Author's note: Yes, I know, I promised, but I'm sorry! Extreme extenuating circumstances, your Honor:D Enjoy. I don't own Diablo, those wonderful, wonderful people at Blizzard do, and receive prayers from me on the Solstices.
I finished the cold milk and wiped my mouth on the back of my hand before handing the wooden mug over to the Sister who was running the mess tent today. She gave me a smile and a nod, and I had to admit that Kyleea's idea to take the Rogues with us for further training was having the unexpected side effect of softening the Sisters' automatic dislike for a... necromancer. By Rathma, I thought as I stepped into the dawn sunshine, I hate that word! All priests of Rathma treated the word 'necromancer' as a curse word, a vile epithet.
My pack was loose and empty as I picked it up from the ground in front of my tent, but for the extra potions that were well packed in its outside pockets. I returned the morning greeting of Charsi the smith with a raised hand, then pulled on my gauntlets. Today was the day. Kyleea, myself, and a changing array of Rogues had spent the last six days scouring the wilderness between here and the Citadel of the Sisters of the Sightless Eye searching for the Tree of Inifus. It had then taken Akara a further two days to decipher the strange symbols on the piece of shaven bark Kyleea had lifted from the leafless giant, during which our party of four had sought out and destroyed the spirit of an evil Countess whom had been resurrected in a shattered tower deep in the Black Marsh. We had gained a great deal of gold from the cellars below the tower, so much so that to Kyleea's surprise I handed two thousand gold pieces over to Akara for the welfare of her people. I did it not to gain anything from the elderly priestess, but to follow the dictates of my Lord Rathma, and preserve the balance of the Great Cycle of Being. If one has much, one does not hesitate to aid those who have little or nothing, a category that the Rogues definitely fell into.
After the fall of their Monastery, the surviving Sisters had been lucky to escape with the clothes on their backs and the weapons in their hands. Thanks to the efforts of myself, Kyleea and the Rogues we were taking out with us, trade was starting to flow again now that there were items to trade and sell with the small communities to the west of the encampment. In these dark days, everyone had use for weapons, armor and healing potions. The Rogues were trading for livestock, foodstuffs and raw materials, and their encampment became a little more secure, a little more comfortable, day by day. As an unexpected bonus, some of the young women from the farms further to the west had come to the Rogue's Encampment, thinking that a life of warfare against the monsters was preferable to the toil of farm drudgery. Each of them had come before Akara, who simply looked at them for a moment, then told them whether or not they were suitable to become a Sister of the Sightless Eye. Perhaps two in three recruits were returned to their farms; the others were turned over to Kashya for training.
The Rogue general and I had made a wary peace of a sort. She neither sought me out nor spoke to me directly, both of which were fine with me. However Kyleea was much welcomed at the general's fire, something I did not begrudge. My evenings were given over to the upkeep of my gear, meditation prayer, and learning new magical skills, something I found I needed more and more as the days went on. The further we traveled towards the Rogues' fortress, the more violent and numerous the demons and monsters became. So too did the dead. Or rather, the ravened, partially eaten corpses of the former villagers that relied on the Monastery for protection, as well as the bodies of the other Sisters who had also ventured into the wilderness. The Rogues we had been taking with us had stopped at every body, removing an identifying signet, so that the Sisters in the encampment could know the fate of their comrades.
The portal glowed with its swirling blues and purples, shot through with white lightening as I approached. Tanya and Serene, companions from a previous day, stood before it, checking their bows and belt knives for any signs of wear that would be fatal. But Kyleea was no where to be seen. I closed my eyes for a heartbeat, swallowing the sigh that the Rogues would not understand. They greeted me with bravado, knowing that we were headed for the demon infested town of Tristram this day, and all but ignored my golem and skeletal minions. I greeted them gravely in return, secretly relieved at the acceptance my minions had received. It meant that I could save my magical energies for other applications. I was about to lead them through the portal when Kyleea arrived, javelins in hand and a determined expression on her face.
"Good morning," I said calmly. She nodded back, jaw set, but face pale.
"Let's do this," she said abruptly, plunging through the vortex. Tanya gave a Rogue war cry and followed, with Serene hard on her heels. I trailed after with a concerned frown. If she was this reckless, she was going to get killed, and possibly take the three of us with her. After a moment of disorientation, the Cold Plains area spread out before me. There were none of the small houses that were scattered around other areas, possibly because of the religious significance of the Cairn Stones. They loomed in the distance, five stones set in a circle. We had scouted the area around the Stones the evening before as dusk drew in, and set our portal some distance off. No grass grew inside the beaten earth of the ring, but around it was lush foliage and well established trees, waving gently in the early morning breeze.
Kyleea had taken off at a trot for the Cairn Stones, and I hastily followed, giving silent thanks for the boots that allowed me keep up without expending as much effort. As much as my travels had strengthened me, there was only so much I could do for my physical well being at the expense of time more well-spent studying and expanding my magical prowess. I caught up with the Amazon, my minions galloping around us. Serene and Tanya trailed behind us, protecting the rear. It only took us a few minutes to reach the Stones at the pace we kept, and once there, Kyleea immediately took out the scroll Akara had given us, detailing the order in which to activate the Stones to reach our target destination.
Akara had told us that once, long ago, there had been many of these Stones scattered throughout our world of Sanctuary. Different sequences opened portals to different destinations, but with so many of the Stones damaged or moved, the corridors of power were limited. The portal scrolls we used were the same magic, and had supplanted the need for the larger Stones, but needed a detailed knowledge of the intended destination to work. That was one failing the Stones overcame. Kyleea was studying the scroll, ensuring she triggered the correct portal when she activated the magics. Moving confidently, she slipped from stone to stone, and in her wake they glowed and crackled with white and blue lightening. The Amazon finished her circuit, and a ring of blue fire surrounded the bare earth at the center, and the woman within it. Lightening lanced at the sky, and with a booming, cracking noise a portal appeared. It was shot through with bloody reds and garish oranges, and the very look of it repulsed me.
My ears were ringing from the noisy discharge of power, and so at first, I didn't hear the crashing of steel and bone from a corpse of trees to the left of the circle. When Kyleea started towards me at a run, I blinked, then spun and watched in growing alarm as Fallen Ones, small red skinned demons, began pouring from the trees. They outnumbered my minions three to one, and as I lifted my arm to cast a spell, I noticed the larger shapes of at least four of their Shamans behind them, stalking back and forth as they muttered spells in a non-human tongue. If that wasn't bad enough, another figure came through the trees, lifting an axe and shrieking a war cry. It had the form of a Fallen One, but it's skin was blue and gold, and it carried an aura of menace that the bodies of its comrades lacked. It finally dawned on me that the creatures were crying a name as they ran towards us, 'Rakanishu!" I would have placed money on a bet that the blue and gold creature was this Rakanishu they followed.
I surrounded myself with a newly won skill, one that wove a thorny armor that swirled about my waist, not only protecting me from harm, but causing damage to my enemies as well when they approached. It was a relative of Bone Spear, which I cast now, aiming for the closest Shaman, who was resurrecting the Fallen Ones almost as fast as they were being killed. My magic was not the only one crackling through the air as the enemy lobbed fireballs and the Rogues added fire and cold arrows to the mix. The cries of the living and the dead filled the air with their din, mixing with the crashing sounds of steel meeting steel and bone.
The Rogues sprayed arrows arrows across the area as Kyleea charged in, a shrill war cry bursting from her as she lunged and danced with her javelins. With my energy concentrated on defeating the Shaman I was focused on, I did not notice the gang of demons fall upon her, limiting her field of fire and swinging their axes and rusty knives. Neither did the Sisters, as engaged as they were with avoiding the bodies that would suddenly come to life beneath their feet if they didn't watch where they stepped. It was only when my target fell, with the help of crossfire from a skeletal mage minion, that I noticed the perilous situation she was in.
Thoughts raced through my mind as I tried to gage the scope of the battle. Three Shamans left, raising the Fallen dead and striking out with fireballs; the Sisters starting to shoot at the demons swarming Kyleea; Kyleea using her javelin to jab at the smaller demons within her reach; my minions scattered, killing then moving on from the corpse, who promptly rose, screaming war cries to attack again. Kyleea couldn't get out of the swarm of small red bodies, and the arrows of the Sisters were only holding their ground - and that was because of Serene's cold enchanted arrows. When they hit their mark, the monster would glow an eery blue; be slow and stupid; and when they died, they would shatter. A fast glance saw that I only had one skeletal mage minion who was equipped with the power to cast glowing balls of blue white cold magic. I had to make a choice, and make it fast. I could burn my mana, my magical energy, trying to raise the enemy dead and transform them into bone mage minions before the Shaman's could, gaining more cold enchanted missiles. I could also burn my mana creating Bone Spears to try and clear the field around Kyleea, but the magic that would kill the most wouldn't hold the Fallen Ones down permanently. Or I could kill the Shamans; ensuring that the dead would stay down; and this had the added bonus - my skeletal crew seemed to be getting the idea of attacking what I was attacking. All these thoughts raced through my mind in the time it took to blink my eyes. Saying a silent prayer, I moved into a better position and concentrated my energies.
I poured my magic into creating Bone Spear after Bone Spear, hammering and hammering at one of the staff toting, taller red monsters; the Shaman seemed to ignore the onslaught for a moment, only grunting and swaying under the impacts. The he turned to stare at me, and even over the distance that separated us I could see his eyes. The fires of true madness and devotion burned there. He shifted, then cast a fireball across the open ground. I felt the heat of it burn for a moment before it hit me, then it exploded in a shower that set the grass alight, destroying part of the bony armor that surrounded me and singing some hair, but leaving me mostly intact. I continued to cast, happily surprised that both a fire minion and a poison minion were joining me in the attack. A skeleton armed with a sword and shield lunged in, slicing with undead precision. The Shaman toppled as the poison and magical energy destroyed him. Ignoring everything else for a moment, I shut my eyes and drew upon my magical stores fast, lifting a potion of mana from my belt in readiness. After expending the energy on Bone Spears, I only had one shot at this. I opened my eyes, focused on the Shaman's form, and forced a skeletal mage from his corpse. I gulped the potion down in one long draught, shuddering at the taste, and in the moment it took me to feel the rush of restored magical power, I glanced around the fight again.
Kyleea was now in real danger of being overwhelmed. Three Fallen Ones had approached Tanya, and now Serene was distracted by her Sister dropping her bow and drawing her knife to defend herself. Then I saw something extraordinary. She grabbed three of the special arrows from her quiver, setting one in her teeth. They were fletched in blue and had heavy, barbed heads, and they sparkled in the early morning light. Deftly, as if she did it all the time, she put two arrows to the string, and a swirl of blue, white and green raced through the air above her head, the sign her magic was working. Serene never seemed to aim; here was no exception, but both arrows flew true, one striking a small demon in the center of his back, another being taken in the neck. The third was in the air as the others were still in flight, and took the last full in the chest. There was only another fraction of a second to see the blue glow of the cold magic dancing over the demons, then they exploded in shards of ice and began to melt and Tanya took advantage of their weakened state to slice true and fast.
It had only been a few seconds, but it had felt like an eternity until the tingling in my blood told me that my magical energy had been restored. Once again I forced out spear after spear, focusing now only on my target, one of the two remaining Shamans. The newly-fashioned cold mage turned and directed his fire as I did. Both of the tall red creatures were now alert to the danger, and with an intelligence most of their kind did not display, began to concentrate their fire power on me. Fireball after fireball crashed into my armor of bone, and I gritted my teeth and moved, trying to get out of their range. More and more damage was leaking through, causing the pain on a level I'd never felt before.
I was never taught in seminary or temple what the experience of being encased in quite a few pounds steel that is being rapidly heated by balls of fire was like. First it was almost like it got a little lighter, a little more flexible. Then the true pain started as the metal began to change color as it heated. Even through the heavy padding I wore to protect my skin and help absorb the weight of the armor, I could feel my skin begin to blister and I could smell my hair start to burn. Ignoring any hope of mounting a defense, one part of me hung on to casting the Bone Spears, as the other fumbled in the belt pouch, this time for a red potion, aptly and simply named, 'life'. I had to pause in my casting for a moment as I gulped it down, and when my eyes cleared for a second or two I saw we were only down to one left and that my armor was getting even hotter. I dived sideways, accepting the protest of fast healing flesh to avoid the last few fireballs. Two more skeletal swordsmen had joined the fight, and it looked like my minions were able to handle this one alone. In a desperate attempt to save himself, the Shaman swung a belt knife at one of my skeletons, but it was not enough.
As the corpse of the last visible Shaman crumpled to the ground the minions milled in apparent confusion for a moment, then shambled off to attack some more of the smaller demons. The tide of the battle turned now as the Fallen Ones seemed to be staying down when slain. I turned my attention to Kyleea, and saw that they were now made short work of the creatures that had sought her life. She broke through a gap in their ranks and raced a little way up a small hill. Making short, smooth casts, she killed and killed with one hand, while the other held a small red potion to her lips. Tanya and Serene helped her mop up, killing just as efficiently.
Yet some of the monsters were still getting back up, and my head and eyes lifted to survey the distance, trying to guess where the rest of the enemy was. I caught a flash of movement behind a tree, and there they were, not one but two more Shaman. I struggled to my feet and took off, ignoring the heat drilling into me from the steel casing about my body. There wasn't really anything I could do about it until the armor cooled; until then it was just a distraction to ignore. This I kept telling myself as I felt more blisters rise and break. I forced a jog from my body, and brought the enemy into my range. There I fell to my knees. I did not need to stand to cast. I reached out again, one hand towards the enemy, the other fumbling with another potion.
Another healing and mana potion later, the fight quieted as the last of the Fallen Ones dropped to the earth. I was only mildly warm now, but the armor would need quite a bit of repair, and I heard both it and my bones creak as I stood up, then knocked the dirt and grass off my knees. A wary glance, followed by a longer, more searching one showed the clearing to be still and littered with splashes of gore and bodies. The blades of my minions and the fists of my golem were red with blood, and I noticed in a distracted way that I had lost a few skeletons in the fight. Kyleea was staring around, still primed for a fight. I stalked towards her, saying over and over to myself that I would not yell, I would be calm.
At the exact same moment we both shouted, "What the hell were you thinking?" We glared at each other.
"Where the hell where you?" she demanded, striding over to stand close to me, veins corded in her neck.
"Where the hell was I? What were you thinking, rushing in like that?" I waved a hand at Serene. "And you! Letting yourself get distracted in the middle of a fight!" I clenched my gauntleted hands into fists. A dull flush lit Kyleea's cheeks, but she was still shouting at me.
"But you just decided to leave me to fight it out, or die!"
I hissed back at her, "You always kill the mages first, you fool!"
Serene added her voice. "That's good advice, death mage." I turned my head to see Serene with another arrow set in her bow, and this one pointed at me. For a brief moment the world was washed in red as I fought against a tidal wave of fury. When I spoke, my voice was strangely flat and emotionless.
"Point that thing somewhere else before you force me to do something you'll regret, little girl." My eyes swung back to Kyleea, and I lost the fight to keep my tongue in check. "As for you. You endanger more than your own life with this suicidally reckless behavior. If this is how you will behave on the soil of Tristram, I do not want you any where near me." Tanya uttered a little gasp, and there was a creak in the silence as Serene pulled back a little more on her bow. My eyes were locked with Kyleea's, and for a long, long moment, no one spoke or moved. I whispered into that silence, but everyone heard me. "You have a chance to face your greatest fear, here, now, on this day. I do not want to send you away. But I will not let you cause my death." My gaze did not waver from Kyleea's as I added, "You won't get a chance to harm Serene, as I'm going to kill her myself if she doesn't lower that bow in the next five seconds."
Another moment of silence followed. The Amazon's voice was strained when she spoke. "You can be a right bitch when you want to be." My answer was sharp and immediate.
"I am a bitch, all of the time. Don't deceive yourself into thinking otherwise." Kyleea broke the eye contact with a sigh and a roll of her eyes.
"I'll behave," she said, moving away to inspect the treasures dropped by the slaughtered creatures. "Just don't expect me to like it." My gaze shifted to Serene, who was lowering her bow and turning away. I let it rest until we were finished gathering up the items and coins left by the dead monsters. Then I moved to stand next to the Sister, outwardly amiable.
I spoke in a low tone, for Serene's ears alone. "If you ever point a weapon at me again, I will feed your rotting corpse to the worms. Am I clear?" She turned her head to stare at me, and spoke bravely enough.
"If you kill me, my Sisters would avenge me." I smiled at her, a particularly unpleasant smile.
"Yes, but before I do feed the worms, there are all sorts of things I can do, things you couldn't begin to dream of." The smile got nastier. "And I would survive your Sisters' vengeance, believe me. So the next time you point a weapon in my direction, make it a good shot, and hope to your Sightless Eye that you kill me." With that I gave her a friendly nod and headed for the portal to Tristram.