Monday, 10 July 2017

Chapter 44 - The Devil's Heart

Flickering strays of light danced across harsh cracks of stone, lighting the arches of crevices, casting black shadow beneath them. The low burning flames of the campfire hissed as another shattered piece of wood was thrown upon the embers. Empty hollow caverns carried echoes of sound through their endless turns, most ends of the winding labyrinth still and cold, deafeningly silent. Chargammon’s lair was never an inviting place. Yet now, as most of its previous inhabitants were deceased or had fled the inhospitable land, it was more a silent graveyard than a domain of a legendary beast. But not all was quiet and deserted. In the centre of the foreboding caves, there were a few who still remained, clustered around a stolen camp, their loud and frustrated voices filling the caverns with the only sounds that echoed in the stone chambers.
“But it is not only one dragon’s horde,” Garvana grumbled, “It is two.”
“And you believe they will be an easy capture?” Willow scoffed, shaking her head, “You will simple swim in and slay the elder wyrm? The beast who lives and breathes in water? You will swim in your very water worthy full plate and valiantly slay both the dragon and the merfolk who revere her, and take both hers and Chargammon’s horde?”
“I did not say it would be easy,” Garvana snarled back, “But the prize would be far worth it!”
“Not easy, but near impossible!” Willow laughed, looking over Pellius and Garvana in their encumbering steel armour, “You two can barely swim as it is! What are you planning? To sink to the bottom and simply walk in? What happens when the final stages of the transformation manifest? We are trapped deep within the one thing that can kill us all without so much as a fight!”
“Can you not see the gain?” Garvana snapped, “We could use the gold to equip our men with the very best! We could outfit our men and transform them into an army!”
“An army of a hundred!” Willow laughed.
“One hundred and eighty four!” Garvana corrected indignantly.
“Garvana,” Willow sighed, “It is irrelevant. Our first priority must be the heart. The longer we wait to kill Thorn, the longer he has to prepare for our arrival. He knows we are coming for him!”
Garvana scowled, shaking her head.
“Pellius,” she said, looking to him for support, “What are your thoughts? Surely you see the benefit of retrieving the hordes first?”
Pellius frowned, the crease in his brow darkening as he thought on his words.
“The last dragon’s horde we raided held such vast treasures,” he said quietly, his eyes tinting with greed, “And he was far younger than Chargammon…”
“Pellius…” Willow sighed.
“But it would be a fatal mistake to underestimate Thorn,” he continued darkly, looking to Garvana, “If he does not already realise we have the location of the phylactery, he will figure out that we seek it in time. And once he does, he may well move it to avoid us getting to it. Without the heart, we have no way of truly destroying him. And if it is moved, I can not see us stumbling on its location again. We must act on this first.”
“Traya?” Garvana asked, turning to the quiet sorcerous with a small hope.
“The heart must take priority,” she said simply, “I wish my first meeting with Thorn to be on our terms, not when one of his minions greets us with a blade in the back.”
For a moment, Willow thought Garvana would continue arguing. She seemed unwavering in her opinion, set on fighting for her plan until the choice of the others was swayed. But she sighed, pursing her lips as she looked them over.
“Alright,” she conceded, “We will see to the heart first.”
“Perhaps you can tell Jeratheon if he wishes to retrieve his sire’s horde,” Traya scoffed, “Then he is welcome to do so himself…”

“We are still left with no way to get to the heart,” Garvana pointed out, “If we do not wish to fight the linnorm, how do we get passed him?”
“We do not know enough about him,” Willow shrugged, “We know nothing but old tales and rumours. How can we prepare an infiltration without anything more substantial?”
“Can you not scry him?” Traya asked Garvana.
“I do not know enough to get a clear reading.”
“What about with that wizard’s book?” Traya suggested, sifting through the pile of tomes, pulling out an ebony leather bound book, “There was an illustration of Nithoggr, perhaps you could use that as a focus?”
As she flicked through the pages quickly, she opened up the tome and turned it towards Garvana. A painted likeness of the fearsome creature sprawled across the page, white piercing eyes of evil, callous black spikes lining his long back. Garvana took the book and furrowed her brow.  She traced along the picture with her finger, slowly closing her eyes as she expelled a steadying breath. Quiet enchanted words fell from her lips, as a soft wisp of blue followed the path her fingers were tracing. As her chanting echoed through the cavern, accompanied by the crackle and hiss of the flames, her eyes opened to reveal the glazed and clouded pupils beneath. Her chant ceased, as the vision she was given manifested in her mind. As she watched the reveal, she quietly described the images that flashed through her mind, in a calm and emotionless voice enraptured in divine arcana.
She described the bleak rocky high mountain range, monumental slate peaks jutting into the sky, higher and more desolate than any within Talingarde. She saw the cairn, not located on the peaks or slopes of the mountains, instead upon an elevated plateau shadowed by the giant bones of the land. The long stretched valley surrounding the mountains, sparse and desolate. The majestic, endless pine forest of the north retreating from the mountains, leaving only the occasional scrub and stunted bristlecone. Harsh winds sweeping through the slate, scouring and keeping it largely free of accumulated snow. Thundering rain blowing o the western sea, pummeling the grey stone, coating it in thick torrential falls of coursing water and ice. As her vision tunneled forward, her words described the unending surroundings of snow and stone. And then, the beast himself. Coiled around a pillar of stone, utterly still and silent. A serpent of enormous size, created of timeworn bone, jagged and cracked spines sharpened to points. She saw him lying atop a glittering horde of uncountable gold, silver and amber.
Slowly, the fog across Garvana’s eyes dissipated. She blinked rapidly a few times, before shaking her head gently and looking up to the others. For a moment, there was simply silence within the cavern.
“What do we do next?” Traya asked, in a soft and timid voice.
“We must prepare to meet him,” Garvana replied, wary eyes looking at each of them.
“We cannot fight him,” Traya balked, “It would be certain death.”
“He is enormous,” Garvana conceded, “He appears as great a threat as Chargammon was.”
“Then all we need is to call meteors down from the heavens,” Willow scoffed.
“Or throw a dragon of our own at him,” Garvana joked, “Even Jeratheon would not stand a chance at defeating him.”
Suddenly, a curious thought arose in Willow’s mind. Her brow furrowed, as her eyes widened.
“Perhaps we don’t need Jeratheon to defeat him…” she said carefully.
“What do you mean?” Pellius frowned.
Willow laughed in shock at the obvious revelation that surfaced.
“What is one of the main traits that define a dragon?” she smirked, “Besides the greed for their treasures?”
“They are terrifying?” Traya offered, rolling her eyes with a chuckle.
“They are territorial,” Willow explained, arching her brow, “What would rile a dragon enough to make him temporarily leave his horde?”
“Another dragon invading his domain,” Pellius realised, brows shooting high.
“Exactly!” Willow grinned, “We do not need Jeratheon to fight Nithoggr. We only need him to tease the beast and lure him away on a wild chase.”
“And you think he will be willing?” Traya scoffed.
Willow shrugged as the smirk lifted her lips, “Who said anything about willing?”

The midday sun blazed above the city of Ghastenhall as the Forsaken returned to their manor in the farmlands. They had given instructions to the black dragon to await word of their decision on how to proceed. Heading out on horseback into the city, Willow and Pellius made their way to the marketplace. With Garvana’s description of the barren lands of slate and snow, Willow searched for something more inconspicuous to wear over her shining black leather armour. In the tailor’s shop, she found what she was seeking. A long and loose cloak with a hood, made from fine white wool and the fur of a grey wolf. Should she have had blood flowing to her limbs, the warm the cloak offered would have been a necessity. But as it was, the colours of the soft cloak would offer perfect camouflage upon the rocky iced slopes.
As she made her way back through the marketplace, on route to meet up with Pellius to return to the manor, her steps took her passed a stall filled with arcane curiosities. The strange contraptions glittered with bronze linings and gaudy embellishments, but it was not the shining jewellery that caught Willow’s attention. It was a simple box of steel, fastened with a sturdy pin. As she moved closer to the unassuming box, she recognised the dense weight of lead that lined its interior.
“My lady has something she wishes to keep hidden from prying eyes,” said a smooth voice in a foreign tongue.
Willow looked up to the merchant, a lean man with dark olive skin and contrasting fair hair, sharp angular cheekbones and jaw.
“Perhaps,” she said easily, looking over the small box.
“The lead is double coated,” he said smoothly, “And it has the ability to shield even magical means of prying.”
Willow knew this already, but her fear was that what she was trying to hide was not merely some small insignificant trinket. She knew enough to know the heart of a lich was intricately connected to its owner, but she did not know if the connection was great enough to pass through the lead guarding the box. It was a precaution well worth the gold that the merchant was asking. She smiled as she looked to the foreign man.
“I shall take it…”

“It is settled,” Pellius nodded firmly, looking to the others gathered in the parlour of Silkcreek, “We shall inform Jeratheon at dawn, and head north to scout the place before he arrives there.”
“We still do not know how we are to get in there passed the dragon!” Willow scowled, “We do not know how long Jeratheon will keep him occupied. It may take us longer than we have to even find his horde.”
“We cannot know anymore, my lady,” Pellius smirked, shaking his head softly at her impatient frustration, “That is why we must scout first.”
“And if we alert Nithoggr to our presence before Jeratheon arrives?” she frowned.
“Then our plans change, but Jeratheon remains the distraction.”
“What if the heart is not in the horde?” Traya asked warily.
“I believe it will be,” Pellius dismissed, “It is wise to keep it amongst things that the dragon will personally defend.”
“And if it is not?” Traya pressed.
“Then our plans change,” Pellius sighed, “But we cannot plan anymore until we see the cairn.”
“Yes, but-
“Enough,” Pellius clipped, standing from his cushioned chair, “There is no point in arguing. It is growing late, we must rest. We will give Jeratheon his orders at dawn and then move north. We will complete our planning after we scout the area.”
Pellius gave a quick glance around, as if daring anyone to oppose him. When he heard no objections, he nodded his head firmly. He looked to Willow, offering his arm. She chuckled quietly to herself as she accepted it and stood from her seat.
“Good night,” Pellius said, inclining his head to the others, “Be ready before dawn.”
Together, the pair made their way up the stairs, entering the bedchamber they shared in a warily silence. As Pellius closed the door behind her, Willow made her way to the dressing room, but the open tome on her writing desk caught her eye. The creature of death and acid that awaited them, the painted eyes seemingly staring through the pages towards her. For a moment, she simply stared back at his likeness, feeling the creeping chill of forewarning seeping into her flesh.
“You are truly worried,” Pellius said quietly, a deep curiosity to his tone as he searched her face, “You were not this wary even when we met Chargammon. Yet, this beast truly scares you?”
Willow smiled softly as she closed the book.
“We wanted only to talk to Chargammon,” she replied, arching her brow, “Not to prowl in and steal from him.”
Pellius smirked, slow steps bringing him closer to her.
Prowling,” he said, in voice deep and sultry, “Is what you do best.”
When he reached her, Willow grinned a sensuous smile, lifting her chin to look into his eyes. Suddenly, his rough hands gripped her shoulders, spinning her away from him. In contrast, his fingers slowly undid the fastenings of her gown, she spoke in a low and husky tone.
“But when I prowl alone,” she said, “I am silent.”
Though she enjoyed the feel of his firm hands tracing down her spine, her brow refused to release its grip upon her frown.
“If I am alone,” she continued, though her voice was softer and tinted with worry, “And I am discovered, I am dead. If we enter together, there is no question we will be discovered – and then we are all dead.”
She heard his soft exhale as he finished pulling free the laces. Gentler hands turned her back towards him.
“You know there is no point worrying until we see the cairn itself,” he said with a slight arch to his brow.
“I know,” Willow sighed, looking into his eyes.
She admired his conviction. She admired his ability to simply push the matter aside until all the hands were revealed. She lifted onto her toes and pressed a soft kiss to his cheek, before turning from him and returning on her way towards the dressing room.
“Oh, I had almost forgotten,” he said distractedly, “I have something for you.”
As Willow pulled her arms from the sleeves of the gown, letting it drop as she stepped out of it, Pellius retrieved a small paper wrapped package from his pack. Standing in the black petticoat and slip she wore beneath the dress, Willow eyed the package with intrigue.
“What is it?” she asked, arching her brow as she placed her gown atop the bed.
“A gift,” he said easily, holding it out to her.
With a small smile on her lips, she accepted the package, pulling the yarn string free and unfolding the paper. Inside was an ebony box lined in silk, adorned with intricate embroidered patterns. She shot Pellius a questioning look as she made her way to the dresser stool, placing the box and its wrappings upon the vanity. When she carefully lifted the lid, she smiled at what she saw.
“They are beautiful,” she breathed, “Thank you, Pellius.”
A pair a finely crafted gloves, made from the softest silks woven into the firm raven leather. With perfectly tapered fingers lined with curious black stitching in the shape of arcane runes, and long cuffs that seemed to expand and retract effortlessly. With a gentle touch, she lifted them from the cushioned box, sliding them on her hands.
“They are a perfect fit,” she smiled, looking to him.
With a sly look of knowing, he reached for her hand, closing her fingers into a fist. She frowned, but watched with curiosity as he forced her fingers to knock on the hard wooden vanity. It would have been a strange thing to do, if not for the fact that her knuckles did not make a sound upon the wood. Her eyes flew wide, looking to him quickly. He laughed at her reaction, and grinned as she tried again on her own and laughed at the lack of sound.
“What are they?” she asked, eyes wide in eager curiosity.
Whispering Gloves,” he replied, “The fingertips are enchanted with a very small spell of silence. I saw them and thought you would get particularly good use out of them.”
“They are very clever,” she grinned, “And particularly beautiful.”
“They have another function too,” he said, nodding to the gloves, “If you press a finger to your lips, you can speak a silent word that travels only to the ears of someone in your sight.”
“Truly?” Willow said, turning her hands over to look closer at the runic embroidery.
She felt the grin slide upon her face as she lifted her finger to her lips. She looked to Pellius with eyes of mischievous delight, and whispered a few words that would make any woman or noble man blush. Pellius’ brow arched high as the words arrived in his ears. He lashed out and grabbed her hand, forcing it against her lips as he lifted her and dropped her backwards, crushing her firmly into the dresser. His own words reached her ears as his weight slowly descended upon her.
“And if you clasp them over someone’s mouth,” he rasped lustfully, “Their screams will never be heard…”

“You have decided?” Jeratheon hissed.
“We have,” Willow replied, unfazed by the dripping acid that fell from his jaw so close to her feet, “The elder wyrm and the hordes must wait. We have another more pressing matter to take care of, and we have a task for you.”
Though he hissed his disapproval, he narrowed his eyes upon her.
“We have to retrieve something from the lair of Nithoggr, the Strider-in-the-Dark,” she said firmly, brows raised in confidence, “You are to draw him out of his lair.”
The beast threw back in head in vile and hissing laughter, flaring his vicious teeth.
“You expect me to take on that creature for you?” he snarled.
“No,” Willow said plainly, ignoring the spitting sound of crackling leather as the acid that sprayed from his laughter seared its way through, “I expect you to create a distraction. Rouse his anger, and keep him from his horde long enough for us to retrieve what we need. In payment, I offer you a prize, taken from the linnorm’s horde.”
The savage creature lowered his head towards her, eyes of venomous green piercing into her, a fierce annoyance flaring warning in his gaze.
Bait,” he snarled, lashing his teeth closed over the word, “You wish me to be bait.”
“I wish you,” she growled back, “To complete the orders you are given. Draw him out, and we will handle the rest.”
No,” he hissed, daring her to face the wrath of asking again.
But Willow knew exactly how to gain his compliance. She did not need to force him, he would follow faithfully, for fear would keep him in line.
“You dare defy the command of your sire?” she asked with cold warning, “Was it not his word that bound you to a century of our command?”
She watched as fury overwhelmed his features. She saw his anger threaten to take hold and allow him to unleash his blistering breath upon her. But he did not. His fear for his sire’s wrath far outweighed the arrogance he harboured.
“Fine,” he hissed, “I will draw his attention. But then I am gone.”
“You have three days to get there,” Willow continued, returning easily to her calm and cold tone, “Do not be late. I assume you know where the beast dwells?”
“I do,” he rasped, hatred and resentment flaring.
“Good. Be there.”
The ferocious black dragon lifted his head, watching Willow for a moment. She believed in fear, she believed it was the greatest motivator of all. But for a moment, as his acidic gaze took in her worth – she felt the slightest tinge of doubt. Then he turned from her, lowering down to propel himself into the air. Before he took off in a cloud of dirt and dust, he snarled his last words towards her.
Do not forget my reward…”

The black beast disappeared into the dawning sky, as the Forsaken led their steeds back towards the Silkcreek Homestead, to prepare for their arcane jump into the white wilderness of the north. Clad in fur and wool, they stood together and stepped through the otherworldly portal. Garvana guided their journey, primed with the vision of the edge of the pine forest, far below the towering slate giants. When they arrived, the battering winds blew a steady gale, as harsh rain pelted the iced slopes. Even as summer slowly arrived to the land of Talingarde, here there was no trace of the warmth from the sun, no lush green fields or flourishing life. Here there was only ice, snow and slate. High above them to the north, were the bones of the world. The description that Garvana had given could not have done them justice. With their size, it would be easy to describe them as the stone bones of a creature of unfathomable size, trapped in deep slumber beneath the ages gone of snow and ice.
“We must find shelter from this rain!” Garvana yelled over the thundering winds, “Can we use the overhang to avoid the worst of it?”
“Quickly!” Pellius called, “Over there!”
Steps were slow and heavy, pushing against the coursing air that seemed bent on denying them movement. After almost an hour, it was in the cover of two towering ice sheets that they found momentary refuge. Though the rain still poured down along the crusted ice, the wind simply wound around the walls and continued its unending billow.
“We cannot sleep here,” Traya chattered, shuddering against the cold, pulling her fur coat closer around her.
“We may have to,” Garvana frowned, “If we cannot find anywhere better.”
“I saw something roughly a mile back,” Willow suggested, wiping away the ice that had formed along her hair, “A mound of some kind. I could not see it very clearly, but I saw what looked like an old foundation to some kind of building or house.”
“It is worth a look,” Pellius nodded, dropping his bags and pack to ground, “I shall go with you.”
“I shall try and set up camp,” Garvana said, though her unsure tone mirrored the thoughts of the others.
Traya seemed relieved to have a reason to keep out of the rain, “I’ll help.”

Willow and Pellius trudged their way back through the ever moving snow and sleet, careful of their steps as the water flooded the slate and stone beneath their feet. When Willow spotted the uneven ground she had seen before, her keen eyes searched the surrounding land through the bristled pine forest. As they approached, Willow pushed aside the built up dirt and ice with her boot, revealing the base of what was once stone walls. Carefully moving atop the foundation, she found a board of rotted wood, a cellar door lost to time long ago. She pulled her hood lower over her face to shield it from the brunt of the hammering rain, crouching low to examine the cellar. Even with hands as careful as hers, as she lifted the door it crumbled between her fingers. There was a crevice hidden underneath, a tunnel that once would have been wide enough to fit a person. But now, it was filled with ages of dirt and debris, sealing off whatever lay beneath. She looked up to Pellius, seeing his frown pulled tightly.
“I have a shovel back at camp!” he leaned in close and yelled.
Willow nodded, but her eyes slowly drew to the towering spires of the mountains. She knew better than to think of sleep when they knew so little about what dwelled around them. From where they stood, they could see the slate dome that sat atop the iced plateau, the harsh rock building almost five hundred feet across merely a spec in the distance. Even as far away from it as they were, the stench of death and decay seemed to encompass the surroundings. That, was the Cairn of Nithoggr.
She stood from her crouch, indicating to the mountains and the dome as she leaned closer to Pellius.
“I shall scout the outside,” she said as quietly as the wind would let her, “And see if I cannot find another way in. I will be back before nightfall.”
Pellius’ frown lowered, but he nodded softly, “Be safe, my lady…”

It took three hours of painstaking march for Willow to reach the clear and barren plateau. At first impression, it seemed little more than a jumble of loose stone forming a massive circular pile. It was only as she drew closer that she saw it for what it truly was. A great earthen mound, buttressed by pylons of stone, with walls that were twenty feet deep at their shallowest point. To have built so massive and solid structure, there on the high and inhospitable plateau, was a feat of no less than legendary status. She knew dragons to be creatures of pride and place, but she struggled to imagine even a dragon having the patience and strength to construct such a place.
The flat iced land of the plateau stretched wide along the foot of the over hanging peaks, sheltered from one side by the mountains that towered above. The western winds bypassed the tall structure, forming an ever coursing tunnel of powering breeze that swept along the bare sheets of slate. Willow kept low in a crouch as she approached the enormous dome, eyes struggling to pierce through the endless rain that poured, the wet drops forced sideways along with the dominant wind. Though it made her perusal far more difficult, it offered the same shielded view to any who would watch her ascent. She did not wish to risk giving away their presence, so she found a small nook in the towering ice sheets to the side of the plateau, keen sight observing the dome. It was from here that she spied a curious bulge in the rocky formation, centered in the very top of the construction. A large boulder made from stone, that only slightly did not match color of the rest of dome. It was instinct that had her climbing the slate structure, with the aid of the curious magic that accompanied the vampiric curse, her feet and fingers clinging to the rock with spider-like ease. Though she could have scaled the dome in minutes, she was far more cautious in her climb, afraid of rousing the beast that dwelled within. When she reached the crest of immense structure, she felt a small smile tug upon her lips. Her instincts had been right. Though the boulder had to have been centuries old, in relation to the rest of the slate structure, it was a new addition to the foreboding home. It stood more than twenty feet tall, resting within a large crevice in the slate. Willow narrowed her eyes upon the surrounding slate, noting the deep scratches that littered around the boulder, giving her the impression that it had been shifted and moved countless times. She carefully circled the peak, trusting the magic of her curse to keep her feet planted firmly beneath her even as the storming winds ripped through her clothing. Along the northern edge of the boulder, she spotted a small cluster of crumbled slate nestled at the base. She crouched low, using silent and attentive hands to shift the slate free, quietly opening a small gap in the stone. Expelling a small steadying breath, she lowered herself down, peering into the cavern below. It was then, that she saw him. The fabled beast slumbering upon a glittering mountain of treasure and scattered bones. Nithoggr, the foul black serpent, the evil creature of death and decay. Where the single beam of light pierced the pitch black chamber, Willow saw the linnorm for what he was. A serpent, yes. But not raven scaled or ebony skinned. Made entirely from bones of bitter white, pitted and scarred with a thousand wounds and cuts. His head was crested with horns and bone spurs, that jutted from his skull like a great crown of death. The beast was coiled around an ebony monolith, an ancient and powerful magic that seemed to envelop Willow’s skin as her sight drew to it. But even that could not draw her sight for long. Watching the beast brought the undeniable feeling of dread into her chest. She spied trinkets and riches, but she was not interested in them. They had come for a purpose. They had come for the phylactery. Where would it be hidden? Where would she have hidden it? Within the walls of the chamber? Away from the beast, but safe within his home? No, Willow believed it would be deep within the horde, somewhere the beast would protect with every ounce of his viciousness. Yet, she believed it would not be in a simple case, for Cardinal Thorn would need somewhere to reform upon his rebirth. A box, or a coffin. She took the time to steady her balance, leaning over the hole in the slate, before scouring the horde with her eyes. There were chests and boxes aplenty. At a glance, she spied at least fifteen possible targets. From her vantage point, she could determine nothing more, needing to get down and amongst the treasure to find anything further. With a final look to the terrifying visage of the sleeping beast, Willow pulled back from the gap, carefully replacing the stones where she found them. She stood up upon the crest of the dome, rain lashing the flesh of her face, wind tearing the hood from her head and ripping her hair free. As the long locks whipped through the thundering gale, she looked out along the unending pine forests. The Forsaken had fought and faced some of the mightiest foes in the land, following the most risky and foolish plans. Yet, this could have been the most risky. It was a single thought that echoed in her mind, as her eyes traced the expanse. What is more foolish, she thought – facing the Strider in the Dark, or attempting to steal from him?

It was a further three hours to traverse down from the plateau and return to find Pellius having finished digging through the old cellar doorway. When she arrived by the ancient site, she peeked into the tunneled hole, seeing the flicker of a campfire beneath. Carefully dropping down, she found herself within a small chamber, walls carved from rough stone in a place shielded from time.
“What is this place?” she asked Pellius, looking over the small recesses in the stone.
“Old,” he answered, standing from where he was unpacking his belongings, “Very old. It has been here possibly since before humans came to Talingarde. Look at these.”
He guided Willow to a crevice in the wall on the opposite side of the room, where Garvana and Traya stood. The recess housed a curious figurine, carved crudely from stone. Though it vaguely resembled a human, it bore a long slanted forehead, sharp angular features and tall antlers that grew from its head. Turning her head to look at the others nooks, it was clear that once they had been filled with similar carvings, though the long wear of time had taken its toll on the others.
“I have never heard of such creatures,” Willow said quietly, eyes raking over the statue, looking for something to spark recognition, “But so little is known of the north. Well, little more than it being inhabited by savages.”
“An ancient civilization,” Traya said in awe, “That would fetch a grand price with the right scholar.”
“Indeed,” Pellius nodded, arching his brow to Willow, “My thoughts exactly. But I fear to touch it, for it seems it may crumble within my fingers. It needs one with a gentler touch.”
Willow smirked, turning to the leather sack that Pellius carried. It was a curious bag that radiated arcana, a curious magic that expanded the inside of the bag immeasurably. Willow reached her hand in, pulling out a simple wooden box. She placed in on the ground, opening its latch to reveal the silk lining that comfortably housed three potions. Though Pellius had insisted that glass vials would be safe within the bag alone, Willow had always been more cautious. She quickly removed the vials and slipped them into her pouch, readjusting the silk to fit a single item. She returned to the figurine, using careful fingers to lift it from its rest and place it within the box. She shifted the silk around it, ensuring its snug fit before sealing it away.
“And that is why,” Pellius chuckled, “We wait for you.”
“Did you find anything at the dome?” Traya asked, a frown pulling her brow.
“I did,” Willow nodded, placing the box back in the arcane bag, “A second way in, direct into Nithoggr’s treasure horde.”
“Truly?” Garvana said, brows rising, “Did you see him?”
“Yes,” she replied, a slight chilled trepidation encasing her words, “The depictions do not do him justice.”
“They do not,” Garvana agreed, an understanding in their shared glance.
“So what is the plan?” Pellius asked, a firm charge in his voice, “Do we use this second entrance?”
“I think it is most wise,” Willow responded, nodding stiffly, “It is at the very top of the dome, an easy exit for Nithoggr. It is closed by a large boulder, but there is a gap in the stone large enough for a person to fit through. Though, if my assumption is correct, when Jeratheon appears, Nithoggr will use this exit and cast aside the boulder. It is the most direct opening to the outside.”
“And we what?” Traya scoffed, “Hide by the boulder and hope he does not see us?”
“I will hide by the top,” Willow shrugged, ignoring the snapping tone, “We do not know how long Jeratheon will keep him away, we need every second we can get inside that chamber.”
“Did you see the phylactery?” Garvana frowned.
“No,” Willow shook her head with a small laugh that held little humour, “It will not be that easy. The horde is far larger than we could have imagined. We have our work cut out for us…”

They spent the night in uneasy slumber, hidden from the barreling rain, listening to the deafening howl of the winds. This far north, there was not a moments peace from the ravaging weather. Even as inland as they were, the sound of the seas pummeling the stone edge of the isle could be heard as if they were atop the shore itself. When dawn finally arrived, it brought no change save the light of the sun. They had given Jeratheon three days to travel the skies to the bitter lands claimed by Nithoggr. And so they had at minimum another day and night to await his arrival. As the Forsaken rose for the day, they each had a different way to pass the time. Pellius had chosen to scout the surrounding forest, to find a few places of refuge, small nooks where he could hide should the dragon manage to catch his scent upon their escape. Traya refused to leave the safety and comfort of their camp, choosing to keep her blood warm in the hidden chamber, rather than risk the biting cold of the forest. Garvana was not content with the extent of Willow’s scouting, and so she took off early towards the dome, intent on finding more information on the cavern and its inhabitants. For a moment, Willow had thought on accompanying the stubborn woman, but decided against it. Close to camp there was an overhanging rock, complete with a slender shelf of ice, large enough to house her comfortably and shield her from the rain. From this vantage point, she could keep watch on both the camp and the northern mountains. She nestled in, pulling her fur and wool tightly around her, opening the tome they had found in Chargammon’s lair to the pages dedicated to the Strider in the Dark. There she spent the day, learning everything she could on the feral beast of death, watching his caverns from afar.

It was a few hours later, that a curious sight unfolded high along the sharp plateau. In a flash of brilliant colour, explosions of bright fuchsia and shimmering green erupted through the air, before something rippled into view. From as far away as Willow was, it was hard to make out what had appeared in the skies, but as she lowered her book and quickly pulled free the arcane lenses from her pack, she narrowed her eyes upon the curious descent, seeing a fur hood fall from atop what she now knew was a creatures head. A laugh tickled her tongue as she recognized the figure, falling from the skies and hitting the ground with an unceremonious thud, a spray of water shooting outwards as she landed. Garvana gathered herself, sparing a quick glance behind her before she sprinted the long haul towards camp. Though clad in heavy steel, the trip downwards was quick when it was run as fast and desperately as the woman had run it. Willow could not help the chuckle that escaped, watching the small spec of Garvana, sprinting through the wind swept slate. She strained her eyes to scan the plateau, but saw no more colours nor pursuing guard. She quickly grabbed her book and slipped it into her pack, deftly dropping from her high perch to the wet ground beneath. She skimmed towards the cellar, quickly jumping into the hole, to the obvious surprise of the startled sorcerous.
“Garvana is on her way back,” Willow said quickly, “And she may not be alone.”
Traya was quick to her feet, grabbing her fur cloak and wrapping it around her.
“What is going on?” she rushed.
“I am not sure,” Willow replied, dropping her back in the corner, checking the fastenings on her sheathes, “I saw an explosion of colour, spells of some kind I think, and then Garvana fall from the skies. She–
Fell from the sky?” Traya balked.
“Yes,” Willow laughed, “I have no idea. But I can see no one chasing her, though she is running this way as if something is.”
“Have you seen Pellius?” Traya frowned, scurrying towards the exit.
“Last saw him heading west, about an hour ago. I have not seen him since.”
The pair scaled the rock wall, looking to the north, but seeing nothing amongst the arching lands. Willow returned to her perch, climbing along the jagged ice to see higher across the valley, spying the small image of Garvana still running towards them.
“If she keeps up the run,” she yelled over the wind, “She’ll be back within the hour!”
“What about the lair?!” Traya yelled, her frown pulling low.
“Quiet and still!” she replied, tracing the plateau with her sight, “I do not see anything!”

After Willow helped pull Traya up the ice and into the nook, they waited and watched the slow approach of Garvana, eyes keen for the threat she was trying to escape. As she crested the last hill towards the camp, Pellius returned from his own trek, brow pulled low as he spied the pair crouched in the alcove.
“What was that magic?!” he yelled, “Did you see it?!”
Willow swiftly stepped off and dropped from the perch.
“Yes,” she nodded, walking to his side rather than shouting over the crying wind, a humorous smile lifting the corner of her lip, “Did you see Garvana fall?”
“Fall?” he frowned, “Fall from where?”
“The skies,” Willow scoffed, “Just after the spells. She appeared from no where and fell to the ground. We’ve watched her return; she should be here any moment.”
Just as she spoke, Garvana appeared upon the hill.
“What happened?!” Pellius demanded.
Willow could not help but grin at her sheepish expression.
“It is a long story,” she dismissed, stalking passed them towards the cellar.
“If there is anything we have in abundance,” Willow commented, trying to hide her grin, “It is time.”
The woman scowled, shaking her head before dropping into the hole. Pellius shot Willow a serious look to silence the giggle that fell from her lips, before he followed Garvana into the camp. When both Traya and Willow dropped down, the three of them looked to Garvana expectantly. The woman ignored them for a moment, while she stripped off the heaviest pieces of her armour, wiping the ice from it that had formed between the funneling rain and cold chill of the wind.
“You will have to tell us eventually,” Willow sighed, though the grin still tugged at her lips, “I simply must know the story behind that amazing fall.”
“You saw that?” Garvana said, frowning in indignation.
“Of course,” Willow chuckled, “I spent the day watching the dome, remember?”
Garvana expelled a heavy breath, shaking her head before taking a seat.
“Should we be wary of anything tracking you here?” Pellius asked firmly.
“No,” Garvana huffed, “They did not follow outside of the dome, I think their instruction is to defend the lair, threats within it only.”
“They?” Willow asked, arching her brow.
Once more, Garvana sighed heavily.
“I found another entry into the caverns,” she began, “Not quite so direct to Nithoggr, but to the inside. Actually, there was dozens of them. A small network of tunnels, leading in every direction. I have no clue what carved them, but they were everywhere. I followed one for the better part of an hour, deeper into the cavern, but apparently picked the tunnel that lead up towards the entry. But, the entrance is not unguarded.”
“What did you find?” Traya asked, a trace of worry in her voice.
“Three stone guardians,” she said quietly, “One who looked much like that statue we found in here. But the other two were different. One was carved to look like it had flesh made from rough stone, no details on its face, just crude stone. The other, had the face of a canine.”
“And the three of them were together?” Willow asked, “I have never heard of such things. Except possibly the stone skin, could it have been an elemental?”
“No,” Garvana shook her head, “It was not an elemental. It was a guardian statue, one of good and chaos...”
Garvana described the powerful auras carried by the guardians. Imbued with the might of good and the wrath of chaos. They had shouted words of pure force towards her, words in an undecipherable language, words of chaos that punished those who repel against them. They had brandished archaic blades towards her, moving in perfect unison to destroy or banish the intruder of the cavern that they were bound to protect. The words had carried such might that they had rung a piercing wail inside Garvana’s head, blinding her senses and dulling her vision. She had tried desperately to dispel the foul magic, but struggled to understand her own words as they fell soundlessly from her mouth. Her arcane tricks had failed as the three had converged upon her, leaving her little choice but to flee out of the entrance. They blocked her exit with their raging swords, and so she had turned herself to gas to slink threw their offence. But she had not counted on the powerful wind that thrashed along the plateau. In the form of mist, she was swept away and forced high into the air, no way to fight its course that moved above the dome.
“The statues followed me to the exit,” Garvana continued, “I could not hear anything, but I saw the blasts of magic. If the wind had not been so strong, I would have been hit. But I could not fight the wind, it was moving to fast and pushing me too high… so I had to transform back…”
“Are you hurt?” Willow asked warmly, though the way she bit her lip to contain her laughter deceived her caring words.
“I am fine,” Garvana snapped, lifting her chin, “But I recommend we do not try getting in that way.”
Willow grinned, unable to stop the soft laughter, “Perhaps that is best…”

It was deep into the darkness of night when the Forsaken were shaken from their sleep. The ground trembled beneath them as Willow’s eyes flickered open, to see Traya who had been awake and on watch, standing by the overhead entrance, looking up with wide eyes. Footsteps, from the sounds of a dozen creatures, heavy and thundering, but slow and methodical pace. Willow quickly threw off her blanket, grabbing hold of her blades that lay by her side. The Forsaken were trapped. Enclosed within a small room with only a single way out. With a swift look to the others, Willow pulled free a scroll from her case and motioned to each of them. Though Garvana and Traya nodded, quickly moving to her side, Pellius shook his head firmly, gripping his blade defiantly. Willow rolled her eyes, signalling her impatience, yet he simply shook his head again. She scowled under her breath, but quietly read the words of the scroll and transported the three of them up into the hidden alcove she had spent the day in. Trepidation set in swiftly. Six curious shaped earth elementals, shaped in a form that vaguely resembled humans. They were slowly shuffling around the foundation that once housed a building, speaking in voices that crackled like grinding stone. As one moved towards the cellar door, Garvana stood from her crouch.
“What are you doing here?” Garvana snapped, “What do you want?”
Only one of the beings bothered to look towards her, at least, Willow assumed it looked towards her. Where its face should have been, was simply portion of rough stone with no features. Grinding stone greeted her, no words they could understand. Traya reached out and lay her hand on Willow’s shoulder, whispering an incantation under her breath. Suddenly, the rustling stone morphed to crudely strung together words that Willow could understand.
“Shelter?” said one of the stone shapes, in a questioning tone.
“Defilers?” growled another, in a more accusatory voice.
Yet, they did not attack, nor seem bothered by the presence of those who stood above them. Slowly, two of them sank beneath the surface, moving towards the centre of the cellar.
“Have we done something to offend?” Willow asked, assuming she had understood the magic correctly.
“Shelter?” repeated the being.
“Defilers?” chimed in the other two left above the surface.
As one of them leant forward and lay its hand upon the stone foundation, hovering for a moment as if listening to something Willow could not hear, points and clues seemed to connect and align in her mind. Defilers, they had said. To damage or mar a place or person. Perhaps, she thought, her assumption had been correct. The guardians Garvana had awoken, she had described one looking much the same as the creatures that stood before them. She made slow movements as she dropped to the ground, keeping her intentions clear as she slowly made her way towards the cellar. When she dropped into the small cavern, she heard the ground shifting as the other beings followed her through the earth, squeezing into the chamber with the two already there. But Pellius was no where to be found.
“Pellius,” Willow said carefully, a sudden worry now she was encased in such a small chamber with six massive earthen beasts, “I need the figurine we took. Quickly.”
For a moment, all was eerily still, as Willow’s panic began to rise. But just as she thought on her slender chance of possible escape, Pellius rippled into sight beside her. Though he looked to her in an uncertain glance, he pulled the wooden box from the arcane bag. He handed it to Willow, who slowly unfastened the latch and carefully opened the lid. When the beings saw the statue within the silk, a rumble of grinding stone that sounded much like growls filled the chamber. Willow slowly made her through the throng of elementals towards the crevice where the statue once lay. With cautious hands she lifted it from the box, replacing it where they found it, laying it on its side just as it had been. As she stepped back from the crevice, hoping her hunch had been correct, she returned by Pellius’ side and awaited their fate. One of the beings reached out its hand, touching the stone carving with an almost loving gesture. It paused for a minute, once again listening to something that Willow could not here. It turned to the others, speaking only a single word.
“Complete,” he rasped.
With no more emotion or reaction, they turned into the walls and disappeared beyond the stone. For a moment Willow and Pellius simply remained where they were, in silence they listened to the fading sound of crumbling rock.
“Very clever, my lady,” Pellius commented, brows still high and wary.
“Very lucky,” she replied, with a half hearted chuckle.
When Garvana and Traya returned to the underground chamber, they looked perplexed and suspicious as the spied the empty room.
“Are they gone?” Garvana asked.
“I believe so,” Willow shrugged.
“What did they want?” Traya frowned.
“Their statue,” Willow replied, indicating to the figurine back on its shelf, “I think they are accepting of us resting here, but not to touch or break anything. They were questioning if we were using the cellar for shelter or if we had come to defile the place.”
“They just left after you put it back?” Traya scoffed, “And we are expected to sleep soundly here tonight?”
Willow laughed, turning to the sorcerous with an arched brow, “And do you have any better ideas?”

As the sun lifted from the horizon and the Forsaken emerged from the cellar, the sound of enormous wings blowing gusts of air powerful enough to strip bristles from the pine trees caught their immediate attention. Jeratheon, the seething black dragon circled low over their position, battering them with waves of loose branches and pinecones. Willow looked up to the beast, pressing her finger to lips and speaking into the silence of the magic gloves.
“Wait until we reach the dome,” she said, pointing with the other hand towards the foreboding stone structure, “Then draw the beast away.”
The vicious dragon nodded stiffly, snarling to show he was still displeased with his part in the plan, before taking off towards the south to await their signal. With a last check of their gear and weapons, the Forsaken gathered together, hands upon each other’s shoulders. With a final glance to one another and a slow shared steadying exhale, the magic whisked them away, through the coursing portal and up to the iced plateau. It was there that they split up, Willow quickly and quietly scaling the rocky dome while the others found their own places to hide from the beast as he emerged from his slumber. When she arrived at the top, she lowered herself into a jagged crevice in the slate, lying flat upon the surface – ready and waiting to pounce. When the roar of the young black dragon echoed across the expanse, the hairs on Willow’s neck stood on end. The anticipation built within her, as she watched the boulder with enraptured attention. Jeratheon snarled out another frightening roar, the sound of his beating wings passing overhead, before he turned for the west and began to make his way out to sea. Suddenly, the boulder was thrown from its rest, barrelling down the side of the dome. Willow cursed under her breath, swiftly rolling out of its path, keeping as low as she could. It was then that the feral beast arose from the dome, glaring white eyes piercing the skies, his large nostrils flaring wide as he sniffed for the scent of his prey. As he took off into the sky, Willow felt the fear and repulsion slither along her skin, as he moved in absolute and utter silence. Once he had travelled far enough away, she swiftly pounced towards the gap, taking a deep breath into her still and useless lungs before taking the leap to jump down into the darkness below.

The small glimpse from above that she had seen could not have truly told the story of the piled wealth that she fell upon. Glittering gold, shining silver and smouldering amber filled the chamber. Heaped upon itself, spilling to the edges of the cavern, more wealth than Willow had ever seen in one place. This horde differed vastly from the carefully arranged prize of Eiramanthus. The copper dragon had garnered his wealth and treasures with pride, meticulously organising each section. He had grouped together matching piles of silver, boxes filled with gold, special trinkets upon their own pedestals. He showed respect and admiration for each individual piece, cherishing the story of its attainment along with the prize itself. But here, this was a horde fuelled by nothing more than greed. The legendary greed of a draconic fable. There was no order among his treasures, broken chests pouring their contents into the fray, scattered pieces of armour and silk torn between and buried beneath buckets of coins and the unbearable weight of metals. The bones of countless creatures scattered amongst the treasure told the fatal ending of any man or beast foolish enough to enter the great Strider in the Dark’s lair. There was no order or care here, just an insatiable need to collect more and add to the teetering pile of treasure.
It was hard to keep concentration on the task at hand. Willow had never considered herself possessed by greed, but standing in the presence of such immense riches took more self control than she would have liked to admit. As the sound of Garvana and Pellius dropping from above echoed behind her, Willow snapped out of her dream, shaking her head quickly as she scanned the room. While Traya waited above and watched for Nithoggr’s return, the three of them set out into the treasure horde to begin their search. Willow had thought long and hard on where the heart was most likely to reside. With her momentary vision of the horde, she had thought over all she had seen. She was sure it would be buried deep within the gold heaps, keeping it safe from accidental discovery or destruction under the dragons weight. She was also sure it would be disguised as something simple and unassuming. She had seen many chests big enough to serve as a coffin, but one plain wooden box stood out in her memory. She had only seen the corner of it, the rest buried deep within the mountain of coins. But from what she had seen, it fit every piece of her assumption. Her eyes scanned the horde, widening as she saw her target, laying at the foot of the great stone monolith in the centre of the chamber. Though she ached to inspect the curious pillar that radiated such strong and powerful arcana, she pursed her lips as she decided against it, keeping her attentions on the pine box. She deftly climbed the crumbling pile of gold, using all of her strength to sweep off wave by wave of coins from her goal.
“Are you sure this is it, Willow?” Pellius called, scrabbling atop the heap to aid her in clearing the coin.
“No,” Willow growled, hefting another wave from the box, “But it is the best guess I have.”
“You are usually right,” he laughed, giving her a wink as he pulled the corner of the box, shifting it further into the open.
She could hear the rasping incantations falling from Garvana’s lips, as the woman’s eyes glazed over in white magic.
“I think you are,” Garvana said, “There is something in there. Immensely powerful, a treasure of the utmost evil.”
“That sounds like it,” Willow chuckled, heaving more gold from the top.
“I HAVE LOST SIGHT OF HIM!” Traya called from above.
“Quickly,” Willow rushed, “We must not dwell here long.”
With another heave from Pellius, they had the wooden box half way out of the golden mountain, but not far enough to get it open. Willow heard Garvana skittering around the horde, throwing treasures into her bag, using her seeing magic to find the most powerful and arcane treasures amongst them. As she swept another cascading flood of coin from atop the box, she swore as only more seemed to fall from above it.
“Damn it to hell!” she cursed.
“Help me pull it!” Pellius commanded, heaving with the box firm in his grip.
As she made it to his side, they grasped a corner each and hauled backwards.
HE IS COMING BACK!” Traya cried, terror shaking her voice, “YOU MUST HURRY!”
Willow and Pellius shared a look, swiftly nodding to one another. They gritted their teeth and pulled with all of their combined might, throwing themselves backwards. It was enough, and all at the same time, too much. The heaved the box free, but their momentum could not have been stopped. They were flung backwards from the wooden crate, skidding along the coin and bone, as the box sailed down the side of mountainous heap. Willow pounced up to her feet, scrambling atop the coin towards the box, unable to stop the smile that rose upon her lips. It was not a simple crate or box they had been hauling, it was a coffin. She flung the lid open, the wood smashing against the metal beneath, flinging splinters of wood across the horde.
“HOW LONG TRAYA?!” Pellius yelled.
The coffin was lined with soft silks and luxurious satins, cushioned paddings sewed into the intricate walls with gold threaded embroidery. Though the return of the beast was imminent, and Willow should have been crushed by fear and urgency – for a moment, she was calm and enraptured. Laying inside the box, were two glass vials filled with curious liquid, a silver pendant bearing the star of their dark lord, and small finely wrought golden chest. As if in a haze, alone within the chamber, Willow hands reached for the chest. With careful fingers, she opened the case and a fire of determination lit within her. Held within by sharp metal wire, was a withered and burned human heart, pierced by vicious iron thorns. This was their prize. This, was what they needed to fulfil their duty to their undying lord. The phylactery of the treacherous lich, the heart of Cardinal Adrastus Thorn.
Suddenly, time returned in a rush of spiralling vision.
“GET DOWN HERE, TRAYA!” Pellius yelled, “WE HAVE IT!”
TOO LATE!” she screamed, utter terror echoing her words, “HE IS HERE!”
Willow clamped the small golden chest closed, head spinning to the others. She threw the box into her pack and started sprinting towards Pellius. As she passed, a calico sack filled with spilled amber chunks caught her eye. She scooped it up with her free hand, before leaping over a fallen chest in her way. Suddenly, the massive dome shook beneath them, the glittering mountain trembling as it scattered its sliding coin. A voice from above, filled with raw and devouring hatred and fury, a bitter sound that pierced a freezing chill along Willow’s spine.
VA’ROKKA!” seethed the voice in consuming malice.
The ancient draconic word for thieves spat towards them, as Willow’s sight drew upward towards the crumbled opening in the dome. What she saw, forced her steps to falter. When hidden by shadow or obscured by pelting rain and snow, the beast merely seemed a gargantuan foreboding mystery. But as it descended upon them, its serpent bone body creaking as the osseous jagged matter glided together, Willow felt the truth of fear sink deep into her chest. Eyes that shined a bloodied crimson, seething with pure and unadulterated venom, glaring a hatred more vile than any that she had seen before. They had offended the linnorm in the most atrocious of ways. Instead of facing the beast in valour and honour, they had squirmed into his home and defiled his most precious and sacred place. They had dared to try and steal from him. For a moment, Willow’s feet were paralysed amongst the glittering coin beneath her. Though she heard the panicked and rushed footsteps of Garvana and Pellius charging towards her –for a moment, she could do nothing but cower beneath the approaching dragon.
The few seconds that followed, passed like years eternal. Willow’s hands felt weak as they fumbled in her scroll pouch, desperately reaching for the edge of parchment, dragging it free through the leather opening as the beast drew nearer. She felt the weight of Pellius’ hand grasp her shoulder, a second before Garvana’s did the same. She warred with her eyes to draw away from the dragon, words stumbling from her mouth as she stuttered the incantation. The feral creature’s maw opened wide as he plunged down from the ceiling, a hundred sharp and jagged teeth larger than her arms glistening in the rays of light from above. Time was counted in heartbeats, though none echoed from their chests. With one beat, the words finally whispered their way from her lips. With two beats, the beast’s open jaw lunged at her. With a third thundering beat, the maw snapped shut with the force of bone shattering compression. Yet it simply crushed through thin air. The coursing vortex of magic tore upon their flesh as it hurled them through the spiralling portal, dropping them out carelessly into the small cellar beneath the ground in the pine forest. As the three of them were thrown to the stone floor, Nithoggr’s ire was heard in a soul-crushing roar that shook the ground around them. They looked to one another, wide eyes struggling to exude relief as the shattering of rock and stone echoed across the frosted expanse.
“Do you have it?” Garvana rushed, flinching as another eruption of stone trembled.
Willow quickly pulled the clasp of her pack open, sighing a heavy breath to see the glittering gold chest within her bag.
“Yes,” she nodded, throwing a glance around the room, “But where is Traya?”
“She must have retreated to the manor,” Pellius said quickly, “I would advise us to do the same. Now.”
Suddenly, the earth rumbled as sounds of exploding stone and thundering blasts of enormous debris rained upon the slate valley. As they huddled together and the enchanted words sang in the small chamber, they were gifted with a final warning before the portal whisked them away.

I WILL FIND YOU VILE SCUM!” Nithoggr roared in vicious promise, “AND MAKE YOU SUFFER FOR AN ETERNITY…

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