Xanthippe (Act II)
Warriv's caravan stopped inside the western gates of Lut Gholein. The town was full of people, but there were no crowds to greet them, just a single, well-dressed man only slightly older than Xanthippe. Guards were on all the walls, armed and ready for action. While Warriv negotiated their entrance fee, Xanthippe stood on top of a cart to look over the city.
The buildings looked the same, maybe a little smaller than she remembered, and a little more run-down. The colorful banners they usually put up for a caravan were absent; so were all the greeters. The central marketplace looked almost deserted, just a few salesmen, and fewer customers. Quite a few people were wandering around, in a directionless way; they looked like they were just passing time. Warriv was having an animated conversation with the young guy, who was probably one of Sultan Fat-ass's officials. Xanthippe wondered what had happened to the old Vizier; not that he'd ever come out to the gate, he'd greet the caravan master on the palace steps. But he always made sure the merchants got a good parade when they came to town.
At the head of the caravan, Warriv was motioning to her, so Xanthippe hopped down and went to greet the official. Warriv had probably been telling him about the Rogue's pass, Andariel's corruption of the monastery, and her defeat. If Andariel was delaying pursuit of Diablo, then Diablo had probably already reached here; it would explain the guards, and the lack of celebration. The city was still standing; that was a good sign, at least.
"Greetings, honored traveler. I understand that I have you to thank for the caravans coming through the western pass once again."
"I guess you do. Has Sultan Faduwas any idea of the source of your demon troubles?"
The young man stared stonily at Xanthippe. "My father has been dead for nearly two years. I am Jerhyn, Lord of Lut Gholein, and I bid you welcome on your return. It seems you have not visited my fair port city for some time."
Right, Xanthippe thought. "Thank you, my lord, I have not. The city seems less... cheery than last time."
"These are not happy times we live in," Jerhyn said. "There is little to bring us joy, save your appearance. One who can vanquish such great evil may bring us hope."
Don't think I'm gonna save your city for free, junior. But Xanthippe smiled. "Well, gee, I hope I can help just a little bit. Do you have any idea what you're up against?"
"A few weeks ago, a dark wanderer came from the west, and terror followed in his wake. The dead have risen from their tombs, and strange beasts, never before seen in this land, stalk the dunes. I cannot doubt that this is connected with a great evil. If you need help, perhaps you should speak with Drognan, he is very wise and knows many things. Oh, and Atma, our tavern keeper, has something she might ask of you."
So Drognan was still around. Xanthippe thought he was even older than Fat-ass, but maybe he kept himself healthier; or, maybe, he really had some of that power he was always bragging about. Either way, she didn't want to talk to him, he was a big pompous jerk. Hey, Meshif was down by the docks. Xanthippe liked Meshif, he'd always been nice to the girls over at her grandmother's. A couple of them wanted to marry him, but he seemed married to his ship. He didn't recognize Xanthippe; she didn't tell him how she knew him. Might embarrass him.
Atma's tavern was full. People were at the tables, at the bar, and milling around aimlessly. Everything went silent when Xanthippe walked in; she wondered if her skirts had ridden up or something, before she remembered she slew a greater demon not long ago. Word travels fast around a town, everyone had probably heard by now. Standing a little straighter, Xanthippe stepped up to the bar.
"Hello. You're Atma."
"I am," the sad woman behind the bar answered. "You are the one who slew Andariel."
"Yep," Xanthippe nodded. "Jerhyn said you had a problem."
"I do. There is a demon in the sewers below the town, a bloodthirsty creature who kills all it sees. Though confined to the sewers now by Greiz's guards, it used to hunt the city at night for victims. It killed my husband and my son. If you will help me, avenge me... I would be grateful to you."
This was not the same Atma Xanthippe remembered; she had been a proud woman once. She and her husband ran the tavern, an "honest business", and looked down on the girls from the guilds. She'd chased Xanthippe out more than once, calling her foul names. Now, she looked broken, and exhausted, as though she wasn't sleeping. Humility suited her well. "Sure," Xanthippe said. "What's another demon? I'll kill a lot more before I'm done."
The central marketplace was mostly empty. Some foreign woman Xanthippe didn't recognize had set up a smithy. After Charsi, this woman looked positively willowy. But old Lysander was still in business! Xanthippe could remember running to his shop for a "cure disease" potion, after every time Gheed came to the house. He never judged anyone, just sold it without asking, and gave her some licorice. Lysander was almost deaf now, probably from all those explosions. He'd made one once that made a purple cloud with gold stars and lightning in it. But he was happy to see Xanthippe, and gave her some licorice too.
Chewing her licorice, Xanthippe wandered up to the north end of town, where the inn used to be. Outside the inn, two old warriors were chatting about the good old days, robbing and looting, and things involving unwilling women. Judging from the number of parts he was missing, one wouldn't be having any more good days. The other was hiring mercenaries out. Hmm, men for sale. Xanthippe bought one, named Razan, and went down into the sewers.
The sewers had always been a good place to hide, or get from one building to another. Now they were full of skeletons, swinging scimitars and firing flaming arrows. The shield was more useful than the bardiche down here, so Razan did most of the killing until they got down to the bottom of the sewers. The monster was there, a huge undead thing stitched together from human and animal parts. Many "servant" skeletons were with him; he was probably an old high official, mummified at great expense to guard his own tomb. The vanity of wealth is incredible.
Killing it took a long time, it was very tough, and had poisonous breath. As it died, strange lights shot down from the ceiling; that was odd, maybe Xanthippe should ask Drognan about it. He'd know about the magic used to hold these dead rich guys together. Among his remains was a book of magic; Xanthippe grabbed for it. Razan tried to get her attention, but the book looked old and valuable. Quickly, she began leafing through it; it contained a spell for enchanting a weapon with fire. That would be great, she thought, before she noticed that Razan was wheezing. He died as she was pulling the antidote potion out.
The cleansing of the sewers (so to speak) made everyone in town very happy. Greiz moved his men away from the sewer entrances, and Atma convinced the town's merchants to let the wheels of commerce run a little more smoothly for Xanthippe. And just in time, too; the sewer fiend had a Tir rune. Andarial had an El rune, and Fara (the new blacksmith) had a morning star with two sockets, much heavier than the saber and better suited to crushing undead bones. With all those skeletons, a saber's light blade just wasn't enough. A "Steel" morning star would be great for skeletons and mummies. This was probably her "test" upon coming to a new town, so Xanthippe went to tell Jerhyn she had passed.
"Others attempted to rid us of that fiend before this," Jerhyn said. "Often, we found them floating in the bay, with pieces of their bodies missing. Others, we never found at all."
"It was stitching together some kind of suit out of pieces of human skin. I don't think all of its parts were original equipment, either."
"Drognan tells me that you have not spoken with him. It would be a wise of you to do so. He would know much better than I what to make of this."
"It's dead. What else matters?"
Jerhyn looked uncomfortable. "It may matter, I fear, for I must ask something of you."
Raising an eyebrow, Xanthippe asked, "Ask? Cannot a lord order those in his lands?"
This seemed to surprise Jerhyn. "I remember, now, that you were in Lut Gholein when my father was sultan. There are many things about my father which I did not admire, even in my youth, and I have no desire to be like him now. You will not be ordered, or compelled in any way. I can only ask you, beg you if needs be, to help my city."
Xanthippe considered this. Seeing this bejeweled young man begging for help from a whore's daughter might be fun. "And... how may I help your city, great lord?"
Jerhyn relaxed visibly. "I am sure that the dark wanderer who came here from the west must be... Diablo himself!"
What a genius. "And?"
"He must have come here to search for his brother's tomb. Ages ago, the Horadric mage Tal Rasha took the essence of the dark lord Baal into himself, to wrestle against for all eternity. If Diablo finds the tomb where both were imprisoned together, he may free his brother, and both great evils will be free to roam the land."
That would be very bad. Xanthippe was willing to forgo the pleasure of watching a sultan humiliate himself for more information. "Where are Tal Rasha and Baal entombed?"
"There is a set of tombs in a small valley, the Valley of the Magi, with 7 tombs. Six of the tombs are false, filled with traps and deadly magics. But so much time has passed, that no one knows where the valley is any more, or which of the tombs is the true tomb."
Diablo would be looking for the tomb too, and had a head start. If she was going to catch him, there was no time to waste. "Thank you, Lord Jerhyn. I will speak with Drognan immediately."
Drognan was outside his little shop, watching her approach with a faint smile. "Greetings, young sorceress. I have been expecting you."
"Well, hi. Of course you have. Jerhyn dropped enough hints."
"You were always a willful child. Even running your grandmother's errands, you could not constrain yourself to the path she gave you. When told to run to the market, you walked there around the houses. If she told you to go straight down the street, you would jump from roof to roof. Oh yes, I recognize you. I am not so old as to begin forgetting."
More smugness; Xanthippe gritted her teeth. "Fine. Three cheers for you. What do you know about Tal Rasha?"
"The greatest of the Horadrim, Tal Rasha was known for his unmatched --"
"The condensed version, please."
"Tal Rasha chose to embody Baal, knowing it would mean wrestling against his will for the rest of eternity. Both were buried in a secret chamber, whose location has been hidden from all. When the wanderer came here, he asked after the tomb."
"Wouldn't Di... I mean, he know where it was?"
"The brothers were separated in the mortal realms, and none could know the fate of the others. The wanderer was lost, which gives me hope that he may be defeated here. There are many tombs scattered across the desert, and if he must search them all, it will buy all of us much-needed time."
"One last question: which of the seven tombs is the real one?"
"That knowledge was deliberately lost. How it might be found again, I do not know."
Smug, and completely useless; that describes mages to a tee. Even that short exchange left Xanthippe boiling mad. How was she going to find this tomb first by random searching? Unlike demon lords, she needed to sleep, and eat. It just wasn't fair! Yeah, like whining about it would do any good. Better get started; another mercenary might be a good investment. She went to see Greiz.
"Nice to see you again," Greiz said gruffly. "Didn't see most of the heroes who went after that thing more than once."
"Some people say I'm like a bad rash. Just won't go away. I need another man."
Greiz smirked. "You've come to the right place. What are you looking for in a man?"
"I need staying power, a man who knows how to protect himself and me."
Greiz smirked more. Elzix looked over, obviously listening in. "You're sure you wouldn't want one more skilled, or a quick recovery time so he can get back in faster?"
"No. If he's behind me, he's gotta be able to go the distance."
"Behind you, huh? Most women want the man in front."
"So I'm weird. He's gotta go in hard and fast, and follow orders too."
Turning away, Greiz surveyed the men he had up on the wall. That's what it looked like from behind, anyway; actually he was biting his knuckle, trying not to laugh. "Hey, Waheed. This young lady here wants to see you."
Waheed came down. "Yes, sir. What am I supposed to do?"
Greiz gestured to Xanthippe. "This is... uh..."
"Yeah, Xanthippe. She looks like she swings a mean stick, and needs a man who knows how to handle his. I figure you're the right one for the job."
Elzix piped up, "Wasn't there a kid here who got sold to gypsies named Xanthippe?"
"I dunno, I don't hang around town any more than I have to," Greiz replied. "Good luck, I think you're gonna need it."
He didn't explain which of them needed the luck. Outside of town, the desert was full of demonic vultures, and the little scuttling cliff leapers were attacking people in packs. They never used to do that. Right by the entrance of town was a tomb, where Xanthippe used to play "tomb raiders" with her friends when she was little. She was always the "raider" then, and now, there were some real walking dead in there to raid. The mummies broke easily with her new bashing implement; avoid the corpse gas, and you'd be fine. If only Waheed could remember that; he wasn't the sharpest spear in the armory.
Further out in the desert was another tomb, actually a complex of them. The burials went deep into the earth, and the whole place was just lousy with skeletons, mummies, and big greater mummies like the sewer fiend. At the bottom of the tombs was a special chamber, with a Horadric Cube. Oooh, the Zann Esu had a book describing the Horadric Cube, that was a wonderful thing to have. All kinds of transmutations used the cube, the recipes filled whole volumes. Since Cain was a Horadrim mage, maybe he'd know a few useful ones.
"You have quite a treasure in that cube."
"Yeah, these things are legendary. What recipes do you know?"
"All require certain ingredients. For instance, 3 chipped gems and a magical sword will make a new sword, with different enchantments and 3 sockets for your use."
"Coolness! Hey, how about potions? Making antidotes in the field would be great."
"Three potions of healing, and three potions of mana, will make a potion of rejuvenation." Xanthippe started going through her pack. "That's handy. How about scrolls?"
Cain looked startled. "Where... where did you find that scroll?"
"Huh? Oh, the sewer fiend had it."
"That must have been Radamant, the keeper of scrolls! This is a record from the expedition which captured Baal!"
Xanthippe blinked. "That might be something useful?"
"Let me translate it... ah! In Tal Rasha's tomb, the innermost chamber is protected by a seal, which can only be opened by using a Horadric staff. To prevent their theft, the staves were all broken into shaft and headpiece, and hidden in the desert."
"Okay... so we need to find the valley, the true tomb, and a staff to open the tomb?"
"If you intend to find Tal Rasha, yes..."
"Sure I do. I have a plan. Don't worry, I won't tell you. But you're going to love it."
The Horadric Cube was an incredibly useful thing. You could make rejuvenation potions, greater rejuves, improve gems, change item enchantments, craft items with specific properties, there were all kinds of recipes. Most needed rare and expensive ingredients, but that's pretty common in alchemy. Some recipes, like the gems and potions, seemed to follow a "law of threes"; three of something made an improved version of the same. Others didn't have much rhyme or reason -- for instance, two packs of arrows would make a set of bolts, or two bolts would make a bunch of arrows. How the cube differentiated one unenchanted pile of sticks and another was unclear.
After playing with the cube for a while, Xanthippe ran out of things to transform. Her chest had more room, and she had many valuable gems. One was a big diamond, about the size of her mom's pendant. The pendant was a gift from a customer, maybe Xanthippe's father, and mom was very protective of it. Looking at the sparkling gem, it occurred to Xanthippe that she hadn't gone to visit her family. She wasn't sure if she wanted to. They did sell her to the Zann Esu. The Zann Esu always claimed they don't "buy" their apprentices, but the families are always rewarded. Xanthippe couldn't imagine her grandmother giving up anything without some kind of compensation.
For that matter, Xanthippe hadn't seen anyone from the guilds on the streets. The buildings they worked out of didn't smell of perfume, and none of the expected sounds filled the night. She went to look at her grandmother's house, near the palace; it had been divided into a set of apartments not long ago, and families were living there. Where was her mother? Jerhyn was outside his palace; he must know.
"Lord Jerhyn, I crave a moment of your time."
"You need but ask. Please, how may I help you?"
Xanthippe smiled. Lord Fat-ass never said 'please' to anybody. "When I visited here last, there were several harem guilds operating..."
"Ah, yes. Another relic of my father's days. I fear the reputation of our city and our people suffered greatly during his reign, and it will be years before we recover our good name."
"So... you've banned the guilds?"
"No, no." Jerhyn smiled. "My father, though I owe him my life and position, enriched himself by pandering to man's lowest impulses. Gambling houses, hired women, blood sports, all of these things were used to separate the unprincipled from their wealth. I want to change our city, and make Lut Gholein a true jewel of the desert, not a polished paste gem, cheap and showy."
"So the harems had to go."
"The harems..." Jerhyn thought for a moment. "They presented me with a quandary. I believe our city -- my city -- should have real products to offer the world, not low entertainments. Did you know that, before my father's time, there was a great tradition of craft here? Works in glass, clay, and stone, the best in the world."
"No, I didn't know that."
"Antiques from that period are treasured in the noble houses of every land. Now, our potters and glass blowers produce nothing but cheap trinkets and souvenirs for visitors. The waters of the bay were once clear and clean. Fish were abundant, but between heavy fishing for the feasts, and the sheer... waste that flowed back, the fish are nearly gone. Weeds and slime choke the waters."
That was well before Xanthippe's time. The bay had always been black and smelly, as far as she knew. "So, you want everyone to go into 'honest' business."
"I want my city to be something more than a bawdy house, for visitors to let themselves loose in. With time to recover, our bay could produce fish for sale again, in quantities that could be sustained for centuries. I have been encouraging our craftsmen to return to the old ways of making things, and revive our past glory."
"What about the harems?"
Jerhyn took a deep breath, and slowly let it out. "The harems... no longer have official sanction. Depending on them was degrading for our city, and for the poor girls forced into that way of life by my father's greed. I will not force them from their business, but I will not condone it. They continued to operate, but were no longer allowed to parade their 'wares' in the streets before visitors. They are no longer taxed, so none of their profits flow to me, but I have forced heavy fines on them for any public displays of licentiousness."
Xanthippe slowly nodded. "You say, 'continued.' Where are they all now? I don't see any sign of them."
"Since the troubles began, I have allowed them to... live inside the palace."
"Inside the palace?"
Jerhyn looked nervous. "Yes. There are many refugees from the deserts and oases hiding inside our walls now. Some are rough folk, probably bandits. Others are strongly religious, and think the harem girls were the cause for the countryside's corruption. After many unpleasant incidents, the girls begged me for more protection. Scattered throughout the city, my guards could do little, so I offered them shelter within the palace walls."
Feeling a bit skeptical, Xanthippe nodded. "That was very generous of you, Lord Jerhyn."
"Generosity had only a small part to play. With so many crowding inside the walls, keeping the peace was absolutely necessary, and my guards must concentrate on their real duties. Besides which, much of the palace was empty. Moving the harems inside allowed refugees to stay in their houses, and greatly relieved the crowding."
That might actually be true. It sounded plausible. "Well... I suppose that under unusual circumstances, unusual measures must be taken. I hope your city survives, Jerhyn. Now, I'd better go help you with that."
Well, at least her mom was probably all right. Jerhyn sure was nervous, though. He must be concerned about the city; if he was nervous about just himself, he'd probably be on Meshif's ship and sailing away. But he'd ordered all ships to remain in the bay, so nothing evil could infect other lands. Jerhyn might be sacrificing himself to try to protect the rest of the world; that would make anyone nervous. Xanthippe should know.
When she'd walked back to her chest, she saw something on top of it: a pair of light gauntlets, and a note. "Dear Xanthippe," it read. "Having great time. Wish you were here. XOXOXO The Mule." The gauntlets were magical: 30% cold resistance, and 10% increased attack speed. No one had seen who'd left the gauntlets. Xanthippe read the note again, not sure if she was grateful or insulted. But the gauntlets would come in handy.
Back out in the field, Xanthippe and Waheed entered a bug-filled oasis. Clouds of demon mosquitoes, with a collective will of their own, tried to drain her dry. Huge beetles spat lightning when struck. But she kept a close eye on Waheed, feeling more than a little guilty about Razan, and Debi, and Gaile. Now she understood, when Gaile jumped between her and a demon, she was just trying to protect her flank. All the other mercs did the same thing; soldiers are trained to work together and look out for each other. If only he wouldn't keep wandering away from the cliff walls, out in the open.
"Hey, Waheed. I want you to do something."
"Okay. Like what?"
"I want you to stick closer to the cliff, and not get out in the open where you can be surrounded."
"Uh... but you're there."
"Yeah. I want to keep our backs to it."
Waheed stared at her. "Uh..."
"That way, monsters can't come up behind us."
"What about those vultures?"
"Vultures?" Xanthippe looked up.
A cloud of vultures was swooping down the cliff. So much for protecting her back. These were a group of champions, very tough and fast. Waheed's spear came in handy, though; she'd bought him one with an Amplify Damage curse on it. With that, they vanquished the vultures, and Waheed returned to his old position, away from the cliff. He still got clouds of mosquitoes around him, but seemed less bothered by them than the vultures.
In the middle of the oasis, a round hole, easily large enough to admit a man, descended into the sand. It did not look man-made; the walls looked like sand glued together by a insects. This might be where the giant bugs were coming from, so Xanthippe went down. There were plenty of giant bugs down there, and pieces of dead people, some of them wrapped up in slimy tendrils and writhing with gigantic, growing maggots. They squished them all.
Deeper into the maggot lair, swarms of bugs and huge sand maggots were everywhere. The sand maggots had always been a threat, but they were never so numerous or powerful before this. When they ran into one that was demonically enchanted, things became very bad. Its skin was like stone, very tough, and its blood was enchanted with lightning. They could only beat on it for so long before they had to retreat to heal, and it kept regenerating all the damage they could do. Finally, Xanthippe just decided to charge the thing, and bash it into oblivion or die trying. Waheed and she chopped and stabbed, while it spat poison and retreated into the sandy floor to heal. In the end, it died, but Waheed died first; Xanthippe's potion belt was empty.
At her request, Greiz brought out another mercenary: Kasim. Determined to keep him alive, Xanthippe raided Fara's smithy and Elzix's back-room pawn shop for anything with lightning resistance or poison resistance. All of her mercenaries had been killed by those, so she obviously needed to guard against them. The rest of the maggot lair went smoothly, down to the deepest part. A huge, bloated, pulsing queen of the maggots was down there, laying adult maggots. As disgusting as the queen was, killing it was fairly easy; it went up in an explosion of poisonous slime. Xanthippe brought antidote potions for both of them, but it was still totally gross. Inside the maggot queen's lair was an old staff, with its headpiece broken off.
As she suspected, the staff was a Horadric staff. If she could keep herself, and her mercenary, alive, she might be able to locate the headpiece and reunite them in the Horadric Cube. Diablo had not put in an appearance. Cain said the third of the brothers, Mephisto, was on the other side of the Twin Seas in Kurast, and Diablo would need a ship to reach him. It was safe to assume Diablo was still searching for Baal, but probably not for much longer.
Xanthippe had been sleeping inside one of Warriv's carts, on a bundle of carpets. There was no room at the inn. When she woke up the next morning, there was something else in the cart with her; a big poleaxe, with a note.
Violets are blue.
You are malicious,
Don't deny that it's true!
Since you're having so many problems with your mercenaries, this little number should help you bring out the malice in them! The runes are Ith, El, and Eth; you'll find them in your luggage. Hugs and kisses, The Mule."
Out in the field, the poleaxe proved very effective. One neat trick was to slice across the skins of the better armored opponents, removing the armor. It was especially malicious since demon armor tends to be a part of their bodies. Beyond the oasis, Xanthippe and Kasim moved into a dead city; more like a city of the dead, there were so many zombies wandering around. Shortly after they entered the city, a huge black blot covered the sun, and everything went dark and very cold.
Jerhyn was outside his palace. "Lord Jerhyn, what the hell is going on?"
"Prophetic words, I fear," Jerhyn said. He looked even more nervous. "My astrologers did not predict this eclipse. We must seek out Drognan's council immediately."
Not that. Anything but that. "Surely, you have some idea of the cause of this?"
"There is a possibility. Out in the desert, near an abandoned city, is a temple where Claw Vipers worship foul gods. They are black-hearted beasts, enemies of all humanity, and I am sure they would make alliances with demonkind at any opportunity. Unlike natural reptiles, they are fond of cold and darkness, which is why they dwell far under the desert sands, and do not venture out in the heat of daylight."
Xanthippe had heard all kinds of stories about Claw Vipers. Most of them were meant to frighten her and keep her inside at night. "Are there any tombs in their temple?"
"Long ago, a group of abjurers allied themselves with the Claw Vipers. For some time, my father had an artifact of that era, a suit of armor called 'Skin of the Vipermagi,' before it was stolen. I believe they were entombed there, with their servants."
Tal Rasha would not be among them. Not in the Viper temple. But the temple might be useful for something else, after it had been cleared. "Very well, Lord Jerhyn. Maybe the city craftspeople can find a use for snakeskin."
The snake temple lay beyond the dead city. Xanthippe could tell it was the right one by the heroically scaled statues of snake-men flanking the entrance. Their beetling brows and exaggerated pectoral development were obviously meant to intimidate; nothing is more pathetic than someone trying to be intimidating. They were greeted by a group of slithery bastards and a couple of greater mummies right inside the entrance. The mummies, with their crowds of servant skeletons, were annoying, but the Claw Vipers were hardly the stuff of nightmares. Deeper in the temple, some cousins of theirs, Salamanders, were much more of a threat. They moved very fast, and seemed to suck heat out of your body with their touch.
In the deepest part of the temple, an altar had been built and consecrated with human blood. The people were hanging from the walls, and the chamber was filled with mummies, skeletons, and the leader of the Claw Vipers: Fangskin, a name everyone from the desert knew. He was evil, and tough, and... lightning enchanted. Damn. Xanthippe couldn't bear to say goodbye to Kasim; she just went to kill mummies in another part of the room. Blades swung, lightning sparkled; after 10 minutes of running around and screaming, everything in the chamber was dead but Xanthippe... and Kasim! He'd made it through, only slightly burned. Xanthippe did the happy dance on Fangskin's butchered corpse, singing, "He didn't die! He didn't die! You tried to kill him, but he didn't die! Nyah!"
"Uh, are you OK?" Kasim was looking dubiously at her.
"Sure! Never better!" *squish, squish!*
"Well, there's this hideous altar over here, arrayed with the butchered remains of poor lost innocent souls, and drenched with the blood of the screaming damned. Think we should do something about it."
"No problem! Hmm. Low-slung, these snake altars. How do you get rid of altars, anyway?" "The usual approach is to defile them."
"What, piss on them or something?"
"I guess that'd work, but I'm not bringing my little soldier anywhere near that thing."
Xanthippe shook her head exasperatedly. "Do I have to do everything around here?"
"Why don't we just kick it around some?"
Xanthippe did the happy dance on top of the altar, and disturbed its arrangement of human body parts. That did the trick; the altar cracked in two, and warm sunlight shone through a small window onto the altar's remains. Something metallic glinted in the light; a little amulet, with a snapped-off piece of a staff jutting from a socket. Hmmm...
Back in the city, everyone was relieved to see daylight again. Warriv described the people "gathering the wits that had been scattered about like... restrictive undergarments in the darkness." Maybe he was missing the harem guilds. The staff piece she already had fit the piece from the amulet, so she set the cube to "repair" and pushed the button. The cube rejoined the wood, polished the shaft, straightened up the filigree, and reset some missing gemstones; it even made a little "ding" noise when it was done. There, step one of her three-stage unstoppable plan for world domination. Or at least honking off Diablo.
"I am impressed. For one of your limited experience, you are rising to the challenge most admirably."
It was Drognan, come over from his little shop to bother her. "Hello, master Drognan. My, something very important must be happening for you to abandon your cozy corner of the city, and come alllllll the way over here, to visit little old me."
"Vanquishing the Claw Vipers was a necessary step..."
"Unless you happen to have another Horadric staff lying around your shop somewhere?"
"The powerful staves of the Horadric magi were broken and scattered long ago..."
"You must be so disappointed, Droggy-baby. They'd sell for some major bucks."
Drognan paused. "No record exists today of the location of the true tomb of Tal Rasha."
"Well, you said it, so it must be true! Oh no, I must be wrong, I'm of such limited experience. You'd better go back to reading for a few decades until you find it."
"There are records of those bygone days. The great Vizjeri sorcerer Horazon had a hidden sanctuary near here. Horazon was alive when Baal was captured and bound; surely, he would have recorded the location of the tomb in his personal journal."
"Which you don't have."
"No one can be sure where it lies now."
"So, Droggy-poo, instead of looking for one permanently lost thing, I should look for another permanently lost thing that might tell me where the first permanently lost thing is."
"I believe that Horazon's journal might be easier to locate. In fact, you should go speak with Lord Jerhyn. He is most anxious to speak with you."
"There are WHAT in the palace?!"
Jerhyn stammered, "Please, do not shout!"
"You want me to WHAT?! There are DEMONS in the palace!!" Xanthippe wasn't shouting. She was shrieking at the top of her lungs. And she was very good at it.
"It all started when a Vizjerei mage came to visit. He asked for a tour of the palace, which I granted. When we came to the old portal in the basement --"
"A WHAT in the WHERE!?!"
"A sealed portal, in a basement chamber. No one had ever been able to open it, though many tried, for centuries. I had nearly forgotten it was there, and when he asked to examine it alone, I thought nothing of it... it had always been harmless..."
A small crowd of frightened-looking people was gathering around the palace steps. Two palace guards tried to keep the crowd away, but you could probably have heard Xanthippe down by the docks. "THERE... IS... A MAGIC PORTAL... IN... THE... PALACE?!?!?"
Pale and quivering, Jerhyn tried to shush her. "We did not see the Vizjerei after that, but one night, my guards and I awoke to find hordes of demons rampaging through the palace! They were slaughtering the poor girls from the harems --"
When she heard that, Xanthippe went as pale as Jerhyn. "Slaughtering? Harems?"
"Yes, the harems, my whole staff, all of my servants, even old Jabeeb, my father's vizier. My brave guardsmen tried to push them back through the portal, and we have been fighting a losing battle ever since. I had to hire Greiz's men to guard the walls and keep the peace!"
Xanthippe's voice dropped to a whisper. "Where is my mom?"
"I... beg your pardon?"
"Where... is... my... mom?! I want to know where my mom is!"
Now Jerhyn just looked confused. "I..."
"You... YOU... stupid... incompetent... nimrodish... dumb... utter... you... AAAGGGHHH!! Get out of the way!" Xanthippe charged into the palace, with Kasim on her heels.
While Xanthippe's mother and grandmother often went to the palace on business, she had never been there. It was a luxurious building, covered with gilt and enamel work, low divans and inviting pillows beckoning from every corner. The upper floor looked exactly like the paintings Debi liked so much, except that they were empty. They checked the rooms; one was being used as the guardsmen's headquarters, but there were no guards, just a few old wanted posters and paperwork. One was strange:
Height: Very tall
Weight: Very heavy
Hair: Brown; ubiquitous
Sex: No, what a disgusting thought
Distinguishing features: Oh my, yes
On charges of:
Failure to procure appropriate pet licenses
Harboring and transporting fleas
Conduct unbecoming to a woodland creature
Reward! Call LGPD for more information. Keep our city clean.
The palace was a chamber of horrors. Every gilded, painted, silken, satiny, luxurious surface was spattered, splattered, or drenched in gore. Harem girls, household servants, and guards were everywhere, tied to the columns and grillwork, then slowly torn to bits. Hanging plants were smashed on the floor, and bloody heads swung in their places. Everywhere on the floor were lumps and gobbets of flesh, arranged in strange patterns or just thrown around. At every woman's body, Xanthippe stopped to look at the face. Many didn't have faces anymore. Others were so mutilated, you couldn't tell if they were men or women.
Of course, the demons who had done this hadn't left. Some were different and frightful; ape-like things that might have come from some jungle, and pin-headed giants swinging the bodies of dead guardsmen as weapons. Others were familiar; skeletons, with bones that looked suspiciously fresh and bloody. Many of the bodies on the floor were partially defleshed, and there was all that shredded meat lying around with no bones...
At the lowest level of the cellars, they found the portal. Chopping at it did nothing; it was made of some strange metal and just reeked of enchantment. Staring at it, Xanthippe wondered what was on the other side. Some demonic realm? If that Vizjerei got through, he'd be right at home, damned demon summoners.
"Uh... boss? Why were you asking Jerhyn about your mom?"
Kasim was staring at her, as she stared at the gate. Xanthippe thought for a while longer. Kasim cleared his throat. "I don't want to pry or anything..."
"Then don't," Xanthippe snapped.
Kasim looked away, leaned on his poleaxe, and whistled a bit.
"Stop whistling, dammit! I'm trying to think!"
Rolling his eyes, Kasim mumbled, "If she was in here, she's a grease spot by now..."
Her speed surprised her; she punched Kasim right in the nose before he could block it. It didn't knock him down, though it drew blood. "I KNOW THAT!! Do you think I could not know that?! Just SHUT UP AND LET ME THINK!!"
Quietly, they both stared at the gate. "All right," Xanthippe finally said. "We have a gate. It will not close from this side. So we go through the gate and close it from the other side. Or we kill every last thing that moves in there. No, we do both. Close the gate, slaughter every living thing, every dead thing, every thing that can't make up its mind. Sound like a simple enough plan?"
Kasim nodded, and wiped his nose one last time. "Sure. Real simple."
"Then what are we waiting for?"
For you, Kasim didn't say. But he led the way through the portal; the bodyguard always goes into danger first, that's his job. On the other side was... hell? Heaven? Neither of them had ever even heard of a place like this. Marble causeways were suspended in empty space, with tiny stars rocketing past, far away in endless night. Bronze braziers held pure elemental fire, never to be extinguished, lighting and warming the emptiness. With a shock, Xanthippe realized that this was a place of awesome power: an actual pocket world, a tiny duplicate of reality itself, separate from the world except at one point, the portal. Making such a place would take legendary knowledge, skill, and more raw power than anyone alive wielded... this could only be Horazon's Arcane Fortress.
The causeways made up a maze of paths, designed to confuse the mind. While going through the place, killing everything they met, what little Xanthippe knew of Horazon came back to her. The ancient Vizjerei summoned demons, thinking they could control them and use them without danger. Some rift in the clan ended up as a fight between two factions, one headed by Horazon. Each tried to use their demonic "servants" on the others. The demons did not fight each other; they ignored the binding spells their masters thought were constraining them, and killed most of the clan in one huge blood bath. Horazon went missing, presumed dead, but his body was never found. The remaining Vizjerei turned to elemental magic, and supposedly founded some group of mage-killers to police the mage clans.
Horazon's Fortress was easy enough to move in, but it took some concentration to figure out where you were going. Figures a sorcerer would make a fortress like this; no walls, you have to think your way through it. Finally, on the last little platform, they saw Horazon. Or maybe it was that Vizjerei, wearing an antique robe. Either way, he was summoning more demons. And laughing. There was a lot of laughing. Xanthippe charged, slashing her way through a crowd of blood goat demons, and buried her bardiche in his brain.
She and Kasim were now the last living things in the Fortress. On the little platform, there was a dusting of very old bones, swept to one side. Someone who had been in here had died long, long ago. Floating above the platform was a journal; Xanthippe started reading at random.
"-- others know nothing of the ways of power. My brother Bartuc is such a fool. To imagine that Demons might be befriended, traded with fairly, secrets given and received in exchange, is the height of absurdity. These creatures can only be dominated, their wills crushed and forced to serve their masters."
Yech, sorcerous garbage. She skipped on a bit.
"-- responsibility only to himself. As demonkind is unfairly maligned by the 'heavenly' hosts, who persuade fools with their talk of 'evil' and 'wrong', so are the true masters of the world misunderstood by those they rule. Is there any fool so foolish as he who believes himself the wisest of all humanity? Those with vision and the will to grasp --"
You can always tell a book written by a mage. They use the word "fool" so damn much. She skipped a bit further.
"My fortress is complete. Let Bartuc challenge me, if he dares. My slaves are more than his match. I hope he does come, that I may laugh in his face as his pitiful forces are wiped out and his spells fail. I wonder if he even has the wit to thread the maze? Surely not --"
Sounds like things were heating up. A few pages ahead, the handwriting got shaky.
"My injuries are severe. But I will live. The demons - my slaves - cast aside the chains I bound them with. They had been fooling me, fooling us all, all along. I think Bartuc is dead, I truly regret it. Though I think I was less wrong than he. It does not matter. My servants did not serve me, I served their purposes. Now I know why they did not always respond to my summons, why they did not follow the letter of my instructions. There were no flaws in the spells. It did not always suit their purpose to respond to me. Their purposes... I have no idea what they truly wanted."
Xanthippe smiled coldly. Never trust someone who has their own agenda. How long did Horazon live after that? There was about half an inch of pages yet.
"My fortress is as perfect and as empty as ever. A grand folly, a fortress built where there is no one to attack it. My final monument, and a fitting one. Perhaps I ought to make journal entries only on my birthday. Nothing happens to write down anymore."
Humility suits him well, too. Xanthippe went through the last few pages, looking for a capital H. Here, an entry with 'Horadrim':
"The demon battles have continued across the desert. A new order of young battle-mages, the Horadrim, are pursuing one of the great demon lords. I should do something, but I know nothing of real magic.
"The demon lord was captured today, and imprisoned in an odd crystal. I have not seen the like; maybe it is something that works. The young fellows did not believe their crystal, which seemed to be damaged, could hold the demon, so one of their number volunteered himself as a repository for both crystal and demon. This seems foolish to me, but perhaps wisdom would seem so. They will entomb the man, Tal Rasha, in an empty tomb in the Canyon of the Magi, then block the entrances to the canyon. That's all right, no one goes out there anyway.
"The man was entombed in the empty tomb, the square one. The tomb is buried, the canyon blocked off, all is sealed. That demon couldn't be more secure if you put him in here with me. Heh heh! Must go to Lut Gholein tomorrow for more tea. I'm running out."
That was it. Nothing about where the canyon was. Of course not. Why bother to write it down when you know where it is? He could go whenever he wanted. Wait, if he wanted to go someplace, Horazon must have had some kind of gate, some way of getting there easily. No mage worth his wand of fireballs would walk when he didn't have to. And since mages are so fond of their puzzles... there, on the columns! Little buttons, set cunningly into the stone, almost invisible. Shine the light on them right, and you could see silvery writing. The language was archaic (wizards love showing off their mastery of archaic languages) but Xanthippe could make out the world for "canyon", and pressed the appropriate button. A reddish portal appeared, and they took it.
The Canyon of the Magi was a small, steep-walled gorge, blocked with rock falls at both ends. Some Saber Cats and huge Sand Maggots were in there, but they were everywhere. No human tracks led to any of the tombs; unless Diablo flew through in, he hadn't gotten here yet. Which led to the question, which was the right tomb? There were seven tombs around the canyon walls, that was right. Tal Rasha was in "the square one," but all of these tombs had roughly square entrances. Xanthippe and Kasim stumbled around in the dark, looking for some clue, but couldn't find anything. Finally, Xanthippe decided there was no point looking without some daylight. There was a disused waypoint in the middle of the canyon, so they just went home.
When they arrived at Lut Gholein, the city was on fire. Did the demons invade while she was in the palace? No, there were no demons, just people, and only a couple of buildings were burning. Jerhyn was directing a bucket brigade from the bay, and Drognan was using frost bolts to put out smaller fires before they spread. Still worried that demons might have tried to invade, or take advantage of some other emergency, Xanthippe went to the gates. They were locked tight, but there were a lot of bodies a short distance outside. If the demons never got in, what caused the fires? She stopped to ask Greiz.
"Oh, yeah. There was a bit of a panic when you disappeared into the palace. What were you doing in there so long, anyway?"
"It was just overnight," Xanthippe frowned. "What panic? What happened?"
Greiz looked at her quizzically. "In the first place, you were gone almost two days. Second, everybody heard you screaming about demons in the palace. When you went in and didn't come out, everyone got scared."
Two days? When did... then she remembered Horazon's sanctuary. Time didn't seem to pass in there, she'd lost track of how long it took to get through. "Well, I was OK."
Greiz shrugged. "Doesn't matter. When someone screamed 'demons in the palace,' half the city fled. We've been listening to them getting eaten out there ever since."
"You mean all the bodies out there... ?"
"The demons let them get far enough to be out of arrow shot. Took most of the horses in the city, too. I hate listening to horses scream. Worse noise than people."
Xanthippe stared silently at the burning city. Finally, Kasim spoke up. "Boss? I don't know about you, but I feel like we've been up for two days."
Slowly, Xanthippe nodded. "Yeah. There's nothing we can do now."
Xanthippe went back to Warriv's caravan through the dark alleys behind the palace. If she went by the docks, she'd have to pass the fire brigade, and she did not want to talk to Jerhyn tonight. Not now, not until she'd gotten some sleep. The caravan wagons had all been broken into; a lot of stuff was stolen, and all the horses were gone. Warriv and the other merchants must be gone or at the fire. So, no one would mind if she crawled into Warriv's nice comfy bunk and...
It was morning. Warriv was shaking Xanthippe's shoulder. "Here, you shouldn't be in my bed! Someone might get the wrong impression about us."
"Oh, sorry," Xanthippe mumbled, and got up. Ouch, her back! She'd fallen asleep in the armor. Bad thing to do. "Is Jerhyn all right?"
Warriv smiled. "He's fine, I'm fine. Everything looks much better by the light of day. There are no more demons in the palace, and while I will have some trouble taking my caravan any further, the animals can be replaced."
Nodding, Xanthippe unbuckled her splint mail and bent over to touch her toes, putting her palms on the floor. Every muscle in her back screamed. "Where will you get more horses?"
Warriv looked away. "Many of the local desert tribes have kept their herds intact through the troubles. While they are not trained to harness, I'm sure we can work something out. But you have a bigger concern than horses, my friend. Greiz says the demons are no longer visible outside the walls; they seem to have left us."
That could be very good or very, very bad. "I've got to speak with Jerhyn."
"I think you should. He seems to like you. Be sure to take your things with you."
"I've got everything here."
"What about those things? They certainly aren't mine."
Warriv was pointing at a pile of battle gear next to the bunk. There was a huge gothic shield, an armor-plated belt, a ring, several runestones, and a battle crown set with an absolutely gigantic ruby. Inside the crown was a piece of paper with a note:
"Darlin, you've done so very well! Last night, you really passed a threshold. I am happy to present you with most all of the things I have for you! The runeword is RalOrtTal, the pledge of the Ancient Ones. Oh, and try to work up a little more muscle, that bardiche you're using just won't cut the mustard much longer. It's hard to find a good voulge or scythe, but where you're going next, they sell poleaxes. Work on it, girl! -- The Mule."
Even though part of her brain was urgently insisting she get moving, Xanthippe read the note twice. The presumptuousness of this guy... who the heck does he think he is, giving her wonderful presents without her permission, and wanting nothing in return?! What's his angle, anyway? What in the blinking flaming bejeezus does he want? She went up to the palace, carrying the load of new equipment awkwardly in her arms. Kasim followed behind, wondering why she didn't ask him to help her with it, but glad she hadn't. That stuff looked heavy.
Outside the palace, Jerhyn was speaking reassuringly to a small crowd. "All is well! The emanations of evil from the corrupted sanctuary are no more, and the danger is past. I am so sorry I could not tell you, but with the city so crowded, I feared a panic if word got out."
"But where did the demons go?" someone asked.
"They're not here now, that's all I care about," someone else answered.
"I still think we should have been told."
"Believe me, this was for the best," Jerhyn said. "Drognan the wizard advised me. In the days of old, during the great Sin War, small demons would stow away with travelers fleeing the advance of evil. Once they were in a new place, the small demons summoned their larger brethren, and the war began anew. You would simply have carried your doom with you to new lands."
"But we all could have died here!" someone shouted.
Jerhyn saw Xanthippe, but continued to address the crowd. "And if you had gone elsewhere, would you be any less dead there? The whole world is under a new attack, or will be soon. If we do not fight them, they just grow stronger. Running will only help them to spread. For the good of the world, of all people, not just us, the line had to be drawn! My life was as much at risk as yours. The line had to be drawn here!"
The crowd didn't have an answer to that. "Now go to your homes," Jerhyn said. "There is still much to be done and little time. I must speak with our champion."
Champion? He's got to mean me, Xanthippe thought, but the word felt so strange. "Lord Jerhyn, about the demons outside --"
"The demons are no longer outside; during the night, they left the city walls, and I fear for us all."
"I also want to say I'm sorry for screaming. I was --"
"There is no time! Regrets may come when there is a moment to indulge them, not now."
"Does Drognan know anything about the tomb of Tal Rasha?"
"Only what he has told you, and me, which is almost nothing. What are these things?"
"Uh..." Xanthippe looked down at the bundle she was carrying. "Christmas presents."
Picking up the crown, Jerhyn whistled. "You have generous friends." He unbuckled her helm, and ceremoniously placed the crown on her head. "I dub thee champion of Lut Gholein, and charge thee with the conquest of Diablo. Now hurry, time runs short."
The crown filled Xanthippe with a surge of life. After setting the runes in the shield, putting on the ring and belt, and rearranging her potions, she and Kasim ran to the waypoint and returned to the Canyon of the Magi. The canyon was empty except for a dead camel. Two sets of human footprints led into one of the tombs... which had square decorations carved on its lintel, where they had been invisible in the dark. One set of prints led out of the tomb, to the canyon wall; whoever made those could climb like a monkey. So, Xanthippe thought, two went in, one came out; which to chase?
She led Kasim into the tomb. It was full of the usual complement of evil creatures, which they dispatched with all speed. One monster dropped a legendary ring, the Nagelring. The last chamber held a dais, carved with mystical symbols of protection. A round hole at the apex fit the base of the Horadric staff like a keyhole, and a when she set the staff in its place, a burst of energy shot from the gemstones in its head. One wall of the chamber crumbled, and they went through.
"Looking for Baal?" a horrible voice croaked in greeting, and the smell of rot washed over them. A huge maggot, pulpy and white, reared up its front end. It had arms ending in giant axe blades, and a grinning mouth full of blade-like teeth. The stench of it was overwhelming. Lifting itself off the floor on its arms, it catapulted forward on a thick layer of slime and slammed bodily into Xanthippe; she was glad she'd gone in with her new shield up, but was still knocked back into the wall. Kasim sliced across the thing's soft body with his poleaxe, but it didn't seem to care.
For several minutes, they chopped and slashed at the thing, keeping close to it so it wouldn't vault into them again. It struck swiftly with its axes, grinning with pleasure. Xanthippe switched to the bardiche, her morning star was of little use; the way to kill this thing seemed to be to chop it so full of holes it would bleed to death. Fortunately, though it could speak, it didn't seem to be very smart. After smashing one of them back into the wall, it would turn to the other instead of pressing its advantage, giving them time to recover. It was a hard fight, but Andariel had given her more trouble. Finally, the thing died in an explosion of slime and maggots.
"That was 18 different flavors of disgusting," Kasim opined.
"Yeah," Xanthippe agreed, a feeling of doom creeping over her.
"Hey, look," said Kasim, pointing at the wall paintings, one of which showed a chained man impaled on a giant red crystal. "They took the time to decorate the place."
"If what this thing said is any guide, Baal and Diablo are gone."
"Uh... yeah. We'd better at least look around."
Damn it. She'd had it all figured out, too. Diablo was looking through all the tombs in the desert. So, all she had to do was take Tal Rasha out of the tomb he was supposed to be in, and put him in a tomb Diablo already checked. The old tomb right outside Lut Gholein's gates would have been perfect; it was so obvious, he'd never look there. The best place to hide a book is in a library. But Diablo found the tomb while she was lying in bed asleep.
Deeper in the tomb, great hairy worms were crawling all over the floor. Kasim squished them as he led the way in; Xanthippe just trudged along behind. The tomb had one huge inner chamber, with a pit of molten rock surrounding an island draped with empty chains. Above a bridge over the lava was a strange being. It glowed brightly, yet was eclipsed by its own luminescence. Floating as delicately as the ether, it was encased in heavy golden armor, with a huge sword at its side. Glowing tendrils like wings came from its back, but no bird or beast was ever supported by such things. "Hello," said a voice at once powerful and gentle. If this was a demon, it was the most beautiful demon there ever was, but it didn't attack. Its blade was sheathed.
"H-hello," Xanthippe said.
"I thank you, mortal, for my freedom. Though I did expect you earlier. Diablo and Baal have fled, I was unable to stop them both."
"Who are you?"
"I am the Archangel Tyrael, benefactor of the Horadrim of old. In ages past, the Horadrim pursued the Three Prime Evils to the ends of the earth, allowing my hands to remain clean of them. Now that the Horadrim are gone, I felt I must come to earth to do battle with Diablo, and prevent him from freeing his brother. I have failed."
Slowly, Xanthippe nodded. "You're an angel."
"An Archangel, blessed by the light, benefactor of the Horadrim. You must go, mortal, and continue your pursuit of the Three. I am too weakened by battle to follow."
Staring at this... being, Xanthippe smiled slightly. "Keep chasing them."
"Yes, mortal. Other duties call to me, I must see to them."
"Duties? Oh, yes." Xanthippe grinned. "Heavens, yes. So sorry, great Archangel, to have kept you waiting. Us mortals have to do this thing called SLEEPING!"
Tyrael said nothing. "Oh, yes, us poor weak little mortals," Xanthippe continued. "Lest you might dirty your pure, sanctimonious hands with the tiniest speck, I'll be HAPPY to chase every demon lord in Creation to the ends of the earth! Please, oh great Tyrael, tell me how I might serve you better? Do you like me on my back, or on my knees? Either way, I get the shaft, don't I?! Oh, no, precious angel-kins is too weakened by battle after, what, one fight!? Well, what about ME!?! I had to carve my way across this GODFORSAKEN desert, with no help from YOU or ANYONE ELSE to get to this damned tomb!!"
Looking very pale, Kasim mumbled, "Uh, I helped a little."
"SHUT UP!!" Xanthippe was livid now. "What is up with you angels, anyway!? Sitting up in the heavens, lest the stench of mere mortals offend thy delicate nostrils, telling everybody what's good and what's bad!?! LIKE YOU'D KNOW!! What do you know about ANYTHING?!? You just sit up there, all pure and powerful, with us mortals like some kind of buffer state between you and Hell! Is that it?! This whole SH!TPILE just a layer of insulation between you and Hell?! Or maybe it's the battleground you chose so you wouldn't risk having some icky demon touch his toe to your precious heaven!! EITHER WAY, WE GET SCREWED!!"
Kasim was edging away from Xanthippe, hoping to be out of the blast radius. But Tyrael did not even appear ruffled by her shrieking. His expression was impossible to judge, but when he spoke, all that was in his voice was sadness. "To lose your mother at such a young age, you have suffered greatly. She did not abandon you, as you thought when you were a child. She sent you away so that you might have a better life than she had."
With a clank, Xanthippe's bardiche dropped from her nerveless hand. Tyrael continued, "Your grandmother wanted you to remain, and carry on your family business. When the Zann Esu came, your mother went against her will, and removed you from your grandmother's power. The gift you carry within you made you more than your mother could ever be, and she knew that it must be allowed to flourish for you to have any chance at happiness."
Looking back and forth from Tyrael, impassive and majestic, to Xanthippe, now shivering and crying, Kasim wondered what the hell was going on. "Where is she?" Xanthippe finally whimpered, "Was she ever happy? Can I see her again?"
"Those questions, I cannot answer."
"Please," Xanthippe started sobbing, "I just want to see my mommy again..."
"I cannot help you," Tyrael intoned. "You must put your anger aside. Your world is being invaded, by beings whose goal is your destruction. You are correct, in a way; the mortal realms lie between Heaven and Hell, and Hell's intent is to make the mortal realms a staging point for an assault on Heaven itself. This cannot be allowed, for your sake, and for ours."
Wiping her eyes, Xanthippe nodded. "Where are they going?"
"To Kurast, where the eldest of the Three awaits them. Here is a gate to Lut Gholein. You must travel across the seas, and pray you are not too far behind."
"Can't you just zap me to Kurast?"
Tyrael might have laughed. "My strength is at an ebb. The journey will give you time to recover the strength of spirit you will need as well. Go now."
Everyone in Lut Gholein was sad, and horrified to learn of Baal's escape. "Do not worry," Jerhyn said. "You have done very well. I speak for all of us when I say we would trust you with our very lives. For the sake of all, you must continue your quest." Lysander was far less poetic about it. "It was never going to be easy. Go, and remember us fondly. You know, you bothered me far less than most." She went off to Meshif's ship with her luggage, Kasim... and a handful of licorice.