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We all leapt to our feet as the shards of flaming rock rained down on the camp, cratering the ground and lighting several of the tents as they fell. Rogues massed about us, some trying to douse the spreading blazes, some trying to aid their Sisters who had been struck, some climbing to the barricades to find the source of the intrusion. Paige had rushed out of the sleeping quarters and was assembling my armor along with hers, re-equipping her leathers with trembling and determined hands before trying to dress me. Another wave of fire came down upon us and I dodged a fist-sized brick of earth that smoldered unpleasantly where I had just stood. I too fastened chain and strap to my body against the invasion.
Akara and Cain had taken to chanting, her muttering fast and low while he sang in deep, spare tones. He had placed his hands upon her shoulders as she kindled with a pale glow that spread and pulsed about the two of them, then grew to envelop the camp. An audacious use of magic when the land was so rank with corruption; they both knew that it could only hold for a time, even if Cain was acting as a conduit to filter some of the darkness from the energy they pulled. Still, the barrier would be enough for us to determine what was going on and how best to stop it. The next blast was deflected out as both Akara and Cain stumbled back from the blow, then resumed again.
A great shout came up from the Rogues on the walls and I saw several of them draw their bows to fire. I heard the rabble-cry of demonkin and the grating clank of skeletal armor as the gate of the camp was besieged. I ran forward to battle, shattering ancient bone and spilling foul blood as the angry clouds belched forth their infernal rain once again. But these demonic minions had not been the cause for the outcry. From beyond my sight, a shrieking voice called out a single name, howling it as spell and battle-cry, then screamed an obscenity that caused the dirt around me to roil like tempest-laden waters. Gira had returned.
By this time, Bane had organized the Rogues and with great yells was timing their volleys to strike against the waves of the veteran’s invaders. Paige had climbed up to join her Sisters under his practiced command, which did not falter even as the monsters reached him and he took up his axe. Charsi came through the camp swinging her hammer in one hand and a great sword in the other, swirling her enemies through the air and slamming them against the ground, a wild and dangerous gleam in her eyes that confirmed her ancient Barbarian heritage. She emitted a throaty warcry and decapitated a minor incubus that had cornered Gheed, then bounded off to help Bane. Gheed then crawled under his cart and rocked back and forth, poorly concealing the damp spot that had formed in the front of his robes. Warriv fared a bit better and took to joining the impromptu bucket brigade rather than trying his luck in armed combat. I glanced around at the blur of bows and swords, but Kashya was nowhere to be found.
I sliced my way through the demon army towards its insane commander, who leered at me with a razor-grin offset by her now deep green flesh. Her once-simple Rogue garb had been artfully parodied using the skin of her former Sisters as its fabric, adorned here and there by bones, bugs, and ancient amulets. She leveled a bow of me made from the same grisly materials, still-visible ribs and femurs protruding from the massive weapon as she drew the string and shot. I dodged the arrows and barreled into her chest with both claws, but it was like hitting a fortification. The armor shifted and repulsed me as I danced back to avoid another missile. I sprang to my feet, readied my spirit, and tried again, but I was thrown back once more, this time almost to the door of the battling encampment. My failure was compounded by that of the Rogues, since even their skilled marksmanship left not a scratch on the body of their former comrade. I reached into my soul for whatever darkness had supposedly once given me such power, but the clear energies of my chi only reflected back and I was left with nothing more than I thought I had. Still the demons came, summoned and fed by the madness of Gira, who once again called the name of her target and shook the earth with her fury.
“Bane! Akara!” I cried, running past the ruined gate. “This isn’t working.” We had not yet lost ground against the tidal assault, but we were fighting at full force and had not stemmed the flow of enemies. It was unlikely that we could continue to hold the barricades for more than a few minutes, at the most. The ancient priestess did not reply as she levitated a few inches off the ground, channeling her spell, but I could see that her power was waning. The next influx of cursed rain was greaetly reduced, but not reflected; I had no doubts that the next would be the last she could withstand. Cain stood ready to take her place, but without a buffer, he would quickly be overcome by Andariel’s taint and pose to us as great a risk as the magical assault.
And through the smoke and fire, through the shower of arrows and flaming earth, through the screams of the demons and the warcries of the Barbarians, through the scurrying forms of the Rogues and the unnatural sway of the skeletons, between my fighting form and the immobile chanters, came Kashya. She too had been transformed, wearing not the beaten chain-mail and headdress that was her daily garb, but instead her battlegear, the armor that had seen her to Hell and back. Time slowed as she walked past, ignoring the tumult about her, passing through the melee to the door of the camp. Her face was concealed fully by a massive horned helm that joined a gleaming silver-blue chestplate by a fine, gilded mesh. Her arms, her legs were plated beyond recognition and only her hands showed flesh, for in them was clenched a bow. Ravenna’s bow. Blood dripped from the places where the razor-string had sliced her hands, but now I knew its other purpose, and I rushed to stop her, but was overwhelmed by a swarm of demons who pushed me back into the camp. I fought them off, but by this time, she had positioned herself in the midst of the invaders who, strangely enough, seemed to be ignoring her presence.
Gira called out Kashya’s name again and was not disappointed when Kashya returned the hail, standing at ease with an arrow nocked in her bow. I heard the veteran’s voice, the one she never used when she was whole, repeating the dread proclamation that Blood Raven had made to all of them. “You will die by fire, Sister. You will die in torment and agony a thousand times over. Or you will embrace the darkness and the freedom it gives. Through Andariel, you will see your anguish renewed and transformed to power beyond your imagination. Come, Kashya. Come back to me.”
And suddenly it was not Gira who stood there, but Ravenna, as she must have looked before becoming Blood Raven, a beautiful young woman of long black hair and dark olive skin whose arms were outstretched towards Kashya, beckoning, offering, an insult to wilt the resolve of her would-be killer. But the leader of the Rogues was unmoved and brought her bow untrembling to her eye, leveling her aim at the face of her love. I called out to Bane for help and soon he was beside me, wading through the battle towards the doomed Captain. I saw the blood run down the bowstring as Kashya whispered something; a fork of lightning entwined the arcing arrow that sank shaft-deep into the chest of Gira. The veteran screamed and unleashed a torrent of flames from her hand, but the impeccable armor of the Rogue merely gleamed in the heat as Kashya replied with an arrow-carried fireball of her own, and then another shot pulsating with dark energy. These found their mark with no less ease and the demon-Rogue sank to her knees, the apparition of Ravenna flickering as she lost her concentration. Kashya drew back her bowstring for the finishing move, only to find herself knocked down by a massive blow from Bane.
I reached the dying demon and looked deep into her black-red eyes. I recalled the face of Blood Raven as I had released her spirit and prepared to offer the same to Gira. “You…cannot…save her from…my fate,” the creature spat. Now the sphere was upon me and I felt a rush of voices from my tongue. “Yes, we can,” they echoed and the demon beneath me cringed. I plunged my blade through her heart and watched the corrupted soul spin out of the final wound to dissappate in the wind. Her eyes cleared to pale brown and then shut, leaving Kashya the last of her kind.
The sky cleared immediately and crashing metal signaled that the magic animating the hundreds of undead warriors had been staunched. The Rogues upon the barricades would finish the demonkin, but my thoughts were upon Kashya, only Kashya, as I withdrew the weapon from Gira’s chest and wiped it on my pants. She had risen to face Bane, who had sunk to one knee and spat up blood from his untimely illness. Her bow was taut and the arrow prepared to sink through his skull, but I knew her eyes were upon me, though I could not see them through the veil of steel. Now I approached her as a friend but also as an assassin. I weighed her stance and capabilities with every step even as I longed to soothe her. Heavy plate and decades of combat would give her tactical skills, but the years of loss and tumult would give her fearlessness and recklessness. She did not shy from death or corruption by the unseen any longer; that she drew upon her ancient blood magic, the first time since Tristram, was proof enough. Had the forces she’d conjured to defeat Gira twisted her as they had all others? And if she fell, what of the Rogues?
I raised my blades to her. “Kashya,” I called, stilling the tremor that threatened to choke my voice, “it is finished. Your foes are dead. Let us return to the camp.”
“Are they now, An’yee?” The bow moved from Bane’s grateful body to mine. I stopped my advance. He rolled away with a single movement and retrieved his axe from where he’d dropped it during his charge, then shifted his body so that he could strike her with a languid swing. Now the three of us stood poised to strike, none wanting to move, all wanting to end this, but none sure how. The bow came up and another droplet of red fluid flowed down and splashed on her mirrored greaves.
“Kashya, what in the burning hells are you doing,” called Paige from the towertop. Her quiver empty, my young companion could only watch in confusion as we squared off.
“I’m giving An’yee an excuse to do what I cannot. That is why she was brought here, after all.” Her voice cracked. “I’m corrupted and she is here to purge the land.”
“Lies, Kashya. I was brought to help you retake the Monastery…”
“Retake the Monastery, cleanse the land of demons, and strike down any Rogue who had fallen prey to polluted magics. I know what your commission said. I wrote it myself. For myself.” Her words were adamant and frantic.
Her foresight had been terribly logical; she’d seen Kaya succumb at Tristram and Ravenna after. I was to insure that she would not turn as they had, but rather remain whole unto the grave, for who better to sense even a mote of corruption…than an assassin.
I inched forward and another drop of blood fell from her hand. “I swear, Kashya, by this land, by the Mothers, by my blades, by the Prophecy, and by anything else I can think of, that if I see even a hint of Andariel’s influence, I will gut you where you stand.” I held up the hand where seemingly ages ago we had bound ourselves by the ancient oath. “This is my promise and that of my people.”
This satisfied her enough that she slowly lowered the bow. She went to put it on the ground but hesistated and removed her cloak, swaddling the weapon in the aged fabric before letting it rest on the ground. Even at her disarming, Bane seemed unwilling to relax his defensive stance. Now his position was joined by Akara and Caine, both ancient faces drained of color and expression from the incredible exertion, the likes of which neither had partaken in for decades. They did not question or seek explanation; it was likely they had guessed already. Paige upon the watchtowers calling out to both of us and finally running down the wooden ladders to scamper beside me. My eyes were on Kashya, but there must have been something in my posture that made my assistant retreat a few steps She had the good sense not to say anything, but her confusion filled my senses and quivered my resolve.
Ungauntleted fingers undid the straps of the breastplate, where is slammed to the ground as a testament to its construction. The legplates as well were carefully undone and allowed to fall, leaving Kashya in her more traditional dress, save the massive helm now obscuring her entire face. Now she raised her hands to the colossal metal faceplate and someone drew in a breath, expectantly. Perhaps it was Paige or her or even me, but I knew it didn’t matter. I knew what was behind the helm from the moment her hand had been opened on the bowstring. From behind rust-stained eyelids and framed by her pale countenance, Kashya’s eyes were burning red.
It was impossible to tell how long the corruption had festered within the Rogue Captain, but the evil that seized every one who escaped Tristram had not left her untouched. Yet she had staved off the insidious madness that had come upon her sisters and still commanded both her mind and body without fail. There are poisons I can drink without fear since I have imbibed them in small quantities for many years; so too, perhaps, the near-fatal wound inflicted by Lazarus had plunged enough of this malevolent force into her body that she was strengthened against the demonic plague seeping from the very earth. But that would not have been enough for her to channel the magics she used on Gira without exposing her soul to Andariel’s darkness. And so she had chosen to put aside her uncertain but terrible future and take the path of willing damnation. Damnation that I was now tasked to prevent.
“Don’t you see,” she whispered. “You were wrong. I hid it from everyone. I had to. But I can’t…” Her words trailed off to quiet panicked gibbering. Paige let out a whispered cry that she stifled. I felt her back away again; had I been in her shoes, I might have started running there.g
Bane caught my eye and I nodded. My mind and body knew what I must do, but my heart’s twin desires slammed rampant into one another. How could I kill this person whose nobility, courage, and counsel were so desperately needed, yet how could I condemn her to becoming the seething monstrosity that lay just a few feet from us? If I did not kill her now, what havoc would she wreak when I left the land? What would I, who had seen strange portents of a dark future, wish done to me if faced by a member of my own tribe? I swore that I would fulfill this covenant but in my heart the wrongness of the situations screamed to make its displeasure known. My instinct at the moment was one of comfort, not one of assassination, and that was the one I acted upon.
I removed my helm and put it on the floor, closed the distance and clasped her in my arms. Our foreheads touched softly and I heard her whispering her apologies and thanks through silent tears. We held one another among our silent comrades, our breathing muted and slow in our embrace. I let my lips linger at hers for a moment and then slipped the dagger through her mail and between her ribs, opening the ancient scar that had borne her so much agony. She was still grateful in her words, even as the wound opened, blood pouring out from the coarse edges and welling in the crevices between our bodies. I watched her eyes widen, but I knew she felt no pain but that of life ebbing away and with it, the unearthly red glow of her orbs. They shone blue for a moment, pure and clear and full of emotion, then lidded as she died. In the end, it was neither duty nor fear that let me kill her; it was love.
I could only hold her for a few more minutes, her warmth still present though her soul had fled. Then the Barbarian rested a hand on my shoulder to stir me from my reverie. Bane helped me ease the body off my blade and cradled her. “How much time do we have,” he asked.
I looked at the sun. “A few hours, probably less.”
He started back towards the camp with her in his arms, leaving me soaking in her blood. “We’d best set off, then.” I followed him, only to be grabbed by a weeping Paige.
“Time for what? Set off where?”
I looked at her tears and approved them. “We are going to kill Andariel. We are going to bring Kashya back.”