Xanthippe (Act I)
Lessee... statwise, she'll need lots of dexterity. Most of my melee characters don't have a lot, their skills give them enough attack rating, but the sorceress doesn't have that option. Besides, she has skills that add to damage and defense, so she won't need the biggest weapons and armor. Second priority is vitality, she'll need all the life she can get. Strength comes in third, and Energy a distant fourth. With all that dex, it would make sense to use a shield, her blocking will be very high. This would compensate for a lot of her weaknesses, and I know the sword/shield combo is a good one. But I've heard sorceresses have nice swing speeds with polearms, and besides, I'm not doing this tour to stick with what I know works. Let's at least try a polearm, when she's strong enough.
Now, what kind of sorceress would not shun melee combat? One who not only defies the traditions of general society, but the traditions of her own magic clan. Capricious, spiteful, defiant, not keeping with any kind of tradition. A personality begins to suggest itself; all I need is a name. There's Morrigan, Celtic goddess of war, but that reminds me too much of the demon chick from Darkstalkers. Bodacia was a Celtic warrior woman who defied the Roman empire. No, let's keep the Celtic names for the Barbarian. To suggest the learning a mage would have, let's go with something Greek: Xanthippe, the name of Socrates' shrewish wife from The Republic. She was the bread-winner of the marriage, and Socrates hated her, which seems a perfect reason for someone to be a spiteful shrew.
Coming from the west to the Rogue's Pass, the land slopes almost imperceptibly upwards to the base of a range of high mountains. A typical alluvial flood plain, most of Khanduras is well-watered and fertile, the breadbasket of the western world, with many small farming towns along the rivers that wash down from the mountains. The people are simple and good, living and working among gentle rolling hills and lightly wooded dales. This is the last place you'd expect a demonic invasion to begin. The Zann Esu oracles had decreed that the Emergence of the Three Prime Evils was at hand. But you didn't need to be psychic to know that the Rogue's Pass was closed, nothing was going up the mountains, and there were wild and frightening rumors of what was coming down, so it was time to act.
Among the Zann Esu, Xanthippe was never the best student. It's hard to be a good student when you're smarter than your teachers, only the little goody-goodies get the praise of the witch mistresses. When the oracles said it was time, she was sent to the Rogue's Pass, probably just to get rid of her. At the entrance to the pass, a rude little fortress had been hastily cadged together from timber and rope; it smelled like cattle and chickens, not blood and guts, so there must be living people there.
The camp was full of Rogues, the women archers who had built a fortified monastery across the pass, and made huge amounts of money charging merchants and travelers for the privilege of going through. You don't need to produce a thing to become rich, all you need is position. A well-heeled gentleman greeted Xanthippe, welcoming her to the camp, and was kind enough to explain his position. Demons had taken over the monastery, and corrupted many of the Rogues. The pass and the monastery were full of monsters, and no one could get through, including this fellow's caravan of merchants.
Heaven forbid that the wheels of commerce might not be allowed to run smoothly. For the sake of rich people everywhere, this evil must be stopped. The poor people were probably all dead, but they never really matter anyway. Before sallying forth, Xanthippe decided to have a look around camp, and see what paragons of humanity she'd be risking her life to save from the perils of an economically disadvantageous position. There was a tall, strapping redhead in scale armor; she looked pretty full of herself. The High Priestess of the Rogues was weeping beside a small tent. The blondest girl she'd ever seen, with bigger arms than any girl should have, was beating out arrowheads on an anvil. And then there was the caravan's other merchant. Xanthippe recognized him, though she was sure he wouldn't know her. Goody, she thought. This might be fun.
Outside of camp, Xanthippe stalked among the puddles, looking for prey. This had obviously been farmland a short while ago; it was all fenced off from the surrounding woods, and a house was visible in the distance. Any fortified area will need farmland surrounding it, with peasants working hard in the fields to provide the warriors and merchants with the means for their livelihood. The crops had been harvested recently, probably while still unripe, so there was only trampled greenery, a few fruit trees, and a lot of puddles.
Stalking the wasteland were some Zombies. Dimwitted things, with the attention span of a gnat. Xanthippe smirked and prepared the fire bolt spell. "Eat fiery death!" she hissed, and a tiny ball of flame shot from her staff, piffling against the nearest Zombie. Its eyes rolled, blinked, and it looked around. The bolt had made little impression; maybe the Zombies were wet from the recent rain. She threw a few more; some missed, some hit, and did just about as much good. They started stumbling towards her, mumbling "brains... brains..." Stupid witches, this spell is useless! Might as well just beat them to death with this useless stick...
Now, that was an idea, and it worked much better than any of the stupid tricks the witches tried to teach her. Beating them to death was vulgar, crude, and artless, but the result was three dead zombies and one intact sorceress. And, damn it, it felt good. However, she was going to need something bigger than a sorceress' stick to kill these things; maybe she should check out the farmhouse, there might be a carving knife or a cleaver in there.
The house had actual demons in it, the first Xanthippe saw; little red guys, with little swords, and squeaky little voices. They were going through the kitchens when Xanthippe walked in and smacked one over the head. It didn't seem as impressed with her light little staff as the Zombies had been, and slashed her across her exposed stomach! Crap, why did the witch clan decide on a halter top and mini skirt for a uniform? She ran outside; the little guy followed, and got thwacked on the head again. After a brief exchange, the little demon died. The others ran -- but now Xanthippe had a sword. Inside the house, there was a padded coat in the closet, with a sash to tie it closed; much better battle gear than a halter top. With the sword and a pot lid pressed into service as a shield, Xanthippe killed the rest of the demons. *And* she didn't risk setting fire to the house while she was inside it, either.
The rest of the farm was less fun, only more Zombies and some Quill Rats. To her surprise, there was a cave in the middle of the field, but then she noticed that the mountains were mostly sedimentary rock. Moisture blowing in from the ocean was stopped by the mountains, so rain would be frequent up here, and could easily wash out a cave in the right kind of rock. Judging from the tracks, there were a lot more monsters in the cave. Going through it, killing right and left, Xanthippe noticed that some of the little squeakers shot fire bolts. Not that it did them any good, but if an enemy wants to do something stupid, Xanthippe was more than willing to let them. There were some huge, hairy things down there too, who took a lot to kill; she needed something bigger than this little sword. As she was beating one last zombie to death, she thought of a design for a new weapon, something that would put some distance between her and a foe, and pack a powerful hit. Simple, elegant, and awesomely powerful. Maybe she could name it, "Xanthippe's Mangler."
On her return to town, the Rogues' priestess thanked her for clearing out the cave, and ordered that Xanthippe should have a place to sleep among the Rogue warriors. More importantly, she let Xanthippe study the books she'd managed to carry out of the monastery. There weren't many to choose from, but Xanthippe did learn a few fun facts, including a way to send cold energies swirling in a shield around her body. Not only would it deflect enemy attacks, but rain would freeze before it hit her and she wouldn't get soaked. Then, she went to the blacksmith with her new weapon design after borrowing a pen and paper to draw a picture of it; that muscle girl didn't look too bright.
"It's basically a sword, but on a pole, so you have a lever arm. Archimedes was the first to describe the properties of the lever, and a long lever arm provides a mechanical advantage, giving you power with little energy expenditure. Now, the blade will be heavy, so it..."
Charsi looked at the drawing. "Oh, a bardiche," and handed Xanthippe exactly what she'd had in mind. "That what you were thinking of?"
Caught in mid-sentence, Xanthippe looked over the heavy, sturdy blade, mounted on a long wooden pole, with an iron butt on the foot. "Uh, yes, exactly."
"That's great, not many people use those. I always use a hammer when I need to bash heads. It's what I know. But I always keep one or two bardiches in stock, they work pretty well if you're strong enough. Are you ok?"
The heavy head of the bardiche had sunk to the ground while Xanthippe tried to hold it. "Oh, I'm just a bit tired. Haven't used some of these muscles for a few years now."
"Yeah, I kind of wondered about that," Charsi said with a little frown. "Aren't you a sorceress, though? Shouldn't you be, like, blasting them with fire and stuff?"
"It's raining, the fireballs don't work well when it's wet."
The bardiche was of superior quality, but it was also very heavy, and all Xanthippe's muscles were very sore. She hadn't considered how much force it would take to get a heavy blade on the end of a long pole moving quickly enough to kill. The Zann Esu mage clan considered mere physical effort beneath them, but damn it, this weapon looked deadly. Slicing them to bits was so much more satisfying; you didn't have to stay calm and focus on a bunch of fancy words, just go in and kill. However, using such a weapon would take a lot of effort; just lifting it was difficult. She stowed the bardiche under the bunk she was using, and fell asleep very, very quickly.
Xanthippe awoke before dawn, as some of the Rogues were leaving for their guard shifts. She might as well get an early start on the day too, and while it was still dark, was making her way across the fields. Well, she did make one stop first. Gheed's cart was shaking from the snoring inside. Loosening the axle stays made it much less noisy. Satisfied that she'd made the camp a happier place for everyone, Xanthippe stepped out onto the fields and made her way to a gap in the fence. One of the Rogues was there, a girl named Flavie, obviously serving as an advance guard.
"Morning. Say, why does Kashya have you way out here by yourself, anyway?"
"Hello there. I'm here in case anything dangerous comes close to camp."
Xanthippe looked a little surprised. "There were demons down there behind you. They were hiding in a cave, down in the middle of that field there."
"We know about the cave. Those demons aren't a problem. Andariel keeps all the dangerous ones close to her, in the monastery. Kashya figures they'll come out when she has enough to feel safe without all of them."
Now Xanthippe was starting to get angry. "You knew about the cave, and didn't tell me? Some of those bastards in there were dangerous!"
"They're not dangerous, just shoot 'em and they die. We didn't tell you anything because you didn't ask for anything."
"If the demons weren't dangerous... why didn't you Rogues go in and kill them?"
"Akara said you were sent here to save the monastery. Don't know how she knows about you. She said you needed a test, to see if you were brave enough."
So, it was all a test, was it? "Listen, I didn't go into that cave because someone sent me, I went in because I wanted to. I didn't even talk to your priestess. Unlike some people here, I am actually doing something about the infernal invasion."
Flavie just shrugged. "Whatever. When you arrived, Akara told Kashya not to send any more of us out, that you were here to help us, so I assumed you knew you'd been sent here with a mission."
"I'm on a mission, all right," Xanthippe snarled. "And I don't want any interference."
In a thoroughly foul mood, Xanthippe stalked out, looking for something to kill. Flavie was right about the monsters beyond being more dangerous, but not all of them were monsters. Some of them were Rogues. Their clothes were ragged, covered with filth, and they looked feverish and sick from exposure. As soon as they saw Xanthippe, they rushed to attack with crude weapons, howling like dogs. How did this happen? Andariel was supposed to have corrupted them, but this was complete degradation, they didn't even act human. Killing them was no pleasure, it was more of an act of pity.
The demons were burning the farmhouse here, probably just for the fun of it. But there was good equipment elsewhere; one of the Rogues had managed to keep some armor. Hard leather armor, or cuirbouilli; made by boiling leather in oil, then wax, and laying it over a mold to dry and harden. And because these were Rogues, the breastplate was the proper shape, and not too oversized with enough padding.
Off to one side of the plain was a graveyard. As you might expect, the place was full of skeletons and zombies, and the tallest, most evil-looking Rogue of them all -- she even had horns growing out of her head, and her teeth had grown out into points. She was quick, vicious, could shoot fiery arrows, and raise zombies from the graves. Running after her, dodging Zombies every step of the way, Xanthippe wished dearly that she had something bigger than one little sword, it wasn't even that long. After the demon Rogue from beyond hell finally died, Kashya stopped Xanthippe to speak with her.
"I can't believe you killed Blood Raven!"
"Who's Blood Raven?"
"She was raising Zombies in the graveyard, probably an army to attack our camp."
"Oh, her. Piece o' cake."
"That's surprising, considering you hold your sword like it was a club."
"So I have an unorthodox technique. Maybe I'm ahead of the curve."
"Maybe you should consider using a club. Buy a mace from Charsi, you can probably handle that."
Charsi had some maces. Xanthippe could handle one. She did not buy any. Not even the Vicious mace; she liked the title, but bought a saber. It was of superior quality, with two sockets, she could put a couple of the gems she'd found in them. But while she was walking back to her trunk, a thin, pale man carrying an amazingly full backpack waved her over.
"Hi. Who the hell are you?"
"And hello to you too, little lady! I'm a mule!"
This man was not fuzzy, did not have long ears, nor a peevish disposition. What he did have was a pack full of some of the most amazing-looking *stuff* Xanthippe had ever seen. "Sure you are. Are you selling?"
"Heavens no, missy, I'm giving it all away!"
I'm just a mule (sing to "I'm just a bill" by Schoolhouse Rock.)
Yes, I'm only a mule,
I'll provide you with the right tool.
Well, it's a long, long journey
From the Rogue camp, you see.
I'll sit around here,
Collecting no fee!
But I know I'll do you good someday...
Oh no, I'll never duel,
I only eat gruel,
I'm a mule!
"No, no! But I carry things around for other people! Great heroes, who find wonderful things that they don't want, but are sure someone else would just love."
"And they sell them to you."
"Oh, no, sweetness! They give them to me, and I give them away to other deserving folks when the time is right. It's like christmas!"
Yes, I'm only a mule,
And I know that you will think me a fool.
I keep things that others
Find they really can't use.
Things so pretty and lovely,
They'd make the headline news!
In the meantime, my back is killin' me...
I'm your magical pool,
Generous as a rule,
I'm a mule!
"I'd love to! But you're too tiny and weak to use any of this stuff yet! But don't you worry, one day you'll grow up big and strong, and can take some of this heavy load off of me!"
Yes, I'm only a mule,
Don't you think this is a big shiny jewel?
Take these here runestones,
A Tir and an El;
Put them in your saber,
They will serve you well.
That's a runeword! Look it up with Akara.
I hope that someday you'll rule,
Maybe even be "kewl!"
I'm a mule!
The stones fit into the sockets in her saber, and the weapon instantly transformed. Now, the metal gleamed with a high polish, and bluish light seemed to glitter off the scalpel-like edge. It was very pretty... but Xanthippe couldn't wield it. The item's power was too great for her, she wasn't strong enough for it! Grumbling at the stupidity of that mule guy, she went back to Charsi's and bought the vicious mace. And avoided Kashya.
Before she went to sleep, she heard two of the Rogues talking about some hard work they'd had to do that day. It seems that when Gheed vaulted his fat rear out of bed, his wagon, obviously overtaxed by the burden of carrying him all these years, slipped off its axles and landed in a mud puddle. Dreadful. But Warriv asked the Rogues to lift the wagon out and fix the axles, which they were nice enough to do, but it was a lot of work for them. That was too bad, maybe something less destructive would have to happen to Gheed.
When she woke up, every muscle in Xanthippe's body was screaming. She'd been up late the previous night, trying to get the swing of her bardiche. The thing was so heavy, her hands would slip off the shaft, and once she almost threw it into Charsi's pit of hot coals. Her hands were blistered, her back and shoulders felt like they'd been in a vise, she just wanted to lie there and ache for the rest of the day, and maybe an extra day for whimpering. Exerting herself far more than anyone should be expected to, she opened her eyes, and saw one of the Rogues standing next to her bunk. "Kashya's assigned me to keep on eye on you. When are we going out?"
"Right now." Xanthippe pulled herself out of bed. "You go do your guard stuff or whatever. I'll thank Kashya later." Stretching helped her muscles a bit; at least, it hurt in a different way. Hey, she could touch her toes for the first time in years. Looking back, Xanthippe noticed that Rogue still hanging around. "Is my ass that interesting?" The Rogue blinked, then looked away. "I'm Gaile. I'm supposed to follow you. Kashya thinks you're going to get in trouble."
That made Xanthippe laugh. "Of course I'm going to get in trouble. Unless you think killing a demon lord won't be trouble. If Kashya is so concerned, she can get off her ass and help me herself." Leaders who sit back and send underlings to do the dangerous stuff shouldn't be in a position of leadership, in her opinion. And only idiots follow leaders who are afraid to lead.
Once they were out in the field, Xanthippe found that Gaile must have been named for the wind blowing through the empty space between her ears. She kept getting in the way of Xanthippe's charges, standing between her and the demons, just interfering with everything.
Near an escarpment, a ring of standing stones rose from the damp earth. They radiated magical power, of an unfamiliar kind. At the center of the ring, another group of obnoxious little bastard demons was screaming "Rakanishu!" These guys are so tedious. Kill one, they all run away, kill another, they all run away again, ad infinitum. Gaile shot the purple little bastard, and he started spitting lightning! Xanthippe, who was standing in a puddle at that moment, got the shock of her life. "AHHH! Don't shoot the purple one! Shoot one of the other ones!" "What?" "Don't shoot the purple one!" "But he's the most dangerous one! We've got to concentrate on him," Gaile yelled, and kept shooting.
Xanthippe quaffed one potion, then another. Gaile finally switched targets, and they killed off all the bastards except the purple one. He was very tough. Xanthippe would run up to him, hit him once, and run away to drink another potion. Gaile stood there and shot, lightning crackling through the rain. Cursing and hissing to stop shooting, Xanthippe elbowed Gaile in the stomach and, when her mouth opened, poured one of her healing potions down her throat. "Just keep back and keep hitting him!" Gaile said. "No, you've got to keep moving and dodge the lightning bolts!" "They come in too fast!" "Quit standing in the puddle if you're gonna do that!" "There's puddles everywhere! I've almost got him!"
Snarling, Xanthippe tried to hop back to little Rakanishu, avoiding the sparkling, wandering bolts, and crush his head, but she just couldn't hit the little bastard hard enough. Pounding and pounding, he kept spitting lightning and Xanthippe didn't even bother to use her shield, just kept grabbing potions off her belt and swallowing. Finally he died, but Gaile died too. Panting, staring at her dead body, Xanthippe wondered if she should even tell Kashya. She might assign another stupid Rogue to follow her around.
According to a map Akara had, the mountain pass was beyond the field of standing stones, but there was a short cut. A cave in the escarpment led to a tunnel which surfaced in a wood very close to the monastery. The woods were very dark, and full of demons, including a huge group of hairy brutes around a withered old tree. They hit hard, and nearly killed Xanthippe; she reconsidered telling Kashya about Gaile. Having someone else, at least to take some of the hits, might not be so bad. First, though, there was the tree, which just screamed with magic, and had five strange symbols carved into its bark. Xanthippe copied them down. You never know what might turn out to be useful.
The symbols on the tree, as it turned out, represented the stones of the standing circle. The circle was an old transport point, allowing travel to distant locations; a bit like the waypoints, but only along ley lines, and only to one destination. The Rogues had taken over the pass, not only for its economic value, but because it lay at the intersection of two ley lines, one of which also passed over the town of Tristram. That was where Diablo had resurfaced, and Deckard Cain the Elder, last of the Horadrim, lived there too.
The Horadrim were legendary among mages, even the Zann Esu respected them. Not that this means much, the Zann Esu didn't always have their priorities straight, but if there was only one left, and he had personal knowledge of Diablo, seeking him out would be a very wise move. But since Diablo had probably roared through Tristram like a bonfire, approaching with caution would also be a very wise move. Time to see about getting another meat shield... another Rogue.
"So, Gaile is dead," Kashya sneered. "And you're insisting it isn't your fault."
"I don't suppose you thought to tell them about the wonder that is a healing potion? They're so handy when you're standing in a puddle and fighting a lightning beast."
"I will allow you to hire one of my Rogues. One of them. And before you do, you are going to listen to me, and listen up good."
Now Xanthippe got to sneer. "Oh, please, speak to me, mighty warrioress. Enthrall me with your tales of daring deeds around the campfire."
She never saw it coming. The words were barely out of Xanthippe's mouth before she was flat on her back with a broken nose. Kashya stepped over Xanthippe, yanked her up by the hair, knocked her mace away, and spoke, punctuating each word with a hard slap to the face. "You. NEVER. Talk. To. Me. That. Way. NEVER!" Xanthippe kicked at her boots, flailed with her arms, and finally just hid her head behind her shield. That got her a knee right in her unprotected stomach. "Now, come here!" Kashya snarled. "If you take my women out into the field, you are going to learn which end of a sword is up!"
Kashya dragged Xanthippe to her tent, still by the hair, and grabbed a sword. "When you hold a sword, you hold it like this!" Shoving the weapon into Xanthippe's hand, Kashya forced her fingers around the hilt and squeezed until she screamed. "The blade's weight falls forward when you swing! You do not chop with it, you slice! Like you're throwing the blade! Got it?" Xanthippe nodded. "Now, the polearm. You do NOT grip it like a staff! It is not a staff, Archimedes! You need leverage! Put your left hand here, above the butt. That's your fulcrum. Your right hand goes here, in the middle of the shaft. That's your impetus, that's where the force comes from! Then you chop. Not slice, chop!" Xanthippe chopped, like it was a big axe. "Good!" Kashya snarled. "I do not want to see you misusing another weapon again. Now go see Akara. And wipe that blood off your face."
Akara clucked, and fixed Xanthippe's nose. "You must forgive Kashya, the loss of our monastery and so many of our warriors has been very hard on her."
"Hard on her!? They're the ones who are lying around dead all over the place. Kashya just stands around by the fire and sends them out to die..."
"Child, you do not understand the life of a warrior. Kashya did attempt an assault on the demon queen, in the catacombs of our monastery, and the meager few you see here are the only ones to survive. She has not sent anyone out to die, except perhaps those who might accompany you, and you must bear some responsibility for them."
"Gee, I thought they were supposed to be responsible for me."
"And there is the flaw in your thinking. Two warriors together must both bear responsibility for each other. Each works to cover the other's weak points. It is not a solitary way, you must trust completely. No one is simply a 'meat shield' for another."
Xanthippe's face was red, and not from bleeding. Akara was a lot like the Zann Esu seers, only worse. The Sightless Eye had irritatingly good vision. Meanwhile, her new Rogue appeared. A nice blonde girl named Debi.
"Like, hi! I've seen you around camp, it's so nice to meet you. You seem so, like, exotic, you know what I mean? You're a wizard, and Abhaya says you must be from Lut Gholein 'cause your skin's so dark, and I thought, this is really cool, I've never met anyone from there, I've heard it's really something, like, all mysterious. Do they have harems there?"
Xanthippe frowned. "Yes, there are harems there."
"Yeah, they must be so nice, all the silks and satin pillows and lounging around all day in a palace, with, like, swimming pools and parrots and cute monkeys to play with..."
Debi babbled on while Xanthippe bought her some armor and a bigger bow. Kashya wouldn't hire her out with equipment; that belonged to the order, not the individual members. Can't let the order's property go, even if it might save the world. When they went through the gate to Tristram, Debi finally shut up; the remains of the town were a sobering sight. Cain, though, was still alive, hanging in a cage in the middle of town, being battered and jabbed at like a particularly amusing pinata. He was tougher than he looked, though, and cast a portal spell to ride the ley line back to the Rogue camp as soon as he had room to make the gestures. The rest of Tristram was nothing but fire and corpses, but after killing every monster there, Xanthippe was finally strong enough to use her Steel saber, and her bardiche. She tested the bardiche on a handy demon shaman. It split in half very nicely. She liked it. She liked it a lot.
Another morning, another new world of muscle pain. At least the cuts and burns weren't leaving scars, Akara was good for that. Xanthippe dragged herself out of bed to face a new day running; it would work out old aches, and add some new ones. After several stretches, she mused for a moment, then dropped to the ground for some push-ups. Her arms looked firmer now, there were visible muscles under the skin, though that might just be swelling. But she tried to do 10 push-ups. One of the Rogues, Shika, could do 100, or even 5 with only one hand. Four... five... six... siii... that rounds up to 10. Sit-ups were easier, she could already do 20 of those at a time.
Debi was waiting outside. She wasn't one of her "roommates" from this tent. "Hi! What was all that grunting I heard?"
"Maybe it was one of the chickens. Ready to go?"
"Yep. Did you hear about Gheed?"
"What about Gheed?"
"Well, last night, at dinner, there was chicken stew, and after everybody ate, he started farting! I mean really, really, farting! You could hear them from Gaile's position! His coat was blasting out behind him and everything!"
Xanthippe grinned. "Maybe that's what those noises were."
"I swear, it must have been so funny! I think Warriv was wondering about you. This is, like, the third strange thing that's happened to Gheed since you got here."
"What was the other one?"
"When someone rubbed poison ivy inside his underwear?"
Xanthippe silently shook her head. "Who would be cruel enough to do that?"
"I dunno. Kashya just said she was glad she didn't wear underwear."
Trying not to look disappointed, Xanthippe shrugged. "Well, I wasn't even in camp when those things happened, so Warriv shouldn't worry about me."
"Warriv kind of wondered about someone smearing soap inside the bowl Gheed always uses. That's an old trick, he said."
"Gee, I didn't know that." As they went through the waypoint, Xanthippe wondered about Kashya. Maybe poison ivy inside those nice, thigh-high boots she wears. Except she'd break my nose again, without any proof I even did it. Maybe I'll do something to her later; Kashya was actually halfway respectable. At least she knew what a fulcrum was.
The advice Kashya had so tenderly bestowed upon Xanthippe turned out to be very good. She had held her weapons firmly before, with her fingers perpendicular to the shaft. But with her fingers diagonal to the weapon, her hand and wrist were looser, and she no longer just chopped and hacked. The saber almost seemed to leap in her hand, whipping out and slicing deep into enemies from its own weight; she hardly had to exert with her arm at all, merely guide the edge where she wanted it to go. Of course, the "Steel" saber was a really superior weapon, nicer than anything else available. When she switched to the bardiche, it also gave excellent results, putting her shoulders and back into chopping, and parrying like a staff when she needed it. Now, why didn't more mages use these things? Don't have the muscle for it?
Debi kept up a constant stream of chatter through all the killing and death. "So, I was, like, so totally amazed 'cause of all the fireworks, and then it looked like this huge dragon came roaring into the courtyard! It was so cool!"
"Uh-huh." Fireworks, a standard visiting wizard tactic for impressing local yokels.
"And then it like exploded, and all these pretty paper flowers rained down on everybody! I got one, but it was kind of burned around the edge."
Sloppily-made fireworks, too. "What about the mage?"
"Oh, he got to eat at the high table, and they gave him his own room for free, and it was all, like, really neat! Did you ever have wizards where you were?"
Xanthippe turned and stared at Debi. "Debi... I'm a witch, remember?"
"Oh, yeah, they must have come by all the time! Wait, aren't you 'women only'?"
"Yes," Xanthippe returned to hacking a goat demon to bits. "Women only. To escape from brutal, patriarchal domination. That way, we get a taste of brutal, matriarchal domination instead."
"We're not dominated. Women don't do that."
Xanthippe sighed. "Debi... why is your order called the Rogues?"
"Oh, 'cause we're rogue women. Everyone started calling the sisterhood Rogues 'cause we don't do what men tell us to."
"Exactly, men made society, for the enrichment of men. You, like the Zann Esu, left to make a society of your own in an isolated place. It's called radical separatism."
Debi looked a bit confused. Eventually, she nodded. "Uh-huh."
"All right. Now, when's the last time you disobeyed an order from Kashya or Akara?"
Debi shook her head. "Akara is wiser than anybody. And Kashya always knows what to do. We all trust her."
"So, you do what you're told."
"Well... why wouldn't we? I mean, Akara is always right. She's the most blessed by the Sightless Eye, she knows better than anyone."
Xanthippe nodded triumphantly. "So what you've got here is a society where the head is always right, and never to be questioned."
"Yet, when you have a traditional society, where the king, or 'father', is always right and never to be questioned, that's wrong and you should rebel? The only difference up here is that it's women who are on top. Does that make your society any better, just by putting different people on top?" In their wanderings through the marsh, they came to a ruined tower, and stopped beside it. Debi actually looked upset. "That is so not right! Akara is blessed by our goddess, that's better than any king!"
"Don't get me started on religion. Ever heard of the divine right to rule? Everybody who rules claims they're ordained to rule, they know best, the only thing you should do is obey them. From the head of a family, right up to Akara or any king. Women do it as well as men."
"Look, Akara is the wisest, purest, most... wise woman in the world, and Kashya always looks out for us. Women just don't have that, you know, need to dominate."
"You've obviously never met the Zann Esu matriarchs. What is this place, anyway?"
"Maybe your Zen Esus do, but never say something like that about Akara. It's just not true."
Looking at the tower, Debi suddenly went pale. "Oh. This is the Countess' tower."
"The Countess? Countess of where?"
"No one knows her name anymore. She was a Countess, who came to escape her husband. The Order welcomed her, and she lived here. But girls started disappearing."
"She was killing virgin girls and bathing in their blood. She'd drink it too. She thought it would keep her young forever."
Xanthippe nodded. "Maybe she didn't flee here to escape her husband. No idea about her name or where she was from?"
"Her name was stricken away a long time ago."
A cellar door was all that was left inside the tower. It smelled pretty bad down there, maybe there were demons lurking in the dark. "And she was executed a long time ago, right?"
"Yeah... I think."
"I'll bet there are some demons hiding down there. Let's check it out."
The first level looked like a wine cellar. Maybe this had been a winery before, there were reddish stains on the floor. There was a hidden door, now broken in, which led to a stairway down. Below were several levels of cellars, all full of bones. Hundreds of skulls were scattered on the floor, stuffed into wall niches, everywhere. The few whole skeletons looked so... tiny. To dig such deep cellars, and fill them all, this Countess must have been killing and killing for years. Didn't the Rogues' all-seeing Sightless Eye see what was happening? Or were the Rogues were so sure a woman could never do this, they never thought to look at one of their own? Maybe they just didn't see it was happening until it was too late.
There were demons in the cellars. Goat demons, gory red ones, and many, many ghosts. The fixtures in the cellars were valuable, and there were some excellent weapons and armor. Both Xanthippe and Debi got new helmets out of the tower. At the bottom of the cellars, they found quite a bit more. A long hall, full of ghosts, held a cauldron of boiling hot blood; the smell was horrifying. Coins and valuables were scattered all over the floor; rings, combs, silver buckles, pendants and bracelets. In the back of the cellar, a few women, dressed in ragged servants garb, were huddled by the entrance to a final chamber. They were all very pale and thin, their flesh shrunk to their bones, and fell back into the chamber as Xanthippe advanced.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are..." Xanthippe was sure something much worse than those women was in there. If the servants were alive, the master must be with them. "No, no," Debi whispered, "she's supposed to be dead." Something laughed, and hissed, low and slow, "Your blood will boil." Maybe the Countess was dead, had been for years, she and her servants with her. Maybe Andariel had found her in there, and gave her a mockery of the life she'd been willing to kill hundreds of times over for. "Debi, she is dead. We've just got to go in there and remind her." Then the servants rushed out silently. They were terribly strong, and screamed in delight at the first sight of blood. A tall, beautiful, almost translucently white woman followed behind, with an... axe? Her voice hardly rose above a murmur. "Hold them... do not spill a drop."
Xanthippe hardly knew where she found the strength. She tore away from the servants, dropped her saber, and snatched the bardiche off her back. Screaming the silence away, she charged straight at the Countess, swinging wildly, not even looking where the blows landed. Something crunched-- an axe bounced off her helmet-- all Xanthippe could see was red, but she kept swinging. An arrow whizzed past her ear, hands clawed at her back; Debi must be shooting the Countess, she jumped to the side to give her a clearer shot. There was an explosion of gore. More hands clawed at her; Xanthippe hacked and smashed in their direction, eyes shut tight against the blood. Spinning and whirling, suddenly the bardiche wasn't hitting anything. But there was still screaming... no, that was just her. She stopped and opened her eyes.
The Countess was lying on the floor in pieces. She had burst like a bloated tick. The Countess' chamber held what must be her personal treasure; a lot of gold, and several items bearing the crest of a noble family line. Looking at the ornate emblem, Xanthippe knew she would probably have no love for them. But if the Countess was fleeing them, they must have known what she was. Before she returned to camp, she and Debi pried off, chopped off, or obliterated every crest and sign of who the Countess once was. Wiping her name away forever seemed perfectly fitting.
After disposing of the Countess, and her things, Xanthippe found herself quite wealthy. There wasn't much to spend money on in camp, except at Gheed's. Having never officially been near Gheed, this would be an excellent time for her to introduce herself. Having a full money pouch in view would ingratiate her quite nicely, if she remembered Gheed.
"Hi there," Xanthippe smiled sweetly.
"You stay away from me, you little [I want my mummy]. I don't know what I ever did to you, but I know it's you!"
"Have you been having some problems?"
"I haven't had a rash like this since that night at The Slippery Fist. Who are you, anyway? I don't remember seeing you before."
"What, they don't have girls like me at The Slippery Fist?"
"What a man does to entertain himself in a strange town is his own business. I'll thank you to mind yours and stay out of mine!"
"I always do! Mind, I mean." She smiled coyly, and bounced a bit. "I've got a little problem."
"You're telling me?" But the bounce made Xanthippe's purse jingle loudly. It was practically falling off her belt. "However, I'm always glad to help a young lady in need!"
"Well, if you've got something good enough..."
"Always the finest! I guarantee it."
"Well..." Xanthippe drew in the dirt with her toe. "How's your... equipment?"
"Don't even try, little girl. I don't impress easily."
"I know. You like the big busty ones who spank you."
Oh, what an interesting shade of purplish-red Gheed turned. "Oh, so you're from that line of work." His eyes narrowed. "Yes... one of the girls from the Silver Moon house."
"The Black Swan Oasis?"
"You're not old enough for the Areb Shayar; they have more class."
"You idiot," Xanthippe laughed. "I'm not old enough for any of them! If you knew anything, you'd know mages have to study for at least 7 years, and 7 years ago, I was 10."
Chuckling very unpleasantly, Gheed sneered, "There are harems for that, too."
Xanthippe wondered if Gheed really knew of such a place. "Are you trying to make me hate you even more?"
"Come now, what's wrong with a diversity of experience? But I didn't think you wanted to discuss matters of the heart... unless you have some need to... ?"
That smug smirk still brought out the same homicidal urges... and now, she was big enough to do more than just throw camel dung. But Warriv would intervene, and Xanthippe didn't want to have to kill him too. "Yes. For equipment."
Gheed rubbed his hands together. "And you want to see mine?"
"You've got a breastplate inside your cart. Mind if I take a look at it?"
"I do mind. For you, cash up front."
And it was expensive, too. Nice breastplate, and a belt to go with it, but Gheed made her pay through the nose. All right, Xanthippe reflected, I lost that round. But he wouldn't be bothering any of the guilds when he got to Lut Gholein. The poison ivy took care of that. Still, the bastard really knew how to give you a crawly feel in your gut. Freak.
Back out in the field, Debi was quiet as they approached the monastery. Not too surprising, except that before this, Debi never seemed to shut up about the monastery. Xanthippe had a good idea of the place's layout through her; an outer gate, courtyard, a cathedral in the middle of the yard, with Andariel in the catacombs. Getting through the courtyard would be a bitch, if there were enough archers in there; they'd be moving targets in a big open area like that. That probably wasn't what was up with Debi, though.
"Something on your mind?" Xanthippe asked.
"Um..." Debi paused to shoot a Rogue. "I was wondering..."
"About what corrupted your sisters?"
"About what we're going to find inside the monastery?"
"About what I do at night when no one's looking?"
"You chop wood."
"It's good for my shoulders. What are you wondering about?"
"If you say 'um' one more time, I'm gonna stuff your bow down your throat."
"No you won't, I'm stronger than you."
"WHAT IS IT, DEBI!?!"
"'Uh' isn't any better!"
Looking very uncertain, Debi bit her lip. "How do you... know... about Gheed?"
Smirking, Xanthippe said, "You're not supposed to listen in on other people."
"But he's, like, old and creepy! How do you even know a creepy old guy like him?"
Thinking about a good answer to that took Xanthippe will into the monastery's outer yard. "Debi, what do you think a harem is?"
"It's, like, a place with... um..."
"Silks and satiny pillows, billowy pants and lounging around all day eating grapes?"
"Um... that's what's in the pictures."
"Fine. A harem is a feature of Lut Gholein. Lut Gholein is in a desert. The land has nothing to live on. There is no way Lut Gholein could be a rich city if it weren't for trade. It is the best trade port on the Twin Seas. But it's no good if the merchants just sell stuff or move it through. The sultan taxes the goods, but if he taxed them enough to get rich, the merchants would go to another city. He needs them to spend money of their own free will. That's what harems are for." "How do harems get merchants to spend money?"
"They're seraglios, Debi."
Debi blinked. "Oh."
"And Gheed goes to all of them. All. The. Time."
"So, that means you..."
"No. When the Zann Esu came to get me, I was 7. My mother was in one."
"That's terrible!" Debi frowned. "Didn't her mother know, and help her out of there?"
"She was the house madam."
Debi just stared. "She... they... but that's..."
"Yep. Lut Gholein is the jewel of the desert. That's because they take all the pretty girls, dress them up nice, and line the streets with them when the merchant caravans come to town. They 'entertain' them too, and the sultan gets his cut."
"That's horrible! That's men using women to make themselves rich!"
"You got it. Hit the nail right on the head with that one."
"That is everything we Rogues are opposed to! Someone should do something about it!"
"No one's going to do anything about it, Debi."
"But they're exploiting women!"
"Yep. If they didn't, Lut Gholein wouldn't get money out of the merchants. It would be all business, no pleasure, and they've got nothing worth selling. Everyone would be poor, and poverty sucks. That's why my grandmother heads a house and pimps her daughters. Even though I hate the Zann Esu, I'm glad I was born with the gift. Let's kill things."
Debi shut up again. The courtyard inside the outer walls was indeed wide open. Peeking through, they could see every Rogue and her long-lost cousin, hiding behind a column or bush, arrows at the ready. Maybe another way in would be better. The main gate barracks were off to one side, through a sheltered walkway they could use for cover. A big fat demon inside the barracks had one of Charsi's tools, a magic smithing hammer; she was happy to have it back. The Rogue's jails were under the barracks, and extended to an inner cloister next to the cathedral. So, they went through the jail. The demons had found the torture equipment, and used it enthusiastically; they hurried through quickly.
The cathedral in the middle of the Rogue monastery was a horrible mess. The demons had really enjoyed themselves in there. The baptismal was full of clotting blood, the pews were all broken, and the frescoes had obscene additions or were just burnt. There was one big threat in the cathedral, a skeleton spewing poison. She'd probably come out of a burst reliquary by the main altar, where churchly folk put the bones of their saints. So much for sainthood. The dead saint actually chased Xanthippe out of the cathedral and back to camp for an antidote, her poison was so strong.
On her way back, Xanthippe stopped to ask Cain about saints. He replied, "The Rogue cathedral, from what I am told, holds the relics of many female saints, including St. Dorothea, who some doubt should have been made a saint at all."
"What'd she do?"
"She ministered a home for the indigent in Westmarch, and earned the love and respect of all who knew her. However, many of the poor souls who took shelter with her became sick and slowly died under her care. Others disappeared, and were never heard from again."
That would be odd, Xanthippe thought. "Did she keep rat poison?"
"That is lost to the mists of history, I am afraid. Why do you wish to know?"
"I'd heard of a woman who slowly poisoned her children, so they were always sick and dying and she'd selflessly take care of them. Everybody thought she was some kind of saint too, until her husband caught her putting the rat poison in their food."
Cain thought about that for a while. "I cannot understand why any woman would do such a thing."
"So she could look good," Xanthippe shrugged. "The easiest way to look good is quietly do bad, then make sure everybody sees you fixing it."
"But one cannot do good, if..."
"No, I didn't say 'do good.' I said 'look good.' Easy way to get the praise and admiration."
Brows furrowing, Cain sighed. "At times, the duplicity of man can put demons to shame."
"She was a woman. Anyway, it would explain why Dorothea is up and spitting poison. None of the other saints are. Might want to de-canonize her after all this is over."
With the help of antidote potions, Dorothea was laid to rest, though when she died, her cold heart burst, and nearly killed both Xanthippe and Debi. The catacombs under the cathedral were almost as cold. Bones were everywhere... but lying still. Maybe the life you lead does affect what demons can do with your body, Xanthippe thought. If so, religion would be a good thing, if the religion was on the right path. That was the hard part; religions do not tolerate rational examination of their sacred beliefs. Evil and good are not discrete things, simply labels ascribed by the human mind. Yet, most religions insist that they are actual properties of things, and even claim to be able to 'detect' evil! Perhaps you can detect a demon, but a demon, if viewed simply as an extra-planar creature, does not necessarily have to be "evil."
It was a strange train of thought that went through Xanthippe's mind, as they hacked their way down the catacombs. For not-evil extra-planar entities, these demons sure were feisty, but this was an invasion force, and must be opposed like any other. Though the blood bubbling up through the floor was kind of unsettling. At the lowest level of the catacombs, beyond a pool of blood and bodies, was a small temple. Choking green mists filled the air, through which they could faintly see something shaped like a woman, about 12 feet high, with huge spider legs coming out of her back.
"Ok, Debi. You say she spits poisonous mists?"
"Yeah. That's what killed most of our sisters."
"I believe it, I can smell it from here. A shield won't do much good."
"Uh-uh. You have to stay away from her."
"Or right in her face. With a..."
"FEAR ME, MORTAL!"
Out of the mists charged a Freudian nightmare -- resplendent in her finest jeweled g-string -- nipple chains by Versace -- hair by a 110-volt outlet and a fork. It was just too much to be believed. Xanthippe drew a deep breath... and started laughing right in Andariel's face.
"Oh, puh-lease! What is this? Carnival season is over!"
"YOU WILL INTERFERE NO LONGER!"
"Xanthippe! Duck! Run!"
"Aw, c'mon! What's she gonna do? Beat me to death with her boobs?"
With a snarl of rage, Andariel strode forward. She was very tall -- Xanthippe was looking her straight in the, uh, g-string -- before she reared back, and slammed down right on top of Xanthippe's head. The double blow was bone-jarring. Well, Xanthippe thought, her helmet crushed down over her eyes, I guess I asked for that. Then came the poison; Andariel opened her mouth far wider than anyone should be able to, and out whooshed a burning, choking, green cloud.
Pushing her helmet up, Xanthippe swung her bardiche, chopping into Andariel's alabaster thigh. Debi was choking off behind her somewhere; Xanthippe tossed an antidote potion over her shoulder, and chugged one herself, with a healing chaser. Andariel lashed at Xanthippe with her huge spider's legs, venom now dripping from small arrow wounds. Parrying was futile, that just got Xanthippe knocked all around the room, so she jumped away and stabbed at Andariel's gut. Keeping some distance seemed like a good idea. Then Andariel let out another gout of venom.
If I'm going to die down here, Xanthippe thought, at least I'll leave my mark. Stretching up as high as she could reach, she stabbed up into Andariel's cleavage. This sliced her chest nicely, but then Xanthippe snapped the bardiche back through those oh-so vulnerable nipple chains. The stupid things tore right out! The ceiling-shaking bellow alone was worth it. Andariel, now absolutely furious, backhanded Xanthippe into a wall, blasted her with poison again, blasted Debi, and waited, roaring with pain.
Time for another antidote potion. No wonder Kashya hadn't been able to take Andariel, the venom clouds she put off were serious business, and covered a huge area. Archers would be almost helpless. Getting up, Xanthippe charged back into the fray, and stabbed into Andariel's gut. The blade bit deep, and she was able to dodge Andariel's return strike and chop into her thigh again. A spray of venomous blood gouted out; must have hit an artery! All she had to do now was keep the bitch running until she bled to death... no that wouldn't work. The wound, she could see, was already starting to close.
Another chop from the bardiche severed the nipple chains completely. They fell to the floor, and Xanthippe made sure to stomp on them. Should she go for the g-string? No, that would probably be scary, and wouldn't hurt Andariel much. Instead, she concentrated on her gut, trying to dodge blows and dish out as much punishment as she could. Finally, a burst of fire flashed out of Andariel's bowels, and she fell screaming to the floor, consumed from within in a column of flame. Not a minute too soon. Xanthippe drank her last antidote potion. The temple was finally quiet. Too quiet.
Debi was dead, her face green and swollen as she lay in a puddle of blood. Xanthippe had forgotten her in the middle of the fight, and now she was dead. When she returned to town and told everyone Andariel was dead, everyone was overjoyed, except Kashya.
"You forgot her."
"I was kind of busy down there."
Frowning, Kashya looked away. "You defeated Andariel. That's more than I thought you could do. But you do not forget your soldiers."
"I... know. I'm sorry."
Kashya's eyes snapped back. "What did you just say?"
"I said I'm sorry."
Kashya stared, until Xanthippe wished she were back fighting Andariel again. "Those are the last words I ever expected to hear coming out of your mouth."
"Well, I am sorry! Give me a break!"
The corners of Kashya's mouth twitched. Then, someone cleared his throat loudly -- it was Warriv.
"If you'll excuse me... my caravan is moving out, and it occurs to me that our young friend here will want to join us. The dark wanderer she is pursuing was last seen headed for Lut Gholein, and that is where I have every intention of going as quickly as possible."
"Yes," Kashya said. "Andariel's death will be meaningless if the greater evil is not caught. As for you... if you ever want to return here, you will be welcome. Who knows? You may make something of yourself yet."