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Winds of the Kae Huron

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction' started by Nephilim, Jan 30, 2004.

  1. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Winds of the Kae Huron

    This forum loss is hella lame. I'm reposting my whole story so that newcomers won't be completely lost, as I have a new chapter to add anyway.
     
  2. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Chapter 1 - Last Man

    The scream that shook the mountains.

    M'avina had been inside of Malah's infirmary, at the time.

    She wasn't as bad off as many of the others. Many from before they had arrived, with grievous wounds they weren't expected to recover from. It had been an injury of folly that had landed M'avina here. She had been bringing up the rear of a war party with ranged support and hadn't seen the overseer clumsily climbing the rocks up towards her. It lashed its whip around her ankle and yanked her off her perch, breaking her leg and fracturing her shoulder in the fall. Now, she had to rest, and allow Malah's soothing medicines to do their work.

    She had been asleep, and had shot awake at not just the sound, but the motion. The low, muffled scream reverberated through the very rocks of the mountain, and shook the foundation of Harrogath. She felt it more than heard it. And then, suddenly, a feeling came over her of peace, of harmony. A strange sensation of everything being right in the world.

    The others had felt it, too, and they glanced at each other, to see if they were the only one. M'avina knew what had happened before most of the others. A tentative smile crept onto her face, and she put a hand to her mouth, to stifle the cries she wanted to shout out. Tears streamed openly down her visage.

    Baal, Lord of Destruction and last of the Three, was defeated.

    The others in the infirmary, Barbarians, for the most part, began to chuckle at first, and then burst into uproarious, celebratory laughter. It was over. Harrogath was free, and they would lose no more friends.

    M'avina knew that the battle would have cost them dearly. No doubt, the Lord of Destruction had not gone without a fight, and likely many of the brave adventurers who went up there were not coming back. M'avina's partner, Vidala, could very well be among them. But still, she could help feeling so elated. They had finished what they'd started. M'avina had been there as Diablo had rotted away before them, and all that remained was his soulstone over a pile of ash-covered bone.

    M'avina hadn't been there when they had shattered it, though, at Hellforge. The horrifyingly violent death of Athena at the hands of the smithing demon when they had first raided it to deal with Mephisto's Stone had left too black a mark upon M'avina's memory. Nonetheless, she had a stake in all this, and now that it had come to pass, she could hardly believe it.

    All these months of chasing down the demons in Sanctuary, all the new friends she had made, and all the old friends she had lost . . . she never expected it to end. Even when they had killed Diablo, they still had that weight upon their shoulders. M'avina had felt like breaking down right there when Tyrael had told them that they weren't finished. She was just so tired.

    And now, they were going to greet the returning heroes. M'avina shuddered at the thought of her imminent catharsis. Everything was going to come out once she say Vidala or Isenhart, or even the grumpy old Qual-Kehk, who had insisted on accompanying the expedition on their final journey to battle.

    Malah helped M'avina and those other wounded who were still mobile out into the square, where they waited in anticipation, looking out the gates at the bloodied battlefields around Harrogath.

    They saw him when he was still some distance off, descending the many levels of fortified stronghold through the mountain. But as he neared, they saw that there was no one else with him.

    This troubled them to no end. Was Qual-Kehk the only survivor of the titanic battle? M'avina wanted to toss aside her crutch and drag herself to his feet, where she would scream her demand of where Vidala was. As he neared, they saw that he walked with a limp. Malah glanced apprehensively at Anya, who stared intently into the distance.

    When he was twenty feet away from the gates, Anya nodded to the gatekeepers, and two husky Barbarian youths rolled back the chains and lifted the gate for him. He strode inside.

    Qual-Kehk's featured were even more grizzled than usual. He was bleeding, and had various-coloured blood splattered across his once glorious armour, now dented and cracked in places. His white beard was covered in dirt, dust, and blood, and his sword, broken, was clenched firmly in one fist, and the blood on it was a deep, deep red. No steel blade could be seen, it was so thoroughly saturated. It had been a mighty battle indeed.

    Despite his maimed appearance, Qual-Kehk stood strong and tall, his chest puffed out in pride, but his face grim and serious. He stopped shortly into the gate. M'avina wanted to urge him forward, but she knew it was not her place. He simple stood there, in silence, letting the assembled crowd take in every detail.

    "Baal is no more," he said finally in his low, gruff voice.

    They all drew a breath, ready to whoop for joy and jump up out of their cots, breaking all those bones all over again. But that energy remained pent up, for the stare of Qual-Kehk didn't merit celebration. He just stood there, the wind tossing his long hair gently about his face. M'avina was truly beginning to hate him. Malah was glancing at his various wounds, wondering if she should rush up and tend to him.

    "Are . . ." Anya hesitated after a long silence, "are you the only . . . where is everyone else?"

    "They are gone," said Qual-Kehk quietly. "When the Relic had been taken from Baal, Tyrael was once again allowed to enter the sacred mountain. He opened up a portal for all the champions who survived."

    More portals, M'avina thought. Between the Infernal Gate, the portal to Nihlathak's foul mountain temple, and the one Tyrael had opened to Harrogath, M'avina had grown tired of traversing great distances with the mystical doors.

    "Where did it lead?" asked M'avina.

    Qual-Kehk shook his head. "I do not know, for he did not say. He only said that it would lead them to a peace that they much deserved."

    M'avina's heart crumbled. She would never see Vidala again, she slowly realized. And then a new sensation dawned on her, a profound anger simmered within her, and she felt her face grow hot, even within the cold winds. Why wasn't she allowed this peace? She had almost died in the battle with the Black Council in Travincal, and had put her life on the line with every demon leader they fought. So why was she left behind, at the roof of the world, and now, without her mentor and friend to see her off of it?

    So what was she to do now?

    Her attention was drawn back to Qual-Kehk as Larzuk and Malah quickly approached him. The smith helped him out of his armour - parts of which were so dented that they were impossible to come off without hammering them off - and the healer examined his wound.

    One of the younger Barbarians - Drus, the one who had lost his arm - spoke up. "Were there casualties in the battle?"

    Larzuk paused for a moment, glancing at Drus, but then continued to manipulate the armour.

    Qual-Kehk sighed heavily. "Yes. There are casualties in every battle."

    Drus exchanged glances with the other Barbarians. He then chanced a quick look to M'avina. "Who were they?"

    Qual-Kehk looked down, pushing Larzuk away for a moment. Malah stood back. There was a very long moment. M'avina's heart pounded and her temples ached. "That is not important. They all fought bravely, as did all of you, and all of them are now at peace, one way or another. You shall never see any of them again."

    M'avina felt suddenly sick to her stomach. She looked at the rest of the crowd. There were others there, too, among them, who had come a great distance to be here, and now it was over, and they had nowhere to go. Arcanna, the young witch of the Zann Esu, had been told to remain in Harrogath, to try and strengthen the ward, by her superior, Regha, who had gone up Arreat. There was another sorceress, Kira, but she had been brutally wounded in a fight with succubi, and was still comatose in Malah's infirmary. They had met all three of the sorceresses in Lut Gholein. They had joined up with another, Eschuta, in Kurast, but she had died at the hands of Sarina.

    Isenhart had been with the sorceresses in Lut Gholein, trying to get to Kurast to the rest of his contingent. When they had arrived, only three, Milabrega, Wilhelm, and Guillame, had survived the ravages of the Jungle. Guillame had died in the fight with Mephisto, Wilhelm had fallen to Izual, and Milabrega had given her life in the titanic battle with Diablo, along with many others. And now Isenhart, the last of them, had disappeared up the mountain.

    Two of the three Rogues from the Monastery, Paige and Shikha, hadn't made it. And others, too many to name, were among the list of the dead. So now, all that remained of the war party that had entered Harrogath was M'avina, Arcanna, the spearman Haseen, the young Paladin, Kinemil, the Ironwolf, Jabari, and Ume, the relatively young Necromancer. There was also the Druid, Dimoak, who had been part of a small group of druids who had arrived in Harrogath shortly after M'avina's party. But Dimoak hadn't associated himself much with the rest of them, not unlike the other druids. Nevertheless, here he stood with them, perhaps realizing now that he was completely alone here.

    Malah was beginning to usher her patients back into her home, and Qual-Kehk gruffly pushed Larzuk aside, making his way toward his house. Larzuk resigned himself to defeat and walked away.

    M'avina quickly limped over to Qual-Kehk, leaning heavily on her crutch. She almost fell into him as she grabbed him by the shoulder. She immediately regretted it as he winced when he turned to her.

    "What is it, child?" he asked impatiently.

    M'avina stopped, not sure if it was appropriate to ask, but she had to know. "Why didn't you go with them?"

    Qual-Kehk seemed surprised at the question, and M'avina was, for a moment, afraid that he would be angry with her. But he was not. He looked up, around the village, and squinted into the wind, before answering. "It was not my time for peace." His eyes looked distant again. "I am needed here. And soon, I expect, I shall have to journey to Sescheron, and speak with Halaberd, if he still lives. There is much work to be done here, and I cannot expect Anya to shoulder that responsibility without my aid. She is spirited and resilient, but she is still young and not accustomed to this station. She will need my help."

    M'avina took her hand off his shoulder. She suddenly felt very small and petty, standing before him. "I . . ." she stuttered, "that's very noble of you."

    He shrugged. "Nobility has little to do with it, child. I have duties." He turned to go back to his house. "Now, you should rest, Amazon. You may do so without worry, now."

    He didn't say anything else to her.

    M'avina stood in front of his house for several minutes, and then looked around at the square, and saw that she was the only one still standing out in the cold wind. M'avina sighed, and saw her breath turn to a white cloud before her. Then she turned, and hobbled her way back to Malah's.
     
  3. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Chapter 2 - Parting Ways

    Malah was a very talented woman. She would always swear up and down that her subtle manipulations of magical energies were terribly inadequate, but what she did know, she knew very, very well. M'avina was admittedly not very refined in the department of healing. She knew the basics, but she had no aptitude for how a bone was so easily mended with the right herbs and wraps from Malah's store of exotic plants she bought from the traveling merchants. With the state of crisis, though, no caravans had been able to make it to the Highlands, and so Malah's supplies had begun to run dangerously dry. Hopefully, though, they would no longer be in such demand.

    It was only a week before M'avina was on her feet again with little more than a limp. When she tried to express how miraculous it seemed to her to Malah, though, she shrugged it off with: "Well, at my age, I've got to be good at something."

    The infirmary was, thankfully, empty now, with those wounded having been treated at least to the point where they could remain in their own homes. Even Kira had regained herself, and was now being nursed back to health in Anya's home. The young Sorceress had politely declined the offer of hospitality, but Anya insisted. "There are too many empty rooms in that home," she had said sadly.

    Kinemil, Dimoak, and Haseen had stayed in Nihlathak's home, who had, before Baal's coming, apparently shared it with other Elders, now all dead - sacrificed of their own volition to save Harrogath from the initial stages of the siege. Anya had given Ume a room there, as well, but the Necromancer had refused, albeit politely, saying that there were still spirits at unrest within that house. He had built himself a tent in the shadow of Larzuk's smithy and kept to himself.

    Qual-Kehk had been right, there was much work to be done. Before he had left for Sescheron to see the damage for himself and report to King Halaberd what had transpired, the Senior Man-at-Arms had formed a system of search parties to go out and find any survivors among the ruins of the mountain stronghold. They had found very few, so far, and most of them were hiding within the ice caves. And even though many young Barbarians, having discovered their childhood friends dead on the mountainside, returned to Harrogath disheartened, there was still a heightened hope among the town. Without Baal's energies to sustain them in the mortal world, many demons, particularly the undead, had simply collapsed or shattered at his death. Those that remained either fled in terror or fought with a furious desperation that ended in a fatal misstep. None of the search parties had yet suffered more than minor wounds from such encounters. The Barbarians they brought home from their hiding places were relatively unharmed, but only because those who were more seriously wounded had not lasted long.

    In spite of all the recurring images of death and sorrow among Harrogath, things were in relatively high spirits, M'avina thought. She realized that she was kidding herself, though. Just because spirits were higher than they had been did not merit the term "high spirits." Now that the major conflict wasn't there to distract people, they had begun to realize what had truly occurred. They noticed people were gone, and those crippled by the horrifying battle now had to consider what they could do with their lives now that their adventuring days were over. M'avina had considered that at the beginning of her stay at Malah's. She hated the idea of returning to Skovos to farm grain with her parents.

    Her parents - she shuddered to think of it.

    Having been farmers, they had primarily worshipped Hefaertus, and she had been raised in that respect, and in those beliefs. Even when she defied the wishes of her parents and went to train as a warrior, she still kept the teachings of the fire god close to her heart, and invoked the powers of him through much loyal prayer during her battles, above most other gods within the Amazonian pantheon. But there was one teaching of Hefaertus which always pierced her mind with doubt. It was that every woman of substance would at one time in their lives be reborn - they would meet an obstacle so grueling, so unimaginably complicated and seemingly impossible to triumph over, that overcoming it would require that she change who she is. She would be reborn, and arise from the ashes of her old self a new person.

    M'avina had never really liked that philosophy. It made it seem like all attempts at developing herself as a person now would be fruitless, because she was eventually going to have the deciding factor in her life. All this fighting, all this conflict wasn't helping her grow at all. She had thought, as her quest began, that the coming battle, and her continued pursuit of Diablo across every land she had ever read about, would be her rebirth. But all in all, she was the same person. She still had the same passions and desires, and the same outlook on her life. Her rebirth would change all that. M'avina had, in the past week, feared that perhaps Tyrael's invitation had been her rebirth, and that she had missed it. According to Hefaertus, the rebirth was needed for any woman to be complete. But M'avina liked who she was, and she knew that this was a rare thing. She didn't think she was perfect, but she was proud of her accomplishments, and recognized her limitations. She wasn't too keen on the idea of becoming someone else.

    It was very windy. She could hear the wind blowing through the thick stone wall.

    M'avina bundled up her clothing, and some supplies. She and Vidala had shared a packhorse until it was mauled by sabre cats outside Lut Gholein. They had brought whatever supplies they could salvage onto Meshif's ship, but had left them there when they went through the Infernal Gate. She felt hot again just thinking of it. From the cool, dank dungeon of the Guardian Tower, it was like walking through a furnace, and then she suddenly emerged in the Pandemonium Fortress and everything was temperate once again, with air that seemed easier than usual to breathe.

    But the point was that she had little left to herself, and it was a tremendously long journey back to Skovos, she knew. She and Vidala had had to live off of very meager funds for some time, as well. Though their journey had found very generous hospitality, money had been spent, if not to repair their armour or weapons, then to pay for food. Larzuk had offered to repair their goods free of charge, but Vidala had insisted, saying that once this crisis was over, if Larzuk had no stock and not a penny to his name, he'd be ruined.

    "When will you be leaving?"

    M'avina gasped in surprise, and felt more than a little embarrassed. Arcanna stood in the doorway, and smiled as M'avina blushed. "Sorry," the Amazon apologized. "I was just lost in my own head."

    Arcanna chuckled. "I know the feeling." She paused. "So when will you be leaving?"

    M'avina talked in a very casual tone. She didn't want to lose face in front of Arcanna. She had grown to respect the young Sorceress. "I was going to leave with Qual-Kehk when he goes to Sescheron, and from there I think I'll try to find caravans to escort me south. Either to Kingsport or Lut Gholein, and then I'll take a merchant vessel to Skovos. Hopefully I'll make it before the end of the year. But that depends on luck. Especially now. Kinemil was saying that he didn't expect to see many caravans on the roads for months. He said to wait until word gets out that Sescheron is secure, and the Rogue Pass is opened again." M'avina knew that she wouldn't make it before the end of the year. She just hoped that she was south enough to miss winter in Ensteig and Khanduras. She needed a ride to get out the Highlands, and then, she was more than willing to walk and swim to Skovos. "What about you?"

    Arcanna sighed. "Malah tells me that the Zann Esu coven in Scosglen makes periodical merchant routes to Harrogath. I was considering just waiting for them. Either way, I need to wait for Kira to fully recover. She's still in no state to travel."

    M'avina nodded, "And the others?"

    Arcanna shrugged. "I can't say. You'll have to talk to them yourself." With that, the Sorceress gestured a farewell and walked down the hall.

    Another gust of wind thundered past outside.

    M'avina followed the winds until she came to be standing outside of Anya's home, in the furiously billowing snowstorm. It would pass, Malah had assured her. These things were common in the Highlands.

    Mostly everyone had gone indoors. A Barbarian she didn't recognize was sitting on his doorstep, comforting his hunting dog. He saw her through the blizzard and nodded in acknowledgement. She waved weakly, and walked around the hut.

    This was the first time she had been outside in Harrogath without her armour. She found it almost warmer. The metal was so quick to chill. She remembered when the overseer had broken her leg, she had thought she would die from the cold before the bleeding. Of course, it was only a few minutes before Vidala helped her up. By Athulua, how many times had Vidala saved her?

    Vidala . . .

    She would never save her again.

    M'avina found a tear rolling down her cheek, and was about to roughly wipe it away before the wind blew it from her face. She looked up, as if to look for it, and she saw a man standing in the middle of the street, surveying the town. He remained eerily still. He didn't even put his head down in the screaming winds, though his long hair was whipped about wildly.

    "Dimoak?" M'avina called, her voice muffled by the wind.

    The Druid turned to look at her, his short beard speckled by snowflakes. "M'avina," he nodded. His voice didn't seem distorted by the wind. M'avina shivered, and walked up to him.

    "What are you doing?" she asked.

    "I'm leaving," he replied promptly. "There is nothing left for me to do on Arreat." He sighed, and M'avina noticed strangely that his breath was not turned white by the frigid air. "The Uileloscadh Mór has ended, and now it is time for the land to heal. I must return to Túr Dúlra and report to my superiors what has passed here, though it's likely they know already."

    "You don't want to wait and say goodbye?" it sounded like a childish question as she asked it.

    Dimoak shook his head. "No," he said softly. "I was never one of these people."

    "You fought alongside all of us," M'avina got to a different angle so that the snow wasn't blowing into her eyes. "That makes you greater than family."

    Dimoak looked down at her and smiled. "That is very kind, Amazon, but I know my place. I am in my element amongst the beasts of the wild, not here, in the world of Men. These Barbarians offer me hospitality because they feel they owe it to me."

    "They do," M'avina noted.

    "That may be so, but I do not wish to thrive on others' debts to me. They distrust me. I do not blame them. Jalal was wary to come here. If it were less desperate times, his cautiousness might have been warranted, but the people of Harrogath had a greater enemy to concern themselves with."

    "What you did here may heal the wounds that separate your two cultures, Dimoak. There is always time for change."

    Dimoak pondered on that a count, but then shook his head. "No. Men are a warlike people. If we don't have the demons to battle, we will turn on each other. It's only a matter of time." He sighed hopelessly. "Everyone needs someone to hate."

    "They don't hate you," M'avina protested quietly.

    Dimoak smiled again, and then turned to look at the gates. "I will spare the awkward goodbyes, and leave on my own terms. I must bask in the shade of the Glór-an-Fháidha once more. I have been too long from beneath its branches."

    Dimoak strode towards the gates of Harrogath, now opened. It occurred to M'avina that perhaps the Barbarians left them open at night, now, to revel in the fact that Baal wasn't an issue any longer.

    M'avina followed for a few paces before stopping, and Dimoak picked up the pace as he rushed into the blizzard. She kept expecting him to turn around and bid her a final farewell, but he never did. He just dove into the wild, heedless of the furious winds.

    Soon, he was nothing but a silhouette retreating deeper into the snow swept mountain. But his shadow became distorted as it moved, and hunched over into a lupine gait. M'avina watched the grey shadow move further into the landscape, until finally, she lost sight of him completely.

    M'avina shivered, realizing just how cold she really was, and went back into Anya's home. She looked one more time out the open gate, and saw nothing but a screen of snow beating past her.

    The Barbarian on the doorstep had gone inside, and the dog was burying itself in the snowbank. M'avina looked at the moon to see what time it was, but it was obscured. Besides, she couldn't really tell on this part of the world. She was usually off by an hour or so, either way. But no matter the placement of the moon, she knew it was late, and that she would need her rest. So she put her head down, and struggled against the wind until she was safely inside of Anya's home again.
     
  4. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Chapter 3 - The Banquet Hall

    It had been a remarkably long time before Dimoak was noticed missing, all things considered. The storm had died overnight, and it was the next evening, over a dinner of rabbit stew in the modest banquet hall, when Drus asked where he was as he went to make a vegetarian plate for him.

    Kinemil had glanced around the table. "Dimoak?" he asked, worried. He stood.

    "He left," M'avina answered quickly. She had considered waiting to see everyone's reaction, but in light of all that had happened around them, she knew it would be far too cruel. "Last night, he left."

    "In the storm?" Drus asked worriedly, as he poured another bowl of stew.

    M'avina shrugged.

    "You let him go, alone?" Arcanna demanded harshly. "He'll kill himself!"

    "He's a Druid," the usually quiet Ume noted plainly, "He's more at home in the wild than with the rest of us. I'm sure he'll be fine."

    "But the demons . . ." Kinemil started.

    "Are nearly eradicated in this part of the mountains," Ume reasoned with a shrug. "Dimoak knows his own abilities and is rational enough to steer clear of any danger he can't handle."

    The Barbarians, M'avina knew, were not rational about their abilities. They jumped into impossible battles when they were sure they were to lose. M'avina had to admit that the Amazons could be like that, too. No warrior liked to be called a coward.

    "He's right," Caden, the shortest Barbarian at the table, broke the silence as he swallowed a mouthful of stew. "The demons nearly have been driven from Mount Arreat. We can turn our attention back to other matters."

    Drus sighed, sitting down with his own bowl. He was still having trouble adjusting to only one hand. "It seems like forever since before Baal came here. I feel like we've been fighting him for eternity."

    Scyld, Drus' older sister, nodded in agreement. "What's left to do?"

    Caden looked at her, almost exasperated. "Nulholla Peak?"

    Everyone who wasn't a Barbarian glanced at each other, looking for an adequate explanation from a fellow outsider.

    Scyld's eyes widened, and she looked away, "By the Immortal King . . . I'd forgotten completely."

    What's Nulholla Peak? M'avina thought.

    "What's Nulholla Peak?" Kinemil asked.

    Scyld didn't speak for a moment. Her face was turning red. M'avina sensed that she was ashamed she had forgotten.

    "It's one of the mountains of the Kae Huron. The tallest, next to Arreat and Cobralor," Scyld explained.

    Arcanna's eyes shot back and forth between Scyld and Drus. "What's to do on Nulholla Peak?"

    Drus looked around to make sure everyone was served, and then awkwardly sat down on the bench beside Caden. "Nulholla Peak is a treacherous mountain. None of our people have ever attempted to scale it. But it's the seat of something Bul-Kathos left for us."

    "According to legend," Caden muttered.

    Scyld looked at him darkly. "There's a passage in the prophecy of the Final Day which reads, 'But lo, there is but one place where even the Ancients may not tread. So great is its power and so mighty its secret. And this place is the Eye of the King - Nulholla Peak - where there lies a thing which shall test the children of the Eternal King. And if they prove worthy, Truth shall rain upon them, and they shall whoop in joy and song. And in the darkest hour, Truth shall be the only light within the lands of my people.'"

    M'avina glanced back at her stew and saw a hair in it. More likely a piece of rabbit fur. She made sure that no one was looking before she daintily plucked it out.

    "When Caldra first began to get her visions, Ord Rekar sent a group of warriors to Nulholla. He told them to tread until they could tread no more. They would either walk the summit of Nulholla Peak or walk amongst the Ancients," Caden explained, rather acidly. M'avina judged by his tone that he was not as faithful to these prophecies as his brethren. She was not unaware of such casual heretics in Skovos. She couldn't understand that. Hafaertus and Athulua were just a way of life. With them, the world made some semblance of sense. She could never understand going through life without them and her other gods.

    "That was almost a month ago. Nulholla Peak is a week's march from here," Scyld continued. "We expected them back by now. Though scaling the mountain would be no easy task. Qual-Kehk was beginning to think about sending someone after them when we saw the smoke from Sescheron." She shuddered at the memory. M'avina could imagine how disconcerting that sight would have been to her, especially after the rumours of Caldra's mad prophecies of doom.

    "Why would . . ." Kinemil coughed awkwardly. "What makes you think it's possible to scale the mountain at all?"

    "It's in the Prophecies of the Final Day," Drus explained. "Nulholla Peak will grant our people salvation. Qual-Kehk believed that there was some sort of weapon left for us by Bul-Kathos."

    "'Truth' doesn't strike me as the name of a weapon," said Arcanna, sipping some water from a wooden mug.

    "The prophecy has many interpretations," Drus replied simply.

    "We should send out a rescue party," Caden said firmly. "As soon as possible."

    "You don't expect to find them alive, do you?" M'avina tried to catch herself even as she blurted it out. But before she could stop herself, she had already spoken. She looked around the table. Kinemil looked at her, exasperated. Arcanna lowered her gaze, and M'avina felt her cheeks grow hot. "I didn't mean that . . ."

    "I don't know what to expect," Caden replied harshly, "but even if they didn't make it, freezing in the cold is no way to leave them for eternity."

    The Barbarians at the table began to converse with themselves, almost excitedly, about Nulholla Peak, and the foreigners exchanged furtive glances.

    What if they don't make it this time, either? M'avina thought.

    "I hate to sound so negative," said Jabari with his distinctly Kehjistani accent, "but if they didn't return, what makes you think you will?"

    M'avina was quietly disappointed that it had occurred to someone else, as well.

    Aside from Ume, whose face remained creepily neutral, all the foreigners looked to Scyld and Caden. They had obviously been thinking the same thing. The other Barbarians stopped talking, too.

    Scyld nodded. "For one thing, we will be allowed to take our time. It's likely that Theodoric - the warrior who led the band - was rushing because he feared for Harrogath. With Baal destroyed, the Highlands are safe, and time need not be a priority."

    "And . . ." Drus said slowly and carefully. "We may have some assistance."

    There was a silence on the table.

    Who do they have to help them? M'avina thought. And then realization dawned on her. They were asking them for help. She felt a little embarrassed. It seemed that this occurred to all her fellows quite a bit quicker. Vidala would have picked it up immediately.

    "We've been fighting for months, Drus," said Arcanna quietly. "I can't expect everyone to join you."

    I can't. M'avina sighed. Arcanna had decided to go with them.

    "I'll go," she found herself saying. What choice did she have? Trek alone across the Western Kingdoms? And then, what life was there for her on Skovos? Without Vidala, she had no mentor, and her training was nowhere near finished. She remembered how, during the battle with Diablo, Vidala had prayed to Athulua and summoned a Valkyrie - the famed spearmaiden Celestia. M'avina was nowhere near that kind of power.

    But it was no matter. Her heart had already decided, and her head was merely catching up. She would stay in these wintry mountains because she had nowhere else to go. It made her profoundly sad. But she wouldn't cry in front of these people.

    She looked up, and found everyone staring at her. She looked down again.

    "We haven't even arranged anything," Scyld said quietly. "We may not even go. It depends on what Qual-Kehk and Anya say."

    Ume chuckled. M'avina saw his age when he smiled. "Of course Qual-Kehk will approve and Anya will be anxious to save whoever she can." He took a swig of whatever he was drinking, and set down the goblet delicately. "A party shall go to Nulholla Peak. Be certain of that."

    M'avina bit a piece of stale bread, looking at Ume with a neutral expression.

    No one spoke for the rest of the dinner.
     
  5. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Chapter 4 - The Zakarum

    Kinemil was eternally shaken by the inspired clarity with which Ume saw the rest of the world. Enough to guess how people would act, and what they would do next.

    For Qual-Kehk did concede, and Anya was enthusiastic to recover whatever lives she could.

    Kinemil was a Paladin of the Zakarum. He had been trained not just to be a soldier, but a leader - to inspire the unenlightened rabble to do great deeds of valour in the name of the Que'Hegan and the Light. The fact that his institution had been turned into a lie by Mephisto rendered these truths no differently. Kinemil was a good, natural leader.

    He would have done the same thing as Qual-Kehk. The initial euphoria of Baal's defeat had worn thin with surprising speed. Things were still better than they were, but the Barbarians were beginning to fully realize what all this meant - what Kinemil had seen in Kurast: their land had been slapped across the face, and the scar would not fade with time. But these people weren't as stoic as his, and it would distress them more than it would his. This new expedition to Nulholla Peak would give them that hope again. For a time. But living from moment to moment was all they could do. It was a wise decision on Qual-Kehk's part.

    Kinemil sometimes felt that Anya was too young for her position, and that Qual-Kehk would make a far more suitable leader. But in this foreign land, it was not his place to say such things aloud.

    Kinemil drew in a sharp, cold breath of the mountain air. He was astonished at how warm the Barbarians managed to keep their houses. He had expected to spend his time in Harrogath shivering in the cold, but these houses were as warm as his cabin in Kurast.

    He slowly strode around the veranda and gazed at the city gates. A smile brightened his features.

    The Barbarian villagers had gathered around the gate, and there was a low murmur of general babble about them. They were watching the Barbarians pack up their things. They could only spare one horse, and Kaelim was loading it with everything it could carry.

    Kaelim - an excellent choice. Possibly one of the largest men (without the aid of enchantments) Kinemil had ever seen. And his fighting abilities backed up his appearance. Kaelim had been with the expedition since the Rogue Monastery, and despite the heroic stories Vidala and Isenhart told him, he saw firsthand the savage grace with which Kaelim wielded his mighty axe. The Zakarumites had learned to give him a wide berth. Only his near-fatal wounds from the battle with Diablo had kept him from journeying up that mountain with Isenhart and the others. But now he was fully recovered, and his confidence was bolstered by the new scars he could display. Perhaps it was his mere physical presence, but Kaelim also commanded respect from his fellows, and he knew the ways of battle as well as any good general. Qual-Kehk was wise to put Kaelim at the head of this group.

    Caden and Scyld came out of Malah's infirmary carrying bundles of healing provisions, and they had to push their way through the crowd to get to the horse.

    Beside Kaelim, Caden seemed like a child. He was short, for a Barbarian, but also had little meat on his bone. Kinemil had never seen him fight, but he thought that perhaps Caden's zeal would not be enough to protect him on the perilous journey ahead. The same went for Scyld, who had joined to offer her services as an alchemist. Kinemil didn't like talking to women who were taller than him, but he had come to respect the Barbarian woman. Nevertheless, an alchemist's place was in a laboratory, not the battlefield, the Paladin sternly believed.

    Kinemil walked off of the veranda and stepped briskly towards the gathered peoples. Out of Anya's house plodded M'avina and Arcanna, weighed down by heavy backpacks and thick furs. Arcanna's eldritch staff was clasped firmly in both hands, and M'avina had her bow draped across her shoulder. They were both seasoned fighters, and Kinemil was glad they were there to help. But since her injury, M'avina had seemed strangely distant, and her quick offer to help had seemed almost reflexive. Something deeply troubled her, he could tell.

    And then there was Ume. The Necromancer had saved Milabrega once, and for that, Kinemil was grateful, but still, the strange sorcerer sent a chill up his spine whenever he passed. Kinemil was uneasy whenever the dead walked amongst the living - no matter whose side they were on. He had never trusted him. None of the Paladins had, save for Isenhart. Milabrega was convinced, even after Ume saved her from the rabid clutches of a swarm of vile, hellish, flesh worms, that he and his kindred were connected to this evil. Even after Ume's companion, Sazabi, fell in the battle with Lord DeSeis, they were adamant of their claims. But Isenhart's word weighed more than their own.

    "You suspect he is a wolf in sheep's clothing," Isenhart had said, backed by a black, lightless void which served as some mock sky in Hell, "but he has done nothing to vex the Light, and until he does, I will treat him as an ally, and a friend."

    But those words seemed so far away, now. Isenhart was a true servant of the Zakarum, and Kinemil would have died to save him, but still, Isenhart was no longer there, and Kinemil, skilled though he was, was still not a commander of armies. Isenhart was. Had been. Should he be considered dead?

    "Is that all you bring with you, holy knight?" Jabari was likely the only man for miles who spoke with such a thick, Kehjistani accent. "You might grow cold in that armour."

    Kinemil turned and smiled. Jabari was likely wearing his breastplate, but it could not be seen under the layers of thick furs. Even the scabbard of his sword was covered in furs tied with rawhide. The buckler was tied to his back. Despite the fact that Jabari was not of the Faith, Kinemil still found that he liked the sorcerer. His actions flouted many decrees of the Zakarum, but his heart was in the right place. Perhaps Yaerius would look kindly upon him and grant him some leniency when the time of judgment came.

    "No," Kinemil chuckled. "I have more in the house. But I see you're prepared."

    "We should not expect to find any hospitable area for many weeks. Nowhere near as welcome as Harrogath," Jabari answered. "I didn't battle two Prime Evils to freeze to death in this mountains." With that, Jabari trudged past him, and from behind he could almost be mistaken for another Barbarian, he was so padded and laden with furs.

    And this expedition would not be short of Barbarians. Out of all the foreigners, only one, Haseen, had declined an invitation. Kira was still unwell and Arcanna was wisely forbidding her to come along, but Haseen had done so of his own accord. He had said that he needed to report back to Greiz, and that the people of Lut Gholein would need to hear what he had seen. But there were at least a dozen Barbarians coming with them. Of them, only three, Hoku, Bohdan and Alaric, had traveled with Kaelim across Sanctuary. The rest were warriors who had endured through the siege. Kinemil didn't know the name of half of them. They had begun to coordinate around the packhorse, and the din from the crowd was getting more intense with every minute.

    "Looks familiar, Paladin, does it not?"

    Kinemil shivered, perhaps from the cold.

    Or perhaps it was the aged, low voice of the Necromancer, Ume.

    "I can't speak for you, of course," said Ume in his matter-of-fact manner, "but I find that it reminds me of the way the villagers of Kurast saw the Hand of Zakarum off on their way for another glorious conquest in the name of the light." He chuckled. Kinemil grimaced. "You're probably too young to remember - before the church became so corrupted, they were all throughout the jungles, and this was the kind of reception they received wherever they stepped." He sighed. "A shame how quickly petty men can undo a century's reputation. Now the Paladins are feared."

    I am well aware of the state of my people, Kinemil's inner monologue spat at the Necromancer. Who was he to rub the young soldier's face in the fact? It was hardly as if the Necromancers had a vaunted reputation. Especially in these dark times, when family members forsook their funereal traditions and burned or mutilated their loved ones' bodies to keep them from rising again. Kinemil didn't know much about the ways of Rathma, and had no compunction to learn, but in his opinion, mimicking the power of evil, for whatever purpose, was still evil.

    "Yes," Kinemil answered shortly, and remained still.

    "Men like Isenhart . . . men like you shall undo the damage that Hatred inflicted upon you," said Ume, assuredly.

    Kinemil persisted to be silent.

    Ume sighed, and walked past him. "I know that, young Paladin. Do not lose hope for your people just yet."

    The moment Ume had turned away, Kinemil turned and went back into Nihlithak's home. He had already gathered his things together, and had merely to take them with him. He wrapped himself in a fur cloak, and then hoisted his backpack onto his shoulders.

    His sword, too, he picked up and strapped to his belt. It was a standard issue claymore. There were no enchantments upon it, and no glorious tales of conquest behind it. It was a mere sword, the same which had been given to every Paladin to leave training. Isenhart has his own suit of armour, specially crafted and enchanted for him. Milabrega, too. They both had high enough stations to merit such an undertaking. Isenhart had told Kinemil after Milabrega had died that if he were to ever fall in battle, he would bequeath his broadsword, the Lightbrand, to him. Kinemil had never felt so honoured in all his life. Even when Khalim himself ordained him, it had not seemed so profound. Isenhart, a respected general and leader in the Hand of Zakarum, respected Kinemil enough to give him his sword to continue his legacy.

    But had Isenhart fallen? Either way, Kinemil would never have the Isenhart's Lightbrand. He felt some slight disappointment at that, and only hoped that Isenhart was still alive, enjoying the paradise Tyrael had apparently promised him.

    Ah yes, the story of Tyrael and the magical portal.

    Kinemil had doubted it the moment he heard it. He thought perhaps it was a morale tactic, to give people hope that their companions were still alive, somewhere. Perhaps Qual-Kehk was the only survivor. But one man could certainly not tame the Lord of Destruction alone. The fight with Diablo had been horrific enough.

    With Milabrega distracting him from the front, Isenhart had climbed up the demon's back, and plunged his Lightbrand through his dark heart. Diablo had reared back in pain and let out a great cry. Milabrega had leapt forward and bashed Diablo with her scepter between the eyes. He had roared, and in one sweep of his mighty claws, took off her head.

    Isenhart had cried out in fury, removed the sword, and impaled Diablo again through the other side of his back. He had reared back so violently that Isenhart flew from his back.

    Then, Vidala and Haseen, their spears forward, had rushed forward and impaled the great demon. Kinemil had seen then that he was beginning to lose strength. Quickly, he had put his broken arm behind his back and hoisted the claymore with great effort and managed a hack Diablo's leg before the demon batted him to the ground.

    "Move aside!" had come the heavy voice of Kaelim, charging through with the Blacktongue in one hand and a mighty war axe in the other. Haseen and Vidala had let go of their spears and back-stepped as Kaelim swung. Meanwhile, Kinemil had heard a strange, archaic language coming from Ume, who was on the ground, clutching an open wound on his abdomen.

    The blade of Blacktongue had shattered against Diablo's thick hide, but the axe had struck true at the demon's chest, as a ghostly, skeletal apparition flew from Ume's fingers and began to strangle Diablo from behind.

    Kinemil had pulled himself to his feet as the crimson Soulstone in Diablo's brow began to glow. The warriors backed away a step, not knowing if this was the end, or just the beginning of a second fight. Diablo had reared back, let out a mournful death knell, and then began to shrivel and tear as his body plummeted to the ground. When it collided with the strange stone floor, there was an explosion, and a burst of energy which had blasted all the surrounding warriors into the air to land in clanking heaps away from the demon.

    When they arose, they saw nothing but a skeleton covered in ash and dust. Kinemil stayed on his hands and knees, and had crept so slowly towards the burning, crimson shard. He had reached out, and touched it.

    Apparently, the battle had been similarly desperate with Andariel beneath the Rogue Monastery, and Duriel, in Tal Rasha's tomb. And Kinemil had been there for the equally brutal battle with Mephisto. Qual-Kehk could not have possibly taken on Baal alone, even if the demon was injured. No.

    But still, Kinemil was having doubts about this mystical portal. Isenhart never would have gone. They had a society and a religion to rebuild. Isenhart couldn't expect Kinemil to shoulder all that alone. He wasn't even part of Isenhart's contingent.

    Nevertheless, he would never suspect Qual-Kehk of any sort of foul play. He had too much respect for him, as a warrior, and as a leader.

    Once more, Kinemil stepped out into the cold air. It looked as though he was the last to arrive, but it didn't seem like they were waiting for him. They were still bidding goodbye to family and friends. Arcanna was arguing with Kira, who was still insisting on coming even at this eleventh hour where she was likely certain there was no chance. Kinemil strode forward to join the party. The packhorse was already overburdened, so he kept everything on his own back.

    He turned to lay his eyes on Deckard Cain, the respected, venerated, final remnant of a failed order. But the plight of the Horadrim was legend, and despite their failures, Cain, and his predecessors, deserved a high degree of respect and honour. Those were the only things which truly mattered, after all.

    Kinemil smiled as he strode towards him. In the smooth, shining armour and with his mighty claymore at his right hand, the weakness of his religion was forgotten.

    "You walk with great purpose, Master Paladin," Cain leaned heavily on his gnarled staff.

    "I am the Hand of Zakarum, Deckard Cain," Kinemil replied gently, "my purpose is absolute, and eternal."

    Cain chuckled. "You should feel very lucky, young Kinemil," he said, and his face grew stern. "For while you may already possess such purpose, it is the search for it which drives many on this expedition."

    "I will aid them however I can," Kinemil replied confidently.

    Cain, however, did not seem quite so convinced. "The mountains of the Kae Huron . . ." he stopped. "The wind here is the stuff of legend, Kinemil. Demons and foul beasts are not all the perils you shall face."

    "I have climbed the face of Mount Arreat, Cain," Kinemil reminded, "I doubt that . . ."

    "Do not ask me how or why, for I have spent my life with my nose in books and scrolls, and have yet to study the skies of the north, but Arreat, and Harrogath, are both pinnacles of calm within a sea of madness."

    Kinemil's grin faded. "You speak not of just the weather, old man . . . do you."

    "There is talk, my boy, of whispers amongst these mountains. Voices carried on the wind from ages forgotten. Be very sure you know what you hear and who you hear it from."

    Kinemil smiled again. "These are tales, Cain, nothing more."

    "Aye? As I recall, such was the Zakarum's attitude towards the Infernal Gate and the Gidbinn. And yet, my good Paladin, here we stand."

    The young Paladin looked for any sign of jest in the aged face of Deckard Cain, and found none.

    "I shall heed your warnings, Deckard Cain," he said with a nod.

    "Be sure you do."

    Kinemil put a hand lightly on Cain's shoulder and was about to speak.

    "Kinemil."

    They both turned.

    Kinemil was certain that at one time, M'avina was a beautiful woman. The same had applied to Vidala. But now, with her face marred by dirt and scars, and her blonde hair chaotically thrashing about in the wind, she offered no attraction to him. The Priestesses of the Zakarum had always taken pride in their appearance, and worked to maintain it, but such values were lost upon M'avina, and though such a statement could apply to most Amazons - at least, the ones he had met - it was especially poignant in her. He felt sorry that her society had forced the burden of warrior upon someone who was once a beautiful girl.

    "We're going to leave, soon. You are coming, right?"

    Kinemil glanced at Cain.

    "Good luck," the sage told him with a nod, and then turned to M'avina. "You too."

    "Thank you," she returned the nod, and then looked back at Kinemil. Cain turned and trudged through the snow to where Malah and Qual-Kehk were standing.

    "Yes," said Kinemil, "I'm coming."

    M'avina nodded and made her way back to the caravan.

    Qual-Kehk was standing on the steps of his home as they all gathered at the gate. "My friends, old and new, I am going to Sescheron at dawn, and so I will not see your glorious return. But I bid you good luck and fair tidings. When I tell King Halaberd what you are to do this day, he will very probably find hope in all the blood and malice we have endured."

    If the Barbarian King still lives, Kinemil echoed the thoughts of the others around him. The reign of the king of the Barbarians was not as powerful as one might think. Because most of the tribes themselves were nomadic, Halaberd did little but settle disputes and ensure that the land was well protected. He had little sway over precisely what they did. War had never been declared by the Barbarian people; they had never left the Highlands. It was only invaders who needed to worry.

    Sescheron, and Harrogath, to an extent, were rare only in that they were permanent Barbarian settlements. There were others throughout the Highlands, but they were few and far between. Until the existence of the Worldstone had been revealed to him, Kinemil had once wondered why such a vast, powerful army of warriors had stayed on the defensive for lo, these many years. But now, he saw that they had had something which was worth defending.

    Qual-Kehk, meanwhile, had continued speaking. ". . . and whatever fate holds for our people, this will likely go down in the annals of our history. Many songs shall be sung for you."

    Between Isenhart and the other warriors who had fought Baal, the defiled church of Zakarum, and the brutally decimated Rogues, there were far too many songs to sing.

    Qual-Kehk said something that Kinemil couldn't hear, and the bystanders let out a whoop of joy and began to applaud. Even Drus was beaming as he slapped his thigh with his one remaining hand.

    The gate opened, and Kaelim led the way, with the packhorse right behind him. And then the rest of the procession covered their heads to the wind and followed the pair.

    Kinemil was at the end of the line, directly behind M'avina, who threw a cloak over her head and didn't look back once. But the paladin looked to Cain, who was the only one in the crowd not crying out in celebration. The last of the Horadrim nodded gravely to the young warrior, and he replied with a salute. Then he turned, and followed M'avina and the Barbarians into the stinging winds of the Kae Huron.
     
  6. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Chapter 5 - Blood & Memories

    Barbarian dead were placed face-up.

    This was one thing M'avina had learned in her long journey up Arreat, especially after Baal's defeat. They believed that only with their faces skyward could the spirits of the dead properly escape into the warrior heaven lorded over by Bul-Kathos - the Nephalem.

    Demon lore must have covered this as well, because in an effort to humiliate and mock the Barbarian people further, the demons would usually turn the bodies of the Barbarians to face the ground. So, since they had no time or trouble to bring every single body back to Harrogath, the search parties who had scaled the mountain had placed the bodies of their brethren face up, with their eyes open. They had all been taken down from whatever cruel tools of torture they had been placed upon, and laid on the ground, face up.

    When Scyld had told M'avina this back in Harrogath, it had seemed to her to be a righteous, hopeful thing to be doing, and she was happy.

    However, the route they were taking went up Arreat for some time, and then took a pass through the cliffs to enter the rest of the range. So now, in the foothills of Arreat, M'avina found herself stepping lightly to avoid the body of hundreds of Barbarians in varying state of decay, their lifeless eyes staring up at her. And the stench made the embalming process of the people of Aranoch seem much, much less strange.

    Amidst the scattered bodies of the Barbarians were half-burned piles of demon carcasses. All the different species of foul beasts had been collected and thrown onto huge piles and burned as best they could. But, perhaps from the winds or the snow, the fires never caught the bodies properly, and as a result, half-consumed death maulers and melted overseers were piled grossly on top of one another.

    The battlefield was a wreck. Never before had M'avina seen such carnage. Even as she had gone through the barracks of slaughtered Rogues or the rotting city of Kurast, she had been occupied with keeping alive. Now, with no threat, M'avina could truly comprehend what this had gone. She felt so guilty for being jealous of Vidala. She knew she should be happy to be alive, to have survived this horrible plight. She simply wasn't.

    The winds had died down and the snow had stopped, but Caden assured them that it was only temporary. But when the wind died, the rats came. M'avina's eyes fell on the decapitated head of a minotaur, and the rat that was picking at its tongue. She turned her gaze skyward and tried to think of other things. But even the demons seemed pitiful. The overseers' vile eyes looked sad and forlorn, peering up from a mess of a corpse that looked like it had drowned in its own girth. And the screaming faces of succubi, half seared off in the funereal fires, seemed more human than M'avina cared to admit.

    "We should rest soon," Scyld quietly suggested to Kaelim. They were on the other side of the packhorse, now, and M'avina was quite certain that they thought she couldn't hear them.

    "Not here," Kaelim insisted, equally quiet. "Not in all this."

    Scyld nodded in agreement and said nothing more.

    The caravan had seemed to grow very quiet as they entered the battlefield.

    Ume was walking with his eyes closed, M'avina saw, but he never missed a step. With so much death, here, she reasoned he would feel right at home. She felt guilty for thinking that. Ume didn't revel in death, she realized now. He simply understood it better than she. She had come to know this as he saved her and Vidala, and all their friends, over and over again, sometimes at his own risk. She knew that many of the others mistrusted him, but she didn't want to give into that mentality.

    He opened his eyes, and looked at her, and M'avina was quick to look away.

    "The only solace I take in this," said Caden slowly, "was that we did not have to murder our own." He turned to look at M'avina. "I can't imagine what it was like for the Rogues to face their sisters in battle."

    "It was terrible," M'avina replied quickly. She remembered the look on Shikha's face as she launched an arrow into the heart of a corrupted Rogue. She had seen her battle a herd of goatmen and not flinch for a moment, but there, she had been weeping openly. It had churned M'avina's stomach to watch her do it.

    She sighed. "But they soon came to realize that it was not their sisters that they fought. Not anymore."

    Kinemil made a bemused grunt.

    M'avina didn't look, and continued. "But even knowing that, it was still terrible."

    "A comforting illusion, but nothing more," Kinemil muttered.

    "Excuse me?" M'avina raised her voice. "Those were proud, upright Sisters of the Sightless Eye. They were corrupted by Andariel - they had no control."

    "No?" asked Kinemil acidly, "Then what of the Rogues who survived that atrocity? You think that the Maiden simply overlooked them?"

    "You speak a great ill of the Dead, young Paladin," Ume warned.

    "Unwarranted," Bohdan, a Barbarian at the back of the procession, assured them.

    Kinemil ignored him. "Evil does not prey on the wicked, my friends. It has no need to." M'avina noticed that he glanced fleetingly at Ume, but neither she nor the Necromancer said anything of it. "It instead looks for the moments of weakness in good men and women. The Rogues committed crimes, and we cannot choose to forget them to console ourselves. Yes, the Demon Queen had a hand in it, but she was not alone. The Rogues who fell under her influence cannot be forgiven for their mayhem so easily."

    "And what of the Paladins?" asked Jabari defensively. "The Zakarum who served Mephisto?"

    "They are even more at fault," Kinemil insisted, "they had been trained to resist the taint of evil. Yet, they fell so far."

    "Kinemil," Kaelim warned.

    "But it was the compelling orb, Kinemil," said M'avina, "you smashed it yourself." As she said it, she realized she was mistaken. It had actually been Guillame. But Kinemil didn't correct her.

    "Khalim managed to resist it," he pointed out, "the Zakarum we faced were weak hypocrites. They deserved what was given them."

    "That's enough, Kinemil," Kaelim commanded forcefully. He didn't raise his voice, but there was still more authority in it than before. "We will not speak of this here."

    M'avina turned away. Isenhart had never been so cold. But it seemed that Kinemil only learned the Paladin precepts of justice and vengeance, and not those of forgiveness and redemption. Perhaps that came with time or experience. But for all he had endured over the past months, Kinemil was still young. Maybe the corruption of his homeland had taken a more profound toll on him than she had originally surmised.

    They didn't speak for some time, and M'avina found herself lost in the dead eyes of broken allies. When she looked up, it was even worse. She felt as though they still had their eyes on her.

    Ume had closed his eyes again, and Kinemil had moved up to walk beside Kaelim, but the two didn't speak to each other. M'avina looked at Bohdan, who had his head down near the rear of the column. He had been one of Kaelim's partners in Khanduras, and M'avina had traveled with him across these many lands. It had never occurred to her until just now . . . Kinemil didn't know about Bohdan and Divo.

    She wondered, for a moment, if she should tell him. She never did.

    M'avina, unthinking, breathed through her nose for a moment. The heavy, overwhelming scent of death, rot, and failure filled her being, and she choked. She staggered, slipped on an organ of some sort, and fell backward into the mixture of bile, dirt, and blood which saturated the ground. She found herself staring into the face of a Barbarian. But he could barely be called that. He must have been fourteen years old. Maybe younger. What was left of his face had never sprouted a beard. His expression was neutral. He wasn't surprised, happy, sad . . . he just stared with broken eyes into the grey skies.

    She wasn't sure how long she was lying there, taking in every detail of this carnage. He wasn't even proud. And his hands were not those of a warrior. Harrogath had used every able body it had to face the siege. And when she looked at his hands again, she couldn't tell what his true occupation had been. She only recognized a warrior's hands.

    M'avina swallowed, and felt a heavy hand on her shoulder. She looked up. Everyone was staring at her. She could have been on the ground for a few seconds, or hours. She had lost all perspective. Bohdan was standing over her, extending a hand. She took it and hoisted herself to her feet. He looked down at the child on the ground.

    "Did you know him?" she whispered.

    "I'm not from Harrogath," he said with a shrug.

    M'avina resisted the urge to look down at the boy again. Wordlessly, the group began walking again. Arcanna had stopped trying to navigate the gore, and was letting her boots become stained by bile and blood. Every time she moved, M'avina could hear and feel the dirt gritting between the plates of her greaves.

    It was a few minutes before she did turn back to look at the boy, but she couldn't find him. They had been walking on a gentle slope, and so when she gazed back, she could see with all the more clarity all the dead on the battlefield. The walls of Harrogath were barely visible, obscured by a wall of snowy haze.

    "Gods," she mumbled, "I didn't think there were so many people in the world."

    Caden heard her, and followed her gaze. He stopped, was about to speak, but was silent, and fell into step behind the packhorse.

    M'avina stepped on broken ground. It felt familiar. She looked up, and around.

    This was where they had killed Shenk. Her knees ached.

    Ahead of them were stairs carved into the mountain path, and thick, rope rails on either side. The search parties had removed the totems the demons had placed there, topped with severed heads.

    The expedition, however, turned to the left, and was taking an obscured path flanked by sheer, smooth rocks. It looked as though a slice of the mountain had simply been cut out.

    "This is Snowgarde Pass," Caden, who had stayed close to her, whispered the explanation. "It takes us off of Arreat and into the rest of the Kae Huron."

    M'avina nodded. She would be glad to get off of this mountain. It had too many memories on the wind, and too many faces.

    Vidala had once said, "Gods bless the grandchildren I'll never have."

    M'avina didn't know what that meant.
     
  7. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Chapter 6 - Divo

    The cliffs melted away, the winds died, and the skies parted. Blue. Skies were blue here. He wasn't wearing his thick furs, and when he breathed, he could smell the wet, summer scent of marshes, not the smell of snow. There was a flower by the tent. It was black. He had never seen a flower like that before. He had fewer scars, of all kinds.

    Bohdan had met Divo when she broke Kashya's orders and followed Vidala, Kaelim, M'avina, and Bohdan himself into the monastery graveyard. He had saved her from Blood Raven's flaming arrows. They had battled a host of undead Rogues as Vidala and Kaelim took care of Blood Raven. When the former Rogue fell with a piercing scream, lightning had shot out from her writhing body and danced across the gravestones. Bohdan had dropped his halberd and fell on top of Divo, as he felt the hairs on his neck stand up. The undead fell to pieces around them. But after the electricity had fallen out of the air, they stayed on the ground together.

    "I am Bohdan," he said quietly.

    Divo was weeping, but whispered her name. A drop of blood fell on Bohdan's broad back, and he shivered. They were huddled beneath the gallows tree in the centre of the graveyard. That was why she wept.

    They didn't stand until Vidala called out for him.

    Kashya's joy at Blood Raven's death distracted her from Divo's mild insurgence, and she was not punished.

    After that, Divo barely left Bohdan's side. She told him all about the Sisterhood, and about when the Citadel was taken. The joy went out of her voice so quickly it made Bohdan feel sick. But he listened, because that was what she truly needed. She insisted on accompanying them on their journey to retake the Monastery, along with a good deal of other Rogues, too. But Bohdan suspected that it wasn't just her loyalty to the Sisterhood that drove her to do it, but a loyalty to him, too.

    He wasn't sure when they fell in love, but they did. He remembered that she was just a good friend when they slew Treehead Woodfist together and took the Scroll of Inifuss off that haunted Tree, but they were in love by the time Deckard Cain set foot in the Rogue camp.

    "I would forsake my vows for you," she said, once.

    He didn't know what those vows were, but it made him feel so much more than what he was.

    Then came the day he battled Coldcrow.

    Her skin was white, and her lips were black. She rode a grey horse with red eyes and a black mane. Bohdan was never sure if that horse was alive or not. Over her chest was the dead body of a raven, and raven feathers had been stuck into her arms and legs. Her teeth had become sharp, long, and numerous, and wrapped around one arm was the strange, root-like growth, sprouting horns at the elbow and shoulder, which marked the Rogues who had fallen under Andariel's malicious spell.

    Her name had once been Blaise.

    She came upon them in the forests by the swamp. Basanti had thought that it would be wiser to avoid the camps of fallen ones, for their Shamans dwelt there, and they made battling the fallen much more complicated than it needed to be. But Coldcrow and her cadre of archers were there waiting for them.

    There was a disturbing fervor with which the corrupted Rogues murdered their former kinswomen. Some were farther gone than others. Those ones had lost their hair, and their eyes were more devious and furious. Their features were stretches and distorted, and they were covered in the rust-coloured vines of corruption with demonic horns sprouting from various joints. Coldcrow still had her hair, but she commanded them with a grim satisfaction that terrified Bohdan to the core of his soul.

    Basanti was in the middle of saying something when five arrows suddenly grew out of her back.

    Bohdan, Divo, and the other Rogues with them stared in amazement as Basanti fell silently forward into the underbrush.

    There was a horrific moment of silence.

    The corrupted Rogues had somehow found a way to mask themselves from the discipline that was taught to the Sisterhood. The Sightless Eye could not aid them against their own.

    The demonic warcries of the turned Sisters filled the forest. Their voices sounded like there was a second one overlaid on top of it.

    One burst from her hiding, and smashed a Rogue in the side of the face with a hatchet. She fell with little ceremony. Bohdan swung his halberd and sliced off two thirds of her head as the Rogues shot a dozen arrows into her chest. Bohdan was amazed that he wasn't hit. The mist-light of her soul left her body, blinding him for a moment.

    Then they were upon them in full. Five corrupted Rogues wielding swords, clubs, and axes, and probably six of seven rising from their hiding places in the forest and loosing arrows from their bows.

    Bohdan killed two of the melee Rogues, and heard one behind him die. Divo shouted something to another Rogue, and the sound of their bowstrings thrumming filled his ears. He pulled a knife from his boot and threw it at an archer. She dodged, and he felt an arrow from another one pierce his thigh. But he had entered battle, and felt no pain. Ignoring the offending Rogue, he instead focused on the one he had already chosen, and leapt over a log to bring his polearm down with both hands upon her. She tried to dodge, and he missed her head, but clove her chest in two. The strange light climbed out of her body and evaporated into the air.

    He turned, and it was then that Coldcrow climbed the hill into view, upon her unholy steed, with an arrow on her bowstring, and a look in her eyes that held only hatred and malice. The arrow was on fire with blue flame.

    She fired and stuck one Rogue through the neck, and Bohdan realized that there were still a number of other corrupted Rogues still alive. Coldcrow had no reins on her horse, but it moved, it seemed, in the direction she wished it to go.

    "The Sightless Eye has blinked," she said in her strange, double-voice. "It cannot save you now."

    Bohdan was beginning to feel the pain in his leg as he trudged through the thick foliage to get to Divo. Another Rogue got an arrow in her chest, but fired off her last arrow as she fell, and struck the corrupted Sister who had killed her in the stomach. She was still alive, but doubled over. Divo finished her off.

    Divo fired an arrow at Coldcrow, but the horse suddenly started and caught it at the base of the neck. It flinched, but Bohdan still couldn't be certain it was alive. It occurred to him, as he crashed through a pile of sticks into the clearing, that Andariel could corrupt animals just as she did the Rogues. But had had no time to think of it. Divo and three other Rogues, two of whom were wounded, readied their arrows at Coldcrow, who kept her distance.

    She was not at all alarmed at the four arrows pointed at her face, and that alarmed Bohdan to no end. He felt the pain throbbing in his thigh, but ignored it and made as threatening a stance as he could, knowing all the while that range had him at a disadvantage, and if a warrior of Coldcrow's skill truly wished, he would be dead long before he had the chance to lay a blow. Bohdan didn't chance a look around, but knew that the corrupted Rogues had all been slain.

    Bohdan heard the choking gasps the Rogues behind him made. Divo had tears in her eyes. He knew that she and Blaise had been friends.

    "This is not Blaise," he whispered.

    She may not have heard him.

    Coldcrow sat there on her horse for several minutes, staring at them with that same malevolence and revulsion. Her hair, and the feathers she had pervaded herself with, ruffled in the wind.

    "Your old life is gone," she said, and that hollow echo made Bohdan shiver in spite of himself. She didn't even announce it. She said it all with a casual clarity that only the mad and cruel could understand. "The Monastery has fallen. Your Sisters are slain. Hope has escaped from this land, never to return. Whatever dreams you have of gloriously returning to your Citadel are only that. Dreams. Memories. Anguish has taken this land, and that is all it feels now."

    The Rogues stood still. Bohdan could hear the tautness in their strings, and in his own muscles. He felt blood and sweat drip down his leg. The arrow was still there. When he tensed his leg, his tendons caught fire, but he kept them tense nonetheless.

    Coldcrow sighed listlessly, and spat on the ground, then growled, showing her sharpened teeth. "Very well. Cling to a sinking superstition and die along with it. The earth will swallow you up just like the birds and the rats.

    The horse turned and walked away.

    None of the Rogues fired.

    Bohdan felt a tear slide down his cheek, and clenched his teeth.

    Coldcrow descended the hill into the forest.

    The Rogues lowered their bows almost simultaneously. Wendy looked at the two Rogues who had been injured. "We need to get them back to the camp," she said, and helped one to her feet.

    Divo knelt down. "Hold still," she warned quietly, and gently pulled the arrow from Bohdan's leg. It hurt very much, but he knew it could have hurt more.

    She cleaned the wound with spit and a rag she had tied around her arm. It was a rag all Rogues had tied around their arms. She had never explained that.

    She stood, and Bohdan stuck the end of his halberd in the dirt and leaned on it. She lifted his hand, put the rag in it, and closed his hand around it, holding it tightly. She leaned into him and kissed his sweating chest.

    "I love you."

    Bohdan smiled gently. "Thank you," he said sincerely. I love you too, he thought.

    He turned. Wendy and the others were a fair piece ahead of them. He sighed, looked at Divo, and began to follow them.

    He took eleven steps before he realized that she wasn't by his side. He turned around.

    Divo was standing on the crest of the hill, a fair distance away. Maybe it was only his dream, but he could see her eyes as clear as if she was in his arms. He had never seen despair until he looked into her eyes. He looked down, at the rag in his hand, still covered in his blood and her spit. He clenched it tightly in his fist.

    Divo sighed heavily, and then slowly trudged down the hill.

    He killed Coldcrow at the edge of the Monastery gate. M'avina knocked her off the horse and he sliced her in half with his halberd.

    The world turned a lighter shade of hopeless, and the smell of loss filled his nostrils. The trees turned to mountains, the blue turned to grey, and the green turned to white. He tasted ice on the wind.

    "Wake up, Bohdan," said Kaelim. "We're moving on."

    Bohdan got to his feet immediately, and followed him through the remainder of the Pass.

    He never saw Divo again.
     
  8. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Chapter 7 - Concerning Hell

    M'avina remembered the strange, hellish portals that Baal had summoned up from the earth to bring in reinforcements from the Burning Hells. Many of the Barbarians had thrown themselves into those portals to deal with the beasts within, but most of the original expedition decided against it. Once in Hell was enough. Even thinking about it brought back visceral faces of balrogs and hag demons.

    Jalal, Dimoak, and Aldur - the three Druids who had journeyed from Scosglen, had held a strange séance whenever they encountered those portals. They had said no words and made no gestures. They just stood at opposite points several feet from the edges that disappeared into fire and shadow.

    Then, the ground had shaken, and the hellish construct had staggered down into the pit below it, breaking in pieces as it went. The ground closed up, and the quakes ceased, and the Druids moved on as if nothing had happened. They were so remarkably strange. They took no pride in the powers they possessed. It was never showy. But those powers were magnificent. They wore animal pelts over their heads that had been cleaned, but never tanned. She could tell by the way the fur felt to the touch. But they never turned and decayed.

    "We ask them not to," Jalal once explained with a shrug.

    M'avina regretted that she had never spoken to any of them at great length.

    Snowgarde Pass was aptly named. The way the opposing cliffs were situated kept the path only lightly dusted with snow. In the crevices, there were even strange flowers and fungi growing. M'avina did her best to avoid the plants, even though she knew that the horse would trample them anyway.

    The Pass was surprisingly long. They rested once in the middle, where Scyld assured them it was the warmest. And when they emerged on the other side, staring at them like a bleeding, fiery eye, was one of those blasted portals in the distance.

    M'avina blinked. Then she closed her eyes tight, and opened them again, but it was still there.

    Snowgarde Pass opened into a high plateau on another mountain, which extended in a ridge which dropped away to a thin valley in the north and ascended into a snow-capped mountain to the south. Ahead, the ridge rose and fell, making veritable dunes of snow in their path. Beyond those, fog-enshrouded mountains broke the horizon.

    And on one of those dunes was a red portal tearing a hole in reality, between two obsidian pillars decorated with demonic runes and statues.

    M'avina had found that she had already put arrow to bow. No one had spoken, but they all had their weapons at the ready. The wind blew gently, and wisps of snow sinuously slithered through the air.

    There were no tracks, though. Aside from the portal which stuck out of the mountain like a splinter, the snow was completely undisturbed. M'avina kept her arm relaxed, and never pulled the string back, but her senses were straining. They had been ambushed before.

    A sudden gust of wind buffeted her hair about, and the sound of it pounding her ears was all she heard for a moment. When it stopped, Kaelim lowered his weapons.

    "Stand down."

    M'avina looked at him, saw his shoulders relax, before she put the bow back in her quiver, just to be sure it wasn't a trick of the wind. But even with weapons down, they just stared across the ivory abyss between them and the portal.

    Ume was the first to move, and stepped forward, but Kaelim gently blocked him with his axe. "No," he muttered. "There's . . . something."

    M'avina felt it too. Nothing physical, but there was . . . something. She could find no words to describe it. But there was an unease upon the wind that seemed warranted. If she was wrong, it was better to be embarrassed than dead.

    "Bohdan, Oslaf," Kaelim called, "you two take point. M'avina," - she turned to look at him - "you and Arcanna circle out on the right. Ume, Scyld, and Jabari take flanking positions on either side of us. The rest of you," he readied his sword and axe, "follow me."

    M'avina didn't look back as she trudged through the snow as Kaelim had directed. She had to walk at a healthy pace to keep up with Bohdan and Oslaf, who were armed with a halberd and spear, respectively. The main group, with Scyld and Jabari on one flank and Ume on the other, moved several paces behind the point.

    M'avina took the same arrow from her quiver and pulled it back on her bow, but kept the point low. She heard Arcanna behind her, but didn't look back. She wanted to glance at the scenery to her right, but the burning doorway hanging between the two pillars demanded her full attention.

    Unlike Jabari, Ume, and other spellcasters M'avina had met, the Zann Esu never said a word. When she was in the infirmary, she had overheard Malah speaking to the young sorceress when she had been in visiting Kira during her coma.

    "It isn't exactly a matter of reciting ancient spells or incantations," Arcanna explained in a casual, patient tone. "It's a sort of mental focus that allows us to channel the natural elemental energies through our own being, spiritually and physically. While the Vizjerei or the Ammuit bend reality to their will, we simply use reality to its full potential."

    "You must have a very intimate understanding of the world around you," Malah noted with a smile. She had always been interested in magic, and while the Barbarian society allowed equal opportunities for both genders, she was still a feminist at heart, and delighted that the Zann Esu had thrived despite the machinations of the male-dominated East working against them.

    But Arcanna shook her head. "Not so much an understanding as a relationship," she corrected. "Our discipline makes nature our friend and it's spirits our allies."

    "Almost like the Druids?" Malah suggested.

    "Similarities, but key differences in philosophy and execution," Arcanna replied. "The Druids use their magic in a much more physical sense. We regard nature as an elemental entity in and of itself."

    "How do the Zann Esu regard other magical practices?" asked Malah.

    Arcanna shrugged. "Flawed, but necessary. Existence is made up of flaws, and life is about correcting them."

    M'avina felt heat off the staff Arcanna held. She had said once that staves, when properly sanctified, could become a focal point for the energies they wielded, because, especially when using more powerful spells, those magics became dangerous to contain within the human body. By diverting it into the staff, an adept Sorceress could summon more powerful energies to aid her.

    Bohdan and Oslaf stopped, two steps from the portal.

    Kaelim held up his fist, and his group stopped.

    M'avina stopped.

    The world stopped.

    M'avina pulled the arrow back and took aim at the portal, and locked her arm, ready to loose her arrow at anything that emerged. The wind pounded in her ear again, but she continued to stare at that blasted portal before her. Bohdan had his halberd high over his head, ready for a downward strike to cleave his foe in two. Beside him, Oslaf had his spear forward and ready. Jabari's sword glowed with electricity, and a faint, shadowy fog was streaming from Ume's luminescent eyes, which were a brilliant shade of incandescent blue. Everyone had their weapons out and at the ready, waiting for something to happen.

    But nothing persisted to happen.

    In a second, M'avina imagined the countless variations on how the demons would ambush them the moment the let their caution down. The Reanimated Horde suddenly bursting from the perfect snowdrifts, or a herd of minotaurs suddenly bursting from the portal in a frenzy of blood and death. Succubi descending upon them like a hale of ravenous eagles. The fleshy tendrils of death maulers rising from the ground and entangling the hapless party.

    M'avina's shoulder ached. She guessed that she had never had to hold a bowstring taut for so long. In the battles she had faced during her quest across Sanctuary, there had never been time to hold the arrow on the bow. Always, it had barely touched the string before she had loosed it. The fights were furious and chaotic.

    She felt her tensed muscles shudder. A drop of sweat dripped into her eye and stung.

    "Athulua," she whispered a prayer, "give me strength." Though it didn't ease the pain in her shoulder, she felt better nonetheless.

    "Stand down," Kaelim commanded.

    Relief flooded her system like a comforting warmth as she lowered the bow and relaxed her arm. Arcanna exhaled loudly as the magic within her dispersed, and the heat from the staff faded. She walked past M'avina towards the portal, and M'avina followed.

    She could heard the hum of the astral energies as she neared. It was smaller than the ones they had encountered before, less grand.

    "Why did Baal summon the portals on Arreat?" Ume asked, though it sounded like he knew the answer.

    "To bring in reinforcements to block our pursuit," Arcanna answered.

    "Then, why, pray," Ume came to his point, "would he summon one outside of Arreat."

    After a moment of thought, Alaric answered. "Perhaps they wished to surprise attack Harrogath from another angle?" he suggested.

    "The druidic ward that Aust and the others summoned completely protected Harrogath," Scyld shook her head. "They would have as much luck from behind as they would from the front. Besides," she gestured to the mountainous terrain to the south, "they would have to traverse the mountains first. We would likely notice the activity."

    "Can we be certain it leads to Hell?" asked Caden.

    "Yes," Arcanna, Ume, and Jabari answered in unison.

    M'avina reached out and touched the pillar nearest her. She felt the heat coming through the portal. It was that same, malignant heat she had felt before. It was pervasive and starving. She drew her hand back suddenly from the pillar.

    "Who says Baal summoned it at all?" she asked, not looking at anything but the swirling, chaotic energies within the doorway.

    Some were perplexed by the question. "Who else could have?" asked Kinemil, a little annoyed.

    "A lesser demon, perhaps," Ume nodded his approval. "It's not impossible."

    Arcanna shook her head. "It took all the three Prime Evils to open the Infernal Gate properly. Baal had Tal Rasha's arcane knowledge, as well as his fully functional Soulstone. It takes a great deal of power to breach the dimensional barriers like this."

    "At least . . ." Kaelim began.

    M'avina nodded in horrified understanding. "It did before the Worldstone was shattered." It was a whisper but everyone heard it.

    They exchanged glances. Qual-Kehk had told them what Tyrael had told him. No one, not even the Archangel himself, knew what the implications of the Worldstone's destruction would mean.

    M'avina had been endlessly disappointed that she hadn't been with them when they had seen Tyrael in the Worldstone chamber. There was something about being in his presence that reassured her. It was as if confidence and hope were something tangible that she could wrap herself around in. There were times, when they traveled through Hell, that she felt almost in withdrawal from that feeling. She would zealously agree with anyone who suggested they go back to the Pandemonium Fortress. But then, that was no wonder, for Hell was like the reverse of that. There was a sorrow on the very air. It had the scent of infinite sadness. If they hadn't been distracted by fighting demons from the doorstep of the Fortress to the Chaos Sanctuary, M'avina was certain that the innate misery of the empty sky and unforgiving ground would drive them mad.

    Even now, she felt that same despair creeping into her heart, as if reaching out from the portal - recognizing something familiar within her, for it had tasted her spirit once before. M'avina shuddered and took a step back.

    "We need to see what's in there," said Kaelim. "Oslaf, Alaric, you two enter the portal first. M'avina, Jabari, you follow."

    M'avina felt her stomach tighten. She looked for a moment at Kaelim, and he looked as if he was about to correct himself, but she quickly nodded and stepped towards the portal. "As you command."

    He looked like he regretted asking her. She felt somehow better about herself because of that. He sighed, and took her position behind the Barbarians. Oslaf was from Harrogath, but Alaric had been part of Kaelim's traveling party. However, after the battle with Mephisto, he had stayed in the Pandemonium Fortress under the care of Jamella. Oslaf had taken part in the raids throughout the wild, but neither had ever been deeply within Hell. Jabari had traveled with them a fair distance, but it was different for the Vizjerei - for most spellcasters. Their disciplines seemed to protect them from the pervasive nature of the blasted realm, unless they were simply better at not showing it.

    Oslaf showed no signs of fear, and went forward with his weapon before him. M'avina did not know whether or not he had yet braved the burning realm, for she knew little who would so zealously return to it.

    Jabari took his place behind Alaric, while she moved in to position behind Oslaf. She heard him gulp. Perhaps the sorcerer was not as resistant to Hell as she once thought. Oslaf and Alaric rushed into the portal, and she couldn't help but hesitate before she made her move. She breathed the thin, cold air of the mountains, closed her eyes, and jumped into the portal.

    Heat enveloped her like a blanket as she exhaled the cold air into the dreadfully hot Hellish environment. It was accentuated by all the furs she wore. And then, again, it came over her, the fear and sadness pulling at her soul. But she fortified her spirit, drew an arrow, stood upright, and opened her eyes.

    The portal they had just entered from was beneath a massive gate which fell a dark corridor of stone walls carved in the likeness of screaming humans and laughing demons. But on the other side, it opened up into a massive arena, littered with the corpses, both fresh and centuries old, of demons. The living rock had seemed to grow up to form a coliseum around them, rows of ringed seats, and at the far end, was a raised veranda adorned with three thrones made of still-moving human bodies. Beyond the high seats and the throne balcony was nothing. Just the black sky of nothing.

    The rank stench of decay, a thousand times worse than the battlefields in the Highlands, overwhelmed her. She covered her mouth with the hand that held the arrow. The other three had done the same.

    Alaric looked around at the seats and the battlefield. "What happened here?" he asked them.

    Jabari shook his head. "Whatever it was, it's over now. We can do nothing here."

    "Then let's return," M'avina said hastily. She moved back towards the portal, and glanced back at them. She desperately needed out of this place.

    The second they began to follow her lead she jumped through the portal.

    Traversing such dimensional barriers seemed far too easy. There was no feeling to it. You were simply there one moment, and here the next. Aside from the bright flash of light in the transition, it was no different than walking through a door.

    She had never thought the freezing cold would be so refreshing, but with her multiple layers, it had been like being trapped in a stone oven. She was almost panting when she emerged. Oslaf, Alaric, and Jabari were all quick to follow.

    Kaelim looked at her. "What happened?"

    M'avina really didn't feel like talking, and was relieved when Alaric spoke up. "Nothing. It was a ruined battlefield, of demon on demon."

    Arcanna sighed. "No doubt remains of the civil war that has raged in Hell since the Dark Exile," she surmised.

    Jabari shook his head, uncertain. "It was different. It seemed too recent almost."

    "Was there any threat?" asked Kinemil.

    "Not that we could see," Oslaf replied. "There was no living demon in sight."

    M'avina took a few steps from the portal.

    Kaelim walked towards the portal, and put his hand up to it, but not through it. He shivered and drew back. Everyone else instinctively did the same.

    "Can any of you close it?" asked Kaelim, turning to the congregation but speaking to the spellcasters.

    Arcanna shook her head. "I wouldn't know where to begin. Ex nihilo deals with elemental energies. I barely understand Horadric portals, let alone something of this magnitude," she pointed at the shimmering portal.

    Jabari nodded, "Likewise. I can only cast which specific spells I know, and this is not among them."

    "What about you, Priest of Rathma?" asked Kinemil, raising an eyebrow and stepping toward Ume. "Your magics deal with the powers of Hell."

    "Kinemil!" Scyld snapped. "That's a terrible thing to say!"

    Ume smiled knowingly, and put a hand gently on her shoulder. "A common misconception, my child," he turned his gaze to Kinemil. "I deal in traversing the dimensional barriers between life and death, young Paladin. That is quite different than those between this world, and theirs," he nodded at the gateway.

    Caden stepped through the crowd of soldiers. "There's no threat from the other side. Could we simply leave it?"

    "I would sincerely rather not," Kaelim shook his head.

    "Nor I," M'avina chimed in. The thought of that portal's other end send harrowing chills up her spine.

    "Without a Worldstone, I certainly don't appreciate the idea of one of these portals being left open anywhere, let alone a stone's throw from Harrogath," Oslaf said, nodding back in the direction of his home town.

    "There's not a lot we can do," Scyld reasoned. "I'm not anymore comfortable with it than you are, Oslaf, but our only alternative is to leave someone here to guard this portal. And if it was a force too vast for Harrogath to handle, what forces we can spare certainly wouldn't be able to stay them."

    "And we cannot diverge from our quest," Kaelim shook his head.

    They all glanced around. M'avina's spirit sank. She knew that there was no way they could do anything but leave the portal here. But she was not at all pleased with possibility of having that portal behind them.

    Alaric sighed. "Scyld is right. Harrogath is capable of handling an assault. Though many came with us or went with Qual-Kehk to Sescheron, they still have a great many stalwart warriors to use in case of any assault."

    Kaelim nodded thoughtfully. "Then it's decided: we shall press on. Perhaps we'll deal with this portal when we return."

    Without waiting for a response, Kaelim strode past the portal and continued along the ridge. The party soon took their positions behind him. M'avina felt another knot tie in her stomach as she realized she was the rearguard. She fell into step, nevertheless, beside Bohdan, and looked down to avoid the wind.

    Her eyes strayed behind her once again to the portal, behind them. It looked like an angry, fiery eye, judging her, and peering into her mind. She hated Hell. She knew that feelings like hate only strengthened the powers of the place, but she couldn't help it. Hell had taken so much from her world. Everything about it was a violation.

    She bumped into Bohdan.

    "Careful," he warned mirthlessly, but distracted. She saw him look back at the portal, too.

    They kept walking, and got away from it with surprising speed. It was only minutes later, when M'avina looked back, that the portal was only a glimmering scorch in reality far below them.

    A strong wind deafened her for a moment.

    Bohdan tapped her shoulder. "Come, another storm's picking up. We should cross this summit before it breaks." He pointed to the other side of the valley beside them, where there was a great, snowy haze engulfing the mountains opposite them. M'avina nodded, and quickened her pace.

    It wasn't long after that she turned back, but they had crested the hill, and she could no longer see it. She didn't like leaving it behind her.

    She remembered when they left behind a den of yeti they'd been hunting in the Tamoe Mountains a few years ago.

    When M'avina had spoken to Vidala about his discomfort, Vidala had laughed. "M'avina, the present needs your attention. Not what lies behind you. Everything happens to a woman, or a man, now. Not in the past, or the future, but now."

    "You turn everything into philosophy," M'avina had chuckled.

    Vidala had grinned, but said nothing more.

    M'avina would give her bow for some philosophical wisdom from Vidala, now.

    But instead she simply ducked behind Bohdan and descended down the other side of the hill.
     
  9. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Chapter 8 - Prophecy of the Final Day

    And the voice of Bul-Kathos did not sound for some time, and he left Man to ponder what he had spoken of creation. But it would not be silent forever.

    For the Ancients came to me in a dream, and spoke of how the world would end - when fate ran dry and no more would destiny dictate the doom of this world. For chaos is the will of those who would undo all that the Great and Ancient King had worked to protect.

    And I was shown the end of the world.

    There will be fire and shadow, and from that unholy union will spring forth three powerful Lords upon three pillars of smoke. I have seen these Lords.

    Upon the pillar of white smoke is an aged man, with a Light upon his brow and a lie upon his tongue. In one hand he holds the will of Men, and in the other, he holds an urn filled with the ashes of many dead. From the white smoke spills the wailing of dread spirits, and they profess great Hatred for all who lived.

    Upon the pillar of black smoke is a great man of stature, clothed in ruined silks and torn shawls. He has two faces made as one. One visage is a demon, who laughs at the folly of Man, and the other is a man of much wisdom, who is weeping. Clasped in his hands, with many fingers, is a great maul, under which is the rubble of many cities. His smoke is as silent as yesterday's battlefields.

    The third pillar of smoke is red like blood. And at the top of this pillar is a child, standing with a spear in his hand atop the broken bodies of an old man and a great warrior. The child laughs at me, for in his other hand is my nightmare. The smoke is a face who shrieks with great terror: "Woe, woe, those warriors who wander, for ye shall be struck down in this hour and made as ruin."

    The smoke of these Lords shall flood the earth and flow through the mouths of Men. The smoke shall rise and blot out the sun.

    But a great Warrior who is Not a Man, shall hoist a sword of white fire and rally many Men behind him. He shall strike at the World with his sword, and from that blow will issue three fragments. One filled with storms and voices. One filled with gold and the sounds of battle. And one made of flesh, filled with blood and many whispers.

    The Three Brothers will be struck apart, and the skies will rage, as the Warrior who is Not a Man leads the mortal world against their rivals, who desire nothing but their demise. Many will die, and the sun shall fall, but the Three Brothers shall be buried at three of the four corners of the World. And the Fourth Corner shall not be touched, for there the World is contained. And four Guardians will be made.

    Wizards will guard Destruction in the South, and ensure that Black Smoke does not choke Man's peace.

    Scholars will guard Terror in the West, and ensure that Red Smoke does not blind Man's reason.

    Faith will guard Hatred in the East, and ensure that White Smoke does not suffocate Man's love.

    And the Ancients of Bul-Kathos will guard the World in the North, and none shall pass the might of those ones.

    But lo, there is but one place where even the Ancients may not tread. So great is its power and so mighty its secret. And this place is the Eye of the King - Nulholla Peak - where there lies a thing which shall test the children of the Eternal King. And if they prove worthy, Truth shall rain upon them, and they shall whoop in joy and song. And in the darkest hour, Truth shall be the only light within the lands of my people.

    "Aid us!" the Nephalem shall cry, and the sons of the Eternal King shall answer. "We shall!" And a warrior shall rise from their ranks and clasp the Sacred Charge, which shall forever be a sign of their Chief.

    The Warrior who is Not a Man shall throw down his sword into a great abyss, and then leave this world for ten thousand days. And the world will be a Sanctuary where mortals shall sleep peaceably, despite the petty wars of Men. And the eyes of children shall open to a new age. The sun will rise, with a golden halo about it.

    And I beheld a man beneath the earth, with a crook the colour of blood, leading children to their death. Kings of man shall falter, and the might of strong steel will fall as nought. Brother shall smite brother, and a great voice shall tremble through the veins of the world. Many will hear, and many will come. A jagged star shall fall out of the sky and pierce the black heart of a wicked king. Men shall run from their strongholds, deaf and blind, crying: "Who has done this thing?"

    And they shall converge upon the fallen temple. I saw many Men rush towards a burning fire, whose light seared their flesh. This is how it is to be - many sons and daughters of flesh shall cross a great chasm, but fall on the last step and be lost forever. But one blow shall strike true, and blood will flow as a river as the fire dies.

    Man shall whoop with joy. "Evil is no more!" they will say. "Man need not fear sin any longer!" they will say, too.

    And here I beheld a monstrous whore with hair of blood and a chalice full of many foul things. She rides atop the back of her brother, a great beast with many teeth. They are the siblings of agony, and delight in the tortures of man. At her feet are many women, prostrated as before the Immortal King, whose eyes have been taken from them; they have no eyes. And they despaired and wept with rage. A circle of tortures surround the brother and sister, and beyond them stand the fire reborn. Anguish shall consume the blind, and the Hero of the North, who arises once more, shall fall.

    And a child will cradle Terror in his breast as the heart of man falls under the shadow. A Wanderer will pass through the ancient lands, trailing chaos in his wake. The Three Brothers will be reunited as the mortal world trembles before their might. And so it was foretold that the Three, once reunited, would be shattered again - And the last of them would set his sights on the holy mount. The warnings held that their defeat would be illusory - that the final gambit had yet to be played.

    The white fire will be renewed, and my people will suffer as never before. Ruin shall come to many kingdoms, and the shadow shall linger under many kind moons. The Sacred Charge shall fall from the hands of the Chief of my people, for lo, your king is dead. But do not despair, for a warrior of your own shall climb the great plains and take up the Ancestral Guardian. New strength shall flow through him, and all my people. He shall be your Chief, and the sons of the Great and Ancient King shall be reunited firstly since the dawn of time.

    This is what I have seen, and it is what shall be.
     
  10. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Chapter 9 - The Mountain Clan

    Sleeping in the mountains was hard. No one had ever pretended that it wasn't the case. Even the Barbarians, who were used to it. It took a good deal of mental energy for M'avina to ignore the howling wind and invasive cold. And even then, she found herself waking up repeatedly in the night. Tonight, they had been lucky enough to find a snow-covered hillock. Sleeping in its shadow blocked out some of the wind. But on some nights, they had simply dug alcoves in the snow and hoped for the best.

    Mornings had been horrible, but they had kept warm enough to avoid any illness that persisted for over a half hour after they woke up. And it was hard to tell whether or not she was tired, for the temperature kept her from being anything but wide awake whenever they got on the move. But little blessings, like this Athulua-sent hillock, she did not take for granted.

    She rarely slept. The climate didn't allow it. So instead, she entered a half-sleep, relaxing her body and allowing it to rest, while remaining on the verge of conscious. They had had similar issues with the weather in Aranoch, but then, a gulp of the violet rejuvenation potions had been enough to replenish her energy as if she had been through a full night's sleep. But that wasn't a luxury they had here. What potions they had they were not sing frequently. The wounded still in Harrogath had been a priority. Malah had offered practically her whole stock, but Kaelim had insisted they take only what she could spare.

    At least on Skovos, the rains kept it from getting unbearably hot. But Aranoch had been an all-day furnace. Even after sundown, the sand was burning.

    She remembered getting up one morning. They had made camp in the desert, despite Vidala's protests. "Fine," Rehga had said acidly, "you can go back to Lut Gholein, if you so wish, but Fangskin's trail is cold enough as it is. If you want to set out from Lut Gholein tomorrow morning, you might as well give up. I intend not to."

    Rehga was a nice enough woman, but she and Vidala had never gotten along. Rehga was the leader of the three Sorceresses they had met in Lut Gholein, and while being affable, there was a presence about her that brooked no disagreement. Kaelim and Isenhart had never raised a voice against hers, and M'avina got the impression that Ume just always agreed with her. Vidala was another matter.

    But, after that statement from Rehga, Vidala had merely shaken her head and returned to M'avina and their packhorse. And so had begun the one and only night they had ever spent in the deserts of Aranoch.

    Jabari was on watch. She could see him standing some thirty feet away from the camp, casting a small fireball in his hands to keep them from going numb. Alaric was probably there, too, somewhere. Once they had gotten deeper into the mountains, Kaelim had paired everyone up. They were not to go anywhere without their partner. Even if they needed to relieve themselves, they were to collect their partner and take them with them, just to be safe.

    He had said that the Kae Huron were deadly long before Baal had arrived. M'avina's partner was Arcanna, which she didn't mind. But she could imagine the disappointment when Bohdan had been paired with Kinemil. Kaelim tried to suit everyone, but those two had never gotten along. But, they were stuck with one another. Kaelim partnered himself with Ume, and M'avina suspected it was only because he didn't want to force anyone else to deal with the aura of discomfort which Ume seemed to inadvertently convey.

    She felt Arcanna nudge her, and ignored it, thinking it was merely the Sorceress shifting in her sleep. When she did it again, though, M'avina sat up and turned to her. Arcanna had an apologetic half-grin on her face. "I'm sorry," she said quietly.

    M'avina sighed, but got to her feet and helped Arcanna to hers. Wordlessly, Arcanna led M'avina away from the camp, and they waved as they passed Jabari.

    They walked down the hill, shielding their eyes from the wind, and M'avina stood guard as Arcanna dug herself a hole in the snow some yards away. The winds, laden with snow, caused a makeshift fog around them. They could barely see the top of the hill. This snow had been of a powdery kind with little traction. Their footsteps were swept away in minutes of their passing. In the distance, on a dune of snow, she saw shadows shift behind the wind. They looked like tall men carrying a bundle. She knew it was just tricks of the wind, though. No men lived in the Kae Huron.

    She had managed to get to sleep in Aranoch despite the heat. And even if it wasn't the heat, it was the dryness. At night, sometimes the cold would return. Every now and then they got a chill wind that gave them shivers. But it lacked any sort of moisture. Nevertheless, if she smeared water over her lips before sleeping, she found she could get to sleep. But she had only spent one night in Aranoch.

    She had awakened with a start in the middle of the night with a start when Vidala inadvertently poked her in the side with the end of her bow.

    "Athulua," M'avina swore quietly. "I thought it was a sand maggot."

    Vidala smiled, bemused. She was sitting cross-legged, waxing her bowstring. "Sorry," she muttered. And, turning back to her bow: "By Kethryes, these deserts dry out my string in an instant. How have you been faring?"

    M'avina laid down again. "I haven't noticed."

    Vidala shoved her playfully. "That's because you never wax your damn string. I'm telling you, M'avina, one of these days it'll snap and it'll be the end of you."

    "I barely retain your words of wisdom when I'm fully awake, Vidala. Why would I remember them when I'm half asleep?"

    Vidala chuckled as M'avina turned away from her. "Try not to poke me anymore?"

    "What was that?" Vidala whispered harshly.

    "I said try not to . . ."

    "Shh!" Vidala had no humour in her voice. M'avina sat up. Vidala's hand had frozen on her string, and her eyes were wide and alert. "There's something out there."

    "M'avina!" the trance-breaking shout had her reflexively putting an arrow to her bow, though she knew it was Jabari's voice.

    "Jabari," M'avina chided, stepping towards him, "Arcanna needs her privacy!"

    "Have you seen Alaric?" Jabari asked breathlessly.

    "Jabari, get out of here," M'avina shook her head. But Arcanna had already finished, and was looking at the ground some distance away. "M'avina, take a look at this."

    There were tracks in the snow. M'avina looked at Jabari a moment before trudging through the snow to Arcanna. "What's wrong."

    "Hoofprints," Arcanna noted.

    M'avina shook her head, moving her fur cloak up to block the wind. "No, look at how they're arranged," she pointed. "Those were made by only two legs. It's probably just Alaric making a wide patrol." Even as she said it, she came close enough to see the tracks. Arcanna was right. They were made by hooves. A biped with hooves. That meant only one thing . . . demons.

    "Demons?" Arcanna's eyes went wide, "are you sure?"

    M'avina hadn't realized she'd said it aloud. She squinted into the distance, and followed the line of tracks into the enveloping snowstorm. They led right to where she had seen the shadows. The shadows with the bundle.

    "I saw something before," she said quietly.

    "What?" Jabari shouted above the quickening winds.

    "Demons! I saw them, they have Alaric!"

    Jabari blanched. "No!"

    "Can you be sure of what you saw?" Arcanna demanded.

    Jabari turned. "We must go; arouse the others," he said.

    "No!" M'avina stopped him. She felt her heartbeat quicken. After all these months, she should know better than to assume that shadows were only shadows. But the snowstorm was doing its work, and the tracks were vanishing before her eyes. "If we go back, we'll lose the trail."

    "Then I'll get Kaelim, and you follow the tracks," Jabari suggested fervently.

    "We don't know how many there are, Jabari," M'avina shouted. She looked at the ground again. "We don't have time for this! We all need to go - now!"

    With that she turned and ran as fast as the deep snow would allow. He's going to turn around, she thought. Jabari will go back. But when she turned to look, Arcanna and Jabari were both a few yards behind her. She would have sighed, had she possessed a spare breath. Jabari had fought alongside the multitude of adventurers beneath Tristram. He had been a novice then, he had explained to her, and by the sound of it, a battle-eager youngblood. But the dreadful experience had nullified that sense of adventure and replaced it with a sense of duty. Only now, he was cautious, not only of himself, but of his comrades. Sometimes M'avina praised Hefaetrus for a companion with such qualities, but other times, she cursed him for being such a bother. Luckily enough, this time was the prior.

    She felt strangely confident following the fading tracks with those two sorcerers behind her, and couldn't help but feel proud of herself for taking charge. It was really the first time she had ever needed to. Vidala had always been there before.

    Though it had been at Rehga's insistence that they had stayed out that night, Vidala had taken charge the moment the attack had let up. One of Greiz's spearmen, who had agreed to accompany them, had been killed. M'avina couldn't remember his name. Their packhorse had been mauled, and was dying. M'avina had felt horrible for leaving him there with life still in his veins. He had served them well. But the sabre cats had taken Paige, one of the Rogues who had come with them from the mountains, and they had all seen enough blood shed. Paige was so young, affable, and eager to help them. No one wanted to see her come to harm. They had picked up their weapons and left the camp immediately.

    Fangskin and his thieving vipers were forgotten. Now it was the catwoman, Bloodwitch, who was their target.

    Vidala had never blamed Rehga, but they never spoke through that night. One good thing about the desert was that the lack of rain meant lack of clouds, and the illumination from the half-moon was glorious. Nevertheless, M'avina had stayed close to the group, with Vidala and Kaelim in the lead following the tracks. Looking at the rest, she had seen them doing the same, save Isenhart, who had been bringing up the rearguard several yards behind the main group. Even with the brilliant light, M'avina had known that sand maggots could burst from their hiding beneath the sands, and did not doubt that the claw vipers had similar tactics.

    The wind had died completely, which was unusual, being so close to the sea, but it kept the impressions in the sand intact.

    Vidala had quickened her pace, readying her longbow, "We're gaining on them. Paige may be putting up a fight and slowing them down."

    Kaelim had hefted the Blacktongue sword in both hands and nodded in agreement. "They're likely over this next dune."

    The whole party had sped up to gain on them and they were over the dune in seconds. And before them, sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of an empty plain, was the entrance to an underground tomb.

    Haseen had gasped, and swore in a language M'avina didn't know, but then he said. "The Halls of the Dead."

    With a name like that, she doubted it would grant them any solace.

    But there had been nearly a dozen of them, then. And now, before the mouth of the great cave they had come upon, only three stood.

    M'avina had taken a substantial lead over the spell-casters, and she waited for them to catch up, and catch their breath. The mouth of the cave was massive, and it disappeared into blackness rather quickly. Paige and Shikha had been essential every time they had come into a dark place. M'avina sighed, and lowered her gaze to the ground. The snow was a mess of hoofprints. She knelt down to get a closer look. The mountain protected the mouth of the cave from the wind, so the ground here had not been blown over.

    "There's at least a dozen of them, I think," she muttered to the others. "Maybe more. They've been coming and going frequently."

    Arcanna tapped her lightly on the shoulder, and when M'avina looked, the Sorceress pointed to the interior wall of the cave. There was an ax leaning against it. Jabari took some tentative steps towards the cave. Then, he held his shield forward, and uttered an incantation. The gem at the centre glowed white, and the face of the buckler illuminated like a lantern. The shadows retreated, and they could see the chamber rather clearly.

    What was most interesting wasn't the unlit firepit, or the animal furs strewn about, or the multiple corridors which branched off from this main chamber, but it was the crude hieroglyphs carved into the walls. There was no one in this chamber.

    M'avina and Arcanna followed the Sorcerer slowly into the cave entrance.

    "Stop!" Shikha had said sharply, though quietly, holding her arm out to halt the rest of the party from continuing into the tomb. She had turned to Regha. "Your staff," she whispered quickly. Regha had handed it over, and Shikha had pressed the end down lightly on the sand-covered tile in front of her. She had to apply more force, and suddenly, a line of spikes had jolted upwards out of the floor. A collective start had gone through the party. Shikha had stood, and had handed Regha her staff.

    "Be careful," the Rogue had warned, and then, stepping over the spikes and readying her bow, she had continued.

    But this cave was not booby-trapped, thank Athulua. Without the eerily accurate intuition of the Rogues, they would have been at its mercy.

    Jabari shone his light on the wall, and M'avina squinted to distinguish the strange markings. A sharp, fragmented script was written beneath some of the images. It barely looked like a language. There were pictures of human-like creatures, with horns, battling each other. Then, what looked like three broken stones, and then, the creatures who had been battling were standing side by side, and the final image was of a mass of these horned creatures running through a circle. M'avina couldn't completely understand.

    From behind, they heard a rattling of stones. Jabari turned his light on the corridors, just as a tall, lean goatman emerged. The demon looked up at them, surprised, and before he could blink, M'avina had loosed an arrow into his throat. He fell immediately, trying to scream but unable to. The three humans watched him writhe for a moment before going limp.

    "Goatmen," Arcanna murmured. She turned. "What are they doing here? I thought the clans were populating the Western Kingdoms."

    Jabari looked back at the marks on the wall, and ran his hands over them. He came to the image of the goatmen fleeing into a circle. "The portal!" he exclaimed quietly. "Outside Snowgarde. They must have opened it and escaped into the Kae Huron."

    "Goatmen are not well equipped, magically." Arcanna shook her head. "To say the least, they haven't been when I've ever encountered them, and the Vizjerei libraries concur."

    Jabari nodded, but then raised an eyebrow. "You were allowed into the Vizjerei libraries?"

    Arcanna glanced furtively at him. "Not exactly."

    "But that means," M'avina continued Arcanna's train of thought, "that someone must have opened the portal for them."

    They paused. M'avina shook her head, as if to clear a haze. "None of this matters," she said, "we need to find Alaric." She turned to the three corridors.

    "Let's split up," said Arcanna.

    "No," M'avina and Jabari said in unison. After exchanging a glance, M'avina continued. "This is their home. We don't know how many there might be. We'll have the best chance of getting Alaric out of here alive if we stick together. None of us would fare terribly well in single combat."

    M'avina looked at the doorways before them. She didn't want to stress the importance of finding the right one. If they accidentally stumbled into a convocation of the demons, and no Alaric, then they would never be able to make it out in time with him.

    The ground was stone, and told her nothing except that the ground was frequently trod upon. Each hallway was the same. Arcanna and Jabari had their spells at the ready in case another goatman inadvertently walked into the main chamber.

    The middle hallway had snow still on the floor, which had yet to melt away. M'avina didn't like to rely on something so potentially circumstantial, but it was the best she had to go on.

    "This way," she said, confidently enough, and, putting an arrow to string, she crept slowly into the hallway. Jabari dimmed the glow on his shield so as not to alert any of their approach.

    As they continued, M'avina noticed a cold breeze coming through the hall. She told her companions. "This corridor must lead outdoors again."

    They soon came to the end of the hall, and M'avina was right, it did open up. A fog-enshrouded courtyard, it seemed, was in the middle of this cavernous network. They heard the guttural laughter of the demons, and saw the glow of a fire through the thick, shifting fog.

    "Bloodgutter!" they said, suddenly, in unison, and laughter ensued. M'avina halted and crouched at the cave door, and signaled for them to do the same.

    "A toast to Bloodgutter!" said one individually. His words were hard to distinguish under his bestial accent. "Our leader to freedom!" More laughter.

    And then another, lower voice hushed them, and he spoke with a much clearer voice than his brethren, despite a trace of goatish dialect. "My friends! We have slaved, we have fought, and for what? For the amusement of our masters? Fodder for man of Sanctuary? Bhaagh! Our masters are dead. And these mountains are free of those clever apes."

    "Save one," a more feminine demon chuckled.

    "The first," Bloodgutter replied, "And with hope, the last."

    "Baaa!" another cursed. "Let them come! This one was easy enough to subdue, weren't you, primate!" There was laughter. M'avina's eyes widened. Alaric was there.

    Bloodgutter said something M'avina could not distinguish. She figured it must be a curse, or perhaps the demon's name. "Braghkga! Fool!" there was a short scuffle. "You were not there, in Tristram. I managed to escape those tombs and return to Hell, but many of our brethren were not so lucky. These men, they are weak alone, but mighty in numbers. Our master was always right. They should be destroyed. If not for our other Lords, we may have been victorious, but their voices were greater than Baal's. If the campaign in Tristram had not been so subtle, we would have wiped them out. Instead, we lost three full clans beneath that blasted town, and if not for that other survivor, we would still be trapped in Hell, locked in battle with each other for the amusement of our lords. Forget whatever clan you came from! The hatreds must be put aside. Many clans are one clan. We are the Mountain Clan."

    M'avina silently drew an arrow from her quiver and set it on her bow.

    "A toast, then," said the female, "A toast to the Snowmaiden!"

    "And," Bloodgutter reminded her, "to our mighty generals, who united us under one banner!"

    There was an uproar of caprine cheering, and M'avina took the opportunity to turn to her fellows. "We need to use the fog to our advantage," she whispered quickly, "they won't know how many of us there are. I know how to make it seem like there are more warriors in the area, if you have any spells or talents with similar purpose, use them."

    The clamour around the fire died, and M'avina motioned for silence from her comrades as they prepared their weapons.

    "Yes," said the obscure voice, "This human shall be a good sacrifice to her memory."

    M'avina drew the arrow back on her bow, aimed at the sound, and released. Even as she did, the two casters burst from their hiding place, and M'avina stood and rushed into the fog. The arrow struck true, and she heard the sound of confusion and surprise from the other goatmen.

    "This is a human weapon!" the female demon cried out, and then bayed in their strange, caprine way, likely calling for help.

    The fog lit up with lightning flashing to and fro, and various other magical missiles. And the familiar sound of Arcanna teleporting from one place to another told M'avina that they were heeding her advice. Had she not known better, she would assume that a slew of sorcerers were invading this camp.

    M'avina followed the wall and climbed onto a small plateau, and tossed rocks in such a way as to mimic rushed footsteps in other areas. Vidala had been a professional at the art of decoys, and though she had taught M'avina well, the teacher far surpassed the pupil. Nevertheless, these demons sounded far too panicked to pay close attention. She followed the sound of a pair of hooves and fired another arrow, pleased at the caprine scream of dismay that replied.

    A vortex within the fog cleared up some of the area as Arcanna threw a fireball at an offending goatman. It exploded before him and sent him flying back into the re-enveloping mist. M'avina's eyes darted to and fro. She couldn't find Alaric.

    M'avina saw a goatman move in and out of the mist, and launched an arrow at him. He cried out in pain, and turned to find the source of his agony. M'avina used his moment of confusion to finish him off with a shaft between the eyes. She heard the light hoof-fall a moment too late. She turned her head to see a tall goatman standing behind her, a mace raised above her head. She quickly turned as the mace fell, and it struck her in the shoulder, sending her onto her back. M'avina bit the inside of her cheek to bear the pain, and kicked him away, then swiftly put arrow to bow and fired at his hand. At this range, the arrow didn't pierce very far, but it caused him to start and drop the mace.

    M'avina quickly curled up her leg and kicked at his. When that did nothing, thanks to the backwards joint of his heel, she instead jammed her foot behind his hoof and pulled it forward.

    Her shoulder forgotten, M'avina lunged forward, readying another arrow, but the demon grabbed her arrow and tore it away, then punched her in the face. M'avina coughed in surprise, dazed by the blow, but fought to regain herself.

    "Foolish human!" the goatman cried, and grabbed her bow, wresting it from her grasp, and threw it away. He spoke with little caprine accent. This was the demon who had led the assembly. This was Bloodgutter. M'avina convinced herself not to panic, and put some distance between herself and the goatman, readying herself for a fistfight.

    "I recognize the wizard you travel with," Bloodgutter noted. He didn't make any advance, but his muscles were tense, and his knees were coiled in anticipation. "He was there. He was below that accursed town. What a vengeful mistress providence is to deliver him from there to here. Do you know how many of my brothers died to the hands of him and those like him?"

    "I don't care," M'avina spat reflexively. She wasn't really listening, she was thinking about what she could do. She had a small dagger in her boot. She used it primarily for skinning animals or preparing food. She felt either a drop of blood or sweat drip down her arm. It was probably sweat. There were also the loose rocks on the ground. Bashing in his skull seemed rather crude, but she wasn't very picky.

    Bloodgutter's yellow eyes narrowed. "No, of course you don't. And yet, here you are, up here in the mountains with your warrior friend and two wizards. You and your band have the scent of Hell on you, and there would be no reason to come here from there unless you were servants of some new power in our mother realm; sent to punish us for finally escaping." He seemed rather pleased at coming to his conclusion. "Well, I pledged my life to one being only, the father of my people - Baal; killed by ones like you, I've heard."

    The sounds of clamour in the courtyard below suddenly grew. M'avina heard Arcanna grunt, and heard steel strike steel, and heard lightning crackle through the air, and heard goatmen bleating in agony. But her mind remained focused on the form of Bloodgutter.

    His muscular, bare chest was adorned only with a necklace made of human fingers, at different rates of decomposition. His torso was almost human, but his shoulders seemed too broad for his waist, and his hands a little too big for his forearms. Crimson liquid dripped from his shoulders down his chest, but she thought it was just dye made to look like blood and not the real thing. His face held more sentience than a goat, and his legs were thick and furry, down to his ebony hooves. The only piece of clothing he wore was a belt, obviously of human make, though there was a single, human palm - with no fingers - on the clasp, still fleshy and fed upon by still maggots. There was a sling on one side, likely for the mace he had dropped, and a small, patchy pouch on the other. She didn't know what was in it.

    Of course, she absorbed all this in a moment.

    He took a step forward. She took a step backward. "I am no servant of Hell," she said darkly, through clenched teeth. She had been fighting the Prime Evils for months. How dare he imply that she served their usurpers.

    "You are a human of Sanctuary, an ambassador from a race that hates us, who has been through Hell, a realm which used and betrayed us. The only humans who leave Hell are those who barter their way out. Though I admit, they rarely remain in such a human form as your own." Bloodgutter explained all this to her rather slowly. "But whichever realm you do represent, it is no matter. I have come to this place to seek refuge from the tyranny of Hell and the vengeance of Sanctuary. You would have been wise to leave us to our peace."

    "Peace?" M'avina laughed out loud at the idea. "You yourself say you're a child of Baal. You were made to desire nothing but destruction."

    "And what is there to destroy in the desolate expanse of the Kae Huron?" Bloodgutter bellowed. He waved his arms to indicate his surroundings. M'avina drew back, fearing a strike. He didn't notice. "You humans may be quick to embrace your heritage, but we came to this place to escape ours." He averted his eyes to the courtyard for a moment. "Our time grows too long, and I have your friends to deal with as well," he noted rather casually.

    He raised his hands, and charged. M'avina quickly lifted her foot and drew the hunting knife, then sidestepped and sloppily swept the knife as he passed. She felt it struck, and was pleased to see blood seep from a wound along his forearm. He stopped and turned. M'avina lunged, her knife overhead, and her caught her arm but she knocked him onto his back, with his head over the edge of the plateau. Bloodgutter held her arm up with one hand, struggling against her, and then clasped her neck in his other. M'avina felt his large hand tighten, and choked. She felt the blood from the arrow-wound on his hand against her neck.

    M'avina groped around with her free hand under it fell upon a fair sized stone, and, picking it up, she swung it and struck him in the eye. Bloodgutter bleated pitifully, and reflexed, pushing her away, while releasing the hand. But as he drew away, the knife sliced through the tendon on his thumb. She had lessened her grip when she picked up the stone, and the knife was pulled from her hand. She put a second hand on the stone, and rushed towards Bloodgutter. He saw her with his remaining eye, and grabbed the edge of her armour, just as she brought the stone down with a resounding grunt of exertion upon his head. She heard something crack, and he screamed. He fell back, off the plateau, but his hand remained fixed around her armour, and she felt herself being pulled off with him. She fell for a moment, and then landed on her shoulder in a thin layer of snow. The pain of the wound in her shoulder exploded, and she cried out a moment, before rolling onto her back, ready for another round.

    But Bloodgutter had landed nearer to the wall, face down, with his limbs settling in unnatural positions. The blood seeping from his face was not encouraging. Bloodgutter was dead, and the battle had died as they fought. M'avina righted herself onto her knees, and then peered forward as the mists before her parted. Parted like the darkness in that desert tomb.

    She remembered that the lash across her face from Bloodwitch's whip had stung as she tread slowly down the hallway, the torch in her hand. M'avina had been leading, with Alaric beside her, and Shikha behind them. The rest had stayed back to marvel at the Horadric cube that Bloodwitch had been protecting. M'avina had, even then, had no idea what to expect down this hallway. She had been rather occupied with the wound on her face, and had secretly hoped that it wouldn't scar. Perhaps, she had thought, Fara could heal it, though even her magics did not remove scars. Atma knew some remedies. Lysander could always be a final option, but he always demanded money, and she had always had little to spare. Drognan was an alternative, but he . . .

    Her thoughts had turned from the wound to the room before her, as the torchlight had frightened the darkness away only to a point, and she had no idea what horrors lurked beyond there. She had heard Alaric, beside her, ready his polearm. There had been no sound in the room. No sound but quick, furtive breaths.

    The light had fallen upon the inverted face of Paige. Two pillars had been torn down and laid upright, crossing each other, to make a slanted X. Paige had been laid upside down, nailed into the pillars. She had been crucified, and a final nail had been jammed into her sternum. Blood had poured down to drip off the end of her neck. She had been trying very hard to lift up her head.

    M'avina had been horrified, and had expected Shikha to break down into tears, but instead, she had moved swiftly towards her Sister and knelt down beside her. M'avina had noted, upon further, grisly inspection, that the nail in her left hand had been off-centre, and had taken off two of her fingers. Shikha had set her bow gently on the ground.

    She had hushed Paige soothingly, wiping blood off her face with her glove. Paige had relaxed her neck, letting it drop down, and had managed a few more gasps of air before she had died.

    Shikha had bowed her head, and M'avina and Alaric had stood together in silent reverence. Then Shikha had untied a rag Paige had around her arm. Every Rogue had one. Shikha had taken that strip of cloth, unfolded it, and wrapped it around Paige's head, as a blindfold.

    "I take your sight," Shikha had whispered ceremoniously, as she tied the knit, "for sight is a lie. May the Sightless Eye guide you to peace." And with that, she had knelt down, and kissed Paige on the forehead. Then she had stood, and walked past M'avina and Alaric without saying a word. M'avina had wanted to ask Shikha if they should just leave her there, but had not wanted to be the first to speak. She took one look at Paige before following Shikha out of the room. The tombs of Aranoch had been the only solace from the heat in the desert.

    And in the mountains of the Kae Huron, she felt hot again, sweat dripping from her brow. Her personal exertion was more fundamental than the creeping cold. As the fog cleared, M'avina let herself fall back to sit on her shins, as a wave of futility swept over her. She saw two feet, wrapped in leathers and fur, sway back and forth in the air, and there was a faint sound of a rope stretching. The fog retreated more, and she saw Alaric's full body, hanged upon a crude gallows, swaying from side to side in the gentle breeze. Then the fog swept in again, and covered him up, so that all that remained was the sound of the rope swaying back and forth.

    The sun had been rising on the sea when they trudged back to their camp, which had since been disturbed by vultures and other desert creatures. M'avina had knelt at the body of their packhorse, and had felt the side of his neck. He was dead. More importantly, he had died alone. She had never forgiven herself for letting that happen.
     
  11. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Chapter 10 - Face in the Window

    They had set out from their camps in groups of four to find the four missing members of their party. Each was given a rune which Ume had enchanted. The winds were still furiously stamping out any trace of their passing, and the spirits Ume communed with would lead them back to the camp, which Oslaf and Hoku had remained behind to guard. They were in too much of a hurry to be uneasy with the fact that the spirits of Rathma probably meant ghosts of some sort. At least, that's how Bohdan figured.

    Kurast was chaos. After the hordes of corrupted Rogues, Aranoch had seemed like a relief. That sense was diminished after the traumatically bloody battle with Duriel, but still, there was a conventional appeal to fighting in the open sands rather than the writhing shadows of the mountain forests and the convoluted monastery. The architects had apparently kept in mind, when designing the citadel, that its inhabitants would have an innate and accurate sense of direction (granted, of course, by the Sightless Eye), and as such, the caverns were repetitive and confusing. Bohdan was the first to admit he was not among the cleverest of men, and knew that he wouldn't have lasted long without a Rogue to guide him through that labyrinth.

    But to go from the liberating space in Aranoch to the dense, overgrown jungle swarming with a thousand creatures ravenously bent on his demise was like fighting with weights on his shoulders - a tedious task he had done once in training and hoped to Bul-Kathos to never do again.

    And Kurast was humid. Vidala had said that Kurast would be quite a blessing after the nigh-unbearable heat from Aranoch. She had said that the jungles were cool where she came from. But for one thing, the Amazon Isles were much farther south than Kurast. For another, they had the descending breezes from Mount Karcheus on Philios which kept all three islands' temperatures low, and finally, they were on the sea. Kurast had none of these luxuries, and so the dampness on the air was thick and choking, especially for one raised in the mountains such as he. The steppes may have been relatively low, compared to the other highlands, but the air was still thinner than it was in the southern lands of their massive kingdom. But in Kurast, it felt like the air he was breathing was too big to fit in his lungs. He found himself tiring out easier than usual during battles.

    Alaric suffered similarily. Kaelim, on the other hand, seemed to barely notice.

    Kaelim was from the Crane Tribe, too, but his mother had been from the Shadow Wolf Tribe, which perhaps accounted for his natural affinity for the axe and sword. Alaric was full-blooded Crane, and used a polearm like Bohdan. Hoku was from the Bear Tribe. Whereas Kaelim, Alaric, and Bohdan had set out together to go adventuring together, Hoku was a loner they met with the Rogues. But he had traveled with them since then, and battled at their side. Bohdan was proud to call him friend and brother.

    Bohdan shook his head. He had been trying to remember something. He had been trying to remember a face. It was a face he had glimpsed for a moment in Travincal. Besides, thinking of Kehjistan made him feel warm despite the cold. He could see it as clear as day. Say what you would about his mental capacities, but Bohdan had a vivid memory.

    "This is foolish!" Vidala would have shouted if she had felt comfortable raising her voice. But the trees of Kurast were filled with evils that they did not want to alert.

    Isenhart sighed impatiently. "Look," he said, and unfolded the map of Kurast on the small box table in the centre of the raft, which Bohdan was staying close to purely out of fear of the water. It wasn't the water itself, per se. The Crane Tribe lived on the rivers, but the rivers of the lower Steppes weren't filled with all manner of carnivorous, and now, demonic creatures.

    Isenhart looked over the city map, with small Kehjistani markers of important areas. "Milabrega is using most of the Paladins to carve a way through the jungle, but the armies of flayers are certainly no help. It could take her days to reach the city. Diablo and Baal are probably already there by now. And breaching the city won't exactly help - Mephisto has a substantial number of followers to protect him."

    "I know all this," Vidala nodded, with equal impatience. "And let me explain this to you. We're wasting our time and risking our lives looking for trinkets which may not even assist us, when we should be lending our help to Milabrega and the Paladin army."

    "Vidala, please listen to me," Isenhart pleaded. "Once Milabrega breaks through the city's defenses, it will be chaos. The Zakarumites will flood the streets, if Ashaera's accounts are at all accurate. We won't have time to go looking for things then. If we perform a hit and run operation like I'm suggesting, we can get in and out with the artifacts we need."

    "Why don't we take care of this after we've routed the Zakarumites?" asked M'avina, eager to defend Vidala's viewpoint. They all paused momentarily to keep their footing as the raft turned a corner.

    "The zealots may not be quite so easy to route, M'avina," Isenhart explained. "We may have the true Light on our side, but they have numbers on theirs. Milabrega's plan," he said, tracing a line on the map, "is to battle her way through the zealots and straight for the Guardian Tower. Now," he continued with a sigh, "if Cain is right, then the Compelling Orb being used to control the Zakarumites is there, under the protection of the High Council, and at least two Archbishops, according to our intelligence. So, if Milabrega raids the Guardian Tower and destroys the Orb, the Zakarum will fall out of Mephisto's control."

    "But the Orb is an embodiment of hatred," Regha shook her head, listening from the bow of the raft. "It cannot be destroyed by an outright violent act. So unless you can come up with a way to smash it without damaging it, that will be no easy task."

    "Cain thinks that if we attack it with the spirit of the one thing Mephisto was never able to touch, we can break it, and the spell," Isenhart explained.

    "Khalim," said the dark-skinned Sorceress, Eschuta.

    "No, Kaelim," Kaelim corrected her.

    Regha rolled her eyes. "No, Khalim. The former Que-Hegan of the Zakarum. Senkekur and the other Archbishops fell under Mephisto's influence, but Khalim resisted. So the Archbishops killed Khalim and Senkekur usurped his position."

    "Cain thinks the same," Isenhart nodded.

    "But how?" asked Jabari, at the stern with a silent Kinemil, and handling the rudder. "According to the story, Khalim was dismembered and scattered through the jungle."

    "Yes," Isenhart grinned, "which is why we need Lam Esen's tome."

    "What?" Vidala was thoroughly confused. "Lam Esen, the Skastimi sage of legend? What does he have to do with any of this?"

    "Lam Esen wrote a book, apparently very cryptic when read out of context, which was said to prophesy these very events we live through right now - the return of the Prime Evils. In retrospect, much of it foretold the corruption of the Faithful, as well. It may tell us what we need to know to break this spell."

    "That's a big may," Vidala pointed out. Bohdan chuckled at that.

    "We've got little else to go on," Isenhart protested. "Regha's right. Alone, no act of violence can harm a device of hatred. And as long as the Compelling Orb is intact, we cannot win this. I can say that with certainty. We're at the disadvantage because we're trying to get into an easily defended area, and also, they have us at the simple disadvantage of numbers. If each warrior in our service killed five of theirs, we'd still have half of their forces to contend with."

    Vidala glanced at M'avina, and then sighed. "All right, well where's the Book?"

    "The Black Book was the main religious text for the Skatsim," Isenhart explained. "During the initial stage of the Inquisition, such documents were rooted out and taken from public eyes, deemed evil propaganda. They were taken to the underground temples throughout Kurast and kept there."

    "There are underground temples?" Vidala looked at him critically.

    "Yes, beneath several altars throughout the city. They were used for private worship by the Faithful who had joined one of the orders. The general public wasn't aware of them."

    "On the Isles," M'avina said smugly, "every temple is open to every person, despite their class." Isenhart gave her a sidelong glance but said nothing. Bohdan was a little surprised at M'avina. Isenhart's world had been proved to be a falsehood, and everything he believed in had been corrupted. It was unlike M'avina to rub his face in it.

    "How many temples are there?" asked Eschuta.

    "Six," Isenhart replied. "Two under the marketplace, two under Upper Kurast, and two adjunct to the Causeway. I suggest we make two teams. We raid one second of the city, strike at both temples at once, and then regroup and move on to the next one. I'll lead one team, and Vidala the other."

    Bohdan had half-expected Regha to object. He couldn't see her from his angle, but he doubted that she was thrilled. "I'll take Eschuta, Bohdan, M'avina, and Jabari, and you take Kinemil, Regha, and Kaelim. Will that do?"

    Vidala paused. "This seems like a waste of time. We should be with Milabrega and the others. Lam Esen's tome could just be another dead end."

    "Don't underestimate the Old Religion," Eschuta warned Vidala. "The Gidbinn's usefulness to us should prove that it's teachings have merit."

    Vidala nodded to her, and then turned to Isenhart. "Very well."

    Eschuta's dialect and appearance told Bohdan that she was a native of Kehjistan, and she had been helping Milabrega when they had arrived from across the sea. Though they had never spoken to each other about their pasts, Bohdan suspected that she was a follower of the Old Religion.

    Hratli had told him that Sorceresses were a vexing people in Kurast; that many male-dominated Mage Clans were not pleased with their existence, and it wasn't just sexism. The Zann Esu were the only clan who had never been a part of the Horadrim, and as such, had never been a part of the brutal Clan Wars. There seemed to be a jealously against those who had learned the secrets of magic without paying a price in blood. So being a Sorceress in Kurast did not mark a popular woman. A Skatsimi Sorceress, however, was just asking for trouble. Eschuta had few friends in the city. And yet, here she was, defending it. Bohdan respected her a great deal for that.

    Aside from a quick debacle with a young tentacle beast, the trip down the river was uneventful.

    Kinemil and Jabari moored the raft on one of the algae-covered stone staircases that served as permanent docks on the rim of the river. There was a small, hooded boat lashed to a tree and bumping into the docks at every ripple in the current. Bohdan caught sight of a long-dead arm hanging from the side. He cringed.

    Everyone stepped carefully up the slippery stairs until they were on the swampy grass. Bohdan and his comrades looked out at Kurast.

    The first thing that drew the eye was, of course, the Guardian Tower, which was visible even from his current vantage point. The taller buildings of Upper Kurast blocked the temple itself, which Bohdan had heard was quite impressive. And all around him were the low, crude buildings which served as the market, overgrown with the insidious jungle, saturated with the blood of thousands.

    They had been forced out quickly, he had heard from the survivors at the docks. But he hadn't entirely conceived what that entailed. Bags of fruit had rotted. Stands were still erect with nuts and grains, and batches of bananas had turned back from lack of attention. And then there were the dead. Peering into any building revealed the piled up bodies of Kurast citizens, and some bodies hadn't even been cleaned up. They were scattered throughout the city, some more far-gone than others. They lay in the middle of the roads, propped up against walls or tree trunks, or thrown in the reservoirs. The city reeked of a dank and humid death.

    "Even the mad spirits have left this place," Eschuta whispered. "We shall be granted no boons, here." She raised her orb and stepped forward.

    Isenhart led them stealthily through the marketplace, avoiding patrols of Zakarumites. He noted wryly that evading them would not be so easy once they reached nearer to Travincal, where the zealots were likely to be accompanied by the magically-attuned priests.

    They reached a broken-down temple, killed the few guards there, and Isenhart directed Vidala to activate the trick-staircase which lead down into the fane. He warned her to be cautious before leaving to find the second temple.

    Isenhart slowed them behind a ruined smithy. "There," he said, pointing with his elegant Lightbrand.

    A dozen Zakarumites, wielding swords, maces, and polearms, were milling about aimlessly at the foot of a two-story, windowless building surrounded by a narrow moat. A wide staircase ascended shortly to a landing, which continued to an entrance on the second story. The building's design seemed inefficient. It seemed like a lot of masonry for not much room. A hidden reliquary below made perfect sense.

    Isenhart sighed grimly. "Now remember, this corruption has made them unreasonable, but passionate. They will not stop until they slay those they deem tainted, which is anyone not in league with them."

    Divo's face had flashed into Bohdan's mind, then. He had shaken the image from his sight.

    Eschuta gently pushed past Bohdan to get a better look. "We cannot let this become a brawl. There's too many of them," she noted expertly. She surveyed them with a thoughtful hum. "They have no ranged combatants. If I lay out some spells, I may be able to draw them into a more advantageous arena."

    Close-quarter combat. And Bohdan with his halberd. Isenhart nodded his agreement, and Eschuta made to enter the fray.

    "I'll go with her," Bohdan said quickly, and got up beside her.

    Eschuta didn't look happy or vexed at the suggestion, but just moved forward. He followed, and in moments they were out from the cover of the smithy.

    Without a word, Eschuta kissed the head of her orb, ducked her shield behind her back, and snapped it forward as if it were a whip. In the course of a nanosecond, a light traveled down her arm, through the shaft, and out the tip of her orb as a miniature flame streaking quickly through the air. One Zakarumite saw it before it landed, but made no action, and when it did land, a wall of flame suddenly burst up under the congregation of soldiers, lighting many robes on fire. They screamed out in a guttural, bastardized version of the Kehjistani language. One spotted Eschuta, and those who were not busily putting themselves out hoisted their weapons and charged.

    Eschuta exchanged her stance for another, and then dramatically raised her arms and thrust her palms out towards the Zakarumites. A ripple in the air heralded a funnel of flame that burst from her hands and engulfed the first in the column. He dropped his weapon in a panic, and began to run around crazily. Eschuta gestured for Bohdan to fall back, and then followed him. The infuriated Zakarumites immediately gave chase, and were led into the alley behind the smithy. Between two of M'avina's arrows, a fire ball from Jabari, three swift blows from Isenhart, two swipes from Bohdan's polearm, and a chain of lightning dancing from one victim to the next from Eschuta, the Zakarum fell in half a minute.

    Eschuta modestly stepped over her many victims and walked towards the temple. "Quickly," she urged, "the din may have raised alarm."

    They stepped lightly into the temple.

    At the back wall and in the centre of the rectangular room which seemed to make up the entire building, was a crescent of stairs ascending to a cruel altar. The altar, and the steps, were dark with blood, dried and fresh. The smell of blood was thick on the air.

    But for all the mess on the stairs, the blood didn't pool at the base. Instead, it disappeared down a barely visible crack at the foot of the stairs. Isenhart hesitantly reached forward and lightly pressed one of the symbols on the altar. He hopped back as, with a series of clicks, the stone stairs inverted into an entryway to a dark corridor with flickering torchlight beckoning them in.

    "Be very careful," Isenhart whispered. He had said the same to Vidala. He cautiously led the way, with Eschuta right behind him, Jabari in the middle, and Vidala and Bohdan bringing up the rear.

    The ruined temple was painfully dark. What the sparse light did illuminate was generally splattered with blood. The corridor opened into a large chamber with a high ceiling, with small portholes that allowed pockets of light on the floor. At the far end was the apparent reliquary, all arranged very orderly. There were staves and robes and masks made of gold and adorned with feathers. Eschuta's eyes were darting from item to item. It seemed that each of them held some significance to her. In the centre of all these relics, and within a pool of light from the surface, was a lectern with a thick, old book upon it. And before the lectern, with her back to them, and primarily in shadow, was a woman. Likely a Zakarum priestess.

    Isenhart took the other side of the doorway, and M'avina took his flank. He motioned silently to advance.

    Distorted, feminine laughter filled the chamber. It was two voices speaking as one. Bohdan had heard that once before. He was the first to realize that she was a Rogue.

    "You didn't really think that you could sneak up on me . . ." she turned, and walked into the light. Her hair had fallen out, and now twin horns thrust out of her skull. Her teeth were sharp and numerous, and gripped limply at her side was a long, straight sword, which she held a plain, scarred kite shield in the other. Her tall boots were worn and black, and she wore a loin cloth and bustier. Out from her arms sprouted symmetrical spikes, and the tendrils of corruption interwove throughout them and onto her chest.

    Bohdan hefted his halberd. "What are you doing in Kurast?"

    "What does it matter?" she asked with a shrug. "I know why you have come, and can safely tell you that what you seek is here, because you will not leave this place."

    "There are others," Isenhart whispered. Bohdan had counted on this as well. The corrupted Rogues always traveled in groups. But he could not see them, and, the way his eyes were darting from one shadow to the next, Isenhart likely could not, either.

    "Know, before you die, that I am the Battlemaid Sarina," she introduced herself in the unnerving double-voice, "and that this is my penance for the sin of pride."

    She bowed, almost apologetically, and the Rogues were upon them.

    The group scattered as the Rogues burst from the shadows of the chamber. Some were still recognizably human, others were disturbingly far-gone, their faces hidden by the insidious growths that told of their corruption. Bohdan immediately rushed away from his fellows so that he could use his halberd without worrying about them. In a graceful leap, he brought his halberd down, burying it in a Rogue's skull. He pushed her away as the strange, mystical light pulled her corpse upwards as it escaped, and then she fell in a heap on the floor. Bohdan decapitated one Rogue, and with the same momentum, sliced out one's knees from beneath her. She fell on her back, screaming insanely for a moment, before Bohdan delivered the fatal blow to her chest.

    He had barely time to congratulate himself before a spearwoman charged him. He parried her lunge with the blunt end of his halberd, and then brought the other end around in an attempt to slice off the top of her head. But she avoided the blow, and in a moment, they had the staves locked together. He had never been so close to the face of a living Rogue who had fallen to Andariel's influence. A lattice of tumourous tendrils wrapped around her neck and the back of her head, where a line of short horns had grown. Her eyes were glassy, and her features stretched. Her mouth looked bigger than it should, distorted into a demonic grin. She frothed as she snarled up at him. "You shall know pain before you die."

    For a woman of her stature, he was surprised and inwardly embarrassed that she could contest him. The advantage went back and forth several times, before he finally pushed her off of him. She took a step back, and then swung the spear like a pole-arm. Bohdan limberly ducked under the swipe, and then thrust the end of his halberd under her ribs. His awkward position made it only a superficial wound, but she stopped to examine it for a moment, and that was all the time he needed. He withdrew the weapon from her, and then delivered a quick blow to her side that struck her spine. She gurgled, hesitantly, almost, before the strange light left her body and she slid off the end of her blade.

    He glanced around at the battle. Jabari had been wounded, but seemed to be doing all right. M'avina had moved to higher ground and was shooting any approaching Rogue. Isenhart was caught up in the fervor of battle, cutting a swath through the demon women, and Eschuta had just finished off an offending archer.

    Bohdan looked for Sarina. His eyes went immediately to the dais, where he found the lectern empty, and our of the corner of his eye he saw a flash of movement in another hallway. Keeping close to the walls to avoid getting caught up in another fight, he made to follow her. Eschuta, having spotted her as well, beat him to the doorway, paying him no heed, and led him down the corridor.

    It rounded a corner, and continued into another open room, smaller than the first, but with the same high ceiling and pooling light.

    As Eschuta crossed the threshold, Sarina brought around her shield and bashed her in the face. The Sorceress cried out and fell back, partly from the blow and partly to flee. Bohdan moved his halberd to one hand to catch her. Her nose was covered in blood. Sarina rounded the corner. Bohdan moved Eschuta to the side and thrust his halberd forward, catching Sarina on the shield and forcing her back into the room. He could not battle her here.

    She submitted and backed off, letting him enter the room. Her sword was at her side, in a non-committed grasp. There was a relaxed, intoxicated air to her gait. He wasn't sure if she was being cocky, or if she was trying to make him think she was cocky. She was incredibly hard to read.

    "A shot from the dark like that?" Bohdan sneered. "Not exactly the most dignified battle tactic."

    She smirked. "This is war, Northerner. I don't have time for dignity. My pride has cost me enough already."

    Bohdan had his weapon ready, and though he made no move to attack, he advanced slowly. He didn't want her close to Eschuta. Not only for Eschuta's safety, but his own, in the case that she was taken hostage. "What's that supposed to mean?" he demanded. He noticed the book in the corner, on the ground.

    "I thought I could flee my Mistress' grasp," she spat, dispersing the unperturbed stance. "I thought that if I left the Monastery to her, she would leave me be. I thought that mere geography could separate us." She frowned, and shook her head. "I was a fool."

    She attempted to circle him, but he sidestepped. Neither had made a direct move at the other. "The hold she took on the Sightless Eye was too profound for physical space to defy. She had taken me already. I felt anguish and despair pull at my heart, and was proud enough to think I could deny it. That is why I fled, and that is why they" - she pointed to the hallway, where Eschuta was still regaining herself - "came with me. When I stepped off the ship and into the jungles, though, I knew that I had been defeated. And so I was sent here, to serve out my sentence, beyond the presence of the Maiden. I am without fulfillment, and shall be for eternity."

    "Andariel is dead," Bohdan hoped to shock her with his naked statement of fact.

    "Then I shall preserve her spirit," Sarina said, unphased. "I was appointed Battlemaid. I shall satisfy that duty in the service of her ally."

    With amazing speed, she suddenly leapt forward. He quickly crossed his arms and made a wide sweep, hoping to block any blow she might attempt to land while making one of his own. But she managed to avoid it and smacked the halberd away with the flat of her blade before body-checking him to the side. He almost fell, but kept his footing, until she brought the kite shield up and smashed him in the face.

    The brutal force behind he strike put him on his back. He felt blood on his lips. Sarina stood before him, her skin glistening with sweat, and her sword reflecting the dull light from the ceiling. She took a step towards him.

    It suddenly got very cold.

    Eschuta stood in the doorway, her face still covered in blood, and swirling winds were whirling around her hands. Sarina snarled and turned, and made to charge the Sorceress. Eschuta struck forward with her orb, and a shard of ice materialized and sped towards her foe. Sarina blocked with her shield, but where it struck, a field of frost swept across the shield, and Sarina cried out as it chilled her hand. Her hollow eyes turned to the Sorceress, and she swung her blade with a truly inhuman shriek. Eschuta blocked with her shield, and Sarina raked the blade across the surface, and then bashed it aside with the flat of her blade. Eschuta raised her orb to cast a spell, and Sarina slid plunged her sword into the base of Eschuta's abdomen. The energies dispersed, and Eschuta doubled over with a groan.

    "No!" Bohdan cried out, lifting himself to his feet.

    Sarina raised her sword to strike a fatal blow, but Bohdan jabbed her with the butt of his halberd. Winded, Sarina backed up to the wall, knocked the frost off her shield, and prepared herself. Bohdan put himself between her and Eschuta.

    Sarina examined her hand, and shook the numbness from her fingers. As she did, she glanced at Bohdan, and smiled. "I can smell her on you, you know. No," she replied to Bohdan's apprehensive glance at the Sorceress, "not her. The Rogue."

    Bohdan's mind exploded, but all he could do was stand there.

    "You should feel privileged. Few Sisters give themselves to anyone but the Great Eye. You must have been very special to her. She's one of us now. I can tell you that with certainty."

    "How do you know that?" Bohdan stomped forward a pace.

    "Such is the nature of our taint," Sarina replied. She paused, closed her eyes, and breathed deeply. "Divo."

    He struck, jabbing forward with the halberd. Sarina caught it on the shield, and then made an overhead strike with her sword. Bohdan stepped back, and caught it on the shaft of the halberd. With a grunt, he pushed her away, bashed the shield out of the way with the butt of the polearm, and drove the blade into her chest. She winced, surprised at her defeat. Her sword dropped from her fingers.

    Bohdan tugged the halberd out of her body, and she fell into the wall, smirking. She managed a painful chuckle. "You . . . you don't know where she is."

    Bohdan clenched his teeth and advanced upon her. But before he could deliver another blow, the ethereal mist left her body, and the fell to the ground without ceremony.

    A struggled voice came from behind him, "Bohdan . . ."

    "Divo," he whispered.

    But it was not Divo. He dropped his halberd and helped Eschuta to her feet. "Take me," she said, her voice wet with blood and death, "out to the reliquary."

    He did.

    The Rogues had all been slain, and Jabari and M'avina were throwing the bodies onto a pile in the corner. Isenhart was kneeling down, his head bowed, praying. Bohdan had Eschuta's arm over his shoulder, and was holding her up as she brokenly followed him into the room. She made no move to catch the attention of the others, and neither did he.

    "Lay me down," she whispered.

    Isenhart looked up.

    Bohdan gently set Eschuta on the stone floor, doing his best to avoid any blood, which was no easy task. Eschuta pointed to the cluster of items on the dais. "The shroud. The black shroud."

    Bohdan saw it, hanging on the wall. He nodded.

    Her arm collapsed. "Take it to Ormus. Tell him I will see him again."

    And then she died.

    Isenhart emerged from the corridor with the book, and Bohdan's halberd. Bohdan hadn't realized that he had gone into it in the first place. Bohdan rearranged her arm. He felt like he should do more. Isenhart put a hand on his shoulder. "We should leave here."

    "What about Eschuta."

    "Leave her," said Jabari, "The Zakarumites will return. We don't have time to take her with us."

    "They will leave her here," said Isenhart. "We cannot help her now."

    She looked remarkably peaceful. Bohdan looked up at the wall, and took the black shroud from its place. He turned to Isenhart.

    "You have the book?" he knew that he did.

    The Paladin nodded. "I do. We should leave," he said again.

    They climbed the stairs into the daylight, and they began to retrace their steps. Bohdan followed M'avina. They moved quicker than they had coming in. But as they passed in an alley, Bohdan glanced back, and saw a woman looking at him from a shop window. At this distance, he couldn't make her out, but she was staring directly at him. He stopped, and took a step towards her.

    "Bohdan, c'mon," M'avina urged, still running.

    He took two more steps.

    "Bohdan!" she snapped.

    He stopped, and glanced back at the Amazon, then at the market. The woman was gone. He heard the cries of the fallen Paladins, and sighed heavily. Then he turned and followed M'avina back to the raft. He wanted so badly to weep, but did not. He couldn't believe it anymore. He had to realize, he knew, that she was never coming back.

    He stopped. The snowstorm fogged his vision at every angle, but he turned around. And there was a shadow, there, behind the veil of snow. A woman. But it faded, and became one with the snow. He sighed, and felt the cold air fill his lungs.

    "She's never coming back," he whispered. He knew it. He just didn't believe it.

    Ume led them to a tall cave that reeked like a farmyard and a slaughterhouse. Arcanna was there, nursing a wound that Jabari had received. Her eyes shot towards them as they entered the mouth.

    "Arcanna," Kaelim said softly, "what . . ."

    "Kinemil!" Arcanna cried. "You need to help him. I don't have any potions."

    Kinemil sheathed his sword and jogged across the cave to the two spellcasters. Ume followed him.

    "Where's M'avina and Alaric?" asked Kaelim.

    "Goatmen," said Arcanna. "There were a clan of goatmen. They had Alaric, and . . ."

    "Where are they?" asked Bohdan.

    Arcanna pointed down the central corridor. Bohdan immediately ran down it. "They're in there," Arcanna called, "but . . ." anything further she said was lost to him.

    Bohdan emerged into a mist-enshrouded courtyard that smelled of cold blood. As he slowly advanced, he saw the broken remains of the clan. The blood was steaming in the snow.

    He saw M'avina's silhouette in the fog, and stepped forward. She had her back to him, and was staring at something before her. "M'avina," he called, but he said no more.

    Like a ship on foggy seas, the gallows seemed to come out of the fog towards him, and the agonized body of Alaric, swaying on the end of a rope, staring at the ground, as if intently interested.

    M'avina sighed, and turned to him. "The Rogues cover the eyes of their dead so that the Sightless Eye will guide them to their rest," she explained quietly, and then walked past him and out of the courtyard.

    Bohdan began to cry. "Thank you," he said, but she didn't hear him.
     
  12. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Chapter 11 - The Valley of Whispers

    M'avina had absolutely no desire to spend the night in that cave. She would have rather stayed in the cold than come inside and spend it here. She protested only once, saying that perhaps more goatmen were in the area and could come back in the night, but she didn't really believe that. But in that cave, there was nothing but despair, hopelessness, and futility.

    They had taken down Alaric and buried him in the courtyard. The demons, they threw out into the snow.

    But if Vidala had been there, Alaric would have been helping them dispose of the dead, and would not have been one of them.

    M'avina stood at the very mouth of the cave, watching the wind blow the snow to cover up the disfigured corpses of the goatmen. Her breath misted into the air, and was swept away by the gale.

    She realized that Caden had joined her several minutes after he did. He was a quiet walker, unlike most of his people. But even when she sensed his presence, she didn't speak.

    "I'm sorry you lost one of your own," she told him quietly after some time.

    Caden sighed. "He was more one of your own than mine. You battled against the Evils together for months. That makes you like brothers."

    M'avina raised an eyebrow at him.

    "Brother and sister," he corrected himself with a mirthless smile. He took a step forward so that he was standing beside her.

    "I remember," M'avina said after a long pause, "once, in Lut Gholein," she chuckled, "we met this man in a pub. Big guy, taller than Kaelim. He loved Barbarians. I heard that he'd once been a warrior himself, and he admired the skills of your people to no end."

    Caden smiled.

    "Kaelim didn't usually pay much attention to him, and I don't even know if Bohdan ever met him. Hoku kept to himself all the time. But Alaric was the one who sat down with him and traded war stories. They stayed up once all night, talking. I mean, this guy wasn't taking the troubles too well, and had seen the bottom of one too many mugs, to say the least. But that night really meant something to him. Every time I ever had my doubts about Alaric, I thought about that man in the pub."

    Caden nodded. "He was a good man. Scyld always thought so."

    M'avina brushed a tear away from her eye before it trickled down her face.

    For a minute, there was no sound but the howling wind sweeping past the mouth of the cave, then Caden took another step towards her, and reached up, putting a hand on her shoulder. "What happened here. You know it wasn't your fault."

    She lied with a nod.

    "Alaric came out here knowing it could be dangerous - we all did. You can't assume that . . ."

    "I know, Caden," she interrupted him. "It's all right, I don't assume that everything is my fault. I'm not that much of a child." She felt like she was condemning her own feelings. "What about you," she asked, changing the subject, "why are you here? I know that you don't put any stock in all this prophecy."

    Caden sighed, folding his arms. "That's true, despite Scyld's objections. But I came because I felt that they needed someone who didn't believe every word of scripture."

    M'avina shook her head, "I could never see the world making sense without the Gods."

    Caden shrugged. "I have more faith in Man than that, I guess. I feel that we can make our own destiny without any Gods."

    M'avina chuckled, glad to be talking of something other than Alaric. "Man has the habit of not meriting faith."

    Caden laughed with a nod, and then turned. "To each his own, I guess. Good night M'avina."

    "Good night, Caden."

    Despite her spiritual discomfort, it was the best sleep she had had since they left Harrogath. She did dream, and they were fitful dreams, but she did not remember them when she awoke the next morning.

    The breakfast was small, but was nourishing. Arcanna melted enough snow to fill their canteens and skins, and they left the cave with little ceremony. After a comical chase, Hoku caught a pika and they kept it for later use. It gave them something light-hearted to talk about as they continued their journey.

    M'avina was laughing along with several others at Bohdan's exaggerated reenactment when they crested a wide hill. She wiped a tear from her eye, and noted, as her voice subsided, that everyone else had grown silent.

    Kaelim, at the front of the party, looked down into what lay before them. His face was grim and serious, as were all the Barbarians. The foreigners had apparently just followed the lead.

    On either side of the canyon were hills that rose up into inhospitable precipices, topped with jagged ice and stone. But the valley itself was obscured by an unmoving fog that stretched for miles. It became one with the sky. The end of the valley was not visible.

    Kaelim took a deep breath, sighed inevitably, and began to descend into the fog.

    Scyld was quick to his side. "We can go around," she whispered hastily. But none of the party were speaking, and the sound of the clattering armour and cloth was not enough to drown out her words.

    "It's too dangerous," Kaelim returned, shaking his head, "particularly for those who weren't raised in the mountains. Besides, it will take days to go around. This will do fine."

    "We don't how dangerous the Valley might be," Scyld replied, quieter - but still not quiet enough.

    "It is a chance we'll have to take," said Kaelim. "You know this."

    Scyld spoke no more.

    M'avina maneuvered herself beside Caden and Bohdan. "What's the big deal about this valley?"

    Bohdan made to reply, but the shorter Barbarian spoke first. "It's about the legends of our people," he said, in a rather pretentious tone. He got that way whenever he talked about the Barbarian faith. "When you die, we believe that, if you have lead a just life, you join the Nephalem in Bul-Kathos's eternal kingdom. The Ancient Ones are those Nephalem who Bul-Kathos sends back to Sanctuary to perform certain tasks. But, there are some dead who remain in Sanctuary nonetheless without the leave of Bul-Kathos. Their deaths were under such circumstances as to drive them mad - extremely violent or tragic or involving hellish powers is usually the case. We call them the Mad Ancients."

    M'avina certainly didn't like where this was going.

    "The true Ancients," Bohdan continued the story, "are said to have once scoured the land for the Mad Ancients, and rounded them up. Bul-Kathos took pity on them, and rather than destroy them or send them to Hell, he had the Ancients imprison them in a mountain vale, enshrouded in thick mists so that they may never find their way out. It came to be known as the Valley of Whispers."

    M'avina didn't need to be told that what lay before them was the legendary vale. Every time they encountered such an obstacle, she wondered if perhaps this was the fate of Theodoric's party. She voiced her concerns to Caden and Bohdan.

    Caden rolled his eyes. "It's just legend, M'avina."

    "Well, if it's more than that," said Bohdan, "it's still all right. The Mad Ancients are not outright hostile, per se. But their words are said to be rather poignant."

    "What does that mean?" asked M'avina.

    "They are said to drive the weak of heart equally mad," said Bohdan. "But Bul-Kathos knew that one day his people would need to cross it to reach Nulholla Peak, so he wouldn't have doomed his most loyal followers."

    M'avina felt a little better.

    "Not that any of that matters," Caden added.

    Bohdan sighed. "How can you not believe even after the battle on the Summit?"

    "I believe that there are forces in this world that we can't account for," Caden admitted. "But I think it's childish to believe stories our ancestors made up to try and explain them."

    "Shhh!" said Kaelim from the front of the column. They were mere inches from the wall of fog before them. It was heavy and motionless. M'avina had the impression that if she moved her hand through it, it would leave a trail.

    Kaelim turned around. "Everyone partner up again. Link arms, hold hands, or whatever you want. Just keep in physical contact for the duration. We won't be able to see an inch in front of our noses, and I don't want anyone getting lost in there."

    Before M'avina had a chance to look for her, Arcanna took M'avina by the wrist. Bohdan begrudgingly sought out Kinemil and put a hand on his shoulder, and Caden latched on to the end of Scyld's leather jack. Since Alaric's death, Jabari had become part of Kaelim's group, with Ume. Both he and the Necromancer put a hand on Kaelim's shoulder.

    Kaelim took a deep breath, "All right," he said, "don't go towards any strange lights or sounds. Just keep walking until we come out the other side."

    M'avina glanced at Caden. "What the hell does that mean?"

    He replied be shaking a bemused head. "Don't worry about anything, you'll do fine."

    Arcanna shrugged. "Just don't let go of me, all right? If there is anything in there, we'll face it together."

    Kinemil nodded, glancing at Bohdan. "They have the right idea, Barbarian." He turned back towards the valley. "Keep my in you sight always, the Light will guide my path. Simply step in my tracks." Bohdan rolled his eyes but said nothing.

    M'avina chuckled to herself, noting that Bohdan's feet were exceptionally larger than Kinemil's. With the exception of Caden, all the Barbarians dwarfed every other man in the party.

    Kaelim, Ume, and Jabari disappeared into the indifferent fog. M'avina clasped her hand in Arcanna's and, in spite of herself, closed her eyes as she stepped into the Valley of Whispers.

    She was surprised at how little she felt the fog. It was only a light, cool mist on her face, not the choking, dense cloud that had enveloped her. The world became light-gray and featureless. She could hear the movement of those around her, and looking to the side, she could vaguely make out the shape of Arcanna's head, and her tall staff tied to her back.

    No one was speaking. She could only hear the armour clinking with every step, and the furs brushing together. But soon, that simply became one with the noiselessness. M'avina felt almost like saying something just to break the silence, but then she realized that she didn't really mind the silence. M'avina didn't like walking blind. She always had the tendency to strafe to the right. She had found that out during a training session once on Skovos. After it had finished, Vidala had patted her on the back and said, "Well . . . let's just hope you don't ever go blind, all right?"

    M'avina smiled at the fond memory.

    Then she heard something.

    She didn't stop. She waited first for a reaction from Arcanna. She looked to the side and could not even see the Sorceress, the fog was suddenly so thick. But she did hear something. It took her only a moment to know it was a voice. A soft, female voice, humming a tune M'avina did not know. She never even considered the possibility that it was one of their party. She knew immediately that she was hearing the whispers for which the valley was named.

    "Arcanna . . ." M'avina whispered, noting suddenly that she couldn't hear the sounds of others around her.

    "M'avina?"

    M'avina snapped her hand away suddenly. It was not Arcanna's voice that spoke to her. She stared through the fog at the shadow before her, and Caden stared back.

    "Where's Scyld?" Caden asked.

    "I was holding onto Arcanna," M'avina replied quickly.

    They would have probably continued to question the strange occurrence, if not for the voice that seemed much clearer, now. They saw a light before them. Without a word to one another, they took a few tentative steps forward. Caden placed a hand on one of his daggers, but M'avina never thought to remove her bow from across her back.

    As of they had willed it so, the fog parted. Before them was a woman, sitting on a stool, rocking back and forth, gently crooning to a bundle in her arms. She was wearing a simply, plain dress, and her hair was short and frazzled. That, and her dirt-smudged face, marked her as a peasant. But despite her appearance, her skin shimmered, and the colours were brighter than M'avina thought possible. Except for the bundle in her arms. It was dull and worn, as colourless as the fog that surrounded them, watching intently. She was singing in a language that M'avina didn't know, but the woman didn't know half the words, and hummed over lines she could not recall.

    Caden took a step forward, looking at M'avina for approval, but the Amazon's attention was fully on the ghost - for they both knew that is what she was - before them.

    Caden cleared his throat. "Excuse me," he said nervously.

    The woman stopped humming and looked at them both for a moment. She put a finger to her lips. "Shh . . ." she said quietly. "He's . . ." her voice became broken by restrained grief, "he's asleep."

    "What's his name?" asked M'avina softly. The woman looked at M'avina, and a bright tear streamed down her cheek, but she didn't answer.

    Caden inched forward, his hand off of his dagger. The ghost did not respond, she just stroked the edge of her bundle. M'avina moved quietly to Caden's side.

    "May I see him?" Caden gently requested.

    The woman nodded, trying desperately to hold in her tears, and turned the bundle so that they could see his face. There was a baby in that bundle, which was more than M'avina expected. But he was a skeleton, long dead, grey and dusty from age. M'avina was no pathologist, but she would have put decades on that huddled figure wrapped in a ruined blanket.

    M'avina felt a wave of pity sweep over her.

    Caden looked up at the woman, who was staring at his face, her eyes glassy with tears. She shook her head slowly. "He's not waking up, is he?"

    Caden looked down at the skeletal baby in her arms, then back at her. "No, ma'am, he isn't."

    The woman nodded in understanding, gazing down at her child. With a sigh, she stood up, handed the baby to Caden, and walked between him and M'avina, a hand to her head.

    "I should have known . . ." she muttered, and then she disappeared into the fog.

    M'avina and Caden were alone. The stool was gone. Caden looked at the dead baby in his arms. He held him with care - the way a mother would. M'avina was glad that he respected the dead enough to handle him gently.

    "What do I do with him?" asked Caden.

    "Should we leave it for her?" asked M'avina.

    Caden shook his head. "We can't just leave him here."

    M'avina agreed, and felt a little embarrassed for the suggestion. "Let's keep walking," she suggested, "we can meet up with everyone outside the Valley." She started off, then paused, and turned back. "Keep me in your sight," she advised.

    Caden nodded, and followed closely behind her. His shoulder kept on hitting hers. At first she found it annoying, but she figured that the continued reassurance that he was there was better than them getting lost again.

    They heard more whispers now, from all over. Most were in the old language the woman had sung with. Sometimes, a piercing scream issued from the mists, and M'avina would stop abruptly, and feel Caden bump into her from behind. Then, they would communally hope that it was one of the ghosts, and not one of their own. Every now and then, though, she heard the whispers in languages she could understand.

    "Get out of my house, you thief!" one stark voice came at her as if the source was at her very ear. But when she looked, of course, there was nothing.

    "And why should I trust you?"

    "Please! Come back! Don't leave me here!"

    "Do you even know who I am? Do you even know what I've done?"

    "Fools. I should be so lucky."

    "I will never stop hurting you."

    But they saw no ghosts for some time. M'avina realized that she had no idea just how long this valley was, and he had no way to tell if they were nearing the end of it. No one had told her anything. Apparently they had not expected to get separated.

    They soon saw another blurry light ahead and to their left.

    "Just keep walking," Caden suggested, "we'll go right past it."

    M'avina nodded, and continued to walk. As they neared the ghost, though, they could make out a vague shape. M'avina glanced fleetingly at it, but paid it no specific heed, afraid she might be seized by some enchantment.

    But Caden halted, and peered at the shape. M'avina stopped. "Caden, come on."

    "By Bul-Kathos . . ." Caden whispered in awe. M'avina had never heard him use their god's name in such a way. She stopped and looked at the ghost, who they could both see clearly, now. He was an elderly man, pale, and robed in grey and brown furs. There was station to him, of that there was no doubt in M'avina's mind.

    Caden took a step towards him. The ghost was not paying attention to them, and had not seen them, apparently. M'avina jerked when Caden moved, but she didn't stop him, out of curiosity more than anything else.

    "Ord Rekar?" Caden asked.

    The ghost turned to him. Watching the short, slight Barbarian and the tall, thin elder in contrast gave her a true appreciation of how vibrant the colours and lights of his shimmering image was. The ghost smiled. "Little Caden."

    Caden rushed forward, before M'avina could stop him, and embraced Rekar with one arm, minding the dead child. The Elder, surprised, chuckled, and slapped Caden on the back. "Oh, it's so good to see you. All of you."

    "You've seen the others?" asked M'avina, forgetting momentarily what she was talking to.

    "Yes," Ord Rekar nodded as Caden took a step back. "Scyld, and Hollis, and many others. I don't know all of them. Most of them, like you, I don't know. Who are you?" he asked it with a smile.

    She replied formally. His station seemed to merit it. "I am M'avina, daughter of Lysippe and Demetrus, of . . ."

    "Lycander?" he peered at her intently. "No, Skovos. You must be from Skovos. Your accent is unmistakable." He looked at Caden. "Amazons? They don't get much farther south than that." His eyes turned back to M'avina. "I am very glad to know that your people were here to help us. I always admired them."

    M'avina glanced from Rekar to Caden, and back again. "Do you know this man, Caden?"

    "Yes," Caden was beaming. "He's Ord Rekar, one of Harrogath's Elders. He was my mentor in my youth. Only . . ." he stopped, glancing at the ghost, "I remember him less happy."

    Ord Rekar laughed aloud. "Maybe, but what has one to feel sad about now? Baal is no more and our people are free. Haven't you heard, my boy?"

    Caden nodded haltingly. "Y-yes, Rekar. I helped."

    The elder laughed again. "Of course. Of course you did. We all did. That's why we were ever here, after all. That's why Bul-Kathos chose us to guard the mountain, isn't it?" he chuckled.

    Caden's smile was fading. "You never believed. . ."

    Rekar's grin subsided, as well. "And I know that such is what I taught you, Caden, but . . ." he sighed, and looked up at the sky, and in the mists, every angle brought the same grey cloud. "I realized, before my time came, what we meant. There is a purpose, Caden. To everything. I know that now. Even you."

    Caden took a step back. M'avina moved towards him. "Caden, what's wrong?"

    "Why are you in the Valley of Whispers?" asked Caden.

    Rekar looked at him thoughtfully for a moment. "I don't know, Caden. But there is a purpose to that, too. But you, my boy, you have so much potential. You are in line for great things. I had seen that in my life, too, but I didn't know what it meant."

    Caden had a confused look on his face. "Do you now?"

    Rekar stared at him. "If I did," he said slowly, at a whisper, "would you want to?"

    Caden said nothing, but looked down at the dead baby in his arms. When he looked up, Rekar was already plodding into the fog.

    Caden held up a hand, "Wait!" he called. But even his cry lacked force. M'avina wasn't sure if he really wanted him to stop. Rekar looked back, a half-smile on his face, but made no gesture and said no word as the fog swallowed him up once more.

    Caden said what M'avina thought. "We should get moving." They held hands and began to walk again. M'avina hoped that they hadn't lost their bearings. She noted that Caden still held the child.

    M'avina pondered what she had just witnessed, and realized that she was not entirely sure what had happened. They had lost direction, again, and M'avina had no concept of distance. She could be on the edge of a cliff, or next to a rock face.

    But she continued on in the direction she was fairly certain they'd been traveling before. Caden was walking faster than before. Perhaps to distance himself from the familiar phantom.

    Soon, Caden was leading M'avina, and she rushed to keep pace. Some time passed, with no word between them, and no sound from the fog, other than their footsteps falling on the soft, unbroken snow.

    "Caden," she said finally, "what's wrong?"

    Caden slowed, and turned to look at her. "I . . ."

    And suddenly, they were out of the fog. It seemed to retreat behind them, with them barely moving. The light came from a single source - the sun - rather than the indirect luminescence surrounding them in the fog. And behind them, the slowly-undulating wall of mist stood. The canyon opened up into more welcoming paths to tread, but those paths had yet to be forged, for theirs were the only footsteps that broke the perfect, ivory dunes gleaming in the noonday sun.

    Caden never finished his sentence.

    "We'd best wait for them," said M'avina after they had stood in silence for a few minutes.

    Caden nodded, and then walked to the rock face nearest them, right where the fog ended, and buried the dead baby in the snow.

    And then, with little ceremony, the whispers faded into the wind.
     
  13. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Chapter 12 - Ghosts of a Future Lost

    Kinemil had lost track of their comrades almost the moment he entered the fog. He remained aware of everything.

    "There are dark enchantments," the Archbishop Ismail had said, wrapping his hand in cloth as he spoke to the trainee Paladins before him, "that can cloud the senses. Should you ever battle a Viz-jaaq'tar, you will understand this fully. Should you let your attention slip, you will succumb to these spells, but stay focused, and they will be of no avail to you."

    It was several minutes into the fog before Bohdan stopped abruptly. "Shh!"

    "What is it?"

    "Shh!" the Barbarian insisted, and then, after a few moments of strained silence. "I can't hear anyone."

    Kinemil smiled inwardly at Bohdan's slow senses. The Barbarian was a little dim and was led by his passions, but he was peerlessly loyal and a fine warrior nonetheless.

    "Yes," said Kinemil seriously, "I noticed that as well. We should press on, though."

    They walked in silence for some time. Kinemil suspected that they were straying to the right, but dared not correct their course, afraid that any misstep would cause him to lose his bearings completely.

    "Allow me to demonstrate," Ismail had wagged his finger, and taken a helm from a pedestal. It was a mask, rather feminine in form, and some of the young, would-be Paladins chuckled at the sight of the imposing, dignified teacher donning headgear obviously designed for a woman. It was a dull silver colour, the eye slits angry and the mouth grimacing. And stamped into the forehead were three runes.

    "Now, I shall remind you," he said, as he fitted it onto his own head, "that these heathen magics are forbidden in the act of what we must do. I wield them now only to prepare you for what lies ahead."

    He lowered the mask, covering his face, and put a hand to the side of it, and then waved the other before him. "Nadir!" he called, and suddenly, with a gasp that swept through the room, the vision blurred, twisted, and dimmed. Kinemil squinted, though he knew it would do no good. The enchanted helm had worked its magic.

    "Calm yourselves!" Ismail had bellowed. "This spell is not permanent, nor invasive. It is an illusion, cast in your mind to blind your senses from the truth. Focus! My children. Focus! Do not listen to the lies this spell tells you."

    If only Ismail had followed his own advice.

    Bohdan was getting agitated. He would glance about furtively, as if he had seen something from the corner of his eye. Shadows in the fog, or shapes in the light. Kinemil decided not to press the matter. So long as Bohdan held onto his shoulder, he would lead the warrior from the Valley.

    When the whispers began, Kinemil was unphased, though he knew that Bohdan was growing afraid with every step they took.

    "Steel yourself, Bohdan," said Kinemil assuredly, "there is nothing in these hills that can do us harm." But even as he said it, he felt the claustrophobia of the fog seeping into him. The whispers became more fervent, though more intangible, and the shadows seemed more convincing. He couldn't be sure if he was losing focus, or if the powers within the valley were growing stronger. But he would not fear. For fear was a convention of the mind, and obeying it would make him no better than the beasts of the earth or sky.

    There were spirits about in this place, he knew, but they were not physically manifest. If they were, they would be undead, and would fall before his blessed blade. Being undead was a mark of irredeemable damnation. They could never be saved.

    "Divo!"

    The shout surprised Kinemil, and he jumped in spite of himself. Bohdan had let him go, and was staring, wide-eyed into the fog.

    Kinemil looked around. He saw nothing but shadows, and heard nothing but whispers. The Paladin grinned to himself. The primitive minds of the Barbarians must be easy to invade, if such things caused them alarm.

    "They're nothing more than shadows, Bohdan," Kinemil said quietly. But Bohdan was motionless, his eyes unblinking. His chest heaved with every breath, as if it took extra effort to push the white clouds of air from his lips, in this place.

    "Even shadows must remain true to their shade."

    It was a woman. An older woman, but she sounded strangely displaced, as if three identical voices were speaking the same words in time.

    Bohdan turned towards it, and disappeared into the fog in its direction.

    "Bohdan! Wait!" Kinemil shouted. "Light curse that fool!" he muttered acidly as he trudged off into the suffocating fog after the Barbarian. He knew that he would lose him. Kaelim had warned them of this.

    But he didn't lose him. The bulky frame of the Barbarian came into view, hazy and silhouetted in the mist, but soon he focused into view, and so did a never-ending rock face. They were at the wall of the Valley.

    Carved out of the rock face was an alcove. Not very big, but rather deep, and seated on a boulder was a woman. Her facial structure betrayed her lineage. She was a Barbarian. Her hair was white, and her face was older than it looked. Her skin shimmered with a strange incandescence. Kinemil had seen it before, at the Battle of Arreat Summit. She was an Ancient One. She was clothed in finely-made skin smocks and a dress of wolf hide. And chained around her neck was a scroll that unraveled down the length of her body, and then end was still rolled up at her feet. On the scroll were druidic runes, which Kinemil recognized, but could not properly understand. Her hair fell carelessly but gracefully about her shoulders, and was a bright white, so bright that it was impossible to distinguish individual strands of her hair. And her face was old, but untainted by age. Kinemil wondered how he knew that she was so old. Maybe it was those grey eyes, that seemed to have a millennium of memories within their confines.

    "Those are not shadows you call to, my child," the woman said, once more with the strange echo. "She is as much flesh and blood as you and I."

    "So Divo is alive?" Bohdan demanded.

    Kinemil looked at him. "Bohdan, who is this woman?"

    "Forgive me," she said, "I am Kala, once Seeress of Sescheron, now a jealous reflection of the living. For while my kindred within these walls of water and air are content to be mad and oblivious to the world around them, my talents do not afford me that luxury. I wonder, at times, what heinous thing I did in life to incur so terrible a curse from Bul-Kathos. Though perhaps the intent was never a curse for me, but a blessing for another."

    Bohdan was taken aback. "Kala?" he awkwardly set his halberd down and knelt before her. "My apologies, Seeress. I was not aware I was in the presence of such a legend."

    "Do not bow to me, child," Kala shook her head, "you revere a living woman, but I am long dead."

    "But you did so many things in life," Bohdan insisted, "you changed the course of history."

    "I did, in life," Kala agreed, "but now, I am in death. I do nothing but look upon the world and mourn that I no longer am part of it. A cruel fate, of which I never believed I had earned, but the intentions of the Nephalem are lost, even to me. Perhaps some good will come of this, someday. We shall see."

    The Light allowed Kinemil to sense undead presence around him, and he knew that this was no wraith he spoke to. This was something else. He wanted to take Bohdan away, but he did not feel that Kala presented any danger to them. With Cain's warning repeating itself at the back of his head, the Paladin hesitantly stepped forward.

    "Perhaps you can help us," Kinemil said, removing his helm politely. "I am Kinemil, Paladin of the Zakarum - Religion of the Light. My companion is Bohdan of the Crane Tribe."

    Kala examined him intently. "I have seen the rise and fall of your religion, Kinemil the Paladin. I am happy to find you not as disheartened as many of your brothers. Ask what you shall, and I will tell you what I know."

    "We are following an expedition of Barbarians who came here some time ago from Harrogath. Do you know of them?"

    Kala smiled. "Ah yes. Theodoric of the Tribe of Thunder was at the forefront of that group. We spoke at some length, he and I." She averted her eyes, longingly. "I have many memories of the Tribe of Thunder in the far west . . ."

    So then they did not fall to the Mountain Clan, Kinemil surmised.

    "I had never been so far from home when I first visited the western shores," Kala mumbled. "I had never seen a place so green and blue. If only I had been there for not so tragic a duty, I might have been drunk off the warmth of the very air. Visions can be only so vivid, and even the voice of the Immortal King may only tell so much."

    "What does he tell you now?" asked Bohdan, still kneeling.

    "His voice does not reach the ears of the dead, forsaken to spend an eternity amongst madmen and lost children. I have not heard his words for an age. Instead, I simply gaze out at the world of my own accord, and watch history unfold through a muddled lens."

    Kinemil shook his head. "Self-pity is no sin for such a legendary woman to be indulging in," he scolded gently.

    "Do not speak of it, Paladin," she replied with equal tenderness, "for you know nothing of the legends for which I am legendary, nor do you know the curse of the Valley. I gave up pride long ago, Kinemil of the Zakarum. Now I have nothing more to my name but my own lament."

    Bohdan held up a hand to silence Kinemil. "Wait, but what were you saying about the shadow. That she is flesh and blood?"

    Kala reached forward and touched Bohdan's face with her gleaming hand, "She is, but she is not the one you seek."

    Bohdan closed his eyes. "And what of Divo?"

    "Divo, the Rogue you knew, is no more, one way or the other," Kala answered.

    "But is she dead?" Bohdan pleaded, a tear seeping from his eye.

    Kala bowed her head. "Bohdan of the Crane Tribe, listen to my words and hear clarity. Divo perished that afternoon in the woods, with you. I cannot tell the fate of her body, for her body is no longer her own. She is a different person, whose name I cannot tell. But she could never have been saved from so complete a despair."

    "But she didn't know," Bohdan, Kinemil could tell, was struggle to maintain his composure. "She didn't know I love her."

    Kala shook her head, "Not even a weapon as powerful as love could have saved her."

    Kinemil frowned. "Love is no weapon."

    The Seeress looked at him with her limitless eyes. "Then why do the brokenhearted grieve so? If the wielder is right, and the victim as well, then anything may be a weapon. Wounds of the spirit leave scars that no healer can remedy."

    Kinemil looked around, but aside from the rock, it was nothing but the ominously slow-moving fog. "We'd best move along, Bohdan."

    But the Barbarian sat back on his shins and hunched over, crying into his hands. Kinemil wasn't sure how much he trusted Kala anymore, and he wanted to leave the Valley as soon as possible, but he needed Bohdan with him. Not only did he feel responsible for the Barbarian, but he felt that his defenses were failing, and he feared to brave the mists alone. Kala continued to stare at him intently.

    "If you are truly a Seeress," said Kinemil, "then tell me how our quest will fare."

    Kala sighed. "I know only the future that Bul-Kathos told me, and he tells me such no longer. Now I only see past and present, and I lose count of how many times the forests of the south have turned gold and withered only to erupt into green once again." She looked past them, deeper into the fog. She closed her eyes, and breathed deeply. "I cannot foresee where your quest shall take you, to doom or glory. But this shall be a test. For all of you. Some of you have already been tested. But I know only because of what has passed, and I cannot say what will come of these trials."

    Kinemil put a hand on Bohdan's shoulder. "Come, Bohdan. We must quit this blasted fog."

    "I can tell you this," Kala blurted out so suddenly that it startled Kinemil. "Make for the Watchtower of the North. You shall find solace there, in some form or another."

    Bohdan stood, and Kinemil sighed. The Seeress was becoming strangely unnerving, and he did not want to tarry any longer than he had to. Kinemil took a step away.

    "Wait," said Bohdan quietly. Kinemil paused. "If the shadows are flesh, but not Divo," the Barbarian said slowly. "Then who is it?"

    Kala looked past him, and gestured into the fog. Bohdan turned, and so did Kinemil. The mists, Kinemil admitted to himself, did seem to make a human shape in the darkness. Bohdan saw it, too, and he stepped forward, and took it by the shoulders.

    To Kinemil's surprise, his hand did not grasp a mere wisp of cloud, but landed on solid matter. He stepped back, and pulled the shadow out into the light.

    From the fog came a metal face, a woman's face, dull silver, with three runes stamped on the forehead. The same mask Ismail had worn. Only the eyes were tilted back in sorrow, and the mouth was half open in a mournful wail. The figure was covered top to bottom in form-fitting armour, betraying that it was a woman. He knew her even before Bohdan lifted the visor and revealed her pale face and dark eyes.

    "Jade." Kinemil would never be sure which of them said it.

    A thousand different thoughts flooded into Kinemil's head as he fully realized who she was. An Assassin of the Viz'jaq-taar. The very Assassin who, along with two of her brethren, went with Isenhart, Vidala, and Qual-Kehk to the final battle with Baal. And Qual-Kehk had been all who had returned. Those who hadn't died had gone through the portal that Tyrael had lain open for them. Kinemil's eyes widened. Jade had seen the battle. Perhaps she, too, had gone into the portal with the others. She knew the fate of Isenhart.

    "Jade," Bohdan said, again or for the first time, it didn't matter.

    "Bohdan," she replied. Kinemil had forgotten what she had sounded like.

    The two embraced.

    "You've been following us for a while, haven't you?" Bohdan muttered.

    Jade nodded. "You've seen my shadow many times, my friend." She looked at Kinemil, and smiled. He bowed his head in return.

    "But why didn't you come out of the shadows and into the light?" asked Bohdan. "I thought I was going crazy."

    "Wait," said Kinemil. "Jade. You were with Qual-Kehk and the others?"

    The Assassin nodded. The visor clinked as she moved.

    Kinemil took a deep breath, excited that he might finally have the answers he was looking for. "What happened?"

    Jade sighed, and began.
     
  14. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Chapter 13 - Shogakusha's Tale

    Qual-Kehk motioned for silence, and climbed slowly up the stairs, soaked with the blood of the many demons who had fallen before him. Jade admired his focus. She didn't see so tranquil a warrior in many of his people, but Qual-Kehk took to the battlefield with a fervor born of duty, not of bloodlust.

    Not like the other Barbarians. The animalistic fury that drove them into battle was now coupled with a hatred borne of vengeance. Perhaps, she thought, if her frame wasn't so delicate, she could be as brutally careless as they, but she remembered what her Sensei had told her. "To die in the line of duty is the fate of all our kind, and however noble that death may be, it should not be a fate so easily resigned to. The forces of evil will have more to fear from you if you still draw breath." And that was one of the many philosophies the Assassins had embraced - survival is not a mark of cowardice, but of efficiency.

    Jade stood by Natalya, another Assassin, in a crowd of their fellows at the bottom of the staircase. At the forefront were Vidala, Isenhart, and Regha. Behind them were Sander, the oldest of the two Necromancers she had met, and Ragnar, the latest captain of Harrogath's Barbarians. Since, Jade, Natalya, and Iratha, a third in their party, had arrived in Harrogath, the captain (or "Slayer," as the Barbarians themselves called the position) had been replaced six times. Ragnar himself had been given the position in the field during the chaotic mess of a battle with the Ancient Ones, when his superior had fallen to one of Madawc's seemingly pristine axes found its way between his eyes, as most of Madawc's axes had the habit of doing.

    Jalal and Aldur held the rearguard. They spoke only when spoken to, but were as reliable as any of the other warriors. Intermingled with these were the few, nameless Barbarians whom Jade had never truly paid much heed to. Barbarians had a drastically short life span in these frenzied times, and Jade knew, just as her Sensei taught her, that she could not afford emotional attachment to those whose deaths were all but certain. "Do not trivialize the lives of those we work to protect, young Shogakusha, lest you lose sight of why we do what we must do. But likewise, we must not let our hearts grow fond of our comrades too much, lest we despair at their absence in battle."

    The shadow disciplines they had learned did not allow for a sliding focus. Even now, Jade's senses were attuned to everything. She could sense the burning energies seething though this mountain like mineral nodes. She had felt it before they had reached the summit. They all had. But she had never imagined what the mountain contained. She could almost see it cascading along the walls, and felt it tremble in the depths of the mountains hollow bowels.

    Iratha returned from across the bridge. "I have laid many traps, Captain," she told Natalya, "We needn't fear any demons following us."

    Natalya nodded. "Good. Lay a trap at the base of this staircase once everyone is through. Baal will likely draw all his strength to him. We'll have enough to worry about without having to watch our backs."

    Jade tightened her grip around the handle of her katar as she climbed, beside a Barbarian she didn't know. When she emerged, they were near the source. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck tingle, and heard the energy crackling through the very air around them.

    "There are enemies near," Isenhart said quietly. "Stay together."

    The druids came up, and finally Iratha. She nodded to Natalya.

    The room had the same, archaic architecture, carved into the very mountain, a dull brown, but all about them was a sourceless crimson light that doused everything in a vague red tint. Even the light energy of the Worldstone permeated stone and flesh.

    It was distracting. Jade saw it in Natalya and Iratha as well. They were more attuned to the many layers of reality than their companions, and the forces channeled through the mountain made concentrating on anything feel like trying to pick a single voice out of a maddened rabble.

    A winged form suddenly descended from the ceiling so quickly that Jade barely had time to dodge the attack. But it impaled the Barbarian next to her on twin blades as it swooped down. The entire party whirled about in surprise. The Barbarian dropped to the ground, and the figure alighted.

    At first, Jade thought that the creature had blades for hands, and that it was some demon she had never encountered before. But it was a succubus, with a pair of long blades latched to a brace that looped around her elbow as she held a second handle in each hand. She wore a corset, and a pair of leather boots and gloves, but little else. Bat-like wings stretched from her back, and she crouched into a defensive position, smiling playfully as she wove her weapons, glazed with a fresh coat of blood, expertly about her.

    "If you've come this far, there's obviously no point in warning you to turn back," she reasoned. "So I shall save the formalities and simply state the fact. I am Moribande, first in the harem of Baal. Our purpose is about to be realized, and no amount of valour will save you now. But it matters not - you will fight, and you will die. The prior is written on your eyes, and the latter is written in the stars. History begins today." She straightened, spread her weapons submissively, and bowed. "And with that, my dears, I bid you goodbye. May death find you well." She crouched, and then jumped into the darkness, flapping her leathery wings twice until she was out of view.

    The adventurers raised their weapons to the darkness, squinting and straining their eyes to make out any shapes in the black. They began to see movement, as if the whole darkness was undulating above them. They all knew very quickly that there were a great many creatures up there. And they all descended simultaneously.

    Jade stabbed a screaming succubus in the neck as she fell towards her. The party erupted into battle. These succubi were not the same they had seen coming up the mountain. They were hairless, and sprouted curling, ivory horns, and had leathery bat-wings as opposed to the feathered variety they had encountered before. Aside from that, they were quicker, leaner, and more ruthless. Their knee-high boots were braces with metallic blades, and they spun through the air kicking and slashing with their talons. Jade jumped and spun, slicing one along the line of her mouth, and landed beside Regha, just as a succubus landed on the Sorceress and bowled both of them over. She tore at her face, and Regha desperately beat the demon with her staff to try and fend her off. Jade rolled to her feet, and drew a shuriken from her belt. With a flick of her wrist, the cruel metal star flew into the back of the creature's neck, severing her spinal cord. She fell lifelessly on the bloodies Sorceress.

    The nod of thanks she gave, Jade didn't see, she turned and moved onto the next demon immediately. She glanced at the druids, still at the doorway. With all the movement, it was hard to see them, but Jalal's shadow was gigantic, and she heard ursine roars. Beside him, Aldur was throwing chilling winds from his fingertips, and bludgeoning any succubus who strayed too close to him with his club. The powers they used were not magic. At least, not in the way that Jade understood. She could sense arcane power as easily as she heard sound and smelled fragrance. But Aldur could be splitting the earth beneath her feet and she would not sense it. Her only conclusion was that they were somehow from within themselves, just as the "powers" of Jade and her kinswomen came from their own minds and bodies.

    In a surprisingly short time, the mangled bodies of the succubi carpeted the stone floor. The day was won. But Vidala was perturbed.

    "Where is Moribande?" she asked, moving the torso of a succubus aside to see what lay beneath it.

    "Aye," said Ragnar with a snarl, "Damien must be avenged."

    Jade glanced at the Barbarian on the floor, blanketed in the wings of succubi who had fallen over him. Damien. She mouthed the word on her lips.

    "She's likely retreated to Baal, to guard him," Sander suggested. "The Prime Evils usually protect themselves with some of their most powerful minions." This was true. Natalya had told Jade about Mephisto, and how he culled his faithful Archbishops to his side when his enemies began to close in on him. But Jade knew better. She chanced a swift glance up at the ceiling. Moribande was still there, coiled in the darkness.

    Jade had to respect the talents of the succubus. She had slowed her heartbeat. Jade's heightened senses could still pick it up, but she knew that had it not been for years of training and mental discipline, she would not know that Moribande was there. She made no noise or motion. Even if someone was to see her, they could easily mistake her for part of the architecture.

    Jade glanced fleetingly at Iratha, who, she could tell, had also sent the intruder. From the ceiling, Moribande could easily fly about, swinging her blades and inflict heavy damage on them in such a crowd. Jade knew that they couldn't engage her like this, and hoped that Iratha knew the same.

    Qual-Kehk suggested they move on, and the rest were quick to follow. Natalya fell into step with the other captains. Jade doubted that Natalya was unaware of Moribande - she was the most skilled among them. But she either thought it nothing to worry about, or knew that Jade and Iratha could handle it. The two younger Assassins stepped aside and allowed them to pass. Natalya gave Jade a grave glance as they met.

    When finally the rest of the party had issued down the corridor, the two druids nodded. "You too go ahead," said Jalal, "we'll bring up the rear again."

    "Don't worry," said Iratha in a casual tone, though her eyes were glowering. "We'll serve as rearguards this time."

    Aldur opened his mouth to speak, but Jalal took him by the wrist. "Very well," and the two walked between the Assassins after the rest of the party.

    Jade and Iratha glanced about the carnage offhandedly, and then turned to follow the druids. And in a motion so quick it even surprised Jade, Iratha withdrew a shuriken from her belt and slung it towards the ceiling. It whipped through the air, and then sparked with a clang as Moribande reflexively thwacked it aside with one of her elbow blades, and then launched herself downward at the Assassins, springing as if every tensed muscle had suddenly snapped.

    Jade and Iratha leapt out of the way, but Jade felt one of the long jagged blades come perilously close to her neck. Iratha swiped at her with her sword but Moribande expertly cart-wheeled over the strike, and counter-attacked, forcing Iratha to twist out of the way. Moribande's sword raked along the stone wall with a screech. She jumped and flapped her wings to pull herself away from the two, alighting gently near the doorway.

    "You both have skills, I'll give you that," Moribande congratulated them wryly. Her black, featureless eyes glinted towards the rear, and Jade heard sounds of battle echoing through the halls. "But will you stay and face the harlot? Or help your friends in a no-doubt perilous battle with Baal's most trusted protectors?"

    Iratha glanced down the hall. Moribande made a move towards her, but Jade swiped at her with her katars to warn her off.

    Moribande grinned. "Very well," she chuckled, "I'll make the decision easy for you."

    She flapped her wings, rising haltingly into the air, and then pushed off the wall and flew over the heads of the two Assassins, who both spun on their heels and gave chase down the hall. In the distance, they could see the battle, a mired brawl between human and demon. And lording over it all, backed by a swirling doorway, was Baal himself, distorted and malformed into his own image.

    He was supported by four bony, spider-like legs, and writhing about him were countless tentacles. He had a grin with too many teeth on his pasty features, and his long, slender fingers caressed the Soulstone about his neck, glowing with a cruel yellow light.

    Ghostly figures swirled about his body, so ethereal they took a moment to notice. When she caufht sight of them, Jade bit her lip. She had encountered a similar spell on a mage in Westmarch. The scent of that sorcery was unmistakable. He was shielded from any attacks, be they magic or physical. But conversely, he could not make any attacks of his own. Before him, a number of demons were fighting Qual-Kehk and the others. Nearly all the Barbarians were dead, and Natalya had broken her arm. Aldur was fatally wounded on the ground, but was continuing to throw his strange brand of magic at the offending creatures.

    Moribande flew over the fray, and blew a kiss to Baal. He smiled up at her deviously, and she sailed over his head, and into the chaotic gateway behind him. The standards flanking it rippled as she passed.

    Jade and Iratha sprinted down the hallway and sprang into the room. Jade jumped and kicked the balrog looming over Isenhart in the face. The jolt caused the demon to reel back, but he didn't lose his footing. Isenhart drew his shield inward, and struck out, but the balrog quickly recovered and parried with his own, thick sword. But Jade was not finished yet. With a gasp, she let a burst of energy flow to her arms and legs, and in a blur of speed, she vaulted up onto the creature's back, and stabbed it with her two katars inside the shoulder-blades. She felt his ribs break under her blade. But his meat was thick and dense. He reared back, flailing with his blade at Jade. She ducked, laying herself flat on his back.

    Isenhart took the opportunity to stab a decisive blow beneath his sternum, and inserted the sword up to its hilt. Jade grabbed the balrog by the horns and flipped up, looping her legs around his neck, and then, she slit his throat, cutting deep. Thick, dark blood exploded out of the wound, and he spread his wings and fell forward violently. Jade was thrown from his back and bowled into Isenhart, and the two collapsed on the ground. They both scrambled to their feet, ready to fight the beast in its death throws but the corpse face-down on the ground didn't move. The wings relaxed, and slowly settled on the ground, revealing the carnage on the other side.

    The remaining adventurers were scrambling around a gigantic mummy. His one leg had been severed, and his elongated, animalistic skull was opened in a poison-spewing scream. He was supporting himself on his one arm, and the second, which had no hand, but rather a long, bony scythe, was swiping at any who strayed to close.

    Baal, meanwhile, was frowning on his giant throne, still protected by his ghostly armour.

    Regha raised her staff. "Get back!" she commanded, and the remaining heroes quickly distanced themselves from the fallen creature. He opened his mouth, and an undead snake writhed in his skull with a hiss. Regha's eyes were alight in orange flame, and she spun her staff around. From the tip, a fireball exploded into being, and then flew through the air and into the open mouth of the mummy. His head exploded, and bone fragments clattered to the ground, still aflame. The rest of the body toppled to the floor in a gasp of poisonous dust.

    Baal righted himself on his dais, and his face twisted into a toothy grin. He laughed, and Jade felt herself chilled to the bone at the sound. "So my lieutenants have fallen," he chuckled. "Do not think you've beaten me yet." The apparitions encircling him dispersed. "For my work," he said, turning, "is nearly done."

    "He's unprotected!" Natalya shouted, "after him!"

    The heroes hefted their weapons and ran for the demonlord, but with a laugh and a clattering of his four heavy legs, he disappeared into the portal, which was swirling more violently than before, and sparks of energy were pouring off the base.

    Ragnar raised both his swords and shouted a warcry. "You'll not defeat me so easily!" he bellowed, and charged the portal.

    "Ragnar!" Sander cried, "wait!"

    But just as Ragnar was about to plunge into the mystical doorway, another head emerged from the other side with a ripple. It was a mass of tusks and teeth, and its jawline was stretched into an eternal grin. Ragnar skid to a halt, but the creature descended, and bit his head clear off his shoulders with his jagged maw. The adventurers gasped in surprise as Ragnar's headless body fell back and rolled down the steps, blood still spurting from his neck from his heart's inertia. He twitched. In spite of everything she saw and knew, twitching bodies still disturbed Jade.

    Meanwhile, the creature was emerging from the portal. He was a mass of bony spikes and muscled limbs. Four arms with huge, clawed hands flailed out from his rigid abdomen. His feet were three-toed with a back claw - like a bird, but heavy like a bear's claw. And his body ended in a long tail, tipped with a massive club, which wagged ominously behind him.

    The adventurers backed away as he stepped down off the steps.

    "We don't have time for this!" Vidala shouted. "Baal is corrupting the Worldstone as we speak - we need to get into that chamber!"

    Jade and Isenhart stepped over the Balrog and joined the widening circle around the creature. It roared, and laughed. Then it spoke. They were all startled at the words, as none had thought it an intelligent demon.

    "Fools! You have murdered my kinsmen, and I may well join them, but not before my Lord finishes his work. I am the Tormentor - Listor!" he lashed out towards Natalya, and she sprang back to avoid his many claws.

    Jade's eyes darted at the great demon, at the doorway, and at the tensed heroes standing around him. She felt it happening. The consuming energies channeling through the mountain were darkening, becoming more sinister. Baal had already begun.

    "I'll fight him," she stepped forward from the circle. "The rest of you take care of Baal. I'll handle Listor."

    Regha looked at her, aghast. Natalya, however, was already moving towards the portal. She knew well enough that there was no use arguing with her, and that this was what had to be done. There was a practicality to Assassins that Jade had always been very comfortable with.

    Listor laughed, and it sounded like his insides were churning with every note. "Foolish girl! You cannot survive this fight."

    Jade extended her leg, readied her katars, and adopted a resolute grimace. "I don't have to."

    Natalya had already entered the portal. Listor turned to attack Qual-Kehk as he passed him, but Jade lunged forward and jabbed him in the arm with her katar, then hopped back quickly when he returned his gaze. He croaked out a battle-cry, and lunged forward. His speed defied his size, and Jade had to reevaluate her strategies. Meanwhile, everyone else had gone through the portal. She was alone with him.

    Quite suddenly, Listor whirled around, and swung his tail at her. She jumped up, pulling her knees up to avoid the blow, but when she alighted, he punched her square in the face with one of his huge fists. She fell back, winded.

    Listor took one more step towards her, and then suddenly reared back in agony. Something zipped passed him, and another hit its mark. He turned with a low growl. Jade flipped to her feet and gazed beyond him.

    At the base of the stairs, silhouetted against the glowing portal, Iratha stood with a shuriken in each hand. Jade smiled to herself. She would not face him alone.

    Listor charged the dais, and Iratha greeted him by throwing a bottle that detonated at it hit his stomach. He grimaced in pain, but barely slowed. Iratha backflipped just as he took a swing at her, cracking him in the jaw. He took a step back, and then sprung forward, his four claws and gaping maw bared and deadly. Iratha leapt off the dais and turned as she landed.

    Jade raced up to stand beside her. Listor turned, and snarled, a black ooze dripping from his toothy mouth. The two Assassins stood side by side, back to a pillar, and bared weapons of their own - Jade her pair of sturdy katars, and Iratha her long, thin sword.

    Listor jumped forward and crashed into the stone floor before them. Iratha rolled to the side and lunged forward, stabbing him in the ribs, and Jade jumped up, and pushed off the pillar to deliver a spin kick to the side of his head as he screamed in pain from Iratha's blow. But as she alighted from her acrobatics, he backhanded her in the chest, sending her flying across the room, spitting up blood as she went. She was too dazed to correct her landing, and collapsed with a crash as she hit the floor. She struggled to her feet, still winded, and watched the battle on the other side of the room.

    Iratha was backing away from Listor, throwing a shuriken every few steps. Each blow drew blood, but there seemed to be no stopping this powerful juggernaut. Jade collected what consciousness she had left, and charged at Listor with a great cry. He saw her, but paid little heed, intent on advancing on Iratha.

    Jade leapt into the air, fists first, and stabbed Listor in the back. She let inertia carry the rest of her body over his, and then withdrew her blades, jabbing at his arms. Listor turned and chomped at her, and had she been any slower, he could have taken her head. She dropped to the ground, and rolled away, as Iratha clasped her sword in both hands and lunged forward with a scream, stabbing Listor through his vile heart. His anguished cries were like something out of a nightmare. But he resolutely bashed the sword with his fist, smashing it off at the hilt. He raised his four arms and growled as he closed on Iratha, now weaponless.

    Jade sprang to her feet and jabbed Listor in the back. But with little ceremony, he batted her with his tail. Jade was pushed into the wall, and felt her ribs broken.

    Listor grabbed Iratha by the shoulders, lifted her bodily off the ground, and threw her to the floor. He fell upon her, and dug his claws into her belly. Iratha screamed, blood splattering up from her gullet with every screeh. Listor grinned and laughed in fiendish glee. Jade's heart broke.

    But Iratha was not finished. She drew from her belt another potion, and made a fist around it. Listor cried out in victory, and she smashed the bottle inside his mouth. He clamped down reflexively, biting off her hand, and the potion exploded in his mouth. His hide was so thick that the explosion blasted off bits of his teeth, but left his flesh intact. He opened his mouth, and Jade could see parts of it burning. His tongue was flayed, and blackened from the blow. He looked down at Iratha, and growled again. He had yet to be felled. He smote her across the face with one of his fists, and she wept in misery. And then, she reached up, and tore the blade from the wound she had previously inflicted upon him, and drove it, and, flailing to defend herself with her other, handless arm, she drove the shard of metal into his neck.

    Listor's eyes widened, and he choked. He got up, reaching for the blade with all his hands, and gasped for air. He staggered away from Iratha, still groping for his neck, until finally he caught a hold of the blade. He withdrew it, looked at it for a moment, and then dropped the bloodied blade, and fell onto his side, dead.

    Jade had since regained her breath, and slowly trod over to Iratha, still coughing for air, blood-soaked on the floor. She fell to her knees at her side.

    Iratha smirked, her teeth crimson. "There is no nobler honour than to die in battle," she quoted.

    Jade moved Iratha's hair out of her eyes. "Poems will be written of the name Iratha," she intoned. "I'll see to that."

    Iratha coughed, and Jade felt a warm drop of blood splatter onto her face. "Don't waste time on this sentimentality," she scolded. "Natalya needs you. I can die alone."

    "You shouldn't."

    "But I will," Iratha said firmly.

    Jade stood, stepped over Iratha's quivering body, and strode towards the portal. She was about to set her foot on the first step when it suddenly happened. The world crashed in on her.

    A burst of energy exploded out from the inside of the mountain. Jade felt it rush through her, and was immediately overwhelmed. She had never experienced anything so intense. Every defense she had ever built up failed simultaneously - mentally, physically, and spiritually. She felt heat spread through her body, her pulse fluttered and her cheeks grew hot, and she felt her stomach churn with emotion.

    Then, a second burst, more powerful than the first, issued from the mountain, and she felt her entire body bristle with an inner fire coursing through her veins, twisting and coalescing until finally, it exploded in ecstacy. She collapsed on her back, her mind reeling in sensation, her ribs searing with pain but she too preoccupied with awareness to notice, her body trembling in orgasmic shock. And then, the heat faded, the light died, and there was nothing but gasping breath, and an ecstatic numbness throughout her body. She smiled to herself, despite the gore she had fallen into.

    Jade awoke not knowing that she had passed out, and the world was so quiet around her. All she heard were slowly retreating footsteps, far behind her, heavily armoured, and uneven - he was limping. She got to her feet, soaked in coagulating blood of many shades. The chamber was dark. The formless light had died. The stone looked like stone, and not fire. The only illumination at all was the portal before her, which had become a pale blue, and was swirling much slower, now, like a spiral of cloud, slowly shifting in a gentle wind.

    Jade turned around, and saw nothing but a lone torchlight descending the stairs at the far end of the corridor. The room was cold, and the chaotic energies once reeling freely through this place were silent. Jade felt suddenly very alone. She looked in turn at the body of Aldur, then Iratha.

    Jade turned around, facing the portal once again, which burned a cold blue fire, now. The demonic standards on either side had rotted, away, as if eaten by a horde of angry moths while she slept. Even the myriad demonic corpses seemed more dead than they had before.

    Jade reached out, and the portal rippled like a pond when her fingers struck it. She felt herself twist and disperse within it. She could feel it because of her astonishing abilities to feel such things. The supernature of it had never occurred to her so poignantly before. She let the energies pull her in, and colour flooded her vision like a cosmic waterfall as she doused her head into the arcane ocean. And then she emerged on the other side, in a chamber, equally cold and empty, with no light but a single hole at the apex of the hollow mountain.

    There was a stasis of disturbing magnitude within that mountain. Arreat itself was silently screaming for its purpose to return. Jade knew that the Worldstone was no more.

    There was one sound within the hollow mountain, however. It was a strangled sob, a mourner. Jade stepped quietly into the chamber, her footsteps resounding heavily. And then the strangest scene she had ever witnessed became clear before her.

    Baal, the Lord of Destruction, the Last of the Three, the Great Plague of Peace, the Enemy of All, lay dead, half-in the grey light, surrounded by his innards and ichor. And kneeling at his side was Moribande the succubus, weeping, her blades on the floor in disarray, and her arms strangely naked without them. Jade had never known that they had tears.

    Moribande knew she was there long before she looked up, and when she did, Jade saw tears of dark blood streaming down her white face. They did not, after all, have tears.

    "You're a plague," she whispered, "a sloppy solution to a cosmic problem. The universe saw discord, and so made you to correct it, and what have you done with that great power? This? This is your great victory, your progress? War? The crowning achievement of your race was destruction? And then you call us creatures of chaos."

    She lifted Baal's gargantuan head, scarred and visceral, and kissed it on the forehead. Her bloody tears dripped down onto his face. "If you have come to murder me, then do it, human. Otherwise, leave me to my misery."

    "What were we to do?" Jade demanded, vexed that she would be angry with her. "You expect us to allow ourselves to be killed, or worse, slaves to his will?"

    "If not his will, than another's," Moribande spat. "To think that you are not born into bondage is naïve, especially for someone like you, an Assassin for the Viz-jaq'taar. You've done nothing but obey your whole life. You've denied your most basic human desires for the glory of some power you'll never know."

    Moribande sighed haltingly. "But I care not. You can listen to the lies of angels or demons as you like, but they're lies no matter which side they come from."

    Jade looked away. The blood felt pasty on her skin, and her mouth tasted like copper. But where was Natalya, and Isenhart? Surely they wouldn't have left her there - passed her by without knowing she was still alive. But there was no human blood or bodies anywhere.

    "What happened?" asked Jade.

    Moribande shook her thorny head. "Far too many things," she muttered.

    Jade paused, sheathed her katars, and left the Worldstone Chamber.


    “And so,†said Kala, as Jade wiped a tear off of her face. “The witch-hunter did leave from the hallowed mountain depths, and fell in step with the shadows of her kinsmen. Search she did for purpose, and a sign that all she had fought for had not been in vain.â€

    Bohdan looked at Kala, and turned back to Jade. “Have you found it yet?â€

    Jade shrugged mirthlessly. “I don’t know what to look for.â€

    “We thrive,†Kinemil noted, “we survive. Isn’t that enough?â€

    Jade looked up. “Should it be? Should we strive to survive, and be satisfied with mere survival? Why bother fending off demons from other worlds when wars still rage across our own lands, between brother and brother?†Jade sighed, and walked over to the canyon wall, touching it with her palm. “If we succeeded, then why do we still fight?â€

    Bohdan looked to Kala. “What do you say to that?â€

    Kala inhaled thoughtfully. “Being dead, I am no authority on life. And I am nowhere near ancient enough to understand the plans of Bul-Kathos. I do not know why he trapped me within these writhing shadows, let alone why he created us, his honoured servants.â€

    “Could it be that you were brought here so that we might speak as we do now?†Kinemil suggested.

    Kala stood, and brushed out the creases of her dress. “Mayhap. But I have never been told my crime, so what must I pay penance for, if I do not know it? And if I am innocent, then why did he damn me only to serve you a century later? Did I not suffer enough in my days of heart, and flesh?†She heaved an ethereal sigh. “I grow weary,†she said, and plodded off through the snow. “Perhaps my duty is fulfilled, and now I shall go to sleep, and mayhap I shall dream a daughter to bear, that she might bear me to the Nephalem – the one last thing my mind’s eye has yet to see.â€

    And very, very soon, she was lost to sight, and the three adventurers turned, and followed the canyon wall.

    It was mere minutes before they emerged from the fog, and found the rest of their party staring at them, on the side of an untouched hill of pure white snow, squinting in the reflection of a sun shining down from an cloudless, ultramarine sky.
     
  15. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    If someone could give me some pointers on Chapter 13, it would really help. I find there were parts of it in the middle I didn't like, but don't know how to fix. I think some eyes that don't belong to me might help.
     
  16. Forbiddian

    Forbiddian IncGamers Member

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    Here is a much cleaned-up version of the post, along with the second half of it.

    Comma usage messes up the sentence readability. It would be smoother as: “Since Jade, Natalya, and Iratha had arrived in Harrogath, the captain (or ‘Slayer,’ as the Barbarians themselves called the position) had been replaced six times.” This would edit out the introduction of Iratha, but that could have been done when she was mentioned earlier in the paragraph.

    Tense changes make it confusing which succubi you’re talking about in the second sentence. Also, “She tore at her face…” come on, Nephilim. It should be “bloodied Sorceress” in the last sentence, but that’s a real nit-pick from me.

    Personally, I’d break the whole thing up into two paragraphs. Start with the one describing the very start of the battle flowing into the description of the different succubi. Then break the paragraph before continuing the battle. This would reset all of the “she’s,” “hers,” and tenses.

    Although it would change what actually happens in the story, you might want to swap Regha for any random male from the party so you can free up the word “he.” Yea, yea, “it’ll detract from the story…” but the grammatically correct way sounds so horrible with all of the typing out names crap (Regha fell on the succubus, then Jade stabbed it, then the succubus died and the blood from the succubus fell on Regha), and the action-packed way is more confusing than father’s day in the Kobe Bryant household.

    Changing Regha to Qual-Kehk would let you use He, She, and It to describe the three characters in the battle.

    Ouch. Who’s the she?

    Sensed the intruder, maybe?

    Okay, most nit-picky thing I’ve ever done (so far, I’m not finished…): you used cruel a while ago to describe one of Jade’s shuriken (shuriken is the plural also, right?). This just reminded me of it. Back then, I thought that it was a pretty weird word to have, as cruel is usually associated with evil (or a really sexy prefix), but it really flipped the meanings of a basic word around in this case. Okay, the shuriken can be cruel (it’s a weapon, it was designed to cause bodily harm), but in this case, you’re describing the light given off by the soulstone. The soulstone could be cruelly glowing with a yellow light or glowing cruelly or emanating cruelty, but the light itself isn’t cruel (and especially not cruel in the precedented manner). Yes, I just made up a word.

    Even if you don’t edit the word-choice, wouldn’t it still be, “cruel, yellow light”?

    Cliché? Yes. Sexy statement? Oh yea. “Mortally wounded” is a standby, and it really sounds better than fatally wounded.

    That’s two “ands” continuing a sentence, and that’s not good, and you should change it. Although in this case, the second “, and” should simply be an “and”.

    “He smiled up at her deviously, and she sailed over his head into the chaotic gateway behind him” would probably be the best way to word this sentence.



    Okay, I’m tired, I’ve got school tomorrow (starts in 9 hours), I should really hit the sack. I’ll edit more tomorrow (note: I decided not to edit a lot of random typos that would be caught by Word. Oops, I meant “caufht”.

    Run the spell check again and when it red-flags Aldur and Mordibande, just add those to the dictionary (although you’ll have to add it AGAIN for Aldur’s and any different forms of the word).

    I mean, when it’s bloodies instead of bloodied, we all know what you mean, but occasionally, it’ll make it hard to understand (hasn’t happened yet, to the best of my knowledge).

    Oh yea. I forgot to mention (P.S. and all that), this story rocks.

    And it's not really cliché’d like a certain story about two people taking an immensely powerful object to a certain place while using the object to protect themselves as it gives them superhuman abilities. I sure hope Shael and the precious will be protected from the nine wolfriders.

    Hah, I kid because I love that story, too.

    See you all when I wake up (after a big History test).







    Part 2: The second part

    Should be “body.”

    Should be screech.

    Hmm, I’m not a big fan of saying important things in plain words. This could be stronger, I think. If you want something simple “Jade’s stomach turned” is a little bit stronger, as it’s not making as grand a statement in three words.

    This is really a run-on. Break it up into two or even three sentences.

    I’ve gone through this before, this is a ton of “, ands.” You could take out the “, and then.” We all know that you’re talking about Lister, so it could just as easily be “He withdrew it and looked at it for a moment in shock before falling over, dead.”

    I really liked this. I just thought that I’d point that out. My post was starting to look darker than the new Milky Way bars. Thank you, Marge, for that zinger.

    Matt would like to make the motion to have this passive sentence deleted. “When it happened” has ticked me off since I read some Encyclopedia Brown where they built up all this suspense and then said something like, “Just then, it happened.” It completely ruined the moment. Having a passive sentence in a battle is bad enough, but “it happened” is like having the phone ring during sex.

    Could be changed into, “which now burned with a cold, blue fire,” or alternatively a cold, blue flame. Commas between adjectives help readability, but the rest of the sentence has to change, lest too many commas befall this gentle, unsuspecting sentence, which would be a bad, eye-burning way for a sentence to die.

    Ouch. Even writing that sentence burned my eyes… and I didn’t re-read it at all.


    I’m not sure the reason for why this is bad, but it is. Here are some possibilities:
    1) Repetition: Felt, Feel, Feel. No.
    2) The word “because.” No.
    3) The fact that the second sentence is not needed at all. We already know that she has a spidey-sense.
    If you really want to reiterate the fact that Jade owns sensing stuff, word it without the repetition of words. Try something like this: Her senses tingled and she felt herself twist and disperse within the portal.

    Okay, that sentence wasn’t that great, but that’s why I’m not the author. I feel that if you just combined the two sentences, it would flow better. I felt that because of my astonishing ability to feel sentence structure. Well, not that astonishing, but that’s why I’m not a paid editor, either.

    AHA! A person from Europe! That makes them a communist!

    Personally, I don’t have a problem with this, but if you ever get it published or dropped on an American-only place, you might want to run a switch for it as it’s a red flag in Word. It also means that you’re a red, and are probably waving a red flag right now.

    Actually, there are more communist countries in America than in Europe (assuming South America counts).

    I’m not positive, but wouldn’t it be “then?” I’m really not sure, but my gut is telling me that it should be then. Look it up—I’m too lazy.

    Jade’s speech is really good. For me, anyway, it put the story into perspective and shed a new light on everyone. It also shows how Jade changed after Moribande’s testimony.

    Normally, I don’t pick out really good parts just to display, but I have an ulterior motive for this one. Kala is a legendary seer. Albeit she’s dead, she was the one that Bul-Kathos spoke to, and she personally called the Ancient Talic to Mount Arreat. Bohdan grew up hearing tales of how great Kala was and he learned to have utmost respect for her. Now Bohdan chucks a borderline-insulting retort at Kala for no real reason?

    “A century later”? How long have the Ancient Ones been on Arreat? Yea. That ain’t no century I’ve ever heard of. I think that it's at least implied that they have been there for eons (and they might have even said that in their, "We are the spirits of the Nephalem, the Ancient Ones..." speech.

    That’s two “, ands.” Although for some reason, it didn’t bother me at all in this sentence.








    Okay, here’s the bottom line by Matt:

    It’s a very good read, probably the best out here (haven’t read everyone’s, though). VERY few of the errors affect the readability at all, and the word choice is exquisite. It’s also very nice that you don’t use the word “said” every time someone says something (like in a certain story about a small boy learning magic at Hogwarts).


    Here’s the full-chapter editing portion.

    Jade’s telling the story, right? So shouldn’t it be “I” and stuff? Try changing “Jade” to “I” for a page or so at the start and see how it looks.

    Some problems would be that it would HAVE to be first person detached, so Jade must have ALREADY gone through the changes (i.e. she’d be saying stuff about the cruelty of war on both sides, which would make her chat with Moribande less meaningful, and the change very hard to detect). To lessen the blow, you could use words like, “I thought” and things, but they would probably detract from the story after a few pages of that.

    It would, however, allow you to get the added impact of First Person. The Third Person semi-omniscient is my favorite format (I guess that it’d be called third person omniscient, but I’d classify it as a different perspective when you only rarely tell about thoughts and feelings).

    It would also highlight one of the strengths (if not the main strength) of this story. At least in my opinion, the fact that every character has a background and all of the characters change is what cuts this story out from the others. Most stories have 2-3 characters that they work on, and that’s really the story. The fact that you can blend themes with characters and easily switch from say, a character that’s always happy and in a stoned-ecstasy to a character that really hates life and would gladly die in an instant for what someone else believes in to a character that has a strong desire to urinate on the Worldstone.

    Okay, those are some extremes, but your characters feel completely different. The switch to first person would help make that more concrete, and would highlight the transition to the anti-war perspective (I don’t know if this will continue, but it would really bring out this opinion).

    Another thing about this whole story is that it really transitions well. It moves from character to character without ever doing something stupid.

    And that was a serious… not some sarcastic criticism.

    Seriously.

    No sarcasm. The previous statement and this current statement are also not sarcastic.





    EDIT: ARGH! There's no delete button, and the edit button is also gone for the first post. This makes my first post look stupid, and means that I double posted. If you read this, and you're a mod, could you delete the first post? It's also doesn't have the
     
  17. Nephilim

    Nephilim IncGamers Member

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    Thanks for your general grammar nit-picks. And I meant that seriously, too.
    Yeah, I'll take it out. It's derivative, too.
    Actually, I'm from Canada. That makes me a socialist. But I do wave a red flag. Red and white, that is.
    I'll change that. He's supposed to be seriously asking for her insight on the matter, because he values her opinion. But I see how that can be misinterpreted. I didn't detail his tone at all or anything.

    I'll change "century," too. I didn't mean it quite so literally, because she has seriously lost track of how long she's been there. But I didn't want to be specific because I don't actually know how long ago Kala lived. It was never elaborated on in any Blizz sources. Anyway . . .

    I thought about making this entire story first person when I first envisioned it, and it was my plan to jump from person to person, keeping the first person but shifting perspectives with the different chapters. But I don't like it when other people do that because eventually you get confused who's in the driver's seat, so to speak, and when they spell it out for you, it's painfully obvious that they're spelling it out for you. Plus, I'm just not comfortable writing a first person story, and I think I would've found it particularly difficult to write her orgasm in the first person. I think it would've had to have a level of self-awareness and intimacy I don't think I'm qualified to write with. Thanks for the suggestion, tho.
     
  18. Forbiddian

    Forbiddian IncGamers Member

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    As long as it occurred to you about the first person thing.

    Coming to a logical conclusion and taking into account all of the possibilities is the author's real job.


    The main problem with Third Person Semi-Omniscient is that it's really hard to use the mental figurative language (for instance, to describe her orgasm), as mainly facts are presented, with veins of people's thoughts for clarification and general story depth. Specific situations rarely involve feelings, so when a situation that CLEARLY requires that is presented, it is difficult to choose the correct words.



    And yes, my inability to find the word, that defines the sentence's problem is due to the fact that I'm 14 and have only this year entered an English class where morons who pronounce "rapped" as "a different word that D2net will blip if I type out, and if I tell you through some other witty, virtually-independant clause, I will get banned" are gone. The point is, they're stupid.

    St0op3d

    ARGH! It takes a guy freaking five minutes to read a paragraph and they STILL pronounce half the words wrong!

    Not anymore! MUAHAHAHA!
     
  19. Kurran

    Kurran IncGamers Member

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    Was just wondering if Jade is dead or alive? Somehow I'm not sure about this
     
  20. Forbiddian

    Forbiddian IncGamers Member

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    Yea, Luke Skywalker is Darth Vader's son. If you knew that from the start, the second movie would have kindof sucked... er... 4th movie.

    It will most certainly be A: completely irrelevant, B: left to the reader to decide, or C: revealed later.

    I have assumed that she was alive, but I hadn't really thought about that. It's a distinct possibility, however, now that it was brought to my attention.

    As they say on "Leave it to Beaver," leave it to Nephilim.
     

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