Monday, 27 February 2017

Chapter 39 - A Plague of the Heart

Shadows clung to the crevices in the jagged stone that lined the walls, shapes and patterns cast by the light of a single simmering flame. Hidden deep within the underground, compressed by the heavy weight of foreboding dread, surrounded by the ruins of a time long passed. As the decades had gone by, the stone had formed into tapering structures, from the ceiling the salts dripped and hardened into rough and protruding stalactites. Eyes of feral and savage glee gazed upon them, black as night and cold as ice.
“Who told you we were coming?” Pellius asked suspiciously.
The towering devil’s grin slid higher upon his cheeks, creasing the skin of his eldritch face.
“You know exactly who,” he rasped, his deep and resonating voice echoing through the chamber, “And of course, here you are.”
The beast looked to Willow, devouring eyes of barely restrained hunger.
“The Nameless One…” he smirked.
He looked to Bor, “The Renegade…”
He arched his brow towards Garvana, “The Prophet…”
Finally, his gaze came to rest upon Pellius, “And The Fist…”
The Forsaken stared towards him, frowns of suspicion and intrigue upon their brows.
“Prophet,” he growled, flashing his eyes at Garvana, “You have the power to free me.”
“I do,” she replied coldly, narrowing her sight, “But such a thing always comes at a price.”
Though his lip curled with distaste, he motioned to a curious of collection of items strewn within the pentagram.
“You may take these,” he snarled, “Along with your lives…”
Garvana brow rose high as she stared down the terrible fiend.
“How did you come to be trapped within this circle?” Willow asked, tilting her head curiously.
Suddenly, his fearsome chain lashed out, carving chunks from the stone inches above her head. Though she was not a stranger to outbursts of vicious fury, the proximity and precision of the hacking stone had her shudder in reaction. His feral grin seethed with venom as he looked to her in ferocious warning.
“It is impolite to ask such a thing,” he gritted through his teeth.
Though Willow felt the blazing heat of hell’s embrace while standing in the presence of the terrifying horned devil, another pulsing drum thundered in the chamber. Garvana screeched a savage cry, calling upon the Infernal Lord to encompass her figure. Her skin bled a seething scarlet, her muscles swelled and expanded, her height rising higher. Two jagged horns shot from her skull, long sharp teeth fell from her lips, talons extended from her thickened fingers. When she spoke, her voice deepened into a feral hiss.
“You wish freedom?” she rasped, “Then you shall receive it, in return for your name.”
A malicious growl rumbled from the devil’s chest, surging anger and ire spiralling far from his control. His chain suddenly lashed in a whirlwind of fury, lunging towards Garvana. Though its links simply ricocheted off the steel casing of her armour, it wrapped viciously around her leg, coiling in a crushing embrace. With terrifying strength, the fiend yanked violently on the chain, tearing Garvana from her feet as she crashed into the stone floor. As she was dragged towards him, Pellius and Bor leapt into action. Pellius drew his weapon from its holster, thrusting its handle into the enormous fist that gripped the chain. Though he pummelled with all of his might, the fiend’s hand barely flinched. Bor grabbed Garvana’s arm, heaving as hard as he could; but found himself unable to stop her drawing further towards the devil. As the fearsome beast reached his free hand for Garvana, Willow snarled.
Stop this infantile display!” she seethed, with enough venom to draw the devil’s gaze, “Are we no more than a pack of savages? Can we not simply converse like civil creatures?”
Though his gaze remained upon her, his hand continued its path to grab hold of Garvana by the throat.
“It seems some of your number are more uncouth than your words,” the devil rasped.
Slowly, he lifted Garvana high into the air, ignoring Bor and Pellius’ attempts to free her. As he turned towards the centre of the pentagram, holding Garvana almost fifteen feet in the air, Willow stepped forward.
Release her!” she snarled, eyes flashing a menacing crimson.
The fiend returned his head towards her, raising his brutish brow in intrigue.
“As you wish,” he grinned, throwing Garvana’s enlarged body into the floor, cracking the stone under the weight of her collision.
“Killing me will not free you!” Garvana snarled.
“No,” he grinned, “But it will be much entertainment watching you suffer, it will be some time until you eventually die…”
“This is foolish!” Willow snapped, “You think we would be tempted by mere gold and trinkets? I do not care to know your name, but you know there is much you could simply tell us in return for your freedom.”
As the devil ignored her words, Bor roared in anger. He threw himself forward, leaping into the air in an attempt to grab hold of the fiend’s carmine scaled neck. Quicker than eyes could follow, the fiend’s tale lashed out and swung wide, with might enough to throw Bor backward into the wall.
Stay out of this, renegade,” he warned viciously, “I will deal with you later.”
“You will deal with me now,” Bor growled, standing from the floor, drawing his blade in threat.
A hideous glee lit the devil’s face, a hunger for bloodshed being given right to unleash. As he turned towards Bor, venom dripping within his gaze, his grin slithered higher in thirst.
“ENOUGH!” Willow screeched, looking over all of them with frustration, “This is pathetic! Pointless fighting will give us nothing but carnage! You wish your freedom, and you think this is the best way to get it?! We draw our blades, and either you die or we do! I will not die for such a pointless venture!”
“Ah,” the fiend crooned, “Wisdom. Very well, let us settle this traditionally, by the old way.”
“A trial by combat,” Pellius agreed sternly.
“It is the old way for a reason,” Willow scoffed, shaking her head gently, “Brawn against brawn, no room for acuity, leading to pointless bloodshed.”
“Words of the weak,” the fiend rasped harshly.
“On the contrary,” Willow replied, arching her brow, motioning to all of them, “A wise mind leads while the muscle merely follows.”
“The greatest generals of hell lead by force!” the fiend growled angrily.
“No,” Willow laughed harshly, “They did not get where they are by simply wading through the carnage. They choose their battles. They know which weapon is best suited to which fight; whether it be words or blades.”
As a moments pause lingered in a slow breath from the devil’s chest, Willow watched the scene in intrigue. Garvana remained on the ground, under the crushing weight of the fiend’s foot. Though she appeared ready to launch into defensive battle, a curious frown of doubt pulled upon her brow. Pellius stood to the side of the chamber, his mighty greataxe held tightly in hand. Though a warning of tempered fury clenched his teeth, his unwavering control held it in check, as he allowed Willow’s attempt to converse with the fiend a chance. With a seething hatred, Bor held his threatening stance, ready and eager for the opportunity of mighty contest. Yet, it was the fiend’s curious reaction that had Willow awaiting his response with bated breath. Though she would prefer to dissolve the conflict and simply talk to the devil, knowing well the secrets he held and knowledge in which he could divulge to them; she knew it was a futile attempt. The horned devil was not a being of words and diplomacy; he was one among the deadliest of the archdevils’ warriors and able commanders of lesser fiends. His kind spread the rule of Hell wherever they walked. The greater devils were trained, forged, and reforged to be among the most lethal, merciless, and obedient warriors in the hierarchy of Hell. They were beings of pure battle and bloodshed. What she was asking him to do, was to go against the very nature of what he was created to be. So it was, that she felt a portion of pride as she watched him battle the logic of her words, to hesitate for even a moment as he finally dismissed them in anger.
Enough of this!” he roared, “I will not succumb to your silver tongue! Choose, renegade! Do you wish weapons, or fists?!”
Bor grinned a feral joy, brandishing his vicious blade, “Weapons.”
“Very well,” the devil seethed, looking to Willow, “The rules of conduct shall be presided by the wise one, of course.”
Willow arched her brow as she looked to Bor, conceding to his eagerness as she curtly nodded her agreement. The fiend finally released Garvana from the heavy weight, slowly prowling in preparation to attack. Garvana swiftly stood, escaping the pentagram as she joined Willow and Pellius to watch the duel unfold. The chain lashed relentlessly, tearing shreds of flesh from Bor’s arms and legs, while his blade plunged deep into scarlet scaled skin. It was a terrifying display of raw and brutal violence, bloods of black and crimson spraying the stone in a sickening portrait of sheer strength. Bor lunged forward to strike the fiend, without care for defence as the talons of the beast clawed across him. As he leapt towards him with his vicious blade carving mighty devastation, the devil struck out with his feral thorned tail, striking him directly in the stomach. As the sadistic point of the tail withdrew from his skin, it left ebony tendrils of searing wrath in its wake. The blackened wisps spiralled along Bor’s flesh, painting trails of seething malice. Though he paid it no mind and continued his relentless onslaught, the malevolent furling wisps pulsed in savage glee. While they clashed weapons and traded bestial blow for blow, Willow honoured the tradition and remained silent. She watched the duel with wide eyes of authority, knowing she must accept the result of duel without question. Bor had entered the barbaric act with full understanding of how it would be played out. Only one of them would leave alive, and there would be no intrusion or aid from those who watched. As the blades hacked and barbs tore, the blood continued to cascade. With a fearsome and feral cry, Bor threw himself forward with his blade. The edge of the sword thrust through the chest of the fiend, as his chain swung with the last muster of his strength. As it collided with Bor’s skull, it ruthlessly ripped chunks of skin and hair from his scalp. Though his eyes rolled back in his head, he screamed a savage wrath and propelled his blade further through the chest of the devil. As seconds passed, and the sounds of wheezing breath ricocheted off of the chamber walls, the fiend finally fell to his death. Slowly, his limp body slid down the length of the sword, until his collapsed atop it in a thundering slump that shook the stone beneath their feet.
Garvana was quick to Bor’s side, calling forth the divine healing to repair the worst of the wounds. She growled as she fought the will of the dark tendrils that wrapped around Bor’s torso like spiralling vines. With a push of willpower, she surged the arcana through her white and shining hands. Though his eyes had closed, Bor suddenly choked upon the blood that had pooled in his throat, coughing up slick and coagulated crimson. After he hurled the contents of his stomach to the floor, he slowly stood upon his trembling legs. While Pellius helped steady Bor, Willow approached Garvana’s side, a deep and disappointed frown clenching her brows.
“You cannot be so brash,” she scalded, “You must learn to show more respect than that, Garvana. You could have killed one of the Knot, with your loose and irreverent tongue.”
“He did not die,” came her bitter reply.
“Yet he could have,” she snapped, “Because you could not keep your ego in check!”
Willow turned from her, shaking her head as she looked over Bor. His sheepish grin had her smile fondly despite herself.
Bor chuckled through a rasping throat, “Tougher than he looked…”

Leaving behind the bloodstained chamber, the Forsaken moved about the ancient and abandoned temple. While Garvana and Pellius decided to speak with the necromancer’s soul for more information on the fiend’s presence, Willow took time to slowly peruse the other chambers that linked the lost place of worship. As her eyes scanned the decrepit and rotten debris that once decorated the halls, she listened to the summoning in intrigue.
“Who was the devil in the lower chamber?” came Garvana’s stern question.
I know not who he is,” an ethereal voice wailed.
“Who summoned and imprisoned him?”
The woman did…
“Who is she?” Garvana growled in frustration.
She, who searches…”
A brief silence met his words, before Pellius intervened.
“What does she search for?”
As his question lingered, Willow strolled to the archway, to peer into the main chamber. Just as she saw the limp body of the deceased and withered necromancer, she watched his frail bones lift and point a trembling finger towards Bor.
She searches… for him…
As the enchantment released, withdrawing the arcana from his vessel, the life vanished once more from the mans body. He slumped to the ground, returning to the bitter embrace of death.
“For you?” Pellius frowned, “Do you know who would be searching for you?”
“No,” Bor growled, crushing his brow firmly.
“Someone from your past?” Garvana offered, though her voice was laced with suspicion.
“I have never been to Talingarde before now,” Bor snarled, beginning to pace the length of the chamber, “At least I cannot remember being here!”
While Garvana soothed his temper, Willow returned to her exploration, an eyebrow arched high in curiosity. It vexed her to no end that Bor’s past remained so shrouded; although she had spent much time with him, she knew so little. As her feet guided her further through the doorways, she smiled as she mused on the devil’s words. The Prophet, The Renegade and The Fist. They were fitting names; well suited titles. Garvana, the eager student, inspired teacher and proclaimer of the will of Asmodeus. Her devotion to his will and his way was passionate and absolute. As she moved through the journey of devout and pious servitude, her reverence for Him only grew. Then there was Bor, the being who escaped Hell itself. The soul condemned to eternity in the misery and torture of the walls of Nessus. The one who treacherously denied his fate, and commanded a second chance for himself. And Pellius; the judge, the jury and the executioner. The enforcer of Asmodeus’ retribution, the leader of his crusade, and the last cleaving blade before death. He followed the Infernal Lord’s word, and endured to ever serve his ambition. Finally, there was Willow. Nameless. The being she adored and served, her true master and her only god – referred to her as nameless. Her cold and still heart seemed to clench in ache. Was she truly so worthless? Was she so low in His eyes that he denied her even a name? Was he ashamed of her? Willow laughed at her self-importance. The Lord of the Nine had no time nor want to think so much of her as to be ashamed. She was nothing, compared to him. She was so insignificant, perhaps she did not deserve a name. Willow’s curious exploration of the temple had morphed to a heavy bitter resentment. She scuffed her feet along the stone, kicking piles of rocks and rubble, a metallic taste of animosity on her tongue. Her temper continued to rise as her mind wound in circles over the implications of the devil’s words, when out of the corner of her eye, a peculiar scrap of parchment caught her attention. On slow feet, she approached the torn and decaying paper, frowning as her eyes traced its edges. It was an ancient scroll of some kind, written in a script Willow could not decipher. Though torn shreds of parchment were missing, she could see slight similarities to the written dwarven language. Though, if it was once a dialect dwarven, it was long lost and forgotten.
“What is it?” Pellius asked from the doorway, frowning to see Willow crouching in the corner of the mould rotten chamber.
“A scroll of some kind,” she shrugged, “Though I cannot read it.”
As the others entered, Bor cast a curious spell, enchanting his eyes in a mystical cyan sheen. His brow furrowed tightly as he read over the peculiar words.
“It is too decomposed,” he commented, pointing towards certain symbols, “I can see useless words, like he and priest and decree. And there, the word Ashmohdah.”
“Another term for Asmodeus,” Willow guessed.
“Makes sense,” Bor nodded.
Willow quickly pulled free one of her scroll cases from her pack. With cautious hands and soft grace, she rolled the decrepit parchment carefully, sealing it safely within the wooden case.
“It would be worth looking into restoring it,” she said, placing it tightly upon her belt for safe keeping, “It is fascinating. These rooms look almost dwarven, and so did the language. Do you think this was a functioning temple that far back? Before the Markadians, the Barcans, and the Iraen?”
“Makes sense,” Bor repeated with a throaty chuckle.
“It is curious,” Willow mused, forgetting her wallow of prior thought, “Dwarves usually serve dwarven gods, beings of steel and battle. Though I suppose it is not unfathomable that our Lord’s touch seeps that deep, even into the underground cities and their inhabitants…”

As they wound their way up through the chambers of the temple towards the surface, Pellius pulled Willow aside quietly.
“I have a favour to ask, my lady,” he said softly.
As he placed his hand upon Willow’s arm, she instinctively pulled away. They had not spoken since her abrupt departure the evening before; she had not mentioned where she had slept the daylight hours away, and he had not asked. As she smiled a polite smile, she saw his chest deflate in a sigh.
“What is it I can do for you?” she asked cordially.
Though a small frown of disappointment pulled upon his brow, he continued mannerly.
“I have need of an arcane scroll,” he said quietly, “One to read the magic of an object. It must be far more powerful than what we have access to currently, for the magic seems to be shielded by something. I assume your contacts in the city can procure such a thing?”
“Is there a certain spell you are looking for?” she asked, arching her brow.
“There is one known as Analyse Dweomer, I believe it shall suffice.”
“Very well,” she inclined her head, turning from him, “We have a few hours left before dawn, I shall meet you back at the manor.”
“Willow…” he sighed, reaching for her hand.
“Is there anything else you need?” she questioned sharply.
As he looked into her eyes, an expression of frustration contorting his brow, she broke contact and swiftly turned to exit the shadows of the chamber.
“I’ll return before dawn…”

When the morning sun lifted over the horizons edge, Willow entered her quarters to find Pellius sitting by fireplace, lost in thought as he watched the sway of the flickering flame. As she closed the door behind her, contemplative eyes found hers. Though his lingering gaze told of unspoken thought, she quickly looked away and rummaged through her pack for the scroll case.
“Not an easy find,” she said conversationally, “But here it is.”
As she held the scroll out to him, he simply kept his eyes on her. Willow knew he wanted to talk of other things, she knew his mind was far from the parchment she held in her hand. But she was not willing to face such things, her own mind was compressed with confusion and fixed within the turmoil of uncertainty. Though inside, she felt the guilt weighing heavily upon her heart, anger was all that would surface outwardly.
“Just take it, Pellius,” she growled.
A slow sigh expelled from his chest, as he roughly grabbed the scroll from her hand. Willow forced out the aching regret as she watched the dejection play across his face. She turned towards the door, pausing as she placed her hand on the brass handle.
“I still need you to cast the spell, my lady,” he said softly.
Willow closed her eyes tightly, holding her breath by instinct before she could compose the polite smile on her face. She moved to the chair on the opposite side of the small table, retrieving the scroll from his hand.
“What would you like it cast upon?” she asked.
Slowly, he reached up to his hair, slipping free the circlet that rippled into sight as he withdrew it. With an arching brow, he held it out to her.
Curiosity sparked fiercely as she tenderly accepted the silver crown. She had long wondered of the circlets true intentions. Suspicion had flared as the secrets of Cardinal Thorn’s past had unravelled, his paranoia and growing distrust of the Forsaken had led her to believe he would have initiated more than a blood contract for control. But she had never thought to delve deeper into the mysterious gifts they had been given so long ago. With no needed words to explain Pellius’ request, she held the circlet and rasped the scripted incantation. Suddenly, she felt a curious foreign knowledge drift through her mind. Her eyes glowed an ethereal blue, as a pulsing arcana surrounded the circlet.
“Oh,” she breathed quietly, “Do you see it?”
“See what, my lady?” Pellius frowned.
“I can see the charms, I can… read them.”
“What do they say?” he asked warily, in a deep and stern tone.
Willow frowned as she focused her mind and tried to understand the arcane whisperings in her ear. Magic did not come naturally to her. Though she had used countless scrolls and wands, she had never felt the touch of enchantment try to communicate with her directly. It was hard to comprehend the words that were not spoken, but impressed.
“There are many enchantments upon this,” she said quietly, narrowing her eyes as if better to see, “The gem holds strength of mind and will… the circlet is teeming with illusion… but there is something else…”
“What is it?” Pellius scowled in impatience.
“Some kind of tracking,” Willow guessed, “Some kind of locating…”
As the words slowly began to make sense, her brows rose as her eyes flew wide.
“It’s an enchantment to weaken resistance. There is a second piece to these circlets, a talisman. Whom ever holds the talisman is granted greater strength to scry the weakened wearer of the crown…”
“So he’s watching us?!” Pellius snarled.
“We knew this,” Willow soothed his anger, “It does not mean he watches every moment, it simply allows him a far better chance to do so if he chooses.”
“And you’re alright with this?” he balked, “It does not bother you?!”
“Of course it does,” Willow scowled, “But it is nothing more than we suspected.”
“We should destroy them,” Pellius seethed, ripping the circlet from her hand.
“If he does not already know of our plans…” Willow began.
“How could he not?” Pellius interrupted, “Do you think he did not watch our conversation with Dessiter? Do you think he simply believes we are loyal servants following his word?”
Willow frowned as a curious thought came into her mind.
“Perhaps he does not know of the conversation,” she said carefully.
“That is extremely na├»ve, Willow,” Pellius scoffed.
“The fiend offered us the alternative of betraying him to Cardinal Thorn,” Willow frowned, “Insinuating that the Cardinal did not already know of his words. He may have been wise enough to shield the talk from watching eyes and listening ears…”
“I do not think we should take the chance,” he shook his head gently, “I will not wear this again. I will not grant him such a gift.”
“Do as you will,” Willow shrugged, “I suppose we should tell the others, and allow them to make up their own minds…”

The sound of crackling flames echoed off the rough stone walls, breaking the silence that drifted peacefully through the underground chamber. As the sun fell to allow the darkness of the following evening to arrive, Willow sat with her back resting against the leg of the large golden shrine, her eyelids drooping lazily as she traced the words of a book she had read many times over. Surrounded by the comforting presence of the infernal sanctum, her mind was at ease, in a scripted stupor of the tales of old. When she heard the stone scraping upon the floor, she looked up from her book as the walls opened.
“I thought I’d find you here,” Garvana said, smiling as she entered.
“Did you need something?” Willow replied, closing the pages before rubbing her tired eyes.
Though she smiled politely, Garvana’s frown was pulled tight along her brow.
“I do,” she said carefully, “Have you heard the name Larris Hamble?”
“Lady Hamble?” Willow recalled, tilting her head, “Yes, if I remember correctly, she was a lower noble, from Hamiltyrn in the east I think.”
“Was?” Garvana asked warily.
“She died, not long before I left Matharyn.”
“Do you know where she was buried?” she enquired hopefully.
Willow scoffed, “There are more than fifty cemeteries in the city. She was a countess, not high enough to have a private burial ground.”
Garvana sighed a frustrated breath, “Alright. Thank you.”
“May I ask why you wish to find her?” Willow questioned in intrigue.
Shrewd eyes looked to her, before Garvana pursed her lips tightly.
“Her name was revealed to me upon waking.”
“More numbers?” Willow smirked.
“I hope so,” Garvana frowned, “It is infuriately slow.”
“Patience, Garvana,” Willow smiled, “They shall reveal themselves in time.”
As the woman huffed her annoyance, she nodded and strode from the chamber. When she turned to seal the walls behind her, a voice halted her hand.
“You may leave it open, Garvana,” Pellius’ deep and courteous voice said.
With the book clenched in her hands, Willow swiftly stood from the dais and made quick work of returning the tome to its shelf to the side of the chamber.
“My lady,” Pellius smiled, inclining his head, “You are well this evening?”
“Indeed,” she replied politely, “And yourself?”
“Very well,” he smirked, “Now I have finally found you.”
Willow laughed softly, though the sound was painfully fake to her ears.
“Unfortunately,” she said regretfully, “I must beg leave, I have much to do.”
She inclined her head and gave a small polite bow, before quickly walking passed him towards the stairs.
“Willow…” he sighed heavily, “You cannot spend the rest of your life avoiding me.”
She closed her eyes tightly as her steps halted, when she turned to him, she wore a forced and easy smile.
“I am not avoiding you, Pellius,” she replied, “I simply have much to do…”
“Enough Willow!” Pellius snapped viciously, “You cannot even look at me without that fake smile on your face!”
“I do not know what you are talking about,” Willow scowled, “I have simply been busy, as I am now…”
ENOUGH!” he seethed, stepping towards her threateningly, brandishing his finger in her face, “If you cannot be forthcoming, if you cannot be honest, then at least be silent! Do not lie to me! I deserve better than that from you!”
Willow flinched as his words lashed like blades across her soul. Though his words were harsh, she knew with the deepest understanding that they were true.
“Yes,” she breathed, sadness dragging upon the wells of her eyes, “You do. You deserve so much better than that. You deserve so much more than I can give you…”
No!” Pellius growled in anger, gripping her wrist and wrenching her towards him, “You do not get to do that. You do not get to play the self-loathing, self-pitying, self-scarifying heartbroken maiden. After all we have been through, after all we have shared; you owe me more than that!”
“And what do I owe you?!” Willow spat, ripping her hand from his grasp, burning eyes of vexation locked in his ferocious gaze.
“THE TRUTH!” he yelled vehemently.
Standing mere inches from her face, Willow felt the anger and savage rage that coursed beneath the surface of his skin. His eyes blazed in hurt, a fierce desperation and frustration, morphed into barely contained outrage. A cold and spiteful laugh sounded from her throat, though she knew well there was no humour in either of their words.
“You have to hear it from my lips?” she rasped coldly, “You wish me to speak the words you so desperately want to hear?”
I want you to be truthful,” he fumed though gritted teeth, calm and controlled words forced out of bitter lips, “With me, and with yourself.”
Taken aback by his words, Willow’s mind raced with worry that clenched tightly in her chest. She could not stop the tears that began to shine in her eyes, as she saw the painful truth of his own heartache. She could not bear to face him, she could not bear to listen to the misery that trembled his voice; the misery that she was the sole cause.
“I cannot,” she replied coldly, turning her face away from him.
“And why not?” he snapped in utter frustration, “Why can you not simply admit the truth?”
A slow sigh fell from her lungs, as her heavy heart whined in sorrow, the strenuous weight of her troubles clear along her face.
“Because I do not know it,” she said quietly, looking to him with anguish in her eyes, “You are asking me to be something I am not. I can never be that faithful wife or lover. I am supposed to give up everything that I know, the greatest advantage and tool that I have? And for what? To stay in your arms and live a happy and long life? Am I supposed to become virtuous and lay with you, and you alone? Because I cannot promise that. I cannot deny the only thing about me that I truly understand…”
“I am not asking you to deny yourself!” he growled in dismissal, “I am asking you to face the truth!”
“The truth?” she scoffed, though the tears threatened to fall along her cheeks, “The truth is that I do not know if I can ever return the feelings you have for me.”
“You already do!” Pellius scowled harshly, his lip curling in rancour, “You know you do!”
Frustration and anger took hold of the bitter sadness that held Willow in its clutches.
“I do not even know who I am!” she snarled, “I know nothing! I have lived my life surrounded by people of light and charity, found by the darkest and most fearsome of them all! And then thrown to the wolves, not only by those who raised me, but by HIM! The one I served, the one I worshiped! He feeds me to the waiting jaws of death, and expects me to simply survive! And if that was not enough, not more than I can possibly handle, he forgets to mention that I was brought to this world by a damned angel!”
Her words pulled Pellius’ frown low, as he recoiled in confusion.
“You were what?” he balked.
She marched to the large glimmering statue of their Infernal Lord, reaching into the folds of the hard metal cloak, pulling free the bound journal that belonged to the wandering priest. With bitterness lacing her tongue, she threw the parchment book towards him.
“A secret!” she shrieked in anger, “Another damn secret! I cannot deal with anymore! I cannot cope with another truth!”
With slow and cautious movements, Pellius turned the pages of the journal, skimming its contents.
“The last page,” Willow sighed, trying to simmer her building fury.
As he flicked to the end of the book, and slowly read the scripted words of her past – his eyes went wide with realisation.
“Everything I thought I knew was a lie,” she said softly, her voice wavering in resentment, “I am not a Monteguard. I am not even Talrien. I do not even know what I am. The only truth that I can not refute… is that I am His.”
She felt the tears that welled in her eyes finally unleash, falling slow shimmering drops down her cheeks.
“I told you when this began that my heart was not mine to give,” she said with a burning sadness, “It has never been mine. I cannot give it to you Pellius.”
“And why not?!” he growled, frustration and rage warring with his words as it grew too much to withhold, “You say those words, and yet you do it anyway! Can you look at me, truly look at me, and tell me you feel nothing?!”
Willow laughed gently, shaking her head as she let the tears fall.
“On the contrary,” she whispered, a pained smile gracing her lips, “I look at you, and I feel everything.”
On tentative feet, she stepped closer towards him, reaching a tender hand to caress his cheek.
“I feel the strength in your determination. I feel the devotion in the way you serve. I feel the joy in how you succeed. And I feel the agony, as you suffer. That, is why I can never love you. For I will only bring you nothing but unending suffering.”
In defeat and resignation, her hand dropped away as she turned from him, ashamed by the sob that trembled in her throat. She heard his slow steps beside her, feeling gentle fingers wipe the tears from her cheek, his voice as soft as a whisper.
“And if I wish to suffer through eternity with you?”
His question tore upon her heart strings, the bitter turmoil of uncertain doubts and aching need thundering in her mind. Slowly, his finger traced her chin, guiding her sight towards his. As she looked to him, it was with eyes dancing an array of emotions. Sorrow, heartache and hope. When he lowered his head, Willow had little control over her actions. She lifted her face and met his kiss, slow and heartfelt, she brushed her lips against his. As they met, she battled between the indescribable need to fall further into his embrace, and the desperate need to flee. His hand slid into her hair, caressing her head as he kissed her deeply, a soft and yet firm declaration of dominance. As he pulled back slowly from the joining, staring deeply into her eyes, she laughed softly as she rested her forehead against his.
She whispered, a breath of dolorous bliss, “Then you are the greatest fool.”

The bright sun blazed in the sky, lighting the city of Matharyn, warming the soft breeze that drifted through the cobblestone streets. Though outside, the markets and shops were filled with wakeful people and creatures, the heavy drapes shielded Willow’s bedchamber from the scalding burn of day light. A swift knock on her door woke her from the restful slumber. Tired eyes slowly opened, blinking lazily until the knock sounded again.
“Mistress,” Atwood called loudly.
Slowly dragging her tired legs from their entwinement within Pellius’ embrace, she dropped them to the side of the bed, her hands pulling her nightgown around her shoulders. She walked in lethargy to the door, pulling it open as she shielded her yawn with her hand.
“Yes Atwood?” she sighed.
“I apologise to wake you, Mistress,” he bowed, “But there is someone to see you.”
“Here?” she frowned, shaking her weary head to clear it, “Is it important?”
“I believe so, mistress,” he nodded, “She comes baring something I think you will find most important.”
“She?” Willow replied warily.
“Yes, mistress.”
Willow exhaled tiredly upon reflex, looking over her nightgown.
“Do I need to dress?” she frowned.
“I do not believe so,” he said, a small smile lifting the corner of his lip, “Your guest looks a little worse for wear herself.”
“Very well,” she droned, “I shall be down in a moment.”
Atwood bowed low as Willow closed the door and turned back to the bed. Pellius had risen from the sheets and pulled on his loose trousers and shirt.
“Curious,” he frowned.
“Suspicious,” she scoffed.
With tired arms, she dropped her silk nightgown and quickly retrieved her ebony robes from the armchair. After quickly wrapping her long raven locks into a braid upon her head, Willow swiftly made her way to the entrance with Pellius in tow. As she descended the stairs, her brow arched high at what she saw.
“Traya De Marco,” Willow said, “You’ve returned from the dead.”
“Not as dead as was believed,” she replied.
The sorcerous gave a small sly grin, as she inclined her head in greeting to Willow. She wore robes of mahogany, lined with charred and tattered burns, smears of black soot wiped along her olive complexion. Though her appearance was surely a peculiarity, it was the long steel that she held in her hands that had Willow’s brows rise. Shrewd eyes looked to the vicious sword of profane and malicious might; it was Hellbrand, the sword Bor brandished in his foul and righteous crusade against good.
“Explain yourself,” Willow demanded.
“I have made my peace with him,” Traya said solemnly, holding the sword out to her in offering, “He has met the repercussions of a broken oath, and paid the price due.”
“He is dead?” Pellius asked in anger.
“He is,” Traya nodded, “It was always to be his fate.”
Willow eyed the woman with intrigue, slowly reaching out to accept the unholy blade. With it clutched in her fingers, her mind churned in thought. With calculating eyes, she looked over the slender woman, coming to a hesitant decision. Though Pellius glared his ire towards Traya, Willow stepped back and motioned for the sorcerous to enter.
“Will you organise tea in the sitting room, Atwood?” Willow requested, leading the way to the eastern chamber.
“At once, mistress,” he bowed.
Willow opened the large double doors, grimacing at the harsh rays of sun that shone through the open windows. Though bright and burning, she ignored the simmer and gracefully continued, sitting in the large chair best shielded by the drapes. Traya followed quietly, eyes scanning the chamber as she took up the seat Willow indicated in offering. Pellius kept his face cold and hard as he walked to stand behind Willow’s chair, arms crossed over his chest in clear disdain. For a moment, they sat in silence, simply eyeing one another. Atwood returned with a silver tray carrying an ornate ceramic teapot and three cups and saucers. He poured the brew, then politely drew the blinds closed and swiftly retreated from the chamber, sealing the doors behind him.
“Well,” Willow said in expectation, “I believe you have a lot to explain…”
“I suppose I do,” Traya sighed, “I do not know where to start.”
“The beginning,” Willow said plainly, “You did not die in the Horn of Abbadon?”
“No,” she said quietly, “I was trapped, and gravely injured. But not dead, like you had all assumed. For a time, I had hope that someone would find me. I had hope that Bor would fulfil his promise to me. But when three days had passed, no food or water, trapped under the mountain of ruin; I knew he had turned his back on me. So I called out, to any god that would listen. I called out for help, but mostly, I called out for vengeance. On the fourth day, a devil came to me. He offered me freedom, he offered me revenge.”
“Revenge for what?” Willow asked curiously, “You knew what you were doing when we took the Horn, you knew what we planned. You were risking your own life by serving us.”
Traya scoffed quietly, shaking her head.
“I did not ask for his promise. But he gave it to me. He gave me his word that no harm would come to me, that he would keep me safe. And yet, there I was, trapped within the very place he swore to protect me from. Hope had me thinking he would return; he would sift through the rubble to find me. But he didn’t. He simply left, leaving the thought and memory of me behind with the ruins that you had made.”
“I knew he felt something more for you,” Willow commented slowly, “For him to vouch for you, allow you deeper into our plans than any of us were comfortable with. But I did not know he vowed such a thing.”
“It was an oath,” she laughed sadly, “And he broke it. The devil gave me a chance for vengeance. Though the cost was high, I had nothing else to give.”
Although Willow felt Pellius’ pulsing anger from behind her, she did not feel the same hatred. She felt Bor’s loss keenly, she had known him throughout almost the entirety of her journey of servitude to her Infernal Lord. Yet, she knew well that ones’ word was ones’ bond. When all was said and done, if your oath or promise meant nothing; then how could anyone form a bond of loyalty and trust?
“How did you find us?” Willow frowned, “There is barely a soul alive that knows of our plans, let alone our whereabouts.”
“Not easily,” Traya scoffed, “I have been tracking you ever since, all over these damn lands. You have proved most elusive.”
Willow grinned, inclining her head in understanding.
“But I fear I have not entered the city quietly,” she grimaced.
“Did anyone follow you here?” Willow asked in warning, narrowing her eyes.
“I do not think so,” Traya said quickly, shaking her head.
“You do not think so,” she questioned with fierce menace, “Or you know so?”
With quick hand gestures, the vision of the sorcerer vanished in a flash. Within a moment, she reappeared before them in her seat.
“I know I was not,” she smirked.
Willow eyed her for a time, looking over the weary weight of exhaustion upon her shoulders, and the black dirt and soot rubbing off of her clothes onto the plush velvet chair.
“Very well,” she said, coming to a decision, “For now, you may stay. I will have the servants arrange a suite, and perhaps a change of clean clothing, for you. We will of course have more questions, but perhaps it best we do so over dinner.”
“Thank you,” Traya sighed in relief, a small smile of gratitude upon her face.
Willow placed the Hellbrand upon her chair as she stood to open the door. After informing Niritta to prepare the guest chamber, Traya followed the servant to the western wing. As Willow turned back to the room, she saw Pellius’ stern and unimpressed expression.
“You are far too trusting, my lady,” he said quietly.
Willow smirked as she walked back to the chair, lifting Hellbrand from the cushion.
“I do not know if I trust her,” she said contemplatively, “But, it is best to keep your enemies close.”
She traced her fingers lightly along the vicious blade, lingering over its sharp edge. She had no use for such a large and bulky weapon, but she knew who would. It was well suited to the dark and fearsome man that led the charge along their journey by righteous might and unwavering devotion. She smiled, holding the weapon out to Pellius. Though anger still clenched his brow, he grabbed hold of the sword with a firm hand. Curiously, his brows rose as delight softened his face.
“Yes,” he breathed, eyes alight with an eager hunger.
“Yes, what?” Willow asked, arching her brow.
His eyes shot to hers, a strange passion aflame lighting the scarlet of his stare. Though she was intrigued to question him further, she could not help but feel enamoured by his lustful and hungered gaze. Slowly, she stepped forward, bringing her face close to his.
“It looks as if it was made to be in your hands,” she whispered, desire lifting her grin.
As she brushed her lips to his own, he grinned a sly and satisfied smile.
“It was…”

While the servants prepared dinner and Traya refreshed herself within the guest chamber, Garvana returned to the manor after a day spent exploring the cities graveyards. When Pellius and Willow told her the news of Bor’s sudden death, she took it in a wave of fury. With a look of anger towards Willow for allowing Traya to stay within the manor, she stormed to her room in a rage, slamming the doors as she passed. Willow sighed, retreating to her quarters to bathe and dress for the evening. She wore a gown of solemn black, choosing to forgo jewellery and decoration, with her long raven locks tressed and set in gentle waves. As she smoothed cassia oils over the ends of her hair, she felt her frown pulling tightly on her brow. She would miss Bor, his brash attitude and sardonic wit. She had not foreseen his demise, she had not expected him to fall so soon. Though she knew they were all likely to face their deaths at the hands of beings primed with vengeance or retribution – she had not imagined it would be the sorcerer that brought about his downfall. She understood betrayal. She understood how it could consume a person, their thoughts, their actions and their time. He had given his word, and he had broken it. The Lord of the Nine was swift with his punishment. Bor had been given a chance, allowed to escape the very pits of hell that he was returning to. And he had failed in the most basic of ways. Misleading deceptions were one thing, but to speak untruths by swearing an oath that you were not planning to keep; it was worthy of a swift and brutal death.
“Mistress?” Niritta called, “Dinner shall be served shortly.”
“Thank you, Niritta,” Willow answered, returning the vial of oil to the shelf, “I shall be down in a moment.”
Upon instinct, she turned to the mirror to see her reflection. She sighed, seeing only the gown of mourning cast back at her. She pulled free the blanket from the armchair, throwing it over the mirror with her lip curled in disdain. It was with a churning mind and a heavy heart that she descended the stairs and made her way to the dining room. As she reached the door, she saw Pellius pacing the hall. Before she spoke, he looked up to her, vanishing his burrowed frown. He held out his arm in offering, guiding her in to the chamber before pulling out her seat at the head of the table. Willow inclined her head to Traya as she sat, glad to see the sorcerous looking rested, and far more respectable than before. Clean and shining chestnut locks, tied high into a bun atop her head, dressed in the emerald frock she had been provided. She was close to a head taller than Willow, but held a similarly slender frame, delicate wrists and arms with long yet slim legs.
“I trust your chambers are adequate?” Willow asked cordially.
“Very,” Traya nodded, “I want to thank you again, for letting me stay.”
“It is not yet clear how temporary that stay shall be,” Willow said, arching her brow with a small smile.
“I thank you for it anyway,” Traya smirked.
When the servants entered and hurried about with their trays of exquisite cuisine, Willow felt a lump form in her throat. It was not that she could not eat the food, it was simply that it no longer held any taste, let alone any enjoyment. Although she found the idea repulsive, Atwood had conjured a plan of a brew; fresh blood mixed with the heavy red wine. As she grimaced at the thought, she could not fault his execution. With the partnering of the two, she could taste and enjoy both of the burgundy liquids. As the plate was placed in front of her, her will to remain a gracious host won out. She gracefully sliced the tender meat and feigned her way through the meal. After only a few mouthfuls, Pellius placed down his knife and fork, standing from his chair.
“It seems I have no appetite,” he said plainly, before throwing a harsh glance towards Traya, “I think I shall see to Garvana.”
Willow merely nodded, attempting to keep her eyes from rolling. As he marched from the chamber, he slammed the door as he exited. Willow sighed, placing down her cutlery, having lost all motivation to continue eating.
“I apologise,” Traya said quietly, “It seems my presence here is truly affecting them.”
“They shall be fine,” Willow dismissed, “They have lost a friend, today. I, have lost a friend today. It will take time to process. I do not disapprove of what you did. It is merely a shame that it had to come to a head like this.”
Traya nodded gently, slowly pushing her food around on her place.
“So tell me,” Willow said, lifting her wine glass and relaxing back into her chair, “The devil who came to you, who is he?”
Traya arched her brow, a smirk upon her lips.
“I know you would well understand these things,” she said easily, “You know I cannot betray the contract.”
Willow smiled, finding a respect in the woman’s fealty.
“Though my curiosity is rampant,” she scoffed, “I will accept it. It is simply, we have had dealing with a few devils over the past few months, and I am intrigued to see how far they would go to interfere.”
Traya smiled, but said nothing more.
“How did he die?” Willow frowned, “You are a pyromancer, are you not? He was immune to the touch of flame…”
“It was part of the contract,” Traya replied, “His boon was granted by his lord, but having broken an oath, the boon was rescinded. He was burned alive, much as he will be in death.”
“Fitting,” Willow nodded solemnly.
Traya shrugged gently, “The devil thought so.”
“You are not Asmodean,” Willow commented, a frown of inquisitiveness forming, “Well you were not when last we met. You called out for aid, for a chance… and He answered. Where does that leave you?”
The sorcerous frowned herself, exhaling a heavy breath.
“I do not know,” she sighed, “I signed my soul away, for the chance at revenge. And I have it. Now, I do not know what to do. I know what awaits me after death… but there were no instructions for life.”
Willow smiled a true smile, “There never are. None of us truly know. We simply follow where our hearts and loyalties lead us. And they lead us into glory for the Lord of the Nine.”
Soft and careful footsteps sounded outside of the chamber, cushioned by the lush carpets that ran the length of the hallway. As Traya began to speak, Willow held a hand up to silence her. The door to the western wing opened wide, as Garvana stormed into the dining room. Tears shone in her eyes, heartache and loss painted on her face. Her hands trembled in fists as she approached the side of the large darkwood table.
Who do you serve?” she rasped, her voice cracking with intensity, “Say his name!”
With widened eyes and raised eyebrows, Traya looked to Willow for approval.
SAY IT!” Garvana snarled.
Willow slowly nodded her head, awaiting the sorcerous’ words.
“Asmodeus…” came her soft reply.
As if the word itself was a tender comfort, Garvana unclenched her hands and sighed a breath of sheer exhaustion. She frowned, flickering eyes scrutinising the small woman. As thoughts and emotion battled across the plane of her face, she lifted her head as she seemed to come to a conclusion.
“Hail Asmodeus,” she whispered, before turning from the table and retreating from the chamber.
With her brow pulled tightly in a frown, Traya looked to Willow.
“She may be a tad zealous and intense at times,” Willow smiled, “But she means well. She cherishes and idolises the Dark Lord above all else. If he has seen fit to grant you vengeance and take Bor’s life as payment; she will not contest or question it.”
“Unwavering devotion,” Traya commented quietly, a curious frown upon her brow.
Uncertainty was not usually an ailment Willow suffered from. When a decision was to be made, she threw all of her cards in, following her instincts whether a rash action or drawn out decision. She knew her instincts were usually correct, she was always a good judge of character. She could read lies as they played upon people’s faces, she could smell a deception as it weaved in intrigue. Watching the sorcerous had her frowning, as she could see nothing but truth. Slowly, Willow stood from her chair, placing her napkin upon the table.
“Follow me,” she instructed, taking her crystal wine glass with her, “I wish to show you something.”
Traya was quick to stand from her chair, wiping her mouth with her napkin before swiftly scuttling to keep up with Willow. She led her through the long hallways towards the library in silence, opening the way as she considered the repercussions of what she was about to do. A few short weeks ago, she would have seethed and recoiled at the idea of opening her only place of safety to any save herself. But she knew well the struggles of serving a god so hated and despised by those around you. She knew the presence of Him eased the struggles, calming the turmoil of the outside world.
“Where are you taking me?” Traya asked warily, as Willow opened the bookshelf to reveal the spiralling staircase into darkness.
Willow laughed, “If I wanted you dead, you would be already.”
She pulled the torch free from the library sconce and slowly descended into the cellar, with Traya’s hesitant footsteps following behind. When she approached the wall, she looked to the sorcerous. With sure hands, she pressed in the stones, tracing the inverted pentagram. When the two walls scraped open, the blazing ever-burning torches inside cast the immense figure of the statue in an eery and foreboding glow. Every time Willow lay her eyes upon it, she felt her heart clench in blissful fear. As she turned to Traya, she smiled. Wide eyes of awe looked upon the golden monument. A terror simmered with wonder as she stepped forward upon timid feet.
“You have a lot of searching to do,” Willow said gently, “Perhaps you will find your answers in prayer and meditation. I have always found this chamber comforting. Being in His presence, under the towering eyes of this shrine, it has always seemed to instil in me the vastness of the universe – and the reality of my place in it.”
“It is… overwhelming,” Traya breathed.
Willow smiled, “The Lord of the Nine is. He is everything. But, you will discover that yourself. You are welcome to use the chamber, I ask only that you seal it behind you, and do not touch anything.”
With no response coming to her tongue, Willow smirked in understanding. She remained for a moment, simply watching the sorcerous, revelling in the wonder that danced through her eyes.
“Oh, I forgot,” Traya frowned, reaching into her pocket, “His body burned, yet this remained unscathed. I thought you would want it back.”
She held out the obsidian amulet that Willow had commissioned for the Forsaken. Bor had worn it around his neck as he had first appeared from his chamber, and Willow had not seen him take it off for a moment since. She took the pendant in her hand, wiping the soot from the cracks of the intricate patterns with her thumb. She would miss him, his brutish grin and dry sense of humour. But as she looked to the sorcerous, she smiled.
“Keep it,” Willow said, tossing the blackened metal towards her, “His death is the beginning of your new life. You would do well to always remember that.”
As she turned to exit the chamber, she paused with a frown.
“There is one more thing,” Willow said reluctantly, “If you will be staying with us, you shall find out sooner or later, perhaps it is best to get the surprises out of the way…”
Though it seemed a battle to draw her eyes away from the pendant, Traya looked to Willow in curiosity. She gently opened her mouth wide, allowing her fangs to slide down and glisten in the fire light.
“Oh,” Traya said, eyes flying wide, “Uh, alright…”
“Do not fret,” Willow grinned, her sharp teeth flashing, “We will not eat you.”
“We?” she asked, frowning deeply, “All of you?”
“Yes,” Willow replied, giving a light shrug, “Much has changed in the past year.”
“What, what is it like?”
“It has its perks,” Willow chuckled, arching an eyebrow, “The taste of cooked food is definitely not one of them.”
Traya laughed despite herself, “You are very gracious to eat for my benefit.”
“That I am,” Willow grinned, retracting her fangs before tracing her tongue over her teeth, “Would you wish to turn, given the chance?”
Traya frowned again, though it was with less worry and more uncertainty.
“I am unsure,” she said quietly, “I shall need to think on it. Today has been an eventful and… strange day.”
Willow laughed, turning from the woman as she made her way towards the stairs.
“With us,” she chuckled, “It only gets stranger from here…”

Closing the bedchamber door behind her, Willow sighed a long and pointless breath. That in itself frustrated her. She had no need to breathe, yet it was a habit she could not break. She found no comfort in the long expelling of breath from her chest, she simply watched it deflate and sink. With her glass still in her hand, she found her feet pacing as she marched from one end of the chamber to the other. She was so absorbed in her thoughts; she did not notice Pellius sitting by the small table to the far side of the suite.
“You showed her the shrine?” came his question, waking her from her spiral, “You are far too trusting, my lady.”
Willow looked to him, eyes of frustration and pent up vexation, shaking her head in response.
“I have long known to trust my instincts, Pellius,” she said quietly, “And they tell me to trust her.”
“You do not think you are being too rash?” he scoffed, “You chastise Garvana at every opportunity for her impulsive actions, and yet you simply allow that woman in and show her around like old bosom companions.”
“Enough,” she sighed, shaking her head, “I do not want to argue this with you.”
“Then do not argue,” he shrugged, though his words were harsh, “Simply listen. Simply think of your actions, Willow.”
“My actions?” she laughed, “Your departure this evening was ill-mannered and childish, storming off like that! I expect that from Garvana, but I expect better from you.”
“She killed Bor!” he shouted angrily, “And you invite her to dinner! Tell me, how am I supposed to act?!”
“Bor brought his fate on himself!” Willow growled, “He swore an oath, his word upon his lord, and he broke it! Pellius, he was killed by fire! Asmodeus withdrew his protection to allow His will to be done, by her hand!”
Pellius laughed, a cold and harsh rasping sound, “And if I was killed? Would you welcome my killer, feast with them and converse over wine?”
“Would you break your word?” Willow countered viciously, “Would you swear an oath and abandon it?”
A gentle sadness came to his face, as he looked deep into her eyes, his hand slowly reached for her cheek.
“I would,” he breathed, “For you…”
Willow’s sight lingered for a moment, trapped within the heart wrenching rapture of his gaze. She sighed, sinking into his hand as she shook her head gently against it.
“I would never ask that of you,” she whispered softly.
She pulled away from him, turning towards the dressing room.
“Willow…” he sighed, stepping as if to follow.
“Don’t,” she shook her head, “I need to be alone for a while.”
“Pellius,” she exhaled, pausing by the stone archway, “Just leave me be. We can discuss it tomorrow until your heart is content. Right now, I need some time to think…”

After the consumption of three entire bottles of wine, Willow felt nothing but ill and bloated. Sitting upon the stone ledge of the balcony, looking over the glistening lights of the rolling expanse of the city, she groaned a regretful and uncomfortable sigh. The curse of vampirism had not yet proven to be anything save irritating. She was destined to never look upon her reflection again, she was denied the delicious tastes of food and drink, and she could consume liquor endlessly with not so much as a light-headedness. She knew there was more to the curse, but as she gripped the dark bottle by the neck, she was struggling to find a positive in the mix of denials. Eventful, that had been the word the sorcerer had used. Her own day had certainly been eventful. Her year, her decade, her life had been eventful. She knew she was simply whining, but as she allowed the last drops of vintage red wine to slip from the bottle, she fell into her wallowing. In frustration, she lifted the glass bottle high overhead, and threw it with all her might into the sky. But before it has made its journey passed the ledge, a swift hand lashed out and caught it mid-flight.
“Are we having a tantrum?” rumbled Switch’s voice in delight, “I do love your tantrums.”
Willow scowled, a frown pulling her brow as he rippled into sight beside her.
“Must we do this now?” she drawled, “I came out here to be alone.”
“And you have been, for almost three hours,” he said sardonically, “Staring off into the distance like a mournful painting.”
“Enough,” she sighed, “What do you want?”
“What is the matter, sweet Willow?” he crooned in his slither of a voice, “Trouble in paradise?”
Enough!” she growled, turning to look to him, “What do you want, Switch?”
“What I always want,” he shrugged, grinning mischievously, “To appear at the most inconvenient time. To ruffle feathers and cause trouble, to make you doubt yourself.”
Willow could not contain the laughter that bubbled through her chest.
“I think that is the first true thing you have ever said to me,” she grinned.
“And even that was a lie,” he winked.
“What do you really want?” she asked, shaking her head with a smile.
“To give you this,” he said, throwing a heavy pouch of clinking gold towards her, “The contract was completed, the client was satisfied.”
Willow swiftly caught the pouch with one hand, casually dropping it beside her. What did gold really matter? As they drew closer to their goals of overturning rulership of Talingarde, coins and wealth seemed far the lesser venture.
“You’re not going to count it?” he asked, arching his brow.
“Would you dare cut me short?” she smirked.
His chest rumbled as he chuckled a deep and rasping laugh, “Never.”
Although she smiled, she sighed a heavy breath, looking out over the city expanse. Spiralling thoughts of intrigue danced through her mind, ever seeking their partnering answers, always seeming so far out of reach.
“Why am I nameless?” she asked softly, a frown touching her brow.
“Your name is not one to be spoken…” he whispered in reply.
Such cryptic words only raised more questions. Willow felt dejected, her confused heart still and un-beating, enclosed within her chest. Yet she still felt the way it craved the knowledge and understanding she was denied.
“Why?” she scowled, “Why can I not simply know?”
“Perhaps you will in time,” Switch smirked.
She growled her annoyance, yet knew it was futile to ask anything further.
“If you will not tell me mine, will you tell me yours?” she asked, tilting her head in curiosity.
“I have told you it before,” he shrugged, “I shall not speak it again.”
Jonathan Cadwell Swichlem,” she scoffed, “I do not believe that.”
His brows rose slowly, “You have a sharp memory.”
“And a tendency to distrust any words that leave your mouth,” she laughed, “No, you are not a Jonathan. You are something else.”
“And what am I?” he grinned.
“A mystery,” she smiled, “And a scoundrel.”
Although he laughed at her words, he simply declined to comment further. As the leaves danced along the soft breeze, Willow stared out over the glistening lights of the city, watching the dark night sky caress the horizon. She felt Switch’s curious eyes searching her face, though she knew not what he saw. As a few moments passed, she finally gave in and looked towards him.
“What is it?” she asked tiredly.
“You look older,” he frowned.
Again, Willow felt a laugh escape her chest.
“What a brilliant observation,” she replied in sarcasm.
“You look tired,” he said softly, a crease of unease along his forehead.
“I am,” she chuckled darkly, “To all hell, I am. Does it worry you? Do you stress that I am not sleeping well?”
“I do…” he said quietly, casting his eyes down as if the admission shamed him.
“What?” Willow scowled, rubbing her eyes in frustration, “Leave it be, Switch. I have little patience left for your games.”
“Games?” he huffed a laugh, dropping his act of concern, a resentment tinting his cheeks, “It is a game I play only with you.”
Willow exhaled a slow and controlled breath, calming her temper as it threatened to erupt in words from her mouth. She was exhausted, physically and mentally. The past few days were supposed to have been restful; the calm before the storm as it were. Yet they had been more strenuous and draining than hours of fighting men and angels. She had been forced to truly look inside herself, and face what was there, whether she was willing to or not. As she watched the curious weight drag Switch’s usual smug grin into a deep anger, she clenched her eyes tight and sighed.
“Do you love him?” he asked coldly.
“What?” Willow balked, taken aback by his question.
“The warrior,” he said bitterly, curling his lip, “Do you love him?”
A harsh laugh sounded, as she slowly shook her head, “What a question to ask.”
“Is he everything you pictured in a man?” he growled, anger and hatred contorting his expression, “Tall, handsome, brave…”
Enough!” Willow snarled, “What is this?”
 “A simple question, sweet Willow,” he said quietly, bitterness crushing his tone.
As the turmoil swarmed like a vortex in her mind, feelings of anger and confusion dancing together like a battle between armies of emotion. She could not muster an answer, for even the light-hearted banter of her reply seemed drenched in petulance. What a pitiful and meagre thing, she thought, to be so overwhelmingly distraught over. As her eyes closed heavily, and her chest deflated in emptiness, she heard the barest sound of scuffed movement behind her.
“Am I to never know the taste of your flesh again?” his sultry words rasped in her ear, as smooth hands slid around her throat.
His grip slowly tightened, as a curious sensation sliced along her skin, as if sharp talons grew from his fingers. As one cutting point traced down her collarbone towards her chest, the breath she had drawn hitched in her throat. Her eyes shot down to watch as the skin split open, stinging viciously in terrible ache, by the keen edge of a bestial claw. It was not a simple hardened nail of a man, nor the talon of a devil. It was something else, something larger, more akin to the claw of a dragon. As its path tore through the fabric of her dress, continuing down her centre and along her stomach, she whimpered in renewed fear and in lustful desperation. When it reached her pelvic bone and simply lingered, she trembled in terrified anticipation.
Will you deny me?” he whispered, sharp bursts of hot breath in her ear, sending chills that traced her spine.
With his chest flush to her back, his feral tongue glided gently along the length of her ear while the hand around her neck compressed its grip. She slammed her lips closed to supress the groan that sounded in her throat. Though she despised her body for betraying her calm, it arched to meet his brutal touch. The skin that had split ached in torturous suffering, yet rose to push his talon deeper in sinful masochistic desire. She felt his wretched grin slither onto his face as he lifted his hand high enough to refuse her wish.
Say it!” he growled fiercely, “Tell me! Tell me you cannot deny me!”
Willow’s mind repelled against his command, she hissed a savage breath as her fangs plunged down into view of the soft light of the moon. Though her mind was stern and loyal, she cursed her traitorous body that begged and pleaded for more.
Say it, Willow!” he snarled, “He can have your heart, but your body belongs to me…”
Her mind erupted in defiance, a futile attempt as his lower claws spread wide, all five of them shearing through flesh as he dragged them lower to her thighs. As he slowly began to carve his way higher, back along the tops of her thighs, her lips clamped tight to muffle the cry of carnal pleasure.
Say it,” he breathed, “And I will give you what you want…”
It was his choice of words that sparked a flame of rebellion. Though his verbal attempt at ownership of her body was laughable, it was not what burned the defiance brightly in her mind. Willow would not graciously accept the scraps she was given; she would take what she wanted by force. Though she did not try to dispute that her body craved his savage embrace, she played along by desperately scuffing her heels on the stone ledge, as if to get better perch to further his touch. He chuckled, continuing to trace his claws along her thighs, pleased with his dominating stance. When she found grip on the ledge, she grinned mischievously. With an eery grace and dexterous agility, she propelled herself using every ounce of strength she could summon. She flipped her body high into the air, his claws plunging deeply into the flesh of her legs, as she used his grip on her throat to leverage her swing up and over his head. She sailed through the air, the black sheet of her shattered dress rippling in billowing waves. His hand around her throat reactively released its grip as he was thrown forward by the weight of her descent. With elegant and deft movements, she landed on her feet behind him. As he regained his balance, he spun on his heel towards her, in perfect time for her leap forward. As her weight collided with him, he crashed backward into the stone railing as her legs wrapped around his waist, while her hand quickly drew the blade from his sheath and forced it against his throat. When she brought her face close to his, his sight widened in vicious and devouring hunger. Though his eyes had ever pierced in wells of unending black, as he looked to her now, they blazed a brilliant emerald green.
“I will never say it,” she whispered with a wicked grin against his lips, staring deep truths into his gaze, “I am not yours, I will never be. You can only ever have me for as long as I wish it…”
Though the consuming hunger of his eyes did not dim, the intensity of his stare held her captive, as his brow arched high. When he spoke, he failed to shield the severity of the truth with his usual snapping wit. A feral possession seethed in his gaze, reigned in only by the barest of measures.
“I have never been any good at sharing…” he growled, lifting her weight as he turned to sit her upon the edge of the stone railing, ignoring the blade that pressed into his neck.
“Willow?” came Pellius’ concerned voice from inside the manor, “Are you alright?”
She arched her brow to Switch, a devious grin lifting her lips.
“You do not have a choice,” she whispered.
As Pellius heavy footsteps drew near, Switch’s gaze flashed a venomous green. His eyes narrowed in an unspoken warning that said she had not heard the last from him on the matter. With barely a second to spare, he crashed his lips viciously to hers in a feral dominating caress that slashed the flesh of his neck upon the blade, before he suddenly vanished from sight.
“My lady?” Pellius called, stepping out onto the balcony, “Is everything alright, I thought I heard-”
His words faltered as he saw the state of Willow. His eyes looked over the blade in her hand, the torn shards of her dress, and trailed the length of her scarred chest and stomach. To his credit, he simply arched an eyebrow in question. Willow could not help but laugh in reply, standing from the ledge and slowly walking for the door.
“Should I ask?” Pellius questioned darkly.
Willow grinned as she stopped beside him, lifting on her toes to place a kiss upon his cheek. She chuckled as she spoke and made her way towards the dressing chamber.
“I do not think,” she teased, “That you would approve of the answer…”
Suddenly, his hand latched on tightly to her wrist, forcing her steps to halt.
You would kiss me with the lips that have just taken his?” he breathed viciously.
Before she had a chance to reply, he ripped her forward to face him.
“You would touch me with the hands that have just caressed him?”
His eyed blazed with feral rage, swarming with furious jealously and disgust, yet paired with dark and ominous desire. Slowly, he prowled towards her, forcing her to follow until her back ran in to the harsh stone wall of the manor.
“You would allow him to take you,” he growled venomously, a terrifying promise of retribution to his words, “While I lingered in the next room?”
As Willow’s body trembled in fear, carnal terror and excitement racing through her veins as if blood coursed its path – she knew better than to speak or attempt to justify her actions.
“I have been patient,” he breathed in choler, “I have been understanding. I have never told you that you were not to take another lover. I have never denied you your debauched and sinful satisfaction. Yet, I would have thought you would show me the respect I deserve.”
As his ire grew, and his minacious presence spread in a wave that licked her flesh in warning, Willow felt herself pressing further into the sharp edges of the stone wall. She felt small under the crushing weight of his intimidating gaze.
“You speak of suffering,” he seethed, “Is this what you meant? You will forever rouse the jealously in me, and force me to retaliate and forever induce my wrath?”
Her chest quivered, as her unnecessary breaths began to tremble. She clenched her teeth together to stop the whimper that quivered in her throat.
“This is how you want it to be?” he rasped, eyes flashing with acid, “Then so be it.”
For a moment, he simply glared down at her, the only physical contact being his crushing grasp on her wrist before he released it. The anticipation ached within her, terrified and delighted to await his next move.
Take off the dress,” he commanded in a controlled voice, a baleful warning to his tone.
With an unrelenting lock on his gaze, Willow did as she was told, still clutching the blade as she slipped her arms from her tattered dress and allowed it to drop to the stone floor. She shivered as the cold chill of the night breeze drifted along the sweat that lined her delicate frame. She stood in only the light slip of fabric that was once her nightdress, though now the large tear in its front rendered it to a simple flank of silk.
“That one too,” he ordered quietly.
Slowly, she slipped it from her shoulders, allowing it to follow her gown to the floor. He simply watched her, dark eyes that burned a vivid scarlet, with an intensity that she had not seen before. She had never felt so exposed. She trembled beneath him, fingers grasping the handle of the dagger, sharp points of the stone digging into the bare flesh of her back. With wide eyes, she watched his hand reach for hers, guiding the blade to her own throat. He stepped forward, gradually forcing his weight against her as he crushed her back against the rough and tortuous wall. With calm and controlled movements, he forced her hand to drag the blade gently along the skin of her throat.
“This is what you want?” he whispered darkly, “This is what you crave?”
His savage and menacing glare had her hand quivering against her neck. Her legs shifted in restless lust that coursed through her limbs and threatened to overwhelm her senses. She felt the infernal pulse that surrounded him, drumming like a beat of wrathful demand. The waiting only heightened her excitement, the impending dread a frightening and intoxicating device. His dark gaze only grew more sinister, as a lecherous grin slowly lifted his lips.
“I told you once,” he growled, “That I am not a man of forgiveness; I am a man of retribution. And you, Willow, seem far too eager to seek punishment. You asked me why I had not taken a wife in Cheliax, and I told you I had not found someone who could entice my fascination for long. You make me fight for you. You infuriate me to no end, for I cannot simply command your obedience.”
His eyes flashed a wrathful scarlet, as his fierce anger struggled to remain contained.  “Maybe that is why you entice me so…”
He thrust the blade higher, forcing her head to snap back into the jagged stone, as the cold slither of his hand traced down along the flesh of her stomach. As his eyes glinted in sadistic promise, Willow felt a true and paralysing fear chill her spine, urging the searing lust that burned within her soul.

“It seems I have been too lenient with you,” he whispered, a merciless assurance to his words, as his hand forced its way lower, “Let us see, if I cannot teach you why you should fear my reckoning…”

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