Monday, 26 September 2016

Chapter 26 - Fire and Wrath

Darkness has ever been a force that came with purpose. It never lingered longer than its need, its natural state darkening the land for only long enough to stay in tune with the grand cycle of the multiverse. This had always been the timeless path it took. Yet, as the last of the bloodcurdling screams faded into the the twilight air, the morning sun did not seem to rise above Talingarde. A foreboding darkness smothered the expanse of the sky, a menacing loom that dimmed the furthest reaches of the canopy above, hiding the sun from sight. As winter came in earnest to the Vale of Valtaerna, the snow and sleet covering the lands in a way that no inhabitant of Sanctum could remember ever having taken place, its heavy sheet clogged the pass in an almost impenetrable way. When the ranks of the Forsaken had passed through the Watchtower of Saintsbridge, the first days of winter had begun. It had only left the lightest of falls, a tempered pale not yet enough to cover the vibrant emerald hues of the lush landscape. Now, the blood stained land lay hidden under the opaque white layer of winters grace.
Willow watched the morning curiosity through the gaping hole in the roof of a semi burnt building near the centre of town. As she waited for the return and report of the bugbear chieftains, she saw the trial of the suns’ warmth lose its battle against the dense fog of misery that sheltered the light. Perhaps, the early onset of winter had merely been the seasons natural course, a simple coincidence of impeccable timing. Perhaps the darkness was a merely symptom of the frosted chill come early. Willow smiled up to the sky; she did not believe in such coincidences. Perhaps, she thought, her Infernal Father was watching the deeds of the Nessian knot – and was pleased.

Midday came to the land, a ghostly shadow directly over head looming in the smog of sky, barely visible enough to signify the direction of time. The Forsaken were called to a meeting of the leaders to hear the reports of the state of the Vale. Once again, Shagaroth and Hekkarth stood by the burnt oak table, awaiting the arrival of the Nessian Knot. Clutched in the fist of Hekkarth was the man Willow recognised as the mayor of Sanctum. Hekkarth dropped the snivelling man to the ground in front of the Knot.
“We have taken almost two thousand of these cattle prisoners,” Hekkarth snarled, “This one would not stop pleading to speak with you.”
“Timeon Lotte,” Willow acknowledged, arching her eyebrow.
He scrambled in a crawl to her feet, bowing and grovelling, his voice shaking through his words.
“Oh great and terrible lords,” he trembled, “We surrender! The township of Sanctum and the Vale of Valtaerna is yours! I beg you, free the women and children. They are no threat to you! Spare them and with the spring they will spread word of your great power and victory of awe, to every corner of Talingarde! All will fear you!”
Willow steeled the stoic expression in her eyes as she watched the man plead, bow and scrape at her feet. She turned from him, looking to Pellius who stood by her side.
“Our orders were clear,” she said quietly and as coldly as she could.
“Indeed, they were,” Pellius replied.
It was the year of strenuous servitude that had hardened Willow’s exterior. The hard work and callous decisions she had been forced to make, that had given the ability to shield her emotions from her face. For now, her heart ached for the children. She felt little mercy for the adults among the prisoners, for they would have slaughtered her for the very reason they in turn would die. Faith. As they would put her to the stake for her faith in the mighty Asmodeus, she would do the same for their faith in Mitra. But the children, they were the real innocents. Not yet having had the chance to grow and strive within the world. They were the sacrifices that had to be made, they were the grim and awful truth of war.
“We cannot leave any alive,” Garvana said quietly.
Hekkarth stepped forward, a grin of hungry savagery along his toothy maw.
“Let me build a pyramid of skulls in the centre of town, my lords,” he growled, “With the deep chill of winter, it will freeze into a solid block of blood and ice. When we leave and the Mitrans retake this sewer pit, they will find our mark and know it was the Headtakers that did this!”
Shagaorth clicked his tongue at the bugbear, “There will be time to build pyramids out of skulls, Hekkarth. Before we sever the heads, perhaps we should learn what is inside them first. The Vale is not yet entirely ours. A light still burns on the Mountain of the Phoenix, and the Cathedral is unconquered. I could begin torturing the survivors to see what they know?”
Willow cringed internally, the suggestions of the brutes chilling her to the bone. It took all the will she had to keep the bile building in her throat from spilling into her mouth. A sudden ripple flashed across the sky, as if lightening she could not see bellowed from the grey canvas. She knew her Infernal Lord was watching, listening to every word she spoke, and every thought she did not. Her eyes searched the hollows of the others in the Nessian Knot. Her resignation was mirrored in each of their sullen expressions. She looked to Pellius last, and at the stoical determination she saw, she nodded sharply.
“Proceed Shagaorth,” he said firmly, “Begin with the Mayor, then move on as you must. When you are finished with them, Hekkarth may build his pyramid.”
Both bugbear chieftains grinned with feral delight.
“You shall have a report within the week, my lords,” Shagaroth snarled, snatching the collar of the mortified looking man.
Please don’t do this!” cried Lotte, “You don’t have to do this!”
As Shagaroth growled his terrifying snarl to silence the man and turned to begin his butchery, Willow stilled them with a viciously rasped command.
“The children,” she said, “They are not to suffer. Kill them quickly.”
Shagaroth turned on his heel and eyed her curiously. His consuming gaze raked her face, his black beady eyes searching in intrigue.
“Do you understand?” she snapped.
“Yes, my lord,” he nodded, his eyes still locked to hers.  
Willow’s lip curled at the depraved glee within his face, he was no mere savage brute; he was more of a sadistic fiend relishing the joy of the heinous acts he was tasked with committing. The hairs on her neck did not lower until the bugbears dragged the crying man out of sight. Willow’s heart felt the iced chill, as if winter had frozen it even through the layers of warm fur she wore. She turned her eyes from the ruins of the town centre, looking north the craning peak of the Mountain of the Phoenix. The soft glow of warm light still lingered from the summit, the darkness shadowing the rest of the land only penetrated by the glow atop the rocky spire. To steer her mind from the horrendous acts she was allowing, she turned her thoughts to the remaining obstacles in their path. As she opened her mouth to speak with the Forsaken, she saw Prince Zargun approaching from the east.
“Our pact is fulfilled,” he said in the common tongue, “It is a great victory!”
“A glorious one, indeed,” Pellius responded, inclining his head.
“Now,” he said viciously, “I demand you hand over the entirety of the dwarven prisoners! And then we shall return to Zhaanzen Kryr, in the grace of victory, with our spoils of war in hand!”
Willow raised her eyebrows at his demand, yet saw no fault in his request. Pellius turned his head to the others, eyebrow cocked in question, looking for any objections. When he saw none, he nodded to Arzen.
“You may take your spoils,” he replied formally, “And we will relish this alliance in the light of this victory.”
A feral grin lifted the duergars lips, “I declare the Forsaken, friends of the Duergar of Zhaanzen Kryr! You will forever be welcome in our home!”
I command only this,” Willow rasped in his mother-tongue, “You will personally see that not a single one escapes their fated death.”
He cackled, a loud and booming laugh, “Of that you can be sure, my lady.”
Willow did not laugh along with him, her face still cold and callous.
It is on your head, Arzen,” she warned, Not a single one.”
Though his malicious grin did not falter, he replied in a vow.
You have my word,” Arzen replied, “Every last one will face their fate, though their deaths may not come for a while yet.”
With that, he marched from them, to gather his force and prisoners to prepare for their journey home. Willow sighed, turning to the others, the fatigue and exhaustion sweeping through her.
“Are we done here?” she asked, “I believe I’d like to rest for a time.”
“We have more to discuss,” Pellius replied, a strange hint of concern in his features as he looked her over, “But perhaps we shall find a place to retire first.”
“If I remember correctly,” Garvana offered, “The mayors’ manor was on the western side of town. I believe that region was left relatively untouched?”
“Very well,” Pellius nodded, “Lead the way.”

Garvana had been correct in her prediction of the western region of Sanctum. Although at least half of the city’s homes and houses had been destroyed by savage raiding and looting, the manors upon the regions edge had been missed in the fire and battle. The mayors’ manor was a modest estate, small in size, yet decorated in fairly fine furnishings. Bor set the fire place alight while Garvana searched the manors kitchen for refreshment. Willow found her way to the bathroom, using the wash basin to cleanse away the worst of the blood staining her skin. Her mind drifted while her eyes followed the cloth as it wiped away the crusted crimson mess from the flesh of her neck and face. As she unbuckled the latches of her breastplate, she cringed as she pulled it away and the skin tore around the tender wounds on her stomach. Unlacing her corset, she peeled the camisole free and lifted it over her head. Five wrinkled scars had knitted themselves along her stomach. As she traced them with her fingers, she frowned. A barren grey wasteland. The image flickered into her mind, and just as quickly disappeared. She had seen something, she had gone somewhere, experienced something as her eyes had closed and the last breath had left her lungs. But what was it? She had no memory of being in a place like the empty landscape of grey. She could not remember where she had seen such a place.
A knock on the door startled her, the cloth slipping from her fingers and dropping to the floor, its once white fleece now smeared with carob and crimson.
“My lady,” came Pellius’ voice from beyond the door, “Are you alright?”
“Of course,” Willow said as she rushed to cover herself with a towel, “You may come in.”
The door opened and he stepped through, closing it behind him. As he looked to her, his brow dropped deep into a frown.
“How are your wounds?” he asked, reaching to pull her towel free.
Willow held the fabric tightly, stepping back from his reach.
“They are fine,” she said shortly, “They shall heal properly in time.”
A sudden strange look passed over his face.
“Do not be so stubborn, Willow,” he said, stepping forward to her, “Will you allow me to examine them?”
“I am alright,” she replied, “Do not trouble yourself.”
Willow,” he warned, in a more forceful voice than his usual commanding tone.
Hesitantly, she sighed. She dropped the towel slowly, letting it fall to the floor. The blood still crusted along her flesh as his fingers trailed over each wound carefully. He did not speak as he inspected her wounds, his touch gentle and soft, as his expression grew guarded. Willow had known him for long enough to realise that there was more stirring through his mind than worry of infection. As she watched his peculiar reactions, his fist clenched upon itself as his eyes slammed shut. It was only a momentary lapse in his calm presence, but it was enough to pique her curiosity. Before she had time to question, he withdrew his hand and his charming exterior returned.
“I shall heat some water for you,” he said politely, gathering up her armour as he looked over the tears in the leather, “Perhaps Garvana has some form of arcana to mend this. The meeting shall wait until you feel up to it.”
“Thank you,” Willow said quietly, staring into the mirror, thinking over his strange reactions.
He nodded to her, watching her for a moment before leaving the room. For a short time after he had gone, she simply looked vacantly at her reflection. Her mind mused over what could be troubling him so, yet she felt the fatigue too great to really take it all in. When footsteps sounded down the hall, she shook her head to clear the haze. She turned to her pack and pulled free the warm nightgown she had tucked away. Pellius came back and forth, carting pails of water to fill the brass tub, staying in silence as he departed each time. As Willow laid out her belongings, she was surprised that a softer knock came from the door.
“Come in,” she called, pulling the towel around her again.
When it opened, she saw Garvana carrying a large pail of steaming water, a strange look painted on her face.
“I am sorry to intrude,” she said respectfully.
“You are not intruding,” Willow said, “Come in.”
Garvana poured the last bucket into the tub, placing the pail to the side.
“May I aid you?” she asked, “The spikes pierced through to your back, and it is imperative that the wounds are cleaned thoroughly.”
Willow smiled at Garvana’s awkward demeanour, only now feeling the twinge of ache in her lower back.
“I would appreciate it,” Willow responded.
As she carefully hung the towel upon the railing, she began to unbuckle her trousers when she saw Garvana turn her head away in haste.
Willow laughed softly, “You need not look away, sister. I have little modesty left.”
Garvana smiled sheepishly, slowly turning back. Once Willow was bare, she stiffly lifted herself over the side of the tub and lowered herself into the steaming bath. The burning water stung each cut along her flesh, a searing agony that somehow eased the ache within her frame. For a moment, she simply sat in the caress of the warmth, letting the water cleanse her wounds as it cleansed her worry. It was only the movement of a fleeced cloth along her back that woke her from her dream state.
“You call me sister,” Garvana said quietly, softly tracing the cloth along Willow’s back, “Why do you call me that?”
Willow sighed into the simmering broth that filled the bath, “Would you prefer I did not?”
“No, no!” Garvana rushed, “It is just, I wonder why you call me sister?”
Her eyes closing of their own accord, Willow spoke soft and lazy words.
“Perhaps it is your station within our Church of Asmodeus,” she said, “You are a priest, are you not? It is your title.”
“Oh,” Garvana said, sounding almost disappointed, “Yes, that is my title.”
“Or perhaps,” Willow continued softly, “I consider you a sister. We have been thrown into this righteous path of fate together. We have the world against us, the odds are immeasurably against us, and we must work together to overcome it all. Perhaps, to me, the trails of fate that we face has made us sisters…”
The cloth along her back stilled for a moment. As the silence lingered, Willow opened her eyes and turned to Garvana. Her eyes were heavy; shadows fell deep in the wells beneath her lids. Willow knew hers looked much the same.
“I consider you a sister too,” Garvana said quietly.
As she began to clean the bloodied mess from Willow’s back once again, they stayed in mutual silence for a time. When she had finished, and Willow had cleansed her own front, Garvana guided her head back to wash the crimson from her hair. With her ears drifting above the water, Garvana spoke.
“May I ask you something?”
“Of course,” Willow replied hazily.
“I had always believed that I had been blessed with innate strength for a purpose. I believed it was my destiny to fight my way to the top with brawn and might. And yet, I look back over our victories and we have achieved the same, almost more with subtly and deceit. Why do you think it so?”
Willow smiled, her eyes closed as Garvana’s fingers cleansed her sable locks.
“We serve the Master of Trickery, the Lord of Deception. Did you not think employing His own tactics would further our goals? My Grandfather once told me that wars will be won by the sword and shield, but if the enemy has his eyes closed, then he will never see your blade coming.”
She heard Garvana’s smile in her words, “Then we have closed the eyes of many along our path. I know I have been over zealous in my approach, but I believe I am being drawn to a different path. I can see the benefits, and I feel as if our Infernal Father is guiding me by offering me a sliver of His power.”
“Then you are truly blessed,” Willow replied, “It will serve you well. He possesses untold power, that He chooses to wield over others, tricking the simple minded into what ever he desires. It is wise to follow his guidance.”
“We would have not succeeded in Balentyne, were in not for our deception; our infiltration and disguises allowed us free reign of the Watchtower. In Farholde, our deceit allowed to move about the city raising no suspicion. And Vetra-kali! We tricked an Archdeacon into banishment! We had him hand his gift over and we sent him back into the abyss!”
Willow smiled as she lifted her head from the water, her hair slick to her back as she turned to face Garvana.
“And the Watchtower of Saintsbridge,” she said with a sly grin, “The men and beasts may have cleared the battlefield, but it was us who cleared the way. Were it not for our silent approach, we would have lost the element of surprise and had to face the full extent of the army with the towering walls guarding them.”
“Yes!” Garvana growled, splashing the red tinted water across the room, “You understand this! You understand where it is I am being drawn!”
Willow chuckled, “Calm sister, calm. Yes, I understand. It is a wise path indeed.”
Garvana grinned, ignoring the wet that had sprayed along her own clothing.
“Then I will follow it,” she said determinedly, “I will follow His path!”

The warmth from the fireplace heated the living area as Willow curled up by the flame upon a cushioned armchair. She had combed her wet hair back off her face, allowing it to lay free to dry as she sat wrapped in layers of fur blankets. As Bor and Pellius returned from their errands, they accepted the shabbily made food that Garvana had prepared.
“We have set a portion of the bugbears to stay on watch,” Bor reported, “Keep vigil and alert us to any movement in the north.”
“The Headtakers are looting the rest of the city,” Pellius added, “With orders to bring all the spoils to the centre of town, for us to inspect and hand out as we see fit.”
“Ha,” Willow scoffed, “They will steal half of what they find.”
“Nevertheless,” Garvana shrugged, “They do not have much use for trinkets and potions, it is really only them that we have need of.”
“And what of the Watchtower?” Willow asked.
“We have not organised anything of yet,” Pellius frowned.
“The headtakers can man it,” Bor grunted.
“Do not be foolish,” Willow countered, “We are tasked with keeping this slaughter a secret until spring. Wayward travellers who see bugbears along the gates will flee and send for aid. Perhaps we man it with our men, dress them up as the Mitran guards.”
“Yes,” Pellius nodded, “Tell them to keep the ruse going long enough to allow travellers inside and ambush them once the gate is closed.”
“Grumblejack can take charge of them,” Willow added, “But stay well out of sight.”
“And the gold and possessions within the watchtower?” Garvana asked.
“Give them to our men,” Willow shrugged, “We need to start rewarding good service, we have little need of the small amount of treasure that the watchtower holds.”
“Agreed,” Pellius said, “They have done well, they held their own in battle and the losses they suffered were far less than I imagined.”
“Has Shagaroth began his interrogations?” Willow asked, keeping the cringe from her voice.
“He has,” Pellius nodded, unfazed by the process, “We have a week until his report. Perhaps it is a week best spent resting and preparing for our push towards the Cathedral.”
“I shall scout the north after dusk falls,” Willow said.
“Do not be ridiculous!” Pellius snapped suddenly, “You have barely recovered from your wounds. You will not be going anywhere.”
“I beg your pardon?” Willow stammered, eyebrows shooting high.
“Willow,” he sighed, the fatigue seeming to sweep through him as if the words he spoke were more effort than he could muster, “You must rest. It would be foolish to allow you north before we are at full strength. You will not be going.”
The audacity he had to command her so, lit a fire of furious rebellion within her body. She warred with herself bitterly. It was only as she noticed that the determination within his eyes held a hint of desperation, that she stayed her bucking thoughts of disobedience. When she took a moment to settle herself, she had to concede that in her current state, even she could not guarantee a successful infiltration.
“I shall send Cassandra and Kurtis once dusk falls,” Willow said plainly, keeping the disdain from her voice, “With any luck, they’ll return alive with information on the north.”
“Very well,” he approved in a sigh, “The headtakers will have finished by then, send them along and we shall see what the town held…”

The dimming of the sky as dusk came to Valtaerna, made little difference to the shadowed caress of the day. Through fire lit streets, the group made their way towards the centre of town. The bugbears had settled in to their temporary home as if they had lived in the Vale all of their lives. The burnt husks of homes were a luxurious delight compared to the tattered mess that was the Castle of Westkirk. The grisly remains of the battle still covered the streets. The blood smeared across the stone cobbled paths had turned a sickly brown as it began seeping visibly through the layers of ice and snow. The screams of the tortured rang in a highpitched chorus of terror throughout the valley. As the group arrived in the centre of town, they saw a glimmering pile of silver furniture and shining valuables, layered upon themselves in a heap. Pellius received the report of their task, while Bor and Garvana began sifting through the treasure pile. As Willow approached, a pulse of ominous dark energy tingled her nerve endings. The pulse held the lingering touch of her Prince of Darkness. She smiled at the pleasurable warmth as she lifted items out of her way. It was then, that she saw it. A shield, its edges burnt and crisp, charred marks staining the sable steel and covering the searing mark beneath. She wiped the soot with her sleeve and felt her chest involuntarily intake breath sharply. The five pointed inverted pentagram had been smouldered into the seal, gleaming above a slender insignia of a crow with razor sharp talons. Willow frowned, as she searched her memory, a hint of recognition flittering in her mind.
“Hekkarth!” she beckoned, “Where did you find this?”
The bugbear chieftain shrugged, “Lying around one of the churches.”
In which church?” Willow snarled, feeling her temper flare, “It is a shield painted in Asmodean heraldry, it would not be simply, lying around a church.”
The menacing warning in her tone seemed to register within the bugbear. For only a moment, a hint of fear trickled across his eyes. Though not fearful when he replied, even his words were more respectful.
“In the church to the east, my lord. Under a plaque which said something like ‘Behold the shield of the last Asmodean knight Talingarde, having died by fire, he now burns forever.’”
“The last Asmodean knight?” Willow said in awe, more to herself than to Hekkarth, “Skerrdohk… the Eternal.”
“Who?” Hekkarth asked warily.
“Nevermind,” Willow clipped, “Carry on.”
She turned from him, staring down at the charred steel. The glorious stories that her grandfather had told of Skerrdohk came drifting to her mind.
“Garvana,” Willow called, “I think you might like this.”
Garvana dropped the pile of cheap jewellery she was holding and approached Willow in curiosity. Her eyes widened when she saw the insignia.
“Do you know of Skerrdohk the Eternal?” Willow asked.
“No,” she replied, mouth opening in awe.
“He was a knight of Asmodeus,” Willow smiled, “An Inquisitor to be exact. He began as a lowly priest and worked his way up the line, to become the most feared Asmodean in Talingarde. He was guided by Asmodeus, and performed feats of battle and deceit that no stories could do justice. I think, you should have this…”
Garvana gingerly grabbed the shield, staring at in amazement and wonder. Her mouth still hung open slightly, speechless as her eyes traced over the superb craftsmanship.
“And I believe,” came Pellius voice from behind, “You should have these.”
Willow turned with a coy smile on her lips, eyeing the rough gloves he held in his hands.
“They look about your size,” he chuffed.
Willow slipped her hands in each glove, looking at the strange pleats along the palms. Ebony black leather crafted into tight forming slips, the pads of the finger covered in thousands of tiny crevices, like slender hairs that were kept short and dense.
“What are they?” she frowned, as she clutched her fingers and the gloves seemed to shrink and retract comfortably on her hands.
“Infused with magic that will aid in climbing and swimming,” he said, looking from the deep sapphire lake to the tall spire of the Mountain of the Phoenix, “They should be useful.”
“Indeed,” Willow replied with a smile that faltered when she looked over the horde of treasure, “But is there nothing for you?”
He grinned and banged his fist upon the immense shield he had strapped to his back.
“The Mitran sergeant’s shield is of impeccable make, it will serve well.”

The soft rasp of fleece against steel, methodically played in a perfect tempo, roused Willow from her slumber. Her eyes flickered open as the dim light of the morning sky glowed through the ice stained windowpane. When she softly lifted her head, she saw Pellius surrounded by his impressive array of weapons. A great longspear, a greataxe, his mighty warhammer, the glistening white bow, and more steel than she knew he possessed. Wearing only a simple loose fitting white shirt and his grey trousers, he carefully tended to each weapon with the same slow and regimented care. His hands smoothed through the motions, though his mind was far from the menial work. Watching his all telling brow, Willow saw the taint of sorrow, worry and anger drift across his expression as if dancing emotions rippled in his mind. She had not noticed before, but as close to fatal as the battle had proved for most of the Forsaken, Pellius had remained almost unscathed. As she pulled the satin sheet around her chest, she gently lifted herself to a seated position. When she stirred, Pellius looked up from his task and set aside his shield, walking to her side and lifting a cup from the dresser. Willow smelt the lingering scent of cocoa wafting from the ceramic cup.
“How are you feeling?” he asked seriously, his brow pulled tight in worry.
A small chuckle escaped her lips, his overprotective manor tickling her senses.
“I am fine, Pellius,” she said softly, “You need not worry.”
At her laugh, his charming demeanour returned. His handsome smile lighting his face, although the strange worry did not dissipate completely.
“What is troubling you so?” she asked, reaching to trace her finger along his cheek.
“Nothing, my lady,” he replied dismissively, “I merely wish to see to your comfort.”
“Pellius…” Willow began.
“Do not fret,” he hushed, pushing the cup into her hands, “It is nothing.”
Willow frowned, intrigued to delve further into his mind, but deciding to stay her questions. She sipped the warm milky brew delicately, staring back into Pellius’ eyes as she blew the steam from the rim. Curious, she found the way he watched her drink, searching her face for the reactions he was seeking.
“What is it?” Willow sighed eventually, “What are you searching for?”
“I’ve been meaning to ask,” he replied, seemingly deflecting the question, indicating to her stomach, “What was it like? Although I have some understanding of the afterlife, it is not everyday I get to sit and have breakfast with someone who has been to the otherside.
“I…” she stammered, her eyes dropping to the contents of her cup, “I am unsure. I remember so little. I have flashes and splinters of memory; scenes of a desolate grey barren landscape.”
“Is that all?” he asked, sounding intrigued, “Was there anyone, waiting, for you?”
Willow frowned, gently shaking her head, “I do not think it works like that. There was, a stream. An endless torrent of souls… but I know not where they were going.”
“Did you feel His presence there?” he questioned.
“No,” Willow answered with certainty, “I did not go to His realm. The domain I entered was one of equal and unfeeling… neutrality.”
Pellius nodded in understanding, “Pharasma rules the afterlife with just cause.”
As she drained the last of the cocoa from her cup, she returned it to its saucer and began to slide her legs over the edge of the bed, when his hand stopped her.
“I have posted two of the Chapter of Asmodeus outside of our door,” he said, “Fava and Jurok. To accommodate your needs so you may rest. You are not to go anywhere without informing them.”
“Pellius,” Willow scowled, “I am not a child. I will do no such thing.”
“I am not asking you, Willow,” he warned, “I am telling you, and you will listen.”
“Pellius!” Willow snapped, “Enough! I understand your concern, but this is ridiculous!”
Suddenly his wide palm gripped her slender waist, as his thumb dug deeply into the newly knitted flesh of one of her wounds. The pain rippled through her torso as the ache craned harshly in her stomach. His eyes flashed with scarlet wrath, as his words rasped with dark promise.
“You are too important to have die on some curiosity fueled scouting mission!” he growled, “Especially after your recent injuries! Asmodeus has granted you freedom from Pharasma's hold, and I will not let you fall! The Knot must hold.”
Her breath came in jagged bursts as the pain radiated through her veins. The sheer command in his voice swelled his infernal blood, it’s pulse crashing against Willow’s will like a wave of profane catastrophe, daring her to disobey him. As his fingers released his crushing grip, the pain slowly receded, leaving her panting rapidly through a tight chest. It was only as he broke his gaze and turned his head away that she heard his own shallow breaths.
“Is that clear?” he asked, a quiet voice filled with terrible menace.
Willow could feel the raging fire of his diabolical side, warring within him, fighting for control. At the throbbing beat of his dark struggle, she felt the amorous flint of desire light within her. Allowing the sheets to drop from her chest, she gently lifted herself to her knees. As she moved with preternatural grace, the mattress barely shook as she slid behind him. She leant in close, delicately tracing her tongue along the lobe of his ear, delighting in his sudden sharp intake of breath.
“Just how restful,” she whispered silkily, “Does this rest day have to be?”
Pressed firmly against his back, she felt the rumble of his growl as it sounded from his throat. He pulled from her grasp as he stood, quickly turning towards her as he reached forward to clutch her throat in his grip. He effortless lifted her into the air, driving her slender frame back down into the bed. He crushed his lips upon hers, dragging his teeth painfully along the curve of her mouth. Just as quickly as he had pressed his weight into her, he retreated and tore himself away. Although she saw the strenuous effort it took to control and deny the beast within him, he laughed in almost ease and shook his head. Gently gripping her chin between his thumb and forefinger, he leaned down to press a soft kiss to her lips.
“Rest,” he whispered, a small smile on his lips, turning for the door, “And please, my lady, do not hesitate to ask Fava or Jurak for anything you may seek…”

The north of Valtaerna remained quiet in it’s vigil, as the week passed by with little disruption. Willow had sent her scouts north through the forest each night to scout the entrance hall to the Cathedral, noting the same six legion archons standing guard, unmoving in stance along the dock. The city of Sanctum however, was anything but quiet. Shagaroth was unmerciful in his command, his retinue cold and cruel in their approach, yet efficient and dedicated. Pellius regularly checked their progress as the days passed, reporting their competence to the members of the Nessian Knot. When the week came to an end and Shagaroth called a meeting, Willow was relieved that her inactivity would be at an end and the screams that sang out through the days and nights would finally cease.
“The torture’s gone well,” Shagaroth grinned, “Oh how talkative my new friends have been. First, you missed somebody. The head of the Order of Macarius wasn’t in the battle.”
“Earnan MacCathlain,” Willow remembered, “You’re right. He should have been leading the priests at the end of the battle.”
“Yeah, no idea where he is,” Shagaroth shrugged, “But I bet he’s up to no good. Some of the people feel like he’s betrayed them, but most believe he must have a plan to defeat us and liberate the Vale. But no one seems to know exactly what that plan is.”
“The head of the Serene Order was absent as well,” Willow mused quietly.
“Second,” the bugbear continued, “There is an actual phoenix on top of that mountain. It’s as big as a house, it breathes fire and has been there for longer than anyone can remember.”
“We presumed as much,” Garvana nodded.
“Good luck with that,” Shagaroth scoffed, “And third, everyone agrees that there are angels in the Garden of Serenity. How many, they ain’t sure. But angels. And if you make it passed the labyrinth, there are probably more angels in the Cathedral. There is something powerful in this valley they believe will defeat you. Its name is Ara Mathra. I’m not sure what it is, maybe that’s the phoenix’s name.”
“No,” Willow said grimly, “He who stands in light. Ara Mathra is an angel, a powerful celestial being. A divine grace of Mitra, sent to guard the Vale of Valtaerna from the vicious tide of evil in the world. He was sent here, to try to stop us.”
Shagaroth stared back at her, mouth agape. It took a moment for him to recover and shake his head.
“Good luck with that,” was all he said.
“Is there anything else to report?” Pellius asked.
“Nothing worth wasting your time,” he shrugged, “Seems you lot have a great deal to do.”
“You’re not going to aid us?” Garvana asked, a dark warning in her tone.
Shagaroth laughed, “Our orders were to fight and take the Vale. No one mentioned fire breathing phoenixes or angels. We’ll keep the city occupied until you return. If, you return.”
With that, he nodded to the Nessian Knot and withdrew.
“Well,” Bor said, “Should we face the mountain first, or the Cathedral?”
“The mountain,” Pellius said, “Best not take on Ara Mathra with a phoenix on our tail…”

The sun rose, a shimmer of light barley visible through the darkened cloud over head, as the morning of the following day dawned. With pockets and pouches filled with scrolls, wands and potions, the group marched through town towards the dockside. When they reached the lake edge, Bor stopped them and began an enchanting incantation, reaching out and touching Willow’s arm. The cold chill in the air suddenly evaporated, the frosted wind turned delicate temperate breeze. Willow frowned, looking to the orc in question.
“There is much I do not know about you,” she mused, arching an eyebrow.
The only response she received was a sly grin that tilted his lips. With a wink, he stepped off the dock, out into the water. Willow’s startled gasp was silenced as she watched his feet tread easily atop the waters edge.
“Come on,” he laughed, “The water’s lovely this time of year.”
Willow frowned, delicately testing the water with her right foot. She gingerly tapped the surface with her boot, warily putting her weight down. The water rippled as she transferred all her weight into her step, yet she did not fall through into the shallow depths of the shoreline. The strangest sensation came over her as she carefully walked out across the lake to where Bor was standing, laughing at the others as they warily took their first steps.
“So many secrets,” Willow chuckled, finding more confidence in her stride.
He merely grinned, turning away to skim the lake’s surface, heading for the towering Mountain of the Phoenix.
Norr, Sith-Mistrithith,” she soothed as she beckoned the hellhound forward.
Willow laughed as she watched the glorious warhound whimper along the dock, gingerly stepping forward. With a few careful steps, he suddenly bounded towards her gleefully, barking in excitement. She laughed again as he reached her, scratching behind his ears and soothing encouraging words.
They made their way across the lake, marvelling at the captivating arcane mystery of water walking, relishing the beauty of the northern vale from their vantage point. Although the town of Sanctum and the lower region of Valtaerna had been marred by the char of fire and the stains of bloodshed, the north still bloomed in luscious greenery softened by glimmerings of white snow and sleet. Willow heard Garvana laugh, a look of ease upon her face. She seemed to be taking in the surroundings, and enjoying the few moments of peace before they entered the phoenix’s domain. She stopped to plunge her hand into the water and pull a fish from the blue crystal lake. Willow chuckled as she shook her head, watching Sith snatch the fish from Garvana’s hands and quickly gulp down the pink scaled creature. After a short and easy crossing, they reached the base of the teetering spire, searching its rocky slopes for a way up.
“Gather together,” Garvana called over the howling wind.
Although Bor’s magic had dimmed the chill from the air, the noise and force of the wind had not lessened. As Willow approached the group, she eyed the icy crooks of the mountainous terrain with worry. Trickling over the wail, came Garvana’s incantation. Willow felt a tingle along her fingers, the gloves she wore gently pulsing with a strange fur-like movement. She looked to her fingers and saw nothing different, yet she knew somehow they were. Placing her fingers against the sleet painted rock, she felt something close to a thousand miniscule hairs cling to the white surface. With preternatural grace, she found she could lift her weight, ascending the rocky side with ease. Willow marvelled at the strange workings that her eyes were unable to see. Though she had seen this before. This was the magic that Switch had used it to enter her suite at Vandermir’s manor with such ease. Her fingers gripped impossibly thing ledges, the toes of her boots clinging to slender iced gaps. Even as the wind battered her slight frame about, she knew she was at no risk of falling, as illogical as that sounded in her own mind. She couldn’t stop herself from grinning as she scaled the mountain as if it was nothing.
“You need to teach me that!” she yelled to Garvana in a laugh.
But as she looked to the summit, there was indeed something that wiped the grin from her face. The same shimmer of magic that she had seen from the rowboat when she had infiltrated the vale. The glitter of arcana seemed to encompass the balcony ledge, the only visible entrance, almost seven hundred feet above the lake’s surface.
“WAIT!” Willow bellowed, calling out over the harsh cry of the winds and rasping drone of the ice and sleet battering against the rocky mountainside, “GARVANA! LOOK!”
Garvana stopped her ascent, looking to the summit. With a frown, she shrugged in question.
As her frown deepened, Garvana rushed her arcane words, calling forth the magic to reveal itself to her. Suddenly, her mouth opened and her eyes widened.
The group crept as close to the barrier as they dared, waiting on her command. Her frown pulled low, her eyes narrowed in concentration, as she rasped her incantation.
GO!” she yelled.
Willow desperately scrambled upwards, her fingers clutching the sides of the ledge as she pulled herself atop the balconies edge. Pellius, weighed down by his immense ebony armour, fell behind as he climbed as fast as he could.
HURRY!” Garvana cried, “IT IS REFORMING!”
As Garvana and Bor struggled to pull themselves to the ledge, Willow looked down over the lofty fall to the iced water below. She saw Pellius climbing with all his might, powering his way to the balcony. Willow reached her hand down, panic painting her face.
FASTER PELLIUS!” she screamed.
As he neared, she saw the shimmer flicker around her, the aura twinkling as it began to return. Pellius growled in exertion, eyes wide as he watched the flickering magic reform. Suddenly, the magic took hold. Willow felt the odd invading sensation as it stripped the enchantments from her, a freezing shiver racking her body as the frosted chill of the wind bit into her skin. Realisation dawned as she watched Pellius’ fingers slip from their clutch upon the ice shards of the walls.
In a display of sheer strength, Pellius launched himself with the last gasp of grip he had, leaping upwards to snatch Willow’s hand. She screamed as his great weight snapped heavy on her arm, almost ripping the joint from it’s socket.
“BOR!”  Willow cried through the agony, “HELP ME! I CAN’T HOLD HIM FOR MUCH LONGER!”
Bor raced to her side, bending low and grasping Pellius’ wrist, heaving backwards and dragging him atop the balcony. Willow collapsed backwards, her breathing rasped and short as she rolled her shoulder back into place. Lying upon the cold stone ledge, Willow turned her head to see Pellius panting heavily and Bor hunched over with a grin on his face.
“Thank you, my lady,” Pellius chuckled, his panic stricken eyes betraying his calm.
“Don’t mention it,” Willow replied, rolling her eyes.
Although she joked, she refused to voice the sheer panic that she had truly felt, how her heart had almost ripped from her chest as her arm had almost from her shoulder. They shared a look for a moment longer, before Willow’s eyes broke away to search their surroundings. The temple stood before them, a crystal white marble temple, perched on the side of the summit. Two tremendous doors barred entry to the building, flanked by an intricate carved marble railing that ran along both sides of the balcony. Quickly scanning the area, Willow paused as the expanse registered in her mind. The Vale of Valtaerna was not just a place of celestial grace and divine beings. It was a place of picturesque beauty. Looking out across the land, Willow’s heart sighed at the beauty that was the Ansgarian Mountains in the heart of winter. White grace drifted atop each peak in the distance, painted only by touches of emerald greens and hazel browns. It was with a heart of heavy duty that she turned away. As the others cast their spells and drank their potions, Willow approached the foreboding marble doors. The temple was a marvel of true artistry, covered in breathtaking bas relief showing the deeds of angels and phoenixes in immaculate detail, the columned pillars a masterpiece of classic architecture. Written in celestial scripture below a magnificent carving of a fearsome phoenix was the phrase that read – Praised be Suchandra, praised be the First.
Willow eyed the large carved key holes suspiciously, but found nothing but a simple locking mechanism that had clearly not being used in decades. As she leaned towards the door, she heard the whisper of a voice, mournful notes crooned in an elegant piece of loss and tragedy. The celestial words were sung with a heartbreak so sorrowful that Willow felt the sadness creep deep into her bones.
…here then,” the voice grieved in melody, “Extended on this wither'd moss, we'll lie, and thou shalt sing of hearts’ loss. And thou forlorn hearts’ demise, and thou hearts’ death, begin thy mournful song, and raise thy tuneful breath...”
A deep sigh escaped from Willow’s lips, her chest deflating as resignation settled in her mind. She, like the one who sung the words, mourned the loss of so many souls. But she would not regret it. She knew her cause was great, and her righteous path was true. She knew she was doing only what had to be done, what must be done to further the reach and rule of her mighty Infernal Lord. So it was with a determined chin that she lifted her head from its sorrow, sliding her daggers from her sheathes and squaring her stance. As Bor and Pellius dragged the great marble doors open, Willow stepped over the threshold, ready to quell the light that trickled across the vale – ready to quench the last glow of hope from the Mitrans below.

A scarlet and copper flaming beacon surrounded by a sea of glimmering white marble. A woman stood in the centre of the room; ashen skin that glistened, crystal white hair that billowed in waves, shining specks of golden jewellery lined upon each arm. Wings of raging flames searing their way from her back, a magnificent simitar sprouting an inferno of pulsing fire. Even the crimson robes she wore smouldered with embers. The song that she sung did not falter as she turned towards the Nessian Knot, it grew in tempo as her voice bellowed the battle-cry of vengeance.
An eruption of sweltering flame exploded into the room, as she created a wall of fire that stretched from one end of the temple to the other. As the blaze raged and the flesh blistered, the battle launched into action. Sith and Bor were the only ones that were unaffected by the burning mass, leaping through the flaming barrier with ease. Willow had to leap through the blaze, crying out as her skin seared and charred, the lengths of her hair sizzling within the burning heat. The weapons of steel and arcane fire clashed against one another, deep gashes of crisp and burnt skin showering the room in cascades of carmine blood. Bor and Pellius launched a flurry of attacks, heaving their weapons, cries of might and death bellowing from their lips. The group fought the woman of flame, wounding her with staggering blows, all while she continued her grand and sombre tune. When Willow’s blade found its way into the side of the woman’s stomach, only then did her words falter. Suddenly, she leaped forward into the flame, vanishing from sight. The wall continued to swelter, yet the room hung in an eery stillness. Willow gripped her daggers, panting heavily through her chest, backing away from the fire. She eyed a crystal orb, suspended on a pedestal of marble in the centre of the room. Carefully approaching it, she saw the strange contraption surrounding it, a mechanical lock set in amongst slender cogs and small splints. Making a quick decision, she hastily sheathed her blades and removed her tool pouch from her pack. As swiftly and delicately as she could, she disabled the lock and clicked free the orb. Suddenly, a strange wave passed over her.
“The aura around the mountain is gone,” Garvana frowned.
As Willow looked over the curious orb, a sudden screech came forth from the flaming wall. The woman reappeared and leapt forward with her flaming simitar, craning it down towards Willow’s head. Although unarmed, Willow was alert enough to notice the attack as it came, launching herself to the right of the temple as she narrowly avoiding the inferno of the blade. She quickly pocketed the orb and drew her blades, circling the woman of flame. As Bor leaped from the side, he cleaved his vicious sword directly into woman’s shoulder. Pellius lunged forward, and with a mighty backswing, bludgeoned his great warhammer into her chest. The woman’s song cried from her lips, as she danced a whirlwind, gracefully spinning and carving her weapon into all those who were within the flames reach. It was in a flashing spiral of blood and fire, that Garvana’s words bounded throughout the temple.
“WE HAVE COME TOO FAR, TO BE BEATEN BY THE LIKES OF YOU!” she cried as she charged at the woman, her mace soaring high over her head, “IN THE NAME OF ASMODEUS, I WILL STRIKE YOU DOWN!
Willow felt the hard pulse explode from her, the surge filled with the Infernal Lord’s terrible unholy grace. She leapt through the torrent of flame, arching down her weapon and carving it down into the side of the woman’s head. On impact, the woman howled in pain, black ripples of profane darkness ricocheting across her pale flesh. The ebony shards of energy wrapped themselves around her limbs, seemingly consuming the life from her skin. The horrified wail bounded from her lips, as the darkness devoured her whole. In a shudder that racked her body, her frame collapsed in on itself, crumpling her flesh into a simple pile of ash amongst her smouldering robes. As her simitar dropped to the marble floor, the flames dimmed to a flicker before flittering into nothingness. Suddenly, a terrifying screech sounded from beyond the temple, a cry like the voice of a thousand eagles. The mountain top trembled beneath their feet, the walls of the temple shaking furiously, the mournful cry filled with the wrath of something that the Nessian Knot had severely angered.
When the mountain settled, the group looked to one another, understanding clear in their eyes. The woman was merely a guardian, a celestial being meant to guard the temple – the path to the phoenix’s summit. As the group turned to continue and prepared to meet the mythical beast, Willow saw the robes of the woman still simmered in their smouldering embers. Carefully, she pulled the fabric free, dusting the ash from its fleece. She recognised the exotic fabric as firesilk, a material prized for its immense rarity, made only within the fabled lands of the fire planes. Distracted by its intriguing peculiarity, she tied the robes over her armour, marvelling at the way the cloak appeared to billow of its own accord. As Sith approached her and his fiery mane flickered, her own cloak of embers simmering in unison, Willow couldn’t help but smile. Her story was certainly that of an adventurous ballad, it seemed fitting that the outfit she wore was worthy of note…

The door opened to reveal a sublime mountainside, lush with green vegetation and embellished with crystal white stone pillars. Centre of the summit stood a raging inferno of fire. The red flames blazed in a glorious sphere, at least forty feet high, a tempestuous ball lingering to encompass the peak. A winding path of white cobblestone spiralled along the steep ascent, veering to the left before continuing its journey upward. It was the structure along it’s path that caught Willow’s immediate attention.
“Bor,” Willow said quietly, pointing to the summit, “Check inside the flames, I think I know what we must do.”
Carefully, she toed along the path, eyes peeled for any movement within the winds or the flaming sphere. Bor passed her quickly, making his way directly for the peak of mountain. Willow walked towards the great circle of white marble, surrounded by eight intricate ancient stones. The spires held the look of peculiar antiquity about them, and did not match any other sort of architecture that Willow had ever seen in Talingarde. In the centre of the circle another fire was ablaze. Yet, this one was different. Willow felt the simple touch of divine grace as the flames swelled and retreated, a constant blaze that seem untouched by the winds that blew. The white marble of the construct was left uncharred, no soot was left by the fire, nor did any smoke leak from its flames. The fire seemed only to shed light, a shining glow, bright enough to linger further than the reaches of the summit – enough to light the entire valley below. One of the sacred eternal flames, Willow was sure of it. She delicately lifted the bottle of desecrated water from her pack, cautiously approaching the divine fire. As her foot lifted to step upon the marble dais, a sudden creeping chill seeped into her spine, her hairs standing on end instinctively. She could feel the menace radiating from the flames, a harsh warning of dire consequences. There was an ancient arcane trap that lingered around the circle, the fire itself flickering viciously. Willow knew not how, but she could sense the ward’s intentions – if she were to throw the unholy broth upon the water, she would face the wrath of Mitra.
A fearsome shriek cried from the sky, as the mythical creature born of flame soared into view. It launched a torrent of searing flame upon them, raining down the mountain side in thick waves of blistering swelter as it passed. Willow dove behind one of the pillars, the burn of the flames licking her heels. She saw Bor sprinting for the summit as Pellius launched a flurry of arrows at the phoenix as it passed. The creature seemed purely of fire, its rippling wings stretched wide as the wind ripped through the flames. Another crashing tide of fire swelled across the land in devastating fury, scorching all flesh and flora in its path. Willow barely managed to leap out of the way of the mighty gale of flame, but Garvana and Pellius were not as fortunate. Willow watched as the blackened steel of Pellius’ armour glowed red under the unrelenting heat. Garvana was knocked backward with the tremendous force, the fire blistering and scorching her bare skin. Willow picked her timing and quickly ran for the pair, using the healing wand that Garvana had given her, calling forth the magic as she recited the incantation as best as she could remember.
As Bor reached the summit and leaped into the blazing sphere, the phoenix let loose a hysterical cry of ferocity. It craned down swiftly, the mountain trembling in protest as the enormous creature thundered its landing. A screaming squawk rippled the flames atop the summit, a high-pitched sound so volatile that Willow felt her eardrums shudder. Clutching the unholy brew in her hand, she watched through the flames as they raged erratically. She could just make out the image of the phoenix, staring down Bor with a venom filled with vengeance. Bor stood fast, holding something tight within his hands, something that appeared almost like a ruby so large that he needed both hands to hold its weight. For a moment, there was only the sound of the billowing flames, as the crisp silence stretched between them.
“Leave this land!” she heard Bor’s stern voice command, “And never return! You will swear by the life of this phoenix, that you will do so, and I will return it unharmed.”
Another shriek ripped from the phoenixes maw, a hurricane of flame smothering Bor as it cried. For a moment, Willow was unsure that his plan had worked. The phoenix craned its neck high into the sky, as a sorrowful voice bellowed its celestial words.
ARA MATHRA!” he called, a booming sound so loud it would be heard from all reaches of Valtaerna, “I AM SORRY, BUT I MUST GO! KNOW THAT I AM FOREVER YOUR FRIEND! MAY WE MEET AGAIN, WHEN ALL IS LIGHT!”
Bor kept his eyes locked threateningly on the phoenix, as he lowered the large egg and returned it to the nest. The phoenix swept the eggs into its wings with extraordinary swiftness, before it leapt high into the air, in a blaze of flaming glory. As it hovered just above the peak, it’s broad wings gusting torrents of flame aside, the phoenix cried a forlorn and crestfallen wind. The sound drifted throughout the valley, a sad and mournful farewell, before it turned away and disappeared behind the dense blackened clouds of the sky.

The flames atop the summit extinguished in a sigh, as even the ancient fire within the eternal circle seemed to dim. Willow approached the marble circle once again, determination steeling her will. She still felt the presence of the ward, warning her against what she was about to do. As she lifted the vial over head, she felt a rapturous blast encompass her, the will of her Infernal Lord urging her onward. With an almighty chthonic shriek expelling from her chest, she cast the bottle into the flames. As the sound of shattering glass echoed across the mountaintop, a venomous hiss burst forth from the flames. Suddenly, a colossal sphere of flame was launched towards her with devastating intent. The force collided with her chest with such might that she felt the bones of her ribcage splinter as it sent her hurtling through the air. Her frame was pummelled into the hard compacted ground, jagged rocks and sharp vines ripping shreds from her skin as she slid along the earth. The flames had blistered and charred her flesh and armour, scalding in torn patches and gushing wounds. The pain was untold, nothing like she had ever felt before. The divine grace of the wrath of Mitra had burnt her very soul. Her breath came in tortuous rasps, her lungs struggling for air as her broken ribs crushed their pipes. She heard rushed footsteps coming her way, and in the haze of her vision, she saw Garvana’s face appear. But the healing that Garvana had summoned was not what kept her attention entranced. As she stared into the sky, she watched the last of the lingering light faded. Lifting her chin, ignoring Garvana’s protest, she saw the eternal flames flickering to a simmer. It fought the tide of profane might, it struggled to stay alight. Yet, as she watched the fire die, and the last gasp of light succumb to the darkness, Willow couldn’t help but smile. As the light that had sheltered the people of the Vale of Valtaerna was extinguished – hope followed with it. The darkness that now consumed the sky belonged to one entity, the great and power father of them all; Asmodeus.

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