Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Chapter 29 - Night's Gift

The ache of sorrow lingered in a mournful cry that drifted across the stale air. The dead sighed, a dolorous and forlorn whisper. As the blood spilled had seeped into each crevice and fracture upon sacred lands; the dead did not rest and the saints did not waver.
Within the legendary Vault of Saint Angelo, in the lowest depths of the heart of the great cathedral, Willow gazed deep into the stygian mirror. She wondered how long the frame had been hidden and locked away within the chamber. It was Saint Angelo the Wise who had built the once impenetrable vault, to store the relics of Infernal worship that he could not unmake. And yet, more than a century had passed since his time.
How did you come to be bound within this mirror?” Willow asked.
Even though she could assume they had been bound for more than his time, the two shadowed figures of the bone devils trapped within took their time and mused upon their reply.
Great arcana and binding words,” they responded.
Willow arched an eyebrow. She knew to be prisoner within a mirror such as this, they were forced to answer all questions honestly. However, the mirror did not force them to answer clearly. The story of how they were captured and bound was a mere curiosity to her, there were other more pressing questions that she wanted answers to. Paired with the intent of her question, was the knowledge that to smash the mirror, would be to release the beasts within.
I would suppose you wished your freedom,” she rasped in Infernal tongue, “If I was to grant it, what would you offer in return?”
A chorus of feral hisses came from the image, though by clouded faces, Willow could not tell if they were eager or angered. The dominant one hushed his companion, inclining his head to Willow.
Nine years of service,” he slithered.
Service?” she asked, a slight lift to her lip, “And what does your service entail?”
Their reply was halted as Pellius stepped up beside her, his broad shoulders and large height casting a menacing shadow across the mirror. His hand gripped her forearm gently as he met her gaze with a look of warning.
We will think on the offer,” he said, to her as much as to them, “For now, what do you know of the wall of fire in the cathedral above? How do we overcome it?”
We can feel it from here,” the other devil rasped, a solemn gleam to his tone, “Pious yet vicious. It will only be pierced by a saint…”
“Pierced by a saint?” Garvana repeated, “Is that not what MacCathlain wrote?”
“The bones!” Willow said in realisation, “Saint Marcarius’ bones!”
Pellius frowned, looking to her in question as the smile spread across her face.
“How did I not see it before,” she said, shaking her head and striding out of the vault.
As she spoke, Pellius threw the white sheet back over the mirror, shutting out the sight and thought of the devils within.
“MacCathlain did not realise he had given us the very key to opening the way to Ara Mathra,” Willow continued, “He wrote that the wall could only be pierced by saint, and he meant it, literally. The bones of Macarius are the most ancient and holy of relics, you can feel the radiating light that glows from them.”
When she made it back to the library, she carefully sifted through the shatters of broken glass and splintered wood to find the preserved bones beneath. Delicately, she lifted the skull from the debris, eyes wide as she gazed upon it.
“If I am correct,” she said quietly, “It is the Order’s very founder that will be it’s undoing…”

As they left the mirror behind for collection upon completion of their mission, the Forsaken made their return to the grand hall. The blazing wall of flame rose from the stone floor to meet the arched peak of runic carved ceiling. It sealed the chamber within, pulsing in terrible might, white glyphs of divine power unfurling in rapturous tendrils. The heat radiated throughout the hall, the warmth turned burning with each step forward they took. Willow lifted the skull of Saint Marcarius high over head, and as Garvana’s words guided her shot, she hurled the bone towards the fire.
As the skull soared through the air, a shudder of anticipation rippled throughout the room. With eyes wide, they watched as the bone was engulfed by the flame. Suddenly, the wall trembled. As if siphoned through the surrounding stone, the flame was drawn into the ether, vanishing from sight. With a confident stride, the Forsaken approached the open star shaped chamber. It was then that Willow saw a figure bathed in gold, kneeling in the centre by the base of last undying flame. Ara Mathra; their last conquest of the vale. Slowly, he rose from his perch and turned to face them. A foreboding sight to behold. Standing a head taller than Pellius, adorned in gleaming gold plate armour, holding an immense golden morningstar. The long flow of his hair shined in hues of honey and sand as it fell upon his shoulders, his shimmering bronze skin radiant and aglow, gleaming gold feathered wings draping from his back. He stood in majestic valour, shoulders back and stance firm. Yet, in the flickering light of the luminous fire, Willow could see the tears that welled within in his eyes. She knew not what he wept for, but as his gaze met hers, she felt the distinct impression that it was not for the many men and women who had lost their lives at the hands of the Forsaken. He looked to her as if she were a lost soul who had succumbed to the darkness, a child who knew not what she was doing. He looked to her, as if he wept for her.
By the pervaded fire light, the Forsaken cried out their wrath, charging forth to meet their nemesis in battle. The angel’s wings spread wide in glorious birth, oscillating gracefully as they lifted him into the air. In a blaze of searing white light, he sent forth a frightening beam of energy. So blinding that Willow had to clench her eyes as she dove out of its path. Looking to the others, she saw Bor charge forward with the vicious Hellbrand in his grasp, as Garvana found shelter behind one of the large pillars. As her gaze found Pellius, she saw him hunched over, clutching his eyes in agony. He had not been so swift as the light had soared towards them. From behind the cover of a stone pillar, Willow sifted through her back, pulling free the vial to cure arcane blindness. With a quick look towards the angel, as she saw him distracted by Bor’s venomous onslaught, she ducked out into the fray towards Pellius.
“Quickly, drink this!” she yelled as she reached him, shoving the vial in the mouth.
As he gulped down its contents, Willow pushed him backwards behind the flanking stone block. A second beam of light flew towards her at terrible speed, scorching the leather upon her back as she dove out out of the way. Keeping one eye on the battle, she stood guard while Pellius’ sight slowly returned.
“Can you see?” she asked hurriedly.
“Yes,” he rushed, “Thank you.”
“Come on!” she called, leaping out from the pillar and diving into the fight.
The angel flew high above them, sending torrents of fire and white light in an unrelenting rain of magic. As he swerved to the left to avoid Garvana’s explosion of flame, Willow saw her chance. She sprinted at full speed towards the pillar closer to him, springing off her heel, landing one foot against the marble and propelling herself off towards him. He had not seen her jump, so she managed to leap forth and carve both daggers into his calves, dragging deep gashes as her weight dropped back to the floor. Still, no sound came from his mouth, even as his lip curled in pain. He swooped low and arced out his great morningstar, pummelling Willow in the back as she retreated from beneath him. He hit with such force that she was knocked clean off her feet and sent flying through the air. As the breath was wiped from her chest, she covered her face as best she could before her frame crashed heavy into the nearest pillar. She felt the shatter of a few ribs within her cage, the sharp lash of agony driving in her sternum, but she had no time to rest or weep. She forced herself to her feet and watched as Bor, Pellius and Ara Mathra traded brutal blow for blow. The angel was a graceful and talented fighter, he soared through the air with marvellous skill, giving little chance for his ground-bidden foes to reach him. Each time he dove, he would carve the flesh and paint his sacred hall in the blood of the wicked. Pellius roared in frustration, pulling free his fearsome bow and whispering to it viciously.
Ara Mathra, I swear to the Lord of the Nine that I will slay thee!”
DEATH TO THOSE WHO HAVE WRONGED ME!” the bow’s voice lashed.
Each arrow that struck true tore through the armoured flesh with vengeance, but Willow could see the raging fire within Pellius’ eyes blazing uncontrollably. His hands trembled in fury, as if they abhorred the thought of killing such a foe at a far; as if they ached to devour the life of him by ripping the flesh from bone themselves.
Ara Mathra’s mighty weapon swung down from its height, a thundering echo as it collided with Bor’s chest. Willow knew the sound of shattering bones, and as he rounded for a second and third swing, the chorus of splintering sang out. Willow ran behind him, slashing out her blades in a desperate attempt to bring him down. As he simply soared higher, she screamed out in exasperation. Her mind reeled as she lunged out of the immense morningstar’s curve, torturous shuddering from her bone ribs within, she could see no way to lure him lower. But from the entry to the great and holy chamber, came a temptation he could not resist.
A feral pulse trembled in the air, the ground beneath her opening up in blazing cracks of hell. Rapidly she transformed into a twisted version of herself. Her skin bled crimson and scaled, her tongue split and forked, her hands tore violently apart into claws. A nimbus of hellfire swarmed around her, convulsing as she screeched towards the angel.
You, will be my gift to Him!” she shrieked.
As she let loose a fulmination of chthonic terror, Ara Mathra could not deny the bait. He soared towards her, stoic duty upon his face, cleaving his golden morningstar through the chamber. Willow charged forward with every ounce of her strength, blades by her flanks, teeth gritted against the agony. As his mighty weapon struck Garvana across the side of the head, Willow leaped into the air with her blades above her head. She plunged them into his neck, ripping them free to swirl in a dance of fatal grace, slashing them up and under his chin. Garvana screeched an unholy and unnatural cry, thrusting her claw out with furious power. The claw ripped through the golden armour of his chest plate, tearing through flesh falling mere inches from his heart. With one last gust of effort, through a wheezing chest and blood that seeped from his mouth, he swung his mighty weapon. It first crushed Willow’s shoulder in an agony so acute that she felt the entirety of her body convulse, splintering and destroying the bones along her joint. Yet his glorious morningstar continued, carving behind him into Garvana, the force of the impact along her chest so great that it pummelled her against the stone wall. It was a single arrow that slit the air as it passed, sailing through to pierce directly into Ara Mathra’s neck. Only as he fell to his knees, as the scarlet paint gushed from his wounds, that he spoke in choked and sombre voice. The angel’s lips parted, and his prophetic words seeped their way deep into Willow’s soul.
It will be the son, that brings your doom…”
With a hand that trembled in wrath, she lashed out with her blade, carving through Ara Mathra’s throat. The light vanished from his eyes, but before his body slumped to the floor, Garvana’s callous transformation overtook her. A terrifying shriek let loose from her throat, with ferocious intent she gripped his arms and ripped them free in a shower of crimson cruor. In rage, she waded through the slaughter to stand by the last of the undying flames.
His fire shall bathe the divine,” she rasped venomously, tracing rushed patterns through the air with crooked fingers, “And all shall know his glory, his wrath and his vengeance!”
A profane gust of malicious energy swarmed from her hands, its blackened curls unfurling towards the great white flame. Willow watched in wary awe as the tendrils wrapped themselves around the fire, the might of hell desecrating the sacred inferno. The baleful arcana compressed the bright light, seeming to squeeze the air from the flame, depriving and starving as it funnelled. In a shudder, the holy radiance imploded, leaving only slender trails of white smoke in its wake.
As Garvana collapsed to the ground, her body slowly morphing back in strenuous effort to her normal size, a solemn gloom pervaded the grand chamber. As if the saints that watched over the cathedral sighed, the losses they had suffered and the fate they had feared, now coming clear into reality. The Order of Saint Marcarius was at an end. By the hands of the servants of the Prince of Darkness, the destiny of the nation of Talingarde was sealed.

Kneeling by the ancient basin that once housed the undying flame, Willow sat with closed eyed, deep in prayer. She did not relish the slaughter of thousands, she did not feel pride with her hands doused in their blood. The crushed bones within her body were slowly knitting themselves back together, as Garvana’s healing hands had mended the worst of the damage. Though aching and sore, she silently spoke to her fearsome Infernal Lord, and only savoured the completion of their mission. Merciless she was not, nor unfeeling in her share of guilt. But she had carried out her master’s orders, she had been successful in the tasks that were given. The death of the mighty angel of Mitra was indeed a great victory, his influence no longer inspiring the masses of the faithful. Yet, as the others saw to their own wounds and made plans of their next move, her mind churned over his demise. He had looked to her as a child. She could see in his eyes that he truly believed she was a na├»ve victim, lead astray by the lure of deviltry. Part of her chafed at his arrogance, thinking she blindly followed the darkness, rather than leading the way to vanquish the light. But part of her knew his beliefs held a trace of truth. She was following Cardinal Thorn’s orders, receiving no explanation or inclusion in his greater plan. She wondered if he thought her smart enough to dissect and figure his motives, or if he thought her daft enough to follow unnoticed and unquestioning.
As if summoned by her thoughts, a familiar voice spoke from behind them.
“Well done, my lords,” Tiadora said, lacking all trace of her usual sarcasm.
Turning her head, she saw the beautiful woman, dressed in a gown of deep red that creased as she bowed to the Forsaken.
“I am pleased, and the master is pleased. He sends his regards.”
Willow stood from her kneel, strolling towards the devil showing as little weakness as her weary limbs could manage, eyeing the bag within her grasp. As she passed the velvet pouch to Pellius, Willow’s eyebrow arched as he opened it, revealing what had to be at least fifty thousand gold worth of tear shaped sapphires.
Alas, that there is still more that needs doing to complete Asmodeus’ will,” Tiadora continued, “With the coming of spring, the Fire- Axe moves his horde against the city of Daveryn. Your army, what remains of it, is needed there. You are needed there. Our master Cardinal Thorn instructs you to depart this place and find passage to Daveryn to rendezvous with the army of Sakkarot Fire-Axe. You may even help personally with the sack of the city if you wish. Once Daveryn is ashes we will speak again.”
With that, the air rippled as she vanished from sight.
“We must return to Ghastenhall first,” Garvana said, “And deliver Prince Gaius his chalice. We have until the break of spring to arrive in Daveryn.”
“Indeed, I have much need to restock my supplies,” Willow said with pursed lips, “I am down to merely three vials of healing, and my armour has sure seen better days.”
“And what of our men and the bugbears?” Garvana asked.
“We cannot forget that the phoenix escaped alive,” Pellius said thoughtfully, “Though his word bound him to leave, it did not bind his silence. He is sure to alert the king’s army. We cannot leave this place undefended until the dawn of spring.”
“It will take months to move his army through the winter,” Bor added, “But it is sure to be headed this way.”
“Or towards Daveryn,” Willow said, arching her brow, “I cannot imagine Sakkarot’s feral horde has stayed quiet over the winter.”
“We must prepare for either,” Pellius nodded, “Hekkarth and Shagaroth can remain here with our men until the winter passes and they can make the return to Fire Axe’s camp.”
“Perhaps we utilise Shagaroth,” Willow offered, “His band are trained as scouts, from Sakkarot’s recommendation they are good at what they do. Perhaps we send them to scout the king’s army and return to him with an update?”
“Good thinking, my lady,” Pellius agreed, “It will be valuable to know just how close they are.”
“And what of the others Willow spoke of,” Garvana asked, “Those we bypassed within the labyrinth?”
Bor smiled, a feral and malicious grin, “Burn it. Trap them within and set it all alight in hellfire…”

They set orders for their own men to ransack the cathedral, retrieving all of worth and setting the rest to the flame before following them on to Ghastenhall. The Forsaken had no need to wait for spring to arrive, their newly gained league of hippogriffs would suffice as transport through the sleet speckled skies. Once they had gathered their belongings from the mayor’s manor and strapped them within the airborne beasts talons, they took to the skies upon their backs. As they craned high above the valley that was Valtaerna, Willow looked down upon the blood stained lands. Her heart sank slowly as the view passed across her sight. So much destruction, so much desolation. The ruins were a testament to their victory, a once loved and joy filled home of harmony and peace – now a hive of only sorrow and death.
The journey to Ghastenhall that took three days by foot, took only a single day and night by sky. As the sun disappeared behind the horizon on the first eve, they made camp by the shelter of an overhanging rock within the Tarrafyrn Valley. As the hippogriffs hunted in the surrounding forestry, the Forsaken sat by the campfire, huddled around the radiating warmth. Garvana was the first to excuse herself for the night, retreating to pray in solitude. Pellius rested with his back upon a smooth stone boulder, his arms draped around Willow as she leaned back upon his chest. Once Bor bid them goodnight and disappeared behind the fabric fold of his tent, Willow sighed her exhaustion. For a while, they merely sat in silence, while her mind turned over the events of the last few weeks. They had not made mention of celebrating their victory of the annihilation of the Vale of Valtaerna, and Willow assumed she knew why. She guessed that even among the dastardly and fiendish natures of the Forsaken, they were still creatures of conscience. Just as she, they did not relish in the slaughter of innocents, but they were tied to their fate and strong enough of will to do whatever need be to see the glory of their Infernal Lord reign supreme.
As the sounds of quiet orison chants were replaced with whispers of slumbered breaths, Willow spoke with a soft voice, still gazing into the flickering of the campfire flame.
“Have you regained control of… yourself?” she asked.
“No need to fret my dearest Willow,” he replied casually, “For now, I am fine, it is nothing to be concerned of. Though I must admit, I am glad to finally be free of that place.”
She frowned, turning herself in his embrace to look him in the eye.
“This is no trivial manner, Pellius,” she said whispered forcefully, her brow pulling tightly, “I am concerned for you. You were reckless! Heedless of the danger, eager to fight with little care for yourself!”
“Is that not what I am?” he asked bitterly, lip curling as anger set alight his eyes, “A set of armour to be thrown headfirst into battle? I am sure the cardinal would weep if I were to fall; one less to contest his dominion.”
As Willow sighed, her gaze searching his face, she watched his slowly anger fade.
“Maybe someone else would shed a tear though,” he said quietly, lifting his hand to trace his finger along her cheek, “Few understand my... gifts, and even fewer recognize the toll they take.”
For a moment, she simply stared into his eyes, the firelight casting the deep wells around his lids into blackened shadow.
“I see the price you pay…” she whispered, “I know that you pay it for the glory of our Father. But I am selfish, Pellius. I do not wish you to pay it with your life.”
At that, a small smile lifted the corner of his lip.
“But you know it may come to that, my lady. And I know it is a price you would pay as well, were it asked of you.”
As she gazed at him, conceding to his point, she smiled gently.
“Let us hope,” she sighed, “We are strong enough to only need ask it of others…”
He laughed softly, “Let us hope, my lady.”
She turned back towards the campfire, leaning against his chest, laying her head comfortably under his chin. Though he claimed to be fine, she could still feel the churn of unspoken thoughts within him. Of course, he was not the only one with worry on his mind. As the ceaseless onslaught of battle had finally come to a temporary end, Willow’s own mind had found time to return to the curiosities and puzzles that had been plaguing her. There was still much of herself that she did not understand. She knew her upbringing had seen her walk the path of secrets, she had always believed the only secrets were her own. Yet, as she truly began a real life of servitude to her Infernal Lord, the more secrets seemed to be unveiled.
“Do you…” she asked carefully, “Do you know what is it to be… nameless, within the ranks of Hell’s hierarchy?”
“I can not say that I have ever come across the title,” he replied, “Though I must admit, I am no savant on the topic. Perhaps Garvana may be able to shed some light on it further? Bor even, given his past.”
“No,” she huffed quietly, “I do not wish to speak of it to them. Forget I mentioned it.”
“Why do you ask?” he questioned curiously, “The mirror?”
Willow exhaled slowly, having forgotten she had not been alone in the chamber.
“They called me Sith-mar illith…. Nameless one. Yet, they seemed to recognize me, cast their eyes downward in… deference.”
“A peculiarity to come from the inquisitors of the devilkind,” he mused.
“This is not the first time this has happened,” Willow continued, “Even in our meeting with Dessiter of the Phistophilies, the fiend appeared more familiar with me than he had right to be,” she sighed again, shaking her head gently, “It sounds absurd, I know this. But I have never failed to read someone well, and there is more going on than I can decipher."
“I apologise, my lady, that I do not know more. Perhaps it is wise to put aside your reservations and ask the others.”
Willow stared into the simmering sway of the campfire, watching the tendrils of flame unfurl against the canvas of night.
“No,” she repeated, “I suppose I will find out more in time. If it is entwined upon this path we follow, it will be revealed one way or another…”

Dusk had fallen heavy over the city of Ghaster when the Forsaken landed in the fields of the Silkcreek Homestead. The surprised few men and women they had left behind greeted them respectfully, fear once more returning to their eyes. Bor ordered the hippogriffs to disappear into the forest, to return once two weeks had passed when they would begin the journey east to Daveryn. Willow ordered the fires to be lit and a bath to be drawn, while she made her way to her chamber to unpack her belongings. It was in the quiet of the candle lit bathroom, as the warmth of the steaming bath encompassed her body, that she finally felt her mind ease. Winter was not yet at an end, but the cold months had felt like the longest she had seen. As time trickled by and the water lost its searing simmer, a few of the candles flickered and faded. As the light in the chamber dimmed, her mind turned towards the coming days, and the peculiar offer she had dismissed as unimportant until now. Prince Gaius had offered the vampiric curse as reward for return of his ancient chalice. She had thought her answer would have been simple, she had never thought of the transformation of vampirism as something she would consider. Yet, in darkness of the barley lit room, she knew herself to be already comfortable within the shadows of night. What would it mean to be part of them? A soft knock at the door broke into her thoughts.
“Enter,” she called.
Pellius quietly stepped through the door, sealing it closed behind him.
“Care to join me?” Willow offered, arching an eyebrow.
He smirked, eyes raking appreciatively along her flesh beneath the water.
“The servants inform me that dinner is served,” he said, almost apologetically, “And as our last meal was before dawn this morning, I fear my hunger for food may take precedence for now, my lady.”
Willow laughed softly as she stood from the bath, accepting the towel he held out to her. As she stepped free from the water, walking to face the mirror while she wrapped herself in the cloth, his reflection appeared beside her as his dark promise rasped by her ear.
“For now…” he warned.
As the shiver that traced her spine forced her lips to grin, she turned to look into his eyes, thrilled to see the spark of desire returned to his gaze. Over the months in Valtaerna, they had not truly been together. For Willow, the thought of sharing in amorous delight within the valley, was to lay with him upon the bones of the dead and bathe in the blood of the innocent. She knew not his reasoning, but he had seemed to share in her lack of want for carnal satisfaction. But standing in the darkened chamber of the Silkcreek Homestead, eyes tracing over the candle light glow upon the deep wells of his cheekbones, her need for his touch swelled. As her eyes lit with lustful intent, the corner of his lip lifted into a sly grin.
“Dinner first, my lady,” he said quietly.
She pouted playfully, but nodded in agreement. He chuckled at her response, opening the door for her and ushering her through. As they returned to their bedchamber and she wrapped her hair in an easy braid, she turned to her closet and put aside amatory thoughts as her mind returned to where it was before he had entered the bathing chamber. As he sat upon the bed and she dressed in a simple pair of thick black trousers and a blouse, she turned to him with a speculative look.
“Have you thought on Prince Gaius’ offer?”
“Of course,” he replied, unlacing his battle-worn boots, “I have been pondering his offer for some time. At first I thought it would be such a simple choice, for why would anyone wish to willingly submit themselves to the forces of the undead?”
“Why indeed,” she said quietly, retrieving his leather shoes from the closet.
“Yet the more I dwell on it,” he continued, inclining his head in thanks, “The more it seems we would have to gain from such a transformation. Not only the physical prowess and mental fortitude, but imagine unending time to perfect crafts, learn new knowledge and enjoy the world we are rebuilding right now. The power we could control... but I am ahead of myself. You must be asking for a reason, yes?
“I had not given it a great deal of thought,” she said truthfully, “Though, it is tempting, the night’s call already beckons me. But, I fear my path leads elsewhere. How are we to know what choice is right?”
“Perhaps it is simple,” he smiled, “The more time we are here, the more we return the natural balance to Him…”

The sun arched over the mountains, greeting the day with the early touch of dawn’s warmth. They dressed and left the homestead early for the market district, seeking to replenish their supplies and replace their worn out gear. Willow’s armor had managed to hold, but the rips and tears of the leather had only been roughly sewn together. A single good blow to the chest would have seen the plate ripped to shreds. As they tallied their spoils and treasure, they realized just how much wealth they had gained over the course of their last few missions, more than enough for each of them to spend on their desires.
The morning spent strolling casually through the streets and stalls, was a much needed change from the strenuous battle and planning that had taken up their time of late. The house staff had informed her of the current fashion within Ghaster, and Willow was delighted to find reason to dress up once again. She wore a vibrant burgundy frock lined with slim black lace, knotted her sable locks high on her head, and sported clashing green fabric buskins. She meandered through the markets on Pellius’ arm, feeling a light frivolous joy for the first time in months. As they purchased mundane items along with their own individual curiosities, they returned to the manor for a short lunch. Willow had a list of rarer trinkets that each of them wished to seek, and after changing into her new black leather set of armor, she made her way alone to the dockside underground market. She stored each of their purchases within the magical bag that Pellius had leant her, marveling at the enchantment, as the large items seemed to disappear within as they entered. For her, she did not have any items in particular in mind. Though it would have been easy to spend her small fortune on the decadent glittering jewelry layered upon the tables, it was a simple ring she found undeniably alluring. A plain gold band, imbued with the power of invisibility. The merchant was a shrewd looking elven man, rounded sunken eyes, with a thin lined moustache that pointed fiercely from his cheeks. Willow was surprised that he offered for her test out the ring, as if he had no worry that she could or would escape with it.
“The command word is Vystrynivvi,” he said with a dark elfish lilt.
“Enshroud?” she arched an eyebrow, translating the elven word.
The vendor’s eyebrows rose slightly as he nodded, as if surprised that she spoke the elven tongue. Willow slipped the ring upon her finger, sensing its strange magic swirl along her hand.
Vystrynivvi,” she recited.
The familiar shudder of arcana rippled across her flesh, as she felt the transparency take hold. She smiled, amazed once again by the power of such a spell.
Ryvhstri to dismiss,” he said, his sight following her every movement, as if he could see through her guise.
Ryvhstri,” she mirrored, the elven word for reveal.
As her image reappeared, he nodded, reaching for a small decorative black box as if he knew that she would indeed be purchasing the ring. Willow laughed at his confidence, but could not fault his assumption. As he slipped the ring into the holder and wrapped the box in thin black canvas, a row of ebony cloaks hung on the back wall of his stall caught her attention. The strange material appeared almost translucent, shimmering gently as the breeze feathered through the underground chamber.
“What are the they?” she asked, a slight frown upon her brow.
“Shrouds of the Daywalker,” he said, following her eye and dropping his voice low, “Hides vampires from the sun.”
“Hides them?” she asked, intrigued in the notion, “As in, the undead can walk amongst us in the sunlight?”
He sniggered, raising his brow “They already do…”

The frosted chill of wintered night made the ride on horseback to the Barcan cemetery a slow and staggered trudge. The four of them pulled their woolen coats tighter as their horses waded through the layers of snow. They craned open the marble door to the Vestromo mausoleum, stepping inside the chamber to seek shelter from the heavy fall of sleet. Willow eyed the strangely large interior, surprised to find it less of a tomb and more akin to a waiting chamber decorated with sarcophagus’. Bor held the fire lit torch high, its glow only radiating a mere five feet of their surroundings. Even before they announced themselves, Willow could hear the scuttle of hidden feet, and feel the eyes of many upon her.
“Prince Gaius Vestromo!” Bor summoned, his deep voice echoing throughout the chamber.
“You return,” came the familiar voice from behind them, his approach eerily unheard, “You have something that belongs to me, I presume?”
“Indeed,” Bor replied, casually turning to face him.
The vampire prince was standing uncomfortably close, his movements preternaturally still, his eyes piercing like blades into Bor’s. The corner of Willow’s lip quirked as the large orc was forced to take a step back to retrieve the prize. He pulled free the shining silver goblet, inclining his head as he held it out.
The Chalice of Audrelius Vestromo,” he offered.
It was only then, that Willow saw the vampires’ callous smile. He took the chalice within his hands, and bowed low in the ancient traditional show of respect. With no words, he strolled to the middle of the chamber. The spawn hidden within the shadows rushed about in an unheard command, dragging an unconscious human man with them. Willow watched in curiosity as they drained his blood and funneled it into the chalice. When it was full, Gaius lifted the cup to his lips. As he drank deep, Willow’s eyes widened as his pallid skin whitened, the dark wells beneath his eyes swelled and smoothed. As he finished the contents, his tongue darting out to consume the remains of the crimson upon his lip, he smiled a devilish grin. He appeared far younger than before, rejuvenated by the ancient arcana within the chalice. Willow found herself drawn to his gaze, the once aged lines upon his face now seemed softer, giving him a more distinguished look. She found him incredibly handsome, in that dastardly way that she always suffered an attraction to.
“You have my gratitude,” he said formally, eyebrows raised in regal might, “And in regard to my offer, I ask now. Do any of thee wish to partake in my gift of the night?”
A sense of anticipation rippled throughout the chamber. With unsure feet, Garvana stepped forward.
“I will accept,” she said quietly, a worried excitement to her tone.
Prince Gaius beckoned her forward with a gesture. She walked towards him with trembling steps, eyes avoiding his gaze. She seemed to reach for the chalice, but with a gentle hand he turned her head, baring the column of her throat to him. His two fangs slithered from his jaw, and in a swift and fluid movement, he drove them deep into Garvana’s neck. After only a moment in his grasp, she fell to the stone floor as her consciousness slipped away. Without looking down, he rose his brow in question to the others.
“Will she be alright?” Bor asked with slight suspicion.
“She will awake tomorrow evening with the falling of the sun,” he replied uninterestedly, “And what of you?”
“I will decline,” Bor said formally.
A single nod and he turned his sight to Pellius. Although he seemed to war with indecision, with a small apologetic glance to Willow, he stepped forward. Gaius beckoned him forth, standing tall, arms clasped behind his back and unmoving in his formality. Pellius turned his head, eyes closing as the teeth pierced his flesh. As his body slumped to the ground next to Garvana, Willow’s mind reeled in indecisiveness.  She had thought over the many implications and consequences of his offer, yet was no more sure of her decision. She had told the others of the peculiar cloaks she had found, giving them way to transverse the day time almost unaffected by the burning light of the sun. Though they would be fairly useless vessels, it would suffice that they would at least not die upon the sunrise. To be undead, was to be powerful. Yet, the very meaning of it was to be soulless. She did not know if she was ready to lose her soul to the darkened abyss of hell. The only sure thing she knew was that she was destined to be by His side. As her soul would serve in Him in hell, so too would her body serve in life, or in death. As his gaze turned upon her, she understood the rapturous allure of the night.
“And you?” his question slithered, as if he could read the temptation within her.
“You will be alright to get us back to the manor?” she asked Bor.
“Yes,” he said easily, eyes alight with unspoken thought.
“Thank you,” she replied, turning towards Prince Gaius.
She nodded softly, politely waiting for his summon. He inclined his head and gestured for her to come forward, his fangs glistening in the torchlight. His unblinking gaze pierced deep into hers, as she slowly walked toward him. When she reached the slumbered bodies of Garvana and Pellius, she found her eyes unable to withdraw from his sight. He held out his hand in offering, which she accepted without thought. The touch of his hand was colder than ice, no blood running through his veins, no life beneath his flesh. He guided her steps over the bodies and brought her mere inches from his face. Gently he raised his fingers to her chin, guiding her head to the side, a seductive gesture of intimacy that had her breathing hitch. It was the strangest sensation that had her blood revel and recoil in unison. As his fangs plunged through the column of her throat, and his cold lips graced her skin, she felt no warmth of breath accompany his bite. As he pulled the velvet scarlet into his mouth, she gasped. Her body lit with venereal elation, the blood coursing through her veins in a rush. She drew her lip into her mouth to stop herself from groaning, as the blissful agony raced through her and built into a teetering crescendo. Suddenly, it became all too much. Her mind hazed, and her limbs slumped, her sight swarming in blackness. As she felt his embrace release, she knew she was falling. Yet she did not feel the hard collapse against the floor, she felt only the darkness; she felt the night devour her whole.

A sharp pain shot through her head as her eyes fluttered open. The ceiling of her bedchamber came into view through clenched lids, the blinding light from the window beaming upon her. Bor’s hefty chuckle roused her from her sleep, drawing her sight to him as he opened the drapes.
“Wondered when you’d wake up,” he chuffed, “Sun’s just dropped. Garvana is already awake, chucking up the remains of yesterdays dinner.”
Willow dragged her legs to the side of the bed, stiff and sore limbs still covered in her winter gear. She clenched her eyes tightly, trying to relieve the pressure within her skull.
“And Pellius?” she asked groggily.
Bor pointed behind her with a laugh.
“Still out cold. But breathing. Not sure if that’s a good thing.”
Willow turned and saw him, watching his chest rise and fall, his brow pulled tight in a painful frown. She tried to stand, but felt her knees buckle as she fell back to the bed.
“Ugh,” she moaned, “I didn’t know it would hurt like this. I feel as if I’ve drank enough liquor to fill a cauldron.”
“You look like you have,” he chuckled, “There’s stew in the kitchen, feel up to eating?”
The thought of food made her stomach churn, her throat trembling as she clasped her hand over her mouth.
Bor laughed again, “I’ll take that as a no.”
As her stubbornness prevailed, she forced her legs to listen, pushing through the fatigue and walking herself to the vanity. He had not been exaggerating when he had told her of her appearance. Deep black bags hung under her lids, her cheekbones drawn tight and gaunt, her skin a sickly pallid white. She sighed in exhaustion, lowering her head.
“Will you have the servants draw me a bath?” she asked in almost desperation, “I think I need to drown myself for a while.”
Bor grinned as he turned for the door, “Sure, Willow.”
“Thank you,” she sighed, “And thank you for getting us back here. I hope it was not too much trouble?”
“Horses did most of the work,” he chuffed, before casting a last look over Pellius, “He’s heavier than he looks though.”
Willow chuckled as he closed the chamber door, regretting the rumble as her stomach convulsed. She slid into the cushioned stool of the vanity, dropping her head into her hands. Her whole body felt frail and ill, even her hands shook as they struggled to hold the weight of her head. After a few minutes in utter stillness, the nausea seemed to settle. She dared not move, unwilling to tempt it to return. When the soft knock on the door came, and pummeled into her head much like a hammer, she shuddered in revulsion.
“What?!” she snapped.
A frightened and quiet voice came from the other side.
“S-sorry Mistress,” stuttered the young servant, “I-it is just, your bath is ready.”
Willow exhaled, a long and heavy breath.
“Thank you Clarha,” she said, “That will be all.”
The hurried scuttle of retreating footsteps sounded down the hall, as Willow lifted her head to her reflection. Slowly, she forced herself up from the vanity, retrieving a simple pair of warm clothes before delicately making her way to the bathing chamber.
As it always did, the water worked wonders. Though she still felt as if she had not slept in months, the aching in her limbs eased with the burning sear of the steaming broth. Closing her eyes, she let her mind drift as her body floated in the embrace of the warmth.

After an hour, when the water had cooled and the pink in her skin begun to vanish, she dressed and returned to her room. Pellius had not moved, his face still troubled in deep slumber. Willow walked to his side, tracing her finger along his cheek, watching the frown on his brow deepen. She knew not if they had made the right choice. The consequences of their actions would prove a struggle; they had researched the many dangers of the transformation, simple things that they had never needed to worry about. Immersion in running water, the inability to enter someone’s domicile without invitation, and of course – sunlight. As she watched his face, and felt her lips smile in affection, her mind turned to the more peculiar of the changes. Vampires had no reflection. In fact, each book had described their inability to stand mirrors of any kind. What an odd thing, she thought. It had not been something she had considered; it did not seem of enough import to warrant attention. But as she made her way back to the vanity, sitting upon the seat and gazing at the image of herself, the worry did enter her mind. She did not understand why the transformation had not taken place yet. Each scripted account told of immediate symptoms, the change happening completely over the one night they fell into unconsciousness. Yet, her skin was still warm to the touch. Her stomach still hungered for cooked food. And her reflection still stared back at her. On impulse, her tongue searched her front teeth. Her eyebrows flew high as her tongue found two raised areas of gum. She arched her lips and saw the smallest points of fangs above her canine teeth. She frowned, unsure of whether they were simply growing or if she was able to move them. As if a child, learning a skill her body could do naturally, she craned her mouth wider. She pushed, and slowly the fangs lowered and lengthened. They glimmered in the candlelight, deathly sharp and pointed, slender and sleek. Strangely, she found they quite suited her. With a subtle pull, she retracted them back into place. An odd sensation came over her, the sickness returning. But with a clearer head she could determine something more afoot. The vampiric curse was swarming through her blood, yet it was met at every turn by something else. She knew not how, but she was sure her soul remained with her. It was her soul that opened her up to Asmodeus’ will. It allowed her to hear him, speak to him, connect with him. And although she knew that to be undead was to be soulless, she could feel it within her, refusing to leave her vessel and fighting the curse every step of the way. She stared into her reflection, only now noticing the peculiar way her image shimmered in translucency. It was only a mere hint, but it was enough for her to surmise what was happening. She would bare the transformation of vampirism. Her reflection would vanish as the curse grew stronger, and perhaps the other symptoms would emerge over time. But her soul was not weakening, it felt determined to remain with her. Perhaps it was locked with her, by the binding words of Thorn’s contract. Perhaps by her Infernal Lord’s will. Perhaps He would claim it only when he was ready. But as her eyes scanned over the way her wet hair molded to her skin, the petite arches in her collarbone and the highrise of her cheeks, she frowned in worry. If she was correct, she would never again see herself. She stared for a time, unmoving and eerily still, as her mind memorized the details of her face. The thought of waking up one morning and seeing nothing but the room beyond, made her realize why vampires would be repulsed by the very sight of the mirror. She chastised herself and knew her to be pathetic as small tears threatened to well in her eyes.
She heard the gentle groan of Pellius from the bed, but her sight would not draw away from her reflection. She heard him rise from the sheets, and his slow careful footsteps bring him closer to her.
“My lady?” he asked gently, “What is troubling you?”
“It is nothing,” she replied in a quiet voice, “Nothing of import.”
As his image joined hers upon the glass plate, she watched as his hand caressed her chin.
“If it is troubling you Willow, then it is of import.”
She smiled, his care and worry forcing her to shake her head.
“I never thought of myself as vain,” she laughed sadly, “I never believed I prized beauty above valour and might. But the thought of never seeing my own reflection again…. frightens me. Is that childish? A foolish dread?”
“Your beauty will still be there, Willow,” he replied warmly, lifting her chin to face him, “Only now, it will be undying and eternal. The world will still marvel at your splendour.”
Though his flattery was softly spoken and blatant, she appreciated it all the same.
“And though you may not be able to gaze upon it again,” he smiled slyly, leaning down to press a kiss to her lips, “I will.”
At that, she couldn’t help but grin. As he released her chin and began to gather his clothing, Willow’s sight returned to her reflection. Slowly, her brow dropped low.
“Do you feel it?” she asked, “I have never felt my soul, that sounds absurd. But, I can feel it warring with the vampiric curse. We were supposed to be undead, were we not? Yet how can one truly be undead if one’s soul refuses to leave?”
He paused for a moment, before turning back to her.
“I do not know,” he frowned, sighing in exhaustion, “I am sure it will all become clear soon enough.”
“Oh Pellius, I am sorry,” she shook her head, forgetting he too would be feeling the effects of the curse, lifting herself from the vanity and walking to his side, “All these questions and you’ve barely woken. How are you feeling?”
He smiled a weary smile, “I have felt better, my lady.”
“The master of understatements,” she chuckled softly, “I believe I shall head down for dinner, do you feel up to it?”
“I am unsure if my stomach will hold,” he said warily, “But I suppose I should try…”

It was a long and arduous week that saw a slow decline in Willow’s health. She was dying. She could feel it in the very core of her being. The blood of a mortal that once coursed through her veins with vigour and life, now churned sluggish as it dragged along its path. The vampiric curse grew strong within her, its’ will pulsing with venomous intent. She could feel death, inching ever nearer, its endless clutch taking hold.
Mirrored in Pellius and Garvana, she saw the same dark wells that hung beneath her heavy eyes. She was not alone in her withering journey. She was dying, and so too were they.
Yet, even as Willow lay weakened and fatigued hidden in the layers of fur within her bed, she could feel the gradual change overcoming her. Her sight was sharp and crisp, the darkness no longer shadowing her vision, the night coming alive in bright hues of greys.

As luck would have it, the merchant selling the shrouds designed for vampire spawn had found the winters snow too heavy to transverse to return to his homeland. With the shrouds, they would at least be able to withstand the fire of the blazing sun. She had questioned the man of the specifics of the blackened ash cloaks, and he was clear in explanation that although the undead would be able to survive the light, they did not grant immunity to the harsh glare of the bright star. They would be able to walk amongst the living, but they would never again be able to gaze upon the sun.

As the turned their gaze towards the east, they began the next chapter of their journey. The would march to Daveryn, and meet the Fire-Axe once again. One more victory, one more step towards hell's embrace...

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