Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Chapter 30 - Plunder and Pillage

A cold breeze drifted softly against the rolling hills of white dust and feathered mist. The sun lifted from beyond the mountains, lighting the speckled green that broke through the last grasp of winter. With a week until the dawning of spring, the Forsaken began their eastward march. They chose to ride on horseback, leading their small retinue of men across the lands of melting snow and ice. The hippogriffs circled high overhead, watching the progress as the men trudged through the harsh terrain. Along the journey, they passed desolate towns and quiet villages, either ransacked by bugbears or deserted by conscriptions of the kings’ army.
Willow sat tall in her saddle at the head of the march, always by Pellius’ side, eyes always scanning the horizon. Although she knew the king would have to still be at least two months from them, the paranoia was impossible to ignore. They could face down divine beings and vile daemons, but an army that size would overwhelm with ease and outnumber them by countless leagues.

The bright morning dawned as they crested the hill by the outskirts of Daveryn. But even the shining sun was overshadowed by the littered expanse of ruin and fire that was once the city view. Sakkarot had clearly not waited for their arrival. Smoke and ash lingered above the scene, a cloud of destruction that shadowed the husk of a town. Pellius instructed Rajiu to stay with the men, keeping out of sight until they returned with further orders. The four of them kicked their mounts into a canter, striding through the burning hollow of the Angleton region. As they slowed to a trot by the broken entrance to Bandlethyn, a carob furred bugbear approached from the gates.
“Fire-Axe bids you welcome,” he grunted, “He awaits you in the the City Hall.”
Without waiting for their reply, he turned on his heel and returned through the gate. Willow looked to Pellius, awaiting his command.
“Do you know this city?” he asked her.
“I once did,” she nodded, “The city hall is in the centre of Duward to the east.”
“Lead the way if you will, my lady,” he replied.
Willow hooked her heels into her steed and set off through the gates, following the main road that she had travelled by coach once upon a time. Although, the scene she rode by now, was nothing like the bustling streets of the once great trading port of Daveryn. Far travel from the centre of the city, the paths and streets fell a deathly quiet. Their large plazas and markets were silent and lifeless. Hearths stale and cold, stores and taverns, once boisterous and busy, now desolate and quiet. They strode passed buildings that were nothing more than crisp shells of their former glory, blackened char coating the jagged stone that remained. It was apparent that only thanks to a heavy rain the previous evening, the majority of the raging fires were extinguished. All that remained within the outer rim of the city, were ghosts and ashes.
As they drew closer to the centre of town, the savagery begun. Sights of barbaric horror were to be seen everywhere. Bodies impaled on spikes, strung from ceilings and pinned to the walls. Most still wore the tattered remains of armor and livery of Talingarde and House Daveryn. Entrails and bloodied bones littered the streets and hung from the doorways in gruesome decoration. Flocks of crows and hordes of scavengers feasted on the newly dead. Everywhere that the bugbears camped, they built great bonfires from what remained of wrecked homes and shops. Ogres, trolls, goblins and giants moved amongst the detritus and debris searching for spoils and survivors. As the Forsaken moved through the repugnant crowd, turning sight from the atrocities that the feral army of brutes were partaking in – the league of eyes followed them. It was clear they were not unknown within the horde of the Fire-Axe. It was clear, that they were feared. A sure sight of foreboding menace they would have been. Clad in robust and wicked ebony armour, strapped with malicious blades and arms of steel, midnight steeds adorned with the five pointed star of the Lord of Darkness.
Willow kept her head high and her face cold as ice, as she rode her steed towards the city hall. Sith prowled protectively by her left, snarling in warning to the feral beasts, the fearsome warhound’s blazing coat of flame a perfect mirror to the simmer of her firesilk cloak as it undulated in trail behind her. Pellius sat tall in his saddle by her right, a proud regal might to the tilt of his chin, looking every bit the infernal commander that he was. Willow heard the whisperings from the shadowed array, that spoke of the Fire-Axe’s unholy allies and elite servants of darkness. Such an odd thing, she thought, to be feared by beasts so inhuman and heinous. These were mindless brutes who knew only savagery and bestial blood-thirst. Although the utter revulsion she felt grew the further her mind wandered, and the more of the foul creatures she passed, she kept her head high and continued her march onward.

Entering the grand city hall of Daveryn, they saw the Fire-Axe once again. Sitting atop the gleaming throne, flanked by his lieutenants and allies. He struck an impressive figure, no longer squeezed in ill-fitting stolen knight’s steel, now clad in a black suit of infernal armor. He truly looked the part of the dread bugbear tyrant of the north. The city hall was crowded with bugbear lords, ogre chieftains, hill giant thugs, scampering goblins and even a frost giant jarl that stood uneasily beside the Fire-Axe. As the Forsaken entered the hall, all eyes turned to them and a sudden silence cast over the room. Sakkarot rose from his throne.
“My lords!” he bellowed, “Welcome to Daveryn! With your skill at throwing open gates, I had hoped to have your aid. But it seems this city could not wait to fall beneath my killers’ blades!”
A clamorous yell and chorus of bestial howls came from the assembled throng. Willow stepped forward, inclining her head respectfully while arching an eyebrow.
“Your impatience is not unexpected,” came her rejoinder, “I fear men of all races and kinds have the same problem with achieving their goals, prematurely.”
As Sakkarot threw back his head in laughter, their barbaric audience and most of the Forsaken did the same. Garvana stepped forward, either having ignored or completely missed the jab, as she lowered her head in respectful greeting.
“It is good to see you, Sakkarot my friend,” she said warmly.
He grinned his toothy maw towards them, “And you all too. Come, we have matters to attend to.”
Once again, they met within a chamber deemed a war room. Desks littered in parchment maps and scrolls, lists of names and places, thin daggers pinpointing past and present victories. They stood within the mayor’s chambers, much finer than the accommodations that the horde had procured in their last battles. Fire-Axe commanded fine wine be taken from the larder of the duke, and for his lieutenants and underlings to clear the room. Willow couldn’t contain her laugh as the thick red wine was poured for them into decorative golden goblets that the bugbears clearly did not realize were purely for garish show. As Sakkarot took the remainder of the bottle for himself, he turned to them as the door closed and they were left alone.
“Are you here on a mission?” he asked.
“I suppose now the city is already taken,” Willow responded, “We are merely awaiting our next orders.”
“Huh,” he grunted in agreement, “Aren’t we all. Well I have one for you, if you’re interested. The Duke of Daveryn has escaped me. It’s possible he’s just gone. He may have had some magical means of leaving the city, so it may be a fool’s errand. But I suspect not. Duke Martin famously hated wizards. I suspect he’s holed up in the city somewhere, but so far my killers have failed to find him. I would love to have him dragged before me in chains. It would be good for morale.”
“Duke Martin,” Willow frowned, “Yes, I think I remember him. Beady little man? Little daft in the head?”
“Ha!” he laughed, “Accurate description. Other than that, enjoy the city. I care not what you do to this place. I’ll be rid of it soon enough. There are pockets of resistance here and there I’m told. You are welcome to deal with those however you see fit. Or you can simply loot the ruins. I’ll warn you though, my killers are thorough. If you want the best treasure, you’ll have to find places they can’t get. Ah, look at me. Lecturing you like you were whelps. You know all of this.”
He took a long swig of wine, leaning back into his chair.
“I hear great things of your mission in Valtaerna,” he said, sounding more relaxed, “Night-mane and the head takers reported a mighty victory.”
“It was a grand feat,” Garvana agreed proudly.
Sakkarot chuckled as he looked to Willow, “Hekkarth said you even let him build a pyramid of skulls.”
“Yes,” Willow said, her lip curling, “Your brutish warriors proved competent.”
“Competent?” he laughed, “Such a compliment, little one.”
Willow shook her head as she smiled. He took another drink from his bottle, his beast-like features taking on a look of melancholy.
“Truth told, that isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about. This city was so easily taken because the Duke was an idiot and it was lightly defended. The baron of Westkirk revealed a secret entrance from the sea caves to the palace. Anyone with any sense would have collapsed it as soon as my army drew near, but Duke Martin imagined he could escape through it if things got bad. I have captured a hollow city. Most of the army was missing. They mass in the south under the king’s banner. Thanks to you, Shagaroth and his band have confirmed it. An army marches towards me led by King Markadian himself. It is an army I cannot hope to defeat on the open field. Do you know anything more of this?”
“We received the same report as you,” Pellius replied formally, quite comfortable sitting by the head of the war table, “We only surmised that it would be headed this way. And it seems, we were correct.”
Sakkarot slammed his fist upon the table, anger furrowing his furry brow.
“What is Thorn’s plan to deal with the king’s forces?” he growled, “He must have one! Yet whenever I speak to the devil-harlot Tiadora all I get are sneers and japes. Do you know Thorn’s mind? What does he intend?”
Willow reached out and put a soft hand on the bugbears forearm, her voice calm and reassuring.
“We must trust in our master,” she said softly, “Have faith that he knows the next move, and that all the pieces are falling into place.”
“Faith?!” he barked, “Ha! I am sick of simply being guided by faith. I feel as if I am being led to the slaughter!”
“There is more going on than the eye can see…” Garvana began.
“I was supposed to be victorious against the armies of Talingarde!” he snarled, “I was supposed to crush them! That was always the plan! I was only to lose to…”
He stumbled upon his words, searching the faces of the Forsaken, suspicion paired with a strange longing in his eyes.
“To who?” Garvana asked softly.
The large bugbear frowned, clearly troubled greatly and unsure on whether to continue. Willow gently squeezed his forearm, drawing his sight to her.
“It is alright,” she said, “You know us to be the Ninth Knot, brothers and sisters in arms, only working to insure our Infernal Father’s reign. Our loyalty will always be to the Infernal Lord, before all others, the cardinal included. You can tell us…”
He sighed, a bestial gust of frustration, before slowly dropping his head.
“When Thorn found me,” he began solemnly, “I was dying, poisoned and weak. I had been outcast from my tribe and branded across my chest with a giant slash from a shaman’s obsidian blade – the mark of the defeated and the banished. I was cast out into the ice to die alone and unmourned. Thorn took me in, healed me. He drew the poison from my wound. And with his magic, the scar of the outcast was remade into the Asmodean star. He marked my flesh and my soul – I was then and forever bound to the Cardinal and to the Lord of Hell.”
He looked up from his lap, a harsh acceptance coming over his brutish features.
“Do not think me a victim. Willingly I gave myself to his service. What did I have to lose? All that remained of my old life was death and disgrace. Thorn set me upon another path. The Cardinal said that if I would but serve him, he would give me all I wished for. He has been true to his word. He has made me mighty amongst my people. He has erased the dishonor of banishment and given me a new name. He has bestowed me with mighty gifts. I am most famous for my axe, true enough, but even more than that, he gave me this.”
He reached up and remove an iron circlet, much like their own, that had blended into his black fur.
“This crown of iron,” he continued, “It makes me wise and wary. I am able to speak to my people with authority. It makes me truly worthy of being a king.”
As he replaced it upon his head, it once again faded from view.
“But there was always a price. In time, I will face an army not of Talireans but of those under the banner of Asmodeus. And when I face that army, I will lead my force to utter destruction and defeat. All those who chant my name and honor me now, I will betray. My killers have become like my children, and upon the altar of war, I will sacrifice them for the glory of Asmodeus the most high.”
Willow’s eyebrow arched, his words confirming her prior suspicions.
“That is how he plans to endear the Asmodean faith upon the Mitrans,” Willow commented, “Have them become the victors, the saviors.”
“Yes,” he nodded, “But with the might of the King’s army heading this way, I do not see how it is possible. Do you know any more? Thorn has to have a plan!”
“I do not know what information is mine to share,” Willow said carefully, “But I can tell you, we have not been idle while you have conquered the mid lands of Talingarde.”
He huffed a slight laugh, raising his eyebrows in question.
“Can you say nothing more? To put my mind at ease?”
She smiled, “I will leave it to your mind to decipher. But I will add, that along our travels we did spend eight long months within the halls of pestilence, to retrieve the gifts that dwell in the abyss…”
“The archdeacon?” he frowned, before his brows shot high in understanding, “His gift?”
Willow merely smirked in response.
“What of you after?” Garvana asked, “Surely you are not to be sacrificed along with your army?”
Sakkarot shook his head, “I will go to the Throne of Iron far in the north. I will serve there for the rest of my life at the side of Thorn. My time of glory will be over. Then begins my time of service to pay for what I have been given.”
He drew another deep drink from the bottle, emptying the wine from within.
“I enjoy every day of my dominion. I savor every moment of my prize.”
With a scowl pulling his brow tight, he threw the bottle against the far wall and watched as it exploded in a shatter of glass.
“But I know,” he said bitterly, “It will not last.”
Willow watched the shards of green crystal slide down the the stone walls encompassed in foaming red liquid. As the mess pooled at the base of the wall, her mind churned.
Her voice grew quiet and solemn, “Nothing ever does…”

Bor left the group to give instruction to their men, while the others sought out accommodation for their stay within the ruins of Daveryn. Sakkarot had offered them shelter within the city hall, but Willow had recoiled at the thought of sharing space with the leagues of brutes, not eager to sleep under the cover of blood and gore smeared walls.
Most of the regions surrounding the great city hall were overflowing with bands of bugbears and goblin wolfriders, filled with the booming raucous of brutality, howls of beasts that echoed through the morning sky. The three of them strode upon horseback through the vile streets further through the city to seek a somewhat more peaceful place to lay their heads.
It was in the district of Tythers that they found a row of manors that had been left relatively unmolested. The region was known as the religious district, containing the homes of the head’s of the church and one of the four great cathedrals of Talingarde; the Cathedral of Mitra Beneficent. It was only the bugbears innate superstition and distrust that had kept the region as intact as it was. The few brutes who were brave enough to enter, spread word of holy guardians that protected the church, striking fear to keep the rest of the horde far away.
By mid afternoon, their own small force had followed Bor’s lead into the city. Pellius designated barracks for their men, while the four of them took up residence within the nicer of the homes that remained mostly unscathed. Before dusk fell that evening, they decided to face whatever dwelled in the grand cathedral, none of them keen to rest while the threat of divine guardians loomed so close by. Together the four of them approached the white marble building, eyes and ears strained for any sign of movement. The structure was marvelous in its architecture, an impressive edifice; every inch covered in intricate decoration that celebrated an endless procession of saints and heroes of the Mitran faith. Familiar aphorisms written in both common and celestial adorned the stonework.
The sun may set and winter may come,” Willow read from above the arching doorway, “But always there will be another dawn and summer will return triumphant.”
Great flying buttresses, stained glass windows and a mighty facade that completed the cathedral. It was truly a place of awe and reverence for the exaltation of Mitra. Pushing open the hefty marble door, Willow’s brows rose in amazement. It appeared as if the place had weathered the sack of Daveryn completely unaffected. Though it hadn’t been dusted in a few days, it was as if a congregation could file in and start their prayers without a moment’s pause. The golden fixtures and sacramental vessels were still neatly positioned on the central altar. Unlike most Mitran temples, that were embellished with art and pieces of silver, this one housed older artifacts from the time where most religious paraphernalia was largely made of gold.
The Forsaken quietly stalked into the vast hall, weapons at the ready, eyes searching the shadowed corners of the chamber. The echo of Pellius and Bor’s heavy footsteps ricocheted off the smooth walls, but no further sound could be heard. The farther into the church they drew, the more paranoid they became. Even as they reached the grand altar at the head of the hall – no guardians swooped down to defend their sacred home. While the others searched the side rooms and nooks, Willow scanned over the dais. It was only through deep seeded suspicion, that her eyes noticed the faintest of outline of a recent footprint pointed out from beneath the altar, in the fine layer of dust that coated the floor. Silently, she lowered herself into a crouch. As she lifted the azure sheet that fell from the platform, she found a well concealed panel, that formed the shape of a cellar door. There were no locks or traps upon the plank, just a subtle crevice, wide enough to latch a finger into. She signaled to the others and quietly tucked the cloth atop the altar. With a silent countdown, Pellius threw the door wide and Willow slid herself into the small reliquary with her daggers held tight. What she saw crouched in the corner, had a small smile grace her lips. A man, dressed in musty white robes, startled wide eyes staring back at her. She moved with swift grace, tumbling behind him and gripping his shoulder, blade held firm to his throat before he had any chance to react.
“Cardinal Ignatius Mark,” she greeted, a voice far sweeter in contrast to her hostile actions.
“Who are you?!” he trembled in her grasp, “What do you want?”
“Not a great deal that you can offer I’m afraid,” she scoffed.
“I have no gold!” he whimpered, “I have nothing! Just take what you will from the church, I will not stop you!”
“How gracious of you,” she laughed.
As Garvana and Pellius stepped down into the small chamber, Willow smiled towards them.
“Lord Albus,” she said darkly, “You’ll be pleased to meet his eminence, the great cardinal of Mitra, Ignatius. One of the most important and influential men in Talingarde…”
Pellius grinned as Garvana brandished her weapon threateningly.
“You have information,” she rasped, “What you have to share may just save your life.”
“Never!” he cried, a strange bravery piercing through his fear, “I am a devout and loyal servant of Mitra, I will never aid such villainous scum as you!”
Willow pulled the blade tighter around his throat.
“It is a pity,” she said quietly, “For you, anyway. We have ways of making you talk, and some of us are dying to see it through.”
Willow smiled at Pellius’ hungry gaze, his hands itching to delve back into where his talent truly lay. Though he did not revel in the infliction of pain itself, he relished the art that was tortuous interrogation.
“He is all yours, my lord,” she said callously, pushing Ignatius towards him.
With a wicked grin and a single hand, Pellius gripped the cowering man by the robes, dragging him back up the wooden stairs and into the hall. As he cleared the altar with the swipe of an arm, he lifted Ignatius and slammed him upon the dais. Willow had no desire to watch the torment take place, trusting in Pellius’ skill to retrieve any useful information, and Bor to guard his progress. She made her way back to the manor with Garvana, as the slow procession of darkness brought the night forth.

“Have you… have you had any strange dreams of late?” Garvana asked.
The pair had set themselves up in the parlour of the estate, their servants having lit the hearth to soften the last of winter’s chill. Willow sat by the fire wrapped in lengths of warm fur, legs draped over the side of the arm chair as she sipped on a fragrant cup of exotic tea found in the kitchen stores.
“Strange?” she asked lazily, “What kind of strange?”
Garvana turned her head to see if they were alone and out of reach of the servants’ ears.
“Strange, as in, peculiar. Things you had not imagined before.”
“You may have to be more specific,” Willow frowned.
“I…” she began slowly, “I have been dreaming of a hunt. Being part of a hunt. But, I am not myself. I am in the shape of another… in the shape of-
“- a wolf?” Willow finished for her.
“Yes!” she said, eyes wide, “You have had similar dreams?”
“I have,” Willow said quietly, “Though I know not what they mean.”
“Do you suppose it has something to do with the curse?” Garvana asked.
Willow shrugged, “I can only guess.”
“Have you…” Garvana continued, “Have you had any… urges?”
“Urges?” she laughed, “Oh, I have urges alright…”
“Willow!” Garvana sighed, “Not like that, I mean… hunger urges?”
“For blood?” she frowned.
“Yes, I… I have found myself staring at the throats of those who are bare. I have been experiencing these, urges…”
Willow’s brows rose, “I do not think I have, though I am unsure how that all works, or when it is we are to start… feeding… from the living.”
“I had never noticed how thick the veins upon Bor’s neck were…” Garvana whispered.
Bursting into a fit of laughter, Willow grinned with adolescent glee.
“Oh what a pair you two would make,” she laughed, “Both brooding in mutual misery, and the sex!”
“Willow!” she called in indignation, though her grin simmered her anger.
The two of them giggled childishly as they sat back into their cushioned chairs, trying to muffle their excitement as Bor and Pellius entered the room. Willow winked at Garvana, ignoring Pellius’ quizzical look. Excusing himself politely, he retreated to the bathing chamber to clean the worst of the blood from his hands and change into more comfortable attire.
“I suppose the Cardinal did not live through the interrogation?” Garvana asked Bor, blatantly ignoring Willow’s childish grin.
“He lasted long enough,” Bor shrugged.
“And what did he have to say?” Willow queried, still unable to lower her smile.
“Pellius will give you the full report,” he said, pulling the cork free from a bottle of wine as he relaxed back into one of the armchairs, “Knew a fair bit about a lot.”
“Very insightful,” Willow joked, rolling her eyes.
He smirked, taking a long swig on the bottle. It was only a short time later that Pellius returned to the parlour, dressed in loose fitting pants and a long shirt that was unbuttoned low enough to bare his collarbone and throat. As Willow eyed the firm muscles that joined his neck to his shoulders, she felt the strangest sensation drift through her mind. Arousal was nothing new when it came to eyeing him freshly bathed, his wet tousled hair falling free from its usual sculpted groom. But it was more than that; it was hunger. She felt the sharp points of her fangs quiver, as they tried to lower and flare. She felt a strange need threaten to overcome her, an odd impulse to bite deep into his flesh. She suddenly knew the urges that Garvana had been speaking of. As he drew closer, the need only strengthened. She shook her head and rose from her seat to distract herself, walking to the glass cabinet and pulling free a bottle, pouring two glasses of the fine brandy. When she turned to face them, she noticed that there were only three seats in the parlour. Almost reluctantly, she indicated for Pellius to take the chair she had been in, handing him a glass as he sat and sitting herself upon the armrest. As he spoke, she forced herself to ignore the rapturous need that began to burn inside her.
“The cardinal had much to say,” he began, “He told me of what remains in Matharyn, now the king is campaigning across Talingarde. The High Inquisitor, Lord Solomon Tyrath, has been charged with the defense of the Castle Matharyn and the Old Palace while the king is away.”
“Ugh,” Willow scoffed, snapping out of her slight daze, “Yes, I remember him. The man wouldn’t know a joke if it slapped him in the face. But he was always fearsome, he is a great threat and a very powerful man. We should be wary of him when we finally take the city.”
“This is what the Cardinal said,” Pellius nodded, “Moreover, he insisted the king takes the security of his daughter Bellinda very seriously. This is no surprise, but apparently he has paid an immense sum of money to have a golem of solid mithral constructed to defend the Adarium. He said there are other lesser golems in the Adarium, but all together they pale before this monster.”
“Golems,” Bor snarled, “I hate golems.”
“He also spoke of the king’s surprise ally,” Pellius continued, “He has been in communication with a powerful creature of living flame, named Brigit of the Brijidine.”
“The one we found the letter from in Valtaerna?” Willow queried, “This does not bode well for us. She’s known as the queen of fire beneath the mountains, and is revered as a goddess amongst the Iraen. For years I thought her only a tale, her glory has been spoken of for generations.”
“The cardinal said that by convincing her of the eminent threat of Asmodean followers, Markadian hopes to gain the Iraen’s aid in the war. Already an Iraen delegation awaits within the Adarium.”
“This is not good,” Willow frowned.
“He told me that the king’s second in command,” he continued, “Is the masterful elven general, Vastenus Barca. As the cardinal believes, he is one of the great tactical geniuses of this age.”
“Barca?” Garvana questioned, “Perhaps he may be of use to us? His loyalties may not solely lie with the Markadian line?”
“It is possible,” Pellius nodded, “But he has served the king since before this Markadian‘s reign began.”
“We should think on it for later,” Willow agreed.
“Lastly,” he finished, “And possibly more directly relevant, he spoke of Polydorus the Seer; the only wizard in Daveryn of any note. His tower apparently guarded bizarre magical defenses.”
“The tower of Polydorus?” Willow asked, “Did we not hear the bugbears speak of it? Those that get near get rained in magic, so it lays untouched. Perhaps the seer remains within it?”
“It is most likely,” Pellius said, “We should see to it while we search the town. By the sound of it, it matters not if it is tomorrow or next week, the beasts cannot get to it.”
With matters concluded, he sank back into the chair and drank down the last of his brandy, savoring the taste for a moment, as he let his eyes slowly drift close.

“Do we know where we are going tomorrow?” Garvana asked.
“The docks,” Bor grunted, “Bugbears are afraid of ships, sea and sailing. Best bet is the docks haven’t been touched.”
“Indeed,” Pellius said, standing from his seat, holding his arm out to Willow, “We shall search the docklands tomorrow after dawn. For now, I will bid you two good night.”
Willow stood and took his arm, following him through the manor as they climbed the stairs. It was the realization of their close proximity that had her feelings of irrational need and hunger return. It took every ounce of willpower she had to restrain herself and keep her feet continuing forward. When they reached their bedchamber and he released her arm to walk forward, beginning to strip his shirt off, she whimpered as her fangs plunged down and tore her lip. As he pulled the fabric over his head, and her eyes followed the pale flesh of his back to his neck, she trembled with aching need. She had never felt such a peculiar and overwhelming sensation, something unlike anything she had ever experienced before. He craned his head to the side, stretching the muscles along his neck to release the built up pressure and tension. It was as the muscled clenched and flexed along his throat, that the groan slipped from her lips. He turned to her, his bare chest strong and firm, his wide shoulders broad and toned. Quickly, she spun away from him, clasping her hand over her mouth.
“Willow?” he asked worriedly, walking towards her, “Are you alright?”
“I am fine,” she rushed, swiftly stalking passed him towards the dressing room.
As she thought she was free to hide within the small chamber until the feeling passed, a firm grip on her wrist wrenched her backward. With ease, he pulled her around and forced her to face him. For only a moment, her eyes found his, before they flew to the bare column of his throat. She whimpered aloud, her fangs throbbing in ache, her lips struggling to keep them within her mouth.
“What is the matter with you?!” he demanded, frown furrowed deeply, “Tell me, now.”
Her eyes painfully drifted back towards his, and upon seeing the clear command within his gaze, she could do nothing but obey. Slowly, she let go of her lip, allowing her fangs to stretch to their full length. It took a moment for him to understand, but as it clicked, his forehead smoothed as his sly grin lifted. As he chuckled, the movement clenched and retracted his neck, drawing her sight rapidly back to its target. A rasping growl of a hiss expelled from her lips, as she struggled to keep control of herself. His eyebrows rose at the sound, and his grin only widened.
“It is merely the bloodlust,” he said casually, “It will pass. You can still consume food, so it is not imperative that you consume blood. Either way, we will find you someone to feed on tomorrow.”
Willow ‘s temper flared, chafing against the idea of being denied what she so desperately desired. She knew how easily he would overpower her if she tried to take what she wanted, so she prayed that he would feel the same need when presented with a willing and eager host. As he turned away from her to finish undressing and preparing for sleep, she silently undid the buttons of her high necked blouse. She stripped the shirt free and dropped it to the floor, her black corset cinching tightly on her waist, with her neck, chest and shoulders bare to the cold breeze drifting through the window. Although her skin felt the chill of the wind, the bloodlust swarmed in heat through her veins. She waited, slowly unlacing the strings of the corset, until finally he turned back to her. As he did, and her corset followed her blouse to the ground, she saw exactly what she was looking for. His fangs plunged from his mouth, his eyes alight with fiery hunger, an aching need coming over his face. For a moment, he hesitated. As if he abhorred the idea of either allowing her to feed from him, or allowing himself to feed from her. But the bloodlust must have been coursing through him as it did her, for he stepped forward with complete dominance and seized her in a frightening grip. Her breath came in short ragged bursts, her limbs trembling as the anticipation ached within her. With one swift plunge, he drove his fangs into her neck and quickly drew the blood from her veins. Her head flew back and she cried out in blissful agony, as he drank deep from the two slits on her throat. She felt her own hands clawing to gain perch, digging into his skin as she pulled her head upwards. A rasping hiss blew from her mouth as she found his neck, sinking her fangs into the column of his pulsing throat. As the scarlet warmth flooded her mouth, she whimpered in euphoric ecstasy. She had never imagined the taste of blood to be so sweet. She greedily gulped it down, drawing as much as she could between each breath. They held each other crushingly tight, mouths locked to their throats, groans of enraptured delight breaking the strange silence that had come over the room. Willow’s head began to spin, her legs weakening as she felt herself falling further into his embrace. As the pair slowly sank to the floor, knees intertwined and hands and nails clutching skin, she felt her sight darkening. Suddenly, the agonizing pull from her neck ceased, as she was torn from her hold on his throat. Haze clouded her eyes, hands trembling and knees straining to hold her weight. His baritone voice came through the fog.
“Too, much,” he growled, dragging her from her knees, throwing her towards the bed, “Too much.”
She felt her weight falling through the air, floating almost, as the soft caress of the mattress met her back. Her legs were lifted from the floor and dropped atop the bed, when his heavy weight fell next to her, shaking the padding beneath them. He drew her close, the heavy breaths tearing through his chest, mirroring her own. Slowly, the haze began to clear. Her acute senses sharp to feel every movement he made, every turn his blood made through his veins. As the strength slowly returned to her limbs, she was unable to stop herself from climbing atop his body. She slid her thighs on each side of him as he rose to meet her, his hands wrapping around the bare flesh of her back. As his lips met hers in a languid dance, she sighed deeply into his mouth. She felt utterly exhausted, in the most wonderful of ways. But as his kiss deepened and his hands searched further; the simmering fire within her built to frenzied roar, only matched by the one within him. Her touch became almost desperate. Hungry, aching, starving for more of him. With one hand in a frightening grip in her hair, the other crushing her waist, he threw her to the side and his weight crushed her beneath him. As he thrust her head back to bare her throat, and his frustrated growl rumbled as he forced himself to keep from biting her again, he ripped her belt and trousers off in a single tear. When she saw the blazing inferno within his eyes, she knew it would be a long time before the night came to an end…

The beam of dawn sun light slowly traced its way across the room, eventually finding her still form as she stared into the mirror. As the fierce glare had burned harshly against her pale flesh, she had sealed the blinds and sat by glowing candlelight. Willow’s gaze pierced the glass plate, as a cold chill settled deep in her spine. There was no reflection staring back at her. She sat upon the cushioned stool, directly in front of the vanity, yet she saw only the chamber behind her.  She could feel the tears that had welled in her eyes, as she pictured each arch of her bone structure, each dip of her lip line, each smooth swell of colour along her complexion. She knew every detail of her face, pristine skin and deep red swirling eyes. Yet, she saw nothing. She could only pray that she would not forget herself.
She had awoken early, sore and sated, held tightly within Pellius’ arms. Yet, when she had risen from the bed, her legs had only been mildly stiff, the aches of her flesh only meagre and minimal. There had been nothing gentle about the previous night. The riotous way in which they had sated themselves should have left her almost unable to walk. But bar a few discoloured light bruises and a tender stiffness of the legs, she felt refreshed and eager to get moving with the day. She had checked over her neck by feel, yet the marks of his bite had completely disappeared. Somehow, she was healing faster. While he slumbered unaware, she had checked over Pellius’ throat and found no evidence of the night. If it weren’t for the slight smear of blood along the floor and pillows, she would have believed that it had all been a rather lecherous dream.
“Is something troubling you, my lady?” Pellius yawned, dragging his legs to the side of the bed.
“Nothing important,” she dismissed, unwilling to voice her thoughts.
As she looked to see him in the mirror, her brows lifted. He too, cast no reflection upon the glass. She turned to him, unable to control her grin as she eyed his glorious naked form.
He arched his brow to her, a sly smile on his lips, his hair as much a mess as hers.
“You are rather chirpy this morning,” he said, slowly strolling to her, bending down to gently kiss her on the cheek, “I was afraid I had actually been too rough last night. That is a first with you, I assure you.”
Willow grinned a mischievous smile, “Certainly not. Though, it seems as if something has changed, I feel nothing of the consequences of last night.”
“Nothing?” he asked, a harsh reprimand of warning in his tone.
She slowly arched her brow, “… nothing.”
His grin turned dastardly, “Alas, I will have to try harder next time.”
Willow quivered in excitement and premature anticipation at his dark promise. As he chuckled and turned to gather his clothes for the day, she thought over the peculiarity of the bloodlust and feeding.
“You do not suppose,” she asked awkwardly, “That each time we feed will be like that, do you?”
His hearty laugh echoed through the chamber, “I’d hope not, that would be quite troublesome. Not every meal would wish to follow through with the things we do.”
Willow smirked at his answer, but couldn’t shake the worrying frown.
“What will it be like?” she asked.
He turned back to her, a reassuring smile upon his lips.
“It will be like all other meals. Some nicer than others, but all much the same. There will be no sex involved in your meals. Well, most meals.”
He chuckled at his own joke, but Willow could not bring herself to follow.
“Pellius,” she said quietly, “I am serious. If it is not usually like that, then what is it like? And why was last night the way it was?”
“You did not enjoy yourself?” he asked skeptically.
“Of course I did,” she snapped, waving a dismissing hand, “But please, explain it to me.”
He sighed, pulling his loose trousers on before walking to her and taking a seat by her side.
“I had a contact in Cheliax who was afflicted by the vampiric curse, and he lived a very normal life. Well, normal as a vampire can be. When we met over dinner, he would simply feast on the servants. He knew enough to know when to stop to keep them alive and able to continue their duties. There was no desire for carnal satisfaction, they were merely food. Last night was probably more than just simple feeding. When the bloodlust takes hold, you can end up in an uncontrollable frenzy, that is why it is imperative to feed regularly. I had assumed as we are still coming into the transformation and can still tolerate food that we would be safe from it for a while longer. But perhaps paired with another uncontrollable need, the bloodlust manifested in unison.”
Willow smirked at his insinuation, but understood his meaning clearly. It was an intimidating prospect, the knowledge that she knew little of something so vital as feeding herself. Soon, she would not need the intake of food. Soon, she would crave only the blood of sentient beings.
She thought on the hazed memory that she had, vaguely remembering he had been in control enough to stop them when they had begun to go to far.
“You stopped us,” she said, “You said we had taken too much.”
“Yes,” he nodded, tracing his fingers over her neck where the bite marks should have been, “You can drain a vessel completely. If you keep drinking, they will fall unconscious and eventually die. We were drinking far too much; we could have easily killed each other. Though I am unsure whether that is possible. I have never heard of two vampires being able to drain each other, as they are usually undead, and the undead have no running blood to drink.”
“Undead,” she repeated, still getting used to the idea, “It is a strange thought.”
He smiled, leaning forward to lay a gentle kiss on her forehead before standing from the chair and returning to his morning ritual.
“You will get used to it,” he said easily, “You do not have much choice any longer.”
“No,” she said softly, turning back to the empty mirror, “I suppose I do not. It has already truly begun. Do you know what I will miss? The dawn rise of the sun. Moreover, I will miss the setting at dusk.”
“My lady,” he said gently, “You are focusing on the negatives. Think not on what you are losing, but rather all that you are gaining.”
“I am not focusing,” she shook her head, “I am merely longing. The cycle of the world has always been a fascination. Mitra speaks of the sun rising to usher away the darkness, yet the darkness will always return. It is a fitting metaphor. We are the darkness, come to usher out the ways of the Shining Sun’s light.”
He returned to her side as he lifted her chin to his sight.
“Then, my lady,” he smiled, “I shall find a way to bring the sunset back to you…”

Clad in full armour and weapons, dark and menacing steel of black, they prowled the streets of the ruined city. Bor had been correct in his assumptions, superstition and fear had kept the bugbears from thoroughly looting the warehouses along the docks. They searched through the cold buildings that were left stale and silent, and strolled along the quiet boardwalks that lingered over the sea. The treasures they found were not piles of golden and silver coins, but strange curiosities and peculiar rarities. Willow found a small trinket, shaped like a paint brush, imbued with strange magic that painted small creations into life. She had never been particularly skilled with a paintbrush, so as she tested the trinket and tried to paint a small blade, she ended with a crooked and jagged chunk of steel. She laughed as she threw the chunk into the pile of debris that had amassed by the door, slipping the brush into its box and stowing it in her pouch.
They spent most of their day scouring the harbor in leisure, collecting the strange contraptions and various trinkets, pocketing a small fortune of wealth along their travels. As they decided lastly to search an abandoned alchemists hut, before turning in for the evening, Pellius dragged the jarred wooden door open. The side of the shop had been hit by something large as it had thundered passed, the eastern wooden wall lay in splinters along the floor. As Willow toed through the room carefully, her slight frame putting little pressure on the destruction beneath her feet, she eyed a row of untouched potions along the far wall. As she picked her way delicately along the debris, she felt the distinct crush of glass and liquid beneath her foot.
Get out!” she cried, instinctively diving from the wreckage towards the door.
The ruins rumbled with forceful arcana, a great blazing inferno rippled from beneath the wood, flaring high from the sides of the debris. Willow was quick enough to tumble passed the others, narrowly avoiding the reach of the searing lick of the flame. Pellius was not as lucky, his hefty solid armour slowing his escape, the brunt of the fire scorching his flesh and clothing. As they retreated swiftly, a trembling pulse shuddered the ground beneath them. It was a vial of alchemist’s fire that had crushed and released, its unchecked rage blazing within the wooden hut, the tremendous heat melting the other vials upon the shelves. In a catastrophic explosion, the wood blew apart, an array of coloured beams in different hues and tones swarming high into the sky.
“Is everyone alright?” Willow panted as they watched the magnificent inferno from afar.
“Mostly,” Pellius grunted, bright red skinned patches upon his hands and face.
“I think that is enough for one day,” Garvana huffed, “That was far too close for comfort.”
Pellius scoffed, “Agreed.”

It was on the return trip through the outskirts of Tythers that a scuttle of boots upon gravel pricked Willow’s ears to the east. She stopped in her tracks, signaling for the others to continue as they made move to stop along with her. Willow quietly crept back to the intersecting roads they had passed, peeking down the eastern shadowed alley. At the far end of the passage, she saw a man dressed in peasant’s clothes scampering in a hurry around the corner. She felt herself grinning, the temptation of the chase too delicious to ignore. She quickly signaled Pellius, telling him to continue on for her to meet up with them later at the manor.
Vystrynivvi,” she whispered, activating the arcana within the ring on her finger.
Her skin rippled as the invisibility took hold, running on light feet down the cobblestone road in pursuit of the mysterious man. When she reached the corner he had turned down, she slowed her steps, prowling silently ahead. She followed him through the winding back streets of Tythers, eyes sharp and keen, stride soundless and sleek. When he finally came to a stop, he looked around warily to be sure he had not been seen or followed. Willow smirked as he bent and lifted the metal grate to the sewers, before he lowered himself down. She waited until his soft footsteps echoed away before silently following him into the passage. Tiptoeing by the right of the putrid stream, she tracked him by the sound of his steps, winding through the underground system of tunnels. She stilled to a halt as she rounded the corner and saw him pulling aside a cluster of hanging vines that fell from the grate above. He carefully pulled a hidden lever, one so well concealed that Willow was unsure if even her keen eyes would have been able to find it. As he hefted his pack on his shoulder, a doorway opened inward and he stepped through. She heard the lock click as the door closed behind him, and quietly crept forward in approach. Her fingers traced over the lever as she strained her ears to listen to the cavern within. She heard the chatter of a group of men, restless jabs and rumbling laughter, the sound of a band of mercenaries.
“Aint got much this time, Brueder,” grunted a voice in a thick slang, “Tythers been cleared out. New group in town, aint bugbears, they human. Don’t look like the type ya wanna cross. Got passed ol’ maggie’s an’ got outta there.”
“They workin’ with the bugbears?” Breuder responded, “And the bugbears haven’t eaten them?”
“Seems if they scared of the humans,” the man replied scandalously, “They steer clear of ‘em!”
As the other men began to speculate on who the new visitors were, Willow silently lifted the lever, quickly stepping through the doorway. She knew their eyes could not perceive her, though she was still cautious to keep her movements slow and utterly quiet.
“Barney ya twat,” whined one of the men, “Ya left the door open again.”
Barney, the scout that had led Willow to their den, rose from his seat and sighed. He took a few clips to the head as he trudged to the door, passing directly by Willow, who had flattened herself against the wall. He pushed the door until it clicked shut, pulling on the handle a few times to make sure it had closed. When he returned to his seat, Willow took the time to look around the small chamber. At quick count, there were roughly twenty men and four women lazing about the room, dressed in tattered stained clothes and roughly worn scuffed boots. Either holstered to their hips or resting by their sides were short swords and daggers of shoddy and poor quality. Sitting at the head of the rabble, was a man who looked more like he should have been behind a desk in an office rather than crouched within a hidden chamber in the sewers. Dark and tousled hair, slight rough stubble on his chin, keen and shrewd blue eyes. With a finely made curved blade strapped to his belt, a somewhat dusty satin button up shirt, Willow figured he was the leader and the one they called Brueder. As she watched him laugh easily with his men, she was struck with an idea. There was opportunity to be had, though she knew not what he could offer her yet. She drew her blade from its sheath and silently crept along the outside of the chamber. As she approached him from behind, his brow furrowed, noticing something was wrong – a few seconds too late. Taking lead as Switch would, she swiftly wrapped her arm around him, drawing her blade tightly to his throat. As her invisibility vanished and she rippled into sight, the men let out startled and stirred shouts.
“Woah woah there missy,” Brueder chuckled hastily, staying his men with his hands, “There’s no need for any rash actions.”
Willow grinned towards the crowd, knowing her point had been well made. She released him, spinning her blade in her fingers. She traced her hand along his shoulder before pulling the nearest wooden stool towards her, turning to face him and sitting, leaning her elbows casually upon her knees.
“That’s quite the introduction,” he laughed, hushing his band and dismissing their worry, “Quite the skillset you’ve got there too. I’d be guessing you’re running those new folks in town.”
She smirked, “You’d be guessing correctly.”
“Ah,” he nodded, “Don’t claim to know your business, but I hear you guys got the bugbears running scared. You working with the Fire-Axe?”
“Perhaps,” Willow shrugged, “And you? You’re quite content hiding in the sewers?”
“Well no mam we ain’t,” he chuckled, “But here we’ll stay ‘til the army clears out. Figure they’ll be here only ‘til they find somewhere new to go. You guys, you got a mission. I respect that. And I don’t want to get in your way. Me, I’m just a business man. My family did business before anyone ever heard of House Darius. And we’ll still be in business when they’re long gone. My stock and trade is information. All sorts of useful information. I could help you in ways you don’t even know.”
Willow cocked her head to the side, amazed at his easy and casual demeanor.
“I am listening,” she grinned.
“Daveryn,” he continued conversationally, “This is town is chump change. This isn’t what you want. You got your eyes on the big prize. Am I right? You want the crown and that means Matharyn.”
Her eyebrow arched high in intrigue.
“My name is Anton Breuder, cousin to Nicholas Breuder. Nikki, he’s based out of Ghastenhall but he’s got his fingers everywhere. He’s got people in Matharyn right now. You play ball with me, I’ll introduce you to them. I’ll set you up. The Fire-Axe took down Daveryn real easy. Let me assure you, the capitol is a different matter. They will defend Matharyn to the bitter end. You need people on the inside and I can provide that. You kill me,” he said with raised eyebrows, “And you’ve proven that you easily could – you get nothing. What do you say? You want to make a deal?”
With her blade still twirling in her fingers, she couldn’t help but grin. She liked his confidence, she found nothing more pathetic than cowering. She had heard of Nicholas Breuder, though she had never met him. His men had been the ones to put her in contact with Switch, so very many years ago. She smoothly sheathed her dagger, leaning casually back against the wall.
“This deal of yours,” she said lazily, “Do you require anything more than keeping with your life? Safe passage through the city?”
He lips lifted into a smirk, “No thanks missy, rather stay here. The bugbears’ll leave eventually.”
“Then you’ve got a deal,” she shrugged, looking over the room, “I’ll have my men bring some food stores, rather pitiful what you’ve got here.”
“Much appreciated mam,” he nodded in thanks, “What we do have is some real Cerulean whiskey. Hey Sammy, fetch a couple’a glasses.”
The small man muttered his protest, but disappeared through the doorway and returned with two dirty tumblers. Brueder wiped the worst of the dirt away with his shirt, filling the cup with the dark liquid from the shining blue bottle he pulled from his side. When he held it out to her, she eyed it suspiciously with a raised eyebrow.
“Missy,” he chuckled, taking a showing sip from the glass, “I’m not so eager to die that I’d try poison’n you. You’d probably have my head clean cut off before you fell down.”
She conceded his point with a grin and took the glass he offered.
“Say, you folks staying round for a few days?” he asked, “Can probably help ya with your search. Us boys know a thing or two about the town.”
“I am not entirely sure how long,” Willow shrugged, “But I’m not one to turn down information.”
“Girl after me own heart,” he chuffed, “Right then. Well for the best looting you’d wanna go to Seaward.”
“There’s not much left after today,” Willow admitted with a laugh, “Most of it went up in flames.”
“Ah,” he frowned, “Well then, speaking of fire, ‘spose you know of ol’ Polydorus?”
“We’ve heard mention of him,” she replied.
“Right, you’d know the Seer has a tower named after him. Well he’s still there, throwing spells and fire at anyone who gets close. The other tower is in Duward, the Sable Tower, where the ducal regalia is stored. It’s all still there. There’s a camp of bugbears around it, but they haven’t gotten in yet. Beats me as to why, though we see ‘em go in, and only half of ‘em come out.”
“Interesting,” Willow commented, “Yet not unexpected. If the entrance takes more than brute force, they’ll be there until they wither themselves away to nothing.”
“Think you’d probably want to know that Harbold is still alive,” he said scandalously, as if the name warranted a dramatic response.
Unfortunately, Willow had not heard of him before, so the theatrics were lost on her.
“And he is…?” she asked.
“One mean ugly scarred son of bitch,” Brueder scoffed, “Captain Ricon Harbold, a die hard watch captain. Known for having the most elite and least corrupted squad in Daveryn; Harbold and his Heart-Breakers. The word about town is that he’s the one leadin’ the resistance.”
“Resistance?” Willow inquired, “I have heard only little of it. What do you know?”
“Heard reports of bugbears bein’ murdered in blind alleys, by somethin’ other than other bugbears. Apparently, they found an ogre head impaled on a iron spike.”
“And do you know where Harbold is hiding?”
“Think it’s somewhere in the sewers,” he shrugged.
“Anything more specific?” she droned.
“Sorry mam, when they show up, my boys don’t stick around.”
Willow threw back the last of the smooth whiskey, declining his offer for another.
“Lastly,” he finished, “Tandengate Prison in Cliffward is still secure. It’s been held by the warden, Arnon MacAnders. Ain’t no one breached that wall yet.”
“Well,” she said, leaning forward into a crouch upon the stool again, “Thank you. You’ve been most helpful. I’ll send my men along this afternoon.”
With a grin, she ripped her dagger free and pounced to his side in the blink of an eye, her blade pressed firmly into his neck as it forced his head up against the wall. Though startled and caught unaware, she appreciated the sly smile that lifted the corner of his lip.

“Think of turning on me,” she warned, her voice rasping with wicked sin, “Or your men think of taking more from mine than they offer – and next time, I wont be so nice…”

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