Wednesday, 8 June 2016
Chapter 18 - Exordium
In the wake of their master’s departure, the sweet taste of vengeance lingered upon the lips of the five bound servants. His fury and harsh reprimand had left the group eager to dispense his retribution. Leaving the boggards to deal with the carnage of their prior battle, they quickly scaled the stairs to the second level, followed closely by Thorn’s two fiendish furies. When they convened in the tavern, they dismissed the staff before turning their attentions to their task.
“Shall we attack where they rest?” asked, “Or shall we attempt to draw them out?”
“Let us hit them quickly,” Garvana clipped.
“It would seem they threw everything they had into that attack,” Pellius mused, “They would have to be aware they would be discovered if it failed.”
“So there is no point in trying to be subtle,” added.
While the others began to plan their attack, Willow watched with interest, as the two devils stood on guard by the doorway. Both strong warriors, baring sculpted toned physiques, elegant, terrifying and foreboding in their vigil. Though their might and regal air were certainly alluring, it was their eyes that had her captivated. Piercing gazes flickering through the room in tandem, scrutinising and calculating, constantly aware of their surroundings. On the way to the tavern, Pellius had said to Willow that the devils were called , mocking the form of angelic hosts in their exaction of vengeance and bloody justice. Known to the pits of Hell as executioners, not judges nor jury. Willow smiled, they were a fitting aid in the group’s mission.
“It is settled,” Pellius said formally, bringing Willow's attention back to the present, “The furies shall restrain Elise first, while we focus our attacks on taking out her raven.”
“Have you given any more thought to Trick?” Willow asked, “If what I suspect is true, then his loyalty to our Infernal Lord may win out over his loyalty to her.”
“What do you propose, my lady?” he replied with a frown.
“Let me talk to him first, alone. I should be able to convince him, or at least, the should provide adequate proof of our word. I truly suspect he has been misled, simply following his orders.”
Pellius’ lip quirked, “You are most merciful, my lady.”
Smirking in response, she replied, “Not merciful, merely resourceful. He has proven quite talented in his deceit. He would be a beneficial ally, should his loyalty prove true.”
“And how to you propose to find him,” Garvana interjected, “Let alone speak with him without Elise knowing?”
Willow’s smile tinted sly, “Leave that to me. I shall arrange to meet with him tomorrow evening, we will launch our attack regardless of his answer once I return and dusk has fallen.”
“Very well,” Pellius concluded, “Do as you must. The plan is set for tomorrow eve.”
Willow nodded and rose from her seat, approaching the with as much authority as she could muster in their fierce presence.
“I require you to accompany me tomorrow evening,” she said firmly, “To a meeting with a potential ally. I shall give you the location and time, you are not to harm him until I say so.”
The penetrating gazes of the Devils continued their search for prey, not ever meeting Willow's line of sight, as they nodded sharply in unison. She turned back to Pellius as the others left the tavern for the night.
“I shall make for town this evening,” she said, “There is a tavern by the Auld Briar called the Frozen Shield, I'll meet you there after dusk tomorrow.”
“Of course,” he said as she turned to leave, “But a word of caution Willow, do not be too trusting. It may be that Trick is unaware of his treachery, but it is also likely that he was a willing participant. I would be more comfortable with this plan if I was to accompany you.”
Willow smiled, laying a hand on his forearm, “You must trust me Pellius, I will not hesitate to kill him if he cannot be salvaged. Besides,” she said with a smirk, looking out at the two devils retreating to the chamber they had been given, “I will not be alone.”
As the sun sank below the horizon and twilight shimmered through the air, Willow disappeared into the shadows of the underground market of . She approached the office with her hood drawn low along her brow, a slender scrolled parchment her pocket. She had scripted a note to be delivered to Trick, a proposal of a truce and a private rendezvous, giving her word by their Infernal Lord that no other member of her knot would interfere so long as no member of his did. Martin sat at his desk, head buried in his large tomes as she approached the entrance.
“A moment of your time?” she asked politely.
His welcoming smile blossomed as he looked up from his book, “For you, my lady, always.”
Willow closed the door behind her and gracefully took her seat. Martin stood from his chair and shuffled to the steaming pot of tea on the side table, setting two cups upon their saucers, before chanting his quiet incantation as the sound beyond the office disappeared.
“How may I be of service, Lady Kathryn?” he asked with a smile.
“I require a messenger,” she said, accepting the tea gratefully, “One who is able track down the message’s recipient.”
Martin raised his eyebrows, “Ah, intriguing. And who may this recipient be?”
“He goes by the name Trick,” she replied, “Dark hair, no older than twenty five, your men might have seen him scurrying through the back streets.”
“I know the one,” Martin nodded, “He has been here on occasion. Very charming, smooth talker?”
Willow chuckled, “That would be him.”
“Very well, when would you like this message delivered?”
“Tonight, or tomorrow morning at the latest.”
“It shall be done, my lady,” he replied formally.
Willow smiled, laying the scroll gently into his outstretched hand.
“To your prior enquiry,” he said, “My men have sourced all the information they could on your associate’s comrades and their fate within Matharyn. They are being transferred to the Mines of , two dozen of the shipmates have survived. They are due to begin the journey within the month.”
“Thank you, Martin,” she replied warmly, “My associate will be most pleased.”
“I am glad,” he inclined his head, “But my dear, it is good you have visited, for I have another matter to discuss with you.”
Willow raised her eyebrows in interest.
“I have a client,” he continued, “Who is seeking someone of your particular talents. As I do, I first sought out Switch, but he has informed me that you would be most suited to these particular tasks. I will be given a list of contracts that need to be fulfilled. Is this of interest to you?”
“It is,” Willow smiled slyly.
“Very well, my lady. I shall send word through Switch when I have negotiated the payments. The need is not pressing, it may be a few weeks before I have any word. But alas, it will be a pleasure doing business with you.”
The following evening, Willow made her way through the shadowed backstreets of , towards the bustling nightlife of the Golden Sphere. She had given details of the private back rooms to Trick and the , prepared for their meeting at seven o'clock sharp. She inclined to her to the barman, gracefully walking through the busy tavern, slipping behind the curtains. He followed with her usual bottle of velvet wine, pouring her glass before closing the door behind him as he left. Willow felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise, only a moment before a voice came from the shadows.
“Hello,” Trick’s cheerful voice said, before his form rippled into sight in the opposite chair.
Willow smiled at his skill, “Good evening Trick.”
“And to you,” he replied with a grin.
“Thank you for meeting me,” she said formally, “I have given my word that the Ninth Knot will not interfere, do I have yours that you have not informed the Seventh?”
He nodded, “Peculiar, but yes, you have my word.”
“Good,” Willow clipped.
She let out a sigh, not really sure where to start.
“Trick,” she began, “I have called you here only because we are aware of your loyalty to our Infernal Lord. You would not be given this chance were it not for that.”
Trick cocked an eyebrow, his grin still sly on his lips, but beckoned her to continue.
“I do not know if you believed you were following Cardinal Thorn’s orders, but you were not, the Seventh Knot has been declared broken by the rule of disloyalty. He has released each of you, and ordered us to exact his retribution.”
Trick laughed, “You surely don't expect me to believe that?”
Willow pulled the incriminating journal from her pouch, laying it upon the table, opening it to the page with the sketched portraits of Trick and Elise.
“Your treachery has been discovered,” Willow snapped.
Suddenly, the air in the room shuddered as the two flashed into the room. Their eyes snapped to Trick, hungry gazes latched on to his form, ready to pounce.
“Thorn’s furies,” Willow said, sitting up straighter, “They have come to retrieve his vengeance.”
Trick’s charming smile faltered, his mind appeared to race with the implications of the devils arrival. Slowly, his features morphed from disbelief into fury.
“The witch,” he fumed, “Tricked me?”
“Indeed,” Willow replied, “And now the traitorous scum, and those that follow her, shall pay for her betrayal in blood. Your loyalty to our Prince of Darkness is the only reason you are being given a second chance, prove your worth, help us exact his judgement.”
“I must speak with my brother,” Trick said urgently, “Once he learns of the witch’s betrayal, he will surely turn from her.”
“And if he doesn't?” Willow asked coldly.
“He will,” Trick replied, standing to leave, “I am sure of it.”
“And if he doesn't?” Willow snapped, “Are you willing to remain loyal to our Prince?”
He staggered in his retreat, his brow furrowed, thoughts swarming through his mind.
“You are treading upon thin ice, Trick,” she warned, “There are those who believe you do not deserve a second chance. Your brother is besotted by her, are you willing to do what is needed if he cannot be salvaged?”
Willow watched his eyes flicker as he warred with himself over what he was prepared to do. As he appeared to come to a decision, he looked up into her eyes, no trace of the joking easy attitude he was known for.
“It will not come to that,” he said with certainty, “I shall speak with him this evening, I'll take him away from the inn, while the Ninth does what it must. But be warned, she is a powerful witch.”
“The raven,” Willow asked, “It is an arcane familiar?”
Trick nodded, “Yes, it is attuned to her. Now I must go.”
He quickly scurried to the door, a look of worried determination painted on his face, unbothered by the consuming gazes of the that tracked his every movement.
“Trick,” Willow called, as he reached for the handle, “Our Prince does not know mercy, his vengeance is swift and true. Do not squander this second chance, for there will not be another one.”
With a short nod, he fled from the chamber, leaving Willow alone with the two . She sipped from her glass as she considered their options. Trick would make a worthy ally, were he to prove loyal. Having Track along side would certainly aid their cause, yet Willow doubted he would ever knowingly turn against Elise.
“You may return to the Frozen Shield,” she said to the devils, “I shall meet you there shortly, let us go and finish this…”
Watching from the blackened alley, Willow waited as she saw Trick leading Track from the Auld Briar Hall. The brothers hurried their pace, voices low in hushed urgent whispers, as one lead the other from the building. Once they had rounded the corner, Willow crept through the street towards the grand inn, peering through the window. She smiled as she saw Cassandra sitting at a table in one of the common rooms, sipping from a crystal wine glass, a strangely coloured liquid swimming within. Willow signalled the others to wait, while she casually walked into the building and sat herself beside the spy.
“My lady,” Cassandra said, recovering swiftly from her shock, “How lovely it is to see you.”
“And you,” Willow replied, subtly scanning the occupants in the room.
“May I order you a refreshment?” she asked politely.
When Willow was sure no one was taking any notice of them, she leant her head closer and spoke in an even yet quiet voice, keeping her body relaxed and her eyes grazing the room.
“Where is she?”
“She spends most of her time in the other common room,” Cassandra said quietly, “They have rooms in the back. But the twins just left, right before you arrived.”
“Good,” Willow replied, “Your task here is complete, you may head back to the spire when you are ready. But I would advise you to leave quickly, you do not want to be here tonight.”
Cassandra paled visibly, giving a short nod before swiftly grabbing her pack and heading for the door, leaving whatever she had in her room behind. Willow casually stood from her seat and left the common room, catching a glimpse of Elise by the fire before exiting and finding the group hidden by the elaborate garden at the front of the large building. She could hear the flapping of wings high above them, as the circled eager for their prey. Feeling their arcane telepathy synced to her mind, she mentally informed them of their targets position. She smiled to the group, inclining her head as she turned for the door. As they entered, Willow lead the approach, slinking forward on light feet. Elise noticed their arrival and stiffened in her chair, rising to her feet, her tall elven guard mirroring her movements.
“Good evening,” Willow said, meandering forward.
Shrewd eyes met her gaze, as Elise tried to discern her motives.
“Good evening,” she replied cautiously.
“You know why we are here,” Willow said softly, “Shall we deal with this in private?”
Willow motioned to the innocent bystanders through out the room. Suddenly, Elise chanted in fierce hurry, hands carving intricate patterns into the air as a wall of ice shot out from the ground behind Willow. The freezing structure rippled to the ceiling, blocking out the entry of the rest of the group.
“Perhaps now you are alone,” Elise said arrogantly, “You will be more reasonable.”
Willow smiled as she saw the image of the two outside the window. Suddenly, a rope hurtled through the glass, shattering the shards through out the room as the twining fabric furled around Elise. It gripped her as it snagged and rippled around her limbs, controlled by the might of the fiend’s magic, it’s eyes latched in a penetrating gaze upon the with.
“Oh I am not alone,” Willow grinned, “The master protects those who are faithful.”
In retaliation, large eleven man let out a cry of rage, charging his bulking figure towards Willow. Though she was quick and nimble, the reach of his sword was further than her dodge could muster. As the blade came carving deep into her shoulder, she gritted her teeth against the pain, pulling it down inside her and letting it fuel her determination. As the second devil rippled into sight beside Elise, the elven man gave up his attack on Willow, his loyalty to his mistress overcoming his need. As Willow sprinted passed him, she leapt onto the table and sank her daggers into both sides of Elise's collar bone. Tearing them free, she heard the sound of ice shatter as smashed his way into the room, before leaping over the bar and charging into the fray. He roared his fury as he sprinted his thundering way towards the elven man, his axe hefted high over head as it soared through the air. He cleaved it down into the man, skin ripping open as he let out a powerful grunt. Weapons clashed as the two bellowed their rage, both frothing from the mouth, both calling their cries of frightening wrath. The white raven soared into the air, pecking in maddening panic at neck. Willow struck out her daggers as she saw the arcana wisping its iced white magic, as if it was sapping the very life from the hulk of an orc. The magic spiralled its way back towards Elise, rejuvenating her, healing some of the wounds that had been littered along her skin. A flaming arrow flew toward the witch, striking her in the chest, piercing deep through her flesh. She cried out as the flame seared her skin, a strange steam and smoke curling from the wound, as she clutched at her chest. She threw her hands out and screamed a furious incantation, freezing blasts of air filling the room, wisps of ice lashing across Willow's bare skin. The blizzard whipped and tore at her clothes as it traveled through the room, blocking the entrance and freezing the unlucky bystanders as they hid beneath the bar. As Garvana's voice chanted from the other side of the room, Willow's mind was filled with blissful images of Hell’s terrifying abyss. The comforting images seemed to cement her will and warm her heart, yet her reaction was not shared by the witch and her elven guard. Their faces contorted with fear, colour seeping from their skin, trembling shakes racking their bodies. Screams of pure terror sounded from the room, as the bystanders that were under the tables were struck with the fearsome images. As Elise fought to free herself from the tightening grip, her eyes flickered through out the room. She spared no thought to the elven man in his feral duel with , as she reached for a potion within her pouch. While she was swift and quick, Willow was quicker. She leapt forward and plunged both daggers into the witch’s side, ripping them outwards and tearing a gaping wound across her torso. The potion slipped from her fingers, gently clinking to the ground and rolling away. Her stance slackened, her weight falling into the bindings of the rope, her eyes wide as the blood drained from her side. Willow was not willing to take any risks, she sprang forward, both blades flashing through the air as she descended and plummeted them into the witch’s slumped form. As the blood poured from the wounds, Willow inhaled sharply, watching the red liquid solidify and freeze over as it trickled along her flesh. Her body remained motionless as a crusted coat of ice formed around the wounds, a cold chill radiating from her. As the final wail of agony was cut off short, Willow looked to the elven man. The second had gripped the rope around his neck, tightly binding his airways, as axe embedded deeply into his chest.
The sound of whimpering drew Willow's attention back to the bystanders. She sighed as she shook her head. Though Elise's arcane blizzard had killed a few of the witnesses, the ones still living could not be left that way. Pellius seemed to realise the same thing as he stepped forward with a solemn face and took care of what he must. Willow could hear the commotion of panic outside of the window, the townsfolk crying in fear as they sprinted for the watch.
“Take her body,” she said quickly to Pellius, “And get back to the spire. I shall search their rooms and recover anything that would incriminate us.”
“Very well,” he said, “Do not linger, my lady.”
Willow turned to the , standing taller and speaking formally, “Thank you for your service. Your task is complete, you are dismissed.”
Both devil’s nodded sharply as the air rippled and their forms winked out of sight. Willow wasted no time, quickly morphing into her disguise and making her way to the bed chambers. It didn't take long to find Elise’s room and the piles of information she had kept on the Ninth Knot. She worked as swiftly as possible, stuffing all of the parchment into her pack, collecting every book upon the shelves to be sure she missed nothing. Once the room was clear, Willow slipped through the window, sealing it behind her. She casually melded into the crowd now surrounding the inn, mirroring their shocked expressions, as she slowly left the scene. As she made her way through the backstreets, she quickened her pace, reverting back from her disguise. When the edge of the came into view, Willow smiled, sprinting into the darkness and disappearing into shadowed caress of the night.
In the wake of their sweet vengeance, the week passed uneventfully. Life in the Horn continued at a slow pace, as each passing ritual brought them closer to the completion of their mission. It was on a chilled winter morning, the group found themselves standing upon the stone steps of the throne room, looming above a handful of boggards that had requested a word with their masters. Five Croaks, as he introduced himself, had apparently taught himself enough common to communicate with the group. He approached warily, struggling in his confidence, clearly unsure of his choice to speak with them now he huddled under their scrutinising eyes.
“Hunting been slow,” he croaked, “Not enough food for boggards, we need weapons, need more food.”
Willow raised her eyebrows, almost impressed with his audacity. He had attempted to write a list, filled with gear and items they were asking for. She skimmed her eyes over the list, guessing the total to be worth roughly three thousand gold. She had little patience or care for the boggards, thinking them no more than filthy savages.
“Shall we kill him?” Willow suggested to Pellius bluntly.
Pellius smiled at the look of fear that racked the small frog.
“He shall be of no use to us dead,” he said, “Let us take his tongue, it will serve as warning to the rest of them, and remind them that this is no charity…”
Time trickled by as the end of their grand ritual grew nearer, the days filled with preparation, while the nights filled with restless sleep and anxious worry. The quiet was almost more discouraging than the drama. Willow found herself in constant frown, unable to relax as each day passed and the Horn of remained unmolested. She had not forgotten about the fearsome silver dragon that had killed Baron . Nor was she naïve enough to assume that he had been the sole target of its enquiry. The only thing she was sure of was that it would certainly attack; the question that remained was when.
Pellius and Garvana had taken their religious roles within the organisation to heart, committing to educating their servants, teaching them to read and write while schooling them within the teachings of Asmodeus. Although Willow found the idea tedious, she could not fault the logic and benefit of having better educated slaves.
As the moon lingered high in the sky, she lay amongst the silken sheets, her body languid and content after spending the earlier hours of the night in strenuous worship with Pellius. The scratching of quill on parchment roused her from her stupor, the flickering of candlelight drawing her eyes open. His sculpted form sat hunched over his writings, the wells between his muscles upon his back patterned by the dim light, his hair tousled and free from its usual tight impeccable grooming. Willow slipped her legs over the side of the bed, pulling the silken sheet around her chest as she rose, the cold chill to the air feathering along her bare flesh. The strands of her sable hair has grown in the passing weeks, the lengths now skimming the corners of her throat. She held the silk along her front as she glided towards him, the soft material draping low along her back. When she reached him, her fingers instinctively traced the deep hollow of his collarbone, as she leant forward to rest her chest upon his back and her cheek upon his.
“What is this you’re working on?” she asked quietly, her voice husky and gentle.
He had sketched a grid and list on the parchment, two columns of official titles, lined under the headings of martial and theological chapters.
“A hierarchy,” he replied, continuing his sketch, “If we are to raise an army, there must be order. We are best to initiate the doctrine from the beginning.”
As she read the lines of the list, her fingers gently dug into the carved muscles upon his shoulders. At his deep appreciative grunt, she continued her methodical paced massage while she spoke.
“Pellius Albus, First Paladin of Asmodeus,” she read with a smile, “An immense title, a grand feat to live up to.”
Her eyes skimmed down the page, as she read the second heading of the theological chapter, a frown touched her brow.
“First Bishop of Asmodeus?” she asked, tilting her head, “Do you believe Garvana will ever be worthy of that title?”
His strong hands lifted from their script, he gently took Willow's own and guided her around to a seat upon the desk. Looking into his eyes, she could see the tired wear tinting the cemented determination.
“She is competent enough to become a leader,” he said seriously, “Though you may not see it now.”
“I see the stubbornness,” Willow chuffed, “But if anyone would understand that stubbornness breeds determination and strength, it is I.”
At that, he smirked, lounging back into his chair.
“I believe what our dear sister has lacked so far is direction and motivation, and so I give you power and competition. Perhaps she will flourish, perhaps she will flounder. Of only one thing I am certain, we will smile as we watch it unfold.”
“Indeed,” Willow grinned.
Her eyes raked down his bare torso, lingering on the feather of light hair across his chiselled chest. Before her mind ran away from her, she shook her head with a sheepish smile and returned her sight to the parchment.
“What are you planning with all of this?” she asked, motioning to the list, “We hope to raise an army, raise a nation, yet I know little of war and tactics.”
“As we loosen Mitra's grip on this land, rule needs to be established. I do not want some ice witch, boggard worshippers or death cult taking subjects from our Prince. And as we claim lands and subjects, we need to be able to enforce a vigil over them. They could also aid us in the future. Infiltrating cities, converting villages, providing , the list is endless.”
His eyebrows raised as his tone deepened, “And loyal to us, not Thorn.”
Willow grinned as she traced her finger along his jaw, “Your conviction is most alluring.”
Still holding the silk across her chest, her eyes turned to the list of servants he had littered down the page.
“It is such an ambitious undertaking,” she said, “Do you believe you can really curb this scum and command them to be worthy of our Infernal Lord?”
A slow grin spilt his face, “We sit here summoning an Archdeacon so we may conquer a continent of hostile inhabitants, and you think me teaching some men to read and hold a shield is the ambitious undertaking?”
His dastardly laugh sent sweet chills tingling her spine, yet she rolled her eyes as she shook her head and chuckled.
“I was referring to raising an army, commanding a legion with might enough to conquer this land. Do you truly believe it possible?” she asked with genuine curiosity.
“I do,” he replied seriously, a fierce resolve to his words, “Even if we are to fail, we must attempt this. We must put everything we have into it, we must strive for His glory, we must endeavour to bring this land back under His rule.”
The words lit the spark within Willow's beating heart, she felt the warmth of the Infernal fire simmering low in her stomach.
“For He is the first and rightful ruler of everything,” she recited, lifting her leg sensually and sliding wrapped in silk into his lap, “And all shall bathe in his hellfire…”
As the sun ascended and the snow upon the canopy began to melt, Pellius began his initiation. He had formulated a test to help select ten suitable candidates for indoctrination into their Chapter of Asmodeus, which he had aptly named the Church of the Forsaken. As the final ten were selected and he stood atop the stairs within the throne room, Garvana by his side, they both stood tall in fierce authority. Willow clasped her hands behind her back, standing to the side respectfully, observing the proceedings.
“You,” Pellius called, his deep baritone voice strong and commanding, “Are the chosen few selected for the honour of spreading and upholding rule. This is an opportunity like no other. His word is right, his judgement final. He is the First, and rightful, ruler of everything. Our mission, is a holy one. We are tasked to bring this blasphemous land back under the heel of our Infernal Father. Your accomplishments, will be met with ascension. Be warned, your failure or disobedience will be met with merciless punishment…”
Watching the servants as Pellius’ voice echoed through the silent chamber, Willow was mostly impressed with their reactions. Although some eyes fell heavy with fear and dread, the majority of what she could see was ambition and hunger for power. Straight backs filled with confidence, determined chins lifted, sharp nodding with ears drinking in Pellius’ righteous speech.
“Hail Asmodeus!” he bellowed.
“Hail Asmodeus!” Garvana and the servants mirrored.
As they split the group and both teams of five followed their leader, Willow was struck with an idea. Although their newly founded church covered the martial and theological chapters of the organisation, their beginnings of an army was lacking a key component. Once the days lessons were underway, Pellius lecturing the men and women on the principals of Asmodeus and Garvana seeing to their literacy and numeracy, Willow chose a different approach. After the successful mission that she had Cassandra undertake, she saw the benefit in having her own small network of spies infiltrating each city on their organisations behalf. Leaving the hall and their lessons behind, Willow gathered her own three candidates. Cassandra, Willem and were eager to follow her with the promise of a mission to fill their time. Her instruction differed from the task of words and principals, for the art of remaining unseen and unheard was not something that could be taught on parchment. It was an instruction that reaped swift rewards, for as Willow spent her time testing and scolding, she had little room in her mind for pointless worry. Her team of three seemed the perfect trio of stealth and subterfuge. Cassandra was a brilliant liar. Though her natural air of arrogance would struggle to hide among the commoners, she had a knack for wearing it with pride in a way that no peasant would dare question someone who was clearly their better. When it came to Willem and , they had been raised among the streets, two thieves with quick hands and quicker feet. They were used to remaining hidden, slinking within the shadows, melding into the background.
Together, the three of them left for town on their mission of observation, to keep an eye on the forces left within the town. It was only on their fifth day that their first opportunity presented itself. Late in the evening of a cold winded night, Willem returned to the spire. Willow was sitting at her desk within her chamber when the sharp knock rapped on her door.
“Enter,” she called, closing her journal.
“Mistress,” Willem said politely, bowing his head, “Sorry the intrusion.”
“You have news, I expect?”
He nodded his head, approaching her cautiously, bowing shakily as he dropped a scroll upon her desk. The parchment had been bound with a wax seal baring an insignia Willow recognised.
“The Brides of Light?” she asked, frowning as she unrolled the paper.
“We intercepted a message head’n to the capital, Mistress,” he said in his hard lilt, “Cassandra thought it be best to see what they’d be send’n.”
Willow skimmed the contents of the page, eyebrows raised.
“And the messenger?” she asked.
Willem quirked his lip, eyes still downcast upon the floor, “No one be find’n him any time soon, Mistress.”
Willow smiled, rolling up the scroll and placing it back onto the table. She stood and glided towards her chest, reaching into the lock box and lifting out a silk pouch of coins before tossing it towards him.
“Very well,” she said shortly, returning to her seat, “Return to your task.”
“I'll be thank’n yer Mistress,” Willem said with a bow, quickly backing out of the room.
As the door clicked shut, Willow unrolled the parchment again. The Abbess Temperance of Saint Cynthia-Celeste had grown worried. Through divination spells and many nights of prayer, she had become certain that a foul ritual was taking place within the Horn of . She had written to the Church of Mitra, asking for aid, fearing that the strength of her sisters would not be enough to quell the evil. She spoke of her worry at having heard nothing from Inquisitor , the slaying of Sister Marta within their very walls and the disappearance of Sister . Willow smiled, knowing well that the scroll in her hands meant there was no aid coming from Matharyn. Knowing the letter was bound for delivery by ship, she guessed they had four weeks before it would have arrived, and at least that many for reinforcements to have made it back to . She figured with Abbess Temperance would hold her assault until then, certain that the Church of Mitra would rally to her side. Willow knew they had not faced their last trial in the summoning of such a vile daemon like -Kali, but having no army of righteous do-gooders turning their eye upon the Horn, made their task far less complicated.
Winter arrived to the green fields of the in a white tint of feathered snow upon the canopy. Weeks passed by as the air grew colder and the nights stretched longer, the sun barely warm enough to melt the fleece of sleet drifting through the skies. Within the clustered mass of white tipped craning oaks, the spire still stood in its menacing glory, emerald flames still rippling in glaze along the teetering peak.
Twenty seven weeks they had spent in ritual and prayer. As the sun rose each morning they had bathed the divine seal in putrid unholy broth. As the sun set they had repeated the lines of blasphemous decent. And as the moon clung directly over head, they had called to the darkness, begging it to strike out and devour the purity that held their target at bay. The Horn throbbed with malicious intent, a beat of its own heart thrumming in tune with the abyss, opening its void to its master. Each night, sleep grew more distant to Willow. The hours of darkness no longer holding their comforting caress, replaced by the impending doom they were seeking out to restore. The immensity of their mission was weighing on all of their minds, the stress and trepidation showing in their snapping attitudes and short tempered conversations. Even her nights spent with Pellius had changed. Where once they had simply enjoyed the carnal satisfaction in their infernal union, the joining of late had been more of frustrated release and fettered impatience.
When word returned to the Horn of a fair coming to the town of , the group latched on to the chance of a respite. Leaving to guard the sanctum, they left the spire early morning, shuffling through light snow that had fallen through the canopy to touch upon the brush of the forest floor. They had made it half way to the town when the sound of trampling hooves ricocheted to their ears. Breaking into the clearing, seven knights in glistening silver armour trotted into arrowed formation. They wore garb of blue, flags of the holy sun tied to their long piercing lances. Leading the charge, upon the largest horse, sat a man they recognised as their third and final sacrifice – Sir . The seven men slowed their horses and pulled to a stop while their leader and his steed stepped forward.
“I can sit by no longer,” called , “This evil must be destroyed, this stain upon our fair land must be cleansed! We challenge you, to honourable combat!”
As the group slowly continued their approach, eyes locked to Willow’s, a sad look upon his face as he recognised her.
“Ah, Lady Kathryn,” he said gently, shaking his head, “You leave me disappointed, throwing yourself in with this lot. Your smile so bright, hides a heart as black as night.”
Willow smiled softly, a quiet menace to her voice, “Not black, Sir , but red. Red as the very flames of hell.”
Shock rippled his brow for a moment, before he frowned deep, his chin lifting higher in his righteous conclusion.
“You call for honourable combat,” Willow continued, “Yet I count seven of you and seven steeds. What is honourable of fourteen on five?”
chuffed a laugh, “My lady, if you were so worried of specifics of honourable, you would challenge me to single combat!”
Willow smiled as she saw Pellius’ chest inflate in the corner of her vision. She looked to him, eyebrow cocked in question. He contained his eagerness, and at his swift nod, Willow's smile widened.
“Is it not customary of this land for a lady to select a champion?” she asked regally.
“It is,” replied, his eyes sizing up the man adorned in gleaming ebony full plate.
“Then face my champion in single combat,” she called, “Pellius Albus!”
Pellius stepped forward, bowing formally to his opponent before turning to Willow and bowing to her. Willow bowed in return, eyes alight mirroring his in their hell fire.
“For the glory of Asmodeus,” she rasped.
“For the glory of Asmodeus!”
The duel that followed was one that Willow would have called legendary. Sir regally atop his steed, his shining silver armour glittering with divine right, his lance long and sturdy. Pellius firm in his ominous stance, his black layers of hard steel tinted with the touch of blazing red, his mighty blazing with flame.
The steed threw itself into a charge, it's powerful legs launched it barrelling towards Pellius, dirt and snow bellowing in its wake. The ground shook with force as the tip of the lance crashed into his shoulder, the weighted drag of his armour making the dodge impossible. As Sir turned his horse to come around for a second charge, Pellius readied himself. The clamber of hooves sounded as a ferocious battle cry shrieked, Pellius called for the darkness, summoning the will of Asmodeus within his weapon. As the steed continued its charge, he leaped into his own sprint. He cleaved the through the air with fearsome might, the cry propelled from his lips as he the caviller, the profane arcana spiralling its blackened wisps in tendrils around the cold steel.
Willow had both daggers clenched in her fingers, itching to launch into the attack, the terrifying aura radiating from Pellius leaving her trembling in anticipation. Time seemed to slow as his swung wide and the lance was galloped forward. The explosion of metal on metal rang out across the expansive forest. A cheer of proud glee escaped Willow's lips as she watched the hard surface of his weapon collide with the knight’s chest. Too comfortable atop a horse, Sir seemed merely inconvenienced by the attack.
One after another, they exchanged brutal blows back and forth, until both were wheezing and wounded within the blood misted air. The caviller turned his horse to the battle, his eyes straining open, a finality to his posture. As they took their position, it was clear that one of them was not going to make it past the charge. Red stained the shining gleam upon Pellius’ armour, a spilt lashed along his cheek, fatigue and exhaustion taking their toll upon his face. His lips began to move, a rhythmic beat to their movements, and it took Willow a moment to realise that he was chanting the hymn of pride. As Sir kicked his heels into his horse, Willow chanted along with Pellius in Infernal for support. With each stride, the impending assault closed in, her heart thumped in time. Drawing his sword in his left hand and his lance in his right, Sir forward. Pellius stood with the gripped in both hands, his fierce gaze locked onto his target, his stance wide and anchoring. The lance splintered into shreds as it impacted upon Pellius’ chest, yet he refused to flinch. He hefted the and swung wide with a mighty force. Willow's stomach sunk as she watched his aim go too far left, the caviller ducking under the hit, launching his own sword towards the head of his target.
Time slowed to a trickle as the blade propelled down diagonally. Sir aim was impeccable, carving directly towards the join of Pellius’ head and neck. For only a moment Willow fought the overwhelming urge to hurl her dagger towards the knight in hope of stopping his onslaught. But her fingers pulsed in frustration as she refused to deny Pellius the honour of dying in glorious battle. Suddenly, as if guided by something more powerful than mere blades and hammers, ’ lifted from its rest. He cleaved it upwards with spectacular force, sundering the blade within the caviller’s hand, pushing through and caving into Sir head. The impact tore at the reigns attached to the steed, screeching it to halt as its riders grasp failed. As blood poured from the collapsed face of the knight, he slowly slid from the saddle, falling to a heap upon the ground.
Relief and pride bounded through Willow's chest. Her heart beating rapidly as the other knights launched into attack, shocked and outraged that their leader had been felled. The group cut down each of the , chasing them down and denying them the chance to return to the city or call for reinforcements. Once all had calmed, and the last of the knights lay unmoving, Willow checked Sir for signs of life. The gentle pulse of heartbeat was a blessing, for it meant their final ritual could be completed now their sacrifice was detained and still breathing.
As the others gathered anything of worth from the bodies of the cavillers, Willow approached Pellius as he unlatched his armour to bandage the wounds upon his torso. She let the pride she felt radiate through her smile, her amorous delight at his imposing might visible within her eyes. She lay her hand upon his cheeks and pressed her lips fiercely to his. As she pulled away, her grin widened.
“And when one serves His might,” she recited, a true warmth to her words, “They serve His power, and bask in his glory…”