"The time has come."
The dark room had been never been seen to anyone in the party, save Xeiss, and then only in her nightmares. The massive throne constructed of skulls from unworthy victims dominated as the largest object in the room. Long spikes rose on each side of a wide pathway toward the throne, some spikes impaling more unfortunate victims. There were countless dead bodies in the room, but only two living ones, although both creatures being classified as "living" was questionable. One of them stood before the throne, yellow skin and tentacles revealing her to be corrupted.
"Yes, the purification process will soon be complete. Tonight they will join us, Andariel."
Andariel, sitting upon the throne, smiled. "But I still do not know what I am receiving. A sorceress, whose powers I can exploit to their utmost, but what of the other? What can she provide me with?"
"More than you could possibly imagine. I know her personally, and she has talents that will prove most useful in your pursuits."
"You know her personally, Phena? Where from?"
"She was a Sister."
"Ah, good. Well, I must attend to other matters. Have the rogues prepare the altar for the ritual. It will be done in this room, as always. I want the two of them brought to me as soon as the sun sets tonight."
"As you wish."
The corrupted woman bowed and left the room, leaving Andariel to her thoughts. She almost chuckled to herself. Things were going well. Andariel rose from her chair and began walking out of the room.
In the middle of the floor she stopped. This feeling had been bothering her all day, but she could not determine why. For some reason it felt as if she was being watched at all times. She glanced around the room, but saw nothing. Shaking her head, the Maiden of Anguish left the room.
Far in the back of the room, hidden in the shadows, a head rose. The eyes of the figure opened suddenly, revealing they had been closed to hide the streaks of lightning that flew across them, fading away as the evil left the room. The eyes then closed again, and the figure was once more engulfed by the darkness.
There was a sudden clatter as a hoof scraped across stone. The leg of the horse, a bright, pure white, stumbled but caught itself just before the entire frame toppled over.
"Whoa! Watch it Triesque!"
Mercy had barely managed to stay on Triesque’s back as he righted himself. He turned his head toward her. "Sorry about that."
"Triesque, that’s the second time you’ve stumbled in the past 30 minutes. I think you’re too weak to travel any further. That incident with your horn drained more from you than I thought."
"You are truly the master of the obvious, Mercy."
Intruder scowled. "Well we don’t have time to wait for people, or unicorns. You’ll have to stay behind."
"No they won’t." Ethon said. "Town up ahead."
"Where?" Shin asked, but Ethon was already detaching something from his helmet and handing it to him. Shin, confused, looked at Ethon and saw him motioning for Shin to place the object up against his eyes. Shin did so, and he saw the land before them, plains that ended at the mountains which were looming over them. The mountains seemed very far away.
Ethon shook his head. "No, no, no. You have it backwards. Turn it around."
Shin flipped the object over and looked through the other end, and to his amazement he could see movement in the distance. His finger pressed against a button on the side, and the view zoomed in to reveal a small encampment, just on the edge of the mountains, with people milling about.
"Looks more like an encampment than a permanent town."
Shin passed the object, which Ethon called "Model XG40 Dual Zoom Binoculars with a Horizon Range" around the party and each person looked at the town.
Mercy smiled. "All right, Triesque. Just a little further and then you can rest for the rest of the day."
The party moved quickly towards the encampment. However, as they approached it, they didn’t see any movement within. There were no people anywhere within the encampment.
Ethon frowned. "That’s odd, I could have sworn I saw people here before…"
Mercy slowly and carefully dismounted. Her leg felt slightly better now, and she didn’t need to use the crutch, but she still had a limp.
"All right, Triesque, go see if you can find some stables. You look exhausted."
Triesque nodded, and slowly walked off. The rest of the group dismounted and continued on foot as well, holding their horses by the reins. The town was deathly quiet.
Atlas glanced about. "I don’t like the look of this."
Off to their left, a horse whinnied in alarm. Mercy’s eyes widened, and she tried to walk briskly towards the sound, since she couldn’t run. "Triesque!!!"
"HALT! Do not move or you will be killed!"
Mercy froze in her tracks, as did the rest of the party. The female voice had come from nowhere. They all looked around for any sign of the woman.
"You all have at least one arrow pointed at your heart. Answer our questions to our satisfaction and you will be released."
"What about my… horse?" Mercy shouted, to no one in particular.
"Have your eyes been checked lately? It’s a unicorn, not a horse, unless you did a fine job of gluing that horn on."
Intruder frowned. "Well, I haven’t done anything! You have no right to keep me prisoner!"
Intruder took a step forward. As he did, an arrow flew from nowhere and imbedded itself into the ground 2 inches from his foot. He jumped back, startled.
"That was your ONE warning shot. The next will result in death."
"Go ahead, Intruder. Run. I’m sure they’ll miss," Severen said, grinning.
Intruder frowned. "What kind of idiot do you think I am?"
"The anti-social kind."
Shin was looking around for any sign of the voice still. "What do you want?"
"I am asking the questions here. What do YOU want? Why have you come to this encampment?"
"We were on our way to the Monastery."
"Then you are fools. The Monastery is impassable, and thus so are the lands to the east. You may not pass through the citadel."
"I never said we were passing through it. We are going to the Monastery."
"Then you are greater fools than I first imagined, unless you are some of Andariel’s minions…"
Shin thought he could hear the sound of bowstrings all around him growing tighter, ready to fire. "No, we go because two of our friends were captured by the Maiden of Anguish, and we are going to rescue them."
"Your quest is a foolhardy one. Your friends are already dead."
"We suspect Andariel plans to corrupt them, so they may still be alive."
There was a short pause. "Perhaps so. What are their names?"
Shin was taken aback slightly. "Uh… Celes and Xeiss, why?"
There was muttering around them, as if their captors were conversing over the answer. The woman spoke again. "Xeiss Rasha?"
"Yes… how did you know?"
There was another pause, and then they heard footsteps approaching. A woman stepped out of the shadows, walking towards them. She wore chain mail and had a sword at each of her sides in two scabbards, along with a bow and quiver strapped across her back. She was looking over them, examining them. She stopped a few feet away.
The woman continued walking again, this time past them towards a tent within the encampment. The party followed, and as she entered, the rest of the party entered as well. There was enough room for them all to fit, but there were no seats, so they either stood or sat on the ground. The woman who had led them to the tent stood near another woman who was dressed in a purple robe and sitting on the ground, as if meditating. Without raising her head so the light could penetrate the hood of her robe, she spoke.
"How is it that you know Xeiss?"
Since Shin was doing such a splendid job of not getting them killed, he did the talking. "She traveled with our group. We are trying to combat Diablo, and she came with us so she could…"
"…umm… yeah. You know Xeiss?"
The woman’s eyes rose and looked at Shin. She was grinning. "Know her? I raised her."
The party looked at each other for a moment. Then Atlas spoke up. "You mean… you’re… uhh… Mrs. Rasha?"
The woman almost laughed at this. "No, no. She was an orphan. Didn’t she tell you?"
Shin shook his head. "No, I’m afraid not. She was captured by Andariel’s minions only a few days after we met her."
"Well then, perhaps it would interest you to know that she used to be a Sister."
"A Sister of the Sightless Eye, you mean?"
"And that would make you…"
"Akara, High Priestess of the Circle of Sisters. I found your friend when she was but a child and her mother… but we don’t have time for anecdotes. Let’s just say that she grew up in the monastery, and I was one of those who helped raise her. Now, let us get back to business. You say Xeiss has been captured by Andariel?"
"Yes, as well as our friend Celes."
"And you wish to rescue them from her clutches? How long have they been captured?"
"About two weeks."
"This is dire news. The purification process is nearing its completion, if it hasn’t already."
"In other words, we don’t have much time."
"Yes. Kashya, will you go with them and show them a way in that is more… discrete?"
Akara turned to the woman in chain mail, and she nodded. "I am always ready to help a fellow Sister, especially when I trained her myself."
"Good. Then good luck to you all. My prayers will be with you."
The party, along with Kashya, left the tent. Akara sighed. "And with Xeiss."
There was a distinct ringing inside Xeiss’s ear. It woke her up gently, and she slowly brought her finger up to her ear and twisted it, as if trying to pull the sound out. One useful, yet annoying, power that Xeiss was imbued with because of her telepathy was a ringing in her ear whenever someone was talking about her. Xeiss hoped whoever it was had good intentions.
The next sound which Xeiss heard was the rumbling of her stomach. She glanced over to the canister at the edge of the room and spat towards it angrily. Phena had grown suspicious when they had not been starving as much as they should have, and replaced their clean water with tainted water. By now Xeiss and Celes had grown weak from the forced starvation. Xeiss reached up and grasped the edge of the sarcophagus she had been leaned up against, and pulled herself to her feet. She was still strong enough to walk, but if she even attempted to fight her way out of this mess, she would collapse.
Xeiss walked over to Celes’s sarcophagus and peered in at her as she slept peacefully, envying her slightly for her ability to sleep in the small coffins without freaking out. Xeiss had never understood her claustrophobia. Then again, she had never understood her telepathy either. She figured there was some purpose to her abilities, and her drawbacks. Some sort of destiny had given them to her. It gave her some comfort in that she didn’t believe these traits would be given to her if she was destined to become corrupted by Andariel.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the door opening. Xeiss turned, awaiting Phena’s smug look, her smile of triumph as she watched them starve. She was not disappointed.
"Good morning," Phena began. Xeiss was happy to know that her sense of time hadn’t been totally messed up, seeing as how she still managed to sleep during the night when there really was no indication of night or day within the crypt.
"Any reason how a morning is good when you wake up in a crypt?"
"Cynical today, Xeiss. The hunger is getting to you. I have good news though, you won’t be hungry for much longer."
"Because you’re going to corrupt us tonight."
"That’s really annoying, Xeiss, reading my mind like that. It ruins the suspense."
"That wasn’t me reading your mind, it was me reading your twisted words."
"I do hope you’ll be more friendly once you become one of us."
"If I were to become one of you, we would never be friends, only fellow slaves."
"You say "if" as if there is some chance you wouldn’t convert tonight."
"My friends will come for me."
"Ah yes, your friends. Those MEN you were traveling with. You really believe they’re capable of rescuing you? Don’t you remember your days here? The first things you learn are the weaknesses of men, and why you should never trust them."
"Is that why you prance about in nothing but what nature and Andariel gave you? To take advantage of their lust?"
"Perhaps. Perhaps that’s why so many rogues that have left here wear such skimpy outfits. Shameful. But becoming one of us means losing all modesty, and other such frivolities."
"Was there something else you wanted?"
"No, I just wanted you to know that your troubles will be ended soon."
"They’ve just begun."
Phena shrugged, and left the room. Xeiss walked up to the door, sighing at her helplessness. She then stared over at the tainted water, walked over, and kicked the canister over with all her might. She slumped to the ground, defeated.
Xeiss’s head rose slightly as she heard the voice. Slowly rising to her feet, she shuffled over to Celes’ sarcophagus and found her there, awake.
"So how do you feel today, Celes?"
"It’s ironic. My mind isn’t muddled, and I can move as much as I want."
"What’s ironic about that?"
"I’m so weak from hunger I don’t want to move."
"I thought I heard voices before I woke up. Were you talking to Phena?"
"Is today the day that we…"
Xeiss nodded again, sadly.
Celes shut her eyes and sighed. "Atlas, where are you?"
Atlas looked slightly confused. "Right here."
Kashya nodded. "Right there."
Atlas shrugged and turned back toward the rock. It looked just like every other rock in the mountain. Taking out an axe that probably couldn’t even be lifted by two of the other party members combined, he grasped it in both hands, held it above his head, and smashed it into the rock. To everyone’s amazement, the rock was split in two, each half falling to the side and crumbling. Behind where the rock had been was a cave.
Atlas smiled back at the wide-eyed party. "How’s THAT for strength? Come on, let’s go!"
Atlas entered the cave, the rest of the party following behind. Scarlet held her hands out, and two balls of fire appeared in them. She tossed them up in the air, and they levitated, one in front of Atlas and one in about the middle of the party. Along with Glitterspike’s glitter, the fireballs provided enough luminance so that everybody had ample light in the dark passage. Kashya and Intruder went in last.
"Let me guess," Intruder whispered to Kashya, "that rock wasn’t the same strength as the rocks around it."
"No, but it looked the same, and that’s enough to fool anyone thinking of coming in that way. But I think we’ll let your friend’s ego be pumped up for now. We could use a morale boost."
"You mean we need a mindset in which we’re not on an impossible mission into the enemy stronghold, and in which our targets are probably already dead?"
"Now I know why everyone else seems to avoid you."
"Yes, I have that effect on people."
In the front of the party, Mercy and Scarlet walked side by side. The narrow cavern barely allowed them to do this. Mercy was doing well in keeping up with everybody, and Scarlet aided her whenever she faltered.
Scarlet didn’t seem to be in a good mood though. "I would have rather stayed behind. Someone needs to… take care of that unicorn."
"I’m sure the rogues can take care of him."
Scarlet thought to herself, :::You didn’t catch my meaning.:::
Scarlet wanted to avoid this journey for another reason: one of the two women they were rescuing was a telepath. Scarlet didn’t like the fact that if she wasn’t careful, this woman would instantly know who and what she was. She would have to be get to Xeiss first before the others.
Cobalt, in the meantime, had begun annoying Glitterspike, as usual. Suddenly the cavern was filled with an echoing voice. "STOP IT, DEMON!"
Kashya frowned. "Glitterspike, stop yelling at once! We’ll be found!"
"I thought you said this was a SECRET passage."
"It won’t be secret for long if you keep yelling! Necromancer, tell your pet to quit bugging Glitterspike."
Cobalt jerked up. "Pet?!? I resent that remark!"
"You’re going to resent the arrow I put through your puny little body even more if you don’t quit bothering everybody."
Atlas called back. "I see the end up ahead."
Scarlet went towards the front of the group. "I’ll scout ahead."
Intruder rolled his eyes. "Again?"
Kashya turned to him. "She do this often?"
"All the time."
Kashya called up toward Scarlet. "Be careful! The Sisters of the Sightless Eye are masters of espionage, and detecting it."
Scarlet smiled. "I have my methods of sneaking around that even your Sisters can’t do."
"Good luck then."
Scarlet nodded and headed towards the end of the corridor. Now she had her chance to get to Xeiss before the others. From what Kashya had told them about the ritual, Xeiss would be weak from hunger, and could be easily taken care of. Perhaps Scarlet could kill Celes as well. Either way, she could blame the deaths on Andariel and her minions.
She reached the end of the corridor, at which was a large, heavy doorway. She looked back at the others, and they were all waiting for her to scout ahead. She snuffed out the ball of flame she had been using as a light, surrounding herself with darkness so the others couldn’t see her. Then she began her magic.
"Desperate times call for desperate measures…"