Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Chapter 13 - Dalliance and Defence

“The Forsaken,” Teelee said, lounging upon a chair in the hallway of the third floor, “It has an ironic ring to it.”
Willow smiled, stretching herself forward, nestling her legs as she sat upon the floor. She preferred to greet dawn this way, stretching her agile limbs at the open balcony of the entrance. She could smooth through her soft limbering movements as the sun graced the sky, lighting the rich emerald hues of the canopy of treetops. 
“The men deserve a name like that,” she commented, “One that spits in the face of what others believe. For they are only forsaken by gods whose opinion matter not.”
They spoke of their growing organisation, the men and women they had gathered to serve them, and of course serve their Infernal Lord. The group had decided the best name was one that would strike fear in the hearts of good men. The Forsaken being the name that the Talriens gave to their most heinous criminals, each marked with the feral ‘F’ branded into their right forearm. Identical to the white raised flesh on Willow's arm. 
After the group’s escape from Branderscar, even the fashions of the land had morphed to assist the fear. Previously, the idea of a noble woman baring her forearms would have been crude and unsavoury. But since their infamous escape, the people wore garments that proudly bared their unmarked flesh. Dresses were modified to shorten the sleeves, clear lace attached to give the women the appearance of modesty. Men wore their sleeves rolled and pinned at the elbow, cuff links attached in a decorative fashion. But no one spoke of the Forsaken, for superstition deemed that to speak of them would bring the wrath of their ill luck to your door. Willow had struggled to contain her smile when she heard such things. Farholde was far enough away that the majority of its citizens paid little mind to the fashion trend. Although, while in her elegant evening wear, Willow married the look to keep her forearms visible. The magic of the circlet ensured that her skin appeared clear, fresh and unmarked. She tended not to wear her circlet unless she needed it. She preferred the men and women who served them to see her for who she was. A survivor of Talingarde’s worst punishment. The men who ruled this country had failed to execute her, they had failed to keep her captive, they had failed to stop her. She believed it was important for their people to know this. It was indeed a sure way to keep the fear burning in their hearts. So the name Forsaken given to the crew, was a good way to remind the men, whom it was they worked for. Each rank of the organisation, including their leaders, were Forsaken by the gods of weakness and equality. But they were embraced, by the only one that mattered.

Every few days Willow sent her team of three back to the city of Farholde, they gathered information and rumours, keeping the crew up to date with the latest happenings of the small city. On the fourth week of the ritual, the three returned, filled with gruesome gossip upon their lips. A grizzly murder had taken place. A lady of the night had been slaughtered and disembowelled, her remains left in a blatant show of grotesque savagery. The group gathered over dinner to discuss the killers intent. 
“Perhaps it was Elise’s crew,” Willow offered, saying her name as if it was a bad taste on her tongue, “In some twisted way of keeping the town in fear and out of the forest?”
“Perhaps,” Pellius agreed, “Although if it is them, it will only draw more do-gooders to the town. And that could prove a hindrance rather than a help.”
“We shall go and investigate,” Bor agreed, “If it isn't them, we might have a potential ally.”
Willow frowned at the idea of bringing a homicidal maniac into their fold. Looking around at their oddly arranged group, she had to concede, he might fit in better than she wished. 

As morning dawned on the following day, the group made their way to the city. When they arrived through the southern entrance to the marketplace, they split up to seek out their various targets. Bor and Teelee left in search of Elise and her crew while Garvana and Pellius headed for the slums of Drownington. Willow slunk off to the east of the slums where the hidden entrance to the blackmarket lay concealed within the walls. When she was sure she was not followed, she unlocked the levers and stepped into the deadly blackened hallway.
Martin was not in his office when she approached, instead the beady eyed administrator known a Grant, sat perched in his chair. With a nose far too large for his face, and a slight sweat constant upon his brow, his squinted black eyes seemed obsolete. His greedy stare had Willow's skin crawl every time they met. She attempted to slide unnoticed passed his office, but his slithering beckon had her feel obliged to enter.
“Darling Kathryn,” he called, his eyes raking her over, “A pleasure to see you as always. Might I say you are looking most ravishing today.”
Willow hid the scoff under her breath, “My thanks,” was all she replied.
“And what can I do for you today?” he asked, “May I be so bold as to presume that you have not reconsidered my offer of dinner?”
“You presume correctly,” she said bluntly, “I’m here on business, but I heard there was a murder in Drownington last night?” 
“Ah,” he said, tipping his glasses to the end of his incredibly large nose, “Such grizzly business. Come, let's talk of more pleasant things. Did you hear of my recent promotion to First Administrator?”
Willow struggled to reign in her temper. She had little patience for fools such as he. But unfortunately, he held much sway in the running of the underground in Farholde. He could make her contacts and resources dry up like a parched land suffocated in drought. So she gritted her teeth and continued the pleasantries.
“I had not heard, that is a grand feat,” she said politely, “But regretfully I have no free time to hear anymore of it, I must bid you farewell. Goodbye Grant.”
She left the room before he could continue, slipping down one of the hallways towards her contacts, passing the humour glinted in the eyes of those who has heard the conversation. Willow asked around about the murder, acting casual as if merely uninterestedly seeking gossip. To her disappointment, they knew little of the details. She found out that the kill had been made with a skilled hand, a clear indication that the murderer had done so before. But apart from the gruesome details regarding the state of the body, they knew nothing else. Willow made her way to the tavern the group had agreed to meet in. The Chancellors Foul was a dingy tavern filled with the scum of the streets. She had never bothered to enter it, and as she did, she was reminded why she hadn't. The tables were little more than wooden stumps littered with broken glass and spilled ale, the chairs were stools roughly crafted barely holding their occupants weight. Women selling their bodies as goods draped themselves over prospective buyers, their garments festered rags of satin, their harlot make up smudged and rough. Willow spotted the group crowded around a booth in the corner, their clean clothes shining like light in amongst the darkened char of the tavern. As chivalrous as ever, Pellius stood and pulled her rickety chair out for her. Willow sat graciously, questioning the chairs endurance, even troubled by her slender frame. 
They each reported their findings, no one with a definite answer on who had committed the murder. Bor had spoken with Elise’s bodyguard, and received a patronisingly evasive answer, not confirming nor deny their part. The ladies of the night that Garvana and Pellius had questioned, knew little of the attack, only describing a man in a cape fleeing the scene. 
“I propose we disguise ourselves amongst the women,” Garvana suggested, “And set ourselves up as bait.”
“Good idea,” Bor agreed, “We'll wait close by and keep an eye out. We may get lucky and catch the man in action.”
Willow cringed at the idea, she outright refused to dress herself up as a whore. She was happy to wait, hidden in shadows, watching from above. She worked best in the darkness, feeling at home in their blackened nets of smoke. She was patient and knew how to remain perfectly still for extended periods of time. So she chose a low roof that was overshadowed by a high one, making sure the moon stayed crested behind, smothering her in the pitch blackness. She heard Garvana’s voice leaving the tavern and saw two strumpets wandering into the alley directly across from her vantage point. Willow couldn't help but smile, Teelee and Garvana had imitated the prostitutes well. They were dressed in tight corsets and small layers of aged satin, ragged fishnets wrapped their legs and loose shawls around their shoulders. Willow could see through the magic of their disguises, but aided with the night and the darkness, they would be a very convincing lure. She heard Bor’s voice, slightly slurred, begin a catchy drunken shanty. She stifled a laugh when she saw him teetering from the tavern door in a very convincing drunken amble. Pellius sat himself at a table by the tavern, a tankard of ale in his hand as he lounged back and appeared to be nostalgically staring up at the stars. 
And so they waited. 
The night crawled by as they kept their positions, the streets remained silent, save Bor's occasional drunken melody. After an hour or two had passed, Willow had begun to think that they would see no action, and that she had been squatting on the grime covered roof for nothing. The sound of a can being kicked had her ears perk up. It rang out its buffered chime as it rolled down the street and landed in the mud. Willow kept herself still and scanned her eyes across the alley. Frozen in time for a moment while nothing appeared to be happening. With no sound she watched a puddle of mud indent in a thick boot print. Willow leapt forward in a heartbeat. She judged as best she could as to where the invisible man would be standing, and dove towards him. As she tumbled through the air, she heard a distinct gasp of surprise, inches from her right ear. A slither of cloth passed across the skin of her face as she somersaulted passed. She saw the footprints turning to flee. 
“Bor! He's coming your way!” she yelled.
She saw the half-orc step directly into the man's path, latching on to an invisible form. Willow recovered from her roll and quickly made her way back to them. Teelee and Garvana dropped their disguises and emerged from the alley. 
“Stop resisting,” Bor demanded, “We may be friendlier than you think.”
She heard Garvana mutter a spell and saw her throw her hands out, but nothing happened that Willow could perceive. The invisible form continued to struggle.
“We're not here to harm you,” Teelee said bluntly, “We're here to talk.”
“Well then have your brute unhand me!” a familiar voice snapped.
Willow smiled as she approached, lifting the hood from her face.
“Drop the invisibility Trick,” she said softly.
As the magic vanished, a cloak wrapped Trick appeared clutched in Bor’s hands, a sheepish grin on his lips. Willow nodded to Bor to release him. 
“What are you doing creeping around in the dark?” Willow asked with a hint of amusement.
“I could ask the same of you,” he replied, his usual casual charm returning.
“We're trying to stop someone causing trouble, stirring up unwanted attention to this region.” 
“Whatever are you talking about?” he asked casually. 
“Are you behind the murder?” Teelee asked, as bluntly as ever.
“Murder? Most certainly not,” he charmed.
Willow cocked an eyebrow. She saw no signs of deception in his face, he seemed completely comfortable with his answer.
“You're either telling the truth,” Willow said, a small smile on her lips, “Or a very good liar.” 
“Both, my lady,” he replied smoothly.
“I don't care if you're behind it,” Bor clipped, becoming impatient, “It draws too much attention to this area.”
“One might say,” Trick responded, “That fear would deter most people from seeking out that attention. But, eh, however you see it. Anywho, I must be off, things and people to do and all that.”
As he turned to leave, Willow stepped closer.
“Next time, perhaps avoid the mud,” she said quietly with a wink.
“Next time I'll invest in darkvision,” he replied with a grin, almost in respect, “I did not at all see you coming…”

Two weeks of little excitement passed. They received a messenger from Elise, informing them that a group of mercenaries known as Brendam’s Breakers had arrived in town on their way to the Horn, and Elise and her band had indeed broken them. 
It was from a restless sleep that Willow awoke to the sound of screaming one night. She had been dreaming of the past, back when life was little more than the fun and games of corrupt politics. She had made her way up the ladder of leadership and landed her role as First Administrator to the Mayor of Matharyn. Society insisted that Willow, a woman of high ranking nobility, did not need to work. In fact, it was frowned upon that she did, even more so that she was successfully occupying a prime position. Her ever-faithful husband had been supportive in her decision to keep her employment after they had married. In his limited personality he seemed to admire Willow's will to work and better their government. Of course, he was none the wiser to her meticulous plots and scams. 
She had been dreaming of her first meeting with Switch, almost a decade in the past. Over her few short years working the ranks of politics, she had made a few contacts in the underground society of Matharyn. Men who worked their muscle for gold. Gold was something she had in abundance; the daughter of a Duke had a weekly allowance that could feed a city of peasants for years. She used to her contacts bully her way into better position and act as debt collectors when those on her list failed to meet the terms in their agreements. They were simple mercenaries, thugs at best, with more brawn than brain. Perfect for the tasks she gave them. But when an opponent political power rose to popularity, Willow's cosy position became threatened. Graham Talinmere was a short stocky man in his fifth decade, a devout follower of Mitra, one who had a reputation of unwavering fanatical faith. He was also an unapologetic misogynist. He had been the loudest spoken voice in objection to Willow's promotion, declaring that women had smaller brains in order to keep concentration focused on their sole duty; baring and raising children. Willow hated the man with a fire that burned more fierce than Hell itself. So, as his popularity grew in his campaign to become Mayor, she knew she had to do something. 
The contacts she had in the underground were brute men with little finesse and subtlety, the only way they would wipe out her rival was by beating him to death. Willow needed someone with a more delicate hand, one skilled enough to make the death appear an accident. She put the word out to her men that she was in need of an assassin. Weeks passed as she waited, watching Talinmere gain momentum in his crusade. It was on a gloomy night as dusk approached that Willow received an invitation to meet with her potential employee. She was wary of the proposed meeting place. The note had given directions to the abandoned temple on the outskirts of town, the same temple she secretly visited regularly, the old flame-rotted temple of Asmodeus. She had been told to come alone, and against better judgement, her curiosity and excitement won out. She strapped her ruby daggers into their sheaths, draping her large black mink cloak around herself, slipping out the servants entrance of the manor. She did not follow the winding directions that the note held, instead she took the shortcuts that she had always taken, quietly approaching the temple from the east. From cover of the nearby forest, she peered through the pillars into the charred stone temple. It was empty. She crept on light feet through the back entrance, clutching her daggers tightly, eyeing the dark shadows of the corners. She froze in the centre of the room as the hairs on her neck stood on end. 
“Such a pretty young thing,” said a smooth deep voice from the shadows, “So brave to come out here all alone…”
Willow span in a circle, ripping her daggers from their sheaths, shaking slightly as she searched for the voice. A low chuckle sounded.
“Those are quite the weapons,” he said, “I wonder if you know how to use them.”
The tiniest sound of a boot scuffing stone had Willow spin again, as a black form leaped at her from the depths of darkness, two glistening steel daggers arcing down towards her. She flung her arm up, barely managing to block the attack, as she hacked out with the other arm. He moved with an eery grace, his body nimble and fast, he launched a second attack before she could recover. She side stepped passed one of the blades slicing at her chest, but stepped straight into his another arm that was waiting to grab her. He overpowered her with little effort, wrapping his arm between her torso and arm, forcing her shoulder up as his hand latched into her hair. With a swift clip to her wrists, he dropped both of her daggers to the ground as he drew his blade to her throat. His voice was a sensual whisper into her ear, his breath hot and wet, sending visible ripples of fear and excitement through her body.
“Too bad,” he breathed, “I was hoping you'd put up more of a fight.”
He trailed the daggers point slowly down her the middle of her chest, splitting the material as he went.
“Now tell me,” he whispered, “What could a pretty little thing like you want with an assassin?”
Willow scoffed, breathing heavily watching the daggers progress, “If you have to ask, you're not a very good assassin.”
He chuckled, the sound and vibration in her ear reaping havoc with her body.
“Indeed. Then allow me to think aloud as I figure it out. It is not a family contract, or your father would have never allowed his only daughter to come alone in the night into the waiting hands of such a man as myself. What could it be?”
The dagger made its progress downwards, slowing as it gently sliced though the dresses bunched fabric at her waist.
“Could it be a disgruntled lover? Retribution spawned from a broken heart?”
Willow scoffed, feeling slightly offended at such a pathetic accusation. His chuckle again had her shiver. 
“No. Not that, you seem the type to lace the poison on his glass yourself. So, if not love or family, what could it be?” 
Willow opened her mouth to answer, but as she did, the dagger whipped up to the front of her shoulder and the blade pierced into her flesh. There was no stopping the moan that escaped. Her body shuddered in pain and pleasure as his hand tightened in her hair. They froze for a moment, Willow's breath coming in ragged bursts, his own sharp inhale stunned. Suddenly she was thrown forward and whipped around so her back crashed into the stone pillar. He was on her a second later, his weight pressing again her, his hand wrapped around her throat, forcing her face towards his. It was the first time she had ever looked into his eyes. Glistening black wells of unending depth, keen and calculating, dark and mesmerising. He was handsome, with sharp cheekbones and a smooth brow, a clean shaven face revealing his soft pale skin. His hair was shorn and left with only enough to determine it grew black underneath. He stared at Willow with a mix of intrigue and suspicion. Slowly, he lifted his dagger back to the the point in her shoulder where he'd pierced her skin.
“That was meant to be a warning,” he said menacingly, “Not an incentive.”
Willow felt the blade more keenly as its cold steel pressed against her skin, she had not noticed in the scuffle that her dress had fallen open, pinning her arms against her sides and revealing her laced black corset. He pressed the tip of the dagger further into her skin, grinning wickedly as she whimpered. The noise would have sounded fearful if not for the look of pleasure on her face.
“Interesting,” he said quietly, raising an eyebrow into a look that made Willow quiver. 
“Alright, consider me intrigued. What is the contract? Who is the target?” 
Willow opened her mouth to speak again, but as she did, he pushed his knee in between her thighs making her gasp. He merely held his position, his face unchanged from the humorous enjoyment he was getting.
“Graham Talinmere,” she managed to say, straining to sound confident and unaffected. 
“The politician?” he asked, sounding genuinely surprised, “Why would a noble born like you want him dead? I hear he stands to make you more money.”
“I wasn't aware assassins needed reasons,” Willow snapped.
He chuckled, forcing his knee to rub against her, “You are right, of course.”
Willow clamped her teeth together to stop the sounds she desperately wanted to make.
“Do you accept the contract?” she gritted. 
His grin spread, “I do.”
“Name your price,” she demanded, with far more authority than she felt.
“The usual rate is five thousand gold,” he said, leaning down so his lips were almost brushing her own, “But I am willing to negotiate for other goods…”
The exasperation she felt at his request seemed to snap her out of her sexual stupor. She slammed her knee into his groin and with his momentary lapse of concentration she ripped herself from his grasp. She lifted the shoulders of her dress and used her cloak sash to fasten it back around her waist.
“Five thousand is acceptable,” she said, trying to recovery some dignity, “Six thousand if it appears like a convincing accident. His campaign ends in two weeks time, if it is not completed by then, the contract is void.”
She turned to leave, lifting her hood back over her head.
“Willow…” he said, low and menacing.
She span to face him, lifting her chin, “You will address me as Lady Monteguard or my lady.”
His devious grin returned, paired with a look of surprised excitement. He gave a short mocking bow.
“My lady,” he said, picking her forgotten ruby daggers up off the floor. 
He prowled towards her with slow deliberate steps. She shivered as he slid both daggers into their sheaths strapped on Willow's hips. His dark eyes held a promise, one that said he would get what he wanted, he was patient enough to wait for it. He lifted his finger delicately to her chin, staring into her eyes as he leaned forward. His lips brushed hers softly in a fragile caress. Willow swore at her traitorous body that responded with a sigh into his mouth. She cursed inwardly as her mouth parted naturally, an invitation he didn't refuse. Softly, they kissed, their tongues barely brushing. It was a deceptively tender moment. Before Willow knew what she was doing, she drew his lip in between her teeth and bit down firmly. His fierce growl sparked a fire that raged inside her. He gripped her chin firmly and slid his other hand to the back of her head. The kiss heated, his mouth forcefully demanded what it knew it deserved, it dominated her in way she had never known. Before she lost every last ounce of self control, Willow ripped her mouth free, shallow breaths tearing from her chest in protest. The only consolation she had was that his heaving chest was a testament to the effect she also had on him.  
She once again lifted her hood and turned for the exit, as she stepped over the threshold to the temple, she heard the words that had repeated in her head for the next decade.
“One day, you won't say no…”

“Mistress!” the voice screamed, “We're being attacked!” 
Willow flung herself from the sheets, quickly rousing from her nostalgic slumber. She leaped from the bed and grabbed her dagger, flinging the door open. One of their guards stood shocked as she appeared, dressed only in her nightgown, no garments underneath. 
“M-Mistress,” he stuttered, “W-We are being attacked!” 
“Come on,” Willow demanded, turning for the hallway.
When he didn't follow, Willow turned to him, fierce command in her eyes.
“Fight them,” she said menacing, “Or fight me.” 
Willow was pleased with how quick he took off towards the battle. She called for her hounds to follow, and they barrelled down the hallway, scenting something she could not see. As they rounded the corner, she frowned. Margaret, the servant she used in her scouting team, stood in the hallway pointing frantically to the entrance.
“What is going on here?!” she demanded.
Her hounds leapt and snapped their teeth at the woman, lashing out attempting to latch on. Willow took only a moment to decide what to do. She knew her hounds could scent things that she could not and she knew with absolute certainty that they would never disobey her orders. She had introduced them to each one of the crew, with strict instructions not to attack them unless they were told. But as Lith bit deep into the woman skin, she knew something was seriously wrong. As another of the guards stepped into the hallway, Willow noticed the renewed snarls of her hounds. 
“Explain yourself! What is going on here!”
The frantic pointing towards the entrance was the only response they gave. Suspicion flared stronger as Willow reached the pair and struck out with her dagger. Any other case, the blow she landed on Margaret would have been her instant demise. But Willow gasped as her blade hacked through the flesh leaving barely a scrape. The other guard leaped out of her reach and its form began to glisten and shimmer. His skin began to ripple and sway, magic seeping from its flesh. Willow cursed as she saw Sith and Loras cease their attacks, sitting back on their haunches, eyes wide in fascination. Lith growled low, snapping a Sith before turning to lash out at Margaret again. Suddenly, Margaret let out a fierce howl. Willow could feel the fear it incited growing low in her belly. She refused to give in to it, with an explosion of willpower she forced the fear back down and launched herself into another attack. Unfortunately, the howl had been fearsome enough to have its intended effect on both of the stunned hounds and the guard who had raised the alarm. All three took off in a panic. Lith’s growl of disapproval mirrored Willow's own. Margaret leap away from them, racing to the entrance, leaping over the trap door and out of the Horn into the blackened night. The other guard who had been continuing his alluring dance, attempted to do the same. In a desperate attempt to stop him, Willow hurled her dagger through the air towards his head. Whether through the skittish attempt of dodging the dagger or just pure misstep, the man landed heavily on the trap and plummeted down into the waiting cell. Willow smiled as the trap door mechanism closed itself, sealing in its capture. 
“Norr!” Willow bellowed to the hounds, then to the guards, “Get back here!” 
She peered out the entrance, eyeing the winding staircase. The night was still and stagnant, not a creature rustled in the distance, not a soul in sight. Willow walked to the hidden doorway leading to the guard room, her frown turned fierce as she felt it jammed and barricaded. Sith and Loras returned to her side, heads bowed as they cowered. Lith snapped ferociously at them, reprimanding their weakness. Willow scratched behind Lith’s ears as approval. The guards slowly trickled in from their hiding spaces. 
“Guard the entrance! I will deal with you later!” she spat. 
“Mistress, what of Margaret and Sven?” one of the men asked warily, “I saw them fall in the other room!” 
Willow scowled, “Do as you must. But do not leave the entrance unguarded.”
The guards cowered, much like the dogs, as she passed them and quickly hurried to the throne. She made her way to Pellius’ chamber and woke him from his sleep. He eyed the slip of nightgown she wore and the blood splatter down its front.
“Busy night, my lady?” he asked suggestively. 
“Not now,” Willow rolled her eyes, “We have intruders.”
They gathered the group quickly and headed for the first level cell. The creature in the form of Sven’s body stood frozen in its cage. He eyed Willow with a fearsome hatred that radiated through the room. Some of the group tried to question him, but it proved pointless; the creature refused to speak. Willow watched it with interest as the group tried to cast spells at it. An eerily mocking laugh sounded in her head, and judging by their reactions, the rest of the group heard it as well. The man let out a terrifying howl, just as Margaret had. This time Willow shrugged it off with barely a shiver. She sighed as Sith and Loras took off again, followed closely by Bor and Teelee, she could have swore she heard a similar sigh from Lith. 
“May I?” Garvana said to Willow and Pellius, indicating to the creature.
Willow was not sure what she would do, but the look in her eyes told Willow she would want to stand back. Willow and Pellius moved to the far wall, watching intently.
She felt it before she heard it. The strong pulsing of dark energy, drawn from the very pits of Hell. As Willow and Lith both slumped slightly in the comforting embrace, the creature in the cell let out a feral screech. As the power grew stronger, Garvana stepped closer to the creature, the tight knit bars of the cell giving it no escape. 
“Asmodeus sees all!” Garvana boomed, “And he demands your death!” 
The fiery wash of Hell grew in a crescendo, teetering as the creature writhed in agony, Willow felt her breath quicken as she felt the distinct touch of Asmodeus, as if he himself were guiding this action. As it reached its apex, the creature let out a final wisp of a howl and it fell to the ground, curled up in the corner of the cell. The power vanished. Willow felt her chest ease as the presence in the room retreated. The creatures appearance rippled and left behind was a slender white hound, eyes wide in the pain of death. Willow approached and kneeled down to where it's head rested through the bars. She draped her fingers over its face and closed its eyes. Lith prowled forward with snarling teeth, attempting to bite into the dead creatures body.
“Nass!” Willow snapped, “Sirth mer virith yurr trizith ti.”
Lith huffed in response. Willow chuckled and rubbed her hound under the chin.
“We do not foul the dead?” Teelee repeated as she entered the room.
“They have served their purpose. There is nothing to gain by mutilating the body.”
Teelee eyed her with mixed emotions, but simply nodded and said nothing. Pellius carried a weakened and exhausted Garvana to her chamber, while Willow organised the disposal of the hound’s body.
“We have guards to deal with,” Willow said to Pellius as he returned, “Two of them barricaded their door and fled. Another managed to call the alarm and fetch me. Oh and two might be dead.”
Pellius nodded, offering her his arm, “Shall we?” 

The guards quaked in fear as Bor, Pellius and Willow approached. They gave stuttering recaps of what had taken place until the moment Willow had arrived. 
“…and then Mistress saved us,” one of them said.
“And at what point did you think that barricading yourselves in and hiding was a good idea?” Willow spat to the captain named Stephen.
“M-Mistress!” he stammered, “They killed Sven and Margaret! They would’ve killed us!”
Willow raised her eyebrows, “And you are not willing to die for our cause?” 
“N-no, I mean y-yes!”
“Enough,” Bor said, returning from healing the other guards, “Barris, you will be in charge from now on. Now back to your posts.” 
Willow turned from the snivelling servants, as she left the room, she heard Bor's menacing warning to the previous captain.
“Everyone gets one, do not fail again.” 

The following week they organised signal horns for the crew. Slowly they were learning from their mistakes, attempting to avoid further breaches in security. They commissioned solid doors with hefty locks for each entrance to the Horn. Once they were attached, it took Willow ten minutes to pick one open, she was definitely satisfied with their quality. 
As the seventh week of their ritual passed, a messenger arrived with five thick parchment scrolls. They were invitations to a ball, hosted by the Baron Vandermir, in celebration of his one hundred and fifth birthday. Willow smiled as she read the parchment addressed to Kathryn Fairholm. She couldn't help the butterflies of excitement that bounced through her belly, she had always loved balls. The beautiful gowns, the plush suits, the enchanting music. And the dancing. The dance floor was where alliances between the great houses were made and broken. Willow had always been an excellent dancer; on the floor and in the melody of house politics.
As the group met to discuss their attendance, Willow immediately voted for accepting the invitation. Pellius and Teelee agreed readily, while Bor and Garvana seemed hesitant. It didn't take much for her to convince them to come along, though her excitement was halted when Garvana spoke of wearing armour to the ball. 
“It is a ball Garvana,” Willow said sharply, “You are a lady. You must dress like it.”
“What about an armoured corset?”
Willow scoffed, “You couldn't possibly fit one under a dress. Besides, the ball is open to every upper noble in the region. Vandermir wouldn't risk himself being discovered. I think it is safe to say it will be a night of revelry and celebration. Not one of battle and chaos.”
Garvana frowned, “But I have nothing to wear.” 
Willow smiled, “Come along, I'm sure I have something we can let out to fit you.” 
“But we have no seamstress!”
Willow laughed, “Garvana, I am the daughter of a duke. I have been sewing since I could lift a needle.”
She did indeed have a dress perfect for the occasion. A red velvet frock usually worn fashionably loose, although it's pleats stretched wide to encompass Garvana's rather muscular figure. Willow stitched in an extra flank of silk to allow movement between her wide shoulders, and a sliver of fabric to lengthen her waist. She was roughly the same height as Willow, so the drape fell to the floor in a perfect plication. When she finished her stitches, she stood back to admire her handiwork. Her grandmother would have been proud. 
“Stunning,” Willow said proudly, “The silk drape sits perfectly. Wear your hair up off your face and show off the neckline. Do you have any rubies?” 
“Nothing elegant enough for this dress,” she replied, eyeing herself in the mirror.
Willow fetched a simple gold string of rubies from her dresser.
“Wear these,” Willow said, tying the sting around her neck, “They're not too obnoxious. They say that you have style and wealth, enough that you need not flaunt it in every way you can. A simple line of kohl on your eyes, but don't wear any lipstick. You'll look like a tomato.” 
Garvana turned to Willow, a strange look on her face, “Thank you.”
Willow winked, “I would die of embarrassment if you arrived in your armour. I think of this as a trade for not shaming me so horribly.”  
Garvana laughed as she left to pack her belongings for their stay in town. Willow knew exactly what she was going to wear. She had been waiting to wear the dress since she first chose it from the Cardinal’s manor, she had been waiting for the perfect occasion to present it. She had made multiple changes to it over the lonesome nights of the last few weeks. The ball was the perfect opportunity for it to make its debut. 
The crew traveled to the city of Farholde early morning the next day. They rented separate rooms in the Bronze Minotaur in Auld’irey, taking the afternoon to prepare for their decadent evening. Willow bathed and soak herself until her skin was flush and pink. She coated herself in her distinct fragrance of cassia, liquid myrrh and cinnamon. As she began to prepare for the tedious task of combing and arranging her hair, she felt a ping of regret as she saw her reflection in the mirror. Her hair had once been her crowning glory. Tousled waves of midnight black had cascaded down her back, the envy of every woman in the city. Whether she wore it up in a tight winding peak or had it flowing freely in the breeze, her hair had been magnificent. Willow combed the short jet black kinks that hung from her head. She was no longer the girl with the sea of sable curls. She was no longer a girl at all. She smiled at her reflection. She used the tonic she had ordered from the market to push her hair off her face. She combed it to perfection, crafted riveted waves that smoothed their way to her nape. She had the face of a woman, high angled cheekbones, thin tipped nose, wide vibrant eyes. She applied the kohl to her eyelids heavier than was usually socially acceptable. But paired with Willow's ebony hair and dress, her makeup drew attention to her fierce alluring eyes. She stepped into the layers of raven silk, sliding the dress up and around her waist. She laced up the inbuilt corset, with ties that clasped at the front, slipping her arms into their sleeves. She flared the tule to her sides as she stepped up to the mirror. She looked beautiful. The black silk wrapped tightly around her chest and waist, flaring to a short trim high on her thighs. Layer upon layer of tule and lace clutched at her waist and flared in an ocean of tucks, falling far passed the floor. Scandalously, the lace was almost see through, her bare legs slightly visible beneath. The lace wrapped high across her chest, fanning out along her collarbone, forming tightly pinched sleeves over her shoulders. A single layer of soft lace draped from the joins in the sleeves, cascading down to her wrists. The dress itself was not unseemly, it was in fact an exquisite piece of apparel. It was the material that made the dress so risqué. When hit from certain lights, the material appeared a hint translucent, Willow's slender womanly form revealed beneath. To really see anything, one would have to be gawking at her for quite some time. A thought that delighted her.
Willow slipped her dagger into the sheath strapped high onto her thigh, checking the mirror to be sure that it could not be seen. Lastly she stepped into her midnight black heels, their glistening black leather completing her look. She needed no jewellery to enhance her beauty, her bare neck and shoulder shimmered in their pale white way. Jewellery would just crowd the image. As the sun began to fall to the horizon, Willow exited her suite and glided to the stairs. She heard the voices of their group casually chatting below. As she gracefully began to descend the stairs, Willow smiled as all chatter in the parlour ceased. The whole room was looking at her. Pellius was the first to recover, standing and walking to the base, holding his hand out for her.
“My lady,” he said, “Words could not do you justice. You look, exquisite.”
“And you look immaculate as always, Monsieur,” she replied smoothly. 
His disarming grin had Willow swoon inwardly. He did indeed look handsome. His tailored colonial style jacket buttoned high into a stiff collar, and fell down to just above his knees. His broad shoulders extended by the firm points, perfectly creased sleeves pinned with intricate cuffs. The material was the perfect matching midnight black to Willow's gown. She scanned her eyes over the rest of their group. She smiled to see that Garvana had followed her instruction and wore her hair high in tight bun, the bronze glint of her chestnut hair shone with the help of the tonic Willow had provided. She looked the perfect part of a noble lady in the layers of scarlet velvet and silk. Teelee wore a fascinating frock of brown and cream, alternating layers in a swish of silk and mesh. Her hair braided low and pulled into a chignon of carob grace. Willow couldn't help but stare at the dress, amazed at how the beaded hems seemed to sparkle without the help of light. 
“Magic,” Pellius whispered in her ear.
“A lady should never have her secrets revealed,” Teelee replied in a huff.
“Impressive nonetheless,” Willow chuckled, “The dress is a true marvel.”
She turned to Bor and smiled. He wore a black suit, tight and fitted over his bulking mass. Willow approached him with a giggle and she undid the mass of knots he'd made to his tie, threading them in the current knar fashion. 
“Very handsome,” she commented, giving him a wink, “Well, are we ready?” 
“The carriages await, my lady,” Pellius said, offering his arm, “It would be my honour to escort you.”
Willow smiled and accepted his arm, placing hers under his and draping her hand over his wrist. They rode in the horse drawn carriages, winding through the upper streets of the Caviller Green. As the horse drew to a halt along the arching pathway in front of the grand entrance, Willow sighed in pleasure. It had been a long time since she had attended such a formal event. It seemed like a lifetime ago. 
Pellius exited the carriage with the grace of a man who had spent his life making striking entrances. He stood in the drivers rightful place, denying him the privilege of Willow's hand as she stepped out onto the pavement. They strolled up the path as the carriage pulled away, allowing the next in line to deliver its occupants. When all of the group had arrived, they made their way towards the large open doors, where the Baron himself was greeting his guests. Bor carried their present in his strong arms, the ivory tusk they had received in trade from the natives so many months ago. It was a fine gift, one that a man of Vandermir’s particular magical talents was sure to approve.
He smiled politely as they approached, his keen eyes ever calculating as they reached him. 
“So glad you could make it,” he said, “I take it your work is going well enough to allow you to take the evening off?”
Willow smiled back as his eyes flicked over her outfit.
“One must always make time for the finer things in life.”
“Indeed,” he replied, “And what is it you have there?”
Bor stepped forward with the tusk, “A gift,” he said, “We thought some one of your arcane skill could make great use out of this.”
The Baron stiffened visibly. He quickly looked around, seemingly checking if anyone was in ear shot. He relaxed again once he realised they were alone.
“I would appreciate if you did not mention my particular preoccupation in public. But enough of that, please enjoy my hospitality and enter the ballroom when you are ready.”
He moved on to greet the next round of arrivals. They followed the line of guests into the main courtyard of the manor, it's entrance lined with servants carrying trays of crystal flutes filled with a mix of rare and delicate champagnes. Pellius lifted two from a tray and handed her one with an inclined head. They made their way to their designated table and sat for a moment, merely enjoying the accompanying soothe of the music.
The ball was a lavish affair. The halls were lit with hundreds of candles, the glistening rims of the gold furnishings sparkled and dazzled those that passed. The ball room was as grand and opulent as one would expect from the Baron. High crested ceilings embroidered with intricate patterns, smooth stone pillars buffed to a gleam, solid wooden floors oiled and lacquered. The guests were no less elegant. Gentlemen and ladies dressed in their finest robes and gowns, glittering rows of stones and gems layered upon their person. The wealth in the room shone like a beacon across the hillside.  

“Shall we dance, my lady?” Pellius offered. 
Willow smiled and stood from her chair, laying her hand in his, “I couldn't possibly refuse.”
They strolled to the edge of the dance floor and waited as the band finished their final chords before striking up a new tune. The song they struck was a vibrant upbeat melody played at most formal gatherings. She smiled as she turned to Pellius. 
“Do you know how to Canter?” Willow asked, humour glinting in her eyes. 
“I have been Cantering since before you were born, my lady,” he said with a wink. 
Willow signalled for him to lead. Together, as they always did, they made a fine pair. Pellius held the lead position with a practiced hand, his solid form kept Willow secure as she span and swayed to his left and to his right. The lace of her dressed flared out a she span beneath his guiding hand, her height in comparison to his made the turns natural and fluid, she was graceful and elegant. His boot tapped in perfect rhythm to the beat, his natural commanding air drew attention from the onlookers as Willow's grace flowed like water over stone. Willow laughed as he spun her around twice, her pirouette forcing her dress to open like a blossoming flower, his hand landing each time firmly on her back. The music drew to its climax, as Willow swayed again to his left and right, she followed his lead as he finished their dance by whipping Willow fiercely to the right, spinning her in a final wave. She let go of his hand as the final beats of the song sounded, Willow's dress fluttered back down into its long train, her arms held high in their articulate poses. The crowd applauded as she retrieved his arm, stepping off the dance floor together, returning to their table. As Willow caught her breath, she couldn't stop grinning. She had forgotten how much she loved to dance, and by the matching grin Pellius wore, he obviously loved it to. 
After a rest, she sipped her champagne and scanned the room. She picked out the man she was looking for instantly. He was the only man who seemed to not be enjoying himself. Sir Valin, the descendant of the Victor, their third and final sacrifice. Willow didn't have a clear plan when she excused herself from the table and began to approach him. Any information could prove useful, even the slightest most insignificant details, and she'd never gain those by sitting at her table drinking the night away. She approached him from the side, slumping her shoulders slightly, eyes downcast. 
“Balls can be tedious events,” she mumbled quietly, “So many people, so much gossip…”
He smiled slightly, a small and subtle change to his somber face, “Terribly boring affairs.”
“I enjoy the music though,” she replied, “I only wish it was just the music.”
He chuckled, “Agreed. I don't believe we have met, I am Sir Valin Darius of Hammarhall.”
Willow placed her hand in his outstretched palm.
“Lady Kathryn Fairholm of Mathryn,” she said as he kissed her knuckle formally, “A pleasure to meet you.”
Willow continued their polite pleasantries, laughing at his attempt at jokes, smiling at his obvious flattery. When the conversation grew strained, she turned to him and grinned.
“Do you dance, Sir Valin?” she asked with a mischievous spark.
“Oh heavens no my lady,” he replied, “I was graced with two left feet.”
Willow winked, “Well then, it is lucky that I have indeed two right ones.”
He laughed as she pulled him to the dance floor. He had not been under exaggerating when he spoke of his dancing skills. He tripped on his own feet multiple times, he didn't hit a single beat on time and managed to bump his head into Willow's chin as he was busy watching his feet. She found herself guiding them both in the simplest form of the waltz, genuinely laughing as he failed miserably. As the song ended on a high note, he stumbled as he was supporting her and managed to spin on his feet and land one knee in a bow. Willow laughed at the surprisingly dexterous appearance of his finish. 
“I must apologise,” he chuffed, “A lady should never have to bare such an embarrassment as dancing with me.”
Willow laughed in response, “What I choose to embarrass myself with is completely and utterly for me to decide, good sir.”
“Well, thank you, my lady. It has been a pleasantly surprising evening, the first enjoyable ball I've attended.”
“I'm sure there was a compliment there somewhere, so I shall thank you.”
He laughed, a throaty and hardy chuckle, “Thank you, my lady. But alas, i must bid you farewell.”
Willow smiled, “It was a pleasure meeting you, Sir Valin.” 
He returned her smile, “The pleasure was mine.”
“Hopefully we'll meet again, I'd love another dance.”
He laughed, “I believe that was enough dancing for one year. Good evening my lady, and good bye.”
He kissed Willow's hand again before he made his exit, leaving her to watch him from behind. She strolled quickly but casually to Pellius as he sat amongst a group of chattering nobles. Willow laid a hand on his shoulder, his humour filled eyes looked up at her.
“You seem to be enjoying yourself,” he said smartly.
“Gentlemen,” she addressed the group, batting her eyelashes, “I apologise, but I must insist I steal him away for a few moments.” 
“Lucky man,” she heard one of them mutter under his breath. 
Willow smirked as she guided him to the dance floor. The song that was playing was a soft melody composed for a close bodied slow waltz. Willow drew herself towards him and leaned her face towards his neck.
“He's leaving now,” she whispered, low enough that only Pellius would hear her, “Should we follow, or wait?” 
He remained silent for a moment as they swayed back and forth to the tune, finally he stepped back from her and grasped her hand, leading her towards the upper balcony. The tight grasp he had on Willow's wrist had terribly inappropriate thoughts flood her mind. They reached the open space in time to see Sir Valin step into his carriage and close the door, the royal livery painted onto its side. 
“Valin Darius,” Willow whispered, “He is definitely one of the bloodline.”
“Then he's the one we need.”
“Do we go after him?” she whispered.
“Not yet, let us bide our time and strike when it is right.”
When they returned to the ballroom, Willow realised the one important man she had not danced with. Baron Vandermir stood surrounded by numerous important looking nobles, talk of politics trickling to her ears. As she approached, one of the noble men smiled, noticing her and pointing her out to the Baron. He turned to her and inclined his head. 
“It would rude not to dance with the host,” she said smoothly, “After all the effort he went to arranging such a fine evening.”
“Lady Kathryn,” he said, “It would be a pleasure to dance with you.”
He guided Willow to the dance floor as the music changed its tempo. They began an elegant waltz, bodies held in stiff positions, faces slightly turned away from each other in tradition. As they glided over the floor, she was impressed with how remarkably well he performed. His movements were graceful, his feet flowed in perfect unison to hers. He angled his head slightly and spoke low enough for only the two of them to hear.
“How are the orphans working out?”
“Surprisingly well,” she replied, “They need a firmer hand than most. But they are quite sufficient.” 
“Very well,” he said.
They stepped wide in an arching circle, passing the smiling faces of others enjoying their dance, he gripped her waist and bent her low before continuing their trot. 
“Do you regret aiding us?” she asked quietly.
He mused for a moment, thinking upon his words.
“That remains to be seen,” was all he said.
Willow smiled, turning her face back to its angle, “So does the very fate of this world.”
He eyed her for a moment as the music stopped. He bent in a half bow, a polite gesture, meant for those who were beneath him.
“It was a pleasure, Lady Kathryn.” 
He guided Willow to the edge of the floor before taking his leave. Willow struggled not to frown, feeling as unsure about him as she had before. The Cardinal had warned them that Vandermir was not to be trusted, and she was inclined to agree. As a host, he was gracious and polite. As an ally, he was self serving and precarious. He would stay loyal only while it benefited him.
The rest of their evening passed uneventfully. Willow was impressed with how Teelee conducted herself, using the attraction of her magically enhanced dress to strike up conversations. Before she left for the night, she had a dozen contacts and offers of meetings. Willow accepted a few more requests to dance from eligible bachelors, and had to stop herself from rolling her eyes at the repeating comments of disbelief at how she would be unmarried. 
“Surely, a woman as radiant as yourself is spoken for,” Derrian Tralleger had asked.
He was the seventh gentleman to say so that evening. 
“Oh, I am spoken for,” Willow heard herself answer, the many glasses of champagne hazing her mind, “But he is one of immense power, of such strength and might, I shall forever be beneath him.”
Willow's heart fluttered at the thought.
“Then the man is fool,” Derrian said obnoxiously.
Willow head snapped to attention, “He is no man. He is… a god.”
Realisation dawned on Derrian’s face, he smiled, warm and comforting, “It is a delight to see a woman of your station so devoted. A shame for the rest of us, but Mitra is more deserving of your love and attentions.”
Willow was caught between the urge to laugh and the urge to throw up. She settled on smiling politely, allowing the gentleman to continue his fantasy. 
“You’ll have to forgive me,” she said, stopping their waltz, “I do believe my feminine constitution has failed me, the champagne has gone straight to me head.”
He smiled in a polite understanding way, “Of course, my lady.”
He lead her off the dance floor and returned her to her seat, bowing formally before he retreated into the crowd. Willow's feet ached from the hours of dancing in strictly bound heels, she turned to look over their group. The cheerful glint of alcohol sparked in each of their eyes. Willow laughed, standing herself up again on slightly unsteady feet. 
“I believe it is a fine time for me to leave,” she said to the group, “Before my tongue gets any looser and my feet fall from beneath me.”
“I'd forgotten how uncomfortable these dresses were,” Garvana muttered. 
“It's the shoes that kill me,” Willow said quietly, “If it wasn’t such a repulsive idea, I'd run around barefoot.”
The two of them giggled as they gathered their belongings, preparing to make their exit. Pellius approached with his arm offered at the ready. Willow eyed him as she accepted his arm, raking her eyes over his masculine figure. Even after a night worth of dancing and drinking, he looked as immaculate as ever. The only hint of the revelry was the slightest of flush to his cheeks. Willow on the other hand, had to focus all her attention on keeping her walk calm and graceful. She was grateful for his steady hand, for she made an elegant exit as the layers of lace swayed rhythmically behind her. Pellius helped her into the cabin and smirked knowingly as guided Teelee in behind her, stepping in himself and sitting to Willow's side. As the horses kicked off, the fresh air helped cleared her head and lift the hazy glaze from her sight as she watched the rolling hills go by. She leaned her head against Pellius’ broad shoulder.
“Tell me of Rahadoum,” she said lazily to Teelee, “I thought religion was forbidden there?”
“It is,” she replied, “Strictly. The Laws of Man prohibit any and all worship.”
“Yet you serve Asmodeus?” Willow asked intrigued.
“Only in recent times,” she said, “I landed on the shores of Talingarde with no god to worship, I come from a powerful wealthy family that are heavily intrenched in the faithless society. I have always been drawn to the values of Asmodeus though, he enforces the rightful way of the world, the strong should indeed rule the weak.”
Willow smiled, “And then you found yourself in his service.”
“It was indeed a most beneficial turn of events.”
Willow frowned, thinking aloud, “Such a strange series of coincidences. That we should find ourselves brought together by conviction. I often wonder of how it came about that we would find each other, servants of Asmodeus, sealed together in the same very cell.”
“Strange indeed,” Teelee responded.
Pellius looked down at Willow with a curious expression.
“I wonder…” she said, before thinking better of it. 
She let the phrase linger as she questioned the methods of their meeting. She did not believe in fate, she believed every man and woman carved out their own path relative to their strength. But she had wondered how much of a hand Cardinal Thorn had played in bringing them together.

The blinding sun in her eyes was an intrusion of the rudest level. Willow woke upon the bed in the Bronze Minotaur as light flooded the room. 
“We're leaving in an hour,” Garvana's booming voice said, “It's time you woke.”
Willow flung her pillow towards the voice in hopes of silencing it. Her head throbbed and the contents of her stomach threatened to repeat.
Garvana laughed, “You drank like a sailor last night, I don't envy your body today.”
Willow cringed at the voice, “Sssshhhhh!” she hushed.
“Perhaps Carnitheria Rex will allow you to ride him back to the Horn,” Garvana chuckled.
“Ugh,” Willow groaned, “Don't speak of that thing. Have you smelt it?!”
Garvana laughed as she left Willow alone in her chamber. She crept from the bed, ignoring her protesting stomach, dragging herself to the bath. 

The way back was sluggish and sickly. She refused to let the group see how horribly ill she felt, so she kept up her brisk walk in hopes of reaching her bed before midday. Her hopes were shattered when they arrived to find a messenger waiting for them outside the Horn.

A new group of adventurers are in town. They are too visible to attack directly. They assault the Horn soon, unsure of the exact time of arrival. They mentioned something about the ‘centre eye’. Third level entry?
Traya, a sorcerous of some sort. Hassan, a strange foreign barbarian with red skin and horns. Tasker, half-orc knife specialist. Posca, dwarven cleric of a god of merchants. 

Willow sighed as they made their way to the tavern to plan their defence. After much debate, they settled by majority on a plan that utilised all of them. Teelee and Carnitheria Rex would guard the Sanctum, Garvana and Grumblejack would guard the third floor balcony, Willow and Pellius would guard the second, Bor and the minions would guard the first and the boggards would guard their home in the caverns. They would keep near to the thrones for fast access to each other, and they had a signal set up to alert them which level was being attacked. The signal horn would be blown once for first level, two for second and three for third. Once they had agreed on the plan, they split for the afternoon, sure that the attack was unlikely to come the same evening that the messenger arrived. To air on the side of caution, Willow set each of her hounds on guard at all three level entrances. She gave Lith an affectionate pat before trudging to her quarters and collapsing gratefully into the bed’s silken embrace.

The first Willow knew of the attack was the newly installed door being smashed to pieces. Her and Pellius had been standing casually against the wall of the entrance on the second level, when the wood splinted and exploded into the room. Before Willow had time to act, a pellet of flame shot towards them. She leapt backwards, barely avoiding the blazing eruption, flames licking her heels. Pellius, in his solid heavy armour, was not quite as lucky. The fireball fulminated on his chest, ricocheting the scorching blast up his neck and face, searing any skin he had bare. He grunted at the pain, turning to face the incoming attack. As a red skinned man screamed in rage and leaped forcefully over the trap, Willow heard the signal horn blow twice from high above her. Teelee had been tasked with watching through the magic of Vetra-Kali’s eyes, and calling the alarm as soon as she could. Willow’s hounds reacted quicker than she did, leaping at the frothing man, snarling their teeth in response. They attempted to latch on to him, but he was moving so erratically, they had trouble holding on. Willow dove forward as a dagger flew directly over her head and slammed into the crease of Pellius’ armour. She heard his curse as he continued to block the red skinned man’s onslaught. Willow leaped to him with her dagger in a fierce grip. She lashed out, striking the man low across the torso. He barely flinched. As his sword came down and hacked deep into Pellius’ shoulder, Willow heard the woman who had launched the fireball, muttering another incantation. Willow swore and leaped back, flinging out her bow and quickly firing an arrow towards the sorceress. It hit its target, interrupting the spell and forcing her back behind the entrance wall. Willow didn't take time to celebrate, Pellius was steadily losing blood, his defence weakening under the strain of the barbarian’s unrelenting attacks. She slung her bow around her shoulders and ripped out her dagger, diving into the melee. She hacked her dagger into his shoulder and tore it downwards as she pulled it free. Pellius refused to give up, he swung his warhammer with all of his strength, smashing the man in the chest. His energy draining as quickly as the blood from his wounds. 
“Pellius!” Willow screamed, “Fall back and heal yourself!”
He hefted his weapon and lurched it forward again, his weakening grip steering his swing wide. The colour was slowly seeping from his face.
“Pellius you stubborn bastard!” she yelled, almost laughing at his strong willed ego, “You're no good to me dead! Fall back!”
She saw the internal battle he had at the idea of retreating. The door to Willow's left swung open as Grumblejack barrelled his way into the room. She heard Pellius curse as he withdrew into the halls. Suddenly, the red skinned man let out a terrifying shriek. He cleaved his weapon to the right, slicing through each of her three hounds in a shower of blood. His blade continued its fearsome strike, slashing deeply into Willow’s chest. She slammed her teeth shut as she felt the cold sharp metal split her skin, she ripped the pain deep within and thrust her dagger forward. From the corner of her vision she saw the man who had been throwing knives fall to Bor's blade as it struck from behind the arrow slits. The man fell directly onto the trap as it swallowed him down.
“Asmodeus!” Garvana howled, “Show them your true vision!” 
Willow felt the fiery blaze of Hell as Garvana weaved her magic, a look of utter terror spread across the faces of the adventurers, so frightening that some of them started to shake. As the red skinned man recovered, he curved wide with his blade, attempting to cleave into the hounds again. 
Bassirr!” Willow screamed for them to retreat.
She pirouetted under his swing and leaped forward, jabbing her dagger into the man’s throat. He lashed out his sword in a last desperate attempt, hacking his way across Willow's stomach. Willow felt the sickening shrill of blood leaking from the wound, but as the dwarf appeared behind her, she had little time to think on it. The barbarian dropped to his knees and crumpled forward, the sorceress trapped in a pit that Teelee had magically created and the rogue lay locked within the cell below. The dwarf was alone.
“Surrender!” Willow demanded fiercely, ignoring the patch of her clothing that was steady drenching in her blood.
His eyes flicked to the Hellhounds now viciously snapping at him from the rear, to the feral nightmare of a horse that eyed him as easy prey. As he made up his mind and lifted his blade to attack - he didn't stand a chance. Willow span and arched her dagger out, cleanly slicing through his throat, as Bor impaled him from behind. He dropped to the ground in a heap next to the red skinned man. The group turned to the sorceress as the spell of the pit ended. 
“I surrender!” she said quickly, “Stay your attack, I surrender.” 
Willow inclined her head, “We accept your surrender.”
Bor grabbed the sorcerous by the wrists and began to fasten rope to bind her. She struggled and writhed in his hands. 
“This will go easier if you don't struggle,” Teelee said with her eyebrows raised.
When the woman continued to thrash about, the pain thumping in Willow's body took over.
Cease!” she bit fiercely, “We have accepted your surrender, do not make me regret that and go back on my word.”
The woman’s protests fell silent. She looked into Willow's eyes and saw the clear intent of her words. She nodded shakily, allowing herself to be tied up. Willow remained where she was as Bor carried their prisoner away, she sent Sith and Loras along side him to guard her.
Lith stepped up to Willow at the exact moment she needed, stumbling on her feet, holding herself upright with the hounds back. Lith whined to her and barked frantically, trying to get Garvana's attention as she patched Pellius up. Willow swayed on her feet as she saw them racing towards her, Pellius’ firm arms catching her weight as she slipped from her stance. As his warmth encompassed her, she sighed an exhausted yet comfortable huff, stars dancing behind her eyes as her sight hazed. 
And suddenly, the world went black.

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