Monday, 26 September 2016

Chapter 27 - Ascending Advance

Scarlet mist hung delicately in the air, shimmering as it throbbed in tune with the deafening pulse. The seamless walls of unending height, swayed with ethereal grace in the feathered hot breeze. The fires burned and simmered in a searing wave of structure, pulsing with heat and purpose. She looked up timidly from her perch, her weight pressing deep into her knees. The words that were spoken sung like a tune from rasping throats. They watched her, observing the way she followed custom, kneeling low at their throne. Yet, they knew she was not intimidated, they knew she was not afraid. As the rapturous warm enveloped her, and the radiating menace exuded from her flesh, they watched in curiosity. When words slid from her mouth, her husky steel tone told them of the confidence she was not speaking. Current status required her to remain low, yet her own aura forced her natural rank to be observed. As more voices joined in the chorus of conversation, she smiled. As the thundering heat echoed throughout the realm, her eyes met theirs. As the gaze pierced in a war of will and might, an onslaught so strong that even the cold iron of Phlegethon would have shattered – they paused. The air thickened to a sickening fury, frightening in its malice, with the intent of a thousand blades. For a moment it would have seemed that she had lost. But she knew better, as the corners of her lip twisted into grin, she awaited what was hers. With resignation tainted by intrigue and interest, they nodded.

“And if she escapes through the window?” a hushed worried voice insisted from beyond the chamber door, waking Willow from her slumber within the mayors’ manor in Valtaerna.
“Wha’ if she tells us ter stay?” another piped in, fear tinting his tone, “I don’t want her angry with me. I like my fingers an’ tongue where they are!”
“Enough!” Pellius silenced, “You have your orders.”
As the voices continued, Willow rose from the bed, pulling the fur dressing crown from the vanity stool and wrapping it around herself. Her soundless footsteps approached the door as her ears listened keenly.
“Yes sir,” Fava answered, “But if she insists on not telling us? I can’t make her. Frankly sir, she’s… terrifying.”
“She’s also not so deaf nor incapacitated that she cannot hear your pathetic attempt at whispering,” Willow interrupted, opening the door suddenly.
Fava and Jurok recoiled slightly in fear, fumbling out words of mumbled and rushed apologies. Pellius, only smiled.
“Good morning, my lady,” he said charmingly.
He nodded dismissively to his two guards, stepping into the chamber and closing the door. Willow lent against the doorframe, arching an eyebrow.
“Still keeping me under lock and key?” she scoffed.
“Not at all,” he replied, pouring two cups of tea from the fresh steaming brew, “I am merely looking after your comfort.”
Willow sighed, softly shaking her head as she strolled to the cushioned seat by the large windows. The view looked out over the north, the dense procession of stiff pine trees, painted in a light mist of white snow. As she accepted the cup he offered, Willow stared out into glisten of winter.
“When will you relent?” she asked quietly, “Why do you feel the need to have me chaperoned?”
“My lady,” he began, “It is not a chaperone. They are guards who will allow you to recover without worry of intrusion.”
“You cannot dismiss my question, Pellius,” she replied in frustration, “Why are you so worried? I have never needed guards, nor do I need them now.”
“I have explained this, Willow,” he sighed, “You are too-
“- important, yes, so you have said,” she finished for him, “But I am not on death’s door, I have faced worse than that holy flame, and I am recovered enough to not need nursemaids insisting on my whereabouts.”
“That was no ordinary flame,” Pellius scoffed, “That was a ward of ancient arcana, strong and powerful, infused with the very might of the Shining Lord.”
He looked into her eyes and quickly anger turned his features as realisation dawned, “But you knew that. You knew what it was, and you alone still chose to risk yourself.”
Willow’s response halted, her mind returning to the way the infernal fury of Nessus had encompassed her, urged her onwards.
“I…” she said quietly, “I was not alone.”
Pellius’ brow pulled deep into a frown, “What do you mean?”
Willow felt unequipped to answer his question, though she tried as best she could.
He was there,” she frowned, “He guided my hand. I knew what I was doing was His will. I felt no worry of dying, for it would have been what I was meant to do. What He required me to do…”
The frown that Pellius wore lingered only for a few moments, before the lines upon his forehead smoothed. Wordlessly, he nodded in understanding. As the silenced stretched between them, the pair gazed out upon the forestry of the northern Vale. After a time, Willow placed her empty cup and saucer on the side table, pulling her dressing gown tighter around her.
“You were quite restless in your sleep last night,” Pellius said softly, “Was something troubling you?”
Trying to return to where her mind had been while in slumber, Willow’s frown returned. The sweltering aura of Hell had wrapped its tendrils around her, a palace of flaming damnation, a courtyard of intrigue and status. She had not been herself, at least she had not been any kind of version of herself that she recognised.
Lilitutivloth,” her voice whispered of its own volition.
“You were chanting that name in Infernal,” Pellius said, arching an eyebrow.
Willow’s frown pulled tight, her mind reeling to remember where the name had come from.
“Who is she?” Pellius pressed, keen eyes searching her face.
“I do not know,” Willow said quietly, shaking her head, “I have not heard it before, yet it is… familiar.”
A sudden knock at the door had Willow’s head spin and her heckles rise.
“Lady Garvana to see you,” called Jurok.
Willow sighed, in almost relief.
“Send her in,” Pellius called, eyes still locked on Willow in curiosity.
As the door opened and Garvana greeted them warmly, Willow stood and began to set another serve of tea. They spoke about their coming plans for their infiltration of the cathedral, but Willow’s mind was far from the current task. She had not been entirely honest when she had said the name was familiar. The name was indeed unknown, yet almost more familiar to her than her own.

The week of rest passed quickly, as the frosted chill of winter deepened its hold over the Vale of Valtaerna. The bugbears had settled into their temporary home with ease, decorating their halls with the grim and gory spoils of war, unbothered by the cold winds that blew through the remains of the town. On the morning of their second week within Sanctum, the Forsaken prepared to push forward to the north. They traversed the grand Lake Parynthus by rowboat, slow and steady was their progress along the freezing body of water. They sent Sith and Grumblejack by land, unable to conceal such obvious creatures of malice within the small craft. Willow kept her daggers hidden as they sailed north, the magic of her circlet forming her appearance into that of Clarentine Myerlyn. Pellius wore the guise of Emerson Myerlyn, while Garvana and Bor disguised themselves once again as the houseguards. Garvana had also used her strange arcana to hide the groups loyalties from seeking magic. As they steered through the River Aiden, the white stone dock slowly came into view. Just as it was the last time Willow had seen the entrance to the Gardens of Serenity, the protruding stone was guarded by the six mighty legion archons. They stood in unmoving vigil, gleaming golden armour flickering by their flaming spears held fast at attention. As the group rowed towards them, in unison they each lifted a hand in warning.
“HALT!” they called in perfect harmony, a foreboding delve to their tone, “Come no closer!”
“PLEASE!” Willow cried dramatically, “We seek sanctuary!”
For a moment, silence greeted her words, as if unseen communication was taking place.
“Who goes there?” they called, “Identify yourself!”
“I am Lady Clarentine Myerlyn of Hamiltyrn!” Willow cried, “Please! You must let us in!”
“All of you, identify yourselves!”
“My husband, Emerson, and our houseguards!” Willow called frantically, “Please! They may not be far behind us! Please, help us!”
As Bor and Garvana continued to row, the silence once again stretched. The sound of splashing waves crashed upon the wooden oars, as the Forsaken neared the dock, a booming command came from the archons.
“Throw your weapons on the dock! Stay seated in the boat!”
Willow looked to the others as they drifted along side the stone structure. They had only decided to use the ruse to get close enough to the archons to take them on with sword and shield. They knew each archon harboured immense metallic wings that could lift them into the air and out of reach, leaving the group almost defenceless against their aerial attacks, more so if they were stranded in the slender rowboat. Bor played along with the facade, throwing his greatsword upon the dock, before lifting from his seat and stepping up to help Willow onto the pier. The archons took his quick actions as hostile, and suddenly, a ferocious burst of energy surged from the towering guardians. A sickly aura so menacing, it rippled a strange but terrifying fear throughout the limbs of Willow’s body. She felt the pulse radiating from each of them, yet the connection between her and the archon on the far east of dock, was the strongest by far. The pulse weakened her hands, straining the grip her fingers had on her daggers hidden beneath her arcane layers of silk dress. As the archons lowered and brandished their flaming lances in perfect unison, Willow knew she had to act fast. Before they had time to react, she launched herself from the boat, ducking under the impulsive swing of one lance and lunging at the archon that the strongest aura was radiating from. Both of her blades plunged forward into the seams of his golden armour, striking the shadowed flesh beneath. In a furious blur, the others began their attacks, metal clashing and shatters of blood painting the dock. The archons moved as one, launching themselves high into the air above the Forsaken, morphing their weapons into javelins and raining down upon the intruders with fiery wrath. Willow dove in a tumble to avoid the flaming onslaught, ripping a wand free from her pouch. In a rasping voice of malice, she called forth the incantation that Garvana had taught her, ricocheting the profane magic overhead into the sky. A cold, cloying miasma of greasy darkness erupted into the air, wrapping its sleazed tendrils around the celestial beings. A pellet of flame flickered through the sudden shadowed blackness of arcana, exploding into a great scarlet inferno thrown from Garvana’s fingertips. As the warring blackness and crimson heat filled the sky, unseen on approach, another torrent of fiery javelins shattered along the dock. Willow deftly dodged the incoming missile of steel, mind churning with intrigue as the metal shuddered in a ripple and disappeared once it struck the hard stone of the jetty. Bor dove to the ground crying out in fear.
“Please!” he called out, “I mean you no harm! I want no part in this!”
“Coward!” Willow growled in frustration, launching a second unholy blight upon the sky.
She knew what he was doing, she knew he was unable to fight them from the ground while they soared high above. But as the splintered steel of another javelin pierced her shoulder, she couldn’t dismiss the whiff of betrayal that seethed.
“Stay where you are,” the archon’s bellowed in response, “And you won’t be harmed.”
Pellius planted his foot firmly in Bor’s back, taking aim with his mighty longbow, firing a flurry of arrows at the craning targets. In a shower of luminous arcana and waves of arrows and spears, the archons gave up their heightened advantage as three of their number fell to their deaths, the remaining guardians charging down from the sky with their morphed greatswords in hand. Willow narrowly avoided the cleaving blade, springing herself under and up, thrusting her dagger firmly under the archon’s helmet and into his neck. As his immense weight thundered into the dock, she saw Bor jump in from behind and cleave the head off another. As Pellius’ mighty blow caved in the armoured face of the last, the ground trembled beneath their feet. The bodies of the archons lingered only for a moment, before much like their weapons, they rippled from sight.
Quickly drinking down vials of healing, the group breathed a momentary restful breath. No one had been gravely injured, only minor cuts and wounds littered their skin, it was a victory of relative ease. Yet as Willow looked on into the entrance hall of the garden, her chest did not inhale with relief. She knew there was much ahead of them, and she knew the guardian of the hall would be waiting in ambush.

It was in eery silence that the Forsaken crept through the halls of the huntress. No life glistened in the empty room, no light nor fire lit their way. As the ringing sound of Pellius’ heavily armoured steps echoed throughout the room, Willow kept her senses sharp and keen for any sound or scuff of movement. Sith prowled close by her side, sensing her anxiety and anticipation. As Pellius found the extinguished fireplace, he poured a vial of oil upon the charred blocks and lit the mess with a flint of flame. The light cast upon the wooden logs flickered involuntarily, soothing the room with a menacing glow.
“Ah, she returns,” crooned a familiar voice from deep within the shadows, “And she brings her pack.”
The hairs on Willow’s neck rose, creeping chill seeping into her spine, as her ears struggled to discern where the voice had come from.
“You knew I would,” Willow said aloud.
“Show yourself!” Garvana commanded.
The slick feminine voice chuckled, “Predator does not take orders from prey.”
Sith’s ears rose, as if he was seeing something that her own eyes could not.
Surthith morr ter,” she commanded quietly, telling him to seek the huntress’ scent.
He growled in assent, stalking further into the room. Willow followed closely, eyes piercing the darkness, all of her senses acutely aware of her surroundings. She tried to keep close to the light of the fire, but as Sith’s trail led her further away, the thrill of the chase blurred her caution. Suddenly, at the exact moment that the hellhound’s growl sounded, Willow felt the sickening rasp of warm breath on her neck.
“Gotcha!” the voice rumbled by her ear.
Sharp fangs pierced the flesh of her shoulder, before claws dug deep into sides. As she cried out in pain, and Sith snarled in flaming fury, she felt her weight lift from the ground. The huntress had a crushing grip on her as she effortlessly climbed higher along the wall. Before the others could attack, Willow writhed within her hold, ripping her nimble frame free of the clutched paws and slipping out to the ground. She turned and for only a fraction of a second, she saw the huntress in all her prowess and glory. A woman with the face of a lion, sharp flashing teeth, long protruding claws upon feline feet and hands. Suddenly, the huntress craned her jaw wide, roaring out a ferocious burst of raw power. The sheer force of the cry thundered through the air, slamming into Willow’s head with excruciating might. Her eardrums screamed under the pressure, her sight flashing white behind her lids in a blinding flash. When the feral roar ended, sound slowly lingered back to Willow’s ears. But the flash had been so bright in its shine, that her vision only darkened in sightless depths. Sith’s panicked howl told her that she was not the only one affected by the aftermath of the cry. Although nerves shook her core and a subtle fear drifted into her mind, Willow surged her willpower, straining her ears to hear the attack she knew was coming. It was to her left that the sound of skin ripping and fabric tearing came, followed by a heavy grunt of pain from Bor. She heard his weapon cleave through the air and collide with the huntress. As the feline hissed viciously, Willow blindly struck her blades towards the noise, trusting in her instincts while her sight failed her. Another venomous hiss as her blades thrust into flesh told her she had hit her target. But once again, claws pierced deep into her sides, fangs splitting the skin of her shoulder as her weight retreated upward.
“Garvana!” Pellius’ voice called from the distance, “It is me! Here, turn your back!”
“Pellius?” Garvana called in confusion, “Is that you?”
Willow growled fiercely, ripping herself free once again, dropping heavy to the ground. She swung her blades wildly in the hopes of finding the prowling huntress. But without sight, she had no way of avoiding the clutches of her claws as the feline tore her from balance, slowly dragging her deeper into the smothering darkness of the hall.
“Bor!” Willow screamed, “Over here!”
His thundering footsteps rumbled the ground beneath her feet, his mighty battlecry roaring, his charge nearing ever closer. She heard the air spilt as his weapon craned wide, Willow clenched her teeth in anticipation, greatly fearing that he would instead collide with her. As it hit, she merely felt the furred body around her shudder in pain, a bestial hiss expelling from its maw. As the huntress dragged her further away, Willow was fed up with the infuriating game of cat and mouse. Instead of dextrously slipping free once more, she turned her daggers in a backwards grip. A screech of diabolical might shrieked from her lips, as she plunged her blades back by her sides, stabbing deep into the torso of the huntress. As the noxious magic of the ruby dagger seethed through its body, the unholy ire surging through its veins, the huntress drew a last staggered breath. The compressing grip of the feline’s claws loosened, the sharp points sliding from Willow’s skin as she collapsed to the ground. Taking no chances, Willow fumbled to her knees, finding the huntress’ neck by feel and quickly ending any chance of recovered life.
“Bor,” Willow called, “She’s dead.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, his footsteps pacing in sightless guard.
Willow felt out for where his voice came from, finding his forearm, squeezing tightly in a reassurance more for herself than for him.
“I am sure,” she replied, “We must find the others. Do you know anything of the huntress’ magic? How long will our sight be gone?”
“I do not know,” Bor said, slowly guiding her forward, “We shall have to wait it out, and hope she was the only one of her pack guarding this hall…”

A few minutes of agonising blindness, and the flickering light of the fireplace came into view. Although furthest from the huntress, Pellius and Garvana had faired worse than Bor, Grumblejack and Willow. Not only had they lost their sight, but their hearing had been silenced as well. As Willow looked over Pellius, she saw the slow trickle of blood from his ears and eyes. Instinctively, she grabbed her own, and there too was the sickly wetness of crimson harm.
“You were lucky to escape her unscathed last time,” Bor said quietly.
She simply nodded through the shiver that racked her spine, not allowing herself to think on what could have been. After cleaning her own, Willow moved to Pellius, wiping away the blood from his cheeks. The tenderness in which she stroked the fabric cloth across his skin had her heart race in a way she dismissed without thought. He merely watched her, eyes filled with a strange emotion, searching her face in the same way she searched his.
“We must continue,” she said abruptly, turning from the moment, breaking the odd connection, “The labyrinth awaits.”
As she dropped her pack and dug through its contents to find the candles she had brought, she felt the warmth of his hand caress her neck where the newly knitted flesh from the huntress’ bite still ached. Wordlessly, she pulled free the candles, handing one to him without looking back into his eyes.
“From what I can gather,” she said with utmost professionalism, handing a candle to each of them, “The ritual to pass through the labyrinth contains three aspects. A lit candle, silence and sightlessness. I assume it allows us to pass through the arcane walls of the maze.”
A confused whimper came from her side, Sith’s large head rubbing up against her. Willow turned, and her brow dropped deep into a frown.
“How do I get you to hold a candle?” she said, almost laughing at the absurdity.
With a strange idea and nothing to lose, Willow carefully pressed the candle into the furred flaming mess of his back. As wax does within fire, the candle melted into his fur, standing upright as it began its slow journey to liquid state. She laughed aloud when she saw the wick light itself by the flame.
“It may work?” she chuckled.
Sith huffed his indignity, shaking his shoulders in protest.
“Are we ready?” Willow asked the others, lighting her own candle.
Once all five flames were lit, the group stood in procession, Willow leading the way, Pellius close behind her. Looking out into the opening of the Garden of Serenity, it was as peculiar and beautiful as the last time. The thick moss and vines still covered the fieldstone brickwork walls, the lingering motes of light still drifted easily through the air, and the lush litter of colour sprouted in flowers and bulbs across the scene. Staring out into the labyrinth, Willow still felt the strange ethereal grace, as if the gardens lay not solely upon the material plane.
They held onto one another’s shoulders, taking a final breath before closing their eyes and beginning their passage forward. In the lead, she walked slowly, counting each as she went. From where they started, Willow had guessed about ten steps distance to the large unendingly tall wall in front of them. Holding her candle raised with her eyes closed, comforted by Pellius’ firm hand on her shoulder, she stepped timidly passed her tenth step. The strangest sensation came over her as her steps continued and her body met no barrier. She continued, walking forward in slow and careful steps, ears keen for any sound of disturbance. After a few moments, she was suddenly pulled forward, a wall rushing to meet her face. They had been flung somewhere deeper into the labyrinth, lost within its winding paths. Quickly turning, she saw Pellius, eyes wide with a small sheepish smile tilting his lips.
“Keep your eyes closed,” she scolded, looking over the group to make sure they were all still there.
“Yes mam,” he smirked.
She rolled her eyes before closing them once again, continuing forward through the arcane ritual. After she had counted a hundred steps, the air strangely seemed to change. Thinner than before, the bizarre winds of the twisting jungle dissipating. Willow opened her eyes warily, a long single path coming into view.
“I think we are at the centre,” Willow said quietly, blowing out her candle as the others opened their eyes and took in the surroundings.
At the end of the passage lay a single flame, burning in a white vapour, contained within an ancient structure much like the eternal flame atop the Mountain of the Phoenix. As they slowly neared what appeared to be a courtyard, weapons drawn and at the ready, they saw that this flame was not unguarded. Two figures stood flanking the far exit to the yard, stern faces painted with duty. On the right, a man dressed in nothing more than simple robes and a sash. His face held tell in the form of gentle wrinkles of wisdom and age, closely shorn soft speckled grey tinting the sides of his dark washed hair. No emotion lingered on his face, only a calm tranquil grace of acceptance of what was to come. Willow knew that he was indeed the leader of the Serene Order, known only as the Master of Serenity. To the left was a woman, a face and elegance so impossibly beautiful, only marred by the obvious lameness of her left leg. Shining golden locks adorned her head in a braided crown, glistening bronze skin glowed beneath the impressive set of glorious armour, painted with the livery marking her as an Oracle of Mitra. They said nothing as the Forsaken approached, their faces stoic and their fate sealed. Willow eyed the flaming basin as they marched forward, not sensing anything like the ward she had on the flame by the phoenix. She was concerned that this flame, just as the other, would offer healing aid to those of Mitra’s faithful. So as she neared, she carefully lifted the festering broth of unholy water from her pouch, keeping her movements hidden. As they arrived at the opening, the flame sweltering between them like a protective barrier, Willow lifted her chin high. Giving them no time to react, she swiftly hurled the vial into the eternal fire.
“May Mitra’s flame never burn again,” she said coldly.
As the sound of the flask shattering ricocheted throughout the walls of the Garden of Serenity, the ground beneath their feet trembled. The flames hissed in agonising protest, as the feral brew simmered and sapped the life from the fire. As the scarlet flicker dimmed and the burning was quenched, a thundering shudder reverberated throughout the land. Suddenly, the sky haemorrhaged a deathly blood red. A crimson mass leaked across the expansive sky, throbbing with rancour, a foreboding omen of the hours that were to come. A deafening shatter of glass echoed from far to the north. From across the courtyard, the woman’s eyes only seemed to sadden. She said nothing, steeling herself against vengeance or wrath. The monk made no show of reaction, bar the slightest tilt to his eyebrow. His gaze though, locked to Willow’s. Before she could blink, he flew forward, faster than she had seen any human move. Suddenly he was in front of her, a simple effortless flick to the wrist and he had returned to his original place, her ruby dagger in hand. Her eyes flew wide in shock, and she could have sworn she saw the barest hint of a smirk lift the corner of his lip. A monotone incantation came from the woman’s lips as a torrent of hundreds of flashing blades began a fatal dance around her. Willow lifted her sheathed dagger from her calf, breathing deeply as she locked gazes with the monk.
It was Bor’s ferocious battle cry that began the slaughter. Each of them charged forward, weapons raised with death in their eyes. Willow launched towards the monk, slashing her blades trying to follow his waltz of battle. He was more nimble and freeform than any monk she had seen, truly a master of his craft. She lunged forward, narrowly missing his torso as he effortless struck the pommel of Pellius’ great warhammer, sending it flying further into the labyrinth. Sith snarled and let loose his flaming breath in a torrent towards the monk. From the corner of her eye, Willow saw Pellius run himself into the flurry of blades that surrounded the oracle. She watched as the shreds were torn from his flesh, the cuts and gashes opening up as they pelted him with an unrelenting onslaught. Yet he reached for her, his hand rippling with feral black tendrils, sickly pustules craning for her skin. On contact, the bronze tinge to her once gleaming face turned a festering viridescent. Suddenly, infectious lumps raised across her skin, bursting veins of oozing liquid unfurled across her arms and legs. Pellius had infected her with some kind of corruption; a plague with instant manifestation. Willow knew he had the ability to do so, but seeing it so close, chilled her to the core. Bor’s mighty swing cleaved deep into the chest of the monk, as Sith’s great fiery maw latch onto his side, flaming fangs tearing the flesh from the bone. Garvana’s arcane might rippled through the air, colliding with the barrier of blade in an illuminated battle of wipsing magic. As Garvana surged her will with a sonorous call to Asmodeus, the blades vanished from sight. As the oracle watched her defence fall just as her comrade had done, she turned from the courtyard and made for the quickest retreat that her lame leg would allow. Pellius, battered and bleeding from the flurry of blades, pulled out his longbow and drew an arrow. As he loosed it, it sliced through the air, landing true directly in the back of the oracle’s skull.
Calling forth her divine healing, Garvana saw to the worst of Pellius’ wounds, as Willow quickly retrieved her dagger from within the robes of the monk. Once her profane blade was securely back in its sheath, she turned to Pellius.
“Are you alright?” she asked, genuine concern across her face.
“No more than a few scratches, my lady,” he winced.
Despite herself and the serious nature of their position, she smiled.
“I fear we have much more to face,” she replied, pointing further north out of the exit to the courtyard, “The cathedral is just beyond.”
In the distance, a towering spiral of stairs led the way upward, craning far into the mountain where the ominous cathedral lay atop in blackened silhouette. A sun of crimson blood rose behind the mountainous peak, as the mighty Infernal Lord stood in his blinding glory, watching their righteous crusade.

It was a long and slow climb to the top, the stairway of a thousand steps taking its tole on the already fatigued group. But as they climbed and the cathedral neared, it was sheer adrenaline that had their steps quicken. By the time the crest of the staircase was merely twenty feet away, a sound of rippling wings shuddered though the air.
“What it it?” Garvana asked, looking out into the midday sky.
“Nothing good,” Willow muttered, speeding up her pace, reaching the large entrance to turn eye to the southern clouds.
It came slowly into view, a flock of what seemed like birds, growing ever larger as they neared. When the figure appeared in blur behind them, Willow realised that they were not birds, but hippogriffs. At a count close to one hundred, her eyes widened in worry and frustration. Behind the thundering flock of horse-like eagles, craned an amazing intimidating sight. A storm giant, riding on the back of a roc. The thirty foot long bird creature soared with ease and agile grace, as the immense giant laughed with glee. He wore a metal helmet embellished with great wings, clad in massive full plate armour, and a grin from ear to ear.
“Spread out,” Pellius commanded, “Far enough that his lightening cannot reach between us.”
It was unfortunate that Grumblejack had not understood exactly how far that distance was supposed to be. As the sky rumbled and flashed with rippling lightening, a terrifying bolt of electricity tore through the air, striking Pellius first and ricocheting off Grumblejack and Garvana. Willow heard the grunt of pain, but kept her eyes locked on the sky. The hundred hippogriffs broke off from the charge towards them and soared directly for the township of sanctum. The Forsaken had no time to think on their men in the city below, as the melodious laugh came from the giant’s rumbling chest.
“How could such tiny things, manage such terrible acts of villainy?” he laughed, “No matter, once you’ve had a taste of my lightening, you shall rue the day you ever turned to such deviltry!”
As a massive jolt of lightening erupted from the sky, it flashed downwards, focussing its searing might upon a single point. Each branch of frayed electricity pierced into Sith, searing his heavy fur and skin beneath the flames. He howled as the waft of burnt flesh swept along the fierce breeze. As soon as he was close enough, Willow let loose a flurry of her profane blight while Garvana called forth the pellets of flame, the miasma of greasy darkness smothering the canvas of sky as the flaming eruption of fire blazed. Willow had not noticed the second roc that flew behind its pair, before it craned down sharply and latched on to Bor, snatching him from the landing. It lifted back high into the sky, the raging orc slashing his vicious greatsword with untold ferocity to get free. The roc and the giant soared downward, landing atop the crest with a trembling shudder. The colossal sword within the giant’s grasp swung forward and cleaved with tremendous might. Willow dove from its path, quick enough to escape harm. But as she turned her head, she saw that Grumblejack had not been near swift enough. The terrible weapon cleaved through his flesh as easily as it did through air, slicing though his waist and out the other side. The two halves of the ogre fell in a crumpled mess to the stone floor. Willow used the distraction to roll under the wing of the great roc, thrusting her daggers into the joint of its bone. It cried out in a high pitched squark, before lashing out with its immense talons in an attempt to grab hold of her. Though quick for it’s size, it was no match for Willow’s dextrous speed. She slipped from its grasp and tumbled underneath, launching upwards in another ruthless attack. Lightening rained down from the sky, exploding in flames and sparks as each bolt collided with either the ground or the flesh of the Forsaken. Garvana thundered in fury, reaching her hands out in an eldritch perch, as matte black void flames curled from her fingers. She forced her hands against the roc’s flesh and let the tenebrosity of the fire sap the essence of its life.
The giant let out another vibrant chuckle, his hearty laugh echoing across the valley. Although they were fighting for their faith, their god and their very lives – he was thoroughly enjoying a good fight. In any other case, Willow might have laughed along with his cheerful glee. But as he turned his roc to face Pellius, who was standing very near the edge of the cliff, her heart stammered in her chest. The roc hooked its talons into the creases of the stonework floor and launched forward in a mighty sprint towards him.
NO!” Willow screamed, throwing herself at the roc with her blades flashing.
At the same moment, Sith lunged forward, his ferocious bite latching on to the feathered flesh. Willow’s daggers plunged deeply into the side of the roc, directly between its massive ribcage, striking it in the heart. The enormous bird cried out as it fell into the floor, skidding to a halt. But even as he tumbled forward in a titanic crash that shook the mountain, the giant was undeterred from his fun. He continued his charge forward, his mighty greatsword held at a strange angle. Pellius steadied his stance and swung forth his own weapon with tremendous might, bludgeoning the oncoming giant in the skull. Still, it was not enough to slow him. He laughed gleefully, though his chest wheezed as it filled with blood, lifting his sword to the side as if holding a putter. With a swing so great, the gust of wind it pushed forced Willow back a step, he descended in an underarm curve – punting Pellius off the side of the mountain and down the thousand foot drop.
PELLIUS!” Willow screamed in fury.
Her heart thundered in her chest, so heavy it was as a chunk of stone was ricocheting back and forth between her ribs as her eyes watched him fall from view. Seething anger surged through her veins, hatred and heartache fuelling the venomous fire coursing within her. As she gripped her blades so tightly that the metal slightly warped, she felt the need for vengeance burning and searing brightly. The giant would taste her ire and face her wrath. As he fell to one knee and struggled for breath, bracing himself upon his weapon, a venomous voice slithered into her ear. It spoke in Infernal, and as the sound graced her hearing, the explosion of profane venom erupted from her chest.
Give him to me,” the deliciously harrowing voice rasped.
With her heart alight and torn asunder in unison, Willow clenched her teeth in a macabre grin. As she threw herself forward, both daggers in a backwards grip, she flew with frightening speed.
He’s yours,” she rasped.
All of her might was forced into her legs, as she leapt high into the sky, blades above her head. She screamed on descent, a mournful cry of retribution and dolour, craning downward in a hurtling blur. At the last moment, the giant turned, looking to face his demise. Her blades sunk deep into the flesh of his neck, as the weight of her jump propelled them deeper into his skin. As her feet hit the ground, she shrieked a feral sound of otherworldly terror, violently spinning her blades and carving their path out of his skin. It was in a shower of crimson mist that she panted her rasping breath, the ground shuddering as the giant collapsed upon the stone.
Garvana lifted her hands and looked deep into the blood red sky. Blackened sleek tendrils slithered from her fingertips, malicious coils that snaked out to the ground, rippling in articulate patterns as they sketched a long line of circle around the giant. As she spoke, the venom painted itself into five sharp points, forming an inverted pentagram beneath the corpse of the once mighty creature.
We give thee, prince of the nine layers of hell, this vessel as sacrifice! Take thy gift! Consume his glory and soul, as token of our unwavering and eternal devotion!”
As her words rang out into the echoing atmosphere, the ghastly lines that carved in blackness along the stone floor began to convulse. In a frightening tremor of profane grace, the lines split open into fiery cracks, hell’s portal manifested. As the blood of the giant seeped along the floor, and the sickly crimson collided with the cracks, the portal began to devour its corpse. The red was pulled into the crevasse, suctioning the body deeper into the flaming pits of hell, until there was nothing left of the giant bar a smear of blackened blood upon the stone. With a wicked quiver, the lines dissolved to nothing, as a chorus of foul cries echoed from the township below. Willow turned south and watched the grace of hell take over the land. Fifty hippogriffs remained of their numbers, the others lost to the blade and hunger of the bugbears guarding Sanctum. As the infernal might sweltered, the transformations began. The golden feathers morphed in a festered shed, sable plumage sprouting to course their bodies. The beaks and talons of the passerine beasts bled a vibrant crimson, as scaly growths spread along their necks and legs. As they lifted into the air, circling in frenzy, their cries crooned in a song of maniacal cackles.
“They are ours,” came Bor’s voice from the left, “He has given them to us in reward.”
Willow’s eyes merely drifted in the circular flight of the savage creatures, her mind in a daze, her heart cold and still.
“He’s alive!” Garvana called, standing along the edge of the landing.
The words struggled to comprehend in Willow’s mind, warring against the dimmed drone of heartache for perch. When they finally registered, a spark of hope lit. She ran to Garvana’s side, and strained her sight to the base of the unending staircase. A limp form of ebony armour lay below, strained movements as he pushed himself to his feet. A whimper escaped Willow’s lips, her heart fluttering in her chest. The painful ache that had settled there slowly eased as she watched his staggered walk, making his way to the beginning of the long climb.
Retrieve him,” Garvana commanded the nearest hippogriff.
Following its decent, Willow smiled with joy as she saw the large creature swoop low and clutch him in its talons. As it neared and dropped him to the landing by their side, she ran to him. The usually pristine pale skin of his face was marred by blackened char and smears of red, grazes and wounds opened along his flesh, thick blood pooled around his lips. Willow reached to lay her hand along his cheek, and for a moment, she merely stared into his hazy eyes. With a thundering heart beat, she smiled. His wheezing cough spluttered blood along his chin, bringing Willow back into the present. She scrambled through her pack to find the wand of healing that Garvana had made for her. She pressed the wooden end against the centre of his chest, repeating the incantation over and over, until the light returned to his eyes. The wounds pulled together, the flesh knitting and weaving upon itself, as each cut and gash were healed. Once his chest began to rise and fall at its usual speed, Willow hushed, pulling the wand away. She watched him and waited. As his eyes opened and his gaze found her, a drifting warmth came across his face.
“Willow,” he whispered fondly.
“Are you alright?” she asked worriedly.
He smiled, “Yes, I am fine.”
A small smile tilted her lips, as she merely stared back into the deep wells of his gaze. Suddenly, she frowned and in frightful speed she slapped the back of her hand across his face.
“Do not do something so stupid again!” she snapped, lifting from her perch to stand over him.
“What?” he laughed in disbelief, rubbing his cheek and straining to a seated position, “What is it I did?”
Willow turned from him, but before she could storm away, his firm grip latched onto her hand and yanked her back down to his level.
“What is really the matter?” he asked, a sly tint to his words.
She stared again, consumed by his dark eyes as they returned to their usual dastardly shrewdness. Her breath came in short ragged bursts, her heart trembling in its rapid pulse. Her reply came with the twisted patronisation that she knew only he would recognise. For there was more between them than the words they were willing to speak. And so she answered, a coy smile on her lips.

The knot must hold…”

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