With the onset of winter, it was well after Vatsyayana woke and began his morning rituals that the sun began its meager assault on the grey flotilla of clouds that were still billowing snow. After his devotions were done he briskly rubbed his scalp with a depilatory salve and after rinsing it, brushed out his long jet black pony tail and bound it with the red silk band given to him by Gillian's grandmother at their wedding.
Vatsyayana smiled as Gillian snored gently, like a kitten purring. It had been a long rowdy night of dancing with the return of many old friends including frequent comrades Corfiero and Lysindra, who had been elevated to an exalted post amongst the Fyre clan. Though Vatsyayana's head throbbed as much as theirs did, he had promised to meet Khanan at sunrise by the entrance to the Undercroft and if he didn't large snowballs would soon pelt the windows and wake their guests. It would be a good time to try out the Holy mail crafted by the Fae folk and enchanted with sorcerous powers, that one of the daemons had been so kind as to bequeath upon its demise. Though as delicate as Parnequois Silk, the shimmering coat of links was far stronger than plate made by humans. Griswold had been anxious to learn the secrets of this elven armor, but after a day of examination, merely scratched his head and handed it back, saying it looked more as if it had been grown than forged. Vatsyayana had not thought to ask his wife Gillian, but of course she had known its secrets.
"When a dryad becomes a sylph, she must molt. The skin she sheds is soaked for a thousand years in a brine of ash soot, and then fired in molten lava. It becomes incredibly strong, yet retains the wood nymph's suppleness. If it can be kept from cracking during the process, wonderful powers may be imbued upon it, depending on the dryad it came from."
Vatsyayana approached the bed, slightly drew back the cream colored sheets and leaned over and gave her a gentle kiss on the forehead.
"Tell Khanan, I send my best" she mumbled and then yanked the sheets back over her head and flopped onto her stomach. Vatsyayana thought of giving her pleasing rump a playful slap.
"Don't you dare!" Gillian reached out and waggled an accusatory finger at him. Then she peeked out and gave him a smile. "Diamonds. I want Diamonds, not Obsidian, hon."
Vatsyayana rolled his eyes, "What about that chocolate amulet of the heavens I brought you last week?"
Gillian drew the sheets back to expose the curves Vatsyayana knew and cherished. Then she covered up again. "Candy is dandy, but diamonds just might get you a repeat of last night."
Vatsyayana mopped the sweat from his forehead. Any more of this and he'd be hard pressed not to join Gillian under the sheets.
"I'll be back later," he said heading for the stairs down.
"You'd better. Diamonds or no diamonds, I need my man and I'm not planning on shacking up with Farnham."
"Then tell him to quit leaving his smelly socks lying around," Vatsyayana ducked the first pillow and was down the stairs before Gillian could launch the second.
He really needed to oil the hinges, but there was nothing for it now, but try and open the armoire as quietly as possible, so as not to wake Damian or Rich who slumbered peacefully on the eider-down pallets strewn about the parlor. Neither Purple nor Riveneye had made it back but Stalker had likely chaperoned them safely home. Steel Lord had mercifully avoided Rich's insistence upon cavorting around in the bizarre fishnet armor. Handy Solo had not dodged such a fate, but was enriched by two buxom beauties for his folly. The house was a shambles, but all had enjoyed a good time.
Vatsyayana slipped the gossamer mail on and carefully fastened the clasps and straps. Long-Tian, the heavenly amulet of the cloud dragon, went about his neck with a braided silk cord, and he fished in his pouch of rings for his prize possession. Cut from single sea green beryl, the circlet of emerald allowed him to evade half the damage from any attack that came through the air. Cain was at a loss to explain the effect, but Gillian, with her wisdom gleaned from dreams and tea readings, had explained that the ring didn't absorb any damage, it just directed half of it onto Vatsyayana's shadow. Clever bit of magic, that.
Gillian then explained that humans only gained half the magic, and that when worn by daemons, such a ring granted full immunity from magics.
Vatsyayana then pulled out the oversized brass ring of battle. He paused. For once, he would not be needing its magic, as he wouldn't be wearing the heavy plate armor of the Emperor Liu Pang. Perhaps the Eye of the Tiger? He pulled out the unusual ring and slipped it over his finger. The room begin to spin rapidly and Vatsyayana sank to his knees. Clearly the faint magic drain of the ring of the big cat was too much to co-exist with the magic of the elven mail. Perhaps the vast magic of a mage might counter it, but then would the mage be nimble enough to wear such an armor? It was doubtful. The ring of battle came out again, and Vatsyayana placed two helms along with a staff of mana in his pack before slinging it on his back.
Gingerly he slipped old faithful from its hooks, carefully inspecting the iron bands and razor sharp blades on both ends of the War Staff. Once, the great champion Musashi hastily cut down samurai and yakuza alike with this hardy stick. Any foolish enough to challenge the great master to a duel were summarily dismissed.
Vatsyayana thanked the Good Master once again for his bounties and carefully wove his way through the tangle of dozing bodies. He opened and quickly shut the door, bracing himself against the swirling bite of morning snow. He fumbled in his pack, pulled out the Gotterdamerung, dropped it back in and plucked out the other helm. Drawing another deep breath to steel himself against the shivers, he donned the obsidian helm ringed with the balancing symbols of earth and air, fire and water, yin and yang that gave him a peaceful harmony during battle. The Gotter would make it too difficult to see, but more importantly, the obsidian helm of harmony was fur lined and Gillian had thoughtfully sewn in ear flaps.
Vatsyayana trudged through the fresh snowfall, deciding he didn't feel like hearing Adria's screeching voice this early in the morning and that the belt full of blues would have to suffice for the moment.
Some of the tombstones were half buried in the heavy white drift, but the largest and most garish still lay bare. Flurries of tiny flakes evaporated as soon as they kissed the blistering stone, heated by the hellfires below. Vatsyayana had nearly perished in the molten lava flaws himself a few times, and he stood a respectful distance from the demon bedecked tombstone that marked the entrance to the Undercroft. It wasn't like Khanan to be late, but at least Vatsyayana wouldn't be cold while waiting.
An hour passed, and Vatsyayana's mind began to drift, alternating between concern for his friend and a desire to seek comfort in his wife's arms. Ten more minutes passed and Vatsyayana was genuinely worried. He recited the mantra of instant moving nineteen times which took him past the caves and mountains and into the Clan Khanan's village. It was more a ring of huts than a town, but as Vatsyayana arrived there was nothing but white.
The hard driving snow had obliterated everything. Not a single board peeked through. Vatsyayana looked up the nearby cliff and could see the vast bare spot where the avalanche had come crashing down from.
Clan Khanan had recovered from disasters, but there was nothing and noone left to recover. Vatsyayana dropped to his knees and let his anguish be muffled against the ground. How many times had Khanan saved his puny bones from a dire fate? How many fabulous gifts had he bestowed without a second thought? All of Tristram would be mourning, and it would be best if a proper dirge was composed by the master lyricist Van Ham.
"It wasn't an accident."
Vatsyayana whirled. "If it isn't Bovinity herself!" he teased. Celleste Ominatago Wicapiwakan would be forever haunted by her initials. "Cow" as she had even taken to calling herself was anything but such a lumbering creature, and her nimble spell casting and deft arrows had taken down countless demons over the years. Whether her eyes were red rimmed from the cold or tears it was hard to say as she leaned on that Infernal great bow that seemed to have a penchant for teammates backsides.
"Why would you say that?" Vatsyayana didn't see any evidence of foul play.
"The avalanche was caused by Horizon's pack of Dark Mages fireballing the cliff." Cow continued, "Casman discovered another cave system high on the cliff walls and had sent for my help to watch it. When I arrived this morning, he explained how the mages sent volley after volley of fireballs from the cave mouth into the heavy snow and then vanish just as the cliff started rumbling."
"Where is Casman now?" Vatsyayana could feel the hatred building like a geyser despite the helm's effects.
"I haven't seen him since. He said that Khanan's son might have been training in a different village, so as not to generate favoritism in training, with Khanan being chief and all that."
"We should start a collection for the child," Vatsyayana had a collection in mind. A collection of demon heads lined up on pikes from Tristram to the Murky Sea.
"He's not much of child from what Casman says. The boy is almost of age and even taller than his dad, if you can believe that's possible."
"He'll want to avenge his father's murder." Vatsyayana shook his staff at an uncaring grey sky. "Hell, I want to avenge his murder!"
"It would be best if Little Khanan were given a bit of help and carefully steered through lesser challenges before turning him loose in the Undercroft, but I think we can all find some useful equipment for him." Cow shivered. Unlike Vatsyayana, her armor had no fur lining as it hampered the lithe movements necessary for a rapidly moving archer.
"My wife knows where my battle chest is," the monk too began to shiver. "Take whatever you think he might need. I'm going to end Horizon's reign of horror."
"Wait, and we can get a war party togeth...." Cow started, but the monk was rapidly blinking in and out as he teleported away through the swirling snow.
Old Faithful clanged loudly twice more before shattering the last of the hulking Mithril demons. The staff was getting a bit rough, and with the third level cleared, Vatsyayana stopped to rub some of Griswold's Oil onto the war staff. It was such a shame that the demons had stolen the formula as well as the dozen cases of the blacksmith's oil, but at least Vatsyayana didn't have to pay Griswold's steep prices when he recovered the oils from a demon's corpse. The mana staff came out of the pack and Vatsyayana felt his mind renewed. Most of the blues he had bought from Adria were gone from the pack, though he still had a full belt, as well as several elixirs that Little Khanan might find useful. Vatsyayana took a few minutes to catch his breath. The level had been a nightmare, thronged with salacious temptresses and their rain of blood sucking stars. It was actually a relief to find the last niche jammed with the gleaming titans. One of them had been kind enough to drop a twin to the Eye of the tiger that Vatsyayana now wore. Countered and complimented by a small golden scarab amulet and the Gotterdamerung, Vatsyayana was able to sneak up to the demons and dispatch them before they even knew what hit them. It was the packs of witches and mages that he had to be wary of. One loose spell or misstep and the lot of them instantly turned on him with malevolent fury.
He hefted his pack as he hiked down the stairs to the last level of the Undercroft and prepared himself to avenge Khanan's death. It surely felt as if there were enough gold to get the Great Axe for Little Khanan that Griswold was touting as the fastest axe any soldier ever bore.
Vatsyayana stepped quietly from the stairway into the realm of Horizon and his compatriot in evil, The Executioner. Jarulf had explained that the two of them had been powerful enough to dominate and contain their former master Na-Krull. None of that mattered to Vatsyayana as he conjured the great mental shield that would deflect some of his enemies' attacks. Tonight, the only thing that mattered was revenge! Under normal circumstances, he would never venture so deep into the dungeon solo. Had Khanan ever shown such fear when he went down over and over to salvage Vatsyayana's items? No, he never quit until the job was done and all his comrades were safely home.
The vampiric great helm continued to drain his life force, and the monk would soon have to cast another heal spell. Khanan had needed no such spells, garnering replenishment from the demons themselves as he reaved them like a farmer mowing down noxious weeds.
With calculated stealth, Vatsyayana tip toed up to a corner. Judging by the scarlet glow of demon silhouettes, the room beyond led into one of the long columned hallways. More importantly, a pack of towering suits of armor were milling about, one of them exuding light like sailor's beacon.
They were too tightly packed to sneak up on, so Vatsyayana rock cursed several of them, most especially the one that was likely the Executioner himself.
Reciting the mantra of instant moving, Vatsyayana was next to two of the still mobile black barons. As their tree sized blades clanged harmlessly off the gossamer chain mail, Old Faithful pounded them relentlessly. Vatsyayana had long ago learned that even if he couldn't penetrate their armor, he could crush the bone and flesh that presumably lay underneath. Perhaps it was something else that lay underneath, Vatsyayana wondered once again as one of the black barons armor cracked and he went roaring to his death in a swirling column of flame.
Phosphorous or Magnesium flesh? Vatsyayana wasn't alchemist enough to know, and he had more important things to deal with, like the rest of the black barons who were waking rather resentfully from their stone slumber. The second black baron howled and spun in death flames, and Vatsyayana back pedaled and rock cursed two more as he slipped behind the stone corner and in between deflecting sword thrusts, managed to batter at the trio of armored demons. The Executioner laughed and maneuvered behind his troops, urging them into a frenzy, even as he sought a way to join the fray himself.
Vatsyayana managed another rock curse against the Executioner, before he had a chance to wield that malicious blade against him. The nine foot blade could halve a cow with a single swipe, and even a mere brush against the wickedly barbed blade would insure grievous wounds.
Old Faithful connected with a resounding thud against the neck of one of the black barons, sending him to meet his unholy ancestors, and giving Vatsyayana enough time to teleport behind the pack and select a new vantage point. If Khanan had been here, this pack would be nothing more than a shambles of empty iron suits by now. But he wasn't and never would be again, which was the whole point.
Vatsyayana stood his ground as four of the black barons eagerly closed for the kill. With a lunge he thrust the war staff between the legs of one black baron and as he swung it, the staff not only crushed the legs of the black baron in front of him, but also battered the one behind him that was trying to attack him. Vatsyayana leaned back and used his legs to drive off the knight's armor as he drove again and again back and forth between the two knights. The pair at his sides slashed madly, but between the holy elven mail and old faithful, Vatsyayana was able to ignore them and pound the other two relentlessly. Surely by now their innards must be pulp? He thought, and sure enough one and then the other blazed upwards in mortal agony.
The Ssssok sound behind him, told Vatsyayana that the big bad boy himself had awoken, and there wasn't enough mana left to keep him immobile while the current battle raged. Vatsyayana chose to fall back into the open, hoping the two underlings would catch up more quickly than their fearsome leader. They did, and Old Faithful made them pay for their audacity as they rocked back and forth, locked by the stunning blows to helm and body.
Vatsyayana felt himself propelled backwards and nearly lost his war staff as he stumbled to regain his footing. The Executioner had rent a two foot gash in his side, and Vatsyayana could see some of his intestines boiling out. The two black baron underlings doubled over to charge him, but Vatsyayana was able to side step the attack and drink his last healing potion before the wound finished him off. Miraculously, the red fluid re-knit muscle walls , skin and bone instantaneously. Vatsyayana barely had time for a "Thanks" before he was whirling Old Faithful in a frenzied panic trying to keep the Executioner at bay.
"At the next new moon, we will come to feast upon your fallen friends," The Executioner chuckled, and ripped another long gash into Vatsyayana's side. Before the monk could quaff another potion, the huge blade struck again sending the hapless hero sprawling.
Moments from his own death, Vatsyayana recalled the oath of healing Gillian had taught him, then using his staff as a pole vault, leapt over the charging trio of knights. Before they could turn, Vatsyayana had smashed in the pauldrons of one black baron, keeping it from raising its sword. It was only two more swipes against the neck brace to send the evil knight to its doom.
Vatsyayana backpedaled again, drawing himself along the wall, and thankfully keeping the last black baron between him and that monstrosity of metal. The Executioner would pay soon enough for his remarks, but first there was one more obstacle...
Risking his last rock curse, Vatsyayana managed to stop the Executioner in his tracks and for the next few moments it was only a matter of counting the strikes until the black baron went down.
The monk had old faithful whirling even before the Executioner was rudely awoken to thundering blows. The towering demon knight broke free of the attack and brought that dreadful blade down, taking a large chunk of Vatsyayana's left arm with it.
Vatsyayana could not summon the battle rage that Khanan could, but he could change tatics. He stopped attacking for a moment and neatly deflected four otherwise deadly blows. Then he saw his opportunity and Musashi's War Staff swept up and then down with a resounding crash, shattering the Executioner's collar bone. Twice more the staff went up and down and the huge demon knight faltered. Vatsyayana bashed again and again and again until the tornado of flaming death roared around and briefly engulfed him.
"It isn't over yet barrel hugger!" Vatsyayana taunted at the empty suit of armor. "Khanan will be greeting you soon enough." Had there been a ping? Pain nearly doubled the monk over as he let his mind sweep out and search the area. There! Vatsyayana almost threw the dumb ring back onto the ground. He had seen the huge brass ring before. Big enough for a giant's knuckle, it was only useful if you were going to arm wrestle a barbarian. Still, he might need it if the money in his pack wasn't enough for the axe.
The mana stick soon gave Vatsyayana enough energy for him to heal himself, but he would need far more than that to track down Horizon, and so he conjured up a blue portal and looked forward to a quick lunch at home before venturing back down.
Griswold still hadn't sold the axe, and the money in the pack was easily enough, even without selling the ring. Vatsyayana started home for lunch, than went back towards Cain. He would never hear the end of Gillian's questions if he didn't get have the ring looked at first.
Cain seemed startled at the hunk of metal.
"There has to be some mistake..." He muttered. "It isn't possible..." Cain scratched his head and kept looking at Vatsyayana. It was almost as if he were going to pocket the thing himself and try to give the monk a few token coins for it.
Finally, Cain handed the ring back and spoke, "There are many rings of import scattered through the realm. Some of them were crafted by mages, some by demons. All of them derive their essential powers from the eternal conflict between man and demon. All but one. This is that One Ring. It is not supposed to ever be in the possession of man nor demon. The fact that it is here, now, tells me that unspeakable horrors and conflicts lie in our very near future. It would take a mighty angel to deliver this ring to us." Cain didn't seem elated at the find at all.
"The same angel that came to take Khanan up?"
"Perhaps," Cain spoke. "Perhaps."