Chapter 6: Innocence/Ignorance/Iniquity
The first knock went unanswered and the party simply stood there for several moments before Marko tried again. After more silence, he glanced at the others.
"Anyone know how to pick a lock?" he asked, though his eye were on Kari the entire time.
"Are you certain you have the right address?" Kari asked even as she took out a set of lock picks.
"Unless there are two 'wizened old men that'll talk your ear off' in this city," Marko said, imitating the local accent in the process, "then this is Cain's house, and that's the inn he's apparently helping to manage."
"And you are certain he would not mind breaking and entering?" Kari asked, though she began working on the lock regardless.
"Unless you feel like sitting out here all day waiting for him to return," Marko replied.
Kari did not bother responding and took mere seconds to unlock the door. "There."
As she moved to open the door, a click sounded. The party exchanged glances as Kari tested the door, finding it locked once more.
"Well, it looks like someone is home," Marko commented.
"Perhaps the girl you mentioned?" Kari said.
"A girl so young?" Marko said. "Clever little thing, if that is the case."
"Can you not teleport inside?" Kari asked.
"Well, yes, though the skill generally works better if I can see where I am going."
Kari glanced at the various windows, though none offered a direct view of the area by the door. "That does not seem to be a problem."
"Yes, I suppose not," Marko said.
The paladin's eyes began glowing blue when suddenly his head jerked over. The others followed his gaze and quickly caught sight of an elderly man accompanied by a younger woman carrying a small girl. Marko grinned widely as he stepped forth to greet them.
Cain looked up in surprise at hearing his name called but quickly mirrored Marko's smile. He extended his hand and Marko clasped it tightly in response.
"Good to see you're still up and about," Marko said.
"And you as well, Marko," Cain said, almost beaming. "I hope you are well?"
"As well as I can be," Marko said in a gentle tone.
"Yes, I suppose so. Ah, but where are my manners? Allow me to introduce Gillian. She was one of my neighbors in Tristram."
"Good day sir," Gillian said, bending her knee slightly even with the girl in her arms.
"And this is Leah," Cain continued. "She is the girl I mentioned was under my care, though I do not know what I would do without Gillian's help."
The girl looked at Marko with wide eyes before burying her face in Gillian's hair. Marko merely chuckled at the reaction.
"Shy, isn't she?"
"Yes," Cain said. "It took a while before she became used to my presence. Ah, and you have quite the ensemble with you, I see. Flavie, good to see you again."
"And you as well, Master Cain," Flavie replied.
"And Fara and Greiz as well? My, to think Marko convinced you two to come with him this far."
"Well, the man pays good," Greiz said, grinning.
"And his need is great," Fara said, glancing at Greiz chidingly.
"And Asheara too!"
Asheara chuckled. "Well, what can I say? Marko promised me all sorts of adventure."
"And I am sure you will not be displeased," Cain said. "And whom would you be, young lady? I do not believe we have ever met?"
"I am Hikari Kusanagi, a sister of Natalya," Kari said, bowing. "It is an honor to meet the last of the Horadrim, Master Cain."
Understanding lit Cain's eyes and he nodded solemnly. "It is an honor to meet you as well, my dear. And allow me to say my thanks now for being there for Marko in his time of greatest need."
Kari nodded, though she was not quite sure what the elder meant. Before she could inquire further, Marko snorted.
"You refrain from revealing your full name to me for three months, and you tell Cain upon introduction?"
Kari nodded, keeping her face straight. "Indeed. I trust in Master Cain's respectability."
Marko chuckled and shook his head. "Perhaps we can take this inside?"
"Ah, yes," Cain said. "Here, let me get the door."
As he inserted the key, Cain paused. "Marko, did you attempt to pick the lock?"
"Well, Kari was the one that did the actual deed," Marko said.
Cain shook his head. "You never change, do you? Well, how fortunate I spent the coin for this enchanted lock."
"That explains it relocking itself," Marko said. "Clever."
"But not enough so, as the next thing you were likely to try is simply teleporting inside," Cain said as he opened the door.
"Well, Kari's the one that suggested I try," Marko said.
"I am fairly certain you would have attempted it even without a word from me," Kari stated.
Marko smiled sheepishly but did not deny it as they entered Cain's house. Looking around, Kari noted the mass of tomes neatly arranged on shelves or scattered on chairs and tables. So far nothing seemed terribly out of place from what she had expected for someone as learned as Cain.
"I say, this place looks remarkably clean and organized," Marko said.
Kari glanced at Marko. "You consider this to be clean?"
"For Cain? Most certainly. I expected more books lying about the floor."
Cain chuckled. "Yes well, you can thank Gillian for that. She cannot abide untidiness."
"And neither should you," Gillian said. "Honestly, how you ever lived in such disorder is beyond me."
"Hmm, I foresee much pain and anguish in my own future," Marko joked.
"And why exactly is that?" Kari asked.
"Well, considering you seem to share Gillian's sense of cleanliness, I can only presume you will make me pick up after myself in the future."
The look Kari gave Marko was equal parts amusement and equal parts irritation. The time they had spent together since leaving Kurast had allowed them to grow closer, even if the two had yet to move into the same cabin. Still, the paladin had seemed to take even more joy in riling her than before, something Kari found both childish yet also endearing. After all, Marko was simply trying to get her to pay him more attention, though Kari sometimes wondered if the paladin himself realized that was what he was doing. As such, Kari played along, sharpening her own wit along the way.
"Why certainly. If you intend to be a good husband, you'll need to be properly house trained."
The others burst out laughing and Marko simply shook his head, grinning widely even so. The man could at least take jabs somewhat gracefully, Kari had to give him that.
"Well, that is most unexpected," Cain said. "I suppose congratulations are in order."
"Not quite," Marko said, suddenly serious. "But thank you all the same."
Placing a hand on their shoulders, Cain held both in his gaze. "Treasure the time you have together and regret none of it. That is all this old man has for advice."
"I intend to," Marko said.
Kari simply nodded, but her gaze was equally intense.
"Now, please, sit," Cain said. "I'm sure you are all tired from your journey. Ah, just move whatever books are in the way, I can always find them again."
The party accepted his invitation and moments later Gillian reappeared with refreshments for all. Leah continued to cling to her, but snuck more and more peeks at the visitors.
"You've kept quite busy, if your letters are anything to go by," Marko said, sipping the tea.
"Yes, the Caldeum library has proved immensely valuable in my research. I had considered myself learned in the ancient lore, but there is so much in this world, far more than any one man could claim to master."
"But that does not keep you from trying," said Marko.
"No, but learning is a lifelong task," said Cain. "There is always something else for the mind to ponder, and it would be a waste to not do so."
Fara, Flavie, and Kari all nodded in agreement while Greiz and Asheara simply listened passively. Marko showed no visible hints of agreement or disagreement, though Kari felt certain the paladin concurred.
"What exactly are you searching for?" Marko asked.
Cain leaned back in his own chair and took on a more pensive air. "There is a prophecy, one that I believe foretells what is yet to come. If we can but understand it, perhaps the catastrophe it speaks of can be averted."
Marko frowned. "Another prophecy?"
Cain nodded. "Yes."
"Well, the last one regarding the Three certainly turned out to be mostly right, even if in hindsight."
"You are referring to the Prophecy of the End Times?" Kari said.
"Indeed," said Cain. "'Wrapped in the 'guise of man shall He walk amongst the innocent, and Terror shall consume they that dwell upon the Earth.' It is hard to ignore the accuracy with which those words described the Dark Wanderer."
Marko glanced at the girl. "Leah's father."
Cain nodded solemnly even as the others cast glances at the girl in surprise. Apparently aware of the attention newly focused on her, the girl hid again behind Gillian.
"And what is this other prophecy you speak of?" Marko asked. "Is it a continuation of the one about the Three? Or something else entirely?"
"I, am not sure," Cain admitted. "It does not appear to be directly connected to the Prophecy of the Three, but I would be surprised if there is no relation at all. Even worse, the prophecy is fragmented and I have yet to find all of it."
"Then let us hear what you do have," said Marko, "and ponder it ourselves."
Cain nodded, though Kari noticed a sense of restlessness and even hopelessness as the old man began. "'And in the end of days, Wisdom shall be lost. As Justice falls upon the world of men, Valor shall turn to wrath and Hope will be swallowed by Despair. Death at last shall spread its wings over all as Fate lies shattered forever.'"
A chill rang down Kari's spine as she listened to Cain's words, though she could not ascertain why. The prophecy was certainly disturbing, yet the assassin did not understand why it evoked such a strong reaction in her, especially when she did not understand much of it. The others were also silent, with the only sound coming from the kitchen where Gillian had retreated to with Leah. It was Marko that ultimately broke that silence.
"Interesting," the paladin said. "Is it my imagination, or were all the, aspects, embodied by the Angiris Council mentioned?"
"I thought so as well," Cain agreed.
"Which raises the question of whether the prophecy speaks of events that will befall the Heavens or Sanctuary," said Marko.
Cain blinked. "That, is a very interesting way of viewing the prophecy, Marko."
"Oh? The only thing relating to Sanctuary in that prophecy is the fall of Justice," said Marko. "Who is to say the prophecy has anything else to do with us?"
"Even if it does not, the fall of heaven would be ruinous for humanity," said Fara.
Marko glanced over at his fellow paladin. "In what way?"
Fara blinked. "Surely you jest? Were the heavens to fall, there would be nothing stopping the demons from invading Sanctuary."
"There is nothing stopping them from doing so now," said Marko. "The High Heavens have not intervened directly in the affairs of man since the Sin War. They remained silent both during the Dark Exile of the Three and their subsequent release. What makes you think the angels are the reason the demons have not invaded?"
"But-" Fara began but found herself unable to continue.
"Marko is right in that respect," Cain suddenly said. "The only angel to have lent us any sort of aide is Tyrael, and he did so apparently in direct violation of the High Heaven's edicts. Ironic, that, the archangel of justice would so flaunt the rules set down by his brethren. But at the same time, the silence of the Heavens is rather, disconcerting."
That Kari found herself agreeing with, now that Cain mentioned it. It was strange how she never gave much thought or questioned the role of the Heavens. Growing up, the angels were portrayed as champions of Order that sought to protect all creation from the demonic armies of Hell. But what the Heavens might think of humans and Sanctuary was not something she had ever pondered. Who was to say the angels were at all interested in the welfare of humanity.
"So have you found anything useful in deciphering that prophecy?" Marko asked.
"Sadly not," Cain said. "What I have found, however, are variations of this prophecy in many different tongues and from many different lands."
"Suggestive," said Marko.
"Were these prophecies all from around the same time period?" Fara asked.
"I have traced the earliest versions to shortly after the Sin War," Cain replied. "Beyond that, it is possible the variations that came after were simply reinterpretations of the original versions. But of those originals, their geographic origins were quite dispersed."
"Assuming they are the originals and were not drawing from an even earlier source."
Cain chuckled. "I have always admired that about you. Your unwillingness to accept anything at face value."
"Well, I figured anything that got me in trouble with the Zakarum orthodoxy had to be a good thing."
Asheara snorted. "As if that needed any effort."
"Indeed," Fara said, though the former paladin sounded far more remorseful than the mercenary mage.
"So what do you intend to do?" Marko asked.
"To continue my search," Cain replied. "There is much knowledge across the world, knowledge that I will not gain unless I seek it out."
"Are you sure?" Marko said, his concern evident.
Cain smiled gently and nodded. "I may not be getting any younger, but there is still some life left in these old bones of mine. And it would be good for Leah to see more of this world."
The others cast surprised look at the elder.
"Excuse me, Master Cain, but is she not too young for such a journey?" Fara questioned.
"For now, yes," Cain said. "In another year or so, I hope she will grow in understanding enough to partake in my journey."
"May I examine her?" Marko asked. "Considering Leah's heritage, it would be best to ensure there is nothing, untoward, sleeping within her."
"I, hope that is not the case," Cain said sadly but nodded none the less. "After everything that has happened, I pray that Leah can at least live a childhood free from the legacy of her father."
"As do I," Marko agreed solemnly.
"Leah dear, come over here," Cain called gently to his charge.
The girl blinked and slowly made her way to the elderly man, doing her best not to meet the eyes of the others. Cain smiled and patted her head once she came to a halt before him.
"My dear, my friend Marko would like to have a look at you. There's no need to be afraid, he and I have been through much together and he will not hurt you."
Slowly, Leah nodded, and turned to look up at the approaching paladin. Marko knelt down and did his best to smile assuringly, though the effort likely looked awkward. Extending his hands, Marko placed them on either side of Leah's head. To the girl's credit, she neither flinched nor drew back from the paladin, not even when his hands started glowing dimly. A few moments passed before Marko withdrew his hands and stood, giving Leah another pat on the head.
"Thank you Leah, I am done."
The girl nodded and scampered back to the kitchen, likely seeking out her nurse again. Marko watched her disappear and shifted into a thoughtful stance.
"Well?" Cain asked, pressing his friend for his conclusion.
"Nothing," Marko said.
The response only stirred confusion in the others.
"What is that supposed to mean?" Kari pressed.
"Exactly what I said," Marko replied once more in an unhelpfully vague manner. "I sense nothing."
"So she possesses no spark of magic?" Cain queried.
Rubbing the back of his neck, Marko frowned. "I suppose I should be more specific. I sensed nothing because my attempts to probe her failed."
Though the others' confusion deepened, something else stirred amongst them as well.
"What!?" Cain exclaimed, though his voice was more a rasp than a cry.
"I doubt Leah is doing it on purpose, but the moment my magic touched her, it simply unraveled," said Marko. "A remarkable trait, really."
Kari frowned. "Be serious Marko, how is that even possible?"
An eyebrow rose on the paladin's face. "I would think you would be better qualified to answer that. After all, your Order specializes in neutralizing magic."
That was true enough, though Kari found she had no more insight than Marko. "We use magical devices to cancel out other magic. We do not ourselves perform the feat."
"But would it be possible?" Fara asked. "Would it be feasible to duplicate the magic in your devices yourselves?"
Kari shrugged. "Perhaps. But since the Order is barred from directly using magic, I do not know if it has ever been tried."
"It likely has," Marko said. "Someone needed to come up with the magic in the first place before it could be duplicated in your weapons and tools. The question now is, why does Leah possess this talent innately?"
"You did say her father was Diablo's last host," said Greiz, "and her mother was a witch. Either one could have passed something on to her through blood."
"Regardless, overcoming her ability to cancel magic is not likely to be easy, and doing so without harming the girl will be harder still," said Marko. "It will at least be something to think about. For now, I see no reason to treat Leah as anything but an innocent little girl with a caring family."
Kari found herself smiling at Marko. His heart was what had first attracted her and he was showing it once more.
"That she is," Cain agreed. "Now then, are you planning on staying in Caldeum long?"
"Just a few days," said Marko. "We will need to return south to meet with Meshif again to travel east."
"Ah, I see. Well, I'm sure we can spare a few rooms in the inn for your stay. Rest while you can, my friends. Something tells me you have a long journey yet."
"Generous as always, I see," said Marko. "Well, I won't say no to saving a few pieces of gold."
Cain chuckled. "And I'm sure that coin will instead be spent at the bar, if Gillian has her way."
"I see nothing wrong with that," Marko stated.
The coin did flow freely that night, though less so than Marko may have liked with Kari keeping an eye on him. The others did not suffer such supervision and Greiz and Asheara both lived up to their reputations as mercenary captains. Fara and Flavie were more reserved in their relaxation while Kari barely touched her cup the entire night. With Marko's forced moderation, the former paladin instead spent part of the night at the card tables indulging in another form of vice. A friendly game was also a good place to hear gossip and news, and a game stayed friendly so long as the amount of coin involved stayed small.
"Bloody 'children' my arse," one of the players said. "They go 'round and 'round preaching and ranting and badgering people 'bout how they're all so good with servin' the light. Someone needs ta teach them a lesson er two about minding their own damn business."
"Someone did," another player chimed in. "Ye hear about what happened down in Kurast? Some of them Children decided to try and storm the Durance, but the Champion was there. He stopped them and ended up levelin' the place fer good measure."
"Nope, heard it from some traveling merchant," the second man continued. "Serves 'em Children right, tryin' to mess wit the Champion."
"Bah, that Champion stuff's just nonsense," the third player said as he finished dealing. "I mean really? Diablo? Baal? Mephisto? You gonna expect me to believe one man killed them all?"
"Not one," Marko said. "He's simply the only one that lived through all the battles."
"That's right," the second player agreed. "He's the last of the Companions o' Order."
"Even if he wasn't alone," the dealer persisted, "why would anyone believe these stories? I mean, c'mon, the Prime Evils walking the earth?"
"You weren't in Kurast when Sankekur went mad," the first player said. "If he wasn't possessed by Mephisto, then I dun wanna know what drove him to order the executions of so many innocents."
The dealer sighed as he looked at his cards, finding them to be more interesting than trying to argue with the other players. Marko allowed himself a small smile as he studied his own hand. This looked to be his last round, regardless of the outcome. He had enough for a fine dinner anyway and lingering any longer might see the kitchen closed down for the night. As the others threw in their bets, Marko waved to Gillian.
"Finally ready for dinner?" the woman asked with a bright smile.
"Indeed. Two roasted piglets, please."
Gillian blinked. "For just yourself, dear?"
"Nay, I am feeling generous tonight. One for these fine gentlemen as thanks for gifting me their coin, and one for myself."
The other players looked at Marko in surprise but the two closest to him quickly slapped him on the shoulders in thanks. Their gratitude even held after Marko won the last pot and handed it off to Gillian to pay for the meal. Done with game for the night, Marko wandered over to the corner where Kari, Flavie, and Fara were seated.
"Hiding from the crowds?" Marko said as he seated himself.
"Keeping an eye on a pair of drunken fools," Kari answered for them.
Glancing over, Marko saw Asheara and Greiz engaged in another drinking game with the bar's patrons and chuckled. "I will save you from needing to watch a third fool."
"That would be appreciated," Fara said, her smile more amused than serious.
"Hear any interesting news in your games?" Flavie asked the paladin.
"Some," said Marko. "Apparently the Emperor Hakan is arriving in the city tomorrow. Should have been paying more attention on our way here, otherwise I would have timed our own visit differently."
"You do not wish to be here when the emperor arrives?" Fara asked.
Marko shrugged. "Mostly a matter of getting out of the city quickly. Considering the crowds that have gathered to see him, and the increased security, well, let us just say I would like to avoid any complications."
"That does not really answer my question," said Fara.
"No, I suppose it does not," Marko said, grinning sheepishly. "I have no problems with the emperor per se, I would just prefer not to get tangled up in politics."
"And you believe the emperor might find a use for you," Kari said.
"More or less. And I am afraid I have far too little time to play court politics."
"You seem to have little time for anything beyond your mission," Kari muttered. "Do try to live what is left of your life, Marko."
"For your sake my dear, I shall," Marko replied with a grin.
The roast piglet arrived not long after and Marko began slicing it up. Ample helpings were placed on the women's plates, though Marko seemed to make it a point to horde the crispy skin.
"How long will it take to reach the priests of Rathma?" Kari asked as she dug in.
"A few days to a week," Marko said. "It all depends on how much traffic there is along the river. The last time I traveled there was by sea hugging the coast, but this way should be faster."
"And what do you expect us to learn from them?" Fara asked.
"Quite a bit. Rathma's followers know far more about the true nature of this world than many others."
Kari blinked. "Really? I find that hard to believe, considering some of the stories told about their beliefs."
Marko chuckled. "Such as?"
Kari thought it over for a few moments before responding. "Well, one I've heard is about Sanctuary being borne on the back of some great dragon."
"Ah, yes, I heard that one as well," said Flavie.
"As have I," Fara said.
Marko nodded. "Yes, that one is true."
The three women froze as their gaze fell upon Marko, though the paladin remained unperturbed and continued his dinner.
"What do you mean by it is true?" Kari asked for the others.
"Sanctuary is indeed borne on the back of the great dragon, Trag'Oul. He was a patron of Rathma and helped in training the first necromancers, though he has been silent for many centuries now."
"Wait, Marko," Flavie interrupted. "How can you possibly know that to be true instead of a myth?"
"Because I've seen him," Marko said. "Or would it be it? Not sure how one tells the gender of a dragon such as it."
"You saw him," Kari said dubiously.
"More or less."
The three women exchanged glances whilst Marko cleared off his plate and began cutting more portions.
"How exactly is that possible?" Kari asked. "You said Sanctuary rests upon Trag'Oul's back. Is there some pit deep enough to reach him?"
"An amusing thought, but no," Marko said after swallowing another chunk. "What I actually did was step outside of Sanctuary for a moment."
"And how did you manage that?" Flavie asked, incredulous.
"By opening a rift. Took a tremendous amount of magic to do so however, and I doubt I could repeat the feat without help."
Kari blinked but sighed a few moments later. "Well, you have been to the Burning Hells so I suppose that is not impossible."
"And what exactly did you see?" Fara asked. "What form did Trag'Oul take?"
Marko wiped his mouth and thought a few seconds before responding. "It was as if I were looking at a chain of stars, a constellation. Each star showed facets of this world, its past, its present, and even possible futures."
"Futures!?" Flavie blurted out.
Marko nodded, ignoring the shock on their faces. "Only glimpses though. The moment I tried to look at them, the stars shifted to conceal them. I suppose either Trag'Oul did not want me to see those, or it meant the future is constantly shifting and thus cannot be viewed in detail."
"And did the dragon speak to you?" Fara asked.
The paladin shook his head. "I did not stay long and I doubted the dragon was interested in conversation, considering…"
The three women looked expectantly as Marko's voice trailed off, but he simply smiled and shrugged.
"Well, I saw quite a few things while out there."
"You are not seriously considering leaving us hanging like that," Kari growled.
Marko chuckled. "Sorry, but regarding that experience, I have nothing else to say."
Kari's arm suddenly lunged out and she grabbed hold of Marko's collar. The paladin lurched forward in surprise and gave her a questioning look.
"You're hiding something," Kari stated.
"Of course I am," said Marko.
"Because that knowledge comes with a certain price," Marko said, "and I will not ask you three to pay it just yet."
Reluctantly, Kari released Marko and the paladin resumed eating as if nothing had happened.
"You do not think we are ready?" Fara asked.
"Not exactly. Well, no, if I am to be perfectly honest, none of you are ready. But to be perfectly frank, I have already set a task before all of you. I would prefer you not be distracted."
"That implies what you saw is serious enough to distract us from protecting humanity from both Heaven and Hell," Kari pointed out.
"Perhaps," Marko said. "It is certainly distracting me since I still do not understand it. Until I do understand its meaning, and until I establish that it has some relevance to your task, I will keep what I saw to myself."
"You know," Kari said. "Once we grow powerful enough, we too will likely be able to step outside of Sanctuary and see what you have seen."
"I look forward to such a day," said Marko. "At that time, I hope you will be able to understand what you see."
With those last words, Marko finished his dinner, leaving only the bones of the roasted piglet behind. Kari shook her head, both at his gluttony and at his obstinacy, but there seemed little point in pressing him further. Marko had obviously been shaken by whatever he had seen, but he had trusted them enough to at least make mention of it. For now, that was enough for Kari.
Kari had little trouble waking up at her usual time the next morning, though Greiz and Asheara were still sleeping off last night's festivities. Marko had no such excuse but likely would have slept as late as the pair had the assassin not hauled him out of bed.
"Whatever happened to early to bed and early to rise?" Kari asked as she went through some basic forms with the paladin.
"We did not do early to bed last night," Marko retorted, "as such I saw little reason to attempt early to rise."
That might have been true, but the paladin was keeping pace with Kari's motions. His movement was crisp and smooth with little waste and Kari could find little to criticize. Marko would have made a fine Viz-Jaq'taar had things turned out differently. Instead, he simply served as an excellent training partner for Kari.
"I have heard that your order's martial arts were influenced by that of the Shaptev monks," Marko said as they paused after their stretches and warm up.
"To an extent," Kari replied. "Our styles have a common ancestry, but the two have diverged significantly in emphasis. The monks exert themselves against the outer world. We strive for a more, subtle and efficient lethality."
"Kill as many as quickly as possible?" Marko remarked.
"You left out as quietly as possible," said Kari. "For example, the way the monks use katars or claws is very different. They effectively seek to dismember an opponent. We seek to kill an opponent with the first strike instead of relying on repeated cuts."
"Sounds like a sound strategy. Do you know why the monks do not follow a similar strategy?"
"Two reasons, as far as I understand," Kari began. "First, both Orders were seeking an effective way to counter armor without relying on heavy and cumbersome weapons. The monks developed ways of simply destroying the armor in order to directly attack their opponent. My Order sought to exploit weaknesses in the armor first, to cripple an opponent as quickly as possible. Both approaches have merit and are simply two different solutions to the same problem."
Marko nodded in agreement. "And the second reason?"
"Simplistically, the purpose of our respective Orders," Kari stated. "The Shaptev monks seek enlightenment by improving their bodies. Thus they have a spiritual motive for pushing their abilities to such extremes. We assassins are much more practically minded. Our one and only objective is to hunt down rogue mages and kill them. We thus sought the most efficient way of doing this and rely on much more than just brute strength or quick reflexes."
"An interesting divergence," Marko said, picking up a quarterstaff. "I have actually sparred with a Shaptev monk in the past. She was quick, strong, and highly adaptable, but was unable to withstand too many blows if one was able to land them."
Kari raised an eyebrow. "And where did you encounter this monk?"
"It was actually after the destruction of Arreat," Marko said. "I was making my way south to Bastion's Keep and found the monk fighting against some stragglers of Baal's army. I pulled her out of that mess and helped her get to the Keep."
"Her," Kari said.
Marko chuckled. "We parted ways soon after that. She had some mission to see to, and I was too tired of the eternal conflict to offer any further help. But during that time, I taught her what I had learned fighting demons and we sparred to help her put the lessons into practice."
"I see that you will come to anyone's aide."
The paladin shrugged and twirled the staff. "I can only help so many, but if I see an injustice or someone in peril, to do nothing would be a sin."
Kari looked down at her own staff in thought. "You have a strong moral compass, Marko. But do you following it unthinkingly?"
This time it was Marko's turn to raise an eyebrow. "Have I erred in some way in your judgment?"
Without warning Kari's staff lashed out and it was only instinct that kept it from smashing into Marko's head.
"Erred? Not yet," the assassin said as she continued to press down her staff. "But I cannot help wonder if you will even realize it when you do."
Drawing back, Kari began circling around the paladin, looking for additional openings. Marko did the same and seemed to find one first as he suddenly lunged forward. Kari parried the strike easily and blocked the roundhouse follow up. The paladin however used the momentum from the block to spin around and executed a hook kick. Kari ducked and charged in from below, gambling she could block the staff thrusting towards her as Marko finished spinning. That turned out to unnecessary as she made it side Marko's guard before he could get the staff out far enough. Despite her smaller frame, the speed of Kari's impact easily sent Marko reeling back even as her staff flipped over to come crashing down on his head.
With little else available, Marko raised an arm to block the blow only to see Kari use the halted staff as a pivot to flip over him. Landing behind, Kari hopped backward and landed an elbow blow to Marko's side as he hurried to turn around. Now staggering badly, Marko was unable to put up his guard as Kari jumped again, using the leap to bring more momentum to the finishing strike with her staff. The thud that followed was not the satisfying crack that Kari was expecting as Marko turned his own stumbles to his advantage and rolled away.
"Few can tell when they have personally erred," Marko said, his breathing even despite his previous exertions. "That is what friends and family are for."
"But will you listen to us when that time comes?" Kari asked.
"I do believe it would be your duty to make me listen," Marko said.
Before Kari could respond, the paladin charged in once more. The side strike was blocked easily but Marko simply ignored Kari's counterattack and went for a second blow. Her guard open, Kari took off and leapt over Marko's attack only to have the paladin intentionally maneuver himself below her. Thus positioned, his next strike landed squarely in her chest and knocked the wind out of the assassin. Kari landed with a thud and was quickly pinned by Marko's staff.
"I believe this match is mine," Marko said triumphantly.
"You forget yourself, Sir Ramius," Kari said from behind Marko. "An assassin always cheats."
The shadow clone under Marko's staff disappeared and the paladin shook his head with a wiry smile.
"And from what I have seen, you will have little difficulty keeping me in line," he said. "I concede."
Kari retracted her staff from against Marko's back in silence. Again the paladin made many valid points, but she felt uncomfortable leaving the matter as it was. Before she could dig deeper however, several guards entered the yard and halted before the two.
"Are you the one called Markus Ramius?" the lead guard asked.
Marko's expression was one of irritation and dissatisfaction, Kari could tell. Not surprising as he had hoped to leave the city before his presence was discovered by the authorities.
"I am," Marko said, answering truthfully regardless.
The guard saluted. "I am Captain Vern of the Caldeum Guard. The Emperor has ordered that you be brought before him."
Marko frowned. "For what reason?"
"He wishes to speak with you," the guard said. "Beyond that, I do not know."
"And does the Emperor expect this conversation to be long?"
This time it was the guard captain that frowned. "As I have said, I know nothing beyond the Emperor's wish to speak with you. It would be wise to grant that wish."
"We shall see," Marko said. "You may wait here, Captain. I doubt the Emperor or his court wants me or my companion showing up like this."
Both Vern and Kari blinked in surprise, though the guard captain was the one that spoke.
"The Emperor only requested your presence."
"Are you saying that he forbid me from bringing others?"
"Well, no but-"
"Then I see no problem," said Marko. "Unless you wish to take the time to seek clarification?"
Vern scowled but eventually nodded for Marko to go and freshen up. As the two entered the inn, Kari voiced her own thoughts.
"Do you wish for the others to come as well?"
"No, just you," Marko said. "They are likely to not let us take too many visible weapons into the palace, making you the best suited for accompanying me in case problems arise."
"Do you have reason to expect trouble?"
"Trouble does not need reason," Marko stated.
On that Kari was in full agreement and went quickly to freshen up and arm herself. By the time she was done, the others had already gathered and were discussion the situation with Marko.
"How did the Emperor even know you were in Caldeum?" Asheara asked. "Unless his spies have been watching you since you arrived in Kurast?"
"Considering your little stunt, not too surprising," Kari interjected.
"Yes well, it had to be done," Marko said unapologetically. "For now make ready for a quick exit should the need arise. Kari and I will see what Hakan wants."
The others nodded and went to pack while Kari and Marko rejoined Vern. The guards fell into formation around the two and escorted them through the streets, pushing through the crowds. To Kari's surprise, Marko moved closer to her and even took her arm. The reason became more obvious as he leaned over closer to her ear.
"Can you create a shadow clone and activate your cloak at the same time?" he whispered.
Kari nodded ever so slightly in response.
"Good. Once we're inside of the palace, do so the moment you get the chance. I want you to follow at a distance in case Hakan tries to spring any surprises."
"Why such caution?" Kari asked.
"Hakan wants something, and I may not be able or willing to give it to him."
Kari nodded again, accepting the reason for now. It would be hard enough continuing this conversation without the guards become too suspicious. Suddenly Marko patted Kari's side to draw attention to his hand, which began signing. It took a few tries and probably a couple of different systems before Kari saw ones she recognized and responded in kind. Marko acknowledged this and his hands fell still, cradling Kari's arms. Their system of coordination established, Kari felt a bit more assured that the two would make it out of whatever surprises the emperor might spring.
Guards lined the walkway the group ascended, along with groups of nobles clustered together in gossip. All of the soldiers came to attention as Marko passed, suggesting they were at least ordered to accord the paladin a degree of respect. When they finally reached the palace gates, two guards came forward to do a quick check for hidden weapons. To Kari's surprise, the ones she allowed them to find were returned instead of confiscated, though Marko either had hidden none or had decided not to let any be found. Then again, with Azurewrath at his side, Kari doubted he had any great need for more surprises.
Past the gates the two climbed another set of stairs leading into a massive open air audience chamber. Above them on a circular platform stood the emperor himself and the guards immediately dropped to their knees. Marko's bow was nowhere as dramatic and it was likely as much as the paladin was prepared to concede to any authority. The emperor's smile suggested he was more bemused than offended.
"Welcome, Lord Ramius," Hakan greeted, "to my humble court."
Marko kept his attention squarely on the emperor and did not bother looking around at the courtiers and nobles. That was Kari's responsibility, now cloaked and moving about to see if there was anything unusual.
"I have been told you have a request of me, your majesty," Marko said, getting straight to the point.
Hakan chuckled at the paladin's bluntness. "News from Kurast of your deed reached me shortly before your arrival. And when reports came in that you yourself had come to my fair city, I could not miss the chance to speak with you."
"I did only what was necessary," Marko stated.
"So you deemed," said Hakan. "But there are those who believe you overstepped."
Marko frowned. "And are you one of them, your majesty?"
"I am not amongst them, at this time," Hakan evaded. "They have however petitioned for my intervention."
"Petitioned, or demanded?"
That drew a thoughtful look from the emperor. "Tell me, why do you suggest it was demands they issued?"
"A demand comes with a threat of dire consequences if defied," Marko stated. "A request implies a lack of consequences if turned down. If the self-styled 'Children of Light' have sought to convince you to move against me, they would be incapable of not emphasizing the threat they feel me to be. After all, as a former Hand of Zakarum, I am intimately familiar with the lies that they continue to rely upon to sway the masses to their side."
"Oh? And why do you believe them to be no better than the Zakarum?"
"Because they sought to reclaim the Durance of Hatred."
Mumbles from the courtiers filled the silence that fell after Marko answered. Hakkan spent a few more moments contemplating the statement before responding.
"The Children claim they would have been able to cleanse the corruption and restore it into the Temple of Light."
Marko snorted. "Many have made such claims in the past. Others claimed able to master demonic forces for their own purposes. The only tragedy that occurs when they all too often fail is the suffering of those innocent of any involvement. Every time men and women such as I must come forth to combat the evil that has broken free marks a failure by humanity to curb its greed for power."
While the shadow clone stood attentively next to Marko, Kari had long stopped focusing on the paladin or the emperor. She had scanned the crowd gathered and while many grew visibly uncomfortable with Marko's words, only three grew visibly angry. Those were likely to be Leeran's followers and the ones helped make the direct appeal to Hakkan for his support against Marko. But there was also a hint of fear in their eyes, perhaps indication that Hakkan was not as receptive as they had desired and might be open to Marko's interpretation of matters. If they truly felt threatened, there was the question of how they would react to this perceived danger.
Hakkan allowed a grin to appear and applauded three times. "Well spoke, Lord Ramius. My agents were right, you are a masterful orator when you so desire. There is much for us to discuss in more private quarters. Come."
It was both an invitation and an order, one that Marko saw no reason to decline. As such he proceeded around the courtyard with Kari and her clone following close behind. The murmurs grew louder as they passed but none seemed prepared to challenge the emperor's decision.
Once inside, Hakkan joined them and the group proceeded deeper into the palace.
"You were right in that the Children approached me," Hakkan said, "and they do indeed view you as a great threat. But Leeran and his followers are focused only on their own limited views. They seem to think the world is obliged to conform to their ideal."
"Stupidity was never in short supply amongst the Zakarum followers or priesthood," Marko stated.
Hakkan shrugged. "Desperation and stupidity are not the same. After the fall of Zakarum, its followers found themselves without purpose or drive. Leeran gave them one again and they greatly fear becoming lost once more."
"No one can be given direction without becoming a slave," said Marko. "They are servants of their own insecurities and unwilling to muster the courage to find their own path. History is made of such people who were exploited and then cast aside. But regardless of whether an era was peaceful or full of turmoil, such people have never obtained the security they so desire."
"You seem very convinced of your own argument," Hakkan noted.
"An observation about the harshness of this world," Marko replied. "The strong thrive, the weak suffer, and leaders of nations and peoples perpetuate this system as a way to ensure their continued rule."
Hakkan blinked. "And am I included amongst those leaders?"
"Would you be willing to step aside for the good of the people, your majesty?"
Hakkan did not respond immediately and the group walked in relative silence as he thought.
"Your point is well made," Hakkan finally said. "The question that must be asked however is what do you intend to do with your ideas."
"Nothing," Marko stated. "I have no interest in matters of state. My only goal is the preservation of humanity's freedom from external forces, be they demonic or angelic, to pursue our own destiny. The power dynamic that I described was firmly in place long before other powers were aware of our existence. It will one day need to be resolved, but despite its problems, leaders ultimately bring a measure of prosperity to their people. To attempt to replace that will require minds far more interested in the problem than I."
The emperor chuckled. "It is a wonder that you speak so freely of your views. Many would fear an emperor's wrath for broaching such ideas."
"Many also are not nearly as difficult to kill as I," Marko stated. "Leeran knows this. He is likely hoping that you will perceive me as enough of a threat to your hold on power for you to risk it."
"Yes, I suppose he was," Hakkan said as they stopped before a door. "But from what you have said, you are not a direct threat to my position, nor do you intend to become one. There are others however for which I cannot say the same."
The guards opened the door and Hakkan turned to face Kari's clone.
"Your companion will have to wait outside," Hakkan said. "What I have to say is of a private nature."
"Very well," Marko said, though his hand signal said something else entirely.
As Kari's clone moved aside to take a defensive position outside the room, Kari herself slipped in after the emperor and before the paladin. No wards dispelled her cloak and the assassin moved to an out of the way location close to the door and waited. Once the door closed, Hakkan sank into a seat and let out a sigh.
"No guards?" Marko commented.
"You are no fool, Lord Ramius," Hakkan said. "To kill me in here would guarantee your death, or at least the death of your companions. And I doubt I would ever give you reason to try."
Marko accepted the comment with a nod. "You spoke of other threats."
"Yes, I did." Hakkan straightened up. "What do you know of Caldeum's political situation?"
The paladin shrugged. "Simply what I hear. The merchant guilds controlled much of the city before the Dark Times that led to many Kurast nobles fleeing their city. Some came to Caldeum and used their wealth to secure positions of power. There were fears of a civil war until you came and mediated between the two factions."
"Correct," said Hakkan. "Many more have since come to the city. The problem lies in specific notables whom my agents have been nearly unable to track and gather information about. Several have even disappeared, while others might even have been compromised."
"I am afraid I do not see how I could be of help," Marko stated. "Intrigue and politics are not my strengths."
"I know," Hakkan said. "But demons are."
Marko frowned, as did Kari, though no one saw hers. "What do you mean, demons?"
"I suspect demonic influence," Hakkan stated. "However, I cannot prove it and the mages in my service have been equally powerless. I was hoping you might know of, alternative ways of detecting demons."
Marko's eyes narrowed in concentration.
"Perhaps," was his immediate, vocal, response, but Kari quickly caught the signaling of his hands. "Do you have a guess as to their objective?"
"The obvious one is my throne," Hakkan stated. "Beyond that, they may be searching for something inside or around Caldeum that I am not aware of."
"If their objective not the throne, I would need to consult with my companions," said Marko. "But it remains entirely possible that even the throne would be seen as the means to an end."
"Yes, a possibility, though a humbling one," Hakkan agreed. "There is much we do not understand about even our own world."
"You may be surprised, your majesty," Marko said, with considerably more actual deference than when he first addressed Hakkan so. "I cannot promise my aid for an extended period of time, but I will speak with my companions and see if the situation can be dealt with quickly."
"That is all I have the right to ask for," Hakkan said. Walking over to a desk, the emperor quickly jotted down a list and handed it to Marko. "Men whom I suspect of untoward activities. Should they be merely breaking the law, it is my responsibility to deal with them. But if they truly are in league with demons, then I leave you to judge their fates."
Marko took the parchment and tucked it safely away. "You do not doubt the existence of demons at all."
"Many would prefer to remain ignorant of the horrors wrought upon Kurast by Mephisto," Hakkan said. "I however am Emperor of all Kehjistan. I cannot be blind to the suffering of my subjects without becoming unworthy of leading them."
"Well said," Marko stated. "Make sure you never forget it."
The door opened and Marko and Kari were shown the way out of the palace. It was only after they were well away and the assassin was certain they were not being watched that she dispelled the cloak and dismissed her clone.
"So?" Marko asked, taking that as an indication they could speak freely.
"The ward has been placed," Kari confirmed. "If any demon attempts to enter that room, it should be unmasked."
"Good enough for the time being. I need to have a word with Cain, see what he knows about Caldeum that might interest demons. Notify the others of our current task."
"So you intend to help the emperor?" Kari asked.
Marko nodded. "A bit. Caldeum could do worse for its ruler than Hakkan. If I can help ensure his reign remains benevolent a bit longer, I can spare a few days. Otherwise we hand over our findings before we take our leave and hope he can do the rest."
"Very well," Kari said and headed to the inn once they reached the area.
Unsurprisingly, Cain was not present in his house and Marko made his way to the Great Library. Finding someone inside the massive complex would usually have been impossible, but as a ward of the Companions, Cain had been given a charm that allowed any of them to locate the scholar. Fortunately Cain had kept it with him even after the destruction of Arreat, likely as a memento of his time with the Companions. For now it simply ensured Marko could speak with his old friend quickly.
As expected, Cain was buried in some musty tome when Marko approached and placed a hand on his shoulder. The old man looked up in surprise but quickly calmed at the sight of a familiar face.
"Oh, Marko. You startled me there."
"Apologies old friend," Marko said. "There is something I need to speak with you about right now."
"Oh? Well, have a seat then. What is the matter?"
Accepting the invitation, Marko explained the general points of Hakkan's summons. Cain listened without interrupting, only asking questions after Marko had finished. While the scholar was capable of talking anyone's ears off, he also possessed patience to match.
"Most disturbing. And the emperor has no idea what their goal is?"
"So he claims," Marko said, "though I do believe achieving it will involve removing Hakkan from power. The question I lay to you is, is there anything around Caldeum that would invite demonic interest."
Cain seemed to ponder the question, though his eyes suggested he already had an answer and was simply considering how to phrase it. "There is something of significant value, and danger, but I am unsure of how the demons could have learned of it. I only know the details because of my Horadric heritage. Others would treat it as nothing more than the tomb of another mage."
"The tomb of a Horadric mage," Marko stated. "This sounds awfully familiar, and by the light if I need to go find another Horadric Staff to open this one, I might just let the demons have what they want."
Cain chuckled. "While a Horadric Staff is not needed, matters are still not so simple. I suppose I should begin at the start. The Horadrim was composed of several skilled mages, one of them named Zoltun Kulle. Kulle was charged with carrying the soulstones during the Hunt for the Three and examined them extensively. After Diablo's defeat, Kulle was one of the mages that returned home. But he had been twisted by the journey and became mad, attempting to forge his own soulstone. The remaining Horadrim tracked him down and slew him for this, though they were never able to find the soulstone itself."
Marko pondered the implications of Cain's tale. The original soulstones were fragments of the Worldstone, a marvelously powerful artifact that helped shield and anchor Sanctuary before its destruction. If that power had been duplicated, the result could either guarantee humanity's future or end it.
"Are they certain he actually did create it?" Marko asked.
"Yes," Cain said, "though they believe they interrupted the process so if this soulstone exists, it is likely incomplete."
"Well, that is certainly something demons would be interested in," Marko said, "especially with the Worldstone's destruction."
"Indeed. And it is something that they cannot be allowed to obtain."
"Seizing the throne would allow them to search more openly," said Marko. "At the same time, I presume your ancestor did what he could to try and make sure the thing stays buried."
Cain nodded. "The only one who knows where the soulstone is would be Kulle himself, but even a priest of Rathma would need something that was once associated with him to call his soul back for questions."
"And hence the tomb," said Marko.
Another nod. "Or tombs, rather. If my ancestor's journals are to be believed, Kulle turned out to be extremely difficult to kill, and even after they slew him his influence remained. As such, they separated his body and buried the parts in different locations."
"Well, that ought to slow down anyone looking for that madman," Marko said. "Are there any references to where the tombs are located?"
"Yes," said Cain as he scribbled down some notes. "While I firmly believe that Kulle's secret should remain secret, this should be enough information to check whether any of the suspects on your list are actively pursuing his tombs."
"It is a start, at least. But what of the suspects themselves? Anything you can tell me about them?"
Taking the list once more, Cain glanced over them and started from the top. "Lord Torpis was a refugee from Kurast that quickly established himself on the city's council using his wealth. The other Kurast refugees look to him for leadership due to his station and identification with him. Master Valu is a guildmaster, one that accepted Kurast gold to help ease the ascension of several of their members to the city council, the same for these two. I am afraid I do not know much of the last two, beyond that they are both minor traders that travel between Caldeum and the surrounding towns and outposts."
"It is a start," said Marko as he stood. "The rest is for me to puzzle over. Thank you, old friend."
"Of course. I pray that our suspicions turn out to be unfounded, but if there is any veracity, that you are able to stop Kulle's tombs from being unearthed."
"You and I both, Deckard, you and I both."
It took little time to fill in the others once Marko returned and all agreed the matter worth further investigation. How to pursue the investigation was another matter entirely.
"We simply do not have the manpower or the time to gather the manpower," Marko stated. "At the same time, even with all the resources at his disposal, the emperor has been unable to root out the corruption."
"Would be easier to just bash some heads together, get 'em to confess," Greiz said.
"Most assuredly," Marko agreed. "However, if they turn out to be innocent we are simply making enemies for no reason. We need a better alternative."
"Kari, the ward you placed in the emperor's study," Fara began. "How effective is it?"
"I have used it many times to unmask demons hiding behind human guises," Kari replied. "It is something that has been refined for generations by my order."
"Then could we not test the people on this list using the ward?" Fara suggested. "Either ourselves or have the emperor invite them into the room."
"That will only work if we are dealing with a case of possession or a demon actively disguising itself as human," said Marko. "If they are merely collaborators, the ward would reveal nothing."
"Would demons trust collaborators at such crucial junctures?" Fara asked. "Your point is valid, but they may well have assumed direct control of at least one of the conspirators."
Marko nodded, conceding the point. "It would be the quickest idea to test."
"What about the emperor himself?" Flavie asked. "Are we certain he has not already been corrupted?"
"If he has been corrupted, he at least has not been outright replaced," said Kari. "My wards did not trigger in his presence, after all."
"Good enough. Asheara, how long would it take you to summon the Iron Wolves and for them to arrive in Caldeum?" Marko asked.
"A week," the mage replied.
"Do it. For now we will work under the assumption that Hakkan is truthfully trying to root out demonic influence," Marko stated. "We will work in pairs just to be safe. Flavie, Greiz, you two are to try and use the ward on these two. Asheara, once you have issued your summons you and Fara will take the other two suspects. Kari and I will go have another little chat with the emperor and also scope out his court."
Their course of action determined, the group dispersed and Kari and Marko were once again walking towards the palace.
"Same as last time?" Kari asked.
Marko nodded. "Also, start putting down wards in the courtyard if you can do so discretely. If we are very lucky, the demons may have eyes there that we can expose. Though how sensitive is the ward?"
"The one I am using now is specifically designed to detect demons," said Kari. "Detecting corruption is much more difficult and often requires physical examination of either the target or residual magic."
"Hakkan might be convinced to let you poke around the palace," said Marko before pausing. "Though a thought. If you were attempting to infiltrate a place, whom would you impersonate?"
Kari came to a similar halt and glanced back at Marko. "The servants."
"Indeed," the paladin said, resuming his stride. "While essential to the running of such a large palace, servants are for the most part ignored despite having access to every room. What better way to collect information?"
"So are you suggesting we interrogate all of the servants?"
Marko shook his head. "Too time consuming. We can however get a spy to come to us."
Patting his satchel, Marko replied. "By providing irresistible bait." Taking something out, the paladin handed it to Kari. "Could you rig a trap such that a demon would be trapped trying to take this?"
Accepting the parchment, Kari fumbled in her own bag before taking out a vial. She poured the contents over the parchment and slipped a small stone into the folds before handing it back to Marko.
"Now, we go plant the trap," the paladin said.
Surprisingly, when the two arrived at the palace, they were ushered before Hakkan with minimal delay. The emperor even allowed Kari, or rather her clone, join them in his private study.
"Well, I was not expecting you to return the same day," Hakkan said.
"I am on something of a tight timeline," Marko replied nonchalantly. "I have however discovered what the demons are after, assuming there are demons attempting to infiltrate Caldeum."
"Oh? And what may that be?"
"The location of a Horadric mage," Marko stated, taking out the folded parchment but not offering it to the emperor. "This document contains hints of where it may be, but has been magically warded to destroy the information if someone besides myself attempts to read it."
"An interesting safeguard. Pray tell, what good does it do me in that case?"
"The seal is of blood, so my blood, whether I am dead or alive, is able to break it. This note will thus serve as bait. Guard it well and you may discover an agent of the demons. Fail and the demons are guaranteed to try moving openly against me."
"A two pronged trap," Hakkan said thoughtfully. "Clever, though it places you at great risk."
"Fortune favors the bold," Marko stated. "It is my risk to take and if we succeed in purging your court of demons, it seems a fair enough trade."
Hakkan regarded Marko for several moments before finally cracking a smile. The emperor walked up to Marko and clapped him on the shoulder.
"Jerhyn spoke highly of you in his letters. I can see that his judgment was right. You are a brave man, Marko Ramius, and I pray that whatever you are in such a rush to do is successful. And after that, I pray you will find the peace you deserve."
Marko allowed a small smile of his own to appear. "And I hope your rule will be long and prosperous, your majesty, for it seems the people of Kehjistan are lucky to have one so dedicated to their wellbeing as emperor."
The paladin handed the parchment to Hakkan and took his leave from the palace once more. It would be the last time he ever walked its halls, but his deeds would take much longer to fade from the memories of its people.
The Iron Wolves ended up beating Asheara's estimates and were in Caldeum in just four days. Their speed was all the more appreciated as Marko's patience was wearing thin due to the lack of attempts on himself or the note. Were it not for Flavie and Greiz's discoveries, he would have begun doubting Hakkan's judgment.
"This Lord Torpis is not a demon, but he is almost assuredly involved with demons," Flavie began. "Some of the magical wards surrounding his estate are not from any of the conventional schools, and they completely unraveled the ones Kari gave me when I tried to infiltrate his estate. Greiz however had better luck planting one outside his estate, and Torpis' presence did not trigger it."
"That seems sufficient proof to have the emperor send in his guards and storm the place," Asheara said.
Marko shook his head. "Hakkan will not make such a blatant move and Torpis is likely to unleash everything he has if he feels cornered like that. The collateral casualties would likely be heavy."
"So we need to sneak in instead?" said Flavie. "Not sure that is possible, there has to be other wards intended to guard against intruders."
"Agreed," said Marko. "Kari and I might be able to do it, but if we are discovered our only choice would be to fight our way out, which is liable to cause Torpis to throw everything he has at us anyway."
"But what if Torpis was not present?" Fara asked.
"Ah, now there is a possibility," Marko agreed, glancing at Flavie and Greiz.
"Torpis has some business interests in Alcarnus," said Greiz. "He goes out there once a week from what we've heard. His next trip should be tomorrow."
"How gracious of him," Marko said. "Very well. Kari and I will infiltrate his estate while he is traveling. The rest of you along with the Iron Wolves will ambush him outside of the city and capture him." Taking out a small blue orb, Marko handed it to Fara. "If this turns red, consider it permission to kill Torpis. If it turns green, it means bring him back to the city for questioning."
"And if it remains blue?" Fara asked.
"If it remains blue for more than a day, kill Torpis and get back to Meshif as quickly as you can," Marko instructed.
Accepting the orb reluctantly, Fara nodded. Their plan determined, the party dispersed for their own preparations for the coming day.
Torpis' estate was well guarded both physically and magically. That in of itself was not surprising as there was a major mage academy in the city with a steady flow of students and masters offering their services. What quickly drew Marko and Kari's attention however were several insignias from no human school of magic embedded under the other weaves. Few would have recognized these insignias, but the line of their work meant the two immediately recognized the demonic nature of the insignias.
"The last time I saw anything this complex was when I was down in the Burning Hells," Marko commented.
"Would this imply a higher level demon's involvement?" Kari wondered.
"Perhaps, and if so, Torpis really does deserve his fate," the paladin said. "For now, let us see what he is trying to hide."
Taking out a kris, Marko traced the lines of magic before finding the focal point of the weaves. Stabbing it, the paladin unraveled the spell and effectively disabled the alarm that would have sounded had the two attempted to enter.
"How is it that you can see the flow of magic like that?" Kari asked.
"An ability I acquired after having seen the Worldstone," Marko said. "I do not fully understand the cause myself, but it has proven very useful since."
"I can see that," Kari agreed.
The two activated their cloaks and proceeded in, their communication now confined to hand signals. To further their odds, Kari created a clone that also donned a cloak and went ahead. With her connection, the assassin would see and hear everything her clone did and hopefully provide warning of any further traps ahead.
The first stop for the two was Torpis' office and thankfully no servants were present. The man's desk was a mess of papers laid out in seeming disorder but likely made sense to their owner. As such the pair was careful to put everything back where they found it. Their first pass found nothing of interest and Mark was preparing to move onto Torpis' bedroom when Kari suddenly signaled him. Walking over, she pointed at a series of papers with seemingly random doodles. Random at least to the untrained eye.
Flattening the sheets together, Marko held them up to one of the lights. The lines from the page combined to form another insignia, albeit one that was incomplete.
Is there another sheet we missed, Kari asked through her signs.
Marko shook his head and responded in kind. A safeguard. One last piece to complete the insignia to allow the spell to be used, and the last piece would be easier to remember than an entire insignia.
So what now?
Instead of answering, Marko took a piece of blank parchment and laid it on top of the others. Taking a pen, he drew a few lines and then laid it over the others. The stack started glowing and suddenly a range of glyphs appeared floating in the air before the paladin.
"Stay cloaked," Marko ordered even as he dispelled his.
The paladin began touching the glyphs, activating them one by one until he seemed to hit the right sequence and a projection of a man appeared.
"Torpis, the master is growing impatient with your progress," it said. "Should you find yourself unable to complete the task set out, you will become useless to us, and useless things have a way of disappearing. I expect more favorable results for your next report."
"Cryptic," Marko commented as he tried another sequence. His efforts did not go unrewarded as another projection appeared.
"My servants report that the emperor is beginning to suspect you, Torpis. I suggest you make arrangements to ensure you cannot be traced back to me, lest I decide to handle the matter myself. If the opportunity presents itself, bring any of the emperor's agents to me and I shall see to them."
"Well, we have our evidence of his subversion and collaboration with demons," Marko said. "Now the only thing is to ensure Torpis has no surprises waiting to spring upon the city should he be arrested."
Stuffing the sheets into his pack, Marko activated his shadow cloak once more and left the room with Kari in tow.
Where to next? Kari signed.
Down. Where better to hide something than in the deepest part of the estate? Marko replied.
Dodging servants and guards as they went, the two soon found themselves before a large vault door. No visible guards were present, though with the wards now before them Marko doubted any were deemed necessary.
"Impressive," the paladin said, dispelling his cloak once more. "I have absolutely no idea how to unravel this one."
"Are we still worried about discretion?" Kari asked.
"Do you have a suggestion if we are not?"
Dispelling her own cloak, Kari stepped forward and took out a small round grenade. "Magic canceler. It will disrupt most magic and even prevent a mage from casting new spells if the setting is high."
"Handy," Marko remarked. "Will it work on demonic magic?"
Kari nodded slowly. "It has in the past. Whether it will work against all demonic magic is something I cannot guarantee."
"Close enough," said Marko. "Fire it off."
The two stepped back and donned cloaks once more before Kari threw the grenade at the door. The pop from it was quickly eclipsed by the flash and bang of the spells collapsing. Once satisfied that no one would be coming down to investigate, Marko stepped forward and placed a hand on the vault door. The metal began glowing red before turning a bright white before effectively disintegrating. Despite herself, Kari was impressed by the display. The sheer power Marko had at his disposal was amazing as ever. That awe quickly turned to disgust and horror when Kari saw what was inside the vault.
"By the light," the assassin muttered.
"Well, I suppose this answers the question of whether to kill Torpis or hand him to Hakkan," Marko said grimly.
Body parts were strewn about, laid out in an obvious pattern. Bloody completed the grisly circles with heads mounted in the centers. The five circles overlapped to create a spiraled ring its own center decorated by a floating, black diamond.
"What is this?" Kari asked.
"A focal point, but Torpis will not benefit from it for much longer. How many grenades do you have?"
"Five left," Kari answered immediately.
"Set them as high as you can and cluster them under the diamond."
"Are you sure that is a good idea?"
"I recognize the weaves," Marko said. "This is a gate, albeit a small one."
"A gate? To Hell?"
Marko nodded. "At best one or two demons could move through it at any time. Enough for infiltrators or spies, but not an army. But Sanctuary is not the natural home of demons. While the Worldstone existed, they often needed anchors to remain in the world. The Great Evils themselves acted as such anchors due to their immense power and the Hellgate in Kurast allowed Mephisto to sustain a large army. Baal actually used the very Soulstone that originally held him captive in order to negate the shielding of the Worldstone."
"But you said the Worldstone was destroyed," said Kari.
"Indeed, but that does not mean the shield was immediately dispelled. It has been leaking away for the last few years and will likely be completely gone soon enough. But for now, short of a massive invasion led by one of the surviving Lesser Evils, demons cannot sustain themselves in large numbers in Sanctuary. This gate however could sustain a large operation."
Nodding, Kari worked out the rest of the implications and began setting her grenades. Once done, the two left with due haste. Their caution was rewarded as an explosion shook the estate, causing both things and people to stumble or topple. Servants rushed to escape the estate while guards hurried to investigate. Amongst the confusion, Kari and Marko made their way out with little difficulty. Once outside, Kari caught sight of a green orb in Marko's hand. Seeing the questioning look Kari was giving him, Marko shrugged.
Questions need to be answered, he signed.
Accepting the answer with a nod, Kari joined the paladin as they made their way to the rendezvous. There were indeed questions that needed answering, and Kari was certain she would like none of them.
End of Chapter 6
So much for ending this in seven chapters. The ending of this chapter was a bit rushed insomuch as there is not as much exposition about the plot as I would have liked. We'll cover the revelations at the start of the next chapter. The main difficulty I had with this chapter involved realistically writing investigation into clandestine operations. Games have the advantage/limitation that the narrative is limited by the gameplay, thus we often get overly simplified investigations. This investigation was also 'rushed' insomuch as Marko was in a hurry to get it over with, but the enemies were not so stupid as to leave clues laying out that said "I'm the bad guy." The message embedded in several different pieces of paper only really revealed itself because Marko and Kari were familiar with demonic runes. Others would not have been as lucky. I still feel like I cheated, but I'll leave it as is.
Marko's original name when I was planning the rewrite was actually Marcus Lucious Ramius, but it was a bit too Roman in style for my liking so I opted for Marko again.
Also note I am not following the continuity established by Diablo 3. Anyway, please review and let me know what you think.
Oh, and you guys finally get to see Kari's full name. After six chapters. And yes, I knew what her name was at chapter one.