Monday, 23 January 2017

Chapter 34 - Travellers

Darkness hung amongst a humid and cloud feathered sky, a warm night ushering in the idea of an early summer come to Talingarde. Even though the moon lingered high above, signalling the pass of midnight, there was no silence nor slumber in the Silkcreek Farmstead. The Forsaken had gathered every tome, book and scroll that pertained any and all information on the copper wyrm Eiramanthus. They clustered around the parlour lounged in cushioned chairs, hunched over wooden tables, compiling anything they found useful. After their sixth hour, and the depletion of their resources, they each yawned in succession.
“Alright,” Pellius said, rubbing his tired eyes, “Willow, will you recount what we have learnt?”
Willow sighed heavily, flicking back to the beginning over her notebook, straining her sight upon her hastily scribbled handwriting.
“We have gone over it three times now, Pellius,” she yawned, “Must we revise again?”
“Yes, my lady,” he exhaled, “We must. We are at the very least to face an ancient copper dragon, and three foreign consorts, whom we know little about. We must be as well prepared as we can.”
“Very well,” Willow conceded with a moan, “May I summarise? Or do you require explicit detail?”
He chuckled in response, shielding his yawn with his hand, “You may summarise.”
“We know he is a copper dragon of a possible ten centuries,” Willow read aloud, “We know he resides on a crystalline island off of the western coast, known as Straya Avarna – old draconic for ‘jewels I could not part with’. We know he is a planar traveller, and a collector of rare curiosities. And we know that his three female consorts reside on the island with him.”
Willow closed the journal and fell back deeper into the armchair.
“That is it,” she shrugged lazily, “There is nothing more than tales of his travels, nothing that will aid us.”
“It is not enough,” Pellius sighed, “We are entering his domain blind.”
“What more can we do?” Garvana yawned, “There is nothing more we can learn from the books, we would need to go there to see it for ourselves.”
“Just waltz right in and tell the dragon we’re just having a look?” Bor laughed.
“Just here to scout the place,” Garvana joked, “Pay us no mind, carry on as you were.”
Suddenly, Willow was struck with a curious thought.
“That is not such a foolish idea…” she said quietly, brows pulled tight.
“What?” Bor laughed, “I think you need to sleep Willow.”
“I think we all do,” Garvana chuckled.
As the pair giggled and sunk lower into their chairs, Pellius looked to Willow as he always did. He knew her mind was turning, he could read it on her face. He knew she had an idea forming.
“What is it?” he asked softly.
“The dragon is a collector,” she said thoughtfully, “He values rare finds and objects not easily sourced elsewhere…”
“And…?” Pellius urged.
“We have something of the sort.”
“What are you thinking, Willow?”
She frowned, quickly jumping up from her chair and heading for the stairs.
“Willow?” Pellius called.
While her mind raced with possibility, her feet were swift in guiding her to their bedchamber. Entering the room, she found what she was looking for, sprawled across her writing desk. As she retrieved it and quickly descended the stairs, she returned to the parlour, met with confused and tired eyes.
“Willow,” Pellius sighed, “It is late. Will you share your thoughts?”
“This!” she exclaimed, holding up a simple notebook.
“Your journal?” Garvana asked, frowning deeply, “Why would the dragon be interested in that?”
“It is not my journal,” Willow scowled, “It is my translation of the Codex of Bademus the Stargazer. I finished it a few nights ago.”
“I’ve seen you scribbling in it,” Bor frowned, still just as confused, “What does that have to do with anything?”
“It is a truly rare find,” she impressed, “Bademus is one of the great Stargazers, known across the realms for his work, not simply the material plane.”
“And you just want to give it to him,” Bor scoffed, “And then what? Attack him while he’s reading? We’ll be no better off than we are now! He is sure to be suspicious of such a gift!”
“We will not attack him,” Willow said, shaking her head, “We will sail to the island as travellers and like-minded scholars. We do not just bare a gift, but we seek to share the lore we have gathered. Such a collector is bound to have a glorious library. Perhaps we have come with an offering in hope to visit such a thing. We go there, and then we return with the information we have gathered and can truly prepare, the dragon none the wiser.”
“And you think it wise to deceive an ancient copper dragon?” Garvana asked warily.
“I do not think attempting to kill a dragon is wise,” Willow chuckled, “But that is what we must do regardless of wisdom. If the plan works, we will better know what we’re up against. If you have a better plan, I am all ears, Garvana.”
“That is enough for tonight,” Pellius nodded, “Let us sleep and look at it with fresh eyes. We can convene in the morning and discuss it further…”

When they did awaken and meet in the dining room for breakfast, it seemed as if each of them had furthered their plan. They would journey to Farholde and secure a small ship, sailing the seas towards the southwest, under the guise of a group of traveling scholars seeking the knowledge of the realm. They would leave behind Sith and Raiju to await their return, while their company of men continued the slow march from Daveryn to Ghastenhall. With the Mitran army marching towards Sakkarot’s horde, their time was swiftly disappearing. Knowing well how little time they had, they quickly agreed on the plan and made swift work of packing their bags. By the time the noon sun had crested overhead, they made for Farholde without delay.
Upon arrival, it was simple enough to secure a small ship from the dockyard, though Willow was happy to personally front the extra gold to find one with a closed cabin.
As the sun began its slow afternoon descent, they had put the small ship to sea, and watched the docks of the city become a blur in the distance. Although no great sailor, Bor was competent enough to guide them safely southward towards Straya Avarna.
The voyage was slow moving along the crashing waves and coursing currents of the Talrien coast. It was a long and rocky three days before they passed the southern edge of the Caer Bryr, watching the land morph from dense emerald forest into sparse and flat grass fields. After what felt like weeks aboard the small vessel, a glimmering illusion appeared on the horizon. A peak of violet and sapphire crystal, coating the expanse as far as they could see. As they neared, the crystal grew taller and more ragged, the suns light glistening across the terrain in an extraordinary phenomenon that could have been an otherworldly portal into a foreign and magical land. The shimmering sparks of colour danced upon the water playfully, shining upon the hull of the ship, the dark oak wood in complete contrast to the luminous array of lights. As they saw a small inlet in the formations, Bor called out warning.
“Hold fast!” he called, “The current is too strong, those crystals grow along the reef! We’ll be shipwrecked if we try to enter!”
“What can we do?” Pellius called in question.
“We’ll have to walk on the water and guide her in by hand! Garvana! Take the helm!”
Quickly swapping positions, Bor cast his arcane charm upon the Forsaken, fastening two lines of rope to the railings before jumping overboard. Willow had not quite gotten used to the sight of a two hundred and fifty pound orc walking delicately atop a body of water. She walked to the bow and leaned out to watch their progress, scanning beneath the shimmering turquoise water, marvelling at the rich swell of coral-shaped crystal. Strange fish in a wild riot of colour danced beneath the surface, circling the thriving reef along with curious and alien sea creatures that Willow could not describe if she tried.
“The island is closed!” a soft and musical voice crooned, the sound echoing off the great crystal walls that flanked them, “And the reefs are dangerous! Turn back or imperil your own lives!”
“We come to see the great Eiramanthas!” Willow called out in reply, “We are simple scholars, who have brought him a gift of rarity, in hopes of gaining his audience and sharing in his great knowledge!”
“A gift?” came the intrigued voice.
From below the glistening sea, a stunning ebony haired woman appeared. As she lifted herself gracefully atop the waves, Willow marvelled at the aquatic beauty. She had the torso of a woman, save the long and slender gills along her neck, yet from her waist she was a sleek orca with a long and curling tail. Her eyes shined a crystal blue, shimmering much like the water she so elegantly moved through. Willow recognised her as one of the agathion, an elusive and foreign cetaceal.
“You bring Eirmanthus a gift?” she asked warily.
“We do,” Willow said cheerfully, “A most rare find! The Codex of Bademus the Stargazer!”
“Bademus, truly?” she asked excitedly, a brilliant smile lighting her face, “Oh my beloved will be so happy! He has been searching for it for decades! Come! I will guide you to shore!”
With the cetaceal’s help, it was an easy task navigating the coral and crystal reef. She guided the ship to the dock and waited for the Forsaken to disembark.
“Now stay to the path,” she said in a motherly tone, “Venture into the crystalline garden at your own peril. My beloved is likely in his domicile, the great dome. He will be so pleased you have come!”

Stepping into the island of Straya Avarna, was much akin to walking an unknown and peculiar world. A place of unfathomable beauty. The island was adorned with great crystalline formations, at once natural, but also too balanced and deliberate to have formed by happenstance. Strange plants mingled and grew amongst the fragile monuments that arose each way the eye could see. The animals were unlike that seen anywhere else in their world. Four winged birds glowing with blue radiant light danced amongst the crystal glens. Six-legged lizards that seemed almost carved from crystal themselves fed on the living stone. Unidentifiable petite creatures crawled, flew and oozed amongst the island’s alien features. It was like something out of a mad poet’s storybook, where every beast is invented anew upon each turning page. With each step, the marvel only escalated. Willow found her eyes in constant motion, seeking and consuming each amazing curiosity, struggling to keep the look of bewilderment and wonder from her face. As she strolled through the grand crystalline world, she suddenly felt a large hand grip her arm and pull her backward.
“Careful, my lady,” Pellius smirked.
When she looked down, she saw the jagged and sharp rebellious crystal that had migrated from its garden to grow upon the path. If she had stepped on it, the razorsharp points would have sliced clean through her boot and deep into her foot.
“Oh,” she grinned sheepishly, “Thank you.”
“It is a truly a glorious sight, is it not?” he said, offering his arm to her.
As she accepted it, she smiled, “It is. Truly, it is just magnificent. I have never seen anything like it. It is… magical…”
It was a strange thing, meandering along the paths, at once relaxed and alert. Although she found her thoughts lost in the beauty of Straya Avarna, the knowledge of the danger they were in was ever present in her mind. She knew how to keep up a rouse, she knew how to act the part she needed to play, it was not necessarily a bad thing that she was so taken with the island as it leant heavily to her story. Yet she did not let herself forget that they walked uninvited through the domain of an ancient dragon. But she smiled, as she followed the winding paths of crystal, resting leisurely against Pellius’ shoulder.
In the distance, far to the south of the island, the white dome reached high above the crystalline growths. It was clear that the great copper dragon dwelled within the glorious building, yet the labyrinth wound in ever curving paths, and they had no clue which direction they needed to head to reach him.
As they crossed an ornate bridge made purely from crystal, that craned elegantly over the passing sapphire lake, they came upon a great structure adorned in glistening emerald frescos. Depicted across its walls were strange scenes of multi-armed gods and bold inhuman heroes engaged in battle against wicked animal-headed demons. The tiered tower rose four stories high and was capped by an elaborately eaved roof that ascended to a fine point. Thousands of wind chimes hung from the eaves that drifted an enchanting but eurythmic tune. The four of them strolled along the path towards the building, in awe of the foreign beauty it illustrated.
“Do you suppose you could sneak in and have a look around, Willow?” Garvana whispered.
“We are visitors,” Willow smiled, “We shall not sneak, we shall knock.”
Approaching the large stone doors, Willow rapped on the door firmly. The soft sounds of shuffling came from inside, before the door opened to reveal a man of small stature, jagged rocklike skin with bright crystalline spikes for hair. He stared at Willow with an emotionless gaze, eyes glazed in a vision much like the reflection of glass.
“Yes?” the man asked.
“Good afternoon,” she greeted politely, “We are visitors to Straya Avarna, here to see the great Eiramanthus. Is he in?”
“No,” he shook his head, vibrating the crystals that protruded from his hairline, “He is not here. You have come to the Temple of the Consort in Red. The great Eirmanthus resides in his dome to the far south of the island.”
“Oh,” Willow feigned, “The Consort in Red? We have met Setia Swims-the-Sea-of-Stars, such a glorious beauty, but we have not had the pleasure of meeting the Consort in Red. May I ask, who she is?”
“Shakti the Redeemed,” he answered, “The Rakshasa Goddess.”
“Ah, thank you,” Willow smiled, “Is it possible to meet her? We would be most honoured.”
“The Consort in Red’s meditation is not to be disturbed,” he said simply, no force to his words.
“Very well,” Willow inclined her head.
With an assumption that the man had little care or little capacity to care, she decided to push her luck further, “And the third consort? Where may we find her?”
“The Garden of the Consort in Green is directly south of here,” he answered.
“And will you tell me about her?”
Before he could answer, a crystalline figure appeared behind him, an oread of much larger and sturdier size. His eyes were of a fiercer shimmer than the other, a forceful shrewdness to his gaze.
“If you are here to see Eirmanthus,” he said, a clear dismissal to his tone, “Then make haste for the dome.”
Without waiting for a reply, the large man closed the door in Willow’s face.
“Well,” Willow smirked, turning back to the others, “Shall we?”

With no real hurry, the Forsaken continued to explore the island, mapping out each section in their minds as best they could as they passed. As the labyrinth guided them towards the south, the scent of fragrant greenery lingered across the pass, the sounds of life abundant chittered and sang out. Rounding an enormous sapphire crystal point, the shining colour of emerald green feathered their view. A serene and tranquil forest glen, brimming with curious and alien flora and fauna. Brightly coloured birds in an array of iridescent feathers and beaks fluttered upon a mix of eldritch and eccentric petals and braches, peculiar insects with a dozen legs and eyes crawling upon leaves and ferns. No two plants were alike, no two colours mirrored, each piece of exotic flora unique in its growth. The glen radiated a mysterious arcane breeze of luminous mist and spores, an otherworldly glow that danced upon the wind. It was the most beautiful place Willow had seen, something as if out of the Fey realm from the storybooks she had read as a child. Though the roots of each plant grew from the brightly coloured soil, it was as if they grew from another world.
In the centre of the forested garden, stood alone a graceful elder cheery blossom. Yet as they stepped into the glen, the tree moved and parted. It was not as alone as it had seemed. A woman, with skin of red wood bark that formed in long arching antler-like branches, scattered in vibrant blushing blooms of petals and stems. She moved towards them, through the brush with preternatural grace, a calm quiet aura about her.
“Who are those that enter my garden?” came her question, in a voice as soft as a whisper upon the breeze.
“You may call me Willow,” she smiled, “And these are my colleagues and friends – Pellius, Bor and Garvana.”
“A pleasure to meet you my lady,” Pellius bowed deeply.
“I am Sakura Yoshi-Mune,” she breathed, “You are here to visit Eiramanthus? It does seem you have become lost.”
“We are here to see the great dragon,” Willow nodded softly, “But we have been fortunate in finding our path has led us here. This place, this garden… it is beautiful. I have truly never seen its equal.”
Though her bark-like skin was coloured a rich mahogany, Willow could have sworn she saw a blush creep upon her cheeks.
“I thank you for your kind words,” she flushed graciously, “I do not receive many visitors, it is always a pleasure to share it with those who appreciate it.”
“It is remarkable,” Willow smiled, eyes tracing the myriad of fresh hues, “I know not what half of the verdure is, yet each piece is as stunning as the last.”
Willow turned to the Kami with a curious expression, “You are the Consort in Green, I presume?”
“Yes,” she breathed, “That is what they call me.”
“We had the pleasure of meeting Setia Swims-the-Sea-of-Stars,” Garvana said softly, “She is the Consort in Blue, correct?”
“Setia?” the kami exhaled, “Yes she is, but I am surprised you caught her. She often disappears deep into the sea, for days at a time.”
“Why does she do that?” Garvana asked curiously, “Is she unhappy here?”
“No, I do not think so,” Sakura sighed, “I suppose it is just as it is with all of us. It can be lonely, being so far from home. Perhaps she seeks the company of those more akin to herself, the sea creatures that dwell beneath the surface.”
“Where is it, you call home, my lady?” Pellius asked, his voice silkily charming.
The kami sighed wistfully, “A land very far from here.”
“And is it this beautiful?” Willow asked, motioning around her.
“Yes, even more so.”
“You miss it,” Willow said sympathetically.
“I do,” Sakura nodded, “Though, now this garden is my home. Besides my dear Eirmanthus, it is now my greatest love.”
“I can certainly see why,” Garvana smiled.
“May I ask you of the others on the island?” Willow questioned, “Though we have been here a few hours, we have only met Setia and yourself. We attempted to visit the Temple of the Consort in Red, but we were sent away by a few curious crystalline men.”
“The crystalline guardians,” Sakura breathed lightly, “The care for the island and maintain it. Though, they seem to avoid my garden, they are not much for talking.”
“And the Consort in Red? The graphic illustrations on the walls told of a truly legendary battle. Will you tell us of her?”
“Shakti Shabara,” Sakura sighed, “She is a Rakshasa from a far land, she spends most of her time in meditation.”
“My lady,” Pellius frowned, “It is clear to me, why they would call you the Consort in Green, and Setia the Consort in Blue… but why do they call her the Consort in Red?”
Sakura seemed to ponder for a moment on her answer.
“She has come from a troubled past,” was the only answer that came.
“May I ask of it?” Pellius queried gently.
“I am sorry,” she said, “It is not my place to speak of it. Perhaps when she has finished meditation, she will tell it to you…”
It was a fair time they spent talking to the graceful and humble Kami, sitting amongst the flourishing undergrowth, surrounded by tiny sprites that danced along the edges of the verdant greenery. As the conversation turned to the curious collection of trees, ferns and flowers, Willow found herself frowning. She watched the woman light up in excitement, talking to and about each tree as if giving it the chance to boast and explain itself. She was a creature of nature, a guardian of her garden, yet the very soul of it. She had left her home and everything she had known, for the love of a great copper dragon. She lived a life of solitude, waiting patiently for the moments in which he could spare to be with her. She longed for her homeworld, and yet, she remained. Though gentleness, softness and enamored were not usually traits Willow admired in other people; Sakura was an exception. She understood exactly what Willow loved about nature. She understood the circle of thriving life, slow death and fresh rebirth. As she listened intently to the Kami’s softly whispered words, she sighed. For a moment, she had thought that maybe they could have spared her. Maybe they could give her an ultimatum of death or exile. But as she spoke of her loneliness, her answer to Pellius’ question was enough to set her fate.
“It sounds as if you are alone, my lady,” Pellius frowned, “Would you not leave? Would you not return to the comfort of your own world?”
“Oh, no,” Sakura pressed seriously, “I could never leave my beloved Eiramanthus.”
“He must be quite a man,” Willow said, struggling to hide the coldness in her voice.
Sakura was too captivated by the thought of her love to notice, with soft eyes and excitement in her voice – she smiled.
“Oh, he is!”
“My lady,” Pellius said to Sakura warmly, in much the same tone he usually spoke to Willow, “I have a gift for you. I have carried this with me for quite some time, not knowing what to do with it. But I believe you will appreciate far more than I can.”
As he reached into his pack to retrieve his gift, Willow’s brow arched.
“It is called a feather token,” he continued smoothly, turning on his charm, “And it holds a beautiful secret. Here.”
He handed her the feather token, letting his fingers trace along her barked skin for a moment. Sakura looked upon the feather, in slight confusion but much delight, not knowing what to do with it. Pellius chuckled, his usual endearing rumble.
“Place it in the ground,” he instructed with a smile, “And watch.”
The woman did as she was told, gracefully floating to a slender patch of grass, before placing the feather upon the ground and delicately pushing the coloured dirt around it. Suddenly, the soil shuddered slightly, before a sprout pushed free from the earth. It shot upward and grew rapidly, its trunk widening as leaves and branches blossomed from its bark. When it finally slowed and finished its ascent, Sakura let out an exclamation of glee.
“It is a grand oak tree,” Pellius said smoothly, “They are native to our homeland, and grow far in numbers that count in the hundreds of thousands!”
“It is perfect!” Sakura grinned, swaying around the large trunk, “It is beautiful!”
“Much like you, my lady,” Pellius crooned, inclining his head.
As the Kami blushed once more, Willow had to struggle to contain her rolling eyes. Though she would never admit to such petty emotions, she could feel the taste of jealousy lingering on her tongue.
“You flatter me too much,” Sakura simpered.
“We should be off,” Bor said curtly, “We have business with the dragon.”
“Oh,” she said softly, a sadness tinting her eyes, “I understand.”
She turned back to Pellius, pulling a cherry blossom flower free from her shoulder.
“Please, take this. As a token of my gratitude.”
Pellius accepted the gift and bowed low to the Kami.
“Thank you, it shall ever remind me of you.”
“If you find yourself staying for a time,” she said warmly, “Please, all of you, feel free to return anytime.”
“Thank you, Sakura,” Willow said cordially, inclining her head, “It has been a pleasure.”
As the others turned to leave, Pellius gave one last bow to her, his charming smile alight. As Willow held her scoff inward, she felt Bor’s elbow nudge her shoulder. His knowing grin was enough for her to outwardly roll her eyes before leading them out of the garden, in pursuit of the dome.

It was a process of elimination that led their steps towards the great white building, following the paths along trying to determine which trails they had already taken. Each turn held its own curiosity, each crevice and hollow filled with strange life that spoke of otherworldly wonders. As they finally found the most southern path, the way to the massive dome appeared in the distance.
“Think you can out do a dragon?” Bor chuckled, brows raised.
“What ever do you mean?” Pellius asked, feigning ignorance.
“Think she’ll up and leave him for you?” he laughed.
Pellius grinned slyly, “Worth a try.”
“I thought she would be a little fragile for your tastes,” Willow teased.
“Delicate though she may seem, my lady,” Pellius replied, eyebrow arched, “She can handle a dragon…”
“Perhaps,” Willow smirked, “Though if she is used to the satisfaction of a dragon, you may leave her a tad… short.”
Although Bor and Garvana laughed, his grin only widened. As fingers traced the line of her chin, he leant in close to her ear.
“Jealous, my lady?” he whispered, “Seeing it on you, is strangely satisfying in itself.”
Willow scoffed in response, laughing as she turned to him, an intense gaze that mirrored his. She chose not answer, simply grinning in a way that said more than her words could.

A great three levelled tower of glistening white stone rose from the surrounding of the crystalline garden. The white was capped with an impossibly smooth domed ceiling upon the highest level, the grand structure a true marvel of craftsmanship. As the Forsaken approached, a mountainous door of thick and sturdy red wood blocked their path. Upon the door was an intricate script engraved deep into the heart of grain.
“Would I trade three kings’ crowns for the dark earth of her wilds?” Willow read aloud, “Would I trade war’s red renown for even one of her smiles? Would I trade five thousand ships for her vast sea white with foam? Would I trade a thousand worlds for a fine day spent at home?”
For a moment, they simply stared at the writing.
“What do you make of it?” Garvana asked Willow.
“It is a riddle,” she smiled, cocking her head slightly.
“It is?” Garvana asked, confusion crossing her face, “Are you sure it is not simply an ode to the dragons loves?”
“See here,” Willow pointed, “Each line has an oddly capitalized letter. Each line contains mention to a colour and to a number.”
“And what does it all mean?” Pellius frowned.
“I have no clue,” Willow shrugged, “Three, dark and a D. One, red and an E. Five, white and an F. Perhaps we are missing part of the puzzle.”
As they pushed the great wooden doors wide open, Willow found herself grinning. Stepping into the grand white marble tiled room, they were indeed greeted by the missing piece. A chessboard painted upon the floor, flanked by sets of giant kings and queens, large enough for only one the size of an ancient dragon to wield. As Willow stepped forward, wrapped in curiosity, she eyed the scene with intrigue. To the left was a rank of shimmering white crystal pieces, carvings of abstract designed creatures, dressed as knights and the like. Upon closer inspection, it was clear the beings were not human in form, though what they were seemed far beyond Willow’s comprehension. To the right, was an almost identical set, carved from pure ebony. Though it appeared as a normal chess set, if not grand and sizeable, there was a single peculiar addition. A single queen, standing alone to the south of the board, sparkling in a carving of crimson garnet. It was the discovery of the red stone that had Willow’s mind turning.
“Bor,” she beckoned with a grin, “Would you care to take a risk with me?”
“What is it?” he asked warily.
“Can you try to move the red queen?”
Skeptical though he was, he marched across the chessboard, grasping the edges of the piece. He heaved with all his might, yet barely managed to disturb the queens rest.
“No chance,” he huffed, “It aint moving.”
Willow frowned deeply, churning her thoughts for a solution. When it finally came to her, she laughed at its simplicity.
“Red queen!” she called loudly, “To one E!”
All eyes watched the inanimate red stone, as suddenly it sprang to life. The exotic creature twirled her grand gown, flaring the solid crystal as if it was light as a feather. She lifted into the air, hovering gracefully above her solid garnet base, before floating across the room towards the white square. Her base followed directly beneath her, stopping as it reached the tile. As she slowed her movements and descended back to the ground, she twirled her gown once more before she resumed her position became rigid. Willow could not hide the creeping smirk that lifted her lip as she sang out to the other pieces.
“Black queen to three D! White queen to five F!”
Both crystal queens twirled their robes in perfect unison, lifting into the air exactly as the first had, gliding to their squares upon the board. When they settled back into their natural positions, the floor beneath Willow’s feet began to shift. She swiftly jumped back, a mere second before the chessboard melted away to reveal a grand winding staircase that descended into the ground below.
“What have you found?” Pellius said quietly, arching his brow.
Willow grinned, slowly approaching the stairs to peak down the long shaft. With curiosity swarming through her veins, there was little anyone could do to stop her creeping steps down the stairs. She heard the others following closely behind, as their voices turned to whispers. The stairs were made from a strange alabaster, soft yet firm, echoing the sound of Pellius’ armoured boots. Willow’s scuffed leather was barely heard as she descended, gentle footsteps muffled along the stone blocks. As she reached the bottom of the spiral, her breath caught in her throat.
“This,” she laughed, frowning deeply, “Was not part of the plan.”
The small chamber was filled to the brim with glistening treasure. Endless stacks of shimmering gold and silver foreign coins, piles and boxes of immaculately carved silverware, shelves filled with trinkets and oddities of all manner of origins. Shining gems and rocks reflected sharp rays of coloured lights across the chamber, casting the stone walls in a kaleidoscope of swirling hues. Left with much the same feeling she had endured throughout her journey along Straya Arvana, Willow was in complete awe of the marvel. She had never seen such wealth complied in one place. She had read stories of warriors and heroes that had bested a dragon and reaped in its wealth. But the fiction could not have lived up to the experience of seeing it in person.
“The dragons horde,” Garvana breathed.
As the overwhelming sight took a moment to settle, it was a deep and rumbling hiss that broke Willow’s reverie.
Free me!” the feral hiss sounded.
Willow’s head snapped to the edge of the chamber, to see Bor’s hand caressing the glass edge of a case. Trapped within the crystalline vessel was a battered skull that floated within its confines. The empty sockets of its eyes glowed a venomous green, shadowing its case in a eery and malicious emerald wrath.
Free me!” it hissed once more.
“Do not touch it!” Willow snapped.
“It is a demi-lich,” Pellius warned, “Barely contained. You would be wise to step back, Bor.”
NO!” snarled the skull, “You must free me!”
“And who are you?” Willow asked coldly.
“I am the Nameless Tyrant!” he roared, “And I will grant thee immortality, if you will but free me!”
Willow frowned, a spark of recognition in her mind. She struggled to remember the details, but she knew she had heard stories of the fearsome demi-lich. Terrible tales of destruction and desolation, horrific deeds of death and total devastation. As Bor continued to stare hungrily towards the foreboding skull, Willow stepped towards him and laid a gentle hand upon his forearm.
“Do not do it,” she warned quietly, “Nothing good can come of releasing it.”
FREE ME!” the skull screeched, “OR I WILL DEVOUR YOU ALL!”
Bor looked to Willow, a strange longing within his gaze. She could have sworn it was desperation that lingered in his eyes, but as the expression closed coldly once more, he nodded to her softly. He steeled himself and stepped back from the case. The tyrant roared in fury, but the Forsaken simply turned their backs to him.
“What do we do now?” Garvana whispered.
“We have three options,” Pellius replied quietly, “We take what we can and run, we use what we can find and fight, or we leave it and continue on as before.”
“It is not a misdeed to discover the dragons’ horde,” Willow hushed, “If we take nothing, we can still see our plan through.”
They wore mirrored frowns as they contemplated their options, nervous unrest as their thoughts were accompanied by the wail of the encased skull.
“We have invested a great deal of time into this plan,” Willow impressed, “Yet we have not learnt enough to see us through. If we leave now, we have trinkets and gold, but are none the wiser of our target. We must persist!”
“I agree,” Pellius frowned, “Though I don’t think it wise to deceive the dragon of our find, it is likely he already knows of the intrusion.”
“I will not lie,” Willow smirked, “I simply happened upon the answer.”
“What are riddles for,” Pellius smiled with a shrug, “If not to be solved.”
Leaving the glittering horde behind and untouched, they climbed the stairs and returned to the large vaulted chamber. Willow found herself holding her breath as she stepped into the room, almost expecting to be greeted by the teeth of an ancient copper dragon. When no teeth pierced her skin, she exhaled deeply in relief.
At the far end of the chamber they found a clear crystal staircase that led up to the second floor of the great white building. As they ascended in single file, Willow entered the floor first, eyes alight to see the vast collection of books, tomes and scrolls layered perfectly along the shelves lining the walls. As she stepped in from the stairs, she saw another large inscription on the wall.
“Touching a dragon’s library without permission is HARMFUL to your health,” Garvana read aloud.
“Come along,” Willow said quietly, “We must find Eiramanthus before we explore any further.”
They left the impressive collection behind, continuing up the stairs without delay. When they reached the top end of the spiraling glass, they entered a pristine chamber, polished to a shine that sparkled in a soft glimmer much like the air of arcana. To the left was a flourishing cherry blossom that grew from a single patch of violet soil. To the right was a small pool of water that glowed and swayed a brilliant sapphire blue. On the far wall was an unfathomably detailed mural of a multi-armed goddess, resting peacefully in deep meditation. And in the centre of the chamber, standing at an immense height staring down at those that entered, was a great copper scaled dragon.
“Ah, guests!” Eirmanthus called, his deep resonating voice rumbling in jovial lightness, “And uninvited ones at that. That means you are either thieves or dragon hunters. Tell me, friends, which one is it today?”
“Neither,” Willow chuckled cheerfully, “My apologies for the intrusion, great one. We are travelling scholars; vagabond wanderers some would call us.”
“Well,” the dragon smiled, keen eyes looking over the Forsaken, “That certainly make a nice change. I should ask, who are those who have wandered into my home?”
“My name is Willow,” she replied cordially, “This is Pellius, Garvana and Bor. May I say, it is a great honour to meet you.”
“I suppose I should be flattered,” Eiramanthus chuckled, “I so rarely get guests native to my home plane. All I get are planar travelers. After a few centuries abroad, I shouldn’t be surprised. You’re locals though, the accent sounds Talirean.”
“Locals is a loose term,” Willow joked, “A few of us hail from Talingarde, our latest travels have brought us from there actually.”
“You know, it’s funny,” the dragon mused, “I live right o the coast of Talingarde, but I haven’t visited it in... oh, two hundred years. Tell me, how is the old isle getting along?”
“Oh men are always the same,” Willow shrugged in dismissal, “Fighting from the north, conquest and battle in the name of gods; much the same as it has been for the last two centuries. It was actually in Talingarde that we came across our reason for being here.”
“Really?” Eiramanthus asked, arching his scaled brow, “And what reason would that be?”
Willow grinned in feigned excitement, dropping her pack to the floor and sifting through it. When she pulled free the three tomes, she held them out to the dragon with glee.
“A time ago I happened upon a coded text, a strange celestial-like script that I could not crack. It was only a few short weeks ago we found this! The Codex of Bademus the Stargazer!”
“Oh, how marvelous!” the dragon exclaimed, using his massive claws to lift the book from Willow’s hands, “What a find! And this? You wrote this?”
“Yes,” she beamed proudly, “I have worked on decoding it for many hours and finally finished the last of it on our journey here!”
With surprising grace, the large creature flicked through the pages of Willow’s writing, following each page of the foreign text along with it.
“Amazing!” he called, distractedly turning from them to pace the room, “Such revelations!”
“I know!” Willow said gleefully, racing in excitement to his side, completely aware of how petite she was under the shadow of the enormous beast, “See here! He speaks of the veil connecting the spectral layer via density and not via force as he once thought!”
“Fascinating!” he replied.
While she watched the great dragon enraptured by the tomes contents, Willow saw her opportunity. As he continued to flick from page to page, she quirked her head slightly.
“Oh,” she said sheepishly, smiling in awkward innocence, “I forgot to mention… I am truly sorry, it was a complete accident, I was just so excited! And I just love riddles, and it was just there.”
While she rambled, the dragon seemed to only be mildly listening to her speaking.
“I may have… solved your riddle and discovered your horde…”
Slowly, the dragons flicking ceased. He turned his enormous head towards her, fierce and shrewd eyes now truly looking at her. Willow knew her loyalties and any readable auras were morphed and muted by the arcana within the ring she wore, but as his devouring gaze took her in – she felt the sweat line the back of her neck.
“I am truly sorry,” she said sweetly, widening her eyes, “My curiosity always gets me into trouble. I had no clue I was opening such a thing, I was merely intrigued by the words and then the chessboard, and it seemed to just… happen.”
For a moment, the dragon simply glared towards her. His large nostrils flared, as he drew in a deep scenting breath. As if tasting each smell upon his nose, his eyes softened ever so slightly.
“Well,” Eiramanthus said, “Since you did not take anything, I suppose there is no harm no foul. I should be impressed that I have the pleasure of such curious guests.”
“It is not the first time her curiosity has landed her in such a situation,” Garvana joked, appearing to try ease the tension.
The dragons large head turned towards her, shrewd eyes evaluating his guests with a furthered query.
“And you, Garvana was it?” he asked, “What is it that you seek?”
“Knowledge, my lord,” she replied, inclining her head, “It is always my pursuit.”
“And you?” he turned to Bor.
“I am merely the lady’s servant,” he said humbly, eyes downcast.
The dragon seemed to accept his answer as he lastly turned to Pellius. The tall wide shouldered man did not look much like the standard of a scholar, he looked as always a noble and battleworn soldier.
“What is it you seek?” Eiramanthus asked, eyes narrowing slightly.
“We bring this gift in hopes of gaining admittance to your grand library,” Pellius said formally, “It is told to be one of the greatest collections on this plane. Bademus may be the lady’s pursuit, but my desires span far greater than simply him.”
The dragon’s gaze lingered for a moment, long enough to find Willow gripping the pommel of her blade. She was wary and ready. Suddenly, the immense dragon’s skin rippled and shrunk, forming into that of man. He was tall and regal, slender framed with a brilliant flash of copper hair that tousled from his head. Piercing blue eyes that blazed in contrast with his crystal white skin. His face was handsome, young and full of jovial vitality, with mischievous painted clearly in his features.
“Well then,” he inclined his head, “You have come all this way, let me show you my pride and joy…”

Stepping into the shelved chamber, was a delight that Willow could not describe. Her eyes raked greedily upon the vast knowledge that laid upon the walls in rows and stacks, her childlike excited running unleashed within her blood. She saw Garvana step towards the shelf closest to her, but the dragon’s warning stilled her steps.
“I would not touch it if I were you,” he cautioned.
He walked towards the bookshelf upon the far wall, reaching behind the stacked tomes to pull free a hidden curious contraption. As he rasped a quick incantation, the mechanism’s light faded. From beside her, she heard Garvana’s rushed enchantment she usually used to read the auras of surrounding magic. As the words left her lips, the dragon’s head whipped towards her, eyes ablaze with suspicion.
“Please pay her no mind,” Willow chuckled gently, “She means no harm. She is simply obsessed with the mastery and study of magic. She does everywhere we go.”
“You are very inquisitive creatures, aren’t you?” he replied with a smile.
“Too much so,” Willow grinned, “We make terrible houseguests.”
The dragon chuckled, his charming face made all the more handsome by doing so.
“You are welcome to peruse my collection at your leisure,” he said, inclining his head.
“Do you have anymore of Bademus’ works?” Willow asked excitedly.
“Yes,” he nodded, “But I am afraid it is only his younger work. He has far surpassed it now.”
“Will you show me? I would very much love to see them.”
“Of course,” he replied cordially, “This way.”
He led Willow to a grand doorway that opened into a cramped archive, filled with uncountable scrolls and parchment, layered upon teetering stacks of books and tomes.
“This is the section for lore I deemed too esoteric for the main library,” the dragon explained, “Over here are the works of various stargazers and constellation readers. Bademus resides here…”
As Willow entered the overwhelmingly tight space, she was surprised to find they were not alone within the library. A strange figure, draped in great robes of a shimmering otherworldly material, stood hunched over a pile of tomes written in a language Willow could not begin to translate.
“Thank you,” she said distractedly, eyes locked on the peculiar figure.
She stepped towards the the being, feeling a frown pulling down her brow as she was unable to determine what kind of creature it was. As it noticed her approach, it turned towards her, strange blank white eyes staring back at her. Upon seeing translucent grey skin that shimmered as if water swarmed beneath its surface, and four elongated arms that draped almost the entire way to the floor, she had even less idea than before. The odd creature suddenly lifted two of their arms, holding them in a crooked mirrored position just above their shoulders. Figuring it was some kind of greeting, Willow did her best to copy with her own. Upon her attempt, the creature simply frowned.
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” she laughed, holding out her hand for a hand shake.
The creature recoiled from her offered hand, with a look of disgust rushing across its face.
“What are you doing?” it asked, in a voice that seemed to appear from the ether, sounds that did not come from his lips.
“Oh,” Willow said, shrugging gently, “It is a customary human greeting.”
The strange creature gave no more show of emotion as it simply copied her, holding its hand out on a straight arm. As Willow gently gripped its four fingered hand, it looked on with curiosity.
“I am Willow,” she smiled.
“I am,” it said, followed by a series of clicking sounds and whistles.
Willow chuckled softly, “You will have to forgive me if I do not attempt to repeat it.”
“That is best,” it said plainly.
“May I ask what is it you are reading?” she queried.
“This?” it replied, sudden excitement flaring, “I believe at last I have found a solution to Vargat’s,” he whistled loudly and clicked his tongue, “Conundrum. The transpositioning of irradiant vectors is transcendentally possible! You see, its been here right before us all along. Consider the Halooth and Vandrissial Vorniths. Child’s play I know. But when considered in the light of this text by,” he made a sound much like the clearing of his throat, “Then see, it is possible to conceptualize the fundamental axes of eternity. You need only frombotz the kintoozler.”
Willow’s eyes glazed over slightly, confusion clear in her face. She smiled politely, as he spoke and nodded along with his words.
“He is talking about planar travel through technological means, mam,” Bor said from behind her.
“Well, in the barest of simplicity, yes,” the creature scoffed.
“Fascinating!” Willow grinned, ushering Bor over, “This is Bor. He has a passion for planar travel, don’t you Bor?”
“Yes, mam,” he answered politely.
Willow was impressed that he managed to keep his eyes from rolling, and that she managed to continue the conversation without laughing. Though the creature spoke words she hear, she was no closer to understanding a single thing it said. Willow could feel the eyes of the dragon watching the exchange intently, seeming to access and observe them astutely. As Willow excused herself from the conversation, she returned to the stack of tomes that Eiramanthus had indicated. She listened closely to the conversations around her while she perused the thick heavy pages.
“My lord,” Pellius addressed him, “May I have a moment of your time?”
“You may,” the dragon replied, arching his fire red brow.
“With the island of Talingarde in the beginnings of turmoil, we have worry that the great black wyrm Chargammon may take advantage of the peoples weakened condition.”
Willow felt herself frowning at the line of questioning, having never spoken or planned to mention the great dragon. It was a dangerous game of deception Pellius was playing.
“Chargammon?” Eiramanthus asked skeptically, “The blackheart barely leaves his barrow anymore. Why would you suspect such a thing?”
“We of course hope such a calamity never comes to pass,” Pellius replied seriously, “But if it were, do you have any advice? What defense could we use against him?”
“Distance,” was the dry reply that came, forcing a responsive laugh to burst from Willow’s lips.
With a small chuckle at his own joke, the dragon seemed to brush off the question.
“Do not worry of the poor old beast,” he sighed, “He is alone in this world. He betrays all who would call him friends. That is the reason he can’t kill me. In a one on one fight, no doubt he’s more powerful. He is considerably older. But we never fight one on one, do we? I have friends, allies, consorts. Oh, speaking of which... have you met my girls?”
“Two of them, yes,” Pellius nodded, “Setia and Sakura, such lovely creatures. We were unable to meet with Shakti. We were told she was in meditation.”
“Ah yes,” he smiled fondly, “She spends most of her time that way. I can escort you to meet her if you wish?”
“I would very much enjoy that. The marvel of illustration on her temple speak of glorious battles and victories, it would be an honour to meet one who venerates war in such a way.”
Eiramanthus eyed Pellius with unreadable eyes, before slightly tilting his head.
“Venerates war?” he said curiously, “Yes, I can see you as the like. Tell me, is it Gorum you revere?”
“Among others,” Pellius replied in misleading honesty, “Gorum for his joy in battle, Calistria for her taste of vengeance, Desna for her will to always explore…”
“And Irori,” Willow added, looking up from her tome with a smile, “For the constant yearn and will to seek knowledge.”
“Interesting,” Eiramanthus smiled, “Very well. If you wish it, I shall take you to meet my beloved Shakti.”
“Would you mind if I remain?” Willow asked with slight desperation, “It is not often I have the chance to scour such rare and inconceivable lore.”
The dragon simply smiled, “It is what brings most of the guests to my home. You are welcome to remain.”
Willow thanked him sincerely as the others grouped to leave, watching them exit as she returned to the great stacks. When they were out of sight and she could no longer hear their disappearing conversation, she returned the writings of Bademus to its home. Instead, she went in search of a different topic. As she traced her fingers along the scripted codex, she found her way to a section of the library that contained gods and deities worshipped by mortals. It was there that she found tomes and books written about her infernal lord Asmodeus. Among the writings was a curious tome filled with the ramblings of an eccentric scholar, musing upon a race of beings known as Axiamites. He wrote of the Axis plane, unmarred by the struggle between good and evil, simply dedicated to the universal law and perfect harmony in order. Willow found the writings fascinating. With the book in hand, she found her way to a secluded nook within the grand stacks, sinking into a luxurious chair in the far corner. She tucked her feet beneath her and spent the following hours completely and utterly engrossed in another realm.

It was late in the evening that the others returned to the library. Willow had read her way through a substantial number of tomes and books, riveted and captivated as the time passed unnoticed. When she heard the muffled sounds of footsteps and chatter, she quickly withdrew her feet from beneath her, arranging herself in a more respectful manner. As the dragon led only Pellius inside the archives, he arched his eyebrow to her.
“You have enjoyed your time here?” he asked, eyeing the large stack of tomes beside her.
Willow could not help but grin, rising from her seat, “Very much so, thank you.”
As she gathered the books to return them, the dragon simply smiled. Rasping a quick incantation, the books flew from her hands and made their own way back to their rightful places.
“Clever,” Willow commented, arching her brow.
“It is a helpful trick,” Eiramanthus smirked, “A curious collection of reading you have amassed. Bestiaries, lawful outer sphere planes and fey fairytales…”
She chuckled, realizing how strange her tastes would have seemed. She had begun with a purpose, to collect information on the rarer and lesser known lore of her Prince of Darkness. Though, as she had began reading and searching the collections of unheard books and untold stories, her mind had taken her elsewhere.
“You cannot tell your mind what it should wish to explore,” she shrugged with a grin.
“Indeed,” replied the dragon, intrigued eyes locked with hers.
“Come along, my lady,” Pellius interjected, “Eiramanthus has been gracious enough to allow us to stay the evening.”
“Oh, that is very kind, thank you,” she smiled, “I do not think I could stomach another night aboard the ship just yet.”
As the dragon inclined his head, Pellius offered his arm. Before Willow accepted it, she bowed to the dragon.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” she said warmly, “It has truly been a marvelous and beneficial day.”
“You are welcome,” Eiramanthus replied, sapphire eyes shimmering in the torchlight, “If you’ll excuse me, I shall retire for the evening…”

The crescent moon hung over head as Pellius and Willow strolled through the crystal gardens towards the Temple of the Consort in Red. It was magical, the way the moon beams ricocheted off the sharp shards of crystal, reflecting glistening coloured rays back into the night sky. As the cloud passed, the bright flushes of ever-changing hues played and dance across the shifting breeze. All around them was a mysterious world of wonder, shrouded in layer of mist that waltzed atop the rolling crystal expanse. The sounds of nocturnal life rustled and burrowed in alcoves, the soft sound of distant wind chimes lingered in a crooning tune of gentle melody. Resting her head on Pellius’ shoulder as she meandered through the winding path, she could not shake the warmth that pulsed in her chest. It was the most romantic scene she could have imagined. Of all the souls she could have shared it with, she was glad it was him. When she felt she soft kiss of his lips on her forehead, she sighed as her heart ached. Moments like this were not meant for her. There were a myriad of things she believed she was destined for, but a fairytale romance, with moments spent in complete companionable silence had never been part of her future. It was very likely that one of them would not make it through the coming weeks. They were to face and fight beings of great legend – dragons and kings. Slaughtered by their own hands. It was foolish to believe that they would make it through unscathed. it was foolish to think they would all survive. And so as they strolled, arms entwined and heads resting against one another, she chose to enjoy the brief pause in time and hardship. She slowed her steps and looked up at the fierce and unstoppable man of dedication and determination. She looked into his eyes, and truly saw the wariness and exhaustion that lay behind his charming and confident smile. She took his face in her hands, watching the dancing light flicker across his pale skin – and she kissed him, as if she would never kiss him again…

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