Wednesday, 8 June 2016
Chapter 17 - Treachery
The air hung heavy within the stone walled chamber, stale and stagnant, dense with anticipation. The night air was crisp, a cold chill looming as winter made its inevitable approach. Willow, Garvana and Pellius gathered around the corpse, solemn faces as they performed their clandestine task. As vacant eyes flickered open, Willow inhaled sharply. The corpse groaned, shifting in its respite, the soul of the damned settling back into its former body. Garvana chanted her incantation, eyes wide with concentration, tone smooth and methodical.
“Ask your questions,” she said to Willow, “I will hold the spirit for as long as I can.”
Willow and Pellius stepped forward, staring down at the mangled corpse, facing their opportunity.
“Who were you meeting with before your death?” Pellius asked firmly, arms crossed over his broad chest.
They had agreed the best advantage they could gain was a description or the identity of the shape the dragon took on to gain access to the Baron’s manor. Even Willow had a regular disguise she favoured, they were hoping the dragon would have a similar habit. Shifting his gaze across the room, wheezed his cryptic response through lifeless lungs, eyes landing on Pellius.
“Fair of hair,” he moaned, “Fair of eyes, fair of skin. His brawn matched only by his indomitable spirit…”
Willow knelt by the corpse’s side, her eyes piercing with intent. She had thought over her questions countless times, meticulously planning the wording to best achieve the information she was seeking. reaction to her questions of Samuel had peaked her curiosity and sent her mind reeling. She couldn't deny the desperate call of suspicion that told her his identity was to play a major role in her destiny.
“What do you know of Samuel ?” she asked.
A sudden chill rippled through her spine as his eyes floated to stare back at her.
“Burnt, and forgotten,” he breathed, “Friend and son…”
Willow frowned on his words, unsure what to make of their meaning. She began to drift into thought, her mind spiralling as it leapt to conclusions. Garvana cleared her throat, the sound snapping Willow back to attention, reminding her of the time restraints she was faced with. She had not yet asked the question that had seen her biting her nails in anxiety for the last few hours.
“What do you know,” she asked carefully, “Of Thorn?”
The Baron’s corpse seemed to almost sigh.
“,” it wheezed, “He is a man who is not a man. One step, below the Father…”
Suddenly, the corpse shuddered with release. The soul sapped from the body, returning to the afterlife. Willow stood from her perch, brows pulled tight in a deep frown.
“One step below the father…” she repeated.
“What does that mean?” Garvana questioned.
Willow fiddled with the clasp on her cloak distractedly, “I am unsure. All that is clear is that our master is more than a simple high priest of Asmodeus…”
“One step could refer to the hierarchy of hell?” Pellius mused.
With no further speculation, Willow turned and strode out of the room, heading for her chamber. As she reached her door, Pellius’ heavy footsteps quickened their pace as they sounded behind her. As he open his mouth to speak, Willow turned and politely inclined her head.
“I must apologise, for you will have to excuse me,” she said, opening her door, “I have much to think on, and I would prefer to do so alone. When I have drawn my conclusions, or failed to, I shall seek your company.”
For only a mere moment, a look of suspicion crossed his face, quickly replaced by his usual charming smile.
“Very well, my lady,” he replied politely, a small bow before he retreated.
Sealing the door behind her, Willow swiftly took her seat at her desk and began scripting her thoughts in her journal. answers had only led to further questions. Cryptic words, a puzzle to solve. She had little to base a theory on, such little information, fuelled only by a hunch.
Willow spent the next few hours scrawling across the parchment, trying to find a link to unravel the mystery within the words. As dusk approached, she had gained nothing more than cramping fingers latching the quill and a sharp pain in her forehead as her eyebrows furrowed relentlessly. Frustrated and lost, she was glad for the distraction when Pellius returned to collect her for their shared night duty in the sanctum. They strolled together leisurely on their way up to the top floor of the spire, quietly discussing their lack of findings.
“It could mean anything,” Willow huffed, “We have no base to begin. All I have of is a brief story of convicted heresy and a scribbled name in a book. I would have dismissed his importance, were it not for initial reaction.”
“Forgive me for suggesting it,” Pellius replied, “But is it possible your curiosity has created a scenario more enticing than the truth?”
“It is entirely possible,” Willow chuckled, before her laughter faded and her frown returned, “I cannot explain it, Pellius. I feel there is more to it, I do not know what it is, but I cannot deny the chill that tells me to keep seeking answers.”
“Then continue your search,” he reassured, “There is no harm in seeking information, so long as it does not interfere with our work here.”
Standing around the flicking flame of Zikomo’s bonfire the following morning, the group listened to his translation of the reports from the boggard tribe. Garvana had ordered the boggards to search the forest for signs of Elise’s apparent failed messenger. The frogs had returned, one man down, as they retold the tale of the terrifying tree that had eaten their brethren.
“He tells me the tree had a robe tied to its trunk,” Zikomo said, eyes glazed over in his drunken stupor, “He says it was as if a horse had been shackled, it's rider stopping for rest.”
“Could they not take care of a simple tree?!” Pellius barked.
Zikomo looked unfazed by his anger, merely chewing his animal rind methodically.
“He says the tree is of the darkness, an evil spirit waiting in ambush for its prey. The boggards cannot contain the beast. It is the work of the emissaries of the Father.”
Willow rolled her eyes, listening to the rambles of the inebriated frog.
“We shall deal with it,” Garvana said with authority, “Tell the tribe not to fear. We shall quell the threat.”
As the group left the caverns, Willow shrugged her disinterest as she was asked her opinion on how to proceed. Garvana and Pellius were of a mind to recruit the , deal with the threat by employing its wrath upon their foes.
“And what's to stop it from turning on us and our men?” Willow asked, “How much loyalty do you suppose a tree that eats people possesses?”
“We can ensure its loyalty by offering it regular meals,” Garvana offered.
Willow shook her head, “Let us first find this , then make our decision.”
The group left the Horn later that afternoon, following the boggards directions, seeking the ominous grove they had described. Pellius had chained one of the peasants they held captive to a leash, dragging him along behind them. When the peasant became erratic and began trying to escape in desperation, Willow looked away as Pellius sighed, disabling the prisoner with a crunch to the knee. Rain pelted from the skies, deafening thunder shook the ground beneath their feet, clashes of lightening ricocheted through the gaps piercing the canopy. The ground was sluggish and congealed, making their traipse through the mud slow and tedious. As they reached a clearing devoid of all animal life and riddled with blackened spirals of corrupted growth, they knew they had found their destination. They approached cautiously, peering through the dense brush, stopping in shock at what they saw. The corroded was easy to identify. It's long tendrils of branches hung heavy from its leafless trunk, rippling coils of wood formed into nooses, charred and sable oak seeping from its core. What had the group startled was a second , a familiar figure in the labyrinth of the . Jurak, the tasked by the Victor himself to guard the Horn from evil doing, stood next to the festering hollow tree. Garvana quietly rushed to Willow's side, whispering as silently as the raging storm would allow.
“Will you talk to them? You are better at this than most.”
Willow sighed, unsure what they would gain from this meeting, but still willing to aid. She nodded, and shivered slightly as Garvana's magic circled around her. She felt a slight chill around her throat as the words of the majestic trees drifted to her ears. What had previously been mere rustling of branches and groaning of wood, became clear words that Willow could barely hear over the thundering skies.
“It is alright,” Jurak soothed, “Calm yourself brother…”
“He is comforting the tree,” Willow said to the group in confusion.
As Willow crept forward to better hear the conversation, she heard the rattling of armour behind her, loud enough to draw the attention of the . The carved face upon Jurak’s trunk contorted with anger, he lifted his roots from the soil and drove himself forward threateningly.
“YOU!” he roared, “LEAVE THIS GROVE AT ONCE!”
Willow realised the magic Garvana had summoned, had allowed her the ability to speak the language of the . She gave a small respective bow as she spoke, loud enough to the heard.
“I apologise, Elder One,” she said, “We do not wish to intrude, merely to speak.”
Jurak’s face raged with fury as the husk of the blackened began to twitch and shudder violently. Suddenly, Jurak stormed forward lashing out with his branches, swinging them wide and colliding with Willow sending her flying backwards. She skidded through the mud, tearing up the blackened shrubbery as she passed, coming to a halt at the edge of the clearing.
“LEAVE!” he boomed, “NOW!”
The group quickly retreated, watching the second as its convulsions intensified, it's own face rippling with raging need. Pellius swiftly lifted Willow from the mud, before they turned back to the grove. Jurak continued his approach as they paused to observe the situation, deciding that retreat was the best option and quickly dashing behind the brush.
“Will you allow me to remain behind alone?” Willow asked Pellius, “I can remain unseen, and follow Jurak back to where he rests, we need to deal with him at some point.”
Pellius frowned in thought, before nodding and turning to leave, “Agreed, but stay out of sight and be careful, he is a powerful creature you cannot deal with alone.”
Willow nodded, slipping into the dense foliage and quietly scampering to a subtle hiding place within the grove. She watched as Jurak returned to the , too far away for Willow to hear what was being said. The had not yet calmed or returned to its prior rest, the violent twitches and convulsions still rippling its trunk. Suddenly, it's coiled branches whipped out and latched upon Jurak's own. It heaved with fury, ripping the splintering wood from his form. Jurak continued to remain passive, presumably trying to soothe the raging . It tore its roots from the ground, launching itself into the other as a shattering crack of wood upon wood echoed throughout the forest. Willow watched on in fascination as Jurak gave up his attempt to settle the creature, regretfully having to retaliate in defence of his own life. The trees flung out their branches, crashing against one another, splinters of wood cascading through the air littering the blackened soil of the ground. A battle of titanic mass, both mystical creatures roaring with fury, bursting throws of exploding oak tearing through the wind. With a final tremendous blow, Jurak's massive trunk fulminated across the expanse in a shower of ripped leaves and shards of wood. Lightening flashed through the air, thunder bellowed as the wind howled. The sank further into the marsh, its roots furling deep into the mud, settling as it came to rest. The violent shudders retreated, and Willow watched as its branched coiled upon themselves, the tree ceasing all movement bar the gentle flow of the rain. She knew not what to make of the development, only that it was a decision for the group to make together. She crept unseen out of the grove, before sprinting her way back towards the Horn of .
It didn't take long for her to catch up to the party, the crippled peasant slowing their journey, so she called out when they were in sight.
“Jurak is dead,” she said, panting from her sprint, “And the is injured. If we are going to fight it or deal with it, now is our best chance.”
“Quickly,” Garvana said, heading back to the grove, “Let us return.”
“Do you think it is smart enough to make a deal with?” Willow asked doubtfully.
“That remains to be seen,” Pellius replied, dragging the peasant behind him.
“I still believe it is too much of a risk,” Willow said, “What is to stop it from turning on us when it becomes hungry?”
“I agree,” said firmly, “We should kill it and be done with it.”
“Let us speak to it,” Garvana said shortly, “It may be a great asset.”
“We shall see…”
As entered the grove once more, the group marvelled at the ruins of Jurak's shattered corpse. The still sat in it’s rest, motionless as they approached. Garvana summoned her arcana, touching Willow with the wisps of pulsating magic. As confident as she could, Willow approached with Pellius by her side, her voice loud and harsh as she spoke.
“State your intentions!” she called, “We come to offer a deal.”
The began to shudder, rippling vines swinging from its deformed top, roots slithering out from the ground.
“So… hungry…” it groaned.
Pellius tugged on the leash, yanking the peasant forward. He unclasped the chain, and with great strength, hurled their sacrifice towards the tree. The group cautiously stepped backwards as the powerful roots dragged the creature forward with remarkable speed. Willow grimaced as the hungrily devoured the screaming man, only shreds of flesh remaining as it finished its meal.
“What would it take to ensure your loyalty?” Willow demanded, “To guarantee you would leave our people unharmed.”
The tree croaked as it shuddered, dragging itself closer to the group, Willow felt the strangest touch of magic caressing her mind before retreating. She eyed the suspiciously, unsure what powers such a malevolent creature possessed.
“Take me… to the food,” it groaned, “Feed me…”
“Remain here and you shall have your food,” interjected, sending Willow a silencing glance.
She frowned, unsure what his plan was, but happy to have the conversation ended as she became frustrated with the precarious loyalty of such a creature. She followed his retreat, carefully watching the for signs of pursuit, leaving the grove without a word.
“This is a pointless venture,” said finally, as they made there way back to the spire, “We do not need the responsibility of feeding such a creature. If we are not to kill it, then let it remain a menace in the forest as it continues to feed itself.”
Garvana sighed, “I still think it would be an asset to have on our side, but I concede, our resources are stretched thin feeding the creatures we are already housing.”
“Agreed,” Willow nodded, “I will send a messenger to Elise to inform her people to avoid its location. We need not involve ourselves further.”
The morning rays of sunlight pierced Willow's sight from beyond the slender window in her chamber. Begrudgingly, her eyes flickered open. She rolled herself away from the light, into the warm caress of Pellius’ heated body. Even as he slept, the sculpted muscles on his back carved their form across his shoulders. She gently traced their shape, drifting through the hollow between his shoulder blades. At her graze, his body stirred, still deep in his slumber but always responsive to her touch. With its own intention, his body rolled towards her, his soft breath confirming his lack of awareness. She softly slid her self atop him, looking down at him in something close to affection. His face was at rest while he slept, free from the burdens of his waking life, no battle nor war to fight. The great weight he carried seemed to leave cracks in his strong defence, as the repercussions of shouldering such immense responsibility took their tole. In his dreaming state though, his brow did not furrow, his will was not taxed. He merely slept, free from the worry he harboured.
She traced her fingers along his chest, running them through the soft feathered tuffs of hair, marvelling at his striking physique. He was one of the few men that she had met that looked almost as imposing out of his armour as he did in it. She leaned forward, drawing along the scars that decorated his strong chest. Suddenly, his hands whipped up and gripped her own, his eyes flying wide in alarm. Willow smiled at his fierce grip, remaining still as he came awake into realisation. He tugged forcefully on her hands so her slender frame fell forward onto his chest, her face stopping in hover over his. She laughed softly at his raised eyebrows, laying a gentle kiss upon his lips.
“Good morning,” she said quietly, “Did you sleep well?”
“Indeed,” he said, his voice husky in its early morning strain.
Willow sat back, thighs relaxing on either side of his. She returned to her exploration, fingers grazing over his scars. As they made their way over his shoulders and down his arms, they came to rest upon his marking of Branderscar Prison.
“I treat it as a blessing,” he said softly, watching Willow's finger, “My release from Branderscar is a chance to bring an entire country to their rightful place under rule.”
She smiled, looking to her own brand, the fine white lines scarring her delicate skin. Her eyes trailed over his torso, noticing the spattering of scars across his wide frame.
“So many times you've cheated death,” she commented, tracing the long raised scar upon his side.
“Each one is a reminder, a lesson given to me, to always remember not to be careless. Deception is a tool. Deceive always thy enemy but never thy self.”
Willow smiled at his words, looking down upon her own flesh, slender scars marring her skin. She flattened her palms against his chest and slowly ground her lower weight into him. At his sharp intake of breath, she smirked, continuing her rhythmic movements.
“So what plans do you have for your day?” she asked casually, a playful smile upon her lips.
He chuckled at her deceptive leisure, “I intend to further Garvana's training. She has proved her devotion and dedication to formal tutorage.”
Willow leant forward, sensually kissing her way up his collarbone.
“And what part,” she continued casually, quickening her lower movements, “Of your formal tutorage does she have to look forward to today?”
“Mace and shield,” he growled in a breath, “Exhibiting control of others.”
Suddenly, he gripped Willow by the waist and threw her to the side, guiding her beneath him and pinning her with his weight.
Willow giggled, “Control over others? You'd be a very good teacher.”
It was still early morning when they made their way to the throne hall, approaching the refurbished coat room that Garvana had claimed as her bed chamber. Willow remained slightly behind as to not interrupt Pellius’ lesson, but was close enough to over hear Garvana seemingly talking to herself.
“…as the oldest and most powerful motes, became leaders and predators among all others, adding the ever advancing essences of their lesser brethren to their own, and in doing so growing always greater. I feel the pull to be that predator, a leader this world needs, yet I have been born into this world but a year…”
Willow frowned at the intense words of Garvana’s spiel, the heavy weight accompanied by the eery prophetic tone she spoke in. Pellius cleared his throat as he approached the open door. Garvana greeted him, retrieving her armour and weapons, unbothered by having been interrupted or overheard.
“Good morning, Willow,” she said, inclining her head.
“And to you,” Willow said, eyebrow cocked, allowing her to pass.
Joining them in their warm up, Willow mimicked Pellius’ strong agile movements, lunging deeply and using her dexterous flexibility to hold her centre. Pellius prowled around them watching their efforts, firm cane tightly in hand, ready to correct any flaws in their technique. Although the flowing movements and fatiguing stretches came naturally to Willow, even she was impressed with Garvana's improvement. When the warm up concluded, Willow sat to the side, kneeling motionless in her respectful stance. She watched as Pellius took Garvana through the basics of mace and shield tactics, the correct way to hold the weapons and the best use of their defence.
“Let us spar,” he called, “And see what you have learned.”
As Pellius called for commencement, Garvana burst from her preparation and erupted a brutal blow to his chest. With brute force rather than any finesse, he was launched from his defence and sent falling off balance to the floor. As he crashed into the training mat, a look of surprise painting his features, Pellius laughed in good nature.
“Not bad,” he said, standing and preparing once again, “Let us see you duplicate it.”
The second attack was not nearly as successful. Pellius had anticipated her over head full forced swing, knocking aside her weapon with ease, bludgeoning arm hand with his shield and knocking the mace from her hand.
“Once more,” he clipped, as she retrieved her weapon.
Again, Garvana went for the fearsome blow, rendering her shield and defence useless. Pellius shoved his shield into her chest, so hard that Willow saw the air propel from her lungs, her weapon dropping to the ground. The following attacks continued much the same, Garvana opting for might and power over control and strength. After an hour of the similar routine, Pellius sighed, lowering his weapon.
“I feared this would be a long and arduous task. Hopefully your mind is stronger than your arm. Wash, then meet me in my quarters.”
He turned to Willow as he strolled towards the door, offering his hand to her. She accepted it as he helped her rise, laying her hand over his arm.
“Do you wish to accompany us, my lady?” he asked politely, “You will have to excuse me a moment while I bathe. I would offer for company there also, but I fear I would not make it back in time for chess.”
Willow laughed as they strolled down the passage, “Indeed, it is alright, I shall summon Isa for tea while I wait.”
“Very well, my lady.”
Willow skimmed through the pages of a tome as she sipped on the fragrant brew. The book was one she had not read, the glorious telling of Queen rise to regal might within the grand empire. The author was one who understood overkill of royal flattery. As powerful and clever as the monarch was, describing the queens beauty by likening it to the rarest gem glittering amongst the rabble, was a touch too far for Willow's tastes. As the door swung wide, Willow's eyes trailed up Pellius’ freshly washed bare chest. He wore only his tailored pants and tightly laced shining leather boots, his hair wet and slick, combed to perfection off his face. She grinned at the single rebellious curl that hung on his forehead. A knock on the door sounded as he pulled his white shirt over his head.
“Enter,” he called.
The door creaked open and Garvana appeared in the frame, wet hair wrapped up in a lazy messy braid. She stepped over the threshold and inclined her head in greeting.
“We shall begin in a moment,” Pellius said, disappearing through the door on the far side of the room.
“Sit,” Willow said, unable to help herself, “Allow me to fix that travesty of a braid.”
Garvana chuckled, taking a seat and pulling free the mess she had made with her hair. It took Willow only a few minutes to tightly weave the long locks into a dignified intertwining plait, the finished result giving soft charm to her otherwise masculine features. Willow returned to her chair after she finished, just in time for Pellius to return to the chamber. He frowned for a moment as his eyes flickered to her hair, then nodded his approval as he took up his seat.
“Third lesson,” he said formally, “Control your thoughts and mind. A priest of Asmodeus should be careful in their exercise and pursuit of power. Understand that an over extension will leave you vulnerable to those watching for weakness…”
The games of chess were fast paced to begin. Garvana leaping into her turn, quickly deciding which piece to move, no thought or strategy to her tactic. With each move, Pellius corrected her mistakes, explaining where she had left herself open and suggesting a better alternative. The first two games, Pellius won by more than half the board. But by the third game, Garvana had calmed her rash decisions, thinking harder on her move, carefully planning out her approach. The battle was close, with only four pieces on the board, but she managed to trap Pellius’ king in a checkmate. Following her win, the games were evenly matched, Garvana proving that when she took the time to plan and strategise, she was able to match his wit.
“Well played, Garvana,” Pellius praised, “As much as weapons need sharpening and armour oiling, the mind requires trials of wit to remain strong and agile. Do not neglect this aspect of yourself, for knowledge is power. Perhaps the most important lesson I can give you is to know yourself.”
He stood from his chair, clasping his hands behind his back as he spoke.
“Vox, one of my mentors, once told me that you must know your place. Be courteous and respectful to your betters, for you are weak to them. You are stronger than many, but not all. So protect your weaknesses, and use your strengths, unless your strengths are your weaknesses. Above all else, know your place. You are not weak, you are ambitious and powerful. Prove it to those who would hold dominion over you. Hail, Asmodeus."
“Hail Asmodeus,” Garvana and Willow responded in unison.
Pellius smiled at the pair of them, "Good words to live by, are they not?"
“Indeed they are,” said Garvana.
“My lady,” Pellius turned to Willow, “May I beg a moment in private with Garvana?”
Willow quirked an eyebrow, “Of course.”
She rose from her seat, bidding Garvana farewell and inclining her head to Pellius. She left the chamber, choosing to give them privacy as she headed for her own room. Their voices drifted down the hall, the topic of conversation peaking Willow's insatiable curiosity, stopping her steps as she left.
"Now, I do believe you have not been respectful and are in debt to someone,” Pellius said formally, “In , it is particularly ill-mannered not to offer a soul to a devil who aides you. As such, tonight I will teach you how to properly offer a sacrifice to our infernal brethren."
“You are right, of course,” Garvana replied, “I have been told as much in my recent dreams. I will do what I must to honour my allies.”
“Very well,” he said, “Return here after midnight and we shall proceed.”
They said their farewells and as the door opened and Willow heard Garvana’s wide step in the doorway, a pause in her exit had Willow still listening.
“Pellius,” she said seriously, “What you have started, I do not take for granted, nor does it go unnoticed. Until recently I have been alone and without direction, with only my dreams to hint at me what I am required to know. It is maddening, but it is my path to walk. To look to my side and see that I do not walk alone fills my heart with His infernal song. I will learn all you have to teach, and I will do this knowledge justice by laying the souls of Asmodeus’ enemies at his feet.”
Willow could only assume he nodded in response, picturing his solemn professional expression darkening his face. Suddenly, she realised Garvana’s steps were coming her way. Sheepishly realising she had been eavesdropping, she ducked into the side room silently, and pressed herself against the wall. Garvana distractedly battered by her, unaware and wrapped up in her own thoughts. As Willow heard her masculine voice calling out the command word for the throne, another voice drifted to her ears.
“Come, my lady, do not creep in the shadows,” Pellius called.
She sighed, refusing to run away from her exposure. She returned to his chamber, approaching as he stood in the doorway, arm crossed over his broad chest.
“Eavesdropping does not become you,” he said, almost sounding disappointed.
Willow shrugged, “It was unintentional, but all too intriguing to ignore.”
Although she sounded unapologetic, her inability to look him in the eye said otherwise. He sighed, and shook his head, lifting her chin with his finger to meet her gaze.
“Do you wish to attend?” he asked, “I suppose it will be beneficial for you also.”
Willow smiled, his touch softening the strange guilt within her, but she shook her head.
“I have seen and performed my share of sacrifices,” she said, “I may be of Talingarde, but I grew up in a bloodline of origins. It is also disrespectful to perform a soul offering of gratitude with an unwarranted audience.”
“Very well, my lady,” he replied.
Willow turned to head for her chamber, but stopped after a few steps. She turned to face him, a strange look on her face.
“I…” she said carefully, “I apologise for my intrusion. It is most disrespectful of me to encroach on the privacy of those I… trust.”
Eyebrows raised, Pellius smiled, “It is alright. I understand, trust does not come easily, I myself am struggling with the concept. I will not betray you Willow, of that, you have my word.”
A small but true smile touched her lips, “And you mine, Pellius.”
After days of uneventful mediocracy, Willow observed as Cassandra sat with her hands folded in her lap, her head bowed respectfully relaying her information. She had rented a room at the Auld Briar Hall in order to better keep an eye on her target. She reported that Elise rarely left the inn, her elven guard a constant at her side, paired with Track attached as if on a leash.
“She has caught wind of another adventuring group in town,” she said quietly, “But I am yet to find out what she plans to do about it.”
“What of Trick?” Willow asked, “Has he made an appearance?”
Cassandra nodded, “Only a handful of times, he does not return, or at least he does not return when it is explainable that I am awake and waiting in the parlour.”
Willow listened to her update, impressed with Cassandra’s attention to detail, but disappointed to her lack of findings. They had met in the Golden Sphere, hidden in a booth in the rear of the establishment, within the walls of the private sectioned area reserved for members of the underground. Willow had morphed her disguise appearing as an elderly woman, greying hair arranged in a simple braid, plain pale blue robes and a heavy sash covering her shape. As the woman finished speaking, Willow's ears pricked at the muffled scuff of boots within the shadows of the drapery.
“Thank you, Cassandra,” Willow said formally, tossing a silk coin pouch towards her, “That will be all. I will contact you again, keep at your task.”
Cassandra snatched the pouch from the air, clearly pleased with the weight of it as her lips quirked into a grin.
“Yes Mistress,” she said, bowing as she stood, “Thank you, Mistress.”
Willow watched Cassandra strut out of the tavern before leaning back in her chair and taking a slow sip of her wine. She let the moment drag, waiting while she enjoyed the robust flavour of the expensive liquid.
“Are you joining me,” she asked aloud, “Or is there something fascinating within the curtains that requires your attention?”
Willow quivered at the sound of his deep rumbling chuckle behind her. Slinking from the shadows, Switch slid himself to the booth, helping himself to the wine. He eyed Willow as he lazily draped his feet upon the table, looking over the elderly disguise she was hidden under.
“You make such a sweet old bird,” he said with a grin, “Innocent and humble. How deceiving looks can be.”
Willow laughed as she released the illusion, the magic rippling as her face morphed into her own, her pale robes tainting into the black leather armour.
“And to what do I owe this pleasure?” she asked, eyebrow cocked.
Switch mockingly batted his eyelashes, “It's been weeks since we've spoken, I've missed you, my dear.”
Laughing at his fluttering lids, Willow refilled both of their glasses, lounging back and raking her eyes over his toned physique. He wore his usual outfit, worn leather boots wrapped over tight fitting black slacks, loose black shirt unbuttoned low enough to reveal a wisp of chest hair. His head had been freshly shaved, shining skin reflecting light off the top of his head.
“She's pretty good,” he said, taking another casual sip from his glass, “It took me a while to realise she was one of yours.”
Willow shrugged nonchalantly, “She's got potential, but she's not competent enough for anything more than observation.”
“Such a hard task master,” he chuckled.
She smiled, “I give praise only where it is due. But I do have a question for you, seeing you were listening in to everything that was said.”
“Ask away,” he said with a mocking half bow.
“The man we were speaking of,” she said, raising her eyebrows, “Have you caught wind of him? I wish to speak to him, but do not have the time or resources to track him down.”
Switch shrugged, “I have seen him about town, slinking in the shadows before disappearing. He seems to have access to plenty of deceptive arcana.”
“Too much it seems,” Willow agreed, “For my men are incapable of locating him. Perhaps I'll do it myself if the need becomes paramount.”
“I also have a question for you,” he said slyly, a smile on his lips.
“Ask away,” she mirrored.
“Do they all call you Mistress?”
“The ones that wish to keep their tongues,” she replied menacingly.
Switch’s dastardly laugh had a grin split upon Willow's lips.
“Very well Mistress,” he said in mock formality, “I suppose I should request a moment of your time, rather than demand it.”
“If you were to request anything of me,” Willow chuckled, “I'd assume you'd grown weak, and would be sure to take full advantage of it.”
Laughing as he stood from his seat, he waited and offered his hand to help her up. Willow eyed his outstretched hand mistrustfully, cautiously accepting it as she rose. Just as she had suspected, he yanked on her hand, in one swoop dragging her from the seat and spinning her to pin her against the wall. He pressed his weight into her, his face looming close to hers, his breath warm against her lips.
“You should know better than to assume anything about me, Willow,” he growled.
The corner of her mouth quirked as her heart beat quickened. She had been ready for his approach, having silently withdrawn her dagger, clutching it in her free hand behind her back. She let her breath come in ragged bursts, allowing him to believe she had been swept away in his intensity, just as his ego eagerly craved. She kept her eye contact fierce, as she slowly lifted her chin, her lips reaching to caress his. She waited for the moment he dropped his head to meet for the kiss, before she dextrously slipped from his grip, slinking below his outstretched arm and whipping herself up behind him with the dagger at his throat.
“Wise words, if one were to follow them,” she whispered silkily into his ear.
She knew his greater strength would easily overpower her, if she had been truly intending to kill him, she would have slit his throat and retreated. So she giggled as he gripped her arm and swiftly spun around, using his force to slam her onto the table before dropping himself on top of her. His fearsome gaze pierced her from above before he lost his control and silenced her laugh as he crashed his lips to hers. Willow found her legs instinctively draping over his back, her chest rising to grind upon his, her tongue matching his in it’s passionate dance. As he released his grip on her wrists, his hands grazed their way to her throat. His kiss deepened its intensity, a ferocious need to his movements, before he suddenly ripped his lips away to stare down at her with chest heaving.
“Every damn time,” he huffed, laughing as he shook his head.
He tore himself from her, standing and turning away as he regained his control. Willow rose to a seated position, legs dangling from the table, relishing the maddening lure she seemed to have over him. He straightened his shoulders before turning back to her with as much formality as he could muster.
“What time are you due back?” he asked, “You never stay the night in town anymore, I take it this visit is no different?”
“After dusk,” she replied, eyebrows raised.
“Good,” he nodded, “Come along, I have a task for you.”
The task Switch had prepared was of a different sort to which he had previously given her. Usually, it involved fighting off bands of mercenaries or tracking single targets across the expansive city. This time it was one of subtly and silence. They made their way across the rooftops, quietly leaping from building to building, out of sight of the parades of people below. When they reached Caviller Green, they slinked through the bushes, leading to a large mansion built into the side of the wide hill. Naturally, Willow's eyes cased the perimeter, searching for guards and their rotations. Switch held his hand up to halt her as two guards meandered passed, talking loudly about the winnings of last nights game of cards. Once they had disappeared around the corner, he signalled to continue, sprinting silently to the lattice work and making his way to the roof. Willow followed suit, deftly scaling towards the top, listening intently for any drop in the guards conversation. As they cautiously made their way to the centre of the steep, they came across a tall brickwork chimney, still cold air feathering across Willow's face. She looked to the chimney, turning back to Switch with her eyebrow cocked in question.
“Well,” he said casually, “In you go.”
Willow had to cover her mouth to stifle her laugh, shaking her head as she chuckled.
“And once I'm in?” she grinned, “Surely there is more to this training than seeing how well I wiggle through slender shafts?”
Switch smirked, “One goal. Get out of the manor without being seen.”
He pulled a wrapped scroll from his pocket, tightly sealed with a leather band, speaking as he handed it to her.
“Use this if you must, but if you do, you fail. Do not set off any alarms or make your presence known, the chimney was cleaned this morning so you shouldn't have to worry about trailing soot. There are three exits to the manor, you must find the one guarded by the holy sun. I will be there, do not keep me waiting long.”
Willow grinned, excitement bounding through her body, adrenaline racing through her veins. Stashing the scroll of dimension door, she turned for the chimney and carefully climbed to its cap, reaching for its grate. Switch roughly grabbed her by the chin and forced his lips against hers in a fierce kiss, dragging his teeth around her lip painfully as he pushed her face away.
“Do not disappoint me,” he warned.
Willow smirked and slipped her legs into the chute, speaking as she winked before sliding down the shaft, “I never do…”
Her slender figure slinked easily down the widened chimney, her softened leather armour silently sliding against the freshly cleaned metal walls. She balanced her weight with her feet against the metal as she slowly lowered herself down. When she reached the bottom, she remained motionless while her eyes adjusted to the dimly lit room, straining her ears to listen for any indication of guards. When she was confident the room was empty, she carefully crept out of the fireplace, thankful for the scuffed soles of her boots as they paced soundlessly across the hard wood floors. She was in a study, a large oak desk sitting centre of the room, walls lined with heavy tomes upon shelves. Reaching the door, she cautiously eyed the lock to determine if it was trapped, when she found nothing, she retrieved her pick from her belt and set about unlocking the metal mechanism. With a subtle click, she carefully opened the door into the hall, sealing and relocking it behind her. She made a mental note of the location of the study, before turning right and continuing, using the intricate golden rimmed paintings to identify each door she passed. Silently, she made her way through the winding halls, finding an open door into what appeared to be the kitchen. She could hear the banter of two cooks from within, busy at work on their nightly meal. She peered through the room to the door on the other side, Willow could see the greenery of the garden through the window, but saw nothing resembling a holy sun to identify the exit. On careful feet, she crept passed the kitchen, keeping her ears primed for any footsteps upon the shining floorboards. As she continued through the passage, she came across a large set of embellished doors, lined with immaculately carved borders. Pressing her ear to the door, she remained perfectly still as she listened. When no sound came, she gently unlatched the lock and peered through the opening. The vestibule sparkled brightly with its lavish decorations, large ornamental vases filled with exotic flowers, tall masculine statues of men she didn't recognise. From her vantage point, she could see the large entrance way, the doors sealed shut with two guards standing at attention. It was almost a relief when she failed to find any mention of the holy sun. From the distance, she heard the soft trail of voices and footsteps, heading her way. She quickly sealed the door and reset the lock, swiftly disappearing behind one of the large plants decorating the hallway. She folded herself down and became as small as possible, keeping her body motionless as keys rattled from the other side of the door. The door creaked as it swung wide, revealing two men in fine robes, busy in their political debate.
“Sir has taken control of his position,” one man said, “Fitting, given the pairs history.”
“Indeed, my lord,” the other responded, “Most fitting.”
“ was a strange man,” the first continued, as they passed Willow's hiding spot unaware, “I was never sure if what he did for the orphans was for their benefit or his, but at the very least, he removed them from our streets.”
“It is odd, my lord, for a large portion of the orphans disappeared after the Baron’s demise.”
“Perhaps they are afraid to incur the wrath of the dragon,” the first replied, his voice trailing down the hall, “They were not the most innocent of adolescents…”
Willow smirked as she silently unfolded, creeping back to towards the turn off in the hall she had passed. She carefully made her way through the labyrinth of hallways, dodging guard patrols and chattering servants. She hid behind the drapery in a large sitting room as she heard a group of guards rushing passed, clearly in search of something or someone. Willow swore under her breath, frustratedly thinking she had been noticed at some point. She had been careful to stay silent and lock every door she had found in that state. She cursed herself for her failure, but refused to give in so easily. When she reached the only possible opening in the building, she almost laughed at the sight she came across. A large chamber lined with potted plants and rows of trestles of grape, four servants busily tending to the flora, gardeners weeding and trimming. The large doorway leading to the outside portion of the greenhouse, was decorated with a looming carving of Mitra, a large sunburst hanging above the door. Willow eyed the surroundings warily, carefully formulating her approach. She retrieved her vial of invisibility, swiftly drinking it down and returning it to her belt. As quietly as she could, she crept behind the servants, silent careful feet as she made her way towards the door. She neared her target and frowned, struggling to devise a way to open the door without being noticed. As if in answer to her question, a cold chill pierced her bare skin, the breeze drifting in from an open window. She grinned, slinking towards it and quietly lifting herself through its slender opening. Dropping to the hard dirt beneath the window, she quickly skimmed along the garden towards the open gate. She made her way through it just before her invisibility vanished, revealing her black leather form deftly running across the open field. As she made it to the edge of the clearing, she sprinted into the dense forestry surrounding Caviller Green. Suddenly, she was gripped by the throat and spun in the air, forcefully crashing into the foliage beneath her.
“Not bad,” Switch grinned, his grip on her throat frightfully tight, “They didn't manage to find you.”
“I don't know how they managed to detect me,” she rasped under his grasp, “But they didn't find me.”
Switch laughed, dark and menacing, “They didn't detect you. I warned them you were coming.”
“You what?!” Willow laughed as a wheeze.
“Five hundred gold to the one who found you,” he chuckled, “Lord is a friend of mine, seems no one gets the gold though.”
Willow couldn't help but grin, cursing at his deceit. She sighed under his grip and swiftly launched her weight from the bottom up, surprising him and flipping him off balance as he tumbled into the brush. She was quick to roll towards him, straddling him between her thighs, dagger pressed into his neck. Her victory lasted only mere seconds as he recovered, tearing her hand from his neck, gripping her waist and ruthlessly throwing her to side and returning her throat to his clutch.
“You are getting too good at that,” he huffed, the wind having been knocked from his chest.
He slid atop her, his free hand roaming up beneath her blouse.
“Either that,” she chuckled, sharply inhaling as his nails dug into her flesh, “Or you're getting too slow…”
Returning to the Horn as the last desperate light of the sun gave in to the smothering darkness of the night sky, Willow climbed the amass of stairs into the entry upon the second level. She entered passed the croaking boggards who remained in the guard rooms on watch for trespassers. They eyed Willow warily as she strode passed, silent in their vigil, weapons at the ready. She grimaced at the smell of their oozing skin, continuing to her chamber, distracted thoughts filling her mind. She was surprised to find Pellius leaning upon her doorframe, legs crossed in a relaxed and casual stance.
“Ah, my lady,” he greeted, reaching for her hand to place a small kiss on her knuckle, “I was wondering when you would return.”
Willow smiled and inclined her head, aware of his keen gaze, knowing too well the armour she wore did not reach high enough to hide the red handprints around her neck.
“Did you learn anything of import from your contacts?” he asked, eyebrows raised, gaze locked on her throat.
“Of some import,” she said casually, gliding towards her door as he stepped out of her way, “Elise has learned of a new adventuring party around town, and Trick has been seen, but still remains aloof.”
She stepped into her chamber, leaving the door open behind her, beckoning Pellius within.
“Sir has taken control of position,” she continued, pouring only herself a glass of whiskey at his polite refusal, “He has seized the property and most likely the wealth.”
“Curious,” Pellius commented.
Willow frowned, turning to adjust the tight buckles upon her chest piece, “It is actually fairly appropriate for this land. The ranking member of society takes over the holdings when no heir is in place. I do not believe the Baron had any children, well none that are legitimately recognised.”
Willow shivered suddenly, as she felt his presence close behind her, his fingers trailing over the markings on her neck.
“It is curious that you managed time to source any information,” he whispered menacingly.
Slowly turning to face him, a sly smile played on her lips.
“Where is the fun in this life, if we make no room for pleasure amongst our business?”
His eyes flickered down to her throat again before a dastardly grin tainted his expression. Willow felt the thrum of his infernal side, pulsing from deep within. It brushed against her flesh, caressing her bare skin, forcing her heart to throb in tune.
“Indeed, Willow,” he said quietly, his finger lifting her chin so her face was angled to his, “We all enjoy a little pleasure. And when it comes to you, I seek mine within the discipline of consequences for dissipation.”
Willow couldn't hide the quiver that racked her body at his dark promise.
“And I seek mine within receiving such discipline,” she breathed, limbs tingling, heart racing.
As if frozen in time, they remained perfectly still, the tension in the room heavy within the air, her ragged breathing sounding like thundering rasps to her ears. He was barely touching her, yet every inch of her flesh was shuddering in anticipation, sweat forming in droplets along the top of her spine. His eyes flashing with intensity, their red glow adding to his menacing appearance, his infernal charm fuelling her desire. As his hand dropped, he turned from her, almost regretfully, a sense of duty morphing the carnality.
“Come along,” he said formally, only a hint of a smile on his lips, “We have a shift in the sanctum.”
He offered Willow his arm as they strolled from her chamber, locking the door behind her, her heart still strumming and blood still racing. He subtly leant towards her, his breath warm and wet upon her ear.
“Once we are finished,” he warned, “We shall deal with your lechery…”
It was the sound of a long drawn out signal horn that awoke Willow from her slumber in the twilight hours before dawn. She leapt from her bunk, quickly ripping off her night slip and beginning the task of strapping on her armour. Looking around the throne room she saw and Pellius doing the same, Garvana and already geared in their watch within the sanctum. It took Willow only a few moments to completely don her leather, dropping her pendant around her neck before swiftly attending to Pellius and helping him dress in his bulking heavy armour panels. As she tightly fastened the last of his buckles, the signal horn blew again, two short bursts indicating the invaders where making their way to the second level entrance. When the group prepared at the entrance, primed and ready for the attack, and Garvana arrived through the portal of the throne.
“We've been betrayed,” said quickly, “They were aware of the entrance from the caverns, and they were warned it had been sealed up in stone. There are four of them, a dwarf, a ranger and two spell casters.”
“Try to keep one alive,” Willow replied, unsheathing her daggers, “We’ll find out what they know.”
They waited in silence until the faint sound of a lock clicked from the passage. Willow waited, perched behind the wall, ready to spring in from behind when they made it through the gates. As the door opened a crack, leapt into the hallway, prematurely summoning a pellet of fire and launching it through the opening. Willow swore under her breath, once again their plans had faltered, rendering the defences and traps obsolete. In consequence for her rash action, the attackers launched their attacks directly at her, being their only visible target. Two arrows shot in unison, flew through the air and pierced through the torso. She tried to leap out of the way, as a small gnome chanted his incantation, throwing crushed petals and sand into the air. As the arcana reached out to caress like a spiral of feathered wisps, Willow watched her eyes droop and her body slacken, before she shook herself forcefully and strengthened her will against the magic. A thundering ripple shook the ground, hundreds of vines furled from the stone work, green foliage cluttering the chamber they were standing in. Willow weaved through the entanglement, her lithe form gracefully avoiding the coiling mass. The dwarf charged into the entrance, slashing his axe through the arrow slits and easily slaughtering the croaking boggards within. The ranger stepped forward, cocking another arrow and relentlessly firing each one with shocking precision. eyes flashed with determination as she called for another fireball, launching the sweltering mass into the attackers, scorching flame searing upon their flesh.
“Fall back!” squealed the gnome, “Let's not throw ourselves at this meat grinder!”
Quickly in sync, the four of them retreated out of the entrance. Garvana called forth her magic and vanished the entanglement of the vines.
“,” Willow beckoned, “Will you carry me? We need to track them from the air.”
True to his name, he grumbled as he begrudgingly agreed, stepping out onto the ledge of the entrance. As Willow stepped forward, a sudden flurry of attacks launched at as he came into the view of the adventurers. Scorching rays of arcana flew towards him, lightening ricocheted through the air to the metal upon his body, but his mysterious magical barrier seemed to absorb both assaults. Willow refused to fight on the staircase, so she retreated back inside, calling for to do the same. She sighed, knowing he wouldn't have heard her over ferocious battle cry as he charged out into the battle. Suddenly, his frame rippled, rendered completely immobile. Before Willow had time to react, the ranger leapt forward and shoved over the edge, sending his frozen form plummeting to the ground below.
“!” Willow commanded, “Fall back!”
A huge frustrated huff sounded from his chest as he withdrew from the attackers range. As he made it back inside, the ground shuddered again as the vines rippled and filled the room once more.
“They're retreating,” Willow said quickly, “We must track them and find Bor. Come along .”
She dextrously slipped between the gripping hanging vines, reaching the entrance with little effort. Opposite to her approach, brute forced his way through the vines, ripping the coiling tendrils as he pushed through them. Willow carefully peeked around the corner, checking for a clear path before climbing upon the ogres back. He leapt from the edge and soared into the twilight tinted sky, completely unbothered by Willow's light weight upon his shoulders. The wind ripped through her hair, flicking the short strands against her forehead, as they veered down around the enormous spire. As they spotted the retreating enemies, two arrows came hurtling through the air. The blade on one splitting the skin across Willow's cheek as it tore passed her head, the other slamming in her side, piercing through her armour only far enough for the point to nick her flesh. Willow ripped the arrow free as they soared towards the ground, landing heavily upon the marsh, unsheathing her dagger as she sprinted at the group. came hurtling out of the forest, a feral rage shuddering his face, his blade high over head. As enchanted words slipped from the gnome’s lips, Willow cursed as once again form rippled, freezing in its fearsome approach.
Metal clashed and grunts of strain rebounded across the expanse, laughing as he parried the dwarfs attacks, responding by brutally swinging his backwards sword towards the short man. Blow for blow, they matched each other, a battle of strength upon strength. As swung his mighty weapon with glee, the dwarf frothed from the mouth as his attacks grew more savage and desperate. There was no finesse in either of their onslaughts; an untrained ogre hefting his weapon with clumsy innate power, and a man festering with rage, slashing his fury through his strikes. He cried his anger through gritted teeth, sweat dripping from his forehead, fingers white with strain. He fought with no care for his life, committing to each attack as if it were going to be his last. The duel fought on, the might of a dwarf against an ogre.
Willow focused on the , diving in behind the gnome and slashing her daggers in fierce unison, hacking through the small creatures flesh.
“No!” cried the druid, eyes wide with shock.
As the gnome crumpled to the ground, Willow turned to the druid, lashing out as she attempted to cast her arcana in vain. Her face contorted as she mourned the loss of her friend, her heartache morphing into fury. The blades cut deep into the woman as she called forth shimmering lightening that rippled towards Willow with shocking intent. Quick on her feet, Willow dashed out of its path, leaping forward to cut down the druid, hacking her blades low. The druid’s wrath was cut short as she fell, her cries silenced as life faded from her eyes. As Willow withdrew, she growled at the sharp pain of two arrow heads as they pierced her back. roared as the dwarf cleaved his mighty axe with frightening brawn, slashing open the ogres chest. The duel ended as he fell to the ground, a loud echoing groan rasping from his lips, as the dwarf cheered his battle worn delight. Willow raced passed as Garvana appeared from the staircase, charging to meet the dwarf’s celebration, flaming mace splitting the air as it carved it’s journey.
“The power and greatness of Asmodeus cannot be denied!” she roared, lashing out.
Their weapons collided with a shattering crash, fearsome strength radiating from the pair.
“I hate !” growled the dwarf.
The arcana summoned by Garvana appeared to rebound from the dwarf, as if a shield had repelled the wisping assault. Undeterred, she launched herself against him, righteous fury guiding her hand.
The ranger fell quickly to Willow's blades, the fatigue of the wearying battle proving too great, her bow offering no salvation at such close range. Finally the group converged on the dwarf, his frothing rage redoubled, his last breaths spent screaming his anguish. He fought to the very last ounce of his life, attempting to take at least one of them down with him. It was Willow's final strike to his jugular that had him fall to his knees, straining to swing his axe as it dropped from his hands, life draining with the blood from his neck. He spluttered his last words through his wheezing chest, unintelligible mumbling, falling to his demise.
The magic holding vanished, his raging form feral with wrath. He charged to the gnome’s crumpled corpse and launched it across the expanse. Looking somewhat calmer, he heaved his breath, cursing at the arcana that had held him so helplessly.
Willow checked each of their attackers for any signs of life, frustrated to find no survivors. While Garvana tended to the unconscious , Willow searched the packs and pockets of their four victims. It was in the sash carried by the gnome, that she found the most intriguing bit of information.
“Come along quickly,” Willow said sharply to the group, heading for the stairs, “We must meet now, we have exactly what we need…”
When they convened in the passage, Willow read the journal entry that had excitement flooding her veins.
“He delivered his pitch,” she recited to the group, “And then gave to us an immense pile of information, including maps, names and so much more. Really he did give us everything but the keys to the front door. He claimed the angels had driven him to stop the wickedness in the Horn of and rally us to our ‘destiny’. I had follow the ‘holy man’ and our fears turned out to be justified. She saw this angel-speaker slip into a side alley and transform back into a dark haired much younger human…”
“It must be Trick!” Garvana snapped.
Willow smiled, a wicked and sinful grin, “It gets so much more delicious, just listen. She followed the young man to a rendezvous with a strange white haired woman with a white raven on her shoulder, he called her Z. They didn't say much to each other, all he said was, ‘It is done, the Ninth are finished’…”
Turning the journal around, she showed the group the perfect sketches of both Elise and Trick’s faces, detailed and exact replicas on parchment.
“I will kill her!” roared, “She must die for her disloyalty!”
“Indeed she must,” Willow responded, “But do not be so rash, we must inform Thorn of her treachery, and abide by his decision. I cannot imagine he will let her live.”
“Bah!” spat, “I do not need his permission to kill her!”
Willow snapped, “He is our master! We shall seek his permission and kill her on his wishes!”
“Willow is right,” Pellius interjected, “We must inform him first.”
Placing a gentle hand on his forearm, Willow spoke quietly to , “We shall kill her regardless of his answer. I promise you that.”
“What of the others?” Garvana asked, eyebrows raised.
“The elven guard and Track will no doubt follow her to their death,” Willow mused, “But perhaps Trick is salvageable. His loyalty to Asmodeus may win out over his loyalty to Elise. If I am correct in my assumption, he was merely following her orders. We have no reason to believe either way, if we can determine his loyalty before Elise faces her judgement, then it is all the better…”
The group gathered upon the bloody battlefield with Thorn’s clay seal in hand. Willow knelt upon the muddy expanse, taking a deep breath before shattering the seal. Only a moment after the clay slipped through her fingers, the air rippled fiercely, and suddenly a wave of splintering infernal energy sapped Willow's breath from her chest. Cardinal Thorn stood in his fearsome might, eyes of fire and fury, a look of immense ire upon his regal face. He looked over the group, as each of them dropped into low respectful bows, before looking up at the foreboding spire that was the Horn.
“Why have you summoned me?” he snapped, a displeased gleam to his tone, “You clearly are not finished in your mission!”
Willow pushed aside the searing pulse within her as she spoke, keeping her voice as steady as her amorous swelter would allow.
“I apologise, master,” she said respectfully, bowed low to the ground before looking up into his consuming gaze, “We would not bother you were it not of immediate importance. We have discovered compelling evidence that the Seventh Knot has betrayed you. We have suspected their disloyalty for a time, but chose not to act without irrefutable proof of their misdeeds.”
Snatching the journal from her outstretched hands, Thorn quickly skimmed the contents of the diary, eyes livid as he turned the page to the portraits.
“I have no time for this infighting!” he roared, “We are so close to victory!”
He growled, the fierce sound crashing against Willow's ears sending shivering ripples through her flesh, a small ardent whimper escaping her lips.
“The Knot Hibernal is declared broken!” he said fiercely, “In accordance with the Pact of Thorns, I release these traitors. They are no longer bound to my service or enjoy my protection.”
The air shudder around him as he drew an intricate pattern into the air. Suddenly, two creatures bled into sight, fierce and regal might. Both beautiful women, mockingly angelic in their appearance, soft crystal white skin littered with bruises and scars. Black stained wings hung delicately from their shoulders, flaming scarlet eyes piercing their surroundings. The devils were of a graceful crude beauty, like the twisted morphed sisters of their divine counterparts. Willow was transfixed by their terrifying splendour, the allure so strong within her, she struggled to draw air into her lungs.
“I send to you, my Nessian Knot, my furies. Make them suffer for their treachery and then return to the work at hand. Bring me the daemon’s gift!”
“Thank you master,” Willow breathed, bowing her head low, “It will be done.”
With a terrifying wave of infernal heat scorching across the expanse, Thorn vanished once again, leaving the two fearsome devils behind. Willow stood from her perch, a feral and dark grin playing on her lips, turning to the members of the Ninth Knot.
“Let us exact our revenge,” she said menacingly, “And serve their retribution in blood…”