Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Chapter 37 - The Manor

The start of the crescent moon hung along the eastern edge of the sky, casting soft shades of grey and white upon the clouds. The warm spring breeze coasted gently through the winding streets, feathering along the top of trees, stirring the freshly fallen leaves in a soft melody of rasping glide. Willow sat atop the sandstone brick railing of the balcony, dangling her legs freely over the steep drop below, staring out across the city view. It was clear from up there, why Matharyn was known for more than one reason as the City of Light. Though the Mitran centre of the country, the Lord of Light prevailing in steadfast devotion, it was the night spectacle that also earned its name. The curving expanse lifted in glorious hills and low dwelling valleys spread out in a grand arch. When evening came to the city, and the fires were lit from within the houses and homes, the scene illuminated in a glorious shimmer of thousands of flickering lights. From her vantage point in the Monteguard Manor, the highest point over the River Danyth, Willow could see the entire city on display.
She held a crystal tumbler within her fingers, sipping the harsh whiskey unhurried, allowing her mind to rethink and recoup with the limber caress of the liquor. As she heard the barest sound of scuffed leather whisper upon the stone behind her; she smiled.
“I had wondered when you would visit,” she said quietly.
“Have you longed for me?” Switch replied smugly, though he sounded disappointed to have not surprised her.
“As much as one longs for a sharp pain in the skull,” she smirked.
Switch laughed, a dastardly and rumbling sound.
“You are still here,” he said conversationally, seating himself beside her, motioning to the manor behind her, “And the place is not bathed in blood. So I take it that your return was received with welcome?”
“Welcome?” she scoffed, “That is an odd way to word it.”
He simply grinned knowingly, though he did not comment further.
“Is there any point in asking?” Willow questioned half heartedly.
“Asking what?” he shrugged, reaching for her bottle to take a long swig from its neck.
She sighed, “Who you are? What your orders were? Who gave them? How you continue to find me? Why you continue to find me…?”
He chuckled in response, shaking his head, “That is a lot of questions for one who does not know whether to simply ask.”
Willow exhaled a long and arduous breath.
“You will not answer truthfully,” she sighed, “Even if I was fortunate enough to guess correctly.”
“There are some things we must accept need to remain unspoken,” Switch replied, “I will defer to the judgement of the Assembly, but there is no harm in asking…”
“The Assembly?” she frowned.
Though he simply grinned knowingly, it was clear he would not mention it further. She looked to him, curiosity heated with intrigue, a vicious hunger for knowledge and truth.
“Who am I?” she frowned deeply.
“You are Willow,” he answered sarcastically, “Has your reunion addled your mind?”
Willow growled in frustration, “Then what am I? What do you know of my birth? What do you know of my origin?”
“Ah,” he smirked, “So you do know…”
“Know what?!” she snapped, “What aren’t you telling me?”
“More than you think,” he sniggered, leaning towards her and whispering conspiratorially, “We should not be talking about you…”
Willow sighed, holding out her empty glass to him. He laughed, pouring her another tall sip of whiskey, before taking another for himself.
“Is there anything you will tell me?” she asked with lacklustre, sipping the strong brew.
Switch watched her, his black eyes swarming with amusement. He reached out to grab hold of her chin, but she swiftly slapped away his hand. He laughed again, though the sound was far darker than before, his intense gaze betraying his calm cheer. He simply watched her, the savage possession clear in his eyes. Though it appeared for a moment as if he would lash out and seize her, he simply grinned.
“I heard that the Monteguard’s have left Talingarde in fear of the war,” he continued, “The word is they fled by ship early this morning, after clearing out more than half of their manor staff.”
“It is easier this way,” Willow shrugged gently, “Their presence complicates matters.”
“I am surprised you did not simply kill them,” Switch commented with a touch of a frown.
“Killed for obeying their master’s word?” Willow scoffed, “Loyalty should be rewarded, not punished.”
“Loyalty?” he chuckled, “You are far more forgiving than I would have imagined. Are you a changed woman? One of love, forgiveness and family?”
Willow looked to him, shrewd eyes attempting to see through the light-hearted façade he paraded. She knew he was not simply who he pretended to be.
“It was not by their hand that I was betrayed,” she rasped quietly, “It was by yours…”
“Betrayed?” he repeated, arching his brow, “That implies disloyalty or a broken promise. You were deceived, because those greater than you knew it must be done. Deception is not simply a game that you alone play at…”
Her frown pulled deeply into her brow, her mind churning over plots and ploys filled with lies and untruths. Although she knew far more than she had before her return to Matharyn; what did she really know? Switch reached out a gentle hand, flicking her bottom lip with his thumb.
“What is wrong, sweet Willow,” he crooned softly, “Did I break your fragile heart?”
As a cold and harsh laugh cawed from her throat, he dragged her face towards him.
“Or did He?” he whispered menacingly.
The words rebounded through her head, as a single thought fought through the haze into clarity. With her frown releasing its grip, her eyes returned to his, an acceptance and understanding within them.
“My heart is His,” she replied with seriousness, “To do with as he wishes.”
A subtle amazement came over his features, as he withdrew his hand from her chin. His curious gaze searched her face, and seemed almost impressed with what he found. He slowly reached into his pocket and withdrew a small scroll, without blinking or releasing eye contact, he held it out to her. She placed her glass tumbler atop the wall and accepted the parchment, ignoring his piercing gaze as she unrolled it and read the contents. As she saw the name scrolled in cursive, the deep frown returned.
“This is a contract?” she asked.
“Indeed,” Switch rasped, tilting his head as he watched her.
“You wish me to believe that some one in Matharyn wishes the High Cardinal Vitallian of Estyllis of Mitra dead?” she laughed in disbelief, “Is this a joke?”
Switch raised his brows, “You will not accept the contract?”
Willow arched an eyebrow, “I did not say that.”
“I never specified that each contract has to come from a client in Talingarde,” Switch shrugged, “Contracts come from all regions, so do targets. This one just happens to be here in Matharyn. I can give it to someone else if you wish…”
“No,” Willow smiled wickedly, “I will accept the contract. Are there any specifics?”
Slowly grinning his appreciation, Switch shook his head.
“Only that he must die,” he rasped, “I shall leave the details up to you…”

On the following day, Willow organised the staff of the manor, setting tasks for each of them. She sent word to her contact in the Brighthorn with details for the expected arrival of the Forsaken. After the house and been cleaned and returned to the standard long held by the family, she had the servants prepare the guest chambers, and arranged new outfits made to exact specifications. They were welcome gifts to her allies; to those she called friends. For Garvana, she had four dresses made from various silks and velvets in dark and muted hues, with matching camisoles of satin. She prepared appropriate jewellery to compliment each one, laid out upon the grand oak dresser, sets of matching earrings, necklaces and bracelets. She was careful to select ones that were not too floral or feminine, ones that held the strength of a dignified woman in her prime. For Bor, she arranged a few sets of sharp jackets and loosely tailored pants, with low cut necklines to be worn in a casual sense of formal. She knew he would be uncomfortable in outfits too elaborate, so she opted for simple and trim. And for Pellius, she commissioned two colonial style coats, gold lined buttons, upon flanks of midnight black and navy blue. She acquired a few sets of fine lined slacks and white button up shirts, along with new leather belts and polished black boots. Lastly, she laid out three pendants, one upon each of their beds. She had contracted the pendants made from obsidian, carved with a cleverly hidden symbol woven between intricate design; the runic mark of the Forsaken.
“Is everything to your liking, mistress?” Atwood asked cordially.
Standing within the opulent dining room, Willow looked around the grand chamber. She smiled as she turned to the aged man. Atwood had been the chamberlain of the Monteguard Manor for almost as long as it had stood. He was one of the few people that Willow truly trusted. For her entire life, he had watched over and cared for her. He knew all of the Monteguard’s secrets, including knowledge of the blasphemous collections that dwelled beneath the main residence. His family had served the noble house through countless generations. Though once, his ancestors bore wretched wings and crooked tails, Atwood held little trace of his tiefling bloodline. Breeding with humans had dwindled the connection, leaving the slight man with simply sharper teeth than those around him. Without studying his face intricately, he would be easily passed by upon inspection. He looked to her with a rare fondness. They had always been close, and though he was merely a servant, Willow had always seen him as simply another grandfather.
“Yes, Atwood,” she answered, “Everything is satisfactory.”
“If I may say so, mistress,” he said, inclining his head, “It is very good to have you home.”
Willow looked to him, sad to see the way age hunched upon his posture, the lines heavier in his face. Knowing that they were alone within the chamber, she approached him and embraced him warmly.
“It is good to see you, old friend,” she said quietly.
His aged face eased, as he smiled towards her, “My you have grown, child.”
Willow chuckled softly, “It has been a long few years.”
“And you are not the young girl you were when you left.”
“No,” she said faintly, looking to the painted portrait of her younger self, “I am not.”
“These guests of yours, mistress,” he said carefully, “Do you trust them?”
Willow frowned for a moment, before she returned her gaze to him.
“Yes,” she said thoughtfully, “They are a tad brash, but they are worthy allies. I have learned to trust them with my life, much as they trust me. We have achieved much together, and we have suffered in the same fate. You need not worry, Atwood. Treat them as honoured guests.”
“Of course, mistress,” he inclined his head, “I shall, as always, defer to your judgement.”

The sun slowly began its descent, as Willow walked the long hallways of her childhood home. With older eyes she looked upon the glorious statues and paintings with a wiser and more appreciative mind. She saw a beauty in the serene landscapes, and a cleverness in the way her parents had subtly decorated the place to celebrate their Chelaxian ancestry. As she strolled through the eastern wing towards the library, she did not notice her feet leading the way of their own accord. When she found herself within the hidden wine cellar, she realised where she had been heading. She approached the rough stone wall beyond the largest of the barrels. With a trembling hand she reached out and pressed the secret stones in order. The wall shuddered, as if the mechanism had rusted in disuse. Slowly, the two halves of the wall pulled open, revealing the shadowed chamber beyond. With a timid stride and weary legs, Willow stepped forward. It was a curious sudden fear that slowed her approach, feeling as much the child as she had been the last time she had looked upon him. She bowed her head in deference as she stepped into the large pentagram upon the floor. She kneeled, remaining still in perfect obedience, as if she expected Asmodeus himself to suddenly appear before her. With careful eyes, she looked up to the overwhelming effigy.
A golden statue immaculately carved in intricate detail formed of her terrifying Infernal Lord. The largest towering devil; razor sharp scales layered in flanks along his skin, eldritch angular horns crowning his head, serrated talons protruding from each finger and toe, a thickened tail with a blade-like barb and long sharpened teeth hanging from his roaring jaw. As she felt her heart beat fasten, racing until it thundered in her chest, she could have sworn the carved runic patterns along the floor pulsed swiftly. She felt a force drawing upon her flesh, beckoning her forward. With no will or want to resist it, she gracefully rose from her subservience, quietly following the force. As she reached the towering statue, she saw the timeworn patch upon the glistening base. It was there, that she had spent the majority of her free time as a child and throughout her young adult life. It was there that she had joined with her Prince of Darkness for endless hours in prayer. And it was there, that the undeniable driving force beckoned her to. With slow movements, she pulled free the laces of her shoes, dropping them upon the stone floor. As she stepped upon the altar, the cold surface of pure gold met with the heated warmth of her skin. She sank down to her knees, reaching out a ginger hand to trace her fingers along the strong scaled leg of the statue. It was from that angle that something caught her eye. Wedged in between the rippling pleats of the golden cape that the carving wore, was a book that she had long forgotten. Willow pulled the tome free from its hiding place, and smiled nostalgically at the infernal script along its cover. It had long been her favourite reading, the chronicles of a brave and terrible paladin of Asmodeus. In the name of the mighty Infernal King, the warrior had quested far across the material planes, in a mission to bring order and rule to human kind. Though clearly embellished for the sake of story, Willow had long dreamt of pairing with such a man, to fight alongside him in his infernal crusade. She laughed as she opened the tome and found a picture she had drawn many years prior. Though her talent surely never lay in artistic pursuits, she could not help but laugh as she saw Pellius’ likeness in the depiction. As the words captured her attention once more, she sank down and leant against the statue, reliving the great tales of hell’s fury.

Willow had not noticed the hours crawl passed as she silently delved into the realm of literature. It was the sound of scraping stone that awoke her from her trance, as the walls parted and Atwood appeared in the cellar.
“Please pardon the intrusion, mistress,” he bowed, “But I thought you would wish to know that your guests have sent word of their arrival.”
Willow swiftly closed the book and lowered her legs to sit up straighter.
“Very well,” she said hurriedly.
“I shall leave to retrieve them at once, would you like the servants to begin dinner preparations?”
“Yes, thank you Atwood,” she nodded.
“Very good, mistress.”
As he departed with a low bow, closing the walls behind him, Willow let out a breath that she had not realised she was holding. She slipped the book back into its hiding place and swiftly made her way back to the main floor. As she climbed the stairs towards her chamber, she felt the peculiar sensation of nervousness creep into her stomach. Though she chastised herself for it, she could not help but feel a small anxiety at the thought of letting the Forsaken into a piece of her past. She knew they would not find the Monteguard Manor in anything less than approval, yet she was still at unease. Their arrival would mean she would need to give some kind of explanation as to how and why she had returned. It meant she had to share a portion of truth with them, and ultimately reveal part of herself. When she returned to her bedchamber, she exhaled sharply. She looked through her brimming wardrobe, passing over layers of lace and satin, pushing aside the bright hues of greens and gold. When she came across a gown of fervent crimson, her fingers lingered over the silk. It was a dress she had commissioned long before the complications of war and battle, even before the years of her married life. She had seen an illustration of it in a Chelaxian book, a high priestess of Asmodeus adorned with scarlet silk upon the Days of Wrath celebrations. Willow had pictured herself wearing such a thing one day. She had pictured herself in a world where devotion to the Lord of Nine was not only accepted, but cherished. It seemed fitting for her to wear it the night of the Forsaken’s arrival in Matharyn. Here, they were going to eradicate the true orchestrator of the Mitran faith. Here, they were going to put an end to the royal Markadian bloodline.
She dressed her hair in a coiling braid that sat atop her head much like an ebony crown, leaving her skin bare and flushed, applying a simple coat of carmine to her lips. As she slipped into the soft silk, she laced the ties around her waist, threading the sash that wound along her side. As she stepped in front of the large ornate mirror, she could not help but smile. Though her reflections was clear and invisible, her flesh no longer reflecting in the glass sheet, she could see the clothing perfectly. When she had commissioned the gown, she had been slender to the point of frail, appearing a child in a woman’s dress. But as she stood and admired the dress’ reflection, her figure filled it out in exactly as a woman should. The silk clung to her waist tightly before falling over the heavy layers of tulle to the floor. The neckline draped across her collarbone, in a softened touch that breathed the slightest air of indecency. Down the left side of the gown, it split as she moved her legs, revealing a dark weft of sable netting beneath. To truly complete the look, she selected a piece of jewellery taken from the dragons horde. A torque lined with ebony gems, that twisted and wrapped around her throat, centred by a single glistening ruby. She did not simply appear like a priestess of Asmodeus; she appeared much as an infernal queen.
When she heard the front door swing open, she left her chamber strolled along the hallway to the head of the stairs.
“Welcome, my lords,” Atwood bowed, as they entered.
Slowly, Willow lifted the long length of her dress slightly and descended the staircase. As she met eyes with the others, she smiled.
“My lady,” Pellius said, appreciative eyes looking her over.
“It seems you have upgraded accommodations since we last met,” Garvana frowned.
“So it would seem,” Willow replied sardonically, arching her brow.
As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she lowered her dress and gracefully approached them. Though his face held unreadable emotions, Pellius stepped forward and bowed to her, gently placing a kiss on her wrist.
“Welcome to the Monteguard Manor,” she presented.
“Am I correct in assuming that if you are here,” Pellius said in intrigue, “The prior lords of the manor, are not?”
As Willow began to answer, Garvana’s sharp tone cut her off.
“Is he to be trusted?” she scowled, pointing to the chamberlain.
Willow looked to Atwood, a slight smirk on her face as they shared a look of understanding.
“Atwood’s loyalty has never been in question,” Willow replied, almost a touch of pride to her words, “He has served the Monteguard family longer than any of us have been alive. He has my complete trust.”
“Thank you, mistress,” Atwood bowed, “To serve you is an honour.”
Willow inclined her head warmly, before returning her sight to the others. When she looked over their travel-worn clothes, tired and weary faces, she smiled.
“Atwood will show you to the guest quarters,” she said cordially, “You will find a change of clothes and hot water already in the baths. We shall discuss the rest over dinner in an hour.”
Though the confusion and caution were clear in their faces, Atwood ushered them towards the western wing. As Pellius turned to follow, Willow laid a gentle staying hand on his forearm.
“I apologise if it was presumptuous of me,” she said softly, “But I have prepared your stay in my quarters… if you wish to stay alone, I can easily have the servants prepare a private chamber.”
Pellius frowned gently as he searched her eyes.
“With you will be suitable, my lady,” he said, inclining his head.
“Very well,” she said politely, turning for the stairs, “Follow me…”
When they reached her quarters, she sealed the door closed behind him and escorted him through the private parlour and into the main bedroom.
“The bathing chamber is through that door,” she pointed, “The dressing room is to the right, and the balcony is out the glass doors through there.”
“Willow,” he frowned, placing his pack down beside the dresser, “Why do you seem so nervous?”
“Nervous?” she dismissed, “Do not be foolish. I am not nervous.”
He stalked to her, grasping her hands as he looked into her eyes.
“Then why are your hands shaking, my lady?” he questioned, tilting his head, “And why do you ask me if it alright if we share a bed? Have I not shared your bed for the last two years?”
Willow held her breath as she looked to him. Deceiving him was pointless. He knew how to read the thoughts in her eyes, and understand the words before she spoke them. She exhaled sharply, pulling from his hold as she paced the chamber.
“There is much to tell you,” she began, “And I am unsure exactly how, or what to tell you.”
“You know I will listen,” he said softly.
She sighed, shaking her head gently.
“Perhaps it is best if you freshen up first,” she said quietly, “I will get some wine. I think, I shall need it…”

“They are not dead,” she sighed, sipping heavily upon the red in her glass, “They have returned to Cheliax.”
“Your parents?” Pellius frowned, “They were gone when you returned?”
“No,” she said softly, “They were here.”
“You simply allowed them to leave?” he asked in disbelief.
“It is…” she began, “Far more complicated than you think. Than I thought, than I could have ever thought. There is so much that I did not know, so many secrets, and I have only unravelled the slightest hint of them.”
“I am sorry, my lady,” he frowned deeply, “But I do not understand. You have been seething and craving your revenge for so long, yet you simply let them live?”
“They had done no wrong…” she replied, “They had only followed orders.”
“No wrong, Willow?” he balked, “They sent you into a death trap! They betrayed you!”
“No…” she smiled sadly, “They didn’t. I was, deceived… but never betrayed. They were not the orchestrators of my downfall, just simple pawns in a great game. They were merely, messengers, if you will.”
“Messengers?” he scoffed, motioning around the luxuriant chamber, “It must have been someone truly powerful to treat such people as mere messengers.”
“It was by the word of Asmodeus himself…” she whispered, eyes downcast, “They were told that for me to truly rise to greatness, I must fall and truly know the bitter despair of failure. They were instructed to leave a note signifying that I was ready to take on the beginning… of a journey of growth. They simply made the choice, knowing that I would be arrested. They had no more a hand in what followed than I.”
“They are hardly innocent,” he scowled.
“It was not them that summoned the guards, it was not them that whispered my guilt to my husband. It was him, it was all Swi-”
She froze as she realised she was about to reveal Switch’s hand in it all. Pellius knew she had kept another lover, though they did not speak of who he was. She had never truly revealed anything of him, only saying enough to establish that Willow was not jeopardising their missions by fooling around with someone she shouldn’t. Though technically she could not say the same of herself, she never felt their liaison put the others in harms way. Revealing his part in her downfall only raised more questions, ones she did not have answers to. Somehow he knew who, or what, she was.
Though Pellius’ eyes narrowed at her words, he simply remained silent.
“My point is simply,” she said quickly, “That my parents did not believe they were sentencing me to death. Quite the opposite, they thought they were truly allowing me to live. To live right, by Asmodeus’ will. When I returned, I planned to devour them. I planned to slit their throats and watch them slowly die. I thought I would surprise them while they slept, fat and happy in their beds. But I did not find happiness. All I found was heart ache and sorrow. I found two truly tormented souls, broken and crestfallen souls. They believed they had unknowingly sentenced their daughter to death. Once I had gone, the whispers of our infernal father ceased. And then nothing. No word, no contact; nothing. The guilt and blame took complete hold. I do know how much of their minds truly remain after the torment they have lived over the last few years…”
“I could not kill them,” she said quietly, “They had only followed orders, His orders. I could not bring myself to kill them – so I forgave them. But I could not have them here. I could not have them in the very city we plan to attack. I do not know what I feel towards them anymore, I do not know what they deserve, but it is not death. Not by my hand, or by the maw of a black wyrm. So I sent them away…”
“And they did not ask you to come along?” he sneered.
“Quite the opposite,” Willow said with a small and sad laugh, “The begged me to give up the life I know now and return with them. They pleaded. But, of course, I could not. They do not know what it is we are doing. They do not know what we are to achieve. But they are broken souls, I do not know if they will ever be who they once were…”

After an hour had passed, Pellius buttoned up his new coat, and offered an arm to Willow. As she accepted it, she guided him through the hallways to return to the balcony of the main stairs, as they began to descend, he looked up to the large doors on the eastern side of the upper floor.
“They are my parents’ chambers,” she said quietly when she saw him, “Please do not enter them. Though they have taken most of their belongings, I do not wish what remains to be disturbed.”
“As you wish, my lady,” he nodded politely.
When she guided them into the rich and formal dining room, she found Bor and Garvana awaiting them. Garvana wore the vibrant emerald frock that Willow had commissioned, with loose sleeves to soften the hardness of her muscular frame, and tight ruching around the waist to give her the appearance of one. Bor had attempted to dress for the occasion, wearing his new slacks and shirt, but still appeared as much the rough orc as he always had.
“It is a grand manor,” Garvana said cordially, “In an amazing location. I have never been to the Golden Bow, I’ve only ever heard stories of it.”
“I am glad you approve,” Willow smiled, inclining her head in thanks as Pellius pulled out her chair at the head of the table, “I take it your rooms are adequate?”
“Adequate?” Bor laughed, “I’ve never stayed in something so posh.”
“I will take that as a yes?” Willow questioned with a laugh, “And the clothing? I had it made to order so it should fit well.”
“Yes,” Garvana beamed, “It is lovely.”
“And you look splendid in green, Garvana,” Willow grinned, “Or maybe it is simply that you look splendid in a dress, rather than hidden behind bulking steel.”
Garvana blushed heavily, “Thank you.”
“I would like to prepose a toast,” Willow said proudly, lifting her glass, “To us. To the Forsaken. May the rest of the world never know our names until it is far too late!”
Though the others cheered and raised their glasses, Garvana looked around the room in clear suspicion. She lowered her glass and slowly sipped from it, eyes locked to the golden haired servant that placed her entrée in front of her.
“Marianna,” Willow beckoned, “What is it we are eating tonight?”
“Entrée is baked pheasant with pinenut and leek sauté, mistress,” the deferent woman said quietly, eyes downcast, “For main we have braised darkfin with artichoke and blue cheese. And for dessert, we have organised a surprise for celebration of your return, mistress.”
“A surprise?” Willow arched an eyebrow, “Very well, Marianna, carry on.”
When she left the chamber, and Willow sipped upon the light and clear wine, Garvana leaned in with a deepened frown.
“You trust all of them?” she whispered, “We may speak freely in front of them?”
“You may,” Willow smiled, “The ones that remain have been hand picked by me for the surety of their loyalty. Most have been with the Monteguard’s for generations. They are well trained in keeping their eyes and ears shut.”
“But why would they serve you if they know your parents betrayed you?” Garvana asked.
“And where are your parents?” Bor frowned, “Did you kill them?”
Willow looked to Pellius for a moment, before she sighed heavily. She knew she needed to explain the outline but was far more relucent to do so when the others knew so little about the inner workings of her mind, and even less about her past.
“They have returned to Cheliax,” she said simply, “I was mistaken in my understanding of their actions. Asmodeus has his way of controlling events to play out the way he wishes. I have simply been part of a move that I did not foresee. Sending them back to Cheliax, to escape the war and the horror we are bringing to the city, it keeps matters simple.”
While her answer was vague, it seemed enough to satisfy their curiosity.
“And it is not more obvious that you are here if they are gone and the manor continues to be occupied?” Garvana frowned.
“A manor house needs to be tended to even when the masters are away,” Willow shrugged, “And besides, we are upon the Golden Bow. We do not simply receive visitors up here. Did you not see the guards at each gate along the road? I know we are in the centre of the city, but it is the best place for us to hide.”
“And when we need something, we simply walk out the front door?” Garvana scoffed.
“I would never trap myself in with only a single way out,” Willow smirked, “Come now, let us enjoy a nice dinner and after I shall show you why I am so content hiding here until Chargammon arrives…”

When dessert arrived from the kitchen, each dish was accompanied by a separate servant. Upon each plate was a perfectly circular sphere of the darkest cocoa blend, smooth and glistening, as if simply floating along the plate. In practiced unison, the plates were served and each servant withdrew a small ornate jug filled with steaming melted chocolate. In a true show of marvel, they poured the liquid over the domes, and suddenly the domes dissipated to reveal a small intricate tart hidden within. Willow could not help but laugh as Garvana’s eyes flew wide, instinctively rasping her arcane incantation to determine what magic was at play. When her frown indicated as Willow had assumed, that nothing but fine gourmet artistry caused the illusion, she sank back into her chair in wonder. Marianna was ever the professional servant, the smallest arch to her brow at the rude and curious table manners of the bewildered woman.
“Tell Gregor that we are pleased,” Willow commented to the servants, “His creation is marvellous.”
“Thank you, mistress,” they bowed in unison, before swiftly exiting the chamber.
“You grew up with this?” Bor grinned, “No wonder you hated sleeping in a tent.”
Willow laughed, “I was raised in a life of privilege, but I did not appreciate it then. It has taken tents, and a lot of bloodshed, to make me realise what I was given. It is fun to play at the lady of the house…” she paused, with a frown pulling tightly, “But I am unsure if I could return to such a… simple life.”
She stared at the immaculately arranged dessert. It was a truthful and harsh statement, that resounded deep with her. After all they had been through, after the unrelenting onslaught of battle, the contestant vigilance and tireless fight; how could she return to this?
“I apologise,” she said quietly, placing her fork upon the table, “I seem to have lost my appetite. Please, continue. I must excuse myself for a moment.”
Pellius was quick to pull out her chair, as she placed her napkin upon the table and stood. She inclined her head to him as she departed through the large ornate doors that led to the ball room. Slowly, she strolled across the gleaming tiles, finding her way to the great marble bench along the southern wall. As she sat, her mind twisted and churned, curious thoughts of a future that had not yet come to pass. They still had much to achieve. There was still so much fighting and repelling against the tide of battle. But when it was all said and done, what were they to do? Were they supposed to return to their lives before? The home of Matharyn that she knew would never be the same. It would be better, she knew, for the Lord of the Nine would reign supreme. But was she supposed to return to a life of parties and balls, nobles and commoners, everyday life? How could she? After crusading against legendary beings of light and good, how could she simply return to the stagnant life of an every day human? Or would there never be an end to the battle? Would there always be a foe to fight, a force of good rebelling against the hierarchy of hell? Would she want that? If there was no end to her struggles, no end to the turmoil of the great war between good and evil, chaos and order? In the days and years that had passed, in her service to Cardinal Thorn, she was given no time to consider the aftermath of their strenuous campaign. But as she sat dressed in the finest materials, layered in the rarest of jewellery, seated within the grandest and most opulent of manors; was that all she was to know after the fall of Talingarde?
“My lady?” came Pellius’ voice to break her spiralling reverie, “Are you alright?”
Willow smiled cordially and stood from her perch.
“Yes,” she said politely, “I simply needed a little air. Perhaps the decadent food is too much too quickly.”
He approached her slowly, soft eyes reading her face.
“Food does not pull that line upon your brow, Willow,” he said knowingly, “It is usually worry that does. What is wrong?”
She scowled at his ability to read her emotions so clearly, but she smiled as she looked to him.
“I am alright,” she reassured, “My mind is simply being given to much time to think. Idleness is not my forte.”
“I could not imagine it so,” he grinned slyly.
Willow laughed softly as she looked out around the richly appointed ballroom. As she did, she sighed, her smile faltering.
“There are so many memories in the house,” she said quietly, “And yet, I am forced to rethink them. What I thought I truly understood, what drove me and inspired me in spite… I have come to believe I was wrong.”
“What do you mean?” he frowned, “What do you speak of?”
Though her thoughts were wrapped in the words of her parents, Willow’s gaze lingered upon the grand piano, as her mind recalled the endless nights spent listening to one of the servants play ballads and tunes of Chelaxian war tales.
“It does not matter,” she shook her head, “It is things I must decipher on my own.”
“Willow…” he began.
“Do not worry,” she hushed him, “If I need your help, Pellius, I assure you I will ask for it. Come along, I suppose it is time I give you all a tour of the manor, and its secrets…”

While the table was cleared and the servants bustled in hurry, Willow led the three of them towards the main library. The Forsaken were silent as they observed the grand portraits of the past members of the Monteguard house, pausing momentarily to behold the surpassing beauty of the sculptures and statues that lined the hall. When she opened the great double doors to the repository of literature and lore, the smell of parchment and paper greeted them.
“I see where your fascination of books comes from,” Bor commented with a laugh.
Willow rose her brows with a grin, “You do not know the half of it.”
While they followed her through, with searching eyes of curiosity, she escorted them towards the most northern shelving.
“If you need to go this way, and I am not accompanying you,” she said quietly, “Look for Bitholemu Herragreen and his works on hidden truths of the shadow plane.”
She reached behind the heavy tome and pressed the wooden panel firmly. The entire shelve slowly retreated into the wall and opened inward, revealing the cast iron spiral stairs that disappeared below into darkness. Willow lifted the ever-burning torch from the library wall and began to descend the stairs, with the others following closely behind. When she reached the underground floor, she heard the muffled whispers of the others as they stepped into the large wine cellar.
“You may help yourself,” she chuckled, “The supplies have dwindled of recent years, but you will still find much here that you cannot find anywhere upon Talingarde soil.”
As she slowly wound her way through the large barrels towards the hidden sitting room, her eyes lingered on the temple chamber wall. She was willing to share the existence of the escape routes and forbidden lore within the underground hollow, but to reveal the shrine was to reveal a part of herself. She looked away, quickly walking to the other wall and pushing the hidden buttons to open the disguised door. As they entered the small chamber, she led them through the orderly office and silently continued through it to open the way to the library.
“What is this?” Garvana asked, eyes wide.
“The Monteguard’s collection of forbidden lore,” she explained, “When the Asmodean purges began in Talingarde, the head of the house was given special recompense for his service to the state. We were given the chance to denounce Asmodeus, and embrace Mitra. Rather than face a pointless death, the family agreed. But not all was surrendered to the fire. When the manor was built, every carpenter, labourer and builder were either shipped back to Cheliax or killed to keep the underground chambers secret. The Mitrans never knew of its existence. So the family stored the forbidden lore and relics here, giving up only texts and tomes that they had copies of. It is possibly the greatest collection of Asmodean lore left on Talingarde…”
With eyes of wonder, the three of them slowly spread out among the overwhelming stacks and shelves. She watched Garvana gingerly stroke her finger along the spine of an infernal tome, holding her breath as she took in the sight. Willow could not read the emotions on Pellius’ face, he seemed cold and closed off, as if deep thoughts ran through his mind. And Bor simply strolled through the passages, a slight frown on his brow.
“You are welcome in here whenever you wish,” Willow said cordially, “I ask only that you return the books to where they belong, and read them only within this library, the sitting room or your own chambers. Please do not leave them lying around the house. The staff will pay no mind to what you are reading, but most of them do not know the existence of this hall.”
Willow walked to the far end of the chamber, smoothing her hand over the stone brick wall.
“There is one more thing,” she called, gathering them together, “This leads out into the cliff face of River Danyth. You may leave and return by this if you wish, but be sure you are not seen of followed. If you do not think you can return without being tailed, or you simply do not wish to walk, send word to Castian and the staff will send someone to collect you.”
Willow deftly unlatched the hidden poison dart trap, making a visual show of how to do it, pressing in the hidden panel to open the brick wall and reveal the shadowed black tunnel.
“And do not forget to reset everything when you return.”
“How do the Mitrans not know it is here?” Pellius asked suspiciously, finally speaking.
“The Monteguard manor was once the only house on the hill,” Willow recalled, “When the Iraen fell to the Barcan line, the Golden Bow was little more than a great hill that shielded the old palace from the force of the great winds from the western seas. When the Monteguard’s arrived with the Victor to conquer and overthrow the Barcans, they were awarded much land and right to build prominence in the city. And so they built their manor upon the grand hill, with words to watch vigilantly over the palace. Over time, they sold portions of their land to other noble houses, forty three of them to be exact, that wished to mirror the Monteguard’s statement. This manor was built by Asmodean hands, it and its secrets stand as testament to that.”
“Where do you pray?” Garvana asked, innocent eyes still marvelling around the chamber, “I would have thought such a grand manor would house a shrine room…”
Suddenly, Willow felt a vicious suspicion and possessiveness overcome her. She stared harsh and shrewd eyes towards the muscular woman. Though Garvana intended no harm in her questioning, the implication of her words rasped within Willow. It took a moment for her to simmer her thoughts. There was no need for raised suspicion, there was no need to remain hostile and protective against those who stood within the chamber. She trusted them, and she knew she could trust them with the knowledge of the shrine. In fact, she knew there was no one in Talingarde more likely to appreciate the marvel for what it was.
“Come with me,” she said quietly, raising her brows high.
She led them back through the chambers until they returned to the grand cellar. She slipped between the barrels and approached the large rough stone wall. With a straight back and tension holding her figure, she exhaled slowly. Revealing what lay beyond the wall, was akin to revealing part of her soul. Slowly, she lifted her hand and pushed the stones, carving the inverted pentagram into the stone. As the stone scraped along the floor, the two halves parted once more. There he was, standing tall and fierce, towering over those who approached by slow and careful footsteps. Willow carefully stepped into the runic circle upon the floor, kneeling down and bowing low in subservience to the mighty statue. As the others followed suit, she felt a spark of warmth light in her heart. She slowly rose, stepping closer to the shrine before turning back towards them.
“This,” she said proudly, “Is the Monteguard’s greatest secret. You are welcome to use the ritual chamber for meditation and prayer. But I cannot insist firmly enough, you must keep the doors sealed.”
“What is this made from?” Garvana breathed in wonder, studying the intricate runes along the floor, “I have never seen such a thing.”
“It is crystallised ruby,” Willow smiled, “Melted with arcane flame and mixed with mithral glass.”
“It is a summoning circle, yes?”
“Yes,” she nodded, a firmness to her voice, “As I said, you may use the chamber for prayer and meditation, but please, do not touch anything.”
As Garvana’s eyes lit up with amazement, gazing up at the foreboding and terrible figure, she nodded her understanding in silence. Bor strolled to the east of the chamber, eyes trailing over the curious concoctions that lined the shelves. As Willow’s warning rang out, Pellius withdrew his hand from the bloodstained altar. The cracked marble table told tale of its countless use, dark mahogany tendrils of past sacrifice. When Willow watched him, she saw the sudden bloodlust that flourished in his face. He too, felt the ever nearing change of the vampiric curse. He too, felt the siren song of the bitter thirst for blood. As she watched him, she saw the linger of sickness, unfocused eyes as his breathing grew laboured. Quietly approaching him, she pulled on his arm gently and ushered him to the side of the chamber.
“Are you alright?” she hushed.
When she drew close, she saw the sheen of sweat that formed upon his brow, his pale white skin a hollow and ghostly green.
“I think there was garlic in the pheasant,” he grimaced, “It is strange, food has begun to taste as if hinted with ash, no drink seems to quench the aching thirst. And when I wake from sleep, I am more tired and drawn out then when I lay my head down.”
“I know,” she smiled, “I feel as if I have not slept in weeks.”
With the back of his hand, he wiped the sweat from his brow.
“I was unaware that dying would be such work,” he grinned.
As Willow chuckled, the motion thundered in her stomach, a sudden weakness and fatigue dragging upon her chest. Her legs trembled as she struggled to keep herself upright. Her lungs wheezed as she fought with them to draw breath.
“My lady?” Pellius said gently, swiftly reaching out to support her unstable weight.
“I am fine,” she dismissed, pushing through the symptoms to lift her head and hide her struggle, “I am simply tired.”
She turned to the others, “You are all welcome to move about the manor as you wish. I ask only that you do not enter the eastern chambers on the upper floor. If you will excuse me, I believe I shall retire for the evening…”

The beginning of the crescent moon hung along the edge of the sky, casting shades of grey and white upon the encompassing clouds. As Willow lay wrapped with the silken sheets, torches doused and blinds shut, the realm of slumber was kept out of her reach. She could feel it. She could feel death upon her. She knew that when she closed her eyes, she would not awaken with the drawing of living breath. As she heard the chamber doors open and seal shut, she recognised the familiar stride. Thinking she was asleep within the shadowed room, Pellius walked softly upon the floor, placing the books he had borrowed upon the bed stand. While he moved about the chamber, she simply listened. She could hear his beating heart, and if she strained, she could hear the faintest sound of blood coursing through his veins. The simple thought of it forced her fangs to slide down, her limbs tingling in anticipation, her hunger surging untold.
“You are awake,” came his voice, after the sound of Willow’s ragged breathing began, “You cannot sleep, my lady?”
He turned to her, his loose fitting shirt hanging low upon his collar, his firm throat bare to her. With no way to stop it, a groan of restraint slipped from her lips.
“Willow?” he said slyly, raising his brow as he prowled towards her.
“I can feel it,” she rasped, “I can feel the curse taking over.”
“So too can I,” he breathed, eyes alight as they raked over her silk covered figure.
“I do not have the strength to contain it,” she strained, clenching her eyes shut to shield his bare skin from view, lest she leap upon him and drain him entirely.
She felt the touch of his warm hand trace along the outline of her stomach.
“Then do not,” he whispered viciously.
No,” she snarled, “I know it is coming to an end, I can feel it. I will not awaken alive tomorrow.”
“You are sure?” he rasped.
When she looked to him, she felt her pupils convulse and dilate. She could feel the sickly paleness to her skin, she could feel the insatiable hunger seething inside her. Slowly, he sank down into the bed, leaning over her with eyes of enrapture.
Leave me!” she growled, “I cannot keep control much longer.”
His lips lifted into a savage and sinful grin, two sharp fangs glistening in the smallest touch of light, as his rough hand gripped her throat and pulled her face towards him.
Then let it go,” he breathed wickedly his own bloodlust fuelling his words, “Sate your living self one last time, and reawaken as something far greater.”
Willow trembled in his crushing grasp, bright eyes livid with ravenous desire, limbs swarming with desperate need. Though eager hands slowly reached for him, it was as it always was; on his terms. With a frightening strength, he lifted Willow into the air and slammed her chest against the heavy oak headboard. As she felt his weight push against her, his grip on her throat pulled her neck backward until her back was flush with his chest. He turned her head and forced her to bare her throat to him. She felt the sharp points of his fangs drag along her flesh.
“If you are correct,” he breathed, warm air feathering along her sweat-drenched skin, “Then this will be the very last time I may feed on you. It is a shame… for you have such beautiful skin…”
With far more control than she would ever have been able to muster, Pellius slowly sank his fangs deeply into her flesh. As he drew the blood from the slits on her neck, she whimpered in blissful agony, feeling his other hand achingly slowly trail lower down her body. Though she urged him to move faster, to be rougher and wild; he simply continued his infuriating slow pace – never releasing his paralysing grip on her throat. When his hand had almost reached exactly where she needed it so desperately to be, he veered it away just as slowly. With fangs that throbbed as they plunged from her jaw, she growled her utter frustration. His dark and dastardly laugh as he released his drink from her neck, sent violent shivers along her spine that stilled her bodies defiance. His words crept deep into Willow’s mind, leaving her powerless and quivering in anticipation.

“You have given me one night,” he breathed, rasping into her ear, “Then it shall be the longest night of your life…”

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