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Fulcrum by Anyee

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction' started by silentwater, Jul 1, 2008.

  1. silentwater

    silentwater Diabloii.Net Member

    Jul 1, 2008
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    Fulcrum by Anyee

    Chapter 1
    So young.
    I didn't expect her to be so young.
    The Rogue waited, her bow held down at her waist, gazing at me
    ineffably with the void black eyes that those of Sisterhood gained at
    initiation. Her brown hair was pulled tightly at the nape of her neck,
    bound with three straps, to prevent entanglement in her weapon. Her
    uniform simple, traditional, the short leathers, boots, and cloak that
    all rogues have worn since the dawn of their kind. But most of all, her
    face, offset by those black eyes, the face of a child.

    I had returned from the slaughter of Blood Raven and her undead
    minions. Her idle threats, issued in a voice like scraping coal over
    shattered glass, no longer echoed in my ears, but I still felt that
    strange icy touch on my arm. I had run Blood Raven through on the blade
    of my katar and she had reached out to grab me as she slipped off and
    to the ground. Her body had instead risen in the air and shook as the
    demonic hold on her shattered as she died. I looked into those infernal
    eyes and saw them soften from livid crimson, not to the raven darkness
    of the Rogues, but to a pale green. A wave of relief, perhaps, swept
    over her face; maybe those eyes had gratitude in them as she finally
    ceased her hell-inspired carnage. Or maybe it was the trick of her
    power rushing from her body and breaking her hold on the putrefying
    minions surrounding her. Either way, she was dead, and the remains of
    her body hit the ground with an unpleasant thud, weapons clattering on
    the tombstones.

    Kashya stood, almost imperceptibly keening, as she held the bow of her
    corrupted sister. It was a remarkable weapon. Charsi had outdone
    herself when she crafted this bow. It was weighted perfectly for Blood
    Raven. The bow itself was a single piece of birch, polished with
    demon's blood to give it heated shot. The string was not of gut, but of
    fine platinum wire, flexible and razor sharp. Only an archer with years
    of experience would have the calluses on her fingers needed to fire a
    single arrow without ripping her hands to shreds. I brought this weapon
    back, its body burned from the acidic demon-sweat of its former owner,
    to prove I had completed the quest.

    Kashya placed the bow in her left hand. She grabbed the string with her
    right palm and slid her hand down the bow's length. I saw blood begin
    to ooze from between her fingers as she sliced her palm open. It was
    told to me, before I came here, that rogues do not cry, that their eyes
    are so changed by years of mental tuning that their tear ducts are
    burned out. That is a lie; they cry, but they do not weep tears. They
    weep blood; for I watched twin lines, red like the depths of the
    Burning Hells, go down the warrior's face as she opened her ruined

    She extended her blood-soaked limb towards me. "Accept the loyalty of
    the Sisterhood." I removed the katar from my wrist and drew its blade
    across my right hand. The line stung with a sharp, annoying pain, and I
    observed domes of red form along its path. They spread and joined, and
    formed a thin rivulet down my arm. I took Kashya's hand in mine,
    mingling her blood with my own.

    A tiny smile crossed her face. "You know how to shake hands properly."
    She withdrew her hand and emitted a shrill whistle. I saw the heads of
    several of the Rogues guarding the camp turn towards her, and then turn
    away, excepting a single young woman. The lone Rogue moved towards us
    and halted a few feet away, behind Kashya, as she gently placed Blood
    Raven's bow across her own back.

    "Unlike Akara, I cannot grant you magical items or new training, nor
    can I forge weapons like my sister Charsi. I can only offer you what I
    alone may give. Take this Rogue with you as you travel the lands in
    search of the Dark Wanderer. She will aid and obey you in your quest."
    The young woman slung her bow over her shoulder and walked forward,
    standing next to Kashya. The Rogue did not break her stare as she
    acknowledged her new orders with a slight bow. I returned the gesture
    and opened my slowly healing palm to her. The woman seemed taken aback
    and Kashya shook her head. "It is not necessary for her to take the
    blood bond now; let her prove herself. And vice versa."

    Kashya turned to the girl and placed her hands on her shoulders. She
    said something in a tongue that I had rarely heard spoken, let alone
    used in casual conversation. What I could translate of their
    conversation was almost meaningless without the telepathic component,
    and even though I could access their minds, it would be at best rude-at
    worst, fatal-to do so. The girl looked once at me, once at Kashya, and
    started as if to say something. But she silenced herself and removed
    herself from Kashya's grasp.
    The girl spoke. "My name is Paige. I have been given orders and I shall
    follow them, and you, until I am released." Her voice was warm and
    resonant, though it carried a harshness that showed that she neither
    liked nor even trusted me. It didn't take a Vizjeri clan mentalist to
    sense the anger and frustration coming off this woman, but I put it
    aside. For now.

    Kashya returned to her former stance and fixed me with those
    penetrating eyes. "As for you, do not be fooled by her youthful
    appearance. Paige is a warrior, as is every single Rogue within these
    crude walls. She has been tested in battle and trained extensively.
    Fight wisely and may your quest succeed." Implicit in her words was a
    directive, half-command, half-plea: Bring her back alive.
    Kashya walked away, taking the Blood Raven's bow from her back and
    turning it slowly in her hands. I pitied the woman, who had lost so
    many Sisters and-others-to this evil. It must have been very difficult
    to command so many who had since turned to the darkness, and even more
    heart-wrenching to send one of the few remaining sisters into battle
    with an outlander.
    "Do not pity her. She has chosen this path, the path of a warrior. She
    knew that the lives of those she loved, as well as her own life, were
    expendable in the pursuit of righteousness."
    I looked at Paige, as she finished speaking, and I narrowed my eyes.
    "In my clan," I spoke quietly, "we never read another's thoughts or
    emotions without asking permission first. We are only permitted to read
    the mind's surface thoughts from non-consenters. It will serve you well
    to remember that in the future and I will do the same for you." The
    last sentence was spoken in the same, esoteric language she and Kashya
    had used minutes earlier, accompanied by a mental picture of my
    thwacking her in the head with a katar. "Is that clear?"
    Paige blanched a little and replied, "perfectly," but she never took
    her eyes off me. Her ire at being paired with her Sister's murderer was
    ill-concealed by her pale features, even less so now that I'd
    reprimanded her. Gaining her confidence and her rapport would make
    fighting easier and traveling far less tedious, as opposed to
    journeying with a sullen, bitter companion. That would take time,
    though; my kind is rarely welcomed in any group. Too much bad blood on
    the tips of our blades.

    "Well then. Let's say we settle in for the night. The monsters will
    wait until dawn for us to send them back to their unholy maker. We'll
    stay here in the encampment and head out at daybreak. First, though,
    let's go visit that greedy bugger Gheed and see what sort of equipment
    we can get for you."

    I began walking towards his caravan when I heard Paige question

    "Equipment? I already have a bow and some leather armor. What more do I

    I sighed and returned to the rogue, her eyes glittering in the
    half-light of the campfire. I began to say something about her vow to
    obey me, but I sensed her anger was concealing embarrassment. Was she
    really ashamed of the scanty clothing and weaponry that she had been
    provided by the rogues? Not that anyone could blame them. Money was
    tight thanks to the closing of the Western Passage and supplies were
    running low. Even Charsi had to get her metals and magic from
    somewhere, and that "somewhere" was usually far off and very expensive.

    Once overflowing coffers had been reduced to mere pennies, forcing
    Akara to sell her formerly free healing potions and enchanted weapons.
    This meant that all non-combat defenders were barely equipped to save
    money and resources for the fighters. So I stopped my diatribe before
    it began and instead said, "Follow me."

    I wandered over to the fire and my stash. I motioned for her to come
    closer as I clicked open the chest. The lid flew open and she gaped at
    the potions, armor, and gold scattered inside. "This is what I get from
    fighting and scavenging. The killing fields are littered with the
    cast-offs of fallen and cowardly warriors. They have no use for this.
    We do."

    I closed the lid and sat down on the chest, turning my face up to hers.

    "When you guard this encampment, you are behind stout wooden pillars,
    surrounded by other fighters, and near one of the best healers I have
    ever encountered. You don't need great armor or weapons because of
    that. But when you're wandering around in the marsh or in some
    God-forsaken cave, all you have is what you are wearing, what you are
    wielding, and a few potions. You will need better equipment if you are
    to serve me, and your people, best."

    Paige hung her head and was silent for a bit. The Rogues are a proud
    people, almost as bad as barbarians, and they don't enjoy aid from
    outlanders. "I obviously have the wealth and supplies to properly
    outfit both of us," I continued, "so there is no need for you to feel
    that you are inconveniencing me. If nothing else, giving you some armor
    will allow me to ensure that some expensive magic items are not wasted
    while I await more rational pricing-and it will give you a better
    chance in a mob of demons while I try and save you."

    Her head shot up and she saw my smirking face. "I'll take your offer,"
    she stated coldly, "but I would suggest that you get the superior
    armor, especially for your back, since you will be doing the majority
    of the running away."

    "It's settled then," I returned the displeased stare, leaping off the
    chest, and opening it again. "I know that Rogues traditionally do not
    wear gloves and you seem to have excellent boots, which is good since I
    don't have any spares. Also, since I'll be carrying potions, there is
    no need for you to wear a belt-do you use magic?"

    "No." Paige shook her head. "At the siege of Tristram, the use of magic
    proved dangerous and detrimental to our fighting style, so it was
    outlawed. All Sisters since then have been taught only communicative
    telepathy, extra sensory perception, fortune telling-all skills
    bestowed upon our founders by the great Sightless Eye." I suppressed a
    look of disdain. "They are not magic, but they are-not physical skills
    either. In the past, we kept our mental shields up, letting them down
    only to use our talents. Now there is such pervading evil in our
    homeland that if we drop our mental shields at all, even to detect a
    trapped tomb, we risk having our minds ripped open by a burst of
    negative energy. Most of the corrupted Rogues out there had their minds
    twisted by dark forces as they tried to call for back-up or check for
    hazards. So although I am trained, I cannot use my powers outside of
    this protected area. A long answer to a short question. I'm sorry. The
    most I am allowed now is the simple act of finding concealed enemies"

    "Good. Magic corrupts. Only the mind is true. So you won't need any
    rings or amulets since you can't really control them. Therefore, we
    need to get you a suit of armor, a helmet, and maybe a nice enchanted

    "But I've had this bow since I was inducted as a full sister."

    "That's the problem. You need something better balanced with a lot more
    power. Remember, it'll be just us two out there."

    She once again tried to argue and I stopped her with a single mentally
    flashed image of her trying to mow down a pack of skeletons with a
    short bow. She shut her mouth and we went to Gheed's cart.

    "Gheed, you pigdog. Get over here and help us."

    "Ah, my lady, a pleasure as always to see you," Gheed oozed, opening
    his cart to us. "What may I do for you today? Come to try your luck on
    these lovely, unidentified magic boots? Or perhaps something in nice,
    soft, black leather-" Gheed trailed off and ogled my cleavage, a move
    not unnoticed by Paige, who laughed softly.

    "Gheed," I said, pulling him close to me by his collar. I touched my
    mouth to his ear and hissed, "The closest you will get to my breasts is
    gazing at them from the ground as I drive my wrist blade into your
    heart." I released him, and he tottered a bit before falling over as
    Paige tried hard to control full-blown laughter.

    "Come Paige, let's go over to Charsi. At least her prices are fair and
    her wares aren't excrement." Paige walked over and we turned away. "Not
    that she won't look at my cleavage," I muttered too quietly for anyone
    to hear.

    "Wait, wait!" I glanced back. Gheed had pulled himself up and was
    quickly searching through his caravan. "I have something she doesn't."

    "Are you sure?" Paige asked, mockingly. "Charsi's pretty well
    equipped." Now it was my turn to hold back my laughter.

    Gheed spat back, "How would you know," as he continued his frantic
    hunt. "Ah, here we are," he smiled, and held up a suit of leather

    "Leather armor, made from the most well-fed cows south of the forest.
    The best in camp, yours for the bargain price of 600 gold."

    "300. I've seen this sort of armor before, with better craftsmanship"

    "500, not around here, you haven't."



    "425, and that's all I'll pay."

    "Fine," Gheed said with his usual smile, and he handed me the leather
    as I tossed the gold at his feet. "Have a lovely evening ladies. A
    pleasure, as always."

    I gave the leather to Paige and she slipped it over her head. "A little
    stiff, but I'll break it in." She rotated her arms and head a little
    slowly, trying to round some of the rough edges to minimize chafing.

    "Demon blood is great for new leathers. Really softens it up. Now, we
    need to get you a new bow and a helmet of some sort."

    We walked over to Charsi, me still swearing at Gheed with a litany of
    curses in at least seventeen languages, a feat that impressed my
    still-amused companion to no end. "How did you learn to speak like

    "I traveled. A lot. With people who had reasons to curse." I omitted
    that I was usually the cause.

    Charsi was busy sharpening a new wrist blade for me when we stopped by.

    "Good to see you. Need repairs from the last jaunt?"

    "Yeah. Those zombies are murder on armor, no pun intended." I started
    stripping off my armor, leaving me in little more than a short leather
    under dress. I handed the equipment, along with my weapons, to Charsi,
    who sighed deeply as she surveyed the damage I'd done to them. "And
    Blood Raven-"Charsi looked up, intently, at the name. "-was not easily
    defeated either." Charsi's head dropped back to her anvil as she tried
    to hide her sorrow and anger. I swore silently at Kashya. Apparently
    the captain had not told the news to all of her Sisters; Charsi should
    not have learned of her comrade's death by my murderer's mouth. "I'm
    sorry, I know she was a friend of yours. I wish there had been some
    other way, but there wasn't. I am an Assassin, I kill what needs to be
    killed," I said, trying to minimize the mixed emotions I knew she was
    experiencing; I too know how hard it is to serve a butcher.

    Charsi placed all of my things in a pile and began to work on my belt. "Well, I fix what needs to be fixed. Come back in the morning and everything should be as good as new. Go now, please." She waved me off as I tried to console her further. "I'll find comfort in my forge and purpose in my work. Let me do what I do best and I'll let you do the same."

    "I hate to talk business at a time like this, but do you have anything we can look at? Paige needs some new equipment."

    Charsi motioned to the table next to her. "Take what you need and leave the money in that bag." She addressed her Sister, still working at her bench. "Good luck, Paige. You've been coupled with someone who promises to be an excellent warrior. Bring us honor and peace." Paige nodded, tight-lipped in the face of her Sister's sorrow.

    We selected a long bow fitted with a lighter frame so she could do more damage with less effort, as well as a sturdy helm. Paige took the armament under her arm and went to find a bedroll. I left the money and I began to move towards my campsite when Charsi grabbed my arm in one of the tightest grips I've ever felt from man or woman. I looked down into that soot and blood-tear stained face, her black eyes beseeching me. "Is she at peace?"

    I remembered once again Blood Ravens final seconds, watching her poor corrupted soul rip itself from her body and dissipate. "She no longer fights alongside demons. She no longer performs heinous acts in the name of a creature she once battled. She is no longer what she loathed. I think, in that, she has found peace."

    Charsi squeezed my arm again, an affectionate gesture that nearly shattered my wrist. "Thank you, Assassin, for giving her peace," and then she returned to hammering a patch on my belt.

    I walked to the fire and unfurled my bedroll, preparing for my evening meditation. I gazed into the leaping flames, letting their patterns still my mind. A shuffling disturbed my concentration slightly. "Yes," I queried without turning around.

    Paige's quiet voice barely reached my ears over the rushing of the burning wood.

    "The name 'Assassin' is...too bitter of a title for me to use easily. May I call you something else?" I continued to focus forward, but I was strangely unsettled. It is rare that anyone address an Assassin with anything other than a term of polite revulsion, rarer still that we permit our names to be used casually. If Paige were a sorcerer, she could take my true name and use it to rip apart my will...but friend or foe, Paige would be fighting by my side as of tomorrow morning. She would need no high magic if she chose to sink an arrow into my spine.

    I mulled the various names and titles that had invoked me in the past. "You may call me An'yee," I decided. As close to a name as I'd had in years.

    "Andyi" she tried, slipping on the unfamiliar consonants. "No," I corrected, "you've just called me a grapefruit. Separate the two syllables more clearly." I could hear the smile in her voice as she tried again. A few more mispronunciations and she finally approximated my name closely enough for me to wave her away for the evening.

    "Good night, An'yee," she said, disappearing into the darkness behind me.

    "Good night, little Paige," I said, but I am positive she did not hear me.

    Chapter 2

    I awoke before daybreak to the chanting of demons, their screeching voices taunting the few Rogue scouts that had allowed us a few snatched hours of respite. The sleep had been restful, but all too short and not very pleasant. My dreams had been troubling, the maw of a beast in the sand choking on its offspring, my teacher, burning alive in a wall of fire. My brother...

    I crept over to Paige's barracks and peered in questioningly, watching her childlike face seem even younger, unlined as she dreamed. The sleep of the innocent. I decided against waking her, knowing that the evil that awaited us outside would neither wax nor wane in the next hour. The camp as a whole still slept, though I heard muffled, frantic screams from Kashya's tent, followed by deep, soothing tones from a voice I could not identify. The sleep of the wise is rarely unbroken.

    I packed up my things but decided against dressing. Instead, I walked to the back of the camp, near the stream that ran alongside the perimeter. The running water prevented evil from lingering in the small river, but the water was ice cold and clear, devoid of life. I sat cross-legged on the bank, adjusted my posture, and closed my eyes. I let the sound of the rushing water guide my meditation. I encircled my troubles and let them go, like leaves on a flooded river. I focused on my energy, the ladder of power that rises from the serpent at the base of my spine to the phoenix that emerges above my head. I opened my mind and my heart to the energy around me, and I concentrated on drawing what little good I could from my surroundings. My body grew warm, and then hot, as I mentally tested and trained myself, pulsing the energy through my muscles and harnessing the secrets of my clan, my teachers and my masters whispering arcane secrets from thousands of miles away.

    Paige's voice, hard and flat with stifled anxiety, wafted into my consciousness. 'We must go now, An'yee.' I remained quietly seated. She urged me again and with a silent sigh, I began the slow process of undoing the ritual, carefully dissipating my gathered energy back into the ground. She touched my arm, as if to shake me, and leapt back with a shout. In this state, I could have probably incinerated her had I not begun to come out; I disliked being hurried out of my meditation, for it was both uncomfortable and, as Paige had just learned, dangerous.

    I got to my knees and then stretched to standing, my head still turned from her. A moment passed, then two, Paige's impatient, ragged breathing the only sound I heard. Finally. I lifted my head and opened my eyes. The golden fire in my pupils had mostly disappeared, but I must have still shimmered, for she stepped back and shook her head.

    'Whaaa...' she said, softly, feeling a lance of my uncontrolled mental energy pierce her mind and reside there. She was not what she seemed, this young one.

    'Never mind.' I commanded. She had already dressed in the equipment I had bought her yesterday, looking a tad ridiculous in the stiff and slightly large armor. Now it was time for me to get ready. 'Paige, come here,' I beckoned as I walked towards the camp. By now, the whole camp was bustling, tending to the wounded from the night's battles and collating supplies. Charsi had just finished the repairs on my left katar, placing it in the pile with the rest of my armor, and I paid her, nodding in approval of the fine work she could do in such a short time.

    'Pick those up,' I told Paige, and she slung the bow over her shoulder, grumbling slightly, and lifted the mass of equipment, grunting at its unexpected weight. I walked forward quickly, explaining as I went: 'Paige, katars, wrist blades, and the like are usually hand-held weapons, but my clan prefers to fasten them to our limbs in order to gain better control. Normally, an assassin has a steward or trainee to assist them with the correct placement of the blades. However, I left for this journey quickly enough that there was not time to assign me a young woman...drop them here.' I heard her audibly sigh as a muffled clatter emanated from behind me. I dressed myself in my short leather armor, boots, and leather gloves, fastening a skullcap securely to my head. I detested the confinement of my garments, but I recognized that the protection from magic and physical damage would be invaluable.

    'You will, as part of your assignment to me, assist me in preparing for battle.' Now, this wasn't truly necessary, since I had a specialized device for holding the blades in place so I could secure them without aid, but I had to test her ability to listen to, and more importantly, to obey me. She stood there, mouth in a thin line, obviously displeased with the request. 'Pick up the left blade,' I said firmly, and she complied, lifting it with slight difficulty.

    'How heavy is this thing? 25 lead pieces?' She said as she unfastened the buckles and motioned for my hand.

    'This one is 40 lead pieces, and this is a starter blade. Students of my guild are fitted with special gloves that we wear at all times, even in bed and while bathing. They are filled with tiny rocks to weight them. Eventually, we must learn to hold the whole glove above our head for hours without complaining, at which point more stones are added. Eventually, we can manuver hundred's of lead pieces' worth of weight with ease.' I left out the punishment I had seen meted out for complaining, a massive steel glove encasing the hand of my friend, its bulk so huge that it ripped her arm clear out of the socket. She didn't complain ever again.

    I slid my hand into the leather bindings of the blade. 'Push,' I said, and winced as she slammed the metal guide bar into my knuckles. 'The object is to ensure a secure fit, not to shatter my fingers.' She giggled slightly and tightened the buckles. She repeated the process with my right hand, deliberately causing me what she thought was playful pain. Without comment, I allowed her to complete her task. She finished and stepped back. I waved my hands around experimentally, testing to see whether the blades would fly off if moved quickly.

    I faced the grinning Rogue and spoke, as sharply my Mistress of Blades, she who had taught me to slide a katar into a woman and emerge without leaving a mark. 'In my tradition, a trainee armoring her teacher as poorly as you just did would be forced, in full armor, to run the deserts of al-Carioe with her master's blades dangling from a rusty chain around her neck. To run in the burning sands barefoot, staggering under the weight of the armor, until her feet were blistered, her legs like stone pillars, her mouth parched, and her back bloody from the incessant swinging of the weapons. But since you are not of my clan, you will be spared such punishment for now. Know, though, that if you harm me again on purpose, I will treat you as family.' To make my point, I lifted the back of my armor with the tip of my right blade. I listened to her exhale slowly as she examined the ripples of scar tissue left on my lower back from the pendulum motion of my punishment. Dragon scales, we called them at home. The mark of a wild-hearted trainee.

    Paige was livid, but quietly so, knowing that I was now in control. In truth, I could not have laid a hand on her if I wanted to. Kashya stood nearby, watching the exchange, and I felt those cold black eyes boring into the side of my head as I rebuked her warrior. Still, my point had been proved and I could now resume my normal tone.

    'We need to clear out the remainder of the Rogue burial grounds. There are still monsters walking there, but there may also be useful weapons amongst the tombs.' I raised a bladed hand to silence her protest. 'The dead have no use for items. When their souls are at peace, the material world is no more important that the dream of a foolish child. And when their souls are not at peace, the weapons can prove fatal. So we will go and take what we can, use what we can, and discard the rest far from their demon-moved hands. Whatever the case, one thing is certain. Your dead sisters walk again.''

    I picked up my back and rooted carefully around in it, finding two tiny amulets, each on an impossibly thin platinum chain. I slipped one over my head and offered the other to Paige. She declined, saying, 'We discussed this. I don't wear jewelry. I have no need of it and it will get in the way.'

    'Take it,' I insisted, and this time reinforced it with an image of my putting it on her by force. She took the necklace and slowly turned it over it her hand. 'It isn't amber,' she wondered, 'but it carries the sun's heat.' She slipped it over her head and tugged on it gently, noticing that it would not come off or break even with constant pressure.

    'It is Phoenix blood. Our clan worships and cares for the Phoenix before she burns herself into a new life. In return, a supplicant may obtain a small amount of her blood. Too early in the process and all you will get are beak marks for your pains; too late, and you'll be consumed in her renewing fire. I lost a good friend that way...but enough.' I caught myself beginning to wander into the catacombs of my past lives. 'This blood will ensure that if your life functions cease, you will be put into stasis and your body transported to the nearest energy vortex until a healer can assist you. I don't intend to use it often, but it is inexhaustible and will only stop working when removed.

    I walked towards the glowing portal in the corner of the camp. 'Speaking of energy vortexes...' 'The waypoints?' she interrupted. 'Yes,' I continued, 'the waypoints. They are stone markers on massive geysers of Gaic energy, from the heart of the World Stone. The energy is so great that it can transport you instantly from one vortex to another. The Phoenix blood can be tuned to the nearest vortex to provide safe passage for your body, which is why we must both stand on each new marker stone we see.' This was news to her, apparently. I suppose that the people in her camp didn't think it was important to explain the finer points of instantaneous travel. Not really necessary when you aren't expected to live past 23. 'We won't be using that today. Instead, we'll use this portal. I assume you are familiar with time/space travel.'

    'I've used the scroll of town portal a few times...' she trailed off.

    'Well, we'll be using it constantly. The mages of Tristram really outdid themselves when they figured out this energy puzzle, but that is a long boring story in at least ten languages. This portal is open in the burial grounds. There is no turning back from here. Are you ready?'

    She nodded, and we stepped through.

    The sensation of traveling through the portal is almost indescribable. It is like drowning in golden light. You are rushing in every direction and yet standing still, your world is tumult and dizziness but static and calm at the same time. Your body is infused with energy and when you open your mouth to scream, only light comes out. Every pore, every hair, is overwhelmed with power. You feel like you will be ripped apart and then...

    The portal deposited us with an unceremonious thud on an overturned gravestone. The whirling blue mass disappeared in a burst of instability, leaving us struggling for balance. Paige was an amusing shade of green, a typical side-effect of newer travelers. She stumbled once or twice and then cleared her head. We stood and looked around us. The dead Rogues still hung from the tree under which I had killed Blood Raven. Bones were everywhere. Rotting flesh clung to small rocks, crawling with insects. In the distance, grotesque mockeries of the human form lumbered towards us. To her credit, Paige seemed remarkably unfazed as she surveyed the destruction. I motioned to the putrid warriors oozing their way out of the tombstones, reminding her that whatever these once were, they were only evil now. She shrugged and followed me into the first of the large crypts in the burial ground.

    Chapter 3

    The crypt was barely illuminated with oil-torches, left by the Rogue priestesses after they completed their burial rituals. Their protective wards and charms seemed to have had no effect, because there were few graves left undefiled. Assorted barrels of supplies were strewn about, including a few chests of burial clothes, offerings of money, healing items for the Rogue afterlife. I busied myself with opening one of them, while Paige stood guard behind me. We were still close enough to the mouth of the crypt that most of the undead would stay away from the sunlight.

    I kicked over the first barrel. Nothing. The second proved little more useful, with a healing potion falling out of it. I hit the third and had it explode in a burst of gold pieces. Success at last. As I bent to retrieve the gold, I head a moan and then felt a rush of air. A green-gray, moldy arm hit my chest as the zombie, previously concealed under the barrel, attacked. As I reeled back, I saw him illuminated for a second, and then split into several pieces as the whoosh of arrows went by my head.

    'Stay alert, Assassin, or else I will be the one to defeat the demon queen and bring her head to your tomb.'

    I straightened up, checking my body. There were a few scratches and some superficial damage to the armor, but otherwise I was fine. I started with a nasty comment, but then thought the better and thanked her for the quick thinking. Soon enough she would lose her cockiness.

    We traveled on through the crypt, fighting mostly zombies and skeletons. Paige's bow was a constant heartbeat of quick death, piercing flesh and non-corporeal forms with equal ease. I saw her look askance at some of the wraiths, their screams of death taunting her as they whirled towards us and tried to drain our energy source. I thought it a good time to begin instructing Paige on the finer points of evil hunting. I explained the difference between undead, corrupt, and demonic to her. I explained that some would respond better to her arrows and some to my blades, some to the burst of ice that she could summon and some to a fiery blast from above. I was still uncertain as to what exactly we would find in this crypt, but I had a vague intimation of what lay ahead when we came to a large vault.

    'This must have been an army's burial room, judging by its size and layout,' I grunted as I overturned a headstone. Sure enough, there was a still-untouched Rogue corpse, marked with signs indicating victory in battle, and wrapped in a faintly glowing belt. I murmured a prayer to the warrior's spirit, asking for her forgiveness and her protection, as I gently removed the belt; the corpse crumbled to nothing at my touch. I lifted the belt and rotated it a few times. Definitely magical, but of what sort I couldn't tell. I tucked it gently into my pack, being careful not to damage it with my blades.

    Paige's bow had been strangely silent. I stood up, brushing the dust off my legs, and I walked next to her. Paige stood, ramrod straight, gripping her bow with white-knuckled strength. I watched her jaw tense but refrain from either talking or firing. I followed her line of sight into the next room: a dead Rogue, tied to a stake, caked blood all over her face, her legs and torso half-gnawed off, half-burned away by fire. Tiny red humanoids encircled her, babbling wildly.

    'Carvers. About ten of them, and their shaman. The lowest level of demon. Easy to kill. Very cowardly. Get as many as you can and I'll take care of their boss. Now let's move.'

    Paige shook herself once and began to fire into the doorway. Her aim was true and she cut down three demons, who were promptly resurrected by their leader. I edged around the wall and leapt into the fray. I ran towards the shaman and he howled at me, cursing in hell-tongue and common language. I dodged his frantic blow and lopped off an arm, turning quickly to finish him with a second strike, but not before he sent a fireball my way. I caught it full in the face and I staggered back, blinded. I recovered after a few seconds and finished off the two remaining carvers, blocking their swords with my claws until I could hit the hellions with some accuracy.

    The room became quiet again. I reached a hand up to my face, probing my cheeks and forehead with my mostly-bound fingers. The skin was raw and oozing, beginning to blister, but strangely lacking in pain thanks to the severity of the burn. My vision was clouding and I could feel the inside of my mouth drying out. I wavered momentarily, struggling to breath through my seared lungs. I reached to my belt and pulled out a healing potion. I drank the livid, red liquid and felt its warmth spread through my body. My vision returned to normal and I began to breathe easier.

    Paige stood in the corner, panting. One leg was covered in blood, the other bruised and dangling at a strange angle. It couldn't be comfortable for her to remain upright, but she did it to prove her toughness, I supposed. I tossed her a potion that one of the carvers had dropped. She uncorked it and I watched her stand a little straighter as the bones in her leg knit back together. 'Thank you,' she said as she approached the dead Rogue.

    'Let me.' I said, stopping her. I stepped into the fire, wincing as it burned my still-tender skin, and cut through the Rogue's bonds. The corpse crumpled to the floor, spilling its few items onto the ground. I gently moved the body over to the side, where the caretakers of the burial grounds could easily find her and give her a proper burial. I collected the things she had spilled and we motioned for Paige to follow me. She walked behind me, emotionless.

    We continued down through the tomb, dispensing with the remainder of the specters that flitted through the stone walls. Rounding a bend, we came into a large room, with no visible means of exit other than the hallway behind us. A screech of 'Back off!' emanated from the center and there was the sound of clattering weapons. Paige closed her eyes and suddenly the room was illuminated with her inner sight. Fifteen carvers advanced towards us. A slightly taller one decorated with arcane demonic signs and glowing a pale green stood in back of them. 'By the Bloods,' I murmured. His symbols indicated that Diablo himself had brushed his fingers over this little runt's skin, giving him extra strength and the nasty ability to explode his body into fire. Paige was busy fighting off the demons that had approached her. Three tiny bodies split into pieces near my feet and I ducked as their equipment flew into the air.

    The green one advanced towards me, mocking me and waving his scimitar. I called my totem animals to me, and I felt the spirit of the tiger descend into my body. My back carved slightly and I snarled as I launched at him. Once, twice, three times I slashed at the demon with my left arm, and then I stabbed him with my right. The tiger-spirit in my veins exploded with power and I opened a wound through his right leg. He howled in pain and drove his scimitar through my stomach. I felt something vital explode and I dropped to the floor, gushing blood. I grabbed a potion again and drank quickly, then flipped back to standing. My entire torso felt like someone had sewn a live rabid dog into it, but I was no longer in danger of dying. I tensed my muscles again, calling upon the tiger's strength and dove back at the green demon. I hacked off both his arms with several powerful blows. Finally, I decapitated him.

    His body exploded, tossing me against the wall of the tomb. I hit, shattering several ribs and breaking my right wrist bladeÖand the hand it covered. My legs were covered in fresh burns as the demons' acid blood ate through my armor and my flesh with equal ease. I clawed downwards to my belt, but I had finished the last of my potions. I cursed violently. I was in pain, but I wasn't in danger of dying. I walked, very slowly, over to the corner, where a tiny chest glittered in the gloom. A demon limped towards me and I stabbed him, then fished through his corpse. Nothing. Ah well. The demons, in their nonsensical greed, had been protecting this cache from the outside. Well, no more. I had succeeded in returning them to their fiery dwellings and their prize was mine. I sat down near the chest and opened it, cursing every time my right hand hit the wooden lid. Inside, glittering, were a few hundred gold, a set of claws glowing faintly, and several potions. I considered drinking the potions, then figured I should go back to town anyhow to figure out what it was exactly I had gotten.

    I opened my pack and removed a scroll of town portal. I read the incantation aloud and the blue vortex burst before me. The contents of the chest were dumped into my bag unsteadily, as I found myself unable to move my right hand at all. I replaced the bulging sack on my back and prepared to return to the camp. 'Paige,' I called, 'we are going back to town.' No answer. 'Paige,' I called again. I lifted myself off the ground and turned around to find a very disheveled, very injured Rogue standing before me. Her leather armor was shredded and pierced from all sides. Blood ran freely from two matching slashes on her chest and back. Her leg bones were visible where the demons had stripped away the skin and muscle with their blades. One eye swollen shut and most of the scalp on the left side of her head was lying near her on the floor. Her jaw hung open, broken, explaining why she had not answered me. Still, she stood before me, trembling in pain, and leaning heavily on her nearly shattered bow.

    I offered her my arm, and wrapped it around her midsection as I helped her through the portal. We stepped through the portal and half-walked, half dragged ourselves towards the center of the camp. 'Kashya!' I yelled, and the Rogue leader turned, then ran towards us when she saw our condition. I let Paige slip into her commander's arms as the young Rogue faded into unconsciousness, her destroyed face relaxing as her brain retreated from reality. I limped over to the fire, as Kashya called Akara to the Rogue's side, and dropped down to my knees. I suppressed a scream as my burned skin split open under my weight. I removed my pack and took out all of the new items I had found and lay them before me. My body ached in ways I had never thought possible. I realized that I should probably take care of my own injuries, but I was curious to see what I had garnered on my trip down. However, the insistent pulsing in my right arm told me that the items had to wait if I ever wanted to fight again.

    I looked at my right hand, still clad in the remnant of its weapon. Even I, who had seen the entrails of kings strewn like garlands of flowers around a throne room, dreaded to unwrap the leather bindings. There is something about the mortification of your own flesh that makes the grotesque injuries you usually inflict on others so much more gruesome. Clumsily, I undid the straps on my left wrist blade with my teeth, sinking the point of the blade into the earth to study it. I rotated my arms several times, watching the blood return to the white places where the straps had cut off the circulation. I flexed my fingers carefully, and then set to work removing the right weapon. The straps were slippery with my own blood and I couldn't get the fastenings to come off. I grabbed my left blade from the ground and cut off the weapon.

    I could no longer hold myself back and let out a deep yell as the blood rushed into my damaged hand, bringing the pain from the back of my mind to the forefront of my consciousness. All my fingers were purple, broken, and moved into unnatural positions. I couldn't flex any of them, nor could I rotate my wrist. I lifted my arm to my eye level to survey the damage better, and immediately wished I hadn't. A new surge of pain went through me, and I bit down on my lip to keep from screaming again, as I cradled what remained of my hand.

    I rose, unsteadily, and walked to Akara's tent. Paige was already being healed under her expert ministrations, but was being kept unconscious to hasten the process. I mustered all the decorum I could and I whispered, 'Akara, I understand that your duties lie to your Rogues. I also understand your rage at my bringing back one of your own in such terrible condition. But if you couldÖ' I trailed off, as I suddenly felt too heavy for my own frame. The last thing I thought was how light the sky seemed, and then realized that we had been underground for a mere three hours. Then everything, from the sky to the ground, went black.

    Chapter 4

    I awoke to the sound of humming. At first, my muddled brain assumed that my head was still ringing from my injuries, but as I crept out of the abyss of the unconscious mind, I realized that the noise came from outside my bruised skull. I lay there, regaining my senses, listening to the lilting tune. I didn't recognize the melody, nor did the notes resemble anything I had heard before, but there was something achingly familiar about it, a song that invoked a deep feeling of warmth that I didn't want to leave.

    I tried to open my eyes, but something kept me from doing so. Moving was also out of the question. However, something must have alerted the person humming to my new consciousness, because it stopped and I heard the sounds of footfall on gravel moving away from me, then returning. They were not the same footsteps though; the first steps were purposeful, in long strides. These second ones were close together and very light, almost not touching the ground at all.

    'Good, you're awake.' The voice - Akara. I heard a spell I didn't recognize and suddenly I was able to move my body. I opened my eyes slowly. I was in a tent, probably the healer's. I was covered in a thin blanket, which did almost nothing to hide my nakedness, and what was once my armor was in a neat pile nearby. Remembering my tortured right arm, I propped myself up on my left elbow and then straightened it to bring me to a sitting position. A wave of vertigo and I nearly fall over again. 'Slowly, slowly child,' Akara chided, 'you've just recovered from some severe injuries and my magic is only strong enough to return to you most of your functionality, not your full health.' I brought my right hand in front of me and exercised it. It was intact; moving it was painful, but not difficult. I seemed to have retained all range of motion and strength. I stood up, letting the blanket fall away from me, and moved sorely to my clothing. First the leathers, then my boots, then two rings and an amulet. My armor was beyond repair, but I had some spare in my stash outside, so it wouldn't be a problem if I had become strong enough to wear it.

    As I inspected my garb, I asked Akara, 'How long was I out?' 'About two hours,' she said, then taking note of my surprise, continued, 'This encampment was built on a place of power. That is why we have a waypoint in town. People heal quickly here, you faster than most.' I suspected that Akara omitted how much her own impressive skills contributed out of modesty. 'Akara,' I began, 'I have never encountered someone who could perform a miracle such as this,' I opened and closed my right hand to emphasize the point, 'in such a short amount of time. I do not have much but if I could perform some act of recompense-' She interrupted, 'It is my duty as the head of the Sisterhood to heal those in need. To accept money for that service, even in this lean time, would be against all we stand for and would make me no better than Gheed. What you could do for me is to not return my charges, my Children, in such horrible condition.'

    I stood quietly listening her rebuke, which was delivered in an even, gentle tone, but carried such gravity that I felt like a child in front of my masters again. 'The Rogue?' I asked. '-is fine,' she answered. 'She is outside fletching arrows.' I bowed my head, for a second, in acknowledgement and thanks to Akara. 'Though her injuries were more severe, she was far easier to heal. Your body seems resistant to some of my magics and you wouldn't stay still. We had to cast a spell of binding on you, the most powerful I've used on a mortal yet, so you wouldn't reinjure yourself.' Neither one of those statements was surprising to me, but must have been strange to an outsider. Assassins are trained to shun magic, for it leads to the corruption of the soul, no matter the source or the benevolence. We only allow ourselves a certain amount of voluntary contact, such as healing potions, but the realm of reviving the dead or throwing fireballs from our heads is disgusting and abhorrent.

    I gathered up my belonging and then I remembered the magical belt and claw. 'Akara, do you have any skill in identifying magical items? I have removed some from field of battle and I want to determine whether or not they will be of service.' She answered, 'I do not, but I have a small supply of translation scrolls, which may be of service in interpreting the items' markings. You may purchase them, if you wish.' 'I do,' I said, finding my money pouch, 'as well as a supply of healing potions.' She found the scrolls and potions in the small chest near her own bedroll. I purchased the items and began to leave the tent, when Akara stopped me. 'You have several injuries that will not heal, not with what I have here. Your back scars, the spiral scars on your arms, assorted brands, and this.' She placed her hand on my belly, below my navel. 'You know you cannot have children with this injury.' I bristled for a moment, then remembered my place, but she must have sensed my disquiet and withdrew her hand. 'I do not mean to offend,' she said. 'No, it is alright. The scars are ceremonial. No one but the Master of Shadows himself could heal them. The brands I keep with me for memories. And this injury,' I placed her hand back on my abdomen. 'I have borne a child. I cut her out of my body and severed the cord with my own blade, and then used that same blade to ensure I could not have another child until my tenure as an Assassin is over. Only I can heal this wound, and I will not do so, for there is no use in a pregnant MageKiller. But thank you for your concern.' I think my tone stopped any further inquires and she let me return outside, but not without a final question, said to my retreating form. 'Who is A'Dhar?' I paused, the kept walking, saying so only she could hear, 'My brother.'

    I found Paige sitting cross-legged near the fire. She had a pile of arrows near her feet and was patiently affixing new feathers to the split pine branches. I went over to her, but Kashya got in my way. She grabbed me under my chin and stared into my green eyes with her black, flashing ones. She spoke in the ancient language she had used to commission Paige. 'I understand the ravages of war, and the casualties that come with it, but should you choose to continue bringing my soldiers back to me in such a state as Paige, I will leave you impaled on your own blades outside the camp as a warning to travelers.' I maintained my silence in the face of my superior, but I returned my stare and allowed my mental energy to focus through her shields, where I made contact with her inner self and allowed her to do the same. We stood like that, eye to eye, mind to mind, until she released me and pushed me aside. 'We share the same dark places, Kashya.' I told her, 'Your scars and my scars are not dissimilar. 'Go to your work Assassin,' was her only reply.

    Paige looked up at me, her face dispassionate as it had been before. I stepped carefully over her work and went to my magical equipment lying on the floor near Warriv. First, though, I opened my stash and removed some ring mail. When I found it initially, it was too heavy for me to wear, but the last few days had increased my strength and agility immensely. I brought the wrought metal garment over my head, and sure enough, I was able to move fairly easily, though not as easily as with the leather. The links were cool against my skin and though it caught on my hair, it was superior protection from demon blades. I sat down next to the belt and pulled out the first scroll. I lay the belt on the scroll and was surprised when the scroll disappeared and I could suddenly sense the belt's magical properties. It would increase my ability to rebound from sudden strikes and offer some protection from venom. I fastened it around my waist and filled the small open pouches with potions. Next, I identified the claw. It would add the element of fire to my attacks, and at that I stopped.

    Magekillers have a single purpose: to seek out those whose studies have crossed the boundaries of Light into the murky, hell-bound realm of the Dark and terminate their existence on this world. No one is safe from our blades, from the lowliest sorceress teasing her younger siblings with bursts of lightning to the most experienced necromancer raising the bodies of his comrades to join his unholy quest. We keep ourselves pure of the corrupting magic and train our minds and bodies in lieu of being enslaved to elemental forces. Wielding a weapon that allowed me to hit my enemies with fire could be considered a violation of my code of an Assassin, or it could be part of our vow to master the forces that so easily corrupt our foes. I sat in quiet reflection, considering fighting with only a single claw and purchasing a shield of some sort to hold in my other hand, but I considered the loss of attack power and mobility too important to ignore. I resolved to use the claw and accept whatever consequences using such a weapon would bring.

    'Paige.' I ordered. She looked up from her arrows. 'Help me with my claws. Be careful with the right one. I'd like to be able to eat with a fork at some point in the future.' She placed all the arrows in a quiver and came over to me. She, more gently than before, secured the katar to my left hand and the new claws to my right wrist. We walked over to the portal. 'Ready?' I asked, and she nodded assent.

    Back in the crypt again, the bodies of the demons had already disappeared due to the voracious rats that inhabited its depths. We walked out of the tomb, following the path of shattered barrels and bone fragments. We reached the surface and I decided that we should continue toward the Rogue monastery. We found the path and began walking north. Immediately, we were set on by huge hairy beasts, their stench and noise both overpowering us as we stood, back to back, on the path.

    'Brutes? But they aren't usually aggressive. Why would they attack us now?' Paige wondered aloud, firing a few cold arrows to slow their progress towards us. We retreated back behind some low shrubs, but they kept advancing, unnaturally fast. 'Maybe it is because they think we are the same as the corrupted Rogues and demons in this wilderness. Maybe they think we are intruding on their territory, but most likely their simple animal brains have been altered by the evil energy emanating from the basement of your monastery.' Paige continued to fire, her arrows hitting the beasts' extremities. She didn't want to harm these creatures because of their former, gentle, nature. However, her warning shots and they continued, roaring and grunting.

    All talk was ended when a brute finally reached us and a tree-trunk sized arm came down at me. I deflected his blow with my claws, a move I hadn't previously tried, and found that it worked better than expected. I shoved my left blade into his heart and he groaned once, falling to the ground dead. The others didn't slow their pace, confirming my suspicions that they had been turned to the evil forces working against us. A normal animal would run from the death of one of its pack. These were now killing machines, their size and power clearly outstripping the Rogue and my own. Our only advantage was speed. 'Drop back, Paige!' I yelled and she did, running forty paces behind me, stopping and continuing to fire. I stayed near the corpse of the dead beast and watched as his seven companions surrounded me. Their hits were clumsy and slow, but when they hit, they hurt. I concentrated on quickening my attacks and one by one, my attackers hit the ground, dead before they could cave in my skull with their beastly strength. In the distance, one more approached. I ran to him and struck him with my right claw. To my surprise, I was suddenly covered in deep cuts. His aura had been charged to inflict as much damage on me as I did on him. I couldn't hit him without killing myself.

    'Paige, this one is yours. I can't touch him.' Paige kept firing, running back, and then firing again, chilling him with the force of her magic attacks. I ran in the opposite direction, trying to distract him and keep him from getting to close to her and knocking her unconscious, or worse. Towards the far end of the plain, I saw a dead Rogue's body, her bow and some arrows lying close by. I picked up the weapon, not bothering to remove my blades, and ran back towards my hireling.
  2. silentwater

    silentwater Diabloii.Net Member

    Jul 1, 2008
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    Re: Fulcrum by Anyee

    I lined up an arrow with the brute's head and let one fly. It bounced off, barely scratching him. I slowly readied another arrow and released the bow string. This one went into his shoulder and he turned around, furious and startled, and came back towards me. The bow was so much slower than my claws, but I had learned to wield one while sorceress hunting with an Amazon tribe. I let him approach, holding my ground, and got off another six or seven shots before he finally reached me. The bow offered no protection from the punch he threw. I dodged the main force, but it still dislocated my shoulder, making further use of the bow impossible. I threw it down and I began to run. He followed me to a deep pool near the edge of the stone walls demarcating the edges of this field. The energy emanating from the pool was palpable and I discerned its immense healing powers.

    I let myself hit him a few times with my remaining working arm, feeling the triple force of the blow all over my body. Immediately, I stooped down and drank from the pool. My arm was still in shambles, but all the cuts on my body had healed. Two more hits from my claw and a final arrow from Paige left the brute in a hairy heap on the floor. He had spilled a glowing weapon, a sword of some sort, some gold and a few potions. Paige approached me, panting but unhurt.

    I was cleaning off the sword and storing it in my pack as she came to me. 'I have never seen someone move as fast as you do. What manner of Magic is that, Assassin?' 'That is not magic, Paige, that is training. That is strength and the power of the Body and the Mind.' Leaving my pack on the floor, I found a large stout tree a few meters away. With a yell, I slammed my shoulder into it, returning my arm to its socket. Paige watched, horrified, and stood there as I returned, gathered my things, and beckoned her back onto the path.

    Chapter 5

    The path led through a break in the walls surrounding the plain. I found myself gazing onto what must have been, until recently, lush farmland. Thick grass grew all around us, barely covering the thousands of rocks and boulders littering the ground for as far as the eye could see. In the distance, I saw several small huts, two of which were engulfed in flames and teeming with demons. 'What happened here?' I asked Paige, leaning for a moment on one of the walls to rub my aching shoulder.

    Paige looked at me oddly. 'Why?' she inquired, and resumed her scanning of the field, occasionally letting fly an arrow at a possessed bird. 'Well, for one, if I know what happened in this land I can better fight it. Second, because I am just curious. Thirdly because my shoulder hurts, and it needs a rest, but I don't want to waste healing potions on it.'

    Accepting this, Paige began, 'There were once hundreds of good, simple folk that lived among the Rogues for protection. They grew our food, harvested our wood, and built our shelters. In return, we gave them schooling, protection from invaders, a place to trade, and whatever else we thought right. Those stones in the middle of the field have stood thus for eons, their meaning hidden from all but the highest priestess. The surrounding villagers respected the magical power they radiated, plowing around the stones and keeping their children from their circle. After the dark wanderer passed, though, the people began to change. They became cruel, greedy, evil. A few tried to attack these ancient monoliths, but the moment their axes hit, the field split open and erupted in a stony shower. The attackers, their families, and even the innocents, were all killed and the field is now barren.'

    Paige ceased her story and I felt well enough to continue on. Walking quickly into the field, I sensed a several pairs of eyes watching us from the bushes nearby. 'Paige,' I whispered, but she had already used her inner sight. With a yelp, ten women jumped out at us, corrupted Rogues in the service of Andariel. They had coated their body in green and blue mud to blend in better with the murky surroundings and they carried clubs, swords, and all manner of melee weapons, eyes hellfire red streaked Rogue black.

    I admit it was strange for me the first time I saw a dark Rogue holding an unwieldy lance, nearly laughing as she tried clumsily to run me through with its blunt end before I faced Blood Raven. The joke was over quickly when one of her sisters, carrying a club, shattered my pelvis with an ill aimed, but demonically powerful blow. From then on, I realized that the sickness eating through their brains had removed all sense and replaced it with pure animal instinct. I was afraid that Paige would be shocked by the sight of her former comrades in such a state.

    Instead, though, she shook her head, sighed 'Again?' and began to fire. I twisted my body and kicked down three of the attackers in a single jump, whipping my claws apart as I did. The combined force decapitated two of the closest Rogues, and their spirits departed their defiled bodies with a shout and a burst of green light. Two more sidekicks and the third Rogue fell, her heart blown apart from the force. Paige had succeeded in reducing two of the other attackers to pin cushions, but was being backed into the wall we had just passed by the remaining fighters. She held up her bow defensively and continued to fire as I ran over and pulled the dark swordswomen off her. Several quick claw jabs and they lay dead near their comrades.

    I gleaned some arrows and gold off their corpses, watching as their cursed flesh decayed before my eyes. One of them had a tiny fetish in her armor, glowing and inscribed with ancient language. I tucked it into my pack and walked towards Paige. She was holding her stomach with both hands; doubled over, blood streaming from between her fingers. I uncorked a healing potion, tipped her head back, and poured it down her throat. I watched the rivulets of life coming from her torso slow, turn black and then stop. She removed her hands and wiped them on her armor, glancing down only once at the rapidly knitting flesh. 'From now on, Rogue, you stay behind me. I am stronger, I wear better armor, and I am quicker. It will save us both time, pain, and money.' She nodded, almost resigned, reset her bow, and we continued forward.

    I decided that we should clear the field before heading home for the evening. Midway across the field, I came upon a flat paving stone carved with the Horadric language. I stood over it and felt the rush of power come out of the ground as tiny blue flames burst forth. 'What is that?' called Paige, as she busied herself using carvers as target practice. 'Our way home, I replied, and ran towards her. She had taken out two small groupings of demons and was working on a third. I helped her finish that group and then said, 'Show me this ring of stones.' She gestured several meters away and we started off towards them.

    The field's evil was strong, and stronger still were the creatures that it called from the depths of Hell. First, demon hordes, growling and shouting, rushed towards us. Dispatching them was fairly easy, and once I dismembered a few shamans and their underlings, their comrades scattered, sounding a chattering defeat. The skeletal warriors, crouching behind twisted relics of trees were also relatively easy to remove from the field. The magics that held their bleached bones upright, swung their clubs and drew their bowstrings were no match for my well-placed claw or Paige's arrows. Soon, they lay in glowing piles on the ground, a fitting place for the now twice-dead.

    However, the corrupted Rogues were not so easily dissuaded from attacking, nor were the foul satyrs that roamed before us, clutching polearms in their cloven hands. I was quickly backed into a corner by four such creatures, swinging their weapons with surprising agility into my crossed claws and glinting armor. I managed to kick free myself free, knocking one of the demons to the ground, shattering his legs. Somehow, I opened my mind and pushed the others away. They stumbled back a step, stunned. One was finished by a single arrow that soared over my shoulder and through his throat, which emitted a gurgled bleat as he fell. The other two quickly shook off their confusion and lunged towards me. Both of their axes connected with my torso. I felt the fire-scorched metal slice through my already aching shoulder and break my collarbone. The second axe slid off my chain mail and down my midsection, sparking and shrieking, but doing little more than superficial harm. I let out the my agonized sound of power I could and jabbed my fists forward, the tips of my claw and katar burying themselves deep in the demon's bowels. I twisted once and they dropped before me, still affixed to my weapons; I turned again and their innards spilled forth, steaming, on the ground. Only then did I withdraw my hands and wipe their blood on my leathers.

    My shoulder was gushing freely and the extra twist I had put into my attack hadn't helped the fraying tendons and shredded muscles. It was still attached, by a tiny rope of nerves, the sheath of the chain mail, and luck. 'You're going to lose that arm,' remarked Paige as she continued to pick off the devilkin, finally taking out the shaman to prevent their bodies from springing back to life.

    'Not if I can help it,' I said through gritted teeth, and opened a healing potion. I drank some and poured the rest into the deep wound. It steamed and boiled for a moment, then began to close the deep tissue, fascia, and skin with unnatural speed. I'd been careless, thinking too much about the future quests and not about the battle we faced in the here and now. I wiggled my arm a bit, ensuring that it did not heal unevenly, and turned to Paige. 'Okay, time to stop playing around. We clear this field from the outside in. Get ready.' I harnessed my training and accelerated the chi in my body, moving my body at speeds that even the most dedicated athlete could not attain. I directed some of the energy at Paige, allowing her to keep up with me. We began running around the edge of the field, spiraling towards the center every time we made a lap. It was hard to calculate how many of the sword wielding demons or club smashing Rogues we sent to a quick end, but by the end of it, the majority of the field was clear of standing foes.

    At last, my stamina began to wane and I signaled to the panting Rogue that we should take a quick rest. We stopped moving near the north end of the field, near the wall that divided the pasture from the impenetrable wood beyond. As we caught our breath, I heard a chorus of thumps come from behind me, a position I realized Paige could not currently occupy. I mentally reviewed our run, assuring myself that none of the skeleton archers had been left standing, and so I turned around with some confusion.

    Ten arrows, one in flames, flew at me from a distance of 100 yards. I was able to dodge most of them, catching one in my left shin. 'Paige! Get down!' I yelled and grabbed her by the collar, pulling her behind the wall. She tumbled to the grass beside me, wincing as she banged her already bruised body. I clenched my jaw, snapped off the arrow, and left the head inside me; the entrance point bled a little, but not enough to cause any interference with my fighting. My healing potion supply was low and this wound wasn't serious enough to warrant uncorking a bottle. Then, I unsteadily peered over the top row of stones.

    Rogues. A whole mass of them, running towards my position; the leader stood in the middle, radiating a heat so fierce she scorched the ground at her feet. They were dressed in formal armor, wielding their bows with uncommon precision, moving far more easily and quickly than their demon-possessed sisters. No, these women had given their minds and bodies freely to Andariel, rewarded with extra strength, endurance, and speed. Their skin was burned a deep brown from the heat of their mistress' touch, but still they raged at us, the leader shouting encouragement as they descended on our hiding spot.

    I whipped out my bow and launched a few shots at them. My accuracy had improved across the day as I remembered the proper use of a bow, allowing me to fell the one nearest to me with four shots to her chest. Paige had already stood up and, dodging behind a nearby ash tree, was launching cold arrows at her former comrades. I reset my claws and jumped out. 'Take out her minions. I'll deal with the one in the middle.' Paige assented, and I saw a look cross her face. Pure determination, the concentration that only anger can bring. I ran towards the group, knowing that their weapons would be of limited use at short range. Sure enough, they began to back up, fleeing a few paces, letting go one or two arrows, and then turning and running again. Paige stayed behind me, riddling their bodies with her well-timed shots.

    Soon, though, it was only the leader of the group and I. Her minions had fallen, screaming as their souls dropped to the burning Hells, leaving her alone in the middle of the field. She stared at me, at least a foot taller than myself, her burning body wavering the air around her muscular figure. Her eyes peered through me, cruelty lashing forward from those Rogue-tuned pupils, and her mouth turned to a cruel sneer as she glanced over my shoulder to my companion. 'Join us, child. The powers of Darkness are collecting and soon none shall be strong enough to resist. Join the side that will win and rule the world. Behold, my skill is greater than yours, than your Assassin pet, than Kashya herself. Come unto us.'

    Paige glared back at her with a stare that I could feel even with my back turned. 'Never, you murdering *****. You have no power, no skill, and no ability that was not stolen from those greater than yourself. You were nothing as a human and you are nothing still as a demon. I will watch your corpse rot in the open air.' With that, she fired three arrows in rapid succession at the chest of the demon-Rogue, who staggered as they hit true, then stood up and laughed.

    'Child, you know nothing of what I am or what I can do. But you will learn. I will show you.' The dark one lifted her bow and put forth three arrows in a single volley, two of which must have hit their mark, because I heard my compatriot shout in pain and then crumple to the ground. The demon turned to me and smiled. 'As for you, assassin-'

    I lunged at her, clipping her shoulder with a claw, only to feel a burst of fire rebound from her skin and crisp my arm. I cursed quietly, reminding myself to find a magical ward against fire attacks. I concentrated, summoning my tiger spirit and accelerating my chi in two deep breaths, and soon enough I was furiously pounding at her with my fists. She was tougher than she looked, this raven-haired Rogue. Still, I could feel her resistance fading as I released a swift kick into her stomach. That set her off balance enough for me to land another three hits and channel my tiger into her. More fire burned me and I could feel my skin peeling away slowly as the battle continued. I was winning the fight, but I feared my injuries would cause me to fall before I had finished off this denizen of Hell.

    The dark Rogue kept firing, but more slowly now than when we first started. Her armor was ragged and falling apart, her body riddled with slowly closing wounds, which still showed the viscera underneath. The demonic forces that amplified her talents had given her super-strength, but now even that was failing. Just a few more hits, I knew, before she would lose her life, but I too could barely move. My limbs were aching and every strike felt like it hurt me as much as it hurt my opponent. I, too, was close to death. I gathered my strength for a final attack, realizing that my chi was as spent as my bodily health, and threw myself at my foe. I hit her powerfully and then slammed to the ground, too tired to execute the finishing move properly. She towered over me and pulled back the catgut on her bow. Two arrows flew out and caught the demon Rogue right in the eyes. She screamed, staggered back, and collapsed nearby; her body exploded, leaving behind her magical bow and an assortment of gold and healing potions.

    I picked myself up, leaning on my claws, and crouched in front of the haul. I collected what I could fit in my pack, leaving behind some old gloves and a cracked belt. Paige walked over to me, arrows still protruding from the side of her head and torso. 'Thank you for this armor,' was all she said to me, extending a hand downwards. I gripped her wrist and pulled myself upright, looking around as I did. The field was silent, except for some wild birds, and the catcalls of a small band of demons near the magic stones.

    'We'll go back to town and take care of those in the morning,' I said, walking over to the waypoint. Paige didn't seem to mind that suggestion as she trailed behind me to the flat slab. The sun was already setting, with the purple and gold sunset casting long shadows over the ruined field. We stood on the waypoint together and I mentally activated the ancient spells that would take us home. The land before us shimmered and vanished, replaced in a flash with the familiar town.

    Chapter 6

    Our entrance into town was less spectacular than earlier today, but we were still in less than fighting form. Paige was covered in bruises and scrapes, while my skin looked like a sorceress's dinner just after she learns to breathe fire, but we were both moving under our own power. The camp was in the process of changing watches, so few noticed the addition of two more injured and tired females into the mass.

    I knew that I needed Akara's ministrations, and soon, before infection settled into my cracked and blistered skin. However, my armor and weapons would interfere with the healer's work and needed to be removed. That might prove tricky given my current state of injury. 'Paige, I need you.' I said, as I walked slowly over to the fire pit. The warmth was unpleasant against my burnt skin and I wanted more than ever to get out of this ring mail and into something that would not chafe as much. I tossed the gold and charm into my stash and then followed my assistant.

    She had already gone into a nearby tent, one of the crude barracks fashioned from canvas and sticks for the remaining rogue fighters. I walked in and noticed that she had removed her leather armor and the simple headpiece I had bought for her earlier. They lay in a pile nearby, clearly worn from even the single day of fighting. She stood, inspecting the large cuts on her arms and stomach in a polished mica mirror, and called back to me 'Yes, Assassin,' as she probed an especially deep one on her torso.

    'I need some assistance in removing my equipment. I will not ask Akara to undress me yet again; it is enough she provides me with healing. As my assistant-' I gasped as she unfastened my right blade without saying a word and the strap pulled tiny pieces of burnt flesh away from my upper arms. I stood there, trembling with pain and anticipation of pain, as her surprisingly strong fingers coaxed apart the leather knots and removed both wrist weapons, laying them gently on one of the nearby cots. She unfastened the skullcap, but it cracked in two from the heavy abuse it had taken from one too many clubs. We exchanged a wry grin as she tossed it outside, where it hit an angrily squawking chicken. My belt, with its potions still inside, was removed to the same area as my blades.

    'Are you ready for me to help me with your gloves and mail?' she asked, with a gentleness I hadn't yet heard in this strange land. I nodded, an action that cracked more skin at the base of my neck, and prepared myself for the slow agony that was to follow. She peeled the leather gloves off of my brutally burned hands as I closed my eyes and used every ounce of control to avoid pushing her away from me. 'There, that's done,' she whispered and I looked down. The gloves had served their purpose, as my skin was a clear unblemished white up until my wrists, where it turned into a patchwork of charred black and lightly seared red. 'Now, for your chain mail.'

    I held up an arm, indicating that she should wait, and dropped slowly to the floor. I removed first one, then the other boot and tossed them over to the side. My ankles had swelled to twice their normal size and I knew I would soon need care before my heart failed altogether. I knelt in front of Paige and told her, 'You are too short to do this while standing. This will be easier.' She bent down and grabbed the edge of the worked metal. Slowly, she eased it up over my battered body, tugging gently where it clung to either my bloodied hide or my leather underclothes, as I dug my fingernails into my palms and bit my tongue to suppress the screams my body was asking me to let free.

    After what seemed like an eternity of pulling, the garment finally cleared my head and Paige let it drop to the floor with a crunch. I was riveted to the spot, rendered so exhausted by pain, my injuries, and the stress of the day that I could not stand. I eased myself forward, hitting the ground with the heels of my palms, and rested there on all fours. My skin was pulsing, still burning from the outside down to my bones, even though I had long since escaped that demon's cursed fire. I crawled over to one of the tent supports and grabbed the sanded wood in my callused hands. I heard Paige move nearby, but I halted her with a tired barked, 'Stop.' I felt her watch me as I pulled myself up the pole to an approximation of standing, my damaged body rebelling this new position with wave after wave of vertigo.

    I remained in the tent, leaning against the pole, until the ground stopped rippling. Paige had crept behind me and placed a steadying hand on a small portion of undamaged skin near my back. We walked over to the healer's tent, where she glanced at me with a shrewd, well-taught eye. 'Sit here, Assassin. Paige, take those buckets and fill them from the well. Elena!' At the Priestess' command, a tall brown haired girl bounded over from the supply carriage and stood before me. 'Move that basin over here and then help Paige get water. She needs to be submerged NOW.' As she went to follow her priestess' orders, Akara turned to me. 'Are you embarrassed to be naked in front of the camp? I cannot fit the tub in my tent nor do not have time to set up screens, and we need to bring your body temperature down as quickly as possible.' Her tone was clipped and compassionate at the same time. I said nothing, instead taking off all my jewelry except for the Phoenix blood, the rising sorely and pulling my shift and leggings off.

    As I did this, the two young rogues had begun filling a massive oak tub with water from the well near the edge of camp. They had enlisted two others to assist them in their task and soon the tub was full of the icy liquid. Paige and Elena came back to Akara and awaited their further instruction, with Paige trying not to look at my bare and decimated form while Elena openly gawked at this unfamiliar shape that I presented. Akara motioned to Elena, who walked over to me and lifted me easily in both arms as if I were a child. She stood by the edge of the basin and slowly lowered me into the healing bath. The surface of the water steamed and boiled as it touched my livid skin, but I felt no pain as the healer began rapidly murmuring words of restoration and spreading her magic over the waters. I watched as Paige took the rest of my clothing and put it with my armor in her tent.

    I lay floating in that tub, gazing up at the brilliant night sky that deepened and shone over the course of many hours. The camp had settled in for the night, with the sounds of dining, talking, and laughing coming over from the middle of the circle. I listened as they told stories about the old days of the rogues, with Charsi playfully making Kashya self-conscious of her many exploits and the older rogue grumbling about experience not being respected. I opened my mind to the mixed emotions flowing from that group, relaxing and replenishing my drained energy with the strength of their bond. I remembered my own clan, the collection of strong and independent women that forged a common bond in the blood of the corrupt and the damned.

    Akara glided over to where I was resting and inquired as to my well being. My skin had long since mended and my sore limbs were a fading memory. It was time for me to emerge from the bath. I turned over and pushed myself up on the rim of the basin, muscles taut as I swing myself onto the ground. My skin glistened in the moonlight, gleaming bleached bone white next to Akara's darker, worn flesh. She offered me a simple white robe, which I took and wrapped about my body, mimicking the dresses worn by the people of my native lands. It was revealing, but would limit the stares from the older men-and women-in this camp.

    We walked to the circle, where a place had been laid for me. I sat on one of the logs and hungrily devoured the slight rations left from the meal, eating most of the meat in a single bite. My ravenousness did not go unnoticed by my dining companions. 'How can one so small,' began Charsi with a grin, 'eat so much food in such a short amount of time?' The camp laughed as I looked up and arched an eyebrow at the round-faced blacksmith, who returned the glare with a benevolent smile. I shook my head and finished eating as those around me began cleaning up and readying for bed.

    The meal having been finished, I gathered up my armor from the shared tent and brought it to Charsi, who had returned to her forge for a few more hours of work. 'I have some items to identify and bring to you later,' I said as I plunked my gear down on a table, 'but first I need to speak with Akara and Kashya.' 'We'll take care of this in the morning,' yawned Charsi, still hammering. 'I need sleep and I don't feel like haggling over price right now. Good night, little Assassin.' I rolled my eyes and went back to tent barracks.

    I shut the flaps of the tent and moved the candle inside near the middle. I stood in front of the mirror that Paige had used before and dropped my robe to the ground, inspecting the remains of my injuries. The icicle thin scar on my left cheek was close to vanishing, as were the tiny blister marks all over my face. My left shoulder was a sheet of healing flesh, nearly obscuring the black tattoos adorning my upper back. Both arms still bore their spiral initiation rites, scars which none but the head of my clan, the Master of Shadows, the Seeker of the Blade, the one who brought me back from the abyss of the burning wasteland, could remove. The teardrop of amber blood lay at my neck, glowing as bright as the candle and throwing shadows across my reddened chest. A single, clean ribbon of knotted scar stretched across my abdomen, flanked on either side by brands in the ancient language of the Vizerji. My thighs were light purple, my shins a fading green, but I knew that by morning I'd have healed those bruises as well. I turned around to inspect my back. My 'dragon scales,' which had already been pulling and fading with time had softened significantly under Akara's expert healing; in time, they would dissolve altogether and I would be ready to undertake my Masters training. The massive tattoo that adorned most of my back was riddled with minute nicks and cuts, which a Blade Mistress would repair when I next saw my home. Whenever that would be-if that would be-

    I rubbed one of the brands on my stomach, absently tracing the inscription burned therein. 'Del nas quon healt, des nein-I give thee this, my own-' I must have been speaking aloud, because something in the room gasped when the skin below my fingertips began to self-illuminate. I looked up, annoyed that I had not detected the intruder's presence. 'Show yourself,' I barked as I slowly bent down to retrieve my robe. Shame and embarrassment related to appearance, sexuality, and nudity have never been taught to any Assassin, as we know that we need to go to all and any lengths to obtain a clean kill, no matter how morally repugnant others may find it. However, I garbed myself to minimize the chill of the now slightly open tent and the discomfort of the backlit rogue before me.

    'Pardon, Assassin. I did not know.' Paige looked greatly distressed, as a child would if she stumbled upon a cache of birthday gifts. She turned her head downwards and made a shuffling motion with her feet, tracing patterns in the dirt floor. 'I was, I mean, I needed-I was going to-' She was stumbling over her words, blushing furiously, reminding me of the father of my child, a memory that provided me with some amusement and comfort in the midst of my physical discomfort. She heaved a sigh and blurted out the words, 'Kashya and Akara request our presence at the evening's debriefing and I came in here to see if you were ready,' at which point she realized her double entendre and looked as if she wanted to sink into the ground to fertilize the shrubs.

    I let out a loud rolling laugh that greatly relieved both my tension and a tiny bit of her embarrassment. Immediately, I wished I hadn't as the muscle contractions aggravated my still healing wounds. I bent over for a moment and leaned a hand on the tent pole. 'Are you okay,' worried Paige coming towards me, but I waved her back and straightened myself. 'I am fine. That was much needed. Thank you.' I smiled at her and she smiled a sort of sheepish grin, one of the first genuine smiles I had seen her crack these two days. I tied the robe shut once more and said, 'First time seeing the glory that is the Assassin's charge and training?' Paige nodded assent. 'I'll explain those markings at another time. Now go outside and tell Kashya that I am ready to debrief her.' I raised a single eyebrow and then began laughing again as Paige nearly fell over and darted outside. . .

    Chapter 7

    I followed the blushing rogue into the middle of the rogue camp. By now, the bustle had subsided into a small gathering of the female warriors sitting around the dwindling fire, talking in low tones about the day's fight. Flavie noticed me and moved over to make room on one of the log benches, but I demurred, preferring to sit on the ground and stretch a bit as the rogues went over the status of their battle. My clearing the fallow fields that lay outside the camp had allowed a small group of the young women to collect the bodies of their fallen warriors for burial in the once-defiled graveyard. Akara spoke of her trip to the rogue burial grounds, where she reconsecrated the soil and set the souls of the fallen rogues at rest. These dead would remain dead, free from the threat of being raised as demonic warriors. They all marked with sorrow the death of two more of their number at the hands of Andariel's minions, both for the loss of companionship and the loss of yet another member of their shrunken fighting force.

    Paige spoke next, and I ceased my stretches in order to hear her account of the day. 'We journeyed to the resting place of our Sisters, crawling with scum and rot that walks. We journeyed to the fields near the wood, teeming with the undead and the corrupt. I fought alongside this stranger, cutting down all who opposed us, gaining wisdom and pain as we walked in the tortured fields of our homeland.' Paige swallowed hard and I sensed her discomfort. Her tension was contagious and soon I was drawing shapes in the dirt with a nearby stick, trying to put the day out of my mind. 'My Sisters, today I walked the thin line between this world and the next. I saw the black expanse that surrounds the great Eye, and I tasted true fear for the first time.' She stopped and lowered her head, resting it in her hands; the rogue on her left rubbed Paige's back and whispered a few words of encouragement.

    'Assassin, what about you?' Kashya's eyes glittered in the firelight as I looked up in surprise from the loose patterns I'd drawn. An Assassin speaks neither of her triumph nor of her defeat. Forgetting is the best weapon we have against fear, for we see enough death to last a thousand campfires. I bowed my head again and spoke in an even tone. 'There was evil. We killed it,' and resumed my silence. This clearly was not the response they had been hoping for, since a few snickered at me and Flavie poked me in the shoulder, attempting to coax conversation from my taciturn form, though Kashya made no effort to force me. She, too, found healing in the black emptiness of memory.

    Finally, Paige said quietly, filling the space, 'They had bows.' All the rogues turned from glaring at me to staring at her in disbelief. Kashya inhaled sharply and said, 'Are you sure?' Paige stood up and lifted her shirt and removed a layer of bandages, exposing just enough skin to reveal her injury from the fire-enchanted rogue we had encountered. Unlike the rest of our wounds, which were nearly healed, this one had barely started to knit, and a strange black ring surrounded the pink edges of the hole. Kashya swore, snapped the arrow she had been fashioning in two, and threw it aside. The rest of the circle faded into stunned silence, though some moved to look more closely at the injury.

    I got up, nudged one or two of the curious rogues out of my way, and knelt in front of her, my face nearly level with the slowly shrinking insult to her body. It was weeping a greenish liquid that smelled of corruption, but obviously not the result of any infection that I had ever encountered. The coloration was wrong, and too soon; the scent of an infection is that of rotting flesh, but this was sharp, though not immediately unpleasant, almost metallic. 'May I?' I inquired of Paige, who shrugged as I touched the wound with my fingertips. It was unnaturally warm and my fingertips stung when I brought them away. I tasted a drop left on my skin, eliciting noises of disgust from the young women around me. Bitter and most definitely not from a plant or animal.

    I stood up and asked Kashya, 'What matter of poison is this?' She spat and cursed once again. 'Quicksilver rot.' she hissed. 'A secret technique that the rogues perfected but rarely use because of the dangerousness of the components and the cruelty of the wound. Once on an arrowhead, the rot will slowly eat its way inside the person, turning even unscathed flesh to black death. We are not savages; we kill only under duress and do not leave our enemies to suffer.' Paige had by now closed up her bandages, but Kashya was still pointing to the mortified flesh underneath. 'An insane rogue would not be able to remember, much less assemble the ingredients for this poison. Those rogues that attacked you today must have had their full facilities about them in order to use the rot. They gave their minds and bodies willingly to Andariel. Those damned, treacherous, accursed-' Kashya's voice rose until she threw up her hands and stormed towards her tent.

    I heard Akara sigh as she watched her captain storm away. 'Child, child-' she murmured to the retreating form, but held up an arm to block my pursuit of the livid Kashya. 'Assassin, Paige said that you wished to speak with me?' 'Yes, Akara. Tell me more about the stones in the middle of the field. They are magical objects are they not?' Akara's eyes sparkled for the first time since I had came. 'They are indeed. A work of Horadric genius. A portal to the town of Tristram, the original Home of the Lord of Destruction. I have been meaning to speak to you regarding the Horadrim, sage Deckard Cain. The evil in this land has grown so great that my expertise cannot begin to comprehend it. He alone will help us in our quest to retake the monastery and kill Andariel.'

    'How do I activate the portal?' since clearly there had been no active magic when Paige and I stormed the field. 'The secret is hidden within the Tree of Infusis, an ancient earth totem wild with power. You must travel to the woods to obtain its bark, from which I will decipher the key. There used to a short path to the woods, but the demonic force pervading the land has added cruelty and alacrity to the undergrowth, making that way impassable. You must instead use an old mining tunnel to access the tree of power. Now, rest and heal for your journey tomorrow.' With that, the elder bid me good evening and returned to her tent.

    I went back to the campfire, where Paige was sitting, poking at the flames with the remnants of a broken sword. I sat down next to her and we both stared into the sparking heat. 'What were you drawing on the floor?' she asked me, gesturing with the now blazing hot metal tip towards the scratch marks in the dirt. I looked at her curiously. 'You don't know how to read, do you?' Paige hung her head and shook it. 'Rogues are usually schooled from an early age, but once the troubles began, our education took a decidedly military bent; writing wasn't important if your arms were cut off in battle. I was taught the basic letters of the common tongue, and I could write and read a little, but once the monastery was besieged most of the books were taken and used for kindling, the desks for our bows, and our teachers for demon-fodder.' She shrugged. 'What use is it to me, anyway?'

    That was clearly a debate for another time, so I chose to ignore the bait and instead translated what I had written. 'It's an old proverb, from the teachings of Horazon himself. It says 'If you see the light, you must cast a shadow.' We take it as a mantra, a way of clearing our minds.' I glanced over, watching her peer over the symbols. She looked frustrated, almost annoyed.. 'Does the wound hurt?' I asked, trying to change the topic. She said, without looking up, 'It is excruciating, but I've been charmed to not feel the pain. It will heal overnight.'

    'Right,' I said, and I walked over to my stash. I had in it a collection of items I had brought with me from my base camp, items rare enough that they would not be obtained anywhere in the eastern lands. I pulled out a collection of tiny, hollowed out clay balls, a black powder, a thin film of snakeskin, and a vial of clear liquid whose fumes burned the eyes. I returned to the fire and began filling the balls with the powder, placing the layer of skin over it, and gently pouring the liquid inside. Paige finished grumbling over my writing and instead watched me with fascination as I slowly assembled twenty or so of the delicate balls. She reached over to her and I grabbed her arm without moving the rest of my body. 'These are not playthings and dropping could take off your hand.'

    She drew back slightly. 'What do they do? Can you show me?' 'Not in town,' replied, but I beckoned her over to the gateway of the rogue camp. I took a single ball and lobbed it into the night. It exploded into a flower of flame, briefly igniting the grass, and then faded from view. Two of the watch guards fired at it, startled by the blast. 'That,' I explained, 'is another skill I possess. It is a trap, a fire fruit, for times when stealth instead of force is key.' We went back inside the camp to the remainder of the balls, which I scooped up gently and returned to my stash. The fire had burned to mere embers but the stars were bright overhead, so I rolled out my mat and chose to sleep outside again instead of in the tents. Paige started, hesitantly, 'I know that I should stay out-' I sat down on the woven fibers and said, 'Sleep on a cot. You need a restful sleep for that wound and this earth will provide you no healing.' She nodded slightly and went into her tent leaving me staring at the fire. I felt my mind beginning to drift and I let go.


    That's what we had been making, a fire. We had gone out to the farthest fallow field to test my idea, out of sight from the derelict anger that was our house. I remember his dark eyes looked up at me in wonder as I waved my hands around a tiny pile of sawgrass and dried leaves. I spoke the words, barely pronouncing the whispers I'd heard my mother's sister make when my father wasn't looking. To our delight, a tiny spark appeared on the tinder and burned itself into a glowing warm circle. 'Anli,' he said quietly, for that was my name in those days, 'you did it. You made fire.'

    I looked at my baby brother, his chubby cheeks pressed smilingly against those too old eyes, my baby brother who could speak from the time he was a year old and even now rivaled my five years with his maturity. I had crossed my arms and tried to act like this was no big deal, but I couldn't control my excitement. Fire. I'd taken my brain and I'd set the fire. I was now-what was I? In big trouble. I looked around nervously. My parents were nowhere in sight and Zechariah-I haven't called him that in 15 years-A'Dhar had toddled his three year old self after a toad leaving me with the smoldering ashes. I stamped them out as quickly as I could and chased after my brother, calling him to me as we ran home for dinner. My child-eyes had missed the glinting stirrups receding behind the trees.

    The black riders were already in the front yard as we approached. My father was outside, shouting loudly at my mother, shaking her tiny form by both shoulders as he spat curses that I have not heard battle-hardened warriors utter when pierced by steel. My aunt stood nearby, silent and impassive, her dark skin not masking the mottled bruises across her chest and arms. We slowed before they saw us and I whispered to my brother, 'Stay here. I'll go first.' It was a ritual we performed every time we entered the house, the decision of who would take the first strikes and the brunt of our father's anger. It had been his turn last night, and his back was still a quilt of red marks. He skittered off and hid behind a ring of stones near the muddy brook that oozed alongside our home.

    I walked forward, feeling my father's rage and something else too, a nameless fear that I had never experienced before. I walked as tall as a child could, past the massive horses that stood in the gate, their masters' eyes piercing from beneath their woven hoods. My father finally noticed me and let go of my mother, who slumped to the ground as he lifted me up by my shirt. 'This,' he roared, 'this will be my offering. This whelp, contaminated with sorcery, my own blood wasted on this worthless girl child.' My mother got up and threw herself at him. 'She's only a child,' I remember her begging and crying. I never once saw her laugh, and only once smile, at the birth of my brother. 'She's not to blame. Blame me.'

    He slapped her back to the ground with his free hand and kept shaking me, his filthy hand clenched near the back of my neck, his eyes bulging and red. 'I blame you and myself for allowing that- that ***** of Satan to live in my house, eat at my table, and ruin my family. We should have left her to die after that attack. But no, you weak sniveling excuse for a woman, you pleaded with me for compassion for your dear sister, your precious sister, your sister lost in the jungles and returned home again.' My aunt didn't move, nor become angry, nor even redden. She merely stood and watched him shake my crying, screaming form over my broken mother as she had many times before.

    Turning back to the riders, he shouted, 'The king wants a tax on all magicians? He wants to root out their infestation of our land? Start with this one. Cut it down when it is still a sapling before it grows into an uncontrollable weed.' He tossed me to the floor near my mother, who reached out to touch my hand, her fingers cold and pale. I know now she was dying, that she probably died moments afterwards, and that consoles me. 'My child. My strong girl. Forgive-' she whispered to me, and closed her eyes again.

    One of the riders jumped down and picked me up around the waist. He took off his hood and I screamed in terror, for his face was badly disfigured and his eyes void of any emotion. He sniffed me once or twice, grimaced, then tossed me to his companion, who held me down against the saddle. 'You are correct. She is cursed. We watched her manipulate flame with the dark one's energy. We shall take her and purge her to serve our lord.' He remounted and threw a purse at my father's feet, spurred his horse and we rode off, with me calling my brother's name, telling him to run, telling him I loved him, as the men took me from my home. I was able to turn back and watch as my house suddenly erupted into flames, my father writhing in agony, as the heat blistered his skin, my mother no more than a wisp of smoke, and my aunt standing, silently, as the wind increased the inferno around her. The heat blew towards us and I was smothered in the rider's cape. Then, it went black.

    I awoke in the rogue camp, gasping for breath and momentarily confused, clawing the empty air around me. I glanced around at the still dark camp, realizing that only a candlemark had passed since I receded into my memories. I had slumped back onto my mat, but now I sat up and located the blanket, for the fire was almost completely out. Tossing it around my shoulders, I brushed my cheek and realized that I had awoken crying for the first time in twenty years.

    A noise behind me, nearly imperceptible, as if the walker were stalking prey. I turned my head slightly to find Kashya, her arms crossed as usual, but with a drawn and resigned look wearing into her face. She too had woken herself from the demon pits that are a warrior's dream, but had managed not to alert the camp as she had on countless other nights. She was shaking just enough for me to notice, and it looked like she had been crying. I rocked forward and threw a few more logs into the fire, watching in satisfaction as it blazed anew. Then, I sat back and extended a blanket-wrapped arm, motioning slightly for her to come forward. She sat next to me and I put both arm and blanket around her shoulders, while she clasped her fingers in front of her and rested her head on them. We stayed there, silently gazing into the fire until dawn broke, taking whatever comfort we could from knowing that someone else walked this long, lonely road.

    Chapter 8

    The night passed quickly and soon enough the sky was tinged blood red with the impending dawn. I had slept but little, as had the rogue captain at my side, but I was strangely awake, probably thanks to the healing bath I received the night before. As the camp was slowly suffused with light, she stood up, smiled painfully, and went back into her tent to prepare for the rest of the day. I stretched for a few minutes, working the kinks out of my legs and shoulders, then went over to Akara. She was already sipping tea when I approached her and requested a small supply of her identifying magic. I purchased the crumbling scrolls and then returned to my stash.

    First, the tiny charm. I ran my fingers over the carved bone as I lay it down on the scroll, still marveling as the scroll dissolved and gave to me the knowledge that this bit of shoulder would aid my ability to recover from a blow. I tucked that back into my bag and pulled out the bizarrely pulsing sword the brute had dropped. It was warm to the touch, as if it were trying to drain the life force from my fingertips. I lay it down gently on the ground and unwrapped a scroll above it. Interesting properties, including the ability to heal oneself at the expense of the monster, but not worth wielding instead of my claws. I put that to the side, to sell back to Charsi, and finally identified the corrupted rogue's bow. I wondered if Paige would wield it, for in spite of its increased damage, superior construction, and strength bonuses, it was still the weapon of her enemy. I left it on the ground and went to Charsi.

    She had, by now, awoken and was busily piecing together my and Paige's equipment. I dropped the sword at her feet and she looked a little surprised. She picked it up, rotated it a few times, pinged the metal with her fingertips, and handed it back. 'I can't give you a fair price for this, sorry. This is better quality than either Gheed or I have encountered in some time. Selling it at the price I can give you would be cheating.' She smiled, returning to her work, 'But I am sure Gheed would love to have such a weapon for a song. I'll be done with this stuff in a little while, but I think you need a new helmet. I saw the remainders of your old equipment being used as a nest by the chickens.' I smiled back and browsed her inventory, eventually choosing a helmet that would confer a small degree of protection from fire, which was much needed after yesterday's fiasco. I purchased the helm and retrieved my repaired armor, then returned to Paige's tent to dress.

    She was up and pacing around her area, showing signs of not having slept well, but refused to discuss it when I inquired after the dark circles under her eyes. I handed her the armor and skull cap, which she girded about herself, and then extended the corrupted rogue's bow out to her. 'I understand your feelings about those who hurt us, but our feelings are superceded by the need for weaponry.' She took it and threw it over her shoulder without a word. Then, she helped me with my weapons and armor, fastening the claws more quickly and less painfully than before. The two days of fighting had been enough to teach her some degree of the warrior's way.
  3. silentwater

    silentwater Diabloii.Net Member

    Jul 1, 2008
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    Re: Fulcrum by Anyee

    We stepped out into the morning light and ate a small portion of rations left out for us. I had skipped my daily meditation, but figured that the night's dreaming was more than enough to compensate.

    Walking through the yawning blue portal, we found ourselves in the barely lit field, again. The demon crowd by the Cairn stones was taunting us, and I could see even from this distance the magic emanating from their leader, taller and strangely shaded. They were a task for another time, and I motioned Paige towards the hills at the far end of the land before us. Soon enough, we came to a deep pit, the entrance littered with bones and rock shards. 'Afraid of the dark, young rogue?' I joked, and she grimaced slightly, then followed me inside.

    We were lucky that the miners and past travelers had thought well enough to affix torches to the carved stone walls. I kicked a few rocks until I found one that could serve as flint, then lit the two nearest the stairs with a few sparks. Immediately, the gloom lifted enough for us to look into the eyes of no less than five grinning corrupted rogues. Caught unawares, Paige and I each received a few sword swipes before we were able to ready and execute our own attacks. These rogues had all the toughness, but none of the intelligence of their bow-wielding sisters, so they were easily dispatched by fairly conventional strikes. As they fell, I quickly felt for loose change or weaponry and was rewarded by some gold pieces as well as a chipped ruby, which I slipped into my bag.

    We walked down the carved stone stairs until we came to a strange glowing shrine. I placed my hands on it, feeling the magic pulsing from the enchanted structure. Immediately, I felt a surge of power go through me, as if my skin had been lined with a layer of diamond; I experimentally scratched my own skin with a blade. Nothing happened. 'Strange,' I wondered aloud, as I beckoned the rogue forward. Ahead, the tunnel split into three branches. 'Which way,' Paige asked. I shrugged and motioned to the left most one.

    We turned that way and I began to walk forward when the rogue shouted, 'Duck!' as a swarm of bats came at me. Their teeth and claws pulled at my crouching form as Paige picked them off one at a time. Tiny sparks flew from the wounds that she inflicted and I winced every time one hit me. The errant damage was doing as much harm as the bats themselves and eventually I had to call her off so I could heal. The shrine's magic almost nullified their attacks, but the lightning bolts were excruciatingly painful. Eventually, though, the attackers lay in a crumpled heap. I turned around to find Paige grinning slightly as she rested her bow. I grinned back. 'Well done, but next time try not to kill me in the process.'

    We walked forward past the dead bats and into a small hallowed out room. Small piles of gold lay heaped about, as well as a few, battered, wooden chest. A few devilkin and their shamans stood before us, encircling the partially burned bodies of three rogues. One of the girls was still alive, writhing in her bonds as the fire ate away at her skin, her screams of pain mixing with the demonic chanting of her captors. The site, though I had seen far worse in my tenure as an assassin, was still horrifying in its cruelty. Paige was riveted, so I grabbed the bow from her hands along with a single arrow. I prayed to the sweetest, merciful goddesses that I could remember and fired. The arrow whistled through the air and struck the girl in the chest. She died instantly, her final death cry snapping Paige from her reverie.

    Recalling our initial encounter in a closed space, I ordered Paige to fall back three paces behind me as I tossed her back her weapon. She obeyed and we rapidly dispatched the now disarrayed demonic life. I charged into the fray with renewed determination. Although both of us sustained a little bit of damage, the enchantment from the shrine nearly halved the amount of physical harm we should have taken. Eventually, though, I felt its effects wear off and I did end up having an arm broken. Finally, though, the complete enclave lay in piles of their own blood on the floor.

    I walked to where the captives were, sagging dead against their bonds, and cut them down. These I did not have the heart to search, so I instead stacked them gently against the wall, breaking the arrow out of my single human kill. Strange, I thought as I moved the corpses, it has been some time since I have killed a human being. Time was when that would have been a weekly, if not daily, occurrence. Paige helped me a little, but she was slightly shaken. I didn't address it, letting her work off and walk off whatever she was feeling.

    The tunnels stretched endlessly before us. We slowly followed the well-worn paths, stumbling upon small bands of demons, which were taken out with a few quick arrows and claw strikes. More disheartening than the numerous pockets of evil magic were the almost countless dead rogues we found in various states of decomposition. My practical nature overrode my respect for the dead bodies, though Paige still turned her head whenever I rooted through the putrefying flesh to see what items the rogue hadn't reached in time. Time was such that we couldn't even bury them, nor protect their remains from the ravenous cave bats and rats.

    We tracked through miles of dark rock, the walls slimy with condensation and blood. After the twentieth minor skirmish, we were both completely exhausted. I stopped my companion in a clear dead end and rooted for a scroll of town portal in my pack. There wasn't any. I swore and looked at Paige. 'Well, it seems that my sleepless night did in fact affect my judgment. We don't have a way home. We can retrace our steps out to the field, but finding our way back again will be tedious and if we encounter any monsters, we may not hold them off effectively. If you don't mind, we can stay down here until we are rested, and then keep moving.' She tiredly nodded her assent and I unfurled the bedroll I always kept on top of my pack. She sat down wearily and rested her head in her hands. 'I'll be back soon,' I said, and sprinted with what little stamina I had left back to one of the cleared out demon hiding places to get wood. The tunnels were dank; it was only our constant fighting that had kept us warm and it would not serve us well to catch cold.

    I returned to our makeshift camp to find her surrounded by a small pile of rats. She had speared them with the point of an arrow and had made them into a tiny pyramid of rodent. She helped me take off my blades and I made a fire. Then, I loosely put back on one weapon and stabbed a rat, rotating it slowly over the flames and tossing the cooked product back to her. We ate quietly if ravenously for a while and then I motioned for her to lay back. 'I have a little bit more strength than you. Sleep for a while and I will keep watch, okay?' She again nodded stretched out on the bedroll, pulling the flimsy cover up and curling up into the fetal position.

    I sat on the ground, shifting uncomfortably on the hewn rock floor. I heard her breathing change and knew that she had fallen asleep already. I puzzled, for the first time, over the memories I had the night before. It was the strange land, the strange energies emanating from the very earth around us, sifting through our minds to drag out whatever it could use against us. My training had taught my mind to seal tight against intrusion but still I could feel the ghostly hands of some malevolent being scratching at my walls. The longer we stayed underground, the worse it would get.

    I shook my head, trying to clear my mind. Keeping the boundaries firm on both my memories and my psychic walls was draining my already depleted strength. Not wanting to end up like the corrupted rogues we had been killing all day, I let my mind wander within the constraints of my own brain. I let myself drift back.

    The smell of these caves, the mildewed stagnation, like the scent of the black rider's cape as we thundered through the night, with me slipping in and out of consciousness throughout the journey. I remember coming to a halt and being thrown roughly to the ground, crying out as I hit the jungle floor. The other two riders dismounted and circled me, speaking a language I couldn't identify. They had all removed their cowls, but their faces were shadowed by the trees above us. I had never seen trees of such density, such size, and in spite of my fear gazed about at the foliage until one of them grabbed me by the nape of my neck and stared at me.

    It was a different rider than the one who had carried me. I let out a shriek, but it was more surprise than fear. My sheltered life, consisting of little more than my family and a few farmers, had never allowed me to encounter a dark skinned man, yet here he was, obsidian eyes glittering from his earth-brown face into my terrified visage. He radiated a sort heat, or light. I couldn't tell what it was, but it felt like my aunt when she used to sing to me in the corner, rocking me back and forth while my father beat my mother. I felt him look through me and I wriggled as something that I couldn't name entered my thoughts. I had just experience my first mind probe.

    He put me down, more gently than before, and to my surprise spoke in the common tongue. 'This whelp knows less about magic than I do, but she does have a sorceress' blood. We shall take her to the castle at Azaron, where we may present her to the duke. Mathias, you still bear his wrath. A child this young will earn you restoration.' The twisted face beside him nodded once. He turned once again to me and, with surprising tenderness, tousled my hair once. 'Soon, child, you shall feel the blessings of the light course through your veins and all doubt, all sorrow and pain will disappear.' All of a sudden, I felt all the cuts and bruises I had sustained vanish and I looked at him in awe. He smiled and turned to set about making camp.

    The rest of the journey was long, but far less painful and frightening than the first day's ride. I suppose they didn't worry about my young self wandering out into the-

    I glanced up, hearing a slight shuffling. I took a torch and cast it in front of me. A single zombie lurched towards us. I, as quietly as possible, slipped towards him and cut him to ribbons. He fell to the ground with a gentle thump and I returned to the perimeter of the camp. I looked at Paige as she shifted uneasily in her dreams. I sighed and shook her awake. 'Time to take watch, Paige.' She propped herself up on an elbow and took my proffered hand, pulling herself to standing. I took her place on the bedroll and watched as the silent figure stood just beyond the campfire. I was exhausted, but I sensed that she was still troubled by whatever had been moving behind her eyes while she slept. There was nothing, really, I could do for her, but I tried anyway.

    'It's alright, you know,' I said, 'There are times when even I have frozen. That was particularly horrific and you do not have the years of emotional scarring that I do.' Her response was almost inaudible. 'Sleep, An'yee, and leave me to my thoughts.' I turned over and gave in to my body's cries for sleep, the sound of someone suppressing sobs singing me into the night.

    Chapter Nine

    I woke up after a dreamless sleep, my body no longer tired but remarkably sore from the cold stone floor. Paige was sitting now, bow on her lap, facing away from the now dead fire. I stirred a little more noisily than usual, not wanting to startle her, and packed up what little was lying around. She stood and wordlessly affixed my weaponry to my waiting wrists. I removed the parchment from my bag that recorded our journey as a series of crude scratches and consulted it for a moment. 'Alright, let's try this corridor,' I said, and we turned out of our makeshift camp and back into the winding paths.

    We walked for several more hours, killing whatever we encountered. I sensed Paige's frustration and increasing tension as we walked the seemingly endless miles. The lack of sunlight was beginning to get to even me, who had become accustomed to crouching in dark places for extended periods of time. The stench of the place was increasing with every step, making me wonder if we were going deeper into the mine or towards the exit, if there was one. I desperately wanted a bath, or at least something to drink that wasn't cave water. As nice as the tiny piles of gold and easy killing were, I was really ready to get out of this goddamn cave. I heaved a sigh and looked at the room before me. Paige had taken down a few zombies and was twirling her bow in her fingertips, looking at me strangely. 'Yes,' I asked, a little colder than I mean to. She wrinkled her face and turned away. We kept walking at eventually came to a carved set of stairs that led to hollowed passageway through the wall.

    'The way out?' she asked hopefully. I took in a deep breath of the air coming from the hole. It was fetid, rank. I coughed a few times. 'Nope,' I said, but I gestured for her to follow anyway. There might be a clue as to how to get out of here lurking within the earth. 'No,' she said in a low tone I hadn't heard before. 'Paige,' I warned, 'let's go.' 'No,' she insisted again, and took up a strange crouch, looking at me with her rogue black...was that a flash of red I saw glimmering at the edges of her pupils? I narrowed my eyes and grabbed her wrist. 'We are going down there, now.' I didn't raise my voice, but I added a gravity of tone that I hoped would convince her of my seriousness. She wouldn't budge and, shaking off my arm, threw her bow across the room and lunged at me.

    This was an unexpected development. I sidestepped her neatly and extended an arm to break her fall. I grabbed the other arm and folded her down to the ground. She was lighter than me, but possessing of a strange strength I hadn't witnessed before. Her body was bucking wildly and I could barely hold her to the ground as she screamed the most foul obscenities I'd ever heard a rogue utter. I gritted my teeth and tried to hold her still. Something was terribly wrong. Brute force would not settle her, so I dropped a fraction of my mental shields and assessed the situation.

    Our energy gathers in discrete sphere within our bodies, called chakras, which an assassin with proper training can see. Usually, the chakra of the mind is a rich, vivid indigo. Paiges was sickly, crackling a rusty red at times, and wrapped in-something I couldn't determine yet. I opened my mind slightly more. Evil, like a thick green snake, emanating from the hole beside us, coiling around our minds and constricting reason out. Someone with a ridiculous amount of mental ability was poisoning our minds. I had been able to withstand it better thanks to my training but seeing what we were up against made me wonder how long until I turned into something like my wriggling compatriot. I gathered as much mental force as I could and extended my psionic shields to encompass her mind.

    Immediately, she relaxed and stopped shouting. Then, I felt a very definite push as she tried to get me off of her. I released her and helped her to her feet. 'What' Paige began, and then looked at me. The strain of maintaining both of our sanities was showing on my face and I wasn't in the mood to talk. 'Stay next to me. If you go more than five feet from me, I will kill you where you stand.' We walked in tandem to where her bow lay, remarkably uninjured by its short flight across the cave. I had to make the choice whether to destroy the source of my rogue's corruption or whether to continue searching for the exit. The strength of the evil was undeniable and getting closer to it would leave us both vulnerable if my shields failed. On the other hand, wandering lost through the caves with this force pursing us would be just as taxing.

    I made the decision to journey downwards, letting the thread of the evil thicken and widen until I found its source, another corrupted rogue wielding an impressive bow and gleaming with demonic power. Unlike her sister above ground, this one needed no speech or intimidation. She merely smiled and shot at me as her frenetic minions charged towards us. Paige had already begun her quick, rhythmic firing, felling two rogues before we dropped back a few paces. The arrows were flying thick around me, but I couldn't charge at guardian rogue without leaving Paige's already damaged mind exposed to this demoness' power. Even as we stood here, I could feel her waver, hear her ready an arrow incorrectly or misfire. She wouldn't last until all the minions were dead.

    Cursing, I grabbed a handful of fire bombs that I had prepared and threw them at the heart of the corrupted rogue mass. Three of them sustained significant damage and were killed shortly thereafter by Paige. The rest slowed and even seemed puzzled. As I reached for another explosive, a sudden burst of flame caught my elbow and shattered joint. I howled in agony and dropped to my knees, the small traps scattering about me and detonating randomly. Luckily, they did not hurt Paige or myself, but they also did not inflict any significant damage on the attackers.

    I drank a healing potion with my one good hand and felt the elbow reset into a more useful configuration. Rising, I jumped towards Paige and looked around. Six rogues were still firing, with the lead demon getting ready to emit another fire arrow. I winced as a small tongue of flame hit my chest. It wasn't the arrow, since the demon was still aiming, but her aura that inflicted the damage. A sudden clunk into my left thigh. Oh-that was the arrow. I broke off the shaft and threw it to the ground, pondering my options.

    By this point, Paige was barely firing at all and instead sort of swaying back and forth, occasionally shaking herself out of it enough to let a few arrows go. This battle was taking too long and I'd had enough. I grabbed Paige around the waist and charged at the center demon, yelling with all the power I could muster, dragging my confused companion with me. I drove the point of my left blade deep into her chest, twisted and pulled it out. The demonness staggered back as I let Paige slip to the ground and slashed into the dark rogue's flesh, feeling the tiger strike hitting true time and time again. I honestly don't know when the corrupted rogue died or how the rest of her minions were dispatched. I crouched there, ripping at the mutilated body until Paige pulled me off physically.

    I was breathing hard and it felt like an insect was buzzing around inside my brain, relentlessly chewing at my mind. I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't think or center. I just wanted it out. I whirled to face Paige, who had backed off and stood several feet away, clear headed and bow poised. I raised both of my blades without ordering my arms to do so. It was like an unknown force powered me towards her and I roared in blind rage. I closed the distance with lightning speed and suddenly the urge was gone. I tried to halt my charge and diverted my course, instead clanging noisily into the wall. That hurt.

    Paige stood nearby, completely impassive as I sat on the floor and checked for damage. Nothing was hurt but my pride I stood up and brushed myself off. We didn't look at each other as we finished walking around the bottom cavern. One or two devilkin scampered by, which I killed with a swinging arm as we passed by. Other than that, the tunnel was clear.

    I noted a strange glow in one of the dead-ends to our left. I turned down it to find a small horde of treasure in a gleaming metal chest. I opened it and deposited what I could into my bag. I was too tired to look through it closely, though I noted with some chagrin that there were no town portal scrolls. Walking back to the shredded corpse of the dead rogue, I kicked her onto her back, revealing her weapon. It wasn't a bow in the conventional sense. It was a crossbow, radiating pure power. I picked it up and slung it across my back. Immediately, I felt a flush of rage. However, it passed quickly and we walked back up into the main caverns.

    After the gloom of the lower level, the caves were positively brimming with light. We noted our previous tracks and took the only other path we could. After shrugging off a few skeleton warriors, I felt the air clear. We were near the exit. I surged forward, Paige just a few steps behind me, and ran towards the source of the cool breeze. A single shaft of light pierced the darkness ahead of me, signaling the end of our journey. I ran out

    -and straight into a flurry of arrows from a nearby cluster of archers. My temper, which had been frayed since the encounter with the powerful rogue mistress, burst apart. I didn't even stop to fight the attackers, even as Paige had begun picking them off. I summoned what was left of my chi and launched a burst of speed that powered me towards the waypoint I could make out in the distance. Demons, corrupted rogues, quill rats, I stopped caring as I ran by them with my charge swept up in the chi I had generated. May the Goddess damn this foul lands, I mumbled as I ran, then I realized the stupidity of that statement. She already had, it seemed. Still, I was so sick of the constant fighting, the pointless battles that didn't go anywhere, and this stupid rogue that I had been saddled with who was the root of all my problems.

    I reached the waypoint and triggered it, returning us to camp. Paige inched away from me slowly, which bothered me to no end. I threw off my pack, tossing the crossbow that I had taken from the demon mistress across the camp, and sprung towards Paige. She broke out into a full-blown run as I chased her around the tents, screaming that I was going to rip off her arms and make them into a necklace. I heard several of the guards call for
    backup as they started shooting at me. I overtook her easily and snapped her flat on her back, pinning her hands above her head with one arm and bringing my blade up to drive it home into her throat. Her Sister's arrows were raining down on me but I didn't feel them even when they pierced my skin.

    I looked down at my quarry. She was breathing hard, struggling slightly, andcrying? She wore a mask of fear and anguish. It hit me like a fist and I paused before ending her life, though everything in my mind and body told me to do otherwise. I lowered my blade, but somehow my arm raised it again without my consent. I sat there trembling, fighting my very body for control, the still-bloody blade ready to slash down at any moment.

    'Assassin, stop!' Kashya's voice rang across the camp, a steady clarion that brought me to my senses. I felt two strong hands grip my upstretched arm and pull me off Paige, twisting it behind my back and wrestling me to the ground. A flurry of activity near me as a circle of Sisters surrounded me with silver-tipped arrows. Kashya ran over and scooped Paige into her arms, whispering something I couldn't understand. I was fighting to get away from the steady hands that were pressing me against the cool earth, but I didn't know how I was moving my body. It felt so heavy and so distant. I tried to look up but I could only tilt my head slightly. I saw Kashya rocking Paige back and forth slightly, Akara holding the crossbow in her hands and saying something to the livid Sisters beside her, a lock of blond hair from the woman-Charsi-holding me still. Their voices blurred and stretched. I felt myself detach from my body and it seemed that I was moving at a thousand miles per second.

    A burst of rainbows and flames, gleaming metal and rushing water, raging volcanos and earthquakes. A scream, a cry, a whisper. I lifted my head again and found that I could move completely. The camp was gone. The rogues were gone. Kashya, Charsi, Paige-I stood up. A massive white expanse was before me. I looked down at my body. I was clad in a light robe, neither wounds nor tattoos nor brands adorning my skin. There was something flickering at the edges of my perception, like gazing into a still forest and catching sight of a deer out of the corner of your eye that vanishes silently when you turn your head. I looked up from my arms and noticed that there were two figures sitting before me.

    I walked towards them. My body felt strange, clumsy, but I did not trip or fall. My thoughts were jumbled and I stopped several times, confused. Where was I? Who was I? The figures came into view. Two women. One, on the left, with thick, curly jet black hair that surrounded her like a crown, deep set light brown eyes, her skin pale, her hands strong and muscular. She was shorter than I, her body curvy but clearly athletic. Her companion was a few inches taller with the same mixed build. Her hair was a light brown, her skin clearly tanned from years of outdoor work, her hair shorter and pulled away from her face. Their dress was strange, both in loose fitting garments of materials I didn't recognize. The shorter one had an arm draped loosely around her companion's waist and laughed as the taller one shook her head. They seemed unaware of my presence. The darker one said something I couldn't decipher and looked at me expectantly, her gaze piercing me to my very core. Her friend made a non-committal gesture and also stared at me, though with a softened eye.

    They both smiled at me, the shorter one with a grin that conveyed compassion, joy, and concern while the taller one smiled in amusement and with a degree of patience that a mother would show her child. The dark haired one walked towards me and put her hand against my face, cupping my cheek in her hand. She was deliciously warm and her fingertips sent a coursing energy through my body. Without force, she brought my forehead to her level and kissed me there, in the center between my brows. Immediately, the strange clumsiness and confusion that had insinuated itself into my core dissipated. She withdrew her hand and moved back to her friend, who said something that sounded like, 'Return.'

    I had yet to enjoy the clarity when the floor seemed to give way and I started falling. I looked up and the women seemed to shimmer slightly, like candles throwing shadows on a mirror. The shorter one gazed out of three faces, one of a young woman, one of a matron, and one of a grandmother, all of their eyes voids, attached to a single body clad in flowing onyx robes, hair ablaze with strange fire, gripping a wand entwined with two snakes. The taller one had sprouted six arms, which held implements of sacrifice and war, gripping a head dripping blood into a waiting bowl, her skin a strange dusky blue, clad in a skirt of human arms and a necklace of skulls, her eyes closed in ecstasy and her tongue lolling out of her mouth. I shook my head and glanced up again. They were waving at me in the forms they had worn when I first arrived in that place. My eyes closed involuntarily as I dropped.

    My eyes opened again to where I was lying on the floor of the camp. Charsi had released my body and busily removed my weapons while Akara pressed something bitter tasting to my lips. I grimaced and tried to move away, but she forced it down my throat nonetheless. There were still a few guards standing nearby, but the camp had gone off of alert. I was confused and my body ached. I tried to stand but Charsi pushed me down again. Kashya and Paige were nowhere in sight.

    'Poison,' Akara said gently. 'The most potent I have ever seen. Most poisons corrupt the body. This corrupted the mind. You shielded Paige at the price of your own being and it overtook even your training.' I slumped onto the earth as Akara brought the crossbow in to view. 'This bow is saturated with the poison; had you not brought it with you, we would not have been able to create an antidote-sleep now, though. This has been a long two days.'

    My strange trip was fading from my memory, but the sweet smile and the kiss lingered still. 'I saw,' I whispered to Akara as she turned away. 'I saw-' as I slipped into a deep, drug-induced sleep.

    Chapter Ten

    The last few days had seen me wake up in some strange states. Still, I hadn't expected to wake up in chains.

    I came to inside a tent, one of the rogue barracks from the smell of it. I blinked a few times. Even the dim light of the sun streaming through the oilcloth stung my sensitive eyes and I winced them closed again. It felt like someone was swinging a mace into my temples in time with the steady pounding of Charsi's hammer outside.

    I tried to sit up, propping myself up with one elbow, when I noted the chains adorning both of my wrists. I looked down; my feet seemed to be similarly attired. This was an unexpected development. I hadn't been some time. I sighed and flopped back onto the bedroll, raising my arms in front of me to contemplate the restraints. They were well forged, medium-weight steel chains, with a standard single key lock deeply imbedded in each cuff; more of Charsi's excellent work. I wagered she'd done many sets of these, but those thoughts I put away for later. I pulled my arm down experimentally, hearing the chain rasp against a metal hook about 2 feet above my head. There was enough give for me to move myself into a sitting position if I had wanted to, but no more than that. Tilting my head back, I contemplated the pole above me. It was driven into the ground about three feet, but the wood was beginning to rot where the O-ring was fastened. I could probably rip the chains off the pole, but that would attract more attention than I could deal with right

    I put my arms down and looked around the tent some more. A young woman crouched about ten feet from me, staring at my prone form with fear, anger, and disdain. I knew they would have put a guard on me. After my performance yesterday, I would have put a guard on me, but it was still disappointing. I wondered what wrong she had committed to be assigned this duty. She had noticed I was awake, but made no move to alert her superiors.

    I lay back a few moments more, centering myself and scanning my body. Although I had sustained a great deal of mental and psychic damage from the poison, I could not detect any fissures or imperfections in my psionic shielding. I mediated lying down, fighting the urge to go back to sleep. My chakras had been made whole. More than that: I found that I had energy reserves and channels that had not existed until today. I was much stronger that I had ever been before. Whatever happened to me during the previous few days had built my abilities significantly. I recalled the fading shadows of my vision, the strange kiss from the even stranger woman. What had that meant?

    A wave of nausea prevented further contemplation and I groaned softly. I wanted these chains off of me, and soon. Reaching up to my head, I felt along the intricate braids the held my hair out of the way. There were bits of dried and crusted material, probably viscera and goddess knows what else clinging to the strands. Ignoring my disgusting state, I felt for a single sliver of metal carefully hidden within. This would be my key. However, I needed to distract or remove my guard.

    'Excuse me,' I whispered to my silent guardian, 'I know I am our prisoner, but I am not feeling well. I would appreciate being able to speak to Akara or Kashya.' The young woman looked at me with hard black eyes and kept her watch. I tried again, 'I am sure that your captain and your priestess would want to know that I have awakened.' Still, the sister said nothing. I sighed and gathered a bundle of mental energy. 'Get Akara,' I said in a deep, low tone, and I forced my way gently into the mind of the Sister. Her shielding was undeveloped enough to allow me to plant a 'suggestion' within. She stood and her black eyes faded momentarily to a light green color, signaling the success of my intrusion. She walked out of the tent, past the two women beyond the flaps, leaving me to my work.

    Within seconds, I had unfastened my wrist and ankle cuffs, rubbing where they had chafed my skin. I lay as still as I could, hiding my deception beneath the blankets as a small commotion brewed outside. Raised voices, soothing tones, the sound of chain mail moving roughly, and someone flinging the 'door' of the tent open to allow Akara, with the rogue guard beside her, into my improvised cell.

    To my surprise, Akara carried the crossbow I had lifted from the dead corrupter and she sat with it in her arms a mere two feet from me. The guard resumed her post behind Akara, though now she held a bow ready and aimed at my head. I rolled my eyes. 'Is that really necessary,' I asked,trying to control the note of annoyance. The rogue, recovered from my brief control, spoke in a rough tone. 'You nearly killed your own companion, you traitorous sl...' 'Quiet, child.' was Akara's swift rebuke,and the young woman returned to the taciturn state I now appreciated.

    I noticed a strange electricity buzzing through the room, as did Akara. We realized, simultaneously, its origin. Turning to me, Akara slowly rotated the crossbow in her fingertips and spoke, lost in thought. 'Indeed, this is a strange and wonderful weapon. Everyone who has even been in sight of it has grown bitter and angry. If a mere tool can cause this, who knows Andariel's true power?' She put the bow down, out of reach, and reached over, putting a hand on my head. She withdrew it, surprised. 'How is this possible,' she said in wonderment. I looked at her quizzically. 'Child, we have seen the sort of poison you and Paige found. We have brought our warriors, half crazed, half raging, out of the battles with the demons, sick like you were. Those that did not die within hours leapt out of the camp and became the insane sisters you have fought so often. None have recovered as you have.' I smiled. 'Well, I am no longer mad and I am most certainly not dead.'

    A shadow darkened her brow. 'After Charsi...removed you from Paige, you fought like a wild panther for about an hour. Charsi held on to you when none other would approach, trying to prevent you from hurting anyone,including yourself. Suddenly, you went limp and gave a great sigh. We lay you out on the ground, assuming it was a trick. But when you failed to rise, I checked...' A loaded pause. 'Assassin, child, you stopped breathing. For ten minutes, there was neither pulse nor breath in your body.'

    Confusion. 'I died?' I'd never been dead before.

    She nodded. 'Paige herself closed your eyes and said the final blessing. As she finished the prayer, though, you gave a great jerk and your eyes flew open.' I remembered that part. 'I had made an antidote while you were fighting Charsi, but I wasn't able to administer it to you in time.' The healer shrugged. 'I figured that it would nullify any of the remaining contamination in your system and, since I had added a sedative for good measure, would allow us to restrain you in case the insanity returned.' She smiled in a way that would be mischievous if anyone else had worn it.'I will return in a moment with the jailer to remove the restraints,' and she lifted herself off the ground, leaving the bow behind, and called Kashya to the tent from the door. The guard never took her eyes off me. I briefly considered grabbing the spare weapon, but felt no real reason to harm the sisters. It wasn't their fault I had gone briefly crazy.

    Kashya ducked in through the flap Akara held open and the three of them, guard, captain, and healer stood above me. It was quite disconcerting. 'Release her,' ordered Akara. 'She poses no threat to us now.' Kashya practically hissed at me. 'How do you know that? You thought she'd bean asset. You said for us to trust her. You said' Akara smiled once again and cut off the livid commander. 'Because she could have hurt us at any moment, couldn't you have, Assassin?' I grinned sheepishly and held up my unchained wrists. My guard sputtered, 'But how,' and Kashya gaped while Akara gently helped me to my feet. I handed one end of the opened chains to the confused rogue warriors, chuckling quietly. 'Assassins don't need keys.'

    Kashya resumed a more dignified facial expression and grabbed me under the chin, a move I couldn't counter in my physically inferior state. She tilted my head up so she could look directly into my eyes and spoke low,deadly, 'Assassin, I have lent you one of my warriors and you have nearly killed her, twice. Give me one reason I shouldn't kill you right here, much less entrust her to you a third time?' Something cool pressed against my neck. A knife? How strange. I wasn't afraid of her anger, nor at the possibility of death, but the worthlessness of such a demise was ironic.Killed by the people I had come to protect. I expected Akara to step in with her usual wisdom, but she stood behind me, holding the crossbow once again, waiting for my answer. I heard the bow-string on my guard's weapon stretch tightly and I felt the tip of an arrow graze my temple.

    The possible ways of extricating me from this tricky situation rushed through my head. I could have used force or artful debate, perhaps even mind control. Something in me instantly rejected all those options and I began to move not of my own accord. Instead, I slowly lifted my hand to the trembling blade at my neck and gently clasped it around her wrist. She didn't offer any resistance as I lowered it to her waist. I reached with my other hand to the fleshy restraint she had imposed on my face and eased it from my jaw, turning it slightly as I brought it between us. I threaded my fingers through hers and placed them against my breastbone, against the slow thudding of my heart. I leaned my head forward, so that only she could hear. 'Because I will succeed where all others have failed, Kashya and in spite of my actions, you know that to be true, that I am your last, best hope.' A rush of tension through the hands I held, but they did not move until I maneuvered them in front of her and let one go. With my free hand, I grasped the arrowhead aimed at my skull and directed it downwards. We all stood there, the stupefied rogue, the silent priestess, Kashya and myself. The bizarre energy that had pervaded the room since Akara had first come inside vanished.

    'Well done, Assassin,' intoned Akara, and she handed me the crossbow. 'You have neutralized the last of the poison. This weapon was the last vestige of the corruptor's power, but I could not rid the camp of it for fear of having another demon take possession of it. Since you survived the initial encounter, I guessed you would break the curse if you were fully healed. I was correct. Come, children.' I took the weapon, slightly bewildered, and watched as she bowed slightly and left the tent, followed by the rogue guard.

    Kashya and I stood in the empty tent, my hand still at her wrist. 'You participated, voluntarily, in that experiment Kashya? To test if I were made whole? To test my loyalty? Is not the blood bond strong enough?' Unsurprisingly, she made no response, though she did not pull away, instead, gripping my hand with resolve. 'Where is Paige?' 'Asleep. She needs rest,' the captain murmured to me. I tried to pull away again, but the movement was resisted. She was trying to tell me something, that was abundantly clear, but whatever it was wouldn't go from her brain to her mouth.

    She drew in a breath, troubled. 'What happened after you died?' Ah, thatsmall matter. She was obviously petrified of my answer. Why could that be? I probed her mind deeply, but still gently enough for her not to notice the intrusion. She did not fear death, nor did she doubt her calling, but the question of whether or not whomever administrated the afterlife would see things as she did nagged at her very core. The trickery of organized religion exposed once again. 'I don't remember very much. There were two women, a vast white expanse of nothingness. I wasn't afraid or aware of anything other than myself and these two. They were beautiful, and terrifying, at the same time.' She didn't seem satisfied by the answer, but I couldn't give her any more than that. She released my wrist and I went outside into the camp.

    While I garnered a few strange looks from the rogues, most of them ignored me. My things had been repaired and piled neatly by my stash, with the appropriate amount of gold removed from my money pouch. I swung the crossbow up and practiced readying it a few times. It was unwieldy, but light. Some practice would be needed before I would be able to fire it effectively, but in itself it was an excellent weapon. I put it near the rest of my items and walked over to where Charsi was working. She moved slowly, like her body was far too heavy for her legs, and a jagged scar ran across her left cheek.

    We locked eyes as she heard me approach. She straightened herself up stiffly, her body clearly not healed from the beating I had inflicted. Even in her battered state, she was a full head taller than me and quite imposing; no wonder she had been chosen to subdue the tiger. I approached with my arms open, palms facing out, showing her I approached unarmed. I knew from experience that these silent, powerful types were often the most unpredictable, but I could not show an outward preparation for a fight. She stood immobile, her black eyes fixed at point far beyond me as I approached. Again, the strange sensation of being manipulated like a marionnette came over me and I brought my right hand to the scar on her face.'Thank you for shielding me and my own,' I said, in a voice that was not mine. A warm rush of energy passed through me and into Charsi, who shuddered briefly and relaxed. I took my hand down and she smiled at me, as confused as I was. She resumed her smithing, this time without any trace of injury. I walked away, noting that the scar on her face was gone.
  4. silentwater

    silentwater Diabloii.Net Member

    Jul 1, 2008
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    Re: Fulcrum by Anyee

    Maybe I should die more often. It apparently makes me far easier to get along with. 'That's unlikely.' A voice from somewhere in my brain laughed gently and returned my body to my full control. Great. First I was dead. Now I am hearing voices. However, I needed a bath more than I needed to contemplate my potentially failing mental state. I managed to obtain some soap from one of the barracks and went to the river behind the camp to wash off.

    The water was ice cold and dead clear, as the evil in the land had purged it of any flora or fauna. I removed my robe and stepped in, shivering as I did so. The current was slow enough in an inlet near the camp that I didn't worry about floating away. I began the tedious process of undoing every one of my braids to take out the disgusting bits of flesh and filth that clung to me from the caves. A small pile of pins lay on the riverbank as my hair finally flowed free down to mid back. I combed through it carefully, taking out the tangles and loose hairs. Someone whistled behind me and I turned, forgetting my nakedness, to find a leering Gheed ogling my form. I hissed and sent a small blast of energy at him, leaving him blinded for a bit and stumbling noisly around the camp. Returning to my bath, I started a puja of purification, cleaning my body and my mind thoroughly to present myself to the goddesses. I performed them with more fervor than usual, realizing that there was someone actually listening and watching me on this strange journey.

    Finishing my bath, I dried off and put on as much of my clothing and armor as I could without assisstance. Then, I sat and carefully rebraided my hair, secreting the pins and tiny daggers in the intricate plaits. It took time to do correctly, but once set I would not have to rework them for months if I so chose. I completed the braiding to find Paige sitting before me, fascinated by the sheer volume of hair I was working with.'Wow,' she said, 'where does all of that go?' I smiled at her, shrugged,and stood up. Best get this done with quickly. 'I am sorry for attacking you. I didn't know what I was doing. If you wish, you may terminate your assignment to me.' Paige looked unphased, though I saw it was a very thinly laid veneer. 'I will finish what I have started. I know the reason for your corruption and mine and I will not be deterred.' She had rehearsed that line a few times to convince herself that she wasn't livid. I thought the better of calling her on it and nodded.

    We had wasted enough time attacking each other, sleeping, and in my case, being dead, so I decided we should move out in spite of the late hour. I put the crossbow in my pack along with some bolts from Charsi. The few magical items I had gotten from monsters would have to wait until later to be dealt with. Paige helped me put on my claws and we went to the waypoint to search for the Scroll.

    Chapter 11

    Trees were all that greeted us when we shimmered back into the wilds of the Rogue lands. Had there really been this much forest when Paige and I blitzed through on our escape from the howling mines below? I couldn't be sure, for the poison had made yesterday a sickening dream, an unreal conglomeration of images that someone else had inserted into my mind. Waking dreams, dreams that were truer than life itself; I'd spent too much time inside my head, alone on my vigilant watch, and the effects hadn't worn off yet. Blessedly, my thoughts run faster than most.

    The waypoint was in a small clearing, the orange sunset visibly deepening through the tiny patches of sky above. I didn't relish the idea of fighting demons in the darkness, but there was no alternative. Too much time was passing between battles and we'd lost much time. If we wished to eliminate Andariel before she completed her hold on the Rogues' land, we would need to expedite the extermination of our foes. Still, fighting at night gave us the advantage in many ways. Few have greater second sight than the Rogues, though the Amazons would beg to differ. As for myself, well, we train to live in the shadows, to make the darkness our cloak and companion. The gloom of night would serve Paige and I well.

    A sudden fireball flashed into the evening air, making the guise of night yet another lie. I ducked behind a tree but Paige wasn't so lucky, catching the brunt of the fireball on her arm, which sizzled and crackled like dry firewood. A wordless scream emanated from her burning face, during which I took the opportunity to pour a healing potion both onto her skin and into her gullet. She took a sudden choking breath and shook her rapidly regenerating arm a few times, then ran behind me three paces. The trees surrounding us were thick, twisted like wrought iron arms clawing out of the corrupted earth. The bark was nearly black, encrusted with foul-green lichen, the sparse leaves razor sharp. These plants had leeched the corruption of the Burning Hells through their roots, deforming their natural growth into the unholy parodies we saw before us. I recalled a great writer speaking of the earth being unearthly, of the dark heart of the woods. Truly, this man had seen trees such as the ones that concealed us from the demonic attackers. Evil with a purpose.

    I couldn't see all of our adversaries, but I could feel their presence. At least thirty demons lurked with the woods and clearings, with their shamans rousing them into a fevered death-dance. Paige slipped out between what were once two birch trees and let loose a stream of arrows. No avail. The two demons she terminated were quickly revived with a wave of their captain's staff. I sunk my blades into the tree and hoisted myself into the branches. It was a neat backflip as I swung the lower torso over my hands, bending my spine and making me offer silent thanks to my training yet again. I wrapped my legs around a thick forked trunk of the tree and yanked my weapons out; they'd be a little dull for the rest of the day, but nothing I couldn't have Charsi hone when I returned to camp. Paige looked up at me in amazement. 'Come ON!' I said, watching her only barely miss another fireball. The shaman and his charges were closing in on us. She tossed up her bow, which I caught in one hand as I bent down and grabbed her waiting wrist. I clasped my hand around her forearm and told her to jump. She made a single small leap and I contracted my arm muscles. She was heavier than I thought, but I still managed to do a single, static lift, aided by the soles of her leather boots scraping and pushing up on the petrified bark.

    We stood there in the tree, both of us panting slightly and brushing the tiny fragments of debris out of the massive scrapes on both our legs. I reminded myself to buy a covering for my lower torso, something which my traditional outfit and the glinting chain-mail left exposed to the air. Paige had done far worse than I, raw red tracks starting at her ankles and ending at her knees, not quite bleeding but still open to the air. I poured most of a small healing potion on them and they hissed slightly, the contaminants within the wound dissolving into new flesh.

    Scanning upwards, I looked at our current perch. We could easily climb somewhat higher, and avoid the assault for a little while longer. Still, once the shamans and their minions surrounded the trunk, we would have to confront them from a less-than-ideal position for melee combat. Throwing items at them from my pack was unlikely to cause much harm, and I doubted that Paige could effective fire her arrows with the thicket of spindly branches encasing us. I wondered if the demons could climb trees. I knew that they could move more quickly on the ground than we could up here, and that once they caught up with us, we would be outnumbered hopelessly. I hadn't gotten a chance to refresh the supply of simple traps while I was at camp, recovering, so those were out of the question. Hand-to-hand combat would earn both of us a free trip back to the Rogue camp, courtesy of the phoenix-blood amulets we wore. Much as I hated to do so in such contaminated lands, I was going to have to employ my mentalist training.

    The first time I had encountered these minions was still early in my training. Our Mistress of Blades and our Master of Shadows had retrieved them from the outlands, having followed the trail of Horazon's folly across Sanctuary. The demons were weak, almost dead, having been infected with a slow acting but powerful poison that kept their lifeforce from replenishing. A circle of lowguard assassins, skilled at blocking but worthless in combat, surrounded them; the trademark lowguard mental shielding formed a psionic fence reinforcing the actual iron enclosure around the devilkin. One by one, we were allowed within the confinement area to inspect, prod, record, and eventually fight the demons. Indeed, an assassin's strength and ability comes from her great knowledge of the body, both her own and that of the enemy.

    Going in through that gate, having never fought anything more threatening than my fellow trainees, was terrifying. The silent watch of my trainers, their blades at rest by their sides, made the advent even more tense. Our schooling was one mostly in open combat, for our teachers held that one could not adequately learn to defend or attack knowing that someone would be there to save her. More than one of us had lost a week of training because we had gotten in far over our heads and floundered miserably until we were finally rescued, with some disappointment, by our trainers...and one of us had lost more than that. Her physical form, crushed to uselessness, sat as a silent reminder next to the Mistress of Shadows, watching me go into fenced area.

    I don't know why I was chosen first that day. To say that I was an outcast among outcasts, resented and adored by teacher and student alike, would be an understatement. Still, my name rang out first and I was pushed forward by my sweet blond companion, my Lyshia, the haughty one...I hear her voice in the chattering of the attackers below us. I didn't know what to expect, going to that ragged heap of demonslop. Maybe that was why my teachers sent me first, since the loss of my talent would scarce interrupt their plans.

    I crouched over the minion, his blue-gray flesh streaked with lash marks, breath fetid with partially digested raw flesh and who knows what else. His black hair was pulled tightly into a revolting knot of bone so tight it skewed the skin around his eyes. Long spindly fingers topped with razor sharp claws, yellowed and caked with sputum, gore, and gunk. Short, stumpy legs covered barely by what looked like animal hide, but was probably from some unfortunate warrior. He was fashioned like a human, but I was curious as to what he was made of.

    My traineeís claws were blunter than the blades I wore now, but could still cut through skin with some effort. I slit open his chest, startled with a gush of black blood spouted out and doused me, stinging and burning my skin. The chorus of laughter from behind me accompanied my frightened yelp as I lost my balance and fell over. 'Aníyee, only you could get hurt by a dead enemy,' Lyshia mocked me from the sidelines and I flushed, humiliated and scolded. I wiped my eyes and streaked the blood through my scalp, sitting back up to finish the inspection. Built much the same as we were, but the organs were in the wrong place or missing altogether. I supposed that their creator must have worked in tandem with our creator, but the mind that made these creatures was far more twisted than anything taught by my Mistresses and Masters. Poking through the viscera, I wasnít able to get a good idea of the exact physiology when a rush of cold air made the hairs on the nape of my neck stand up.

    I was surrounded by a golden cloud as the demonís wound closed and he leapt up, grinning at me through three sets of diamond-sharp teeth. My killing him must have inactivated the poison, for he showed no sign of his prior enfeeblement and waved his arms menacingly as I slowly inched backwards towards the fence. The shaman must have realized the implications of my actions, since he wailed something and launched fireballs at the remaining infirm minions, killing them instantly. Then, he raised them up again before collapsing back as the poison still in his system went back to work. I was suddenly confronted by six very angry, very alive, devilkin.

    I got up off the ground and kept retreating, trying not to let them get behind me, where I was vulnerable. The taunting of my fellow students had diminished some, though Lyshia still hurled insults and I could feel the Master of Shadows giving me occasional mental slaps, as if to hurry me to my demise. I crossed my blades in front of me and crouched low, trying to muster whatever chi my young self could control, then sprang up in the crude imitation of a tiger strike. I missed impressively, tumbling past the small cluster of demons, and was set upon by the devilkin. While they had been stripped of their weapons, their claws and fangs were enough to do significant damage to an unarmored opponent, namely me. I kicked, trying to get the ones that were biting through my shins off enough so I could stand up. I flailed a blade and caught one of them in the shoulder, the fingers he had dug into my arm still moving as his body fell away from the limb. I somehow managed to roll over and finish the job with my other blade. The devilkin let go and retreated when they saw their fallen comrade. Still, the shaman raised himself wearily and brought the one kill back to life. Again, they came towards me and I bent down for a charge. I ran at them, waving my blades wildly, managing to slice two in twain without sustaining too much damage. Still, I was outnumbered four to one, odds that today are passable but then were unthinkable.

    And so the battle went for what seemed like hours but was probably only twenty minute or so. I couldnít get close to the shaman without two demons dragging me back down and removing another few inches of skin. I was exhausted, the dust of the camp mixing unpleasantly with my blood. I was bleeding hard and I felt some of my ribs cracking as I heaved on all fours, spitting clots and waiting for the dead minion near my right hand to reanimate. My class was dead silent, with even the lower-level instructors seeming uncomfortable with the continuation of this lesson. The silent one, her gift of prophecy still intact, raised a twisted hand to the Mistress above her; a warning, to our teachers, that I could sustain little more of this training before being rendered as she.

    They came, a mass of gnashing jaws and curved talons. The pain was incredible and I tried to maintain the last shreds of my dignity before my companions. I let my head flop over and watched them. The silent watcher retained her cautionary position, but my instructors made no move. I closed my eyes, resigned. They were going to let me die. They had spent all this time, taking me from the re-educators, training me as one of their clan, to let me be killed by an assortment of glorified hyenas. That made me angry. Not angry. Furious. Not furious. Livid. A push from deep within me, a building wave of frustration, of pain and pure rage. I opened my eyes and shouted a deep word of power Iíd never uttered before. Three of the kin flew off, taking several chunks of my arm with them, and slammed unconscious into the lowguards. The other three neatly got off of me and turned towards the shaman, a vacant look in their eyes. They charged at the shaman and began hacking at him until the effects of the mind blast wore off seconds later. At that point, a mid-guard assassin shouted a similar word of power and released a cloud of poison around the shaman. The devilkin fell coughing to the ground and slipped into unconsciousness, a state to which I also succumbed. The Master of Shadows whispered something into my fading mind. 'Thatís my girl.' Thus, I learned the mental arts.

    During this unpleasant recollection, I had been inching myself slowly up the tree, instructing Paige to step only on the branches I had already tested. She had nearly slipped down once and I didnít feel like scraping parts of her off the roots below to bury under the Rogue encampment. We were about 30 feet off the ground, high enough that the limbs of the tree spread outwards, leaving large gaps that showed the evening sky. If she balanced carefully, Paige would be able to let off a few shots at our attackers. Her view would be partially obstructed by our perch, but I was hoping that she could overcome that difficulty with her Inner Sight. If not, sheíd probably kill a few squirrels and seriously maim the grass, but fail to harm anything that could in theory harm us.

    'Stand ready, Paige,' I told her.

    'How, precisely, am I supposed to that. I am in a tree, you are holding my bow, and I am not terribly fond of heights.'

    Giving her back her weapon, I showed her where to plant her feet against the natural curves of the tree so that the recoil of her shot wouldnít throw her to the ground. Much to her surprise, I produced a set of leather binders and affixed one to each of her ankles, and then did the same to my own. 'Insurance,' I explained, knowing in the back of my mind that all it would probably do is make us a dangling bait instead of a splattered mess. Already, the devilkin had begun to gather at the base of the tree and were trying to shake us down, a movement hindered by the petrifaction of the roots and branches.

    'Watch the group. As soon as I hit them, focus and kill them. Shoot the shaman first if at all possible.' 'Hit them? With what? Our shoes?' I waved an arm at her, 'Quiet, Paige. I am trying to concentrate.' She sighed and looked at me, her dark eyes burning with a strange black fire; she was preparing to use second sight. Smart girl.

    Clearing my mind as quickly as I could, I focused on a pinpoint of darkness in a white expanse, the reverse of my usual imagery, but I went with whatever sprang into my consciousness. I opened that dark pinpoint and it began to unfold and grow exponentially, overtaking my mental landscape in a rush of shadow force. I drew a single hand back and began to siphon that energy from my mind through the energy conduits of my body and into my palm. Pushing my arm forward, I released a wave of energy, the force of which unsteadied even my prepared body. I grabbed hold of the branch and looked down to see much of the group wandering dazed away from the tree, while three or four had been knocked unconscious. Even though the shade and the twilight sky obscured much of our vision, I heard Paige exhale and fire three arrows, flaming trails that hit one of the shamans, killing him instantly. She was able to wound a few more of the devilkin before they shook off their stuns and resumed their futile attack. I repeated the blast several time in succession, managing to kill a few of the lesser demons while letting Paige target the shamans. Soon enough, the clamor below us was reduced to the low hum of cicadas and night birds. I mind blasted a final time, thoroughly spent, to completely ensure we had cleared the area.

    My head was throbbing and the black tide of my energy had washed out to a tired gray. I had always preferred a more insidious mental attack, as did my tall blond master of shadows, but an overtly offensive tactic was often the only recourse we had. I untied my straps and flipped down, curling my body so that I landed flat-footed on one of the corpses. It made a heavy splorching noise and exploded in all directions, shooting its armor all over the ground. Paige had released her bonds and was slowly climbing down, until she got to about 10 feet above me. Then, at my prompt, she hopped down and I caught her, depositing her gently on the corpse-littered ground. I spent a little time collecting fallen piles of gold, as well as some promising-looking armor and a glittering chainmail belt. Then, we continued through the black forest, looking for the Tree of Infusis.

    Chapter 12

    How did those lines go, 'The woods are lovely, dark and deep-' What strange shadows from my memory flicker back? A tall, statuesque dark haired woman reading the work assuredly to her class, my class, sitting in a semicircle in the thick jungles of Ram-iahan, the sounds of a sorceress being brutally tortured in the background. These woods that encased us were not lovely, but dark and deep indeed. Years of training kept my footfalls from alerting the rest of the demons lurking behind the foliage, but Paige was not so fleet and silent. The rustling of dead bones and dried leaves under her boots drew the attention and fire of endless streams of skeleton archers and dark rogues.

    After pulling out and breaking off the fifth arrow shaft from my armor, I decided to mind blast the area every few steps. Much as I loathed opening my mind in such foul and corrupted lands, I couldn't risk wasting more time in the camp recovering. This approach was tiring, but we moved through the forest unscathed, shredding our stunned and unconscious opponents. My Master of Shadow's sullen, tall figure blinked in front of me when I slammed a dark rogue to her death against a nearby birch. He would have neither approved nor disapproved of my skill.

    Our path was almost unhindered by whatever enemies could survive my mental onslaught. We had become strong, almost unnaturally so, three days of training and constant fighting burning away our weakness and purifying our technique. Paige looked more sinewy and was firing with greater accuracy. Even my blades felt lighter and more able attached to my body. Curious, I pulled out the demon crossbow I had taken from my murderer. I found a small branch and put it into the weapon, aiming clumsily at a stunned club-carrying rogue. The wood hit her in the chest and bounced off, the recoil of the weapon pushing me off balance. I dropped the crossbow in time to ready my claws for the recovered rogue's attack. Two slices and she fell, her spine severed at the neck. I retrieved the weapon and hung it back on my shoulders. I wasn't ready to use it yet.

    We emerged into a makeshift camp, tents of fresh hide and crude torches arranged in a semicircle. The dirt below our feet had been stripped of any greenery and a thin layer of dust accumulated on our boots and legs as we walked forward. Small piles of gold littered the bounder-strewn earth, glinting out of place in the otherwise organic setting. I scooped up what I could, glancing around for the inhabitants of the camp. There were none forthcoming; we must have destroyed this demon hive in the woods themselves.

    A few dead rogues slumped against their burial stakes, half-chewed and out of their misery. I untied them and left the corpses on the ground. The movement was meaningless in terms of burial rights, serving only to shake whatever provisions they didn't reach to the ground. A few potions, some gold, scraps of their armor, all deposited in my sack. The dead often serve the living, my Mistress of Traps had told me, though I had never really believed her until I shielded myself from one of her rages beneath a fallen comrade.

    I stood again and gazed about the clearing. Massive, a tree unlike any other arched in agony up towards the sky. The Tree of Infusis, whose roots tapped into the heart of the world. Our prize. The bark glimmered like hammered gold, refracting the pale light of the moon in a diamond-myriad of directions. Spheres of energy were orbiting with a deep hum, a steady rhythm that spoke of the power contained in this creature of nature. Transfixed, I moved towards it, when a roar caught my attention.

    Brutes. Remembering the previous unpleasant experience that we had with them, I tried to scatter the pack. I am faster than most my size, faster than most of my order, faster than my father on a three-day bender of sour wine. I streaked past them, drawing two away towards a rocky outcropping in the middle of the clearing. Their paws, padded tough with leathered flesh, swiped nearly blind at me from beneath a veil of shaggy, filthy hair. I dodged and whirled once, my blades streaming silver across the black sky, in the light of the torches from the abandoned demon encampment. My claws hit true, double striking the brutes on either side of my body. A slight resistance and then the bone underneath my hands splintered from the force I channeled into it. Their rib cages shattered into a disaster of bone as they dropped, nearly taking me to the ground as they wavered from their upright position.

    Readying myself, I began the concentration required to bring the tiger upon me. When I call the animals of my clan for strength, I must quickly center myself to allow them to come into my body.

    This time, though, as I felt the charge filling my muscles, I noticed a strange black spot in my mind. My mental plain was usually green, without fluctuation or alteration, and yet there is was. An imperfection. A defect that I couldn't place, like a tiny bit of sand in your eye, itching so slightly that you could ignore it if you tried. Unfamiliar and totally out of place. The tiger essence seemed puzzled, so much as a pure energy spirit could, but answered me nonetheless. It integrated itself into my mind, carefully avoiding the grain of imperfection.

    I breathed in, tensing up for the next pass. A few clots of grass were torn up with the passing of my heels as I sped around the remaining six, already peppered with arrows from Paige's constant barrage. A rush of black air, hot and blood-frenzied and they took off after me, faster than I've ever seen a brute move. I pushed harder, they moved faster, boulders down a steep incline gathering gravel and debris. I wasn't trained for endurance running; by this time, I should have been out of reach. They charged at me and I had to stop, exhausted. The unsettling darkness in my brain had faded and I was left with my chi pulsing full force, ready for me to unleash it in whatever form I could. Bracing myself, I waited for them to come on to my position, growling low to answer one brute's howl of pain as Paige leveled the straggler of the pack.

    I can say that there is nothing in this world like being hit full force by a speeding brute. I have been kicked by horses and slammed by barbarians, but nothing prepared me for this. I was on the ground in seconds, my viscera liquefied by the impact. I turned, vomited blood, and grabbed a potion. Two left. Would that be enough? I drank it and leapt up, swinging my claws without rhythm. After about twenty hits I realized that I could let the tiger loose, and I did. A shower of sparks rained from the tips of my claws and the brute's chest erupted, spilling his intestines to the floor. Paige yelped as a brute, turning from pummeling me, hit her with a hairy paw, but she recovered quickly and finished him with a stab of one arrow. A single peon remained, ready to swing his fist into my shoulder. I removed first hand, then arm, then head in a series of tiger aided slices. They thumped to the ground, oozing next to my own bloody contribution.

    Finally, the alpha brute remained. Those eyes, usually limpid and calm, were struck with wildfire. Still, they radiated a quiet sadness, as if the soul of the brute were trapped instead of corrupted. I couldn't ponder the nature of demon possession for too long, as he began his charge at me. Neither sidestepping nor direct confrontation seemed to work, so I took the third option. I pounced at him, driving my left blade like a spike into his shoulder, and swinging thus, I grabbed hold of his neck with the crook of my right arm, ripping his shoulder and my left blade out. He turned back and forth, shaking his body and trying to throw me off, a leaf on a tornado struck vine. I maintained my grasp through force of will alone, stabbing over and over again with my left blade. An arrow whizzed by my head as Paige tried to help me finish the task. She missed most of her shots and when he finally dropped, it was my blade that had chopped through his ribcage and removed his heart.

    The brute lay dead, his corpse already rotting in the dark night air. I took a glistening arm bone from his skeleton, watching the rest of the body melt into the ground. 'Why do you take that from him?' queried my bruised companion. 'I want to make a weapon that moves as fleet and as strong as that once lumbering creature could.' A fairly common practice in my lands, where raw materials were as scare as compassion, love, and edible food. It was unnecessary here, but appropriate somehow. I thanked the tiger spirit and released it to the wind.

    Looming before us was the Tree of Infusis. I approached cautiously, wondering how this tree had escaped corruption. It was wrapped in vines, though it bore no leaves, birds, or fruit of any sort. I reached out one hand to touch the bark, tracing my fingers along the rough ridges and shelters. A piece came away in my hand and I could see the inner core, the wood alive with sap and lifeforce, before the skin of the tree rapidly healed itself. I gazed at the bark I held. It was warm, deeply carved with glowing runes. I could barely translate the individual symbols, much less string them together into a legible incantation. This was Akara's territory, not mine.

    The trip back to the waypoint was almost unadventurous, the few remaining opponents falling swiftly to Paige's bow. I wondered how she could keep firing as well as she did, for I was exhausted beyond comparison. Every step I took seemed to etch the dark circles farther into my head. Activating the waypoint required more effort than I thought possible. The rogue camp was dead silent when we returned, the few guards respecting the much needed sleep of their sisters. I unpacked carefully, placing the gold in my rapidly cluttering stash. By the time I finished, Paige had already stripped to a sleep shift and was beating out a roll left near the fire. I wanted to wake Akara to inquire about the bark, but thought the better of it. Healing and fighting could drain the same amount of energy, especially when my doing so much of the former forced her to do as much of the latter.

    The air had become cloying in the last few hours, a sensation uncomfortable to a desert dweller clad in leather. I too undressed there near my stash, contemplating another bath, but I instead lay down to mediate in the heavy darkness. I began the simplest exercise I could, tuning in to each muscle, each tendon, each bone and ligament, pulling and stretching the energy from my toes to my head. My chakras were weak and slightly squashed, nothing that a full night of sleep would not repair. I wasn't concerned about that part of my body, though. I formed an avatar of myself, mentally creating a landscape to represent my mind. This required more concentration than I could maintain comfortably, but I pushed through it. The familiar plain stretched before me; my home, before it became a breeding ground for evil. I felt the self-in-my-head walk among the boulders, the trees and caves that usually populated my mindscape. Yes, everything seemed in its place. Still I walked, noting the new memories flickering as assorted foliage and coalescing into full forms.

    Then I saw it.

    It was tiny, no bigger than an agate from a child's play bin. If I didn't know that land like the curves of my claw, I would have overlooked it. It floated in a stream, unnaturally hovering on the surface on the water though it looked heavy enough to find bottom. I knelt down and reached out. The sphere gravitated to my fingertips, pulsating eerily. I brought it to my eye level, watching it expand and shrink as if it were breathing in time with my own body. It slid around my hand, unmoved by my will, until it lit upon one finger. To my surprise, it surrounded the finger like a spider cocoons her prey. At that moment, I lost all awareness and knowledge of that finger.

    I gazed in puzzlement at my mind's representation of my physical hand. Had I always had four fingers on my left hand? Why were there five fingers on my right hand? Was that wrong? The memory was unclear. I shook my hand, the sensation unpleasant and unbalanced, something tingling at the back of my head. The sphere released easily and evaporated. I should have five fingers on both hands, and I did.

    I woke up from the meditation. Paige was nowhere in sight, sleeping in one of the tents to avoid the rain that was almost sure to fall that night. I turned my hands over again and again, marveling that I did indeed have 10 fingers. I made a fist and rolled over, unnerved and confused. No one had ever spoken of such a strange dissociation and I added the hallucination? Vision? What was I to call this? to the lengthening list of questions I wished sent to my masters once the Western and Eastern paths were connected once again.

    The sky split with a simultaneous crack and cry. Thunder. Kashya. In perfect time. She began screaming in her sleep, a cacophony of names, curses, pleading prayers. I sensed someone waking, unsteadily, and stirring slowly in one of the tents. It was trying to be quiet, secretive, and though I could have easily gotten her name, I let that figure stay anonymous. I found myself also pulling myself up, moving towards the leader's barrack, projecting the sleep command to the other figure. It's mind consented gratefully and slipped back to its place

    Kashya's tent was overwarm, still illuminated with four stub candles. She was curled up on one side, her verbal barrage stopped for a moment. I walked forward, trying to work my mind through her tight mental shielding to uncover the source of her sleep terrors. I met strong resistance that I lacked the strength, right now, to pry apart. A single step towards her cot.

    She sat bolt upright, startling me into gasping a curse. Her eyes were open, insensible, her fists whitely gripping the bars of her cot-frame, her powerful frame seeming small as she breathed with great effort and speed. Her mouth opened and a stream of nonsense poured forth, loudly proclaiming her distress to the annoyed but caring sisters in the nearby tents. I listened to the hidden places within her speak, the talk of a self forced under a construct of discipline and training, so that the rest of the mind could function. Terror. Horror. Fear. Pain. And a terrible aching need that had gone unanswered for so long.

    I was so tired. I couldn't help her. I couldn't help myself. I allowed myself the delusion that I could somehow assist her. I reached out for her hand, but she instead caught my wrist, nearly breaking it in a grasp like the jaws of a tiger. The wild chesnut hair formed a mane as stared into my eyes, about to scream again. Her face seemed so old, so broken by uncounted atrocities. Something in her timed out and she relaxed back, letting go of my aching arm. The lines in her face uncurved and smoothed as she returned to peaceful sleep. There would be no more outbursts tonight.

    I backed away slowly, unsure. This day had been stranger than any I had lived, and an assassin's life is never mundane. I wanted to sleep, but the constant drum of the rain on the tent made the outdoors seem unappealing. Still, I could do it. I turned, bracing for the wet mat that awaited me.

    'Stay,' the whispered command came. I turned around. She was coherent now, and awake, looking at me from a propped up arm. I nodded my head, too tired to argue. She pulled back a blanket and I found myself strangely soothed by her presence as I curled up on a corner of the already narrow cot. I thought I felt her move closer and rub my much abused left hand. I could not be sure. Sleep was a welcome visitor and I embraced her void.

    Chapter 13

    Cool air blew across my head, ruffling the few stray hairs that peeked out from underneath my braids. The sounds of chickens fretting their way to breakfast punctuated my sleep. I was - outside. I didn't think I fell asleep here, but I was surely enough waking on the dirt near the fire pit. My mat had been neatly rolled out and I was covered with my customary blanket. I recalled, in a dream haze, being shifted from my original sleeping place, but when that occurred or who forced the change I couldn't remember. It didn't really matter anyway; I was still exhausted.

    I unwrapped my bag and lay out the items within. The brutes bone gleamed white in the early-lit sun. I removed a small series of tools that I kept in my pouch; an awl, a chisel, several fine blades and place them around me. I sent a prayer of thanks and praise to the spirit of my former attacker and spent the next hour honing and whittling the bone down to a fine, single point. It lost most of its size and weight as I carved out my new weapon, flaking a double edged blade for I wanted both slicing and stabbing power. With more time, I could have made an elegant claw, but this would suffice better than my quickly dulling left wrist blade. I took the bone and drew it across my arm experimentally. It raised a slight welt. I took a few more millimeters off the edge and tried again. Now, I had a trickle of blood. I took a tiny bit more and knew that I could probably slice through muscle.

    I took the bone over to Charsi, sitting with her morning cup of brew. 'Can you attach straps to this?' She removed it gingerly from my hands and rotated it.

    'It may be difficult not to split it, but yes. Did you sleep well?'

    The question was unexpected, polite but with a knowing tone. 'Yes. Fine. It was much needed,' and I walked away, feeling her stare leave ridges in my back. She knew I was lying, but I was much too tired to care.

    I took the belts I had acquired, as well as the scroll, to Akara. She took the large piece of bark and sat down with me, indicating the runes and their meanings.

    'You see, ' she began, 'the Horadrim took their inspiration for language from the things they saw, the air and the Light, fire and earth. Here, they speak of bringing the earth through the air.'

    I stopped her. 'Akara, while I appreciate the lesson, I don't believe your knowledge would penetrate this sleeping brain.' She nodded and quickly wrote the translation out for me.

    'Touch the Cairn Stones in this order and Tristram will be but a moment away. If you do not have the bark, though, it will fail. The Horadrim planted that tree with a book of Knowledge underneath it, predicting the time when the tree would absorb the key to the Cairn Stones.' I took the scroll back, as well as an identifying magic, and returned to my pile.

    I identified the belt's runes. Yes, it was larger and heavier than my current sash, but it would allow for the carrying of more potions as well as offer some protection from poison's sting. I handled it with great trepidation, for it seemed to sprout spikes when I translated the magic spell. I dressed quickly, putting the new belt on and filling it with whatever I had. I grabbed a few fire bombs to avoid being forced into the trees again. I returned to Akara for a portal spell and went over to Charsi. She handed me my blade and a price, which I gratefully paid. The blade was light and fast, sharper than most weapons of its quality; a superior blade, indeed.

    I looked around the camp. No Kashya. No Paige.

    'Charsi, where are-'

    'They left early this morning. Hunting expedition.' She shrugged. 'We are running out of supplies.'

    She too was lying and she knew I could see that, but-I yawned. It seemed that I was going to Tristram alone. I brought the blade back to my stash and pulled out a wooden frame. I fastened both the blade and my right claw to the prongs and eased my hands into the leather harnesses. With a few quick twists, I secured the buckles and pulled my armed hands up. They weren't as tight as I would like, but I wouldn't lose the claws in a fight.

    The waypoint returned me to the field, the Cairn Stones looming in the distance. I ran over to the neglected band of demons, their attention immediately shifting to the only threat in the field. Me. There were 15 of them, far too many to handle alone. 'Divide and conquer,' I sighed and began the long process of drawing them away and decapitating them. The new blade worked wonderfully, slicing their foul flesh with almost no effort, striping muscle from bone in a single slash. Soon, only one remained, his name the war cry and death call of all his comrades the world over. Rakinishu, Lightning Bringer. Fire Walker.

    I summoned up my chi and attacked him, immediately regretting my rashness as his skin electrified me. I was thrown a good three feet as my muscles contracted randomly from the shocks. 'Dammit Paige, of all the-' I grimaced, taking a full potion from my new belt and swallowing it. She would have been very useful right now. I took out the crossbow and prepared it on my shoulder. It was heavy, but easier to use than even a day before. I ran back over to the stones and, ducking behind one, knelt down to affix a bolt to the catch. I fired my first shot and it slammed into his shoulder, a river of lightning oozing from the wound. He turned towards me, screamed his own name, and drew his sword. I shot again, missing him completely as he closed the distance. I got up and ran back, then fired once more, hitting his leg and earning me an electrical burn. I quickly reslung the crossbow and sliced into him as he brought his sword down, both of us howling as the other hit true. It was my belt that killed him as he tried to head butt my midsection. His body exploded and I fell over, stunned. The resulting pile of entrails included his skull, untouched and gleaming. A fitting prize. I retrieved it, as well as the healing potions he had missed, and returned to the Cairn Stones.

    Touching them in the correct order produced a ringing, like someone stroking the edge of a metal bowl with a marble staff. As I placed my hand on the final rune, the scroll caught fire and disappeared into thin purple smoke. The ground shook. Rocks dislodged themselves from all over the field and began to roll towards me at breathtaking speeds. Jumping onto a stone, I watched as the earth yawned and engulfed the torrent of boulders, then spat forth a hovering red portal. 'Tristram,' I whispered, and I slid down slowly. A dimensional rift, a rip in the fabric of the world. The energy was uncomfortable and angry and the idea of traveling through such a medium was very unpleasant. I steadied myself and walked through.

    Imagine being stabbed through with thousands of needles, drinking boiling oil, hearing someone bring their blades across a sheet of shale. These torments and more are what awaited me inside the portal, crafted from desperation, hate, and black magics. The pain poured through my body as I was torn from the Rogues and pushed into a rift of time. It took longer than usual, my eyes able to focus inside the portal onto the threads of time and space. I thought I saw myself, in a different place, clad in deep, finely wrought armor and clutching a strange object; I was older, leaner. The me-in-the-void looked up with black eyes and screamed something. The portal vomited me onto the ground in an unfamiliar land, preventing me from interacting with my vision. Another waking nightmare. Another day.

    Tristram, land of Diablo's birth, land of the Horadrim's last hope, Deckard Cain. If the bloated livestock near my feet was indication, the ravages of the dark wanderer's minions had long stripped this place of any life. I sidestepped the corpse of the cow and surveyed the burning town. What was once a small but active farming village was now a few rows of charred wood. The grass had been stripped away in thick swaths, the dirt beneath it an insipid gray. A few ravens, a buzzard perched on what might have been trees in years past.

    The first hut still reverberated with a low magic hum; an enchanter's lair. I crept through the smoldering beams, looking for the inhabitant. She was face down in the corner, her robes rent from her body and used to bind her arms into an unnatural knot. I knelt and flipped her over with a tentative claw. Her face had been eaten off, the teeth marks ridged into her cheekbones and neck. I couldn't tell whether that had happened before or after she was killed. The rest of her body was a mass of bruises and open wounds, evidence of unskilled, chaotic brutality. Demons.

    I went back outside, searching for her killers. In the corner, a score of skeletal archers raised their weapons and launched a stream of projectiles at my head. I ducked into the nearest building, grabbed two traps, and hurled them out of the door, the resulting explosion reducing the cluster of attackers to dust and shattered bone. Something bleated behind me as it swung an axe between my shoulders, skidding with a shower of sparks off my armor. He received a two slices and a finishing kick, as did his three companions. It seemed that the ransackers of Tristram had not vacated after destroying the town.

    Returning outside, I surveyed what was left of Tristram. I didn't see Cain yet, just a small mass of angry fallen, made more so by my recent decapitation of their leader. Fireballs, scimitars, flailing limbs, and assorted curses were lobbed at me by the sullied mob of demonkind, all of which I avoided with relative ease. I missed the continual pounding of Paige's arrows as I slid the last shaman off my claws and wiped his blood onto my pants. It was certainly slower without her help. At least I didn't have to worry about her getting injured. It was a relief to work without draining my mental reserves on these underlings.

    The center of the town was my next destination. I strode into the circle of the buildings, surveying the full magnitude of the destruction for the first time. A few of the former inhabitants were in various states of decay, tied to posts or merely ripped to pieces. Above me dangled a cage containing a wizened, dark skinned man. I assumed he too had fallen victim to the siege of Tristram. The body was curled up into a ball, emanating no sign of life or energy. I was surprised when it stirred slightly and cried weakly for help. Slicing the rope that held the metal doors shut, I proffered him a steadying claw and eased him onto the ground.

    'Assassin,' he gasped quietly, but I merely threw open a town portal for him.

    'Get to the rogue camp.' He assented by walking through, taking the gateway with him. I knew there was another demon waiting for me as I turned around, a blast of debilitating karma disrupting my defenses as Cain disappeared from view. What must have once been a powerfully built man dragged his corrupted self towards my waiting body. While the others had been tortured and killed, this man had suffered both death and the indignity of resurrection as a zombie, a flesh eating automaton whose rebirth was accompanied by an insatiable hunger for the brains of the living. Unnatural strength without the ability to feel pain, I recalled, as a series of blows did little to stop his pondering attacks.

    Whatever had reanimated his body had crafted him well. My claw strikes had little effect while his glancing blows were leaving massive bruises, almost double the damage I would have anticipated. I quickly went through my supply of healing potions as I danced around him, alternating fist to claw combat with a few shots from the crossbow. He was starting to show some wear, but not as much as I wished he would. I contemplated returning to town and replenishing my supply of medical treatment, but I realized that in the time it would take me to get what I needed, he would have healed fully. Around the town we pursued each other, taking damage from the fires, the exploding cows, and the few remaining lesser demons.

    I finally summoned all the brute strength I could possess and, with strange inspiration, bloodied my blade with a slice from my own skin. I sent a chant-enhanced strike into his chest. The mixture of my blackened blood and his cursed ichor was instantaneous. He exploded with my hand in his chest, scalding the skin from my arms and burning my eyes. I groped at my belt for the other scroll of town portal and cast it quickly, not bothering to see if the fallen man had left any armor of use.

    I stumbled into the rogue camp on my knees and called for water. I couldn't see more than fuzzy shadows moving around me, but no one came to my aid. In great pain, I struggled to my feet. Colliding with several wagons on my way, I found the river, and plunged headfirst in full armor into the water. I tried to wash away the poisons from my oozing eyes without removing them with the tips of my claws, an endeavor that left me bloody and scratched. I could finally see enough to struggle out of the weapons and throw them to the side. I continued the washing for another ten minutes until I realized that I was no longer improving.

    The fire had scorched the smooth surface of my eyes, clouding them over with a cataract of dying skin. The camp was a musky gray as, by feel alone, I left my armor by the riverside. I surveyed the suddenly unfamiliar landscape. The camp was active, full of people no longer paying attention to me. I grasped nearby the bank, finding with a some effort a long branch. Sweeping it gently in front of me, I moved towards the healer's tent. Approaching the middle of the camp, I felt Warriv look at me, but turn and skulk away when I started to go towards him. I kept going, trying to see without seeing as my teachers had taught me. The echolocation was crude and ineffective, but I did notice that Kashya was not at her post. Arriving at Akara's tent, I realized that whatever had stolen away the rogue Captain had also employed the Priestess.

    I walked back to my stash and eased myself to the ground. I needed a healing potion, but I doubted that it would work after a protracted exposure to the demon-blood. Part of me wished to go back through the portal, to check the corpse for potential goods, but the other part recognized that even two enemies could easily kill me in this half-blind state. I didn't like not being able to see, though years of Shadow training made the dark a companion, albeit a troublesome one. I tried to relax and let the darkness hover, attempting to pry the minds around me for the location of the heads of camp.

    Everyone knew where they were. Everyone was livid at me, for what reason I didn't yet know. I scraped a little deeper through one of the weaker rogue minds. Yes, the women were hunting, but not food. They were on a-ceremonial hunt? What for, I wondered, and at such at time? I was still too tired to crack a brain open and find out the full details, but I sensed that no one really knew exactly what was going on. I sighed under my breath, 'Damned Sisters.'

    'Not quite yet, young Assassin,' came the weak, wheedling reply, 'Most are damned, but not the ones you seek.' I glanced up instinctively, realizing as I did that not only could I not see him, but I could not feel him either.

    'Deckard Cain,' I breathed, 'What a wonderful introduction we have had. I find you in a gallows box, you find me as a newborn kitten. Blind and helpless.' I heard him snort, a laugh tempered with knowledge.

    'Your kind are never helpless, even when young and rash. And speaking of rash-' He leaned over and muttered words in a language I hadn't encountered before. My eyes burned with new fire and then cleared. I blinked a few times and stared at him. The wizened face, the walnut-juice brown skin, the flimsy robes and crude staff that marked his poverty-ridden status as priest. And most of all, those piercing blue eyes.

    'Welcome to the Rogue Camp,' I gestured. He smiled.

    'I expect our hostesses back at any moment,' he rasped, 'Do you have any tea?'

    I was puzzled. 'I do not drink tea.' He laughed slightly.

    'Ach, I am not surprised. Your type are rarely social creatures.' With that, he shuffled over to Warriv, who greeted him as an old friend. They left me to my brooding, now clear, thoughts.

    Chapter 14

    Seeing that Cain was well left with the denizens of the rogue camp, I decided to venture back through the blue portal to see what items I could glean from the corpses of my foes. Stepping back into Tristram, I remembered as the portal shut behind me that I had failed to take another scroll with me. The red rift bounced before me, almost imperceptively humming, menacing. That would be my unpleasant passage back to the lands where I now worked. Ah well, I sighed, and returned to surveying the camp.

    A few archers remained, hiding between the burning husks of the town. They were stronger than most I had encountered, their bones strange hues of emerald and violet. I was scored several times by their flaming arrows before finally shattering their limbs and skulls. Left behind was a bow that Paige might find to be of use, as well as a helm. I lifted it and then noticed the thin hairline crack that ran along the edge. It would fall apart after several encounters with an enemy weapon. I threw it with a clang and walked over to the corpse of the monster that had nearly blinded me. The building that served as his headstone still smoldered, but I could make out the shape of an anvil and a hammer. A blacksmith, I wondered, and I approached cautiously.

    It was nearly burned beyond recognition, but this had indeed been a forge. The massive zombie had probably been this room's keeper, his huge muscles serving as terrible a purpose in death as they had served good in life. I picked through the ruins. Most everything had been charred or destroyed by the invaders, but I still found a pair of hammered metal boots hiding under the table. I tossed those into my bag with the bow. Returning outside, I turned over the rotting chunks of zombie. Very little of his armor had survived either of his two deaths, but I was able to pick up two rings. What a strange world this was, I wondered to myself, that I now found it appropriate to scavenge the dead in this way. Assassins are usually paid in gold pieces and our armor is always of the finest sort, not this hodgepodge of leather scraps and metallic cast-offs. Necessity breeds ugly beasts indeed.

    I walked around the perimeter of the camp for the last time. A young boy's corpse was crumpled by the riverside. He had failed to escape, the stump of his left leg attesting to the reason for his death. I jostled him slightly and was surprised when a large quantity of gold spilled upon the ground. A trickster, this young cripple. I contemplated taking the leg, but thought the better of it. No one even I knew would be so strange as to wield the prosthetic of a dead child as a weapon. I took leave of Tristram, glancing backwards at the ashes of horror before I was sucked into the red void.

    Again, the agonizing pain of the transfer, plus another strange vision. My future self, twisted into a strange shape, fighting a demon I knew as human. That makes no sense, I spoke aloud, but forming the words was futile. I was back in the stony field and the apparition faded. I wondered if I should step through again, to see the visions once. Divination was forbidden for my kind and I agreed, for once, with its prohibition. Whatever awaited me, so terrible as to make my eyes Rogue black, would be faced without foreknowledge.

    I ran towards the waypoint. As I did, a small stone wall rose to my left, a structure that had escaped my notice until this point. Diverting my course, I realized that it was a book, of all things, sitting in the open. I opened it with some effort. The pages were of stone, as white as the pedestal's marble base, and had inscriptions on but a few leaves. I read with some amusement the story of a countess, vampire-driven, who bathed in the blood of her virgin subjects. A woman of strange and repulsive tastes, it seemed, buried deep within her fortress. Why a children's tale would be left out in the middle of a field was quite perplexing. They gray stormheads above me, though, made further ridiculing of the rogue's library skills undesirable. I went home to find shelter.
  5. silentwater

    silentwater Diabloii.Net Member

    Jul 1, 2008
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    Re: Fulcrum by Anyee

    The camp had returned to its full compliment of warriors and women. Akara and Cain were speaking at the fire, Kashya was skulking around near her tent, and Paige was off in the corner, skinning a deer. My choice of who to visit was decided as Akara called me over with a shout of 'Assassin, come.' I meandered over and put my back on the ground, accepting her invitation to sit with them. 'Cain was telling me of his capture and eventual rescue. I hear that you encountered some difficulties.' Her smile was not returned.

    'I am fine, thank you,' was my tight-lipped reply. While it wasn't her fault that I had been nearly blinded, I was unappreciative of the teasing remark; had she done her duty, I would not have been left in such a state.

    She decided not to take notice, and Cain continued for her. 'I see that you returned to Tristram. What did you find?' He motioned to my pack and I opened it for him.

    'Your comrades are all dead, Cain.' I said. 'I am well aware of that, Assassin. I witnessed their deaths from my cage, as well as several of their resurrections as damned beasts. The one that nearly took your life and your sight was once one of my trusted friends.'

    'A blacksmith,' I interrupted. 'I know. It is of no consequence now.'

    He paused before choosing his next words. 'When you get to be as old as I am, child, you will understand that death is both a part of life and no trifling matter. Your kind seems to have forgotten that.'

    'My kind just rescued you from whatever-'

    'They would not have dared kill me. Whatever was left of the human in the dark wanderer made sure of that.' I turned to look at him.

    'Fine, then. Remember, old man, your wisdom is of no use in a cage or in a coffin. I do not take issue with your studies; you would be wise not to do so with my killing.' I exhaled slowly. This was a pointless argument. Perhaps he realized it too and he busied himself with the contents of my backpack.

    'Ah, let me see. A composite bow, it seems. Hrm, yes. You see here? It has been balanced in such a way that every arrow will do almost twice the damage that a normal bow would accomplish. These markings over here are an inscription. The fletcher who shoots this will absorb a tiny fraction of her enemy's life force every time she causes him harm.'

    'You can tell what sort of weapon this is just by looking at it?'

    He gave me a patient stare. 'Child, I am over 100 years old and the last of my kind. I can identify any object ever created on this earth, above in the Heavens, and below in the burning Hells. This is a neophyte's exercise.' He put the bow down and picked up the boots, tracing the smooth surface with his fingertips. 'You may not be able to see this, but they are actually two layers. The inner layer is of a satin fabric produced only in the southlands. It will allow you to run more comfortably and for greater distances. The outer layer, as you can see, is very reflective, providing a heat shield.' He smiled wistfully. 'Griswold was a fine craftsman. I hope you use his work well.' He put down the boots and eased himself to standing.

    'Akara, I would like very much to rest now. It has been a long few weeks and any bed, no matter how humble, would be a welcome change from the floor of the gibbet.' She grasped his wrinkled hand in hers and walked him slowly to her own tent. I slowly undid my weapons and hung them on my belt as I watched them recess. Would I too grow old in the company of demons and warriors, or would my life would be the short one of most of my kind.

    I tried on the boots. The satin within them shrunk around my feet, sizing them perfectly. Very nice. I took the bow over to where Paige was dealing with the carcass. I called out to her, 'Paige? I located this b-' and stopped when she gave me a frustrated glare and returned to her work. Her skill with a knife was extremely lacking, and she grimaced amusingly as she attempted to hack the meat from both skin and bone. It seemed that she had left as much of the usable flesh on the discarded innards as she placed in the nearby pot. Wasteful, but expected in the hands of a novice.

    I lay the bow down on the floor and crouched nearby. 'Would you like some help with that?' She frowned and shook her head, but made no move to stop me when I reached over to a discarded piece of skin and neatly peeled the meat from the inside with my left blade. I sat there, making short work of the previously discarded leftovers, catching the blade she flung at my general direction without looking up.

    'Fine. Just-FINE,' and she walked off, taking the bow with her. I sighed and continued skinning the deer until I had gleaned every bit of edible material from the carcass. One of the other rogues came by to help and, obviously surprised, began collecting the finished material. She looked at me quizzically.

    'How did you finish so quickly?'

    I got up and brushed myself off. 'I've had lots of practice,' and under my breath, 'on people.'

    I walked away and looked down at the knife Paige had been using. My eyes widened and I reached to the small of my back, where my dagger was wanting. It was a light blade, now dulled by the novice's handiwork, but even at full sharpness primarily utilitarian in form. It was so much a part of my everyday wear that I rarely noticed its weight. Missing its absence was, while unnerving, unsurprising given how rarely I used it.

    Paige was washing off by the river, scrubbing off the particles of animal-flesh with a rough brush. 'Who gave you this,' I gestured with the knife. She combed her chestnut hair through with her fingers and flipped it up, spattering me with water. I made a face as she squinted at me.

    'Oh, I took it out of Kashya's tent.' She went back to cleaning herself, agitatedly washing her body as I scanned her mind. She was annoyed and jealous, hiding something. Now I was not only confused but exasperated.

    The whole day had been fraught with people being evasive and combative without reason. I'd allowed it for far too long, it seemed. I grabbed her by her hair and yanked her backwards, causing her to cry shortly and fall back.

    'If there is a problem, you tell me directly and stop this childish resentment,' I hissed at her. I then blasted into her mind, Because I can get in here without any difficulty. I let her go and she landed in the river with a splash, coughing and sputtering so comically that most of my temper vanished.

    She failed to see the amusement, and got up yelling at me, 'Well at least I don't go sneaking into people's tents to extract payment.' and then clapped her hands over her mouth, mortified.

    My next utterance, of 'What?' was loud enough to make the entire camp turn, most of the chickens scamper angrily into a corner, and I'm sure, topple several small boulders. I turned around to see Kashya wearing a similarly shocked expression as she ducked into her barracks. I charged into her tent and leapt at her, adding a single mental blast as insurance, knocked her to the floor. Her height and strength were unequally matched against my anger and speed. I pinned her arms above her head in a single, well practiced motion, waving the blade before her eyes with my free arm.

    'Is that what they think? That I violated you? That I came like a sweaty-palmed bandit into your bed and threatened you with this?' Her eyes never left my face, and I felt her abdomen tense under my legs, but she didn't struggle.

    'One of the scouts came to wake me and discovered you in my bed. I was disoriented. I was confused.' I squeezed my quadriceps and felt her ribcage bend slightly. She grimaced and gasped slightly. 'I had removed your knife as we slept, for it dug into my skin, and cut me as I moved. They must have assumed...and in my state...' she trailed off, and restarted shakily 'I didn't remember how you'd gotten there and I assumed it was...'

    I whipped the knife once over our heads and sank it four inches into the tent pole. 'And you thought that I'd-that you-for the love of the Mother, Kashya.' I bent over and grabbed one of her hands, pulling her to sitting as I slid down to the ground. Our faces were almost touching, her breath warm against my forehead, her eyes suddenly unable to look at me. 'I am never so desperate as to attain a partner by force. What do you think I am?'

    'We are used to,' she paused as she searched for the words, 'compromises when it comes to the safety of the encampment. You have done us a great service, and suffered extensively as a result. It would not be unheard of for someone to repay a debt with her body, if other currency were not available. The Sisters were angry, but they saw that I let you live; they assumed...that even had I not wished it, I had allowed it for their sake.'

    I nodded. 'They think this still?'

    She responded, 'I realized the truth when we began hunting and explained it to the scouts, but I think some of the women still believe that I was coerced. They don't think too highly of your motives.'

    'Including my little Paige.'

    She smiled. 'Especially your little Paige, though I don't know who she was angrier at. You, for hurting me, or me, for allowing you in at all.'

    I smirked a little. 'Or herself for not having the courage to act on either one. Yes, I see your point. Well-' A slam of thunder and the sky suddenly split, drenching the camp. I heard the hurried shouts of the rogues scrambling to get equipment and people alike to cover.

    We sat there, my small frame still partially astride hers, my hands locked around her callused fingertips. The drumming on the fabric of the tent was hypnotic, the damaru** drums of the world Father, calling out and calling in. Hard rain, much welcomed by this tainted and scorched land, that would not stop for several hours. I'd seen a field of blood-hardened warriors call truce until the running mud and sharp strikes had passed over. Even the demons would stop their incessant battling to seek shelter; there would be more fighting come clearer skies. Perhaps instead, there could be time for healing.

    I leaned forward, felt her stiffen slightly as my body approached and hovered above hers. Her pulse quickened and her carefully shielded mind let a hint of emotion slip past its usually reflective complexion. My mouth barely reached her ear as I whispered 'There are plenty in this world who would leave their life-partners to bask next to me for a single hour. I am here, now. I can be your equal in this place, something I know even you need.'

    Something inside her broke, a tension, a desire, too powerful for her to voice. I released one of her hands to reach up and remove the headdress adorning her brow, loosing a slight cascade of gray-streaked mahogany hair, betraying her age to be farther beyond mine than I had previously thought. She brought the freed hand around my waist and nearly lifted me off of her, pressing me against the chain mail of her armament. Her eyes fluttered closed as I rested my head against her shoulder.

    'Open, warrior. Let me in your mind.' I told her. She barely acquiesced, but it was enough for me to slip inside. A roaring chasm of pain and torment that I could not begin to silence; I could at least try to dampen what her years of service had inflicted upon her. I did not move, I did not speak, and I watched as my face gained long streaks of blood, rivulets oozing from her eyes down to mine as I walked with her those deep places. In all other ways, in all other places, she could project herself as the invincible warrior, but here, she was merely the scarred shell of an idealistic young woman. She would not show it otherwise and I would not reveal it otherwise, but for this moment, that was all we were.

    In the light of the rumbling heavens, two figures merged as a single silhouette flashed intensely on the barricades.

    Chapter 15

    There is a solace to be found here, in a place that Paladins shout 'Unholy!' and turn coveting eyes away towards their light-born vices. In a place that the empty orbs of Necromancers gaze upon impassively and see neither profit nor cold inspiration. In a place that the rippling Barbarian and feral Druid turn a blind, unbelieving eye, convinced that no woman can incur such devotion. In a place where the careful study of Sorceress has left her ill-prepared to plumb the depths, and so she sneers to cover her wonder. In a place that, perhaps, an Amazon can know in the sweating jungles of the east, lost five days and free of commission.

    Emotions are not a luxury that an Assassin can afford; our time is spent to often in the calculated slaughter of those we encounter, beautiful and damned, evil and benevolent no bar. We satisfy our urges in the mocking shadows of true hate, true sadness, true feeling, the pitiful recreations mere echoes of those the unencumbered are allowed. It breeds a certain haphazardness, a disdain and disregard for the normal order of things. We laugh where we should scream. We cut where we should hold. We posture and swagger before foes and allies alike. We fight and kill, wake and sleep, eat and abstain and cherish none more than the others. We do not cry. We do not fear. We do not love.

    But at times, when the mood hits and the battle takes a breath, we indulge the vestiges of our humanity in the easy repose of so called simple pleasures, gauging ourselves to ensure that we do not remember all that we have lost at the tips of our claws. And here is where I held Kashya, the thunderstorm above us fading to random taps upon the oilskin, signaling my necessitated return to the field of the fight. A stretch and sigh against her, one of innumerable broken souls I've found in the travels across this land. Closer to me than most, in age, in experience and venerability, in needs and desires, and yet much like all the others. I let my fingertip find the soft ribbon scar that started between her breasts and meandered across her abdomen, a clear path that I'd walked several times in the preceding hours.

    A sid'tha blade. She twitched and moved to stop my hand as she refreshed the mind link we'd established. I too was at the first siege of Tristram, commanding my army against the Lich that Diablo had summoned. His terminal swipe caught me as I completed my shot, and I fell dying among my soldiers. They returned me to Cain and the healer, and I spent what felt full years in an agony of worlds, shadow upon flame, pain and flesh as one, until they could coax the poisoned magic from my body. The scar never dissolved. And I dream of the burning coals that Lich had commissioned. A flash of the dreams, but still not the alarm that took her from her sleep every night. She smiled, softly, as I kissed the rippling tissue one last time and rose from the bed to clean and dress myself.

    Watching me dress, propped up on one elbow, trying to read the markings on my body, but asking no questions. I offered no explanation, nor did I speak any more than to thank her for the time we had passed. She got up, to help fasten the belt and armor around my frame, practiced fingers securing buckles and straps with expert haste. Finished, she turned me once to look fully at my face, brushed my cheek with hers, and ushered me out of her room.

    Mud encased the camp in a repulsive layer of offal and soil, coating every wagon and tent with its dark brown rash. I wandered over to one of the barracks, grimly observing the metal sheen of my boots grow more and more tarnished with every step. The flaps were open, allowing the cool, post-rain air to circulate in the crowded tent. Ten pairs of eyes, Paige's among them, snapped to attention when I crossed the soggy threshold. I could feel their distrust, their righteous indignation, their repressed jealousy, oozing out of their minds like the wet disaster of earth outside. Enough of this, then.

    I cleared my throat and, a little defensively, proclaimed, 'Whatever happens between Kashya and I shall remain between Kashya and I unless one of us allows otherwise. Rest assured, however, that anything I have done was invited, approved, and enjoyed.' There was a stony silence as they weighed my words. Then, one of the Rogues relaxed enough to allow a mental quip about leather straps, causing her fellows to dissolved into giggles. I merely smiled and indicated that Paige should follow me out, to one or two catcalls. Soldiers are soldiers, male or female.

    She had already dressed, weapon ready at her side, looking more at ease than when I found her skinning the deer earlier that day. We traveled via the waypoint to the forest of corruption, scanning the horizon for enemies the rain had driven from the ground. She and I went forward cautiously, but the area was still clear from our last visit. I carefully explained what had happened with the dagger and my strange bedfellow; Paige said that she understood, but her body and her mind told me she was still wary of what I was supposedly capable of.

    'As long as she is safe,' she quietly told me as we crept through the bog-like carpet of the forest. Strange, that a child would be so protective of her commander, strange and potentially dangerous in a fight. Sentimentality will get you killed.

    As we walked, the merely wet ground gave way to legitimate swampland, buzzing with flies and demons alike. A tower rose a few yards away out of the thicket of rushes and wretched flora that thrived in such a repugnant landscape. Our entrance into the marsh was not unnoticed, as a small horde of Paige's turned sisters came at us with lances. Five arrows piercing them all, five dead women fell before I had a chance to touch them. I turned around to face Paige, who shrugged and waved the bow at me, grinning a bit.

    'Nice shooting,' I deadpanned, and turned again to survey the oncoming rush of demons. We were quicker than we had been before, felling an entire cluster of devilkin in what seemed like seconds. I barely had time to sink claws into flesh before an explosion of arrows ringed my head. We cleared a good portion of the bog, locating and activating the waypoint half-drowned in the muck.

    Slogging our way through the fen, we came to the tower. A ruined mass of stone, moss, and decay, parapets and battlements strewn about the base.

    'What is this thing?' I questioned my companion.

    'A prison for an unspeakable woman, as the legend goes.'

    'Oh, you mean the Countess?' She turned to me, perplexed.

    'You know of her?' I motioned towards the fields beyond the marsh. 'There was a book standing amongst of stones, carved with the legend. Why was there a book in the middle of the field?' She shrugged her shoulders.

    'I don't know. Maybe a monument? Maybe-well, we're fighters not sages.' She eyed the fortress doorway thoughtfully. 'It is said that there is great treasure buried with the witch-woman, treasure beyond your wildest dreams.'

    'My wildest dreams do not include treasure, nor do they include chasing myths when we have to liberate the monastery. We've lost enough time.' She ignored me and headed into the granite maw. I sighed and followed her in, sliding down the ladder easily to find her in the curving passages. She had disappeared into the multitude of side rooms and tunnels. The only sign of her was the echo of her furious bow reverberating in the distance, the sound bouncing off the gray walls, masking her location. Indeed, the bow I had achieved for her was an amazing weapon, but I felt a twinge of worry at her now-cavalier attitude toward the enemies. She was not as good of a marksman as she pretended and I wondered if the weapon gave the bearer a sense of false strength.

    I wound my way through the prison, stepping over the carcasses of other rogue's who had pursed this foolish quest of legends past. Dried blood was sprayed in almost impossible patterns along the paths, the demon-lit torches dancing my shadow like a reveling madman across the destruction. The rooms were littered with barrels and chests, as well as intricately carved sarcophagi, their covers encrusted with precious gems that I pried off with my blade. If I was forced to do my best impression of a tomb raider, I should take advantage of the situation. Most of what I found was corroded junk, cracked and eroded over the hundreds of years it had lain in the dank crypt. However, one of the fresher corpses yielded an amber hued breastplate, which I stuffed rapidly into my pack.

    It was eerily quiet, though I heard Paige still fighting with whatever lurked in this sepulcher. She was succeeding, it seems, in avoiding the mistakes of her predecessors thus far, but I didn't have many hopes for her continuing this blessed run. At last, after I had climbed down yet another viscera-strewn ladder, the spirits of those who had come before and failed caught up with me.

    The undead walk the earth as mindless zombies and soulless skeletons, mere flesh puppets of the demon lords. A wraith lacks their perverse luck, for it is conscious of its plight, its entrapment in the realm of the living as a pawn of the damned, serving as a combatant in an endless war. They wail in their agony, starving for the comforts of the corporeal world. They stretch insubstantial fingers through your body, trying to wrench the chi from your aura, as if feeding on your energy could somehow give them life once more. I give them the only liberation from their servitude, the release of everlasting death.

    They flitted around my head, like bats of the soul. I could perceive their tendrils, like a gust of frigid air passing through my joints, and I felt my power drain into their insatiable gullets. Still, I mustered enough energy to slam them away from me. Fighting the ethereal is difficult, but physical force can be enough to sever whatever ties they still have to the physical plane. Sure enough, they collapsed one by one into charred heaps as my blades found mark in their faint forms, a parting scream delivering them into the arms of the netherworld.

    I heaved a breath, mentally spent from the constant assault. I walked forward slowly, trying to regain my auric strength. It was slowly regenerating itself, but I knew that if I was faced with a significant battle, I would be in less than fighting form. Over to the side of the entryway, I spied a small statuette. I approached the horned figure, a fetish of some sort holding a bowl of what appeared in the half-light to be blood. I dipped a finger into it. The texture was wrong and, upon closer inspection, the color was a light purple.

    'Ichor?' I murmured, and tasted it, immediately feeling a twinge of healing energy surge into my belly. I drank two handfuls and marveled at the instant restoration of my mind and body. How the life-fluid of the undead had come to be in this desolate place was beyond my comprehension, but I thanked whatever would listen and carried on.

    I reached what must have been the bottom floor, for the ground was nearly ice cold, the air stale and almost unbreathable, clogging my mouth and nose like a soggy wool blanket. The normal crypt smell of long-dried flesh and brittle bone is usually bearable, but this was the overwhelming stench of new rot, insect-infested flesh, carcasses left to swelter in heated jungles. And blood. The unmistakable metallic scent of fresh blood. It was suffocating. I gagged, sagging against a wall as a wave of nausea slammed my defenses. If this was what I, a witness to more festering corpses than most, could experience, what had become of Paige?

    A shadow on the far wall answered my question, a small woman surrounded by a mass of raised axes. My companion was obviously outnumbered and probably outmatched. I ran unsteadily towards her, in time to see an army of corrupted rogues trap her against side of the tower. She called my name as I rushed towards her, trying to rip the frenzied women from her body as their merciless blows slammed into her rapidly degrading armor. I whipped my arms around me and sent as much force as I could into the double claws, driving a blade far into the backs of two of her attackers. They ignored me and continued to brutalize Paige, her face running with blood and her body no longer able to support her weight. I listened to her screams in time with the rapid dullness of axe hitting flesh, pulverizing the already broken bones. Her eyes sought mine, twin voids of unimaginable agony as she limply struggled on.

    It was the long row of flames that finally killed her, sent from behind us in a line along wall. I though and hoped she was unconscious by then, for burning alive is a more unpleasant fate than most. They burned hot and true, charring her bruised skin to black scales. She must have died standing, for the pure light of the Phoenix's blood retrieving her carcass glowed at eye level. Her soul and body were safe from the ravages of this cursed place.

    I had not time for mourning as her attackers turned on me. They had been damaged some, probably by her first flailing, and finishing them as they swung indiscriminately was easier than I imagined. The one blessing was that these women fought like wild dogs, without planning or cunning. So as they cut through my mail and slashed my abdomen with a gaping smile, it was short work to pick them off one at a time. They dropped in frothing heaps at my feet. I spat on their corpses and cursed them to the constant fires that Paige's demise merely insinuated. I wanted to leave, but I knew that whatever had thrown that firewall was waiting around the corner. Drinking a potion, I walked forward through the remnants of a throne room, the dais perverted with a font of blood, the statuary twisted beyond recognition.

    'Care for a blood bath?' Her voice was unnatural and seductive, deeply resonant and yet harsh. She stood before me, tapping a ceremonial mace in her hand, watching my approach into her sanctum. She was adorned in the remnants of regal robes, what should have been her burial shroud hanging in ribbons around her very animated form. Though she had been banished to this dark fate hundreds of years ago, her body retained its youthful appearance and vigor. Andariel's demonic power had acted as the fountain of youth she had sought in the veins of so many virgins while she was alive. Were is not for the glinting fangs, the eyeless sockets, the curved talons at her fingertips, she could have been breathtakingly beautiful.

    'Would you like to stay, pretty girl?' she hissed at me, 'would you like to revel with me in the darkest of pleasures, the ultimate dream of fantasy and flesh.'

    I brought my claws up. 'My dreams also do not include an eternity of darkness in the filth of the tomb.' She laughed and swung at me, connecting with my armor in an explosion of fire. I bounced off the weapon, falling on the slippery floor, my own blood adding to the mire. I managed to slice at her calf as I bounded upwards, breaking up whatever spell she had planned to terminate me. I funneled my rage into a single, critical strike, piercing her through what was once a heart.

    A strangled gurgle emitted from her wine-dark lips, arms waving to grab my weapons I lowered her dying form to the ground. I bent over her, staring into the incandescent blue orbs that had burned away her eyes as she wordlessly pleaded for her life. I felt the barest hint of pity for this woman, forced to substitute the coldness of precious metal for the warmth of youth and companionship, an empty maw of need and desire entombed alive for all eternity. I kissed her, once, sucking the trails of deathblood from her mouth into my own. As her blood mingled with mine, her command of fire integrated itself instantly into my chi, allowing me a portion of her power. Then, I ripped her head off, watching with satisfaction as her soul was sucked into the depths of the hells.

    The treasury she had so zealously guarded, the pathetic parody of a mother shielding her child, burst open as the ground trembled. Showers of gold, healing potions, enchanted weaponry, and archaic stones sprang around me in countless piles. I collected all I could, including a tiny piece of obsidian with a strange symbol in it, as well as some glistening gloves and, most strangely, a talon forged by my own clan. As I threw up the portal to return to the camp, I glanced downwards at the already molding corpse, the long-delayed aging rapidly consuming her. 'What a waste,' I whispered, and stepped through to revive my companion.

    I arrived to an eerie silence. Akara was standing by Cain, his thin arm on her shoulder, their heads bowed in the oldest of prayers. Most of the rogues were clustered around the fire, some with their arms around each other, crying silent streams of blood. Charsi, head in hands, sat near Gheed's tent, his usual bravado repressed in favor of the soothing, smooth tones of someone lying a friend into comfort. Kashya crouched by the waypoint, fingers laced behind her neck, as white as the winding clothes someone had draped over the arcane stone.

    I went to the stone and rested my hand on her shoulder. 'What is the meaning of this?' she whispered without looking up, 'We heard the sound of the gateway opening and look up to find this remnant of our Sister sprawled like carrion upon the ground. Why have you brought us this new sorrow, the price of your employment?' There was no vengence or anger, just a deep resignation that comes with hope being destroyed countless times.

    My voice, too, rose only enough to reach her ears. 'You shall not bury your Sister this day. I have not broken my oath to you.' A tinge of anger in that steady murmur. 'Would you now play necromancer, reanimating our Sister as a living corpse or a thin shadow, to follow until your magic wears thin?'

    'Kashya, I am an Assassin. A mistress of death, a consort of the quiet and hospitable one. And as a concubine may whisper sweet suggestions and promises in the ear of a king to gain her status and luxury, so too may I curry favor and walk our Paige out of death's abode.' She looked at me finally, cheeks caked with red flakes of her tears, her face uncomprehending. I ordered her, as gently as I could, 'Bring the body with me into a tent. I will need four tallow candles, a yew wand, a blanket, and a bucket of water.'

    Perhaps the order was not as quiet as I thought as the sounds of Deckard Cain shuffling slowly towards me interrupted the conversation. 'Is it wise, child, for you to attempt the jiiwana layna, so far from those who can control its effects? To bring back the dead is not as simple as bringing the living to death. Even I would not-'

    'You would, Cain, and you have. Many times, at Tristram. I watched you fail countless times over my soldiers, nearly over me.' Kashya's voice was controlled but sharp. She slipped her arms under the body and accepted Akara's offer of a tent. I showed Cain my glowing pendant, the same one that my companion still wore, allowing his knowledge of the mystic arts to comprehend the contents. 'The Assassins have an understanding with certain forces in this world, ones that the Horadrim sought to bind, bend, or destroy. I have done this before and succeeded where your brethren could not.' He made no reply. I continued, 'Your strength of spirit, though, will be much needed during this ceremony, for as you observed, I have no paadarii to maintain the opening between the worlds.' He nodded and followed the captain and priestess.

    I went to my stash and opened it, removing the blades from my arms as quickly as I could. In the best of circumstances, I would be washed and purified, clad in the black robes of the long-hidden Vizerji mages, holding tools that had been sanctified by the Mothers themselves. Today, though, my fighting garb and the simple materials I had brought from my homeland would have to appease the dead. I unwrapped a tiny package at the base of the stash, removing an ornate dagger and a pouch of powder. It had been years since I last performed the rite, but the blood remained spattered on the hilt, Lyshia's last gift. I walked these items to the tent and shut the flaps.

    Cain had busied himself by clearing a space around the body and he had lit a small fire near her head. 'Let us begin.' I sat Akara at Paige's head, Kashya at her feet. Cain sat on her right side, already deep in meditation. I took the yew wand from a small tray and drew the circle around us, the easiest way to keep us in and whatever could interfere out. I repeated the circle around Akara, Cain, and Kashya, but left no such protection for myself. I dipped one of the candles into the flame and started the rite. 'Barukh atah Adonai, Elohaynu, melekh ha-olam asher keed'shanu b'meetzvotav v'tzeevanu l'had'lik neir shel raw-tsakh' ,' a prayer we had lifted from a long-forgotten cult that, blessed the creator for giving us the gift of light, shining into the shadows of death. I placed the candle at her head, repeating the prayer as I lit and positioned the other four candles at her compass points. I sat down with the final candle and pulled back the sheet.

    Even Kashya grimaced slightly the remains. Most of the outer flesh had been burned through, leaving small patches of black flaking char or boil-encrusted dermis. Her limbs were shattered in innumerable places, her rib cage flattened, with the enclosed viscera a pulp of blood and bile. Her eyes were burned away, her jaw missing. Tiny pieces of her helmet had been imbedding in her skull, such was the force of the killing blows. This would be a difficult raising.

    I removed the dagger from its sheath and drew it once over her body, the gleam of the metal catching the light and reflecting it onto each of the watchersm 'Nia, se'mlo naash vidaytu.' Behold, the blade of life. The point was impossibly sharp, an edge more fine could not be crafted on this earth. A pure blade formed from a substance close to mithril, but more esoteric, more unearthly, for as mithril shines silver, this refracts opalescent, unimaginable color. This was our dagger of restoration. I closed my eyes and let the memory of the words, imbedded like the memory of learning to breathe. You know, and yet you do not know how. I breathed myself into a deep state, a trance that is not truly a trance, more like a welcoming of consciousness not your own.

    'Mallion, yid haya aur yid noya. Mallion, yid mallionor aur yid labielor aur yid Luminior, das yos exmassent. Mallion, lais glasse yas Phoeneix, mot Oi'sylaum od Sersation.' Hear, those above and those below. Hear, those who hear and those who give witness and those who know, with their attendants. (An adept would call upon those Gods or Goddesses in particular she wishes to protect her, but I prefer to leave it ambiguous. We need all the help we can get.) Hear, ancient blood of the Phoenix, Bound by Covenant.

    'An'yee domo Vizjactuaar, sedis oRrambin malre' I am An'yee, one of the Assassins, but this day I am the go-between (lit. shadow-spacer). I drew the dagger down my own arms, leaving a clean rift from which blood began to flow, easily. I placed the tip of the dagger on my right arm and drew the blood into the blade, a sight beyond nature. The dagger knew me now, its colors a brilliant red, with streaks of gold and a hairs length of black.

    'Eich Elo nosirial boDerian aur panis mulefian. Shri, idayra been latal. Aur, uDanyin yid meldian been Dra'hial blathnar su gasne nosiridot miniulat. Art'T, Oi'sylaum bein aloeshima.' I came before you with nothing and gave of myself. Thus I was allowed this gift (lit. boon of pity). And, it was promised that those who carried your blood would not know the grave and its depth. This is the fulfillment of that pact.

    'Sh'reash domo eld michayom. AdThao nii huiNa mallionuaom. Sly meeKa mossin ar'dhanthom. Plie arsna michayom. Wyrid m'peDom. Fafneer nosiridout liiedaliom. Brithan ossomual michayom, itva cueslid, mox Wallacian philois sue maiquenical doriomoi.' I call upon one of the worlds beyond. I have heard the voices that do not speak. I have seen (this verb implies second sight) the way with no path. I call the found to lose. I entangle the Fates. I perform what is not my right (or rite, it depends on the inflection). I bring this body to its restoration, this child to her life, for I shall walk among the dead while living. (The last part of the sentence is a rough estimate of the actual meaning; it means literally 'to enter into the gullet of the Mother undone', but there is no mythos that explains the reference. 'Undone' is just a root-word supposition, for this is the only use of this word in all of our knowledge.)

    I plunged the dagger into the corpses heart and felt the power of the void come up from her dead body, sucking me into the brilliant vortex of the afterlife. Truly, death itself is a lifting and a release, regardless of ones final outcome, while this intrusion is a struggling distasteful task. The dead, and those who watch them, do not appreciate the interference of outsiders, pact or no. I can hear, faintly, the whispering of Cain in his ancient language, keeping my soul within my body as I reach my mind's hand into the labyrinth of newly dead. My eyes are open, and I see the outline of the real world under the outline of the otherworld, the places where the fresh souls await their final transport. The blood around Paige's neck is present in the otherworld, acting as a beacon but even so, locating her is not simple. Eventually the warm glow surrounding a thin wisp tells me that I have found my companion, and I bring the otherworld forward towards myself.

    Then, it started to go wrong. The tiny dark spot in my consciousness, hidden for these all of today's battles, becomes active and I find myself losing focus, losing my grip on my flesh. It crackles and expands slightly, but not enough to truly obscure my mind's eye. The tent and the other watchers begin to fade out as the otherworld and its dwellers become more real, even tangible. Paige's spirit is brighter, more distinct than the women sitting just an arm's reach away. Cain is muttering fervently the Horadrim's ancient secrets, that I know, for the pull outwards and downwards lessens just a bit. The sphere's influence is blocking me from returning to my previous deep state. I am dying in a way that can lead to my being pulled irretrievably into the afterlife, or worse, trapped in the nothingness of the blade or the slice between alive and dead. At this moment, I wished for the room of assassins, the steady rise and fall of their voices echoing my own, the ritual passed from one body to the next as we returned one of our fallen to their rightful place among the living. I can almost hear them, strengthening the boundaries of the circle, coaxing the practitioner to remain within their body, defining the edge life and death so there could be no mistake.

    The struggle seemed eternal, unconquerable. The sphere was gone, now, but my energy had faded with it. I had spent too long between worlds, longer perhaps than any other of my type. Like a climber clinging to the ledge of a cliff, hours upon hours of waiting for a rescue that never comes, I felt myself slipping. And then, the voice, familiar and yet countless in its mystery, the rippling of thunder and rushing winds, supporting and over chanting Cain, emphasizing his syllables, like a singer coming out of a back room where she had hid her voice among the throng. A solo beyond all solos. The voice, the words I cannot know, 'Aliyah moor elphiam, aliyah soun acusiam, Reisa miens Nashua, Reisa ad Kalika.' and what sounded like the beating of tremendous wings swirling the thousands of shades into the next step of their non-existence. Something opened and I was thrown through, a physical force in a mental realm, an amber form in my hand.

    My gaze returned immediately to the encampment, the otherworld vanishing. The body beneath my knife was whole, unblemished but without life. I gritted my teeth and pulled the dagger out, plunging it immediately into the bucket of water at my side to minimize the searing burn of a soul leaving the blade. I felt my hand blister and steam, even under the water, knowing that Akara's magic would do little to ease it. The corpse gave a great heaving breath, like one recovering from a sudden blow and sat upright, gasping and shaking, eyes dilated and reeling. It was Cain who called, 'Kashya, the blanket!' The rogue grabbed the coarse wool and wrapped it around Paige, who shuddered frantically as she tried to remove the cold of the grave. She struggled against the grasp of her captain, perhaps reliving her final moments in that blood-soaked dungeon, but she was held firm. The two rocked slowly, Paige slowly calming down as the older one trapped her beneath her frame, breathing in time with her movements.

    My rite was almost complete. I removed my ruined hand from the water and brought it to Paige, cutting her arm with the now-black blade. It sparked red once, then returned to its original, pearled hue. It was finished. I peeled the blade off of my hand and returned it to its sheath. I erased the circle, finally kneeling beside Paige. Her eyes were mid-summer blue, still wild but calming rapidly. Restoration cures all wounds, even marks of training; soon enough, they would be Rogue black. 'How are you,' I whispered. She looked at me with fear, understanding, pity, sadness, and relief. 'I do not know. I was-somewhere quiet. I was ready to move, then you came, then I saw-something. Then it all went so bright and loud and I wanted to leave again, but I am here, now.' She blinked twice. 'It is fading.' I smiled weakly, 'As it should, Paige. We leave the dead to the dead. Welcome to the world of the living,' She and Kashya got up and the Captain maneuvered her outside. I heard a few shrieks of astonishment and one thump of someone fainting at the sight, but then a lot of laughing and crying. I had succeeded.

    I wanted to join them, then found I could not stand. Akara was already at my side, turning my hand over, lying me down as I allowed the sure sleep to wash over me. Cain bent down with more ease than I predicted, and whispered into my fading consciousness, 'We had help.' 'It wasn't who you think-' was all I could manage. I dreamed, that night, of a woman who, like cloth, has two sides.

    The sounds of rejoicing and cooking meat snuck in through the folds of the tent, both novel sensations in this camp of displaced warriors. Paige's return was true cause for celebration; many had died, many had turned, but none had come back from that endless journey into the darkness. Perhaps, had I not seen so many people walk to and from the silent lands, I would have shared their joy. For now, I roused myself out of the exhausted ruins of my consciousness.

    I was not alone. 'You are awake, Assassin. You do not need to hide that from me.' Deckard Cain sat in the corner, slowly smoking a pipe. Elthweed, a mild hallucinogenic. 'For some, perhaps. But my kind made use of it for far less banal practices.'

    'It is courtesy amongst my kind, old man, to stay out of one's thoughts until one has given you permission to come in,' I shot at him.

    'And amongst my kind, we prefer to allow the dead peaceful passage into the next world. You are an assassin. What in the name of the burning hells are you doing bringing someone back to life?' I sat up and stretched uneasily, checking myself. I was still in my armor, one hand bandaged in a foul-smelling poultice to aid the unnatural wound in its healing. Removing the blanket, I eased myself into a cross-legged position, my good hand resting on my left knee. I leaned forward and inspected him closely.

    Cain was a relic from a different time, when mages and men fought amongst themselves, when the Heavens were a shining example to the teeming mess of magical chaos below. Though he was, by most estimated, hundreds of years old, his eyes shone in the dim tent, the single ember of his pipe gleaming in the center of his pupils. Dark skin, leathered and wrinkled like armor worn in a thousand wars, laminated with the blood of enemies. His cane nearby, he was the very image of a holy-man, not the false prophet of my homeland. I could probably best him in a fight, had I been healed thoroughly and rested, prepared for weeks. An old man versus a young woman should be no contest, but this man was Cain. Within his head was the knowledge of the earth and the Heavens rivaled only by the angels themselves. Without contest, he was truly the most powerful man alive.

    I shifted slightly and chose my words with care.

    'Our ranks have dwindled in the past few years. It is not from lack of recruits; far from it, but from a multiplication in the evils about us. Our foes are no longer necromancers who have developed a taste for gold or half-brained sorceresses rampaging about the countryside in search of prey. Demons, wielding the power of a thousand wizards, beasts summoned from the pits of Hell. Even we were not prepared for this. Our veterans are more precious now than ever and as much as we loathe doing it, we give ourselves into the servitude of the Phoenix in return for temporary immortality.'

    He croaked thoughtfully, 'And so you take a page from Horazon's teachings and harness the blood of the myths with an unsteady hand. You were very lucky. Something else pulled you out of that vortex. Something old and beyond my reach, speaking in a language that I've heard a derivative of, once, when I was a young man.'

    We were both silent, then, him slowly smoking and me mulling the ritual. I knew that something had gone wrong, the artifact of the corrupted rogue's touch roaming around my subconscious like a stealthy tarantula that had injected its venom in the heart of my concentration. I too had heard the words that had led me back from the edges of oblivion and the edges of self-loss. I was already hearing the backlash from my order; they had felt me try and fail the Incantation of incantations, listening through the thin threads that connect all Assassins, near and far. When I next encountered them, I would be chastised for my poor performance.

    The raucous outside grew in pitch and intensity and I heard my name being called. I didn't care to partake in that celebration, preferring this solitary healing of the musky tent. When Paige bounded in to invite me outside, I quietly demurred, claiming that I was too tired. I was brooding, now. I dreaded the overcheerful faces of the rogues and the almost adoring gratitude that I had seen flicker in Kashya's eyes. She would want to repay me, reward me-but the gifts I was accustomed too are usually too brutal for even my veteran company.

    Cain smiled at me, skimming my thoughts like a well-worn tome. 'You are a strange one, Assassin. I have met many of the Viz-jaaqtar in my time, but none so wild as you. Perhaps it was your training in these burning times. Perhaps it is the sorceress blood you carry.' I slapped him out of my mind and regained my composure, trembling at the violation.

    The smile had flickered and vanished. 'I'm sure the heathen that sired you taught you what an abomination you were; a pity. She was a good woman and a worthy mage. You have learned to hide it well, though, and your order has all but destroyed any talent you might have possessed.' His breathing was still steady but I saw he was suddenly ill at ease.

    I jumped up, furious. 'They did it to save my life, pawn-of-the-angels. Had they not, I would have been reeducated, or worse, by the tyrant of your choosing. Or do you not remember that the Regent of Irdain was a Horadric plant? Your Order turned my mother into the shattered mirror that my father dragged out of the jungle, made my brother into a ghost, made me into-this.' I waved my claw over my body and armament. That of an Assassin, unlike any other form in this world. No weaponry is carried with such loathing and burden as ours.

    'My apologies,' his tone was conciliatory.

    'Go rot in the pit.' Some memories are too painful, even for me, and I walked out of the tent, furious. I would have killed anyone else, but his knowledge was needed. As I have said, this is Cain.

    A great flurry of whistles and shouts accompanied my storm out of the healer tent. I was suddenly dizzy as the crowd rushed at me with food and wine, the colors and smells more intense than my brain could process after hours of darkness. I think they took no notice as a few of the larger girls scooped me up and brought me, rather embarrassingly, to the center of the camp, where I was set down in front of a good spread of food, including the previous day's hunt. 'Eat, eat.' They urged, as if consuming in their presence could make my hand knit quicker within its seeping wrap.

    'Hold on,' whispered Paige, suddenly at my side. She knelt to unfasten the greaves from my legs, a starting place not lost on even my addled brain. She then proceeded to remove my armor, much to the delight of the assembled women, until I was left clad in only the undershift. Finishing, she stood up and beamed at me.

    'Much better. Now, you should eat.' I shook my head in resignation and clumsily started feeding with my left hand, forgoing any utensils, as is the custom of my clan. The food was surprisingly good for rations and I suspected they had cleaned out some of their meager stores in order to welcome their sister from the dead. I couldn't really fault them, though the display was unnerving. I had never been comfortable with lavish displays of any type, especially when they were focused on me.

    A tipsy Gheed wandered over to me and clapped me on the shoulder. 'Niishley dun, Asshasshin. Ish-' he belched loudly, 'Ish wonderful thasour girl's shafe. Have shome wine, on zhe houshe.' He offered me a hammered tin cup, the maroon liquid within splashing into the dirt at my feet. 'I do not drink. Thank you, though.' I prefer to keep myself clearheaded at all times. It is not good for me to be incapacitated, even in the relative safety of the camp. He smiled drunkenly and downed the glass himself, wiping his mouth on his sleeve and tossing the cup over his shoulder towards his caravan. At least it was not going to waste.

    Two of the girls excused themselves from the company to take their watch at the gate. I had noticed them before; their tall, willowy figures cut in sharp contrast to the small compact frames of their sisters, a shock of red hair on bone-white skin unbrowned by the sun's loving touch. These were an elusive, aloof pair. They rarely ate with the group, never engaging in the petty and silly games the girls played amongst themselves. Even their tent was separate, never entered by the underlings. In turn, the girls regarded them with polite disregard and even a quiet fear. By the sheer number of scars their arms carried, by their speed and stealth even while not on duty, by the bend of their shoulders where the weight of hundreds of deaths and years of battle lay, it was clear they were veterans. Perhaps even commanders. They took up guard on either side of the log-bounded fortress.

    The night waned on, and I sat, nursing my hand while they prattled on around me. I wasn't truly tired, as the collapse had dropped me into a deep sleep, partially refreshing the energy I'd lost. Kashya had come to sit near me, resting her arm almost imperceptibly on my knee as she told stories to the assembly. I felt her gratitude, her desire to repay me for what was truly my own selfishness, not any act of overwhelming piety. I brought Paige back because I did not want the Rogues' anger to interfere with my mission, because her alliance with me was the only thing keeping me in their good graces. The girl was still as much of a hindrance as she was an aid, though training would improve the odds of her staying alive. I smiled and nodded as they chattered and boasted, feigning interest, all while replaying the conversation with Cain in the back of my mind.

    Kashya shifted her arm and brushed her fingertips against my knee, the sudden contact sending a slight thrill of sensation up my spine. I knew the game she was playing, but this night, I could not compete, nor even observe. I moved my hand to cover hers, squeezing it gently. Her voice entered my mind, [Shall I-]

    I gently gave her a taste of the pain and fatigue I was experiencing.

    [I cannot, Kashya, though you know your gift is appreciated.] I would gladly lie to let her have her dignity, her grace, her pride. It is a rare captain who will play whore to aid her soldiers; my respect for her remained steady as she removed her arm and unobtrusively moved to sit nearer to Charsi.

    A burst of demonic babbling. A responsive shout from the gate guards and a few arrows. A sudden roar of flame. A rapid shower of pounding coinciding with a cry of rage. Silence.

    I was on my feet, clutching my belt-blade, by the time the gate guards had fired their initial dispersing volley. They had killed all eight of the small demonic raiding party and were scanning the empty field for laggers. The left called upon her inner sight and I waited for the telltale false-starlight that would illuminate any foe in range. None showed. The guard to the right turned her body to observe the moving shadows near the river. I watched a higher-ranking demon shaman teleport from out of view and revive his fallen comrades. I watched the one on the right turn at the sound and catch his fireball full in the face, firing wildly to bring him down instead of diving to the side. He fell, as did his companion, under the expert arrows of both herself and the remaining, uninjured Sister. All this, in four short breaths.

    Slumping against the doorway, the burned rogue struggled to avoid contact with the open, oozing wounds as she carefully peeled her bow off of her scorched fingertips. The polished hardwood hit the ground, dropping a deeply burned chunk that crumbled into impossible ash; weapons of that sort do not damage easily, a testament to the seriousness of her own wounds. The hit was hard, point blank. It would scar. She waved off her suddenly perturbed cohort, instructing her brokenly to keep watch for reinforcements. Two other rogues had already rushed up, but hestitated to touch the wounded form. She ordered them to stand in her place, to create an uninterrupted area of protection around the camp.

    I approached her uninjured side and encircled her with one arm. She cautiously draped an arm over my shoulder and gripped the opposite side for balance. 'Come on,' I murmured and I pulled her forward slightly.

    She hung back. [Not in front of them.]

    A small group had gathered and was gawking at the until recently unassailable veteran; I fixed them with a trademark black stare and they scattered off in ten directions. Kashya herself came forth and shielded the charred soldier from view. We carefully maneuvered the wounded sergeant into a nearby tent, where Akara had already laid out an assortment of magical tools and herbal preparations.

    It was only in this shielded place that she let herself open a fraction. She was breathing hard and shaking terribly as her body lost the ability to maintain heat. We lay her down and stood back as Akara began to mutter and spread the cooling ointment over the burn, trying to prevent the damage from reaching the deeper tissues beyond her healing power. The flesh began to knit and smoothen, but artifacts of the burn still remained. She would be disfigured, the pale skin forever an angry puckered red around her jawline and shoulder

    The other redhead came in and knelt at her side, crowding the small tent further. The mending rogue gripped her sister's hand tight enough to draw blood and her eyes were a blank mask of suffering. There was further mental communication between them, furthering my impression of them as veterans. It is rare for rogues of the older tradition to speak vocally except to issue commands; a mark of their immense discipline. Given the high probablility of corruption, long conversations in the old tongue were dangerous, except to the practiced few. The stayed there, the portrait of service, of devotion, of quiet unyielding strength. It was too intimate for me, and I bowed myself out of the tent.
  6. silentwater

    silentwater Diabloii.Net Member

    Jul 1, 2008
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    Re: Fulcrum by Anyee

    I could hear her screaming in the back of my mind, a thick and hardened yell of pain that she could no longer contain. Even now she was holding back, preventing her fellow rogues from seeing her suffer, seeing her crack; it was only my training that let me hear that empty, resounding call of despair. My parting gift to her was to erect a secondary mental barrier, allowing her to release a little more and devote her strength to healing. The waves of grateful agony followed me back to my bedroll and rest for the night.

    My sleep was fitful, unpleasant, in that cool night air. Snippets of dreams tumbled across my visual field, the constant screaming of the injured gatekeeper occasionally half-rousing me enough to re-enforce the dampening layers around her mind before drifting back. About an hour before dawn, the noise stopped as she finally succumbed to her injuries and slipped into unconsciousness. The novel silence disrupted my already broken sleep and I gave up trying to rest, getting up and wandering over to river to try and clear my thoughts.

    I was surprised to find Charsi still awake, sewing together leathers with a thick bone needle and sinew. 'Heya An'yee,' she whispered, 'Can't sleep, huh?' I nodded at her gentle questions and sat down near the forge, leaning my head against her tool bench, and let the slow rhythm of her hands and fingers pull my attention. It was fascinating, the speed and ease with which she crafted the garment. I became absorbed, the unobtrusive crackling of her fire, her tuneless humming, and I began to recall the places I had been, the person who I was...

    We rode hard for days, my tiny form scrunched on the saddle next to the great plate-mail covered body of my knightly captor. The posse rested infrequently, stopping only when the heat of the day rendered the steeds as foaming, frothing masses of animal-flesh. Then, we would sleep beneath the stifling, muggy air until the night broke the humidity. Moving and resting, feeding on what little we could capture, the pattern went on for a week...maybe two. We passed through the jungle rippling with flies and stagnant water, overgrown temples encased in vines that writhed like vipers. Even then, the first inklings of Diablo's first return to the world of Man were evident and nature broadcast her contamination. These men, though, were trained to recognize nonexistent defects in the formation of the soul, and ignored the wealth of information crawling out of the earth around them.

    Eventually, the jungle thinned and cleared onto a massive glowing city. The new light stung my eyes and I raised a hand to shield them from the glare. However, my seatmate grasped my wrist and forced me to gaze upon the marble turrets and iridescent glass arches that swirled in unfamiliar patterns across the horizon. 'Child, behold. This is your future! The city of As-bijan Soon, we shall bring you to the Duke and he shall purify the taints inflicted upon you by your mother.' I gave him a puzzled look. 'My mother?' The image of a coarse-skinned woman, bowed by years of farm labor and fruitless childbearing flickered across my mind. Now the knight was confused. 'Child, surely you...' Further conversation was stifled by a cry of 'Present yourself' as a small cluster of knights approached. 'Paladins...' he murmured. 'Too soon...'

    Where my companions were scruffy, mangy, road-worn shadows of warriors, these were the duke's personal guard. Their armor and auras gleamed in unison as they road towards us, procession perfect even in the empty fields along the city's edge. 'Have faith,' said my rider. He swiftly dismounted, still resting his hands on the saddle horn, removing his robe and draping it over the flanks of the horse. The rest of the group followed him to the ground, and all knelt before the paladins, offering the bases of their necks in subjugation as the glittering cluster stopped before us.

    'My Lord, we have returned from our task,' spoke the disfigured one. 'The rumor was true, and we have obtained the child of our Liege's enemy.' The paladins looked at each other through their visored helms as the lead rode forth to examine me. His ornate armor flashed and reflected the kneeling men, my own filthy, terrified face, the rest of the seated riders, and a curved helm, the skull of a forgotten animal, unfamiliar and out of place among the shimmering metals and soiled leather. I turned towards where that bone face should have been, behind me and to the left, but nothing but the trees awaited my gaze. A gauntlet grabbed my chin and pulled my face close. Another mind probe from this new stranger. I'd grown accustomed to being searched in this way over the weeks, but this was brutal, abusive, like ransacking a house to find a lost pin. He lifted his helm to peer at me, and I shivered as clear green eyes, without mercy or compassion, seared my face. I sniffed and started bawling as he turned away in annoyance.

    'We had expected more,' he said, without emotion. 'We had hope that this months hunt had not been so small, so paltry. This does not bode well for your reinstatement.' The men kept their heads down, betraying nothing. 'And were there not two on your quest?'

    The third rider looked up to answer and was met with a flash of light that caused him to ride on the ground, rubbing dirt into his scorched, oozing sockets. I saw one of the mounted paladins replace his sword beside him and resume his statue's form.

    'He was free of taint, Lord,' whispered my rider. 'Bringing him was unnecessary, and would have served to tax our already stretched resources.'

    'Ah, the hunting dog now makes battle plans for his Royal Master? What is the world coming to? Soon the Hells themselves shall walk freely among men.' His comrades snickered at the oath. 'Fair enough. Just as you decided that a single child would be too much of a burden, surely two soldiers are even greater. Choose which one of your men shall live.'

    My rider did not hesitate. He rose and grabbed his scabbard from the saddlebags, turning my face away from him to spare me the sight. 'No, make her see what happens to those who disobey the word of the Light,' the paladin hissed as he placed his hand on my scalp and wrapped my hair around his hand, fixing my head towards the condemned soldiers. I could not avert my eyes as my rider walked in front of his men. They did not plead, nor quake, nor even pray. The glint of steel and the disfigured man and the quiet man lay in neatly bisected pieces on the ground, the cuts so clean they did not bleed. It was the first time I'd ever seen someone die. Speechless, I felt the breath rush from my body and the blood drain from my face. I vomited on myself, gagging as a mounted rider grabbed me by my shirt and dangling me above the ground.

    'Pathetic,' he grunted, and threw me at the commander, who caught me with trembling hands and replaced me on the saddle.

    We did not enter the city that night, but remained outside the gates in one of the far stables while the paladin conferred within the palace with the Duke. My soldier sat across from me, purposefully relinking areas of his chain mail that overuse had pulled apart. His superiors took turns holding a weapon at my throat, grunting as I tried to eat the rations he had thrown in front of me. None of them said a word, except to whisper the occasional curse to my uncomprehending ears as they changed watch. I fidgeted with this rope noose they'd put about my neck, not strong enough to move the knot over my head so I could reach the food at my feet. I whimpered in hunger and they laughed, kicking away the bread and meat. I pulled forward and choked as the rope tightened, squeezing my neck. Coughing and gasping, I gripped at the cord with hands that barely fit around the rough twine, trying to clear my lungs.

    Seconds ticked by, the men guffawing as writhed in an effort to breath. I hoped that the leader would notice my distress, help me in my struggle, but he placidly continued with his pliers and awl, linking ring after ring into his armor. The world around me began to recede, shrinking away into a fuzzy tunnel of indeterminate sounds and dim, swirling colors. I flailed a childish arm in my fainting panic and produced an unexpected flame, which quickly chewed through my rope and burned my exposed neck before dissipating as suddenly. I fell forward and scampered towards the food, grabbing and devouring it. The men furiously shouted and brandished their weapons, but the leader by now had put down his handiwork and held up a scabbed palm. 'Let her eat. She needs her strength for tomorrow.' I finished bolting my food and crawled back to the log...

    A spray of sparks landed across my face, shaking me from the memory. Charsi smiled apologetically as I brushed a hand across the scorch marks with a shaking frown. 'How long?' I queried.

    'About an hour,' she said, 'I've never met anyone who could sleep so well sitting upright.'

    'I should probably get going.' She nodded assent and handed me my mended weaponry and armor.

    I crept with the bundle through the camp until I found Paige's tent, ducking to enter the dank-smelling barracks and rouse my companion. Her bedroll lay near the door, crammed next to those of ten other rogues. Her hair was unbound, an arm carelessly thrown over her face, the other hand clenching the rough blankets around her body. Stepping over her Sisters, I knelt down and touched her face with my free fingers. She bolted and gripped my hand with new strength, eyes fluttering in confusion as she attempted to focus in the dark. Black eyes settled on my face as I said, 'We need to go. Come, now.' I pulled her to standing, and we went out into the open air.

    'Your bow was destroyed. Your armor is gone. We need to re-outfit you, perhaps with something more fireproof?' She failed to find humor and glared through me.

    Searching through my trove, I contemplated the contents of my stash. The tiny obsidian fleck was tucked next to the other items I had stripped from the countess' lair. Cain would be able to discern what all these strange treasures were, though by glancing over the discovered talon, I could see first that it was ages old, and second that it was far too heavy for me to use as yet. Nothing I owned would fit Paige, and I swore at her carelessness with the suddenly scarce armament. Standing, I turned to find her speaking to Charsi, holding a hammered metal breastplate, taking from her own paltry reserves to pay the blacksmith's fees. I nodded; if nothing else, she was learning self-reliance, responsibility, which might or might not keep her from getting killed again. Killed, again. Strange turn of phrase, to contemplate the journey between the netherlands and the waking world as a simple jaunt across a rope bridge. Here, and not here, both enfolded in my blade.

    I flexed my slow-healing right hand as I continued my thoughts, testing the limits of the scarring flesh. I would not be able to wear a blade for another few days, but we'd already lost enough time. I knelt and rummaged once more in my bag, locating my scarce-used shield. I pulled it out and rubbed off the fragments of wood and metal it had accumulated; the tarnished surface marred my reflection as I fingered the inscriptions, the dedications to various gods, the half-worn carvings of ancient and forgotten battles arrayed on its silvered faceplate. I'd pulled the battered concavity off a twitching sorceress who undoubtedly had stolen it from one of her unluckier paladin consorts, her wildly waving arms doing little to stop either my thievery or her gruesome death. It had been years since I fought using a shield, but this would at least keep my hand out of more brutal combat. The leather fastenings were rotted and chewed away by vermin, a short repair in the correct hands.

    Walking over to Charsi, who was examining the depths of her stores, I lay the shield down on her workbench with a clank. She said something, muffled by the yards of leather and caked soot she was tossing about with quick abandon. When I didn't answer, she turned around and faced me, her cheeks and forehead smeared with grime.

    'I said, do you have an extra bow? All of ours need more repairs than I can affect in a few minutes.' I shook my head; it seemed that Paige would stay behind after all.

    [She can use this,] offered a voice like dripping water in the back of my head. We all turned to face the uninjured veteran who had approached without a sound our little circle. Her friend's bow, still etched by the demons fire, was extended at the tips of her pale arms.

    [You'll find it quite easy to wield. Indeed, even a child's hands could make this weapon sing, but...] a pause from the usually unsentimental warrior, but she shook away the tinges of emotion [Yes, and laced with ancient flame magics. She'll not be using it for a while and there is no sense in wasting time]

    Paige took it with a slight inclination of her head and clutched it against her now-armored chest.

    [Return in one piece...] said the red-head and walked back to her companion's sickbed.

    In the time it took Paige to dress me in my leathers and fill my bag with healing potions, Charsi had refashioned a set of ties to the shield. I had her fix it, like a splint, to my destroyed right hand, and Paige and I shimmered away from the camp to the waypoint by the fallen tower. My arm felt clumsy, unnaturally heavy and thick with the addition of the shield's bulk. I hooked my hand into my belt and surveyed the marsh. A few clusters of demons had returned in the day we'd spent away, but nothing that was much of a deterrent. What worried me more was the endless stretches of standing water that greeted our arrival. Any path or landmark had been washed out by the recent rains. Slogging around in here could cost days as we traced and retraced the same footsteps without even a tree to mark the boundaries.

    'That way,' motioned Paige as she stepped off of the waypoint into the slime. I held her shoulder to prevent further motion.

    'How do you know?'

    She gestured upwards towards a speck on the horizon, the bell tower of the monastery barely visible in front of the rising sun. 'I can feel it.' We ran towards the spot closing several hundred yards before reaching our first encounter. A flock of birds, deformed and laden with misshapen claws hurtled themselves at our heads, almost human shrieks heralding their attack. I raised the shield to deflect their beaks and waved my own weapon in a circle around my head. A few were caught on the blade, sliced open and flung to the ground, the soft earth swallowing their forms. Paige picked off the remainder, two birds bursting into flames before extinguishing in the swamp. I scanned the bog, trying to locate the nest that was spawning the besmirched animals. My eyes met only new fog as the day spilled itself on the reluctant earth.

    We walked slowly, the added heft of the mud draggling our limbs to a crawl. By mid-afternoon, I felt as if I had been on a forced march over the endless blood-drenched hills of Al-ornal. It was a numbing routine. move a few steps, check the horizon through the strangling mist for another sight of the tower, fend off another parcel of attackers. The number of corrupted rogues had become depressingly high, accounting for most of the corpses we sent to the bottom of the mire. We didn't bother to bury the bodies or search them for useful remnants of their armament. Paige stopped being stunned after she sank arrows into the twentieth of her frenzied Sisters, though she couldn't suppress the glimmers of sad recognition that rippled across her face. And even those hardened into a warrior's stare. She took no damage and sustained no injury, just coldly felled one after the other.

    Our focus narrowed to whatever lay on the edge of the swamp, whatever held the minds of the Sisters in its thrall. We were sweating, caked with fetid goop and exploded gore, but still we plowed on into the sightless mists. My vision and hers became so obscured that she was using her inner sight every few steps, firing at forms only she could see.

    'Stop,' I told her, 'you are risking contamination and I want you to rest.'

    'No,' came the disembodied voice. 'We are almost there. I can feel it.' Her phrasing was off, unearthly and unevenly spaced. Fatigue? the pull of the darkness? I looked over to where the voice emanated, but she had already disappeared. This was not good. I sent out a quick wave of mental energy and felt it resonate off a form several feet in front of me; I reached out and grabbed a wrist that carried far longer nails than Paige. The rogue hissed as she sank the claws into my blade-clad arm. I clocked her with the shield and shattered her ribcage with a kick. She flew back, but that did not undo the poison she had driven into my blood. The world around me, already unclear, took on a milky green hue as I called Paige's name over and over again. Risking another mind probe in this state would be fatal and probably ineffective. I stumbled forward, trying to find the path under the mud, uncorking a healing potion to counteract some of the poison. My options weren't many. I could town portal to the encampment and hope Paige found her way. I could continue forward and hope that I found her or the monastery. Or...

    The black sphere rolled into view through the mist. I blinked a few times, questioning its reappearance outside my head. Was the poison finally killing me? I went to touch it, but it moved slightly to the left. I tried again, and it kept moving. Zig-zagging unsteadily, not trusting my own eyes, or this strange hallucination, I followed the sphere until it shimmered and evaporated into air with an ethereal chuckle. I glanced around me. The mist had definitely lightened. I ran forward and it parted onto a massive, stone covered field in which stood an ageless stoneworking, the Rogue Monastery. Paige was already there, shooting skeletons right and left in my absence. I dragged my poisoned form, retching bile, over to where she stood clearing the field.

    'Where have you been?' she asked.

    'Lost,' I panted, 'but I got out here somehow.'

    'No, you didn't,' she sneered, as her face melted into a rancid orange pool, the flesh oozing out of her armor. Her eyes popped out and dangled precariously on her skeletal cheekbones before dropping to matted grass at her feet. A rush of maggots filled her grinning mouth, her body dissolving as I watched. I reached out in horror as she turned her bow towards me...

    ...and grabbed solid flesh. 'Easy, now,' came Paige's wavering whisper. I recoiled and brought up my shield to deflect the arrow which never landed. She knelt over me, intact, and stared through me with black pupils. I centered myself within them, trying to shake the horror of my vision. We were still within the mist, my dead attacker crumpled in a heap just within range. Paige was pale and frightened, but relieved that I had returned to my senses.

    'What happened?' She eased me to my feet as vertigo hit.

    'I don't know. One moment, you were by my side, the next moment you were scurrying away from me, screaming incoherently.'

    She looked forward and blinked twice, as if consulting a tattered map. 'We're almost there.'

    Moving once again, I pondered the strange vision. Was this the darkness of the monastery corruption, or something creeping, sinister within myself? I shook it away as the fog thinned slowly and opened onto a massive plain, just as in my walking dream. Save some obliterated outer walls, the Monastery was intact, though there was no way of telling what evils it harbored. Even the doors remained shuttered and braced by whomever remained within. The outer fields were lined with skeletal warriors and corrupted rogues, but Paige seemed...I shuddered and allowed myself to be steered into a corner behind a tree.

    'Are you okay? There is a waypoint just inside. I remember that much.'

    I nodded, gathered what little strength I could find, and crouched low. My voice was haggard, coarsened.

    'We can fight this through or we can dash for it. I'm too tired for a protracted battle and this is too much for just one warrior. I can break the doors with a psychic blast, but after that, I'll be useless. Get me to the carvings on the stone and they'll do the rest.' Paige slung her bow over her shoulders and tensed.

    One...two...three...four...I gathered my chi, surrounded her in its whirlwind force, and dashed forward. Arrows came flying towards us, but my shield and armor managed to catch all but a few. The battered oak doors loomed quickly and I knotted my brow. I drained my tainted energy reserves into my third eye and surrounded it with as much force as I could gather. The image of a whirling blade came to me as I launched the energy, splintering the barriers and allowing my momentum to carry me forward as all will left my body. Paige grabbed me by the arm and kept running, disregarding a pulsing leg wound as she practically threw me on the waypoint and trigged it, sending us away.

    I do not know what woke me, nor indeed, if I were sleeping enough for this new state to be called awake. I blinked twice into the dawn-covered city and marveled at its quiet menace. I had never seen such things in the mud fields of my home, where the tallest building reached no more than the top of a manís head. The legend of the city, I was told later, was that when God chiseled the heavens from the formless mass of the universe, he took the shards and placed them upon the earth as cities for righteous men. In one sense, this was true, for As-bijan was a scrap, a waste, cut clean from the Light that had created it. But in those early hours of my childhood, all I saw was tower upon turret, arches and doorways in perfect symmetry, all glistening as if encased in ice.

    All but one of the watchmen had succumbed to sleep, the remaining soldier's attention shifted from my tattered form to the outside of the shed. I watched his cracked hand shift on the hilt of his sword, the sheen of his armor enhanced by the ethereal glow the city, the barely perceptible aura he projected crawling the walls of the stable like a poisonous vine. Slouching, he surveyed the grazing horses to the right, the dusty trails to the left. His head tilted towards something I couldn't see and stiffening, he dropped his visor with a swift jerk and drew his sword. 'Show yourself, *****,' he hissed into the empty sunlight. Swinging the sword in a criss-cross pattern, he continued to shout unrecognizable taunts at the browning grass, the grey sky, the moldering wood. The other soldiers had woken from their sleep and grabbed their swords, not taking the time to armor themselves, and dispersed around the small shed, driving the tempered steel with lethal force into the roof supports, stabbing viciously into the piles of hay in the corners, all the while calling to their invisible prey. It would have been funny had I not been so terrified of being run through.

    After they had disported themselves in this way for several moments, satisfied, they put their swords away and looked around the stable. I continued to stare in bewilderment at them until one noticed my confused face. Suddenly embarrassed by the pointless display of might, he swore at me and grabbed me by the arm. I winced as he shook me back and forth, scowling 'You think that's funny, eh? Maybe we should have let the demon get you and drag you into her...'

    My solider plucked me from his arms with a glare and, unthinking, I clung to him, burying my face in the crook of his neck. 'What have you come to, Theopold, that a child's eyes would elicit such brutality? It is unfitting.'

    The paladin peered close into the older man's face, his fetid breath leaving a trace of vapor on his forehead. 'Has the witch-brat's spawn corrupted you, Merian, or are you just losing what's left of your rat-eaten mind?' The man holding me turned at the insult and began to walk outside. 'She's got the devil in her, I tell you!' We kept walking and he shook his head, his downcast gaze failing to notice what I, from my perch, could see: a man-shadow where no man stood.

    I shivered and twisted my head towards the city, wriggling out of my captor's arms. He set me down but took my hand that I might not escape. We walked a few more paces until an agonized shout followed our footsteps. He whirled around and ran towards the cabin; I, being too overwhelmed by the new surroundings, did not think to flee and instead ran after him, my only familiarity in the brutal land.

    The stable was smeared with blood. The other soldiers lay dead, pools of crimson regret running out of the door. My soldier stopped running when his slain companions came into view and instead walked slowly towards their corpses. I caught up with him a few moments later, hanging at the threshold, dulled by yesterday's display to the gore. Their throats were slit with a single flawless gash, their swords on the floor. They had been taken by surprise, no struggle save the futile attempt to stem the torrent from their necks. My soldier had knelt down by his antagonizer's ashen body and was gently probing the wound, his body inclined. I expected him to pray over this place, to guide their lingering souls onwards as my mother had quietly done for the animals we slew at home. He drew breath, and instead spoke with fear in his voice. 'Lady, I know your presence and your work. Give me my time to dispense my duties to this innocent and you may have my head. Else kill me, and sully the ones you protect. My blood is my bond.'


    A flash of silver to his left and we both flinched. A trickle of red oozed down his face. 'Your blood is your bond,' was the hissed acceptance. I saw the outline of a tall form, which turned cold eyes towards me and with a nod of its head, knocked me unconscious.

    I came to in a warm room, the gentle sound of a woman's humming washing over my traumaed head. For a moment, I allowed myself to believe that I was home, awake at last from a colossal nightmare, the pounding in my skull merely the result of my father's beating. But home never smelled this clean, and the noise around me was not the gossip of animals but the clamor of a thousand people. I tried to open my eyes, but someone had affixed leaden weights to my eyelids. My hand must have been similarly attired, because moving it was all but impossible. The humming shifted and became louder. A sweet-smelling warmth came near me; I heard something uncork and a strong odor made me jump. My eyes, suddenly freed, blinked wildly into a face...
  7. silentwater

    silentwater Diabloii.Net Member

    Jul 1, 2008
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    Re: Fulcrum by Anyee

    ...this wasn't the right face, I realized. It was small and dark haired, expression almost cruelly quizzical. Her lips moved near my eyes, but they were impossibly out of phase with her speech. Disoriented, I closed my eyes and stumbled back to something warm, which caught me around the waist. 'She's remembering.' 'She's allowed.' The air had changed to scentless, austere. I opened my eyes again.

    A canvass ceiling alerted me that I was in the rogue encampment. Fragments of the dream hung around me, the disquieting jumble of sounds and images swirling in my senses until they were beyond my reach. I blinked, assessing my body; a strange pressure rested on each of my arms, barely masking a discomfiting drawing sensation. I was being bled.

    Three breathers greeted my ears. Two were rhythmic, soft and unhindered; sleepers. The third was rasping, but slow and steady as well. 'How long, Akara?'

    'A day, this time, An'yee,' she replied. I closed my eyes and swallowed, the barest trace of spittle washing my swollen throat. A day was more time than I cared to lose, especially after the constant breaks in my battle patterns. Never, in my professional life, had I sustained so many, so serious injuries. Whether it was carelessness or the new challenges, it was still unacceptable. This was going to have to change if I wanted to press on and find the demon queen beneath the monetary.

    Akara busied herself unfastening my wrists, which had been splinted to keep me from pulling out the tubing. I didn't move my arms, even after she freed them, allowing the foreign blood to continue its forced rushing in my veins. I watched as she carefully folded the leather thongs in a chest behind her, bending over to check the tallow-rubbed gut still inserted into skin. 'The poison was of the same nature as that you first encountered, but more concentrated, more virulent. No herb or unguent seemed to purge it, nor craft of spell or healing. When your wounds bled, the fluids etched the metal and ate through wood, to say nothing of the bindings. So we let them flow unstemmed until the potency was diluted and diminished; then, we replaced it with our own. She raised a palm, 'We tested for the sign of acceptance; you need not fear unnatural clots.' I nodded, glad that my joints would not freeze with a foreign blood pressing against them.

    She sat with a sigh, helped me to a draught of herbs, and smiled at me. 'I marvel at your healing, young assassin. My girls would give their bow-fingers to recover as quickly as you. Perhaps you will tell me your secret.'

    I turned my head as I swallowed the bitter liquid. 'Sacrifice your soul for a pair of blades and you too will overcome most natural and unnatural taint,' I muttered. The spherical corruption of my mind, its betrayal in the dark mists, still sat heavy with me. This strange, new part of me had led me astray, nearly to my death, yet its source, nature, and ultimate purpose were still unknown. I could not control it, nor could I even explicate how it came to inhabit and infect my psyche. Akara, being a priestess and no fool, noticed my perturbed expression. 'I am not of your ways, Assassin, nor am I presumptuous enough to call you friend, but the silence I give my charges is open to you.'

    My head listed to the side as I planned my words. Informing her of the darkness might jeopardize the rogue's alliance, cast doubt as to my abilities and I knew she would not pry without my permission. 'Tell me of the goddesses of this land, Akara,' was all I could ask.

    'Ah,' she said. Her face lit up in satisfaction, as if she'd been anticipating this question for some time. 'Well, before the rogues came to this land, there was another peoples, a strange and ruddy colored race that ran and hunted like wild beasts, with casts of fire and falling stones. They worshipped a great lady, and...'

    Her story was interrupted by Kashya's request for entry. Akara assented, and the chieftain walked in.

    'Our visitor has been appraised of our situation and has agreed to assist us in return for safe harbor.'

    Akara inclined her head once. 'Tell him that the Assassin is awake, for I am certain they should meet.' Kashya looked at me, inclined her head with a smile, and returned to the outside. Akara gently nudged both of the sleepers, who on cue tiredly pressed down the tubes in their arms and stopped the blood exchange, returning immediately to slumber. She removed the equipment painlessly from my arms and pressed wool against the bleeding cuts.

    'Visitor?' I queried.

    'Another warrior, like yourself, come to aid in the fight against the darkness.' Akara fastened the pinking wool with a few scraps of fabric. 'He arrived this morning, on foot, from the northlands.'

    I propped myself up on uneasy elbows, fighting the sudden dizziness the change in position brought. 'A barbarian, this far south?' I wondered aloud, using the vernacular for the hardy children of bul-Kathos. Akara once again brought the mug to my mouth, and I drank it, picking apart the herbs on my tongue as I took its nourishment. Rustwort to stimulate the blood, glowing tralger for antiseptic, an unknown mustiness that hinted of mushroom, probably for cleansing, alderweed...a sedative? I spat it upon the ground.

    'Was I such a troublesome patient once again, Priestess, that you slip soporifics into my waking tea?' Nonplussed, she replaced the cup on the ground.

    'I've not heard soldiers swear and buck the way you do when injured. You broke Lia's arm the first time we tried to transfuse you, but your spirit was too weak for magic. Oh, do not look surprised. When we laid you out, the rawest rogue would have shown more spiritual power than you. And, as you should know, alderweed is a powerful restorative in addition to a sedative, except that you need little of either at this point, hmm? So, you taste the dregs of the weed.' My sleeping companions shifted, the one on the left revealing a bandaged arm, proving Akara's words. Akara woke the young women up and shooed them out. They grinned dopily and stumbled like practiced drunks into the night.

    I was disturbed, now, more than when I'd first woken. Being rendered unconscious three times in as many days was unusual, injuring an innocent while in the throes of poisoning was unlikely but within the realm of feasibility. But losing my ability to manipulate chi to my whim and will was beyond possible. 'What,' I asked Akara, 'turns a warrior's restraint into unbridled brutality and talentless thuggary?'

    Instead of answering, she reached under a blanket and fiddled with a latch. The coverings fell back, revealing a small metal chest, carved with unearthly precision. She waved her hand over the top and the hinges sighed open. She put it in front of me, and I peered inside. A storybox, a child's toy, a lesson engraved on the inner and outer lids, telling the tale of some hero or folly-ridden fool. It was empty.

    'Is this a parable, Akara, for if it is, I fail to see its point.'

    Shaking her head, she prodded me to look again. I took the box in my hands and carefully examined the designs. The usual warriors and demons adorned its burnished facade, overwrought with ancient and mythical emotion. The ornamentation seemed to tell the story of the rogues, their possession of this land, the defeat of their enemies to found the glory of their race. I ran my fingertips over the bow-clad women posing in victory, their leader holding a brilliant diadem in triumph over her head, a pair of women bent at the feet of their conquerors, their faces masks of quiet, unyielding rage. This filled the final panel of the base of the box.

    I glanced up at the elder woman's expectant face and gazed down again, noting finally that the outer dimensions of the box did not match the inner depth. There was a false bottom concealing several inches of space. I pressed the sides and base to find the hidden catch, quickly running my fingertips along the grooved edges to locate the release mechanism, scrambling to match her anticipation with force of movement. After several minutes of rotating the box and attempting every trick of lock-picking I knew, I nearly handed it back to the Priestess in exasperation. On my final pass over the interior surface, my left index finger was sliced by the ragged edge of an etched rogue's bow. I gasped and the box nearly flew out of my hand, but Akara steadied my wrist and tilted my head downwards. Following the direction of her gaze, I looked downwards to see a few drops of blood settling into the grooves of the metal surface. The glistening fluid filled the fine indentations in the scrollwork, bringing out the pattern in silvery relief.

    She tilted the box in my hands, allowing the red-black liquid to fully cover the base of the box, all but obscuring the final battle. The inscription of the rogue's final battle instead took the form of two faces, the captives in the last panel of the original story, their eyes, cheeks, and lips formed by pools of rapidly congealing liquid. I stared at the women, allowing glimmers of recollection to come over me. 'Them' I whispered, remembering the first time I'd come under the poison's bite and the strange half-dream of moments before. I heard Akara catch her breath at my single word. I suspected she had guessed that I would recognize these traces, but I didn't fathom the full implication of this esoterica.

    As the blood dried, it must have tightened and pulled on a hidden seal, because a hairline crack appeared between their ineffable expressions. Akara handed me a blade and I gently pried it up and apart, separating the floor into two slats. The true base of the box told a different ending than most, I wagered, had seen. It showed the rogues turning on each other, defiling their bodies and altars in pursuit of the captives' prize. Brutality, cruelty, assassination, torture, and mayhem where unity and purity had once reigned, and in each square, almost out of sight, a tiny laughing face...that of either the light or dark captive. The penultimate section showed a haggard rogue, perhaps the last uncorrupt priestess, approaching a spiraling tower. The final panel was hollow, as if it had held a precious stone.

    'You asked,' she croaked, 'what would turn a warrior into a brute. It is the same thing that would make a mother drown her children in a rain-swollen river, watching passively as her kin flailed in betrayed futility. Or cause a woman to rise in the night to slit her sister's throat and bathe in the blood. Or cause a Sister to order the death of her life-mate at the hands of a stranger, and to take that same stranger to her bed.' I flushed unexpectedly at the jab, but Akara's voice betrayed no malice; only thoughtful explication. 'Malfeasance. Meddling. A compounded punishment.'

    She took the box from my hands and drew her arthritic fingertips around the curved surface at the bottom. 'The rogues were not the first in this land. Another people were here, their gods savage and cruel, an abomination to the Eye and the Light. We forced them into the sea, or so say the warriors around the campfire.' A rustling outside paused her as a rogue poked in to announce preparations for dinner. The Priestess calmly shooed the young woman away and returned to gazing at the tarnishing artifact.

    I began for her, 'But there is another, truer, story, one that doesn't end so neatly.' Akara shook her head with a patient smile.

    'Oh, that story is totally true. In those times, though, we worshipped neither the Light nor the Eye. In fact, the Eye had not yet come to be. The rogues of old were godless, and decimated an entire race without mercy or thought. ' She picked up a cloth, dipped it in some water, and began wiping the blood off the plates. 'All but these two...' Akara held up the plates to inspect for imperfections, 'They gave themselves up willingly at the start and offered their royal insignia as a token of good faith. The rogues instead locked them in a high tower, where they were forgotten. That's where the warriors' story ends. Their next favorite story, that of the monastery, begins 'Nift alsan quansht Dalison...,' 'After the Plague years.' To the warriors, it makes sense: a new place, full of strange ills; of course there was a plague.'

    She put the plates down and reopened the box, indicating the hollow with a hooked forefinger. 'The stone once held in this place was called the Dalison sphere. The Plague sphere. The gift of the nobles was anything but. All who coveted it went mad, all who possessed it died terribly, clutching the diadem between their gnarled hands. We tried throwing the circlet in the ocean, burying it in the earth, casting it into the fires of Hell itself. Every time, it would return, and every time, the plague of our selves would restart. For years this went on, all but destroying the rogues. Then, finally, a terrified holder of the diadem fled her rabid and relentless rivals into the vast, unmapped countryside. Scared as she was, she did not trace a true path and after days of aimless wandering, found herself at the foot of the abandoned prison.' Akara stopped.

    'And?' I pressed.

    'And that's where the story of the box stops,' Akara said. 'We know that the original setting of the Dalison was melted into the last panel and that, obviously, the plague it brought was ultimately halted. Some surmised that the Great Eye made itself known at that spot and aided her, crowning her the first priestess. Some say that the women still lived, in spite of their long imprisonment, and removed the curse. A few think she found another stone and used that to lure her captors back to the rogue city, secreting the stone in the prison and securing its counterfeit in this box.' She pieced the chest together and hid it again under her belongings, sitting back besides me in a way that made me keenly conscious of her age. 'I lack the imagination of my mothers,' she sighed, 'I only know that the stories of the Eye and the stories of the monastery are in a dialect at least, by the judgment of the Horadrim scholars I have consulted, 200 years older than the stories of the first great war,'

    'You mean that there are 200 years of history missing from the rogue lineage that they,' I motioned outside, 'don't know about? Isn't it obvious to them that their history is skewed?'

    She waved her hand at me. 'Most of them can't read the newest texts, let alone the ancient scrawls. Those that can logically attribute the patchy record-keeping to the turmoil of the plague years; we fail to correct them. Remember, we control those libraries. We control those stories. I know that the High Priestesses alone are given that story and the bloodbox to guard.' She looked pointedly at me. 'And I know that, on the day we brought you back from the dead, the stone disappeared.' I opened my mouth to speak, to defend, or question, but she stopped me. 'I have no quarrel with you, Assassin, nor do I doubt what you have seen. But the plague is returning and even the evils of all the Hells cannot account for what I have seen.' She looked through me, with black eyes of practiced hardness, but said no more.

    Then, suddenly brightening, she eased me to sitting and gave me robes in which to wrap myself. She called out to Kashya, but the outside din had grown too loud; she walked out in to the darkness, leaving me to my thoughts. Somewhere deep inside my mind, two discordant voices were laughing.

    Chapter 20

    When the Viz-jaq'tar were assembled from the shattered remnant of the Vizerji mage clans, they took the whole of the mage's knowledge, of magic, of alchemy, of history, of prophecy. When the greatest of those clans' leaders journeyed to Tristram, with the Rogues, with the nameless warriors and quiet monks, the assassins followed a shadow's breath behind, waiting to slay any who were too weak to resist Diablo's corruption. During the time of peace before this new, dark disaster, we roamed Sanctuary, assuring that no magician thought himself above the laws of man. With our duties, we brought legend, myth, confusion, contradiction, all as effective as refracting armor for cloaking ourselves in secrecy. We learned, we absorbed, we calculated and prepared. There was no secret library, no sanctum sanctorum, no family crypt that one of us had not entered, searched, recorded, and abandoned to its dusty sleep.

    These hundreds of years of training and wisdom, had been filtered, refined, purified, and then forced, beaten, and pushed into our heads. But in all my time as an Assassin, in the decades I had spent in their service, I had not once heard of the mythos Akara conveyed to me. Perhaps it was that the wandering Rogues that the Vizerji of old encountered lacked the more formal and ritual education of their monastery-clinging Sisters. I ventured that the story Akara told me had been told to her but once by the Sister who pressed her into service and that I was the first outsider to hear its reiteration. A dubious honor.

    I racked my brain as I sat, wrapped in the motley of the Priestess' linens, and attempted to process the story further. The tale of the Rogues was a simple one until now. A group of women warriors came together, found religion, and built a large pile of rocks to prove that they were as ridiculous, single-minded, and powerful as any other group of warriors. That their pile of rocks sat on top of the homes of a few thousand people wasn't their problem; the Eye guided them here, the Eye can't be wrong. It was a pattern we'd seen many times, with the Zan Easu, with the Zakarum, even with the Vizerji; influential people would band together and, in the name of righteousness, do something. The Rogues just happened to be some of the earliest to succumb to this particular brand of self-importance. In their literature, though, as in the stories and fractured campfire musings of a few other tribes, there was mention of the other races. Of peoples tall, fair, and unending, like the Master of Shadows, of animals that walked as humans, as the Cat peoples of the desert do now. What happened to these people is unknown; we lack even the shards of a skeleton. But as any good assassin knows, even the cleanest execution leaves some trace...

    Paige entered with an apologetic grin, bearing a small bowl of soup. My arms and wrists, punctured and brutalized both from the warring and from the subsequent treatment, were still of little use and would remain so for a few more hours. I flipped a flaccid limb at her, 'I seem to be as a nervous husband on his nuptial bed.' She snickered and knelt down next to me, bringing the thin liquid to my lips. I greedily sucked it down, dispelling the aching thirst that comes after a bleed. She took it away for a moment, allowing me to catch my breath, and then allowed me to finish the food. 'Thank you,' I said, using my shoulder to wipe off my face. She plopped down cross-legged and stared at me.

    'I don't know what to make of you, Assassin. One moment, you are cool and professional, the next jovial and relaxed, the next irrational and deadly. Is this normal?'

    I sighed and idly tried to flex my right hand. 'No, it isn't.' My fingers wouldn't bend more than a few degrees. 'Paige, while we were out there yesterday, I saw something. A vision. Its elements I have seen now two other times.' I scanned my palm for scar tissue and found none. 'Not even Kashya knows that I've been...seeing things.' I tried clenching a fist.

    'The sphere...' she volunteered. I dropped my hand and looked at her in wonder.


    'Oh, yes, in the fog. I could have sworn I saw a little black ball, like a rotted egg, rolling around at my toes. But I called on the great Eye to see the truth and it vanished.' She inflected her head a little and then, embarrassed, stared at the floor. She was shy about her religion and I could see, now, that the roots of the Sisterhood ran thick and strong into her heart. A small flash of worry touched my mind as she looked away. 'I know it must sound...'

    I cut her off. 'It sounds correct. I too saw the sphere, but was led astray. When it had brought me far enough, it turned into a horrific vision, the Monastery, oozing with corruption, having taken hold of you as well.'

    She kept her eyes on the ground and fidgeted slightly. 'I believe there is great danger for you there, my young companion, and I wonder of the wisdom of keeping you with me.'

    She almost fell into my lap, petrified, pleading 'Please, don't leave me behind. If I stay here, they'll make me go out on patrol, and no one comes back from those. At least with you,' she stammered for a moment, 'At least...I have a chance.'

    'And you say this,' I asked softly, 'though you have seen me fail many times, though you have incurred serious wounds at my side, though you have touched the world beyond because of my carelessness.'

    'I am not afraid,' she cried and then rocked back, crying. 'I'm not...' Then, she ran out of the tent

    I sighed and nearly fell back again. Sitting was rapidly becoming a burden without some sort of support. Paige's outburst, like a hurricane during a midsummer swim, was troubling. I opened my mind and searched the encampment. She was sitting with a small group, being comforted; they would probably do a better job of that than I would. Instead, I called Kashya to me. [Kashya, a word with you] I felt her leave the side of Akara and a force. That must be the barbarian. I didn't have time to probe him further as Kashya entered the tent.

    'You. Sit.' I ordered. She looked down on me with a strange look, one of confusion, defiance, amusement, all in a single raised eyebrow. I sighed again. I gathered as much command and venom as I could in a practically helpless, unarmored and unweaponed state. 'I said SIT.' She complied, in spite of herself. Learning the word of command from our Mistress of Traps was a great help in these situations.

    'Blood Raven,' I said to her, and she almost got up and left. I forced up a small mental barrier around her. I know you can walk through this, ignore me, ignore my questions, but do you really want that? She reseated herself and I finally lay back, exhausted from that effort. 'She was your beloved, correct? Why didn't you tell me this?' To my surprise, she stretched out next to me, so she could stare at me, through me. She took my hand and clenched it in a crushing grip.

    'The woman I loved,' she hissed, 'died long before you came to this encampment. What you did was a formality.' Her eyes were cold and dry, her voice filled with a loathing only love could accomplish. She kissed me hard, biting down on my lip enough to draw sudden blood. I let out a muffled yelp and tried to draw back, but her hand held me fast. She finally pulled away and unfurled to standing, wiping my blood from her mouth. 'Never mention that name in my presence again. This is the last we speak of it.' She glanced down at my tousled form. 'Prepare yourself, little Assassin. The barbarian wishes to speak to you.'

    She flipped open the tent and stormed out, leaving me there to wonder what in the name of the dragon was going on. Crying assistants, vicious commanders, strange and distant priestesses. It seemed I couldn't do anything right today.

    I lamely tried to roll myself into the blankets, to no avail. Either I would meet my new ally in a state of partial undress, or I would need some help. Paige I sent. I need your assistance. I felt a surge of defiance, but then a wave of complacency as she came to me.

    'Yes?' she asked, glancing outside to her friends, still shaken by...whatever it was that was eating at her.

    'Can you, well,' She went wide-eyed when she realized I wasn't clothed and blushed, turning away again. 'Come on, Paige, stop with this strange modesty. I'm sure you've seen plenty of women naked.' I watched as the tips of her ears turned even redder. She knelt, still not meeting my gaze, and worked one arm under my back, easing me to sitting. She took one of the blankets and wrapped it around me, making sure that the folds draped to cover most of my skin. Confident that the garment wouldn't fall off, she sat back on her heels, preparing to leave. 'No, wait, stay.' I said. 'As my assistant, you need to hear whatever he and I discuss and,' I smiled slightly, 'I have no way of knowing whether I can stay upright or not. I don't fall flat on my back for every stranger I meet.' She snickered and relaxed considerably.

    A massive shadow darkened the tent as Paige positioned herself next to me, supporting my back with her shoulder. The tent flaps opened and a huge braid, followed by a tree-trunk body, bent itself into the tiny tent. The Barbarian's thick and mighty form all but filled the little space in the tent and he knelt in order to avoid upsetting the whole setup with his head. His skin glowed with outdoor hardiness coupled with the Highlander's cultivated resistances, an impressive sight even when he was at rest. He kept his head down, the warrior-lock glimmering down his back with silver flecks and faint ebony sheen, winding its way past literally thousands of scars and markings. Out of armor, I could see the intricate woven-work of his tribal dress, and tried to reference the pattern back to the many noble families of the North, attempting to remember whether that thin blue band indicated a mother who died at birth or a brother lost in battle. This was no mere recruit that the children of Bul Kathos had sent to the Rogues. This was a veteran.

    'Lady,' he said from his crouch, in what I guessed was the softest voice he could create. It still felt like thunder rolling across an empty plain, shaking the trees with invisible force, and I found myself shivering slightly. The address was a formal one, a term not used towards me in many years. I puzzled for a moment, trying to determine which ceremony he was invoking, or whether it was used in deference to my clan, and lightly skimmed his mind with the faintest glimmer of search. He perhaps took my silence as a dismissal, for he nodded grimly and went to back out of the tent. I finally figured out what I was doing and what he expected. I gingerly extended an arm.

    'Old Man, wait.' He stopped and looked up at the honorific. (Warrior races are not known for their longevity, as constant battle requires constant blood. An old man with many battle scars shows a fierce and skilled warrior, able to withstand many fights without being foolish enough to get himself killed. Hence, Old Man.) The appellation a story for another time. I gazed into the tanned, lined face, dark brown eyes likely as keen as those of the rogue who supported my weight, and watched the slight trace of apprehension slip away. He reached out a shield-sized hand and took my own. I expected to have the bones of my fingers shattered in his grip, but he controlled his strength with practiced ease.

    'Look,' was all he said, giving me leave to probe his mind and body if I so chose. A smart man indeed, to know that I might have searched his soul even if he refused.

    'Unnecessary.' I responded, though I did drop a slight layer of mental protection to look at him. As I guessed, a higher born warrior, well trained, but...something was off, was wrong. There was a taint to the aura that I couldn't place well in my exhausted state.

    He smiled, a mouth of shattered and half-broken teeth filed to points . 'We leave tomorrow.' He dropped my hand and gingerly crept out of the tent in an unusually graceful movement for a body that large.

    'All right, Paige. That's enough.' She looked at me oddly.

    'That's it? You don't trust anyone in the camp, and you've been here over two weeks, but an eight word conversation and he's our ally. Did I miss something?' I had her ease me back to a supine position before answering.

    'How many Amazons have you met?'

    'What does that-.'

    'Answer me.' She rolled her eyes and wiggled her fingers as she thought.

    'Well, there was that small army that came through about...' she shrugged, 'six months ago, maybe?'

    'Mmhmm. How about you know what those are?'

    She made a face like a child seeing a squished bug and I nearly laughed aloud, 'Necromancers are those guys that take dead people and-'

    I cut her off, preferring not to hear the local tales of Rathma's preference for rot-moist corpses over the warm flesh of potential consorts.

    She pursed her lips and glared expectantly at me. 'Okay, Paige, how many Assassins have you met in your little, sheltered life?' I teased her.

    She ducked her head away and said, 'You're the only one.'

    'And what did you know about the Viz-jaq'taar before I showed up here.' She mumbled something that sounded like shadows and killers. 'Yep, that's what I thought. Now, the Barbarians are even more isolated than the Rogues. Whatever information gets to their snow-covered hovel has been filtered through so many unlearned and superstitious tongues that the average Assassin is probably somewhere on the level of a myth or a brutal demigod. I'm surprised that he agreed to meet with me at all.' I let my words sink in, but when understanding failed to come to Paige's eyes, I spoke to her again. 'He's terrified of me. He'll fight alongside us because he's less afraid of the demons out there than he is of my rank.'

    Paige wrinkled her forehead in disbelief. 'You're not that scary.'

    I smiled at her, 'You'd be surprised. Now, I can't sleep in here. I need to get outside to one of the tents. Can you help me up?' Taking my jumble of blankets with her, we slowly began to ease me out of the tent opening into the night air.

    After about three steps, the vertigo was too much. I felt like I was gazing through a tiny arrow-slit at the world, like my ears had been stuffed with wool. I thought I heard someone call my name, but a cacophony of buzzing and bell ringing overwhelmed all other sounds. I felt like I was tumbling end over end in a dark place, my sense of self...

    I was slapped back to reality with a burst of foul smelling herbs. I lay in the middle of the camp, Paige on one side of me, Akara on the other, holding a vial. I groaned and nearly vomited from the stench. 'Once more,' the crone whispered and waved the liquid under my face. My alertness returned, though not my strength.

    'I need sleep, now, if I want to be on my feet again tomorrow.' The women nodded and went to call one of the larger Sisters to my side. Instead, the Barbarian came from his position at the campfire and indicated that he would move me to a sleeping place. I was lifted like unknotted twine and swept gently into Kashya's tent, much to both of our surprises. He seemed clearly pleased with himself; after all, he'd just seen a demon-goddess faint like a breeding sow villager in front of him. Well, so much for the plan of fear as motivation. 'Good night, old man,' I told him, bidding him leave me to sleep.

    'Good night, young Lady,' he said, with an air both grave and teasing. I gave him a look that otherwise would have carried a full mental blast, but that only poked him in the forehead. He let out a burst of laughter and went outside. I looked at Kashya, who rolled her eyes in annoyance and set about making herself a bed on the floor so that I could use the flimsy cot as a resting place for the night. Her grumbling and unconcealed hostility were the last things I remembered before I passed out.

    Chapter 21

    Kashya's sigh of exhaustion as she shifted on the floor awoke me from the flimsy sleep I'd gathered over the past hours. My injuries pulsed and burned uncomfortably, forcing me to change position every few moments. That, plus the nagging worries about my own mental state and its effects on my performance, made the gift of slumber in short supply. I rolled over slightly to gaze down at her, wondering how long she'd lain in the dark with us.

    <What,> she asked me, sending the words into my brain so as not to wake Paige. <Long watch,> I queried.

    <Yes, but a quiet one,> she responded.

    <That's good, then.>

    <No, it's not. Gira's not returned.>

    <Gira's the one who disappeared after the attack?> I'd not known her name until this point. Gira, last of her kind, last of the veteran Kashya.

    <Correct. At first we figured her grief had driven her to avenge her partner, but she should have returned by now. Or we should have found her body. But we have found only death.> I remembered what Paige told me, of the search parties lost in the pursuit of their comrade. 'I'm sorry,' I whispered, the slight noise causing Paige to stir in a restless haze.

    Kashya looked up at me with empty eyes and motioned that we should leave the tent. She helped me ease off the cot and wrapped me in one of her blankets. She guided me out into the flickering torchlight of the camp. The barbarian's strange form blocked the firelight as he heaved each breath like the moving of a mountain. We moved by him, to the banks of the river, to what had become my favorite place of mediation. She brought me slowly to sitting and we both gazed tiredly at the constant rush of water. 'I cannot close my eyes but see Gira's face as she walked away from the body of Elyhaim. It was Ravenna's face. It was my face. I envy these girls who call themselves soldiers; they know not love enough to lose it.' She exhaled slowly. 'Ravenna, the creature you knew as Blood Raven.' I froze for a moment and she touched my hand. 'No, it's okay; you deserve to know this. I was too conscious of old ghosts before, but I've had some time to think. Six hours alone on a barricade has many calming effects' I nodded, but she lapsed into silence, musing. She started several times, but halted herself. Finally, in the most gentle tone I'd ever heard from the captain, she began.

    'Ravenna was...everything I had. We were bound, as tightly as our hearts would allow. But there is no place for such things when you live as a nomad. I came back from a two years journey to find she had taken another, Maia, in my absence. In her defense, Ravenna had believed me killed, and I, for my part, was closer to dead than living when I returned. Her coupled happiness was too much for me to bear; I volunteered to accompany a Vizjerei emissary back to his homeland, to conference with his kin about the strange sickness that had overtaken Khanduras.'

    I stopped her story. 'A Rogue and a mage? Why such a strange pairing?' As if by way of an answer, she raised her hands over her head and muttered words I knew very well, though the tongue now pronouncing them was far from practiced. A ball of flame shot from her palms and lit the grass on the far bank before sputtering out into the muck. Anger and surprise leapt into my chest. 'If I had my claws, Kashya, you would be a blade's edge from death. You are not to practice such magics as those. Paige herself said that the Rogues are forbidden to use elemental forces because of the corruption they can spread. Tristram...'

    '...Tristram was a lesson written the blood of my Sisters. Wounds do not become infected when they are kept clean; it is only the filth of combat that brings the putrefaction of the flesh. So too, our magics were no danger to us when the land was inviolate. We knew something was changing, but to what extent we could not grasp. All the mage clans knew as well, but only the Vizjerei were willing to seek out the source of the corruption. They came to us, before the fall of Leoric and his brethren, for aid in discovering the cause of the almost negligible taint. We assented and an alliance was made. I trained while I was with the mages, well enough to know the perils of magic; I apologize for its casual use. Do you still wish to kill me?'

    I shook my head, slowly. 'My own clan comes from the line of Horazon and Bartuc. I have no right to judge the past, only the present.'

    She stood up as if to leave, but instead stretched herself up to full height before sitting back down. Her tone hardened, 'We had only studied for a few months when I received word from my homeland. My Sisters had been attacked by the Riders of Arazon, that the Monastery's walls had held but that our casualties were many and our force dwindling. I rode from the land of the mages to a blackened ruin. I thought I came to battle our enemies, but instead I came to bury our dead. For the fight had ended a few days before I arrived, a victory for the Rogues that came at an overwhelming cost of life. Never had I seen such destruction...'

    'I know the Riders well,' I murmured, 'They are merciless and give no quarter to even innocents where the taint of magic is concerned. They kill the body to cleanse the sickness.'

    Kashya's seemed not to hear, lost in the story she told. 'We were decimated, though almost every Rogue wanderer had come to defend our homeland. My lateness made no difference, for as much as I wished to believe otherwise, I most likely would have ended up a corpse for my Sisters to bury. All but four of the women I had trained with were killed, and this out of a legion of two hundred Sisters. I found Ravenna grieving over the body of Maia, any anger she might have had over my cowardice washed away by her joy at seeing me alive. What choice did I have? I helped her entomb her lover in the graveyard beyond the moor and I found myself at Ravenna's side once again. It was the least I could do.'

    I watched her troubled face scan the horizon, as if she saw the scene unfolding before her eyes.

    'We lived in the shadow of our love, my guilt over replacing Maia mingling uncomfortably with her guilt over her betrayal. It was an uneasy pairing, but it was the best solution to our problems. I became captain of the Rogues and I settled into a routine of fighting and preparation, coming home every day to her drawn, tired face and trembling hands. Then, Tristram. Everything...'

    She leaned her hands on her knees. 'You probably are sick of this story already. Who wants to hear about...'

    'I am listening because you need to tell it. Let me hear the rest.'

    'The fall of the Kingdom had been long in coming; it was not an if, but a when. Still, we expected it to happen later rather than sooner and were ill-equipped to send troops to combat the evils springing unchecked in the land. When the Vizjerei came to request our aid, we could spare only a handful of recruits and five veterans.'

    'Gira, Ravenna, Elyhaim, yourself and someone else,' I ventured.

    'Kaya the Red, we called her, because of her hair. Or, as we came to know her, Kaya the Red Vex. She was the first to fall under Diablo's spell and helped to give me that scar you liked so much.' A bitter smile played at her lips.

    'So what does this have to do with Blood Raven, with why Gira's out in the wilderness, probably killing your scouts?' She flinched at the name of her former lover, but carried on.

    'Tristram was a bloodbath,' Kashya's voice raised with ire and scorn, then settled down again, 'even with the assistance of the mages and the warriors of the south. I lost most of my soldiers in the first few days, killed by creatures not seen on this earth for centuries. As the remnants of our band moved forward, our weapons lost their power to harm these monstrosities and we were forced to depend on our magic. Replenishing our energy from the earth around us was like breathing poison and it became rapidly apparent how potent this taint was. The mages succumbed quickly once we reached the depths of the caves, turning on us as the foul power of the demons overtook their minds. They resisted as long as they could, but depending on the hellspawns' energy for their spellcr-'

    'How is that possible,' I asked sharply, 'The Vijzerei do not draw on demonic magics. Horazon and Bartuc taught them as much.' There had been no reports out of Tristram about the presence of mages, save that none had returned to tell the tale.

    'They were desperate. We all were, wandering in the endless darkness, the tortured screams of villagers echoing in every corridor, the labyrinth that wound its way into nothing. We were fighting in the antechambers of Hell; I have seen things that haunt my dreams, and I did not even reach Diablo himself. The mages heard the endless whispers of the damned and the promises of Lazarus in their sleep, the mocking of the demons that could resist the mages' holy magic. Most of the Vizjerei convinced themselves that they could handle drawing from a tainted source or that they, unlike their predecessors, could channel dark energy to a positive end; once again, they were wrong. Kaya was early among the lost, for by all rights she should have been of the Zann Esau. For the whole of our trip, she rarely unshouldered her bow, preferring to cast relentless fire and lightening at our enemies, and thus leaving her open to the corruption. She slipped away one night, betrayed us to Lazarus. I recall her behavior now, before that crucial point, as strange and dark...but at the time we were all so addled by the haze of evil that nothing was unusual.'

    'So Ravenna and the others were also contaminated?'

    Kashya shook her head. 'No, actually. Save Kaya, we were not primarily magic users, though I suppose in the end those who faced Diablo used whatever was at their fingertips to kill him. Remember, I had fallen before the battle, to Lazarus, so I do not know and they never spoke of it.'

    'Then what happened?'

    'Diablo is the Lord of Terror. He used whatever he could glean from the minds of the fighters to weaken their resolve, to cause them fear and doubt. Ravenna came out of that battle a shell of her already hollowed self, convinced somehow that Diablo had taken Maia with him to Hell. Nevermind that Maia had died years before and had committed no sin worthy of such punishment, nor that Diablo could conjure any manner of lie to achieve his victory. It became a sickness, an obsession, and I watched her tear herself to pieces for months, fading more and more into a hopelessness I could not reach. Every night, she called Maia's name, sleepwalking around our barracks, pounding on the walls and attacking whomever came near. She spent her days pouring over esoteric texts, praying and cleansing herself to try to assure her lover's safety in the halls of the Light. I have never seen such fervent nor such terrified devotion.'

    Kashya shuddered a long breath; I could see her crying in the beginnings of the dawn. 'When Andariel attacked the Monastery, it got worse. The Sisterhood knew that we could not hold off against the forces of Darkness, but we tried. Once again, Hell vomited its inhabitants into the mortal realm, making us fight against monstrosities that should not exist. The constant visual reminders of the battles below Tristram wore heavily on all four of us. Elyhaim stopped talking, Gira did not sleep for a week, Ravenna turned to mortifying her flesh in her rituals, and I...' She trailed off, once more, and restarted again.

    'Well, it soon became apparent how badly we were losing. Akara ordered us to retreat to this Encampment, which all of us did, reluctantly fleeing our ancestral home. But Ravenna disappeared. We thought her dead and mourned the passing in the scant seconds between battles. So imagine our surprise when she came back, quiet and calm as I'd known her before Tristram. She didn't say much to anyone, just told me she loved me and collapsed in our tent, sleeping soundly for the first time in months, finally at peace. The next morning, she was gone again, returning at evening filthy and bloody, but again, unperturbed by her state. She smiled at me, told me she'd found her answers, and again, went to sleep. She repeated this for three more days, always claiming she was out hunting demons, and bringing home enough pelts to more than confirm her tales. I wanted to believe her, to think that Diablo had released his hold on her troubled spirit, that she'd finally come back to me.'

    'You couldn't, could you?'

    'No, I couldn't. Looking into the eyes of my still-tormented companions, I knew that the presence of the dark one was as strong as ever. There was but one explanation: she had switched sides. I told no one of my suspicion, but took it upon myself as the captain of the Rogues to eliminate the traitor in our number, the traitor in my bed. I followed her one cold morning, fearful that killing her in camp would bring a wave of attack from my uncomprehending Sisters. She traveled to the burial grounds in the plains, where she had unearthed and laid bare every coffin within. I heard her calling softly, sweetly, to her lover as she searched among the dead for the corpse of Maia, for she could not read the tombstones enough to locate the grave. Revulsion gave me strength and I shot Ravenna without warning, four silver arrows into her heart. They were like nettle stings to a giant. She overpowered me, called me endless bitter names, accused me of the most horrific betrayals, saying that I caused the fall of our comrades at the Monastery, that I was to blame for the endless deaths in our lands. All of this, with the most...beatific...look of peace on her face that I'd ever seen. After breaking most of the bones in my body, she bound me and continued her grim hunt.'

    'She found it?'

    'Yes. Remember that Maia had been dead maybe six years by this point. The corpse was little but bone and scraps of flesh, but to Ravenna it might have well been the live body of a goddess. She lay the corpse upon the slabs as tenderly as one might a newborn child, arranging the skeletal limbs neatly before standing back to admire her work. Looking at me, she smiled and said, 'I have the answer now. If I can bring her back, I can send her spirit wherever I wish.' She raised her hands and in a thundering voice called on the dark powers she served to reanimate the corpse. I watched in horror as new flesh grew on the rotted carcass and the limbs twitched as if alive. It rose from the ground, complete and made anew, but not alive; no, not in the human sense. Its head lolled to the side, the eye sockets still empty of their orbs, the body strange and disjointed, hanging in midair and not touching the earth, but Ravenna embraced it as if it were Maia herself. Her joy was cut short when the body fixed its blank gaze on her face and asked, 'Why am I here? Why did you bring me here? I was so happy...they say I can't go back now. Where will I go?''

    'That's impossible,' I whispered, 'not even a necromancer can reclaim the soul of someone dead so long.'

    'I do not know if it was a malevolent spirit sent by Andariel to animate the body, a magic that cast the illusion of life, or Maia's soul returning from the Heavens to this imperfect vessel. It was enough, though, to convince Ravenna that she'd just denied her beloved the chance for eternal happiness. She snapped, let out a howl of madness and agony, threw back her head and screamed to whomever she'd bargained with, 'You promised me. You promised me she'd be safe, that she'd be whole.' All the while, this strange confused...thing...hung before us, whispering its banishment in its otherworldy voice. In her blind rage at being tricked into giving her freedom to Andariel, Ravenna lashed out at the still-babbling creature that held Maia's form, striking it to the graves and shattering its skull. Ravenna's head must have cleared at that horrible sound, realizing she'd undone the very reason for her corruption. We both watched the wisp of spirit evaporate from the mass of brain on the stones, heading to realms Ravenna could not control or know, taking with it the vestiges of Ravenna's humanity and most of her sanity. She dropped to her knees and crawled to the body, cradling it and weeping over its destroyed from, smearing herself with the blood that flowed openly from her love's wounds. She caught me in her furious gaze, finding an outlet for her hate and frustration, as if to transfer the blame for her fall onto another. But her attack was short lived, as Elyhaim and Gira snatched me out of that accursed place. They'd discovered my absence and drawn a few conclusions about my lover's disappearances, tracking me to the graveyard in time to save my life. We returned to the encampment, banishing Ravenna's name from our tongues forever, leaving only the creature Blood Raven behind.'

    'She warned us as we fled, Ravenna...Blood Raven...she called out that she had seen our deaths, that they would be in fire and in fear. That we carried the essence of the Hells in our blood and that we'd never remove the stain for as long as we lived. That we would give in as surely as she, willingly and without hesitation, to avoid that slow crawling towards destruction.'

    'And you believe her, the words of a demon?'

    'The words of a demon who had power, faulty as it was, over life and death and whose words I had trusted since I was sixteen. She merely confirmed what we already knew: that the mages who'd survived Tristram with us had gone irretrievably mad, the town of Tristram burned to ashes, and the lone warrior who took Diablo's soulstone transformed into the Dark Wanderer. Elyhaim is the luckiest, for she has died without taint. Gira has made her choice, that she will take a certainty of Hell over the constant nagging strain of this fight. And I...I will run, as I always have. I will wait behind these walls, a broken coward of a soldier who sends her Sisters to their deaths while she stays behind. I will outlast my foes and my friends alike and die alone, ashamed that I could save no one but myself. I will run, with the knowledge that someday, whatever is chasing me will catch me.'

    'Far lesser warriors have gone to their graves with the title of hero, young Kashya. Surely you cannot believe the lies of a demon, even one you loved,' a deep voice spoke from behind us.

    The barbarian had come upon us silently, and though I resented the intrusion, his words were my own. Kashya was suddenly mortified, but a large hand on her shoulder prevented any retaliation. 'The truest sign of a warrior is that he lives to tell the tale, not that he was foolish enough to die early on the battlefield. You command respect and loyalty from your troops and that you returned from Tristram alive is proof enough of your valor.'

    'But I was injured,' she protested angrily, 'I spent the fight against Diablo dying aboveground...'

    'From a wound that would have outright killed someone with less strength.' I finished. 'Not to mention you were in a battle-weakened state to begin with, in a town with one healer and no supplies. Kashya, no more. You aren't her. You aren't Blood Raven or Gira. You are far stronger than either of them.'

    She hung her head. 'How do you know? How do you know what evil may lurk in my veins?'

    'I'm trained to recognize such things, remember Kashya? I am an Assassin; I seek out the evil in places where it may hide. I have touched your mind with my own and I have seen no blemish. Be free of this needless fear.'

    The large man stood after I stopped talking and looked down. 'We will leave in a few hours. I shall prepare. We shall not speak of this again.' He walked away, leaving Kashya and I alone on the riverbank. I watched him leave and scanned the area, confident that no one else was watching us.

    'Will you be alright, Kashya?'

    'I've not told anyone this before. Not even Akara knows why we call Ravenna's tortured form Blood Raven, nor why she turned so willingly to the darkness. Of those who knew firsthand, one is dead, and the other insane.'

    'And none else shall know, not from my lips, nor from those of the Barbarian. We both have sworn it. Now go, try to sleep. You've been carrying that weight for so long...'

    She gave a tight-lipped smile and nodded as she helped me up. The healing spells had worked well, but I was still sore from my injuries as we stumbled back to camp. We returned to her tent to wake Paige and send her outside to eat and dress. I watched Kashya settle in to sleep, feeling protective now of the older captain. I brushed my hand over her head and whispered in her ear the same thing I'd been told every night when I was a child, 'May your dreams be empty of sound and form.' Then, I left to join my companions.

    Chapter 22

    The Barbarian...I hated how easily I used the offensive nickname to describe my ally...had nearly finished armoring himself when I emerged from Kashya's tent. Fully clad, he was easily twice my size, cutting an impressive figure in the middle of the diminutive Rogues. They gathered around him to ogle this rare, male, newcomer. He seemed neither flattered nor abashed by the attention as he carefully fastened each of the substantial metal plates to his battering-ram legs. His fingertips were surprisingly agile on the leather straps, tightening each one of the joints over his calves, smoothing out the innumerable dents so the surface lay flat against his skin. Truly working the damage out of the armor would have been as possible as smoothing a crumpled parchment, so many were the deep gashes and contact wounds on the breastplate. This pockmarked metal garb had probably saved his life on more than one occasion; to erase this from its surface would be as dishonorable as peeling the scars from his arms.

    I sidestepped the gawking girls and began to armor myself, despairing over the battered state of my equipment. I'd neglected to turn my garb over to Charsi after the last outing, brief as it had been, and the damp rot of the camp coupled with my sweat had made much of the leather soft to the point of uselessness. The chainmail and greaves would probably be in good-enough shape to hold a few more battles yet, but all the hide fasteners would need replacing before the day was out. Sighing, I slipped the mail over my head and affixed the strange thorny belt around my waist, making sure to fill it with any healing potions I had left over. No use proving my incompetence to my new fighting partner in the first outing. As expected, the boots were usable, but the helm's straps looked as if a rat had made a meal of the leather. I grimly accepted the possibility of a significant head wound as I affixed the battered dome to my head. I took the still-unidentified claw and gloves over to Deckard Cain, who was in deep conversation with Warriv on the far side of the fire, alternating bites of his breakfast with laden murmurs.

    'Cain, I apologize for interrupting your breakfast, but I have need of your expert eye. I gathered these items from the Countess' lair and I would like to ensure that they are uncursed.'

    He swallowed once and took the proffered armament. 'Give me a moment,' he said, and motioned me away.

    I returned to my stash to prepare the rest of my pack, tossing in as many of the crude fire traps as I could make in that short time.. Paige joined me, still rubbing her eyes and stretching the sleep out of her back. We made a fine pair in our disheveled states. Her breastplate was a bit askew, her helmet on crooked, her bow covered in fingerprints and badly in need of oil. Keenly aware of the sacrifice made by that bow's former owner, I grimaced at the state of the weapon. Taking the bow from her bewildered but unprotesting hands, I marched her over to Charsi and grabbed one of the polishing clothes from her worktable.

    'Until I need you again, I want you to work on your weapon. The Veteran's gift should not be treated with such carelessness.'

    Tiredly, she nodded and unstrung the bow, carefully taking Charsi's offer of linseed extract and pushing it into the hairline cracks along the body. Satisfied that she was well occupied, I returned to the wizened Horadrim and bent over the objects placed before him.

    'The gloves are of mithril mesh, with a fire-retardant fiber woven between the links. Given your past injuries, these shall be especially useful, my burn-attracting friend.' I took the gloves gratefully, and slipped them on, feeling the strange coolness of the silvery thread-like links against my still-healing skin. Though Cain's jib annoyed me, it carried a significant element of truth; I was remarkably hard on my hands.

    'And the claw?'
  8. silentwater

    silentwater Diabloii.Net Member

    Jul 1, 2008
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    Re: Fulcrum by Anyee

    'I'm not sure yet, Assassin. The Horadrim stayed away from your kind, to our peril on more than one occasion. I recognize some of the inscriptions, for they are written in a variant of the common tongue, but a few are esoteric and misplaced. I will need to meditate on their meanings before I can give you a definite answer. I'd rather take the time than send you off with trapped weapons.'

    Inclining myself slightly, I thanked the old man and returned to my equipment. Paige had turned her bow into a glistening river of wood, her previous neglect of the weapon burnished away in the cooling fluid. 'That's enough, Paige. Help me with my weapons. I'll be needing the shield again.' She rapidly restrung her weapon and began to splint my arms, one with the defensive curve, one with the deadly blade.

    The Barbarian turned to us. 'Ready, then?' he growled, every trace of the gentle listener of this morning eradicated by ceremonial paint and steel cowl.

    'Yes. Let's go,' was my unwavering reply, though I was surprised by how imposing, even frightening, this man could be. I was glad, without thinking, that he was on our side.

    He unsheathed a massive sword from his waist and removed an even larger axe from the small of his back and ushered Paige and I towards the carven stone.

    The waypoint deposited us into the crossfire of ranged weapons. I'd never seen cursed creatures battle for turf, but these had chosen to do so as we arrived, peppering Paige, the Barbarian, and myself with a combination of poisoned arrows and barbed quills. A few of the projectiles managed to lodge themselves in the mesh of my chain mail before I dove out of the way, pulling Paige with me.

    'You okay,' I asked her, shaking the twitching quills out of my shirt.

    'Yeah, great,' she mumbled as she broke the shafts out of her own armor, pressing down purposefully to see if the arrowheads had pierced the skin. 'Where's our muscular friend?'

    We both turned back towards the waypoint to see him charging the origin point of the largest volley of arrows, six cursed Rogues that became six dead Rogues in a single swing of his mighty axe. A tremendous leap cleared a good half of the courtyard and splattered several of the raging spike fiends under his massive treads. He spun twice, whirling his blades towards the ground, catching the remaining creatures' bodies on the tips and flinging the corpses into the walls, bloodying them with his victory. Another giant leap and he was by our side, scanning the silent walls for further attackers.

    'Paige,' he gruffly spoke, 'you know this place. You must lead us to Charsi's old workshop. She has commissioned me to retrieve a tool she abandoned there.' As he finished speaking, he stood and strode towards the wooden doors that barricaded the inner Monastery, smashing them down and ducking inside to clear our way.

    'By the Eye,' swore Paige, 'he's made us totally extraneous. Have you ever seen anyone fight like that?'

    'Yes,' I murmured. 'A very long time ago.' But this was not the time for deep puzzled thoughts.

    We ran after him and into a massacre of fallens, the blades of our cohort shredding the resistance as if they were standing still and not raging against his strength. Paige and I had the chance to barely wet our blades with the blood of our foes when the fighting stopped, the room cleared of all demonkin.

    'Where are we' demanded the Barbarian, glancing around the room. It was hard to believe, from where we stood, that this room had once supported a thriving academy of Rogues. The felled monsters lay strewn around moldering barrels, whatever wine contained therein long since taken by the demons. The walls were dank, thick with mildew and animal-scent, a stench that the recently opened causeway had just begun to clear. Bits of food, slivers of wood, offal and droppings mingled freely with the blood at our boots, further proof of the savagery Paige and I had just witnessed.

    'The outer barracks,' said Paige, rechecking her mental map, 'though I don't remember these doors being here. Charsi's forge was against the far wall of the barracks, down the hall and to the right.'

    He nodded and turned towards the barred door in our path. 'Very well. You two remain here until I have retrieved the item.' He brushed against my arm and again, I felt the strangeness of his aura, the green taint that had produced itself when we first met.

    'The hell we will,' I interjected. 'I too was sent to cleanse the evil of this place. I will not be left behind like some lame underling, Old Man.'

    'And so you won't, young Lady, but you are in no condition to fight. The wood on your wrist says as much. You will only hinder my progress.' He left no room for argument as he bashed down the door and started slaying the beasts in the room beyond.

    'Dammit,' I cursed, and ran after him.

    'Didn't he say,' said Paige, trailing after both of us.

    'I've seen too many battles to stay out and be injured. You can stay or come as you please.'

    Paige shrugged and followed me into the room, corpses still sliding from their former posts as the barbarian cleared a path. My Rogue companion looked startled as she surveyed the scene. 'These weren't here last time,' she wondered aloud. 'The beds were in another part, not in the hallways. And where did this wall come from?'

    'Demons,' I remarked, pressing on the stone. The mortar was set sloppily, crude bricks lain unsteadily to form a maze of haphazard new divisions. Apparently, someone wished to hinder our progress through these floors. 'They probably built it up after you left. Do you think you can find your way?'

    'Maybe,' said Paige, and chose the door that the Barbarian had left standing. I pressed my ear against it, shushing Paige and trying to detect the presence of enemies behind its oaken barrier. A rustling and scratching came through, which could have been anything from a rat to a pack of undead.

    'Brace yourself,' I whispered, and mentally took down the door, pushing Paige aside as well. The room beyond was silent, save the scuttling of vermin. Paige shot a few cautionary arrows through the doorway, which clattered aimlessly to the floor inside. We snuck through and were confronted with another set of doors.

    'To the right,' said Paige, indicating the slightly ajar entrance. Before I could check for foes, a shout of demon curse emanated and the door blew off its hinges, shattering into fragments at our feet.

    'Shaman,' I called, and she was on it, dodging fireballs as she ducked behind a table, leaning out periodically to let off a few arrows into the otherwise dark hall. I girt myself with the fire spirit I'd stolen from the corrupt Countess and lunged through the door, skidding on my shield towards the pack of demons. I knocked him off his feet and before he could call another assault, slit his throat. I drove the fire spirit into two of his underlings, watching in satisfaction as their bodies bulged, then burst, at the contact. I whipped around in time to catch a third demon under the sternum with my shield, knocking him back and stunning him enough to allow Paige's enchanted arrow to split his head.

    We continued into the hallway, cutting down the strange skeletal army that seemed to have sprung up like mushrooms on a rotting tree. It seemed that for every animated rack of bones we dispersed, three took their place, eternal grins backlit by the blazing magic in their bows and swords. After hours of battling in circles, we paused to rest by a carved door. 'This was an...eating hall, I think,' Paige wondered and pushed the door open. A scene of old carnage greeted us, the bodies of several Rogues at the table, vacant eyes staring at empty, dust-covered plates. Their deaths have been quick, for most were killed where they sat, without time to rise or arm themselves. A moment of nausea passed my companion's face as she backed out of the door, but I went inside, checking for further enemies behind the scattered corpses. I found no demons, though a small pile of untouched weaponry rewarded my thoroughness. I gave thanks to their spirits and gathered the items into my bag.

    Back outside, I rearranged my pack to accommodate its new bulk. 'You're stealing from my Sisters,' said Paige bleakly.

    'Paige, they have no use for their items, while I do; we've been over this.'

    'But there's a difference between taking from an ancient corpse and taking from people I knew,' she shouted, indicating the scene behind us.

    'Oh, come on now' I said, my temper flaring briefly at her sudden impudence. 'Who are those women, Paige? Go in there and stand face to face with them. Tell me who is who by the curve of their skulls and the scraps of armor on their bodies. You can't even be in the same ROOM with your Sisters, which is a greater disgrace I'll wager than taking possessions they can no longer possess. I doubt you would have known their names in li...'

    I was cut off by an arrow piercing my shoulder, driving in with enough speed to hit the bone beneath. I broke out the shaft as I felt a tingling poison spread through my veins. Paige was already firing towards the unseen opponent as I washed the cut with a healing potion.

    'That will teach me to stand out in the open,' I scowled into my wound, probing the blackening edges. The potion would stave what I'd come to recognize as quicksilver rot, but Akara would have to tend to me in the next few hours. 'Paige, let's go. There's a well-trained corrupted sister waiting there.'

    'You think,' she snarled, picking up the shaft I'd ripped from my flesh from where I'd let it fall. 'These are high-rank arrows. You can tell by the...' She threw herself over me back into the dining hall as another volley whizzed by.

    'Dammit,' I cursed, slamming my head on the table and splitting my helm open at the seams. The useless metal pieces clattered to the floor as the nearby bodies dismembered themselves at the impact. I stood up and surveyed the room, checking for anything I could use as a head covering. Finding nothing, I reluctantly unfastened my shield from my arm and had Paige, amused at the scene in spite of the danger, clumsily affix it to my head. It was a poor substitute for a visor, oversized and ineffective at protecting the full of my skull, but any shelter that would spare my head more serious injury would be welcome. The new weight made me unsteady and the bulky wood nearly obscured my visual field, but I was used to fighting in the shadows under strange circumstances. It would suffice.

    I gathered a bundle of energy into myself and, with Paige at my back, raced out into the hallway towards my attacker. I bent my head, ignoring the amazing increase in resistance from the wind, and felt several arrows 'thunk' into the thickness of the shield. There was more than one attacker and they were all firing at the massive target on my scalp. However, a few more arrows eliminated that problem, as the strength of their attack split the exposed wood. The halves of my makeshift helm teetered and fell from my head as I leapt at the lead female. Her wild red eyes met mine as I decapitated her with a clean swipe of my single claw. Our bodies hovered in midair, but hers fell in twain while I tumbled compactly to the back of the room. Four glittering Rogues turned their damned orbs towards me and lifted their burned bows.

    One immediately dropped as Paige, forgotten by our foes, sliced the demon's jugular was a well placed arrow from the hallway. That was the only opening I needed to lash out at one of the remaining demons, but I misgauged the distanced and sliced the forehead of my attacker in what I knew to be a non-lethal cut. She stumbled, confused by the torrent of blood that washed into her eyes, slipped on the carcass of her Sister and shattered her spine as she hit the floor. I smiled at my luck as I killed the final Rogue.

    'Clear,' I called, and immediately the door to my left opened. 'Or not. Get in here,' I ordered Paige. She zipped around the door and brought her bow to eye level. The door shut again; through the barred window, I could see something scuttle away into the darkness. 'Oh no you don't,' I hissed, and removed a few of the explosive traps I'd prepared for this trip. I hurled them through the gaps, listening as their hardened husks bounced over the stones beyond, tapping and bouncing their down the hall. A rapid series of small explosions echoed from the walls along with a shrill cry of pain, followed by a dull roar. Something rattled the door from far away and began charging towards us. I screamed, 'Paige, get back', as I pushed her behind me and raised my one claw to defend myself.

    A starburst of brick and dust accompanied the door's being ripped from its hinges, pelting us with fragments large enough to bruise through our armor. A massive demon stood before us, ten feet of sinew, horned power and bristling flesh covered with contact burns from my traps. 'I shall make weapons from your bones,' he roared, and brought a beefy fist down towards our positions. His hand met with the point of my claw, forcing me down to my knees the blade sliced unevenly through the muscles of his palm. He hollered in pain and whipped his hand back, with my weapon still buried up to my fist in his flesh. The motion was enough to dislodge my claw from his body and fling me into the wall, where most of my ribs shattered on impact. I eased myself to sitting, trying to ignore the unsettling poking from inside my body, and drank a healing potion to knit the bones before racing back to distract him from my terrified companion.

    Paige's newly iron will had melted in the face of such brutality and she sat, fumbling with her bow, trying to get off a shot in impossibly close quarters. I whistled to the brute and he turned to charge, exposing his whole back to her weapons. However, the space was not enough to give her arrows power as well as accuracy, for they bounced off his hide like rain on a window. His attention thus split, he whirled around once again to attack her.

    I jumped behind him, and with a push of tiger force, slammed my claw through the armored hide and into a space between two vertebrae, slicing the fine ribbon of tissue that I knew connected his will to his body. He reared back as his legs gave way, throwing both of us to the ground before I could dismount, trapping me under his stinking, bleeding bulk. He continued to scream as he writhed on the floor, grinding my now-shattered pelvis into bone dust as I struggled to extricate myself. Paige had the thought to stab out both of his eyes with her arrows, but still could not pierce his skin to finish the job. I suppressed my own cries of agony as I tried again and again to pull myself from under the beast, a task rendered impossible by the extent of my injuries and the strange position in which I found myself.

    A flash of silver appeared over my head and slammed down into the chest of the monster, causing the creature to give one final cry of despair before surrendering his soul to the bowels of hell. The Barbarian retrieved his axe from the corpse of the demon before bending close to my head. I had begun to feel faint from blood loss and I feared what my lower extremities would resemble once we moved the corpse.

    'Good to see you, Barbarian,' I whispered through my pain, trying to muster a smile. The old man's eyes were unblinking, hard with bloodlust and fury.

    'I am going to lift him, now,' the Barbarian whispered. 'This will hurt like death itself, but I will heal the injuries as soon as the demon is cast aside.' He looked up to Paige, who had pressed herself against a wall, shaking. 'Come, Paige. Help your friend.' She didn't move. I tried to call to her, but found that my voice had faded into a whisper.

    <Come here>, I tried into her mind. <It will be less gory from over here.> She nodded and nearly fell next to me, trembling from the fright and stress of battle.

    'On three,' said the Barbarian. 'One, two..' and he suddenly wrenched the monster off my body, truncated the count with a grunt of exertion. I let out an eardrum shattering scream as the feeling rushed back into my fractured body. The pain was blinding, pulsating behind my eyes, and I felt as if my body would explode from the intensity. I tried to move, but a muscled hand pushed down my head, preventing me from seeing my injuries. I felt the Barbarian pour dozens of potions over my injuries as I writhed and sobbed under his hand. After an eternity of agony, he released his grip. I was shaking, still, and in terrible pain, but I looked down to see that my body was mended to an acceptable field level. The armor above my skin was in tatters, all but gone from the fight, and I blushed strangely at my nakedness. Paige was ghost white, clutching my hand as if I possessed the secrets to all life on earth, her eyes fixed on some point above my head. I took her hand and gently pried it from my own, placing it back in her lap.

    'Thank you,' I whispered to the Barbarian, who tried to help me to my feet. I was unsteady and stumbled, the searing pain of my injuries coupling with the blood loss uncomfortably. As I tried to remain upright, he unfastened his armor without a word and gave me the underplating to wear, though for modesty or protection I couldn't be sure. He turned towards the destroyed doorway as I tried to dress, allowing me to finally enlist Paige's unnerved assistance.

    'The hammer,' he growled, 'is this way. I had begun to engage the Smith when he was distracted. I told you to remain behind.' My silence was the best answer I could offer as I shuffled after his long strides towards the forge. I watched as he heaved Charsi's tool onto his back....and then faltered, dropping to one knee and coughing hard. Paige nearly dragged me to his side and we watched him heave several times, hacking and wheezing and then finally spitting up a wad of black blood. I found Paige diving into the shredded remnants of my belt to produce a healing potion.

    'Put it back, Paige,' I pushed her hand back and walked shakily over to the prostrate warrior, the taint of his aura finally making sense. 'The potion won't cure what you have, will it, Old Man?'

    'No,' he gasped, still struggling for air.

    I rested my hand on his arm and tried to guide his breathing mentally, a force of will that nearly overcame my new-found stability. For a moment, he resisted, and then let me take hold of his lungs, slowly easing them in and out to subdue the coughing fit. I could feel the disease now, the sickly green threads that wound their way through his body, the illness almost no warrior grew old enough to develop. His natural hardiness had blunted its effects, but eventually his defenses would fall, and the disease would kill him.

    'How long have you had it,' I murmured, releasing my mental hold of his lungs once I felt him relax.

    'About six months,' he said, bitterly. 'I didn't think you'd notice.'

    'I'm a killer. I know the human body well, for it serves my purpose, and that includes diseases of this form. It is quite advanced; no healer can help you now, though probably none could have aided you in the first place.'

    He rose to standing, dwarfing me with his body once again. 'I will not die like a widow on a straw palette. I will fight until my limbs cannot carry my weight.' There was defiance in his voice, but fear too; the fear of being left incapacitated, to die without honor in the strangeness of peacetime.

    'I shall not stop you, Old Man,' I said quietly. 'None shall know, as you promised.' Paige nodded her quick assent.

    'Very well,' he acknowledged, fishing out a town portal, the blue void providing us passage back to the Rogue encampment. We stepped through, our battles for the day completed and our rest well-earned.

    Chapter 23

    We were a fair sight walking into the camp, me in my ill-fitting, borrowed armor, barely able to stand on my own, Paige still drawn and shaking, the Barbarian swinging Charsi’s massive hammer, but wincing with each stride, the sickly green of his aura waving before my sensitized eyes. He deposited me next to my stash and brought the tool over to Charsi, whose expressions of gratitude and delight seemed overlarge. Was it possible that the camp’s resolute blacksmith had developed a girl’s crush on this massive man? Her giggles and almost coy tone seemed to confirm my suspicions. I grimaced at the coupling and dumped the contents of my pack onto the floor, turning over the confiscated items one at a time, looking for subtle flaws and defects before leaving them in the hands of Cain. I shifted uncomfortably several times, the overlarge plates giving little coverage and less comfort in this reclined position.

    “Nice armor,” called a smarmy voice from beyond my field of vision.

    “Shut it, Gheed,” I snarled, not looking up from my collection of goods. A rough-sewn clock hurtled over me, smelling strongly of horse and sweat, from his general direction. It fluttered around my face, giving me the full of its disgusting scent, as I caught it with a bored arm. “Now Gheed,” I shouted, “when did you take to giving gifts, and such fragrant ones at that?”

    “Since your incompetence brought me extra business, that’s when. I figured I should reward such a steep increase in my gold supply with some show of appreciation. Now cover yourself before something happens.”

    A threat? Hardly, more like a castrated rooster strutting his snipped business around the clucking, disinterested hens. But sore and frustrated from my work, the jib hit harder than it should, and I rose to take it. I approached his caravan, garment in hand.

    “Something might just have to happen then, little man.” With a smile, I brought the cloak around his head and swiftly twisted it around his bulging neck. Not enough to strangle him, but enough to guarantee that every breath would be laden with the offal and debris the woven fibers contained. I let him gag, strain, and swear for several moments, muffled beneath the filthy rags, before kicking him back into his wares with a clatter. He sputtered on his back and ripped the cloak from his face, eyes and face as red as a sweating pig, and tried to sit up. My final motion, before I walked away from his shop, was to throw the Barbarian’s lent armor onto Gheed’s lap. An exhalation and a thud signaled my true aim. “For your troubles,” I sneered, leaving him to grapple with the massive item. He knew better than to reply.

    The insult having been acknowledged and dealt with, I returned to my pile and the stares of the Rogue camp. I was, for all intents and purposes, totally unclothed and beyond caring. For their part, the women were less disgusted or shocked than confused; they weren’t quite sure whether to ogle the strangeness of my body’s markings or call for a covering to protect my evidently nonexistent modesty. From the tattoos and brands to the dusky coloring of my skin, I cut a strange small figure among all these tall, pale women, though in looking around at their gaping faces I noticed for the first time how much bigger than the others Charsi seemed, how her body was carved out of a different wood than that of her lithe sisters. Conscious of my gaze, she blushed and turned her back, leaving me the center still of many indecisive gawking Rogues.

    After a few moments, their choice was made for them as another cloak draped itself over my body. This was of a totally different sort, the delicacy of the deep blue fabric making the other seem as if constructed of ship’s hemp rope by comparison. It was cool, nearly slippery to the touch, and I clad myself in it with slight trepidation lest I soil this unaccustomed luxury. I needed not worry, though, for even the smudge of oil my fingers left upon its surface vanished a few seconds later as the fabric mended itself; an amazing garment, indeed. I tied it closed and marveled at the feeling, rich beyond anything I’d ever worn in my life.

    “In my country,” came the Barbarian’s voice, “there is a saying. Ard Noth, itChikai. Don’t advertise what you do not wish to sell.”

    I laughed, inclined my body to him, and thus clothed brought my armor and weapons to Cain.
    Cain's eyes lit up as I approached. 'Ah, An'y...assassin, your prior gift has allowed me to delve into the recesses of my memory, a test of my skills I have found most welcome in these strung-together days. Why, I haven't thought about these things since the alderman came to town with his new saddle. Quite the man, he was, but proud to a fault. He had just purchased it but found himself being thrown from the horse every time he rode and...oh, where was I...' Cain looked confused for a moment and I gave him a patient smile, concealing the annoyance with which I weathered his meandering mind.

    'Right, as I was saying,' he restarted with a toothy grin, 'I was studying the runes on that claw, positive that I'd not seen them before, and then I realized that I had! Only they'd been backwards, or rather, they were inset backwards into the claw. Well, not backwards, more just...'

    I must have seem somewhat baffled, so he pulled out the claw to show me. 'Runes are glyphs of power, you know, holding places for magic. On their own, they can be remarkably useful, but when strung together, the runes can transform an ordinary weapon into one of great strength. That's what the crafter was doing here in this claw. He...well, probably a he...hammered these runes into the pommel to weave a spell into the weapon...well...'

    'Well what,' I said, eying the claw with excitement; a worthy weapon would aid my journey greatly.

    'Except he managed to hammer the runes in backwards.'

    I cursed the nameless craftsman's' incompetence.

    'So its worthless?'

    'Not really. It still has a glimmer of magical potential, just not as much as it would had the craftsman been less careless. This rune, for example, can be used to hold poison; just fill it before you leave and each strike will sicken your foe. This one, on the other hand, seems to attract metal...though I don't know what use it is.' Cain held the claw puzzled to his face.

    I dropped the armor, sword and short dagger I'd pilfered from the rogues at Cain's feet, startling him back to awareness. He looked at each one and named them in turn. 'Hrm...standard mesh armor, probably northern construction, definitely needs to be refinished before being used again, but a nice piece. The little hooks on the outside are meant to catch on those foolish enough to engage you with bare hands. And this...a captain's side-sword, mostly ceremonial...yes, look at this inlay here; no one would ever take something that ornate into battle. A semi-dagger, usually hidden in the boot, good for short range but otherwise not a helpful piece.' He looked up, somewhat disappointed. 'That's it...sorry there isn't much better.'

    Satisfied with my haul, I sold what I could to the still timid Charsi, conversing gently with her to try and relieve the strange reticence with which she conducted her conversation. The Barbarian sat nearby, using one of Charsi’s blackstones to sharpen his blades, watching our interaction with a gentle interest. When her obvious discomfort failed to yield, I turned instead to his position and queried, “This is a remarkable fabric. Where did you come across it? For I’ve traveled the world and I have never seen anything approach its like.”

    “As-bijan.' The bazaar where I bought it is long since gone to rubble, the merchant impaled on a sword of his own manufacture. 'It was one of the few treasures to come from that den of filth.” His verbosity bespoke a darker purpose as he let his words sink in.

    “As-bijan,' I whispered to myself, mostly, “has been jungle fodder for at least twenty turns.”

    “Thirty,” he said simply. “I was there for its fall.”

    The gifted cloak was suddenly a barbed cage; my newly frantic hands struggled at the knot I’d tied to rip it off my body, rid myself of the physical memory. His massive palm cupped my own and prevented my removing it. “Leave it. We have much, now, to discuss.”

    “I can’t,” I hissed, “Do you know what this represents? What they did to me there?”

    “Yes, An’yee, more than you know. But do you remember? You said you’ve never seen this fabric, yet you wore it for a fortnight.”

    I stopped and looked down, struck, and remembered. They had clad me in it after I’d arrived at the house of the soldier. Perhaps it was less beautiful than this, but then again, the city produced the product in such quantities that even the middle class could afford some. What would a child know of such finery? The significance had faded back.

    Seeing my pause, the Barbarian bade me sit and said, “Continue.”

    I recall the scene, now. A sprawling clay domicile in the heart of the city, overrun with children from a hundred families, weaving in and out of the rooms like rats in a granary. The soldier’s wife, speaking only the plodding Eastern common tongue, had undressed me and tried to bathe my protesting, wriggling form. She too was a rare treasure in that city, patiently trying to reason with a screaming heathen child, while the neighbors crowded about her section of the house and whispered unholy adjectives about this new addition. “What new abomination had he rescued,” they murmured, “they say she has the touch of the Hells on her. She’ll curse us all.” Yet the soldier’s wife, like her steel-clad husband, firmly believed she was doing the work of the Light and knew that my scrawny, comparatively pale body, for she and her children were as dark as bears and nearly as stout, was too a creation of the Light. So bathed and scrubbed I would be, regardless of my protestations, so as to give testimony to His work.

    Thus cleaned, she put me in the strange fabric with the first sound of approval that I’d heard in weeks. I was then deposited into the crowds of children, hers and not hers alike, who gathered like their parents to stare at me. Most were old enough to regard me with some disdain and distrust, though a good handful regarded me as another, if strange looking, playmate and dragged me into innumerable games. I tried to join, but years of just my brother and myself had left me bereft of any knowledge, let alone skill, of their play. Clumsy, I tried to keep up, but they had no sense of how to help me and soon tired of trying to include me. They ran off and left me alone in the courtyard to sniffle and miss my family.
    I sat, thoroughly lost, and waited for them to return. But the afternoon prayers had begun, followed by mealtime, and the children were all called back by their parents. As the shadows of the barrels and cart wheels around me lengthened into terrifying shapes, I realized I was totally alone in a strange place. What if there were monsters that would get me...or worse, the shadow ladies? The thought hit my young mind strongly and I let out a wail of discontent that summoned the soldier’s wife, and many of her kinswomen, scurrying at great speed to discover whether or not I had in fact been mauled by some assailant.

    The first to reach me, a broad woman with fetid breath and a booming voice, assumed that I was trying to make mischief. She grabbed me by the collar and shook me before her strange face, yelling all the while as I cried. The feeling of restraint brought back the too-new memory of the rope and thus her meaty hands met with a similar fate: a jet of flame from my tiny fingertips that lit her shirtsleeves and caused her to startle back, dropping me as she rolled in the dust. The rest of the women stopped dead in their tracks as she continued to howl and swear, crawling backwards making signs against my supposed demonic possession. They began to move listlessly, wondering whether to touch me or call in a priest or get their husbands, circling like wolves around a beast hulk. The soldier’s wife, no more learned than her compatriots, had been told little of my gifts and was as stymied, and afraid, as the rest. Hers, though, was the only familiar face and she showed more fortitude that those braying housewives in staying her ground as I, still sniffling and scared, walked towards her. The others drew back as I tried to explain, through my broken sobs, the cruelty of the children, the absence of my brother, the monsters, and my loneliness. What my words could not convey my tone must have achieved, for she scooped me up and kept me with her in the kitchen from then on, busily chattering to me in languages I couldn’t understand as she gave me vegetables to play with.

    I think I was happy, then. Certainly, I was well cared for by her and her husband, though their children either ignored me or regarded me with wary eyes. I wasn’t being beaten and I was being fed, both events that had never happened for more than a day at a time in my life. All the talking she subjected me to was enough to give me rudimentary skills in the language, a gift of communication that allowed me to breech the solitude I’d had since being ripped from my home. Yes, I think that was happiness as I could have conceived it. And like all happiness, it was transient and brought to a bitter close.

    Her husband had spent most of his time away before my arrival and my decent into the city meant that he had been forced to endure even more time removed from his family. He’d leave before dawn and come back after dinner, sometimes bruised, sometimes haggard, sometimes merely tired. I believe now that the price of my care was exacted not just with bribes, but from his body in the form of intense questioning, and worse. Perhaps his faith had flagged enough then to realize what turning me over to the authorities would actually mean; perhaps his faith had grown strong enough to realize the same. In any case, one night he did not come home, nor the following morning, nor the next night. I sat watch with his wife, the mocking of the neighbors barely loud enough to utter the condemnations and words of false pity. When he did come home, that third day, his arm was newly slung and part of his face ripped apart like that of his now-dead comrade. As his wife bandaged him in the next room, he summoned me in my own tongue and announced that tomorrow, at long last, I would be presented to the Duke and begin my conversion to the Light. That night’s dinner was a somber one.

    The morning came with unusual haste, the red sun gleaming on the polished domes as I stood and was bathed, one last time, by the trembling hands of the soldier’s wife. She did not speak and seemed to dawdle while brushing my hair and cladding me in a dress of ashen grey. The city below was alive as never before, teeming on this, a high feast day, and my fear was only heightened as I watched the parades of glittering men beneath the window. When her task was complete, she touched my forehead with her lips and stumbled, in my own unfamiliar language, “Good bye, Anyi,” before rushing out of the room. My soldier, dressed now in the uniform he’d worn to retrieve me, lifted me into his arms and brought me downstairs to join the procession.

    We were not alone. On the contrary, many children and adolescents alike were clad in gray and walked by soldiers, though most of the dusky mass was in chains and covered in bruises. We marched, slowly, silently, through the twisting, narrow passages, the jeers of the crowd, the calls of the merchants, the sound of a cluttered city living and dying, passing around us to give enough voice to our own jumbled thoughts. I could see little but the multitude of faces and heads around me, the occasional flag or banner lifted high enough to reach my eyes, the idols waved as we reached certain landmarks. Once, I thought I caught a glimpse of a shadow lady, but she was gone as soon as I looked again, a child’s flight of mind.

    The narrow passages emptied into a massive courtyard, the entrance to the palace. Beside us, regiment upon regiment of Paladins stood at attention, coolly surveying the motley crowd as we entered the great hall. We were positioned to the side, out of the direct sight of the regent, as he blandly watched the proceedings, like the parading of thousands before his throne was a casual, everyday occurrence. Two men leaned over him, occasionally whispering and he, nodding in reply. 'To the right,' whispered my paladin, 'is the Duke, the man who will free your soul. In the center is the great Regent of Irdain.' I nodded, and fixed my eyes ahead of me.

    The ceremony was done too quickly for my ears to catch the meaning. Many people were brought up and shown, bowing and scraping, presenting their wares, as the regent continued to bob like a log on a lake I busied myself by studying those who sat nearby: the tall white man with hair the color of new corn, the crippled woman in regal robes, the massive man who looked as tall as a tree. My musings were soon enough interrupted by the calling of the fold. The mass of grey stood and walked towards the center of the room, my soldier clutching my hand as we both rose to join them. I was suddenly distracted by the man next to the king, the one in all green who was suddenly wearing a mask of bones. I pulled on the soldier’s hand, trying to explain that the man in green must be a shadow lady because he had on the mask, but the soldier clutched my hand and told me to remain silent. He placed me in line with the other children, touched my hair once, and dissolved back into the teeming mass of spectators.

    I glanced around wildly, trying to find the only thing I knew in this city, as the pronouncement droned on around me. Instead, though, my eyes settled on the green man, his face suddenly uncovered to reveal a totally ordinary human face. His blue eyes peered at the crowd as one might examine an unfamiliar dish, with a mixture of appetite and disgust. He leaned on his mace, the weapon reflecting oddly in the plates of his armor as he continued his quiet litany to the regent. And as quickly as it had disappeared, the mask reappeared, as if melting away his face and replacing it with the head of a bull. He turned towards me, the bull’s skull with the blue eyes, and I let out a sudden shriek of surprise and dismay as it seemed to come forward, seething and roiling with anger.

    Whatever noise in the crowd had operated until now fell off with a gasp as the bull-mask walked towards me and plucked me from the group. Again, his face was as a normal, if now furious, human. To my surprise, he spoke in my language, “What is it, little girl? Why do you interrupt the King’s presentation?”

    “Where is your mask,” I demanded. “Stop putting it on.”

    “What mask,” he hissed at me, dragging me to the forefront of the room.

    “The...the one like the head of a cow.”

    He slapped me down to the floor at the base of the throne. “This child speaks blasphemies,” he howled in both my own and the common language. “She accuses me of having the helm of a beast. As you can see, ladies and gentlemen, I wear no ornament in the presence of our mighty King.” The crowd tittered and agreed. “She is clearly deranged and infested with the taint of demons. She shall be purged, as shall all her unholy companions.” The crowd erupted with glee and chanted his name thousands of times until the Duke stood and raised his hands.

    He stepped down from the dais and cupped my face in his hands, a vicious mind probe worming its way through my thoughts until I tried to push him away. My feeble flailings met with no success, so I tried my fire magic. The crowd, which had laughed at my struggles, screamed in shock as a tiny wave erupted around me and the Duke. As the jets of heat spread, I looked around the room for my soldier, but found only a sea of confused and terrified faces as even the nobles quailed at the spell. My head was forced downwards again by the Duke's palm, the grandiose flourishes replaced by cold efficiency. 'Very good, little sorceress,' his voice sounded in my head. 'You've a gift. We might have let you keep it. Trained you, even. But it's too late for that now. The crowd knows at least one of your secrets and they'll want a full purge right here. Say goodbye to your gift and your magic.'

    One of the Duke's retainers had stopped the fire spell with a burst of cold. It seemed to ricochet off something in the air, bringing a shower of sparks down around us. The Duke looked up at the pattern of silver glitter and studied it; he must have noticed something, for he clenched me more tightly and hissed a command at a nearby captain. One of the paladin regiments suddenly broke ranks and circled the throne to the front and back as the Duke dragged me up to eye level and thrust me in front of the Regent.

    The silver haired man focused on me and smiled, slowly, as the Duke silently conveyed what he'd learned about me. By now, the Duke's face had fixed itself as the mask and, as I watched, that of the king twisted also into the head of a ram. But the transformation was incomplete, aged and off somehow, as if a fog had passed between us. A glint in the haze made me shift my eyes upwards to...a shadow lady! She lifted an arm to her face and shook her head, no, then moved to the side and disappeared. I tried to find where she went, but instead found myself being lowered to the floor.
    The Regent came up from his throne, causing the assembly to bow in unison. He gripped me and lifted me above his head. 'Rise, my people, and witness.' The collected people stood once more and faced him, eagerly awaiting his rare voice. He gazed at them from his goat-helm and spoke gravely 'This child is sick, she is tainted with magic. Look, for even in one so young, she tries to use her demon-strength against me.' The assembly hissed and some even moved to strike me from his hands, but he shook his head. 'It will be a great triumph, then, when we bring her soul back into the Light! Let her be purged!'

    Maddened with fervor, the crowd surged forward. 'Purge! Purge! For the Light!' The paladin regiments clumped close to block them as the Duke took his place at the Regent's side. The Regent looked at me and sent his mind to meet mine. His voice in my head was unwavering, but sad. 'See the truth, child. It will be the last you see of it.' I gazed around the room at the nobles, peasants, and imprisoned children, all now, as if by magic, gleaming with energy. Save those tattered golden figures in chains, all were of a strange grey-green color, some with animal signets upon their brows. But no, not all. The tree man was too silver, and there, a flash of deep blue, and there, a strange undulating white. I looked at my hands, gold and black, and then the vision faded.

    A priest came off the dais and I was handed to him. 'Hold her still,' intoned the Regent, as both he and the Duke place their palms on my forehead. was blurry, strange. I expected an act of violence, but there was merely a touch of warmth, then a searing light. I felt something being lifted out of me, something elusive and small, something that meant the whole world. Where it had been a terrible aching emptiness remained, a gap that I felt reached down into my heart, sad and lonely and just...gone. I screamed, I think, and another voice reverberated back in my head. A tiny ball of gold passed by my eyes and out into their waiting, animal hands. Then another sphere, even tighter, came forward, but before it could leave my skull, I fell to the floor, dropped by the shocked priest as the Regent's head was sliced off, followed shortly by that of the Duke.

    I scrambled backwards away from the spurting blood as a thousand tramping boots rushed in a frenzy towards the unseen assassin. The priest regained his senses and cast a spell that illuminated a shadow lady preparing to flee. She was quickly overcome by the nearby paladins, who beat her down in a clamor of maces. As her body slumped to the floor, a battle began above me. Balls of ice exploded near the ceiling, raining frozen shards into the already panicking jumble of people. The townsfolk crowded the doors, pressing against the barred wood in a frantic effort to escape the torrent of bone fragments and whirlwind of blades being launched from every corner of the great hall. Every few seconds, a gleam of brutal silver would swing in a semicircle, catching would-be fighters on its massive blade and hurling them to the floor. Soon the paladins found themselves fighting both the unknown assailants and the terrified people who turned their entrapment into blind rage.

    No one paid attention to me and I was too shocked for escape to come to mind. Still reeling from my mental assault, I crawled over to the dying shadow lady, her armor and torso pulped beyond all healing, and touched her strange bone head to see if it were real. The helmet came apart at my touch, revealing not a monstrous beast, but a pale-skinned blond girl. She blinked at me, her windpipe too crushed to speak or breath, and mouthed something before succumbing to her wounds. I rested my hand on her cooling skin and started to cry.

    Fierce hands plucked me from her corpse and cradled me against a massive chest. 'Hold on,' said an unfamiliar voice with a thick accent. I couldn't struggle against his grasp and took to wailing as we accelerated through the crowd and slammed down a door. I kept screaming as we cleared the battlefield, made our way through the town, and finally came to rest on the hill above the city, all the while his arms protecting me and preventing me from seeing any farther than his armor.
  9. silentwater

    silentwater Diabloii.Net Member

    Jul 1, 2008
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    Re: Fulcrum by Anyee

    My captor sat down, but did not let go of me. He kept his tree-hands around me and forced my gaze still into his chest. He took in a breath as if to speak. Instead, I heard him singing a few simple phrases, stopping and starting as if he couldn't remember the words, but trying nonetheless. He faltered, briefly, and a clear female tone picked up the tune. She didn't have to sing more than a few bars before I recognized the song. It was my aunt's favorite song, the one she'd sing when she thought no one was around except for me, the one that would earn her the hardest beatings from my father. The voice finished the tune and a hand as cold as ice touched my cheek. They spoke in my tongue, probably out of deference to me, though it was native to none of them.

    'Let her go. She needs to see what is happening.'

    'I have failed,' spoke the man around me. 'Her gift is gone. I have condemned the world to an eternity of darkness through my failure.'

    'Correction,' came a man's voice, no more than a rasping whisper. 'Her magic is gone. Not her gift. The ceremony was incomplete.'

    'Are you sure?' asked my captor.

    'Positive,' said the other man. 'This just makes it harder.'

    The arms around me relaxed and turned me to face outwards. I caught sight of the city in the distance, black plumes of smoke billowing out of the flaming capital. In front of this grim facade, though, two people stood: the pale-haired man and the crippled noblewoman I'd seen in the hall. She bent down to me, her lined face so full of compassion, beauty, and peace that it quelled the fear inside me. 'Hello, daughter of Seneel. My name is Alorra.'

    I looked at her, perplexed 'My...mother's name was Ona.'

    The cold woman shook her head, her lips pursed in a thin line. 'Yes, he told you that, didn't he,' I heard her mutter under her breath before she spoke again to me. 'Child, I must tell you a terrible secret, one that you are too young to know and one that should not be told in this way. The woman you called your mother, Ona, was not your mother. She was your aunt.'

    I crossed my child's arms and looked at her as if she were playing a prank. 'You're lying. My auntie was...' then I stopped. I didn't know my auntie's name. She didn't have one. She was just auntie.

    'Your auntie was your mother, child, but she dared not tell you because she was afraid of what would happen. It happened anyway, but that she could not have forseen. Her name was Seneel; you are her only daughter.' A thousand curses that my father had hurled at my aunt suddenly became clear in my child's mind.

    'What about my brother,' I asked.

    'He is your half-brother,' said the pale man. 'You share the same mother, but your fathers are separate, and both long dead. Neither was the brutal boor you knew in your childhood. And yes,' he said, 'your brother is safe, but I cannot take you to him. It is too dangerous.'

    I looked at the spindly man and bent woman, then turned to talk to the person who had been holding me. The tree-sized man just bowed his head and said nothing to me. Then, he looked at his companions. 'What now?'

    The woman called Alorra sighed. 'The ceremony may have left her with her gift intact, but the font of her magic is no more; the Duke saw to that. My sisters would have scowled at my taking such a young child but would have relented for the daughter of Seneel. Even the most lenient, though, would not accept someone who could not become a sorceress. I cannot take her.'

    'But that was the plan!' shouted the tree-man, leaping up to stand a full two feet above her head. 'You promised you would look after her.'

    Alorra looked at me with pity, then back at her massive friend. 'We all knew that our plan depended on our getting her out before she was purged and training her as a sorceress. That is no longer possible and as such, I cannot uphold my end of the bargain. Maybe E'driet...'

    'No, Alorra,' said the pale man. 'The balance of the walled city is precarious enough as it is. Bringing this child there would cause more destruction than we are prepared to face. Unlike you, we do not have the luxury of secreting ourselves in the forest. What has happened here today must be answered for. The Regent's lapdogs will hunt anyone who aids this child and the Priests of Rathma are not prepared to take a full Zakarum assault. Not now.'

    'And I cannot,' intoned the large man, his anger dissolving into sadness. 'A solitary warrior cannot raise a child among the frozen wastelands.'

    'It seems we are at an impasse,' muttered Alorra.

    'Incorrect,' came a new female voice. 'We will take her.'

    We all turned to see a woman on horseback appear, a tall figure clad in bone and black, looking down at us from a skull-covered visage. She was flanked by two of her kinswomen, who came into view where only vegetation had been a moment before. Alorra clutched her staff and the pale man, if it were possible, had become even more sallow at the sight of these guests. I clutched the tree-man, crying
    'Shadow-lady,' causing him to lift me off the ground, shifting his weight so he could reach his axe with his free hand. Though it must have weighed three times as much as I, he held the hammered blade unwaveringly between him and the dark women, the unclotted blood of the townsfolk pooling at his feet.

    'You will not touch her,' he growled, and the bone helm, though impassive, seemed to register a slight alarm. The women at her feet moved slightly into what might have been a defensive posture, but made no move to challenge the man.

    We all stood there, waiting, until the woman on the horse let out a sigh of exasperation and pulled up her helmet as she swung to the ground, barely reaching the large man's shoulders. She stepped forward and reached out a hand to my position. 'Don't move,' he said, quietly, dangerously, and she withdrew it. She studied me as I stole glimpses of her gold eyes and black skin from the shelter of the tree-man's shoulders. A light breeze touched my mind and I must have flinched reflexively, since it stopped. She looked...almost sad, but any remorse she might have had was interrupted by the sorceress interposing herself between me and the woman.

    “I would expect your kind at a regicide, but murdering children isn't your usual occupation...unless you've changed professions,' hissed the blue-clad mage, her display of anger diminished sorely by her palpable fear. ''Why are you here?'

    'The same reason you are.'

    'Oh? What business would you have with the daughter of Seneel, murderer?'

    'None, had it not been for a certain soldier's barter.'

    'Your kind are not bargained with.' The pale man's voice was not angry or accusing, merely telling of the thoughtful truth. 'That's part of what makes you so deadly.'

    'And no bargain was struck. He was not a target to begin with. It was a trade. We were...already here...'

    The pale man spoke again. 'The Duke.' His question was more an answer.

    'Correct. It was a very simple mission,' she began slowly, with some condescention. 'We'd go in, kill the Duke, and be done with it before they knew what happened. The soldier in question provided us with access to the throne room beforehand, so we could set up the anti-magic traps, in exchange for our sparing this child's life. It was all going wonderfully until that child you're holding decided to throw a fire spell...which made the priests set off the trap too early...which alerted the whole damn room to Urayna's presence...which meant that we had to kill the Duke and the Regent and most of the nobility against orders.'

    'And now you're here order the goddess you people are sick. The life of an innocent child!' cried Alorra.

    'Dammit, woman, listen. We're not here to kill the child. We wouldn't even be up on this goddamn hill, wasting our time with you, had she not pulled that little stunt in front of the altar.' The shadow woman threw her helmet with a crunch into the forest, then relaxed again, though her voice had lost quite a bit of its calmness. 'I lost a good soldier out there, one of my best friends, to a task that even my fifteen year old apprentice, Natalya, could do on a bad day. You talk about innocent? I just killed twenty innocent people farming in the west fields who had the bad fortune to see me passing by, and let's not think about all the children burning alive inside that great hall. I get to go back to our Master and tell him that I managed to mangle an operation so badly that I violated every single one of his edicts in the space of an hour and a half. I get to live with the knowledge that I might have just brought the whole wrath of-'

    'Your kind don't usually make mistakes, either,' said E'dreith, with a tone that had shifted to bemused.

    'We don't, necromancer. We make tactical judgments. It would have been fine had we not had this variable thrown in. When's the last time you planned a mission around a five year old sorceress?'

    The warrior retorted, 'For the record, we just did, and it was carried out accordingly. Regardless, it does not matter what circumstances you were operating under, Lady. You have no right to demand anything of us.'

    'I'm afraid I do, Warrior.' Her voice held a note of respect, though for him or the axe I didn't know. 'A life for a life. It is the oldest custom. This child cost us a member of our ranks, and so she must replace it.'


    'Even if it meant that she'd be protected, Warrior?' A man stood beside us. If the shadows could gain form, he would be their template. Tall, impossibly lean, standing eye to eye with my protector, who whirled to face him, swinging the axe towards the new threat. The man dodged lightly and stood beside the waiting horse as the three ladies dropped to their knees. Any apologies or obescience they would have made were silenced by a wave of his unarmed hand.

    'I would kill her first.'

    'I doubt it. She means too much.'

    The massive man snorted. 'Your kind does not believe such things.'

    'That's true. But I do. I know the wording well and I agree, she is the one we have been seeking. Do not forget that we labor under this curse as much as you do. However, she does no good to the world dead at the hands of our enemy.'

    'What ploy is this, assassin, that lets you take sides with your sworn adversaries,' questioned the sorceress.

    The young man gazed at her with endless black eyes. I watched her shrink slightly, then muster courage to stare back. 'I thought you already knew. The fate of the world.'

    Any further discussion was terminated by the crack of a whip from over the hill. He turned his ear towards it, then looked back at us. 'The Riders are here. We are out of time. You have a choice: give the child to us and we will shield her, or try to hide her from the world without our aid.'

    'Don't...we'll find a way,' shouted the sorceresses, readying her staff for combat. The pale man gave no comment and shifted his gaze towards the oncoming soldiers. If he had any opinion, he held it in silent counsel.

    The tree-man put me down, crouched, and looked at me with his craggy face and unmoving gaze. I touched the war-paint on his face, the blue and gold staining my tiny hands. He closed his eyes and a few tears leaked out from the lids. He nodded, then took my hand in his. 'Be a good girl,' he whispered, and kissed me on the top of my head. I nearly ducked from the pressure, the gesture of sudden familiarity and care confusing and strange. He stood again and stared at the tall man, his decision made. 'So help me I will hunt you down and rip you limb from limb should I get any word of her injury.'

    'None shall come. We need to go. Now.' The tall man picked me up and sat me astride the shadow woman's horse. He looked down to where she was still groveling at his feet. 'Get her home safely and I might kill you after I finish punishing you.' He handed her back her helm and she swung up behind me, on arm around my waist. We took off, in time to see a fight beginning behind us, the massive roar of the tree-man coming out as half-goodbye, half battle-cry. 'I will always protect you.' I watched him from the horse, his axe destroying the first unlucky Rider to come upon him, until a command from the woman put me to sleep.

    I felt sick as the memory overtook me, and my face must have showed my horror, revulsion, and sorrow, for Charsi knelt next to me and put a massive palm on my shoulder. I swatted her away and turned towards the barbarian with burning eyes.

    'You gave me to them,' I hissed. 'You took me out of the city, you brought me to the forest, and you handed me over to the Vizjaq-tar. Even though you knew what they were. Even though you what they did to people. I would have rather died in the fire. Do you know what it's like...' I couldn't finish. Nearly thirty years as an assassin and I had not learned to hate them any less. None do.

    By way of an answer, the Barbarian opened his hand, where a massive piece of flesh was missing from the calloused valleys. 'This is my memory of that day, An'yee. I relive it every time I heft my axe upon my back or grasp a sword, which in my life has been daily. It took me five agonizing months to regain full use of this hand, but I know I was lucky to have survived at all. Two aging mages and a rash barbarian do not often come out of an encounter with two hundred furious paladins, much less the Riders. Though you never really knew my fellow warriors on that day, let me assure you they were at the pinnacle of their crafts. Their people lost much when those two died on the hill. So I must ask you, An'yee: is your own suffering, your very existence, worth the killing of two people I was honored to call friends and the slaughter of several thousand townsfolk, or should we have left you there to be further mutilated by the Duke and to live your life a scullery drudge or a perhaps a soldiers' prostitute?'

    I flushed, and he continued, 'Alorra and E'driet gave their lives willingly for you, An'yee, though I cannot speak for the people of As-bijan. They were not the first to give themselves to the gods on your behalf. Nor, I suspect, will they be the last.' His eyes took on a strange cast and he looked away.

    'Why?' I queried. My shame at his words gave fuel to my rising ire. 'I know people die for me, barbarian. Do you know what they did to Leeia, the one who spoke with you, when we got back to camp? They threw her in a pitch-filled pit and had her perform her magic counters while three people set off fire traps around her. She was able to fend them off for the better part of eight hours before she made an error and ignited herself. Not five days in his care and our Master of Shadows allowed me witness someone burning to death. I watched her scream in the middle of that flaming hole, her skin as black as the tar that fueled her own demise, her eyes locked on mine until her orbs liquefied out of their sockets. And when the fire was extinguished, the Master of Shadows introduced me to the assembled camp as the cause of her death and that of Urayna's, and told them that I would take the place of both. He said that a great destiny was set before me, that I had a talent not seen on this earth in a great many centuries and that Urayna and Leeia died to protect me. Then he turned me over to the crowd. You can imagine their response.'

    The barbarian pressed his hands together, perturbed. 'I have some idea, yes.'

    'I'm sure you do. I was abused relentlessly and mercilessly by teacher and student alike for my 'gift.' Whenever I failed, the deaths of two fine assassins were dangled over my head, mocking my unworthiness. I was thrown into situations as a trainee that a veteran would have found difficult and I was expected to not only survive, but also succeed. I have killed hundreds of people and fought with thousands more. I have lived for almost three decades as an outcast among outcasts and a murderer among murderers, all for some purpose that I have yet to comprehend. So tell me, Barbarian, why did you not leave me to die? Why am I here? What plan does this suffering serve?' I shouted the last sentence and, on saying it, was suddenly emptied of my anger.

    He looked genuinely upset as he answered. 'Truthfully, I do not understand the full extent, but I shall try. You have heard of the Sin War, correct?'

    I nodded. 'The great war between the Heavens and the Hells. I know the story well and I don't subscribe to it. I think it is a remarkable excuse to subjugate people's minds to a certain way of thinking.'

    He held up his palm, the one free from blemish. 'I am not here to argue theology. You asked for an explanation and I shall give it.'

    'By detouring into mythology.'

    'By telling you the truth. An'yee, you don't have to believe me, you just have to listen if you want my answer. There is a prophecy regarding the Sin War, the Prime evils, the great angels, that has been in existence for as long as we have walked the earth. It's a very long, complicated, and archaic and I'm sure Cain could recite it in twenty languages if you gave him the chance.' He succeeded in wresting a grin from me. 'In the middle of all the pronouncements about the end of the world and the doom of mankind, there is a strange mention of a key.'


    'No one knows exactly what it means or how it fits into the rest of the prophecy. It's in the wrong meter, the phrasing is wrong, and the verbs are in the wrong tense, or so I was told. Well, I am no scholar but hearing it aloud, even to my unpracticed ear, I could tell that something was off, out of place and pace. It goes on for all of four sentences and it is never mentioned again, as if it were dropped into the passage as an afterthought. It's not even very specific. In the common tongue, it says, 'There must be a key, and it will be of two. There will be nothing that is single, but every part shall bring one and leave another behind. It will be dark and light, fire and stone, bone and water, and in the end it will open the world to save it.' '

    I looked at him incredulously. 'From that, you get that I have special powers. That could mean anything. There's no gender, no mention of anything even human.'

    'It was followed, An'yee, by a series of numbers that I feel no need to recite. When laid out by an astronomer of no small talent, the numbers correspond to the positions of the stars on a certain day about 35 years ago. Your birthday, if we have calculated correctly.'

    That gave me pause, but I recovered quickly enough. 'We all know the stars have cycles, and certainly they must have passed through that configuration hundreds of times in the eons this gibberish has existed. Why now?'

    'I told you the prophecy was four sentences long. I've only given you three. The last sentence was just, 'Wait for it.''

    'Oh, yes, that explains-'

    'Thirty-one years ago, I was on a campaign, and the days and nights were nothing but blood and rage. Whatever I fought during the day came back to battle me when I closed my eyes. Yet for a period of nine months, before I woke, I had the same dream. A single woman would appear in an expanse of white to say, 'Stop waiting,' then vanish. '

    My jaw dropped and he nodded. 'Exactly. Of course, because I was in the field, I had little time to ponder the vagaries of my sleeping mind. I assumed that I'd angered some minor sorcerer who was determined to trouble me by perturbing my sleep but who was doing a poor job of it. Thus, I could only vow to make future amends when I had the facilities. When I reached a small city, I sought out a mystic for advice, in the hopes that he could counteract the spell. Instead, he recited the prophecy.'

    'Then what?' I urged, my credulity replaced by trepidation.

    'Then I went back to fighting. I consulted many men whose beards were as long as their memories and none could tell me what I sought, so I followed the path I had originally been set upon. The dreams tapered off after I heard the oracle. I would still get them once in a while, but the urgency in the dream had been replaced by's hard to describe. When you were close to being taken from your home, or at least, when we think you were taken, the dreams returned. Only this time, the woman held a small child in her arms. I again tried to ignore them, for matters at hand were far more pressing than the tricks of spirits. One night, journeying through the West Forest of Ennda, I awoke to find a massive storm collecting overhead. I sat upwards and witnessed a fork of lightning split a tree in front of me, charring it in the center and burning the upper branches in a flash of white flame. Then, I watched the trunk fuse back together, the flame turn to a sheet of water, and the storm dissipate. I took this as a sign that I had waited long enough. Soon after, I met Alorra and E'dreit.'

    'They...also had dreams?'

    'No, they used the star charts.” I rolled my eyes at him. “Apparently their respective peoples had been waiting for the prophecy and, whenever the stars matched those of the oracle, they went in search of a key, though they had no concept of what it was they sought. When news of a barbarian inquiring about strange dreams reached the ears of the Zann Esau and Priests of Rathma...'

    '...they knew the key had come into being.'

    'It's not much of an answer, An'yee. I do realize this,' he was very selective of his words, suddenly. 'We don't know what it is that makes you a key or what you will open. We know that there is something about you that is enough to make the universe acknowledge you in its oldest ways. We know that you are important to something, important enough that after decades of dreamless sleep, the woman appeared a few weeks ago with a new command: 'Protect.' That is all I know.'

    The information he had spread before me was dizzying in its implications, yet the persistent and rebellious thread that caused me to dog the Barbarian had frayed. Perhaps he had anticipated this, for his next words took me by surprise.

    'Most people are lucky to speak to the gods...and yes, I do believe these are gods...once in their lives. An'yee , the gods are clamoring at me about you, but they have not chosen to address you directly. That should give you some solace and direction. It is not your time yet. If you are a key, there is yet a lock. My advice is to walk the path you have already begun, as I did. Pondering the meaning of these words, which until minutes ago would have been but lies and whimsy to your assassin's mind, will do nothing but cause you doubt and turmoil. How many sages have you slain that lay ensnared by their self-predicted doom, rendered powerless to change their destinies by their own tampering? That is not your way. Regardless of what is to come, the Rogues need you here and now, and your examining ancient teachings will not reclaim their home.'

    What could I say to that, I asked myself. He was right, on every count, and as difficult as it would be to not stare into the empty hole of fate, I would stay within my task. There would be time enough after the monastery was cleansed for me to engage in scholarly contemplation. I sighed and nodded to him. 'Thank you for everything. I am sure that must have taken more effort than expected to produce all those words.'

    He smiled. 'I am fairly long-winded. You just need to ask the right questions.'

    'Well, thank you. Though I am realizing now, I do not know your name, and I cannot thus thank you properly.'

    He offered his hand, which I took. 'Hello, An'yee. I am Bane.'

    We looked at each other, and for a moment I felt the deep kinship and affection again, as I had all those years ago. His smile deepened, but he said nothing to me, and instead called for Charsi. 'Come, Charsi! I am sorry to have deposed you from your own forge. Let me make this up to you by giving you plenty of repairs.' He emitted a roaring laugh and went over to speak with her.

    I went to the center of camp, still uncomfortable in my borrowed garments, and set about assembling my armor for the next day. The fire-proof gloves had survived well enough, and my weapons were salvageable, but the rest of my body would be unarmored, seeing as both belt and armor had been destroyed by the Smith's fall, my boots having disappeared somewhere along the way. I looked at the spoils I'd obtained, the battered mesh one of the few items I could use immediately. This was the way of the transient warrior, always scrounging armament from her kills and never outfitted properly for more than a little while.

    Grumbling, I pulled out both of my blades and began to work on them, honing their edges on my sandstone until they could each slice a falling piece of cloth. Occasionally, I'd glance over at the newest claw, but my frustration at its malcrafted state kept me from giving it more attention. Once finished with my weaponry, I turned once again to trap-making, seeing if I could readjust the ingredients to create a bigger blast, with some success. After the tenth trap, a creeping realization stole upon me regarding my physical state, or rather, my lack thereof. I should have been in intense pain from the extent of my injuries, yet I felt nothing other than a mild soreness in my legs.

    Curious, I pulled upon the cursed blue robe to examine my wounds, brushing the fabric away from my torso, and was immediately flattened by agony. I struggled to reclose the edges against the rush of sensation, which immediately stopped once the garment was securely fastened. Something had enchanted the already amazing clothing to shield against the perception of physical injury, an effect as rare as it was dangerous. Someone injured in one of these would quickly worsen his injuries or bleed to death as the vestment hid all trace of damage, though in my case, far from the battles in the monestary, the garb was a welcome relief from constant pain.

    I rose and walked over to Bane and Charsi, who was busily using her new-found hammer to smooth a helm. I paused to look at them together, how he sat with his arms almost on either side of her, watching each of her anvil strikes with approval and appreciation. When she talked and smiled at him, it wasn't as a potential lover like I'd considered before. More like a parent. The perception of Charsi's strangeness returned, though I was more careful to mask it this time. Everything about her, from her unusual coloring to her obvious giant size, labeled her as an outsider. Was it possible that Charsi was of northman heritage? It wouldn't have been unheard of for the Rogues to accept outlanders as recruits. Then again, those of the North were very unlikely to volunteer one of their daughters to another fighting force when their own unstoppable army could always use new blood.

    By this time Bane had caught sight of me and waved me towards him. Charsi had returned to her usual bubbly self under his warming gaze, and gestured to the metal before her. 'It was really great of you to return my malus and so I figured I'd make you something in return. I've this in my possession for some time, but I've not had the tools or the chance to finish the enchantments. Granted, I'm still not in the best of situations, so I'm not sure what exactly we'll end up with...but something is better than nothing, right?' She grinned and bent back over her work. 'I'll have it done by morning.'

    'Bane, a word or two?'

    He looked up at me with a face of surprising dismay and, though she didn't say anything, Charsi's shoulders slumped.

    'It's not important,' I hastily assured them. 'I can talk to you later. Have fun.' He grinned and made no effort to keep me from walking back towards the center of camp.

    I sat back down among my armor and rubbed my shoulder, then remembered the quicksilver injury I'd incurred. Back up I went, and over to Akara's tent. She was holding council with Cain, and she rose when I approached.

    'You were shot by a corrupted High Rogue?' she queried, turning as she did to find the appropriate poultice. 'No, I can't tell just by looking at you,' she said, answering the question I'd begun to ask, 'I figured that would be the only reason you would come over while still wearing one of those. Just remember to take it off before you go back or...'

    '...I'll end up fighting on two broken legs with a shattered ribcage.' I completed, taking the proferred remedy. I went to leave, but Cain reached out a gnarled arm to pause me.

    'I see you've been speaking to Bane. Has he filled in some of the details?' asked Cain.


    'About you, the prophecy...I thought it best, when I met him a few days ago, to allow him to broach the topic. I've been hesitant to do so since you and I came together on such unpleasant terms.'

    I felt the familiar ire he invoked rising at the base of my throat, then quashed it. I wanted answers more than I wanted self-righteous indignation. 'You've known about me this whole time. Cain, I have many questions.'

    He smiled, but it looked somewhat out of place. 'I am sure I have many answers, but this is not the time or place for them. Perhaps, when the danger has been lessened somewhat, I will be able to divulge the fullness of what I know, but saying some of these mysteries aloud may invoke more trouble than we shall be able to handle. '

    I was surprised at his reluctance to tell a story. It seemed as odd as Gheed refusing to cheat a customer. 'One question, then, unrelated to keys and legends. You said you knew my mother, but you obviously didn't know my father; the idiot brute who raised me spilled not his seed in her womb.'

    Cain shook his head. 'That is also a tale for another time, but I can tell you this: you resemble your mother, favorably. Regardless of who your father was, you wear your mother's face. She was a remarkable woman, An'yee. Now, leave us this night. You require rest for tomorrow's journey.' He guided me away from the priestess' circle and I found myself alone in the center of camp.

    'Doesn't anyone want to talk to me tonight,' I mumbled, and sat down again in my heap of armor. I figured I should make the most of my quiet time and, removing a thin pair of pliers from my equipment, began to rework the mesh into a usable form. The opening, shaping, and closing of the rings gave me a pleasant rhythm and I found myself moving quickly, thoughtlessly through my task. Paige must have watched me for some time, perhaps even talked to me through my concentration, but it wasn't until she lowered herself in front of my face that I noticed her.

    'Charsi says she'll finish that for you if you'd like to get some sleep.'

    'Tell Charsi that I enjoy what I'm doing, but if she would be so kind as to dig up some footwear and a belt, I would be much obliged.'

    'You don't need to worry about the boots, actually,' Paige said with a grin, clunking the mirrored greaves in front of me. 'I got them as we left.'

    'Thank you, Paige.' I said, and bent over my repair once again, but she continued to stand above me, puzzling over my handicraft. 'Er,' I looked up again, 'would you like to help?'

    She started backward. 'No, it's not that. It's just that you're so fast at it! I've tried before and, well, the result was not nearly so round or useful.'

    I chuckled. 'I had to get very good at this rapidly. In the field, you don't always have the luxury of a talented blacksmith just a portal away. You learn to do everything on your own. Even cook.' I caught her eye as she broke into a bigger grin.

    'You cook?'

    'Yes. I've been told I'm quite good at it. When this is over, I'll make a farewell dinner for all of you.'

    The grin vanished. 'An'yee, what will you do once Andariel is dead?'

    I shrugged and turned over the piece I'd just edged, running my fingers along the loops to ensure they were even. 'Return to my people for my next assignment, I suppose, if nothing else comes up. Warriv's talked of hiring me as a guard on the trip to Lut Gholein, an employment I wouldn't object to. However, I do have,' I picked up a sleeve and dangled it in front of my eyes, 'a lot of unfinished business to take care of and I am not sure if a few weeks in the saddle would be the best use of my time. Why? Is there talk of my disappearance already?'

    Paige sat down and shuffled in the charred dirt near the firepit. 'I think, once we have the monastery back, that I'd like to travel, you know? Go on assignment, go to amazing places to travel. Kashya says that we'll need to recruit new soldiers and I think I'd like to do that.'

    I smiled inwardly at her idealism. 'Well, I'm sure you'll be wonderful. There is a lot to see out there. But before we do that, we'll need to clean out the rest of the dungeons. Sleep, now, and we'll talk about travel plans tomorrow.'

    She nodded and wandered back to her tent. I stretched out my sleeping palette and carefully set aside my armor for tomorrow. In the background, I heard Charsi finishing her handicraft and giggle her goodnight to Bane, who settled nearby me. Then, I slept long, broken only by Kashya's repeating nightmares from beyond my head.

    Chapter 25

    A thin veneer of sunlight had crept across the encampment, barely dispelling the bluish haze that the night's chill had collected, when Bane awoke me for our preparations. He carried the repaired and crafted equipment from Charsi in his massive arms and set both down gently next to me. Then, he squatted beside me, his face nearly invisible underneath his armor.

    'Let me see your wounds,' he said, keeping his voice low so as not to disturb Warriv, who slept nearby beneath his rotting caravan.

    I unfastened the blue robe, bracing for the rush of pain that never came. It had worked its magic well enough. I was whole again, though the skin of my lower body was mottled like the hide of a winter deer. He nodded at me. 'Good, you're well enough, now. I worried that you would be forced to stay behind.' He silenced my nascent protest. 'How is your arm?'

    I stretched my fingers out and contemplated the scar from when, just days ago, I had raised Paige from the dead. Though I'd been clad in a powerful garment and under the expert minstrations of a healer, the injury remained relatively untouched and only my natural strength had added quick layers to the puckering tissue. I shook my head. 'Still needs at least a week of full rest, which I doubt I'll be seeing anytime soon.'

    'What do you think?' he asked.

    'Wrap it with columbine and woodsworm, stiffen the palm, and put it behind a shield again.'

    'No, put it against that claw you found. I'll adjust the pommel so you can use it as a dagger, rather than as a slashing weapon. I think your fighting suffers when you're restricted to single arm combat.' Again, he left no room for argument as he went to fetch the appropriate herbs.

    Paige wandered from her tent, blinking and bleary. I helped her into her armor and then allowed her to put me into mine. The new mesh was still coarse, for I was a poorer blacksmith than Charsi, but would serve me better than the old armor that lay shattered in the barracks. When Bane returned with the poultice, I instructed Paige to bind it to my injured hand. While she wound the soaking cloth bandages, I watched with some amazement as he lifted the malformed claw from the ground, took it between his hands, and crushed the handle flat. Then, he bound the now-thin metal to the wound. It was an ugly but serviceable fix. He gathered some healing potions into his and my belt, then indicated it was time for us to leave.

    We stepped through the portal to where we had defeated the armorer the day before. Already, the demon's bones had been shined white by the voracious rats and the room was silent of all and any other activity. We picked through the rest of the barracks, but few foes stood in our way. At last, we came to a massive stone stairway hewn out of the walls, spiraling in the darkness below us.

    'Where does this lead, Paige?' asked Bane, peering down into the soggy gloom.

    She shrugged. 'Storage, mostly. A few holding cells for when we had prisoners, plus some of our training rooms. There is a passageway through there to the inner cloisters.'

    'Could you guide us?'

    'Not through most of it. I've really only been down there a few times. We used to have an upper walkway from the barracks to the cathedral, but we blew it up when we fled.'

    I glanced around us. 'If the demons' handiwork up here is any indication, the floors beneath us may have been remapped significantly. So it may not matter. Regardless...'

    We headed down the stairs, clinging to the gunk-coated metal guides as we descended into the black pit and into the tunnels beneath. The scent of the place changed as we progressed, from the organic decay of the overrun barracks to one of sickness and forged steel, as if someone had impregnated the air with burning metal. Bits of flesh and pieces of armor sat hooked on outcroppings, and the floors were wet with unspeakable fluids. An aura of depthless fear and relentless anguish clung to the very stone. These mingling sensations pieced together with terrible familiarity, and I shuddered to know what we were entering. Bane must have also recognized these signs, for he stopped leading and instead came to walk beside me, all but blocking Paige's view of the corridor leaving her with mere peripheral perception of the oozing walls and occasional torch. If she disagreed with this new formation, she did not make her feelings known.

    Several paces in, we began encountering the demons who had taken up residence beneath the monastery. The everpresent carver tribes, the axe-wielding goatmen, the skeletal forces raised from the bodies of friend and foe alike, were all familiar, and all fell before us. New horrors, horned beasts that spat globes of ice, incorporeal shades that tore away our vital force by passing through our bodies, ox-sized spiders who exploded into puddles of scalding venom, also came beneath our blades, and returned with strangled cries to the fired hells of their birth. They were easy prey, made lazy by their duties in the torchlit underground. I gave silent thanks for our close quarters, for though they made our maneuvering difficult, they gave Bane and I the chance to shield our younger companion from what we saw through the battered wooden doors that lined the halls.

    We wandered for hours among the basement levels, journeying deeper and deeper below the earth with every stairwell we descended. Sometimes I feared we had gone in circles, but the Barbarian's unerring mind ensured that every dead end was marked as such, that no corridor was ventured through twice and that some were skipped entirely. Whenever a clearing was reached, either Bane or myself would go ahead to finish the worst, leaving the other behind with Paige to catch the stragglers at the tip of her arrowheads. It worked well, but at last, we turned a corner and entered a massive room, segmented by barred walls that served only to cage, not to conceal. I looked at Bane, and we made to find another passage through which we could journey. We turned, but Paige walked out from behind us, and promptly dropped her bow, clasping her hands to her eyes in horror.

    The demons had expanded the Rogues’ tiny jail until it encompassed the entirety of the once root-cellars and storage sheds, refashioning the wooden casks and metal racks into implements of torture. They had set upon those Rogues who stayed behind to enable their Sisters' escape and, as only demons can do, ensured that the remainder of their lives were brutal, hopeless, and agonizing. Here, one had been slowly stretched until her limbs pulled from her sockets, then, from her torso, while her body was kept alive by healing potions and magic. Another had been hung and flayed so perfectly that not a scrap of skin remained, and her muscles had been individually detached from their shattered bones. A few had been burned to death, while still others merely tortured and then killed. And this was but a single room.

    Yet the violence of their deaths was not what caused Paige this sudden emotion, but that some of these brutalized forms still lived, writhing and screaming silently with hoarse, tongueless throats. Our coming had scared away the torturers from their infernal task, leaving their hapless victims to linger for us to find. I have been in more jails and torture chambers than I care to recount, and it is hard to forget the scents, the sights, the overwheleming feeling of a place where hope has been roasted slowly in a fire and mercy slashed apart with a hide whip. But for Paige, this was the first time, and as we had feared, her mind shattered at the sight.

    I lifted her bow and took a few arrows from her quiver. A twisting figure to my right was my first target as I buried an arrowhead deep into her forehead, ending her month-long torment with the sound of shattering bone. The boiling one in the center cell required two before she expired, but the bleeding wreck in the iron maiden had blessedly died before my aid was required. Bane and I had done this for every room we encountered, making the unfortunate Rogues mere corpses that Paige had by this time learned to ignore. We had succeeded in concealing the truth until this point. Perhaps we had been foolish to think we would succeed completely, or that sparing her from seeing torture of this magnitude would be a service.

    When I went to return her bow, fumbling with words that could comfort or stay her, she instead fled down a corridor, screaming. We took off after her, the monsters almost glancing off Bane's armor as we tried to slow the frantic Rogue and protect her from becoming one of those pathetic tortured figures we had just put out of their misery. Providence must have taken pity on the child, for she reached a set of stairs that finally led upwards instead of down, bringing us from the accursed dungeon of her Sisters' torment into the more tolerable killing grounds of the inner cloisters.

    Bursting through the hatch into the sunrise, she threw herself into the courtyard and vomited what little stomach contents she had onto the overgrown grass. I slowed, removed my helmet for comfort, and bent down next to her, putting a clawed hand on her heaving shoulders and using my damaged palm to clumsily rub her back as she sobbed. Bane came over beside us and handed me his waterskin, a look of great sorrow and concern showing beneath his awesome visage. He contemplated us for a moment before returning beneath the earth to clear the rest of the jail. No more Rogues would be tortured this day, and none of their jailers would live to take new victims. It was the least he could do.

    I tried to talk to Paige, but anything I could muster was silenced by the veracity of her tears, and she was besides in no state to hear logic or succor. Carefully, I guided her ruined body to another side of the unkempt hedges, so she could no longer see the entrance to the awful rooms below. I forced her to drink some of the lukewarm water, letting her wash the taste of bile and sick out of her mouth. Then, I removed her helm and unfastened her armor, my claws drawing thin lines of blood as they carelessly scratched her skin. I became conscious of the gore coating my body, the slight injuries and wounds that pockmocked my arms and legs, and wondered if my presence was making her better or worse. But I did the only thing I could think of to help. I gathered her into my chest, encircling her head and body with my weapons, and let her cry for as long as she wanted, stroking my hands in her hair and remembering the time when I too would have been shocked by the suffering and torment of others.

    Chapter 26

    I stayed with the trembling child, who clung to my armor as she tried to process the obscene violence of her Sisters' final days, and waited for her horror to abate so we could move her safely back to camp. Any attempt to do so, via the glimmering point of power just beside us, had been met with chaotic flailing and a fresh burst of emotion. I knew I could force her, but that would perhaps make it worse. I feared that in this fragile state, she would not last long against the constant suggestions of demonic power that rose like fumes from beneath the earth. Andariel, Maiden of Anguish, was making her presence known. I felt the tugging on my mind, like meat hooks against unwilling flesh, and knew that I too should return to the camp to replenish and refresh myself. We had fought nonstop for a whole day, and had missed the time in the darkness and battle, but now the fatigue set in and I wanted rest and comfort.

    Bane at last returned, limping, from his sojourn into the caverns of torment beneath us. His leg sported a fresh wound and oozed blackish blood into the crevices of his armor. He waved off my assistance and towered above us. 'The halls are clear. I have set charges of burning oil on all the floors. We must leave this area so that I can ensure no creature, alive or dead, will ever inhabit them again.' He crouched down beside us, an effort that strained his injury into new bleeding, and lifted Paige's face in his hand. She was wet with blood-tears and still shook like a hurricane-trapped bough. 'There will be time, later, to understand. We must, though, take our action now.' Then he bade her rise, which she did, one of my arms still around her midsection as we activated the waypoint to the sound of a thousand chaotic explosions.

    The evening sun deepened shadows as we entered the campsite. I sent a suggestion to the myriad present minds that their time would best be utilized far from the center of camp, and watched with no small satisfaction as suddenly the barricades were crawling with busy repair teams and the formation of a spontaneous hunting party. Warriv took it upon himself to drag a reluctant Cain over to Gheed for a piece of impromptu storytelling, and Charsi recalled that she had wanted to consult with all three of the men about a particular legendary metal. Kashya, of course immune to my mental tricks, narrowed her eyes as she came towards us, and observed with dim and suspicious thoughts the quaking Paige hanging on my armor as if she had been fastened there.

    'There is, of course, a good reason why you've stirred my encampment into a frenzy of activity, the likes of which I've not seen since we fled the monastery and that it is also responsible for turning a young warrior into a flailing teenager?'

    'All in good time, Kashya,' I murmured, and kept going forward. The four of us part limped, part dragged ourselves to the fire, where I tried to deposit Paige. She, however, refused to let go, and so I was forced to sit beside her and allow her to maintain her physical contact for as long as she needed.

    Expanding my mind to both the pulsing red of Kashya's and the sickly green-tinged blue of the Barbarian, I flashed a few images of the jail we had just recently evacuated. Kashya's face hardened, and then fell. She looked down at Paige with a bit more gentleness. 'What should we do?' she asked aloud.

    'She needs a hot bath, a good meal, and a full night's rest. Quite frankly, we all do.'

    'Will a dip in the river, some week old rations, and a short nap be enough?' bit Kashya.

    'Better than nothing,' and then to Paige. 'Come on, Paige. This will help.'

    She shook her head, but did not resist when I made her walk over to the riverbank with Kashya and I. Bane made himself scarce, save only to obtain my blue robe and another, green one, for Paige. I managed to disarm and strip myself without the aid of either Rogue, then leapt into the freezing water. Kashya had to forcibly remove Paige's clothing, and with a mutter of 'This is for your own good,' tossed the younger Rogue in after me. She eyed the two of us from the shore, as one would watch an especially distasteful insect set upon a piece of fruit.

    It took a moment for Paige change in situation to register on her face, but soon she had stopped crying and was looking at me with her all-too-common mix of confusion and annoyance. 'What in the name of the Eye are you doing, An'yee?'

    'Helping you. I've found that water is a remarkable force for mental healing. It is far greater than we are, vast and powerful, and completely unselfish. You may ask of it whatever you want, and you may put in it whatever troubles you are carrying, and it will not object. You need this.'

    Paige sputtered a bit, then relaxed into the cold stream. A bit of crimson came to her brow, probably as she realized her nakedness, but dissipated with distraction as she watched me undo my braids. Traveling so often, as I did, in secret compartments across dust-choked deserts and sunless swamps, the ability to be in open near water was something I relished and took advantage of whenever possible. A bath was a prized commodity, especially when one kept her hair as long as I did. I spread it out into the stream, letting the debris of the fighting get worked out by my fingers and the current. Then I too slackened my body, resting myself against a rock to keep from being washed away, and let my mind drift a bit.

    Whatever profound or shallow thoughts I might have had were quickly interrupted by Paige's soft sniffling. She'd resumed her crying, but it was not the desperate sobbing of before. No, this was the tears of realization and resignation, and most importantly of release. I let her go on quietly, maintaining my pretend meditation until I felt it no longer impolite to intrude. 'It is hard, what we saw today. Do you want to talk about it?' The words of counsel from my mouth felt strange and disingenuous. It surprised even me how much I suddenly wanted to insulate her from the world and to simultaneously ease her transition into full warriorhood.

    'Not really,' she whispered. 'Sometimes, you know, I forget that those dead bodies we stumble across were ever alive. Seeing those's just a reminder of the terrible evil out there. It's so much bigger than we the river.' Then, she was quiet again.

    'There is water greater than the river, Paige. The lakes, the seas, the mighty oceans. And there are things greater than evil.'

    Kashya snorted, 'Such as good?'

    I gave Kashya an annoyed grimace as she interrupted my attempts at teaching solace. 'No...such as balance. The universe hates when things are lopsided. Rest assured that for there to be this much evil around us, there must be a wellspring of resolve and determination at our fingertips.' I terminated the conversation by standing and allowing my hair to flap down beside me, fully reaching my waist when unfurled. Kashya shrugged and offered me my robe as I emerged from the river. I did the same to Paige, who, as I had the day before, marveled at the fineness of the barbarian's gifts. Better she did not know their origin, I thought to myself, and allowed us both to be sat down at the fire and fed.

    Dinner was a silent meal as we all brooded deep thoughts that none wished to share. Bane had also bathed, though for all the good it did the grime must have been etched into his skin. Kashya chewed her meat with solemn disgust, obviously bothered about something but unwilling to share it in this company. I bolted my food, then began rewrapping my hair, allowing the fascinated Paige to hand me the pins I required as I reset it in my scalp.

    'It's so long,' she said, sounding all the world like a young maid in a pageant.

    'My mother's family,' I said with some distraction. 'Most of my order keeps their hair short, but I personally enjoy letting it grow, even if it is an inconvenience. Granted, I've had to hack it off a few times after getting lit on fire or caught in a tree. Then there are the lice...'

    'An'yee, really!' exclaimed Kashya. 'We're trying to dine.'

    Paige emitted a mangled attempt at a giggle, the best I could have hoped for under the circumstances. She'd recover her mind in full soon enough. She was lucky, for some remained scarred by the realities of battle their whole lives, living shells that did naught but shake and grieve. We would have to watch her, help her through her nightmares, talk her through the sudden irrational fears she would likely develop, but in time she would grow the shell of a true fighter and count this as just another layer. At this very moment, though, what I cared most about is getting her to sleep some so that we'd be able to finish our journey as soon as possible. A growing restlessness had seated itself within my breast while we were underground, and I sensed that an evil was moving away, one that I would need to chase beyond the ruined monastery.

    It took little urging from me to make Paige suggest she retire for a nap, leaving myself, Bane, and Kashya sitting around the fire. We all stared at it dispassionately, until Cain came over, sat next to us, and offered the Barbarian a bit of thuy-cot, a mild stimulant. The barbarian grunted and chewed it thoughtfully, passing the sachet to me. I politely passed, which surprised no one, and handed the rest to Kashya, who broke off a good chunk, and returned the remainder to Cain. I continued with my almost endless hair maintenance as the rest enjoyed their drug.

    Kashya spoke first, the weed loosening her tongue enough to make her feelings known. 'You're going soft, Assassin, actually caring about your fellow warrior.'

    I sighed and coiled another lock. 'Maybe I am, Kashya. Paige has really grown remarkably in the past few weeks, but a demon's torture chamber is a sight that troubles even veteran warriors. I could pass my caution off as not wanting to deal with another scarred soldier...I know that I wish I had been far older than I was when I began watching interrogations.'

    Bane mused, 'I was fifteen when I first saw a man tortured to death. Before that time, I'd seen many men die, but clean deaths, you understand?' I nodded my assent. 'It is one task to see someone fall in battle or to witness someone be savaged by an animal, and another to watch a person's dignity stripped away at the end of a lash. Humans are no less cruel than demons, that is certain; perhaps lacking in a certain creativity, but what use is there in comparing those things?'

    Kashya gazed off against the barricade somewhere. 'Sixteen. We'd found someone hiding in the catacombs and she refused to tell us why she was there, as if we'd be angry that yet another peasant was raiding our grain stores. We brought her up to the jail and locked her in, just to scare her. Instead, she attacked a guard and altered her fate from mere admonishment to punishment. The jailers peeled her body apart like an onion. When they had extracted every scream they could, they began with her mind to allow her body to recuperate. Six days she hung on before Akara learned of it and subjected the torturers to the same fate. The first round, I was forced to watch. The second time, they made me wield a knife.' She gave a small shake, though from the memory or the effects of the drug I didn't know.

    Again we returned to looking intently at the fire, and were thus taken aback when Cain voiced his experience. 'I was a young man, not as young as you all were, but young nonetheless. Ah, but this time, it was demons that whose handiwork we were forced to endure, in a far corner of the Astazi jungle. Those poor villagers never knew what crime they had committed to be dragged beneath the earth and subjected to hell's torments while still alive! We were commissioned with cleaning up the magic mess the resulted from this breech of worlds. It was, as you could imagine, an unpleasant sight to behold. For years, many of the adepts who traveled there with me kept strange sleeping habits and wore triple protective spells, so disturbed were they by these works.'

    I turned my head back towards where Paige had gone to sleep. 'If at all possible, Cain, that is what we're trying to avoid. Too many good soldiers end up with battle shock because their commanders are more interested in results than in the well being of the troops. If I'm lucky, I can avoid that here.'

    Bane sighed and pressed his calloused palms together. 'She'll bear the scars, regardless, and you can scarce take her out of the fight for the correct amount of time. Even if you left her here, she'd be required to face those fears whenever her corrupted sisters tried to storm an outpost.'

    “Speaking of which, Kashya, she asked to go with me.”

    The rogue captain looked unsurprised, but didn’t respond immediately. Something on the ground distracted her and she poked at it with a blade before answering, “Well, would you take her?”

    I shrugged slightly. “I don’t know. I work alone almost exclusively. She has talent, but it is raw, which is why you send her with me in the first place. Still, she’s saved me more than once and I am not sure where I’m going next. We’ll have to see.”

    “What if I won’t let her go?”

    In Kashya’s eyes a despiration had sprung. The monastery was irretreavably lost and with it, most of her army. Perhaps beneath her warrior’s practicality had lain some quiet, glinting hope that a squadron, a regiment, a tiny handful of her soldiers had managed to fortify themselves and hold fast against the demons in time for her to return. But there was nothing but those beside her left of however many she had trained or trained with. Would I remove another? I didn’t answer her, shrugged again, and busied myself with my equipment.

    Then the sky around us exploded in fire.
  10. silentwater

    silentwater Diabloii.Net Member

    Jul 1, 2008
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    Re: Fulcrum by Anyee

    Thats all..

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