Tuesday, 1 March 2016
Chapter 12 - Kazahrah Voh
The condensation clustered and grouped as it formed around each light footprint littered along the roof tiles. Willow followed their lead as she silently slunk along the top of the building. They trailed to the east of the city. Farholde stretched out along the expanse, it's populated hill tops visible in clusters of buildings. The footprints lead towards the upper district, Estell.
Willow had made her way back to the city of Farholde for mundane and arcane supplies. The group had been tasked with jobs of their own, most relating to the defence of their lair. After Bor had returned from his successful mission with the boggards, he and Pellius had taken on the task of detaining and relocating their animal captures into the lower caverns of the Horn. Garvana had begun her self appointed quest of the conversion of the peasants they had obtained. Teelee busied herself overseeing the restoration of the second level performed by the carpenter and his men. Willow knew better than to think overseeing meant anything more than standing around huffing useless orders with hands on her hips.
Willow however, had volunteered to travel to Farholde, in search of the items they required. Her underground contacts enabled her to procure odd items with no questions. Items such four scrolls of plant growth and one of charm monster, a masterwork set of smithing tools, three potions of invisibility, and a small assortment of poisons.
Earlier that morning, she had left the Horn as dawn reached out to smother the teetering stone slab in its blessing, the light illuminating the seas of greenery swarming and encasing the spire’s purpose. She traveled quickly on her own, no heavy armour to slow her down, no thudding footsteps to give her position away to stalking predators. Well before midday, she arrived at the hidden black market, stepping through the buzzing atmosphere of Farholde’s infamous thieves and fences. She found Martin in his office and shared a companionable brew of tea over a passion fuelled debate of the twin Baracus poets; Lesimet and Darainet Luthergrow. Willow smiled, rolling her eyes as Martin finished another one of his speeches, all arrangement of words meaning the same thing; I am right, you are wrong, I shall not listen. She smiled, because out of all the things she’d missed from her pampered life of nobility, it was the intellectual banter of two who understood the importance and beauty in the written language. Words could be arranged to have any effect they desired. Certain arrangements could pierce the heart of a man, shattering his ego or confidence, the words immune to the barriers of the steel armour encasing the man's body. Other arrangements could let the heart believe the impossible or trust the implausible, leaving the man defenceless against betrayal. A man or a woman, Willow thought nostalgically.
“Ah, I almost forgot,” Matrin said, reaching for a small scroll in his pocket, “I was to deliver this to you when you dropped by today.”
Willow frowned in suspicion, “How did you know I was coming?”
Martin chuckled, “He is a clever man. Cocky and arrogant, but clever nonetheless.”
Willow unfurled the small slip of parchment.
The more you make, the more you leave behind.
Willow’s frown deepened, she had heard this riddle as a child. Her grandfather had always given her riddles as homework before he ended her studies. He knew well that a quick body would never be enough without a quick mind behind it.
Footprints. But what was she supposed to do with the riddle? She raised her eyebrow at Martin in question.
He smiled, saying softly, “The look that could seize an empire.”
Willow smiled but cocked her eyebrow further, not allowing herself to be distracted in his flattery. He chuckled again.
“He said to point you in the direction of the sky,” he said, “Not that I know what use you have of footprints in the sky…”
Willow finished her cup and farewelled Martin as she retreated to the blackened night encasing the cities side streets. On silent feet she trailed away from the hidden passage, approaching the bustling marketplace filled with rather more legal wares. As Willow mused the riddle, casually browsing the stalls of silk and satin, the humid yet cold mist licked the bare skin of her face and neck. She had not worn one of her beautiful gowns on her hastened return to the city. Instead, she had strapped on her blackened leather armour - slick, tight and silent. She stood to the side of the street, scanning the night sky and the peaks of the buildings above. She quirked her head to the side as a hunch formed. Creeping into an alley way shielded from the light of the street, she climbed the boarded windows and pulled herself onto the slanted ceiling. She smiled. Footprints trailed along the roof tiles towards the east. On light feet she toed along the roof, the magical lens she wore enhanced the outlines of each print, making them easier to follow in her quickened tracking. The hook of the small lens sat crested atop her ear, stretching its delicate bronze limb towards her right eye, forming a thin clear lens over her sight. The magic it held helped her seek each footstep ahead of her. She leaped across the close knit clusters of buildings, from house to house she followed the alluring trail. As she reached a fork in the arrangement of the town, the footprints seemed to split into two separate paths. Both trails lead in separate directions, no backtracking lead around or from either, it was as if one person had spilt into two. Willow eyed the prints with distrust. She frowned as she examined each. Both were the exact same size, from the same boots and presumably the same feet. Only when she inspected the prints closely did she noticed the slightest difference. The tracks that lead towards the left held a fraction more condensation, giving Willow the impression they'd been left earlier than those to the right. She made her decision and followed the winding path of prints heading to her right. After tracking across the city skyline for the better part of an hour, she found herself standing on a large hall in the middle of the warehouse district. The footprints simply stopped. The hairs on her neck rose as she felt the touch of eyes on her. She crouched low and waited. Switch had set up ambushes for her before, men hiding in shadowed alleys with simple instructions - kill her. Her orders were of practicing vital points, wounding and incapacitating her attackers, but not killing them. Tonight felt different. There were no close-by nooks or crannies, no hiding spaces where men could reach her in time to surprise. She eyed the buildings around her, their blackened windows shielding their contents from her sight. Suddenly, she heard the snap of a bowstring, an arrow being loosed. She dove and tucked, the arrow skimming her shoulder and scattering across the rooftop. Four more snaps and she deftly dodged and rolled out of each of their attacks. Willow danced across the tiles, moving too quickly for any of the arrows to reach their target. After a few minutes, the attacks ceased. She eyed her surroundings warily. As she spun in her low crouch, she didn't hear the cock or launch of the crossbow. The bolt pierced her shoulder, missing any vital organs, but splitting the skin and embedding itself deep into muscle. The pain screamed through her shoulder, but Willow knew better than to pay any attention to it. She inhaled sharply, pulling the pain deep into the pits of her stomach, letting it fuel the power pulsing through her veins. She kept her senses acutely aware of her surroundings, paying attention to more than just her sight and hearing. Switch had proven the seemingly endless extent of his magical abilities, or at least his boundless access to magical items. He could hide himself in the shadows of the starlight, he could mask his footsteps, his breathing, his every sound. But he could not control the slight rumble on the tiles that Willow felt through her the soles of her scuffed light boots, the weight of his amble towards her. She waited patiently until she was certain he was within her reach. In a single heartbeat she swung her leg wide, sweeping his legs out from under him and pouncing to attack as she unsheathed her dagger. Switch feel onto his back heavily and a look of surprise raised his eyebrows. A momentary change, he grinned in his dark and disarming way before leaping to his feet daggers at the ready. He matched Willow with each blow, blocking her advances, using his greater strength and weight to force her steps backwards. Willow couldn't keep herself from grinning in turn, ducking his wide swing, tumbling to the side and launching another flurry of attacks. He was by far stronger than her, but her lighter weight meant that she was quicker and more nimble. She used this to her advantage, slicing small welts on each side of his torso, retreating again to gain some footing. As usual, he mockingly wore little armour. Burnt bronze coloured vambraces strapped to his forearms and matching greaves on his shins. He wore a black cotton shirt, buttons hanging free from his neck to his chest, revealing a sprinkling of dark hair along his chest. His regular black pants close fitting yet lose enough to give him freedom of movement. He wore no armour on his torso, blatantly displaying his lack of worry that anyone could be quick enough to reach him. Willow loved the challenge, and the better she became with the skills he taught her, the more she used them to show him he had a reason to worry.
“Tsk,” he huffed, rolling out of the reach of Willow's dagger, examining the cuts, “This was a perfectly good shirt. How little respect you have for fashion.”
Willow smirked, side stepping under his attack, “Perhaps it says something of my opinion regarding your sense of fashion.”
He laughed as he leaped forward in an overhead blow, swiping his blade through the air so quickly that Willow had trouble darting passed, the tip of the dagger barely missed her outstretched fingers. She dove to the right, tumbling across the roof tiles, spinning up into a defensive stance. He winked, turning from her and dashing away across the building, leaping to the adjacent roof. Willow swore under her breath and took off after him, following closely on his heels. She laughed as she leapt over the gap between buildings, soaring through the air, the wind flicking her short stands of jagged black hair against her forehead. Every few buildings Switch would stop and attack, his powerful blows pushing her back a few steps. But with each training session they had, they grew more evenly matched. That was at least until her made use of his magic. Willow knew of magic that could make someone impossibly fast, and when Switch made use of this - she had no chance. He leaped at her with frightening speed, using his dagger to carve a small ‘S’ in between the joins where her breastplate met, the centre of her chest. He leaped back, smirking in a clear sense of arrogance. Willow looked down at the letter, now seeping bright red blood.
“Your hubris knows no bounds,” she said, rolling her eyes, “Do you feed your ego by marking all of your apprentices?”
“Only the pretty ones,” he said with a devilish grin, returning his dagger to its sheath.
“You'll have to excuse my inability to be flattered by that,” she replied patronisingly.
As they seemed to be taking a reprieve from the nights training, Willow inspected the bolt she had forgotten was wedged in her shoulder. The metal rod had penetrated cleanly through to pierce the back of her shoulder, she clenched her teeth and yanked it back through to front. Luckily, Switch had begun using headless bolts for easier removal. The grunt that seeped from Willow’s lips at the pain, unfortunately came out more like a moan, earning her a knowing grin from Switch. As Willow reached for the healing vial in her belt pouch, her eyebrows shot up as she heard him quietly reciting a line from an ancient sinister poem.
“All the joys of the flesh, all the sorrows that wear out the soul, wert thou once pure…”
Willow whispered as she finished the verse, “When desire took thee first by the throat?”
Switch’s eyes met hers as ripple of fear and pleasure swept though her.
“Who are you?” she heard herself breathe.
He only grinned and shook his head, “Ah, the all important unanswerable question.”
The poem was a verse nearly a millennia old, one scripted by an unknown author, the script found in an ancient cavern in the Mindspin Mountains. Scholars had debated for centuries about it origin and content. Willow had read its entirety in the secret library of her families manor. Filled with forbidden lore and profane scripture, ranging in age from the beginning of the last two millennia. The poem was entitled Our Lady of Pain. She had also read her ancestors musings on the literature. Arlond Cassidus Monteguard had believed the masochistic writings had been written in reference to one of Asmodeus’ Whore Queens - Doloras. She ruled the domain of pain, dispassion and detachment. Her worshippers held that she preached the abandonment of emotion for an unfeeling difference, pain being only a tool that was useless in the face of one who embraced it. Willow had grown to understand her meaning far better than any of those in her bloodline. She had always been drawn to the masochistic teachings of Doloras. She had never mentioned this to anyone. She suspected Switch had entered her families sacred cellar for him to have procured her ruby dagger. The idea of her family handing over something so clearly profane was inconceivable, as they would be handing over irrefutable evidence of their heresy. It was also unlikely that Switch had inspected the walls of forbidden lore and happened upon the very poem she felt so drawn to.
“How do you know of that script?” she asked warily.
He smiled and said simply, “There is much you don't know of me.”
Willow frowned, drinking down the healing vial, feeling her wound begin to knit together. Switch slowly circled her, a mischievous grin on his lips.
“But perhaps I'd be willing to tell you.”
Willow scoffed, “And how high is the cost?”
“I propose a game,” he said smoothly, “Each hit you land against me earns you a question about me, and I must answer truthfully.”
Willow cocked her eyebrow, “And the catch?”
“Each hit I land against you earns me a question.”
She frowned, thinking of her closely guarded secrets. There were things hidden in her mind that she had never revealed to anyone, nor was she ever planning to. She also could not reveal anything of Cardinal Thorn and his task.
Seeing her reluctance, Switch sighed, “Do not fear, I will not ask of your mission or your plans. You are playing a dangerous game with that, and I never throw my cards in with someone until I am sure they will win. So for now, the less I know the better.”
“No magic,” she stated.
“No magic,” he agreed.
Willow smirked, answering despite herself, “I accept the terms.”
The grin on his face spread. He held out a hand in a mocking bow.
“When the lady is ready.”
Willow laughed and reached to accept his hand up, but instead of pulling her weight up she unsheathed her dagger with her other hand and spun on her knees, slicing the blade delicately along his stomach. She tumbled out of his reach and leapt to her feet, noting the bottom half of his shirt hanging free.
“The poem,” she demanded, struggling to control the smug look on her face, “How do you know of it?”
He chuckled, “She shows her colours,” he commented quietly, twirling his dagger in his fingers, “I grew up in Cheliax, where profane texts were not forbidden to read but encouraged. The boys and I found a copy of it in the library tomes. The rest of them laughed at the oddity of a woman enjoying pain, I however, found the quality quite endearing.”
Willow couldn't help but grin, “So you're a sadist?”
He laughed as he launched his attack, “That is two questions, and a poor choice of query if you have to ask it to know the answer.”
Willow chuckled as she tumbled under his arm, slashing her dagger out barely skimming his side. He spun and feinted to the left, lashing out with his blade to the right. A move Willow fell for and cursed as it sliced through her forearm. He retreated slightly, circling her with paced footsteps.
“What did you see in your husband? Why did you marry him?”
Willow frowned. She had no clue what sort of things he’d ask, but questions of her husband were at the bottom of the list.
“That's also two questions,” she noted as she mirrored his steps, “But they are similar reasons, so I'll allow it. Position and power. His family line may have been below my own, but as a Knight of Alerion he held much sway in the way of this land. He was also naïve enough to see me as the delicate maiden of innocence that I am.”
Switch burst out laughing as she fluttered her eyelashes, leaving her a clear opening in his defence. She dove towards him and hacked her dagger along his thigh and again along his torso before she continued through behind him. He wasn't distracted for long enough, he quickly turned as she passed him and drew his blade hard along her lower back.
“Ladies first,” he said, facing her and beginning his circle again.
She fingered her dagger, ignoring the pain of the deep gash on her back, “Why did you come to Talingarde?”
“I was shipped here as an adolescent,” he said with little enthusiasm, “My parents thought by sending me to a peaceful non oppressive land that I would break away from the slums of my station.”
Willow frowned, “Oppressive? Were not your family Asmodean?”
Switch scoffed, “They revered the Prince out of fear alone. A fear that controls them, though they would not call themselves Asmodean.”
He continued his predatory circling, “That was your second question. I do believe the turn is mine. The stud, what do you see in him?”
Willow frowned again, “The stud? Pellius?” she laughed as she saw an envious twinkle in his eye, “I suppose it is that he is strong. His body is a well crafted force of might, and his mind is a stubbornly faithful whirlwind of power. He is also frightfully skilled in making a woman's body feel things no proper lady would speak of...”
Willow suddenly leap towards him, arching back under his reactive attack, his dagger narrowly missing the tip of her nose. She launched herself forward, her body inches from his, and pressed her dagger to his throat.
She leaned up, her face so close that her lips brushed his own.
She smiled and whispered, “Are you jealous?”
Quicker than she could react, he hooked his foot behind her legs and took them out from under her, using his weight to force her to fall to the ground. As she hit and his weight drove her back into the roof tiles, he ripped her hands and pinned them roughly above her head. Her breath came in shallow pants as the blood rushed through her veins in excitement and need. She watched the slender trickle of red slide down his neck before looking back into his fierce heated eyes. He held her hands with one hand, gripping the other in her hair and forcefully crashed their lips together. His tongue found hers in a fiery dominating dance, he bit her lip as he clenched her hair tighter in his hand. Her traitorous body couldn't help but respond to his every touch, she fought back and struggled for control, revelling in her lack of it.
He chuckled as he tore his lips away from hers, heaving chest, relaxing his body slightly against hers. He still held her hands and her hair in a brutally tight grip. She grinned deviously, struggling to regain her own breath, panting her response.
“I guess I'll take that as a yes.”
The Horn was abuzz with life when she returned the following day. She scampered up the winding stairs towards the second level, passing rows of busy men carrying the debris from the lair. As she entered the passage, she smiled to see her fiery hounds bounding towards her. She had left them behind with orders to patrol the halls and keep watch for intruders, acting also as a greater motivator of fear to keep the peasants and workmen in line. She chuckled at the strange looks she received from a group of nearby peasants as she greeted her hounds warmly with chin and ear rubs. They seemed fascinated by the slim wafer that was Willow having such fondness for yet command over the infernal hounds. She knew well that intimidation need not be ruled by brute strength and size. She did not need threatening words when her calm exterior promised fierce unfeeling reprimand.
She went in search of Teelee, planning to give her the scrolls to commence her work, but she frowned as she heard a ruckus coming from the entrance hallway. Turning the corner, she was greeted by a fearsome dark steed, clutching a man's body in its jaws. Dressed in a brown hemmed mesh frock, Teelee sat perched side saddle atop the nightmare horse.
“Who is this?” Willow asked, baffled at the sight.
“An alchemist,” Teelee replied, the steed dropping the limp body to a heap on the ground.
“And is he alive?”
Teelee shrugged half heartedly.
Willow rolled her eyes as she bent over the man, rolling him onto his back. He had smooth honey coloured skin, sun weathered flushed cheeks framing angular features, a tall ridge along his thin nose. Not unhandsome, his face held the appearance of a man in his fourth decade, a man of foreign lands. Willow pressed her fingers to his neck feeling for a pulse, as Garvana walked into the entrance way, frowning at the scene.
“An explanation, if you will?” she asked, pulling a healing vial from her pouch.
“We were in need of an alchemist,” Teelee said simply, “So I found one.”
“And I take it he did not come of his own free will?”
“Yes, well, Carnitheria Rex was a tad over zealous…”
The look of fear in the man's eyes as he awoke to the sight of the steed, confirmed the understatement of Teelee’s words.
“What is this?” he barked, panic and fear stirring his movement, “What's going on?!”
“Calm dear man,” Willow soothed, resting a hand upon his chest, “I will not allow it to hurt you if you stay calm.”
His eyes flicked to Willow, he momentarily relaxed, but suspicion flared strong.
“What is this? Who are you people? Where are we? Why have you brought me here?”
“We are hidden within the Caer Bryr. Allow me to introduce myself, I am Willow.”
He stared at her, frowning in confusion.
“Coran,” he replied, giving her a short nod, “Now tell me, what is going on and why have you brought me here?”
Willow looked to Teelee, rolling her eyes as she saw the woman barely paying attention.
“A job. We require your services, on a more permanent basis.”
“A job?!” he yelled, “You could have asked?! There was no need to kidnap me!”
Willow struggled to contain her agreement, “I understand, and I apologise. Though the methods of your recruitment were indeed unorthodox, we can provide a rare opportunity for one with a skill set of your capacity. We possess a functioning alchemical golem.”
He couldn't hide the spark of excitement that lit in his face.
“Truly?” he asked, “Well, that is impressive, though I'm afraid I've had little experience with such constructions.”
Willow smiled softly, “Then it is a chance for you to study it. Perhaps repair and improve it.”
His eyes turned to Teelee, “So, the picnic,” he said quietly, “It was just a ruse for my capture? Why not simply ask?”
“You would not have come willingly if you knew we were Asmodean.”
“Ah,” Coran said, seeming a little more deflated, “That explains it.”
“You will not reside here as a slave if you prove your worth,” Willow said to him, standing and stepping back, “We will pay you a fair wage, and your food and tools will be supplied.”
“Once we have finished our task,” Garvana added, “You will be free to go.”
He squinted in suspicion, “You mean it? Do I have your word?”
“You have my word.”
He dropped his accusatory finger, “Well then. I have had dealings with those of your kind before. Honourable, if not some what aberrant. Very well, I suppose I have little choice.”
He stood, keeping an eye on the steed and stepping away. Willow turned to Teelee, handing her the case full of scrolls, before turning back to Coran.
“Come along, I shall show you your work station and quarters.”
Willow lead him further into the Horn, escorting him across the large stone hallways. She smirked as he let out a gasp of fear at the sight of the three Hellhounds growling at his approach and his proximity to Willow. She laid an affectionate hand on Lith’s head.
“Nass, dorith,” she crooned, hushing their snarls, “Do not be afraid, they will not harm you unless I instruct them to.”
Coran cleared his throat, “I'll keep that in mind.”
The hounds trailed closely by her heels as she lead the way to the alchemists laboratory. Coran’s eyes lit up as he entered the room, the large bundle of alchemical reservoirs that formed the golem standing stationary in the chamber. Willow smiled as he rushed forward to get a closer look.
“There is some parchment and ink on the bench, form a list of everything you need to begin your work, and give it to the carpenter named Sven. Is there anything you need retrieved from your store in town?”
His excitement dimmed, a frown furrowing his brow.
“No,” he said shortly, “Leave it. My daughter shall grieve and the least I can do is leave her my possessions.”
“Your daughter?” Willow enquired, “Is she dependant on you?”
He stiffened, “I will tell you this now. If I even so much as suspect any harm has come to her, I will not hesitate to kill myself, you will get nothing from me!”
Willow's expression softened, “I assure you, I was not threatening her. I merely ask, as I would not be comfortable with the knowledge that we are leaving a child abandoned. I was sincere in that we are going to pay you, I was wondering if you needed the gold you earned to find its way to her.”
His shoulders slumped slightly, “No. She can take care of herself. Leave her out of this.”
“I will respect your wishes, we shall speak no more of her,” Willow spoke as turned to the door, “The rules are simple, do-
“Do not try to escape,” he finished her sentence, “Do not betray you, do as I am told. Yes yes, this isn't my first show.”
Willow smiled, “I'll leave you to your work.”
“May I ask one thing?” he said.
“Do not tell me how you use my work, I do not wish to know…”
The next few days were spent with far less excitement. The crew prepared the defences of the Horn as best they could. They had come up with the idea to use magic to overgrow the vines and foliage around the entrances to the spire, further masking the stairwells, Teelee had seen to the arcane execution of their plan. The others focussed on their own tasks while Willow concentrated her study of the ritual they were planning to commence by week’s end.
Sitting amongst the piles of hastily scribbled observations she had made, Willow’s heavy eyelids drooped. Midnight had passed hours ago. She had begun listing the theoretical outcomes of their task, the possible backfires and disasters waiting to happen. It was not that she failed to believe in their own strength of mind and might, it was that she had little to go on but fanatical ramblings of the power their enemy possessed.
And that's what Vetra-Kali was. Their enemy. He would not be content with their plan to rid the land of its benevolent weak leadership and instate the rightful hierarchy of Asmodeus. He wanted only for death and destruction. He would want his plague to run free in the land, ensuing chaos and infestation by slow sickness of the people on their hastened walks to the afterlife. The soft-minded people of this land had no idea how lucky they were that Willow and the crew sought to raise Asmodeus instead of some other god who only wished for the death of its servants. The people would be protected by the harsh rules and defined classes mirrored by the very layers of Hell itself. Willow had made such observations in her journal.
As she once again skimmed the wording of the pleas they were to recite to the Archdeacon, a familiar pulse of infernal power strummed in her stomach. She had began to recognise it's throbbing as Garvana’s devil associate. She had mused whether or not each agent of Hell had his own unique pulse, or whether it merely pulsed in regards to their station or power. As she retrieved the parchment she had made similar notes on, the pulsing disappeared. Willow frowned, it had been a short meeting tonight. She continued her writings by candlelight recording the intensity of the pulses she had felt, noting that although they were familiar, the severity had decreased substantially since his initial visit. As the quill scrawled across the page, Willow was hit with a low thrum of infernal power, a new and unfamiliar rhythm to it. It was stronger than the other, it's vibration beating low in the pits of Willow's stomach. A small sigh escaped her lips as she rose from her bed. Dressed in a silk whiff of a night gown, her curiosity got the better of her, she crept on silent feet towards Garvana's chamber. As she approached the pulsing grew louder and more complex. The best explanation of the way she interpreted the pulsings, were a song she could feel instead of hear. Each throb struck a different note, each chord soothed a crested peak or valleyed low. The more powerful the aura, the louder the tune became, the more forcefully she felt it. The closer she was to it magnified its effect, the emotional attachment to the melody was replaced by her physical body’s reaction. In all her research over the years, she had never come across any mentions of anything similar.
She prowled along the throne room stones, careful where to place each step, as the thrumming attuned to allow her to hear the faintest voices.
“… to bring into our Infernal Lord’s service,” she heard Garvana say.
The stranger replied, politely by his tone, but Willow was too far to hear his words.
“I believed you have the ability to craft such contracts,” Garvana responded, “I wish for these servants to have a binding tie to our great Lord.”
Willow slowly crept forward, straining her ears to listen.
“It is, of course, within my ability to do so,” a smooth masculine tone replied.
His charming almost soothing voice had Willow step closer. She cursed inwardly as she heard the scuffle of her foot against the stone.
“You are quite welcome madam,” the stranger said, loud enough for Willow to know she had been heard, “Please, do join us.”
She slunk forward, pulling aside the curtain to Garvana's bed chamber, silently stepping inside. She saw Garvana standing centre of the room, arms folded over her chest, a look of slight surprise and annoyance on her face. A smaller devil stood in the shadowed corner, his crimson skill matte and dim, his head bowed in deference. But all attention was drawn to the devil standing next to him. He stood with a natural air of pride, straight back tight shoulders, yet a calm confidence that made him appear completely relaxed. His scarlet toned skin shone brightly against his black formal outfit, richly embellished and fine fitting velvet robes draped from the shoulders to the floor. Thin horns protruded from his forehead in an almost decorative fashion, forming a crown upon his brow. Two thick golden rimmed horns pierced from pleats in his back, arching forward in smooth angles, their tips pointing ahead of him. Dozens of scrolls hung along these horns and his shoulders, swaying almost hypnotically in a nonexistent breeze. His face held the only difference to his imposing appearance. Rows of glittering razor sharp teeth formed his malevolent yet welcoming smile. His wide dark eyes, calculating and perceptive.
“Dessiter, of the Phistophilis,” he introduced himself, “A pleasure to meet you madam.”
He accompanied his words by a deep bow from the waist, right foot slightly forward in perfect execution of the formal greeting bow, from one noble to another.
Willow inclined her head politely in response.
“Can I help you?” Garvana asked bluntly, clearly annoyed at the intrusion.
Willow raised her eyebrows at her brashness.
“Perhaps in the matter of contracts,” Willow replied smoothly, “It would be wise for someone with experience in these matters to read the terms before they are signed.”
Dessiter smiled, a menacing charming grin, “Wise advice indeed.”
Garvana nodded, a frown still burrowing her brow, “Is that all?”
Willow's eyebrows rose further, but she smiled politely in response.
“Until next time madam,” Dessiter said, another deep bow to enhance his words, “For I am quite sure we will meet again.”
Willow inclined her head to him, eyes lingering locked with his, before retreating from the room. She hoped Garvana would take her advice genuinely, for a man or devil who possessed such confidence would have very good reason for it. She left them to their deals as she strolled back to her room, thinking over Dessiter’s unique infernal pulse. It was unlike any she had come across, limited those may have been. As she found herself back in her own chambers, the fatigue she had felt earlier, returned in force. She shuffled her notes into the lockbox she had commissioned, and fell upon the mattress. The melody of Hell’s heartbeat lulled her to sleep.
The following night, the moon rose directly overhead as midnight approached. They had deemed themselves as ready and prepared as they could be. The five of them escorted Halthus, their first sacrifice, to the sanctum waiting above. He seemed to understand their intent, he appeared almost eager, ready for what was to come. He stepped up and laid upon the altar with no resistance. The group was solemn and quiet as Garvana retrieved the unholy water from the trough. Willow handed out the copies of the first dirge, scrolled on parchment and translated into common. In low voices they began to sing the lines of the Supplication to Darkness, as Garvana threw the tankard of festering water upon the seal, bathing it in liquid filth. The seal hissed and squealed as the water acted like acid upon the holy artefact. Flares of putrid air sizzled on its face, sulphuric odours foul and pungent.
“We have failed thee O’ Prince, we beg thy forgiveness. Our darkest hour, our strength and might undone. We have failed thee O’ Prince, we beg thy forgiveness. Blinding light piercing deep, we mortals, the unworthy. We have failed thee O’ Prince, we beg thy forgiveness. Cast out beyond our reach, undeserving of our weakness.”
Willow cast her eyes away as Pellius lifted the sacrificial dagger to Halthus’ bare chest. His screams were not of those of fear and pain, but were of a man ready to be embraced by the arms of his god.
“We have failed thee O’ Prince, we beg thy forgiveness. Our failings to defend, Undying Prince, thy domicile befouled. We have failed thee O’ Prince, we beg thy forgiveness. We beseech thee, our Lord of Lues, extenuate fault and allow us thy blessing. We have failed thee O’ Prince, we beg thy forgiveness. Share thy gifts of pestilence and despair, our ever malevolent Prince, Vetra-Kali Eats-the-Eyes…”
The ground beneath her feet began to shake furiously as Pellius dropped the beating heart into the bowl grasped in the statues outstretched fingers. A thundering boom racked the Horn as the tectonic plates beneath it began to shift. Suddenly, the entire spire caught fire in a flash of malevolent green blaze. It erupted into an ominous point stretching far beyond the reaches of the sky, a beacon inferno raging into realms and planes not guided by the reality of time. An eery voice slithered to their ears.
“Kazahrah voh...” it said.
“I hear…” Willow translated, whispering barely louder than a breath.
She stepped quickly to the edge of the balcony, gasping at the green magical barrier of flame that still surrounded the Horn’s upper half. Where the fearsome fires had scorched, the foliage and vines had been obliterated into ash. The Horn stood in all its menacing glory, runes blazed like torches littered upon the side of the stones. There was no hiding what it’s intentions were. She heard the maniacal cackling screaming from the wraiths that were circling low around the base of the lair.
Willow sighed, staring out across the horizon bathed in sickly green light, “And so it begins…”
The group had agreed to have rotating shifts to perform the ongoing ritual. Three times everyday the seal had to be doused in the festering broth of unholy water while the chant of the Supplication to Darkness was uttered. Once as the sun rose above the horizon at dawn, once as it sunk below at dusk and lastly as midnight was signalled by the moon’s teetering peak directly overhead. The second sacrifice was to be performed at dawn of their fifteenth week.
The days trickled passed with little interruptions. Their organisation grew steadily as they recruited more men and women to fill its ranks. Willow tried to find useful tasks to bridge the gaps in between her shifts guarding the sanctum. She regularly made the trip back to Farholde, happy for the distraction to fill the mundane stretches of days. She had travelled the route so many times that she had cut the trip down to less then a third of the day to reach the city walls.
She often took a few of the men with her on her travels, using the journey as a type of training. She challenged them to keep up, to move faster yet quieter as they sprinted through the green rush of forestry. She needed no threats to keep them in line. They obeyed her without question, they followed her instructions and seemed to relish in her rarely given praise. Willow could see the fear they tried to hide in their eyes, but it was a subtle fear, one that kept them on their toes but didn't hinder their abilities. Apparently they enjoyed their training runs, for with each that passed, Willow found herself with more and more volunteers. As the second week crawled by, she had made herself a nice little tracking team picked from the best of the lot. A lean man of barely twenty, shortly cropped brass curls covering a tanned squinted face by the name of Willem, lead point position. He was almost as short as Willow, but quick footed and quiet enough to keep up. To his left flank was his brother Terris, similar build and appearance, but slightly less dexterous. To the right was a girl named Margaret, she was closer to Willow's age, blonde hair clasped back in a braid revealing harsh features and a stern face. She was much like the men the group, focussed on the job, uncaring of things such as looks and hygiene.
Willow cared not for their appearance, but in their lack of it. They blended in smoothly with the rest of servants in the city when it was required. Most of the trips they made, she preferred that they appeared as simple travellers, they knew well to refer to her as Kathryn, their group leader as apposed to their Mistress.
One afternoon as they returned to the spire, they intercepted a messenger bound for the Horn. Willow accepted the parchment and sent him on his way, offering no rest or respite on his journey.
A group of local adventurers are planning to arrive in three days. Poor gear, no experience. The dwarf has been to the Horn before, he spoke of entering through the caverns. Prepare them a nice surprise, will you?
Willow dismissed her crew and headed for the second level. Once she had gathered the group, they sat in the newly refurbished tavern and discussed what to do. The ideas were sparse. They had all some experience in planning the offensive, whether in brute force or subtle subterfuge, but it seemed they had little knowledge of the defensive. They had prepared certain aspects of their defence, laid within the traps and tricks of the caverns. But the plan they had come up with was skittish at best, gaping holes in their defence at worst.
It was not until Willow waited in the shadowed grace of the cavern three days later that she saw their lapses. She, Grumblejack, Lith and Loras would wait in ambush in the caverns. Garvana would guard the first floor entrance, Pellius the second, Bor the sanctum and Teelee and her steed would watch the from the balcony of the third level. Willow had given instructions to Sith, the quickest of her hounds, to race up the stairs as signal of the intruders arrival. But they had left the team without means to reach one another in time.
Although their defence was successful, it was a sloppy unorganised mess. Elise’s information proved correct, the team of five were poorly equipped and inexperienced. Willow launched into attack too early, making the preparations of actual defence irrelevant. One by one each of the would-be adventurers fell. The dwarf’s life ended on the end of Willow's blade, pierced in the back, straight through the heart. Another fell to a magical pit that Teelee had made, his body contorted to an unnatural and unsurvivable angle. Of the three others that had been beaten but remained unconscious, one of them held promise. Willow recognised the woman as a Bride of Light, one of the nuns she had passed during her infiltration of the Abbey. The ritual demanded one of Mitra’s faithful as the second sacrifice, and this woman who fit the description so perfectly, had unknowingly delivered herself straight into their hands.
They had their men bury the dead, while Grumblejack carried the three living limp bodies into separate cells, leaving them bound and gagged. On their return to the tavern, a bloodcurdling scream of fear echoed through the halls. Willow ran in the direction it came from, unsheathing her dagger, preparing to attack. As she rounded the corner, she skidded to a halt. As the others appeared, ready to exterminate the threat, they stopped as she did and stared. The golem Artephus, was standing over three bodies, in his eerily still mechanical way.
“What happened here?!” Pellius demanded.
As Willow stepped over the first body and inspected its wounds, the golem hissed his reply.
“They were attacked by unknown assailants, master.”
“Did you see them?!”
“They were attacked by unknown assailants, master,” he repeated.
Willow frowned as she saw the scorch marks around the gashes on the deceased woman's torso. A strange pattern of shock lines blasted into the skin away from the opening, leaving a trail of electrical current.
“Garvana, come and take a look,” Willow beckoned, “Are these what I think they are?”
Garvana bent down over the body, her eyebrows pinched in frown. As she seemed to recognise what Willow was implying, she looked up into Willow's eyes and nodded solemnly. They both stood, walking cautiously towards the golem. Willow peered around to its back and frowned further. The reservoir of electrical mass had been drained slightly.
“Artephus,” Willow said, “Did you attack these people?”
“They were attacked by unknown assailants, master.”
“Were they killed by the electrical mass in your reservoir?”
“They were attacked by unknown assailants, master.”
“Pellius…” Willow said warily.
He nodded, a look of almost disappointment in his eyes, “Come along, Artephus.”
“Come with me,” Willow said to Garvana as she took off down the hall.
She swung the door wide to the Alchemist Laboratory. Coran sat upon a stool, looking up from his work of simmering cauldrons.
“Have you made any changes to the golem?” she demanded.
“No, I haven't had enough time to study it,” he replied with a frown, “Why?”
“Have you adjusted it’s components or tinkered with it in anyway?”
“No, I haven't been near it since our introduction.”
Willow saw no telltale signs of dishonesty in his facial expressions, his frown was genuine, his concern seemed merely for his own safety regarding the accusation. But she had a way to be sure.
“We believe he has slaughtered some of our servants,” she replied, pulling the vial of Truth Elixr from her pouch, “I am inclined to believe that you had no part of it. But you understand, I must be sure. Drink this.”
He regarded Willow warily, reaching out to dip his finger in the vials contents. As he tasted it, he nodded. He drank the vial in one swallow and returned it empty to Willow's hand.
“Have you interfered with the alchemical golem known as Artephus in any way? Have you made any adjustments to it at all?”
“No,” he answered honestly.
“Did you have anything to do with the deaths of the servants tonight?”
“What is your full name?”
He frowned, “Coran Raspunen Dirgian.”
“Did you play any part in the deaths of the servants?”
Willow nodded, satisfied with his answers, “Thank you Coran, I believe you.”
She turned for the door, stopping before exiting, “I believe we will be deactivating the golem until we can confirm or deny our theory. If I provide you with access to it, can I trust that you will attempt to find any fault in it, and then report your honest findings to me?”
“Yes mam,” he replied, “I will be honest and forthcoming in my observations.”
“Thank you,” Willow said, “And good night.”
Sitting around the warmth of the fireplace, the group hunched in the disheartening air of the Horn. The whispers through the ranks of their servants had been heard passed between hallways. They were frightened. Willow could not blame them, they stayed loyal out of fear of the repercussions that their masters would bring, but also by the protection their service garnered. If their masters couldn't protect them from their own creations, what hope did they have. Willow found herself wandering the halls, trying to exude an air of confidence, trying to give their men something to feel stable in. As she strolled passed the barracks, she heard the familiar sound of wood on wood clashing through the halls. She approached the throne room, the one they had cleared morphed into a training room. Standing in the door way, she smiled. The men were grouped in pairs, sparing against one another. The smaller ones practiced with makeshift daggers, and the larger with swords and shields. They froze as they saw her, dropping into bows.
“Mistress!” the young captain known as Stephen said hurriedly, “I apologise, we just thought, I mean, we thought-
“Continue,” Willow said, with a short wave of her hand.
“Yes Mistress,” he bowed, “Thank you Mistress.”
As the men started their sparring again with a new found vigour, the need to impress overtaking their fatigue, Willow turned to Stephen.
“Why do they train well passed midnight?” Willow inquired.
“Mistress! Because we will not fail you again, we will not disappoint you again!”
Willow raised her eyebrows, a small smile on her lips.
“Very well, continue your training,” she said as she turned to leave.
She heard Stephen shouting his orders, a new vigour to him as well. Willow strolled back to her bedchamber, smiling despite herself. Perhaps all was not as lost as she had thought. The men still believed in the group’s leadership, even after three of their own had been slain. Perhaps they saw the golem as a test that their masters had set upon them. Perhaps they thought that their masters had been in control all along.
Willow stared through the slim opening of a window that revealed the darkened sea of rich forestry. They would learn from this day. They had been far too lax in their vigilance and planning. They would improve, they would grow. And they would win.