Chapter 1: Legends
The land had healed. Anyone with eyes could see that. Where once rot festered on the ground and the trees teetered on the brink of collapse from decay, all this was replaced with a vibrant, flowing green. Yet as with all things, it could not remain pure for long. Marko pushed aside the growth with his boot, careful to avoid the blood. Even now it burned away at the soil, eating anything it touched. The steam rising was evidence enough of the recent bloodletting. A shrill cry filled the air, jerking Marko's head upward. Very recent. Unsheathing his sword, the warrior raced towards the source. Most would be headed the other direction, but it had been ages since he felt any fear at confronting goatmen. No, there was some fear. Just enough to keep him sharp.
It didn't take long for bodies to appear, or parts of them. Dead goatmen were strewn over the forest floor, their acidic blood burning a blighted patch for their final resting places. By now he could sense the other combatant and just how badly outnumbered he was. How fortunate Marko now evened the odds. His first victim didn't even see the sword severing its head and its scream was more a gurgle than a screech. Alerted, the others whirled around to meet this new challenge. Even this was too slow as Marko was already throwing himself towards his next victim. It roared a challenge but failed to even raise its axe before Marko sliced through its arm. Blood gushed forth from the wound and Marko twirled away from it, careful to avoid the spray. As he spun around, his sword slashed across the creature's body and nearly cleaved it in two. Not waiting for his opponent to fall, the paladin charged his third opponent. This one brought its sword to bear and attempted to decapitate Marko, only to have the blade snapped like a twig and Marko's weapon sinking into its neck. The creature's eyes glazed over and it tried to gasp, only to cause more blood to spill. A solid kick freed Marko's sword from the broken form and the paladin continued his charge.
Out in a clearing, a lone woman was surrounded by a dozen of the creatures. The pair of claws in her hands shone with blood as she danced amongst the slaughter. Marko had just enough time to admire the view before an axe came flying at his face. Ducking, he rolled aside and sliced upwards. A messy end, but it worked. The creature's dying scream attracted its comrades and several peeled away to face Marko. The warrior smiled. How convenient for them to all gather around him. A light flashed in his eyes before a bright blue ring swept out from beneath his feet. The creatures weren't entirely without sense. They immediately discerned what Marko had done but were too close to retreat. A sheet of blue formed within the ring as everything it touched froze solid. The goatmen fared no better and soon icy statues surrounded the warrior.
Marko barely felt any resistance as his sword swept through the frozen monsters. Cracks seeped out from where he sliced until each one shattered into hundreds of pieces, a clinking sound ringing as they crumbled. Once melted it would be quite a mess, but Marko didn't intend to stay that long. At seeing their comrades fall so quickly, fear began to overcome their bloodlust as the goatmen halted their advance. Hesitation turned into retreat and finally an all out rout as arcs of lightning burst forth from Marko's hand. A goatman that was too slow found itself enveloped in the blast. Blood barely had time to seep out before it was seared off, leaving a charred corpse in its wake. Even this lasted but a few seconds as the form collapsed into a pile of ash, scattering at the briefest hint of wind. Any thoughts of continuing the fight was quickly gone as goatmen tore through the forest, desperate to avoid meeting similar fates. Within moments even their screams and cries fell silent, leaving Marko alone with the warrior.
"Thank you," the young woman said between heavy breaths.
Marko nodded and looked her over. "You are welcome. You are uninjured?"
The woman nodded. "Just some scratches, nothing serious."
"Still, the weapons the goatmen wielded might have been coated with poison. I would suggest you seek aid at the Monastery."
"I shall do so. I thank you again for your assistance."
Deciding to follow his hunch, Marko asked, "Would you happen to be a Viz-Jaq'taar?"
The woman stiffened slightly but composed herself quickly. "Few know of our order."
A small smile crossed Marko's face. "I met a member while in Kurast. Her name was Natalya. Did you know her?"
The woman remained silent.
"Ah, I suppose you must adhere to your Order's rules. Do you need any help in reaching the Monastery?"
The woman shook her head. "I can find my own way."
"Then I bid you good day."
With a slight bow, Marko turned and wiped his sword on some nearby leaves. Anyone else Marko may have insisted on escorting to the Monastery, but something told him the assassin would prefer to travel alone, or at least not visibly in his company. Despite the brisk pace he set, Marko remained aware of his tail. Her skill was without question, but he had been stalked by far worse than a mage slayer in the past. Her exact position still eluded him as the slayer was making excellent use of the natural noises and motions of the forest to hide her own.
Unlike Marko's first trek through this forest, there was plenty of life surrounding him. Animals went about their daily lives, hunting for each other instead of craving human flesh. Here and there smaller ones rushed to make way for him instead of charging him. All in all, boredom was a perfectly reasonable price to pay for peace. Too bad the cost was often so much higher.
Moving back onto the main road, it did not take long for Marko to come across a train of wagons. The opening of the pass was proving quite profitable for traveling merchants and with the Rogues making regular patrols banditry was a rarity in this area. As such considerable traffic flowed through the Monastery, bringing with them a good deal of coin, goods, and most importantly at least for Marko, news. The world was a wide place and it paid to be as informed as possible. That way there were fewer nasty surprises that could bite you.
"Good afternoon," he greeted one of the wagon drivers.
"Good afternoon, traveler," the driver replied. "Headed towards the monastery?"
"Indeed I am."
"Well hop on, it would look quite silly to have you walking next to us like this," the man said, patting the seat.
"Why thank you," Marko said as he jumped on. "Destined for the western kingdom?"
The merchant nodded. "Aye, that we are. There're plenty of opportunities and the people west certainly have coin to spare. And they're certainly less uptight about things too, haha!"
Marko joined in the laughter, for he agreed. The eastern kingdoms paid a great deal of attention to etiquette and decorum, seeing it as a mark of civilization and evidence of their advancement. The western nations still remained more rustic and straightforward, which suited Marko just fine.
"So you came through the desert?"
"Indeed, from Lut Gholein. If it weren't for the profit to be made, I'd never set foot in that blasted sea of sand."
"Which is why I prefer keeping to forests myself," Marko said. "At least here you don't need to use sand to wash yourself. Though quite frankly, I'd prefer the comforts of civilization whenever possible."
"As would I, but I must go where there's trading to be done."
"And what do you carry for sale?"
"Salt mostly," the merchant answered. "Might not be as exotic as the spices and silks that come across the sea, but they fetch a good price wherever one goes."
"That they do," Marko agreed. "Assuming you can't get a good price from the Rogues, I'd recommend New Tristram. This time of the year, they always seem short on everything. Why, the inns were skimping on meals for their guests last time I passed through!"
"Are they now?" the merchant said with a chuckle. "Then I may pay them a visit. No reason to hurry back to the desert, after all. Thank you for the suggestion."
"You are welcome. Only fair after you helped save my feet."
The banter continued, with the two exchanging other pieces of news about the places their respective travels took them. Nothing was especially out of the ordinary, though there seemed to be some excitement in Lut Gholein involving Jerhyn. Marko was not terribly worried about his friend though he would certainly check on him on the way to Kurast.
It wasn't long before the monastery walls came into sight. The day was still young so the main gates remained open and he could make out sentries along the battlements. The sister that came to inspect the wagon stiffened and immediately saluted when she saw him and Marko returned it. His ride gave him a questioning look but said nothing as they were ushered inside.
"I thank you for your hospitality," Marko said, jumping off. "Fare thee well on your travels."
"Fare thee well on your travels."
By now word had spread of Marko's arrival and several groups of rogues were gathering to greet him. The Sisterhood was a disciplined order, but even they were susceptible to hero worship of sorts. Marko's humility did not help as it only made him more likeable. Then there was the majestic armor and flowing cape that framed his sturdy figure making him look all the more handsome. The attention was not without its complications, but so far Marko had managed to avoid any misunderstandings.
From amidst the crowd two rogues stepped out to greet them. Marko smiled as they approached and bowed slightly, a gesture they returned.
"Marko, it is good to see you once more."
A tough and to the point woman, Kashya's greeting this time was worlds apart from their first encounter. The rogue beside her flashed a wide grin and waved at the paladin. Flavie's disposition had brightened considerably since she first acted as a guide for the Companions.
"It's good to see all of you so alive," Marko said. "And this place so clean, unlike my first time here."
"I believe that was your fault," said Kashya. "Like a typical man, you left us women to clean up after your mess."
Marko simply smiled. There were too many memories to dig up for a retort. Instead, he shifted to a more present subject.
"Ran into someone in the forest. She may or may not decide to take advantage of your hospitality."
Kashya gave Marko a curious look. "Attracting more women?"
"Just playing hero and rescuing the damsel in distress," Marko replied cheerfully. "Which reminds me, this hero needs a good bath."
"Right this way," Flavie said, nearly pulling him inside. "You'll find many volunteers to scrub your back."
At this Marko let out an uproarious laugh. "Only if I pay with my life."
"Why, what else would equal the value of the service?"
Like Marko the young assassin hitched a ride on a wagon, but she did so with far more discretion. As the last wagon passed she quickly took a seat on its end, staying low to avoid detection and moving lightly to avoid jostling the wagon. Once the monastery was in sight she slid off quietly and watched as the rest of the caravan was inspected. She just barely caught a glimpse of the sentry saluting to her savior and hesitated.
Kari did not know who this man was, save he demonstrated exceptional skill with both sword and spell. Though she was too far away to hear any conversation, Kari could tell he was quite familiar with the rogues. The way he was greeted certainly suggested they held him in high regard. This, along with his acquaintance with Natalya, should have been enough for Kari to deduce who he was, yet part of her resisted that conclusion. It just seemed absurd that her savior was the hero of legend. After all, what twist of fate could possibly have happened for him to come across her at that very moment?
Deciding that staying out here would serve little purpose and seeking a warm bed for the night, Kari approached the Monastery gates. At the very least this man seemed to understand her need for privacy, so hopefully she could pass off as another adventurer. A sentry met her as she passed the massive gates.
"Welcome, traveler. What brings you to the Monastery?"
"I seek a bed and meal for the night," Kari said.
The rogue nodded. "A trading caravan is currently visiting, but I am sure there may be a few open. Do you require a private room, or are you willing to share with other women?"
"Private, if possible."
"Very well. A private room will be five gold a night."
Not an inconsiderable amount, but within her budget. Not even waiting for Kari to dig through her purse, the rogue waved her in and led her deeper into the cloister. Several wagons were parked in a circle and Kari could see other rogues bartering with the merchants. The barracks beyond were for the most part austere, but it did not take much to be comfortable after a long trek. A short stop for an exchange of coin and key and Kari was led deeper into the monastery.
A gentle warmth from the candles bathed the walls, making the otherwise cold stone feel homely. The pair passed plenty of others, rogues and travelers alike. After traveling alone for several weeks, civilization could feel overwhelming. Kari took note of each person she passed, not necessarily out of suspicion but simply to get a feel for the environment. The forests and desert she crossed to get here were very different from back home. The pace of life seemed faster, more hurried. Kari knew from her history lessons that the Western Kingdoms did not possess as long a history as the Eastern states, yet they had still managed to build so much so quickly. At the same time there was a certain appeal to the rougher manners of the Westerners, an adventurous spirit that despite the horrors visited upon them in the past, refused to be crushed. For that these people had Kari's respect.
"Here we are," the rogue said, coming to a stop. "You are fortunate, this is our last open private room. The one next to it was just claimed before you arrived."
Kari nodded her thanks but her curiosity ate at her. "Excuse me, but who is he?"
The Rogue blinked. "The man that claimed the room? He is the Lord Ramius, a champion of Order who aided the Sisterhood during our darkest hour. If you want to know more, I am sure Lord Ramius would be happy to tell you personally, as he is open to all who wish to speak with him."
"Ramius," Kari muttered the name. A very familiar name.
"If you need any equipment repaired, you can go to the smithy in the back. If you will excuse me."
With that the rogue returned to her previous duties and left Kari to her own devices. In the quiet of her quarters, Kari took off her armor and examined the scrapes and cuts. A few close calls marked her arms and even one on her side. The blood was long dry and starting to crust. Holding steady, Kari smeared each wound with ointment. Touching the cuts certainly elicited pain, but she was used to such minor unpleasantness. Better to suffer this than unexpected complications from untreated wounds later. A good night of sleep and hopefully she wouldn't be too sore tomorrow.
Her body taken care of, Kari examined the claws. There was considerable wear from her recent battle and even good steel could only last so long against the acidic blood of goatmen. She would definitely need to have them repaired. Bundling the claws, Kari locked the door and made her way to the smithy. Though her keen sense of direction prevented her from getting lost, she still needed to be pointed in the general direction. After that, the sound of hammers and growing heat were guide enough.
As expected, the smithy was a busy place as women went about their work. Upon entering, Kari was greeted by a cheerful redhead.
"How can I help ya?"
"I would like these repaired as quickly as possible," Kari said, handing her claws over to the well-built woman.
The smith towered over Kari but not due to any discrepancy in height. The woman was simply larger, thanks to years working hammer and forge. The claws seemed downright miniscule in her hands.
"Hmm, don't see these very often. Wow, these are in pretty bad shape," the smith said after a brief examination. "It'll take at least two days to repair all this, maybe more."
Kari grimaced. Then again, it wasn't as if she needed to be anywhere.
"That is fine, so long as they are fully restored."
"They'll be as good as new when I'm done," the smith said confidently.
"Well, this is a very nice set of claws so it won't be cheap. I'm thinking fifty gold, maybe more if something turns up."
The price wasn't too much of a shock as the smith was right. It was a very nice pair of claws. Still, this meant she would need to keep further expenses to an absolute minimum for a while. At least until she received her next stipend or found something worth selling.
"I'll give you an update tomorrow and a better quote," said the smith. "By the way, the name's Charsi, so just ask for me when you come."
The claws in good hands, Kari went off to fill her stomach. Thinking back, she recalled the rogue saying this Marko might also be in the dining hall. Perhaps she would meet him after all. Shaking her head, Kari cracked a wiry grin. Best to keep her head clear of such musings. When Kari did enter the hall, she found it bustling with diners. Surprisingly, the mysterious warrior was nowhere in sight. Squashing her disappointment, Kari took her meal to as quiet a corner as she could find. The life of a mage slayer was a lonely one by necessity. Get too close to outsiders and they may well become a liability. Above all else, a Viz-Jaq'taar must fulfill his or her duty against renegade mages.
"Mind if I sit here?" a voice pulled her out of her thoughts.
Kari looked up to see Marko standing before her. She mentally kicked herself at not noticing his approach. Delving into her auditory memory, Kari realized Marko had managed to blend in with the background noise. It was a skill all assassins were taught, but where did Marko learn it? Had Natalya revealed the Order's secrets to him?
Even as those thoughts raced through her head, Kari responded politely. "Of course. Please."
"Best place for a hot meal," Marko said as he accepted. "They may not look it, but the sisters here can make just about anything edible."
"You seem to be on very good terms with them," said Kari.
Marko shrugged. "Some friends and I helped them out during the Chaos. They feel they owe me a debt."
There was a calm surrounding Marko, so strong that even Kari felt at ease. Not only that, a sense of integrity and honor seemed to emanate from the man. Yet appearances could be quite deceptive.
"And what would cancel out the debt I owe you?" Kari asked.
Marko's spoon paused halfway to his mouth. "Now what makes you think you had incurred one?"
"You saved my life."
After taking a bite, Marko tapped the spoon against his bowel as he thought. It was a very typical sight, lacking any sense of grandeur or dignity. Was he really the one, the destroyer of the Prime Evils?
"Your name," Marko finally said.
"What?" Kari said, again distracted by her own thoughts.
"Your name. Since you feel as if you've incurred a debt, tell me your name and we will consider the matter settled."
Kari hesitated. "That seems…"
"Too much?" Marko said. "After all, I do understand your need for privacy."
Shaking her head, Kari replied. "No. My name matters not. However…"
"Ah. Well, value is a relative matter. I do not believe you incurred a debt when I came to your assistance. Even were you to, I would not impose upon you greatly."
It was a fair answer and one she could live with, at least for now. "Kari."
Marko smiled. "A pleasure to meet you, Kari. The name is Marko."
"Marko," Kari repeated. "Just?"
A chuckle. "Curious, aren't you? Well, as you said, the name matters not. I am Marko Lucious Ramius."
That confirmed it, as if any confirmation was necessary. It was a name Kari had heard several times before, including reports from a comrade in arms named Natalya. One of the Companions that slew Andariel, Duriel, Mephisto, Diablo, and Baal. The only one who survived the trials and tribulations of the journey that claimed even the life of her fellow mage slayer.
"I have heard much about you from Natalya," Kari said.
An eyebrow rose and Marko leaned in a bit. "Well, any friend of hers is a friend of mine."
Kari grimaced. "I did not know her personally. Though her reports did filter their way down to the rest of us."
"Ah," Marko said, the grin still on his face. "Regardless, in honor of her memory, I would help any slayer that needed it."
"May I ask you something?"
"Go ahead," Marko said, leaning back.
"According to the reports, you were originally a paladin."
Marko nodded. "That is correct."
"Yet you displayed a mastery over ice magic when we fought. What enchanted item allowed you to cast that spell?"
"None," Marko said, sipping his drink. "I do not know how detailed those reports were, but I am capable of using a wide variety of magic."
Though this fact was hinted at, Kari welcomed the confirmation. "I see."
"For example," Marko said, picking up her cup.
After blowing into it, he handed it to Kari who eyed it suspiciously. A coolness rose from the liquid and a sip quickly confirmed it was chilled.
"No incantations or hand motions? How is that possible?"
"I have seen many 'impossible' things in my journey," said Marko. "I will likely see even more before I die, assuming I remain sane enough to recognize the extraordinary."
Perhaps it was his frankness, but Kari felt she was being told the truth. Yet that very truth was disturbing all by itself. What horrible secrets lay buried in Marko's mind, what terrors were clawing away at his reason? As if sensing her questions, Marko offered a thin smile.
"The more knowledge you acquire, the more you question existence itself. After what you believe to be fundamental laws of this world are broken, your faith tends to break along with them."
"Was this before or after you left the Zakarum Church?" Kari asked.
"Hmm. I would say a little of both. More after than before. After all, humans fall to corruption so easily, so I was not terribly surprised to find it infecting the Church. Still, the extent of the corruption surprised me when I ultimately had to help kill the Que-Hegan, Sankekur."
"He was the embodiment of Mephisto," Kari said, digging through her memories.
Marko nodded. "If you will excuse me, I will defer any tales of the actual battle until another time. I do not think I could keep my food down if I went into detail."
That elicited a smile from Kari, albeit a small one. Apparently the rumor of Marko having an iron stomach wasn't true after all.
"So you can smile."
Her eyes darted up in surprise to find an amused look on Marko's face. His grin only grew wider as she scowled at him.
"Assuming you can tell me, where are you headed?" Marko asked.
That was a very good question. For the time being, Kari had no assignment so she simply wandered the world training. There were certainly enough other threats to keep busy.
"Nowhere in particular," Kari finally said.
"Is that so? In that case, may I impose upon you a bit?"
"Later this evening, please come to my room. There is something I wish to discuss with you, in your capacity as a Viz-Jaq'taar."
Kari's eyes narrowed but she nodded. She doubted Marko was playing around, considering his reputation and the high regard the rogues seemed to hold him in. If this matter involved her duty as a mage slayer, then it might be very serious indeed.
"Then until we meet again," Marko said, picking up his tray.
Kari did not remain seated for long, as she was also finished with her meal. After returning the utensils, she wandered the barracks and training grounds, taking in the sights. Most of her assignments were in the eastern regions and this was the first time she had ventured this far west. While Kari had heard much about the Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye, it was always enlightening to actually see them for herself. In the center of the Outer Cloister, Kari gazed at the statue of three Rogues fighting back to back. It was quite the work of art and also representative of the Sisterhood's ethos. All around her Kari could see more rogues moving about, some apparently preparing for the night shift. The rogues certainly weren't lax when it came to the safety of their home. Still, Kari wondered whether their inner sight would be enough to sense her if she cloaked herself in shadows. Best not to test that now, since she still wanted a soft bed for the night.
A few merchants still loitered about, hoping to make a little extra coin before the last signs of day disappeared. Nothing in particular caught Kari's eye, and even if something had, she did not have the coin to pay for it. Repairing her weapons came first. As she walked, Kari took note of the looks various Rogues sneaked of her. Word seemed to spread quickly, though that was expected with a Monastery full of women. Marko showing interest in her was more than enough to get rumors started. Still, if she remained discreet, hopefully the attention would die down before she left. Night was fast approaching so she returned to the barracks. Standing before Marko's door, Kari looked around to make sure no one else was around. She did not sense any onlookers outright but could hear footsteps all around. Taking a deep breath, Kari knocked.
The few hours after dinner crawled for Marko. After dropping off some equipment for repair he wandered deeper into the Monastery and came to the Cathedral. The first time he entered the place it had been a cesspool of depravity filled with various monstrosities. Back then, it was so dark Anjira had needed to light a ball of fire to help them see. That of course only lasted so long before she started blast them with abandon, trying to keep the monsters from overwhelming the party. The flames splashing off their targets offered Marko the first clear look of the chamber, though in retrospect he could have done with seeing less of it at the time. Now the windows were unblocked and candles made up for the twilight. Even with so little natural light, the stained glass conveyed their designs clearly and cast a comforting ambiance down upon the hall. A few Rogues and travelers were present, in varying forms of prayer even though there was no formal service ongoing. It really was a beautiful chamber and on par with those in Kehjistan. However, he had not come to admire the artwork or pray. Walking briskly to the back, he knocked on a side door. The elderly woman that answered smiled at seeing him.
"Marko, it is good to see you well."
"That it is Akara," Marko replied, embracing her.
"Please, come inside."
Closing the door after him, Akara ushered Marko into her office. A high priestess schooled in the arcane arts, Akara's skill had saved Marko's life many times in the past. However, even her abilities were powerless to save one's soul.
"How have you been feeling?" Akara asked as Marko took a seat.
"Heavy. Sometimes the pressure is so great it feels as if I am suffocating. But these moments pass quickly enough to not impede my daily life."
Akara wasn't fooled in the least. "The last time you visited, you never experienced such lapses. Here, remove the armor."
Sighing, Marko complied and waited as Akara placed a hand on his bare chest. He could feel a slight tingle as Akara probed his body and relaxed. Several moments passed before she removed her hand, worry written over her face.
"Your condition has deteriorated."
"That is not terribly surprising," Marko said, putting the armor back on. "We both knew it would happen."
"We both knew it was a possibility," Akara corrected. "It was hoped that those artifacts you carry would be enough to prevent, possibly even reverse your condition."
To that Marko could only offer a sad smile. "We also knew that was a long shot. But they have definitely slowed its advancement. Without them, I might well be bedridden by now."
"Possibly," said Akara.
"Definitely," Marko insisted. "So, in your opinion as a healer, how much time do I have?"
Akara huffed and moved to her desk, turning away from Marko. "You know I can't possibly make an estimate like that. There isn't enough to go on."
"Then guess." Marko rarely used this tone, especially with friends. When he did, he would broker no argument.
Sighing, Akara still wouldn't face him. "A year. Maybe less. It's accelerating."
Marko silently strapped the armor back on. The moment it touched him, he could feel its strength flowing into his body. It was not fear of a knife in the back that he wore it as much as possible.
"A passing traveler," Marko said, suddenly changing topics. "Kari. Have you met her?"
"No, I have not," Akara said, indulging Marko. "What of her?"
"I think you should have a talk with her. There is something about her, something that feels familiar." Looking at Marko in alarm, Akara waited for him to explain. "I do not mean she is a danger, I just sense some innate power in her. Perhaps it is because of her training, but there is something intriguing about her."
"Honestly," Akara said. "You know it is not polite to scare an old lady like that."
"Apologies," Marko said sheepishly. "Anyway, I should hurry back. I am to meet with her tonight"
"A rendezvous with a young woman, alone in your room? And here I thought you were a paladin," Akara teased.
"Huh? Oh." Marko's face reddened. "Oh come now, Akara. You should know me well enough. Have I ever touched one of your Sisters?"
Akara pretended to think about the question. "To their great disappointment, no you have yet. Still, to be young again. Now, hurry along. It won't do to keep a lady waiting."
"That I know all too well," said Marko as he made his exit.
If there was one modern miracle Marko was thankful for, it was the waypoints. Walking all the way back to the barracks did not appeal to him and would have taken too long anyway. Emerging in the Outer Cloister cut the distance down immensely. He had just rounded the corner when he saw Kari knocking on his door. She also noticed his approach and turned to face him.
"Lord Ramius," she greeted.
"No need for such formality. Please, just call me Marko." Unlocking the door, he waved for her to enter.
Like hers, this room was also fairly spartan. Marko did not appear to have much in the way of personal effects either and Kari could have easily mistaken it for her own quarters.
"Have a seat."
Kari did so, with Marko opposite of her.
"As a mage slayer, your duty is to hunt down and kill mages who have become corrupted by demonic power, no matter where they are found."
Kari nodded. That much was obvious without any words on her part.
"Right. Anyway, there is a corrupted mage that needs to be killed."
That caught Kari's attention. "Who?"
"We'll get to that," said Marko. "And killing this mage won't be easy, to say the least. It will take some time to prepare for the confrontation."
"Who?" Kari insisted.
Marko waited several moments to make sure Kari was composed. Only then did he continue.
"The who will become evident soon enough. It is the where that is important."
Kari blinked. "The homeland of the Barbarians?"
Or the former home. Kari knew that the summit itself was destroyed during the defeat of Baal and those barbarians that survived were in dire circumstances. These days, the barbarians did not even need to deter the curious from seeking out the mountain. After all, there was little enough of the mountain left to seek out.
"Such a crude name for a proud people," Marko chided her. "The Children of Bul-Kathos have watched over Mt Arreat for centuries, protecting its secrets. Whether your Order was even aware of what lay hidden under the mountain, I do not know."
Kari slowly shook her head. Natalya had fallen in the battle against Diablo, so the Order had little to go on regarding the exploits of the Companions at Arreat. All they knew was that something vital to the safety of Sanctuary had been lost, despite the defeat of Baal. Exactly what 'it' was, however, remained a mystery to the Order, a testament to the success of the barbarians in carrying out their duty.
"And what do you require of me?" Kari asked. "What part am I to play in slaying this dark mage?"
"That should be quite obvious. You are a mage slayer, there is a dark mage needing slaying. I was hoping for your assistance."
"A dark mage that not even you, the last surviving member of the Companions, can defeat, you who faced and slew the Prime Evils?"
"As a matter of fact, I cannot claim a kill on any of the Prime or Lesser Evils," Marko suddenly revealed. "The finishing blows were all dealt by one of my comrades."
That was another tidbit Kari wasn't aware of. Heroes always appeared larger than life, until you met up with them. Yet Marko's straightforwardness held a charm of its own. Again, Kari shoved such thoughts aside, though by now she knew they would resurface soon enough.
"That does not answer my question. You are still one of the greatest warriors alive, so why should one dark mage be of any challenge?"
Marko leaned back, a thoughtful look appearing. "Do you remember what we were called?"
Kari blinked. The simplicity of the question made it that much harder to answer.
"Across the lands, tales spread of the Companions of Order, a group of adventurers that followed the trail of Diablo and bested the Prime Evils. Of course, there are some who believe them to be sheer fantasy, but they still enjoy a good story."
"Your point?" Kari asked, trying to keep impatience from her voice.
The smile told her she failed. "My point is I did not face the Prime Evils alone. I had help. It was only because we fought together that my comrades and I triumphed. Alone, no man would have survived the horrors we faced."
Though he had gone a roundabout way, Marko's explanation made sense. "Then I am answered. And, as it is my duty, I suppose I will accompany you on this task."
"I am glad to hear that," said Marko. "How soon can you leave?"
"My equipment is being repaired," said Kari, "and I will need to procure some clothing for the journey north."
"Not if you want to sweat to death." At Kari's confused look, Marko continued. "We must first travel to Kurast, which will require a journey through the Aranoch to reach Lut Gholein. We won't be going to Mt. Arreat for a while."
"The preparations you spoke of?"
Marko nodded. "I need to gather some additional allies if this quest is to succeed."
"I see. Still, I must wait until the rogue blacksmith finishes repairs to my weapons."
"Fair enough. The caravan does not look to be preparing to leave quite yet, and I'm sure Charsi will be done when the time comes. If you have any other questions, my door is always open."
Taking that as a dismissal, Kari nodded and rose. "Then until next time, Lord Ramius."
"I believe I said you could call me Marko."
"Nevertheless, I would not dream of addressing you otherwise."
Like all good warriors, Marko knew when to retreat. Or not. "Very well. Then shall I call you Lady Kari?"
A tinge of annoyance surfaced but Kari ignored it. "Call me as you wish. I bid you good night."
With that, the door closed behind her, leaving Marko alone in his room. Smiling to himself, the paladin wondered just what the future would bring for the two of them. Still, something told him she was the one. Now he just needed to figure out a way to tell her.
The first thing Kari did next day was check the smithy. Not surprisingly Charsi was already up, pounding away at something. She stopped when she caught sight of Kari and flashed a smile.
"Hey. Had a good night of sleep?"
"As much as I can ask for," Kari replied politely.
"Good enough. Anyways, the damage wasn't as bad as I feared. They'll be done by tomorrow, you have my word."
"That's excellent," said Kari.
"So, what's going on with you and Marko?" Charsi suddenly asked.
Kari's eyes went wide. "What!"
"Oh, just that some of my sisters saw you going into his room last night."
That should not have been terribly surprising. This Monastery did house a warrior order, all trained in the various skills of war and intrigue. Combined with the love of gossip all women shared, the fact that Kari had been in Marko's room last night was probably all over the place by now. Apparently even her skills as an assassin were not enough to keep their prying eyes off of her.
"He just had some questions about my travels," Kari said. "My line of work takes me to many exotic places."
"Is that so?" Charsi said, sounding disappointed and unconvinced. "Well, whatever you say. Anyways, the cost should be around forty gold, so be sure to have that when you come pick these up."
"I will. Thank you."
Any relief at the condition of her weapons was overwhelmed by anxiety over what rumors were now spreading. During breakfast, Kari could sense the rogues looking over at her. Yesterday it was only a few of them. Today, it was all of them. She finished quickly and retreated to a more isolated part of the Monastery. Technically she could have gone back to her room, but there was not nearly enough space to practice in there. Either way, it provided some sanctuary from all the prying eyes.
Once she was relatively sure she wouldn't be disturbed, Kari began stretching. Her muscles still ached from yesterday's exertions but they would only get worse if she stayed still. The skills of a Viz-Jaq'taar relied on inner strength but also a strong body. Clearing her mind, Kari focused and began going through the basic motions of her martial art. A series of charge-ups followed by finishers comprised the display of physical prowess. Losing track of time, Kari continued despite the protestations of her own body. Eventually, the aches disappeared and a lightness pervaded through her. Her movements became even faster to the point where the human eye could barely keep up. How fortunate Kari did not rely on sight to know exactly where her hands and feet were. Those same senses alerted her to a newcomer. Resuming a more relaxed pose, Kari turned to face the approaching rogue.
"Those were some pretty fancy moves," the woman said. "Something tells me you're not just another mercenary in between contracts."
Kari tilted her head. "Is there something I can help you with?"
Though her tone remained polite, anyone could figure out what she really meant to say. The rogue simply smiled.
"The name is Flavie," the rogue said. "I wanted to get to know you before we left."
"We?" It wasn't hard to figure out what she meant. "Lord Ramius asked you to accompany him?"
Flavie nodded and sat against the wall. "Said something about gathering allies for some epic battle and since I fought with him all the way to Lut Gholein, he decided he wanted me along for this new adventure. And you can drop the Lord, no one who knows him calls him that. Too many bad memories associated with his time as a paladin, I suppose."
The rogue patted a spot next to herself, inviting Kari to join her.
"This means you never reached Kurast?" Kari said, taking the seat, deciding to satisfy her curiosity.
"No. When we fought Duriel in Tal Rasha's tomb, I was badly wounded. It was a month before I could walk on my own, so Marko ordered me to stay put and go home after I recovered. Can't blame him, since time was of the essence."
"You fought Duriel." Kari's respect for the rogue increased substantially.
"Well yes. I also accompanied the Companions when they defeated Andariel in this very Monastery."
Hearing this, Kari felt a chill run through her back. Intellectually she knew the demoness had occupied the Rogue Monastery at one point, preventing anyone from following the Lord of Terror. Yet here she was, sleeping in the same place.
"Where, where did Andariel reside?"
"Her throne room was deep in the catacombs under the Cathedral," Flavie replied. "We fought through so many monsters before reaching her, that all of us were exhausted. It was a miracle none of us were killed back then. Though the miracle didn't last."
Kari knew that all too well. "In Kurast."
"Hmm?" Flavie looked over at her when she fell silent.
"Marko and the Companions met another member of my Order. Her name was Natalya."
"Is that so? I've heard Marko mention the name before."
Kari nodded. "She accompanied them to the Travincal and fought with them against Mephisto. After their victory, no word came from them for some time. We eventually learned that Natalya had fallen in battle down in the Burning Hells. No one but Marko knows the details of what happened down there."
"So are you going with Marko to find out?"
A shake of the head. "I'm going because it is my duty. Marko told me that our objective is some mage corrupted by demonic magic."
"Oh?" Flavie said, looking blankly ahead.
"He has not informed you of our quarry?"
"Not yet. But I trust Marko. If he needs my help, I'll go to him even if he's trapped in the darkest depths of Hell."
The rogue really meant it, Kari saw. This was the level of trust Marko shared with members of the Sisterhood and the faith they placed in him. Allowing a small smile, Kari glanced up. So this was what being part of a team was like. It somehow felt good.
"Hey, let's go get some lunch," Flavie offered. "You must be hungry after all that exercise."
That she was. Though the brief respite had allowed the sweat to cool off of Kari's body, the energy she had exerted still needed replenishing. With a nod, Kari stood and followed the rogue back to the barracks. Maybe now the others would know Kari's late night rendezvous with Marko was strictly professional and leave her alone. Then again, the human imagination was capable of twisting even the most solid of proofs into whatever it wanted to believe.
"My scouts found the goatmen, but their numbers were so few that they were able to decimate them," Kashya said.
"Hmm? Is that all you have to say? Ever since the defeat of the Prime Evils, reports of demons have declined continuously. Should we not celebrate this fact?"
"I just find it very surprising that the demons would all meekly retreat back to Hell," said Marko. "And those goatmen can hardly be counted as demons. They are of this world, after all. Granted the major powers gathered together to purge the land of the monsters left over, but it all seemed too easy."
Kashya glared at Marko. Though she considered him a friend, he was by no means immune to her temper.
"Easy? Even after the defeat of Andariel, we have suffered heavy losses in retaking the land from these monsters." Whether Kashya was even aware of how close her face was to Marko's was doubtful.
"You know what I mean," Marko replied, hands raised in an effort to placate her. "With peace finally settling across the land, some people are beginning to forget the recent suffering. Those in regions unaffected by the destruction barely believed the news anyway. People are becoming complacent."
Settling down, Kashya returned to her seat. "Is that what worries you? Well, you can rest assured that the Sisterhood will be forever vigilant."
"Forever is a long time," said Marko. "Still, yours is one of several Orders I hope will continue watching out for the return of demons. But when that time comes, will the Sisterhood be able to stand alone?"
Before, Kashya would have confidently said yes. Before her best friend went to face Diablo in Tristram and returned, a corrupted perversion of her former self. Before the Order, her family, was nearly wiped out by Andariel.
"What are you proposing?"
Leaning back, a thoughtful look crossed Marko's face. "The Priests of Rathma, the Zann Esu, the Amazons, the Children of Bul-Kathos, the Viz-Jaq'taar, and the Druids. These are the other major Orders that I believe will play a great role in whether humanity survives the coming trials. Each individual faction is powerful in its own right, but all have fallen before the onslaught of the legions of Hell when they stood alone. Yet a handful from each, united as a single force, was able to best the demons in their own home, that of the Burning Hell."
"You refer to the Companions," said Kashya. "You wish to recreate it?"
Marko shook his head. "Remember that we too failed. We were unable to move fast enough to prevent Diablo from freeing his brother, or Baal from succeeding in his primary objective. After all, there was but one band of Companions. No, I have something a bit more ambitious in mind."
"Surely you don't mean to attempt to unite all these factions?" Kashya exclaimed.
"Not exactly. I've come across something interesting in my travels, something that I believe will ultimately allow us to face the demons on something like an even footing. But this potential must be found and nurtured if it is to develop into its fullness. One single group would never be able to succeed. But perhaps together, we might be fast enough to survive the coming darkness."
Marko's uniqueness was not lost upon Kashya, for it was during his time in the Rogue encampment that his talents began manifesting. At first it was showing an aptitude for the arts of necromancy, eventually culminating in the ability to summon a clay golem before the Companions left for Lut Gholein. When he returned to the Monastery after besting Baal, the new powers he demonstrated were as frightening as they were powerful. If that was the potential Marko was talking about, then perhaps humanity did have a chance.
"And do you see this potential in Flavie? And this, Kari?"
That was a very good question. While Marko trusted his instincts, only time would truly tell if they were right.
"What if I find someone capable of all that amongst your ranks? Would you object to me recruiting them?"
"So long as they are willing, I see no problems," said Kashya. "You've proven capable of taking care of my sisters in the past, after all."
"You didn't always think that way," Marko said with a grin. "In fact, if I recall correctly, you and Anjira were ready to throw me out the camp along with Gheed when I first showed up."
A slight blush colored Kashya's cheeks. "Gheed would have rightly deserved it. But perhaps I allowed the rumors of the Hands of Zakarum to have too much say in my judgment."
Marko sighed. "Hands of the Zakarum indeed. The Order seems to have fallen completely into disarray since the destruction of the Church. Well, no matter. That is all in the past and it is the future we must look forward to."
"I do believe we were discussing that before our reminiscence interrupted."
"That we were. There was something else I wanted to ask your permission of."
"I would like to center the army I am working to build here."
That caused an eyebrow to rise. "Here? In the Monastery?"
"Not in the Monastery, but close to it. Kehjistan is too crowded and the center of power for many factions that would interfere with my work. On the other hand, the regions around the Monastery are mostly unsettled forests. Its isolation would give my Order time to build its strength, at least enough so to stand against a demon invasion."
"You really think there will be an invasion?"
Marko nodded. "We've been fortunate to be left alone for so long. But mark my words, when the demons really do invade, it will make the actions of the Prime Evils look like a sideshow."
"Then it seems I have no choice but to acquiesce."
"One always has a choice," Marko stated. "Even when faced with certain death. You can either face it head on or close your eyes and pray for a quick end."
Giving Marko an amused smile, Kashya stood and began pacing. "You can be morbidly inspiring at times. Now that I've offered my cooperation, I believe I should at least learn more about what you intend, though in retrospect I should have done that before agreeing."
Chuckling, Marko said, "Why certainly. But I don't believe you'll regret your decision. Now, onto the details, and I'm afraid there are quite a few."
As the day passed, Kashya learned just how true Marko's words would be. After all, there was still much work to be done before the next step of the journey.
The past day or so had given Kari plenty of time to learn more about the illustrious Lord Ramius and while she remained impressed, in fact she was even more impressed, with his accomplishments, she found the man himself to be very unassuming. He treated others with due respect but was not so reserved as to tolerate outright stupidity or arrogance even as he remained open to those that wished to approach him. Perhaps the most surprising thing was how familiar he seemed to be with several merchants camped inside the Monastery walls preparing for the crossing. He chatted with them as if they were old friends and there was not a hint of avarice or greed on the part of the merchants as they dealt with him. It made Marko more human and likeable, a nice contrast from men with more ego than they knew what to do with.
However, Kari's primary interest was in how Marko dealt with the rogues. Surrounded by so many adoring women, she wouldn't have been surprised if several were Marko's lovers. Instead, she was surprised by the fact that none were. In fact, Flavie had burst out laughing when Kari dropped hints in her questioning.
"Not that some of them wouldn't mind," Flavie replied, "but Marko's never shown much interest in it." For some reason the rogue's contention darkened but she quickly shook her head. "Marko's a paladin and a very honorable one at that. He still believes in the concept of staying loyal to your partner, whomever it is. Even if he chose one of my sisters, he would not do so casually. She would have to be someone he genuinely loves and loved him back."
"And none of your sisters are that deeply involved with the Lord Ramius?"
Flavie shook her head, not even bothering to correct Kari on addressing Marko. "While he is friends with many of them, there never was a chance for it to progress beyond. I'm probably the most familiar with him, since I traveled with him to Lut Gholein, but I can't say I view him in a romantic manner. At best he seems like an elder brother to me, family like the rest of my sisters."
"So, are you interested?"
"Of course not," Kari immediately dismissed. "Simply trying to assess his character. He did ask for my help after all and I want to be certain I should aid him."
"Is that so?" The rogue did not sound convinced but at least she did not press the matter. "Marko has a strict sense of duty. He'll do what's right even if it's hard. When he and the Companions went and defeated Blood Raven, a former rogue captain that was corrupted by Diablo, he insisted on burying her properly after she was slain. According to the others, he believed she was as much a victim as those she seduced and should be laid to rest with respect."
"Honorable perhaps, but was it wise at the time?"
"Probably not." Flavie shrugged. "But there is a fine line between honor and folly and Marko seems to understand where it lies. He is dedicated and brave, willing to risk his own life for his comrades but also prepared to send them to their deaths if the situation so warrants. The burden of leadership has fallen upon him many times and he has yet to fail."
Though it was obvious the rogue believed what she said, Kari wondered how much of it was influenced by Flavie's admiration for the man. She had fought under his command so the rogue had firsthand experience with Marko's abilities but she had also survived under his leadership and against terrible odds. The resulting camaraderie would likely color any opinion she held of the man. Then again, Marko had fought the Prime Evils and emerged alive, even if he was the only one.
"So what has he been doing these past few years?" Kari asked. "From what I have heard, Lord Ramius has been traveling wide and far. One would think he could easily settle down wherever he wished and live like a king for the rest of his days."
"Marko doesn't want to be treated like a king," Flavie replied. "He always preferred the simple life. But as to why he keeps crisscrossing the continent, I do not know. We have not heard any new stories of his accomplishments so he hasn't been actively seeking out threats to put down. In fact, this little expedition north might well be the first."
"Or perhaps the task is so great that he has spent all this time preparing," Kari said almost jokingly.
Flavie frowned. "Maybe. But if that is the case, I hope he's got everything he needs. Marko's grown incredibly powerful since our first meeting. Anything that can give him such pause, well, we may well not survive the experience."
That was a risk Kari had long accepted when she became an assassin. Still, she wished Marko would tell them exactly what they would be doing so far north. The wastelands around Arreat were not easy to cross even before the destruction of the mountain summit. Its new name of Dreadlands was well earned.
"Well well," Flavie suddenly said. "It seems Marko is itching for some exercise."
Looking up, Kari saw the paladin walking onto the greens with several other rogues. Each wielded long quarterstaffs though Marko's armor seemed quite out of place compared to the light leather outfits worn by the women. Coming to a halt, one of the rogues stepped forward and bowed to Marko. He responded in kind and the two began circling. Twirling the staff, Marko kept his eyes locked on his opponent. The two suddenly leapt at each other, staves flying at the other's side. Sliding to the side, Marko avoided the blow even as he moved too far away to land his own strike. His movement did not stop and the man spun around, launching another attack as he twirled towards the rogue.
Tilting her own staff, the rogue blocked the swing and launched her own, exchanging a series of strikes with the paladin. Cracks sounded with every hit but neither managed to land one on the other. As their sticks met in the latest exchange Marko suddenly let go of one end and thrust forward with the other. The motion swung the stick downwards even as he sidestepped and flipped inside the hold of the rogue. A quick jerk pulled her forward even as Marko leveled the staff once more, landing a solid strike on her chest. The rogue grunted and retreated, stunned but determined to continue the duel. However, the momentary lapse proved costly as Marko gave her no chance to recover.
With every step the rogue took backwards Marko advanced with one of his own. Raining a series of blows and swings on the woman, he forced her to constantly defend with no chance of taking the offensive. The rogue was clearly outmatched but continued her resistance, her eyes remaining locked with Marko's despite the constant attacks. Finally seeing an opening she lunged forth, only to have the paladin jump and spin clear over her head, landing behind and sweeping her off her feet. The rogue landed hard and immediately scrambled to get back up but Marko's staff was quickly planted on her chest, pinning her. Conceding the match, her body went limp.
As Marko helped up his partner, Kari reviewed the match mentally. The paladin's movements were graceful and fluid with little waste. The man obviously knew how to handle a variety of weapons and was surprisingly light on his feet considering his build. Not that Marko was particularly stocky, but the demonstration of acrobatics seemed out of place for a swordsman. Instead of simply beating his opponent into the ground, Marko attacked from multiple angles to keep her off balance. While launching a frontal assault, he also created openings to allow the use of less conventional techniques. All this indicated Marko knew how to actually fight instead of merely how to kill. Standing, Kari made her way over to the crowd. The only way to find out was to see for herself.
Marko noticed her approaching and nodded in greeting. "Do you wish to join us, Lady Kari?"
"If I am allowed, Lord Ramius," Kari responded to both the greeting and the jib.
"By all means. Would someone please lend her their quarterstaff?"
After being handed one, Kari twirled the stick slowly. While she was trained in the use of all manner of weapons, she could not claim proficiency in all of them.
"May I break this in two?" she asked.
An eyebrow rose but Marko nodded. Focusing, Kari held the staff before her. Releasing the staff, her arm flew upwards and her hand cut through the center. The two halves clattered to the ground, the ends smoothed out. The gathered rogues began to exchange murmurs at the sight, apparently realizing just how out of the ordinary Kari was.
To her surprise, Marko too snapped his stick in two, even if his break was nowhere as clean. A quick bow and the match began in a very different style. As the two circled Kari twirled her left stick, watching Marko's eyes. Despite the movement they never drifted to her left side, instead remaining locked on her eyes. Deciding the tactic wouldn't work as it was, Kari improvised. She surged forth with her left foot, arm coming across as she swung at Marko's head. The paladin blocked but Kari swung upwards with her right, knocking aside his stick and resuming the strike from her left.
Leaning to the side, Marko allowed the stick to fly past his face even as he moved to hit it aside. But the momentum of her attack allowed Kari to spin around and launch an even faster one, breaking through Marko's guard. Bashing his sticks aside, Kari leapt forward and brought her leg up for a kick, striking Marko squarely on the side. The paladin staggered from the blow even as Kari tried to fight down the pain of the impact. Perhaps kicking someone wearing full body armor was not such a good idea after all.
The momentary pause by both ended in a deadlock as they resumed trading blows. However, Kari's momentary advantage was gone and she found Marko's guard to be much tougher now. As the warrior slashed down at Kari's head the assassin jerked aside, responding with a swing of her own even while dodging. A flick of the wrist and Marko brought his other arm to deflect the strike and resumed his own attack. Seeing no choice, Kari took off and leapt into the air, sailing over Marko's swing. However, the move was not entirely unanticipated and Marko reversed his swing, smashing into Kari's shoulder and knocking the assassin over.
Despite the bow Kari recovered quickly, chart wheeling back into her feet away from Marko. But it was obvious Marko knew how to fight her style, likely from sparring against Natalya during their time together. Crossing her sticks against her chest, Kari nodded.
Smiling slightly, Marko returned the bow. "Well fought."
Without another word Kari returned the sticks to their original owner, though the rogue looked unsure what to do with the two pieces, and rejoined Flavie to the side. Her companion had a wider smile on her face but still checked Kari's shoulder to make sure Marko's strike did no lasting damage.
"Apparently not enough so."
"You held your own against him," said Flavie. "That's more than most people can say. I've never seen that style before though."
"My order teaches it," Kari said, deciding to share a few things with the rogue. After all, they would be fighting together soon enough. "We specialize in the use of dual weapons and training with kali sticks is one way we develop coordination."
"Ah. The match was quite impressive, actually. Despite their short length, it seems these, kali sticks, can be very deadly in the right hands."
Kari nodded. "Their size allows one to wield them with great speed and having two weapons allows one to strike at multiple points simultaneously."
"Would you object to instructing me in their use?"
The assassin blinked and took a few moments to respond. "I do not mind. In fact, it seems as if your sisters have made the same request of the Lord Ramius. Shall we join them?"
"By all means." As the two women stood, Flavie patted her new companion on the shoulder. "Something tells me we'll be together through quite a bit before this is all over. But I think I'll be perfectly fine having you watch my back."
"Same here," Kari replied, flashing a smile of her own.
The room looked rather nondescript save for the giant throne of bones at the end but Kari felt a shiver run down her spine regardless. She was not one to turn away from the sight of gore and bones but something about the chamber set her on edge. Needless to say, the throne did not help.
"We decided to keep that here to remind ourselves of Andariel's desecration," Flavie said. "To remind us of all the sisters that fell to the demons and their corruption."
Kari nodded wordlessly as she followed the rogue further into the chamber. She had asked to see it, partially out of curiosity and partially to get a better sense of what Marko might have felt when he fought the Maiden of Anguish. That notion was becoming more and more ridiculous, as until Kari herself faced such a great monstrosity, she likely would never understand what the Companions had went through. But Flavie had, and the rogue did not belittle Kari's desire, even if she made a point of saying no one should want to understand the fear such a battle would have elicited.
"Kalos was our front man," Flavie continued. "He bowled right through the initial wave of demons and splattered quite a few into the wall. For a second I thought he'd rip right through Andariel as well." The rogue chuckled. "That turned out to be a bit too wishful when I watched her backhand Kalos clear across the room."
"And yet he survived."
Flavie nodded. "The landing dislocated his shoulder, but somehow he managed to reset it when he got back up. Good thing too, there were plenty of demons going for him."
The rogue paused for a moment, placing her hand on the cold stone wall. Kari barely noticed the shudder and wondered what memory elicited it. The rogue did not make her wait long to find out.
"Anjira managed to hit Andariel with a massive blast of lightning. It ended up roasting several of her minions to a crisp and even wounded the demon, but it wasn't enough. The fire golems summoned by the necromancers managed to halt her next charge, even if both were destroyed in the effort. But it gave us time to fight off another mob of demons. Which gave our necromancers a steady supply of skeletons to raise as cannon fodder."
Kari couldn't help but smile at that last comment. She had fought skeletons before and knew just how fragile the things could be. Even the sturdiest ones with armor covering their bones could be taken down with enough brute force and were easy victims for magic. To send them against a Lesser Evil would have been an act of pure desperation, but even desperation worked from time to time.
"Marko was actually blasting the demons with his own holy spells, but had to stop because he was taking out our skeletons in the process." Flavie chuckled again. "He was less than pleased with being so handicapped, but managed to improvise. See this giant crack?"
The rogue ran her hand across a massive crack in the wall and Kari nodded.
"He managed to trick Andariel to charge him and blasted her with a holy lightning spell right as she got close. The spell blinded her momentarily and she smashed right into the wall behind Marko. Also didn't hurt that he was able to hack off an arm in the process."
"Andariel must have been furious afterwards," Kari said.
"More like completely insane with bloodlust. After that she ignored the rest of us and went straight for Marko. In fact, I'd say that's the only reason we managed to get out of this alive. With her attention diverted, Anjira managed to find the time to summon a massive ball of ice. Andariel ran right into it and was frozen over completely. And you can imagine what happened next?"
Recalling Marko's little trick when he saved her, Kari nodded. "Who did the honors?"
"Kalos," Flavie answered. "They say barbarians are all muscle, and I say that's a good thing. Marko was still suffering from Andariel's poisons and none of the rest of us were what you'd call close range fighters. I'd hate to think how long it would have taken us to chip away at Andariel."
This time it was Kari that chuckled. "How many of you actually had the energy to even lift a hammer to do the pounding?"
"Point," said Flavie. "But that didn't stop us from dragging Marko's ass back through a portal to Akara for healing. I'm genuinely surprised Marko got off with no worse than a really bad fever, considering how strong Andariel's poisons were."
"None of you besides Marko was infected?"
Flavie shook her head. "The only other person to even be touched by Andariel was Kalos and her strike didn't penetrate his armor. Did put a big dent in it though. You should have seen him following Charsi around to make sure it was 'repaired with the proper reverence,' was his words."
"Men and their toys," Kari said, though she certainly understood the sentiment. "But still, defeating Andariel was no easy task. For that alone the Companions would have been celebrated as heroes across the land."
"But if the Companions had only defeated Andariel, there'd be no one left to celebrate them," Flavie said, grinning. "I suppose I should be glad that I never had to go further than Lut Gholein, what with how humid and hot the jungles around Kurast were, according to Marko. Much better to stay here in the cool and temperate forests."
Kari gave her new friend a long look but Flavie continued walking around the chamber with a big smile on her face. Finally breaking down, Kari allowed herself to smile and rejoined Flavie. The rogue had a peculiar sense of humor, one Kari knew she would fall victim to one day.
"So the Companions then set off for Lut Gholein?"
Flavie nodded but it was another voice that answered.
"Indeed they did. And we heard but the barest of rumors of their exploits until Flavie returned to us."
Turning, the two women greeted the newcomer. Flavie bowed slightly and Kari did likewise, both emulating her friend but also because the woman in question deserved the respect.
"Sister Akara," Flavie greeted.
"Sister Flavie. What brought the two of you this deep into the catacombs?"
"Kari wanted to see where we fought Andariel."
Kari nodded. "I will be traveling with the Lord Ramius on a mission. I wished to see with my own eyes the place where Andariel fell. Experiencing things with my own senses helps provide additional perspective, I have found."
Akara simply smiled at Kari's explanation before nodding to Flavie. The rogue bowed once more and vacated the room, leaving Kari alone with the priestess.
"Marko suggested that I speak with you before your departure," Akara said once Flavie disappeared.
Instead of answering, Akara walked deeper into the room and placed a hand on the throne.
"What do you feel when you stand in this room?"
Kari blinked, but did not let the change of topic irk her. From experience she knew that mages of all sorts tended to be long winded, the more so if they were in any way insecure about their craft. Something told her Akara did not suffer from such concerns, so the diversion likely had a point.
"I feel cold," Kari replied. "I sense something clawing at me, trying to pull me into the dark."
"A whisper, just beyond your hearing, tickling your senses?"
Again Kari blinked. She should not have been surprised, but a part of her had been unsure whether the sensations were anything but her imagination. Apparently there was more of Andariel left in this room than her throne.
"I've spent years cleansing this place, but I doubt the corruption will ever be truly erased," Akara said. "Evil is surprisingly persistent. It needs but a single thread with which to hang on and infect the rest of the weave. Most of my sisters do not hear the whispers as you or I do, but they still feel the unease whenever they near this chamber. That is why so few ever come this deep."
Turning, Akara gave Kari a level stare. The assassin returned it but said nothing.
"Since your arrival I have not felt a speck of magic from you, yet you sensed the lull of the corruption in this room. A remarkable achievement and one that suggests much about your talents. I am beginning to understand why Marko has taken an interest in you."
Deciding it was her turn to ask questions, Kari broke her silence. "And has Marko informed you of what he seeks my services for?"
Akara nodded. "How could he not, when what he plans requires the assistance of the Sisterhood? But it is not for me to tell you more. His proposal is, complex, and it would be better if you heard it from him."
"If he ever gets around to telling me," Kari muttered.
"Have you asked him?"
"All he's said is we're going to kill some dark mage up north. No further details."
A knowing smile appeared across Akara's face. "You have asked about the mission. But did you ever ask him about his ambition?"
When Kari's mouth opened to answer, she found that words would not come to her. The priestess had a point, so far most of Kari's inquires had centered on this mysterious dark mage. Marko had given the impression of working towards a greater goal, but she had not questioned him any further on that subject. Perhaps it was time to do so.
"Marko said he suggested you speak with me?" Kari asked, shifting the conversation back to her original question.
A nod. "He believes you represent something, a potential or a spark for change. He suggested I see for myself to determine my own opinion. I cannot say I agree with him, but I also do not disagree. Only time will tell what role you will play in the fate of this world."
"You presume I will have a role to play to begin with."
Akara chuckled. "A Viz- Jaq'taar was once a member of the Companions. It would be certainly fitting that another join Marko's cause again."
Kari was fairly certain she allowed nothing to give away her reaction, but one such as Akara could pick out even the most minute of details. There was little point in pretending when the priestess was already convinced of her conclusion.
"Did Marko tell you about me?"
Akara shook her head. "He mentioned fighting alongside an assassin while battling through Hell when he spoke of his adventures to me during his last visit. Identifying you as an assassin was not too difficult. After all, few orders make use of claws and your sense for corruption was most certainly not due to any magical talent. A simple process of elimination."
"Still, it does give me some comfort that you will be by Marko's side. Very soon he will have need of your talents, though I pray that that day is still long in coming."
With that last cryptic remark Akara nodded to the assassin and made her own exit, leaving Kari to ponder her words. The assassin was unsure just what Akara meant beyond the priestess knowing something about this dark mage Marko was hunting. Looking around, she shivered again at the chill of the whispering darkness. She still had questions, but finding the answers did not require her linger here any longer. With all due haste, Kari quit the room without a single glance back.
End of Chapter 1
Those of you who have read my previous works should recognize the characters. This is effectively a rewrite of my previous work, Master of Darkness. While the premise remains the same, this one will have a very different ending and overall development. I wrote MoD when I was a much less mature writer and the story started becoming incoherent as I got close to the end. To be honest, I didn't know how I was going to end it and the last parts just didn't make much sense. For Darkness Risen, I know exactly how I want to end it.
Currently I have major blocks of chapters 2 through 4 written, though chapter 2 requires finishing and I am still undecided as to whether I want to expand chapter 3. I'm leaning towards no because I do not believe there is any additional development that needs to be done. Chapter 4 is definitely not done yet. I also have the last scene for the final chapter completed, along with a partial epilogue. Considering chapter 1 is already over twelve thousand words, I expect by the time I'm done I'll be breaking the hundred thousand word count. I expect this to take about seven chapters plus an epilogue. I am toying around with perhaps adding a prologue later, but we shall see. Anyway, leave a review of what you think and if you have any questions. I'll answer them in the notes at the end of chapters.
Standard disclaimer: I do not own the Diablo franchise. I also don't know how much of stuff from Diablo 3 I will incorporate. I'm not really going to try to adhere to whatever storyline they cook up, but I'll definitely borrow stuff I find useful.