Monday, 23 January 2017

Chapter 32 - Gold In Ashes

I will never surrender to the likes of you, vile serpent!”
“Then your death is your own doing,” Willow growled viciously.
A blinding ray of rippling light was hurled towards her, tendrils of searing white unfurling through the air at frightening speed. With eery grace, Willow slipped under the beam and out of its path.
They had entered the Tower of Polydorus, scaled it’s winding case of stairs and infiltrated the guarded home of the infamous wizard. The aged man had been too preoccupied with Bor’s brash entrance to notice Willow slip passed unseen. And so she had taken the opportunity as it had presented itself. She had leapt from the shadows with her blade flashing and drawn it tightly to his throat. The wizard would have held much information; he could have proved quite useful to the Forsaken and their goals. But even surrounded on all sides by four powerful foes – he spat in the face of surrender. He tore himself from her grasp, grunting against the pain of her blade slicing the layer of flesh along his throat, hands tracing intricate patterns in the air as his magic exploded throughout the room. Great clashes of vibrant hued arcane might shattered against the skin and armour of the Forsaken, tearing through the wooden furniture and blazing the stacks of parchment and books. As the curve of Pellius’ mighty swing came cleaving downward towards the wizard, Willow turned her head to avoid the cascade of scarlet that showered through the air.
“Well,” she pursed, as the wizard’s body fell limp to the floor, “That could have gone better.”
“You’re telling me,” Garvana huffed, patting out the embers upon the lengths of her hair that had swelled in the wizard’s blast of arcane flame, “Why don’t they ever just surrender?”
“Because there’s a horde of bugbears in the city,” Bor shrugged, “Why would they trust our offer?”
Willow shook her head as she checked over the limp form for signs of life. When she felt no pulse nor breath, she turned her attentions to the chamber. She strolled towards the writing desk by the far wall, skimming the details of the open tome upon it’s wooden plank. As she flicked through the pages, her brows rose, realising she was reading the journal of Polydorus.
“He was waiting for the Duke,” she said aloud, “He had means to transport himself away, but he was awaiting the Duke’s arrival, sure of his survival.”
“Would’ve been waiting a while,” Bor scoffed.
She chuckled, lifting the book from the table and continuing to peruse its pages. Willow knew that Polydorus had been known as a great seer, one of the highest regarded in the land of Talingarde. Though even that title held little weight amongst the Mitran church and its faithful. Magic had always been looked upon with suspicion, witches and wizards shunned from a society so heavily entrenched in it’s religious ways. Only the divine powers of Mitra’s blessed healers were regarded with warmth and welcoming. Polydorus had recorded his motive for awaiting the Duke. When Fire-Axe’s horde approached, he had promised Duke Martin that if he could get himself to Polydorus’ tower, then the wizard would teleport him to the safety of Matharyn. The Duke had laughed in his face, believing his defences and military prowess would safeguard the city. It had been only two days later that the city had fallen. And so Polydorus had remained in his tower, awaiting the Duke, set on keeping his promise in hopes of changing the way wizards and magic users alike were viewed by the Talrien people.
Willow stowed the journal into her pack to read later, before she continued sifting through the mess of parchment and paper. Hidden under the heaped layers, amongst ramblings of sorcery and musings of fate and time, she came across a curious scrap of untanned hide. Black jagged writing carved along it’s skin, as if the words had been etched by a claw.
“The Stormborn King,” Willow muttered to herself.
“What have you found, my lady?” Pellius asked, stepping along side her to see the leather clutched in her hands.
“A letter,” she frowned, “Most curious.”
He skimmed the letter’s contents, brow pulling low, “Do you know of this, Lord of All Eagles?”
“I believe I have heard of him,” she nodded, “Only old tales of a great winged beast that dwells in the Caer Bryr.”
“What does it say?” Garvana asked from across the room.
To Polydorus,” she read, “Seer of Daveryn, Unwinged but wise. Behold, I the Stormborn King need your counsel. I have taken Chargammon’s whelp, the black dragon Jeratheon Knightsbane. He foolishly tried to lay claim to my dominion and by talon and thunderbolt did we humble the night hunter. My heart speaks to slay this monster and see his evil forever removed from both earth and sky. Still, I worry this would bring the wrath of his sire. So I send to you. What say the stars? Will the death of Jerathon invite disaster or will it bring only justice and relief? I await your word. I remain the Lord of All Eagles and the Stormborn King.”
“Chargammon and Jeratheon?” Garvana repeated thoughtfully, “I saw their names only a moment ago…”
She quickly returned to the heavily laden bookshelf, retrieving a quilled book bound in reddened leather. Her brow furrowed as she flicked the pages, lifting as she found the passage she was looking for.
“Yes, here they are,” she said excitedly, “Chargammon and Jeratheon, two of the five greatest dragons in the land of Talingarde.”
Willow’s curiosity piqued, as her feet swiftly took her Garvana’s side, her eyes scouring the page.
“An elder wyrm,” she said warily, “The vilest serpent in a nest of vipers.”
“Perhaps recusing his young would gain us his favour?” Garvana offered.
Willow scoffed, “We are just as likely to gain our own deaths at his hand for the deed. The black dragon is the most wicked and foul of them all. He answers to no one; he lives by no code nor moral. He knows only the death and destruction of his own whims.”
“I think it best we avoid interfering,” Pellius said seriously, “We do not need to draw his eye.”
Garvana ceded their point with a huff, slipping the book into her pouch. As Willow smiled towards the eager and enthusiastic woman, the strange script written upon a thick tome caught her sight. An odd twinge of familiarity sparked as her eyes drank in the runic letters. She strolled to the shelf on the eastern wall, careful hands lifting the tome from its casing. The words were carved in a peculiar variation of the celestial tongue, much like the undecipherable words written in the book they had found in the private library of Saint Marcarius. Opening the tome, she grinned to find the script written in common tongue.
“Pellius,” she called, strolling to his side, “Take a look at this. It is a cipher, written by Bedemus himself! Do you remember the book we found in the cathedral of Valtaerna?”
“The one we could not translate?” he asked.
“The very one,” Willow nodded, “If I am correct, we can use this to translate it! Bedemus is a truly remarkable scolar, his work transcends on from this plane to many others. How curious we would come across this here…”
As they continued their search of the wizard’s tower, they found many curiosities and oddities. Looking around the wizard’s impressive collection of lore and literature, Willow’s heart sank at the thought of the savage bugbears burning the lot to ashes.
“We should send for our men,” she said to Pellius, eyes scanning the rich wealth of knowledge held within the stone walls, “Order them to remove the books from the tower. I wish very much to see this knowledge preserved.”
“Indeed, my lady,” he replied cordially, “Such should not be left to the carnage of war…”

The warm spring sun arched high over head, signalling that noon was upon them. The last of winter’s snow had melted over the prior passing weeks, its water churning with the heavy layers of ash upon the ground, coating the cobblestone in a sickly blackened sludge. Looking down in displeasure, Willow thought of the endless task each night, cleaning the soot stains from the leather of her boots. It was lucky, she thought as she made her way through the mess, that she had people who endured the task for her.
They headed east towards Goldenhall, searching the ruins of buildings along their way, finding little save scattered coins and charred belongings. As they meandered through the once vibrant district, now a burnt husk of its former glory, a peculiar sight unfolded. A lone intact building, wedged between the scorched beams of two others that had not faired so well. Though it was not only its condition that made this strange mahogany bricked structure seem far out of place. Its curved awnings and furled tiled roof was unlike any that had stood along the merchant district before it. The metal beams held an eery golden shimmer as if magic itself danced along their surface. In its arched doorway stood a man of deep ebony skin, standing almost as tall as the seven foot high arch, with piercing crystal blue eyes that radiated from under his hooded gaze. As Willow’s distracted footsteps took her slowly towards him, he grinned a knowing and sultry smile.
“He is awaiting you,” his deep baritone lilt crooned.
She found her sight transfixed to his figure, his words barely penetrating her mind. When they did register, she found herself unable to reply, merely inclining her head in response. She heard the muffled words of the others, the scuff of their following steps behind her. But she paid them no mind as she approached him, eyes locked to his as he stepped aside to allow her entry. Curious, she thought. Though she found her mind too preoccupied to think on it further.
Dravith,” she rasped to Sith, ordering to him to wait outside.
The waft of spirited and heavy incense smothered her nose, its strong scent clouding her vision. She stepped over the threshold, as if stepping into another realm. Beaded charms and smoking string tied herbs hung from the walls. Splashes of effervescent colours hung in drapes and ribbons from the ceilings, wooden carved symbols strung with twine from ornate hooks that dangled from the roof. The air fogged by trails of slender smoke, drifting from embers that burned in sealed clay bowls, creating a curtain of white mist that sheltered the inner chamber from view. Cautiously, Willow’s quiet steps pushed through the haze. She waved her hand to clear the pale sheet, revealing a round table draped in silk of ruby and scarlet. At the head of the table sat a man of small stature, a face wrinkled with lines of age and wisdom, speckled ashen hair combed slick to his scalp. As his sunken eyes of hazel found Willow’s line of sight, his pointed grey moustache lifted into a smile.
“Ah yes,” he said softly, “I have been expecting you.”
Willow did not speak, she only smiled and looked on curiously. He slowly pulled an odd deck of cards from his robes, placing the neat pile upon the silk. There were four vacant chairs surrounding his table, one of which Willow instinctively approached. She was too distracted to notice Pellius pulling the chair out for her, but with eyes locked on the aged man, she sat and simply waited for his direction. After the others took their seats, the man finally spoke again.
“You have a question,” he said to Willow, rearranging his thick parchment cards, “You may ask it.”
Though she frowned, her mind seemed to know it’s answer.
“Tell me,” she said softly, her eyes still searching his, “Of Adrastus Thorn…”
As a small intake of breath was heard from Garvana, the corner of the man’s lip lifted as if Willow had spoken the exact words he had expected. He lifted his cards from the table, retrieving specific ones and shuffling them in his fingers. He held them out to her, face down.
“The suit of tomes,” he said, “Select a card, young one.”
With unsure hands, Willow reached for the centre card. As her fingers lingered along its edge, she changed her mind, reaching instead for the card on the far left. She drew it from his hand, turning it over to reveal a strange picture of a pained man, an arc of blue lightening connecting to his head from the finger of a god.
“Ah, the vision,” he nodded, “Intriguing. If it chooses to reveal itself in the harrowing, it will have much to divulge to you…”
Willow watched carefully as he returned the cards to his deck and his eyes glazed over as he shuffled them methodically.
“The past…” he said ruminatively, dealing three cards face up.
“The present,” dealing another three, “And the future.”
As he dealt his final card – his brows rose.
“The cards speak of a feigned knowledge, no – an ignorance of knowledge. It reveals something of a great power, or of great truth, hidden or hiding. The present; speaks of wisdom and intellect, strong enough to see a things true worth, even beyond the layers of shrouded time. The past? Ah, yes! The mountain man, a true match. It is a conflict. The future holds an unavoidable conflict with that no longer in his control…”
He nodded his head to himself, in clear understanding of something not visible or perceivable by Willow. Nor the others, judging by the looks on their faces.
“Can you tell me no more, wise one?” she pressed, “What of this truth or power? What of the power out of his control?”
He smiled, lifting his gaze to hers.
“That is all the cards choose to reveal at this time.”
As if dismissing her from his presence, he turned to Bor expectantly, brow arched high.
“And what of you?” he questioned, “What do you wish to ask?”
For a moment, Willow thought she would be given a peek into the enigma that was the solemn troubled orc. For a moment, he seemed as if he would ask something of his past.
“What of the king’s army?” he asked, a guarded expression clouding his face, “How do we defeat it?”
The harrower’s head tilted slightly, almost as if he was disappointed with the question he had been asked. If Willow would guess, she would have said the man seemed as if the disappointment was due to a clear missed opportunity.
“Let us see then…” he began.
Willow was only half listening as the aged man drew his cards and spoke their explanation. Although she heard of an enslavement and a force that may still intervene, she was far too busy musing over the riddled answers she had received. The past was no more clear than before. The present could have been interpreted as the Forsaken, found imprisoned and awaiting death; Thorn saw their potential to become what they were now. It was the future that was truly intriguing. A conflict of that which he no longer had control. There was an array of options that could have fit the bill, yet there was one she could not ignore. The Forsaken themselves…
“The cyclone,” the harrowers words broke into her reverie, “An unnatural force, guided somehow, as if by the hand of gods. Opposed by the paladin, through hardship and foolhardiness.”
“By the gods?” Bor repeated.
“As if by them,” the harrower corrected, “The cards are not clear in their meaning, the cyclone is in an opposed position, it is an unnatural force that will guide its way…”
The aged man turned his gaze to Pellius, a small sly smile upon his lips, as if he knew something of him that was unknown to the Forsaken. His eyes seemed set to tempt and entice, as if they were daring him to ask the question he knew lingered on Pellius’ tongue. The two men simply stared at each other, before Pellius lowered his head in what seemed like defeat.
“Will I ever be free of the Knot?” came his solemn question.
In unison, Bor and Garvana raised their brows, confused or shocked by his words. Willow’s did not raise, they pulled tight into a frown, her eyes searching the room as if expecting someone or something to appear from the shadows. It was a dangerous thought to speak aloud, no matter how recently the same thing had been drifting through her mind.
“Intriguing,” was all the harrower replied, pulling selected cards from his deck.
As Pellius drew a card from the offered hand, the others awaited the reading with bated breath. Unaware or uncaring of the suspense; the harrower leisurely laid his hand.
“Ah,” he said finally, “The hourglass. Its position represents fate, or the will of the gods. And the mute hag aligned here – a true match. It speaks of bonds more powerful than words. A blood pact, a contract, a knot; it is brother against brother. The present is misaligned; it is a driving force that urges you to push onward for strength. As for the future, look here, the owl. It is wisdom that holds all together. It is the bond that keeps each piece from falling. But it is near the great constellation, far too close to the edge; it may be broken yet!”

Left with more questions than they had answers, the four of them thanked the strange harrower and rose from their seats. As Willow reached the curtains last, and the others exited the building, she paused at the threshold.
“You have another question for me, do you not child?” he asked knowingly, “One of a more personal nature…”
Slowly, Willow turned to face him. Her brow arched as she simmered the temptation to delve too far into the elusive and complex world of harrowing.
“You may ask,” he said with a small smile, “But you may not find the answers you seek. The art of harrowing is never clear cut and plain. The answers are always left open to your own interpretation. You can only hope you interpret them correctly.”
She stared at him, mind racing with indecision. The question she would ask would be one that could reveal a key part of her own past and future. The harrower simply awaited her reply patiently.
“Willow?” called Pellius, peering his head back through the doorway.
“Continue on,” she said to him, “I will follow shortly.”
With a curious look of intrigue, he inclined his head, turning from the door way. Willow waited until he was gone from view before she returned to her seat by the circular table. After a sharp intake of breath, she met the harrower’s gaze once again.
“Why did my family betray me?” she asked quietly, “Why did they turn me in?”
“Ah yes,” he smiled slyly, “That is indeed the question your heart longs to ask. Let us see…”
He fanned the cards within in fingers, drawing specific ones into a slender pile by his right. Once he was done, he lifted the small pile in offering to her.
“The suit of stars,” he rasped, “Select a single card.”
Again, she was unsure of which to take. With little to lose, she closed her eyes and reached for them, drawing one from his grasp. As she held it out to him, his brows rose ever so slightly.
“The eclipse,” he mused, “A card of self doubt and lack of purpose. Though whether theirs or your own is unclear. This card will have much to reveal if it chooses to appear in the harrowing…”
He dealt his nine cards, eyes glazing over as he meticulously placed down each one. When he had finished, he slowly nodded his head.
“The rakshasa!” he crooned, “A true match! The card speaks of a domination, one who is forced against their will. Though by what, or whom, is not for me to say.”
He frowned at his second row of cards.
“The beating, though it is misaligned and too far from the left lying star. It speaks of a relentless assault, spanning farther than a lifetime. If the card had revealed itself to another, it would signify the breaking point. But you, I think not. Still, his parallel position to the jester warns of impatience. Do not rush, beware the foolhardy course. Not all is as it seems. And the veil, a second true match. Your family have been fooled by illusions and false promises, it is their lust for gain that have served them into imprudence.”
Delicately arranged words that spoke in riddles of romantic story. Yet, Willow found no answers in his musing.
“Why is it the eclipse does not show itself, wise one?” she frowned.
“Perhaps,” he said softly, “You are not ready for the knowledge it holds.”
As Willow opened to mouth to speak, he halted her with a gentle lift of his hand.
“That is all,” he smiled, “The cards wish to reveal at this time…”

It was later that afternoon that the four of them found themselves wandering through the streets of Argentyne on route back to their camp in Tythers. As they turned down the cobblestone road into a slender alley, a shortcut they had discovered in their travels, they were greeted by a grotesque and ominous scene. A head of a large ogre, freshly cut from it’s body, impaled upon an iron spike. In a flash, they had their weapons drawn upon approach.
“It has not been there long,” Pellius surmised, “The blood is fresh and red.”
Sith’s deep growl of warning sounded a moment before a scatter of footsteps from the far end of the alley had them look up to see the silhouette of a man escape around the corner. Without warning, Garvana took off into a run in pursuit.
“Garvana!” Willow growled, “Do not be so rash!”
Having either ignored or not heard Willow’s words, the woman clad in heavy steel armour, loudly disappeared around the corner.
“Damn her,” Willow cursed, eyes scanning the rooftops, “Quickly, go after her! It could be a trap, I’ll follow behind. Vystrynivvi.”
As the illusion rippled across her flesh and vanished her from sight, Pellius and Bor nodded, running towards the sounds of loud clanking of armour.
Sith, tithmirr Pellius!” Willow commanded him to follow.
The mighty warhound growled his understanding, leaping into a frightening sprint, keeping close on Pellius’ heels. Willow kept pace with the others, remaining a few feet behind, her footsteps light and her sight sharp. As they rounded the corner towards a blind alley, Willow lost sight of them as she slowed her steps to strain her ears. On instinct she flattened herself to the barely standing wall of a charred building, seconds before a group of more than twenty men barreled out from the surrounding buildings. Most wore ragged and soiled uniforms, stained by soot and dirt, as if they hadn’t been washed since the fall of Daveryn. The others wore the rags of peasants, craftsmen and dockworkers, townsfolk with little martial experience. As they flooded passed Willow unaware of her presence, she watched them close off the opening to alley and aim their crossbows in practiced efficiency. These were not a band of elite warriors; these were simple guards, foot-soldiers and men.
“FIRE!” bellowed a masculine voice, unseen from the far end of the long alleyway.
As they let loose their first round of bolts, Willow leapt into action. She lunged for the closest guard, carving fatally through his flesh with ease, gracefully spinning to follow through and down the one to his right.
SITH!” she roared her command, “NESSITH MIRR FIRITH!”
As her terrifying dance of death continued, her blade cleanly slicing through the horrorstricken outclassed lines of men, Sith snarled and prowled back towards her. With a howl of a pure ferocious beast, he craned his maw wide, funneling a torrent of searing fire that rippled hungrily towards the ranks. As the heat neared, Willow crouched low with a grin to spring herself high into the air, feeling the flames lick her flesh as she soared above them. As she descended, the chorus of agony cried from the procession of guards, the sounds of suffering and torture melding with the smoldering crackle of fire. A single wave of flame was enough to kill or incapacitate all but one of the soldiers. The lucky man who managed to skirt the edge of the flame looked on in soul wrenching dread. He turned and fled, not a sound escaping his lips. As Willow quickly sprinted into the alley, she saw another league of mirrored numbers guarding the far side of the pass. At their centre stood tall man with wide broad shoulders, roughly cut sable locks, matching the thick protruding hair atop his lip. He was no peasant nor simple guard, this man stared down his demise with military prowess. As a small pellet of flame launched high into the air, the sound of Garvana’s laugh had a cringe of distaste ripple along Willow’s spine. The bead soared towards a soldier standing in the front rank. As it collided with his chest, the inferno fulminated outwards in scorching and scalding copper flames. The fire raged around him, furling in tendrils of fiery wrath, blistering flesh and igniting fabric. The ranks of twenty men were set ablaze in a luminous shatter of sweltering scarlet flames. As they fell, Bor stepped towards their leader, in a slow and tauntingly confident pace.
“You dare challenge us?” he growled venomously, “You wish to burn and die like the others? Or do you wish to bleed?”
Fear washed over the man’s face. Fear in its purest form; the knowledge of his own death a certainty. For a moment, Willow thought he may overcome it and stand fast against them. But she knew fear to be a powerful thing. When it took hold, when it found you clutched within its grip – hope and bravery were inutile.
The man convulsed in panic, the terror morphing his once arrogant face, his feet struggling to move beneath him. As Bor took another step forward, he finally found the initiative to run. His scream came deep from the pit of his stomach, his steps launched him towards the crossroad, stumbled and staggered stride. Yet, he was not fast enough to escape. Bor lunged with strong muscular legs, his vicious greatsword swinging wide, cleaving the fleeing man in a single stroke. The only three surviving men from the back ranks wasted no time. As their captain fell, they split and fled.
Sith! Tith-lashh-mirr,” Willow commanded fiercely, “Pishnisti mer vitish!”
The warhound growled his assent, bounding in chase after the men.
“Bring one back alive?” Pellius queried, a slow grin sliding upon his lips.
“What?” Willow frowned, “Do we not need one for questioning?”
At that, his grin only grew.
 “You do realize… the hounds jaw is filled with flame, right my lady?”
“Oh!” she laughed in realization, “Right…”
When the rumble of Sith’s returning footsteps could be heard, Willow could not help but grin. As he trotted back to her, proud of his quick and efficient catch, she laughed at her own foolishness.
Hirr mer trath,” she chuckled in praise, stepping out of the way as he dropped his smouldering prize.
“Who is he?” asked Garvana, standing over the leaders body.
“Captain Ricon Harbold would be my best guess,” Willow said, turning to her while running her fingers through the simmering fur upon Sith’s side, “The head of the resistance. Brueder mentioned he was hiding in the sewers beneath Argentyne.”
“Do you suppose there are more of them?” Pellius asked.
“Perhaps,” Willow shrugged, “Though it is doubtful. They would not have thrown away so many men here if they had more in reserve.”
“Agreed,” Pellius nodded, “But perhaps we should be sure. Will you command Sith to track their scent?”
Willow smiled, eyes scanning the ground.
“It will be faster if I follow their steps,” she said, pointing to the heavy clear prints leading out of the north pass, “Frightened men have no time to cover their tracks.”
Pellius smirked, nodding his head, sight still on the body of the captain, “Do you wish to be accompanied, my lady?”
After whispering the command to activate her ring, Willow crept slowly and unnoticed to his side.
“My lady?” he asked, turning to where she was with a frown.
She leant forward until her lips were an inch from his ear, “They shall never know I am coming if I follow alone…”

Evening hung drearily over head, darkened skies tinted with the last red glow of sunset, as Willow returned once more to the manor. She had indeed found the hideout of the resistance. A hidden chamber within the sewers – bare and deserted. The men that had once taken refuge there, now either death or long gone. She had looked through what they had left behind; dwindling rations, filthy straw mattresses, the last crumbs of hope for the men of Daveryn.
She passed the guards stationed by the front door to manor, inclining her head to their greetings. As she stalked through the parlour, her steps slowed, catching sight of Pellius’ men. The dwarf was ordering them about, watching them shrewdly as they carted weapons through the house and out of the rear door.
“Thorangir?” she called, approaching from behind.
“Mistress,” he said, turning on his heel to face her.
His warm smile faltered for only a moment, as his eyes spied the bloodied mess that covered her completely, from leather to skin.
The corner of her lip lifted in a smile, “Is something wrong, Thorangir?”
“No, mistress,” he said smoothly, “Not a thin’.”
Willow slowly arched an eyebrow.
“May be a bit bold, mistress,” he continued gruffly, “But should I get yer a bath drawn?”
Both brows shot high although she laughed in response.
“That would be a fine idea,” she smiled, “Though I shall warn you, that mouth of yours may get you in to trouble one day.”
“Oh it already does, mistress.”
Willow chuckled at his dour and brash disposition.
“Have you seen Pellius?” she asked.
“Master Albus?” he frowned, “’Bout half an hour ago, he left out front. Not since then I’m ‘fraid. Course, did not ask where he was goin’.”
“Of course,” Willow nodded, a sly smile playing on her lips, “Do you drink tea, Thorangir?”
“Tea, ma’m?” he asked warily.
“Yes, tea,” she said patronizingly, “Grown into leaves, brewed in water?”
“Ah, yes,” he frowned, “Yes mistress. I do in fact.”
“Good,” she smiled, “Then go and brew a pot, and meet me in the parlour. I shall change and return there shortly.”
“Mistress?” he questioned, his frown deepening.
Willow sighed, “Thorangir. Go and brew a pot of tea. Then take said pot of tea, find two cups, and meet me in the parlour. Is that understood?”
“Yes, mistress,” he nodded, though his frown did not lift, “Right yer are…”

After Willow had changed out of her armour, slipping into simple slacks and blouse, Thorangir finally managed to return with tea. After pouring both cups, he simply stepped back out of the way, unsure what to do.
“Sit, Thorangir,” Willow ordered, “Drink the tea.”
“Ah, alright. Yes, mistress.”
“Relax,” Willow said gently, “I simply wish to talk with you.”
“Yes ma’m,” he nodded, awkwardly sipping from the slender tea cup he had chosen.
As Willow delicately sipped from her own, much more suited to the task, she found herself giggling at the ridiculous image before her.
“Would you rather a brandy?” Willow offered.
“No, no ma’m,” he rushed, “Tea’ll be just fine. It’s just, mistress, if I may just ask yer, what is it yer be wantin’?”
Willow smiled warmly, resting herself back into the chair, lifting her feet to tuck them in beneath her.
“I simply wish to talk, Thorangir,” she said, “I do not know much about you, save the small conversation we had on the return from the mines.”
He frowned again, “’Fraid there’s not much else ter tell, mistress.”
“Nonsense,” she said, waving a dismissing hand, “Tell me of your home before Cheliax. Pellius tells me you were not born there?”
“Ma’m, its not much of a tale-“
“-Thorangir,” she interrupted sternly, “Just tell me.”
“Right mistress,” he nodded, staring into his teacup uncomfortably, “Well. Lived in small mount’n town in Isger. Raised as a shepherd I was. Tending the hill pastures and the like. But like all the others, learned ter fight early for the constant raids by goblins and hobgoblins and sometimes giants. Long time ago now, Cheliax noticed the town. Right good spot for trade caravans. For the protection they gave, town was required sendin’ ten children each year to serve the state. I was one, given ter the Chelaxian army. Got good trainin’ as an infantry soldier. Then they saw me knack for mechanics, so they trained me as an engineer.
He paused for a moment, looking up to Willow.
“Yer sure yer want me ter keep goin’, ma’m?” he asked skeptically.
“I am sure,” Willow smiled, inclining her head, “Continue.”
“Right, well. Was years in the army, then was given this special assignment. Promoted ter sergeant I was, as head of a contingent of guardsmen sent ter protect one of the temple's diplomatic missions. Ship was damaged in the storm, and well, yer know the rest, ma’m.”
“The diplomatic mission,” Willow queried, “Was it the first time you had met Pellius?”
“Yes ma’m,” he nodded, “But course I’d heard of ‘im.”
“Heard of him?” Willow asked, arching her brow.
“Yes ma’m. Master Albus, he’s well known in Cheliax, ma’m.”
Willow grinned, “I am sure he is. What was he like?”
“Like, ma’m?” he asked hesitantly.
“You knew him before Talingarde,” she replied easily, “Was he much the same then?”
“Beg yer pardon, mistress,” he frowned, looking down once again, “But I don’t think its my place to say.”
Willow’s brow rose slowly as she watched the reactions of the dwarf carefully. Though she would have loved to push him further, she knew it would only cause trouble and dissent in the ranks.
“Very well, Thorangir,” she replied finally, “Thank you for your company.”
He quickly rose from his chair, giving a swift bow before scuttling forward to gather the empty cup and saucer from Willow’s side.
“Should yer be wantin’ that bath now, mistress?” he asked.
She smiled fondly, “Yes, that would be lovely.”
“Right yer are,” he nodded.
He hurriedly made for the stairs, pausing as he reached them. Slowly, he turned back to her.
“He is…” he said quietly, thinking hard on his choice of words, “Wiser, ma’m.”
Again, she smiled, “Thank you, Thorangir.”
For a moment, while looking into one another’s eyes, they shared simple understanding. As he inclined his head and scampered up the stairs, Willow thought over his words. From the brash and handsome young man that Pellius had been, held within the bars of Branderscar – he had indeed grown wiser. Just as she, it seemed he too had learned the valuable lesson of humility. Though it was not the lesson they would have taught in the school of Mitra’s guided teaching. Having been beaten, been used and betrayed. Willow found that these things did not lower her view of her own importance. These things did not teach her to be humble or modest. In fact, they had taught her the opposite. That she could be tricked and deceived if she did not learn to be greater than all others. She needed to be stronger, smarter, faster. She need to be more cunning, more clever, more canny. But most of all, to be one step ahead of all of those around her – she need to be wiser.

It was just shy of midnight when Willow heard the familiar heavy stride of Pellius returning to their chamber. She was still awake, curled up in the arm chair by the bedroom window, reading the rough translation she had made of the first chapter of Bedemus’ writings. Although his musings on the inner working of arcana was truly fascinating, she had abstained from sleep for another reason.
“My lady,” Pellius said quietly, closing the door behind him as he entered, “I am surprised to see you still up. Is there something troubling you?”
Willow smiled gently as she watched his reflection in the window, turning to see him unlacing the buckles of his sturdy chestplate.
“No,” she said softly, “Not a great deal. Just a curiosity that seems to have left me restless.”
She placed the book upon the windowsill, rising from her chair to aid him in his undress.
“Is this something I may help you with?” he offered, turning to allow her access to the straps on his back.
“Indeed,” she replied, “For it is you that I am curious about…”
His low rumbling chuckle had her smile as it always did.
“You wish to know where I was this evening?” he smirked.
“No,” she smiled, “I know better than to question your nightly endeavors. I receive only vague dismissals when I do…”
He chuckled again, taking the plate from her hands and setting it aside by the bed. He turned to her, his sleek eyebrow arched in question.
“Then what is it you wish to know, my lady?” he asked, a subtle sly warning to his tone.
Though she appreciated his dark and seductive allure, she found her brow creasing into a frown. She looked up into his eyes, serious enough to see his grin falter.
“What is it, my lady?”
She paused for a moment, her mind churning over suspicions and heavy thoughts. Delicately, she reached up to grasp the circlet from atop his head, pulling it free as it rippled into sight. He did not move to stop her; he simply watched her with clear curiosity. She lifted her own from the nightstand and took the pair of them into the dressing room, shutting them away into the vanity drawer. As she returned to the bedchamber and closed the door behind her, Pellius’ brow rose.
“An explanation, my lady?”
“I am plagued with suspicions of late,” she sighed, sliding atop the bed, folding her legs beneath her, “I fear holding such a gift gives too much power of sight to the gifter…”
“Intriguing,” he replied, continuing to remove his armour, “And what is it you wish watching eyes to not see?”
Again, she sighed.
“Today…” she said quietly, “With the harrower. Your question was… unexpected…”
“It would seem as if you have had similar thoughts, Willow,” he shrugged, “Is it not wise to keep our options open and source what information we may?”
“Pellius,” she said sternly, “It matters not what thoughts I have had. I have kept them unsaid for a reason. Speaking such a thing, in front of the others… it borders on insubordination.”
“Come now, Willow,” he scolded, “Surely you have seen what will become of us. Thorn’s entire plan hinges on throwing Sakkarot to the wolves! We are bound to him! We are locked by word and infernal contract to obey his every command!”
“I am not unaware of this, Pellius,” Willow scowled, “But is it wise to speak of want to free ourselves from his service?”
“He is willing to sacrifice Sakkarot!” he said fiercely, “And the beast is no threat to him! What do you think he will do with us when he is sure we are too powerful for him to contain? It shall be our heads on the guillotine next!”
“Have you not pondered on the arrival of the harrower?” she scowled, “The mere coincidence he was there? He could have been sent by Thorn, to test our loyalty! He knows of our growing strength, and if he wise, he will be paranoid of our growth!”
“All the more reason for us to seek a way to be free!” Pellius growled.
Willow shook her head in frustration, “I am not disagreeing with you. I am simply warning you against such rash voice. My thoughts are indeed aligned with your own, but we must be more cautious in our approach. Thorn must not get word of rebellion. He must believe us always the loyal and unwavering subjects he wishes.”
Pellius exhaled deeply, sinking into the bed beside her.
“And if we remain quiet for too long?” he asked, “Do we just wait while he plans our demise?”
“We will be ready for him,” she reassured, “I am unwilling to lay down my life simply for him. I will serve the Lord of the Nine until the last breath is taken from my chest, but I will not do the same for any other.”
“You realize that in itself sounds like insubordination…”
Willow felt a small smile lift her lips, “It is only that, if the authority truly deserves his place. As for now, we must continue to serve faithfully.”
“Of course,” he nodded distractedly.
“But please, Pellius,” she said quietly, lifting her hand to turn his face towards her, “Keep your thoughts quiet. I wish not to see your head taken early, I quite like it where it is…”

By early morning the following day, the group of their men they had sent to seek word of anything worth their time left in the city, returned once more with news. Within Duward, the Sable Tower still remained untouched and surrounded by a camp of bugbears and goblin wolfriders. Willow found it curious that they had not yet simply brute forced their way into the tower, to reap the rewards of the Duke’s Regalia held within it’s stone walls. So they travelled by steed through the charred and cluttered streets towards the eastern district. As they approached, they did indeed see the fabled tower, its surroundings crawling with a small horde of bestial bugbears and mischievous goblins. They slowed their horses as they drew close, sitting tall in their saddles, under the watchful eyes of nearly forty creatures. Willow withdrew a small silken pouch of gold from her cloak, kicking her mount forward confidently towards the largest of them, the one who looked as if he was in charge.
As she threw the pouch towards him, she pulled her horse to a stop.
“Whadda ya want?” asked the chestnut beast warily.
“I wish to know why the tower still stands,” Willow said coldly, “What is it that is stopping you from seizing it?”
“What’s stoppin’ us,” he growled, “Is some trap up top. Blasts anyone who gets close.”
“Blasts?” she asked in return, arching an eyebrow, “What type of blast?”
Acting as if the humorous type, he made an explosion theatric with his hands.
Boom!” he called, laughing to the others around him.
As the others chuckled their savage laughs, Willow’s lip curled as the hellfire surged into her eyes. As she spoke, her words were dripping with a venomous unspoken warning.
“What type of blast,” she seethed, “Did it burn like fire, or sear like lightening?”
She watched the ripple of fear that overtook him, the smug grin dropping from his chin.
“Lightnin’,” he said quietly, “Was white and shot down all of ‘em that entered.”
“Better,” Willow replied, relaxing back into her seat, talking more to herself than to him, “Let us see if we cannot extinguish this lightening.”
The bugbear growled under his breath as he turned back to his brutes, “Hope it’ll see ya burnt like all ‘em others…”
Paying little mind to the malice of the horde, Willow hooked her heels into her steed and returned to the others.
“If the animal is to be believed, the top floor is guarded by an arcane ward or trap that uses lightening. They have not yet found a way around it.”
“Sounds like our kind of thing,” Garvana smiled.
“Raiju,” Willow beckoned, gracefully dismounting from her saddle, “Guard the horses. Be sure not to let any of them get eaten.”
He nodded, gathering her reigns in his hand, “Right, mistress.”
The four of them made their way along the cobblestone path, watched by the bitter horde, accompanied by a chorus of low hisses and growls. As they entered the tower, they saw the once grand entrance, now bare save the muddy footprints of large beasts. The walls held shadows of time, blank spaces where Willow could only assume once hung golden plaques commemorating the past and present Duke’s of Daveryn. Anything of worth had been stripped and looted, so they continued on towards the winding stairwell and scaled to it’s top. Sitting high above the ruins of the city was a slender hallway that led to a circular chamber, from the top of the stairs they could see the glass case housing the magnificent ducal regalia. Her eyes scanned the scattered procession of charred and scorched corpses along the stone brick floor. As they approached the arched entry, Garvana’s rasped arcane incantation stilled their steps.
“Evocation…” she mused aloud, “It is indeed a powerful trap.”
As she pointed upward, Willow’s eyes followed her direction towards the centre of the ceiling. A strange cage of curious metal, housed a large chunk of raw sapphire.
“How does it activate?” Bor asked.
“I do not know,” Garvana frowned, “There is residual charge in the crystal, but it seems almost… dormant?”
“Perhaps it used all of its power killing the bugbears,” Bor offered.
On impulse, Willow drew her waterskin from her pouch, gently throwing it high into the air towards the glass case. Suddenly, a flash of blinding white pulsed from the crystal, rippling torrents of blazing lightening. Before the waterskin’s decent had time to begin, it was utterly obliterated, leaving behind only a single puff of smoke and the wafting smell of burnt hide.
“Perhaps not…” Bor amended.
A parlous and hazardous plan began to formulate inside Willow’s mind as she eyed strange contraption.
“Garvana…” she said slowly, “Do you think your magic could dispel it? If only for a time?”
Garvana’s frowned pulled tighter on her brow.
“Yes,” she said charily, “But not for long. No more than mere seconds, twenty at best.”
“And you can cast that spell that allows me to walk on walls?”
“Yes,” she frowned, “Why? What is it you are thinking, Willow?”
Willow grinned mischievously, “That if you would allow me a few seconds, I could reach the ceiling and disable the trap.”
“And if the magic is too strong?” she balked, “You’ll be burnt to a crisp!”
“It shall be worth the risk,” she chuckled, “Do you not think me capable?”
Garvana rolled her eyes, “Of course you are. But this is strong magic, Willow! I do not know if I can even shield it for a moment!”
“Then what are a few spells worth?” Willow smirked, “I shall be ready, after you cast I will await your word.”
“Are you sure of this, my lady?” Pellius asked with concern.
“If I fail,” she reassured, “I assure you, I shall not dally inside.”
Bor grinned at the idea, “If you make it, I’ll give you that last bottle of Gattletale.”
“Oh,” Willow laughed, “And the deal is sweetened.”
“Enough,” Garvana clipped, “You are not taking this seriously, hold still. I shall prepare and cast. I will hold the arcana at bay for as long as I can, but be quick, Willow.”
A grin slid Willow’s cheeks higher, “I always am.”
She gave her pack for Pellius to hold and checked over each of her lockpicking tools on her belt. When Garvana nodded to indicate her readiness, Willow bent her knees and waited. As the rasping words came out of her mouth, the anticipation thickened the air. Willow should have been nervous. She should have been scared. Instead, she was riddled with excitement, it might have been said in something akin to a deathwish.
NOW!” Garvana bellowed.
Willow sprang forth into the room, gripping hold of the impossibly thin ledges of the stone bricks, lifting herself towards the ceiling. She moved as fast as her hands and feet would take her, scrambling up the side of the wall until she preternaturally slid across the ceiling.
Hurry Willow!”
As she skidded to a halt by the curious container, with one hand clinging to the stone ceiling, she pulled free her picks. The strange contraption was of such a foreign make, that for a moment a shadow of doubt seeped into her mind. No, she thought, this would not best her. As her eyes scoured the mysterious crooked pins joining the crystal to the outside caging, she saw the delicate slender metal rods that aligned the sleek miniature sceptre within it’s centre.
Willow!” Garvana yelled, “I cannot hold it much longer!”
With her heart pounding in her chest, and her blood coursing through her veins, Willow’s brow clenched tighter. Her thoughts churned through the hundreds of books and tomes she had read, the mechanical manuals of arcane traps she had spent countless hours skimming. Suddenly, the solution seemed to simply appear in her mind. A single piece of bizarre fabric was tied in between each metal pin. The material was woven with a steel wire, jutting upward from the bottom of the cage, soft stains of burnt metal along its fleece. If her guess was correct, the fabric acted as a catalyst, amplifying the tiny bolts of lightening that rippled from the crystal. Garvana’s final warning came screeching to her ears, Willow took her most solid pick and jammed in into the middle of the fabric, shattering the metal and ripping the pins from their joints. As Garvana called out a cry of utter exhaustion, letting her enchantment release, the crystal shuddered with electric pulse. A low rumbling sounded from the shimmering blue, followed by a lash of frightening power. The crystal convulsed again in a crescendo of flickering sound, as if it was preparing its fatal scorching ray; it was then that Willow panicked. She had no time to run, she had no time to get out of it’s way. If she had been mistaken, the furling torrents of pure lightening would carve through her flesh and leave only charred skin and bone in its wake. As time seemed to slow, Willow watched the small flickers of lightening shoot from the crystal. A loud outburst of flare ripped through the air, as the arcs found no fleece to guide their path. The white blaze, drawn to the metal of the cage, surged to its bindings and blasted the metal cage. As the crystal fizzled, and the rods and pins were melted away, Willow sighed in relief. It was clear that the heat had burnt away all mechanics of the trap. Although she could not see it, she felt the arcana dissolve, leaving behind only a remarkably large chunk of sapphire.
“It is, gone?” Bor called from beyond the doorway, before his face poked through, “You’re alive?”
“I think I am,” Willow laughed.
“I see the magic is gone,” Garvana said, glazed eyes searching the room, “Very well done.”
As they entered the chamber, Willow did not drop from her perch. She eyed what remained of the metal cage, seeking a way to retrieve the sapphire itself. She drew her blade from it’s sheath, angling it in, trying to lever the cage open in vein. From below her, she heard Pellius clear his throat. As she looked down to him, she grinned. He held out his adamantine dagger, a sly smile upon his lips. He tossed the dagger high into the air, and her hand whipped out deftly to snatch the dagger by the handle. It took a time, but the strange metal carved through the steel cage, allowing her access. She looked to Pellius, who remained watching her progress, and she smirked. She dropped the dagger towards him, brows raising as he managed to deftly catch it before it hit the ground. The sapphire was far greater than it had appeared trapped inside its hutch. Uncut and raw, the sapphire held an earthly beauty, like nothing Willow had seen before. It was far larger and heavier than she had anticipated, leaving her little option save gripping it and falling to the floor. There was rarely anyone more suited to the task, she landed gracefully in a crouch, the shining sapphire in her hand.
“That must be worth a fortune!” Garvana said, eyes hungrily locked to the crystal, “I wonder how much we could sell it for.”
Willow frowned, fingers clutching the sapphire tighter.
“We cannot sell it, Garvana,” she said forcefully.
“What?” she replied angrily, “Why in hell’s name not?”
Willow shook her head, sight tracing over the sharp and jagged shimmering edges.
“Some things are worth more than gold,” she said wistfully, “When the war is over, we will have countless to spend and horde. Something of such beauty is a rarity, not a simple trinket or tool. This is something that must be preserved.”
Garvana huffed her protest, but seemed to realize it was no fight she could win. As she turned to aid Bor in retrieving the ducal regalia, wealth from the chamber they would indeed be selling, Pellius smiled as he drew close.
“It is fitting,” he said quietly.
“What do you mean?” Willow asked, arching her brow.
“It is a gem of surpassing beauty,” he whispered, “Much like yourself, my lady.”
“You already know,” she replied, her tone low and sultry, “That flattery will get you entirely everywhere…”
With their packs and bags teeming with treasures, the Forsaken descended the stairs of the tower, opening the entry doors to the sight of the forty bugbears blocking their path.
“Oi,” growled the leader, “We found the place! We get ‘alf of the loots!”
As Willow’s brows rose and her mouth opened to speak, Pellius lifted his hand gently to silence her. He stepped forward, his heavily armoured chest wide and proud, truly a menacing sight to behold.
“And what is it you think?” he rasped viciously, a deathly challenge to his words, “You are going to take it from us? Well then, you are most welcome to try.”
As Willow watched the doubt and dread wash across the horde like a wave, she found her lips pulling into a malicious grin. The bugbear leader, for all of his brawn and bulk, was not a complete fool. He stared Pellius down for only a moment, before he turned and pushed his way through his warriors.
“Come on,” he growled, “Easier pickin’s elsewhere…”

As their four weeks in the ruins of Daveryn drew to a close, there was only one district they had not scoured and searched. Cliffward had always been known as the slums of the city, the run down area looked much the same in the wake of Fire-Axe’s assault, just as it had when the city was thriving. Crudely built houses of mismatched timbers and broken tiles, unpaved filthy dirt roads, cramped streets filled with shattered debris. A place for the unfortunate and impoverished to dwell. There was little within the shantytown that held enticement for the Forsaken. Little, but not nothing. With the rest of the city exhausted of interest, they turned their sights towards the Tandengate Prison. Known as the second worst prison in Talingarde, large enough to house over a hundred captives. Brueder had informed Willow that it remained secure, it’s guards still holding the gate, its prisoners still trapped inside. As the four of them flanked by Raiju and Sith approached the large gatehouse – what remained of the Daveryn soldiers were ready to meet them.
“Identify yourselves!” called a voice from atop the wall.
The words came from a tall man, greying locks clasped tightly in the nape of his neck, clad in silver steel armour marked with the highest ranks of Tandengate.
“Surrender!” Garvana bellowed, “And you will be taken and treated under the rights of prisoners of war!”
The aged captain smiled, holding his arms out to his guards.
“What do you think, men?” he called, “Shall we lay down our arms and surrender?”
The soldiers lining the walls drew back their bows in response, launching a flurry of arrows towards Garvana. As the metal tips clanged against her steel armour, the captain smiled.
“You have your answer…”

They, as the other failed rebellions within Daveryn, should have taken the offer. It was a frightening slaughter; guards dying to the smoldering flames and sharp edges of keen blades. They stood little chance against the wrath of the Forsaken. And so they died, in waves of crimson blood, as did all others who had challenged the infernal bound servants. As Willow wiped the blood from her blades, standing amidst a sea of massacre – a deafening crack lashed their air.
Villains!” cried a celestial voice, seething with righteous fury, “Know that thou shall answer for thy wickedness!”
From atop the blackened stone gate, Willow looked down towards the centre of the courtyard. She knew what she saw was their ramification. Two glistening beings of pure gold, draped in the heraldry of heaven, guided by the unstoppable quest of vengeance. Both wore solid plates of glorious golden armour, proud and regal stances, the grace of higher beings about them. Their hair glimmered in the soft touch of the bright sun, draping by their shoulders and undulating as if the air around them blew a constant gentle feathered breeze. Their skin shimmered a glistened gold that shined almost bronze, full of life and light, rich and gleaming. The one to the right held a weapon of fabled might, a great mace of enormous size, embellished in intricate carvings and battle worn scars. Willow recognized the livery he wore; he was one of the infamous astral devas. The one to left carried no weapon she could see, yet grasped in his hands he carried a magnificent trumpet, made from a single piece of solid golden ore. She had read of his kind too. Lithe and beautiful, he hovered upon powerful wings of glittering gold, brandishing his instrument as if it had slayed more fiends than any weapon. He was known as a trumpet archon; a race of creatures that served as the messengers and heralds of heaven.

It took no more words for Willow to surmise who they were. She had feared that this meeting was set in fate. Friends or allies of the great celestial guardian known as Ara Mathra. They were here to reap his revenge; they were here to exact his retribution…

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