Amanita (Act II)
Whacking Andarial didn't solve everybody's problems at once. Dead Rogues were still dead. Local animals were still hostile. Demons still huddled in camps. The dead still walked... well, stumbled. But there was no coming back tomorrow this time, and they knew it. It kind of took the ginger out of them. Five Rogues on top of Warriv's wagons cleared the whole pass in a few hours. Kashya took a contingent into every cave, basement, crypt, and hole-in-the-wall along the way, and never fell behind. It was impressive... Rogues are dangerous. Too bad they were surprised and outnumbered the first time, it might have been a real fight. All I had to do was sit back and watch. Conquering heroes don't involve themselves with the clean-up anyway.
The monastery itself was empty. I'd already gotten most of them, and the survivors were heading for the hills. The Rogues took a few pot-shots at their fleeing backsides, but there were too many to chase and they had more important things to do. First, they opened the pass to travelers: to wit, me. Second, they spirited me away to a secret chapel, hidden from the eyes of all men. With a quick ceremony, I was dubbed an official Rogue, with the rights, privileges, and blessings pertaining thereto. Rogue rituals are very different from Viz-Jaq'taar ones; they sing, clap, hold hands in a circle, and smile even during the serious parts. It was kind of fun, but if this means no more men, I'm gonna make a lousy Rogue.
I'm not much for goodbyes, but it was kind of sad to go. I liked being in a big group of happy people, with everyone's guard down. You don't see a lot of that in my line of work. The Rogues were too happy to notice if my mind was leaking, and I'm not sure I would have cared if they did. Charsi wasn't even a little nervous around me. I gave her Leadcrow as a parting gift; maybe she could do something with it. Kashya even went so far as to ask to be my friend, and meant it. I don't think she makes friends easily, or often. As much as I might have liked to, I couldn't stay. I have older friends, even if they're not as cheerful, and they're going to need me a lot more.
We left after Warriv loaded the wagons with casks of water. I'd heard caravans can make it across the desert if they stick to the regular routes, so I thought he was taking advantage of the Rogues at first. He was already overjoyed that they'd forgotten the fee for using the pass. Turns out he'd just listened to Cain more than I did. Diablo's minions fouled Tristram's water supply, and Warriv knew exactly how important water is in a desert. More than half the oases we found were tainted, the water undrinkable even after boiling. We didn't see any demons, but we might have died anyway without those casks. That's when I decided to spend a little time talking with Cain myself.
Right from the start, I learned things. My first lesson was, there's no such thing as "a little time talking with Cain." I thought only women knew how to talk without stopping to breathe. My second lesson was that this humble old fart knew a lot about everything in the world and outside it, and was desperate to share with me. The "conquering hero" act impressed him a lot: he was sure I was going places, and needed to be educated so I'd know what to do when I got there. The trip across Aranoch was a long one, so we brushed up on demons, and Cain got to exercise his jaw muscles. Everybody was happy, except Gheed, who kept asking if I was hot out here in this desert and shouldn't consider going back to the thong. He never did figure out why he was suddenly so prone to migraines.
Journey's end was Lut Gholein, the biggest trading port on the western shore of the Twin Seas. Last I'd heard, Lut Gholein was ruled by Faduwas, an infamous sultan infatuated with money, food, money, drink, money, women, money, and more food. Instead of a fat old man with a lot of guards, we were met by one young guy, obviously rich but not even close to what I was expecting. Warriv, now dressed like a local, paid a hefty entrance fee and filled him in on the deal with the Rogue's pass. After the prince was done collecting, he came to meet me. I couldn't have been more thrilled.
"Greetings, honored traveler," he said in a tenor voice that seemed to think it was pretty damn good. "I am Jerhyn, lord of Lut Gholein, and I bid you welcome to my city."
He was kind of short, slender yet soft. His skin was smooth as a violin's back, and smelled like perfume. His clothes glittered and shimmered. Limpid brown eyes reflected me like a pane of glass. Some kinds of women would like this boy. Others would want to spit. "You honor me, lord," I said, pouring honey into my voice. "I am Amanita."
"Warriv tells me you are responsible for opening the pass to the west, so that wealth may once again flow between our countries."
He sure has his priorities straight. "Yeah, I guess I am. Too bad so many people died."
Jerhyn sighed, and bowed his head. It was almost convincing. "Forgive me, I know I may have seemed callous. Word has come from many far off lands of struggles with demonkind; I took the suffering of your land as a given. A force I cannot identify has lain siege to my city, killing all who venture outside our walls, and many within. The situation has become so desperate, I have hired mercenaries, but the forces of humankind may not be enough to combat an enemy we can hardly see, let alone understand."
Something was hiding his thoughts. Could a man learn to shield, especially one this young? No -- he's wearing a crown. Most ancient crowns and tiaras were made of alloys given to us by Heaven, and protect the ruler from probing. "Something demonic, maybe?"
"That and much more! The dead rise from their tombs, and strange beasts have been seen stalking amongst the moonlit dunes. I myself have seen many things I cannot explain."
Nothing unusual yet. "You should talk to my friend Cain, here. He knows all kinds of stuff about demons."
"Deckard Cain, the Horadrim sage?" Jerhyn's eyes got even bigger as he turned to the old man. "My city has indeed been honored! Fortune may finally have smiled on us today."
"Greetings, Lord Jerhyn!" Cain smiled. "I knew your father long ago, and thought he would be among the living for many more years. I am saddened to know I was wrong."
"My title has come to me recently, and I would that it had not come to me as it did. My father was one of the first to be lost, and sadly, far from the last."
"What a tragedy for this land!" Cain said diplomatically. I could tell he was actually relieved. "May he achieve happiness, as all good men do."
"Your words are kind. Come, you and I must speak with my advisors. Your council is most desperately needed."
They walked off, forgetting all about the conquering hero. I spat, and went to explore. Lut Gholein was a good-sized town, with paved streets and tall buildings. Lots of people roamed the streets, probably locals hiding inside the city walls, though Jerhyn said people inside had been killed. Probably just old grudges working themselves out, then being blamed on demons. Local fashions were breezy and colorful, but I already knew tight and black are bad ideas in this climate. Going back to the thong might not be a bad idea, except Gheed is still around. Of course, he did mention finding a big bowl of "narlant weed" and smoking until all earthly sense left his body, so I might not see him again for a while.
Past a palace that took up a quarter of the city all by itself, I found an inn, got a room, and changed into something lighter. The innkeeper was amazing. The man looked like he'd been hit by everything but the bucket of a dragline. His whole body was scarred, thickened, flattened, checkered, welted, and had pieces missing. But he had humorous eyes, in a face that smiled at the whole world. His was a smile that had nothing more to fear. Everything had already been done to him that anybody could think of.
Back on the street, I got more stares, but for a different reason. Some soldiers on the wall asked where I was spending my night, among other things. Soldiers are like that, in front of their friends. I've discovered they're not nearly as brave when they meet you alone. Near the city's only landward gate, I found the captain of the guard, a mercenary named Greiz. All the guardsmen were mercs -- Jerhyn's guards were in his palace, along with the city's harems and "ladies of the night." That was odd: Jerhyn seems to like money. Spending it on mercs when he's already got guards doesn't make sense. At least Inella was someplace safe, if you can call being locked up with a bunch of lonely soldiers "safe." Later, I'll have to call for her, and see what's up.
An open-air marketplace was in the center of the city. Stories make eastern markets out to be lively, merchants maniacally buying and selling everything imaginable at the top of their lungs. I could hear beetle legs scuttling across the pavement. Must be the off season. Besides a dozen sad-faced vendors, there was an alchemist and an armorer. The alchemist was a bow-legged oldster named Lysander, who had no eyebrows and a hat he never took off the whole time I talked with him. He tried to sell me some kind of sunburn cream, but never do business with an alchemist with no eyebrows.
The armorer was a slender woman, with long hair she left loose around her face. It was nice hair around a nice enough face, but I would never have thought she was an armorer -- or a Paladin, as she told me. Her thoughts were dark, covered with a mist of guilt; you see a lot of that in Zakarumites. I didn't go beyond her surface. Clerics don't interest me, and people whose minds turn inward are most likely to notice intrusions.
It was starting to get dark, and my feet were tired. Conveniently next to the marketplace was a tavern, already pretty lively. That was the best sign I could have that this city was in trouble -- nobody was spending money on food, but there was plenty to spend on drink. The doorman had "bouncer" written all over him. He wasn't much less than 7 feet tall, and no wider than a beer barrel. About the same shape, too. The tavern keeper was an older woman, dressed in unfashionable black. I liked her instantly, then saw her mind and liked her a lot less. So, the local deaths weren't just murders of convenience. That was good to know, but you should never take murder as personally as this woman did.
There are those who think the neighborhood bar is the best place for information. I've had more luck in dance halls, but it didn't look like many people were dancing in Lut Gholein. The bouncer was already staggering; he wouldn't need much more to start talking. I bought him a drink. He almost knocked me down getting to the bottle, and it was gone before I found a chair. I had to buy another. Most men, given a choice between a bottle and a woman in a thong, know which one they should pick, but this guy wouldn't. Going back to the bar had a silver lining, though -- when I sat down, I realized why that alchemist was trying to sell me sunburn cream. I stood for the rest of our chat.
"So, handsome..." I smiled. Hey, he might notice. "What's got everybody so down?"
"Oh, I don't know... I think it's because of poor mister Andu, and her son."
"He used to own The Rising Sun, before... uh..."
"Oh, no! Something bad happened to poor mister Andu?"
"Well, if you call finding him without his heart and liver and right leg bad."
Something crashed to the floor behind the bar. When I looked up, the tavern keeper was hurrying into the back room. My inebriated friend didn't seem to notice. "It was horrible, all chopped up and parts of him gone or eaten or something. I don't like to talk about it, it makes poor Atma upset."
He stared at his hands, then began to sing. His voice cracked, which discouraged him, and he started to cry. I rolled the bottle on the table, until his eyes rose and tracked it like a bloodhound. "Atma is your bartender?"
"Mister Andu was before," he said, still mesmerized. "After Andu was found, their son went down into the sewer to kill the monster. We never found him. I'd go down there and get it, but... I... uh... I don't like all that living dead stuff."
I leaned way down over the table, and poured half a jug, knowing it wouldn't even be close to enough. "The monster is undead?"
He frowned, but it faded as I kept pouring. "Oh, it's one of those big scary tomb guardians from out in the desert. They're big scary things made from dead men, and they can rip you to pieces and devour your soul like that! They have dead servants too. No one robs tombs with them in there!"
I filled his jug, and smiled. It was empty before I put the bottle down. Never once did he look at me, just the bottle. Someday, I should get this guy to drink water, just for the novelty of it. "Why would anybody make a monster like that?"
"It's a big mummy," he said, his rolling eyes fixed on the bottle. I started pouring again. "When you die, before you go to Heaven, your soul still needs a home, so they dry you out and soak you in chemicals. I don't like talking about it. Dead things are..." He shivered, which is a big deal in a guy that size. It almost knocked the table over.
Pickled human corpses, from the sound of it. Diablo must have loved that local tradition. "Dead things are so nasty," I agreed. "Are there other things that aren't dead?"
"Oh, sure, but they don't get in anymore. Greiz has this city locked down nice and tight, so I don't know why you people keep pestering me about it. I could have done it anytime."
"Well, sure! You're such a big, strong, handsome fella. You shouldn't have to fight with icky nasty undead things anyway."
"I could have, anytime!" Now he was starting to get excited, also a big deal from a guy that big. "Just bring 'em on! That sewer monster won't come out at all anymore with Greiz's guards all over. If he can't come here and fight me, to hell with him!"
With a wild punch through the air, he launched himself off his chair and landed face-down on the floor. I wasn't too worried, his gut probably broke his fall. Sure enough, in a minute, he was snoring. Atma hadn't come back. Everyone was helping themselves to the ale cask, but they all left money on the bar. Even with a mind full of vengeance and sorrow, Atma was obviously respected. Getting her gratitude might be more important than gaining the sultan's favor. Yes... I think I know what my next "good deed for the day" will be.
Back at the inn, I had a few surprises waiting for me: two scissors-katar set with sapphires, a heavy crossbow set with emeralds, and a note.
-- The Mule"
There were two ways into the sewers. One was the maintenance hatch Greiz was standing on. The other was the outflow above the bay. No one guarded it; must be because there's no need to. I went in from the bay. The sewers were almost dry, so the most recent victims were still inside: a knot of corpses almost blocked a side passage. I put a bolt into the pile; none moved. Most of the bodies were fresh, and starting to dry out. Not all were human. Maybe half had missing skin, limbs or organs, but not much had been taken from any one body. Whatever was doing this was picky, only taking what it wanted, and not every body met its standards.
Past the corpse pile was a stairway down. I've been in a few sewers -- sometimes, they're the only way into a well-guarded manor -- but never one with more than one level. Maybe the desert floods a lot, and they need extra drainage for all that water. Leaving enemies behind me is still a bad idea, so I went through the rest of the level. Whatever the monster was, it brought a lot of friends. Some were skeletal, with fire flickering dimly in their bones. Those were my favorites, they made great targets in the dark. Others had flesh, dryer than jerky and stained weird colors by who-knows-what embalming fluid. When one fell over, it burst open into clouds of stinging dust. I think they might have been a little smarter than your standard zombie, or maybe quicker. It wouldn't be hard to be either.
There were also a few Raiders, weird pin-headed humanoids with four arms. Why they were here, I have no idea, and they didn't seem too sure either. Raiders roam around the open desert, and aren't supposed to like confined spaces. Sometimes they attack people, but not often enough for anyone to really worry about them. These guys looked like they wanted to get me, but a loud scream or a bolt in the gut sent them scampering. Here, at least, poison was better than the katar. Raiders are long-legged and hard to catch, so poisoned bolts are a lot easier that chasing them down. The undead cared less, but the bow still had enough to get them in one hit. The stronger ones just took longer to fall over.
I must have been near the northern part of the city when I found a big bunch of skellies, all facing away from me, waiting patiently. I've heard that when you're shooting at a flock of birds, get the ones in the back first so the rest don't scatter. Birds don't have shields, so it didn't quite work the same with these guys. I had to retreat and hide a few times, and pick them off from behind corners, but with some patience I whittled them down to nothing. Past them was the maintenance hatch -- I could see Greiz's shadow around the edge. Never go in the front door.
A perverse thought struck me. I climbed up to the hatch and knocked. "Hi, Greiz."
I heard a yelp, then a thump. Good jump for such a big guy. "Who goes there?"
"Nobody special. You should have more guards on this thing, there were a lot of zombies and things waiting down here."
There was a banging, and the hatch opened. I grinned my best grin into the glaring sun, until Greiz's shadow blocked it. "Eh, it's you. Looks like you got yourself into trouble."
"Not that I noticed. Did you know there's fresh bodies down here?"
"Uh-huh. Every now and then, some fool decides to be a hero and go down there with a pig-sticker. Was that your idea?"
"Nah. I've been a hero already, the compensation's lousy. The monster's still dangerous, so why aren't your guys down here?"
"Lady, you may not have noticed, but this city is under attack from every direction. It's bad enough that I'm losing men every day in the desert. The sewer monster is contained. That's the best I can do without additional manpower."
I nodded. "Jerhyn doesn't have enough money, huh?"
Greiz smiled, his first of the day. He probably allowed himself four. "I think he does, but he'd rather give up a few citizens than what it would take to get my men down there. Lords like heroes. They're too noble to demand payment up front. I know better."
"I knew there was something I liked about you," I smiled back. "See you in a few. I've got a reputation to make."
Mercenaries. Say what you like, the smart ones know what the soldiering business is all about. I'll take smart over noble any day. Mercenaries are predictable. You never know what some idiot will think is the "right" thing to do.
The second level of the sewers was a lot like the first: burning skeletons, "mummies", and Raiders. Some of these skeletons had bows and shot burning arrows, but I could deal with that. The locals use some strange fighting equipment. Raiders like crystal swords, maybe because lightness is more important than toughness for these weedy bastards. When they have shields, they're wicker-work things covered with spikes. Wicker actually stops arrows pretty well, and the spikes might snare the light, curved swords the locals use. Out here, anything that saves weight would be good.
All around the level, I kept finding corpses. One room had 3, untouched aside from the fatal burns and cuts. In a side chamber, there was a funny-looking rock that turned out to be a Horadric waypoint -- in a sewer. Another funny rock up in the city matched it. Why would anyone want magical transportation to a sewer? Mages, even Horadrim, aren't half as smart as they like to think, but this is nuts.
Down another set of stairs was a third level of sewers. How much sewer does a city need? Unless the population really goes up during tourist season, these were starting to look more like underground snuggling tunnels, or hidden dens for the city's seamier entertainment offerings. A lot of people can't enjoy their sin unless they try to keep it hidden. Skeletons were everywhere, and Jungle Cats. They looked even worse off than the Raiders; their eyes ran in the dry, dusty air, and their fur was dull and patchy. All they had to fight with were bullwhips, lousy weapons against armor. Maybe they'd been herders once.
In the farthest corner of the third level, I finally found the monster. It was too big to have ever been human, at least 10 feet tall. Hordes of skeletal mages surrounded it, too many to fight or fire through. Standard minion-dispersal tactics worked well: get servants to follow you, then strand them in empty tunnels and kill them one at a time. The big thing, unlike its minions, was too tough for one bolt to kill. A second bolt didn't kill it either, and neither did the third. A fourth might have, but I didn't want to try it; I ran in with my head down, took a couple of death bolts, and finished the thing off by hand.
Once I had a corpse to look over, I found out I was wrong. It was human, just more than one human together. Wires held spliced-together bones in place; muscles were stretched to cover longer limbs; its shriveled innards had been repacked with fresher meat. Over to one side, the monster had a collection of skins, the finest Lut Gholein's population had to offer, crudely stitched into something that might cover its body. None of it had been cured -- the older patches were already rotten. The suit, and the monster, would probably need constant replacement parts. Maybe that bouncer was right: dead things are just nasty.
"Ah!" Cain's eyes lit up as I emptied my pack. Bringing the books out first was a good idea; reading always brightens the old fart's day. "You've found a Horadric scroll! How fortunate that I have the knowledge to decipher the mystic runes it bears."
"You can? Wow, I couldn't figure that out at all," I said. Actually, I could get the general idea of the scroll pretty well. Mages love writing things down, but can't stand the idea of anyone else reading them, so they invent codes. Most are simple letter substitution ciphers, not hard to figure out. Still, it's handy to have someone who knows the code.
"Hmm... yes, this is most important. Have you ever heard of Radamant the Fallen?"
"Radamant, also called Radamant the Fallen. Born in Westmarch, studied in Viz-Jun in the third century. Joined the Horadrim, active in Aranoch. Part of the group that bound Baal. Afterwards, lost his marbles and ritually murdered about half a dozen people. Killed by forces unknown, end of story. What about him?"
"Eh... yes." Cain looked uncomfortable. Describing something in a few sentences violates some basic instinct of his. "Judging from this, it appears that his story did not end with his death. It is my belief that the monster you fought was none other than Radamant!"
I nodded, waiting for him to go on. "And... ?"
"Erm, well... Radamant was a mighty Horadrim mage, and mummified after his death. As is the custom of this land, the noblest dead were infused with spells and surgically altered to give them greater status in the afterlife, and allow them to guard their own tombs from the living. Which makes his presence here all the more mysterious."
"I'm wondering why they'd mummify and enhance Radamant. He killed a bunch of people."
"He was a Horadrim, and it was traditional." Cain shrugged. "Wondering why our ancestors did as they did is an interesting, but ultimately pointless exercise. History will not change as a result of our pondering it."
"Most likely, the people he murdered were ordinary peasants who don't matter, as far as sorcerers are concerned. Anyway, what's so shocking about Radamant being here?"
Cain frowned at me, but decided to let it go. "Radamant is far from his tomb, and engaged in activities unconnected with its protection. I should not be surprised that, with so many things happening, even the ancient guardian spells are beginning to unravel."
"The 'dead rising from the tombs' stuff, yeah. Great. I have to go see Atma." I held up Radamant's skull, blowing away a bit of dust from the broken neck. "She'll appreciate this."
"I cannot imagine that Atma would want that," Cain said, blanching.
"In her frame of mind, I think she'll want it mounted over the fireplace."
"Oh, quickly, before you go!" Cain held up the scroll. "This is a description of the binding of Baal, which Radamant was witness to. According to Radamant, the Soulstone used to imprison Baal was broken, so Tal Rasha, greatest of the Horadrim --"
"Volunteered to get stuck with the stone and wrestle the demon lord for all eternity. You already told me that. What else does it say?"
"Ah... well... Tal Rasha was imprisoned in a spacious tomb, excavated under the direction of the archangel Tyrael, hidden from the eyes of man or hellspawn --"
"Behind thick walls and mighty enchantments, and buried deep beneath the desert sands, yeah yeah. Is there anything new in there, like where the tomb is?"
"Er... no, but the scroll does describe how to enter the tomb. All Horadrim carried a staff as their badge of office, as I do today to honor their memory. The members of the party which captured Baal enchanted their staves to serve as keys, should they ever have a need to open the tomb again."
"Right. Let me guess: someone stole a staff."
"An attempt was made to do just that, but it was foiled at the last moment. To safeguard the tomb, the staves were broken into shaft and headpiece, and hidden away. They then carried false staves with them, in case another attempt should be made."
"Huh. That's interesting. Anything else?"
Cain looked over the scroll, and shook his head. "No, nothing else remains. It seems that Diablo will have great difficulty reaching his brother. A true Horadric staff is necessary to open the tomb, but no one save ourselves knows this."
"Hmm, yeah. I suppose that means I should kill you now." He blinked amusingly for a few seconds, before I grinned. "Just kidding. Don't tell anybody else, though."
Over at Atma's, the bouncer's eyes almost fell out of his head when I walked in and put Radamant's skull on the bar. "Hi there. Guess what I found?"
"Oh, wow..." he said, looking at the skull. It was pretty disgusting: the bone had warped into strange shapes, and the whole thing was covered with dry, dusty skin. "That is the weirdest-looking mushroom I've EVER seen..."
"It's a skull. The creature's name was Radamant. Radamant the Fallen."
"Oh, Radamant the Fallen!" He nodded sagely, pretending he had some idea what that meant. "Now, why do you suppose they call him 'the Fallen'?"
"Maybe because he fell."
"Can't be! I've fallen down plenty of times, but they never call me 'Geglash the Fallen!' The most I ever get is 'Geglash, you've fallen!'"
Sigh. I don't know why I bothered. But Atma noticed the skull. She silently came over to my side, staring at it. "That is the monster, isn't it?"
"Had to be," I said. "There was only one of them down there."
Enough hate to boil water filled her, and she spat in the thing's face. I half-expected the bone to start dissolving. Then, just as quickly, her anger dissipated and she turned away. "The taste of vengeance is bittersweet. I thank you. Now, please take that thing out of my tavern."
"Sure," I said, expecting more, but even I can misjudge a person. "Do you think it's safe to throw it in the bay?"
"I know nothing of what is safe when dealing with such monsters, save distance and plenty of antidote. What is your name, hero?"
"I'm Amy," I smiled. "I just got into town."
"I have heard of you," Atma smiled faintly back. "The tales say you opened the pass to the west single-handedly, slaying the demon queen who guarded it."
"Yeah, that's me. I'm after something bigger than Andarial, though."
"You tread a dangerous path, but you knew that without my telling you." She looked over at the bouncer. He'd gone from staring at the head in horror to snoring with his head on his chest. "You've already met Geglash. I hope he has not offended you. The strain our city is under has gotten him drinking more than his usual."
"Nah, he's all right. I'd like to meet him sober sometime."
Atma laughed. "You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Someone should, just to say it's happened."
I liked making Atma laugh. It was easier than I thought it would be. "Anyway... I heard about your loss, and thought this was something I had to do."
"You've heard of the others who tried before you?"
I laughed. "Greiz made sure to let me know. I was worried, but knowing what the monster did just made me realize it had to die." That should sound noble enough.
Atma nodded quietly, but her eyes were shining. "Most of the armed men in Lut Gholein are mercenaries, in fact or in their hearts. Even Lord Jerhyn's guardsmen don't come to my tavern anymore. You will always be welcome here."
"Thanks, that means a lot," I smiled. I hope this woman has connections. "What are all the guards doing in the palace, anyway?"
"I wish someone would say," she said, suspicions edging along her thoughts. "They're safe there, the palace's defenses are legendary. Keeping them in there, with so much danger outside, is beginning to seem like negligence."
"And the harems?"
With a sour smile, Atma said, "That seems worse than negligent. Perhaps Jerhyn is simply guarding what he values most."
"Maybe. I'm surprised his advisors haven't told him how it looks."
"Drognan counsels Lord Jerhyn. He is reputed to be wise and sensible. He counseled our lord's father during his reign."
"Faduwas, you mean?"
"The same. Lord Faduwas -- may his reward be just and great -- grew very rich from the trade in this city, and many prospered under his rule."
The way I heard it, Faduwas got rich with crushing taxes, and only the harems prospered while he was in charge. If Jerhyn was drinking from the same well, he might think to look out for himself, and to hell with the city. On the other hand, if this Drognan had Jerhyn's ear, influencing him might be as important as making friends with Atma. "Where might he be?"
"In his shop, on the street north of here. Look for the display of wands and staves."
"Drognan is a sorcerer," Atma said matter-of-factly, "and sells sorcerous things. Few customers come to his door, but his wares are the most expensive in Lut Gholein."
"I'll bet they are. One more question..."
"I figure you might know. What's narlant weed?"
Atma smiled, took something out of her pocket, and handed it to me. "On the house."
She'd handed me a little cylinder about 5 inches long, made of a large dried plant leaf with more leaves stuffed tightly inside. It smelled strong, and not unpleasant. "I thought it came in bowls. What do you do with it?"
"Only complete sots smoke whole bowls. You light one end, put the other in your mouth, and inhale slowly. Try it, you might like it."
I put the cylinder away and went to find Drognan. He was a Vizjerei, all right. His hair was neatly trimmed and white as paint, his eyes clear and disdainful. He stood every inch of his five-foot-six, the paunch his red robes didn't conceal bulging in front of him. Why do Vizjerei like wearing that ugly color, anyway? The moment I walked in, he started talking, like I was fated to come to him. He'd probably been waiting for me all day.
"Greetings, Amanita. I have heard you are responsible for banishing Andarial back to the burning hells. I'm impressed; that couldn't have been easy."
"Hi there," I said, trying not to let an edge creep in. "Yep, that was l'il ol' me. I've heard you're Drognan, sorcerer supreme."
"Flippancy is not advisable, young Viz-Jaq'taar. I'm older than I look, but not so old that I can't summon up a few sparks."
In his head, he was loudly conjugating verbs in some foreign language; the noise hid every other thought. And, judging from his faint but noticeable smirk, he noticed me. Of course, I could bull past his little mental barriers and MAKE him tell... if I had anything I wanted him to tell, which I didn't. "How nice. So, most esteemed wizard, no doubt you have urgent advice for me, to aid my quest against all-consuming evil. That is what mages do instead of risking their own precious skins, isn't it?"
"I shall ignore your disrespect, for now. The danger is greater than you can understand. As you know, the Lord of Terror entered Aranoch some weeks past. But I do not think you have been told that a cloaked wanderer came to Lut Gholein, asking for the location of Tal Rasha's tomb."
"Okay, that's news. Did anyone tell him?"
If possible, admitting ignorance made Drognan look even more smug. "None living possess that knowledge; it was deliberately lost centuries ago. When he realized what he sought was not to be found here, the wanderer left. From that day forward --"
"Terror and destruction have blighted the city," I finished for him. For the love of all that's good, somebody has to take this blowhard down a peg.
Verb forms snapped back up in his mind, and he glared hard at me. "I am afraid I dislike your manner."
"I've had complaints about it. Your wanderer was probably Diablo."
"That is my opinion as well."
"I saw he had somebody with him."
That made Drognan mad. He kept his temper down, though. Damn. "Yes, since you are so bold as to say so. He was accompanied by a pathetic dolt I barely noticed, doubtless a menial servant of some sort. I am not accustomed to noticing servants."
"It's good to notice things. You never know what'll turn out to be important. Where did the wanderer go?"
"Away from the city, into the desert where the tomb lies hidden. Unless you feel you can pry the secrets you need from the dead, I will gladly offer my services, researching through old records from the palace. It is possible that the tomb's location was recorded there, in some overlooked personal journal, or scrawled into the margin of an unrelated book."
"That's sweet of you, but I need to find Diablo."
"Even in his present, weakened state, the Lord of Terror can easily elude even you. The brothers must be prevented from reuniting, and a search for Baal, immobilized as he is, is more likely to be fruitful. You, of course, would not understand this. We Vizjerei are more familiar with Hell's powers. Your own order's lore is but a subset of our knowledge, and sadly lacking in descriptions of demonic powers."
I wonder if he could hear my teeth gritting? "We all know how much Vizjerei know about demons. How much do you know? It better not be too much, or I'll have to do something very unpleasant for both of us."
"Knowledge is power, however it is used, and you will have a great need of power in days to come. And... threats should never be made idly."
"Who's idle? Anyway, if the big red cheese was asking where the tomb is, he doesn't know either. He's got a couple weeks head start, that's all. Oh, one last thing..."
Drognan frowned. He really didn't like me. Good. "Anything to be of service."
"You said you can get in the palace."
He blinked, and verbs roared through his mind again. "I do not recall saying so."
"You're Jerhyn's advisor, and you said you could look at old palace records. Unless you have them here, you'll have to go inside the palace for that."
"Ah. You are correct. Yes..." His mind was buzzing, but I couldn't get anything sensible out of it. "I may enter freely, and will be happy to do so, should you require it."
"Great. Get some of his guards out to the wall. With the sewer monster dead, maybe they can start making a dent in Diablo's guys. If Jerhyn wants to stay sultan, fortifying the palace and leaving the city open is a bad idea. You should know that."
Irritating Drognan could get to be a bad habit. He took it so badly. "I did not realize I was in the presence of a master of war. I shall take your ideas into consideration, when I am not otherwise occupied. You have the city's gratitude for disposing of Radamant, but all will be for naught if the greater evil finds what it seeks."
"Uh-huh. So, bye!"
Even though the sun was going down, the city gates were wide open. Greiz must feel pretty confident of his men. For a minute, I wondered if I should leave the city to them and call it quits for the night. I'd been running through Lut Gholein's sewers all day, doing more than my fair share of community service. Then I felt the heat radiating from the ground, making the setting sun dance on the horizon. The rocky soil was flat as a broiling pan, and about as comfortable. By day, it would be like hell out here.
Everything was quiet as I slipped into the night, moving slow so as not to stumble over the rocky ground. The city lights twinkled behind me as I met my first enemy: desert lizards. Okay, they were the size of large dogs, with multiple eyes and claws they liked to rake through the air under them when they leapt over your head, but I guess I'd been hoping for more. Jumping and raking was their move of choice. It made them damn hard targets, but it seemed like they couldn't keep track of me from the air. Moving to a new shadow every time they leapt completely lost them. While they were sitting there, trying to figure out where I'd vanished to, I could take my time and snipe.
Cat People were out too, throwing javelins. At least they had shields and decent weapons this time. Hiding in the dark didn't do much good against them, but the new poison bow worked a lot better on living targets than dead ones. One hit and they were scorpion food. The scorpions around here are nasty, the size of my hand and built like tiny dreadnoughts. Any meat they see, they're all over in a second. Maybe solid metal boots would be a good idea, even with the clanking.
The ground gave up the last of its heat before midnight. Then it got cold like only deserts can, as frigid as a Duncraig debutante with a socially-unconnected suitor. I was shivering in my own armor, but it would have been worse by daylight. There were a lot of Cat People out here. Whenever I missed a shot, I'd find a dead one further out in the darkness. Now and then, I'd find the body of a Lut Gholein guardsman, mutilated and put up on a stake. A fight in daylight, where everything could see me, would not be a good idea.
Lut Gholein was just a glow on the horizon when I found the wagon. It was near an oasis of blackened water, and might have belonged to gypsies. The wagon had been pulled off its wheels and broken open, its contents dragged out and scattered. The owner's skulls were heaped up to one side. I found a little jewelry, but not much else. How did Warriv get us safely across the desert? The bad guys will attack wagons, but we never saw any. Maybe they saw more than one wagon, and figured we were too many. Maybe Warriv knows where the ambush sites are, and avoided them. Of course, he knew to bring water, something I didn't think of. I guess there's a reason he's leader.
I found my first tomb around midnight, and sat down to review my options. My mission, first and foremost, was to locate Diablo and prevent him from finding his brother. Plan B was to find Baal and keep him from linking up with Diablo. Baal was imprisoned inside Tal Rasha, who was supposed to be pretty tough, but after a few centuries with a demon lord in his head, I doubt there's much left of the guy. I had no idea where Diablo was, but Baal was in a tomb, chained down. Meeting either of them would probably mean a fight, but Baal couldn't move, and probably couldn't summon anything. To get in to him, you need a Horadric staff; Diablo probably doesn't know that. Plan B would be easier, if I can find a staff. This tomb was too close to the city to be Baal's (unless the Horadrim took the "purloined letter" approach) but there might be a dead Horadrim in there.
Predictably, the place was lousy with skeletons, a mix of mages and grunts, but nothing worse. One side tomb had a few giant beetles crawling around, but living things aren't a big worry now. They made some sparks when they died. The tomb was the nicest I've ever been in, dry and tastefully decorated. The smells of spices wafted through the air, not rot and decay. Almost a shame no one there could appreciate it. Maybe the locals used to visit their dead relatives back when it was safe, so they had the place fixed up nice. They sure left a lot of offering urns, full of valuable things. Looting them should be okay. Any lawyer would say they were abandoned property, given the circumstances.
The tomb's lower level held a richer class of dead people. The nobler classes are so much more rewarding to rob. Most had chests full of grave goods, some of them trapped. None had staves. My favorite trap was a pair of magic scimitars that floated out of a chest and attacked me. They were very striking, not too dangerous but really pretty and worth some major style points from me. The tomb netted me a pretty good haul, though kicking over so many urns made my sunburn chafe. Cain identified one belt as the Arctic Wrap or something. I thought it might resist temperature changes, which would make it very useful here, but it only works against cold.
A faint glow was turning the eastern horizon pink as I wandered into some low dunes. Sand is a pain. Try to walk on it, it shifts from under your feet. If you sit down or get knocked down, it's hard as a rock. And when grenades explode in it, it gets into everything: my eyes, my boots, my bow, everywhere. How do I know this? The Cat People are back, and this time, they have grenades: little pots of explosives like the Rogues were playing with back in the monastery. The quicker cats have sabers, crystal swords, and other light weapons; a pack (pride?) of them is a serious menace. I wonder if they killed the gypsies? That wagon did have some burned patches.
Turns out Diablo's been at work on the local birds, too. He's got vulture-demons, strange things with arms, legs, and wings all together. The ones I found were undead; I don't know if they were ever alive or not. Maybe they ate too much mummy flesh. Whatever they'd been eating before, as soon as they saw me they decided on a change of diet. Killing them was hard. They flew very high, further than I could reliably target, but were too clumsy to attack in a dive. Trying to slam into me from that far up might break them.
As the sun rose, the temperature shot skyward. In the time it took the sun to clear the horizon, it went from uncomfortably cold to uncomfortably hot, and kept going. Daylight didn't seem to bother the cats -- I think they preferred it, and they seemed to be getting smarter. Twice, they saw me and ran. The first time, I went right after them, which was stupid. They led me between two dunes and stopped, hiding behind their shields while their companions pelted me from above with grenades. I had to switch to the katar and charge into the middle of the pride to get the grenadiers off my case. The second time, I didn't follow them straight in, but ran around the side and up a sand dune. Getting to high ground for some clear shots seemed like a good idea at the time. When I got there, giant beetles surrounded and trapped me up there, while the cats bombed me. Again, I fell back on the katar. The lightning sparks were a lot worse that time.
Finding another tomb was actually a relief. By then, it was mid-morning. The salt of my own sweat was stinging my chafed hide, and the ground felt like the bottom of an oven. Inside, it was dark, and cool, and... full of skeletons, more than I'd ever seen in one place. Behind them, I counted five mummies, the big kind. Each had an ivory sickle welded to its right arm, and their heads had been replaced with those of crocodiles. That was strange. Maybe the Horadrim didn't understand the importance of the brain. I'd think that if you take any part of you into the afterlife, you'd want to keep your own head.
I got off a few shots before the skeletons surrounded me. They're not that strong, but this many was scary. When I knocked down the first one, things got scarier: a mummy gestured, and the skelly got back up again. Great... just like the little demons. The skeletons had me walled in. The mummies were casting Death Bolts, a necromantic spell that drains away life force. Unlike conventional elemental attacks, it hardly hurts at all, but I was dying a little with each and every one. Teleporting would have been really handy right then, but I'd never managed to master the discipline. The bow was useless. The skeletons were packed in too tight to knock them away. The only thing that might help was the gems in my katar.
I laid into the skeletons, whacking and hacking with no grace or style. Sometimes, they fell, and got up again. Other times, they froze and shattered. Nothing could bring them back from that. When a gap opened in their ranks, I took it and charged the mummies. My first new friend greeted me warmly, with a big slap on the back and a face-full of corpse breath. I showed him the love, and ran to the next guy, with the skeletons behind me. I got the first mummy before the horde caught up, but the second I had to leave alive or I would have been surrounded again. I hate leaving a job unfinished, it just goes against my nature. At least I could come back to him later, as long as I kept moving.
When the mummies went down, the skeletons were easy. At least they couldn't bring each other back, that would be truly terrifying. Things got so busy in there, I almost didn't notice the bats. These were Lightning Bats, which used to work as low-level mage familiars back in the old days. I've read about them, but never thought I'd actually see some. They're minor familiars for minor wizards, and not too dangerous. Another feature of the entrance chamber was the trapped floor. While under attack, I didn't have time think about why the floor kept moving. Turns out several floor tiles were rigged, set to trigger spring-loaded iron spikes. Clear avenues between trapped tiles allowed grieving relatives to visit the tomb safely. I'd have to watch my step around here.
This tomb had big mummies all over the place, with hordes of skeletons. These couldn't all be Horadrim; I don't think there were ever that many. Killing them was like taking down a Necro: first, get them away from their servants. Skeletons are stupid enough to follow you a long way from their boss, and in this case the boss wasn't too bright either. Having your brain replaced with a crocodile's can't be good for you.
The deeper I went in the tomb, the more traps I ran into. There were spiked balls that fired out of the walls, spikes in the floor, poisoned darts, fire traps, poison gas... the people who put this tomb together must have had serious money. Damned shame I never saw any of it. There were a few intact sarcophagi, and lots of skeletons and normal-sized mummies, but loot was noticeably lacking. Cat People put in an appearance in a ceremonial chamber with some big mummies, but only once. The most surprising thing was a waypoint. These were Horadric mummies, then, and the living did come visit them. That explained why all these traps were still functional -- the Horadrim made good stuff.
The deepest level was full of mummies, big and small. Horadric mummies can raise normal mummies, it turns out, but that was less of a problem. Normal mummies don't chase you like skeletons, or form a defensive wall between you and the big guy. Unless you're right next to them, they tend to mill around in a brainless way. That's literally true, by the way -- their brains scooped out their noses as part of the embalming process. Slogging through was painfully slow, kind of like the mummies themselves, but I started finding the real loot down here. Whatever else you might say, high-ranking Horadrim knew what money was for. I was hauling cash, gems, and enchanted doodads out by the bucketful. Cain was in his seventh heaven: he'd never seen so many Horadric relics in his life. There were several staves, too, but not even a piece of one we needed.
I was almost done with the tomb when I decided to go back and check a little side branch near the stairs I'd bypassed before. I knew it would be something special when Cat People came out after me. The bow dropped them just fine, and some mummies too, with a little more time. The chamber was the tomb of someone important: the main sarcophagus was huge, with about a dozen lesser ones around it. The occupants were now scattered on the floor around me, but the big tomb had a true treasure.
"A Horadric Cube!" Cain exclaimed. "You have quite a treasure there!"
"I know, I know!" I grinned. "It's an alchemy lab in a box! If I were more of a trapster, I'd be wetting myself with joy right now! It's still pretty cool."
"Ahem, yes. Let me see what formulae I can remember... ah, yes! Two quivers of arrows will make one quiver of bolts!"
"That's convenient, but I'm finding plenty of bolts. Do you think you could write some of those down for me? It's past noon, I've been up all night, I'm bushed."
"Gladly!" he smiled. "For a time there, I was growing worried! The task before you seemed insurmountable. Now, my predecessors have blessed you with a tool you need, or at least should be able to use."
"Your predecessors were whacking me upside the head with sticks all the time they were blessing me with this stuff, you know. What's next, an angel of the Light descending from heaven and anointing me with a croquet mallet? I'm tired. It's hot. My brain isn't working right. I'm going to hide someplace cool and quiet and sleep."
"A wise decision. It has been some years since I was in Lut Gholein, but well remember this oppressive heat."
"Yeah. I think I'm gonna be a creature of the night for a while. Black is just the wrong color for this climate. Thanks for all you've done."
The old guy smiled, obviously flattered. "Why, thank you very much. I have tried, in my small way, to be of assistance. If my many years of --
"Cain, just take the compliment, okay?"
"Erm... as you wish."
Some inns are called "flea traps." Believe me, the bugs are not trapped in there. They're right where they want to be. The ones in my bed woke me before sunset. If I'd actually been in the bed, I wouldn't have been as upset, but after I saw the mattress moving, I slept on the other side of the room. I think I lost more blood to Elzix's subordinates than Diablo's, but I'll live. The floor was cooler anyway.
After delousing, I got dressed, and found that roll of narlant weed. What were you supposed to do with this thing? Burn one end, inhale the smoke through the other? It was dry and lit up easy, putting out a lot of smoke. Didn't smell half bad, so I sucked the other end. The flame went out and it started smoldering, a smoky wisp rising ghost-like to the ceiling. The first lung-full made me choke, but after that, it felt pretty good, kind of warm and smooth, but stimulating. I guess you always gag a little the first time. Since it would be dark soon and everyone would be there, I
went out into the world Is anyone there? Hi there Hello I'm in trouble! Where is There's jungle everyone? cats all over! I'm still on Lycander They're attacking Just got to everything! Kurast myself I know about the cats It's a nightmare here I'm in Lut Gholein Have you seen anyone else? Nobody else yet I'm trying to I can't get a get there damned ship Kurast is being the Amazon seers overrun by its won't let any go own jungle Are there only four of us here? Yes. I noticed that Damn... The cats attack day, night, anytime! Where is everyone? You sure you want to know? Have you seen any of those giant beetles? No Ick We got giant mosquitoes Double ick! Watch out, giant And giant spiders beetles spit lightning when That's worse... you hit them. What do you do I wish this was about them? just sorcerers. Sorcerers aren't I just keep that disgusting You haven't met my distance I'm a hand the right ones fighter! Try fading That should work. Don't take too many risks. The This is scary, big danger is so few of us Have you still out there to talk to found Inella? No, I haven't Another one bites the dust I'm going to I'll be there real look for her soon. I think I'll Be careful! be safe. I've seen a city up ahead. No Not even lamps lit, though No lights? cook fires? That's weird Maybe they can't get any firewood They have to cook That doesn't with something make sense Be careful. Something At least there sounds wrong won't be any cats I used to like cats Hey, are my thoughts fuzzy? Kind of A little. Are Oooh, gnarly you on narlant? weed! Just a little They grow it here I don't like I've heard it's it. Always gave bad for you me a headache Doesn't seem Breathing in smoke bad so far is bad for your lungs after a while but not too much Yeah, lamp lung Too much of is fine Narlant lung? anything is bad Whatever. It's time to get busy The only way to Time to move. leave Lycander is This jungle is The cats will find to go swimming not natural. me if I don't I need an axe, not claws So get one. Bye! See you soon! Bye! See you.
Jerhyn's palace was where I'd left it. He was outside, pacing the pavement like he'd been stood up on a date. Maybe the harem girls were finally getting tired of him. The moment he saw me, he scampered over and... bowed? It was a only a short one, but he must be really desperate. Either that, or something had him so scared he forgot he was sultan.
"I have heard of your many deeds of skill and bravery," he began, "and now feel I can trust you with something I have begun to suspect: the wanderer from the west who came to my city and spoke with my people was none other than Diablo himself!"
I took a slow draw on the narlant stick. "No sh!t."
That, he noticed. After bestowing upon me an official glance of displeasure, he went on with the rest of his insights. "We could not tell him the location of Tal Rasha's tomb, so we have done nothing to help with his task. It is well known that the tomb is one of seven in a hidden canyon, deep in the desert."
"Old news, my lord. I'm here to ask you a few questions."
My infamous charm seemed to remind Jerhyn of his station. With a cool stare that might have been impressive from an older, taller, and heavier man, he said, "My advisor Drognan informed me that our 'hero of the west' is impudent, and ill-spoken before her betters. I am displeased to see his judgment confirmed."
"Yeah, I'm just a regular sweetheart, aint I? But there's something I need to know, and you're the man to tell me. How are the harem girls doing?"
His expression froze. All kinds of things must be going through his head, and I couldn't see any of them. "Everything is fine. Why do you ask?"
"I used to know one of the girls in there, in my young and crazy days. Haven't heard from her in a long time. I was wondering if we could catch up."
He stared hard at me. "You? Don't tell me you were in one of our harems."
"Nah, just visited. Anyway, where is she?"
Jerhyn didn't answer for a good three or four seconds. Either he was trying to come up with an ingenious lie, or the idea of me going into a harem had rocked his little world to the core. The sweat breaking out on his forehead was no clue. "I... you... that..."
Might as well keep him off-balance. "I'm sorry, but sometimes boys are just so nasty and smelly and mean, a girl's only got one choice! Her name's Inella. Is she here?"
Wow, he turned bright red. My butt wasn't that red, even with the chafing. "There is no one here by that name."
"Are you sure? She couldn't be anywhere else."
"She is not here. I think... I think your friend is dead."
He had to be too flustered to lie. But I half-knew already. "How did she die?"
"There was..." He glanced around, then at the ground, blinking and stammering. "Before the troubles began, there was an eastern mage, a Vizjerei I believe, who came to Lut Gholein from the west. He behaved --"
"Did he come from... a town there?"
"He mentioned a town named Tristram, and hunting for the demon prince Diablo in the catacombs beneath it. As I was saying before your interruption, he behaved very strangely. Despite that, one of the girls took an interest in him. He had obviously found wealth in the west, so I did not think her attention unusual, though perhaps unwise. Later on, there was some sort of fight in one of the side bedrooms, and the girl was killed."
Damn. "What happened to the Vizjerei?"
"He disappeared from the palace soon after, and has not been seen since. If you're thinking of revenge, you would be wiser to concentrate your attention outside our walls, where a far greater threat than a mere sorcerer looms over us all."
There might have been something I could say right then. I couldn't think of it. Even the narlant didn't make my head buzz enough. "Right. Have fun with the survivors."
The dark chill of the desert wrapped around me like a welcome cloak. The narlant stick had just about burned down, so I tossed it. No sense testing the enemy's sense of smell. The hills had a few more Cat People and leaping lizards. Beyond was a rich oasis, a low spot in the sand where water came to the surface. The stars silhouetted palm trees and cacti, and what looked like the wreckage of a lot more wagons.
Giant beetles were down by the water, and dense packs of mosquitoes in whining clouds. I could hear them a long way off, at least, and poison spread quickly through the swarms. Then, there were the crawling things: huge bugs bigger than a cow, with about a dozen legs each. When they saw me, they spat acidic venom, and laid eggs which quickly hatched into two or three hungry young 'uns. On a return trip, I asked Atma about them. The big bugs were Burrowing Maggots, and used to be tame. Their eggs were good eating, so the locals raised them. Now eggs and adults were poisonous, and too hostile to go near.
Around the oasis, I found the wrecked remains of six wagons and two homesteads, maybe ranches for the local bug-herders. The wagons were pulled to bits and scattered, but not burned. If anything, the holes in the wood looked digested. The houses had been pulled to the ground. What was really disturbing was that there were no bodies. With so many jugs left by the water, there had to have been a lot of people here once.
A round hole in the sand was my only other clue in the oasis. It didn't look like a well. The walls were lined with a cement of sand and some goo that was probably saliva. I've heard ants build like that, but this tunnel was big enough to stand in. Inside, I immediately found some answers: two human bodies wrapped in green goo. Their flesh was mostly gone, and when I poked them, the bones bent like jelly.
Call me too curious, but I went deeper in. The tunnels were narrow and twisted all over the place, and full of Maggots. They seemed to like hiding around corners, I almost tripped over one more than once. Like most poisonous creatures, poison didn't work too well on them. There was a lot of stuff in the maggot lair, travelers' lockers and chests carefully stowed in side chambers and sealed up with walls of gluey goo. The bugs may be smarter than they look, since they know to value valuable things. Then again, they can't use it, so how smart can collecting it be?
Human bodies were everywhere in the maggot lair, all in some stage of digestion. Something in the goo made the skin go clear, so the bones and guts underneath were visible. Maybe that's how the maggots judged their ripeness. I did find a few patches of green where a body used to be, but got taken away somewhere. Weirdly, even though the tunnels were incredibly moist -- sometimes water dripped on my head, which is incredible in a desert -- I couldn't smell rot or mildew.
In a deep part of the tunnels, I found a chamber full of urns. Did the maggots raid a tomb somewhere? The locals use different styles of pottery for the living and for the dead, and these were definitely dead men's pots. I hadn't seen a tomb entrance above, unless these tunnels were inside a tomb complex. Either way, if the maggots found the right thing, they might have made my job easier for me.
In the deepest side-branch of the lair, I found the answer to one question. The creature was a maggot, but bloated like a queen bee, laying adult maggots as fast as she could. Her young started spitting and laying their own eggs as soon as I poked my nose in. The smell was unbelievable. Just going near made my lungs burn. Oh, well, people have called me an exterminator before. Might as well earn the title.
The first thing I noticed was that the queen seemed immune to poison. That made sense, her whole body was probably full of the stuff. I tried picking her young off before closing, but that didn't work either. The b!tch could lay them faster than I could lay them down. I like this bow, it's come in really handy, but sometimes there's just no substitute for getting down and dirty in the middle of things. I took a deep breath, and charged.
First, I took out the cloud of little ones her young had laid. They went down quick enough, and it was out to the tunnel for another lung-full of air. My next try got two adults; the queen had laid one more. Then I got three, but overreached and had to take a breath in the chamber. It was easily the worst mistake of my career. I almost passed out, and barely made it out through a swarm of tiny maggots.
After a tactical retreat back to Lut Gholein for some healing, I stocked up on antidotes and dove back in. With the katar, I could kill two or three adults for every one she birthed, so with careful use of antidotes it came down to me and her. At no point did the queen attack me herself. Like a queen bee, she was too fat to move. She was full to the gills of poison; her death spasms sprayed it all over the room.
"Hello," Cain said as I walked into the square. "You look as though you fell in the bay."
"Yep," I said. "Went straight there after that maggot thing, and you should be grateful. I'm gonna need about a million baths before I feel clean. Got some stuff for you."
"Hmmm... Death's Guard, an unusual find. Ah! You have found a Horadric staff!"
"Huh? That thing?"
"The Horadric runes are just visible. Even better, this is missing its headpiece! It can only mean one thing: you have found part of a key to Tal Rasha's tomb!"
"I thought those bugs might have raided an old tomb... great! I'm going to fall in the bay again, then go to bed. The sun will be up soon."
"Hrm, yes, well... I believe it is past dawn."
I looked up. "It's still night, Cain. The stars are out, you know?"
"True, true... but still, the sun should have risen an hour ago. It is most peculiar."
I looked up again. The stars twinkled back at me. I could tell it was late, I'd been up a long time, but there wasn't even a hint of a glow on the horizon. "Oh, great. If it isn't one thing, it's another. Now I have to go rescue Mr. Sun."
Cain didn't know (a first) what happened to the sun, but Lysander had a good guess. A few decades back, some weird creatures called Claw Vipers used a magic ritual to block out the sun. A handsome, athletic young sultan named Faduwas led an expedition against them, restoring the sun and crushing their strength. I guess he didn't get them all. I know a little about Claw Vipers. They're magical, sucking heat out of anything nearby, like a salamander in reverse. When it's really cold, they get so icy one can chill you to the bone on contact. They're the only reptile that likes cold weather. Enchanters will pay a lot for Viper skin and some of their organs. There's other stories too, about them torturing people for fun, eating babies, eating their own babies, and worshipping evil. I don't know how exaggerated they are, but blocking out the sun is enough reason to take them on. Finding them might be tricky. Faduwas found them in an ancient city, abandoned when its wells dried up after an earthquake. The city is west of the maggot ranch. I probably won't find Vipers in the city, and their trail will be long cold by now, but I've got no better leads.
After a short walk from the farm, I found my first ruined building, a small house with a cactus growing through the roof. It was dark. I never saw the cats. A breaking bottle was my only warning. As the poison cloud spread around me, I swore and dove outside. More potions came raining down from somewhere to my left. I still couldn't see the cats, and fired blind. A yowlp came back to my ears; if a shot in the dark hits, there must be a lot of them.
I knew roughly where they were, so I put a wall between me and them and listened. Little cat feet barely made the sand rustle -- I could just hear them over my own heart. My bolt crunched off a shield, and I ran as bottles crashed against the wall. As I rolled, I looked back, and saw their tall helmets against the stars. My first good target of the night. One went down with my bolt between his eyes, and I ran as the rest of the pride threw. Torches started appearing in the distance, silhouetting another cat. He died, and then another as the Raiders came into view. They had leaping lizards on leashes, and let them run the minute they saw me.
Lizards aren't hard to deal with. They're sight hunters, easy to fool, and poison works great on them. Raiders are so cowardly, they were even less of a problem. The fight actually went better once they'd brought some light onto the scene, so I concentrated on killing the last of the cats before I put them down. Once matters were settled with the city welcoming committee, I looked for loot. These cats were rich, with lots of coin and jewelry, and plenty of potions. The Raiders were well-decorated too, and the lizards all had collars, like guard dogs. Smelly, weird-looking guard dogs.
I explored some more. The city was laid out in even rows coming off a central square. Most of the houses had been fixed up: boards and slats were nailed or wedged in to hold up the crumbling walls and ceilings. Some of the wood still had the decorations desert gypsies put on their wagons. Outside the houses were packs of lizards, leashed to a post or left to roam free. They acted a lot like dogs: sleeping, chasing each other, or gnawing on fresh bones. Cats and Raiders were inside the houses, or roaming the streets. They were all as rich as the first bunch, or richer. Sometimes they had other stuff: traveler's chests, bundles of wood, bolts of cloth, or slabs of meat. The meat wasn't always human.
By contrast, back in Lut Gholein, the streets were almost empty. There were plenty of people at Atma's, maybe because she'd put dozens of lamps out. Inside, it was almost bright enough to be day. "Hi, Atma. Big crowd. Why's everybody in here?"
"Hello. Yes, I have many customers today. I think the light brings them some cheer. My hope is that if we stay calm and comforted, there won't be any sort of panic. I have no idea what else to do. This unnatural darkness is making all of us very nervous."
"Yeah. Greiz said everybody was kind of spooked." In a lower voice, I asked, "How much are you watering the ale?"
She didn't laugh, even a little. "Enough to know that my stock will last the day. I don't want anyone being truly drunk just now. It could only make things worse."
That made Atma smile. She looked down at her feet, under the bar. "Geglash, are you worried about the dark?"
A voice said, "Wha... ? It's dark out?"
"Never mind," I laughed. "I forgot how much he already has in his own personal barrel."
"I think that belly-full could last him until the next moon," Atma agreed. "You seem calmer than anyone. Does nothing trouble you?"
"I'm kind of worried, but I think I can do something about it. Out there, while I was looking for Claw Vipers, I found this old city. There's a lot of Cat People and Raiders there. I think they're using it as a base."
"I have seen the city. As a child, I used to play in the ruins while my mother was visiting the nearby farms. It would make an excellent bandit camp." Her voice went hard. "I trust you are dealing with the murderous scum as they deserve?"
"Yeah, pretty much. The cats can see in the dark, so it's been kind of hard. The Raiders are easy, though. Say, um... do you remember a Vizjerei visiting the palace? This would be a while ago, before the trouble started."
"Matters in the palace are usually not my concern, though I believe I know of the sorcerer you speak of. The palace guards used to come here for drink and conversation. They are not easily frightened, but that man unnerved them."
I nodded. "Kind of crazy, huh? Sudden fits of madness?"
"From what I overheard, they sensed in him something worse than the pride sorcerers are often guilty of. When our former lord died so horribly, he was immediately suspected, but was nowhere to be found."
"He was there when Lord Faduwas died?"
"Yes. But not afterward."
"How did Faduwas die, again?"
"Walls of hellish flame surrounded him, then leapt up beneath his feet. Though nothing else in the room was even singed, our lord was burned beyond recognition. We did not know it at the time, but his was only the first of many deaths we would suffer at Diablo's hands. Soon after, the desert seemed to sprout swords and spears. The dead rose up, and... well, you know the rest. Lord Jerhyn has done what he can, I suppose, but we are very grateful to you for what you have done as well."
"Thanks. I didn't know Jerhyn had done much at all."
Atma smiled diplomatically. "I would not say that aloud."
"Ah. Just one more thing... do you have any more of those narlant wraps?"
Atma chuckled faintly, and reached for a box. "They are called cigars. I'm afraid I'll have to charge you for this one."
"The first hit's free, huh? How much?"
"What?! For that?"
"These must be imported from the Amazon isles. The Amazons are a proud people, and expensive to deal with. I charge what I must to keep narlant in stock."
"Oh, all right, one. It's not like I'm hurting for cash right now."
The burning ember at the tip of my cigar didn't seem too conspicuous. The cats noticed the smoke when I got close enough, but they'd seen me by then anyway. In the central part of the city, the Raiders had lamps and some torches. It helped me a lot, at least so I didn't trip over any more sleeping guard lizards. Five human corpses in various stages of butchery lay in the central square. The freshest was a lean, fit young woman, less than a day dead, a bloodstained pair of cesti still strapped to her wrists. Her name was Hashep.
A few whole wagons had been dragged into the square, so there was plenty of wood, all dry as tinder. The pyre would attract every enemy for miles around, but I didn't care. Let them come, I've got something for them. It kind of bothered me that I hadn't done this for anyone else, and I'd found plenty of people, but I decided not to think about it. If I did, I'd get too mad to do my job. Once she was burning enough to light up the city, I went back to work. Things went smoothly. More than once, new arrivals came out of the desert, probably wondering what the fire was. I didn't care to explain it to them.
On an upper level of the city, the buildings were larger and spaced further apart. Hardly anyone was here, except for one area. A group of zombies was wandering around an open square, next to an old stone tower. When I stuck my nose in, the tower started shooting fireballs, and the zombies came shambling after me. There were no cat or Raider tracks in the area. Poison worked even slower than usual on this bunch of undead. I wound up carving them up, then knocked over the tower with my katar. I guess it was about to fall over anyway.
Next to a large building, a trap door led to some old tunnels. The lighting was actually better down there. There weren't any tombs -- these looked more like storage tunnels -- but for some reason, they were crawling with undead. No Horadric mummies, just the regular kind, and a bunch of lightning skeletons. Maybe the building was a temple and these were priests, guarding the treasuries even unto death and all that. Whatever it was, they didn't guard it from the Raiders. There were one or two here and there, and in the back chamber, a richly dressed and well armed leader with a pack of helpers. Maybe it was the bandit chieftain and his harem. I can't tell on sight if a given Raider is a boy or a girl, and I'm not interested enough to look.
Down below, Hashep's pyre had burned down to embers. I saw nothing, and standing on the cliff top, outlined against the stars, nothing saw me. I'd taken out the area bandits, so my good deed for the day was done, but I hadn't found a single clue which way to go next. Thinking about it, I remembered a story I heard, about a drunk who lost a coin. He's looking for it under a lit window. Another guy comes by, and asks him what he's doing. "I'm looking for a silver I dropped in the alley," he says. "If it's over there, why are you looking under the window?" the other guy asks. "I know it's over there, but the light's better here." The drunk is stupid, you see, but not completely: it's hard to find little things in the dark. I, despite the cigar, am not drunk. Maybe a little buzzed, but I know where to get a torch.
Right next to the temple building is a little valley, hardly more than a notch in the cliffs. I almost passed it by before I noticed the tracks. You don't often see snake tracks over a foot wide. Looks like the survivors of Faduwas' campaign had a pretty easy escape. Hidden in the valley was a tomb, like any other in the desert except for some recent additions. Two heroic statues of snakes flanked the entrance. They must have been twenty feet tall, with un-serpentlike broad shoulders and brawny arms. Fangs like stalactites filled their mouths. Each finger had a talon about two feet long. I almost laughed. This must be the place.
Like every other tomb in this damned desert, there was only one door, the front door. On top of that, snakes are likely to be venom-resistant. I took out the katar and went in. Sure enough, right inside the door, five Claw Vipers slithered to attack. I was kind of surprised to see they looked like their statues: brawny shoulders, claws big as daggers, and a mouth of needly teeth taking up most of their surprisingly small heads. They also had wicked spikes on their tails. The fight didn't go well at first. After a few body-slams too many, it was pretty clear that cold didn't faze them much. The biggest belly-crawler was lightning-enchanted, too. When I had the chance, I ran, and shot them as they chased me. Each took only a single bolt -- no poison tolerance at all!
Once I found that out, the rest of the tomb was a cakewalk. I've heard regular snakes hunt by smell, and their eyes aren't so good. The big ones sure don't seem to hear or see well, and I wear soft boots. Keeping my distance and sniping worked like a dream. In between kills that were almost too easy, I looked around at the tomb. It looked like the Vipers had been in here for years. All the traps were disabled, and the human bodies were gone. Empty sarcophagi, urns, and niches were everywhere, but no mummies. Maybe they dumped all the dead guys in those tunnels, which would explain why they were so packed. This tomb was huge, easily big enough to have held that many mummies.
In other tombs, the lower levels are reserved for those considered most worthy in the eyes of the richest living people. This one was different. The lower level was one big chamber around a central dais, probably meant to be the eternal home of some grand poobah. Now it had an altar drenched in blood and innards. The walls were decorated with heroic serpent statues and gutted human corpses, one after the other. On the right, there were cages that might have held living people at some point. On the left, there were three Claw Vipers. I shot them and ignored them as they slowly died. The last one expired as I kicked the altar to the ground with a very satisfying crunch.
When I got back to Lut Gholein with the loot, it was already after noon. Everyone was out for the sun; even Geglash stood blinking in the tavern window. "So this is daylight..." I heard him mutter. "It's overrated." It's not ale, but you can't live without it, either. Maybe it was antisocial, but I dumped my finds with Cain and crawled back to the inn. I've never been that good at accepting gratitude, and I was too damned tired to try. All I wanted was to sleep, perchance to dream.
The mind is a strange thing. Even the Viz-Jaq'taar don't know everything about it. The mind never stops working, even when you're asleep so dead to the world even the bugs can't wake you. I think I was dreaming about Hashep, and Inella, fried to a crisp in some bedroom in the palace. Most of the others were probably dead too, people I haven't seen in years. My dream was dark and empty. I was struggling in a void. I could see the palace, rich and bright in front of me. Inella was there, where the harem guilds fled when Diablo started messing things up. Then the Vizjerei came, and killed her. The Vizjerei...
Suddenly, I was awake. Ticks and fleas ran for their lives, bellies not quite full. The quarter moon outside my window gleamed off the shivering dust motes I'd thrown into the air. I was an idiot. Why didn't I catch it when I heard it? Because of that damned crown. I'd gotten too used to just looking to tell when someone was lying. I threw my crap on and hustled my ass to the palace. Two guardsmen were at the door.
"Halt!" the one on the right said. "You may not enter the palace."
This was not a time for subtlety. I wasn't in the mood for it anyway. "You don't need to keep me out of the palace."
"We don't need to keep you out of the palace."
"There's no need to guard this door anymore."
Dejection crept onto their faces, and their spear points drooped to the ground. "There's no need to guard this door anymore."
"You need to go to Atma's and get blind drunk."
The one guy looked at his partner. "We need to go to Atma's and get blind drunk."
The other guy, who never said a word through all this, nodded, and they moped off. I filed their reactions for later and barged in. The palace lived up to its advertising. There were silver statues of nude ladies on pedestals draped with purple velvet, nice soft furniture, and a great many floor cushions, some with golden tassels and some just naked. A nice place if you didn't get too rough, but I couldn't find anybody inside, not even servants. There was a strange wanted poster in the city guard's offices:
Height: Perfect for today's fashions
Weight: Don't ask, he'd have a nervous breakdown
Eyes: Languid, jaded
Hair: Free-flowing locks of purest (but premature!) silver
Sex: Let's have no ill-mannered speculations, hmm?
Distinguishing features: Six-foot boner
On charges of:
Impersonating a Fashion Policeman
Conduct unbecoming to a necromancer
Reward! Call LGPD for more information. Keep our city clean.
"What are you doing in here?" he yelped imperiously, stretching up to his full height inside the smashed locker. "I'll have you know that you are trespassing. Leave at once, or I shall summon my guardsmen. And Drognan."
"Don't bluff when you've got nothing in your hand, you little sh!t. There's nobody here but you and me, and we are going to have a little discussion."
"What is there to discuss?" he huffed. "I am not fond of repeating myself, but you are trespassing. If you leave quietly, I am willing to forget that any of this ever happened."
"I don't forget that easily. I remember you telling me the harem guilds came to hide in the palace, after all the troubles began. And I remember that Vizjerei you let in here killed one of the girls, inside the palace. You were pretty specific about that."
"Yes, all of that is true," Jerhyn said, trying to push the locker open. I planted my foot on it and shoved him back in. "Release me at once, or suffer the consequences!"
"But the Vizjerei was here before the troubles began. After Faduwas got roasted, he was nowhere to be found. So he couldn't have met that harem girl here."
"I..." Jerhyn's eyes darted from side to side. "Perhaps I misspoke at some point --"
"You said what you meant to. You just got your timing messed up. What'd you offer the Vizjerei to off your father and make you sultan?"
Nothing really changed in Jerhyn's face, but suddenly he looked ten years older and twenty years nastier. "You have no proof of any such association."
"I don't care. What'd you give him? He wouldn't want money anymore. Or did Drognan handle the payoff, and keep your hands clean?"
He glared hard enough to skin a cat alive, then laughed. "He was a fool. All he wanted was to visit my cellars."
"What's in the cellar?"
"How should I know? It is the business of servants to --" The butt of my crossbow smashed into his nose. He yelped in pain, both hands darting up to protect his face.
"I don't like repeating myself either," I snarled. "What's important in the cellar? Is that where he went after killing your father?"
"No! There is no one in the cellars!"
"Not even harem girls?"
"Oh, yes, of course they're there..." The butt of my crossbow slammed into his gut. He instantly doubled over, whimpering like a child.
"How should I know? No one's seen them for weeks. Or your guards. Or anybody! Have you been bringing them food? You haven't been in the market buying food, someone would have commented on that."
"My servants --"
"WHAT servants?!" I yelled, kicking the door in on him some more. "There is no one here! You're in an empty palace, there's a murdering sorcerer somewhere, and maybe I'm going out on a limb here but I think the two might just be connected. What do you think?"
"But my guards --"
"You've got no guards! Has your yelping brought any guards running to your rescue? You are out of guards. Did they all go into the cellars and not come out?"
"There is nothing wrong," he sniveled, trying to hide behind what was left of the locker door. "Everything's fine, nothing we can't take care of if we just pull together..."
I could take the crown off and dig for the truth. It's not like it was welded on. But that would mean going into his mind, and right then I'd rather tongue-kiss a zombie. Beating him unconscious was much more satisfying. I think I dented his crown.
In the cellar, the first thing I found was a dead guardsman, impaled on his own spear the long way. A columned hall stretched away to my left, with rows of girls tied down using their own silks and satins. Someone had tried several times to see how much flesh a woman could have removed before she died. All I could think of was the old saying: a woman, though naked, may be in rags. At least there weren't any redheads.
Through a grilled window, I could see something moving around. Raiders. I dropped them like flies, and went through the rest of the cellar. The whole palace was packed with weird creatures: big monkey-like things whose skin was covered with bony spikes, pot-bellied giants swinging human bodies wrapped in chains as weapons, and skeletons. There were lots of grilles to shoot through, which was fine for the living opponents. The skeletons all had bows or magic, and didn't care much about poison anyway. At least they weren't fresh; all of them were old and burned black, summoned rather than raised from the abundant local materials.
Jerhyn wasn't kidding when he said cellars -- I counted four levels. The lower three were plain sandstone, and looked a lot older than what was above. Bodies were still everywhere. I haven't seen that many dead women since the Rogue monastery, though to the sultanate's credit, the demons didn't find any torture equipment here. They had to improvise. Jerhyn was still a little sh!t, though. What was he trying to do, keeping this hidden until his guards were almost all gone? Someone down here was summoning these things. You don't just put guards around a summoner and hope he'll get tired of summoning. Damn Vizjerei. Yeah, they supposedly swore of demon summoning after the Horazon-Bartuc debacle, but sorcerers can't stand to give up power.
The strongest Raider guarded the door to the lowest cellar's center. I took stock. This joker likes firewall, so move your feet. Fire resistance and lightning resistance are good. I kicked the door open, shoulder-rolled in... and there was no one there. The room was empty except for a gate, an old-fashioned Vizjerei spired portal. hmm... this must by why he wanted into the cellars. Come to think of it, wasn't there an old Vizjerei fort in this part of the world, way back when Horazon and Bartuc were still around?
The hunch was as vague as heat shimmers above desert sands. I went in. The gate led to a maze of marble paths, floating in a starry void. Braziers full of pure elemental fire provided heat and light. Near the portal was a Horadric waypoint, in good working order. This had to be Horazon's Arcane Sanctuary, a pocket dimension his demon "slaves" built for him. This enchanted hidey-hole was his biggest obsession, which says a lot if you know anything about Horazon. Supposedly, he put a lot of work into this place, but since he was the only one who knew how to get in, it was lost after he disappeared.
Exploring the maze took a while. Horazon had everything: working traps, impossible buildings, even teleport pads that covered a distance of maybe 10 feet. Heaven forbid that he should have to walk that far. There was no railing on the catwalks. I tried spitting over the edge. The glob fell onto the polished marble, never going over. I tossed a bolt to another section of path. It landed fine, but when I tossed bolts into the void, they wouldn't fall -- they always landed on a safe section of path. What a show-off. Why build something simple, like guard rails, when you can make a universe that bends to your every whim? Sorcerers.
Everything in there was made to flatter a high sorcerer's ego. The braziers were held by servile demons, cast in bronze. One section of maze had columns that looked like obedient demons. The bases of the lightning-trap towers were ringed by five supportive demon. A platform that might have been a library once had demons at its corners, cringing and offering up a tomes of knowledge. At least his treasuries were rich, and looked untouched. Not that the place was empty -- far from it, with a summoner in residence. The Vizjerei found some ghosts who might have been here when he arrived, and added Goat Demons and Vampires. Vampires are smart enough to learn the firewall spell, which was probably why he brought them in, but I couldn't figure out what he wanted goats for. Maybe they're fire resistant, so he thinks they're tough. I had more trouble with the ghosts, which could float over the gaps between maze sections. The others wouldn't even use the teleport pads.
Like usual, the one I wanted was in the last place I thought to look, and he'd gotten tired of waiting a long time ago. Kind of describes my love life. As I rounded the last corner, I saw the Vizjerei on a platform, wearing some very old-fashioned robes and holding a staff. Did he find some of Horazon's stuff? Likely he did, and maybe the possessed idiot thought wearing his clothes meant he owned this place. Like Horazon ever really owned this place. I hopped the firewall, dodged an ice bolt, and put one in his throat.
The platform might have been Horazon's den or bedroom or something, a long time ago. At least, he left his journal here. Most of it was typical sorcerous ravings, but he did make a few notes about the capture of Baal. In particular, he noted where the tomb was and how to get there in clear and easily-understood terms. Even I could get it. Imagine that... clear, easily-understood language from a sorcerer. No wonder he put it in his secret diary. If they ever found out, all the other sorcerers would have laughed at him. I went to the waypoint, followed directions, and there I was, in a small blind canyon with the sun just coming up over the edge. Seven tombs ringed the canyon walls, just like they were supposed to. If my luck held, this whole mission could be over before nightfall.
The seven tomb complexes in this canyon were each marked with a different Horadric rune, representing different steps on a seven-tiered path to ultimate enlightenment. It probably didn't mean much. Tal Rasha was supposed to be highly respected, but he was in the tomb with a square rune, the lowest tier. It probably had more to do with where there was room. The canyon floor was littered with urns, burial chests, and dried-up human bones. Looks like the lost Tombs of the Magi weren't really so lost. Somebody'd made a good living smashing mummies for amulets and things. Of course, if I could find the place in only three days, the local nomads wouldn't have any trouble, and knowing how much money wizards usually have, there was probably too much loot around here not to go after it.
The canyon looked empty. The rocky ground wouldn't hold tracks, but I couldn't see or hear anything. Even the wind was quiet. Before I went any further, I took the waypoint back to Lut Gholein. The palace was still there, with no sign of Jerhyn. His cellars were empty. At Atma's, the two guardsmen were on the floor, snoring.
"Amy!" a voice called. Atma hurried over. "Is it true?"
"Is what true? About Jerhyn's palace, monsters in the basement, the hideous mass slaughter, all that stuff?"
She nodded, worry clouding the air. "Kaelan told us horrible things were invading the city from within the palace. The harems were all slain, as well as all the city guards but he and his friend. Is it true?"
"It was. I took care of it, though. Anybody seen Jerhyn? I couldn't find him."
"Warriv told me he saw someone fleeing into the desert on horseback, but his face was hidden. I thought only a madman would leave the shelter of our walls, but Kaelan's drunken tales made madness seem sensible. Were we really in such danger?"
"Yeah, it was pretty bad. Jerhyn had a sorcerer summoning demons in his cellars. He was trying to contain the guy, which is just stupid if you ask me. There's only one way to deal with a summoner, and containment isn't it."
"What was he doin' that for?" Geglash suddenly slobbered. Apparently, the mountain of soaked sot draped over one end of the bar had regained consciousness.
"He was crazy, pretty much." I shrugged. "He was a sorcerer."
"Maybe he didn't have anything to drink in there. I get mad when I don't have enough to drink. If you don't have anything to drink, it'll drive you to drink, but you don't have anything to drink, which drives you to drink, and... what were we talking about?"
"Nothing, go back to sleep. Speaking of sorcerers, is Drognan around?"
Atma shook her head. "His shop did not open this morning. I fear the worst."
"Look, if Jerhyn's gone, you're better off without him. Believe me."
"But who will lead our city?"
I shrugged. "Have you considered running for public office? You could make Geglash your official wine taster."
Atma frowned. "This is no time for jokes. I know nothing of running a city."
"I'm serious. The worst things in cities happen in bars and taverns. If you know how to run a tavern, you can handle a city."
"I'm sure you're not speaking from experience. In any event, with nothing to pay Greiz for his services, Lut Gholein will soon be overrun. If Jerhyn truly has fled, I have little doubt the city's treasury vanished with him."
"That might not be a problem either. I found Tal Rasha's tomb."
The look on her face was all the reward I needed. "You've found it? I always thought the tomb was nothing but a tale to frighten children... but it really exists?"
"Yep, it's there. The next step is to go in and get Baal. Plan B is to ambush Diablo when he shows up. If I get 'em both, it'll wipe out all their summons and make the desert a lot easier to clean up."
"You are already the greatest hero I have ever known. If you accomplish this, legends will echo your name for centuries. Is there anything we can do for you? Anything at all?"
"Hmm... can't think of anything. Geglash? Got anything for the conquering hero before she strides boldly into combat mortal against insurmountable odds?"
"Uh..." Geglash thought. I could almost hear the gears grinding. Finally, he spoke. "All my years of fighting, pummeling both the unsuspecting and the deserving, have yielded one insight: you can fight, or you can run. All strategies are but variations of these."
"Wow. What about fighting and running at the same time?"
That one seemed to stump him. He thought, and thought, and thought some more, until he fell asleep. I dropped five gold on the bar, and took a cigar. "See you soon."
Maybe I shouldn't have, but the first thing I did was go through the urns and chests piled up near the center of the canyon. Most were intact, and had valuables. My tomb robber was smart enough not to take it all at once, and flood the market. In fact, that might be him over there, crumpled on his side with a spear sticking out of his back. Beyond the body... Cat People, creeping towards me on little cat feet. When our eyes met, they broke into a run and were on top of me in seconds, swords swinging.
These cats were fast. I could not bring the bow up in time to shoot, or run fast enough to get some distance. Behind the sword cats were spear cats, working together almost like a military unit. All of them had shields. Only two kinds of enemies really give me problems: dead ones who don't care about poison, and ones with shields. The crossbow's slow loading gives them all the time they need to block. I've heard professional soldiers like crossbows, they're easier to use than regular bows. Professional soldiers also have rows of pikemen to hide behind while they prep their next shot. If I couldn't blow their minds, I don't know what I would have done.
The mental disciplines aren't easy, but I've always been pretty good with them. It's part of the reason I don't like mixing it up much. The strongest technique, the mind blast, hits the victim right in the seat of consciousness. For a few seconds, they won't know who they are, where they are, or what they were doing before. Mind Blasts are a great way to set enemies up or neutralize guards. It's rarely fatal, so you can stun bystanders without leaving a mess. You don't have to approach or expose yourself. And on Diablo's guys, sometimes they'll start attacking each other. Not for long, but enough to take some heat off of me. Regular people don't react that way, but regular people usually aren't as hostile as Cat People.
There were a lot of bodies in the canyon, mostly old but some very new. Even without the cats, I had a sneaking suspicion Diablo was already here. Inside the tomb, my first fight confirmed it: Vampires. They're undead, but they feed on the living, so you don't find them in tombs. Having living blood in them makes them more vulnerable to poison than most dead guys, so killing them wasn't a problem. Meeting Diablo in there might be a problem. Andarial wasn't too bad to deal with, but she was known to be a poor fighter. Diablo was supposed to be the toughest of all the demon princes. I'd much rather deal with Baal, alone.
I never did meet Diablo, or if I did see him, I didn't recognize him. The Horadrim's best and brightest were there, though. Their skeletons really clogged up the doorways. I could get the skellies with a single blast, but even after they attacked each other, the mummy just healed them and sent them back after me. My options were either to retreat and get the servants away from their master, or blast them while they were together in the middle of a room. Watching confused skeletons carving up their own master is a lot of fun after all the times those damned resurrecting bastards got in my way.
I found what I was looking for in the far southern end of the complex: an empty chamber with a socket in the floor, surrounded by the runes of the seven-fold path. One wall had deep scratches in it, like something very big had tried to get through. Yes, Diablo has been here, and left. He'd be back, when he had something to break that wall.
The staff was in my pack where I'd left it. I thought the headpiece was missing, but it turns out one of the amulets I brought back from the Viper temple was a headpiece. I'd given it to Cain, but he forgot to tell me after he heard I'd gotten in the palace. Back in the tomb, everything was like I'd left it. The cube joined headpiece and shaft, the staff went into the socket, and the wall burst open in a spray of lightning. An unidentifiable stench washed out of the hole. I didn't want to go, but I couldn't be sure if Diablo wasn't hiding nearby, waiting for me to open the wall. I dove in fast -- and stepped into empty space.
I rolled into the fall, which was about ten feet, and landed with a splat. I was on my knees in a dark room full of something slimy. A voice like a clogged drain belched "Looking for Baal?" As I fired blind, something wet crushed into me. Whatever it was, now it was sitting on my bow, bashing on my head with what felt like two axes. Out came the katar as I rolled away and tried to get to my feet. Whatever I was in, it was too slick to stand on. That mass of flesh was chasing me, sliding easily through the muck to slam me again. I skidded into a wall, and decided it might be a good place to stay. At least the thing couldn't knock me around anymore. Instead, it pushed into me, trying to pin me under its pulpy body. As I slashed, the only thing I could think it felt like was a giant caterpillar.
It hit me a lot, I hit it a lot. Finally, I stopped slashing and plunged my arms in, trying to reach some kind of vital organs under all the flab. Axe blows hammered down on my head and back until I was armpit-deep in the thing. There was nothing else to do: I took a deep breath, ducked my head, and carved my way in deeper. It seemed to object, but pretty soon I couldn't hear it anyway. Groping blindly through ropy coils of I-don't-WANT-to-know-what, I finally found something that pulsed, and cut it to pieces.
Whatever it was I did, the thing died, and flopped over like a sack of meat. I had to carve my way out upwards, through the thing's back. The things I'll do to save the world. Once I got my light relit, I had a look around. I was in an empty room, with a pile of guts, legs, and oozing fat slowly spreading out over the floor. It had a weird horned helm and a couple of daggers, but nothing special. Opposite the way I'd come in was a huge hole in the wall. I went to look -- it led to another tomb, probably the complex just south of this one. Looks like when they buried Tal Rasha, they made the front door strong, but forgot to reinforce the entire tomb. Diablo just went around, and made a back door for himself.
I went to check the rest of the tomb anyway. One side hall led to a prison chamber. It wasn't quite empty. Standing in the middle of the room, near a column draped with chains was... an angel. He couldn't be anything else. The angel was tall, and might have been handsome, but I couldn't think like that looking at him. His feet didn't quite touch the ground; he floated effortlessly above the slime. Light was leaking out of cracks in his armor. I never thought I'd ever see an angel. I must have looked pretty stupid, standing there staring at him. Then, his light shone on me.
I am the Archangel Tyrael. for us all! It is good runs out to see you, before time oh wow though I in Kurast, oh wow oh wow did expect Mephisto oh wow oh wow you earlier. from freeing oh wow Diablo came keep them and freed his You must brother Baal. I could not stop them.
It only took an instant, then he faded away as I watched. Tyrael waited here for Diablo, but Diablo's servant freed Baal while they were fighting. Now he was hurt, and was going away to rest and heal. The civil war in Hell had ended abruptly, very recently. The maggot pile in the outer chamber was the lesser evil Duriel, left to kill me as a punishment for leading the rebellion against The Three. I knew everything I needed to know: where to find Mephisto, even what was going on in Kurast. I don't know how I knew. But I knew what to do.