Tuesday, 14 March 2017
Chapter 40 - In Darkness They Come
The putrid stench of sulphur thickened the air, as smouldering flame danced along the harsh and jagged rock. Fire that burned in a malevolence so fierce it was almost sentient. A volcanic wasteland, a vast plane of true terror and desolation. Further than the eye could see, the expanse of battered and burnt rock, jutted along the endless horizon. The searing heat was indescribable. So hot, it scorched a frozen chill of bitter torrid fury. Such a pain was unfathomable, yet against her skin; it felt like home.
Willow’s sight drifted slowly to take in the panorama of the barren desolation, seen from the highest point of the distant mountain. She saw the marsh that covered the land, though no plants or life grew. The filth formed by a cascade of countless foul arteries of strange fluids hurling their contents in a seeping wave that drenched the land. She saw the mountain of erupting lava, coursing across the stone and iron landscape, seething in venomous rage intent on consuming all in its path. She saw the three spired tower, blackened metal strips of razor-sharp spikes, striking out into the flaming inferno of the sky. And she saw the city, a dense and vile clustering of spiralling citadels, domiciles of the infernal warlords and the endless legions of Hell. A haze clouded Willow’s mind, her thoughts unable to register, her own voice muted within her head. She simply followed her vision without question, obediently trailing the path that it took her. It plunged deep into the blackened rock, through the crushing force of solid stone, until she surfaced in the abhorrent tide of flowing waters. She rose from the loathsome liquid, eyes alight as she scanned the curious details of her surroundings. A magnificent, yet twisted mockery of a mortal palace. She drifted through the abominable rot of coursing water, following the sewers that wound through the streets. It was no city she had seen before; feral and savage creatures roaming along fire-laden paths, grotesque beings oozing their repugnant secretions as they passed. Atrocities of buildings made from severed limbs of unidentifiable creatures, moulded with streaks of iron, flesh and bone. In the distance, a mountainous citadel formed from uncountable links of chain, wheezing a melody of grinding speech that shrieked in cries of agony. And towering above them all; a wretched iron spire, taller than any mountain upon the material plane. Willow’s vision suddenly leapt towards it, racing through the hideous scenes of carnage that played along the streets. When she arrived at the grand and terrifying spire, she saw the horrendous tower for what it was. A place of pure misery and torture. Each portion of the iron was carved in gruesome scenes of barbaric torment and depraved depictions of horrid slaughter. Surrounding the base of the vile tower were unmoving ranks of soldiers. Though, these were no normal soldiers; these soldiers were some of the fiercest that even Hell had to offer. Impeccable lines of meticulous stance – foul devils layered in scarlet scales, bearing oversize eldritch bone wings and tall twisted horns shattering from their skulls. As her sight drifted towards them, they paid her no mind. They remained in their eery stoic vigils, venomous scarlet eyes alight and waiting. Slowly, Willow’s vision drifted through the legions, leading her far passed the tower of iron and deep into the shadowed forest that surrounded the grounds. Decaying bodies hung from the branches of trees that bled a vile crimson sap. Mutated shrubs that bore poisonous thorns grew in thick scatter, embellished with shreds of torn and withered skin. As she broke out passed the shelter of the weeping jungle, her sight guided her towards a towering wall that encompassed the grand and heinous palace. When she neared the enormous steel gate, the two halves of the doors screeched as they began to open. When the barest crack appeared between them, a vile ooze of scarlet liquid seeped from the opening. Suddenly, a sordid tsunami of vermillion gore crashed through the gates, relentless waves of blood surging forth as they were unleashed from within the palace grounds. As the vile fluid eventually drained; the doors opened wide in horrific welcoming. Slowly, Willow’s vision drifted through the opening. The stone and steel stained with the sickening hue of vivid red, yet the grotesque paint was not what drew her eye. Her vision turned, following the path of the colossal wall, as a thundering sound suddenly erupted from stone. Screams of tortuous agony, cries of unending suffering, shrieks of enduring torment. A chorus of anguish, unshackled by the drowning suffocation of the blood that had filled the palace grounds. From the harsh and desolate earth, the blood began to fill anew, rising once more to silence the screams. It was then, that Willow’s sight was guided closer to the wall. What had appeared as simple bricks and chunks of stone and iron, were not that at all. They were souls. Once living entities, once creatures and people. Now, their bodies were devoured and their souls remained as damned and wretched vessels, purified of weakness and rebellion within the forges of Hell. They formed the building blocks of Hell’s infernal structures, condemned to live out eternity in the relentless company of endless and eternal suffering. As she drew closer, she saw the crushed and contorted shadows of men. Slowly, the heart wrenching cry of bitter despair that wailed from a single soul became her focus. Her vision gradually turned towards it, drifting closer to the wall, as the glimmering ethereal glow came into sight. She saw the inconsolable spirit, she saw his everlasting torment. It did not know she was there, it did not sense her presence. All it knew was agony, terror and suffering. As the foul floods of velvet gore rose again to suffocate and smother the wretched soul, it shrieked in horrifying fear. The red liquid began to consume it, drowning out the sounds of its cries. Before it encompassed it completely, the vision changed. A familiar face; two eyes filled with sheer terror and pure misery. They looked to her, and as they saw her a moment before the blood enveloped them – they wept.
Willow’s eyes flew open abruptly, as she threw herself from the silk sheets, an agonising ache seizing her chest. Her skin stung in venomous pain, as if she had bathed in a brew of acid. Harsh breaths tore through her chest, though they did little to calm her erratic mind.
“What is it?” Pellius called in worry, leaping from the bed to grasp the sword he kept near.
As her eyes filled with bitter tears, she fell to her knees upon the floor. Pellius quickly stormed through the bedchamber, searching for the cause of her alarm, before swiftly returning to her side.
“What is wrong?” he asked worriedly.
“I saw him…” she breathed, choking on her words.
“Who?” Pellius frowned, dropping his sword and lifting Willow’s face in his hands.
With widened eyes, and trembling lips, she looked to him.
“I saw The Wall…” she whispered, “I saw Bor…”
As the sky dimmed in the arrival of dusk, Willow, Pellius and Garvana gathered in the sitting chamber of the Monteguard Manor, resting by the flickering flames that simmered in the stone fireplace. Though the taste was no comfort, Willow sipped steaming tea from the small ceramic cup, for the simple routine brought its own solace. Her limbs and joints ached in cruel exertion, her muscles tight and drawn from the strenuous travail of the harsh reprimand Pellius had enforced upon her the night before. She had collapsed in delightful enervation, her first hours of slumber a blissful stupor enveloped in the dragging weight of sinful fatigue. But then, it had all changed. As her mind trailed its way back through the infernal journey of her dreams, she had to clench her eyes shut to avoid its enticing ruination.
“My lady?” Pellius voice said softly, interrupting her spiralling thoughts.
She looked to him with eyes of heavy strain.
“Are you alright?” he asked quietly, a curious worry to his voice.
“Yes,” she sighed, relaxing her limbs that had clenched tight along with her thoughts.
He stared into her gaze, knowing eyes of understanding piercing through her veil of strength. He knew her too well. He could read the way her brows failed to release its frown, the way her bottom lip found its way between her teeth, the way the dark wells hung lower under her lids. Though the previous night he had looked to her in a far different manner, his eyes of concern looked to her now in troubled affection. It blossomed a small smile upon her lips, a soft hand reaching to rest on his forearm.
“Are you two quite done?” Garvana drawled, rolling her eyes.
Willow laughed despite herself, “Quite.”
“Good,” Garvana huffed, “Now, what are we going to do about this sorcerous?”
“I trust her,” Willow shrugged, “She had no reason to return Hellbrand to us, she had no reason to return at all. But she did. She tracked us across the country to fulfil her task, and when it was completed, she could have gone anywhere in the world. And she chose here, with us.”
“That does not seem suspicious to you?” Garvana scowled.
“No,” Willow said truthfully, “It seems determined and dedicated. If we are to have another aid us, they are traits I would require.”
“But she killed Bor, Willow!” she growled.
“By the will of our Infernal Lord,” Willow insisted, “I feel his loss keenly, but who are we to question the Lord of the Nine?”
“I am not questioning him,” Garvana frowned, “It is just, hard to take in. Pellius, you have been quiet, what do you think?”
Though the frown on his brow did not lessen, he shook his head gently.
“Willow speaks the truth,” he conceded, “It seems as if Traya was entitled to her vengeance, though I do not know if I can simply trust her…”
“Well we must come to a decision,” Willow sighed, “We have two days before we infiltrate the Adarium. We must either include her in our plans, or we must turn her away. I think it would be foolish to cast off the opportunity to utilise her talents. What we are expected to do is nonsensical enough, having a pyromancer on our side will certainly aid our chances of success…”
“I suppose you are right,” Garvana huffed, “But how do we know she is not going to betray us?”
“To whom?” Willow scoffed, “I have heard of the massacre in Wayburn. It was not only Bor she slew with fire. In her quest for revenge she killed more than twenty bystanders, erupting the market place in a blazing fury. She has made no friends of the Mitrans. She could have done the same to this manor, yet she chose to knock…”
“Alright,” Pellius sighed, “Let us see how she fairs in the Adarium, perhaps she may prove useful. It will be a trial of sorts. If she passes; she will be allowed to join us. If she fails, well, she’ll be dead…”
“Agreed,” Garvana nodded.
“Very well,” Willow said, sitting up straighter in the cushioned armchair, “I will let her know. But, before we depart… I have something I must ask the both of you.”
She exhaled a heavy breath, eyes downcast as her brows pulled tightly in a frown.
“Is there…” she began cautiously, “Is there a way to petition hell for the release of a soul?”
“What?” Garvana balked, shrewd eyes looking to her, “Why?”
“Is this about the dream you had?” Pellius asked, arching his brow.
“Yes,” Willow said quietly, “Though I did not tell you about it in full. I did not just see Bor in The Wall… I was guided to it. It was as if someone was showing me exactly where his soul is residing in utter torment…”
“What do you mean?” Garvana questioned, “Who would show you that?”
“I do not know,” Willow said, shaking her head gently, “But seeing that place… Seeing where he is set to spend the rest of eternity…”
“What was it like?” Garvana whispered, eyes wide in morbid curiosity.
Willow slowly looked to her, unable to give words to such horrors.
“Worse,” she breathed, “Worse than anything I could have imagined…”
“It is not impossible to petition such a thing,” Pellius interjected, a cool and calm authority to his voice, “Though unorthodox, a devil of a sufficient rank would be able to arrange it… for a price.”
“I would pay it!” Garvana growled firmly, curtly nodding her head.
“How do we go about it?” Willow frowned, “Do we even know such a devil?”
“Perhaps some of us might…” Pellius said, a curious fire to his tone.
Strange and harsh eyes looked to her, for merely a moment before Pellius leashed his temper. Though it was a swift change between his calm composure; it was not swift enough to evade Willow’s sight.
“Perhaps Dessiter of the Phistophilus,” Garvana offered, “Do you suppose he could arrange such a thing?”
“It is possible,” Pellius answered cordially, looking away from Willow, “Though I am unsure exactly how much power he wields, or whether we should seek such a thing.”
“Who do you speak of?” Willow asked quietly, suspicious poise in her tone.
“No one in particular, my lady,” he replied politely, though his bitter tongue betrayed him.
Willow felt her frown deepen, as his curious reaction sparked uncertainty within her mind. There was only one being she could think of, though she truly had little knowledge of exactly what he was, let alone the actual power he wielded.
“Perhaps it is best we seek the advice of the bone devils within the mirror,” Garvana offered, “We know the cost of asking them.”
“The cost?” Willow frowned.
“They cannot ask more of us,” she replied cryptically, cold eyes looking to Willow, “When they have decided to recall their debts…”
“Debts?” Willow scowled, “What are you referring to, Garvana?”
“Nothing,” she dismissed, turning to Pellius, “If they cannot tell us who, they can point us in the right direction.”
“Perhaps,” Pellius answered, a frown pulled low upon his brow.
“I shall leave you to speak with them,” Willow sighed, standing from the chair upon weary legs, her mind hazed with fatigue, “But forgive me, I must excuse myself.”
“Where are you going?” Garvana frowned in suspicion, “What is wrong.”
“Nothing,” she laughed, before looking to Pellius with an eyebrow arched high, “If it is alright with you two, I simply wish to rest for a moment. It seems I did not find enough hours to sleep…”
As the morning sun threatened to reveal itself from beyond the horizon, Willow found herself wandering the quiet halls of the Monteguard Manor. Slow steps trailed the heavy rugs that lined the floors, as her eyes drifted over the stern and refined portraits of those who had come before her. When she had walked the halls as a child, she had been awestruck in admiration for those depicted in the thick oil paint. She had cherished the tales and deeds of each individual. She had been proud to be born of the grand House Monteguard. Yet now, she walked the quiet halls with a vacant heart. She was not one of them. These men and women of the strong and indomitable bloodline were strangers to her. The human couple that had raised her, though they raised her with love and protection, were only her parents by deceit and opportunity. Even with the truth revealed, they did not shun her. They had made it clear that she would always be there daughter, that she would always be a Monteguard in their eyes and their hearts. But when all was said and done - she did not know who she was. Now, the manor that had been home, the only home she had known; seemed empty and vain. The heavily embellished décor felt tacky and overdone, the gold lined paintings felt superficial and fraudulent. The home she had once known was no longer the safe haven that it had always been. Slowly, her feet guided her towards the ballroom, her hands pushing open the large oak doors with little lustre. The solid heels on the bottom of her shoes clicked along the marble tiles, echoing throughout the empty and enormous chamber. As her unhurried steps strolled into the centre of the ballroom, she sighed a weighty breath. Once, this room had been filled with the richest and most prominent members of the noble ranks. Every year before the Royal Gala on the Vernal Equinox, the Monteguard family would be the last to host a vibrant and lively masquerade ball, catering to hundreds as they opened their manor to the elite of Talingarde. Each year, Willow would dress in something more elaborate, a gown that pushed further limits and boundaries than the last. And each year, the music would grow louder, the drinks would fill deeper and the revelry would continue later into the dawn hours.
After escaping Branderscar, Willow had been sure she would follow the path of vengeance, claiming the name and house of Monteguard for herself. She had envisioned completing her righteous mission, handing the lands of Talingarde to the mighty Asmodeus, and picking up her life where she had left it – though she would be wielding it with power that far surpassed her former self. She gazed upward towards the lavish and immense chandelier, lit with more than a hundred long-burning candles. Such a resplendent ornament was wasted upon the eyes of none, the future she had foreseen seemed pitiful and barren. With a meandering stride, she walked to the western corner of the vast chamber, where the grand piano lay silent. She trailed her fingers along the gleaming darkwood, until her hand found the runic carving along the rim of the lid. With rasping words, she smiled nostalgically as she read the incantation. With no pianist trailing the keys, the soft sound of harmonious notes began to play. The melody was slow and gentle, a quiet piece of sorrow and sadness. The enchantment upon the piano had been the envy of the other nobles when it was unveiled to them so many years ago. As if the music knew what lingered in your heart, it always played the songs best suited to the listeners mood. Now, as Willow stood with her fingers tracing the runic words – it lulled a tune of mournful yearning.
“Dawn is almost here,” Pellius’ voice whispered softly behind her.
She spun in surprise, frowning deeply at his sudden presence. Had she been so caught up in the music that she had not heard his approach, had her mind been so distracted in self-pity?
“You will burn if you remain by those windows much longer, my lady,” he commented, a small smile upon his lips.
Slowly, the frown lifted as a soft laugh took its place.
“I shall not be too long,” she smiled, “I was simply…”
She knew not what to reply, for she herself was not sure what she was doing.
“Listening,” she sighed, her lips dropping in disquiet.
“We must retire soon,” Pellius insisted gently, “We must be well-rested and prepared for the Adarium this evening.”
“I know,” Willow replied quietly, “I will be there shortly.”
As Pellius inclined his head cordially and turned to retreat from the large chamber, Willow returned to the piano, her hand stilling as the song changed to a tender and heartfelt air. The sounds of his heavy leather boots echoed in slow withdrawal, as she felt her unbeating heart shudder.
“Pellius,” she said quietly, turning to face him.
He ceased his steps and looked to her, his brow raised in question.
“Will you dance with me?” she asked softly, a small smile lifting the corner of her mouth.
“Dance?” he frowned.
Suddenly, the music picked up, fastening its notes to croon a ballad of ludic and playful desire.
“Yes, dance,” Willow laughed, slow steps prowling towards him, “It is the dawn of the day we finally kill the king of Talingarde. And I do not wish to greet the sun with the harsh taste of worry and fret…”
As she reached him along the eastern edge of the grand ballroom, her eyes lit a vibrant scarlet passion.
“I wish to meet it with bold defiance,” she rasped, “With amusement and pleasure.”
“And there isn’t another you would wish to meet it with?” he scoffed harshly, resentment creasing his brow.
“Pellius,” Willow drawled, though her eyes of delight did not dissipate, “Covetous malice with promise of reprimand may be entirely enticing, but a brooding and bitter sack of sadness?”
She stepped close to him, lifting her head to stare into his gaze. Her fingers splayed along his firm chest, slowly trailing upward along his broad shoulders.
“I want you,” she grinned, a playful flitter in her eyes, “And I want you to dance with me. Must I declare my undying love for you each time I wish for your affection or attention?”
Though the intensity still widened his stare, he slowly gripped one of her hands and pulled it outward, sliding his other around her waist. With complete control, he led Willow forward to the chiming beat of the music, guiding her sway along the marble tile. Together, they waltzed along the large ballroom floor, Willow’s easy laugh fluttering from her lips in enjoyment. For a moment, as the music drifted through the vast chamber, her mind was free of the strenuous weight of turmoil. As the music veered and the echoing notes slowed to a close, he released her waist and twirled her around, her raven hair billowing along with her velvet dress. He suddenly wrenched her towards him, clasping his arm around her back as he held her weight and tipped her backward in a deep lunge. As her back arched in his grasp, her dress was pulled taut along her torso, dragging the neck line low enough to reveal the sharp lines of her collar bone. His other hand slithered along the centre of her chest, pulling the lace ties of her gown open, baring her white flesh from beneath.
“You have your wish,” he whispered darkly, an ardent and wicked flare in his gaze, “But I also wish to see in the Shining Sun… as the light of hope lifts for the last day of its kings life, I wish to make an offering to the orchestrator of his downfall…”
An ominous and impassioned grin spread along his face, as his hand grasped Willow’s throat, lifting her lips to his own. The music began a drumming and sensuous beat, the keys of the piano playing a sultry tune of seduction and craving.
“I wish to honour and venerate our Infernal Lord,” he breathed, “In the most fitting way I know how…”
When a sharp knock rapped on the door, Willow’s eyes fluttered open.
“The sun has fallen, mistress,” Atwood called loudly.
“Thank you, Atwood,” Willow yawned.
As she heard his soft footsteps trailing away from her quarters, she turned amongst the sheets, bringing herself around to lay upon Pellius’ chest. Though his brow furrowed, and his tired eyes refused to open, she could tell he was awake.
“It is time,” she said quietly, tracing her finger along his chin.
“Alright,” he sighed, turning his head from her reach, “I shall be up in a moment.”
Willow smiled, eyes trailing over his broad chest and shoulders. She could not stop the small chuckle as she traced her fingers over the harsh claw-like marks along his flesh; the ones that were not there before they had retired for the evening. As she watched his stubborn chin defy the early hours of night, she felt a slow and strange worry seep into her mind. What they were going to do come midnight, was far more dangerous than anything they had attempted before. They were to infiltrate the very home of the royal family, intent on sacrificing the princess in order to kill the king. There were sure to be hundreds of guards and knights, immense constructions of fire and steel – each and every being they were set to encounter would have been willing to die for the chance to save their beloved leaders. And they were only four. Though they had grown vastly in power, strength and skill; they were still only a number of four.
“Will you promise me something?” Willow asked quietly, lifting herself higher onto his chest.
“That depends what it is,” he yawned, hazy eyes turning to see her.
She slid atop him, dropping her legs to either side of his hips, bringing her face closer to his. She looked to him with eyes of deep affection, tinted with a touch of distress. They searched his face, seeking something that would still the uncertainty and discomposure within her chest.
“What is it, Willow?” he frowned, lifting a hand to caress her cheek.
“Tonight…” she said quietly, “Do not… die.”
“I was not planning on it,” he scoffed lightly, arching his brow.
“You know what I mean,” she frowned, “Do not be rash and charge in unaided, do not throw yourself at whatever comes our way. Let me aid you, let us aid you. Do not sacrifice yourself by allowing your wrath and hatred to consume you completely.”
“There is power in hatred,” he commented gently, softly tucking a rebellious strand of hair behind her ear, “For it inspires anger and ire. It allows the blood to boil and surge in charged bouts of strength and will.”
“And it also forces you to act like a martyr,” Willow scolded, “You lose your sense and it overwhelms you with brutal force and sheer stupidity.”
Pellius laughed a hearty chuckle, a smirk lifting his lips.
“And you are saying you are not one to succumb to fury?”
“Well I need to remain controlled as well,” she scowled, “Pellius, please. I... I cannot lose you, I am not willing to lose you.”
Though his gaze softened, she could see the workings of his mind flash across his eyes.
“You would not simply replace me when I am gone?” he laughed, though the sound was tainted by bitterness.
She could not help but smile at his words, lowering her head to press a soft kiss to his lips.
“No,” she said softly, arching her brow, “That would not be as much fun. You promised me I could torment you for an eternity… and I will forever hold you to that.”
The cold wind lashed through the rippling waves of raven locks, as Willow’s steed galloped through the empty streets of Matharyn. The moonless night shadowed the paths in heavy darkness, the barely lit streets glowing by the flickering torchlights that lined the main roads. The four of them rode upon horseback towards the western dockyards of Bayburn, with hurried pace they kicked their mounts faster, passing the staggered remains of townsfolk leaving the inns and taverns upon closing. Those who lingered in the street were quick to scramble out of the way, some saluting and bowing their head in respect and reverence. It was not the hurry in which the Forsaken moved through the streets that had the people bowing; it was the glistening steel that Pellius and Garvana wore. Shimmering silver plates, bold and dignified crests, draped in royal blue livery that identified them as part of the Knights of Alerion. Both of them wore the gleaming sapphire pendants, carved in the shape of the Mitran sunburst. Even the weapons they wore strapped to their backs were embellished with the holy symbol of the Shining Lord. It was a curious sight for Willow. Pellius was of a similar size to her husband, a similar build and broadness, the same tightly clasped locks of gold and fair. As she rode closely behind him, she was struck with the true similarities they shared. With a long and loose Mitran amulet dangling from her neck, rocking against her torso, she had a sudden shudder of revulsion fill her stomach. As if he could sense her distaste, he chanced a glance back towards her, his tall and regal brow raised in question. She could not help but grin as the similarities seemed to vanish. Where her husband was a man of soft features and an almost feminine grace – Pellius bore harsh and strong lines to his face, a chiselled chin and angular cheekbones. Even the slight tilt to his eyes formed the masculine lines that made him such an arresting figure. As he saw her lips lift and eyes alight, he cast her a wink before he returned his face to the road.
As they pulled on the reins and slowed their steeds to a halt, the four of them quickly dismounted. Pellius tossed his leather reins to Willow expectantly, to which she rolled her eyes and fastened his beside hers along the post. She was dressed in the simple garb of a squire; loose fitting white pants worn over her leather armour, with a long robe baring a bright sun on its flank. The circlet she wore morphed her facial features slightly, lending aid her dress and disguise. She was quick to follow Pellius and Garvana’s hurried steps down along the pier, arriving in time to swiftly scale the plank and board the small vessel.
“As fast as you can, madam,” Pellius impressed, “It is a matter of life and death. We must reach the Adarium before midnight!”
“Yes, sir,” the woman leading the cruise nodded, eyes of warm reverence gazing up at Pellius, “We will move as quickly as this old ship is able, sir!”
“Is everything alright?” one of the rowers asked worriedly.
“Yes,” Pellius frowned, though his voice was tempered with concern, “But when we get there, you are best to get to the safety of your homes as soon as possible.”
“Oh,” the man stammered, “Y-yes, sir.”
As the men rowed the oars with new vigour, the immense spectacle that was the Adarium came into view. The large structure of colossal size stretched far along the horizon, a grand three levelled building towering over the surrounding yards of garden and lush greenery. Littered along the expanse were a dozen stone structures of a smaller size, separate barracks and quarters, much like a town of its own. As the barge churned through the water, and the grand pier grew closer, Willow exhaled a quiet and calming breath. Though she was the quickest thinker on her feet, their plan could not work with her at the helm. The Knights of Alerion was a venerable brotherhood of knights dedicated to Mitra’s service. A predominantly male order, though certain exceptions were made in cases of sternly built and strong willed females. Garvana could fit the exception seamlessly, but a woman of Willow’s size and stature in the ranks of the knights was unheard of and truly unbelievable. More commonly, the women served the order in other ways. Chambermaids, healers and personal attendants. They had chosen to impersonate the Knights of Alerion for two very specific reasons. Firstly, the order was led by no less august a personage than the King himself. Markadian V called the Brave, was the highest ranking member of the Knights of the Alerion. His dedication was one of the reasons the order was so highly respected and recognized throughout Talingarde. Very few men or women, noble or commoner, would dare question the word of a Knight of Alerion. Secondly, the order was something Willow was intimately familiar with. She knew exactly how they wore each layer of their armour, she knew how they addressed one another, she knew the chain of command. She advised the Forsaken in as much detail as she could remember, guiding their arcane disguises to perfection. What she could not aid them with, was how to respond to prying questions. For in her station as a lowly attendant, her place was to be seen and not heard.
Their plan had been simple. They needed only a way into the palace, far enough to allow them to find the sanctum and await the kings arrival. As the barge pulled into the pier, a small man dressed in royal livery made his way down the winding path towards them. As Pellius quickly thanked the woman running the vessel, he hurriedly waved down the man who shuffled his pace to greet them.
“Good evening, sir,” the servant began, “How may-
“There is no time for pleasantries,” Pellius interrupted, “It is of vital importance that we enter the Adarium at once. Who is left in charge here?”
“My lord,” the servant stammered, “This is highly unusual-
“We have sighted the great beast Chargammon the Black headed this way!” Pellius growled in impatience, “We have no time to waste! We must see to the safety of the princess!”
At the mention of the fearsome horrors name, the blood drained from the man’s face. With skin a sickly pale green, he trembled upon his response.
“Now man!” Pellius snapped, “There is no time!”
“Y-yes, sir!” he stuttered.
In terrified panic, he turned on his heel and ran back up the winding paths towards the castle. The Forsaken followed in the fastest run they could muster, closely on the heels of the servant. As the neared the entrance, they saw a set of broad marble stairs, ﬂanked on each side by rows of columns supporting a great stone roof. Every inch of stone covered by carvings showing both the glory of Mitra and the great military victories of Markadian I called the Victor. Blocking entry to the grand structure, were two bronze doors that stood more than twelve feet high. On either side of the glistening entrance, were two everburning torches ensconced upon the walls, burning a vivid and radiant royal blue.
“In there,” the servant rushed, “Find the captain of the guard! I-I will go and muster the other guards, they must be warned!”
With no further words, he raced around the side of the entryway, scuttling as fast as his legs would take him along the garden lined path. The Forsaken looked to one another, taking a final breath as they approached the bronze doors. Willow caught Pellius’ eye as his hand reached for the door, with a look of mutual understanding, she nodded. As his firm hand touched the bronze, it swung open gently, so perfectly balanced as to not make a whisper of sound as it opened. With a stride of fierce authority, Pellius stepped over the threshold and entered the Adarium, speaking the words that the Baroness Vanya had instructed.
“Mitra, my heart is thine,” he said quietly.
As the rest of them followed suit, the immense and immaculate front hall opened out before them, appointed in regal marble and beautiful bronze fixtures. In times of joy and revelry, it could have held a great number of guests and entertainers, though now it was silent and empty. To the sides of the chamber were two open doors that led into large cloak rooms clearly meant to be staﬀed by a pair of servants. In the time of crisis and royal absence, they too were empty and vacant. As the Forsaken stalked through the grand entrance, they saw two elegant spiral staircases flanking an ornate archway that led into the room beyond. From where they stood, they could see the marvel of a myriad of blue lights dancing from a fountain in the centre of the far chamber. Though Willow could not tell its cause until she grew closer, she smiled as she watched submerged glowing stones radiating subtle shades of pale light that rippled through the ﬂowing water, casting rays of illuminated glow that played upon the sapphire marble walls. As they stepped into the ethereal chamber, they saw four knights standing in vigil. Veteran warriors, marred by the scars of battle and experience, silent and stoic in their guard. As Pellius and Garvana walked through, the oldest of the knights struck his hand to his forehead in salute. Willow was pleased to see Pellius salute him in return, following through with the clenched fist across his chest in Alerion greeting.
“I am Sir Pellius,” he inclined his head, “But I have no time for delay, we must speak to the captain of the guard at once. We have most dire news.”
“What is it, knight?” the guard asked, “It is a late hour to awaken the captain.”
“Chargammon the Black is headed this way,” Pellius said urgently, “We sighted him over the western coast, he will be here before long. We must hurry!”
Again, the colour drained from the man’s face, a true terror widening his eyes.
“Of course,” the knight nodded, “But, I need the password before I can escort you through.”
Suddenly, Willow felt a worry drift through her mind. They had but one password, and it was not meant for use to pass anything but the protections barring entry to those not pledged to the Mitran faith. For a moment, Pellius hesitated. It was enough to see the knight rest his hand of the pommel of his large sword, brow slowly raising in suspicion. With nothing to lose, Willow bowed herself low and subtly drew her daggers from their sheathes.
“Mitra, my heart is thine,” she guessed, eyes downcast, preparing to pounce.
It was made instantly apparent that she had guessed wrong, as the knights drew their swords in unison. Having not noticed Willow’s preparation, she launched herself to the side of him, striking out in vicious fury. She carved her blades through the seams of his armour, tearing through flesh as she withdrew them, only to plunge them in once again. As he carved his sword towards her, Willow leaped backward, but was not quick enough to evade his keen blade. It tore though the white fabric of her garb, hacking against the black leather beneath. As its impact knocked the wind from her chest, she growled her irritation and lunged forward to strike back. The craning swing of Pellius’ blow slashed against the armour, his vicious weapon seeking blood from its prey. Garvana charged towards one of the other knights, her mace imbued with dark tendrils of wrath, the savage spikes dripping with malice. Traya backed up through the archway, tracing arcane patterns through the air, before a flaming torrent of fire erupted from her fingertips. It expelled outwards, encompassing the sorcerous and the two knights who were unfortunate enough to be within its reach. The cries of pain echoed through the chamber, as the smell of burnt flesh wafted from the scene. As her words rushed another incantation, she stepped back once again into the archway.
“The witch!” bellowed one of the knights, “She is retreating!”
Suddenly, the veteran knight that was carving his blade towards Willow changed his course. He swiftly turned his back to her, before attempting to charge towards Traya. Willow saw her opportunity, thrusting her blade deeply into his back. As he growled in pain, he wrenched himself forward, taking Willow’s blade embedded within him. Traya had no where to run, shielding her face with her arm as his mighty sword hacked deeply through the skin. Willow pounced forward, feeling a feral grin light her lips as she leaped into the air, striking her buried blade with her boot, propelling it through his ribcage to strike at his heart. As he dropped, she ripped the blade free, diving under the swing of another. While Garvana matched the knight blow for blow, Willow rolled to the side to avoid the carnage. A swift and subtle whistle caught her attention, as she saw Pellius rounding on another. She sprinted towards him, leaping over the fountain as she watched his rapturous and sinister assault. He lunged towards the knight, a single had spread out as it latched onto his challengers face. As Willow swiftly slipped in behind the man, she marveled at the paralysis that overtook his frame. Pellius held him fiercely, lip curled in loathing, dark and minacious arcana seething from his hand. With slick and deft movements, Willow slid her blade around and tore it through the rigid mans throat. As Pellius dropped him from his grasp, his eyes met Willow’s. Alight with cruel and merciless thrill, she grinned towards him before prowling back into the fray.
The last of the guards fell in a blaze of flame, stumbling forward into the glorious fountain, showering the marble floor with hissing waves of churning water. When the sound ceased, and the chamber fell silent, they looked to one another.
“What shall we do with them?” Traya asked, looking to Willow.
“Do we wish to continue with our disguises?” she replied in question.
“They at least allow us to get close,” Garvana offered.
“Then we hide them in the closets of the cloakroom,” Willow shrugged, “But we cannot leave the blood painted along the floor for anyone to find.”
“I shall see to the mess,” Garvana nodded.
Willow grabbed the closest guard by the boot, heaving all her might against his heavy weight, with little progress.
“Give me a hand?” Willow chuckled, looking to Traya.
Between the two of them, they managed to slowly drag one of the knights into the cloak room, shutting the body away from prying eyes. As they turned to return to fountain, Willow frowned at the streaking stains of vivid blood leading to the wooden closet.
“I’ll deal with this,” Traya insisted, “You see to the others.”
Willow smirked as she inclined her head, slow steps taking her back to the chamber. As she stepped into the illuminated room, she saw Garvana on her knees, casting curious spells that wiped the scarlet from the marble.
“If you see yourself above cleaning,” Pellius rasped harshly, lifting the limp body easily over his shoulder, as a fierce command lashed in his tone, “Make yourself useful, scout the other chambers.”
At his snapping order, Willow felt her brow rise of its own accord. For a moment, her stubbornness kept her feet unmoving. As his eyes widened in intensifying hostility, he arched his brow, as if daring her to defy him further. With the corner of her lip lifting in mischief, she walked on silent steps towards the other archways. The first chamber was a side gallery, no doubt intended to entertain guests, though now the furniture was boxed and draped in linen. Though empty and bare, they remained impressive with beautiful illustrations carved in Ansgarian marble depicting the faith, wealth and power of the people of Talingarde.
“Should we bar the front doors?” Traya asked, looking back towards the impressive bronze slabs, “The greeter said he would rally the other soldiers. Is it not best that we prevent them from attacking us from behind?”
“Indeed,” Pellius nodded, “That is a wise precaution.”
Between the strength of Pellius and Garvana, they hefted the lone bronze bar that lay beside the opening, dropping it firmly into the craning hooks upon the doors. With a twisted smile, Traya waited for them to move away, contorting her fingers in union with her sparking incantation. Suddenly, rippling arcs of lightening flew from her fingers, piercing into the solid metal. As the arcs blazed a blinding white, the shatters of arcana ignited the bronze base. Slowly, the browned metal melted, seeping into the cracks and crevices of the ornate doors, secreting in between the seals of the frame. Rasping words formed tendrils of bright white around her fingertips, before shards of ice and winds of cold blew towards the door. In less than a few breaths, the bronze had been burnt, melted and set.
“Impressive,” Willow smirked.
Traya simply smiled, inclining her head in turn.
As they continued their exploration, Willow moved through the chamber towards another archway. When she peered through the wide opening, she saw an opulent shrine room, dedicated to the Markadian line. A statue of the Victor took center stage, but on the side walls, there were images of each king that had reigned since. Markadian II called the Learned, depicted as a wise man with arms filled with scrolls. Markadian IV called the Zealous, carved in picture of a man deeply bowed in prayer. Markadian V called the Brave, standing tall with his mighty sword by his side. The most curious of it all, was a truly rare and unseen image of the troubled king, Markadian III called the Mad. Though Willow had heard the stories, even living her entire life in the city of Matharyn she had never seen an image depicted of him. It was said that the king had been taken with insanity, by the hands of the dark servants of Asmodeus. They had corrupted him, tainted his mind and his thoughts, until one day he climbed the highest spire of the Adarium and fell to his death. It was his demise that sparked the ire of the Mitran people, guided by the royalty and church, for the Zealous to begin the purges of the Asmodean faith. Willow had always found the story quite perfect – too perfect. Though the faith of the Lord of the Nine had ever been hidden and shrouded in Talingarde, it had coexisted along side an array of other religions before the fall of the mad king. What a perfect excuse his madness was, for the faithful of Mitra to eliminate their enemy and turn the people of the land against Him.
“Daria Aeterna – Donec Omnia Lux,” Willow read aloud, the words carved prominently beneath the Victor’s statue.
“What did you say?” Garvana frowned, stepping beside her.
“On the wall,” Willow pointed, “It is some kind of celestial, though I do not recognise it.”
Garvana rasped her enchanted words, her eyes glowing an eery and ethereal blue.
“Darius Eternal,” she translated, “Until All is Light.”
Willow smiled as she turned from the pious and reverent chamber.
“They have right to revere the light and fear the dark,” she whispered, “For tonight’s lightless sky will bring with it the horror greater than any nightmare they could imagine…”
As they moved further into the grand palace that was the Adarium, they opened the ornate chamber doors to reveal a long and opulent hallway, lined with doors and archways, each flanked and adorned with countless portraits of members of the House of Darius through the years. They passed paintings of lesser cousins and distant relatives they recognised; Sir Valin Darian of Farholde, Duke Martin of Daveryn and Bronwyn of Balentyne. As they moved through the hall, Willow silently crept ahead and listened intently beyond each door, quietly scouting each room before they passed. They passed a portrait of the beautiful Princess Bellinda, fair of skin and fair of hair, with eyes of fresh eagerness and innocence. Nearing the end of the hallway, there were portraits of the Victor, Markadian II, Markadian IV and the current serving king. Looking over the portraits, Willow was struck with an odd thought. Conspicuously absent from the long line of lineage, was even a single portrait of the late Queen Aria. Willow knew that she had died in childbirth with the Princess Bellinda, yet she would have thought they would revere the queen with at least as little as a portrait upon the wall. They reached the far end, their path blocked by two shimmering steel doors, appointed with a large crest of the Mitran sunburst beneath a golden crown. By the sultry script of Baroness Vanya, they knew beyond lay the kings quarters. To the left of the doors was an archway to a chamber that contained a single elaborate stairwell that led up into the higher levels of the castle. To the right, was another wooden door, much the same as the others that lined the hallway. With quiet steps, Willow approached and listened. From the other side she heard the soft shuffle of fabric, though she could not tell if it was the sway of fabric dress or the ruffle of sheets. Placing a silencing finger to her lips, she indicated to the others, looking to Pellius in question. With a loud and commanding stride, he moved to the wooden door, rapping his knuckle against it firmly.
“Just a minute,” grouched an aged voice from the chamber.
With the sound of rustling sheets followed by quiet hurried steps, the door opened to reveal a man of at least six decades, dressed in a fine night gown wrapped tightly around his waist.
“What is the meaning of this?” he barked, shrewd eyes looking them over.
As a spark of recognition surfaced, Willow bowed low formally.
“Grand Sage Thatch,” she greeted respectfully.
The others quickly followed suit.
“What is it?” he sighed, “The hour is late.”
“We must find the captain of the guard, my lord,” Pellius said sternly, “We have dire news that cannot wait.”
“What is so dire that it cannot wait until morning?” he frowned.
“We have brought word that Chargammon the Black is headed this way,” Pellius said ominously.
The aged man’s brow rose, as his piercing gaze met Pellius’. For a moment, he simply stared towards him.
“We must see to the princess’ safety, and yours of course, my lord!” Pellius added, though the words were rushed and stammered.
As the aged man’s brows rose, Willow swiftly intervened.
“We are flustered, my lord,” she pressed, “The black wyrm has turned his gaze upon us, such a day none of us thought we would see! We cannot delay any longer!”
Though he seemed to accept her answer, his hard eyes looked down upon her.
“Does your attendant always speak out of turn?” he asked Pellius harshly.
“She is apparently yet to learn her place,” Pellius scowled.
“What does it matter right now?” Garvana stressed, “We must continue to the captain, urgently!”
“If it is true,” Thatch frowned, “Then why did the knights not escort you directly to the captain?”
As the seconds stretched and Pellius remained silent, Willow felt herself holding her breath.
“They ran!” Garvana rushed, “They ran to muster the other guards!”
Thatch’s eyes narrowed, as suspicion and distrust contorted his brow. With deft movements he stepped from the doorway and slammed his door shut in their faces.
“Damn it!” Traya growled, reaching out to grab hold of Willow and Garvana’s shoulders. As Willow recognized the incantation she rasped, she reached out and grabbed hold of Pellius’ arm. In the blink of an eye they were thrown through the vortex of ethereal grace and stepped out into the bedchamber, directly behind the fleeing wizard. They wasted no time to launch into action, ripping free their weapons and carving out into the tired flesh. As his blood showered the stone, his eyes flew wide in true fear. Upon his last breath, he spluttered an incantation that vanished him from sight, leaving only the painted scarlet where he stood.
While Traya listened for any further disturbance by the door way, the others riffled through the wizards belongings for anything that may have aided them. Amongst other curiosities, Willow found his neatly scripted journal. Though most of the pages were filled with ramblings of a noble courtier, it was the last few entries that she found the most peculiar.
“Why am I here?” Willow read aloud, “The princess needs no instruction with magic! Such power! How could a nineteen year old girl wield such might?”
“Curious,” Garvana frowned, “What do you suppose she is?”
“Apparently more than a simple brat,” Willow scoffed.
“Enough of this!” Pellius snarled suddenly, “Enough of this charade!”
With a curling lip he dispersed his saintly disguise, revealing the ebony armour beneath. His eyes flashed a vicious crimson as he stormed from the chamber towards the steel doors of the kings chamber. With quick steps, Willow followed his leave, sighing a frustrated breath.
“Pellius,” she soothed, reaching out to gently grab hold of his chin, forcing his sight to her own, “You must control your anger. We are barely in the doorway.”
“This facade is foolish!” he growled, “We are running out of time.”
“This facade has allowed us in arms reach of our enemies,” Willow countered, arching her brow, “Keep your temper in check, there is much we must yet do. We must proceed with caution.”
Though her words simmered the raging crimson that blazed through his eyes, his expression contorted with disdain.
“Then you may proceed,” he rasped snidely, mockingly bowing to her.
She simply rolled her eyes as she turned to the steel mass, looking over the intricately designed lock and handle.
“Are they always like this?” Traya chuckled, leaning towards Garvana.
Garvana heaved a deep sigh, “Always.”
When Willow was sure there were no traps or concealed tricks, she pulled free her tools and set about unlocking the impressive fortification. Though it took her longer than she would have admitted, she was finally successful in disabling the lock, carefully unlatching the large door. Stepping into the chamber, they found the entry to the king’s private quarters, flanked by two small guard chambers. By the appearance of the entry, one would have called the king a humble man. Even though now in times of war the guard rooms were empty of men, they appeared simple and plain, unassuming chambers with simple bunks and modest decorations. There was only a single thing that signified the grandness of the chambers beyond; the draping brocade curtain of vivid blue, embellished with the same crest as the door – the emblem of House Darius. On slow and cautious feet, Willow approached the shining blue and pulled the fabric aside. What opened out before them, was truly the opulent quarters of the King of Talingarde. The bedchamber itself was almost larger than the entire top floor of the Monteguard Manor. To the left of the chamber, sheltered behind an ornate and intricate archway, was a bronze bath large enough to fit four people. To the right was a personal library, filled with only a small portion of tomes, far less than it was fit to accommodate. In the centre of the vast chamber was an enormous four poster bed made from the rarest purpleheart wood. Along the walls stood a matching desk and immense wardrobe, and a full length mirror sized for a giant. Though the rooms within the king’s quarters were opulent, they were vastly empty. The shelves lined with no trinkets, the wardrobes emptied of finery, the drawers holding no jewels nor gold. It was clear that most of the king’s possessions were either with him on campaign or in storage.
The chamber was not completely empty of curiosity. On the eastern wall, stood an immense door carved from shimmering blue metal, with a dire warning written in runic words.
“He that violates this shrine,” Willow whispered aloud, “Shall gain nothing but ashes, nothing but death.”
“Ominous,” Traya scoffed.
“There are runes here,” Willow said quietly, eyes trailing along the seams of the door, “Garvana, can you see what they are?”
With a whispered incantation and eyes that glowed, Garvana’s lip trembled as she back away from the door.
“It is a powerful ward,” she breathed, “If it is triggered, it will let lose a beam that will disintegrate your soul. It is foul magic, that will burn and tear your skin apart as shards of flesh until nothing is left but ash…”
Though a fear trickled through her mind, dancing with a trace of self doubt, Willow would not stop it from allowing her entry. Slowly, she grew closer to the door, keen eyes searching the runes for the sketched pattern she was looking for.
“Do not touch it!” Garvana scalded, stepping further out of the arcana’s reach, “Are you mad?”
“This could be the sanctum,” Willow said distractedly, fixated on the runes, “We must search every room…”
Though Pellius stood by her side, Traya and Garvana disappeared behind the stone wall of the bathing chamber. With eager wonder and a subtle certainty guiding her fingers, Willow reached out tenderly to mar the chosen symbol. As her finger wiped the black ink from the stone, she closed her eyes and awaited her fate. When no ray of blazing malice devoured her soul, and no burning seared her flesh, she slowly unclenched her eyes. With a timid hand, she reached out and lay her fingers upon the steel handle. Carefully, she turned the arched handle and pushed open the door. With a deep and heavy sigh of relief, she straightened her back and turned to Pellius with a mischievous grin. Garvana and Traya appeared from their hiding, as Pellius looked to them with his brow arched high.
"Ye, of little faith,” he derided.
With the proud gleam in her eye, Willow entered the small chamber to find a humble shrine room. Gleaming marble coated the walls, but little more than a statue and prayer mat decorated the room. Each step that she took was careful and cautious, approaching the shrine with eyes peeled for any loose stones or pressure plates. The marble statue was an intricate depiction of the three faces of Mitra. The Shining Lord wearing a carved crown, The Beneficent Sun lit by stone rays of light and The Fire Undying encompassed in chiseled flame. It was caution that kept her curious hands by her side. She searched the shrine by sight, narrowing her eyes upon a slender crease in the side of the altar. Just as the door, small detailed runes ran along the side of the seam.
“Garvana,” Willow beckoned quietly, “Can you see this one?”
Again, her eyes flamed in blue shimmer, widening upon revelation.
“It is far more sinister,” Garvana shivered, “It is a ward that will unleash a malicious necromantic enchantment that drains all fluid from the body. It will continue to siphon the life from a person until the skin withers and cracks, before it finally succumbs and crumbles to dust…”
“Nothing but ashes, nothing but death…” Willow recited in a whisper.
“You cannot touch it,” Garvana insisted harshly, “Would you risk something like that?”
“Someone must,” Willow scoffed in reply, “The king has gone to vast means to secure what is inside. No one cares for gold this much. It must be something of invaluable nature.”
“This is foolish!” Garvana growled, “You will get us killed, and you do not even know what for!”
“I am not asking you to risk yourself,” Willow replied bitterly, “If you feel the need, you may await outside.”
With pursed lips, Garvana strode from the chamber. While Traya remained out of sight, Pellius looked to Willow.
“There is no point in both of us risking ourselves,” he said sternly.
“Of course,” Willow replied, though her brow arched of it own accord.
His gaze held a confidence in her skill, though it was in contrast to his slowed steps that took him out of harms way. As he reached the chambers door, he looked back towards her and nodded firmly. With rolling eyes, Willow returned to the side of the shrine, searching the runes once more. It was by far the most complex design she had ever seen. Curved runes that looked intimately similar, lined in perfect rows of staggered symbols, written in a language she could not comprehend. She had only her prior knowledge of arcane script to aid her, to draw familiarities from the ancient and mesmeric font. With less surety than before, she reached a trembling finger towards the symbols. She held her pointless breath in ritual to steady her hand, before wiping the black ink from the altar. After a few moments, she slowly released the breath she had held, exhaling her alleviation. With deft fingers, she unsealed the slick board and pulled free the contents of the shrine’s secrets. What she held in her hands forced a true smile to light upon her face. The Liber Darian; the Mitran holy text that included a complete family history of the House of Darius. As Willow slowly flicked through the parchment sheets, her eyes flew wide in rapid and insatiable curiosity. Meandering steps returned her to the doorway, where she pushed the door open absentmindedly, her sight enraptured by the tome.
“It is done?” Garvana frowned.
“No,” Willow satirized, though she did not look up, “I am a withered husk.”
“Willow,” Garvana sighed.
Willow smirked, flicking to the following page. As her eyes traced the words listed upon the parchment, her mouth fell ajar.
“Princess Bellinda…” Willow stammered, looking up towards the others, “Is the daughter of Antharia Regina.”
At her words, Garvana and Traya mirrored her response. Though Pellius, not born of Talingarde, frowned in only slight recognition.
“I have heard that name,” he mused, “But I am uncertain as to where…”
“The fabled silver elder wyrm of the North,” Willow said warily, turning the tome for him to read himself, “She is Queen Aria. Well, she is the myth of Queen Aria.”
“The princess is a dragon?” Traya stumbled, shaking her head.
“So it seems,” Willow nodded, turning the book back towards herself.
“Perhaps Chargammon’s meal will be more than he bargained for,” Pellius commented darkly.
“Perhaps…” Willow said quietly, before her eyes strained once more, “Oh, I cannot believe I did not see this coming.”
“See what?” he asked cautiously.
“What Thorn’s plan was,” Willow laughed, “We could add someone to the lineage of House Darius and thus create a missing scion who could assume the throne without a crisis of succession. This must be what he is planning.”
“It is clever,” Pellius replied.
“Terribly clever,” she frowned, flicking further through the pages.
“How can we use it to aid us?” Garvana asked, turning to Pellius.
“Currently we have little use for it,” he frowned, “We must play out our part and follow Dessiter’s advice…”
Slowly, Willow turned over the page to find a curious passage written by the Victor himself.
“King Jaraad, last ruler of House Barca,” she read aloud, “Appealed to his finest seers in his last days to know the future. All in one accord, they predicted disaster in the upcoming battle. In desperation, he called out to the darkness and the darkness sent him a mighty gift – the runeblade Hellbrand. Though Hellbrand reaped a great toll in sacred blood it was not enough to spare Jaraad from his destiny. He died and Hellbrand was captured. Though it could not be destroyed, it was broken in three. The blade was stored in Valtaerna, the pommel was given to the great dragon Eiramanthus to hide deep in his vaults, and the hilt was bricked up into the Throne of Talingarde so that it would never be unguarded. May it never again see the light of day…”
“Where is the throne?” Pellius rasped, a fearsome hunger deepening his voice.
Willow felt the grin lifting her lips.
“Here,” she answered softly, a sultry delve to her tone, “Years ago the king moved it from the old palace. It resides here in the great dome.”
“Good,” he growled savagely, “We will seek it once our business is concluded.”
Willow’s brow arched high, “It is not long until midnight. We cannot remain here after Chargammon attacks, there will be nothing left to search. We must retrieve Hellbrand and make haste for the sanctum.”
“We do not even know where it is!” Pellius scoffed, “How can we make haste?”
“I assume it is down there,” Willow chuckled, pointing to the corner of the chamber towards a well concealed panel in the stone work, slipping the great tome within her pack safely.
Slowly, his eyes traced the seams of the opening, a building eagerness erupting within his eyes. Willow stepped beside him, a wicked grin upon her lips.
“Let us go,” she whispered sinfully, “The reforged blade awaits…”
Returning to the richly appointed entry chamber of the Adarium, they found the two spiral staircases that led towards the Great Dome. With hands of the hilts of their weapons, they slowly climbed the ornate marble steps, entering the grand open chamber divided by a ten foot high partition. The great dome rose more than eighty feet, lavishly adorned with stained glass windows that honoured the revered Darius and Mitra. It was more akin to a cathedral than a gathering place for royalty and their courtiers. In brighter days, the opulent hall would have been filled with revelry and laughter, the elite of Talingarde meeting to praise and pay homage to their royal family. But now, in the time of war and worry, there were no courtiers or social functions. Instead, the chamber was vacant and silent. Although, as they rounded the grand marble barrier, they found the hall was not nearly as empty as they had thought.
“I’ve waited for you,” boomed a resonating voice of ire, “My brother said your road of woe and wickedness would lead you here…”
Sitting in wait upon the king’s throne, was a glorious man that blazed in a column of white and righteous fire. The flames burned a divine and magnificent glow of blinding light, encompassing a regal winged man dressed in blessed and holy glistening armour. Though much of his features were morphed by the swaying flame, he wore a look of pure ire that fell heavy on his blazing brow. Beside him, were the familiar figures of Maul and Clarion, the angels that had confronted the Forsaken within Daveryn, primed for revenge of Ara Mathra’s unanswered banishment.
“My name is Ara Zandra. You banished my brother from the world he sacrificed so much for. Your journey ends here upon the throne you would steal. Righteous vengeance is mine.”
With his words rebounding throughout the large chamber, the three magnificent angels launched into battle. Ara Zandra leapt towards the towering ceiling, glorious white wings of sheer fire beating rapidly as they stretched almost fifteen feet wide. Suddenly, he drew in the blazing flame that surrounded him, casting it outward with a blinding flash of white light that erupted in searing flames throughout the entire chamber. Willow cried out in pain as the burning light seared her eyes, clasping her hand across her sight as she continued her charge forward. When the burning simmered, she blinked her watering eyes and focused them upon the trumpet wielding archon. It was he that had undone their work, the last time they had met. Every blow the Forsaken had dealt to his more brash counterpart, he had healed the wounds and renewed the vigour and strength. Would he sacrifice himself to heal them once more? Or would he waste his time, healing himself as she pushed upon him with relentless fury? Calling aloud the command word she had been taught, the arcane boots she wore lifted her feet from the ground. Though she had never truly flown before, she found the drifting sway a simple matter of balance. Fortunately, balance was something she had in abundance. She pushed upward, levitating higher and more confidently, with her blades drawn and an eager grin upon her face. As she moved, she felt the dastardly venom fulminate and fill the chamber with dripping malice. Pellius seethed in profane frenzy, his eyes alight with bile and hunger, his teeth showing in a feral and savage grin. This fight, belonged to him. As Maul charged towards him, a righteous gleam in his eye, Pellius did not try to block or parry the attack. He simply braced his thick and muscled legs, taking the onslaught in his stride. As the flaming sword carved through metal and flesh, a sudden vibration racked the Great Dome. An enchantment, a dire and baneful charm, a destructive force that sought to devour undead flesh. It wrapped its bitter tendrils around Pellius’ waist, bleeding from the cuts and crevices that the blade had travelled. For a moment, Willow’s heart seized in her chest. The pale complexion of Pellius’ face grew whiter, a sickly green tinge overtaking his skin. But the ire that urged him ever forward, was simply too strong to be overwhelmed. With a furious cry of savage wrath that sparked alight the amorous and sinful delight within Willow, he surged his hatred and repelled the vicious enchantment. When he launched his assault, it was one of no grace nor finesse; pure and unadulterated choler. He hacked his blade with a barbaric and merciless onslaught, slashing with sheer ferocity, devastating blows that sheared bone from limb. As his final swing cleaved towards the angel, he cried out an inhuman gust of wrath. The shower of crimson gore sprayed the white marble in a splash of fatal decoration. The angel wailed his anguish through a blood filled mouth, before he fell to his knees at Pellius’ feet, looking up with scornful and fear-laden eyes. Slowly, as Willow raced towards Clarion, the image of his counterpart drifted from sight. With a terrifying promise, Pellius looked towards Ara Zandra.
“In the name of the undying and eternal Lord of the Nine,” he seethed viciously, “I smite thee! I shall take thine head from thy shoulders! I shall claim it for Asmodeus!”
While his sinister and malign words hung in wicked oath, the blazing angel snarled his untempered anger. With slow and deliberate movements, Pellius withdrew a potion from his belt and swiftly downed its contents. Slowly, his feet lifted from the ground, as his immense and intimidating presence rose into the air.
Willow soared towards Clarion, his angelic trumpet sounding loudly as she approached. With grace and elegance, she moved through the air with lithe agility, carving her blades in fierce attack. She knew she could not complete with Pellius’ prowess, but she needed only to take down the one being that could heal the others. As Ara Zandra turned his eye upon her, Clarion morphed his saintly trumpet into a mighty blade of flame.
“I have this,” Clarion called aloud, his deep bellowing voice stern and sure, “You deal with the fiend.”
Though her blades were swift and precise, his armour was too thick to penetrate. Without the distraction of another, she could not move quick enough to pierce the delicate points of his weakness. His mighty blade cleaved towards her, searing the flesh as it tore shreds from her skin. Though the burning pain throbbed in agony, she gritted her teeth and launched towards him again. It was arduous and taxing, a dire dance through the vast space among stain glass windows of the Great Dome. Under the watching gazes of glass depictions of Mitra and Darius, she endured the angels blazing attacks, leaping forward as she struck out towards him. With a swift glance to the other end of the chamber, Willow saw Garvana huddled by the wall, hands clamped over her eyes in suffering. Traya stood protectively by her side, launching wisping arcana towards the fray, rasping feral words of incantation. As her sight caught Pellius, she felt his enraptured attention inspire her onward. He moved through the air, venomous hatred contorting his face. Suddenly, an explosion of white light erupted from the angel, the same as before, but with far more potency. Willow was shielded from it by the swing of Clarion’s blade, but Pellius had no such protection. It seared his eyes, the round wells weeping with white secretion, his sight taken from him in blazing torture. Though blinded and burnt, he was not deterred. It was as if sheer abhorrence urged him forward, guiding his vicious blade. For a moment, even Clarion looked on in uncertainty. It was a single mistake, that he would swiftly come to regret. Willow pounced on his moment of distraction, darting forward with her blade, plunging its ruby tip through the archons exposed neck. As she tore it free, she watched the colour seep from his face, gushing from the puncture in his throat. Slowly, the life faded from his eyes, as his image drifted from sight.
Pellius snarled a cruel and savage cry, brandishing his weapon with utter and consuming malice. While Ara Zandra launched an arc of flame that tore a long line between Pellius, Garvana and Traya, Pellius simply allowed the scalding flame to hit him, his ears keen to follow the sound of the celestial chanting. While the angel’s back was turned, Willow saw her chance. She pushed through the air at frightening speed, her eyes locked on the joint of the wing that arched from his back. Before he had a chance to move, she thrust her blade deeply into the solid flesh, ripping it free in desperate hope to sever the rasping wing. As he grunted in pain and clenched his teeth, he turned his wrathful gaze upon her. When he raised his longsword that blazed with righteous and billowing flames; there was no where for her to hide. Though she plunged herself downward, the blade lanced through her leather armour, tearing deeply through the flesh beneath. When the second hit came, she felt the bloodless wounds rip open under the sheer strength of his swing. He attacked with enough might to throw her backward through the air, grasping desperately to the last threads of undeath. The tortuous cry that expelled from her mouth was overshadowed by the strenuous grunt of exertion that Ara Zandra bellowed. It was loud enough to rattle the glass windows, and loud enough to allow Pellius precise realization of his location. A frightening sound echoed throughout the chamber. A call filled with seething rage and bitter wretched glee. It was Pellius, as his sword thrust towards its kill. With more power than she had seen him muster, he cleaved his blade in untold wrath. Three times he slashed his sword, relinquishing his control completely to the feral depths of frenzied rage. Three times, he carved his ire through the sacred flesh of the blessed angelic being. Ara Zandra could not withstand the might of such an onslaught. As a mournful cry fell from his lips, his body erupted in an inferno of brilliant white. Once more, the forces of good had attempted to stop the Forsaken. Once more, the beings had been cast back to whence they came.
Though her fragile frame trembled in enervation, her mind and heart were alight in thundering pride. She was in awe as she looked to Pellius. As his vicious rage simmered to a gentle flame that shone from his eyes, she slowly guided herself through the air towards him. His vision returned unhurried, as he slowly regained his composure and leashed his furious temper. Cruel and callous eyes looked Willow over, as hers glowed with lustful avidity. When she spoke, her voice strained against the crushing weight of agony that convulsed her limbs.
“You were brilliant,” she rasped at a whisper, guiding herself closer towards him, looking up into his gaze merely inches from hers, “I have never seen such might…”
He stared deeply into her eyes, the seething rage dancing across his sight, as he battled to keep it contained. She was entranced, captivated by the wild chaos that warred within him. A gentle hand lifted to slip around his neck, forcing Willow to wince as the movement ripped tender skin along the torn flesh of her torso. His brow rose in dark amusement, as the corner of his lip lifted in a smirk.
“You were brilliant,” he replied in satire, “I have never seen you take such a beating…”
Though the feathered chuckle strained the cuts along her chest, she grinned a sinful smile. With a soft touch, Pellius reached both of his hands out, surging a curious arcana as he pressed firmly against her chest. It was a dark and morbid feeling that drifted through her still veins. A menacing sway of bitter and vile magic, that somehow healed the dead and white flesh upon her bones. When the wounds had closed, and the skin smoothed once more, she looked to him under a hooded gaze. She traced her fingers along his chin, but before the lustful words left her lips, Garvana’s voice pierced her enraptured trance.
“Is this really the time or the place?” she scoffed.
Willow laughed, turning her face towards the woman.
“Not at all,” she grinned.
With slow guided movements, the pair returned to the marble floor of the bloodstained chamber. The four of them approached the grand dais that housed the immense throne. Ara Zandra had been correct in one thing. This, was the throne that they would take from the hands of the Mitran faithful. This was the throne they would hand to their Infernal Lord. Before they had a chance to speak, Traya began a rasping incantation. She transformed herself into a creature of earth, burrowing herself beneath the stone chair. With a look of perplexed confusion, Willow awaited her return. Suddenly, the rippling eruption of dirt resurfaced. In its formed hands, was a cruel shaped hilt of the darkest ebony. It was the final piece of Hellbrand. In offering, the elemental held out the hilt to Pellius, its curious form bowing towards him. His greedy hands snatched the piece, eagerly striking it against the base of the blade. With a gust of tainted fury, pulsing in seething infernal grace, the weapon reforged itself. A grin slithered across Pellius’ chin, the fearsome blade clasped tightly within his hands. Lightening suddenly rippled in flash through the night sky, a bellowing clap of thunder trembling the fortified walls of the Adarium. Under the violent shaking of the stone, the glass murals above cracked in rippling fractures. As the skies thundered in applause, Pellius lifted the weapon high overhead. He laughed, a nocuous and malevolent glee; the sound of a twisted and heinous fiend. That night, the moonless sky offered no light to the fair people of Talingarde. For the true servants of darkness were here, and they were primed to change the fate of the land forever…