Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Chapter 15 - Leadership

“You can't stay out here the entirety of the four months we have left,” Willow chuckled.
Since the shambles of the last attack on the Horn of Abbadon, Pellius had taken it upon himself to stand guard, stopping only for a mere two hours each night for rest.
Their defence on that night had been at best haphazard and sloppy. The group had found themselves fighting on the ten foot wide staircase leading to the second floor, chasing their foes down the hundred foot drop. They had snatched a precarious victory from the mighty Mitran Inquisitor. When the fabled witch hunter and his comrades had launched their assault, the group had been unprepared and unorganised. As they had managed to turn the attack back onto the Inquisitor, Bor had been near fatally wounded, grasping to the last shreds of his consciousness, Teelee had fallen to the ground from the ledge of the entrance, and several of their minions had been slain. So Pellius had taken the guard of the entrance upon his shoulders. While he stood rigid in his vigil at the top of the staircase, Willow sat leisurely by him with her feet dangling above the abyss that was the Caer Bryr.
“We're going to have to come up with a better plan than this,” she said when he didn't respond.
“Well, my lady,” he replied, charming as ever, “Do inform me when you come up with one. Until then, I shall remain on guard.”
Willow smiled, eyes grazing over the emerald blanket of the treetops. The early morning sun shimmered along the condensation kissing each jade leaf, making the canopy glisten like a sea of gems upon its top. She was glad for these moments, small reprieves from the intensity of their immense task, quiet moments where the beauty of the world still shone.
“We should split the guard duty into shifts,” she said, leaning back on her hands, “Two of us on at all times. Divide it into three shifts; morning, day and night. I know you are more than capable of handling the task alone, but perhaps it would be best to share the load?”
Pellius frowned in thought, “The responsibility would do the others good.”
“And think of how the place would suffer if you were hidden away on guard duty the entire time,” Willow said, gently stroking his ego, “The men would run rampant if you were not there to discipline them. I cringe at the thought of the state of our order if the others were left in charge.”
“I need no posturing, my lady,” he replied, a sly grin tinting his lips, “But I agree. There is much that fills my time, and indeed the place would be a ramshackle without someone to enforce authority.”
“Just think on it,” Willow replied, rising from her rest, laying a soft hand on his arm, “It is a fact I myself am having trouble accepting, but we are not without allies. We must rely on each other, for none of us can do this alone.”

As the sun dropped behind the horizon later that night, the group gathered around the table in the tavern. Bor had recovered slowly from the impressive amass of wounds he had taken, walking with only a slight limp as the flesh knitted back together along his legs and torso. Teelee strolled in with her usual swagger, head held high, nose turned up. The only indication of her perilous fall was the covered wince within her step.
Dismissing the tavern staff, the group turned their attentions to the task at hand. The discussion of the failing defence they were employing was long and tedious. By nights end, they had agreed to Willow's proposed guarding shifts, admitting to their failing at underutilising the magic of Vetra-Kali’s eyes. They had determined the best alterations to the entrance way, and decided on new specialised training for their pitiful followers. Pellius had scripted a list of which men and women would be best suited to which training,
proposing to initiate the instruction himself. Their final task for the night was to sketch out a rough drawing of their plans for the entrance. They needed to open out the inner passage way to make room for more than one defender and narrow the door way to keep ranks of enemies from swarming them. Willow had come up with the idea of placing a gate at the tail of the pit trap, to force their attackers to deal with it instead of leaping over and rendering it obsolete.
“We need time to arm ourselves before we go running into battle,” she said, “Though humorous it may be, fighting in our nightwear is highly impractical.”
“I didn't mind the view,” Bor said with a cheeky grin.
“Nor I,” Pellius chuckled.
Willow smirked, “Be that as it may, I'd rather not be gutted, the erotic fantasy of naked fighting loses its charm when I picture my insides on my outsides.”
“Then we must take time to prepare,” Garvana agreed.
“Perhaps we set up bunks in the throne room,” Willow suggested, “Sleep close to one another so we can muster our defence in the shortest amount of time.”
Garvana scoffed, looking from Willow to Pellius, “You two don't do much sleeping though…”
Willow couldn't help but grin.
“The roster,” she continued, ignoring the comment, “Allows each of us our own free time to follow whatever pursuits we wish. Two on guard at anytime, changing shifts that align with the timing of the rituals. The signal horns, set with the series of alarms, can be heard from any level of the compound.”
“Very good,” Pellius praised, “We shall implement the changes over the next week.”

Willow couldn't help but be impressed with the group's progress throughout the following days. Garvana and Teelee took charge of the reconstruction in the entrance, combining their arcane skill to reform the stone walls into malleable forms. Pellius separated the strongest and most agile of the minions, setting them up into groups for training drills. Taken from their stockpile, he armed each set of guards with a different assortment of weapons. The men were made slightly uncomfortable with the joining of the boggard warriors, but under the intense scrutiny of Pellius, Bor and Willow, they performed through any trace of discomfort.
“Shieldbearers, spearmen and macemen with me,” Pellius commanded, a fierce bite to his tone, “Outriders and spearmen with Bor. Longbowmen with Mistress Willow. You have your basic instruction. Follow it, learn it, become it. Until now, you have proven useless. A waste of our time and resources. Prove to us your worth!”
The men and women complied readily, launching into their drills without need for guidance. Willow was glad to see her three scouts had been selected as longbowmen. She was quick to select Willem, the small scouting parties leader, as her man in charge. He ran each drill with practiced efficiently, a sharp short voice instructing the untrained novices in the basics of long ranged fighting. Willow was free to roam the hall in observation, a menacing deterrent to indolence, and an intimidatingly inspiring presence.
Pellius’ voice boomed across the throne room, ricocheting through the passageways, bounding across the stone. A fearsome aura loomed around him, strong, dominating, commanding. He ordered the men around with ease, a natural leadership to his ways. When he spoke, everyone listened. He did not request or ask. He demanded, and all who
heard him obeyed. Willow found herself naturally gravitating towards him, her feet meandering with no intentional purpose.
“Hold fast!” he called to the shieldbearers, “Do not cringe, do not retreat! Do not falter!”
Willow smiled as the men remained in position as the flurry of attacks came barrelling their way. They received the blows and deflected the assault with the steel of their shields.
“Again!” Pellius yelled.
Willow kept her face cool as she approached, eyes full of heated intensity.
“You should use that voice when we meet later this evening,” she whispered sensually, quiet enough for only their ears to hear.
Without change in his face or demeanour, he replied, “This voice is reserved for those who do not know proper discipline, my lady. And you, are the most disciplined that I know.”
Willow surveyed the men’s progress as she responded.
“If that tone is my punishment,” she breathed, a subtle grin lifting the corner of her lip, “Then I believe I must misbehave and receive my chastisement…”

Curiosity had always been Willow's blessing and her curse. As an adolescent it had always lead her right into the path of the unknown, and more often than not, the forbidden. It had been the driving force that found her listening in on conversations not meant for her ears, seeking secrets and truths where she was meant to remain oblivious. Her young wide eyed appearance had always aided her in these ventures, for even when she was caught all she needed was to bat her eyelashes and respond in the naïve soft voice that accompanied her innocent face, and all those involved would believe she had heard little that could compromise their position. It was this curiosity paired with her naturally suspicious nature that had her seeking information on all of those around her, always looking for a crutch or heel that she could use to her advantage.
It was a subtle change that had Willow prying for details into the pasts of the other Forsaken. Loyalty was something she held above all else. Hers was not an easy venture to gain. There was only one entity she gave it to freely and without restraint, and her bond with him was soul deep and full hearted. But of late, she had begun to trust four other souls; four others who were bound to her true master, four others who pledged their allegiance to him along side her.
To say the Forsaken were an oddity to her was an understatement. Willow had only ever known a handful of others who shared their unwavering faith. Her grandparents and great grandparents had been loyal to their Infernal Father. Even hidden in the shadows, hidden in the very ranks of the blasphemous opposing religion, their loyalty had not broken. The same could not be said for her parents. Bartley was a disappointment to the Monteguard bloodline. He held the ambition of a true Asmodean, but his loyalty went only as far as his coin purse. His word meant little. He was faithful while it suited him, but when there was work to be done to achieve his goals, he would flake and fall resigned to keep what he had made and run. He spoke the words of loyalty to Asmodeus, but offered no service, no sacrifice. He was faithful right up until the moment came that he had to actually put in any effort to back his words. His silver tongue and easy lies made him prosperous in the lands of Talingarde - but family, faith and loyalty held no bounds over his soul; he was the worst kind of dishonourable. Willow's mother was no better. If she had to describe the woman in one word, it would be lazy. She steadily grew fatter as she rested in the family's manor. A manor that had stood for more than eight decades, a residence that was a testament to the effort
and strength of the Monteguard’s legacy. Willow's mother resided in the walls, undeserving of the luxury and wealth. She had been the bride of an arranged marriage, a woman of status and rank in Cheliax, selected to strengthen both families ties in and out of the grand homeland. Willow was unsure if she had always been so useless and lazy, or if the easy life away from Asmodean rule had changed her. She held no ambition, no strength, no might. She desired more wealth and privilege, but refused to do anything to acquire it.
Their final act of disloyalty was what broke the last wisp of attachment that Willow had for the pair. They had turned her in, ruined her plans to bring the family's name higher into the ranks of royalty. Their reasoning was unknown to her, yet she figured there was little more to their plans than getting rid of the risk to their cosy positions. Willow was resolved to take everything from them. They did not deserve a life of luxury, they did not deserve the endless wealth that the Monteguard’s had clawed over the centuries. They deserved nothing. No sympathy, no forgiveness, no repentance.

“What of family?” Willow asked Teelee, “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
They sat around the large wooden table in the tavern of the Horn, sipping wine from tumblers while the fireplace sapped the chill from the air. Willow had asked many such questions, eager to learn more about those that she was fated to ally with.
“Five brothers,” Teelee replied, “Four older, one younger, and a younger sister. The eldest is a General in the army, fourth eldest is a Major. Second and third eldest are part of the Gladiator Pits. Fighting tournaments created so the slaves of the land can slaughter each other for the amusement of the nobility. Feral displays of barbarism if you ask me.”
Willow grimaced, “Indeed.”
Turning her glass in her fingers, she stared into the flickering wisps of flame.
“And what of you? Did you work in Rahadoum?”
“My family are a large part of the slaving industry,” she responded, “We were very well known, quite successful. I tried my hand at bookkeeping, but found it tedious. I was better suited to being the face of the house, creating contacts, securing contracts. They say I am most captivating.”
Willow couldn't help but chuckle, “That you are Teelee. So what is it that had you sailing east towards Talingarde?”
Teelee sighed, “It is hard to stand out against six other siblings. Military prowess and profitable slaving were very well regarded in my fathers eye. I wished to make a name for myself, I wished to make him proud. So I was given a ship, fifty men and free reign to travel and expand our reach in the slaving industry. And as luck would have it,” she said with an eye roll, “I landed on the only shores within reach that condemned slaving.”
“An unfortunate turn of events given your goals,” Willow said, noting the irony.
Teelee pursed her lips, “Indeed.”
“And what of marriage?” Willow asked, “I do not know the Rahadoum customs, do you have a husband waiting for you?”
“No,” Teelee replied lightly, “I have not met a suitable man. He must be charismatic, handsome and rich. A trio more rare than it should be.”
Willow laughed, “Agreed. You can have mine if you wish.”
“You're married?” Teelee asked in shock.
Willow laughed again at Teelee’s dropped jaw, “Yes. Though I'm not sure if it counts if your husband condemns you to a death by drawn and quartering.”
“Oh, I suppose not,” Teelee laughed, “Still, he was rich and handsome?”
Willow scoffed, “Very. You’re welcome to him, though I suppose his fanatical Mitran faith may pose a problem, he's pretty against the whole slave trading thing…”
“Ah,” Teelee said, waving a dismissive hand, “Minor details. He’ll learn.”
Willow and Teelee burst into giggles. When they recovered, Teelee turned to her with a curious expression.
“Do you plan your vengeance against him?”
Willow frowned slightly. The anger she felt towards him had dimmed, the hatred she had held for him had morphed into almost pity. He would never understand her motives or her resolve, he would fight against her and seek her demise in retribution for her disloyalty. She felt so little for him, he was just another blind fool who could not see the beauty in her plans for order and her dreams for structure. He was just another stepping stone in her path to righting the wrongs of the land.
“I will kill him,” she said seriously, “I will cut him down myself, for he will never waver in his rigid beliefs of Mitra. He will never accept his place, he will accept only death before he bends to the will of Asmodeus.”
“And that does not bother you,” Teelee said, less of a question.
“No,” Willow replied truthfully, “His death will be one of many. He deserves no more mercy than any other who stand in our way.”

On the fourteenth week of their stay in the towering spire, Willow and Garvana returned from Farholde late in the evening. They had spent part of their day casing the town for rumours or information on the dragon that had been sighted over the city in the week before. While they found no further mention of the dragon, they did come across the raving claims of a fanatical Mitran preacher. Brother Ezekiel of the Mission of Saint Larius the Leper, had been overheard trying to empower the people of Farholde to rise up against the evil festering in the Horn of Abbadon. Fortunately, of those who had not already gone to war against the bugbear army ravaging the south, there were few left in the city who cared to involve themselves. Willow and Garvana had returned to the Horn with the knowledge of the minor annoyance the preacher had been causing.
“He's not worth our time,” Teelee said.
The group had once again gathered around the tavern to plan their week.
“He is a threat,” Garvana countered, “Why has Elise not dealt with him?”
Willow scoffed, “He is a preacher known for his lunatic rants, he is of no import to us.”
“He is drawing unwanted attention to the Horn,” Garvana replied, “With our second sacrifice due next week, we need to keep our plans as quiet as possible.”
“Send the guards,” Pellius offered, “It will be a good opportunity to employ their new training. We needn't waste our own time with him.”
“It is a fair compromise Garvana,” Willow said.
Garvana frowned, “Alright, but we must arm them, give them gold for bribes and supplies. They are fairly useless, I shouldn't expect them to succeed.”
“Fear can be a miraculous motivator,” Willow grinned.
They gathered in the throne room, the five of them standing tall along the altars steps. The hellhounds sat patiently by Willow's feet, perched regally above the cowering servants below. They had selected a group of five of their followers. Willow didn't know any of their names, nor did she care to. A brute of man stood in front of her, strong broad shoulders hunched in intimidation. Willow watched him with curiosity as he chanced a glance at her. Odd, each time he seemed to be gawking at her outfit as apposed to her body. To his left stood a woman close to Willow's height, blonde hair wrapped in an intricate braid, a semi-fine set of robes draped gracefully over her shoulders. She reminded Willow of the lower nobles from Matharyn, nose tilted in an air of superiority they did not possess. Next in line stood a skeletal man, twitching in a constant state of anxiety, black robes covered in charred marks and burns. A pyromancer, she assumed. Second from the end stood the thief. Willow could pick him out of a group with just a glance. Slender and lean, perched on the balls of his feet, ready to pounce or flee. With constant shifting eyes, he was wary of his surroundings, unsure whether his selection was a bonus or a death sentence. Lastly stood a man she could only describe as the sacrifice. Willow vaguely remembered him from their initial meeting, she had laughed for hours as he had struggled with the courage to convince Pellius to allow his pig into the Horn. The man was a pig farmer. He had joined the other peasants in their capture, and his pig had followed him for hundreds of miles, all the way to the Horn’s entrance. The reasoning Pellius had selected him for this mission was beyond her, for she figured he would prove little more than a good distraction.
“There is a task we have for you, a chance for you to prove your worth to us,” Pellius boomed, his voice hard and commanding, “There is a preacher within Farholde, Ezekiel Hawthorn, he speaks against us and urges the people to rise and raid the Horn of Abbadon! This must not happen! He must be silenced!”
The five of them trembled in fear, Willow watched their reactions carefully, reading the emotions they were struggling to hide.
“This heretical scum is nothing!” Garvana called, “He must be slain! And made an example of! When he is dead, then we will be troubled by his voice no longer!”
“No,” Teelee frowned, “If he is merely slain, he will become a martyr. That will only prove the truth of his words. He must be discredited, his name tarnished.”
“Bah,” Bor scoffed, “Who cares what those worms believe, by the time they summon any courage we will be gone from this place!”
Willow had to grit her teeth through the bickering of the group. She watched the faces of the five servants contort with fear and confusion. The situation was almost humorous.
“Enough!” Pellius bellowed, “You have your mission. The ogre Grumblejack will aid you in this, seek him out in the Lord Drownington Inn…”
Willow fazed out as the others continued their orders, she was busy watching the blonde woman and her reactions. There was certainly fear behind her eyes, but it was not a terrified mindless fear like the rest of them. This woman was cunning and deceptive, the trembling she showed was a fairly convincing act. It would have fooled many, but Willow had spent too long faking the feminine emotions, it was easy for her to recognise them in others. She would be one to watch, Willow thought.
“Go!” Pellius yelled, a fearsome and menacing warning, “Do not fail us!”

Much to Willow's utter shock, they did not fail completely. When they returned to the Horn two days later, they had indeed tarnished Brother Ezekiel’s name and he was certainly deceased. Unfortunately for them, it had been revealed that the Mitran disciple had been a werewolf. And although talk of the Horn of Abbadon had ceased for the moment, the chatter of his hidden transformation had spread rapidly through the many lips of Farholde’s population. Garvana was furious. She roared at the three who returned, cursing their incompetence and failure. Willow struggled not to laugh as she set them on a ridiculous quest as punishment; the capture of a hydra known to inhabit the swamp infested lands to the west of the Caer Bryr. Again, Willow watched the woman. She took Garvana's ridicule in
her stride, showing no protest or worry at her impossible task. She merely bowed and strode out of the throne room. When the two replacements they had selected followed out of the room, Willow let her laughter out.
“A hydra, Garvana?” she giggled.
Garvana grinned in response, “It was the best that I could come up with. If they fail, and they will, then what have we lost? And if by some miracle they survive, then we gain a hydra to guard the caverns.”
Willow laughed harder, “But really? A hydra?”
The room filled with laughter, half of the group keeled over in stitches.
“That will keep them busy for a while,” Pellius commented, “Come along Teelee, it is our shift in the sanctum.”
Willow couldn't help the ping of jealousy as he offered her his arm, followed by the small satisfaction as Teelee strode passed and knocked it aside. His keen eyes didn't miss a thing, he smirked at Willow, raising his eyebrows in gratification. Willow laughed and rolled her eyes, silently thrilled at the reprimand his dark gaze promised.

Once again, Willow had to clench her teeth to stop her mouth dropping open in shock. It was late in the evening, darkness already smothering the land, when the five servants returned – with an unconscious hydra in tow. The group stood silent for a moment as the servants approached, eyes wide in disbelief. Willow could barely imagine the luck they would have needed to perform the feat, subdue the hydra and drag its body back to the Horn. Pellius was the first to recover.
“Adequate,” he nodded, the most praise Willow had heard him ever give the servants.
He turned from them as Bor and Garvana started debating the best position for the hydra to ambush their enemies. The servants knew they were dismissed. As they turned to leave, Willow excused herself from the discussion.
“You,” Willow called to the woman, “What is your name?”
She turned to face Willow, head bowed in deference, clutching her side in an overly theatrical fashion.
“Mistress,” she shakily bowed, faking as wounded prey, “I am Felicity Noverball.”
Willow saw the slightest twitch to her lip, her sight glance to the right too sharply, tell tale signs of a lie to those who knew how to read them.
“Lie to me again,” Willow warned low and menacing, “And I shall have your tongue.”
The woman looked genuinely shocked to have been caught out. She stammered on her words and continued to dramatically clutch her wounds.
“Save the act for the fools who would believe it,” Willow snapped.
Looking once again in disbelief, the woman slowly stood straighter, eyeing Willow with a subtle mix of fear, intrigue and respect.
“Yes Mistress,” she replied, a softer tone to her voice, “I am Lady Cassandra of Entharyl.”
Willow frowned slightly, “The fishing port? The governing lord there, Davenrow correct?”
Looking slightly impressed and worried, “Correct Mistress.”
Staring the woman down, Willow looked her over critically, watching each reactions as they tinted her face. After a moment, she came to a decision.
“You have a talent for the dramatics,” Willow commented.
“Speak only when you are told,” Willow snapped, pausing for a moment, “It is a good thing, a tool I can make use of. Come along, I shall explain what I require.”
When they arrived in her chamber, Willow began to unstrap her armour, speaking as she worked. The woman readily approached and began aiding her undressing.
“I require a spy,” Willow said plainly, “I do not require infiltration, merely observation. I expect the utmost secrecy. And I require someone who can lie their way out if they are caught.”
The woman listened intently, continuing her task of the straps along Willow's back.
“I require you to watch a woman for me,” Willow continued, “I require her habits and movements, the people she meets with, the people she mingles with. You will not be able to overhear her plans or be privy to her private details, do not attempt it, she is a formidable woman. Just observe her and report back to me in a week. I shall provide coin and accommodation. This is the only chance I will give you. Fail me, and you'll be cleaning the floors for the rest of your time. Do you understand?”
The woman couldn't hide the sound of glee and the look of excitement in her eyes, “Yes Mistress. Thank you Mistress, I shall not fail.”
As the last straps were undone and the breastplate fell to the mattress, Willow ripped out both daggers in a deft swipe, pirouetting and forcing the woman against the wall with the blades pressing into her throat.
“Do not think of betrayal,” Willow warned, a rasping malevolence, “For what I will do to you if you betray me is far worse than anything your mind is capable of envisioning.”
The colour was sapped from the woman’s face, a sickly pale green washing over her skin. She trembled beneath Willow's grip, legs weak, knees quivering in terror.
“Yes Mistress,” she whispered.
Willow stared into her eyes for a moment, allowing the vicious aura to surround the woman. Suddenly, she dropped her grip, sheathing her daggers.
Calmly she spoke, starting on the straps of her greaves, “It works both ways. Fail, and you shall never regret anything more. Succeed, and I can be most generous with your reward. You will not eat the slop given to the lowers, you will not dress in those rags they wear. There is much for you to gain, a higher station if you are deserving.”
Willow almost smirked as the talk of reward overtook the fear Cassandra had been oozing. She stood straighter, a small smile on her lips, returning to the task of helping Willow out of her armour.
She quietly whispered her response, “Thank you Mistress.”

As the boggards returned from their hunt, shouldering a giant glistening scorpion, Willow was struck with an idea. She approached Pellius as he appraised their capture, deep in conversation with Bor about its possible use. Willow waited for a break in their debate.
“The tender flesh under the scorpion shell is considered a rare delicacy on Talingarde shores,” she said quietly, “It is served only once a year, at the Royal Gala on the Vernal Equinox. Perhaps the men have earned a reward for their successes.”
When the two men looked less than convinced, Willow smiled and repeated their own master’s words, “Serve thy master well, and be rewarded.”
Pellius’ lips quirked into a smile, he nodded his understanding to Willow.
“I have eaten one before,” Bor huffed, “I’ll gut it and remove its poison glands.”
“Take it to the kitchen,” Willow commanded the men, a joyous hint in her tone “Tonight, we celebrate, tonight we feast like royalty!”
The group of men roared in excitement, scurrying with renewed vigour to cart the beast of a scorpion into the Horn, running off to spread news of the night to their fellows.
Garvana smiled, “This will be very good for morale.”

As the tender flesh was seared and blanched, the mugs of cheap ale poured free and passed hands. One of the orphans that Vandermir had supplied, had a hidden talent for playing the fiddle. He sang crude songs of tavern wenches, cheap prostitutes and nights spent in the drunk tank. The men and women of their growing organisation danced to the tunes and sang along with the vile lyrics, laughing and cheering as the night grew late.
Teelee had shunned the idea of the celebratory evening, instead volunteering to take the guard shift in the sanctum. The rest of the group sat at the head table, poised on the platform along the throne’s base. They talked amongst themselves, occasionally stopping to listen along to the gaudy lyrics of a tune, or laugh at the particularly inebriated individuals.
Willow laughed along as the fiddle player crooned an ode to her beauty, she mockingly bowed to his confession of love as a finish. He sung a low bellowed tune to Pellius’ strength and might, remarking on his fascinatingly sculpted chest. Pellius sat with a slightly amused expression, keeping his face vague until he lost control at the ode to his voluptuous buttox. The small man sang a fearsome tale of Bor’s ferocity, painting the picture of a legendary battle where he emerged the lone victor. When he turned to Garvana, Willow found herself intently listening, sipping on her glass of velvet red wine, thoroughly enjoying her night. The fiddle dropped to a slow hum, the tune turning almost sad in its melody. He serenaded Garvana with a tale of her devotion and strength of conviction. He crooned to her of the fire in her words and her eyes, matching that which burned in her heart. Though sung through his drunken rasping voice, the melody was uplifting and joyous. As he strummed his last few notes, he bowed to the four of them first, before singing his final line.
And please, my lords and my ladies,” he crooned, “Don't kill me for this in the morning…”

Sitting cross legged by the base of the malevolent statue in the sanctum, Willow perused the work of the scrying magic in the small water trough filled with its festering liquid. She had managed to shrug off the eery ominous aura that's radiated from the alabaster carving, just as she learned to ignore the stench of the infectious broth in front of her. As disgusting as her position was, she had to admit, the magic of the Eyes was incredible. A vision of the halls appeared in the mirror of the basin, she watched as the guards stood relaxed and at ease in the corridor. She cringed as she watched one of their men chew his tobacco and spit it into the corner, mentally noting who he was so she could reprimand him for his filth later.
As the structure pulsed another wave of sickening energy, Willow trembled. She could feel the touch of the blistering infection the dark magic was throbbing, slowly seeping into her skin.
“Enough,” she snapped, rising from her perch, “Will you take over Pellius? I can not sit by it any longer today.”
Courteous as ever, “Of course, my lady,” he replied, “I believe it is almost the end of our shift anyway.”
As he took up her place, she strolled to the opposite side of the room, leaning back against the stone work. She watched him for a moment, admiring the dedication to each and every task he took on. He stared into the basin with an intensity Willow could never muster for such a mundane and repulsive task.
“May I ask you a question?” she said.
“You may, my lady,” he replied.
"Do you miss Cheliax?"
“It has only been 9 months since I left, yet it feels a lifetime ago…” he said airily, pausing in thought for a moment, “Put simply, yes. It is the familiar, my birthplace, my childhood nostalgia. Nothing will ever replace those memories.”
"What is it like?” Willow asked, “Living under Asmodean rule? I've never known a life where I've not had to hide or deny my faith."
Deep and powerful, he said, "Following the herd is for fools. Fear not their icy derision. Fear only thy Infernal Lord."
Willow smiled at Thorn’s familiar words.
“Listen to me preach,” Pellius chuckled, “Soon I will be as bad as our proud Sister Garvana.”
She laughed, “You're a long way off that sort of fanatical preaching.”
“What I mean is Cheliax is different, and yet in so many ways, not that different. I was raised by the temple of Asmodeus. My Mistress, Grand High Priestess Aspexia Rugatonn, expected us all to uphold and enforce the tenants of Asmodeus, wherever we tread. Failure to comply was not taken well. An oddly familiar story, wouldn't you agree?”
He smiled and motioned around him and out beyond the stone wall hiding the lands of Talingarde from view.
“As to the day to day living, Asmodeus’ followers are much like the people in other lands, except obedience to their superiors is demanded rather than preferred. Perhaps they differ for they believe in harsher punishments for lawbreakers, are accustomed to the appearance of imps and devils among their daily lives, and are openly tolerant of slavery. Measures which allow our Empire to stay the most powerful and commanding force in the region.”
His smile dimmed, “Of course there have always been those who rebel against the Prince's will, and Cheliax in that, is no different. As a paladin, my main task was to keep the city in order and compliant with the rule of House Thrune. I lead a squad of five soldiers, bringing obedience and punishment to the any who would attempt to revolt; be it slaves, civilians, even my less than devoted comrades should it be called for. You are an educated woman, perhaps you have been versed in the rise of Thrune and Asmodean rule?”
“I have read much on Cheliax,” Willow frowned, “But most of it was more of a personal import. Tomes of the Monteguard history and legacy, or documents deemed priority of the bloodline. There was little more than curiosities containing knowledge of the country itself. And of course, the rulership of Cheliax held no place among the teaching of Mitra on Talingarde.”
“Ah,” he nodded, keeping his gaze observing the scrying bowl as he spoke, “Then allow a man a portion of pride in his country's success. Before Asmodean worship took control of Cheliax, the prophecies of the Starfall Doctrine predicted the Last of the First Humans, Aroden, would return from his divine ascension to lead humanity in the Age of Glory. He was to lead the charge from Cheliax, which would become the most prominent nation in the world. With this knowledge, Cheliax undertook the Everwar for 100 years, expanding her borders and spreading civility and culture among the barbaric Varisians and Galt.”
“This i have read,” Willow said, transfixed by interest in his words, “When the day of prophecy arrived, Aroden failed to appear.”
“Indeed,” Pellius said, “It is said that vicious storms and hurricanes racked the entire land for twenty one days, seemingly endless torrents of rain flooded the expanse, fierce winds ripped the very trees from their roots. The Eye of Abendego appeared, and remains, to create chaos in our seas. When the storms subsided, the clerics had lost their divine powers granted by Aroden. Robbed of the promised divine favour, our civil country fell into anarchy, and the lands we had brought to prosperity rose up against us. Only the strongest leadership could regain control in the chaos that ensued. And so it was, Queen Abrogail of House Thrune signed the Infernal Contract with the powers of Hell, and fought her way to lead the land, establishing the worship of Asmodeus as the new state religion and ruling with an iron fist. The worship of other Gods for healing, crafting and prosperity were still allowed, as long as it was known that Asmodeus was superior and the others faiths did not challenge His position.”
“Perhaps Asmodeus had planned that all along. The Master Deceiver luring humanity with power and prestige only to prove how worthless we all are in comparison to His greatness. Only allowing us prosperity again once we acknowledge his omnipotence. The mind may boggle at the scope of such an event, yet we stand ready to deliver an Archdeacon's plague to land in order to simply loosen the grip of Mitra from this land. Maybe it is not so absurd? Here, the odds may seem a little more skewed, but the mission remains the same to me; uphold and enforce the tenants of Asmodeus, wherever I tread.”
Willow smiled at the force of the words as they left his mouth. She could feel the Infernal fire that raged within him. He was devoted to this cause, with his entire being; mind, body and soul. As she opened her mouth to say so, her reply was cut short by the sound of two familiar voices echoing up the stairway.
Bor and Garvana loudly scurried their way to the top of the staircase, fresh and well rested faces as they approached.
“All quiet,” Pellius said, reverting effortlessly back into his professional commanding role, “No disturbances or suspicious activity.”
He clasped Bor's forearm in a masculine hand shake.
“Right you are,” Bor replied, “We’ll take it from here.”
After farewelling the pair for the evening, Pellius offered Willow his arm as they strolled down to the lower levels. Accepting it, her mind continued to turn, her curiosity not yet sated.
“What was it that had your ship sailing towards Talingarde?"
“Ambition, politics, caution, opportunity,” he said, his lip quirking slightly, “And add a dash of fate perhaps.”
Willow raised her eyebrows and smiled, “That effectively tells me nothing.”
“The temple novices are trained to be ambitious,” he continued, “And trained well. I was no different in that regard. Religious, arcane, martial and tactical training were all standard, but I sought more. Diplomacy, prolific names, scandal, sex, wine lists, art. These were what had more powerful warriors and more dastardly priests seeking my favour –
“Warriors and priests were seeking you for sex?” Willow grinned.
“My lady,” he shook his head, trying to hide his smirk, “On occasion your mind holds much similarity to that of an adolescent boy.”
“On occasion,” Willow said quietly, still grinning, “I'd have to agree.”
“They would seek things which others within the temple could not supply. And so I rose in influence and power. Unfortunately, that is a double edged blade. A high standing among the temple, the capitol's more influential members and many a lady was always going to draw envious eyes from below and wary eyes from above. After I countered my third assassination attempt, I decided to seek prestige further afield and so I volunteered to head a diplomatic envoy to Rahadoum.”
“From there,” he shrugged nonchalantly, “The winds, an incompetent captain, fate, who knows? But I dare not turn my back on a land so opposed to our Lord Asmodeus presence.
From what I've encountered, the Mitran governance pursue strict religious obedience, capital punishment, torture and a strongly regimented army. Why oppose our Prince, yet continue with so much of what he stands for? Why allow the weak to rise?”
“Because they try to ignore the natural order of the world,” Willow mused, “But it can not be ignored. The strong will always rule the weak. They must, for the weak would not survive on their own. Of the many wrongs of this land, tampering with the order is their most heinous crime. Even if we were not the harbingers of change, the world would right itself eventually. The weak can not grow, they can not truly rule. A stronger more powerful force will always come and wash the weakness back into its place.”
Pellius looked to her with a true smile, “Indeed.”
They continued their leisurely stroll through the halls, detouring to check in on the guards, watching their backs straighten as Willow and Pellius passed. While Pellius demanded a report from the captain, Willow approached the feral man still chewing his vile tobacco.
“Mistress!” he said, black oozing from his teeth.
“I am in a generous mood today,” Willow said sharply, “So I will give you one warning. If you spit your filth on my wall again, I will cut out your tongue.”
His face paled as the surprise passed and the frightening intent of her words registered.
“Do you understand?” she bit.
“Y-yes Mistress,” he trembled.
Willow raised her eyebrows, staring at him for a moment, letting the intimidating fire in her eyes penetrate his mind. She turned, gracefully strolling away, accepting Pellius’ arm once again. He chuckled as they moved away.
“You are quite fearsome, my lady,” he said, “You would do well in Cheliax.”
“I'd let you cut it out,” she cringed, “I wouldn't wish to taint my blades with his filth.”
Laughing in response, he guided Willow towards her chamber, calling for a servant to procure them a pot of tea.
"Do you have any brothers or sisters?" Willow asked, unbuckling the straps of her breastplate.
As he began to unlace his own armour, the easy smile slipped from his face, replaced by a guarded harsher expression.
“Blood ties? It is possible. The temple gave my siblings shape and form though. Brothers and Sisters truly. What of you? There are two inquisitive minds at work here, and only my tongue is doing the talking. I have heard no mention of any siblings?”
“There are none,” Willow said lightly, “I was an only child. A miraculous one at that. My mother was barren, as am I.”
“Ah,” he replied sombrely, “You have my sympathies.”
Willow smiled, a small and sad smile, “Do not pity me. It is perhaps a blessing, for I would have conceived a child with my pathetic husband. A child raised by a devout Mitran and a blasphemous harlot. It is best that such a union was avoided.”
"What are your parents like?" she asked, hoping to stop further prying into her infertility.
His face turned bitter, “My father was a fool whom Hell devoured,” he said viciously, “And my mother paid dearly for his mistakes.”
His eyes bore into hers, flashing with a hatred so fierce it made Willow shiver. She could feel the anger radiating from him, the burning intensity that churned the thoughts in his mind. His eyes slammed shut. Slowly, he filled his chest in a deep breath, exhaling as the anger subsided.
“All this talk of home,” he said softly, “I had forgotten you probably had not been privy to my upbringing. My father, Marcus Albus, was a rather influential noble and bureaucrat. Our family were ones who were not afraid to dabble with the Infernal in order to strengthen a position or gain power, so when my father required an heir and my mother could not conceive, he turned to the temple of Asmodeus. She fell pregnant with me. Everyone was overjoyed, but complications arose during my birth.”
A hint of regret trickled into his voice, “It was said that when Marco looked down upon his son, he saw the most handsome baby, with blond locks adorning his head so much like his mothers. Yet when his baby turned to look at Marco and he saw the red glow of hellfire in its eyes, he knew he could not keep his son, for it would be a constant reminder that his greed had killed his beloved.”
She knew her sympathy or pity would be unwelcome. So she sat and listened, letting him air what he wished or needed, even if he didn't know that he did.
“So he left me to the temple,” he said with a deceptively casual air, “It was only after his death fifteen years later that the temple revealed my heritage. I was granted the name Lord Albus, though it is an empty title now. I plan to make that name great once again. In this regard, you and I are similar, are we not? Restoring our names? I am curious to know how you plan to do this after the fall of these Mitran fools?”
A knock on the door halted the conversation. While the servant delivered and arranged their tea, Willow thought over her response. As the door clicked shut behind the woman, Willow lifted her cup to her lips before continuing.
“The Monteguard’s were once a proud and powerful house,” she said quietly, “Once strong and formidable, their reach covered the lands of Cheliax, Rahadoum, Varisia and, in their later years, Talingarde. The Archons of the bloodline were once fearsome and tremendously influential. Great grandfather Cassidus was a powerful man indeed. He first held the title of Lieutenant General in Queen Abrogail’s royal army, then he lead his portion of men to Talingarde to aid in the Great Conquest and rid the land of the feral clutches of savagery. There are many such men and women in the Monteguard legacy, many stories to proudly boast. But then there are the stains, the marks of dishonour that can not be wiped from time…”
Willow felt her own temper flaring, the anger burning hollow in face of unsated vengeance.
“Your parents?” Pellius asked, interrupting her stewing rage, “You have mentioned them little, and each time you've either been drunk or cursing.”
“They are traitors,” she said fiercely, “Traitors to everything I hold dear. Family, loyalty and faith. They have turned their back on our Infernal Father, they have abandoned their faith. They betrayed me, using the so called laws of this blasphemous land to incarcerate me.”
Willow laughed, a harsh and feral chuckle, “And they did it for nothing. They gained nothing from it. They actually had to pay to make it happen. They tarnished the Monteguard name for nothing! They have no honour! No respect! No ambition! And they will die for their disloyalty. I have no pity, nor sorrow. They will die, and be left to Asmodeus’ judgement.”
Pellius watched her with keen and controlled eyes, “It will be as it should.”
Willow breathed heavy, anger swarming through her veins. The cup rattled in its saucer, her hands shaking with fury. Frustrated, she placed the cup upon the table and stood from her seat, walking to the window. She stared out of the slender hole in the stone, watching the last of the sun shrink behind the horizon, the palette of the great forest morphing into a deeper ominous emerald. Slowly, her breathing returned to normal, the tightness eased from her chest. Pellius’ soft footsteps sounded behind her, bringing him flush to her back.
She could feel the warmth from his body as his hands gently caressed her shoulders. His strong powerful hands could be remarkably delicate when he willed it. As soft as a breath, he began to hum one of his operatic melodies, his deep baritone voice pulling the tune into cascading depths. The sound always had a profound effect on Willow, her heart started to beat faster, her breath quickened as if the notes were a soft touch upon her flesh.
"Where did you learn to sing?" she breathed, closing her eyes, drifting with the melody.
“I always had a fondness for culture and arts,” he said quietly, methodically digging his thumbs into the muscles of her shoulders, “Keeping an eye on social events and knowing the going on of the town was part of what made me who I am. Knowing the operas, having a palate for food and drink, working through the intrigues of a room; these were my strengths. I guess after a while the melodies begin to stay with you, but I do not give the diabolic operas of Cheliax the justice they truly deserve. Once we have the means, I intend to bring that slice of civility to Talingarde, rest assured.”
“It is powerful,” she said softly, “I can feel the words, rather than hear them,” she chuckled, “That sounds absurd.”
“Not at all,” he replied politely, “But come, let us steer the conversation away from the heart. A question for a question.”
Willow smirked at the familiar game.
“So,” he said mischievously, “What do I want to know of the mysterious Willow Monteguard? Favourite colour, crimson. Hounds over felines. Red wine, powerful men, a fine dancer…”
Willow laughed as he spoke, having to admit he knew her pleasantries intimately.
“Hmm, a curiosity perhaps. You are intelligent, beautiful, brave and devout. What draws your likes to a career as an assassin?” he asked, nodding to the engraved daggers strapped to her belt, “I've seen their blades in my time.”
Smiling, Willow wondered how much he really knew of the Black Serpent Coterie.
“I'm very good at it,” she said with a sly smile, turning to face him, quivering at his proximity, “And the job entails all the qualities I seek and possess. Discipline, order, strict rules and detachment. It is a most enticing path…”
Pellius stepped closer, bring his face closer to hers. Willow felt the air in the room heat, the intent in his eyes deliciously alluring.
“I believe the question is mine,” she said quietly, a devious glint to her tone, “Do you have a wife or a lady waiting for you on Cheliax?"
“Ha, no,” he chuckled, bringing his face closer again, “A wife would have lead to complacency and restrictions in areas I was the sharpest. Plus, I had not met one who could... keep me interested, shall we say. Challenged.”
He lent down, his lips brushing the flesh upon her earlobe, his heated breath reaping havoc with her body, “Perhaps Asmodeus, Calistria and Gozreh all came together to guide me into your bed,” he whispered, “Far be it for me to disappoint the gods.”
Gently, he nipped the edge of her earlobe with his teeth, causing a shiver to reverberate through her skin. Her breathing was heavy as he withdrew, looking deep into her eyes, wicked sin peering back at her.
“My turn,” he said, a grin creeping across his lips, “I already know you are no longer married. And I know you have more than one lover. Who was the best man you have lain with?”
Cheeky laughter spilled from her lips, the grin she wore illuminating her pleasure at the question tainted with desire. At her laughter, Pellius pushed his weight against her, caging
her slender frame against the brickwork. He grabbed her chin and forced her head up to meet his. Even through the sharp intake of breath at the pain of the stones digging into her back, still she giggled.
“Would it please you if I answered by stroking your ego?” she stammered mischievously, struggling slightly for breath, “I could tell you that I have never had a man that could command my body the way you do. I could tell you that my body has never obeyed some one so willingly…”
She reached up on her toes lifting her face to his, gently pressing her lips to the crevice in the corner of his mouth before tracing their shape with her tongue.
“Or I could show you…”

As dawn neared early the following morning, a sombre tint of grey laced the sky, smothering the usual rays of welcoming gold and copper. It was their one hundred and eleventh day of the ritual. The halfway point of their mission.
The group met in the throne room, together they made their way to the sanctum, a frightened and struggling priestess in tow. Pellius forced her further up the stairs, passing the hungry eyes of Hexor and Vexor, guiding her towards the altar. She fought to rip herself free of his grasp, knowing without thought what her fate was to be. They spoke not a word as Pellius lifted her to the table, strapping her wrists and ankles in flesh-cuttingly tight manacles. The gag in her mouth stopped the worst of the screams, muffling her cries for help and pleas for mercy. Willow felt nauseous. She understood that she must complete the task set before her, for it was her master’s wishes. That did not mean she had to enjoy it. As Teelee hurled the feral unholy broth upon the silver seal, Willow began to chant.
We curse the Light, the good and the just. Rise up from the darkness, tear down that which binds thee. We curse the Light, the good and the just. Call forth the powers, The vile, the malevolent, the unholy. We curse the Light, the good and the just. Defile that which trammels thee, vitiate that which shackles thee…”
As Pellius plunged the sacrificial dagger into the chest of the Mitran priestess, Willow turned her eyes away. She continued to chant, focusing on the ominous words, cursing the light and the goodness. She tuned out the other sounds in the room, ignoring the sacrifice, not noticing if Teelee had refilled her jug or bathed the seal again.
We curse the Light, the good and the just. Might of evil and dark, poison the virtuous. We curse the Light, the good and the just. Taint the purity of the divine, weaken the bond and vigour.We curse the Light, the good and the just. Smother in thou shadow, enable the unleashing of darkness...”
As the second heart dropped into the outstretched hand of Vetra-Kali, both began to pulsate anew. The Eyes in the statue lit up with green fury, sending a shockwave of emerald flame soaring into the sky. The Horn of Abbadon called out to its true master. The ground beneath their feet shook violently, sending each of them off balance, stumbling for perch. The tremors of the land reverberated outwards from the great spire, racking the surrounding towns and villages. Wraiths cackled, wisping their inky blackness in feral patterns through the air amongst the eery jade flame. A frightening blackness blanketed the sky, snuffing out each stroke of light as it tried to pierce the horizon. The sun failed that day, a dim glow behind a thickened wall of dense malevolence. The air in the sanctum grew crisp, a sickly thrum of darkness battered against Willow's skin, a feral pulse from beyond the material realm.
As the green beacon dimmed, falling back to encompass the stone work of the Horn once more, a voice filled with terrifying malice and venom slithered from the abyss.
Tezahthrah voh…” it said.
Willow cringed as she translated the foreboding words to the others, fear racking her body, a touch of regret seeping into her soul. She breathed the words, no louder than a whisper.
“I see…”


  1. I love reading the story you've crafted here for the Way of the Wicked and am eagerly waiting for the next update to see how the story goes.

    1. Oh thanks! I didnt think anyone read this, so i forgot to keep uploading. There's about 7 more chapters since this one lol. I'll upload them tonight. :)