Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Chapter 19 - Beginning of the End

As the winter blazed its frosted ember and the iced sleet hailed into the jagged stone of the spire, it was the clicking sound of a door lock that awoke Willow from her sleepHer eyes fluttered open as dawn slowly approached, the sun having not yet lifted from its slumber behind the horizon. Flickers of light and shadows pulsed throughout her room, turning her head to see a lit candle upon her dresser. She rose from the bed, silently reaching for her daggers that lay upon the nightstand. Her eyes skimmed over her empty chamber as she prowledquickly opening her door, peering out over both ends of the corridorThe hallways were silent and still. She crept back towards the dresser, frowning as she noticed a neatly bound scroll sitting centre next to the candle. She checked it over carefully, before delicately unwrapping its binding and unfurling the parchment. Roughly scrawled elven script littered down the page.  

Being an assassin is more than just secrecy and subterfuge. Sometimes we are required to eliminate whole ranks of targets, sometimes we are required to send a message. So, this I task you with. Our employer wishes to send a message to his rival, a message that says that his rival cannot protect those he favours, for his eyes do not see everything.  
Destroy the Keepers of the Accarian Beacon. Kill their leader, Sir Bonder of the Beacon. And every man who stands in your way. Leave none alive. The sooner the task is completed, the better.  
The rules are simple. You have one week to perform your task. Any later and it shall be deemed a failure. You must complete the task in one night. This is not a task of infiltration, this is a slaughter. You must do this alone. You may gather information, but do not speak of this task or enlist the help of others. Any outside interference will be deemed as a failure. Allow none to live or escape. Leaving even a single survivor will be deemed as a failure. 
You know what happens if you fail. 

Willow frowned at the parchment. Not only had Switch entered the spire undetected, but the mission itself was daunting, she had never taken on such a large task by herself. She stared at the elven script and felt a hint of nerves creep into her mind. She would attempt it, of course, and she refused to fail. But anxiety set in, the more she thought of her task.  
The sun graced the sky through the frost etched clouds, as Willow sat and pondered by her dressing table. She concluded that she needed to gather as much information as she could as she strolled the streets of the city that day after she had completed her shift within the sanctum. She took the parchment from the dresser, reading its details one last time, before setting it alight in the fireplace. She watched the note burn into unrecognisable ash before she began her preparation for the days task. 

Twenty eight weeks she had spent biding her time within the walls of the Horn of Abbadon. Inactivity had stretched her patience thin, testing her strength of will and self control as the monotonous drone of life carried on around her. The thrill of a task set by her sadistic counterpart, was a delicious tease of a respite. 
Arriving in town, it was the first piece of information she gathered had her frowning. She had asked one of her contacts of Sir Bonder, and he had revealed a great deal of information. An ambitious and ruthless man, he had apparently been recruited by Baron Vandermir himself. Willow smirked, thinking on the complications her mission would have aroused had the Baron still livedShe continued her search for information subtly, never asking too many questions to the one person, acting only mildly interested in their answers. By day's end, she had discovered that the lighthouse known as the Accarian Beacon was manned by at least fifteen guards, one of which was confirmed to be some kind of spellcaster. She had also procured a map of the lighthouse and a description of its surroundings. Willow returned the room she had rented for the night, and dined with Pellius in the parlourHe had asked to accompany her stay, claiming time for his personal ventures in town. During their meal she sat her knife and fork down, keeping a casual air as she spoke. 
“I will be gone for a day or two,” she said softly, reaching to fill their wine glasses, “I have a personal matter to attend to, I shall not be away long, but may I ask you to cover my time within the sanctum?” 
Pellius’ face slightly contorted, as he tried to keep the suspicion out of his voice, “Of course my lady, but I must ask, is it a matter I can aid you with?”  
Willow smiled gently, “No, I must attend this on my own. But thank you for the offer. I may return sooner, but will be gone no longer than two days.” 
“As you wish, my lady,” he said politely, “I shall return to the Horn tomorrow, but do not hesitate to ask if you need assistance.” 
Willow inclined her head as she returned to her meal, delicately slicing her roast duck, slipping a slither into her mouth. She could feel Pellius’ intense stare as he tried to read her. This was the problem with letting people get close to you. They began to know you well enough to discern when you were lying or evading. They began to understand you better than they ought to. 

Willow excused herself early, claiming exhaustion from the days tasks and reluctance at her early start the next morning. She planned to leave before the twilight hours of dawn, sail across Lake Scardynn in a small rowboat she had bought, and find herself a decent hiding spot for her to spy on the lighthouse and its occupants. In between retrieving her information earlier that day, Willow had scoured the blackmarket for the items she needed. She already carried the wand imbued with silenceso all she needed were potions of invisibility and scrolls of dimension doorShe had packed her bag with supplies to last for five days; food rations and waterskinspoisons and potions.  
She retired for the night as dusk appeared, dropping into a quick slumber, light and restful. As twilight began, her eyes strained open, her hand covering her yawn. Willow tiredly dressed in her armour, strapping the belts tight and fitted, sleepily stretching her muscles awake. She trudged her sluggish way down to the docks where her small rowboat was tied. As she dropped her pack into the hull, she sat herself upon the beam and lifted the oars. As the waves crashed around her, the fatigue had little choice but to vanish. The rocking of the boat upon the restless water was enough to snap her into concentration, for it took all of her wits to keep the boat from tipping. The sun had not yet risen as Willow reached the opposite side of the bay, she dragged her boat ashore and wrapped its tie around the thick base of a tree along the edge of the small beach. Hiking up the hill, the great beacon of the light house came into view. The fiery blaze so bright it could be seen from hundreds of miles away. Willow drank down one of the skins as she approached the towering light, she found a patch of foliage along the ground close enough to see the outside members of the crew known as the Beacon Watch. The patch was blackened by the salt from the sea poisoning the local flora, whipping it's briny tang across the once green brush. Willow slid amongst its cover, almost undetectable in her black leather armour. She set her bag up for easy access as she laid in wait and observed the patrols.  
As the sun finally made its way over the horizon, Willow watched life spawn from the lighthouse walls. She counted five men in the group that left towards the town, two standing guard by the entrance, and three arranged around the very top of the tower. Willow squinted up through her glass lens at the men sitting around a small table next to the flaming beacon on the top balcony. She recognised Sir Bounder instantly. If his expensive outfit were not enough to identify him, his striking facial features that had been described to Willow certainly would have been. A greying moustache sat proudly upon his lip, thick and curled as it protruded to a point on each side of his face, matching bushy eyebrows hanging like curtains over each eye.  
She debated with herself whether to attack now, or wait for the cover of nightAt present, she had a clear view of Sir Bonder; her primary target. She could simply dimension door behind him and take him by surprise. The draw back of this would be that every man left in the lighthouse would be awake and quick to rally once her edge of surprise was gone. Willow felt exposed enough, lying out in the open, the piercing rays of the sun through the clouds a menacing deterrent. She decided to wait for the welcoming cover of darkness.  
She chewed on some of her dried fruit and cured meat rations as she waited out the sun. Early afternoon she saw the five men returning from town as the others changed shifts. She counted fifteen men as she watched their rotations. Sir Bonder still sat at his table, merely exchanging one rival card player for another. He was relaxed lounging high upon his balcony, he clearly felt safe from up there, sure that their position would give them view of any approaching attack. Willow smiled as the sun sunk below the horizon. The night was ominous and dark. The clouds crowded the sky, the moon hidden beneath their smothering embrace, low rumbling thunder disguising the sounds of her breath. She waited until it was late enough to assume that some of the crew would have turned in for the night, giving Willow the opportunity to catch them unarmed and unprepared. She pulled her vial of invisibility and her wand of silence from her pouch. The spells would last for roughly five minutes, she would have to be ruthlessly quick. She lifted herself from the foliage, strapping her pack on as she prepared herself. In quick succession, she drank down her potion, cast the wand’s magic upon her person, and leaped forward into a deafened sprint. The sky seemed to open up as she approached, the thundering roars of the heavens shaking the ground. Rain started to bucket down, pelting around her, eliminating any chance that she would be heard as she reached them. Willow took it as a sign, the dark forces were watching this deed, their approval visible in their aid. 
It was indeed a slaughter. She swiftly approached the two guards at the door, lunging in between them, thrusting both arms out and skewering them through the head. They dropped to the ground with looks of lifeless terror permanently struck across their faces. They died instantly. Willow was pleased that they did, for not only did they make her task to remain silent much easierSoundlessly, she opened the door and prowled inside. Two men sat around a dingy table, enthralled in their battle of cards, small piles of gold layered next to their hands. As Willow stepped towards them and her silence followed, the sound of the raging storm came bounding through the open door. Both men looked up from the table, in time for her to leap towards them, slashing one across the throat and impaling her second blade into the other man's heart. The silence around her had the bodies slump across the table soundlessly.  
In a section of quarters, Willow took out six guards while they slept peacefully in their bunks. She quickly made her way to the second floor, choosing to leave the looting for after she had completed her mission. With the magic still surrounding her, she opened a door into a recreation room, filled with guards and their tankards of ale. She hadn't refreshed her invisibility, so when she entered, three of the guards looked up at her in panic. She saw four guards at the tables, and a single man in decorative robes, walking unaware towards the far door. Willow knew she had to get rid of the spell caster first. She sprinted towards him, the deafening silence masking her footsteps, she slashed out and took his head clean from his shoulders. Unfortunately, she had moved too far from the others. The reach of her quieting magic had allowed one of the men his voice.  
“INTRUDER!” he screamed. 
Willow charged at the man, her magic once again encompassing them all. With only a few scratches to herself, she dispersed three of the guards. A single man managed to make it passed her as he ran for the stairs. She was quick to the railing, unstrapping her bow and unleashing a flurry of arrows. The stairs blocked most of her attacks, but a single arrow pierced his hamstring, sending him crashing down the fourty foot drop. Willow could see his body crumpled, unmoving as it laid in a mess of unnatural angles. She did a sweep of the level before making her way up to the next. She came upon a door made of a finer cut than those of the lower levels. As she approached, her arcane quiet wore off. She could hear soft voices of the other side of door, the soft chanting of a spell followed by a warning to the others. 
“Get ready,” said a deep voice quietly, “Don't fire unless I say so.”  
Willow gently tested the handle, finding the door locked. She silently withdrew her lockpicks, taking extra care to keep her movements slow and quiet. As she unlocked the door with the barest of clicks, she paused and listened intently for any sign that she had been heard. When none came, Willow drank down another vial of invisibilityShe slunk behind the wall next to the door, and in swift motion, unlatched the door and swung it wide, sealing her body against the wall.  
“Fire!” bellowed the deep voice. 
Two arrows flew through the doorway, followed by a searing stream of blazing flame. It scorched the wall across from the doorway, leaving charred blackened soot in its place. Willow waited for a second attack.  
“Grab the furniture!” barked the same man, “Make a barricade at the door!”  
While Willow listened to the shuffling of footsteps, she prowled into the room. With light steps, she made it passed the two guards before they began to drag the table towards the door. She looked up at the man in charge. He wore fine robes of cyan, lined with soft golden trim, intricate patterns scrolling their way to the floor. He looked no older than fourty, greying wisps starting to creep upon his temples. As Willow crept towards him, a frown pulled his brow tight. He threw up a hand as he spoke. 
“Halt!” he called to his men, “There is something already in here!”  
As he reached into his robes, Willow pounced. She used her weight to propel her daggers forwards, both slamming into his torso at once. He fell backwards with a thud, and as Willow's form rippled into sight, he quickly read the incantation from his scroll.  
Suddenly, a blinding flash of golden glitter exploded through out the room. It's sparkling mist coated everything in sight, including every inch of Willow. She sneezed as she inhaled fragments of glitter, but laughed at the way she sparkled.  
“Gold has always looked good on me,” she said with a smirk. 
She leaped upon him before the two guards could react, thrusting her dagger through his throat. She leaped back as the two men circled her, one of the men lunged forwards in a feint, forcing Willow to step backwards into the blade of the second man. He called out triumphantly as his sword sliced across the skin of her waist. Willow ignored it, slashing her daggers out in unison, her hooked blades piercing both of their stomachs. 
Who are you?” one man cried, “Why are you doing this?!”  
Willow merely grinned, wicked and sinful. She didn't bother to try to block their swords as they hacked towards her. With her daggers still imbedded in their flesh, she ripped into a pirouette, hacking open gaping wounds on each of their sides. As they dropped, Willow wiped the blood from her face. One of them had managed to swipe his blade across her cheek, and the other across her neck. Both superficial cuts, but both would add to the swiftly expanding collection of scars she was amassingQuickly searching the remainder of the level, she came across a locked door. She deftly picked its lock, springing her hands back just in time to avoid the needle that sprung from its keyhole. Willow had not even noticed the trap. She disabled it, managing to avoid the leaking poison now dripping from its handle. The room was arranged in a much finer manner than the rest of the lighthouse. An ornate bed sat in the corner, silken chairs and an oak desk sat by the far wall, hard leather tomes lining the bookshelf. Sitting centre of the room was a medium sized iron banded chest. Willow carefully approached, keen eyes searching for an alarm or trigger. She found one in the form of a slender copper wire, neatly casing the iron bands covering the outside of the chest. She pried the copper from its hiding spot, cutting off the trap from its mechanism. When she opened the lockbox, a small spark of electricity shot out. But without the copper to act as a conduit, it merely dissipated, leaving the contents ripe for the taking. The Beacon Watch’s treasury, in total about five hundred gold arranged in platinum, gold and silver. Willow left the prize where it was, she needed to take care of the leader before she worried about gold.  
As the glitter faded and its spell ended, she drank down her last potion of invisibility, slipping silently up through the trap door to the beacon. She scanned the occupants of the balcony and formulated a plan. One man stood inside the room encasing the fiery blaze, a single guard packing more wood upon the heaping inferno. Sir Bounder stood facing another armoured guard outside on the slender balcony’s ledge. A single man in fine robes stood facing the sea, leaning against the railing, relaxed and calm in contemplation. Willow knew that to use her scrolls she needed to take out the guard loading the fire first. With the aid of her magic, she crept behind him, one dagger at the ready. She swiftly wrapped her hand over his mouth and drove the dagger through his throat. His moan was muffled by her hand as his weight fell into her grasp. Gently, she lowered his bleeding body to the ground. With her attack, her invisibility vanished. She prepared both daggers in a backhanded grip and whispered the incantation upon the scroll of dimension door. In a breath she had been thrown through a portal of otherworldly magic, blinking into existence behind Sir Bonder of the Beacon. Without hesitation, she plummeted her daggers into both sides of his neck, killing him instantly. The guard leapt at Willow, his own dagger managing to slide passed her breastplate and pierce through her shoulder. She yanked her blades free of the leader and span low, ripping the dagger from her shoulder and slicing through both of the guards thighs. He screamed in pain as he stumbled backwards, toppling over the railing and falling with a howl to his death. From behind her Willow heard the muttering of an incantation. She turned on her heel to see the man in robes, now split into five. Willow smirked as she recognised the spell that Switch had used.  
“Be reasonable!” the wizard called, all his images mirroring his movements, “There is no reason that both of us cannot leave here alive!” 
Willow smiled as she prowled towards him. 
And how do you suppose we do that?” she asked menacingly. 
“Well,” he huffed, “You just go back down those stairs and leave!”  
He ran to the other side of balcony as Willow circled slow and steady, allowing her footsteps to be heard. 
“And what incentive do I have to do that?” she asked. 
“As you can see, I have quite the array of spells, you'll only end your own life by continuing!” 
Willow chuckled, low and rasped. 
She heard him whisper another incantation as she quickened her pace and caught up to him. She cut down one of his images, just as the four remaining reached out to her.  
“Aha!” he proclaimed, “I've got you now!” 
The hands glowed with flickering blue magic, spirals and wisps of shocking electricity sparking from their fingers. Willow attempted to pirouette out of the way, but the lightning arced from his fingertips to the point of her daggers. Willow felt the jolt of the magic sting the skin of her hands. Rippled shock waves blackened the tips of her fingers, scorch marks furling towards her wrists. Willow ignored the numbness in her hands as she slashed out with both blades, one cutting into thin air and the other into solid flesh. The man cried out as a large wound opened across his chest. Willow allowed him to stumble back and take a few steps to right himself. 
“It may seem we are evenly matched, but I warn you!” he called dramatically, “Retreat now, you have one last chance, before I unleash my arcane devastation on you!” 
Willow smiled, dastardly and malevolent, mockingly bowing, “Unleash away…” 
As he clasped his hands together and chanted in a deep ominous voice, Willow charged. As she leapt, she soared through the air with both blades flashing. The thundering sky seemed to pick up as its wind guided Willow forward. From the wizard’s hands, a searing ray of burning flame pelted Willow in the chest. The scorching burn was not enough to slow her momentum. The flame licked her flesh and singed her hair, skin split and smouldered, but still she did not stop. She flew between the pair of images and slashed both daggers at their throats. One blade fell through a vanishing man, but the other hacked deep into the real mans throat in a shower of blood. Willow rolled with her landing, springing up and spinning on her heel. Her attack had knocked the man to his knees, his breath struggling to exhale through the gaping wound in his neck. He clutched it tightly, a look a true fear on his face as she approached. 
“Please,” he coughed, “My legacy cannot end here. Stay your hand, I beg you, I beg you for mercy.” 
Willow approached him slowly, looking over the snivelling man with disgust. She lifted her blade and pointed to his throat. 
Viciously, she said, “You are not worthy.” 
She slashed out with her dagger, spinning in an elegant pirouette, cleaving his head from his shoulders with her second.  
Willow stared out to sea for a moment, the wind whipping her hair against her face, the carnage of death all around her. The salt water crashed against the rocks far below, with such intensity that the sprays reached her side. After a moment, she gathered her thoughts and made swift work of looting the men and the tower. With her contacts in the blackmarket she could fence just about anything. She would have to be careful, if Vandermir caught wind of her involvement, it could jeopardise their alliance. She took what she could carry, taking a few of their packs to cart the more valuable weapons. As she made it to the bottom floor, she was struck with a crude and unsavoury idea. One that would confuse the men of Farholde and strike fear into their hearts. She used the blood of one of the guards to write a message upon the lighthouse floor. 

Mitra will cleanse the impurities from this land. 

She left the lighthouse by the aid of her last scroll, appearing in the shadowed alley beside the blackmarket. She used the magic of her circlet to hide the blood smeared upon her person, changing her appearance to that of an unknown ordinary woman. She draped her hood low across her brow and proceeded to sell her ill gotten wares. She had retrieved enough of the gear to cover the cost of her mission. Willow smiled as she left the warehouse, pockets now lined with gold. She crept through the darkness of the streets towards the inndisappearing into the shadows of night. 

Switch was waiting for her when she returned. As she entered her room, she saw him lounging upon her bed in his usual relaxed and casual way. 
“If you're returning, I must assume you were successful?” he asked. 
She locked her door behind her and began unloading her gear as she spoke. 
“I am not na├»ve enough to think you have not made sure of that yourself.” 
He chuckled, “You are correct of course. A brutal massacre certainly took place in the Beacon. Not a single survivor.” 
Willow smiled as she closed and locked her chest, now filled with blood tainted gold. 
The message was a pleasant surprise,” he said lightly, “It will certainly keep them guessing.” 
“That was the idea,” she said, rolling her eyes. 
She pulled off her boots and began to unstrap the buckles of her armour, gritting her teeth against the sharp aches as it scratched along her wounds. As she reached for the ties on the back of her corset, she felt Switch’s firm hands take over. He spoke softly into her ear as he unlaced the garment’s bindings. 
“Our employer shall be pleased with the deception, it would seem as if a particularly zealous Inquisitor has turned his eye upon his enemy.” 
“Was there ever an employer?” she asked quietly, enjoying the short pierces of pain as he pulled tightly on her corset. 
He chuckled, low and rumbling next to her ear, “An answer you will never know.” 
The garment fell to the ground, pieces of the material ripping skin that had been latched on by blood. He slid his hands around her waist and began to slowly unfasten the belt to her trousers.  
“You did a fine job tonight,” he whispered, “Better than I expected. Once again Willow, you have impressed me.” 
Her name from his lips slithered like a kiss to her ear. He slid her pants to the floor, guiding each leg out of their traps, leaving her standing only in her black lace slip. Gently, he pulled it up and over her head, revealing her blood smeared flesh naked as she stood in the centre of the room. Willow frowned as he left her still while he fetched a bucket of warm water and cloth from the bathroom. The tenderness and intimacy were deceptively sincere. She remained where she was, her mind racing as she stood utterly vulnerable, trails of blood seeping from wounds across her body. She nearly jumped when she felt the touch of the warm wet cloth pass over her waist. He was uncharacteristically gentle. He softly dragged the cloth along her side, cleaning the crusted blood from the slash on her torso. He carefully traced the cuts along her neck and shoulder. For a moment, Willow could almost just enjoy the welcoming embrace of his tenderness. But she was smarter than that. As the cloth reached for the gash on her cheek, she quickly gripped his hand and spun around, in the same movement ripping the ruby dagger from his belt and forcing it up against his throat. 
“What is this?” she demanded. 
Unbothered by her aggression, he merely chuckled, the dagger pressing itself into his skin as his throat moved. 
Am I not allowed to show my admiration?”  
Willow's frown deepened, “There are many ways I would expect you to show it, none of them include you tenderly dressing my wounds.” 
He grinned, dark and handsome, “Do you not trust me, Willow?” 
Willow scoffed, still pressing the dagger into his neck firmly, still gripping his wrist as she arched it painfully backward. 
“There are many things you are Switch,” she said low and menacing, “But trustworthy is not one of them.” 
He laughed, a true and honest chuckle, “True enough. Then perhaps it is a selfish move.” 
Willow raised her eyebrows in question. 
His voice dropped to a sensual wicked whisper, “Perhaps I wish to run my hands over every inch of your body and take you in every way possible.” 
Willow quivered at the intensity of his words. She didn't need magic to see the truth he spoke. Whether he had intended to do that tonight, or whether he simply meant it in general, the longing he spoke of was true. Slowly, she released his hand. She kept the dagger firmly pressed against his neck. He raised his eyebrows as a delicious grin spread across his lips. He didn't move away from the blade as the cloth continued its slow motion down her body, down her chest and torso, lingering as it reached her pelvic bone. She stared into his eyes, blackened wells of unending depth, fierce as a predator with his hungry gaze. Willow groaned as the cloth dipped lower. Her grip on the dagger tightened as he began to consume her, the feathering fleece of the cloth, like a ragged gateway to her own debauched hell. 

His tenderness had a short expiry. For a man who prided himself by his self control, he had very little of it when Willow was around. She lay upon the bed, breathing raggedly through her chest, more scratches, bruises and cuts than her mission had given her. As usual, Switch remained almost fully clothed. He'd lost his boots and his armour, but he simply lay next to her, trousers and cotton shirt unbuttoned but still worn.  
“That was not how that was supposed to go,” he chuckled. 
Willow's mind tried to pay attention through her hazy stupor. Switch stood from the bed and retrieved a small black wooden box from his pack. He held it in both hands as he approached her side of the bed. His eyes raked hungrily down her naked frame before he shook his head and seemed to snap into professionalism.  
He placed the box upon the floor and held out his hand for Willow. Intrigued, she allowed him to guide her up and followed his lead as they knelt facing one another. 
“You have succeeded in your task, you have performed well and completed the final stage of your apprenticeship. I have witnessed and can attest to this.” 
Staring into her eyes, he gently unbuttoned the rest of his shirt, peeling aside its layers to reveal an intricate scared mark upon his chest. Willow’s eyes opened wide as she recognised the pattern of an ‘S’ in the centre of the design, paired with five straight lines forming an inverted pentagramHe picked up the small black box and handed it to Willow indicating for her to hold it out to him with both hands. Slowly, he spun a hidden wooden plate from the centre of the lid, clicking it in and releasing as it seemed to open at its own accord. A small ruby plated knife lay in the centre of a silken wrap, surrounded by slender vials of what appeared to be salt. Switch carefully lifted the knife from its holdings, it's slender blade the same shape as the bloodletting knives Willow had used in her past rituals. He took the box from her and returned it to his side, indicating for her to rise onto her knees. He began to chant in a dark language she did not recognise, strange sounds with a similar slither to Infernal but with a heavy throaty rasp unlike Hell’s grace. He used the silk wrap to wipe down her chest, a strange tingle burned in its wake. Willow felt the knife pierce her skin delicately, like fine strokes of fire as he carved his intricate design. As he sliced the five lines of the star, his chanting grew intense. His voice crackled into a malevolent husk, the words seared her mind as his blade seared her skin. He continued to chant as he reached for one of the slender vials, carefully opening it and tipping its contents upon the wound. The salt seemed to be drawn to the blood, not a single grain fell to the floor as each was suctioned into the cuts. The scorching grew fierce as an Infernal drum sounded throughout her body. A sweltering pulse began to reverberate through her limbs, centring and stemming from her chest. As it grew to an almost unbearable apex, Willow’s lips began to mouth words of their own violation. Suddenly, her voice began to join in the chanting. A language she had never learnt, flowed from her lips like a silken caress. Where Switch’s voice was deep and rasping, hers was sultry and smooth. Her throat made sounds she wasn't aware it could even make, like a velvet purr from the depths of Hell. They finished the chant in unison. Willow's body slumped back on her heels, her mouth dry and parched. As she sat there, fighting the fatigue that had swept her soul, Switch fetched her a glass of water. He wore an air of pride as he handed her the glass, laying an affectionate hand on her cheek.  
“You are now and forever, one of us,” he said quietly. 
Willow looked down and marvelled at the perfectly healed brand. It lay delicately on her sternum, dropping just below her breasts. The design was barely visible to the eye, the finest of white lines forming its pattern.  
“What was that lang- 
Willow started. She was speaking the language they had been chanting. She had not noticed that Switch had been too, and she had understood him clearly. 
Switch chuckled, “Your contact had been correct in saying the Coterie wrote in a lost ancient language. They also speak it. A boon for their service, given at their initiation. It is the way we identify one another, for no other soul on this plane can speak it. It cannot be taught or studied, it just is.” 
Willow frowned as she traced her fingers over the scars 
“The mark cannot be removed. The skin cannot be regenerated, not by normal healing or magic. The entire flank of skin must be cut from the flesh to remove it, and once it is gone, it will kill you. You are one of us until death.”  
Switch turned and began to redress himself, speaking as he strapped on his boots. 
The mark is guarded by subtle magic, dampening magic if you will. It can not be seen or felt with normal hands or eyes, nor simple arcane tricks for detecting trace magic, only powerful magic like that of true seeing with allow it to be revealed to those not of the Coterie. And that is only if the flesh is bared to them. You may reveal it if you will it, but I would advise never to do so. Keep your identity hidden, always.” 
Slowly, Willow lifted herself from the floor and wrapped herself in her nightgown before pouring a heavy nip if whiskey.  
“You spoke of a boon for service,” she said quietly, “Surely the simple services of eliminating rival nobles are not worthy of such a boon.” 
Switch grinned as he buttoned his shirt, “Your mind is turning as usual. I could barely say my own name in the hours following my initiation. You are right, of course. Such tasks are not worthy of our reward. But it is not simple humans that require our services, at some point you will be contacted by our masters and you will be given a contract that trumps all others you are following. You'll understand when they come.”  
Willow frowned, sipping down the whiskey, enjoying it's burning path down her throat. Switch approached her, a look of oddly placed longing on his face. She set down her cup as he reached for her. His hand gently caressed her cheek, his other slid around her waist. He looked deep into her eyes as he leant forward to kiss her. The kiss was soft. Slow, delicate, his tongue caressed hers in a tender touch. Willow felt the finality of the kiss. She pushed aside her suspicion and let herself fall into his embrace. Gently but firm, he pulled her body against his, his hands slowly tracing the shape of her waist and neck. She found her own hands wandering, finding their place as they ran through his hair. As his tongue slowly retreated, his lips drifted against hers. He pulled his mouth away, resting his forehead against hers.  
“I must go,” he said sombrely. 
Where?” Willow heard herself ask, her voice sounding sad to her ears, her heart aching. 
He smiled, “I have other tasks that need my attention. You must go ahead on your own, you do not need my guidance. You have done well, you will make a fine assassin. Don't fret, I will see you again, Willow.” 
Suddenly, he vanished. Willow was standing alone in the room. The strangest sensation came over her. She frowned as she tried to regain her bearings. She was not heartbroken, she was not sad. She would miss the fun and mischief she had with him, but her heart did not ache as it had while he spoke. Her frown burrowed deeply as she tried to sort through the mess of her emotions. 
“I told you I'd take you in every way possible…” Switch’s voice slithered into her ear. 
She spun around, not really expecting him to be there. She laughed as it dawned on her. He had been manipulating her feelings with magic.  
“Bastard,” she muttered with a grin.  
Her grin widened as she saw the ominous ruby dagger still laying upon the bedside table.  
With her glass in hand, she strolled to the mirror and opened the front of her robe. Willow had never desired a tattoo, even a mark to show her dedication to the a Prince of Darkness did not tempt her. While her skin was clear, nothing could be used against her. But this mark, felt right. She could still feel the lingering burn of her Infernal Lord in the welts of the design. Willow smiled at her reflectionThis one suited her; this one, was who she was, who she was destined to be. 

The weeks flowed into one another as each day passed. Switch was true to his wordhe had moved on from the town of Farholde and had made no further contact with Willow. Although she had kept her initiation into the coterie a closely guarded secret, she used her training to pass on her knowledge to her growing team of spies, readying them for their move to wherever their next target would be. Pellius and Garvana spent their days continuing their teachings within the Church of the Forsaken, making steady progress with the illiterate servants they had chosen.  
As dusk descended upon the grand pinnacle of the spire, Willow and Garvana sat upon the altar in the sanctum, methodically searching the scrying lens of the statue. The sudden shudder of the stone beneath them, sent both of them toppling from the slab. Trembling racked the teetering structure, splintering cracks rippled through the walls, violent shaking ripped chucks of stone from their rest. As rocks and debris pelted from the ceiling, Willow ducked and dodged the falling mess, leaping out of the way as a bulking boulder plummeted into the ground. A piercing screech echoed throughout the chamber, sounding from the alabaster carving of the Archdeacon himself. Willow eyes were drawn to the ominous statue, she sucked in a sharp inhale as she saw six sets of claws tear into the material realm from beyond the abyss. As if the plane itself rebelled against the intrusion of such vicious evil, the earth quaked and convulsed, the silver seal rattling upon the base. The claws lashed out and tore shreds of metal from the divine guardian, before an ear piercing squeal slit into Willow's eardrums as the claw retreated. The sound of stone collapsing ricocheted and bounded from the halls of the spire. Slowly, the trembling subsided. The pulse of malevolence reverberated across the expanse, lingering in viciousness, a vile and heavy stench within the air. In horror, Willow stared at the seal. The claw marks remained upon the dense metal, thick gouges marring the shining silver glisten. She knew, there was no turning back from this point. The way was opening; Vetra-Kali Eats-the-Eyes would enter the realm, and bring his pestilence to the world once more...

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