Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Chapter 16 - Darkness Feeding

The emerald flame flickered to a simmer as the throbbing malevolence softened its thrum throughout the walls of the Horn of Abbadon. The air was crisp and solemn as the group spilt and returned to their bunks for the night. Willow knew sleep would evade her, she could feel the restless worry churn through her mind, like an ominous warning begging for release from the heinous atrocity they were committing. When she reached her chamber, she found her feet pacing without intent, leading her from one side of the room to the other in frustration. A battle of will raged inside her mind; her need to obey and her moral conflict fighting for voice. They had completed the second ritual, they had sacrificed one of Mitra’s faithful, and brought themselves one step closer to unleashing the Archdeacon of Pestilence. 
She knew she would continue the absurd plan, she would fulfil her Master’s wishes and see the Tears of Achlys to his hands. But she struggled with the war of indecision, the whispering voice of hesitancy having grown stronger with each passing ritual. Though she took solace in the knowledge that they were going to employ the feat of trickery against the creature of Abbadon’s malice, deceive him into returning to the void, she worried he would find a way to bypass their scheme. The words of their pleas held part of a powerful arcane bond, he would be obligated to comply with their wishes, yet a creature of his might would surely find a way to taint and infect his end of the deal. Willow fretted over the personal repercussions of attempting such a deceit, but saw no better option, refusing the possibility of the implications surrounding letting lose a vile creature such a Vetra-Kali Eats-the-Eyes. 
A knock of the door awoke her from her spiraling steep of worry.  
“Enter,” she called, taking a seat at her desk.  
Pellius opened the iron banded wooden door, inclining his head as he met her eyes.  
“My lady,” he greeted, “Pardon the intrusion, I came to see if you were alright? You seemed rather distressed before we parted this evening.”  
A small smile touched her lips as she answered politely, “Your concern is touching Pellius, but misplaced. I am quite alright, it is only that I am not accustomed to the butchery of such vigorous organ removal.” 
He chuckled in response, “It is not a task many have the stomach for.” 
Willow quirked an eyebrow, “It is fortunate for us that you indeed possess one.” 
“Indeed,” he replied with a smile. 
As he looked to bid her goodnight, Willow frowned in thought, acting on the instinct that told her she could trust him and his wisdom. 
“Do you have a moment?” she asked, gesturing to the lounge chair by the desk. 
“Of course, my lady,” he replied, closing the door behind him before taking up the offering. 
She churned on her words, carefully selecting the manner in which to say them.  
I am not one for insubordination…” she began, wandering slowly to the side table, setting two cups aside and pouring fresh tea from the pot. 
Pellius raised his eyebrows, “I would not accuse you of such. Why do you say, my lady? What is troubling your thoughts?”  
Willow sighed, “I will tell you, but you must not mistake my thoughts as disloyalty. 
She returned to her chair, handing him the slender saucer, placing hers by her side as she turned to face him, “Pellius, I will follow my Master’s orders and fulfill his wishes, I will see this mission completed. There is no force on this world that will stop me. My loyalty to our Infernal Father is my very soul, I shall never stray from his teachings. It is his very tennent of ambition that has me questioning. I shall admit, I find myself questioning the morality, the sanity of this task… The Mitran’s are naive puppets, they follow teachings of equality and fairness when their view is so misguided. There is no equality in allowing the weak to flourish while the strong suffer. There is no fairness in the strong being condemned for being so. There is no logic in the strong allowing themselves to be used, it is a very contradiction in that statement, for if they were strong they would not allow it to continue. But as misguided as the Mitran’s are, they follow a code, a form of structure. The laws they follow may be unjust to those of true strength, but at least they follow their own rules. This plague daemon we are planning on unleashing has no such rules. It's only want is for disease, destruction and death. And we are planning on attempting to trick the beast back into its banishment, it is more than a plan; we are counting on it. A grand feat of graceful trickery if we succeed, but if we fail? If the abomination finds a way out of our trap? We have been the sole catalyst to the freedom of an entity whose base desire is to sew chaos and anarchy into the material realm… If that is our outcome, how can we justify what we have done?” 
Pellius listened patiently, nodding as she spoke. 
“This is why we cannot fail,” he said, eyes intent on Willow, “I agree, an archdeacon of Abbadon upon the material plane would be catastrophic, but the power we gain by controlling the Tears of Achlys would be beyond belief. The Mitran's would not stand a chance; no other course of action would present such strength. Although I am reluctant to say this, we must trust in Cardinal Thorn. He has obviously meticulously planned this revolution and would not risk such an occurrence hindering his rise. He would be wholly aware that an archdeacon is too powerful for us to fight or contain ourselves. An attempt to banish Vetra-Kali is risky, but if it is the only way to resolve the situation then it is the route we must take.” 
“If we fail,” Willow said quietly, “Then we have not only released him, but our attempt at deception surely will anger him.” 
“Indeed,” he replied calmly, “But it is the best option we have. We must retrieve the Tears.” 
Pellius took a slow sip of the steaming fragrant tea, placing the fragile cup back into its saucer, looking out the window into the blackened night sky. When he spoke, it was as much to himself as it was to Willow. 
“Should our current plan fail,” he continued, “We withdraw and wait. It will not be true failure unless we turn our backs on this land. The daemon will still weaken the Mitransthough it will be a grizzly affair. Best case scenario, the Mitrans decimate their martial and religious forces banishing the deacon, allowing us fresh opportunities to seize power…” 
Out from his musing reprieve, Pellius’ eyes suddenly snapped up and bore into hers. 
“Willow,” he said intensely, no casual grace left in the expression on his face, “If the daemon does escape, flee to the coast. I've already made plans to have our newly acquired ship stocked and ready to sail on the final day of prayer. Do not attempt to save any of the others. I will do my best to withdraw our forces from the Horn, but you must flee. Do not let your pride stand in the way.” 
“Flee?” Willow said, eyebrows shooting high, “You expect me to- 
“Do not argue with me,” he cut in his commanding tone, “You must flee. Withdraw, gather the survivors and wait for your chance to return true order. The worst we can do is perish and leave Talingarde in the hands of chaos. Will you do this for me?”  
Willow frowned, the idea of retreating sitting uncomfortable within her. She looked into his eyes, unsure what she saw there. An emotion close to concern, endless pride and a certainty she couldn't mistake. 
“I will,” she said softly, before cocking her eyebrow, “But if you make a martyr out of yourself, I will raise you from the dead, just so I can kill you myself. 
He smiled with a small chuckle, “Have no fear, my lady, i have no intention of sacrificing myself.” 

As dawn arrived to greet the expanse of the greenery in northern Talingarde, the group met in the tavern, planning their day over breakfast. Willow's dreams of a plague ridden festering land had left a bitter taste in her mouth as she methodically chewed her biscuitsThey had fourteen more weeks of ritualistic prayer until she could be free of the foreboding walls of the Horn. She forcibly swallowed the food, struggling to shake off the ominous throb that had began to reverberate throughout the spire with more enthusiasm each day. Willow felt as if the Horn were calling to its master, pleading for its creator to return its abode, once again tainting its surface with the rotting filth that was the glee of the Pale Horsemen.  
“We have not given due consideration to the dragon,” Pellius said, distracting Willow from her vile thoughts. 
“None of us know any more now than we did then,” Garvana commented. 
“Perhaps I can found out more in town,” Willow offered, glad to have the conversation to keep her mind focused, “I can visit the Hall of the Sun Victorious once more, they have an array of information catalogued there.”  
Willow couldn't help the small chuckle as both Pellius and Garvana cringed 
“I will not step foot in such a place,” Pellius said forcefully. 
“You will not have to,” Willow said with a sly grin, “Besides, you would probably step through the doors and catch alight bursting into flames or begin melting.” 
Pellius laughed, a deep throaty chuckle. 
“Fortunately,” she continued, “I don't seem to set ofany alarms when I enter.” 
“We should see if we can source any more information from the townsfolk while we're there,” Garvana added. 
“We also must speak with Elise,” Pellius said sternly, “Her failure at notifying us of the Inquisitor’s assault has not been forgotten.” 
The sour taste in Willow's mouth returned. 
“Though I have no need of being convinced of her incompetence,” Willow scoffed, “It is important to find out if she actually sent a messenger. We cannot assume otherwise, we must consider the possibility of outside interference.”  
“Agreed,” Garvana nodded, “We must also consider the words of Hisperian. He is the devil who has offered his assistance to me. He believes Elise to not be of Asmodean faith, he is unable to read her motives. But he has mentioned that Trick is most certainly one of the Infernal Lord’s servants.” 
“We may be able to use that,” Pellius said, eyebrows tight in thought, “He may be willing to share more information than his friends.” 
“If we can find him,” Willow interjected, “I have someone watching the Seventh and my contact informs me that Elise, that elf and Track spend most of their time in the Auld Briar Hall. Trick is no where to be seen.”  
“If we cannot find him,” Pellius replied with finality, “Then I will just have to deal with Elise.” 

The group left Bor and Grumblejack behind, in charge of the dusk ritual and guard duty, as they travelled swiftly through the Caer Bryr’s dense forest and arrived in town by midday. Willow quickly made her way to the Hall of the Sun Victorious, dressed in fine jade satin robes and her usual disguise as Lady Kathryn. Entering the towering building bulging with teetering shelves filled with leather bound tomes, scrolls and books, she approached the hunched form of a man with his face buried in script. 
“Brother Tedicus?” Willow greeted politely. 
Jumping slightly as if he hadn’t heard her approach, the small man straightened his glasses upon his nose, squinting to adjust to his visions perception. 
“Ah, Lady Kathryn, Mitra's grace upon you child,” he said warmly. 
“And you, Brother,” Willow replied kindly, “I see you are very busy, but may I have a moment of your time?”  
“Of course my dear!” he said with glee, hobbling towards her, “How may I be of service?”  
“I'm seeking any lore on silver dragons!” Willow said, faking childish enthusiasm, “It is the talk of the town, and I fear I have little to add to the conversation. I would love to know more!”  
The aged man smiled, heavy wrinkles creasing his face in timeworn lines, “A very popular request since the sighting. I have kept the tomes aside for easy retrieval. Come along child, I shall show you.” 
“Oh thank you Brother,” she replied with a smile, “You are too kind.” 
He shuffled to a large stack of tomes piled in the corner of his desk, impressively lifting the heavy stack and shifting them to a spare wooden study table. He separated the most relevant tomes according to what he believed Lady Kathryn would be interested inShe struggled to contain her scoff as he arranged the fantasy stories at the head of the pile, pushing aside the bestiaries 
Hmm,” she said, browsing the titles, “My apologies Brother. I believe I've already read these ones, my father had a soft spot for the Adrien’s Blazing Dash novels. May I see the bestiaries?”  
Tedicus chuckled, “I had forgotten how well read you were child. Of course, here we are.” 
He unloaded the tall stack, pulling out a wide and heavily layered tome wrapped tightly in leather. As he dropped the book to the table, a cloud of dusk propelled outwards, creeping into Willow's nose and forcing her to sneeze. The dust spiralled as each thick parchment page was flipped, until Brother Tedicus opened the binding to reveal an intricate sketch of fearsome silver dragon. The wings were drawn completely outstretched, razor sharp barbs of ice trickling from its webbing, delicate glistening flesh connecting each bone. Scales of shining silver layered across its body, pointed talons protruding from each claw, hundreds of teeth lined along its jaw. The creature looked majestic, a fabled beast drawn with intelligent penetrating eyes.  
“Magnificent, isn't it?” Tedicus awed. 
“Has anyone seen one in this region before?” Willow asked, staring at the fearsome image, “Do you know where it came from?” 
Brother Tedicus smiled, a mystical tone to his voice, “My mother told me stories of an ancient silver wyrm, fabled to live to the north, in the cavern upon the mythical steep of the mountains. Perhaps the one above Farholde is one of its offspring, perhaps it is the same creature.” 
Willow skimmed the little known lore of the silver dragon, seeking anything that could aid them in their defence. She frowned as she struggled to understand the terminology, picking out the main sentences that she could make sense of. 
Immune to the effects of arcane and natural cold,” she read aloud, “Can survive in freezing temperatures 
“Apparently,” Tedicus added, “It makes them weak to fire, the heat is a hard climate for them to adjust to, so they live upon the highest peaks where the air is the thinnest and the temperature is the coldest.” 
Breathes ice naturally,” she continued, “Can summon an arcane paralysing gust of breath, affecting multiple creatures at once…” 
“Oh yes!” Tedicus said excitedly, “It has powerful magic, the silver dragon is also a shape changer! It can assume the form of any animal and or humanoid creature!” 
“So it could be hidden in this very town and we would never know…” Willow said to herself.  
Do not worry, child,” Tedicus answered, unaware Willow was not talking to him, “These are creatures of the purest order, the silver dragon fights for all that is good.” 
He lowered his voice to a scandalous whisper, “We mustn't speak of it, as not to bring the evil to out doorstep. But if the dragon was here, my guess is that it would be to quell the wicked within the Caer Bryr.” 
Willow traced the sketch of the dragon with her finger, thinking on the power of the foes they were faced with. Brother Tedicus laid a comforting hand on her forearm, smiling warmly. 
“Do not fear, child,” he said softly, “Only the evil in this place has anything to fear from the silver dragon…” 

Willow entered the small tavern a short time later, finding PelliusGarvana and Teelee huddled around a table. She relayed the information she had gathered to the group, before they quickly departed and made their way to the Auld Briar Hall. Teelee volunteered to go in search of arcane items to aid their defence against the dragon while the three of them entered the parlour. Willow smiled at the barman, ordering red wine as she sat delicately upon the stool, casually watching over the room. Elise sat by the fireplace, her long crystal white hair flowing down her back, a white raven perched upon her shoulder. Track was hunched upon the windowsill, staring through the glass, distractedly watching the crowd go by. The massive elven man, whose name Willow realised they didn't know, sat in the lounge chair across from Elise with his head in a book.  
Pellius strolled towards them casually, unbothered as the towering man closed his book and stood behind Elise, eyeing Pellius warily. Willow smiled as the usual charm oozed from Pellius as he approached. 
“A moment of your time?” he requested.  
Elise quirked an eyebrow, gesturing to the now vacant chair across from her. Pellius inclined his head as he sat, lounging back into the cushioned seat, emitting an aura of calm and control.  
Had you heard we were attacked by a Mitran Inquisitor and his knights?” he asked coolly. 
Elise’s face remained unmoved, “Indeed, I am glad to see you're still breathing.” 
The side of his lip kinked up, “Are you?”  
Elise’s eyebrows rose, a look of disdain tainting her petite features.  
“Why is it,” Pellius continued, “That we received no warning? Is that not your one job?” 
“A messenger was sent,” she gritted, a forced smile on her face, “What more could we do?”  
Pellius leaned forward in his chair, arms crossed leaning on his thighs, “You failed us, you are failing in your mission, you are failing our master!”  
Elise laughed softly, “I have performed my task, fulfilled my duties. We have eliminated multiple bands of upstart adventurers, deterred those we could from approaching the Horn, and informed you of all those we could not. It is not my fault you are struggling with your own mission, perhaps Thorn was misguided in selecting you.”  
Pellius smiled, a crude and condescending smile, “I get it. If we fail, you may get the chance to take over our mission. You will be able to finally do something of importance, rather than playing second and watching us take the glory. But if you cannot succeed in the smallest of tasks, you are not worthy to attempt anything bigger. I expect better from you next time.” 
Elise smirked, a dark and feral grin, “I do not care what you expect.” 
Willow could feel the fury radiating from Pelliushis eyes flashing crimson, his nails digging into his knees. She stood from her stool and strolled to the entrance, directly in his line of sight. She watched as he struggled to keep his control and reign in his anger, he stood from the chair, inclining his head and striding gracefully towards Willow. He offered her his arm as he reached her, casually turning for the door as she accepted it.  
“Yeah that's right,” Track spat under his breath, “Slink back to your hole you blonde prick!” 
Willow couldn't help but giggle, trying to stifle it as she felt the muscles in his arms clench and retract. Slowly and deliberately, he turned to face the short man leaning on the windowsill. The air seemed to thicken with intensity, the leash pulled taut on Pellius fearsome rage. Willow subtly laid her hand upon his forearm, squeezing gently. It took a moment, but she knew when he had regained control. His charming smile returned slowly as he dipped into his pocket and flipped a coin towards Track. 
“Buy yourself a drink, dog,” he said with a laugh, “Your tongue must be dry from licking so many boots…”  

Preparing to leave town, the group strolled the streets of Auld'lrey on the way to regroup with Teelee. They walked in silence after leaving the inn, Pellius leading Willow by the arm in a companionable amble. She could still feel the heat radiating from him, the anger having not yet retreated, though his face was calm and casual as they perused the market. Willow found it curious that his temper seemed to contain a similar pulse to the Infernal marks of Hell that she experienced. It was as if his Infernal blood dominated part of him, flaring its hold over his fury and his temper, leaving him with little control over the rage. There had been times in battle when she had sworn she had felt Hell’s very own pulse thrumming from him, guiding his fierce and brutal attacks with the wrath of Nessus. She could still feel the low thrum beating from him as they walked, the gentle pulse of Infernal touch brushing against her flesh.  
Suddenly, a colossal crash of splintering wood and shattering stone exploded behind them. The three of them spun in the direction of the commotion, gasping in shock and awe as a glistening silver dragon erupted into the sky, showering the town with shards of broken wood and brick. The creature was enormous. It's wings extended wide as it powerfully drove them down and back up repeatedly, gaining height as it flew towards the north. The sketch Willow had found did not do the dragon justice. The creature soared with regal and mystic might, raw power emitting from its sharp wing strokes, cloud rippling into nothing as the force of its gust shattered each mass of condensed white mist. They watched it, eyes wide, mouths open, as it soared gracefully further into the distance. 
When it was out of sight and they managed to regain their composure, Willow frowned as she thought about the direction of the explosion. 
“It came from near Vandermir’s manor,” she said warily, “If it got to him, we could be compromised.” 
“Quickly,” Pellius said, starting off towards Caviller Green, “Let us find out.” 
They made their way through the amass of worried townsfolk and reached the long winding driveway to the manor. Men and women were running from the gates, tears and shock covering their faces.  
“He's dead,” mumbled one of women, “Baron Vandermir is dead!” 
“Why would the dragon kill him?” cried another, “I thought silver dragons were supposed to be holy and good?!” 
Willow and Pellius exchanged glances, both as surprised as one another. The right corner of the manor had been destroyed, leaving a gaping hole in the building where Vandermir's study had been. It appeared as if the dragon had transformed his size and exploded the room outwards. Crumpling rubble of stones were all that remained of the chamber. 
Struck with an idea, Willow smiled, stepping behind the privacy of the towering gate. She used the circlet’s magic to morph her fine robes into simple Mitran garb and her face to that of a young lay sister. Willow grinned as Pellius shook his head and looked at her in question. 
“He has answers we need,” she said simply, “We couldn't get them from him alive, so let us retrieve them now he is dead. Do not appear to be travelling with me. When I am gone, I'll meet you by the back entrance.” 
Pellius merely smiled and inclined his head. 
When they reached the manorfront doors, Vandermir's men recognised Pellius and Garvana as associates of the Baron and allowed them entrance. The three of them made their way to the eastern wing where the study once stood, passing shocked guards and dazed servants. As they approached the chamber, Pellius and Garvana stood back as Willow took the lead, appearing to act out on her own. 
“Captain,” she called gently, approaching the broad shouldered man giving orders, “I apologise for the intrusion. I come humbly by Mitra's light to offer my aid if I can.” 
“He is dead, sister,” he said, a sad resignation to his tone. 
“I am deeply sorry,” Willow said softly, “But captain, if you'll allow me, may I see him? Mitra has gifted me will the ability to return the souls to the bodies of the willing. Perhaps I can be of service, if it is not already too late.”   
The man needed little convincing, ushering Willow into the room quickly, a pained expression on his face as if he dare not to hope. She carefully approached the body, kneeling by its side. The dragon had ripped the very organs from Vandermir's chest, the bloody mangled gash open and empty. The touch of death fell heavy in the room, the smell of blood and gore pungent and sickly. Willow continued her act, lightly laying her hand on the stomach of the corpse. She closed her eyes dramatically and began to hum a simple hymn she had known in school, a Mitran prayer of light and hope. Willow carefully retrieved the scroll of dimension door from her pocket, subtly unfurling it and carefully reading over the incantation. When she was ready, she smoothed the words into her humming, calling out the incantation with Vandermir's body in her grip. As she finished the incantation, she saw the realisation on the Captain’s face surface too late for him to react. As she finished the arcane words, she winked at the burly furious man and rippled out of sight, spiraling through the otherworldly portal and dropping back into the material realm. She found herself kneeling over the corpse amongst the hidden grass field by the secret entrance, sheltered from view of prying eyes. While she waited for the others, she searched through the remains of Vandermir's pockets, finding a small black leather journal. Most of the pages had been torn or shredded in the attack, but a single page of barely legible writing caught Willow's eye. Vandermir had suspected the Ninth Knot of a terrible deception. He had begun to believe the group were in fact Sons of the Pale Horsemen, using the guise of Asmodeans to gain his aid, yet surely intent to unleashing Vetra-Kali and instating his chaos throughout the lands. Willow could not fault his logic, it would indeed be easier to believe that, than it was to believe they were planning to unleash him only to banish him once more. 
When the group rejoined after collecting Teelee, Pellius shifted Vandermir's corpse into the arcane infused bag he was carrying. The bag had an enchantment that morphed the inside into its own magically plane, allowing items much larger than the size of the bag to hide away in its leather walls. The body disappeared into its abyss, before they started their return journey to the spire 

The sun danced upon the horizon as the brush of the Caer Bryr grew dense. As the group walked deeper into the forest, Willow eyed Pellius with curiosity. He had spoken little since leaving the Auld Briar Hall, still brooding in his heavy steps, trudging his way through the foliage. Willow quickened her pace, catching his stride as she lightly skimmed across the muddy ground.  
“Something on your mind?” she asked quietly. 
Pellius continued his pace, a small smile on his lips as he sighed. 
“At times, my lady,” he replied, “You are almost too perceptive.” 
Willow gave a small laugh, “I believe I would have to be blind, mute and deaf to not notice something was troubling you.” 
“Perhaps,” he chuckled. 
“Is it something I may help you with?” she asked. 
Pellius exhaled sharply before speaking, “No, it is not of imperative importance. It is, Elise…” 
“Ah,” Willow nodded, “She is a sure piece of work. Completing her orders to the barest minimum, and about as trustworthy as a snake.” 
“Her laziness is putting our entire mission at risk,” he said fiercely, “She needs to be brought back into line, or disposed of, her indolence cannot be tolerated. 
“I am of course inclined to agree, but we must avoid simple barbaric murder. She is not ours to dispose of, she is bound to Thorn as we are.” 
“I am not suggesting such rash action, my lady,” he replied formally, “I am suggesting we uncover evidence that incriminates her wrong doing, be it disloyalty, disobedience or sheer failure in her efforts. She is not acting in accordance to Thorn’s contract, our first and primary loyalty is to Asmodeus. They shall do all that can be done to further Asmodeus- 
“-His worship and his glory,” Willow finished for him, a warm smile gracing her lips. 
He smiled then, looking upon her with respectful eyes. 
“But we must remember Garvana's associate’s words,” Willow commented, “Elise is no faithful of our Infernal Father. We know not her loyalties, nor what her contract states.” 
Pellius frowned in thought, “Perhaps it is information we can obtain from Trick, perhaps we quote our first loyalty and observe his reaction.” 
“Perhaps,” Willow agreed, “I shall endeavour to find him. My contacts may have kept tabs on him, I cannot see them as the type to allow such a sly dexterous hand to go unnoticed within their city.” 

As twilight seeped into the blackness of night, the four of them made the long climb up the winding case of stairs leading to the second level of the Horn of Abbadon. As they neared the ledge of the entrance, Willow felt the creep of terror bleed under her skin, rippling a shiver through her spine. She slowed her steps, realising there was more to her bad feeling when she noticed Pellius and Garvana mimic her halt. They stepped cautiously to peer into the passage, searching for the source of the ominous dreadThe hall stood deathly quiet, the air almost visibly thick in its silence. Not a breath sounded from beyond the gates, not a cry nor a scream. Yet the foreboding intensity throbbed like a pulsing weight beating against Willow's chest. Carefully, she peered through the arrow slit to the right, where they had left Barris and Willem on guard. She frowned, seeing the place deserted, not a soul in sight. As she turned to inspect the other side, she caught sight of the top of a man's head. Chestnut locks, receding slightly, low widows peak – Willem. Garvana quietly muttered her incantations while Willow signalled that she would scout ahead. She crept through the passage way, working carefully to bypass the doors and traps silently. As she unlatched the main gate without a sound, she peered through the hallway, daggers held tightly at the ready. The long hallway was empty. The silence was bone chilling, sweat began to form in beads along Willow's forehead, the hairs on her neck standing upon end. The eeriness, so heavy, the air was thick like unseen fog. Willow could feel it; she could feel eyes on her, she could feel the predator watching.  
She signalled to the others to move forward, continuing on soundless feet through the hidden door into the guard room. She prowled, daggers up, preparing to defend herself. Two bodies slummed against the wall, unmoving and lifeless. Willow ignored the cold chill rippling up her spine, slowly stepping towards Willem, shivering as she examined his face. A permanent look of utter terror shaped the features of his face, his skin had sunken in upon itself, his once almost handsome face now appearing gaunt and skeletal. It was as if something had siphoned the very life from his body. When Garvana and Pellius entered the room, Willow signalled silently for them to approach. Garvana rushed over, frowning at the state of the man. 
It's some kind of curse,” she whispered, “He's still alive, barely, but I don't know what state he’ll be in if we disturb him.” 
Quickly dropping her bag, Willow fumbled through the belt of vials she had tucked in her zip, looking for the right one. One of the most useful pieces of advise that Switch had given her, was to be prepared for anything. He had suggested always keeping two vials of every basic healing potion, cure and remedy on hand. She had taken his advise seriously, carrying the belt at all times, even strapped under her lavish gowns besides her daggers. She pulled out a vial with the remove curse label and quickly handed it to Garvana.  
“Cure him,” she breathed, “We need to know what we're up against.”  
It took a moment for Garvana's surprise to settle, but as she leant towards the catatonic man, his mouth suddenly shot open and let loose a horrifying shriek that bounded down the stagnant hallways. 
Take away the sword!” he cried, terror flashing through his eyes.  
Garvana struggled to get Willem to drink the potion, resorting to gripping his hair forcing his head back and pouring the vial’s contents down his throat. She released his head as the screaming subsided, shrinking into soft whimpers and cries, as the skin in his cheeks slowly rose and inflated off the bones. Willow crouched in front of him, watching as awareness slowly dawned in his eyes. 
“Willem,” Willow said quietly, “What happened here?”  
“Y-you,” he stuttered, “You've come to save us!”  
What happened here?” Willow repeated sharply.  
It-it was terrifying, it was terror, t-terror…”  
His eyes glazed over as he drifted away from reality. Frustrated, Willow struck him fiercely with the back of her hand across the cheek. As the slap echoed through the passage, Willem’s eyes focused, dead centre on Willow. 
“What did this?” she demanded, “What was it?” 
“I don't know Mistress,” he said clearly, struggling to stay focused, “It was here, but not here. It was not completely here. It came through the walls, there was no where to hide. It just kept stabbing me. Over and over, over and over, over…” 
Awareness slipped from his grasp as his eyes glazed, and his mind wandered away into the void. Willow was unsure if he would ever be the same after his mind had been rattled so.  
“It is entirely possible,” Pellius said quietly, “That the creature we’re looking for is a physical manifestation of the horror experienced here when the Mitran's raided eight decades ago. The bloodshed was vast and gruesome, it is possible the terror that was felt as the men were slain, still lingers in the halls. The manifestation of those feelings being fed by the increased activity of the Horn, the darkness intensifying its reach.” 
“Wait,” Willow said, frantically searching her mind to recall the dates in her research, “It is Fourth Starday of Rova, the exact day of the ritual, eighty one years later.” 
“Indeed?” Pellius replied, eyebrows raised, “We must banish this horror, for the more souls it consumes, the more powerful it’s haunt will become.” 

They decided to check on Bor and Grumblejack before seeking the terror that had consumed their men. Willow carefully unlocked the door to the throne room and attempted to swing it open. The door bumped into a solid form blocking the doorway, as Willow pushed firmly, a blood curdling female scream sounded from the other sideAs the door opened, Willow saw the form of a woman sprinting in fear out of the double doors and into the hallway.  
“We must get to the Sanctum,” Garvana said hurriedly. 
As they nodded and turned for the throne, another voice boomed from the passage. 
“You!” Bor's voice bellowed in the distance, “Get back here!” 
The four of them looked to one another, silently agreeing to go in search of the voice. They quickly made their way towards the courtyard, scurrying through the passage, weapons at the ready. When they reached the opening to the large room, only silence greeted them.  
“Bor?” Pellius called suspiciously.  
“Bor, are you here?” Garvana parroted. 
For a moment, nothing happened. The air hung heavy in its quiet rest, the shadows lay still darkening the corners of the dimly lit chamber. Suddenly, a mass of swirling blackness unfurled from the walls and swarmed towards Pellius. It's eery shaded tendrils wrapped themselves around his arms, passing though his armour and caressing his flesh. Willow stood shocked as she watch the horror ripple across his face. In panic he swung his sword at unseen enemies, struggling to block the nonexistent attacks, his body reacting as if he was being slash and skewered with ethereal blades. A flash flickered behind Willow's eyes. For a brief second, she saw herself as a Son of the Pale Horsemen, Mitran holy warriors charging towards her with death in their eyes. Her vision flickered back, she took only a moment to adjust herself and leap at the ebony nightmare with her daggers. It was a strange thing to see the physical blade pass through the inking blackness as if it were air, yet watch the arcane enchantment on the dagger slice through the flesh of the horror beast like skin. She quickly drove her second dagger into its vortex mass. The horror writhed and shrieked, a chorus of moans of agony and wails of despair ricocheted off the stone walls, filling Willow's ears with its torment. As Garvana began to chant a deep incantation, Pellius pushed through his torture, eyes flashing with hellfire as he cleaved his sword into the form. His blade slashed deep, tearing through the mystical flickering beast, causing it to groan its sorrow from the terrifying abyss. The wisps of agony swarmed towards Willow, scattered fragments of the past flashing in her mind, otherworldly wounds tearing at her skin. She could feel the very life been sucked from her soul, her skin slowly draining, sinking heavy upon her bones. Struggling to shake off the fear sapping her will, she launched herself at the mass, ripping her blades through its tendrils. Garvana's magic caressed her vigour, pulling her back from the edge of the void. With renewed energy, Pellius and Willow struck out in unison, weakening the abomination of grief. Teelee fired wisps of white magic, forcefully driving each arcane shard into their attacker. At his gasp, Willow risked a glance at Pellius. He stood still for a moment, staring up in trepidation at something she couldn't see. He flinched suddenly, his shoulder caving as if he had been cleaved by a mighty great sword.  
An image of a Mitran knight sparked in Willow's eyes, his large axe cascading down towards her head. She tried to dodge the axe, leaping to the side, but her legs barely moved. She was not ready for the assaultnone of them had been ready, the Mitran's had attacked so quickly, so organised. It was a slaughter, a massacre. All her brethren were already dead, their corpses littering the hallways and the chambers, their blood painting the walls in poetic crimson justice. The axe continued its course, splitting the air as it neared its target with an almighty force. Her feet still refused to move, she was frozen in fear. She was not ready to die, but as the axe split the skin covering her skull, she knew she would.  
The blackened dread appeared in front of her, it's coils of sable surging through her flesh, drawing her will into its form. It slithered with uncanny speed, sinking into the stone below their feet, a shadow racing towards the left and disappearing behind the wall. Willow breathed heavily as she stood ready to attack, daggers held tight in her fingers, heart thumping in her chest. 
Mith si mortih!” Pellius growled in Infernal, taunting the nightmare to reappear.  
Willow's heart drummed as the eery silence stretched, anticipation tainted with trepidation racing through her veins. Seconds later, the blackness swarmed from the stonework towards Teelee. As it’s rippling curls reached for her, Willow's head whipped around at the sound of a frightening chthonic battle cry. Pellius charged the creature, a frothing rage running rampant through his body, his eyes blinding in their scarlet glow. His sword ripped through the air above his head, riving in it's decent, tearing the nightmare asunder. As it shrieked and wailed, writhing in agony, Willow used the last of her strength to dive at it with her blades. As the daggers slashed, the mass shuddered. In a soundless pulse, the misted creature fulminated into shattered shards of ethereal wisps, shooting outwards as they dissipated back into the void. 
As the feelings of dread slowly began to seep out of the spire, Willow's legs collapsed. She could feel the skin loose upon her body, the bones of her cheeks protruding while the layers of flesh hung slack. Garvana rushed to her aid, calling on her powers for healing, laying her firm hands upon Willow's gaunt shoulders. As the arcana circulated through her veins, Willow looked over to see Pellius, slumped against the wall. His head leant heavily upon his arm, eyes clenched shut, teeth gritted as if he was still fighting. But the internal battle he was fighting seemed like much more than physical creatures that could be slain with metalThrough the cracks of his eyelids, Willow could see the hellfire still raginfrom within. It was as if he were struggling for control, warring with his fury for perch in his own mind. It was a battle she could not help him win. 
The last throb of divine healing pulsed within Willow's body, her chest lightened as her mind cleared. The four of them had miraculously avoided the nightmare’s curse, although they had been left shaken and drained. Pellius appeared to have emerged from his struggle, his stern face returning as he marched with his usual dominance. They made their way back towards the throne room, passing guards and servants slowly recovering from their terrifying madness. One of the guards gradually emerged from a side chamber, white faced and bewildered.  
“W-what happened?” he stammered, “Is it gone?”  
Pellius shoved him forcefully out of the way, his great strength unintentionally sending the man flying backwards into the room. 
“We have dealt with it,” he bit. 
They used the teleporting magic of the thrones to quickly ascend to the sanctum, hurriedly scaling the stairs passed Hexor and Vexor. As they entered the abyssal shrine, Bor charged towards them, sword drawn. He staggered on his attack as he seemed to recognise them. 
“Are you real?!” he demanded, “Is it actually you?”  
It is us, Bor,” Willow soothed, “We have dealt with the creature.” 
Hesitantly, he lowered his weapon.  
“Good,” he said, “What in Hell’s name was it?” 
“A manifestation of the terror caused by the raid on this place,” Garvana said. 
“Hmph,” Grumblejack huffed, “Grumblejack don’t like it. Can not eat mani-fust-too.” 
“Willow believes it to be the anniversary of the slaughter,” Garvana added, “If that is the case, it is most likely that it shall return again next year.” 
Willow sighed, “Thankfully we’ll be gone from this place by then.” 
“What of your progress?” Pellius clipped, “The nightmare did not interrupt your ritual?”  
“No,” Bor said, back straightened in formality, “It was completed as planned. The creature appeared as the sun left. We had enough time to attend to the ritual before it attacked.” 
Good,” Pellius responded, “Teelee, Garvana, it is your shift. Are you in health enough to relieve Bor?”  
Garvana raised her eyebrows, nose in the air, “Of course. I am not incompetent.” 
Teelee shrugged nonchalantly, seemingly unbothered by the situation.  
“Very well,” Pellius nodded, “I shall retire for a few hours, and return to relieve you before dawn.”  
He turned, marching to the stairs and began to descend them. Willow said goodnight to the others before following behind him, quick steps catching up to him before he made it to the teleporting circle.  
“Pellius,” she said gently, “May I ask a favour of you?”  
“Of course you may ask, my lady,” he responded, his voice sounding tired and deflated, “But I fear I may not be of service this evening.” 
Willow smiled softly, laying a hand on his forearm, “That is not what I wish to ask of youIt is just…”  
She sighed, the smile dropping from her face, the horrific images swirling through her mind. 
“Will you stay with me tonight?” she asked in quiet voice, dropping her eyes to the ground, “I do not wish to sleep alone, I have trouble sleeping within these walls as it is, yet tonight I fear the dream realm will be overwhelming in its dread. Your presence is… comforting.” 
She looked up into his eyes, knowing well that the truth of her fear was present on her face. 
A slight smile touched his lips, “Of course, Willow. I will offer what comfort I can.” 

Sleep remained just out of reach as Willow lay upon the bed, head tucked into Pellius’ shoulder, thick blankets of soft wool funnelled around her. She listened to the steady beat of his heart, outpacing the sharp inhales and exhales on his breath. Mere moments after they had doused the candles, he had fallen into a heavy deep slumber. Willow could feel the tension within him as he battled his way through the dream land. She could tell he was tired, as they all were. The five of them had come from such varied backgrounds, their stories colliding into their shared fate. Willow had been so young before Branderscar. So na├»ve and blind, parading in a life she held no love for, serving a god she gave no real faith. Suddenly she had been confronted with her failings, given an opportunity to right her wrongs and truly achieve something. She had been thrown into a whirlwind of excitement, servitude and meaning. She had grown more in the eight months serving Thorn, than she had in her twenty five years of life as the delicate Willow Myrah Monteguard.  
As Pellius’ chest trembled, she thought of him in a new light. Only two years her junior, with the cultured confidence of a man many years his senior. Yet, as she breathed along with him, she realised he was in over his head, struggling for grasp just as she was. Inexperienced, yet doing all he could in his first real mission in serving his Infernal Father. They were all struggling to succeed and please their master and their lord. They were all just trying to survive.  

The warm rays of dawning sun failed to penetrate the darkened clouds the following morning. Willow thought it was as if the very sky was in mourning, sending off the anniversary of the massacre that took place, in a solemn condolence. The group gathered once again around the large oak table in the tavern to discuss the coming week. Even through the haze of her groggy sleep deprived mind, Willow had thoughts of their organisations growth. 
“Vandermir's men are without a leader,” she said to the group, “We should recruit them before they have a chance to recover or be pouched by another.” 
“Agreed,” Pellius nodded, “They are most vulnerable now. It seems our men have mostly recovered from the nightmare’s curse, we should send them into town as soon as possible.” 
“We should send the boggards to discover the fate or at least the truth of Elise’s messenger,” Garvana added. 
“Agreed,” chimed the others. 
They prepared to relay the tasks to their minions, as Bor and Teelee left the tavern, Willow watched curiously as Pellius approached Garvana.  
“Garvana,” Pellius beckoned, “May I have a moment?” 
She cocked an eyebrow and stopped her leave, turning to Pellius with a short nod. 
Am I correct in assuming,” he asked formally, “You have never received any formal training in the way of Asmodeus?”  
Garvana frowned, a suspicious glint in her eyes, “You are correct.” 
“Ah, I did believe as much. Then I have a proposal for you. You may not know, but I was raised by the Temple of Asmodeus, mentored by those of true faith. From birth I was guided in the way of our Infernal Lord, taught and disciplined by the hands of his disciples. This I offer, if you shall accept my guidance, I shall mentor you.” 
For a moment, Garvana looked taken aback. Her frown slowly retreated, a look of strange hope and acceptance dawning.  
“Thank you, Pellius,” she replied, “It would be most appreciated.” 
“The training will not be easy,” Pellius clipped, “I expect complete obedience and compliance, I will not tolerate complaining, and failure shall be met with harsh punishment. Do you understand?”  
Willow couldn't help the smirk as she watched Garvana battle with her pride. While Willow revelled in Pellius’ harsh form of discipline, Garvana was a proud woman with a vicious stubborn streak. She managed to reign her pride in, smiling politely as she nodded. 
“I understand,” she said.  
“Good,” Pellius said sharply, “Change into some loose fitting clothing and meet me in the throne hall on the first floor. We begin in an hour.” 
Garvana gave a stiff nod, quickly leaving the room. As Pellius turned to presumably bid Willow farewell, she stood from her chair as she spoke.  
Do you believe your training will be received well?” Willow smirked. 
Pellius smiled, “That is yet to be seen. I have hope, discipline would be extremely beneficial to Garvana. She has the devotion, fanatical and boundless though it may be.” 
“May I attend?” she asked, “I would be most interested to observe this discipline.” 
Pellius quirked his lip, “You may. But you must remain silent and not distract her, she has much to learn and will not be aided by your commentary.” 
With a sinful grin she replied, “I will be as obedient as always.” 
His wicked chuckle echoed off the stone walls as he left the tavern and Willow behind.  

An hour later, Willow wandered down the stone steps to the first floor, journal and ink in hand. She entered the great hall to find Pellius and Garvana already practicing the routine of stretches and exercises that he habitually performed every morning. 
“Keep it slow and controlled,” Pellius said quietly. 
He stood with his eyes closed and his face relaxed, legs apart as he gradually lowered himself into a deep balancing squat, both hands held together in front of his chest.  
This is the bastion stance,” he continued calmly, “Drawn from the teachings of the Sacred Mountain Monks. The monk of the iron mountain finds strength and power in the earth beneath his feet. Rather than spinning through the battlefield with the fluid motion of the river, he roots himself to the ground, as immovable and unshakable as the stones of the mountain. In this stance, we find balance and grounding. We hold fast, we remain still, we breathe. We are immovable, we are unshakable. 
Willow watched on with interest, fascinated by the array of knowledge Pellius had to share. She had been taught of the benefits in certain philosophies carried by monks, her own grandfather having disciplined her training with the aid of the Monks of the Mantis. They believed in the points where the flesh, mind and spirit coincide, and they were trained and highly skilled at manipulating these points. Having been a female in a male dominated bloodline, it had been important for her to utilise her agility and speed to counter her lack of physical strength. The teachings of the mantis were of pressure points and how to use them to control the flow of battle.  
She listened intently to Pellius speak of the iron monks and their practises, the words of strength and control of the body, relating to strength and control of the mind. After he had guided her through the routine of poses, he called for her to continue as he patrolled and observed her posture. Willow flinched in excitement as he fiercely cracked a cane against her thigh.  
“Lower!” he called, “Bend into it deeper.” 
Garvana gritted her teeth and lowered herself further. Willow put down her journal and quill, sitting cross legged upon the floor, lazily leaning back on her hands. She watched as Pellius strolled, head high and shoulders back, a clear authority in the hall. She found his dominance utterly endearing. Busy watching Garvana in her vigil, she failed to notice Pellius stalk behind her, shocking her as the cane lashed across her forearms. 
“If you are going to observe,” he said darkly, a menacing warning to his tone, “You will sit properly in a kneel and remain there.”  
Willow felt the quiver of amorous delight as she quickly lifted to her knees, holding herself perfectly still in her subservient poseenjoying the stinging flesh on her arms. She saw the glint of satisfaction in his eyes before he returned to Garvana. As she held each pose with sustained strength and control, Pellius lectured her on her faults he saw that needed correction. To her credit, Willow thought, she didn't call him an over observant rude bastard 
“At present,” he continued, “You are too impulsive, poorly disciplined and disrespectful. You are over zealous, too rash and unapologetically naive. These are things we must resolve not to be. We will train with mace and shield; I will teach you to be controlled and smart about your offence and defensive tactics. We will train to use logic over emotion; I will teach you grace by study of religion, culture and strategy. Today you will fight with only a shield, and you will learn that your defence can be your best offence…” 

As the sun fell below the horizon, Willow finished her shift on duty in the sanctum and followed Garvana to the storeroom where they had stored Vandermir’s corpse. Willow had told only Garvana and Pellius of her plan to question him, avoiding the possibility that her plan would draw the attention of those she wanted information regarding. It was a risky decision to ask Vandermir of Cardinal Thorn. Her contract or orders did not forbid her from prying into his past or identity, but seeking such knowledge could provoke his anger or his wrath if he wished his secrets to remain hidden. She was smart and paranoid enough to believe that he would have some way to keep tabs on his servants, and the fierce aura he carried spoke of powerful arcane ability. She would not be surprised if he regularly used his magic to scry and observe the bound, keeping check on their loyalty and progress. It was for this reason she quietly requested that Pellius and Garvana left their gifted circlets and medallions behind, minimising the possible links he would have to watch them. 
Quietly, she followed the pair into the storeroom. They stood around Vandermir's body, staring down at the horrific wounds that had left his chest gaping. The strange magic that surrounded the storeroom chamber had kept his body in the exact state that they had retrieved it in. Willow's mind raced over the implications of the questions she was preparing to ask. 
“I am ready,” Garvana said, retrieving her Asmodean holy symbol from her pouch. 
Proceed,” Willow nodded. 
Garvana clutched the star in her hand, gently laying the other upon the corpse. Slowly, softly, she began to chant. Willow could feel the rush of arcana reaching out into the afterlife, seeking the soul of the corpse that lay under Garvana’s grasp. Excitement flooded Willow's veins, her curiosity chomping at the bit, a touch of fear feeding the anticipation. As a semblance of life rippled in the corpse, it's eyes flickered open. Willow shivered, staring back into Vandermir's vacant eyes. She had no true idea what information she was about to receive, nor if she would receive any at all. But as the corpse opened its mouth to speak, Willow felt the strangest sensation, a foreboding warning that promised what she was about to find out, would change the course of her fate forever… 

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