Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Chapter 41 - The Pillars Shall Fall

The ebony canvas of sky lay silent, vacant of any trace of light, as the moon lingered else where, unseen. There was no sight to signal the impending arrival of midnight, just an eery and foreboding weight as if the hand on a clock repelled each second that passed. Within the grand city of Matharyn, upon the Western coast of Cambrian Bay, the Adarium slumbered through the darkest night of the year. The hallways of the lower floor were empty, no guards nor guests walking the stone passages. The only sound to be heard was the muffled steps of four villainous beings. The Forsaken quietly prowled through the regal corridors, returning to the king’s chambers, and once more entering the sacred shrine. Knowing how little time they had left, they hastened their preparation. Traya cast her enchantments, using curious magic to morph Pellius to almost double his size. When she rasped her incantation towards Willow, a peculiar sensation rippled along the pale white flesh. It was as if her skin was shielded by malleable stone. She could still flex her fingers and move with the same lithe grace, yet her skin was hardened and firm. When they turned their attention to the hidden door that lay in the corner of the humble shrine room, they breathed a readying breath as one. With determined chins and swift steps, they delved into the underground chamber. It was a burning wave of flaming heat that greeted their decent. The roughly worked stone walls seared flesh upon touch, the radiating pulse of fire billowing from further into the cavern. As the Forsaken turned to face the force of flame, they saw a woman carved of molten rock, sweltering in fire that danced along her skin. She rose from a pool of bright and blistering magma, a chasm of lava set within the stone floor, blackened char and burnt rock spreading from the fire. Her eyes glowed like embers, black as night and split with fissures of blazing lava. They glared towards the Forsaken, a righteous primal destruction, fire that consumed and fed from her ire.
“I am Brigit of the Brijidine,” she whispered in a voice that lashed like crackling flame, “Born of earth and fire. I have divined your wicked designs. The land itself now rises against you. How can you do anything but burn?”
There was no room for reply nor diplomacy in her introduction. Without further delay, she called forth the raw and primal core of her make, summoning two beings made from pure earth and fire. As the flames and eruptions pummelled towards the Forsaken, Brigit hurled a blazing mass of lava into the air.
Watch out!” Traya cried.
Willow quickly stepped backwards, swiftly pulling free a scroll from her pouch, rushing the incantation to unleash a blistering swell of bitter cold towards the flaming being. As the ice crashed against the molten magma, a blacked char of hardened rock formed across its surface, though the raging heat simply seared in response and blistered in fury. As the mass of lava fell from the air, Garvana was hit by the splatter of scorching liquid. She screamed as the burning began and the flames caught upon her armour, dropping her to the ground as she thrashed in an attempt to douse the blaze. Pellius charged towards the Azata, heedless of the blazing heat that grew to a searing burn as he neared. A moment before he reached her, Traya timed a perfect release of a feral wave of acidic malice, fluid that seared the summoned beings. As the moving masses of fire and earth vanished from sight, Pellius brandished his infernal blade. Brigit snarled a lashed breath, launching another mass of molten lava towards him. Though it hit and showered his dastardly armour, he simply growled through clenched teeth and continued his terrifying approach. Willow watched as the ebony steel glowed a brilliant red under the frightening heat, embered beneath the flames that swayed across his chest and legs. Pellius was uncaring of the pain as he stepped towards her, slashing out his blade into the fire-laden woman. In place of blood, a spray of white hot lava flung from the wound to sear the stone as it cascaded along the wall. Using the arcana imbued within her boots, Willow lifted herself into the air, soaring across the room to hover high above the Azata, awaiting her moment to drop into the fray. As the blazing lava upon Pellius and Garvana cooled and began to set, Pellius found his feet encased and fixed to the stone floor. Though he could not move or evade the waves of flame that Brigit cast towards him, he continued his relentless attack nonetheless. Garvana however, was trapped upon the floor, searing flesh and burning skin pinned to the marble tile. Every second that passed hardened the rock casing, making escape less and less likely. When Pellius cleaved his blade forward, Willow dropped from the ceiling and struck out with her blades from behind. Though she hovered more than a metre from the pool of lava, she felt the soles of her shoes burning and softening, the leather close to melting under the pressing heat of the magma. Brijit cried out as the profane blades scorched her with dark malice, callous magic that devoured the pure and virtuous. She rasped an enchantment, glazing herself in a holy light, healing the worst of her wounds. But as her words echoed through the chamber, Pellius and Willow gave her no chance to recover. After the years of fighting along side one another, they seemed to understand and anticipate each others actions. As Pellius drew the eyes of the Azata with a roaring assault with his feral blade, Willow silently slipped lower and used his distraction to devastating ends. Together, they carved through the molten flesh, undoing all she had done in a few mere seconds. Traya raced to Garvana’s side, grabbing hold of the woman and using her rushed incantation to vanish them from sight, returning to the room beside the vacant casting of the stout woman. Suddenly, Brigit’s hardened black eyes widened in panic. She threw her arms wide, her tongue lashing in words that sounded like the blazing roar of flame. Her frame abruptly billowed in fire, an inferno of blistering heat, a firestorm that erupted from her and scorched everything in its path. Though the flames burned in sweltering waves, it was not enough to save the Azata. Traya appeared beside them, her fingers primed in crooked stance, laced with glistening crystals of white ice. Suddenly, she released her fingers, opening wide and unleashing a crashing surge of bitter cold. Shards of ice that tore through chunks of hardened rock, freezing cold that iced over the simmering swell of magma. Brigit cried out as the hardened rock slithered from the lava beneath her, slowly encasing her slender frame. As the blizzard pummelled against her blazing flesh, her face cracked in fractured rock. When the cold wind ceased, and the last shards of ice fell to the floor, Brijit of the Brigidine remained a husk of rock. After a moment, splits formed and rippled across the surface, before the being of fire shattered into uncountable pieces, falling into the waiting embrace of the lava beneath.

Though burnt and charred, the Forsaken turned their attentions to the large doors on the far end of the chamber. Their time was swiftly running out. They did not have the luxury of rest and recovery, they simply had to keep pushing through until they reached the king. That was all that mattered.
Though Willow searched the handles and creases of the marble doors, there was nothing more than metal and stone. Cautiously, she pushed open the door to reveal a large marble chamber. The grand regal tiles caked in a fine mist of white dust, undisturbed by the foot traffic of the palace. There was little in the chamber besides eight ornate stone columns, and a single circular pedestal centering the far end of the room. As Willow carefully stepped through the threshold, she saw carved depictions upon each of the stone spires. Images of knights riding into battle, priests kneeled in stoic prayer, noblemen feeding the poor, magistrates sentencing the guilty. They portrayed the eight Mitran virtues: honesty, honour, humility, compassion, valor, justice, piety and self sacrifice. Slowly, the Forsaken moved into the chamber, weapons clutched tightly in their hands, eyes sharp, keen and ready. As they made their way towards the pedestal, their steps were cautious - yet nothing more awaited them. Willow eyes trailed the wall that boarded the sight of the simple pedestal, another mural dedicated to the valor and strength of the Darian line.
“Be careful,” Garvana cautioned, “I sense a powerful aura in this place. This has to be the king’s sanctum.”
“What do you see?” Willow asked, her brow pulled low.
“It is as if the spirit of the king’s line still lingers here…”
As Willow shrewdly searched the dais by sight, seeking another baleful arcane trap, her frown deepened. By all accounts, the marble ring was little more than it appeared to be.
“Willow,” Traya beckoned, “Perhaps this will aid you.”
She swiftly rasped an incantation, twisting her fingers along with her words, as she reached out to press a finger upon the bridge of Willow’s nose. It was sudden that a piercing clarity came across her vision. Willow’s eyes brightened as she looked about the sheltered sanctum. She could see everything. As she looked to the Forsaken, their disguises vanished. She saw through the transformed armour, revealing the battered sets of steel they wore, beneath translucent images they chose to hide under. She saw each magical trinket they vanished with the power of illusion. And as she looked to the ceiling of the chamber, she saw what she knew was the four spirits of the prior king’s of Talingarde. Etheral forms, with no distinguishable features save the clear regal garb of House Darius. They did not seem to see the Forsaken, they did not seem to be aware of their surroundings. They simply drifted through the high reaches of the chamber, as if they existed partly here, yet partly somewhere distant.
“You were right, Garvana,” Willow said warily, eyes following the flow of the sheen forms, “It is the king’s line. They seem to gather in this place, to guide and protect their son…”
Suddenly, a horrifying cry sounded from the skies far above. A wail so filled with malicious feeding, that the hairs upon Willow’s neck stood on end. Even before the walls began to shake, Chargammon’s arrival was made clear, as the vicious and vile roar reverberated through the moonless night. Even across the bay in the slumbered city of Matharyn, the cry would have awoken thousands from their rest. As midnight came to Talingarde; so to did the foulest creature that graced its lands.
As the stone chamber trembled beneath their feet, the screams and cries of woe began. Though the sounds were muffled by the dense earth that encompassed the sanctum, the horror and pure terror was so great, they could feel the utter dread that was the calamity they had invited to the Adarium.
“Be ready,” Pellius ordered sternly, bracing his stance in preparation, “This is no time for deception. We must attack the moment the king enters…”
It was not long they had to wait. As the sound of ruin and destruction sang out like a chorus of desolation, Willow saw the peaceful spirits awaken. They began to quiver, slowly coursing in a graceful dance above the circular pedestal. As they chamber pulsed in throbbing arcana, she quickly whispered the command to vanish herself from sight. Swiftly sealing herself behind the cornered wall, she pulled free the crooked black wand from her pouch. The spirits churned in a blazing vortex, circling the dais faster than Willow’s eyes could track. It was fitting, Willow thought, that the vision formed by their pace appeared as a pious halo above the entrance of the King of Talingarde.
A blinding flash of white erupted throughout the chamber, a powerful charm of shielding that swept along the marble floors and stone walls. And with a rippling sight of trembling magic, the king and his retinue arrived. In a precise line guarding the front, were four hardened and stern knights. Dressed in gleaming banded mail, baring the royal insignia proudly upon their chests, draped it sapphire blue cloaks and sashes. Standing behind them to the right, was a frightening visage of a man Willow recognised as Father Dorian DeMascas – an Inquisitor of Mitra. Enlarged with arcana he stood almost nine feet tall, clad in thick banded steel, brandishing his powerful longsword aflame in blazing blue fire. In his other hand, he held tight an immense steel shield, marked with the elegant heraldry of King Markadian V. To the left, was the pious Brother Quintus of Austea, a dedicated and long-serving supporter of House Darius. Though he wore his longsword strapped to his belt, Willow knew he was not unarmed. He was a powerful cleric of Mitra, having served by the side of king for most of his adult life. And in the centre of the pedestal, standing tall and regal – King Markadian himself. It was more than the golden crown atop his head that marked him as the monarch. He held himself with the grace that only a leader could. His eyes glowed a sheer blue, his brow contorted with rage and worry. As they appeared before the Forsaken, they had only a moment to frown in shock that the hidden sanctum had been infiltrated.
NOW!” Pellius bellowed, a snarling curl to his lip.
Willow released the magic of the malicious wand, launching a thick miasma of darkness towards the retinue. The blackness seethed in hunger, tendrils of raven wrath spiraling out and seeping deep into flesh and bone. Pellius charged forward, his vicious blade tearing through the rank of knights, his strikes vicious and bestial with no care for defense. Before the king’s guard had time to respond, Willow unleashed another torrent of sickly blackness from the wand, pacing backwards carefully as she awaited her opportunity to strike.
“You two!” DeMascas bellowed, pointing to Willow with his piercing eyes locked upon Pellius, “Take out that harlot!”
He threw out his hands in a forceful thrust, as they suddenly blazed in blistering fire. The flames launched forward in a tall and searing column, wide enough to to envelop Pellius and Garvana in its scorching inferno. As the two knights followed their orders and approached Willow with their shining battleaxes in hand, she dove out of their path and rolled to spring up behind one and plunge her blade into the spilt of his armour by his side. Traya unleashed a wave of blistering heat of her own, flames dancing across the flesh of the knights. The king rounded upon her, using his shield to cast aside the fires that raged. As DeMascas charged towards Pellius, he ran directly into the feral swing of Hellbrand, the hungry blade eagerly shedding his skin. Their steel clashed, two blades screeching together as their wielders traded brutal blow for blow. Markadian struck out with his sword, piercing Traya through the shoulder, as she scrambled backwards under the weight of his assault. Garvana weaved her way through the fray, her sight upon Brother Quintus, as he casted his blessed incantations and imbued his comrades with divine power and shielding. Her mace simmered with eery darkness, the unholy wrath of hell coiling between the pitted spikes.
The battle was chaos. A chorus of grunts and growls, the ringing of steel upon steel, blades carving, blood spilling, righteous cries and bitter screams. The movement became much like a vicious blur. Brother Quintus undid the progress of the Forsaken at almost every turn, casting his holy light in brilliant flashes of blessed white light that healed the wounds of his comrades, and devoured the undead flesh of his foes. But eventually, it was Willow’s profane blade that claimed the first kill. Will and strength sapped by the darkness, flesh burnt by the flame, it was the blade that thrust into his throat that felled the first of the knights. Though she ducked and dived under Markadian’s attacks, it was an eruption of raw and untempered fire that Traya summoned that seared the last ounce of life from the crisp corpse of the second. As Pellius and DeMascas heaved their weapons, righteous might battling as if it were a battle of god against god, Willow saw an opening she could not resist. Although her path took her through the knights blade that tore into her armour and flesh, she clenched her teeth and leaped forward to bring herself behind DeMascas. With his attention completely enraptured upon Pellius, Willow sprang high into the air with both of her blades, plunging them into either side of his neck. A sudden flash of blinding white light blazed behind her eyes as her blades tasted his blood. He snarled a sound of raging pain, grimacing as she ripped her blades free. It was a moment of lapse in his concentration that Pellius did not allow to pass. He cleaved Hellbrand with a mighty roar of frenzied ire, and in one swing, he carved the blade cleanly through the inquisitors torso. It took a moment for Willow’s sight to return, but as she blinked rapidly and the room returned, a sharp pain tore through her back. As the knight’s blade pierced her skin, he thrust the sword so far through that the tip pressed against the leather plate along her stomach. She cried out a feral sound of choler, darting forward as the blade withdrew, dexterously spinning on her heel to launch towards him. Although Garvana’s flesh was burnt, bruised and battered, her furious onslaught eventually brought the cleric to his knees. As she lifted her mace high into the air, vengeful wrath flaring in her face, the cleric did not simply submit to his fate. Although Willow had expected him to try to take her down with him, he used his last breath to enchant his liege with a wish of strength and valor. As the white and furling coils of arcana reached forward to encompass the king, the blackened tendrils of cruelty latched to Quintus’ skin a mere moment before her mace descended.
Markadian!” Pellius seethed, clenching his grip upon Hellbrand as he prowled towards the king, “I smite thee, in the name of the Prince of Hell! I swear by Him that I shall take thy crown and thy throne!”
Vile serpents!” Markadian roared, “Mitra will never allow you to take this land!”
As Willow’s blade was parried by the knight, she struck out with the other, thrusting it up and under his chin. Though Pellius launched himself towards the king, his brutal attacks were rendered moot. Markadian wielded his shield as if it were a beloved blade, as if it more an extension of himself, rather than a battered flank of steel. He blocked each vicious blow as they craned towards him, thrusting his shield out with strenuous might enough to knock even the large and mighty Pellius back a step. Suddenly, a pulse of feral and foreboding dread ricocheted throughout the marble chamber. Garvana rasped a callous incantation, fingers darting in eldritch patterns, as she lifted a small Asmodean pendant into the air. The metal pentagram ripped from her fingers, torn viciously into shreds before it transformed into a terrifying beam of spine-chilling malice. It launched towards the king with such spiteful horror, Willow felt her skin crawling with sinister ill. Markadian thrust out his shield with expert proficiency, clenching his eyes shut as the force of the power threatened to overwhelm him. He endured the brunt of the vicious beam, wielding his shield with the practiced might of trained warrior. Willow had never seen such expertise with a simple steel board. With clear prowess, he used it to deflect the horror of arcana that so ravenously charged towards him. As the vile and bitter malice was absorbed within the steel, he released his hold on it and cast it aside with a foul hatred pulling upon his brow. The shield lingered in the air for a moment before it contorted violently, ripping shreds down its own flank, collapsing in on itself before falling to the ground. Though Garvana screamed her outrage, the savage glee that blazed in Pellius’ eyes trembled in eager anticipation. Anger was too simpler a word for what consumed him. Rage was too passive. What encompassed Pellius’ heavy stride as he stepped up to the king, could be called nothing less than direful wrath. It was a beast that he kept leashed tightly within him, tempered down with fierce control and unrelenting command. Yet, as he charged towards the king, the beast was set free. The king turned to face Pellius’ advance. Though Markadian swung his blade and cleaved through flesh and bone, Pellius made no move to block the onslaught. With uncontrolled ire and feasting hunger in his gaze, he took the blows in his stride and threw himself forward. The sound that expelled from his mouth, was a guttural growl of inhuman fury. In three vicious cleaves of his blade, Pellius tore through the flesh of the king’s chest. As his final swing split the air, the bestial cry screeching from his lips, Hellbrand ended the last task of their contract – and carved free the King of Talingarde’s head.   

The Forsaken moved quickly, checking each of their fallen foes for any valuables or life signs. As Garvana dragged the king’s limp and lifeless body towards the pool of blistering lava, Willow pressed her fingers against one of the knights throats.
“This one has a pulse,” she called aloud.
“Kill him quickly,” Garvana growled, “We cannot leave any witnesses.”
“Or perhaps…” Willow said slowly, eyes turning to Pellius, “We could persuade him to give us information?”
“There is no time,” Pellius said quietly.
Though he simply watched Garvana throw the king’s body into the magma, staring as the tender flesh burned to ash, Willow knew there was much hidden beneath his stoic face.
“Not here,” Willow said gently, “We can take him with us when we leave. He has just come straight from the head of the king’s army, we could use him.”
“And if someone finds him before we return?” Garvana balked.
“In the king’s private sanctum?” Willow scoffed, “The place most do not even know exists? There is also the matter of a great black wyrm attacking the palace. No one will stop to look in here!”
“We have no way to restrain him!”
Willow smiled, sifting quickly through her pack, pulling free a gleaming pair of steel manacles. She held them up to Garvana with a grin.
“You just carry them everywhere?” Garvana frowned.
Willow shrugged nonchalantly, a devious grin on her face, “You never know when you might need them…”

Returning to the king’s chambers, the Forsaken morphed their arcane disguises to that of the palace guards. From beyond the large ornate doors of the chamber, they could hear the cries of men and shouts of soldiers. When the clanking footsteps passed the door and ascended up towards the first floor, the four of them quickly stepped out and followed their path. Even the ground floor, which had been sheltered from the brunt of the great wyrm’s assault, was lined with cascades of blood and dirt trodden footprints. Many men and women had moved through this hallway, whether fleeing the mighty beast or charging to meet it. With swift steps, they four of them made their way up the stairs, with serious and stoic intentions on their faces. When they reached the first floor, the entered a cornered passage, blocked by a large set of double doors to the left, and opened to a continued hallway on the right. With quick and keen eyes, Willow looked over the door handles, seeing no traps or tricks. When the sound of approaching footsteps came barrelling down the lower halls, they swiftly stepped through the doors and sealed them behind. The large chamber opened out in front of them, bare of dressings and finery. It was clear by the timeworn stains upon the stone, that once this chamber held grand rugs and large framed paintings, with richly embellished decorations that marked the importance of the chamber. Now, the only thing that remained was far more sinister.
“The Pyres of Judgement,” Willow said quietly, eyes widening as she saw them.
Each standing more than fifteen foot tall, motionless in carved recesses in the stone, four constructs clad in charred ebony armor. Each bore a large grate-covered opening in its abdomen, housing a now still and quiet pit where burning fire usually raged.
“What are they?” Traya whispered, a worried frown pulling her brow, eyes locked to the nearest suit.
“They were built by Markadian IV the Zealot,” Willow replied quietly, hand grasping the pommel of her blade, “To burn alive heretics and the targets of his inquisition. I have heard of them, but I have never seen one. I did not know they were so… large…”
 As Willow stepped cautiously forward, she watched the constructs with stern and focused eyes. Either the disguises they wore were enough to fool the frightening sentinels, or they had not been activated or awakened. Still, her steps were cautious as she continued forward, following Pellius’ lead into the chamber beyond. A large oak table that could sit more than twenty people stood centre of the large chamber. Though that, and countless ornate blue cushioned chairs, were all that lay in the empty room. As they turned their sights to the side chambers, a sudden thud trembled the walls and shook the fires in the torches ensconced upon the stone.
“We must hurry,” Pellius said sternly, quickening his stride towards one of the side chambers.
When they walked through the small archway, they stopped in unison at what they saw. It was a records room, filled with current maps of Talingarde, tables line with military reports and updates from the front. There were maps of every fortification within Talingarde shores. Estimates of troop numbers, conscripts from each region, defences manned and strengths lined out upon parchment. Though they knew the Mitran army would be assaulting Daveryn any day, it was possible they had already begun, the information could have been a vital advantage to Sakkarot Fir-Axe and his horde. Each of them moved into the chamber, scouring the piles of parchment and scrolls, seeking anything further than could aid them.
“Listen to this,” Garvana frowned, “The king believes he will have only one real chance to crush the marauders from the north. When they have defeated Sakkarot, he believes the north will be largely empty of savage beasts and foes strong enough to stand against them. After the battle he plans to push past the Watchwall and invade the north, once and for all bringing all of the land under one ruler. He writes, ‘We will turn this moment of crisis into a moment of triumph’…”
“He does not know that more than bugbears and giants roam the north?” Traya scoffed, “There are worse things than Sakkarot’s horde that dwell there…”
“I guess he does not know…” Willow commented distractedly, though her attention was held elsewhere, within the leather bound tome she grasped in her hands, “But he does know of the Knot of Thorns…”
What?!” Pellius snarled, vicious eyes of suspicion and anger looking to her.
“He does not know a great deal,” Willow continued, eyes scanning the stern and confident penmanship, “But he has pieced together as much as that an Asmodean cult remnant is behind the kingdom’s troubles. He does not know is where they are based, though his inquisitors scour the land looking for a secret headquarters.”
“How does he know of us?” Garvana growled, “Have we been betrayed?”
“Sir Richard Havelyn…” Willow scoffed, “He has, and I quote, ‘been the greatest source of information on the Knot of Thorns’. He knows Balentyne was not simply a bugbear victory. He knows the cause of plague; he knows of the true source of the Tears of Achlys. He knows Valtaerna was not a raid planned by the Fire-Axe…”
“I should have killed him twice over!” Garvana hissed, “I should have taken his head!”
“Wait,” Willow interrupted, “There is more. He speaks of one lead to find the Asmodean cult. The great cairn linnorm, Nithoggr. It is said to guard a powerful artifact of both evil and Asmodean magic. One of his inquisitor’s called it the Devil’s Heart…”
Willow’s frowned burrowed tightly, as the particular words Dessiter had used returned to her mind.
“Dessiter told us of Thorn’s phylactery… he called it the Cardinal’s heart…”
“Do you think…?” Garvana gasped.
“It is possible,” Willow nodded, “It would make sense. We have heard of this Nithoggr, he was listed in that book of dragons we found in Polydorus’ tower. Was he not another of Chargammon’s spawn, the Strider-in-the-Dark?”
“Yes,” Garvana nodded, eyes widening in realization, “What better way to keep his phylactery safe, than to have an ancient linnorm guard it.”
Suddenly, the walls trembled once more, rattling the wooden desk with enough force to throw the glass ink pots from its top to shatter in pieces upon the stone floor.
“Take what you can carry,” Pellius commanded, “We must move…”

By the chorus of screams and cries, the Forsaken stalked quickly through the hallway. As they neared a row of wooden doors, Willow swiftly opened each one, checking the rooms for any further valuables or information. Most rooms were largely empty and vacant, yet when they reached the last door upon the first floor, adjacent to the marble staircase that bellowed with echoing snarls of savage wrath, Willow opened the door to face a curious sight. Eight tall and slender men, clad in furs and skins, weapons of sharpened crude steel and bearing shields of battered wood. They were warriors of the Caer Bryr, the savage and wild Iraen. All of them eyed her suspiciously, clutching their weapons tighter as their eyes darted from her to the open hallways behind her. She knew they did not see her for who she was, they saw a knight of Talingarde.
“What are you doing in here?” Willow snapped with authority, “Why are you hiding? Do you not know what is attacking the Adarium?!”
Slowly, the group parted, allowing a stunning yet savage woman to step forth. As if she had simply stepped out of the greenery itself, the leaf and bark covered woman walked with a clear command. Her blazing hair of brilliant copper, in stark contrast to the emerald and carob of her gear.
“This is not our fight,” the woman said coldly, looking Willow over with harsh eyes.
It was the uncaring response, and the clear disdain for the Mitrans apparently standing before her, that struck Willow with an idea. Within the letter they had found in the Cathedral of Mitra Made Manifest, addressed to Ara Mathra from Brigit of the Brijidine, it had been revealed to the Forsaken that delegations were sent to the pillars of the Mitran faith in truce and treaty. These members of the barbaric Iraen people, were here to negotiate a peace between them, to rise together against the darkness that threatened their land. The Iraen were a proud people. Their pride, would be their undoing.
Your fight?” Willow snarled, “There are hundreds dying out there, and you remain in here like cowards, because it is not your fight?!”
The woman’s eyes flashed with bitter hatred, as she lifted her chin in indignation.
“I will suffer your insolence no longer,” she seethed, “I came to see your king, and yet he has chosen to not deign us with his presence! And now this!”
She turned to her warriors, a stiff and curt nod of her head, signalling them to follow. Willow stared vicious eyes towards her, as she stepped out of the way to allow them to pass.
“Cowards,” Garvana growled, following Willow’s lead.
As the barbaric warriors followed the woman swiftly down the stairs towards the exit, a thundering rumble overtook the palace. Paintings that hung from walls fell to the ground and cracked or split, torches fell from their holders, the doors creaked on their hinges.
“You may have just squandered the Mitrans chance at ever attaining peaceful relations with the Iraen,” Garvana smiled.
“We can only hope…”
Looking out the guest quarters window, Willow watched as lines of soldiers drew back their bows, firing a torrent of arrows up into the sky. The return they were given was merciless. A wave of putrid acid, a vile and viscous seething liquid, bathed the ranks with such ire it left naught but a searing meld of flesh and dirt.
“Enough of this,” Willow grimaced, turning her face away from the horrific sight, “We should leave. We have what we came for, it is not worth pushing any further. Chargammon will not hold back his wrath, no matter if he sees us or not.”
“No,” Pellius snapped, “We must see this through!”
“Pellius!” Willow growled, “It is suicidal! We have to get out of here!”
Without further word, Pellius turned and quickly made way for the stairs, bounding upward and disappearing beyond.
“Be damned!” Willow scowled, “I will not follow! It is absurd to wish to face that beast!”
“We shall wait,” Garvana frowned, looking to the failing integrity of the walls, “But if this place begins to fall, we will have to leave…”
Once more, it was not long they had to spend in waiting. As a foul cry of a dying beast echoed throughout the night sky, a terrifying crack sounded through the stone, as something rattled the very structure that was the Adarium. Within only a few moments, Pellius swiftly descended the stairs, blazing eyes wide in urgency.
“Quickly,” he commanded, eyes scanning the halls as the sound of distant cheer called from outside of the castle, “Our distraction is down. We must leave now!”
“Down?” Willow frowned, curiosity and wariness within her gaze, “What do you mean?”
“Not here,” he silenced, “Let us retrieve our guest and make haste…”

The coursing vortex of the arcane wand hurled them through the portal, throwing them into the safety of the shrine room beneath the Monteguard Manor. The Forsaken landed with a heavy thud upon the carved stone floor, bloodied and bruised – but victorious.
“We did it!” Garvana grinned, pride bounding in her words, “We actually did it!”
“And we did it well,” Willow smirked.
“We have completed both of tasks asked of us by Dessiter of the Phistopilus,” Garvana said proudly, “The king is no longer, and Brigit of the Brijidine will aid him no more.”
“It is a shame the princess escaped,” Willow frowned, “And if the words of the soldiers are to believed, Richard Havelyn…”
“How did they escape?” Garvana scowled, “How did they destroy Chargammon?”
“Pellius,” Willow said, looking towards him, “What did you see?”
He had said little since returning from the highest floor of the Adarium. He had signalled to them that it was time to retreat, yet had offered little explanation. When she looked to him now, she saw his cold and calm expression hiding fierce anger beneath.
“I am unsure,” he replied, his voice level and emotionless, “His hide had been beaten and bruised by steel, there were hundreds of arrows piercing his flank. But then, the sky itself seemed to open up and strike him with great white meteorites of pure power. They tore through him. He tried to repel them with magic, but they cut through his arcane shield like burning steel through snow…”
“Who could be powerful enough to cast such a thing?” Traya asked warily, “We know the princess is the daughter of Antharia Regina… but she couldn’t possibly be that powerful so young?”
They looked to one another, none of them knowing what to answer.
“It is no great loss that Chargammon was destroyed,” Garvana commented finally, though her frown of worry still lingered, “We could not trust his word to only be involved in this one task. He would have seen us as a threat to his dominion…”
“Agreed,” Traya nodded, “The land is far better off without that vile evil around.”
“What of his spawn, Jeratheon?” Willow frowned, “He will no longer be bound to the word of his father. He is sure to turn on us or flee.”
“It does not matter right now,” Pellius sighed, his brow clenching tightly, “We have more important things to deal with before the whelp.”
“What do we do with him?” Garvana asked, motioning to the limp body of the unconscious knight.
“Restrain him,” Pellius snapped, cracks in his composure beginning to show as his scarlet eyes flared with anger, “I will deal with him come morning.”
“Restrain him with what?” she frowned.
“Perhaps I have something,” Willow chuckled.
She smiled as she swiftly moved to the eastern wall of the chamber, carefully pulling free the loose panel covered in stone. Hidden within the wall was a contraption of steel cogs and a rusted handle. Though it creaked with resistance, as it forced its way through rust that had formed through disuse, she wound the handle clockwise. All eyes shot to the ceiling, as the sound of rattling metal echoed throughout the chamber, and a callous device lowered from thick chains. A sturdy bar of steel that housed two sets of manacles descended from the ceiling, directly above the centre of the runic pentagram. As she retrieved the keys from their hook, she turned back towards Garvana.
“Will you lift him up?” she smirked, casually returning to the limp mans side.
With Garvana’s strong arms and Willow’s deft hands, they made quick work of stripping his armour off and securing their captive. Though Pellius watched them move with a clear intrigue, he remained silent. As Willow turned to him, she saw the blazing fire that still lay within his gaze. Though he turned his face away, she saw enough to know how he struggled to retain his control.
“I must rest,” he said curtly, striding towards the exit, “We will convene after dawn.”
Before anyone could reply, he had opened the chamber walls and disappeared into the shadows.
“I think we all should,” Willow agreed, though her eyes were still focused on his departure, “If Dessiter has spoken truthfully, Tiadora shall be arriving soon, and we must be rested and prepared. She is not going to take our refusal lightly.”
“Should someone guard him?” Traya asked warily.
Willow turned back towards them, a small smile upon her face.
“Those are not normal manacles,” she smirked, “If they are opened without the key, they will let loose a death charm powerful enough to devour his soul…”

Upon returning to her quarters, Willow found Pellius kneeling upon the carpeted rug, brow contorted and back rigid in deep meditation. Though her eyes lingered upon him for a moment, she quietly passed him and made her way to the bathing chamber. She stripped off her armour, battered by gashes and soaked in the blood of pious men. Once the large bath was filled with steaming water, she lowered herself in slowly, hissing as the boiling liquid seeped into the torn flesh of her skin. It was curious, that the water turned a fragile pink with blood of others yet none of her own. She had not quite gotten used to the way her pale white skin shred under the pressure of blades, but did not weep in crimson, it merely hung from her bones. Even as her eyes traced the path carved by steel, she saw the wounds close of their own volition. After she washed the last of the carnage from the black wefts of her hair, she rose from the water and leisurely dried herself with the fleece of a towel. On instinct, she turned to the mirror to see her reflection. Though the large blanket she had thrown over the darkwood framed glass still covered most of the image, she knew what she would have seen were it to be free, moreover, she knew what she would not see. She felt her lip curl in repulsion, it took all of her self control to resist smashing the large mirror. Curious, she thought, that she would despise an ornament with such vile hatred. She was starting to understand the myth of vampires, repelled by the very glass that refused to reflect them. With a bitter taste on her tongue, she turned from the mirror and strolled unhurried into the bedchamber. As her slow steps passed the simmering stone fireplace, a glistening ray of light caught her eye. Sitting upon the mantle, was a golden crown embellished with sapphire gems that gleamed in the flickering light of the fire – the crown of King Markadian V. A small smile lifted the corner of her lip, as she approached the regal diadem. For a moment, she simply eyed the crown, the single piece of metal that signified all they had achieved. For a moment, she simply smiled, allowing pride to swell in her heart.
“What were the words to that song?” she breathed, soft eyes of ardent flame turning towards Pellius, “The king’s crown upon my mantle…”
Though she saw the flint of recognition ripple along his brow, he simply lowered his head, as if he would force his meditation to further his calm whether it was willing to or not. Slow and prowling steps brought her behind him, her towel dropping to the floor as her hands traced the sharp lines of his shoulders. He had undressed and knelt only in his loose fitting black trousers, leaving his armour piled in the corner, his bare back shadowed in the deep wells of his muscles. She spoke, as her fingers trailed along his collarbone and dipped lower upon his chest, her lips pressing soft kisses that traced along his neck.
“And we have it,” she whispered, “We have his crown, and next we shall take his throne…”
Suddenly, a vicious hand lashed out and grasped her wrist. The frightening pressure was so strong she felt the bones buckle under the weight.
Willow…” he rasped, a terrifying tremble to his tone, as if the words were a battle against his savage rage to speak, “I do not have the strength for your games tonight. If you know what is good for you… you will leave…
He threw her hand away, as a bestial and staggered hiss sounded from his throat. Slowly, Willow rose from her crouch, deliberate steps guiding her in front of him. She saw the fury in his gaze, she saw the raging beast that threatened to erupt from beneath his control. It had been unleashed upon the glorious angels that had stood in his way, it had been freed and given right to devour the king. And now, though it refused to be shackled once more, Pellius fought for control over the sheer brutality that resided within him. It should have scared her, the sight of the enraged crimson that blazed from his eyes should have been enough for Willow to turn away. But she could not. She was drawn to the beast like a moth to the flame. Something within her awoke, a feral and hungry force that ached for the cruelty and terror he promised. Something that overtook the panicked survival instinct that told her to flee. It would not let her leave, nor would it let him maintain control. Slowly, she lowered herself down, until her face was merely inches from his. Her hand reached for his chin, as it guided his sight towards hers. As their gazes met, her eyes flashed a brilliant crimson in mirror to his.
Willow…” he growled viciously, “You do not know what you are playing with…
A sly and sultry smile spread along her lips, Infernal words fell from her mouth, as if spoken from a deep and once dormant part of her.
Do you think I was not made to endure the worst of your torments?” she rasped, “Do you think I was not crafted in such a way, as to withstand the most cruel and callous vices of your wrath?”
She watched as the beast howled within his eyes, surging forward in frenzied hunger, thrashing against the constraints of Pellius’ control. Though he fought to keep it caged within his mind, Willow could see the fury growing, the vehemence flooding his composure. For a time, she had thought his ire had been intimately tied to the infernal blood that coursed through his veins. Yet, even now as the anger warred within him, his lifeless blood lay still. The vicious terror did not need a living vessel to thrive; it was part of him.
His hand lashed out and gripped her throat, as he stood from his vigil and forced her back towards the fireplace. As his devouring gaze flared like hellfire itself, the flames licked the bare flesh of her back.
You think I would not hurt you?” he hissed, his face contorting with fervent rage, “You think yourself safe? You cannot fathom what I would do to you!”
For a moment, his grasp tightened around her throat, his teeth clenching and his hands trembling as he fought desperately for control.
“I know what you would do,” she rasped through the constriction, “And I welcome it…”
Upon her words, his fangs plunged down from their rest, ravenous yearning spiralling in his vision. But still, he would not yield to the frenzy. With a strenuous growl of exasperation, he threw Willow to the floor. He turned from her, crushing his eyes tight as he warred against the beast within him. The staggered breaths tore from his throat, as if the ritual of breathing brought comfort and control. Slowly, Willow stood from the ground. She watched him for a moment, eyes tracing the straining muscles of his back as they flexed under the arduous effort of retaining composure. She would not force his hand, yet she would not simply allow him to retreat into sullen mind.
“Do you think it fate that brought us together?” she said quietly, unhurried steps bringing her closer to him, “Do you think it sheer luck? I believe it was something else. Our Lord of the Nine rewards those in his favour. He gifts great power, great strength, to those that succeed in warring for his supremacy…”
As she reached him, her fingers softly traced the deep wells and arches of his broad back, her words as gentle as her touch.
“And with the gift of great power, he gives the gift of great control. Whether that be the will to withstand the aftermath, or whether that be a device to balance the dominant half. A vessel, that can endure the needs, the backlash and the fallout of wielding such power…”
Her fingers trailed along his shoulders, as she prowled a slow and careful pace around him, bringing herself to face him. As the raging beast snarled within his gaze, the strange force within her flared in response. She felt the pulsing need, the profane slither of infernal grace dancing through her flesh. Her hands moved along his chest, as she lifted up on her toes to bring her face closer to his. As her tongue delicately traced the shape of his lips, his eyes blazed a livid scarlet, as if in a final and vicious warning.
Let me be yours…” she breathed.
It was as if time itself was still for a moment. The rippling inferno of flame within his gaze quivering with dark malice, the beast pulled taut against its leash, the force within Willow trembling in anticipation. For a single moment, it felt achingly like an eternity. But then, she saw it. The moment he relinquished control to the beast. Much as he had in his extraordinary battle prowess, he took her with no finesse nor grace. He launched himself viciously towards her, latching his hand to her neck as he lifted her and threw her violently against the side of the bed. Though she usually enjoyed the fight for control, the awakened part of her knew better than to question his dominance. Instinctively, she swiftly rolled to her stomach before he reached her, head flat against the mattress in a show of submission. Though it was almost indistinguishable from a snarling cry of a beast, she knew he growled in approval. As she his crushing weight fell upon her, pinning her down with no way of escape, she felt his fangs and teeth latch on to her neck.
It was that night, that the air between them changed. Though they had shared in the most intimate and cruel pleasures, that night was the first time Willow truly understood her place by his side. There was no gentle caress, nor loving tenderness – only raw and unrestrained savage passion. She allowed him to take her, to mark her, to unleash the very worst he had to offer. And though his torturous and bestial touch kept her slender frame in constant agony, she relished each ache and pain with blissful rapture. For that night, she gave herself to him. Though she did not truly understand the intricate moves that had brought them together, that night; she was his.

When dawn came to land of Talingarde, the bright sun rose amidst a blood red sky. Though the curtains were drawn and the dark chamber gave no signal of the passing of morning twilight, the Forsaken awoke as the sun slowly raised over the mountains. While Willow bathed and soothed the arduous aching from her limbs, Pellius returned to the shrine room to retrieve the information they sought. When she mustered enough strength in her trembling legs, she lifted herself from the bath, drying her bruised skin with gentle hand. Once she had dressed in a silken frock that glided against her tender muscles, she felt the hungered thirst for blood quiver in her stomach. It was fortunate how events had led her back home to the Monteguard Manor, for each of their staff were loyal and willing to serve even the most curious of requests. She found Enecus in the kitchen, the young Chelaxian servant, only a boy in her eyes though he would have been near twenty years old. When he looked to Willow, she saw the age of innocence within his gaze, bright eyes of a man barely into adulthood. Even while Willow had been a married woman living in Matharyn, he had always made it clear he would gladly fill her bed were she ever lonely. It was almost pity in which she looked upon him. Fresh faced, sheltered from the troubles of the world, oblivious to the reality of the changing land.
“Mistress,” he bowed, an easy smile on his face, “Do you have need for blood?”
“I do,” she smiled, though her eyes flickered to the hollow of his throat, the hunger gripping within her stomach.
“Very well, mistress,” he nodded eagerly, quickly dusting the flour from his hands, “Do you wish me to quickly bathe?”
Willow’s eyebrow arched, “I would hope you had done so this morning.”
“Of course,” he rushed, “It is just-
“It is alright,” Willow smirked, though the thirst rumbled through her chest, “Come along.”
As they returned to her chambers, he was quick to retrieve the small cushioned stool from within the wooden cabinet. He took his place upon the stool, pulling the dark locks of his long hair over his shoulder, baring his neck to Willow. With the willingness of his offering, the bare pale skin of his lean and open throat; the bloodlust surged forth and frenzied in her mind. It took the stern command of her will to resist simply leaping upon him and draining him dry. But this was something she had learned to deal with. She had been forced to feed each day, she had been forced to restrain herself and control her eager and avid hunger. It was this practice that stilled the trembling of her hands and kept her fangs within her mouth. With slow and graceful steps, she moved behind him and lowered herself upon the velvet couch. Her fingers traced gently over the long vein that ran along his throat, as she leaned forwards to seal her lips to his skin, a soft touch much like a kiss. In a swift and fleet moment, she plunged her fangs deeply into his neck. Though he tried to muffle the sound, she heard his soft gasp of delight. It was still a curious process for Willow. Pulling the blood from his throat, drawing the warm scarlet liquid into her mouth, sating the hunger with the sweet and delicate taste. She had learned that she could influence the victims experience, with soft pulls on their throat, they would become enraptured in a blissful state of lethargy. This state sweetened the taste on her tongue, it lightened the liquid as it slipped from their veins. Yet if she drew hard, if she tore the scarlet from the split, the enraptured state was far more sadistic. The victim would be held powerless against the agony of rapid blood loss, the taste would be bitter and robust, thick and dense as it coursed down her throat. Her touch was usually soft and delicate, her fingers instinctively gently tracing the neck and shoulders of the one who offered themselves to her. She had often wondered how Pellius and Garvana would feed. Would Pellius subject his victim to the callous and brutal torment? Would Garvana caress her victims throat in a tender touch? The act of feeding was such an intimate affair, at least for Willow. They had chosen to keep their feeding private and separate from each other, paying a portion of respect to the willing servants, as it was them that were left in such a vulnerable and enervated condition. As Willow’s fingers trailed through the soft locks of Enecus’ hair, she felt the heavy weight of his head, as he fought to hold it up against the languor.
Suddenly, the chamber door flew open, as a foreboding sight appeared in the threshold. Pellius, his clothes stained in painted dark and feral red, his brow contorted harshly above glowing piercing eyes.
“We must speak,” he impressed, a cold tone that spoke of urgency.
With a small inaudible huff of disappointment, Willow withdrew her fangs slowly, tracing her tongue along the small punctures. Though his eyes dropped in languid stupor, Enecus quickly retrieved the white fleece from his pocket, pressing it tightly to his neck. As he staggered to his feet, Willow felt the small smile lift the corner of her lip.
“Thank you, Enecus,” she said, “Go rest for a moment, Niritta can handle the kitchen work.”
“Yes, mistress,” he said in a weighty breath, “Thank you, mistress.”
The lean man rushed on uneasy steps towards Pellius, bowing low as he passed, closing the door behind him. Willow leaned back into the couch, a torpid sigh of contentment falling from her lips, as her soft gaze returned to the stern and serious man in her doorway.
“What is it?” she asked, frowning at the cold way in which he looked to her.
“The knight,” he said curtly, “He had much to say. Get dressed in your armour and meet me in the sitting room, we must hurry…”

Though the coarseness of her leather armour chafed against the aching flesh, Willow was swift to dress and strap her blades to her thighs, arriving at the sitting room to find Traya helping Garvana lace up the last of her heavy plate steel.
“What is going on?” Willow frowned, a trepidation lingering in her mind.
“We do not know,” Garvana replied, her own brow pulled tight, “Pellius informed us to be ready and meet him here.”
As if summoned by the mention of his name, Pellius strode through the doorway, clad in his dastardly ebony armour.
“Good,” he nodded, looking over them all, “You are ready. I shall explain the hurry. The knight was part of the king’s personal guard, he informed me that the king’s army is mustering to attack Fallingsbridge, to the north of Daveryn.”
“The north?” Willow frowned, “Was that not the most heavily reinforced and guarded part of Daveryn?”
“It was,” he nodded, “And it is. The attack was due to begin at dawn, leaving the possible hope that the king would see to the safety of his daughter and return before the start of the battle. Should he need it, we have information that could aid the Fire-Axe. Though he is an integral part of Thorn’s plan, his success in this battle is imperative for our success as well. We would do well to make an ally of him.”
“How have the king’s army been convinced to attack the north?” Garvana frowned, “Surely even a single scout remained alive long enough to tell the general of the state of Daveryn?”
“Perhaps he is the key,” Willow offered, arching her brow, “General Vastenus Barca… perhaps we were correct in our suspicion that he has not turned from the Dark Father, perhaps he is Thorn’s guarantee that the Mitrans will lose this war…”
“We should go,” Pellius said curtly, “We must ensure the Fire-Axe’s victory.”
“You may be being a tad impulsive,” Willow said gently, a small smile upon her lips, “Let us go, but let us travel to the overhang cliffs of Haverston. We will be able to see the north, the army and the upper city. If needed, we can teleport into the castle and aid Sakkarot if his defeat seems likely.”
Though his eyes narrowed only a touch, Pellius conceded her point with a nod. With no further delay, the group gathered together and stepped through the spiralling vortex that whisked them through flashing lights that curled in turbulence. When they were thrown upon the grass lands of the Haverston cliffs, a sea of carnage greeted their arrival. It was clear that the battle had raged in bloodshed as each hour succeeded dawn. Gatehouses crumbled, ramparts bathed in blood and gore, a ruin of stone and steel in scattered remains. Limp and bloodied bodies of man, beast and being alike, strewn about the expanse in a savage portrait of massacre. Of the tens of thousands that had awoken with the sun, only a handful still managed to remain among the living. But the worst of the bloodshed had began before the Mitrans had even broken through the gates. Thousands of men, knights and commoners alike, had died trying to pass through the gates of the Fallingsbrigde. It was an assault that was doomed to fail before it began. The story of their defeat was painted along the trail they took, their number of their dead lessening as they had finally broken through the gate, under the torrent of thousands of arrows, cauldrons of boiling oil, leagues of blazing fire. Once they had finally broken through and swarmed the gatehouse, it was there that they met the feral ranks of frost giants and trolls. Those that managed to survive the unimaginable waves of fatal wrath inside, were only met with fiercer and unfatigued beasts of destruction.
From their vantage point, the Forsaken watched the few ravaged, bleeding and bruised men of Mitra turn to one another amongst the waves of dead and decapitated ogres and giants. Even from a distance, the glimmer of hope in victory still lived within them. That was, until the doors to the throne of Daveryn swung open. That flicker of hope, was swiftly extinguished. The Fire-Axe himself took the field, leading his cadre of lieutenants and their personal warbands. They had saved the worst for last. Sakkarot had cleaved through the number of the Mitran army with expendable cretins and creatures, having watched the battle by the grace and safety of the duke’s housing. He had allowed the Mitrans to believe there was a chance they could fight the darkness, there was a chance they could win. And with one charge, he erased that hope with the sharp and flaming edge of his sword. Every hero left alive beneath the north gate died. Willow watched with eyes of blazing hellfire, a cold and merciless tilt to her chin. Those that died, were the ones who stood in their way. Those were the men that would never accept the Prince of Hell as the rightful and revered ruler of Talingarde. And for that, they were gifted with the bitter embrace of death. The army of the Mitran king had been defeated. As Tiadora had said to them, the four pillars held the Mitrans strong. All must fall to secure their victory. The first pillar, the Watch Wall Balentyne, burned to the ground. The second pillar, the Order of Saint Macarius, extinguished upon their holiest sight. The third pillar, the Knights of Alerion, had marched to their doom against the Fire-Axe. And now, with the head of the House of Darius vanquished and his army slaughtered; the final pillar had fallen.

She watched as the Fire-Axe raised the fallen Standard of St. Teonas that had marched at the armies fore. With his viciously infernal weapon, he set it aflame and thrust it high into the air. As the sounds of bestial joy and savage glee sang out in chorus through the empty skies of Daveryn, Sakkarot roared his fearsome and ferocious battle cry. He cried victory, loud enough for even hell to hear…

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