Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Chapter 14 - Eye of the Inquisitor

“She needs rest,” a deep yet feminine voice said from beyond the blackness, “She has lost a lot of blood and will have a nasty scar, but she will live.”
“When will she wake?” asked a smooth baritone masculine voice.
“When her body is ready. She needs to rest for a while, it may be some time yet.”
“I wish you'd keep your voices down,” Willow muttered, her eyes flickering open, “I can't rest while you two chatter away.”
As her vision returned, she saw Pellius’ handsome battered face.
“Welcome back, my lady,” he said warmly, though his voice was strained with pain.
He lay next to her upon her bed, blood staining the sheets and the many bandages wrapped around each of their bodies. His face held a sickly yellow tinge, his muscles straining as he affectionately clipped her chin with his finger.
“How long was I out?” she asked, rolling towards him, cringing at the aching flesh of her abdomen.
“Only a few hours,” he replied, “You were too stubborn to take your own advice.”
Willow couldn't help but chuckle, much to her stomach’s protest at the movement through her newly healed skin. She remembered having antagonised Pellius for not retreating when he was gravely injured, much like what she had done after being sliced through the torso by the barbarian's blade.
“Do as I say, not as I do,” she muttered with an eye roll.
Pellius chuckled in response.
“How do you feel?” Garvana asked, looking almost concerned.
“Terrible,” Willow chuffed truthfully, “But alive.”
“You almost weren’t,” she replied seriously, “If it weren't for your hound’s relentless barking, I may not have gotten to you in time.”
It was then that Willow saw the worried face of her infernal hound, flaming in the corner of the room. Willow smiled, reaching her hand for Lith.
Norr, barrith mar Lith siroth mer,” she said softly, calling for her hound.
Lith trotted to the side of the bed, pressing her face into Willow's palm. She whined aloud and chuffed against her hand.
Hirr mer trath Lith,” she said in praise.
“Good girl indeed,” Garvana said fondly, “Now you two must rest. You are both confined to bed for the next week. I have done my best to stop the bleeding, but any vigorous movement could start it again.”
Lith strolled back to her corner, huffing happily as she lowered herself down, taking her place facing the doorway, guarding them while they slept.
“Confined to bed, huh?” Willow asked, raising her eyebrows suggestively.
“Did you not hear me?” Garvana snapped, “No vigorous movement. You'll both bleed out internally before you get to enjoy it.”
Willow chuckled, “Yes Mother Garvana, I heard you.”
As Garvana rolled her eyes and left the room, Willow shuffled closer to Pellius. She lay her head on his unwounded shoulder, closing her exhausted eyes. It took only moments for her to fall back into the depths of slumber.

When Willow woke again, it was to the soft sound of Garvana’s voice humming a gentle tune. Her eyes flickered open, she pulled herself upright, surprised to not find Pellius next to her.
“Stay there,” Garvana said harshly, “You still need rest, but you need to eat.”
She placed a tray filled with fresh cut vegetables, diced fish and a glass of water next to her on the bed. Garvana turned to the door as Willow fetched the plate.
“Did Pellius recover quicker than expected?” Willow asked, frowning at her pathetic feminine constitution; she still felt completely fatigued and exhausted.
“No,” Garvana said frustrated, “He's taken a walk. Deciding that he knows best, unwavering in his exercise regime. He can't grasp the idea of bed rest.”
Willow chuckled as Garvana turned to leave.
“Will you stay?” Willow asked, taking a sip from the glass, “I still feel as if I barely know you, and it's been months.”
Garvana turned to her, a strange look on her face. She looked around the room for a chair to sit in, but Willow laughed and offered her a spot on the bed. Begrudgingly, she sat.
“What do you wish to know?” she asked warily.
“Oh don't be so serious all the time,” Willow said as she rolled her eyes, “Everything with you is always so intense. Tell me something light hearted about you. Tell me something of your past?”
Garvana frowned, “My past is not light hearted.”
“Oh no you don't, don't do that serious somber thing. Tell me of a man, a dalliance, a romance or an affair?”
Again, Garvana frowned, “There is none.”
“So you've never fooled around with a man you shouldn't have?” Willow asked.
“I've never fooled around with any man.”
Willow's eyebrows raised in scandal, “A woman?!”
Garvana laughed in surprise, “No no, definitely not. I've just never fooled around.”
Willow's mouth dropped open in shock, “Ever? You mean you've never…?”
Garvana smiled, a small blush touching her cheek, “Never.”
Willow was almost lost for words, “Wow. That might explain why you're so uptight.”
Garvana’s head snapped to Willow, but relaxed when she saw the joking grin on her face.
“May I ask why?” Willow inquired.
“Do you want the truth? Or a light hearted answer?”
Willow frowned slightly, “The truth.”
Garvana sighed, “My mother was executed for her unholy union with the dark powers. I am the spawn of this union, the spawn of a devil. I suppose the knowledge of this has tainted my view of the world. I understand normal attraction, but I have never felt it strongly enough to consider doing… that, with any man.”
“And you've never wanted to just, you know, give it a try?”
“Not with any human man.”
Willow's eyebrows raised again, grinning wickedly, “Human man? But you have wanted with some other?”
“Oh come on, you can tell me, who was it?” Willow pried.
Garvana turned her pink cheeks away from Willow.
“Dessiter,” she whispered.
Willow groaned, “Oh yes, that commanding air, that striking presence. He would know how to split a girl from herself.”
“Willow!” Garvana called in shock.
Willow laughed, quivering at the thought, “He would be fun. If you made it out alive…”
“I can not believe we are having this conversation!” Garvana said, hiding her face.
“You could use those big horns like handles for leverage…”
Garvana burst out into giggles, “Willow stop!”
Willow laughed in response, “Alright alright, but in all seriousness, you might want to start with a fish a little smaller. I don't think he'd be the type to play gentle. I meant it when I said it would be a possibility you may not make it out alive.”
Willow dropped her voice to a low carnal whisper, “But it would be a hell of a way to go…”
Garvana’s blush threatened to burst her cheeks.
“Enough!” she said firmly, “Tell me of you. I would have assumed that you and Pellius were an item, but when you return from your solo trips to Farholde, I often see marks that he could not have made…”
Willow smirked, “Pellius and I have an understanding. Well, we had one. He's distanced himself of late... That man is remarkable, a most satisfying and vigorous lover. He is passionate and dedicated in his application to everything…”
“Yet you are not satisfied with only him?” Garvana asked, clearly pleased to have the conversation turned away from herself.
“Oh he indeed leaves me satisfied,” Willow chuckled, “And sore and weak in all the right ways. He is a touch of a sadist, and certainly knows where to push the pain threshold to make a woman-
“Alright!” Garvana interrupted, “I do not need to know anymore of Pellius.”
Willow laughed as Garvana shook her head.
“If you are so satisfied by him,” she asked questioningly, “Then why do you want the other man? And, who is he?”
“It is not a matter of want,” Willow tried to explain, “It is more a matter of need. Unfortunately, I am not satisfied for very long. I have always been this way. It is only recently that I have been able to experiment and explore it for myself.”
Garvana frowned, “What does that mean?”
Willow debated how much she really wanted to share. Garvana had been trusting and open, sharing secrets from her past, Willow owed her the same courtesy. Within reason.
“I do not seek love or romance,” she said carefully, “I certainly do not seek marriage. I was married once before to a man whose status and rank were the only admirable qualities he had. But it was a lie. I could never give myself to mere man. My body, yes, and I take great pleasure in that. But my heart…”
“I have felt it,” Garvana said, breaking Willow’s thoughts, “I have felt Him.”
Willow frowned and snapped her head to face Garvana’s intense expression.
“I did not know what it was at first,” she continued, “It would appear late at night, lasting for a while and leave me baffled in my meditation. So I followed it one night, it lead me to your chamber back in Alden Cross. I was unsure I had understood it correctly. When we settled here in the Horn, I was meditating as it returned. When I could hear the… sounds, Pellius and you were making, I began to grasp the idea. How is it our Infernal Lord is with you in those acts?”
Willow smiled in surprise, unsure how to truly answer.
“I am bound to Him. My heart and soul have always belonged to him. He is not just with me then, He is always with me…”

When Pellius returned later that afternoon, he was followed by Garvana and Bor. Garvana scolded him as he lay down and she checked over his wounds. The blue tinge to his lips
seemed to be an indication that exercise was a bad idea. Bor spoke as she re-bandaged the newly opened wounds on his shoulder.
“The sorcerous, Traya, has agreed to work for us,” Bor said, “I believe she will be a beneficial ally. I have questioned her, and her motives and morals seem to be in line with ours, to a certain extent. She does not follow any particular religion, yet she genuinely seems to hold no bias against anyone who does.”
He reported the details of his interrogation. Traya appeared to have been honest in her answers. She was not here to quell the evil residing in the Horn, she was here for the treasure; she was after the Eyes. She was also wise enough to realise when the need to keep her life outweighed the need for gold. Tarska, the knife throwing halforc, had proven much less wise. He had been quick to sell out his friends for his freedom, and even quicker to sell his services for gold.
“Kill him,” Willow suggested when asked of his fate, “If he was that eager to sell out his allies, he will only do the same to us.”
“Agreed,” chimed the rest of the group.
While Bor returned to his duties, Teelee had left in search of the boat that Traya’s group had sailed upon. When she returned, she handed Willow a small locked chest and the journal Traya had used to find the information on the Horn and the Eyes. Willow perused the book while her body recuperated.
Sir Martin of Brandingshire was one of the Knights of Alerion who had accompanied the Victor on his raid of the Horn. He wrote a tale of battle and purification, a ballad of good triumphing over evil. It was a detailed account of each heroic deed he witnessed and played part in; from his captain beheading Ezra Thrice Damned, the High Priest of the Sons of the Pale Horsemen, to the Victor himself slaying Vetra-Kali in one on one combat. There were many interesting details in the journal, such as the failure of the Knights in recovering the three emeralds of the Archdeacon and the treasury of the Sons. He spoke of the construction of the shrine of Mitra, how each knight prayed in unison, the power of their combined faith feeding the shrine and strengthening the might it possessed.
Willow found a particular intriguing passage that spoke of the immense task of slaying Hexor and Vexor. Sir Martin described in great detail how the daemons were killed in brutal combat, slayed by the hands of the faithful knights, before their bodies dissipated into the abyss. She resolved to ask the group if they had any further knowledge of what the ceustodaemons had the power to do, and how binding the amulets they now held were.

As the sun rose on the final dawn of Willow's bed rest, she flowed through her movements of her regular morning stretches. Her muscles were stiff and sore, their forced lack of inactivity hindering her flexibility and reach. She gritted her teeth against the strain, holding her stretches for longer, testing her muscles elasticity against the cramps. The large scar on her stomach pulled the skin taut as she arch her back and neck, the newly knitted flesh quivering as if it feared it would rip open.
The group had been busy while Willow and Pellius had recovered. They had implemented the plan of sealing every entrance to the Horn, with the exception of the second floor. They had used stone shaping magic to collapse the secret entrance to the sanctum stairs, creating a single door from a third level chamber into the room guarded by Hexor and Vexor. They had closed over both balconies, collapsed the outside stairs leading to the first floor and made a crude set of stairs out of the stone wall connecting level one and two from the inside. They instructed the guards to keep the only remaining entrance heavily guarded at all times.

It was late afternoon on the ninth week of their ritual as Willow returned to her suite in the western wing of Vandermir’s manor. She mused over her findings as she strolled through the long hallways. She had come to Farholde in search of information on the celestial hounds that had attacked the Horn. What she knew before her trip was that they were known as moon dogs, and although they could certainly use telepathy to communicate, she had not heard a verbal word from them. She had a hunch that they could not speak, therefore giving the Forsaken a possible defence tactic. She had been correct, her research had confirmed that they could not verbally utter words. So she had come up with a plan to ensure they could be caught if the second hound returned for his or her partner. The crew would use a code word, a simple term or phrase that must be uttered each time they passed one another throughout the Horn, every time without exception.
Willow was scribbling notes in her journal as she approached her room. The hallways were silent, the Baron had instructed his staff to leave the western wing untouched unless otherwise instructed. So when the softest click of a window lock sounded on the other side of her door, Willow silently returned her journal to her bag and withdrew her dagger. Trying to appear as if her distracted approach had continued, she loudly unlocked her door and swung it wide. She was ready when the dagger flew towards her head. She ducked under it’s path and tumbled into the room, leaping up to launch an attack against her would-be ambusher.
Switch laughed as he bombarded her with a flurry of attacks, parrying each strike of Willow's with ease. He advanced forward with his unrelenting offence, forcing her steps back towards the bed. He leaped towards her in an uncharacteristic bull rush, catching her off guard and knocking her off balance as she fell upon the bed. True to character though, he swiftly slid above her and caged her there, knees holding her thighs, hands pinning her wrists. He forced her head aside, biting down firmly on her sensitive spot; the thin muscle that ran between her neck and shoulder. Willow squealed with delight, struggling to restrain her body from pushing up against his. This was a particular favourite game of theirs. He revelled in her inability to control herself, and unfortunately, so did she. It didn't stop her from trying though. She allowed her body to react as he anticipated, her back arching so her chest thrust itself against his, her hips grinding upon the hard length of his belt. As his teeth tightened their bite, his body slightly relaxed as he swapped his grip, one hand holding both of hers so his other could explore her body. She took a moment to enjoy it’s exploration before using every ounce of her strength to push his weight up enough so she could quickly flip him and roll on top. Her legs parted and slid to each side of him, straddling him tightly, knees locked against his thighs. She had surprised him enough for him to release the latch he had on her shoulder, but not enough for his hands to let go of their fierce hold on her wrists and waist. His hand forced the slender frame of her lower region to grind down on his. Willow couldn't stop the high pitched moan that pierced its way from her lips. He smirked at the sound. They stayed that way for a few moments, his unrelenting grip giving no room for escape as he rocked her hips ever so slightly. When he spoke, it was in an easy casual tone that gave no hint of the intense position they were in.
“I didn't take you for a lady of literature,” he said, “Hard to picture you encased in a room full of towering shelves lined with books.”
He just stared at her, awaiting a response, as casual as if they were sipping tea and talking over biscuits.
“I am not opposed to research,” she said as casually as possible, “And do you not have anything better to do than follow me around all day?”
“Do you not have men and women that serve you?” he asked with a mocking noble air, ignoring her question, “One would think that such a task was beneath you.”
Willow's laughing response was stifled with a groan as he rocked against her.
“It is quicker for me to do it myself,” she gritted.
“I'm sure that's true for a lot of things,” he said, crudely laughing.
Willow almost blushed at his words. Her dainty reply was cut short by his hand releasing her waist as it slithered lower. His other hand clutched its grip on her wrists, pulling them higher and forcing her body lower against his. She may have been on top, but as usual, he was completely in control.
“We've got two hours before training at nightfall,” he said quietly against her lips, “I can think of one good way to pass the time…”

It was on sore and fatigued legs that Willow followed Switch through the hazy moonlit streets of town. She kept within a few paces of him, ignoring the burn in her thighs. He gracefully ran on silent feet with the vigour of a man who had not expended his energy in the last few hours, even though she intimately knew better. They reached the warehouse and crept through the tattered wooden panels, quietly creeping though the large halls to the secret room hidden within its walls. As they entered, Switch lifted something from his cabinet and flung it towards her. Willow quickly reached out and caught it by the metal shaft. It was a dagger, a matching one to the first that he had given her. The sisters were identical in every way, both had unusually long blades that arched into fine slender points. Both had the intricate markings along their base, script written in a language she didn't recognise. Her contacts in the underground had translated it for her, they had said it was written in an ancient language, one so lost that it no longer had a name.
Silence is our greatest ally, as we strike from the shadows - the motto of the Black Serpent Coterie. Willow fingered the dagger lightly as she lifted the other from its sheath.
“You will learn to dual wield the daggers,” Switch said, watching Willow practice her grip, “In the beginning it will feel awkward, you'll feel sloppy and off balance as you've been trained to even your weight with a single blade.”
Willow practiced the basic dance of light blade training. She did indeed feel sluggish. Her movements were slow and jerky, her left hand untrained in its attack, her grip tight and unnatural. The unarmed hand had always been used for balance and control, there to support her weight as she pirouetted and cleaved. The dagger, though only a whiff of metal, felt like a lumbering weight in her hand.
“In battle you rely on your speed and agility to overpower your opponent,” Switch continued, no trace of the light hearted smug rogue, he was all business and professionalism, “But as a down side to keeping you light and quick, your weapon must be small. You are at a disadvantage when your opponents weapon can inflict massive damage each time he manages to catch you. Those opponents are usually the ones in the heaviest armour. So to even the playing field, you need to be able to hit them harder in the shortest possible time. Long drawn out battles are not your friend. The longer you take to cut them down, the higher their chance of landing a fatal blow on you. To that end, two daggers. You can inflict two wounds in the same time it would take you to make one.”
It was a simple theory, one that made perfect sense. But the logic of it did not make Willow’s grip anymore even. Switch started by weaving her through the basic attacks of dual wielding. They were similar to her normal attacks, with the difference being the follow through. Instead of slashing and leaping away, she continued her movement with it’s momentum and sliced with her left hand. He said that there was no need to expect her second hand to be as powerful as the first, but to allow the first to guide the path for the second. After an hour of hacking through air, Switch stood in place of her imaginary target. He slowed his movements in the beginning, allowing her to get comfortable with the two blades. Luckily, she was a fast learner. As his speed increased; so did hers, her attacks mirroring his in their fatal dance. By midnight she was almost attacking at her regular speed, her fluid grace returning, her steps quick and swift. She managed to slash deeply across his cheek as she countered his attack. As the blood seeped from the gash and Switch realised she was keeping up with him, he quickened his pace, his attacks becoming impossibly fast to parry. He backed Willow into a corner, a move she didn't notice until her back thumped against the wall. He cut off all her escape routes, his body seemed to be in three places at once, his blades seemed to triple, six daggers slashing towards her. She defended herself as best she could with the little room she had. As she lashed out at one of him, she struck her blade across his torso and gasped as the image of him disappeared. The other two of him grinned in glee at her response. She ducked under their swings and took a chance by leaping into one of them with her dagger forward. The blade and her traveled directly through the image as it vanished, leaving the single Switch to chase after her as he laughed. Willow had heard of magic as this, but had never seen it herself. It was disorientating to say the least. She continued her sprint across the room, trying to create space for herself to attack. The sound of his footsteps behind her suddenly silenced. She span on her heel and prowled, two daggers at the ready. The room appeared empty, no sounds bar the ones her own quiet footfalls were making. Her heart was beating too quickly for her to take in any slight feel of motion upon the wooden floor. Silently, Willow felt the press of a cold clean blade against her throat. It pulled her backwards until her back pressed against a hard solid body.
“You're very good,” Switch’s low grumbling voice whispered against her ear, “But not good enough. Your enemies may have access to the same weapons as I, and they won't hesitate to use them. You need to be better prepared.”
Willow remained silent as he pulled the dagger tighter against her throat, his other hand slipping around her waist and up behind the hem of her shirt. As the rough callous of his palm scraped the smooth delicate flesh of her torso, Willow quivered against him. She felt the soft wetness of his tongue trace her earlobe.
“Keep the dagger,” he whispered, “Use it train yourself. When you are competent, you will use it to fulfil your next task. When I deem you ready, I will deliver the requirements of your next mission. Once it is completed, you shall become a Journeyman. You have much training to do before then. For if you fail, you will only see me once more. It will be as I take your life with my blade.”
Without another word, he was gone. As if winking out of existence, he disappeared. Willow felt like she should have been frightened by the intensity of his words, or the utter conviction in which he said them. But she wasn't. If anything, she was excited. She didn't expect to fail, she knew she could complete any mission he gave her. But the thrill of facing Switch if she happened to falter, was a delicious tease in itself. Willow gathered herself enough to collect her belongings and right her skewed armour. Her blood was still racing too fast to return to the manor and sleep. So she decided to use her energy to run her way back to the Horn. The darkness of the forest did not scare her. In fact, it welcomed her into its eternal shadowed embrace.

The guards came barrelling up the stairs in the midmorning sun, an urgent hurry to their steps. They had returned to the Horn with the gruesome news about town. A slaughter had occurred in the slums of Farholde. Six bodies were found strung up by their hands, their entrails sprawled across the alleyway. One of the deceased had been a local prostitute, known for her easy nature and loud mouth. The other five had been an Iraen group of adventurers that had been set on ransacking the Horn. The most disturbing of the news was the message that had been written in blood cresting the bodies.

Stay away from the Horn.

“Subtle,” Willow scoffed as the guards recounted the tale.
“It might scare off the groups that were merely after treasure,” Bor replied, “But it is only going to bring those that wish to actually disrupt and stop our progress.”
By the guards report, it had indeed sent several adventurers north, figuring there were easier pickings over the wall. As the group headed towards the tavern to convene, Willow mused over the suspicions in her mind. The oddity here was the prostitute. She had not forgotten that the note Elise had sent had given them the wrong information on Traya's groups planned entry. It was Willow's suspicion that had each entrance manned. She approached the sorcerous who sat alone at the corner table of the tavern.
“May I speak with you?” Willow asked politely.
“Of course,” Traya responded, “I have some questions of my own if you don't mind.”
Willow smiled as she sat, “Go ahead.”
“The orc says you are here to banish an Archdeacon, yet you are strained for allies. Surely the Mitrans would have vested interest in seeing this task complete. Why not get them to aid you?”
Willow kept her words controlled, careful not to give an opening for the wrong information to slip, “We are Asmodean,” she said simply, “The Mitrans consider us their enemies purely for our faith in our Lord.”
“But surely they would put that prejudice aside to banish a greater evil from this land?”
Willow smiled and shook her head, “No. The crimes of blasphemy and heresy are punishable by death. Burned at the stake, like some backwards heathen ritual, punishing those simply for their faith. They would not set aside their differences, their own law states that our very existence is a stain upon this land, no matter if our cause is just.”
Willow listened to the others join in their conversation and turn it into a debate of the state of Talingarde. It was slightly refreshing to hear their views countered not by fanatical hatred, but by an unbiased outsider. Traya was smart enough to realise that there was more to their plans than simply banishing Vetra-Kali, but she held an open view of their intent, not condemning them for their belief that they could make the world a better place. Garvana spoke of the injustice against the Asmodean people of Talingarde, the slaughter of innocent families who were convicted and killed for their religion. Pellius spoke of order and freedom from chaos, real structure to allow those who were worthy to rise to from their station, everyone having and knowing their place in the world. Traya's arguments were valid. She spoke of the paradise that Talingarde was for the people, the more fortunate helping the less, charity and community being pillars in the society. Willow's mind trailed off while the others bantered, the sorcerous had raised several strong points. She could understand the views she put forward, but she could also see how they were wrong. The state of the land allowed many injustices to fester. It was those of worth that suffered. The poor were cared for by the gold stripped in taxes from the rich. The poor had no need to help themselves, they had no need to improve their own situation, the charity of this land ensured there was no need. The rich had no need to better themselves either. Their stations were protected by laws and rights, they paid their taxes and awaited the years of fattened bellies, shrinking muscles and full coffers. Willow's parents were prime examples of that. The land was stagnant. Nobody gained, nobody grew, nobody rose. It was the powerful and ambitious that suffered; there was no room for either in Talingarde.

Early one afternoon on the eleventh week of their ritual, the boggard chieftain Zikomo approached the group. His eyes were glossed over, a drugged fuelled haze surrounded him.
“Zikomo comes to you with grave news, oh great emissaries of the Father,” he said in his mystical amphibian way, “A boggard hunting party has not returned, they were headed east towards the great lake. I have read the signs. A great hunting demon has taken them.”
Pellius, who appeared almost uninterested in the speech, perked up at the mention of a demon. The temptation of purging the demonic being of chaos, was one too great for him to ignore. The group agreed to seek out and destroy the predator, leaving swiftly after sourcing all the information they could from Zikomo’s readings.
The trek to the east was slow, they followed the boggard tracks towards the river for a few hours until they came across the signs of ambush. The blood smeared along the ground casing the panicked prints of the boggards told a strange story. Massive clawed prints lay sprawled across the mud. Willow frowned at the tracks.
“I don't think the boggard meant demon as such,” she said wryly, “I think he meant it as a beast or creature.”
“A dire tiger,” Bor agreed, “And a huge one at that. I've never seen prints so big.”
“Well we can't have it running around killing the boggards,” Garvana chimed in, “They're no good to us dead.”
The group followed the enormous tracks to the edge of the great lake. They lead into a cave, black and shadowed, deep stone curving into an underground den. Willow slinked out of sight as the group tried to draw out their prey with noise. When a few minutes passed and nothing appeared from the cave, the group gave up their lure and decided to enter.
“If it's home,” Willow whispered, “It sure knows we're here.”
The arcane light that was cast upon Pellius’ warhammer lit the way into the winding caverns. They were greeted by a strangely clean and orderly den, bones of the deceased stacked almost neatly upon a single pile. As they delved deeper through the stone work, a frightening silhouette leaped from the shadows, straight towards Pellius. It was the largest tiger that Willow had ever seen. With paws the size of her head, on all fours it stood almost two foot taller than her. It ferociously mauled at Pellius, its teeth sank deep into his shoulder, it's claws on both front paws ripped furiously at his chest. As it tried to tear a chuck of flesh through his armour, Willow was the first to react. She tumbled passed the massacre and leapt up behind it, ramming her dagger deep into its side. The beast let out a fearsome growl as it unlatched itself from Pellius and attempted to turn on her. Pellius struggled to hold on to the tiger as it turned its attention on Willow, but it was too strong as it ripped itself free and leap on her. She cried out as its teeth pierced her flesh, embedding deeply into her neck, blooding running down her shoulders. The rest of the group attacked fast. This was not a creature they would attempt to capture, the attacks mercilessly seeking its death. In unison, Bor, Pellius and Garvana cleaved into the beast, their blades searing deep into its back. Even Teelee’s horse galloped forward, lashing out with its jaw and savaging a chunk of its fur and flesh before greedily swallowing it. The creature refused to let go of her, its teeth keeping an agonising hold as it lashed out at Pellius with its back feet. Willow saw his flaming warhammer fly towards the beast. As his mighty blow connected at the same moment Bor's sword shoved through its ribs, the enormous tiger collapsed on top of her. Still bleeding heavily, Willow dragged herself free of the beast with Pellius’ aid. His face was white with blood loss, the wounds across his neck, chest and torso were gushing bright red. Willow guided him to the floor as Garvana raced over to heal the worst of his wounds.
Approaching the dead tiger, Willow frowned as she saw an old scar slashed across his left eye. She had heard of a tale surrounding a one eyed tiger of the Caer Bryr.
“There is a legend of these parts,” she said to Teelee as she looked over the tiger’s face, “An animal companion of an Iraen druid, a tiger who grew to immense power in the presence of the divine might his master commanded. They say he lost his eye in the very battle that killed his master. He had grown intelligent. Enough to harbour a hatred for the Talriens who slaughtered his master…”
Willow's frown deepened as she inspected the scar. The exterior had healed long ago, but the flesh around the eye was still reddened and swollen. As she looked closer, she saw what appeared to be the pommel of a dagger. Delicately, she gripped its edge and pulled it free. It was a complete adamantine dagger. Wllow felt a ping of sadness at the thought of the creature wandering for decades, a blade painfully latched through its eye. She handed the dagger to Bor as she turned from the beast.
“Take its head, give it to Zikomo, it will be good for morale.”

A soft knock on the door at midmorning broke Willow from her drawing. She had been sketching the Horn of Abbadon in her journal, shading the silhouette of a great blackened wraith circling its side.
“Come in,” she called, closing the journal.
Pellius stepped inside, dressed in his fullplate armour. The blackened metal sat on his flesh like a menacing stronghold, dark and wicked, almost frightening in its allure. He had been on bed rest again for the week following the tiger’s attack. It was good to see him up on his feet, looking his usual handsome self.
“My lady,” he said smoothly, “May I have a moment of your time?”
Willow smiled at his formality and impeccable charm, “Of course, what may I do for you?”
“There is a show tonight in Auld’lrey, a famous bard by the name of Wildak Quinitis, I would be delighted if you were to accompany me?”
Willow cocked her eyebrow in intrigue, “I would love to.”
“Very good,” he said, a slightly devious glint to his eyes, “We shall leave by midday. Pack for an overnight stay.”
Willow inclined her head as he left and closed the door behind him. There was clearly more than a show that Pellius had planned, and she couldn't help the flutters of excitement and anticipation that rattled through her body. After packing her belongings and gently folding in one of her gowns, Willow was almost disappointed when she left her chamber to find some of the others had joined in for their trip to the city. Bor and Garvana had decided to travel to Farholde to restock supplies and search the arcane stores for trinkets.
The sun was caressing the horizon as they arrived through the southern gates, dusk coming earlier as winter made its approach on the land. As the others made their way to follow Pellius, his sharp commanding comment had them stopped in their tracks.
“We will see you tomorrow,” he clipped, “Goodnight.”
He placed his hand an the small of Willow's back and guided her towards Auld'lrey. They said little as they strolled through the streets, winding through the rich pathways of the upper market district, towards a lavish inn situated at the highest point of the hill. The Minstrel and Shield was a three story building of timber and brick, magically lit lanterns blazed brightly by its entrance, illuminating the reddened brickwork along its door frame. Willow smiled at the bellhop as they entered. Her large black fur cloak hung close to the ground and hid her armour underneath. The fur glistened against the light glittering through the opulent parlour. Pellius stood tall in his shining armour, the magic of the circlet warping it to a brilliant silver shimmer. They would have appeared as a noble knight and his mistress. When the bellhop showed them to their suite, Willow had to smirk at the memory of the first night they had spent together at a similar inn in Aldencross.
As the door clicked shut, Willow began to unpack her things. The measured controlled footsteps behind her had her breath quicken. She could feel the heat from his body as he stood behind her, his fierce presence like a force pressing against her. The air in the room was different than it had been for weeks. Pellius had become distant and reclusive, still as charming and polite as he always was, but the desire and lust between them had dimmed. He had politely declined every advance she had made, leaving her with little choice but to accept it and stop trying. Willow had never been one to chase after her prey, she had always been patient enough to wait for it to come looking for her. And it always did. The air in the room seemed to thicken, her heartbeat sounding loud to her ears, her palms beginning to sweat. Suddenly, he turned and walked to the opposite side of the room. Willow frowned, spinning towards him. Pellius began to casually remove his armour, unstrapping each buckle with practiced efficiency, nothing remotely seductive about the methodical way he went about it.
“Am I correct in assuming you have contacts in town?” he asked simply.
Willow frowned, figuring she had only imagined the hint of jealously in his voice, “You assume correct.”
“I would ask a favour, if I may.”
Willow quirked her head, “You may.”
“I would ask that you inquire if your contacts could track down the fate of my shipmates. I have mentioned them before, they are my Chelaxian brethren, and although it is most likely they were captured and executed, the possibility that they survived is too tempting to ignore. They would prove great allies if we could locate them.”
Willow nodded, looking out the window to see the last of the sun dipping below the horizon. She had roughly two hours until the opening of the show so she picked up her cloak and laced it around her neck.
“I shall inquire and be back within the hour. I must pick up an item for Teelee while we are here, I may as well kill two birds with one stone.”
Pellius nodded as she turned to leave.
“Willow,” he called as she approached the door, “I must apologise for being discourteous over these last few weeks.”
Willow smiled and shook her head, “Do not apologise. We are all just trying to do what we think is right to accomplish our mission.”
“No, please allow me to offer an explanation.”
She stopped her leave, her interest peaked, as she took the chair he was offering.
“I am cautious of allowing him too much power,” he said, still tending to his armour, “I wish to keep Grumblejack compliant, I fear too much power will lead to a loss of our control. I am not so stubborn as I cannot see the benefit his transformation, but it is only a benefit while he serves us. He has pledged his services to Asmodeus, but you know very well how little words can mean when alliances change.”
Willow smiled, “You know I am not a woman of easy trust. I have been keeping a close eye on the beast, and will continue to do so, for now though he appears content in his servitude. If that changes, or at any time I believe it may, I will not hesitate to correct my mistake.”
Pellius paused for a moment, turning to Willow with a small smile, “I believe that. But I still must air on the side of caution. Willow, you are clearly the most talented and capable of the group, -
Willow laughed, “Flattery will get you entirely everywhere.”
His smile deepened, “It may flatter you, but I truly believe it so. I believe we have much to gain by assisting one another, there is much prestige and power we could source for ourselves, there is nothing binding us in Thorn’s contract to dissuade us from seeking our own advantages. In fact, it is encouraged by the Asmodean dogma. By aiding me in finding my previous companions, we would have a group of disciplined Asmodeans, loyal to me to help further our goals.”
Willow nodded, “I will endeavour to find them.”
He smiled his thanks as he returned to his armour, Willow strolled over to him and began helping him with his back straps, unlacing their thick buckles.
He sighed, “I am disappointed in our groups usage of our base of operations and its subjects. The men are cleaning walls that have already been cleaned, standing guard yet incapable of standing up to any kind of assault. We should be expanding our reach to bring true obedience and civility to this land, we have servants who are now bound to Asmodeus, yet we are giving them no way to truly prove themselves. What are your thoughts? You have contacts in the city who, if my suspicions are correct, partly run the underground. Do you have any better use for our men?”
Willow mused over the question, unstrapping the last of the buckles, pushing the heavy plates over his shoulders.
“I shall think on it, the men we have are peasants, thugs and thieves, perhaps I can find something more suitable to their skill.”
Pellius nodded as he bent forward to start on his greaves. Willow had to take a moment to admire the bulging muscles of his backside. She tore her eyes away with a grin, and turned towards the door, readjusting her cloak.
His silky words had her tremble, “I am not a man of forgiveness, I am a man of retribution. Yet denying you seems to have had little effect save leaving me missing your company. I’ve had to arrange more innovative means of punishment.”
Willow quivered. She cast a quick look at the last slither of sun dropping behind the horizon before striding for the door.

She made her way quickly through the back streets towards the slums, slipping through buildings until she reached the entrance to the black market. She approached the office to find Martin sitting in his chair, hunched over a large tome filled with hundreds of numbers and lists. She knocked as she entered and returned his welcoming smile.
“Kathryn my dear,” he said warmly, “A pleasure as always to see you.”
“And you Martin,” she replied.
He stood from his seat and greeted her with his usual kiss to the knuckle. He indicated her to a chair and went about pouring them both a cup of aromatic foreign tea. Willow quietly closed the door before she sat.
He raised his eyebrows slightly at her secrecy, “And what brings you here today, my lady?”
Willow smiled and accepted the tea, “I have a task. One of the utmost secrecy. I need people who I can trust, discreet people, and I do not have any to spare.”
Martin grinned, making his wizened face almost devilishly handsome, “Ah, colour me intrigued my dear. May I ask of the details? It may help to define the type of men you are seeking?”
Willow smirked, “Men I am seeking is an appropriate term.”
“Ah I see,” Martin replied, sipping on his steaming cup, “And are these men the type who do not want to be found, or cannot?”
Before she spoke, she tilted her head to the door, not sure if she was imagining the soft rattle of footsteps standing by the frame. She heard Martin whisper an incantation and suddenly every sound outside of the walls silenced. Willow's eyes flickered to Martin in surprise.
“I may be an old dog,” he chuckled, “But I've still got a few tricks. You may speak freely, no sound can penetrate into or out of this room.”
Willow saw no lies in the creases of his soft face.
“Roughly eight months ago, a Chelaxian vessel landed on the shores of Matharyn. A member of its crew was captured and arrested for blasphemy. The fate of the rest of the crew is what I require. For now, that information is all I need. I do not need these men to be approached, I simply need the status of them, and their location if they survived, escaped or were released.”
Martin barely battered an eyelash at the request.
“Consider it done,” he said with a smile, “It shall take time, but I shall send two of my own. You shall have your answer within two months.”
Willow quirked an eyebrow, “And what shall this cost me?”
Martin chuckled, “Think of this as payment for that scar upon Switch’s face. It has been a long time since that man has been marked by anyone, it brings an old man like me a lot of joy to see his pretty mug a bit roughed up. That it was such a delicate thing like you, makes it all the more sweeter.”
Willow laughed as she returned her empty cup to its saucer. She thanked Martin, laying a gentle kiss on his cheek before taking her leave, purchasing a vial of calamus and styrax for Teelee and heading back to the Minstrel and Shield. Teelee had requested Willow acquire a bottle of the scents when she had heard the story of why the perfume was forbidden. While on Talingarde soil, only one person was permitted to wear such a fragrance; Princess Belinda. Willow had always found the rule ridiculous, so she secretly enjoyed Teelee's instance at wearing it.

When Willow arrived back at the suite, she found it empty. She called out to Pellius as she began to remove her gear, but did he didn't respond. She strolled through the bedroom as she finished pulling off her breastplate and stopped as she saw an odd item laying next to her gown upon the bed. Two black leather garters sat neatly arranged along the layers of ebony silk. The garters themselves were nothing aberrant, it was the slender metal spikes attached to the insides that made them intriguing. The spikes were not sharp enough to break the skin, but their thin points enough to cause a constant discomfort and sharp jolt of pain to their wearer with every step. They were a more carnal version of the shirt Pellius had designed and commissioned their blacksmith to make. An innocent looking chain metal shirt, it's insides laced with razor sharp hooks that would latch on to its wearers skin. A perfect, if not cruel and callous, means of obedience. Butterflies flooded her stomach at the sadistic design of the garters. She left them where they were while she headed for the bathroom, finding the tub already filled with clean steaming water. She bathed and cleansed herself in her usual ritual, finding little comfort in her distracted preparation. When her makeup was done and her hair was arranged, she returned to the bedroom to face what was waiting. She delicately slipped her feet through the garters, whimpering as she dragged them high upon her thighs. They were a perfect fit. The leather strapped a tight seal around her skin and the metal spikes pinched deeply into her flesh. They were strangely not uncomfortable, Willow actually found them quite enjoyable. The slight sharp pain that rippled through her legs with each step was not dissimilar to the feeling she received each time her Infernal Lord found her. She would not have to be worried about hiding her pain in public, it would be her amorous enjoyment and the constant flush of her cheeks that gave her away.
As she finished dressing, a loud bell chimed from down the street, the sound indicated the theatres doors were open. As Willow glided through the room, Pellius entered the parlour.
“You look beautiful as always, my lady,” he said charmingly.
His lip curled into a sly grin as Willow’s breathing hitched as she stepped towards him.
“And you are as handsome as ever,” she replied, doing her best to hide the throbbing need she felt.
“Shall we?” he asked, offering his arm.
Willow smirked as she accepted it, keeping her steps graceful and soft. They strolled out of the inn and down the lantern lit street towards the theatre, Pellius spoke with a casual air as they neared.
“Did you have any luck this evening?” he asked.
“Indeed,” she replied softly, “We shall have an answer well before we leave the area.”
“Very well, my lady, and thank you.”

The performance made for a pleasant evening. The halfling bard sang with a soft foreign lilt, his skill with the fiddle living up to his famous reputation. Willow thoroughly enjoyed his rendition of some of the classical folk songs of lore, his delicate sopranist vocal range added a whimsical hint to the somber ballads. Of course, Willow found it difficult to really concentrate. On the occasion she managed her mind to drift off with the music, a firm hand would subtly squeeze the garter, forcing the metal spikes to dig further into the skin, making her clamp down her teeth to stop from groaning.
As his hand released its grip and the pain retreated, Willow found her mind turning. Both Pellius and Switch were sadists. She tried not to think about what it said about her that she would find herself so drawn to them. They were so very different. Switch was vicious, rough, impulsive. He was fierce, he preferred his prey to fight back, so he could dominate them and force them into submission. Pellius on the other hand was subtle. His commanding air needed no posturing. He expected to be obeyed and revelled in his target’s obedience. He did not need to force them to submit, they would willingly, for fear of his dark promise of retribution.
It was that dark promise that kept Willow's blood racing as they left the stalls of the theatre and made their way back to the inn. Dinner had been prepared and delivered to the parlour of their suite when they returned, the smell of heavily spiced roast duck filling the room. Willow trembled with anticipation as they ate in silence. The air in the chamber had thickened again, his ominous aura seeping into her pores. She was sure the servants in the room would have to be able to feel it while they served dinner and refilled their glasses.
As they finished eating and Pellius called for the servants to clear the table, Willow strolled to the bedroom and slowly began unlacing the binding of her dress. She jumped as she heard the click of the lock behind her. She dropped the gown to the floor, standing in front of the mirror dressed only in her corset, lace undergarments and the garters. The cold breeze drifting from the open slit of the window feathered along her bare skin, sending a shiver racking through her body. She heard his approach before his menacing reflection appeared behind her. His fingers trailed and lingered over the garters, before firmly clutching them and compressing them so tightly that Willow felt their points pierce her skin. Her teeth clamped as the guttural groan sounded from her throat. His grip retreated as his hands turned to her undergarments and swiftly ripped them in half, the silk fabric trickling to the ground. He stared into her eyes through her reflection, as one hand traced up to her neck, forcing her head to the side to bare her throat. Willow's breath was short and sharp, her pulse quickened, her body trembled. She watched it all in the vivid detail of the mirror, she watched him take it all like it was rightfully his.

An ominous worrying note greeted them as they returned to the Horn. A silver dragon had been sighted over Farholde, and Elise had sent an urgent message to warn them of the possibility that it was on its way towards them. The lingering enjoyment Willow felt from the night before vanished as she read the note. The group convened in the tavern to discuss their defence, combining their knowledge of silver dragons. They knew the creatures to be highly intelligent, strong willed and severely devoted to the forces of good. They knew they had powerful magic of cold and ice, giving them natural immunities to winters grace. This also meant they had a weakness to fire, one the group planned to utilise.
As night closed over the sky, the group retreated for rest and preparation. As they left the tavern, Willow grabbed Pellius by the hand and led him towards her chamber. Far past midnight, she collapsed atop him, shallow breaths, body lethargic and sated. The signal horn sounding from the entrance broke her sexual stupor. They both leapt from the bed, scurrying to grab their weapons. Willow quickly ripped on a black night slip, it's slender whiff of fabric would offer nothing but a touch of modesty. As Pellius turned to the knock at the door, she tossed his pants towards him. Barris, the guard captain on duty, appeared in the archway.
“The signal came from outside,” he mumbled, “They haven't breached the door yet.”
Willow and Pellius charged down the hallway, Barris and the hounds following closely behind, rounding the corner to see the rest of the group arriving at the entrance. Bor had been on duty, so he wore his ragged armour and appeared alert and ready. Teelee had managed to grab her belt of potions and wands and had it strapped over her floor length red nightgown. Garvana wore only satin trousers and unlaced boots, her heavily muscled chest and breasts sitting taut and firm, an erotic and imposing sight. The Asmodean star burned into the flesh of her back blazing like a beacon of malevolence.
What a strange tale this night would make, Willow thought.
She stayed hidden behind the barricade as Bor and Pellius cautiously approached the door. Suddenly, two halberd blades shattered their way through the wood. As they retreated, Teelee shot off a pellet of flame that slipped through the cracks and exploded the door inward, scorching their attackers. Three men with halberds stepped through the doorway, unbothered by the flaming mess of the wooden arch around them. When Willow saw the intricate sunburst decorating their armour, a wave of fear came over her. They were Knights of the Inquisition. Fabled witch hunters that roamed the land of Talingarde, righting wrongs and seeking out any evil to destroy it. These knights meant that an Inquisitor was with them - these knights were a very bad sign for the Forsaken.
Willow heard Pellius’ dark chanting as a crippling wave of energy burst through the room, for a moment, the knights looked weakened. It took them half a breath to right themselves again. The charged fiercely towards Bor, with practiced military proficiency one of them hooked his halberd behind Bor's leg and ripped him off balance, while the other two arched their blades high and brought them down into Bor's chest. Willow let off a flurry of arrows, struggling to pierce their fullplate armour, as Garvana chanted behind her. She felt the strange sensation flood her body, energy sprouted from her veins, she felt fast and keen. The strange joy was overshadowed by the entrance of their true enemy. The Inquisitor walked in with an air of complete control and arrogance. He wore a face weathered with age and trauma, his eyes held a deep wisdom and battered down pessimism. This man had seen much battle, much terror, much evil. A scar that slashed across his face contorted his lip into a permanent sneer, his hood hanging low on his brow, his shining sunburst medallion hanging heavy on his chest.
“Mitra guide me!” he bellowed, “I shall cleanse this stain from your land!”
Willow watched as the wounds on the knights closed over and healed from the touch of the Inquisitor’s hand. Bor leapt at one of the knights in a frothing rage, cleaving his blade deep through it’s shoulder and down into it's chest. The knight fell to the floor in a crumpled heap of metal. As the remaining two repeated their trip and cut manoeuvre, the gaping wounds in Bor's torso poured with blood. He struggled to get back to his feet as the strain of the blood loss intensified with each movement. There was little the group could do to help. The choke point of the corridor meant that no one else could squeeze through to aid him, Willow could have possibly made it through, but would have taken heavy damage along the way. Suddenly, Garvana charged through the guard room towards the arrow slits. She used her stone shaping magic to seal off the entrance between Bor and the Inquisitor's men. Pellius gave Bor a potent healing potion as he helped the halforc to his feet. Willow heard the forceful words of the Inquisitor booming from the outside as they retreated.
“You will not escape next time!” he bellowed, “This vile den of scum can not be allowed to stand!”
Willow assumed the group would take a moment to equip their armour before giving chase, but as she turned for her chamber, she heard Garvana reopen the stone. One by one they ran out of the building and followed the Inquisitor down the stairs. As Willow reached the entrance, she saw a slender man in black armour deserting the battle and begin to climb down the side of the Horn. Aided by the fleet of Garvana's magic, Willow quickly climbed down after him. As she neared, she saw the strangest thing. Teelee leapt from the stairs and fell plummeting towards the ground. Willow didn't have time to think on it as she deftly closed in on the man's escape.
“Leave me alone!” he screamed, “I didn't want to come! They made me!”
Willow had no mercy for the man as she leapt at him with her dagger. She slashed him across the throat as she clung on to the wall. He wailed as the wound spouted blood, his grip failing as he fell to his death. She heard a loud thump from out in the distance, unsure whether the ground broke the man’s fall or Teelee’s. From her vantage point she could see Grumblejack flying through the air towards the Inquisitor, hacking his blade deep through the shoulder. Willow quickly climbed her way back up, the slender slip of her night gown offering no protection from the cold bite of the night air. When she reached the stairs, she felt an ominous pulse of divine energy throbbing in the atmosphere. She looked further down the walkway and saw the Inquisitor and Grumblejack locked in battle. Wisps of holy magic danced around the Inquisitor, shimmering an eery cold blue, whipping back and forth as if building in strength. Suddenly, he unleashed them, hurtling them towards the ogre as their overflow bounded passed him and encased the rest of the group. Willow felt the sickening shrill of goodness, the righteous arcane power pelting her full force, sapping her will to fight. As she struggled to regain her composure, a menacing chuckle sounded from a deep and guttural throat. The spell had been aimed at Grumblejack, but as it poured from the Inquisitor's hands, it seems to collide with a magical barrier surrounding the ogre. He seemed to dismiss the holy man as an unworthy opponent, flying off in chase of the the priest who had rolled his way down the large staircase.
Bor and Pellius were not so naïve. Together they charged the Inquisitor, metal flashing as it clashed through the air. The man continued to scream his Mitran dogma, cursing the retched souls that were the Forsaken. His might was undeniable, his will a testament to his strength. He was not afraid as the warhammer and the axe came sailing towards him. He could not dodge both of them, he knew he was going to die, and yet he was so fanatical in his faith he believed he would die only for it was the plan of his Mitra. As the weapons hit, the axe tore through his stomach and the warhammer bludgeoned his chest. He fell to his knees and collapsed. Bor and Pellius turned their attentions to the remaining knights. As the battle drew to a close, victory on the lips of the Forsaken, Willow strolled down the stairs.
The Inquisitor lay slumped against the wall, his breaths shallow and rasped, blood seeping from his wounds. He faced death with a stubborn chin, a strong will cementing his knowledge that he was going to his Lord’s side. Willow approached him, dragging his hood back and lifting his head by his hair, hearing the spluttering broken words he was trying to speak.
Willow pushed all of her might into a single swipe of her blade, she felt an Infernal pulse guiding her strike with strength she did not possess. The man's words were cut off as his head came free from his shoulders. She dropped it to the ground with disdain. Lifting the pendant from its rest along his collarbone, Willow stared into the rapturous glistening sapphire. She felt an uncontrolled hatred flare in her stomach, she felt the rage of vengeance fuelling her actions. As Pellius and Bor turned back towards her, she let out a fearsome chthonic shriek, swinging the pendant towards the stone wall. The Infernal surge returned, it's force sending the medallion hurtling to it's demise. As the sapphire connected with the stone, it shattered, exploding in a feathering shower of blue and silver dust. The glittering cloud surrounded Willow in an ominous mist, before it trickled to the ground around her. She held the medallion by its chain. Lifting it into her sight, she saw the irony of the medallion’s state. A silver sunburst, hollow, destroyed and empty - just like Mitra's protection of this world.

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