Monday, 10 July 2017
Chapter 45 - Infernal Sanctuary
Wisping cracks that bellowed like lashing fire, ripping currents echoing in a battering flood like an ocean crashing upon stone, ear-piercing wails like the cry of a thousand souls. And then, silence. What had been deafening, had become serene and still. Where the atmosphere had been crushing in its oppressing weight, in an instant it had eased and relented. The Forsaken had stepped through the arcane portal, leaving behind the terror and deathly place that was the Cairn of Nithoggr, and stepped out into the safety and warmth of the parlour at Silkcreek. Garvana, Pellius and Willow appeared in the flame lit chamber, to see Traya pacing back and forth in anticipation. As she sorcerous saw them, she sighed in relief.
“You have what we went for?” she asked, wary of the servants within earshot.
“We do,” Willow nodded, dropping her pack upon the oak small table, along with the calico sack filled with chunks of raw and unworked amber.
“Leave us,” Garvana commanded the servants harshly, “We are not to be disturbed.”
The two women that had been cleaning the shelves in the parlour, had jumped back in fright when the three of them had suddenly appeared. They were quick to bow their heads and obey their orders, scurrying to the doors before sealing them closed behind them.
“You are unscathed?” Traya asked, looking over them.
“Barely,” Garvana scoffed, eyes wide as she shook her head.
“And the beast?”
“Furious and seething,” Willow replied, a small smile lifting the corner of her lip.
“Can he track you here?” Traya frowned.
“Not this far south,” Pellius said confidently, “Our scent shall vanish at the campsite.”
Willow chuckled as she unlaced the white fur cloak she wore, dropping it upon the leather couch, “Though we would do well to not revisit him anytime in the next century.”
“I had not planned to,” Traya smirked.
Willow grinned towards the sorcerous, before the smile faltered as her eyes drew to her leather pack. She approached it slowly, her lips drawing to a purse as she knelt down in front of the small table. With careful fingers, she unlatched the metal clasp, opening the flap to reveal the shimmering gold box hidden within. As the fire light pierced a ray along the shining surface of the box, hitting the carved patterns and reflecting it back in a spiral of glimmers along the parlour walls, the others fell silent in what could only be trepidation. With almost timid hands, Willow reached into the pack and pulled free the small yet heavy finely wrought golden chest, setting it down upon the table. She slowly lifted the lid, revealing the withered and charred human heart, pierced by razor sharp iron thorns.
“The Devil’s Heart,” she whispered, her fingers instinctively recoiling from the box.
For a moment, the chamber was quiet. The Forsaken simply gazed upon the decayed heart, curious eyes scouring the bloodless vessel. Though vile and repulsive, it did not seem the great artifact of evil that they knew it to be. It did not incite anger or fury, just a simple touch of pity. It was the heart of a soul so consumed in hatred, so enraptured in anger and vengeance, that its owner gave away every ounce of his humanity. And yet, as Willow’s mind curved along the dark and twisted story of Cardinal Adrastus Thorn, she could not help but see the similarities of their tales. Two souls condemned to death, rescued and given a second chance. Two souls battling to the last of their strength to see their almighty and undying lord reign supreme upon the mortal planes. Though they shared much, still they turned upon one another. She could console herself with the knowledge that it was his madness that had driven him to suspect disloyalty where none had lain. His unquenchable thirst for destruction and revenge had tainted his sight and forced him to see enemies among his own number, among his own servants. And it was for this, that he had to die. It was the unhealthy obsession with revenge even where it was not fit to be served. Yet, he had saved them. He had given them another chance at their vengeance, another chance to prove themselves worthy. He had lifted Willow from the furthest she had ever fallen, from the premature death, having accomplished nothing even worthy of note. He had paved the way for her victory, he had guided her to the path she was to walk in the name of the great Asmodeus. It was with a bitter turn of her tongue that she realized, his usefulness had expired.
“Do we destroy it now?” Traya asked quietly, interrupting the silence that hung in the room.
“Not until we are certain of our next move,” Pellius said sternly, “We must not give him a chance to recreate it. This is the one thing that will assure our victory, we must not play our hand until the time is right.”
As the metal clicked as Willow closed the lid to the small chest, a strange familiar smell wafted through the room. Suddenly, in flash of hellfire and brimstone, a beastly visage appeared within the chamber. Standing far larger than an ogre, scaled in crimson plates bristling with barbs and razor-sharp layered scales. Its massive head crowned with cracked horns, only matched in number by the vicious fangs that fell from its venomous maw. Two jagged wings draped from its back, leathery webs edged with sharp dagger-like bone-spurs. Clutched in its hand was a vile heavy chain of wrought iron, littered with hooks and barbs draped with caught scraps of flesh and stained dark by blood. The wickedness of fire in his eyes lifted his wry smile as he spied the Forsaken. In the blink of an eye, Willow snatched the golden box from the table, throwing it to the chair behind her as she backed up and drew her blades. As the others followed suit, the fiend did something that none of them could have expected.
“Wait!” he called out, throwing his hands out to halt them, “Thorn has sent me, but I do not wish to attack you. If you wish to speak, you must help me with three tasks. First, bring before me something I can kill. Quickly now!”
All eyes in the room narrowed upon him, blades primed to carve through flesh. But for a small time, none moved towards him.
“Jonah!” Garvana called aloud, as her slow steps took her warily towards the door, keeping her sights on the devil, “Get in here, now!”
As the young servant quickly entered through the door, the colour washed from his face as he saw the towering beast that awaited him. The loud thud of the door slamming shut seemed to crush into chest, as the terror overwhelmed the small man. Before he had time to turn to flee, the devil grinned in feral glee. He launched towards the poor soul and cleaved his vicious claws through the weak flesh in a shower of blood that cascaded throughout the chamber. It was with relish and joy that he devoured his victim, too quickly for even a cry to escape the lips of the man before he was splayed before the Forsaken.
The beast turned towards them.
“Now that you have seen me slay something,” the fiend grinned, wiping blood from his scaled chin with his forearm, “Would you all agree that you have been taught a lesson in bloody slaughter?”
Willow’s brow arched, as her mind slowly followed the devil’s curious behavior.
“Indeed,” she said in satire, “The harshest lesson.”
“Very good,” he smiled shrewdly, looking between each of them, “Lastly, all of you must prick your fingers and let me taste your blood.”
The other brow was quick to follow the first. Though the devil spoke with a casual ease, as if he were asking a mere question, Willow knew the power of a human’s blood to a devil. Yet she was undeniably curious. It was with eyes that narrowed tightly upon him, staring back into his deep and sinful gaze, that she sliced her finger with her blade, squeezing the bare taste of cold congealed and blackened blood, holding it out to him. His tongue lashed like a serpent, coiling around her finger as it slid across the dark taint. When the others offered the same, the devil turned to them with a sly and wicked grin.
“Delicious,” he rasped, with a prideful tone, “I have done as my master commanded me. I have found you. I have slain. I have taught you a lesson in bloody slaughter and tasted your blood. My mission is near its end. I must also report back and bring him his phylactery, but he didn’t specify when. I think I’ll get right on that in a century or two… assuming the master still survives.”
The fearsome devil stretched out, powerful muscle rippling beneath hard scale. He sported a toothy smile, clearly pleased with his own guile.
“It is my understanding that Naburus has appointed one of you the new high priest of Asmodeus. Is this so?”
“It is,” Garvana said warily.
“Hah!” the devil grinned gleefully, “Excellent. Send the Marquis of the Fourth Misery my regards when next you see him.”
“And whose regards are those exactly?” Willow asked, arching her brow.
As he spoke, the Forsaken slowly sheathed their weapons, though Willow refused to move any further away from the phylactery she guarded behind her.
“Ah, pardon my rudeness,” he said dramatically, inclining his head, “I am Zaerabos, Emissary of the Duke Zaebos, exalted and immortal lord of the seventh suﬀering. And you all need no introduction, I have heard much of your deeds and long desired to meet you. Lord Pellius Albus, The Fist. Lady Garvana Forthwise, The Prophet. Lady Willow Monteguard, The Nameless One. And the newest of your illustrious rank, Lady Traya DeMarco, one who is yet to earn her name…”
He looked over them as he spoke, clearly holding much more knowledge on the four of them than he said. But as he did, he smiled.
“Truly you serve Hell well, and I admire the many atrocities you have authored in your wake. I have just come from the Agathium. It is Thorn’s belief that you will be visiting him shortly. Is this so?”
“We have a few things to discuss with the master, yes,” Willow said slyly.
Zaerabos laughed, “No doubt it will be a grand family reunion.”
“While it is a pleasure to meet you, Zaerabos, Emissary of the Duke Zaebos,” Willow said cordially, with only a touch of acid, “I assume you have concocted a way around Thorn’s orders for a purpose, not merely a polite chat with new friends.”
The devil grinned as his sight drew to her, looking her up and down with a slight tilt of the head.
“The lashing tongue I have heard so much about,” he said quietly, before inclining his head once more, “You are correct of course. I have come to make a deal. As I said, I have just come from the Agathium, a place that I have spent much time. A place, you are planning to infiltrate. I know the location and layout of the cathedral, and I know much of those who dwell within its walls. I could provide you with much to arm yourselves with before you take on such a task.”
“Such things sure come at a high price,” Willow commented, arching her brow.
“Not a high one,” he smirked, “But a fair one.”
Zaerabos strung his great chain on his hip, clasping his hands behind his back in a relaxed position. He smiled, continuing easily as he spoke.
“I ask two things. First, Thorn possesses a silver amulet with something dear to me inscribed upon it. I will require a solemn oath that you will return the locket to me, unopened, unread and unscryed.”
“What is on this amulet?” Garvana frowned.
Before Zaerabos could answer, Willow replied for him.
“The means for Thorn to send him to us,” she said, a small smile lifting her lip.
The devil eyed her for a moment, an intensity in his gaze although his grin never faltered.
“The second thing I require,” he continued, “Is a place on the council of whatever kingdom you establish once you have taken control of Talingarde.”
“What would you want with that?” Garvana asked, her frown burrowing in suspicion.
“You are devoted servants to the darkest power of them all,” he said earnestly, “You are primed to overthrow a country dedicated to the enemy, and raise the Undying God-Fiend in his place. What servant of hell would not wish to be part of such a noble and legendary venture?”
“Quite a shining notch to add to your belt,” Willow smirked, “To have had a hand in such a thing. But what is it you could do for us upon the council? I see no fault in trading the amulet for information on the Agathium, but a long standing position of power in the running of Talingarde? What benefit would we gain from it?”
“I would make a fine assassin,” he said with a toothy grin, “Just be sure to be specific with your orders.”
“Specific, detailed and exact,” she scoffed.
“Precisely,” he grinned.
Willow turned to the others, brows arched high. She gave a gentle shrug as she spoke.
“If the information on the Agathium is as useful as he claims, I see no reason to not accept his offer.”
“I would add a clause,” Pellius said coldly, “That under no circumstance would you aim to do the four of us any harm. That any orders given or contracts taken, anything pertaining to one of us being harmed, the orders be made void. That your position on the council be valid only as long as your loyalty to us remains.”
“That is fair,” the devil nodded.
Pellius frowned heavily, shrewd eyes tracing over the fiendish creature. The distrust was clear in his face, but it seemed that he too could not fault the possible gain from agreeing with the devil. As he nodded, so too did Garvana and Traya.
“We have a deal,” Willow said, “The location of the Agathium, a sketch of the layout and everything you know about every person or creature, alive or undead, who resides within its walls – for a position on the council of the new reign of Talingarde, granted valid only as long as your loyalty to us stands, and the return of your amulet.”
“Unopened, unread and unscryed,” he insisted, arching his scaled brow.
“Unopened, unread and unscryed,” she agreed with a smirk.
“I have your solemn oath?” he asked, “On the Infernal Might of Asmodeus, facing all his wrath in consequence of breaking your promised word.”
“You do,” Willow nodded.
“And all of you?” he continued, looking to the others, “I have your oath?”
“Indeed,” Pellius said curtly.
“Yes,” Garvana agreed, though the suspicion still laced her tone.
“You have mine,” Traya nodded.
The beastly fiend grinned a large and glee smile, clapping his hands together firmly.
“Very good,” he chuckled, looking to Willow with dark and sinister eyes, “You shall not regret this…”
Zaerabos had been truthful, he did indeed know much about the Agathium and those who dwelled within its walls. Thorn had called his servants home and set them to defend him at all costs. Yet, if the devil’s information was to be trusted, Thorn was truly being consumed by madness and paranoia. Trusting no one enough to call them together and mount a true defence, scattering his forces within the chambers – giving the Forsaken an advantage that they would make fine use of.
The fiendish creature had warned them that frost giants had been called to guard the upper cathedral, including the monstrously dangerous frost giant king, Ingolfr Issox. He warned the Forsaken not to bother with words, laughing that the king was far too daft for treason. Always at his side, was Queen Ellisif. A much more cunning and intelligent giant, wise and crafty behind her humbled smile. Zaerabos revealed that she was not happy with serving Thorn, and if presented with the right oﬀer it was possible her loyalty may be swain.
He spoke of a pious man, venomously loyal to Thorn, stubborn and unbreakable in his servitude. He warned them that Marcel Wolfram would die for the cardinal, that he would wield his mace Engelhammer, an artifact of hell itself, in Thorn’s name to the bitter end.
And lastly, he told them of a man who seemed to leave a sour taste in the devil’s mouth, described as a weedy cretin who reeked of death. A coward, who was sure to teleport and flee at the first sign of trouble. Yet one whose loyalties may very well shift with the changing winds. Grigori Shirkov, a necromancer.
With the crudely drawn map passed between hands, the devil gave a final grin to the Forsaken, before the white puff of smoke enveloped him. With a final drift of brimstone, he vanished.
The slow flicker of flame danced through the chamber, the soft warmth from the fire place drifting through the night air, thawing the cold chill that settled after the sun had began its slumber for the evening. Garvana had retreated into the fields to train with Pellius, echoing the clash of metal across the lands, accompanied by the strenuous grunts and sharply lashed commands. After counting the treasures they had pilfered from the great dark beasts lair, Traya and Willow remained in the parlour, resting in the comfort of the waltzing flames.
“Where are you from, Traya?” Willow asked conversationally, gently pulling the large amber chunks free from the calico sack, grazing her eyes upon the rarer and more perfect shards before lining them along the small table, “You are Talrien, yet I cannot pick the dialect. You have the manners and mannerisms of a noble born, yet I have not heard of House DeMarco...”
With the long flank of luxurious silk in her hands, Traya’s eyes narrowed, looking up to Willow. For a moment, Willow could see the suspicion and what seemed almost like fear in her gaze. But as quickly as it had come, an internal decision seemed to pass across her face. A small sigh escaped her lips.
“You have opened your home and shown me hospitality better than I have known in a long time,” she said gently, “So, good manners alone dictate I satisfy your curiosity.”
As she spoke, Willow put down the amber piece, leaning back into her chair and tilting her head slightly as she listened.
“Firstly,” Traya began, “You should know I bear you or the others no ill will, we were never truly enemies, and as you have seen by my actions, I am no devout Mitran.”
“That thought has long passed,” Willow smirked.
“However,” she continued, “Unlike you, I have come to this life not entirely by my own design, so you must forgive me as I have seen and done much recently that I would have never dreamed of in my past life…” A small smile lifted her lips. “Or perhaps I am deceiving myself and I have always been on this path, our patron seems to have a way of putting us in the right place at the right time. To break a true believer like Sir Richard is something I never thought I would witness, let alone provoke...”
For a time, the sorcerous stared away into nothing, thoughts dancing across her face like words written in a book, while Willow remained quiet and simply observed. After a moment, Traya refocused her sight on Willow and smiled, shaking her head as if to clear it.
“But enough of such serious matters,” she said with a slight lift, “You wish to know of my life and I have a suspicion that we are somewhat kindred souls. Forgive me, but I must make some assumptions about your life too. Like yourself, I am from a wealthy family, privileged and powerful. And I believe, much like yourself, I could think of nothing worse than simply being married off to a simpering fop as a trophy to be displayed at formal events.”
Willow grinned, arching her brow as she nodded gently in agreement, indicating for the woman to continue.
“I left Daveryn when I came of age - you should ask the Baroness for the juicy details, I am sure as there was quite the scandal at the time.”
“You hail from Daveryn?” Willow asked curiously, searching her memory for word of the noble house, “I have never heard of DeMarco of Daveryn…”
“No, of course not,” Traya chuckled, “I was forced to take my mothers maiden name when I left. I was stripped of my title. Perhaps you know of House Parvellyn…”
Willow could not stop the sudden laugh that escaped in shock, “Parvellyn? You are Trayania Parvellyn?”
She laughed in reply, sighing a heavy breath, “I was Trayania.”
The sly smile lifted Willow’s lip, as the pieces of the scandalous story seemed to fall into place, “Now that answers a few questions.”
Traya smirked, shaking her head gently, “Not that it matters now. The successes your... our ally has had...”
She drew her face away for a moment, a slight ashen tinge overcoming her profile. Willow knew where her thoughts were trailing; if her family had resided in Daveryn, it was likely they had died in waves of bugbears as they took the fair city. But she knew there was little she could say to appease her sorrow. It was a quiet moment, but when she returned her gaze it was filled with a stoic acceptance.
“Well,” she shrugged, far more nonchalantly than her eyes could muster, “I shall not be visiting with my family again.”
Willow smiled gently, nodding her understanding.
“I suppose it was fated that I got out when I did,” she chuffed.
“Did you ever marry?” Willow asked, “Before you left?”
“Marry?” she chuckled, “No, I have never been married. Well, I suppose you could say I am now...” She turned in her seat, gently pulling the shoulder of her dress aside to reveal a small pentagram burned into her skin. “I left home to escape being trapped in an unequal union, and I seem to have found my way into another.”
Willow laughed at her lopsided grin.
“At least it is one of my own making,” Traya said firmly, “I am confident at least that this union will prove exciting nonetheless.”
“So what of you?” Traya asked, bringing a lighter air to her voice, “I know much of your past, well at least that which traveled the vines of rumours among the nobles.”
“Most of that is likely rubbish,” Willow laughed.
“Most likely,” Traya grinned, “I am sorry to say, though terribly beautiful, your eyes do not quite light up the night sky.”
A laugh burst from Willow’s lips, a true and hearty chuckle that tickled her tongue.
“What are you saying?” she giggled, “That my black luscious locks do not cascade on an ever-blowing wind?”
“It is more like a gentle breeze,” Traya laughed, relaxing back deeper into the chair.
“What is you wish to know?” Willow asked, the grin still tugging at her mouth.
The sorcerous looked at her for a moment, curious eyes searching her face, as if considering how far to push Willow’s open and easy manner.
“What did you do to end up in Branderscar?” she asked, “I was long gone from home when it happened. I remember hearing word of some great atrocity, but no one spoke of what it was.”
A wistful smile fell upon Willow, as her mind churned back upon the lead up to her greatest downfall.
“I planned the death of the dear Princess Belinda,” she replied, a small chuckle following her words, “Though of course, I did not know what I know now. My plan would have been folly.”
“An ambitious idea,” Traya commented slyly, “What did you wish to gain?”
Willow laughed softly, “Ambitious, but daft and barely thought out. I had thought that by ridding the country of the heir I would weaken the monarchy, and when the time was right, I would have every member of the Darius line assassinated. My long term goal was short sighted at best. I had dreams of House Monteguard ruling the country, yet I had no real plan how to put them there. I was young, even though it was not all that long ago. I was… a child, playing with powers that I did not understand.”
Traya frowned, tilting her head slightly, “What do you mean?”
A sudden memory flashed through Willow’s mind. Hidden in the depths of shadow, clad in slick raven armour, blazing scarlet eyes of fire piercing like blades into her soul. His hand, greedily reaching for her throat. Her throat, offering itself willingly, almost desperately. As she blinked, she looked up at Traya, the easily smile gone from her lips.
“You mentioned before,” Willow said softly, “That you had not come to this life entirely by your own design…”
“You speak of the vision?” Traya asked quietly, a wariness coming over her features.
“Much more than that,” Willow replied, a defeated laugh expelling from her chest, “It is all connected. I have been playing with powers that I do not understand from the moment of my birth. Even now, I am still parading with more confidence than I feel…”
Willow sighed as she sat forward in her chair, delicately rubbing her eyes in an exhausted frustration.
“Have you thought anymore on that vision?” she asked curiously, looking up to the sorcerous who sat straighter backed in her chair.
“Do you believe in fate Willow?” she said quietly, looking off into the flickering swell of the fire, “Do you believe that all things happen for a reason or that we are simply acting out a grand play devised by the gods for their amusement?”
She paused for a moment as her sight returned to Willow and her eyes narrowed in dark intensity.
“I believe that what I was witness to in that vision...” she continued, “Well... I believe it was fated. I believe you are a being of true fate, and you always have whether you knew it or not. I do not pretend to understand what that fate might entail in the coming times, but my intuition tells me simply toppling this kingdom is barely the start...”
For a moment, Willow stared a blank gaze towards the sorcerous. Her words mirrored the very thoughts that had run through Willow’s mind. Whether fate was the correct word to describe such a thing, she did not know. But it seemed that every move she had ever made had been designed and crafted by one with the unending knowledge of how time would play out.
“The green eyes,” Willow said finally, in a soft and quiet voice, “I know who he is…”
“Those eyes have haunted my dreams,” Traya replied, grimacing at the thought, “I have never seen such… evil.”
A small laugh from Willow had her looking up, arching her brow in question.
“I have known him for more than a decade,” she responded, “Though it is clear he has known me for far longer. The same man who has seemed to have a hand in everything I have done. He was the assassin I hired to eliminate the princess, the lover I took while I still shared a bed with my husband. He was the one who set my fall from grace into motion, he was the one who trained me to become an assassin myself. He has been there, every step of the way. If your vision was true… he was there long before the beginning.”
“You have no clue what he wants from you?” Traya asked cautiously.
“He is an Infernal Duke,” Willow laughed, a tint of maniacal frustration in her tone, “One of the darkest souls crafted by the very pits of hell itself. His plans seem more complex and intricate that I could ever grasp. Yet, I am at the centre of this. I have dreamt of being a power far greater than my ambition could possible stretch, and there he is… always.”
As Willow looked up to Traya, she saw the curious smile lifting her lip. Her eyes were reading far more into Willow than she was comfortable with.
“What is it?” Willow asked, narrowing her eyes and slightly lifting her head indignantly.
“Forgive me,” Traya said, wiping the smile from her face, “I am overstepping my place.”
“What is it?” Willow demanded.
“It is simply…” she said carefully, “You have… feelings for him.”
At that, Willow laughed. She shook her head gently, expelling a long breath.
“I have many feelings for him,” she laughed, “Revulsion, hatred, anger, fear, disgust, abhorrence… And lust. Uncontrollable lust. An attraction far stronger than anything I could ever deny. We have a connection, completely volatile and eruptive. Yet, I crave it. I crave him...”
Willow snapped her head towards the sorcerous, piercing her with a flaming gaze of warning, “If you ever speak of this to anyone, I will cut out your tongue.”
Stunned silence greeted her words, then to her surprise, Traya laughed. Though her eyes widened slightly, she simply smiled back at Willow.
“I believe that you would,” Traya smirked lightly, “As distasteful as that concept sounds, you can be assured your thoughts are safe with me. I have no intention of betraying your trust.”
Willow’s eyes narrowed for a moment.
“I…” she said through pursed lips, “I apologise, though the truth of the threat still stands. I have never had someone to confide in… Trust is not something that comes easily.”
“That is clear,” Traya grinned, arching her brow, “But tell me… do you love him?”
“Love?” Willow laughed, falling back into the cushioned chair, lifting her feet and tucking them beneath her, “No. He is not a creature to be loved. I could never love someone, or something, I despised so much.”
For a moment, a calm silence lingered in the chamber, the sounds of the crackling flames whispering through the stone walls.
“You are not still troubled by the vision you saw?” Willow asked curiously, staring into the dancing lights.
“No,” Traya replied easily, “Who am I to judge you based on a vision? I have had a mountain fall on me during the banishment of a demi-god, I have wielded the raw power of Hell in the quest for vengeance, I have fought heroes of the realm and been victorious and I have grown in power far beyond anything I could have possibly imagined… How can I consider your conception stranger than my life?”
Willow laughed, conceding to the sorcerous’ point, unable to refute it, “Well, when you put it that way…”
When the sun rose over the mountains to the east, returning daylight to green and lush farmlands, the Forsaken rose from their slumber with it. They had almost everything they needed to complete their next task. They had an exact location of the foreboding Agathium, they knew exactly where Thorn awaited them. And in their hands was the means to defeating him. The heart pierced by thorns, the phylactery bound to him.
“How does one destroy a phylactery?” Willow asked, frowning as she watched Pellius pull the withered husk from its golden chest.
“With strength alone,” he replied, pushing aside the box to lay the heart on the table.
As Garvana and Traya gathered around the table, they simply looked at the decayed heart. Alone on the surface of the wooden plank, the dark and powerful artefact of evil seemed so much less. A human heart, shrivelled and burnt flesh wrapped in callous wire, long and thin thorns of charred metal piercing it from each side. It seemed only a swift breeze away from crumbling upon the treated wood. But Willow knew well how deceiving appearances could be.
She placed the leadlined box by its side, using careful fingers to lift the vile heart and arrange it inside the cushioned padding. The box was smaller than the golden chest, easier to carry with her as they traversed the city in preparation. Though they had a guard of almost fifty at the manor, she would not risk the Forsaken’s chance at success by leaving it in their care. As she looked to the small chest that had housed the phylactery, she was struck with an idea. Though she had planned to give Jeratheon a large chunk of raw amber as his reward for service, she found the golden chest a far more fitting prize. Finely made of pure gold, it reeked of death and darkness. Though it lay empty, it had held the heart for an age, its evil seeping into the layers of silk and clinging to the solid walls. Even without the sight of magic, Willow could feel the aura pulsing with dread as her fingers traced the intricate edges.
“Traya,” she said, looking to the sorcerous as she took the chest from the table, “Send Jeratheon a message, tell him to meet me in the fields at sundown.”
“Of course,” she nodded, before swiftly rasping an incantation, painting patterns in the air with her fingers.
“Thank you,” Willow inclined her head, before looking to the others, “I shall be heading into town shortly, does any one wish to accompany me?”
“I will,” Garvana offered, indicating to the piled treasure behind her, “We must find buyers for all that we took from the dragons horde.”
“Oh,” Willow frowned, “That reminds me…” She pulled a small curious shard of amber from her pouch, one she had found amongst the others, yet a peculiarity all of its own, “Will you have a look at this for me?”
The small shard of translucent amber housed an entire dragonﬂy delicately preserved within it. Upon its surface was an ancient rune carved into its surface, one that Willow did not recognise. Garvana took the shard from her, brow furrowed as the arcane words drifted from her lips and her eyes hazed in shimmering fog.
“It is an old friendship rune,” Garvana said, blinking rapidly as the fog cleared, “It strengthens an existing bond between a master and creature bound to him. It allows for the master to… well, effectively shield the creature from harm while transferring it to himself.”
“Bound to him?” Willow frowned.
“Sith, for example,” Garvana explained, “You could feed it to him, and if he was in danger, you could take the blow for him.”
“Useful,” Willow replied, taking the shard back as her brows rose slightly, “Are we keeping anything else from the horde?”
“This,” Pellius said proudly, pulling a jeweled crown from his pack.
As he placed it on the table, Willow’s eyes traced the metal workings of the hammered gold, admiring the settings of splendid but crudely cut emeralds.
“Another crown to add to your collection,” she chuckled, arching her brow.
Pellius lifted his chin with regal stance, “And many more to come…”
Dusk was approaching when Garvana and Willow returned to the farmlands, slowing their steeds to a trot as they pulled into the stables behind the manor. While Garvana had prowled the marketplace in search of buyers for their rare and exotic trinkets, Willow had visited the famed master jeweler on the southern shore, carrying her bag laden with amber. She had commissioned three pieces made of the precious stone; an intricate bracelet chained with rich gold, a short necklace set with three small but particularly beautiful shards, and a head piece much like a circlet, but with coiling gold that bordered the frame of her face and along the shape of her ears.
As the sun fell below the horizon, Garvana entered the manor to attend to her own matters, while Willow called for Pellius to escort her to the far northern point of their lands. They travelled together upon horseback, Willow sitting side-saddle behind him as they cantered deeper into the lush green grass that covered the expanse. As they neared the edge of the forest, their horse whined in unease, slowing its own steps anxiously. As it drew to a halt, Willow dropped from the steed’s back, unlacing the lid of the saddlebag and pulling free the small finely wrought golden chest. With confident steps, she approached the barrier of trees, her keen sight spying the seething beast within, long before he showed himself.
“Your prize,” she said loudly, staring through the dense cluster of branches directly into his eyes, “Taken from Nithoggr’s horde, in reward for your service.”
The sounds of snapping branches and torn shrubs echoed from the forest, as the fearsome black beast pushed his way into the open clearing. His eyes glared towards her, blazing with venom and bile, as he craned his neck to stand far over her at his full height. His great nostrils flared suddenly, as he drew air heavily into them, lowering his head to draw scent the chest.
“It reeks of him,” he hissed in vicious glee, before further smelling and tilting his head, “And something else… something far more wicked.”
Willow simply stared at him, letting no emotions pass over her face. She held out the golden chest, her reactions swift enough to tear back her hands as he swiped the chest with his great claw and snatched it from her. Clearly pleased with his gift, he tucked it closer to him as he sniffed once more.
“But I do not smell the vermin’s blood, you let him live?”
Willow let the corner of her mouth lift in a small smirk, “Killing him would have only wasted our time. We have what we went for.”
Jeratheon rasped a venomous hiss, “Pity.”
“We shall call on you again when your services are needed,” Willow said coldly, turning up her lip, “Until then, go prance around or hunt or something of the sort.”
A feral growl rumbled from his chest, while she turned her back and returned to Pellius upon the horse. As she accepted Pellius’ hand, helping her lift herself back upon the saddle, the seething ebony dragon pierced her with a savage gaze filled with threat.
“Hunt?” he hissed, “Be careful what you wish for…”
The hour of midnight was ushered in by the faint rays of white from directly overhead, the glowing moon in the centre of the black canvas of sky. With the shining point of her ruby blade, Willow methodically carved the five points of the Dark Father’s star into the soft wood of the table. With a soft click of her fingers, Traya summoned a flick of fire that danced between her fingers, using it to light each of the nine candles that circled the star. As Willow turned and opened the clasp to the lead-lined box, Garvana began a low and rasping prayer in the infernal tongue.
“Lord of the Nine Hells, Master of Darkness, Prince of Suffering – we beseech you, accept this sacrifice…”
Willow pulled the withered heart from the box, placing it within the middle of the pentagram, before stepping back and allowing Pellius to take centre stage.
“Accept our offering as promise,” Garvana continued, “As oath, that we swear to vanquish the traitor, the being from which this heart came…”
Pellius pulled Hellbrand from its sheath, the dark blade glistening in the flickering light of candle flames. He pointed the vicious blade towards the heart, his brow contorted in concentration and determination, slowly liftng Hellbrand above his head.
“We swear to follow your word, your bidding, your wish. We swear to slay the treacherous Adrastus Thorn, we swear to reap your vengeance upon him, and deliver him to you bathed in blood. To you, God-Fiend, this we swear!”
As the frightful sword carved downwards towards the table, splitting the air as it thrust itself towards the heart, a sudden rush of blistering wind pulsed from the phylactery. A crack of lightening lit up the night sky, flashing brilliant light into the small chamber. With a gust, the flames upon the candles were urged higher and brighter, the slender fires now raging atop their waxed towers. Willow felt the touch of blazing heat upon her flesh, the caress of fiendish bliss pushing her onward. The way the eyes of the others lit up in exhilaration, it was clear they too felt the grace of hell. Pellius cried out a fearsome roar, as Hellbrand charged downwards, and a ripple flowed over his muscular arms like a wave of exertion. With a final push, the blade pierced the withered and charred heart, sounding an eruption of steel that ricocheted across the stone walls of the chamber. The blade pushed through the rigid flesh, carving downward with every ounce of might that Pellius could muster. The air in chamber chilled to biting crisp, a palpable feeling of battle, one will warring against another. Pellius roared, veins rippling along his flesh, white painting his knuckles as he crushed Hellbrand in his grip. Until suddenly – one will faltered, collapsing under the strain. A gust of wind expelled from the heart, extinguishing the flames around it. The sword slashed through the charred flesh with no more effort than pushing the blade through butter. The mighty swing followed through, and the immense strength of the swing shattered the table beneath into splinters that ricocheted off the stone floor. The withered heart fell, hissing a feral whine of piercing shrill, before its flesh slowly began to simmer and boil. A scream, one of pure wrath and fury thundered through the chamber, bringing with it a frozen wind that sapped the last ounce of warmth from the air. And then suddenly, there was nothing. Nothing save the sound of a simmering liquid, the heart melting into the stone floor, leaving behind only a trace of ash in its wake.
Under the last shadow of darkness before the sun rose once more, the Forsaken travelled through the churning portal, headed for the northern lands of Talingarde. Garvana had her eyes closed, visualising the location and description of the Agathium, guiding their journey through the vortex. With a shared sighed breath, they stepped out into the wilderness. With their only comparison being the windswept barren lands of Nithoggr’s domain, what they found themselves within was a truly peculiar paradise. Here, the ancient pine forest of the Savage North spread far and wide its in glory, its branches free of snow and filled with lush summer green sprouting pine needles. The first trace of sunlight shimmered along the petals of wild ﬂowers that bloomed in an array of bright and brilliant colours. Buzzing insects drifted amidst the summer foliage, small butterflies with intricate patterns in a myriad of shades, birds dancing through the trees calling to one another in their soothing and lyrical songs. Geese, grackles, ducks and sparrows – even the occasional white snowy owls patrolling the high morning skies looking for small prey beneath. The soft sound of cloven hooves retreating away from where the Forsaken landed, the flash of white tailed deer scattering through the winding shrubbery. The forest was a paradise, flowing with life and natural harmonious wonder. Yet, when eyes drew to the north – they saw a sight blazing in misplacement and looking utterly incongruous. A structure of immense and intimidating vision. A palace of evil, a cathedral of darkness. Sitting atop the bending hill still covered in snow and ice, yet surrounded by the deep walls of a lush green valley. Baring black and red veined stone buttresses, decorated by leering gargoyles rising from the ice. A circular stained glass window of enormous proportions dominated the facade. In glass and stone, devotion to the great Asmodeus was shown clearly and unquestioned. It appeared more a cathedral meant for thousands of petitioners, rather than a subtle hide out for a condemned run away priest. Willow’s eyes widened as she marveled at the glorious construction. To her, the site spoke of a waiting faith. It suggested a day when the infernal faith of the devil god would no longer hide in secret, a day when pilgrims by their thousands would make the long journey to the hidden cathedral, to find it within the lost world of ice and paradise. It spoke of their future. It spoke of their grand crusade against the Mitran faith, their conquest of the isle of Talingarde.
For a moment, the Forsaken simple stared in awe upon the dark temple.
“Is this what temples look like in Cheliax?” Willow asked Pellius, in a quiet voice.
“Yes, some,” Pellius nodded, his brow arching slightly, “But only the largest of them.”
“It is…” Willow said slowly, feeling a rush of warmth flood her chest, “Intimidating… inspiring…”
Pellius gave a knowing smile, “You would like Cheliax, my lady.”
Willow smiled in return, unable to draw her eyes away from the dark edifice.
The sound of flowing water coursing along a stream and crashing gently upon the face of rock, signaled how close they were to the northern edge of Talingarde, the seas passing by while it was warm enough to remain thawed from the winter frost. It was along that churning sea that their failsafe and contingency plan anchored nearby. In secret, in the dead of the night as they had returned from Nythoggr’s lair, Pellius had ordered his guard led by Thorangir to the ship docked upon Ghastenhall’s shore. They had set sail, travelling as fast as they could, in the fastest ship money could buy – to the harsh seas of northern Talingarde. Within the hull, hidden beneath sacks of grain and wool, were three sturdy wooden coffins. It had been a risk, leaving Pellius, Garvana and Willow without the safety of their sanctuaries, but a risk they had to take. They could not infiltrate the Agathium with no where to reform should they have fallen to Thorn’s hateful onslaught.
They had told no one. For as they had spent their days waiting in Ghastenhall, they were weak and vulnerable. They had not simply waited in order to peruse the markets and sharpen their swords, they had waited for word of Thorangir’s arrival on the northern coast. And when it came, they had gathered together, walking through the portal – walking towards their fate.
“Will you scout the temple, Willow?” Garvana asked, “It seems far safer for you to go alone first, rather than us blindly approaching Thorn’s domain.”
“Of course,” she agreed, though her frown burrowed slightly.
“Tread carefully, my lady,” Pellius said quietly, “We do not know what Thorn has prepared for us. He will throw everything he has at us; he will do whatever he can in order to stop us.”
Willow cast a quick look towards him, nodding solemnly before she turned to the north and took off through the forest. She whispered the command word to her ring, feeling the subtle touch of invisibility tracing over her skin, as she quickly ran between the winding trees. She left no visible footprints as she passed through the shrubbery, finding her way towards the arching paths that led towards the great entry that grew nearer with each step. Her eyes scoured the ground as she ran, wary of any stone out of place, any markings in the earth to indicate a trap or ambush. As she began the climb along the black marble paths, she slowed her steps to a silent crawl, hearing nothing but the surrounding wildlife awakening. At the head of the grand pathway, stood an enormous set of double doors that rose more than fifteen feet tall. Every inch of the archway and marble door was adorned dark iconography, under nine great iron bands etched with devils dancing through briars. The servants of hell swirled through burning thorn bushes, bowing only before the great image at the top of the door – a shadowed figure, larger than life, a silhouette of a being topped by a great crown of thorns.
Though Willow was enraptured with the intricate carvings and hellish figure that watched over the entrance, the trepidation that pulsed within her kept her hands far from the door and her eyes scouring the etchings. Zaerabos had warned them of a trap, though he knew little of its details. Willow’s keen sight found the scripted runes hidden within the bordered illustrations upon the archway. They were carved along the entire stone structure, running delicately along the floor, in amongst the decorative tile. She knew not what kind of spell it would activate, and without Garvana to read the magic, she was clueless to discern it. For a moment, hidden within the shroud of invisibility, she studied the runes and searched for the one to deactivate it. When she thought she had found it, she made a point to memorize its sequence, before she turned her attentions to the glass window above. Using the curious arcana enchanted in the raven leather boots she wore, she slowly flew upwards, hovering beneath the oppressive visage of the Archstar. She was cautious as she leant closer to the crimson glass, straining her eyes to see through the frosted finish. With the aid of the torches on the walls, she spied five blurred figures pacing the large open main floor. As she flew to the east, she slowly cruised though the air, circling the immense building, searching for another opening or way in. When she returned to the entrance, she frowned. They were left with two options; smashing their way through the intricate stained glass windows, or facing the arcane trap and walking through the front door.
Willow dropped to the marble floor, retracing her steps swiftly as she returned to the others. When she arrived, she smiled at the small relief Pellius failed to hide beneath his stern demeanor.
“Well?” Garvana demanded, though it seemed out of unease rather than short-temper.
“We have only the front door or the windows,” Willow reported, “Neither is appealing. Zaerabos was truthful, there is a trap guarding the door, extremely well hidden. And breaking the windows would announce to the entire castle that we have arrived… and they are rather beautiful, it would be a shame to shatter them.”
“Beautiful?” Pellius laughed suddenly, shaking his head, “You are worried that they are too beautiful to break?”
Willow shrugged, a grin lifting her lip, “I like this place. When Thorn is dealt with, someone must keep this place from falling into disrepair…”
“Enough,” Garvana snapped, “Are you confident you can disable the trap?”
“Fairly,” Willow said honestly, “But it seems powerful. Thorn has gone to great lengths to hide the trap that well. I cannot see it being a simple lightening bolt…”
The morning sun had slowly begun to rise as the Forsaken made their way towards the great cathedral. The flames that danced along Sith’s furred hide lit the path in front of them, while Rajiu and Yastrew, the fiend Pellius had summoned, followed closely behind. When they arrived at the door, and Willow found the runes she had memorized, Garvana looked over the magic with her glazed eyes.
“It is a powerful trap,” she whispered, though any eyes watching would have clearly seen their approach, “A violent ray of death, one that disintegrates flesh and bone. Are you truly certain you can disable it?”
Willow hesitated for a moment, looking over the runes once more, making sure she was correct in her conclusion. As she remained silent, Pellius came to a conclusion of his own.
“Enough of this,” he said brashly, “I will not let a trap stand in my way.”
Before Willow could stop him, he steeled himself against the fearsome magic, striding forward into the caress of the vicious trap. Unfortunately, he had overlooked a simple matter. Thorn did not simply have a powerful trap and patrolling guards defending the entrance to his residence – he had also locked the front door. Pellius stepped forward confidently, hand grasping the glistening steel handle, continuing his movement directly into the marble doors. As his armour sounded a large clash against the door, the trap fired a frightening crack of green searing magic in a flash, striking Pellius in the chest. Though it did not sear his flesh the way it would have any other. Whether by sheer size of constitution, he was able to cast off the worst of the malevolent arcana. He stumbled backwards a few steps, frowning deeply as the giggle tickled Willow’s tongue. A stern look from Pellius silenced the sound, though her grin could not be held even as she bit her lip. With a smile on her face, she turned back to the door, confidently marring three of the runes in order, before pulling her tools free to see to the locks. She felt a sigh leave her lips as she grasped the handle and the beam of vicious light did not zap her the way it had Pellius. And as she opened the door to the grand cathedral, she felt the air she had drawn into her lungs wheeze outwards in awe.
The massive chamber that opened out in front of her, was a masterpiece of baroque architecture, a blissful retreat for devil kind, an unrivalled piece of artwork dedicated purely to the Lord of the Nine. The ﬂoor was adorned with marble tiles of ebony and crimson, arranged in intricate geometric patterns, polished to a glistening mirror shine. Two grand staircases rose on the sides of the chamber, leading up to a regal balcony that Willow stood upon, overlooking the enormous space. Ribs of black marble connected to broad pillars that support the weighty vaulted ceiling, that rose more than a hundred feet at the apex of the dome. But the ceiling, was more than a simple stone or marble roof. A sculpted mural depicting the frolicking of devils, all in subservience to the centre of the marvelous depiction. A magnificent king upon his ebony throne – red skinned, horned, infinitely wise and ultimately implacable – the First Among the Fallen; Asmodeus himself. The painted devil god smiled, as if he knew his victory was inevitable. The walls were richly decorated in almost unfathomable detail. Countless works of art, all united in their themes; the supremacy and power of hell, and the promise rewards to those who would but subsume their will to the greatest of all wills – immortal and undying Asmodeus.
Yet even as Willow’s wide eyes traced over the enormous expanse along the ceiling, they were distractedly drawn to the centre of the grand chamber. For it was neither empty nor unguarded.
“Finally!” the foreboding figure rumbled in a deep resonating bellow, “Warm blood to spill!”
Four frost giant warriors, and their king. But Ingolfr Issox was no mere frost giant, far more than that. As if drawn directly from a ballad of ancient days, as pure an example of the old blood that had been born on the island in a millennia. He was truly enormous, easily twice as tall as more typical giants. His body seemed almost carved out of deep compressed glacier ice – sapphire blue and iron hard. His breath steamed with primal hoarfrost, billowing in bursts of ice and shards, his great beard cascading down his face like an avalanche of icicles. And in his hand, he hefted a greataxe made of pure ice, far larger than any weapon she could have imagined, yet he moved it through the air as if it weighed as much as a feather. He was a vision of the ice titans of old, those who once stood in defiance of all the gods.
The frosted face lifted in a ravenous grin, brandishing his mighty weapon in a taunt to the Forsaken. Before they each had time to funnel through the door, the ground trembled as he stepped forward towards them. He opened his great mouth and roared with the fury of a howling blizzard. Icicles and frost suddenly formed in a sharp and jagged mass in front of his mouth, before he thundered a breath of pure might and forced the ice into an eruption that showered the entire balcony in white and sapphire snowstorm. Shards of ice ripped through flesh and clothing, the cold seeping the warmth from skin as the wind barreled into steel armour in an unrelenting torrent. At once, Willow activated her leather boots and flew high into the air above the giants, while Sith charged to the edge of the balcony, replying in kind with his dastardly hellfire breath billowing in searing flames. As the burning wave of fire reached the iced giants, a feral hiss of melting frost and cracking ice echoed off of the stone walls.
Traya rasped a curious incantation, transforming her pale white skin into shimmering copper scales, when suddenly her arms and legs expanded, her head swelled and her snout morphed forward as gleaming fangs fell from her lips. When the haze of the frosted mist cleared, a ferocious copper dragon stood in Traya’s place. Moving lithely, much like a serpent, the dragon slithered up the marble wall and perched atop the large ribbed pillar, staring down upon the chamber with glistening amber eyes. It roared in savage fury, rattling the windows and shaking the marble floor beneath them. A fearsome cry, so terrifying that the fear surged like a washed wave over the frost giants, a procession of widening eyes and whitening faces. And as Pellius and Garvana, one clad in dark and malevolent black steel, wielding the vicious flame drenched Hellbrand, the other clad in glimmering steel, hefting a black stained mace, reeking of the Dark Lord’s will – the imminent threat and promise became all too much. Terror took hold of one of the frost giants, his axe falling from his fingers and clammering to the floor. His steps unsteady as he began to stumble backwards, fear convulsing along his limbs. As he turned to flee, a blade of ice carved through his flesh, slicing him cleanly in half.
“Coward!” snarled Issox.
As the giant’s body slumped to the floor, white eyes of malice looked to the others, the king glaring a terrifying warning to the others. There would be no mercy for them from either side. They would face the Forsaken, or they would face his wrath. It was a threat that bolstered their resolve, colour returning to their skin, determination returning to their faces. The bellowed out their battlecries, two of them charging for the stairs as the last gathered a large chunk of stone from the floor and hurled it up towards the leering dragon. In response, Traya showered them in a flood of fire that rained upon the large chamber like a writhing storm of flame.
Willow soared through the dancing fire, craning in a long arch by the eastern side of the chamber, as Sith sprinted to mirror her on the opposite side, leaping over the oncoming giant to continue towards Willow’s target. The onslaught came upon the frosted being from both sides; the blistering fire of Sith’s bite paired with two pointed blades plummeting deep into his back.
Pellius readied his weapon, his brow contorting as he charged at full force over the balcony, launching into the air with his heavy descent aimed directly at the king. Hellbrand diving downwards, striking the enormous giant in the shoulder, tearing through the frozen flesh with shattering might. Though Issox grimaced against the flaming swords assault, a sadistic glee overwhelmed his face. He reared back his frosted axe, and as Pellius landed heavily upon the stone floor, the king cleaved viciously in an unending flurry of blows. For one his size, he moved in blurred haste, launching one attack after another with no intention of ceasing for breath. Pellius met his every blow with blazing fury, unwavering in his own rush forward, gritting his teeth as the iced axe clashed against the hellfire of his blade. Each time the terrible weapons met, a war of elements took over the battle. As the fire blazed through the ice and melted its onward journey, the ice fizzled and the cold consumed the light of the heat, dousing the potency with each strike.
Garvana stood upon the balcony, hands raised high above her head, holding her palms opened and wide.
“Those who refuse the will of the undying Asmodeus,” she rasped venomously, “Will taste his glorious and dire wrath!”
She turned her fingers to crooked eldritch angles, chanting in a deep and rumbling voice. A spark of flame lit between her splayed fingers, and as she thrust her hands together, pointing them towards the floor, the marble tile trembled. Cracks that ricocheted like strikes of lightening raced across the ground, surrounding the king and his warriors. A chilling laugh sounded from the balcony, as Garvana ripped her hands apart, as if yanking on an unseen cord. Blazing flames erupted from the cracks, the whiff of brimstone seeping into the chamber, as the dark fires slithered towards the iced flesh.
As the dark fire raged along the tiled floor, Raiju launched himself into the air above the fray, with his vicious glaive grasped in both hands. He charged downwards, arching the blade and thrusting it forward, hacking into the giant king with practiced and disciplined prowess. But his attack had brought him too close to the enormous beast of frost, in close range of his iced axed, in reach of his terrifying blow. The frosted blade tore through the air, hitting Raiju with the full force of his mighty swing, cleaving through his torso, splitting bone and flesh in a shower of crimson blood. As the scarlet being fell from the air, dropping into the swell of the flamed floor, the dark inferno consumed two of the giant warriors. The last standing guard released a gust of ice and frost, but his winter wind was cut short as Sith pounced upon him, the feral fangs of his maw sinking deeply into his throat – his breath silenced as the maw slammed shut.
A thundering clash rang out across the Agathium floor, the shimmering ice axe crashing against Pellius’ chest, the pummeling blows ripping strength from his limbs. Willow could see Pellius waning, his eyes glazing slightly as his lids dipped, his steps fumbling as he refused to pause in his assault. But so too was Issox, a blood of the darkest blue seeping from his wounds, his frosted breath drawing short and staggered. With a final push, Pellius launched another attack, crying out in furious wrath as he thrust his fiendish blade into the king’s stomach. Although his attack had indeed had its intended effect, surrounded by gushing blood as the blade tunneled deeper into his stomach – the king saw his chance. He turned his axe to the side, drawing it to the side as he hefted it backwards to prepare for his swing. When it came, it was with such raw power that the air itself seemed to funnel forward in a raging tempest. When the flat side of his axe barreled into Pellius, it flung the heavily armored man off of his feet, sending him skidding along the floor, his unrelenting grip on his sword ripping it free from the giant’s stomach, tearing the wound sideways. As an almighty thud sounded as Pellius hit the chamber wall, the giant king collapsed to his knee. Dark blood pooled from his lips, the panted frost breath freezing the liquid into icicles that broke away and scattered along the floor. He roared like a screaming wind, sapphire eyes blazing a fierce blue, as he slammed the pommel of his axe into the ground to steady himself as he began to rise once more.
It was then, that a familiar rasping chant slithered through the hall, a dark and ominous incantation that fell from the copper dragon’s grinning maw. As the king’s eyes drew to Traya’s resting place high above the cathedral floor, he pushed himself to a stand and began to straighten out, lifting his vicious iced axe. He did not get another chance to use it. Willow shielded her face from the cascading eruption of blood and bone as the king’s head split and exploded. The tiles were bathed in blood as the large fist unclenched, and the enormous weapon of ice slipped from his fingers. It shattered, into thousands of ice shards that showered the ground in a glistening chilled wave. The frost giant king slumped forward, the floor trembling under his weight as his headless corpse collapsed.
From the far end of the chamber, a soft grinding metal sounded, a curtain being drawn aside. Looking up from the sea of charred and bleeding corpses, the Forsaken brandished their weapons and turned to greet their observer. They faced a woman, a true beauty of frost giantkind – Queen Ellisif. Short for her kind, she stood only at a bare thirteen feet tall, with flawless skin like the smooth surface of a frozen lake. Long locks of flowing gold fell heavy upon her shoulder, braided in an intricate weave, decorated with glistening shards of gems. She wore a gown of finely tailored skins and furs, and a necklace crafted from the shields of would-be giant slayers. Intelligent eyes of blazing amber seemed to access those who stood before her. She arched her brow as she seemed to form a decision.
“What a fool my dolt of a husband was,” she said in a surprisingly soft voice for one her size, though her tone was of one who was used to being in command, “To charge such powerful servants of the High God Asmodeus. I would beg your forgiveness, but I see that he has met the eventual fate of all idiots.” She gave a sly smile. “Well done, champions of hell. I would wager from all the noise and commotion at your arrival that you are the Ninth Knot, am I correct?”
Willow slowly lowered her blades, gently sliding them into their sheathes without breaking eye contact with the Queen. She could see the truth in Zaerabos’ words, she was indeed far more intelligent than her husband. She was the brains behind the leadership of the frost giants, she was cunning and clever, and it was clear she was after something.
“You are indeed correct,” Willow replied, walking towards her with a slow but confident step, Sith prowling close by her side.
Willow did not miss the way the Queen’s eyes widened at the Hellhound’s approach.
“Ah, very good,” she said cordially, a smile across her face, “Thorn has spoken highly of you. He described you as highly dangerous foes and untrustworthy monsters who will do anything to get what they want. Rarely have I heard the Cardinal heap such praise upon visitors.”
The others marched forward, forming a line in front of the regal woman, almost like a barrier to prevent her escape.
“Ah, my manners have ﬂed from me,” she said softly, a charming smile as she looked to Pellius and Garvana, before arching her brow as Traya in her dragon form approached from behind, “I am Queen Ellisif, high lady of the frost giants.”
“Garvana Forthwise,” she said proudly, not deigning to nod or bow, “High Priestess of Asmodeus in Talingarde.”
The queen quirked her lip, “Well met, High Priestess.”
“I am Pellius Albus,” he introduced in the strange language of giants, inclining his head respectfully, “A pleasure to meet you.”
“Ah,” she replied in turn, a warm almost sensuous smile looking upon him, “So nice to hear one with a cultured tongue.”
She looked to Willow with her brow quirked, before her eyes darted once more towards the fiery creature.
“I am Lady Willow Monteguard,” she said, almost a bitter sweetness to her tone, reaching out to trail her fingers through flaming fur, before switching to the language of giants herself, “And this mighty beast of hell, is Sith.”
The Queen did an excellent job of hiding her utter distaste and recoil, but not well enough to shield it from Willow’s keen seeing eyes.
“Yes, well,” the Queen said, pursing her lips slightly, “I would ask that it remain outside while we talk. As a show of good faith…”
Willow’s brow arched slowly, staring an unwavering gaze back at the frost giant queen. She rasped a low command in infernal, earning her a rumbling growl in response. She smirked as he bared his teeth to the queen, before begrudgingly following Willow’s command and slowly prowling to back through the chamber, turning back to them and waiting by the slumped body of the king.
“Thank you,” Queen Ellisif said cordially, though her eyes lingered upon the Hellhound, “It is a courtesy I will not overlook. Now, I presume that you are here to kill Cardinal Thorn.”
As if a wave passed over them, the bluntness of her question had one brow raising after another.
“Ah,” she smiled slyly, “I can see I am right. You are embarked upon a difficult and dangerous mission. He is downstairs imbedded in his fortress. There are traps, his lieutenants and worse.” She clasped her hands behind her back formally. “Of course, while I can not claim to know everything that Thorn has prepared for you, I do know quite a bit. If only we could come to some sort of arrangement, I would be only too pleased to help.” She looked between them, arching her brow. “I have told you what I can oﬀer. What do can you oﬀer me, Lords of the Ninth Knot?”
It was Willow who stepped forward, cold eyes as she let out a biting reply.
“I have neither the time nor the inclination to play a game of bids and guesses. You clearly have a deal mind. Name your price.”
The queen let a small smile lift her cheeks, as she looked over Willow with eyes only a female accessing the caliber of another could muster.
“Very well,” she said, dropping the coy act, “I require two things, and I will accept nothing less than a blood oath. As I assume by your past actions, you are planning to overthrow Talingarde, instating Asmodeus as the supreme. If this is so, I require the Ninth Knot to include me in the privy council, when a new king of Talingarde is chosen. Second, I require a guarantee that the traditional lands of the frost giants are returned to me.”
“Traditional lands?” Willow repeated, arching her brow, “That would be the entire lands north of the wall, am I correct?”
For only a fraction of a second, Queen Ellisif’s lips pursed, before returning to her formal stance.
“Yes, you are correct.”
“That is quite an ask,” Willow commented, “A great deal of land and power, for information that we may already have…”
The queen shrugged gently, dismissing Willow’s words nonchalantly, “It is land you have little need of.”
“There is but one problem,” Willow sighed, smiling sweetly as she turned to look up at the grand mural upon the ceiling, “I find myself growing quite fond of this place. And if I am correct, it falls directly in your proposed lands.”
“It would be yours,” the queen countered, “And if used as a cathedral dedicated to the God-Fiend, I would ensure the open passage of pilgrims. Though,” she smirked, “I of course cannot ensure the command of every being that dwells in the Savage North…”
“Of course,” Willow replied sardonically.
“Well then,” she said formally, “Do we have a deal?”
Pellius stepped forward, his brow furrowed low.
“You ask for an alliance,” he said sternly, “But I do not hear the promise of an ally. If you wish to represent the people of the frost giants, by garnering a seat upon the council of Talingarde, then I would expect a truce between our people. If we put the call for aid, the frost giants must respond.”
“Naturally,” she responded, without missing a beat, “And I would assume that such a thing goes both ways. If the frost giants called upon you, you would respond in kind.”
For a moment, the Forsaken and Queen Ellisif simply stared at one another, seemingly sizing the other up. With a swift nod from Pellius, Garvana and Traya nodded too. As the amber eyes drew to Willow, she tilted her head slightly at the queen.
“A seat on the new council of Talingarde, in addition to the promised aid of an alliance. The return of the traditional frost giant lands, marked by the great wall, excluding the Agathium and its surrounding land. And in return; all information you have on the Agathium and Thorn’s plans and defenses, along with your oath that you and your people will honour the alliance should the call be made.”
“Agreed,” Queen Ellisif nodded firmly, turning from them towards the northern end of the chamber.
She climbed the small set of stairs that led up towards a grand dais, the Forsaken following closely behind. As Willow neared the podium, a strange lingering heat of infernal power seemed to draw her forward. A blaze lit within her chest, the diabolic drum beating heavy in her ribcage, the touch of her fearsome lord pulsing in resonating melody. She knew what she saw was no ordinary altar, no simple stand in which to place decoration. Carved of the darkest black marble and lined in shimmering gold, decorated in infernal aphorisms praising the wisdom of the all-knowing prince, and cursing the heavens that dared to find him unfit to reign. A great golden star woven with thorns dominated the back plate, among legions of eternal candles that illuminated the ebony altar, bathing it in a pale glow that only added to its ominous presence. And centered upon the black slate, was a great bowl molded of pure gold, encrusted with precious bloodstones inset deeply into the black stone.
Willow could feel the laced strings of hell that twined around the altar, the deep connection it shared with their Infernal Lord. This was a true unhallowed site, a sanctified and blessed altar to Asmodeus.
“The truth is blood upon the altar,” Willow read aloud, reaching out to trace the infernal script carved into the black marble.
The queen stood to the side of the grand altar, lifting the small ruby athame from the black surface and turning back to the Forsaken.
“Will you, Willow Monteguard of the Ninth Knot, swear upon your blood and the High-God Asmodeus that you will adhere to the terms of our deal, and the promises you have made here today?”
Though it was hard to draw her eyes away from the profane altar, Willow gave a last look towards Pellius. With his inclined head, she turned to the queen and nodded solemnly.
“I swear it. Will you, Queen Ellisif of the Frost Giants, swear the same?”
“I swear it.”
The queen slashed the ruby blade along the palm of her hand, before holding it out to Willow. When she drew it against her own, a sudden rush of blazing wind seemed to fulminate from the altar. Her words and actions were being watched closely; she was binding herself to her promise and facing the wrath of the darkest should she break it. Though the blood did not flow from her wound as the blue blood fell from the queens – it did not matter. An oath sworn upon the blood was an unbreakable bond, for the living and the undead. She grasped the queens hand tightly, as unseen tendrils of infernal power tied an unbreakable link between them. As they released hands, the linking twine did not dissipate. And nor would it, as long as both of them still lived…