A Grey Pawn (There is no Sanctuary)Mature

Tyrael, Archangel of Justice; Baal, Lord of Destruction; Diablo, Lord of Terror; The Wanderer, subduer of Diablo; all of these are contenders for the mightiest entity that Sanctuary has ever known.
Yet there is a tie that binds them even closer. All of them have depended on one particular mortal, at one time or another. One man has felt all of their weights on his shoulders.
It should be no wonder that they broke him.

            The jungle was alive with noise. Shrieking, snapping, plopping, sliding, dripping; the nuances were endless, and every last one of them made him nauseous.

            They all brought unwelcome images to his head. Though some of these were true memories, most of them were products of his imagination. Still, he was certain that they were real. Past, present, or future, they were reality.

            Just as he was resolving that all this screeching really was coming from the tormented souls that plagued his thoughts, a real scream came from beyond the foliage directly in front of him. This was most certainly human; male, to be precise. It repeated several times, with a dull accompaniment of cracking, thudding, slicing, and splashing.

            The relief was meager, but welcome. At least now he knew that those other sounds weren’t what he’d thought. They’d have sounded more like this.

            He recalled how his former self would have reacted. When had he been? Days, weeks, or months ago? Perhaps it didn’t matter; he was no more. This him would not be so naïve. Reacting would be redundant.

            Where before he’d have crouched and slinked aside, creeping only close enough to know how to avoid whatever was there, he now hobbled onward exactly as he had been doing to that point. He’d approach the scene with all the dread and none of the caution. If there’d been one lesson he’d learned from his journey, it was that imagination and reality were equally horrible. It made no difference whether it was the mind or body’s eye that bore witness to this.

            Branches scratched and vines snagged, disapproving of his path as they’d done since he’d left the Temple of Light. They were as pathetic about it as his inhibitions were. His trail led him through the screams, so through them he’d go.

            A clearing slid into view between the trees. The scattered campfires and torches cast long shadows over its inhabitants, exposing their movement between the decorative tribal shields and wicked pikes well before the owners were actually visible. He’d seen several places like this before, perhaps he’d even seen this exact one; it was no wonder that such horrible sounds would be found here.

            The indigenous, half-sized Fetishes scrambled madly about their camp, babbling and chattering incoherently. The probable source of the earlier screams was plainly visible, hanging from a post planted near a bubbling cauldron. From the grisly state he was in, he’d apparently lived long enough to witness his tastiest bits being boiled. Two tiny tribesmen tended to the pot, picking off the skeleton and adding it to the stew when they deemed it appropriate.

            Just outside the camp’s boundaries, the growing pile of inedible person suggested that the Fetishes were experiencing a period of plenty.

            He folded his arms protectively against his chest and stomach, the posture making his precarious manner of walking seem even more peculiar. Despite the appalling terror all around him, this was all he would allow himself to do as his feet moved unhesitatingly onward.

            Blood and violence filled his peripheral vision, crying and snarling assaulted his ears, but none of it changed anything. He would neither contemplate the individual atrocities nor attempt to ignore them. Any such action would be a waste.

            A lone fetish scurried into his path, though the miniature man didn’t acknowledge his presence until it had taken a step past. Suddenly aware, it undid its last motion and swiveled to face the trespasser.

            Its narrowed white eyes were barely visible between the filthy black mess that dangled over its forehead. The lips and some portions of cheek were missing, permanently locking the exposed, pointed teeth into a hateful sneer.

            It growled and repeatedly gnashed at him, brandishing a spear that was slightly taller than itself. The newcomer halted his shamble, wondering if this lunatic might call its clansmen over, or perhaps claim this meager meal by itself.

            As the savage continued his hateful snarling, the passerby suddenly recognized something. Despite how revolting and horrifying his surroundings were, it wasn’t until he’d felt this familiarity that he physically recoiled in terror.

            Now that he’d lain eyes on Him, it was only natural that he’d know His influence when he saw it. This maniac was saturated in it.

            It was as though He was here, looming behind this half-sized man. His visage was still fresh in mind. That creature’s remaining skin was dry and stretched tightly around the skeleton. Two fingers, bone entirely exposed, were all that remained of the hands and forearms, and the flesh on the arms and abdomen was receding. To see such a wretch moving as though alive would have been terrifying enough, but such a detail was marginalized by the two exceedingly-long, curved horns adorning the skull, the two spinal flagellates protruding from its back, and the indeterminate mist that the torso seemed to be floating upon.

            Even his grisly appearance was nothing compared to its voice. Recalling that verbatim brought the pain back to his heart, a sensation that convincingly suggested the organ was being used as a pincushion.

            “The skies shall rain fire, and the seas will become as blood. The righteous shall fall before the wicked, and all of creation shall tremble before the burning standards of Hell!”

            Were the words born of mortal lips, the speaker would undoubtedly be seen as a sensationalist madman. From His mouth, however, that future seemed as certain to occur as the past was to have happened. If this entity said so, then mankind must be doomed.

            To hope’s credit, this lone mortal witness to that meeting was anything but certain that his memories of the past could possibly be reality. There might still be room to question this prophecy.

            The chattering fanatic in front of him now was the solution to the mystery that defined Kurast. Ever since his arrival, he’d wondered how the Fetishes and Zakarum could fail to see the horrid price they’d pay for their loyalty. He had thought that they’d be consumed in the end, no different than the innocents they slaughtered, but that presupposition had been false.

            This creature had nothing but hate left in him; Hatred had consumed him, literally it seemed, and the only use its Lord had left for the puppet was to direct that hate towards new sources of nourishment. The consequence had preceded their servitude, and the mortal accessories in Kurast’s demise were no less pitiable than the victims they continually claimed.

            He wouldn’t call it ‘recovery,’ but the man began to feel accustomed to the revulsion that this dark recollection brought. He stepped forward, prompting the seething Fetish to waddle aside, all the while blathering its incoherent curses.

            It wasn’t long before he heard the tiny slap of footsteps over moss, a sign that the Fetish was returning to whatever errand he’d interrupted. Why had he not called for help in detaining the trespasser? He supposed it was probable that he seemed undesirable in the presence of the many meatier specimens they’d already captured.

Still, he’d seen enough to know that most of their murders fulfilled even less purpose than their cannibalistic ones. He’d seen the way they hunted, hacking and mutilating and poisoning their victims far beyond the point of edibility. Unless a person could only benefit them while it still lived, they’d go out of their way to kill it. Why, then, would they let him pass, when he’d made the hunt so convenient for them?

He feared the answer to that question; he suspected he’d known it well before he’d decided to pass through the camp rather than around it. It was not an answer he wanted confirmation for.

A group of Fetishes emerged from the trees he was heading towards. They ambled into camp, surrounding a blindfolded man being led by the excess rope that bound his wrists together. With a care that deceptively resembled consideration, they helped him keep his balance and avoid the obstacles that might knock him off his feet. The most convenient way they could transport their meal was to have the food walk into camp on its own feet.

            Not long after their arrival, another, much larger shape appeared in the foliage. The glinting reflection of fire off its eyes called attention to it long before the figure could be distinguished from the surrounding jungle.

            It was covered in reptilian scales, colored a black just light enough to possess a greenish tint. It walked on two legs, though its hunched-forward posture brought the ground easily within arms’ reach. Either spines or horns were protruding from every joint and corner. Its fangs and claws would make perfect replacements for a farmer’s sickle in both size and sharpness. Could this be a natural predator in this jungle? How could any man, Fetish or civilized, bring themselves to settle near something so honed for slaughter?

            The intruder’s direction would bring him very close to both the hunting party and the creature that followed them, though not so close that he’d actually collide with any. Some quiet part of him was desperately tugging at his attention, begging him to stop or otherwise attempt to avoid these beings.

            It was the same voice that had reminded him that his old self would have circled around the camp, rather than passing through it. It was a voice he was compelled to ignore. A larger part of him, perhaps the largest remaining part, hoped that he would die here. His weariness had overcome his wariness.

            A separate logic agreed with his decision, though for different reasons; if he happened to survive the stroll through this nightmare, it would mean something worse than death.

            The rearmost Fetish in the returning party glanced over his shoulder as their stalker crossed the threshold between jungle and camp. It spun around and cried a shrill warning, leveling its crude spear at the hulking reptile.

            His companions raced back to join him, instinctively falling into a line formation. Their voices formed a chorus of unwelcoming threats, but the beast showed no sign of heeding them. It lumbered forward, the narrow slits of its yellow eyes focused on their confused prisoner.

            The beast seemed unconcerned with their hostility. With an occasional sniff at the breeze blowing downwind from the camp, it intently continued to approach the captured man. When he came within arms’ reach of the Fetish’s captive, it stopped and brought its right hand forward.

            The Fetish holding the prisoner’s lead lashed out with his spear, inflicting a superficial wound in the reptile’s forearm. The tiny savage yanked it back and thrust again, this time snapping the rotting shaft of his weapon in two as the tip failed to embed itself in the monster’s flesh.

            With a halfhearted grunt, the beast swung an open hand down on his attacker. The little cannibal’s legs gave way easily, visibly snapping when the blow made contact. A high-pitched squeal could barely escape its lungs before the creature’s hand came to rest flat against the ground.

            Its comrades instantly scattered back into the camp without a second glance at their fallen tribesman or their captive. The onlooker could not blame them; even without the wicked claws, spikes, and horns covering its body, this monster possessed the strength to easily bludgeon even an armored man to death.

“Who’s there? What’s happening?” The captive human seemed rightfully confused by the commotion around him. The blindfold would prevent him from knowing why, but it seemed he understood that his kidnappers had fled.

            The creature began to lift its hand off the swatted Fetish, pinching the prisoner’s leash between its thumb and index finger as it did. The broken form of the Fetish showed no sign of movement. Its head and legs were twisted in unnatural ways, and the chest had collapsed into itself.

            With what seemed a light tug, the man was yanked off his feet, falling to his hands and knees as though prostrating himself before his new captor. Unsurprisingly, the monster seemed oblivious to the accidental gesture. Its attention was fully captured by something else; whatever was occupying its mind had prompted it to begin salivating, with several strings of drool already dangling from its mandible.

            The tip of its claw poked at the man’s chin, drawing a drop of blood in spite of how delicate the motion had been. Savvy to the blade’s sharpness, the man put great effort into ensuring it didn’t dig deeper as the humanoid lizard tilted his face upward.

            Certain that its fearsome face would be the first thing this wretch would lay eyes upon, it dragged the tip of another scythe-claw over the center of the man’s blindfold.

            The severed cloth instantly fell away, and the look in his eyes transformed from hopelessness into morbid horror. This man, certain of being slaughtered as livestock, had found that his fate was a thousand times worse.

            The maw opened slowly, an action taken with peculiar care and deliberation. There was a methodical air about the scene, as though a botanist was exhibiting the proper way to harvest some difficult and invaluable herb.

            A froglike tongue unraveled and spilled through the opening, lapping along the rim to wet it. A set of four larger, snakish fangs drew attention from the surrounding set of smaller carnivorous spikes, all of which sparkled with each sporadic flicker of torchlight.

            The victim trembled and whimpered uncontrollably as he watched the tongue draw closer. His eyes were locked on the tip as it landed on his shoulder, a contact that spurred an involuntary flinch. The prehensile muscle snaked its away around his neck and proceeded up the back of his head, finally draping itself over the scalp as the lizard tightened out the slack.

            The man lost his composure when the tongue began to retract. He grasped the sopping appendage in both hands and screamed with all his might, climbing to his feet and bracing himself against the mechanical pull. His resistance would seem formidable, were it not for the obvious relaxation in the aggressor’s stance.

            The reptile stood at ease, and as its prey thrashed and wailed with increasing violence, its eyes began to glaze and roll backward. This wasn’t the natural, efficient manner of a predator-by-necessity. There was no clamping of the jugular, no injection of poison to pacify the desperate meal. This monster seemed to relish the opposition more than the imminent meal, as though the man’s terror were more physically nutritious than his substance.

            At this rate, it would be hours before the man exhausted himself, before the tongue reluctantly reeled its meal in...

            The onlooker suddenly knew for certain that this was no natural denizen of the jungle, at least not anymore. He knew all too well what this demon was, and worse, he knew exactly who it served.

            The revelation was more potent than the screams, the blood, the gore, perhaps even worse than what he witnessed in that deep durance. This scenario harkened to that time, and all the times before it, bringing that forever-long, hellish past back to this terrifying present.

            He’d spent an indeterminable eternity with this minion’s lord, though his identity had been ambiguously trapped between two entities. This monster was a particle of the ominous cloud that had followed them from the West, the looming doom that had drawn increasingly nearer as his companion’s human persona faded further and further away.

            He had begun as the Wanderer, but if that man had every truly been real, he was no more. All that remained of him now was pure, undisguised Terror.

            As though it were he that was tugging for his life, the foreign man lost himself to instinct. His legs, so atrophied that it seemed a wonder they didn’t break upon the impact, propelled him forward.

            “Wait, please!” The tangled man cried out when he spotted his escape. “Please, help me!”

            The pleas fell only on ears deafened by madness. The sound was lost in the chorus of demon and victim.

With each step he swiped an arm forward, at times supporting his flight by grasping a vine or balancing against a rock, at others making it seem as though he were reaching for some escaping, invisible prize that fluttered just in front of him.

            His worst fear had been confirmed, his hopeful ignorance shattered. When he’d left the Wanderer’s company, there had been a small consolation to his guilt: whatever mistake he’d just made, whatever horror he’d just unleashed by acquiescing that pitiable, tortured soul, his path of penance had been laid out for him.

            He had seen who was held prisoner there, and the means by which he was constrained. So for that mighty angel, the ultimate judge of crime and sentencing, to seemingly need to beg for his participation…

            Somehow, it had felt like exoneration. As mindlessly as he had followed the Wanderer across the desert, he’d followed Tyrael’s instructions step-by-step. Where the instinctual understanding of what would happen if he disobeyed the Wanderer’s silent commands once dwelled, something new and mildly wonderful had taken its place. Was it a sense of duty, or perhaps gratitude that gently pushed him across the sea and shrouded his movements through the ruins of Kurast? Opposite in polarity but just as abstract, his servitude had been blind, free of hesitation up until he slunk into that once-hallowed chamber…

            It was like the superior influences of the Heavens and the Hells stalemated in him then, as deadlocked as their armies had purportedly been for some unfathomable number of epochs. The fog over his mind seemed to thin, leaving the unwelcome, lonely clarity that was his own consciousness to direct his next action.

            Allowing this cursed freedom to linger, he watched their meeting transpire. He watched as his old companion forsook his disguise, shedding and shaking his way out of humanity like a snake does its molted skin.

            The true form was more terrifyingly majestic than he could have imagined. The crimson of his naked form was too vibrant to be dulled by the darkness, deeper and fuller than the blood-flooded moat that ran through the chamber.

            He seemed double his height, if not more, and appropriately thicker. Spikes, long and thick enough to impale several of him on each, erupted from his back. It would be a wonder to see even the hardiest warrior slip a blade past any of the numerous horns that framed his face and neck.

            The way that the makeshift bridge of bones cracked under his weight suggested that even that miracle would be futile; the sharpened points of ribs and razor-tipped splinters showed no sign of piercing whatever material composed his flesh.

            He had paused in the threshold between worlds, the stream of tormented soul that flowed over him screaming louder as it broke upon him. It had been his older brother that prompted the pause, but even that influence seemed nothing more than a minor and unwelcome distraction to him. His purpose had been clear without any guidance, and it would not change, no matter how great the interference.

             How could the memory of his shepherd overpower the direct presence of these lions?

            A sudden, harsh impact on his chest and chin broke him from his panic. He bounced once and skidded painfully over the rock, covering his frail form in abrasions.

            It took him several seconds to work through the daze. He had forgotten that he’d been running; perhaps he’d forgotten that he was the beast that he was, an inferior creature that could solve so many of its marginal problems with such scampering. It was so easy to get lost on that unfathomable plane, so many levels above his own, that even the burning in his legs, lungs, and throat couldn’t pull him back to what he understood as reality.

            How could he be so troubled about their evil, when he could so easily forget himself? If he lost this body, would he not lose himself? Why should he fear anything when he’d forgotten all about the only thing he need fear losing?

            He lingered there, flat on his stomach. There was an understanding that the jungle around him was saturated with things that lived to capitalize on this helplessness, that he was at the mercy of creatures so pathetic as ants and snakes, but this understanding did nothing to move him. He knew what his worst fear was, and now that he knew it was real, it was his only fear.

            Ever since he’d arrived in the Kehjistan, he’d warily prowled through the jungle, constantly scanning his surroundings and carefully avoiding the slightest hints of danger. He’d gone to great lengths to avoid being detected by anything remotely demonic, and he’d struggled to bear the atrocities he was forced to witness. He had struggled with all his meager being to sneak through to the Temple of Light.

            None of it had been necessary. His trek through the Fetish camp had proved it: the forces of Hell would not harm or harry him. They saw him as a confederate, perhaps as though he were a demon himself.

            Since when? Had it been this way since the beginning, when the Wanderer had stumbled into that mountain hostel? Could it have been that which spared him when the monastery fell?

            Why? Why did such powers, be they heavenly or hellish, invest even the slightest attention in him? What use could they possibly have for so ordinary, so average a man?

            What of his service to the angels? Had they simply not known, or perhaps they knew that he didn’t have the courage or integrity to withstand his employ?

            He had let himself hope that it was this will, his own, small, individual will, that had compelled him to retrace his path out of the Zakarum temple and back into the overtaken city. Perhaps it had been, for a very short while, but it certainly was no longer.

            Still, this time was different. They had given him no instructions, but their minions treated him as one of their own. Could it possibly be that their only agenda for him now was that he go about his own business? How could they possibly benefit from that?

Regardless, knowing that his survival was not by virtue of his own stealth, Heaven’s charge seemed all the more impossible. How could he be expected to step beyond that threshold, knowing what would be done to him for defying the brothers? Why must he declare his allegiance with the Heavens from the depths of the Hells?

The moment he stepped through that gate, he’d have gone against Hell’s will, and horrors far beyond those he’d witnessed thus far would have been set upon him.

            “Tyrael,” he cried softly, his lament blunted against the mossy stone. “Yours was so much crueler…” 

            It had always been impossible. Were he given another chance at life, trained through its entirety in the ways of the warrior, and gifted with the finest armaments man could muster, it still couldn’t have been enough. It simply wasn’t a task any man could complete.

            He was shivering involuntarily, but he had no desire to climb up off this cold, damp peat. This was the most physical comfort he’d felt in what seemed like ages. Was there any place left in this world where he could find better rest?

            What was he to do now? The Wanderer had reached his destination, and acquiescing Tyrael – to follow the Wanderer further – was something he could not do. His agenda was no longer governed by another will, but it had been so long since he’d owned it, he no longer knew what to do with it.

            What had he done in the past, with this freedom? It had all seemed so natural, then. He hadn’t questioned how he’d come to live at the monastery. Truly, wouldn’t he make that same choice without hesitation now, if he could?

            The only surprise had been that the Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye would tolerate men in their home. True, they had made it clear that they would never have ‘brothers,’ but he had no need for such honorifics. Their tolerance was plenty for him.

            All of them were so beautiful; even the elderly seemed fair and curvaceous. Beauty didn’t seem a priority to them, and it made them all the more charming. They were devout to their faith, and that faith seemed so sensible, so logical. It was motivated by equal parts duty and piety, honor and gospel. They guarded the pass fervently, but with the kindness they showed to strangers, one could easily wonder what they were guarding the pass from.

            The monastery was a marvel of serenity. It was enormous, and every bit of it was elegantly crafted in polished stone. The grounds were clean and well-kempt, partially due to the direct efforts of the sisters, but largely due to their influence over visitors and lodgers like himself.

            No task seemed too great were they to ask it. They would never call themselves employers, nor would he assign them that label, but the amount of work he’d done on their behalf would suggest that they were. Jobs came in the guise of favors, delegated through kind words from sweet lips.

            Chauvinists were fools, or at best naïve. A world ruled by women was a world ruled by angels. His days at the monastery convinced him of this; he wondered if even the High Heavens could compete with such a paradise.

            Before he’d realized it, he was back on his feet and walking again. He had no destination; rather, he doubted his destination still existed. Still, it seemed as though his memories of the Rogue Monastery had inspired something resembling hope.

            A glance at his surroundings reminded him that his path had not been through pure jungle. All of this had been considered a part of Kurast, capitol of Kehjistan. Much, perhaps most of it had been abandoned long enough for the jungle to reclaim it, but carved stone and terrace were still plainly visible under the moss and vine.

            The city must have been truly grand in its prime. Considering the scope of his travels through it, the fact that the Fetishes were still finding civilians to feast upon seemed a more plausible reality.

            He flinched as a great noise, like a clap of thunder, sounded in the distance behind him. Turning to look, he could hear the flapping and cawing of jungle fowl reacting to the noise, but the canopy and foliage were far too thick to find any visual evidence of whatever had caused the uproar.

            What horrors were they unleashing upon the mortal world now?

            It mattered little; there was nothing he could do about it, and he doubted it could possibly affect him any more than what he’d already seen. He continued his journey.

            Both the city and the jungle were becoming sparser ahead of him. He knew that the docks – the last bastion of civilized Kurast – lay just beyond this marshy stretch.

            He didn’t know how, but he knew that people still lived there; they worked, loitered, presumably even slept in such proximity to the madness and chaos that saturated these ruins.

            His feet were already thudding across occasional planks of chopped wood, clearly laid much more recently to support the weight of anyone trying to traverse this quagmire. Though soggy, the encroaching moss had not carpeted these as severely as they had the stone throughout the rest of the city.

            It was oddly difficult for him to recall whether or not he’d passed through here before. He had left the wanderer at Tal’Rasha’s tomb and encountered him again at the Zakarum temple. Traveling by ship from Lut Gholein to Kurast would have been the quickest route. Had it been the one he’d taken?

            That passage of time seemed lost; there were recollections of the dangers and horrors he’d encountered while passing through demonic territory, but the time he must have spent in the company of regular, civilized mortals was lost to him. The trip had been made possible by some blind fervor, a sensation infused by Tyrael’s words.

            He stopped abruptly. Something was intensely different. There was no way to describe how, but he was certain that his last step had crossed some kind of threshold. There was no other way to explain what he was feeling.

            The emotions weren’t his own, but they referenced his feelings so that he might understand a message that wasn’t conveyable by language. An unwelcome presence had crossed into territory that had been warded. Specific measures had been taken to prevent the entry of this type of evil, and now that it had come here, the will of the presence and the strength of the ward were in direct conflict.

            Were it not for the foreboding sense of evil about it, this disposition seemed as innocent and playful as a child’s.

            The source was clear; he didn’t know if it made any actual physical sound, but the incoherent voice was coming from the breast pocket inside his burlap tunic. In confused wonderment, he pulled the object out, wincing from light that pulsed out of this amber shard of crystal.

            It reveled in the abstract conflict it had with the warded territory. Someone had invoked powerful energies to keep the influence of the Hells out, but such measures could not hope to compete with the level of strength this stone possessed.

            Its desire to destroy was palpable. A curiosity emanated from within as it pondered the ways it might crush this meager resistance. Would this barrier shatter when struck? Or perhaps it would crumple, like tin? There were so many ways to toy with it, but care must be taken. If too strong a method is used first, the opportunity to test the others would be forever lost.

            He had not been specifically briefed for this purpose, but the stone’s courier knew what was imprisoned within. He could remember that ancient incident as though he’d witnessed it himself. He truly had been the one to undo its purpose, though his intentions had only been to free that hallowed martyr from a torment that was no longer voluntary.

            Still, he couldn’t fathom how this could be reality. Was the demon lord’s existence divided between this stone and Tal’Rasha’s remains, or did it somehow exist fully in both places at once? The consciousness from this stone seemed broader than his own, easily more capable of calculation and cognition. There was no way to know if something so much greater than himself was complete or not.

            He frowned with trembling chin and crescendoing heartbeat as he stared into the crystal. Was this the answer? The only thing that he could do more capably than this stone was travel.

            Ever since he’d followed the Wanderer out of that wreckage in the pass, he’d felt like a figurine to be moved across some cosmic game board. Control over him had passed from the Wanderer’s to Tyrael’s; was he now being moved by the invisible hand of this cursed stone?

The feeling was different from before, but that could easily be the result of the different disposition. The feeling about the Wanderer had been imprecise; his aura could have been one of misery, suffering, or anger. Tyrael’s had definitely been one of desperation. Might his current illusion of freedom be due to his current master’s amusement?

            This entity was definitely enjoying itself. It reveled in the present turmoil, and anxiously awaited the impending chaos like a child does its birthday celebration. The other deities had seemed unsatisfied and insatiable, but this one seemed carefree and detached.

            Considering that further, this could be a merciful turn of fate. Where his previous masters had clearly defined what they wanted from him, this deity didn’t seem to have any purpose for him whatsoever.

            The Wanderer had never spoken it, but his order was clear: “Come.” Had it been the will of the man, the mortal warrior? Or had it come from that unspeakable evil he’d attempted to contain? Perhaps there could be some way they agreed on this point? It was irrelevant now; all he knew was that the order had been given.

            Tyrael’s task had certainly been spoken, but the event was equally remarkable. One moment, he had been standing there, boggling over the object he’d just pulled from that pitiful wretch’s chest, and the next, he was being hoisted off his feet and into an atmosphere curiously free of the sulfurous stench permeating Tal’Rasha’s chamber.

            “Go to the Temple of Light, in the eastern city of Kurast. There you will find the gate to Hell open before you. You must find the courage to step through that gate, Marius. Take the stone you hold to the Hellforge, where it will be destroyed. Now run! Take the stone and run!"

            There was no agenda now. He had not been given any orders. If he were to ask the stone what he should do, he fully anticipated the answer would be in the form of a question.

            “I wonder, what might you do, if it were up to you?”

            Could such a mighty entity really be such a fool? Perhaps his failure was not completely such. Tyrael’s request had been impossible for a mortal anyway, surely he should know this by now. Surely, if he fled, he’d be giving evil’s enemies a chance to find him before the demons came looking for his cargo. Surely Tyrael could pass the burden to someone capable of shouldering it, and should Marius facilitate that scenario, surely his mistakes could be forgiven.

            He began walking again, his pace several times quicker than before. There was a new kind of madness in his eyes. Sanity had fled long ago, but this new dementia carried a hint of hope with it.

            There was light ahead, and movement. Torches cast flickering shadows over the stone terraces and the elevated, rickety walkways that connected them. Finally, he’d arrived.

            The first mortal he spotted as he hobbled into the docks was so perfectly indicative of a normalcy he had thought lost that he felt compelled to gape.

            The man was far older than what any average person could live to be. His skin was browned and wrinkled from its enormous exposure to the sun, and his frame was wiry and bent. This was a living relic, an antique of a dead generation.

            He lounged on a short stone barrier, oblivious to the stranger that gawked at him. How could something so frail still exist in this world gone mad?

            The sagely man’s gaze slowly lifted from the ground and found its way to the newcomer. A light of awareness began to bleed through the dark irises, and a warm smile tugged at the corners of his lips.

            The new arrival suddenly felt belligerent. Who was this old man to judge him? Were he to relinquish custody of this cursed stone, would he see it through that infernal portal? How could he look down on someone when he could do no better in the same situation?

            He looked away and moved to resume his trek, but another resident’s approach caused him to pause again.

            “You now speak to Ormus.” Another, much younger man, garbed in sparse, shamanistic attire seemed to notice the extraordinary nature of his arrival from the jungle.

            Still, it was a presumptuous greeting and introduction. He hadn’t spoken to anyone, nor could he honestly say he had intended to.

            “Who is Ormus?” was the only response he could muster.

            “Ormus is among those who remain because someone must,” he answered. “He does not often see people approach from the direction you did. He would like to know the name of a man who did.”

            “Marius.” The answer came unnaturally quickly. It had been so long since he used his own name, he was faintly surprised he remembered it at all. “I am called Marius.”

            “Is there anything that Ormus can do for you, Marius? Your trials must have been taxing.”

            “I need to get away from here,” Marius carefully chose his words. “I need to get far away from here.”

            “Yes, this place is a battlefield. No one expects that they should find the elderly in such a place.”

            Elderly? Marius inspected himself; he had always been thin, but now he was so gaunt that his skin seemed wrinkly and loose. His bones were far more visible than they should be, and the hair on his arms seemed finer and greyer than it had been before. He was not yet old, but truly, he was beginning to look as if he were.

            Even if he did look his age, this point was not worth arguing.

“Anywhere is fine,” he pleaded. “Just please, help me get away from here. Point me in a direction where I will not find more demons.”

“It has been said that we, and even Sanctuary itself, were born from the coupling of angels and demons. Ormus cannot point with any certainty and know you will not find that which you wish to avoid.”

            Marius spat to his side, an almost unconscious reaction of disgust. “What a cruel lie.”

            “Ormus understands that most men would find it hard to believe they share anything common with the denizens of the Hells.”

            “Not that,” he shook his head, almost apologetic for his retort. He could understand that other bit; if angels were white and demons were black, could mankind be anything but grey?  “The part about Sanctuary. Sanctuary is a lie. There is no sanctuary.”

            “Indeed.” Ormus smiled sadly. “That name seems most pretentious. Yet you ask Ormus to point you towards it. Ormus will attempt to determine the next best alternative.”

            A loud rumbling descended through the sky some great distance behind Marius, a prelude to the greater calamity. He turned to find enormous balls of fire hurtling from the behind the clouds and into the earth below. Rapid flashes of white light rose above the jungle, completely independent of the rhythm with which the meteors were striking.

            “Could there be a greater despair than knowing that our true torment has yet to begin?” Marius lamented.

            “Though it may surprise you, Ormus sees this as a sign of hope,” Ormus replied. “They do not resort to such measures lightly. They are besieged.”

            Marius said nothing as he considered what he was being told. Was a battle taking place? Had someone sent an army? Understandable, condonable, but still futile. Numbers would mean little against this foe.

            “I need to leave this place,” he reiterated, turning back to Ormus. “Please, help me escape.”

            “Yes,” Ormus assured gently. “Meshif, he has recently returned. Perhaps he would bring you along on his next departure. If not, there are other ways.”

            “Anything,” Marius asserted, again glancing towards the distant maelstrom. “Anywhere.”

            He didn’t know what he would do when he got to wherever he might be going. Part of him was convinced he’d have been better off sharing the fate of any of the countless victims he’d had to observe. Still, he did not want to die.

            That must be why he still lived. How could his fate have been decided by another, when such mighty powers were still fighting to decide it? Whatever hand had brought him here, he shouldn’t assume that it guided him any longer. Certainly by now, it would be disappointed and jaded with the idea.

            That must be it. His servitude was an experiment, a way by which mankind’s usefulness was being tested. He could fathom no reason for the Heavens or Hells to be taking him away from that crucial location. It meant that they had concluded what he’d already known: men like Marius were no use to them.

            Meekness was no sin; at worst, meekness was weakness. Surely, there was no way his meekness could be an instrument of doom. Surely, succumbing to his weakness, allowing it to make him fail, would ultimately result in some kind of setback for the one that enslaved him.

            Marius doubted he’d need to explain it to anyone. Of the imminent apocalypse, or whatever this incident would come to be called, one feature about it would be plainly discernable. It wasn’t his fault.


The End

0 comments about this story Feed