Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Chapter 24 - Opening the Way

The last gasp of autumn hues littered the lands, a spattering of mustard yellows and carob browns trickling across the landscape, as the last of the leaves fell from their trees. Her light pack fell over her shoulders, as Willow led the way through the rolling hills south of Ghastenhall. Pellius, Bor and Garvana followed her trek towards the mountains, four clueless dwarves trailing behind. The previous night at the fighting pits, after Bor’s brutal victory against another round of Vex’s monsters, he had hired the dwarves under the guise of a job surveying an estate for building upon. The group had paid the dwarves ten gold each for their apparent employment, a small price to pay for the opportunity of securing an alliance with the dreaded mountain dwarves of the south. Of course, the dwarves that followed them knew nothing of such a plan. They conversed easily along the journey, seeming eager to get their work underway. Bor had been vague about the details of the job’s location, stating a mountain side manor to the southeast.
Following the ancient map that she had been given by Brother Thrain, Willow guided the group through the three day journey. The air held a frosted chill, a pre-emptive warning of the winter months to come. By night, they made small camp within the lowest points of the valleys, using the high arch of the hills to shield them from the brunt of the harsh winds. The further they pressed into the mountain ranges, the more rugged the terrain grew, the colder the ground beneath them became.
On the final press of the third afternoon, as the night began its darkening smother, the group reached the final point that the map’s directions indicated. Willow searched the details of the scripted drawing, noting that the land had indeed changed over time. The highest peaks that were drawn had fallen into the valleys below, harsh winds filled with sharp ice had worn away the stone over time, new pathways opened as old ones had closed. As she strolled around the area, she heard the dwarves begin to mutter amongst each other in suspicion. She paid no mind to them, eyes searching the ground keenly, seeking a trail or tracks to indicate the place was inhabited. As she traced her hand along a rocky edge littered with scratches of peculiar marking, whispers drifted to her ears from beyond the dense brush.
Should we capture them and take them back to the thane?” a voice whispered, in a language Willow had not heard spoken since her Grandfather had taught it to her as an adolescent.
No,” hushed another, “We should slaughter them all.”
The language they spoke was one known to her as the common language used by those of the underground caverns, mainly the drow and the beings she was seeking - the duergar. Willow let the magic of the circlet release the hellfire within her eyes. She turned to the bushes the voices had leaked out of, a harsh threatening rasp to her voice.
I’d highly advise you do neither,” she warned.
As the voices within the dense foliage silenced in a eery chill, the dwarves spun towards her in shock and suspicion, the oldest of them pointing an accusatory finger at her.
“What’s the meaning of this?!” he barked.
Willow arched an eyebrow, unfazed by his reaction as she spoke again to the mysterious creatures behind the bushes.
We bring these sacrifices as a token of truce,” she continued, “We seek an audience with your thane.”
Horror and panic dawned on the faces of the dwarves, in terror they tried to flee, racing as fast as their legs would take them. Suddenly, ten fearsome looking duergar burst from the bushes, in quick formation cutting off the escape of the dwarves. Much like their surface dwelling cousins, the duergar stood roughly five feet high, long intricately braided beards draping from their chins. But where the four captives had thick manes of hair upon their head covering bright olive skin, their captors had hairless shining scalps bearing sickly grey flesh. Willow’s eyes flashed crimson red as she stared back into the cold black eyes of the leader. He brandished his crossbow as he levelled it to her face, stepping menacingly towards her as the others fanned out to surround them.
What are you doing here surfacer?” he sneered, “No one comes seeking the duergar willingly.”
We come to speak with your thane,” Willow said, unperturbed by his threat.
What business do you have with him?” he snapped.
Willow lowered her voice, eyes narrowing, a fierce threat within her words, “Our business is with him. Not you.”
His eyes widened slightly, the warning she implied sinking into his mind. He looked the group over as his men whispered between themselves. Willow stood with calm authority, her blades remaining holstered, her glare piercing into the gaze of the duergar. After a moment, he nodded towards her daggers.
Surrender your weapons,” he growled, “We’ll see what the thane decides to do with you.
Willow’s eyebrows raised as she gracefully slid her daggers free, spinning them slowly into a backwards grip, stepping forward to the duergar.
Of course,” she grinned, a feral smile that tilted her lips as she raked her eyes up and down his body, “Where should I sheath them?”
Anger tinted his features, his brows drawn tight as his lip twitched.
Just walk in front,” he snapped.
Willow smiled, mockingly polite, slipping her daggers back into their sheaths. She inclined her head to him, before turning to the others who stood with hands on their weapons, unaware of what had been said.
“He’s not happy about it,” she said, “But he’s taking us to their leader. Come along.”
“Are you insane?!” cried one of the dwarves, “They’ll slaughter us all!”
Willow shook her head softly, feeling a ping of guilt looking at the terrified dwarves.
“Not all of us,” she said quietly, turning away towards the path to the duergar caverns.
As the brush was pulled back from an unmarked stone wall, Willow stared into the dense ebony darkness of a hidden tunnel. So discreet was the entrance, that she was sure even her keen eyes would have overlooked it. Before entering, she retrieved a torch from her pack and quickly used her flint and steel to light the cotton wrapped end. As she lifted the small flaming wood, she saw the eyes of the duergar compress, hisses seeping from their mouths as they recoiled from the light. Unbothered, she stepped into the dimly lit cavern and began her descent.
The winding tunnel delved deeper into the mountain, as all trace of moonlight disappeared behind the miles of stone. After almost half an hour of following the crudely cut hollow, the stone began to sharpen, clean solid carving widening the passage. Soon the tunnel came to an end, opening into a vast hall spanning forty feet tall and at least that wide. A single platform craned along the centre of the expanse, meeting the large archway along the opposite side of the room eighty feet away, flanked by rows of smoothly carved towering pillars. By both sides of the thin platform, lay deep valleys that dropped lower than torch light would reach, a blackened sea of the unknown festering below. The side walls were lit with an eery white glow, a dim light so subtle that it only illuminated the deep wells of the elaborate murals. A litany of hate painted the scene, feral and savage displays of loathing and abhorrence that the duergar harboured for their dwarven cousins. Visual displays of barbarism, gruesome scenes of blood and carnage, showing the dark and twisted inhabitants of the underground for what they were.
Willow kept her torch high as they strolled through the grand hallways of the great duergar city, marvelling internally at the exquisite craftsmanship of the buildings. The stone floors were polished to a gleam, each wall carved in delicate detail, the ceilings craning higher than the light could shine – a dark fairytale of stone. It seemed to Willow that the dark dwarves had more in common with the surface dwarves than their ancestry.
As they passed, only rasped whispers could be heard, only pin pricks of red reflecting from the eyes of hundreds could be seen. Deadly threats drifted to her ears, vicious warnings of the wrath of their leader, gleeful anger at what he would do to the trespassers. They came to a mountainous archway, a grand entrance barred by two impenetrable stone doors. Guards in heavy steel chest plates stood by each side of the door, great warhammers clasped in their grip. At the nod of the scout party’s leader, the two doors scraped loudly against the gleaming floor, opening wide to reveal a dark yet resplendent throne room. The halls were filled with the most intricate and elaborate carvings that Willow had seen, vicious and despicable imagery painted throughout the chamber. To the right of the hall was a metal grate that ran the length of the room. The heat from the embers beneath could be felt radiating throughout, grizzly remains charred black still littering the grooves of the steel teeth.
You walk in the halls of Thane Zashur Arzen!” boomed the announcer, as they entered.
Sitting upon the raised dais, on a throne of glimmering iron, sat a duergar of foreboding might with steel eyes of bitter cold. Adorned in lavish armour of midnight black, a sable beard reaching the floor braided in complicated weaves, a fearsome great axe poised by his throne. The scouts sheparded the dwarven prisoners to the front of the hall, roughly throwing them at the feet of the menacing thane. As Willow and the group approached, more guards flanked them, weapons ready with hungry eyes waiting for the command to attack. The thane stared coldly, motionless in his seat, speaking no words as they arrived before him. After a moment of lingering silence, Willow spoke in a harsh tone, addressing the leader of the duergar.
We bring these sacrifices to you, as a token of truce,” she rasped.
His gaze pierced, scouring the might in Willow’s eyes. She kept her face cool and emotionless, her posture tall yet relaxed. She was determined to show no fear, nor remorse. She resolved to give nothing away as he judged her in his own right. She could feel the anticipation of the other duergar in the room, patiently awaiting the thane’s verdict. After a time, the barest of a smile lifted the corner of his lip.
Gift,” he said in his deep venomous tone, “Accepted.”
Suddenly, the duergar guards leapt at the four dwarves. They ripped the clothes from their bodies, gripping the long hair and slicing it from their flesh. Willow kept her gaze locked with the thane, trying not to watch as the dwarves were slashed and grazed as they were publically shaved and stripped. The screams they cried as they were thrown on the fiery grate to the right, had the hairs on Willow’s neck rise and a sickening chill seep into her bones. Yet she remained still, her face calm and unperturbed, her sight still sealed with the thane. It was only after the whimpers and screeches of agony had died down that he spoke.
You have earned your right to talk,” he said deeply, “Speak your piece.”
I will not waste either of our time with more pleasantries, Thane Zashur Arzen,” she said formally, “I am Willow Monteguard of the Nessian Knot. We are representatives of the force that is at war with the Mitran scum of this land.”
You speak of the Fire Axe?” he asked, a slight lift to his brow.
Indeed,” she replied, “Sakkarot Fire Axe is one of us.”
I have heard tell of his efforts,” he said, seeming almost impressed, “Even deep within these caverns do the rumour of his victories spread. So tell me, what do you come to me for?”
We seek an alliance. We seek to destroy the Vale of Valtaerna.”
You four?” he mocked in disbelief, “What could you four hope to do?”
Willow arched an eyebrow at his tone in disdain, “We are not alone. We have already garnered many allies. Come winter, we will command part of the army of the feral bugbears, elite vampire spawn and leagues of men. Yet an alliance with the duergar would bolster our forces immeasurably.”
He gazed at her, a frown pulling on his brow, his mind working over her words. Finally, he spoke.
Why should the duergar get involved in your war?” he snapped.
Willow let the hellfire drift into her eyes, the passion and anger flare within her voice.
It is not solely our war! The Mitran faith taint this land with all that is good and holy, they spit in the face of true power, they lay blissfully ignorant of the rightful order of the world! It is for this, that we will savage the faithful, slaughter the divine! Do you truly wish to cower behind your stone walls and allow the foul Mitrans to rule the land?! Do you not value your privacy? If we were able to find you, how long before they do? We shall strike them while they rest within their false safety of winter and Mitra’s grace! By taking Valtaerna, we will cut the very heart from the faith!”
The air hung still within the chamber, the tension too sharp, the silence stretched as Willow watched the thane muse over her words. She could feel her heart beating within her chest, her breathing rasping loudly in the quiet. Slowly, a feral grin tilted his lips.
Your vehemence serves you well,” he rasped.
He eyed her for a time, his mind turning over her words, weighing up the cost of aiding the humans that had intruded his caverns. Slowly, he nodded as his decision was made.
Very well,” he said, “The duergar of Zhaanzen Kryr will aid you in this battle, this battle alone, and only at night. You may have my son, Zargun Arzen, and his hundred warriors!”
He looked out to his people, a prideful gleam to his eye, “Let it be known, that the duergar were the ones that slew the heart of the Shining Lord!”
The warriors within the chamber cried out their feral cheers, hefting their weapons high in the air. From the corner of her vision, she saw Bor and Pellius shift in their stances, gripping their own weapons tighter. With the magic of the helmet Garvana wore, Willow knew she could understand what had been said. As the stench of burnt flesh lingered throughout the room, Willow cringed internally as she foresaw what would come next.
We feast to seal the alliance,” Zashur said, shrewd eyes searching her reactions.
She kept her face calm as the charred remains of the dwarves were hacked and served around on sacrificial metal plates.
“We feast to seal the alliance,” she repeated in common to Bor and Pellius.
Ignoring the repulsion she felt racing through her veins, she accepted her plate, keeping her gaze locked on the thane as she ate. His eyes held a portion of respect, cold venomous and black as night. His grin widened as she finished, inclining his head to her. In turn, she bowed low, swallowing the alliance along with the bitter taste of flesh.

After three days to return and with the duergar set to meet them come winter, Willow found herself lazing by the warmth of the fireplace in the Crowley Estate, sketching further details onto her map of the Vale. While she sat curled up in the heavy armchair, she heard Garvana’s masculine stride approach from the eastern wing. Looking up from her drawings, she saw a frustrated look upon Garvana’s face. She entered the room and paced back and forth for a while, before dropping into the seat adjacent to Willow, staring at her with a curious expression.
“Is there something you need?” Willow asked.
“Do you know of anyone named Murphy Massidan?” she questioned abruptly.
Willow frowned, “No one I can recall on a whim. Why do you ask?”
Garvana’s eyes drifted aside, her brow clenching as she spoke.
“I have…” she said reluctantly, “I have been given this name by an agent of Asmodeus. I believe it my duty to seek the identity of this man.”
“An agent?” Willow queried, “The devil that has aided you in the past?”
Garvana shook her head, “No, not Hisperian.”
Willow waited for Garvana to elaborate.
“Another?” she asked when nothing further came.
For a time, it seemed as if Garvana had ignored the question. She gazed into the swaying flames of the fireplace, a look of strange distraction upon her face.
“I have these, dreams…” she said slowly, “Dreams that guide me, teach me. At times, I wake from my sleep and see things written in my handwriting that I have no memory of scripting. I awoke this morning with nothing but this name.”
Willow’s lips crept into a small smile, “Intriguing. And the name is not familiar?”
“No,” Garvana sighed, “I had hoped you would know of it. Perhaps you may ask your contacts? They may be able to give some insight.”
Willow shrugged, “I am not sure what information I could gain from them with so little to go on. Why not seek out Brother Thrain? Or at least search the library. If this man is of Ghaster, he is sure to be noted somewhere there, in the records of birth or death?”
“I shall,” Garvana nodded, standing from her chair.
Distractedly, she wandered from the parlour, the frown still upon her brow. Willow watched curiously, thinking on the mysterious stranger’s name. Massidan was no noble house within Talingarde that she had heard of, nor a man of any book she had read. As Pellius and Bor entered the parlour, their conversation drew her mind from Garvana.
“She could be a worthy ally if we were to convince her to aid us,” Pellius said.
“Or she could turn us all to stone,” Bor replied, “And all of our forces.”
Pellius scoffed as he shook his head, “I believe the gains outweigh the risk.”
“Willow?” Bor called, “What do you think?”
She frowned, “Are you speaking of the medusa the duke has the bounty on?”
“Pellius wants to seek her out,” Bor chuckled, “See if she’ll join us.”
“Wont she just turn us to stone?” Willow said, eyebrow cocked.
Bor laughed in response, “That’s what I said.”
“My lady,” Pellius began almost condescendingly, “We have faced greater foes than her.”
Willow shrugged, “If you wish us to seek her out, I am not against it. We have twelve days left in town, it cannot hurt to seek more allies.”
Pellius smiled triumphantly until she continued, “But I am not volunteering to walk under her gaze, I like my flesh to be flesh.”
“You’d make an attractive statue,” Bor joked, “But fine. We shall seek out this creature, perhaps I can talk some sense into her…”

It was two days later that found Willow splattered in scarlet blood, standing within the ruins of a deserted temple, with an answer to their question; no, Bor could not talk some sense into her. He had entered alone, his weapons holstered and his gaze withdrawn. He had tried to convince the fearsome medusa to join their cause, he had offered her an alliance and purpose. But the creature had no mind for his offerings, she had wished only to add his masculine form to her stone collection. So Bor had roared, ripping his weapon free from its scabbard, shattering the golden mask from her face. Her beautiful alluring figure in contrast to the hideous disfigurement of her face. When his fearsome battle cry had sounded, the group quickly pounced from their hiding places, slashing and slicing at the foul creature until she fell to the ground in the gush of her own blood. As Bor frothed from the mouth in rage, the beast turned her head to him, the deranged mania swarming her eyes. Crystal sapphire iris’ gleamed back at him, feral snakelike gaping mouth, fierce razor sharp fangs flashing.
Am I not beautiful?” she gasped.
His vicious sword cleaved through the air, taking her head from her shoulders in one foul swoop. And so, Willow sighed, as the ricocheting blood showered her in crimson red. She wiped the mess from her face after she returned her daggers to their sheathes. As Bor collected the head and wrapped in the ripped silk of the medusa’s dress, Willow eyed the glimmering jewellery she wore. Though bathed in blood they were, their beauty was not veiled. Two coiling bracelets, golden and glittering with small rubies, shaped into shakes with slender piercing fangs. As Willow slid the claps on, allowing the serpents to unfurl along her forearms, she heard Bor laugh behind her.
“Well,” he chuckled, calming from his rage, “I tried…”

The days trickled by with little to note after the group had returned to town once again. It was through star lit streets that found Willow walking with Garvana towards the great Library of Ghaster, the cloudless night glistening with twinkling lights across the black canopy of sky. Together, they descended the winding staircase to the basement level of the halls, where Brother Tharin stood awaiting their arrival. Willow let Garvana lead as they entered, nodding to the guards as they sealed the doors behind them.
“Brother Thrain,” Garvana said formally, “Thank you for seeing me.”
“Hmph,” he grumbled, “’Bout time you learned some tact.”
Willow smiled as she approached, inclining her head as she held her hand out.
“Good evening, Brother,” she said warmly.
“Lady Willow,” he replied in a friendlier tone, shaking her hand in greeting, “I take it you are here to see if I have located information on Murphy Massidan?”
Willow gestured to Garvana, turning from them as she sat along side upon the timber pew.
“Indeed,” Garvana replied, “Has your search been successful since our last meeting?”
Thrain frowned as he nodded, “It has, though I am unsure what good the information will do. Murphy Massidan was a resident of Ghaster, some five or so decades ago. He is intoned within the cemetery to the west of the city.”
“Do you know who he was?” Garvana pressed.
“A carpenter of no real note,” he shrugged, “From all I can gather, he lived most of his life here.”
Garvana began to pace slowly, a deep frown tinting her brow. After a moment, she nodded, returning to Thrain with a bow.
“Thank you for your aid,” she said respectfully, “It is most appreciated.”
Thrain huffed, turning towards the door, “If that is all, I shall be off.”
“Brother,” Willow beckoned before he left, “May I ask you something?”
She stood from her seat, gliding across the hall towards him, walking passed a contemplative Garvana.
“Yes, child?” he responded, arching an eyebrow.
“I apologise if my assumption is misplaced,” she said cordially, “But would I be correct in thinking you are one taken by rare and unwonted lore?”
His eyebrow lifted as he replied, “It is all that has kept me going these long years.”
Willow smiled, reaching into her pack, pulling free a leather bound tome, “Perhaps this gift would entice your curiosity as it did mine?”
She held out the book, its black and green rotted corners rasping in her fingers. He frowned, taking the book and skimming its contents. As the forbidden lore of the Dirges of Apollyon scrawled along the blood stained pages, Thrain’s eyes widened hungrily as awareness dawned. He swiftly wrapped the tome within his robes, hiding it under draping layers of blue cotton, his face calm and collected as if nothing of importance had taken place. As his eyes met Willows, a sly grin tilted her lips. He winked to her, a devious spark within his eye, before he inclined his head and left the chamber. Willow chuckled, turning back to Garvana.
“How shall you proceed?” she asked, sliding herself back to sit on the table.
“I must seek out this cemetery,” Garvana frowned, “But it will be less conspicuous in the daylight.”
Willow laughed, “A lot less vampires then as well…”

The following morning the two of them made their way across town to the fields where the dead of Ghaster were laid in memory. They strolled through the rows of tombstones for an hour before they located the resting place of Murphy Massidan. Willow’s eyebrows raised as they found it. A simple stone block, fourteen crudely carved letters, identifying the man who rested below.
“Strange,” Garvana frowned, “I have never seen the Infernal language displayed so blatantly obvious. Perhaps we should not be seen by this, we risk being connected to it.”
Willow’s eyebrow shot high, confusion on her face.
“Um,” she said slowly, “What is it you are talking about?”
“The numbers,” Garvana scowled impatiently.
“What numbers?” she asked, her brow dropping to a frown.
“The Infernal numbers on the tomb,” Garvana said, pointing to something Willow clearly could not see, “Eleven, nine, two, one and seven.”
“Garvana,” Willow said quietly, “I cannot see any numbers.”
She frowned, looking to Willow in curiosity, “They are written in a fire red brand, the numbers carved beneath his name. What do you think it means? A code of some kind?”
Willow paused for a moment, thinking on the oddity.
“I think,” she said carefully, “That perhaps there is a reason that the name came to you, and the numbers have not revealed themselves to me.”
“What do you mean?” Garvana asked.
Willow shook her head gently, “I mean that perhaps this is a riddle you must solve, or a path you must take, alone…”

Wrapped in the fur length, Willow sat by the windowsill staring at the sky as her mind wandered. Tomorrow they would meet with Sakkarot Fire Axe once again. She had been reading over the list of their allies, planning her conversation with the mighty warlord, when a peculiar thought came to mind. Thorn wished the slaughter of the Vale of Valtaerna to appear as another bugbear raid. The wording he had used in his letter implied that he did not wish the Ninth Knot connected to the massacre, yet it was to them he gave the brutal mission. Why was it, she thought, that he wished to keep Asmodean influence out of it? Sakkarot had revealed his worship of their Infernal Father to the Ninth, yet Willow had not heard the Dark Prince’s name called, nor his glory cried as the tales of the battles had been recited. Thorn had never revealed his grand plan to the Ninth, he had given only instructions to each mission, blunt and to the point. He was still yet to reveal how it was they were to convert or control an entire civilisation of devoted Mitran servants. She surmised that the bugbears were not only expendable, but doomed to be wiped out along with the forces of the Mitran armies. How he was planning to achieve such deceit, was well out of her realm of knowledge. She knew little of war and battle, yet deceit was something she was intimately involved in. She could recognise it when it presented herself. Thinking back over the two main missions they had been given, she ceded that perhaps the Ninth had been too open in their devotion. Revealing their allegiance to their enemies, even those who were fated to die by their hands, was still risking their cover – and in turn, possibly risking Thorn’s master plan. If they had not been cautious enough to withdraw their forces from the Horn of Abbadon before facing the vile Vetra-Kali, the crumpled wreckage of mountain, stone and cinder would contain implicating evidence of Asmodean interference. Even the battle of Balentyne was not meant to appear as a victory of the Infernal Lord’s forces, it was supposed to appear as if the Mitran’s had slackened in their vigil, their complacency having allowed the overwhelming strength of the bugbear horde to overpower them. Or at least, that was what Willow could surmise. Since leaving the desolate ruins within the Caer Bryr, the group had been wiser in their concealment. All trace of contraband was sewed delicately into the cotton of Willow’s white petticoat, in a stitch so fine that only the sharpest eyes would reveal its contents. Even their newest recruits into the ranks of the Forsaken were kept in the dark, unaware the true allegiance of their masters. It was curiosity and speculation that kept her slumber restless that night.
As the sun lifted from the horizon, and the first rays of light seeped through the windowpane, Willow was already awake. By the time she had donned her armour, strapped her daggers to her thighs and packed her journal and maps into her bag, she heard a familiar voice drift from the parlour.
“Ah dearest,” Tiadora said, “There you are. You are ready I presume? The Fire-Axe awaits.”
Clutched in her hands, she carried an ornate scroll case of dark red lacquer wood, lined with shining brass fittings. As the four of them converged in the parlor, she opened the case and presented each of them a single bound scroll.
“They will transport you directly to the Fire Axe,” she instructed, “And then they shall allow you to return. Shall we depart?”

As the arcane world dragged her through its depths and she stepped into the camping grounds of Sakkarot’s feral army, Willow’s eyes raked over the scene in distaste. The Castle Westkirk was a burned out ruin, a husk of it’s former glory that was now decorated with the grisly remains of its former lords. Brutes and bugbears were camped in all directions, gleeful and bedecked with stolen loot. Mad giggling goblins scampered underfoot, snarling beasts snapped to each other, more fearsome creatures commanded prime real estate within the conquered fortress. The halls had been marred for eternity by the hordes of Sakkarot Fire-Axe.
When they appeared in the centre of the camp, Willow saw Tiadora step into the realm, wearing a guise of a different kind. She took the form of a female white-furred bugbear, garbed in a spike and skull adorned leather harness, bearing the icon of a great axe
wreathed in flame. Each bugbear she passed eyed her intensely, but seemed unwilling to
meet her gaze. She said nothing, proceeding directly to the Fire-Axe’s conquered throne. Sitting upon the grand dais of Westkirk, clad in fine but ill-fitting armor, still wielding his infernal weapon was the Fire-Axe himself. He stood, growling at the white bugbear with a low provocative roar. Her grin spread as she snarled back.
“Did you miss me, dearest?” she said to him, a sarcastic gleam to her tone.
Before he retorted, his eyes searched her companions.
“You’ve brought friends... old friends!” he boomed, “Welcome! Behold, my warriors, it was these vicious killers who slaughtered the guards of Balentyne and opened the gates for us to raid the south! It was they who brought us steel! They are my honored guests and I will feast upon the heart of any who does not treat them well!”
A bestial cheer roared from the throng of bugbears within the great hall. Sakkarot let out a fearsome call of his own. The savage cry had a chill creep up Willow’s spine – it was this that the lands feared, it was him at the head of this feral army.
“We have much to discuss,” he said, nodding towards a chamber to the right, “Join me in my war-room.”
As he turned for the room, a dozen elite bugbear lieutenants followed his lead. The feature of the side chamber was a grand oak table, layered in maps and scrolled parchments of numbers and names. Willow’s eyes were drawn towards the cowering whimpers from the corner of the room, a man tied to a chair having hot coals applied to the soles of his feet by two bugbear thugs.
“What are you doing?!” Sakkarot yelled, “Torture is to be done in the dungeon!”
“It’s full, my lord!” the thugs protested, fear in their black beady eyes.
“Imbeciles!” he roared, “Make room for the Baron and get him out of sight!”
Shaking his head as the two underlings scampered off, dragging the prisoner behind them.
He sighed, “Good help is so hard to find.”
“It certainly is,” Pellius agreed, looking on at the torture techniques as if he was critiquing their work.
“Take a seat,” Sakkarot said, taking the chair at the head of the table.
He pointed to one of his more junior lieutenants, “Bring us some of that good brandy we looted from Lorringsgate. Now!”
It took only moments for the bugbear to leave and return with the liquor, quickly pouring mugs for each of Sakkarot’s guests. While he was pouring, Willow eyed his maps curiously.
 “It’s good to see you,” Sakkarot said, “I’ve been hearing a lot about your exploits from Tiadora here. I’m glad I’m not the only one fighting this war.”
“We have heard tell of your own grand victories,” Willow said, looking to him.
“Word has spread of your deeds as far as the duergar of Zhaanzen Kryr,” Bor commended.
“The duergar?” Sakkarot said, eyebrows raised with an impressed lilt to his tone, “My wolf-riders have reported evidence of them. But I have never been able to make contact with them. They seem uninterested in allying with us. You have gained their aid?”
Willow smiled slyly, “I can be most convincing when I try.”
“So it would seem,” he grinned.
Sakkarot’s lieutenants said nothing, they only stood at attention, listening attentively to their warlord. Although he played the brute in front of the hordes of his army, Willow was surprised once again as he showed himself to be far more intelligent than he let on.
“You know why we’re here,” Tiadora interrupted.
“Of course I know why you’re here,” he grouched, “You want to steal my army.”
“We want to use a small part of it for a special mission,” she countered, “If Valtaerna could be sacked, the king’s army will be denied those clerics. It will be-
-Yes, yes, I’ve heard your pitch,” Sakkarot snapped, cutting Tiadora off, “With the Vale destroyed, the king’s army will be weakened and we will fare better against them when we push towards Daveryn in the spring. I’ve already agreed to lend my friends here in the Ninth Knot, Hekkarth’s Head-Takers. That’s a hundred fine warriors!”
Tiadora nodded, “We want more than that. Cardinal Thorn also commands that Shagoroth Night-Mane and his retinue be given to their command!”
“What?!” he barked, “That’s another hundred and fifty warriors! What am I supposed to make war with come spring?”
“You will command more than ten times that number,” she continued, “And more reinforcements are due from the North. By the spring your horde, mighty Sakkarot, will be greater than ever before.”
“Half of your promised reinforcements never arrive!” he snapped, “You cannot have the Night-Mane. I need him.”
“We need them,” Willow interrupted, “I have seen Valtaerna with my own eyes. I have scouted their defenses, seen their numbers – we will need more than a hundred warriors.”
Willow pulled free her journal and her map, laying them across the table over his layers of parchment. She opened her journal to the long list of defenses she had written.
“See here,” she indicated, “This is only what I could find in three days, there are bound to be more. Archers, cavaliers, soldiers, warriors, monks! At least six of the archon legion, celestial beings, arcane creatures. We’re fighting at least five hundred warriors, and then there are at least two thousand civilians. It is not merely men we are fighting. There are rumours of a phoenix dwelling within the Vale, but more dire than that, I have heard tell of a divine being that guards Valtaerna. One they call Ara Mathra – he who stands in light…”
Sakkarot cringed at the name, his eyes narrowing as he seemed to recognize what it signified.
“No simple Mitran warrior would dare take on a name such as that, it is a title given to only the most holy of beings. My best guess, is that the rumours are true. The Vale of Valtaerna is guarded by an angel,” Willow sighed, pausing as she shook her head, “We have managed to secure an alliance with the duergar and the vampire prince of Ghastenhall. With their aid and our own men, it raises our own number to just under one hundred and seventy. One hundred of yours is simply not enough.”
“Slaughtering the inhabitants of the Vale is of vital importance,” Garvana said seriously, “Not just for your spring campaign, but to deal a deathly blow to the confidence of the Mitrans. Take away their sanctuary, defile their holiest of places, and you take away their will to fight.”
“I have seen my share of battles,” Bor added, a sorrowful gleam to his eye, “And I know the numbers. Battles may have been one with worse odds, but the cost is much greater. Send with us the Night-Mane, and we will return with more of your men intact. Let us overwhelm them. Let us massacre them in a victory in which a great many of our numbers walk away. Or send with us a smaller number, and be grateful for each single man that manages to return.”
“Fine,” he grumbled, “Night-mane as well. I hadn’t realized you were so desperate. If that’s the case, then I have one for you. Amongst the many fine reinforcements that Tiadora has gathered for me, one is an oni named Raiju the Exile. He is a beast! He slew the son of a chieftain and its just a matter of time before my killers manage to corner him. He’s yours if you want him.”
“We shall seek him out,” Pellius nodded.
“Well,” Tiadora said, “It is done, and I shall depart. You have your scrolls and now you have your army. Return to the Crowley Estate and muster your forces when you are ready. You march on the Vale in two days. Good luck, my lords.”
And with that, she vanished from sight. Sakkarot let out a small cheer as she left, taking a deep drink from his brandy. The group joined him in easy revelry, swapping stories of their battles, speaking proudly of their victories. As time slowly passed, Willow approached his side and took up the seat next to him.
“May I ask your advice?” she said quietly.
“Of course little one,” he chuffed, much friendlier now Tiadora was gone, “What do you need?”
“I am,” she began, “Unsure of how best to proceed. I deal in dark shadows and silent blades, not in brute force of raging armies. I know enough to know that we must take the watchtower before we can press on, yet I know not how.”
“You are at a great advantage little one,” he replied, “It is rare to be so well informed as to what you are going to face. What I would give to have a scout like you. The most important thing I can tell you is to take the watchtower as quickly and quietly as you can, so the armies have no time to muster their defense.”
“We must attack at night,” Willow added, “The vampire spawn and the duergar cannot fight by daylight.”
“That is not a bad thing,” he commented, “Although it will give you poor sight, it will also do the same for your enemy.”
“And these forces you lend us, Hekkarth and Shagoroth. Where are they best used?”
“The head-takers are savage brutes that prefer outright slaughter in battle, and night-mane and his band are better in the shadows, yet no less lethal.”
Willow scribbled his notes in her journal, along with other observations he made for her to record. After picking his brain with every question she could think of, he chuckled and gave her a hefty slap on the back.
“You will do well, young huntress,” he growled.
“Huntress,” Willow chuckled, “That is what the beast within the hall called me.”
 “It is a good name for you,” he nodded, before standing from his seat, “This reunion has been fun, but I’ve got a war campaign to plan. This country doesn’t burn itself you know…”

Later that evening, they followed the directions that the bugbear captain had given, searching through the rooms of the castle seeking the elusive oni known as Raiju. It was in the eastern wing in a bedchamber that Willow felt the presence of something hidden. Like a breeze on the back of her bare neck, she felt eyes watching her.
“Raiju the Exile,” she said to the empty chamber, “I come with an offer, an ultimatum if you will. We seek to destroy the Vale of Valtaerna, and we offer you the chance to aid us. We know of your plight; you slew the son of a chieftain, and now the bugbears want blood as retribution. We offer you a way out. In return for your aid, we will take you from this place.”
As only silence greeted her, she shrugged.
“Or we can leave you here,” she added, “For the bugbears to reap their vengeance upon.”
A strange foreign voice slid from the shadows, “Your offer, interest me.”
Willow smiled towards the voice, “Will you reveal yourself, I cannot negotiate with the air.”
In the corner, a rippling image came into view. A peculiar large ogre-like creature; velvet red flesh, white clear eyes and sharp protruding teeth that formed in an under-bite. He wore oriental vermillion armour and grasped a long curved vicious looking blade, yet he smiled at Willow with an almost friendly grin.
“I am Raiju the Exile,” he said formally.
“I am Willow Monteguard,” she replied, inclining her head before gesturing to the others, “And these are the other leaders of the Forsaken.”
“So, you will come with us?” Garvana asked.
“Raiju is considering,” he replied, nodding his head, “You may hire my services. I will take half of all treasure, or two hundred and fifty gold a month.”
Bor scoffed, “Two hundred and fifty?”
Willow smirked, trying not to laugh at the unbalanced proposal of all treasure they collected against a measly amount of gold.
“Two hundred and fifty it is,” Pellius agreed.
Raiju clasped his hands by his side, bowing deeply in a foreign formal bend. Willow cordially curtsied back, before a frown dropped her brows.
“We are due to depart shortly after we farewell Sakkarot,” she said, “Perhaps it is best if you stay hidden until then. It is best if we avoid altercations with the bugbears, I’ve no mind to kill the ranks we’ll be needing for the Vale.”
“Wise is the lady,” he said, “Raiju will be there when you leave…”

It was their final evening before their journey to Valtaerna, that Willow visited the Library of Ghaster once more. Descending the familiar steps, she passed the brutish guards and entered the dusty lecture hall. Thrain smiled as she entered, inclining his head.
“A pleasure to see you, Willow,” he said warmly.
“And you, brother,” she replied, “I have come to say good bye.”
“Yes, I suppose that the time has come. Do you leave tonight, or tomorrow?”
“At first light. Our men prepare for their departure tonight, and by sun down we shall meet the army in Hatterfield Valley to the east.”
He nodded, “A wise decision, that region will be deserted with winter come.”
She smiled, “I cannot stay long, I have much to do before dawn, but I come to wish you luck in your mission.”
“And you in yours, child.”
He grasped her forearm in friendship, a tight grip for one his age, a proud gleam in his eye. Willow grasped his back, smiling gently.
“It has been a pleasure to know you,” Willow said, “May we meet again one day.”
“Bah,” he huffed, “We will certainly meet again.”
Willow grinned, releasing her grip and pulling him into a hug. He grumbled as an old man would, but she chuckled as she felt his arms embrace her back.
“For the glory of the Father,” she said quietly by his ear.
He finished her sentence in a whisper, “May all burn in His hellfire…”

A wisp of red flittered across the dawn twilight sky, like a flare sent high to warn the lands of the journey that had begun. The sun touched over the mountains, it’s light tinting the realm, a crimson glow to the early clouds. As the four of them arrived at the Silkcreek Homestead, the dawning sun bled light into the ether, though it held no warmth that Willow could feel. It was if the sun had no way of delaying it’s rise, but refused to thaw the chill from their bones that night had brought. The playful growls of Sith had Willow turn and smile, watching the fiery hellhound bound towards her. She laughed as he affectionately rubbed his head into her hand. Grumblejack stood proudly, bossing around the men under his apparent command, shouting orders at them. He grinned when he saw the Ninth approach.
“Are the men ready?” Pellius asked, his fierce authority commanding.
“Yes,” the ogre responded, “Grumblejack got them ready.”
“Good,” Pellius replied, “Lets move out!”
As the men heard the order, they turned to attention, watching their four leaders mount their horses. The men seemed composed, if not fearful now they were under the stern watch of their masters. Willow turned her steed to the east, kicking it into a trot. As a slow procession, yet as one, the ranks of the Forsaken set off towards the mountains to join the others in their mission of slaughter and war.

The day trickled by along the voyage, as the long legs of the oni mage kept his stride even with the slow trot of Willow’s horse. She watched him, seeing his eyes grazing the fields as his smile lingered across his cheeks.
“That is a fine weapon you have there,” Willow said conversationally, nodding to his curved blade.
“Yes,” he agreed, “It is Raiju’s family relic. Given to him when he was much younger.”
“Where are you from, Raiju?” she asked, “I have not seen an oni within Talingarde before.”
“Mmm,” he said, looking to the distance, “A place far from here. Very far.”
“What brought you to Talrien lands, why did you leave your homeland?”
“Raiju was an assassin,” he said proudly, “The best assassin in all of home land. Raiju worked for powerful magister, had contract to kill rival magister at his grand ball. Instructions say he would be dressed in all white. Raiju accidentally kill important ambassador instead, also dressed in all white. Contract was void and magister try to kill Raiju. So he fled to this land, and found the mighty Sakkarot-sama. Wanted to join him… But then, killed son of chieftain.”
“Why did you kill the chieftain’s son?” Garvana asked.
“Insulted Raiju’s honour!” he answered bitterly.
“You call him Sakkarot-sama,” Willow soothed, steering him from anger, “What does that mean?”
His frown softened, a small smile returning to his face.
“A term of respect from Raiju’s homeland,” he replied, “Raiju regrets that he cannot stay with Sakkarot-sama… Sakkarot-sama is wise; he is strong yet he is smart.”
“Indeed,” Willow said softly, thinking of her musings the night before, wondering where Sakkarot fit into the outcome of Thorn’s master plan, “He certainly is…”

They rode at the front of the march, wind whipping through their hair, cold chill biting at the uncovered flesh of their faces as the sun sunk below the horizon. They crested the hill and the fearsome horde of feral bugbears slowly came into view. The Forsaken ranks clutched their weapons tighter, unease and uncertainty tainting their features. Pellius kicked his horse into a canter, showing no fear as he charged forth to meet the vicious army. Willow kept her face cool, her steed proudly trotting forward, flanked by Bor and Garvana. As the forces met, Pellius ordered their men to make camp upon the western ridge of Hatterfield Valley, a stern lash to his command. He would suffer no trepidation from his men, forcefully instructing them in order and direction.
To the south came a low piercing signal horn, an eery drone sounding from the carved skull of a sapient being. In the shadowed depths of the snow littered forest, a swarm of blackened figures leaked from beneath the tree line.
“The duergar,” Willow said, a malevolent gleam to her voice.
Pellius looked to her as he nodded, together riding to meet their newest arrivals. As they approached, she saw their leader, a fierce duergar with eyes as venomous as his father’s. Stopping shy of the legion of twisted dwarves, Willow raised her voice in rasping greeting.
Welcome, Zargun Arzen!” she called, “We are honoured to have the duergar of Zhaanzen Kryr join us in this glorious battle!”
Standing at least as five and a half feet, quite tall for a dwarf, the leader of the duergar force stepped forward. His long beard braided tight into a savage twirl of glittering golden beads, shining grey skin opposing his midnight black eyes. As Willow sat tall upon her steed, Pellius by her side, the duergar eyed them shrewdly.
You must be the Lady Monteguard,” he replied, “The thane spoke well of your callousness.
As he mentioned her name, she saw a hint of respect flicker through the faces of his men.
It is a rare compliment, for my father speaks highly of no one,” he said, eyebrow cocked.
Then I shall take the compliment,” Willow responded cordially, “Allow me to introduce the leader of our forces, Commander Pellius Albus.”
As eyes turned to Pellius, sitting regally upon his wide horse, Willow continued.
Do you speak the common surface tongue, Arzen? Our commander has much to brief you on, if needed I will translate, but there is much that I must do and a shared language would ease the time constraints.
“I do,” he replied in common.
“Very well,” she replied in turn, “Commander Albus, allow me to introduce son of Thrane Zanshur Arzen, commander of the legion of Zhaanzen Kryr – Zargun Arzen.”
As they greeted one another, and Arzen sent his men to make camp within the darkness of the forest, Willow said her farewell and returned to the ranks of their men. Not long after her return did the beasts within the bugbear horde begin growling and shifting in their rest. From the cover of unseen darkness, the vampire spawn arrived. Draped in heavy floor length cloaks, they appeared from the night, pale crystal white flesh glistening in the light of the moon. After greeting each force and organising camp, Pellius called the leaders and the elite of each group of allies together. Using a strange magic that echoed his voice through the valley, he stood proudly upon a large boulder that allowed him to see the entire expanse of their army.
“Comrades!” he boomed, “You stand together tonight on the brink of revenge. Nay, the brink of revolution! The Mitrans label you one and all as thugs and monsters who are unworthy of respect. Do you know what I say to their musings? I say they are wrong! They lock you behind their walls in the frozen north, isolate you in deep mountain holds, and condemn the aspirations of the truly powerful as corrupt and evil. For we who stand here tonight are the powerful, the mighty, the ambitious, and I seek vengeance on those who would deny us. They oppose and isolate us because they know that should we stand together, a fierce and bloody reckoning will fall upon them! Here, tonight, we stand together! Tonight we stand strong! We stand as allies!”
The ranks of the army growled their approval, roaring their might in howls and hackles.
He motioned to each group as he spoke with a feral snarl, “To the ferocious bugbears, the Headtakers and Nightmanes! They would call you brutish mindless fiends, worthless beasts! I say you are savage warriors who could devour this foul country whole!”
The bugbears thundered their roars, growling and snarling into the night sky.
“To the duergar of Zhaanzen Kryr, they would deny your existence and raise up your pathetic surface dwelling cousins! I say you are the worthy ones! The vicious and the fearsome, those that strike fear into the hearts of the blessed!”
As Arzen translated his words, the duergar cheered a feral savage chant, crying out in spine chilling fury.
“To the spawn of the mighty Vampire Prince Gaius! They have you cowering in hidden alleys, feeding from the dregs of society! I say you should take back the night, feed from the blood of those that would call themselves kings!”
Though only a small force, the vampires hissed their assent, venomous glee bounding throughout the camp.
“And to the ranks of the Forsaken; they say you are scum, you are nothing, forsaken by the divine light of their Shining Lord! Well I seek vengeance on those who would forsake us. Look around you and you will see what the Mitrans fear. The Forsaken, bound together with purpose and hate, ready to reclaim what has been taken from them! Tonight, we are all Forsaken! We stand together as one!”
“Follow me and I will lead you to revenge and glory as we desecrate their holy Vale and lay waste to the Mitran sheep within. Follow me and I will lead you to a wealth in steel, gold and slaves. Follow me and I WILL LEAD YOU TO VICTORY!”
The camp erupted in shouts and applause, a feral chorus of bestial cries, the valley awash with malevolent cheers and bloodthirsty calls. Willow felt the pride racing through her veins as she watched Pellius glow with purpose. He stood with his fist raised in the air, hellfire beaming from his eyes, a feral battle cry of his own screeching from his lips.
When the calls had died down, and the camps had turned away from the gathering, Pellius stepped down from the boulder and called the leaders of each force together. Hekkarth of the Headtakers was a feral beast, as savage and uncivilized as one would expect. Shagoroth on the other hand, was more refined in his speech, yet more sadistic and cruel than any other that Willow had met. Arzen stood tall, even as the others towered over him, a fierce creature comfortable within the darkened caress of night. The nameless leader of the vampire spawn stood warily towards the back of the procession, hungry eyes searching the ranks, as if his bloodthirst lay barely in check. Willow, Garvana and Bor stood in front of the group, fearsome expressions, heads raised high. Pellius took the lead as those who gathered listened while he explained the rules of the camp.
“You are all accountable for your own soldiers,” he finished fiercely, his commanding tone lashing like a whip, “Misconduct and disobedience will not be tolerated, and dealt with harshly. We are here as allies. We must act like it. I will personally slay any man or beast that disobeys my rules. Is that understood?”
Although unhappy to have been commanded so, the leaders nodded stiffly.
“Good,” he clipped, “I suggest you keep your forces separated from each other. We leave at first light and march through the day, we will arrive in Valtaerna before nightfall tomorrow. We will have a few hours to rest, and then, we shall march on the Vale…”
After the meeting was concluded, the group retired by their own fire, surrounded by their own tall lines of tents. Willow sat propped against a tree stump with Sith curled between her legs. She watched the flames of the campfire dance for a time, before looking out over the red dotted expanse of their army. What a tale this was, she thought. The four of them, leading an army so vast and fearsome. As she had done so many times since coming into the service of Cardinal Thorn, Willow marvelled at the path her life was leading.
A whiff of brimstone lingered for a mere second before the air rippled suddenly and a familiar figure appeared before them in a cloud of sulphurous smoke. Scarlet skin shone brightly against a black suit, richly embellished and fine fitting velvet robes draped from his shoulders to the ground. Thin horns protruding from his forehead in an almost decorative fashion, forming a crown upon his brow. Two thick golden rimmed horns pierced from pleats in his back, arching forward in smooth angles, their tips pointing ahead of him. Rows of glittering razor sharp teeth formed his malevolent yet welcoming smile. His wide dark eyes scoured the group. Willow felt the familiar pulsing within her, a deep thrum of hell’s beat, low and rumbling.
“Great and powerful masters of darkness,” the intruder bowed, “Behold your servant, Dessiter of the Phistophilus. It is an honour to meet those of you I have not, and an honour to see those of you once again that I have.”
Sith lifted his head as the devil spoke, growling a low threatening warning. Willow calmed him, softly stroking the fur between his ears, as she watched Dessiter with keen curiosity.
“I have only just received word of your great victories, and I come on behalf of the Lord of the Nine Circles to personally congratulate you. But more than that, I bring counsel, if this assembly of great lords will deign to hear it.”
“Dessiter of the Phistophilus,” Garvana said respectfully, standing to bow to the devil, “It is good to see you once more.”
“You honour me too much,” he replied, bowing lower than she had, “O’ powerful one.”
“Speak your counsel,” Willow said bluntly, suspicious at the intrusion of the devil.
He turned to her with his shrewd and calculating eyes, inclining his head formally.
“You have built an army to storm the Vale of Valtaerna,” he said dramatically, “Truly a noble undertaking. But know this wise masters, the Vale is guarded by more than mortal guardians. Agents of the celestial realm infest that Vale and you will have need to defeat them all if Valtaerna is to be taken.”
“You speak of Ara Mathra,” Willow said quietly, arching her eyebrow.
Dessiter stumbled on his words, frowning as if surprised that Willow knew of the name.
“Yes,” he recovered, “I do. But great and powerful dark master, you would do well to not speak that name aloud. For names, as you would know, carry much power.”
“There is a mortal master to the Order of Saint Macarius, but he is only a figurehead. The true mater of the order is undying and eternal – an angel. He is your ultimate enemy, and until he is defeated, your mission can only be deemed incomplete.”
“We have heard tell of him,” Willow nodded, “From what I can gather he resides within the Cathedral of Mitra Made Manifest.”
“Alas,” Dessiter replied theatrically, “Little is known of the interior of the Vale. It has been long since any who serve the Dark Prince has managed to infiltrate that stronghold of light.”
Willow smiled slyly, lifting the parchment map she had made of Valtaerna from her pack, laying it upon their makeshift camp table.
“It had been long,” she said quietly.
His eyes raked over the parchment, slight surprise tinting his features.
“Ah,” he said, “It seems I am not as well informed as I had thought.”
“Either that,” Willow replied, bothering not with humility, “Or I am too subtle to have been noticed, even to those so clearly watching.”
She watched his gaze imprint every detail upon her map into his mind. She had no doubt that if he had need, he could redraw the information in explicit detail.
“Certainly true,” he bowed formally, “This is a most impressive feat, my glorious lord.”
“What else do you know?” Willow asked, “Surely you come to speak of more than an angel?”
“Indeed, o’ great one,” he called, returning to his dramatics, “There is much. Defeating the mortal army stationed within Valtaerna is only the beginning of your struggle. Just as the Lord of Light wears three faces, so do three eternal flames burn within the Vale. As long as those divine fires burn, the Shining Lord’s connection to the Vale will remain too powerful for any mortal to overcome. Extinguish the flames and you extinguish your enemies’ ability to resist you.”
“The mountain top,” Garvana said to Willow, “That lingering aura you saw. Do you suppose it could be one of the flames?”
Willow frowned, turning from Dessiter as she thought over what she knew.
“Perhaps,” she nodded, “There was certainly something up there. They would not have a temple on the peak and a right of passage for their priests if there was nothing of note.”
“You saw the Garden of Serenity,” Garvana said, “Do you think there is one in there?”
As they spoke to each other, pointed over different areas of the map, Dessiter merely watched. Willow could tell he was evaluating every detail, taking in every word they said, cataloguing every reaction. But as her brain ticked, she had no mind to pay attention to him.
“It is possible,” she frowned, “I would guess that this angel guards one, somewhere within the Cathedral. There may have been one within the gardens, but I was not willing to push my luck any further, once I discovered the presence of the angel. I made it only as far as what I would assume to be the entry to the Cathedral.”
“Do not do yourself a disservice, my lord!” Dessiter interjected, “You are formidable to have infiltrated that far, and most wise to have withdrawn when you did, lest the angel discover you!”
Willow’s frown pulled tighter as she turned to Pellius, “These divine fires, I would assume they cannot be extinguished by normal means, for the heavy rainfalls of autumn would have done so long ago. Do you suppose they could be doused by water tainted by our Infernal Fathers grace?”
“It is likely,” Pellius nodded, brow drawn low.
“I could call on our Father’s power to desecrate them?” Garvana offered.
“That may be enough,” Pellius replied.
As they conversed back and forth, Dessiter’s eyes trailed over the legion of warriors they had in their command. His sight fell to Sith, who still sat by Willow’s feet with his fierce gaze locked on the devil. When they had hushed and Willow had begun to scrawl more notes upon her map, he spoke once again.
“The forces you command are most impressive, my great lords, yet it seems this servant is fairly out of it’s depth,” he indicated to Sith.
At the snarling response, Willow smiled and dropped her hand to his chin, trailing her finger through his fiery fur.
Naas Sith,” she soothed, “Hirrith mer thrish.”
“Perhaps there is something I may offer,” Dessiter suggested, arching his eyebrow.
Willow eyed the devil suspiciously, nodding her head for him to continue.
“I could transform this runt into a fearsome beast, a ferocious creature; a warhound of Nessus!”
Willow cocked an eyebrow, “And what would you require in return?”
“A contract of course, my lord,” he said slyly, “A promise to slay the celestial being known as Ara Mathra, or at the very least, drive him from this plane and cast him back to the heavens!”
It was a task they were preparing to complete without the aid of Dessiter, it was part of their mission, he had spoken truly when he had said that their duty would be incomplete if the angel still remained. Willow knew the power of an infernal contract, it was not a thing to be trifled with, nor something to be entered into lightly. Yet as she stroked her hand through Sith’s mane and his flames danced between her fingers, she had to concede that the devil had a fair point. Though he was vicious in his fury and fiercely loyal, he was merely a pup. Willow knew her fondness for her hound was a weakness, but it was one she could not deny.
“And if we fail?” she asked.
“Well,” Dessiter said, eyebrows raised, “You’ll already be dead.”
Willow chuckled at his response, shaking her head as she looked to her hellhound.
“Your soul already belongs to our Infernal Father,” Garvana commented, “The aid of a Nessian hound would be very valuable.”
Turning back to Dessiter, Willow tilted her brow, “I will of course wish to read this contract before signing.”
“Of course my glorious lord!” he proclaimed.
Suddenly, a slip of parchment fell from his hands and began to lengthen, metres of minuscule font unfurled across the pages. The scroll laced around the horns protruding from his back, rolling upon itself until finally the long script finished with a dotted line for her signature. At least three weeks worth of reading, possibly more. He grinned at her, a glimmer of camp fire sparkling from his shining teeth. Looking once more to her hound, she sighed. She lifted her dagger from its sheath and delicately sliced the tip of her finger. With resignation, she signed her long elaborate signature along the flame wreathed parchment.
“Excellent!” Dessiter called, clapping his hand together as the scroll raced and rolled closed, slipping itself into his robes.
Suddenly, Sith let out a feral howl, as his body disintegrated into a pile of ash between her legs. Willow gripped her dagger so tightly her fingers began to throb, she was ready to pounce and drive the blade through the devil’s throat if things did not go as he had said. After a moment of still silence, the ground beneath her began to tremble. Carefully lifting herself to a crouch and edging backward, she watched the ash pile with penetrating eyes. A split in the earth opened, a crack revealing searing flames as the smell of sulphur radiated from below. A fiery paw the size of Willow’s head burst from the crevice. First one, then another, before a great beast tore itself from the ground. As large as a horse, born of pure darkness, terrifying to behold. The creature burned with an unquenchable blaze, infused with the primal might of the palace of the Dark Prince – Nessus itself. The beast roared in furious might, howling a frightening cry into the night sky. The entire camp stilled in awe, even the feral beings of their army hushing to gaze in fear at the fiend from hell.
Willow eyed the creature warily, hand still upon her blade. As she watched, the beast looked to her. It approached and bowed its head, as if waiting for her. Slowly, Willow carefully extended her hand. The mighty creature gently rubbed its head into the palm of her waiting hand, a familiar croon to its affectionate huff. She smiled, grazing her fingers across the smouldering inferno of its fur.
Sith-Mistrithith,” she whispered in awe, calling him by the title given to the fearsome beasts of Nessus, pressing her forehead to his.
An odd sight it would have seemed. From beyond, her face and head disappeared into the fiery blaze of the beast. Yet as she pulled back, she simply smiled. A glorious beast he was, a grace of hell, his infernal beat drumming within Willow’s heart. When she had a moment to break from her marvel, she looked to Dessiter. The fondness she displayed for the hound seemed to amuse and baffle him, but he stood back and merely watched the proceedings, clearly pleased with accomplishing what he had come for. Willow nodded her approval, before looking back to her ferocious warhound. As he settled by her side, now too big to curl up between her legs, she rested herself against his enormous back.
“I have no doubt we will meet again, my lords,” Dessiter said respectfully, “Once other victories have been won.”
As Garvana made small talk with the charismatic devil, Willow merely watched him with curiosity. To each question, he responded in circles, answering vaguely with no real conclusion to his words. As he turned to the group and looked as if he would farewell them, Willow frowned.
“Why do you come to us?” she asked, “Why would a devil come to our aid unbidden?”
He answered her with a dismissive wave, “You fight for the Prince of Hell, did you think you would not receive aid?”
Willow smirked, that was exactly what she would have thought. No devil would put themselves out without an ulterior motive. Yet, as she felt the huffing breath of her warhound, perhaps he had succeeded in his task. The devil eyed her shrewdly, with no words there seemed to be an understanding between them. They both held secrets, yet at this time the actions of the Forsaken were furthering both of their goals.
Before he made his exit, he strolled across the camp to where Bor was silently perched. Dessiter leant in close, speaking in a hushed voice that Willow had to strain to hear.
“I suppose that past transgressions shall be ignored, while in your current service.”
At that he turned back to the group, looking to Willow with knowing eyes. He bowed a low dramatic bow, one foot forward, one hand tucked beneath his waist and the other across his back.
“Until the next time, great and powerful masters of darkness…”

The moon lingered high over head, tinged an eery red glow, as if it knew of the blood that was destined to be shed. The army had marched through the day and as dusk had fallen, they had reached the craning point of the mountains at the large pass of Valtaerna. The plan was set; the instructions were clear. The oni mage known as Raiju, had been tasked to scout the watchtower, remaining hidden at all cost. Garvana had cast upon him a strange magic that concealed his loyalties from any arcane means seeking such a thing. With his ability to fly and turn himself invisible, he left the hordes of warriors, while they waited in as close to silence as they could. Fifteen minutes passed before his return, while the bugbears grew restless, chomping at the bit as their bloodlust took hold. He dropped from the sky and approached the leaders.
“Raiju has returned,” he said proudly, “They did not know he was there.”
“What did you see?” Willow snapped impatiently.
“No men on the roof,” he replied, seeming unbothered by her aggression, “But two powerful guardians around a large brass gong. Raiju thinks the gong is an alarm, but it is tied down. Probably to stop wind making it ring. Big gate at the front is closed, a few of guards inside it.”
“I can use the wind to get to the gong,” Garvana said, “And cast a silencing spell to keep them from raising the alarm. But I do not think it wise to take on the watchers on my own.”
“No, that would be foolish,” Willow agreed, “Pellius and Bor can lead the armies, perhaps Raiju can carry me and we can take out these guardians together.”
“And if they managed to raise the alarm from inside?” Bor asked, “Someone needs to be in there.”
“No,” Willow protested, “The watchers can sense your loyalty, we do not have any further magic to shield it.”
“If they can sense me,” Bor said, a sly smile to his lips, “They will sense another who is loyal to the Shining Lord.”
She eyed him in curiosity, shaking her head with a smile at the secrets he held.
“Do you think you can do it?” she asked, “Convince them to let you in?”
“Yes,” he replied confidently, “I am simply a traveller who got lost in the cold winter’s eve.”
“Once you have taken out the gong,” Pellius commanded, “We shall send the vampires up over the wall to wipe the watchtower out, starting from the roof and making their way down.”
“Agreed,” chimed the others.
They set a scout to watch for the portcullis to lift, to signal the horde to charge into battle. Willow climbed upon Raiju’s large back, lacing her legs around his waist. As he lifted off into the air, she held her potion of invisibility tightly in her right hand. Once they were in sight of the watchers and she saw the portcullis open and shut after Bor had entered, she drank it down and slipped the vial back into her pocket. Hovering above the roof, Willow counted the thirty seconds in her head, giving Garvana time to get herself into position and cast her magic. Two great beasts flanked the sides of the brass gong, with eight foot long bodies of lions and immense eagle wings sprouting from their backs, draping over their figures. Whether they were sleeping or simply at rest mattered little to Willow. When her countdown came to an end, she tapped Raiju on the shoulder, before he plummeted down towards the roof. They dropped silently, behind one of the beasts, creeping to either side of him. In a breath, she ripped her daggers free of their sheathes and lashed out in four ferocious swipes, driving her blades into the neck of the resting creature. As Raiju’s large sword came hurtling down, he cut off the beast’s cry with a fatal blood splattering blow. Instantly, the second beast whipped its head up, rage and alarm across its strangely humanoid face. In mirror to what the captain had done the day she had infiltrated Valtaerna, the creature cocked its head slightly for a mere moment, before leaping towards Willow with deadly intent. She tried to dive from its path, but the feline creature pounced with immense speed, catching her easily and writhing its claws into her flesh. It tore shreds from her skin, blood gushing from its path, sharp points piercing her innards. Its claws sliced the organs of her stomach, opening wide from its baneful assault. Internally, she screamed in agony, yet she clenched her teeth fiercely as the taste of blood leaked into her mouth. She spun from the creatures’ grip, flesh ripping as she slipped beneath its enormous paws. As one, Raiju and Willow slaughtered the beast, cascades of blood flying through the air and raining across the stone work of the rooftop. As the creature fell into a gruesome mess next to its pair, Willow felt her own blood loss reap havoc through her body. As she slumped to her knees, wheezing for breath through the red velvet flowing from her lips, Garvana dropped to the ground and raced to her side. Her firm grip grasped Willow by the shoulders, her profane incantation soothing the worst of the pain that throbbed from the gaping wounds. As the lingering touch of the profane healing staunched the flow of blood, Willow felt the vitality return to her consciousness. As the spell ended, and the forms of vampire spawn rose from the walls, Willow stood from her prone position.
“Work your way down,” Willow rasped to the spawn viciously, “Slaughter everything along your path.”
As the vampires hissed their approval and gracefully slid down into the building, Willow turned to Garvana.
“Thank you, sister.”
Before she could respond, Willow marched for the stairs.
“Find the gate,” she commanded Raiju, “Get it open, now.”
As the sounds of battle were replaced with the howls of terror, she followed the gruesome trail of massacre that the vampires had left. As she descended each level, she quickly checked over each room for any survivors that had been missed. When she found a chamber that she presumed to be the captains, she saw a heavy steel lockbox by his desk. She almost left it there, turning for the door to join the battle on the lower levels. But as usual, her curiosity got the better of her. Working quickly, she picked its lock and opened the chest to find a single leather bound tome. Flicking through its pages as she left the room, she found a detailed account of battle plans put in place if ever the Vale was to be attacked. Smirking as she descended the stairs, she slipped the tome into her pouch. As she came across a room filled with the blood shed of Mitran warriors, something she saw had her stopped in her tracks. At the far end of the chamber was a simple shrine. Upon the table, sat a silver chalice, humble yet beautiful in its simplicity. The aura that radiated from the chalice made the hairs on Willow’s neck stand on end. It would do nothing but harm to her, she knew with every fibre in her being. She shuddered, as her gaze lingered. Turning from the chamber, she saw that the warriors in the room had put up a decent fight against the spawn of Gaius. Yet only a single of his vampires lay dead amongst the carnage.

As the defenders of the watchtower fell, the heavy metal grate of the portcullis was lifted, opening the way for their army. Bor had slain the captain and his lieutenant, before singlehandedly taking out the two clay golems. While the sound of the raging horde of their troops approached, Willow looked to the town of Sanctum. Peaceful and serene it appeared by nightfall, only specks of light where street lanterns glittered. Silence garnered by their sanctuary, aware of the slaughter that was to come. As the waves of enraged bugbears poured through the gates of the Watchtower of Saintsbridge, the horns of alarm sounded from the sleeping town in the distance. Bathed in the blood of their enemies and the blood of her own wounds, she watched the glimmering lights illuminate in panic across the paradise that was Valtaerna. Their forces flooded into the valley; bloodthirsty bugbears, vicious duergar, fiendish vampires and leagues of sinful men. The ferocious battle cries so terrifying that they would strike fear in the heart of ordinary men. But Willow was no man, nor was she ordinary. She watched the forces of her warriors as they charged forward. She watched the sparkling lights carried by the men of Sanctum charge south to defend their home and charge willingly to their deaths. Wicked, some would call her, for her lack of sympathy or remorse. Wicked, for her conviction and mercilessness. But if that was what she must be to serve her glorious Prince of Darkness – then wicked was exactly what she would be…

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