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 hand. 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 need?" 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 bow." "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 armor. "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." "400" "450" "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 that?" "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 bladeÃ–and 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 couldÃ–' 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.