Xanthippe (Act III)
Meshif's ship pulled out of the harbor with a full crew and two passengers. At least, there shouldn't be any more; the crew made several searches of the ship, but found nothing out of the ordinary. Any stowaways couldn't be very powerful, as Xanthippe could sense no magic, so they probably wouldn't be in any danger.
Xanthippe stood on the stern of the ship and watched the city grow smaller in the distance. When you travel by magic, there are no long good-byes; you blink and you're there. But traveling by ship, or by caravan, does have advantages. You have time to relax, and reflect. Her mother, her grandmother -- most of her relatives were probably dead. There might be a cousin somewhere in Khanduras. He'd become a priest; the "black sheep" of the family. She wished she could have found her mom's pendant. There might have been something about it to help find her father. How did that angel know about her family? Damn, she really lost it when he pulled that out of nowhere. And he ducked her questions about Heaven and Hell, too. If she ever saw an angel again, Xanthippe resolved to interrogate him calmly, and not let him dodge the issue, no matter what he said.
When she came aboard, Meshif had told her, "My cabin is yours." Why was he so confused when she put all her stuff in there? She couldn't walk around the ship in full armor, what if she fell overboard? The Zann Esu taught her how to harness the elements, not how to swim. One day, as she was standing on the ship's stern, watching the waves wash out in the ship's wake, Meshif came to ask her to do something.
"Ah," he began, "madam."
"I'm not a madam, I'm not even in a house."
"No, no... it's not that. It's, ah..."
"You need some more wind."
"No, we have a good wind, it's not that."
"You want your cabin back?"
"No... it's the crew."
Xanthippe looked back over her shoulder. "Isn't that your department?"
"You are..." Meshif scratched his ear, and stared at the water indecisively. "They are, but discipline is becoming a problem."
"Do you think they're going to mutiny and turn pirate?"
"No... I don't think you realize, when you lean on the railing..."
"I get sick when we go through the big waves. I tried not to make a mess."
"You'll get your sea legs sometime. But you've been wearing that mini skirt..."
Raising an eyebrow, Xanthippe asked, "How does wearing a skirt keep me from getting my 'sea legs'?"
"Well, my crew keeps getting... distracted."
Meshif rolled his eyes. "Nothing. Sorry to have troubled you."
That was a strange conversation. But Xanthippe had started to notice something. Some people can't come out and say what they mean; they hem and haw and talk in circles around it, hoping you'll read their minds and figure out what they're babbling about. But if you take all the little hints they try to drop, sometimes you can put them together and figure them out what's up. Hmmm... me in a skirt... leaning over the rail... a distracted crew.
A hypothesis formed in Xanthippe's mind. Glancing surreptitiously over her shoulder, she stood up and stretched languorously. Her halter top rode up high; she straightened it delicately, and ran her hands down her sides to smooth her skirt. The whole crew suddenly looked very busy; my, what a burst of energy that brought on. Goodness, the Zann Esu certainly would not approve of this! Of course, the girls in her family tended to be pretty; it made their house a success. According to the Zann Esu, this sort of thing was supposed to make her angry; but somehow, she didn't really mind. Curiosity satisfied, for the moment, Xanthippe walked (well, strutted, maybe, just a tiny bit) to the prow, and watched the waves breaking over the front of the ship.
When the ship arrived at Kurast, Meshif couldn't find the docks at first. The land was a giant green wall, nothing but plants, plants everywhere, you couldn't see anything but green right down to the edge of the water. This was not what the great city of Kurast was supposed to look like, so Xanthippe ordered Kasim to suit up. There might be trouble. Finally, after sailing past what might have been several piers completely swathed in vines, there was an opening; a small dock, barely large enough to tie the ship at, with a few people fishing off the end. They called and waved as the ship approached, and ran to bring others.
Xanthippe disembarked with Kasim, both armed and ready for anything. The entire welcoming committee consisted of one small man, covered with tiny burn scars. "Greetings," he said. "I am Hratli, smith and enchanter. Weaponry and armor are my specialties, and I am very happy to see two such as you. I don't have many customers, these days."
"Hi. What the hell happened here?"
"I perceive that you are not a believer in small talk. We shall have big talk, then. The servants of Zakarum are a plague upon the land. The rivers run red with blood, and demons fill our nights and days. A wretched jungle hell has swept over all, and we few survivors huddle on the dockside as our city falls to pieces and is consumed."
Xanthippe smirked. "Oh, I don't know, a little spackle, some weed killer, you could get this place fixed up all right. You sure you're a smith? You look kind of puny."
Hratli, who was only a bit taller than Xanthippe, smiled thinly. "While it is refreshing to meet someone who has dispensed with any tedious sense of false modesty, I must regret that we can offer you little by way of hospitality. Fish and bananas are our entire diet, and even the water is fouled by a demonic presence."
"That's got a ring of truth to it," Kasim noted.
"Any idea what's causing all this?" Xanthippe asked
"The city was built around a tower, which housed the soulstone used to imprison the eldest of the Three. The demon lord Mephisto has corrupted his keepers, and now leads them as his army. Where once they seemed wise men, there now stand paranoid religious fanatics."
"Religion'll do that to you," Xanthippe said. "So, it's the church, huh?"
"Where the eldest of the Three is involved, it is doubtful that any church could stand. There are many things the Horadrim of old did that seem to lack common sense."
"Tell me about it. Kasim, let's look around town."
It wasn't much of a town, just a section of the dockside under a Dome of Protection. Most of it wasn't even solid land, just stilts driven into the river muck to support a few houses and walkways. The few patches of stony land were all made from fill poured into the water. One of these had a big stepped pyramid on it, surmounted by a small temple. Xanthippe was looking up at it when a very tall man approached her.
"You now speak... to Ormus!"
Xanthippe's eyes narrowed. "No! Really?"
"He once was a great mage, was Ormus."
"Now he does advertisements for Abs of Steel (TM)."
"Now he lives like a rat on a sinking vessel."
"Is his vessel sinking? He'll need it safely harbored. He needs to find a good one, though, I see it lists to starboard."
"What the hell was that?" Kasim asked.
"Old dockside call," Xanthippe laughed.
"You have questions for Ormus, he perceives."
"Yeah: why does he refer to himself in the third person?"
"You have questions for yourself."
"Yeah! Why am I standing here listening to this?"
"Ormus sees conflict in you, as he does in all would-be heroes."
"No, Ormus sees conflict with me, when I kick him upside the head!"
"Boss, leave him alone, it's bad luck to beat up people like that." Kasim tugged on her arm.
"Aw, c'mon! He's funny!"
"And you can't kick him upside the head, he's too damn tall."
"Can I slap him around like a red-headed stepchild?"
"He doesn't have hair either."
If Ormus was discomfited by any of this, he gave no indication. "All will soon become clear."
"Not with demons 'fouling' the water supply!" Xanthippe laughed.
Finally, Kasim dragged her off. She could have stood there making fun of Ormus all day, he was too damned easy. Of course, the next person they met might have been even easier.
"Hello there," Asheara said. "You must be a great adventurer to risk coming here."
Staring goggle-eyed at this vision, Xanthippe bit her lip hard. Tiny, muffled giggles escaped the corners of her mouth. Asheara continued, "I'm Asheara, leader of the Iron Wolves."
Glancing over, Kasim noticed that Xanthippe was turning dark pink. "Uh... yeah, great adventurers. Can you excuse us a minute?" He dragged her outside.
Asheara must have heard the laughter. It lasted nearly a minute. "Dammit, what's gotten into you?" Kasim asked. "You're acting all weird and stuff."
"Did you SEE that woman!? Talk about overcompensation! And the snake! Of course she has a pet snake! How damned phallic can you get?! And the 'Iron Wolves'!! Oh, how scary and awesome they must be! Oooh, I'm so intimidated!"
"How damned WHAT can you get?"
"Never mind. Oh, wow. This town is hilarious. Let's see what else they've got."
Looking very uncomfortable, Kasim followed Xanthippe to a small hut. A hunched old man with a bald head and a face like an dyspeptic monkey greeted them with, "Hello, and welcome to Kwikee-mart! Oh, you're new here, aren't you?"
"Yep! I'm Xanthippe. You're an alchemist. You sure smell like one."
"I sell potions and salves. You may buy some, but don't make a habit of coming here! My studies constantly require my attention."
"Do you sell licorice?"
Alkor looked at her strangely. "How did you know?"
"Alchemical union bylaws, no. 310."
"Dammit. I will sell you some if you promise not to tell anyone."
"You will give me some, if I promise not to tell anyone."
"It is a deal. Now, I can get rid of the filthy stuff. It attracts brats. See? It has attracted one already, and it is not even noon today!"
Xanthippe didn't meet anyone else special that day. Some of the townspeople mentioned a woman on the southern docks, armed with strange weapons, but when Xanthippe went to look, there was no such person there.
The jungle outside was frightening; you could stand there and watch it pulling the nearby buildings apart. Very few animals were in the green, just vines, twining roots, and huge leaves that blocked out the sun. The dockside was protected by a power dome built into their pyramid, but the spell was old and no one had upgraded it for centuries. A lot of progress had been made in protection spells since then, but that wouldn't do them any good now. Unless the dome could be strengthened, Xanthippe had a definite time limit for invading the city and killing Mephisto.
Outside of town, Xanthippe and Kasim saw a strange man walking into the jungle. Wearing a long, fully concealing robe with a hood pulled over his face, he sure didn't look local. There was only one way to find out, so Xanthippe took matters into her own hands, and drove the butt of her bardiche into the trailing edge of his robe. "Oh, sorry! Was this yours?" The guy kept walking, his feet shuffling in the mud. Whoever he was, he wasn't very bright. "Peekaboo, I see you!" she said, lifting the hood to look underneath at his face.
His eyes were yellow, with slit pupils. His skin looked like a mask that was rotting away, with red scales underneath. And there was a glowing red spot *inside* his forehead. The eyes focused on her; they were proud, utterly cold, and completely indifferent. The cloaked thing disappeared in a puff of brimstone; four small, fleshy things appeared and attacked. After they'd killed them, Xanthippe turned to Kasim.
"You know, I think that was our boy."
"Was he scary beyond all reason?" Kasim asked.
"Yep. Think he stowed away with us?"
"How else could he have gotten here?"
"Good point. Unless he's just zapping around. Wonder why he didn't kill us?"
"Maybe he would have if you'd looked under his robe and said, 'I see England, I see France, I see Diablo's underpants.'"
"Do demon lords wear underpants? Boxers or briefs?"
"I don't think you'd want to get to know a demon lord that well."
"True." Xanthippe looked into the jungle. "I wonder where Baal is?"
Kasim shrugged. "We'll find out."
The jungle had mosquitoes three feet long, walking tree trunks, and tiny little men with teeth half the size of their bodies. They made cute little squeaky noises as you killed them. In a couple of sections, giant spiders had built huge communal webs. There are such things as social spiders; they are very small, and need numbers to prey on the large insects of the jungle. But these spiders were gigantic: even the babies were the size of tarantulas, and the adults could prey on people. Inside the cavernous webs of one group, Xanthippe found a small jade statue of a proud barbarian. Another held a shining chest full of gold and magic, and an odd thing - a small sculpture of a human eye, with a red iris.
The statue was part of a set, made locally. Meshif had collected them since he was a boy, and this one happened to be the only one he was missing. After the long delay at Lut Gholein, he was a bit short on cash, so he offered a golden bird statuette in exchange. Just a glance told Xanthippe there was magic inside this bird, and she eagerly traded for it. The eye sculpture was not as easy to figure out. It was hard, like alabaster, but warm and obviously magical. None of the locals could say anything about it, so they went to Cain, their resident antiquities expert.
"Ah, this is the Golden Bird of Ku Y'leh! He was a great alchemist long ago; perhaps Alkor will know more of his history. The eye you have there is not a sculpture. That can only be a relic of the Zakarumite saint Khalim."
"Aren't saint's relics body parts? This thing is hard as a rock."
"Yes, its present incorruptible state is a sign of sainthood."
"The saints I've run into have all been bits of bone."
"And were very corruptible. So, in all likelihood, sainthood was improperly bestowed. Khalim was a member of the Zakarumite high council, who withstood the corruption of Mephisto after it had claimed all of his fellows. When the other council members killed him, it caused a schism within the church, and a large proportion of the sect fled into the west."
"Places like Khanduras?"
"Exactly. Khalim's body was all but destroyed by the demonic assault, but according to legend, three pieces of him survived, carrying his vision, knowledge, and soul."
Xanthippe looked directly into the eye. The iris contracted slightly, like it was focusing. She dropped it and jumped back. "Ewww!!"
Laughing softly, Cain picked it up and looked into it. "Poor Khalim. But this may be for a greater good. The relics of a true saint cannot be anything but a help for us."
Xanthippe shivered. "Why does religious stuff always involve dead things?"
"Oh, I'm not sure about that," Cain chuckled. "Let me see... the eye would most likely carry Khalim's true vision, able to see corruption through all obscuring veils of deceit. Finding his knowledge and soul would be helpful as well."
"Do I have to touch them?"
Cain smiled indulgently. "I am sure that will not be necessary."
Alkor knew the bird on sight. "Ah, the Golden Bird of Ku Y'leh! Busy yourself elsewhere, while I go to work on the ashes contained within."
"No! I will sprinkle them over your precious licorice, stupid girl!"
He made no move towards the licorice jar, so he probably wasn't serious. Xanthippe got some treasure identified by Cain. One was a rare poleaxe, about as good as Kasim's "Malice" poleaxe, but without the life-draining problem. She was strong enough to use it now, too. After buying some plate mail from Hratli, she went back to Alkor, who had a potion ready.
"Hey," Xanthippe said after drinking it, "that was good! Most potions taste like socks."
"Ku Y'leh was the greatest alchemist. His body was so saturated with good chemicals, how could something prepared from his ashes be less than wonderful?"
"Those were HIS ashes?"
Hopefully, Ku Y'leh wouldn't mind his new final resting place, in the swampy muck outside Alkor's door. Dammit, religious nuts were supposed to be the only ones who play around with dead people. In spite of her reaction, she still felt suffused with new life. But she wasn't going to try getting Ku Y'leh back to see if he had any more to offer her.
Deeper and deeper Xanthippe and Kasim went into the marshes. Sticking close to the river made travel easier, there was less to trip over. Her new poleaxe was a thing of beauty. Well, maybe not, but it was very helpful for slicing and dicing. After chopping up the immortal remnants of the strongest man in Kurast, now a very strong zombie, Xanthippe found a magic long sword. The enchantment was terrible - +1 to maximum damage - but Cain had mentioned an alchemical recipe that used swords. She had some chipped gems set aside, so she used the cube to transform the sword.
As predicted, the long sword came through the transformation with three sockets and a new enchantment, a brutal one. That was good... but Xanthippe felt she could do better, and she had the gems to try again. Bronze sword of quality... sword of the icicle... then, out came a Soldier's Long Sword of Alacrity. That was good enough for her. In the Spider's jungle, she'd found a gem shrine, and made a perfect ruby with it. It was stowed in her luggage now... no, it wasn't there anymore! Instead, there was a runestone and a note:
"Oh, what a pretty shiny thing you've made for me! I'll take this as payment for the ruby in your crown, my little princess. Make the next one an emerald or topaz, I don't have many of them. As for your sword, when you make it, here's an Amn rune to keep you healthy. Don't be too upset! You're fiery enough without this. -- The Mule."
Eyes narrowing, Xanthippe finally saw what was his little game was. Breaking into luggage, moving things around as he saw fit, giving and taking depending on what HE thought she should have! How DARE he!?! She promised herself that she would find this guy and make him squeal like a pig, no matter how long it took. He had to be around here, he had to have stowed away on the ship SOMEWHERE... but she still couldn't find him. She couldn't even find that great warrior woman who was supposed to be hanging around the southern docks; everyone kept telling Xanthippe she was there, but there was never anyone where they pointed.
Hratli was growing concerned about the dome over the dockside, and wanted an old Skatsimi relic that could supposedly reinforce it. It was a dagger called the Gidbinn.
"Why would a dagger help with a Dome of Protection?"
"Why would a sword help a sorceress? You ask many meaningless questions."
"Hell yeah, I ask questions. I want answers. Good answers. Like, why the hell does everyone say there's some great warrior over there behind me?"
Hratli looked over Xanthippe's shoulder. "Perhaps it is an error in their judgment. The Gidbinn is a repository, and contains a great deal of magical energy. Though the enchantment on the dockside is not the best, more power should strengthen it."
"Or burn it out completely," Xanthippe snorted.
Grumbling and swearing under her breath, Xanthippe trudged back into the jungle. Kasim kept at least 5 yards ahead of her; that way, he didn't have to listen. Slowly, the land rose and became less swampy. There were fewer drowned corpses wandering around, but this didn't improve matters. The number of toothy little pygmies rose. They weren't much trouble, except for their shamans. Xanthippe would have liked to use her poleaxe, but the shamans breathed fire, and her fire resistance was quite poor without her shield. At least it gave her a chance to try her new sword. Xanthippe liked swords better than maces; the beautiful, graceful blades, and the smooth, sharp edges, are so much nicer than all those little spikes.
It wasn't long before they found the Gidbinn, with a little band of pygmies who lived next to an old dungeon. The blade was small, bronze, and primitive-looking, but screaming with power. How did this thing get to be a religious artifact and power repository? Then she remembered that religious energy often involves death... small knives would be very useful for collecting it, since they were often used to create it. Oh, well, she thought. Energy is energy. Religions gather their energy very inefficiently, but as long as it's there, it might as well be used.
Back on the docks, Ormus took the Gidbinn, and floated it over a little altar next to the pyramid. New power surged over the docks, though few noticed it, and the dome pushed the jungle back with renewed strength. Xanthippe's good deed for the day was done. Ormus gave her a lousy ring he didn't like, and composed a poem for her:
'It's doubtful that she'll come to good!'
For she, despite our good advice,
Simply isn't very nice.
Not to magic, but combat martial:
When she was young, she fell from bed,
And landed solid on her head.
Imitates enviable names,
Puts use to magic, with calm thought --
But she thinks that is full of rot.
Inseparable are her nose and thumb!"
"Heya, Alkor. It smells like poo gas in here."
"Do not bother me, stupid girl. My mind encompasses the universe."
"Have you been hitting the sulfur compounds again?"
"The world is a speck of dust settled upon my left buttock!"
"I didn't need to know that. Looks like you're busy, I'll come back later."
Hratli bought the ring. Xanthippe asked him what was up with Alkor. "Alkor lives a life of ceaseless study and endless dissipation."
"Kind of contradictory goals," Xanthippe said.
"Alkor studies by filling his head full of knowledge, until it can hold no more. He then indulges in all the worst of his own concoctions at once, burning the feverish fires of delirium through his brain. What knowledge survives, he takes to be true, good, and worthy."
Xanthippe thought about that. "So, we're all dirt on Alkor's left butt cheek."
Hratli impassively replied, "It might explain certain things."
Meanwhile, back in the jungle, Xanthippe led Kasim down into the dungeons. They were full of ghosts, probably the remnants of some religious purge. The Rogue dungeons had a lot of ghosts too; maybe ghosts were a manifestation of the mental energy produced by pain and fear. This was also where the pygmies put their dead, and they were all very happy to see Xanthippe. Out of respect for their dead, they had been wired with explosives, set to go off when their bones came apart. The poleaxe helped a lot with them, if you were careful to keep them at range. At the lowest level, one of those evil little Shamans had set up shop. She needed the shield to deal with him. Toasty.
The dungeon had a golden treasure chest, just like the spider webs. Several traps protected it, but inside was a lovely suit of plate mail, a few useless things, and a brain. The brain looked like polished rose quartz, with reddish veins. Gingerly scooping it up with an old shield, Xanthippe took the brain back to Cain.
"Ah!" Cain picked up the brain, "Khalim's brain still bears the knowledge of Mephisto's weakness!"
"How do you know?"
"He just told me. Here, hold him and he'll speak with you."
"NO THANK YOU! You can tell me, please, I'll trust your judgment!"
"There's nothing to worry about. He says you're very brave, and he is glad to have seen you. Soon, you will have his heart."
Xanthippe went pale. "Please, can't we just be friends?"
"No, no!" Cain laughed. "His heart is entombed beneath the lower city. After Khalim's destruction, the high council of Zakarum could not destroy his remains, so they scattered them. If they were to be reunited, Khalim might be able to destroy Mephisto!"
"Hey, great! Anyone who can take on the big guy is cool by me. Why didn't the Zakarumites drop his bits in the ocean or something?"
"Khalim explains that he can return to Kurast, but not bring his parts together within the city while Mephisto's spirit is dominant. Nor can he reconstruct his body."
Xanthippe frowned. "I thought he said he could destroy Mephisto. What's he going to use, harsh language? I'm not looking for his tongue."
Cain held the brain, frowning with concentration. "Mephisto will not allow his body to exist. But there may be another way. While embodied, Khalim had a flail, a special one with three heads. If combined with it, he could make a holy weapon of himself."
"Another artifact. This city is just dripping with rare holy artifacts."
"This is a holy city, after all. What does it matter? Much good has come from religious faith, despite the darkness we find ourselves in now."
Xanthippe looked annoyed. "Religion is an excuse for people who don't want to think. Using your brain, not some saint's, is infinitely better. None of this would be happening if it weren't for religious nuts bringing angels and monsters into our world."
The emphatic assurance of Xanthippe's words seemed to trouble Cain. "Yes... I have heard others argue that as well. Perhaps there is something to it, though I suspect the angels and monsters would be in our world regardless. If we can truly say it is our world, and not theirs."
Xanthippe shrugged. "They have theirs. This is ours. They should get out and fight their own damn war in their own damn worlds, and leave us out of it."
Cain looked at the brain. If Khalim said anything, Cain didn't repeat it. "This is a very old debate, and I do not think it will be answered definitely in my lifetime or yours. But time is growing short. There is still much more that you must do."
Xanthippe snorted, had Cain drop Khalim's knowledgeable mind into her luggage, and returned to the jungle. It's typical of old people to change the subject, rather than admit they've lost the debate. Cold logic does that to prideful people. Going further into the jungle, they killed pygmies, more pygmies, and yet more pygmies. They found a swampy pit, which was full of pygmies, treasure, and still yet more pygmies. After a long stretch of jungle with even still yet more pygmies (Damn, they must breed like rats! Which ones were the girls, anyway?) they finally came to the outer walls of the great city of Kurast.
"Yes, that is the entrance to the lower city," Cain said. "Glorious Kurast was built as a series of concentric rings, separated by defensible walls and moats. Connecting the rings are permanent bridges, with towers flanking them where archers may be stationed. At the very heart of Kurast, in the middle of a lake, is the city within the city, Travincal."
"Great," Xanthippe nodded. "The towers and walls are there. But I didn't see any archers."
"No one here has been near the city for weeks. Even Asheara's Iron Wolves have not been able to penetrate the jungle."
"That's not saying anything," Xanthippe snorted. "I didn't see any people in the city either. That might explain it."
Cain considered that. "It may be, once they were no longer needed, Mephisto replaced the Zakarumites with more suitable minions."
"Maybe. Anyway, Alkor tells me there's a book in the city somewhere I should find. The Black Tome of Lam Esen."
"Ah! A book of histories and prophecies, concerned especially with the Three Prime Evils."
"Yep. Might have useful information, if it wasn't written by a mage."
Cain chuckled. "You are so very hard on those of your own profession."
Xanthippe smirked. "Of course. I've met enough of them to know. See you soon."
After Xanthippe and Kasim left, and their portal winked out of sight, Cain sat for a moment in thoughtful meditation. Turning to his right, he looked straight at a shadow no one had thought looked out of place, even though it was, and said. "Some would consider it rude, the way you listen in on others' conversations."
With a shrug, Natalya let her shadows drop. "Ok, how'd you spot me?"
Cain raised an eyebrow. "Do you think I am going to tell you?"
"It would be very bad for us, if many others knew how to see through our cloaks." Natalya smiled. "I suppose I could just ask you another way."
"With your 'gifts of the mind' and 'psychic attunement'? If your powers were so subtle and refined, I think you would know enough of our girl to trust her, as I do."
"This represents a breach in our defenses, you know." Natalya walked over to Cain. "For the good of my order and our mission, I have to know sometime, somehow."
Cain smiled. "Subtle threats are pointless when I know as well as you that they cannot be carried out. If you must know, I simply used my brains. I have seen others point you out to my little sorceress, but she does not see you. You are Viz-Jaq'taar, of the order of mage-slayers, and I am well aware that you refine the powers of your minds. Therefore, the only possible conclusion is that you can 'persuade' others that you cannot be seen."
"Ah, ha." Natalya nodded. "So you just looked where I was telling you not to look. Logic. Can't call using that a crime. You'd be amazed at how weak wizards are, when it comes to logic."
"Magic is mysticism at its core, despite what sorcerers might say. No one really understands how it works, why certain words and movements produce certain results. Logic is simply not a useful tool for the magician. Speaking of weak logic... what do you think of her?"
"What's to think? I'm assigned to watch someone else."
"Then why were you here listening to us?"
"How do you know I was?"
Cain folded his arms. "Attempting to maintain plausible deniability, are we? While I have not refined my 'psychic talents', I know when I am being bamboozled!"
"All right. Actually, I respect you a lot more than I thought I would. I've been assigned here to keep an eye on Ormus, and kill him if I have to. I believe he's a spy for Mephisto. But when your little princess showed up, I knew she was the greater danger. You should see the emotion crackling off her, she's all raw nerves."
"Many her age are. If your order was meant to police the mage clans, I should think there are greater concerns here than a... juvenile delinquent, if I must use such terms."
"Her age isn't important. Look at her profile. Cocky and arrogant, assigned to kill Diablo by people she thinks she's better than. She might betray us to the Three out of spite."
"I find your case unconvincing," Cain said. "You must also, as you have taken no action as yet. Unless you are the one who wants the Tome of Lam Esen?"
Natalya laughed, and leaned back casually on one foot. "I can't fool you, can I? You're right, I bribed Alkor to ask her for the book. There's information in it about the early days of my order, as well as the prophecies. It will be an interesting history lesson... and valuable for the war." The more Natalya seemed to relax, the more troubled Cain seemed. "You know that we are in a long-overdue phase of the Sin War, then."
"Isn't it obvious?"
"Then it concerns me, that one of your talents is not trying to do something about it. Why is Xanthippe making her way through Kurast, while you sit on the docks and wait?"
Natalya stared hard at Cain. "You think I'm a coward."
"I merely think it wise to judge others by their actions." Cain's eyes narrowed. "Ormus would like you to think him mad, but I know he is not by his actions. You, however, have given me very little to judge you by."
Coldly, Natalya nodded. "Deckard Cain, I am part of an organization, not an individual acting on her own. I know that others of my order are active in this area, and I trust my superiors. There is more going on here than we know. Mephisto's corruption of the city is so complete, it's almost as though he's daring heroes to come and try him. I will not go in against him until I know what he's up to, or it could be a very costly mistake. Costly, as in more than just my own life."
"I can't fulfill my primary mission if I go into the jungle. But I can't keep an eye on her if I stay here. So, I sent her after the book. It's quite a treasure. If she comes back with it, I'll know she's reliable. If not, I'll have to leave Ormus alone while I take care of her."
Cain must have given an involuntary twinge. Or maybe Natalya just knew. "Don't be afraid for her. I don't just go around killing people. If I did, Ormus would be dead and I'd be off somewhere doing something more important. If I have to kill her, it will be because I have to kill her."
"How... professional of you."
"It's a job," Natalya shrugged, and walked back to the southern docks. Ormus, though he had been nearby several times, gave no sign of having seen or heard the conversation.
Lower Kurast was full of apes, leapers, and despite Xanthippe's suspicions, Zakarumites. Their clothes were ragged, rotting off their bodies in the constant rain, and they had nothing to protect themselves by scythes and axes. Their eyes had a strange, vacant look, like they didn't really know where they were or what they were doing. This went above and beyond the siren call of any religion Xanthippe had ever heard of; it must be some magic, but she couldn't see anything in the air of the city.
The bridge deeper into Kurast was undefended. The defense of the city didn't seem to follow any rational pattern. The Zakarumites and the demons weren't organized in any way; they just roamed the city in little patchy groups, and attacked with great zeal, but in a totally disorganized way. There were many dead people in the city, tied to rocks and tortured, or laid out on the ground and disemboweled. Looking at the bodies, Xanthippe could tell that the mindless abuse had continued long after the victims were dead.
The bazaars in the second ring of the city had two temples, entrances to the sewers, and the bridge to upper Kurast. Pausing for a moment to weigh her options, Xanthippe asked Kasim, "Which way do you think we should go next?"
Wet and miserable in the rain, Kasim pointed to the temples. "They're probably dry."
Xanthippe nodded, and started climbing the steps. "Yep, these buildings look real solid. They'll stand and keep water out for a long time. Wish the Zann Esu built like this."
"Hey, what do you have against them, anyway?"
Once they'd gotten under the roof, and could drip-dry a little, Xanthippe answered, "Just about everything. Like the way they build buildings. Do you know how they build things?"
"Of course not. Stupid question. When the Zann Esu went into the jungles, they had to build a place for themselves to live in. You'd think they'd find people who know how to build, right?"
"Not if they're supposed to be secret."
"Yeah, ok. But they didn't even need to do that. They had books with them, including books on architecture. Do you think they looked up how to build things in those books?"
"I think you're gonna say 'no'."
"No, they didn't. Men wrote those books, and they didn't want to build the way men do. Men are always building towers. Big, tall towers, and they're incredibly concerned about who has the biggest tower. Get my meaning?"
"It's a phallic symbol. The Zann Esu wanted to make a completely new tradition of female scholarship, female arts, female magic. To do that, they rejected everything male, even if it worked. You know how they built the first buildings?"
Kasim looked confused. "I think you already asked me that..."
"Oh, yeah, sorry. They all got together, and lifted the rocks with TK."
"Telekinesis. You know?" Xanthippe looked at a pebble, and cast a spell. The pebble floated up in the air, and moved where she pointed.
"Hey, I've never seen you do that before!"
"It's not hard. But you can't lift much weight, even a dagger's too heavy. It took most of the witches to move one rock, but they wanted the buildings to be made using magic, not brute strength. They thought it'd make the clan more magical."
"Uh... ok, makes sense."
"No it doesn't. It took the whole clan months to build one building. It fell down 5 times while they were building it. They didn't know how thick to make the walls, they didn't think to put in support beams, they never thought of how the weight of the roof would be distributed... they didn't know what they were doing!"
"And, of course, they can't actually read one of those filthy male architecture books, or their minds might be infected. They had to figure it all out by trial and error -- you know, the 'intuitive' way of doing it. Women's intuition, huh?"
"Uh, yeah." Kasim looked a bit uncomfortable.
"Anyway, the first building fell down a few months after they finished it. They were making a second one, and trying for a second story. It never did go up."
"So... you guys were all out in the jungle without any buildings?"
Xanthippe laughed, "No, they figured something out eventually. We apprentices were housed in one of the older buildings -- one of the ones that actually stood up, anyway. The place was drafty as hell, leaked all the time, and the ceiling was only 4 feet high because they didn't want to make the walls thick enough to make it taller. Too much work."
"Yeah! Years of trial and error, just to get that. And you know what? The senior witches were proud of it! They were proud of a bunch of ugly, dysfunctional, pile-of-junk buildings just because they'd built them by themselves. They thought it made them superior!"
Kasim just nodded. He was beginning to be sorry he'd asked. Xanthippe ranted until they were both dry. All the hot air must have helped. If they were going to go anywhere today, Kasim realized he'd have to get her to shut up. "Uh... one thing I don't get?"
Xanthippe stopped in mid-rave. "What's that?"
"What's a 'phallic symbol'?"
Xanthippe blinked, thought for a minute, then said, "Let's go kill things."
"Fine by me."
The ruined temple was small, and very crowded with giant spiders, flaming ghouls, and Zakarumite women. The ghouls were nasty, summoning fireballs from the heavens, and Xanthippe still didn't have nearly enough fire resistance without her shield. The Zakarumite women were the worst. Judging from the remains of their clothing, they had been nuns or priestesses of some kind. The juxtaposition of nun's garb, near-nakedness, and bloodthirsty savagery would have brought back nightmares if they'd been raised in the church. On the temple's altar, a black book rested on a puddle of dried blood.
There was a lot of treasure in the temple; while Kasim helped ferry it out, Xanthippe took a look at the book. Unfortunately, it was written in Dravidian, a language she was not familiar with. It was the old language of this part of the world, so Alkor probably knew it; she took it straight back to him. Cain was overjoyed to see the book; it must really be something good.
While they were exploring the second temple in the Kurast bazaar, Kasim seemed to be thinking. After a while, he smiled, and said, "Hey, boss? You know what?"
After taking a moment to not-very-neatly remove a ghoul's head, Xanthippe answered, "What?" "I think you've been lying."
"No, I haven't. Incoming!" They ran away just as a meteor crashed through the ceiling and shattered in a ball of fire. Pity what these ghouls were doing to the city. "What makes you think I've been lying?"
"Well, maybe not lying, but making it worse than it is."
"Yeah. It's like this: you said the Zann Esu wanted to reject everything men knew, right?"
"Everything tainted by a biased male perspective, yes."
"But you also said they brought a bunch of books with them into the jungle. If they didn't want them, why'd they bring them?"
After they'd beaten the last ghoul into a pile of bone splinters, Xanthippe answered, "So they could try to prove them all wrong. Hard to do that if you don't have the original material to dissect and misquote."
"You know, the Zann Esu philosophy is supposed to be supportive, broad, nonjudgmental, and all-inclusive?"
Kasim shook his head, and looked around the next corner.
"Well, they are some of the most judgmental, intolerant philosophers ever. Just try contradicting one of them sometime! They all get the old girls' group together and jump all over you! It's completely hypocritical!"
"Heads up!" Kasim yelled, and sliced open a giant spider.
Chopping up spiders, trying to avoid the webs, Xanthippe continued, "When we apprentices were supposed to look at 'older philosophies', they quoted the men's books at us. The actual books were hidden so our delicate young minds wouldn't be polluted."
"Yeah," Kasim grunted as he buried his poleaxe in a spider's bloated abdomen.
"So I went and found where they were hiding them. I stole one, hid it, and read the whole thing, not just the parts they wanted me to read."
"You read a whole book?"
After sticking her poleaxe in the last spider, it expired with a hiss. Xanthippe smiled, and finally nodded to Kasim. "Ayuh. A whole book."
"Damn, that must have taken a long time."
Turning away so he couldn't see the smirk, Xanthippe nodded. "Oh, yeah. And you know what I read?"
"A lot more than that. I thought, after reading one book, that one dead male had a lot better things to say than all my teachers."
"The book was about mathematics, and the elements. It was all clear, concise, no babbling about political perspectives, or imposing male and female characters on fire, air, water, and earth. They were just forces, energy, and matter. I even found the sections the witches liked to quote; they'd been taken totally out of context to try to make them look stupid."
They left the temple and trudged towards the bridge to upper Kurast; Xanthippe just went on and on. Kasim tried to think of something that might shut her up again. Finally, he remembered. "Didn't you want to go into the sewers to look for something?"
"Oh, yeah. That heart thing."
The Kurast sewers were huge, as you might expect for such a city. They probably extended for miles underground. Mostly, they were empty, but not completely. Giant tentacled reptiles were living in the sewer nodes, and Mephisto seemed to have imported mummies, both greater and lesser, to fill in the dark places. Pygmy skeletons were everywhere too. On a trip back to town, Xanthippe visited Asheara, which she normally wouldn't do. She couldn't even look at Asheara without giggling. But Hratli didn't sell boots, and Xanthippe needed a new pair; they were one of her few items with fire resistance, and she needed much more than they had.
"Hello there," Asheara smirked. "You've been scarce."
"Um, hi." Xanthippe tried to look anywhere in the room but at Asheara. "Just want to look over the stuff you've got for sale. Need some boots."
Asheara nodded, and stood behind her table of wares. Xanthippe kept her eyes down hard on the table, the corners of her mouth twitching. "Something funny?" Asheara asked.
"No, nothing!" Xanthippe snerked.
Patiently, Asheara waited, stroking her python and rubbing under its chin. Xanthippe stood looking at the table for a long time... then began to tremble. Asheara bent over to look at her downturned face. Xanthippe's eyes were shut tight, tears trickling down her cheeks, her teeth clamped on her lip.
"So laugh already," Asheara whispered in her ear.
"BWA HA HA!" Xanthippe face-planted on the table, dropping everything. Her crown fell off, and her poleaxe clattered on the ground. Smiling to herself, Asheara let her blow it off for a while before she spoke. "There, now. Isn't that better?"
"Now," Asheara handed Xanthippe her crown back, "what is so damned funny?"
"YOU!! Look at you! What's with the leather bikini?! And don't you think the snake is just a little too much?! I mean, please!"
"It's my look. You have a problem with that?"
"Your look. 'Hi, world! Here are my tits!' That's a look?"
"And how is the typical sorceress belly-button display an improvement?"
Xanthippe frowned. "Look, I don't know what the Zann Esu were thinking when they gave us all those outfits. But I don't wear it into battle!"
Asheara nodded, smiling. "That's all right, I don't either. Then again, maybe you shouldn't even try. You really don't have the bustline to pull off a bikini."
Xanthippe smiled. "Maybe when I'm as old as you. Or do the potions of manliness help somehow?"
"Potions of manliness?" Kasim asked.
"Sure." Xanthippe hunched over and did an imitation of Alkor: "Asheara is one of my best customers! She buys a potion of manliness from me every week!"
Asheara frowned, and tapped one bare foot. "Do I look 'manly' to either of you clowns?"
"It might explain why your voice is so deep," Xanthippe suggested. "Come on. What is this, some pathetic plea for attention?"
Asheara snorted. "You're sounding a lot like the rest of the Zann Esu right now."
"No I'm not," Xanthippe retorted.
"Oh, yes you are." Asheara stood up very straight and huffed, "This blatant appeal to the lower emotions is undermining every effort we have made towards feminine equality!"
"Uh... yeah, ok, the Zann Esu sound like that..."
"Damn straight. I studied under them for a few years. I will wear what I damn well please. Nobody tells me what to do."
Xanthippe still looked unhappy. "Ok, you don't have to do what they tell you. But that still doesn't explain why you're doing that."
Asheara laughed, and struck a pose. "Because I look damn good. Why not?"
"Well... men don't respect women who dress like that."
"Hey, Vanji," Asheara said to her personal guard. "Do you respect me?"
Vanji looked up. "Hell yes, I respect you, ma'am."
"He's only saying that because you pay his wages," Xanthippe snorted.
"No, he's saying that because if he doesn't, I'll kick his ass. Look here, girlie. You've been with the Zann Esu for how long?"
Asheara looked surprised. "What, did they steal you out of your cradle or something?"
"I don't want to talk about that. What are you getting at, anyway?"
Asheara crossed her arms under her admittedly ample bosoms. "You've had no contact with men since you were a little kid. All you know about them is what the Zann Esu told you."
Xanthippe thought about the hundreds, maybe thousands of men who'd gone in and out of her grandmother's house. Almost all the talk in the house had centered around men: how to please them, how to flatter their egos, how to get around what they wanted or satisfy their worst impulses. "I think I know something about men."
Asheara looked doubtful. "Girl, you don't know anything about men, or what men respect. It's not what you wear. It's not what you say. It's not being able to kick their asses. And it damn well isn't Zann Esu philosophical screeching."
"Then what is it, since you are so incredibly experienced with men?"
"Damn right I am," Asheara grinned. "What gets respect is this: guts. If you have the balls to tell them off and fight back, they respect that. Don't take anything from anybody, man or woman, and they'll respect you."
Eyes narrowed, Asheara said, "It's just an expression."
"I hope so... or you've really been hitting the potions of manliness too much."
Meanwhile, off to one side, Kasim whispered to Vanji, "So, what's your boss like?"
"A bitch. Yours?"
"A bitch. Think they're gonna be friends?"
"Or hate each others guts. C'mon, she might start walking around in a bikini."
"That wouldn't be bad. She'll probably start asking me if the plate mail makes her look fat."
"Don't go there, man. Just don't even go there."
Xanthippe left Asheara's hut laughing, but Asheara was laughing too. It wasn't until they were back in the sewers that Xanthippe realized she'd forgotten all about looking at boots. Oh, well, it was probably a good idea to wait until after they were out of the sewers to look for new footwear. Navigating the sewers was a challenge in itself, even without the monsters; there were several sections where the walkways had collapsed, or bridges had never been built over the muck.
At one point, they ran into a group of greater mummies, led by a glowing purple one. They had a huge retinue of skeletons and lesser mummies, and a pack of exploding pygmy skeletons joined in on the fun. It was next to impossible to hack through the crowd, the lesser undead kept getting raised as soon as they'd been smashed... until Xanthippe remembered she knew how to teleport. Smacking herself in the forehead (good thing she had the battle crown) she grabbed Kasim and zapped over into the greater mummy pack. A few choice slashes and the pack went down, and cleaning up the lesser undead was much easier.
Teleporting made life so much easier! Xanthippe would have to remember to teleport more often. Eventually, they found a sewage node with an iron gate on the floor. Next to it was a big wheel, set into the ground. They turned the wheel, and with a rusty groan, the gates swung up, revealing stairs down to a large chamber. Why is this here, Xanthippe wondered? Is it some kind of control room? A hidden treasure room in the sewers?
Down below, Xanthippe and Kasim found a small chamber resembling a four-pointed star, with a pool of water in its center. All was quiet. Xanthippe looked at the pool; it was black and still, but bubbles occasionally broke the surface. "Ok... looks like we've got a tentacle beast. You stay here, I'll go around to the right." Kasim nodded, and after Xanthippe moved, stomped on the floor next to the pool. That usually brought them up.
Then it happened. A pack of pygmy skeletons, led by an extra-strong one, came out of nowhere behind Xanthippe and attacked. Kasim ran around to engage them; Xanthippe tried to get her shield off her back, but the little bastards weren't giving her a chance. The head of a tentacle beast came up from the pool... then another, and another. All of them decided that Xanthippe was their new special friend, and spit globs of poisonous mucus at her back, knocking her right into the middle of the pygmy skeleton pack. Kasim killed the first pygmy just at that moment.
*BOOM!* it went, knocking Xanthippe off her feet and into the pool. A fourth (!!) tentacle beast put his head up and spat Xanthippe back to the pygmies. They were hacking at Kasim and her with their little knives, and when Kasim killed another *BOOM!* Xanthippe saw ooooh, pretty colors! There's a red one and a green one and a purpleberry one and there's flowers and pretty unicornys! All four tentacles were spitting their serpentine guts out as fast as they could, and as pieces of pygmy lodged in Xanthippe's skull, she wondered why she was covered with green stinky slime and why all these cute little guys with those cute little codpieces that say "C4" on them were trying to pull her eyeballs out, cause it was really really really starting to hurt.
Purpleberries! Xanthippe wondered what purpleberry tasted like, so she grabbed something purple and drank it. She immediately felt much better! Wow! There was a pygmy skeleton standing on her chest, spinning on its knife like it was trying to drill for oil. That would be bad. She'd never be able to wear a bikini if he kept doing that. Kasim was covered in slime, there were pygmies dancing on his head, but he was screaming at her to get up. Get up? Oh yeah, these things are trying to kill them!
Tossing the pygmy skeleton off her chest, Xanthippe got to her feet, nearly slipping in the slime. There was almost no room to maneuver in the tiny chamber, she couldn't get any distance from the skeletons when they blew up. And those damn tentacles kept knocking her where she didn't want to go! After tossing Kasim a purple potion, she skidded over to the pool, and hacked at the nearest tentacle. It submerged, but the others spat her back to the pygmies. *BOOM!* *BOOM!* This was really starting to hurt.
Finally, they'd killed two tentacles and all the pygmies but the last, the strongest one. Would it run away and give them time to breathe? No, it wouldn't. It suicidally leapt straight for Kasim, and he skewered it. **BOOM!!!** The blast knocked Xanthippe back into the wall. A momentary hallucination passed through her mind, of someone pressing a button marked 'C' and looking at a life indicator, which read exactly '3'. Kasim killed the last two tentacles while she was prying herself out of the wall. Both of them were badly poisoned; what little life they had left was ebbing fast. Quickly, she made a town portal, and they crawled back to Ormus's feet.
"Ormus, first I want to say, I'm very sorry about all the things I said about you."
"Ormus cares not for the slings and arrows of outrageous verbiage. What harm can an adjective bring?"
"Could someone get this flayer skull out of me?" Kasim whined.
Without haste or delay, Ormus healed them both, and flushed the poison from their bodies. "There is no need. It will serve as an extra-rich source of calcium, as well as other essential vitamins and iron."
"Just don't incorporate the green gunk into us," Xanthippe snarled. "You don't know where it's been."
The chamber under the iron grate must have been a treasure house, though why someone would put it in a sewer was anyone's guess. Sure, very few people would look down there, but you have to go through a sewer to get to the place. There were several chests full of gold and other valuable items, including... Khalim's heart. It looked like it was carved from solid ruby, with a light burning inside. She couldn't bring herself to touch it, even though it looked kind of cool, so Xanthippe scooped it up in an old helmet. It seemed to throb and pulse, but that might be her imagination.
The next morning, Xanthippe yawned, stretched, and listened to the rain outside. Does it every stop raining here? Lut Gholein could use a little of this weather. After the time she'd spent here, she understood why all their stuff was either of incredible quality, or as cheap as possible. With all the rot, things had to be either indestructible, or cost nothing to replace. The roofs, for instance, were heavily lacquered ceramic tile, or thatch. Nothing in between. The desert's heat preserves things; those mummies in the sewers had to be imported. And supposedly, the saber cats of Lut Gholein were from these jungles. The Three were working together over very long distances. Maybe Diablo and Baal hadn't needed to stow away on Meshif's ship. Does Mephisto know what she's doing, where she is?
Lying in bed won't do any good, no matter what the enemy is planning. During her morning stretching, Xanthippe was pleased to note she could put her palms on the floor without even straightening her arms. She could bend over backwards until she put her hands on the ground too, and balance like that. One of the girls at her grandmother's could put both legs behind her head; Xanthippe only managed one. Still, not bad. While getting her armor, she noticed it was still green with dried slime; she'd forgotten to have her equipment cleaned and repaired last night. Ew, the padding she wore underneath was getting moldy again. That was the fifth set of padding she'd had to buy; if she didn't replace it regularly, it gave her a rash.
On her way to Hratli's, Xanthippe saw someone new. She was very tall and long-legged, with short dark hair, and was dressed all in black. Including, Xanthippe noted, thigh-high, jet-black, patent leather boots. This reminded her of Kashya; high boots over creamy pale thighs, revealed by daringly cut armor, was a popular look for some warrior women. Maybe they favored it for the distraction value, along with the low-cut cuirasses. In her opinion, there were too many arteries and other vulnerable things in the thighs, chest, and neck to even consider it. But, there's no point in holding poor aesthetic judgment against someone new; there will be plenty of things to hold against them after you've met them.
"Hi there," Xanthippe smiled. "New in town?"
"Hello. I'm Natalya," the woman smiled. "I've been here and there. Guess we've just missed each other. It's been hell out in that jungle."
"Yep, it's been hellish." Xanthippe looked down. "Amazing that you can keep such a shine on those boots, with all the mud and blood and fire you have to go through out there. I could never manage it myself."
Natalya laughed. "I like keeping up appearances."
"Oh, I noticed," Xanthippe quickly interjected.
"You look like you've got some armor troubles there."
Xanthippe lifted her plate mail to look at. "Yeah, it's probably got a few communicable disease colonies living in it by now." She flicked a stray flayer bone out of one armpit. "Gotta get Hratli to clean it up."
"He's very good for that. My order could really use someone of his talents. If he ever wants to leave this hellhole, I'll be happy to offer him a job."
"Your order?" Xanthippe delicately inquired.
"The Viz-Jaq'taar. We've had to come out of hiding and take a more active role in the world than is our usual policy. All this business, you understand."
Oh... kay, Xanthippe thought. That order isn't supposed to really exist, and if they do exist, they're supposed to all be men, since they were founded by the Vizjerei, the male-only mage clan the Zann Esu got (or stole) a lot of their magical knowledge from. "Hmm, interesting. Kill anybody yet today?"
"The day's hardly begun." Smiling, Natalya asked, "How are you planning to spend your day?"
"Well, there's this demon lord, see. Actually, there's three of them, and they're planning this big reunion party. They were rude enough not to invite me, so I'm going to crash the party and steal the hors d'oeuvre tray. And maybe get drunk and throw up on their dates."
Natalya listened with arms folded, and nodded. "Interesting."
"A good time shall be had by all. Excuse me, the sun's rising. I want to make good use of daylight."
"Understandable. Sure they'll have dates with them?"
"Several for each. None of them seem to travel alone, these days. Ta-ta!"
Damn, that was creepy. What the hell is an assassin doing here, and not going after Diablo or someone worthy of the attention? Sure, they're supposed to keep mages honest by the threat of silent death, but there are bigger problems right now! "Hratli?"
Hratli took the armor and went to work. "I noticed that you have been talking with Natalya."
"Yeah. Where the hell did she come from, and what is she doing here?"
"That has been a source of speculation since before your arrival."
"You mean she was here before me?"
"Indeed, it is so. Wild rumors and gossip are all we have to entertain ourselves now, aside from the Flayer races on Saturdays. Two starving Flayers are placed in a pit, and the one which kills and devours the other is the winner."
"What do you do with the winner?"
"Drown it. I cannot abide cannibalism."
At least she's not after me, Xanthippe thought. "What's beyond the Kurast bazaar?"
"Beyond the marketplaces are the homes of the wealthy, and the causeway to Travincal." The armor took some work, it had gotten a terrible beating last night. After burning away the poison, and combing out the bones and other big chunks, Hratli gave Xanthippe two new sets of padding. She needed to double up on the padding, or the plate was too loose; Hratli couldn't cinch the metal in tight enough. "The city of Kurast was built to resemble the orb of the sun. The city resembles an onion, particularly by the weeping it brings to those who cut through it."
While Hratli polished her gauntlets, hammered the dents out of her crown, and sharpened the edge on her poleaxe, Xanthippe sat down by the warmth of his forge to think. Visiting Hratli was actually pleasant; the forge's heat made this the only really dry place in Kurast. "There is a mage-slayer in Kurast. What does she want?"
"It is possible that her presence has something to do with a mage."
"Hmm... there's Asheara, they might want to recruit her or something. Alkor? Nah. Ormus is just nuts. How about you?"
Hratli smiled thinly. "She has spoken to me about leaving this place, to forge weapons for her order. Her suggestions are reasonable. However, I am not a reasonable man."
"I know. Your prices sure aren't. I don't have enough information to figure out what she's here for. Have to listen to the rumor mill some."
One of Xanthippe's best sources of unsubstantiated rumor was Alkor. He'd tell her almost anything if it would get rid of her. And while she was there, she could gamble for boots. Asheara was still getting her beauty sleep, but Vanji showed Xanthippe the table of wares; no boots this morning, but maybe later.
"Alkor, you lovely person! How are you this bright, sunshiny morning?"
"Sleeping!" Alkor screamed. He'd stuffed himself under his mattress, and the place smelled like mulberries. "Hand me my clothing, stupid girl. What business do you wish to harass me about at such an hour?"
"Trying to return to the womb, Alkor?"
"For planting such an image in my mind, I will request you to drop dead. Last night, while studying so intensely I feared for my thighs, I imagined myself in a huge cave, filled with all the knowledge of the world. As I suspected, well over 99% of it was worthless filth, and it contaminated me with bits of socially acceptable drivel."
Turning her back while he combobulated himself, Xanthippe sniffed the air. "Sounds like you had quite a party. Anyone else I know get involved?"
"I dearly hope not."
"Aw, c'mon. There's a really hot chick in black down on the southern docks."
Alkor glared intensely at Xanthippe. "She is not much for reading."
"You know her, then?"
"Yes, I do. And she has no interest in books!"
"She sure doesn't dress like the intellectual type. Not nearly enough tweed. How have you met her, then?"
Alkor thought for a bit. "She buys a potion of manliness from me, every week."
"Then she buys a potion of womanliness from me every week!"
"Then how come Asheara still has a bigger bust?"
"What sorts of sculptures Asheara keeps, I do not care about. Cease prattling, stupid girl. What do you want?"
"Well..." Xanthippe thought for a bit. Alkor is a lousy liar. Doesn't have the social skills for it. But he's not ready to talk yet. Later in the day, after he's gotten into his concoctions, he'll have loosened up enough to be chatty. "Let's gamble."
"Certainly! Your money is better in my pocket than yours any morning."
The gambling wasn't a total loss this time; Xanthippe walked away with a new set of boots. But she couldn't wear them. They were heavy greaves, rare and with excellent enchantments, including a lot of fire resistance. But Xanthippe wasn't quite strong enough to wear them and still run, and running is even more critical than fire resistance. Why are all the really good warrior things made for huge, muscle-bound brutes? Thinking about it, Xanthippe realized that question answers itself. Damn. She'd have to hang onto the greaves until she'd worked her thigh muscles enough. And have Hratli resize them. There aren't enough socks in the world to make her feet big enough for those things.
Back in Kurast, Xanthippe and Kasim crossed the bridge into upper Kurast. Immediately, a blizzard struck, a very intense snowstorm that blinded them with snow and chill, icy winds. Odd weather for this part of the world, but Xanthippe could see that it was magical. A group of robed priests, with a retinue of poleaxe-wielding zealots, was approaching. The zealots fell quickly; maybe if they'd been wearing the heavy armor Paladins are supposed to favor, they'd have given them more trouble. The priests were harder; they kept healing each other, and the chill they summoned up was getting annoying. Taking out the high priest took the wind out of their sails, though.
The upper city had temples, with more firewall- and meteor-tossing ghouls. There were also big blue serpent-men, just like the ones from Lut Gholein, only nastier. How were all these creatures getting across the Twin Seas? Surely, not on ships. Maybe, if they were being summoned from Hell, these were snakes she'd killed in Lut Gholein, come back meaner than ever for a rematch. After clearing the city, Xanthippe and Kasim went down the causeway, which also had two temples, and arrived in Travincal.
The city within the city was not much of a city anymore. The buildings were neglected, the streets hadn't been cleaned, and the many altars were all gory messes. While walking around the outer causeway, trying to get an idea of the extent of the place, Xanthippe saw a waypoint through cracks in a nearby wall. Grabbing Kasim, she teleported over and took it home. It was getting dark. They would take the city tomorrow.
"Hello, stupid girl. You plague my morning once again. Have you more money to give me?" After raiding the licorice jar, Xanthippe said, "I'm off to Travincal. Know anything important about the place?"
"No! It is a city of temples and devotionals. Faith and preaching give me hives."
"How's the book of Lam Esen?"
"Absolutely fascinating! Events are proceeding exactly as Lam Esen foretold."
"What did he foretell?"
"That we are utterly ruined!" Alkor squealed.
"This is news?" Xanthippe went through the jar again. "Does he say anything about me in there?"
"There is mention of a small, bratty girl, who goes to hell as her reward."
"Good to know I'm going places," Xanthippe mused. "Now, about Natalya..."
Alkor looked nervous. "Who is Natalya?"
"Alkor, you're a really bad liar. Stop trying. The tall woman in black."
"Ah, she is very friendly and kind. She leaves me alone!"
"Well, if you didn't make yourself so much fun to torment, I wouldn't be here. Natalya's been here too, I'm guessing."
"She did not say anything!"
Xanthippe pouted. "Are you sure sure sure?"
"Yes yes yes! Now go away!"
"She didn't mention Hratli, did she?"
"All right, then... I'll leave you alone."
"Good! And do not come back."
"Not even to take some licorice off your hands?"
"I will run out of patience before I run out of candy for you!"
Xanthippe slowly ambled towards the door. "Here I go. Zoom."
"Have you not something to kill? You are no better than Hratli. Always messing about with his silly magic weapons. It is not as though he has the stones to use them on anything."
"I don't have any either. Guess I'll have to stay here."
"No, you will not! You have more stones than anyone but Asheara. Now go away!"
Stumbling around the tiny hut, Xanthippe tripped over a stool. "Oh, I've fallen, and I can't get up. I'll have to stay here forever and ever and ever."
"You get off of my floor! I do all of my best thinking there."
"Hey Alkor, what are all those skulls you have in your roof?"
"Stubborn and willful customers! Where are you going? Get away from there!"
Xanthippe had rolled along the floor, and was going through the dusty piles of stuff under Alkor's bed. "Hey! A recipe book!"
"Those are mine! And you would not understand them. Go away!"
"Alkor, why have you dog-eared the page with a love potion on it?"
"That was many years ago, stupid girl. And I will not make that potion again for you!"
"Can I have a potion of womanliness? Asheara thinks I haven't developed enough."
"I fear for the world if anything about you develops any more!"
Xanthippe paged through the book. "How about a potion of strength?"
"That one makes you smell, and grow hair in peculiar places." Alkor was beginning to turn beet-red.
"Now, GO AWAY!"
"Oh, all right. Time to go to Travincal, and kill priests and councilmen."
Alkor smiled, much relieved. "Kill as many as you can. I have a morbid love of excess."
After taking the waypoint back to Travincal, Xanthippe and Kasim teleported to the causeway which surrounded the city. It was probably the safest way to look the city over. Skirting around Travincal, they found many black-clad zealots (would have been rough running into them in the dark) and priests, as well as more ghouls. The causeway wasn't completely safe, there were stairs the zealots could attack up, and weather-summoning spells could still get them. Xanthippe's thunderstorm could get all of them, and it did an impressive amount of damage now; some of the weaker monsters died in one strike.
Around the backside of Travincal, they found the black tower. It was very tall indeed; the high council of Zakarum had a very impressive... edifice. The council itself was not to be seen. Why black, Xanthippe wondered? The local stone isn't black. Maybe it had been stained with all the filthy thoughts being thought inside. Actually, circling the city was helpful in more than one way: not only were they relatively safe, their long weapons could strike down the Zakarumites who chased them around the lower levels. Why did those zealots just stand there and be hit, knowing they couldn't reach far enough to strike back? Even religion doesn't make you that stupid, does it?
Cain thought that Mephisto might be using a Compelling Orb, an arcane device capable of sapping the will of those bound by vow into an organization. Yet another reason to never take religious vows, Xanthippe thought. Xanthippe led Kasim down among the buildings of Travincal, smashing ghouls and priests; most of the foot soldiers were dead by now, so there was no one to protect the artillery. As they approached the black tower, they got a good look at the council members through the windows.
Ew. Ew ew ew. The corrupted Rogues sometimes had horns, or tails, or maybe huge fangs, but this went far beyond that. The councilors were twisted, limping things, grossly deformed in just about every way. Tumors bulging out of skulls, one huge arm and the other withered to a stick, fangs arcing out of the mouth all the way up to the eyes... gah, hadn't their followers noticed? They must be using mind control. As she went by, the council members summoned hydras to harass her. This was not demonic in itself, Hydras are actually fire elementals, but Xanthippe's fire resistance was still awful. Again, she dearly wished she could wear her new greaves... but for now, she'd better switch to the shield and sword.
The battle with the council went smoothly. Apparently, what was affecting their bodies also ruined their brains; they came out one at a time and fought in single combat. Leaving a trail of chopped-up bodies and less-than-ideal magic items, Xanthippe and Kasim drew them out of the tower one by one. There were some tentacle beasts in the pools beside the tower; having very special feelings towards tentacles, Xanthippe smashed their heads in. The last council member to die had, among other things, a flail with three gold balls.
"Think he was a pawnbroker?" Xanthippe smirked.
"Is that the thing you were looking for?" Kasim asked.
"Yeah. Not sure I really want it. It's another holy relic."
Kasim shrugged. "Doesn't sound so bad."
"Maybe. Religious stuff gets so weird."
After returning to town, Xanthippe scooped the eye, brain, and heart out of her luggage and set them with the flail. Nothing happened. Wasn't there supposed to be a shaft of light, a heavenly choir singing a single pure note, something? She rapped each relic with the shaft of the flail. Nothing. She rested each ball on one of the relics, then propped each relic up on one ball. Still nothing. Cain suggested putting them all in the Horadric Cube and pressing the button. You'd think making a holy relic wouldn't involve alchemical transformations, but it worked. Each of the balls now looked like a little spiky skull, and the whole thing had a golden glow.
Xanthippe picked up the flail. "Ok, what's so great about it?"
It's a pleasure to meet you, finally.
Kasim and Cain found themselves gazing up at the top of the pyramid, where Xanthippe had leapt with a single bound. "Who said that!?" Xanthippe asked no one in particular.
"Oh God, this is getting so freaky. The flail is talking to me."
If you'd been stuffed in a box for this long, you'd appreciate a little conversation too. I can tell you're feeling a little fragile now, so why don't you just calm your nerves and climb down, one step at a time, before we both fall. That might hurt.
"You know, if your balls didn't look like skulls, it might be less nervous-making." Xanthippe carefully climbed down, and looked at the flail. "What's up with that, anyway?"
I have been dead for some time. What should my balls look like?
Xanthippe frowned. "Look buster, I found an eye, a heart, and a brain. Let's leave any other anatomical parts out of this!"
"Uh, what's going on?" Kasim looked confused.
"Here, hold this." Xanthippe passed Kasim the flail.
"Whoa!" Kasim's eyes widened, and then he laughed. "Hey, good one, man."
"What did he say?" Xanthippe asked.
Holding the flail and listening intently, Kasim started grinning. "Oh, man, that's harsh. I thought you were supposed to be a saint!"
"Wait, what's he saying?"
Now, Kasim was laughing. "Yeah, and she doesn't think they're big enough, either!"
Xanthippe snatched the flail back. "What were you saying?"
Nothing of importance.
That flail was laughing. Xanthippe just knew it. "Do you want me to bash your heads in on a rock? Tell me what you were saying."
Part of growing up is getting used to disappointment.
"Well, what if I don't WANNA grow up?"
You know it is inevitable. A great deal depends on you.
Snarling, Xanthippe shrieked, "What if I don't WANT things to depend on me?"
You can't always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes, you get what you need.
Xanthippe fumed. "Very funny. What I need is to whack Mephisto."
That is true, but there is a difficulty. After his brothers entered the durance intended to contain him, Mephisto locked the doors and sealed them all inside.
"So the Three are together. But if they're locked in..."
They will open a gate to Hell, and bring forth their armies from below.
A direct conduit to Hell would provoke that out of most people. You need to open the durance to reach them and stop them.
"How do you know all this, anyway?"
One of my ears is hidden in the council chamber.
You get used to it after a while. The Black Tower key is sealed inside the Compelling Orb.
"How do I get it out?" Xanthippe asked, expecting another long, convoluted quest that would take far too much time to be practical.
The Compelling Orb can be destroyed by being struck with a holy artifact.
Looking at the flail in her hand, Xanthippe was a bit surprised. "Why didn't you just say so?" Because destroying the Orb will also destroy the artifact.
"Oh. I was going to use you to whack Mephisto."
You do not need me for that, child. Any weapon will do for Mephisto and his brothers.
"But if you're destroyed, won't you... die, or whatever?"
And finally be released from this plane? Yes, I would, and for the best possible cause.
Khalim seemed remarkably at peace with what Xanthippe needed to do, and Xanthippe didn't see any alternative. He didn't seem like such a bad person, and if release from this plane of existence was agreeable to him, she wouldn't put up an argument. Besides, she wasn't sure she wanted a talking weapon. The Compelling Orb shattered into a million pieces and vanished in puffs of black, greasy smoke. The flail disintegrated in a burst of golden light, and a misty form rose and vanished into the sky. The shattered base of the Compelling Orb held a huge iron key, which Xanthippe used to open the iron trapdoor leading down into the tower basement.
Back in town, everyone was overjoyed. The jungle was already dying back, trees were shrinking visibly, even the Flayers they'd captured for the Flayer races looked scared. They were still vicious little bastards, but there was a look of desperation to it now. Natalya was nowhere to be seen, again. Meshif picked Xanthippe up, armor and all, and gave her the biggest hug of her life; he'd taken Kurast's corruption harder than most, but Xanthippe was using those ribs, thank you very much. When she went to visit Alkor, she found him up in the rafters of his little hut.
"Alkor, do you think you're a monkey?"
"Shhh! I am hiding from the puppy children."
"Yes, the horrible puppy children. They have big black eyes, little red noses, and white faces like a spooky clown."
Xanthippe stared at him. "I'll come back later."
Asheara was very pleased. "That was the greatest thing I've ever seen anybody do. I've sent my Wolves away from the docks to wipe out what's left of Zakarum. You sure you don't want a job after all this is over? You could be my lieutenant, just ask."
"Nah, I don't like the climate here."
Asheara laughed. "If you were behind the lines, you could dress a little cooler..."
"Ah..." Xanthippe smirked. "But, Ms. Lightly-Clad, what if I look better than you?"
"Not likely. Actually, you're probably right. From what I've seen, you'd make a pretty lousy leader of men."
Xanthippe smiled. "I guess I just don't have your big motivating factors." With a gasp, she put a finger to Asheara's chest. "Ooh, is that a chest hair?"
"What?" Asheara looked down. Xanthippe flicked her finger up under her nose. "Gotcha!"
As Xanthippe giggled, Asheara frowned... and punched Xanthippe into the river. "Ow. Damn, I hate punching out people wearing helmets."
Fortunately, the river outside Asheara's door was only two feet deep. Nonetheless, Kasim ran out to check. If all the padding Xanthippe wore got soaked, she'd have a lot of trouble getting up off the river bottom. "She's not coming up!"
"Poke around down there with your axe," Asheara said. "No, the other end, the one that's not sharp! Dumbass."
"Ah, Asheara..." Vanji asked, "would it not be a good idea to avoid drowning our rescuer?"
With a sigh, Asheara came the door and looked down into the water. "She can't die this easily..."
"Nope," Xanthippe said, and punched Asheara into the river. Just at that moment, Kasim remembered that she could teleport. Damn, that was handy.
Spluttering down in the muddy water, Asheara screamed, "You little bitch! See if I ever offer you a job again!"
"Hey, at least I took my gauntlets off!" With a scream, Xanthippe launched herself off the dock and landed on Asheara. They started wrestling in the muck.
"Uh oh, catfight," Kasim muttered.
"Who's your money on?" Vanji asked.
"Mine's still in full armor."
"Not much help when you're up to your ass in mud."
A crowd began to gather. "Think we should charge people?"
"Hey, that'd work. On second thought, they'd both have to be in bikinis."
"Yeah." Kasim shook his head. "Plate mail mud wrestling just doesn't cut it."
"Hey!" Xanthippe shouted from the water, "this isn't funny!"
"Yes it is!" Asheara said, and threw muddy water at Xanthippe's open mouth.
"Not fair," Xanthippe spluttered! "I only hit you once!"
"When my back was turned!" Asheara jumped Xanthippe, and twisted her arm behind her back. "Now say 'uncle', and I'll let you go."
Twisting further, Asheara grunted, "Say 'uncle'!"
"Second cousin, twice removed!" Struggling, Xanthippe finally got her feet braced, and pushed back, lifting Asheara out of the water and throwing her on her backside. Spinning, she got her arm loose and threw muddy water in Asheara's face.
"Hey, you're stronger than you look, girly." Asheara grinned, and faked left before punching right. Not so long ago, it would have hit, but Xanthippe had seen that move before. Kashya used it. She dodged the punch, and gave Asheara a black eye in return.
"Okay, okay... I give," Asheara was laughing. "Damn, I love a good fight. Clears all the crap out of your head."
"Yeah, I guess it does... Ms. Lightly-Clad." Xanthippe started to climb out onto the dock.
"That's a lousy insult, you know." Asheara climbed out beside Xanthippe. "Show me one real disadvantage to wearing this. I don't give a damn about societal disapproval or any of that: just one *real* disadvantage."
For a few seconds, Xanthippe stared at Asheara, her mouth twisting with suppressed laughter. "Ok. Don't say you didn't ask for it." She grabbed Asheara's top in one hand, her bottoms in the other, and with a mighty heave, tore the sodden leathers loose. Bubbling with laughter, Xanthippe ran down the docks through the crowd, waving the torn bikini like two victory flags. Asheara screamed and quickly jumped back in the water.
After a moment's stunned silence, a roar of applause rose from the crowd. Xanthippe turned and bowed deeply to the assemblage. "Thank you, thank you. Ah rally do appreciate it. Rally I do."
"Vanji!" Asheara hissed. "Get me something to wear! Now!"
With a completely straight face, Vanji went back into Asheara's house. Quickly returning, he bent down on one knee, and solemnly offered Asheara a hat.
After the previous night's adventures, Xanthippe wondered if she should try to lock the door of the cabin she was sleeping in. Asheara would be mad, but she seemed like the "revenge is a dish best served cold" type. The door didn't have a lock anyway, and was pretty flimsy; if anyone really wanted in, all they had to do was breathe hard on it. Just in case, Xanthippe propped her poleaxe, armor, and helmet precariously against the door, so they'd fall and make noise if anyone tried to enter. They were undisturbed in the morning, so she got herself together and went back to the Durance of Hate.
On their way over, Xanthippe and Kasim went by the pit where the townspeople store captured pygmies for the Flayer races. Vanji, Asheara's personal guard, was there. He'd been tied hand and foot, stripped to his jockey shorts, and hung head-down over the pit like a pig in the market. The pygmies, which don't take long to start starving, were jumping up and down beneath him, squeaking "Brains! Tasty brains!" in their nasty little scratchy voices. Kasim stopped to speak with Vanji.
"How's it going?"
"Eh..." Vanji looked down (up?) at the jumping Flayers. "Could be better."
"It was worth it, though."
"Coolness. Well, see you around."
The Durance of Hate was dark, more so than most of the underground areas. The floor was, almost literally, covered with bodies. There must have been hundreds, maybe thousands, of dead people in every stage of decay, piled up to the ceiling or dumped into huge pits overflowing with gore. The smell was beyond belief. Both Xanthippe and Kasim had to wrap cloth around their mouths and noses not to faint in the stench. Most of them were ordinary townspeople, but there was a Zakarumite here and there.
Diablo and his brothers didn't rush out to greet them at the door. There were two levels full of ghouls, skeleton pygmies, and those fat giants who swing chains and dead bodies. Xanthippe found a few interesting items. On the first level, there was a bone helm with two sockets, and a high-quality bone shield with two sockets. Looking at the helm, Xanthippe wondered who in the world would want such a thing. Made from a demon skull, bone helms are light and very strong, but damn, they are ugly. As a joke, she put it on, and picked up a random thigh bone.
"Hey, Kasim!" she said, waving the thigh bone. "Death to dead things! Rarrg!"
"Um." The skull-helm looked absurd on her head. Even with her armor and padding, the horns were wider than her shoulders. "You ok?"
"Sure. Isn't this thing hideous?"
"Yeah, it is. Why are you wearing it?"
"To show you how hideous it is!"
"Ok... you sure you're all right?"
"Yes. Well, mostly. I guess."
The shield and helm disappeared from her pack, and a note was left in their place:
"Oooh, scary! Halloween has come early. Don't you worry, honey-chile, there's a Necromancer out there who'll just love these! Since you've got no use for them, I'll carry them for him. Oh no, I'm almost full again! Hope you all appreciate this. -- The Mule."
Staring at the note, Xanthippe wondered how the heck the Mule managed that one. He sure wasn't in the Durance with them. There's more to this guy than she'd thought, but what? All right, she did appreciate the crown, and the belt. Without those, she would have been dead back in the sewers when that skeleton pygmy exploded. The gold ring of the leech was nice too. Maybe she wouldn't actually interrogate him when she found him... but she was going to find out, somehow.
After killing a pack of skeleton pygmies, they found a maul. To her surprise, she was strong enough to use it as a weapon. Wow. All this time, she'd never been strong enough for the really big stuff, and now she could go through killing things with a big ol' sledgehammer. On a whim, she put her poleaxe away. The next set of monsters was a pack of ghoul lords, led by a cursed one, with some skeleton pygmies. The hammer did impressive things to them, but she couldn't get the distance she needed from the exploding pygmies, or the speed to beat the fire chuckers down quickly. Back to the axe.
"Um... can I ask you something?"
A prickly feeling of fear went down the back of Kasim's neck. Kasim considered himself pretty good with the ladies. Maybe not the best, but good enough to know that when a girl says "can I ask you something?" you're in trouble. It'll be about curtains, or what the neighbors think of this pigsty we're living in, or why don't you wear that nice new robe I bought you for your birthday (because it makes me look faggy, that's why.) She was probably going to ask if the armor made her look fat. He could sense these things.
"Sure, go ahead," he answered, many possible answers swirling through his head, even though none of them had ever done any good.
"Do you think I've been acting weird, or anything?"
That's another good woman question with no good answer. Sometimes guys ask that, but with a guy, you can say, "Yep, you've been acting like a total freak for months," and he won't take it the wrong way. If you say that to a woman, she'll start crying and saying you don't love her and all that crap. Then Kasim thought, hey, wait! I don't love this girl, I don't even like her! I don't have to keep her happy; what's she gonna do, fire me? With new-found courage, Kasim bravely gave his answer.
"Yeah, you have been acting kind of strange."
"I guess. Yeah, I guess so. I've been acting like a total b!tch. Well... maybe not a total b!tch, I mean, Asheara really did ask for it."
When a woman says she's been a b!tch, never agree with her too quickly. You always have to act reluctant to agree. And if you say she hasn't been a b!tch, she'll think you're lying. That's because you are lying -- for a woman to realize she's been b!tchy, she has to have been REALLY b!tchy, so by the time a woman actually thinks she's been b!tchy, she sure as hell has been. Oh, and if a woman says a bad thing about another woman, you've got to agree with everything, no matter what.
"Well... maybe not that bad..."
"No, I've been acting so weird. I read in a book once that when an adolescent is placed under stress, she starts acting more like a kid. When I read it, I thought it was full of sh!t, but I guess maybe I have been acting like kind of a brat."
"That's just what Alkor says."
"No, this makes a lot of sense. After I found out my mother was probably dead, I never really got a chance to be sad, and now in Kurast, things are so bad I haven't had a chance to be sad at all. I mean, look at all these dead people."
Kasim realized he was standing on one. "Uh, yeah." Damn, there was hardly a place to stand where you weren't standing on somebody.
"If I started crying, I don't think I could stop, and I didn't even know any of these people. When you have to swallow that much emotion, it's got to come out, and it'll come out in bizarre ways. I mean, I've been really mean to Alkor and Asheara, and that Natalya woman was totally getting me paranoid. She can't be after me, why would she be? I haven't done anything wrong."
"So... I guess this was all just laughing so I don't cry. The desperate need for anything to distract me from where I am and what I'm doing. Because, what am I doing?"
"I am going in against the lords of Hell. But I don't even believe in Hell. I mean, what's the point of having a place to put sinners and torture them for all eternity? Why bother? That's not a rational cosmology, that's a story to scare kids with and get them to behave."
"Ok, there's probably a Hell, but it's just a place where the race we call 'demons' comes from. It might even be a nice place. The natives of Hell are invading here, and we have to protect ourselves from them. That's all."
Blinking, Kasim looked around at all the 'decorative elements' of the Durance. "Um..."
"This is all for intimidation. You know how barbaric tribes display the heads of their enemies around their villages?"
"Um..." Kasim still looked doubtful.
"You're right, it doesn't really matter. What matters is, I have been a b!tch and a brat, and I should be ashamed of myself. Especially for Asheara. I can't believe I stripped her naked in front of everybody like that."
At the mention of Asheara, Kasim became lost in memory, and didn't say anything.
"Ok, maybe she sort of dared me, but I didn't have to do it. Even though she acts all tough and stuff, she's got feelings like anybody else. I wouldn't want that done to me, even if I was acting like I deserved it. You know, the tough act was probably just her way of responding to the stress. Everybody responds differently. You've got to understand, when someone is stressed, they will behave strangely. We've all got to be more understanding."
She paused, so Kasim knew to nod at this point.
"In the end, all we really have is each other, so we've got to be patient with each other, even when we're acting stupid. I wonder if I should apologize? She'd probably hit me. No, she'd want to do worse than hit me. What do you think?"
With a start, Kasim realized she'd asked him a question. Her voice went up at the end, and then there was a pause like she expected him to respond. One of the most important things Kasim knew about women is: never let them know you weren't listening. They go ape-sh!t. Women will babble on and on about the stupidest crap, like babies and shopping and their women friends and stuff. They think you should be interested in it too, and have an opinion on it all. Over the years, Kasim had learned two sentences that answer almost any question a woman asks: 'Baby, you know I love you,' and 'What do you care what she thinks? You know you're better.' The only judgment call is knowing which one to use. Telling Xanthippe he loved her would be very bad. She'd either try to chop his balls off, or start getting all girly and stuff.
"What do you care what she thinks? You know you're better."
"Huh? Well... yeah, I guess, but what about apologizing to her?"
A clue! Kasim ran with it. "What do you have to apologize for?"
"For stripping her naked in front of God and everybody? Don't you remember?"
"Yeah..." Kasim's mind raced like a well-oiled machine. "Thing is... you know... the thing is, will she want you to apologize for that?"
"Oh, I get what you mean." Xanthippe thought about it for a while.
Smiling, Kasim tried his best to look wise and worldly.
"You know, you're right," Xanthippe finally said. "I don't need to apologize to her. She hit me first, and wasn't sorry about it at all. If I could laugh about her hitting me, she can learn to laugh too. Besides, she said she looked too good to wear much."
"You know something else? It doesn't matter if I look better or worse in a bikini than she does. I don't need to impress people like that. When I want to impress somebody, I can do it my own way."
"Yeah." Kasim felt relieved, like he'd just successfully navigated a minefield.
"And if I want to look good in a bikini... I can do that too."
"Sure! Damn, I was scared you were gonna ask me if the armor made you look fat or something. Which way do we go next?"
Blinking with confusion, Xanthippe stared... then looked down at herself. "Does it?"
"Does this make me look fat?"
Oh, no. No, no. Cold dread gripped Kasim. Please, dear loving God, help me! Should he fake a heart attack? No, that never works. "Uh..."
"It's because of all this padding, isn't it? I don't look like this without it! I have to wear a lot because this stupid armor is too big. You understand that, don't you?"
Kasim's life was flashing before his eyes. "Uh..."
"You've seen me without armor. Wait, is this some trick to get me undressed or something?"
No, please not that, anything but that! "Uh..."
Xanthippe started fuming. "Just because Asheara runs around half-naked doesn't mean I'm going to. She can do what she wants, that's ok, but don't start thinking that's what women are all about! Are you listening to me? Hey, get back here, I'm talking to you!"
To his immense relief, Kasim found some more giants. For the rest of their trip through the Durance, Kasim kept a good distance ahead. And pretended he couldn't hear her. Though on a trip back to town, Kasim dropped by the Flayer pit to talk with Vanji.
Vanji blinked back into consciousness. "Hey."
"You gotta help me, man. I am the most miserable guy in existence."
"I kinda doubt that," Vanji said, looking at the Flayers.
"You don't understand, man. I went there."
Vanji's eyes widened. "Oh, man. You poor bastard."
"Can you, like, spot me for a day or two?"
"No fvcking way, dude. You're on your own."
"You can't leave me like this, man! Look, I'll pay you."
"Not enough gold in the world." Vanji shook his head. "Look, I'm sorry, but I'm not moving."
Dejected, Kasim went back to Xanthippe. She was ignoring him, which suited him fine. One of their finds was interesting. It looked like a short sword, but Cain explained that it was a Gladius, a sword of exceptional quality, and magic to boot. He'd never seen one in Kurast before. Xanthippe kept it; maybe she could get something out of the three chipped-gem recipe and this sword.
Back in the Durance, Xanthippe and Kasim finally got to the basement where the Horadrim had originally imprisoned Mephisto. Now embodied in Sankekur, patriarch of the Zakarum, Mephisto ruled from his prison. A few more council members were down there with him, and a crowd of ghouls, but Mephisto himself was all alone, next to a red portal full of screaming faces. His brothers were gone; probably through the portal. After the trouble Kurast and the Zakarumites had been, Mephisto himself was easy. He hardly even had a chance to say anything.
After smashing Mephisto down, Xanthippe and Kasim found a lot of treasure, and the red portal. While ferrying treasure, a strange, translucent spirit appeared, and took a swing at Xanthippe. It missed, then disappeared, and she couldn't find it again. What was it? There was something else in here... something waiting very impatiently. When Mephisto died, he disappeared in a pile of valuables and pulverized bone fragments, but there was something else there on the ground. Where he'd died were three human skulls. They were white, clean, perfect in every way, unlike the other random bones in the Durance. Whose were they? Were these three connected with The Three in some way? Something about this was very, very wrong... but what was going on?
Cain had no idea what the spirit might be, or whose skulls might be lying on the floor. The portal was the most pressing matter. It must be going to Hell, and the surviving brothers would bring all their legions through it if it was allowed to exist. Usually, the only way to close these portals is from the other side. Xanthippe stood for a while, staring at the portal. The horde of screaming faces in its blackness was... hellish, in the full, religious sense of the word. What if I'm wrong, she thought? What if I'm really marching into the worst nightmare imaginable? What other choices do I have? None. Xanthippe went into Hell.