Amanita (Act III)
"Don't feel bad, you have proven yourself too many times in our eyes," Atma said. "There are few who could have done even this well."
"Yeah," Geglash hiccuped. "It makes me look twice as bad!"
"Nah, don't worry about it," I said. "The target flew the trap, happens all the time. All it means is this'll take longer. And I know they know they're being chased."
"Can you be sure of that?" Atma asked. "I realize you must anticipate risks, but could it be that Diablo and Baal are unaware of you?"
"Not a chance. They left Duriel to meet me, didn't they? But I know they'll stay together, and head for Kurast. The three of them have to get back together."
"That must be prevented at all costs. Strange, you have been here only a short time, yet I cannot imagine our city without you."
"Oh, sure," Geglash whimpered theatrically. "Without her, there wouldn't be a city, while I was hiding in a mug of ale! Rub it in, why don't you?"
"I think she means I've left a permanent imprint of my ass on this barstool. Now, I gotta get going, time and tide won't wait. Well... maybe one more for the road." I dropped a last five on the bar and reached for the cigar box.
"Oh, no you don't." Atma swatted my hand, shoved my money back, and put two boxes, still sealed with silk ribbons, in my hands. "And I'll hear no back-talk. Besides, with the port open, I can replace these. Where you are going, I have a feeling things won't be so easy."
"If there were ships coming from the Amazons... you know, I don't think any more ships are coming from the Amazons for a while."
"It doesn't matter. Now, I asked a ship's captain named Meshif to sail you to Kurast, and he has agreed. He is waiting for you by the dockside."
"Atma, these boxes must cost a hundred each..."
"Hey, quit acting like such a hero and take 'em already!" Geglash snorted. "Ahh, you're all right, but you gotta leave us little guys somethin' to do, ok?"
"Uh... yeah." I tucked the boxes under my arm and left. "See you around."
Damn it, I was being "such a hero." It's okay to joke about it, but don't lose focus and start acting the part. When someone offers you free stuff, take it. Down at the docks, Cain was already waiting for me, next to a ship with a tall guy who looked quite piratical. No parrot, though, and he never said "arrr" even once.
The trip across the Twin Seas was quick and uneventful. I caught up on my sleep. Once we got to the river Argentek, things got worse. I heard Kehjistan was a jungle, but there's such a thing as taking things too far. Trees with nasty meaty leaves twisted up to the gray sky, draped with vines clinging like the clutching fingers of the dead. The mosquitoes ranged from midges that could crawl inside any clothing, to things we had to beat off with the oars. The only sign of Kurast we could find was a set of piers jutting into the water.
We docked, and I told Meshif to wait while I checked things out. There were people on the docks, mostly milling around with a lost look in their eyes. A little man with eyes the color of seaweed was the first to approach. He was short and thin, with a crimson toga big enough for three of him dangling off one shoulder, but the hand that wrapped around mine had fingers like pieces of tool steel.
"Welcome to Kurast, traveler. I am afraid this is the off-season, and all the tourist traps have been closed until further notice. Your wits, if you have any with you, will be more in demand, for sanity is in shorter supply than gold."
"Hi there, I'm Amanita. Sorry, but I think I have more gold than sense."
"Your presence here makes that self-evident. I am Hratli, smith and enchanter. My work is to weave magic and steel together. You and your abundant supplies of gold will be most welcome. I don't have many customers these days."
"Why is that?" I asked, wondering if I should offer this guy anything to keep him talking. He seemed to be doing fine without my help.
"The Children of Zakarum made the land their own, and in turn surrendered it to the jungle which has run riot. Zakarum's purge of that which does not fit their teachings has lost all sense of moderation. The rivers run red with blood, and warriors of the light crusade far and wide, spreading hatred and fear. Foul creatures never before seen in these lands roam free, and evil jungle tribes now have the Que-Hegan's favor."
"Sankekur, Que-Hegan of the church of Zakarum."
"Oh, the one with the tallest hat."
He smiled thinly, and nodded. "The one with the tallest hat. That is a good one, I must remember that. Sankekur is widely believed to have been possessed by Mephisto, the demon lord he swore to contain. It is a sign of the church's loss of perspective that he has taken his oath so literally."
"Sounds serious. What about the rest of the church?"
"For years, only the High Council of Zakarum has been privileged to see Sankekur, and even they are not the men they once were. Some priests remain, and the most fanatical warriors of the light."
"The hardest core, eh?"
"I find that they have the persistence of zombies, but without the charisma. Few of the rank and file worshipers remain." He paused for a moment. "Not that any are allowed to leave peacefully, of course."
"You found them washed downstream, I take it?"
"Some of them. I imagine few Zakarumites remain, though with the jungle hell surrounding the city heart, that offers no advantage. Our forces are few, and only the protective dome I have raised to shelter our few meager huts prevents our annihilation."
"Yeah, I don't see many people around here. How much control does the church have over the jungle?"
"Enough to make it grow, and send endless waves of jungle spawn against every attempt we make to reclaim our homes. As entertaining as it is to speculate about the Zakarum, I have grown weary of it. Let us speculate about you."
I grinned. "Sure, Sherlock. What do you think?"
"I surmise that you have come here to do battle, and while you may hope to make this a profitable venture, mere loot is not your main goal."
"Let's see... I'm wearing battle gear, check... there are easier places in the world to raid, check... right on both counts, but not surprising."
He smiled, eyes narrowing. "You have a friend here, whom you wish to see."
I blinked. "Natalya's here?"
"On the southern docks, by the fire. I do not think she is expecting you."
She was there.
Natty, I'm here Amy! I'm here Whoa, that was hard What happened? I had to go through all of Aranoch in four days That's a big, dry I never want to see dirty mess another mummy again. I see you! Nice Yeah, they're green. armor. And weapon I hate green. Doesn't suit you Have you sensed anyone else? Some. There's crazy sorcerers all over the place, I'm afraid. even worse than usual You think they're targeting us? Probably not. We're targeting them They're just turning on us They go crazy And we respond like we're supposed to They're insane enough They're always hard targets to be unpredictable and they're not acting like they're supposed to Did you find Inella? No. The harems were an abattoir I found Hashep in the desert Damn it. She was good Better than me. I'm a coward. I run You're still here away a lot Whatever works... Speaking of work... Oh, yeah. This place is lousy with sorcerers Fleeing Viz-Jun? Just the Iron Wolves a rich bunch of mercenaries Rich mercenaries. Wow They're pretty pricy They'd have to be and managed by a pip-squeak in leather lingerie Oh, be still my heart Do they go into the jungle? When they're paid enough Mercenaries... Sorcerous mercenaries Worst kind Full of themselves The mercs in Lut Gholein Were they sorcerers? No, they were just guys Can't be that bad But they were mercs through and through So... what's the deal here? We have the jungle. First things first The jungle is first What about the church? The church is history It might not even exist Right. The jungle Everything outside this dock is jungle There used to be houses, farms, everything A city The city of Kurast. Now its all jungle and swamp On this dock, most of the survivors are mages There's the Iron Wolves drunken, spoiled, pampered mercenaries to a man There's Hratli. He's ok I met him We could actually use his kind of talent Then there's Alkor the alchemist Used himself as a guinea pig for too many potion tests Oh, brother Tell me about it. And then there's Ormus. Ormus? That Taan? The very one He's still alive? Alive and insane Is he dangerous? He's always been dangerous! I mean, is he going to crack up and go buggo He's already buggo anytime soon? But not actively hostile yet Whoa. How many Viz-Jaq'taar has Ormus taken out? I dunno. I want to take him out right now. But we might need him Say it ain't so... He's powerful. We might need him But this is Ormus... I'm afraid he might be a spy for Mephisto He probably would! but I've got no evidence Screw evidence! You know what he's done! I can't risk it Ormus was practicing forbidden magic He was but wars make for strange bedfellows blood sacrifice is Yes! I know! But we don't have enough allies to start getting picky now! This stinks so bad I'd feel better if you told me this was just a social call No. Diablo and Baal escaped from Aranoch together We are officially in deep sh!t. They have to come here to meet up with Mephisto Yep. Someone's got to break up the family reunion Yes. Who's it going to be? Can we go in together? I don't trust Ormus alone No, but what are our options? We need to cover him Stalking horse gambit? If he's going to do anything, That's risky give him an obvious target Especially to the "horse" Yeah, I know Anything we can do is going to be risky We're between a rock Stalking horse is simplest and a hard place Complicated plans fall apart So who gets to be the horse? I'll flip you for it No martial arts! I meant a coin Suuuuure you did
I lost the coin toss. I guess I wasn't interested in sleeping peacefully anyway. The central portion of the dockside was built around a stepped pyramid. Cain had already found his way over, and was deep in conversation with some sorcerer wearing a pot helm and breastplate. Mages usually aren't strong enough for anything heavier. On the other side of the pyramid was Ormus. That couldn't be anyone else. If you ignored the tattoos and tiny scars on his chest and arms, his body was perfect: muscular, tall, and straight as a steel rod. He might have been 35 or 65. He was ageless. The only hair on his head was his black eyebrows, overhanging eyes that were far too deep, without expression, without soul.
At my approach, he made sweeping motion with one of the most beautiful hands I have ever seen, and intoned, "You now speak to Ormus. He once was a great mage, was Ormus. Now he lives like a rat in a sinking vessel. You have questions for Ormus?"
I did not look into those eyes. My mind was locked tight. "No, no questions."
"Then you must ask those questions of yourself. Ormus senses conflict within you, and in all would-be heroes. With patience, you will find the answers you need."
Typical fortune-cookie stuff, and about as accurate. If I wanted to be a hero, I'd already be one. There's plenty of people who'd say so. "Yeah, thanks. Just passing through."
"Ormus does not make himself clear? Then speak to Alkor. Alkor could always explain things much more clearly than Ormus."
The big house on the north end of the pier had a banner by the door, showing a big gray wolf head on a mustard-yellow background. Inside, a dozen or so mages from various clans were sitting around, throwing dice, joking, eating, and generally misbehaving. By a table, counting coins out into piles, was a short woman in a leather bikini. She had a small, neat face with large eyes, and milk-smooth skin she'd tried to roughen up with a tan. The bikini suited her well, though she looked like she'd wear it even if it didn't. Otherwise, the only feminine thing in the room was a full-length mirror with a clean sweep of floor in front of it.
The last house on the pier was a tiny shack full of tiny bottles, rotting animal parts, and a noisome odor. I almost mistook the resident, Alkor the alchemist, for a large monkey. His face was aging and saggy, full of disgust for life and the thickening effects of liquor. But it had a hard cheerfulness I liked, and his eyes were bright as drops of dew.
"Hi there. You look like someone interesting."
Alkor squinted at me. Bad vision is not a good thing for an alchemist. "You're new here, aren't you? You must be, you do not know to leave me alone!"
"Now, why would I do that? Ormus said you could explain things pretty well."
He let out a sharp screech that ended in a wheeze. It might have been laughing. "Ah, Ormus and his silly riddles. He has been talking that way for years. I think it is because he has nothing intelligent to say."
"You've known him for years, huh?"
"No one knows him. Who would want to?"
"Well, he's got a world-wide reputation..."
"For what, babbling? Even I can do that better -- you listen, tall skinny girl: 'consider the dewdrops, which do not toil, yet vanish by late morning! How like the dewdrops are the lives of worthless men! Doodle doodle dee, wubba wubba wubba!' How was that?"
"Um... that was... really stupid."
"You catch on quick, skinny girl! I would say more, but thinking like Ormus gives me a splitting headache, which I must now attend to." He took a bottle off the wall, apparently at random, and drank the contents without even looking at it.
"I think I'll leave before that stuff kicks in. See you around!"
"Not if I see you first, or cannot see at all. Good day!"
Besides the usual suspects, about a dozen more people were milling around the docks. None had anything to say I hadn't heard before: Kurast is in ruins, the jungle is full of demons, evil reigns, would you like to buy a banana, and so on. I got my luggage, set up housekeeping in an abandoned shed, and started planning my day. Maybe fixing the shed's roof would be good for a start -- no, I can hire somebody to do that.
My trunk was heavier than I remembered. After I got the cube, I quickly filled up with purple potions, they're always handy -- but something metallic was clanking off the bottles. I flipped the lid open with a katar. Everything was good, except for the circlet and plate boots on top of my spare equipment, with a note:
-- The Mule"
Before I left, I asked Cain what a Flayer was. He pointed to the town gate, where a tiny head full of sharp teeth was impaled on a stake. Tribes of midget pygmies have always lived in Kehjistan. Before, constant fighting kept them from getting too numerous, but since the jungle started growing, the Flayer tribes have been cooperating with each other. Whenever the Iron Wolves talk about the jungle, Flayers are the only enemy they mention.
Hratli's protective dome ended just this side of land. The thorny brambles on the river's edge looked like they were pushing it back. They probably were. As I approached a ruined building outside the docks, I saw him: a tall, broad-shouldered man in a floor-length robe, hood far down over his head, stumbling into the jungle. That much coverage in this climate? Walking with his hood down so far he can't see? Not to mention going unarmed -- even the Iron Wolves carried swords. Even if he didn't look like Ormus, I would have shot him. The bolt... bounced off, with a clink. He kept stumbling along like nothing worthy of his notice had happened, so I tried a mental blast...
... and woke up snorting sod. I was flat on my face, about where I'd been standing before. Four fleshy worm things were chewing on my armor, tiny teeth scraping the steel. I stomped them and looked for the hooded man. He was gone. I looked inwards. My recent memories had a gap, a dark patch I couldn't convince myself to enter.
Natty? I'm here Give me the once-over. Now. Something up? Am I possessed or anything? I don't see any WHOA! WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT! That is the strongest repressed memory I've ever seen What did I repress? I can't see, you're repressing it I saw this cloaked guy going into the jungle, did a mind Did you recognize him? blast, and woke up in the mud No! Why do you think I called him No call to get nasty "this guy"? Is Ormus still there? Ormus hasn't gone anywhere Crap. I don't know who it was Everyone who's been here is still here Can you do a mind probe to I've never been that good get the memory out? at the mental stuff Please try, it might be important ow ow! AAAAAH!! Stop squealing aaiee... I can't get it You're clamped down too hard But it is me clamping down? Definitely. Your brain knows what it was and doesn't want to Damn. Brains are weird That's why I went into the martial arts Ormus isn't doing anything? He's talking with Cain. "If a peppercorn grew wings, it would be a fly. Should it lose its wings, will it return to being a mere peppercorn?" Gah, eastern philosophy Tell me about it... Ok. Eastern philosophy is full of I didn't mean literally! Hee hee Being obnoxiously literal is my joke anyway Can dish it out, but can't take it? Shaddup
The hooded man hadn't come back. He probably never would. I went in, sticking to the riverbank where I could. Roots like twisted hides braided into the spongy soil, hairy rootlets waving in the air, wanting even more. I could see them moving. They even tried to wrap around my boots if I let my feet stop. Twenty yards in, I couldn't see, hear, or smell any sign of the docks. Thirty yards in, I met my first demons: Flayers, armed with blowguns. Maybe I'm weird, but I couldn't feel threatened by them. They were actually kind of cute, in a toothsome way, and made funny ululating noises. Their darts might be poisoned, so I stunned them with a blast and put them down. One had a jade statuette maybe half his size, a strange thing to be carrying around.
Cain identified the statuette as a stash, an ornamental thing with a hidden space. They're used for hiding valuables, contraband, and the like. Stashes of all kinds have always been popular in Kurast. Being a holy city, the people need to keep their sinning out of sight. This one had some kind of powder in it. I left it with Alkor.
Staying close to the water might keep me from getting lost, but the mosquitoes were scary. Off in the jungle, things were worse. Some of the trees and brambles had pulled themselves up by the roots and were wandering around like living things. I found a few more stashes along the stream banks, and sometimes in the trees. Many were little portable ones, but some were big, and looked like they'd been part of a wall or something. You'd never think it to look around now, but there might have been houses and people here a few years ago. I found no intact bodies, just a few bones. Flesh probably went fast.
During a trip back to the docks, I tried on some plate armor at Hratli's armory. I didn't think I looked bad at all, though maybe it was the red underpadding. I look good in red. Field plate is nice stuff, easier to move in than you'd think and not nearly as heavy. Heavier plate, with leg protection, wasn't too bad either. None of his stuff had enchantments as good as the scale, though. Damn... I'm really getting tired of green.
"A pity that you could not find anything fitting your needs," Hratli said, putting the armor away. "Your present suit, while no doubt a practical choice, is very unattractive."
"Yeah, I know. It's clunky and heavy and green."
"The blue armor fit you well. You are sure you will not reconsider?"
"Nah. Frost novas are fun, and I like the blue, but I don't want to be a pretty corpse."
"I have no intention of being a beautiful corpse. I was never beautiful, and I find that as infirmity creeps through my spindly limbs, I am rapidly losing what little I once possessed. When the sight of me would sicken a Sucker, then I shall die, and will my corpse to be put on public display as a moral lesson to the ignorant."
I grinned. "You hate humanity, don't you?"
"Not at all. It is people who frustrate me so. On the subject of frustration... have you observed that the dome I placed around the dockside seems to be weakening?"
"I noticed that. Every time I come and go, the jungle's a little further in."
"Just so. With an appropriate source of magical energy, the spell could be strengthened, but none are available at this time."
"But you're thinking of something?"
"You have read my mind," Hratli smiled, without a trace of irony. I wasn't... at least not right then. "Some repositories of power were hidden near here. One of the most powerful is an ancient dagger called the Gidbinn."
"The name sounds Taanish."
"The Gidbinn is a Taan relic. Ormus knows how to release its power for our use."
"Gotcha. Any other useful relics? In case I can't find the Gidbinn, I mean."
"A few: the Mask of Nirdall, the Spectral Shard... There are persistent rumors of a 'ruby jewel of fervor' somewhere in the jungle, but despite long searching, no one has succeeded in locating it. None hold as much power as the Gidbinn."
"Right. If I find anything, I'll let you know."
At a bend in the river, a pair of columns flanked what used to be a city street, if I guessed right. Now it was a narrow path perpendicular to the river. Paving stones had been pushed up and over by tree roots, or just sucked down into the sodden ground. A pack of Flayers was guarding the gateway. This time, they were more trouble. A few had blowguns, others had knives, and there was a one in a fancy wooden mask riding another's shoulders. Mr. Big was obviously the most important, so I knelt to aim. In the time it took me to crouch down, one of the knife guys ran behind me, charged straight up my back, and started raining a flurry of slashes down on my throat and eyes. Two more were trying to hamstring me, and Mr. Big started breathing fire in my face.
A mental blast soothed their nerves and calmed their spirits, for a second. I shot the one on my back and threw him into a blow-gunner. He expired while I was cranking up for another shot -- hyperactive critters are vulnerable to poison -- but Mr. Big raised him. A shaman, I should have guessed. Playing with their minds misdirected them into attacking one of their own, and I finished off Mr. Big. Once they were all dead, I found out Mr. Big wasn't wearing a mask. That was his own adorable mug, out for the whole world to see. I guess Flayers are only cute when they're young. I won't say little.
The path had to have been a street. It was too straight to be anything natural. It ended in a clearing on a little hill. This might have been a classy neighborhood overlooking the river. The ruins were stone, with plenty of stashes and other places with hidden valuables. One house might have had a second story once, but most of the walls had fallen from the weight of the plants. Spider webs were everywhere. On every tree and building, squirming cocoons were bursting open with masses of spiderlings. Freshly hatched, each was the size of my hand. The mothers were probably as big as those things Andarial had in the catacombs.
The largest building had a basement. The cellar was big; the buildings above were probably part of a complex served by this one cellar. Gold and goods were lying around in piles. It would have been easy to go over, and pick it up... much too easy. I opened my mind and peeked around a bit. Alien, animalistic minds full of hate were waiting in the dark, happy with the trap they'd set. I'd never heard of spiders baiting their webs, but there's always a first time. I shot one, and four rushed out. I'd never heard of spiders staying in social groups, either. They were resistant to poison, and took a lot longer to die than I thought.
Packed into various corners were crowds of sand maggots, just like the ones in Aranoch. What they were doing in the spiders' lair, I had no idea, until I remembered the spiders resist poison. The maggots' fast reproduction rate won't be a problem if you can eat them safely. There were two kinds of spiders, green ones and bigger red ones. The red kind were the most obviously demonic -- eyes (all 5 of them) glowing like red coals, genuinely corrosive venom, burst into flame when they die, the usual.
The last red spider was fast, and enchanted with a Necro curse. It was almost impossible to keep the thing at a distance, but there was a health shrine down there. It came in really handy when the fight was over. While I was wiping off my katar and looking for survivors, I found a chest, one of the strong metal ones. Those almost always have something worth taking. Inside was a pile of gold... and a human eye. It was intact, still soft and squishy, untouched by rot or mold. Dirt wouldn't even stick to it.
"Hey, Cain, I found this in an old box. What do you make of it?"
He studied it for a moment, then his eyes widened. "This can only be a saintly relic!"
"How do you know it's saintly? It's kind of red..."
"Demons, and those allied with them, decay into nothingness quickly. Only those friendly with Heaven can be blessed with bodily incorruptibility."
"That still doesn't explain why it's red."
He ignored me. "I have been speaking with our new friends here. Ormus is a fascinating fellow, I think you would do well to consider the puzzles he proposes. For instance..."
"Uh, Cain? The eyeball?"
"Oh, of course. It seems Sankekur assumed the position of Que-Hegan after the death of his predecessor, Kahlim. No one now knows, but Kahlim's death is rumored to have been a violent one, and at the hands of the High Council of Zakarum itself!"
"Wouldn't surprise me. From what I've heard, they were pretty nasty."
"Kahlim was the last incorruptible one, who resisted Mephisto's insidious takeover of the minds and bodies of the church elders. After he was killed, the body was committed to the fire. A few pieces proved indestructible. One of them was Kahlim's eye."
"Ok, that's good. Hey, if he was 'blessed with bodily incorruptibility' how come it didn't work for his whole body?"
Cain sighed with exasperation. "Amy... I cannot understand all the ways in which Heaven works. Kahlim's eyes, heart, and brain survived the pyre, and were hidden in Zakarumite strongholds throughout Kurast."
"So that's what that building was... go on."
"It may be that, as the last and holiest Que-Hegan to stand against Mephisto, obtaining the blessing of Kahlim may be instrumental in bringing about Mephisto's downfall!"
"Um, Cain... Mephisto killed him. How good can he have been?"
"Hush, child! Saints do their best work when Hell seems to have triumphed. Hope shines brightest in the midst of despair. We now know Heaven smiles on us. Put this somewhere safe, and carry on with your quest."
Cain was really excited about the eyeball -- he was showing around it to everyone who'd look. I know he's a pretty enthusiastic guy, but I didn't see why an eye was worth getting so worked up over it, even if it was a Zakarumite relic. Hell, you'd think being a Zakarumite relic would make it a bad thing. But if it made the old guy happy, that couldn't be bad. If it made everybody on the docks happy, that would be good... which was probably why the old fart was making such a big noise about it. I smiled, and treated myself to a cigar. My good deed for the day was done.
It was sliding towards sundown, but I didn't feel like quitting yet. Back in the jungle, I found a couple more streets branching off the river. All the smaller streets must have been eaten by the trees. I couldn't find a trace of anything, not even paving stones. The larger avenue ended in another big Zakarumite complex, home to more spiders. These guys were a bit smaller than the others, and didn't keep maggots. In all this time, I never found bolts. It wasn't that they rotted away -- there were plenty of arrows. Hratli sold bolts, so they know what crossbows are. Maybe Kurast archers just don't like them.
Beyond a pool with bubbles coming up from the bottom, the ground sloped down and turned marshy. Tree men were out in force. Poison worked slowly on them, but it worked, and they didn't move very fast. I could walk away and wait for them to die. I only had trouble with them once. They'd chased (if I can use that word) me onto a patch of land surrounded by water on three sides. They were almost dead, so I wasn't too worried until I saw something white coming up through the water behind me. The white thing rolled over, and an arm broke the skin of the water. Then the face came, a swollen blotch of pulp without eyes or mouth, a mass of dough with human hair on it. Zombies... and even nastier than usual.
I ran through the trees, letting one or two get their shots in before they died. Who says I'm not generous? They collapsed while I was picking my ass up out of the mud, a trade-off I'll always be happy to accept. The zombies were as vulnerable to poison as ever, but I think being water-logged made them slower than usual. I had all the time in the world to look around, search for goodies, even explore ahead while they wandered around dying. One had a necklace, a chain of green stones half-embedded in the area under the head. I had to cut the head off to retrieve it. How these bodies had survived, I don't know. Maybe the ones who died in the river got preserved somehow.
Another batch of Flayers was guarding another side avenue. The shaman got his first. Even then, he still had time to raise a couple of his friends. I could really get to hate those guys. Down the avenue, I found about a dozen wicker baskets. Stone buildings had fallen, whole streets were gone and forgotten, but wicker survived. Unless the Flayers were using them, and I don't know what they would want with baskets. They don't carry much stuff, and if the way they act in combat means anything, they don't store food. They're meat eaters and then some. Confuse them enough, and they'll try to eat each other on the spot.
There were no buildings at the end of the avenue, just a broad hill surrounded by marshy ponds. On top of the hill, temptingly out in the open, was a shiny gold strongbox. Between it and me, Flayers, tree men, and zombies. Of course I had to take them out: I had to know what was in the box. First I sowed confusion in what passed for their minds, and took down the trees and zombies. I wanted the Shamans, but there were too many bodies in the way to get a clear shot. At least the little buggers could only raise their own kind. Once the big boys were resting comfortably, I could get the shamans. Getting them to stand still and die was the hard part. An odd thing happened while I was hitting them mentally: two of the three shamans started attacking their own, and got taken down by their minions. Most of the time, followers turn on their masters. Could this be jealousy? Maybe I can use that, at least to stop them from resurrecting their underlings.
When all the Flayers were finally dead, I approached the chest. I'd seen the big green thing with tentacles in the pond, so I knew what it was that was making bubbles. I did not expect two giant frogs to jump out. The tentacle thing should be big enough to eat frogs like that. They jumped me quick, and spit blobs of poison that knocked me on my ass again. Then the tentacles came up, and spat more poison. Ambushes are great, but to make them work you need to kill fast. Poison is not the right tool. I poisoned them right back, drank an antidote, and checked out the strongbox. No saint bits here.
I struggled through the marshes for a while, picking off slow-moving enemies at my leisure. When it got dark, I could hunt the moving trees by ear, to say nothing about the wet noises the local zombies made. After the ground started to rise again, I started seeing fires glowing through the trees. If that meant civilization, it was a little late. My boots couldn't get any more mud in them anyway. The thought was short-lived. As soon as I got within sight of the torch, the Flayers came. They were still kind of cute, in their little flowered sarongs. If they weren't trying to kill and eat me, I think I could like them.
Sad to say, they were trying to kill and eat me. A rough dozen with knives and spears led the assault, with blow-gunners and shamans behind to whittle me down. Fast, organized, and suicidally brave -- the Iron Wolves would have real problems with these guys. As for me... a little examination has told me they're hungry, jealous, and made up of several clans who violently hate each other. It only takes a little knocking around to start the infighting, and the shamans are the easiest of all. Age doesn't always bring wisdom.
They tried all kinds of things to deal with me. One group of three found a lance, and charged me like it was a battering ram. Another time, a shaman tried wearing a chainmail jerkin. It might have been a good idea if it didn't hang completely over the guy carrying him. He couldn't see where he was going, so he tripped and brought them both down. That started what might have been a real knock-down fight inside that mail, until I intervened. Sometimes, you need a third party to resolve interpersonal issues. The cleverest use of resources had to be a pair of blow-gunners running around inside a breastplate, firing through the arm holes. Only one could shoot at a time, and they couldn't move very fast, but their mobile fortress worked fine until I caught them and kicked them into the river.
A side avenue led to a small lake with a little building in the middle. A Flayer-sized bridge led out to it, and on the shore was a waypoint. It was almost midnight. Back on the docks, I went to visit Alkor before I turned in. He had stuff to gamble, and was about the only one still awake this late. I burned some cash into the local economy, such as it was, and got a rare ring out of it, which was actually quite decent.
"Not bad, not bad at all," I said, admiring my new ring. "I even like the color better than my old one. I've spent a lot of time gambling. It's hard to get good stuff."
"I know that, I have spent much time letting fools gamble their money away. In gratitude for the luck I have brought you, I expect you will wish to compensate me somehow."
"Oh, sure. I'll do you the honor of letting you buy my old ring."
His face wrinkled like a prune, eyes almost disappearing. "As though you need the money! You are the sort of girl who likes her drinking and gambling, yes?"
"Yep. But not together."
"Most excellent! As you are done with gambling, I present you with this potion, brewed from the ashes you brought to me today. It disgusts me to display generosity to someone as ungrateful as you, so drink it now before I am sick in it."
"Those were ashes?"
"Indeed! Most special ashes. Drink, it will do you much good."
"I'm not in the habit of drinking things crazy old alchemists give me. What's in it?"
"A small amount of life, distilled and vitalized. Drink, and do not worry! It will eventually be good for you, and you have all night to recover anyways."
You can't argue with logic like that. The brew clawed its way down like bad whiskey and lit a fire in my gut I knew I'd need to sleep off before I did anything else. That night was not a good one. There was never any pain, and I didn't feel feverish, but I got so hot, I knocked a hole in the floor and dunked myself naked into the river just to get some relief. Natalya even sensed it, and came by to see what was up. I told her it was probably swamp fever and sent her away.
I finally fell asleep in the water, my head resting on the hut's floor. When I came to, it was almost noon. I was wrinkly as an old woman, covered toe to tit with leech bites, and felt a lot more lively than I had any right to. Also ravenous. After a huge breakfast of fried frog, rice, and bananas, I went back by waypoint.
The little building led down into a wet, swampy pit, with water oozing out of the walls and puddled on the floor. There were bones on the floor of the entrance room, stripped clean and gnawed by sharp teeth, but no clue about the building. A small tunnel led away; I crept down to another room. There were Flayers there, with a shaman and a group of mummies. I was surprised any amount of preservatives could win over Kurast's climate, but there they were, shambling about, making soft squelches as their innards sloshed around. At least they weren't Horadric mummies. Two kinds of resurrectors would be annoying as hell.
The room looked like it might be a temple, with a columned hall and two symmetrical alcoves. The next room was more of a mystery. Part of the floor had collapsed and filled with water, wiping out any clues. While I was looking around next to the pool of water, I heard a click. I ducked, and a jar of poison vapors smashed against the wall behind me. The gas was old and weak, not a problem in itself, but the noise was. A tentacle monster reared up out of the pool and knocked me back into a corner. Then, quicker than anything, my newest least-favorite monster scuttled in: skeletal Flayers.
Being unburdened by flesh, they were fast but not very strong. That wasn't the problem. I found out what the problem was when they surrounded me. When one dies, it explodes, and that explosion hurts a lot. Normally they'd be far away from me, but these guys were right in my face and not going anywhere. By the time the first went ka-boom, I'd poisoned them all and couldn't get out. The trap kept pelting me with bottles, the tentacle kept spitting, and the Flayer skeletons were going off like fireworks, one after the other. I don't know how many potions I drank just to stay alive. But there were only six skeletons, and eventually they all went off. The tentacle stopped spitting; I think it looked nervous. I shot it just as it tried to dive, and watched the water turn red.
A deeper level of the pit had misty ghosts, a kind I've heard are found in swamps. There were tombs here and there, but I didn't think this place was a temple. For one thing, there were too many traps, and I don't think Flayers are up to building mechanical traps. A pity the traps only targeted me and anything I'd confused enough to attack its friends. The deepest level convinced me this was not a temple. It was full of tombs and traps, enough to convince me no one was meant to have free access here. This had to be some rich family's mausoleum, or maybe a bunch of rich families. The amount of loot was enough to convince me they were rich, anyway.
The jungle was still knee-deep in Flayers. Any deeper, and they'd have to start stacking. Fallen logs actually made good defensive points, particularly over water. They wouldn't try to jump over water, so on a bridge, they'd all stack up behind the one or two actually on the bridge. I could stun the whole bunch, then any behind them. Once they started getting confused and trying to eat each other, I had almost complete chaos. Sowing chaos is a lot of fun if you have the power to do it right. Finally, I found what had to be the center of the new Flayer empire: a tiny village. No, literally: the huts were about five feet high. Human remains in various states of butchery and rot were lying around here and there. It surprised me that Flayers would leave anything. Maybe since the jungle started growing, it's been a race between their teeth and creeping decay, and decay has been winning.
There weren't many Flayers in the village. They'd probably all come out to take me on, and there weren't many left to guard the old homestead. Just this once, I decided to go with a battle cry: "Greetings, tiny hut people! It is time for your weekly beating!" Then I swept the village out. It didn't take long. The last one, hiding inside a hut, had a bronze knife that looked like a Taan sacrificial dagger. With a satisfied "see you next Thursday," I took it.
The dagger was the Gidbinn, to no one's surprise, least of all mine. I handed it over to Ormus and watched. Taan rituals are not for the faint of stomach. There's a reason Ormus has those scars all over his chest and arms. I don't know any other mage clan that will do things like that, but it does summon up energy. After he was done, the Gidbinn was left floating on a pedestal next to the pyramid. All the sorcerers looked relieved. I couldn't see any difference, but I don't consider that necessarily a bad thing.
It seemed like everything was falling into place. First, the eyeball, which cheered everybody up. Then I stumbled across the Gidbinn, exactly what we needed, exactly when we needed it. I don't believe in saints or fate, but it did feel like something was working for me behind the scenes, trying to make things easy for me. Thing is, I don't like getting help from unseen hands, they always have their own agenda. And I don't like it when things look easy. I don't like it at all.
To celebrate me getting the Gidbinn, Ormus made up a poem.
The black clothes suggest certain kinks.
Did she strip down for speed,
Or just have too much weed?
She does like the green stuff, methinks.
but I know it.
Maybe I could dye the bow later or something. No point mucking around with it now. This is a mission, not a fashion show. Back in the Flayer village, I found some stairs leading down. It turned out to be another tomb complex, with coffins, traps, and undead. Tombs aren't so bad. They're nice and dark, with plenty of places to hide and slow, stupid monsters. Mostly, they're boring, as poison doesn't hurt undead much so it takes them forever to die. One level of the tomb didn't have a single solid enemy in it, only ghosts and will o' wisps.
The lowest floor of the tomb was a big maze, trapped to hell and full of rich burials. The Flayer Shamans were using the corner tomb as some kind of meeting hall, I counted seven in that one room. That fire breath of theirs can make things pretty toasty, so I took the better part of valor and stayed outside, sniping as they scampered past. The leader, resplendent in his emerald-studded loincloth, was too fast for me to target. I didn't get him until I aimed at someone else, and he ran into the bolt's path. In the back of the tomb, the most protected place in the whole damn jungle, was a steel strongbox with... a human brain.
Hey, Natty, guess what I found? New armor! Lookin' good Yeah, this is a lot better. Why is it purple? Guess what else? All right, it's better than green... Forget the armor a minute Ok, ok. What'd you find? More saint bits Hey, a brain! I like brains You're good with them It's still pink too It looks alive I don't see why it shouldn't. AAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!! AAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!! You didn't say that! Well, you sure didn't! Please pardon my interruption. The brain is talking This is too freaky How can you talk? You don't have any lips! Not to mention blood, Ok, you don't need lips a stomach, a skull... to share thoughts even if Natty moves her lips when she sends No I don't... do I? I could not say, as I cannot see you. Holy sh!t, the brain can talk It's alive! Alive! Why didn't you say anything before? You did not seem to desire conversation. And, being noticeably irreligious, might not welcome comment from one such as I. What's that Ouch supposed to mean? Neither more nor less than you think. Listen, buster, I got no use for religion or saints giving me lip My lips, wherever they may be by now, shall never bother you. Never mind her You're Khalim, I guess Yes. What are you doing here? I have been waiting for the opportunity to fulfill my vow to protect the world from Mephisto. You still upset about that? I was not pleased. Wouldn't you be? I'd think being cremated would mellow me out a little I think I'd be even more upset Being upset or not makes little difference. I see that both of you understand the importance of a vow. Well, yeah Of course All my life, I tried to live my vow to be a shield of faith and virtue for the world. But my vision was flawed, and I did not see the rising corruption in my own house. When I was finally forced to see, my heart failed within me. My strength wavered, and I was destroyed. Religion ain't good for your vision Amy, shut up You have called me a saint, but it is failure that nails me to the earth. I must atone, and destroy my destroyer. That'll take some doing You are kind of handicapped It is my only purpose. I don't suppose you have much else to Amy, quit being a bitch do these days Khalim, what can you do? I can wait. That's... not much Hadn't you been doing that anyway? I have nothing now, but that will change. The Angels would not leave me here unless I could do some good. Hmm... Can't argue with that What should we do? The best you can, with whatever you are given. Keep doing what we were doing, then Or something like that
I went back to my hut, with Natalya following. Her shields were up and tight. I don't know if Khalim could still read me from inside the cube, but it was the most secure place I had. Once he was put away, Natalya spoke to me, out loud.
"What the hell was that? You don't talk to saints that way."
"Why not? If he's a saint, he can take it. Patience is a job requirement."
"It looks bad. This is -- or was -- a holy city, so lots of people around here are religious. Let's see a little more reverence, huh?"
"Since when did you stick up for religion? It's a crutch for people who can't take life without a mommy to kiss their boo-boos all better. Yeah, there's higher powers, but it's not like they ever cared about us common people."
"This is public relations, Amy. It's about not pissing people off. The world's falling apart. It's not just missions anymore. We can't kill one guy, have everything go back to normal, and fade quietly into the night. It's never going to be like that again."
"What, you want people to know about us? Maybe we should tell everybody we can read their minds? Or control their minds? That'll go over real nice."
"People aren't stupid, Amy. They've figured out you've got something nobody else does, or you wouldn't still be alive. They don't know what it is yet, but they're not stupid."
I didn't say anything. I knew a lot of our cover was blown, I blew some of it myself. "So I piss people off sometimes. I never said I was a saint."
"You don't have to be. Amy, we're independent-minded people. The order picked us because we were. But you'll be a hell of a lot better off if you think about other people's feelings once in a while."
"Yeah... I've been yelled at about that before." I smiled. "I'll try, ok?"
Natalya smiled back. "Ok. I'm trying too. It's hard."
"I guess it's just that I've been trained to think of 'feelings' as something in the target's mind I can use against him."
"It's not just missions anymore. Just keep saying that."
"Ok. It's not just missions anymore."
"Good. Now get back out there. Ormus hasn't done anything yet."
"Unless he did it while we were standing around yammering."
"Shut up," she suggested. "Now get out there and kill those midgets."
After I left the village, I didn't see many Flayers -- just a pack or two hiding in the leaves, nothing serious. It wasn't a long walk before I saw the outer walls of Kurast. The wall was made of some white stone probably meant to symbolize purity, and used to be pretty high. Letting trees grow next to your protective wall is a bad idea anyway, but letting the trees get big enough to knock over pieces of your wall is even worse. I guess the jungle is the city's wall now, or the Zakarumites don't care anymore.
The first gap I found was big enough to march an army through. I can see that they might let their wall fall, but I didn't think they'd leave a hole this big. Not unguarded, anyway... ah, some bramble-men standing in the trees, quiet and still. I picked them off at leisure. They were a tough bunch: the leader took two shots. No one was on watch inside. Kurast was overgrown with greenery -- I know, big surprise, but there were still recognizable buildings here. Most were wood and wicker, but a few had stone foundations and were in better shape.
I looked around in the first few buildings. Each had at least one human corpse, tied to a post or splayed out in the middle of a room. From what I could tell, most died of blood loss due to torture, though they looked like it had taken hours, not days. While I was knocking around, a pack of big lizards ambushed me from where they'd been lurking in the trees. They looked like relatives of Aranoch lizards, but were very fast, hit really hard, and had magical help: a fiery orange aura. They were hard to target, and whenever I tried to get some distance, one or two would leap to cut me off. It was good pack tactics, but they were only animals and didn't know from a false retreat. A quick fade back a few steps would get them in the air, and I could nail them when they landed.
There were some black apes too, big spiny things that made great targets, and more demon vultures. One of the vultures had a magic aura too, a blue misty one. I couldn't tell what power it had, probably because I killed it before it got close. I'd heard of Zakarum's paladins having auras like those. They describe them as a blessing from Heaven or something. Looks like Hell blesses its minions too. Either that, or these are the paladins and I'm being fooled somehow... no, they've got hateful little demon minds. Pretty weird, but I haven't seen a human being yet. The place hadn't even been looted, there was plenty of gold and jewels and stuff still tucked away in people's houses.
Hey, Natty Hey, how's going? Visiting scenic downtown Kurast. Food great, hotel great. Wish you were here! Found anything good? Nope. How's Ormus? Same as ever While you're there, see if you can find the Tome of Lam Esen Uh... which one was... You know, the Black Book ... Didn't you read our history? Oh! The one with the order's code in it, written by the sage and prophet Lam Esen. You got it It's in Kurast? Why? It prophesies the downfall of Kurast, so they were kind of interested in it. Yeah, all right. It'd I want to know how the be good to get it back founders put together the martial arts system That was mostly Butu Dahed Yeah, she was damn good I didn't know you knew glyphs It's written in glyphs? All those damn old prophets wrote in glyphs to confuse everybody Oh, yeah. Most of them were wizards or mystics Or both Yep Lam Esen was an alchemist-mystic Better spacing-out through alchemy! Anyway, we should have the book, not Zakarum Anybody here read glyphs? I dunno I'll ask around
"Hey Hratli, what do you know about glyphs?"
"Absolutely nothing, as it should be."
"Neglected your dead languages, huh?"
"My life is devoted entirely to insuring my own survival, and material wealth. Neither would be improved by the study of linguistics. For purposeless command of facts from the distant past, your friend Deckard Cain would seem the ideal source."
"Cain, right. Anybody else who might know?"
Hratli paused for about a heartbeat. "If Cain does not know, I cannot say who in the world would, excepting possibly Alkor. His life is one of continual study and endless dissipation, and his constitutional liking for useless information is well known."
Cain probably knew how to read glyphs, but would be my last resort. Giving him a new book, then getting him to focus only on what you want, is a nightmare I wouldn't wish on anyone. Alkor was in his hut, sitting on the floor and staring into space. His eyes were deep crimson, pupils fixed and dilated.
"Is this not a good time?" I asked.
His eyes tracked around the room, lids fluttering like dying butterflies. Eventually he gave up and closed them. They probably hurt. "For you, there is never a good time."
"I don't know, I think I can be a pretty good time. I want --"
"As though what you want is important," he quickly cut in.
"Never mind, I'll ask Asheara. I don't think you'd know."
"Asheara will not see you. She has made her weekly purchase, and will see no one for the rest of the day."
Alkor blindly showed a freckled grin in my general direction. "Asheara buys a potion of manliness from me every week. She is an excellent customer."
I cocked an ear. I could hear vague thumping sounds from her place. "Ah, ha. So, is she a moaner or a screamer?"
"It depends very much on who has the stud detail this week. It pains me to waste time with you, so get to the point. What will make you go away?"
I like reasonable men. "Can you read glyphs?"
"Ask your friend Cain."
I snorted. "Why does everyone think he's my friend?"
"Because he is, stupid girl. How obvious must it be to everyone but you?"
"Ah..." I mulled that one over a few seconds. "He's all right. Ok, he's not bad. Couldn't ask for a nicer old fart to follow me around. Anyway, I need someone who can read the Black Book of Lam Esen. It --"
His eyes darted open, and somehow found me instantly. "You have found the book?!"
"No..." I smiled. "Not yet. Do you know glyphs?"
"Should you find the book, I know glyphs. If you do not find it, I know nothing about anything and you will never bother me again!"
I nodded. "Fair enough."
Past another wall I found more of Kurast, better constructed than the wicker-work down below. Some of the buildings had stone walls, and two pyramids stood a short distance from each other. The trees hadn't knocked everything over, but they were trying. Some of them had even walked in to do it. Along with bramble-men were vultures, and living swarms of mosquitoes just like the ones in Aranoch. For whatever reason, Diablo brought a lot of his helpers over here with him. Either that, or he'd developed some bad habits during his stay in our world.
This section of town was even richer than the first. Obviously, I was moving up in Kurast society. I still hadn't seen Zakarumites, or any human who wasn't long dead. I couldn't see what a lot of the buildings were for, so they were probably temples or ceremonial causeways or something like that. Most of them had big, red-eyed skulls with gore spattered on their teeth for decoration. Several times, I had to tell myself the gore must be just paint, and not to look too close. There was a waypoint there, which was good, and a couple of basement entrances, maybe sewers.
The pyramids were topped by small rooms, each with a tiny stairway going nowhere. It was obviously symbolic of something, probably a ceremonial ascent into Heaven or something. I doubt anyone from around here will be going to Heaven anytime soon. Then I noticed the button, to one side on the lowest step. When I nudged it with my foot, the steps dropped and turned into a stairway down, into the body of the pyramid. The sewers can wait. I'm getting tired of sewers anyway.
The instant I walked down the stairs, the world broke out in flame. I could barely see the giant blue spiders jumping from the corners. I rolled in, took one shot I think might have hit something, and grabbed the katar. I was in a small room with two entrances to either side of the stairs. Vampires were in the doorways, at least two at each. Four big blue spiders were untangling themselves in a pile at the bottom of the stairs, between me and the way out. Rolling in may not have been a good idea.
I targeted a Vampire first. He took the first few hits smiling (hard not to) then turned and floated away. The spiders were on top of me by then, so I hit their tiny minds as hard as I could and made the second Vampire in the doorway my new special friend. While the spiders were trying to eat him, I scooted around the wall to the other batch of Vampires, who were coming into the room. There were three of them, and they kept their distance, so I hauled out the bow and gave them one each. It would be enough, eventually.
The first Vampire came back as the spiders realized the error of their ways. The whole room was on fire. There were even rocks exploding around me: neat trick, I couldn't see how they were doing that. I got my back to the wall and thought as hard as I could at the spiders. It almost overloaded their minds, and put a serious strain on mine, before they got confused again and started attacking each other. Vampires started dying while I sniped the survivors, and the firewall died down just as the last one fled and died. Then it went quiet... a good thing for me.
The pyramid was probably a major temple, and had a lot of ornaments. It also had a lot of those red-eyed skulls. The red stuff wasn't painted on. I cleared it and left fast, going over to the other pyramid -- this time with the katar ready. The entrance room was small, with side doors and a big archway leading to large inner chamber. There was no ambush waiting, there or in either of the side chambers. The temple couldn't be empty, but I felt safer switching to the bow now that I knew I had room and some places to run to. No place else to look, so I poked my nose into the main chamber.
The first thing that tried to kill me was a group of three Bigfoot-type guys. Somewhere, I'd heard they were supposed to be rare, and reclusive. I shot them, waited a few seconds, and poked my nose further in. A naked woman with a wicked-looking dagger and a homicidal snarl on her face scampered into view. My first human! So what if she was nude, smeared with blood, and down on all fours like an animal? I held my fire as she and about half a dozen friends came out into view, looking... hungry. I stunned them and gave them a quick once-over. Then I shot them. Believe me, it was the best thing I could do.
The inner chamber was big, probably taking up most of the pyramid. A blue spider with a weird greenish aura was hiding in one corner, and a pack of Vampires was in the other. I had a good chance to watch the Vampires in action. They somehow pulled their exploding rocks from the temple ceiling without damaging it. I'd heard the Vizjerei recently discovered a spell to summon exploding rocks from the sky, but that shouldn't work inside. It probably wasn't the same spell, Vampires usually only know old spells. Whatever, the rocks hurt a lot worse this time around.
At the end of the inner chamber, by an altar with a butchered human being laid out on it, was a lectern with a book. A black book, interestingly enough, and written in glyphs. I woke Natalya and gave it to her, saying Alkor could read it to her if she wanted. I'm going to bed without a story.
I don't remember sleeping -- I lay down, ten hours passed, and I was awake again. The sun was high, my belly was empty, and the sweaty padding I laid out the night before was almost dry again. If I ever retire from the business (dying is always an option) I'm going somewhere where clothes dry out eventually. Breakfast was palm nuts and fish with ginger. The woman who did the cooking didn't charge me, and was really eager for me to like it. It was probably the best food she had. I guess I've made an impression.
I'm still not much for accepting gratitude, so I skulked out into the jungle. Well, 'ported out into the city. By waypoint. There were two ways I could go: across a bridge further into Kurast, or down into the city sewers. There was only one bridge over the canal, and it was sure to be guarded. The sewer might not be, at least not deliberately. There were probably some nasty things down there, and it would stink, but that's what cigars are good for. I lit one up and headed down.
Kurast's sewer system is weird. First off, there aren't any tunnels. The sewer is one open area, with small blocks of stone to hold up the ceiling and channels in the floor for the water. Every now and then there was a big block, probably the foundation of a temple. The sewer nodes were more like ponds; some even had boats tied up at the edge. Why would anyone go boating in a sewer? It did seem like a well-used sewer, signs of activity were all over. I kept finding stashed trinkets, chests, or things hidden under rockpiles, or human skulls. The skulls didn't all look recent, either. Some holy city this was turning out to be.
There were bats, and a few tentacle things in the bigger nodes. There were also skeleton Flayers running around, but only a few. They weren't half as much trouble in an open area with plenty of places to run. Off one corner near the river, I found a hatch to a lower level, maybe extra drainage for rainy weather. Three poison spitters were living in the muck pool down there, with a dozen chests and strongboxes stacked neatly on the sides. Hell of a place to put the city treasury, though it might explain the boats. Well, whosoever it was, possession is at least nine-tenths of the law. The last chest had a heart in it. What's-his-face the saint will be thrilled.
The sewers went right under the canal, and there were hatches going up. This part of Kurast was the richest yet -- the pyramids were the tallest, and even the ordinary buildings were stone. There was no welcoming committee either, so I explored. There were tree hulks and vultures, but the worst was what was left of the church's paladins.
There were only two groups of men, about half a dozen each, with a priest. The first group was near a temple pyramid, probably guarding it. I've got no love for murderous zealots, but this was the skinniest, sorriest bunch I've ever seen in my life. The shining armor was gone, most of them didn't even have shoes. All they had were rusty farm tools, sticks, and rocks. Rabid, yet pathetic. I hit their minds, and almost yelped when I felt something else inside their heads.
My shields snapped up almost by themselves, and I took a longer look at the nearest zealot. Something else was belted around his mind like iron. Was it the priest? I shot him. He died fast, and went up in a puff of dust and fire. Stylish, but not exactly heavenly, and the grip on the zealot's minds didn't die with him. Every now and then, one would defy the hold and run, but they never made it very far. Whoever or whatever was on them might not always be paying attention, but they couldn't break the hold. None of my mental battering could either. They were in such bad shape, one actually died from it.
The second group of men was waiting by the gate, with a big group of tree men. I confused them and took out the trees, then got the priest between me and his zealots before I killed him. Even the sight of their priest going up in flames couldn't shock them out. They weren't even surprised. They already knew.
"Hey, Cain, what do you know about mind control magic?"
"Mind control?" The question worried him. "Have you encountered such a thing?"
"Maybe. But I've never heard of anything that could control more than one person."
"Hmm..." His brows knitted together. I thought of two caterpillars having marital relations. "It may be that Mephisto is using a compelling orb. These fiendish devices can sap the wills of more than one victim, but I have never heard of one being used to command more than a few at a time. Even a demon as powerful as Mephisto could not concentrate on every mind in Kurast at once."
"How about forcing a few to attack, then moving on to another bunch? Those paladins up there attack, then run away. They don't want to attack, but can't break away for long."
Cain was silent for a while, bent in thought. I couldn't believe it, but I might actually have stumped him. Eventually, he said, "I know little about the use of artifacts, even less about ones such as this. Perhaps Ormus could help us. I have been speaking with him, and must say I am impressed with his knowledge of artifacts and of the church."
Yeah, I'll bet he knows all about compelling orbs. And Mephisto. "Oh, I almost forgot: I found another saint bit in the sewers."
"Ah, Khalim's heart! Every day, you bring us good omens. We can only hope this provides us with the courage to face the Prime Evils."
"Yeah. I'm going to talk with Ormus. Wish me luck."
Cain smiled, shaking his head slightly. "At times, you amaze me. Your own courage never seems to falter."
"Are you kidding? I'm scared pissless. But if I don't take 'em out now, I'll have to do it when they're together. That scares me even worse."
Ormus was standing where I'd left him, like he never went anywhere at all. Could he be controlled? No, he wasn't twitchy enough. Could he be controlling them? No, that's crazy thinking, even he doesn't have that kind of power. When I stepped around the corner, his eyes locked into mine. I was expected.
"You have done well, noble hero. Ormus congratulates you. The time has now come to face those responsible for the evil that has stifled this land. You must destroy the High Council of Zakarum!"
"If they're in my way, sure. What do you know --"
"The council serves Mephisto as cruel mockeries of the holy men they once were. Using a compelling orb, the council commands the jungle itself to choke the life from our home."
Ah. "You know about this orb?"
"The orb was taken by the church many years ago. In happier times, the orb was used with reluctance, to find truth in those who wish it concealed. Now, it is used continuously, to force obedience from the reluctant hands of Zakarum."
I lit a fresh cigar. Those things were getting to be a real habit. "You were listening to me talking with Cain, weren't you?"
"Ask this of yourself: what else is there to hear?"
I looked at him, then listened. The jungle was quiet. You could have heard a Flayer fart, it was so quiet. I'd been running in and out so fast, I never noticed.
"Diablo and Baal have surely reached their goal," Ormus continued. "and the Three have been reunited. Their dark gathering must be disrupted at all costs. Should you die on your quest, Ormus will compose an epic poem in your honor. It will survive to the end of humanity's last days."
"No matter how long that is. Right. How do I take out the orb?"
"The High Council of Zakarum guards it and the blackened Guardian Tower where Mephisto was buried. Slay the council, and Hatred's hold over the land will be broken."
Ormus stared impassively into the distance. "Ormus suggests you wing it."
There were only two more temples in Kurast. I emptied them both, killing more spiders, bats, Vampires, and cannibal nuns. Above the city was a lake, with a bridge leading to a built-up island in the center. Two more temples were on the bridge. I cleared them out too, fighting off Claw Vipers and lightning beetles. Maybe I shouldn't have taken the time, I was on a mission, but I didn't want to leave anything behind me. Or maybe I was scared. Who the hell wouldn't be? My best information says the three most dangerous beings in the universe are on, or in, or under, that island.
I stood on the bridge. The sun was going down behind me, the last red light oozing up a cold ash-black tower on the far side of the island. The sky was clear, but the air crackled like a storm was coming. The air smelled like dried blood. I charged in.
A gateway was at the end of the bridge. Two half-skinned bodies the flies liked were tied to fluted marble columns. No one else. Stone walkways branched right and left. The biggest tower was right up the middle. I went straight, not my usual choice. Past roofed pavilions, the center of the island was a high dais. Two altars covered with blood, next to two pits. Something saw me: two Vampires. Plink one, dodge the meteors, get the other. Zealots come fast from the other side. They're quick, not much shining armor to slow them down. Hard to lose, or confuse, so I finally put them down. At the tower: a covered walkway around the base, ponds on either side of the door. Bubbles in the ponds, so some tentacle monsters. Ah, here comes something.
Damn, those guys are ugly. I thought the Rogues had it bad. At least they have clothes, cardinal red robes that can't fit them anymore. Three of them, charging fast. Shoot and fade back to the dais. The levels and stairways on the dais confuse these guys a lot more than they should. Makes you wonder why anyone would think demonic gifts are good things. Maybe the first thing they take away is your judgment, if you ever had any.
Something scorched my leg. A hydra had sprouted behind me. I ran around to a lower level, dodging firebolts. Two demon-priests came after me. I kept running, and almost tripped over the third. Wow, he made a colorful splat. Who knew anyone could have so much blood in him? The second died doing laps. The third was tougher. I shot him again and kept him running. He was the one summoning hydras. He also threw sparks of pink lightning, and was taking damn near forever to die. Finally, I just carved him up.
At the tower, the tentacles were up and waiting. Four more priest-demons raced out of the gate. No point taking them all on at once. I faded back, opened my mind a tiny bit to give them the once-over, then slapped one until he thought one of those tentacles was his worst enemy in the world. Poor bastard tried to strangle it. The others hopped over to stop the sacrilege. He didn't last long, but it gave me time to put a bolt in each of them. I gave them some exercise around the dais, and another died. Then the survivors started casting spells on each other. Crap. They're healing each other. You'd think priests couldn't do that anymore once they turned into demons.
I mentally slapped one, and shot the other. They both came after me. Crap. I ran them around the dais, and finally got them separated. If I stayed near the base, the one on the far side didn't chase me. Maybe if he couldn't see me, he didn't remember I was there. The other closed, so I got the katar and minced him. The other died during the fight. Except for the tentacles, nobody else was in the tower. Scratch one council. Easier than I thought it'd be, charging in the front door like a moron.
The tower had plenty of stuff, mostly religious icons and candles and crap. Off to one side, a crystal ball was sitting on a bloody pedestal. In the ball was an eye, blue as a corpse's, set in the translucent flesh of a face I was glad I couldn't see. It was looking straight into me. I grabbed everything I could carry and ran through a portal.
"It's official," I said, dropping my stuff in a pile at Cain's feet. "It's a compelling orb."
You have found it. Huh? That is my flail. You have found it. Can you please not jump in like that?
Cain's eyebrows rose. "Is something wrong?"
"Uh, no. Just having another conversation. 'scuse me."
This flail, with the spiky skull balls? Yes. I thought you couldn't see And why would you have such a nasty looking weapon? I thought you were supposed to be kind of, you know, saintly Saints aren't supposed to have flails with skulls for balls Perhaps it has been changed since I was able to see. But it is mine.
Cain took a couple of steps back. "Ormus? I fear something has happened to Amy."
"Then tragedy has overcome us all. My other watchdog may be forced to bestir herself. Deckard Cain, see what is here! She stands before you, whole and unmarred in flesh or spirit."
"Physically, I agree..." Cain mumbled, waving a hand in front of my face. "But physical harm is the least of what can happen to those confronting the forces of Hell."
"Hmm..." Ormus peered into my face. "Has she spoken to you?"
"Before she became unresponsive, she said something about being in a conversation. Then she picked up that flail. Its appearance worries me."
How do you know the flail is yours? It is mine. If I had some idea what criteria you're using Nothing that is rational. Nonetheless, I am certain. Ok, can't argue with that What do I do with it? Bring it to me. I will make use of it. And the "hands" issue? Faith guides me. I know now why I am bound to the earth. I see your path for you. I don't need help from saints As vexing as you may find it, I fear that you do. Why? Enlighten me That might take more patience than any saint has.
"This mighty flail once belonged to Khalim, Que-Hegan of the church of Zakarum," Ormus pronounced. Not many people really know how to pronounce things. "The council has tried to alter its form, but their efforts could not taint the spirit within."
"Ah!" Cain smiled, looking relieved. "The Light still shines upon us! Now I wonder, what does this mean? What must we do?"
"None know, save Khalim himself. Quiet your fears, Deckard Cain. The saint speaks to the sinner, who may yet carry out his will."
So, Mephisto's using the compelling orb to get that fanatical loyalty from them Yes. He also hid the tower key in the pedestal after his brothers went in Yes. The pedestal's solid granite Yes. How do you know all this? I have seen it. Not much of an answer I want more information I have nothing for you. Why should I believe anything you say? Trusting another is difficult for you. With good reason That could be disputed. Would you be more at ease if you felt I acted from self-interest? Well, sure Very well. I have told you I am bound here until I destroy Mephisto's hold over this land. Ok so far I have no desire to remain on this earth. Sounds logical Smashing the orb will accomplish my goal. If I break the pedestal as well, you will have access to Mephisto's Durance of Hate. How do I know you will? Because it is the right thing to do. ... I am with you for a reason. Trust me.
Cain and Ormus were staring me in the face when I noticed them. I think anyone would have pitched over backwards if that was the first thing they saw. After I picked myself up and told Cain I wasn't in any trouble, I put the flail in the box with Khalim's bits. Couldn't think of anything else to do with it. A flash blinded me, and when I could see again, the flail was gold and glistened like oil on water. The balls were still skulls, though. Inside the tower, the eye was still there, staring into me. I took the flail and smashed it in.
The orb didn't really shatter... more like evaporated in a glassy mist. The pedestal split in half right down the middle, and an iron key fell on the floor. The flail disappeared. Outside, the humidity had dropped by at least half. I could see trees dying, and vines falling off of buildings. I decided to look around. There were about 30 or 40 more people on the island, and a dozen priests and Vampires. They wouldn't attack me, or anything else. I'd have thought they'd jump at the chance.
Mephisto's "durance" (whatever a durance is) was a maze of pits and catwalks. Everything that could have spikes did, and what didn't was on fire. Everywhere, there were bones, all of them human. A few were fresh and bloody, but they probably went back decades. A lot of chests and stashes were laid out among the bodies. All were locked. Some were laid out in keyhole patterns, why I didn't know.
It's hard to sneak through a room full of bones. I thought dead leaves were bad, but a floor covered with dry bones is worse. Every time I tried to move, something would clatter and they'd come shrieking out of the dark: Flayer skeletons. I was so sick of dodging those little scuttling bombs of bone I wish the Three would just come out here and get it over with. There were others, mostly undead: Vampires who'd eaten so much they could barely move, some preserved corpses, and a few giants.
One room on the second level was worse than the others. I'd managed to creep in without being noticed when I saw the giants, eating. A few lights were moving around the floor. Only the strongest glow. I hit the giants mentally. One stumbled to its feet and stepped on a Flayer. It went up beautifully, and the rest of the Flayers attacked the giants. A crowd of walking corpses I hadn't seen came over. Meteors started falling. I kept them going for a while, taking the time to put a bolt in every Flayer -- I did not want them to survive. When it was over, all that was left was one giant, staggering around half dead even before I put a bolt between his eyes.
The lowest level was the grossest: all the blood and gore drained down, into a pit in the middle of the floor. It must have taken decades to fill. There was still no sign of the Three. There were demon-priests, one with the same green aura I'd seen in Kurast. The cold nova when he died was incredibly painful. I haven't been that frigid in... well, ever. A red gate, screaming like the damned, was out in the middle of the pit. This didn't look good.
"Ok, Cain, here's the description: big pit of gore, red portal that gives me the quivering willies out in the middle. What's it mean?"
"Our worst fears have been realized!" the old man wailed. I hate it when he talks like that. "This can only mean the Three have succeeded in opening a portal to Hell itself! Legions of their followers will issue forth to overrun the world!"
"There wasn't any issuing going on down there. How do we close the gate?"
"The only..." Cain stopped in mid-thought, blinking. "Nothing was coming through?"
"Nothing. C'mon, speed it up, we don't know how long it'll last!"
"Hmm... based on Andarial's cooperation with Diablo, I was sure the Lesser Evils had fallen behind the Greater once more. If that is not the case... the Three would need to go to Hell and rally the fallen to them. We may yet have the time we need!"
"Yeah, so don't waste it! How do I close the gate!?"
"Portals may be closed by destroying those who created them, most simply..."
"Right," I muttered. "It's what I do best anyway."
"It's what we do best," Natalya interrupted. "Let's go. I'm sick of standing around."
"What about Ormus?" I asked.
"What about Ormus? Screw Ormus. He's not doing anything."
I grinned. "You can screw Ormus, he doesn't do anything for me either."
"Shut up. What's the situation?"
"We've got a wide open room with a big pit of gore. Hell gate in the middle of the pit, no obvious way to get there."
"Then we find a way. You go left, I'll go right, meet you on the other side."
This was more like it. I don't mind being alone, but being alone here was really giving me the shivers. All the dangerous enemies were probably dead anyway, we just had to find a way through the gate. Of course, this wasn't the first time I was wrong: my side of the pool had another demon-priest and some Vampires. They slowed me down enough. I was dodging the dying priest when a laugh like nails on slate shook the floor under my feet and sent ghosts up my spine. Then came a scream, just one, and a noise like breaking glass.
I ran in, two Vampires still on my tail. They died about the time I saw Mephisto. He looked like a ghost on a huge scale, the biggest spirit ever, floating in a cloud of poison mist. When he looked at me, I knew that eye. I ducked my head and jumped to the side, firing blind in the direction of the icy ball that hissed past me. The bolt might have hit, I didn't look, and don't know if it would have done anything anyway. I dove in with the katar, my mind shut tight and my eyes barely open. Good thing he was a big target.
It wasn't the cleanest kill I've ever made. There was a lot of indiscriminate hacking, kicking, and screaming for no good reason at all, and I'm the one who lived through it. The cold ball was probably the worst thing Mephisto had, and he didn't use it up close. I think he made some sparks, and the frozen venom evaporating off his body wasn't too bad. Duriel was worse. After a long time of hacking, he fell to pieces, leaving nothing but three clean, white, human skulls, and a blue crystal.
Natalya was gone. All I found was a puddle of blood, bone, and shattered metal. I picked up the crystal. Could I break it? Should I try? There was no sign of Diablo or Baal. Why didn't the Three stay together? They must not need to, once they opened the gate -- that was their goal. Mission accomplished, the other two went on to phase two of their little project. Their gate was still open, waiting for them.
Near the back of the room was an iron box, about the size of a child's coffin. I hauled it to the pit and tossed it in. With me in it, it barely floated. Using one of the Vampire's staves, I poled my way out to the gate, stood, and just before my little tugboat went down, jumped through.