Foreword/Disclaimer: Story in the next post, but please read first.
I avoided this forum until the contest was over so that I could not be influenced by other writer's ideas or style in any way. Unfortunately, this also means that I've had no feedback or input from the very people that might have been able to improve my submission. An oversight I'll admit, but this has been my first attempt at a short story and a learning process.
I chose to avoid lore characters in my story purely because I did not know how these characters might be portrayed or altered by Blizzard themselves in Diablo 3. By avoiding these lore characters, it has detracted from the Diablo feel a little, but at least became more original rather than leaning on work already done by Blizzard's lore department. A strength or a weakness to my story? I don't know.
The subject I chose was not any point of history, not set in a particular famous place or containing a familiar Diablo lore figure. Instead I chose to use the feel and atmosphere of the franchise as a base. The dark undertones, the misery and the sorrow the people of Sanctuary must feel. So instead of telling tales of epic battles against hordes of demons that you may expect, I described the plight of a few people, dealing with the aftermath of a demonic massacre.
It may not be what people expect from a Diablo Fan Fiction story, and I'll admit that it's turned out quite differently than when I originally came up with the idea.
Whether the story is good or bad, a winner or a laughing stock. For me, it is still a success. I finished it, my first short story, and I am reatively pleased with it given the trouble I had finding the time and motivation to write it. I did the final round of changes and submitted it a few hours before the deadline.
I'm not after a full critique from people as it has already been entered, but a few constructive comments on my writing style, flow of the plot and general feel of the story would be appreciated to see if it matches my own feelings and self criticism.
I hope you enjoy it at least a little, and I am hoping that this is not the last short story set in Sanctuary that I write.
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"It takes a man with real heart...to make beauty out of the stuff that makes us weep." - Clive Barker
The sun was slipping away below the horizon of Khanduras and casting an eerie crimson light through the trees. Deep red leaves twisted around, holding on to their branches as if fighting for survival as a light breeze threatened to send them tumbling to the ground. It was as if they didn't want to be covered in the blood that stained the earth below.
He turned his hood up to the increasing wind as he slowly stepped from the trees, his boots making a soft crunching sound across the fresh leaves and twigs underfoot. He walked carefully but without fear as he entered the village, keeping a steady, even pace as his eyes flicked back and forth from one tragedy to another. There was nothing to fear here amongst the dead, she was long gone by now, but he wanted to remember what he saw; needed to imprint every last detail of suffering into his mind.
It was only a small village, no more than a few scruffy thatched huts and an inn clustered around a dusty, worn meeting square and a crumbling well. Across the square people were lying in pools of their own blood, some of them with their cheap weapons barely drawn. All of them were peppered with multiple crossbow bolts when only one would have been needed. The identical shafts and blood dyed feathers a sure sign of the person responsible.
He stepped across the bodies and entered the only hut with its door left open. Lowering his hood and lighting a nearby candle to pierce the gloom, he looked around and involuntarily clenched his jaw.
As those outside had tried to fight, the mothers had ran inside with their children and huddled together. Every last one of them had met the same fate as those outside, regardless of gender or age. He forced himself to look, to count them. Seven women and five children. None of them with less than four of the familiar bolts in their chest or head.
She had never killed children before.
He stood there for several minutes looking, the warm tears gently seeping down his cheek not even a match for the chill running up his spine.
She had to be stopped.
Barric settled down next to his meagre campfire, a short walk from the village. There was no time to bury the dead villagers but he could not bring himself to leave them at the mercy of the night's scavengers. After taking the corpses he could find into the hut with the women and children, he closed the door gently, bowed his head for a moment in farewell and touched his candle to the thatched roof.
Now he rested for a short while to eat some food taken from the village and gather his strength before another dangerous pursuit through the night. The stories of demons and risen corpses attacking people were getting more frequent now and fewer people were scoffing at them than before. He was once one of those people, but quickly learned the hard way that the threat from demons was far from a tale to scare children when they came without warning and slaughtered nearly his whole village.
Still a few winters away from forty, Barric had aged more since he started his journey than in the last five seasons. The lines on his weathered forehead were getting deeper and his eyes were showing the signs of his recent lack of sleep. His once tidy and proud appearance was now marred by his time travelling and the urgency of his self imposed quest.
Finishing the few scraps of food he could stomach, Barric tossed the remains of the small rabbit carcass away and tucked his eating dagger into his belt. He took his sword out and started to clean and sharpen the blade. The weapon was old and worn, and there were few occasions in his lifetime where he had used it for more than threatening bandits. It was now a habit for him to take it out and maintain the blade when he started to get lost in his thoughts.
He tried to think how many days ago the demons had attacked and he had started this hunt, but it was unimportant to him. However, he knew exactly the number of innocent people he had found murdered. Two hundred and sixty three now, with over half of them unarmed, defenceless or too young to fight back.
She was getting worse, there was no question. First killing only demons, monsters and wild beasts as she travelled to the north east, and then she started killing travellers and merchants too. The number of demons and undead seemed to be getting fewer, but she seemed to be unconcerned with what, and who, she was killing now. Not long after Barric started after her he knew that she would need to be stopped, no matter how difficult he felt stopping her would be. Could he really bring himself to end the life of someone he used to know so well? The life of someone still so young? If he did kill her, what would that do to his mind?
Whatever came of him after his quest concerned him little. He needed to keep the images of the murdered people in his mind. Keep the memories clear to remind himself that however hard the task at hand would be, he must be strong enough when the time came.
He reached into a pouch at his side and withdrew a sharpening stone. Each time he drew it down the length of the blade he pictured one of the innocent people she had killed as he did every time he honed the edge. Tonight he could not shake the images of the children he had seen earlier. He was beyond weeping now and instead a wave of sorrow fuelled rage rose up inside him. Anger at her for what she was doing, anger at himself for not doing enough.
He stood up and sheathed his sword before kicking dirt over the fire. Wrapping his cloak around him tightly for warmth, he set off quickly into the night with a determination to finish what had to be done before another nightfall.
"Come on Kelt, hurry up with that ale!" Shouted the portly merchant as he looked through the day's takings by the campfire. "You don't want the hired help getting upset, it's dangerous out here!"
"I'm coming sire, I'm coming!" Wheezed Kelt, stumbling along on his skinny legs carrying an overflowing flagon in each hand. He came into the reach of the firelight and was instantly relieved of his burden by two rough looking mercenaries dressed in mismatched armour, lounging in the grass by the warmth. They both drank noisily from the pitchers, whilst pouring just as much down their chins, before letting out a loud belch in unison and laughing at each other.
"Oi! Whelp!" One of the mercenaries shouted at the poor servant, "Get us something to eat as well, we've been walking half the night. It's hard work being on watch all the time!"
The two guards looked at each other and laughed before returning to their ale.
Kelt looked at his master for confirmation and the merchant sighed before waving his bejeweled hand in agreement and going back to his counting.
Muttering under his breath, the servant trudged his way back to the dimly lit cart where the supplies were.
"Useless, drunken louts! Those guards wouldn't see an army coming. No idea why the master insists on bringing them every time he goes out to line his pockets, they must surely cost him twice their fee in drink!"
Pulling back the cover on the cart, Kelt pushed back the ale barrels and started looking through the food stores, determined to find the oldest, roughest bread he could find. He selected a particularly tough loaf and dropped it on the floor deliberately.
"Oops!" He said, chuckling to himself and kicked it around a few times before bending to pick it up.
As he straightened up he felt a sharp pain in his chest come and then go numb. He looked down, saw a quarrel with bloody feathers stuck between his ribs, and then collapsed to the ground. He tried to shout but all he could manage was a gurgle as he started to choke on the frothy pink fluid filling his mouth.
A movement from the corner of his eye made him turn his head. Slowly coming out of the shadows was a slight feminine figure dressed in dark clothing. She looked him dead in the eye for a moment with an expression of both sadness and hatred and lowered her crossbow at his face.
"You could have saved them." She said.
The pre-dawn light was starting to push back the darkness and the creatures in the forest were starting to wake and call their greeting to the new day. Barric barely noticed though as he pushed through the foliage from the path towards a dim light he could see along a small track to one side. As he got closer he could make out a fading campfire with a nearby cart and several people lying around on the ground.
"Please be asleep, please be asleep, please be asleep." He repeated to himself as he rushed forward, without really believing it at all.
So focussed on the figures by the fire, he tripped headlong over a body as he passed the cart. Three in the chest, two in the head. Barric felt his heart in his throat as he recognised the bolts and cursed inwardly as he realised he was too late again.
He stood up and moved towards the fire, his urgency now gone as he could see the other bodies clearer. Two guards lay side by side, one with a flagon still clasped in his hand and a surprised expression on his face and the other gripping a sword and looking like he was still trying to work out how to get it out of the scabbard.
Barric moved over to the third figure and crouched down next to him. He was curled up in a ball over a pile of coins, protecting them as if they were worth more than his life. There were at least a dozen bolts sticking out of his back, turning him into some kind of bizarre human porcupine. Unnecessary overkill once more.
She had shown no interest in the coins, left the food and drink alone and seemed to purely come here to kill. He had thought at first she was heading to the north east, maybe on the way to Tristram for some morbid reason like so many others, but the camp and the trail past it were heading west. He started to believe that maybe she had no destination in mind anymore and was wandering aimlessly and killing anything or anyone that came near.
He turned to look at the fire and stared at it for a moment as if he was missing something important. As he watched the feeble flames dance around the last piece of blackened wood it struck him. The fire was still lit! Realising she must have been here recently, he reached out to the dead merchant and placed a hand on his over sized neck. His body was still slightly warm and only just starting to stiffen.
Feeling the end of his pursuit drawing near, he set his teeth in determination and turned round to stand up. Looking intently at the track leading away from the camp, he never saw the blow coming and everything went black.
His eyes flickered open and his focus shifted from a blur of colours into clarity over several achingly long seconds. The side of his head was pounding and making it hard for him to figure out what had happened. He rolled over ready to push himself up and saw something deep red moving around to his left. More from instinct than awareness, he rolled over away from whatever it was and looked round just in time to see a heavy spiked wooden club come crashing down where his head lay moments before.
Still dazed, Barric stumbled to his feet and grasped at his sword while the creature was recovering from the overzealous strike and trying to lift its club again.
It was a Fallen One. Small red goblin-like demons, slightly taller than his waist, and they never ventured out on their own. Sword drawn, he cast his eyes around quickly and saw three more coming from behind the cart, two hefting crude spears and the last, another spiked club. Barric swallowed hard and readied himself. This was a delay he could ill afford, but there seemed to be no easy escape. Whilst they were no match for seasoned heroes with training and an arsenal of powerful skills, he had no training and was armed with nothing more than an old sword and the muscles in his right arm. It would have to do, he thought, and leapt forward.
Running straight towards the one that had already attacked him, Barric kicked out roughly and sent the demon flying before it could lift its oversized club properly.
He spun round to face the other three and had to sidestep quickly to avoid a running spear thrust to his chest. He swung his sword as he moved and the demon ran straight into the blade, cleaving its head from its body with a squelching sound. He started moving towards the others, only for them to make a chattering sound and scatter, retreating. Thinking they were more cowardly creatures than he had given them credit for, he cast his eyes towards the path out of the clearing, considering making a run for it. A demonic sounding bark made him look back, and he saw they had regrouped and were stalking slowly towards him again, taunting and hefting their weapons.
Damn it, this was taking too long! He leaned his weight towards the path away, but then thought better of it. He did not want these creatures catching him by surprise later if they came after him. All he could do was fight, and make it as fast as could.
Without any more delay, Barric roared a threatening shout and ran at the advancing demons. He kept the spear carrier farthest away and went for one carrying a club. Swinging his sword wildly with both hands, he was quickly forced to parry and dodge in small quick movements as the creature swung lightly, obviously toying with him as he could see it's brethren spreading out around him. Taking a hand off his sword he lightly parried an attack and used his free hand to jab the creature hard in the eye with his fingers as it came close. As the creature howled and stumbled back, he quickly pressed the advantage and swung his sword with both hands down into the creature's shoulder, burying the blade half way into its body with the force of the blow.
As the demon's lifeless body fell back, it pulled his sword from his sweating hands. He paused in shock for a moment and noticed too late the spear being thrust towards him. He dived to the ground but the ragged spear head gashed the side of his thigh. Clutching his bleeding leg, he stumbled upright again to face the demon as it ran at him snarling and slavering.
The timing had to be perfect, and his will was tested to the limit as he stood his ground and let the demon charge closer. At the last moment he sidestepped, grabbed the shaft of the spear and pulled hard. The demon was pulled off balance and landed face first on the ground as he was left standing with the spear in his hands. He spun the weapon round and drove the spear swiftly through the back of the demon's neck, pinning it to the ground.
Looking round cautiously he saw the final demon hefting its club and moving closer. They may retreat often but they were relentless. He saw the corpse with his sword in nearby and went over to grab it quickly. Grasping the hilt with both hands, he pulled, but the blade was stuck fast. He looked up and the demon was getting closer. He pulled harder, but the sword stuck fast and only ended up lifting the corpse off the ground too. Hearing another taunting cry, he looked up again and saw the demon waving its club around its head, obviously thinking it had an easy defenceless kill, and then it charged.
Without even thinking, he let go of his sword and just grabbed the corpse, hefting it over his head as he straightened up and threw it at the advancing demon. In a trail of blood and viscera the corpse flew through the air and splatted into the face of the last demon, knocking it over backwards and causing it drop its heavy club.
Barric rushed over as the demon was still trying to fight its way out from under the bloody mess and swiftly stamped his boot into the creature's snarling face. Once, twice, three times and then a fourth just to be sure.
Breathing heavily as the relief washed over him and the fire of battle subsided from his veins, he reached down to grab his sword again. He swore as the blade came out easily this time and wiped the blade off on a handful of grass. His hands were shaking after the fight and it took him a few attempts to get the sword back into the scabbard. The throbbing in his leg reminded him that he had not escaped unscathed and would need to be covered before he moved on.
Walking over to the campfire, he reached down to the lifeless body of the merchant and tore off a strip of fine cloth from the body before tying it tightly around his leg. He stood up and moved around a few steps, wincing as the cloth pressed against the wound, but knowing that it would have to do.
Fixing his eyes on the path out of the clearing once again, Barric set off to his journey's end.
With a loud crack the cartwheel split into pieces, and the now unstable cart spilled its load messily over the sides and onto the muddy forest track.
"Woah!" cried Tollan at his oxen, holding on to stop himself from falling too. Beside him Orla, his wife, fell against him causing the young boy she was carrying to start crying again.
Tollan climbed down from the side of the cart and squinted in the bright midday sun to survey the damage. He held back a few choice words not fit for his son's young ears as he realised the wheel would have to be taken off and swapped completely.
"I'm not sure what's worse, having to fix this cart up, or having to listen to him testing his voice again!" He called back to his wife. There was no reply and he looked round to see she was busy hushing their child again and making it quite obvious she was ignoring him still.
As he dug around in the cart looking for his tools and a spare cartwheel, he started to wish he had just kept his ideas to himself and stayed put. It seemed like a great idea at the time; move to a growing village on the main road and use his skills as a cartwright to make them all rich.
Walking round to the broken wheel he looked up at the sky and scowled, hoping that he could do the work quickly before the dark clouds came over and dumped their watery load everywhere. He dropped his tools by the broken remains of the wheel and decided that maybe he needed to improve the quality of his work before he would start making as much money as he dreamed of.
"Finally got him to learn how precious silence is I see." He called out to Orla as he bent over to pack blocks under the cart to steady it.
His wife didn't even turn as she called curtly over her shoulder, "I guess he takes after his father in not knowing when to keep his mouth shout!"
Tollan scoffed at her reply as he started to take the broken wheel off and did not even try to resist the inevitable argument.
"Well you had plenty of chance to tell me this was a bad idea, but you were too busy dreaming of your pretty clothes and shiny jewellery!"
"Quiet!" She called back to him.
"Don't tell me to shut up woman!" He shouted back angrily.
"No, I mean keep it down; I think I hear someone else out here." She said in hushed tones.
Tollan put his tools down and straightened up. At first he could only hear the sound of leaves rustling gently, but sure enough he thought he heard someone's voice coming through the trees. It was faint, like they were whispering, but it was definitely there. Then sounds of rushed movement through the trees, a slight pause and then the voice called out louder. It was a cold voice, dead flat and chilling with unmistakable sorrow. It simply said.
"You could have saved them."
Barric heard the screams from up ahead and ran. He gritted his teeth against the pain in his leg and pushed on, trying to blot out what he was hearing, trying to stop his mind imagining what was happening ahead.
There was a woman screaming, a baby crying, and another voice saying something he could not hear over the other two cries of distress.
Using all his self control he stopped short and sought cover behind a tree at the side of the track when he saw the cart unmoving ahead. His heart was thumping like it was trying to escape from his chest and he felt his hands shake as he realised this could be it, but something inside still screamed at him to be careful and not to rush in blindly. He waited for his breathing to calm down before moving further into the trees so he could get closer without being seen.
Moving silently and carefully through the foliage, the blood pounding in his ears could not hide the familiarity of her voice as he finally heard her clearly over the now quiet sobs of the woman.
"You could have saved them." She said, her voice cracking. "You could have saved ME!"
Barric looked through the trees and saw the cart again; saw the body of a man filled with quarrels lay slumped in the mud next to some tools.
Then he saw her for the first time since his pursuit had started and as if on cue, the brooding dark clouds crept across the sky and muted the sun's cheerful glow.
Clad in mismatched scraps of leather darkened with ash, she was standing by the front of the cart aiming a crossbow at a woman with a baby in her arms. Without any time to think he called out.
"We tried to save you!"
He ducked as she spun round and fired, burying a crossbow bolt in the tree near his head. Now she was facing him he could see she was crying silently, tears streaming down her pale cheeks. Her light brown hair was knotted and dirty. She looked like she'd lived through more than the seventeen winters of her age, but in some ways, she had. Her light blue eyes that were once so full of youthful delight in everything now looked ice cold like the surface of a frozen lake.
"I can't see you clearly in there, but...” she sniffed back her tears for a moment in thought, "but I know that voice".
Without waiting any longer the woman in the cart made the most of the distraction and jumped down the other side before running off into the woods.
"We tried to save you!" Barric called again, braced to dodge another attack.
He watched the girl as she stood there staring into the woods, unable to see him, and felt his will fading. After this long, seeing her here now, could he really go through with it? Slowly, he saw her lower her weapon slightly. She looked weak and defeated all of a sudden, as if any trace of malice had instantly been washed away from her by her tears.
"No one came to save any of us!" She cried, almost to herself. "We were all left to die!"
"That's not true." He said quietly, stepping out from his cover in the trees towards her. "We came back and it was almost over."
He stood with his arms at his sides unthreateningly. The strain of his pursuit over the last few weeks all bearing down on him at once made him feel like a completely different person. Still, he watched as she looked up and a flicker of recognition passed over her face for an instant, before she lowered her eyes and shook her head.
"No, you're dead. You must be. Everyone's dead!"
Barric took a few careful steps towards her. When she made no move, he talked to her and carried on walking closer.
"As we were working the fields we saw the village burning and rushed back as fast as we could. It was mayhem everywhere. We fought hard, killed the remaining beasts and demons, but we managed to save some of the villagers. With so many dead, we all feared the worst for our loved ones."
He stopped a few paces away from her.
"Some were chased into the woods and found dead days later, I heard you were one of them, but you were the only one still missing. I had to know what happened to you, so I kept looking. I felt responsible. What if I could have got to the village faster? What if I had checked the woods for you sooner? What if I had not gone into the fields that day at all? Then, eventually, I heard stories. Heard that you were alive."
She stayed staring at the ground, as if afraid to look at him, her crossbow now uselessly pointed downwards as she spoke again.
"They came so suddenly. Threw torches to the thatch as they came and attacked so brutally and without mercy that we were all in shock for a few seconds. Before I knew what was happening, a group of us were being chased into the woods by those things. I just kept running and running without looking back!"
She looked up straight into his eyes, tears streaming anew down her face, the lifeless ice in her eyes cracking.
"Jaina was running alongside me and tripped. She fell and I kept running. My friend! I heard her screams as I ran, I could have helped! I could have saved her!"
Barric was looking her in the eye when he noticed a change come over her. The tears stopped as her eyes narrowed slightly, her face going stiff and emotionless as she blocked out the memories.
"You could have saved her. You should have been there to protect me." She said coldly, and raised her crossbow.
Already alerted, Barric was ready to spring and threw himself forwards, one hand reaching for her weapon. He shoved it down as he crashed into her, the bolt firing harmlessly into the ground as she dropped the crossbow and they were both knocked over. He drew his sword as he stood up, but she was faster to her feet and kicked it from his hands before he was upright. Recovering quickly he swung his fists at her, forcing her backwards. She tried to attack him back, but he kept pushing, knew he had to, and using his larger size to his advantage he finally caught her with a glancing blow on the jaw and she fell. Kneeling on top of her, he put his hands around her throat and pressed his thumbs into her windpipe.
Time froze for him. His mind was filled with the quick rage of the fight, he was not thinking clearly. He looked into her eyes and the frozen lake was gone, he only saw her terror as she struggled to breath. She was just a girl. He faltered for a moment, relaxed his grip, and she struck.
Bucking sharply she threw him to one side before drawing a short knife and pouncing on top of his chest and pinning him down with a hand on his throat in return.
"You didn't save them. You died." She said to him as she raised her knife up. "I don't know you. Everyone is dead but me!"
She paused with the knife hovering over him and he felt helpless. He had his moment and he had failed. After everything, he could not bring himself to kill her. He led there defeated as she knelt on his chest, waving the knife in front of his eyes and talking to him.
"When I realised I was free, that I had escaped, I went to seek out and kill evil so that I could save other people. But what did I find instead? All I could find were people that weren't in trouble going about life as if nothing was wrong! Why weren't they doing anything? Why hadn't they helped us? They could have helped, they could have saved everyone!"
With that, Barric had a sudden memory of the bodies. Every single one of them flashed through his mind, all the people she had murdered, all the people that had not deserved to die. His mind came to rest on the most recent, the dead, bloodied mothers, clutching to their children in death as if they could still try and protect them.
"You went out to stop evil," he said, slowly reaching to his belt, "but you became evil instead. You killed innocent people!"
"They were not innocent!" She screamed in anger. "They let everyone die!"
"They were innocent; they did not know what happened! You killed them. You killed unarmed, defenceless people."
"They deserved it!" She cried hysterically, her face a picture of madness.
Barric dropped his voice and said through clenched teeth. "You killed children."
In one swift movement he drew his eating dagger from his belt and drove it sharply into her side, using the force to throw her off quickly and avoid the knife in her hand.
He looked over and saw her land roughly on the ground with a thud and drop her knife, instead clutching at the blood coming from her side as if to check it was real. His heart jumped into his throat as he realised what he had done and he rushed to her side.
Kneeling beside her, he lifted her head onto his lap and held her as her life was slipping away. He stared intently at her face and saw the cold, emotionless mask had gone for good. Here now was just a scared girl with a frightened look of sadness in her eyes. He smoothed her hair gently as tears slipped down his cheeks.
"I'm sorry. I had to." He said softly.
She took a sharp breath and spoke, her voice coming out barely a whisper.
"Save them. Please." The last look of pleading on her face remained as she died, forever etching her dying wish into Barric's memory.
As if sharing in the sadness, the clouds above began to weep their tears across the scene. But there was no amount of water that could wash the misery away.
He had sat there holding her for a long time, crying out the ordeal of the last few weeks. Grieving for all the innocent lives she had taken and mourning for the life that he had been forced to take.
Standing above her shallow grave now, the rain continuing to pour down steadily, he knew that he could not go back to his normal life. What point was there? Everything was ruin in his past and there was nothing to go back for.
It would be a long time before he could forgive himself or forget what had happened; he knew that and accepted it. Until then he felt he could only venture out into the world and ease his inner demons by carrying out a dying wish. He had been asked to save people, and save people he would. He would seek out evil wherever he could find it and stop it by whatever means necessary. He knew deep inside that he could do it.
For if he was strong enough to kill his only daughter to stop her, then he could do anything.
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"It takes a man with real heart...to make beauty out of the stuff that makes us weep." - Clive Barker