Amanita (Act V)
One second, the air was hot and dense, stinking of rot and burning flesh. Then it was ice, stabbing at my face and stinging my lungs. I hate traveling by gate, there's no time to acclimate yourself. Cain and I were standing in an empty street, next to a high stone wall. Snowflakes flurried aimlessly underneath a shining force dome. Judging from the dome's arc, it covered a smaller area than Hratli's. I smelled smoke, not all of it from wood, and heard bellowing, clanging, and what sounded like thunder.
"The city of Harrogath!" Cain smiled. How he could be shivering with cold and still happy was beyond me. "This is a truly historic moment: no outsider has ever been so deep in the Barbarian highlands. I do not expect we will receive a warm reception. Outsiders are not welcome here, on pain of death."
"I don't think we'll find anything warm around here," I said, wishing I had a real helmet for once. I've heard you lose something like half your body heat through your head, and I can believe it. "Well, the 'pain of death' part sounds pretty heart-warming."
"The thought does get one's blood flowing, I suppose..." Cain looked around. "I can hardly believe this! You see the grotesques on that building? That style has not been seen in our lands for centuries. Yet, to look at them, they might have been carved yesterday!"
"For all we know, they were. If you ask me, this isn't much of a city. It's tiny. I can see the far wall from here."
Cain stood as straight as he could, and squinted. All those years of compulsive reading must have done a number on his eyes. "Oh. I believe you're right. Though that is to be expected: the Barbarian tribesmen are not reputed to be city-dwellers. They are nomads who roam the hills and mountains of their homeland as free the air, taking what they wish from nature, making no home nor ever needing one. I have heard they hardly even leave footprints in their ceaseless treks."
"Huh. Wouldn't think guys like that would make good wizards."
He laughed. "All accounts agree that Barbarians hold the magical arts in contempt. I have no idea what they will think of you. Perhaps I should try talking with them, in the hopes of cultivating their trust. We may be here for some time."
"Tell 'em Tyrael sent you. I'm wondering who made the force dome."
Frowning, Cain blinked up at the sky. "Hmm. That is peculiar. I wonder if there may be more to these people than anyone suspected."
"Hard to get word out if no one gets in here alive. Sounds like there's a fight outside."
"Baal is here, and no doubt longs to destroy this city as he has everything else that lay in his path. I am amazed to see everything so... untouched."
"Force domes'll do that. As long as there's a fight outside, the Barbs probably won't try to kill us unless we do something stupid. Let's look around."
"An excellent idea! I suggest looking inside that building, out of this snowstorm."
I looked up at the few flakes drifting down. "How about you find a fire, there'll be people hanging around there. I'm gonna go check out that clanging. Sounds like a smithy. I need a few dents hammered out."
We split up, and I went down some stairs to another street. I've never seen stairs on city streets before, Harrogath must be built right into the side of the mountain. The smithy was half in and half out of a rough stone alcove, with weapons and armor everywhere. The smith was the biggest chunk of a man I've ever seen in my entire life. Damn, they grow 'em big in the mountains. Charsi could have broken me in half. This guy could probably break Charsi in half with one arm. He noticed me, jumped a little... and smiled. "Oh, hello."
The smith had a bald head, large ears, friendly eyes, and thoughts like a clear pool of cool water. He looked about as dangerous as a squirrel and a lot less nervous, even if he was slowly munching on something. I instantly liked everything about him. "Hi there. My name's Amy. I'm new in town."
"I am Larzuk, Harrogath's armorer. How did you get here?"
"I sort of flew in. I'm from the south. Sorry if that means I'm under a death sentence just for being here or anything."
He laughed, and shook his head. "Our people have suffered so much since Baal came, I don't think any of us could stand to see more human blood shed. Soon, I fear I'll need to put down my hammer and take up a sword, though I never have in my life."
"I'd heard all your people were warriors."
He laughed again. "Someone has to make the weapons. My family has done so since the days our ancestors walked with the angels. You can't be here as a warrior, are you?"
I'd have thought the armor and weapons would clue him in. "No, I'm just holding this stuff for someone who is. I'm guessing you don't see many women around here."
"Well, there's old Malah, she's been healer here since before most of us were born. Where is the warrior you're assisting? He should talk with Qual-Kehk, our senior man-at-arms. I'm sure he'd like another strong sword arm to challenge Shenk."
Sigh. Sarcasm is obviously not the way to go around here. "Who's 'Shank'?"
"Baal isn't here himself. He's left his most vicious general, Shenk the Overseer, to besiege the city. Qual-Kehk hasn't been able to break through his lines. I don't know what's wrong. Qual-Kehk has never failed us before."
Oh, so Baal's not here. I doubt anyone here knows, they're blocked in under siege. Then something occurred to me: "Say, what have you been chewing on all this time?"
Larzuk spat a lump of something brown into his hand. "A piece of my apron. We haven't had much food here since the siege began. If I chew on something for a while, I don't feel as hungry."
O-kay. "Uh, good idea. I'll go look around some more. See you soon."
Breaking the siege will definitely be the first order of business. Let's hope Baal's army isn't too much tougher than Diablo's. On the south side of town there were a couple more Barbarians, both big and meaty but not even close to Larzuk's size. One was roasting a rabbit that looked like it might last him two bites. The other was just sitting. While I watched, he started to sing what sounded like a battle song, but his voice cracked and it discouraged him. Neither looked up when I walked through. It's not like I expect to turn heads all the time, but they should at least notice a foreigner walking around their city.
The biggest house in town was by the western wall. Not that it was that big -- Harrogath was only about four houses wide, there wasn't enough room for anything more impressive than Larzuk. Outside, near a fire with an empty cook-pot over it, was a thin-faced man who reminded me of a diseased rat. I haven't seen that kind of pallor since my last Necro. If he weren't in such a rugged, manly setting, I'd think he was a Necro, especially after he saw me and that sneer oozed all over his pasty mug.
"Well, well. A Viz-Jaq'taar. Imagine that."
Recognizing my profession is a bad sign. I don't think any member of my clan's ever had a reason to visit these mountains, which means skanky here must have been in civilization at some point. "Hi there," I smiled sweetly, not offering to shake hands. It'd probably feel like strangling a towel rack. "And you are... ?"
"Surprised to see one of your kind here. Why should you take an interest in the Lord of Destruction's assault on my homeland? Even if Baal wished to do so, there are no wizards here to corrupt."
"Where'd the force dome come from, then?"
He stared hard, then smiled. "You have a quick mind, more so than most. Perhaps I should qualify my earlier statement."
"Kind of thought you might."
"As you doubtless do not know, every Barbaric tribe is ruled by an elder. We elders retain knowledge of magic from the old times, when the Druids and our clans were like brothers. Our knowledge was kept hidden until the day Destruction came to the sacred mountain." The smile started to fade as he went on. "The elder Aust foresaw doom sweeping down upon us, so he gathered the elders, and proposed raising the dome over Harrogath. I saw little use in walling our people up inside this death trap, where we would die of starvation long before Baal could be forced from our mountain, but went along with Aust's wishes out of respect for his wisdom. The effort cost the other elders their lives, and while it has kept the walls of Harrogath intact, our people die in droves every day."
By the end of the speech, the guy was honestly angry and frustrated. He was really mad: his mind was a boiling mass of red, he kept stepping from foot to foot, clenching his hands until the knuckles turned white... he couldn't stay still at all. No Necromancer would be that upset about people dying, they don't think death is a problem. "So... what should be done about Baal? My name's Amanita, by the way. I'm after Baal, not a sorcerer."
He frowned, and stared into the fire. I could hear his teeth gritting. "That is the problem now, isn't it? Perhaps we should have sent messengers to your kingdoms, and asked for aid when we still could. Qual-Kehk's pride would not permit it. Ah, I should not lay all the blame at his feet. None of us thought to seek allies. Now we are paying for our foolish pride."
"Uh, yeah. Anyway, I never did get your name."
He looked at me, like he'd be irritated if he could summon up the energy. "I am the elder Nihlathak. A pleasure."
"Thanks. The other elders all died, you say?"
"Yes. The ritual was a great strain, another reason I disapproved of using it."
Hratli put up a bigger dome than this by himself, and is still alive and sinning. These guys must be using some pretty old spells, from back in the days when everyone thought magic was supposed to hurt. "Just one more thing..."
He sighed, head hanging. "You ask many questions."
"Which way to the siege?"
With a snort, Nihlathak pointed northwards. "Do you mean to loot our dead? Or do you believe your skills can succeed where so many others have failed? Follow the smell of roasting human flesh, on which our enemies feast night and day."
Harrogath's only gate was in the north wall. The courtyard was empty except for an old man in gleaming bronze plate, with a huge sword on his back. His hair flowed just so in the wind, his beard was nicely trimmed, and he'd obviously put a lot of work into polishing that armor.
"Hail, warrior," I said, figuring a soldierly greeting would be my best bet. "You must be Qual-Kehk, senior man-at-arms."
"Aye," he said reflexively, looking me up and down, obviously not liking what he saw. "A southerner, here? And a woman? You are a woman, aren't you?"
I guess they're called Barbarians for a reason. Physically, Qual-Kehk was in fine shape, like his whole life was nothing but getting ready for this battle. Mentally... he didn't have a whole lot going on upstairs, and was damned proud of it. "Yeah. I'm here after Baal. Just thought I'd check in before I go out and get myself killed."
"Don't expect anyone to mourn you," he said, completely seriously. "Better fighters than you lie dead in the field, cut down without pity by Baal's legions."
There wasn't much I could say to this guy, even if he'd listen. It was time to get started on my next good deed for the day. "Yeah, I've heard that. I'd love to stay and chat, but I've got to go see to this little siege of yours. Amy go smash now. Bye!"
It was as cold as a razor blade outside Harrogath's gate. Short sections of fence, tastefully bedecked with human skulls and clan totems, stood around the gate. They gradually opened out as I moved away from the walls, obviously meant to force anybody attacking the gate to bunch up so the defenders would have an easy time mowing 'em down. Pity the attackers weren't falling for it. The area in front of the gate was uncontested. I saw exactly one dead demon, which could been dragged there. All the action was downhill, on a bunch of hills that were probably the only way in or out or Harrogath. I guess they never expected the demons to just block them in when they built this place.
The demon, by the way, was an earth demon called a Death Mauler. The name is nastier than the demon, but they're tough and hard to hurt physically, probably why Baal sent them here. As I moved out, I met the other demon he was using, a kind I didn't know at all. They were humanoid, maybe 4 feet tall and stocky, and had thick skin with bony plates that could probably turn the Barbs' axes pretty well. All of them were naked, and obviously male. Don't know what Baal was thinking with that. In combat, they used ordinary weapons and shields. I think their arms are too short to draw a bow, even if the shoulder plates didn't get in the way, so I had no worries about seeing archers.
A few Barbarian warriors had come out to try and break the siege. The demons didn't charge up to meet them -- they hung back and waited for the Barb to charge in, then surrounded him. Simple, but it worked on the Barbs. A good martial artist could really make hay of that tactic, but these guys just didn't have the skill set to take on groups. I didn't either, but I have other ways. Getting the demons to fight each other was harder than usual: they were motivated by fear, not hate or anger. I had to make them more afraid of me than Baal to get them on my side, and that took serious effort.
As I moved down the hill, it was pretty obvious that the good guys were losing badly. The demons outnumbered them at least 10 to 1. Trenches, fences, and barriers covered the hill, but with so many troops, that actually worked more for the demons. Every now and then, a pot of explosives or a bundle of heavy darts came raining down from an empty sky. If Baal had invisible flying archers, we were all in trouble. Random death from above is too much for anybody. Of course, going out in nothing but a horned helmet and a kilt wasn't such a hot idea either. Viz-Jaq'taar have never gone into open battle, but I think even the martial artists would want a little more than a strip of cloth and a smile.
It's always a good idea to work with the locals, so I did my best to keep some of them alive. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. My techniques don't work that fast. They weren't too grateful, but they probably didn't know I was doing much. My techniques aren't that obvious, either. They have no way of knowing why one demon suddenly turned on another, or that my bolts pack more of a wallop than a dozen axe blows, and I'm not about to tell them. Letting them think they can claim my loot is annoying.
In Harrogath, I met Cain by the well in the main square. He seems to like hanging around wells and fountains. Maybe old age makes you thirsty. Anyway, the locals hadn't killed him yet, so he could give me his impressions of Harrogath and its charming denizens. Qual-Kehk looks like a powerful, capable war leader to him, exactly who you'd want to defend your city. I didn't share my opinion. Larzuk scares him. That didn't surprise me, even he'd never seen someone that big before.
Cain's opinion of Nihlathak is interesting. He feels Nihlathak "speaks with a venomous tongue and acts as if the entire weight of the world rests upon his shoulders." If that's a fancy way of saying he's a sneery, arrogant prick, I agree. Ok, maybe he feels bad about outliving his friends, then spending a siege standing around being useless. He might even be trying to think of a way to save the world.
I'll talk to Nihlathak about saving the world later. First, Cain said he met the town healer, a woman named Malah. From what I've heard of Barbarians, I'd have thought they'd tough it out like real men. Then again, they're not supposed to cast spells either. Malah's hospital was against the eastern wall. A dozen big brutes were laid out inside and outside, bandaged like mummies and a lot quieter. They looked depressed, except for the guy missing his right arm, who looked drugged. Malah was an old woman, slow-moving and bent. Her face was gray and puffy. Under a dirty scarf with burned ends, her weedy hair was that color that is neither brown or blonde, too tired to be red but not clean enough to be gray. Everything she did screamed exhaustion, but she kept doing it. She didn't see me in the door, maybe her eyes weren't so good. I dropped a bunch of healing potions I'd collected and left. When I've done what needs to be done, I'll talk to her. Besides, I hate hospitals.
Cain also told me about something the Barbarians told him. Just for Harrogath, Baal invented something new: catapults. Made of demon flesh and steel rods, they're basically an arm, two sharp eyes, and just enough brains to make them work together. All they do is look in front of them, find a target, and throw. Baal's equipped them with some nasty payloads: the Barbs have reported what sound like grenades, javelins, shock webs, fire pots, gas pots, and ice balls. Our trapsters wish they had that many tricks -- chilling bombs would be incredibly handy. Catapults can hit you from a long way, I've found, but once you get within 20 yards, you're safe, and they're easy to kill from up close.
Another problem with the high life among the hill people is that they don't know a damn thing about crossbows. They know about bows, they use them for hunting. Putting a strong bow on a stock and taking it into battle bewilders the heck out of Larzuk. He just can't see why. He also doesn't know how to make bolts, and I'm not finding any among Baal's troops.
The demon's camp was at the bottom of the hills. I counted four fire pits with roasting warriors. There were plenty of rabbits, white fluffy ones, but the demons weren't interested in them. After dumping snow on the cook fires, I used my last bolt on one of the humanoid demons and dragged out the katar. Sapphires probably wouldn't work so well around here, these guys didn't seem to care much about cold, but there's not much I can do until Larzuk makes copies of the bolt I left him.
Past the camp, in a narrow section, the terrain started to climb. Some Barbs had joined me by now. The katar seemed to interest them a little, a lot more than the bow did. In the narrows, we found exactly the kind of demon I don't want to fight hand to hand: Familiars. They're tiny demons made to look like wizards, subtle flattery for the sorcerers they palled around with in the old days. Even a crowd of them isn't likely to kill you, but they'll teleport if you look at them funny, so killing them is a huge pain in the ass. Stunning them tired me out good. Still made me wish I could use the bow.
Further uphill, the hills widened out again. Attacking upslope is a lot harder, I'll bet none of these guys had ever made it past this. Back in Harrogath, Larzuk was still working on the bolts. He did have an idea for a crossbow-based trap: rig one up on a tree next to a deer path, with a string to pull the trigger when the deer goes past. He must be getting really hungry. Once he's made bolts, I'll get him a couple of rabbits.
The sun sets slowly this far north. It was almost dark when I found Shenk. He was a huge fat bastard, like a Toad Demon but far less lithe, graceful, and attractive. While he waved a whip, a wall of lesser demons surrounded him, waiting for me to come closer. I went to work convincing a few that their swords were better than his whip, and why were they taking that kind of abuse anyway? They bowed to reason, and promptly turned on him. One who looked like he had a serious glandular problem actually exploded, spraying his own overworked brains all over his former master. It was beautiful.
Pretty soon, Shenk was alone and bleeding from dozens of wounds. It only took a little encouragement to turn every one of his troops against him. I went up on his little platform and finished him off. The bastard was pathetic without anything to hide behind. He even had a patch of summoned lava to keep his fat ass warm, and furry slippers for his almost non-existent feet. What a freak.
"Thank you for destroying that monster," Malah said as she put healing potions on a shelf, ready to be grabbed. "Lifting the siege has lifted all of our hearts, and given an old woman reason to hope again."
"Not a problem," I said, then thought maybe I shouldn't have. Some of the local fighters were still hanging around in the doorway of Malah's hospital. Doing what they couldn't, then calling it easy, wouldn't earn me any friends. "Well, Shenk was a problem. Getting to him was a real problem. Come to think of it, I don't think I've had a more difficult mission."
Malah looked at me curiously. "Strange... your friend Cain told me you came here from Hell itself, after you slew Baal's brother demon Diablo in his own lair."
"Oh, that," I shrugged nonchalantly. "Yeah, that was bad, but this was pretty bad too."
"Though Shenk is slain and his army broken, no one saw you make the kill. Those on the battlefield say you moved with such speed that they could not keep pace, and yet after you passed, none of the enemy remained alive."
"Crossbows are pretty good one shot, one kill weapons. And the mission goal was Shenk, not his underlings. I've always been quick. You just have to focus."
The air was still pretty frosty over by the warriors. Malah shook her head and went back to a kettle of herbs she had boiling. "I also thank you for the potions you brought back with you. Under the siege, everything was in short supply."
"Oh, that's right! I was gonna bring some rabbits back too."
"There is no need," Malah smiled. "Our people are great hunters as well as mighty warriors. Though night was fallen, many have already gone for badly-needed food." She glanced at the men loitering in her doorway. "Haven't they?"
With a few murmured acknowledgments, the men hastily left. Malah smiled at me. "Cain also told me you use poison on your arrows. His words make you out to be a hunter of men, not game, so you may not realize poisoned meat will do us little good."
I blinked, then nodded. "Oh, yeah. I don't know if anything I shoot with this bow is safe to eat. And chasing rabbits with the katar would look pretty stupid."
Still smiling, Malah stirred her pot. "I hope you understand that not everyone is as happy to see you as I am. We are a proud people, and do not easily accept aid from others."
"So I gathered. Qual-Kehk was still sure he could break the siege. I only saw a dozen guys out there, you can't take on an army with that."
"Protecting the holy mountain is our most sacred duty, and Qual-Kehk's greatest calling. He has devoted his life to keeping outsiders away. Baal's coming has been very hard on him. One third of those under his command were slain in our first sally. So many have fallen or been captured since then... they have weighed heavier on him than chains of iron. If he has spoken ill to you, I beg you to forgive him."
Hard on him? Sounds like it was harder on his men. But I said, "He... well, he gives me the impression of someone who thought about things once when he was young, decided how his life was going to be, and hasn't thought about it at all since. He would have been fine if... well, if all he had to deal with was... um..."
Impassively, Malah said, "Sometimes, it is good not to say too much of what is in your heart. Leaders like Qual-Kehk must be respected."
"Oh, I respect him," I half-lied. "I'm sure he's a great fighter. I wouldn't want to fight him. It's just that war takes strategy, and having enough troops."
"Baal's forces have swept over our lands like an avalanche. We have never seen such numbers. I understand the southern kingdoms have fared no better against his brothers."
"No, nobody's doing all that well," I admitted.
Malah's eyes were like flint. "What strategy would you recommend, then?"
I grinned a little. "Poisoned arrows?"
The old woman's eyes softened, and she chuckled. "I cannot approve, you understand. Cain has described your ways of stealth and poison, which are not honorable methods."
Honorable, schmonorable, it's about what works. There's also my secret tricks, but mind games and perception tricks would be even less honorable to these guys. "Well, ok. Earlier, did you say 'captured'? As in taken alive?"
"Some of those who returned spoke of escaping cages the demons built. What their fate would have been had they not escaped, I cannot say, but shudder to think."
I nodded. "Where were these cages?"
She looked at me, clucking her tongue. "If defeating Shenk was as difficult as you say, I fear you should not make an attempt on the prisons. Long ago our people girded the sacred mountain with high walls and strong towers. Baal took them, but did not destroy them as he did everything else. His demons man them now. Stealth and venom can do little against a wall of stone or bars of iron."
I almost kept myself from smiling. "I'm pretty handy at infiltration. And I've got no plans for tomorrow. You mind if I bed down in here? It looks pretty empty now."
"Of course not. You may stay as long as you like."
The next morning was bright and clear. Something at the back of my head was nagging me, something I'd almost forgotten. Food? No, it looks like everyone's gotten some. Two rabbits wouldn't have made Larzuk more than a snack anyway. Larzuk? He should have bolts ready by now, but that's not it. Oh yeah, Nihlathak -- gotta make sure he won't try doing anything about the situation we're in. When I talked to him, he sounded arrogant and depressed, not a good combination in a tribal shaman. If he tries something I'm not expecting, it could go badly for both of us. He was sitting outside by the fire, chewing on some rabbit. Two Barbs with heavy spears were with him.
"Hi there," I said, putting on my best smile. "Can we talk?"
They all looked at me, chewing slowly. Distrust and intolerance simmered under the skin of their minds, but none of them said anything. Finally, Nihlathak got up and walked into his house. I followed.
"What?" he delicately inquired.
"Just wanted to know if you've heard anything about some prisons out there."
"Pens for the sheep, you mean?" He wiped rabbit grease off his chin. "They are there, and in use. You will find them inside fortifications our ancestors built. These fortifications have proven very useful for our enemies. Earlier, the boys could escape by throwing themselves back and forth between the walls until they broke. Baal's slaves now place no more than five in each. More than that, I cannot say."
Something besides the meager amount of information caught my ear. "The boys?"
His smile was wan and tired, with no joy. "These are our children. I remember days past, when they were learning the ways of war and fighting. After a glorious day spent knocking each other over the head, Malah would bind their cuts with poultices, set their broken bones, and give them medicines to cure their fevers. Now they come to her with wounds that will never heal."
I decided to gamble. "What do you think should be done about it?"
He stared at the floor, then shook his head. "No one knows. All I know is that fighting Baal has brought nothing but loss. Our youth is gone, slaughtered like lambs. Much of the heaven sent wisdom of our elders is lost as well; I do not know all of it. The outcome of the siege, and any battles which follow, are irrelevant. We have already lost." He sighed, and closed his eyes. "I am tired. Please leave me."
No worries about him doing anything but sitting around moping. I got two quivers of bolts from Larzuk, and listened to his idea about a giant crossbow that could throw bolts the size of spears for miles. Gotta admit, that would probably be more accurate than Baal's slinger-things and might be faster to reload. On the other hand, Baal's catapults can throw several kinds of payload, like grenades or those pots of explosive powders. If any Viz-Jaq'taar ever take an interest in siege weaponry, I'll tell them to look Larzuk up. He's got some ideas.
Outside, some Barbarians were hunting bunnies with throwing sticks. I've heard of primitives hunting like that. I prefer bows, but that goes without saying. Beyond Shenk's platform, the ground rose. Crude stairs were carved into the rock, the steps worn smooth by generations of feet. At the top was a Horadric waypoint in the middle of a frigid plain. The old bastards made it up here too. Cain will be thrilled when he finds out.
Out on the plain, I ran into one last pack of humanoids, and hordes upon hordes of Imps. The place was dripping with the little giggling freaks. Why Baal is deluding himself into thinking they're any kind of threat was beyond me. There were only two times when they might actually be dangerous. One was when they were mounted on another kind of demon, big brutes called Crush Beasts. They're one of the oldest kinds of demon in Hell. Sorcerers used to use them to guard treasure vaults. They're more responsive than undead, but can still go for years without food, then eat anything that'll fit in their mouths. Makes body cleanup a snap. Baal doesn't have many, but the ones he's got are completely encased in plate armor with fire jets mounted on their shoulders where an Imp can use them.
The other way an Imp can be dangerous is if it gets to one of the towers in the Barbarians' walls. From there, it can dump rocks, boiling oil, or other obnoxious things on me. The walls aren't nearly as impressive as Malah made them out to be. They're not stone walls, more like barricades made out of frozen mud. I can kick them down in places. A little house near one wall was made a lot better, so I don't know what's up with the walls being so bad.
Going through the barricade was slow and painful. There were doors, but they were barred, not locked. I'd have to drop the bow and punch through with the katar. Of course, the minute I put the bow down, Imps teleported in and started taking shots at my behind. By the time I got the bow again, they disappeared, and I could hear them laughing on the other side. When I did get the door open, a pack of humanoids would be waiting on the other side to swarm me. Finally, just to make my day complete, catapults in the next wall up were bombarding me the whole time. I got to eat ice balls or bundles of grenades if I ever stopped moving for more than five seconds. This settles it: sneaking in the shadows is the only way to go. War is for masochists.
I didn't expect to see a cage in the barricade closest to Harrogath, and for once I was right. The next wall had one, a sad mess of wooden stakes tied together with twine. The door didn't even have a lock, it was tied in place. Inside, there were five Barbarians, and at least twice as many armed humanoids and Imps outside guarding them. It probably took that many to keep the Babas in line.
Since I am here to help these guys, I'd better make it clear as day that that's what I'm doing. The bow doesn't impress, but that's ok. Katar are a lot flashier. With what I hoped was a fearsome war cry, I jumped in, almost tripping over an Imp. Kicking the little bastard out of my way, I charged the cage, hacked through the bindings on the door, and cast a gate. "Follow me if you wish to live." I love saying things like that.
Once all the big boys had run away home, I went with a more sensible strategy: I ran like a bunny and started sniping from cover. Catapult shots were still coming down, so there had to be another barricade beyond this one. Why so many? Were there enough warriors in the northlands to man that many walls? Either the Barbs thought the sight of all those barriers would intimidate everyone, or this is the most misguided defensive strategy in the world... which would explain Qual-Kehk's thinking. He's emulating the people who came up with this.
Once the second barricade was behind me, I headed up to the third. In the middle of the field, I found what had to be the last thing I ever expected. Right in the middle of the frozen tundra, snowflakes hissing up into steam the moment they touched it, was a red Hellgate, hovering over a bridge across a glowing red pit of lava. I actually had to drop an Imp skull down there to convince myself it was real. What fresh hell is this? I thought the three Prime Evils had to work together to open a Hellgate, that's why Diablo raced across the world to Kurast, and dragged Baal with him. Isn't it?
I did a quick check of my facts. One: Mephisto's and Diablo's Soulstones are now nothing but sparkly bits scattered around the Hellforge. Two: Tyrael said smashing their Soulstones will prevent them from returning to this world. Three: Baal is in this world. Four: Cain said the Three have to be together to open a Hellgate. Five: I am looking at a Hellgate, in a place where Hellgates should not be. Conclusion: at least one of these facts is not a fact.
Maybe it was stupid... no, it was stupid, but I went through the gate. That's the only way I've ever found to deal with the stupid things. The gate led back to the river of fire, opening onto a set of islands I didn't recognize. Siege weapons were lying around, and weapon racks full of... bolts! Hundreds of bolts, free for the taking! I filled my quiver and moved on.
This little piece of Hell was obviously a staging area for Baal's war machines. He also had tons of archery supplies. I found enough bolts to last a lifetime, more than I could even carry. Larzuk was happy to stockpile them for me, he didn't seem to like making them much. The islands were populated by Imps, a conference of Shenk-like toads, and something new: bull-like demons in plate armor, swinging two axes each. That's goat people, cat people, snake people, and now cows. The bulls were quick-moving, strong armed, and had teeny, tiny brains full of easily misdirected anger. We got along well.
After clearing the islands, I had enough bolts to last a lifetime. "Hiya, Larzuk," I said as I dropped the last bundle by his forge. "This is all of them."
The big guy just shook his head, looking at the stacks I'd already dropped off. "Are you sure you want to keep all these?"
"You never know when you'll need 'em. I'm wondering where Baal's hiding the archers who'd use these. I haven't seen any."
"No one I know has seen any either. Say, while you're here: I was thinking some more about Baal's machine, and had a new idea."
I grinned. I love these. "What is it?"
"You said the catapults fling pots full of explosive powers..."
"Instead of throwing a pot and having it explode, why not make a pot so strong it won't break, but open on one side? Then you could aim the whole explosion at one enemy."
"Woof, that could hurt somebody. Could you make a pot strong enough?"
He kept talking excitedly. "If it were made of iron, or braced with iron bands, it should be strong enough. Oh! Make it a long tube instead of a pot. You could back the explosives in one end, and leave enough room to pack something else in with it, like a heavy iron ball or sharp bits of metal. Imagine something like that hitting a demon!"
"He'd never know what hit him. You know, you should learn to write so you can write this stuff down."
He kind of laughed. "Oh, I don't know..."
"No, really! This is good stuff. Ideas are what changes the world."
"Qual-Kehk thinks my ideas are strange. Do you think it's because I lack battle scars, or am I just a few bolts short of a quiver?"
I snorted. "In my order, the trapsters would love your ideas. If you could make that tube-guided explosion thing work, the world would beat a path to your door."
Grinning a little, Larzuk shuffled from one foot to the other. "Oh... I'm just a smith, from a long line of smiths. I've never been anything else."
"So? You might get to meet Charsi. She'd like you."
Now he started to blush. "Aw..."
I grinned. "Sure. You're really her type."
He stammered a bit, then gestured to his forge. "I have... um... there's a thing I have to hammer here."
It was a struggle, but I didn't laugh. "Sure. Well, think about it."
Larzuk and Charsi would make an incredibly cute couple. They could have many large babies together. The third barricade had two cages, for a grand total of 15 freed Barbarians. I gave myself a hearty cheer and went back to Harrogath. Night was falling, and there's only one thing worse than hunting down Imps: hunting down Imps in the dark. That's beyond the call of duty, and my good deed for the day was done.
I woke up slow the next morning, just like the last morning. Clean mountain air doesn't suit me, I guess. As I blinked awake, a shadow not much smaller than a mountain was quietly looming next to the bed. I pulled my furry blanket up and said, "Do you mind?"
"I want to thank you for rescuing my men," Qual-Kehk said quietly. "They have spoken well of your bravery."
"Oh," I replied. "Uh... you're welcome."
"It has been two days since you and your companion Cain joined us. In that time, I have heard no end to his questions, yet you rarely make a sound. When a warrior claims a great victory, he should shout it to the four corners of the earth, so his triumph will live on in song long after he has joined his ancestors. Do you not celebrate victories? Your ways are strange, but any warrior should be proud to have done what you have done."
It didn't look like he was going to move anytime soon, so I grabbed my top and put it on under the blanket. "Uh, yeah. Sorry. I'm... kind of shy."
"Yes, I see. You come and go so quietly and so fast, this is the only way I could be sure to find you, but I see now you know your deeds should speak for you. It is good to think so. Words without action are but wasted breath. Though perhaps you also believe that none here will think a female worthy of a hero's mantle."
I was grabbing for my pants. "Uh... that kind of did occur to me."
"Though not... common, it is not unknown for a woman to learn the ways of war. On the field of battle, one's deeds are what matters. When night falls, come to the fire, and speak to your companions in arms. Tell us of your triumphs, and we will tell you of ours."
"Yeah, okay," I said, throwing off the blanket and wincing as my bare feet touched the icy floor. "Um... are you planning on sending your men out again?"
Qual-Kehk frowned, but mostly in bafflement. "Who could stop them? They are rested and fed now, eager to avenge their dishonor. Baal's forces are making their way here again, and now we have the numbers to give them a more proper greeting."
"They're attacking the city again?" I said as I pulled on my padding.
"Baal longs to destroy us, as he has all else in our lands."
"Good," I mumbled, planning my next move. Baal's not coming to Harrogath himself, he's got better things to do. But the fewer bodies between me and him, the better. Behind enemy lines sounds like the place I want to be. "I'm heading out by waypoint."
"The enchanted stones? Aye, Cain has told me of their purpose. My people have no need of them. Before you vanish and I do not see you again, take these," he said, dropping three runestones in my hand. "I was going to put them in a shield, but you may find a better use for them. Fare thee well."
Three runestones, and not the most common ones either. At least, I hadn't seen any of them before. Not bad. I suited up and headed out. Last night, I'd found a narrow section of hills and fences being guarded by some Death Maulers, with the waypoint just beyond. In daylight, I could see I was on a flat plateau on the side of the mountain. The ground was a churned-up mess of footprints and wheel tracks, but no one was anywhere near.
I headed back to the narrows and looked down. An army's worth of tracks headed down into the hills. The corpses I'd left last night were nothing but pink smears in the mud. Harrogath was safe under the dome. Qual-Kehk and his boys would attack anyway. Maybe they could handle them, maybe they couldn't, it wouldn't make much difference. I turned around and started up the plateau.
A little ways up and I could see yet another Barbarian barricade ahead. With all the energy they put into making the things, they could at least have made them better. There were also a few scattered whip-wielding toads, driving groups of humanoid demons towards the hills. I guess the little guys are some kind of slave, maybe not even real demons. Didn't stop me from shooting them, of course. After its slaves started dying, the toad made a growling noise and lashed at a survivor. The humanoid squealed, fell to its hands and knees... and swelled. Its whole body looked like a boil about to burst.
Whatever else that whip did, it also burned my poison out of the slave. With a strangled squawk, it staggered to its feet and came straight at me, apparently as healthy as ever. Now, it dropped its sword when the toad demon hit it, but I'm not in the habit of letting screaming naked guys get anywhere near me. I put another bolt in it. The humanoid stopped, blinked at me, and exploded. Yuck. Maybe taking out the leader first would have been a better idea.
The next group I met I tried slapping around mentally, to see if I could confuse the slaves into attacking the master. It appeals to my sense of fair play. Imagine my surprise when the toad started attacking the humanoids. Then it looked at me with what might pass for love, raised its whip, and YEEEEHAAAAAH!!! INSTANT HIGH THE AIR IS ON FIRE AND I'M ON MY WAY TO THE MOOOOON!!! I pumped bolts into the slaves, the bow cracking as I pulled and slammed the trigger again and again! Then the toad turned on me. They always do. I killed him. I still felt buzzed. And dirty. And for some reason, I really needed a smoke.
Lucky for me, a fire was burning right outside a little hut not far ahead. I killed the slave creature coming out the door and lit a cigar. Another slave came out. While it was dying, another came out. Weird, the hut just wasn't that big. After the fifth one, I kicked the roof in and moved on. There were a few more slave-master groups, but whatever happened that one time didn't happen again. Maybe that was a good thing. I might get to like it too much.
The barricade was manned-- or Imped-- and had catapults. Damn it, Assassins are supposed to slip through walls like they were air, and no one would ever know but the target. There is an art to getting through walls. It's one of the physical arts, the martial artists are best at it. I, meanwhile, had to do it the old-fashioned way. I even tried an axe on a door, but it was so clumsy I went back to the katar.
Beyond the barricade was another Hellgate. I've got to remember to tell Cain about these. Having this many gates to the infernal abyss open can't be a good thing. Inside, I was back at the river of fire again. How big is this river, anyway? This particular set of islands must be where Baal keeps his slaves, with masters to keep them in line. There were also more bull-men, bigger and smarter than the last crowd. They didn't confuse very well, but it was easy enough to shoot them across the gaps between islands.
Another barricade went by, and another one. It was getting dark when I found the top of the plateau. It ended in a cliff, with nowhere to go but straight up. Along with a few Imps, a pack of masters without any slaves was there. Maybe they were masters to the other masters, they had pretty good gear. They were fast enough to chase me, and the biggest one knocked me around a while, but I just didn't feel the love.
The only thing I found up there was a weird-looking burial urn. Baal wasn't around. He was somewhere on the mountain, but I'd probably have to scour the whole damned rock to find him. Hell... chasing Diablo didn't do me any good either. I couldn't get him until he stopped running. I took a few puffs on the last of my cigar and thought about that. Going after Baal isn't doing me any good. This would be over a lot quicker if he had reason to come after me. Now, why would he come after me? The only thing he's after is the Worldstone, and I doubt I can fool him into thinking I've got that.
Back in Harrogath, there was a big fire in the main square. A lot of powerful voices were singing and chanting. I looked. Where the Barbs got an ale cask, I didn't know, but there it was, with lots of big, beefy brutes singing and bragging about the day's kills. I don't brag about kills. The ideal kill is one where no one has any idea you did it. Cain was down there, looking small and frail. A hearty backslap from someone with arms the size of cows almost knocked him into the well. There was Malah, with a beer mustache. Larzuk and some other guy are arm-wrestling... ouch, poor guy.
Eh, what the hell. I went down there with them.
The sun was already up when the sound of snoring woke me. My skull was pounding and my mouth tasted like a plumber's handkerchief. I pried an eyelid open, and the bottom of an unfamiliar table slowly came into focus. Over my head, an ale cask, one lonely drop hanging from the tap, hung over the edge of the table. Two beefy brutes, one spear-bald, the other with a head of hair you could knit a coat from, were under there with me. Baldy had his mouth open, like he'd been all set to catch the last drop, but he fell asleep first. Now he was just drooling on me. I shook my head and wiped the crud away from the corners of my eyes, then winced when I realized my bladder was about to explode. Three guesses what I got up to last night. At least I still had my clothes on.
After taking care of the necessaries, I went to hunt up some grub. I don't know any good hangover cures -- believe me, I've tried everything -- but getting something on my stomach besides booze is a good first step. Harrogath's chief cook wasn't on duty at the moment, so I stopped by Malah's. She was awake and looked sober, which put her at least one up on me, and had some goat jerky and fresh-brewed herb tea on hand. A word of warning: do not try to eat Barbarian jerky when you've got a hangover. The stuff is tougher than boot leather, and trying to bite hard enough to get a piece off when your head is already throbbing is a pain I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.
"Is everything all right?" Confusion hovered around Malah as she watched me pound the dried meat with the butt of my crossbow.
"Just trying a little brute force," I grunted, then stopped. These people must have iron teeth, the stuff won't even crush. I thought about it for a minute, then dunked it in the tea to soften. Stupid. Force is no substitute for finesse.
Malah shrugged, and casually tore off a hunk using two of her remaining five teeth. "We were very happy to welcome you to our gathering last night. You impressed the menfolk greatly when you won the drinking contest."
I blinked. "I did, huh?"
"Against our strongest warriors, yet! You are such a slender thing, I had to wonder how you could hold so much."
"It's the evil life I lead. I'm good at holding my liquor, but I usually hold him by the ears." The jerky was softening up by now. I took it in both hands, dug my teeth in, and finally managed to tear off a piece big enough to be worth eating.
Malah hemmed, and decided to change the subject. "Have you found any sign of Baal, out there on the mountain?"
"Nope, he's made himself hard to find. I've gone around to a plateau on the east flank, but it dead-ended. I figure I'll start above the foothills and go around to the west. It's either that or start climbing one of those cliffs."
"There will be no need. I know the place you speak of. If you search the base of the cliff, you will find a cave which leads to a maze of tunnels under the icy cap of Mount Arreat."
I cocked an eyebrow. "You think he's in there?"
"I am sure he is not. But... what he seeks lies beyond." Malah sat down, and stared into my eyes with deep seriousness. "Our people have many secrets about this mountain. The ice caves are but one. They have kept our people safe when your people attacked Mount Arreat in the past, so you must understand what it means to tell you of them now."
I bowed my head, letting the gravity of the situation speak for me. "I understand. You must keep your silence about what, exactly, lies beyond."
The old woman's prune-like face wrinkled into a smile, and she patted my hand in silent agreement. I was amazed Cain hadn't already blabbed that we know about the Worldstone. He's a nice old geezer, but getting him to shut up is a full-time job. Then a memory suddenly lit up in Malah's mind, bringing anxiety and suspicion with it. "Actually... there is another matter, which I hesitate to speak of..."
"What is it?"
"Our great elder Aust had a daughter, Anya. She is a strong young girl, wise beyond her years, with a spirit like no other. Before he died, her father was guiding her along the path of the elders, and none know as many of the secrets of our people as she."
"Huh. I got the idea your elders were all men."
"That is not so. Hush, now. You are aware of her father's death, along with all the other elders save Nihlathak. They gave their lives to save us, and seemingly just in time: Baal's forces gathered outside Harrogath and began the siege within hours of their deaths. Anya confided in me that she felt Nihlathak was somehow responsible for her father's death and the demons' quick arrival. I counseled her to confront him face to face with her suspicions, as has always been our way."
Uh-oh. "And she disappeared?"
Malah's eyes went wide. "That very night. I heard her shouting at Nihlathak in his home, and never again afterwards. Nihlathak says she left the city to go out onto Arreat's slopes, seeking what was left of her family. Do not believe him! He may also tell you he is sure she is dead. Anya would never die so easily! My heart tells me she is still alive, and Nihlathak has done something terrible which only she knows."
I nodded, and lied. "I'm sure she's alive. I'll look for her."
Malah grabbed my arm, squeezing through the plate, and stared into my eyes, trying to make me believe. I guess I'm not as good a liar as I thought. "Anya is alive! The wisdom of the elders is in her. Save Nihlathak, only she knows the secrets of Mount Arreat! Only she has been..." She stopped short, and bowed her head. I decided not to pry.
"Don't say any more. I'll find her."
My first stop was Nihlathak's house. No one answered when I knocked, so I opened my mind a bit and peered around inside. No thoughts met mine. The house was empty. I opened my mind more, lightly touching drunken dreams and waking worries as I let myself drift over all of Harrogath. Plenty of thinking, but none of his. The last elder was gone. Where could he go, on a mountain crawling with demons? It was suspicious, but I've been wrong before. I put Nihlathak in the back of my mind and headed for the waypoint.
The cave entrance was well hidden. Viz-Jaq'taar are trained to find concealed things, and it took me three passes to find the damned thing. Inside, the caves were all ice, so cold my exposed face instantly went numb. The walls glistened in delicate blues and purples by the light of a few scattered torches, which couldn't even come close to melting anything. The floor, though was a maze of cracks and impact shatters, and broken ice was everywhere. Something big had come this way. I walked softly.
Around the first corner, I found my first enemies. The Viz-Jaq'taar know about Succubi, you occasionally run into them in the lair of a particularly perverted wizard. Outside of the usual bedroom power games, they're mostly decorative. Only a moron would send them into combat. So, when I looked around a corner and saw a swarm of airborne airheads coming my way, I wasn't too concerned. Behind them was something I wasn't familiar with. They were big all right, white and hard and shiny, like ice come to life. They were also slower than molasses in January, so I had no problem keeping my distance and pegging them repeatedly, once I got the demon bimbos out of my way.
Around the next corner was something much worse: a pack of bull-men. They smelled me as soon as I saw them, and the chase was on. These bulls were very strong, and not nearly as stupid as I would have liked. They didn't scare or confuse easily, and I had no islands to snipe from. My only advantage was speed, and a loop of tunnels I could lead them around without exposing myself too much. The occasional mind slap stopped them long enough for me to get away, but it took them so long to die I was mentally exhausted, even after drinking two mana potions.
Bull-men were rare in the caves, lucky for me. Succubi were not. There must have been hundreds of them in there freezing their g-strings off. If all of them belonged to Baal... he must be hung like a field mouse. Can we say "overcompensation," anyone? They weren't even loyal. It hardly took anything to turn them on each other, and they responded very well to a mental slap. Too well, maybe: some of them never went back to attacking me. They just followed me around, moaning softly, with this weird look in their eyes. Ok, they'd attack anything that came near me like a bat out of Hell, that wasn't so bad... but that moaning was just plain disturbing.
I had two of them whimpering along behind me when I found an ornate burial urn. I pried it open, hoping for gold or maybe a magic item, when another pack of Bull-men appeared out of nowhere. The Succubi attacked, and in three seconds, I was two short of a threesome and running like a scared rabbit. Running away, stopping to fire behind me, has worked in the past, but this time I made a wrong turn and ran into more Succubi. This, I suppose, is the kind of situation where the local tough-boys tend to die. I've found some of their bodies. After a moment of reflection (during which I am glad to say I did not soil my armor) I decided to turn this obstacle into an opportunity. I slapped those sluts silly, then ran through them while they went after the Bulls.
Some ice-beasts were behind the Succubi. After a little more effort on my part, they were all fighting each other. It was a thing of beauty. Blood and ice were everywhere, axes flying, claws ripping, freezing breath blasting, and none of it anywhere near me. I strolled around the edges of the melee, sniping to my heart's content. When the screaming stopped, the biggest, baddest Bull-man was the last one standing. I put a bolt in him, he considered his position, and obligingly kicked the bucket.
The deepest part of the caves was down on the mountain bedrock. Trickles of melting ice had pooled on the rock, flowing out into streams. It made me feel good to think I was responsible for some of that. There were Succubi near the water, but also some pure white Bigfoots, and Zombies. The Zombies looked like they were made from frozen bodies that never had a chance to rot. I even sensed some slow mental activity in their iced-up brains. They had greatswords and armor, and remembered enough about fighting to know to charge archers. Still, dodging them wasn't too hard. The problem was that it took five or six shots to keep them down. Maybe being half-frozen makes them even more poison-resistant than usual, but I haven't had anything take that long to die since Diablo.
Deep under the ice, right up against the side of the mountain, I found a half-frozen pond, the biggest puddle in the area. Some kind of stone platform was out in the middle, and between me and it was a nasty pack of Bigfoots. Knowing how demons usually work, it was pretty obvious they were guarding something. If I ever have a treasure to hide, I'm going to set up a maze of killer traps and monsters, then hide it under the entrance sign. No one will ever find it. I finished off the Bigfoots and some stray Zombies, but there was nothing on the platform but a pillar of ice. Something in the ice was... red. I took a closer look.
A human shape was inside the pillar. Whoever it was, they couldn't be alive. As numb as I was, I could feel cold radiating off the thing. I spit on it, and the glob tinkled off, frozen solid while it was still in the air. Why would someone be frozen like that? Maybe it's some ancient Barbarian king, laid to rest lo these many centuries ago, to awaken and lead his people into battle when the enemy comes. Hmmm... why not? I leaned close to the pillar, closed my eyes, and opened my mind.
Hello? All hail mighty King Barbaricus! Anybody home? Anybody? ... Somebody? Somebody? ... ? ... Yes, somebody Wake up, somebody Wake up, somebody ? Wake up, somebody I know it hurts It's cold and dark But you have to wake up ! I'm here for you !!! You're angry? !! *@* !! Calm down, open up !! #$* !! You don't know how !! %&@ !! to send thoughts !!! #%@)# !!! Just calm down and !!!!!@@@@@! !!! let me see who you are !!!&!!!*^^ !!*!!! I SAID CALM DOWN !!!!##!%! **!@&#$!#^! ! QUIT FIGHTING ME!! !!!!*#**()&^( $%@^%# @^!!!@!!^! If you don't stop, I'll leave. That's better ?? Just relax, find your center, and open up ! I won't hurt you I need to know what happened, but you don't know how to tell me !!! Don't try. Just let me in I know I'm a stranger who's stranger than most Please, trust me
I walked into Malah's hospital. "Malah? We need a Tepida potion."
Malah stared at me. "Where have you heard of such a thing?"
"From Anya. We need it now, please."
We returned to Harrogath. The city was intact, shining white under a new blanket of snow. But there was no time to rejoice. Nihlathak is betraying the world to the Lord of Destruction, giving him the Relic of the Ancients in exchange for an empty promise to spare Harrogath. She cast the portal, and I stepped through to the Temple of the Snake, where the traitor is doubtless hiding. The Relic of the Ancients is our most holy totem. With it in his infernal grip, Baal will not be challenged by the guardians at the peak of sacred Mount Arreat, and the world will be his.
I shook my head, and breathed in deep. Cold air seared my lungs, but the pain helped clear away her residue. That little girl does have a spirit like no other. I clonked my forehead with the butt of my bow a few times and looked around. The Barbarian's biggest clan temples are carved into Arreat's sides, both as a protective circle and to share the mountain's holy vibes. Outside the temple, a bigger-than-average ledge with a double row of standing stones led to the entrance. A few dozen frozen human bodies were scattered around, most old enough to be mummified, and all armed to the teeth. They weren't moving... yet. Zombies. Why does it always have to be Zombies?
I thought about it for a few seconds, then hauled out the katar as the first Zombie stumbled to his feet. Keeping my distance is good, but Zombies don't care about poison and if I break them into pieces they might not give me as much trouble. A quick mind blast stunned the first group, and I laid into them. Frozen rotten meat flew -- bleah. At least having them in nice tight bunches made mental blasts easier.
They fell down, and got up, and fell down again. I slapped and smashed and hacked, slowly thinning them out. Some cracked up, but not enough. Right about the time I started getting tired, they had enough room to charge me. I'm really starting to hate these guys. At least the ones in the swamp didn't charge. A splat like that might be enough to make me quit the business.
When I finally had enough room to move around, I started kicking bodies off the ledge. Hope there's nothing important down there. I swear I heard one saying "Oh no, not again" on the way down. More Zombies were in the entrance hall. They were even tougher than the first bunch -- the nastiest-looking one was rigged to blow up when he fell. Cute trick. Made me wish I'd been using the bow. Trappers sometimes rig bodies, but they do it after they're dead... well, ok, technically a Zombie is dead, but they need them to stop wiggling. Nothing else was in there, so I pried myself out of the wall and went inside.
For a temple, the Temple of the Snake smelled a lot like a mausoleum. Right inside the door was a shallow grave, recently dug up. Even the walls looked like they were made of bones. The local rock is mostly white, so I know it's just my imagination. The banners hanging on every corner were dyed leather too thin to be oxhide. It was probably my imagination that they looked like human skin, too. Then there were the skulls piled up in the corners, the ribs and vertebrae in baskets and crates, long bones stacked like firewood next to them... maybe they don't have much burial space, and have to move old bodies out to make room.
The temple was crawling with Zombies. Every now and then I ran into a couple of Bull-men, but otherwise it was Zombies, Zombies, empty graves, and more Zombies. At least when you knock the Bulls down, they stay that way. None of these guys confuse easily -- Bulls are too stubborn and the Zombies are too stupid. The temple layout didn't help. The whole place was nothing but a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Pretty impressive how a bunch of Barbarians hollowed all this out of the mountain side.
I had to go through the maze at a snail's pace, but it didn't take long to find something more incriminating than piles of bones. In one corner, there was a shrine, candles still burning on the altar. In front of it were two very recently dead locals, a man and a woman. Both were tied to wooden crosses and tortured to death. Fresh, bloody tools were resting on the altar. I don't think Bull-men would bother with scalpels and chafers. In fact... the last time I saw things like those was in some Necromancer's basement "laboratory."
A set of stairs going down was in another back corner. Damn. One maze wasn't enough for these guys. The next level was full of Zombies too, with some Death Maulers and a critter I didn't recognize. The new demon was a flyer, or maybe more like a floater. The upper part was a round bladder full of gas, with a spindly body hanging down under. They hang around at the backs of groups, and implant their young in the bodies of other demons. They don't even buy them flowers first. Even Zombies try to run away. Poison kills the incubator, but not the young floater: when the host dies, they chew their way out. They look a lot like Hell's mother-thing baby worms. Demons are so cute when they're that age... not. Just like the slave drivers, they don't do much in combat, just make everything else worse. And, just like the slavers, they became my new number one priority to kill.
Down on the second level, whoever was in charge was a lot less shy about leaving the tools of his trade lying around. I found several Necromantic totems, wands, staves, and magic orbs, along with a rare demon bone shield and helmet. A couple of times, I found statuettes of a weird squid-like thing on top of columns. One was bronze, the second was jade, and both of them were creepy as Hell. In the back corners were more tortured Barbs, and the remains of experiments. One looked like a dead knight, but it turns out to have been a blood golem someone tried to bind inside a suit of armor. Making golems is bad enough, but trying to combine blood and iron is more than enough reason to put a Necro down.
Grinding up the Zombies was slow, exhausting work. The Death Maulers didn't make it any easier, but at least they'd attack something when they got confused. Zombies just stand there, looking dumber than usual. One weird thing did happen, though. A Zombie had on a suit of armor that was mostly intact. While I was stripping the Zombie, and chopping it up, the armor disappeared and a note fluttered into my hand.
-- The Mule"
More stairs led down from the second floor. Double damn. This level was sure to go faster, though: no Zombies. The first thing to charge out was slave humanoids, still naked. Then came Succubi, also lightly encumbered. I'm beginning to feel overdressed. Hmph. Slaves and Succubi. I haven't seen anything that directly implicates Nihlathak yet, but whoever's been down here, they're someone I have to put down.
Unlike the other levels, the basement of the temple was laid out evenly: four long halls off the central staircase. The first hall I looked in was lit by candelabra shaped like subservient demons. Haven't seen anything like that since Horazon's place. And the end of the hall was a pit full of corpses, flayed and bled dry. The skins were hanging on the walls. I didn't stay long. That mass of flesh in that hole looked like it was moving. There was nobody special in the second hall, or the third. Some of the tombs hadn't been opened, but not many. The wall decorations were definitely Rathman, and fresh.
As I worked my way into the last hall, I went over my Necro techniques. There are three ways Necros kill: minions, bone missiles, and exploding corpses. There were plenty of Zombies up above, but none down here, so he could start raising skeletons. Bone missiles hurt, but you can dodge 'em. Explosions would be dangerous. My favorite tactics don't give me much control over where the bodies fall. Let's hope he's a bone specialist.
I looked around the corner. A group of slaves was in the end of the hall, gathered in a tight group around Nihlathak. "Finally!" Nihlathak shouted, obviously happy to see me. "And here I thought your sort was supposed to be quiet." He gestured. A Succubus behind me went up in a cloud of blood, slamming me into the wall.
Damn, again. I retreated, downing a potion. He's made a study of explosions, and I've mined the whole basement for him. If I was a trapper, I could make my own bombs of these bodies and control them that way. A martial artist could slide in there and get him without him ever knowing it. I... shit, slaves coming. I blasted, shot, and watched them die. More bombs. Damn. Killing them just gives him ammunition.
Nope. No point thinking about it, I'll never do it. He kept talking. "While we're on the subject of thinking... has it occurred to you to wonder why Baal's forces captured and held our men when they could, instead of killing them?"
No again. Meat keeps better alive. I started toward the other corner of the hall, slowly, while he went on. "Do you understand that none of this is necessary? All of this suffering, and for what? Baal wants one thing. Why not give it to him and go on with our lives?"
I wonder if he'll start babbling about how much we might learn from honest and open trade with demons. I'll have to ask him what kind of trades the Succubi are here for. Or, I could keep my big mouth shut and concentrate on business. "No one wants to kill anyone here. I profit nothing from your death." Then he sneered, "All I am doing is defending myself. From you, the aggressor here.
How many people are in that pit of burbling flesh in the other hall? A lot for somebody who just defends himself. I got to the far corner and took stock while he jabbered on. "I have treated Baal like an equal, not a mindless aggressor, and he has responded. Harrogath is safe, safer than Qual-Kehk, or Aust, or you could have made it!"
Mindless aggression. A germ of an idea formed. I closed my eyes and reached out to the slaves around Nihlathak. They hated him, and hated and feared Baal more. No mindless aggression there, they put a lot of thought into it. Nihlathak's voice faded to a soft whine as I concentrated on the slaves. It didn't take long to find what I wanted. It was right on the surface of their minds. They hated Nihlathak, but they hated and feared Baal, and he'd told them to obey the man until he had what he wanted. I smiled.
Suddenly, the slaves heard something -- their master laughing in triumph. The sound came from their own memories, but they didn't know that. It was a familiar sound, and they knew just what it meant. Nihlathak's voice stopped. Then he screamed.
I waited a while, making sure everything in there was doing what they most wanted to do, except Nihlathak. When I opened my eyes again, he was floating towards the back of the hall, blasting ice at his own slaves. Another cute trick, never heard of a Necro doing that. They usually don't want to waste the bodies. No sense letting the little bastards have all the fun, so I put a bolt in him. Nihlathak shrugged it off, yelling something I didn't listen to. He was probably wearing poison resistance gear. If I knew I was coming, I would.
Nihlathak knew lots of nifty tricks. He floated, and teleported, and the ice blast made it really hard on the slaves. I put a few more bolts in him, mostly for fun, until he'd killed off the last of them. The hall was full of bodies. I had to go in there, and couldn't let him die slow. If he had any time, he'd blast me all the way back to Harrogath.
I fired one last time, dropped the bow, and charged. The bastard teleported behind a pile of bodies. I ran straight towards him, then jumped to the side as he set off the first one. He never set off the second. The slaves hardly left anything for me, but that was all right. I was alive and everything else was dead, which was fine by me.
"You stopped Nihlathak," Anya said, "but he didn't have the relic?"
"He probably handed it over hours ago. I've gotta get back out there."
"Are you sure it wasn't there? You cannot know what it looks like. Maybe it was..." I looked her in the eye. She blinked, then nodded. "You know."
"I'm sorry, but I do. It doesn't matter now. I have to get to the top of that mountain before Baal does. Wish me luck."
It looks like no rest for the wicked tonight. I don't know if demons sleep. I've never caught one napping, but I'm not exactly the quietest Assassin in the world. The ice caves were full of demons again: Death Maulers, Ice Things, and more of those damned frozen Zombies. I'm really, really starting to hate those guys. Why couldn't it have been Succubi? They turn easily, put curses on other demons, and the catfights are pretty funny to watch.
I knew the caves went a long way, but after I found a second Horadric waypoint, I started marking the walls with demon blood X's. The Horadrim don't put their waypoints anywhere near each other, and neither was close to an entrance. It would be easy to get lost down here. There aren't many landmarks, though sometimes I can tell if I've been through from the frosted-over lumps on the floor. One columned hall had two local boys on ice, and a batch of ice Zombies guarding a treasure chest. I think one of the Barbs was still alive when he got frozen. Unlike Anya, he didn't stay that way.
On a return trip to dump potions with Malah, Cain tried to make chit-chat. "Amy, please stay a while. I wish to speak with you."
"Ok, what is it?" I said, already angling towards Larzuk's to pick up more bolts.
"I have been speaking with Anya. She is a fascinating young woman, by the way. I feel the future of the northern highlanders is secure with such strong-willed and devoted young people to lead them."
"Great, great. And... ?"
He chewed his lip for a few long seconds. "Anya asked me about you, and I was forced to confess that, though we have traveled together for months, I do not know you well."
"What's to know? I'm doing a job that's gotta get done."
"She mentioned something, about how you rescued her from her imprisonment..."
"Oh, that was nothing," I tried to brush it off. "I found her frozen, asked Malah what to do, and she gave me the potion."
Cain's eyebrows met in a dark line, like a wall between his ears and his brain. "Malah told me you did not. You came to her already knowing what you would need."
"Look, it doesn't matter. Ok, I have a talent. My naturally sweet disposition can only take me so far, so I play head games. It gives me an edge in a fight. That's all."
"What Anya described is more than that!"
A cool anger tinged Cain's thoughts: he's a little offended, but not very. Not yet. He's a nice old fart, willing to give me the benefit of a doubt. But I can't tell him everything. "Ok, it's not just head games. I can enter other people's thoughts, and tell what they're thinking. It helps me find things out. Sometimes, I can tell what someone's going to do before they do it. Strong, healthy people can kick me out of their heads. Anya almost did. For what I do, it's useful, but kind of limited."
He nodded solemnly, still a bit upset. "I have heard of this talent of yours. By all accounts, it is very rare."
Actually, it isn't, but most of us don't blow our cover as badly as I have. "I guess. I don't know anybody else who can do it."
Cain raised an eyebrow. "Why have you not told anyone?"
I shrugged. "No reason to."
"No reason to?" he sputtered. "All this time, you have claimed there is nothing out of the ordinary about you! I have followed you through Hell itself, always sharing what I knew in the faint hope that it might be of some help to you, and only now do I found out about this extraordinary gift of yours?"
I shook my head, and gave him my best shit-eating grin. "Aw c'mon, Cain! Dames like me lie about anything, just to keep in practice. A guy your age should know that!"
He frowned, sadness tingeing his response. "Amy... though I do not know you well, I know you well enough not to believe that."
Damn it. I could take it if he was mad, but when he's just disappointed in me... "All right, all right. I don't tell anyone because it scares people. They think I'm gonna invade their thoughts, steal all their secrets, and control their minds to turn them into my willing slaves or something. I do not go around reading everyone's minds all the time, even if I could."
"Of course not," Cain smiled, relaxing. "Were your talent as powerful as that, you would not need to bother with lying. Or you would be much better at it."
"Thanks a lot," I snorted. "I also would have spotted Nihlathak a lot faster."
"That is water under the bridge, young hero! All the time I have been with you, I feared for your life. So many others had fallen where you ventured, but you always returned, and in the end, triumphed. I never understood how you could remain safe in the midst of so much danger. Now, all my worries have been banished. Like the heroes of old, mighty forces work through you, making you something more than merely human --"
"Don't you think you're laying it on a little thick?"
He looked baffled. "But..."
"Repeat after me: it's just Amy. She's weird. Ok?"
"Well... as you wish."
"Thanks. Now, I gotta get some more bolts. Back in a while."
In a set of ponds under the deepest ice, I found what I wanted: Succubi! Howling catfights accompanied my every step, and none of the other demons ever got near me. I don't want to know what Baal does to his Succubi to make them prefer me. Unless... nah. The whole idea behind Succubi is completely heterosexual. Twice I was ambushed by packs of demon-slut sisters when I opened urns. A third urn brought out a single one. The more I look at them, the more sure I am that the fancy burial urns aren't local. Barbarians make pots, but never anything that elaborate. They're a trap for the greedy, which must be why they've gotten me so often.
At long last, after stomping my way through I don't know how many miles of ice, I found an exit to the caves. I came out near the edge of a cliff, in an icy wind so hard and cold I had to clench my teeth hard to keep them from chattering. If only this damn circlet wasn't so useful... I crawled to the edge of the cliff and looked down hundreds of feet into a mist of snow, the ground nowhere in sight. I could probably kill something by spitting -- it would freeze hard as a rock on the way down.
This was the coldest, nastiest part of the mountain I'd seen yet, but there were still signs of human activity. A campsite with a dead Barbarian, lightly clothed as usual, was right near the cave. Further out, I found burial chests, cached weapons, and signs of other campsites. I could not see anything that would support human life up here, but that was probably because of all the demons. An Imp 'ported in almost as soon as I started poking around, and soon I was knee-deep in the little pests. Then the Crush Beasts came. Sigh. I amused myself confusing the crushers into attacking the Imps. It was fun to hear one come running in, then squeal when the big guy turned around and stomped him.
The high tundra was probably a special place for the Barbarians. The peak of the mountain was close, I could look up and see something shiny that wasn't snow up there. I found a couple of stone circles. The stones were small, no more than a couple of feet tall, but there they were. The loot was great. Cain was happy to see a legendary bow called Raven Claw, and said I should try using it. Maybe, but I like something with a little more power. There was also a sword called Death's Touch, Isenhart's helm, and an axe of some kind.
When I found the Hell gate, I walked right in. The heat was a relief for about 15 seconds, and then I hated it as much as usual. This set of Hell islands was a barracks, full of slaves creatures, slave drivers, and Imps. Midway through clearing it, an amulet popped out of thin air and fell into my hand, along with a note. Guess who.
-- The Mule"
After I cleaned up my little corner of Hell, I went back to the tundra. The Barbarians had some barricades up here too, manned by Imps and slaves as usual. It was getting so boring, I'd almost rather see ice Zombies on the walls. I did manage to confuse three Crush Beasts at the same time. Their heads were poking over the wall, ripe for the picking, and after a little mental misdirection they were fighting on the side of right and never knew it. I love the sound of shrieking Imps. It sounds like... victory.
Another Waypoint was up on the tundra, near a cliff under the icy cap of Mt. Arreat. I knew what to look for this time, and found the cave entrance without much trouble. More ice caves. They'd be easier than trying to climb the ice, but not by much. I was tired. The sun was going down; I'd been out here all night and all day again. But how much time was left to catch Baal? There was no way of knowing until I got to the peak.
I'd been standing by the waypoint, wondering if I should pack it in and get some sleep. I knew I wasn't going to, but I always leave myself open to temptation. Life is more fun that way. "Yes, Qual-Kehk?"
"Every time I hear of you, your deeds have become more legendary. You have already gone further than most men can follow. None see aught but footprints and the corpses of our enemies in your wake. Even your prowess at the table outmatches us."
I smiled, feeling a little fuzzy-headed. "Uh... thanks."
"Now, I understand you are approaching the very summit of Mt. Arreat. Even I have never dared venture there. Thanks to the snake Nihlathak, you must face the challenge of the Ancient Ones. Your reputation here does not matter. It is they who will determine your worthiness."
"Thanks. Um... who are the Ancient Ones?"
"Our ancestors, of course. We were like gods then. You must face them without flinching, or be cast down."
"Uh... what do you mean, face them?"
Qual-Kehk stared hard, not sure what the question meant. "Trial by combat. What other measure of a warrior can there be?"
"Oh." I thought about that a minute. "Then I guess I'd better get some sleep."
In the morning, I got up with the sun, had a hearty breakfast, put on my armor and resumed the quest. One way or another, I've got to get this over with soon. It's been all work and no play, and I'm developing too many healthy habits. A few weeks off for some good, old-fashioned debauchery will do me a lot of good. But, business first.
This second set of ice caves was like the first, apart from being even colder, dry enough to make my nose crack, and more full of nastier critters. The only good thing was that there weren't any Zombies. Maybe Baal finally ran out... and, having thought that, I've probably jinxed myself and he'll find a fresh supply. Anyway, the caves were full of Ice Things, Death Maulers, and Bull-men, which was enough to keep me busy. I'd like Bull-men a lot more if they were easier to confuse.
Near the cave entrance, I found my first urn, one of the evil Baal ones that's really a trap. I don't know why he keeps using those. Because I keep opening them, and one's bound to get me sooner or later? From long practice in doing the wrong thing, I popped it open, and mind-slammed the herd of bulls that instantly appeared behind me. None of them got hostile on each other, but they did stop long enough to let me get some distance. From there, I ran to a loop of tunnel and drew them on, around and around. The leader spit some nasty sparks, but that's about all the hurt I took.
The second evil urn didn't work out so well. This bunch of bulls was fast. I never got a chance to hit them before they were all over me. Out came the katar. I spread the love around until I had a second to breathe, then hit them with everything in me. Two started attacking the others, and the herd boss turned away to deal with them. I didn't look back until I had the herd at maximum range and could peg them in safety. They went back to Hell with a few more pieces of me, but the first pack lasted longer.
Back in Harrogath, I stopped by Larzuk's to get my skull welded back together, and maybe get some brains put inside. I'll try anything once. He didn't have any to spare, but he did have good things to say about my performance at the party. "I've never seen anyone drink so fast! You emptied two steins before Vardhaka even finished one!"
"Oh, yeah," I smiled, wishing I could remember any of it. "I've had lots of practice."
"You said that too, when one of the women asked you. You said the trick was to open wide, let it slide in over your tongue, and don't gag, and that you've had lots of practice. Then you started laughing." He looked at me quizzically. "What was that about?"
I blinked. "Nothing. Hey, where'd all the bolts go?"
When I came in, I'd noticed my stash of bolts was empty. I figured Larzuk would tell me why sooner or later, but sooner suddenly sounded like a good idea. He looked over, did one of the worst double-takes I've ever seen, and said, "Oh! There aren't any. You must have used them all up, and I forgot to make more."
He wouldn't look at me, just stared at the empty shelves and shook his head. Boy, is he a rotten liar. I shrugged, and played along. "Gosh, what an oversight! I only have part of one quiver, and that won't be enough. Wherever could I get more?"
"I know!" Larzuk beamed, obviously relieved. "Anya has been going through her father's things. I think she has some arrows that look a lot like your bolts."
I smiled. "Yeah. Well, I guess I'd better go talk to Anya. Thanks!"
It's not that I don't want to talk to Anya. I don't think she'd want to talk to me after what I did to rescue her. Nobody likes having a mind-reader in their head, and being coerced into it is worse than rape. Mulling it over as I walked across town, I decided this probably wasn't her idea. If she wanted to see me, she'd come see me. Larzuk was in on it, but he'd never try anything subtle on his own. Malah? No. Cain? When I walked past a gap between two buildings, I glanced over at him. He was looking, but quickly turned away when he saw me. Ah. Anya must have confided in him, but swore him to silence, so he doesn't want us to know he set us up. He's so cute when he worries about me.
I let myself in with the key hidden under the second tile next to the side door. Anya didn't hear me. She was in the front room, where Aust taught her the Songs of Wisdom, which describe the hidden ways of... I turned around and left as quietly as I'd come, went to the front door, and knocked loudly. When she saw me, her eyes turned to stone. I kept myself from looking any deeper.
"Hi," I said. "I was hoping you might have something here."
"What do you want?"
I held up a bolt. "Do you have any of these?"
She looked at it, and nodded. "The strange arrows. A group of southlanders came three seasons ago, some armed like you. We killed them and took their weapons. I will find them for you."
The clan's most valuable weapons were kept on the second floor. No one told me to stay out, so I followed her up and looked around. The first thing I saw that I didn't recognize, I pointed at and said, "Ooh. What's that?"
Anya stared at me, two quivers of bolts in her hands, the feathers not completely moth-eaten. "How could you not know?"
"I don't know everything."
"But you went into --"
"I couldn't see everything, Anya. Even if I wanted to, you kept pushing me around. You don't know how much work it took to figure out what Nihlathak did."
Nothing much about her changed, outside. "I... pushed you?"
"You were practically in a coma, but you almost pushed me out. You scared me, girl. If you had any training, you would be scary."
Something glimmered in her eyes. As her back and shoulders relaxed, I think she got about an inch taller. "Could you push your way in now?"
"I don't think so. You're awake and rested. Do you want to try?"
"No," she smiled faintly. "There is much you must do, and little time. I am glad you came to me. What you did was so strange, I was afraid of you."
"It would have been stupid not to be, I guess. But I'm not inhuman. Big brains won't help if someone puts a sword through your guts."
"Then you will fear the Ancient Ones as much as any. I fear you must face them."
I nodded, frowning a little. "Ok... what are the Ancient Ones?"
Anya's smile got a little more clear. The more I just talked, the more she relaxed. Pretty soon, all I could see in her was hope. "They are our ancestors, who in ages past, made the ultimate sacrifice. The greatest of them surrendered their freedom to roam free as men ought, and now keep watch over the Temple of Heaven forever. Madawc leads, as he led his joyful hunting parties across the wild --"
"Uh, could you hit the high points?"
She nodded. "The Ancient Ones are mighty warriors, but you must be as well, to have come so far. All who wish to pass into the presence of the Worldstone must prove their worth against them, in the time-honored ways of old. If you meet them, and are strong enough, I am sure they will find you worthy to enter the Keep of the Worldstone."
The caves dragged on, all pretty much the same. One low section went so far under the ice, I was actually standing on rock. There wasn't any meltwater under there this close to the mountain's top: it was all frozen solid. And, screw me for thinking of it, Baal had some Zombies left. They were all wandering around in the deepest tunnels. At least there were Succubi down there too. Succubi are always good for a laugh somehow. One dressed like a skeleton (and almost as skinny) dropped a nice rare sledgehammer.
The third evil urn was in the middle of an open cave, near a section of looping tunnel, as good a place as any to run from an ambush. I popped the urn, and the bulls appeared right in the tunnel. Damn. A few mind slaps quieted the bulls while I sprinted for the other end of the loop. One followed me, then ran away, obviously trying to lure me back to his boss. He didn't last long, and neither did the next one. With careful use of the loop, I whittled them down one at a time, and finally killed the leader with my katar.
The fourth urn was in a narrow hall. A new pack of bulls popped in right behind me, where I should have known they would, and I had no place to run but uncharted territory. Believe it or not, I do learn from my mistakes... so I can make all new ones next time. Scampering squealing like a little girl through caves full of demons is a great way to attract a following. When I had at least 40 demons on my ass, I turned around and slapped them silly, enough to need two potions to get my energy back. The result? Pure chaos. Everything died, with a little help from me. If anyone asks, I'll say I planned it that way.
About 20 feet from the fourth evil urn was a fifth. Honestly, I think this Baal guy is trying to do me harm. Does he think I'm that greedy? Ok, I am, but first I cleared out the rest of the caves to make sure I had a place to run. That's when I found the sixth one. For a demon lord, he sure doesn't have much imagination. Both urns were popped, and the bull-men who jumped me slapped, pummeled, and pierced in due course. Finally, standing over the body of the last Bull-man as he gasped his life out, I rattled my claws and screamed "ANYBODY ELSE WANT SOME!?!" I can be plenty brave when I know everything's dead.
That left the stairs. You could hardly call them stairs, more like a ladder carved in stone. At the top, I clambered out into cold stillness. The sky was a dark, empty blue, with the sun shining weakly overhead. There was no wind at all. Even in that quiet, I barely heard the bars sliding over the gate I'd just come out of. Smooth... and with no visible lock. I looked around the summit of Mt. Arreat.
The top of the mountain was a smooth patch of stone and ice, with cliffs on every edge. Two barred gates were at the ends, one I'd come in -- and the other, which had to be where I'd go out. In the middle was a temple: three rings of eight stone pillars each, around three weathered statues, and a central altar. Nothing else.
The Ancients "surrendered their freedom" to guard the Temple of Heaven, so these statues were most likely my opponents. All of them were huge men. One had a shield and sword. The second had two surprisingly small axes, no bigger than hatchets. The third had what might have been a halberd, though it didn't look that big in his hands. I couldn't make out much else. Enchanted statues tend to need a trigger to activate, which was probably on the altar.
"Ok, boys," I said as I lit a cigar and put extra venom on three bolts, "I'm gonna try to be reasonable about this. I think we all know why we're here. And I think we all know I'm not the one you should be after. But if you don't or can't open that gate, I'm gonna have to get rough with you. I don't care if you want to meet me in the time-honored ways of old. I don't care what you think if me at all. I just need to get in that damned gate. So if it doesn't open in ten seconds, we do this the hard way. You hear me?"
I waited, counting breaths. Nothing. I went to the altar and slammed my fist into it. That did it. The statues didn't animate: they disappeared in a blaze of light, and three mighty Barbarians stood in their place. The glare blinded me for a moment -- I dove and rolled between two pillars as something whizzed through the air behind me. A throwing axe? Should have known. The axeman got the first bolt, taking it in the neck like a man. Sure, it popped out when he flexed his trapezium, but the hard work was already done.
The swordsman whirled towards me, skimming over the ice like a puck. I made sure to protect my teeth. The next bolt went into the halberdier, right in the thigh as he jumped into the air. The swordsman was the hardest target, he had a shield. I got him on the third bolt, and walked away. This fight was over. The Ancient Ones had the heaviest armor I've ever seen, covering them head to toe. That pretty much insured that they'd never catch up to me. The halberdier could jump pretty well, and the swordsman liked to skim along the ice, but I could walk away from either of them any day.
The axe thrower got in a few good shots before he died first. Silently, he vanished in a golden mist, and his statue reappeared on its pedestal, shiny and new. The others took one more bolt each, but never came near me. The halberdier vanished, and then the swordsman. The air was quiet for a minute, and then the bars slipped away from the other gate.
All that talk about the Ancient Ones had me nervous over nothing. They were just old-time, take-it-on-the-chin heroes who fought in an old-fashioned way. Beating them took more patience than bravery. A mighty feat indeed. Well, maybe I'm not so good... but I guess I'm good enough. I walked into the gate.
The whole population of Harrogath was waiting for me in the square. When I poked my head in, they all let loose the loudest cheer a double dozen Barbarians can manage. Snow fell off the roofs and icicles tinkled to the ground. I almost jumped.
"Congratulations!" Cain shouted, trying to make himself heard.
"Besting the Ancient Ones is a mighty feat indeed," Qual-Kehk said, having a much easier time of it. "I hope this means you're ready to face Baal."
They looked pretty surprised when I dropped the crossbow by the well and started taking my gauntlets off. "No. The Worldstone is toast. He got to it already."
The square went silent. "You are certain?" Qual-Kehk finally said.
"There's pieces of red crystal all over the place, chunks as big as houses. They're in the floor, in the walls, the whole place looks bloody. The Worldstone was red, right?"
Anya nodded. "Then vengeance is all we have left to live for."
"I don't do revenge, or lost causes. There's no point. That's it. They got what they were after. Game over."
The square was still silent. Finally, Qual-Kehk said, "You left Baal alive, then? He is inside Mt. Arreat?"
I looked around. Everyone was staring at me. "Don't you get it? He won! He probably won last night while I was asleep. There's no point going after him anymore."
"We understand your words," Anya said. "It is the spirit in them that is strange. You have become a hero for me and my people. To fall into despair now is... unlike you."
"Many warriors' hearts fail when they see the enemy's power," Malah said, then smiled up at Qual-Kehk. "Even you were afraid, on your first raid into the southlands."
"I was. But I did not let that fear stop me." Qual-Kehk crossed his arms. "Warrior, the destruction of the Worldstone bodes ill, but to let the destroyer to live on would be foolish beyond measure. The Ancients themselves have honored you above all others. Does their will mean nothing to you?"
I looked at Cain. "They don't get it."
"Amy..." he began, his eyebrows wrestling each other up and down his forehead, "the end of the Worldstone does not mean the end of the world."
"I have been speaking with many of the clansmen and women while you were away. The true nature of the Worldstone has always been a mystery. In fact, the whole history of the northlands is almost completely unknown to us, and --"
"Cain? High points! Please?"
"Uh, yes. Heaven gave us the Worldstone for our protection, but our world existed long before, and I am sure we can continue on without it."
"Oh," I said. I need some snappier comebacks.
"Our lives may be harder without the safety the Worldstone offers --"
"But they will be harder yet with the Lord of Destruction loose in our lands!" Qual-Kehk interrupted. "Outlander, why do you question what must be done?"
"You met and defeated the Ancient Ones, whom Baal feared to face," Anya said. "He must be exiled from our world if we are ever to have any peace. What comes tomorrow, we will face tomorrow. The destroyer must be destroyed today!"
Cain nodded energetically. "Taking Baal's Soulstone to the Hellforge should --"
"All right already!" I screamed. "I'm going!"
Inside Mt. Arreat was a network of wide corridors, high ceilings, columned halls, and braziers full of crackling flames that made it almost comfortable inside. Everything was made of stone and iron, without a sign of rust. If I saw red, it was either a piece of crystal, or a puddle of human blood. It looks like there were a few locals in here before me. Either that, or Baal and crew brought snacks.
The "crew" was the usual: Zombies, Succubi, and some of the floaty worm things. At least the Zombies had thawed enough I could carve them into pieces. The Succubi were wearing gold lame, and could throw a genuine Amplify curse. Bitches of quality, I guess. The curse might have worked better for them if the Zombies ever got near me. The next level down was probably just like the first, originally. The Worldstone pieces were bigger, and a dust of crystals covered the floor. The only demons were slaves who could blow themselves up without a slave-driver. Dedicated, but they still need pants.
The third level started getting dangerous. It wasn't the fire in the floor -- that wasn't good, but nothing would have been. It was the bulls. Baal's biggest load of bull-men was there, with Imps for back-up fire. The bulls hardly needed it. The Ancients wished they could move that fast, probably because the bulls didn't armor their backsides. Why, when you never run away? I gave the bulls my best efforts mentally, both to sic 'em on the Imps and so they'd turn their unprotected asses towards me. A confused bull or three is a damn fine thing for clearing out a hall.
The deepest halls were lit in red, and there was a nasty smell. The rest of Baal's bulls and his finest Succubi were scattered around, obviously waiting for me. Bulls go through Succubi even faster than Imps, but the Succubi's Amplify curse does a number on the bulls too. The Succubi were the best looking of all of them. Also the meanest, and they were all wearing lavender. I suspect that means something.
Sneaking through the shadows, I took a look through the central hall. This isn't as easy as it sounds -- Baal didn't get the good looks in his family. His bugness was up on a palanquin in front of a red gate, passing the time idly crushing bits of crystal between his fingers. I went to clear the rest of the basement before dealing with him. No reason to rush, and I didn't want a bull sneaking up behind me while I was with their boss. The last few Succubi were in the hall with him, probably his favorites. He didn't raise a finger to protect them either... just sat there, giggling like a loon.
I shot him and closed with the katar. He might have said something, but I hate listening to freaks. He let me get inside his range, then threw down a curse: Decrepify. Then more demons appeared between me and him: Fallen Shamans. Damn, this would be harder than I thought. I fell back, waited for the curse to fade, and started sniping. Fallen aren't that bad, except for that resurrection thing. I targeted the most resplendent one, then picked off the others.
The last shaman bit the dust, and Baal summoned up a bunch of Mummies, still giggling like a schoolgirl. That's another thing I hate about having to listen to targets-- too many of them giggle. The mummies brought some skeleton mages with them. I used the standard luring tactics on the mages, then closed on the Mummies like usual. That was a mistake. Baal dropped Decrepify again, and the Mummies breathed. The stench almost knocked me out right there. I grabbed a purple, hacked the biggest Mummy to bits, and ran for safety before the rest could gang up on me. Three reds weren't enough to get rid of the poison. I had to crawl home to Malah to get it out of my system.
When I got back, Baal had more demons waiting: twisted sorcerers, led by Bartuc, Horazon's brother and Hell's most famous apologist. Seeing him now, I had to smile. So, Bart... how's that "respectful relations and open exchange of knowledge" thing working out? He and his friends didn't think much about it anymore... or anything else. It was easy to turn what was left of their minds on each other. The only problem was when they summoned Hydra. Fire spirits don't have minds I can affect at all, so I got a little singed.
The next wave was a crowd of Balrogs. It occurred to me I hadn't gotten a clear shot on Baal since the first one, but these guys were too tall to shoot over. These guys were green, which sometimes translates to poison resistance in a demon, so I used luring tactics to draw a few away for testing. They were poison resistant. Some mental misdirection and sniping whittled them down, then I cornered the last few one at a time and hacked them up.
Baal was still laughing while I raised my bow. The least I could do was shut him up, but the next and last summoning appeared right when I fired. These were strange-looking things. I've never seen or heard of anything like them. I'm not really comfortable with unknowns, especially ones that are trying to kill me, so I fell back and let two follow me out of the hall. A shot stopped one, and I let the other get me back into a side corridor. It was time to experiment.
I put my worst poison on a bolt, took careful aim, and got it right where an artery should be in anything whose anatomy makes sense. It made a strange noise, and followed me around in circles until the venom wore off. I put in another, for a repeat performance. That was bad. Even the toughest of the Ancient Ones only took two bolts. Out came the katar, and I closed in. That was also bad. The thing lowered what might have been its head and butted me across the room. I dodged the next slam, jumped over a stomp, and retreated to drink a potion. My little puppy followed, the poison worn off. I put in another bolt and led it on again. Again, no rush. I might as well see how long it takes these things to die.
A long time, it turned out. Longer than I have patience. After 5 bolts, I'd had enough, and went in with the katar again. It stomped, then swung its head. I dodged both, then jumped in and stabbed. It didn't take long to figure out that the things are incredibly strong, but not quite as strong as they are heavy. They actually need a few seconds to recover from a swing -- dodge that, and you've got 'em. It still took a long time for it to die.
On my way back to the central hall, I ran into the one I'd lost earlier. It took me so long to kill the other one, I'd forgot about it. Fortunately, this was not a problem -- now I had a chance to experiment with mind games. My first look at the thing's mind was shocking. First off, there was hardly anything there. Secondly, it had no instincts for fear or aggression, Hell's favorite motivaters. Its senses fed directly into a few simple brain pathways, with no higher processing. The only things it recognized were others like it, and Baal. Everything else, it smashed. This huge monster had a mind like an insect, only not even that complex. I couldn't misdirect it, or confuse it. There was nothing there to confuse. The best I could do mentally was overwhelm its senses and stun it for a few seconds.
Killing the second went quicker than the first, and I stopped to review my options. Mental tricks were not going to work. Poison was out. Going hand-to-hand with more than one at a time was too risky to even think about. But it looked like there was only one answer. I took a trip back to Harrogath to get my blades resharpened, and stepped in to lure them out, one at a time. They came three at a time, but a couple of mind slaps trimmed off the stragglers. Me and the leader went to an unoccupied corner to sort things out. After about 10 minutes of running, dodging, and carefully placed stabs, I squished the bug. The last two I took on together. I was feeling brave, or maybe just stupid, but they didn't hit me too much.
While I was off with his bugs, Baal left. I couldn't imagine him just leaving without saying goodbye, so I checked out the red gate. It took me to a cave almost completely filled by a giant bloody-red floating glassy clear crystal of almighty awesomeness. Even broken, it was stunning. Most of the top was gone, and pieces were floating around like clouds. Clouds that weighed several tons, to look at the gouges in the walls and ceiling, but --
The Decrepify curse hit me, and tentacles schlorped up out of the cave floor. I cursed and took off as fast as my aching joints could take me. Baal was on a catwalk leading out to the Worldstone. He's on a catwalk, giggles like a girl, all his favorite girlfriends wear lavender... in spite of all the spells, I was having a hard time taking this Lord of Hell seriously. As I ran to the catwalk, he teleported behind me, and stamped out a wave of cold that almost pushed me off the edge. Ok, that was serious. I put a bolt in him and hid behind a pillar until the chill and his curse wore off.
When I looked around again, there were two of him. One had to be an illusion, but it was a damned good one. I could sense active minds in both. But only one had a crossbow bolt sticking out of him. I concentrated on that one, from outside his spell range. Baal's spells, it turned out, were very powerful, but had lousy range. His cold wave petered out at about 20 yards. Likewise a tentacly spell I didn't recognize. He could still curse, but with no way to reach me his curses meant as much as mine did. Sniping was my best option, moving when he did, slowly filling him with poison until he threw his own guts up and collapsed.
Now, guess who turned up next? That's right, Tyrael. The second Baal stopped twitching, his pureness vaporized a hole in the ceiling and he fluttered in on a beam of light.
MORTAL, EVEN I AM IMPRESSED. YOU HAVE ACCOMPLISHED THE IMPOSSIBLE. BUT I FEAR IT IS TOO LATE TO SAVE THE WW WW OOOOOO RRRRR LL DDDDD SSSSS TTTTTT OOOOOO N NN EEEEEE WW WW OO OO RR RR LL DD DD SS TT OO OO NN NN EE WW W WW OO OO RRRRR LL DD DD SSSS TT OO OO NNN NN EEEE WWWWWWW OO OO RR RR LL DD DD SS TT OO OO NN NNN EE WW WW OOOOOO RR RR LLLLLL DDDDD SSSSS TT OOOOOO NN NN EEEEEE BAAL'S CORRUPTING TOUCH HAS BROKEN THE BONDS WHICH ANCHORED IT TO YOUR WORLD AND MADE IT THE SHIELD THAT IT ONCE WAS. NOW IT CAN ONLY BE A WEAPON, FOR HELL. IN TIME, EVIL WILL RECOVER ITS STRENGTH AND THEY MUST NOT BE ALLOWED TO USE IT AGAINST YOU AND EVERYTHING YOU HAVE MADE. TO SAVE YOUR WORLD, I MUST DESTROY IT.
There's no way I could explain to Cain what I did next. I walked up to him and kicked him in the shin.
You damned sorry excuse for an anthropomorphic manifestation how DARE you come traipsing in here and say "NICE TRY, BUT TOO LATE" after what I had to go through slogging up this stupid mountain through all those stupid Imps and the stupid Zombies and those bulls and everything that was in here just to get here too late to do anything because Nihlathak was so stupid he gave away the whole game that you guys gave us the stupid artifact didn't you? so get your face down here where I can slap you right now you stupid aw fuck it
He didn't kill me.
BAAL'S SOULSTONE IS LINKED TO THE WW WW OOOOOO RRRRR LL DDDDD SSSSS TTTTTT OOOOOO N NN EEEEEE WW WW OO OO RR RR LL DD DD SS TT OO OO NN NN EE WW W WW OO OO RRRRR LL DD DD SSSS TT OO OO NNN NN EEEE WWWWWWW OO OO RR RR LL DD DD SS TT OO OO NN NNN EE WW WW OOOOOO RR RR LLLLLL DDDDD SSSSS TT OOOOOO NN NN EEEEEE SO HE WAS ABLE TO USE ITS POWER TO PREVENT ME FROM ENTERING THIS PLACE. YOUR ANGER IS NOT MISPLACED. ALL THAT TRANSPIRED ON YOUR LONG JOURNEY GREW OUT OF MY MISTAKES IN AGES PAST. BUT REGRET WILL ACCOMPLISH NOTHING. YOU HAVE EARNED A LONG REST FROM THIS BATTLE WHICH WILL CONTINUE ANOTHER DAY. I HAVE PREPARED A GATE FOR YOU. GO, AND MAY HEAVEN SHINE ON YOUR PATH.
I looked at the red gate, and shook my head. "Nah. I'll find my own way. I'm going back to Harrogath. There's a party I need to start."