Sunday, 19 June 2016
Chapter 23 - Seeking Valtaerna
The night was heavy with the early start of winters touch, cold frigid air drifting through the vacant streets of Ghastenhall. The city slumbered as the frosted winds lingered under the blackened sky. With her coat lined in fur wrapped tight around her frame, Willow returned to the Crowley Estate, trailing her steps as she mused over the information she had been given. The Vale of Valtaerna was their destination. A holy place touched by the light of Mitra, guarded by the faithful and the divine. Upon her return, she found Pellius alone in the parlour, sitting by the fireplace. He had sunk into the cushioned chair, one leg draped over the other, a thick tome open along his lap. The warmth of the fire slowly began to melt the frozen chill surrounding Willow; the flickering flames the only source of light within the room. She hung her coat by the hearth, extending her hands to thaw their stiffened tips. Pellius closed his large book and gestured for her to take up the seat beside him. Once her limbs felt more nimble, she sat upon the wide couch, folding her legs beneath her and sinking low into the warm cushions embrace. After a moment simply enjoying the comfort, she turned her face towards Pellius.
“I have heard much this eve,” she said quietly, “Troubling it is, but it has given me much to think on.”
He simply listened as she spoke, he sat in a rare state of relaxation and peace.
“I met with Brother Thrain alone,” she continued, “I figured his knowledge of the Vale would reach further than the textbooks we were able to find. For he may be in service to the Father, but he has lived a Mitran’s life in Ghastenhall for many decades.”
“I take it you were correct?” Pellius asked.
“Indeed,” she replied, “He has made the trip to the Vale many times. He had much to say, he told me all he knew, but I do not believe it is enough. We are walking in blind; rumours and old stories, guesses and assumptions. We cannot hope to succeed with so little in solid fact.”
“Would I be correct in assuming you already have a plan?” he asked, eyebrow cocked.
“He told me of the pilgrimage to the Vale, regular happenings organised in the Priests Quarter. There and back is a nine day journey. I could learn much if I was to see it with my own eyes.”
“You are most well equipped to go and return undetected, my lady.”
Willow smirked, “It is not my own skill that I question. I can scout men, weapons, defences. But I have no means of identifying the magic within the Vale of Valtaerna. Thrain spoke of much, that which guards the place with celestial grace, divine arcana sewed into the very mountains. If I enter alone, I enter blind.”
“Hmm,” he frowned, “Do you wish me to accompany you?”
Willow chuckled, shaking her head, “I wish to be subtle and unnoticeable. You, my glorious champion, do not blend into the background.”
“I shall take the compliment within that,” he smirked.
“I believe it would be best to seek Garvana's aid,” Willow continued, “For her knowledge of the arcane realm far outweighs my own. Yet, I am hesitant…”
Pellius reached out and laid his hand on her shoulder, “She has grown much in the last year. I think she will do well with you to guide her.”
“We shall see,” Willow said, a small frown upon her brow, “I shall seek more information on this pilgrimage come morning, and then I shall talk with Garvana…”
The priests within the Temple of Saint Arga Mivaeira were scuttling about their business when Willow arrived at the grey stone building. Disguised as a young handmaiden, she sought out the elderly man named Father Ezakiel, whom she was directed to for information on the pilgrimage. After a brief conversation, where she spoke of booking passage for her lady and a single house guard, she paid the small fee and signed her fake signature upon the scrolled parchment. The faithful men within the temple spoke of their joy that a women of ranking would be so eager to walk amongst the lower class in the light of their dear Mitra.
After briefing Garvana on the information she had sourced from Brother Thrain, and giving an overview of their proposed cover stories, Willow turned a stern eye.
“This is of the utmost importance, Garvana,” she said seriously, “There can be no mistakes. You cannot run off with a spontaneous plan, you cannot risk giving anything of our mission away. You must follow my lead, listen to what I say and when all else fails – say nothing.”
Garvana nodded, “I will cede to your judgement.”
“I do not wish to command you about,” Willow continued, “But this is what I do. I would be far more comfortable carrying out this task on my own, but I cannot refuse the benefit of having you there. Do not make me regret this. I am putting my faith in you, something I do not do with ease.”
“You have nothing to fear,” Garvana said, “I will follow your lead Willow.”
Willow eyed her for a moment, reading the lines in her face, before she sharply nodded.
“The pilgrimage leaves at first light in two days,” Willow finished, “Perhaps it would be wise that we spend that time seeking any further lore on these celestial beings…”
Following up on a piece of advice Garvana had given, Willow slipped into the halls of the black market, seeking a ring with a particular enchantment. A ring with the ability to shield her allegiance from the minds of all others. She found one that matched the exact description, an iron ring cast to hold an orange stone, slender set with an eery clouded glow.
Upon returning to the manor on the evening before their journey, Willow sat in the window hovel in deep contemplation. She rested with her knees drawn to her chest, her back against the frame. She held her ominous ruby dagger, slowly turning it over with the pommel and point twisting between her fingers. The candlelight ricocheted from the buffed planes of the shimmering ruby, glistening rays of pale light throughout the room. When she heard the door open, she recognised Pellius' familiar stride. She merely continued to turn the dagger over, watching the specks of light dance upon the walls. His footsteps carried him towards her slowly, bringing him flush to her back as his fingers trailed along the skin of her bare shoulders.
“I have a favour to ask,” she said quietly.
His thumbs pressed deep into the firm muscles between her shoulders and neck as his eyebrow raised.
“When I head into the Vale tomorrow, I must not be burdened by any evidence of my faith,” she said softly, lifting the dagger to the light, “I am hesitant, but I must leave this here.”
“I can sense the aura within it,” he replied, his fingers digging deeper, “It is wise of you to leave it behind. I do not remember you purchasing this, where did it come from?”
Willow smiled nostalgically, “It has long been in my family, passed down through the generations, given to me by Grandfather Cassidus – a long, long time ago.”
Pellius stilled his hands, a frown furrowing his brow. He sat upon the cushion next to Willow, looking at the ruby blade.
“We left Branderscar with nothing, how did this come to you again?”
Willow's smile grew sly, “A friend returned it,” she shrugged.
His eyes locked to hers, he smirked as he nodded his head, understanding she would say little else on the matter.
“Will you keep it for me?” she asked reluctantly, “Keep it safe until I return?”
“Of course, my lady,” he responded cordially.
Willow held the dagger for a moment longer, before sighing a long breath and placing it in his hand.
“I will not disrespect you by asking for your word,” she said quietly, eyeing the blade within his grasp, “For I trust you. But know that it is the one possession I treasure above all others. I did not fathom allowing it to leave my side for even a moment after I had finally recovered it. With this blade, I will take my vengeance on those that slew the bonds of family with their betrayal. Do not deny me this, please… keep it safe.”
“I will, Willow,” he said seriously, his gaze intense as he vowed, “I will keep it until you return…”
The morning sun lifted from behind the abyss of the mountains, it's warm glow a comforting grace upon the land. Willow wore a plain dress of pastel blue, modestly high neckline and long sleeves, thick leather riding boots beneath her petticoats. Her hair wrapped in loose braided halo, her iron circlet sitting firm within the locks, disguised as a simple sapphire coronet bearing the sparrow insignia of House Myerlyn. With a large beige fur length draped around her shoulders, Willow and Garvana met the group by the edge of town. Over sixty pilgrims had gathered, bright faces and smiles that greeted them with humble grace. Men and women of all ages, priests and worshippers, merchants and caravans. They greeted Willow warmly, some of the commoners bowing small respectful bows, staring at her with polite and friendly eyes. Only a single one seemed to resent the joy felt by all; a frail and crotchety elderly woman already loaded into the back of a wagon, grumbling loudly about waiting so long in the cold. As the last of the travellers arrived, Father Ezakiel gathered the people and led them in a morning prayer to Mitra. Willow and Garvana bowed their heads respectfully, inwardly saying their prayers to a god of a different kind.
The three days of travel by foot was one of gentle rolling hills, humble farmlands and picturesque green valleys. By day they walked the long dirt track, trudging through the first layers of light snow. Willow spoke with the people, listening to stories of the different regions they had travelled from, the adventures they had encountered along their path. The excitement of their journeys were meagre in comparison to her own, yet the common folk spoke with as much enthusiasm as if they had been battling dragons and slaying knights.
On the third night, as they camped for the last time before they were due to arrive in the Vale, Willow found Garvana hunched around their small fire pit.
“May I ask you something?” Garvana said, after looking around to see that they were alone.
“Of course,” Willow replied.
“You listen to them,” she frowned, “You hear their stories, you make friends. And yet, you know what we must do. Are you so… cold, that it does not bother you?”
Willow gave a sad smile, taking no offence at the accusation.
“I listen to their stories, for they wish to tell them,” she answered, looking into the low flickering sway of the fire, “Indeed, it does bother me. But I will do what I must. For it will be greater once we have finished, it will be stronger.”
The cold winds blew softly as the silence stretched between them. After a time, Willow rose from her perch, turning for the tent. As she reached the draped fabric opening, she turned back to Garvana.
“Even as the fire burns,” she said quietly, reciting a passage from a book she had read long ago, “Born from it’s ashes is the world anew – renewed, stronger than before…”
Towering over both the eastern and western expanse, stood the high rocky mountains that sheltered the Vale of Valtaerna from the outside world. Steep teetering ridges protruded along the spires, making pass on foot near impossible. So they climbed the trodden track, the one way into the hidden valley. As they crested the hill, the imposing fortress that was the Watchtower of Saintsbridge came into view. Heavy white stone stacked upon itself, reaching from one side of the mountain ranges to the other, sealing the entrance with the intimidating structure. As they neared, the building seemed to grow in size, it's walls reaching higher than the eye could see. And yet the mountains soared into the skies on either side, dwarfing the majestic blockage. Willow watched with keen eyes, counting the archers in their patrol, sizing up each soldier as she passed. When they made it to the enormous metal grate of the portcullis, the group formed a natural line, waiting their turn for entry. She watched with interest as a stern man bathed in Mitran blue and heavy gleaming steel greeted and searched each pilgrim. The captiain, she assumed, by his bright livery and prideful air. As their turn came closer, Willow thought over each item she had on her person. Her daggers were strapped sleek to her thighs, so well fitting that only the keenest of eyes or hands would find them. On Garvana's suggestion, she had magically sewn Willow's armour into her petticoat, should the need for defence or retreat arise. She wore her coronet as a lady of her supposed status would be permitted, and she wore her ring with its mind shielding abilities. She knew now was the real test of its function. Other than that, she carried no contraband, nothing that would seem suspicious or out of place. She had reminded Garvana the night prior to triple check her belongings, but spoke no more of it. For if she was to truly learn the ways of deception, she would have to learn her lessons the hard way.
The captain approached Willow with a friendly yet profession look upon his face. She inclined her head respectfully, smiling to the stern man.
“Good morning, captain,” she said formally, “I am Lady Clarentine Myerlyn of Hamiltyrn.”
“Good morning, madam,” he inclined, “And you are?” he asked Garvana, eyeing the heavy steel mace hanging from her belt.
“Rosary Livinstone,” Garvana replied, with a low cordial bow, “Personal guard of House Myerlyn of Hamiltyrn.”
“That's quite the weapon you have there,” he frowned, “The town of Sanctum is one of peace, there will be no need to draw it here.”
“I understand that,” Garvana said respectfully, “But my priority is always the safety of my lady. While she is in no danger, it will remain holstered.”
“Be that as it may, I would require you to fasten it securely,” he spoke as he held out a solid band of blue material, “If you will, tie it into its holster, if only to prevent it being drawn in haste.”
Garvana took the band from the captain and laced it firmly around the mace’s length. As she gave a firm tug to the tag, she dipped her head towards the man.
“Do you wish to inspect it, captain?”
He did a quick visual check and nodded firmly.
“I thank you for your cooperation,” he said formally.
As he stepped up and trailed his hands professionally down Willow's figure, she felt his fingers graze over the blades against her thighs. Unaware of their presence, he moved onto Garvana. Once the search was over, he stepped backward and closed his eyes. Willow watched with interest as he quirked his head to the side, as if listening intently to something she could not hear. After a moment, he smiled.
“You are free to enter,” he said formally, “Welcome to the Vale of Valtaerna…”
The idea of a paradise had never sat easy with Willow. She had trouble believing in a place disconnected so far from the reality of this world, that predators did not roam in the very walls of complacency. Yet, as she stepped out from the halls of the watchtower, the view she was greeted with betrayed her very thoughts. The valley glistened with life. The trees in hues of rich emerald and jade, verdant and lush green fields coating the hills, illuvial soil in a dense rufescent glow that caressed the edges of the farmlands. Beautiful, was an understatement.
As Willow strolled towards the north, she found her eyes wandering the snow kissed peaks of the encompassing mountain ranges. Although she felt the splendour of the place with a soft beat within her heart, she kept her mind as focused as she was able. She counted as many men as she could, listing the patrols in her mind, taking mental notes on any and all defences they passed. As they stepped into the courtyard to the rear of the watchtower, two clay statues caught her eye. Carved into two bulking brutes, shaped as men in glorious poses, at least four times her size. They appeared just as Brother Thrain had said they would, and she did indeed believe his hunch was correct – they were in fact, clay golems. She gave Garvana subtle indication to inspect the imposing statues, as she meandered passed them, spying the fortifications on each side of the pass. Levelled grounds and trenches, prepped if the need for defence arose. There were no towers or buildings bar the watchtower itself, it was as if the people of Saintsbridge felt they need no more to protect the sanctity of the Vale. Once Garvana had completed her tenuous observation, they carried on along the path, following the other pilgrims in a slow procession over the bridge.
Sanctum was a name that fit the town well. Temples and shrines decorated the streets, statues of Mitran Saints upon every corner, priests and acolytes swarming about the town centre. If there was a place where the Shining Lord’s light touched its heavy warming grace, it was certainly Sanctum. Such a divine and welcoming charm – Willow had never felt more out of place. The overwhelming swell of charity and civility, had her shuffle in her steps. She had stopped by the shrine of Saint Alivere Temperance, a holy warrior famed for her self sacrifice in the Battle of Killbyrn, the banishment of the daemon king Gnahrtick-Ovah the Feculent. Willow almost laughed at the exaggeration. Gnahrtick had been no king. He had been a lesser ceustodaemon, a mere servant of a master far more minacious, and one clever enough to return to Abbadon before the hordes of righteous Mitran warriors arrived. Willow's grandfather had told her the story as a child, having always favoured tales of real battles of blood and wit over bed time stories of falsities and fantasies. The thought of her Grandfather was a welcome reminder of her purpose. She turned a warm smile to the wandering crowds of the faithful, ambling into the streets, beginning her reconnaissance.
Over the three peaceful days the pilgrims stayed within the bustling town, Willow and Garvana had sought out every piece of information they could. They had toured the town, spoken to the people and scoured the defences. Of the many noteworthy defenders that inhabited the town, there were two that struck Willow as prominent. One was a dwarven warrior, known to Garvana as Durham One Stroke, named thusly for his ability to fell any foe in but a single strike. She saw him walking through the town with his mighty great axe, followed closely by his contingent of dwarven soldiers and his wife, known as Bride of Father Mountain, bathed in radiant Mitran blue. The other was the band of monks that Brother Thrain had noted – the Serene Order. Led by the most skilled student of the great Master of Serenity; Brother Nicodemus Getz. They were seen in one of the large fields by the town, practicing their fierce form of martial arts, incredibly disciplined and controlled in their training. Willow watched their ritualistic dance, the smooth crooning poses, their dextrous floating movements. She tried not to frown as she thought of the men they had under their command even attempting to face these practiced monks in battle.
The third afternoon, Garvana and Willow rented a slender row boat to tour the grand lake of the valley. They wished to get a better view of the hidden reaches of the northern side of the Vale. As they sailed passed the towering spire of the great Mountain of the Phoenix, Willow saw a white sandstone temple jutting out of the far side of the peak, unseen from the town of Sanctum. Around the summit of the mountain, Willow saw the light of the eternal fire pulsing from the apex. For only a moment, she thought she saw a drifting glisten of magic encompassing the summit. When she strained her eyes to see it again, she saw nothing. When Garvana looked to the peak on Willow’s request, she saw no lingering magic. Frowning, they returned to their northern bound journey, going only as far as the main lake would take them. From their vantage point, they saw nothing of interest. The winding forest and looming mountains overshadowing what hid within its realm. As evening came, Willow decided to press on further, seek out the mysteries to the north.
“I wish to see this Garden of Serenity,” Willow said quietly, as she strapped on her layers of blackened leather armour, standing within their rented chamber at the local inn.
“I think that is very wise,” Garvana nodded, “Shall I come?”
Willow shook her head, “No. I must do this without being noticed. We have no idea what we will find, and I can make a much quicker getaway if I am alone.”
“And if you are noticed?” Garvana said, “Do you have a plan?”
Willow smiled sly, swinging her legs out the window. She spoke before she dropped away silently into the night.
“I always have a plan…”
On feet as silent as a whisper, she ran through the backstreets towards the edge of the woodland. She broke out into the dense underbrush of the greenwood, stiffened needles of pine layering the floor, soft green moss sleeping along the trees. As she sprinted, the cold wind whipped her hair against her forehead, small droplets of sweat lining her brow. The grin she wore stretched from ear to ear, as her heart raced and blood pulsed. Exhilaration and anticipation flooded her veins, frosted air splitting before her as she followed the craning edge of the the tree line towards the northern most reaches of the Vale.
Soft firelight appeared in the distance, at first as if slender flame danced upon the breeze. As Willow slowed her steps and softened her footfalls, the flames grew as she neared. Once at the very edge of the woodland, she saw the owners of the lingering flames. Six tall blades seared with holy fire, casting light across the shimmering water. Holding the great blades stood six immense archons, golden gleaming armour in heavy set upon their figures, metallic functioning wings protruding from their backs. Almost eight foot tall, easily at least three hundred pounds of clunking metal stood at six points along a thin stone dock. These were most certainly the celestial knights that Brother Thrain had spoken of, although his count had not been as high as six. Willow crept to the edge of the shimmering river, straining her eyes for any details she could. The large dock was decorated in carvings of men in robes and blindfolds, carrying lit candles as they walked towards a glittering light. The dock joined a wooden log building, slender yet long as it propelled back into the side of the mountain. Surrounding the building bloomed immaculate lush gardens; flowers in all arrays of colour, trimmed and groomed hedges, thick and dense exotic plants. The Garden of Serenity most certainly earned its namesake.
Willow sat by the riverbed, watching the scene for a time. The guardians stood with an eery stillness in their vigil. The only movement made by the gentle rush of water, the breeze sifting through the trees and the soft flicker of the bladed fire. The lure of information beat strong within her will, the temptation to explore further, too dominant to deny. Silently, she crept down the pass to the narrowest point of the flowing river, keeping her movements slow and controlled. The iced chill of the water stung the flesh under the leather armour, but Willow continued her progress, treading the stream towards the other side. She had ventured far enough passed the dock to allow the water to fall soundlessly from her clothing before she turned back. Slipping into the cover of the gardens, she crept towards the dock. Her footfalls were cautious, avoiding the heavy brush, stepping delicately over fallen logs as she ducked under low hanging branches. Pushing forward, the towering circular walls came into view. The stone had been buffed smooth, whether by tool or age was unclear in the shadowed depths of the night. As she ran her hand along the smooth surface, she knew climbing would be impossible even for one as nimble as her, as there were no grooves or ledges to grip. So she prowled along the side towards the docks, hidden from the moonlight in the casting darkness of the structure. Reaching the side of the wooden hall, she found no entry save the open doorway connected to the dock. The flickering light upon the swords carried by the archons glittered upon the nearby water, Willow controlled her footsteps, the silent scuff of her boots lost in the sound of the small waves upon the stone. Standing on the edge of the river, she quietly climbed the jagged timber logs that layered on one another to form the walls. As she clung to the side, hanging over the blackened lake, she paused before she rounded the corner. Slipping her hand into her pouch, she pulled free the vial filled with the magic of invisibility. She swiftly uncorked the stopper and drank its contents. Once she felt the lingering touch of arcana, she climbed her way around the corner, dropping on soft feet to the stone floor. She wasted no time as she slipped by the six archons, still frozen in their guard, motionless along the platform. As she passed the heavy wooden doors, a room of dense ebony darkness opened out before her. The long hall held no trace of light, bar the slender beams of moonlight that pierced from the glass windows high above. With little time to waste, she crept into the smog of stillness. Trailing her hand silently along the wall, she prowled into the hall, eyes keen and sharp, ears straining for any hint of movement. At the far end of the hall, she saw at the edge of the building, two doors that opened into a courtyard. As she made her way towards it, she had reached halfway into the shadowed room when her feet stilled on impulse. A strange sound filled the chamber, a beast or predator sniffing its prey.
“Your scent… betrays you,” rasped a feminine yet beastly voice.
Willow froze against the stone pillar she had reached. Her eyes scanned the darkness, yet no trickle of movement rippled in the air. As the moment drew on, she carefully lifted her feet, slowly creeping towards the open door.
“You would have made a fine huntress,” the voice crooned, “It has been a very long time since I have hunted the likes of you.”
To her far right, Willow saw the flick of tail in the beam of moonlight, for only a second before it vanished. The beast was making its way to the front of the hall, slow and silent steps hidden within the darkness. Willow could feel her heart thumping, so loud it was in her ears that she assumed the huntress could hear it too. As the doors to the front of the building creaked shut, closing with a heavy thud, Willow’s mind raced with indecision. As she paused against another pillar, the foreboding noise began. At first, soft slow padded footfalls in the distance. They grew in tempo, the trot became a canter, until suddenly the thundering steps morphed into a sprint directly at her. Without thinking, Willow leapt from her hiding place, running as fast as her feet would carry her towards the open doors. The footsteps drummed behind her, the beast was gaining, barely a few feet behind her. As she leaped through the door, she ripped her daggers from their sheathes, preparing to defend her very life. The huntress screeched to a halt in the venomous darkness. As Willow turned to face it, she saw two flaming orange eyes lit up in the blackened fog. It did not cross the threshold. For a moment, it merely gazed at her. The sides of its jaws lifted up in a feral grin, sharpened rows of teeth pointing from hidden lips. Eerily slow, the beast sunk into the darkness, leaving Willow alone in the courtyard, staring into an endless pit of shadow beyond the door.
She knew not why the beast failed to chase her passed the confines of the hall, but she decided not to wait and find out. As she approached the far end of the courtyard, she saw she had been mistaken in assuming that her path forward had been blocked. The wall that craned into the sky continued as far as her eye could see to the left and to the right. At first glance, the wall was made of dense emerald hedge. But on closer inspection, it was in fact crudely cut chunks of field stone layered upon each other, an overgrowth of jade vines rippling along a thick layer moistened green moss. Littered delicately along the heavy brush sprouted slender flowers of subtle pinks and reds. Slowly, Willow found her feet trailing down the path of the right, the never ending valley carrying on into the distance. The air danced with thousands of motes of light, swaying across her vision as if on a breeze she could not feel. The moonbeams lingered in the air, floating along the points of each leaf that grew from the walls. The atmosphere within the path pressed inwards on Willow’s chest, as if the twinkling entrancement held her tight in its mysterious grasp. As her feet wandered of their own accord, she found the first open passage as she made her way further right. Turning into the archway, she faced another endless wall that mirrored the first. She frowned, unsure of her path ahead. She knew she was in some kind of labyrinth, winding pathways of seemly unending turns. She had no means of determining the arcana that twisted her way, but she could feel the heavy glow upon her. There would be no mapping the maze, no simple way of tracking her way through. She did not know if she had entered a realm that lay on the material plane or the next. A sudden thought slipped into her mind. Looking to the vine grappled stone blocks, she carefully began climbing the heavy foliage, making her way to towards the top. Yet as she climbed, the high reach of the walls seemed to stretch further into the sky. As she scaled the side more swiftly, the apex raced upwards, further and further away from her. She sighed half heartedly, not really having expected anything more. She trailed her way back to the ground, dropping the last few feet onto the moss coated stone floor. As she withdrew the scroll from her pack, a single mote of light floated towards her. Cautiously unravelling the parchment, she watched the dancing speck warily. A sudden worry overtook her, the thought of the magic of this place preventing her from using her dimension door from exiting the warren. Suddenly, a fragile angelic voice whispered from the flit of gleam.
“Say it’s name,” the voice said, “And this thing dies…”
Willow frowned, a riddle was not what she had been expecting. She had heard this one many times over, yet it was with intrigue that she replied.
“Silence,” she said softly.
A strange sensation passed over her, a feeling as if the mote of light had accepted her answer. As the speck wandered airily away, Willow found her feet moving once more. Her curiosity had been enticed, a lingering hint upon her tongue, a trial of the mind she had no means to refuse.
Her footsteps were slow as she meandered through the mystic air of the labyrinth, the sparkling flits of light parting for her as she passed. Her fingers trailed through the lush wraps of vine along the wall, the soles of her feet soft upon the vibrant moss. Even time seemed different within the winding paths of the Garden of Serenity. Serene; it was a beautiful word that marked the place – calm, tranquil and peaceful. Willow lost count of how many turns she had taken, she had no way of knowing whether she was facing north or south, for the moon seemed to only follow in her wake. A howl pierced the night, bringing her back into reality. Since stepping into the otherworldly maze, she had not given thought to the fact that she was unlikely to be the only creature within its walls. With her scroll tucked in her pouch for fast access if the need arose, Willow continued her leisurely stroll around the bend. As she ambled, she stepped into a courtyard of spring’s grace. The heavenly garden grew with lush vegetation, glistening emerald grass, bountiful flowerbeds filled with an array of vibrant colours. It was as if the courtyard denied winter its frosted touch, smatterings of luminescent shades grown in mass. An oasis bathed in Mitra’s light. At the far end of the green paradise, stood four mystical creatures. Stags of immense beauty, radiating heavenly grace. Kirin, Willow recognised, drawn from her memory of a book she had long forgotten. Fabled creatures from the far reaches of divine lands, fiery manes that blaze with righteous might, glimmering draconic scales layered along their hide. They gently grazed along the tall grass, long necks bent low as they seemed to hover gracefully above the ground. It was as if they were made not solely from flesh, but from air. Willow had never heard of anyone who had ever met one in person, so when she spoke, it was in truth – if not slightly exaggerated.
“I humbly apologise for the intrusion,” she said respectfully, speaking in celestial, “But I am honoured to be in the presence of ones such as you. I had never thought myself worthy to lay eyes on such beauty.”
The kirin looked up from their grazing, heads cocked, eyeing Willow sideways. They seemed uncomfortable in the presence of a stranger, like startled deer caught within the campfire light. At a voice as soft as whisper, it sounded in Willows mind.
“You honour us too much,” it whispered.
Willow smiled as she bowed her head. Once she had risen, the voice sounded again.
“Are you,” it said timidly, “Here for an audience as well?”
“No,” Willow said gently, shaking her head, “I am merely following the light in my heart and the path of my feet.”
Even though they spoke no words, Willow got the feeling they were talking amongst themselves. She did not wish to disturb them, nor did she wish to meet whoever their audience was with, but she knew not to act out in haste.
“I would, if I may, take a respite within this sanctuary. If it would not cause offence?”
The kirin shuffled in their stances, still eyeing her from the side, not having moved since her entry. The one closest to her slowly nodded.
Quirking her head to the side, Willow smiled warmly.
“I apologise,” she said cordially, “It seems my presence causes you distress. I did not intend it; I shall continue my journey. Though, it was a pleasure meeting you.”
As she walked passed them towards the exit on the far side, they shuffled out of her way, giving a wide berth. Stepping back into the maze, her feet halted. A blissful and rapturous chorus of holy voices crooned a high note. The melody and perfect harmony tuned a pulsing beat within Willows heart, the purity and serene joy welled tears in her eyes. She had never heard a sound more beautiful. As the song came to an end, her breath hitched. She turned from the courtyard and walked quickly, the absence of the ethereal sound leaving an emptiness within her chest. The thought of slaying such pure creatures did not sit well in her stomach.
It was a while that she wondered, aimlessly through the winding labyrinth. As she sighed and decided to leave the Garden of Serenity, another mote of light caught her eye. It lingered in front of her, dancing upon its hidden breeze. At a whisper, it spoke.
“One to whom,” it said, “The mirror, never lies.”
A frown furrowed her brow. She had not heard the words before, it was not a riddle she knew. Her mind raced, as she struggled to draw a conclusion. She searched her mind for any Mitran lore containing mirrors and lies. There were several that at a far stretch could possibly form the wisp of an answer, but nothing that truly made sense. It took a moment, but a sudden thought struck her mind. She remembered seeing the carving upon the dock by the outside of the gardens. Stone blocks carved with images of blindfolded men carrying candles, as if in ritual or prayer. With no other information to go on, Willow followed her instincts, as she so often did.
“The blind,” she answered.
The same strange feeling came over her once again, as if she knew the answer she had given had been accepted. As with the other, the mote trailed away into the distance.
Although initial curiosity had raced through her veins, the night grew heavy as she continued. She had no clue how to summon the motes to solve the riddles, but she did not wish to leave here without discovering what lay beyond the unending labyrinth. As she pondered this, she turned down another path and a pack of white wolves came into view. Eight young males stood wary, strange white eyes staring at her as she approached. The leader, a greyed noble wolf, wise and intelligent eyes taking her in. The wolves flashed from reality, blinking in and out of the material plane, divine beasts in sacred guard. The elder stepped forward, a slight quirk to his head.
“Good evening youngling,” he spoke in celestial, a deep wizened baritone voice, “I did not know we were receiving visitors at this time of eve.”
Willow smiled politely, bowing slowly as she spoke.
“Good evening, elder one,” she said airily in celestial, a soft touch to her tone, a slight humour to her words, “I did not know I would be here, so I would not expect it of you. His light does lead an odd path.”
“May I ask what you mean, youngling?” he asked, “This is not a place one is usually led unaccompanied.”
She kept her face warm, as her eyes wandered lazily up the length of the surrounding walls.
“It is his light I have followed for many years,” she said almost affectionately, “I awoke one dawn, with a vibrant warmth glowing in my chest, the Shining Lord, the sun itself beaming from within me.”
She laughed softly shaking her head, “I know I sound farcical. It was an arduous task convincing myself, yet I knew always that I must follow it. The light has guided me safely across the war torn country, it guided me to water where there was none, it kept me warm as I slept unsheltered in the wild. And now, it has led me here…”
The great wolf listened to her words, his own image flickering, his eyes glowing with interest. He huffed, craning his neck to the sky as his eyes clouded over, gleaming a luminescent white.
“See there,” he said, as if indicating to a certain point in the star trickled night sky, “Sirius has turned for the east, while the great wheel converges. A great conjunction is upon us.”
Willow looked to the sky, completely unaware of what he was reading. But she continued her act, seeming fascinated and almost dazed by her own feet.
“I can not tell whether this conjunction is for good,” he frowned, “Or for ill. Your presence here may have everything to do with it, or nothing at all. Perhaps it is best to take you to see Ara Mathra, he may know what all this means.”
It was the celestial translation of the words he spoke that had fear beat within Willow’s heart. She knew instantly that her simple ring, disguise and story would not be enough. Not near enough to fool one so called; Ara Mathra – He who stands in light.
It was with a calm face and steady voice that she spoke, in contrast to the utter panic within her chest.
“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” she began, “I have followed the light always, and I would very much like to see where it takes me. I would carry on alone within this labyrinth, if I may. Perhaps the light will lead to this Ara Mathra, perhaps it will not.”
Each heartbeat thundered in her chest. As the wolfs eyes returned from their clouded state, and his blackened pupils contracted and shrunk, Willow waited for his response with her hand over her scroll. After what felt like a life time, he spoke.
“This place does indeed have its own trial of right,” he nodded, “Run along, youngling. The great conjunction will come either way, as it always did and always will.”
Willow smiled warmly at the great wolf, bowing deeply to him.
“Thank you elder one,” she said softly, “May Mitra’s light guide you.”
“Get of Sirius!” he called to the other wolves, “Come along.”
Airily she turned from them as they disappeared into one of the many paths. Her thundering heart threatened to burst within her chest. Once she was sure she was out of earshot, she ripped the scroll from her pouch desperately, preparing to read aloud the incantation. Before she did, a mote of light twinkled in her view. Racked with indecision, she paused for a moment, listening to the whisper.
“From this wicked thing, does darkness fly.”
Holding the scroll tightly within her fingers, her mind churned. Fire, was her first thought. Although cleansing and purifying, the flame had always been accused of being wicked. Yet, as she thought her answer over, the carving came back to her mind. Her guess was that each riddle would describe her way to exit the arcane touched maze. So it would seem fit that the ritual described may be the one carved into stone.
“A candle,” Willow answered, not as confidently as she would have liked.
But once again, she knew her answer had been accepted. She expected the lingering light to disappear as the others did, but it remained in its dance across her sight.
“Three at once,” it whispered, “Where the answer lies.”
As the mote trailed away, Willow couldn’t help but smile. She quickly read the incantation, and as the familiar arcane wisps pulled upon her soul as they spun her through the otherworldly portal, she sighed, releasing the breath of built tension. Appearing in the darkened streets of Sanctum, she saw Garvana kneeling in vigil to her right.
“You were successful?” Garvana asked quietly.
“Well,” Willow laughed, “You could say that…”
Only once they had left the Vale of Valtaerna on their return to Ghastenhall, did Willow begin writing her observations in her journal. By night she used the map of the Vale to scrawl in the defences and people of note within the valley. She spoke in hushed whispers to Garvana, telling her tales of the Garden of Serenity, with subtle pride she described her deception and wit. The three day journey back was uneventful, the pilgrims speaking fondly of the holy site and its inhabitants. As they arrived back in the city as night fell, Willow and Garvana said their polite farewells and returned to the Crowley Estate. Once dinner was served, Willow dismissed the servants for the evening and unravelled her map and notes upon the large dining table. She told Bor and Pellius of her discoveries, pointing out the prominent figures and most sturdy fortifications.
“We are going to need a very large army,” she frowned, pointing to the watchtower, “I was not able to search within its walls, but from what I could gather, although Sanctum is unprepared for an attack – it is most certainly not defenceless.”
“We have the beginnings of an army,” Pellius said, “Our men arrived while you were gone. I have set them up in the Silkcreek Homestead, they have been busy building the dormitories. But I agree, we need a force much larger if we are to assault such a place.”
“The instructions from Thorn say we are to receive the kernel of an army from Sakkarot,” Bor reminded.
“Yes,” Willow said, “And that we are to build upon it. We have the aid of Prince Gaius, but we are going to need more. Thrain found directions to the Duergar, an ancient map that was written before the lands changed. It is not much, but we may be able to catch hint of a trail.”
“Will they aid us?” Garvana asked, “Do they serve our Father?”
“They do not serve him,” Willow shook her head, “They serve one of the dark dwarven gods, I know not which one. But they may aid us, they hate all surface dwellers, but they despise their surface dwellers cousins with a vicious loathing. When we seek them out, I would suggest bringing along a few dwarven sacrifices as a token of truce. It will not guarantee us alliance, but it may be enough to grant us audience with their leader.”
“Very good, my lady,” Pellius nodded, “I have another lead…”
With resignation to his position, he sighed.
“While you were gone I sought out the Mines of Bakkar,” he said, “My former comrades are serving their sentences there, I sought to storm the keep and return with them. But I am not eager to run to my demise, there are heavy fortifications there, it is something we must do together. If we were to extricate my men, they would serve us faithfully.”
Willow inclined her head, “We will do this, and we will follow your lead.”
He nodded stiffly, turning from the subject, “Do we have any other leads?”
The group looked to one another, all scouring their minds for anything else.
“I cannot think of any at this time,” Willow shrugged, “But there is much we can prepare for. I will seek out Thrain tomorrow, update him on my findings and seek out any further information on those within the Vale. I have been thinking though, we wish to give our army the best chance of success. The Mitran forces contain ranks of archers and cavillers. Perhaps there are arcane ways to take out these foes from a distance? Garvana, can I task you with this?”
Garvana frowned, but nodded sharply, “I shall see what I can find.”
“Thank you,” Willow smiled, “And if that is all, I shall retire for the evening. There is a large bath and a larger bed awaiting me…”
By morning light, Willow outlined their leads in her journal. Pellius had left early on an errand of his own as she finished the last of her notes, so she sat by the window with a steaming cup of tea as she watched the sun rise in its splendour. She remained where she was as a soft knock on her door sounded.
“Enter,” she called.
The door opened as a timid Denita stepped over the threshold.
“A Lady Cassandra to see you, mistress,” she said quietly.
“Thank you Denita, show her in and leave us.”
Cassandra walked into the room, frowning as the servant bowed and closed the door behind her. As Willow saw the look, she laughed softly.
“You disapprove?” Willow asked, eyebrow arched.
“No my lady,” she replied, “Only, is it wise to have servants whom you do not trust?”
“Are you questioning my judgement, Cassandra?” Willow inquired, her other eyebrow raising.
“No of course not, my lady,” she said quickly.
Willow laughed at the panic, “I do not trust anyone, Cassandra. But that does not mean I wish to fill my own bath and clean the manor myself.”
“Of course, my lady,” she began, “I did not-
-“Think,” Willow said coldly, “You did not think before you opened your mouth.”
Cassandra paled slightly, wisely choosing to keep her lips sealed.
“I have a task for you,” Willow said, turning her gaze back to the sun, “Go to the Library of Ghaster, seek out Brother Thrain and tell him that Lady Myerlyn seeks his audience. Tell him she wishes to hear his thoughts on the debate of Lyrshfield over Franston.”
“My lady?” Cassandra questioned, confusion tinting her features.
“You have your instructions,” Willow clipped, “Return with his reply.”
“Yes my lady,” she rushed, bowing before swiftly retreating from the chamber.
As the sun finally lifted from beyond the trees surrounding the Crowley Estate, Willow sighed deeply, the warm glow upon the window soothing the cold ache in her limbs. While she sat in wait for her spy’s return, her mind mused over the serene magic within the Vale of Valtaerna. The battle for the valley would be bloody and full of carnage. To see victory, they would need to be meticulously planned and prepared. Willow unravelled the map she had written her notes over, skimming her thoughts she had scripted. When the group met with Sakkarot Fire Axe once more, she was determined to have as much information as possible to share. For she knew little of war and battle tactics, and his keen mind seemed in tune with the two. She was not too prideful to ask for aid and advice when the opportunity presented itself so willingly.
As dusk lingered over the city, Willow entered the grand halls of the library once more. She toed her way down the stairs to the familiar lecture hall, the two brutish guards standing in vigil by the doors. They nodded stiffly as she passed, allowing her into the dusty chamber. Thrain was waiting for her, already sitting upon the timber pew.
“It is good to see you, Brother Thrain,” Willow said warmly.
“And you, child,” he said, with something close to fondness, “I assume your pilgrimage went well?”
“Very,” she smiled, “But it has raised many questions. I thank you for seeing me again.”
“I will help if I can,” he replied.
As Willow began a recount of her journey, she laid out the map of Valtaerna and her journal, describing each curiosity she encountered and listening to any comments Thrain had to make.
“I scouted inside the Garden of Serenity,” she said, with a touch of pride.
“Indeed?” he asked, looking fairly impressed.
“Indeed, it is a strange place. I am not entirely sure they lay on the material plane. I do not know what or where they are, but it was a place filled with lingering magic…”
When she continued her story, she spoke of the six legion archons and entering the wooden hall, she frowned deeply.
“It was in there that I met a peculiar creature,” she said ominously, “A beast of some kind. I had walked straight passed the archons with no hint of resistance, and yet this creature found me with little effort.”
“What do you know of it?”
“Very little,” she replied, shaking her head, “I saw only that it walked on four padded feet, a large fur covered tail, and the fiery copper eyes of a fearsome predator.”
Her frown pulled tighter, “It spoke of my scent giving me away, and referred to me a fine huntress. I know my information is vague at best, but can you draw any conclusions?”
“I am afraid not,” he replied, his frown matching her own, “But you must be careful now, child. If this beast is a huntress, it now has your scent. Some beasts do not see as we do, they can see by way of smell. And those smells are not easily forgotten.”
“I suppose it is good that the next time I walk those halls will be with an army prepped to slaughter.”
“Still,” he said seriously, “Do not take this lightly. We do not know what kind of communication such a beast uses; it may be able to pass the scent to others.”
Willow nodded solemnly, “I will heed your warning, Brother.”
She moved on through the tale and spoke of all within the Gardens of Serenity. As she finished, she wrote down the titles of books he recommended to seek further lore on the creatures within the Vale. As she closed her journal and returned it to her pack, she smiled at the priest.
“Thank you for your aid,” she said, “I have learned much. You are most wise and knowledgeable.”
“And you, young Willow,” he replied, “Are quite clever. It is enjoyable to talk to some one other than the elderly closeted librarians.”
She chuckled as they rose from the pew, together heading up the stairs to the halls of the library to seek the lore he had directed her to.
With a heavy pack she returned the manor, setting the tomes aside for reading the next day. As she dressed in her armour and strapped her daggers to her thighs, she relayed the information to Pellius. Once finished, they joined the others in the parlour, who were already dressed and ready to leave for the fighting pits in the Red Quarter.
“Don’t die tonight,” Pellius joked to Bor, “I am planning on betting big.”
Bor laughed, “I don’t think they’ll let you bet much. Maybe you should bet against me, the odds are bigger that way.”
“A sure way he’ll lose his money,” Garvana said, giving Bor a vote of confidence.
Willow grinned, a malevolent glow to her eyes, “As long as we return with at least three dwarves, I do not really care who else wins…”