Sunday, 19 June 2016

Chapter 22 - Illicit Distraction

Pulling the sable hood low along her brow, Willow followed the others through the shadowed streets of the Red Quarter. In comparison to her dainty robes of feminine dress earlier that day, she slunk easily through the road in her skin tight black leather armour. Bor took the lead as he strode into the Golden Palace, the infamous opium den of the underground. Willow couldn't help but look on in disgust as its patrons slumped in hovels, drugged from reality, lying in their own filth. The air was thick with lingering smoke, the pipes churning their hazy broth, the dense stench wafting through the chamber. Men and women crowded in, liquor flowing freely, music beating in a tempestuous trance. Bor shoved his way passed the rabble, pushing into the curtained back room, frightening his way to a clear table. Willow lowered her hood as she took up a seat next to Garvana, accepting the offer of a stiff whiskey. A tall, slender man approached them; small horns protruding from his forehead, a barbed tail flicking slowly from his back, small sharp pointed teeth showing from his charming grin. Martigan Vex, the proprietor of the Golden Palace, and the ringmaster of the fighting pits.
“Samuel!” he called cheerily to Bor, “Good to see you! Hope you're ready for tonight's entertainment!”
Willow scoffed at the name. Her strange paranoia with the name and identity of Samuel Havelyn, had become somewhat of a joke within the group. At her scoff, the tiefling’s eyes were drawn to her. They raked appreciatively down her figure, lingering at her barely exposed cleavage.
“Good evening,” he slithered, his grin widening, sliding in close to her.
Willow raised an eyebrow, staring back into his eyes intensely, a sly smile on her lips.
His grin widened again as he looked to Bor, “Not a talkative one, is she?”
Bor laughed, a creeping menace to his voice, “Perhaps she doesn't need to talk, for she may be more dangerous than any of us here.”
Vex’s eyes shot back to her, his tail flickering in an erotic sway.
“Perhaps she’d better serve as tonight's entertainment…” he said in a lowered voice, filled with seduction, “Upstairs.”
A slow grin came over her face, she looked him up and down, raising her brows as her eyes returned to his. He winked at her, his teeth sparkling from beneath his devilish smirk, before he turned back to the group.
“Alright then!” he called cheerily, “If you'll make your way to the pit, we’ll get this night started!”
As the others stood and turned for the door, Willow felt Vex’s clawed hand trace the side of her cheek. Before he had time to speak, she ripped her dagger free from its sheath, spun around and pressed it up against his throat. She had moved so quickly and quietly, that no one else in the room had noticed. Amorous fire lit in her eyes, she spoke in a sensual rasped whisper, inches from his face.
“Touch me again without permission,” she warned, the sly smile still touching her lips, “And  I'll cut off both of your hands.”
His grin split his face, as he slowly lowered his hand.
“I'll just have to see what I can do about that,” he replied.
Willow sheathed her dagger, laughing at his arrogance, turning from him to rejoin the others. When she caught up with them, Pellius pulled her aside.
“Is everything alright?” he inquired.
“Yes,” she chuckled, “He could be quite useful.”
He gave her a strange look before nodding and offering his arm. They entered the stadium, finding seats by the front to observe the spectacle. The crowd grew rowdy while they waited for the show, ale sloshed from overfilled mugs, yells and catcalls bounding from the mouths of inebriated men. Abruptly, the crowd erupted in cheer as Vex appeared from the pits grand entrance. He wore the attire of a ringmaster, a loud red and white striped suit, matching top hat and riding crop.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” his voice boomed, “Welcome to the night of nights! The show of shows! The battle of beast against man!”
The applause and cheers rained down from the stands, the spectators stomping their feet in thunderous acclamation.
“Tonight!” Vex bellowed dramatically, “We have a new challenger! The towering half orc, the brute of a man – SAMUEL!”
Willow cheered loudly with the crowd, clapping her hands and joining the laudation. Bor stepped into the arena, a stern fearless look on his face, he brandished his great sword and cried out a feral battle cry.
“And tonight, my dear people, you are in for a treat! Let us begin with two for the price of one! Double the beast for double the fun! The two headed freak of nature – The Duo-Death!”
Bor readied himself, arching his great sword as the metal portcullis screeched open. A giant two headed serpent slithered towards him, fangs flashing, growling hisses seeping from its mouth. Bor didn't wait for its attack, he charged at the beast, gleaming sword soaring through the air. In one foul swoop, he cleaved his weapon down and hacked the serpent cleanly between its heads. Blood splatter flew from the carcass, a shattering mist of red bathing the battlefield. But the beast was not done, it's two halves writhed in anger, both lashing out with their fangs. As he barely avoided one, the second latched on, piercing its teeth deep into the chunk of his leg. Bor roared in fury, slashing his sword and decapitating the head attached to his thigh. He continued his swing and dramatically hacked through to the other one, slicing its head through the centre. The crowd screamed out in excitement, chanting his name from the stands. With no care for the bloodied mess upon the ground, Vex stepped forth to give Bor his four hundred gold purse, shaking his hand with a grin. Pellius excused himself for a moment as he set off to find the bookie, planning to wager on Bor’s next fight. Watching Vex carefully from the stands, Willow slinked her way down to his announcers box, leaning on the railing casually.
“Well!” Vex boomed, “What a fight, ladies and gentlemen! But you know how it works, it only gets harder from here! This one, half bird, half bear, all ferocious! I give you an abomination against nature – the Owlbear!”
Quickly retreating from the arena floor, Vex made his way to his box, grinning widely as he saw Willow draped over the handrail. The owlbear appeared from beneath the portcullis, squawking its warning to Bor, who only roared back in response.
“He's quite the savage one,” Vex grinned, stepping up beside Willow, leaning sleazily back on the rails, “Very good for business.”
Willow laughed, gently tossing her head back, her black hair swaying.
“I'd wager that this is not the only business you have your fingers in,” Willow said quietly, eyes locked to his, a sly smile on her lips.
Vex’s grin grew more devious, his shrewd eyes staring back into her own.
“I thought you'd be a wager kind of gal,” he said mischievously, “Tell you what. I've got a wager for you. Your friend loses tonight, you come be my entertainment later.”
 “And if he wins?” Willow said, eyebrow cocked.
He dropped his voice to a wicked whisper, “You come be my entertainment, and I'll answer your questions.”
As Willow's gaze heated, and her sly smile grew, the crowd burst into applause. Looking to the arena, she saw the owlbear split into pieces, a massacre of blood and entrails littered across the dirt. Vex laughed as he saw the slaughter, winking to Willow before jogging back down the stairs into the pit. He spoke to Bor before tossing the purse to him and shaking his hand.
“Alright alright ladies and gents, things just got real! Samuel has agreed to fight his way to the end! Place your bets,” his eyes shot to Willow's, “Place your wagers!  This one is going to get messy! The barbed fury! The spiked barrel! The living tank – The Smasher!”
As he walked back towards Willow, she smirked, giving him a nod before turning and sauntering her way back to her seat. She found Pellius talking to the bookie, trying to talk the man into taking on another bet. Garvana sat alone in the seats, watching each match intensely, eyes wide in excitement. Willow dropped into the seat by her side, retrieving her ale and sipping the cheap brew.
“He seems quite taken with you,” Garvana frowned.
Willow laughed, “He is quite taken with what my body can do for him.”
“What?” Garvana said, seeming outraged on Willow's behalf.
“Do not fret Garvana,” Willow chuckled, “I will only give it to him to get what I want.”
“But, but how can you be alright with such disrespect?!”
Willow smiled, quieting her voice and leaning closer, “The body is a tool, nothing more, but one I am quite equipped at using. And so I shall.”
Garvana's frown lessened, but did not disappear completely, “Very well, do as you will.”
“Relax Garvana,” Willow said, “This is a game I am well ventured in playing.”
SAM-U-EL! SAM-U-EL! SAM-U-EL!” the crowd chanted.
The creature laid beaten on the ground, as Bor stood over its carcass victorious, roaring to the crowd with his sword overhead. Vex strolled back into the pit, clapping along with the chant, a wide showman grin on his face. He spoke quietly with Bor for a moment before throwing his head back in laughter and turning to the crowd.
“Folks! This may be the mightiest challenger we've seen! Fearless, brave, ferocious! But is it bravery to go for another special round? Or overconfidence?! A battle so fierce, I have a one time offer! Odds are FIVE TO ONE! You heard me lads and ladies, five to one. Now, let me introduce you to real savagery. A visitor form the frozen north! The iced beast of terror! The wooly warrior! One horn – the Impaler!”
There was no delay as the gate opened, the giant wooly rhino charged towards Bor, it's horn angled down in an attempt to skewer the half orc. Bor dove out of its path in the last second, rolling into a crouch before leaping at the mountainous beast. He slashed his weapon wildly, frothing his rage as he bellowed in fury, stabbing the rhino in the side. The matted mess of the rhino’s fur was so dense that the blade became lodged, Bor tried to tear it free, but the rhino turned its charge. It's sheer strength trampled over Bor, catching him as its immense weight stomped its way over his body. Willow stood from her seat along with most of the crowd, eyes wide in anticipation. His crumpled form lay still for a moment, his weapon laying deserted beside him, as Willow's heart skipped a beat. Suddenly, he pounced from the ground, snatching his greatsword, crying out his wrath. Spit flew from his foaming mouth, blood was thrown from his wounds as he stormed forward. The rhino kicked up the dirt in preparation for its charge, the enormous creature pushed off and began its trample. The crowd seemed to take a deep breath in unison, a sudden quiet coming over the stadium as the two opponents ran directly at each other. As he neared, Bor bellowed his feral battle cry, so fearsome that Willow saw some of the men in the audience pale visibly. When there was no more than a metre between them, Bor feinted to the right, stepping to left and screaming as his sword rent the rhino’s head from its shoulders in one mighty blow. The rhino’s body continued with its momentum, crashing into the wall of the pit, splintering the wood, shaking the entire stadium. In a barbaric display, the blood of the rhino exploded from the cut and showered Bor in a smother of scarlet gore. The crowd erupted, cheers for the carnage, catcalls for the victor. Bor laughed, taking a bow to the spectators, before picking up the severed rhino head and throwing it across the pit. Willow stood with the crowd, cheering him on, laughing and shaking her head at the vulgar display of strength.

The revelry continued back in the rooms of the Golden Palace. Commoners eager to meet and congratulate the champion, shake his hand or stare longingly at his sword. Although the women threw themselves at him, Bor politely declined all of their advances. He drank deep and accepted every round he was offered. Willow laughed as he called out a hundred gold of his bounty to shout the drinks for the spectators. The hours passed and the party continued, the liquor flowed by the galleon and the crowds grew looser. While the others joined in the celebration and Bor told skewed stories of past glory, Willow sat by atop the bar, sipping her glass of whiskey and chuckling at the scene.
“It seems you won our fair wager,” came a silky voice from beside her.
Willow smiled, turning to see Vex, leaning on the bar. He wore his black suit, tailored to perfection, a few buttons undone to keep his appearance casual and relaxed.
“It seems I did,” she replied, raising an eyebrow.
A devious grin crept up his lips, as he offered his hand to Willow. She eyed it for a moment, before slowly placing her hand in his, and sliding off the bar. He lead her through the masses of drunken rabble, passed the back rooms and the brutish guards standing by the curtained door. He guided her up the winding wooden staircase, pushing aside the sweeping drapes and pulling her through. The room was a series of hovels, cushions lined the floors of each den, half naked men and woman slumped over one another crowded around the opium pipes. Vex let go of her hand as he strolled forward, gracefully unbuttoning his coat, handing it to a waiting servant.
“Feel free to help yourself to the poppy,” he said to Willow with a mischievous grin.
She followed his amble, chuckling softly, “I shall pass, I prefer to keep my senses sharp.”
He pushed passed the curtains into another room, this one containing a large circular bed, layered in satin cushions, rugs of soft fur and silken sheets. Willow counted three doors out of the room as she perused the fine chamber. Lavish decorations lined the walls, golden rimmed paintings, peculiar sculptures and gaudy gemstone hangings. Vex began unbuttoning his shirt, stepping into the walk in wardrobe, appearing a few moments later dressed in only a pair of black hessian loose fitting pants. He selected a fresh bottle of vintage wine from his rack, uncorking it before pouring the two of them a glass.
“I didn't catch your name?” he said as he poured.
“Does it matter?” she smirked, “I wouldn't be truthful either way.”
He paused for a minute before turning to her with a grin.
“The second door to your right leads to a tunnel into Crabtrap Row,” he chuckled.
Willow raised her eyebrows in question.
“You are cautious enough to be scouting an escape route should you need one,” he grinned, offering the glass, “It'll be more fun if you're not thinking about which way to go.”
Willow laughed as she accepted the drink, taking a small sip, watching him carefully.
“She drinks,” he said contemplatively, sinking himself back upon the bed, “Yet she is careful enough to drink slowly. She clearly fights, fierce enough to have men three times her size intimidated. She doesn't partake in freedoms of mind alterings, yet she accepts wagers with strange and dangerous men with no hesitation.”
A slow smile spread across Willow's face, “Perhaps it is only you who considers yourself dangerous.”
“And she speaks like she's cutting your pride with a knife,” he laughed.
Willow placed her glass on the corner table, walking in a slow deliberate saunter. Ever so slowly, she began unbuckling the straps of her armour. Vex watched her from beneath hooded eyes, sipping his wine, his gaze locked to her every movement. Once she had dropped her leather gauntlets, greaves and breastplate, she spoke as she delicately unbuttoned her blouse.
“Tell me of Ghaster,” she said casually, meeting his gaze, continuing her slow undress, “Tell me gossip I won't hear from the mouth of a priest or a peasant.”
“Now?” he laughed, “Surely it can wait til after the fun.”
Willow cocked her eyebrow, stilling her hands, paused on the last button of her blouse.
“If you can't manage two things at once,” she said patronisingly, “Then maybe we should just talk over tea?”
His devilish laugh tickled her senses, he motioned his hand for her to continue as he spoke.
“Alright,” he grinned, “There's an black market in the-
“Dockside warehouses,” she interrupted, stilling her hands once again, “You're going to have to do better than that.”
His eyebrow rose as his grin spread, “So she is connected, interesting. Alright, there is a crime syndicate in Salts Quarter, lead by a man named Garold Barningham.”
“Better,” she said, unbuttoning the blouse and dropping it to the floor.
She slowly began to unlace her corset, one string at a time. The music trickled in from the other room, a soft slow sensual beat, it's touch caressing Willow's ears. Slowly, she moved her hips to the soft drum of the melody.
“There's bad infighting going on,” he continued, his eyes watching Willow's hands, “Between him and his younger brother Dallius.”
“What are they fighting over?” Willow asked, pulling the strings slowly, before letting its follow her blouse to the ground.
Vex’s eyes widened, as Willow stood with only a wisp of a camisole covering her chest. She bent over slightly to begin unstrapping her daggers from her thighs.
“A broad,” he laughed, too casual for the look on his face, “Was one brothers wife and the other ones mistress.”
As her daggers dropped gently and she began unstrapping the belt on her trousers, she looked up at him.
“And what sort of business do they conduct?” Willow asked, pausing as she prepared to let her trousers fall.
“The usual,” he shrugged, “Robbing, extortion, beatings. Same thugs you get everywhere.”
Willow smiled, tracing her hands down her legs, bending easily as she guided her trousers to the floor. She stepped out of them, standing poised in only her black silken undergarments.
“And that,” Vex said sternly, standing from the bed, eyes alight as he walked towards her, “Is quite enough questioning.”
As he reached for her, he nodded to something over her shoulder. His fingers grazed the side of her cheek, as Willow heard slow moving soft footsteps behind her. Two of the barely dressed men and two women slunk into the room. The two women and one of the men continued to the bed, draping themselves upon it in each others embrace. The second man stepped up behind Willow, his hand tracing her waist. As Vex slid his hand into her hair, and began to lower his face to hers, she grinned. She dextrously slipped from his grip, grabbed his hand and spun him around. In one move she swiftly flung him to the bed between the others and pounced atop him, her knees straddling his sides. He looked up at her in shock, excitement racing in his eyes. The others made delayed noises of surprise, before moving to trail their hands over her bare flesh. Willow bent low, gently tracing her tongue along the shape of Vex’s lips.
“We do this…” she whispered silkily, “My way…”

As Willow returned to the Crowley Estate the following morning, she found the others around the table in the dining room, chatting over breakfast. As Pellius saw her, he stood from his seat to pull out a chair for her. She graciously accepted and sat at the table, under the eyes of the others.
Pellius arched his eyebrow at her, “Pleasure, business, or both?”
The corner of Willow lip quirked, “A little of both.”
His intense gaze bore into her own, but he merely nodded.
“He had much to say,” Willow smirked, “If we are looking to recruit in the city while we are here, we might have luck with the local crime syndicate. It's run by the Barningham brothers, apparently the organisation is in disarray, the two leaders fighting over a woman and dividing the men. From what Vex said, the men are growing restless and are sick of the carry on, so they're looking elsewhere for work.”
“This could be a great opportunity,” Garvana agreed, “Are you going today? If so, I'd like to accompany you.”
“Of course, Garvana,” Willow said, before lifting her eyebrows, “Right after I've bathed and scrubbed.”
Garvana's stern look told Willow it was a means of joking she did not appreciate, although Bor's hearty chuckle had her grinning.
“He's agreed to rent a small warehouse to me within the Red Quarter,” Willow continued, “For a very good price. A place for our men to stay when they arrive.”
“How good of a price?” Bor chuckled with his eyebrows raised.
Willow laughed, giving him a wink, “Never you mind.”
“I will not put my men under the thumb of that man,” Pellius objected sternly, “For I know what I'd do in his place. I'm surprised you would be so naïve as to trust a man such as he.”
“Who said anything about trust,” Willow scoffed, “He knows nothing of its intended use. I am not a halfwit, nor a fluttering eyed doxy.”
“No, my lady, you are not,” he replied, “But it matters not, I have already made arrangements for the quartering of our men.”
He lifted a scroll from his pack and unfurled it upon the table. Willow skimmed the parchments contents, a finely scripted deed to a homestead in the northern farmland. She nodded, reaching for the pot to pour herself some tea.
“I heard rumour last night of dwarves living in the mountains,” Garvana began, “Dark and twisted by hatred and foul magic. Perhaps we could… exploit their hatred?”
Bor nodded, “It is worth looking into.”
As the group dispersed from the table, Willow laid a hand on Pellius’ arm to keep him behind. When the others had disappeared, she spoke to him quietly.
“He also told me of rumours that a band of Asmodeans had been sent to the mines near Ghastenhall…”
He nodded solemnly, “It seems my course is clear then.”
“Do you wish to follow up on it together?” Willow asked.
A small smile touched his lips, “The fact that you are asking, implies you already understand I would wish to do this alone.”
Willow returned his smile, “I will not stop you or insist otherwise. I know well that there are some things we must do alone. But if you require my aid, or mere company for the journey, you have but to ask.”
His eyes lingered for a moment, before he reached for her hand and placed a small kiss on the inside of her palm.
He bowed before her turned away, “Thank you, Willow.”

The rest of their first week was spent with far less excitement. Willow and Garvana were fairly successful in their recruitment, finding twenty men who were willing to join their cause. Of course, the men did not know they were now serving the Asmodean faithful, they knew only that their new bosses were dark imposing figures seeking to overthrow the Mitran government.
By night, Willow attended the vast variety of performances and pantomimes with Pellius. Taking in the rich culture and diversity of the performing arts within the city of Ghastenhall. On the seventh night, they attended an opera, one that rang true to Pellius as a skewed version of the Chelaxian art he so treasured. As the tenors, baritones and sopranos crooned their heart wrenching story, Willow watched Pellius with piqued interest. His breathing followed the highs and lows of the notes, his eyes sealed to the stage, his heart beating in tune. She thought it was as if he felt the music with his very soul. The pantomime flowed through the story of a woman who had lost her husband, and closed her heart off to love evermore. Yet although she hid and ran from it, love in a second chance found her anyway. Willow did not believe she had ever been one for such romance, she had accepted long ago that her heart belonged to her Prince of Darkness, and that her fate was one she would walk alone. For she loved a being who could never love her back, one who she was unworthy of being loved by. As the melody of their voices soothed their way into her soul, she felt the aching loneliness she was destined to face.
Upon leaving the theatre, they strolled the streets in silence. Pellius dressed in his finest suit and his colonial jacket, Willow in a silk and seamless flowing gown of midnight black. When they returned to the manor, she found herself drawn to the hovel upon the windowsill. She slid into it, staring out at the ebony wave of night sky. Pellius either felt the same heavy heart that she did, or he sensed her morose aching. So he remained silent, sitting in beside her as she leaned back against his chest. They stayed like that for a time, staring out into the empty sky, hearts beating in unison. When she spoke, it was at only a whisper.
“Will you sing for me?”
For a moment, silence greeted her. But when he began to sing, her heart fluttered. His deep baritone voice carolled the soft ballad, as Willow listened to the words he intoned. He sang of heartache, loneliness and solitude. He sang them, as if he truly knew them well – as if he knew them as she did.

When the eve of Starday arrived, Willow made her way to the grand halls of the Castle of Ghaster. She had dressed in her fine teal velvet gown, with pale golden lace trim and an ebony satin bodice. In line with the current fashion, she wore shoes of vibrant scarlet in brilliant contrast to the red of her outfit. She had worn her hair down, cascading waves pulled delicately over one shoulder, her iron circlet disguised as a slender golden lined coronet. Bor accompanied as her chaperone, his armour polished to a gleam, his rough hair slicked back. They took the couch from the Crowley Estate up the winding streets of the Lord's Quarter. As they arrived, Bor stepped down from the drivers seat, opening the carriage door and offering Willow his hand. Gracefully, she slid out of the carriage. She was greeted by the servants, who bowed low as she passed, the other nobles offering less than an inclination of the head. When she arrived at the gate, her house guard by her side, the announcer called her cover name once again.
“Lady Clarentine Myerlyn of Hamiltyrn,” he called.
Some took notice of her arrival, eyeing the new comer with intrigue. But most barely looked up from their glasses or hushed conversations. Willow was shown to her table, her chaperone in tow. The table stood by the far right, three from the front. Not one of the tables of honour, but a respectable seat to occupy. Bor stood behind her, arms clasped behind his back, performing extremely well for an untrained personal guard.
“You are quite suited to this role,” Willow chuckled quietly, after making sure no one was in earshot, “I shall call on you next time I need a nursemaid.”
“Only because you behave yourself when you're in polite company, my lady,” he chuffed.
Willow smiled, eyes scanning the room, “They are polite, yes. But this lot would tear you to pieces quicker than an alleyway stalker, given half the chance.”
“I have never liked nobility,” he said, quieter still.
Willow did not wish to bring up bad memories in a place such as this, so she did not press him for further information or rouse his anger to get it. She merely sipped from her glass, sitting upright in the most impeccable posture, smiling politely at the passing group.
After an hour, a small man in glittering robes approached her table.
“The duke will dance with you now, my lady,” he said, bowing low.
“Thank you servitor,” she replied, gently lifting the front trail of her gown to stand from her seat.
She followed his path to the dance floor where the Duke of Ghaster stood in wait. Willow did not think it possible, but the suit he wore that night was more gaudy than the robes he had worn on their meeting. Bright sapphire blue and shining emerald green drapes lay over his shoulders, covering the sunshine yellow suit beneath. The trails on his coat fell longer than she had ever seen on an item of clothing. He looked less of a Duke and more of a court jester.
“Your grace,” Willow bowed respectfully, “Thank you once again for the invitation. And may I say, your outfit is simply splendid.”
“Lady Clarentine,” he bowed in return, before springing back up, “There is no need for small talk when dancing is on the cards!”
Willow laughed softly at his enthusiasm, curtsying her reply. She was taken aback when he suddenly began removing his shoes. She looked around the hall in confusion, noting that no one else had done so. Not one to shy away from oddities, she quickly removed hers and placed them beside his. He made no mention of it as he strolled his way barefoot to the dance floor. He held his hand out to Willow, a look of dramatic theatrics upon his face. Willow grinned, placing her hand in his and gracefully gliding into position. As the band stuck up a light hearted tune, she followed his lead in their merry waltz. He danced well, nimble on his feet, dextrous in his movements. After dropping Willow into a deep lunge, he pulled her up and swung her to the right. As they cantered, skipping steps to the beat and gliding across the dance floor, Hadrian overtly dragged his hand down to firmly grab Willow's backside. She laughed as she continued to follow his lead, dancing along as if she hadn't noticed that his hand remained where it was.
“Have you tried the cheese platter?” he suddenly asked.
“Oh yes, your grace,” Willow replied, slightly caught off guard, “Such a fine selection.”
“I'll let you in on a little secret,” he said scandalously, dropping his voice to a whisper, “I designed the platter personally.”
Willow smiled, keeping her face straight and containing her laughter, “Very impressive, my lord.”
“Would you like me to tell you about it?” he asked excitedly, “Come, I shall explain why I chose each one.”
He pulled Willow from the dancefloor, hurrying to the banquet table. She smiled as she listened to his ramblings, describing each cheese by its flavour and aroma, giving her strange facts about the making processes. After eating one of each as he recommended it, she handed her plate to the waiting servant. Willow eyed him with intrigue, still not completely convinced he was mad. She saw a strange intelligence behind his eyes, his overly dramatic actions almost appearing planned and thought out.
“The hour grows late, your grace,” Willow said politely, smiling gently, “Thank you for company, it has been most enjoyable. I would be delighted to do this again.”
“My lady,” he said dramatically, “Your company and most ravishing behind has been throughly enjoyable.”
Willow laughed softly, bowing low in tradition style, before redressing her shoes and returning to her chaperone. As she glided across the hall, some of the nobles stared at her, talking beneath covering hands. Willow ignored them, nodding to Bor as he escorted her from the building. As they reached the carriage, Bor grinned.
“Did he actually spend an hour talking of cheeses?” he chuckled quietly.
“Almost two,” Willow laughed.
“Convinced yet, my lady?” Bor asked, eyebrows raised.
Willow grinned as he helped her into the cabin, “Less convinced than before…”

As they gathered in the parlour around the fireplace, each of the Forsaken told of their days exploits. After they laughed over Willow’s newly obtained knowledge of cheese, Garvana spoke of the rumours she had heard in the local tavern.
“They say there are vampires living in the undercity,” Garvana revealed, “Prince Gaius, they call him, the vampire Prince of Ghastenhall.”
“Gaius?” Willow questioned, the name tickling her brain, “The old House of Vestromo of Ghastenhall had a son named Gaius. They were part of the old nobility. I seem to recall he met a tragic end, though I do not remember the details. I believe the house has a mausoleum within the cemetery in the Lord's Quarter.”
“Perhaps we should seek them out?” Pellius offered, “The undead are not likely friends of the Mitrans, they may be willing to ally with us in the coming battle.”
“Intriguing,” Willow smiled.
“Shall we go tonight?” Garvana asked, “The vampires only hunt at night.”
“Perhaps we should take them an, offering, of peace,” Willow suggested, looking to Pellius.
He grinned, “Of course. I shall collect such an offering and meet you by the gates.”
As midnight approached, the darkness swelled in the cold streets of the town. The four of them approached the cemetery, stepping quietly through the rusted iron gates, following the path deeper into the field. Pellius carried the peasant over his shoulder, unconscious in an arcane slumber. As they found the graves of the royals, they saw the imposing marble structure to the Vestromo family. The iced chill of evening slithered along Willow's bare skin, she kept her grip tight on her daggers within their sheathes. Pellius dropped their sacrifice in front of the large stone double doors. A rustle of pebbles sounded from the shadows to the right, as windswept whispered giggles trickled from their left.
“Prince Gaius!” Garvana called, “Prince of the night! We bring an offering of truce, we wish only to speak with you!”
The air hung still, all movement ceased.
“It is not often that dinner is delivered to my door,” came a deep formal voice, directly behind Garvana.
All four of them spun around quickly, Garvana stepping away in shock. A man stood inches from her, devouring gaze latched to her sight. He stood tall and lean, long graceful limbs, frosted white skin. His black hair was combed impeccably, hanging low beyond his shoulders. Dressed in a frilled tailored suit, puffed out sleeves and laced boots to his knees – the very fashion that roamed the land almost five centuries ago. Harsh pointed cheekbones, long slim pointed nose, gaunt hollow soulless eyes. He stood as a foreboding omen, regal, fierce and merciless. Willow was sure that there would be few alive that could say they had laid eyes on him and lived to tell about it.
“We offer a sacrifice,” Garvana said, strengthening her courage, “A token of peace. We have come only to talk.”
Time stretched thin as the silence lingered, from the corner of Willow's eye she saw movement beyond the graves. Savage beasts, mindless vampires, only being held back by their masters will. The prince lifted his eyebrow.
“Sacrifice accepted.”
Suddenly the feral kin leapt onto the body of the man, tearing his flesh to shreds and devouring the blood within him. Willow kept her hands affixed to her blades, her eyes prowling the darkness, listening to the surroundings as the others spoke.
“We come seeking an alliance,” Bor said sternly, “We have reason to believe we may be of use to you, and you to us.”
“What use would you be to me?” he asked, as if the idea was completely unfathomable.
“We plan to overthrow the Mitrans,” Bor said firmly.
“Interesting,” Prince Gaius said, his eyebrow still cocked, “Continue...”
Although Willow did not agree with revealing so much of their true plans, she trusted Bor's judgement and made no comment as he outlined the basis of their next mission to the vampire. Gaius remained eerily still as he listened. Willow couldn't stop the shivers that traced her spine when she watched him, the preternatural way his chest didn't even move as he had no need to breathe.
“Aid us,” Bor finished, “And we will leave Ghastenhall to you.”
“You say that as if it is not already mine,” he snapped fiercely, two thin fangs flashing as he spoke.
“You rule the night,” Willow interjected, the first words she had spoke to him, “Yet you hide in sewers and cemeteries. You feed only on those that will not be missed. Do you wish to continue hiding from the Mitrans?” Willow shook her head gently, “You do not rule Ghastenhall as you once did Vestromo, you rule the shadow of a life.”
His gaze bore into Willow, his consuming stare fearsome and frightful. But as Bor spoke, the intelligence behind his eyes bloomed.
“We will give you back Ghastenhall.”
Prince Gaius frowned in thought, as his thralls feasted on the sacrifice with a slowed pace, ears locked to their masters words.
“I accept,” he said finally, “I will give you ten of my most skilled vampires. They will aid your battle upon the Vale of Valtaerna, do not underestimate them, they are the fiercest I have. And in return, you will leave Ghastenhall to me.”
“Agreed,” Bor said.
“There is one more thing I require,” he said formally, “Over the centuries that have passed, my blood has grown thin. It is an affliction that serves the most long lived of my kind. Alas, I can no longer turn true vampires, only the savage spawn you see before you. But within the Vault of Saint Angelo in the Cathedral of Mitra Made Manifest, lies a relic of my clan stolen long ago by the vile priest of Mitra. The Chalise of Audrelius Vestromo. With this, my power shall replenish, and with it my ability to create true vampires. Retrieve this for me, and you shall have my aid. And if you wish it, I will cast thee into my night and turn thee into one more powerful than ever dreamed.”
“We will retrieve the chalice,” Bor promised.
“I will accept nothing less than a blood oath,” Gaius warned.
Bor took the blade from his belt and sliced open his own hand, presenting it to the vampire prince. As Gaius sliced his own hand, Willow was intrigued to see that indeed he could bleed. They grasped hands in a fierce grip, so firm that the muscles and veins bulged from Bor's arm. As their blood mingled, Gaius smiled for the first time. He stepped back, eloquently bowing low in an old fashioned nobles address. As he stood, he grinned. He suddenly exploded into a shower of screeching bats, hundreds of them flapping furiously away into the dead of night.

As daylight came to the city, Willow made her way alone to the grand library of Ghaster. She had been thinking of their next mission, the immense task in which they would be undertaking, infiltrating and ransacking the holiest site in Talingarde. She wished to speak with Brother Thrain alone, pick his brain on the knowledge he held of the illustrious Vale. As far as she knew, he had been part of the Mitran order his entire life. Although Willow's own knowledge of the faithful of the Shining Sun was fairly vast, she had never been inclined to take the pilgrimage to the holy site. She was troubled by the idea of entering such a divine place with so little information. The idea had occurred to her that perhaps she was best to use their weeks of rest to scout out the path they would take come winter. Though she would not risk it with the small amount of information they had, she would not risk giving away their chance at surprise.
Paying her six silver fee, she entered the library, dressed in her soft feathered sun dress with its long respectable sleeves and high laced neckline. She found Brother Thrain in amongst the pillars of towering shelves, scuttling from one row to the next.
“Good morning Brother,” Willow said politely, “I wonder if you could aid me, I seek knowledge on the Gustos of Yoreshire.”
His shrewd eyes stared back at her, nodding as he spoke.
“Ah!” he said, “Perhaps you'd be interested in attending a symposium I shall be taking this evening. Basement lecture hall after dusk.”
He did not wait for her reply as he shuffled away. Willow turned to the tomes stacked neatly upon a table, awaiting their return to the shelves. She flicked through the tome upon the top for a moment, skimming its pages before returning it to the shelve and gliding to the exit.
After spending her day perusing the markets and their stalls, she made her way back to the library as the night trickled its way into the city. She meandered to the lecture hall, noting the whisper of sound her feet made upon the marble floors. When she entered, Brother Thrain stood between the same thugs that greeted their last visit. As he saw her, he clipped his orders for them to remain outside and ensure that the meeting was not interrupted. He waited for the doors to clamber closed, before he turned to Willow with a sly smile.
“You come with questions, I assume,” Thrain said, “You strike me as the one with the most between the ears.”
Willow chuckled, not denying the statement.
“I come also as I wish to apologise,” she replied softly, “At last we met, I had my reservations. I realise I did not even introduce myself truthfully. I am Lady Willow Myriah Monteguard.”
“I am Brother Barnibus Thrain,” he huffed, “And you owe no apology. You are obviously wise enough not to trust all who you meet. I recall talk of the young Monteguard girl who was trialled for high treason. Top of noble society, a name sure to get you recognised.”
Willow felt stale at the mention of her crimes and capture. She shrugged it off, keeping her mind on the reason for seeking the man out.
“I come for information on the Vale,” she stated.
“What is it you wish to know?” he asked, eyebrow cocked.
“I have many questions,” she smirked, “Shall we take a seat?”
He gestured to the dust covered pews along the wall. Willow wiped the dust with her handkerchief from a slender spot and spoke as she lowered.
“What do you know of the Vale?”
“Ah the Vale of Valtaerna,” he replied, “I have made the pilgrimage several times and even held audience with the head of the Order of Saint Macarius – Earnan MacCathlain. The Vale is a beautiful place but too placid for my tastes. The residents of that Vale are so locked in tradition and orthodoxy that it takes a dozen prayers and a week of consultation with the Lord-Abbot for them to change the color of their socks. What would you like to know about the Vale?”
“Where exactly is it?” Willow began.
“You have a map?” he grumbled.
She smiled, lifting the scroll parchment from her pack. She held the sketched map out to him. He traced his finger along the winding path of mountainside.
“It is less than fifty miles from where we stand in the eastern Ansgarian mountains.”
“And how does one enter the Vale?”
He chuckled, “You walk. You must pass through the Watchtower at Saintsbridge. This will be no trouble for a small group of travellers. Merely tell them you are pilgrims and they will let you pass. Be sure to hide your true allegiance by both disguise and spell. They say there are beings in the Watchtower of Saintsbridge that can smell evil.”
“Smell evil?” Willow asked, eyebrow cocked, “Do you suppose they can sense the truth by means of magic?”
“Perhaps,” he nodded, “Though I do not know for sure.”
“The watchtower,” Willow continued, “Do you know how it is guarded? Do you know of any of their defences?”
“There is a contingent of holy warriors commanded by the Captain of the Watchtower. At least fifty men I think. There are also two strange statues in the causeway. I have
never seen them move, but it is persistently rumoured that they are some sort of golem. I know not the truth of this.”
Willow frowned, unease sitting deep within her. She lifted her journal from the pack and began scribbling notes. Vague enough that if one was to read them they would not seem suspicious, but detailed enough that Willow would be able to pass on the information to the others.
“Do you know how many soldiers reside in the area?”
Brother Thrain scratched at his beard, “It is difficult to be sure. I believe there were once more than five hundred plus a contingent of dwarves. But I think it likely some of them have been called to the war. How many are there today? I cannot say. But it is not the soldiers
that should worry you. There are rumours of all sorts of celestial beings from the higher realms that reside in that place. Those are your true enemies.”
“Celestial beings?” Willow repeated, “What do you know of them?”
“It is said there are angelic guardians that watch over the Vale, huge and imposing. In my research I have come to the conclusions that they are Archons of the Legion. Man-sized celestial knights, baring flaming blades, metallic wings grown from their armour.”
“Hmm,” Willow frowned, “I shall seek out lore on these beings, we'd best be prepared. What will we find within the Vale?”
“It is a beautiful, serene place – completely unprepared for an attack. There is the town of Sanctum, a small village where the priests, guards and farmers who live in the valley make their home. There is the legendary Mountain of the Phoenix. I’ve never been to that place. I’m unsure how you even get up there. And beyond that is the Garden of Serenity and the Cathedral of Mitra Made Manifest. I am unsure what dwells within those places, but whatever it is – it will not be happy to see you.”
“It is said that only Mitra's chosen are permitted into the Garden of Serenity,” Willow recalled.
“Indeed this is true,” he nodded, “It is good you have done your research.”
“What of the mountain, do you suppose that a phoenix truly resides atop it?”
“I could not say. But there is a constant light emanating from the crown of the mountain. Perhaps a phoenix has made its home there.”
“Celestial beings, holy warriors and a phoenix,” Willow smirked, “Only to name the ones we know of. This shall be no easy task. Is there anything else I should know?”
Brother Thrain arched his eyebrow, “Yes, there is one more thing. Something I came across
in one of my tomes. Saint Macarius founded the order that bears his name but he wasn’t the only saint that order produced. Saint Angelo called the Wise was perhaps the greatest
devil hunter this island ever produced. Though long dead, it is said he captured many artifacts of Father’s faith. Those that he could destroy, he did. But a few – and this is where it caught my attention – a few he could not destroy.Those he had placed within a great vault and hidden from the world. My source does not say where the vault is. I’m not even completely sure it is in Valtaerna. But I do know this – Saint Angelo commanded these evil artifacts placed where the “Sun never Sets”. That could be a poetic way of referring to the Vale with its eternal flames.”
“Indeed it could,” Willow agreed, “The Mitrans have an overwhelming fondness for vague analogies.”
The Brother chuckled, “Indeed they do.”
Willow frowned in thought, pausing before speaking.
“The pilgrimage,” she enquired, “How long does it take?”
His eyebrows raised, “You are thinking of going?”
“We have three more weeks here in Ghaster, I am fairly well trained in remaining unseen and undetected. We could gain a vast advantage by having first hand knowledge of the place before winter falls.”
He paused for a moment as a smile came to his lips.
“Pilgrims to Valtaerna take three days to walk to the Vale. They take a very particular route stopping at a number of shrines each dedicated to various saints, martyrs and important figures of the Mitran Faith. Three days in the Vale, and then they make the Pilgrimage back - a nine day trip in total. These holy pilgrimages are constantly being organised in the Priest’s Quarter. At last count it was two gold per pilgrim for a paid guide, he'll see to all the practical matters.”
“I shall talk with the others, then look into this tomorrow,” Willow nodded as she wrote.
“The others?” he scoffed, “You do not simply give them their orders?”
Willow smiled, before chuckling to herself, “No, each of us is worthy of one another. We all have great our own strengths. Fortunately though, some of us are strong in mind, not only in arm.”
He laughed his response, as he nodded his agreement.
“Oh,” Willow frowned, “There is another question. They say the lake within Valtaerna holds waters of divine healing. Do you suppose it may cause harm to one of the Father’s faithful?”
“Only if you breathe it,” he chuckled.
Willow laughed, gently shaking her head, “You are not what I expected, nor do I know what I expected from a Mitran priest in service to the Father.”
“And you are not what I expected,” he replied, an impressed gleam to his tone, “The cardinal chose his Ninth well. Tell me, I have heard of your accomplishments in summary, most impressive feats they are. But I wish to hear of your exploits.”
Willow smiled, a prideful spark in her eye, looking out across the hall, “Did you hear of the vile Daemon Prince? More grotesque and repulsive than I could have imagined. So fearsome that the air around him seemed almost to thicken and repel from him. And yet,” Willow looked up at him, a grin tilting her lips, “I tricked him. I tricked him back into banishment with his gift clasped in my fingers.”
Thrain raised his eyebrows, a look of awe in his eyes, “A grand feat indeed.”
“Yes, but I am not naïve enough to believe we have seen the last of him. Betraying the Archdeacon of Pestilence is sure to have made us a powerful enemy.”
“Such things are unavoidable in war,” Thrain shrugged, “When and if he returns, you will be more powerful than before, perhaps trickery will not be needed.”
“We also slew the fabled great silver wyrm of the north,” she said proudly.
“Truly?” he asked, “My mother told me stories of it when I was only a boy. You have done well, very well.”
Willow frowned as she considered her next words. It was clear that Thrain knew more of the identity of Samuel Havelyn, that his knowledge held secrets of incriminating intrigue.
“There was one that escaped our grasp,” she said, showing her frustration while keeping a keen eye on his reactions, “The Mitran hero, and his band of followers, Richard Havelyn.”
She saw the recognition flicker in his eyes.
“Yes I have heard tell of him,” he nodded, scratching his beard, playing down his knowledge, “How is it they escaped?”
“It was suspiciously peculiar. The Horn of Abbadon was protected by a fierce arcane barrier, it's menace disrupted time and space, preventing any means of magic travel in or out of the spire. Yet the sorcerer that accompanied Sir Richard possessed a strange spell, one that allowed him to flee with his comrades. It must have been most powerful arcana to allow him to do so.”
“Powerful,” he mused, “Or very specific.”
“Specific?” she queried.
“With enough time and information, a spell can be scripted to almost any means. Who were the others?”
“They called themselves the Sons of Balentyne,” she continued, “Seeking their vengeance for the death of their fathers. We slew Sir Richard’s father at the watchtower, Commander Thomas Havelyn.”
Willow watched his eyes for more recognition than simple story of his name. The same hint of knowledge flickered his pupils, yet he continued to remain vague.
“A tale I have heard of,” he said, “A grand victory indeed.”
 “So tell me of you?” Willow smiled, “Surely you have not been hidden away here in Ghaster forever?”
“Ah,” he chuckled, “That is where you would be wrong. I have lived in the great city of Ghastenhall the entirety of my life. Save a few shorts stays here and there. The Cardinal needs my services here, and so I continue to stay.”
“I am glad to serve him,” Willow said thoughtfully, “He seems an amazing man. Such power and, such presence. Have you served him long?”
A nostalgic air came over him, he smiled to himself.
“I have served him since before you were born,” he chuckled, “But I served with him when he was merely a Brother.”
His words had Willow's mind race, the strange clues falling into place. Though she was desperate to press for answers, she kept herself relaxed and casual.
“Served with him?” Willow asked.
Thrain looked to her, the sly smile returning to his lips, “Perhaps I have said too much already. The Cardinal will his reveal his past to you as he deems it appropriate.”
Disappointment pinged in her mind, though she would not risk losing the new found mutual respect she had garnered with him.
She replied with a gentle nod, “We all keep our secrets, some between only ourselves and the Father.”

He smiled at her words, “You are wise for one your age. Let that serve you well young Willow...”

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