Sunday, 12 February 2017

Chapter 35 - Quest of Dragons

The deep sea stirred in great unrest, thundering waves rising high and crashing heavily upon each other in a battle of liquid fury. White foam flew from the fray, whipping furling currents in an unrelenting torrent of tide. The small wood ship was battered and bruised as it fought the wave of force, ploughing through the ever-changing direction of the seas path. The morning sky was dark and smothered in dense and vengeful cloud, pouring its contents as if crying a hurricane down from the abyss of the atmosphere. The unstoppable rain made the return journey to Farholde a slow and strenuous one. There was no sleeping aboard a ship that rocked and swayed, threatening to topple over and capsize with every surge of the ocean. When they finally turned their vessel inward, trying to guide its path into the dockyard, it was a relief to all who held fast to its railings. Stepping upon solid ground, Willow felt the tension ease in her limbs. While the dockhands helped tether their ship, she quickly made her way along the pier, glad to be away from the churning turn of the sea.
They had planned to head towards the marketplace as soon as they returned, yet none of them were eager for anything but rest in a stationary bed. They used the transporting arcana once more, teleporting themselves to the safety and comfort of the Silkcreek Homestead.
“How did mission go?” Raiju asked, greeting them in the parlour.
“It was successful,” Pellius reported formally.
“Good,” he nodded, “When do we leave?”
“After a bath,” Willow scoffed, dragging her tired legs through the chamber towards the stairs, “And a long sleep.”
“Have a seat,” Pellius instructed Raiju, “I will fill you in…”

Although clean and relaxed, wrapped within the silk sheets of her bed, Willow found sleep evaded her. Her mind was not interested in the soothing temptation of slumber – her mind was churning with details and worries. Fed up with tossing and turning, she rose from the sheets, tying her nightgown around her before making her way to the writing desk. With the curtains pulled shut, she had no worry of the sun’s harsh light burning her glistening pale skin. As she retrieved her journal, she frowned with thought of the sun. She had forgotten how much she had missed the feeling of the bright morning rays upon her face. Everyday she had worn her shroud, its magic encompassing her fragile skin from the wrath of the blistering ball of light. It had become routine to wake early before dawn arrived, bathe and dress, clothing herself within the magic of the cloak before setting out into the day. It was a curious feeling. The sun was ever present, an uncomfortable annoyance, as if her skin was in a state of constant light sweat. It was not during the day that she noticed; it was when she retired each evening and removed the shroud that her skin felt as if it had been gently suffocating throughout the daylight hours. She had become used to the sickness low in her stomach. It did not leave her anymore. Though she continued her duties with a face of confidence, she felt the sickly touch of death that surrounded her. How curious, she thought, that one could be so alive and yet so very close to death. The transformation of the vampiric curse was far slower than she had thought. The idea of simply dying one day soon, only to reawaken, was severely unnerving.
“I thought you would be fast asleep by now, my lady,” came Pellius’ voice, snapping her mind from her thoughts.
She had been so far away within the morbid illusion of the transformation, that she had not heard his approach.
“It seems I cannot sleep,” she shrugged, “There is simply too much on my mind.”
“Anything I may help with?” he asked gently, entering the chamber with his armour layered in hand.
“I do not think so,” she smiled, “It is the same questions and curiosities as always. A great foe we must defeat, an infallible plan we must create, and a great black wyrm we must grovel to.”
Pellius smirked at her answer, “Is that all?”
“Not the half of it,” she chuckled.
“We will go over our plans later,” he reassured, “For now, we may rest our bodies and our minds.”
“That is easier said than done.”
Pellius smiled as he finished arranging his armour on the shelf, strolling leisurely to the liquor cabinet and pulling free a bottle of thick red wine.
“What were you thinking of just now?” he asked, pouring two glasses for them, “You were lost in thought.”
Willow sighed as she accepted the offered glass, watching the burgundy liquid as she swirled it around the crystal.
“In the dragon’s library,” she began, a small frown pulling on her brow, “I found a book on the chronicles of a thousand year old vampire prince. He spoke of the transformation from human to vampire. Most transformations take mere days to come full cycle, and most are reborn as spawn, or as thrall’s of their maker. Yet his transformation was much like our own. Slower, and drawn out. It was months before he finally died…”
As Willow’s thoughts continued, her mouth ceased to speak the words that ran through her head.
“And?” Pellius urged, making her realise she had stopped speaking.
“That is what frightens me,” she said quietly, “We are to… die.”
“And be reborn,” he smiled, “Into something greater.”
“Reborn… and that does not scare you?” she asked, eyes of telling despair looking back at him.
“No,” he shrugged, “It is a chance. We are fortunate enough to be able to foresee our deaths, and be promised a life that continues passed the demise of our flesh.”
Willow frowned upon his words, she could see the benefit clearly, but the thought of having to die for it seemed a great and heavy weight to bear.
“Why do you suppose it is drawing out so?” she asked.
“We have no way of knowing,” he answered vaguely, “What did the book say?”
“He mused that stronger willed creatures inadvertently fought the transformation,” she recalled, “The will of the soul too strong to simply submit to the curse.”
“Perhaps that is your answer. For it takes immeasurable will for a mortal to stand against the tide of a nation, all for what they believe and know is true.”
Willow smirked at the thought, “You make us sound like heroes.”
“Not heroes,” he smiled, shaking his head softly, “We are harbingers of true order…”

While they used their day of peace to plan their attack on the inhabitants of Straya Avarna, they sent a pair of their servants to the city with a list of items and precautions to retrieve. Knowing how short their time was, upon the return of their purchases, they made for Farholde before midnight had arrived. The docks were sure to deserted that late into the night, but Willow was still acutely aware that the sight of a fearsome and fire-blazing nessian warhound was guaranteed to raise trouble. Much to Sith’s obvious disgust, Garvana used her strange arcana to shift his form into that of a simple steed. Although his flaming coat was not visible, he still left a trail of scorched paw prints along their path. Among the more curious purchases they had made, Willow had demanded a flank of fireproof material to wrap around the great beast, to shield the wooden ship from the worst of his inferno. When she tied the sheet around his torso and fastened it in a knot around his neck, he huffed an unimpressed growl. Willow grinned in response, whispering into his ear that he was still a mighty and fearsome beast, even with a bow atop his head.
The storm had finally passed over the north-western end of Talingarde, leaving the seas still and calm as they casted off into the night. As they made their way towards the grand island, the winds blew hard from the north, pushing the ship along with ease. Although Willow was dejected at the idea of another few nights upon the swaying waves, the alternative was far less tasteful. When she had mentioned the lack of need for the ship, now that they knew the location of Straya Arvana, Garvana had cautioned her sternly. While upon the island, she had detected a strange lingering charm upon the crystal, that warded it from intrusion through the means of teleportation. She had told them of the enchantments effect – a misdirection with no guarantee of the arriving location. Only the most confident and practised wizards were likely to be successful at such a task. And so they had boarded the ship once more and Willow found herself leaning upon the railing, staring out to sea as she urged the aiding wind to push them along even faster than it was.

When their three days at sea had come to end, and the glittering expanse once more lingered upon the horizon, the Forsaken were prepped for battle. As the crystalline reefs appeared beneath them, Bor cast his mysterious magic that allowed them to walk atop the water. Both Bor and Pellius stepped out onto the ocean, guiding the small ship towards the pier, eyes peeled for the glorious aquatic consort. There was no hiding their purpose this time. Each of them wore their full sets of armour, blood stained weapons and sharpened blades strapped to their legs and backs, expressions of cold determination painted on their faces. Willow held her blades tightly in hand, searching the tide of sapphire for any sign of the coastal guardian. As they neared the pier, the soft voice crooned from beneath the waves.
“You’ve returned,” Setia replied cheerfully, peering up above the surface.
When her eyes locked to the enormous hellhound aboard the ship – her face of delight morphed into sheer fury. Before she could dive back under the water, Willow swiftly leapt over the side of the ship as Pellius dropped the rope tethered to the hull, both of them charging across the surface towards the consort. With her blades flashing, Willow carved them outward, tearing deeply through scales and flesh. Pellius withdrew his frightening greataxe from its hold, as his thundering steps trembled the sea beneath him. As the consort splashed white water that showered the lagoon, he cried his petrifying wrath and cleaved his mighty weapon across her back. Setia let out a screech of agony as she retreated under the swell, swimming with utter grace as merely a shadow in the dark blue surf. As she launched herself upward with her sapphire trident, Willow dove out of its path, narrowly avoiding the forked weapon. Suddenly, the water beneath them began to move, coursing with vicious might in a vortex of untold speed and power. Though Willow was nimble enough to launch herself out of its grasp, Pellius was not near quick enough. The water churned a ferocious maelstrom, dragging him under violently, as he called out in frustration and panic.
PELLIUS!” Willow screamed.
She kept to the edge of the vortex, struggling to keep her footing as it wildly lashed in turmoil. She tried desperately to grab hold of his arm, but lost her grip as he was ripped further down into the frenzied whirlpool. As Willow snarled in frustration, Bor dragged the ship quickly to the pier, Garvana and Sith leaping to the safety of the stone. Raiju flew high over head, his curved blade drawn while his keen eyes searched the water. The churn of the vortex wailed as it spun and thrashed about the heavily armoured man, slowly widening its girth as it chaotically twirled, dragging Pellius further down and far passed where they could reach him.
Garvana!” Willow cried, “Dispel it! Banish it! DO SOMETHING!”
“I am trying!” Garvana roared in exasperation.
Standing upon the stone pier, Garvana could do little but cast furiously, sending waves of white feathered arcana rippling across the glistening lake. Vexation took hold of Willow, leaving her screaming in fury, unable to do anything. The Consort in Blue was hidden well beneath the surface, and Pellius was drowning, being battered and beaten by frightful currents. Willow cursed her ineptitude. She could not risk rescuing Pellius, for she would only be caught within the maelstrom herself to drown along with him. She could not swim beneath the water and hunt the cetaceal, for she knew it would be a fatal mistake with her severe lack of fins or tail. She simply had to bide her time, and await her opportunity. The sapphire lagoon abruptly began to rumble beneath her feet, as if the temperature had soared and the sea had set to boil. A grand dome of white, rose from the centre of the lagoon, filling and swelling to the point of breaking. Willow’s eyes widened as she watched the sphere, backing up instinctively as it only continued to grow. With no where to hide standing alone atop the shimmering lake, she slowly exhaled, bracing herself for impact. The white frothing bubble suddenly erupted, in a collision of glistening ice shards and sparking lightening. A shockwave of pure power propelled itself outward, fulminating a crashing tsunami of raw elemental essence. As it swiftly approached Willow, she leaped into the sky with every ounce of strength she had, attempting to soar over the brunt of the force. It seemed as if time slowed, Willow’s graceful limbs spinning through the air, her slender frame launched high above the cresting water. She felt the wave pass beneath her, the lightning burning like sudden flame across the bare skin of her arms and neck. Feeling the flesh smoulder and scorch, she gritted her teeth as her slow descent began. As her feet collided with the hard surface of the enchanted water, she watched the wave of destruction pass by and continue outward.  One by one it ploughed into each of the Forsaken, the ice shards ripping shreds of skin from bone, yet freezing the bleeding wounds instantly in an agonisingly cold blizzard. When the wave of force reached the ship, the small wooden vessel stood little chance. Splintered shards of the plank flew through the air, the hull exploding in a shower of glorious proportions. When the torrent crashed into the crystal, the magic seemed to strangely dissipate – leaving the island unscathed. As each of them was swept from their feet, Willow could only pray that Pellius had been spared, trapped within his cage of coursing water. Though Raiju’s skin was raw – his will was not shaken. As the consort lifted her head from the water, he charged towards her through the air, swinging his blade with practiced efficiency. Willow sprinted towards her, but before she was in reach, Setia disappeared below the swell. As she contemplated diving into the sea after her, she heard Garvana’s rushed incantation. She focused on the frenzied vortex that was slowly making its way deeper into the great ocean, and she cast a loud and booming chant. Suddenly, the swirling ceased. With all eyes on the still waters, Setia saw her opportunity. She thrust her trident high as she leaped from the sea, plunging its blades deep into Raiju’s side. The oni cried out in agony as a blast of lightning arced from the sharp points, sending white furling traces directly through his veins. As she retreated once more, the water where the vortex had been rippled with life. Pushed to the surface by the magical enchantment, Pellius appeared – blood trickling from his mouth as he struggled for air.
Get to shore!” Willow yelled, eyes following the shadow beneath the water.
As she watched his utterly exhausted body limp towards the pier, she backed up slowly herself. Pellius had almost made it to the shallows when Setia appeared once more. With a look of imperishable ire, the cetaceal opened her mouth wide, letting loose a cone a blistering ice. The blast of frosted fury slithered in unfathomable speed along the water, turning each drop to a hard and frozen sheet of ice. When the storm of white vengeance reached them, Willow lunged out of the way. As she moved, her eyes watched the terror unfold. Pellius was no swift and nimble man at the best of times. But as he hauled his barely movable legs towards the solid ground of the shore, the blizzard consumed him. The ice shards pierced deeply into his flesh, the incredible cold sapped the last of his strength, the force hit with such might that it swept him from his feet. Willow’s heart clenched and froze, turning a bitter ice itself as she watched him fall. She saw him die, she saw the life vacant within his eyes as he fell limp into the shallow water. Anger. She felt such anger. There was no sadness that gripped her heart, it was a cold and simply hatred. The vile taste of choler overcame her completely. She struggled to remember Bor dragging him to the shore, she barely noticed Garvana rushing to his side. There was a moment where she thought she saw Garvana breathe an arcane breath deep into his lungs, bringing him back from the teetering edge of death. A moment where she saw him grasp Garvana’s shoulder in panic when he awoke. But the anger and numbed hatred was too strong. She remembered only spinning her blade into a backwards grip and awaiting her moment. When it came, when Setia-Swims-the-Sea-of-Stars lifted her head once more, Willow pounced with every bit of seething fury that swarmed beneath the flesh of her skin. She leaped forward into a run, dismissing the enchantment as Bor had taught her, and dove into the sky with her dagger primed and ready in a two handed grip high over head. As she descended, her blade plunged deep into the cetceal. The weight of her fall propelled the dagger forward as they crashed into the sapphire lake. A cloud of red painted froth exploded from the white foamed sea. The lithe creature cried out underwater, crimson dancing along the current as it flowed from her wounds – but still she was not done. She thrust her trident clumsily towards Willow in anguish and desperation, little coordination left. Though it was truly harder to slip and dodge within the grasp of the lagoon, Willow managed to avoid the worst of the attack. It was then that the malicious incantation could be heard. Garvana’s voice echoed throughout the crystal shielded hollow, her feral words met by feral intent. Slick black tendrils rippled from her fingers, oozing in festering hunger, furling towards the cetaceal. Finally, Willow saw the first sign of fear from the glorious Consort in Blue. Willow reached out and ripped the coral necklace from around her neck, before Setia swam with all her might, in a desperate attempt to escape. Yet she was not fast enough, her reflexes slow as the blood loss only worsened, weakening her will and strength. As the tendrils enveloped her; her wet sleek skin was set ablaze in a sickly firestorm of green and black billowing flames. The savage arcana devoured the first consort whole, leaving not a single trace behind…

For a time, Willow simply floated along with the current beneath the water, allowing it to push and pull her as it willed. Her breath rested lightly within her chest as she closed her eyes and simply moved within the sapphire seas grip. The anger had simmered; the hatred had seeped from her soul as the crimson shadow had seeped through the waters. It was a slow procession that brought her thoughts back to her. Pellius had died. Though, she had seen Garvana bring him back to life, much as she had done to Willow upon the battlefield of Valtaerna. Willow had expected to feel joy and gratitude at his return. She had expected to feel relieved that he was still counted among the living. Yet all she felt was a cold numbness that dulled her senses. Was death always to be such a presence in her life? Was death to be the lovers cold shoulder that forever haunted her thoughts? The worried calls of the others, muffled by the barrier of the heavy sea tide, brought her back to herself. As her name was called with more force, Willow lazily pushed her way to the surface.
“You are alright?” Garvana frowned.
“Yes,” she answered simply, moving through the swell towards the shore.
“Are you hurt?”
Willow sighed as she trudged her way through the shallow waters, “I am fine, Garvana.”
As her sight found Pellius seated upon a boulder shaped crystal, breathing heavily through a wheezing chest, she found her lips pursing.
“And you?” Willow asked him, strange eyes looking him over.
“I am alright, my lady,” he nodded with a small smile.
“You must not make a habit out of this,” Willow replied, arching her brow.
His hefty chuckle forced a torrent of coughs from his chest, making Willow smile despite herself. As she sat herself upon the edge of the pier, she removed her boots and tried to squeeze the soggy mess of water out of them. With little to no luck, she sighed and strapped her feet back into them.
“How do we proceed?” she asked, looking up to the others.
“Pellius needs time to recover his strength,” Garvana said seriously.
“I do not,” he said sternly, pushing himself to his feet, lifting his head.
Though he tried to look spritely and well, his trembling legs deceived his words.
“And I have little magic left,” Garvana continued, “We cannot face the dragon in such a state. It would be suicide.”
“You want to rest here?” Bor balked.
“Of course not,” Garvana scoffed, “That would also be suicide.”
Pellius looked out to the shattered remains of their ship, “Well we cannot return to Talingarde, what other option do we have but to continue?”
“We must teleport to our estate,” she shrugged.
“Did you not say how dangerous that would be?” Willow frowned, “I thought you said it was impossible from the island?”
“Not impossible, just idiotic.”
“And you wish us to try?” Willow laughed.
“Your skill with the wand has not failed us yet, my lady,” Pellius smirked.
“Not yet,” she replied, rolling her eyes.
Looking over the Forsaken, Willow conceded that they indeed needed to rest. They all bore the scorched and bruised remains of the cetaceal’s wrath, and with two more consorts and an ancient dragon to contend with, they needed to be fresh and limber for the fight. She sighed, pulling the wand from her water-soaked pack. As they gathered close once more, Willow closed her eyes and focused on the image of their sanctuary, the parlour of their farmland estate.
When the incantation pulled them through the otherworldly portal and threw them into the lush surrounds of a stately chamber, it did not take long to realise the magic had gone awry. Though they indeed found themselves in the parlour of a richly appointment manor, it was not the one they had claimed as their own.
“What’s going on here?!” grumbled a deep and unknown voice, “Who are you people?!”
Willow’s head shot to the side, surprised to see two vaguely familiar figures shoot up from their seated positions around a small oak table.
“General Vastenus!” Willow said quickly, “I am sorry, we have apparently become lost, our magic has misdirected us here!”
“Who are you?!” he called, “Guards! Intruders!”
There would be no talking their way out of this. Covered in wet and blood soaked armour, in the presence of a vicious nessian warhound and a crimson skinned oni mage, there would be no convincing the general that they meant no harm. As the thundering footsteps barrelled from beyond the door, Willow quickly looked to the others. Pellius swiftly held the door shut as the guardsmen attempted to push their way in. In panic, Willow knew not what to do. They could not take on the entire army by themselves, which is what she surmised they would have to do were they to remain. For General Vastenus was King Markadian’s leader of the righteous crusade. They had landed themselves in the very centre of the Mitran army’s camp. As the voices beyond the door yelled for further aid, Pellius looked to Willow in rushed question. They had an opportunity that they would not likely come across again. They could kill Vastenus and wipe out a top commanding force of the assault. They could take the offer that so easily presented itself, weakening the army from the inside. Yet as the seconds ticked by and the general drew his sword towards them, Willow hushed her hunger. If the army was left with no leader save the glorious King himself, their plans for him to desert the army for his daughter would be put in jeopardy. Would the king choose his daughter over the guaranteed loss of the war? It was far less likely than the alternative.
“Get out of the way,” barked a foreboding voice from outside the chamber, “I’ll handle this!”
With only seconds remaining before they had no choice, Willow made a snap decision.
Get together!” she cried.
She prayed they had listened swiftly, grasping hold of one another as she recalled the incantation and transported herself from the chamber. Just as the mystical blur of arcana enveloped them, they saw the door explode inward in shatter of splintered wood, forced by hands that glowed a bright and flame-like blue. Suddenly, they were ripped from the scene, and thrown into the safety of their own chamber.
Damn this thing!” Willow snarled, throwing the wand towards Garvana, “Next time you can do it!”
“Where we where I think we were?” Bor laughed, “Did we end up in the camp of the Mitran army?”
“Yes,” Willow scowled, “It is absurd! Of all the places for the magic to send us! Into the general’s meeting! How ill-conceived!”
“We could have killed him,” Garvana mused, a slight disappointment to her tone.
“Or we could have ended up back in Brandescar!” Willow growled, “With our bodies on the pyre!”
“None of that has come to pass, my lady,” Pellius soothed, laying his hand upon Willow’s shoulder.
“But it could have!” she snapped, “How foolish! All of our work could have been for nothing! More than two years work, destroyed in the blink of an eye, because of that damn thing!”
Enough!” Pellius commanded, clenching his fingers into Willow’s collarbone, forcing her to cease her rage and listen, “It was an unfortunate mistake, but we have avoided any further repercussions. We were not captured, and they are none the wiser of our plans.”
Willow exhaled slowly, allowing the sharp pain to settle into her bones. She knew not how he understood exactly how to calm her, but as she revelled in the lingering ache, she was very glad he did. When he released his grip and she unintentionally sighed at its loss, he simply smirked knowingly.
“It was not a total waste,” Bor interrupted her haze, “They were going over troop movements. I saw where their men are stationed. They are roughly five weeks march from Daveryn.”
“Only five?” Garvana frowned, “Then we have little time to waste…”

They retired to their chambers early that evening, having revised their plans for the following day and opting for a long rest before they set out once again. As twilight ushered in the passing of dusk, Willow returned to the bedchamber wrapped in a towel, her freshly cleaned hair free of the smell of saltwater and blood. When she entered, she saw Pellius hunched over the writing desk, a deep frown a permanent fixture on his brow. As she closed the door behind her, he snapped his book shut and turned to her with a feigned smile.
“Your bath was enjoyable?” he asked cordially.
“It was,” she replied, arching her brow.
“Very good, my lady,” he inclined his head, doing his best to guide the book into the desk drawer unnoticed.
Whether he realised it or not, Willow clearly saw his attempt at secrecy, but chose not to point it out. Instead, she simply continued into the chamber, hanging her towel over the armchair as she began to change into her nightgown.
“Do you wish to talk about it?” she asked softly.
“About what, my lady?” he replied.
“About today, Pellius.”
“What about it?” he shrugged nonchalantly, “We were successful in our first task, and we shall also be successful tomorrow.”
“Pellius,” Willow sighed, slipping the silk over her head and slowly walking to his side, “You do not always have to appear strong and infallible, you don’t always have to be alright.”
“I am fine, my lady,” he reassured, though his eyes spoke more than his words would, “Your concern is touching, but misplaced.”
She looked to his face, reading how closed off and unwilling to talk he seemed to be. Yet she knew well how confronting the reality of death was. She sat beside him and chose her words carefully.
“To have seen the otherside and return is not a weakness,” she said gently, “It is a strength, for now we know what awaits us. But it alright for it to have shaken you. It would shake any mortal.”
“I am fine, Willow,” he said shortly.
“Pellius,” she sighed, “It may help to talk about it, it may help you process it all. I know how strange it all was for me… Tell me, what did you see?”
He looked to her, unreadable thought in his eyes.
“I do not wish to speak of it, my lady,” he replied finally, “But I know now I have been given another chance to continue to succeed. The gates of hell have not opened to me yet. And while Asmodeus wills it, I will remain here and fight in his name.”
It was a slender slip of an answer, but Willow could tell it was all she was going to get.
Pressing a gentle kiss to his cheek, she sighed, “And so will we all…”

It was a bright morning of gentle sun that greeted them as they arrived in the parlour, dressed and ready to return to Straya Arvana. The plan was simple. They would wager that the Consort in Green was resting in much the same position that they had found her upon their first meeting; entwined with the elder cherry tree at the centre of her garden. They had no time to waste, no time to procure a second ship and squander days upon the sea. They had little choice but to roll the dice, and chance that the magic of the wand would see them true to the crystalline island. Much to her dismay, Willow was once again tasked with the use of the curious and troublesome arcana.
“We must remember to be quick and efficient,” Pellius instructed, “We mustn’t waste our energy on the consorts. Eirmanthus is our main target. We will not be able to retreat again. It will be our only chance, if we wish to retain the element of surprise.”
“But we must deal with the consorts first,” Garvana insisted, “We cannot risk them coming to his aid.”
“Agreed,” Pellius nodded, “But we need to be quick. We must all be ready to fight.”
As they lay a hand on each others shoulder, linking their bond of transportation, Willow closed her eyes and inhaled a deep and mellowing breath. With the image of the elder tree fixed in her mind, she exhaled. She rasped the arcane incantation, wand gripped in one hand, dagger clutched in the other. The grasp of the otherworldly portal promptly took hold, pulling her through the turbulent void and propelling her forward into the unknown. The ride through the vacuum was far more strenuous than it had been before. They were torn across the unseen expanse, hurled into a chasm as their bones were stretched within their limbs, forced to collide with battering winds of chaotic tempest. The grip of Pellius’ hand began to lose its hold, his fingers sliding from their grasp on her shoulder. Panic rapidly overwhelmed her, as her senses screamed in protest, as if they knew the dire fate that would await them were he to slip. Though no sound came from her mouth, Willow shrieked in a surge of willpower. With her mind, she reached out and seized control of the wild raging arcana, steering its course forward. With no knowledge of how, she commanded the path towards the island home of Eiramanthus, narrowing her thoughts with utter conviction to the fragile garden of his second consort. Suddenly, the were thrown from the vortex violently, crashing heavily into the coloured soil of the forested glen. As the world spun around them and slowed to an unsteady sway; they saw the Consort in Green as they had wagered – entwined around her beloved blossom. With not a moment to lose, the Forsaken leapt forward and demanded bloodshed.
With the element of surprise and the absence of the disadvantage of water – both of the remaining consorts fell swiftly. Though Sakura had shown them nothing but kindness, they knew well that she would have given her last breath to warn the great copper dragon of their intentions. With steeled hearts and ferocious blades, they ended the fight forthwith, eliminating the two planar beings in rapid succession.
As the enchanting magic that encompassed their valour dwindled with each second that passed, they entered the dragon’s domain without delay. In hand Willow carried three glorious pieces of jewellery. The first was turquoise coral necklace lined with glistening sea pearls larger than any found on the shores of Talingarde. The second was a beautiful necklace of exquisite amber and darkest ebony wood strung upon a delicate strand of mithral. And the third, a beautiful band of entwined golden wires layered in blazing fire red opals. All three were personal gifts from the dragon to his consorts. When they stepped into the glistening white dome, where the great copper scaled Eiramanthus turned to greet his guests, she threw the three necklaces at his feet.
“YOU MURDERED THEM?!” the beast roared in fury, “You murdered my beloveds to get to me?! Bastards! Monstrosities! You wish to fight a dragon, eh? Then a fight you shall have!”
A ferocious wave of terror blew from the copper beast as he stretched his body tall to his full height. He roared, the mighty sound trembling the walls of the great white dome. Willow had not sensed the frightening aura before, though she would have to be daft to not realize the extreme power of the ancient wyrm. He let loose what he had been shielding them from; the raw fury of a dragon scorned. As the dragon reared back to lash out his great clawed foot, Willow ripped a dagger free from its sheath and threw it with all her might. Eiramanthus growled in pain at it struck deep into his shoulder, piercing through the layered scales to sink beneath the flesh. Suddenly, the crashing torrent of bitter terror swept throughout the chamber. Willow felt the swarming dread slither across her skin, as if thousands of unseen tendrils wrapped along her flesh and seeped deeply into her core. Her limbs seized in panic, her heart thundering in her chest, her mind spinning in the embrace of trepidation. As the thought to flee the presence of the grand and fabled beast overwhelmed her mind, a single strength within Willow repelled the idea. Upon trembling legs, she clenched her teeth and surged her willpower. She drew from deep within her, reaching for the fury to rise to the surface and come forth to meet the dragon head on. As Pellius roared a breath of pure malice, Willow felt his dark and infernal glow encompass her. It was the push that she so desperately needed. His throbbing drum of infernal wrath was much like a song of battle that called and demanded his comrades to arms. As she spared a glance to the others, she saw that they to felt his urging, allowing the inspiring ire to lift them from the grip of terror. Willow paced her footsteps, circling wide around the dragon, watching his next move fixedly. Eiramanthus snarled a livid cry, unleashing a rush of blistering acid. The acid was thick and vast, as it sprayed its venom towards the Forsaken, showering most of them in its festering broth. With Raiju flying high in the air, and Sith following Willow’s lead to the rear of the great beast, they were safe from the flow his anger. Upon contact of the others, it smoldered and seared open flesh, melting and decomposing steel and leather. Garvana hissed in agony as she launched a pellet of flame towards the dragon in response. When the fire impacted, it exploded into an inferno of billowing scarlet flames. Though the glistening copper scales of the mighty dragon were charred black and crisp, he leapt into the air upon rasping wings, hovering a few feet from the ground. Raiju chanted an incantation in a curious and unfamiliar language, opening his mouth wide to shroud the dragon in shards of cutting ice and frozen clouds of turbulence. Flanked from beneath, Sith breathed the flames of hell from below, in an onslaught on all sides by vicious and baleful arcane mass. As Eiramanthus began to beat his wings faster, rising higher in the tall domed chamber, Willow charged from her rest, and leapt into the air with her blades flashing. She propelled herself upward, carving her blades into the side of a low hanging leg, dragging them deeper and forward with the weight of her descent. The dragon roared as he retracted his back legs and pushed himself high into the dome. As Willow fell, she tucked into a roll as best she could, and simply relaxed her body against the impact of the ground as it hit. When she sprang up from the white tiles, she watched the dragon latch on to the domed ceiling and swing himself downward, hanging from the eaves much like an enormous bat. Willow cursed under her breath as she looked to the others. The had little means of reaching him so high in the dome, and the great copper dragon would of course be wise enough to realize it. They needed to lure him into a smaller room, one whose ceiling rose only high enough to still allow them reach.
“You are quick to assume we have killed your consorts,” Willow called loudly, trying to by them time, “And not simply captured them…”
You come to me covered in their blood,” Eiramanthus growled.
“Do you think they would come with us willingly?” Willow scoffed.
The dragon gazed at her with venom in his eyes, before he quietly spoke.
“I’m listening…”
“We are at an impasse,” Bor said, seeming to follow Willow’s thought, “We have no choice. We are tasked with your death, by the command of the terrible Chargammon the Black. We can see no alternative.”
For a moment, Bor’s words seemed to truly perplex the copper dragon.
“You’re actually working for that old wyrm?!” he balked, hanging from his perch, “Ye gods and greasy green gargoyles are you mad? You must know the blackheart is going to betray you!”
What other option do we have!” Bor snarled, “It is your life, or ours!”
“You can return my girls,” Eiramanthus suggested, in voice dripping with malicious warning, “And then leave my island, and never return.”
As the Forsaken slowly backed up towards the staircase, Willow scowled her answer.
“That is no option…”
Swiftly, they retreated for the library together. As Pellius reached the staircase first, he waited for Willow as she sprinted across the chamber. She heard the thundering sound of the dragon dropping to the floor, shaking the ground as she ran. Pellius brandished his weapon menacingly as he waited for Willow to pass. When they made it to the library floor, they quickly healed the worst of their wounds and awaited the dragon’s decent. The sounds of distant chanting drifted down the stairs as a billowing wave of mist rolled down each crystal step. The stairwell was blocked by the curious and clouding fog, that simply lingered in white undulating haze. Though the others held fast with their weapons ready, Willow backed up instinctively.
“That is bad mist,” Raiju frowned, lifting himself into the air as he withdrew from the touch of the fog, “Muddle your brain.”
As they chanting suddenly ceased, Willow continued her retreat backward. Suddenly, the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, as she felt the presence of eyes upon her. With her daggers tightly in hand, she spun around quickly, preparing to attack or defend. In the far end of the ceiling, she saw a carved portion of the stone missing, the enormous head of the great copper beast peering through.
Behind us!” Willow cried, as she lifted another throwing blade from its sheath and hurled it towards him.
Raiju was the first to respond, already floating in the air, his curved sword drawn and gleaming. He flew through the air at a frightening speed, cleaving his weapon with his charge, unheeded by the torrent of acid that the dragon let loose. With blistering skin and corroding armour, the scarlet skinned creature slashed his sword with might and finesse. As the blade hacked through the dragons eye, he recoiled in agony. As his immense neck collided with the newly carved stone of his opening, it shattered the ceiling in a cascade of cracks and splits, fracturing beneath the weight of the ancient wyrm. With his head trapped in the ring of stone, he was unable to fly free of the collapsing floor. As shards and chunks of heavy stone rained upon them, the Forsaken rushed to dive from the wreckage. The foundation crumbled in a great flourish of debris, as Eirmanthus plummeted to the library floor. Though Willow had met some peculiar beings, that acted in ways far passed her comprehension; the copper dragons’ next response simply topped them all.
How can you tell that a crab is drunk?” he grinned, an intense arcane charm drifting to the Forsaken’s ears, “He walks forwards…”
Willow suddenly felt the temptation to laugh, as forced giggles rippled from her chest. To her left, she saw Bor, Garvana and Raiju fall to the floor in uncontrolled laughter. To her right, she watched Sith, in a curious frenzy of rasping sniggers. From across the room, she saw Pellius grinning in easy laughter, as she as well struggled to contain her giggles. The joke itself, was a fairly dull one. But the enchantment she felt that enforced its punchline was almost too much to control. Yet as she watched the others, overcome with laughter, she knew she had to fight it. With a grin on her face and chest that convulsed with giggles, she launched herself towards Eiramanthus. As Pellius followed her lead, laughing his way in an unsavoury mix of gleeful amusement and frightful rancour – they flanked the dragon and lunged to attack. Their blades tore through the glistening scales and devoured the flesh beneath. Willow carved each blade into the hide in a vicious and fatal onslaught. Even as Eiramanthus cried out and heaved for air through blood filled lungs, she did not relent. She screamed her fury and laughed in forced glee as she slashed her daggers repeatedly. With a cackle that made her blood chill, Pellius hefted his greatsword and cleaved the head of the dragon off in a single foul swoop. As the great beast fell to the floor, the white tiles trembled beneath their feet. A cloud of dust and debris flew from the ground, his weight violently shaking the dome causing books and tomes to fall from their shelves. When the cloud settled upon the immense carcass of the copper dragon, the Forsaken were finally released from the enchanted laughter. Together, they breathed a shared sigh of exhausted relief. As Willow slid her daggers into their sheathes, sinking back against the wall in fatigue, a sudden slow clap sounded from the stairwell. As the source of the sound neared, she ripped her blades free again and span towards the noise. The others did much the same, alert and wary, raising their weapons – preparing to continue the fight.
“Once more, it is well done, my lords,” a charming and rasping voice crooned.
Crimson skin shining in radiant contrast to the velvet ebony of his formal robes, a crown of protruding horns layered along his skull, rows of sharp pointed teeth smiling in a wicked greeting – Dessiter of the Phistophilus stood before them.
“Though I am afraid,” he continued, bowing low and respectful to them, “That this grand victory will be short lived.”
Willow did not lower the threat of her daggers as her brow arched in question.
“And why do you say that?” she asked coldly, shrewd eyes locked to his.
“It is my unwelcome and solemn duty to inform you,” he replied, seeming unbothered by Willow’s menace, “That you have been betrayed.”
“By whom?” she replied cautiously, narrowing her eyes.
When this mission is complete,” he told them gravely, “I know for certain that you will receive an invitation to visit Cardinal Thorn in his secret fortress far to the north. He named it the Agathium, the place of agony, in parody of the great palace of the House of Darius – the Adarium. He will summon you to his throne, and there, he will destroy you.”
Willow’s eyes shot to Pellius, connecting in a glance of intense realization. Slowly, Willow lowered her blades, though she did not sheath them.
“Why would he do that?” Garvana asked Dessiter, though Willow surmised she already knew the answer.
“Paranoia has seized his mind and driven the Cardinal to madness,” he replied grimly, “He has grown to fear you. He is terrified that you rise too quickly and someday soon you will supplant him. With every victory, with every deed, he sees the future more and more clearly. It is a future where he is no longer master of the Knot of Thorns.”
“How do you know this?” Willow asked suspiciously.
“I have heard it from the lips of the master himself. Even now, he sets the trap. If you go to the Agathium at my dear sister’s invitation, you will die.”
“Sister?” Bor frowned.
“Tiadora,” he smirked, “We share a bond… uncommon amongst devils.”
“And you would see us kill your sister?” Willow questioned, arching her brow, “You would well know that if we defy her request, she is bound to try to bring us there by force – dead or alive. Her death sits easily with you?”
“She will not truly die,” Dessiter disregarded, “She will simply return to hell. Tiadora is bound by spell and oath to the master. As long as he lives and possesses control of her, she will do his bidding. I doubt she bears you any true malice. She is simply following orders. But if you could free her from Thorn, she could be a useful ally.”
“Why should we trust you?” Pellius frowned.
“A just question, my lord,” he replied, inclining his head, “In this time of treachery and dark maneuvering, you should trust no one. I come to you with counsel and a warning. Tiadora has already given you the clay seal. When you break it, she will visit you once more and when she does she will oer to take you to the Agathium. If you do not believe me, then by all means, go…”
He shrugged simply, holding out his hands, “In a way, though you do not trust me, I am trusting you. There is nothing stopping you from betraying me to Cardinal Thorn besides the truth of my warning. No, if I wanted you dead, far easier to do nothing.”
He smiled, looking between Pellius and Willow.
“But you know my warning is true, don’t you? You can sense your master’s growing distrust of you. Once he appeared to you in person, did he not? Now he sends only proxies. Why would he do this unless fear of your magnificent power builds up within him? The truth is that he was worried about you since you held the Horn for eight months. That worry turned into genuine fear when you slew Ara Mathra. And now you are poised to gain the service of Chargammon the Black. Who can blame him for being a little nervous.”
“Why do you help us?” Willow asked curiously, “What do you stand to gain by aiding us?”
“I care not one with which of you rules Talingarde,” he said simply, “I would see my infernal master restored to the prominence he deserves and I fear that the Cardinal Thorn is no longer capable of the deed. He is beset by doubts and gripped by fears. This is not the manner of an Asmodean conqueror. In you, I see an alternative. In you, my lords, I see a band far stronger than Cardinal Thorn ever was. You will complete Thorn’s plan and return Talingarde to the hands of my master! You will be lords of a new realm where my master is honoured above all other gods!”
“That is a mighty and devout sentiment,” Pellius commented, though his cold tone betrayed his warm words, “But it seems you are not telling us everything. Why do you doubt Thorn?”
Dessiter smiled to Pellius, as if he had been expecting such a question and could not wait to share his answer.
Bronwyn of Balentyne was truly a beauty without compare,” he began theatrically, “She was so beautiful, she captured the heart of a Cardinal of the Church of Mitra.”
“Samuel Havelyn,” Willow interjected, her mind churning upon the suspicions that started to clear into facts.
Dessiter looked to her with shrewd eyes, seeming once more surprised at her knowledge of hidden and shrouded truths, yet he nodded.
“Samuel became obsessed with her,” he continued “And she, alas, fell in love with Samuel’s brother, Lord Thomas of Havelyn. Such a tragedy. They had one child before Bronwyn died in childbirth – a son named Richard. That child has now grown to manhood and become a paladin. Cardinal Thorn should be hunting this paladin to the ends of the earth. But he cannot bear to murder his nephew, the last remaining vestige of his beloved Bronwyn’s blood. Yes, Cardinal Adrastus Thorn is Samuel Havelyn, but it seems you already knew that. And though he never forgave his brother Thomas, even sending you to kill him, he has also never stopped loving Bronwyn. It is love that clouds his judgment. Love has made him weak. The Paladin greatly threatens our plans. He has left the side of the king and quests to destroy the Tears of Achlys. He rebuilds his band and hunts my master’s followers from one end of Talingarde to the other. And yet, Thorn does nothing!”
“We have met Sir Richard,” Willow frowned, “It was he and his band that tracked us to the Horn of Abbadon. We struck him down, yet curiously they were equipped with a targeted spell to bypass the shielding of the Horn. Do you suppose Cardinal Thorn intervened?”
“It is possible, my lord,” Dessiter nodded, “He has done his best to shield the paladin from the fated death he must meet.”
“What would you have us do?” Garvana queried.
“You honour me, O great lord,” he bowed low, “By asking my counsel. Complete your mission. Slay the King. But refuse the summons. Instead, you must find the Cardinal’s heart. Perhaps you have guessed by now, that the Cardinal is not a living man. By the might of my master, he is reborn – a lich. Like all liches, he is bound to a phylactery. While that survives, Thorn is undefeatable. Find it and you will be able to finally defeat the Cardinal.”
“Find it?” Garvana frowned, “You do not know where it is?”
“Cardinal Thorn keeps that secret, my lords. I cannot say now where it is, but I promise you, I will not cease to search for it. If it can be found, I will accomplish the deed.”
Willow slipped her daggers into their sheaths, a frown across her brow as she strolled to the side of the debris scattered chamber, as she leant against the wall.
“You know we are bound by contract,” she said curiously, “You know we are sworn to do him no harm. You have a way around this I suppose?”
“Ah, yes,” he smiled slyly, “Now we come to the crux of the matter. It is true that you are bound by the Pact of Thorns. To break an oath to my dark master is a serious matter. Even if there are no repercussions while you live, when you eventually die, well what did the contract say? Let they who violate this compact suer all the wrath of Hell unending? Not pleasant to be sure. But fear not. I have found a loophole…”
Willow’s brow rose slowly, as she awaited his answer. When it didn’t come, she exhaled sharply, frustrated eyes looking him over.
“And that loophole is…?” she scowled.
“My lords,” he inclined his head once more, “Know that if it were up to me, I would tell you immediately. However, I am bound by my dark lord to first demand a task of you. Within the Adarium is a powerful enemy of my lord – Brigit of the Brijidine. She moves against us. Slay her and then I shall rid you of your burden. When the king and Brigit are dead, we shall speak again.”
“Thank you,” Garvana replied, “Your service is appreciated.”
“You honour me too much, my lord,” Dessiter bowed low, “We will speak again soon. And know, that the Dark Father ever watched your deeds…”

After the commotion settled, the Forsaken saw to the remaining tasks awaiting them upon Straya Arvana. With the dragons’ enormous body limp within the library, Willow and Pellius quickly made their way to archives to assure they were left unquestioned and alone. As they opened the doors, painted in the blood of the grand beast, they saw the same peculiar visitor stood within the stacks. Willow was amazed it had not overheard or observed any of the battle that thundered in the domed chambers, but as it turned to them, its clear eyes quickly took in the sight of them and it instinctively called forth an incantation of ethereal blades that swarmed around it.
“We mean you no harm,” Willow said sternly, keeping her daggers within their sheathes, “We have no quarrel with you. But the dragon Eiramanthus is no longer. You are welcome to take the tomes that you are studying with you, but you must leave this place, now.”
The curious creature eyed her for a moment, wariness slowing each movement it made.
NOW!” Pellius growled viciously.
Wordlessly with hastened hands, it gripped the small pile of tomes from the desk, slamming its fist into a bizarre contraption on its chest. With not a sound, it vanished from sight.
“Do you think it will be trouble?” Pellius asked suspiciously.
Willow’s brows rose as she considered his thought.
“No,” she said quietly, “If it does return, we shall be long gone from this place…”

Eimranthus’ treasures were far more than they could simply carry; extensive amounts of gold and silver, vast piles of curious and rare objects and trinkets, dwarfed by the countless collections of books and tomes. They wished not to leave any of the possible wealth behind, yet were faced with the arduous task of it’s retrieval.
“We cannot teleport it out of here,” Garvana frowned, “And we haven’t the time to sew it all into fabric.”
“We would need a very large ship to transport it all,” Bor mused.
“And we would need men to man it,” Willow added.
“Do we not have over a hundred men making their way to Ghastenhall right now?” Pellius offered.
“They should be almost there,” she nodded, smiling at his thought.
“And what else do we have for them to do?” he continued, “Save lounging around amounting to nothing.”
“Surely amongst their number there is to be a few who have had experience with sailing the seas?” Willow suggested.
“Surely,” he smirked.
“Then it is settled,” Garvana agreed, “We will send the men to retrieve all we leave behind.”
As they took all they could carry in their packs and pockets, Willow was quick to ensure she collected most of the elegant and lavish jewellery. Among the treasures she refused to leave to the men, was a flank of material that glimmered in curious black and silver, as if the ebony silk was made from sparkling motes of light and wells of darkness. She knew that they would be headed for the grand city of Matharyn soon, and planned to visit the high court seamstress to commission the silk to be made into a glorious gown – one fit for a queen.

Before the sun made its decent into dusk, the Forsaken returned to the dark and foreboding hollow of the great black wyrm. They were not foolish enough to teleport directly into his flooded grotto, instead appearing in the scalded rock cavern of his entrance, with the head of the great copper dragon beside them. As they approached the opening of Chargammon’s domain, Bor dragged the bloodied skull with him.
“Great and mighty lord!” Willow called loudly, “We have seen your errand through to its end! We present you the severed head of Eiramanthus!”
From the festering broth that encompassed the cave, the fearsome wyrm lifted its head into view. As he rose and stretched to his full height, the terrible beast laughed. It was a dark and brooding hiss that would have chilled the spine of even the bravest men. A sound more feral than a thousand savages in feast. Though it seethed its way into Willow’s skin, sickening her to the core, she could only surmise that the wyrm was pleased.
It has been a long time since I have feasted upon the flesh of a princess,” Chargammon hissed, “So be it. Tonight is the new moon. One month hence, at the moonless midnight – I will gorge upon the flesh of House Darius.”
“We thank you, great one,” Willow bowed low, “May the lands of Talingarde forever remember you as the greatest terror, and be struck with the unrelenting horror that you wield!”
“Oh,” he snarled with petrifying malice, “They will!”
The ferocious beast turned his head to the rear of the cavern, where Jeratheon cowered in the shadows.
“Weak and wretched thing,” Chargammon rasped, “Come forth!”
For a moment, it seemed as if his spawn would stand up to his sire, raising his head in defiance. Suddenly, Chargammon growled and lashed out, biting Jeratheon upon the raw spot on his neck where he had been chained by the thunderbird. The ebony dragon yelped in pain and recoiled in terror. His sire seized the opportunity and pounced with frightening speed, pinning his son against the grotto wall. For a brief moment, it appeared as if Chargammon may rip his own son’s throat from his neck. But instead, he spoke.
You are my greatest failure!” he hissed with utter venom, “My greatest shame! To be captured by filthy birds and rescued by men. I should snap your neck and eat your wretched heart! Death is better than you deserve and it is a mercy I shall deny you. Instead, I sentence you to a century of servitude. For one hundred years, you shall be slave to the subcreatures who saved your worthless hide. Obey their every word or I shall see you suer as you deserve. Get your carcass from my sight!”
“Father, please!” Jeratheon begged in protest, “No!”
Chargammon lunged towards the young dragon, snarling and snapping his teeth in bitter warning. With pure terror in his eyes, Jeratheon fled from the chamber without so much as a glance behind him. The great black wyrm hissed in distaste, before settling his unnerving gaze upon the Forsaken.
“He’s yours now,” he hissed, “Treat him as he deserves and return him to me in a hundred years. Now leave, sub-creatures. Return not to my dominion. I will not spare your lives a third time…”

With the promise of the great black wyrm, the Forsaken left the malevolent caverns in haste and returned to the sanctuary of their estate. While they had been gone, their leagues of men had finally arrived in Ghastenhall. Pellius was quick to take command, setting the servants to their mission and preparing them for their journey to Straya Arvana. When he spoke of the crystalline island, a wave of worry and wary came upon their men. They had all heard of the great Eiramanthus, stories and ballads of the ancient beast off the shores of Talingarde. Were he alive, they would have right to worry. As Pellius retold the tale of the death of the legendary copper dragon, the air changed. Some showed sheer disbelief at his words, some showed renewed fear towards their masters. But most were simply eager to get their hands on the vast amounts of uncountable wealth. Their orders were followed by a terrifying warning, spoke in a resonating and venomous tone. The magnificent wealth would bring only the most grievous repercussions were they to think of thieving or mutiny.
After plans had been made to procure a large ship the following morning, the ranks of the Forsaken took rest for the evening. When Pellius returned to the bedchamber that night, he entered to find Willow dressing in her armour, having packed the last of her belongings into her bag.
“Eager to return?” he chuckled, arching his brow in question.
Willow smiled, a strange unease sitting low in her stomach.
“You realise we do not leave until tomorrow eve, my lady?” he asked.
You, do not leave until then,” she corrected quietly.
“Where is it you are going?” he asked, though he seemed to already know her answer.
“I shall be heading to the city early,” she said vaguely.
“May I enquire what for?”
“You may enquire,” she smirked, tightening her breastplate, “But you know I would not be entirely truthful.”
Pellius smiled, as he inclined his head and leant upon the door frame.
“You have unfinished business,” he said in understanding, “But, my lady, do you think it wise to seek closure unaccompanied?”
“Wise?” she laughed, “Not at all. But, it must be done this way.”
“You know that we would aid you?” he said softly, “You know that we would help you, we would see you through and ensure your vengeance?”
Willow sighed gently, strapping the buckles of her sheathes closed.
“I know,” she exhaled, “But I must do this alone.”
“Will you promise me something?” he asked, walking towards her slowly.
“That depends entirely on what it is.”
He stepped closer, lifting her chin with his finger as he looked deeply into her eyes.
“If the threat is too great,” he said seriously, “If it is too much for you to take on alone… allow me to aid you. You are not alone in this world, Willow. You have allies, friends… lovers…”
As the worry lingered in his gaze, as his words at once warmed her heart and chilled her core; she suspired.
“I will not make a promise I cannot keep,” she said truthfully.
Though disappointment was clear as he looked at her, he simply smiled.
“Then do not promise,” he said, “Just remember it.”
With her hand reaching to caress his cheek, she stretched up high onto her toes to press her lips to his softly. When she pulled back, her face hardened as she moved out of his grip.
“There is an inn called the Brighthorn in the eastern side of Wayburn,” she said formally, “Find the bartender named Castian. I will send word in a few days when I have completed my task.”
Without waiting for his reply, unable to face a further good bye, Willow commanded the wand and strode through the ethereal portal. As the rasping arcana flung her forward, she stepped out into the shadowed caress of a familiar burned and abandoned temple. As she looked around the remnants of the Asmodean shrine, the memories flooded her mind. So much of her life had changed with the discovery of these walls. It was here that she had first found her Infernal Lord’s touch. It was here that she had met the cunning and conniving man that had thrown her world into utter and blissful turmoil. It was here that she had discovered that there was something about her, something unlike any other woman she had met. In these walls she had truly met herself. She had uncovered her way forward in the world, she had discovered that she was to walk the way of the wicked.
Her steps to the open door way were slow and deliberate. Her mind played over the long journey that had seen her come full circle. It was fitting, she thought, that she had returned with another plan to eliminate the princess. Though this time there would be no poisoned drink, no shadow in the night, and foremost, no failure. This time her assassin would be the foulest creature that roamed the land. He would not slip in unnoticed or hide his approach from the eyes of others. He would bring with him a wave of such terror that men would turn from their own god in hopes of saviour. And there she would be – victorious. Though her motives had changed, she would be ready to complete the plan she had created so long ago – to extinguish the Markadian line.
Looking out into the moonlit night, Willow saw that the overgrown forest had not yet managed to completely hide the grand city of Matharyn from view. As her eyes searched the expansive metropolis on the horizon, she felt the wicked grin creep high upon her lips, and the anticipation thud loudly in her chest.

With a heart full of hunger for the taste of vengeance, and the will to see it complete, she whispered into the night, “I’m home…”

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