Monday, 26 September 2016
Chapter 28 - Desecrate
The scarlet light shined down from the canvas of sky, casting an ominous irradiance over the defiled lands of the Vale of Valtaerna. The grand entrance to the Cathedral of Mitra Made Manifest was a baroque wonder of the world. The gateway was not carved by the hands of men, instead crafted by tasked archons who had adorned it with the iconography of a thousand martyrs and saints. But even as the life-like figures all bowed in obeisance before the great and undying light of Mitra, the crimson venom of effulgence cast the scene in a pallid and foreboding tenor. The way the red seeped into black along each crevice in the carving, brought forth an omen of the demise that was to come.
Standing upon the stone landing, the Forsaken gazed towards the grand structure. Although the sight was rapturous and immense, Willow’s eyes drifted towards another. She had known that Garvana’s connection to her Infernal Lord was strong and true, but the thunderous crevasse that she had opened was nothing like she had ever seen.
“I did not know you could open the pathway to Hell,” she said quietly, a tinge of awe creeping into her tone.
Garvana’s eyes lifted to her own, a warmth of wonder dancing across her sight.
“Nor did I,” she replied, “Yet I when it was time, I knew exactly what it was I needed to do.”
Willow smiled, marvelling over the thought, “He is pleased.”
They shared a look for a moment, an unspoken bond of lifted hearts. When Bor called them over, they took up formation under the towering entrance to the cathedral. Willow eyed the marble doors, immaculately crafted and intricately detailed. When she found no holes for locks, she figured the cathedral doors were built to bar no one entry. Only the righteous dwelled within this sacred domicile, and each would defend their home under the watchful eye of Mitra with their very lives.
Garvana spoke a rasping infernal incantation, shuddering the air as she summoned forth a foul shapeless mass of quivering flesh. A lemure, the lowest form of devil kind. A pathetic and monstrous creature that once filled the ranks of the legion of the damned. Willow had read about them in the ancient tomes outlining the known hierarchy of hell, but she had never seen one in the flesh, she had never imagined something so grotesque. With a face of disgust, she looked to Garvana in question.
“There is sure to be an ambush on the other side of this door,” she shrugged, “Better this foul creature than us.”
She could not fault the reasoning, but Willow was sure to give the stench of the beast a wide birth. While one of it’s twisted limbs reached for the door, the Forsaken prepared to attack. As the marble block creaked open, a flaming javelin split through the fiend with devastating power. Six more legion archons launched forward in ambush, the stone tile floor trembling beneath their feet. Suddenly, the air rippled with arcana as they conjured images of themselves, filling the grand hall with what appeared to be over twenty archons. It was then, that Willow realised exactly why they were called the archons of legion. Each set of glistening gold armour shimmered in the torchlight, moving in perfect unison, precise and practiced in the assault. As the Forsaken charged over the threshold, a menacing gloom pulsed throughout the chamber. Fire and steel clashed in battle, charred flesh and righteous cries, cascades of crimson sweeping through the air to paint the floors in a fatal work of art. Willow dove through the fray, slashing her blades between the layers of armour, gritting her teeth against the flurry of torn flesh along her skin. Each sweep of her blade was accompanied by the strenuous grunts and arcane incantations, a melody of carnage playing its deadly tune. At times her daggers cut through air, the magical images of the archons vanishing upon contact. Each hit was a frustrating chance, so she relished each time that her blades found solid flesh. Bor charged forward, thundering steps towards the archons, his mighty weight colliding with such force that he thrust the first archon back into the two behind him. Pellius’ warhammer shattered the golden chest plate of another in a terrifying blow, a tremendous heave expelling from his throat. Willow could feel the raging fire within him, the sanctity of the holy ward guarding the cathedral warring in protest again the rush of the infernal blood through his veins. Mitra’s divine temple repelled against him in a furious force, his intrusion into the sacred site a blasphemous sin against the god of light. Its wrath so venomous, it seemed to be pushing Pellius to become reckless and careless in his advance. His eyes blazed in scarlet frenzy as he charged into the centre of the oncoming archons, swinging his hefty weapon about, heedless of the blows he endured along his path. As his craning arc took one archon to it’s knees, Sith snarled and crushed the armoured steel inside his frothing maw. One by one, the archons fell. As the last of them cleaved his flaming sword in a twirling dance of death, Bor thrust his vicious blade in a two handed grip, tearing through the archons neck. The crash of his armour shattered the stone tiles beneath him, before like the others, his body vanished from sight.
For a moment, the Forsaken could pause. Before them stood a great open hall covered in frescoes depicting countless saints in Mitra’s service. The ceilings rose seventy feet tall ending in ornately vaulted panels adorned with art that only be called a masterpiece. It showed Mitra always faceless but ever present. It showed Mitra as the light of the sun, the wrath of the fire and the warmth of a mother’s love. It expressed more eloquently than a library full of books on theology, the true meaning of what it meant to worship and revere the great god of light and life. It was as Willow caught her breath that she looked to the north, only now noticing that the far end of the chapel was closed off by a towering wall of blazing flame. Even as she looked at it, she knew this was no ordinary arcane fire. The wall blazed with such fury and vivid brilliance, that its magic shone in visible furling tendrils of holy light. Willow felt it’s warning, pressing against her chest, as strong as any physical force. As it lingered in menace, she looked to Pellius. The flare had not calmed from his eyes, the anger and fury of his blood still eagerly pushed through his rasping shallow breaths. She watched him clench his eyes shut, fighting for control of himself. As the others checked over the large chamber, Willow carefully approached his side.
“Are you alright?” she asked quietly.
His eyes flicked open to hers, his gaze penetrating and piercing, as if it was not only him looking back at her. For only a moment, she saw the raging beast within, hungry and devouring. With a flicker, the fire retreated, a guarded expression steeling his eyes.
“Of course,” he said dismissively, turning away from her.
She knew not to press him further, yet she kept a wary eye on the him even as she ceded to his judgement of control. She looked to the hall and saw the doorways on either side of her. Four doors ahead of them, two archways behind them. With a quick scan, they saw that both archways led to rooms that held descending stairways to the lower regions of the cathedral. It was the impressively complex locks on the doors within the hall that had Willow’s curiosity piqued. She had not seen such elaborate locks since the ones at her family manor in Farholde. While the others argued over which way to go, Willow slunk to the closest eastern door. Kneeling silently, she listened for any sound or scuff on the other side. When she heard the gentle sound of pacing footsteps, she soundlessly signalled the others. As quietly as she could, Willow slipped free her tools and slid the fine pick into the mechanism. As the lock clicked open, the footsteps within stopped. With a warning look to the others, she replaced her tools with her blades and stepped back. As she swung the door wide, a blinding light of white flashed across her sight. For only a moment, she saw the vision of a fiery and dignified woman. Bronzed lava-like coursing skin, vibrant copper hair wrapped in a twist, her slim frame layered in elegant sturdy armour.
“Finally!” she yelled.
As the bright light pulsed, the woman’s image imploded into an ethereal form, a single blinding mote of light. Sith charged into the chamber, frothing from the maw, his sharp teeth eager to devour the luminous blur. Before he could reach her, he rebounded against a wall of unseen magic. Willow recognised the strange barrier, a wall built of pure force, an arcane structure of impassable strength. Thinking quickly, she pulled free the scroll of teleporting divination, reaching out to grab hold of Pellius’ arm. As she recited the enchanted words, a searing flash of flaming power simmered against her skin, seconds before the otherworldly portal ripped her through. She was flung out into the chamber, directly behind the menacing light. Arcs of sizzling lightening rippled from the mote, scorching and charring flesh and bone alike. Garvana followed Willow’s lead and teleported herself and Bor to the other side of the light, appearing from the abyss and stepping forth into battle. Surrounded by the Forsaken, under the onslaught of furious attacks, the light was beaten down. With its last wisp of life, it sent out a venomous pulse of searing heat, a divine grace of devastating purpose. As its glow was snuffed, the blazing arcana rippled against the bare flesh, blistering in torrid burns and welts. Willow cursed, looking to her once pale skin, now littered with weeping vesicles. She lifted one of the healing vials from her pouch with delicate fingers, drinking it down and sighing in relief as the burn simmered to still.
The chamber was clearly meant to house the visiting emissaries, it’s finery of a more rich and lavish taste than that which decorated the rest of Valtaerna. Gowns of gossamer silk and jewelry of fey amber hung within the cabinets, rare and exotic pieces of fine craftsmanship. As Willow sifted through the dresser and desk, she found a sealed letter from an Azata woman named Brigit of the Brijidine, expressing concern about Asmodeus’ agents in Talingarde. Willow had heard of the Brijidine only in ancient tomes and books, having thought their presence in her homeland a mere myth. She took the letter within her pack, along with a few of the finer pieces of jewelry, before sealing the chamber behind her.
On the opposite side of the grand hall was another intricately detailed door, barred by an impressive lock. Willow listened close, but heard no sound from the room. As she carefully tested it, whomever had last left the room, had left the door unlocked. The chamber was far simpler than the last, no elaborate decorations upon it’s walls, no beautiful gowns hung within its closets. Only simple robes of white, trimmed in golden lining. The robes worn only by the Lord-Abbot. These were the private quarters of Earnan MacCathlain, the head of the Order of Saint Macarius. There was only one peculiarity that sat within the drawers of the desk – the family bible of the MacCathlain line. Intrigued, Willow flicked through its pages, arching her brow as she found his person journal within the last pages. The words written in celestial outlined his plans for saving the Vale of Valtaerna.
“With the departure of the Phoenix,” Willow translated aloud, “The blessed Ara Mathra has retreated to the Holiest of Holies and has called forth a conflagration no mortal nor devil nor even angel can cross. I know some of the men believe that this reveals him a coward. But I know the truth. He must survive or all is lost. If even one of the three sacred flames survive, then all can be rekindled. The Order of St. Macarius will weather this storm and emerge all the stronger for it. No one suffers more than he. I see this. He agonizes that he must remain here and guard the Undying Flame. Cowardice? Hah! Who amongst us is strong enough to do what he does now? It would be base anger that drives him to slay the evil doers that assault us. Instead he has taken the victory from them. They cannot win. The slaughter of Saintsbridge has earned them nothing but damnation. Only a saint could pierce the flame! I’ve tarried here too long. I must return to my prayers. Soon the ghost-martyrs will rise I will take back Valtaerna. Beware sons and daughters of darkness, I come for you!”
For a moment, silence greeted her words. Her own mind churned over the implications of his written confessions, seeking the information they so desperately needed.
“Ghost-martyrs?” Garvana asked, breaking the quiet, “Have you heard of such a thing?”
“Only a saint…” Willow whispered, unaware her thoughts had come out from her mouth.
“What is it you are thinking, my lady?” Pellius frowned.
Her eyes shot to his, her brow pulled tight, “I am unsure. We must see what else the cathedral houses, perhaps we shall find more there…”
Most of the other chambers along the hall contained little of interest, simple barracks and storerooms, shrines and meeting rooms. A single chamber struck interest, a reliquary that enshrined the life of Saint Macarius. Carved upon the walls bas-relief images told the story of his life. Before Saint Macarius’ mission, the worship of Mitra was unknown in Talingarde. It was he who spread the light to every corner of the isle. It was Macarius who converted Darius to the worship of Mitra and thus changed the island’s destiny. But there was more here than just biography. The reliquary contained artifacts from the life of the saint; his robe, walking stick, sash, phylactery and personal holy book. Although Willow could imagine such items to be prized possessions to the Mitran faithful, they were relatively worthless to the Forsaken. But as she saw Pellius’ lip turn, reaching to destroy the items, she stopped him with a gentle hand.
“Only a saint…” she repeated thoughtfully, “Perhaps these items are our way to piercing the flame. Garvana, do they hold arcana?”
Garvana traced intricate patterns within the air and recited her enchanted words, her eyes glowing with a soft white glimmer. She carefully looked over each item within it’s glass case.
“Only the phylactery,” she frowned, “It is some kind of Mitran blessing. The others are only protected by old and weak preservation magic. Easy enough to dispel.”
“Do not dispel it,” Willow replied, “Take them with us, we must clear out the lower levels of the cathedral, perhaps they are the key.”
Garvana nodded, carefully stowing them with her bag, cringing as she lifted out the phylactery. Eyeing the flaming wall, they made their way to the eastern stairwell, where a small shrine lined with slender candles still burned upon its altar. A carving above it in celestial words identified it as the shrine of the Beneficent Sun. A place where devotees could offer prayers to Mitra’s aspect as the comforter and healer. Before descending, they checked the western chamber, where a similar altar sat, marked as the shrine of the Shining Lord, for prayers to Mitra’s aspect as a great warrior and a leader of the nation of Talingarde. As Willow stepped down the first stone stair of the spiral case, she heard a familiar roar of frustrated excursion. A great shatter of stone and splinter of wood echoed throughout the grand hall, as Pellius craned his warhammer in frightening outrage, destroying the simple shrine to the east. His thundering footsteps ricocheted off the walls and he stormed to the western shrine. Bor and Garvana paid no mind to his anger, passing Willow as they descended to the lower level. It was worry for his sanity that had her watch, wary to avoid the showering mess that ripped through the air as his weapon collided with the second shrine. As the last of the splinters littered the floor, he exhaled a gust of furious might. His control was slipping, Willow knew by the way his eyes flared burning scarlet, raging free from his command. She watched his chest rise and deflate, his frown pulled deep, the strain of the war within him painted across his face. Only after his breath sighed did Willow speak.
“Pellius…?” she said quietly, taking a small step towards him.
“Do not question me,” he warned, avoiding her sight as he marched passed her towards the stairs.
Anger flared within her chest, her eyes narrowed as her cold voice cut like a blade.
“I will do so if I believe you cannot hold dominance over your temper. Are you in control?”
He stilled his descent, slowly turning towards her. A mix of emotions danced across his face, most of which Willow could identify with ease. She knew his lack of control was something he abhorred, to the point of shame and frustration that creased his forehead. She knew he detested that she would have the audacity to call him out on it, told by the arch of his brow. But most of what she saw in his face, spoke of him hating that she knew him well enough to understand how precarious his grip on his control was. She did not need his answer. Gently, she shook her head and gave him a small hint of smile, a show of her understanding.
“Come along,” she said quietly, passing him along the stairs, “The sooner we clear this place out, the sooner we can be rid of it…”
The empty room below them was little more than a landing for the spiral stairway. Adorned with murals showing the procession of priests carrying the blessed dead to be interned in the ossuaries below. It was from here, though their bodies lie, their spirits joined with Mitra in the undying lands. As Willow eyed the murals, intrigued in their intricate carvings, she found an inscription in celestial hidden amongst the engravings.
“In our darkest hour,” she read aloud, “The martyrs shall answer the tears of the blessed.”
“Ghost-martyrs?” Garvana asked.
“It would seem so,” Willow replied.
She turned from the wall, warily looking over the archway that lead the path further into what she now assumed was the catacombs of Valtaerna. The chamber was stacked with old records and carefully catalogued books and scrolls. These were the records of the Order of Saint Macarius. They kept records of the deeds both great and small of every full member of the Order. Willow knew these records would be a priceless treasure of the church, and the loss of such long records would be a devastating blow to the faithful.
A great open tome sat upon an altar, long lists written in celestial lining its pages. As Willow looked its contents over, she skimmed the lists all those who have been interred within the catacombs over the years.
“There is a rule for being laid to rest here,” she surmised from the writings, “In your lifetime, you must have cast at least three divine spells from Mitra. Every single bone in the ossuaries here come from a divine spellcaster of Mitra.”
“That many priests?” Bor grunted.
“Mitra is the god of divine healing,” Garvana shrugged.
“There must be hundreds here,” Willow said, eyebrows raised as she flicked from page to page.
“Enough,” Pellius commanded, “We must continue, we are lingering for too long.”
Willow knew he was right, so she turned from the tome, eyes scanning the stacks of books and scrolls. With a smirk lifting the corner of her lip, she commanded Sith to light the room with his unholy breath.
“Firith,” she rasped.
As they stepped into the far hallway, the great hellhound opened his jaw wide, smothering the record in blazing fire. As the pages burned and white parchment coiled in charred black, a deathly howl sounded throughout the passage. Suddenly, three ghostly hands slithered through the stone walls, reaching out to the Forsaken, casting a sickly aura of cold menace in the chamber. As their spectral blades carved through living flesh, Pellius grunted in agony. The life seemed to be sapped from his skin, a pale white wave washing over his face. Willow plunged her dagger through the heart of a phantom, her physical blade passing through the air with ease. It was only the magic that encompassed her blade that seemed to carve through the creature. It sighed a mournful cry and vanished. In retaliation, the two remaining ghosts cleaved their blades towards her. She managed to avoid one, but even as Bor’s venomous sword spilt the phantom in half, the second blade carved deep through her shoulder. It was with a malicious chanting that Garvana’s mace shimmered in arcana, transforming into the feral shape of a scythe, slicing through the last of the ghosts. Willow felt her breathing quicken, the strange sensation of her very essence having been drawn out through her wound. Bor pressed his hand firmly on her back, summoning his strange magic, returning her vitality to its usual form.
“Be wary,” he said, turning to the passage, “They may not be all of them.”
As they began their journey through the labyrinth of the catacombs, Willow hushed the others and strained her ears. The faintest sound reverberated through the air.
“In our darkest hour,” the celestial chant echoed, “The martyrs shall answer the tears of
Those that could hear it, looked to one another with wide eyes. They continued carefully, reading the inscriptions upon the walls, careful to not disturb the fragile state of the chambers. As they came across the first open room, they entered quietly. The shrine within was one commemorating all those who had sacrificed themselves for the ideals of Saint Macarius, and the life of the order’s founder and first martyr. The shrine had a small marble statue of Saint Macarius, dressed in a traveller’s robe pinned with a plain wooden holy symbol. Clearly a militant cleric, was carved carrying a mace with slips of chainmail exposed under his robes. Every inch of the the shrine was adorned by bas reliefs showing the deeds of Saint Macarius; how he discovered the Vale of Valtaerna and became the first priest to solve the riddle of the sacred flames. The story depicted told of how Macarius came to the Vale, drawn here by the whispered words of an angel of Mitra. He found Valtearna uninhabited by men but illuminated by a strange light atop a mountain. He climbed the Mountain of the Phoenix and faced the great fiery beast itself without fear. He pledged that he and his followers would forever guard this sacred vale. Thus did he appease the Guardian Flame. He found the way through the labyrinth and placed his hand in the Beneficent Flame and was restored. The images conveyed that before the flame he had suffered from some unnamed affliction, a thorn of the flesh. Macarius pledged that he would share his gift of healing with all in need. Thus did he appease the Beneficent Flame. Finally, Macarius found the Undying Flame in a cave beyond the labyrinth. There he communed with Ara Mathra. The angel asked him the true test and he answered it honestly and correctly. He pledged that his Order would bind its fate to the Flame Undying. And Ara Mathra became his teacher. He died a martyr and was interned within the catacombs. He waits for his chance to again serve.
“Speak here to him for even now,” Willow read, “He listens.”
She had of course learnt of Saint Marcarius in school, and over the years of her youth, read many stories of his great deeds. Yet, no book could compare with the detail in which the carvings depicted his life. Even Willow, who had always scoffed at his stories, could not contest the awe inspiring nature in which his people revered him. With a heart a touch heavier, she moved through the chamber and back out into passageway. Above the entryway to the next chamber hung a carved plaque marked by the celestial number one. Within lay rows of bones, ancient frail heaps of marrow, older than any Willow had seen. The inscription identified the room as the First Ossuary of the Blessed, the oldest bones in the catacombs. They showed evidence of their great age, being so fragile as to be paper thin. The Forsaken retreated from the chamber, leaving the remnants of the past souls untouched.
As they wandered further into the maze of ossuaries, they passed chambers numbered from one through to nine, each marking the various ages of the bones stored within. Upon approaching the fourth, they found three ghosts lingering inside the chamber, unaware of the infiltration. When they heard the footsteps of the Forsaken echo towards them, they turned, their ethereal forms rippling in warning.
“Thou art forbidden in these catacombs!” the nearest wailed, “Depart or face our wrath!”
Willow put her hand up quickly to silence the others, lowering her head respectfully.
“I apologise for the intrusion,” she said, “But we seek Earnan MacCathlain.”
The ghost sighed a forlorn wheeze, pointing deeper within the catacombs.
“He prays at the tomb of Macarius,” he groaned, “And calls forth the legions of martyrs. Disturb him not. His last disciples wait for him. Join them if ye will. Go but disturb not the sleep of the martyrs. They will awaken soon enough.”
Willow inclined her head formally, carefully retreating from the chamber and signaling for the others to continue. Passing through towards the unmarked chamber after the ninth, they turned the corner to face the makeshift campsite of the disciples. The six holy warriors and four brothers of the order stood ready to fight the Forsaken. Garvana unleashed an unholy torrent of blistering wrath, profane venom sapping the life from the priests. It was with great ease that they cut the guards down, one by one they fell to the blades of the Ninth Knot. It was almost pitiful, how out-skilled and outclassed the Mitran’s were, but Willow felt no remorse as she plunged her dagger deep into the neck of her oncoming attacker. As the last priest gasped for air, he lashed his words with his final breath.
“His judgment cometh and that right soon, serpent…”
Bor’s blade slashed his words from his throat, in a cascade of blood he fell into his death. Looking further in, Willow saw that the chamber they were in was a kind of waiting room. For the next chamber began the infamous Trials of the Worthy. Upon the walls were scripted tennents of the Order, warning to those who would undertake the perilous path. Willow translated the celestial writing aloud.
“Give not into greed for it rots the soul and withers the vine, amongst the humble shall ye find the worthy. Despair ye mighty! For by your power and arrogance have ye fallen into darkness. Not amongst the lords of the earth but amongst the servants shall ye find the worthy. Beware thy enemy for he stalks you like a wicked serpent ready to consume ye with fire. The worthy knows his foe – his ways and tongues. Amongst those unafraid to speak the enemy’s name shall ye find the worthy.”
Warily, Willow stepped forward into the chamber. The room was adorned with countless intricately carved figures bowing before the glory of Mitra. On the southern wall were the great lords of humankind, kings and dukes, knights and warriors. On the northern walls were the peasants – a farmer, a smith, a merchant, a fishermen and a shepherd. On the eastern wall bowed the priests in all their regalia, from humble friars all the way up to the great Cardinals, princes of the church. They all bowed in obeisance before a great Mitran sunburst. Centered in the eastern wall just below the sun was a small niche. Upon the niche lay a silver and sapphire holy symbol not dissimilar to the one Willow saw hanging proudly around her husbands’ neck, worn by the Knights of Alerion. The thought of her righteous and proud husband had her brow rise. It had only been shy of two years since she had seen him, yet it felt like a lifetime ago. Once, she could pretend that life and faith were simple things. She could carry on it her façade as the trophy wife of the hubristic knight. Things were no longer that simple. Eyes raking over the murals, Willow knew she would pass the Trials of the Worthy. She would not succeed under the guise of honesty and purity, for she was far from either. She would succeed because she was smarter, more cunning and perceptive than those that envisioned the evaluation.
“Greed…” she mused, leaving the sapphire untouched.
Taking the words of the warning literally, she looked over the servants within the carving. Around the image of the shepherd she saw the finest hint of an outline, a button that could be pressed. As she clicked the stone inward, the mechanism unlocked the door to the next room.
“How did you…?” Garvana began.
Willow smiled, pushing the chamber door open, “Amongst the servants shall ye find the worthy.”
Walking through the silent halls, deeper into the catacombs, they came across a chamber filled with drifting white fog. Although no breeze blew in the heart of the cathedral, the feathered mist danced upon the air. As they neared, Willow saw Pellius and Garvana shiver in a strange chill. Waving her hand out to clear the haze, she saw in the centre of the fog, sat what appeared to be a little girl, utterly silent. Willow kept her hand tight on her blades as she slowly began an arcing circle behind the child, Pellius mirroring her movements on the opposite side.
“Who are you?” Garvana demanded.
The girl said nothing, merely shaking her head gently before rising from her seat. Suddenly, she opened her mouth wide, and a terrifying blast of divine energy ripped throughout the chamber. The blast tore against Willow’s eardrums, such holy white power sweeping through with venomous fury. No sound came from her mouth, yet the nothing was so loud it was deafening. A brilliant flash of blinding light fulminated from the girl, before her true form was revealed. An angel, as beautiful and graceful as any story would write her. Six glorious pale feathered wings grew from beneath the back of her robes, flowing flaxen locks of waving hair, glistening golden skin shimmering in the torch light. She said nothing, raising her flaming sword with a sad smile upon her face. A blazing rune of red glimmered on her forehead, pulsing as she glided forward to cleave her weapon. With preternatural grace, she danced her blade through the air, gouging deeply into Willow’s side. As Pellius roared in infernal hatred, his mighty warhammer swung wide to collide with the angel’s chest. Willow leapt in behind, using his distraction to plunge both of her daggers through the divine flesh, tearing through her silken robes. Strangely, her blade of steel passed through the woman, leaving no trace of blood or wound. Her ruby dagger tore a different path, searing the skin as it ripped through and left blackened venom in its wake. The angel cringed in silent agony as the shadowed wisps curled across her torso. The dark magic the ruby radiated seemed to seek out the angel, Asmodeus’ touch devouring the holy grace. She twirled in a vicious spin, carving her own blade through each of their armour, her wounds having little affect on her elegant movements. Her flaming sword struck out towards Willow, its point clawing through the leather plate on her chest. Willow was swift enough to move from the fatal blow, the blade narrowly avoiding her lungs and heart. As the blood poured from her own wounds, she struggled to dive out of the way of the onslaught of attacks.
Pellius cried out his wrath, calling forth his festering magic and reaching out for the angel. His hand rippled with infectious disgust, weeping pustules and blisters, colliding with her skin and eagerly spreading along her flesh. As a sickly green washed over her features, the Forsaken took the chance and swarmed. Each weapon tore shreds from the angel, blood misted feathers littering the floor beneath her, still she did not seize her assault. It was only as Willow’s blade pierced her through the back, striking her in the heart, that her eyes widened and her sword slipped from her fingers. As it clattered to the ground, Willow withdrew her blade, collapsing heavily to one knee. The angel fell, soft and graceful to the stone floor, before her limp body vanished from sight.
After a moment to catch their breath, and a pause to recover from their wounds, the group continued forward into the catacombs. The room on the far side of the hall was marked by a plaque that identified the chamber as where the bones of every Lord-Abbot and leader of the Order of Saint Marcarius were kept. With a frown, Willow noticed that there was only one Lord-Abbot missing, the first Lord-Abbot – Saint Macarius himself. The sound of soft chanting gently echoed throughout the chamber once again, uninterrupted and continuous, as if it had been and would go on forever. Willow had a fair idea where she would find the bones of the saint.
Further down the passage they found a chamber containing a shrine to the perhaps the greatest devil hunter the Order of Saint Macarius ever produced – Saint Angelo called the Wise. Although Willow cared little for the glorious victories that the Order claimed, she could not deny the flutter of her heart as she devoured the history and information contained within the catacombs. This was better than finding a rare book she had not read, the illustrations set in stone provided detailed accounts that no author could do justice. The murals carved into the walls of this chamber told the story of the bold divine. Saint Angelo was a cardinal of the Mitra faith and known as also a powerful spellcaster. In his time, more than a hundred and fifty years ago, he led a campaign to destroy every devil on the isle of Talingarde. To his knowledge, he had succeeded. Within the shrine they kept a tally of his accomplishments, and the number of devils he slew was truly terrifying. One hundred and eight, ranging from the smallest imp to his greatest victory against a pit fiend known only as Hekkazar.
“Saint Angelo travelled the world extinguishing the fires of hell,” Willow read aloud, “In his time he captured many tools of the wicked. Most he destroyed but a few he could not unmake and so he saw them safely put aside. Behind the Angels in Iron they are forever kept safe.”
“Tools of the wicked?” Garvana remarked, a sly grin on her lips.
“Perhaps they are the relics Brother Thrain mentioned?” Willow replied thoughtfully.
“It’s the Angels in Iron we should be worried about,” Bor said.
Willow turned to him with a coy smile, “Such prices would never be left unguarded.”
“Come on,” Pellius snapped, “I have had enough of this history lesson. Let us be done with this place.”
It could great control for Willow to refrain from pursing her lips. She understood his hardship to be within such a place, a towering structure throbbing with the grace of Mitra’s light, repulsing unendingly against the very blood that coursed through your veins. Yet, the scholar within Willow was its own fiery force to be reckoned with. Her eyes soaked in the details upon each wall, cataloguing as much as she could as they passed through each chamber and onto the next.
When they came across the Second Trial of the Worthy, they entered a room decorated in a grand mural of a great king ordering the building of shrines and temples to Mitra. At his command knights, architects, masons, stone cutters and laborers worked tirelessly to glorify the Shining Lord. Above the king was another inscription in celestial.
“Attend my servants!” Bor read aloud, “Who is a greater lord than I?”
Willow frowned, looking towards him with scrutinizing eyes. He had never revealed his understanding of the celestial language, merely played along when she had translated each time for the group. But even as the suspicion flared, the intrigue of the riddle within the room was far too strong to ignore. She looked to the mural, eyes focused on the king.
“The Shining Lord…” Willow mused.
“Portrayed as a tyrant?” Bor scoffed, “I thought he was the lord of charity?”
Willow shook her head gently, “Not a tyrant, but a ruler. One of the three aspects of Mitra. The Shining Lord is a god of kings and conquers, the god of righteous might and great civilizations. Though he bids that those with power use it for the greater good. Waste it on the weak and useless.”
As she spoke, her eyes drifted over the carvings. Once again she was drawn to the servants, yet it was only as she looked over the engraving of the word, that she noticed the outlines around the letter e. Carefully inspecting it, she saw the mechanism and pressed it inward. A subtle click of a lock deactivated the pressure plate trap set by the exiting door.
They continued through the chamber, passing more ossuaries filled with fewer and fresher bones, until they came across a barren room decorated with only a single plaque. As they approached, the chanting silenced.
Who is thy enemy? Who is the lord of the nine? Know him as he knows himself or be consumed with fire.
The answer to the third trial, was one that each of the Forsaken knew intimately. Though, they would not call this entity their enemy.
“Ashmodai!” each of them rasped in Infernal, passing over the threshold.
It was then that they saw the head of the Order of Saint Marcarius – Earnan MacCathlain. A tremendous sight to behold, with powerful arcana he had grown to the size of an ogre, his ornate white robes draping from his immense figure. Sounded by a vicious cycle of spectral blades, that tore through the air in a barrier of venomous wrath. He stood within a chamber dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and study, simple carvings of priests and acolytes in scholarly pursuits. Bookshelves lined the simple chamber, tomes and scrolls layered high within them. At the far end of the room, a glass coffin sat atop a table, the encased bones laid with clear affection for the dead. Willow knew they had found the remains of Saint Marcarius himself.
MacCathlain wore a look of stoic determination. He was ready to fight with his life to see the deeds of the Forsaken at an end. As they charged forward, Willow was swept with a wave of terrifying fear. It ached within her bones, convulsed her fingers and clenched tight on her heart. It was sheer willpower that allowed her to continue her advance. She knew the incredible terror to be an arcane enchantment, but still she could not deny it. A blast of holy fire rippled from MacCathlain’s fingers, soaring towards the group and splitting from itself to streak out at each of them. Willow cried out as the blaze seared her flesh, diving behind the cover of the stone wall. Garvana’s rasping voice echoed throughout the chamber, her infernal incantation ripping open cracks in the floor, the pits of hell raging open beneath the priest. He writhed in agony as the blackened tendrils formed into claws that lashed out at his legs. The sweltering flames burned beneath him, but Willow heard Garvana curse as MacCathlain levitated into the air, out of the reach of the blazing cracked portal. Pellius launched a flurry of arrows from the rear of the chamber, his eyes ablaze with rapturous hellfire, his rasping baritone chanting a throbbing tune that lingered in the air. A white light exploded from the priest, flashing in a blinding shine, followed by a torrent of searing heat that bypassed armour and scorched the flesh hidden beneath. Sith snarled viciously, sending a wave of flame into the chamber, charring the white robes that drifted through the air. Pellius paused from loosening another volley of arrows at the cleric, raising an armored fist above his head.
"I call!” he roared in Infernal, “Hear me! To the one that slays this contrived failure, his soul may they keep. Come forth now!"
The air quivered in a sickening shudder, as monstrous humanoid mix of insect and reptile appeared beside him. Twitching limbs and fanged mandible, the blood red skinned creature rasped hungrily, "I claim this kill for the Xill!"
Clutched in it’s feral hands were crude bows and grotesque swords; it began to fire tainted arrows towards MacCathlain. As a fearsome surge of white light erupted again, Willow knew they had to do something, if he could keep them at this distance hidden behind the walls, his elaborate arcana would prove too strong and they would surely face their deaths. The searing heat of wave after wave that he gave off was slowly wearing her down. The blisters along her skin screaming in protest as she moved, the burns weeping in sickly fluid. She had to get closer, she had to find a way to plunge her dagger through his neck. She watched as Garvana grabbed hold of Bor’s hand and rushed her enchanted words, vanishing from sight and reappearing behind MacCathlain. Bor’s landed upon the glass coffin, his hefty weight collapsing through as it shattered and destroyed the table. As their weapons sought contact, Willow leapt on the distraction. She gritted her teeth against torturous onslaught of his blade barrier, refusing to be overcome by the immense pain as they tore bloodied shreds off her skin. The hellfire beneath her had no effect, the claws vanishing from sight as she passed through them. She saw her opportunity as MacCathlain turned his head towards Bor, unknowingly baring his neck to her. She leapt from the ground, both blades high over head, chthonic wrath screaming from her chest. As she craned through the air, a wave of sheer terror swept through her, more horrifying than anything she had felt before. But not even such fear could slow her decent. Her blades plunged deep into his flesh, the weight of her decline tearing downward through his shoulder and chest. As she landed in a crouch on the stone floor, and the bladed wall still ravaged her limbs and skin, the fear proved too much. Tears flowed from her eyes, and tremors overtook her body, she could do little but tremble beneath him. Suddenly, as Bor’s blade tore through his back, the onslaught dissipated. MacCathlain fell from his height, his body shrinking to return to it’s normal size. The blades vanished, and the fear released its hold on Willow. Her chest wheezed as she struggled for breath through the blood pooling in her lungs. As the room quieted, and only the sound of panting breath could be heard, the vile Xill clambered forward. MacCathlain was not dead, Willow could see his chest still rising and falling, and she watched with disgust as the Xill approached and propelled a feral tendril forward from its mouth. With its revolting limb attached to his body, the air quivered around them. In the blink of an eye, the creature and MacCathlain’s body vanished, his clothing remaining behind as it sunk to the floor. Garvana rushed to Willow’s side, summoning her infernal healing, rasping incantations that infused divine warmth through her blood. Willow felt the wounds along her flesh knit together, the heavy liquid draining from her lungs. As the cracks of Hell closed beneath her, and the agony eased to an ache, she could finally breath restful sigh. From her count, they had only one more force of Mitra’s elite to deal with; Ara Mathra, he who stands in light.
After a brief moment to catch her breath, Willow finally looked around the chamber surrounding her. The chamber was carved in murals, identifying it as the private library of Saint Macarius. Stacked on each shelf and in alcove were the founder’s private books and records. They were the secret annals of the Order. Willow rose from her seat, eager to devour the knowledge held within. As she sifted through book after book, towering stacks of writing and dictation, she found one book in particular of great peculiarity and interest. It had no title and written entirely in some cypher that seemed to be a variation of the celestial tongue. The book had several strange illustrations that appeared to be star charts. Willow took the curiosity within her pack and continued her search. Pellius stood by the door in vigil, eyes afire in watch, listening intently for any oncoming defenders. Bor stood by the other doorway, more relaxed in his guard, but uninterested in the lore contained within the library. It was only Garvana who shared her enthusiasm, sorting through the mess upon the eastern walls. Although she could not read the words written in celestial, when she came across and tome illustrated with three sacred flames, she knew she had found something of great importance.
“Willow,” she called, holding the tome open, “What does this say?”
Willow put down the scroll she had been reading and skimmed the pages of the tome.
“It is the Book of Undying Flames,” Willow said, “It reads that any one of a pure heart who places their hand in the fire of all three flames, will become a divine spellcaster of Mitra. It is for that reason that the Vale is known as perhaps the most sacred place on this plane to Mitra.”
“That explains why there’s so many bloody priests here,” Bor scoffed.
Willow chuckled as she returned to the tome she had been reading, as she flicked through its pages, she realized she had found Saint Angelo’s journal. He had recorded the time when he had constructed the legendary vault, the one that housed the dark treasures he could not destroy. Willow read through the passage, a sly smile lifting her lip.
“The vault is sealed with the names of the first,” she translated aloud, “The
teacher, the founder and the maker.”
“The first?” Garvana asked, “Are they referring to Mitra?”
Willow’s mind reeled to remember where she had heard the phrase, brow clenched tightly, mouth slightly agape.
“Praised be Suchandra,” Willow recited, eyes widening, “Praised be the First.”
“Suchandra?” Bor asked, arching his wide brow.
“The phoenix, the inscription on the temple doors said those words.”
“Who is the teacher?” Garvana sighed.
“Ara Mathra became his teacher,” Willow recalled, “Saint Marcarius was the founder, and they believe that Mitra was the maker of all that is good.”
“Or the maker is Saint Angelo,” Pellius added from the doorway, “He was the maker of the vault.”
“This is true,” Willow frowned, “Let us hope we do ourselves no harm by guessing wrong.”
Pellius pointed further down the long passage way, “We shall find out soon enough.”
The Angels in Iron were awaiting them within. Two shining shiver angels of living metal, outfitted in robust iron armour, steel molded into immobile immense wings that craned from their backs. They both held mighty halberds, held mirrored across their chests. They stood in front of a circular door, gleaming steel embellished with ostentatious runes, intricate carvings in decorative fashion. An inscription in celestial hinted warned those of the danger within.
“By the four names,” Willow read at a whisper, “Cursed be he who unleashes what is bound within…”
Metal beams lay across the centre, strengthening the structured entranced. It was clear that no might nor magic would break through the door. As the Forsaken lingered by the threshold of the room, the golems remained motionless. As Pellius took a tempting step into the chamber, they crossed their halberds over the door, menacingly barring entrance. He retreated, and as the guardians uncrossed their weapons and returned to their vigil, the others followed.
“The priests must have had a way to get passed them,” Pellius frowned, “The vault was created over one hundred and fifty years ago. There must be a set way to identify who can enter.”
He walked briskly back to the library, where the Lord-Abbot’s clothing still remained upon the floor. Eyes raking over the garments, his brow pulled into a frown as he picked up the modest wooden holy symbol and turned to Willow.
“Are wooden symbols not a sign of poverty?” he asked, mind churning, “Worn only by those who could not afford something more lavish?”
Willow frowned, unsure where he was leading her.
“Yes, but some priests that regard the Beneficent Sun wear them as a show of humility and modesty. What is it you are thinking?”
Pellius smirked, a proud smile, “And were the statues of Saint Marcarius not carved with him wearing a wooden sunburst?”
It took a moment for Willow’s mind to follow, but as it clicked, she found herself grinning.
“After you,” she offered, indicating towards the vault.
As they approached, he held out the wooden symbol, steeping over the threshold with great confidence. As he did, the angels remained motionless.
“Suchandra!” he boomed, “Ara Mathra! Macarius! Angelo!”
The words echoed throughout the chamber, ricocheting off the stone walls. Slowly, the sound of mechanical locks shuddered. The great door to the vault craned inwards and opened wide. Willow used the magic of her circlet to conjure the image on a wooden starburst on her chest. Unsure if the arcana would be enough, she timidly stepped over the threshold. When the golems made no move to bar entry, she walked to Pellius’ side. As the others followed suit, Willow and Pellius entered the grand vault together. What they found, made her heart beat heavy within her chest. The chamber was lined with bookshelves of Asmodean literature and lore, alcoves of items confiscated from the Infernal Lord’s temples and shrines. Quickly, she stowed as many of the tomes and books as she could fit within her pack, a childish smile of glee gracing her face. Garvana opened an ebony chest that sat by the entrance, pulling free a silver chalice, engraved with scripted runic words.
“The Chalice of Audrelius Vestromo,” Bor read aloud, “Gaius will be pleased.”
To the far left end of the vault stood a large frame-like object, covered in a white sheet, as if the very sight of it had repulsed those who visited the vault. To the right sat an altar, smothered by a similar pale cloth. As Pellius pulled the sheet from the altar, amidst the wave of dust and dirt, he revealed a dastardly blade. Made of black iron, graven with infernal glyphs, searing brands of reddish runes. The pommel and hilt of the sword were missing, the tang of the blade wrapped in leather, so it would still be able to be wielded. Bor stared down at the menacing weapon with hungry eyes. His hand reached for the blade, and as his fingers gripped the tang, his eyes flew wide. He looked to Pellius in question, his frown furrowing deeply.
“Did you not hear it?” he asked.
Pellius cocked an eyebrow, “Hear what?”
“The blade,” he said with a tinge of awe, “It wishes to be remade…”
As the others marveled over the fiendish weapon, Willow’s gaze was drawn to the last object hidden under white fabric. She strolled forward, unable to resist the strange sensation drawing her forward. She gently reached for the sheet, dragging the material to the ground. As it fell, an ornate mirror was unveiled. The frame was made of bone and black obsidian, wicked furling patterns carved along each length. It appeared only as a decorative piece fit for the palace of hell. Yet, Willow could feel the darkness radiating from within. With her unblinking gaze locked to her own reflection, she drew her dagger free. She slashed her palm and flung the blood that spilled across the gleam of the mirror. Slowly, the vision began to change. Blackness swirled and coiled within the image, sable mist danced along the glass, as two pairs of ebony eyes faded into view. Willow’s curiosity kept her attention locked on the mirror, she had never seen an artifact such as this, yet she knew exactly what she was looking at – two bone devils, bound within a stygian mirror. Suddenly, a spine tail launched towards her venomously from the mist, rebounding off an unseen barrier. She did not flinch as it impacted, she merely raised an eyebrow. The other devil hissed viciously, chastising his companion. As they seemed to really look at her, both devils looked away, as if in deference.
“Skaerabus and Skraeth,” Willow said formally in Infernal, reading their names from the inscription upon the frame.
Strangely, the pair seemed to bow, ever so slightly.
“Sith-mar ilith…” they rasped in response.
Her brow dropped into a frown, her head quirking to the side. She had not been called that before, yet the familiarity seemed as if she knew why it was right for her to be called so. It was answer that seemed just out of reach, it lingered on her tongue, so near to her and yet so very far.
“Why do you call me,” she asked curiously, “Name-less one?”
The devils said nothing, only the sly grins that slipped upon their sharp toothed maws gave any hint of further knowledge. The merely bowed again, avoiding her eyes. As she stared into the mirror, her own reflection a pale trace above theirs, her mind churned with intrigue.
She knew who she was… did she not?