Monday, 23 January 2017
Chapter 33 - Errands of Peril
The soft rays of afternoon sun spread lightly across the courtyard, uncaring as it passed through air that was heavy with venomous loathing and hatred. Though the skies cared not, the blood that churned and tempers that flared were heightening. The rancour draped over the firmament in seething fury, tension pulled impossibly taut, as if the fabrics of forbearance were unravelling with each moment that passed. The Forsaken clutched their blood bathed weapons, keen eyes unblinking as they surveyed the impending battle. Willow stood upon the top of the prison gate wall, both blades held in a crushing grip, staring down towards the entrance, watching the two angels slowly ready themselves. A quick glance to her right found both Raiju and Bor atop the wall, leaving Garvana and Pellius below. Sith’s rumbling snarl, his feral hiss of warning, told her he was directly below her on the cobblestone path. With slow and deliberate movements, Willow stepped to the right upon the edge of the wall. Eyes locked with the maul-bearing golden being, she stepped off the edge and dropped gracefully to the ground below. In a slender waft of dirt, she slowly lifted from her crouch, spinning her blades between her fingers. A sudden and familiar fiery wave of profane malice pressed against her skin, smouldering and seeping through its layers, furrowing deeply into her veins. She could feel the Pellius’ wrath, she could feel his burning anger, his blood aflame with vicious abhorrence. His eyes blazed a brilliant scarlet, his jaw clenched his teeth as tight as his hands clutched his mighty warhammer. His maleficence fed the fire within Willow’s chest, the thrumming beat of his infernal pulse, urging her hunger for celestial blood.
It was a sudden explosion of frightening speed that saw each of them simultaneously launch in battle. The Forsaken charged forward to the angels, flashing steel with deadly intent. Pellius launched himself towards the one on the right, cleaving his warhammer with terrifying might, only to have it blocked by the crushing gold of his targets’ weapon. Garvana growled a vicious incantation, shaking the ground that surrounded them, ripping open cracks of infernal flames through the earth. Sith snarled a savage growl, pouncing forward to let loose a torrent of blistering flame from his maw. Willow somersaulted underneath the craning swing of the great maul, springing upward with her blades, tearing them into celestial flesh. Her keen sight and aim had managed to plunge the point of her dagger through the seams of his armour, deep into his torso, forcing a grunt of pain to expel from his chest. As the foreboding trumpet blew its inspiring melody, the beings responded in kind. The archon used his magnificent wings to lift into the air, painting intricate patterns with his fingers, calling on Mitra’s aid to heal his wounded comrade. The flow of blood was sealed upon the side of the armoured angel, Willow cursed and leapt backward, as he turned to face her. For a moment, the jovial enjoyment had disappeared from his face, as if he was insulted by the unexpected idea of a fiend drawing first blood. Willow knew she had earned his ire, in the way he hefted his weapon with a further air of vengeance. Though she was nimble, she failed to be quick enough to dive out of the path of his frightening maul. The slim flanks of leather armour that wrapped around her waist offered little protection from the impact of his swing. As the tarnished and battle-worn metal of the maul’s head crushed into her back, Willow felt the crippling pain shoot upwards along her spine. The weight of the weapon continued to force her forward as it crushed along his mighty cleave, her slender frame no match for the angel’s brawn. A sudden rush of divine arcana shot from the maul, tendrils of pure and holy white light rippled through her armour and into the innards of her flesh. With the impact having knocked the wind from her lungs and the agony pulsing so heavily, she had little left to resist the righteous onslaught. The momentum of his attack had her flying through the air, as the magic unfurled along her skin. Her limbs and bones became rigid, her breaths heaving through a constricted chest. As she crashed into the ground, she felt the enchantment take control. She was immobilised. Frozen, unable to move, fight or defend herself. It was a true and honest fear that crept deep into her mind, of a type she had never encountered before. Even as the celestial beings turned from her, discounting her now that she was contained, a fierce panic set in. Her mind still churned, her eyelids blinked rapidly, and slowly the breath could be drawn in and out of her lungs. Yet, she had no control over the paralysis of the rest of her body, each leg and arm lay limp and sprawled among the dirt.
“RAIJU!” Pellius commanded, lunging forward with his attack, “Get to Willow!”
With the left side of her face pressed into the ground, her vision clouded by dirt and grass, she strained her right eye to see the battle. She saw the back of Pellius’ blackened armour, as he moved around into a defensive position in front of her.
“NOW RAIJU!” he snarled.
Suddenly, two rough hands hooked themselves under her arms, lifting her from the ground. It was fortunate that she was only of a slender weight, for she seemed no burden or trial to drag across the courtyard, the large oni unbothered by the task. Sith withdrew from the fight, quickly running to Willow’s side, standing over her protectively. He growled a warning to Raiju, baring his teeth as he dropped Willow heavily against the stone gate. In utter frustration, she watched the others carve their weapons mercilessly towards the two celestial beings. Suddenly, the pair called out a rumbling incantation in unison. Bor, Garvana and Pellius had unknowingly grouped themselves together, close enough for the angels to sync their attack. With raised arms, an arc of white light beamed between them, tendrils of arcana morphing into thousands of bright blades. The magic swarmed to form a dome of razor sharp fury that encompassed the Forsaken, trapping them in, lest they face the walls of keen and serrated wrath. The two angels flew to the top of the gatehouse, casting spells with incantations utterly foreign to Willow. The paralysis slowly began to lose its hold, yet she could do nothing but watch as Garvana grabbed both Bor and Pellius by the shoulders and rush her arcane words, vanishing them from sight. In the blink of an eye, they had reappeared behind the maul-wielding angel upon the gatehouse, wasting no time to launch another attack. The angel propelled himself high into the air as Pellius swung his hefty warhammer, crushing it into the golden armour, taking the breath from the archons chest. But as before, the trumpet baring being used his divine power to heal his wounded companion. With a sigh of sheer relief, Willow finally felt the enchantment cease. As life and mobility returned to her body, she swiftly got to her feet. High above the small clearing, completely out of reach, the angels circled their prey.
“Get under cover!” Pellius called to the others, “We need to get them down from the skies!”
As they quickly made their way towards the door into the stone gatehouse, both angels suddenly disappeared. Straining her ears, Willow could still hear the faint flutter of wings.
“They’re invisible!” she called, backing up under the cover of the arched entry, “Be on your guard!”
As she heard the thud of the door close above her, she activated the power of her ring, backing up silently further under cover as her skin morphed translucent.
“Dravith, fivv shilli,” she whispered to Sith, commanding him to find cover and await her word.
For a time, there was simply silence, bar the sound of beating wings. For only a moment she felt the wind brush across the skin of her face. Willow remained flattened against the wall, shielded by magic from view. She waited by the lower door to the gatehouse, remaining perfectly still with all of her focus on listening intently. The sudden sound of the creak of a door had her eyes whip to her right.
“Willow,” Pellius whispered, “Where are you?”
As the flutter of wings still lingered in her ears – she remained silent.
“Willow?” he whispered a little louder.
Still, she did not say a word. As his face came into her sight, she watched indecision war across his face, and she was unsure whether he would be daft enough leave the safety of the gatehouse. His brow pulled tight as he exhaled sharply. Although the look of determined heroism was certainly endearing, Willow cursed his foolhardy bravery. As he moved to step out of the doorway, she leaned silently towards him.
“Stay inside,” she whispered as quietly as she could.
She could not help the small smirk that grew as he failed to hide the look of relief that came over his features.
“Where are they?”
“Somewhere above,” she replied, “Get inside.”
He nodded curtly, sealing himself inside the building, leaving the door open a crack while they awaited any sign of the celestial beings.
It was a fair time later, that they finally gave up waiting. Willow ordered Sith out into the courtyard, ready and waiting to pounce should the angels have showed themselves. But as the blazing hound prowled forward in eager anticipation, nothing was there to meet him.
“What do you think?” Willow asked, after the others had emerged from the gatehouse.
“They shall return,” Pellius replied seriously, “Such creatures do not take their tasks lightly. They shall not return to the outer sphere until success or death takes them…”
With the skies clear and the apparent retreat of their foes, the Forsaken continued inside the prison. They were met with no resistance, all of the guards having been slayed in the battle for the gate. What they found inside the prison was little more than squalor. Prison conditions were never luxurious or sanitary, but the Mitrans had always kept their detentions to a certain standard. Though the sack on Daveryn had left the guards and captives in dire straits. Prisoners starving, befouled and desperate. As the Forsaken roamed the soiled stone hallways of the dark and wretched building, they held count of over one hundred forgotten and abandoned captives. In groups shy of twenty, Pellius gathered them together and offered them the same deal.
“You may serve us,” he commanded fiercely, “You may pledge your loyalty to us. You will follow our commands and obey our orders. We will not be questioned. In return for obedience – we offer you freedom from this prison, food and shelter. Those of you who do not wish to serve, may remain. But you will remain locked in here to die.”
It came as no surprise that not a soul chose the later. While Pellius and Bor saw to the release of the prisoners, Willow continued to the halls where the captives destined for Branderscar were kept. The far end of the prison where the bars were thicker and each captive was separate for one another, for fear and punishment of their dire sins, great enough to have been sentenced for death. There was only a single man held within the cells. A man clearly foreign to the lands of Talingarde, enveloped in countless profane tattoos, words written in an unknown language. He sat in the corner of his cell, seeming unbothered by his situation or condition, straight backed and still. Even as Willow approached his cell, he remained silent and simply looked on with an impassive expression.
“You do not look as the others in this prison do,” Willow commented, eyebrow arched slightly, “You are no peasant nor petty criminal.”
“The lady is observant,” he said, no trace of emotion to his words.
If the statement had come from any other, she would had known it was a remark dripping in sarcasm. Yet this man showed no sign of enough interest to bother with such a thing.
“You have overheard our offer, I suppose?” she asked.
The man gave a slight nod, saying simply, “I shall refuse. I shall not swear allegiance to you.”
Willow’s brow rose further.
“And may I ask why not?” she enquired, “You would rather stay here to die?”
“I cannot swear an oath while another remains.”
It was then that she realised where she recognised the diabolical hint to tattoos. Long ago she had read about a cartel of assassins from a far away land, though she could not recall why they painted themselves in such a way.
“A contract?” she asked, “You serve the Nine Knives, do you not?”
Ever so slightly his brow rose, the first sign of emotion he had shown, as he looked Willow over more shrewdly.
“I do,” he said warily.
“Is it what brought you to Talingarde?”
He nodded carefully.
“For one to hire the Nine Knives, it must have been a target of immense power,” she mused, a strange notion forming in her mind, “For it is a far stretch for anyone to hire you for anything less than nobility…”
“And who is the target of your contract?” asked Garvana, walking in from the next room.
Willow smiled, for she knew the answer they would get.
“I shall not reveal that,” he said plainly.
Pellius’ heavy stride echoed down the hallway, Bor’s brawny marched along side it. As they entered the cellblock, Willow inclined her head. She took the warden’s keys from Pellius and returned to the cell door, speaking as she unlocked and opened the weighty cage.
“I shall be candid with you. We are not simply after prisoners to serve us. We are under a contract ourselves, one of a different, yet similar, kind. I have a feeling you and I are aligned in our intentions. Our end goal is quite simple. Overthrow the reign of King Markadian and his beloved Mitra.”
“The king?” the assassin asked, shrewd eyes telling of the thoughts in his mind, “Your mission is to kill the king?”
“It is,” Willow replied, raising her chin slightly.
At this, he remained quiet.
“I believe I am correct in assuming your target is the king,” she continued, “And I offer you this; a chance to fulfil your contract.”
While awaiting a reply, Willow walked into the cell, looking around at the filth with disdain. She returned her sight to the assassin, eyebrow arched in expectance and question.
“I would choose that,” he nodded, “What is required in return?”
“You will serve us,” she replied firmly, “Perform well and we shall hire your services.”
“I shall not commence any further work until my contract is fulfilled.”
“Acceptable,” Willow clipped, “But, everything comes at a price, freedom most prevalent. The repercussions of unpaid dues are most fatal.”
“Understood,” he nodded.
Willow turned to Pellius, her brow raised.
“Very well,” he said, “We have more immediate tasks to see to, but you shall get your chance.”
The assassin nodded again. Willow continued forward and unlocked the crushing manacles around his wrists and ankles. She moved with an air of calm, though she kept her senses keen for any trace of unexpected movement. When none came, she stood and stepped back.
“And what may we call you?” she asked.
“I am Irfan,” he said, his tongue rolling his sounds, “Ifran Al-janbiya.”
“Very well, Irfan,” she replied, turning for the door, “Let us see if we cannot get you fed and bathed…”
The sun fell below the horizon as dusk came to the ruins of Daveryn. The Forsaken returned to their manor, retiring to the parlour after bathing and changing, to recall and recount the numbers of their newest recruits.
“Do you trust him?” Garvana asked, sinking back into the cushioned armchair.
“Ifran?” Willow replied.
“I do not trust him,” Garvana frowned, “He is unreadable. I am still unsure of his intentions.”
“I trust his contract on the king,” Willow smiled, “Though little else. He owes no loyalty to us, he said as much. Though if what I know of the Nine Knives holds true, he will not betray us while our goals align.”
“What do you know of them?” Pellius asked, looking up from his catalogue of their men.
“Little,” Willow shrugged, “I remember that the Monteguard’s hired their numbers long before their move to Talingarde. The contracts were fulfilled as stated, gold was exchanged and all remained civil. Well, as civil as assassinations go.”
“Are they an Asmodean band?” Garvana questioned.
“I do not believe so,” she replied, gently shaking her head, “Though I remember not who they serve. Perhaps my memory fails me, but I may have read that they serve only the hierarchy or order of hell.”
“Even so,” Garvana frowned, “I think we should keep a close eye on him.”
Suddenly, the air rippled in the parlour, the floor shook beneath their feet – before a fearsome sight appeared. Tiadora, dressed in complete infernal regalia. An armored black corset wrapped in ebony and scarlet barbed metal, crimson flanks of unidentifiable leathers that fell to the ground draped in veil around her waist. Her sable hair weaved in an intricate braid that pointed high towards the sky. And hung from her neck was a glistening ruby pendant, carved into a five pointed inverted pentagram. This time, she did not travel alone. She appeared flanked by nine of the fierce and beautiful erinyes. Each of them wore matching steel corsets, embellished in sadistic thorns and spikes, painted in sanguinary decoration.
“Greetings, Ninth Knot,” Tiadora said ardently, “The Cardinal Adrastus Thorn, your master and mine, sends his greetings. Have you enjoyed your stay in beautiful Daveryn? I hear you’ve been quite the tourists, travelling across the whole span of this metropolis. Tell me, have the local been friendly?”
“Their hospitality is unrivalled,” Willow replied satirically.
Tiadora smirked, “Victory over Talingarde and the culmination of your vengeance draws near, and yet still there is one final errand that must be done. It is time for King Markadian, called the Brave, to die. You shall be our chosen assassins.”
The erinryes let out a piercing cry of gluttonous thirst for blood, swarming about Tiadora upon their eldritch outstretched wings.
“Even now, the king moves towards Daveryn at the head of an army, easily numbering twenty thousand strong. He is surrounded day and night by his mightiest and most loyal knights. Attacking him a camp is folly. But the king does have a weakness. He has not marched to war with his beloved daughter, the Princess Belinda, heir and last scion of House Darius. She is watched over by a relatively small honour guard at the Adarium.”
“He left her behind in the palace?” Willow asked sceptically, “I know the Adarium is heavily guarded, but it is hard to believe. Perhaps the rambling of Ignatius held some truth?”
“Perhaps it is in your purview to infiltrate and slay Belinda,” Tiadora continued, “But that is not our aim. The princess is merely a teenage girl and of little consequence by herself. Instead, your mission is to endanger the princess. Everywhere the king of Talingarde goes, he bears with him a magical pendant. If his daughter is ever endangered, the talisman signals her peril. With but a word, he can return to the Adarium. He will teleport into his sanctum beneath the palace, eager to save his daughter. Your mission is to first proffer the gravest peril, and when it strikes the Adarium, you are to be in that sanctum and awaiting the king’s return. And when he appears, destroy him. In one swift stroke, you will decapitate the House of Darius. With his death and the death of Belinda, there will be no ruler of Talingarde. The Fire-Axe will defeat the army here in the ruins of Daveryn, and then Talingarde will be ours.”
Willow’s brow pulled deep into a frown, mirroring that of the others. She knew not what they were thinking, but she assumed their thoughts were following the same path that hers was.
“What peril could be so great that Markadian would risk sacrificing the country for his daughter?” Willow asked with suspicion, “He is nothing if not honourable.”
Tiadora’s twisted grin lifted the corners of her lips. It was a sinister vision, one that seemed to loosen the illusion of her humanity.
“What peril indeed,” she proceeded, “What peril could be so calamitous that the king’s most trusted servants would call him away from his campaign to save the kingdom? It can be no simple threat. It must be a threat of legend. Thorn has pondered this problem long and decided there is only one threat in all of Talingarde of worthy stature – the elder wyrm Chargammon the black!”
“You cannot be serious!” Garvana balked, “Chargammon? That is suicide! Is there truly no other threat we can seek?”
“The princess is not alone,” Tiadora warned, “Trusted knights and priests of Mitra guard her and see to her safety. These retainers will not raise the alarm unless faced by a truly impressive and overwhelming threat. Chargammon fits the bill such as nothing else. Even if you slip in and slay the princess, the king will simply be told of the tradgedy. No we need him to rush to her aid. And that takes a threat like Chargammon. Our master has long researched this and found no other way. I would trust his judgement if I were you.”
“How is it we are to gain the wyrm’s aid?” Willow questioned.
“The master is confident you will think of something,” Tiadora dismissed, “The dragon will not be moved by gold or gift, it is likely he will require service of a kind. Chargammon’s sunken throne is easy enough to find, but it is a fool’s errand to enter unbidden. Chargammon slays all who enter without his warrant; and he gives warrant to no one. Still, Thorn has confidence that you will find a way. This is your mission. Gain the dragon’s assistance and then kill the king.”
“Chargammon’s spawn,” Willow recalled, “What was his name, Garvana?”
“Oh! Jeratheon! Yes, that may be our way in!”
“It is a possibility,” Pellius frowned.
“As I said,” Tiadora continued, arching her brow, “You will think of something. There is one more trifling matter. After the king is slain and his palace lies in ruins, Thorn bids you find a book. Perhaps it will be in the sanctum or perhaps it will be in the king’s personal chamber. It is the Liber Darian – a large bound volume containing the chronicles of House Darius. Fetch it and then break this seal. And then your labours will be done and you shall be rewarded for them.”
“You may sense that this may well be your last mission for the cardinal. Soon the armies of Talingarde will be broken and their leadership will be shattered. Thorn has always known that Talingarde stands because of four pillars. The first pillar was the Watch Wall Balentyne keeping the northern border secure. It burned by your hand. The second pillar was the Order of Saint Macarius. You extinguished their flame. The third pillar is the Knights of Alerion. They march to their doom against the Fire-Axe. And now the final pillar will fall by your hand – the House of Darius.
“Are there really no other members of the House Darius that will step forward for the throne?” Bor asked warily.
“Only cousins and relatives by marriage,” Tiadora replied, “The king and the princess are the last surviving direct descendants of the Victor. With their death, the House of Darius will effectively be destroyed.”
“Of all of Thorn’s servants no one has done more than you to see the triumph to its conclusion. Do not think you will be forgotten when the rewards are given. You will be princes of the realm. The great game enters its last phase. Soon Talingarde will be ours!” She bowed low to the Forsaken, “May fortune favour you, my lords. And know that the Dark Father watches your every deed…”
“How should we proceed?” Garvana asked.
“Rescuing Chargammon’s spawn may be the right course,” Willow frowned, “But it does not guarantee us his aid. It may be enough to entice his curiosity though, perhaps at the very least allowing us an audience.”
“I agree,” Pellius nodded, “Though how we make the whelp talk to his father on our behalf is another trial entirely.”
“He does not need to vouch for us,” Willow shrugged, “A great black wyrm knows treachery and deceit better than anyone, even Jerathon would not dare rouse his ire with a lie. As for us, if he chooses not to eat us upon entry; we simply use the truth.”
“And the Stormborn King?” Garvana asked, raising her brows, “How do we deal with him?”
“The same way we deal with everything else,” Bor grunted, “We kill him.”
“Yes,” Garvana drawled, rolling her eyes, “But how do we find him?”
“We know the thunderbird dwells in the Caer Bryr,” Willow began.
“The Caer Bryr is a very large place to search,” Garvana huffed in interruption.
Willow pursed her lips.
“We know he dwells there,” she continued, “And I believe we have means to find him. Were not a band of our newest recruits Iraen?”
“Yes,” Pellius frowned, “A number close to twenty of them.”
“They are people of the Caer Bryr,” Willow explained, “Whether they have lived their lives in Daveryn or not, it is likely we will find one who has information on the aerie.”
“Very good, my lady,” Pellius nodded, “May I leave that information for you to source?”
“Of course,” she smiled, inclining her head, “If I believe we need a more heavy handed approach, I shall summon you.”
It was a quick and malicious grin that, as it always did, made her tremble slightly. It was only fleeting, his devilish charm surfacing only to buried swiftly beneath the seriousness in which he approached planning their next move. Willow rose from her seat, strapping her daggers to her thighs and collecting a map of the Caer Bryr, before making her way to the adjacent manor that housed their men. They had needed to expand their property to allow their recently swelled numbers room to stay. Though the adjacent manor had not been left in such pristine condition, the men and women once locked within prison cells, seemed quite content with their upgraded accommodations. The men on guard greeted Willow with respectful words and eyes widened with fear. Although she was simply dressed in black trousers and a plain blouse, she mused that perhaps it was the confident and poised way in which she carried herself, that kept the men sure to be afraid. For all eyes followed her as she entered the newly converted barracks, yet only a bare handful of them would linger as hers found theirs. As she looked around, she was glad to see most of their recruits had been bathed and clothed, clutching chunks of cured meat and only slightly bruised fruit from the outer fields of the farmland. Although they looked to her with fear, there was a strange appreciation in their gazes.
The Iraen prisoners were not hard to find. They sat huddled together, seemingly unaware or unbothered by the others around them. As Willow’s approach came to their attention, one of the men stood to meet her.
“Do you speak common?” she asked in a broken turn of their language, “I’m afraid I speak only little Iraen.”
“I do,” the man nodded.
“And you are?” Willow questioned.
“Kalshi Aribi,” he replied flatly.
“I assume the conditions here surpass those of your previous accommodation?”
As the man stood to his full height, Willow’s eyebrow lifted as she surveyed his features. He was quite handsome, high arched cheekbones above his slender angular chin. An androgynous softness to his face, paired with a natural look of emotionless expression.
“Indeed,” he replied blandly, “We thank you for your gracious hospitality.”
“I come seeking information on the whereabouts of a thunderbird that lives in the Caer Bryr,” Willow stated, “Known as the Stormborn King and Lord of All Eagles. Do any of you know the location of the creature?”
With little change to his face, he looked her over for a moment before turning back to his group. They huddled once again in their circle and spoke rushed words in Iraen, too quick for her little knowledge of their language to understand. When he turned back to her, it was with the same indifferent expression.
“The scout Ashiki knows the place,” he said, pointing to the small woman huddled by the rear of the circle, “She will mark it on your map...”
With the location of their target in hand, the following morning the Forsaken sent word to Sakkarot of their departure and took flight towards Ghastenhall to restock and seek further information. After travelling the skies for a passing three days, they arrived by moonlight at their farmland estate, weather-worn and exhausted. As the baths were drained and a hastily thrown together dinner was eaten, they retired to there chambers for a welcome rest upon soft sheets and furred rugs. After the sun had risen, Willow set off through the city streets of Ghaster, dressed in a bright frock of virescent blue that wrapped around her waist into a signature looped knot. She made her way to the Library of Ghaster once again to meet with Brother Thrain. She paid the small silver fee and entered the grand building, strolling through its halls until she found the familiar hunched figure.
“Brother,” she called politely, smiling to him as he looked to her, “I apologise for the interruption. It is just, I cannot seem to find anything pertaining the scholar Florence Dimitri. Would you be so kind as to point me in the right direction?”
The aged man chuckled gruffly, “As luck would have it, I am holding a symposium on her works this evening. Would you care to join me in the lower lecture hall after dusk this evening?”
Willow smiled and inclined her head, “I would be delighted, brother.”
He nodded swiftly and turned back to his books. While she awaited the fall of night, Willow made her way to the others, to join them in their perusal of the market stalls. They had put together a list of potions and wands that would aid them in their attack on the great thunderbird, along with protection from the acidic breath of the black dragon. The day was spent in easy relaxation. They dined along the water front, freshly caught archerfish fillets steamed to perfection, and toasted thick red wine to their continuing success.
Bor opted to return to the manor, rather than accompany Willow to see the Mitran priest. Pellius and Garvana joined her return to the library, descending the winding staircase to the familiar chamber. As Pellius pushed open the great door and held it wide for her to enter, she smiled to see the familiar face awaiting her.
“Brother Thrain,” Willow greeted warmly, approaching with her arms open.
“Ah,” he said, embracing her fondly, “Young Willow. It is good to see you.”
She returned his kind hold, “And you too.”
“I did not think I would be seeing you so soon, my dear,” he commented.
“I did not know I would be returning so soon,” she chuckled, “We are simply travelling through.”
“And you thought to pay me a visit?” he smirked.
“More than simply a social call I’m afraid,” Pellius interjected.
“Ah yes,” Brother Thrain said, turning to him, “Young Master Pellius, and Miss Garvana.”
Pellius grasped the brother’s hand in a firm handshake.
“Pleased to see you are well, brother,” Pellius said cordially.
“Speaking of well,” Willow said dryly, “How goes your mission? I’ve heard word of an illness spreading as far as the capital.”
“Successful so far,” he nodded, indicating for her to take a seat with him upon the wooden pew, “It is a most vicious thing, quicker to spread than expected. I would keep well clear of the Red Quarter, if I was you.”
“A warning we will heed,” Willow replied, sending a fleeting smirk towards Pellius.
“And what of you, child?” Thrain asked, “Where are you next headed?”
Willow’s smile faltered for a moment, a slight crease in her brow.
“What do you know of the great wyrm Chargammon the black?” she asked finally.
The brother seemed to understand her sudden change in disposition.
“He is nothing short of a plague on the land,” he said sombrely, “Far worse than any disease. What is it you must do?”
Willow laughed bitterly, “We must seek him out and gain his aid.”
“Quite the feat, should you succeed.”
“Do you know of his spawn, Jeratheon?” Willow asked.
“I have heard of him,” Thrain nodded, “An adult dragon, roughly a century old, if I remember correctly. You must seek him as well?”
“We know he has been captured by the Stormborn King,” Garvana said, “We are hoping that rescuing his spawn will gain us an audience.”
“Quite a risk,” the brother commented, “But perhaps it may be enough to inspire his sire’s intrigue.”
“Do you know much of the thunderbird?” Pellius queried.
“Enough to know he is an ancient and powerful creature. I believe we have a few tomes that chronicle some of his history, I shall aid you in finding them if you wish it.”
“I would appreciate it,” Willow smiled.
As they continued to converse of the currents missions and events, Pellius and Garvana chose to return to the main library in search of further information. When Willow found herself alone with Brother Thrain, her mind turned to a curiosity she had not been able to silence.
“May I ask you something?” she said quietly, “I am unsure if you will answer, but it has been plaguing my mind of late.”
“You may ask, child,” came his response.
“The Cardinal was once known by another name,” she said carefully, “This much I surmised myself... He was once Samuel Havelyn, was he not?”
A small smile came upon his lips, as he withdrew his glasses to rub his eyes. When he looked to her, she saw the weariness within his gaze.
“I knew,” he sighed, “You would be the one to figure it out eventually.”
“That is who you knew him as,” Willow said softly, “Before the pyre.”
He lowered his gaze and sighed a deep exhaustion.
“Yes, but I believe Samuel truly died as Adrastus Thorn was born.”
Willow cocked her head gently, “Will you tell me of him? Before it all came to be?”
“No, child,” he said heavily, “It is not my place. What the cardinal wishes you to know, he will tell you himself. Or you will find out in the same way you figured this much.”
Although she was disappointed, and burning inside with hunger for more information, she settled her intrigue and accepted his answer.
“Curiosity is a devil of a thing,” she sighed.
Brother Thrain chuckled, “Do not lose that, child. The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled…”
Among the more expensive of their purchases within Ghaster, was a wand imbued with the strange magic of teleportation. Although Garvana, Pellius and Bor were all born with natural talent to wield magic, they unanimously voted that Willow was the one with skill wielding arcane wands. And so they stood together in the parlour of their manor, dressed in armour and set with weapons, ready to attempt quick travel to the marking made on the map of the Caer Bryr. Willow recited the incantation that Garvana had taught her, holding the wand into the air with the slightest nervous tremble of her fingers. Suddenly, they were ripped through the otherworldly portal, far from the safety of their living room. It was a sensation much like the dimensional portal she had used often. Only this one was much more powerful. Her head span at a furious speed, flashes of bright light sprinting across her vision, so fast they seemed to meld into a myriad of fluorescent colours. It was like a rope had been tied to the insides of her body, and her skin and frame were simply forced to follow their path and momentum. In a moment that seemed like a heartbeat and an eternity at once, they were flung out of the portal, struck with the dense humidity of a rainforest sweltering in the highest heat of spring. It took some time to recover her vision completely. Her sight faded between the bright lush green surrounding her and a hazed blackness that rolled behind her eyelids. When the fog finally cleared and her eyes were able to focus, she frowned. Her best guess would indeed put them within the Caer Bryr. But where they were in relation to the aerie they were seeking was a complete mystery. Looking around, she was greeted by the rich and thriving emerald and carob shrubbery that sprouted across the sheltered floor. The rainforest was teeming with life; the impenetrable shield of the flourishing canopy, the verdant grass and glistening moss, the blossoming array of coloured flowers that reached above the prospering low growing mushrooms. The verdure bathed the forest floor, swelling in wrapping tendrils and roughened vines that caressed each aged oak that craned into the sky. Flashes of fawn and umber traced the foliage surrounding the grand trees and spires, painting the canvas of jungle in uncountable shades of brown. Willow lifted her face to the treetops, unable to resist the small smile that appeared as the soft touch of rain drifted upon her skin.
“For one so comfortable in the paved streets of the city,” Pellius said quietly, “And confident in the intricate intrigue of court – you do seem quite at home in the wilderness.”
Willow could not help but smirk as she looked to him, grinning further as she saw his disdain as the water crept between the seams of his armour.
“It is beauty,” she shrugged, helping him attach his cloak a touch higher upon his chestplate straps, “Pure and natural beauty. The forest does not have a will nor have any other intention than to grow. The circle of life here is simple. The strong trees will outgrow the weak. They will soak the sun for themselves, yet in turn their roots will feed the life that dwells beneath it. If it were not for the strength of the few that reach the top, the whole forest would suffer – or cease to exist entirely. It is a true hierarchy; the natural way of the world…”
Willow reached for a blossomed amber flower beside her, tracing her fingers along the edge of its petals, looking to Pellius with something akin to embarrassment.
“… and it is beautiful,” she whispered.
He smiled then, staring deeply into her eyes, lifting his hand to trace her chin.
“Come on you two!” Garvana’s voice boomed from further into the forest, “We haven’t got all day!”
Willow laughed and shook her head, leaving the flower to continue blooming upon the tree. As they move out of the cover of one of the larger oaks, they saw what they were looking for; a grand spire, much like the ones that surrounded the Horn of Abbadon, yet with a single and noticeable difference. This spire matched the description that the Iraen scout had given Willow; a tall stone spire that faced the east, carved with a large cave opening, close to one hundred feet in the air. They stayed under the shelter of the forest while they formulated a plan.
“We cannot decide how to proceed with no knowledge of what awaits us above…”
“Willow,” Pellius scolded, “He is known as the Lord of All Eagles, you will be spotted for sure.”
“One of such little faith,” she chided, “I shall not enter, I merely wish to see what we will have to face.”
“I cannot deter you, can i?” he sighed rhetorically.
“Of course not,” she chuckled, throwing her heavy pack towards him, “I shall not be long, stay clear out of sight until I return.”
“And if you do not?” he asked, arching his brow.
Willow simply grinned in response, “Vystrynivvi.”
With Garvana’s magic entwining her fingers, the climb to the top was almost effortless. Although she felt silly climbing at an achingly slow place, she knew better than to rush her ascent and risk being heard. As she neared the top, she slowed her breathing to a controlled rhythm, moving as silently as possible. She could hear the squawks and cries of dozens of eagles above her, echoing outward from the deep and dark cave. As she reached the crest of the entrance, she waited and simply listened. No alert seemed to be raised, no swooping predator had seemed to have spotted her. Slowly, she lifted her head over the edge to peer into the cave. As her eyes settled and she looked into the dimly lit cavern – a deep frown pulled her brow. She scanned the scene, noting exactly how many creatures she could see. When she eventually returned to the others on the ground, she smiled.
“It seems we may have an opportunity,” she said thoughtfully.
“What is it?” Garvana asked, “What did you see?”
“Pellius,” she began, “Do you remember those gigantic eagles that attacked us in the Horn of Abbadon?”
“Of course,” he nodded, “Most of them fled after the first of their number fell.”
“Do you remember…” Willow continued, “Infecting one of them with that disgusting plague you can summon?”
“It survived?!” he balked.
“At least long enough to infect all of the others,” Willow commented, “Including the Stormborn King…”
“Truly?” he asked, a touch of pride to his tone.
“This presents us with an unusual opportunity,” she continued, “While he is indeed weakened, he is no less of a mighty threat. Perhaps instead of facing him in battle… we simply take the dragon off his hands.”
“And why would he just give him to us?” Garvana laughed in disbelief.
“Because we were sent here by Polydorus himself, to collect the dragon as the stars indicated. And just as all good Mitrans, we could not turn from their plight! So in turn for his trust, we shall cure their plague and save them from the slow and torturous deaths.”
“Cure them?” Garvana balked, “Why would we do that?! We want him dead!”
“No,” Pellius shook his head, “We do not need him dead, what we need is the dragon. It could work. You would, of course, need to do the talking my lady.”
“Something I am quite accustomed to,” Willow winked.
“This is crazy!” Garvana scoffed, “We’re going to trick the thunderbird by healing all of his flock, and then just walk out with a dragon?”
“Correct,” Pellius and Willow said in unison, before chuckling with one another.
“This is crazy!” Garvana repeated.
As Willow hefted her pack back onto her shoulders and turned for the spire, she smiled at the unconvinced and skeptical woman.
“No crazier than any other plan we’ve ever had!”
Slowly and loudly, the four of them clambered up the side of the grand mountain face. They made no attempt to disguise their ascent. They chatted easily along the way, commenting on the beauty of the lush green canopy, the way it appeared as a rolling sea of emerald from their high vantage point. This time, as they pulled themselves over the protruding stone edge, flocks of keen and piercing eyes were upon them. The rough stone cavern stretched deep within the heart of the mountain, surrounded by a jagged edge that circled the room, occupied by a count higher than thirty giant eagles. No longer the regal beasts they had once seen soaring through the skies. Each bore the decaying and weeping mark of the plague. Festering boils lathered in putrid rot, the stench of dying flesh lingering heavy in the stale air. It would have been an unbearable smell if not for the forty foot open cave mouth. In the centre of the cavern stood a thick spire that reached high towards the ceiling. On it’s top was a ragged nest of branches and leaves, surrounding a bird far larger than any other Willow had seen. More than twenty foot tall, with glorious feathers in an array of the colours of a stormy sky – flashes of sapphire, bronze and amethyst. Trickles of blazing lightening danced along its wings, as the wind that surrounded the creature swirled in constant lashes, billowing rapidly as it followed each arc of white light.
“Lord of All Eagles!” Willow bellowed over the rushing howl of wind, “Stormborn King! Please, pardon the intrusion and allow me to introduce myself! I am Willow, and I come here at the behest of Polydorus the Seer!”
She bowed politely, awaiting his response. For a moment, it seemed as if she would not receive one. Only silence greeted her, as his keen eyes surveyed the Forsaken.
“Enter!” he finally replied, in a strange squawking voice.
Willow smiled cordially and inclined her head, stepping deeper into the cavern. As she approached, the harsh winds surrounding the great thunderbird seemed to quicken their frightening speed, forcing her steps to strain. When she was close enough to see the entirety of the cavern, with the furious gale ripping her hair from its tie to allow her long sable locks to fly free, she stilled and looked up to the eagle. At this distance, she saw the effects of Pellius’ feral disease. Though his feathers were a stunning myriad of vivid hues; each layer seeped with the same festering rot. As she made her observation of this noticeable, she gasped in something that appeared to be shock and sympathy. When she flicked her eyes back to his, widened with apparent distress, the wind blasted her forcefully. A cry of angry shrieks came from the flock high above.
“I apologise for my discourteousness, my lord!” Willow called, bowing her head, “I truly did not mean to offend!”
Slowly, the wind lessened to a gentle breeze, as a sharp look to his brood silenced them.
“Unwinged one,” the grand eagle said, “You say you come from Polydorus! What say he?”
“My lord,” Willow began, “Polydorus has received your letter, and was most concerned. He spoke of the great tragedies that he foresaw, should your talon be the one to slay the villainous Jeratheon Knightsbane! He has tasked us with the retrieval of the sinful fiend, for him to deal with, as the stars read!”
His unblinking glare devoured Willow’s confidence slowly, the scrutiny within his gaze unlike that of any before him. Though he showed no sign of believing her words, he showed nothing else in contrast. Another chorus of caws, as if each eagle was bickering his opinion.
“Why did he not come himself?” the king asked.
“His great skill and wisdom were needed elsewhere,” Willow said seriously, “His efforts are focused on aiding the king while the land is plagued by war.”
While the eagle considered her words, Willow dropped her brow into a deep frown.
“My lord,” she said carefully, “Please forgive my bluntness, but I cannot help but notice the grave sickness that afflicts you and your brood. I could not forgive myself if I were to simply complete my task and leave your offspring to their fate.”
Followed by a chaotic chatter of screeches, Willow looked back to the Garvana, indicating for her to step forward.
“My companion is a healer,” Willow offered, “She would know a great deal of the illness, perhaps it is even in her capabilities to cure it?”
“I believe it so,” Garvana nodded, “If you would allow me to try, my lord.”
Suddenly, one of the eagles flew from his perch, guiding himself down on tattered and rotted wings. The stench wafted with each beat of his feathers, yellow ooze and putrefied flesh fell in drops upon the stone floor. It was clear to see how close to total decay and death he was. He cried something towards the thunderbird, lowering his convulsing head as if in offer. For a moment, the Stormborn King simply cocked his head, listening to the chattering of his entire flock. Willow could only surmise they were arguing for and against what she assumed was the eagles sacrifice. With a swift and commanding cry, the great bird silenced his brood as he did his forceful wind.
“Do as you will,” he said sternly.
Watched intently by all eyes, Garvana approached the dying beast. With a rasping incantation, she traced patterns in the air, ushering the wisped arcana towards him. As the healing magic settled within the eagles’ feathers, the wounds began to close. The leather skin around his beak pulled taut, washing away the scent of death from his face. The gleeful call that bellowed from his beak was enough to make even Willow truthfully smile. He launched himself into the air on spritely and healthy wings, crying out with renewed vigor, echoed by a chorus of delighted and mirthful avian exclamations from the others. When the excitement settled and the restored eagle returned to his perch, the thunderbird commanded attention once more.
“You may heal the others,” he agreed.
Willow inclined her head with a smile.
“We would be honoured,” she said, “But our healer must rest first. It is a taxing and strenuous process for her, she must prepare over night.”
The thunderbird nodded curtly, “You are welcome to rest in my aerie.”
“If it isn’t too much trouble,” Willow said carefully, looking around at the filthy conditions of the plague-ridden cavern, “We would prefer to camp below.”
She continued as his eyes narrowed upon her, “We are creatures of the land, my lord. Such heights are most disconcerting for us.”
He settled, nodding and screeching in way that she could have sworn was a laugh.
“Before we prepare camp, my lord,” she recommenced, “I desire to see your captive. We must be certain we have the appropriate gear to contain him on our travels.”
“You are welcome to continue as you please, unwinged one.”
He indicated towards the rear of the great cavern, far into the dark and shadowed hollow. Pellius was quick to her side and she strolled behind the grand pillar, deeper into the cave where her sight adjusted to the lack of natural light. It was there, that she saw him. A long serpent-like beast, glistening ebony scales layered along his flank, hissing green acid that dripping from his caged maw. He peered through thin slits, shining emerald eyes that watched in wariness as she approached. The massive dragon lay upon the scratched stone floor, his jaw clamped tight in a curious metal muzzle that kept it sealed shut. As Willow drew closer, she could see the chafed and raw skin surrounding the steel, torn into shreds as the dragon had attempted and tested his escape.
“Dragon,” Bor rasped in draconic, “How ashamed your sire would be to see you so defeated.”
Willow’s brow slowly arched, knowing well what Bor was trying to do. The dragon knew better than to trust them, yet perhaps if he had an indication that things were not as they seemed, he may have cooperated long enough to facilitate his own escape. To the best of their knowledge, the Stormborn King did not speak draconic.
“This is quite the contraption,” Willow called aloud to the thunderbird, “I have not before seen anything like it. Where did it come from?”
“Forged by the dwarven men that dwell in the nearby mountain,” the grand eagle replied.
“Most impressive,” Willow commented, moving closer to the sable serpent, surveying the contraption, “It is made of mithral, is it not?”
“Indeed,” he nodded.
“May we keep the device attached when we depart? It is far greater than anything we have envisioned to keep his maw contained.”
“You may,” the thunderbird agreed.
As Willow stepped forward once more, Jeratheon suddenly lashed out towards her with his clawed foot. With nimble movement and swift reflexes, she lithely slipped out of his reach.
“Cease!” she growled in draconic.
As she heard the rumbling hiss behind the metal mask, Willow’s eyebrow rose. Sure that she was out of the thunderbird’s view, Willow used the arcana of her circlet to flash her eyes a hellfire red.
“Silence!” she hissed in return.
The rumbling slowed to a sizzle before curious eyes looked her over. Willow stared back at him for a moment, but dared not risk anything further. She turned from the beast and looked to the others.
“Do we require any further information?” she asked in common, tilting her head to Pellius.
“No, my lady,” he said cordially, “I believe we have all that we need.”
“Very well,” she smiled, turning to the thunderbird and inclining her head, “If you do not mind, I believe we shall set camp and return on the morrow, my lord…”
The harsh humidity of the great rainforest lessened as the sun dropped below the shade of the canopy. They had found a spot hidden from the eyes of the aerie, far enough for their words to not travel upon the wind. As they finished erecting the tents and the others settled by the fire, Willow returned from her scout of their surroundings. Although there were many creatures that called the shrub-land and marsh home, none seemed more than curious by their proximity.
“I was unconvinced we could succeed this way,” Garvana huffed, frowning towards Willow, “I did not think we had a chance to convince the thunderbird.”
Willow smirked, standing by the firelight as she unstrapped her sheaths, “She of little faith.”
“No,” Garvana protested, “I simply forget how convincing you can be.”
“Quite convincing indeed,” Pellius agreed, brow arched in suggestion.
“Hush,” Willow chuckled, dropping her armor into a pile atop her pack, “We must discuss tomorrow. We are truly not prepared to transport a dragon. Much less a one that spits acid as he breathes…”
“The mithral chain is ingenious,” Bor appreciated, “It is far too unlikely that the young beast has strength enough to break it.”
“It is not enough to move him,” Pellius frowned.
“We must somehow bind his wings,” Willow scowled, “He cannot be allowed the freedom of flight, we will never keep him confined if his wings are free.”
For a time, the four of them remained silent. Churning minds that scoured potential plans and flaws, inventive thought running loose within their heads.
“Perhaps it is that simple…” Garvana offered, “We seek more of this mithral chain, and we bind his wings with it?”
Willow laughed at the absurdity of the simplicity. Yet, save the task of fitting the chains to the wings – she could not fault the idea. After much further discussion, no better plan came to mind, so they agreed to make a swift trip to Ghastenhall at dawn before setting upward for the thunderbird’s nest.
“What of Chargammon?” Garvana asked quietly, eyes glazing over in the slow descent into sleep.
“What of him?” Willow asked, staring into the dance of the flickering flame.
“What do we say? How do we convince him to aid us?”
“It is as Tiadora said,” Willow yawned, “He will most likely require some great service. We cannot know what the great wyrm desires; we shall find out soon enough. That is, of course, if he does not eat us on sight…”
By the time the sun had returned to sky, the Forsaken had once more reached the crested edge of the Stormborn King’s aerie. As Garvana began the arduous task of curing the eager birds, the others approached Jeratheon. When Bor stepped forward, armed with the flank of mithral chain, the dragon reared up as best he could, slashing forward with his feral claws. Willow peered towards the thunderbird carefully. As she saw him distracted by the commotion and excitement of his partly healed flock, she saw her opportunity. The cavern echoed the clamorous sounds of ecstatic cries and thundering feathered wings, muffling her steps along with her words. She held her hands up to the dragon, a fierce command that pierced through her eyes, as she slowly stepped closer. When she drew a mere few feet from the dragon’s head, she whispered carefully chosen words in draconic.
“If you wish to be free of this place,” she breathed, “Then you must cooperate.”
As he reared back once more, she rasped more forcefully.
“Or we will leave you to this fate, to die the shameful death at the hands of these mere birds.”
“Your sire,” Bor punctuated, “Would be disgraced by such a thing.”
Willow quickly looked back to the thunderbird, relieved to see him still preoccupied and unaware. As she turned back to Jeratheon, she watched him slowly lower himself. His shrewd gaze was locked to her, unsure yet curious and intrigued.
“Help us, help you,” she whispered.
The beast slowly lifted his long neck, tilting his head in inquisitiveness. A slow seep of virescent acid ran along the metal cage that housed his jaw, as it reached the edge, it dropped onto Willow’s shoulder. Though she heard the crackle and hiss of her leather shoulder plate, followed by the feeling of a burning rush as it’s remains seared her flesh, she simply remained motionless and unblinking in her gaze with Jeratheon. Intrigued eyes continued to watch her, as he slowly lowered himself down, allowing Bor access to his wings. Somewhat more compliant, he did not make the task of securing him easy for Bor and Pellius. Willow had to clamp her teeth tightly to stop herself from laughing aloud as they struggled. It took a time, but eventually they had both wings bound by the mithral chain, just as Garvana finished her healing – ending with the Lord of All Eagles himself.
“You have our appreciation,” the eagle said regally, “I wish you fast flight and safe travels.”
“We thank you, my lord,” Willow replied with a bow, “For the glorious capture of such a vile beast. Polydorus and the people of Talingarde are most grateful.”
As the Forsaken took hold of one another’s shoulders, Willow reached out and laid a hand on the black dragon’s back. She lifted the wand with her other hand and smiled as she rasped the arcane incantation. The otherworldly portal opened, and tore them through, vanishing the aerie from sight. As they spun in the mystifying vortex, they were thrown out of the realm and dropped heavily upon the forest floor, far from the thunderbird’s nest. Willow had pictured a secluded place in the Caer Bryr, a clearing to the south of the spire that she had seen in her scout the previous night. Although they certainly found themselves in a clearing, wet and soiled marsh ground beneath their feet – the area seemed somewhat different than she had remembered it.
“Are you alright, my lady?” Pellius asked.
“Yes,” she replied, shaking her head to clear it, “Just a tad disoriented.”
“Shall we proceed?” Garvana asked, indicating to Jeratheon.
“Indeed,” Willow nodded, approaching the captive beast, “I shall unlock the muzzle, but if you cannot stay your acid and remain civil, I shall relock it and we will escort you to your sire personally – caged like a pathetic dog. Is that understood?”
Though he looked insulted, the dragon slowly nodded. Willow approached his side, trying to exude an air of confidence, appearing unthreatened by the large creature. She pulled free her tools and set about unlocking the elaborate contraption. The dwarves were known for the amazing craftsmanship, and the piece in front of her was no exception. Though it took her longer than she would have admitted, she eventually found the right pin to loosen the hold. After clicking the mechanism inward, she pulled the top of the cage back from his mouth so it sat around his neck like a collar. As soon as his jaw was free, he spoke in a deep resonant growl.
“Fools! I am Jeratheon Knightsbane, the son of the great wyrm Chargammon! Free me now and I will ask my sire to spare you when he arrives. He is doubtless on his way now!”
“Save it, serpent!” Bor snapped, “Do you think us imbeciles? We have taken you from the thunderbird’s capture, only because you are the spawn of the great black!”
“Free me!” he roared, a rolling temptation to his tone, “I have a great hoard of treasure in my cave! All of it is yours if you will but free me!”
“Silence!” Willow snarled, with venom enough to still the large dragon, “It is not gold or treasure we seek. We seek audience with Chargammon the black.”
“You, you wish to speak with my sire?” he balked, taken aback from his pleading and threats, “You must know he’ll destroy you? He kills anyone who enters his lair!”
“We wish a word with him,” Willow replied, “That is all.”
“Then you have a death wish!” he recoiled.
“We will free you, under the proviso that you return to him and state our intentions.”
The dragon seemed to grimace at the thought, but with the promise of freedom, Willow knew he would take the deal.
“I will,” he agreed.
“Swear it!” Garvana insisted viciously, “Give us your word that you will abide by it!”
Although Willow knew that a black dragon’s promise held little weight, a breaking of his word would bind them with reason to seek revenge if he reneged.
“I give you my word, I will speak to him on your behalf.”
As Willow nodded for Bor to proceed in untying the chain, she tilted her head to Jeratheon.
“I do not claim to know how bound you feel by your word,” she said quietly, “But be warned. To us, your word is all you have. Break it…”
She used the circlet to bleed her eyes a fiendish scarlet, the fierce fury of hell warping her features, “… and the wrath of it shall find you.”
The curious creature did not answer, he simply eyed Willow with the same intrigue, a slight fear to his eyes, as if he was unsure what to make of her. Once the chains around his wings were free, he stretched them to their full length. With a swift look to the Forsaken, he propelled himself high into the air, crashing through the dense foliage of the forest canopy. With enormous might, he drove himself into the sky. As the ebony scaled beast faded into the distance, Pellius stepped toward Willow.
“Do you think he will do as we bid?” she asked, watching the shadow upon the clouds.
Pellius scoffed as he smiled, “It matters not, we will march on the great wyrm’s sanctum regardless. If he chooses to punish us for entering, no word from his spawn shall save us…”
They allowed Jeratheon enough time to return to Chargammon’s lair off of the west coast of Talingarde, resting in the cover of the forest for a lunch cooked upon their campfire. Knowing well how quickly a dragon his size could cover such ground, they assumed that mid-afternoon would be a suitable time to journey to the barren island. Once more they grouped together, trusting in the strange magic of teleportation. They were ejected from the portal, crashing painfully into the jagged rocks upon a stone cliff face. The skies here glowed an oppressive grey, winds tearing upon flesh and fabric in a relenting howl, rain battering down in a thundering chorus against the rock. The seas crashed against the cliff, scraping clean the debris and dirt, ripping free shards of stone with the power of the restless unending current. The inner island was dominated by three jagged short mountains rising from the chaos of the shattered rock. Lashed by wave and wind, little grew on the island. The grim bare rock bore little soil, scrubby and battered scraps of desperate plants feathered along the expanse, struggling to grow in the harsh and unhospitable conditions.
“Can anyone see any kind of entrance?!” Willow called over the crying wind.
“None!” Garvana answered.
“Which way do we go?!”
Bor frowned deeply, eyes scanning the island.
“There is no sign of life,” he loured, “No signs of habitation.”
“Then we head east!” Willow shrugged, “Towards Talingarde…”
It took them close to an hour to find any sign of a cave entrance. After struggling to climb the peaks and valleys of the rocky terrain, Garvana had used her arcane tricks to allow them ease of travel. It was as they walked along the eastern cliff face, they saw the funnel of the water current channeling into a hidden crevice under the lip of the stone. With arcana still coursing through their veins, they clung onto impossibly thin ledges and climbed beneath the rock. Before they descended, a sudden blur of movement caught Willow’s eye. A flock of ebony and muted green drakes were swarming from the shadows of the rocks.
“HALT!” Willow snarled, “WE ARE HERE FOR THE GREAT WYRM CHARGAMMON! STAND IN OUR WAY, AND WE WILL CUT YOU DOWN!”
Slowly, the drakes retreated back into the shadows, bright and wary eyes watching the intruders. With a final look towards them, Willow swung herself underneath the cavern top and clung to the ceiling. Below her lay a large open field shaped almost like a bowl, sheltered on three sides by stark grey peaks. Where most of the island was bare of vegetation, here great masses of thorny vine and creeper form large tangled briars. Here and there, a few eldritch and vivid colored ﬂowers bloomed. The entire garden reeked of the sickly sweet scent of decay. The odor of rotting fish and blooming ﬂowers commingled to create a strange, almost otherworldly aroma. It was like stepping onto another world – primeval and inimical. The Forsaken climbed along the ceiling, weaving in and out of jagged stalactites, grateful for the arcana that kept their fingers clinging to the damp and slippery stone ceiling. As they passed through the circular chamber, they followed the caverns through its winding labyrinth of caves and crevices, until they found the grand opening to a dark and putrid water filled chamber. The cavern was adorned with uncountable bones, many human in shape, but some far larger than the greatest whales of that in fabled tales. The murky water smelled of death and decay, and stretched the length of the cavern and further than the darkness would allow them to see. As the Forsaken dropped to the floor, the room hung in an eery stillness. Before she spoke, Willow looked to the others, knowing that it was entirely possible it would be the last time she may see their faces. When she met eyes with Pellius, she felt the intense connection that they had formed, as it swelled heavily it her chest. Despite the dire and desperate situation they found themselves in – she smiled. She had lived more in the two years with them, than she had in the entirety of her past life. She had served her lord and master with more devotion than she had ever thought possible. And she knew, if she were to die here, she would continue long into death to serve faithfully. So she smiled, before turning to face their perilous task, with a heart filled with infernal righteousness.
“Mighty and magnificent one!” she bellowed into the grotto, her voice strong although her body shook, “Please pardon our rudest of intrusions! We humbly beg a word with you!”
Suddenly, the water trembled, as something of unfathomable size surged the liquid below. In a thundering eruption of festering water, the great serpent exploded from the surface, and unveiled himself in full glory. His wet scales glistened in sinister ebony, rippling green reflections shimmering against his slick skin. A legendary beast of almost fifty foot, rising up from the shallows, with claws almost the size of Willow entirely. His eyes blazed a venomous scarlet, his glare held an evil almost palpable. Never before had Willow stood in the presence of such a being, his will and hunger for chaos so devouring it seemed to crush upon her frame like a suppressing weight. She could sense at no hardship, that they were one wrong word or insult from being slaughtered for daring to invade his domain.
“Have your lives proven so worthless, sub-creatures,” his dark and sonorous voice rumbled, “That you have come here to offer them to me?”
As if a wave of pure and unadulterated terror erupted soundless from the wyrm’s words, Willow felt her lungs clench tight as a furious trembling overtook her body. A fear unlike that which she had ever known, clawed at her chest, viciously seeking to sink its teeth into her soul. A perfect horror that desired only to devour and consume. But as she heard the screams of Bor and Garvana as they fell to the floor paralyzed in fright, Willow knew she had no choice but to fight. Surging her will, she clenched her teeth and drew the fear within her, meeting it with her resolve much like the clash of steel upon steel in a deadly conflict. By her side, Pellius stood tall against the crashing torrent of emotional agony. Willow knew not how he fought it, but his strength seemed to bolster her own.
“It is clear, your greatness,” he replied calmly to Chargammon’s question, “That more than enough of our worthless race have done so.”
The great wyrm did not spare even a glance towards their fallen members, malevolent piercing eyes unblinkingly locked on Willow and Pellius. He tilted his enormous head upward, sniffing the air and recoiled in disgust.
“You stink of my son,” he hissed, “You must be the fools who inflicted the worthless coward on me once more.”
The water behind the grand beast rippled in swirling current, as Jeratheon emerged from beneath, his head lowered to his sire. It was then that Willow saw the shattered remains of the dwarven muzzle in pieces along the eastern wall of the cavern.
“To do such a deed, you must want something,” he growled, “Speak! Why do you seek audience with the great Chargammon?”
“We seek revenge on Talingarde, glorious and fearsome one!” Willow snarled, “We seek a terror so great and powerful, it will strike fear in the hearts of the Mitran people! And only one such as you could be so fearsome!”
“Why should I bother?” he spat viciously, “Within my lair, I am all powerful! None threaten me!”
“And it is true of all lands, you are all powerful! But now, the land of Talingarde needs a reminder of just how powerful you are, great fearsome one! The land is plagued by war against the savage from the north, and ravaged by contagion of the baneful Tears of Achlys. Yet it is not enough, their suffering is not enough – the Mitran’s still have hope of salvation! Their king still leads their armies – and with it, he leads their faith that they will survive. We ask you, oh mighty and terrifying one, to attack the city of Matharyn and devour King Markadian’s daughter, the Princess Belinda!”
Chargammon listened silently as she spoke, keen and penetrating eyes seeing everything that her words did not say. For a moment, he simply gazed at her, with a glare so vile it forced her stomach to quiver and recoil.
“If I slay the princess and the king still lives,” he hissed, though his tone was more of intrigue, “Surely he will seek vengeance against me. Why rile such a hornet’s nest?”
“It would not matter, your magnificence,” Willow impressed, “None could ever hope to be as powerful as you, none can threaten your greatness!”
The thorns that grew from the dragon’s protruding brow arched.
“You make a fine case,” he hissed, “But you must think me a fool if you think I’ll attack the Adarium for nothing… No, before I slay your princess, you must answer my errand with an errand of blood of your own. I too have an enemy who has long pained me. I too have a rival I would see destroyed. South of here almost two hundred and fifty miles, where the Ansgarian Mountains and the Caer Bryr end, is the isle of the pathetic reprobate, the dragon Eiramanthus. The fool is a copper wyrm who has long thwarted my plans and mocked my eﬀorts. He thinks himself superior to me because he is beloved by so many. He believes that he is my rival! Hah! He is a bloated, decadent fool! He sits on his island and laughs at me, while he copulates with his three non-dragon concubine-whores!”
His grimace of disgust quickly morphed into an implacable fury, his vicious crimson eyes erupting with malice.
“You come groveling to me for aid?!” he roared, “First you will aid me! I want him broken and decapitated. I want him purged from this world! You will burn every book, shatter every statue, slaughter every consort and lay waste to his entire island. I want it made into a desolation! I want every passing ship to marvel at its ruin! Do this for me and I will aid you.”
Willow bowed low, deeply and respectfully before she answered.
“We swear this, terrible and fearsome one!”
“NOW GO!” he snarled.
Suddenly, the hold that kept Bor and Garvana paralyzed loosened its grip. They swiftly stood, heads bowed low, trembling limbs and staggered breaths. Willow and Pellius bowed again before turning towards the exit, knowing well that once dismissed by the great wyrm, they needed to disappear from his sight before his hospitality wore thin.
As they rushed for the entrance, they were followed by a terrifying and truly malicious warning, “And if Eiramanthus still lives, return to me only if you wish to die…”