Amanita (Act I)
There are, naturally, some things about the class I dislike. The martial arts system is a bit cumbersome, and mastering the timing needed to get the number of charge-ups I want is tricky. I've pretty much given up on getting only two charge-ups, especially with Burst of Speed at a high level; the character hits too quickly for me to control her that well. Traps are a nice idea, though I do not think she should be able to put a trap anywhere she can see. It would be much more logical if her traps were items she could either throw or set up next to her, like real mechanical devices. The blade skills are awful, which is a pity, as many real world assassins did their work with thrown blades before guns were invented. And then there's her outfit: a singlet cut very low in front and very high on the sides (so much so that her belt rests partially on bare skin) with elbow-length gloves, thigh-high boots, shoulder pads, and knee pads(?). According to the expansion manual, Assassins are members of the secret order of Viz-Jaq'taar; in the real world at least, secret societies stay secret by having their members look like ordinary people. No real ninja ever wore a "ninja" outfit; they wore the same clothes as everyone else. I refuse to believe that a typical woman in the Diablo II universe goes around dressed like that.
Now, what shall I do with my Assassin? My goal with this tour is to play all seven characters in ways I never have before. I've used various martial arts, and feel confident of my mastery of the tree, so I shall ignore it and use something else. I've used all the traps, so nothing from there. That leaves Shadow Disciplines. My favorites of these are Burst of Speed and Shadow Master, or Warrior if I'm using traps. Eliminate them, and... hmm, not much left. For "auras", the tree offers Fade and Venom. I rarely have difficulty getting enough resistances, so Venom it shall be. On the other side of the tree are the "mentalist" skills, which I haven't done much with: Psychic Hammer (useful but weak), Cloak of Shadows (Blinding monsters: good. Blinding player: bad!), and Mind Blast.
A potentially interesting build comes to mind. While playing my Necromancer, I'd noted that poison would be most useful with ranged attacks. Poison takes time to work, and ranged attacks make time a luxury you can better afford. The Venom skill adds a lot more damage than Poison Dagger, and can be used with any weapon, including a ranged weapon. In all this tour, I've yet to make a character with a strong ranged attack, and should do at least one. Another tactic I haven't used much is subversion: sowing chaos and disruption by confusing or converting the enemy. Mind Blast has a chance to convert, making me friends, or at least keeping the monsters busy while they die from poison. This could work.
Now, what weapon shall I use? Bows? Thrown weapons? I've got some nice crossbows on the mules, including a Heavy Crossbow with six sockets that could be fitted out with perfect emeralds. Crossbows are very slow for the Assassin, but with poison and Mind Blast, she may not need to shoot fast. Come to think of it, I wonder why the Assassin, someone used to complicated mechanical devices, is so slow with the crossbow, while the Druid is relatively fast? I would have thought Nature Boy would be more practiced with normal bows. Ah... no point second guessing Blizzard about this. Many things in the Diablo II universe make no sense, but if I asked they might offer some bizarre, convoluted explanation for them that would just make my head hurt. They might even have a pseudo-rational explanation for the female characters' outfits, though we all know the real reasons for those.
So my Assassin shall be a ranged attacker, using crossbows. Her main skills will be Venom and Mind Blast, with the goal of converting enemies and killing from a long distance. I'll be putting points into Claw Mastery as a prerequisite anyway, so I'll make her back-up weapons a pair of claws in case things get rough. She'll use no summons; minions will be mixed up fresh for each battle. Also, no mercenary. One thing that bothered me with Varnae is that my merc killed monsters before his poison had a chance to do its thing, and I don't want that to happen again. Besides, the "lone hired gun" is a staple of fiction; anyone who walks that lonely road should do so without help. Moving fast and hitting hard before you know she's there, then melting back into the shadows... that sounds like what an Assassin should be. In keeping with the build, I'll give her a short bow for starting equipment. Her name is Amanita, after a variety of poisonous mushroom noble Romans used to bump each other off.
When I laid eyes on the palisade, I knew it would be trouble. But trouble was what I was looking for. I was out on assignment, looking for nobody knew what. All we knew was that a lot of crazy Vizjerei had come wandering out of this part of the world the last few months. A sorcerer having a sudden fit of madness and destroying a house isn't strange; the location was the strange part. There was nothing out here but farming villages and old monasteries, nothing sorcerers would go crazy over. Nothing out here a sorcerer could want, unless he was looking for cheap land with a view of the neighbor's cow. But our higher-ups don't like not knowing, especially with sorcerers. They can be real bastards when they want to, throwing sparks and dazzle with one hand so you don't see them pull a demon out of their hat with the other. Something around here caught their collective eye. A lot of them came looking for it, and it did a number on them.
A lot of us junior members were sent out to look for the whatever-it-is; field training, they called it, seasoning. I figure I'm spicy enough, but what the hell. It beats meditating. Going along the mountains was easiest, and as likely as any other way, which is how I found the palisade. A few dozen people were inside, but they didn't look like they were sorcerers: their thoughts were confused and sad, some angry, most more than a little scared, but no one was thinking of magic. I probably had no business in there, so I went inside.
There were a lot of women in there. That ruled out their being sorcerers. Sure, there's supposed to be some order of female mages hiding in the eastern jungles somewhere, but no one's ever seen them. Would killing one of them be harder, I wonder? I probably couldn't count on the outfit to distract them. These women were all armed, mostly with bows. A female archers unit? There were a couple of men, older and a lot more prosperous-looking. One, you could tell, was dripping with money -- sure, he wore brown pants and a plain tunic, but you don't buy a ring like the one he had on his left ring finger second-hand. His hair was a plain brown, cut in a standard style. A not-too-long beard gave him a very paternal look; his was a face you could trust. Obviously the man to talk to.
"Greetings, stranger!" he started off, with a smile I could have poured on pancakes. "With all the troubles, I'm not surprised to see one of your kind here."
My first instinct was to lock down: had my thoughts leaked? A man couldn't possibly have the training to read my mind... he looked surprised, and stepped back. "Oh, I'm sorry! I hope I haven't offended you. I saw that you're armed, and you must know how to defend yourself to cross this country alone. I merely assumed you were a roving mercenary! We've had a few come by, you know."
Damn, I thought, relaxing. He relaxed as I did. This guy didn't need any training or study or meditation to tell what I was thinking. He looked for flickers in my eyes, or changes in the pace of my breathing. And he was good at it. My guess was that he was either a gambler or a merchant, neither of which had any use for a company of archers. "Guess you caught me," I smiled my dumbest friendly smile. "Yeah, I hire out as an archer. It's just something I do, I'm not really proud of it. My name's Amy."
He shook my hand, and smiled, nice and polite. He knew I was lying, but calling me on it wouldn't be friendly, and he would always be friendly. Had to be a merchant. "I am Warriv, leader of this caravan. You'll be in rare company here. The world doesn't see many women archers, outside of these Rogues."
The Rogues! The Rogue Sisters of the Sightless Eye, famous for their archery and a male-free lifestyle. I don't know where my brain is some days. "Oh, um, yeah, I was coming here to visit them. These are the Rogues?"
He didn't hide his surprise at my ignorance; his eyebrows slowly crept up his face, almost hiding in his hair out of sheer embarrassment. "How many cohorts of female archers have you met? Ah, you're confused because you expected to find them still in their monastery."
I nodded, still dumb. Men talk a lot more if they think a girl is dumb. I doubt it fooled him for even a minute, but it's important to keep up appearances. "Yeah... I thought they were, I mean, further up in the mountains."
"Therein lies a sad tale," Warriv shook his head. I instantly felt his sadness and concern. He was good, too good, maybe. "I don't know all the details, but a great catastrophe has overtaken the Rogue sisterhood, and expelled them from their monastery. When I came with my caravan, I found them by this river, trying to set up camp. If you're at all interested in the Rogues, you should speak to their leader, Akara. She's the one over there."
I've done better; it would be hard to do worse. Warriv may not read minds, but I still felt like I'd told him everything he wanted to know without ever opening my mouth. A mage with that kind of talent could be dangerous. Most don't know how; they only read books, and never between the lines. You can tell them anything.
Before I found the leader Warriv wasn't, someone else stopped me. She was a redhead, with a rather narrow forehead and more height than is considered attractive. Her nose was small and sharp, her upper lip a shade too long and her mouth more than a shade too wide. Her armor fit the body she had well, and her knuckles were callused. "All right," she said, "who are you and what are you doing here? You can lie to Warriv, but you can't fool me."
Lady, if you think I fooled Warriv, you don't know him very well. "My name's Amy... well, Amanita, but that's kind of formal, isn't it?"
"We both know the Rogues are the only women's military order in the world," she went on, standing a little straighter so I had to look up to her. I obliged. "No man's army would hire a woman." She smirked, looking me up and down. "At least not as an archer."
"Yeah, I know!" I whined. "I can't get anybody to hire me. I can barely afford clothes! I need new arrows and all I got was 3 gold to hunt deer in this one town, and they even tried to get out of paying me that!"
The smirk didn't go away. She thought she knew something; I was tempted to look and see what, but that would spoil the surprise. "Can't afford clothes. Look, I can guess what your 'business' is. You'll find no customers here. All the men ran when the monastery was attacked. But know this: we Rogues are warriors. We are proud of who we are, and do not tolerate those who humiliate their own kind for the sake of a few coins."
She was over my height, maybe 20 pounds heavier. She had armor, and a sword. Anger and frustration were rippling off her mind like foam out of a boiling pot; she wouldn't need much excuse to use the sword. If anyone needed to be told where to go, it was her, but that might start something I wouldn't walk away from. "Can I talk to someone else?" I said. "I don't think we have anything to say to each other."
When she saw I wouldn't leave, Red let me talk to Akara, the Rogue priestess. Akara was an old woman who kept herself shrouded in a cloak, the hood over her face. While she didn't say anything, she was thinking the same thing Red was. There was more in her mind, but I didn't go looking. Don't look when you won't like what you're going to find.
"Warriv is correct, young girl: a great evil has overcome our monastery, and none of us know its cause. It all happened on one horrible night. Those of us who survived awoke to find ourselves being slaughtered -- by our own sisters."
"Sudden fits of madness?" I asked.
Her shriveled fingers fluttered out like dying butterflies to grip the edges of her cloak. "I fear something much more sinister. Their eyes were full of what I can only describe as evil. Other creatures had entered our monastery as well, fearsome beasts of hellish disposition and murderous intent. Most of our sisters were killed while still asleep, and I sometimes wonder if they were the lucky ones."
"No, they're not. The dead have no luck at all. Have you had any sorcerers come to your monastery recently?"
"Many have come and gone, as they always have. Our monastery is built across the only pass in this part of the mountains, and many travel this way to and from the east."
"Did any stay for any length of time?"
"None who seemed in any way unusual. The madness came without warning, and we saw nothing which aroused our suspicions."
"Then you should have been more suspicious. Merchant caravans go through your pass. Did any of them bring anything you kept in the monastery?"
"Many things, none of which were out of the ordinary." Tension edged the old woman's voice. "Young lady, every sleepless night I have meditated upon the events which led to our monastery's downfall. If a gap lay in our defenses, either physical or spiritual, I cannot see it any better now than I could before."
"That's why we need more evidence. Just before the --"
"Child, nothing happened which had not happened a thousand times before. We had many visitors, some new to us, others very familiar. If you wish to aid us, I am grateful, though I must have some assurance that I am not wasting what little time remains to me. You ask many questions, but would you be willing to risk your life on our behalf?"
"Yes," I said, happy that I didn't have to lie for once.
"There is a place of great evil near here, where our enemy is massing for an attack on this very camp. Out on the moor, the dead walk, and formerly harmless animals viciously attack any and all they see. In a cave there, you will find our enemies gathering. If you can find this cave and slay all who fill it, I will feel you can be trusted with more information."
"You have more information?"
"I may." A smile put in a reluctant appearance on her prune-like mouth. "But if I do, it is buried amongst the thousand insignificant facts of daily life. Opposing the hellish forces who have taken our monastery will demand skill and courage. If you show me you have these qualities, I will be more willing to sit for your interrogation. For now, I am afraid your manner and appearance do not inspire confidence. Now run along. I shall speak with you again when I am more able to take you seriously."
Killing a crowd of demons might be hard. They're not like mages, though that might work out in my favor. From what I've heard, they're not as smart, and don't keep as many tricks up their sleeves. But there'll be more than one of them. Sorcerers tend to be loners, so Viz-Jaaq'tar train to take down single targets. For groups, I might get away with just spreading out the hurt: keep my distance, don't let them see me, pick 'em off one by one and hope they don't try anything clever. Sounded like a good plan. But don't they all?
It was raining when I stepped into the moor... up past my ankle. Pulling my foot out made a noise like a 60-year-old streetwalker who'd forgotten to put in her teeth. So much for "move silently as shadows on the grass." I listened, but no sound came through the patter of rain. All I could see was trampled heather and stumps of the trees that gave their lives for the rickety walls behind me. There weren't even any animals to take notice of me. Perfect. I'd seen animals on my way here: ugly, twisted ones that weren't as scared of me as they should have been.
Stepping from one knot of grass to another kept me out of the mud; an old hat I found under a rock kept the rain off. I actually felt pretty good about myself before something stabbed me in the back. I whirled around -- nobody there. Another hit, in the leg. I looked down. A giant rat with spikes on its back was gnashing its teeth and flicking quills at me. It stopped after I stepped on its head. Scanning the ground, I saw a few more. Each took several arrows to kill, more than an animal the size of a rabbit should. The quills hurt a lot to pull out, too. Must be barbed; at least they weren't poisoned.
The moor was also haunted by the dead. Waterlogged corpses are great zombie material, and whoever was making them was working overtime. It didn't seem right to have walking dead just shambling around in daylight -- they needed a silvery moon shining off brackish water, with wolf howls in the background. There probably weren't any wolves left around here, and if there were, they were 8 feet long with spines and steel teeth. Another thing: almost all the zombies were women, wearing what was left of Rogue leather armor. Most were very fresh, dead for a few weeks at most.
When I had a chance, I looked over every zombie. Some had a little money, so whatever killed them wasn't interested in loot. Some still had useable armor. Mostly, I was looking for what originally killed them. Quieting them down for examination took so many arrows they wound up looking like birds, but the cause of death was usually obvious. Most were killed by blows to the torso: axe wounds in their backs or punctures by sword or spear. The angle of attack usually went upwards, and injuries to the head and shoulders were uncommon. Many were burned, but not badly enough to kill them. Very little molestation, before or after death. They died like soldiers, it looked like, and from ordinary weapons. Nice to know I wouldn't be fighting anything too exotic.
I would need a stronger weapon, though -- my bow is for killing rabbits, and any rabbit still around out here could probably take it away from me and eat it. Lucky for me this happened to the Rogues, every kind of bow I might want will be easy to find. Turns out their smith escaped with them, a girl named Charsi. Don't laugh, she's bigger than most men I've seen, including a few smiths. Every word out of her mouth bubbled over with enthusiasm, and I could tell right away that thinking didn't bother her too often. Also, she liked to talk. I like talking to people who like to talk.
"Oh, it was horrible," she was saying, "there was fire everywhere and all this screaming, I thought for sure I was going to die. I'm not a warrior -- I wish I was, but I'm no good with a bow -- so I grabbed some things and ran when Kashya told me we had to abandon the monastery. I hope you understand she's taking it really hard, so she's --"
"Don't you worry, I understand," I said, knowing she'd believe me. "Sometimes, when a war leader is defeated, she takes it out on her troops. It's no big deal."
Charsi blinked, "Oh, you knew she's the war leader?"
I've got to watch myself. "Yeah, one of the other girls told me. And she looks like a war leader, you know?"
"Oh, yeah!" she nodded. "Kashya is really impressive, just amazing. Only Blood Raven was better. She..." Charsi's smile faded, and her voice trailed off. This was a subject she'd remembered not to talk about. I was impressed.
"Blood Raven is kind of a strange name," I said innocently.
"Yeah, she was from some other country far away," Charsi said, suddenly finding the dirt by my boots intensely fascinating. Doubt filled her mind like mist -- she wasn't trying to hide the truth, she didn't know what was going on. All she knew is that she'd heard the name in connection with something bad. She kept talking as I closed my mind's eye. "I think Gheed has traveled in her country. He's been everywhere."
"He's behind you, by his wagon. Gheed is wonderful, he knows all kinds of funny stories and has seen so many amazing things. I wish I could see half of what he's seen."
Glancing over my shoulder, I found two eyes the color of fresh excrement riveted to my ass. The rest of him looked no better: expensive clothes and a fur-lined cape wrapped around an ale barrel, topped by a face that looked like a bucket of mud. There are people in this world you don't have to know to hate. Just looking across camp at him, I wanted to kick his teeth in. Violence wasn't a good idea, especially around Kashya, so I'd have to settle for a pair of pants. Finding some wouldn't be easy around the Rogues.
Charsi was still innocently rambling on about how funny and clever he was. I felt sick. I could open her eyes for her, but the thought made me feel worse. I asked for a crossbow instead, and after a few practice shots, bought it. Knowing I was packing a little power made me feel a lot better.
The crossbow worked out just fine. Cranking it up was a little slower, but watching one of the bolts punch right through a quill rat was worth the extra time. Zombies only took three or four shots to put down, if you aimed for the joints. Hits to the head or internals don't mean much with zombies. To get some practice, I explored the moor. There were a few chests and trunks lying around, probably luggage lost during the escape. Most of the stuff was useless, except for the finder's fees. All that changed when I found a sorcerer's staff in an empty house. My money worries were over. Mages enchant their personal toys so much, any stick of theirs will be worth a fortune. Akara was pleasantly surprised to see it, so she must not miss its former owner. The first thing I brought was a couple of tomes for scrolls -- that surprised her too. She was sure I'd leave once I had money.
The sun was setting when I was satisfied that the moor was empty. Moving slow and quiet, drawing no attention to myself, was all it took. Kashya wouldn't be impressed, but I didn't expect her to be -- even I know zombies aren't hard to kill. All that was left was the cave. It was small, just an opening in the side of a hillock, but it was the only one in the area. Judging from the tracks outside, a lot of creatures were in that cave. Some had human feet, which dragged as they walked. Others had small feet, with four clawed toes splaying out in front and to the sides. And then there was a single humanlike print so big both my feet fit inside it lengthwise. Good thing I brought a bigger bow.
The cave was dark, with only a few torches struggling in the stale air deeper inside. Perfect. Carefully, I moved in, eyes on the torches far ahead. A zombie or two was wandering in and out of the light, barely moving. Perfect targets. I braced against a wall to shoot... and the wall was hairy. With a snort, it turned around, and I looked up into two tiny eyes in a head that could barely be distinguished from the massive shoulders hulking on either side. Crap. Off I went, with the thing right behind me, howling enough to wake up everything in the cave before I finally managed to kill it. Crap, crap, crap. So much for stealth. The zombies were coming, and a few midget-like creatures with torches.
The zombies were easy kills, like usual. The midgets were short little devil guys, with horns, barbed tails, and attitude. I didn't like their attitude, and let them know it. After reviewing my forceful arguments, they bowed to reason and changed their ways, becoming much easier to get along with. I did have a problem with their leaders, though -- slightly bigger midgets who undid all my subtle persuasions by raising the little bastards from the dead. The obvious solution was to address the leader in person, the same way you'd deal with a Necromancer with a lot of raised skeletons. Getting through to him took persistence, so much so that I had to change arguments and employ a pair of katar, but once the leader saw the light of reason, the rest changed their minds and became much more accommodating.
Clearing the rest of the cave went the same way. I'd rather they never knew I was there, but a strong attack isn't a bad option. After a few Bigfoots almost got close enough to hit me, I bought myself a pot helm. It's ugly, but the most important part I have is my brain. As for my other parts... the Rogues still aren't stocking pants, so I meet Charsi on the other side of her little smithing table. The leader of the cave forces, around whom all the others gathered, was a zombie, which told me a lot about how well they were organized. Super-zombie wasn't any harder to kill, he just took longer. Mentally alerting each of his friends in turn, I'd lure them away and put them down, until he was alone. He never noticed. Even when he did see me, a few psychic blows made him reel so much he immediately forgot.
When I went to see Akara, I never got a word out of my mouth. She greeted me right away with, "Well done, my child. You have cleansed that den of evil, and earned my trust. I hope you will forgive us for anything we said or implied."
"Thank you, Akara," I said, wondering how she could know already. She wasn't reading my thoughts. Did she have someone follow me in that cave? Could one of these Rogues outdo a Viz-Jaq'taar in stealth? All right, so I'm not exactly stellar in that department... "You had no reason to trust me."
"Perhaps not, but that is not why I was so brusque. Much of my faith in humanity was lost when our monastery fell, but I feel finding someone to trust has helped restore it. You could easily have fled this cursed place with your new wealth, but did not. I now feel I can share with you my thoughts and suspicions."
I nodded, mind still whirling. "Whatever you're willing to share, Lady Akara."
"Thank you, Amy, if I may call you that. My belief is that our sisters have been possessed by demons, brought back to this place by one of our order, Blood Raven. Perhaps you have heard the name?"
There wasn't a trace of irony in her voice. However she got her information, she didn't know everything. "I think so..."
"Blood Raven was our greatest archer, famous for her skill. When evil struck the town of Tristram, she led many of our sisters there to combat it."
I nodded. "I'd heard of Tristram. Farming town by the Hool river, yes?"
"Yes. Until a short while ago, that is all anyone knew or cared of it. Now it is clear that a dark secret lay hidden there. When I heard of demons roaming the land near Tristram, I sent Blood Raven to save the town and enhance our order's reputation."
"You didn't send Kashya?"
"No," the old woman's voice dropped. "I thought Blood Raven the superior choice."
Ouch. I'll bet Kashya didn't take that well. "Go on."
"Blood Raven returned with but a fraction of her cohort. They told tales of a town nearly destroyed, with an unspeakable evil festering beneath the surface. This nameless evil had led to the downfall of kings and valiant knights alike. The town's cathedral was overrun by demons, and their bishop had vanished down below the catacombs."
"This town had its own bishop? I thought it was a little place."
"The archbishop of Khanduras, no less. I do not know why he chose Tristram as his seat. The important matter is that after their return, Blood Raven and the others behaved oddly, and were stricken with nightmares. The Eye of the Goddess saw nothing more in them than memories of the many horrors they encountered while attempting to cleanse Tristram, so I assumed that all they required was time to heal their troubled minds. It appears that I was very, very wrong. Blood Raven's cohort, and all those who worked closely with them, are the ones who rose against us that terrible night."
"With madness in their eyes."
"As you have said. Now our sisters roam the land killing and destroying all they once built and cherished, side by side with hellish creatures. According to our scouts, our once-proud monastery is defiled in the worst way, full of demons and corruption. And Blood Raven has been seen again."
"Where? Doing what?" I asked.
The old woman continued, ignoring me. "Her form had been altered severely, so that she seems more beast than human."
"I understand that. Where was she, and what was she doing?"
"I am sorry. This weighs heavily on me. Perhaps Kashya can best explain; she has seen with her own eyes the horror that Blood Raven has become."
Kashya was standing by the bonfire, tense and angry. Like normal, in other words. Believe it or not, I was looking forward to this. Akara came pretty close to apologizing, but I wanted to hear those three little words "I am sorry" out of Kashya's mouth even more. It would be funny if they made her choke. Didn't happen, though. She took one look at me, and thought clear as day: *Oh, look. Oiled black leather. Figures.* Yeah, I blackened the leather. Black is harder to see and goes with everything I own. And I oiled it. That's what you do in wet weather. There's just no pleasing some people.
"Hi there," I said sweetly. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Depends on what it is," she grumbled.
"No, whether or not you answer depends on what it is," I corrected her. She bristled, but I ignored it: "Lady Akara has confided in me. She thinks someone named Blood Raven was involved with the fall of your monastery."
She snorted. "Old news. She was at the center of it." Sadness flashed across her face. She tried to hide it by looking down into the fire, giving me an unprecedented view of the top of her head. "I have no idea why."
"I'll ask her myself later. I've heard she's still around."
"She's in our graveyard." Waves of anger suddenly radiated from her. "She's violating holy ground and raising our own order's dead against us. The Sightless Eye has been our path for centuries. She's thrown all that away, and given herself to our greatest enemy!"
"Your greatest enemy?" I asked, nonchalantly as I could.
She glared at me. "No one has ever taken our monastery from us before. A lot of men have tried. We are warriors in a world that wants us to be cooks, or wives, or..." After a look that should have been sticking out between my shoulder blades, she said, "I don't know who Blood Raven's new master is, if that's what you're asking. But whoever it is likes humiliating women. Go look at her, and our other sisters. You'll see."
Maybe I shouldn't have, but I felt like pushing her buttons. "You're sure I'll share your opinion?"
"It's not an opinion. The graveyard is on the east side of the pass, past the church. Try not to let her kill you."
I smiled. "Gosh, I didn't know you cared."
"I don't. I don't want any more zombies around."
The moors were empty and silent. A lone Rogue stood guard by a fence. Beyond was no-woman's-land, if you believed Kashya. The first thing I found was a waypoint. Good. The old Horadrim made those things for quick travel, everywhere they went. Anyone could use one, unlike most sorcerer toys. Having one handy could save a lot of walking.
The ground got higher and rockier as I moved up the pass. There were more trees to hide behind, and less mud to get stuck in. If my luck was good, I'd never have to sneak through a swamp again. As I made my way through the thick grass, I found an enemy camp: hordes of demon midgets wandered around a small clearing. They milled around idly and chattered in their own language, obviously waiting with nothing to do. It could have been any military camp away from the action if there weren't so many human bones lying around. The skulls on poles were a definite giveaway. Since their leaders raise them from the dead...
My first shot missed. The boss demonling bent down to bite off a flower his followers had somehow missed, so the bolt sailed over his head and killed another one. They all stood there, blinking stupidly, long enough that I made my second shot perfect. Something else raised the leader, ruining one of my better kills. A bigger leader with green skin pointed me out from the far side of the camp, and the whole bunch took off after me.
It could have been bad if they weren't such chickens. Putting a bolt through one sent the rest squealing for their mommies, if demons even have mommies. But they always came back, snarling and shaking their little clubs and knives, even the last one, who should have known better. The leaders wouldn't leave camp. Maybe they were too smart to stray far from daddy, they didn't gang up on me when I jumped in to kill him by hand. Who knows? Maybe they didn't mind so much.
The camp was pretty sad. The only structure was the last corner of a stone building (the demons probably destroyed it themselves) with an untanned hide stretched over it, held with a few pegs. Some human things were ground into the mud: torn cloth, kitchen stuff, random coins, and an identification scroll. No clues about anything important.
While I was searching the camp, Rogues attacked me. Not like Kashya wanted to -- these were working with the enemy. I couldn't see why either. I'm not sure if you could call them "humiliated" so much... more like degraded. For one thing, they couldn't talk. They moved by half-crawling, hunched down near the ground like animals. When they came at me, they attacked with their teeth, which had gotten long and sharp -- one even had horns growing out of her head. The weirdest thing is that they were all wearing g-strings, and that's about all. Maybe I'm going out on a limb here, but I don't think panties that slip up your crack are standard issue among the Rogues. I don't have many body consciousness issues myself, but I had to admit, Kashya had a point. These women were not wearing butt floss because they thought they looked good in it, even the ones that did. Gheed would have liked looking at them, from a safe distance. I didn't have distance, so I had to kill them. As each died, an angry spirit like an animal with horns and huge teeth left her body.
There were a few more possessed Rogues, and some Bigfeet. A few times, I tried knocking whatever spirit was in the Rogues out, but it never worked. They'd wormed their way in too deep for a minor mentalist to pry 'em out. Mostly, the plains were full of whining midgets. It got to the point where I just got tired of looking at them, even to take aim. I haven't seen anything that needed to be put out of its misery that much since I was a kid and had to spend a week feeding our neighbor's spaniel. The dog was completely deaf, mostly blind, and had arthritis so bad he dragged both hind legs, but dear old Mrs. Fluffynutty couldn't bear to have the little bastard put down no matter how much he begged.
A burning mess near one side of the pass must have been the church. There was a tall part that might have been a steeple, and one of the dead guys outside looked like a priest. He was a he, surprisingly enough. I borrowed his studded leather jerkin, and his pants. They were the only pants I'd seen in the whole damn pass, and I'm sure a priest wouldn't want me wandering around being humiliated all day.
There was a cave on the other side of the pass. I like dark places, and I could always use the practice sneaking around. If Blood Raven was raising the dead, the cave was where she was storing them. Everywhere there were zombies, some so old all the flesh was gone and they were nothing but bones. The toughest took enough bolts to hold up a pavilion. At the rear of the cave, a single group of possessed Rogues was hiding out. These dear ladies still had their thigh-high boots, and kept enough of their minds to use weapons -- not very well, but it's the thought that counts. One of the funniest things I found in the cave was an enchanted club someone had named "Corpse Splitter." It had heavy anti-undead magic in it, so the "corpse" part fit, but who would name a club "splitter"?
Charsi noticed my new outfit. "Oh. I think that vest used to be brother Mensel's."
"When I found him, he wasn't in pain any anymore," I said. "If it bothers you, I'll not wear it." Most people, when you offer to do something that spares their feelings, think they're at fault for being upset. Pretending to care lets you get away with a lot.
"No, no, that's all right," she said, still looking sad. "Almost everything we have belonged to someone who's dead now. Why'd you dye it black?"
Good girl. "It's the color of mourning and sadness. Burning churches, you know."
"Oh, I'm sorry," she said, eyes wide. "I didn't know you were upset. It's really hard to tell what you're feeling. Before, I wondered if you cared about anything."
It shouldn't have, but that stung. Probably because I knew she meant it. This girl was as open as a window on a sunny spring day. Nobody in the Viz-Jaq'taar ever left themselves like that. "Uh, yeah. I was surprised to see he was a he. I thought this monastery was for women only."
"Oh, he wasn't in the monastery, he ran the visitor's church in the pass. Outsiders didn't come to services in the cathedral. They used to, but some of them got kind of upset about Lady Akara's sermons."
"Yeah, sermons can get to me, too. There are a lot of little shrines around there too."
"Yeah, they've been there since, like, forever. I think they're from some old religion."
"Ah." That's the problem with Charsi... she was more than willing to talk, but didn't have much important to say. "Say, where'd you get your pants?"
"I made 'em... I needed something to protect my legs from the sparks."
"Good idea. Well, thanks for everything."
Eventually, got back to the graveyard. Maybe I should have been faster, there were a lot more zombies waiting for me. They move pretty slow, so I had lots of time to look the place over. The graveyard fence was wrought iron, stylish but expensive. The gateposts were decorated with female nudes, an odd choice for a graveyard. Looks like the Sightless Eye has no objection to displays of the female form. Not too surprising: even Kashya shows enough thigh to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. Still... it was different with the possessed Rogues. These stone maidens weren't degraded, and I could not tell you why they were not -- any more than I could tell you how a leer from one greasy lech got me to put on a pair of pants.
One thing the Viz-Jaq'taar taught me is: never to go in the front door. The graveyard fence had fallen in several places, so entry was easy. A weeping willow tree grew in the center of the yard, a very sentimental image spoiled by the fresh corpses hanging in its branches. The headstones were too small to hide behind, but it didn't matter anyway: the zombies saw me as soon as I poked my head up. As a flaming arrow arced over their heads, something that wasn't human anymore rasped, "Join my army of the dead!" I made sure I wouldn't be where that arrow landed, and at my leisure, scampered like hell around the tree for a clear shot.
Blood Raven was dead white and puffy, with dark rings around her eyes. At first I thought she looked bruised, until I saw the swollen flesh had bone under it, like her whole skeleton was changing shape. Her hair was all gone; she had two bony horns up there instead. Other parts of her looked as good as ever... maybe better. If someone was changing her body, he didn't like women at all, but had definite ideas about what he wanted a woman to be. One thing he wanted Blood Raven to be was fast. She dodged like a wasp away from my first shot, and my second, and third. I had more trouble avoiding her shots; the crowd of zombies staggering around the yard didn't help any either.
We traded a few dozen shots. She was a lot more generous than I was, and those damn burning arrows hurt. I got her once. She didn't stop to tell me if it hurt. The crossbow was getting me nowhere fast -- she was better than me. If I was going to win, I'd have to make the fight mine, doing something I was better at. That meant blades. I hid behind a crypt to change weapons, and Blood Raven was angry or bloodthirsty enough to come in after me. I wanted to take her alive, she had some talking to do. But even at close range, with no zombies to hide behind, she was too dangerous. In the end, I had no choice -- it was her or me. I nailed the b!tch to the crypt wall. The spirit in her took a long time to blast its way out, almost destroying her body. Its zombies dropped like sacks of mud. She'd been hostess to something big, but not anymore. When I kill something, it stays dead.
Looking around, I was surprised at how many corpses were scattered around. You expect them to stay where they are once they're six feet under. I guess demons don't care what's hallowed or not. There's a lot of argument among the Viz-Jaq'taar about whether a priest is just another kind of mage, and if they're using is the same magic sorcerers do. Personally, I think priests don't do magic themselves, they appeal to a spirit to do their thing for them. A priest doesn't have to know anything, and most don't, they just have faith. In a lot of ways, that makes them more dangerous than sorcerers. Demons can claim to be benevolent spirits, and a faithful, naive priest would never know the difference.
Even with Blood Raven dead, I had to make sure everything in the graveyard was properly disposed of. Enough zombies were left that I was sure I'd be seeing a lot more of them in the future. In one of the mausolea, some force made a pentagram of fire that I couldn't put out. Whoever's doing all this doesn't care who knows it, that's for sure. The Rogues also left a lot of barrels in the crypts. Some exploded when cracked open, an old trick meant to catch grave robbers. All it does is encourage them to avoid barrels.
Meanwhile, back in camp, Kashya's attitude had lightened a bit. "I can hardly believe you've defeated Blood Raven!"
It makes me uncomfortable how the Rogues know what's up before I tell them. If they've got scouts trailing me, I have never spotted them. "Yeah, but I never got her to talk. She was too good. I had to put her down hard."
"But... but you defeated her!"
"When I didn't want to. I wasn't good enough." Then I saw what was really on Kashya's mind. "She was a better archer than me. I had to trick her, and it was a trick that left me no leeway. The only thing I could do was kill her."
She nodded, more satisfied now. She could still be better than me, in her mind. "She used to be my greatest friend. I couldn't understand how she could make the choice she did."
"She didn't make a choice, it was made for her. Now, I have to go."
"What? Where are you going?"
"Akara told me Blood Raven went to a town called Tristram. I think whatever she had, she brought back from there, so that's where I'm going next. We don't have any agents in that part of the world."
Kashya blinked in confusion. "We?"
"The Viz-Jaq'taar. Ask Akara, she's probably heard of us."
I was almost out of the camp before she called out, "Why don't you go the quick way?"
From what I remembered of Khanduras, Tristram was a tiny town at least a week's journey from the Rogue Pass. You could probably walk right past it if you didn't know where it was. If I had to go, a quick way there was worth investigating. I came back. "Quick way?"
"Yes," Kashya nodded, staring curiously at me. "The quick way. The one Blood Raven and the others used. You're not going to walk there, are you?"
"Don't tell me, let me guess," I said, ignoring her question. "This insignificant town not only has its own bishop, it has its own Horadric waypoint."
"No. They used the old gate out on the stony field. It's a ring of five stones. Touch them in the right order, and a portal opens that takes you there."
That would be better. "Where is this gate?"
"In the stony field just north of the graveyard. Can't miss it."
"Good. What order do I touch the stones in?"
Kashya frowned. "I never got to use them. Akara knows."
"Good. Looks like we both have something to ask her."
"Ah yes, the old gate: a ring of stones in what is now a lonely field. It existed before our monastery was built, and may stand even after all signs of us are gone." Akara's wrinkled lips curled up into a faint smile. "Though I certainly hope not. The gate stones are enchanted to create portals to several locations, depending on the order in which they are activated. These were obviously important places for those who built the circle, though much time has passed and for many of them, nothing now remains. Tristram may be reached by the gate... but I am at a loss to recall its specific code."
"Try to remember," I said.
"All the codes were recorded in my personal library, in the annals of our order. Tristram's code would be used only infrequently, and was written down close at hand; I saw no purpose in committing it to memory. Though all is not yet lost."
I smiled. "Of course not. I'll just fight my way into your personal library. While I'm in the neighborhood, I might as well find out who took over the monastery and get rid of him. Don't worry, it isn't too much of a bother."
"Hush, child. It will be much simpler than that. Further up the pass, an ancient tree of prodigious size stands in a dark wood. Travelers were accustomed to leave messages there, and many of the gate's codes were carved into its bark."
"The wood is some distance from here, but an underground passage you will find near the gate should afford you a much shorter journey."
"It just gets better and better," I laughed. "Do I get a porter to carry my luggage, too?"
"Sadly, no. There is little more I can offer you but my fond wishes that you will find what you need in Tristram."
No "come back and see us again" or "good luck staying alive." Guess I didn't make a good impression. When I left, Kashya got her chance at Akara. I hid behind a tent and listened. I'm as curious as the next person about what people say behind my back.
"Luggage?" Kashya started off, louder than she should have. "She came here with nothing but black leather boots and a thong, what luggage?"
"Calm yourself, it was only an attempt at humor. She is a capable warrior, and I will not speculate on her choice in apparel, though I also wondered at it."
"At least. Akara, what are the Viz-Jaq'taar? She said she was one."
The old woman went silent. When her voice crept back like someone being summoned to an angry boss's office, it was too quiet for me to hear.
The Viz-Jaq'taar, the Order of Mage Slayers, also known as the Society of Assassins. We make people nervous, even ones who aren't sorcerers. When you think about it, that's not too surprising. We're a secretive order -- we have to be. Our quarry is among the most dangerous in the world, and the less they know about what's coming, the better. A society with a good cause shouldn't have reason to hide, most people think, so they don't like secret societies, especially ones dedicated to killing. The only reason I told Kashya is because I didn't think I'd be seeing her again. Maybe killing the enemy and vanishing into the sunset would even help our reputation a little.
Kashya and Akara were talking in low tones. It looked like they were going to try to keep it quiet, so in this tightly-packed camp, everyone would know before I got back from my next run. No point sticking around, then. I'd know how they took it soon enough.
I was on my way to the waypoint when a new guy stopped me. He was skinny and pale, with lank white hair and the fullest pack I've ever seen in my life. "Howdy doo!" he almost yelled. "Somebody called for a porter?"
Oh, great, he thinks he's funny too. "Hi there. Sorry, all I need to carry are some old boots and a thong. Who'd you say you were?"
"I'm The Mule, your gorgeousness! Love the pants, but wish you'd stuck with the thong. Here, take this, you'll be needing it!" From somewhere in the pile on his back, he handed me a crossbow with a steel bow and a stock made out of two twisted iron rods. "That there is Leadcrow! I'll be back later with some other things."
All I could think to do was blink stupidly at the crossbow. I'm not usually like that. By the time I was satisfied that it was indeed a crossbow, he was gone. I never even got the chance to scan him. The bow looked fine, with no residual demonic vibrations. Its power was obvious... it looked very strong.
Following the land upwards, I quickly found the gate stones. Just like Kashya said, there were five of them, in a little ring of five with another stone a short distance away, like the stem on a flower. They were taller than me by a lot, but I'm used to things going over my head. When I got closer, a small group of demons came out from behind them. Instead of red, they were baby blue. Did they know what I was coming for, or were the stones just a good place to hide? Whichever, it didn't save them. The new crossbow was spectacular, I felt stronger just holding it. Good thing, too -- one of the little bastards zapped me with lightning before he died. I was glad to keep him far away.
The more powerful crossbow made things a lot easier. There were more little devils -- normal red ones and a few baby-blues -- but a lot more skeletons and some big goat demons. Once it has rotted down to a skeleton, killing a zombie with a bow is difficult. You have to hit the joints and other weak places until it falls apart. A club would do a better job, but these ones had bows they weren't very good with. I was actually safer at a distance, a rare thing with archers. The goat guys were persistent, and took a lot of shots to kill. Aiming for the knees didn't work nearly as well as you'd think, with their funny-looking legs.
The field was big and wide open, without a lot of places to hide. The trees were all burned down, and the grass trampled flat. A lot of times I found myself running halfway back to the Rogue camp with a crowd of goats behind me, trying to snipe them down to size. Still, it wasn't big enough that there should be another Horadric waypoint there. I know they built them all over, but I couldn't see any reason to have two so close together. Maybe this was a more important place a long time ago. I found several primitive-looking headdresses made of animal skins, which I doubt anyone had worn for a long time, and a woodsy magic-type charm that rattled with beads made of animal bones. At least, I hope they were animal.
Every once in a while, I came across a cloud of predatory birds, flapping around in a flock like predatory birds aren't supposed to do. They also lived in nests, masses of who-knows-what held together with phlegm and evil thoughts. Even if they didn't attack me, I probably would have killed them just for being unnatural. Nowhere was there any sign of who or what lay at the root of this. I did find a moldy old book in a ruined house, but it was just local history about some neglected murderess. These demons weren't the kinds mages usually summon, so I didn't know much about them.
Back in camp, I could see word had gotten out. Everyone stared when my back was turned, and no one would look at my face. Warriv got really interested in stocking the fire. Gheed was hiding under his wagon, showing that every cloud has a silver lining. Charsi wouldn't talk at all, she just fixed my stuff and mumbled only what she had to. It bothered me more than it should have, like I'd stomped on a butterfly or something.
It took me a long time to find the underground passage Akara mentioned -- it was near the gate stones, and I'd decided to look everywhere else first. These caves were just like the others, full of demons and zombies and everything else that hates the light. The entrance was guarded by a group of high-quality skeletons with bows. They were actually better archers than me, so I fell back into the shadows, dropped the bow, and charged when they came close. Archers hate it when you do that.
The passage twisted back and forth for what felt like miles, with lots of dead ends and loops to get lost in. I would up leaving bodies in certain places to mark my way. I also found my first clue about the demons, when I was attacked by a pack of Misshapen, recognizable by their huge heads and bent, crippled bodies. Lightning runs in their veins, so lightning sorcerers like them and use them either as guardians or a source of raw materials. To get them, you have to bargain with demons of despair, pain, or the upper air.
A few groups of little demons had shacked up in the back corners or the cave. There were a lot of dead Rogues in there too, probably killed trying to cover their retreat. Every pack had one or two dead Rogues on the fire. All right, maybe they are more dangerous than a half-dead spaniel. Either that, or in the tight passages, the demons couldn't run away to escape combat, and fought harder. I was alone with no one to protect, so it was easy for me to lure them away from their leaders and pick them off from hiding. On a lower level, I found some possessed Rogues. These ones hadn't changed as much physically, and still had their hair. One even had a bow, though she tried use it like a club.
By the time I found the other end of the passage, it was dark. The shapes of trees loomed black on every side, throwing deep shadows everywhere. I could already tell I was going to like this place. Faint in the distance, a few feeble torches and the baby-blue backsides of a legion of demonlings introduced me to my next set of targets.
Blue demons are tougher than red ones. Maybe the color is supposed to be lightning blue or icy blue and look scary, but it doesn't work at all. The camp was big, with several leaders and a couple dozen possessed Rogues. These girls had their hair and no bows, but used spears to charge in a phalanx. Knocking them around psychically almost wore me out. In the end, I ran. Chasing me gave them a little exercise, until they got tired and lay down.
As a personal challenge, I tried making my way through the camp by hand, dousing torches as I went. A few times, I could sneak right past a whole group of baby-blues and cut their leader's throat before he even knew I was there. Darkness isn't always an enemy. The little guys really worked themselves up trying to find me, sometimes to kill me, other times to know where to run away from. Once the leaders were dead, target practice began. They never ran as fast or as far as the red guys, though. One or two almost took a piece of me home with them.
On the other side of the now-dark camp, I was moving into some trees, when the "trees" suddenly moved. Darkness isn't always your friend, either. It was a group of Bigfeet, led by one with fists the size and consistency of maul heads. Pushing them back took everything I had. I ran, I hid, I even tried to fool them with the body of a dead Rogue, nothing worked. Finally, I stopped concentrating on the big guy (I couldn't make any progress in his head anyway) and started picking off his buddies. That worked better, so I led them in a circle around the demonling camp, whittling them down. With the big guy, I had to use my katar. I wasn't carrying enough bolts to kill him.
Deeper in the woods, I found a tree. You'd expect that, but this one was different: it shone in the darkness with a quiet, silvery light. The glow would be invisible by day, but in the dark I could actually see my hand against the trunk. Scars and carvings made outlined shadows on the trunk, like tattoos or some other violation of the body. Several nearby places had gate codes carved into the tree, but I found the one I wanted quick enough: downwards drop, one, zero, upwards drop, two. Another waypoint had been built right next to the tree. Maybe I should have expected that.
Getting back to the gate took less than a minute. Waypoints are the only way to travel. As I hit Tristram's code, the stones lit up, and started spitting lightning and arcs of electricity when the code was complete. If these old rocks weren't working right anymore, I was going to be pissed. Finally, after too much time sputtering and sparking to reassure me, a portal appeared, an old-fashioned red one.
Most of the time with portals, you don't notice a time gap. You step and you're there. This portal had a gap, tiny but noticeable. Was it really that big a distance? Or was the gate malfunctioning? I'd better make this quick. I was outside a town, clearly visible because every building was a burning ruin. Dead cows floated in the nearby stream, bloated bodies stiff and swollen. From the town square, I could hear demonic chanting and howling, and what sounded like one man, screaming for his life.
The town was a loss. I couldn't see many dead bodies, at least not lying on the ground. Walking skeletons were another matter: they were everywhere, along with goat demons and little black demonlings. Hopefully, the black guys wouldn't be too much tougher than baby-blues. Hanging over the square's central fountain was an iron cage, with an old man tugging impotently at the bars. Demonlings were trying to get the fountain to boil by piling burning wood around it. The smoke would probably dry the old man into jerky before that happened, but I felt like doing my good deed for the day anyway. A bolt through their leader's neck announced my presence.
They came out to find me in groups. The goats were by far the worst -- I would swear they could see in the dark. More than once, they cornered me, and I had to pull out the katar and take whatever hits they dished out. These skeletons were excellent archers when they saw me, which was too often for my tastes. The demonlings were easy enough, but I've had lots of practice killing them. Skirting around the burning town, staying in the shadows and alive, must have taken over an hour. On the western edge of town, the fattest zombie in the world stood guard. Maybe they expected an attack from that direction.
When I finally worked up enough guts to poke my head into the town square, it was quiet and dark. The fires around the fountain had died, but I could hear the old man whimpering. Nobody was in the buildings. Nothing was in the fields. Everything was dead, except us.
"Hello," I said. "Don't be afraid."
"I can't see you!" the old man cried. "Where are you?"
"I'm right here," I said, stepping in front of a burning building. "They're all dead. Let me get you down from there."
The old man was hunched and filthy, wearing a blue robe that might be older than me. He also had the most amazing set of thick, bushy eyebrows. He was lucky they hadn't caught fire and burned his face off. "Have you come to rescue me?" he asked.
"Well, I did," I smiled, getting my water flask. What was left in the fountain had too much demon in it to give to anyone. "My name is Amy. This is Tristram, isn't it?"
"Not long ago, it was," he sniveled. "Now, Diablo's fury has left nothing but ashes!"
The air turned cold, or maybe it was just me. "Diablo? Of The Three?"
"Yes, Diablo, the Lord of Terror! Long ago, Diablo was slain here, and his spirit imprisoned deep within the earth. When the land began to grow corrupt, I feared he had broken from his prison, and now I am sure of it! Terror walks the land again!"
"Where did he go?" I asked. "What's he going to do?"
"Not long ago, when our king went mad and was slain by his own knights, I suspected a foul influence had laid claim to his soul. As matters worsened, many traveling adventurers came to Tristram, seeking to combat the evil that was rising up from --"
"Yeah, yeah, what about Diablo? Is he here?"
"When a great hero went further than any other had dared go, and came back claiming to have vanquished the great demon, I thought all would be well again. Little did I know that was only the beginning of our suffering!"
"Wait, Diablo's dead?"
"Diablo's spirit cannot be vanquished by steel or spells. Like all greater demonkind, he is eternal and can only be dispelled, never destroyed. Our celebrations were misguided, and now I see that the hero who slew him was only a pawn in his scheme."
"What scheme!?" Would this old fart ever get to the point?
"Shortly after he slew Diablo, our hero began to behave oddly..."
Crap. "Sudden fits of madness?"
"Yes! And terrible dreams, from which he always awoke screaming. I thought the trials he had faced had been too much for him, and that --"
"He'd get better with time, right. What happened to him?"
"Always in his dreams, he shouted about 'the east.' I am not sure what that means, but it is known that Diablo's brother demon, Baal, Lord of Destruction, was buried in a hidden tomb far away in the mystical east. I believe Diablo's spirit is guiding our hero there."
"Okay, the east. That's the desert of... um..."
"The burning sands of Aranoch, full of tombs and mysteries. It seems to me that while in possession of our hero, Diablo must travel as men do. The easiest path to take through the mountains to the east is via the Rogue Monastery, north of here. I must go there and warn them of the dark wanderer who must not be allowed to pass through into Aranoch!"
I heard a thump. I think it was my heart, hitting the sole of my left boot. "It's a little late for that. I have a portal to the Rogue pass, let's get you out of here. It doesn't look like he left anything else for me to find here anyway."
Back at the Rogue camp, I got the whole story. The old guy turned out to be Deckard Cain, a noncombatant Horadrim, probably the last person they ever recruited, now one of the most famous sages in the post-Horadrim world. Even I'd heard of him. He didn't bother to explain what he was doing in a cow town in the middle of nowhere, and I didn't ask. His story about Diablo was more interesting.
Back in the Sin War, the Three Brothers were hunted down by the Horadrim and imprisoned in crystals called Soulstones. In a mysterious coincidence, each Soulstone was damaged during combat with the demon it was meant for, but the Horadrim used them anyway. Burying the damaged stones seemed like the best way to keep them safe. Mephisto was caught first and buried in Kurast. Baal was somewhere in Aranoch. Diablo made it furthest west, and wound up under Tristram.
Lately, things had been going wrong for the people of Tristram. Their king went mad. His knights killed him. The knights charged into the cathedral and disappeared. The new young prince disappeared. The bishop acting as regent disappeared. A lot more people disappeared. The king rose as a super-zombie. Other dead people started rising. Demons appeared, and the slaughter began. Cain began to suspect that something might be amiss.
Since the local army was gone, the call to arms went out. Local mercenaries heard; there hadn't been a serious war in the area for months, so most of them were pretty strapped and willing to work for loot. The Rogues heard, and sent a contingent of archers. I remember that my order heard too, but this didn't seem to involve corrupted sorcerers, and unlike the Rogues, we're not interested in charity work.
A lot of fighters went down into Tristram's catacombs. Some came back up and ran away as fast as they could. One made it all the way down to Diablo and apparently took on the big red cheese single-handed. Took more guts than I have, but he did it, and every surviving citizen got together for the celebration. All 6 of them. Afterwards, their hero started acting funny, packed his bags, and shuffled off to the east. Right at sunset the evening before I got there, demons came out of the cathedral and destroyed the town. Only the blacksmith put up a fight; everyone else was dinner. Cain was last because he looked stringiest; they decided he would be better as soup than a roast, and were putting on the kettle when I came along.
There was more: wondering about what happened to the hero, ideas about possession, dire warnings for the future. I didn't listen much. Diablo, a demon prince. No way could I handle something like that on my own. Before I begged off and went to bed, Akara gave me a ring to thank me for saving Cain. Does this mean we're engaged? I've never been into May-December relationships.
Once I was alone, I disconnected and
went out to the world I need help! We're here We hear I've found trouble in the west I've found trouble in the east The madness fits We hear The madness comes from Diablo! Baal! Mephisto! No! Listen! You listen! You listen! You listen! The desert has a shadow creeping From the slaughtered towns west evil fouled water rises evil is terror everywhere and nowhere somewhere we Kurast is don't all darkness know where I'm in Lut Gholein something has come I'm in Kingsport Is anyone there's nothing here in Kurast? Kurast is all darkness I'm in the Rogue Pass Diablo came through here He is going east He'll come here! I'll go to Kurast Is he already there? Someone has to He must be here. I'm undercover in a harem Sounds fun Shut up! More fun than I'm having Stop laughing! This is serious What are we going to do? The Rogue Pass is blocked I can't get through What's blocking it? Can't be Diablo He left demons behind We have to Maybe I can clear them get together I'm going to Aranoch I'm sitting on my ass here What about Kurast? The Three are in Kurast, Aranoch, and Westmarch Check off Westmarch Kurast too Stop them in Aranoch I'll bet anything Get together and stop them in Aranoch I can't get there in time! I can't get there in time! If we can't stop Diablo in Aranoch, He will go to Kurast. I'm going! I'll get through I'll go to Aranoch I'm going Don't try anything by yourself! I'll watch him until you get here I'll go to Kurast I'm already packing I need to sleep Me too Me too Me too Me too Me too Me too
Kashya woke me. The sun was already up. "Who were you talking to?"
"What?" I croaked. Mornings aren't my best time anyway.
"You were muttering all night."
"Oh. I talk in my sleep. I hope I'm not possessed."
Kashya didn't smile. "If you are, I'll have to kill you."
"Sorry, bad joke. It's been on my mind. I mean... how could I tell?"
"We can't. It's been on my mind a long time. You and Cain were both in Tristram. But I can't kill you just for that."
"That's sweet of you, Kashya. If you start acting weird, do I have your permission to kill you too?"
The response was so abrupt, I looked her in the face. Her eyes were hard as granite. "What? You're the one who kills people for a living. You'd know it has to be done."
"I kill bad people, Kashya. There's a difference."
She shrugged. "I don't think you'd have a hard time doing it. I know you don't like me."
"No. You don't like me. I'm just responding to that. If you stop not liking me, I'll stop responding."
"You know why I don't like you?"
"Because you think I'm a whore and a slut and I degrade women just by existing."
"No. I don't like you because you're a parasite. That outfit you had explained everything I need to know about you. You use your body to manipulate men and get what you want out of them. I hate women who do that!" Words started coming faster, a well-rehearsed torrent of righteousness. "Do you have any idea what it's like to be part of a group, dedicated to a great cause? We Rogues build things, make our own destiny! We can stand on our own feet and look men in the eye! Women get more respect because of us! The world is a better place because of us! What do you do? Show cleavage to get what you want! Hell yes, it degrades women! Men look at you and think women are toys! Is that what you want?"
I took my time mulling over that. It gave Kashya time to catch her breath. When she was ready, I replied, "You know, I think you may be half right."
Good thing she wasn't possessed. That glare might've lit me on fire. "What, have you suddenly lost your taste for leather?"
"No. In the first place, most men aren't that stupid. I know, I've talked to some recently. In the second place, men aren't the enemy. This may sound strange, but most men only want to get along, and maybe get away with some stuff they shouldn't. But you're right, I use my body to get what I want. You know what?"
Kashya frowned. "What?"
"The skimpy outfit is easier to move in. Most of the time, that's the only difference. Even some guys are offended by it, or at least act that way in front of their wives. Other times, it does make a difference. My targets are sorcerers who made bargains with demons. These guys are proud enough to think demons aren't dangerous to them. A dumb girl showing lots of skin can't possibly be a threat; they always underestimate me. So, yes... I use my body and act like a dumb toy to get what I want. Most guys won't fall for it. The ones that do... the world's a better place without them anyway."
Kashya chewed on that for a while. I got my armor on. "You've met men who think your outfit is insulting to women?"
"Some of them, yeah."
Her look reminded me of a cat who'd finally caught an exasperatingly quick mouse. "Then why do you wear it?"
I grinned. "To see who gets offended. I'm not wearing it anymore. The present enemy doesn't care about my body, except how it might taste. You know, I'm kind of surprised you were so offended. I can see your order doesn't exactly mind less than full coverage."
"We are archers. We need freedom of movement. Not easy access."
"If you knew me," I said as I got my helmet buckled, "'easy access' is not the phrase you'd think of. Just accept that you don't know me. Now: I have to get through your pass to the other side. Which way do I go?"
A slow burn rippled the air around Kashya, but she responded in a business-like way. "The only way is through the monastery. You can try to climb the mountains, but they're a lot harder and as full of demons as the pass."
"Then that's where I'm going. Be seeing you."
Having a waypoint so conveniently near my kick-off point made getting back into the action a lot quicker. Using it was my first mistake of the day. There's a saying: "Never go in by the front door." My welcoming committee was a half-dozen Rogues with spears, led by a bull of a woman with a mustache Warriv would envy. Possessed Rogues don't have the discipline of human ones, and waypoints take you places fast, so they weren't ready when I arrived. I decided I could take them, and ran for cover in the trees. That was my second mistake. If I'd been thinking, I'd have gone out the way I came in and gone around the long way, giving them a few hours to forget about me. Cocky decisions get you killed. Turns out a pack of Bigfeet were in the woods, probably hunting for breakfast.
With armor on and a healer on the other end of that waypoint, I could probably take a few hits, get home, and start the day over. I could hear every teacher I ever had screaming in my head to get out of there. But no, I had to be brave. Maybe I was worried; Diablo had a long head start. I'd have to clear a path through his minions fast if I was going to get to Aranoch in time to help the others. No one should try to take on a demon prince by herself, and unless I got there, someone might have to.
My first shot went into Ms. Mustache's shoulder as I ran around her flank. Then I had another one of my bright ideas. The lancers were going to charge: that's what spear carriers do. If I got the Bigfeet between me and the spears, they couldn't charge, and would have to maneuver those big sticks in among the trees to get to me. So, I ran deeper into the woods, around the howling Bigfeet, completely forgetting about the demon camp on the other side -- mistake number 3. A casual observer would probably swear I was trying to get myself killed, but I'd have to live through this if I knew what was good for me. They don't let you into Heaven if you die that stupid.
I ran back into the trees, towards the waypoint. As a double dozen baby-blue demons chased after me, Bigfeet started tripping over them. The lancers were struggling through the trees and didn't see me. By the time I found the waypoint again, they were so confused I actually crept back and started picking them off one by one, just the way I like it. A few lancers made it out of the woods, so I had to finish them by hand, but that was nothing. If the Rogues were still spying on me, I could tell them I meant to do it this way: running into an enemy camp was nothing less than step one of my brilliant master plan.
The demon camp was packed as full as it was last night. Were these their reserves, or resummons? If Diablo was stomping across Aranoch, these had to be reserves, which meant fewer demons in the monastery. Still, he must have left hundreds of the little bastards up here. There was even an old mansion -- nine rooms, at least -- they'd ripped to the ground for no reason I could see, except there were too many of them and they were bored. Even the rain couldn't clear their smell from the air.
Further up the pass, the ground turned marshy. Black puddles of water reflected the gray sky perfectly, even as the rain broke them into silver rings. Three Rogue archers, different from those I'd seen before, were guarding a fence. These were bone thin, with papery skin flushed from below with red. Their hair was intact, long and loose. Their eyes were calm, as clear as the marsh water wasn't, but still hiding everything. Their archery was perfect, and they stuck together like a unit. Killing them took effort; when they died, they crumbled and fell apart, with no escaping spirits. I've only heard of undead creatures dying like that.
Other creatures on the marsh acted like their normal abnormal selves. I didn't see any more Rogues, but there were Bigfeet, and those freakish birds that nest in rotting garbage. Rain made their nests smell even worse, like dried meat that's gotten wet and is blooming with mold. A few hours' steady drizzle had started to clear the air, though, and beat down the tough, saw-edged grass that thrived in this boggy soil. I laughed to think, this must be why the Rogues favor thigh-high boots -- that's how high this grass grows.
The saw grass grew mostly in limited areas, so I could avoid it. Then I found a strange set of stones. They were in circles, but not like the gate stones; the rocks were small enough to trip over, placed irregularly to make a square of four circles joined at the edges. Saw grass grew along their outlines, hiding some even smaller stones from sight. I stood on top of the biggest stone. Everywhere, thin strips of dark grass separated lighter, mossy areas into shapes -- rectangles, circles, even regularly-spaced spots of dark green like columns along an avenue, marching lock-step into a shallow pool. There used to be something here, a long time ago. It didn't matter now, all of it was long gone... unless those strange Rogues had something to do with it.
Charsi was hammering something as I approached, but stopped when she saw me. "Hi, Charsi," I said, using my friendliest smile. "How's things in camp?"
"F-fine," she murmured.
This was not the chatty Charsi I'd first met. "Have you talked to Cain yet? He seems like a nice old guy, reminds me of my grandpa."
"Yeah. He's all right."
I nodded slowly. "You nervous about something?"
She shook her head and smiled like a sick man trying to get out of bed, worry prickling and spiking the air around her. "Nuh-uh."
I let her watch me chew on that a second. Leaning in close, I looked her straight in her wide blue eyes, and said, "Boo!" Normally a girl like Charsi wouldn't move very fast; she must have been inspired. With a choked-mouse squeak, she catapulted back over her table as gracefully as a three-legged dog, taking it and half her stock with her into the mud.
While Charsi lay under the overturned table, embarrassment shining through the wood, I wondered if I really should have done that. Ah, what the hell: she didn't get hurt, and everybody needs a laugh now and then. After what I hoped wasn't too long a gloat, I ran around near where her head ought to be, pleading, "Are you all right? I didn't think you'd jump like that!" with enough sweet balm in my voice to soothe any jangled nerves.
"Um..." Charsi's face, covered in mud, peered up at me. Swords and arrows jangled to the ground when I tried to lift the table. I could move it a little, with effort, before she shoved the whole deal off her back, and as she rose, delicately put the heavy table back on its feet with one hand. She probably could have lifted the thing with one hand if she wasn't afraid of getting it dirty. "I guess I'm a little jumpy."
"Oof! I don't know why, you could break me in two."
"I wouldn't," she murmured, looking at herself and at the labor scattered in the mud.
I knelt to help pick up arrows, putting on a show of not caring about getting muddy. The rain would wash it off. "I wouldn't do anything to you either. What's on your mind?"
"Nothing... I guess..."
I smirked. "Kid... I've looked at too many faces not to know. Even if I didn't make you jump in the mud by saying boo. You're scared of me, aren't you?"
"Well, um... I..."
"Are you trying not to say, 'you're a hired killer!'?"
Charsi froze, biting her lower lip hard enough for it to turn white. "Um..."
"I'm not going to assassinate you. The Viz-Jaq'taar are the Mage-slayers; we specialize in evil wizards, or evil in general. We don't just go around whacking people. That's wrong, and it's not our business. Charsi, you're in a camp with dozens of women trained to kill. I'm no different. I just have a different job."
"Well... Kashya's never killed anyone. I mean, anyone human."
"Neither have I. Well, maybe your corrupted sisters still count."
"No, it's not that. Soldiers are different. They defend us in war."
"And how do they defend us?"
"Well, someone declares war, the soldiers line up and meet someplace, and they fight."
"Oh, yeah: chivalry. As opposed to, say, entering town under a pretense, sneaking into someone's bedroom late at night, and stabbing them with a poisoned dagger."
"Yeah! That is, like, totally different! War is clean and out in the open and everyone knows what's going on. There's no hiding and lying."
There is in real war, I thought. But something else caught my ear. "Charsi, do you think I've been lying to you?"
She looked at the ground. "Well, you did, when you first came."
Score one for blondie. "Uh, yeah, all right, I did."
"And, sometimes, when you're talking with different people, you talk with different voices and different smiles, depending on what you want."
Oh, man... if I can't even fool Charsi, I need to go back to Assassin school. "Okay... yeah, I've done that, sometimes."
"You do it a lot."
"Okay, I do it a lot. It's part of my business."
Charsi nodded, sadly. "I thought we weren't supposed to be your business."
"All right! I lie to people about my job, what do you expect? You never know where evil is; you have to suspect everyone when you first meet them. I spend my time nosing around in people's lives. I hunt things down and get information without giving any back, by... some pretty unusual methods. A lot of what I do isn't very nice, and I don't want to have to try to explain it."
She nodded again, the gesture as convincing as one of Gheed's warranties. "That doesn't mean you have to keep lying. You could just ask us when you want something."
I thought about that. "Okay. Why do you like Gheed so much?"
She laughed, "Oh, he's so funny! He has all these amazing stories of places he's been, and things he's seen, and everything! He's been to Lut Gholein, and the Barbarian lands, and the eastern jungles, even dangerous places like a city of Necromancers! And he's dealt with all kinds of people, like Pygmies and Cat people and Snake people and..."
So she bought Gheed's act, but not mine. Go figure. Maybe tales of adventure are her weakness. I cut her off and asked, "What do you know about the marshes midway up the pass?"
"Um... I don't know. They're full of mosquitoes?"
"I saw some unusual formations there, like building foundations and roads."
"Oh." Charsi looked genuinely confused. Gheed's tales of adventure would be impressive to someone who'd never even been that far from home. "I've heard there's an old graveyard in a cave near there, but we're not supposed to go there. It's not safe."
"Interesting. Oh, and Charsi? I'm just Amy, okay?"
Her smile was much better this time -- still curdled at the edges, but better. "Okay."
I gave her a hug. She hardly flinched at all. It felt pretty good. "See you soon."
After an hour's search, I found the cave, a hole in the wall behind the most intact building in the marsh. Not much was left besides the foundations, which were wide and went deep into the ground. Building something that big in the wet ground of a marsh would have been quite an undertaking. A hole led down to the basement, but I wanted to see the graveyard first.
The first thing I found inside the cave was three Rogues, recently deceased. They were tied to stakes, but not burned -- they'd been drained of blood, and left as they were. I had a bad feeling about this. After dragging them out into the sunlight, hopefully spoiling any plans made for them, I continued through the cave. After a while, it was clear there was no graveyard here. I never saw a single walking dead. There were Misshapen and a few Rogue archers, even the ever-present camps of baby-blues, but no ancient bones. The Rogues were all of the crumbly type; I found most of them clustered around a newly dead Rogue or two. None of them had any blood left.
Back in camp, Akara granted me a reluctant audience. "There is nothing I can tell you of that ancient tower. It has been in ruins for centuries."
"It was a tower?" I asked.
"Yes." A curl of exasperation wisped off of her before she tamped it down. "According to our order's records, it was, but is no longer. Have I mentioned how grateful I am, for all you have done for us?" Her thoughts were smooth and cool, like a gently pushing stream.
"Well, there was the ring," I said, not mentioning that I'd sold it to Gheed. "But it's nice to hear it from you again."
"Your efforts on our behalf are inspirational. Others came before you, but always insisted on payment, which we could ill afford."
"Mercenaries." I rolled my eyes, content to let my thoughts be guided where she wished they'd go. "The world can go straight to Hell and they don't give a damn unless they get their cut of the action to make it worth their while."
"Precisely. Our order is dedicated not only to providing a safe place for the women of the world, but to aiding and protecting our neighbors of both sexes. While others seek personal gain, that has never been our way. Have you come within sight of our monastery?"
"Not yet. Have you always been there?"
"This pass has been our home since the founding of the order."
"Yes, but have you always been in the monastery? I've been in a marsh about halfway up, the pass looks nice and narrow there. If you were going to wall off the pass, that's where I'd do it."
Akara was silent. When she replied, her voice was impassive. "Others inhabited this pass before the Rogues came, but even in our early days the tower was long abandoned. I fear you will find little to interest you there."
"Maybe, but I'd better check it out anyway."
"I must implore you, leave the tower be. I sense nothing but death in that old trap. Your goal is so close now, the tower is nothing but a potentially fatal distraction."
The old woman was becoming nervous, though she hid it well. The insensitive would never notice. I decided to risk a question. "Have you had vampire problems up here?"
Akara was confused. "No..." Suddenly, she was afraid. "No, not for a very long time."
"But yes, a long time ago?"
"There was... you must understand, not all who came to shelter with the Order came with the best of intentions. The Sightless Eye does not see all, and trust can be obtained by deception."
"I know. What happened in the tower?"
"A countess came to the pass many years ago, fleeing a politically arranged marriage to an abusive man, or so she said. She chose to shelter in the tower, even then already in ruin, far from the monastery and away from watchful eyes. It was not until much later that we learned the real reason she fled her country: the countess was a murderess."
"And this disturbed you... why?"
"Her victims, and there were many, were young girls. The countess believed bathing in the blood of youth would prevent her from growing old. When her deeds were discovered, our order was accused of sheltering a vampire."
How scandalous. "What did you do?"
"The order had her executed, of course. She was buried in the nearby graveyard, and her very existence forgotten. Until this day."
I hoped my facial expression hadn't changed. "I'll have to get her, then. Diablo probably raised her and made her a real blood-sucker. Wish me luck."
I wasn't mad at Akara for lying. I'd done plenty of it myself. What I wanted to know was why. The tower basement stank, a harsh, salty smell. On one wall, a gap looked like a concealed door that had been broken in. Inside, human bones were everywhere. The floor crunched underfoot with fingers and toes. Another giant flaming pentagram burned eternally in a main hall on the second level, but I didn't need to see that to know Mr. Not-Subtle had been here. Diablo had filled the basement with blood-red goat demons, and ghosts, the first incorporeal undead I'd seen. With no vitals to target or joints to break, the crossbow wasn't much good for them. I had to switch to the katar and whisk them away.
The tower cellars went deep. I found a lot of interesting things there. There were several armories, full of rotten bows and light armor. A few side rooms turned out to be chapels, decorated with angelic female figures and blank eyes. Some recently dead Rogues had been taken down, tied to posts and drained. And there were parties of archers, on their feet even if I wasn't sure they were alive. Comparing the two Rogues side by side was interesting; the pale archers' leathers were different, looking older in style. Always, the floor was thick with bones... hundreds of dead, maybe thousands.
The lowest level of basement was obviously the catacombs. The wall niches were all empty, unused. In the rest of the tower, I'd counted over 20 Rogue archers, and a dozen more guarded the catacombs. The last, and strongest, was in the catacomb's chapel. I could only assume this was the "Countess." She was dressed like a Rogue, with more muscle in her arms than a noble would consider fitting in a woman of her station. Two standards hung in the chapel; I took one.
Back in the Rogue camp, Kashya found me with the standard. "What are you doing?"
"Comparing this old, half-rotted banner with your new one there. They match pretty closely, don't you think?"
Kashya looked the standard over. "Our order used to fly that standard. It was a long time ago, before the monastery was built."
"I see. Do you know if your order ever built a tower, further down the pass? At a nice defensible point with convenient nearby water sources to use during a siege, and caves to hide supplies in?"
Kashya remained amazingly calm. "Yes, we did. The order's main fortress was there, until we were forced away to a new location."
"By some... scandal?"
"Something much worse, which I do not wish to discuss."
"Too bad. Your 'Countess' was not some mysterious noble who managed to fool your order. She had too many loyal Rogues under her for that."
"So? Her deceptions persisted, even in death. The evil befouling our monastery -- in case you've forgotten about that -- found her new servants to use."
"I don't think so. They were too much like her, and too different from your living sisters. I think a Rogue leader and her underlings were walled up in that cellar together."
"With all I know you saw, would that have been wrong?"
I thought about that. "No."
Kashya frowned. "Does it matter, what really happened back then?"
I thought about that too. "No. There's too much trouble now."
"Then why are you bringing those old ghosts back up?"
"I pry into things. It's what I do."
"Outlander, stop doing it. Evil isn't hiding anymore. You don't need to hunt for it, it's right there in front of you. Leave our coffin lids on."
The fire beside me crackled and hissed, wet wood popping and steaming. Almost everyone was asleep. I should be asleep. "Diablo pried them open first anyway." I tossed the banner on the fire and went to bed.
I've always slept light. It's good when you're in a dangerous area, but a damned nuisance when you just need to sleep. In the Rogue camp, there's no room for anyone to have her own tent, so I've had to sleep with the noise of other people breathing in the same room as me, and there's always someone who snores. Maybe I'd gotten used to sleeping through noise, or maybe last night wore me out. Even the Mule dropping something heavy next to my cot didn't disturb me until he actually talked.
"Wakey, wakey, mistress of the dark! Good work on the Countess. Maybe later, you can go back and get some runes. We need the high level ones, the best we've got is one Lem. Meantime, here's some new stuff!"
"Huh?" was the best I could do. Mornings and me are not on good terms. I looked at the armor he'd dropped by my bedside. "It's green."
"That's Hawkmail! Good stuff, for your level."
I shook my head, clearing more cobwebs. "It's... green."
The Mule's eyes rolled theatrically. "Damn, you heroes are so fussy! You should have seen the last guy, he'd preen for hours! All right, missy. I'll have some other armor waitin' for ya when you're stronger. It's not green, it's purple."
"That's better," I said, finally feeling awake. "This season, purple is the new black."
"I'd heard that," the Mule grinned. "Here's two cold damage charms to go with it. That should slow 'em down a little longer."
"Thanks. Say, why are you doing this?"
"It's my job! I hold stuff for other people to use, people like you! I bring you stuff, and if you find anything good you can't use, I'll take it away. Don't worry, it's not stealing! I hold it until somebody comes along who might have a use for it."
"I guess I haven't had anything worth taking."
"Hell, no! I throw out stuff like you've found."
"Have you ever thought about working with an organization? My order is always short on equipment, we could use --"
The Mule threw his head back in an uninhibited, gut-busting laugh. "What do you think I'm doin'? I know you don't get a lot of stuff, that's why you started out without much besides a bow and that lovely smile."
"Gee, thanks," I smiled. "Now, are you ever gonna get out of this girl's tent and let me get dressed?"
He pouted. "Aw, do I gotta?"
He laughed, and left. A second later, I couldn't hear him anymore, or sense his presence. I looked through a gap in the tent flap. There were no footprints in the mud outside. Damn, why didn't I think to read his mind when I had the chance?
The armor was strong, heavy iron scales riveted to a thick leather backing. Why someone tinted it green, I don't know. Charms are small druidic totems the nature boys make out of bits of wood, beads, and berry juice. Having them on you brings power, it's said. No sense in not trying them out. First, though, I wrapped them in old socks so they'd stop making rattle noises every time I moved.
The sun had already been up for a while. Getting into the monastery was taking longer than I'd hoped. Finding my way through would take even more time. Of course, I could just not stop to go through my hostesses' dirty laundry. There would probably be a lot lying around in there, left where they dropped it. I went to talk with Charsi.
Gheed was already there, telling some story. "You'll never guess what happened next!" Charsi shook her head, eyes wide and eager.
"Without so much as hunkering down, the Barbarian warrior leapt clear over my wagon and smashed the bandit's head right in with a single blow! The bandit never even cried out: he was dead before he even hit the ground. I've seen a lot of mighty warriors in my travels far and wide, but never one of such prowess!"
"Oh, wow!" Charsi squealed with excitement. "Then what did he do?"
"I never saw! As quickly as he'd appeared, he was gone, melting back into the snowy forest like a wolf into the night. To this day, I've never had the chance to thank him for his heroic rescue, but somehow, I don't think I need to. In the north, where men are men, they know gratitude when they see it in a man's eyes!"
Translation: I was busy hiding under my wagon. The Barb splattered the bandit, didn't find anything he wanted to loot, and left without noticing me. Barbarians are big and scary. I won't go back there, ever. Charsi, on the other hand, was gobbling it all up. "Hiya, Gheed. I didn't know you survived a trip to the northlands. Must not have gotten very far."
His piggish little eyes roamed up and down me, found nothing of interest, and looked elsewhere for their fun. "Nice to see you again. Kashya and Akara don't like you, you know? They don't like your attitude."
"I've had complaints about it. Like the new armor?"
His mouth split open, revealing teeth and saliva. I think it was supposed to be a smile. How could any merchant make a living with that kind of smile? He must get his money in some other line. "I've got complaints about it."
"You're just mad 'cause I'm not wearing the thong anymore."
"It did make this camp a better place to be stuck in. Did you know that armor's metal skirt makes your hips and ass look gigantic?"
Charsi looked shocked. I guess she'd never seen this side of Gheed before, which meant my good deed for the day was done. With some people, the worst you can do to them is let them talk. "How nice. I didn't know you were in the fashion police, Gheed. Do you have any interior decorating advice for me, too? Now move it, I want to talk to Charsi."
I'll say this: Gheed was enough of a merchant to read Charsi's face. He also knew when to cut his losses. She watched him slink away with a crestfallen look. "But... why did he say those things?"
Because he's a pig who was trying to warm you up so he could crawl into your pants, but is smart enough not to do it while he can't run? "Charsi, Gheed is..." Then she looked at me with those big blue eyes, wide with confused innocence. "He is... ah... Gheed tells funny stories, but sometimes he's not a nice person."
"Yes, I know, he's always been nice to you, but... Charsi, everyone is nice to you, you're a nice person. Okay? He's not like that with other people."
"It's not like that just to me, either. Kashya hates him too."
"Okay, yeah, she hates lots of people. Akara also thinks badly of Gheed. Does that tell you something?"
Now bafflement was the only thing on Charsi's face, and some alarm. "How do you keep knowing what I'm going to say before I say it?"
Crap, not again. "I'm a good guesser. Um... say, can you tell me anything about the monastery? Like, how can I get in?"
"The main gate's on the right. All the merchant wagons go in there."
Go through the front door, into an open yard with no cover? "Is there another way?"
"Um... There's the cloister gate. Visitors are allowed into the outer cloisters."
"Good, good... are these cloisters little meditation alcoves along a hall or something?"
"Oh, no! They're nice big gardens outside the barracks. Hey! If you go in the barracks, maybe you could find the Horadric Malus for me!"
"It's my smithing hammer. It can imbue items with magic powers. It's really powerful, but kind of random."
"Sure," I said. "I'll be happy to look for your malus. Uh... one last thing."
"If I don't ask now, this is gonna be on my mind all day. Does this armor really make my ass look huge?"
"Um..." Charsi bit her lip. "Well, you've kind of got small, uh, shoulders, and wide hips, but it's all muscle. You're in great shape. Where'd you get the armor?"
"I found it last night, while you were asleep. I don't think I'll keep it. It's green."
"Yeah, I kind of noticed that."
Today, I went to a waypoint near where I'd last been, and walked the rest of the way. Sure enough, the marsh waypoint had an ambush, but they never saw me coming. Never, ever repeat a tactic, especially when it didn't work the first time. The pass got steeper as a gray wall from one side of the pass to the other came into view. This had to be the monastery. The sky was darker than any real cloud could make it, and would stay that way until every last demon inside was dead.
Outside, the killing wasn't easy. Diablo's troops kept improving the closer I got, and would probably be even worst inside. The monastery front yard had Rogue lancers with blue skin and black hair, and still more demons, orange ones improved even more from the basic red stock. The skellies could use fire and lightning magic, a Necro trick I'd read about but never thought I'd see. The lancers were the only dangerous ones, and the hardest to kill.
A cave near the middle of the yard had tracks leading in and out, all human sized. Inside, I found Rogues, Rogues, and nothing but Rogues, from one end to the other. Some had hair, more were bald, some had horns or spikes, others were growing tails or what I'd swear were the beginnings of wings. They came in every color you'd want and some you wouldn't. All were armed and nasty, as fond of jumping out of dark corners as me. By the time I got to the back part of the cave, I was so jumpy I shot down 4 bats before I realized that I must have gotten them all.
The main gate of the monastery was closed. Even if I wanted in that way, it probably would only open from the inside. The cloister gate was a lot smaller, but still nicely decorated with arrows, shields, nude females, and the blank eye shape of the order. I didn't go right in; I'd been trained too well for that, despite my earlier mistakes. Just like I figured, there was an ambush on either side of the door. When I poked a toe in, they jumped, half a dozen Rogues with swords and shields. I got chased halfway across the yard and back before I whittled them down to three. After that, I finished them off with the katar. Fanatical, but they do come smarter.
The outer cloisters were beautiful, once. The demons left just enough trees and flowers to make that obvious. Fresh and bloody human bones lay under the drooping branches. Where I could see bare earth, it was deep red and sticky-looking. Apart from scattered demons, the cloister was deserted. Barrels were stacked everywhere, even more than there had been in the tombs. More than half exploded when opened. I actually needed to drink a few potions, or I might have been in trouble. What were the Rogues doing with all this explosive powder, anyway? Do they eat the stuff? Maybe Kashya might...
Only one other door led out of the cloisters, deeper into the monastery. Black-skinned Goat demons met me at the door. I returned their greetings, but they just wouldn't get the point until it was applied more forcefully, by hand. Hopefully, the demons wouldn't keep getting tougher, or I might have to abandon the bow completely.
Inside, it was dark and close, tiny little rooms connected by short hallways. More than once, the corridor was so tight I couldn't use the crossbow at all. Why would archers make a home so hard to use a bow in? And why was I finding so many fulminating potions? The demons weren't throwing them, they just had them or they were lying around... hmm, I wonder if this is what those barrels of explosives are for? Rogues like fiery arrows. Are they experimenting with chemical pyrotechnics too? The Viz-Jaq'taar use explosives in places too dangerous to enter. Archers with bombs that powerful would be lethal. Maybe, when this is over, our orders can work together and share techniques.
Before I suggest that, I'll have to get on the Rogues' good side. I haven't been doing so good a job of that. First, find that magic hammer for Charsi. Here, malus malus... no, not a crystal sword. Paladins like those: they're shiny and pretty and heavenly pure and impossible to sneak around with. Give me honest wood and steel, nothing extradimensional. Here, malus malus malus... no, not more Goat demons!
It was two packs of Goats, one bigger than a horse, the other quick as lightning. Good thing I saw them through a door, or Hammer Quest might have ended early. Taking out the katar and fighting two at a time in the doorway, that I could handle. To my surprise, they'd been in a library. Maybe religious orders keep books in their barracks, but that didn't explain what Goat demons might want in there. Then I saw a pile of torn covers on the floor. They were eating them. Goats.
The Rogue barracks were very military, with few comforts. The furniture was spartan, simple and unupholstered. They slept on the floor with little more than a pad and a single blanket. If they and the Viz-Jaq'taar ever worked together, better living arrangements would have to be made. Finally, in a side corridor, I found the smithy. Charsi's sweet, but she really should have told me where in the barracks her smithy was. Then again, I should have asked.
A few demons were hanging around the smithy entrance, watching something. I could feel heat in the stone walls, and hear fire crackling. Something was going on in there. A bolt to the back of the demon leader's neck caught their attention. When the little ones came after me, something much bigger shuffled along with them: a toad demon. Crap. Toads are some of the most powerful demons a mage can summon, made from torn-up angel souls. They're rare, but even one is bad news. I ran, with my tail between my legs and a big yellow stripe blazing down my back, and admit it without shame.
The toad followed, fast. In no time at all, he left the demonlings behind, and was chasing me alone. The library was the best place to make my stand: it was the biggest room, almost enough space to keep the toad at a distance. Between shots, I invaded its mind, knocking it around with spasms through its muscles. Normally that doesn't work, but this thing was so powerful I could fling its body across the room with the muscles in one foot. Its mind was too coarse to notice my intrusion and push me out. I kept it up for a while, putting enough bolts in it to kill a dozen regular demons, but my mind tired before its body did. Fortunately for my health and welfare, it was almost dead when I ran in to carve it up. It got in one hit, which would have ended the career of anyone with less armor. I almost thought of packing it in and going home before I realized it was dead.
The malus was still in the smithy. That "smith" may never have known what it was. When I got back to the Rogue camp, Gheed was chatting up Charsi again. I held my tongue.
"... their legendary king, Ka-Bulsoth! Other kings of the Barbarians have come and gone, but none have united the tribes before, or since!"
"He must have been incredible," Charsi said, a little less starry-eyed than before.
"I've never met him myself... just his son, Ka-Namon! The splendor of his court is an amazing sight! All the wealth of the mountains was brought there and laid at his feet: gems and jewels of every type, gold and silver in heaps, and the finest warriors of all the Barbarian lands! I was his special guest, after all the favors I did for his people. I didn't know that at first, though, when I was summoned before him!"
"What did you do?" Charsi asked.
"At first, I worried that I had done something to offend the great monarch. Nothing could be further from the truth! It turned out that while I was in their great city of Herroga, I had helped a poor beggar with money and kindnesses. I never knew that the old beggar was none other than the king himself, in disguise!"
Charsi frowned. "Didn't you tell me you gave money to a beggar with Kurast who was really the king?"
"Ah, yes, yes, I did. That's a trick kings often play, to see who's really good to their fellow man. To see a man's true heart, look at how he treats the least fortunate."
"So, how has life been treating you, Gheed?" I asked.
Gheed startled amusingly, then sneered. "Oh, it's you. I've heard that you bear us no malus." That grin crept across his face, and he started laughing. He would laugh at his own jokes. I gave him a migraine, then pulled out the malus.
"Oh, you found it!" Charsi grinned. Happiness shone off her like sunshine. I decided I like honestly happy thoughts, they're the prettiest kind. Maybe if Charsi liked me, the rest of the Rogues would think better of me. Since it was probably a military secret, I wouldn't even mention the pyrotechnics.
"Thank you for returning the malus, outlander," Kashya sniffed, but I could tell she was both pleased and impressed.
"I'm glad to hear that, Kashya. I guess I didn't make a good first impression."
"Akara, Cain, and I have been discussing the threat we all face. Cain has been most informative about the ways of demonkind."
"Okay, but I'm not sure what else there is to know. I'm in the monastery now. I'm sure most of the demons are dead, so we can mop up whatever's left and get the caravan through."
"Not necessarily," Cain said, right behind me. "I believe the threat may be far more serious than any of us had guessed."
"Yes..." Kashya said with a frown. "And more disturbing."
"What is it?" I asked.
"When you described our sisters, and the way some of their bodies were being changed, I knew a great evil must still be in the monastery."
"Yes," Cain said. "In Tristram, some of the heroes who came to aid us described Succubi, winged, demonic women who corrupt those tempted by them. From your accounts, it would seem that some of the Rogues you met are growing to resemble them."
"Okay..." I asked. "Why is this disturbing?"
Kashya glared hard at me, for a moment. "Diablo is not master of the Succubi, and could not change our sisters into... them."
"Exactly, Kashya. Succubi are thought to be corrupted women, who entered into a foul bargain with Hell. Only one demon lord would make such an offer, and it is not Diablo. The monastery's corruption could only be caused by Andarial, maiden of anguish."
"Oh," I said, trying to look like I understood what was so serious about that.
"Diablo did not leave an army of lackeys in our monastery. Those are Andarial's minions, and she came to our monastery to make more from our sisters!"
"What is worse," Cain said, "this can only mean that the rebellion in Hell is over! Ages ago, the Lesser Evils revolted against the greater, exiling Diablo, Baal, and Mephisto to our world. Now it seems that Andarial is allied with Diablo. If the lesser are once more joined to the greater, our world is in grave peril!"
"Oh," I said. Packing it in and going home started sounding better and better.
"Andarial now inhabits our monastery, obviously left there by Diablo to block pursuit. Her armies will destroy any attempt to get through until she herself is killed!"
"Kill a demon princess. Great. Cain, is she dangerous?"
"By all accounts, she is not dangerous if compared with Diablo."
"Oh. That should be all right, then. I'll take care of it in the morning."
In the tent I shared, everyone was asleep. Waking them with unconscious vocalizing would be rude, so I stuffed a bandage in my mouth and
went out to the world Anybody there? I am Hi there I'm not Hello again. How's Yes you are! No, I'm not things in the west? I'm here, not there Shut up. Hee hee Oh, really funny Gotcha! Quit being juvenile The west could be better I'm here By definition... I said quit! First, how goes I'm here except Aranoch? when I'm not I'm in Viz-Jun I'm on the Twin Seas The Sorcerers I hate sailing are under attack Is anybody in Aranoch? Anybody? I thought Inella was there? She said she was In a harem, yet Maybe she's asleep It's a hard life being in a harem I'm still on my way to Aranoch. It's The Sorcerers are dangerous on the road under attack! What about Who's attacking? This is bad the Sorcerers? A Zakarumite army What? There's Jungle Cats Hordes of zealots That's not good attacking travelers Dying in droves in the desert But they keep coming Holy crap! This is not news Zakarum's been doing It is news. Why purges for years now attack Viz-Jun? Also Raiders, the A lot of Sorcies funny four-armed guys are getting killed Something is They're getting bold rotten in Kurast Attacking Viz-Jun Did someone say is more than a purge Jungle Cats in the desert? Netta did My head hurts I did I've run into Quill Rats on Lycander That's way out of They're all over The Amazons sure their range here in Khanduras don't like them Weird Everything's going to Hell suddenly Oh! I came to tell you: we may have Andarial the lesser evil Who? You know, Andy-baby here in Khanduras She of the jeweled nipple chains. Is this confirmed? Oh, her Ouch! She likes it I haven't seen her I'd like Just the big 3 But I may have to confirmation is bad enough! I think so too go through her Good luck! Try to confirm her, I hope Inella's OK but try harder to The lesser may be go around her Not good! working with the Not good at all greater again What are we Damn... going to do? Try to stay alive We need a plan Here's a plan: Yeah? Whoever you're after forget them. How's that going to help? I'll tell you We're at war now Right. We're at war so forget wizards! A war for the world We're not an army Volunteer in cities work with locals and fight off the demons But we're mage-slayers Not soldiers We have to change This is a new threat It's actually a Right. We kill mages very old one in league with demons but now the demons It's not like I'm are here themselves asking you to join an army Sir! No, sir! That's ma'am Ha ha. I'll keep going into Aranoch Are we meeting out there? I'm bound for Kurast I'm working with the Rogues, but there's I'll see you in not many of them left Lut Gholein If she gets there I'll get there See you soon! Good luck Yeah, good luck
I slept like someone cast a spell on me, and woke in the dark dead silence before dawn. The silence of the Rogue pass was still unsettling -- there should be birds, bugs, mice, something. Deciding which waypoint to use was a problem. The last one I'd found was in the cloisters, so they'd be expecting me to use it. Not using it meant coming in from outside, through the monastery gate. But whichever way I went, I'd have to go through the cloisters, so there was one ambush point I could avoid by doing the predictable thing.
Nobody was waiting in the cloisters. The barracks were empty too. For once, I let my guard down, listening for thoughts, any kind of thoughts. That's dangerous to do around demons; maybe worse with undead. Even if you find a mind, it's guaranteed to be full of the thoughts that leave scars. At first, I felt nothing. No one was near. I opened up wider. Harsh, sharp whispers came from inside the monastery. I immediately pulled back; the contact was like reaching out in the dark and touching razors. Most of them were at ground level, clustered behind a gate at the rear of the barracks: there was the ambush, a big one. I don't think they noticed me, or understood if they did. Fewer thoughts scrabbled under my feet -- there was a basement under the barracks. I had no way of knowing if there was any way through down there, but walking into that ambush would be suicide.
The basement was a jail, probably the only place in the monastery the new owners left the way it was. They even put in some new prisoners -- three Goat demons had been locked in a cell right by the entrance. I got in some target practice. Had they committed some crime even demons disapprove of? Maybe they'd been caught being nice to someone. I didn't ask. The rest of the jail's cells were open, and empty except for skeletons and ghosts. A lot of people died here, and were never taken out. Did the Rogues bother to bury them, or leave them where they were?
Things the Rogues left were everywhere: neatly stacked crates; huge casks of water, wine, or explosives; long tables with chairs. All the torture equipment was recently used. Rogues were tied spread-eagle to tables, and disemboweled for an audience of chairs. Some tables had two legs knocked off so the ones in the back could enjoy too. In every room there were Rogues, decapitated, burned, ripped in half, torn to pieces, or broken on wheels. All were naked, but unmolested. Most likely, stripping them was purely psychological. Documents were lying around on tables or desks, probably neatly detailing punishments and the ends of many lives. I imagine most people would have a hard time with the bloody bits scattered on the floor. My problem was the papers. Seeing that much documentation, and leaving it all where it was, was probably the hardest thing I've ever done.
The Rogue jails went deep, three levels of cells and torture rooms. What the hell were they doing with so much of that stuff? Whatever the reason, the jails saw a lot of use, judging from how many dead people they had to raise. There were some demons there -- the Goats, some Misshapen in a side hall, but all the rest were undead. Why would people like Charsi have so much torture equipment? Maybe it didn't belong to the Rogues, maybe the demons somehow brought it in. Or maybe it was all old, from times when a woman like the Countess could be a Rogue leader. The modern Rogues seemed more interested in using their jail for storage.
The deepest part of the jail hid a few surprises. There were two hidden rooms the demons hadn't found, combination treasuries and armories. Kashya recognized the gear I recovered, and actually smiled. Quality weapons seem to bring her great joy. I also found two banners in the treasures: one matched the Countess', and the other I didn't recognize. I was a good girl, and didn't ask about them.
Another surprise was a centrally located hall, with tables, chairs, and long shelves of books. Some people think criminals are forced into crime by a lack of education, and want libraries in prisons so they can better themselves. As far as I know, none of these people approve of torture. Seeing a library and torture chambers in the same complex was very odd.
The biggest surprise was guarding the northern jails, near a stairway going up. On top of two pillars, stone statues of dragon or snake heads sprayed explosive balls of fire at me as I came through. They were obviously an imitation of Hydras, fire creatures mages summon to lay traps and scout dangerous areas. A success with the pyrotechnic experiments, perhaps? They worked fine, except that they didn't attack the undead. Maybe those old bones were "local" in the stone Hydras' rudimentary minds.
The stairway took me back to the surface, coming out under a covered walkway above a green lawn. Above, the sun glowed feebly though a thick layer of gray cloud, hardly giving any light at all. Down on the grass, two Rogues were desperately shooting at me, not even taking time to aim. The first shot I didn't dodge plinked off the armor; after that, I didn't bother to dodge. The lawn had a waypoint, which I was glad to see. Then, there was the cathedral, a gray stripped skeleton of holiness towering over me. That, I wasn't glad to see at all. I wanted to be on the other side of the monastery, not in its heart. I didn't like the looks of the place. My shields were up as strong as I could make them, but just looking at it, I felt spikes laced with vinegar pricking me.
I thought of leaving, of going around. Sure, the cathedral was probably in the middle of an open courtyard, with no cover. A good run might make it across. Then, if I found the other side, I might get through the gate and escape. I'd have to travel across the biggest desert in the world without any water or food. Maybe Andarial (if this is her) would only send half her demons after me. Crap... it would be easier to just go in there and kill her.
Maybe I'm overcautious, but I didn't go into the cathedral. I wanted more information first. In most monasteries, the church, main chapel, or whatever is at the center, is the symbolic heart. Demons like symbols too, so the heart of the monastery was probably their command center, but making assumptions is never a good idea. If Andarial was in the cathedral, I wanted to know where. If she wasn't, where would she be?
Kashya was waiting by the fire, and was as good a Rogue as any to ask. "Hi there. You know that cathedral in your monastery?"
She laughed, a short guffaw. "Outlander... Amy... that is the most ridiculous question I have heard in years. Whoever you are, you can stop playacting. I know you're not that dumb."
"Made you laugh, though. If this is Andarial, I think she's in the cathedral. Before I go in there, I want to know the layout."
Tinges of concern cooled her normally bright aura. "You don't have to, you know. I already know I misjudged you."
"Actually, I do. My target is on the other side of the monastery. Pursuit'll be a lot easier without a demon lord on my ass. What's the cathedral like?"
She told me, in systematic detail. The cathedral is laid out cruciform, with pews, the altar, apses, and a vestry. The bell tower is at the rear, but no stairs go up. Under the cathedral are four levels of catacombs, with a funeral chapel at the bottom. Having the chapel in the deepest level is a Zakarumite tradition. If it were me, I'd put it on top so you wouldn't have to walk as far, but I don't see the point of funerals anyway. The dead don't care. A maze of tombs and lots of bodies would be very useful for her Nipple-Ringness, so she's probably holed up in the catacombs. According to historical accounts, Andarial is more of a lover than a fighter, but that's compared with other demon lords. Standard Necro tactics might work, if she isn't too tough.
The crossbow thudded off my chest. It was huge, with a bow so massive it needed a crank and gears to pull. "What's this monster?"
"That's a rare we've been saving since pt. 1, Viper Flight! Test it out for us. Here's new jewelry, a plated belt, and some charms, too! Don't worry, this won't be your final gear, we've got better stuff you'll want instead, when you're big enough."
"Oh, thanks," I said, looking over the new sparklies. "You're so generous."
"That's what I do! You're comin' along great, we're all really happy to watch!"
I couldn't sense any feelings coming off him. Normally, that says heavy shielding, but I couldn't feel any shields. I reached out, and
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I came to when my face hit the ground. My eyes told me the world was made of tiny blocks of colored light, spinning in a void. If Charsi hadn't rolled me over, I might have drowned in two inches of mud. "Are you all right?"
"0000013f" I said as the world oozed back into focus. Or maybe blurred over -- I couldn't tell. "What happened?"
"You were standing over here," Charsi said, her panic spiking through the air, "then pitched over like a falling tree. What did you say?"
"I don't know what that was. I looked at that guy, and..."
The Mule was gone. He'd left no tracks. "The man who wasn't there."
"I think you should see Akara," Charsi said, fear freezing her voice. "Demons can deceive your senses and make you see strange things."
"I don't think it was a demon. But a little exorcism couldn't hurt."
After stowing Leadcrow, I went back and pulled open the cathedral doors. Not that I didn't trust the new bow... but it was untested, and might be too damn slow to use. A Misshapen came to the door, so I tested it. My bolt entered the demon's open mouth and exited near its left buttock, making disgusting noises all the way through. Seeing no logical counter-argument to my proposal, he dropped without so much as a whimper. Wow. Who cares how long the thing takes to crank up!
There weren't any Rogues in the cathedral, and only one undead. There were plenty of black demonlings and Misshapen, which I seem to remember are Andarial's favorite male demons. No accounting for taste. For me, they were one- or two-hit kills. The altar was guarded by a skeleton mage with a poison bolt attack, powerful but slow. We had a sniping contest, which I'm glad to say I won. The inside of the cathedral was ordinary, at least what I could see through layers of graffiti. Oddly, there was no sign of any goddess -- even the little roof over the altar showed a male angelic figure handing a big key to a papal figure, also male. Maybe it was recycled from somewhere else.
The catacombs were very dark and close, with a lot of skeletons in the wall niches. None moved, or held together when poked. Not that it made much difference, but I wondered why these guys hadn't been raised. Instead of zombies, the catacombs were full of Misshapen and black demonlings. The stopping power of the new bow came in really handy, especially against a lightning-blooded Misshapen. It could spit sparks all it wanted at the other end of the hall, thank you.
I didn't find much in the catacombs. There were a few magic items, interred with women who might have been famous among the Rogues. I recovered them for the order and gave Cain the pleasure of identifying and describing them. He starts getting morose if I leave him alone too long, I've noticed. The religious symbols were all Zakarumite -- the Sightless Eye never made an appearance. Boiling blood burbled away in cracks in the floor, but that had to be an illusion -- I couldn't smell hot blood, something I'm pretty familiar with.
There were also a few new demon types, none of which I recognized. The first was a bunch of tiny men, wearing tiny skirts with decorated with tiny colorful flowers. Except for the tiny fangs filling their tiny gaping mouths, the not-so-tiny knives in their tiny clawed hands, and the tiny screams they squealed as they raced out of nowhere and tried to bite me off at the knees, they were almost cute. Deeper in the catacombs, they had altered animals: spiders the size of cows. They were about as quick as cows too, and ran away if I hurt them, so after the initial panic I didn't mind their being there so much.
The deepest levels of the catacombs had some more modern things, like stacks of barrels and crates. Maybe it wasn't a coincidence that the undead put in an appearance too -- could be a subtle sign from Heaven that tombs are not to be used for storing explosives. The zombies were tough and stringy, and there were a few Vampires, floating blood-suckers some wizards turn into when they die. Getting in close is a good tactic if you remember to protect your neck.
Down on the lowest level, the funeral chapel was full of prospective clients. Never mind the demons -- I hope I never see that many dead naked women ever again. A pit in front of the chapel doors was full to the brim with corpses and gore. Other bodies had been skinned, or torn to bits and impaled on bony spikes. There was a preference for displaying distinctly female parts, like breasts and buttocks. I don't share Kashya's mindset, but I could not imagine why a female would do this. Why strip them, and reduce them to sexual parts? It's degrading and insulting and... you know, I think I just answered my own question.
A few zombies wandered here and there, and some demonlings. I killed from a distance as quietly as I could, but it's hard to kill off someone's army without them ever noticing. The fall of a distant zombie tipped her off, and with a bellow like an ox, what had to be Andarial came clomping out of the chapel. Physically, the demon queen was an awful mix. Some of her looked very human, enviably so. Her face might have been beautiful, if you didn't look at what was in her bloodshot eyes. Other parts were pure monster. Spider legs sprouted from her back, and her legs ended in horse-like hooves. Her body had no grace or elegance; she didn't glide, she lumbered. In an insane moment, I wondered if she'd killed all those Rogues out of simple jealousy.
My first bolt thudded into her, sounding about like I'd shot a tree. She charged, green clouds of stinging smoke billowing out in front of her. I retreated, choking as I cranked the bow for another shot. Keeping that pit of gore in the front area between me and her sounded like a really good idea. I wish it had been. For all her clumsiness, Andarial moved fast. Running through her poisonous clouds between shots made my lungs feel like they were being torn out. Drinking antidotes was pointless, she just poisoned the air again.
In the clear light of hindsight, it was obvious that the tactics which work on Necromancers would not work on Andarial. She moved too fast, was too tough, and breathing her poison for too long would kill anybody. That poison cloud was probably why so many Rogues died facing her -- they kept trying to run and whittle her down. I wish I could say I'd realized that, but I didn't. All I knew was, the bow wasn't doing the job. I had to switch and take it up close and personal.
When I screamed and threw myself in her face, she actually looked madder. It was like I'd insulted her. Rather than use her arms, she reared back, then slammed her whole upper body down, driving the ends of her spider-legs into me. The toad demon from the jails hit harder. The armor took most of her shot, so I waited for her to do it again, carving up her perfect alabaster thighs in the meantime. Sure enough, she reared back, and I sank both katar into her gut, lifting and twisting to rip the demon queen's belly wide open.
Andarial screamed fit to bring down the roof, and tried to slap me around with one hand while she held her guts in with the other. A lover, not a fighter... and not much of either, I was willing to bet. When she put her guard high, I opened the arteries that run down the insides of the thighs. Trying to guard that put her throat in reach. Rearing back let me open up her gut until intestines sprayed out, dripping to the floor. Even then, she wouldn't give up. The bitch had stamina, I'll give her that... or maybe she was just too spiteful to die.
She did die, in the end, and I didn't. No woman, even a demon queen, has that much spite in her. Her hybridized body exploded and dissolved in her own unvented bile, leaving an impressive hole in the floor and a stench the Rogues would probably never get out. My last antidote and a healing potion wiped out every sign we'd even fought, apart from the mess. Cleaning the monastery would take a lot longer. The Rogues can manage it, though. I'll bet Kashya swings a mean mop.