Thursday, 24 December 2015
Chapter 9 - Secrets of the Sons
The sun rose high, casting its light across the glittering lake that wound through the stretched of Farholde. The city awoke in bustling life, the streets filled with people and the chorus of cheer lingered through the air.
After the five of them had eaten breakfast, they headed towards the docks to meet the Seventh Knot. A woman of long white hair, and a heart as cold as the icy arcana she wielded, by the name of Elise led the band. She strolled off the ship with her nose in the air, surrounded by an aura of arrogance. Willow had to forcibly stop herself from rolling her eyes as the woman spoke about how fantastic she was to have completed her mission of eliminating certain commanders, ensuring no army could quickly come to the aid of Alden Cross. Two roguishly handsome twins, known as Trick and Track waltzed off the ship, Trick with his charming smile and Track with his scowl.
“Hello again. Hi. Hello.” Trick greeted the party, “Hello to you! We saw you lot in Thorn’s manor.”
He looked around the group, “Where’s the old man?” he asked Willow.
“In hell,” she scoffed.
“Ah,” Trick paused, shrugging he said, “Shame that. Who's this?”
Willow laughed as she introduced Bor and continued friendly banter with Trick. Garvana spoke to Elise and found out the details of her assignment here. Willow half listened as she spoke of watching their backs, having devised a plan to make sure no one would follow them to the Horn. Willow smiled, she could not imagine an arrogant creature like Elise being satisfied with playing second runner.
She spent the afternoon scouring the Hall’s library for any mention of Samuel Havelyn. She wasn't expecting to find a detailed account of his treachery, but she was disappointed to find nothing pertaining his namesake. Not a single mention of him at all.
Meeting up over dinner, Willow was impressed when she saw Bor had obtained a map of the Caer Bryr with the Horn of Abaddon circled in the centre. He had followed a lead on a missing elf, presumably the leader of the fourth knot, tasked with this mission before them and failed.
The group left town as the sun broke the horizon and shed its first light across the city. Walking through the dense brush leading into the great Caer Bryr, the rain poured heavy from above. The further they entered, the more impassable the surrounding forest became. The lush greenery sprouted in falls, the shades, shadows and dappled darkness muting the array of jade and carob hues. Rays of light pierced through the hooded canopy, illuminating the soft mist feathered through the range. Great stone spires stood in their majesty, painted with forestry, each a tapering conical point reaching to the clouds. The thickness of the humidity enveloped Willow in a rich swell. Looking to her left, she smiled at the marvel of nature, everything around her in flux – in some state of living, breathing, growing, decaying or dying. The water trickled through the unbroken emerald canopy of trees high above, she smiled upwards as she let the rain fall on her face. Looking to her right, she laughed as she saw Pellius walking in his ridiculous rain poncho, shielded from any and all elements.
Stefan, the guide Pellius had hired, led them through the forest with relative ease towards the south. As they reached the point marked on the map, they approached a large spire, tall grand and undistinguishable from every other spire in the forest. Willow marvelled at the height of the spires and the sheer presence they dominated. Using her imagination, Willow could picture the stone slab in front of her resembling a large upturned horn shape. Unfortunately, she could also make out the same picture with every other spire around them. The group approached it cautiously, nearing the base with uneasy feet, a cave entrance gaping behind bindings of thick vines.
“I wouldn't go in there if I was you,” said a deep wise old voice.
One of the nearby trees turned it trunk to face the group and slowly lifted its branches.
“Why not?” Teelee asked the Treant.
“This place,” the Treant said, ever so slowly, “is not a very nice place. Those that dwell here, are malign beings.”
“Greetings, Elder One,” Garvana bowed.
“Greetings, Child of the City.”
“We wish to enter this cavern, Elder One. We know of the malign beings, we shall disperse of them with no trouble,” Garvana said, eyes downcast in a show of respect.
“Be that as it may,” the Treant soothed, “You have happened upon the Horn of Abbadon. I am charged with a sacred duty to protect this place from the evil which wishes to always take root.”
“We do not wish to bring harm to this place,” Garvana lied.
“That is good,” the Treant breathed, “But I can not let you enter.”
“Who gave you the job to guard this place?” Willow asked.
“A very good man, a very long time ago.”
“Markadian, The Victor,” Willow smiled.
Pellius called out to the Treant after finding a single foot print on the ground.
“I believe someone has already breached this place,” he said seriously.
“We were sent here,” said Bor confidently, “To stop this villain breaching the seal, by Sir Valin, a descendant of the Victor himself!”
“By one of his line?” the Treant asked, “Why, did you not say so? If he, so trusted you with this task, then who am I, to say any different. You, may enter.”
Willow smiled and inclined her head to him as she passed, such a magnificent creature, she was sorry knowing he would burn with the rest of the country.
They pushed aside the vines and revealed a large cave mouth. Stalactites and stalagmites protruded from the rock in jagged erosions forming a toothy grin of a passage. Willow climbed over the rocks on light feet. As she landed she looked out into the total darkness, listening to the scurry of the den, the water echo of each droplet.
“Will you carry this for me, my lady?” Pellius asked, “I must hold my shield. Stay behind me, I will guard you.”
Willow lifted his lantern high and aimed it into the cave.
“Stefan,” Pellius called, “Have you ever been in a cave? Do you know what to do?”
Stefan looked to him, wide eyed and shaking, “No, no no, never.”
“Well we have, and we do, so stay close.”
“Will do!” he said as he fell in close.
“Stay beside me, but behind him,” Willow said sternly “Don't fall behind, I can not watch out for you if I can not see you.”
“Right you are,” he said, walking closer again.
Creeping though the opening passage she felt the ground melt beneath her feet. The thick layer of mud suctioned to her shoes as she crept into the cavern. The walls of sharp battered stone were slick with humid condensation, each winding crevice housing a silhouette of shadow and mystery. While the group pushed on silently, Willow focussed on the sounds of the cave. She could hear the shatter of small rocks as they dropped from the higher creases and the flow of a short stream or fall of liquid. But what she could not hear, was the creatures that lived in the cavern. They had made their way through many winding stone tunnels and not come across a single creature. Willow kept her dagger tight in hand at the ready.
As the path hardened and the stone underneath solidified, Willow heard Garvana muttering incantations, and turned to see her staring at a wall.
“There's something here,” she said distractedly.
“It's called rock,” Willow scoffed.
Garvana pushed hard on the stone wall and a door seam spilt into its side.
“Well,” Willow said, “I certainly did not expect that.”
Shining the lantern into the hidden room, revealed a spiral staircase winding upwards into darkness.
“We should clear this floor first,” Bor said, leading the way, “Wouldn't want anything to come sneaking up behind us.”
Following the curve of the passage way, they entered through a tight squeeze and came to a large open cavern. At the far end of the cave, sprawling across both sides of the room, was a boiling basin of mud. Steam was expelled from the bubbles that were simmering along the top of the dirt filled sludge. On the opposite side sat a ledge, housing an empty upturned chest tipped on its side.
“Suspicious,” Pellius uttered as he turned to face and guard the entrance.
Teelee walked closer and inspected the mud, “There's a touch of necromancy at work here.”
Willow paced back and forth across the cavern while Garvana and Bor lassoed the chest and dragged it across the mud. As the reached the solid ground, Willow bent down to inspect the chest lock, which had been brutally ravaged and left in pieces.
“Amateurs,” Willow scoffed.
“We've got company!” Pellius yelled.
They turned to see a group of boggards dancing on the edge of the lantern’s reach.
“Get behind,” Willow said quietly to Stefan, hearing Pellius and Garvana yell a warning.
The boggards let out fierce croaks that ricocheted off the caverns walls and echoed through Willow's head. She cringed and clamped her teeth shut, shaking it off as she took up a defensive stance. A frog creature larger than Willow's size bellowed his blood-curdling croak and charged towards Garvana. Foaming from the mouth, he swung his great sword wildly. While he was distracted, Willow snuck in behind him, barely dodging his erratic movements as he flung his sword around through the air. Exhaling deeply to focus, she plunged her dagger forward and stabbed the frog through the eye, flinging it out of its socket. The frog croaked loudly and seemed to fester his rage further, his attacks becoming quicker and more volatile. Garvana smashed her flaming mace down into the frogs foaming face, but although it left a concaved blackened welt, the frog did not so much as flinch. When Willow saw Bor charging towards the frogman, she dove out of the way, flipping gracefully towards another of the boggards. As Pellius cleaved his sword in warning to the smaller frog, Willow ducked in behind it and rammed her dagger through its throat, retching it upwards and splitting its face open in a shower of brains and blood. Pellius pulled his shield up just in time as the splatter landed, Willow laughed and deftly stepped out of its way.
“Impressive, my lady,” Pelius grinned to Willow.
As one of the small frogs tried to escape, Pellius clipped him over the head with the pommel of his longsword and Willow swiftly flung out her bow and shot the frog through the neck, dropping him to the ground.
“Why thank you, kind sir,” Willow grinned back.
A spiral of blackened wisps flickered through the air, as Teelee created a magic hole in the ground, the mud creating a vortex and sucking down the last of the smaller boggards. As Garvana and Bor fought the savage frog, Willow approached the pit. She stood by its edge and prepared to strike, waiting for the strange spell to end.
From the corner of her eye, Willow saw the large one charge towards Stefan. She was too late to draw her bow again, the great sword came carving across, slicing him in two with such force that he was flung from the edge into the boiling mud.
Bor raised his great axe and cleaved into the large frog, knocking him onto his knees, death closing in on him. From the side of the battlefield Pellius charged in with his longsword, stealing the killing blow, slashing his sword downward and ending in a shower of green blood. The frog fell to the ground, foam and blood pouring from his face and body. Bor hefted his axe high and dropped it down apace, cleanly hacking its head off.
As the pit began to cave in on itself, the frog dove out in the nick of time. Willow was ready, slicing deeply across its throat and pirouetting through the air back for another slice. As she span and carved her dagger across, she slashed the air. She looked down to see the frog's body impaled into the ground by a familiar longsword. Looking up she saw Pellius across the cavern with a smug grin on his face.
“Oh thank you my saviour,” she said sarcastically, dramatically bowing, “What ever would I have done without you?”
Surrounded by splatters of thickened black boggard blood, Willow stood and caught her breath. The bodies of the massacred frogs lay strewn about the cavern floor. While Pellius wiped down the sticky residue coating his blade and Garvana checked their guide for signs of life, Willow strolled to the bottle neck entrance. The body of the boggard she had shot down was gone. A thick smear of blood dragged away towards the right, around the bend and out of sight.
“Come on,” she called to the group, lifting the lantern along the trail.
As they rounded the corner, they saw the dying frog crumpled in the mud ahead, dragging himself towards the darkness. In the shadows lurked a cluster of beaded eyes, the rest of the boggard tribe, toeing the line of the lanterns light.
Garvana brandished her mace at them, deeply rumbling her voice.
“This is our cave now,” she called, “Leave or be slain!”
The boggards croaked in response seeming confused by her words and flew into a panic, abandoning their friend in the mud, clambering around before retreating into the huts aligning the walls.
Willow peered in one of the huts, a pair of mud covered boggards cowered in the far corner. She prowled through the camp, Pellius and Bor on either side of her. Garvana cased hut to hut in search of one that could speak a common language. While she struggled to get them to comprehend, Teelee approached the dying boggard bleeding out in the mud. As she messily shoved her dagger threw its throat, Willow frowned. She saw an opportunity in the fear induced submission these boggards were exhibiting.
At a strange frantic croaking, Willow turned and laughed. She saw a boggard dancing from foot to foot in front of Garvana, shaking his hands in the air, periodically pointing to the north of the cavern.
“I think he wants us to go that way?” Willow laughed.
Garvana hurried out of the hut, a strange metal helmet in hand.
“Come on,” she called, walking off towards the North, “The frog told me to go and see someone called Zikomo. Perhaps he can understand me.”
They approached a large dome shaped part of the cavern, water dripping steadily from it's ceiling, fluorescent green algae softly lighting it's walls. In the centre stood an elaborate hut, made from layers of mud, sticks and bones. The archway entrance was decorated with hanging vines of bone pieces and crusted strips of unsavoury leather. Smoke plumed from the apex of the hut, bellowing in soft clouds, the stench of incense seeping though the doorway. As they stepped inside, a large fire simmered in the centre of the hut. A scripted spiral adorned the wall, smeared in luminescent green paste, softly pulsing. Staring at it made the hairs on Willow's neck stand on end. Sitting cross legged to the left sat a small boggard, embellished with necklaces made from the bones of many different animals, wrapped in thin bands of leathers. He held a staff made of wood and fish bone, as he sat glassy eyed in a trancelike state.
Garvana cleared her throat loudly.
The Boggard, Willow presumed was Zimoko, turned his attention on the group.
“Ah,” he said slowly, clouded eyes gleaming, “The cave of the blue slime conceals your future. Learn its secrets or fail at your masters charge!”
Zikomo leapt from his seat and began to wail, bouncing from one foot to the other, dancing around the fire. As he yelled loudly, the fire rippled and flared with blue flame, pulsing in shades of sapphire. Garvana tried to question him further, asking of the caverns and his people, and for explanation on his prophetic words.
“Blue slime! Blue slime!” Zikomo cried, dancing passed, ignoring Garvana.
As Garvana struggled to obtain any answers, Willow saw Pellius’ lip twitch. He was ready to slaughter the frog and all of its kin. She trailed her fingers along his back as she passed him, stepping in the frog’s path, summoning the frightening hell fire from inside her.
“What reason do I have, not to massacre every last one of you?” she asked him fiercely.
Zimoko stopped in his dance, looking up at Willow calculatingly, staring back into her eyes. He inclined his head, “You who have slain Kumanda, we, are now yours.”
“And what does that mean, exactly?” Willow asked sceptically.
“The boggards will serve you, and Zikomo will show you the way,” he said, nodding his head, clearly satisfied with himself.
“Show us the way to what?” Garvana asked.
“To the Fathers return!” he called happily.
Zikomo danced on the spot, “You will return the Horn to greatness! And Zimoko, Chieftain, will show you the way!”
“Chieftain?” Willow questioned threateningly, eyebrows raised.
“Second, Chieftain,” he said respectfully.
Willow laughed as she exited the hut, leaving Garvana to converse with the frog.
The cave mouth to the west of the hut hung a wall of blue capped pointed mushrooms, a thin path had been worn in to the ground, weaving through the growth.
Bor reached down and snapped one from its stem, throwing it to Garvana before snapping off another for himself.
“They're delicious,” he said convincingly, tossing it into his mouth and chewing.
Garvana looked down at the soft skinned fungus, shrugging and taking a bite. As the foul flavour hit, she heaved, spitting it out across Bor’s chest, wiping her tongue with her sleeve. Willow chuckled and grimaced at his toothy grin in response, chunks of black mushroom stuck between his teeth.
Zikomo provided a boggard guide to show them through the rest of the tunnels in the caverns. They rounded a corner into a small cavern, it's rear walls littered with diamonds. Willow eyed it suspiciously, looking the ground over in front of her. From the corner of her eye she saw Garvana prance forward into the cave. Willow threw out her hand and grabbed Garvana’s collar, hauling her backward just in the nick of time, the floor falling away beneath her feet. A pit lay at the bottom, sharp stalagmites crudely protruding from the ground.
“Ah, thanks,” Garvana said, wide eyed.
Exploring further through the winding rock faces, covered in humid condensation, they approached a weather worn lip in the tunnel. Iridescent blue algae flickered along the walls inside the cavern, growing in large clusters, oozing its cerulean glow. As the group entered the mouth of the cave, the light glittered softly at their sides. The cave was empty, save a slender gap the corner, fitting nothing larger than a cat. Willow slid her hands along the crevice, testing the squeezing room.
“I'm pretty dexterous,” Willow mused, “But even I'm not slippery enough to fit through there.”
“There's something in there,” Garvana said thoughtfully, reading the magical auras, “Something powerful.”
“Get the boggards to dig it out,” scoffed Pellius.
Garvana smiled, “That's not a bad idea.”
After setting the task to the boggards, they returned to the southern caverns. Pulling free the large stone piece covering the secret stairwell, the group filed in one at a time. They crept up the winding spiral staircase surrounded by thick stone brickwork. As they reached the top of the staircase, they came upon a room covered in blackened ancient blood spray, battle scars littering the stone. In the corner lay two human skeletons, the bones sporting puncture wounds and blade marks. Both sets of bones lay heavily inside sets of rusted full plate armour bearing the heraldry of Vetra-Kali.
Ear against the only door in the room, Willow heard an odd sound. Two voices, conversing in cultured and impeccably mannered Abyssal.
“I say,” stated one voice, “I am quite peckish today. I believe it may once again be time to take a trip to where the boggards roam.”
“Perhaps,” spoke the other, “Though I do loathe the grittiness of boggard…”
Pellius came forward and threw the door open with force, confidently stepping inside.
“Oh look,” said the large daemon on the left, grinning widely, “It seems dinner, came to us.”
Two brutish looking ceustodaemons stood guarding a solid brick wall. Sharp elongated horns protruded from their skulls, large fangs hung from the mouths, thick heavy hooves shot from their legs. Standing at close to twice Willow’s height, built sturdy and wide, the two daemons looked hungrily down towards them.
The group spread out along the wall, Willow entered warily, keeping to Pellius’ shadow.
“May I request a moment of your time, Hexor and Vexor,” Garvana said politely, reading the runes carved into pendants around their necks, “before you attempt to devour us.”
“Oh my yes,” Vexor said dramatically, “We have been positively starved of stimulating conversation all these years.”
“How long has it been?” Garvana asked.
“Oh, a few decades,” Hexor answered, “Roughly eight or so.”
Willow listened intently, a plan beginning to form.
“There was another who passed this way, an elf?” Garvana inquired.
Vexor laughed, “Ah yes, he was delicious, if a little boney.”
“No great loss,” Willow scoffed.
Garvana spoke with the daemons, attempting to convince them to stay their attack.
“Perhaps,” Willow said softly, stepping forward, following her instincts, “We share a common goal…”
Hexor turned his gaze on her, “And what goal do you suppose that is?”
“We are here to unbind and free Vetra Kali,” she replied sharply.
“Indeed?” he said, grinning fiercely, “Well that would be most beneficial. Should you manage to succeed.”
He looked the group over, “I am ever doubtful, but I digress, I am ever intrigued. You may pass, the stairs beyond the wall lead to the sanctum. Unleash Vetra Kali if you are able…”
Willow felt the pulsing low in her stomach. A sickening battle for the ages. A twisted wave of evil energy being held at bay by an overwhelming aura of good. As they climbed the last of the stairs, they stepped into a fifty foot tall chamber, facing the balcony looking far and wide over the Caer Bryr. A loud crack of lightening had them spinning around in haste. Willow spun and stepped back, blades drawn. Her mouth dropped open as her eyes travelled up. Standing centre piece loomed a great statue, a carving made of green alabaster depicting the archdeacon himself, Vetra Kali. Frightening boned eldritch wings draped from its back, folded equine hooves sat under its bulk, a single serrated horn jutting from its forehead. Its face illustrated as a mantis skull, three symmetrical hollow gaping eyes, giving the Daemon Prince of Pestilence his insectlike appearance. Six arms stretched from his sides, taloned hands clawed three bowls and three daggers. The statue leered over the black stained altar at its feet. And finally, a large silver seal sat locked in its centre, layers of silver chain surrounding the statue from base to top. Willow cringed as she looked over the plague daemon and its silver prison.
Another loud crack from above had them jump back, eyes up, only now noticing the large flowing form of electricity huddled in the rafters. As the group looked it over, the mass swooped low, striking out as it sped through the air. Willow dove out of it way, rolling to her feet, slashing into the mass with her blade. She swore as she felt her hand slide straight the the form, tearing little damage along the way. The form reached out and latched itself onto Pellius, it's flashing tendrils wrapping around him. Willow flipped to his left and thrust her dagger forward it’s the sparking mass, whimpering as she felt Pellius surge with profane darkness. She sliced and slashed at it, following with her attacks as it slowly dragged Pellius towards the edge of the balcony. She saw Bor from the corner of her eye charging toward them, his glistening great axe above his head, as he cleaved downward into the form. The lightening pulsed, a sharp shudder of electricity as a chunk of oozing blue flesh ripped off it and splattered across the floor. Garvana ran from the other side of the room, arching her mace, slamming it into the form hard enough to shatter its tendrils, releasing Pellius as it fell backwards off the balcony.
Breathing heavily, Bor clapped Pellius on the shoulder, nodding firmly.
The group cautiously approached the seal, it's aura of goodness almost painfully overwhelming.
“Don't touch it,” Willow said quietly, “Mitra’s light will do nothing but harm to Asmodeus’ faithful.”
She prowled to the balcony and leaned forward over the railing, peering along the forested side of the Horn. She called out to the others as she noticed two sets of winding stairs spiralling up and around the base. The group decided to retreat back to Farholde to rest and restock, sourcing materials to help their progress.
Looking out along the horizon before she left, Willow marvelled at the majesty of the great spires littering the land. From this view, each spire seemed to be bowing in reverence to the Horn.
Swiftly tracking their way back to town, the group crept into the secret entrance to the Baron’s manor as the sun fell behind the horizon. Willow had a bath drawn as she penned a list of materials she needed to procure in the morning, top of the list being a scroll of stone shaping to open the cavern of the blue slime. She soaked for an hour, floating in the scalding hot water, draping her legs over the edge of the tub. Once her skin flushed pink and the water cooled, she stepped out, towelling herself dry and ruffling her hair. As she rubbed herself down with oils of cassia and liquid myrrh, she heard Pellius’ footsteps. She sauntered naked across the room, passing his approving grin, pulling out the canvas wrap from her bag. Unravelling the wrap on the bed, she offered an array of whips, floggers and crops, neatly organised tucked into the canvas.
She grinned sinfully, “Shall we worship tonight?”
Willow strolled through the markets, perusing the fine silk sheets and drapery. She traced her fingers along the soft materials, selecting the midnight black duvet to compliment the blood red slip and pillow coverings. She instructed the servant the Baron had provided which ones to carry and handed the merchant her velvet coin purse full of gold. The servant followed a respectful distance behind her while she glided from stall to stall. Her yellow sun dress swayed in the breeze, it's delicate lace layers flowing out behind her, a trail of intricate embroidery in a soft train. Weaves of yellow satin wrapped high around her neck, lacing back down into the boning of her corset. The golden and ruby necklace draped gracefully along her collarbone, it's deep red shine accentuating the red in Willow's eyes.
“Excuse me madam,” called a young pedlar, carrying a basket of flowers, “Only a rose as beautiful as this, could be worthy of your beauty my lady.”
He bowed to her, hand outstretched offering a single red rose, wrapped in a red silk ribbon. Willow laughed as she curtsied and accepted the rose, flicking the youth a gold coin. He grinned as he scurried away and Willow continued on, inspecting it suspiciously before gently lifting the rose to her nose to take in its fragrance. She noticed the fine sick ribbon wrapped around its stem, stiffer along one edge than the other.
After collecting a few more luxuries, she returned to the Barons manor before mid morning. She sent the servant to procure tea and biscuits while she set herself up along the dressing room desk. Gently unravelling the ribbon from the rose, she placed the flower in a slender glass vase. She sliced the end of the ribbon with the point of her dagger and slid out a sliver of parchment.
Sister Marta Dian. The Abbey. Tonight. 6 o'clock. Blade to the throat.
Willow smiled, holding the scrap of paper over the candle flame, watching it burn away into ashes.
Willow dressed herself in a simple peasants robe and strapped leather sandals, disguised as a young lay sister. No make up and a simple wrapped braid, she slowly dawdled through the city, heading for The Abbey.
“What can I help you with my dear?” asked a middle aged nun.
Willow smiled up at her, looking around brightly, she noticed the women dressed in their religious garb over chainmail shirts.
“I've just come into town, on my pilgrimage,” Willow said softly, “I'm Rosalyn Margaret Chadwick, a lay sister of Matharyn.”
“Well young Rosalyn,” spoke the sister firmly, “You'll be wanting to see the Hall of the Sun Victorious. Not the simple Abbey.”
Willow smiled at the sister, “It is not the large walls and structures where Mitra shines his light. A wall will be a wall long after I have passed it, I wish to see his light shining through his people.”
As the words lit up the sister’s face, Willow had to forcibly swallow the bile in her throat.
“Oh bless you child,” sighed the sister, “Come on in young thing. Would you enjoy a tour?”
Willow smiled graciously, “Very much so.”
Sister Cassandra Thia, as she introduced herself, guided Willow around the Abbey speaking of their history. She spoke of the Brides of Light, a female band of holy warriors. She told the tale of their founder, Saint Cynthia Celeste, famous for defeating the malicious ice devil Skathyl. Willow sighed as she laid eyes on the menacing wicked glaive strapped to the wall, frost coating its outside, banded in layers of silver chains.
She marked each exit in her mind, each door to each room, scanning for the quickest and cleanest escape roots. She noticed the arrangement of the beams throughout the rafters, spread across the entire Abbey, large enough to support a slender framed woman.
“Sister,” Willow said thoughtfully, “This morning I overheard the towns folk speaking exceptionally kindly about Sister Marta Dian. I'd love to know her tale, better yet, I'd be honoured to meet her. Do you suppose it at all possible?”
Sister Thia smiled fondly, leading the way, “Sister Dian is responsible for defeating an entire horde of zombies single handed.”
“Zombies?” Willow blurted, faking shock, “Oh how terrifying!”
As they came upon a group of nuns running training drills, Sister Thia called out to Sister Dian. An average looking woman, plain mousy hair, with a natural up turned nose. Willow smiled softly at her as she approached.
“I've heard such wonderful things about you from the townspeople ,” Willow lied, “they truly admire you. You should be very proud Sister Dian.”
Quietly spoken she smiled, “I am only glad the ordeal is over, and the danger has passed.”
Her modesty made Willow cringe.
“Do you hold an evening mass here?” she asked innocently.
“Why of course,” said Sister Thia brightly, “Five o'clock sharp.”
“Will you be joining us?” asked Sister Dian.
Willow smiled, “I'm afraid I've already promised myself to a group of children for a rematch of hackeysack,” she chuckled, “But perhaps I can join tomorrow evening.”
“Not the children from the Vandermir orphanage?” asked Sister Dian, looking concerned.
“I believe they may be,” Willow said, acting confused, “Why do you ask?”
“You best watch your coin purse down there,” she said bitterly, “most of those kids would serve us better in jail.”
Willow softened her gaze, “They are children. Mitra’s children. Mitra teaches us forgiveness, open hearts and open arms. A second chance without judgement may be all they need.”
Sister Dian stared back at her and said harshly, “You’ll regret that second chance when you’re lying dead in a gutter with your throat cut.”
“Perhaps,” Willow mused lightly, “But if it is my destiny to end up there, then it will happen with or without caution. Perhaps it would be that which taught a lesson to one child alone, forcing him to change his ways, helping him find Mitra's light. Then I say, it shall have been worth it.”
Willow smiled and swallowed firmly. She was always amazed at how easily she could convincingly spin utter rubbish.
“Mitra's light on you child,” Sister Dian said graciously, “a selfless sentiment, worthy of our Shining Lord.”
Willow smiled kindly, keeping her rolling eyes on the inside.
After a while longer in conversation, as the sun began to set, she excused herself and left the Abbey. She strolled casually into an alleyway around the corner and used the magic of the circlet to morph her appearance. She stripped off the peasants robes, revealing her tight black leather underneath, the armour she had commissioned to be slick to her skin and silent.
Creeping around the side of the Abbey, Willow deftly climbed the lattice work of the balcony to the main living area on the top floor. Hiding among the shadows, climbing into the high rafters of the Abbey as the sun passed behind the horizon, signalling the arrival of six o'clock. As the Sisters left the great prayer hall, Willow hung from the rafters, waiting for her opportunity. She spotted Sister Dian, smiling and patiently listening to one of the more boisterous nuns, walking towards the dining hall. Willow quietly followed, climbing between beams, keeping out of sight.
She saw her chance when Sister Dian veered off from the group, heading for the bathrooms. As she closed the main door behind her, Willow pounced. She dropped from the great beam and struck from the rear, grabbing the Sister by the hair and reaching around with her dagger.
“Mitra’s light cannot shine on what it cannot see,” she whispered menacingly.
She slashed along the sisters throat, showering the bathroom in a frightening display of blood splatter. Willow released her grip on Sister Dian’s hair and let her body crumple to the floor, the blood pooling across the concrete ground. She swiftly sheathed her blade and retreated back into the rafters, climbing up the large dressers along the wall, leaping to the wooden beams connecting the ceiling.
She grinned as she climbed back down the lattice work, hearing a chorus of terrified screams bounding through the halls. She quickened her pace, sprinting for the shadowed alleys of the city.
Sitting along the large oak table in the Baron’s dining room, the group dined on fine roast duck and discussed their current plans.
“Bor, will you ask the Baron something for me?” Garvana asked.
“Of course, what is it?” Bor answered, sounding intrigued.
“I need a blacksmith. One who won't ask questions.”
The group turned and looked to Garvana.
“I think we should arm the boggards,” she said confidently, “They may be mere amphibians, but they could be quite useful if given the right tools.”
“What do we do about those daemons, Hexor and Vexor?” Teelee piped up.
“We leave them where they are for now,” Willow replied smoothly, “They are there to guard the sanctum, so let them. We shall disperse of them once they are no longer useful.”
“Willow's right,” Bor agreed, “For now they are stopping anyone else from interfering with the sanctum.”
She smiled, “They need not know they are disposable.”
When the sky was at its darkest that night, Willow woke to a blade pressing into her throat. Switch leaned in close, his lips mere millimetres from hers. Willow pushed up gently, forcing the blade in firmer, far enough to trace her tongue across his lips. She heard his sharp intake of breath and smiled. She dropped her head back and looked deep into his eyes, the intense lust burning there only fuelling her own. Slamming the dagger into the mattress next to her head, he forced her face to the side and bit down firmly on her neck. She groaned as her back arched, thrusting her body against his.
She despised him. Everything about him disgusted her. His smug attitude, his appalling manners, his severely lacking vocabulary. But his repulsiveness only seemed the fan the flame she felt when he was around. His arrogant air of dominance stirred something primal in her.
She carved her nails deep into his shoulder blades. He grunted, biting down harder in retaliation. Willow screeched and giggled, growling at him as he unlatched from her.
She laughed as he tore himself away, chest heaving he strode to the cabinet, helping himself to her whiskey. He poured a single nip into a tumbler, but drank long and hard straight from the bottle. His breathing slowed as he wandered back and sat next to the bed, handing Willow the glass and taking another swig himself. Running his hand along his head, rolling out his shoulders, he laughed.
“Most impressive performance today,” he chuckled, “Clean and convincing.”
Willow sat up against the wall, the sheet barely covering her chest, she smiled and inclined her head.
“You’re a fantastic liar,” he mused.
“I say! How rude!” she exclaimed in mock outrage.
“Lies just sing their way from your lips,” he laughed, “A lay sister? An innocent untouched child of the faithful? Ha!”
Willow laughed and batted her eyelashes innocently at him.
“Oh sacred and untouched I am,” she said wide eyed, “Would you care to desecrate me?”
She watched the heat flare in his eyes as he stood and looked away. He grabbed Willow’s nightgown and threw it to her.
“If we are going to do this,” he said sternly, looking across the room, “We need to keep some things separate.”
“Yes sir,” Willow chuffed, pulling the nightgown over her shoulders.
“I will offer this once,” he said seriously as he turned to her, “There is no going back. You've been given the opportunity to join the ranks of the sacred covenant of assassins, the Black Serpent Coterie. You've been tested and passed with full marks. I, Jonathan Cadwell Swichlem, take responsibility for your training and tutorage. I will be your mentor and your teacher. You are required only to give your dedication and your silence. Secrecy is our greatest ally as we strike from the shadows. Do you, Willow Miryah Monteguard, accept this offer?”
Willow’s lip curved up in a grin, “I accept.”
“Very well, apprentice,” he said, returning her grin.
He reached into his cloak and lifted out a glistening red dagger. Willow sighed at the sight of it. It was her beauty, her heart, her soul. Her personal dagger crafted out of solid ruby, enchanted with dark unholy magic, the touch of Asmodeus himself. Passed down to her by her Great Grandfather Cassidus II. She stared at it lovingly a while before she realised Switch was still holding it.
“What is this?” she queried, scrunching her nose up.
“You know exactly what it is,” he said wickedly.
She crawled from the bed and reached gingerly for the dagger before quickly attempting to snatch it. He swiftly sheathed the blade back into his cloak.
“You can have it back,” he chuckled, “When you can take it from me.”
Pulling out a second dagger from the other side of his cloak, he flipped it up at Willow, she caught it mid air. The dagger was long and curved, slender and graceful, but terribly deadly. The thin blade had been carved to penetrate deep and swiftly dispose of its victim.
“Use this,” Switch said, “It'll serve you well, until you're ready for the other.”
“It's beautiful,” Willow breathed, tracing her finger lightly up its blade, “Thank you.”
“Don't thank me yet,” he clipped, “You've got a lot to learn. I will teach you, but you are to do exactly as I say. You are to follow every command I give you.”
“Every command?” she asked sinfully, quirking an eyebrow.
In a breath Switch had Willow pinned against the wall, her legs wrapped around his waist, his hands wrapped around her throat.
They left the manor as dawn approached, trekking through the rain forest quickly, making it to the Horn by midday. They crept passed the resting Treant, sneaking through the mud of the winding tunnels towards the rear of the cavern.
“We have bought with us iron for the boggards,” Garvana said, placing the pile of basic armour and weapons outside Zikomo’s hut.
“Thank you, Third Chieftain,” Zikomo replied, bowing his head, “The boggards have already repaid your service, making progress on your tunnel and capturing an intruder.”
“An intruder?” Willow queried.
“Yes, First Chieftain,” he replied respectfully, making Willow smirk, “We, the boggards, have captured the intruder.”
“Take us to him,” said Garvana.
“As you wish, Fifth Chieftain.”
Willow muffled a laugh as Zikomo lead the way to the shabby cell, two boggard guards posted on either side of its door. Garvana dismissed them, opening the door and waltzing in. Willow slipped in and leant back against the side wall, crossing her arms, relaxed but ready.
Garvana questioned the intruder, finding that he was actually a simple fisherman, who had been harvesting his usual catch, a far distance from the caves. Willow grew impatient, listening to the back and forth between the confused prisoner and Garvana, forming a shaky agreement. She did not trust any deal they made. She did not trust this peasants’ promise, made in desperation in exchange for his life. A few boggards and their strange human friends were little threat when he could turn to the authorities. Certain authorities that would be very interested to know that a strange group of humans were conspiring for any reason inside the Horn of Abbadon.
Willow crept on silent feet, unnoticed as she snuck into the shadows behind the captive. She drew her dagger from it's sheath, quietly stepping forward, raising the blade slowly. As she approached, she caught Pellius’ eye. He shook his head softly, giving her that look that said he had a plan. Willow huffed, disappointed, but obedient for now.
The prisoner, Hask he called himself, made an agreement to deliver half of all of his catch once a week to the boggards. As Garvana checked with Zikomo if the deal would satisfy him, to which he agreed, Pellius approached Hask.
“If you conceive the idea to betray us,” he said threateningly, removing a vial of blood from his pocket, imprinting his thumb into the prisoners forehead, “Know you have been marked. We will find you.”
“Will you have your men escort Hask back to his fishing hole?” Garvana asked Zikomo.
Willow leaned in close to the prisoner, who had not noticed her.
“Unharmed!” she commanded fiercely, making Hask jump in fright, “For now…”
Gathering after the commotion of sending the prisoner off, the group headed to the blue slime covered cavern to check on the boggards progress. Unexpectedly impressed, Willow raised her eyebrows at the two metre deep missing rock. Pellius pulled out the scroll, handing it to Teelee. She made a dramatic fuss over the unravelling of the parchment, calling the words loud and strong. As the magic reformed the stone and split it down the middle, Willow watched Zikomo. He sipped on a steaming brew from his horn and smiled, misted eyes rolling.
“This is good,” he said from his trance.
Willow prowled forward on light feet, stepping along the firmer patches of ground. Sprawled across the floor, a caustic lime encrusted skeleton draped in shreds of time weathered fabrics. Still wrapped in it’s grasp lay a black leather bound tome, the remainder of a shattered vial spread at its feet. Willow lifted the tome from its boney fingers, and noticed a glint of light reflect upon something tucked in a tattered pocket. She smiled as she gently lifted it out and held it to the light, a large shining exquisite emerald. She slipped it into her pocket and stood, flicking through the tome while Garvana and Teelee read the magic of the cavern.
“The Dirges of Apollyon,” Willow read aloud, “Chronicles of the Pale Horsemen.”
Willow perused through the pages, marvelling at the rarity of the book.
“This would be worth a for-
She stopped on the last page, “Oh, hello!”
Willow walked over to Pellius, handing him the book, the last page open revealing a hand written letter.
He quickly skimmed its contents, “The ritual!”
Perched upon the ledge, Willow read the letter aloud.
“Behold our shame that we, the Sons of the Pale Horsemen, failed in our darkest hour to defend our prince the undying and ever malevolent Vetra-Kali Eats-the-Eyes. But I have seen it! I have seen the road to repentance!”
He spoke of a ritual, performed over two hundred and twenty two days. A practice in which they would have to speak six hundred and sixty six prayers. Each day, bathing the seal in unholy water and intoning three prayers from the Dirge; Supplication to Darkness, Cursing of the Light and Call Across the Void.
“Blessed day!” she read, “Be ready, my brothers. His eyes have been stolen from him. Return them and the Prince will honour ye with one task for each. For the Eye of Vigilance ask only for his mercy upon we mortals and plead that he do ye and yours no harm. For his wroth will be great. For the Eye of Hatred ask for his greatest gift – the Tears of Achlys so that once more every corner of the world may know his mercy. For the Eye of Withering ask what ye will for in his gratitude he must answer your charge. And then, behold, the Prince restored. All shall know his blessings of pestilence and despair…”
Willow closed the book and sat in thought, the others beginning to bicker amongst themselves. Seven months was a long time to stay unnoticed. The boggards were a helpful defence but they would need a whole lot more to if they were going to make this work.
“But what are the eyes?!” Teelee called.
Willow frowned, tracing her hand over the lump in her pocket. She pulled out the emerald and stared down into it.
“This is one,” she whispered quietly in realisation, “Garvana!” she called, “You said this was strongly magical, could this be one of the eyes?”
Garvana frowned, looking the emerald over, “It's the best guess we've got.”
The group began to argue about how to proceed when Willow became too frustrated.
She leapt off the ledge, heading towards the outside, “There's two other levels to this place that we know of, let's figure out what else is here before we panic, alright?”
Climbing the outside of the densely forested horn, Willow prowled up the stairs, following closely behind Pellius. She chuckled as she found herself thanking his cuisse armour piece for the way it curved into his backside with every step.
“Nice view,” Bor muttered.
Willow smirked sheepishly, turning to look back at him. She laughed as she saw Bor’s devilish grin with his eyes on her own backside, coated in slick skin tight black leather.
Reaching an open door made of stonework bricks, they entered as quietly as possible. Willow frowned at the entrance hall. Arrow slits lined both sides of the room, panelled tiles lined the floor, an iron barricade at the far end of the passage. Willow tapped Pellius on the shoulder before he stepped forward. She passed him and lightly crept from brick to brick, searching for any signs of tampering, listening and feeling for any irregularities. She prowled below the arrow slits, far enough until she was sure there were no traps, nodding to Pellius and allowing him to pass her. They searched room by room, Willow's suspicion growing with each empty chamber. She checked each door over before Pellius burst through it, but although signs of a brutal massacre stained the walls, the base was empty. They found an entire set up there. An armoury, a forge, a guard post, a jail cell, a holding cell, a throne room, even a tavern.
They entered a room tiled with plaques, what appeared to be a trophy room. The trophies had been removed long ago, leaving behind only their owners name and a few words on their death. While the others moved on, Willow traced her fingers along the crevices of Ergun Nigma, noting that the plaque sat out a few millimetres further than the others. She slid her nails in behind the plaque and gently pulled. The plaque slid outwards, attached to a metal rod connected to the wall. Willow softly turned the plaque, feeling the faintest of clicks beyond the stone after turning it to the left three turns. She smiled as she softly spun it back the other way, feeling the click after only a single turn, winding it back towards the left for a final two turns. As she swivelled into the last latch, the lock clicked loudly, opening a hidden panel in the stonework. Willow laughed, pulling out fifty five pieces of shining platinum and a large solid ruby. Reaching into the back of the wall safe, she pulled out a pair of silver manacles and threw them to Pellius, a wicked grin on her lips. Teelee seemed to miss the sexual tension and went about examining the manacles and muttering incantations.
“There's some kind of charm on them,” she muttered, “A compliance charm…”
Willow stalked away, heading on to the next room, pausing as she passed Pellius.
“There's no need for that,” she whispered sinfully, “You know I always do as I'm told.”
His dastardly laugh was music to her ears.
As they entered the next room, Willow heard his sharp intake of breath. An old torture room. A broken rack lay in the centre with its bindings cut, and a dismantled iron maiden smashed to pieces had fallen heavily in the corner. Various tools of sadistic whim laid strewn about the room, it's benches and shelves in disarray.
“Salvageable,” Pellius murmured to himself.
While the rest of the group continued on towards the throne room, Willow leaned up against the door frame, watching Pellius’ mind race with possibilities. She didn't need to say anything, the wicked gleam in his burning red eyes said enough.
Willow read through a journal she had found while she walked through the throne room. She looked over the throne as she read about a peculiar situation when the owner of the diary had seen someone vanish while sitting in it. Scrawled along the bottom of the throne was a simple inscription in Abyssal – Yah. A nonsense word with no meaning. Willow made note to ask Garvana or Teelee about it later. She trailed back past the large stone pillars supporting the ceiling and paused as she heard an echo. She knocked on the closest pillar and smiled at its resonating ring. She guessed that was where their secret spiral staircase to the sanctum was hidden.
“This place has potential,” Pellius called to Willow, “We could achieve much from here.”
Willow looked around her and up to the throne decorated in Vetra-Kali’s insignia, picturing it draped in red and black, a large inverted pentagram defacing the wall.
“The start of a kingdom,” she whispered, heart racing, “And it shall be His…”