Friday, 14 April 2017

Chapter 42 - Dancing With Devils

The slow descent of the bright and blazing sun, revealed the tinge of blood that soaked the fabric of sky. Though the light still lingered across the edges of the land, the cold and bitter chill of sorrow and despair held tightly upon the expanse. As the light failed to remain above the city of Matharyn, so to did the hope and cheer of the Mitran faithful fail to bolster their resolve. Their pious king was dead. Their righteous army slaughtered. Their royal palace in crumbling wreckage. Mitra, their lord of light and life, had abandoned them. The souls of the fair city cried in mourning as they began to fall to the depths of slumber for the evening. Yet, not all within the city slumbered. Not all called for the Shining Lord’s guidance, nor felt suddenly forsaken by the Beneficent Sun. A few souls, had been abandoned long ago. A few souls, had been condemned long before the darkness came to Talingarde. Those few souls, had brought about the darkness themselves.
Sitting around the grand table within the meeting room on the upper floor of the Monteguard Manor, Willow and Traya sat in waiting. As twilight dusk approached, they knew their visitor would arrive shortly. Garvana entered the chamber, her head buried in a large tome bound in green stained leather, shuffling her steps as she made her way to the far right of the table.
“Have you seen Pellius?” Willow frowned, looking up towards the door.
“He said he will be along shortly,” Garvana said distractedly, not looking up from her book.
“We must discuss our plan before she arrives,” Willow scowled, “He is late.”
“I am never late,” his deep and baritone voice chuckled from the doorway, “I simply choose when I am to arrive.”
Willow smirked, arching her brow as she looked towards him. Her grin faltered as she saw he was not alone. Trailing behind him, was a withered and skeletal corpse, with sickening insect-like features, and long and vicious tail ending in a wicked and twisted barb. A bone devil, with slits for eyes that glared a vile hatred towards them. Though Pellius entered as if nothing out of the ordinary was afoot, the eyes of the others stared towards him in bewilderment. When he looked up from his entry, he asked his brow in question at the audience he received.
“Pellius…” Willow said slowly, her frown pulling low, “Are you going to introduce us?”
A sly grin came upon his lips, as he inclined his head.
“Yastrew, the Impure,” Pellius presented, in lashing satire, “This is Willow Monteguard.”
The fiend glared towards her, his malleable bone lip curling in venom.
“And is it house trained?” Willow rasped harshly.
“He is under my command,” Pellius replied, ignoring her rudeness, “Yastrew, do you wish to remain here, or return when I call?”
“The feast of souls upon this plane is far too tempting to refuse,” he slithered, his feral gaze flaring as he looked to Traya, “I believe I shall stay…”
“Just try not to break anything,” Willow drawled, feeling the creeping chill of distaste sliding along her skin.
The fiend looked to Pellius, an expression that said he would not be listening to the command of Willow. Pellius huffed a small laugh, as he shook his head.
“Do as she says,” he replied, “It shall not be long, dusk approaches…”
As Pellius made his way to the table, the air within large chamber suddenly changed. With a silent ripple of wavering arcana, Tiadora appeared before them, dressed in a gown of regal white, accompanied by all nine erinyes sisters.
 “My lords,” Tiadora said respectfully, bowing to the Forsaken, “News has reached your master of your great victory. The king of Talingarde is dead by your hand. Truly, it is well done! Cardinal Adrastus Thorn, High Priest of Asmodeus in Talingarde, bids me give thee a message. He asks you to accompany me to the Agathium, so that he may congratulate you in person, and bestow upon you great reward and the highest of honours!”
She looked them over, showing no surprise to find them dressed and prepared in their armour, in the presence of a lone bone devil.
“Are you ready?” she asked, arching her brow, “Let us depart with all haste.”
Slowly, Garvana straightened her back as she turned to the woman and her fearsome retinue.
“It is an offer we will have to refuse, Tiadora,” she said coldly, “We will not be coming with you.”
“Why do you refuse this honor?” the woman pried, her brow arching high and regal, “Does fear so fill you that you cannot even face Thorn? Tell me, my lords, what have you done that makes you so ashamed to even speak with our master?”
Willow slowly stood from her chair at the table, lifting her chin as she spoke.
“Perhaps that is the problem,” she said quietly, in a calm and controlled voice, “The absence of fear…”
A slow and feral grin suddenly spread across Tiadora’s face. She laughed, a fiendish sound of diabolical glee. Slowly, her body began a heinous transformation. Twin tentacles stretched and grew from the crown of the woman’s head, thick tendrils birthing from her scalp, coiling in grotesque rhythm. From her waist bloomed a gown of writhing tentacles, that danced in the vicious joy of freedom. As her skin shifted in a translucent wave of sickly flesh, her scaled hands grew callous and harsh claws that craned in blade-like points. She grinned towards them, as her guard of erinyes cawed bestial and savage cries.
“Tell me why,” she rasped, her voice pitched in a high and piercing screech, “Tell me why you will not come before Thorn. Is there a message you would have me deliver?”
As the others stood from their chairs, eyes locked to the fiend, Willow slipped her hand upon her dagger.
“You will not be returning to deliver a message,” she growled, eyes flashing a brilliant red.
Her words had their intended effect. As if a silent word passed between the devil and her brood, the erinyes launched towards the Forsaken.
“Yastrew!” Pellius called, “Now!
Suddenly, a blazing green ray launched from the devil’s hands, spiralling towards Tiadora. It greedily struck out for her, but a curious force stopped it in its path. An unseen shield that surrounded the tentacle mistress, absorbing the arcana as it sought to taste her flesh. She laughed a bitter and fiendish cackle, lifting herself high from the ground, her curtain of tentacles dancing through the air. The erinyes flocked upon their tainted wings, rising into the domed ceiling of the grand chamber, splitting into pairs as they pulled free the ropes tied to their sides, weaved and threaded from the very strands of hair that fell from their heads.
Traya shrieked an inhuman cry as she rasped a bitter and volatile incantation, sparks of lightening flickering between her fingers. As she opened her palms, the blinding white arc flew from her fingertips, coiling through the air until it first struck a sister with scalding white lightening, before arcing in chain reaction to each of them in succession. The growling wrath of the furies trembled the rough stone walls of the chamber.
As Tiadora moved in lithe grace, Pellius and Willow drew their weapons from their sheaths. Her curling tentacles suddenly struck out towards Pellius, the coiling mass too many and too much to escape. She grinned in savage and sickly enjoyment as her loathsome tendrils pulled on his flesh, caging him beneath her twisted body. Willow pounced forward, sprinting for the fiend with her blades gripped tightly in her hands, her steps swift and light. She launched herself upward, propelling herself into the air, carving her bloodthirsty daggers in elegantly dire onslaught. She thrust them deeply into the corrupted flesh of the fiend, tearing them free as she forced them out the other side. Tiadora screeched a terrifying cry, eyes blazing with indignation and sheer hatred, as she turned her gaze upon Willow.
Garvana roared a thundering enchantment, throwing out her hands to unleash a flurry of ice shards towards Tiadora. As the razor sharp pieces tore shreds from her skin, she lashed out viciously with her heinous claws. As Willow tried to throw herself out of the way, she felt the keen pain of slicing skin. Where the trails of flesh parted, it burned a venomous and searing poison. But she had no time nor mind to think on it, for she saw her opportunity and launched once more towards the fiend.
The erinyes hurled their detestable ropes towards the Forsaken, writhing black strands snaking towards them. Willow was swift enough to evade their grasp, but the weight of the heavy metal that guarded Garvana was also what slowed her steps. The blackened rope struck her in the chest, before it coiled around her suddenly, slithering across her torso, wrapping tightly as the horrific beauty yanked upon the crushing trap.
Caged within the tentacle mass, Pellius snarled a malicious breath of seething ire. The room pulsed with nauseating rancour, as Willow saw his hand reach out and grab vicious hold of single tentacle. Suddenly, he summoned his vile and putrid plague upon the fiend, white puss and boils forming along the fleshy tendril. As she convulsed in disgust, her cage of tentacles opening in revulsion, Willow struck out her blades again. She saw the weak unarmoured flesh of Tiadora’s scaled torso, grinning a foul smile of satisfaction as she heard the fiend’s cry of agony as her vicious blades pierced deep.
Surrounded by the hail of arrows, Tiadora drove herself upward and out of their reach. A swirling assemblage of coiling tentacles, gliding through the air above the grand oak table. Eyes of bitter loathing glared towards them, though the fiends gaze was locked upon Willow. She grabbed hold of a quivering tentacle, her eyes flashing a brilliant and fearsome crimson. With two hands, she tore the tentacle from her body, a shower of black blood cascading across the hard wood surface of the table. She shrieked, a piercing cry of wrath and anger, before she threw the severed tentacle towards them. As it collided, the ground beneath their feet began to tremble, the grey stone quivering as if it moved and slithered of its own accord. Dozens of black oozing tentacle erupted from the ground, lashing out to grab hold of flesh, clothing and bone. The dark and festering tendrils coiled around all within their grasp, climbing the legs of the table as they attempted to put it further into the stone floor. They slashed at Willow’s legs, but her steps were too quick to capture.
It had all happened so fast. In only a few short breaths, they had gone from standing before the sinister woman and her retinue, to the moment Willow heard the most dreadful incantation escape Traya’s lips. As the poison seethed through Willow’s dead flesh, Pellius pushed himself to his feet upon constricted and weakened legs, Garvana struggled against the strangling suffocation of the ropes, and Traya carved crooked patterns of slashing gestures with her fingers. Suddenly, Tiadora’s eyes flew wide. And then, an explosion of flesh and bone showered the chamber. Tiadora, the devil that had guided them with a brutal hand along their journey and path to the way of the wicked, fell in slumped heap upon the chamber floor – with an oozing mound of blood and bile where her head should have been. The furies quickly looked to one another, and without a word, they vanished from sight.
“What in hell’s name was that?” Willow breathed, eyes wide as her hands quivered upon her gripped daggers.
She turned to the sorcerous, a new fear and respect as she looked upon her.
“Did you…” Willow said carefully, “Did you do that?”
A small and sly smile was the only answer she received. The noise of hurried footsteps sounded from the hallway, before the meeting room doors flew open.
“Mistress!” called Atwood worriedly, a cruel thin blade clutched in his hand, “Are you alright?!”
As Willow turned to him amongst the carnage, she saw the entirety of the Monteguard Manor staff rushing to the chamber, armed with blades and kitchen knives. Though her brow arched at their presumption that they could aid her in such a way, she could not contain the chuckle fell from her lips as their eyes flew wide at the scene they were greeted with.
“Quite alright, Atwood,” she replied cordially, though she grinned as she wiped the blood from her face upon her sleeve.
“Ah,” he replied, recovering quickly from the shock, “Very well, mistress.”
His eyes scanned the room, a small frown upon his brow as he saw the blood and bone ruined carpeted rug.
“Shall I have baths drawn for you and your guests?” he asked, “While the servants and I see to this mess, mistress?”
Willow looked to the others, each covered in the sickly red painted gore of battle, dripping in the proof of their vicious prowess. She smiled, inclining her head to the aged man.
“I think that is a fine idea.”
“I think you are going to need a new rug,” Traya chuckled.
“I will have Enecus fetch one from storage,” Atwood replied, though his lips momentarily pursed as he eyed the remains of Tiadora’s infernal form, “And the body, mistress?”
“Burn it,” she snapped harshly, turning towards the doors, “Burn every last trace of it…”

As the last of the bloodshed washed from her skin, and Niritta retrieved her armour for cleaning, Willow braided her wet locks into a tight weave upon her head. She dressed in a seamless ebony gown of soft silk, that fell from her shoulders in a flowing sway of fabric. As she walked the halls of the manor looking for the others, her mind churned upon the implications of their actions. There was no more hiding their intent. If Thorn had not gotten word of their defiance before, he would know of it now with certainty. What else would he send to eliminate them? What other servants and powers did he have at his disposal?
She first made her way to the lower chambers, opening the shrine wall to reveal an empty and silent room. The shadow cast by the dark and powerful statue loomed across the ragged stone floor, its outline almost as unnerving as the image it portrayed. Willow strolled into the chamber, eyes tracing the ornaments locked within the glass cabinets. She smiled, as she unlocked the far case to add another to her collection. First, was the sapphire pendant, shaped into the Mitran sunburst. They had taken the life of Sir Balin, held captive within Cardinal Thorn’s manor, and they had walked away with his symbol of holy devotion in their hands. Second, was the brass horn carried by the soldiers that guarded the Watchtower Balentyne. Perhaps, if only the men and women of Mitra had managed to use them sooner, they may have been spared their fate. Third, was single link of marred silver chain, hurled from the carnage as the seal repelling Vetra-Kali from the world was shattered. Fourth, was the humble wooden sun, the holy symbol that belonged to the head of the Order of Saint Marcarius, Earnan MacCathlain. The same one that had fallen from his chest as he died. Fifth, were the three beautiful and personal necklaces, made from the rarest materials the planes had to offer, given as gifts by the great copper dragon Eiramanthus to his beloveds. Lastly, Willow placed the seared, ruined and crumpled shield, wielded by the late King of Talingarde – Markadian V. Though it was a testament to her feminine sentiment that she kept such things, she was not bothered. She was amazed to see how far they had come. And she knew she would look back upon the strange arrangement of trinkets and jewels, and remember the hardship and strenuous effort that greatness truly demanded.
Returning to the main floor, as she approached the sitting room, she heard the familiar voices of Pellius and Garvana beyond the door. Curiously, they were speaking in hushed tones, low enough for their words to be muffled by the large oak doors. As Willow opened the door and entered the chamber, their words silenced. Though they acted casual as they looked towards her, Willow frowned at the suspicious facade.
“What is going on?” she asked, brow arching.
“Nothing, my lady,” Pellius replied politely, “We are merely questioning what comes next.”
“And whatever that is,” Willow scoffed, “It is not for my ears?”
“It is not at all like that, my lady.”
Willow sighed, shaking her head gently as she strolled to the empty lounge chair and looked towards them.
“You two have been curiously evasive since before the Adarium,” Willow frowned, a wave of exhaustion coming upon her, “Whispering together, hushing each other as I enter. Just tell me, what is going on?”
As she watched their reactions, Willow saw Garvana look to Pellius for guidance. When he did not reply, Willow scowled in frustration.
“What is it?” she growled, “We have been in this fight together for more than three years! We have fought together, died together! We have only each other, no one else we can truly trust! We are alone in this country! And you would hide secrets between us?”
Again, Pellius remained silent.
“Pellius,” Garvana said quietly, “She is right. We have only each other.”
His eyes narrowed as he looked to Willow, though it was not the suspicion she saw that was intriguing. It was the barest hint of hurt, a flash that spoke of betrayal, before it was quickly covered once more.
“Pellius!” Garvana snapped, “Just tell her! We cannot keep it secret, she needs to know the fire she is playing with!”
As a frown pulled low upon Willow’s brow, her eyes searched Pellius’ gaze. For a moment, he simple stared back at her, thoughts swarming across his stale face.
“What do you truly know of your lover?” he asked coldly, a bitter lilt to his tone.
Taken aback by his question, Willow’s eyes flew wide, as a small laugh fell from her lips.
“Switch?” she balked, “You cannot be serious? This is over him? This, is simply jealousy?”
“It is more than jealousy,” Pellius seethed, “Answer me that, how much do you truly know of him?”
“What does he have to do with anything?” Willow scoffed, “What difference would knowledge of him make for you? I have never revealed anything of you or our mission, I have never jeopardised our cause.”
“But it is not only our cause I worry about,” Pellius sighed, shaking his head, “It is you. Do you know what you are doing? Do you know what you are risking?”
“Enough!” Willow growled, “Tell me the point, tell me what has you so worried, if it is not merely your ego speaking out.”
“We have seen the blade, Willow,” Garvana said harshly, “We know what he is. How could you willingly flirt with such danger, such power? It is a risky game, and I do not think you are prepared to pay the price.”
“What blade?” Willow frowned, looking between them, “What are you talking about?”
Pellius looked to her, shrewd eyes consuming her reactions, revelations surfacing.
“You do not know…” he said in realisation, “You do not know what he is.”
“What are you talking about?” Willow scowled in frustration, “Enough with the cryptic words. Just tell me what you know!”
Pellius’ cold eyes narrowed for a moment, before he sighed a breath of heavy weight, dropping his head to rub his tired eyes. When his sight returned to her, the suspicion was replaced by a subtle disappointment.
“The Blade of the Pale Kiss,” he began slowly, watching her closely for recognition, “The one you were holding when I found you on the balcony…”
Though she frowned, Willow’s mind retraced her memory, picturing the infernal blade she had slipped from Switch’s sheath. She had not thought anymore of it at the time, her thoughts preoccupied with carnal distraction, but Switch had vanished before retrieving it from her hand. Though she could envision the use it had seen that night, her memory was hazed by the events that proceeded, and she had thought no more on what had become of the blade.
“I later found it discarded on the floor,” he continued, the bitterness enveloping his tone, “I could feel the darkness that emanated from within it. It was no ordinary dagger, covered in profane glyphs, and arcane words engraved in the infernal tongue…”
“What did they say?” Willow asked warily, vivid intrigue churning in her mind.
His reply was tainted by rancour, “In his hands, all thy cruelties thrive…”
As Willow’s eyes went wide, the words seemed to feed the flame inside her.
Belial…” she whispered.
Long ago, when she had spent her adolescent years reading the infernal texts in the Monteguard’s library, she had come across the words that had incited a rebellious fire within her. They spoke of an archdevil, a fiend of pure desire and deception, a sadistic being of endless lust and pain.
“It is not a surprise that Switch would revere Belial,” Willow said quietly, a small smile of carnal delight coming upon her lips, “He embodies the doctrine…”
Willow turned curious eyes upon Garvana and Pellius, as the door to the sitting room opened, and Traya entered the chamber.
“Why is this so concerning?” she frowned, as Traya took a seat next to her, “He is another servant of hell, how is that a threat?”
Pellius stared harsh eyes towards the sorcerous, seeming unwilling to continue in her presence.
“She has proven her loyalty,” Willow dismissed his suspicion, “I will not hide this from her.”
Though Pellius glared towards her, after a moment he sighed and looked to Willow.
“He is not merely another servant…” Pellius said darkly.
“He is much more than that,” Garvana said conspiratorially.
Willow’s frown deepened, her mind replaying flashing of her interactions with the sinister man, compiling the moments to amount to a true realisation; she had little clue who or what he was.
“I found mention of the blade in the library,” Garvana continued, “The Blade of the Pale Kiss is given only to the most powerful dark servants of Belial. To wield such a blade, this Switch does not simply revere the archdevil – he is an Infernal Duke in Belial’s service…”
Willow could not help the laugh of disbelief that rumbled in her throat. She shook her head as she laughed, looking between Garvana and Pellius as if they were gripped by insanity.
“An infernal duke?” Willow chuckled, “You cannot be serious?”
“Is it truly so unbelievable?” Pellius asked, his lip curling in disdain.
Garvana quickly turned and rummaged through her pack, pulling free a thick tome bound with raven timeworn leather. She flicked through the pages, opening it wide as she turned it towards Willow. As the sketched image came into focus, Willow felt the sudden trickle of fear and uncertainty creep into her mind. She reached out and grabbed hold of the book, eyes scanning the words scripted beneath. There it was, the very dagger she had held firmly in her hand. The blade she had pushed against Switch’s throat, the blade that had torn through her skin more times than she could count. Her fingers traced the cruel shape of the infernal blade, as her eyes read the words that confirmed the truth of Pellius and Garvana’s suspicion.
“What do you truly know of him?” Pellius repeated, shaking his head softly, “You do not know who he is, but do you know what he wants from you?”
“He has never asked anything of me…” Willow said distractedly, her mind in turmoil.
“Nothing?” Pellius scoffed, “Then he has not recalled his debt… yet…”
Willow looked up from the book, a scornful gleam in her eye.
“What were you expecting to hear?” she scoffed, “That I had given my soul to him? That I had sealed my fate by blood? He has never demanded and I have never given, nor offered, anything more than my body.”
“Though I am not entirely sure exactly what you are talking about,” Traya interjected quietly, “Perhaps that is the price he wishes you pay… not every interaction with devilkind is written and signed in contract…”
“What do you know of him?” Garvana pressed, “Willow, knowing this, is it wise to hide him from us any longer?”
“Hide him?” Willow laughed bitterly, “I have never hidden him. You have known the entire time that I have had another lover, and you have never asked! I have never lied to any of you! I have been forth coming with what I thought was prudent to share, but I am not inclined to go into details of my sexual experiences…”
She turned to Garvana, “I have told you he was a man from my past, you asked nothing more,” she turned to Pellius, “And you have never asked me of him. I have never lied to you. I have never betrayed you. I have stood by both of you, fought in wars with you… I have died for you. Do I really deserve this much distrust?”
“It is not you I distrust,” Pellius said coldly, looking to Willow with the curious anger in his eyes, “It is him. What does he want with you? What will he do to achieve his goals? Will you suffer at his hands, or will we?”
“Why must it be suffering?” Willow snarled, “We are fighting for the Prince of Hell! Is it not expected that his servants will aid us, is it surprising that they would seek to ally along with our victory? Dessiter is an agent of hell, and we have listened to his council and accepted his aid. Garvana, your Hesperian has given you private council before, and you are following a trail of infernal clues upon tomestones! We did not become suspicious of you and your motives! How is this different?!”
“He is an Infernal Duke, Willow!” Pellius growled, “Dessiter and Hesperian are low servants of darkness, there is no real threat in their presence! But an Infernal Duke? He does not need to simply aid a conquest of a single country! It is clear he would have his own motive!”
Willow exhaled an acidic breath of frustration. Though it vexed her to no end, his words held a logical truth.
“You do not know his motivations,” Pellius said coldly, “You do not even know who, or what you are…”
Her head whipped up, angered eyes finding his. As Garvana’s expression showed no tell of surprise, Willow’s temper unleashed within her mind.
“You told her?” Willow laughed scornfully, “I spoke of it to you in confidence.”
“She needs to know,” Pellius replied harshly, “For if it involves you, it involves all of us.”
Though she felt the betrayal of her trust keenly, she knew his words were truthful. She sighed, a pointless air that brought no release from her stale and stagnant lungs.
“Tell us,” Garvana said softly, “Tell us what you know. There is no more room for secrets Willow. We are locked in this destined path together, if we deceive each other, we will never remain strong enough to defeat all who are against us…”
Willow closed her eyes, the vortex of emotion and thought spiralling in the blackness beneath her lids. As she opened them again, she saw the anticipation and worry upon the faces of the Forsaken. Garvana was right. The path of her beginning was no clearer to her now than it had been years ago, only riddled with more questions and curiosities. The more she learned, the more she realised that Switch and her past were intimately connected. Perhaps their minds would see the truths for what they were.
“I met him more than a decade ago,” she began slowly, her eyes staring towards the dark shadows of the chamber, “Twelve years ago I think. I had need of an assassin, and Nicholas Brueder put me in touch with one. He sent word for me to meet him in an abandoned Asmodean temple in Fell Valley, long forgotten and left to the vices of the forest. We met, and he completed the contract with no trouble. He was… charming, and cunning like you would not believe. He was more vicious and callous than anyone I had met before; he was what I had imagined a true servant of the Dark Lord would be like. Yet, endearing and alluring as he was, I was a married woman. Back then, though my husband as a pious and devoted bore, marriage still meant something… I was faithful. Over the years Switch took on a few more contracts for me, and completed them with no issue or trouble. Then one day, I offered a contract on Princess Belinda’s life…”
Willow frowned as she recalled the details, a strange realisation forming in her mind.
“I had thought he had accepted the contract…” she said quietly, “But no agreement was actually spoken. No gold changed hands…”
“Would that not be something you would be clear on?” Garvana frowned.
“I was…” Willow replied, a devious grin lifting the corner of her lip, “Preoccupied…”
Though she frowned for a moment longer, as Garvana’s eyes flew wide and her expression turned to disgust, Willow laughed as she continued.
“And then I was arrested,” Willow said, the smile dropping from her lips, “They broke down my bedchamber door, dragged me before the inquisitor in my night gown, and threw me into the holding cell. At the trial, my husband spoke out against me. Someone had tried to blackmail him, they wanted gold in exchange for their silence. But Audric was far too honourable for that. Even if it meant he would be sentencing his own wife to death, even with the shame of tarnishing the Talrish name, he could not abide by such sins. He was given proof of the assassination attempt, and given evidence of my adultery. With a broken heart, he gave the word that condemned me. Though I hate almost everything about him, I still have to admire his conviction, to his faith and to his resolve…”
Willow trailed off into silence for a moment, staring into the darkness of the shadowed room, her mind replaying the agony within her husbands gaze as he looked to her when he stood before the magistrate.
“I knew it was Switch who had blackmailed him,” she continued, under the thoughtful eyes of the others, “Though at the time I could not make sense of it. He was smart enough to know how devoted Audric was to Mitra. He was not only a Knight of Alerion, he was a brave and vocal crusader for the Shining Sun. His faith would always come first, before family, before wealth – before me. Switch would have known the outcome of his attempt. But I did not see him again until Farholde. He offered me a chance to train with him, and join the Black Serpent Coterie. Whatever else he has misled me about, he was truthful in that.  When I asked him what his motive was for betraying me, he revealed that my parents had paid a greater price for him to turn me in. I had thought he meant gold, wealth or status… but I was wrong. I had been wrong all along, about it all.”
Willow sighed, looking to the chair Garvana was sitting it, the light of the flickering flame in the fireplace dancing across her skin the way it had along her father’s the night she returned.
“When I returned to Matharyn… things were not as I had expected. My parents were not who they had been. They were gaunt and exhausted, wracked by torments of the mind so great it had eaten away at their sanity. I do not know if they will ever recover from the horrors that they faced. But when I found my father, he was a husk of a man, barely clinging to life by a bottle of liquor. He thought me a vision, a being come to plague his thoughts and urge him further into madness. He told me that if I was truly here, if I was his daughter come to reap her vengeance, that he would offer me his throat willingly. It was not until I reached out and laid my hand upon his cheek that he awoke. He wept. I have never seen my father weep. He was a broken soul, slowly wasting his way towards death…”
“He told me the truth. He told me that although I would forever be his daughter, I was not his flesh and blood. I was not born of Anithara Monteguard. He told me I was found alone in a farming village, a crying baby within a small house, filled with the bodies of dead Mitran peasants. My mother was barren, never to know the joy of baring children. And then she found me… raven hair as dark as hers, pale skin the same shade of white, and eyes that flared a muted red – much like those that she saw in the mirror. They took it as a sign, as a gift from the Infernal Prince. Their servants scoured the village, tasked with destroying any trace of the baby, so none could deny or refute the bloodline bond. They found a journal, on the body of a priest. It said that the baby, that I, was not a child of the peasants. They had given shelter to the priest on his way to Valtaerna, and in the dead of night a celestial being arrived on their doorstep with a baby in its arms.”
“What was it?” Garvana frowned, “An angel?”
“Of some kind,” Willow shrugged, “The details in the journal speak only of a being of light, divine and holy. It urged the peasants to secrecy, tasked them with raising the child, to keep secret and secluded from the rest of the world. The priest was humbled by the presence of the being, and so he stayed for a time, to watch over the child and see to its safety before he continued his travels to the vale. But he did not get that far. A mysterious plague swept the village, killing everyone over night – everyone but me. A day later, my parents journey to Ghastenhall brought them through the same village…”
“I do not understand,” Garvana shook her head, “If they were so joyous to keep you, then why would they pay Switch to turn you in?”
Willow smiled sadly, “Switch had said that my parents had paid a greater price… And they had. They were gifted a child; their prayers had been answered. And in return they were to give the child up when the time was right, though they did not know that at the time. They were dominated by the words of Asmodeus himself, they were told that they were to send word that I was ready. That in order for me to know true greatness, I first had to know true failure and loss. They resisted at first, and were punished for their defiance. But no one can deny the will of the Lord of the Nine for long. They obeyed him, and I was gone…”
“So they told this Switch to turn you in?” Traya asked, an uncomfortable frown on her brow.
“No,” Willow said, shaking her head gently, “They have no knowledge of him. They left a note, as they were instructed, that said simply she is ready.”
“And they raised you to be Asmodean?” Garvana questioned, her thoughts clear across her face, trying to fit the pieces together, “Delivered by a celestial, and they thought to corrupt you to the infernal ways.”
“No, actually,” Willow smiled, a small lift of her lip, “My father told me that they did not want to make life harder for me in Talingarde. Among the Mitrans, a child growing up in a faith that was shunned and condemned… they wished for me to have a normal life. And they feared the price they would have to pay, the strings attached to the gift they were given.”
“But you have said how you were raised Asmodean,” Garvana frowned suspiciously.
“Father told me that I… found my own way,” she said with a small tenderness, “I was only a child when they found me in the shrine room below the manor. I was not tall enough to reach the stone keys, but somehow I found the shrine. My father said he had thought I would be afraid of such a terrifying statue, but I apparently I told him that I felt safe by His feet. He said I gave myself to Asmodeus, long before he demanded it of them…”
Willow’s hand instinctively reached for the pendant that hung around her neck, gently tracing the outline of the pentagram as a warmness kindled her unbeating heart.
“What that does not explain,” Pellius said coldly, drawing her eyes towards him, “Is what Switch’s motive is. An Infernal Duke is not sent to tempt a child to the way of the wicked. One with that much power, is not sent as a jilted lover to blackmail a knight…”
“Indeed,” Willow nodded, though her eyes searched his bitter gaze, “I do not have an answer. I have never seen him as an Infernal Duke. It is, unnerving to think of him so. Though he was always one step ahead of me, he has never seemed that much stronger. He has always been powerful, stronger and quicker, quieter and more nimble… but never by much.”
“Then he has been deceiving you all along,” Pellius scalded.
“Perhaps,” Willow shrugged, though her eyes still watched with eager curiosity as Pellius seethed his obvious hatred, “I could not have guessed he was such a thing, an Infernal Duke, stalking the back streets of Farholde. He is connected in Talingarde, he knows the underground in each region, he has allies and underlings in each city. But he never seemed so powerful.”
Willow frowned for a moment, before cautious words fell from her lips.
“Well, that is, until recently…”
“What do you mean?” Garvana frowned warily.
“Here, in Matharyn,” Willow said, suspicious connections forming in her mind, “When I arrived, he found me before I had even entered the city. He knew what I was here to do, and he knew exactly what I was going to find. When I asked him of his reasoning, he told me I was deceived, because those greater than me knew it must be done. But I knew that something had changed, when I watched him force a Mitran servant to slit her own throat, using nothing but his words…”
“Mind control magic… that strong?” Traya breathed, a pale sheen of white coming across her face, “That is… terrifying.”
“His blood,” Willow said quietly in realisation, more to herself than to the others.
“You have tasted his blood?” Pellius asked, a fierce control to his words, though his eyes blazed a brilliant scarlet.
“What was it like?” Garvana asked in hushed voice, as if she wished to hide the question from herself.
“Like nothing I have ever known,” Willow replied, drawing her lip between her teeth, “It was, euphoric… agonising and terrible, but more powerful than anything I have tasted.”
“Enough,” Pellius commanded, “I have heard enough. You are playing with powers that you do not understand. There is always a price for such things, and I am surprised your wit has failed you long enough that you do not see it.”
“My wit,” Willow clipped, “Has not failed me. I have not given him more than I am willing to, and I will not. But, if he truly is an Infernal Duke, do you think he would simply forget his blade? Do you think he would simply discard such a thing, leave it in my hands by accident?”
Willow laughed a bitter rasp, shaking her head, “No. He meant you to find it. Though I cannot fathom why…”
“What will you do when you see him again?” Garvana asked warily.
“I will ask him,” Willow answered simply, “Though I know not whether he will answer.”
Garvana nodded, seemingly content with Willow’s answer. She stood from her chair, a small frown upon her brow.
“Excuse me,” she said cordially, “I will be in meditation for a while, I need to… think. If Dessiter arrives, send for me.”
Traya quickly looked between Willow and Pellius, making a swift decision to follow Garvana’s leave. When the door closed behind them, Pellius exhaled a long and steady breath.
“Can you not see the repercussions of this?” he asked quietly.
Willow slowly rose from her chair, moving across the room to sit herself beside him. She reached out a gentle hand, laying it upon his cheek as she turned his sight towards her.
“Is it really the consequences that trouble you?” she replied gently, “Or is it, that by giving myself to him, that I wound your pride?”
His brow arched at her accusation, but he chose not to respond.
“Is it both?” she rasped quietly, lithely lifting herself to slide and straddle his lap, gently pushing him back against the chair, “Hell’s servants are intertwined with our path, you know this well. He may be an Infernal Duke, and he may have his own motives, but for now his plans to not interfere or disrupt our own. You are worrying about things that have not come to pass. Shall I deny him? Rile his anger, seek his wrath?”
“The issue is not that you have not denied him,” Pellius replied bitterly, eyes of blazing crimson staring into hers, “It is that you do not want to. That you crave what he offers, and I do not know how far that craving will blindly push you…”
Willow felt a salacious grin lift her lips, as she pressed her chest against his, wrapping her hands around the back of his neck.
“For now, I allow him to take what he wants,” she whispered silkily, “But it is by force. For you… I give myself to you, I offer myself to you with no resistance. No question, no defiance. I do that, for none but the Prince of Darkness himself… and for you.”
She pressed a soft kiss to his lips, sighing as she felt the rough touch of his hands graze along her lower back, as he pulled her slender frame closer to him.
“Do not be threatened,” she breathed against his lips, trailing her fingers through his long strands of pale hair, “Do not be filled with doubt. I will not be led astray by promise of carnal pleasure…”
She grinned a lift filled with satire, “It is almost offensive that you think so little of my mind and strength of will…”

As the renewed slip of moonlight returned to the skies above Matharyn, the Forsaken waited in the sitting room, by the dim flicker of the fireplace. When the last ray of sun fell below the horizon, the air quivered around them. Suddenly, a fiendish being dressed in shimmering velvet robes layered over a formal ebony suit, appeared before them once more.
“Great and powerful masters,” Dessiter crooned, bowing low to them, “Word of your titanic and historic deed has already reached my ear. Congratulations seem too small a thing to oer to such mighty agents of my master, and yet I humbly oer it regardless.”
“It is a glorious day,” Garvana replied, standing from her seat to bow in return.
“And yet,” he continued theatrically, “As great as the deed of slaying the monarch was, it seems my praises have only begun. For you have also slain the azata high lady Brigit of the Brijidine. Let choirs of the damned turn their voices into a great cacophony of celebration. Tis is a day that will long be remembered!”
“Enough with the praise,” Willow said sternly, “We have upheld our end of the bargain, yet our hands are still tied. You have promised us a way out of the contract.”
“That I have, dark and fearsome lord,” he smirked, inclining his head to her, “With the destruction of Brigit, I am commanded to take you forthwith to an audience with my great master, the Marquis of the Fourth Misery, Member of Asmodeus’ Sixth Praetorian Legion, Gatekeeper of the Eleventh Infernal Portal, Emissary to this reality, the pit fiend, Naburus!”
His eyes scanned the four of them with a shrouded shrewdness.
“My master can be somewhat impatient so it is best not to keep him waiting, great lords. Will you accept this singular honor?”
Willow scoffed, “And we are to simply trust your words? We are simply to allow you to whisk us away, with nothing but your promise of safety? I fear I hear the similarity in an offer we were given earlier today…”
“You are far too wise to simply trust anyone, my terrible lords,” he smirked, “You would not have made it to this pivotal moment in Talingarde’s history if you were not. I can see the irony of my offer and past warnings, and it is a shame my dear sister met such a fate. But it is critical that you visit my my lord and master, Naburus, as soon as possible. For it is through Naburus that you can be released from the Pact of Thorns, without incurring the dreadful penalty should you break that contract.”
He turned a serious eye upon them.
“Dread lords, I beg of thee! Do not consign thyself to the conflagration of my master’s wrath. Come with me, and stand before mighty Naburus!”
Willow looked to the others, seeing the same wary and hesitation in their faces. But just as she, they knew they had little choice.
“What do you think?” Willow asked Pellius, reading the fine suspicion in his brow line.
“If Naburus has a way for us to be free of the Knot…”
“We must hear him out,” Garvana frowned, “For we cannot accomplish what we must while we are bound to the Cardinal.”
“The question is,” Willow said carefully, looking to Dessiter with shrewd eyes, “What it will cost us…”
“My fearsome lords-” he began.
“It will be a cost he will ask of us himself,” Pellius interrupted.
Dessiter inclined his head cordially. As Willow looked to the Forsaken, they seemed to arrive at an unspoken decision.
“Tell us of him,” she said to Dessiter, calculating eyes watching the creases of his fiendish face, “What advice do you have for dealing with the great pit fiend?”
“You are most prudent, dread lord,” he smiled slyly, “For it is no small matter to stand in the presence of the aristocracy of Hell. Firstly, never address Naburus by his given name. Instead, always address him as great one or mighty one. Equally, be careful to not address him as your master. If you announce Naburus as your master, then your master he will become…”
He raised his brows, looking between them.
“And though we all serve the same purpose, I can sense that you are not yet ready to bow before this emissary of our true master – the first tyrant, He Who’s Will Commands All.”
“Be not deceived. For some, it is a grave and dangerous thing to appear before so powerful an emissary of the Dark Lord. But also be not afraid. There is no danger to thee, my lords. For you are all true and faithful servants of Asmodeus. Surely there is nothing that you have done to earn the wrath of hell. Surely thou are above reproach…”
From the corner of her eye, Willow saw Pellius and Garvana share a look, before subtly glancing towards Traya. She knew what they were thinking. Standing before a mighty pit fiend, one guided by the direct word of Hell, would seal or break their confidence in the sorcerous.
“How is it best we dress for our audience?” Garvana asked, “I wish not to appear arrogant… or weak.”
“Now that is a real question, my powerful lord,” Dessiter mused, “If you were to appear weapons drawn in front of such a mighty and fearsome warrior of the Lord of All Evil, it could be perceived as a threat. Yet, appear too humble, and your weakness would be devoured upon arrival. I speak not for the whims of my tremendous infernal master, one who wields such power has right to pick and choose his caprice.”
Garvana’s brow pulled tightly in a frown, as she looked to Pellius for guidance.
“What will you wear?” she asked quietly.
Pellius’ tall brow arched as he gestured to the callous flank of ebony steel that he wore.
“You will have to give me moment while I change,” Willow said cordially to Dessiter, with a slight incline of her head.
“Of course, dread lord,” he replied with a small bow.
As she turned to leave the chamber, she saw Traya sitting upon the cushioned armchair, an uneasiness to her stance. Willow looked over the well-worn gown, the slight scuff of use, the smudged char that lined the wrists. When the sorcerous made no move to redress for the occasion, the corner of Willow’s lip quirked in a smile.
“Come with me,” Willow instructed, ushering her out of the room, “Let us find you something more appropriate to wear…”

Though she knew well that it would not be wise to keep the pit fiend waiting, she was not willing to present herself to him in anything less than impeccable dress. She escorted Traya up the stairs and into her chambers, quick to pull free the hasty braid she had twisted her hair into earlier that morning. She led the way into her dressing room, opening the doors to her ornate oak cabinets, eyes tracing over the flashes of bright and muted fabric.
“Oh yes,” Willow grinned, pulling free a gown of blazing scarlet, “This one is perfect.”
As she fanned the long wefts of bright crimson along her arms, she looked to Traya with a joyous feminine smile. The woman’s eyes flew wide, her fingers gingerly reaching to trace over the firm and molded boning of the compressing corset.
“It is… beautiful,” she breathed, “It must have cost a fortune, I have never seen something so detailed and, delicate.”
“It is yours,” Willow smiled, an easy shrug lifting her shoulder, “I enjoy the red, but the colour of flame is intimately appropriate for you.”
Traya’s mouth fell ajar, as her hands carefully accepted the elegant gown. It was a floor length flank of heavy scarlet silk, pinched around the waist in a woven knot that branched into the stiff leather bones of the corset. A high neckline, that curved in bending pleats that layered softly upon the collarbone.
“I-” she began.
“You need to get dressed,” Willow grinned, “That corset takes a long time to tighten.”
Traya nodded her head, wide and curious eyes searching Willow’s face for the deception she expected. But Willow simply laughed, returning to her wardrobe and splitting the rows to reveal the particular gown she had in mind. It was black, a silk so dark it shimmered like the night sky of a moonless night. It fell in a flurry of wefts of ebony, a flounce of layer upon layer that flared wide and drifted in harmonious stride. The dress itself was a twisting marvel of craftsmanship, but it was the bodice and peplum that truly outshone everything else in Willow’s immense wardrobe. An armoured corset, made from the blackest glimmer of steel, intricate shards interwoven between the material to form a decorative breastplate, fit for a woman of war-waging power.
Though they risked offending the pit fiend and their other company, the results of their delay spoke for themselves. After carefully coiling her own shining raven locks into a crowned braid atop her head, Willow turned to the sorcerous.
“It is a good fit,” she smiled, looking over the dress.
“A perfect fit,” Traya grinned, “Thank you, Willow.”
“Do not thank me yet,” Willow laughed, a sinister gleam to her eye, “You are about to step into the realm of Hell’s hierarchy, a beautiful dress and a pretty face will not save you. Be strong, Traya, or be devoured completely…”

Blackness, a heavy and foreboding nothingness. Connected only by the physical touch of each other, the Forsaken arrived at their destination and were greeted by the sickly stench of despair. The darkness surrounded them, pressed upon their frames, seeping into the pores of their skin. Then, suddenly, a blazing column of hellfire erupted in the centre of the blackness, flames screaming and writhing as if they were alive and in soul-crushing agony. Cast in shadow by the inferno of horror, was a dreadful wonder to behold. A being, a fiend, the pinnacle of devil-kind. Sitting upon a throne of shattered bone and blood, a beast of almost twenty feet tall, adorned with great wings of living shadow and flame. Hollows bore thick muscles clinging to his enormous frame, armoured over by dense, bladed scales that jutted in sadistic and callous points. He bore two single horns upon his head. But these were no horns seen upon a simple beast or brute. Wider than the pillars that stood by the entrance to most temples, charred and scorned, the blood-drenched ivory carved themselves from his skull, winding in an eldritch curve and sharpened to a point finer than a blade. A bestial visage, that disguised the true horror his eyes revealed. An insidious mind, a genius intellect given the full might and authority of Hell. When he spoke, the air of authority about his voice was palpable. Deeper than the resonating sound of the tectonic plates shifting, thundering in an inhuman and unnerving echo. His every word seethed with ancient and implacable hate.
Who dares invade my sanctum?!” the ferocious pit fiend growled, in terrible fury that shook the blackness beneath their feet, “What mortal dares approach so close to the fires of hell?”
For a moment, the Forsaken simply stood in fear and awe before the mighty Naburus, his fiendish appearance a dark and terrifying omen. Dessiter was swift in his low and subservient bow towards the fiend.
“O’ great and immortal marquis of the fourth misery,” he groveled, “It is I, Dessiter of the Phistophilus, who brings these mortals before you. They come here, because they would do the will of our master upon the material plane! But they are unjustly bound by a contract, much abused by their former superior, the so-called Cardinal Adrastus Thorn. They seek justice and relief from the contract! They seek the freedom to do what must be done to remake Talingarde into a dominion where once more our master’s name is held in rightful reverence!”
The frightening visage of the fiend sneered towards them. By his side, were two snarling beasts of ice and malice, that watched the proceeding with keen interest.
“Is this so?” Naburus spat, “Do you cower behind this fawning mouthpiece? Come forward, and speak your case! I, Naburus, will hear your words!”
He leaned forward, his voice dropping lower than any sound Willow had thought possible. The sheer horror it incited, gripped hold of her delicate frame with a firmer grasp that any metal clutches.
“But know this,” he growled, “What is said in my court is heard not just by me, but the First Among the Fallen himself. Choose your words carefully mortals, lest you suer for them eternally...”
Though she felt the fear clamped upon her flesh, Willow knew what the fiend needed to hear. Though the terror he incited in her soul quivered under his gaze, she gritted her teeth against the onslaught of uneasy sickness. With a feigned confident step, she walked forwards, lowering herself in a deep and respectful bow. When she lifted, she felt his blazing eyes of profane power upon her.
“Dark and mighty lord,” she began in a strong and confident voice, though tempered to remain cordial, inclining her head as she spoke, “Cardinal Thorn is beset by madness, and crippled by weakness. Mere hours ago, he unleashed one of his strongest servants against us, teamed with nine of his furies; risking the success of this mission for his own threatened station! And for what? The threat of our power. We have ever served him faithfully, and he has repaid our servitude with betrayal. It is not the first time he has shown himself to be unworthy and unstable! The very survival of the paladin, Richard Havelyn, is a sin against our Infernal Father! We know who Thorn was before his fall to darkness, we know who he became, and we know which strings of his heart attach to his weakness. Thorn protects his nephew from the fate he must meet! The paladin actively works against our fearsome Lord of the Nine! And Thorn allows him to survive! It cannot continue this way!”
As she spoke, the savage devils beside him leaned in towards him, chattering unheard whispers into his ear. Though it was unnerving and off-putting, Willow did not allow it to interrupt her conviction.
“He wastes his time with condemning us, while the country sits by and awaits his next move! He is allowing the Mitrans time to recover and regroup!”
“And you think you are more worthy?” Naburus snarled, his scaled lip curling viciously, “You think you deserve more recognition than he?”
“It is us that has seen and forcefully guided the plan through to fruition, great one,” Willow replied, bowing her head once more, “We were the ones who took down the four pillars of the Mitran faith. We were the ones who slaughtered the inhabitants of Balentyne and opened the gates for the bugbears! We were the ones who summoned the vile Vetra Kali Eats-the-Eyes, deceived him and banished him with his abominable plague in our grasp! We were the ones who saw it to the hands to feed upon the Mitrans! We were the ones who led the army of savages to butcher the Vale of Valtaerna! We were the ones to banish the phoenix! We were the ones who slew the celestial Ara Mathra and his brother! We were the ones who abolished the Order of Saint Marcarius! We were the ones who tamed the chaos that was the great Chargammon and secured his aid! We were the ones who slew the great copper dragon Eiramanthus! We were the ones who ridded the world of Brijit of the Brigidine! And we were the ones who killed the Mitran puppet monarch, King Markadian V!”
“Enough!” roared Naburus, a growl so filled with malice that Willow felt her resolve falter.
He stared a feral gaze towards her for a moment, vicious eyes of pure evil piercing the last shreds of her will. Though she had bolstered her own confidence by recounting their victories, it was a single look that dissolved her composure.
“Impressive,” the fiend said finally, “Clearly you have greatly served the cause of Hell. But tell me, Prophet,” he looked to Garvana, his roughly haired brow arching, “Has your master not succeeded as well? He aroused you from the slump of failure. He gave you such missions, and you were victorious. That is, exactly what his position requires. Why do you presume that your success is not his?”
Garvana stepped forward, swiftly dropping into a deep and reverent bow. As she replied, she spoke with her eyes downcast in deference.
“O mighty and fearsome one, he is a fraud. He can claim no victory over deeds he could not complete himself. Were it not for us, his plan would have failed long ago. Without us, the Knot of Thorns would have broken before it truly began!”
Naburus seemed to contemplate her words, with the whispers of his devils in his ears. He turned his fearsome gaze upon Pellius.
“And you, The Fist,” Naburus growled fiercely, “What of the lines of Darius and Barca? What fate would you decree for them?”
“If they are unwilling to heed our power,” he replied sternly, his words spoken with the might and command of a true leader, “Then they will be crushed by it. Their ruin is of their own fruition. We did not incite their blasphemy and insubordination against the Dark Lord, but we will be the hand that delivers His reckoning.
Naburus’ great brow rose once more, as mused upon Pellius’ answer. After a moment, he turned his sight upon Traya, a harsh disdain coming across his face.
“What makes you think,” he seethed viciously, “You are worthy to stand among those who have achieved so much?”
Traya bowed her head to the fearsome beast, showing little sign of the terror she must have been feeling.
“Mighty one,” she said, “I have been in the service of the Dark Lord for only a short time. Yet in that brief blink of a moment, I have achieved more by the side of the Forsaken than an entire life time of self serving nothingness. I am, now and forever, locked with the path of these three. And I will be victorious with them, or be defeated with them.”
His devouring glare took in the sight of her for a moment, before it returned to glaze across them, like a wave of palpable terror that slithered dreadfully along the flesh.
“Great one,” Willow said once more, lifting her chin slightly, “We are servants of the darkness. We are devoted body and soul to the Dark Prince. I have never known anything with more truth or passion; that He must be restored to his rightful place in sovereignty and leadership on the isle of Talingarde-
“Yes,” Naburus seethed, a vicious grin lifting his bestial lips, “But, Nameless One, you are predisposed to think that way… the others have made up their own minds and come to this conclusion…”
Willow’s mind sparked alight at his words, desperately crying to ask him to clarify what he had said, though she simmered her fire and continued apace.
“Be that as it may, great one,” she continued, inclining her head, “I believe that Cardinal Thorn cannot be allowed to continue. Though he is debilitated by his weakness for the paladin, his madness has skewed his view of revenge, and has clouded his mind to see the greater picture of a land ruled by our Dark Father. He would kill every last man, woman and child on this isle. I, for one, do not believe it needs to be so.”
“You would not kill them?” Naburus growled venomously, though the sound was more of intrigue than of anger.
Pellius laughed harshly, looking to Willow with a bewildered gaze.
“Not all of them,” Willow replied, “We do not need more death. We need obedience, we need servitude. We need only so many to die that the others have no choice but to realize it is futile to resist the will of the great and undying Asmodeus. We need people to serve our new country, we need people to fear and rightfully acknowledge and respect our Dark Father. It is then, we will kill and make an example of any who dare speak against him. What good is an isle of land, ruled by the Darkest Of Them All, with no mortals to serve him?”
Naburus glared towards her, his fiendish advisors whispering into his ears. Suddenly, Naburus lifted a silencing hand.
“It seems,” he said in rasping growl, “That the leaders of the Forsaken are worthy. Be this as it may, a contract signed before the Master of All Contracts is not lightly thrown aside. Dessiter, have you reviewed the Pact of Thorns?”
“Intensely,” Dessiter bowed low, “O undying harbinger of despair.”
“And is there a way for these servants of Hell to be rid of their commanded loyalty to Thorn?”
“Yes, O lord of lash and longing,” he bowed once more, “There is a way that abides by the letter of the law. The fourth paragraph of the contract reads The Second Loyalty is to their master – He who is called Cardinal Adrastus Thorn, High Priest of Asmodeus in Talingarde. The wording is very specific. The loyalty only persists as long as Cardinal Adrastus Thorn bears the title High Priest of Asmodeus in Talingarde. If he were to be stripped of that title, he would no longer be granted the protection of the contract. He would be simply a man amongst men.”
The fiend arched his fur-ridden brow, “I see. Remind me, Dessiter, who granted the Cardinal Adrastus Thorn the title of High Priest of Asmodeus in Talingarde?”
“Why... you did, my most immolating master.”
“True,” Naburus mused, a fearsome and feral grin lighting his toothy smile, “So with a word I could remove the title of High Priest from Adrastus and bestow it upon another?”
“Your grasp of the finer points of the law remains as impressive as always, great guardian of the guillotine gate!”
“How could I do this?” he growled, a vicious gleam in his eyes, “Though I have not been entirely satisfied with the Cardinal as of late, I have had none formally petition me for the position. I would hate in this critical moment in Talingarde’s history to see so important a post remain unfilled.”
“It is a dilemma, most calamitous conqueror.”
With a subtle nudge from Pellius, Garvana stepped forward.
“I formally petition this, great one,” she said, bowing low to the fiend, “I petition for the position of High Priestess of Asmodeus in Talingarde.”
“You?” Naburus laughed skeptically, “And what makes you think yourself worthy?”
“I have served the Infernal King faithfully!” Garvana replied darkly, “I have killed in his name, I have slaughtered the divine and punished the blasphemous! I have waged His war upon the forces of good and holy, and I shall continue! I shall see Him restored to his rightful place! Revered, feared and worshiped as the one true god superior to all others!”
Suddenly, Naburus roared with the fury of a thousand centuries of damnation, a sound so filled with horror it forced a wave of fear to crash against the Forsaken.
“SILENCE!” he bellowed, “Silence, you sub-creatures and listen now to the words of Naburus, Marquis of the Fourth Misery! When I first came to this mortal plane, I listened for even one true prayer to the master of Hell. Finally, I heard one crying in the darkness. A dying fallen priest screamed out for vengeance and life. I gave it to him. I made him into what he has become. And how has he repaid this great gift? With disloyalty and incompetence. Now I renounce him! I strip him of the title of High Priest and award it to another. You, Garvana Forthwise, I name as the High Priestess of Asmodeus in Talingarde for the rest of thy life. Remember the fate of your predecessor as you execute this sacred duty! Further, I charge you to destroy Adrastus Thorn!”
His venomous gaze erupted in a blazing torrent of hellfire.
“Go forth, Forsaken!” he seethed, “And see that my will is done!”

The spiralling vortex of wisping black and white pulled them from beyond the cavern, and returned them to the sitting room within the Monteguard Manor. As they looked to one another, a shared sigh of relief lightened the weight that lifted from their shoulders.
“I believe congratulations are in order,” Willow smirked to Garvana.
“I believe they are,” she grinned, a joyous pride bounding from her face.
“Do not let it go to your head,” Willow satirised, “I shall not call you great one or mighty one anytime soon.”
“Your eminence or your holiness will suffice,” she replied, lifting her chin.
“That will absolutely never happen,” Willow laughed, shaking her head.
As Pellius and Garvana left the chamber, a small voice caught Willow’s attention.
“Willow,” Traya beckoned quietly, “I am uncertain what would come of it, but I do not think it would hurt to try.”
“To try what?” Willow asked, a frown lingering on her brow.
“There is a spell,” she said quietly, looking around quickly and waiting until they were alone, “I can recall a vision, a past event, an answer to question…”
“What do you mean?”
“Your… past,” Traya said with slight unease, “You wish to know the circumstances of your birth. The spell could reveal the truth…”
“Would I see the vision?” Willow asked, her frown deepening, “Or would you?”
“I would,” Traya replied, “Unless you can find a way to cast it yourself. Though I do not know if a simple scroll would suffice. It depends entirely on what was within the vision.”
Willow stared towards the woman for a moment. She had countless theories on her beginning, though she knew not if she was remotely close to the truth. She also knew, that if her suspicions were correct, the images the sorcerous would see could reap havoc upon the mind of a mortal only new to the workings of the infernal realm.
“You are willing?” Willow asked, “We have no true guide to know what you may see.”
“Yes,” Traya nodded firmly, “It will be good to find the answer, for it seems each of our lives and fates are intertwined.”
Willow laughed softly, “If you are expecting true and clear answers, you will most likely be disappointed. If there is one truth that is consistent with these things, it is that nothing is given clearly…”
The pair quickly made their way up the stairs towards Willow’s quarters, sealing the doors behind them. Willow retrieved a bottle of aged whiskey from the cabinet, pouring two short glasses, before returning to the ornate darkwood lounge that graced her sitting room. With the fireplace cracking wisps of crimson flame, the sorcerous closed her eyes and began a rasping incantation. Willow watched with eager curiosity, feeling her chest still and calm in its breathless state. She remained eerily unmoving, as Traya’s eyes opened to reveal clear white pupils. She could see the sway of white mist dancing across her vision, the arcane tendrils swarming back and forth, as the sorcerous’ brows contorted in rhythm. Suddenly, Traya’s eyes flew wide, a terrible fear paling her flesh. Enraptured in the trace, she began to shake, her limbs quivering in their once restful state. A look of pure horror gracing her face, sending her brows high, forcing a small and trembled whimper from her throat. Willow knew nothing of the kind of magic, she knew not whether trying to wake the sorcerous would do more harm than good. While she warred with indecision and panic, Traya suddenly went stiff for a moment, her lips parting as a desperate breath struggled to fill her lungs. And just as quickly, her eyes dropped shut as her body fell limp and back into the couch.
“Traya?” Willow said worriedly.
She was quick to her side, pressing her fingers to the sorcerous’ throat, relieved to find a steady, but slightly rapid pulse. She quickly fetched a glass of water from the side table, before finding the smelling salts in her dresser drawer. As she returned to the unconscious woman, she lifted Traya’s head and placed it in her lap, carefully holding the small perfumed sponge beneath her nose. Slowly, consciousness returned to the sorcerous. Her eyelids fluttered slowly, her chest rising and falling with staggered breaths. When her vision focused up towards Willow, her eyes flew wide in fear and suspicion. She carefully lifted herself, turning in the chair to move further away from Willow.
“What did you see?” Willow breathed, forcing the swarming intrigue to remain calm.
“I… I do not know,” Traya stammered, her brow pulling tightly, “I do not know if it was your birth… well… I do not know what it has to do with you… I do not even know what it was that I saw…”
Willow could not help the small laugh that escaped as she saw the rattled sorcerous stumble upon her thoughts. She was quick to the cabinet, pulling free the bottle of whiskey and a glass, returning to the couch with it held out in offering. Traya took the bottle without a word, only looking to her glass for a moment before taking a long drink from the bottle. As the harsh liquid burned its way down her throat, it seemed to calm the worst of her panic.
“Thank you,” she sighed.
“Tell me,” Willow said quietly, “What did you see?”
Traya shook her head slowly, “I am unsure. I saw… well, it started with a being. A, a perfect being. Androgynous, perfect and pure… but it was not alone. It was… interspersed, or merged, paired, with a blackness. An evil, not another being, but a shadow of… I do not know… it was, as if it was hell itself…”
Willow frowned, but listened intently, unknowingly clutching the edges of the cushioned chair.
“And then,” Traya continued, the fear returning to her gaze, “The being was bowed before an infernal palace, in front of a throne taller than any building I have seen… There was a shadow upon the throne, and as I looked to it…”
Her skin whited, a sickly paleness overcoming her face.
“I saw nothing but shadow,” she whispered, “But it was the most frightening thing I have ever seen…”
She trailed off in her thoughts for a moment, before she returned to the bottle to pull another long drink from its neck. She shook her head as if to clear it, before her sight returned to Willow.
“Then there was battle, I could not see passed the flashes of raw power and fury, but I watched the being fighting a bright light of holy force, a being of good and virtue. It defeated the perfect being, but I know not how or what… I do not know. I saw it destroyed.”
“What does that mean?” Willow asked, frustration pulling low upon her brow.
Traya shook her head gently, but her dark eyes of hidden suspicion stayed fixed.
“There was one final image,” she said quietly.
“What was it?” Willow questioned, brows raised in intrigue.
The sorcerous shifted her grip awkwardly over the brown glass bottle, swallowing another sip before she answered. She sighed a hitched breath as she looked back towards Willow.
“A dark chamber,” she recalled warily, “A ritual chamber of some kind. There were five, eldritch pillars in the centre of the room, circled by figures in black hooded robes. I could not hear anything, but it seemed that they were chanting something. Their faces were shadowed, but I could see the eyes of one of them. They were green… not a usual green, but a brilliant blazing green, like boiling acid…”
A vision flashed through Willow’s mind, brilliant vivid green eyes flashing in devouring hunger. She had seen them only once, for each other time black wells of unending depth had gazed back at her. Switch, he had only once lost his composure for long enough to fail to hide the feral blazing colour of emerald.
“What were the figures doing?” Willow asked, though her mind was distracted by the vicious maelstrom of thought.
As Traya’s voice stumbled on her reply, Willow’s focus returned. She looked to the sorcerer, eyes alight in untempered intrigue, a starving need for knowledge.
“What is it?” she pressed.
“They were circling some kind of… embryo.”
“Embryo?” Willow balked, her frown crushing low, “What do you mean?”
“It simply hung there…” she said uneasily, “In stasis of some kind…”
“Do you…” Willow frowned, tilting her head, “Do you think…”
“I do not know what to think,” Traya interrupted her words, “I do not know if I want to think!”
Slowly, with swaying movements, the sorcerous stood from the cushioned seat and turned for the door.
“I know I think I need to lie down,” she nodded to herself.
“Traya,” Willow stopped her, quickly walking to her liquor cabinet, finding the strongest whiskey the Monteguard’s owned, “I must ask you… Do not tell anyone of this. I will tell them, when I have had time to process it…”
As she held the whiskey out to the woman in offering, it was accepted and she was given a crooked smile and a laugh in return.
Traya winked as she left the chamber, “No one would believe me anyway…”

The sliver of moon hung directly overhead, signalling a dark midnight as it came to the land. As the intrusion of their fiendish guests had disturbed the Forsaken’s sleep rhythm, Willow found herself unable to find a grasp on slumber. Dressed is slip of silk nightgown, she slowly trailed the quiet halls of the Monteguard Manor, as her mind churned in unrest. She knew more than she ever had, and yet, she knew nothing. She had no answer to her question, she had no means to decipher the cryptic worded clues. She rubbed her red and tired eyes with her hand, shaking her head softly in hopes of clearing it. As she always did when her mind threatened to overwhelm her, she turned for the library, heading for some much needed time in prayer within the shrine room. Opening the doors to the main library, she found that she was not the only member of the Forsaken that was restless that evening.
“What are you doing?” Willow laughed, surprised to find Garvana in her woollen nightgown, sitting cross-legged beneath a stitched tapestry of the land of Talingarde.
“Trying to scry Nithoggr,” the woman scowled, “But I cannot find anymore than spine of the world. Damn divination, why is it always so vague?”
Willow frowned, a wisp of recognition surfacing in her mind.
“Spine of the world?” she repeated, slowly entering the grand room to arrive by Garvana’s side, “I have heard of that before. But, I do not know where.”
Willow’s eyes traced the sewed outline of the country, her brow furrowing as she searched the northern coast.
“I think I have heard of it, part of that mountain range,” she said quietly, “In the Savage North. But it is a vast range, and there are many mountains, it could be anywhere.”
“That is the problem,” Garvana sighed, running her hand through her hair in frustration, “Nithoggr could be anywhere.”
“It is a shame so few have stepped passed the Watchwall’s,” Willow frowned, “We have little resources to scour.”
“What about Sakkarot?” Garvana asked, eyes alight with an idea, “Someone in his horde has to have heard of the cairn linnorm.”
“Hopefully one of those that have remained alive,” Willow commented.
“We should speak to him,” she said firmly, “It cannot hurt to ask.”
Willow’s thoughts turned to the great and ferocious bugbear. Though he was a brutish and feral bestial creature, his brash humour had always delighted Willow. She frowned, knowing well who he was sworn to serve.
“Perhaps it is best that we do visit him,” she said carefully, “If we are to destroy Thorn as Naburus commanded, it would be wise to remain allied with the Fire-Axe.”
“Would he turn on us once he knew?” Garvana asked warily.
“I do not think so,” Willow mused, a small frown upon her brow, “But it is best we give him no reason to. We can merely approach him as friends, and be truthful. A word, of warning…”
For a moment, the two of them simply stared at the tapestry, eyes scanning the terrain.
“You cannot sleep either?” Garvana asked quietly, expelling her irritation in a heavy breath.
“No,” Willow huffed, giving up her search as she leaned back against the wall, “My mind refuses to quiet.”
“As does mine,” Garvana smiled wryly, “There is much to think about.”
“Indeed,” she nodded, looking to Garvana with warm eyes, “The last few days have been… eventful.”
“That is an understated way to put it.”
Garvana frowned thoughtfully, “It is good to be free of the contract. Being under Thorn’s thumb had became a heavy weight to bear.”
“Yes,” Willow said quietly, “But in a way, you have traded one contract for another by accepting your new title…”
“I know,” Garvana nodded solemnly, “But it is not a duty I take lightly.”
“The consequences of failure are far more dire now.”
“But the reward will be so much sweeter,” she replied with a gleaming smile, “For now we serve our Infernal Lord by serving ourselves. When we succeed, it will be entirely our success.”
Willow smiled, sharing the pride that blazed behind the woman’s eyes.
“We have done well,” she said warmly, a strange tenderness encompassing her heart, “We have much to be proud of. We have come along way, since that first day we met in Branderscar.”
“We have,” Garvana agreed, her voice dropping low as she pulled the sleeve of her gown to reveal the runic mark seared into her skin, “It seems like another life time…”
Slowly, Willow lifted the silk of her sleeve to reveal her matching brand.
“It is a constant reminder,” she said quietly.
“You could heal it with magic,” Garvana offered, though her tone suggested she disapproved of such an idea.
“No,” Willow smiled, a soft pride to her words, “It is a good thing. I never wish to forget failure. I never wish to forget how far I have fallen. For it reminds me, each time I see it, just how far we have come. It reminds me what we have done in the name of the Lord of the Nine…”

Far passed the break of dawn, the halls of the manor that stretched along the Golden Bow were a bustle of movement and noise. With their plan set to head towards Daveryn, the Forsaken packed their belongings and prepared to leave the relative safety of the Monteguard Manor. While the staff, who were not busy with the vampiric feeding, cooked a fine and hefty breakfast for the only living member of their group, Willow packed away the small vials of scented oils that she could not bear to leave without.
“Pardon the intrusion, mistress,” Atwood called from the archway of the bathing chamber door, “But I have come to see if there is anything else you need.”
Willow smiled, turning to the aged man.
“I believe I have remembered everything, Atwood,” she said, arching her brow, “Well, everything I can carry in a single bag.”
He chuckled, a soft and rasping sound.
“And you are headed to Ghastenhall after your stay in Daveryn, mistress?”
“Yes,” she nodded, lifting her pack as she walked passed him into the main bedchamber, “We have allies there that we must convene with.”
“Trusted ones, mistress?” he frowned, in the worried voice of a grandfather.
“Yes,” she smiled, chuckling at his protectiveness, “They are faithful servants.”
“Very well, mistress,” he inclined his head, “It seems you have a keen eye for loyalty. Your guests have proven most trustworthy.”
Willow’s hands paused as they folded her raven velvet cloak. She smiled as she turned to him.
“They are,” she said warmly.
“You are fortunate to have found such true allies in them. And they, are fortunate to have you, mistress.”
As Atwood slowly walked towards her, he smiled as he looked upon her with amiable affection.
“You shall have to forgive an old man and his sentimental goodbyes, mistress. But it has been an honour to serve you, and a pleasure to have you home.”
Willow slid her cloak into her pack, before she turned to him and held her arms out to embrace him fondly.
“You speak as if I shall never see you again, old friend,” Willow said quietly, laying her head upon the frail man’s shoulder.
“Perhaps, mistress,” he replied, pulling back from the hug to look down at her, “You are no longer the child I knew. You are a woman, destined for greatness. Your path may not lead you back where you have come from. But for my sake, I hope it does.”
Willow grinned, beaming as she looked into the wrinkled face aged with heavy lines of life.
“I will return,” she said wryly, “Who else will fill your life with the fun of undead bloodlust… and decapitated fiend corpses?”
The creases in his wilted skin compressed as he laughed heartily and showed a grin filled with sharp pointed teeth, “I am unsure how, though I eagerly await your attempt to best that one, mistress…”

The slashing winds of ethereal grace ripped against the flesh and fabric as the mysterious portal hurled them across the lands once more. It propelled them from its turbulent grasp, arriving through the cutting gale standing before the cracked and crooked wide double doors to the duke’s palace of Daveryn. When they appeared, the sound of screeching goblins pierced their ears. The small and vile creatures had been throwing a rotting severed hand between them, standing upon one another’s overly large heads, trying to knock each other over with the weight of the weeping fist. Pellius scowled in distaste, his lip curling as he looked upon the loathsome creatures. With a swift kick, he launched one of the critters that scuttled around his ankles high into the air, sending it soaring far into the distance behind the wreckage of a nearby gatehouse.
“Inform Sakkarot that we are here,” Pellius growled fiercely.
With ear-splitting high pitched wails, the group of goblins scattered and fled inside the palace doors. Willow could not help but laugh, arching her brow towards him.
“Filthy creatures,” he grimaced.
As they slowly made their way through the open doors, under a sea of glaring eyes and wary gazes, a booming laugh sounded from deeper into the chamber.
“You’ve been announced!” Sakkarot’s deep rumbling voice chuckled.
They walked through the narrow pass of the entry, stepping out into the main chamber of the large hall. The carnage that had become of the throne room, surged a wave of bile up into Willow’s throat. Corpses hung from the ceiling, gruesome portraits of blood and bone decorated the walls and floor, scavenged piles of limbs and bloodied weapons heaped in the corners. An array of battle-worn beasts and feral hungry creatures watched their arrival with barely controlled savagery. And in the centre of the heinous league, sitting upon the tainted throne, was the black-furred and fire wielding monster that led their kind.
“Sakkarot Fire-Axe!” Pellius bellowed, “It is in victory we come to see you! Word of your grand triumph has reached the city of Matharyn, well fought, old friend!”
“It is a glorious day!” the brute rumbled, grinning his vicious toothy maw, “A fine slaughter for the tales of history!”
He hefted his blazing sword above his head, and pointed it towards the charred banner that hung above his throne.
“Have you seen my prize?” he snarled joyously, “It is a fine prize!”
The Standard of St. Teonas, its edges crisp and crumbling, its flank marred by the blackened burns of infernal fire. As the Mitran king had led his army across the lands, in hopes of defeating the bugbear horde from the north, they had marched under the very same banner.
“A truly fine prize,” Garvana grinned, reaching out for a firm and masculine handshake, “It was well done, Fire-Axe.”
“It was a shame the King did not make it to the battlefield,” he rasped darkly, “But I hear he met his own death at the hands of other vicious warriors.”
“That he did,” Garvana laughed maliciously.
“Where’s the orc?” Sakkarot frowned, looking around for Bor before his eyes rested on Traya, “And who’s this?”
“Bor did not make it,” Garvana said regretfully, casting a harsh glance towards the sorcerous, “And this is Traya.”
“Congratulations on the victory,” Traya said respectfully, bowing her head.
“Enough with the sweet talk,” Willow interrupted, pulling free a bottle of the finest whiskey from her pack, “We do not come empty handed.”
She held it out to the bugbear leader, a sly grin upon her face. As he accepted it, his brows rose with his eager and feral smile.
“Come in, my friends!” he bellowed, “We have much to celebrate…”

As the raucous chorus of bestial cheer filled the gory hall, the Forsaken relaxed back into the chairs. Though the laughed along with the grizzly details of the Battle of Fallingsbridge, and they drank down the dark liquor that was passed upon the crude makeshift tables, they were not truly relaxed. Each of them were acutely aware that they were within a hall filled with terrible beasts, all loyal to Sakkarot, who was in turn loyal to their most potent and recent foe.
“Fire-Axe,” Garvana beckoned, calling his attention, “I wonder, have you ever heard of a great cairn linnorm within the savage north?”
Sakkarot laughed, “You’ll have to be more specific.”
“Nithoggr,” Willow said ominously, “The Strider-in-the-Dark.”
At mention of his name, some of the brute’s recoiled in harsh growls and hisses, turning dark eyes upon her. Willow’s brow arched high at their reactions, as she slowly brought her cup to her lips and sipped the burning whiskey.
“I have heard of him,” Sakkarot replied, shrewd eyes looking them over, “I have never seen him myself, but it is possible one of the brothers have.”
He turned from them towards the far table.
“Shagaroth Night-Mane!” he bellowed.
From the shadows of the room, the eerily silent beast of blackness appeared, his sinister stride unheard as he approached. Sakkarot tilted his chin, signalling towards Willow.
“Ah,” the feral beast slithered his grin, “The vicious one.”
“Shagaroth,” Willow greeted coldly, “Have you heard of the Strider-in-the-Dark?”
The skulking creature curled his lip, looking down on Willow with menacing eyes.
“I have,” he replied quietly.
“We need to find him,” Willow insisted, “We know he resides in the spine of the world, but we have no time to search the entire north to find it.”
“You wish to find him?” the beast snarled a hissed laugh, “Are you so eager to die?”
Willow’s other brow rose, “What do you know of him?”
The black and silver furred creature grinned an uneasy and eldritch smile, as he pulled free the rough wooden stool next to her and straddled it backwards, resting his forearms upon its back.
“Few years back,” he began, beady black eyes of hatred staring towards her, “I was hunting with the Night-Mane’s, tracking a group of snow elves,” he grinned viciously as he explained, “Their scalps make the warmest fur for the long winters, and though their meat is tough and chewy, not much else lives up that way worth eating.”
“We cornered a few in the western mountains, about as far north as you can go. Tracked them for days, across Iced Death Valley, through the frozen gorge and out into the pine forest. We knew we were gaining on them, but each time we thought we were close enough, those snaking rodents would give us the slip. So we moved through the night, didn’t sleep for two days until we found them camping by the edge of the clearing at the most northern point of the mountains. The Spine of the World, is what they call it, the jagged peaks of the ice mountains, like colossal gnawed bones sticking out of the land. Nothing grows there. No trees, no shrubs. The wind is so harsh and heavy that even the snow cannot rest. It is a desolate plateau of barren rock. The elves fled into a great cavemouth, shadowed by the peaks. They sought shelter, but they had cornered themselves. We were preparing to ambush them, figured an easy meal…” he scoffed a harsh laugh, shaking his head, “But then, the sounds came. Slaughter. Not just killing or feasting. Real slaughter, screams and cries, snarls of savagery and pure evil… sounds of terrible slaughter. We changed our plan quickly, because not one of us was eager to face the creature within. We were going to wait outside and pick off the elves as they escaped. We watched a few make a break from the mouth, but they didn’t get far. The first we saw was a burst of fluid, black like night, but vicious. Not just deadly… it ate their skin, right from their bones. It melded their flesh and bone together with the rock of the cavern, their skin shrivelled and withered on their bones before it burned away. I saw only a single flash of black from inside… and we ran.”
“You ran?” Garvana asked, arching her brow.
“Yes,” Shagaroth hissed venomously, “I have never seen something so terrible. Never seen something so big… so we ran.”
“Do you remember exactly where it was?” Willow pressed, narrowing her eyes.
“I’ll never forget where it was,” he scoffed, “I remember, so I know never to go there again.”
“Could you mark it on a map?” Willow asked, pulling a parchment map of Talingarde from her pack.
“You still wish to fine the Strider?” Shagaroth frowned, in an expression of disbelief.
“We do,” Willow said plainly, arching her brow.
The sleek and feral creature grinned a sinister smile, as he tore the parchment from Willow’s hands and clumsily scrawled directions, “You shall make a fine meal for it.”
“I think I’d be rather tough and chewy,” Willow smirked.
A hissing laugh greeted her reply.
“Sakkrot, my friend,” Garvana said quietly, “There is something else we wish to discuss with you. Is there a chance we may have a word in private?”
Though his furry brow lifted crookedly, he grinned to the iron-clad woman.
“I always have time for the Ninth,” he nodded, standing from his chair, “Come…”

As they entered the war room, Pellius sealed the doors behind them. With a swift look around the chamber to ensure they were alone, Willow turned to Traya.
“If you will,” she said quietly to the sorcerous.
What is this?” Sakkarot growled, eyes of suspicion narrowing upon them.
Willow halted Traya with a hand as she looked to the beast.
“What I have to say is not to be heard by others,” she said carefully, “She will just ensure we cannot be overheard by listening ears.”
Sakkarot gripped his flaming blade as his eyes shrewdly evaluated the risk.
“You must trust us, Sakkarot,” Willow pressed, “We mean you no harm.”
Slowly, he drew his sword from its sheath, and nodded towards her cautiously. Willow inclined her head to Traya, who began whispering a rasping incantation, as she traced delicate patterns in the air. Though they felt no change in the air of the chamber, Traya nodded to signal that the spell was active.
“I apologise for the paranoia,” Willow smiled to Sakkarot, “But it imperative that Thorn does not hear our words.”
Though he kept his blade firmly in his grasp, the tall and bestial bugbear listened closely to her words.
“We are no longer bound to the Cardinal by contract,” Willow explained coldly, “Hell has renounced him, and we have been charged to destroy him.”
“His title of High Priest has been rescinded,” Pellius said firmly, with a small glance to Garvana, “And given to another, more worthy servant of darkness.”
Sakkarot’s shrewd gaze followed their words, his brow arching as he looked to Garvana.
“His disloyalty has led him into madness,” Willow continued, “He is no longer fit to lead the crusade of the Dark Lord. We tell you this, not as a threat. But as forewarning. The Cardinal shall fall, yet perhaps, you do not have to. In the game of war, there must always be a loser. You have accepted that eventually you will be its chosen victim. But what if it did not need to be so?”
The bugbear frowned upon her words, watching her with thoughtful eyes for a moment. His lip quirked in a small and sad smile.
“I am prepared to accept my fate,” he said, with only the smallest touch of regret, “I knew what fate lay before me. And I would accept it once more if I was offered it again.”
“Before the Battle of Fallingsbridge, you told me you were sure Thorn would throw you to the wolves,” Willow scowled, “And your premonition was true. It is not only you he will, but it was us he had planned. It is that disloyalty that has condemned him. What binds you to him? For it may be what undoes your chains.”
“I do not wish to speak of it,” Sakkarot growled, a warning that told Willow she was dreading upon thin ice.
“I do not wish to rile you,” Willow said softly, “I merely wish to know if there is an escape for you. I see a great ally when I look at you, Sakkarot Fire-Axe. And I am not inclined to lose such an alliance to the madness of a traitor.”
Slowly, a smile filled with a strange and bestial warmness lifted his furred lip.
“I am bound to Thorn by more than words,” he said finally, sheathing his fiery blade, “While he lives, I remain in his service.”
Willow looked upon the beast, resignation in his stance. She smiled, though she sighed a small breath of understanding.
“Just remember,” she said quietly, “That when he falls, you are not without friends.”
Sakkarot nodded solemnly, clasping Willow’s offered hand tightly. As he turned to the others, Garvana stepped up with a determined stride, a fierce look of pride in her face.
“Fight well, Sakkarot,” she said, grasping his forearm, “And stay alive, my friend…”

As they arrived in the green and lush farmlands of Ghastenhall, the dwindling light of dusk cast the rolling hills in hollows of black and emerald. When they opened the door to the Silkcreek Farmstead, they were greeted by the points of swords and daggers.
“Oh!” Raiju laughed, grinning his toothy smile, “It is you! Come in, come in!”
The red-skinned oni laughed as he put away his curved blade, followed by the guards and servants who averted their fearful gazes.
“Good!” Raiju grinned, “Good you are back! Good you need Raiju to do something! Cannot stop the hound anymore, he’s eaten three of the men.”
“Sith?” Willow laughed, “Where is he?”
“Out back in barn,” Raiju frowned, “He almost burned down the kitchen yesterday.”
“It seems we have been gone too long,” Pellius frowned, looking over their servants with disdain, “What have you been doing?”
“Raiju has overseen three shipments from the island,” he reported formally, “Only one more to go. They left the port few days ago…”
For a moment, Willow listened to account of Raiju’s month, but grew quickly tired of the proceeding. She excused herself from them, strolling through the parlour and into the kitchen.
“I have heard that King Markadian has died,” said a voice, emotionless and unfeeling.
Willow turned to see a figure clad in dark armour, leaning against the kitchen bench, spiralling infernal glyphs painted along his flesh.
“Ifran Al-janbiya,” Willow greeted, arching an eyebrow, “You have heard correctly.”
“Then the contract is fulfilled,” he replied, nodding his head curtly.
She realised suddenly that the Forsaken had been swept up with the intensity and excitement of their mission, forgetting that the assassin was awaiting his chance to complete his contract on the king. They had left him behind, and fulfilled the deed while he remained and awaited their word.
“You are not offended or disgruntled that we performed the deed without you?”
“No,” the dark man replied, no trace of hidden anger or irritation, “It matters not whose blade claimed the kill. The contract has been fulfilled. That is what matters.”
For a moment, Willow watched the curious man. With a keen eye for deception, she frowned as she saw not a hint of it.
“And where does that leave you?” she asked, “The offer of employment still remains.”
“I shall accept it,” he said simply, “Do you have a target in mind?”
Willow smiled as she turned for the door, “Many. We will discuss the plan tomorrow. For now, you will have to excuse me…”
As she passed the frightened servants, she made her way through the kitchen door and into the small courtyard that held the path to the barn. Using her fingers, she whistled loudly, a high pitched piercing sound. When she heard the familiar howl, she felt the grin slide high upon her lips. Across the darkened expanse, a sudden blaze of hellfire appeared from beyond the red wood doors of the aged structure. A horse-sized eruption of flame began an excited and eager sprint towards her. Willow laughed as the fearsome and terrible creature leaped into the air, before arriving by her side a nuzzling her so hard it knocked her off her feet.
Dorith skath Sith, hirr mer trath,” she rasped in a calming tone, greeting him with tender affection.
She grinned a joyous smile, running her hands through his blazing fur. As she got to her feet, looking upon the infernal hound with fondness, she saw the eyes of the kitchen staff wide in fear and awe as she patted the fearsome beast as if he were a pup. She laughed, soft words of promise whispered to him, assuring him that the next fight – he would be by her side once more.

Enveloped by the weighty embrace of slumber, Willow drifted through the morning hours of sunrise, hidden from the harsh rays that lit the farmlands of Ghastenhall. It was as her mind floated in and out of consciousness, a sudden wave of blissful agony seared along her flesh. When the burning smolder of flames licked the bare skin of her chest, her eyes flew wide. A thick blackness greeted her, its oppressive weight crushing her frame painfully as she strained her eyes to see. As she tried to move her arms, she felt a force of terrifying power wrench them back into place, holding her captive in its encompassing dread. It was as if the very darkness itself held her still. It stretched her limbs wide, pulling outward in a tightening and unbreakable hold. When the agony of her joints began to cry in protest, she felt a euphoric sigh fall from her lips. As the sound ricocheted across the void of blackness, a callous and delighted laugh echoed back.
The heavy white limbs and the cruel red lips,” rasped a familiar voice darkly, “Like a venomous flower; thy teeth in flesh rips…”
“What do you want?” Willow gasped, as her words forced the darkness to wrench her limbs tighter, “What is this?”
“I had hoped…” Switch’s voice chuckled, “That I would not need to resort to such crude measures, but that warrior seems set to give you not a moment peace. Never mind him, he cannot guard you here…”
“Where am I?” Willow whispered, whimpering as the strain on her slender arms and legs forced her muscles to cramp.
“In your own mind,” he laughed maliciously, “Do not fret, sweet Willow, you are safe.”
Safe?” Willow scowled through clenched teeth.
Slowly, a figure emerged from the darkness. His feral grin the first thing to glow amongst the black, the glisten of his raven eyes bright in a sheen of light.
“In a manner of speaking,” he grinned.
A sudden burst of searing unseen flame erupted along the bare skin of her back, coursing in fierce and blistering heat that tore through the bitter flesh. She cried out, snapping her head back in agony as the burning forced her to writhe in pain, tearing upon the crushing weight that held her limbs.
What are you doing to me?” she growled.
His dastardly laugh caressed her ears in vicious glee.
“It is not what I am doing,” he smirked, “But what you are doing to yourself…”
“What?” Willow snarled, her lip curling in deep suffering.
“I have no power here,” he chuckled darkly, “I cannot make you feel a thing, I can merely make suggestions. And you seem all too willing to comply…”
With her lip drawn between her teeth to silence the groan that threatened to escape her mouth, she pushed all of her strength into freeing herself from the brutal embrace. As she tore her limbs against the force, they thrashed in protest as the darkness seemed to firm its grasp. As if in punishment for attempting to escape, the lick of scorching flame spread along her torso and unfurled along her legs. Though she knew the flesh was clean and unharmed, she felt the blazing fire upon her skin as if seared with sweltering embers. There was no stopping the guttural moan that expelled from her lips.
“Did I forget to mention?” Switch laughed malevolently, “That you also have no power here?”
Who does?!” she snapped viciously.
“Your desires,” he breathed, eyes flashing with sadistic delight, “You are in a realm where only the truest desires of your mind and soul have dominance. You cannot fight them here; you cannot hide from them. You are powerless against their will.”
He reached out a tender hand, slowly tracing his finger from her lower stomach up through the centre of her chest. Though his touch was delicate and soft, the searing inferno blazed along its path.
“What you feel…” he said quietly, an all-knowing grin lighting his face, “Is only what you wish to. What you see, is only what you want to…”
Slowly, he turned his hand, growing bestial claws from the tips of his fingers. He carefully pressed them into her chest, dragging them down at an unhurried and leisurely place.
“You bleed…” he whispered, as she saw the crimson lines where his claws passed, “Only because you wish to bleed…”
Her eyes widened, her breathing staggered, as she watched the drops of red slide down her chest. Faster than her eyes could see, he reared back his hand and slashed his claws along the bare flesh of her stomach. What came from her mouth should have been a torturous scream of pain, or at least a snarl of bitter anger. Yet, it was a single gasp of encompassing bliss. Switch laughed a feral sound of dark enjoyment, as he retracted his claws and simply lifted his chin in satisfaction.
“Have you ever heard the last chapter of the ode to the Lady of Pain?” he asked, arching his brow, “I doubt you have, for it was never revealed in its entirety.”
“You wish to read me poetry?” Willow scoffed, rasping breath through thundering lungs.
“It is not a simple poem,” he chuckled, though his eyes flashed wide as her whimpers of agony continued, “Nor was it written by a mortal servant of the whore queen. It was written by a powerful fiend, not in worship, but in a desperate lust.”
With slow and unrushed movements, he reached to his side and pulled free a harsh leather whip from his belt. As he let it unravel from his hand, Willow’s breathing hitched in trepidation as she saw nine vicious tails, laced with thin metal thorns.
The loves that complete and control,” he recited, a sly grin upon his lips, blazing heat within his gaze, All the joys of the flesh, all the terrors that wear out the soul…
With dire and cruel intent in his eyes, he lashed the whip across her torso, leaving slender trails of scarlet that wrapped around her back and along her stomach. She shrieked in anguish, as the whip licked her skin, flaming infernal rapture surging through her veins.
What tortures undreamt of,” he continued darkly, grinning in merciless glee, Unheard of, unwritten, unknown? By the hunger of change and emotion, by the thirst of unbearable things. By despair, the twin-born of devotion, by the pleasure that winces and stings. The delight that consumes the desire, the desire that outruns the delight. By the cruelty burns as a fire, and torn flesh as the bite.
With unrelenting fury, he lashed the venomous whip across her flesh, until the skin rose in rough welts and feathered cuts. She could not deny the cries of pleasurable suffering that rushed from her lips, the trembling of her chest as the aching need for more lingered in words upon her tongue. He lifted the callous whip in his grip, savage and depraved joy dancing across his eyes, as he struck out the leather and lashed across her thighs. As the pain flooded her soul; she felt tears glisten her eyes. Her head fell back, unable to hold its weight, as a contented smile grew upon her lips. Unable to resist, she bit down firmly on her lip as the callous whip laced along her legs.
Thou lifts languid wet eyelids and lashes,” he whispered, curious and enthralled eyes devouring her reaction, And laughs with insatiable lips. Thou shalt hush him with heavy caresses; thou shalt darken his eyes with thy tresses. Thou shalt blind his bright eyes though he wrestle, thou shalt chain his light limbs though he strive; in his lips all thy serpents shall nestle, in his hands all thy cruelties thrive.
Upon slow and deliberate steps, he prowled towards her. He wore the face of a curious predator, eager to seek and test his prey. Her eyelids were heavy, the soft panting breath falling from her chest in weary course. Her limbs sunk into the crushing grasp of the darkness; no will or want for release. Though the flesh upon her bones stung and simmered, she relished the ache with sinful glee. As he reached her, she lifted her head through the weakness, straining eyes flickering to find his gaze. When she did, she saw the scarlet blaze of infernal grace, and its eagerness to consume. In contrast to the cruel yearning in which he looked to her, he leaned forward and pressed a single tender kiss on either side of her neck.
As of old when the world's heart was lighter,” he breathed, soft and heated breath feathering along her throat, “Through thy garments the grace of thee glows. The white wealth of thy body made whiter, by the blushes of amorous blows. And seamed with sharp lips and fierce fingers, and branded by kisses that bruise.
His hand reached for her, gentle fingers slipping into her hair. Slowly, his hand clenched, ripping the strands of ebony locks in a brutal grip. She whimpered in delight, a soft laugh falling from her parted lips. He crushed his mouth to hers, snarling teeth raking her supple lips, his commanding tongue steering hers. He kissed her savagely, as if he would devour her were she to dare pull away. Though his lips demanded her obedience, she could not help the delicate and deplorable laugh that quivered from her throat. His kiss ceased, as his widened eyes flared with rage. Though the languid laugh continued to tickle her tongue, she felt the eager grin slide upon her lips.
“How does it end?” she purred, eyes of dark seduction staring deeply into his gaze.
Though he looked to her in vexing anger, his eyebrow arched as his lips slithered in smirk.
I could hurt thee — but pain would delight thee,” he rasped, Or caress thee — but love would repel. Only the lovers whose lips would excite thee, are the foulest serpents in hell…”
Willow sighed a lustful breath, as she slowly tilted her head in his grasp.
“And which serpent could possibly be enough for Our Lady of Pain?”
“None but the most powerful,” he smirked, “There a few beings in existence that truly understand pain as she. To be a masochist is easy, it is to submit willingly to the pain, both of the flesh and mind. But to embrace it, is to embrace a true power, for mastery of it leaves none able to wield it over you. A few rare souls who relish the pain, for the joy it brings to the wielder of the blade…”
Though his hand did not lessen the grip in her hair, his other slid around her throat, long fingers wrapping tight. With a crushing grasp, he lifted her from the encompassing possession of the darkness. His black eyes seethed with feral glee, his consuming gaze devouring her by sight. As his fingers compressed firmer, forcing her lips to part in order to draw an ounce of air, she whimpered in carnal delight.
“A servant like that,” he rasped hungrily, “Such a prize she would be. She would have the eyes of every foul serpent watching, waiting, eager to taste…”
“Every serpent,” she repeated, her voice straining against the crushing pressure upon her throat, “Including the Pale Kiss?”
Slowly, his eyes widened. He released his grip and dropped Willow to the floor. Turning his gaze from her as he smirked bitterly.
“So you do know,” he said coldly.
Willow laughed a harsh sound, rubbing her tender neck as she slowly stood.
“You expect me to believe you did not plan it?” she scoffed, “You would have me believe that you were simply so distracted, simply so enraptured that you left behind your blade by chance?”
Willow prowled towards him, eyes alight in sensuous ire.
“No,” she shook her head, “You knew he would find it. You knew he would discover the truth. What was it? An opportunity to flaunt your station? To bolster your confidence and parade your power? Why reveal yourself to him, and yet refuse to do so to me?”
His grin slithered in delight.
“I have told you,” he shrugged, calculating eyes playing in mischief, “I wish to appear at the most inconvenient time. To ruffle feathers and cause trouble, to make you doubt yourself…”
“And to make others doubt me?” she growled.
The sweet enjoyment sparkled in his eyes, as he saw her rising temper.
“Perhaps,” he grinned roguishly, “Though it is merely a benefit, not the sole objective.”
“Then what was the objective?” she scowled, “What do you hope to achieve? You are an Infernal Duke, and yet you seem to waste your time following me around? Surely you have something better to do?!”
“There is nothing I enjoy more than watching you,” he rasped darkly, reaching out a finger to trace along her chin.
She slapped his hand away, a bitter fury seething in her mind.
“Enough!” she snarled, “Tell me! You have shadowed me for more than a decade! Though it may not be long for an immortal, it is still longer than a simple enjoyment! And I know nothing about you! Nothing but lies! The only truth is given to me by those who have never even seen your face! I demand to know what you want from me?!”
You demand?” he asked warningly, his brow arching in terrifying deterrent.
But Willow had become too infuriated, having had more than enough of his sinful games. Though she saw him with new eyes, a renewed fear now that she realised the immense stretch of his power, she was too far swept within the seething anger.
“I demand,” she repeated, a fierce defiance within her gaze, “I have played along for far longer than I should have. What do you want of me? Why do you always return?”
Though his dark eyes blazed with fury, his face remained unmoving in control. He scoffed a small laugh.
“Return?” he scorned, “I never leave.”
“What does that mean?” Willow growled in frustration.
He grinned at her anger, devouring the sight of her as he tilted his head.
“I was sent to determine if you were indeed the one we searched for,” he said darkly, “And I remained to ensure you were kept secret and away from prying eyes until the time was right…”
“What are you talking about?” she frowned, “Who was searching for me? And why were they searching for me?”
“I was to await the time until your soul was ready,” he continued, ignoring her question.
“Ready for what?!” Willow snarled, vexation tainting her features, “Who was I hidden from? To all be damned, just answer me!”
He laughed harshly, grinning gleefully at her annoyance.
“For a servant of Hell,” he said with a venomous promise of reprimand, “You seem to have forgotten your place…”
“Is that what you want from me?” she scoffed, “I am supposed to bow to you, now that I know who you are?”
He smirked a malicious smile, “You do not truly know, though, do you?”
“No… but is that what you want?” she asked, arching her brow, slowly stepping towards him, “Would you want me to fall to my knees and beg for your forgiveness? To apologise for my defiance, plead for punishment, oh great and powerful Duke?”
His cruel eyes pierced into her gaze, black wells glimmering with dark and sinful thought.
“Then the chase would be over, would it not?” she rasped darkly, “And I, would be lying through my teeth…”
He grinned, the sharp toothed smile telling Willow the truth of her words.
“You will find the answers when they are ready to be revealed,” he said finally, “Though I am not the one who will give them.”
“I suppose it is futile asking who it will be?” she scoffed.
“I suppose it is.”
“Were your orders to seduce me?” Willow asked, arching her brow in disdain.
“It was not an order,” he laughed in salacious delight, “Simply a delicious benefit.”
Willow felt herself frowning, shrewd eyes looking over his face. In the dark embrace of blackness, the shadow cast deep hollows along his eyes, giving his appearance a deathly and fearsome gleam.
“I have heard tell of the perfect being,” Willow said carefully, searching his gaze for truth, “A defeat at the hands of a bright divine force… and an embryo…”
His composure did not waver, his dark and sinister grin still fixed upon his lips. He gave nothing away as she pried further into the intrigue.
“What was that?” she asked, piercing eyes flashing with livid curiosity, “What is that?”
Switch simply chuckled, delighted by her frustrated need for knowledge.
As he spoke, his eyes flashed a blazing emerald green, “Fate…”
Another answer, replaced with another question. After a moment enraptured in her vexed thoughts, she returned her gaze to him.
“Among the vast amounts that I do not yet understand,” she scoffed harshly, “There is a single curiosity that I cannot fathom. Why you would reveal yourself to Pellius…”
Slowly, her prowling steps guided her towards him, looking into the unending darkness of his gaze.
“It is a far blunter move than I would have expected from you,” she said quietly, her brow arching in intrigue, “Your wish to irritate him is usually more subtle. Marking me in ways that cannot be interpreted as anything but what they are, a male marking his territory. The simple fact that he has never seen you delights you, that much is obvious. So, why would you leave behind your blade and reveal yourself? Surely your ego is not so brutish?”
For a moment, nothing but silence greeted her words, and a vicious gaze that glared towards her. Slowly, he stepped towards her, towering over slender frame, his hand wrapping around the back of her neck. He grasped tightly, pulling her head backward, angling her face towards him. His black gaze pierced her defiant strength, shriveling in submission beneath him. The intensity in his gaze was so fierce; she was terrified and enthralled in perfect harmony. Of all the things she had expected him to do, he did the only thing she could have never anticipated. He bent down, pressing a soft and tender kiss to her lips. Though brief and gentle, she felt the pulsing terror that ricocheted her heart in her chest.
“Would you believe me,” he whispered, warm breath feathering along her lips, “If I told you, that you are the reason I left it behind. Your touch had me paralyzed within its clutches, I did not realize it was gone until it was too late.”
His other hand slowly slid through her hair, a deceptively fond gesture, one that had the hairs on Willow’s neck stand on end and a cold and feral chill quiver along her spine.
“No,” she breathed against his mouth, “I am not foolish enough to believe that…”
For a moment, his eyes searched her gaze. An unhurried grin slithered across his chin, as his hand slid down and wrapped tightly around her throat. He lifted her into the air, crushing her neck between his strong hands. His eyes blazed a fiendish scarlet, as Willow saw the flash of a horned silhouette.
“That is why,” he whispered viciously, “The eyes of this serpent, shall be ever watching, waiting, eager to taste…”

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