spending most of the trip locked away in the captains cabin, having apparently evicted him from it. She informed them only to use the trip to recover and await instruction.
As Oathday dawned, Willow drank to celebrate her birthday, staring out at the sunrise. After she polished of the last of her wine, reaching for a bottle of whiskey, she saw Pellius eyeing her questioningly.
“Twenty five,” she said softly, staring into the brass liquid, “It feels like more.”
“It is little fun to drown those years alone, my lady,” he said with his usual charm, “Would you care for some company?”
Willow laughed, passing him the bottle, “I would indeed.”
On such a small ship, there was no privacy. Word of Willow's birthday was spread instantly. As the others celebrated and joined in the drinking, Pellius pulled out his cards and began teaching them a strange Chelaxian drinking game he known as kings. They spent the day drinking and gambling, bottles of Rotgut Whiskey shared amongst them. The liquor flowed and gold passed hands, they listened to each other swap stories of the past, more relaxed than they had been since coming together.
That night as they dropped anchor, Willow leaned along the railing and listened to the faint sound of screaming echoing from the near by towns. She watched Tiadora smile at it as she entered the cabin for the night. Shaking her head, Willow heard Pellius’ footsteps as he approached and leant next to her.
“The war wages on,” she said quietly, “So much destruction. So much chaos. The bugbears are obliterating everything in their way. What will be left when they are done?”
“It's a necessary step, my lady,” Pellius replied.
“I do understand it,” she said softly, “But the cardinal must have a plan, if the bugbears are left unchecked, there will be nothing left to rule over when they're done.”

As the days passed and her temperature grew, Willow struggled to contain the blaze feasting inside her body. As dawn crept upon them each morning, she sat along the starboard side and dangled her feet in the river. The freezing water splashed up her legs, so cold her toes lost their feeling, she let the chill seep through her skin and calm the rage inside her.
Each morning she sat in observation, watching as the others went about their usual routines, learning more about them by their habitual practices.
She watched as Pellius spent his morning in an unwavering regime. She chuckled at the obsessive amount of time he dedicated to grooming himself. In strict order he meticulously trimmed his nails, shaved his chin, brushed his teeth and combed and styled his hair. Once finished, he stood shirtless and began his methodical stretches, slow limbering fluid motions. Each morning, Willow's eyes followed the flex of his back muscles as they rippled from left to right.
Garvana rose with the sun like a bat out of hell, hair a wild mess with puffy tired eyes, trudging about the ship scuffing her feet. Each morning, she stood by the edge of the ship as the sun lifted in the sky and her awareness slowly came around. Once her eyes would stay open on their own, she would begin her prayers and memorise her spells, the boons granted by their Infernal Lord.
Willow always knew when Bor awoke, for the ship would shake as he lumbered to his feet. Every morning he sat in silence as he therapeutically sharpened the blade of his axe. Willow watched him in intrigue, she saw the torment in his eyes, the horror of his past lingered behind them. Although he laughed along with the group, Willow could hear the pain in his voice, the inner battle he was fighting behind his stone cold face.
Teelee was always the last to rise. She sat with her nose turned up, complaining about the conditions of the ship and the quality of the food. She pulled her hair into an uptight bun, plastering it back off her face, each morning after she woke. She washed her clothes in the river water, grumbling to herself about having to perform a chore she thought was clearly beneath her.
As for Willow, each morning she woke before the sun. She hung her feet over the edge of the ship while she methodically brushed her hair, weaving a differently arranged braid for each day. She stretched her limbs, her flexible frame bending effortlessly, contorting into strange positions. One of the mornings while she stretched, she felt eyes on her as she folded forward, flattening her stomach against her legs, draping her hands behind her knees. Hanging upside down, she turned her head to see Bor and four of the sailors grinning at her, staring at her backside. She winked, lifting a leg towards the sky and stretching it high.

The days were spent much the same. Bor was patient enough to teach Garvana how to speak the Draconic tongue, each day becoming less painful to listen to. Willow paid little attention, draping her feet along in the water, her nimble fingers mindlessly braiding her hair. On their seventh day, from the corner of her eye she saw Teelee staring, trying to mimic the braid, ending with her nails entwined in her own hair. Willow laughed and offered to teach her, starting with a basic braid, rather than the five strand cascade braid she had been weaving.
Later that afternoon, they cleared a space along the decking, large enough for a few rounds of sparring. Wooden makeshift weapons in hand, Willow prowled around Pellius as he stood solid in defence. As he lunged forward with force, she swiftly span out of the way, diving under his arm and coming up behind him. She jabbed him in the ribs with the wooden board, too late at noticing his back swing towards her head. She slacked her body, rolling with the force of his hit, tumbling backwards to her feet and thrusting her weapon upwards clipping him under the jaw. She danced under his cleave, springing from the right to strike him across the back of his head, laughing as she dove out the way of his boot. She went in for a double strike, ducking under his arm, slashing him across the stomach pirouetting to slash again. But as she turned, she felt his crushing grip latch onto her wrist. She giggled and squealed as he yanked her backwards, grabbing her by the throat, effortlessly lifting her and slamming her slender frame into the floor.
“You're enjoying this, entirely too much,” he said with a smirk, as she wheezed out giggles through a winded chest.
Willow watched intently as Bor and Pellius clashed weapons. Bor was an explosion of strength. He hit with force and might, attacked with everything he had, no thought for defence. Pellius on the other hand was a sturdy form, tough and resilient, taking each blow in his stride waiting for his opportunity. They were evenly matched. Exchanging blow for blow, both men heaving, energy drained and depleted. After almost an hour, they called for an end, a draw as it were. They stood on either side of the ship, staring at each other, tensions escalating. Willow laughed at the testosterone emanating from the pair and offered up her whiskey, calming the tempers long enough to break the feud.

Throughout the nights Willow fought the battle against herself to keep quiet. The dreams of the blazing palace, running in circles, burning from the inside out. She knew she used to thrash and moan next to her husband, loud enough to wake and panic him. Night terrors, she told him. Filled with frightening creatures and a banquet of debauchery. What she failed to mention to him, was that she was the frightening creature, the main conspirator of the heinous acts.

On the last evening as they pulled along the coast, Farholde a sight in the distance, Tiadora called them to attention.
“The master is here and commands you to attend him,” she said grimly, “He awaits in the cabin.”
Willow cringed at the thought of the cardinal seeing her in this state. Bathed only in river water for two weeks, worn black travelling clothes, salt licked mane of hair flying free and wild. As they filed in, Willow swiftly braided her hair back, twisting and flicking it up into a bun.
As she entered the room, expecting to be blown away by his fierce pressed, she was surprised to find the blazing heat did not flare as strong as before. He still had her stomach churning, her lower region sweltering and her chest seizing, but the intensity had ever so slightly dimmed.
She slinked in the room, sinking to her knees in front of him, looking up into his dark eyes. Her looked down at her, his all knowing devilish grin still lighting his handsome face.
“You have served me faithfully, my ninth knot," he said with pride, "And I have rewarded you both in treasure and vengeance. Thanks to your efforts, the Fire-Axe has been unleashed. Even now he writes his name in blood across the Borderlands. But our work is not yet done. Talingarde has not yet acquiesced to our unholy master nor tasted the full measure of our vengeance..."
He outlined the objectives of their next mission. Firstly, he gave them the name of an old Asmodean worshipper, a man not to be trusted, but a well connected potential ally. Secondly, he told them to enter the largest unmapped forest on the island of Talingarde. Hidden within the Caer Bryr was an ancient temple called the Horn of Abaddon. He told them how it was overthrown almost eighty years ago by the Markadian I, the Victorious. How he defeated its inhabitant, an Archdeacon known as Vetra-Kali Eats-the-Eyes.
"So terrified of this monstrosity was the king," the Cardinal recalled, "That he had the priests of Mitra craft a great silver seal to forever forbid the daemon from returning to our plane of existence. The seal remains to this day."
“I have learned the truth about this daemon prince. I have learned what the Victor feared. Vetra-Kali is in service to the lord of pestilence. This immortal monster could create a plague so virulent that it would bring Talingarde to its knees. When the Victor attacked, the Daemon Prince was close to unleashing his masterpiece upon the world -- a pestilence known as the Tears of Achlys."
"Find the Horn. Find the seal and shatter it. Call Vetra-Kali back to our world. Bind him to your will and force service from the monster. And then bring the Tears to me. Can you do this, my knot? Have I found servants with might and will enough to see this task done?”
Willow inclined her head deeply, Garvana and Bor nodded firmly, Teelee smiled and Pellius bowed low, “Yes, master.”

As they pulled into dock on Farholde’s shores, Tiadora gathered them together.
“I shall escort you to the dinner with Baron Arkov Vandermir tomorrow evening,” she clipped, “Six o'clock sharp. Do not be late. And please,” she said disgusted, looking over the group, “Make your selves appear presentable.”
As they wandered from the docks, Willow told the group what she knew of the town. After telling Pellius of the shanti town in Drownington, he and Bor trudged off down the muddy path. Willow informed the women that she would be heading to the Bronze Minotaur in Auld’irey, a luxurious establishment in the most historic and wealthy part of the merchant area.
“I've heard they also have the most amazing desserts buffet,” she said quietly with a grin, “Apparently they do a lychee panna cotta worth killing for.”

Once they were set up in their suites, and heavily stuffed with desserts, Willow retired to her bedroom. Staring up at the ceiling, she sighed deeply, only two nights before her visitor was due. Her chest was tightening, her hands were trembling, the burning was beginning to throb preparing for her return to the fiery palace.
As she dreamt of racing through the halls in the dead of night, Willow woke in her room at the inn, with a dagger to her throat.
“You!” she breathed, panting heavily.
Poised over her, pressing the blade down firmly, was a man she would remember for the rest of her days. Switch, the assassin who had turned her in, the reason she was arrested and imprisoned.
“Miss me?” he said with a sly grin.
He flipped the dagger up in the air, catching it by the pommel and swiftly sheathing it.
“Sorry to wake you from such an entertaining dream,” he mocked, “Very erotic. With moans like that, any chance you were thinking of me?”
Willow ignored his question and slowly lifted herself from the bed. Eyeing him warily, she slipped her legs over the side and cautiously stood. Force of will stopped her from screaming out as the burning rushed from her thighs to her toes. Still keeping one eye on him, she slinked across the room, shamelessly naked. She felt his eyes upon her as she gracefully wrapped herself in her silk nightgown and poured them both a nip of whiskey.
Handing him the drink, she lent against the bed, containing her squeal as she pressed her hyper sensitive body against the hard metal frame. Her eyes searched his face. He still wore his hair shorn clean, the dark wells around his piercing eyes still heavy, his arched jaw still strong and firm. Though she seethed at the thought, he was still as alluring as ever.
“So, what do I owe this pleasure?”
“I've been watching you,” he said, sipping his whiskey, staring directly at her.
“So I can tell,” she said dryly, “And what do you want?”
He paced to the other side of the room, “You've impressed me, not an easy thing to do.”
Willow scoffed, “And why does that matter?”
He stopped pacing in front of her, “Because I can help you. You've got potential. I couldn't have dreamed you would escape that prison, let alone make it this far.”
“And why was I in that prison?” she snapped, stepping up to him face to face in rage, “Why did you put me in there?!”
Switch chuckled, “Because your parents paid me more to turn you in.”
Willow's eyes widened, “They what?!” she said, mind reeling, “Those faithless traitors!”
As her anger started to boil, Switch scoffed, “They say that about you, don't they?”
Willow's eyes shot to him. His sheepish grin softened her temper, she rolled her eyes and couldn't help but laugh. She drank down the entire glass of whiskey, tenderly walking over for another. She relaxed a little, if he meant her harm, he was smart enough to have already attacked.
“I don't suppose you know their reasoning?” Willow asked hopefully.
Switch raised his eyebrows at her.
“I suppose not,” she huffed.
She sipped on the drink as she watched him. His footsteps were silent as he moved around the room, inspecting the decor on the walls and Willow's belongings, he moved with a fluid grace she hadn't seen before.
“So what is it you actually want from me?” she asked warily.
“There's a job,” he said, still perusing the room, “A test of sorts. Perform well, and I will train you. Perform badly, and well, the consequences will speak for themselves.”
“A job?” she balked, “Train me? Have you gone completely daft, why would I want that? And why would I trust you?”
He simply smirked, “You already do, and you already don’t.”
Willow sighed at his answer and rolled her eyes. He was correct. He had much to teach her, his skills had always been impressive, though she never had any use for such things. And she certainly did not trust him.
He downed his whiskey, placing the cup on the bench, heading for the open window.
“I'll contact you when the time is right.”
Placing her glass on the table, Willow stood.
“What was that night?” she asked curiously, “Was that all part of the game?”
Switch stopped in his tracks. After pausing only for a moment, he spun on his heel and charged up to Willow, grabbing her by the throat and backing her into the wall. He crushed his lips to hers in blazing passion, holding her off the ground firmly by the neck, stripping open her nightgown and forcing his thigh in between her legs. With the fire raging so fiercely through her, she tried but couldn't bring herself to push him away, only managing to sink herself further into his grip. She snapped her teeth against his tongue pushing her sweltering body against his, blistering where his thigh was rubbing, clawing her nails down the back of his neck.
Chuckling against her mouth he pulled his lips away, panting shallow breaths, resting his forehead against hers.
“A game I'd like to play again,” he said darkly.
Willow laughed, breathing hard, “Perhaps we not end it with me imprisoned this time?”

By day break he was gone. Willow woke alone, satisfied, sore and dishevelled. Standing in front of the vanity mirror, she laughed as she inspected her bruised neck and wrists. She was lucky her outfit was high necked and long sleeved.
Strolling through the market place, Willow browsed the wares and listened to the townspeople. She selected a few elegant gowns in black and red, picking out a new pair of black leather heels to match. Willow returned to the Inn, bathing and dressing for the dinner. The dress, layers of black lace, bound together with black leather boning. The leather stretched high and wrapped around Willow's slender neck, long and elegant. The layers of lace ruffled from her small waist, flaring out gracefully, almost appearing as if she was gliding when she walked. Before she slipped into the dress, she strapped her dagger to her leg, its sleek curve a perfect fit on the contour of her thigh. She pulled her hair up tight in a sleek bun, wrapping all of the lengths into a chignon. Her flawless pale white skin glistening, her natural red lips plump and full. She wore only a single line of black along her eyes, their pale redness shining brightly.

She wandered down to the dock, with Garvana and Teelee in tow, arriving as dusk began to fall. Garvana wore a pleated frock of red, soft lines attempting to soften the tightness of her harshly toned figure. Teelee fashioned a bespoke gown with hard tucks in a trend Willow had only seen from the shores of Rahadoum. She smiled as she saw Bor in his large black tailored suit, with sleeves so large she could probably wear one as a dress.
Pellius stepped towards her, his black colonial style coat slim fitting and sharp, hair slicked effortlessly back in a quiff.
“My lady,” he bowed, she curtsied, “Beautiful as always. I have a gift for you.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a red silk pouch, gently tipping it into his hand, revealing a stunning gold and ruby necklace. A single large ruby sat centre, surrounded by intricate gold carvings and smaller individual rubies, laced together with a fine golden chain.
“It's… exquisite,” she breathed, eyes wide, suspicion flaring, “truly beautiful.”
“May I?” he offered, taking the necklace and stepping behind her.
Willow closed her eyes and breathed deep as his hand gently caressed her neck, adorning her with the jewellery. Although she felt his fingers curiously move aside the layers of silk to reveal the bruises beneath, her mind could not think of it. She held the ruby and stared down into it. Her eyes flicked up to Pellius and back to the stone around her neck.
“Thank you,” she said graciously, “Truly, thank you.”

Tiadora exited the cabin of the ship, wearing a slip of white beauty and dripping with diamonds, looking the part of royalty attending her own wedding. She guided the group through town across to Caviller Green, the wealthiest section of the city. They arrived at the gates to the largest manor spread across the rolling hills. As they strolled up the path towards the entrance, Pellius offered his arm to Willow, to which she smiled and accepted. The guards stepped up to them as they reached the great archway of a front door.
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen,” spoke the guard, “I'm afraid I can't let you in looking quite so armed.”
As the rest of the group handed over their weapons, Willow shrugged to the guard who looked her over, her blade was hidden and strapped seamlessly to her leg.
They were escorted into the lounge area where platters of delicious hors d’oeuvres and glasses of fine white wine awaited them. Willow picked at the food a little and simmered on the single glass of wine. The Cardinal had said that the Baron was not a man to be trusted, she would heed his warning, she needed to have all her wits about her.
After a while, a man called for them to join him along the main table, an extravagant long oak dining trunk. He appeared a slender half elf, a young almost boyish face, dark calculating eyes that spoke of years beyond his appearance. Willow knew he was the Baron Arkov Vandermir, part of the Barcan line, the rulers of Talingarde before the Markadians came into power.
Willow laughed softly as Pellius insisted on pulling out her chair for her, eyeing the servants warningly, keeping them away. He tucked her seat in before taking the chair to her left.
“Your hospitality Baron, is unrivalled,” Pellius said graciously, “Master Thorn would be most pleased with your treatment of us.”
Vandermir scoffed, “Enough with the pleasantries. Get to the point. What is it you want?”
“We are here to see if you can aid us,” Teelee said shortly.
Willow stayed quiet and merely watched the Baron’s face, attempting to read him.
“You come to me as beggars,” he retorted, “The last remnants of a forbidden faith. You will promise me much; of that I have no doubt. But all that I am likely to earn from helping you is the inquisitors pyre. Tell me, why should I help the likes of you?”
Teelee spoke of their past victories, their unimaginable escape from Branderscar, their impossible success of taking down Balentyne. Garvana spoke of her contact with the devil, his trust and his willingness to help. Vandermir stared intently and listened, clearly interested in what they had to say, but remaining unswayed.
“Even so, the risk is still not worth it.”
“This risk,” Willow said smoothly, “Is nothing against the risk of facing our Infernal Father’s wrath. He is the Lord of Ambition and yet you claim to serve him?” her voice turned intense, “Ambition is the definition of the desire to succeed, and to succeed we must risk. We risk much to gain much. Does his ambition not run through your veins?”
Vandermir stared into her eyes, his mind ticking and turning.
“Enough!” Bor stood and said forcefully, “There are only two sides of this war. You are either with us, or you are against us. There is no neutral ground, you must pick a side!”
“Those who stray from the path,” Garvana said, standing too, “Will be laid unto dust.”
Willow rose from her chair, tilting her head slightly.
The kingdom will be His.”
Slumping slightly in defeat, Vandermir paused. Looking around at the group, he begrudgingly agreed. He offered his services, his accommodation and contacts. He spoke with the group for a few minutes before he began to bid them goodnight. As he turned to leave, Willow approached him with a question that had been bouncing around in her head.
“Baron,” she beckoned politely, “What do you know of Samuel Havelyn?”
The colour drained from Vandermir’s face. Suspiciously, he looked deep into Willow’s eyes.
“What would a disgraced cleric of Mitra mean to the likes of you?”
Willow smiled and batted her eyelashes, staring back, “Oh, I was just interested, I found a mention of him is all.”
He stared at her, seemingly trying to conclude or decide something. He shook off the look of fear that had began to creep over his face and turned back to Willow.
“He was a Cardinal of Mitra,” he said curtly, “Burned at the stake for the crime of Heresy.”
He stood to leave, “This meeting is over,” he said sharply, “Good night.”
“Good night,” Willow replied softly.
Her interest was piqued. Vandermir's response was not at all what she had expected, but was in fact, all the more deliciously curious.

They were shown to their separate rooms where their belongings had been delivered. Willow requested a bath be drawn as she unpinned her hair, brushing methodically as her mind reeled over the possibilities. She laughed at some of the dramatic situations she came up with, deciding to go searching the library in the Hall of the Sun Victorious tomorrow.
Freshly bathed and smelling of cinnamon, she dropped back into the large bed. As her head fell to the pillow, she was hit with a crashing wave of heat, pulling her deep into a heavy sleep.
She gasped for air as the blazing force crushed down across her body. She lay sweltering, drenched in sweat, drowning in the storm of heat. Her body quivered as a breath of wind kissed her soaked skin.
"Child," soothed a sultry voice, "Come, you are ready."

Willow's eyes snapped open. Her chest trembled as she struggled to breathe evenly. She crawled out of bed, one foot at a time, standing on fragile legs in her childhood bedroom. She whimpered as she lifted her leg to step, gingerly shifting her weight across, knees buckling.
"Stand!" commanded the voice, "You are greater than this. SHOW ME!"
Willow felt the force of the words rip into her soul. She clamped down her teeth and arched her back, seizing the scorching fire and forcing it deep into the pit of her stomach. Her eyes flew wide and her head snapped back as she violently expelled the power outwards.
"Very good," the voice smouldered, "Come to me child."
Willow forced her feet to lift off the ground. She glided across the carpet, opening the doors with little but a look, floating down the stairway towards the library.
She felt her blood rushing through her veins at rapid speed. Her senses had become so heightened she could hear it racing through her limbs. She could feel each individual muscle and tendon in her hand working separately as she clenched her fingers together. She could see the veil between this plane and the next. She could taste the fear of the souls trapped in and around this locus.
She smiled as she hovered at the entrance to the sanctuary, basking in the roaring power flowing through her, simpering at the affectionate way the heat licked at her heels. Stepping out from the stairs she felt the fire surge and soar. She dropped to the floor, heaving chest, and forced her way forward. She reached the stone wall, panting fast and hard, unable to stop the moans seeping from her lips.
Upper left, bottom centre, upper right, bottom left, bottom right, upper left. The wall shuttered as she reached for the centre stone. Fighting a raging cyclone of fire, she thrust her hand out, forcing the stone to open its walls.
"Child," spoke the woman softly, "What a creature you have grown to be."
In the centre of the steps on the altar, sat a woman surrounded by curtains of long crystal white hair. She held an air of confidence married by an overpowering aura of dominance. Piercing eyes alight with red flame, skin so pale it glistened like glass, lips so deep red like blood. Willow smiled. The woman, so intimately familiar, so incredibly well known. Yet she could not place it, the thought drifted just out of each, her identity blurred by only a wisp. It did not matter. Willow glided to the stairs and knelt in her place by the woman's feet, eyes downcast, head bowed.
"Come closer child," she hummed, "I wish to see you."
Willow looked up, leaning in towards the woman, shaking in awe.
"Ah yes," she said, smiling almost fondly, "I see it."
Willow desperately longed to beg for answers, but she knew better, some ingrained reasoning kept her silent.
"You will see it one day too," spoke the woman, "When you have learnt your rightful place. You must not falter. You must stay strong. You must leave behind who you were, and embrace who you are, who you were meant to be and who you will become.”
The woman traced a single finger across Willow’s forehead and down the side of her face, following a long flowing curl down to her shoulder.
“You must use the tools you were given child. You have a power seeded deep within you. One you can control, that can give you control over even the most powerful of foes. Embrace it, extort it, it is there to be used."
Willow sighed softly as she felt a searing kiss deep down below.
"Yes," the woman smirked, "That is it. The greatest tool you have."
She leant down close, "Use that. Never this," she said as she pointed to Willow's heart.
She reached down to the golden ruby necklace laced around Willow's neck, lifting it gently and inspecting it.
"You must learn to stand alone, do not allow this festering affection to root any deeper. You are growing, transforming, ever-evolving. Do not let this attachment gain any momentum. Enjoy yourself child, play for great pleasure and gratification. But stay guarded always. Do not let your heart strings attach themselves."
Her gaze turned intense, the strength in her voice made Willow tremble, "You are bound to another. You know this! Nothing or no one else will ever be enough for you. You will never be satisfied. You were meant for Him. Your heart belongs to Him. You, belong to Him.
The woman traced a finger along Willow's jaw, smiling down at her before pressing a kiss to her lips, sending her world spinning.
Willow flung up from the bed in the Barons manor. Hair soaked with sweat, chest pounding, hands cramping from their tight grip on the sheets. Scrambling from the bed she raced into the bathroom. Staring into the mirror, she frowned at her reflection. She saw the woman she used to be staring back at her. She reached for the ruby and laced it around her neck. Her hand traced over the edges of the centre stone as she stared in thought. She knew not what the intentions behind the elegant gift were, nor did she know what her destiny was to be. She knew only that a story of ordinary romance was not in her fate.
She lit a lantern by the desk and composed a letter in finely scripted perfect cursive.

I am writing to you only for I find the spoken words evade me.
I do not know how to arrange my words to shield you from the brunt of them, as I do not know the motives behind your actions. So I shall be as honest as I am permitted to be.
I am bound to another, with ties much greater than any written contract. I have always belonged to Him. There are things in motion, a fate I am to walk, that not even I am completely aware of.
My heart and soul are not mine to give. Though my body, it is a tool for use in his service. Whether for assignment or reward, I may use it as I see fit.
The necklace is magnificent. Such beauty. A gift I would be honoured to bear.
But I must impress upon you, do not entangle your heart.
I do not claim to know your intentions. For it may be only sheer flattery, and our nights together only uncomplicated sinful pleasure. If this is the case, it is a pleasure I would be most eager to continue. But if it runs deeper, if your heart strings are trying to take root or your mind thinks of courtship, let us end this.
You are the pinnacle of strength, but even the mightiest of warriors can be damaged by the pain of the heart. There is no future of love with me.

Sneaking out into the hallway she slipped the note under his door and returned to her room. She stared at her face in the vanity mirror. The contours of her high cheek bones seemed sharper than she remembered, her eyes held an age she had not seen before. As she began to comb her hair back she stared at the fresh growth of jet black hair near her scalp. Quirking her head to the side, she smiled. Reaching for her dagger she grabbed a handful of her long auburn hair and slashed outwards. She dropped the mass of copper curls onto the bench. She continued around both sides and the back of her head, cutting off the red leaving only the black behind, wispy and jagged. Looking up as she sliced off the last dangling strands, she grinned. Black had always been her colour anyway.

Willow watched the sun breach the sky, sitting in the dressing room by the window, staring out across the rolling hills of Calliver Green. She slowly sipped her ginger tea, rolling out her ankles, stretching out her feet and toes. Her ears tweaked to the footsteps entering her room. She recognised Pellius’ wide stride as he walked around the bed and retreated back into the hallway. After finishing her tea, Willow draped her silk nightgown over her shoulders and strolled into the bedroom. A folded letter sat upon her pillow, her name written across it in fine script.

My Lady,
I fear your suspicions of my motives do contain some truths.
Allow me a brief explanation.
A life in the Chelaxian capitol has left me wary of courtly intrigues. Guards can be bought, judges intimidated, clerics corrupted. The baron is a selfish man, loyal only to himself. Think of the strength he would garner for revealing us to the Mitran dogs. I could not allow this uncertainty to threaten our mission. To this end, the necklace. While it is indeed a fine piece, entirely suitable for enhancing your charms, I am surprised to learn your quick eyes and keen hands have not yet located the hidden lockpick situated amongst the golden trim.
As to your fears of leading me astray, worry not. Although young, I am not some moon eyed lad who would fall to his knees at the sight of bosom, perfect though yours may be.
I think it is fair to say that we both understand that sex can be a very useful and satisfying tool. To have encountered such a skilled partner in one such as yourself has been very beneficial.
But as I write this, I will admit that I feel drawn to you. Though the others can bleat their words from a book and blindly follow His practices, I know it is you who holds true passion for our Lord. I feel it whenever you draw near, and to enable you is to serve Him.
While you and I are together, He shall flourish.
I have some new manacles I was hoping you could help me test out.
Bring the necklace and we'll see how long it takes you to finish.

As she read his words, her lips crept into a grin. She chuckled as she pulled the hidden lockpick from its crevice, thinking of the lockpick she had sewn into the seam of her undergarments. She laughed at herself, shaking her head at her worries of heartbreak. It seemed she had finally met some one who truly understood…

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