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Thread: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

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    Default Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    Author's Notes: This is the culmination of a massive writing project I've been developing on and off since my college days. I doubt if this will be the final iteration, and I don't plan for it to be professionally published... I've been writing it mostly for my own entertainment. But I've been steadily encouraged to present it to more than just myself and a few select friends - so I bring it here. I hope you enjoy!

    Disclaimer: The following is an adaptation based upon Diablo II by Blizzard Entertainment. Similarities to the game, its characters, and its situations are entirely intentional. This story is intended to be an homage, and is distributed solely at the author's discretion and without intent to obtain monetary profit, and... oh, just read it, already, would you?


    Between the Darkness and the Light

    A Diablo Story

    by Matt Morwell


    The Sightless Eye


    Warriv tucked his pipe between his lips and moved closer to the fire. Though its blaze was as tall as he, and it crackled and snapped loudly, it seemed to offer little protection against either the cold or the darkness. The wind seemed to return the snapping a little more fiercely, tugging at his tunic uncomfortably. The perpetual night-drizzle of the region might once have been a reassurance to frequent visitors from Lut Gholein, but now it was a farce and an omen.

    His periphery picked up the sight of a face that was pale and hair that was paler still, hovering at the portal of a rudimentary tent made of thick black cloth. The man’s pallor was a singularly uncommon sight in the wilderness, and the sight of such a man wrapped in loose black robes – a brand of clothing worn most frequently when one wished to hide one’s true wrappings or possessions – had been enough to startle the Sisters on the battlements above upon his arrival.

    The only color the man had borne was a brown traveler’s pack slung over his shoulder, more nondescript than anything else about him. It had looked almost out of place. But it had been just enough to convince them that this was not the strange traveler that had haunted the gate of the monastery – aside from a large weapon, the previous visitor had borne no possessions.

    And, Warriv thought dryly, his skin was darker.

    The only interaction anybody had witnessed this new outsider engaging in was a few softly spoken words to Akara. For her part, she had retreated into her tent and had not exited since; but she had not sent the visitor away, which was enough of an indication to the rest that he’d been permitted to stay the evening in the encampment.

    Warriv took a seat upon one of the makeshift log benches surrounding the fire and stared into the blaze. Although the drizzle was not nearly intense enough to have any impact on the fire, it nevertheless seemed to burn less brightly than one might have expected.

    It wasn’t long before the looming girth of the encampment’s resident scam artist cast a shadow next to Warriv’s own. The desert-born man let a puff of smoke through his nostrils as Gheed seated himself on the log a little too close for comfort.

    “A necromancer,” Gheed muttered. “I hoped I’d never have to lay my eyes on one of their kind again.”

    “Recent troubles have brought out all kinds,” Warriv noted. He kept his tone nonchalant, but his curiosity was piqued. Necromancy was a taboo art and the only ones he’d ever heard of as common practitioners were the Priests of Rathma. Supposedly they were natives of Kurast, but for all the gossip inspired, few said so with any measure of sincere certainty.

    “How can you be so calm with one of them here?” Gheed probed. “He could be playing with your brother’s bones, for all you know.”

    “Doubtful, as I have no brothers,” was Warriv’s response, followed by another puff of smoke. He shot a sidelong glance at the other man. “What about you?”

    A scoff issued from the merchant. “None worth mentioning. I’m just saying. The gates close, there’s no traffic to this place, and someone like that shows up. Makes me nervous. Sure as hell it makes these ladies here nervous too.”

    Sure as Hell? Indeed, Warriv thought. He deigned to offer no reply; he wasn’t terribly interested in carrying on a conversation that would likely only stoke Gheed’s self-satisfied bigotry.

    Of one thing, he was certain – that the man was allowed into the camp meant he was less Hellish than whatever had now taken up residence in the plains beyond it.


    © Matt Morwell, 2011


    Those already familiar with my work will note that this section, as with those that will follow, is much shorter than my typical update. Hopefully this will help those who don't have an entire afternoon to slog through page after page of this stuff! I will do my best to ensure this story is updated regularly. I hope you who read this will find fit to cram my Inbox with thoughts, remarks, criticisms, and general hubbub!

  2. #2
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    Default Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light


    Act I
    The Den of Evil



    It was only at the twilight of dawn that the man emerged from his tent. He was garbed in the simplest of clothing – dark tunic and pants, his hooded black robe wrapped loosely about them. The hood hung low over his sallow face. His footsteps were silent and his movement was sure as he approached the largest tent, where an elderly woman in russet robes patiently waited. Her eyes were closed and her hands were clasped as if in prayer, but her head rose upon his approach.

    She turned and gazed up at the narrow figure. “I did not offer my condolences.”

    “I require none,” he murmured. “We do not grieve in Death’s wake.”

    “There are those in this camp who would envy you for that, if nothing else.” She tilted her head to one side. “I trust you would not be offended if I offered a prayer for the fallen.”

    “It does the fallen no harm.” A moment of silence passed between them. “You are wounded.”

    She gave a single nod. “I insisted on disabling the Waypoint Stones as our monastery was overrun. I could not permit the invaders unlimited access to our lands. I was accosted by a great, demonic spider and...” A sigh escaped her. “I am a capable alchemist but... I need not tell you of inevitability.”

    He tucked his pale hands into the opposing sleeves of his robes. “You have not told your wards.”

    “They already suffer. They need no help from me. I have never been immortal. My time will simply arrive sooner than originally expected.” A harder cast shaded her gaze. “Kashya and her scouts are capable but they are far too few against an enemy we do not even understand, let along know how to combat. I would not have sent for help if I did not firmly believe we required it, Mathiyias.”

    His expression didn’t change but his dark eyes narrowed. “With respect, High Priestess, my skill is comparatively limited. I was to come here to learn alongside my master, not to singlehandedly challenge the Evil befalling this land.”

    “I understand. Yet if we are to survive, we must first identify our enemy. The Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye is studious but even an acolyte of Rathma is typically more learned in such matters as otherworldly creatures. Their allegiances, their motives. We need to know what we are up against.”

    “I did not refuse my assistance, High Priestess. I merely wish you to be aware of my limitations. Will I have the support of the Sisterhood or must I investigate alone?”

    “I fear it must be the latter, for now. We barely have enough able Sisters to defend this hovel. Many have scattered throughout the wilderness. Many more have died. The fruits of your investigation may help lead all of this to change.”

    The man called Mathiyias offered no reaction. “Where shall I begin?”

    Her face did not betray her emotions but her eyes conveyed her gratitude in his undeclared acceptance of the role she was asking him to fill. “There is a place of great evil in the wilderness not far from this camp. Kashya's scouts have informed me that a cave nearby is filled with shadowy creatures and horrors from beyond the grave. I fear that these creatures are massing for an attack against our encampment. Find that dark labyrinth and destroy the foul beasts within. Their demise will surely help both you and us.” She hesitated. “I should add that many of our finest archers have perished in that horrible place. You will encounter ferocity and mindless hunger not born of this world.”

    “Then expect my return to be a late one.” Mathiyias turned to the encampment’s entrance and withdrew his hands from his cloak; in his right was a narrow wand etched with ever-burning pale symbols. “You should tell them. It is easier to make peace with the truth when you know it.”

    “They will know when they are ready. And when I am ready.”

    He did not respond, but instead stepped beyond the entrance and into the drab morning. He closed his eyes and spread both arms in silent challenge to the plains and the demons lurking about them.

    All who oppose me... beware.


    © Matt Morwell, 2011
    Last edited by mattbcl; 14th August 2011 at 03:24 AM.

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    Default Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    The Den of Evil



    The Blood Moor

    Though commonly misunderstood, the Priests of Rathma bore as much respect for life as for death. It was due to this respect for life that they made their home in a series of large catacombs beneath the jungles of Kurast, instead of trampling and destroying the forestry in order to procure building materials. They had no wish to interrupt the natural flow of life surrounding such a place. The males born into their order were taught at an early age to appreciate and admire life in all its forms, both subtle and gross.

    Mathiyias was no exception. He could sense the ebb and flow of life, see the threads that connected it to that upon which it was dependent. But this evening, his sight was clouded by the foul creations that now prowled the countryside, clearly not of this world, nor of any other he had any interest in exploring.

    And if they did not come from this world, they certainly were not meant to stay in it.

    Such were the thoughts that pervaded his mind as he sought out the unnatural forces that had stolen the Sisterhood’s monastery. The beaten dirt path twisted and wound through a series of gently sloping plains just beyond the river against which the Rogue encampment had been constructed. Small houses and huts dotted the landscape, but all appeared to have been abandoned some time ago.

    Given what he could see in this wilderness, it wasn’t difficult to determine why.

    It wasn’t long before he located the remains of an apparent fallen warrior – worm-eaten, skeletal, already plundered for most of his possessions, except a rusted sword. The way the body was twisted, it looked as if he had died in agony.

    For most others, the odor would have been awful. But Mathiyias had lived in the dank and musty caves of Kehjistan all his life, and such smells were virtually commonplace there. The combined sight and smell opened his senses to the residue of the man’s spirit... the rust on his sword notwithstanding, it had not been so long since his departure of the body.

    Mathiyias squinted, focusing his senses more on both the body and its departed spirit. Despite the light rain rattling the landscape, he could hear the echoes of this man’s death – it had been brutal and agonizing. Many of his ribs were destroyed. Some had been shattered by clubs, others had been severed by blades. A gaping hole in his skull showed nothing but emptiness where a brain should have been; whether it had been carried away by birds or otherwise obliterated by cruel enemies, there was no longer any telling for certain.

    There was no passion within him as he studied the wounds that had caused this man’s death. Analysis and curiosity were his driving forces. There was nothing upon the remains themselves that offered him insight as to what type of enemies he had encountered, save that they were brutal, merciless, and armed.

    As must I be, he mused. He extended the tip of his wand toward the skull; the runes circling the wand glowed a pale blue as he closed his eyes and uttered words from a long-forgotten tongue. “Gh’aol rilem...

    A blue haze poured from the tip of his wand and wrapped itself about the skeleton. If any had been witness to the sight, they might have seen the once-handsome visage of a man contorted in pain and torment drawn in the cloud, superimposed over the corpse’s half-eaten face. As the aura constricted, what remained of the flesh and organs seemed to shred and melt away, leaving only the bones that had not been destroyed. Then the fragments of ribs that were scattered about the ground appeared to float up to the skeleton’s damaged ribcage and reconstitute themselves, as though they were a puzzle for Mathiyias’ strange spell to solve.

    The eyeless sockets of the skeleton turned to look at Mathiyias; he opened his eyes and gazed at his creation. Satisfied, he got to his feet.

    The skeleton cast about for a moment. Its left hand reached for the rusted sword and took up the weapon; its right hand pushed at the ground, assisting its feet in rising to full height. The cloud around it had by this point dissipated, leaving only a creature of gleaming white bone.

    Mathiyias nodded his head once, and continued on the path.

    The skeleton followed.


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

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    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    The Den of Evil



    The Blood Moor

    It did not take long for Mathiyias and his undead companion to encounter hostility in the already hostile environment. A small campfire burned a short distance from the path; the firelight revealed a torn banner that bore indecipherable symbols and copious amounts of blood. Small, red-skinned creatures on two legs shrieked and darted about the fire, shouting vulgarities in a language Mathiyias recognized.

    Lesser Hellish. Too common to be a tongue of the Three or their minions. His pale brow furrowed as he approached the camp. Clearly they were not summoned by any force in or of this world, else they would speak the Common Tongue. But if that is the case, who – or what – summoned them? And how?

    His musing was put to a halt when one of the creatures pointed at him and shrieked an alert to its companions. The mass of small demons scrambled for their weapons, then rushed as one toward the transgressors. He did not need to look at his skeletal minion to know that the piece of its remaining spirit he’d bound to the body wished to go to battle with these imps, but it could not act without instruction and Mathiyias stayed the order to attack. Instead, he extended his wand in their direction – the tip and his eyes flashed blue as he declared, “Morh’c osi!

    Blue smoke again erupted from his wand’s end, but instead of casting forward at the approaching demons, it remained a small cloud just beyond the necromancer; from its depths there issued forth a series of gleaming white projectiles that impaled the first line of imps with all the force - if not the precision – of arrows fired by the Sisterhood. The creatures cried out and fell back whimpering.

    It was at that moment that Mathiyias finally permitted the skeleton to attack. It lurched forward, sword swinging wildly at the creatures. As it distracted them, he brought his wand closer to his chest and held it vertically. Again his eyes glowed and another chant fell from his lips: “Morh’c osta...

    This time, smoke did not eject from his wand – instead, an ethereal blue haze settled over the immediate area. Sparks crackled through it... and if one had been present to hear, one might have heard the distant moans and wails of the tormented souls still lurking about the land. For each small shock delivered from the haze to the ground, a piece of bone was uncovered. Whether they were small chips or entire skeletons, all were unearthed, disassembled into individual pieces, and drawn towards Mathiyias’ body by the haze – and began to revolve around him in the manner of a small tornado whose winds dismissed the smoke that had found them. As the bones whirled about him, he made for the campfire, where the imps had regrouped and were again attacking. The skeleton warrior was still standing but had by this point clearly been damaged by their efforts.

    Reinforcements are in order. Mathiyias didn’t have to look far for these; the bodies of newly-slain devilkin littered the ground at his feet, and he made his selection quickly. “Gh’aol rilem!

    The irony of summoning the imp’s skeleton was not lost on him. It was somewhat uncommon for his kind to use slain demons to do their bidding... but then again, it was not common for his kind to encounter so many of them at once. One uses the tools one has.

    The skin and flesh of the creature did not tear and melt as the warrior’s had, but simply turned to dust and ash. Its bones were black and it was, if possible, even more hideous as a skeleton. It leapt up and grabbed its fallen weapon, then with zealous fervor ran headlong into the crowd it had so been recently fighting alongside.

    Two of its companions immediately took notice of Mathiyias and ambled towards him bearing spears no longer than his arm. When they tried to stab him, however, the whirling bones responded by halting directly in front of them and closing so tightly, their attacks rebounded. He followed up this response with a counterattack – a sweeping overhanded club with his wand atop the skull of his attacker to the left. The other received a less graceful attack in the form of a punting kick to its torso that sent it flying over the fire.

    He turned, intent on surveying the damage being wrought by the skeletal warriors at his command – and nearly took a projectile to his side, were it not for the menagerie of bones spinning about him. The sound of a mass of bone shattering to his left caused him to recoil automatically to the right and his head jerked about to face his new foe. Shuffling along the ground was an animal that appeared akin to a hedgehog or similar rodent; long spiked quills adorned its back. Its small lips were peeled back across its teeth and its eyes glowered at him with unholy fury.

    Suddenly it loosed a barrage of quills from its back. The spray was impressive and it battered the bone armor surrounding him, rendering some of it into dust simply by making contact. Mathiyias frowned as he quickly inspected the fallen fragments; they glistened with fluid that upon contacting the soil erupted into smoke.

    Highly corrosive. Not a substance I should have any interest in touching. Mathiyias backed away from the rodent and considered his options. The quilled rat gave chase and moved with surprising quickness, given its strange and unwieldy form, causing him to retreat with greater speed. As he moved back, he brought up his wand. “Morh’c osi!

    A flurry of gleaming projectiles hurtled toward the broad creature, which instantly curled into a ball to protect itself; but instead of piercing its flesh, the razor-sharp chips embedded themselves amidst its quills. It squawked, then uncurled and shook its back, and the bone shards fell harmlessly to the ground. Nevertheless, Mathiyias’ attack had the desired effect and it stopped moving, now electing to watch him warily for his next move.

    Whatever evil has befallen this land is incredible, indeed, to cause such an alteration in both the body and soul of a simple animal... Mathiyias didn’t want to call upon the assistance of his necroskeletons just yet, especially as they were already giving chase to the cowardly imps. If the rat’s quills could damage his armor in such a fashion, there was no telling just what it would do to his bone minions.

    Perhaps, then, I need a minion of a different type. His left hand darted out to snatch one of the sharper pieces of bone floating around his body. A small shard smacked into his palm, and quickly he closed his fist about it, feeling its edges pierce his flesh. Then he released the shard back amidst its many companions and held his open palm out and face-down, allowing his blood to drip into the soil. The moment his blood struck the ground, he aimed his wand at it and intoned, “Gh’aol augh’al...

    At that utterance, a bolt of pale light issued from the wand’s tip and struck the blood spots, which then instantly vanished beneath the earth. The ground upon which the blood had been spilled shifted and rolled, clumps of soil rising up to solidify into a totem taller and broader than the necromancer himself. The form was bipedal but any resemblance to humanity or associated species ended there; it had no digits on its wide hands and feet, and its eyes were of stone rather than flesh. Its face split in a crag that could have been a mouth, had it a need for one – but having no voice, no breath, and no requirement for sustenance beyond the blood and magic of its creator meant it was an affectation at best, and a flaw at worst.

    It instantly set to work on the task Mathiyias intended for it – the beast of soil and clay staggered forward and crushed the spined creature underfoot. A truncated gargling cry was all the reaction the possessed rat had time for.

    Only then did Mathiyias notice that the creature was hardly alone in its kind. Several more were rapidly approaching behind their brother’s remains. But the golem of sod and clay, on its creator’s instructions, would not permit them to move close enough to do any serious harm to Mathiyias; it lumbered forth and pounded the monstrosities into the ground with both fists and feet.

    Moments later, the battle was concluded. The ground was littered with the bodies of dead creatures, blood, and exposed – albeit crushed – internal organs. Mathiyias took only a moment to survey the carnage, and offered a single silent nod of satisfaction. Yes, this will do for the time being.

    But I must remember all goals I have before me, including those the Priestess would have me accomplish.
    He approached one of the impish bodies and took up its fallen blade, then unceremoniously cleaved its head from its shoulders. The cranium was small enough that he could easily grip it in one hand, but he handled it with care – the black blood flowing from its neck sizzled as it struck the ground and he coolly considered what it was liable to do to human flesh and bone.

    Waste not... He reached to his belt and pulled from it an empty glass vial, which he then held to one of the larger open veins dangling freely from the creature’s remaining neck. It took only a few moments for the foul fluid to fill the vial and Mathiyias was quick to cap it with a neutral stopper before re-securing it to his belt.

    “What are you doing?”

    The acolyte’s dark eyes did not move from the imp’s pilfered head; his summons had already alerted him to the presence of the Rogue, but his will prevented them from taking any action against her or her kind. “Its blood may prove of use to me.”

    “What use could a demon’s blood be to someone who isn’t better off dead?” the voice behind him demanded. Through the ether of life and death he could sense her righteous anger welling up within her; her emotional turmoil was guiding her to reach for the quiver of arrows across her back.

    “I am here at the request of High Priestess Akara,” he responded calmly. “Among other skills I possess, I have training as an apothecary. I intend to concoct a potion that will offer armor and weaponry resistance to the blood of this creature’s brethren.”

    “A mere apothecary would not have such creatures as these as his companions. What are you? A summoner of darkness?”

    “A summoner, yes. Of darkness... that is for you to debate.” He slowly rose to his feet and turned around to gaze at the woman interrogating him – then realized that “woman” was perhaps too strong a word. The Rogue standing before him was surely not yet of twenty years of age. But any innocence of youth she might once have had was now gone, replaced by the pain of losing her sisters, experience with unearthly horrors, and the uncertainty of her future. Likely even her survival.

    Upon sight of his sallow face, she drew back a step. Her hand had not yet drawn an arrow from her quiver but it gripped one nonetheless, and her bow was ready. The sight of his face, combined with a quick glance at his strange armor – apparent beyond the open front of his black robe – seemed to give her the final piece of the puzzle she required. “A necromancer.”

    “By the common tongue,” he affirmed.

    “Why would High Priestess Akara send for someone like you?”

    “To identify the evil that has befallen this land,” he responded. He held up the imp’s head for emphasis before tucking it away into his pack. “In my travels, I have discovered that even the most jaded will accept this type of task is one to which the followers of Rathma are uniquely suited. Shall you?”

    She narrowed her eyes, and silently her hand fell away from the quiver.

    He inclined his head toward her. “I am searching for a gathering of these creatures. The Priestess fears a mass attack on your camp and has dispatched me to prevent it.”

    “A legion of my sisters was no match for them. What can you alone accomplish?”

    He tucked his hands into their opposing sleeves. “We shall find out.”

    She pursed her lips, then responded, “You’re moving in the wrong direction. The place you seek is to the south. The path forks not far from here. Let us both hope you have not strayed too long and there is still a camp to return to.”

    He offered no response as he turned to leave.


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

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    The Den of Evil



    Den of Evil

    The cave entrance was just a short distance from the path but clearly visible from it, just as the Rogue had said. Mathiyias ducked his head low as he entered. He almost felt welcomed by the familiar dankness and shadows of the underground... welcome, but for the spirits of warriors and innocent civilians alike who had been brought here to die. The sudden onset of them upon his arrival caused him to close his eyes and breathe deeply to adjust.

    Indeed... I sense death in this place.

    There was a strange organization to the structure of the cave, as though it were less natural and more manmade. More likely, he realized, that men were not responsible for the layout, but something foul and unnatural. He stalked through the caverns with purpose, allowing his summons to spread out around him and engage what creatures they could locate in the darkness. Accustomed as he was to life in the underground, his view was not hampered by the perpetual darkness of the cave... and even if it were, his sight extended beyond the physical limitations of his eyes. He could sense the dark pits within the ether that represented the chaotic beings inhabiting the place, and as Akara had feared, there were many of them – his rough estimate was four dozen strong.

    The archers on the camp’s battlements might be able to kill the occasional wandering beast, but surely this many would overwhelm the place. A crease formed between his eyebrows as he considered the creatures his minions fought – in addition to more impish devilkin and possessed quill rats, there was a legion of the walking dead, including the skeletal remains of the long departed and the still-rotting corpses of the more recently deceased. The latter group appeared by their clothing to be local citizens, very likely those who had occupied the homes scattered about the moor above.

    And there was still another brand of creature within the cave which baffled the Rathma acolyte... yetis. They were not comparatively numerous – his minions only showed him a half dozen – but they were immensely strong and fueled by a chaotic, senseless rage that gave him pause. Yetis may seem barbaric to the average bystander but there has been no creature I have studied whose attitude toward humanity was more docile and reclusive...

    A loud roar from one of the massive creatures was the preamble to a vicious attack upon the earthen golem, a backhanded swat that nearly obliterated the homunculus where it stood. The golem returned the ferocious favor despite having lost a massive chunk of its own body; both fists slammed into the creature’s head from opposing directions, caving its thick skull in upon itself.

    Mathiyias stifled a sigh at the vigor of his golem – although slaves to his will, when he permitted them to attack, the spirits he bound to his summons seemed determined to do so with greater zeal and less caution than he would have preferred. Access to relatively intact remains, particularly those of skulls, may provide a greater clue as to what has befouled these creatures. I cannot perform my duty if–

    Before he could complete the thought, his head snapped up, alerted to the sudden loss of one of his two necroskeletons; the human one had foolishly rushed into a large cove of imps, and there had been a much larger one bearing a staff. They had all leapt upon the skeleton warrior and torn it asunder – his magic could do no more for it and the spirit had fled the remains.

    Very well, then. He made his way to the adjoining black chamber where the waist-height demons were amassed, and then held his wand straight out. “Morh’c osi!

    Another spray of bone shards shot out of the cloud spewing from the wand’s tip. By the pale light cast by the runes in his wand, he could only see a short distance in front of him, but he could hear the results of his attack – the sounds of flesh tearing and the cries of devilkin echoed in the cavern. He raised the wand to call upon the Dragon’s help once more...

    But then he heard the muttering of an incantation in Lesser Hellish. The words were unintelligible to him but he could detect the intent behind them; for one of his kind, that intent was unmistakable. The energy speared from the caster and dispersed into the dead body of a creature just at his feet.

    Instantly, the imp breathed and shrieked, then jumped up and slapped at the wand in Mathiyias’ hand. Unprepared for the speed of the attack, the necromancer stumbled back. The creature’s remaining brothers, although wounded, were encouraged by his momentary distraction and leapt at him. He staggered further backward, trying to regain his footing – all they needed to press their attack. One of the fallen jumped for his right arm and caught his forearm in both hands, then lunged for his hand and clamped its teeth down into it.

    He yelled in pain and released the wand, then tossed his arm to hurl the creature off it. But the damage had been done; another of its brothers had already taken up the wand and it sneered evilly at Mathiyias as it held the mystical weapon up in both hands... and then snapped it in half.

    The Rathma acolyte narrowed his eyes at the creature – and then it was crushed underfoot by the earthen golem.

    Mathiyias didn’t want to waste another moment; he sought out the demon that possessed the ability to resurrect its brethren. He could still see very little in the cave – it was dark, yes, but there seemed to be an unnatural darkness to it as well – but the repeated whisper of its hellish incantation was precisely what he needed to locate it. It stood at least a head taller than the other devilkin (which still made it two heads shorter than the necromancer) and bore a staff whose top culminated in a torn flag.

    Mathiyias’ eyes narrowed as he spied the rag flapping about atop the staff. Perhaps this will offer me a clue as to this creature’s allegiances...

    But before he could move any closer, a sudden gout of flame erupted from its mouth and threatened to engulf him. He dove to one side, sparing himself the worst of the attack, but the hem of his robe lit afire. He flapped it viciously as he dodged an attack from one of his lesser foes, then followed his dodge with a kicked to the gut which sent the enemy flying into the opposing wall. Its bones crunched as it came to its sudden stop.

    Another burst of flame reminded Mathiyias that while not his height, the impish shaman was clearly a greater danger than the others surrounding him and his two minions – also engaged in ferocious battle with creatures that would not remain dead, thanks to the efforts of his target. He sensed his opportunity, however, when it attempted to revive an imp that had fallen to the swinging fists of the golem; as the shaman spoke, Mathiyias charged forward and both hands shot out to wrap about the demon’s neck. His thumbs dug viciously into the shaman’s throat, depriving it of its speech and the ability to complete its summoning spell. His momentum bore both him and his quarry into the wall behind the shaman, and he grit his teeth as he tightened his grip on the beast’s throat. It choked and gargled but could not produce any intelligible noises, let alone a spell or a cry for assistance to its brothers.

    Nevertheless, clearly it was able to formulate a plan, for its mouth opened wide and Mathiyias could see sparks building up behind its teeth. His mind raced. It must have metallic deposits in its palate that it can strike together at will... but it would not do this if it did not have some product to ignite –

    Saliva! The fire’s fuel is from its own mucus!

    In sudden desperation, Mathiyias did the only thing he could think to do in order to protect himself from the infernal attack: his left hand released the creature’s throat and clamped over its mouth.

    The shaman’s eyes widened but it had already initiated an unstoppable chain reaction. Mathiyias cried out as he felt the searing flames boil the flesh of his palm but he only gripped the demon’s face and neck harder in response. The shaman could not utter a scream of its own as the fire meant to destroy its foe instead charred its own head from the inside out. Its eyeballs withered and melted within its skull, and plumes of sickening black smoke belched from its nose and ears.

    The monster’s death was nearly instantaneous, but to Mathiyias it was hardly so rapid... and only a moment later he realized the blackened flesh of his hand had fused with the shaman’s steaming skull. He groaned, then unceremoniously snapped the creature’s limp neck and jerked his hand – and with it, the skull – away from the body. The pain was excruciating and Mathiyias could feel blood trickling down his face from having bitten his own lip almost clean through. He could no longer see the injury but he could still feel the remains of the flesh on his hand bubbling from the extraordinary heat the shaman had generated.

    Through the haze of pain he determined that his minions had finally been able to gain the upper hand over their adversaries, though the remaining necroskeleton was all but in shambles and not much better could be said for the golem. He clutched his wounded hand and the demonic head it was forced to carry to his chest, and began to stagger back the way he had come.

    Or so he hoped.


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

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    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    Sisters' Burial Grounds



    Rogue Encampment

    The sun was only just settling beyond the horizon when a scout called down from her post. “Contact!”

    At that call, Charsi felt her blood quicken within her veins as the other Sisters standing on the battlements stood at attention. Bows were brought to bear upon whatever intruding party had encroached upon the scout’s considerable line of sight. Charsi had lost count of the number of times she had offered up a quick prayer that there was not an enemy force trying to swarm the camp, and she found herself adding this moment to it.

    It’s bad enough that I don’t have my proper smithing tools here, she thought, but we’re stuck here with no way to access them – and they have full reign over them! But she did not dare ask Akara or Kashya for such a favor as to send Sisters to their certain deaths, not even for the malus.

    She liked to think she could be proud of the weaponry and armor she had forged for the Sisterhood given the poor conditions into which they were unavoidably thrust, but the truth was she felt disappointed in her inability to help more. The armors at their disposal were little more than plain mail and thick leather, not imbued with the powers even a single strike of the malus could provide and certainly not enough to ward off the horrific injuries the demons beyond the mouth of the entrance had proven capable of inflicting.

    Despite the fact that the entrance to the camp was to the southeast and she was almost as close to the northwest corner of their makeshift fortress as Gheed, she nevertheless reached for her favored weapon. Unlike the Sisters, she did not take pride in arrows and daggers, but rather the steady heft of a sword. Hers was not a colossus such as her blood brethren of the Steppes were capable of wielding but it had cut down its fair share of the monstrosities storming the gates of the Monastery as they had made their retreat. Akara and Kashya both believed her too young to fight and certainly too young to die. Charsi was inclined to agree with them on the second count but she yearned to contribute more to their survival – by all accounts, an increasingly feeble struggle, and she could not help but feel at least partially to blame.

    Boastful men had come and gone through the encampment, claiming feats of strength and bravery unrivaled through all of Sanctuary. At best, they were never seen again. At worst, the impish creatures that so loved chanting taunts, insults, and vulgarities at the tops of their lungs during the night could be seen wielding body parts that clearly once belonged to those men. Charsi had learned enough to trust them not merely at their word, but by proof of their action. She found herself curious to know if such as this was approaching the camp now, for no attack order had been given and no arrow had been loosed. Had it clearly been an enemy, the archers would likely not have waited for the order.

    Instead, she heard Kashya’s voice slice through the night air, as sharp as the arrowheads aimed at the encroaching party. “Archers, hold!”

    Charsi could make out the silhouette of a human figure now, wrapped in a plain brown traveler’s cloak and bearing a brown pack on his shoulders. He wore no hood – she could see that his skin was darker than his garb and his head was shorn of hair. Dangling from his hip was a sword sheathed in a half-scabbard. The blade glinted in the minimal light being cast from the campfire, and its edge glistened with red and black fluids... a testament to what obstacles he had withstood in order to get here.

    Yet he did not appear the least bit tired or injured, so clearly the blood on his clothing was not his own. He spoke softly to Kashya, and while Charsi’s eyesight could not hope to match the Sisters’ in terms of sharpness, she could hear just as well as the next person. His voice was deep, smooth, and self-assured. He projected no aura of arrogance. His shoulders were squared confidently, and though his expression was blank, his eyes blazed with a fire that almost outshone the one in the center of the camp.

    Kashya moved to and entered Akara’s tent, presumably to inform her that another guest had arrived. Charsi had not had an opportunity to speak with the pale man in black before he was sent on his first errand by Akara, but it was clear his presence in the camp unnerved Gheed and several of the Sisters. She for one, was more fascinated than frightened. It could not be merely his pallor that engendered such a reaction in these others, particularly when they had already seen much more terrifying and demoralizing sights in this wilderness... why did he scare them so?

    An answer I’m not likely to get from this newcomer, she decided. She turned back to her anvil but kept an eye and an ear on him as he approached the campfire. She noticed Warriv was almost immediately on his feet on sight of the dark-skinned man and offered him a deferential salute. “Well-met, noble paladin! It’s been a while since I’ve seen any of your kind in the West.”

    The newcomer – paladin, Charsi corrected herself, turning the word over in her head – returned Warriv’s salute. “That does not surprise me, what with all the troubles caused by the Inquisition. The Church of Zakarum recalled many of its clergy and warriors to Kurast.”

    Warriv tilted his head. “Was a recall order not issued you?”

    At that, the paladin offered Warriv a guarded smile. “A presence is still necessary beyond the homeland.”

    The caravan master hesitated for a moment, then shrugged. “So be it. It would be an honor to aid you in any way that I can. I am Warriv, a merchant that regularly travels the route between the Monastery and Lut Gholein.”

    “I am honored to meet you, Warriv. My name is Tsal. And indeed, I wish to take you up on your offer of aid.” The paladin took Warriv by the arm and leaned closer to him. “In my travels across this land, I have encountered evils whose origins I cannot trace. Rumors tell that they came from a cursed place called ‘Tristram’. I am to understand this is where the northern lord Leoric placed his seat of power but I know little of the city itself. What can you tell me of it?”

    “Tristram?” Warriv scoffed. “Yes, it is most certainly a cursed place, and hardly a ‘city’ anymore. It belongs to Khanduras. It was not long after Leoric declared himself king that horrid creatures began appearing there. Many of the townspeople were maimed and murdered. I had even heard that a fissure into Hell itself was opened as warriors and wanderers attempted to combat whatever evil assaulted that place.” He looked quizzically at Tsal. “I would have thought the Church had records of Leoric and Tristram both.”

    “The Church of Zakarum renounced Leoric entirely,” the warrior answered. “They even went so far as to strike him from all records. It is purely because I was studious as a youth that I recall his name. All I know of Tristram is the tragedy that befell it, and even then, only what rumor tells.”

    “Then perhaps you have also heard the rumor that Diablo, the Lord of Terror, walks the world again.”

    Tsal tilted his head at Warriv. “I have. What is it you believe?”

    Warriv considered, then shook his head. “I’m not sure I believe that. But...”

    The paladin arched a dark eyebrow. “But?”

    Warriv sighed reluctantly. “Well... there was a dark wanderer of some note that traveled this route a few weeks ago. I say ‘of note’ because his only possession seemed to be a huge sword whose weight he only barely could carry. Before he came, there was nothing to impede my caravan save for fallen trees, bandits, and ruffians. But almost immediately after, we began to hear reports from scouts of strange and violent creatures roaming the countryside. It could be mere coincidence but evil seems to have trailed in this man’s wake. The Monastery gates closed soon after his passage.”

    Tsal seemed to absorb this knowledge for several moments, stroking his chin as he did so. “Did you ever hear the name of this... dark wanderer?”

    “He shared it with none,” Warriv responded. “In fact, he barely spoke at all. Only enough to get himself past the gate. Now none may pass, and the creatures are so numerous that this camp is the safest haven for the Rogues for many miles. Until it’s safer here and the gates reopen, I’m forced to wait out this bizarre storm here.”

    “I see. And from here to Lut Gholein?”

    Warriv nodded. “I hope to depart before the shadow that fell over Tristram consumes us all.” Then he offered a slightly sad smile to the warrior. “I’ll even take you with me... if we live that long.”

    Tsal’s expression bore just the slightest hint of admonition. “For a man who has obviously met Protectors of the Word, you do not appear to have much faith in one.”

    “It’s getting harder for me to believe that one man can turn the tide where so many have already failed.”

    “That depends on the man. After all, you allow yourself to suspect your ‘dark wanderer’ may have had a hand in creating the tide that crashes on this shore as we speak. Perhaps it takes a wanderer of the Light to turn it aside.” Another enigmatic smile graced the paladin’s dusky features.

    Charsi could restrain herself no longer, and she called over to the campfire. “Tristram was no rumor.”

    That caused both Warriv and Tsal to turn in her direction. She felt herself turning slightly red in sudden self-consciousness and she looked down at the sword she was sharpening – the blade bore no nicks or dents and reflected the firelight against the underside of her chin.

    Tsal moved to meet her. “What of Tristram, milady?”

    She flushed a little more at that designation. “Not a lady. I’m Charsi, the blacksmith here at camp.”

    He glanced about at her wares. “This, I can see. You clearly have a talent for the craft.”

    She pursed her lips and looked up at him, momentarily ignoring the compliment in favor of the subject that had inspired him to visit her – Tristram. “It’s not a rumor. What happened in Tristram. It was real. Many of our Sisters went there to battle the evil happening in the church there.”

    “An irony in line with the perversity of Hell,” the paladin noted, “that the center of their evil should be a house of worship. But what happened to draw the Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye there in the first place?”

    “One of our scouts was passing through the town when she heard of the death of the Black King.”

    “The Black King? Leoric?”

    Charsi nodded. “That’s what they called him. Our scout was confused and so she investigated. When she saw the creatures in the monastery under the church, she sent for reinforcements. It was nearly an army that went into the tunnels. They fought creatures you can’t even imagine. It was so bad that even the Black King’s own royal guards were there, the ones that protected him and the ones that rebelled against him. They were all corrupted by Diablo. Turned into monsters.”

    Tsal frowned. “Odd. Diablo is the Lord of Terror. Were one of the Prime Evils truly involved, would it not be the powers of Mephisto, the Lord of Hatred, that could twist and corrupt men to such a degree? Or perhaps some lesser demon?”

    She pursed her lips. “Too many of our Sisters came home with the same tale to let others turn it into something else. They came back to us true veterans, bearing some really powerful items. The local blacksmith there couldn’t have possibly forged them.”

    The paladin held up a conciliatory palm. “Very well, Charsi, I did not mean to imply an argument on my part. But here is my question – if so many of your number came back, does this mean they did not see this task through to the end, or did they slay the demon in his lair?”

    “Well... many had to see to the death of the Archbishop there,” Charsi answered. “He was just as mad as the king, maybe even more. He kidnapped the king’s son. He was in another chamber, performing some dark ritual. Many of our Sisters were injured battling him. Some mortally.”

    “Then who among your Sisters battled the demon itself?”

    “Raven, the original scout. She thought it was important to see it through to the end. She helped the remaining forces when they fought Diablo.”

    Tsal tilted his head. “And where might I find this Raven?”

    Blood Raven.”

    Charsi stepped back in deference; it was Kashya, now standing almost directly behind Tsal, who had spoken. The paladin turned about and looked at the fierce expression on the Rogue captain’s face.

    “We called her Blood Raven after she helped slay Diablo,” Kashya clarified. There was a strange look in her eyes as she spoke, and her expression softened slightly. “She was one of our finest captains. Certainly the best we had at Tristram. She accounted for all of our Sisters, alive and dead, and didn’t rest until the deaths among them were avenged.”

    Then her face was overcome by fury again. “And if you are looking for her, begin your search in our burial grounds. Whatever dark powers now shadow this land have corrupted her and turned her against us. We have not seen her in many moons, but my scouts have just reported an abomination in the Monastery graveyard – Blood Raven has somehow been granted the power to raise the dead, and she is gathering an army of our own fallen Sisters to bring to bear against us.”

    Tsal’s face also darkened. “Abomination, indeed... truly foul...”

    “We cannot abide this defilement!” Kashya raged, and for a moment, she had to close her eyes and breathe deeply to calm herself. After she had exhaled, and with eyes still closed, she continued. “If you are truly our ally, you will help us destroy her.”

    Charsi had to keep from gaping at Kashya. Time and time again, the Rogue captain had demonstrated overwhelming pride in her archers, to the point of refusing proffered help from strangers. That she would approach one and ask for it was beyond the definition of uncharacteristic.

    The paladin, on whom this point was evidently lost, took a moment to ponder, then inquired, “Did Blood Raven die?”

    Kashya took another deep breath before answering that question. “Not in our presence, no, but she never was quite the same after coming back from Tristram. Be that as it may, my scouts made it clear she is not among the living any longer. But they only barely made it out alive. Death has obviously done nothing to weaken her combat skills. If anything, she is now more deadly than ever.”

    “Then the question becomes, how do you kill what is already dead?” Warriv mused.

    “Leave that to me,” said Tsal. He looked to Kashya. “Is there a place I may set up camp before setting out?”

    She gestured toward the black tent. “We have another... guest who built his own lodgings there. It is the only remaining space within this hovel we can offer.”

    The paladin’s eyes narrowed at the sight of the tent. “May I ask what manner of ‘guest’ the Sisterhood hosts there?”

    “Ask him yourself when he returns. He’s been gone since this morning on an assignment tasked him by Akara, our High Priestess.”

    “Will she spare a moment to speak with me?”

    “She is resting. Our evacuation of the Monastery was especially taxing for her and our current situation weighs heavily upon her mind.”

    Tsal turned to face Kashya fully. “If I am to gather the best possible information available–”

    “This isn’t open for discussion, paladin,” she cut in. “I have relayed to you all my scouts have told me and I have provided you ample warning of Blood Raven’s skill. In exchange for allowing you to lodge here, putting an end to the threat she represents is your current objective. It’s your choice: you can lend us your aid or you can take yourself back the way you came.”

    Tsal’s face was blank and for a long moment he allowed the silence to hang between them. Then, wordlessly, he moved to the far side of the black tent, set down his pack, and removed his traveler’s cloak. He wore no notable armor, only the leather overcoat of a vagabond – and he did not don any headgear, not a cowl nor a cap to protect arguably the most important part of his body.

    Kashya scoffed. “A Paladin of Zakarum without his crown? Faith alone will not prevent a sword from cleaving your head from your shoulders.”

    “If the sword is aimed properly, neither will a crown,” Tsal responded. “If I have learned anything from the creatures that now govern the countryside, it is this: they may be numerous, but most are not so dextrous. I will surely find better protection from the trappings of those that fall to my mace before I truly require it.”

    “You would be wise to appropriate a shield for yourself, my friend,” Warriv advised.

    “For that, I shall place my faith in your blacksmith.” Tsal looked to Charsi. “You’ve smithed shields, yes?”

    “Oh. Yeah. Plenty of shields.” Charsi suddenly felt awkward, a fifth wheel on the wagon, but she nonetheless moved to the mouth of her tent and pulled one flap aside to demonstrate her repository of shields – there weren’t many: five bucklers and two small shields, all round and none large enough to guard the paladin’s torso from attack.

    Though, she considered, his torso is already pretty well protected. But my shields make the rest of his equipment look so much better by comparison!

    The paladin, however, displayed no disappointment or dissatisfaction with the selection provided. “How much would you charge for that one?” he asked, gesturing to one of the small shields.

    “Um. I guess some of that would depend on how much you have,” she responded. “I can always make a deal.”

    “I have one hundred gold coins.”

    Her face fell. “Oh. I’m sorry, that has an enchantment on it that helps to increase the strength and hardiness of its bearer. I really can’t sell it for less than four hundred.”

    Oddly, a smile broke across Tsal’s features. “Market principles thrive even in this place, I see.”

    “Well, it’s just, when somebody comes through, they want to sell items to us and we don’t have a lot of currency to exchange to them. We need to make up for it somehow. There’s still some commerce happening here and we’re almost out of money... which only adds to our problems.”

    The paladin’s expression sobered. “I understand. You do not need to apologize. Will one hundred coins suffice for one of your bucklers?”

    She nodded. “I can give you this one for thirty-five. And for the remaining sixty-five, I have some quilted armor that could be useful, too.”

    Again he smiled. “A bargain, that is. Very well.” He removed a pouch of gold coins from his belt – presumably, the only such pouch in his possession with anything in it – and handed it to her. “I will have more available to me in time. But first, I have a task to complete.”

    “Well, don’t go without your belongings.” She retreated into her tent and returned with a thick padded coat that would surely drape about its intended wearer’s knees, providing him a fair degree of protection not only from the elements, but from far more unfriendly obstacles, as well.

    “Thank you. I’ll put them to good use.” Tsal threw the coat about himself – Charsi had judged his size well – and strapped the shield to his left arm. Then he turned back to Kashya and offered her a polite bow. “I will bring back proof of my victory over Blood Raven.”

    Before waiting for a response from her, he took up his sword and moved to the encampment’s entrance. He closed his eyes and offered up a silent prayer, inhaling deeply as he did so. The air itself seemed foul with the stench of cruelty and evil.

    I will cleanse this wilderness.


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

  7. #7
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    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    Sisters' Burial Grounds



    The Blood Moor

    Tsal believed in the High Heavens with all his heart and soul. That much was never in doubt. His conviction could not be shaken by even the Prime Evils themselves; if anything, they could only further reinforce it. He had proclaimed as much before the Council of Travincal, when undergoing the trials of becoming a paladin of Zakarum. The faith ran deeply and strongly within him, that the Heavens would show him their favor if he were pious, zealous, and committed enough to the cause of Light. Even before arriving on these plains, he had encountered foul magics before, responsible for the revival of corpses and skeletons. He had learned from a young age that such arts were of the dark and that those practicing them were better off dead.

    Having seen the foreign tent in the encampment, he instinctively knew that its owner’s soul could only match it in hue. His skill in magic was comparatively limited, but he could still sense adorning that fabric the blood of creatures not born of this world. And it was not spattered unevenly, either – each and every inch had been carefully painted with intricate wards and designs. One might have found it mesmerizing were one able to see it; but it blended nearly perfectly with the dyes that had originally stained the cloth black, so that few could actually notice it. Tsal had been able to detect it thanks only to his rigorous training and his Heavensight – to his eyes, the tent was not a tent, but a mosaic, and a ward of dangerous spells built on the blood of demons. Yet Kashya had not identified what brand of dark artist occupied it... or perhaps she simply chose not to.

    But the Rogues have unparalleled eyesight, keen senses that allow them to operate on a level far beyond that of an average warrior, he considered. And their High Priestess is supposedly a powerful mage in her own right. She, at the very least, must know the truth about this “visitor”. Kashya said he was given an assignment.

    His brow furrowed as he made his way across the plain and tried to consider the options. None of them seemed especially favorable. The design of the warding on his tent implies he is well-versed in dark magic. Likely he is less a warrior and more a wizard.

    Since his belongings were in the encampment and he had evidently been welcomed into their midst, Tsal knew it would be a breach of courtesy and an offense to the Rogues to seek out this dark practitioner and slay him. Yet the fire to do just that burned within the pit of his stomach, egging him to track down this man as soon as possible and remove the blight that was his existence from the already fouled land.

    The question of why the High Priestess would even permit someone like this within the walls of their camp weighed upon his mind as he approached a pass between two stone-fenced hills. He could just make out a figure standing watch there; it held up a bow whose nock was drawn taut with an arrow, aimed further down the small valley. He squinted and concentrated: his Heavensight revealed life, strength, and resolve within the archer.

    Then this is certainly an ally... likely another of the Rogues... and in need of assistance. He tightened his grip on his weapon and increased his pace to a healthy run. At the same time, he concentrated on summoning his strength and energies for battle. Unlike sorcerers and mages, or even the priests and prophets of his own order, the Paladins of Zakarum were instructed from their first day that the invocation of their power and abilities was to be done silently. This was for several reasons, foremost among them that the enemy should be given no quarter. But there was also the consideration that no two paladins offered a prayer in precisely the same way when giving thanks, or consecrating a meal, or blessing a married couple, and so it was for doing battle; a paladin discovered for himself what invoked the greatest amount of power from his wellspring of potential.

    He saw the archer’s arrow fly, saw her reach for another in her quiver, and knew now that his first instinct had been correct – as it so often was – and he was now determined to offer his aid. He held his shield and sword up in an offensive stance as he raced to the archer’s side and saw her foes.

    Although the warning had come straight from Kashya’s mouth, he still could not help but be stricken by the sight of armed Rogues prowling their way down the valley towards the lone Sister. They were easy to distinguish from the archer, however, because none of them bore a bow and arrow, and their skin, perhaps one time a healthy hue, was now a sickly white – the shade of the moon, or of bone. They bore swords, daggers, and spears, and Tsal had little doubt they were at least learned in the use of those weapons. All of them had expressions of pure evil on their faces... some scowled with unspeakable fury, some shrieked with cruel laughter, lips parted in sadistic smiles. They knew that this lone archer could not hold them back, not with this many.

    Surely the archer knows it, as well, Tsal thought, casting a quick glance in her direction. Though haste was in her motions, she gave no quarter and showed no fear. Her face was a mask of concentration as she fired one arrow after another.

    He didn’t stop to stand by her, but instead ran straight into the alley. At the same time, he flipped his shield-bearing arm over and pressed the blade of his sword into his palm; he closed his fist around it and drew it up along the entire length, not even hesitating at the sting of his blade slicing his palm open. Within the confines of his mind, he offered the High Heavens his thanks and a prayer for guidance to victory... and with no further hesitation, swung his sword at the first corrupted Rogue before him.

    Although she had clearly seen him coming to attack her, her attempt to defend herself was no match for his zeal; the force of his strike shoved her intercepting sword aside with ease and opened her from her left shoulder across her torso and through her right side. Her sinister expression altered to one of horror as she realized what he had done only when her destroyed torso struck the ground.

    He continued to follow through with his swing by pivoting on his left heel. The energy from his initial attack stayed with his sword; as he spun around he brought his left arm up, and when the maneuver was complete, the point of his shield slammed hard into the cranium of a second Rogue while his sword split a third enemy in two.

    It was only then that he stopped the motion of his weapon. He twisted his wrist and then slashed the blade at the neck of his next foe – her head fell from her shoulders a moment later. His blood pounded in his ears with the thrill and energy of the fight, but his element of surprise was now completely gone, and the remainder of the horde brought their weapons to bear on him. He brought up his shield to block a sword strike on his left, then narrowly dodged the thrust of a spear at his right kidney... a blow that surely would have killed him.

    Assuming these creatures would not finish the job before I bled out. He did not even need to concentrate to feel the evil emanating from them. Were they possessed by demons of any greater strength, the air itself would warp and twist around them. Some had been only recently dead, and some were still alive when the demon spirits had come for them... no matter the timing of the conversion, the result was the same, and these were not Sisters of the Sightless Eye any longer. Only pale imitations, sent against what remained of the Sisterhood to bring a blight of despair and hopelessness upon the land.

    A truly insidious scheme... and no lesser demon would be capable of establishing this level of blasphemous treachery. The cruelty that befouls this place is of the darkest nature. Tsal turned just in time to miss a spear strike aimed for his chest, then grabbed the shaft of the spear with his left hand and quickly chopped the weapon into two useless halves with his sword. The Rogue, startled by the counter, staggered as her momentum carried her past the paladin... but his sword did not move from where he’d destroyed her weapon, and she had toppled to the ground before she understood that his blade had quite literally swept her legs out from underneath her.

    Another Rogue approached, her cataract-covered eyes seeking out a weak point in the paladin’s defense, every muscle in her body tensed for a strike he had yet to deliver – but she grew impatient of waiting for him to come to her, and so she moved instead, a primal scream issuing from her rotting throat. It was a rasping gargle that only momentarily had the sound of anything human to it.

    He took no pity on the creature as she came in to strike him vertically. The corrupted Sister bore a sword, and though the image might have stricken some as especially odd, given their predilection for bows more than any other weapon, it did not surprise Tsal in the least; not all demons were capable of accessing the memories of their hosts and most only carried the knowledge of how to use straightforward melee weapons. Archery was a practiced skill, and it was reasonable to assume that the fires of Hell – to say nothing of the chaotic occupants therein – would not permit the wood of a bow for long.

    Her sword skidded down his shield, then crossed with his own blade. He used the momentum to turn her weapon aside with both of his arms, then brought his sword back up and responded with a vicious lateral attack. It took off her right arm well above the elbow and cut deep into her torso; it did not rest until it had arrived at her sternum.

    Her cry suddenly cut off, she looked down at her chest and her jaw dropped in astonishment at the sight of Tsal’s blade buried so very deeply in it. He, on the other hand, did not waste a moment – this foe was vanquished, but simply had not yet caught up to that fact. Trying to pry his weapon out of her might have taken some doing with just one hand, and so he brought up a foot and slammed it hard into the pit of her stomach, driving her off the blade and to the ground.

    Two more arrows streaked past, one only narrowly missing Tsal’s head – but its aim was far more true, as made evident by the sight of a fallen Sister shrieking and crumpling to the ground... the arrow had buried itself in her eye socket. The second arrow, meantime, was embedded no less deeply in the heart of another attacking Rogue, who was driven backward by the strike but not felled entirely. The paladin took advantage of the wounded demon’s momentary distraction by the arrow sticking out of her chest, raced forward, and with shield held up as guard, plowed headlong into her. The arrow forced its way out through her back as both fell to the ground; as he rolled off the creature, he chopped his sword in the manner of a machete and cleanly separated her head from her neck.

    Another shriek issued from just above him, and he jerked his head up – just in time to see a possessed spearwoman taking aim to pin him to the ground.

    Her moment of anticipation was the last moment of worldly awareness she would ever have.

    Tsal would not have called it a flinch, but somehow his attention was not focused enough to perceive what happened at that exact moment. What he knew was that one instant, he saw the evil smile on the corrupted Rogue’s face; the very next instant, there was a thunk and suddenly there was an arrow through her head.

    The face went slack, as did the body a moment afterward, and it toppled over; the spear’s point stuck into the mud and the weapon clattered harmlessly to the side.

    Only a moment later, a hand stuck out above Tsal, inviting him to grasp it. When he saw the archer – the living, breathing archer – attached to it, he gratefully grasped it and strained to pull himself up. He glanced about; littering the valley were now nothing but dead and dismembered bodies.

    What Tsal found to be a testament to the desperation of the situation was the fact that the Rogue archer who had just helped him to his feet did not offer him any words of thanks. Her face was a mask of stone, her shoulders set in the proud stature of a veteran of the battlefield.

    Then her eyes narrowed upon closer inspection of him. “Another interloper?” she inquired.

    “If you will,” he answered. “My name is Tsal. I am a Paladin of Zakarum, and I have come here to protect the innocents that still remain in this place. What is your name?”

    Her eyes narrowed again for just an instant. “Flavie. And this place requires more than mere protection, however noble your intentions may be. We need help to strike back. Some people here are too blind to see it, however... they prefer to hide behind their own pride rather than seek out the assistance required.”

    “Is that why you are here alone?” Tsal asked. He had made the briefest of cursory glances at her and what little she had with her. The supplies in her possession, while modest, seemed to suggest more than simple scouting. Even the Sisters he had met on the road had not borne this much with them. One would have been hard-pressed to find anything of common value.

    “I am here to do what no other seems willing to do,” she said. “I intend to protect our home to the last and drive them back as much as I can. Likely I will not survive to see either my Sisters or my home again... but someone has to do something.”

    He shook his head. “A suicide mission undertaken alone truly is a suicide mission. There is no hope in that. Surely there are those who have heard of your plight who are still on their way to greet the Sisterhood.”

    “The Sisterhood is more interested in maintaining what little is already theirs than in re-taking the home of our birth. I cannot sit idly by while our monastery and our lands are ravaged by demons.”

    “But certainly you know the enemies you face will not all fall to your arrows. And eventually you will empty your full stock into them. If that horde was any indication–”

    “There are indeed many more where they came from,” Flavie interrupted. “And they are not the only ones. There are many fallen Sisters out there in the wilderness, whose arrows will replenish my quiver adequately. I know what I am doing, paladin.”

    “Respectfully, I submit that you do not. You claim the Sisterhood requires help but you do not go to seek it – you simply intend to martyr yourself for whatever temporary benefit it may offer.”

    “And what would you suggest instead?” Her expression had not changed. “You yourself are out here... for what purpose?”

    “Mine is the help the Sisterhood has been waiting for. Captain Kashya tasked me to put an end to the threat represented by Blood Raven.”

    “Blood Raven?” Flavie’s voice wavered. “What threat could she possibly pose to the Sisterhood? She is one of our finest captains!”

    “No longer. She has been possessed by a foul demon capable of resurrecting your fallen sisters and making an army of them to march against the encampment. She was last sighted in the nearby graveyard, so I travel to challenge her and put her tortured spirit to rest.”

    Flavie took a step back at that declaration. “Against Blood Raven, you have little hope of success. Her archery is unmatched.”

    “So I have heard. Nevertheless, I go to do this task, and thus demonstrate my sincerity. If by my life or my death I can assist the Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye in protecting the innocent, I shall.”

    But Flavie was not impressed. “Of course you shall. It is the ‘sacred duty’ to which you and all paladins are bound – help the helpless.”

    “I help those who require it. Can you argue that the Sisterhood does not?”

    She pursed her lips for a moment. “What do you hope to say to me that could dissuade me from the task I have chosen to undertake?”

    “If I am here, then there shall be others. Attack the monastery if you will, but you need not do it alone. At least wait for me to dispatch Blood Raven.”

    “And if you do not?” She crossed her arms. “I find it more likely she will dispatch you. She was in Tristram and battled demons in a manifestation of Hell itself. What hope do you have against her?”

    “I have faith. My faith is no less a shield than the one I bear on my arm.”

    “The crazed archbishop in Tristram had faith. Misguided, but faith nonetheless. It earned him an arrow from Blood Raven’s bow. Words do not move me, paladin. Only deeds.”

    “Then I shall perform this deed and return before the morning comes. Should the sky brighten and I not return, feel free to depart this place for wherever your heart calls you to be. But if I have returned, then consider what I tell you.”

    She hesitated for a long moment, then offered him a single nod. “Very well.” Then she glanced down the valley toward the plain beyond. “Take care. The corrupted Rogues in the wilderness ahead are not to be trifled with.”

    “Understood.” Tsal held his sword vertically and touched his knuckles to his chest in a salute, then turned and began his trek into the Cold Plains.


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

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    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    The Den of Evil



    Den of Evil

    What seemed an eternity within the passages had come and gone before it became clear to Mathiyias that he was lost in the cave. He scoffed at himself for his foolishness. I ought to have at least marked the places I have already been... this predicament is unacceptable. I am armed only with two failing minions and an array of spells made weak by the loss of my wand, I bear a grave injury that requires the attention of more than just a draught on my belt, I am surrounded by enemies whose numbers, strengths, and allegiances I still have not identified, and I cannot find my way out.

    He had regained some of his composure, and he had lost all feeling in his left hand up to the middle of his forearm, allowing him to concentrate more readily on trying to find his way. To consider this logically... I can turn and potentially become even more lost, or I can seek the end of this path and work backwards from it. Although it is quite likely foolish of me to continue deeper into this den of evil so weakened and wounded. Consul Raykyevan would not approve of either choice.

    ... But he would be forced to make one, nevertheless. And he would trust in his own judgment after making it.

    He moved further down the cavern, until he arrived at an intersection. He stopped for a moment, his right hand reaching out to rest against the cave wall. A whisper so low as to be almost silent escaped his lips: “Sekel onris...

    A pale bluish-gray light emanated from beneath his hand, and when he removed it, the print of his hand could be seen glowing on the wall. If one cared to peer hard enough at the unnatural light, one might have seen shifting dark points, as though a plethora of misshapen and constantly shifting faces were trying to form within the impression. And if one cared to strain one’s hearing mightily, one might have heard quiet, low moaning coming from the print.

    As he continued through the passages, he repeated the process when moving almost beyond the light of his previous touch. It was a simple trick, and one that the followers of Rathma were trained in, though it was a somewhat uncommon practice, as they did not usually traverse foreign caves. Mathiyias now appreciated that his brethren were open to experimentation with the keywords of their unique art.

    He was almost to a dead end when he spied the telltale flicker of firelight in an adjacent passage. He could also hear the chanting of high-pitched voices in Lesser Hellish, calling out foul curses and taunts; and then an abrupt cheer went up among the voices. Frowning, he moved to investigate, but he was careful to send his necroskeleton forward first. If it can fool them into thinking it one of their kin for even a moment...

    His hopes were perhaps too high, for they recognized the flayed remains of an undead minion instantly and moved to attack it on sight. Nevertheless, through its ethereal eyes he could see the cause of their previous jubilation: a human body, facing away from the mouth of the cavern, had been bound to a massive stalagmite erupting from the floor and was surrounded with kindling that had apparently only just been lit.

    For the briefest of moments he took this action to mean the simple desecration of a fallen warrior or other citizen of the lands above, but his eyes widened when his minion’s gaze revealed the body’s limbs struggling against their bonds.

    Still alive...

    Without preamble, he released his golem into the passage and followed quickly behind it. The earthen homunculus brought heavy fists down upon the mass of devilkin, mowing a path of destruction through them with no heed to their attacks upon it. But despite their efforts, Mathiyias could feel the last vestiges of his control over both the golem and his undead impish minion slipping away within his mind. His right hand fumbled at his belt until it happened upon a corked vial of thick blue liquid. He wrenched the vial from the belt and pulled out its stopper with his teeth, then upended the bottle into his mouth and finished its contents with one swallow.

    Instantly, he was rewarded with the warmth of mystical energy spreading throughout his body – energy that he hastily put to use as his minions crumbled under the attacks of the regrouping imps. He directed his open palm, fingers spread, at a nearby fallen body and pronounced, “Gh’aol rilem!

    Blue light speared from his fingertips and struck the body, whose skin and flesh turned to ash and fell away from it. The black skeleton rose to its feet only an instant later and took up a spear the length of Mathiyias’ arm, then attacked the closest creature to it – another of its brethren, which had a baffled look on its shriveled face even as it fell upon the new necroskeleton’s weapon.

    Mathiyias needed no time to understand its confusion as he heard a mumble of Lesser Hellish and sensed energies similar to his own, though far more sinister, reinvigorating the devil that had just been slain. Quickly his gaze sought out the shaman; but rather than attack it as he had the last one, he stole the weapon of the newly revived imp before it could take the blade up itself: a throwing knife, and for a creature of that size it could have been considered a short sword.

    The blaze around the captive was spreading rapidly, but the increased light meant Mathiyias needed only an instant to locate the shaman. Without hesitation, he hurled the knife at his demonic counterpart; the blade passed effortlessly through the shaman’s neck, cleaving its windpipe and its spinal cord in an instant. Its head lolled to one side and it toppled to the ground, blood pooling around its face as its eyes rolled back.

    He wasted no time in bolting to the dying creature – he took up the staff it had been bearing in his right hand and moved to the increasing fire. Now screams were emanating from within, the screams of a woman in agony. Through the licking flames he could just make out the vestments of a Rogue. Quickly he used the forked top of the staff to rake the fire away from what kindling had not yet begun to burn; there was precious little now, and the blaze had clearly already seared the bound woman. Acrid smoke and smoldering ash flew from her hair and her leather armor had started to blacken.

    He cast about for something to use to free her from her bonds – no more than simple rope but tied so cruelly tightly that her wrists and torso bled from the way they cut into her flesh – but was set upon by a pair of devilkin determined to get revenge for the deadly intrusion. He swung the staff awkwardly, and managed to catch one of the two demons in a sweeping strike that knocked it to its back; the other dodged the attack and scampered forward, intending to impale him on its spear.

    He dropped the stave and sidestepped the imp’s attack, then gripped the shaft of its polearm as tightly as he could manage and twisted hard to his right, thrusting his foot into the monster’s small chest in the same instant. It cried out and fell back, releasing the weapon; the force of Mathiyias’ counterattack caused the necromancer to stumble forward with his weight fully atop his nemesis. Sensing an opportunity, Mathiyias reversed his grip on the spear and sent its blade between the pinned creature’s ribs, just above the toe of his boot.

    His necroskeleton had meantime begun to attack the other devilkin; the scuffle was short, as the living imp could not adequately attack the undead one, armed as it was with a blade suited more to cleave flesh than bone. As the demon was slain, Mathiyias took up its fallen weapon, a rusting knife, and approached the captive Rogue from behind.

    She was alternating between rasping coughs and moans of pain, but she was still conscious enough to take note, twisting her head this way and that as her bonds were cut. She fell forward as the last ropes were released; she did not put her arms forward to brace against the impact, a testament to how wounded and exhausted she was. Despite this, Mathiyias considered her fortunate – at the very least, she had fallen on a floor of dirt and not the cold stone that comprised much of the cave.

    Dirt... just enough to be useful. The Rathma acolyte flipped the knife about and closed his palm over it, allowing the blade to slice into his hand. His blood dripped from the blade and into the stale earth. He then tossed the knife aside and, his bloodied hand hovering over the fresh pool of blood, intoned, “Gh’aol augh’al...

    Another golem of dirt, rocks, and clay rose up from the mud that he had created, and although this one was somewhat less imposing than its predecessor, the spirit within it was no less eager to carry out its orders. But rather than seek enemies to kill – that instruction, he gave to his skeleton instead – he set forth for it the task of carrying the burned Rogue. It scooped her into its thick arms effortlessly. She offered no resistance but the look on her scorched face was certain... she had no idea what was happening and was instinctively frightened by it.

    Small wonder, that. But the necromancer was more interested in removing both himself and her from the cave as soon as possible than he was in standing around trying to explain. Thus, it was in silence that he began to travel back along the route he had come; the skeleton scouted ahead for enemies while the golem followed closely behind its master. In their haste, it wasn’t long before they reached the first marker. He considered his options as they continued past it, trying to recall exactly the path he had traveled from the cavern where his left hand had been crippled.

    It would seem to me that mostly I traveled in a straight line, simply trying to get away more than seek an exit, he thought. The next junction I see...

    Such a junction was just ahead, and once standing in it, Mathiyias paused to sniff the air. Though still quite stale and dank, he detected more dryness in that direction, and the foulness was lacking. Satisfied, he left another marker on the wall and began moving again. Foolish of me to forget the first rule of removing oneself from a cave – follow the fresh air.


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

  9. #9
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    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    Sisters' Burial Grounds



    Cold Plains

    He had met demons before. They had been few and far between, but they existed, just as surely as angels did. And those demons had only ever had one thing in mind: the destruction of everything and everyone around them. Those who accused the Zakarum of being xenophobic and unreceptive had clearly never met one of these monstrosities, else they would know that the churched masses were the very least of their problems.

    The demons he had encountered were varied. Never had any two been quite the same. One had been a bloated, skinless horror which the Zakarum had told him was an “Overlord”, a particularly brutalized denizen of Hell. According to lore, the creature’s appearance was modeled after the mangled remains of an angel who led a glorious charge against a bastion constructed to worship the Prime Evils. How this one had found its way to the lands of Sanctuary was anybody’s guess, but it became his mission to kill the beast after tales of how it victimized a defenseless community of farmers.

    Another had been a creature no less grotesque, but not because it had been savaged – rather, because it had been conceived to appear that way naturally... if one could call such an appearance “natural”. It was known as a Hidden, a monster that remained invisible and completely aware of its environment at virtually all times. The demon had been terrorizing a caravan of merchants traveling a route in the kingdoms of Westmarch, and it was only a fortunate lateral blind strike on Tsal’s part that had cleaved its head from its shoulders. Only by attacking or by its death did it become visible, and Tsal had not been able to fully perceive the monster’s appearance until it was no longer a threat – at which point, even he, a man of notorious constitution, had to restrain an urge to stagger away in sheer revulsion.

    It had been called a Hidden primarily for its invisibility, but according to studies performed on the corpses, it achieved that end via its natural hideousness – man’s mind could scarcely conceive of such an image, so when one’s eyes fell upon the creature, it would simply not register. Surely something so warped could not exist.

    Yet it did. The remains Tsal had seen were proof enough.

    Whatever was possessing the bodies of the Rogues now was of no comparison. Certainly they were demon spirits, but with no physical manifestation, these were present merely to swarm the land in large numbers. There were many of them and none bore anything resembling intelligence beyond primal instinct.

    Tsal knew that if he concentrated enough as he fought, his Heavensight would reveal to him the true appearance of his foes as the bodies they inhabited were slain and they were forced to vacate them. He attempted to attune himself to do exactly that as he waded through a throng of foes; with the death of one such Rogue came the appearance of a glowing set of snarling canine jaws wreathed in greenish spiritual flame, ejecting upward into the air before dissipating entirely.

    He knew himself fortunate that these creatures were not bright. Had they their archery skills, the story might be quite different, but against simple swords and spears, he knew himself capable of overcoming these enemies. He moved his sword and his shield with equal force, grace, and brutality against the corrupted Rogues across the plain. His leather jacket and his sword were awash in human blood, and there were a few liberal streaks across his buckler, as well.

    These may not recall their archery, but if the information of Kashya’s scouts is to be believed, Blood Raven has not forgotten hers. I do not fear her or her minions but I must be cautious. He cast a glance about the plain; although his view was relatively clear for a fair distance, there was a fog that had settled over the area, making it virtually impossible for him to see regions of interest beyond the farmland directly ahead.

    However, there did seem to be a campfire not too far from where he now stood. He closed his eyes for a moment and drew a breath, then opened his eyes again and concentrated on that direction with his Heavensight. What he saw there, for once, gave him pause. Standing all around the fire in no discernible pattern was a horde of devilkin as well as the shamanistic creatures known to accompany them.

    That, in and of itself, would not have made him stop – what did was the monster standing closest to the fire. Though its outward appearance was not so different from that of another devilkin shaman, it bore a fouler stain to this world than any of the others. Its limbs appeared afire, yet it was not burning – and Tsal could tell from the aura surrounding it that it bore some degree of protection against the attack incantations a Paladin of Zakarum would be accustomed to uttering, that a creature such as this might be weakened.

    Very well, then, he resolved. I have mastered few of those incantations myself... and I do not need them in order to kill this creature or any other that stands with it.

    Once more, he knelt, and buried the point of his sword into the ground before him. He rested both hands atop the pommel and closed his eyes, whispering a prayer to the High Heavens. “Grant me the strength to withstand the fires I now face,” he quietly uttered.

    The moment he got back to his feet, he could sense that an angel had granted his request, having taken it as literally as he had meant it – he now knew without a doubt that flame could not so easily burn him any longer, be it natural or otherwise. He could not restrain the smile that crept across his features, and in the confines of his mind he offered up another prayer of gratitude.

    He took a step, and then another, and then a third, each successive step faster than the last, until he was racing across the countryside. He brought his sword to bear and he gave a shout as he entered the border of the camp – distracting the lead shaman from his bizarre dance and sending several devilkin scurrying in abject fear. Some emitted short sharp screams, and nearly all of them offered a different word or curse of Hellish; but at least two of them yelled the same thing. “Bishibosh!

    Tsal’s brow furrowed at that utterance, even as both his sword and shield swung about to engage his diminutive foes. He had seen the word “bishibosh” before, in the Great Archive of Travincal. He had known then that to attract enough attention from the Zakarum to be filed away in that vast library was enough for every studious Paladin to take note, and he considered himself no exception to this philosophy. It was a cry that many devilkin had occasion to utter in many different places – and that cry was usually followed by a massacre by the impish demons. A slaughter bathed in flame and blood.

    Not here, he vowed, as he buried his sword in the head of an imp. But his element of surprise was gone now, and the shamans that dotted the camp were roaring with rage and spitting fire. All too aware that they would only momentarily begin reviving the creatures he had just slain, he spun on his heel and bolted towards the first of those shamans.

    In response, it opened its mouth and blew out a stream of fire that wreathed him; but he knew the Heavens’ response to the prayer he had offered up earlier was at work, for the fire did not consume him. However, that it tried to do so was enough for him to consider it an experience he did not wish to repeat – although it did not boil his skin, the heat was still quite present and quite uncomfortable. He lashed out quickly with his weapon, seeking to end the onslaught of flame. He was rewarded with the shaman’s head toppling from its shoulders.

    The other shamans were, meantime, hard at work recalling the foul spirits of the imps that had already fallen to Tsal’s blade. Already, three of their bodies were rising up anew and taking up the weapons they had dropped. The paladin, not to be deterred, began to wade through a throng of the little devils toward the next shaman. Even with their blood spouting everywhere and the zealous fervor with which he attacked them, he found himself calmly recalling from his studies that if the shamans were felled, the imps could not stand for long... and none of the shamans ever encountered by the Zakarum had borne any ability to raise their own kin. They were meant merely to recall their impish minions so that the swarm could continue.

    A grim smile rose to his face as his sword descended upon the next shaman, whose mouth opened wide – but not in time to deliver a blast of flame. The edge sank into the crook between its neck and shoulder, and almost effortlessly continued through the flesh and bone of the Hell-born monster, until it exited beneath the shaman’s right arm. The two halves fell away from each other instantly and black blood fountained out of them to stain the grass.

    Nhhh... Zakarum...

    Tsal’s eyebrows shot upward and he turned to face the direction of the voice that had uttered the name of his religion.

    It was the shaman that had been standing closest to the fire set amidst the camp. Now that he was closer to the foul creature, Tsal could see the physical differences between him and his fellow shamans – his skin was a sickly greenish tint and he was noticeably larger and more muscular than the others. Like the others, he bore a flag that ostensibly marked his status as a “higher” demon... and it was likewise larger than the flags borne by the other shamans that still stood. But while the others ran and cowered in fear, this one had nothing but an evil smirk on its razor-toothed, hideous face, and it beckoned to Tsal with its free hand.

    Sauizldsa Zakarum...

    Tsal bared his teeth at the creature. How dare it speak the name of Zakarum in so foul a tongue as Hellish... it will rue this day! He raised his sword and raced to attack the green-skinned menace.

    Oddly, the creature did not seem concerned by the paladin’s zeal. Instead, it uttered something that to Tsal’s ears sounded like little more than Hellish gibberish: “Ectharudlaasarkanidlogha...

    Tsal did not feel compelled to listen to the strange word and continued his charge, but just as he was about to bring his sword down upon his enemy, he felt himself tackled from two directions: behind, and the right. He toppled to the left, shield arm pinned beneath him, and he felt disgusting hands wrapping about his wrist, trying to wrench his sword from his grasp. When he turned his head to face his attackers, he felt himself nearly blindsided with shock and horror.

    Setting upon him were the very shamans he had killed only a short moment ago.

    Above him, the green-skinned shaman raised his flagstaff above his head with both hands, preparing to impale Tsal upon its bottom end – which had apparently been sharpened for just such a purpose. The creature snarled through his razored teeth, and glowing orange eyes stared down at their target with nothing in them but pure malice.

    Tsal rolled quickly to his left, away from the monster’s reach, and his maneuver caused the other two shamans to lose their grips on him momentarily. That was all he needed to recover – he got back to his feet and assumed a defensive stance as one of the formerly slain shamans charged at him and opened its mouth to spit flame. He noted that this was the second one he had apparently killed, as black blood was still covering a vast portion of its torso and the cut he’d made was clearly visible... yet had somehow miraculously healed itself.

    Even as he held up his shield against the raging onslaught of fire issuing from the shaman’s mouth, he gathered his focus and concentrated on his Heavensight – perhaps that would offer him some insight into what had caused the return of his enemies. As the flame around him dissipated, so, too, did the fog of this one reality... and he saw a trace of dark aura surrounding the attacking monster, similar to the one that now almost completely enshrouded the green one.

    A spell of resurrection, he realized. Obviously a dark one... much more powerful than the one the shamans themselves chant to bring back their minions... This is a creature of greater power than I had anticipated.

    He turned, his eyes casting about for an exit path. There is no dishonor in retreating from battle in order that one might live to fight again. But the route he’d taken to get here was now blocked by a drove of imps, jeering and chanting loudly the same word, over and over again. “Bishibosh! Bishibosh! Bishibosh!

    Tsal tried to figure out where he was in relation to the nearest border of camp – then belatedly realized that he was standing virtually in the middle of it, thanks to his attempt to destroy the dominant shaman. The tiny devilkin were surrounding him on all sides, and now they were beginning to draw closer to him. Every single one was armed with some brand of stabbing weapon, and more than a few carried torches.

    The paladin snarled, then summoned all his resolve.

    He would carve out an exit if there was none to be found.


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

  10. #10
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    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    The Den of Evil



    The Blood Moor

    Mathiyias felt that their emergence from the cave came not a moment too soon; the Rogue had fallen unconscious and now dangled limply in the golem’s arms. He did not fear Death – indeed, Death was the one thing he could not fear, possessed of the knowledge of the beyond as he was – nor did he expect to accomplish anything except its delay, but his encounters below had made it abundantly clear to him that he was not adequately prepared to face what had beset these lands on his own. Surely there were more creatures out there, demons and horrors risen from the grave, and most assuredly more dangerous than the ones in the caverns so recently vacated.

    I will need the help of the Rogues. By saving their own, I may acquire the leverage I need to demand it. He stole a glance at his maligned hand, and he stifled a sigh as he made his way back to the path. Daylight had by now come and gone, replaced by a dull grayish twilight in which the sun’s presence was hinted but could not be seen directly. It seemed a blanket of clouds was content to hover over the land for all eternity.

    He moved swiftly along the path back to the north, recognizing the houses he had passed on his way to the cave. He might have dawdled in traveling to it but now he had purpose in his return; and before long he saw the wooden barriers of the Rogue encampment towering over the river to the northeast.

    With a thought, he released the spirit that bound together the bones of his necroskeleton – while he might have been allowed to set up camp there, he had no illusions that this particular product of his art would be as welcome. Nevertheless, as the imp skeleton silently fell to pieces, he collected its bones and stored them in his pack for later inspection. He then pulled back his hood and made for the camp, his golem close behind.

    The first to greet him at the gate was a fierce-looking woman whose posture was all he needed to see to know she was a warrior. Most likely Kashya, the Rogue commander that the High Priestess spoke of. She glared intensely at the necromancer as he and his creation approached, and her steel-tempered voice brooked no nonsense. “What have you done with our Sister?” she demanded.

    “Rescued her,” he replied. “At least, for the moment. She will live if you will let me take her to the High Priestess.”

    She did not waste another moment blocking his entry at that proclamation but she scowled at the golem as it passed through the gateway and approached the corner of camp where Akara’s tent stood. The priestess emerged immediately and accepted the offering of the homunculus without question. Mathiyias slowly released the creature as well, letting it gently break down into its composite parts while still bearing the weight of the wounded woman. At a word from Akara, a cadre of other Rogues gathered to help their burned sister into the tent.

    The captain and Mathiyias observed silently for a few moments, and then her gaze flickered to his injured hand. She scoffed. “So. It seems even one such as yourself can be injured beyond what a healing potion can restore.”

    “It is not mortal. It can wait until your comrade is given proper care.”

    “And what is your stake in her survival?”

    He glanced at Kashya. “The same as yours. You are far too few against far too many. You cannot afford to lose any more people.”

    Her gaze hardened. “Do you presume to lecture me about loss?”

    The necromancer turned away and moved toward Akara’s tent. “Believe as you wish.”


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

  11. #11
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    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    The Den of Evil



    Rogue Encampment

    Through the dangling flap of the tent Mathiyias could just make out Akara kneeling over the injured Sister of the Sightless Eye, eyes closed and hands clasped together in prayer. Though the vision of the uninitiated would not have been able to see it, he was able to perceive the restorative energies at her command working to heal the terribly burned woman. The process itself was simple enough in concept, but its design and practice were a challenge to even those skilled in the mystical arts, and deep burns presented a particular problem where curative magic was concerned.

    Her prayer will force the woman’s flesh to heal in an accelerated fashion just as it would naturally. But it cannot regenerate her skin... only scars. Much of her skin was charred and will carry a visible reminder of this day. She is fortunate the fire was fed by natural kindling and not by the saliva of the shamans, else there might be no recovery.

    He waited patiently outside the tent, cradling his left hand with his right as he took a seat on a split log – what evidently passed for seating arrangements in this place. For the first time since acquiring his particularly gruesome injury, he inspected the demon skull fused to his palm, curiosity renewed. On the back of it, situated almost at its base, there was a brand that appeared to have been carved straight into the bone itself. His eyes narrowed at it as he tried to get a better look at it; the bone was already black, but made even blacker by the charring on it. Yet what he saw there caused him to tilt his head in confusion.

    Bite imprints?

    Indeed, it appeared to be a rendition of tooth marks, as if from a snake or a spider – but instead of the appearance of puncture wounds, it looked as though the actual imprint of a pair of fangs had been seared into the creature’s skull, two indentations curving toward each other at their tapering ends. So close were each of their ends to each other that they almost formed a closed oval.

    He frowned, then slung his pack into his lap and rummaged through the items he had salvaged from the creatures in the cave; among them was one of the tattered flags one of their shamans had carried. With some difficulty, he unfurled it and spread it out across his lap. Perhaps by itself it would not have constituted anything special – a damaged bolt of red cloth with two streaks of sloppy white paint decorating it – but two small streaks caught his eye. The bad painting appeared to be of a wide, horned skull, and the streaks dropped from the upper jaw, small curving fangs that could very well match the marks on the skull.

    His hand dug into his pack again, and from it he removed three salvaged skulls: one of his former necroskeleton imp, one of a skeleton warrior crushed by his golem, and one of a yeti slain by the combined forces of his summons and the Dragon’s teeth. The yeti’s head had not yet been flayed and rigor mortis had stretched its face in an eternal death roar.

    “Back from the hunt?”

    The Rathma acolyte glanced over his left shoulder; standing there was a tan-skinned man with a pipe tucked between his lips. Consumed as he’d been by his inspection, he hadn’t felt the man’s approach... or his intentions were so benign as to simply not register with the necromancer. Mathiyias turned back to the craniums on the log. “Only as long as need be.”

    “I see.” His visitor inspected the collection of skulls for a moment. “I can honestly say I have never even seen a necromancer, let alone spoken with one, until today.”

    Mathiyias hefted the human skull and began inspecting it. “It is possible you may never see another. I am led to believe this is acceptable to most here.”

    “Perhaps, but Akara must not believe you a threat to her people if she would allow you within these walls. If they do not respect you, they do respect her.”

    “Obviously.” The base of the skull bore the marks, whose original color was evidently black, in stark relief against the white of human bone. “I do not seek their respect. Only their trust.”

    “A hard-earned commodity even by the noblest visitor,” the other commented.

    At that, the necromancer stopped and turned back to the man standing behind him. “You seek my attention. Why?”

    The man didn’t flinch. “Perhaps the others do not trust you, but they do need every ally they can get, even the most unlikely ones. On behalf of the civilians here, I ask that you ignore those who might wish you elsewhere and continue to do what Akara and Kashya and all the rest of us need you to do.”

    “I do not easily respond to bigotry,” Mathiyias replied. “I am accustomed to it. You need not apologize for the attitudes of others.”

    “Perhaps not, but I feel it should be asserted that the most vocal among us are not always representative of the majority. Whether we may wish to lend voice to the thought or not, you may be the last ray of hope we are ever likely to see here.”

    “Your hopes may yet prove misplaced,” noted the other, “as I have been forced to hesitate in the matter of destroying the creatures within the caves to the south.”

    “One who hesitates does so with good reason.” The stranger shrugged nonchalantly. “And that which does not kill you makes you stronger.”

    Mathiyias turned back to the skulls. “What does kill me will render me effectively useless to the High Priestess... so if you will excuse me, I must offer my full concentration and efforts to the cause she has tasked me while I still live.”

    “As you should.”

    The tan-skinned man turned in the direction of the new intruder – Mathiyias could hear the disapproval in his voice but did not join him in spying the source. “Now, Kashya...”

    “Warriv, I don’t easily accept strangers amidst my sisters even in the most optimal of times, but to have a... guest such as this here, now...” The Rogue captain hissed quietly. “Understand this, summoner: were it not for Akara, you would not be here at all. You’d better come through on this. Your reputation depends on it.”

    “My reputation is the least of my concerns, as should it be the least of yours.”

    Even if he had not been attuned to the ebb and flow of the mystical currents, he would have been able to sense Kashya’s anger, both at his presence and the situation that had precipitated it. He also could sense that she was preparing an incensed response, but before she had a chance to offer it, he spied a flash of red in his periphery – the cape of the High Priestess – and another voice called out sharply.

    “Kashya! Do not forget yourself. He is here at my request and he will be afforded what courtesies we can offer – including the most common of courtesies.” A pause, and then, “Come, Mathiyias. Permit me to tend your wounds.”

    Wordlessly, the necromancer gathered his belongings and approached Akara’s tent.


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

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    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    The Den of Evil



    Rogue Encampment

    Though pain was certainly not a new experience to him, Mathiyias could not restrain the wince that creased his features as Akara finally separated the shaman skull from his hand. Almost immediately, flakes of his burned flesh fell from his open palm. He dared not try to flex the fingers for fear they might fall off.

    “Be still,” Akara murmured. “Fortune was with you this day... your hand may yet be of use to you.”

    He focused on keeping his gaze away from his own injury and he turned to look at the cot where the burned Rogue lay. “How fares your ward?”

    “She lives. For now, that is enough.” Akara retrieved a vial containing a thick green salve and took Mathiyias’ left elbow in hand to hold his arm steady. “Were it not for your timely arrival, the situation would have been quite different.”

    “Then fortune attends us both.” The necromancer could sense the viscous fluid covering his digits as he squinted at what he could see of the young woman. There was little to see, however – she had been almost completely bound in ointment-soaked bandages, leaving her hair and her closed eyelids as the only definitive features visible.

    “So it would seem.” Akara took up a roll of white cloth and began wrapping it tightly about Mathiyias’ exposed extremity; the fire had apparently blackened the flesh of the underside of his arm halfway up to his elbow and that was where she began. Once to his palm, she wrapped each of his fingers individually, then sighed. “Please forgive Kashya. Our predicament weighs perhaps more heavily on her mind than my own, despite the burden I carry.”

    “I do not easily offend.”

    “Perhaps not, but she does. She made clear to me her offense at my very request for your presence, and her frustration has loosened her tongue more than usual.” The High Priestess held out a black gauntlet. “Wear this over your bandages and you may use your hand as the situation warrants. As effective as your method was, I do not recommend killing the fallen shamans this way again if you wish to keep it.”

    “Noted.” Mathiyias took the glove and gingerly pulled it over each of his fingers before pulling it skintight and tucking it beneath the sleeve of his tunic.

    Akara fixed him with a hard stare after a moment. “Your task is not complete until you have killed all the demons in that cave.”

    The necromancer exhaled through his nose as he considered his response. He hadn’t expected to be asked to destroy all the creatures within. “How will you know the cave is empty?”

    “The Sightless Eye shows me many things. With the presence of even a single demon in that place comes the certainty that an attack upon this camp would succeed. Empty the cave and this future is altered. Then I may see things of greater importance – but for now, this is the most crucial to our survival.”

    “Then you must know my investigation will require more time, to allow for this delay,” he remarked.

    “I am prepared to accept this,” she responded, bowing her head. She looked back up, however, with a glint of curiosity – and perhaps even desperate hope – in her eyes. “Have you a hypothesis?”

    “Not yet. More study is required.” He looked at his black-clad hand once more, then back at Akara. “I will return to my task. I thank you for your efforts.”


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

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    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    Sisters' Burial Grounds



    Cold Plains

    Tsal staggered into the dark house and thrust the door shut behind him. He gasped for breath and sank to the floor, pressing his back against the door. He knew he had been fortunate to come away with injuries that did not threaten his life but they were certainly doing him no favors now. He could feel his blood dribbling down his arm and side, staining his tunic and causing it to stick to his skin. In a scant few moments it would penetrate the fabric entirely and threaten to drip onto the floor.

    Hell would not place here beasts that could not detect the scent of fresh blood, he thought, and he fumbled at his belt for the healing potion he knew he would find there. He gripped the stopping cork between his teeth and ripped it out of the bottleneck, then spat out the plug and upended the vial into his mouth. He tried his best not to taste it; the sensation of the red fluid crawling down his throat like some vile home remedy for a case of breathlessness was quite enough.

    Almost as disturbing as the taste and texture of the bottle’s contents was the way in which his body responded to them. He could feel his own injuries knitting at a pace with far greater acceleration than his own natural healing faculties could have offered. The edges of the jagged gashes in his flesh felt like they were actually reaching toward each other to bind once more and create a single structure, the proper form he had been born to live within.

    He had once been dispatched to confront a man on the outskirts of Travincal who claimed to be selling a potion of “angels’ blood”, ostensibly meant to heal any injury or ailment, no matter how grievous. It had not been long before he found the peddler – a small wisp of a man named Jolin – and Tsal had not needed his Heavensight to know he was a swindler and his brew was not the least bit curative. He had easily confiscated the batch and Jolin’s supplies and made the thief watch as he destroyed vial after vial upon the ground. Tsal would have been well within his rights to throw Jolin in jail – his activities had been nothing short of blasphemous – but instead he showed mercy to the peddler and invited him to learn how the truly pious were meant to live.

    Only a few years later, Jolin became a priest of the Zakarum Order, and an outspoken one, at that. Tsal had felt a distinct swelling of pride when he saw the former thief fully ordained but he did not stay after the ceremony to be thanked... he had felt then that thanks were to be directed not to him, but toward the High Heavens.

    He remembered the concoction that the swindler had been peddling. It was bright red, had carried a sweet odor and an even sweeter – almost sickeningly sweet – taste. Tsal had needed only a sample to determine the source: pure cane sugar and fruit nectar. It had disgusted him that so many people would fall for the trick. It was far too simple a thing for the masses to believe blindly, and yet had nearly made Jolin a wealthy man.

    Save for the same red tint, that juice bore no resemblance to the brew Tsal was forced to drink now. This material was vile, and only those truly intent on saving their lives by its consumption were guaranteed a pass on their gag reflex. Somehow, the more perilous one’s physical condition, the easier it was for one to drink the slimy substance. Tsal had never figured out precisely how this worked, and although he was curious, he was not so much that he felt the need to ask. He understood that however it worked, it was a perfect method for preventing any brand of addiction to the substance – were one to attempt consuming it when fully healthy, it would taste so foul that the body would instinctually reject it.

    The taste of the fluid was rank in his mouth and he spat upon the floor several times in an attempt to rid himself of it. It was, perhaps, a reassurance that had he not had the draught, his wounds would not necessarily have been life-threatening... but certainly they would have slowed him to an unacceptable level. As he calmed himself, he looked about at his surroundings for the first time.

    The place had not been lived in for some time. Half-burned candles sat unlit on various surfaces, fused there by their own molten and re-hardened wax... so clearly they had been alight before, for extended periods of time each. A bookshelf against the wall had its contents mightily disheveled, as though they had been rummaged through. A desk sat before an eastward-facing window; one candle was perched on its upper right corner and a chair stood just slightly away from it. Papers rustled on the surface, caught by the light breeze whistling through the window.

    Tsal’s keen eyes noted there was a spilled ink well on the left side of the desk, suggesting something had abruptly drawn its occupant away from his or her seat. He got to his knees and drew closer to the desk, then cautiously sat at it and looked at the paper sitting on top of a stack of blank parchment. Dark ink streaks marred the lower edge but there was legible handwriting adorning the top third of the page.

    “I have forgotten the date and I find I no longer care. Despair and hopelessness cover these lands. Even the mighty Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye is at the end of their rope. Their spiritual leader, Akara, and their captain, Kashya, engage in nigh daily battles of dominance... meaningless squabbles that threaten to undermine whatever they have left. Nobody is coming to save us or them. I cannot even grip my sword for the knowledge that I will soon die whether I hold it or not. And I am no warrior. I came here because I wished to live a life of peace. Instead, I face terror, anguish, pain, destruction... I can no longer live this way. I can hear them coming. I welcome the oblivion they bri–”

    Tsal suddenly realized that in the darkness, he had not correctly identified what covered the page’s lower half. It was not ink.

    It was blood.

    He slowly got to his feet, then rested the tip of his sword on the floor before him and knelt, both hands atop the pommel. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, then muttered a soft prayer for the evidently deceased. Clearly the author of the note deserved a better fate than the one that befell him – and the paladin could not help but wonder if there were any relatives or other loved ones that ought to be informed.

    He got back up and sighed. I must not concern myself with this just now, he knew. My mission takes precedence if I am to prevent further deaths. Blood Raven awaits... and even sooner than her awaits that shaman creature leading the camp I stormed.

    He quietly pondered the situation. If I attempt to attack from that direction again, they will surely be more prepared for me. Perhaps it is the better part of valor if I leave them be, at least for the time being. Even a group that great is not likely to successfully take the Rogue encampment. The archers there are too well-trained and coordinated. Would it be wiser for me to take on Blood Raven first?

    Perhaps I should go and find out for myself.


    © Matt Morwell, 2011
    Last edited by mattbcl; 24th September 2011 at 06:43 AM.

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    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    The Den of Evil



    Den of Evil

    Deep within the caverns, Mathiyias prowled the dank corridors with a greater degree of caution than his previous venture, and a greater awareness of his surroundings, now that he had traveled them once and marked the walls. Ahead of him lumbered a new earthen golem – behind that, a necroskeleton formed from the bones of a zombie he had found staggering about.

    Zombies were a disturbing sight to many. Though they were not fast or bright, their lust for living flesh was not easily paralleled, and like any of their other Hellish and undead brethren, they had no scruples. But Mathiyias did not regard zombies as frightening so much as an intentionally imperfect effort. He appreciated the elegance of a gleaming skeleton, stripped of the cumbersome flesh and muscle it no longer required to function... much more agile and functional than a rotting corpse whose limbs were thick, slow, and stiff. For a necromancer, zombies were expendable recreations formed from the attempt to raise either skeletal warriors or whole ones – in essence, the end results of a spell gone wrong. The sight of them brought back memories of the disapproval of his mentor as he tried to raise a necroskeleton from a corpse and was unable to dismiss the muscle and rotting tissue.

    No, they did not frighten him. By and large, they simply annoyed him.

    But the one he now approached, in particular, fascinated him. Though its expression was no more enlightened than that of any other zombie he had ever encountered, it had more flesh on its body than most of the others, and its fingers glowed with eerie light that changed color with each passing moment – an unholy red, then a shimmering blue, then bright white, and an evil green, in no particular pattern. The one eye in its head glowed similarly.

    I must collect this one, if there are to be no others. He mentally instructed his minions to attack the evidently unique zombie, but to leave the head and hands intact. They could not defy or question his orders, and the golem did not particularly care what motive strayed behind it, but what individual will still remained bound to the bones of the necroskeleton demonstrated a modicum of curiosity as to what would interest him about an undead body... even one with glowing extremities.

    Everything, of course.

    But the zombie was evidently prepared – and at a single swipe from glowing white fingers, the clay homunculus was suddenly hoar-coated, and a fog emitted from its imitation maw as if to suggest its internal temperature was now far below that of the cave.

    Mathiyias’ eyes narrowed as the zombie’s eye and hands changed again, this time to burn red and engulf his necroskeleton in a grip of flame. An ice-imbued strike, followed by fire. This creature has been endowed with the elemental spectrum, then. He found himself wondering if perhaps it had been given its skill by another entity, or if the monster itself had been, during its human existence, a wizard or sorcerer.

    Whatever the case, in this particular instance it was little more than an enemy to be eliminated – and preferably with haste. Mathiyias could not think of any other method than to simply instruct his minions to attack the zombie directly and as swiftly as they were able. The abilities it carried were taking their toll on the summons; the bones of his necroskeleton were already charring black.

    His minions sensed his urgency and took to their task more energetically and innovatively. When the zombie aimed a clawing overhead strike at the necroskeleton’s sternum, the narrower summon stepped aside and lifted its rusted sword; the action made the enemy creature’s fingers catch nothing but empty air, and then the sword’s blade cut through its forearm, cleanly severing the hand. But the necroskeleton’s movement had been an awkward one and the momentum of its own sword carried it stumbling backward.

    The zombie gave no indication that it had even noticed the injury it had just sustained, and it ambled toward the golem in an apparent decision to attack something else. Mathiyias had expected as much. This was another nail in the coffin, so to speak, of the mistake that such a creature represented – the attention span of a zombie in the presence of more than one thing in motion left far too much to be desired.

    The golem was even less graceful than the skeleton had been, but no less enthusiastic. As the zombie came at it, the golem met the creature head-on – literally. It bull-rushed its head into the pit of the zombie’s torso and rammed it against the wall opposite. The sheer force of the blow obliterated the zombie’s midsection and what remained of its innards splattered in every direction. Its extremities hung limply then, as did its head, and the glow vanished from its remaining hand and eye.

    The moment the golem stepped away from the mess it had created, it became clear that the earthen creature had been the only thing holding the remains of the zombie together; those remains fell into a mangled pile on the cave floor, barely even recognizable as having been human at any given time. Mathiyias arched an eyebrow at the mess. Not exactly what I had in mind, but if it works...

    The golem bent down and picked up the remaining intact arm. The mass of rotted flesh and bone on the floor, however, was still attached to that arm, and once the golem realized this, it wasted no time in tearing the arm away with a single brutal yank. After a moment of delay, it performed the same action with the monster’s head, and then it bore the two items to its master, one in each thick hand.

    Mathiyias could not restrain the sigh that issued from him as he took the proffered bodily parts. My golem still acts as a child, despite my efforts to improve. There are some days... He tucked the arm and head into his pack, then belatedly accepted the other hand from his skeleton, long since recovered from its own clumsiness.

    It tilted its head at him. He mentally scoffed. Yes, clumsiness. The sword was perhaps the right weight for you in life but in death it is cumbersome for you. Why do those who claim to be the bravest and the proudest insist upon carrying blades heavier than they themselves are? It seems a terrible inconvenience.

    The necroskeleton could offer no vocal reply, of course, and the wisps of will its former owner had left it did not seem inclined to assist its summoner in locating a suitable answer.

    His Othersight told him that there were naught but a few creatures remaining in the darkness below the surface. Unfortunately, they were fleet of foot, something neither he nor his summons were at the moment. And worse, one was a shaman, even now reviving the corpses of the devilkin Mathiyias and his minions had so recently slain. Perhaps the only advantage to his side was that the shaman apparently could not revive members of other species, demonic or otherwise.

    No, he reminded himself. This is not the only advantage. They are cowardly creatures. A show of force, especially against their shaman, will certainly break their will and scatter them. Then he could deal with them one at a time.

    As they approached the apparent dwelling of the remaining demons, Mathiyias allowed his minions to travel ahead and engage the enemy. He had, meantime, taken to collecting the various knickknacks littering the cave, including random clothing, armor, and even the occasional weapon. In the matter of the last, however, he had not yet found one that suited him. Bows and arrows were prevalent, as well as crossbow bolts – though there was a curious absence of crossbows – and even swords, but these were arms with which Mathiyias had only the most basic of training.

    At the very least, these can be traded. Surely the Rogues would prefer weapons of their own specialty.

    He heard the sounds of battle ahead, and through the absent eyes of his summons he could see the path through the remaining demons his golem was making, straight toward the shaman. Behind the golem came the necroskeleton, sword in hand and ready to leap upon the shaman. Almost too late, Mathiyias delivered the instruction to behead that monster and its kin if possible.

    To his satisfaction, the skeleton’s aim was true, and a single swipe of its sword sent the shaman’s head flying from its shoulders. That should prevent any further revival of these beasts...

    True to form, the devilkin scurried away from the site of their leader’s demise. The necroskeleton and golem went in opposing directions to give chase – each made short work of their targets. Mathiyias momentarily wondered if the skeleton warrior’s spirit had been an actual warrior in life. His gift for battle showed through even beyond his death.

    A sudden regrouping of the imps distracted Mathiyias from his musing and forced him to focus on the task at hand. His brow furrowed in concentration – the absence of his wand made it all the more necessary – as he brought his hand up and summoned an array of the Dragon’s teeth to his aid. “Morh’c osi!

    A spray of bones erupted from the cloud that formed just beyond his hand, some embedding themselves in the bodies of the enemy creatures and others tearing straight through them without slowing down. They squawked in unison and staggered in the face of the assault, allowing enough time for the golem to return and engage what remained of their resistance.

    The battle was short, indeed.

    Mathiyias tilted his head as he became aware of light beginning to filter into the cave. Logically, he knew that light was liable to shine through cracks and crevices in the ceiling – it was not so deep down that it could avoid the sun entirely – but it had seemed such a distant thing as to be virtually insignificant. As he thought on it, he realized that compared to the light he saw now, there had been only the faintest trickling, akin to the runoff from flaws in a dam.

    Had Evil tainted this cave so? he found himself wondering, and as he considered what his response might be to such a question, his Othersight revealed to him no further threat within the cave. That he would notice the sudden onset of light at the same time as the last enemy’s death would certainly have been fortuitous if it were coincidental... and that was a coincidence whose likelihood he was not inclined to entertain.

    His necroskeleton and golem now stood before him. Bereft of enemies to fight, they now awaited instruction and purpose. He glanced between them both, scoffed, and asked aloud a question meant for no one in particular. “Is that enough to earn the Rogues’ trust?”


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

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    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    The Sightless Eye


    Rogue Encampment

    Akara was seated in her tent, beside the still form of the Sister that Mathiyias had rescued from the cave. Her eyes were closed and her hands were clasped in prayer, her lips whispering words of healing that worked with the salve on the bandages to knit the damaged flesh beneath. As an acolyte, it would have been her first instinct to pull away a strip of bandage to see how the healing process was progressing; indeed, she’d done so for a burn victim once. That one occurrence was quite enough for her. Watching the flesh and blood churning beneath the applied salves had been a more frightening sight for her as a child than even the worst injuries she’d seen brought back to her here in the camp as an adult.

    Her concentration was broken by the sound of her tent’s flap being harshly thrust aside. “I can’t sit here and wait anymore, Akara, I just can’t!

    The High Priestess dared not interrupt the last words of her prayer, but the moment the phrase was concluded, she turned about and looked fiercely upon the enraged face of the Rogue captain. “Calm yourself, Kashya. The enemy is formidable enough without your anger causing errors of judgment.”

    But Kashya could not make herself obey Akara’s command. “Raven! Raven, made into a lieutenant of Hell, after all that she went through in that damned monastery! She walked through Hell itself, and now, to be corrupted by a few walking skeletons and devilkin? I won’t stand for it!”

    “By your own admission you have already dispatched the Zakarumite to deal with that problem,” Akara responded, somewhat unkindly. “I agree that it should not wait, but I do not approve of you insisting upon such an assignment without speaking to me first. You could have at least offered him one or two of your archers as reinforcement.”

    “It doesn’t matter if he had two or two hundred, she knows how archers think and fight! No armor we have comes close to protecting us from her. Better this ‘paladin’ take the fight to her, offer her some unexpected avenue of attack.”

    “And what of Mathiyias? Could you not wait for his return? Two unexpected avenues of attack are better than one.”

    Kashya emitted a loud scoff. “You truly aren’t seeing them for what they are, are you? A paladin, and a necromancer, working together? They would just as soon kill each other as those beasts out there. Better they be divided among different duties.”

    Akara got to her feet. “You are developing a habit of second-guessing me before I can even offer my insight.”

    “Because you aren’t taking everything into consideration! Someone has to!”

    “You do not trust my judgment.”

    “Akara, look at this place! We had legions of Sisters in our monastery, with full dominion over these plains. Now we have a few novices and this hellhole on the river while monsters roam freely because your judgment told us this is where the Great Eye said we should retreat. What other wisdom does the Great Eye have to impart? I’d like to know!”

    “The monastery was taken, Kashya. We could not have expected to win had we stayed and fought.”

    “Akara, you’ve never been a warrior! You didn’t have faith in the strength of our Sisters at full force and you believe in them even less now!”

    “We could not have won.” Akara’s voice and gaze were hard as steel. “We had not the strength then and we certainly haven’t it now. We will be slaughtered if we do not accept the support of outsiders.”

    Kashya spun about, despair flashing in her gaze. Her expression was like that of a caged and wounded animal, searching for any means of escape it could find. Akara tilted her head, and her voice smoothed slightly. “Kashya... we can mend our wounds more easily when we are not strained by the battle.”

    “We should never have come to the point where we needed to trust outlanders,” Kashya hissed. “Is this what we’ve been driven to now? I gave my life willingly to you, knowing you would not risk it without cause... and now you give it to a zealot and a dark arts practitioner?”

    “And soon the blood of the Amazons, as well.” Akara crossed her arms behind her.

    That drew Kashya short. “What?”

    “I know of the letter you sent.” Akara’s eyes became slits. “Your accusations and breach of decorum notwithstanding, I will not have you faulting me for a transgression you yourself recognize as necessary.”

    Kashya hesitated, and when she spoke again, it was with a much quieter tone. “Kalania has been my friend and confidante for even longer than I have been a Sister. I would trust her with my life.”

    “As you no longer trust me with it.”

    “How can I, when you won’t tell me the truth?”

    Akara tilted her head. “Such a condition was not present when you made your oath.”

    The Rogue captain wouldn’t be distracted from her point. “I know you’re hurt, Akara. I saw the spider bite you. Even if I hadn’t, I have seen you nursing the wound when you think no one is watching. Where once you gathered us around the fire nightly and assured us of our eventual victory, now we hardly see you emerge from your tent. And you once required only a prayer and a bandage to mend the most grievous of injuries. Now...” She trailed off and almost offhandedly gestured at the mummified Rogue lying on Akara’s cot.

    Akara looked down at the ground for a moment, then turned back to the injured Sister and knelt over her once more. “Ataiu will recover. And if you feel you can no longer uphold the oath you took... then renounce it. Your departure will not be shameful – but it shall be a great loss to us.”

    Kashya went to stand next to the priestess. “Akara, please. Just this one time. Tell me the truth. And look at me when you do. Are... are you...”

    She tried to struggle her way past the hesitation. It was taking everything left her already battered spirit to ask the question that had seared itself into her mind. She opened her mouth to form the words.

    But Akara looked up then, her gaze piercing directly into Kashya’s eyes, and she granted Kashya perhaps the greatest reprieve she could have desired – and at the same time, the most unwelcome burden she had ever thought to bear.


    It was the only word she needed to say.

    Silently, Kashya left the tent.

    Akara turned back to the burned Rogue, laced her fingers, and resumed her prayer.


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

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    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    Sisters' Burial Grounds



    Sisters’ Burial Grounds

    In the immediate vicinity there was little apparent activity, which struck Tsal as something strange, considering the report given Kashya. Had the report not specified the corrupted Rogue was now raising the dead as an army to gather against the remaining warrior women of the plains? Why, then, is there so little sign of life here?

    He willed his Heavensight to pull away the fog of limitation clouding his eyes, and instantly he understood what the scouts had meant when they had claimed there was an army rising. Yes, there was most certainly a plethora of battle-worthy units there – but none were Rogues which had succumbed to corruption. These were instead skeletons and zombies... creatures brought back to life by foul means and sloppy magic. Blood Raven might have been endowed with the ability to resurrect but if these were the results of her work, then it would be short work for Tsal to return them to their graves.

    Despite the way each unit wandered about (that was to say, with evident aimlessness), none seemed interested in leaving the graveyard. That did concern Tsal somewhat... it suggested that although they had little more intelligence than the primal hatred which possessed all reanimated skeletons, and the even more primal hunger that plagued zombies, they were still smart enough to take instruction from the one that had returned them to the surface. That was not a comforting thought. From everything Tsal had studied, it was difficult for a summoner to maintain control over his minions, particularly when there were this many of them.

    If this is the work of Blood Raven, I would prefer for her focus to be distracted by these creatures, he thought. I will have a difficult enough time attempting to avoid her arrows. First I must locate her and draw her out... so there is a fine line between making her angry and making her unstoppable.

    He tapped the side of his thigh and allowed himself a short, quick sigh. If only I had a Zakarum scepter at my side. Such a weapon would offer me a vast advantage over these foes. Then he gripped the handle of his sword. Covet not, he chastised himself. Work with what you have.

    He closed his eyes and offered up another prayer to the High Heavens. Not for the first time, he hoped they were listening.

    The paladin’s first attack cleaved one zombie’s head right off his shoulders without so much as even offering his sword any resistance. Knowing that taking the head off such a creature did not always signal its immediate demise, Tsal slashed again, this time with a diagonal stroke that landed in its right collarbone and exited beneath its left arm.

    There was little commotion from the sudden attack, and none of the other wandering undead appeared to notice. Emboldened, Tsal used the graveyard’s many shadows and obstacles to his advantage. He did not shout with his attacks, but instead permitted his sword to speak to his actions. Each kill he made increased his self-confidence. Should Blood Raven appear now, my chances would be significantly better, he thought, even as he took another zombie’s head off.

    But as he continued his warpath, he glanced about the cemetery in confusion. I have yet to sight her. Yet the Rogue scouts under Kashya’s command told her that the archer was seen doing her work here. He stood over his last victim, blood dripping from his blade onto the supposedly consecrated grounds. Then where–?

    A cold hand clamped onto his right shoulder. Before he could react, the hand gripped his shoulder with the strength of a vise and lifted him up, then tossed him nigh effortlessly into a large headstone. He hit the stone with his back and rebounded, then hit the ground face-down, stunned by the force of the attack. He scrambled up to one knee and clutched his sword – and his eyes caught the face of his attacker.

    There was no question she had been beautiful in life. Her features were still smooth and attractively angular, and a long mane of black hair spilled over her shoulders. Yet those features were not the healthy color and complexion of the living. Her skin was pale and mottled in a menagerie of colors... most prominently blue, black, and white, but also caked in mud and blood. She wore the vestments of the Sisterhood, but instead of the earthen brown that was customary for their kind, hers had been stained the deep red of lifeblood, as had the features of her vicious battle bow.

    She brought her bow up, an arrow already drawn in the string and aimed directly at Tsal’s chest. Her lips peeled back across her brown-stained teeth in an evil smile. When she spoke, it was as if a thousand different voices, male and female and neither and both, were speaking in tandem with her – not the voice of a human woman, but of a demon-possessed nightmare.

    Join my army of the dead...

    She released the arrow.

    At the last instant, Tsal rolled to his left. The arrow struck, pierced his thick leather jacket and then the flesh beneath it, stopping only at his sternum. The stone tip chipped into his bone and embedded itself there.

    The paladin had no time for pain, no time to even cry out in acquiescence to it. He got to his feet and dodged around as many headstones as he could find. Arrows flew past him every time he rounded a corner. One nicked his leg; another went through the meat of his upper left arm. Pure survival instinct was what he relied on, as well as every single obstacle he could locate in the defiled burial grounds.

    A cackle erupted from Blood Raven, a noise that was at once haunting and taunting... a laugh and a scream. “A Paladin of Zakarum, afraid of death!” she crowed. “You would disgust even your own ilk!

    Tsal sat down behind a massive stone and gripped the shaft of the arrow still stuck in his chest. He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth as he pulled the arrow from his chest; it took all he had not to scream in agony. He repeated the process for the arrow lodged in his left arm. His flesh had been pierced by weaponry before, but never from a foe such as this. Her aim had been perfect. She knew what she was doing when she disabled my arm, he thought, inspecting his usually shield-bearing extremity. She could not strike me through the heart so she prevented me from having the faculty of both arms. I can use the hand but my arm cannot bear the load of a shield now.

    Tsal gripped his sword to his chest, felt his heart pounding beneath his white-knuckled fist. An inch closer and the arrow would have pierced my heart, he thought. As it was, he could feel his hand trying to shake from the blood loss and the pain, but he willed it to stop. The blade did not reach out to pass the gravestone but if he allowed himself to shudder, it would be a risk, and one he could ill-afford.

    The haunting voice of his prey – or perhaps now his predator – crept through the graveyard like an endless clutter of spiders. “Warriors, I met in Tristram. Warriors, I fought alongside and perished alongside. You are no warrior. You are a coward and a fool.

    He clenched his teeth, knowing better than to take the bait. Instead he dropped his hand down to his belt and removed his final vial of healing potion. He removed the cap with his teeth, swallowed the potion, and waited for the healing effect to become apparent, keeping one hand over the wound on his chest for several moments. When he was satisfied his injuries were no longer a hindrance, he put the stopper back in the vial, then tossed it high over his back. The small glass tube landed in the grasses beyond and bounced up against another headstone, shattering as it struck.

    He heard a sudden shifting of the grass, a dead leaf being crushed just behind him. He gripped his sword more tightly than he thought was possible, leapt to his feet, twisted around and blindly struck with an overhead hack, hoping to split her skull in two.

    Instantly he realized he had misjudged exactly where she had been standing – she was still slightly to the right – and his movement had not gone unnoticed by the evil archer. But his maneuver came at the perfect moment, just as she was nocking another arrow in her bow, so that when his sword came down, it did not stop with simply damaging her weapon. It continued through the crook of her left elbow, and her right wrist. Both of her hands dropped to the ground instantly, and the string of the bow, which she had just begun to draw, snapped back at Blood Raven – the tip of it struck her in the forehead and opened a deep cut there.

    Tsal allowed the moment to dictate his actions; because of the strength of his swing, he knew he would waste valuable time in altering the path of his momentum, and so he took advantage of his motion and spun on one heel. At the apex of his spin, he thrust out his other foot in a vicious kick to Blood Raven’s side. The blow connected and he felt several of her ribs shatter beneath his boot.

    The undead Sister toppled over, and Tsal leapt atop her, his blade poised to strike. She let out a tortured cry, and her voice was even more rasping and inhuman than before. She turned up to face him; her milky eyes glowed with unholy evil and hatred. “The Matron commands your death!

    “Who is your matron, demon?” the paladin hissed. He gripped her by the throat with one hand, shook her fiercely. “Whom do you serve?”

    She bared her dirt-stained teeth at him, then shrieked and lunged at him. “And–!

    Sheer instinct bade him to bury his sword in her chest, pinning her to the ground beneath. Black blood spouted from her mouth and he gripped her throat so tightly he thought he might puncture it with his thumb. Her body shuddered and convulsed beneath him as her arms flailed about uncontrollably. She let out a final, gurgling death cry, then lapsed into silence.

    He closed his eyes and let a great breath escape through his nostrils, then released her throat. Surely the creature would have emerged from her by now, if there–

    Abruptly, he felt himself thrown off her body by an intangible force, and he landed on his back and skidded several feet away. He craned his neck up to search for the cause.

    Surrounding Blood Raven’s remains was a poisonous green cloud of spiritual energy. Pale green light poured out of every hole in her skull and became solid, forming into the shape of a twisted ghoul, whose every feature contorted with anguish and malice before exploding in a bright flash. Spears of white light knifed ahead of the shockwave and pierced through what hungering undead still remained on their feet in the graveyard, and knocked them to the ground, where they finally lay still.

    Tsal pushed himself up on one elbow, just in time to see a floating image in the air just above the Sister’s remains. It was a ghostly shape but far more identifiably human that the greenish shade from only a moment ago. Silver strands of hair drifted weightless about the form, which lay on its back as it rose from the body. Tsal did not need his Heavensight to see it, which was a testament to how powerful it must have been in life – and yet it looked as if it had been sleeping for centuries, waiting to awaken.

    Or move on, he thought.

    He rose up from the ground, bent one knee, and rested both hands on the pommel of his sword before the spirit of Blood Raven, for that was the only thing it could have been. “Heaven, take your daughter home,” he prayed aloud.

    The request was enough for the spirit’s eyes to open, and glance at him for just a moment. A faint smile played on the spirit’s lips... and then she flew high, as if carried by a rushing ocean current, into the night sky, where her essence faded from view naught but a moment later. He closed his eyes and breathed a slow sigh of relief. Sisters... there was no other way.


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

  17. #17
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    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    The Den of Evil



    Rogue Encampment

    Mathiyias did not expect his re-entry into camp to be lauded, even sans the presence of his summoned – and now unsummoned – minions. But there was something about the aura of the camp that lent itself to a sense of distraction as he approached. Distraction, and impatience. Underscoring these was the same sense of foreboding and fear that he had felt when he’d first arrived... feelings that were no doubt sustenance on which the demons of the countryside ravenously dined.

    He pulled down his hood as he approached the gates, so that the Sisters on the battlements would not mistake him for an enemy. To their credit, they did not open fire on him, nor did they even reveal their arms to him as he passed between the guard walls. Upon his entry, he spotted Kashya nearby, pacing back and forth with a look of particular intensity on her face.

    When she spotted the necromancer, it was clear she was trying to restrain a scoff. “Back again?”

    “The enemies in the cave have been eliminated.”

    She cocked her head. “You don’t seem a liar.”

    Mathiyias offered no response to her statement; instead he tucked his hands into sleeves.

    Kashya pursed her lips. “Hm. I’m surprised you survived that test, outlander. Go see Akara. She may reward you.”

    Wordlessly, he obeyed her directive, but before he could hail the healer within her tent, she was already exiting. A look of relief was on her face. “You need not inform me of what has happened – the Sightless Eye has shown me. You have cleansed that den of evil. The path grows brighter before us. You have earned my trust, and may yet restore my faith in humanity. Please, allow me to reward you for your efforts.”

    “What do you offer?” the necromancer inquired.

    “Only what I can. Training.” At Mathiyias’ raised eyebrow, Akara actually offered a tenuous smile. “No, I possess no knowledge of the necromantic arts, but I have already spoken of my abilities as an alchemist. Your people do not rely only on spirit, earth, and flesh to achieve the effects you desire. The golems you create can also be fashioned from steel and fire. Though these are skills you must perfect on your own, I can teach you the finer points of such transmutation.”

    He tilted his head. “Intriguing.”

    She pulled aside the flap of her tent and aimed a gesturing hand inside. “Shall we begin?”


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

  18. #18
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    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    Sisters' Burial Grounds



    Cold Plains

    The reputation of the Paladins of Zakarum was a colorful and varied one. Zealots. Warrior priests. Fanatics. Tsal was not sure any of those names seemed especially apt when describing the average paladin, because in his estimation, all of them implied recklessness. He did not consider himself particularly reckless, and he was not even certain he could consider himself fanatical. Zealous, perhaps... a warrior, yes, but a priest?

    Not I, he thought, as he came within sight of the devilkin campsite. Ordination was optional when it came to the ranks of the paladins, though many assumed it was the natural course of their careers. It had been said that if one did not see a member of the clergy in the temple city of Travincal, then he was surely the only one in the city at all. But Tsal had chosen not to be ordained as a priest – he felt that his devoutness would be amply demonstrated through his good works, motivated by the genuine faith of his heart. Tsal knew, though, that his faith and his actions needed to be tempered by wisdom. That would, of course, dictate caution in times of danger, no matter your bravery.

    Few could deny he was brave, but he was feeling especially cautious now. He had taken cover behind the broad walls of a poorly-built hut and was inspecting the campsite still occupied by Bishibosh and his minions. The camp had regained every single one of its number and only a series of scattered blood stains on the immediate grounds provided any hint that a battle had taken place. I am outnumbered, and I fear I am also outmatched by these numbers, he thought. How am I to see this evil destroyed? I remove the threat Blood Raven represented, just to be done in by a menagerie of simple demons?

    His quick eyes detected movement on the southern horizon. Bad enough I have to hide from enemies on one front, now I must concern myself with two... He repositioned himself along the walls of the hut so that he would not be spotted by either the demons or the new subjects approaching from the south. For all he knew, they, too, could be some sort of demonic force, come to bolster the ranks of Bishibosh and his assorted imps.

    Yet as they moved closer, it became clearer to him that these were not demons. Their shapes were too human for that, and there were too few of them; the paladin counted only three, and most packs of demons tended to travel in greater numbers than that. In fact, their general builds, as well as the weapons they carried, suggested they were a cadre of Sisters – one bore a bow, another a crossbow, and the third carried a spear.

    Perhaps one of the dark spearwomen? he wondered silently, and he tapped the power of his Heavensight to ascertain whether these three females had been possessed by the evil befalling the land. But no, their auras did not exude the darkness of possession, or even the faintest taint that he had felt in some of the Sisters at the camp. These warriors had yet to experience the discouragement and despair the Sisterhood suffered.

    Tsal frowned. Rogue warriors of another sort, perhaps, but not of the Sisterhood. Potential allies. As they moved ever closer, he could see that their pace was swift; the spearwoman led the way at a brisk run, and the two archers flanking her did not lag in the least. Then he observed a clear shift in their trajectory.

    He felt a small, grim smile creep across his dusky features. An opportunity I can ill afford to ignore. Quickly, he cast his eyes to the sky. Praise be to the Light and the High Heavens.

    He stepped out from behind the shed and ran for the camp.

    This time, he would not be alone.


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

  19. #19
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    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    The Sightless Eye


    Rogue Encampment

    Kashya emerged from Akara’s tent with more than a hint of frustration across her hardened features. Though she was certain the High Priestess had borne only the best of intentions for the Sisterhood when sending for assistance, this was not nearly the brand of “assistance” she had expected. Nor desired, for that matter. It was precisely why she had written the letter to Kalania. Loathe as she was to admit it, she knew the Sisterhood was no longer able to destroy this enemy on its own, and had known it for some time, but had only recently found it within herself to summon the help she believed would be most appropriate.

    Truly, she trusted Akara with her life. Such a commitment was not in doubt, not from the moment she had uttered the oath aloud. Her life was forfeit to the whims of the High Priestess with the knowledge that it would never be in vain, nor for anything less than absolute necessity. Nevertheless, she had heard enough stories from sources (beyond reproach) that inviting a follower of Rathma anywhere was to invite travesty to the intended destination.

    She cast a silent glare in the direction of the necromancer’s tent. Akara would allow such a person into the camp only during the greatest of perils, and of course there were no perils Kashya could recall as great as this. But still... how could she, or anyone else, be certain of the man’s true motives? His ilk were nothing short of obsessed with the dead and manipulating that which was better left alone.

    For her part, Kashya saw no point in toying with what no longer carried the spark of life within it. Should it carry anything but, then that flame ought be extinguished, of course – but leave alone the dead otherwise. Let them rest in peace, and let those remaining remember the departed with fondness.

    The torment of seeing her own slain sisters take up arms against her was an evil that she could hardly withstand. Her body cried out for rest and yet could find none – nightmares clouded even her waking moments now, fragmentary images of her colleagues and friends with unholy fury across their once-beautiful faces. Her ears still rang with the thick sounds of swords and spears and arrows finding their mark too often, far too often within the bodies of her still-living wards.

    All of this by itself was enough cause for her to despair, to desire nothing more than to sink into the oblivion of endless, dreamless sleep, where she would no longer have to concern herself with anything in the world. But it all paled in comparison to this latest revelation – and while she had suspected for some time that Akara was ill, there was no question about it now. The debate in her mind about the High Priestess’s prognosis had been quelled, as well.

    She’s dying.

    She’s dying, and there’s nothing that can be done. Anything she would have known how to do... anything she would have been able to do, she would have already done, long before ever considering allowing me to know.

    We will lose her.

    Akara will die.

    The Rogue captain felt her lower lip tremble, just for a moment – a moment of weakness, of allowing one or two bricks to loosen from the rigid wall she had carefully constructed between her emotions and the facts of current circumstances. She had lost many, too many Sisters to the plague that had overtaken their home and their land... the thought of losing Akara, too...

    “Contact, Captain!”

    The cry shook Kashya from her reverie, and she blinked twice rapidly as she looked to the mouth of the encampment. Some distance beyond the entrance, she could see a series of forms making their way across the dark plain – four of them, a number the camp was certainly not expecting. Her keen eyes could discern the rugged shape and features of the paladin’s arms and armor, and his weapon and shield were raised in a defensive posture.

    Kashya’s brow furrowed when she realized that though he was obviously defending himself, it wasn’t from the three figures surrounding him; she could now see that two of them bore bows and were firing into the darkness beyond. She raced toward the entrance and slung a quiver of arrows over her back while taking up a bow in one fluid motion, instantly gaining the attention of everyone else in the camp. “To arms!”

    A flurry of movement followed then; the merchants in the camp scrambled for cover – or, in young Charsi’s case, the nearest weapon – and Sisters atop the battlements readied their weapons while Kashya notched a pair of arrows in her bow amidst three fingers. It was a shot she had spent years perfecting and now had down to a fine art; with the slightest twitch of a finger, one arrow would sail while the other waited patiently, learning from any mistakes in the flight of the first.

    She could now see the other three people with the paladin more clearly. All three were female – athletic ones, at that, with blonde hair tied into tight ponytails that seemed to stay behind their heads and outside their fields of view at all times as they fought at running speed. The two flanking females were the ones that bore bows, while the one accompanying the paladin carried a long spear. The four embattled warriors passed a crumbling stone wall that represented only half a minute’s hard run from the camp’s mouth.

    And then Kashya finally glimpsed their pursuers: a flood of black-skinned imps that seemed to swarm over the hill. Though she was displeased at the sight, she was not entirely surprised – these “fallen”, as she’d heard some travelers call them, were cowardly, and much more likely to attack under cover of large numbers and darkness.

    Let them taste their own blood upon our arrows, she silently swore, and chose a target for each of her arrows at the moment she shouted, “Fire!”

    A wall of arrows flew from the mouth of the encampment’s entrance, darting past the incoming paladin and his accompanying warrior women, and embedding themselves in the bodies of the halfling demons. No arrow was wasted in the volley, a testament to the Sisters’ skill in archery. Her own shafts caught a pair of creatures each squarely between the eyes, instantly downing them.

    In truth, the Sisters’ display now was less impressive than her recollection of previous incidents... because theirs was not a totally impregnable defense, and they had already lost numerous sisters to the ravaging, faceless mass of critters. She’d seen too many of them slashed to death; perhaps more frighteningly, others had been carried off and never seen again. But that had only increased their determination, and those who still survived had learned from their experience. There were no novices here anymore.

    When the front line of the fallen was felled, those immediately behind them observed the sudden carnage and predictably came to a halt. They screeched insults in some wicked tongue Kashya didn’t recognize, but they didn’t advance any further; no doubt they could see the line of adamant Sisters staring at them, each keen eye watching along a notched arrow.

    They won’t advance but they’re not retreating. Kashya’s face darkened. They know we’re close to the end of our ropes. Slowly and deliberately, she drew another pair of arrows from her quiver and notched them in her upraised bow’s drawstring.

    Back, demons...

    The sight of her arrows issuing forth was all the encouragement the Sisters required to follow suit; some that flew past her burned bright with mystical flame, or alternatively sent a chilling gust past her bare shoulders. Those that bore fire set their screaming targets ablaze while those tipped with ice transformed their marks into solid blocks of frozen mass.

    The incoming warriors gave no quarter as they waded through the throngs of fallen; the paladin, in a peculiar bodily spin, swung his shield into one frozen imp and at the same time brought his scepter to bear on another, shattering both on impact. The spear wielder impaled one burning creature upon her weapon, then spun about on her heels and used the flaming victim’s body as an impromptu club against another. The sharpness of her spear’s blade became evident as the burning imp’s remains were halved and crumbled away the moment the blow landed. Her target fell back, ashes charring its skin and blood spurting from a well-placed nick of her spear’s tip. The bow-bearing women, meantime, placed shots as accurately as any of the Sisters had – not one of their arrows missed their mark, and to boot, the archers did not even slow their pace.

    As the four warriors reached the mouth of the camp, the hail of bolts through the air became even more fierce – the Sisters no longer needed to be wary of friendly fire. The resolve of the flood began to crumble when it became clear they could pursue no further; their survival instinct took over amidst shrieking and cursing, and they turned and ran back the way they had come.

    Kashya did not let her bow drop until the last of the fallen had faded from her sight, and even then her movement was slow and steady. She felt the fire within her blood die down and she released a breath she had not entirely been aware of sustaining. Her eyes finally fell toward the paladin, who was waiting patiently for her recognition, weapon and shield at his sides now that the immediate danger had passed.

    He brought one fist up to his chest and dipped his head respectfully to her. “Captain. Please allow me to introduce to you these fine warriors,” and here he gestured to the spearwoman first, then the two archers, “Haistryia, Nikalis, and Danetia, of the Amazon tribespeople.”

    Kashya’s eyes narrowed at them. “Who among you is leader?”

    The first one the paladin had indicated stepped forth, bearing her spear like a walking stick and firmly thrusting the pommel into the ground to signify her dominance. “Haistryia, first daughter of Kalania, at your service, captain. Our mother sends her regards to the Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye.”

    The Rogue captain’s expression changed at the mention of their mother’s name, something of a cross between recognition and suspicion. “Kalania is your mother?

    “And no finer parent could we ask for,” supplied the one named Nikalis; her tone was firm, and perhaps slightly defensive. The remark drew a glance from Haistryia.

    From Kashya, however, it drew a deeper frown of greater suspicion. “All three of you are her daughters.” She pursed her lips for a moment; no further answer seemed forthcoming from the three. “Triplets?”

    Haistryia inclined her head. “Each of us is one year apart from the next. I am the eldest. Danetia is the youngest.”

    The one called Danetia bowed her head, but offered no response of her own, evidently subservient to her older sister. Kashya strolled slowly in front of the line of sisters, inspecting each of them in turn. Then she cocked her head. “Well. The family resemblance is there... as is the skill in archery.” She glanced at the two younger sisters at that remark. Then she turned back to Haistryia. “I had not thought Kalania of childbearing age. Either I have severely misjudged her years, or I have strayed from my friends for far too long.”

    “Perhaps both,” Haistryia noted.

    Kashya’s eyes narrowed again, this time to slits. “Duty calls us all. Whatever your mother has told you, I do not regret my decision to be here.”

    “She would not wish you to. And she would be here herself to convey the message, but like your own Akara, she has become High Priestess of Athulua and must remain in the homeland to guide our clergy and novices.”

    “So I’d heard, but I nevertheless had hoped to see her spear as one of many at our side.”

    “Her spear stands before you even now.” Haistryia held out the weapon in her right hand; along its shaft and blade were etched runes and various nicks and scratches from battle damage. Clearly the spear was old and had impaled many an enemy, but it also was in no apparent danger of breaking.

    Kashya looked back up at its bearer. “So you have your mother’s weapon. For her to have given it to you and sent you here, I assume you must also have her skill, and her courage in battle. Nothing less will do in this godforsaken place.”

    “If we did not have our mother’s full confidence, she would not have sent us,” Haistryia responded firmly. “I carry her weapon in her honor, and I intend to carry it in the defense of your people. Please inform us if our information was in error and you do not require our assistance. We will leave your lands at once.”

    At that, one corner of Kashya’s mouth turned up ever so slightly. “Now, that is the fire I would have expected from Kalania.” She stood aside and raised an arm directing them past her. “Welcome to our glorious hovel. Beware the dark spell my Sisters have fallen under. If you’re not careful, you may fall prey to it as well.”

    “We stand duly warned,” the Amazon replied, and though the words might have sounded taunting, her tone was anything but.

    She had already seen some proof of Kashya’s warning in the wilderness.


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

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    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    Sisters' Burial Grounds


    Danetia - Nikalis - Haistryia - Tsal

    Rogue Encampment

    Gheed smirked as one of the blonde women approached him. “Good day to you!” he greeted, a little too cordially. “I’m Gheed, and I can already tell that I'll be your best friend in this forsaken camp.”

    The woman arched an amused eyebrow at him. “You can?”

    “Absolutely.” He leered at her, his greedy eyes admiring her build... among other things. “Whom do I have the distinct pleasure of addressing?”

    “Danetia,” she answered. “Third daughter of Kalania.”

    “Third? Do I assume correctly that–” Gheed flicked a gesturing hand toward the other two that had just entered the encampment.

    “Yes, my elder sisters. Haistryia and Nikalis, respectively the first and second daughters of Kalania.” A side of her mouth quirked up. “But getting back to your sales pitch – I assume you were trying to sell me something?”

    “Not just something. Many things, milady.” He grinned, light glinting off a golden tooth along his upper row.

    At his designation for her, her half-smile did not fade but her tone altered to one of firmness. “Danetia will do,” she said. “Women we are. ‘Ladies’, we are not. This bow on my back, this quiver, these arrows... they are not decorative.”

    “I don’t doubt that,” he countered, “but I’ll bet you could find something comparable in my inventory. A spare weapon, some gold, a small gem is all I want in exchange for the equipment you'll need on whatever quests you might undertake.”

    “Quests?” Danetia was further amused. “What would you know about our purpose here?”

    “You have that look about you.” He crossed his arms over his wide chest, a smug look adorning his mustachioed face. “I don’t think you came here on a whim. Not when you’ve traveled all this way... where did you say you were from, again?”

    “I didn’t.” Her brow was arched again. “Are you soliciting my business so that I may return the favor?”

    “Not a bad tactic, if I do say so myself,” he preened.

    “Perhaps not for some people. Others might find it offensive.” She turned on one heel, then said over her shoulder, “I might return.”

    His shoulders slumped. Another potential sale not as in the bag as I’d hoped. He called out, “Don’t be shy, now! All of my stock is guaranteed for life and comes with a two-day warranty!”

    Warriv looked up and saw one of the young women standing nearby, giving him an odd look. He smiled pleasantly at her. “Greetings, stranger.”

    She inclined her head. “Greetings. What’s your name?”

    “Warriv. And yours?”

    Her answer was immediate. “Nikalis, second daughter of Kalania.”

    His smile widened slightly. “Only an Amazon warrior would take such pride in the name of her mother as to make it part of her own.”

    “We must never forget who begat us.” She sat down on a log next to one on which Warriv was perched. “The past creates the future. How can we know the end if we do not know the beginning?”

    He nodded once. “A wise philosophy. I must say, under other circumstances I might be surprised to see you here but adventurers of all kinds have been traveling this way ever since the recent troubles began.”

    “Those troubles were not so local as they are now,” Nikalis observed.

    “Then you’ve heard the tragedy that befell the town of Tristram.”

    She nodded. “We have. It has been said that Diablo, the Lord of Terror, now walks this world and that it was his influence that destroyed that place.”

    His lips twisted. “Don’t know as I believe that,” he replied. “All I can really believe is what I’ve seen.”

    “And what have you seen?”

    He tried to suppress a shudder, and was not entirely successful. “Things that will haunt my dreams for the rest of my life. Assuming I’ll even be able to sleep. I haven’t caught a decent wink since the pass was closed.”

    “When did it begin?”

    “A few weeks ago.” He rested his elbows on his knees and folded his hands. “A strange man passed by this camp one day. He had no belongings that we could see. He had a colossal sword that didn’t even seem to have a sheath, and he didn’t heft it; he dragged it by the hilt, carving a trail through the dirt. We greeted him as we greet all visitors but he barely spoke a word to us. I didn’t even get a good look at him – he wore a black traveler’s cloak and the hood was so low over his face...” He shook his head. “Anyway, he just sort of... wandered in, then back out. Gheed kidded about him, called him ‘a dark wanderer’ in, I suppose, some attempt to aggrandize the encounter. Some story to tell whatever children he thinks he might one day curse an unfortunate woman to bear.”

    “You’re telling me about this dark wanderer now, so perhaps the story is not as aggrandized as you initially believed,” Nikalis noted.

    “Indeed, perhaps not,” Warriv conceded. “In any case, his general direction appeared to be east, toward the Tamoe Pass at the gates of the Rogue monastery.”

    “‘Rogue’ monastery?” Nikalis narrowed her eyes. “The Sisters of the Sightless Eye are hardly rogues. Theirs is a proud, if secretive, society and they are our only rivals with the bow. To use such a... a demeaning word...”

    “Merely the term common men have come to use to describe them. Mostly, I believe, to describe the ones that resisted being made into tools meant to pleasure the flesh. Epithet or not, they’ve taken the name as their own.” Warriv’s gaze flicked to the fire. “I think they take some sort of satisfaction in it. As though they know exactly how much it belies their true abilities. It certainly incurs underestimation.”

    “That, it does,” the Amazon mused. She, too, stared into the fire for several moments. “But... about this wanderer?”

    Warriv shrugged. “Nothing more about him, in particular. But it was only a short time after he left – the night didn’t even pass before we started hearing about strange creatures in the wilderness. I began to see fewer Rogues in the camp or the monastery each time my caravan returned. Strange fiends plague the plains now. We have to burn the recently dead because they won’t stay dead; they rise up and eat the flesh of those living they can catch. Even bare skeletons stand and maul innocent people with whatever weapons they can find.”

    “You don’t believe the presence of this dark wanderer and the appearance of these demons a coincidence.” It wasn’t a question.

    He shrugged again. “Maybe. Maybe it’s nothing. But were you to ask anyone here who saw him, they would all remember him. Beyond the sword he bore, I don’t know what made him so remarkable. But he seemed both lost, and sure of his way, all at once. The next morning we saw smoke billowing into the sky just east of here. There was a tavern there. Everyone was dead. Far as I know it was an accident. But thinking on it now...” He sighed. “If it’s a coincidence, it would seem to be one just as odd as any other happenstance that’s occurred here since.”

    “So it is not likely to be a coincidence at all.” Nikalis looked to the black tent near the waypoint. “That is not the dwelling of a Sister.”

    “No, he arrived earlier.”

    “Who is he?”

    Warriv shook his head. “I didn’t catch his name. Gheed seems afraid of him, though. Or at least disgruntled by his presence. Apparently he’s a necromancer.”

    At that, Nikalis scowled. “Why should a practitioner of such dark arts be allowed in this place?”

    “He hasn’t troubled the Rogues as those creatures out there have. And they cannot afford to turn away strangers who might be able to help them. They’re still losing numbers to those demons. They despair. But they have not lost the capacity for kindness. Sooner or later, it will be repaid.”

    Nikalis pursed her lips. “They despair, yet they hope?”

    “Hope is almost all they have left.”

    Haistryia looked to her sister by the fire and noted that she was in deeper conversation with the man there than either she or Danetia were able to garner from anyone else. She paced over to the makeshift bench and sat beside Nikalis; soon, Danetia was doing the same.

    But it was then that Nikalis and Warriv lapsed into silence, and for a long time, all four stared into the fire and brooded. The silence was broken only to share bits of information each sister had gathered from the others in the camp. Nikalis had gleaned by far the most important information about the recent events and so it was she who had the most to say. When they were done, they returned to watching the fire and meditating. The drizzle broke, and the black sky slowly turned gray – the brightest it had become in this land for many days.

    Haistryia steeled herself, and took a breath to speak... but her breath caught in her throat when she noticed a movement from the black tent.

    The occupant stepped out from its confines.

    No longer was he wrapped in his cavernous black cloak; instead he was clad in only the most minimal of coverings – dark pants and a white tunic beneath a black vest. His pale skin almost matched the color of his shirt and provided a sharp contrast to his darker garb. His hair, platinum blond and paler even than his skin, was bound in a loose and relatively short ponytail.

    Haistryia distinctly saw Gheed shudder in her periphery, and felt herself becoming amused; she didn’t find the man the least bit intimidating. He was narrow, and though his build suggested some lean muscle, he was slighter than virtually every Amazon man she knew. He bore no armaments, either in his hands or on his person. Many of her people, she knew, would scoff at him simply for being so bereft of color – she and her sisters had reveled in the sun as children and the healthy tan they’d acquired was, according to many men, part of their allure.

    Without a word, he took up a seat on yet another log-bench surrounding the fire and watched the smoldering coals within. Haistryia was quick to notice the way his fingers moved, as if directing a musician in some epic composition. The mark of sorcery, she thought. Those not so trained in magic can keep their hands still – but those well-versed in it must make a conscious effort.

    She wondered briefly if she should reconsider her opinion of him. But then she decided that any judgment of the man, without seeing whatever potential he was capable of, might prove too hasty. For now, she was satisfied to leave what judgment she could pass... and as far as she was concerned, he looked more undead than some of the undead she and her sisters had already encountered.

    Then we shall not fear such a man courting an Amazon warrior, she wryly concluded, and turned her eyes to the glowing embers before her.

    Tsal was not surprised to see the struggle within Kashya’s gaze as he held forth the fistful of braids he had retrieved. He had tried to take care in choosing an item to return to the Sisterhood in order to prove the corrupted Blood Raven had been slain. Having dispelled the demon within her and sensed her spirit move forth in peace, he knew that there was no further danger surrounding her – she could not be resurrected again, so there was no need to mutilate, dismember, or burn her body. To return them a body part seemed an intolerable blasphemy (though he would not have put it past the necromancer) and the weapons she had borne did not befit an archer of her caliber, so it was reasonable to assume they were not hers.

    And although the Sisters might have forgiven it, he could not find it within himself to plunder the pair of crypts below the graveyard for those treasures. Left with a limited array of options, this seemed the most humane – a few locks of Blood Raven’s hair, bound into tight black braids on the right side. A series of silver and red beads studded each braid at different points, offering further distinction to the look.

    Kashya needed only a moment of inspection before snatching the braids from his grasp and twisting on one heel. He was not possessed of the keen eyesight or hearing that was so developed among the Amazons or the Sisters, but he needed neither to know that she was mightily restraining the urge to weep – his completion of the task pained her as much as if her own heart had been pierced upon one of Blood Raven’s arrows.

    He heard her quietly clear her throat, and then she spoke in an almost haughty voice. “What of the rest of her?”

    “Laid to rest,” Tsal responded. “Properly, and with dignity.”

    Kashya’s face contorted. “She deserved nothing less.” She clenched her jaw for a moment, then exhaled deeply. “It would be much to my relief, paladin, if I knew what provoked her to turn against us. I cannot bear the thought that she might have fallen willingly to madness.”

    Tsal cocked his head. “Why would she?”

    “All she saw in the depths below Tristram... facing the Lord of Terror himself... I do not know if I would have kept my sanity, had I been there myself. Merely hearing the tales she told was enough to keep me awake for many a sleepless night.” Kashya shut her eyes tightly, as if to brace herself against the answer to her question. “I must know. Did she succumb to insanity?”

    “Not by choice. She was tormented by a demon. I could not identify it before it fled her body. Her own spirit departed only a moment later. She is at peace.”

    A long pause hung between them as Kashya absorbed the news. Then she nodded her head once. “I pray that she remains so. You have earned my respect, stranger.” She looked him in the eye. “You have also earned the allegiance of the Sisters of the Sightless Eye. I will place several of my best warriors at your disposal. However I must insist you take only as many as you require; we must still withhold our main forces for the defense of this camp.”

    Tsal bowed his head to the Rogue captain. “Thank you. For now, I shall take a few moments’ respite here. I have items to trade and wish to recover my strength before returning to the wilderness.”

    “Very well.”

    As he moved away, he could sense the grief and sorrow wracking the Rogue captain, even without his Heavensight. And he spoke a silent prayer for her.


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

  21. #21
    Written Into A Corner... Cool Trainer
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    May 2011

    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    The Search For Cain


    Haistryia - Tsal - Mathiyias - Danetia - Nikalis

    Rogue Encampment

    In the twilight just before the dawn, those still awake and with no duties to perform tended to huddle closer around the camp’s fire – perhaps seeking reassurance that the light within would soon be reflected in the sky above. Gheed and Warriv were no exceptions to this rule. Actually, Warriv favored the fire the most of anyone, though perhaps this was due to its proximity to his wagon. Certainly he had no desire to see its contents aflame because of a moment of carelessness or lack of attention. He also strayed toward it and warmed his hands near it on oft an occasion.

    Haistryia watched Warriv trail to the blaze once more in observation of this apparent tic, and seated herself on the nearest log, cocking her head in amusement. “Is the mountain air not to your liking?” she inquired.

    The merchant shuddered. “Hardly. In point of fact I am from nowhere near this terrain. I hail from the desert city of Lut Gholein by birth and am far more accustomed to a warmer climate.”

    She removed a cloth from her belt and began to clean the tip of her spear, but continued to pursue the conversation. “What inspired you to go into trade? It seems a hazardous business.”

    “An understatement, to be sure,” he chuckled. “It was a job my uncle introduced me to. At first I saw little joy in being a merchant. I felt dishonest pushing items toward customers who did not have the money I was asking for. But what enticed me was the opportunity to travel places to which I had never been. So I stuck it out and continued to be a salesman. Eventually I forged my own caravan and travel route. Now I need not be a salesman... I delegate the task to the others and I simply operate the group myself.”

    “Yet you demonstrate displeasure at the climate here,” Haistryia noted. “Why did you continue to travel a route you discovered would take you to locales you considered unpleasant?”

    He offered her a wry smile. “I found I rather enjoyed the company. Kashya and Akara are harsh taskmasters only when they must be. Before the recent difficulties, I always found them to be kind and welcoming to my convoy. We were always given food and shelter, and invited to stay longer than would have been necessary, or even permitted by most others on the route.”

    “It seems a rather sentimental reason... had you any practical ones?”

    He harrumphed. “If you must know, this is where I met Gheed. He had set up a business for himself out here, on the edge of the Rogues’ territory. He made ends meet by purchasing caravan items wholesale... or, if you prefer, simply under the table. Then he would sell those same items to interlopers at a profit margin I still to this day consider outrageous – yet he somehow was capable of great acquisition. He asked me to let him join the caravan because he was ‘bored’ of life here, despite making money hand over fist via methods I disapprove of.”

    “And you accepted him?”

    “Not at first. Even though his way earned him money, it did not seem to attract customers into returning. I soon realized what he meant when he claimed to be ‘getting bored’ was in truth, local residents had begun to warn newcomers of his unscrupulous practices. They would steer clear of his shack and he was losing business.” Warriv snorted. “He was the cause of his own eventual undoing. I finally took him in and did my best to reinforce the tenets of proper practice. I threatened to leave him in the desert should he relapse into his old habits. To his credit, he has done well in establishing firm and... dare I even say, reasonable prices for his merchandise.”

    “He told my sister that his equipment is ‘guaranteed for life and comes with a two-day warranty’.”

    He guffawed. “A joke. I’m afraid it is a poor one, considering our circumstances, but his sense of humor is an acquired taste.”

    “Have more faith, friend.”

    The paladin had emerged from his tent and approached the campfire from behind Warriv, startling the other man into turning around. The merchant chuckled nervously. “I might have more faith if I felt it provided a reasonable substitute for security. Alas, I have seen the faithful perish alongside the faithless here.”

    “Faithful to what?” Tsal inquired, taking up a seat on an adjacent log.

    Warriv tilted his head. “To many things. But mostly to each other. It mattered not to the beasts that beset the land what faith they carried... they were slaughtered all the same. Do not misunderstand me, I appreciate the faith that drives the Paladins of Zakarum, but it provides little solace to those of us that remain.”

    “Solace is no match for results.”

    Haistryia, Warriv, and Tsal all turned their heads to face the Rogue captain – Kashya was standing on the other side of the fire, arms crossed and a scowl adorning her face. “And so far, our resident necromancer has not provided any. I wonder if we should consider his mission a failure.”

    Haistryia arched an eyebrow at the lead archer. “The necromancer is here on a mission?”

    “Summoned by Akara, and tasked to discover what curse has befallen us. He returned here with fierce injuries and one of our Sisters burned half to death, and still carried no information concerning his mission.” Kashya sniffed derisively. “He claimed to be an acolyte. If so, how can he be studied enough to identify our foe?”

    “Your method of questioning the wisdom of your leader fascinates me.”

    All heads turned once more, this time in the other direction – now it was Mathiyias himself who was speaking, having finally exited his own dwelling. How long he was standing there, none of them could say for certain; but several found reason enough to look away upon the realization he had been listening. His gaunt face betrayed no emotion, nor did his eyes. Without another word he took up his own place upon a log no one else had yet claimed, and looked at the Rogue captain directly.

    Her frown deepened at him. “What are you talking about?”

    “You seek to question the wisdom of your leader by questioning the results I have yet to secure.” Mathiyias crossed his arms. “My examination requires time and patience.”

    “This camp is running out of both of those things,” Kashya snapped. “In case you hadn’t noticed, they are killing us!”

    “And you have yet to find out how to kill them back. Which is why I am here.” Mathiyias’ tone carried traces of irritation. “And I intend to see that mission through. Once complete, I will take my leave, as it is evident I have already overstayed my welcome. But assuming you are correct and my experience is not sufficient, then I shall remain here and fight to protect what remains of this camp and its occupants until that force is identified, or I draw my last breath.”

    “Odd words to come from an acolyte of Rathma,” the paladin charged. “What dedicates you to this place so fiercely but to take advantage of the bones and spirits that now litter the landscape?”

    Mathiyias looked sidelong at Tsal. “I am a man of my word. A paladin of Zakarum would understand that there, all honor lies.”

    Tsal snorted. “Do not presume to use that word. ‘Honor’ has no meaning for you and your ilk. You toy with the dead and enslave them to your will. How you were accepted into the midst of this camp is a question Kashya is not alone in asking.”

    “As the captain has already pointed out, I was invited by the High Priestess, so perhaps your inquiry would be better directed to her,” Mathiyias responded; more irritation was beginning to interrupt his tone.

    “Or perhaps you should trust that the High Priestess has in her heart the best interests of these few survivors.” Now Akara emerged into the light of the fire, causing Kashya to whirl about... and then look away in shame. The Priestess’ voice made it clear she would entertain this discussion no further.

    Then she looked around the fire. The raised voices had drawn Nikalis and Danetia out of the covered wagon they had secured from one of the other merchants of Warriv’s caravan and now they, too, were within view, standing just behind their elder sister. All visitors to the camp were here.

    She trained her eyes on each one in turn. “As Mathiyias’ investigation reveals, it is clear that we are facing an evil that is difficult to even comprehend, let alone combat. It is also clear that several of you are choosing to put your prejudices against his ken above your ability to trust his findings before he has even had the chance to gather any.” Her glance to the Rogue captain was especially significant but she said nothing to the archer.

    She looked at Mathiyias. “What if you had someone to share your research with? Someone who can offer insight into even the most archaic, vague, and cryptic clues?”

    He offered the smallest of shrugs. “Then clearly, such an ally would be invaluable to us. He could corroborate my findings and offer us a clearer picture of our enemy. Have you such an ally in your arsenal?”

    “In fact, I do.” Now a small smile touched her lips. “His name is Deckard Cain. He is the last descendant of the great Horadrim. A sage in his own right, his knowledge of the most arcane history and lore is absolutely unparalleled.”

    “If his wisdom in these matters is so great, why have you not attempted to contact him previously?” Tsal asked.

    “Because it was not the right time,” Akara responded.

    “And now it is?”

    Her response was grave. “I can only pray it is not too late, and that he still lives.”

    Haistryia felt a chill go down her spine at that pronouncement, and Nikalis spoke for all those gathered around the campfire. “Where is he?”

    “He resides in Tristram.”

    There was a clear shift of mood within everyone at the camp site who heard that proclamation – even the Sisters on the battlements had various reactions to the name of the cursed town. Nikalis and Danetia exchanged looks; Tsal and Haistryia did likewise. Mathiyias glanced down and into his lap for a moment, then looked back up at the High Priestess. “So our task is to go to Tristram and retrieve this Deckard Cain?”

    At that, Tsal interjected. “This would not be your task, necromancer, unless the Sisterhood no longer wishes my services.”

    Haistryia spoke up then. “Your pardon, Tsal, but I do not think withdrawing your services from the Sisterhood is compliant with your mantra of protecting the innocent.”

    The paladin stabbed a finger in Mathiyias’ direction. “They will no longer be innocent if this cultist is allowed the first access to lore and knowledge beyond his wildest dreams. Surely such a man requires preparation and insulation from the likes of a Rathma acolyte.”

    “Sir... I appreciate your skill and what you did for us by eliminating the threat Blood Raven represented, but your bias against this man is becoming offensive.”Akara’s gaze was hard upon the paladin as she spoke. “You are already aware that Mathiyias is my guest. I will not have my other guests harass him for his convictions, especially when one takes into consideration he has not responded in kind.”

    “Milady, the Zakarum–”

    “Are not here,” Akara interrupted, now more harshly. “Save for one of their charges, who is now beginning to overstay his own welcome by threatening the survival of those around him in favor of his petty animus against a man who is trying to help.”

    “I will go.”

    All eyes turned to Mathiyias, who had the look of a man who had had quite enough of hearing about himself while in the presence of those discussing the subject as though he were not there. His gaze was fixed upon the healer, and he spoke quietly. “It is becoming clear to me that my presence, despite your overtures, is causing greater disruption than calm – and my skill in determining the underlying cause for the curse upon these lands is in great question.”

    Akara moved closer to the log upon which the necromancer sat, holding up a staying hand. “Please stay. Your deliberations can be tempered by the experience Cain would provide... and he cannot provide it if he is not brought here.” She looked back at the other warriors gathered. “Which is why I speak to you all now. Yes, I mean to ask you to go to Tristram to find him. And no, I cannot force any of you to go, or cooperate with each other. But if you cannot fight together, I pray you, do not let that tear this gathering asunder.”

    Tsal’s response was hesitant, but the conviction in his expression had not waned. “I will stay to assist... but I will not fight alongside a necromancer.”

    Haistryia looked at him in askance. “Then one of you travels to Tristram while the other remains here, when we have no knowledge of what awaits us on the long road. I must agree with the High Priestess, this is a most inappropriate time for a blood feud. The enemy is not within the walls of this camp, it is beyond them. You may consider his art unsavory–” and here she cast a sidelong glance at Mathiyias “–and on this point, I think most of us can agree, but it could be perhaps every bit as crucial as your skill with sword and shield, prayer and faith.”

    Tsal crossed his arms, eyes half-lidded; he was not impressed with Haistryia’s reasoning. “I have said what there was for me to say. If you ask it of me, I will travel to Tristram, on the condition he is not a member of the party. I occupy space near him and this is as close to alliance with him as I shall come.”

    Danetia interjected with a question for Mathiyias. “Excuse me... but I would like to know exactly how you are conducting your investigation and what the significance of the skulls you retrieve is.”

    The inquiry drew a dark scowl from Tsal and odd frowns from both of the other Amazons, but Mathiyias was almost relieved to finally be addressed directly, because he did not hesitate with his reply. “Many who summon devilkin, beckon the dead to rise, and corrupt local life will leave their mark upon the creatures by magically branding it into them. The brand chars the bone and forms an impression in it. As long as the brand remains, the victim is a slave to the will and dominion of its master. The marking is most commonly found inside the skull, where many a minion would find it quite impossible to remove without killing itself.”

    “And every individual with these abilities uses a different brand?” the youngest Amazon sister inquired.

    “Correct. The branding is completely unique to each summoner. Even the Prime Evils themselves have specific brands. I am collecting the skulls to inspect each brand so that there can be no doubt what is responsible for the summoning of the Hell-born creatures beyond camp and the corruption that possessed so many of the Sisterhood.”

    Kashya sniffed. “And what has delayed your report on your findings? The task sounds straightforward enough. You have certainly collected enough skulls.”

    “It was necessary for me to collect a wide range of evidence, knowing of your predilection to distrust my ken... and me, in particular, it would seem.” Before Kashya could offer a retort, he continued. “I am prepared to offer a report on my progress, however. My studies reveal no less than two separate forces at work here. Neither one is or ever has been human. These forces are beyond nature and are of a level of power I have never encountered. One is still nearby but the other is not.”

    Warriv frowned. “I wonder... could the one that has passed be that dark wanderer? He was the last one to pass through before all Hell broke loose.”

    “That man could have been any number of things, but he was certainly human,” Kashya responded. “And clearly a frail mortal, if a proud one. Did you not see how he dragged his sword along the ground? He had not even the strength to carry the blade across his shoulders. He had the look of one who was going off to die.”

    “Nevertheless,” said Akara, “there exists the possibility, however slight. Yet, if the creatures in the wild are at least partly of his doing, then why are they not with him? Why do they remain here, persecuting us?”

    “I think, perhaps, the greater question is this: who are these two separate forces at work here? Moreover, what is it they seek to accomplish?” Haistryia inquired.

    “That much, I can answer myself,” Kashya snorted. “They seek to obliterate us and gain complete dominion over this region. Devilkin are never steered away from that goal. They kill and they breed – those are the only two things they know how to do. But I do not believe they were summoned by this wanderer of yours, Warriv, as the sword he bore suggests he was once a proud warrior... not an experienced wizard.”

    Nikalis cleared her throat then. “It would seem unlikely that a stranger passing through the Monastery gates would so conveniently find in this same place an ally with like-minded goals involving all this misery.”

    “So where does this lead us?” Tsal asked, a hint of irritation in his tone. “Was the Monastery to be a meeting place for these two ‘forces’? And why did one leave while the other remained?”

    “This is why you must venture to Tristram,” said Akara. “It is imperative to locate Cain and bring him here so that he may help to answer these questions.”

    “If expediency is your concern, you must realize Tristram is far too distant to reach by foot when trying to maintain hope he will live that long – news of its utter destruction has even reached the shores of our lands,” Haistryia commented. “If he is still there at all. If he had any wisdom he would have flown.”

    Warriv also looked distinctly unhopeful. He shook his head. “A few months ago, I came across a few survivors from Tristram. They said that Cain had gone half-mad and could no longer distinguish fact from fantasy.”

    Akara’s voice was firm. “Cain is as grounded a man as they come. Were he any other man, perhaps he would have gone mad in his youth from what he had to learn of the legacy he carries, but he did not then – he will not have succumbed now.” Then she turned to Haistryia. “Tristram has been Cain’s home for much of his life and he has attached himself to it over the years. He will not have left it, despite its ruin. And I am well-aware of the distance. However, there is a method for transporting yourselves great distances instantly, left behind by the Horadrim. In the Stony Field you will find a grouping of large stones arranged in a circle; these are the Cairn Stones, and upon each is carved a character that acts as a beacon. Touch them in the proper order and the Cairn Stones will open a magical portal to your intended destination.”

    Tsal got to his feet. “And how will we know the proper order? Surely if we touch them in any other pattern, they would take us elsewhere.”

    “This is true. But the Horadrim were both wise and clever, and left behind a method of interpreting the characters upon the stones, should the need for them arise again when their line was no more. In the woods to the east, there is a massive tree, known as the Tree of Inifuss. It towers over all the rest, as it has stood there for centuries, and carved into its bark is the codex I require to interpret the stones.”

    “Carved into the bark of a tree?” Haistryia was flabbergasted. “How has it not warped or faded in the interim?”

    “The tree itself was enchanted by the Horadrim so that the carvings remain carefully preserved. Because of this, it is a locus of their power. Many vagabonds have taken safe haven beneath its branches.” Akara glanced at Tsal. “Our Zakarum paladin would say that the Tree of Inifuss is consecrated. Even lesser demons may not touch the trunk without exposing themselves to significant harm.”

    “There is another obstacle you must be aware of,” Kashya added. “There are sheer cliff faces directly between us and the wood where the Tree of Inifuss stands. Normally a traveler would move around the mountain, but you do not have the luxury of time. You will have to traverse the tunnels that were carved through them if you hope to move with haste. There are also certain to be hostile creatures there, as they appear to thrive most heartily in caves and dens devoid of light.”

    “Then the Light will be reintroduced to those places,” Tsal decreed. He looked to the Amazon sisters, gazing upon each one in rapid succession. “I will do this – who will come with me?”

    Haistryia thumped the pommel of her spear into the ground for emphasis. “My sisters and I shall, of course, join in this mission. The greater our number, the more likely our chances of success.”

    Nikalis and Danetia, as though on cue, also took up their weapons for demonstration, both their gazes determined and sure. Mathiyias remained silent, evidently preferring to watch and listen – and after all, why not? Clearly he was not trusted nor particularly wanted, so it would do little good to speak and thus stir the especially strong fires of intolerance within the paladin’s belly.

    Akara looked at them, then nodded once. “Very well. Please speak to Kashya before you depart from camp – you would do well to take along some of our Sisters for escort, in keeping with that reasoning. Good luck to you all.” Then she set her eyes upon the necromancer. “Mathiyias, a moment, if I may.”

    At that, the Rathma acolyte wordlessly got to his feet and followed the High Priestess into her tent – and out of the view of the others. The moment he was beyond sight, Tsal aimed a sneer at the flap of the tent.

    Haistryia cocked her head as she strayed past the paladin on her way to her own dwelling to retrieve currency; she would need to inspect the local wares for the trip ahead. “What is the nature of your grudge against him?” she inquired of Tsal.

    “My grudge is not against him, but what he represents,” he responded. “It opposes all I have been taught to believe in and respect. And necromancers are widely known to either bring disaster or leave it in their wake. Had I met him in the wild rather than the walls of this encampment, it would not have mattered to me if the High Priestess had offered him sanctuary here. He would now lay slain, subject to judgment for all the sins and sacrilege he has committed in the name of his sick art.” He offered a puzzled look. “I am surprised you would ask, since you yourself claimed his practices unsavory, which implied you know what he studies.”

    “I do, but only insofar as I have been taught by my elders,” she answered. “So it comes as no surprise to me that a man of your religion would find his practices blasphemous. But I did not ask what your grudge is against his kind – I asked after the nature of your grudge against him specifically.”

    Tsal hesitated, and his face became more stony – he knew the point the Amazon was trying to make. “Yes, you did... and my answer should suffice for both. It is not merely my own religion that considers his arts foul. Most in the civilized world hold nothing but hatred and contempt for those that would disturb the graves of their forefathers and create serums from their remains. Not to mention reanimating their bones and enslaving them. Do you not think it worthy of scorn? Consider if your sisters were lost in battle. Had he the chance, he would reanimate their bodies and enslave them to his will. Would you not be outraged?”

    Haistryia willed herself to remain calm. “Of course I would, but the simple fact is that he has not done so. Moreover, he has not made any threat, nor has he paid any insult to me or my sisters... so I cannot bear a grudge against him as he has done nothing to earn my ire.”

    “‘Nothing to earn your ire’?” Tsal’s voice was nothing short of incredulous. “Some of those skulls he collected are of human origin. He did not give them the proper burial they deserved after finding what he needed to find – to this very moment he still holds them in his dwelling!”

    “What would you have him do? Risk his own life to return to the wild and bury them in the manner of a Zakarum priest?” Haistryia crossed her arms; she stood half a head shorter than the paladin but she was not intimidated by the man. “This is not the calling he follows, any more than his calling is yours. Judge him for his actions if you must but there is a necessity behind them, even if we cannot – or will not – comprehend them. In any event, you should stop harassing him. He has not slighted or harmed any of us, though he has had ample opportunity. The simple fact is that despite the fact he knows his presence is revolting to some, he is trying to help, in the only way he knows how... just as you and I are doing by rescuing Cain.”

    Tsal’s expression was one of displeasure, and the look in his eyes made it clear that he and the Amazon were not likely to meet on any sort of middle ground pertaining to this issue. Instead he chose to alter the subject. “Speaking of this new mission... I have respect for the High Priestess but her answer this evening sounded far too self-serving for my liking. Why could it not have been ‘the right time’ for Cain to come here before things became as bad as they did?”

    At that, Haistryia could only shrug. “That is a question I cannot answer. But I am accustomed to questions posed to clerics being met with cryptic answers. I once read of a people whose religious caste was so evasive with their responses, the only way to obtain the answer one sought from the answer she was given was to write it down and look at it in her reflection in the river while hanging upside-down from a tree branch.”

    Tsal snorted. “Did it work?”

    “Unfortunately, the texts did not have an answer for that,” Haistryia responded, and she actually smiled. “Ironic. My assumption would be that even if it did not, the inquisitive soul would pass out and have a vision... then wash ashore and have a life-altering revelation. So the effect must have been similar.”

    The two shared an amused look at that remark, then mused silently for a moment. The paladin then arched an eyebrow at Haistryia. “I have read much of Tristram, but never been. If there is a place to have a life-altering revelation... I can imagine it would take place there.”

    “We shall find out soon enough, noble paladin.” Haistryia gave a quick toss of her head in Kashya’s direction. “Come. The captain is waiting for us to select our escorts. Let us not keep her waiting.”


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

  22. #22
    Written Into A Corner... Cool Trainer
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    May 2011

    Default Re: Diablo: Between the Darkness and the Light

    The Search For Cain


    Haistryia - Tsal - Mathiyias - Danetia - Nikalis

    Rogue Encampment

    Inside the tent, Mathiyias found himself staring into the eyes of the injured Rogue he had earlier rescued. She was still bound in bandages that concealed all else, and he could see the flickering of pain in her eyes, but she was at least awake – and that, in itself, was a start.

    Akara closed her eyes, steepled her hands over her nose and mouth, and sighed into them, then rubbed her eyes. “I beg your forgiveness. I thought the situation dire enough that those who still remain here would be willing to overlook their misgivings about your kind. Evidently I was mistaken.”

    He glanced at her. “You have nothing to apologize for, Priestess. Mine is a singularly segregated lot. Had I a choice, perhaps this is not what I would have done with my life. Nevertheless, I do it, and will continue to do it, without regret.” He looked back to the Sister. “And I am relieved that my efforts have yielded at least some results that none can question.”

    “Indeed.” Akara gestured to her ward. “I know I did not mention her name before, but now that her recovery is more certain, I feel it is safe to reveal. This is Ataiu. She wished me to bring her the man who recovered her from that sinister cave. Obviously she cannot yet express her gratitude, but...”

    “She need not.” Mathiyias could see that gratitude quite plainly in the Rogue’s gaze. “She need only recover as well as my hand has.” He flexed his gloved fingers for emphasis and looked back at Akara. “Your ministrations have served me well. There is little pain remaining.”

    “I fear that pain may stay with you for some time to come, as the injury you suffered was not from a creature born of this world.”

    He offered the smallest of shrugs. “I will adapt.” Then he tilted his head. “What would you have me do in the meantime? I can continue my research but I wonder how much more we can expect to gain – the markings I have collected are all from the same two sources.”

    “Can you not identify the markings?” Akara inquired.

    “My people keep records of the brands I described, and I am well-studied in those records, but these marks elude me. The problem lies in my estimation that the summoners responsible are no more of this world than the demons they brought with them. A demon without a body leaves a different brand than the same demon with one. It mottles with the mark the original inhabitant of the body would leave, assuming it also has great magical aptitude.”

    Akara mused. “Then perhaps it is not unreasonable to assume even your mentor might not have been able to identify the source of this corruption. At least, not immediately. But I doubt the others would take kindly to this revelation. They would likely accuse you of stalling.”

    “Be that as it may, there can be no doubt the creatures not of this world were summoned here by one persona. The local wildlife and your former sisters were corrupted by the other. Both influences are demonic in nature, and clearly quite powerful. Between them, occupation of this place was sure to happen, given that the Sisterhood had no warning.”

    The priestess frowned. “And you are saying this for what reason?”

    “Perhaps to spare you guilt. None could have expected or anticipated this, so it is foolish to believe there was more you could have done.” Mathiyias inspected her expression. “You have enough of a burden to carry. This one is hidden but you have made it yours nonetheless. And you need not.”

    She tilted her head. “Thank you... but I will carry what burdens I wish. As to your inquiry, continue your research as you deem necessary. In fact...” One corner of her mouth quirked upward just slightly. “You may wish to follow the trail the party paves. Remain out of sight, of course, but they will certainly leave spoils for which they would have no use. You might.”


    “Practical,” she countered. Then she held up a cautioning finger. “Take what you must, but be respectful towards the remains you find. I keep an open mind, but I will not tolerate the sight of the bones of our sisters adorning your garb.”

    “If I am to wear any bones, they will be only of our true enemies,” Mathiyias responded. “The bones of a demon are stronger and frighten more easily.”

    Akara gave him an odd look. “Your candor is refreshing... if unsettling.” She cast a glance at the tent flap; they could hear Kashya introducing the others to the various Sisters she evidently felt worthy enough to accompany them. “Wait until they are a fair distance from the camp. Their path is a fairly open and direct one and the scouts are liable to always have at least two eyes to the rear at all times.”

    “Noted. May I be of any other service to you at this time?”

    “At this time, all I ask is that your allegiance remain here, despite what our other guests may say.”

    “As I have said before, Priestess, I do not offend easily. I am what I am and there is little the others can do to change that fact.” He looked down to the resting Rogue once more. “I do what I must. If there are any others in the wilderness that need my help, I shall render it and bring them back here, as I did with your Ataiu. Although...” He held up a hand, as if just having thought of it. “My wand was damaged beyond repair. It would aid me greatly should you be in possession of a similar weapon. My blade is capable but it cannot replace what was lost.”

    At that, Akara almost seemed relieved that she might be able to help via more tangible means, and she even offered a small smile. “As it so happens, I keep a cache of staves to be wielded by all manner of wizards and conjurers. They are among the supplies Warriv and his caravan trade to us. Normally I would delegate the task of salesmanship to someone more suited to it than myself, but I may be able to help you find what you seek.”

    She stepped to the other side of the tent and held back a flap; beyond it was a large wardrobe whose thick door took a moment for her to pull aside. As it creaked open, Mathiyias could plainly see what she meant when she said “cache” – it seemed more like the mother lode of staves and wands, all shapes and sizes, stacked and bound and crammed together more tightly than fish in a barrel. It was a wonder the contents of the container did not all collapse upon and bury their owner.

    He looked back at Akara after a moment of rare – and embarrassingly – open-mouthed awe. “Yes... I believe these will suffice.”

    “I thought so.” Akara delivered an enigmatic smile and held up a group of wands bound together by a length of cord. “I should tell you that none of these have a great deal of power attached to them. Some are barely more than refined sticks, for that matter. Inspect however many you wish... simply keep in mind that we are still civilized here and barter with gold. Items for trade will work in a pinch, however.”

    He took the proffered handful of wands and began to carefully scan each one in turn, and he could not restrain his curiosity. “How did you come to acquire so many? Surely you have not met this many followers of Rathma.”

    “There are others in the wizarding community who would have use for wands,” she remarked, and she moved to sit at Ataiu’s bedside. “In fact, the occasional sorcerer wandering through our esteemed monastery might have cause to seek out the plainest of wands or staves so that he can practice the art of imbuing.”

    “A skill I never mastered.”

    “Few mages do. Were it a common skill, business would not boom at the very rumor of danger – those people would simply cast spells on their own items.”

    He removed the bindings from the wands he held and began to look at each. “On the battlefield, you would be surprised at how many do exactly that.”

    Akara shook her head, amused. “No. I would not.”

    Tsal inspected the line of archers that Kashya had brought out to present to the expedition. Each one seemed to be little more than a teenaged girl – hardly what he would have called “battle-hardened warriors”. He leveled his gaze upon one darker-skinned Sister; this one appeared slightly older than the rest and she also seemed to carry herself more confidently than the rest of them. As with the other members of the Sisterhood standing before him, her raven hair was shoulder-length and bound into a tight ponytail, and her armor was just enough to turn aside a glancing strike from an arrow or a blade. She bore an angry scar across her left leg and another on her right shoulder, and both injuries still had significant bruising surrounding them.

    He stood before her. “What is your name?”

    “Shikha,” she answered promptly.

    “And what amount of battle experience do you have?”

    “Surely not enough to match your own. But my services are at your disposal, anyway. Do as you like with them.”

    He raised an eyebrow and looked up at Kashya. “Is this brand of attitude prevalent within your ranks?”

    “I assure you it is not,” the captain responded, and she shot a hard look at Shikha. “Usually our Sisters are more respectful.”

    “That was before demons attacked our lands, stole our monastery, and corrupted our Sisterhood,” Shikha interceded. “Respect is important but right now I consider survival a more important priority. Look at this place. We cannot retreat any further. If death is coming for me, I want to meet it on a battlefield, where I can be proud of drawing my final breath in defense of my Sisters. Not cowering behind the rickety walls of this god-forsaken camp. Once we take back our home, assuming we survive this curse, I will gladly spend the next five years apologizing to anyone who thinks I was rude.”

    Tsal felt a presence draw up behind him – it was Nikalis, who had evidently been listening to the Rogue with some interest. “What skill have you?” she inquired.

    “I am a master of the bow, as is required of me,” the Rogue replied. “And should I run short on ammunition, or be required to battle hand-to-hand, I carry throwing knives, as well.”

    “A trained Sister of the Sightless Eye also knows how to enchant her arrows,” Nikalis noted.

    “Then you are speaking to a trained Sister of the Sightless Eye,” Shikha countered. She drew an arrow from her quiver and blew a sharp, quick breath across the sharpened point; the tip instantly became coated in hoar frost. She set a gaze upon Nikalis that was as cold and firm as the arrow while she returned it to her quiver. “I give no quarter in battle and I expect none from my enemies. I can take care of myself just as easily as any of you and I can pull my own weight, plus the weight of several more besides. Any other questions?”

    Tsal and Nikalis exchanged looks... then the paladin looked back at Shikha. “When can you be ready?”

    “I already am. I only ever carry with me what you see now.” She stood at full attention once she was finished speaking, and stared straight forward.

    Tsal actually uttered a noise akin to a chuckle. “Yes... I believe you will do.” He looked to Kashya. “This one will accompany us.”

    “Very well. Select another to join you, as well.”

    Both Tsal and Haistryia gave the captain a strange look. “A second Sister?” the Amazon asked, eyebrow threatening to enter her hairline. In her periphery, she could see Tsal fighting off a similar expression.

    Kashya’s expression, however, was one of deadly seriousness. “I saw your faces as you inspected the Sisters standing before you. You were unsure as to their prowess in combat. You doubt their ability to do as commanded. You believe their youth demonstrates the limits of their wisdom and experience.”

    Tsal looked down at Haistryia. She returned the look with one of her own. I would not have said it aloud, she thought, but she is quite correct. Can we trust these young – these very young – women with our lives?

    Kashya stepped closer to them and gestured broadly at the gathered line. “These... these are the last ones standing. It has been their mission for weeks on end now to watch the battlements and ensure the enemy does not pierce our walls. Ask any of them if they have slept and they will ask you what sleep is. Their cause is true and their commitment is absolute. Give them a target and they will fell it with a dozen arrows before you can swing your blade twice.” She looked back at the two. “Select a second archer.”

    Tsal looked to Haistryia once again. “As I selected the first, perhaps it would be appropriate for you to choose the second.”

    She shrugged. “Very well.” She continued her tour along the line, sizing up each candidate carefully before settling her eyes upon a specimen who was smaller and slighter than most of the others standing alongside her. “What is your name?”

    “Abhaya,” she responded, in exactly the voice Haistryia predicted – high and piping. She might have appeared in her late teenage years but the voice lent itself more to late puberty. It was evident that the young Sister was able to sense Haistryia’s reservation on that matter, because the next words she spoke were, “I’m nineteen years old and I’ve killed lots of demons trying to invade the camp. I’ve also performed six scouting missions.”

    “Injuries?” the Amazon inquired.

    Abhaya shook her head. “I’ve been very lucky so far.”

    “Luck tends to run out when you’re traveling across a plain covered with those same demons,” Tsal replied. “You can kill them when on the battlements. Can you do it on the move?”

    The young Sister did not flinch. “Running backwards.”

    Haistryia smirked. “Confident.”

    “With good reason.” Abhaya returned to full attention and stared directly ahead. “It would be an honor to fight at your side, front, or back.”

    Haistryia nodded once, briskly. “Then you will have that honor. Your mettle will be put to the test, Abhaya. We will be putting our lives in your hands. Will you be able to handle this?”

    “This, and many other burdens beside,” was the young Rogue’s reply. “And I am also ready to travel at any time. You only need to say the word.”

    “Two words,” Haistryia answered. “Right now.”


    © Matt Morwell, 2011

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