The Way of the Wicked

Serpents and Death guard against a holy heart aka: “You probably heard we ain't in the prisoner-takin' business...”

NB: Certainly a fun one to write, this one. Personally, I love over the top dramatics and while writing, I couldn’t help but indulge myself a little. The reader will find towards the end a link to a youtube video. This is a 2 minute piece of music which I favour from a series I favour. It was what was going through my head all the while as I wrote that section. For ease, I would recommend you read the entire Log, then go back to the link, plug some headphones in and read the formation of Knessian Knot again as it plays. True, the track isn’t quite long enough for those of us who read at a steady pace, but it should suddenly put colour into the images dancing through your head.

After only a few minutes, just as the Villains began to awake from their quiet stupor at the sight of Chase’s destruction, Thorn suddenly stood before them again, but this time he was not alone. Standing beside him stood a small, dark skinned creature. It was female and her large nose, thin, sunken features and long, silken black hair spoke of her as a Gnome, but a Gnome unlike most had experienced. For those that did recognise her species, they knew she was a Svirfneblin, a Deep Gnome, a being who found solace in the bowels of the earth. While she was undeniably ugly to certain eyes, she stood quietly, not daring to look up from the floor which she either found extraordinarily interesting or preferable to the sight of so many strangers all at once.

‘You will not make it the rest of the way as you are’ Thorn said tersely ‘this is someone I have brought, someone who has tried and failed before but I have given her a second chance. Her name is Moruga Scorpion and while she is not much to behold, she is more than what she appears. She has already signed the Compact and she will serve as Chase’s replacement.’ He then took several steps back and disappeared once more leaving Moruga standing before the party, her hands clasped nervously in front of her, her eyes finding courage to look from the floor to people’s feet and legs.
‘Hey there, stinky’ Shivani pipped up mirthfully
Moruga only managed a glance at Shivani and a small, nervous wave before resuming her looking at the floor.
‘Hello there, sweety’ Shivani tried again in a kinder tone ‘what do you do? I can see you’re a talker (as well as a looker)’ this last comment elicited a few hushed chuckles from the others.
‘Do you stand in the front or the back?’
Moruga quietly shifted away, extraordinarily uncomfortable at this apparent evaluation. She wished to herself that they could just continue rather than standing around, she hated this sort of attention.
‘Well this aught to be good’ Shivani said ironically before turning to the door before them.
The Villains readied themselves and opened the door with a sudden jerk.

As the door swung wide, the Villains stole themselves against what they knew was going to be there. The two metallic cobras rose up high, higher than a man, in an obvious display of intimidation. Knowing from the commotion that had transpired from behind the door, their cold programming commanded them to consume. Both serpents released a death knell of a hiss, a sound so filled with menace that it could have taken the hearts of kings. Their mithril bodies shimmered brilliantly in the lamplight behind them and threw two long, terrible shadows towards the Villains. Grakas was the first. The first cobra lashed out with terrifying speed and bit down hard into the pit-fiends right arm, depositing its deadly payload into his body before withdrawing, almost smugly to watch this intruder fall. Grakas reeled from the attack and felt the venom move through his veins, but the blood of devils is not so easily defeated. Within the barbarian, a billion tiny cells born of the darkness and fuelled with Asmodian power assaulted the destructive enzymes in such a rapid and devastating fashion that Grakas barely felt more than a slight tingle in his arm before it dissipated. Grakas would not be defeated through a mere poison, he would not suffer the insult!
That said, when Grakas immediately retaliated, the slight sensation of pins and needles in his arm distracted him just enough to humiliate him. He lashed clumsily at his assailant and either missed the undulating form or failed to even so much as scratch the mithril armour plate.
As Rythern threw a beam of acid towards the first serpent and then began cursing loudly as it narrowly missed its target, Moruga Scorpion dove forward like an expert gymnast, tucking herself in and rolling through the shrinking space between the serpents coils. The second cobra struck out but the Deep Gnome was faster even than the reflexes of this blisteringly quick construct. The monk sprang up from her roll and instantly spun and connected a fist hard into the first snakes coils… and her eyes went wide with pain as her fingers crunched against the mithril, harmless for her opponent but bruising for both her hand and her ego. Her father would not have been impressed.
If magic would not do, then perhaps shining steel would bite into these creatures, thought Rythern as he drew and his lowered his crossbow, aiming down its length. The bolt soared straight and true, the sorcerers aim seeing it almost curve around Grakas and strike the first cobra straight between the eyes. However, the creatures armour once again proved too much, even for a streaking bolt and the missile deflected harmlessly away. Rythern began to swear again.

Shivani knew she had to push the situation back into their favour. Calling upon the divine energy that permeated the cosmos itself, she passed the foresight of the Ages into Grakas, guiding his strikes. As the first cobra once again lanced out and embedded its fangs deep into Grakas’ shoulder, the effects of the venom fell against a hardened body of unrelenting muscle and bone and claw. With a cry that echoed louder than most could bare, Grakas swung a magically guided claw and tore instantly through the mithril plate as if it were made of paper, the strike so shockingly powerful that he cleaved the snake in two! Dark hydraulic fluid spattered everywhere just as satisfying as any well earned blood. Using his momentum, Grakas stepped forward and attempted to shatter the second serpent’s skull against his own but the construct dodged aside, retreating back into its lair.
Vaelus stepped forward, calmly and unimpressed by this thing of metal and mechanical trickery. As the mithril cobra lunged out in fear at the half-elf, Vaelus seemed to have his sword in front of him faster than any could blink and impaled the snake through its own mouth, the point grinning malevolently from the other side of the snake’s head, dripping with unknown black fluids. All was still as Vaelus remained unmoving from the lunge. It was as if time had inexplicably frozen for a few moments. Finally, Vaelus withdrew his sword smartly and had sheathed it before the snake had time to crash to the ground.

Aside from the door they had just come from, all that the bare room boasted aside from the leaking remnants of the ophidian guardians was a large, wooden door, secured with a large iron bar across its entrance. The mere presence of the barricade added a sense of menace to the portal. Was the bar there to prevent the serpents from getting out, or was it intended to keep something on the other side in?
‘You never got this far, did you sweety?’ Shivani asked of Moruga. Moruga shook her head solemnly.
The bar was not tremendously heavy and Grakus and Lucian had little difficulty in moving it. Opening the door revealed another short passage, twenty feet away revealing yet another door. Above it, the inscription read:* “Suffer not the fool, stupidity is the faith’s cardinal sin”*

The room beyond was large, almost like a great hall. To the left, leading to the east wall, was a set of wide stone steps leading into an alcove. Before them in the centre of the room was a podium, a stone plinth upon which held in place by an elegant claw-like setting, a silver pendant of a dragon, the eyes shimmering blue sapphires in the light of the oil lamp suspended from above.
Rythern clenched his fist in victory at the sight of the trinket. Perhaps this is what they had been looking for? But this was only the sixth Lesson, what lay beyond?
With the Villains rightfully suspicious of this pendant and mindful of the inscription guarding the room, Shivani called the pendant towards her, telekinetically lifting it gracefully from its perch and floating as gently as blossom on the breeze towards her. She handed it to Vaelus, trusting in his material eye. As the huntsman studied it, the rest of the party dispersed around the room, encircling it and never straying far from the walls. Shivani’s keen eye for trickery noticed something odd in the ceiling just as Vaelus came to his conclusion.
’It’s a fake’ he announced grimly ‘these aren’t sapphires but blue glass. It’s not even a particularly good fake either, barely worth a few gold pieces.’
‘Grakas dear’ Shivani said, not taking her eye off the detail she had fixated on. ‘Do you see what appears to be a concealed door in the ceiling? It looks like a thin seam is present in the rock just above those stairs.’
Following her pointing finger, Grakas confirmed her observation and approached the first stair. He pressed his ear to the floor to look intently at the first step from floor level, his eyes searching for a clue to the mechanism.
‘Ah ha!’ he said aloud as he carefully grasped a flag stone and gently lifted it free with only a minor application of force –at least for Grakas.
‘This is certainly a trap.’ he said as he knelt over the exposed pressure plate ‘If I were to guess, I would think once you step on this plate, those doors in the ceiling would open, releasing what is probably a large blade or weight which would swing through the length of this room.’
‘How large a weight?’ Vaelus enquired
‘Large enough to render any it struck into mince.’ Grakas replied with an impressed raising of his eyebrow as he prised the thin metal plate from the mechanism ’it’s what I would have done at any rate.’
‘So if one of us were to have just walked up and take that pendant or stroll up those stairs…’ Lucian began
‘You would be dead’ Grakas said casually as he clipped several springs in the mechanism with a pair of pliers from his thieves tools.
It took Grakas only a few minutes to castrate the deadly trap and so, as everyone relaxed and wandered towards the centre of the room, a new inscription could now be seen above the stairs in the back wall, obstructed by almost every other angle.
“Only the foolish believe that great deeds are easy or obvious”
‘How true’ Vaelus agreed to himself.

Thirty minutes later, Grakas uncovered the next door which once again had been disguised into the western wall and once again, the party found themselves traversing another passage which twisted towards the new door, this time to the seventh Lesson. The inscription above the door reading: “Secrecy is our greatest ally, exposure brings death”

Shivani turned silently to the others, pressed her finger to her lips to indicate utter silence from here on in, and bid the tumblers of the door to relent. Inside the room, blackness slept peacefully until the slither of light from the open door caused it flee, webbing the gloom like a spider. This was natural darkness, but due to the light entering from behind them, everyone, regardless of the excellence of their vision, could see what lay before them.
In the centre of the room was a large, purple mushroom, as tall and as as wide as a man, rooted in a circle of bare earth, the circumference of which was outlined with a multitude of small stones which stood two inches above the ground. As soon as the crease of light touched the strange fungal bloom, it began to scream such a devastatingly loud screech that it caused one or two of the Villains to fall to their knees, everyone of them trying to block out the mind-splitting volume. Lucian ran to the centre of the room and stabbed the mushroom with his rapier where it died instantly, almost seeming to deflate and collapse into a putrid pool of mush.
‘Well I suppose stealth is out of the question now’ Shivani mumbled
‘This was obviously the Shrieker that Timeon mentioned’ Lucian recalled to the others. He pointed to the only other door that remained to the west ‘we must assume we are expected.’
‘How was it possible to employ stealth within this room?’ Rythern wondered allowed
No one could provide an answer.
Lucian opened the westward door to a new twenty foot passage. The inscription above the new door read: “Beware the fallen for they may rise once more to threaten you.”

The party arranged themselves appropriately, Moruga and Grakas in the front, Lucian and Vaelus behind them and Rythern and Shivani at the back, still just within the Shrieker’s room. Swords were out, crossbows loaded. While they all suspected what lay before them, few could claim they expected it to be easy.
As Shivani telekinetically opened the door, a vicious stench rose up to greet them. Before them lay over half a dozen coffins, each festooned with dried and rough smelling sea weed, the wood stained with brine and barnacles. But the meaning behind the Shriker’s call was now only too clear as the lids of three of the coffins had already been pushed aside and the occupants began to rise to greet the new visitors to this tomb.
Rotted from within, worried apart by the ravening fish and the parasitic foetor of their sunken graves, these drowned corpses emerged, some spilling their festering entrails and slopping fluids with each pain ridden step, hoping to put an end to their pain by spreading it to others! These decrepit, soulless vessels released an almost silent outward gasp, as if they could not quite recall how to exhale. The commands of the necromantic whispers within them penetrated every level of their psyches with a constant cacophony of voices, overriding the numbness of death itself, overriding it through dominating madness. Those who’s abdomens were intact sported bellies which were swollen and bloated from the build up of nauseating vapours of rot, their eyes were either missing; revealing a horrid black window through which one could see what mortal remains were left within the skull; intact but blind, staring in an intolerable milky white gaze or barely managing to stay within the confines of the socket, quivering with each step like jelly. In one hand, each held a greataxe, the haft long enough to aid the creatures in rising from their coffins like a walking staff, the massive blade rusted and salt-stained, but this only served to give the weapons a far more intimidating veneer. As they slowly shambled towards the Villains, the rattle of the broken shackles around their ankles rang out as they dragged across the floor. Rythern was the only one who seemed vaguely happy at the sight of these lumbering, murderous cadavers, the presence of negative energy which stretched through the room due to the zombies presence, warming something deep within his own bones.

Grakas was the first to act. Advancing past Moruga, he gracefully ducked under the slow yet clumsy blow which aimed to decapitate him with a great rush of wind and clawed across the first zombie’s chest, leaving great red lines in the wake of his claws. Moruga was next, expertly rolling into position and unleashed a flurry of strikes with her feet and wrists which met home into the zombie’s knee, causing a sickening crunch from the weakened joint as it bent precariously backward, causing a sudden lurching motion as the zombie’s weight fell against the space. For a living being, the injury would have them howling in pain, the zombie merely turned its attentions to her. However, rather than bring the pommel of the haft down on top of her or attempt to cleave her in two with the blade, the zombie’s belly began to churn and quiver and suddenly a great wave of bile, gobbets of rotten meat and bloody water cascaded from the creature’s mouth, vomiting the partial contents of its body over her. She could not help but swallow some of it reflexively. Immediately she herself began to heave and vomit, her body’s natural instincts betraying her even then as she stood at the feet of this vile corpse.
Keeping one eye on the shambling horde as it approached the choke-point of the corridor, Rythern pulled free a new crossbow bolt.
‘Hey Rythie’ Shivani smiled childishly ‘you look a little beaten up there, care for a little healing?’
Rythern couldn’t help but let out a small shudder out of the memory of agony.
‘Woman’ he said tartly as he continued to load the crossbow, refusing to offer even a look at the bard as he worked ‘I hate that stuff, you know I hate that stuff, Chase died for one reason or another because I hate that stuff and if you touch me with that stuff, one way or another, you’re going to need that stuff to fix what I’m going to do to you if you even try to touch me with it. Clear?’
‘You almost sound like you don’t trust me’ she pouted in mock-offence
Rythern rose his loaded crossbow into position and seemed to point it at her whilst he never took his eye from the undead that approached some way behind her. He was searching for the perfect shot.
‘Shivani’ he said, taking aim ‘I have just one thing to say to that… duck.’
‘Where?’ she laughed, looking around as to search for a water fowl
DUCK, WOMAN!’ he roared and pulled the trigger. Shivani ducked as the bolt shot from the mechanism, missing her by inches. It streaked over her head, past Vaelus’ ear and was narrowly evaded by Grakas as he shifted his weight to avoid the zombie’s axe. Rythern cursed as the bolt which he had been attempting to aim through the relatively narrow corridor missed everyone –including its intended target. He starred envenomed daggers at Shivani for distracting him as she happily danced forward a few paces as if she were on the theatre’s stage as opposed a battle and cleared her throat.
‘Who did the zombie take to dinner?’ She directed to the undead ‘his GHOUL-friend!’
A great groan rose up from Vaelus and Lucian, Rythern only offering a narrowed glare
’They’ll never find your body’ he said icily.
Amazingly however, whether through arcane mysteries known only to Shivani or because the joke really was that bad, the zombies staggered back slightly, almost appearing to be as appalled at the pun as everyone else. Now the Villains could go on the offensive!

Grakas clenches his muscles as he let loose his primal fury again, maniacally laughing through the pain as his claws extended, his horns erupting from his skull in a small shower of blood and his muscles swelled and bulged with new strength. The barbarian then let loose a great swipe and tore off the zombie’s head, batting it away with ease like an enraged grizzly bear! He then swept with his head at the next and caught it hard round the face with his curved horns, causing the corpse to reel back as it tried to re-find its footing. As it did, Vaelus let fly a wide swing and cleanly decapitated the zombie’s head with a splatter of blood emanating smartly from the neck.
Still trying to clear her body of the despicable fluids she was now covered in, Moruga ducked into the room and positioned herself some way behind the final zombie. She was feeling better, but her eyes still watered uselessly.
Lucien now stepped back past the corridor and charged his corruptive touch, placing his hand on Rythern’s shoulder. The half-vampire breathed in the energy as if it were a fragrant spring breeze, his wounds healing completely. In gratitude he gripped Lucien’s wrist, keeping it at his shoulder before looking him proudly in the eye.
‘We shall fight to the very end, brother.’
’Don’t touch me’ Lucian glowered sternly, almost angrily as he shook off Rythern’s grip before turning back towards the enemy.
Grakas roared and tore open the third zombies chest completely now, revealing the shattered ribs and putrefied heart within. With Moruga clearing her vision with the back of her sleeve, she viciously spat out the residual taste of bile from her mouth and leapt out at the remaining zombie, her small, but solid heel connecting hard with the former human’s pelvis in a superb spinning back kick. The blow caused the zombie to release an attempt of a cry of fury which saw a hard swing aimed for the Svirfneblin monk. However, to her trained skills and reflexes, that same blow which would have chopped her through like a butcher’s cleaver seemed to be moving in slow motion. She danced gracefully aside beyond its bite and her eyes shone in gleeful challenge, silently demanding the creature to try better. It never received the chance. With well timed precision, Vaelus rose his bastard sword high over his head and with a powerful grunt of effort, brought the sword down into the zombie’s left shoulder. The blade travelled through the rotten flesh and shattered bone until it reached just short of the hip where Vaelus withdrew it. Slowly, the zombie stared at Vaelus in what could almost be described as irritated confusion as its body swung open like a door, spilling whatever lay within it around its feet.

At this point, both Rythern and Shivani realised that the door that lay within the northern wall of the chamber must lead back to the passage before the Shrieker’s room. Had they had the fortune to detect the secret door then, most likely the zombies before them would not have been roused. “No matter”, they shrugged.
With the eighth Lesson defeated, the Villains eagerly opened the westward door to the last passage way. Upon the wall next to the door, a large iron key hung from a wooden peg. Above the door, the inscription proudly proclaimed: “Serve thy master well and be rewarded.”
Shivani lifted the key from its place with her cantrip and Moruga eagerly grabed it and unlocked the door. What was this reward?

Leaning against the northern wall of this cell was a formidable looking man. He quickly stood as the Villains entered and stood in the gait of one with authority. He wore a shining suit of plate armour, a handsome steel shield affixed to his left arm which sported the same coat of arms and the Mitran insignia which Timeon had worn. The man’s face was hard and even though his otherwise neat little beard of black looked a little unkempt, there was no doubt whatsoever that this was Sir Balin, Lord of House Balentyne. Moruga’s eyes went wide in recognition.
Instantly recognising the stench of malignity, Sir Balin drew his longsword which sang a holy note as it left its scabbard. It reflected within its polished blade the slaughter of a hundred promising souls, souls who were denied service to Asmodius.
‘Who goes there?! I am Sir Balin of Carfeld!"
The Mitran Lord watched with hidden dread as the Villains casually stepped into the room, taking up positions around him, but all keeping their distance.
’We are the emissaries to the god of all the world’ Rythern announced, his smile one of twisted, long-awaited pleasure ‘We are the heralds of He whose vision penetrates all that exists. We are the messengers of the all-powerful Under-father, Master of the Lowerarchy and the Ruler of all that is significant across the infinite stretches of time, death, space and reality! You’ Rythern indicated a vicious finger ‘are the cause of so much irritation for our master. We have plied your own feeble servant with our questions and know all of the West Wall’s secrets and sent that servant to the waiting arms of the Ninth Circle’
’You’ve killed Timeon?!’ Sir Balin roared, mortified
‘And your head will no doubt be the centrepiece on Asmodius’ banquet table as they place your pathetic, writhing soul in the pot. You shall be food for God and his minions!’

With that, the party charged! As Grakas brought a razor-claw to bare, Sir Balin brought across his shield, thrusting it powerfully into the pit-fiend’s attack so that it left four long gouges through the steel but marks which yearned so desperately to be through flesh again. Only half a heart beat behind, Vaelus brought across his own blade but Balin kept his right hand high, blade angled down, intercepting Vaelus’ strike at the cross-guard and deflecting it away. However, as Moruga struck out at Balin’s legs, Balin’s expert martial form allowed him to bring the pommel down hard across her face, the shining steel blade exposed again and ready to slice the next blasphemer who made a move.
There was a brief pause as Balin’s eyes flickered across his opponents to discern the next hint of movement. It was Lucian who sought to best Balin’s reflexes. Taking up a fencing stance, his rapier at the ready, Lucian suddenly leapt forward in a thrust. As Balin came in to parry the anti-paladin’s thinner, narrower blade, Lucian disengaged, sending his rapier nimbly under Sir Balin’s in a beautifully executed semi-circular parry. With his opponent suddenly exposed for the briefest of moments, Lucian lunged, angling the blade and found a space just above Sir Balin’s left vambrace, biting deeply into unprotected joint of the inner elbow. The painful stab caused the Liege Lord to emit a small cry of pain, the weight of the shield pulling his injured arm down slightly. This was all Grakas needed. With a mighty backhand, the barbarian shoved the shield aside and leapt bodily atop Sir Balin like a great fiendish lion he pounced and brought his prey crashing backwards. Kneeling now on top of him, Grakas let out a cry of unresistable power and plunged both claws straight through the breastplate, plunging his hands through the hardened steel and into the flesh beneath. He then began to withdraw his hands and as he did, gripped the edges of the hole he had made and with his monstrous strength pulled the hole wider, the sound of shredding, shearing steel grating against the ears of everyone in the room. With Balin’s chest now completely exposed and sporting a grisly wound already, Grakas savaged the man with a barbarism that shocked everyone.
When Grakas stopped tearing and stood up from his work, there was a stillness in the room that was only punctured by Balin’s spluttering attempts to clear his mouth of blood before he died. After what seemed a long time but in reality was no more than a few seconds, Vaelus approached the Patron of House Balentyne with his sword ready. As he was about to plunge the blade through his exposed chest, Moruga suddenly let out a cry and dove on top of Balin, shielding Vaelus’ intended target. She shouted something beseechingly, imploring Vaelus for mercy it seemed. Everyone looked to Shivani who was the only one of their number who could speak the language as well.
‘Moruga wants to question him’ Shivani translated.
Vaelus seemed unmoved at the Deep Gnome’s pleading gaze, kicked out Balin’s arm and drove his blade with all the strength and force at his disposal, severing the limb seven inches above the elbow.
The shock forced Balin’s final breath from him as it rendered him unconscious, the blood which now pooled from his stump ensured his demise roughly ninety seconds later. Moruga shouted in protest and in despair as a desperately longed for opportunity was removed from her experience forever.

As the Villains breathed a grateful sigh for having conquered the final Lesson and felling this most despicable servant of Mitra, his possessions began to be divided. Amongst his personal effects was a holy symbol of Mitra. While to the eyes of the more fanatic of Asmodius’ disciples, the graceful, elegant curves practically moving one to fury, few could deny that the aesthetics were truly lovely, the symbol wrought from the purest silver available and inset with dozens of sparking sapphires. Upon recognising this hateful symbol as their primary mission objective, Rythern plucked the symbol up with his Mage Hand and held it there next to him, unwilling to dirty his hands or stain his pockets with this piece of Mitran filth.
Once all that was of value was collected and divided, Grakas picked up Balin’s body and slung it over his shoulder. The Villains traipsed back though the dungeon, depositing the dripping, oozing body to “Bob” who feasted greedily and gratefully on this new meal.

Upon their return to the study, the Villains discover Thorn still in his chair, almost appearing as if he hadn’t moved from the spot since they left. Rythern bowed low as he presented the holy symbol to his master, still borne up by arcane will.
Cardinal Thorn took the symbol in hand and stared at it thoughtfully before speaking.
‘This is favoured by the knights of Aleran. Remember this symbol for its bearers are responsible for our Father being driven from these shores. Keep it, it may be useful.’
‘You have done well my children.’ he beamed ‘you have proven yourselves worthy of my trust and your ability to serve the will of Asmodius. Soon you shall begin your first real mission but before that, I would bid you all to relax and revitalize yourselves. There are far greater tasks before you and you should ensure you can exercise your infernal-borne skills properly. Go and enjoy yourselves about the estate, Tiadora will ensure all your needs are met.’

The Villains took Thorn’s offer gratefully, most more than happy to take it easy for a little time. Vaelus particularly ensured his comfort. Summoning Tiadora, he requested three of the most beautiful female servants within the mansion to tend to “the aches in my back”. Once they reported to his room, they did not leave again for the next thirty six hours.
Upon the waning of the third day, the Villains were summoned to the presence of their Cardinal again. The study was dark, illuminated only by five candles which seemed reluctant to spread their light particularly far lest they uncover some concealed evil in doing so.
Within the room, other than the awaiting Thorn, was a small, feeble looking servant who stood in attendance to the Cardinal in the corner of the room. When all who were summoned had assembled, Tiadora slowly closed the doors to the study and locked them with a flick of her wrist.
Thorn stood from his chair and smiled ‘My children, you have done well to impress yourselves upon my good graces as well as those of Asmodius. As you stand now, your bond to each other goes only as far as the Compact. To accomplish the tasks before you, to stride into the plans of Asmodius and aid them by helping to tear this despicable Mitran-built edifice we see about us, there needs to be more than paper and blood that binds you. You must be bound further than any act you have ever even contemplated.’


The First Talengardian Cardinal of Asmodius opened his arms wide and suddenly spoke in a voice that only few could recognise let alone decipher. His hands swept through the air, tracing complex patterns which pierced the very veil of reality, his words calling to something, summoning it from whatever dark recess of the cosmos it resided in. As he tore open a hole in the fabric of the air, something emerged. The creature stepped from the invisible rent and from the very moment its foot stood on the wooden floor of the study, a stench of brimstone and thick blood wafted through the air, causing the candles to inexplicably spit and flicker violently. The being stood before Thorn with what could only be described as a devilish grin across its green features. From the tip of its lashing tail to the serrated features of its fang filled visage, this fiery-eyed sentinel bristled with long, wicked barbs.
With the Summons answered, the Barbed Devil stood astutely before Thorn, glancing around the room, locking eyes with each of the Villains and wondering which of them it would be directed to kill. Thorn looked up at Tiadora and gave a small nod. The servant, who had until now stood staring blankly from the corner, strode forward and stood before Thorn, next to the devil. The devil looked the servant up and down several times and then looked up at Thorn with a hopeful smile. Without saying a word, Thorn offered a single, smiling nod to the Hamatulas which said all to clearly: “By all means”.
The attack was swift and vicious. The devil turned and grabbed the man roughly by the shoulders and pulled him into the agony of its bristles, puncturing the servant’s flesh across the length and width of his body. The man did not scream and continued to look blank. The devil pulled its head back, opened its mouth wide and rolled its head back, revelling in the feast that came a moment later. Plunging its teeth into the man’s neck, it tore great chunks of flesh from his face and neck, quickly rendering the man unrecognisable as little more than a bloody skull affixed with small gobbets of meat remained. Blood ran thickly down the length of the man’s body but the barbed devil seemed to drink the great majority of it as it leaked quickly from its owner. It began to pool slightly amongst their feet, slowly spreading outward like a sickness. Once the devil allowed the body to drop to the floor, it looked up at Thorn gratefully, its face smeared with blood, the grin like that of a small child who had enjoyed a bar of chocolate too well. Thorn did not return the smile. He raised his hand and pressed his palm against the devil’s face, apparently ignoring the agony as barbs pushed through his skin. The devil began to spasm violently and all who had seen the effects of pure negative energy flowing into a living body recognised it in the devil’s unyielding twitching, as if it were being electrified. The devil suddenly collapsed next to the body of its sacrifice, a great, bleeding palm print oozing from its face. Thorn looked seriously at his wounded hand and immediately, the marks healed themselves upon his silent command. Carefully wiping his forefinger against the facial wound, Thorn then summoned each of the Villains before him and drew the Asmodius’ insignia in the blood of the devil and its ingested sacrifice upon the foreheads of each of them.
‘Behold’ he said once they were each marked ‘The Knessian Knot is forged! You are now bound together in the blood of devil and sacrifice. You are now an impenetrable unit, a force which cannot be moved or resisted!’ his voice was now a deep resonant call that had an almost inhuman quality to it.
‘Training is now at an end. You have proven yourself worthy. Now, it is time for you to use that training and take on your first mission. Your mission is war, my children! You will bring war to Talingarde. You have two objectives. First, you will see a shipment of munitions delivered to a bugbear chieftain named Sakkarot Fire-Axe. He makes his camp on the northern coast of Lake Tarik beyond the Watch Wall. With this shipment, the Fire-Axe will have resources enough to unite the barbarous humanoid tribes of the north and light the fire of war. Once the cargo is safely delivered, he will take you just south across the lake under cover of darkness and land you near the town of Aldencross. There our contract with Captain Odenkirk will be concluded’

‘It is shame how greedy he has proven. I had hoped to let the captain serve me again but it seems he is too much of a liability. Kill him. Kill his crew. Burn his ship and leave no survivors. It is crucial that no one suspects our involvement and that loose ends are taken care of. Be sure to reclaim the coin I gave him. Best not to be wasteful. That done, you will begin your second task. We will do more still to aid our ally the Fire-axe. The bugbears are mighty warriors but poor siege engineers. You will infiltrate the tower Balentyne, keystone of the Watch Wall, kill its commander and open the gate for Sakkarot’s horde. Once the shaggy monstrosities pierce the Watch Wall, the bugbears will pillage and lay waste to the townships of the north and the local garrisons will have no choice but to meet the Fire-Axe in the open field. Sakkarot is the most brilliant, gifted and murderous bugbear of his generation. I expect these battles will go poorly for the knights and yeoman of fair Talingarde. Do all of this and then when your task is done, break this clay seal.’ With this he handed Vaelus a delicately carved clay seal adorned with a tangled knot of thorns surrounding the holy symbol of Asmodeus.
‘I will have more instructions then. Succeed and I will see you rewarded handsomely. Fail or betray me and you will pray for the comfort of Hell before I am done with you. The mission you start upon today is a holy mission. The people of Talingarde think they have seen the last of the mighty Asmodeus. Soon enough we will remind them that there is no escaping the grasp of Hell! Let us toast our success!’ Tiadora stepped forward at this point carrying a bottle of wine and several glasses upon a tray which she suspended telekinetically. Thorn poured one glass of the deep red vintage for each of the Villains before finally pouring one for himself. Raising the glass high he offered a toast: ‘To war!’


Macgreine KingofKlubs

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