Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Chapter 46 - Allies and Enemies

Into the darkest blackness, slow and careful steps leading deeper beneath the surface, deeper into the abyss of retribution. Each stone brick of each hallway, carved into fine chiselled blocks, arranged with unerring perfection in the endless lengths of the dark and silent passages. By dim and failing torchlight, the sound of harsh steel, metal boots clicking against the aching stone, ricocheted back and forth in echo along the long and vacant hall, silenced by the approach of oppressive shadow.
The Forsaken pushed onwards, drowning in the trepidation that hung thickly in the air, wading through and fighting against a still current of their own fear. As they descended even further into the great cathedral, reaching the flat base of the cast iron spiral stairs, the walls arched out and widened into an empty crossroads. It was another hallway, but finally, this one seemed to follow the crudely drawn map they held in their hand.
The plan, was fairly simple. In essence, those who could not be turned from Thorn would be killed. Those who refused to bow to the Ninth Knot would be shown no mercy and be slain. Yet they were not so foolish as to believe that death was the best path to building their new kingdom. They knew there was strength in numbers. First, they would aim to convert Thorn’s subjects. But if a compromise could not be reached – the crushing fist of finality would not falter.

Willow’s soft steps were quiet as a whisper, she toed forward ahead of the others, shielded by the shimmer of invisibility, casting no shadow upon the walls. She moved with an eery grace, a preternatural elegance, an absolute silence about her as she stalked between the fading light.
Over time, her body had slipped deeper into the embrace of undeath. Its grip on her tightening slowly, almost imperceptibly, the changes morphing her physical self into one that lingered between the realm of life and death. Her chest no longer rose or fell, no air drew between her lips nor whistled from her nose – for the dead do not need to breathe. But the absence of breath, was an untold advantage when stalking in the mist of shadow, crawling through the darkened passage eyes unblinking. Unseen and unheard, she moved like a whisper drifting upon the breeze.
As she neared the corner of the open chambered crossroad, a subtle grinding of metal drifted to her ears. Her steps paused, ears keen and sharp, focusing on the clatter beyond. Footsteps, pacing back and forth, steel dragging upon something coarse, something like bone. Curious, her own slow and deliberate footsteps prowled towards the sound, flattening herself against the stone wall before carefully peering into the torch-lit hallway. A cold chill of ice traced the length of her spine, a sliver of frost sliding along her skin. She saw them, the long dead guardians of the dark palace. Six of the Grave Knights, skeletal figures dressed in dastardly black steel, donned with rusted spikes, stained with the darkness of aged blood. A shiver of white frost danced across the steel, ever melting and freezing in an ever-changing flow of winter. The tips of each spike seemed to shimmer along the heavy greaves and plates, icicles forming in small jagged structures, before thawing and dripping away, only to be replaced once more. Under the slithering ice, upon their chests remained long rusted and weathered bits of old heraldry. With squinting eyes, Willow realized they were reminiscent of some of the older and no longer used crests of the Barcan nobility. Her eyes traced along the lengths of their frozen great swords, and there too she saw the time worn maker’s marks that indicated they were of Ghastenhall make. Once, these frosted warriors of death were Talrien men.

Slipping in between the dead, slow and deliberate steps carefully prowled into the chamber, weaving her silent way towards the far side of the room. Willow trusted her silent movements, her preternatural grace to guide her unseen and unheard as she slinked into position. As she grew closer to the knights, she felt the curious touch of darkness slither against her skin. Strangely, to her the touch was soft and warming, almost welcoming. But she had no time to muse upon it. She counted in her mind, ticking away the seconds, waiting for the moment to ambush. When it came, the scene erupted into chaos as the Forsaken caught the knights by surprise. They charged from beyond the hallway, picking their targets and launching into battle, as they gave the armoured skeletons no time to prepare and ready their swords or shields. Willow leapt from the shadows, blades flashing as she thrust them forward, clean and precise aim piercing through bone. The keen metal spilt the dusted white bone, splinters ricocheting in cracking lines along the ribs, before simply falling into shatters. The solid sets of steel armour fell heavy to the stone floor, the pieces scattering apart, strewn about the room.
Suddenly, a sharp pain rippled through Willow head, forcing her hand up to clutch the side of her scalp. Her feet stumbled backwards, as a tight grip seemed to grab hold of her consciousness. Time slowed as a throbbing beat drummed into her mind. It clenched, crushing downward. And then she heard it – the whispers. The ones that tried to control. Her eyes flew wide, searching for the source of the voice.
She found him in the form of a dark skeleton. Though he wore armour that matched the others that fought around him, he was decorated with military stripes and pins, marking him as the one leading the Grave Knights. As her eyes drew to the blackened wells where his once stood, she was hit with a foreboding and sickening revelation. Only greater undead had the power to control the weaker of their own kind. And although not weaker, that was what she was; one of his kind. Though her flesh was still plump and smooth, though she appeared to even the observant eye a living breathing being – she was not. She was a corpse that still moved. A skeleton with flesh, a dead being that refused to move on from this life. She was undead, just as the withered and scarred skeleton commander was.
It was a thought that should have turned Willow’s stomach and weakened her resolve. And for a moment, it appeared as if it did. Time appeared to skid to a halt, the five other knights clashing their steel against the Forsaken, as the commander froze with his outstretched hand inviting and tempting Willow into his control.
It was then, that a laugh fell from her lips. It was soft and delicate – and cold. When she looked to the other Forsaken, blades and bludgeons flying through the air with blazing passion alight in their eyes – she simply laughed at the commander. They were no ordinary undead. They were powerful and unstoppable, and they had come to the Agathium, in the furthest reaches of the Savage North to eliminate a much more powerful undead than he who stood before her. She simply wiped her mind clear, closing it off to him effortlessly. And as time returned, she grinned as she watched Pellius turn his blade for the commander. In one great swoop he shattered the skull, fulminating white dust of ground bone throughout the chamber.

As the cloud settled over the shattered bone and frozen steel, they turned their eye towards the southern door, beyond which could be heard the mumbling of voices and clattering of wood and stone. They moved quickly towards the door, surrounding the entrance with their weapons drawn. As they flung the door wide and attempted to rush inside, it seemed Garvana and Pellius too felt a peculiar sensation that stopped their movement.
“What are you doing in here?!” cried a rasping voice in a piercing wail, “Who are you?! Huh?! Who are you?!”
A man jumped up from the wooden chair he was sitting upon, slamming his tome closed, pointing an accusatory finger towards the doorway as he backed up further into the chamber. Dressed in robes stained with dirt and scum, unbothered by what appeared to be blood and ink smears along the satin fabric. Scattered hair upon his head that had begun to bald in patches, leaving behind only tufts that stuck out on awkward angles. His wide bulging eyes flickered back and forth between each of those who stood at his door, from his desk, to his bed and back to the door. His fingers shook and convulsed, as the skittish man awaited his answer.
“You would be Grigori Sherkov,” Willow said coldly, arching her brow, “The necromancer.”
“We are here to claim what is rightfully ours,” Pellius said firmly, his chin lifting as his fingers readjusted on the handle of his weapon, drawing the man’s sight to Hellbrand, “The downfall of Thorn is upon him. He is no longer fit to lead the Knots, he is no longer worthy to lead at all. And those who stand with him now, will fall beside him.”
“Ah,” the necromancer nodded, wide eyes flickering chaotically as he rushed through his words, “You’re the Ninth Knot. Expected you weeks ago. Took your time, didn’t you. What kept you? What was the delay? Huh?!”
Willow’s brow shot high, as a sly smile came upon her face.
“Well?!” Sherkov snapped impatiently, “What was the delay?!”
“You would do well to mind your manners old man,” Pellius warned viciously, attempting to step forward.
“Ah ah now!” Sherkov shook his head and pointed finger vigorously, “You cannot enter! You cannot enter my private dwelling! You do not have permission!”
Willow’s brows lowered, as the curious suspicion swarmed through her mind. She knew not how he knew they were taken by the vampiric curse, nor how he knew they could not enter his dwelling uninvited. But the Forsaken had their ways around such things. She kept her intense gaze upon the necromancer as she rasped a bitter command in infernal towards Sith, folding her arms delicately over her chest. The enormous hellhound was quick to comply, pushing his way through the others as he easily stepped over the threshold and into the chamber. Traya followed Sith’s lead, whispering a quick incantation as each step inside transformed her slim figure into the bulking size and gritted earth of an elemental.
“Alright,” the necromancer grumbled, backing up further into the corner, flinching as Sith’s menacing growl snarled towards him, “What do you want?”
“You have one chance,” Pellius offered darkly, “Flee. Abandon Thorn and live to see another day. Or stay, and die here, now.”
“Not much of a choice,” Sherkov mumbled under his breath, sending a short longing look to the door on the far side of the room.
“Perhaps…” Willow began, arching her brow.
No,” Pellius cut off her off coldly, brandishing his weapon, “Flee, or die.”
“There are a few things I must gather first,” the necromancer rushed, holding out his hands in surrender, “Under the bed. And then I will go, and you will never see me again.”
Traya, in her massive form, thundered her steps towards the bed. She grabbed hold of the corner bed post and easily swung the entire thing upward, revealing a small lockbox and a case filled with potions underneath.
Hey you great brute!” Sherkov cried, running for his belongings, too outraged to be bothered by snatching things from a creature of earth almost twice his size, “Hands off!”
He quickly gathered up his belongings, turning a foul eye towards Pellius before a swirl of coursing magic vanished him from the chamber, “You have your wish…”
Traya dropped the bed, the wood splintering as it crashed into the stone floor. Suddenly, the unseen force that had held Willow at bay eased. She carefully moved into the chamber, pursing her lips as she looked around at the incomprehensible notes strewn about the chamber.
“Could have been a waste,” she commented, picking up the book he was reading and flicking through it, “He quite obviously knew his craft well.”
“And you would have trusted him?” Pellius scoffed, crossing his arms over his broad chest, “He was clearly utterly insane.”
“Yes,” Willow smirked, “But the insane ones are usually the most brilliant…”

They delved deeper into the dark temple, following its winding hallways, trying not to lose their way in the labyrinth of stone. When they reached a dead end doorway, Willow felt a curious stirring in the still veins along her limbs. The metal whined as she pushed the doors open wide, revealing a chamber filled with all manner of strange mechanisms – crystalline tubes, cabinets of esoteric machinery, bundles of black cable and shimmering wire, capacitors that seethed with dense black liquid. The peculiar engine hummed, reverberating with sinister purpose. Her careful steps were fueled by curiosity, as she toed her way into the cavernous chamber, eyes flicking back and forth between unending and indecipherable oddities. At four points of the of the mechanism where the wire and cords seemed to converge, were four glowing columns of blackness. They each hovered above their base, shimmering as if they were swaying in a breeze, liquid flowing down a stream. They were more than liquid, an inky blackness that seemed to consume and devour any and all light. As Willow stared with wide and enraptured eyes towards the darkness, her feet unknowingly crept her closer. As she neared a single column by the eastern wall, her mouth fell slightly agape. The blackness seemed to reach for her, a tendril of thick yet translucent darkness, stretching longingly towards her. Upon instinct, her hand lifted to greet the darkness, her fingers grazing along the utter blackness. Whatever she had thought would come of the thrumming alien device, a tender caress that lifted her spirits and hope was not on her list. The darkness seemed to stroke her skin, warming her cold and undead flesh from the inside out. She felt it coursing through her unmoving veins, she felt it pulsing and radiating from her still and unbeating heart. She felt more alive and filled with vitality than she had ever before, she felt an elation lift the solemn weight from her mind, she felt the worry and stress dissolve away. Basking in the radiance of darkness, her feet drew closer to the column, its blackness coiling around her flesh in a warm and almost lustful embrace. Still the warmth and elation grew, energy bounding through her limbs, bright and passionate activity surging with her.
“My lady!” Pellius’ voice interrupted sharply.
She felt his cold hand grip her forearm, his frown burrowing deeper as he felt the warmth touch to her skin. With a swift pull, he forced her backwards from the darkness, far enough that its dense and eery tendrils could not reach her.
“What are you doing?” she scowled, shaking her head to clear it.
“What am I doing?” he scoffed, “You were about to step into that damned machine!”
“Do not be ridiculous,” she sighed, rolling her eyes, “I was simply…”
She paused for a moment, realizing how strange and suspicious she must have looked from afar. A lopsided grin fell upon her lips as she coyly shrugged a shoulder.
“It did not try to harm me…” she said, looking towards the blackness, “It… embraced me. It’s touch was soft, and… invigorating. I feel stronger and revitalized! I have never known so much energy!”
“That is because that’s what it is,” Traya said warily, wide eyes staring at Willow, steps edging further out of the room, “Negative energy. Pure, raw, negative energy.”
“It is?” Willow frowned, tilting her head slightly.
“That would be why it did not harm you,” Garvana nodded in understanding, “Dark energy feeds the undead, but feeds from the living.”
“This device,” Traya continued, eyes of an arcane mage scouring the machine from the doorway, “It is somehow connected to the negative energy plane. Those columns, the blackness that wrapped around you, it is pure negative energy. I think that somehow, the dark energy is being harnessed, but for what purpose, I do not know.”
“Perhaps it is being used to interfere with scrying into the Agathium,” Garvana offered, her own steps taking her into the chamber, “It would explain why all of our searching turned up nothing.”
“Yes,” Traya nodded, frowning further as a thought passed through her mind, “It is possible. But curious, this technology… its similar to what was used in that crystalline case that holds that lich, the Nameless Tyrant.”
“Wait,” Willow frowned, looking to Traya, “I swear I have heard of this… of a time in the distant past, the Nameless Tyrant was said to have built a great machine, to build himself an army of undead. It was supposed to be his greatest achievement, the one thing that mortals could not counter. An army of the undying, who could be slaughtered only to rise again and again… Could this be that device?”
“It is possible,” Traya said quietly, eyes laced with a tint of panicked distrust, “I do not know what it does, but I do not think we should linger.”
Garvana!” Pellius snapped suddenly, “Get out of there!”
Willow quickly turned back to the chamber, eyes flying wide as laughter burst from her lips. Garvana had stepped completely into the column of darkness, the tendrils swarming along her flesh, dragging her deeper into its blackened embrace. All that could be seen were the edges of shining metal, the pointed seams of her armour, and her feet that hung beneath the hovering blackness. As Pellius’ harsh command reached the woman, her face emerged from the seething dark, a clear understanding of the elation across her features. As all eyes were upon her, she simply smiled, completely unaware of the tension. Her eyes glazed and in her hazed stupor, she sighed in deep contentment.
“Get out of there!” Pellius chided.
She only laughed, shrugging her shoulder lazily at his concern, “What, why?”

The soft rattling of bone caught their attention, a rhythm of unhurried footsteps clattering down the hallways, drawing closer towards them. Weapons were ripped from sheathes, bodies turning on heels, eyes wide as weight sunk into deepened knees. Willow whispered her command, cloaking herself in the ripple of invisibility, backing up against the wall. The Forsaken moved swiftly into position, waiting in anticipation, fingers tightening their grip. Slowly, a meandering skeleton rounded the corner, carrying a pile of folded linen sheets in its arms. Its unrushed and casual manner did not change as it continued to move towards them, it paid them no mind as it moved to unobtrusively pass them. Willow lowered her blades, a small frown upon her brow. Suddenly, the sheer power erupted from Pellius, his flaming blade tearing through the hardened bone as if it were silk. The linen fell heaped to the floor, crumpled under the shattered shards of bone.
Willow rolled her eyes as he hefted his blade upon his shoulder.
“Perhaps a tad over kill,” she scoffed.
He shrugged as he chuckled deeply, his eyes searching for her for a moment before he strode forward towards the open archway.
When they approached the door that the skeleton had come through, Willow felt her eyes dragging once more. The chamber was filled with skeletons, all performing general chores and maintenance. She saw Pellius’ childish grin, shaking her head as he stepped forward, adjusting his grip upon the dark and dastardly Hellbrand.
As the bone crumpled beneath the sheer power of his swing, a shower of white shards exploding throughout the chamber, a shrill squeal accompanied the rattling shatter upon the stone floor. The rest of the subservient skeletons that moved through the kitchen had turned towards Pellius, screeching a piercing cry as one of their number fell. The shrill raced out of the chamber, echoing through the passages, ricocheting off of the stone walls. It was an alarm, one that would be near impossible to ignore. His flaming blade made quick work of the others, silencing the deafening sound, but not before it had reached its intended targets. As the last of the unarmed skeletons were shattered into shards of bone, the rushing footsteps of a dozen feet sped towards them. When the Forsaken emerged from the kitchen, they faced the entire league of Grave Knights, led by a dark and fearsome crusader. Clad in blackened steel that reeked of darkness, layered flanks of near impenetrable metal, a helmet barring two crooked horns of bronze. Marcel Wolfram appeared every bit the dark paladin they had been told to expect. A righteous and profane warrior, the determination and unwavering devotion clear in his piercing brown eyes. He spoke not a word as slammed the face of his helmet shut and raised his glorious mace, Engelhammer – the artefact of hell, steeling his command and signalling the knights to move forth and attack.
Unseen by the procession of knights, Willow flew up into the air high above them, watching as the dark paladin downed the contents of a potion. Suddenly, the familiar ripple coursed along his flesh, before the vision of him vanished from their sight. 
Coward!” Pellius snarled, stepping forward with his flaming sword, lip curling in disgust.
He steeled himself for a moment, eyes tracing along the line of frosted warriors, before he bared his teeth and let lose a terrifying cry of battle. All at once, he charged forward with his long blade tearing through the air, as the chamber erupted in bright and blazing flame. Garvana stepped forward with her arms outspread, eyes closing slowly as rasping words fell from her lips. She called forth the flames of hell, burning bright scarlet, tainted by sickening blackness. They rose from the cracks between the stone bricks, searing and scorching as they raced along the floor, blistering steam and boiling frost crackling as they melted the coursing frost upon the knights of ice.
Willow waited, hovering silently in the air, closing her eyes to shut out the chaos of battle and focus her mind. She listened for Marcel Wolfram, she listened intently for his heavy steps upon the stone floor. It was not long before she heard him, his shuffled steps moving to the side of the chamber, curiously quiet for one his size. She opened her eyes, gliding through the air above him, holding her daggers tightly. With every ounce of focus, she watched the clear air beneath her, visualising where the sounds corresponded to his position. When she was certain, she plummeted from above and plunged her blades downward. Though she did not see it, she felt the blades tear through flesh. She felt them collide with the harsh metal of his infernal armour, and pushed passed the seams and pierce deeply through the skin and muscle of his neck. She heard the grunted cry of pain as she drew them back and plunged them in once more, a crimson cascade of blood appearing from no where, flying through the air as it rained upon the stone floor beneath.
Her sly assault did not pass unanswered. She heard the splitting air a moment too late to completely avoid the craning swing of his dastardly mace. The sadistic hooked spikes tore shreds through her leather armour and skin as it pummelled into her upper thigh, ripping flesh from the bone as he wrenched it away. As the undead flesh hung in scraps through the grated leather, the dark figure once more became visible. With the stains of his own flooding blood coating his armour, drenched from his neck to his knees – he stared eyes of raw and untempered hatred towards Willow.

The legion of armoured skeletons moved in perfect unison. As one, they drew in deep winds of air, before violently expelling them outwards. The chamber rumbled under the battering of weighted ice and skin-splitting shards. The air turned a frosted white as a blizzard tore its unrelenting way across the Forsaken. Pellius bore the brunt of the onslaught, his white flesh shredding under the barrage, thought his mighty swing remained undeterred. But as the frosted horror moved through the chamber, Willow felt her heart clench in her chest. The dire winter drew towards Sith, eagerly seeking to douse the flames that fed his life force. Just as the ice was fatally susceptible to the heat of the flame, the flame was rendered almost helpless under the cold press of ice. As the blizzard moved towards him, Willow knew it would be enough to kill her faithful hound.
But she had given him the stone of alliance, the curious amber chunk she had found in the horde of the linnorm. She had recited and redrawn the friendship rune, offering the connection to her fiery hound, linking them by the bonds of arcana. From that moment, she had felt a strange connection with the beast. When she focused on him, she could feel him. She could sense his whereabouts; no matter how much distance had stood between them. She could sense if he was hurting; she could sense if he was wounded. She knew, if she were to try, she could shield him from harm were she to take it upon herself. And as the menacing cold siphoned the air from the flames upon Sith’s flesh, Willow clamped her teeth together to keep from sounding her worried cry. She willed the cold to seek her, she willed it away from the Hellhound. And suddenly, a surge of brittle ice slithered along her flesh, slicing through skin and sapping strength. A coldness crushed unbearably against her limbs, seizing her in place momentarily, long enough to give the paladin time to pummel his vicious mace into her side. As the ice dissipated and finally relented, she growled viciously at her hellhound, weaving through the air to avoid the onslaught of the profane spiked mace.
Bassirr skathi ter grall!” she snarled, commanding him to retreat from the ice.
With a final blazing breath of flame, the hound snarled his displeasure and followed her orders, retreating back into the kitchen.
Once he was safe, Willow gritted her teeth and turned her full attention to the paladin. He was dark and dastardly, handsome in that I take myself too seriously kind of way that Willow always found attractive. Perhaps it was the sheer strength, perhaps it was the dark and solemn brooding manner, the ever present frown of distaste. It could have even been the fierce loathing in which he looked at her, the dark promise of retribution that he swore with his hateful gaze. And yet, as he swung his terrible mace and she lithely glided out of its path now that she could see him, she felt the drum of disappointment. He was slow, and brutish. His movements so practiced and rehearsed, he lacked the blazing temper that forced Pellius to leap out of his own control every once and a while. He lacked the burning heat that flared scarlet in Pellius’ eyes, he lacked the sheer and unbreakable determination fuelled by absolute stubbornness and righteousness. He was a dark paladin of Asmodeus, but he was weak.
The shattering of bone rang out through the chambers, the splintering, the cracking, the busting; the eruption of shards and fragments that littered along the stone. Pellius and Garvana had slaughtered their way through the remaining ranks of the Grave Knights. And with a final wave of blistering fire shooting from Traya’s fingertips, the last of them danced amongst the fire with his final frosted breath, cleaving his weapon in a great whirlwind that struck each of them in turn.
As the flesh tore and the blood poured, Willow once more dove towards Wolfram, her blades perfectly positioned to slip through the seams of his armour and eagerly devour the flesh beneath. As she dragged the blade along his throat, she gritted her teeth against the cruel and callous barbs that struck her back, the wicked Engelhammer savaging the flesh beneath the leather. She felt the thundering pulse of hell’s heartbeat in her mind, convulsing along her spine and down her limbs. As the metal spikes tore deeper, the pain became excruciating – and exquisite. She felt the agony seeping through her pores, she felt the infernal blessing of the dark weapon surging its horror and profane bliss through her flesh. She felt her unbeating heart shudder. With a sinful and unholy grin lifting her lips, she ripped her blade the rest of the way across his neck, before flying up above him through the raining splatter of blood, allowing the barbs to tear themselves free from her back. As she looked down upon him, she saw the staggering chest heaving through pooled blood for air. She watched him collapse to his knees, pulling back the face of his helmet as he fought the losing battle to breathe. Willow slowly turned her grip on her daggers, holding them backward in her hands, watching his struggle for a moment.
As the last of the Grave Knights were slain, the last breath of Marcel Wolfram fell from his lips. Willow soared downwards, both blades gracefully carving over her head and plunging together. When they collided with their target, the tasted their prize. They dealt the punishment for loyalty to the losing side.

Only a moment after Willow withdrew her blades and the dark paladin collapsed to the floor, a door leading to the north opened wide. In the doorway stood a short and hunched over woman, crippled with age upon frail legs and held up by a crooked walking stick. At first glance, she seemed a hag sprung from the piles of waste. But as eyes drew more closely to her, and blades were pointed in warning, it was made clear that she was far more. Dressed in ragged robes of roughly tanned hide, draped in a cloak of tatters and dust, hung with small eldritch talismans and idols – dolls of bone and hair, effigies of twigs and wax. Though she looked a mere gasp from death, her eyes held a world of dark and terrible knowledge.
“So you are here,” she nodded to herself, speaking in a heavily lilted tongue, looking each of them over, “As it was told. Come, young ones, we have much to discuss.”
Without waiting for another word, she turned from the doorway and hobbled inside. The Forsaken looked to one another, keen suspicion and distrust across their faces. Garvana picked up Engelhammer as the others slowly made their way to the chamber entrance. Willow peered inside, frowning to see a glorious banner with a flaming axe mounted on the rear wall.
“Come on now,” called the old woman, “I haven’t got too many years left in me, and I don’t want to waste them waiting for you to decide to enter.”
Willow frowned, eyes scanning the door and its frame for anything out of place, looking for the trap that was about to spring. But even as she looked, with eyes as keen as hers, she found nothing.
“My dear,” the woman chuckled, “If I was going to curse you, I would not bother with glyphs on a door. Too easy to see.”
Willow’s frown deepened, as her slow steps brought her into the chamber beyond. She was greeted by a curious sight. The room was spilt in two. One half made it clear that these chambers were ready and awaiting the eventual return of Sakkarot Fire-Axe. A bed made of piled enormous furs, a large weapon and armour stand, and a heavy chest burned with a silhouette of a burning axe. Yet the other side was decorated much like the old woman herself. Fetishes, idols and woven dolls. Bone strung from the ceiling, some animal, some human. Black crystals lined the small rickety dresser, curious beads and stones heaped in piles. And a small cot, made from weaved straw and fur, pushed into the darkest corner of the room.
“Do not be scared, child,” the old woman said sweetly, in a deeply condescending tone, “If I wanted you dead, you would not have known I existed.”
“Is that so?” Willow replied, arching her brow, keeping her sharp reply to herself, “You shall have to excuse the suspicion. You are the first… friendly, face we have come across.”
“Do not be so quick to judge, dear,” the woman responded, reaching out and patting Willow’s hand, “You do not know me yet.”
Willow felt her skin crawl as her temper rose at the indignation. She resisted the urge to backhand the woman, knowing well that a simple slap could be enough to shatter every bone in the frail womans body.
“Who are you?” Pellius demanded.
“Someone who could help you,” she replied, smiling bitterly sweet.
“And how do you propose to do that?”
“I know much of this place…”
“We have heard that before,” Garvana said coldly, “And I do not know if there is anything left that we need to know.”
“Do not be so rash, child. It could be your undoing.”
“Is that a threat?” she growled, stepping forward, clutching her mace.
“No, my dear,” she smiled, “A warning only. Do not turn away help before you know if you need it. It could get you killed.”
Willow could not help but admire the aged woman. She sat upon her stack of logs, surrounded by four powerful beings who stood covered in the blood of the enemies they had just slain. And she smiled, threatening them as if she feared nothing.
“What is it you want?” Willow asked, “And what is it exactly that you offer?”
“Your plans for this country,” the woman said, a slight frown creasing her brow, “You are going to destroy the Church of Mitra, yes?”
“Eventually, yes,” Willow replied, arching her brow, “Why? And who would you see in Mitra’s place?”
“I care not what else you do,” she waved her hand dismissively, “I care not who you put in his place – your devil-god, a bore or a pig, I care not. But I will see the Church of Mitra destroyed.”
“Our goals seem to be aligned,” Willow frowned, “But you have answered neither of my questions. What is it you want, and what is it you offer in return?”
“Not the brightest, are we my dear? I wish not for your coins and treasures, I wish only my revenge. I wish to see the Church of Mitra pay for what they have done. I wish them destroyed. And in return, I will help you do this.”
Willow bit her tongue, grinding her teeth together to stop from biting back.
Garvana scoffed, folding her arms over her chest, “And we are supposed to just trust you?”
“I care not,” she shrugged, “Our deal has been struck. While you deal with Thorn, I shall pack my things.”
Willow could not help but laugh at the woman’s assumption, once more impressed and soured by her insolence and boldness. She knew well that such an ingrained arrogance always came from somewhere, that a woman of her size and stature would need to be truly powerful to be so confident.
“Go on now, children,” she smiled, struggling up from her seat as she began to pack away her curious and grotesque belongings, “Do not keep me waiting.”
With frowns on their brows, the Forsaken slowly moved for the door. As they returned to the hallway, the old woman smiled as she closed the door behind them.
She nodded her head, “I shall open the spirit ward for you. Travelling companions are much more bearable with their minds in tact.”
As their unsure steps led them away from the chamber, the halted as they stepped over the bloodied mess of bone. Garvana frowned deeply, looking to Willow.
“What in hell’s name just happened?”
Willow laughed, shaking her head both in disbelief and in an attempt to clear it, “I have absolutely no idea…”

The winding hallways seemed unending, the sheer size of the underground temple awe-inspiring, countless chiselled hallways leading in new directions. The map they had been provided by Queen Ellisif, was vague and weak. Though it marked large chambers and quarters, they passed many doors and passages that she did not deign to script onto the parchment. But the Forsaken had long learnt the value of being thorough. As they passed, Willow slipped by each chamber, grazing her eyes upon the locks and frames, before giving her nod of assurance. Each door was opened, each room was given a cursory search and marked on the map for further exploration when their need for haste was not so great.
Neatly arranged guest quarters, empty prison cells, a professional torture chamber with an array of wonderfully crafted and wicked tools. But they had no time to stop and peruse such things.
With each passing chamber, Willow’s affinity with the sinister palace grew. The Agathium was truly a marvel of tribute to the Lord of the Nine. Each hallway, each wall, each room; in someway paid respects and honours to the Archfiend. Willow could think of no better place to centre their cunning and devious plans, no better home from which to corrupt and command the masses. It was perfect. Secret and hidden, not easily accessible, and already embellished with copious amounts of infernal regalia. And there was only one man, long passed his expiry date, that stood in their way.

As her eyes traced the outline of a set of large steel double doors, her fingers paused short of grasping the handle. She found no traps or triggers, she found no runes or glyphs, but painted along the edges of the steel door were the unmistakable scorch marks of burnt lightning. She silently traced the marks and showed the others, clutching her blades tighter, carefully reaching for the door handle. She counted their entry, before quietly unlatching and pushing the door wide. A room with no light opened out before them, a large chamber with taller ceilings than any of those before them. Though no fire hung in sconces upon the walls, the eyes of the undead could see clearly through the darkest shadows. The massive chamber appeared empty, simply a forgotten room closed off to await a use some time in the future, much like half of the chambers in the lower temple. Looks though, could be deceiving. There was a presence in the room. A wicked and foul presence, an aura of death and destruction, paired with the bitter taste of burnt flesh and fabric. So it came as no surprise that a voice drifted from the darkness, a sour malice that rasped in warning.
Who are you to enter unbidden?” the voice hissed.
Willow pushed the door completely open, slowly twirling her blades in her fingers, grazing her eyes across the room. She heard the shuffle of the others behind her, searching the darkness in much the same way.
“The Nessian Knot,” Pellius answered firmly, “And I will not talk to shadows. I demand you show yourself!”
A lash of lightning struck out towards them, missing Pellius’ head by mere inches. It was not an attack; it was a warning.
“It is ever so rude not to greet your guests,” Willow said politely, making slow and deliberate steps along the side of the door, toeing just inside the chamber.
“It is ever so rude,” the voice growled, “To enter unbidden!”
Suddenly, an eruption of blistering light rippled through the air towards Willow, before a mirrored version exploded from the opposite side of the room towards Pellius. The full force of seething lightning struck the heavy steel that Pellius wore, while Willow lithely danced around the tendrils of light, before launching herself up into the air. As she soared above the doorway, a shrieking voice halted her path.
STOP THIS NONSENSE!” Garvana cried, “Do you truly owe Thorn that kind of loyalty?! You would risk being destroyed for him!?”
For a moment, the lightning ceased and only silence hung in the chamber.
“Would you consider a deal?” Garvana said, in a calmer tone, lowering her mace.
“Speak, human,” grated the voice.
“We do not seek your destruction, only that of Adrastus Thorn. We would leave you unharmed, and ask that you left us in the same way. What would you ask of us, in return for a truce?”
Silence greeted her answer. But after a time, a strange sight unfolded. A small ripple of lightning danced along a solid figure, shimmering in the mirror-like shine of scaled bones. Slowly, two prodigious dragons of bone and lightning revealed themselves, clinging to the impossibly thin creases of the walls. They were formed of only bone, and plated scales that had shrivelled and fused with the thick ribs and spine of the dragon, coloured by lightning that danced freely along the harsh and grated bone. Two pairs of eyes, blazing like white fire were watching the Forsaken with vicious and keen interest.
“We do not care for mortal concerns,” the undead dragon on the left hissed, “Nor for the concerns of the dark lich. We wish release from this foul place, we wish to answer the calling of the Desert of Karadoum.”
Willow slowly allowed herself to float back to the ground, lowering her blades as she watched the waltzing lights dance in shattered patterns along the bones. As her feet returned to the floor, she slowly slid her daggers back into their sheathes.
“Freedom,” Willow surmised, “For sanctuary.”
“Agreed,” hissed the dragon of bone, a tooth-ridden grin snapping back at them, “So long as we do not meet again, while the lich still lives…”

Moving through the shadowed chambers, winding through the turning passages, finding their way further north through the hallways. And all at once, each path converged upon a single point. Each winding hallway led to a solitary passage, a long and dark walkway that stretched on for what seemed like miles. It was enough to instil the creeping chill of worry, the soft touch of fear tracing their spines, while the quiet seemed to project and echo even the slightest movements they made. In the deafening silence, Willow could hear the beating heart of the living that accompanied them. Traya, seemingly fearless and firm, stoic determination clear across her face. But the thundering beat of her heart betrayed her calm. Willow could not blame her. For even herself, feeling at home hidden in the blackened shadows, the cold chill of trepidation still slithered along the back of her neck.
Finally, the long and ominous hallway produced a feature other than the dark and oppressive shadow. A wall of shimmering white blocking the way forward. Slowly, the Forsaken approached. Creeping steps brought Willow closer, eyes flickering, searching the glistening white for a way through. But as she drew close, her mouth fell slightly agape, the hairs on her neck standing upon end. The wall did not shimmer, or glisten, or glimmer. It moved. Faces, hundreds of them – each with their eyes sewn tightly shut. The faces moved, as if they were alive, straining to break the string that weaved through their eyelids and forced their eyes shut. Souls in agony, trapped and blinded. As Willow watched, her stomach turning in unease, the wall slowly dissolved before her eyes. She stared for a moment, untrusting of what she had seen.
“The spirit ward,” Traya whispered, eyes wide, “The old woman, she mentioned that she would open the spirit ward for us.”
Garvana rushed her incantation, glazing eyes reading the arcana that lingered in the area.
“What was it?” Willow asked quietly.
“I do not know,” Traya replied, her clenched brow revealed her own unease, “Something evil. Something horrible.”
“It is too late,” Garvana frowned deeply, “The magic has gone, as if it was erased as the ward was released.”
“Come on,” Pellius commanded, growling his impatience, “If the map is correct, the throne room is just ahead. Be ready.”
He marched ahead of the others, passing confidently over the threshold where the ward had been. As he rounded the corner to the east, the others followed suit. But as they moved to follow the last length of the passage way, Willow’s curious eye caught something. The smallest crease, a line in the brickwork. It was barely perceivable, but it was enough of an irregularity to grasp Willow’s attention, halting her steps.
“Wait!” she whispered forcefully, gliding her fingers along the crevice, “Look…”
She heard the impatient sigh from Pellius, his hurried steps as he returned to her. She carefully slipped her thin fingers into the seam, splitting open the crease and pulling a remarkably well hidden panel free from the wall.
“What have you found,” Pellius breathed, a sly smile lifting his lips.
“If I was Thorn,” Willow replied in a whisper, “Would I wait proudly in my throne room? Or would I cower behind hidden walls and secret chambers?”
With the large panel open, it was simple enough to pull aside the brickwork wall, revealing what lay beyond. Darkness, total and utter darkness. So black that even Willow’s sight could not pierce the dense shadow, nor did the light of Sith’s flames move passed the threshold. Willow looked to Pellius, before looking to Garvana and Traya. She saw their trepidation, and she saw their fear. But she saw behind their eyes the same determination that pushed her first steps into the blackness. They would face this, as they had everything else – together.

Slow echoing steps sounded through the tight stone passage, like the gradual ticking hand of a clock, counting down their approach in heart beats. They pushed deeper into the abyss of night, blinded by a dense blanket of eery nothingness. The eyes of even vampires could not pierce the veil of darkness. Gliding hands along the stone walls, soft stumbling steps finding their way through. They walked for what felt like hours in the blinding dark. They stumbled onward, only the sounds of their echoing steps to guide them.
Finally, a glimmer of flickering light, a ray of flame dancing upon a brickwork corner. The glowing light shimmered upon the edge, peeking from beyond, luring those out of the darkness and into its embrace. As the gentle echo of footsteps neared the dancing light, eyes drew to the end of the foreboding passage.
Two wide double doors, charred the colour of blackened steel, a single carving along their flank. The Archstar, large enough to encompass the entire length of the doors – a warning, a promise, of what would be found inside. Thorn was supposed to be found in the throne room to the east. The map, and every detail they had been given pointed to the eastern chamber. But, Thorn knew deception well. And so too, did Willow. She knew what they would find behind the dark and infernal doors. They would find him, waiting, ready, blistering in madness and mania.
Willow steadied herself, her fingers reaching to grasp her pendant, tracing over the obsidian pentagram. With her teeth gritted, and her head held high, she shoved both doors open and faced her destiny.

The chamber before her opened out into an enormous hall, bathed in a sea of hell’s darkness, a wash of ebony and scarlet. Baroquely decorated in all manner of Asmodean iconography, the chamber’s sheer size barely lit by the hundreds of everburning torches and candles. Prominent upon the walls were scheming devils, infernal beasts, fiendish creatures – feasting, reveling and slaughtering all who stood against them. Great columns rose to a splendid vaulted ceiling adorned with a curiously abstract representation of the nine circles of hell. The walls were lined with niches, each one depicting a different order of devil, each paying homage to the towards the centerpiece of the dark chamber. At the far end of the room, upon a raised dais was a throne of black alabaster. The throne itself was marvel of infernal artistry. Every square inch, intricately covered with the malicious dancing language of hell. One could say it was akin to a holy text of Asmodean teachings made into a throne. One could say, it was a primer in the million ways that man may fall into hell’s service.
And sitting upon the throne, was the treacherous fiend himself, Adrastus Thorn. The dark lich no longer bothered with deception, showing himself in his true fearsome form. A being of cracked and charred bone, a rotted corpse now cleansed by flame of the mortal flesh. Draped in black tattered robes, he wore only a silver pendant of the inverted pentagram falling over a ripped and shredded cloak. Though at first sight he seemed an unfit and distasteful addition to the elegant throne room, there was an almost palpable aura of evil and purpose about him. This was no mere skeleton; this was the most powerful single agent of Asmodeus that Talingarde had ever produced. This was the man who saw the four pillars of the Darian regime and predicted how each might be toppled. This was the man who planned and perpetrated the fall of Mitra in the eyes of the thousands. This was the traitor, one who had risen highly through the ranks and then turned his back on the light of the sun god to fully embrace the consuming darkness of Hell. Yet this too, was the man who had raised the Forsaken to where they were, guided their journey to greatness, only to turn his back on them too.  
“When you sat in Branderscar,” he said, in a voice formed of perfect hatred, “Watching the last minutes of your life tick away, who was it that saved you? Who was it who brought hope even to the forsaken?”
He stood from his sinister throne, lifting his chin as the wells of his eyes blazed a venomous and furious scarlet. His words lashed like blades, his absolute and utter loathing seethed like boiling acid.

 “And this is how I am thanked?” he spat, opening his arms outspread, as if welcoming them to their doom, “When I am finished, my children, you will lament the hour you refused the Mitrans’ merciful ending. When I am finished, you will beg, for the mercy of death…”

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