Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Chapter 20 - Cessation

Small fragments of stone trickled down the side of the teetering spire, as the dust settled and cleared, the remains of the wreckage of the Horn of Abbadon were unveiled. Walls had crumbled, stairs had collapsed, gaping holes exposing the safety of the menacing abode. Willow brushed off the powdered rock from her shoulders, wiping the soot from her face. She looked across to Garvana, eyes wide in shock. Together they quickly scrambled across the layered debris and summoned the scrying circle of the Eyes of Vetra-Kali, scanning the crumpled levels of their home base. They saw Pellius in his chamber, unharmed and alert, clearing the debris blocking his exit through his door. They found Bor in the hall upon the second floor, lifting rubble to free someone from under the collapsed stone. When they directed the eye to the third floor, searching its rooms for Teelee, they saw two alarming sights unfolding. The western wall within Teelee’s chamber had given way and toppled its stone chunks across the room, landing upon her bed as she had relaxed upon it. They could see her struggling to free herself from the mess, weighty rock too heavy for her slight frame to budge. Troubling as it was, as they scanned the eye along the hall, they saw something that made Willow's heart shudder and her temper swing her into action. The ceiling within the cell block had taken the brunt of the force, the violent tremors had bowed the structure and ripped the sturdy doors from their hinges, opening the way to freedom for their prisoners. Amongst those subjects, was their final sacrifice. Their key to finishing the ritual, the last piece of their wicked puzzle – Sir Valin Markadian. For only a moment, Willow watched his movements through the eye, as he gathered the others and began to move through the cells.  
“Quickly,” Willow snapped to Garvana, “He must not escape.” 
“We must assist Teelee,” she replied, clambering towards the stairs, “Valin cannot get far.”  
Rolling her eyes, Willow followed Garvana’s lead down the spiral staircase, swiftly climbing over the fallen stone in their path. Passing a grumbling Hexor and Vexor, they reached the collapsed chamber and scanned their eyes over the scene. Teelee had managed to free herself from the trap of the large beams crushing her bed, she sat upon the wooden edge, moaning in dramatic agony. Garvana rushed to her side, healing hands reaching for the slender woman. Willow cocked an eyebrow, noticing that Teelee had received barely a scratch. She leant casually back upon the doorframe, crossing her arms over her chest. 
“Oh it is awful,” she wheezed, “That I am injured so!”  
Willow scoffed“I think you shall live another day.”  
As the warmth of the healing arcana soothed Teelee’s apparent wounds, the door to the teleporting circle flew open. Pellius rushed in to the hallway, eyes stark and alert, accessing the situation as he patrolled. 
“You are all well?” he asked, a frown furrowing his brow. 
Willow's lip quirked, “Yes, we are all well.” 
Garvana stood from her crouch, “I have done what I can, I cannot sense any further damage,” she said to Teelee. 
“Well let us hurry,” Willow clipped, pushing off from the frame, “Valin will be half way to Farholde by the time we actually make it to him.”  
Valin?!” Pellius asked in alarm. 
Willow spoke as she strode into the Horsemen shrine room, where Grumblejack had made his foul nest“The cells buckled under the weight of the collapse, the prisoners are free. The other ways are blocked, we must go through here. They must not escape.”  
Striding towards the eastern wall, Grumblejack approached the group. 
“Good,” he said, hefting his oversize weapon, “Been ages since Grumblejack killed something.” 
“You may kill the others,” Willow said sternly, “But you must leave Valin alive.” 
Grumblejack huffed, scuffing his foot against a pile of rocks, “Never get to kill anything.” 
“I don't care what you do with the others,” Willow snapped, “Can you smash through this wall?”  
The ogre gave Willow a slow feral toothy grin. 
“There's no need,” Garvana interrupted, “I can make a doorway.” 
Grumblejack sighed in frustration, growling as he stepped away. Garvana lifted her hand to the solid stone, chanting low deep methodical tone, wisps of laced arcana spiralling from her fingertips. As the magic melted into the wall, the stone began to shudder, rippling away from her hand, parting in jagged shards forming a crude archway into the adjacent chamber. From the other side, the wide expanse of the Caer Bryr shimmered its view through the gaping mass of scree, the cold chill of the early winters air whipping at the wisps of Willow's hair. Standing upon the edge of the lofty descent, three figures in rags, desperation and a touch of hope glittering in their eyes. Hallack and his lover, two of their earliest captures, stood hand in hand considering their flight. Sir Valin, stood beside them, proud and regal as ever as he stared back into the newly formed doorway. Willow held her daggers tightly, slowly prowling into the remains of the chamber.  
“Surrender,” she said fiercely to Valin, “You have no hope of escape.” 
Sad eyes stared back at her, tired and weathered, yet strengthened by his will. A sudden pulse rippled through the air, two voices chanting in unison. Garvana and Teelee mirrored each others movements, gracefully tracing their intricate patterns through the air, enchanted words slipping from their lips. Willow watched with keen eyes as their arcana soothed the frown from Sir Valin’s brow.  
“Come,” Garvana crooned beguilingly, “Do not risk your life. Come to me and kneel.”  
Valin’s face contorted, as if a battle of will waged within his mind, he struggled against the entrancement with the last of his hope.  
Valin?” Hallack called, “Do not listen to them!” 
Come!” Garvana commanded, a lash of sharp magic accompanying her words, “Come to me!”  
Slowly, a strangeness overtook his face. Docile and vacant eyes stared back at them. 
“Yes,” he said in a hollow voice, “Yes I think I shall do that.” 
One gradual step at a time, he walked towards Garvana. 
“No!” cried Hallack, “It is a trap! You mustn't!”  
Willow looked to Grumblejack as she stepped up behind Valin and clamped his wrists in manacles, “You can kill them.” 
His sharp walls of teeth showed as he grinned his excitement, stepping towards the two prisoners upon the edge. Willow pushed Valin towards the door, ignoring the pleas and cries behind her, shuddering at the sounds of the ogres feeding habits. The group didn't wait to see the carnage, escorting their priority back into the safety of the spire. 

After confining their capture within a cell shaped from stone in a hovel of the sanctums wall, their discussion began of a plan for the remainder of their stay within the Horn of Abbadon. As they decided to leave their private quarters and bunk together at all times by the foreboding alabaster carving of Vetra-Kalikeeping the security of their final ritual at their utmost priority, Bor entered the sanctum followed closely by the pyromancer Traya. 
Bor,” Pellius said warningly, “Explain this.” 
“Is it wise to bring her here?” Willow asked carefully. 
Not one to be intimidated, Bor simply shrugged, “She's proven useful.” 
“Useful still has its limitations,” Willow replied, eyebrows raised. 
Traya stepped forward, determination set in her features, “Twice he has saved my life. I owe him, for this, my loyalty is his.” 
Pellius’ penetrating gaze raked over the woman with an intensity that would have made any man shrink and cower, yet Traya stood her ground. After a moment, Pellius nodded sharply.  
“We will take you at your word, but mind this, you will get but one chance.” 
She nodded her reply, stepping back behind the hulking orc. Willow eyed her with scrutiny, unsure of her truth or motives, but willing to cede to Bor’s judgement. She released her grip on her daggers and turned back to the rest of the group.  
“We have five days remaining until the completion of the ritual,” she mused, “I cannot imagine we have seen the last the Mitrans have to offer. Our defences are shattered, our position here is becoming increasingly precarious.” 
“I have surveyed the damage,” Pellius continued, “It is extensive to say the least. We have little choice but to make our stand in this room. 
“The daemon's wrath has been plaguing my mind,” Willow frowned, “He is not to take our trickery lightly, and if my suspicions of this place are true, it is only his dark magic that is holding it together. He may well extract it when he returns to whence he came.” 
“Indeed, I have been thinking the same, my lady,” Pellius said, “Perhaps it is time to withdraw our forces, begin an evacuation of our men and our funds, seeing they serve us no real aid from an offensive stance.” 
“Agreed,” Garvana said, “We should retrieve our belongings from our chambers and send the rest to the ship docked upon the foreshore.” 
“They cannot go unsupervised,” Bor warned. 
Grumblejack can take the charge,” Pellius suggested, “He may guard the ship and wait for our arrival once the ritual is complete.” 
“Agreed,” chimed the others. 
“And what of the dragon?” Willow reminded. 
“Our defences are gone regardless,” Bor said seriously, “We must deal with it as we will any other threat that comes along.” 
We do not even know the dragon has us in its sights,” Teelee scoffed. 
“Oh it does,” Willow smiled, a smile of resignation and anticipation, “I do not doubt that these five days will be the hardest we have faced. Talingarde is not a country that would let such evil manifest within its lands uninterrupted…” 

The feeling of dread that had seeped into Willow's skin, swiftly proved justified. She had known it would not be an easy feat to achieve, not a task to be taken lightly, nor a mission of glory that would be handed to them without retribution. The five days that followed were indeed some of the hardest days she had ever survived.  

As they waged their way through the hours of each day, the onslaught cascaded from the highest reaches of the skies and ascended from the lowest fell of the groundFrom above soared the elegant Avoral creature, half eagle half man, surrounded by his flock of regal falcons. They bombarded the Forsaken with aerial attacks and strange avian arcana, fighting as a tidal wave swarming within the rafters of the ominous sanctum. To their deaths did they dive, as one by one the creatures were cut down in vicious fury. From the depths of the caverns below, oozed a frightening feral mass of sludge, consuming and devouring all in its path. From the mire it rose, seeping towards the unprepared boggards hidden within their village. Willow watched through the eye of Vetra-Kali with a stern face and a cemented will, as the mass ingurgitated the helpless members of the boggard tribe. There was little she could do, little she was willing to do. Keeping the sanctum safe and completing the ritual were the only things that mattered. The oozing filth greedily devoured the last of the village, before turning its gaze upwards, drawn by the throbbing power of darkness reverberating from the seal in the centre of the breach within veil. For all its ferocity and determination, the unrelenting torrent of fire littered down the side of the spire conjured from the blood magic of Teelee and Traya, proved too much for it to withstand. As the tendrils of muddy thickness reached the edge of the balcony of the sanctum, the last fireball let loose, charring the creature passed the point of no return. It shattered and cooked, crisping into shards of dirt, black and steaming. Pellius hefted his warhammer, exhaling deeply as he rounded the weapon and swung forth with terrifying might. In an explosion of dirt and dust, the creature fulminated across the expanse, trickling through the air and returning to the swamp rotten ground of the marsh. 
As the battle raged from the skies to the ground, the venomous nature of the foul ritual called to its own menacing terror. As with all discrepancies within the magical currents of the multiverse, called are certain creatures known to seek out those who have trodden too far the netherways beyond time and reality, those who weaken the veil between this plane and the next. The Hounds of Tindalos followed the scent of stench that trickled across the void, from the cage of the abyss that held Vetra-Kali, to the sanctum where the Forsaken rested. The screeching of metal upon metal was the only warning the group was given. At the sound of her hellhound’s deep growl, Willow rose from her slumber, alert and keen. For all the warning, she was not prepared for the creatures that excreted themselves from the angular corners of the walls. Gaunt, long limbed quadrupeds with soulless clear eyes, feral toothy maws, slick creatures moving with predatory grace. They existed in a way that Willow could not comprehend. She saw the hound in front her as clear as day, yet its image rippled in and out of reality, as if it were real and not real at the same time. As the gaze of one was drawn to Willow, the skin beneath her clothing ripped apart, as if it's claws had slithered passed her armour and torn her skin to shreds. The room shuddered with a menacing progression, sickeningly thick air surrounded each of them, taint seeping into Willow’s skin as if repulsed by the presence of the void beings. The group fought the direful invaders, splatters of blood simmering across the blackened stone, deep gashes into wounds otherworldly desolation. Eight feral hounds thrashed viciously, latching their fangs into all they could, ripping skin from bone. The battle raged as if fighting fear itself, the group cut down the outsiders, strengthening their will with each strike. After the blood was shed, the last of the frightening hounds converged, with no clear end to their sanguinary nor concern for their lives. The remaining two appeared beside the pyromancer, her scorching rays flying wide, searing blackened char into the wall beyond. As their sinister maws ravished the soft flesh upon her body, Pellius and Garvana stepped together and called to their Infernal Father. With deep ominous rumbling tones, the pair cried out in unison. 
“FOR THE GLORY OF ASMODEUS!” they roared.  
A sudden ripple of dread thrummed into the atmosphere, inquietude shaking the daggers within Willow's fingers. The power of their call sucked in like an implosion, before forcefully slamming outwards in a fierce sweep of unholy venom. As the last of the horrors fell, Willow heard the unmistakable cry of her own vicious hound, Loras. Her head snapped to the fray, in time to see her loyal canine collapse, the flames of her fiery coat flickering low before extinguishing completely.  
Naas!” Willow cried, “Loras!” 
Fury swarmed Willow's veins, red hot anger fuming inside her, her eyelids slamming shut as her fists clenched as tight as her teethThe chamber hung in eery silence, the void settling back into place, as the Forsaken dealt with its aftermath. Willow drew air, slow and deep into her lungs. She knew the cost of a mission such as this, she knew at times there were prices to pay. Slowly, she approached her hounds limp and lifeless body, kneeling down beside it. She gently ran her hand over its coat, grazing her fingers and closing its eyes. She sat by Loras side for a while, tear stained eyes closed, chest heavy. Lith and Sith sat each side of her, heads bowed in mourning. It took a while for Willow to hear snippets of conversation, stern voices talking of bodies and storage. Slowly she realised the voices had been Pellius and Bor, speaking of Traya, who had shared Loras’ fate. It was then that Willow lifted her chin. She turned her eyes to the malicious carving, wrapped in silver chains, the last ditch effort of the seal of purity holding back the real terror. She rose from her kneel, eyes hard and cold as she approached the statue. The hounds had interrupted the midnight ritual. The seal had not been bathed, the dirge had not been intoned. With a tone as cold as ice, she recited the menacing hymn, tipping the festering broth upon the seal, eyes wide as it hissed and squealed. Two days. She had two days left, two days until she could be free of this place. Two days until she would get as far away from this place as she possibly could. 

As dawn broke its way into the sky, Bor's voice roused Willow from her sleep.  
Dragon,” he called, “On the third floor, by the cell block.” 
The group sprang from their rest, desperately throwing their amour on, strapping the metal and leather. Bor watched the dragon’s movements through the eye, by the time Willow made it to his side, it had reached the chamber where Hexor and Vexor rested. The dragon had changed into a vision of white elegance. Appearing as a man, solid and tall, strong and lean. White hair flaming from his head, pure white eyes piercing his surroundings. The man charged through the spire, sensing and observing as he went. When he stepped into the chamber, he did not hesitate to launch into attack, felling the two custodiandaemons with two foul sweeps. Quickly, the group readied their ambush at the top of the stairs. As he scaled the spiral staircase, he stepped upon the stone floor of the sanctum, and the Forsaken let loose their assault. Willow heard Garvana furiously chant her incantation, while she slipped in behind the fearsome man and launched her daggers into his spine. The spell Garvana called rippled with ferocious might, fighting the dragons own arcana in a strange unseen battle. Garvana's voice grew as her enchantment pierced through and overcame its target. Pellius and Bor tried to launch into attack, but suddenly, the man leapt from the staircase and exploded into his full dragon form. As he launched into the air, the slender bricked passage of the stairs was shattered into shards. The immense dragon flapped its glorious wings and dropped, landing on the altar in a heavy plunge. The Horn shuddered beneath their feet with the rumble his weight as he perched.  
Lith! Sith!” Willow cried to the hellhounds to attack, “Nessith dorr firith! 
The hounds snarled their response, launching over the slender stone wall, snapping their teeth as they breathed infernal fire at the great silver dragon. As the great wyrm writhed in the flamesBor screamed his merciless battle cry, charging directly at it with his great axe over head. The axe cleaved downwards, hacking through the shimmering scales upon the dragons hide, a splattering of blue blood cascading across the floor. The dragon roared his fury, unleashing a torrent of ice from its gaping jaw, like a blizzard with the intent to freeze over the world. Bor rolled as best he could from the frozen hurricane, but bellowed his rage as the shards of ice ripped through his flesh. From the fray, Pellius called his profane wrath. 
A wicked pulse of infernal glory reverberated throughout the room. Pellius charged at the wyrmblackened tendrils of the Infernal Father’s menace guiding his strike. He hurled his weapon and collided, a fierce blow that ripped the scales from the dragons back. Teelee stood to the side, waving intricate patterns in the air, chanting in a low malicious tone, launching pellets of fire towards the beast. As each one exploded in shattering eruptions of flame, the dragon roared and writhed. The wyrm swung its tail with untold strength and cleaved through the group, knocking each of them back, it's frosted barbs splitting skin.  
One attack after another, the Forsaken fought the legendary creature, scattered blood of each of them painting the stone walls and marble altar. The beast launched itself into the air, it's thunderous wings gusting the debris in the sanctum, into a vortex of dusted fog. It lingered just out of reached, unseen through the thickened tornado. Willow screamed her frustration, thinking little of her plan as she scaled the side of the alabaster carving of Vetra-Kali, leaping from it into the clouded mist with her blades flashing. As she soared, she felt both daggers pierce deep into something, a grinding thump when they hit something solid like bone. Willow tried to control her descent, rolling with the fall as she plummeted to the jagged rocky floor. As she hit and skidded to a halt, she heard dragon howl its anger. It landed from its hover, in another ground shaking plunge, the mighty creature with its wings outstretched and its teeth lashing. Blood poured from its wounds, it's strength was fading, it's life drainingIt dropped in front of Willow, it's fearsome maw opening wide to clutch her within its jaws. She tried to roll out of the way, but felt the crushing pressure as teeth pierced through the flesh of her thigh. It was then, that a voice came from her left. 
ASMODEUS!” Garvana called, charging her flaming mace towards the dragon, “LEND ME YOUR MIGHT!” 
Suddenly, Garvana's form rippled with otherworldly power. The muscles within her arms exploded outwards, tripling in size. Her height shot up, her weapon expanded, her footsteps sounding as a monumental stampede. The woman charged forward, appearing an ogre sized version of herself. The dragon sensed the heinous magic, letting go of Willow and turning to snarl at the profane Garvana. At the same time they launched at each other. The dragons teeth shining as they plunged down, attempting to tear Garvana in half. But the strange magic surrounding her was too strong for it to fight. She carved her mighty weapon through the air, plummeting it down across the wyrm’s enormous head. The sound of the impact ricocheted throughout the sanctum and the clearing across the Caer BryrIn a glorious shatter of bone and gore, the dragons head was caved in and spread across the room. As the huge body began to collapse, Willow's swiftly rolled out of its demise.  

The Horn of Abbadon shook violently as the mass of the creature toppled to the floor in a cloud of dust and debris. Slowly, the air cleared and the dust settled. Willow wiped the ash from her face, standing carefully on her wounded leg. The blood fell from the gash as she limped to Garvana's side. The woman had returned to her normal size, dropping unconscious as red seeped from her eyes. 
“Foolish girl,” Willow said, checking for a pulse, “You do not know what you have begun.” 
As Garvana slowly came around, Pellius charged to her in fury. 
Do you know what you have done?!” he snapped. 
Garvana merely frowned in her fragile state. 
“You have entered into a open pact, with who knows what devil!”  
As she struggled to a seated position, she wiped the blood from her eyes with her sleeve. 
“It is done,” Garvana said quietly, “And I shall pay the price when it comes.” 
Willow shook her head, resting back to inspect her own wounds. When she saw nothing was broken, she retrieved the healing potion from her pack and drank it down.  
“So,” Bor chuffed, kicking the dragons corpse with his boot, “What do we do with this?” 

Sleep had evaded Willow as the hours passed and the last day of the ritual began. Somewhere after midnight she had given up and taken to sitting by the large balcony of the sanctum. She watched for hours as the glimmer of the moon beyond the clouds traced its way to west and finally disappeared as dawn approached. The sun tried to rise, but the darkness surrounding the spire smothered its glow. No one spoke as the time trickled by. Pellius stood in watchful observation over the magic within the Vetra-Kali’s eyes. Bor sat upon the stairs leading to the statue, sharpening his weapon, his features cold and composed. Garvana paced, weapon in hand, back and forth across the stoned chamber. Teelee sat in her hovel, reading from her arcane tomes in quiet study. And Willow remained where she was, eyes on the sky, calming her mind from the worry attempting to seep into her soul. Lith and Sith sat by her side, both of their heads resting on her thighs. Slow and methodical, she traced her fingers through their fur. 
As night came over the expanse of the great forest, the Eye of Hatred glowed a venomous green, directing the Eye of Vigilance towards a scene unfolding on the third floor. 
“Intruders!” called Pellius, his gaze locked to the scrying, “Four men. Paladin, priest, spellcaster and a soldier.” 
Willow raced to his side, watching the men break their way through the wreckage of third floor. She frowned, staring closely at the men. The paladin was easy to spot, his gleaming silver armour decorated with a shining sunburst, a proud righteous gleam to his eye. The priest wore humble robes, the Mitran star glittering upon his chest, a stern look and a determined chin. The spellcaster donned his satin robes of royal blue, trinkets hanging from his neck, wand held tight in hand. And the soldier carried a vicious looking greatsword, a feral spark to his gaze, a snarl on his face. 
“They almost look familiar,” Willow said quietly, “Yet I cannot place it…” 
“It doesn't matter,” Bor huffed, lifting his great axe, “Prepare yourself, they are heading this way. Pellius, you're on the paladin. Willow, take out the priest. Garvana, Teelee, deal with the spellcaster. I'll take the solider.”  
Willow instructed her hellhounds to wait by the stairway and ambush the intruders with fire. As the group took up their positions, Garvana cast her strange magic over the group. Willow felt the touch of an illusion surround her, and marvelled as each of the others took on the image of rocks and debris. She was not sure how strong the arcana would hold, but any advantage would be useful. As a racket came from beneath the stairs, Willow gripped her daggers tightly, breathing softly in wait. Suddenly, the tall soldier burst from the stairway, greatsword arched over his head. For only a moment, he frowned in pause.  
“Be wary!” Valin bellowed from his cell, “The fiends have disguised themselves as stone!” 
His warning came too late, as Willow leapt forward and rammed her daggers into the man, while the hounds let loose their flaming breath. Willow swore as the man erratically spun around, her daggers missing the target of his neck and slashing into his shoulder. Suddenly, Bor's immense axe flashed in her vision as he cleaved it down into the man. The others sprang forth from the stairway, weapons clashing, magic spiralling.  
“For Balentyne!” the paladin called, “My father, know that this day, ye shall be avenged!” 
Pellius warhammer came hurtling from the side, crashing deep into the chest of the man. Willow dove for the priest, slashing her blades through his tender flesh. The sorcerer bellowed his incantation, an arc of lightening rippling from his fingers, ricocheting between Pellius and Garvana.  
“I shall cast you back into the pits, foul devil!” snapped the soldier, carving his weapon towards Bor. 
Metal clashing rang out through the sanctum, grunts of exertion paired with cries of pain. Wisp of terrible arcana whipped through the air, blood splatters in mass coated the floor. In the mess of the chaos, the Forsaken fought for their very lives. With each blow, the ground shook, the divine blessing of Mitra warred against the profane might of Asmodeus.  
“We are the Sons of Balentyne!” cried the paladin theatrically, “Here to claim our vengeance!” 
Willow felt the thrumming vibration of Infernal grace as Pellius called out, rage burning scarlet within his eyes, a ferocious power to his swing. His weapon sliced through the air, colliding with the soldier with a bone crunching shatter. The man flew backwards with the brunt of the force, before smashing into the stone wall, as the momentum of the swing cleaved his body in half.  
Sith, Lithnessith furr mortiss!” Willow called, telling the hellhounds to follow her attack.  
As Lith turned from the fighting to follow her master, the paladin hefted his weapon high, soaring it down to rive the fiery hound.  
LITH!” Willow screamed, fury racing untold within her veins.  
She abandoned her plan for the priest, screeching her wrath as she ran for the paladin.  
Asmodeus will devour your soul!” she shrieked, blades tearing through the air.  
She dove into the fray, slipping under the paladin’s attack, leaping at him from behind. Both daggers plummeted into the side of his neck, slicing through his airways and throat at once. Willow tore her daggers free as he slumped to the ground, she screamed her anger, looking for the next one to cut down.  
Richard!” cried the priest. 
The sorcerer began to furiously cast his spell. The air rippled within the sanctum, strange flashes of light morphed Willow's vision. 
“You haven't seen the last of us!” called the priest. 
As the haze cleared – the priest, the sorcerer and the paladin's body were gone.  
She screamed in fury, plunging her daggers into the corpse of the soldier that was left behind. It was only the whimper of her last remaining hellhound that stopped her massacre of the body. Sith nudged Lith’s lifeless face with his nose, whining quietly by her side. Willow sighed, sinking to her knees next to what was left of Lith. She looked to the others, all battered, bloody and bruised – but alive. The Sons of Balentyne were defeated, but not destroyed. She knew they would be back. She had heard the tales of Richard Havelyn, son of Thomas Havelyn and grand hero of Talingarde. He would not be well enough to stop their ritual, but Willow knew he would be back for his vengeance. 

The moon hung directly overhead, it's perfect alignment with the spiralling vortex of malice circling the Horn of Abbadon from the sky, cast an eery green glow across the land. Willow sat by the edge of the opening, legs trailing over the side, seven hundred feet in the air. As she watched the moon align, she bowed her head for a moment. She inhaled deeply, closing her eyes as she slowly exhaled. 
“It is time,” she said emotionlessly.  
The group converged around the altar, the pulsing horror almost a physical push against their chests. Garvana spoke in a hushed enchanted whisper, crumpling the stone cell that held Sir ValinPellius grabbed the sleeping man, holding him firm as he wrenched him towards the altar.  
Blasphemous devil scum!” Valin bellowed, writhing within Pellius’ grip, “You do not truly know what you are unleashing! Mitra will not stand for this heinous abomination of an act!”  
Pellius slammed Valin into the altar, mercilessly shoving him into position, clasping his wrists and ankles tightly into the manacles. Pellius stood by Garvana's side, as she took the dagger from his hand and prepared herself. Bor filled the jug with the putrid broth of unholy water, standing ready as he looked to Willow. Breathing deeply, she opened the Dirges of Appolyon to read the Call Across the Void.  
Hear our plea O’Prince,  Vetra-Kali Eats-the-Eyes, return to us once more. We call to theeWe summon theeHear our plea O’Prince,  Vetra-Kali Eats-the-Eyes, return to us once more. We open the way for thy malevolenceAwake from thy slumber. Hear our plea O’Prince,  Vetra-Kali Eats-the-Eyes, return to us once more. Allow us to guide thy wayOur devotion as anchor…”  
The Horn trembled with turbulent rumbling, the feral malice seeping from the alabaster statue, darkness consuming the light from the lanterns in the room. Bor hurled the rotten brew towards the seal, with each line Willow intoned, the silver hissed and squealed in repulsion. A slow black spiral began to form surrounding the statue. Garvana surged her courage and drove her dagger deep into the chest of Sir Valin. As the cries of the man were greedily devoured by the vortex, the howling wind screeched in a mind shattering call, so loud that Willow had to scream the dirge to be heard over the wailing winds. 
Hear our plea O’Prince, Vetra-Kali Eats-the-Eyes, return to us once more!” she cried, “We implore thee, Undying Lord! Cast thou gaze upon us! Hear our plea O’Prince,  Vetra-Kali Eats-the-Eyes, return to us once more! By the blood of those that caged theeSo shall thee be freedHear our plea O’Prince, Vetra-Kali Eats-the-Eyes, return to us once more! Cross the void and restore thy rightful place! Take up thy throne and WIELD THOU VENGEANCE! 
As the heart dropped into the dish, a vibration began to shake the ground beneath their feet. Suddenly, with a shrieking whine, the silver seal exploded outwards. The shards flew through the air, slashing the skin of the Forsaken, tearing flesh and radiating divine blasphemous pain. The five of them were knocked back as the spiralling portal opened between the vile abyss and the sanctum. Thundering clouds unleashed their fury from the sky, hailing feral torrents of rain around the spire. The crashing winds battered them around, lashes of wind ripping at their clothes as if little claws were tearing at the cloth. The pulse burst with brutal force, followed by a still wave of pure dread. Suddenly, all became quiet. The vortex bled with darkness, they stared into an eternal night. 
A voice, as alien and malefic as ever, called from beyond the void. 
Zah… voh!” it called. 
Heads snapped to Willow as the feeling of terror raced through her veins. 
“I…” she translated in a whisper, “Am…” 
As the words left her lips, her eyes shot wide in trepidation. Six clawed hands rippled from the void, grasping the outsides of the shrine, pulling itself from oblivion. As each limb fell through, a feral slime oozed from its flesh, puddling around the floor. When the stench touched Willow's nose, it took all her will to keep her stomach down, it took all her will to stay where she was and not fleeTwo hooves excreted out of the void, attached to eldritch formed equine legs. Two grotesque boned wings followed, scavenger pinions that appeared as if they had been torn apart by disease, chunks of flesh and feather barely clinging to the bone. It was the face that leached through last. A macabre skull, shaped of an insect, shadowed with three hollow pits for eyes. As the last of the foul creature slopped to the floor, as if being birthed in some abominable tragedy, he clawed and shrieked. 
“My eyes!” he cried out in his high pitched, carrion-bird voice, “Where are my eyes?” 
The moment Willow had been dreading for the last seven months had finally arrived. Faced with it, she made her choice. For Asmodeus, she would face anything.  
“In return for the Eye of Vigilance,” she said boldly, booming her voice, “We ask of thee, thy mercy on we mortals, we plead that thee do us no harm.”  
She held out the first emerald, placing it in his outstretched hand. He snatched it viciously, ramming it into his putrid mouth, swallowing it in a loud revolting gulp. The eye slithered upwards from his throat and morphed into an ominous green glow within one of his eyesockets. With sight, he turned to Sir Valin's corpse, shredding it with his sharp claws and coating himself in the warm blood and gore. 
It is good,” he cawed, “To be home.”  
He turned back to Willow, his eyeless gaze locked on her. Willow felt herself cringe under his scrutiny, his consuming stare seeping the life from her veins. 
“The other eyes,” he demanded. 
In return for the Eye of Hatred,” she continued, “We ask for thy greatest gift, the Tears of Achlys, so that once more every corner of the world may know thy mercy. 
“My gift to the world?” he cackled, “You wish it? Do you swear that you will see it dispersed among the mortals?” 
Willow nodded, her lips sealed against his abhorrent glare. His claws reached deep into his wide open mouth, and as he pulled them free, a slender vial of disgustful menace followed. He stretched out his hand, offering the vial to her. Willow nodded to Pellius, unwilling to lay a hand on such a foul concoction. He stepped up with no hesitation, taking the Tears of Achlys from the daemon's hand. Once empty, the eldritch claw turned uncannily, open and awaiting his second eye. Willow carefully placed the emerald into his hand. As it slithered its way into his eyesocket, she took a deep breath into her lungs.  
“And In return for the Eye of Withering; we ask of thee,” she said slowly, surging her confidence, a sly grin coming over her face, “To return to thy plane of origin! Leave this plane of existence henceforth, and never return!” 
Vetra-Kali Eats-the-Eyes shrieked in immortal rage, Traitors! Devil-whores! You have the stench of the failed god Asmodeus all over you! You think you've won? You think you've outsmarted me?! Taste my vengeance, impudent mortals!”  
He rammed the third eye into his mouth, before vanishing from sight. Suddenly, the Horn of Abbadon trembled. The archdeacon had left the material plane and taken with him the magic that had held together the fabric of the spire. Within in moments, the trembling turned to violent shaking, slabs of stone falling from their perch, rocks and debris tumbling from the ceiling. 
“Quickly!” called Bor, taking Garvana and Teelee by the hand.  
Willow, Pellius and Sith ran for the group, but a falling beam tumbled between them and smashed the floor, cutting off their escape. A large chasm opened up the stone work, each brick slipping away, widening the gap as they watched. 
Go!” Willow yelled, pulling the scroll from her pouch, “I've got him, we’ll meet you by the ship!”  
Willow grabbed Pellius’s hand, gripping Sith’s fur in the other and prayed that the arcana would work. She read the enchantment as she had been taught, attempting to clear her mind so she articulated the phrases correctly. Suddenly, she was ripped through a portal, racing through an otherworldly plane, before being flung out across the clearing. They tumbled to a halt in the mud, Willow landing atop Pellius in a crumpled heap, dirt and ash marring her face. 
The Tears?!” Willow cried, launching herself from him. 
“They're safe,” he assured her, tapping the small metal box within his pocket.  
The pair of them turned at the thundering sound of stone crashing upon stone. Over the treetops they saw the might of the terrible spire teetering, before it craned to the right and collapsed entirely. Billowing winds of dust and debris blew up into a buffering cloud of smoke, the ground trembling beneath them. Suddenly, the air seems to sigh, a long aching whistle of relief.  
“You two alright?” Bor's deep voice rumbled.  
Looking up to see his smirking face had Willow laugh, she grinned her response, slumping to the ground beside Pellius. 
“It is done,” Willow breathed in relief. 
He smiled, a prideful grin, “It is done.” 

When the others had gathered, the five of them stood while Willow removed the clay seal from her lockbox. With one last look to each other, she snapped the seal in half. The pieces of clay crumpled and slipped through her fingers, drifting to the marsh beneath her feet. Within minutes, Tiadora rippled into sight.  
“You have the Tears?” she said coldly, no jokes or frivolity.  
Pellius handed her her slender vial. She merely looked it over, checking for fraud, Willow assumed. After a moment, her eyebrows raised. 
“Well done, my lords,” she said sincerely, with no trace of her usual sarcastic wit, “I will inform our master.”  
She handed the vial back to Pellius before swiftly teleporting away. Willow looked to the others, noting in them, the same things she was feeling. Relief, exhaustion, pride and accomplishment. They had tricked the great Archdeacon back into his void with his gift in their hands. For now, their immense gamble had paid off. Before Willow had time to celebrate, Tiadora appeared once more. 
She handed Pellius a pouch filled with emeralds, as much as twenty thousand golds worth at first glance, a glittering bag of wealth. 
“Our master sends his regards,” she said, bowing her head slightly, the most respect she had ever shown the Forsaken, “Your work here in Farholde is done. You must make your way to the great city of Ghastenhall. There you will meet a fellow who will know how to best use this terrible weapon you have in your hands. This letter gives the details…” 
She handed a neatly bound scroll to Willow, a large wax dot sealing it, bearing the insignia of Cardinal Adrastus Thorn. Tiadora turned to Teelee. 
“You are not going with them,” she said, “You are to come with me. The master had need of another sorceress.” 
Willow was shocked, confused by Thorn’s decision to split the Nessian Knot, after such proven success. Yet she did not question it. Instead, she turned to Teelee and pulled her into an uncharacteristic embrace. 
“Take care of yourself,” Willow said quietly. 
“And you,” Teelee replied, a strange look on her face.  
She bid the others goodbye and walked to Tiadora’s side. In the blink of an eye, she was gone. Willow stared for a moment, overloaded with odd feelings being skewed by the exhaustion of her very soul. She shook her head to clear it, turning to the scroll in her hand.  
To my Ninth,” she read aloud, “Since that day you arrived filthy and famished upon my doorstep, I have always seen within you, great potential. And today you prove me correct once more. You have the Daemon's Gift! I could not be more pleased. You have in your possession a terrible weapon, and now we must see it used… 
The letter spoke of a man known as Brother Barnibus Thrain, a Mitran priest in the service of Cardinal Thorn. They were commanded to seek him out, deliver the Tears, and rest and recover for the month. Then they would meet up with Sakkarot Fire Axe once more, and command an army to assault one of the holiest sites within Talingarde land – the Vale of Valtaerna 
They will not expect a winter assault. Break the Watchtower of Saintsbridge, invade the Vale during winters merciless heart and destroy everyone in that sacred place. Leave no witnesses, making it look like a bugbear raid. Violate the holy heart of the Cathedral of Mitra Made Manifest and leave not a single soul alive. By the time winter is ended, the Tears will be well spread across Talingarde. The people desperate for respite will run to the simpering Mitrans begging for relief, and they will find in your wake only death and ashes, my ninth. Do all as I command, and the time of our victory draws ever nearer…” 
Willow rolled the scroll once again, slipping it into her pouch. 
“We will have plenty of time to read it,” she said, turning for the ship, “It will take at least two weeks to reach Ghastenhall.” 
Once settled and organised, Pellius approached the indentured servants; the blacksmith and the alchemist. 
“Take these packs,” he said as he threw them two rough hessian bags, “They contain food, a map, a sword, basic camping supplies and some gold. Thank you for your service.” 
The alchemist stared back at him, an odd look of respect on his face, “I will not say you are a good man. But you are an honourable one, for keeping your word.”  
Pellius nodded, before moving on to his troops. Once the two had disappeared back into the Caer Bryr, he commanded the men to march on foot towards the large city. Willow turned to Sith, a stern look on her face, hiding her aching heart. 
You cannot come to the city,” Willow said in Infernal, rubbing his chin to soothe his whining, “I will be gone for the month, stay with Grumblejack. We will meet you north of Ghaster in the forest at months end.” 
She turned to the hulking ogre, “Watch over him,” she warned, “And look after yourself. We will see you at months end.”  
“But Grumblejack wants to come,” he grouched, “Grumblejack likes cities. Lots of drinking and smashing there.” 
Willow smiled at his simple needs, not so unlike the human men she knew, “You cannot come, we are to remain unnoticed. You are always very noticeable. Besides, you can spend the entire time hunting. 
“Humph,” he huffed, “Least Grumblejack like hunting…” 

Once all was sorted, and the men had begun their long journey on road to Ghastenhall, the four remaining Forsaken bordered their ship. Bor set sail and Pellius weighed anchor, and the small ship sliced through the waves out into open water. The wind was still howling, as it had been since the portal to void opened. But the wind held a different scent. As the ship cruised along the pass, Willow sat upon the foredeck and stared up a the stars dotting the sky. Looking to the emerald spiral, she saw the feral terror fading into the abyss, the menacing mass of clouds had begun to part and the light of soft twinkling stars penetrated through. They had done it. They were victorious. As the ship pulled beneath the canopy of the dense tree line crowding the shores, Willow retrieved her last bottle of whiskey, a vintage malt of smooth biting scotch. She found four glasses amongst the rubble within the cabin, and she returned above deck with them. One by one, she poured each of them a glass. She raised hers high, and spoke with thunderous righteousness. 
For those we have lost! For the Forsaken! And for the glory of Asmodeus!” she toasted. 
For the glory of Asmodeus!” the others cheered. 
She spoke as she tipped the glass to her lips, “And to never stepping foot in place again!” 

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