Xanthippe (Act V)
After smashing Diablo's soulstone, Xanthippe walked to the waypoint. She was sure Cain and the others in the Pandemonium Fortress would want to see her, but she had to do something first. During the fight with Diablo, she'd lost control of a couple of basic bodily functions, and cleaning up was a priority now that her business in Hell was done. Fortunately, there was a river near the Rogue monastery with nobody nearby, and she could make herself presentable. Back in the Chaos Sanctuary, she took stock. There were a few items on Diablo's corpse -- adventuring gear for a warrior, it looked like, but nothing noteworthy.
Then, there was Kasim. After the fire waves, lightning blasts, and physical abuse, not much remained of Kasim's body. About the only things she could recognize were his feet. Damn, she was so lucky Diablo didn't just go for the kill. Now what was she going to do? Leaving him here in Hell would be wrong. Maybe it didn't really mean anything... if the eternal soul finds its own level, the fate of the body wouldn't matter. She'd left dead mercenaries here and there, regrettably. But leaving Kasim lying around like so much meat just wasn't right. So Xanthippe returned to the fortress, hauling about 80 pounds of scorched flesh and shredded metal in three separate pieces. If Kasim's relatives asked, she'd say he'd lost a lot of weight. Cain and Tyrael greeted her.
"Mortal, you have accomplished the impossible. You have banished two of the Brothers forever to the burning hells. But there is still more to be done."
"Yeah, Baal," Xanthippe said. "You said he'd found his soulstone and was invading the Barbarian highlands. Why do the demon lords want the soulstones, anyway?"
"The corrupted stones retain their power to hold souls. It may be possible to use them as a source or conduit for magical energy."
Cain was scratching his head, and seemed very puzzled by something. "Was there anything unusual about the River of Flame?"
"Apart from being a river with flame in it?"
Cain looked sidewise at Xanthippe. "I am wondering how your hair came to be wet..."
"While determining Baal's whereabouts," Tyrael interrupted, "I returned to Lut Gholein. It seems to me that you ought to have this." A triangular pendant floated from Tyrael's hand to Xanthippe's. The silver gleamed brightly, and the diamond glittered with every shift of the light. It was smaller than she remembered... but it was beautiful. "This was the gift your father gave to your mother, before your birth. He was an itinerant mage named Xanothon, who journeyed to Tristram to battle Diablo, and died there a short while ago."
Xanthippe lifted the pendant, staring into it. "He was nobody special, then."
Cain nodded sadly. "Did you imagine he might be high-born? Perhaps a prince of the east?"
"I would have been disappointed if he was." Running her fingers around the pendant's edges, Xanthippe said, "You shouldn't need big relatives to be somebody. Um... could I ask you something, Tyrael?"
"You are worried about finding Baal."
"No, I'm worried about Kasim. He's kind of dead. No, he's extremely dead. I was just wondering, what more can I do for him?"
"This is unexpected, mortal." Tyrael looked at the lumps of meat Xanthippe had left leaking on the floor of the fortress. "There is little time to locate his family. It is unfortunate that he was cut down while only beginning to approach enlightenment."
"Do you mean... he's going to Hell?"
"The life he took for himself was hardly exemplary. Though you may have grown fond of him, his path has taken him to his destiny."
Blinking, Xanthippe stared at Tyrael. "But..." she said, lips trembling. Then she balled her mother's pendant up in her fist. "NO!"
"I am sorry, child," Cain said. "It is a cruel blow, but --"
"NO!! I do NOT accept this!" Xanthippe put the pendant on, tucking it under her armor. "This is NOT FAIR, I am NOT going to just accept it! I have left too many dead people behind me, I am not going to leave another one!"
"If that is their fate," Tyrael intoned, "who are you to cast judgment?"
"I WILL cast judgment, I WILL decide what I want to do!" Xanthippe stormed down the steps that led to Hell's outer steppes. "Never leave a man behind! That's the mercenaries way! He couldn't have sunk too deep! I WILL find him!"
Tyrael was waiting at the bottom of the steps. "Have you any idea of Hell's vastness? You could search a hundred years, and not see more than the smallest fraction. You who have condemned Heaven for casting judgment on mortal's lives, know that is it no better for you to do the same yourself." Xanthippe snarled, "Get. Out. Of. My. WAY!"
"If Baal is not destroyed, all of your world will suffer his fate, or worse."
"He couldn't have gone far. This is so totally not fair! How the hell are we supposed to know what the right thing to do is to satisfy you, anyway? You're not there to tell us, the old books get rewritten, history becomes myth, lies find their way in! WE CAN'T SEE WHAT YOU SEE!! And right when we start to see it, SPLAT! IT'S JUST NOT FAIR!!"
"MORTAL." Voice booming, Tyrael's response actually had some emotion in it. He even crossed his arms over his chest. "DO NOT PRESUME TO TAKE THE UNIVERSE TO TASK FOR FAILING TO MEET YOUR STANDARDS OF FAIRNESS." The force of his presence actually forced Xanthippe back; she fell on her butt on the steps. Quickly, the sense of his anger faded, and the blaze of light softened. "A soul may be leaden with the weight of its own corruption; should it fall, how is it the fault of Heaven? When we were with you to guide you, you remained as children. Do not be angry if we no longer hold your hands, it would be far worse if we did. Suffering and death will come to you. There is no avoiding it."
Clenching her eyes shut, Xanthippe stood up. Determined not to cry, she said, "He died just when he was starting to get it... whatever 'it' is. He even said he wanted to be a priest. Yeah, ok, we all die. But he never had a chance! It was just ZAP! SPLAT! SQUISH! and that was it. How can you learn anything when the first lesson is fatal? It's just not right..." Then the tears came, trailing down her cheeks while she struggled to hold them back.
After a lengthy pause, Tyrael said, "Mortal, return to the fortress. Perhaps, given the nature of your quest, I should take action on your behalf. If Heaven disagrees, then let me be damned. We must continue on our course."
With a wave of Tyrael's hand, a golden light sprinkled down like falling leaves over the rear of the fortress. Watching, Xanthippe turned, and slowly walked back. The pieces of Kasim's body were rejoined, and he was whole again. As she approached, a ghostly vapor trailed in over Xanthippe's shoulder. Kasim breathed, and the ghost was drawn in through his nose. Blinking, he slowly sat up, looking stunned.
Kasim began to say "Uh... oof!" as Xanthippe dropped to her knees and hugged him tight. "You bastard. Don't ever get killed like that again."
"Killed like what again?"
"Don't you remember?"
"Uh... no. We were going to get Diablo, you hit a shrine, and then..."
Nodding, Xanthippe gave Kasim his poleaxe back. "That's all the important stuff. Diablo is smashed; that's two down, one to go. I think we take that gate there."
Kasim looked back at the red gate, glowing next to Tyrael. "Sounds good. Man, I'm confused..." "Of course. You've been mostly dead all day. What's through the gate, Tyrael?"
"The city of Harrogath, the last bastion of order on Mt. Arreat. This is as close to your true destination as I can reach now. Baal is laying siege to the city, and hopes to crush even that hope."
"Fine. That'll be a good base of operations. Mt. Arreat, huh? What's up there?"
Tyrael responded, "With luck, you will not need to know."
"Yeah, right." Xanthippe smirked, then bounced on the balls of her feet. "Wanna go kick Baal's butt, Kasim?"
"Sure..." Kasim staggered towards the gate, and they both went through.
As they left, Cain turned to Tyrael, smiling. "Thank you, great Tyrael. Should nothing else come of this, I am grateful that you could make one person happy."
"That happiness will be short-lived. The city of Harrogath is in grave danger."
"Yes, but I feel sad for her at times. One so young should have a happier and more carefree life. Her worries should be her studies, and perhaps boys... not the fate of the world."
"The workings of fate are beyond us all," Tyrael said. "If this fate falls on a child, so be it."
Xanthippe and Kasim arrived in the city of Harrogath. Or perhaps the town of Harrogath, it was much smaller than Lut Gholein. In other lands, this would be considered a border fort, not a city. The walls, high and very thick, enclosed a small collection of extremely solid buildings. At first, they couldn't see any people, but then noticed two exceptionally large men sitting against a wall. Both had very pale skin, shaggy black hair, and many tattoos. They were heavily bandaged, but wearing little else, even though it was very, very cold.
"Hi there," Xanthippe said. "Who's in charge here?"
The two men stared at them in horror. "Och! Outlanders, invading the city!"
"How'd yoo get past the walls?"
"We were sent," Xanthippe explained. "I need to talk to your... chief, or whatever."
One man, looking very indignant, turned to the other. "Talk to the chief? A woman?"
"We've no need for a seamstress... or whatever services yoo be selling."
"Here now, lad," one said to Kasim, "Why are yoo lettin' yoor wife do all the talkin'? And why are yoo wearin' a dress?"
The other shook his head in disbelief. "He's in a dress, she's wearin' the pants."
"I suppose he's big enough... almost."
"That wee laddie? Have yoo gone blind?"
The first one looked again. "Yoo're right! Standing next to her, I thought he was a giant!"
The two laughed, big hearty laughs. Xanthippe and Kasim were starting to feel annoyed. Finally, they stopped. "Ah... feels good to laugh."
"Not much to laugh at but wee little outlanders."
Xanthippe cleared her throat. "Is there anyone FOR REAL up here we can talk to?"
They looked at her. "What, yoo haven't run squealing back to yoor mummies yet?"
Kasim smirked. "Killed my last mummy a while ago."
"Forget these guys," Xanthippe said. "Let's find somebody else."
"What are those spatulas they're haulin' about?"
"Och, little outlanders carry those to poke demons with, so they don't have ta go near 'em."
"They're bundled up tight, aren't they? They must think it's cold!"
As Xanthippe and Kasim walked away, one called after them, "What, can't stand a little snow? Gonna have a rough time of it up here!"
They didn't have to go far. The building the men were sitting against was some kind of hospital, run by a very old woman, bent with advanced age. As they walked in, the groans of the many wounded turned to laughter.
"Aw, look! We've got a cute lil' couple of darkies here."
"Och, don't they look fancy? Look at all that armor and them jewels."
"Hey, cloth-head! Why are yoo wearin' a nightgown?"
"He looks like he should be a wet-nurse."
"Yoo all be quiet!" the old woman said. "Don't yoo lot know a Sorceress when yoo see one? She's a great mage, from the look of her, and don't yoo forget it!" Smiling, the old woman hobbled over to them. "Please, don't them worry you. This is a hard land, and makes for hard men with unforgiving natures. Ah, a Sorceress! When I was much younger, I wanted to study with your clan. But my powers never developed beyond the simplest levels, so I stayed here with my people, tending their wounds and illnesses."
"That's very good of you," Xanthippe said through gritted teeth. "These pale, sickly men must need your services for every little boo-boo."
"Do you make them warm cocoa when they get the sniffles?" Kasim asked.
Xanthippe giggled. "With tiny marshmallows."
"Yoo're the only tiny one around here!" one man called out, and tried to get up. After a heroic effort, he collapsed back into bed. "Well, maybe yoor husband there is. If yoo ever need yoorself a real man, just about anybody'd be better."
"If you can ever get up off your butt," Kasim said.
"Just give me a day or so, little man," the Barbarian said. "Just to get back on me feet..."
"Yoo shut up, and don't tear yoor stitches, or I'll sew yoo to the bed!" the old woman shook her head, and smiled gently. "I am sorry, my manners escape me. I am Malah. I hope you brought good news with you, for there is very little to share here. The demon lord Baal is laying siege to our city, though you must know that. How you entered our city through the walls of his legions, I cannot imagine."
Xanthippe was starting to notice that Malah's accent got stronger when she was yelling at her patients, but disappeared almost entirely when speaking with them. She must have spent time in distant countries at some point in her life. "We've come here from Hell, where we killed Diablo, the Lord of Terror."
Ah... the whole room was now gratifyingly silent. Malah shook her head. "I beg yoor pardon, my hearing is not what it was... could yoo repeat that?"
"Sure," Xanthippe said. "After we trashed Mephisto, the Lord of Hate, we found a gate to Hell he'd opened. We went down to Hell, found Diablo, and kicked his ass. Now, we're here, to find Baal and make him wish he'd never been born. Or whatever demons do."
You could have heard a pin drop. Finally, one wounded man spoke up: "Yoo're lyin'!" Quickly, other declarations of skepticism burst out. "Can't be!" "Don't yoo talk like that!" "Stupid outlanders, thinkin' we'll believe such tales!" "Should cut you for sayin' that!"
"SHUT UP, ALL O' YOO!" Malah still had a good set of lungs, that was obvious. "As for yoo two, yoo shouldn't be tellin' stories yoo can't prove are true! But, on the other hand... you have gotten here, somehow. Unless this is some deception, designed to smash our hopes... but the Lord of Destruction has shown no capacity for subtlety thus far."
"We want to talk to someone who's in charge."
Malah sighed. "I fear that almost all of our elders sacrificed their lives to place a protective dome around Harrogath... all save one. Perhaps you would prefer to speak with Qual-kehk, our senior man-at-arms. You will find him by the gates."
In the town's central square, near the only gate, a huge man with white hair, clad head to toe in barbaric finery, was looking over a group of warriors. Outside the gate, Xanthippe and Kasim could hear the clash of steel, snarling demon voices, and the screams of the dying. The number of warriors looked pitifully small. As they approached, the great old warrior looked them over.
"Hmmm... yoo two look like yoo're trying to be warriors. I don't know how yoo got in here, but any extra man in a fight. Why is yoor wife all in armor?"
"You got me all wrong, man." Kasim said. "We're not married."
"Why does everyone think we're married, anyway?" Xanthippe asked.
"Don't ask me, I do NOT know how these people think."
Qual-kehk looked offended. "What, an unmarried woman, traveling by herself!? Without her family to protect her, a woman should never set foot out of her house. Up here, a woman knows her place. And so does a man!"
"I'm not traveling alone, I'm traveling with him."
"And yoor not married to him! What other improper things are yoo outlanders up to?"
Kasim smirked. "I'm only the hired help."
"Yeah," Xanthippe said. "I'm the boss. You talk to me."
None of these explanations seemed to assuage Qual-kehk. If anything, the more he heard, the more offended he was. "And WHAT would YOO want, then?"
So Xanthippe explained, from the killing of Mephisto, to the killing of Diablo. Qual-kehk grunted. "Things have gotten so bad in the southern lands, that their girls go out to fight?"
Xanthippe smiled sweetly. "Yep."
"We are a sturdier people. Our warriors are worth ten of the ones yoo are accustomed to seeing. They must be, for our women could outfight any two of yoo! If the Prime Evils fall so easily in battle, defeating Baal should be a simple matter, once we can reach him."
"Having trouble with that?" Xanthippe was still smiling.
"The hellish troops arrayed against us form a living wall, separating us from their master. Yoo cannot imagine the like; demons that crawl through the earth beneath yoor feet, or the catapults, flesh and steel bound together to hurl death for miles. They've trapped us in our city to starve." Qual-kehk looked up and down Xanthippe's delicate from, and laughed. "For one who can defeat a Prime Evil, breaking the siege should be child's play."
"Sure. What's a few more demons? Let's go, Kasim."
Outside the gates of Harrogath, on the high side of the mountain, the wind blew harsh and cold, chilling Xanthippe to the bone. Her stomach felt sick, even breathing was hard, and the cold air made her teeth ache. As they looked over the frozen plain before them, Kasim cut a wide strip from the hem of his robe, and wrapped it around his mouth and nose; Xanthippe did the same. That helped keep the chill out of their lungs, but they were both still freezing. The padding under their armor had made places like Kurast sweaty nightmares, but simply wasn't enough to deal with this biting cold.
Xanthippe cast her preparatory spells, and they set off up the slope. Harrogath had been built at the bottom of a ledge, with a sheer cliff on one side and a vertical drop on the other, so there was only one way for Baal's troops to approach the city. Unfortunately, it meant there was only one way out, and the defenders were facing upslope, making the city very easy to besiege. Maybe the Barbarians thought the demons, when they came, would obligingly charge in willy-nilly so they could be cut down, rather than doing the intelligent thing of cutting the city off and starving them to death.
The ground was littered with bodies, some human, others definitely not. The first demon corpse they found was a spiky thing the size of a man, which seemed to be made of earth and rock. Soon they found more, a crowd of four surrounding a lone Barbarian warrior. That wasn't fair at all, no matter what the Barbarian might say, so Xanthippe and Kasim charged in to the rescue. Her thunderstorm bolts attracted their attention; their "spatulas" completed their argument. And what did that Barbarian say? That's right, absolutely nothing; he gave them a peevish look and went looking for more demons. The ingratitude was positively galling.
As they worked their way up, they encountered more demons, the spiky earth monsters and hunched-over naked ones swinging heavy falchions. Not that the earth demons weren't naked, but the little guys were, um... noticeably naked. For one mad moment, Xanthippe almost asked Kasim if it was comfortable running around with those swinging in the icy wind, but thought better of it.
While they were rescuing another unappreciative Barbarian, a fiery ball came roaring in from the sky, bursting a few feet away. The explosion scattered small, glittering objects on the ground, which exploded when you stepped near them. Soon, they found the source of these missiles: huge, immobile devices, with a single long arm for hurling balls of fiery traps, icy liquid, or poisonous gas. Each had a face, which grimaced in fear at their approach. Catapults were bizarre looking things, but their range was awesome, perfect for dealing death over the walls of a city. If not for the dome of energy Xanthippe could see shimmering beautifully over Harrogath, there wouldn't be a Harrogath anymore. Fortunately, though their range was great, they couldn't hit anything closer than about 20 yards. With one eye on the sky, a single person could easily walk up to the catapult and smash it to bits.
The demons fought hard, but the trek upslope was mostly uneventful. There were some fortifications, obviously put in place long ago to protect the city. The catapults were set on high platforms, which the Barbarians might have planned to use as defensible mini-forts. But there were very few Barbarians on the field now, and they all fought alone, surrounded by hordes of demons. Xanthippe remembered a passage she'd read, by a Khanduran general who'd invaded the highlands once. In his opinion, the Barbarians were superior fighters, each one easily better than one of his soldiers. But when placed in a large group, greater numbers seemed to make the Barbarians grow weaker, not stronger. In a way, it was kind of sad, repeatedly coming to their rescue; she'd always heard Barbarians were a proud, powerful people, not people who needed rescuing. If they'd just cooperate with each other, they'd do so much better, but they wouldn't even work with her.
At a narrow point on the ledge, Xanthippe and Kasim were going along with three Barbarians behind them. As little as they seemed to care, she'd perversely started collecting them, and in the narrows they all bunched up together. Maybe here they'd have to work together, at least so they wouldn't knock each other off the cliff. Two more Barbarians were up ahead, battling hordes of earth demons; Xanthippe saved one. With their four new chums, she and Kasim found a group of Imps. That was a surprise; Imps are tiny demons who used to come to mages as familiars, in the old days when mages were less leery of demons. Small, bubble-headed humanoids with weak bodies and powerful magical natures, they were not the sort of demon Xanthippe expected to see running loose on Mt. Arreat.
Being weak of body, it didn't take much to kill the little bastards, except that they kept teleporting around. Xanthippe had found it so much more convenient when she was the only one who could do that. The Imp's magical attack might have hurt some wussy magician, but the only problem they had was chasing them down. After the trail widened out again, they came to a high platform. A huge crowd of demons surrounded one huge, fat thing, which was waving a whip and squealing orders in a harsh, guttural voice. That had to be Shenk the Overseer.
Xanthippe and Kasim set to work thinning the ranks around him. It's always easier to take out the little guys first, so you can concentrate on the big ones without interference. Even her surviving Barbarian buddy seemed to be taking note of their tactics. There were more catapults to the sides, and lots of earth demons and naked slave guys; her thunderstorm bolts were doing a lot of good work on these crowds. While smashing the last catapult, Xanthippe heard a wet sort of explosion behind her. Kasim, who was starting to get bored, had gone up and hacked Shenk to bits while she wasn't looking.
"Hey, you shouldn't have done that," Xanthippe said. "He might have been dangerous."
"Nah, no problem," Kasim shrugged. "Well... he was so fat, it was hard to reach his vitals."
"Yeeeeuch. His skin all fell off."
"Yeah, slid right off his bones. He smells even worse now."
"That is eighteen different flavors of disgusting. Any good stuff up there?"
"Couple of bucklers... a set of padded armor... crap."
Then they noticed the surviving Barbarian, staring at them as he stood there. His mouth hung open so wide, you could probably have stuffed a Flayer in. "Yoo..." he said, looking from the dead Shenk, to Kasim, to Xanthippe, and back to Shenk again.
"What is it?" Xanthippe asked.
"Yoo... yoo slew Shenk the Overseer!"
"Yeah." Kasim shrugged. "So?"
"Diablo was a lot tougher," Xanthippe informed the Barbarian. "Okay, that looks like all the demons. Qual-kehk will be pleased to know his siege has been lifted."
This took a few minutes to sink in. While the knowledge penetrated the thick muscles the Barbarian used to insulate his brain from the cold, Xanthippe and Kasim picked through the loot of the battle. Hey, the padded armor was Greyform, a piece out of legend. Not that it was all that wonderful, just an interesting antique.
Behind Shenk's platform, they found a large open area, with stairs carved out of the living rock of the mountain, leading up. No more demons were back there, but they did find a crowd of rabbits. Not the long-legged, fast-moving hares of the deserts, these rabbits were small, with compact bodies, relatively small ears, and the thickest, fluffiest pure white coats Xanthippe had ever seen.
"Aw... look, Kasim! Look how cute!"
Kasim raised an eyebrow, and nodded vaguely. "Uh... yeah, sure."
"Oh, they're adorable!" Xanthippe dropped to her knees and tried to catch one. "Look at those huge white paws, and the big brown eyes!"
"Uh... yeah, sure." Kasim was starting to feel uncomfortable.
Bounding here and there, the bunnies were hard to catch, but Xanthippe kept crawling after them, trying. "They're so fluffy! They look so soft. Hi, little guys! Don't you worry, all those nasty demons are gone far, far away!"
Now sure his blood sugar was spiking, Kasim mumbled, "Hey, you're gonna wear out the knees on your armor like that..."
"Don't worry, they're steel boots. Oh, look! That one's sitting up to look at me! His nose is wiggling! Oh wow, that's so cute!"
The Barbarian, now recovered from his shock, watched Xanthippe crawl around with thinly disguised contempt. "Why did yoo bring a woman into combat, fool? Though yoo be a great warrior, even I know little girls have no business in war!"
After a moment's consideration, Kasim decided to be charitable, and not smack this bastard around for calling him a fool. "I didn't bring her into combat. She brought me in. She's the one who killed Diablo."
The Barbarians jaw dropped again. "No... yoo've got to be jokin'..."
"Sure," Kasim smirked. "She ordered me not to go after Shenk 'cause he might hurt me. Wouldn't have been any danger at all for her."
At the moment, Xanthippe was skidding on a patch of ice, her butt in the air, trying to get a bunny to come to her. "Hey, fuzzy-wuzzies! Do you like carrots?"
"Yoo've GOT to be jokin'... I don't believe it! Yoo CAN'T be serious!"
"I'm serious, man." Kasim shrugged. "Never seen her act like this, though."
"Did she take a blow to the head, yoo think?"
"Probably not. She acts weird sometimes."
There was a convenient waypoint at the top of the steps. Back in Harrogath, Qual-kehk had noticed many more of his warriors coming home from battle this time. Some returned with tales of thunder and lightning rattling the mountain, of fierce, exotic warriors dealing death with graceful sweeps of their huge weapons, and the fiery glow of enchanted steel slicing demon flesh. Barbarians do love to tell epic tales. So, when Xanthippe returned to town, Qual-kehk greeted her very differently than he had on their first meeting.
"So, it seems the siege is lifted, and in a very short time. Perhaps I have misjudged yoo."
"I guess you did," Xanthippe smiled. It was always a pleasure to watch someone swallowing their pride, and the harder it is to swallow, the better. "Do you have a smith in town? My armor's been scratched."
"Yoo'll want to speak with Larzuk, near the south wall. Don't speak too long with him; he's not right in the head. But he's a fine smith."
"Not right in the head?"
"He gets... strange ideas."
The warmth of the smithy was welcome; Xanthippe knew she'd find herself spending a lot of time there. Larzuk was an absolutely huge man, even by the standards of Barbarians. And not just in terms of width, either; he had to be close to seven feet tall! Kasim looked puny next to him. Xanthippe wasn't sure she should even go near him, for fear he'd step on her. If he was... mentally challenged... he might be a real danger.
While polishing and repairing their equipment, Larzuk spoke quite amiably with them, and seemed curious about the outside world. He certainly didn't sound mad; perhaps by lacking the typical Barbarian insularity, his fellows thought him mad. Eventually, Xanthippe warmed up to him, and asked him about the demonic invasion.
"Och, it's terrible to see what's been happening," Larzuk said. "We're protected by the shield of the elders, but the danger didn't come from swords. I thought that, soon, I'd have to put down my hammer and take up a sword myself, and abandon our city. Or die trying."
"You let yourselves get boxed in," Xanthippe said. "That's not good."
"I thought of somethin' we might do... ah, but it's foolishness."
"No, what was it?"
"Well..." Larzuk paused to think. "Suppose yoo were to take some of the alchemical powders used to make explosive potions. Instead of dissolving and bottling them, place them in a strong iron tube, so the force of the explosion could be directed."
Xanthippe thought about that. "Yeah... you could aim it. Go on."
"Now, if the tube were to have a great steel ball in it, the explosion would force it out and down the tube with great velocity. I think it would have to be a ball, but maybe a collection of sharp blades or bits of iron would do as well. They might spread out, propelled by the explosion, and injure or kill many foes."
"Huh." Pondering, Xanthippe nodded. "That makes sense."
Larzuk laughed. "Qual-kehk didn't think so. And when yoo give it some thought, it isn't very practical. Where could yoo get so much iron? And forge it strong enough not to burst with the explosion?"
"Well, it wouldn't have to be big... if the powders are powerful enough, you wouldn't need a really big tube to hold them. Maybe one or two guys could carry the thing around."
"Och, to break the siege, yoo'd need to destroy many demons. The thing would need to be big enough to destroy one o' the catapults, or smash through a wall. The demons took over the fortifications we built. We're going to have to smash our own walls to defeat them."
"Hmm... yeah, something that big, made of iron, would be really heavy. It would have to be set on a cart, and hauling it up this mountain would be hard."
With a sigh, Larzuk nodded. "Aye. Qual-kehk was wise enough to see that. I'm no war leader, just a smith. But I do want to help."
"That's a good thing," Xanthippe smiled. "And you know something? I think you have a good idea there. Maybe it's just ahead of its time. With a little work and some experimenting, you might have something."
Larzuk smiled. "Yoo think so?"
"Sure." Xanthippe smiled. "Where would we be, if it weren't for new ideas? Somebody has to think them up. Maybe it won't help in this battle, but there will be other battles."
Thoughtfully, Larzuk nodded. "Before Baal came, men might have hoped there would be no more wars. Now, yoo can only hope this isn't the last one."
With the siege broken, Xanthippe decided to have a look around town. When she and Kasim first arrived, the jeers made her want to leave almost immediately. If the Barbarians had been more numerous and less injured, there would probably have been more than jeering. Not that these great sides of beef seemed like a real threat, not after she'd seen them in action on the battlefield. But her experiences in school had taught her never to take on a group of teasing children alone. Thankfully, now she didn't have to. Doing what they could not, and doing it easily, seemed to have shut them up.
Harrogath wasn't any bigger from the inside than the outside; the tour took her exactly 10 minutes. Most of the city was empty, as many of Qual-kehk's warriors had gone out to find food and other supplies; Baal's legions weren't going to leave them alone forever. Strangely, she couldn't find any women besides Malah. Surely, there had to be women in any city, but where were they? Impulsively, she knocked on one door. The door cracked open, a feminine pair of eyes peered out, and the door quickly slammed shut. There was someone in there, but she was afraid; of what? "Hey, the siege is over! You can come out now!"
No one responded to Xanthippe's call. That woman couldn't have been afraid of her; she must have been close to a foot taller than she was. All the other houses, up and down the street, had their windows shut and barred. When she was with the Zann Esu, they had spoken of old cultures, where women weren't allowed out of their homes. They were kept inside, barefoot and pregnant, completely dependent on their husbands. Maybe, up here on the mountain, those old cultural ways had persisted. On the other hand, the Zann Esu might have been exaggerating. They've been known to do that.
There was one woman standing outside, but when Xanthippe got closer, she realized that she was a he. His long hair (all white) and scrawny build sure made him look like a woman among these hulking brutes. He was hunched over a fire, rubbing his hands against the cold. Maybe he was another foreigner, though Xanthippe doubted it; not only did he look too weak to defend himself, his skin was even paler than most up here.
"Hi there. Don't think we've met. I'm Xanthippe."
Slowly, the man looked up. He had a needle-thin nose, sunken cheeks, and pale, watery blue eyes. With a sneer, he said, "Well, well. A sorceress, and with a fine large axe, too. The siege has brought a shortage of everything, except fools."
Hmm, gratuitous use of the four-letter F-word. No, the other four-letter F-word. That was becoming a warning sign for Xanthippe. "Charmed. The siege has been lifted for now, so I thought I'd have a look around your fine, prosperous city and see what you guys have to offer for the winter tourist."
"You needn't have bothered. Lifting the siege will do no good, the demons will simply return again. Qual-kehk is a fool to imagine he can fight Baal. He goes to war against these legions as he would attack men; he has no conception of how his enemy thinks."
Again with the F-word. Warning flags were going up all over. While he was right about Qual-kehk, even Xanthippe wasn't tactless enough to call him a fool. "Hey, how many people have real experience with demons?"
Suddenly, the man stared sharply at Xanthippe. The intensity of the look was surprising; she took a step back. "What would you know about that?" he snapped.
Xanthippe realized she must have hit a nerve. Casually looking towards Harrogath's one gate, she said, "Oh, I'm just the one who broke the siege. Chopped up a lot of demons doing it. Kind of an occupational hazard."
"Your philosophy mirrors his, then." The man, who still hadn't introduced himself, smiled. "Tell me this: what good does it do to slay a thing for which death holds no fear? A demon is never truly alive; the loss of its body is a minor inconvenience at best. So few understand how thin the veil between life and death is, and how unimportant it is for the knowledgeable."
This was something Xanthippe had long suspected. While demons were devoted to bringing death to others, most didn't seem to care if they died themselves. The more cowardly ones avoided pain, but that was all. But pretending she was awestruck by this creepy guy might get more out of him. "Um... I never thought of that."
"Of course not," he sneered. "You must be barely out of your most basic schooling. And never, ever learned about the nature of life and death. No, I am sure your training was all about the basic elements. You have no idea of how they combine in the body, or the spirits which move the elements about at their whim. What good is studying building blocks? The will which moves them is what shapes the world."
Xanthippe nodded silently, eyes wide. "But you can destroy the body by taking the elements apart; that does some good."
This brought a snickering laugh from the man. "Using energy to destroy a body is a common and simple trick. And useless in the long term. Qual-kehk, the other elders... none of them could see the long term needs of our city."
"Hey, you must be Nihlathak!" Xanthippe grinned. "You should be a little freer with your name. Malah told me about you, but I thought you'd be more impressive-looking."
"Hmm?" Nihlathak glared at Xanthippe. "What about Malah?"
"She told me, Mr. Barbarian Elder, that every other elder in town is dead. They died putting up the dome of protection over the city. And it's a nice one, too. But you survived."
Coldly, Nihlathak smiled. He did have kind of an aura to him; he was creepier than Gheed. "I was there when the shield was put up. It was so terrifying when Baal's legions appeared so suddenly, and slew all save myself."
Xanthippe nodded. "By what miracle did you survive?"
"By my speed of movement," Nihlathak smirked. "Rather than remain to fight a battle that was lost before it began, I fled, and am not ashamed to say so."
"How un-barbaric," Xanthippe smirked back. "One last question: where are all the women?"
Nihlathak raised an eyebrow. "So good to know my interrogation is at an end. Our wives and daughters are indoors, and will remain there. There are foreigners in the city. It would not do for them to be seen with foreigners walking about."
That was peculiar. The Barbarian tribes are supposed to be insular, but locking all the women up was crazy. Why would women be in more danger than men from foreigners? Maybe Malah would have some explanation for it; Xanthippe wasn't about to ask Qual-kehk. She spoke to Malah outside her hospital.
"Oh, you should not worry yourself about our women," Malah said. "Your presence has made us all very nervous. Ages ago, when our Gods walked the earth, the greatest king was given the most sacred charge, the protection of Mt. Arreat."
"Which king was that?" Xanthippe asked.
Malah smiled. "It would not be proper for me to speak his name. Since then, none who are not of our king's blood have ever been allowed to see the sacred mountain. Certainly, none were allowed to enter Harrogath. Your appearance here must mean that the end times are upon us. You see, it is not really you."
"The... end times?"
"The time of the last battle, when the forces of chaos attack the mountain. This will be our greatest trial, and our people have been preparing for these times for centuries. Perhaps you can understand our apprehension."
"Okay, with demons outside, I can understand being a little scared. But why are the women locking themselves in? Especially now?"
"Our warriors are trained from childhood for this." Then Malah frowned a bit. "And suggesting that they are afraid will not endear you to my people."
Xanthippe guffawed. "Some training. They've been dying like chunky meat snacks out there. Don't you think it might be time for your women to be taking a little more active role in this war?"
There was a profound silence. A wounded Barbarian by the door looked quite angry. Malah said, very seriously, "Our ways have not changed since they were handed down to us by the Gods. This is a sacred charge. Change should not be suggested on a whim."
"This is not a whim," Xanthippe said. "This is just plain sense. The men here obviously need help, and a lot of it. I mean, I'M doing better than they are. ME."
Malah stared hard at Xanthippe, before her eyelids fluttered and she looked down. "We... are a proud people, and it is hard for any of us to request aid. Yoor presence is not appreciated by everyone here, even after breaking the siege."
Xanthippe smirked. "Maybe *especially* after breaking the siege. Come on! What's wrong with women helping? Or maybe even more than helping? There's work to do here!"
"We are helping, young sorceress!" Malah objected. "As much as we can, in our own ways."
"Ok..." Xanthippe shrugged, "what are you all doing?"
"I have been giving aid and succor to the wounded. The others are preparing bandages, and helping use our food supplies most efficiently. Also, keeping our supply of firewood."
Xanthippe frowned. "They're cooking, and cleaning."
"It is the old way," Malah said defiantly. "The men do the men's work, the women do the women's work. Thus is our life maintained, as it has always been."
"Well, the old way has led to a mass slaughter," Xanthippe thumped the ground with the butt of her poleaxe. "Maybe the old way isn't such a good way."
As they stared at each other, Xanthippe noticed Malah's grip on her cane was so tight, the knuckles had gone white. The gentle old woman's eyes were hard as flint; Xanthippe had obviously managed to deeply offend her. "Yoo should not cast judgment on things yoo do not understand. What would a foreigner know of our ways?"
"Look... okay, I'm a foreigner, but I'm just saying what I see with my own eyes..."
"Then yoor vision needs an adjustment. If I were 20 years younger, I'd adjust you myself! Get out of my home!"
Xanthippe got. Damn, she didn't want to offend Malah. Malah had been so nice to her. But somehow, she had to see that what they were doing was wrong! The whole way this war was being run was wrong, and it came from this society the Barbarians had put together. Larzuk, Qual-kehk, Malah, all of them were part of this ultra-conservative, unchanging culture that just didn't work against the demons. The only one who saw any of that was Nihlathak, and he gave Xanthippe the creeps. And maybe Larzuk. He had some new ideas; obviously, he didn't have muscle between his ears. But he deferred to Qual-kehk.
"Ahem," someone said behind Xanthippe. It was Qual-kehk. "Oh, hi there," she said.
"The siege has been lifted, and I have sent some of my men down to the lowlands, to trade for things we need," Qual-kehk explained.
"Very wise," Xanthippe said. "What do you want to say to me?"
Emotionlessly, Qual-kehk said, "Thank yoo."
Xanthippe jumped visibly. Blinking, she stammered, "Oh. Uh, ok. I mean, thank you. No, I mean, you're welcome."
Faintly, Qual-kehk nodded. "My mind has turned to my men who were captured while trying to break the siege. The survivors who returned spoke of cages, built in our old fortifications, where prisoners are kept before being killed and devoured by the demons."
"Prisoners in cages, and cannibalism. Ok."
"If yoo could aid us further, freeing my men would be very helpful of yoo."
"Uh, sure, no problem." Xanthippe smiled nervously. "I'll see what I can do."
Xanthippe and Kasim moved further up the mountain, and found some fortified barriers across the path. The place was lousy with Imps; they were everywhere. Baal must be in dire need if he was pressing these little bastards into service; all they could really do was harass. As they chased the Imps, they found other demons, huge armored ones with little howdas on their backs. The howdas were equipped with mounted flame jet wands, which might have been dangerous for those without good fire resistance. The Barbarian forts, built of wicker and bone, had towers equipped with flame jets too. That was odd, Xanthippe thought the Barbs frowned on magic or complex devices. The demons probably installed the flamers.
The fortresses had a some armaments lying around. Xanthippe found a few nice runes, including a Shael and a Dol, which she had not seen before. One Imp had Cathan's Seal, a fairly nice ring, and a naked slave creature had a rare halberd. It was a nice one, too, with extra damage, extra speed, and mana leeching. Her poleaxe did a bit more damage, but she switched to the halberd for its quickness and the leeching. Among the slaves, they found a cage with five Barbarians inside. After a lot of charging around smashing things, Xanthippe chopped down the door. "Follow me if you wish to live." Maybe she shouldn't have said that, but the look on their faces was priceless.
In short order, Xanthippe freed two more cages of captives. Qual-kehk felt it was quite an accomplishment, and gave her three runes he hadn't gotten around to using: Ral, Ort, and Tal. These were the same ones she had in her shield, which was almost unused; maybe the Mule would appreciate them. The Shael and Dol had disappeared already. Nihlathak sneered that all she'd really done was bring sheep back to a blind and foolish shepherd. Xanthippe was really starting to dislike him.
Slowly, Xanthippe and Kasim toiled up the steep side of Mount Arreat. Even the relatively flat areas had a strong slope, and they always seemed to be going uphill. The fortifications were 7 or 8 feet higher on the back than the front, which sure helped the demons defending them. Even the Rogue's Pass was never this much of a struggle to move through, and the cold kept getting worse. Back when Xanthippe's stomach had started to bother her, Cain said it was probably altitude sickness, a consequence of exerting yourself too much in thin air. She was starting to believe it. Long fights left her gasping and light-headed, and feeling like she was going to throw up.
When they came to what looked like a portal to Hell near the top of a hill, going through was actually a relief. Ah... it was warm down in the depths. The air was thick, too; thick with the stench of sulfur and the screams of the damned. Xanthippe was amazed she'd ever thought Hell might be a nice place, but at least it wasn't freezing cold. This looked like another section of the River of Flame, though there was no Chaos Sanctuary, just more Imps (Xanthippe knew she was going to get really tired of Imps before they'd stopped Baal) and huge, axe-swinging Minotaurs. The fiery paths of stone over the river made a passable maze for the Minotaurs, maybe that's why they were here. Either that, or they didn't like cold any more than she did. After clearing out everything demonic, they found a chest with, among other things, a very fine-quality rare jewel.
While walking back to the portal, Xanthippe asked, "Kasim?"
"Can I ask you about something?"
Oh no, Kasim thought, that question. She wants to talk. The last time she wanted to "ask about something" was still giving him nightmares. But once a woman has asked, there's no avoiding what's to come. You can distract them, and hope they forget, but they never do for long. The only way is to deal with it and get it over with. Hopefully, his many years of experience with the fairer sex would help negotiate this minefield, to the end this time.
"Um... you remember that story, about the dogs when you were growing up?"
"I'm the little dog, aren't I?'
Ok, she'd finally figured it out. That's a good thing. At this point, it is very important not to blurt out "Bravo, genius! Sure took you long enough!" no matter how much she deserves it. It can take a long time for sense to get through into the female brain. You see, a woman's brain is always full of useless crap about clothes, good hygiene, or what every other woman in creation thinks of her. It can take a long time for important stuff to penetrate. So, you have to be really patient, until she gets it, if she ever does.
"Eh..." With a shrug, Kasim looked away.
"Come on, you can say it. Like the little dog that won't shut her trap, and everyone hates her because she's obnoxious."
"You worried about Malah?"
"Yeah, I'm worried about Malah! She was so nice to me when I arrived. Now I've completely alienated her, and did it damn quick, too."
Kasim shrugged. "She'll get over it."
"I don't know. Barbarians supposedly carry grudges."
Kasim shrugged. "Maybe if you rescue some more Barbs, she'll be ok with it."
"Doesn't change the fact that I can't keep my mouth shut. And these people are sensitive. Damn, they're proud. I never thought Qual-kehk would ever say 'thank you' for anything."
"Ok... so, maybe they're not acting, you know, like you think they will."
"They're damn strange people."
It occurred to Kasim that Xanthippe was probably judging the Barbarians's behavior based on their reputation -- a stereotype. This is a pretty stupid thing to do; not only does it reflect a lack of worldly wisdom, it can really alienate people. But telling a woman she's being stupid is a real problem, especially one who thinks she's smart. With a guy, you can say "Man, you're being stupid," but with a woman, you have to be a lot more gentle, or she'll blow up and think it's your fault she's being stupid. Remember: with a woman, everything is your fault, unless she decides on her own it's hers.
"Yeah... I guess maybe they're not acting like everyone says they do."
Xanthippe thought about that as they went through the portal, back to Mt. Arreat. "Maybe they're not. I mean, look at them in action. That sure doesn't fit their reputation, they're supposed to be these awesome warriors."
As they went through some thickets, a powerful earth demon and several armored maulers attacked them. While chopping them up, Kasim took a few moments to think. He didn't remember dying, or being dead. You'd think that being dead and in Hell would make more of an impression on a guy. But he'd decided that maybe religion, being good, and all that stuff might be a good idea. Being a priest would be good, if he could swing it. He had helped take out the world's biggest church; they probably don't let you become a priest if you do stuff like that. But if he was going to get religious, he'd have to start acting like it.
Kasim hadn't been in church since sunday school. The Barbs don't have any religious books up here, so he'd have to go from what he could remember. Never been much of a reader, anyway. All of his faint, dim memories of sunday school were stupid songs, Yasheef waiting outside the building to beat him up and take his lunch money, and some rules. One of the rules was "Love thy neighbor as thyself." There were others, but that one always got the most laughs, so he remembered it. Anyway, you're supposed to love your neighbor, in a not-sex kind of way. If Kasim was ever going to be a priest, he'd have to get people to love their neighbors, and the boss would be a good place to start.
The thickets had opened out onto a broad plain, full of naked slave creatures and big fat Overseers. Watching Xanthippe summon lightning and hack through with her halberd, Kasim wondered if he wasn't biting off more than he could chew. Getting her to love anybody would be a tall order. He also wished the church had picked some word other than "love"; it made it sound like he was trying to pimp her or something. Maybe "like" or "get along with" or "don't sleep with the sister of" would have been better. Wonder if the boss has a sister? And if she's any nicer than she is? Maybe he'd shouldn't ask right now.
"Hey, boss. Can I ask you something?"
Frowning, Xanthippe nodded. "Uh... sure. What is it?"
"Do you think you should tell Malah you're sorry, next time we're back in town?"
"I remember what happened the last time I tried to apologize to somebody."
Rolling his eyes, Kasim said, "She's not going to teleport you out of your clothes."
Xanthippe laughed. "Better not, I'd freeze to death."
Kasim smiled. "Hey, you made a joke about it."
"Yeah, I guess..." Xanthippe laughed. "I guess it was a pretty good joke. But don't you try it." Kasim shook his head. "Nah. You'd get back at me, and it's too damn cold. Anyway... what got Malah so mad at you, anyway?"
The conversation paused for a few minutes while they destroyed a fortress line. When they resumed it, Xanthippe said, "I guess I was saying she and the other women here should do more. Stop hiding in the houses, and do something."
"Ok. You know why Malah got upset about that?"
"I was saying they're lazy, or scared, or whipped, and she got upset."
They were entering all-new conversational territory here, so Kasim had to remember to tread lightly. He'd have to get her to question her own judgment, and that's a dangerous thing to do. She'd probably wind up saying it was all his fault. Damn, sticking your neck out like this is hazardous. He'd rather take on those Minotaur guys. But this had to be done, for her good, and maybe for his. If all those guys in Harrogath went after them 'cause Malah hated them, it could get ugly fast.
"You know, a while ago, you'd been telling me about your Zen Eesu clan witches."
"The Zann Esu. What about 'em?"
"You know how you were saying that they went into the jungle to get away from men?"
"Yeah. It's called radical separatism."
"Yeah, ok. You don't think it's such a good thing?"
"In what way?" Xanthippe asked.
"Well, they went to get away from men being stupid, and bullies, and that stuff?"
"Yeah, and they turned into stupid bullies when they got to be in charge too."
Kasim nodded, trying to straighten out his thoughts as he spoke. "Yeah, so... what about all the women who stayed outside, with men?"
"Well..." Xanthippe thought. "If they were anything like my grandmother, they could be as greedy and stubborn as the Zann Esu thought men were. What are you saying?"
"Hmm..." After thinking for a minute, Kasim said, "I guess what I'm saying is, that maybe Malah isn't, like, completely wrong. You know what I'm saying?"
Xanthippe stared at Kasim, eyes narrowing. "Malah said that women have to stay in their place, barefoot in the kitchen, and leave all the real work to men. That is just plain wrong."
"That's not what she said."
"Not in so many words. It might as well be."
This was getting bad. Kasim tried a different tactic. "Maybe their way works. I mean, they've survived on this damn mountain for centuries this way."
"This isn't about what works, Kasim," Xanthippe snarled. "This is about what's right. Women should be free to do what they like, and no one should tell them differently."
"What about working together?"
"What ABOUT working together? Look, you work for me, that doesn't mean you can tell me what to do, dammit!"
"Ok, yeah! Here's an example! We're working together, right?"
At the moment, they were going through a second tier of forts. "Yeah, and?"
"Well, I think you'll agree, I'm better at this than you are."
There was a long silence. Finally, Xanthippe snapped, "All right, yeah. But I can do it!"
"Right! Now, suppose you were in a, like, really dangerous area, where everybody had to help. Wouldn't it be better if everyone did what they were good at?"
"Yeah, but when the danger passes..."
"No! The danger never passes!" Kasim kicked over a watch tower, sending a squealing Imp crashing to the frozen ground. "Suppose there's always a danger, and even when there isn't, it's hard to even find enough food for everybody. What then?"
"Then, you..." Xanthippe thought about it while smashing a catapult. "You live a marginal life, in a marginal territory, there's no time or resources to waste. You'd have to live very efficiently, and there'd be no time for... for anyone deciding to do what they want to do."
"Yeah, that's it! You know what? I think the Zann Esu could only have gotten mad at men if they were from civilization. These women don't have enough time to get mad."
After chopping down one last Imp, Xanthippe paused for thought. "Oh, yeah... I think you're right. Kind of incoherent, but right."
Kasim smiled, in what he hoped was a wise and worldly way. "What do you think?"
"Most everyone from the Zann Esu came from one of the civilized nations."
"Malah said she wanted to... but you know, I'll bet it isn't that her talents didn't develop. I'll bet her family needed her here."
"This is a land with no luxuries. The time to think about revolting against the status quo is a luxury. When life is lived on the margins, you don't have time for that. You need to survive."
Continuing on from the ruined forts, they ran into a crowd of champion Overseers. Must have been a conference of Baal's greatest generals. As they fought for their lives, Xanthippe continued. "I'm betting Malah has traveled outside the highlands, but that doesn't mean she'd be impressed by the way 'foreigners' do things. She'd be sure they wouldn't work up here, where life is so hard. And there's a real reluctance to make changes when you're already on the edge; what if the change doesn't work? Children will starve if you're wrong!"
"Ok, sounds good," Kasim grunted, as a slave exploded in his face.
While burying her halberd in a fanatical Overseer, Xanthippe kept rattling on. "You know, in countries where revolutions take place, it's always the middle class who leads the revolt? The poor form mobs, not revolutions. To want something better, you have to have an idea that there *is* something better!"
"Ok, sounds good," Kasim shouted, charging the last Overseer.
"These women just don't know there's anything better! But there is!" Triumphantly, she slammed her halberd right through a slave creature. "There is a much better way to live than the way they're living! When I get back to town, I'm going to apologize to Malah for being such a jerk."
"Great!" Kasim said, looking around for more things to kill.
"And then, I'm going to talk to the women in town. You shouldn't come with me, it's probably you they're afraid of."
"Now, setting up a matriarchal government would be stupid. Woman can tyrannize just as much as men. But we do need to change the way things are done around here, and get started on it as soon as possible."
Kasim stared at her. "What are you talking about?"
"About building a better way!" Xanthippe grinned. "The old way isn't working. But you've shown me where I went wrong, all I was doing was pointing that out. To make real changes, you've got to have a new way, something to replace the old way! And the new way can't be that radical a change from their customary practices, or they'll never accept it. Change will come slowly, but they'll figure it out in time. Now, what can we change? Hmm, I wonder if women have the right to own land? Speaking in the assembly should sound reasonable, especially if most of the men who might object are dead. Maybe it's a little too early for any kind of democratic system..."
As she went on, Kasim stared, wondering where he'd gone wrong. He just wanted her to get along with Malah... oh, no. He hung his head in shame and disgrace. No, no. What have I done? What hideous thing have I wrought?
Xanthippe was about 10 feet away from the door of Malah's hospice. Malah, apparently out for a bit of air, did not acknowledge her presence. "I want to apologize for what I said earlier. I was wrong. I didn't understand why you were doing what you were doing."
Malah smiled. "Of course, child. Come in, it is cold outside at night. Someone accustomed to warmer climates must be suffering greatly here."
After entering, Xanthippe and Kasim sat down on one of the empty bunks. The siege had not yet resumed, so there were fewer casualties lying about. Qual-kehk's warriors were making their way further up the mountain; Xanthippe had seen one or two as she drove upwards. More than likely, Baal would never raise the siege again. Destroying Harrogath was no longer on his list of priorities; he had some greater goal in mind.
"Thank you, Malah. Actually, the air is the bad thing. It gets thinner and colder the higher I go."
"There is little to be done about that, I am afraid. But you do not seem too inconvenienced by it. It has certainly raised a healthy flush in your cheeks, young girl!" Malah chuckled.
Burst capillaries can do that, Xanthippe thought. "I think it was just me, making snap judgments. I've always tried to do everything myself, my own way."
Malah nodded. "Your way is certainly unlike most of your kind."
"I don't even like to be packed in with 'my kind'. But, as much as I hate to admit it, I need help. No one could do this alone."
"And that is why we all must work together, each in their own best role. This is no time for anyone to decide they do not feel like cooperating." Malah was busy over a pot of brewing herbs, the preparatory work for a poultice. "Skills are useless if not given a direction and purpose for the greater good."
Kasim cleared his throat. "I'd always heard that Barbarians are supposed to be really into self-reliance and independence, and all that stuff."
"Look at your fingers, young man." Kasim did so; they were a bit blue at the tips. "Now, each of those fingers is different from the others. But when all are threatened by some danger, all work together to save themselves. Thus do we come together in time of crisis."
Both Kasim and Xanthippe thought that a person's fingers make a poor argument for the nature of independent existence. While Kasim was silent, Xanthippe said, "Well... um, ok. Maybe you will help dispel my ignorance: why are all the Barbarian women hiding indoors?"
Sharply, Malah looked at Xanthippe. Then her eyes softened. "Perhaps 'hiding' is not the word to use. It would not be proper for our women to be seen by foreigners, especially a foreign man like your hireling."
Xanthippe thought for a minute. "What, you think he'll go for one, or something?"
"Foreigners have invaded our lands many times," Malah said. "Always, they try to kidnap Barbarian women. Their beauty must drive them mad."
One of the Barbarians, who they all thought was asleep, spoke up. "Och! 'Tis true. The most beautiful flowers of the world, they are! When spring comes, and they dance in the fields and swim naked in the icy brooks, ah, t'would drive any man mad. Those outsiders who catch sight of them must be stricken dumb by the sight! They have only known the puny little sticks of women who scraggle up in foreign lands; who can blame 'em?"
Actually, Xanthippe and Kasim had seen Barbarian women here and there; dead ones, at least. Judging from the mortal remains, they were tall, rawboned, heavy-set, sturdy women with unruly tangles of dull black hair. Some had traces of beards and moustaches. They almost certainly looked better when they were alive, but Xanthippe had Kasim's solemn word that she looked way better than any of them. He thought they looked like horses. Since Kasim hadn't dragged her off yet, she was pretty sure she could count on him to keep his urges under control with the Barbarians.
"Eh..." the Barbarian glanced at Xanthippe. "Not to mean yoo, o' course."
"Thank you." Xanthippe smiled sweetly. "A pity I'm so delicate, suffering away up here. Actually, my feet have been bothering me."
"Have you kept your feet wrapped well?" Malah asked. "In those steel boots of yours, frost on the toes might be a danger."
Xanthippe and Kasim both checked their feet. In patches, especially on the toes, the flesh had gone pale and rough, and the skin brushed off when rubbed. Malah gave them both foot baths in warm water; their feet tingled and stung as the feeling returned.
The Barbarian stared openly at Xanthippe's feet. "Yoo're that color all over?"
Xanthippe raised an eyebrow. "I'm not going to show you any of the rest."
"But the bottoms o' yoor feet are white!"
Xanthippe rolled her eyes. "Yeah. The burning sands of the desert make them that color."
The Barbarian nodded sagely. "Yoo'd have thought they'd be burnt even darker!"
"Now that the subject of women has come up..." Malah poured more warm water. "There is something I have been hesitant to speak of."
Xanthippe wiggled her toes in the warm water, which had herbs in it too. Like bathing her feet in tea. "Is there a problem?"
"Before you arrived, Anya, the daughter of our chief elder, disappeared. I'll grant you, many went missing then, or worse, we know what happened to them. But Anya was not someone to be easily taken from this life."
"No, she wasn't!" the Barbarian proclaimed. "Och, a thing of beauty she was! And the wise daughter of our wisest elder, too! All men for leagues around vied for her hand."
Malah continued. "The night when she was last seen, she was arguing fiercely with Nihlathak. I suspect that he had something to do with it."
"Hmmm," said Xanthippe. "She was old enough, not married, and the chief's daughter? Could he have her squirreled away somewhere for a leadership coup?"
"Why?" the Barbarian asked. "He's the last remaining elder. What more could he want?"
"Nihlathak had a wife," Malah said, "and our people are forbidden to remarry. But I am sure he has done something with her, though I have no idea why he would do so. If I can prevail upon you, I implore you to search for her."
Kasim smirked. "So, the chief's beautiful daughter's gone missing, huh?"
"Kasim, you've been reading too many dirty novels," Xanthippe chided him. "The chief always has a beautiful, nubile daughter in those things. Anya's probably 8 feet tall with a beard like a rhododendron. And an arm that could choke an ox."
"What's wrong with a beard?" the Barbarian snorted. "I like a woman in a beard! Gives me something to hang on to!"
Before undertaking a search for one woman among many dead women, Xanthippe decided to talk with Nihlathak. Sure, he was creepy, but if he's being accused of something in a vague sort of way, he should be given a chance to tell his side of the story. Besides, no one else in town had spoken ill of him, at least not to her. Nihlathak was outside his house by the fire, staring up at the mountain.
"Hi there. You know, Malah's been saying some not-nice things about you."
Nihlathak took a bit of dried meat from above the fire, and slowly shredded it in his teeth. "Malah is an old fool. What has she been saying?"
"Well, first, she says you shouldn't eat so much. And, she says you have something to do with some woman named Anya."
At the mention of the name, Nihlathak glared hard at Xanthippe. She was expecting it this time, but it was still alarming. "What has she been saying about Anya?"
"That she's gone... and you had something to do with it."
"Why would I do such a thing?" Nihlathak smiled. "The last time I saw her, she was worried about an uncle and aunt of hers, who live in a hovel on the mountain. With Baal's legions about, she had grown concerned, and felt they needed rescuing. I advised against it; the danger was too great. But... she was a headstrong girl, not one to be ruled by sense."
"So she took off, sword in hand, to fight her way in?"
"I would imagine so. It would be just like her. But you may rest assured, I have absolutely no knowledge of her current whereabouts, nor have I done a single thing to place her in any sort of danger."
Qual-kehk thought Nihlathak was a snake and a rat who'd probably killed all the other elders while they were casting the dome of protection over Harrogath. But he wouldn't act against the last elder of Harrogath without some proof. Xanthippe wondered if any of the outsiders "assaulting" Mt. Arreat had given him such proof. Qual-kehk laughed in her face; the fact that they were there was proof enough of their motives. Even Larzuk was angry about Nihlathak.
"I wish I could have built my smoke flyer. Perhaps I might have seen some of what happened, and acted on it."
"Smoke flyer?" Xanthippe asked.
"Oh, that was just an idea of mine." Larzuk looked embarrassed. "Yoo see there, above my forge, how those banners billow up with the smoke? Watch this."
Larzuk reached up, and staked one of the banners over the smoke hole on his forge. The cloth billowed up as the heat rose underneath it. "Yoo see how the cloth catches the smoke, and rises? The first stake I put in tore out, so strong was the upward pull!"
"Ok... so what?"
"By my reckoning, if the smoke of the fire were caught in 20 sheepskins, it would give enough lift to carry a man aloft. I could float free as a cloud, to spy on Baal's legions, or perhaps drop explosive potions or hot oil. Higher than any arrow could fly, a warrior in such a flying device would usher in a new era of defense!"
"Um..." Xanthippe looked dubious. "How would you get smoke in 20 sheepskins, and keep it there? Seems to me it would blow away the minute you got away from the fire."
"Perhaps the warrior could carry some fire with him, to provide more smoke."
Kasim asked, "Do you think the skins might catch fire?"
"Well, that banner hasn't caught fire! Oh, yoo're right. Something like this really couldn't work. 'Tis folly to think on it."
"It might work," Xanthippe said, "but using fire is dangerous. Especially around anything flammable. Besides, how much of a fire would you need to make enough smoke to lift you? I mean, you might have to burn down the whole town."
Larzuk laughed! "Well, maybe send a woman up, then. Strength would not matter, if you're spying or throwing things down."
Xanthippe smiled. "Yeah. That might work. Anyway, I have to go look for Anya."
As they went through the waypoint, back to the mountain, Kasim asked, "Do you really want to look for this Anya girl?"
"Sure. If she went out alone, she probably would have been careful. Besides, I don't think she went after her aunt and uncle. Nihlathak's up to something."
"You think so?"
"One thing I've noticed, is that none of these Barbs are good at lying. Nihlathak is the only one who even tries, and he's pretty bad at it. Besides, I want to meet Anya."
"Even if she's 8 feet tall and has a beard?"
"Hey, if I'm going to help these people, it can't be through Malah. She's a sweet old lady, but if things are going to change up here, it will have to be through the young. Women who are still flexible, and can imagine a better way."
"Boss..." Kasim looked worried. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"Of course." Xanthippe grinned. "Having new options is always good."
"No, I mean, what about Baal?"
"Oh, him." Xanthippe shrugged. "We'll get him. But I don't want to just win the war against the demons. Peace will come after, and I want to win that too."
Making their way further up the plateau around Mt. Arreat, Xanthippe and Kasim found more fortresses, more demons, and more bunnies. The bunnies were the worst for Kasim. As soon as she saw then, Xanthippe would coo, hop up and down, and start chasing them, even ignoring the whip lashes of angry Overseers. Of course, when you're sheathed head to toe in enchanted steel, a whip lash can't do much, but occasionally one of the Barbarians saw her like that. It was embarrassing. Kasim had seen her face down Hell's worst minions, scream in an angel's face, mud wrestle Asheara, even take on the Prime Evils. But throw fluffy white bunnies into the mix, and she goes to pieces.
The Barbarians who'd made it up this far were few and far between, but their tempers hadn't improved any. They still insisted on charging into battle wearing a kilt and a full helm, even though Larzuk had lots of fine armor for sale. At least they had the kilt; Xanthippe had heard some berzerkers even considered that too much. The look in their eyes was crazy, and they did the stupidest things, but Xanthippe did what she could to keep them alive. Most went for the forts; after clearing one, they'd often stay inside, looking proud of themselves. If they wanted to play "King of the Castle", it would keep them out of trouble, so Xanthippe let them think what they wanted.
The only noteworthy incident came when a naked slave, engorged with explosive energy from an Overseer's whip, burst, and a fragment killed one of the bunnies. Xanthippe challenged herself to see how many of his own slaves an Overseer could eat, stuffing them in with the butt of her halberd. The answer was: at least nine, but Kasim begged her to stop at that point so they could continue up the mountain. At the top of the plateau, a cliff blocked further ascent. Light shone out of a small hole in the cliff, and inside was a fire, in a cave with walls of clear ice.
Next to the cave was an urn, its base embedded in ice. When Xanthippe opened it, huge spiders crawled out; they creeped around slowly as she squished them. The base of the cliff also supported a small colony of rabbits. Xanthippe just had to chase the bunnies, and with a quick teleport, caught one. The poor thing was terrified, but she held it on her lap and petted it anyway, before letting it go. Then they went into the cave.
The walls, floor, and ceiling were made of solid ice, but strangely, it felt warmer inside than outside. The flickering fire wasn't hot enough to melt anything, so it must have been very cold indeed. The firelight and the glow of Xanthippe's spells sent light shining and reflecting through the crystalline cave walls. The red if her fire enchantment danced with the blues and greens of the ice, making subtle purples and flashes of orange. It looked like something from a fairy tale, or legends of the heavens. It was almost offensive to see the Minotaurs charging through the place, covered with armor and swinging axes nearly as long as her halberd. The place was too pretty for them.
Minotaurs are nasty bastards, fast and absurdly strong, and something new was with them: demonic women. Sharp-featured, long-legged, alabaster-skinned women with colorful bird wings on their shoulders, wearing almost nothing. Shrieking happily, they cast a barrage of spells at Xanthippe and Kasim, before swarming in like crows to a corpse. Xanthippe had to teleport them out of the mess, or the sheer weight of demons might have gotten them.
The Minotaurs were as tough as ever, but the winged women were fragile. They raked with their nails and kicked with their spiky boots, but made little impact on their layers of armor and protective magic. As they died, their bodies withered to heaps of dried-out bones, much like the crushed skeletons Xanthippe and Kasim had left behind so many times before. These demons were even less suited to open combat than Imps; their appearance suggested some perverted harem, not the battlefield. Maybe she wasn't as sturdy as some, but Xanthippe wasn't going to be b!tch-slapped to death by some half-naked flying bimbos.
"I wonder what all these bimbettes are doing here?"
"They sure didn't come dressed for a fight," Kasim opined.
"You noticed that, huh? Maybe Baal's putting his personal harem into action."
"He must be desperate. Girls shouldn't be in combat."
After a second, Kasim noticed that Xanthippe had stopped, and was glaring at him. Aw, man, what did I just say? he thought. "Hey, I didn't mean you. You're ok in a fight."
Now Xanthippe looked even more offended. "Only ok?"
Wearily, Kasim closed his eyes. "I thought we'd gone over this already."
"When did we do that? I don't remember it. All I remember is you making smarmy comments, I ask what you mean, you change the subject."
Damn, she's on to me, Kasim thought. "Well.... uh... I was talking about harem girls."
"You said, 'girls.' I did not hear the word 'harem' in that sentence."
"Sure, I had 'harem' in there somewhere. I'm pretty sure. Maybe I just meant to say it."
Xanthippe looked unconvinced. "So: what kind of girls do you think belong in combat?"
Kasim thought about that; actually, he was stalling. "I got hired by this assassin once. She was a mean bi -- I mean girl."
"Ok, magekillers. Not mages?"
"I thought you didn't like being a mage?"
"I like being a mage. I don't like mages. They're pretentious, snobbish blowhards who take forever to get to the damned point."
"Oh, yeah. And they never admit when they don't know something."
"Yeah, that's another thing: never admit you don't know, just keep talking and later pretend you knew the whole time. Oh, and even better, pass the buck to some other mage and try to get them to admit they don't know. Then they can say 'Ooooh! Look at the almighty size of my awesome brain! Wow, I'm so much smarter than you!'"
Kasim laughed. "And they say size doesn't matter."
Xanthippe snorted, trying to hold in a giggle. "Not for that head, anyway! But a really good one is when... DAMN IT! YOU'RE DOING IT AGAIN!"
Damn! "Doing what again?" Kasim asked in mock confusion.
"Quit changing the subject!"
Kasim scratched his head. "Uh... what were we talking about?"
Xanthippe opened her mouth... and closed it again. "It was about... assassins? No."
"You mean Natalya? She was kind of scary."
"No, not about her. Scary women... the flying bimbettes!"
"Oh, yeah! You know, that sounds like a name for a weird circus troupe, or a chorus line."
"A circus troupe?" Xanthippe pointed at the piles of bones. "Them?"
"Sure! Instead of having an act, they'd have... an unnatural act, I guess."
Xanthippe thought for a moment. "You know, there's probably a lot of people who'd pay good money to see that."
"That's a weird phrase, you know?" Kasim pondered wisely. "If there's good money, what's bad money? I never saw money I didn't like."
"Bad money is just not enough money," Xanthippe said.
"Doesn't make it bad. I mean, bad cheese isn't not enough cheese."
Sighing, Xanthippe closed her eyes. "Damn it. When I remember what I'm mad at you about, you're gonna be in trouble. Don't go running off anywhere."
Kasim shook his head. "No way. It's dangerous in here without you."
Her eyes snapped open, and Xanthippe smiled a bit. "Don't think you'd survive without me?" "Nuh-uh. Those bull guys are hella cruel."
Smugly, Xanthippe nodded. "Ok. I guess that's what I was mad at you about."
"Maybe. Your mind is one of the world's great mysteries."
Xanthippe grinned. "That's a quote from somebody, isn't it?"
Kasim smirked. "My dad used to say that to my mom. Then she'd laugh, and hit him with the rolling pin."
"What a charming little domestic scene that must have been. Let's kill things."
Moving through the ice caves, they found more monsters, including slow-moving demons who seemed to be made of ice. They were too pokey to be a threat in and of themselves, but they breathed chilling blasts of air. If there were Minotaurs in the area with them, they were worse than the bimbettes. There were also more urns in the caves, but when she opened these, demons appeared out of nowhere. The urns must be trapped somehow. One demon dropped a beautiful rare circlet, with wonderful properties... too bad it was ethereal.
Deeper in the ice caverns, Xanthippe and Kasim found a river of melt-water. Apparently, the river wasn't maze-like enough to keep the Minotaurs happy, but some big, white, hairy bipeds liked it just fine. The "Yeti" weren't as fast as the Minotaurs, or as well-armed, but they were very sociable and came in large groups. There were plenty of narrow places along the river's edge where they could attack them a few at a time, though.
Xanthippe nervously noted that even though the water was icy cold, bubbles streamed up to the surface. Volcanic gas was apparently escaping through the underlying rock, but she couldn't smell what kind of gas it was. Odorless gas, associated with volcanic activity, could mean a build-up of undetectable, deadly gas in a closed space like this cave. At least the Yeti, though in league with the demons, were only animals, and had to breathe too. The air was probably safe where Yeti weren't afraid to walk.
After chopping their way through the skull of an especially tough Yeti, they came to an odd tiled platform in the middle of a bubbling lake. A column of ice stood in the center of the platform, and by the light of her enchantments, Xanthippe could see something inside it. It was a person, a young woman, completely encased in the ice. This was very odd. Someone had built the platform, but it looked very old; the surface was dirty and deeply scratched. This frozen woman could have been here for a long time, her body preserved for centuries; Xanthippe had heard of mummies found in ice that were thousands of years old.
Wait a minute; did her ice-woman's eyes just open? Xanthippe took a step back and waved to Kasim, but the ice didn't burst asunder, unleashing a prehistoric ice mummy from days of yore. Stepping forward again, Xanthippe rubbed the frost of her breath off the clear block, and saw the woman's eyes were open, and her mouth was moving. Help... me... No, this woman was of much more recent vintage. Xanthippe started chopping at the block to free her, but on the first swing, her halberd froze in the ice.
"Argh!" Xanthippe twisted and pulled at her halberd.
"Don't do that, you'll break the blade." Kasim looked at it. "That thing's stuck."
"Oh, crap. Now what?"
"Maybe we can build a fire?" Kasim asked.
"From what? Besides, my enchantment had my halberd on fire. This ice is magical."
Kasim frowned. "Couldn't you just look and see that?"
"I didn't think it would freeze my halberd. Damn, that's strong stuff. Let's ask Cain."
Cain didn't know anything about breaking the ice with a young woman; venerable sages sometimes have trouble with that, Xanthippe surmised. But Malah knew something about it; it was a spell known to the elders of Harrogath, which took some time to cast, but could be used on anyone who had previously been rendered helpless. The victim was kept alive, but unable to move or act, perfectly preserved until freed by the caster's whim. Malah was sure the woman was Anya, and that it was imperative to free her. Nihlathak could do it... but since he was undoubtedly the one who put her there, why would he free her? Xanthippe sent Kasim to grab him anyway, while Malah mixed a potion that might thaw the ice.
Malah tossed some twigs into a very thick-walled bottle, then some yellowish liquid. "This is similar to normal thawing potions... but I am making much more, and much stronger."
Xanthippe nodded. "Smells like white wine. Not vinegar?"
"The tincture contains many oils, which act against the grip of water. Some are very rare."
"From what I'm smelling, capuscin is the main ingredient."
Malah glanced at Xanthippe. "You amaze me. I did not realize you were familiar with alchemy."
Xanthippe smirked. "Where I'm from, that's a spice."
Malah chuckled, skimming off a green liquid from a simmering pot. "You must be very hot-blooded there. I would scarcely think it, to know you."
Kasim came back. "He's not over there. I searched his house and everything."
"Crap. Are you sure that potion will work, Malah?"
"As sure as I am of anything," Malah smiled.
Xanthippe smirked. "These days, that's not reassuring."
Malah kept smiling. "Don't say such things, child." She quickly added a dash of red stuff to the bottle, then jammed a stopper in hard. "Here, take it, and free Anya. As our chief Aust's daughter, she is privy to many of the secrets of Mt. Arreat, which otherwise only Nihlathak would know. I cannot imagine why he would do what he has done... but now is not the time to guess at his motives. Anya will tell us."
The potion bottle shook with bubbles bursting inside, and stayed hot in her hand all the way back into the ice caves. Looking at the ice block, Xanthippe wondered how she should use the potion; but first, she had to get the stopper out. Malah had jammed the thing in hard. For a decrepit old woman, she had a heck of a grip. After watching her struggle for a bit, Kasim took the potion, and popped the cork out. "Don't start thinking I'm only good for mowing the lawn. Whoa!"
A blast of vapor shot out of the bottle, and the liquid boiled over instantly. Kasim dropped it, and Xanthippe screamed, "Get it on the ice! On the ice!" They kicked the bottle towards the block, thankfully splashing most of the liquid on it. At the touch of the boiling oils, the ice flashed up instantly into steam, and the huge block dissolved to nothing. The ice woman was left standing there. She was still blue, and hunched over, but Xanthippe could grab her, and carry her back to Harrogath.
It was Anya, suffering from the worst case of frostbite Malah had seen for a long time. The spell was supposed to keep the victim unharmed, but it seems Nihlathak had forgotten that part. Or just didn't bother.
"What's going on? Where's Nihlathak? Why'd he do this?" Xanthippe asked.
"Let her recover!" Malah said. "She is barely even conscious. I will do all I can."
After bringing Anya back, Xanthippe returned to the ice caverns. The girl was in no shape to talk to anyone, even if she did know anything important about Mt. Arreat, and there was a demon lord to catch. The caves were ridiculously extensive -- they went on for miles, in every direction. How these caves came to be, Xanthippe had no idea. Most caves occur in areas with limestone, or some other sedimentary rock that can be dissolved by groundwater. Arreat was volcanic. These might be old lava tubes filled with ice, but to have such a huge twisty network of them was strange.
Back in town, Xanthippe stopped to talk with Cain. The ice caves were too convoluted; there had to be an easier way up Arreat. Heck, even Larzuk's idea of riding smoke with sheepskins was beginning to sound more practical. Cain reassured her that the caves were the fastest way up the mountain.
"While you were making yourself a hero for these people, I have been speaking with them about the mountain, and their lives here. Ah... if there is anything traveling with you has taught me, it is how meager my lifetime of accumulated knowledge is. Sages have debated the true nature of Mt. Arreat for centuries, but I believe I have learned more from idle chat with the Barbarians of this city than --"
"Cain, the condensed version, please. How do I get through the caves while I'm still young?" Cain laughed. "Forgive me, I forget myself. The elders of the Barbarian clans ascend to the summit of Mt. Arreat through the caves as part of an ancient ritual. None will say what they find there, but the mountain cannot be ascended by man any other way."
Xanthippe nodded. "Which clan was Nihlathak an elder of, anyway?"
"The snake clan, I believe. I hope Anya will be receiving visitors soon. As the daughter of the Barbarian's chief, she would be privy to many of Arreat's secrets! At first opportunity, I intend to seek out her council, and try to find answers to some of the questions that have plagued me for decades."
Xanthippe frowned. "If the men are the only ones who can be elders, there's no reason her father would tell her anything. She wouldn't need to know."
"I understand Aust, the chieftan, was very fond of his daughter, and kept nothing from her. Ah, look! Malah wishes to speak with you."
Outside her hospital, Malah was motioning for Xanthippe to come over. Just about every Barbarian in Harrogath had gathered outside the building, including a lot of women willing to be seen out in the open for this. All were in hushed conversations, and went quiet at Xanthippe's approach. Something important must be up; Xanthippe had never heard hushed anything from the Barbs before. As she got to the top of the steps, Malah grabbed her wrist and pulled her inside.
"Hey, what's up?" Xanthippe asked.
"Come inside. Anya desperately needs to speak with you. She is still in terrible pain, but it is of the greatest urgency."
No one was paying attention to him, so Kasim followed. Inside, Anya was waiting. She had been in a bath of herbs and potions, like the ones they'd had, so her skin was red and raw as her injuries healed. But since she wasn't wearing anything but a tattered old blanket, Kasim hardly noticed. Anya was very tall, with a sleek, muscular body and generous curves. Just by breathing, the swell of her bosom nearly pulled the blanket from her shoulder. Long, smoothly muscled legs ended in relatively dainty feet, and her glossy black hair was so dark against her creamy skin, it looked almost blue.
"Hi," Xanthippe said. "What's so important?"
"Gawahaa..." Kasim said intelligently.
"What are yoo doing here?" Malah waved her cane at Kasim. "Yoo get out! It's indecent!"
"No, let him stay," Anya said. "Yoo helped to rescue me from Nihlathak's trap?"
"Heewa... ahh... yeah?"
Xanthippe's eyes narrowed, and she glared hard at Kasim. But Anya gave him a smile that must have melted the heart of many a Barbarian. "Thank yoo. Yoo are very brave, and a hero to my people."
Kasim's face was so flushed, he'd gone 5 shades darker. "Erk?" Xanthippe's face was also darkening, but the snarl curling her lips told Malah it was not for the same reason.
Anya turned back to Xanthippe. "And courage like yoors is rarer! From what Malah has told me, yoo are amazing, a true inspiration for me and many others."
"Yes, Anya!" Malah said. "Young sorceress, I have told Anya of your courage and --"
"Why does everyone up here take so long to get to the point?!" Xanthippe shouted. "What was Nihlathak doing with you, and why should I care?"
With a slight frown, Anya said, "When my father and the other elders died saving all of our lives, I suspected that Nihlathak was somehow behind their fate. After all, why should he be the only one to survive that dreadful night?"
"Because he ran away and abandoned everybody else?"
Anya shook her head. "My father would not die so easily. I was able to guess part of what Nihlathak did, and confronted him with my suspicions. But I was not shrewd enough to guess what he would do to me in return, to hide his guilty secret."
Glancing at Kasim, Xanthippe saw him bending over to look at Anya's legs. Or something else down low on her body. Accidentally, she dropped her halberd on his head. "Oops! I'm sorry, are you all right?"
Caught off guard, but not really hurt, Kasim held his head. "Ow. I'm fine. No problem."
"I will take care of him," Malah said, hustling Kasim off to one side. "Please, continue!"
"Yes!" Xanthippe smiled. "But pull your blankie up first, sister."
"Oh!" Having apparently forgotten her only cover enough to let it slip, Anya took a moment to protect her modesty. Past her, Xanthippe saw Malah forcibly turning Kasim's head away so she could look at him, despite his best efforts.
After making herself more presentable, Anya continued. "Nihlathak lured me into the caves, and imprisoned me in that icy tomb. He was laughing, and raving about how he was going to save Harrogath by making a deal with Baal!"
Xanthippe bristled. "What deal?"
"He intends to give Baal the Relic of the Ancients, our most holy totem!"
Anya and Xanthippe stared each other in the face. Finally, Xanthippe asked, "And... ?"
"Yoo don't understand! The totem will allow Baal to..." Anya paused, uncertain.
"Allow him to what?"
"This has never been spoken of to an outsider," Anya said. "The Relic is the heart and soul of our pact with the Ancient Ones. If Baal were to get it, it could be the doom of the world."
A religious artifact. ANOTHER religious artifact. Xanthippe wondered if the 'heart and soul' part was literally true. "You're not going to tell me what it does, are you?"
Anya looked down. "I hope I will not need to. I would love to strangle the life out of Nihlathak myself... but my imprisonment has left me weak. Yoo must find him before he can give the Relic to Baal. I am sure he is in his temple, on the other side of Mt. Arreat."
"That'll take a while. Any idea where Baal is?"
"No. But unless he has the Relic, he will never get past the peak."
Xanthippe blinked. "Past the peak? How can you go higher than the top of a mountain?"
Anya smiled. "Hope that yoo will never need to go there. Now, time is crucial! Nihlathak's temple is far away, but my father taught me the spell to make a portal which goes there. Yoo must hurry."
As they left Malah's, a huge hand grabbed Kasim by the front of his robe. Shortly, he found himself slammed against a wall, his feet dangling high off the ground, with a dozen angry Barbarian warriors staring into his face. "What were yoo doin' in there?" "Uh... nothing?" Kasim grinned.
"Yoo don't even LOOK at our Anya! She's too good for the likes o' yoo!"
"Yeah!" another said. "We heard yoo! Filthy foreigners, after our womenfolk!"
"Hey!" Xanthippe said, "Put him down. If anyone's going to chop anything off him, it's me!"
Great, Kasim thought. "Uh, guys? Look, I've been around her for weeks. I've pretty much written women off. I'm gonna be a monk when all this is over. There's this little island in the Twin Seas, where the most demonic thing you'll see is a 15-year-old dachshund named Mr. Wigglesworth. I'm gonna go there and take up a new living as a goat."
"You are not," Xanthippe said. "Get over here!" After kicking the Barb holding Kasim in the shin, she dragged Kasim off. "Listen you, what the hell do you think you were doing, walking in there like that?"
"She said I could stay..."
"You shouldn't have stayed ANYWAY! You just stood there, drooling all over yourself..."
As Xanthippe's voice receded into the distance, one Barb shook his head, and said. "Aw, the poor bastard. If only I knew."
"That's a damn shame," another said.
One of the Barbarian women nodded. "I thought she was a great hero. She's horrible to him. Doesn't she know any decent behavior at all?"
"She was raised all wrong. And if he tried to correct 'er, she'd kill him."
"That's a damn shame," the one Barb repeated, shaking his head.
When Anya had dressed, she cast the spell and made a portal, taking them to Nihlathak's temple. The place was typical of Barbarian architecture -- low, solid stone, and sturdy enough to take anything the natural world could dish out. Atypical of Barbarian places were the long-dead bodies littering the courtyard. The Barbarians seem to favor defleshing of their dead, or cremation. The bones are then placed in a burial chest, along with any valuables the deceased had in life. While it seemed highly disrespectful to Xanthippe, it did prevent the bodies of the dead from being raised by wandering demon lords.
Of course, anything unusual is a sign of a possible trap. A few seconds after they'd come through the gate, the dead moaned and rose to their feet, shambling to the attack with huge swords raised. More zombies, Xanthippe thought, before one ran at high speed and slammed into her. That was unusual, as it was when the Zombies started talking to each other, in slow and slurred tones. Despite the fact that their brains seemed to still be working, the dead soldiers weren't much more of a threat than regular Zombies. The fire-enchanted one in the temple's entrance was trouble, but when he died, he had something odd, a magical kris. Cain identified it as something called the Jade Tan Do, a legendary dagger prized by Necromancers.
"What's a Necro toy doing up here?"
"That is a curious thing," Cain agreed. "I would sooner have expected a sword or axe."
"Whatever. Move your butt, Kasim."
The inside of the temple was worse than the outside. There had been murals on the walls, but they were falling off in pieces. Everywhere, bodies of dead Barbarians were nailed to walls or posts, beaten to a pulp, and stripped of flesh or partially skinned. Dead soldiers and Baal's Minotaurs were everywhere, and a lot of them had things a Necromancer would like -- heads in jars, dried-out skull totems, bone shields, scythes. Piles of human bones and skulls were everywhere. But Xanthippe's mind was not on the temple decorations, or what they might imply. For the whole time they were in the temple, until they reached the lowest level, Xanthippe's mind was on Kasim. He had been a clod before this, many times. But this time, his behavior was simply inexcusable. All the time they explored the temple, she told him so; how she had trusted him to control himself; how he was an embarrassment; how much he had offended their hosts; and especially, how disappointed she was that in all the time he'd known her, he'd never learned how to behave around a woman.
As they descended the stairs into the deepest level of the temple, she was still going. "It was deeply offensive to say the least. I hope the rest of your family knows how to behave better than you! I should have left you with the Barbarians. I should have!"
"Incoming," Kasim mumbled, not really caring anymore.
"You know what they do to people they don't like," Xanthippe said as she chopped a slave to bits with great energy. "You would have deserved it! All that ogling, you were practically drooling on the floor! That is no way to treat a woman, even if she is wiggling her half-naked body in front of you!"
"She wasn't," Kasim sullenly noted, crushing a slave's skull.
"Hell yes, she was! Oh, I'll just bet she didn't mind having you slink your way in there and stand there staring at her! But that is no damn, sorry excuse!!"
"She was nice," Kasim sighed.
"Oh, yeah! Really nice! Got every Barb up there wrapped around her little finger, she's so nice, I'll just bet!" Sputtering with anger now, Xanthippe snarled, "Just nice on ice! So nice and icy and spicy and... and... Do you know what you need?"
"Sure," Kasim looked for more things to kill.
"No you do not! What you need, you need, is a lesson in sensitivity! Yeah, that's it! You need to be more sensitive! If I have to pound it over and over into your thick skull, you are going to be more sensitive, you are --"
Something inside Kasim snapped. Should I kill the boss? Just kill her? Smash her yapping mouth right in, once and for all? I've tried to be reasonable. I'll try to ignore her. I'll try really, really hard to...
"AAAAAHHH!!" Kasim screamed at the top of his lungs! "I can't take this anymore!"
"What?" Xanthippe squeaked, taken aback.
Three winged female demons (Cain identified them as Succubi, to no one's surprise) came screeching out of a side hall, no doubt attracted by the sound of a man screaming in soul-wrenching agony. Kasim stood in front of them and said, "Ok, just kill me now! Right now, if you please! Just rip my head right off! I don't care anymore!"
The Succubi stopped, staring at him. "Ooh, he's begging for it!" one said.
"Make him beg more!" another replied. "That gets me so hot!"
"Kasim!" Xanthippe screamed, "Get out of there! Those things are dangerous!"
"Not half as bad as you!" Kasim yelled. "Or a quarter, or an eighth, or anything! You are the biggest b!tch to ever come out of Hell! They'll be a walk on the beach after the crap I've had from you!"
"What YOU'VE had to put up from ME?! You listen to ME, buster! All the time I've known you, all I've gotten out of you is complaining, and leering, and crude comments, and other stuff I don't even want to think about!"
"I have gotten into so much sh!t for you, it's not even funny!" Kasim retorted. "I have been blown up, poisoned, struck by lightning, had my head bashed in, trying to keep you alive! Who took the first shot from Diablo, huh?"
"I don't care WHAT happens in combat! I'm not talking about combat! Whenever we went back to town, you stared at Asheara, you stared at Jamella, you were even staring at Fara and she's a fvcking paladin, for crying out loud!"
"So I wanna look at nice women! You're talking like we're married or something! And they're all a hell of a lot nicer than you! Even Asheara!"
Wide-eyed, Xanthippe drew her breath in with a hiss. "Asheara!?! She... you... How can you even SAY that!?! What, did she sleep with you or something?"
Meanwhile, the three Succubi were munching a bowl of low-fat popcorn and drinking some diet Squeezed Souls colas. "This isn't bad, is it?" the blonde asked.
"No," the brunette replied. "She's not bad at all, for a mortal. I really should brush up on the mental tortures. Claws and curses only go so far, you know."
"Oh, I know!" the redhead giggled. "A shame to see so much raw talent going to waste."
"Oh, I definitely agree," the brunette answered. "Such passion. But it's all so intellectual."
"Give her time," the redhead smiled sensuously. "She's young yet. She'll figure out the other passions, and then I think we can just... watch out!"
"But we're supposed to kill them!" the blonde said. "Do you think we should? I agree with you both, she really should ripen more before she's plucked."
The brunette laughed! "I wish we could, girls... but our master would be upset."
They all shivered. "Ooh... don't get me all excited like that, you b!tch."
The blonde grinned hungrily. "But you're SO much fun when you're excited..."
"Later, darling... what do we do with them?"
The screaming continued unabated. "Maybe they'll chop each other up."
"Or maybe..." The brunette grinned, eyeing Xanthippe. "I have an idea."
"What's wrong with a woman being nice?" Kasim asked. "Why can't you be nice to anybody? You're not giving anything up by not being a b!tch for 5 fvcking seconds!"
"Oh, so that's it!" Xanthippe shouted. "'Oh, Xanty, why can't you be all nicey-nice and bring me my slippers like a good girl?' Because 'nice' girls get treated like doormats, that's why!"
"Bullsh!t! Fara is nice, everybody respects her, a hell of a lot more than they respect you! What'd all your yelling and screeching ever get you, huh?"
"That is so... insensitive! Completely insensitive! I wish there were sensitivity courses so I could enroll you in one! And make you attend! This is... so... insitive! Aghh!" Whatever argument Xanthippe was trying to make sputtered to a stop.
The redheaded Succubus stepped forward. "May I cut in?"
"What do YOU want?" Xanthippe and Kasim yelled together.
"Well, excuse me for breaking up this little love-fest!" The Succubus giggled. "I just wanted to give you a few pointers, dear."
"What?" Xanthippe boggled.
"Oh, yes!" the blonde Succubus jumped up, spilling the popcorn. "Listen to her. This is very important."
"You can learn a lot from her," the brunette one smiled. "She's VERY experienced in these matters."
"First, don't be angry with him for sleeping with this Asheara person. After all, he's a man! He'll sleep with anything."
"I didn't sleep with Asheara," Kasim complained.
"Even better!" the redhead smiled over her shoulder at Kasim, bending over to show off her absolutely perfect rear and legs. "You can torment him for something he hasn't even done. That's the best."
Her technique is excellent, Kasim thought. Even though he knows what she is, the way she shows off, that tail looks like nothing more than an exotic addition to a very lovely exhibit, not a sign of a diabolical nature. He looked away quickly.
"I saw that!" Xanthippe shouted.
"Good!" the Succubus smiled. "Want me to show you how?"
"No! I was talking to him! Kasim, you do not treat women like objects for you to look at!"
"Of course he does!" the blonde said. "That's how you get him!"
"Honey, you've got to learn to go with your strengths," the brunette purred. "There's a weakness. Take advantage! Don't reject the temptations of the flesh, they're one of your biggest, most powerful weapons."
The redhead tsked. "Girls, we're going about this the wrong way. Conference!" They hustled off to one side for a whispered conversation, interrupted by girlish giggling.
Xanthippe and Kasim looked at each other silently. "Don't listen to 'em," Kasim said. "They're after you."
"Why would they be after me?" Xanthippe hissed.
"A raw recruit?" Kasim smirked.
Xanthippe looked disgusted. "I have NOTHING in common with those bimbos!"
"Yeah," Kasim said ruefully. "They're probably nicer."
"They're DEMONS from HELL!"
Kasim nodded. "They're probably nicer."
"All right!" The Succubi clapped their hands, had a group hug, and strutted back grinning like sharks. Xanthippe and Kasim kept their weapons ready.
"First," the brunette licked her lips, "what did this brute do to get you so upset?"
"Why should I tell you?" Xanthippe snarled.
"Because we asked nicely!" the blonde pouted.
"You don't need to tell us." The brunette looked chasteningly at Kasim. "He's been running around after some local woman, hasn't he?"
"Well..." Xanthippe thought for a minute. "She wasn't exactly discouraging him. In fact, she was encouraging him!"
"That b!tch." The redhead shook her head sympathetically. "Is she beautiful?"
"Oh, yeah. And boy, does she know it. When she invited us in, she was practically naked."
"No, she wasn't," Kasim objected. "And she didn't invite us in, I walked in myself."
The blonde sneered at Kasim. "That's what she wanted you to think. It's an old trick."
"Almost as old as you," the redhead teased.
The blonde gasped dramatically! "You hag! You're older than me!"
"I prefer to think of it as 'more experienced.'"
"Girls!" The brunette glared at her sister demons. "This isn't about you. This is about this pig of a man and his new girlfriend."
Kasim squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his temples. He was getting a headache. "She is not my girlfriend. Neither of them are!"
The brunette snorted! "Don't try to dodge responsibility."
The blonde shook her head. "This is so typical."
The redhead whispered to Xanthippe, "He'll probably claim he couldn't help himself. Don't just take our word for it, but believe me, if there's one thing we know, it's men."
"I can believe that," Xanthippe said, looking up and down at the outfits the Succubi were almost wearing. "You sure seem to know what they like."
"It's not hard to figure out," the brunette said as she adjusted her nipple rings. "Never once did either of them have one thought about your feelings, did they?"
"I don't think she cares about anyone's feelings but hers," Xanthippe huffed.
"I can't believe you're listening to this," Kasim said.
"Maybe I am! Don't worry, I'll kill them in a minute. But there she was, wearing nothing but a towel, cooing and sighing over her 'great hero' and he was falling all over himself!"
"Boss, the three of them together couldn't make a washcloth."
Xanthippe glared. "And don't think I haven't seen you noticing that!"
"Girls," the brunette said, "this man obviously has no self-control. I'll bet that b!tch can play him for any kind of fool she wants."
"She must have lots of boyfriends," the blonde suggested.
"Oh, yeah!" Xanthippe laughed. "Every stupid muscle-head in Harrogath! They all think she's some kind of gift from the heavens or something."
"What a slut," the redhead hissed. "She's probably been with every man in the mountains." "And some of the women!" the blonde chimed in.
Xanthippe laughed even more! "Maybe, those Barbs are probably badly inbred by now!" Kasim was looking increasingly nervous. "Can we kill them now?"
"Hey, c'mon!" Xanthippe grinned wickedly. "Can't stand to hear anyone say anything bad about your precious Anya?"
"Weren't you the one saying 'They're DEMONS from HELL!'?"
The redhead shook her head. "Girlfriend, why are you even listening to this jerk?"
"I don't know!" Xanthippe laughed.
"He should go running back to Anya." The brunette gave Xanthippe a sympathetic hug, and stroked her hair where it came out of her helmet. "Say, how do you do your hair?"
"Uh..." Xanthippe blinked. "I wash it?"
"That color is natural? You lucky! I love your highlights. Auburn is so passionate!"
"Oh, wow," the redhead said, stroking Xanthippe's hair too. "I am SO jealous."
It occurred to Xanthippe that she was surrounded by demons, who were touching her rather provocatively. She was kind of proud of her hair, but this was getting a little weird. "Uh... I think I've got a lot more to be jealous about."
"Boss..." Kasim said through gritted teeth.
"Don't worry, we'll help you!" the brunette laughed. "A boob job, maybe some work on your nose, and you'll look a lot better than any old Anya."
This was definitely getting weird. "I..."
"I don't know," the blonde said. "The boob job is a definite must, but I think her nose is fine. She'd look a lot better as a blonde. Platinum blonde hair and tawny skin is so in these days."
"Don't you think of touching her hair!" The redhead patted Xanthippe's rear. "A little more down here, and a lot more up here. The nose I can take or leave."
"But darlings," the blonde said, shaking out her hair in gorgeous golden waves, "Blonde is better!" "Hey!" Xanthippe swatted away three sets of hands. "What are you doing?"
They all smiled. "Plotting your revenge, of course," the redhead said.
"She'll just DIE of envy when she sees you," the brunette cackled.
The weight of the halberd in her hand was very reassuring, all of a sudden. Over to one side, Kasim looked kind of green as he stared at them, weapon ready. Trying to find words, Xanthippe mumbled, "I don't want to make Anya jealous. I just..."
They laughed. "Of COURSE you do! You're jealous of her; get back at her!"
"I'm not jealous of Anya! You don't know what you're saying!"
The brunette quirked an eyebrow at Xanthippe. "Girlfriend, I'm sorry, but it is SO obvious. There's nothing wrong with being jealous. Work with it! That's how you make yourself better than other people."
"Jealousy is wonderful when you know how to use it," the blonde smiled.
"It's made me what I am today," the redhead licked her lips.
Now Xanthippe was very, very afraid. But they were all around her; the redhead was trying to pry her fingers off her halberd. "Get off!" Xanthippe snarled, and punched the redhead right in the nose.
"MY FACE!" the redheaded Succubus squealed! "YOU B!TCH, MY FACE!!!" Instantly, fangs grew from cute little pointy teeth, and their nails sharpened into long claws. Kasim charged in and stabbed the brunette in the back. It was a short fight; after it was over, Xanthippe stood panting and staring at the ground, and Kasim stood staring at her.
"What the hell were you doing?" he finally asked.
"I... don't know... what happened." Xanthippe stuttered.
Kasim snorted. "I thought Succubuses were supposed to just seduce men."
Xanthippe looked up at Kasim. "I would never... I wasn't gonna... Do you think I could..."
"I don't mean like sex," Kasim grumbled. "Now quit being jealous of Anya. She wasn't trying to steal me. Besides, the Barbs would kill me if I tried anything."
"I'm not... I..."
"Yes, you are. I dunno why. I don't care. Let's kill things."
Wordlessly, Xanthippe followed Kasim around the lowest level of the temple. When they found Nihlathak, he was surrounded by slaves and Succubi, laughing that his minions would crush them, he had saved Harrogath, they were helpless before him. As waves of minions advanced, Kasim and Xanthippe fell back, until at Kasim's suggestion, Xanthippe teleported them right next to Nihlathak. It would have been a good plan, if Nihlathak couldn't teleport too. Instead of a running battle, they had a teleporting battle, a genuine wizard's duel ranging over the whole room. That much heavy 'porting was disorienting, but Nihlathak died spectacularly in the end. Twirling in the air, the flesh was stripped from his scrawny bones, and he went straight down into a fiery inferno. Cleaning up the leftover minions was easy, but Xanthippe's mind was elsewhere. And not on Kasim this time.
There were several totem-like things in Nihlathak's temple, but Xanthippe and Kasim couldn't tell which might be the important one, so they gathered them all up and took them back to Harrogath. It was dark, and Anya was sleeping, but Xanthippe didn't feel like talking to anybody anyway. That night, her dreams were strange and disturbing. She usually slept deeply enough not to remember any dreams in the morning, but this night her mind simply couldn't rest. Just before dawn, Anya knocked on her door. Xanthippe was already up -- having gotten no real rest.
With increasing worry, Anya went through the totem collection twice. "It isn't here."
"It isn't here?" Xanthippe repeated numbly.
"It isn't here! The Relic of the Ancients! It's gone!"
Anya stared at Xanthippe. "Have yoo gone mad? That is our most holy totem!"
Xanthippe sighed. "I have a killer headache. I'm sorry. Now please, you haven't told me what's so important about this relic. Why do you want it?"
"The Relic is the sign of our pact with the Ancient Ones, our ancestors. They were as gods, far greater than any who live today. When they took on the task of guarding Mt. Arreat, three of their greatest champions were given the gift of immortality, and stand eternally on the peak of the mountain. Any who approach are challenged to combat -- unless they bear the relic. All who bear the relic may pass."
Ancestor worship. Ok, but how those primitive beliefs can blend with the religion of light is anyone's guess. Thinking about religion would only make her head hurt more, so Xanthippe just said, "You think they'll just let Baal pass."
"Nihlathak must have given the relic to Baal. He will not be challenged. It is imperative to find him and stop him!"
Privately, Xanthippe wondered how anyone could let Baal go where he pleased, just because he had some fancy totem. He shouldn't be that hard to recognize for what he is. For all this stuff about the ancestors being greater than anyone living, Anya didn't seem to place much faith in their intelligence. However, voicing doubts about Anya's judgment, or someone she worships, would not be very nice. "Find him and stop him. Right. Guess I'll get to the summit, then. That's where he's going."
"I do not know if this will help yoo, but please take it," Anya said, handing Xanthippe a small crystal orb mounted on a wand. "It was among my father's things, and I know magicians use them. Yoo might want something larger, but it is all I have for yoo."
The orb wasn't anything special, or even useful, but Xanthippe tucked it into her belt and mumbled something about it being lovely. Before going out, she stopped to talk with Cain.
"Can I ask you about something?"
"Please, stay a while and listen! While I know time is of the essence, your efforts are best guided by knowledge and --"
"Thank you. I was wondering... what can you tell me about Succubi?"
Cain looked a bit surprised. "Ah, yes. The Succubi are the handmaidens of Andariel, but often given by her to other demon lords to curry favor. Combat is not their forte, to say the least, but they are zealous in their bloodthirst. Many were found under Tristram, and I had thought they were all but wiped out in the battles there."
Xanthippe slowly nodded. "They can't... like... see into your soul, or anything?"
Now Cain looked puzzled. "Hmm. All demons study human weaknesses, as their intelligence allows. Even during times of supposed peace, some walk among mortals, creating havoc in subtler ways. The helpers of the Maiden of Anguish are well suited to this task, and I am sure many of them have been deceiving men, in one disguise or another, for centuries. They would be very familiar with the darker sides of human nature. Where is Kasim, by the way?"
"I don't think he and I are speaking to each other right now." Xanthippe stared at the ground. "But they can't... just KNOW what's in your heart, by looking at you?"
"No more so than any other student of humanity," Cain said, raising an eyebrow. "You know, when I went to see Anya, she asked about you. Your mood confused her, but I assured her that you were merely impatient to be about your business."
Her face flushing, Xanthippe nodded. "I'm sorry. I was beyond rude. And I will apologize, but I can't really face her right now. I have to sort out my head. Better go. Thank you."
As she walked to the waypoint, Cain frowned deeply, and thought for a while. Deciding that he didn't have enough information, he went upstairs to speak with Malah.
"Malah," Cain asked, "may I ask you for a moment of your time?"
"Of course, young man." Malah cackled a bit. "You don't often hear that, I think."
"Not so often, these days," Cain sat down on a bunk. "Many my age or older were unable to flee the invasion; it is still not clear to me why I was spared. But now, it is the young who worry me. Tell me, what did Xanthippe say, when she met Anya?"
"That girl never learned how to behave!" Malah snorted. "When Anya praised her strength, she was met only with harsh words. Her man was ill-behaved, though she did fetch him a goodly clout. She was ill-spoken, curt, and insulting to elder Nihlathak long before his betrayal was known."
Cain nodded slowly. "Well... she is under a terrible burden."
"There is a child who was not beaten enough," Malah scowled. "Here, children learn to respect their betters." Then she sighed. "But you are right, we must be generous. It is a great burden, which may be what makes her company so difficult to bear."
Cain smiled. "Especially for people who must seem strange to her."
"What is so strange about us, then?" Malah smiled cannily. "Yoors are the ways that are strange. It is Anya who has call to take offense. When Baal has been defeated, it is my hope that Anya will teach your little tyro a lesson she won't soon forget."
Remembering the "mud wrestling" incident, Cain said, "It would not be the first time, or the last, I am sure. Let me warn you, she forgets lessons easily."
"We are not in the way of letting children forget their lessons."
"As you said," Cain nodded. "That is all I wished to ask about. I hope that all goes well."
Xanthippe's safety was never a worry for Cain, no matter how much she offended the Barbarians' ways. As thick-boned as these people were, he was sure her skull was thicker. For herself, Xanthippe was threading the maze of ice caves with Kasim. Despite several attempts on her part, Kasim was not speaking to her. He fought along with her, protected her, and watched her back as she watched his, but he wouldn't acknowledge anything she said -- not even a grunt to show he'd heard her. As they went through one blind alley and looping passage after another, she finally gave up trying to get a response, and just went on talking. She had to get this off her chest.
"You're right, I was mean to Anya, the things I said about her were wrong. I was upset. I'm still not sure why. Ok, I am sure, I was jealous. For no good reason at all."
Kasim actually favored her with a glare before turning away.
"What were you going to say? You can say something, I won't tell."
Kasim found a couple of Minotaurs, and they started chopping them up. "I think I started getting mad when Cain said he was going to seek her out for her council. Why all this over her, I was thinking? I don't think she's any older than me, and nobody seeks me out for my council. I know lots of things!"
Kasim grunted as he ran a Minotaur through, killing it. Xanthippe continued, "Ok, you're thinking, why would anyone ask a total bitch anything. Doesn't matter what I know, nobody wants to talk to me anyway. But everybody wanted to talk to Anya."
As her lightning killed a last earth demon, Xanthippe said, "She gets a ton of respect, she hasn't even done anything, just has well-placed relatives. I'm not getting jealous again, that's just a statement of fact. But you know, I gotta admit, thinking about the things she says, I respect her too. She's smart, a lot smarter than I thought anyone here would be."
As they continued, Kasim in the lead (keeping his back to her at all costs) they finally found an opening that led to the surface. "And she is beautiful. Ok, I admit, it should not matter, but it does. Maybe it was just the last nail in the coffin... or maybe I worry about my looks more than I want to think. I mean, I've kept my hair long, and let it hang out of my helmet. That's not a good idea in combat. I thought about cutting it off after what those Succubi said, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. Vanity, right? I like my hair."
Outside the cave was an icy tundra, covered with snow and slick ice. The wind was thin and bitingly cold. "I know, vanity begets envy, envy begets vanity. That's how Succubi can work on people, right? Even women. And you were right, they were seducing me. It had nothing to do with sex, but it was a seduction nonetheless."
The tundra was lousy with Imps and big thunder beasts. Imps are obnoxious little bastards, but Xanthippe's lightning could kill them in one shot now. Kasim still ran from Imp to Imp, with Xanthippe trotting along behind. "They found a weakness, and exploited it. You know the really ironic thing? When I thought men were looking at me, I didn't mind. It didn't upset me, even though it should have. But when you looked at Anya... I completely overreacted."
"You went apesh!t," Kasim finally said.
She almost jumped, she was so startled. "Yeah! I went apesh!t! I mean, why shouldn't anybody look at anybody they want to, right? It's just looking!"
They found another set of Barbarian fortresses; Kasim began smashing towers. "Just looking does not mean a lack of respect! When men were looking at me, I didn't think they thought any less of my strength, or my power, just because they also thought I had a nice rear. And maybe my legs too. Actually, I think my legs have gotten better since I started wearing the heavy armor, they get more of a workout."
Kicking down a door, Kasim found a catapult stand with some slaves, who looked surprised to see them both. "My shoulders are broader too, I think, my old top doesn't fit anymore. And... you know, maybe I am developing some more. I'll be 18 in a couple of months. Had to happen sometime, right?" Kasim was kicking down a door, ignoring the blast of flame from an Imp in a tower. Xanthippe ignored them too; they both had so much fire resistance, and it was so cold up there, getting hit with a flame-thrower actually felt kind of nice. "Ok, I'll never be as big as Anya, in any direction, but that's ok! She looks great the way she is. I kind of wish you hadn't let your jaw hit the ground, but I understand why. I really do!"
Looking around, Kasim found some more Imps. Xanthippe ran into the crowd with him. "We are all human, and some of us look so good, that other humans go ga-ga over them. Maybe it shouldn't be that way, but it is, so no one should think it's wrong."
Silently, Kasim killed Imps, and slaves, and thundering beasts, until Xanthippe screamed, "DAMN IT, ANSWER ME!! Say SOMETHING!! You're the only one I have to talk to! No one else has seen what I've seen! You've got to say SOMETHING to me..."
With a sigh, Kasim turned and glared at her. "What?!"
"Just... say something." She was almost in tears now.
"Sure. How do you keep up all that yapping in this thin air, anyway?"
As soon as he said it, Kasim regretted it. She just stood there, quiet, tears freezing on her cheeks. Damn it... he never could take it when a girl cried. "Hey... I didn't mean it."
She started sobbing. "Yesh you did... everbody hatesh me..."
"Look, not everybody hates you. Some people don't know you well enough."
THAT sure helped. Xanthippe started whimpering and crying more than ever. "Hey, Anya doesn't hate you! She's trying to like you!"
"Yeah!" Xanthippe sobbed, "sheesh one of tha big dogs!"
After thinking about that, Kasim said, "Uh, look: don't call her a big dog to her face, ok? She probably won't get it."
Now Kasim didn't know if Xanthippe was crying, laughing, or both. "Come on. Just calm down, relax, you're gonna turn this place around and liberate all the women, and they'll all love you for it. Well, maybe not Malah, she's kind of reactionary. But old women get like that! Look at what you're doing! Everybody thinks you're great!"
"I don' think I could liberate anybody," Xanthippe sobbed. "I'm just a..."
"Sure you can liberate 'em! It'll be easy, you told me how a million times. You're gonna bring women's rights to the Barbarians, show 'em the error of their ways, all that stuff. It'll be great!"
Slowly, Xanthippe stopped crying. "Nobody's gonna listen to me..."
"Sure they will. Just say what you got to say. Be the big dog."
Sniffling, Xanthippe rubbed her nose on her sleeve. "I don't know how."
Kasim sighed. "What does Anya do? She's a big dog, act like her."
"She's tall and strong and her dad was a chief."
Kasim shrugged. "You're the one who killed Diablo. Think that's chicken feed?"
"They don't believe I did that," Xanthippe complained.
"I dunno. Ever since we killed Nihlathak, I think some of them are getting convinced."
"What about him? He was easy."
"Yeah." Kasim grinned. "Tribal elder, the most powerful guy in the city, and he was easy."
Xanthippe laughed. "Uh... yeah. That's true. Heh. Never thought about it that way."
"Yeah. Now, we gotta get movin'. The summit's a long ways up."
Xanthippe looked up, up the mountain, where the peak shone against indigo skies. "Wonder what's up there. Think we're too late?"
"We will be if we hang around here."
"Right. Let's kill things."
The slope of the mountain was steep now, and the icy ground was slippery. More than once, one or both of them slipped and skidded across patches of ice as they chased the monsters. At the top of the tundra slope was another cave, under a thick wall of ice that surrounded the peak. Trying to climb the ice would be pointless, so the cave was the only option. It was full of the usual horrors, including several dead Barbarians. Had they been up here, this high on the mountain? Or were they just dragged up for entertainment, and food?
As they got back to town that evening, Qual-kehk greeted Xanthippe. "Yoo have reached the Ancient's Way, which holds the entrance to the summit. Every time I hear from yoo, your deeds have grown more legendary. Yoo are entering into the realm of myths."
"They're caves, like any other. I'm sorry, but I've seen worse."
Qual-kehk stared straight at Xanthippe, shaking his head slightly. "Yoo really did descend into the burning hells, didn't yoo? And battled to the death with Terror and Hate."
Turning away, Kasim smirked a bit. Xanthippe looked down, but nodded. "I wasn't lying. It was what I had to do, and I did it."
"I think I believe yoo now. It makes me wonder if all the training, all the devotion and care I have given to this mountain was for nothing." Qual-kehk cast his eyes down. "A woman, who I scoffed at, succeeds where I can only offer failure."
"You didn't fail... you just didn't know what you were fighting."
"That is a failure, to have forgotten so much, or thought it unimportant. I sent hundreds of men to their deaths. Thousands more died on the slopes while I could not break out of a box of my own making." Qual-kehk looked up at Arreat's summit. "The defense of this place was my life. I have never been to the peak, where yoo are going. It never seemed to me that I was worthy of it. But I may tell yoo what is there."
"The Ancient Ones?"
"Aye, the Ancient Ones. They stand eternally vigilant, cast in unbreakable metal. The gates to the interior of the mountain will not open unless they let yoo pass. Or, if you have the relic that will open the gates without their say."
Xanthippe nodded. "You go into the mountain?"
"Yoo will, I am sure of it. Inside the mountain is the greatest charge a people could have, the key to the safety of everything that is: the Worldstone."
The word meant nothing to Xanthippe. The Barbarians had the task of protecting Mt. Arreat, but no one outside of the highlands knew why. Sages had debated possibilities for ages, but with no knowledge possible, argument was pointless. Declaring that the great secret was a thing called the Worldstone was interesting, but told Xanthippe absolutely nothing. "What is the Worldstone?"
"I do not know," Qual-kehk replied. "Not exactly. It is the soul of the world. If all that is were wrapped up in a single thing, that would be it. The energy it creates keeps Hellspawn from drawing on their full power while in our world. What more it does, I cannot say. But I know this: if Baal corrupts it, as he corrupted the shard of it used for his Soulstone, all is lost. Instead of preventing Hell's power from flowing in the world, it would make it easier, and every demon would become as 100 of what it was. We would be doomed."
Before returning to the Ancient's Way, Xanthippe stopped at Anya's to see if she had any more interesting items. The elders of Harrogath had apparently kept a lot of armor and other equipment hidden in preparation for the end times, and most of them didn't have heirs left who knew where it was. Even Nihlathak had some worthwhile things squirreled away. There was far more available than there were soldiers left to use it. The elders really should have told Qual-kehk about all that stuff before they went out to raise the shield. If there had just been some better communication, Baal might have been stopped back when all this started.
The items from ancient days could be awesome, particularly the body armor. It was thick and very heavy, but somehow less restrictive than the plate armor made today. Kasim had a suit of the ancient armor now, and liked it, but as hard as she tried, Xanthippe could barely move in the stuff. Anya felt this was because the men of those legendary times were far greater than those of today, and humankind had degenerated since then. Xanthippe was skeptical; Kasim could wear it fine, and besides, if a girl her size couldn't wear the ancients' heavy armor, that was hardly a sign of humanity's degeneration.
Tonight, Anya was not in her house, nor any of the other elder's houses. Looking around, Xanthippe saw a house with several burning lamps shining through the shutters; many female voices came from inside. The door was open a small crack, and when Xanthippe approached, it opened a bit more, and a young girl motioned for her to come in. Suspecting what might be going on, she told Kasim to wait, and went inside alone.
The house was packed with women, facing each other from benches in the middle of the room, or standing against the walls. The older ones seemed to have the benches, Xanthippe noted. Seating was probably determined by social position; it often is in tribal societies. Anya was there, standing at the far end of the room, smiling at Xanthippe. Malah was also there, seated at the head of one bench, but she was not smiling.
"I am so glad yoo have come," Anya said. "We are discussing the fate of Harrogath."
"The fate of Harrogath is not our decision!" Malah insisted. "And it is not something to discuss with outsiders, great and powerful though they be."
"It seems to me..." one of the other older women said, "it seems to me that the fate of our people may be decided by us. The council of elders is no more, and the warriors who might replace them have been cut down."
"Not all are lost!" Malah said. "The old ways were handed down by the gods, their curse will be upon yoo all if yoo abandon them. Have yoo forgotten the strength of our forefathers?"
"The prophecies say that the old ways will fall," Anya said. "They are difficult to interpret, but that point is clear."
Another of the older women, a big woman with a handsome mustache, stood and clouted Anya on the side of the head. "Do not speak of the prophecies in front of strangers! Have yoo no shame?!"
The blow hardly fazed Anya, though Xanthippe heard it from across the room. "The future will not be like the past! And what harm is there in a foreigner? She may have ideas, knowledge we can use to help ourselves."
"Yoo have never been outside of our lands." Malah crossed her arms and started hard at the opposite wall. "Outsiders do not even respect their own ways of doin' things. All are thieves, smooth-talkin' merchants, and lords livin' off others' labor. Honor, plain speaking, finding yoor living on the land yoorself... none of these things have value to the others." Looking up at Xanthippe, Malah snorted. "Beggin' yoor pardon, young miss. I know yoo've done many great things, but I speak the honest truth, and yoo cannot say I speak false."
So far, this debate had been very familiar for Xanthippe. She was reminded too much of the Zann Esu. None of the young women, besides Anya, had spoken. She was sure they were "allowed" to speak, but would be shamed and ridiculed for anything they said, unless they parroted one of the older women. And since none of them were speaking, they obviously didn't have anything to say the old women would like to hear. "There are people like that. I don't think I'm a thief, or a lord living off the fat of the land. Maybe I'm a merchant; I bring stuff back and sell it."
"No, no!" Malah looked aghast. "I wasn't speaking of you, miss! You've become a great hero, a true inspiration... though perhaps some of the younger women have been too inspired by your example."
That was accompanied by a castigating look at Anya.
"I don't see why she should be allowed here at all," another older woman said. "We all saw how she treats her man! Ought to be ashamed of herself, but is she? This one must not know shame at all!" "I'd have more sympathy for him if he'd the strength to stand up to her! He's a weaklin'. Who needs a weak man about?"
"No, he is not weak," Anya said. "He can wear the ancient's armor, when some of our own menfolk haven't the strength. And she always takes him with her, even when she went to challenge Nihlathak!"
"He's tiny! Such a spindly thing, and so dark and ugly."
"Well, she's a spindly thing, dark and ugly, and she defeated the Lord of Terror alone!"
"Hey!" Xanthippe said. "I happen to believe I'm not ugly." Her own opinions of these women, she kept to herself. They did look like horses; but the men looked like oxen, so that was all right. And maybe standing up to them and speaking her mind would get her some clout.
Malah smiled. "I am sure the menfolk in yoor lands think well of yoor beauty. Here, things are different."
Mrs. Mustache was glaring hard at Xanthippe. "I still canna believe yoo defeated the Lord of Terror. Yoo say so, and yoo are strong... but I canna see it bein' so."
"I believe it is as she says," Anya said, smiling at Xanthippe. "And I believe she will pass the challenge of the Ancient Ones as well."
That quieted the room down. Xanthippe had learned a little bit about the Ancient Ones, ancestors the Barbarians worshipped. A challenge from them would probably mean combat, to the death. That's the Barbarian way. Thinking about it, she realized she'd much rather be on the peak, fighting the gods themselves, than standing in this room trying to talk to these women. The old women didn't think she had anything to say, and most of the young ones wouldn't challenge them. So, she took up her halberd and spoke:
"It may be that I'm not worthy of speaking to this assemblage. I am a foreigner, and know nothing of your ways. My mind is befouled with strange ideas. And I have been treating my man very badly. However..." Then she frowned. "I am not here to respect you, or abandon my ideas, or apologize for being short, dark, and unblessed with the gifts of testosterone. I am here to kill Baal, before he destroys the Worldstone. Talking with you accomplishes nothing. I am going back to the mountain. I'll see you all after I've killed some gods."
The Ancient's Way ran under the icy cap of Mt. Arreat, so steep that steps had been carved into the tunnel floors. All the usual creatures were there, but the fights were getting harder. The air was so dry and thin, both Xanthippe and Kasim were constantly short of breath, and even after a short fight, they had to rest for far too long. Her lungs and sides hurt from all the gasping, and her stomach was constantly queasy. Still, they pushed upwards, climbing at every chance, until they reached one final stair with no more demons, and sunlight shining down from above.
The peak of Mount Arreat was a small, flat area, about the size of a large room. Cyclopean cliffs dropped off from every side, huge sheets of glacial ice making a surface ascent all but impossible. Xanthippe and Kasim could look down, over the long spiraling path they'd taken up Arreat's slopes, or up at the cobalt sky, where the air was so thin stars shone near the zenith, even in daylight. On the peak itself were an altar, surrounded by three statues, and a gate, closed and locked. Far inside the gate, Xanthippe saw a barbaric totem. Obviously, the Relic of the Ancients, left where they could see it... but just out of reach.
The statues were made of some kind of metal, tarnished with great age and covered with snow and ice. All were of Barbarians, who didn't look much bigger than the living ones. They did have heavy armor on, though, which automatically made them smarter than the Barbs of Harrogath. Runes on the statues' bases may have given their names; for the second time on this quest, Xanthippe regretted neglecting her languages. The altar had some writing, faintly visible through the snow. Xanthippe brushed the snow away; it was probably more runes, but her brain wasn't working well with so little air. As she touched the altar, three deep voices spoke in unison.
"WELCOME! WE ARE THE NEPHALEM, THE ANCIENT ONES, GUARDIANS OF THE KEEP OF THE WORLDSTONE. THE DEMON LORD BAAL HAS OPENED THE GATES AND ENTERED, NOT 10 MINUTES BEFORE YOOR ARRIVAL. YOO MUST MOVE QUICKLY TO STOP HIM, BUT WE MAY NOT OPEN THE GATES AT A WHIM. TO ENTER THE KEEP, YOO MUST FIRST DEFEAT US."
With a flare of golden light, kind of like the light made when she crafted Khalim's Will, the statues changed into three Barbarians clad in glowing, fiery-red armor. One had a sword and shield, another a huge axe, and the third two handfuls of throwing axes.
"Huh?" Xanthippe blinked in confusion.
"DEFEND YOORSELF." The swordsman smashed Xanthippe over the head with his blade; it really, really hurt. "WE CANNOT LET UP. YOO MUST BE WORTHY TO ENTER THE PRESENCE OF THE WORLDSTONE TO DEFEAT BAAL!"
Shaking her head, Xanthippe swore and parried another blow with her halberd. "Kasim! Get the axe guy."
"I'm on it," Kasim said, staggering a bit under a barrage of throwing axes. As he swung for the axe Barb, that same leapt high, high into the air, easily over Kasim's head. Must be the pure mountain air.
Then Mr. Axe came down, axe blade first. Looking up, Xanthippe suddenly realized her head would intersect with that axe in very short order, and that would be a bad thing. A quick teleport solved that problem, but then Mr. Sword went through her and Kasim like a rabid wolverine, smashing and slicing left and right with fierce abandon.
More throwing axes bit into their armor; Mr. Axe took to the air again; Xanthippe decided a change of tactics was in order. Teleporting to the edge of the cliff, she and Kasim chugged healing potions and conferred.
"Who do we concentrate on?" she asked.
"The thrower. He's the most annoying."
Teleporting back in, Xanthippe shot off a few quick bursts of Static Field, and she and Kasim began laying into the thrower. The other two came to his aid, but if they kept their feet moving and didn't stay in one place, they could avoid the worst of their attacks. Mr. Axe's move of choice seemed to be that leap; if you see him jump, just move before he lands, and he can't hit. Mr. Sword's rabid wolverine attack was basically a rolling charge, in a straight line; it was harder to dodge, but if they were careful about placement, he couldn't get them both at once again.
The thrower ran; a "tactical retreat," not scampering like a bunny, of course. Xanthippe and Kasim concentrated on Mr. Axe, and on a masterful impaling from Xanthippe, his body broke up and he disappeared. A golden statue of him reappeared in his place. The thrower came back and tossed some more axes as Xanthippe and Kasim lay into Mr. Sword. After a couple of full rejuves, he gave up the ghost too. The hardest part about killing the thrower was chasing him down. And they say Barbs don't run from a fight. After they sent the thrower back to his endless vigilance, they spoke again.
"YOO STAND BEFORE US, TRULY THE MOST WORTHY OF HEROES! THE GATES ARE OPEN TO YOO NOW, ENTER WITH OUR BLESSING. BAAL MUST BE STOPPED BEFORE HE REACHES THE WORLDSTONE; FEW ARE WORTHY TO..."
They probably said more than that, but Xanthippe and Kasim were already running through the open gate into the Worldstone Keep.
The Keep of the Worldstone was a magnificent place. The walls and floors were all huge tiles of stone, masterfully fitted like a giant's jigsaw puzzle. The solidity and grandeur of it suited Barbarians perfectly, though there wasn't much evidence that the living ones knew anything about stonework. Even the buildings of Harrogath looked old. If a lot of their knowledge of craftwork had been lost while they studied the arts of combat, maybe these ancient works had impressed them as the works of giants... or gods. Xanthippe was distrustful of tales of godlike ancestors, or anything people did to justify feeling superior to others. A lot of noble houses in "civilized" lands claimed great heroes or divine beings as ancestors; it was bullsh!t there, and bullsh!t up here.
Of course, the keep was full of Baal's creatures: Succubi and Imps, Minotaurs and exploding slaves. Xanthippe and Kasim simply ran past some of them, particularly the Imps, who were too time-consuming to bother chasing. These Succubi had golden skin and rainbow-colored wings, and were actually very pretty if you ignored the talons, teeth, and bloodlust. Maybe Baal had kept his favorite ones closest to himself. While going through a particularly large flock of them, Kasim asked, "Say, what were you doing in that house earlier?"
"It was a women's meeting," Xanthippe replied.
"Kind of figured," Kasim said, chopping a Succubus in two through the waist. "Wondered when you'd get back to liberating women."
Xanthippe laughed. "Not going to happen. It was stupid of me to think I could. You know, meeting these women, I think I understand why the Zann Esu took off into the jungle. They weren't just fleeing men, it was everything. Some of the old stories of those days mentioned women participating in their own subjugation."
"How did they figure that?"
"They didn't want to change the world. At the meeting, all the older women went on about being improper, shameful, not traditional. Shame is one way a society controls its youth. I'll bet in the old days, when the Zann Esu were all young rebels, the old women told them what they were doing was shameful."
Kasim laughed. "That why you never act ashamed?"
"A long time ago, I told myself never to be ashamed of anything I do. Once the Zann Esu established themselves, and got old, they started shaming their young recruits into behaving 'properly'. I do not like being manipulated." As the last Succubus died, Xanthippe paused to reflect for a moment. "Maybe I have been too harsh on the Zann Esu. They have done a lot of good, for women, and for me. It was hard to do what they did. I guess they're just rebels who succeeded. Some rebels, when they get to be in charge, make a system that's worse than the one they replaced. But seeing what they might have been rebelling against, I don't think they were that bad."
Kasim had moved on ahead, and found a group of Minotaurs, led by a fierce general. "What about the young ones? And how about a little help here?"
Xanthippe ran in and fired off a few quick Static Fields from the middle of the Minotaur horde.
"They might change... I don't know. I'm not sure if I'm such a good role model for them. Anya sure seemed to admire me, but I don't know if that's a good thing."
That surprised Kasim some; the boss had never seemed the kind for self-doubt. "Man, those Succubuses got to you more than I thought."
"It's Succubi." She chopped a Minotaur off at the knees. "And, yeah. I don't know what they saw in me, but they saw something. Some vanity, or jealousy, or just being a vindictive little witch." While they laid into the Minotaur general, Xanthippe laughed a bit. "Found out I'm not as strong as I thought I was the hard way."
Killing the Minotaur, Kasim nodded. "Could have been worse."
"Yeah, I could have gotten the boob job. I wonder if Succubi really can do that?"
"Maybe they just make you think you look better."
"Illusions, yeah. Disguises. Nothing real. You know, I'll bet the way they look while they're alive isn't real either."
Kasim nodded. "Probably not. They sure don't look that good after they're dead."
On a return trip to restock in Harrogath, Cain asked Kasim to go to Malah's and buy some antidote potions. Baal's preferred body shape was an enormous spider, and this might mean he had a poisonous attack. When Xanthippe tried to go with him, Cain caught her and quietly asked, "May I ask you something, alone?"
"This is none of my affair, and I know you have little time, but rumors have been circulating, as they always do. There has been some wondering if you have... feelings for Kasim?"
"WHAT? No. That must be about yelling at him over Anya."
Cain smiled. "I suspected as much, but wished to hear it from you."
Xanthippe looked around. Quite a few people, male and female, were quietly milling around, looking like they weren't listening. "I got mad at Anya, without any good cause, because everyone respected her so much and I didn't know if she deserved it. Kasim admired her too, so I got mad at him. I kind of like Kasim; he's not the sharpest spear on the rack, but he's dumb enough to tell me when I'm full of sh!t, and I think I need that."
Raising an eyebrow, Cain said, "Not everyone would choose that in a traveling companion."
"Hey, someone's got to. You have no idea how wrong I can be."
Cain chuckled, and shook his head. "And the Barbarians accuse outsiders of not speaking plainly."
Kasim came back with two potions. "Hey. Think this'll be enough?"
"Should be. Even strong poison's not that bad. Gotta run. Bye!"
As they jogged back to their portal, Cain went upstairs to speak with Malah. "Hello, Malah."
"Hello, young man," Malah chuckled. "Your sorceress is very close to her goal."
"Yes, she is. I only wish their battle were taking place outside the keep, not inside. Anya has shown me the prophecies, and according to them, the Worldstone survives. But prophets have been wrong before."
At the mention of Anya, Malah stiffened a bit. "Superstitious things, prophecies. Why should you listen to them, my fine fellow?"
"Prophets are often correct," Cain said, staring at the floor. "Sometimes, the only difficulty is the interpretation of their words. Anya came to me, because she was not sure how she should read the old predictions, and felt my council might help her. Qual-kehk had refused; it seems he does not think he has the wisdom to judge them."
"Qual-kehk has taken all of this so very hard," Malah tsked. "He should not be so angry with himself. The prophecies said our people would be swept away and lost in the great conflict. There was nothing he could do. If you believe prophecies, that is."
"Even good prophecies are useless without actions to bring them to pass. Perhaps I should go and see Anya again. She may have some more things for me to examine and identify."
As he approached Anya's, Cain heard voices inside. Now, Cain was not the sort to resort to spying, of course. However, in his many years of experience, he had found that some are reluctant to speak their minds if they know anyone but their intended audience is listening. People will say revealing things in confidence, and Cain never betrayed a confidence, even an unacknowledged one. Well... not never, but hardly ever.
"... and then she said, her man was not the sharpest spear on the rack, but he will tell her off when she needs it. Now, why would she say that?"
The voice sounded like a young woman's. As Cain listened, he recognized Anya's voice. "I do not understand. If she likes him, why does she not go to him? Instead, she insults him. If he has no wit, why does she think he can tell her what is right?"
"It is strange," another young female voice said, "but she defeated the Ancients. She must know of what she speaks, but I do not understand."
There was a long silence. Cain hurried off a short distance, then approached the house again, coughing a bit to announce his arrival. Two young Barbarian women left by the back, and Anya met him at the door. "Greetings, honored visitor. How may I help yoo?"
"Hello, Anya. I have a few moments free, and wondered if you had found anything more of the elder's stores of equipment."
"No, I think we have found all there was," Anya smiled. "But do enter, if yoo wish. Perhaps yoo could lend me more help with the prophecies."
"I would be delighted." The ancient Barbaric texts were very interesting, though the runic script was difficult to translate into modern terms. The same letter, in a different context, could mean something radically different, and subtleties of meaning were often impossible to extract. While going over the prophecies of Baal, Cain noticed that Anya was fidgeting, twirling her hair around her fingers over and over.
"Something seems to be troubling you, young woman."
"Och, no!" Anya laughed nervously. "No more than is warranted. The times are troubled."
"You are worried about our champion, as I am?"
"By the light, no! She defeated the Ancient Ones themselves, and they honored her! We all saw the light around the peak, and heard their voices proclaiming her victory! Baal feared the Ancients, so he holds no fear for her."
Cain nodded slowly. "Perhaps you are worried for yourself?"
"Yes," Anya said, very simply. "I do not know what the future will bring for my people. The prophecies say we will be lost, swept away. But I do not see how. The siege that would crush us was lifted; no demon comes near us. What could destroy us now?"
"Perhaps 'destroy' is not the right word. See here," Cain pointed to a passage. "This word could mean 'swept away', but it could also mean 'passed away'; the old simply dies. Your people live on, but the way they lived is no more."
Anya thought, slowly letting that sink in. "But... the only way the old ways could die... would be if we no longer guarded sacred Mt. Arreat."
"That might be so, yes..."
Anya suddenly smiled. "That could only mean that the Worldstone will be completely safe. The prophesies say nothing of its corruption, so Baal will not reach it. If we no longer must dedicate our lives to its safety, that can only mean it will never be in danger again! The forces of Hell will be permanently banished from our realm!"
"Now, not so fast!" Cain smiled. "I would love to believe that too, but these prophecies have been difficult to translate. They have been accurate so far, but only after a certain amount of after-the-fact reinterpretation."
"It is all clear to me now." A huge weight seemed to have lifted off Anya's shoulders. "The Worldstone will be safe forever. We do not need to dedicate our lives to it, as our ancestors have done. It is their final, and greatest gift: our freedom."
"Your freedom?" Cain asked.
The open smile on Anya's face quickly vanished; she looked embarrassed. "Oh. It is nothing. It is just... sometimes, I have wondered, what the rest of the world is like. As the chief's daughter, I've responsibilities, and could never travel out of sight of the mountain. There have been times, when it has seemed a burden to me."
Cain smiled indulgently. "I forget how worldly we must seem to you, and how confusing."
Anya nodded. "Some of your ways confuse me, a bit."
"I remember when dear Xanthippe became so angry with her hireling, for no apparent reason."
"Yes! She seemed so angry, but I do not know why."
Cain nodded, pondering which version of the truth would be the best one to tell. "She did not understand why you were so well-respected here, when you had not fought demons, or been able to stand up to Nihlathak."
"Oh, of course," Anya bowed her head. "He fooled me, as though I were a child. Blundering so, she would think poorly of me. Has she changed her mind, now?"
"Oh, yes, in every way. It no longer upsets her if her man thinks well of you. You see... I believe she thinks of Kasim as something like an older brother. Perhaps not very intelligent, but more knowledgeable in the ways of the world, and with a bit more practical sense. She does not want his head to be turned by... well..."
"By mere beauty," Anya said. "She is a beauty herself, she would know how easy it can be. As is right, I should have to prove myself first."
"Ahem. Yes. Something like that. Now, back to these prophecies..."
In the Worldstone Keep, Xanthippe and Kasim had quickly went down three levels. As they got deeper, they actually caught sight of Baal, riding an elaborate palanquin carried by huge Minotaurs. Xanthippe quickly ran in pursuit, but a horde of slaves, charged with explosive energy, gathered and blew themselves up as she approached him. When she'd gotten her bearings again, Baal was gone, and slave meaty bits were all over the place. Just what does Baal do to get such dedication out of his employees? No, that's not right; they're slaves, not employees, and probably don't have a choice. Never mind: next time, teleport. Remember, teleport! It's a very useful spell.
At the lowest level, in a central chamber, they finally found Baal waiting for them, surrounded by his sluttiest Succubi and his ugliest Minotaurs. Behind him was a reddish gate. Didn't look like he'd gone in yet, so Xanthippe teleported. Aiming right behind him, determined to block the gate with their own bodies, she and Kasim... reappeared right where they'd been standing. Damn, he was blocking the spell.
"Hey, wussy-boy! You any tougher than your brothers? Or are you gonna send your little girls to take me on instead?" Xanthippe shouted.
Baal theatrically cocked an eyebrow, listening. "Did I hear a buzzing noise?"
"Yes, great lord," a Minotaur answered. "An insignificant insect is disgracing your diabolical presence."
"I thought as much. Go and crush it."
Shrieking and bellowing, Baal's retinue roared into battle. The slaughter that didn't take nearly as long as you'd think. Soon, all were dead, but this didn't bother Baal at all. The giggling bastard was still blocking teleports, so Xanthippe and Kasim charged him.
With an arrogant gesture, Baal cursed them, decrepifying their bodies and wracking them with pain. With the other hand, he summoned more minions, a pack of... oh, the little shaman guys Diablo had sprinkled all over the Rogue pass. Chopping them to bits, Xanthippe couldn't resist a small dig: "Oh, how cute. Can't you do better than that?"
Deigning to notice her, Baal laughed even louder. "It is advisable not to break in such a special lady too quickly." With another gesture, a new group of monsters appeared: some Greater Mummies, with a bunch of Burning Dead mages.
For these, Xanthippe used Static Field a few times, smashed all the Greaters, and finally all the skellies. Good thing they'd brought antidotes, those guys had serious corpse breath. Then a bunch of Kurast council members appeared, though Xanthippe was sure there weren't any of them left. Oh well, at least Baal wasn't bringing in Flayers. The head councilor was lightning enchanted, but Xanthippe and Kasim both found sweet spots and killed him without taking a bolt. All the while, Baal sat up there, tossing off curses and more minions. Diablo and Mephisto weren't nearly this annoying. Maybe Baal was the "arrogant wimp" brother.
Next were Balrogs, as weak as the big guys down in Hell had been. The Minotaurs were more respectable, even though they looked less impressive. "Baal, Baal, Baal," Xanthippe shook her head. "You just don't know how to satisfy your 'special ladies', do you? Is that why you keep so many around? Can you say 'overcompensation'? If this is the best you can do, you must be hung like a field mouse."
The annoying laughter stopped. "Ooh, did I touch a sore spot?" Xanthippe asked with a big smile. Baal was still smiling, but it was a cruel sort of smirk; he threw down a new group of minions for them to play with. These were strange, fleshy things with huge teeth and spines out of every part of their bodies. Not sure what they were capable of, Xanthippe teleported herself and Kasim back, and tried to bring just one out to test. They hit harder and faster than anything they'd ever seen before; then the rest rushed in.
Taking on the whole pack would be suicide. Xanthippe teleported back a few times, hoping to string them out into manageable groups. It mostly worked; when she finally decided to stand and fight, there were only three of them to deal with. But that included the big one, whose touch drained spiritual power. Kasim nearly died twice, she nearly died three times, and her thunderbolts didn't strike nearly as often as she would have liked. When they got back to Baal's chamber, the demon lord was gone. They ran through the gate.
The Worldstone hovered in the air inside a huge cave, with a single causeway extending from a broad ledge up to the stone itself. The thing was huge, glowing with reds and purples, absolutely beautiful; slowly walking down the causeway towards it was Baal. "Ah! Isn't it magnificent! Don't you think so? I can't wait for it to be mine!"
"Get him!" Baal was still blocking teleports. As they ran around the ledge, long tentacles burst from the floor under their feet, hauling them into the air.
"Oh, dear, my shoe is untied," Baal said, stopping. "But wait: I don't have shoes! Silly me!" He continued his slow amble up to the Worldstone as Xanthippe and Kasim struggled and chopped their way out of the tentacles.
Rounding a corner, more tentacles exploded out in front of Xanthippe and Kasim. Baal lowered himself to the ground. "All this traveling is so wearying. I'd better rest a bit."
Swearing, hacking through the tentacles, Xanthippe and Kasim reached the causeway. With a gesture, Baal blasted them with a wave of icy cold, knocking them off their feet and back into the far wall. "Ah, that was refreshing! It gets so warm in these caves, I was about to lay down for a nap." He continued his slow approach to the Worldstone.
All manner of imprecations boiling out of their mouths, Xanthippe and Kasim split up and ran to the causeway two separate ways. When they reached it, Baal glanced back, and another Baal appeared in front of them. Their weapons bit into him; it wasn't an illusion. But after a few swings, the new Baal vanished, and the old Baal was standing next to the Worldstone. "I am *so* exhausted. How can I ever reach up and claim my prize?"
"DON'T YOU FVCKING DARE, YOU SORRY-A$$ BASTARD!!" They sprinted up the causeway and dove into Baal, just as he reached up, and delicately put one finger on the Worldstone. "You lose." As Baal laughed, veins of black shot through the beautiful crystalline purity of the Worldstone, with a sound like ice crunching and shattering filling the chamber.
They still killed him. It didn't take nearly as long as Diablo's death, or even Mephisto's. Kasim took one last full rejuve to keep alive, but Baal dropped, puking and laughing out his last breath, strange ghostly souls escaping his mangled carcass. As Xanthippe jumped up and down on his chitonous body, Tyrael floated into the Worldstone chamber.
"ABOUT FVUCKING TIME!" Xanthippe snarled, then remembered herself. "I mean, you must have been delayed."
The angel graciously ignored Xanthippe's greeting. "The chamber was blocked to me; my own abilities lose much of their strength, so close to the Worldstone."
"Ages ago, when we left your world, Heaven placed the Worldstone here to protect you. Its purpose is... was to prevent alien energies for entering this plane. Diabolical, as well as angelic."
Xanthippe looked at the tendrils of blackness lancing through the Worldstone's scarlet glow. One theory of teleportation is that it takes a mage out of the universe itself, to return them an instant later in another place. Maybe it wasn't Baal blocking her spell after all. He might actually have been dangerous, further away from the Worldstone. "What about now?"
"Now, Baal's touch has corrupted it, just as he and his brothers corrupted the soulstones made in its likeness. Over time, its energies would drain away completely, and it would cease to function as a barrier. It would become a lens, empty, but able to focus outside energies into your world."
"To make something like a gate, maybe."
"Or more terrible things. Once broken, the Worldstone cannot be repaired; replacing it would be all but impossible."
"But Heaven made one, can't they make another?"
Tyrael almost seemed sad. "Perhaps. If I am allowed to enter the gates of Heaven again, I shall petition my fellows for another." He touched the Worldstone, at the same spot Baal did. Whiteness sliced into it, filling the empty blackness, but the red energy the stone was filled with before did not return. "This Worldstone cannot be allowed to remain here. Whatever becomes of it would be inimical to your world. It must be destroyed."
A sharp crackle erupted from the Worldstone, as the blackness shattered a mote of redness within it. The white chased the black, filling the cavity. "What happens after that?"
"That, even I cannot foresee." Tyrael opened up a gate. "Go, mortal. This is not the end of your world. A wall between you and the fiery abyss has been obliterated, but all is not lost. I shall appeal to Heaven to forgive my blindness, and perhaps --"
"No," Xanthippe said. "We can stand up to Hell. If Heaven doesn't give us another stone, we'll just have to make do on our own, won't we? It's not like that's a bad thing."
"Perhaps. But nothing will be as it was. This gate will take you to Harrogath. Tell the people this: their duty is done, Arreat will no longer remain a sacred place. What will become of your world, none can say."
Xanthippe and Kasim took the gate, reappearing in Harrogath. Several Barbarians were there to greet them, but Xanthippe ignored their questions; she was staring up at the peak of Mt. Arreat. The ground trembled, and the town went quiet. After several seconds, in absolute silence, the peak of Mt. Arreat burst open in a flare of light brighter than the sun. The sky went dark, and tremors in the earth knocked everyone from their feet.
The earth shook for what seemed like minutes, the thick walls of Harrogath groaning and its buildings losing pieces of stone. When it stopped, and they looked up, Arreat had lost its peak, and a cloud was sliding down the mountain. Bits of rock, drops of water and ice, and reddish shards of crystal began to rain into the streets. Everyone took shelter, and no one spoke until it was all over.
As calmly as she could, Xanthippe explained what had happened, and what Tyrael had said. Reactions among the Barbarians were mixed; some wept, and blamed her for all that was lost. Others were more philosophical. Despite all they said, Xanthippe couldn't bring herself to care. She was tired, very tired, and just wanted to go home. Where is home, she wondered? Not here. While she was wondering if Jerhyn would rent out a wing of his palace (she knew she could afford it,) Anya quietly spoke to her.
"Are yoo leaving, then?" she asked.
"Don't think I can stay," Xanthippe mumbled. "I failed. I should go."
"Please, stay as long as yoo like. None could have succeeded. But..." Anya nervously looked down at the floor. "If yoo go, could I come with yoo?"
Xanthippe blinked. "Why would you want to leave?"
"I know what yoo'll say: I've responsibilities to my people. But I've been thinking. We were was the chiefs of Harrogath, we'd no clan of our own. We kept the clans united to protect sacred Mt. Arreat, and the Worldstone."
"And now there's nothing to unite the clans."
"I fear not. Our authority was the word of Heaven, and our ancestors. That is gone now."
Slowly, Xanthippe nodded. "You don't think your people will need you?"
"On the contrary, I think they will. But what can I do to help them now? Things have not gone as I hoped, but I know the old ways will pass away. I need to know a new way if I'm to offer any guidance. I need learning, knowledge, like you have."
Xanthippe was surprised by that, and a little alarmed; her faith in her knowledge wasn't what it used to be. "Malah knows a lot, probably a lot more than I do."
"I do not want to follow Malah's ways," Anya bowed her head, "as wise as she may be. I heard yoo say once, that yoo were often wrong. It may be wiser to know and say yoo are often wrong, than never to know at all."
Feeling a bit stunned, Xanthippe stared at Anya. "Um... I... heh." She started to feel embarrassed again. "Mind you, I'm lousy about admitting when I'm wrong."
"Yoo've a temper, I've felt it," Anya smiled. "But then it passes. Like a spark of lightning, it appears, makes a noise, and then is gone. It does not burn for years in yoor heart."
Xanthippe nodded. It was a fair description. "What will your people do while you're gone?"
"The clans may break apart, there is little to hold them together. Or, they may not; with so many warriors dead, we may band together in the cities for protection."
"You have other cities?"
"Sescheron, our capital, on the edge of our lands. Outsiders sometimes visit there; it is a grand city, though not so great as Harrogath."
Xanthippe almost laughed. To cover the grin, she picked up a bit of shining red crystal from the street, pondering it. "What do you think you'll see, outside?"
"Something different from what's here. They may think I'm ignorant and stupid; I'll bring a sword. There may be thieves and liars too, but I must learn to deal with them sometime."
Xanthippe laughed. "If you want thieves and liars, there's no better place than Lut Gholein. You can see where I was born. Then, I'll take you over to the Zann Esu. If you can deal with them, you can deal with anybody. You might pick up a good trick or two, too. And if you're going to see the world, you've got to see Kurast. I mean, if you think this is a city, you haven't seen nothin'. It kind of got trashed in the wars, but there's still a lot left. Oh, and the sea! You've never seen the sea, have you? Everyone should sail on the open ocean at least once in their lives. You might want a hat for the sun, I think pale people burn more easily... Hey, Kasim! Quit playing with the Barbs and get over here."
A few of the Barb women had been talking with Kasim. They sure had lost a lot of their shyness for him. Maybe they were worried about there not being enough young men left in the highlands. With some reluctance, Kasim broke away. "Yeah, boss?"
"Pack up. You're Anya's bodyguard now; don't touch her even if she wants you to. We're going home."
"Yeah." Xanthippe looked around Kasim at the young Barbs. "Want to bring any of your new friends with you?"
"Eh... well, they're ok lookin' while they're still young..."
"Sure. We can rent a wing of Jerhyn's palace. He's had hordes of young women in there before. If they want to go back, they can just use the waypoint."
"Whoa! You think we can live in the palace?"
"Kasim, I think I could buy the damn palace and hire Jerhyn as a butler."
Kasim frowned. "Then how come I never saw any of that?"
"Look at what you're wearing. You could buy a mansion for what that armor cost."
"Pardon," Anya said, "but you said you came from a desert?"
"Yeah," Xanthippe answered.
"How can a desert be so rich, that there are palaces there?"
Xanthippe smirked. "First, we go there and get settled in. Next comes the 'Economics 101: The Mercantile System' lecture series. You'll probably hate it, but that's what school is for. Pack your bags, grab some weapons, and keep your minds open. Things are going to get really strange. But who knows? Once you get used to it, you might like it."