Chapter 9

Beneath the Surface

This is ridiculous.

He turned the words over in his mind, deliberating whether such response adequately expressed his outrage, decided that they weren't, but they would have to do for now.

"This is ridiculous," said Lear, and mentally kicked himself for sounding nowhere near as outraged as he felt. "Did it simply not occur to you to tell us that we have to go somewhere else to find the crown, or do you just lack the decency to do it?"

"You ran off so quickly; I didn't really expect you to actually get right into it." Leah shrugged nonchalantly, and took another sip of her drink. The sound of her slurping grated on his eardrums, and he gritted his teeth to bite back a growl.

"You took us to the Cathedral."

"I thought you were just scouting it out; clearing the way for later."

"Do you really think I'm that patient? With you, and with all of these stupid errands you send me on?"

"No, but I know your kind is careful, and if you wanted to go... investigate, who was I to stop you?"

"Okay, let's all take a step back." Anarei's voice was wearied, even soft. She had been equally agitated before; but now, she just sounded drained. "Where is the crown?"

Leah shrugged a shoulder. Her apparent nonchalance served only to irritate him further. "I'm not too sure about that, but the blacksmith might know. His grandfather was Leoric's chancellor, so if there's any hope at all of finding that trinket, he's our best bet."

Anarei frowned, and a muscle twitched in her cheek. Exhausted or no, he knew she was likely still annoyed to a certain extent. "And where might we find the blacksmith?"

"Haedrig's usually at his forge, and if he isn't, he's probably sitting by his wife's bedside." Leah's tone had taken on an airy sort of quality, though she had enough sense to wear a solemn expression upon her face. Not that he cared if it was genuine or otherwise. "She hasn't been feeling too well lately."

"Not everyone's feeling up to enjoying tea-biscuits, Miss Leah. We'll be on our way now." Anarei's expression was severe, her voice clipped as she reached to grasp his upper arm. She addressed him now. "Come."

He didn't like being told what to do, much less obeying her, but he was feeling a growing compulsion to flip the table over.

"Don't expect me to put up with this for much longer, Lady Leah." He tossed Leah a dirty glance over his shoulder even as Anarei dragged him out. That little witch. That insufferable woman.

But Anarei was even more insistent upon leaving than he was upon doing horrible things to Leah. Lear sighed, heard the way it came out rattling like a harsh grunt, and followed.

"That has got to be one of the most ridiculous things I've heard in the last twenty years." Lear's cheeks were puffed up a little; he was clearly still fuming.

She bit back a smile, but found her lips curling anyway as she wrapped her arms about her abdomen, clutching her waist with a low, tired sigh. "You say that like you're an old man complaining about rising prices and the lack of respect in today's generation."

"No," he responded quickly, adamantly. "I say that meaning I've never heard of such a stupid thing before."

"Hm?" She glanced aside towards him, took in his expression and noted that he was dead serious. "Oh. Right."

Startling as the realisation was, Anarei found she lacked any real strength to care at present. Instead, she managed a wry smile, then shrugged a shoulder, wincing as the bone clicked into place. It had been sore ever since they'd escaped the inner sanctums of the cathedral.

One too many demon-packs and risen dead. But I'd take the demons over the undead any day - at least those weren't once human.

"You're older than Strahan." She murmured - it would not do to think on such things right now, when he could see the strain upon her face so clearly. One could always be sure that Lear would notice such things, after all. "But there's nothing for it now, is there? At least we know what we'll be facing - or won't be facing, when we head down there again."

He scoffed, but offered no other comment as he made a beeline for the smithy. It had been a long day and she was sure he was just as tired as she was - from the day, from the people, from everything.

She wondered for a moment if he felt the same amount of exhaustion on an emotional level. It had crossed her mind that he was just good at tuning things out, but then she'd watched as he'd taken down undead after risen undead without so much as flinching.

They're dead. Dead and gone, so don't think about them right now.

The twinge of guilt that had been threatening to overwhelm her all day resurfaced yet again. She swallowed, hard, then shook her head clear as she followed after him. Not now.

The smith was hammering away at his forge, likely reforging some old blade by the look of the brightly-glowing strip of metal upon his anvil. Beads of his sweat fell to the hot steel, sizzling away.

He did not look up as they approached, and started when she called his name. Startled, he'd finally raised his head, eyes wide as if having only just awakened from some nightmare, then panted aloud, "What?"

Anarei cleared her throat. "I said, good evening, sir."

The blacksmith grunted in response, running one large, heavy arm across his forehead, over the sheen of sweat. "What can I do for ye, wee miss?"

Either he's just been through hell and back, or his wife's in more trouble than we'd thought.

She hoped it was the former.

"We need to find Leoric's crown." Anarei unfolded her hands as she took a step closer. For some reason, she couldn't quite shake the feeling that the blacksmith was feeling more than was healthy for a man, at present. It made her all the more anxious - but his troubles would have to wait for now. "We were told you'd know where it is."

"Och." The blacksmith clenched his jaw, setting his hammer down with a heavy, metallic clang. "Yer after the black king, are ye?"

"Not exactly, sir; we just need to get past him." Lear was rubbing his eyes, his fatigue more apparently now that his agitation had subsided. "Lady Leah's sent us on this errand; it's been a bit of a pain in the neck, so we'd really appreciate it if you can... I don't know, give us a hand? Throw us a bone?"

The blacksmith let out a tired sigh, running his dirtied, oil-stained hands over his face. It smeared messily, but he didn't seem to care. "The crown's in the old cemetery by the hollow. It was buried with m'grandfather, s'far as I know." His eyes were dull as he looked between the both of them. Anarei got the distinct impression he was sizing them up. "S'no good, going into a cemetery now. Lots o' risin' dead."

Anarei bit her lip. "We know, sir."

"We're not heading out now, sir." Lear's tone had regained that irritated, impatient edge. "Not that it'd be any more or less dangerous to go there during daytime, but we've had a long day." His voice softened just a touch as he lowered his eyes to the wearied blacksmith. "We all have, haven't we, sir?"

Is that actual sympathy?

The blacksmith shook his head, the soft cracks of his joints loud in the silent night. "Times o' war, young sir. We all do what we can."

There was a heavy lump in her throat that blocked the breaths of cold air, kept them from filling her lungs. Anarei swallowed - she knew she was grimacing, even as she fought to keep her voice steady. "I'm sorry, sir. It's your wife, isn't it?"

"S'everybody's wife, miss. Everybody's husband - someone's entire life, dyin' in tha' cellar down there." The blacksmith's voice had taken on a somewhat bitter cast, though Anarei thought she heard traces of panicked anxiety in his tone.

Panic, guilt. It's all very familiar, isn't it? This is the face of the healer who has to let his patient die. This is the voice of the healer who coaxes his patient in the final moments - tells them that everything will be alright, and that the world will be good again when they wake up.

She opened her mouth to speak, found herself speechless. The blacksmith merely shrugged, looking equally helpless.

"They're done dying, though... well, most of them are." Where she had trouble finding her voice, Lear's came out rather too easily, and his tone was much too matter-of-fact. "Most of them are in the stage of turning, now, aren't they?"

She heard the gasp before she could stop herself from crying out. Tactless! So very tactless, her mind screamed.

The blacksmith gnashed his stained teeth together, his voice rising. "And what? Am I t'end 'em just as easily as if they were hellspawn? Those are my friends, my wife - the woman I am meant t'protect, and honour, and love. Ye don't end a marriage like this."

His wife. I've seen her. Somewhere in the depths of her mind, Anarei thought she recalled the image of a thin, blonde woman who'd often come to sit by the bedsides of the injured. She'd eased the passing of many.

And now someone has to ease her passing in return. Gods, I hadn't even known she'd been hurt.

"I'm sorry." She hoped her voice would not waver - but it did, however slightly. Loathe as she was to admit it, Lear was right. But she doubted the blacksmith needed to hear all of that - surely he'd know how troublesome it would be if his friends had turned and broken loose of the cellar.

He knows what needs to be done. The trouble is the deed itself, isn't it? In that moment, she wasn't sure she could afford the same logic, were she in the blacksmith's position. Oh, blacksmith - I'm so sorry.

Fortunately, Lear seemed to have found his discretion and clamped up, only crossing his arms to show his discontent of the circumstances.

After a moment, he inhaled deeply, and released it in the form of a loud sigh. "What are you going to do about it, then, sir?"

Discretion, my foot.

The blacksmith shrugged a shoulder helplessly. It seemed his anger had been fleeting - another sign that he knew just as well as they did what he had to do. "I canna do it alone."

She wished she could say something to help, anything at all that would serve to make this poor soul feel better. The only words that escaped her lips were unsatisfactory - a death sentence for the doomed. "I'll help you if you need, sir."

While I'm crying myself to sleep at the thought of having to kill what once were men and women, this man here is going to live out the remainder of his life with the knowledge that he's had to end his own wife's life. That's on his hands.

Somehow, Anarei found the thought made her sick.

The blacksmith raised his head, the anguish in his face clear. She looked at him, saw the way his eyes were deep and dark with weariness, the way he could hardly breathe, the strength with which he reached to grip the edge of his anvil, turning his knuckles pale..

"Take all the time you need, blacksmith. I'll wait with you until you're ready."

Lear leaned in close to her, then, close enough to whisper into her ear. "You know, we could just take care of his problems for him. A group of restrained undeads - it wouldn't be hard."

It wouldn't be hard. Is he even hearing himself?

She bowed her head, biting her lip and hoping the hair falling into her face was sufficient to hide her expression from him. One hand snaked to his arm once more, and she tugged him aside, out of earshot of the blacksmith, who now had his face in his hands.

"That's his wife, Lear."

"That was his wife. We've battled enough undeads by now, Anarei; all of them used to be someone's loved one - family or friend. Why should this be any different?" He threw a quick glance back at the blacksmith, and swallowed audibly before turning back to her, pressing his voice even lower. "Look, if it's bothering you, he doesn't even need to find out. You don't have to do it. They're restrained - I could be in and out of there in a quarter of an hour."

Anarei swallowed, blinking hard, then lifted her head to meet his eyes. She hoped her expression was severe enough that he might fail to see just how much she wanted to take him up on that offer.

Because that's what you want to do, isn't it? Run - run and let him handle the dirty work. But these are the soldiers who'd fought hard to keep their loved ones safe. And I could've been Mira, could've gotten injured trying to help these people.

"It's his wife." She repeated. "I don't know about you, Lear, but if I were in his shoes, I'd want to do it myself. It's not about him anymore, is it? It's about giving her, and the rest of them in there, the right to at least die with a shred of dignity. I don't think he'd trust anyone else to do it. I wouldn't."

Lear stared at her with that look of incredulity - the look of his thinking she was stupid. "They're already dead, Anarei. As for his wife, wouldn't it be more dignifying for her husband not to see her in such a state?"

You won't ever understand this, I think. We won't see eye to eye. So why bother?

She held his gaze, suddenly aware that her eyes were damp despite her best efforts. Somehow, it didn't matter as much anymore. Let him see. Let him see what I think about this, as a healer, as a woman.

"Maybe. But neither you, nor I are married, and therefore cannot possibly hope to comprehend the kind of pain he's going through right now. If I were in his shoes, though, I'd want to be there - and the same applies if I were in hers. I'd want him there." Anarei flexed her fingers, taking a deep breath. "I pray you'll never find yourself in his shoes, Lear. If you do, I hope it comes as easily to you then, as it does now."

He looked unimpressed and disgruntled, but seemed to relent, at least for now. "Well, just standing around feeling bad isn't going to help anyone." Turning his eyes upwards, he paused for a moment of deliberation. "How about we clean out the cellar, and bring his wife's reanimated corpse to him, then? So he can... see her off for her final journey, so to speak?"

She considered shoving him into the fire for his crass words, but decided against it. He had sounded as if he'd put some effort into his speech - even if it had fallen short of actual tactfulness.

So much for teaching me about manners.

Suddenly impatient, she took a step back. "You don't have to be there, Lear. You can go back and rest if you want - I only told him I would help." Her voice quietened - she let out a somewhat involuntary sniffle and immediately hated herself for it. "I just don't think he should be alone when he does it, is all."

"I don't think you should be alone if you do it, neither." He frowned, his tone darkening. "I've told you, haven't I? I don't want you to break on me. And from what I can see, you can't do it." He sneered angrily, and turned away. "The last thing I want is to have you cry through the night again."


She flinched, grateful that he was turned away and so could not see her. Talk about striking where it hurts.

For a moment or two, she wondered what had hurt more - that he thought so lowly of her, or that he was right. She gritted her teeth, felt her cheeks burn as she took a quelling breath. It took all her strength to mutter, afterwards, "Don't worry. If I'm feeling the urge to cry, I'll be sure to find a hole where you can't hear it."

Lear sighed again at that - notably more softly, as if it contained by a hint of regret or guilt. "Regardless, a girl like you shouldn't be doing these things, and most certainly not on your own." He reached up with his hand, brushed his fingers through his mess of hair. "So what's your plan, Anarei?"

"Wait. Wait and see if he'll feel ready for it." She turned away then, leaning back against the wall of the smithy. While they'd argued and conversed, night had fallen, and the cloak of darkness enshrouded the town. Suddenly, she felt cold. "He'll come around. He has to. We can look for that crown tomorrow, and you can go to bed if you want. I know you're tired."

One last chance for you to back out. I'm sorry, but I'm not going to be good company, and you can't berate me for it if I've given you fair warning.

He rolled his shoulders back and turned on his heels - but rather than going back the way they came, he made towards a pile of empty crates in the corner of the smithy. "I'll go over there to clean my weapons. Let me know when you've sorted out all the talking and are ready to go clear out the cellar."

She watched as he left. In that moment, she wondered if she was really, truly as alone as she thought - but then he took his knives out, and she was reminded once again that she knew almost nothing about him.

Letting out a sigh, she turned away. At that moment, she had better and more pressing things to think about.

It was early in the morning, barely light out, yet New Tristram had awoken - perhaps it had not slept at all. From where she sat nestled into the hard wooden window seat of the unlit living hall, Anarei watched the day begin.

She started as the sound of footsteps reached her ears, but it was just a maid. Their eyes met briefly - then the plump, young girl - likely no more than thirteen - smiled, a sad wry thing, before resuming her business of building a fire. Anarei found herself grateful for the silence. At present, conversation was far from her mind.

They'd put so many to rest that night. Soldiers, fathers, unlucky mothers, children and even an old, loyal dog that had sat by the bed of her slowly-decaying young master. Then there had been the blacksmith's wife - Mira, once beautiful and gentle.

Now a pile of ash in a ruddy urn.

That had been days ago, but still the silence of grief hung heavy in the air.

Anarei shifted, leaning back, felt the chill of the glass as she pressed her cheek against the misted window. Where she sat, she could see the blacksmith's forge, dimly lit by the light of a lone candle. Haedrig stood at his anvil - he'd been pounding on it all night, the clattering echoing heavily in his otherwise still surroundings. Perhaps he was thinking about his wife, or his grandfather, the Black King's chancellor.

They'd found the crown set carelessly atop a stone-carved bust of his grandfather. Once a trusted advisor of the Black King himself, Chancellor Eamon's tomb now stood defiled within its crypt in the cemetery.

The dead had died again. She suspected the blacksmith had no use for such knowledge, and they'd neglected to repeat their encounters in the cemetery's depths. Privately, she thought he was grateful they'd said nothing when they'd handed him the crown, a tarnished old thing.

"Needs repair." He'd grunted, before retreating into his home.

Whatever it was he'd been hammering the entire time since, she had a slight suspicion it wasn't the crown.

"D'you think the crown's ready yet?" Lear's voice, still a little thick with sleepiness, resounded behind her - much too close to her, only a few paces away. She hadn't heard his approach. "He's been working on it since yesterday evening, hasn't he?"

She winced, inhaling sharply. In her shock, she'd bitten her tongue. Still, she forced herself to calm, and turned to gaze at her companion. As always, she studied his face, took a moment to ponder him, his past and his intent - as always, she came up with nothing. "He's not working the crown right now. May have, at some point in the night, but that looks more like a blade."

He ran his fingers through his hair in place of combing it, letting the strands fall over his scalp as they pleased. His face was set in something like... anxiety? "Well, if it's ready, I'd rather just get on with it - the skeletons and the rock in the Cathedral."

"If he's done repairing it." She responded tiredly. The frayed edges of her woollen shroud brushed her cheek as she tugged it closer, folding her arms afterwards. "And then we can get this over and done with. Just like you want, yes?"

Because we all know you don't want to be here any longer than you have to be.

"You want that, too, don't you?" He walked closer, dragged over a chair to seat himself down beside her - closer, but not too close. "It's not as if you can fight these corpses for much longer, huh?"

She met his eyes, feeling the roughened edges of the windowsill as she leaned into its side. He was so very difficult to understand, so closed off - like a tightly-lidded clam intent upon hiding its pearl from would-be disturbers. At times he was cordial, and she fancied she saw a shred of decency, even warmth, in him - and then at other times, he was just cold and distant. It confused her to no end - not that she cared, or thought she should at all.

Still, she wondered.

What pearl are you hiding, Lear?

"I'm not certain we have a choice at this point."

"You don't have to come, if you're... tired." He leaned back in his chair, linked his fingers upon his lap, looking entirely too casual, considering their current topic. "You didn't have to go into the cellar, or the cemetery, or even the crypt. You don't need to come to the Cathedral with me again, neither. All that remains is the Skeleton King, and he's just one enemy."

She managed a bare sort of smile. "And yet I went, anyway." The wooden boards creaked quietly as she shifted, wincing at the dull ache of having sat too long in the same posture. "We're all tired, Lear. Maybe that's why we, and everyone else, should stick together - or try for unity at least."

Not like the rest of the town hasn't taken Leah's lead in abandoning this task to him - but there's only so much a broken human spirit can take on.

Still, she wondered if the people of New Tristram weren't just a touch more cowardly than they liked to believe, themselves.

"That's not quite what I meant." He regarded her then, seemed to take in her appearance as he paused in thought - she noted that his eyes lingered over her ringlets. "You're not... used to this. Nor should you be used to it. You're a healer, Anarei - a young one, at that. These are not things you should see, acts in which you should involve yourself."

She turned a little so that she might face him better. "Perhaps not. But I did say, didn't I? I don't think we'll have much of a choice in this - now, or in the coming future. The darkness is stirring, and not just in this part of the Sanctuary. It's everywhere, and it's going to cost more lives. You know as well as I do, young or no, that when the time comes, I'll have to jump into the fray." Her lips felt dry as she ran her tongue quickly through them, feeling the rough scabs. "Better to learn now than later, right?"

"Pretty tough on you, though, to be learning on what used to be people, isn't it?" Lear's grin was small, and Anarei couldn't tell if he was trying for sly or wry with the expression. "Cultists, undeads, skeletons. Fighting them isn't quite the same as fighting any other demon or beast, I can assure you."

If I didn't already know that, I wouldn't be upset at all, now would I?

Anarei let out a quiet sigh, shutting her eyes to him. Somewhere within the depths of her mind, she sought the memory of younger and fairer days, of all the time she had spent in the infirmary with her father, with her grandfather's wife, with Strahan. She swallowed.

"I was born in the north, after all." Lear was still looking at her when she opened her eyes. "We're stronger than we look - like you said, heavier, too. I'm not a stranger to working with people, Lear, even dead ones."

There were all those men in Virkove, after all - the men and women who'd fallen in battle, whose funeral rights had demanded they at least be made whole once more. Stitch after stitch, week after week.

Practice makes perfect.

Lear just shrugged and turned his eyes towards the lightening scenery outside the window. "Just... don't crack on me." He snorted quietly and sardonically. "More importantly, don't die and reanimate on me."

We know you wouldn't have a problem ending me if that happened.

She lifted a hand to her head, fingers digging deep into her temple. The thought was ludicrous - but somehow, the threat was very real, and very close. It stung somewhat. Still, she knew he'd be stupid to keep her alive if the unthinkable had occurred, just as it was stupid for her to expect anything like that from him. "Burn my body if I die. It's as easy as that."

His smile grew wider, but somehow also colder. "Noted. I'll have to trouble you to do the same for me, when I die."

When you die, Lear?

His choice of words did not please her.

"If it's all the same to you," Anarei lifted her head. "I'd rather not have to witness you die."

A touch of warmth crept into his smile as he got to his feet. "Neither would I. Feel free to turn away at any time, then." He grunted as he stretched, and began to walk off. "I'm paying the blacksmith a visit. Have some breakfast in the meantime; if the crown's ready, I'll come back, meet up with you, and we'll leave for the Cathedral."

She watched from the window as he made his way to the smithy. The glint of steel caught her eye as the blacksmith handed something over - the crown. Her heart sank a little at the dread that bound her in that moment, but she comforted herself with the knowledge that it was the beginning of the end.

Finally. Lear mused as he stood before the skeleton, each bone still somehow held in place - in his mind, he could see the tendrils of off-green magic weaving between each individual piece, twisting and winding into the form of tendons and ligaments, nerves and vessels, even taking the forms of organs and muscles. This is a truly intriguing sight.

"You're smiling."

Anarei stood poised by his side, her hands wrapped firmly about the hilts of her swords. Like him, she watched display of bone seemingly untouched by time, her lips curled in a wry sort of smile. Unlike him, she did not seem as fascinated - if anything, her smile was likely a result of his own amusement. "And stop spinning that crown around. If it flies off and breaks, we'll have to get it fixed again, and I am not climbing all the way up there a second time."

An idea occurred to him as he was compelled to spin the crown about his hand even faster. Watching Anarei out of the corner of his eye, he let the crown spiral out of his grasp, only to catch it again as it fell. The young healer's panicked yelp coaxed a bark of laughter from him.

She pursed her lips together and wrinkled her nose as she reached out to smack his upper arm, playfully chiding. Her smile had deepened as he'd laughed, causing her eyes to brighten in spite of their current circumstances. "If you accidentally crown the wrong head -"

"Maybe he'd still wake up, enraged, and proceed to kill all his royal assistants for betraying him." His own words turned sour in his mouth, and he turned aside, occupying himself with looking at the other skeletons, which were not quite as composed as the large one on the throne. "We can try it, you know; Lady Leah's not here to shout orders at us."

"No!" Anarei grabbed his sleeve, as if to keep him close. The smile had failed to die away. She shook her head nonetheless, a stray curl brushing her cheek as she wrinkled her nose, then jerked her head quickly towards Leoric's skeleton. "I don't think Lady Leah's quite a lady at all - she definitely wouldn't be one if she bellowed orders. But let's not go finding more trouble than we need."

"As soon as this is over, I'm out of here and never running errands for her again." Holding the crown with both hands, Lear took a last thorough inspection of it - the gold was now clear of tarnish, though he considered that for it to tarnish in the first place, the gold had to be impure. Perhaps the king did have a legitimate reason to be angry at his assistants, after all. "Isn't the crowning of a king meant to be... grand and solemn, and ceremonial? How shall we do this?"

Anarei bit her lip. He realised she was trying to hide a chuckle. "I crown thee King Leoric? Elder Cain said nothing about an incantation, and I'm inclined to think there isn't one."

His heart sank a little as the light-hearted humour ran out. "Well, I'm not about to just stride up to him and put the crown on his head. That'd be leaving myself wide open. I don't want him to gut me." He own words felt distasteful again. He sucked hard on the insides of his cheeks.

That served to wipe the last remnants of amusement clean out of Anarei's face. She winced, releasing her vice-like grip of his arm. "D'you want me to do it?"

She certainly didn't sound like she wanted to. "I don't want him to gut you, neither." It'd be a sight he didn't need to see. Ever. Never again. "Look," he sighed. "Ready your weapons. I'll approach from the side, put the crown on his head and retreat as fast as I can. Let's hope that he doesn't wake up too quickly."

"Be careful." The words were softly spoken, and barely loud enough to be perceptible.

Unsheathing one of his knives with his free hand, Lear clambered up onto the arm of the throne, carefully avoiding the arm bones resting there. He suspended the crown over the bare skull, drew in a breath, held it.

And after making sure his hand was steady, he lowered the crown onto the skeleton's head.

The response was instantaneous. Before he could jump back, a sharp force had swatted him clean off. He barely had enough time to get his bearings and right himself in the air, and landed on his knees.

Somewhere near him, Anarei cried out. He heard the sounds - creaking bones, a great roar accompanied by crumbling pebbles and the hiss of hastily-drawn swords. And he could see it - the power of their foe, his anger and aggression.

Drawing his second blade, Lear hopped to his feet. He ignored the stinging in his knees, and instead, focused on the warmth flowing from the core of his being to fill the muscles of his legs.

He kicked off; in an instant, he was in front of the stout skeleton, the former-king holding himself proudly even in death. His eyes swept over the heavy armour, but was only spared a second or two before he had to duck, avoiding the large, heavy mace that was being swung about, felt the wind as it glanced over his head.

"Watch out, Anarei," he called out to his companion, hoping that she was keeping calm - calm enough, at any rate. "Neck or waist - pick one and attack. We haven't much chance with anywhere else."

She nodded tersely. Both swords were held firm within her hands, one with its tip just brushing the floor, the other blade resting over her shoulder. "Waist."

Excellent choice, he wanted to say, but the words failed to realise themselves, as the piles of bone scattered upon the floor began to shift. Mere twitches at first that escalated slowly to swift, aggressive movements.

He kicked at a shifting hip bone, but it merely glided past his leg. With clicks and snaps, the bones came together, forming the figures of warriors long deceased.

He felt the nudge of Anarei's shoulder against his side as she backed into him. Her voice was a low hiss. "Now?"

"There's no timing in this one, Anarei!" Sensing the approach of two skeletal warriors, he spun on his heel, lifting his other leg to plant a kick into the ribcage of the nearer foe, causing bones to shatter explosively upon impact.

If only something more fleshy was nearby; that was some pretty impressive shrapnel. "Focus on the king; cut down the rest if they get in the way." He parried the blow of a broadsword by another warrior with his knife, swiftly and precisely so as to not damage his slender, delicate weapons, and followed the movement with his other knife, beheading the warrior as his lightning-imbued blade slid between the bones of the skeleton's neck.

Anarei's footsteps were loud. In contrast, she was unbothered with delicacy - she simply broke through the warriors, bringing her heavy swords down upon skulls, shattering bones and joints. Leoric's skeleton roared as she darted before it, lifting the weapon over its head with its pale fingers.

The large mace fell against Anarei's crossed swords; she let out a grunt as the force pushed her down, but held her ground. Huh. This is useful.

"Hate to be asking this of a lady, Anarei, but keep doing that." Having cleared his way of the awakened skeleton warriors, Lear bridged the gap between himself and the king with a few wide strides, and, seeing that his foe was still preoccupied with his companion, aimed a charged kick into the gap between its heavy pauldron and plated bracers, and directly into the skeleton's left elbow.

Leoric's bones let out a furious bellow, and swung the mace towards him. Lear's retreat was slower than he had wanted, and he felt the sting as the spiked blades mounted on the mace sliced through the light leather armour beneath his overshirt. The metal glided past the skin of his abdomen, over the sensitive scar tissues near his navel.

Go, Anarei. Attack while he's distracted.

She did not disappoint. The flash of silver had barely caught his eye before her sword connected with Leoric's ankle. A loud clang arose - the bone was stronger than it looked. Still, the black king swayed, but managed to stay upright.

Anarei swore under her breath, then drove the tip of her sword through the black king's arm and pulled. That caught its attention.

Lear leapt to his feet and kicked off the ground. Felt the sharp, searing burn in his abdomen, as he wound up his body for a kick.

A moonlit room; blood looking almost black upon the shadowed walls.

The mace had cut him, after all. No. Not this. Not now.

Lear tried to refocus, but was snapped back to reality anyway by a sudden off-green glow that filled his vision.

He kicked out before the skeleton swung its weapon. His steel-plated boot made contact with the handle of the mace, just above the where it was grasped by the bony hand, causing a resounding clang. The impact sent tremours up his leg, and he crumpled to the floor, smacking the stone hard. The mace fell out of the king's hand to land beside him.

Anarei was attacking again, the sound of her boots upon the floor ringing harshly even amidst her short, breathless pants. He watched as she swam in and out of focus, but could just make out the glint of her swords as she once again thrust their tips into Leoric's arms, twisting both skeletal limbs back.

Enraged, the skeleton roared. Anarei had ground her feet into the stones, holding doggedly onto her swords with gritted teeth - but only for a moment. The full might of Leoric's wrath was too strong; the skeleton reared, arched its back and bucked like an unbroken horse. The healer gasped as the swords were wrenched up, the movement stretching her arms up.

And then she was thrown backwards, and with a faint scream, hit the wall close behind them. She fell to the ground as her swords clattered.

Wide open.

He stood once more, forced himself to concentrate on the scene before him, rather than the one in his mind. Forced himself to concentrate on Anarei's predicament, rather than the renewed pain in his abdominal wound.

He let out a shout. Stamped his left foot into the ground, hopped off it and kicked out with his right. An eye for an eye. He kicked directly at the black king's hollowed abdomen, felt the thick magic wrap around his shin, and the resistance of the spine, deep within the cavity.

Then a skeletal hand fastened itself around his ankle with crushing force.

Lear bit back a curse, willed himself not to panic, and tried to draw from deeper within - the warmth within the core of his body, the pulsating source he knew he had inherited.

Blue-grey sparks of lightning burst forth from his trapped limb, crackling their way over the skeleton's hand, streaking up his spine. The skeleton shrieked as smoke seeped from between its ribs, its empty eye sockets, its gaping jaw, the cracks between its armour.

King Leoric's final scream diminished into a faint sigh before dying away. His bones crumbled into a heap on the floor, then into a mound of fine dust. The crown fell, shattered into tiny specks of gold, and mixed into the bone dust.

Lear landed beside the dust-pile a moment later. What remained of the Skeleton King wafted into off the floor, drifted in the musty air for a moment, and faded out.

Yet Lear saw none of it; amidst the echoing screams within and without, his mind brought him back - to the room, illuminated by the silver moonlight. The entrails no longer glistened as the blood that coated them dried in the dank air. He smelled the stale foulness of slaughter, tasted the bile at the back of his throat, felt the cold piece of metal in his gut.

And he wondered if he would die.

Authors' Notes:

Oph: Diablo belongs to Blizzard, massive amount of liberty taken by us. I finally played some of the game. I'm also flying off on Wednesday and won't be home until mid-late October. Thank you alerters, favouriters and reviewers. There, all the important stuff addressed.

Em: We may or may not be able to get another chapter out before Oph leaves - goodness knows we've done it before. Y'all know what helps us along, though? Reviews! Lots and lots of reviews to tell us what you love and what you don't love! We need that juice, folks!

Oph: Especially since we gave you delicious action this chapter, didn't we? I hope so, anyway. And by action I do mean battle-action. Not... some other kinds of actions that Em thought of when I last mentioned action. Ahem.

Em: There's so many kinds of action! There's action-action, there's fight-action, there's lip action, there's bedtime acti - I'm going to stop myself right here before I palpitate my heart into a frenzy. But we're serious about that juice. We hope you've enjoyed this chapter, too!

Oph: We really hope you've liked all the different things we're doing here that diverges from canon, and oh is it only going to get better. So yeah, watch for an update in the coming few days, otherwise we'll see you in October! Cheers!