Tearlach (Act I)
So... let's give the Barbarian another chance. Surely, I can come up with something crippled enough for the game to be a challenge. The most popular combat skills seem to be Whirlwind and Frenzy -- avoid them. This leaves the Bash - Stun - Concentrate - Berserk tree. Ah, an idea comes to me. The first item set I managed to complete was the Berserker's Arsenal. To celebrate this awesome achievement, our Barbarian will be an axe berserker.
Now, what is a Berserker? In dark ages Nordic societies, a berserker was a mad fighter, tough enough to forego armor completely, but not much good for anything besides war and fighting. The name was applied to any warrior outside the mainstream of society -- bandits, pirates, duelists, professional warriors, etc. Even among the Nordic peoples, most made a living by farming and trade, and only occasionally went raiding, or "viking." When war came, or during a feud, the berserker had a place like no other. They were frightening men, and you always wanted them on your side. But no one wanted to be led by a Berserker, or have one as a neighbor during peacetime. Old Scandinavian cultures admired honesty, hospitality, courage, and loyalty -- a berserker might get one out of four.
The Barbarians of Diablo II are more like the popular conception of Celts and Vikings than anything else in the real world, with some important differences. Even during peace, I doubt they farm; they're supposed to be nomads, who are usually hunter-gatherers. Their mandate from Heaven, coupled with being physically different from everyone around them, would make them very proud indeed. Most or all males are warriors, so having a berserker as a neighbor wouldn't be uncommon. As in real life, there do not seem to be female warriors, so there are probably strongly traditional gender-based roles in Barbarian culture, even more so than in the rest of the world. Because they are supposed to stay in the mountains, going on raids among the lowlanders wouldn't be as popular, and they sure don't trade much. A Barbarian would likely be arrogant, xenophobic, and sexist by anyone else's standards.
So, what will our Barbarian have? The Berserker's Set, obviously. That's splint mail, a helm, and a one-handed axe. In his off hand, a shield. The Vikings described berserkers as "mad shield biters" for their way of biting the edges of their shields as the fit came over them; while they might eschew armor, a shield was permissible. A "Rhyme" tower shield will do nicely. You can't leech with Berserk, but there's plenty of potions. Switch to Concentrate for leeching if needed. Choose armor for its properties, not defense. Even Greyform would be decent. He'll need high shield blocking and resistances, or a lot of hit points, preferably both. Finally, a name: "Tearlach", a Celtic name meaning "strong and manly."
Enough planning! As the Vikings say, "A man should be wise in moderation, but never too wise. His mind is freer of care if he doesn't know his fate in advance." What good does long contemplation do for anyone? Into the fray!
The path was dark under skies which had not ceased raining for weeks, as Tearlach came to a fortress at the edge of the pass. Coming south through hills those not of his blood would call mountains, he knew instinctively he was nearing his goal. Demons and foul beasts had dogged his every step, becoming more frequent the closer he came to this place. The curse upon the land sprang from very near here... if not from this very stronghold. Ignoring the drizzling rain, he looked over the defenses. The fortress walls were high, as high as any his people built, strong beams woven around stout posts rammed deep into the earth. But if any demon thought these walls could keep a true son of Harrogath out, that demon needed to be taught a lesson.
Many a warrior would have entered the fortress by battering through the walls, but Tearlach was by nature a master tactician, and instantly realized the attempt would be futile. His prey would be gone before he got through, fleeing into the countryside like the cowards all demons truly are. Entering by stealth, taking the evil by surprise and slaying them down to the last, would feed the eagles well. If there were eagles to be found -- the southern lands might not be home to anything so magnificent. Silently laughing at his cunning, Tearlach tossed his pack aside and leapt onto the wall, pulling himself to the top with a few mighty heaves of his massive shoulders.
As he looked over the wall, he saw, not a pit of demons... but women! Small and delicate southern women, granted, but comely just the same. The whole fortress was full of women, with not a man to be seen! Shocked but intrigued, Tearlach muttered, "How can this be, with no defenders? Darkness should have overrun this place long ago."
"We do pretty well for ourselves, big guy."
Below him, two women stood with bows, arrows nocked and ready. "What are you doing on the wall, anyway?"
"Yeah," the other said. "The gate's open."
"I am a warrior of the slopes of Arreat! Never walk in the only gate; what seems a hall of welcome may become a trap of death. Those who do not heed the brazen bugle's call, but live by the strum of the lute, know not these things."
Both stared at him silently. They were intrigued; Tearlach had a sense for the ways and wiles of a woman's mind. "Right," one finally said. "Well, I guess you're not demonic, so why don't you come on in?"
Engagingly brazen, these southern lasses, inviting him in with them all alone out here. The women of Harrogath are never so... open. Do they treat all men this way, or was it just that long look they got up his kilt that fascinated them so? Clearly, they'd never seen a real man before. Tearlach climbed back and retrieved his gear; after a moment's thought, he hurled it over the wall, where it landed with a clang. Flexing his arms, he sped up the wall and over with a mighty leap, landing with a tremendous thud and a roar of triumph.
"Uh... hi," one of the women said. "What have you got in that pack? It looks heavy."
"It almost hit me on the head!" the other complained.
"The proper gear of war, honest steel and strong iron... not useless things made of wood and bits of string. Are there no warriors here to defend you? Or were they all slain by the beasts plaguing this land?"
"We are the Rogues! Our monastery has defended this pass for centuries."
Tearlach laughed! "Women do not make monks, and monks do not make warriors! You girls need not worry, I am here, and I will free this land from the grip of darkness. So I swear, upon the Light and spirits of my forefathers!"
"What is going on here?" another woman asked as she walked around a tent. And by the mountains, what a woman! Tall and beautifully pale, she had strong arms and a proud sneer on her lips; Tearlach was instantly reminded of home. Her hair, though, was not the black of moonless nights, but a fiery red, bright as the crimson rain of war. This exotic detail was both fascinating and a little frightening; he had always been told to stay away from foreign women. But what man could restrain himself in the presence of such a vision?
Drawing himself up to his most impressive height, Tearlach smiled. "I am Tearlach, son of Grignr, son of Gor. Know that this land is accursed by the grip of evil, and that I have sworn by the Light and the spirits of my forefathers to free it."
The red-haired woman gawked openly at Tearlach. Turning to the Rogues, she asked, "Ok, where did this come from?"
"He crawled over the wall."
"And almost hit me on the head with a knapsack!"
"You let him over the wall?" the red-haired woman asked imperiously.
"We spotted him coming in. He's kind of hard to miss. He wasn't a demon."
"We let him get to the top before we stopped him."
With a snort, Tearlach crossed his arms. "I assure you, beautiful one, these girls did not 'spot' me. I am a warrior born, and can slide through the forests like a --"
"We, 'warrior born,' are the Sisters of the Sightless Eye! If you knew us, you wouldn't even try to enter our camp by stealth."
"You think I crept in, then. Your fortress, though strong, must be guarded by something stronger than women with bows. You are very lucky I have come by, and am in such a generous mood." Tearlach smiled, to let her know he was ignoring her insinuation. For a long while, the red-haired woman didn't say anything. He was used to this; women were often shocked speechless by his sheer presence. "I hope," she finally said, "you don't think you can impress me by hitting my warriors over the head with your luggage."
"Your warriors? Where are your men, lass?"
"We. Are. The. Sisters. Of. The. Sightless. Eye! We have no men. We need no men. We have defended this pass ourselves for centuries, against dozens of invasions. You see us at our weakest, now. Some great evil has invaded our monastery, and turned our own dear sisters against us. Had that not happened, you would see our strength."
Ridiculous, of course... but in these strange lands, perhaps the men were too weak to keep their women from getting strange ideas. No matter what this gorgeous vixen might say, she needs a man, and needs him bad. However, knowing as he did the ways of women, Tearlach realized this was not the time to address this wench's needs. Though he spoke sweetly, words do not impress where action is needed.
"So, your... monastery has been taken from you. It will be a simple matter to take it back."
Smirking, the red-haired woman said, "You believe so?"
"Of course! What are a few demons? I have eaten worse for my breakfast."
"Considering that demon flesh is deadly poison, that's very impressive."
Tearlach had not known that. After a moment's confusion, he brandished his axe. "Then I will make them eat each other, and die of their own venom. Your monastery will be yours again soon, fair one. I go to conquer!" With a bold shout, he charged off... then stopped to look around.
"The gate's that way," one of the Rogues told him.
"I knew that! I was testing you again."
As Tearlach charged out the gate with a guttural roar, Kashya shook her head. "Gods, I wish we still had the monastery. I've never had to deal with so much riffraff."
"Should we have shot him when he came in?"
"No, he might take one or two of them with him. Look, if he comes back, whatever you do, do not be impressed with him."
"I don't think so, ma'am. He's kind of a jerk."
"Hey," the other Rogue said, "maybe if we do act impressed with him, he'll kill more demons and stuff?"
"WHAT!?" Kashya snarled. "You think you should just bat your eyelashes and smile for the big strong man to give us what we want? You are a Sister of the Sightless Eye! We do not rely on outsiders to give us anything! Is that clear?"
"Yes, ma'am," the Rogue bowed her head.
"By the Light, what's become of us? Where is our resolve? We have stood independently for over 200 years. We will get through this, somehow."
"Yes, ma'am," they both replied.
"I do not know what happened in the monastery, but we are not going to give up."
"The Goddess has blessed us, our sisterhood is strong. Remember that. Our strength is in each other, it always has been, it always will be."
"But..." one Rogue murmured, "our sisters turned against us..."
"I know," Kashya said, gritting her teeth. "I don't know how. But we can't let it break us. If we do, everything we've built will be lost. This is the greatest challenge our sisterhood has ever faced, but we will survive."
The two Rogues nodded. "Fine. Get back to your posts, and call out when someone tries to scale the walls. I hope he does try it again, and gets an arrow in his ass."
That made the Rogues laugh. "Easy target, in that skirt."
"Yeah. What's a guy doing running around in a dress, anyway?"
The moors outside the tiny Rogue fortress were flat and swampy, full of puddles of muddy water. For one accustomed to the clean air of the high mountains, these lowlands were naught but wearisome bogs full of pestilential insects. Growling curses at the uncaring gods, Tearlach splashed and stomped his way through the muck in search of prey. It was not long in coming: as he went past a small animal not unlike a porcupine, it flicked its tail, flinging a long quill at him. What is this? Can these pathetic excuses for mountains not provide worthy foes? A crushing blow from his axe sped the thing to its next life; it would remember never again to deal so lightly with a son of Harrogath.
A few Zombies walked the moors, but they were so slow and stupid they may as well not have been there at all. The whole country was empty of worthy foes; Tearlach couldn't help but laugh at the Rogues, cowering in fear behind their walls. These lands were exactly as the tribal elders said: weaklings, walling themselves off from the threatening wilds, terrified of the merest scratch. Now that evil has come, as the age-old prophecies said it would, they have all run and hid, hoping it will go away and leave them in peace. His people know peace comes by nothing less than a sword dripping with an enemy's blood. Constant vigilance is their way, the only way any people ever breathe free.
The Rogue camp wasn't just full of comely young lasses. A small caravan of merchants, fat sellers of pleasing luxuries not tolerated among true men, was hiding with them. They were "led" by a soft and smiling coin-clinker named Warriv. He spoke with a golden tongue, as all who get their meat by talking do.
"Hello there! With all the strange goings-on in this part of the world, I'm not surprised to see one of your kind here."
"And what kind is that, little fat man?"
"Fighting men, of course! Why, men-at-arms have been coming out of the woodwork."
"Why would a fighter hide in the woods? Do you sell anything worth a man's time?"
"Oh, I mostly deal in foodstuffs and clothing. Nothing you'd be interested in, especially the clothing. For weapons and armor, my compatriot Gheed has a variety of wares, all beyond reproach. The Rogue's smith also has some things. She's over there."
A woman smith? These women may like their "sisterhood" idea, but a woman smith is taking things too far! How could they expect a woman to pound and mold steel for them? A few barrel hoops might not be beyond one, but sword-smithing takes strength; no female could possess the sheer power needed to bend unyielding steel and make it obey. A woman trying to smith was something Tearlach had to see, if only for his own amusement.
The Rogue's smith, to her credit, was larger by far than these other little wisps of femininity, with strong shoulders and tendons standing out in her arms. Her hair was blonde and short, tied out of her way behind her head. Southlanders came in many colors, in their skins, eyes, and hair; Tearlach had heard of some islands where almost all the people have blonde hair like this. Perhaps this girl was descended from them. If so, they were a sturdy stock to be sure, though not nearly so powerful as his own. She was making arrowheads as Tearlach approached, but dropped everything at the sight of him.
"Oh, wow! You're a Barbarian, aren't you?"
"Of course," Tearlach said, puffing out his chest. "You're claiming to be the smith here."
"Yeah!" she replied, eyes wide with excitement. "I can't do as much out here, most of my tools are still in the monastery. Are you here to help us take back our monastery?"
"Sure, whatever. There are many foes here, though they are of poor quality."
"I'll bet they are, for someone like you! Oh wow, I never thought I'd meet a Barbarian! My dad was one, he came from the wild mountains of the north! Have you heard of a place called Sescheron? My name's Charsi. I'd love to help you any way I can. Do you need your stuff fixed? That's a nice helm, I could make those when I had my tools. I'm really good at fixing things, in wood and metal and leather or anything! That's what I do, 'cause I'm kind of clumsy with bows. Do you use a crossbow? No, wait, you probably don't, do you?"
"No. A hunter seeking meat may use a bow, but they are useless on the battlefield. What kind of coward must prick a rival to death from afar with tiny sticks? And those confounded wooden contraptions you lowlanders use are too confusing. Who can make sense of all those cranks and levers? It would be quicker to tear a foe to pieces with your bare hands."
"Wow, I'll bet you could, too! Oh wow, oh wow, this is so great! Do you go out on wild adventures all the time? You must have done so many amazing things! I wish I could go out with you, that would be so great! I've got plenty of swords, and there's my armor hanging over there! Do you think I could? Would that be all right?"
It was good to be getting some of the respect he deserved, but escorting a starry-eyed girl around was a waste of his time. Tearlach was about to tell her to mind her place, when he noticed the Rogue's leader, the red-haired one, glaring from across the camp. Hmmm... perhaps a display of kindness towards her underlings might impress that fierce beauty, and overcome some of her resistance. "Young... Charsi, I am Tearlach, and I have sworn by the Light and the spirits of my forefathers to take back your monastery. You need not do a thing, it is all in my hands. Tell me... what is your leader's name?"
"You mean Akara?"
"Akara. The name is sweet but strong, and speaks truly of the one who bears it."
"Um, yeah... she's really nice."
"The fires of war dance in her eyes; her words are like well-honed steel. Truly, of all those here, she is most worthy."
Now Charsi looked confused. "Huh?"
"Her strength and pride, her nobly-endowed form... she would give many strong sons to the man who took her."
"Uh... she's kind of old..."
"Do not speak of your betters thus! Age has not touched her enough to wilt her beauty. True, she is my senior by a few years, but I am sure my clan would understand."
"A few years?" Alarm began to creep into Charsi's voice.
"Those lips, red as blood... skin white as snow... even her hair springs from the burning fires of passion within."
"Wait a minute! Who are you talking about?"
"Your fiery-tempered leader! Who else could I possibly speak of?"
Charsi started laughing. "Oh my gosh... that's Kashya! Akara's over there!"
As he looked beyond Kashya, to a sorrowful woman wrapped in a purple cloak, Tearlach's face fell. "That crone?"
"She's our head priestess. She's really nice, but she's taken the loss of the monastery really hard. Kashya's the war leader and chief trainer. If you haven't talked with Akara yet, you really should. It would help her so much if she knew you were here."
Off to the side, Tearlach's keen senses detected girlish giggling. Kashya was still glaring at them, tapping one foot. "Ah, yes," he muttered, "among my people, tribal elders are also not war leaders." Clearing his throat noisily, he proclaimed, "I go to visit your chief... priestess, and swear service to her. As chief, I must honor her, but have no further interest in her. None whatsoever! It would just be impolite not to speak with your most honorable elder, so I am going to do that, right now."
Completely unlike Kashya, Akara had the calm and majestic presence expected of an elder, wise in the old ways. Huddled against the rain in a huge cloak, she had a hood pulled down over her face, obscuring her eyes from view. Her tent barely covered a variety of potion bottles and leather-bound tomes, with no room for her; she must think it more important to keep these things out of the rain than herself. That was a bit respectable; most lowlanders cower from cold rain like it was made of spears.
"I am Akara, high priestess of the Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye. I bid you welcome to our camp, though we can offer you but poor shelter within these rickety walls."
"I am Tearlach, son of Grignr, son of Gor. I come from the far north to your lands in search of demons to kill. It seems I have found some."
"You have. A few weeks ago, our monastery was overcome by evil which struck us from within our own ranks. I cannot explain it... our sisters were possessed by demonic spirits, and attacked us during the night. Now the monastery is home to some force beyond our comprehension. Only a few have straggled in here from the wilderness, in what used to be our most remote outpost."
"It is easy to explain. Your soft, weak ways left you vulnerable to corruption. Relying on magic spells and strange devices enfeebled what little resolve you ever had. You forgot and abandoned the ancient ways, and have no honor. I am sure the demons found taking your monastery from you child's play."
Akara meditated on this. "Your were not taught to respect your elders, I assume."
Very patiently, Tearlach crossed his arms and explained. "In the mountains of the north, a man who has lived long has suffered many hardships, and survived by strength and cunning. In the south, a man may reach a great age simply by never putting his nose out of doors. Elders are great and respected men, but lowlanders give us no cause for respect. Among us, esteem must be earned."
"I see. Do you believe you have earned our esteem in any way?"
"Of course not. Actions speak louder than words, and the foul beasts in your marshes would not test a stripling. I cannot believe you fear them."
"Quill Rats are not a serious danger. The walking dead are more to be pitied. It is what lies behind them that we fear. There is a place of evil in the moors, a cave where demons are gathering their forces for an assault on this camp. If you wish to demonstrate your good will, that is where you will go, and empty the cave of the evil within it. If not... you will be just like the others who have come, and slain a few Zombies, thinking to impress us."
Tearlach laughed. "You think I am afraid. I fear no man, no beast, and no whelp of Hell's deepest pit. That cave will be empty before I return."
A house on the moors supplied Tearlach with a ring of strength, which its owner had thought to hide among the blankets on his bed. Even if the owner weren't dead (which he almost certainly was) Tearlach would have considered the ring his by right of combat. With it, he could finally wear the entirety of the legendary Berserker's Arsenal, which he had hidden in his pack. Now, this was power; nothing like the true power of a berserker's fury, but it felt damned good. Confidently, he entered the cave.
There were a few walking dead in the cave, and beasts like the Yeti of home, only smaller, weaker, and brown. True demons were hiding there too, little things that ran in terror at the very sight of him. Shamans led them, and resummoned their followers after Tearlach killed them, but killing the shaman solved that problem easily enough. It was so pathetic, he had to laugh at the "sisterhood" again. These things were even weaker and more frightened than the southlanders themselves, if that were possible. One zombie gave him trouble, more for its endurance than anything else; he bashed it around the caves until it finally burst against the wall.
In the Rogue encampment, Kashya and Akara were having a little talk. "Sending him into that den of evil is not going to get rid of him."
"Kashya, my goal is not to 'get rid of him.' We have here an arrogant stripling who needs a few lessons in life."
"He needs my boot in his... did you hear what he said about me?"
"Yes, along with the entire camp. He obviously does not believe in discreet conversation. However, I know I can count on your discretion, as I have many times in the past."
"You don't think he can help us... you CAN'T think that."
With a sigh, Akara slowly explained, "Barbarians are renowned for their physical prowess and great ability with combat. But little else. I believe he will move against the demons or die trying, and may be too foolish to know when it is time to die. Either way, he will drive very deep into the territory our enemies hold, and possibly inflict great harm on them. Even if he does not, the alternative is to have him here in our camp, trying to work his charm on the sisters. I would rather we did not have to kill him."
Kashya snorted. "You never approved of using people before."
"I do not approve of my actions. But we are in desperate circumstances, and I am sure the Eye will understand. The Eye sees our plight, and knows our difficulties."
"I agree completely. If it bothers you too much, let him work as your assistant, only tell him you are assisting him. Find some pretext to have one of your scouts 'help' him."
"I wouldn't go anywhere with that lout, and I'm not asking my scouts to do something I wouldn't do. If I did send someone, he might try something with her."
"So keep his amorous inclinations focused on you. That shouldn't be difficult; just insult him and tell him he's not good enough for you."
Kashya smirked. "Just tell him the truth, then?"
"Tell him those parts of the truth which can be told."
As they spoke, both heard a great noise enter the camp. Tearlach had returned, bearing a pack full of loot and a cocky smirk. "Your cave is empty, priestess. I'll wager that didn't take nearly as long as you thought."
"No, young man; your prowess is truly remarkable. A sign of our gratitude is called for."
"I know what would be most fitting," Tearlach said, smiling at Kashya.
Definitely looking ill, Kashya snarled, "Yeah, I'm going to teach you how to use an axe!"
"What? You look here, my proud beauty, men of the Shadow Wolf tribe are born knowing more of the axe than you ever will!"
"Young man..." Akara said, "even I can see your grip needs improvement. Power is all very well and good, but skill focuses that power for its best use. Kashya, I order you to give our young friend the benefit of your experience."
"Fine," Kashya said. "Meet me by the chopping block in two minutes."
"I do not need any lessons from --"
"Young man," Akara said softly, "are you turning down the chance to be alone with her?"
"Of course not," Tearlach said, with a crafty gleam in his eye. "Fair Kashya, I stand eager to learn. I look forward to it."
As he left, Akara whispered to Kashya. "What are you doing? That was your chance to assign him one of your scouts!"
"I am NOT going to assign one of my scouts to that meat-head! I can barely tolerate him in camp, I don't want anyone near him outside. And that is final!"
By the chopping block, Kasha demonstrated something Tearlach had not seen before. She could toss a piece of wood up, and split it while it was still tumbling in the air. When he tried it, he sent the wood careening off the wall and into his own head. There was a trick to it, angling your wrist like you were throwing the axe-head instead of chopping. This gave the blow more speed and accuracy, with no loss of power. Throughout the lesson, Tearlach was on his best behavior. He smiled, assured Kashya that age had not spoiled the bloom of her beauty, and even though he never got that wood-splitting trick down right, it was probably not because she was a bad teacher. She hardly said anything, but he could tell her resolve was weakening -- she started to develop a tic in her left eye. Once again, Tearlach had to congratulate himself: he just had a way with women.
The moors were empty of Hell's creatures. Maybe more worthy prey lurked elsewhere, higher up in these sad excuses for mountains, so Tearlach strode upland. Fencing surrounded the moors (the "civilized" love fences and walls), but at a gap he found a Rogue plinking away at a few walking dead with her bow. One, at least, had the guts to stand alone in the open; there might be hope for these people yet.
"Hail, lass. Good to see someone here who isn't afraid."
"Hi there. Don't try anything, I've been told about you."
Smiling, Tearlach stood a little taller. "I see a reputation is earned quickly here. A pity it's so easy. You must be waiting for me, since you're the only one in this lot with any courage. Let us advance on them! Don't worry, I'll protect your fair and tender skin -- I like it in one piece. And afterwards... maybe I'll show you one of the other ways I've made a reputation among the ladies."
After a moment's silence, she replied, "I'm under orders to guard the fence."
"Why?" he guffawed. "The fence has suffered no harm from the demons, they just walk around it. It is in no danger."
This resulted in a longer silence. This girl must not be very smart, she look so long to reply to the simplest questions. "Those are Kashya's orders, and I'm sticking to them."
"Lass, this is absurd. Kashya may be the first among you, but her reach is no greater than anyone else's. You need not fear her in her absence!"
Now she stared openly at him. She must be weighing her fear of the fiery Kashya against his overpowering personal magnetism. "My orders are to protect the camp."
"From here? The camp is far away, and has plenty of protectors." Shaking his head, he sighed, "I thought you had some courage in you. It seems I was mistaken."
The insult hit home -- Tearlach could hear her teeth grinding. But it did not goad her into action. Instead, she replied, "This is a defensive position, to keep demons out of the Bloody Moors. I am protecting the camp."
"A defensive position is useless. The enemy is slain by attacks, not defense."
"Then why are you carrying a shield?"
Laughing, he sneered, "So that hand has something to do! I need only one weapon for these creatures. Two would be a waste of steel."
She grinned. "Then you shouldn't need me. Look out there. Our sisters are out there, corrupted by the power that took our monastery. What can steel do against something that can corrupt your very soul?"
Tearlach snorted. "Kill it, of course."
"Fine. You go do that. I'm staying put."
No further appeals would change her decision. Tearlach could almost respect her resolve, if it wasn't a resolution to be a coward. It was drier on the plains beyond as he got higher into the pass. Little red demons and the walking dead were abundant here, but the Rogues were what got his attention. What man could ignore naked women running up to him out of the darkness, even if they did have horns and fangs? That priestess spoke of the "sisters" being corrupted, but he hadn't expected such a profound change. There must be a great evil in this land... maybe one of the Prime Evils. It was a good thing Tearlach was here, to teach that devil a lesson he'd not soon forget. Whoever it was would think twice about invading Sanctuary again while he still drew breath.
Naturally, all his battles brought him copious piles of loot. These lands were rich in movable goods, with no rightful owners to be found. None were as valuable as what Tearlach brought with him, so he was glad to let the Rogues redeem them at pawnbroker's rates. This display of generosity impressed them, especially the blacksmith... whatever her name was.
"So, like, I'm really grateful to you for bringing so much of our stuff back, a lot of us kind of fled without anything, and we can really use it."
Gazing across the camp at Kashya, Tearlach sighed. "Aye, lass."
"You know, it's hard to fight when you don't have any armor, or the decent bows... some of us had hunting bows, but the long bows were in the armory."
It seemed Kashya was ignoring him, as she should. A fine woman like that would have very high standards; he would have to fight harder to meet them. "Aye, lass."
Charsi bit her lip, and shifted from foot to foot. "I... don't know if you've thought about me at all... I hope you've been all right? Have you needed help?"
Now Kashya was glaring at him. Such a fierce look... she will be a right hellcat when she's finally been won. "Aye, lass."
"Really? I could help! I got my armor, and I've got a sword, or a hammer! The scouts say skeletons are walking out of the graveyard, a hammer would be good on skeletons!"
"Aye, la... what?"
The smith was already excitedly pulling her armor on. "Oh wow, I'm so glad I'm going with you! I always wanted to do something, but I was never any good with a bow! Everyone's talking about the horrible things the demons are doing, and I --"
"Now you hold on there!" Remembering that he was trying to be kind to Kashya's troops, Tearlach spoke sweetly. "You need to mind your place. A warrior is born, not made. To go out there would mean your death."
"A smith is not a fighter! If you are not born to it, you'll never succeed. Mine is a glorious destiny, but yours isn't. Don't even try."
Tears welled up in Charsi's eyes. "But... I..."
"But what? None of us can choose our fate. Mine is to travel the world, destroying evil wherever it lurks. Yours is to be servant to a bunch of women trying to be warriors. That's the way it is, like it or not."
"There's a girl," Tearlach clapped her on the shoulder and shook. "You go back to your anvil. Leave warrior's work to the warriors."
On his way out of camp, a strange man Tearlach didn't recognize stopped him. "Whoa, hold on there, Mr. Meatybones! Excuse my impertinence, but these are for you!"
The pale, skinny man handed him a pair of blue boots. "What's this?"
"That's Gorefoot! Don't ask me why they call 'em that, I think they should be Gorefeet or Gorefoots or somethin', but they're yours all the same!"
The boots were powerfully magical, Tearlach could tell. "Why should you give me these?"
"Cause that's what I do, Mr. Slabchunk! I help all kinds of heroes out by holding stuff for 'em. That's why they call me The Mule!"
"You have so little honor, you do not even bear a proper name?"
"Sorry, no Honor here. Don't have any 5-socket weapons on me yet. The boots will do you good, and that's why I'm givin' 'em to you. Later on, when you find somethin' worth having, I'll come by and take it off your hands."
"Like hell you will. What I win in battle is mine by right, and I'll have your head if you try to take it from me."
The Mule laughed and laughed. "That's the spirit, Mr. Beefbrisket! Now, some advice: Shamans can't raise their friends if you rip the bodies up. Get potions out of the little guys. When you can search them for more stuff, that'll work too! Ta ta for now, big guy!"
Hmmm... tearing the hearts out of the little ones might be a good way to keep them down. Not that he needed to, they were no more than an annoyance, but one less annoying demon is... one less annoying demon. The art of making healing draughts from the organs of Hell-influenced creatures was not known to these people. Even Akara, the "healer" here, had to make her potions from flowers and herbs. He was about to interrogate this honorless "mule" further, but the little bastard had scampered away, and was nowhere to be found.
Out on the plains, Tearlach found a cave where evil lurked. The light of the sun is a terror to these creatures; they prefer dark places, even when the sky is overcast. The boots were a fine gift, enabling to jump great distances and run into the fray more quickly. Nonetheless, he did not like being in debt to a lowlander -- he had to give a gift in return, and Mule vanished before he could do so. Giving splendid gifts may put a man in a debt he can never repay, a typical lowlander's trick; the debt could be ignored if repaying it would mean losing honor, but it was still galling.
After emptying the cave, Tearlach moved on to a secluded hollow beside the pass. It was a quiet place, sheltered from the rest of the pass, and mists seemed to collect in the deeps. A group of skeletons attacked him immediately. Some still wore fragments of clothing, Rogue's leather breastplates and the remains of their high boots. All were much less flattering now. In the deeps of the hollow, behind a high iron fence, small carved stones had been set in the earth in rows. The fencing told Tearlach this must be an important place to the Rogues, but the stones did not form a circle, or even an avenue. They were arranged like tally marks, not an enclosure. Southlanders enclose everything but the places that should be.
In the center of the hollow, a hanging tree had several Rogues dangling from its gnarled limbs. Next to it, the ugliest demon Rogue he'd yet seen was calling another skeleton out of the ground. Ah... the rocks were tomb markers! The ancient ways were unheard of in these lands, and these stupid people never learned how to purify their dead; they just buried them. No wonder there were so many out walking now, plaguing the place.
Tearlach leapt over the bowed heads of the shambling dead, and fetched the demon Rogue a tremendous blow from his axe. She shrugged it off; fairly tough, this one. Streaking away with demonic speed, the Rogue called more dead from the ground, between shooting arrows of fire. As though arrows were any danger to him. Ignoring the fire, Tearlach jumped over the zombies, a mere distraction when their mistress needed killing. This Rogue was quick and durable, difficult to catch and hard to hurt, but when he caught her in a crowd of her own walking dead, the end was inevitable. She had nowhere to run, and Tearlach chopped off her head with one mighty blow. Bolts of lightning shot out of her body, all the dead in the tomb-yard dropped, and a translucent soul floated up to the sky. That was an unusual way to die; perhaps he'd better speak with someone about it.
When she heard, Kashya looked stunned. "That was Blood Raven."
Momentarily lost in her cleavage, Tearlach looked up. "Eh?"
"Blood Raven, my closest friend."
Oops. Now she'd probably start crying, the way women do when you hack their closest friends' head off with an axe. "Wait... she was a demon!"
"She fell when the monastery did... I don't know how. My scouts reported she was in our graveyard, raising the dead to make an army! I am glad you killed her... I hope her spirit has found rest now."
"Ah," Tearlach relaxed, and nodded wisely. "I am sure her spirit has gone to its reward in Hell. That's the kind of rest she deserves. Why are you all so foolish as to bury your dead uncleansed by fire? It is no surprise you have so many stalking the land now."
Kashya's eyes narrowed. "The graveyard is sacred ground. Only the most unholy would dare to violate it!"
Tearlach threw his head back and laughed! "Lowlanders! 'The most unholy' is what you should have been on guard against all along! Did you ever understand the true ways of the ancient ones? Or have you forgotten it all in your mad dash for riches and power?"
As he waited for a response, Tearlach noticed that facial tic of hers had returned. There are many get upset when they hear the plain and simple truth; perhaps honeyed words would soften the blow of realization. "Fair Kashya... beauteous one... grieve for the friend you lost, but think on this: you may partake in the wisdom of the ancients through me."
For some reason, Kashya did not look pleased with this. She stood rigidly upright, arms crossed, fingernails digging into her own arms, with her eyes clenched shut and her teeth grinding together like millstones. "Go... see... Akara!"
Tearlach was confused. "What should the priestess of a lesser goddess mean to me?"
With a shrug, Tearlach strode off. Perhaps Kashya was not what he thought her to be. The truth of her order's unfitness was before her, but she could not see it. Some people, even among his own kind, simply will not listen to reason; what should he expect? But she was so beautiful. Look at the way she punches the wall. Masterfully aimed blows, all of them! He could hear wood splintering from here. At the sight, he was overcome with emotion; in his deepest heart of hearts, he knew she was meant to be his. It was destiny.
Akara was pleased to hear of his success in the graveyard. "Blood Raven was Kashya's most direct competition for commander. Had she not gone to Tristram, she might be in this camp today. I wonder if that town had anything to do with our troubles."
"Corruption does not make its home in a town," Tearlach replied impatiently.
"Anyway, you deserve some new reward. I shall assign one of Kashya's scouts to accompany you, as a guide through the wilderness."
Sneering, he shook his head. "I have no need. Instinct will bring me to my prey."
"Then let her accompany you, to observe your fighting technique. Will you not humor an old woman, in what may be her final days?"
"As though a woman could learn the path of a warrior. I will let your girl trail along, but do not expect me to distract myself for her life. If she cannot survive on her own, that should tell you she did not belong in the battle."
"Thank you, young man. Now, there is another matter I must speak to you about."
"Then speak, woman. I itch to be fighting again."
"We do not know how our monastery was taken from us, but there is one who might. In the town of Tristram, the sage Deckard Cain dwelt. Our sisters described him when they returned from that cursed place; he was the last of the Horadrim, and had access to all their ancient knowledge."
"The Horadrim are known to my people. Cursed sorcerers and wizards, prying into every corner of the land, seeking demons. Our mountains were visited by them many times; they were difficult to kill. I have no need of a sorcerer's knowledge. Steel is the answer to every question regarding demons."
Akara sighed. "I feared you might say something like that."
"Of course I do. It is the plain truth, as any fool can see. Now, I have better things to do than stand about talking. Send your scout after me if you must; I go to war."
Further up in the Rogue's pass, Tearlach found a broad, stony field. Along behind him was a Rogue scout, whose name he hadn't caught. The fields were full of foes: more corrupted Rogue sisters, and strange hawk-like birds. Killing the Rogues was not gratifying: they'd forgotten what little they knew of combat when the demons took them. Of course, even if they remembered, they wouldn't have been a challenge. A shame to see all that naked female flesh, completely wasted... whoever took the monastery had a lot to answer for.
The bird-things were bizarre. They had teeth in their little skull faces, obviously unnatural. Instead of soaring free as birds are meant to, they flapped around sluggishly, close to the ground. Their did not nest in trees, but tall fabrications of filth and rotting meat, with only-the-ancestors-know-what holding it together. Each nest had dozens of little things inside, moving under the skin. Seeing that gave him the idea of bashing the nest to the ground, with the birds still inside. Sure enough, they were crushed under its weight. The strategy was good and pleasing, but that Rogue had to start asking questions.
"So you figured that out, huh? Don't want to take them all on?"
"I fear them not," Tearlach huffed. "They are an annoyance, not worth my time."
"He finally heard me!" the Rogue proclaimed aloud. "That's the eighth question I've asked you, you know?"
"I am not here to answer questions. Those who cannot make war are also not worth my time."
"So who killed those guys, huh?" Behind the Rogue, Tearlach saw a group of men... no, goat-men he hadn't seen before. All were dead, their bodies full of arrows. "Maybe you should start paying more attention?"
The goat-men were big, certainly bigger than any Rogue (except maybe that smith girl.) A little clumsy looking, maybe... but more worthy foes than skull crows. "Hmm."
The Rogue waited. "Yes?" But Tearlach had seen another corrupted Rogue, and run off.
Tearlach kept hacking his way through the fields, taking down foe after foe. Occasionally, he would stop, and hear more questions being aimed at him. He ignored her; battle is not a time for talking, but for doing. But every now and then... he would glance over to see what she was doing. Usually, she wasn't far away, shooting arrows from that tiny bow of hers. Once in a while, she made a strange motion. Those were the times when his vision cleared, and Tearlach could see every move his foes made, even in the darkest night.
"Witch!" Tearlach snarled, "are you casting sorceries on me?"
"No, I'm casting sorceries on them."
"I do not need the help of foul magic!"
"It's just light. The Sightless Eye is a beacon in the darkness."
"I forbid you to use sorcery!"
"Suit yourself. Hope I don't shoot you in the back in the dark, though."
Back in camp, Tearlach went to see Akara. "Witch, and leader of witches! You did not tell me your gathering of whores is really a pit of sorcery!"
Calmly, Akara asked her Rogue, "Visala, what is he talking about?"
"He thinks the Blessing of Sight is sorcery."
"I should have known. Young man, we follow a goddess. She bestows her blessings upon us, and we may call on her power when needs be. No sorcery is involved."
Tearlach spit on the ground. "Goddess or demon, I care not. A warrior needs to stand on her own two feet! His feet! Er..."
With a smile almost too faint to be seen, Akara replied, "Child, we all call on powers higher than ourselves. From what I understand, your people call animal spirits to aid you."
"That is completely different! Wild places, untouched by evil, are our strength. The spirit of the world is incorruptible!"
"So innocent wild animals, like hawks or the gentle Sasquatch of our mountains, cannot be turned to evil?"
Tearlach opened his mouth... then closed it again. "Hmm."
"He says that a lot," Visala observed.
"That was one of the wisest utterances I have heard today," Akara said. "Though we do not call on the same power as sorcerers, even they can be wise in the ways of the world. This is why I believe we had best seek out --"
"There is nothing to seek out, except a stronger bow. If you're going to use one of those stick-and-string things, get a decent one! One of those merchants may have one for sale, though he'll part with it dearly to line his own purse."
"Gee, you think so?" Visala asked.
"Aye, 'tis the way of these gold-leeches. Nothing else matters to them, not even their own skins. And a strong byrnie of chain, if one is to be had. That little dress is fetching, lass, but nightclothes are poor garb for battle! Why weren't you outfitted properly?"
"Didn't we tell you the attack came from inside, at night? We were all asleep."
"Aye, maybe you did. Let your guard down, did you? No matter! I've gold to spare, and know a thing or two about bargaining with a fat cash-sucker!"
"Wow, you're so smart. I have to see this."
"That is very good, young man. Now, about Deckard Cain..."
"That sorcerer you were blathering about? Who needs him? All that's called for to defeat this enemy is a strong arm and a heart of steel. We go, lass!"
After they'd left, Kashya went to speak with Akara. "I can't believe you're doing this."
Sighing, Akara asked, "What is it this time?"
"I used to respect you! Now here you are, sucking up to that... that..."
"Kashya... this is something I am afraid you never understood. It is called compromise. In many ways, you don't know how lucky you have been to serve under me."
"What?" Kashya screeched. "The Goddess' vision is not about compromise!"
"But surviving in the world is. The sisterhood, as you well know, has only a few farmlands to support itself, which do not produce all the things we need to function as a martial order. We must be friendly with the neighboring kingdoms, as far as we can without betraying the will of the Goddess. As head of our order, it falls to me to be nice to the nearby kings and nobles, most of whom are brutes, thugs, idiots, or worse. As you well know, many of them find our very existence offensive, but they hold the power we need to serve as a beacon of light for the women of the world. We cannot get this power from them if they do not let us have it, so there is a need for compromise."
"Akara, we have power! We control the only pass through the mountains! Every caravan north of Westmarch has to go through here! We can tax as much as we like!"
"No one can do that. Our neighbors tolerate us because it costs less to pay our fees than it would to attack and dislodge us from these mountains. Kashya, as war leader, it is to our advantage for you to appear uncompromising. I do not have that luxury. If I can stand to 'suck up' to that utter toad King Uthric to get what the order needs, I can treat a Barbarian better than he deserves in our most desperate hour."
Kashya stared silently, breath panting through gritted teeth. Finally, Akara said, "That's better. You may go and punch the wall, if you feel you must."
Meanwhile, Tearlach and Visala were back on the stony field. That slick-tongued bastard Gheed talked him into gambling his money away, but Tearlach figured out the score on that little game quick enough. That ring was completely useless, worth nothing near the 50,000 he paid for it, but Gheed wouldn't give his money back! After an education in the ways his people deal with cheats, the fat, quivering coward was much more reasonable. Tearlach got the ring, and a two-day warranty! Visala was impressed. She'd better be grateful, buying a pot helm for her took most of his remaining cash. Ok, it wasn't magic, but he put some of his own gem chips in the sockets! What more could she want?
"Oh, yeah, this is a great helm. Orange is really my color."
"What does the color matter? You southlanders are spoiled, you'd throw away Bul-Kathos' own ring of power because it doesn't match your eyes."
"I thought you said you'd buy a bow? Like a longbow, maybe?"
"Silence, woman! Where I am from, women know better than to talk back to their betters. You want a finer bow, I'll find you one. Here, see what this demon was hiding?"
The magic short sword Tearlach held was coated with blood and foulness. Nose wrinkling in disgust, Visala said, "I'm not even touching that."
"These demons are even greedier than you. Anything to keep their treasures, even in death! This one had it shoved all the way up into his --"
"My, what lovely weather we're having! Look, that's an interesting rock!"
Tearlach looked at the stone in question. It was a monolith, 10 feet tall, standing alone on the plain. There were many such stones, where he came from. "Yes... yes that is a very interesting rock. It is good that I have found it!"
"You found it?"
"Aye, it is the keystone of the circle which lies just beyond. This is a place of power... and it is well-guarded, it seems."
Another demon and his company stood jabbering inside the circle. They were blue; Tearlach had seen blue ones before, they were tougher relatives of the red ones. Not much tougher, of course... it took a bit more effort to cleave them in two with one blow. After assessing the situation with a born tactician's eye, Tearlach leapt into the fray, scattering the crowd and slamming into the leader. To his great surprise, at the touch of steel, bolts of crackling lightning shot out of the demon's wounds! It stung a bit, but after the initial shock was over the lightning seemed no great threat. He chopped and bashed them all to bits.
Removing himself from battle for a while, Tearlach examined the circle. It was small, defined only by 5 monolithic boulders. Each stone had a carved runic symbol, in the old way. Who would have guessed that the Ancient Ones had ever been here, to this forsaken place now abandoned to lowlanders? He was pleased to note that the stones had not been defaced, as the demons had scribbled on the cave walls down below. The power of the Ancients was too great for them, no doubt. Heartened to know that his ancestors were with him, however distant, he continued his battle over the field of stones.
Looking ahead up the pass, Tearlach could see the path went back and forth several times as it went up. No doubt this was to ease merchant's wagons along, as even these gentle slopes would challenge their over-laden beasts. Traveling up the pass would be a long and tedious business, but there was a better way: a cave at the base of the cliff. His people carved many tunnels into the living rock of their mountains, to speedily reach distant places in secret. If the Ancients had been here, perhaps they had done the same.
Sure enough, the mark of the Ancient Ones was there in the caves. Broad avenues, smooth dirt floors, and wide steps carried Tearlach high up the mountain. Visala said the tunnels had always been here; foot travelers used them for rapid ascents and descents. It was an insult to see so many demons and undead crawling over the work of the Ancients, so Tearlach chopped them to bits and tore their hearts out. When these ones came to their next lives without any hearts, they would remember not to be so free with the work of those greater than themselves.
The tunnels came out in a dark wood, much higher in the pass. Almost immediately, Tearlach was set upon by a massive Sasquatch, which moved with surprising speed for so bulky a creature. After killing it, he found a tree. It was old and dead, but glowed with magic in the dark night. Things had been carved into its bark... including a representation of the stone circle he had just left, with the word the runes made. Ah, he thought... my glorious fate is catching up with me. I am destined to destroy this great demon and free this land. Perhaps when I am done, my people may return to their old home, and drive these southlanders out? No, such a blessing would be too much to ask. He carved the bark away from the tree. It was his by right; his destiny was wrapped in it. He also wanted to show the Rogues what fools they'd been by not realizing its importance.
"... and you see there, the word of power! The five runes have been arranged in the order they should be. Any fool could plainly see it."
"Your acumen is enthralling," Akara nodded. "How could we not have guessed, after all those centuries of staring stupidly at those stones?"
"Not many have the wit to see through the mysteries of the Ancient Ones," Tearlach proclaimed. "Their ways were not meant for the weak-minded."
"That must be true. Perhaps it was simply that the symbols on the stones don't really look like Barbarian runes. Now, touch the stones in the order given, and a gate will appear."
Frowning suspiciously, Tearlach said, "How do you know that?"
Akara put her hand to her cheek. "Oh, did that slip out? It was just a lucky guess. At least, I've read stories where that happens. I'd also guess that the gate will take you to a place of great power, where you must search diligently for an ancient wise elder."
"Hmm..." Tearlach pondered this. "Many sagas describe this sort of thing. You must be familiar with some of the ancient ways, priestess."
"There have been a few books written on the subject."
"Your shame at having forgotten the old ways must be double what I thought, then. To hear the old tales, and yet ignore them, is worse than never hearing them at all."
"Oh yes, it's simply dreadful. You have set such an excellent example, young man. Now, let me meditate on my folly for a while."
A loud thumping sound had become audible by this point. In the dim light, Tearlach could see Kashya pounding on the wall... with her head. "What a woman... I used to do that when I was a child as well."
"That explains a lot," Visala said. "Is that why your head is flat on that side?"
"Aye! I decided either I'd give, or the wall would, and the wall gave first! That was the first and best thing I ever learned in my life: my head is thicker than any wall!"
As he strode off, Visala stopped to speak with Akara in a hushed voice. "Why is she using her head?"
"I stopped healing her knuckles after the last time."
"Oh. Yes, ma'am."
"Visala... when you arrive, I want you to be sure to do something..."
At the stone circle, Tearlach touched the stones in order. The word flashed in the air, and amid peals of thunder and lightning strikes, a red gate appeared. Tearlach charged through. On the other side, he found, not high mountains or great feasting halls, but... a dead cow, rotting in a field. He poked it with his axe, and it exploded with putrid gasses. What is this? This was no place of power, it was nothing but some southlander town, on fire and full of skeletons and goat-men... a fray!
To their credit, the goat-men were not incompetent, perhaps the hardest fight Tearlach had yet. The skeletons came with sword and bow, but fell to pieces quickly enough. Crowds of little demons were everywhere. The worst of all was a single zombie, the corpse of a huge, muscular man with a bald head. His features were familiar.
"Och, yoo were one of my countrymen, weren't yoo?"
The zombie replied, "Uuuuuunnnhhhhh..."
"'Tis a shame, to see yoo reduced to such a state by darkness."
"Yoo fight well, as only the children of Bul-Kathos can!"
"Let me bless yoo with death, to escape the chains these demons laid on yoor soul!"
"Men should be free, free to leave when death takes them!"
"So stop fightin', already! Nah, what am I sayin'? Yoo only want to go down in glory!"
"'Tis a glorious death yoo want, I'll give it, but yoo'll have to take it when it comes."
"LAY DOWN, ALREADY!!"
Finally, the zombie dropped. After saluting him, Tearlach dragged the body into a burning building. It was a poor funeral pyre, but the best he could offer. The little town offered up many worthy foes, one after the other. He lost himself in combat, taking arrow after arrow. Fire scorched him, swords cut him; it was the most glorious fight he'd ever had. When all was done, Tearlach stood alone, the only sure sign of victory. Visala was standing next to an iron cage, watching a portal wink closed.
"What was that?"
Visala smiled. "Oh, hi there. You were having so much fun, I knew you wouldn't mind if I looked for survivors. There was this old man in this cage being tortured, so I thought I'd let him out and send him back to camp."
"Ah," Tearlach grunted. "'Tis a good thing, I suppose. But not important. Look, here you are! A new bow!"
"Yeah," Visala said, "a nice hunting bow."
"What's wrong with that? Ah, you want some more gems, do you? I'll put some in there, don't worry. I know how fond you ladies are of your sparklers."
Tearlach grinned. "Unless you think I should be putting something else in your sockets?"
"No, gems are great. Knock yourself out."
After a night's well-earned sleep, Tearlach breakfasted with the Rogues. They didn't seem to understand why he took two whole chickens for himself -- even while trying to be warriors, these girls were busy watching their figures. A fighting man needs his strength, and has no time to worry about keeping trim. Chickens were strange birds: they never tried to fly free, but scratched around under their master's boots their whole lives, even though every day some were eaten in full view of the others. It reminded him of the way southlanders lived, gathered up in cities under the "protection" of the powerful -- except that instead of a daily quick death for a few, all died slowly as taxation and slavery bled them their whole wretched lives. Foolishness and more foolishness, but they were blind to it.
The old man from the village was up and about now. The demons must not have been too cruel to him, he recovered quick enough. Nonetheless, he was a sad sight, balded and bent with age, with no better weapon than an old stick. As is common everywhere but the mountains, the old man knew nothing of war; instead of steel, he carried a huge book with him wherever he went. No wonder the demons hadn't bothered to kill him; even Tearlach wouldn't stain his hands with the blood of someone so useless. What a shame it was, to be so near death, yet unwilling to die in combat and ascend into the Heaven, where ancient warriors of renown feast all night and battle against Hell all day. Maybe he'd learn from his misspent life and do better next time, if he wasn't condemned to Hell for cowardice.
"I could not stop the horror that overtook Tristram when our hero left us," the old man muttered over his porridge. "All were slain to the last, except me. I don't know why I was left hanging in that cage."
"To grieve over the folly of your useless life, old man," Tearlach told him. "Anyone who's been as worthless as you should understand that before they're snuffed."
The old man blinked, and looked appraisingly at Tearlach. "Hmm. To judge by your great size and obvious vigor, I would say you're an inhabitant of the northern mountains."
"Damn right!" Tearlach shouted, spraying flecks of chicken into the fire. "You speak to Tearlach, son of Grignr, son of Gor! I have come from the highlands to rid the world of evil, and this is as good a place to begin as any."
"Your people's reputation precedes you." The old man flicked some crumbs of meat off his robes, and leaned closer. "By fortunate coincidence, you have come to the right place. The horror that overtook Tristram was none other than Diablo himself!"
"Ah! I knew I was on the trail of something worthy of me. It is my destiny to destroy the Brothers! Since he has taken the monastery, I will go there and destroy him."
"Excellent! I will assist you in any way I can. Now, from what the Rogue sisters have told me, the horror in the monastery is not Diablo --"
Tearlach had burst out laughing. "Old man, I'll take pity on your years and not make you fetch and carry for me. Wait! Did you say Diablo isn't in the monastery?"
"It is certain that the monastery is now the lair of Andarial, the maiden of --"
"Bah!" Tearlach threw the last of his chicken away. "Why are you wasting my time! I seek Diablo, or one of his brothers! Some minor demon is of no concern to me."
"Perhaps I have not made myself clear. It is my guess that Diablo has gone through the monastery, leaving Andarial behind to prevent anyone from following. He seeks the lands of the east, where his brothers lie imprisoned. Unless Andarial is defeated, no one can get through the pass, and you will not be able to meet Diablo!"
"Why not? These tiny mountains would be easy to cross. You southlanders may have to walk through a pass, but where I am from, men know how to climb a hill."
Nodding, the old man said, "Well, it is understandable that you might fear to face Andarial. According to what I have read, she is --"
"I fear nothing, old man! No man, beast, or the spawn of any pit! Who is this Andarial you think I fear?"
"Andariel is the maiden of Anguish, queen of the Succubi, and lord of Hell's legions of spies and corrupters. Though only one of the lesser four evils, her power is still great and terrible. Many have been destroyed by her, often without knowing it. Of all the seven evils, she is considered the most cunning, using deception and guile to her advantage. Flattery is her weapon of choice... which makes me wonder why she is here."
"Because deception and guile work on you. Among my people, none give sweet words any heed, and a flatterer's tongue gains nothing. That is why fat merchants do not come to the mountains... as if any would dare to. I will journey into the monastery and kill this Andarial, though. Traveling through the pass would be quicker than over the peaks, and if she stands in my way, that will be her sorrow."
The old man nodded sagely, smiling a bit. "You should know Andarial's venomous heart is her strongest weapon in combat. Though I have noticed you wear the Berserker's Arsenal, which grants near-immunity to poisons and drugs."
Glowering, Tearlach snarled, "You recognize this sacred armor? How is it that so many of you outlanders know so much of our ways?"
"Legends remain, of course... and that set is out of legend. May I ask --"
"No. This is no time for idle talk. My blood boils for action!"
With that, Tearlach ran out the gates of the fortress, with Visala right behind, asking why he didn't just use the waypoint for once. Watching them go, Cain scratched his head, then turned to ask Kashya, "Is that sort of thing common?"
"You have NO idea. As if losing the monastery wasn't bad enough, this place has been a complete and utter *HELL!!!* for the last three days."
"Surely, things aren't as bad as that!" Cain smiled. "Perhaps this Barbarian is not the most tactful or intelligent of men, but your lady Akara has told me he has been very helpful. Being overrun by demons must be worse than anything he has said, I am sure!"
Without warning, Kashya's arm shot across the clearing, grabbed Cain by the front of his robe, and hauled him in like a midget herring to stare right into her inflamed eyes. "You don't get it, do you? He LIKES me."
Cain blanched. "Oh... oh no, I'm very, very sorry..."
When they finally got back to the dark woods they'd left earlier, Tearlach stopped to look around. Visala was still asking about the waypoint... apparently, the poor thing was tired out from the run. He'd seen some of those magic transporters in the highlands. Some interloping mages built them. His people left them to rot. True men gain nothing from the magic tricks lesser men use to make their lives easier. Life is a struggle, as it should be; if you want to go a long way, learn to run fast and far like your ancestors did.
"My people are known throughout the world for stamina," Tearlach grinned. "Great staying power, can go for hours! That ought to pique your interest, wench."
"Yeah, right," Visala mumbled, plinking away at some skeletal archers.
"Ah, you like 'big boners', then?" He laughed, splitting a corrupted Rogue's skull in twain with a single blow. "The men of these lands aren't much meatier than those bastards!"
"Say, how do you know so much about 'these lands', anyway?"
"A simple tale, lass. In my land, all are told of the ancient ways. We had them pounded into our skulls while we were babes so we'd never forget. Our ancestors were the mightiest of men, the greatest in all ways, and so we are greater than any other race of man in the whole world. Tales of the weakness of your people, and your foolish and evil ways, survive among the true people, though you have tried your best to forget them."
With a snort, Visala dropped a shaman with an arrow through the eye. "And your teachers never left the highlands themselves?"
"Why? There's nothing outside the mountains. Nothing worth anything, anyway."
"So, how did you know what they told you was true?"
"Are you calling my clan elders liars, witch? Watch your tongue! Where I am from, there is punishment for a woman who spreads falsehoods!"
The nerve of that little outlander girl! Every word the clan elders said was true; that truth was a sacred trust from the Ancients themselves. If not for the beauteous Kashya, Tearlach would have beaten sense into that little wench then and there. The land was marshy above the woods, from a stream flowing through the pass. Goat-men and little blue demons were everywhere... not that their numbers saved their lives. When Tearlach came back to camp with things to pawn, the old man actually made himself useful. He knew almost as much about enchantment as the smiths of mighty Sescheron, and could identify spells at a glance.
"Not bad, old man! Almost worth the trouble it took me to save you."
"You saved him?" Visala asked.
"Aye! And a fine rescue it was. I'll have to save more people when I have the chance. Some wenches, maybe... fine, agreeable ones."
"Good luck finding any," she grumbled. "Unless you like horns and sharp teeth."
"The teeth are a problem, I admit. They'd prickle somethin' fierce on my --"
"Kashya!" Cain exclaimed. "Tell me, how are your scouts doing?"
"Eh?" Tearlach looked around. "Where is she?"
Cain scratched his head. "Hmmm, I thought I saw her."
"Ah, glorious Kashya! Even in her absence, the smell of her lingers delicately in the air, like the smell of Egtheow's best sausages. Only nicer even than that! With mustard, she'd be as heaven on earth! A saucy one, she is."
Looking a bit ill, Visala said, "I have to go over there for a while."
"Um... female problems."
Tearlach shuddered. "Ugh. Go. Do your business."
Meanwhile, Kashya was glaring hot blistering death at Cain from the tent where she was hiding. Swallowing around the lump in his throat, Cain muttered, "Um... tell me, how are you getting along with Charsi? She's spoken very highly of you."
Tearlach shrugged. "Does decent repair work, I suppose. What of her?"
"I believe she has something she wants to ask you. Yes, she's looking right at us, rather expectantly. Perhaps Kashya would be impressed if you went to ask?"
More out of frustration than anything, Tearlach went to ask that stupid smith girl what she wanted. Nothing he did pleased Kashya; last night, he'd stood outside her tent for hours, flexing and showing off every muscle. He'd even oiled his whole body for the occasion, but she ignored him. Any other woman, he was sure, would have been driven mad with lust at the sight; what willpower she must possess! The thought of it enflamed his heart further; he would find a way, he had to! She could try to hold out against her destiny and his, but he could hold out even longer! It was inevitable.
The smith girl hemmed and hawed, looking up at Tearlach with big blue eyes. A strange color, really. "Um... I don't know how to ask about this..."
Growing impatient, Tearlach said, "With words, lass. Spit a few out."
She shifted from foot to foot. "Um..."
"Other words. That one means nothing."
"That's no improvement. Come on!"
"I was just wondering..."
The shout could be heard from one end of camp to the other. Charsi jumped and nearly fell back across her anvil. "Oh! Um... I... just need a tool from the monastery."
"Is that all? What tool?"
"It's a smithing hammer, a malus. It's enchanted. It's power is to make other enchanted things. To make other things enchanted, I mean."
"Hmm... that's a good thing, then. Sorry to startle you, lass, but quit being so tongue-tied and stupid."
"Don't talk to Charsi like that," a Rogue behind him said.
Standing up to his full height, Tearlach turned around and stared down at the Rogue. "And who are you to tell me what I can say?"
"I'm Itonya. I'll be going out with you. Charsi's a great smith, and she's not stupid. Don't you call her that."
Tearlach laughed. "What happened to... the other one?"
"She quit. Actually, she begged for another assignment. ANY other assignment. I think she's digging a new latrine right now, and I've never seen her so happy. Don't think you can try anything with me, bozo, it won't work."
Itonya was a fairly tall, square-built Rogue with a hint of a moustache. She reminded him a bit of home. "Of course not, lass... wouldn't dream of it."
"Good. Now get your lumpy ass in gear. I've got an assignment to take care of."
A ruined building squatted on the marshes, its stones burnt black. A cellar door was set in the floor, and the stench of death wafted up. Demons love such places, so Tearlach jumped down with a fearsome war cry, ready to send them running in terror. Instead, he landed on a pile of unstable rubble and fell on his rear. Spitting out some of the floor, he looked around the cellar; good thing no one was there to see that. Itonya climbed down the ladder quietly, not even trying to keep the smirk off her face. He was starting to like this one.
Demons there were in the cellars, blood-red goat demons who sucked the life from you with every blow. Hordes of ghosts drained away spiritual energy; had Tearlach not been blessed with both in abundance, he might have worried. No ghost or demon could get the better of him in terms of precious essences. His new servant Rogue kept quiet during combat; it was a relief not to have to put up with any more annoying chatter.
The lowest cellar (this place had a lot of cellars) was a veritable treasure horde, something like barrows were supposed to be. Barrows came from before the time of the Ancients, if such a thing could be imagined; the burials contained much gold and silver, but no steel. Looting them was so profitable, Tearlach had never seen one that still had anything in it. If they were anything like this, it was no wonder! Gold and jewels lay scattered on the floor, with much more in the possession of the blood goats guarding the place. Slaughtering his way deeper in, he was surprised to find more gold... and women!
They were tall and shapely, with midnight-dark hair and the palest skin he'd seen. Though slender and vaguely ethereal, their lack of solidity didn't detract from their seductiveness. They almost floated towards him. "Your blood will boil..."
Tearlach leered. "It already is, wench!"
"Oh, puh-leeze," Itonya mumbled, and shot the nearest one.
The arrow lodged in the woman's chest, hardly seeming to bother her. For some reason he couldn't quite put his finger on, this bothered Tearlach. "Hmm..."
"Hey, stupid! Wake up! They're vampires!"
"Vampires? Stupid woman! They're..."
"Of course they look like that. They want to." She was firing arrows one after the other now, putting a few in each. The boundaries of their bodies seemed strangely undefined; he could see arrows sticking out of them, but couldn't see the wounds. Very strange.
"Helloooo! Oh Mr. Precious Bodily Fluids! Render unto me a fvcking break and KILL THE BITCHES!"
"Huh? AH! Unhand me, foulness!" He swatted away clawed fingers, and raised his axe.
"Dawn breaks over Marblehead," Itonya grumbled, putting an arrow through the lead vampiress' eye. She seemed supremely unruffled by the stick poking through her head, but decapitating her helped.
The foul vampiress' had quite a horde of treasure for themselves, which Tearlach had earned the right to take. Back in camp, Cain looked even more bent than usual. "What happened to you, old man?"
"Kashya had something of a falling-out with me... I believe the applicable term is a 'power wedgie.'"
"Huh," Tearlach grunted. "You need all the power you can get. Identify these things."
"How is Kashya holding up?" Itonya asked.
"Three feet off the ground, for over 10 seconds."
Gheed waited patiently while Tearlach looked over his wares. He couldn't help but smile; the idiot was developing a real habit for gambling. All Gheed had to say was that one worthwhile item was in there; the mark always ran out of money before he ran out of things to gamble on. The Rogues paid the Barbarian cheap, but all of it was flowing straight into his coffers... When he got to Lut Gholein, Cheed was going to buy the biggest bowl of Nharlem weed money could buy, and smoke until all earthly sense left his body.
"Erm... the helm."
"There you are, sir!" Gheed grinned. "A fine helm of light, with resistance to cold too!"
"Bah! Useless!" The helm went flying across camp. Gheed could retrieve it later; after all, it was just lying around without any sign of ownership... "Are you sure you have something good in that pile, you snake?"
With a dramatic sigh, Gheed cast his eyes heavenwards. "You wound me, sir! I will admit, not everything available here meets your high standards, but where's the fun of gambling if you know it's a sure thing? Oh, I know you're frustrated! Believe me, when my customer isn't happy, I'm not happy. Here's a hint: try the sword."
"My clan weapon is the axe. I will not take a sword."
Gheed threw up his hands. "That's not my fault, is it? Perhaps a nice bow for your girl there? If you want a sure thing, here's a helm with sockets. It's nicer than the pot helm she's got now, and I'll let you have it cheap! How's that sound?"
"What of all the money of mine you've taken already?"
"Well... what of it? You can always get more, can't you?"
Grunting in dissatisfaction, Tearlach took the helm and dropped some coins in Gheed's sweaty palm. He'd have to get some new gems; it's hard to get them out of their sockets without breaking them. Meanwhile, Gheed congratulated himself on a job well done. Milk the sucker (and you couldn't ask for a better sucker than him) until he gets mad, then send him out for more. Gives him time to cool off, and you time to set up the next round.
The tower marshes were small, an isolated dip in the gentle climb up the pass. Beyond them, the land rose steadily, and the huge dark wall of the monastery came into view, stretching clear from one side of the pass to the other. Tearlach could see it was solid stone, with a smooth finish; burning or climbing would not do. This was an impressive wall for women to hide behind; it would have been more impressive if it hadn't been built to extort money from travelers. Tearlach was considering the best way to assault the monastery when a ball of fire burst on his armor. Itonya was shouting and shooting arrows at some skeletons. Blast, does that woman ever intend to give him time to think?
The skeletons were throwing the fireballs. Strange -- Tearlach always thought that casting spells took brains, and these bones didn't have any. They had brains enough to run, though, clattering off as he came to smash them back into their graves. Damning wizard's cowardice even in death, Tearlach chased them up and down the hill; they in turn led him into crowds of skeleton archers and more damned quill rats. Soon, the air was full of arrows, fireballs, quills,even a few lightning bolts from a crowd near the monastery gate. The few hand fighters there were the little blue coward demons, who ran in terror at the sight of blood. All the running got to be really annoying after a while. What made it even worse was that damn Rogue just standing there, smirking and plinking away.
Kicking open the monastery gates, Tearlach strode in. Nothing came to challenge him; they must be hiding deeper inside. Judging by the size of the place, it would take some time to find Andarial, especially since she was probably cowering in the deepest pit the place had to offer. Unless... he just went straight to the deepest pit in the monastery, since this foul demon lordess was sure to be there!
Smiling, Tearlach said, "Wench, where is the deepest pit in your monastery?"
"Need to take a dump?" Itonya asked.
"No. Answer the question, woman."
"Sure you do. Maybe then, you won't be so full of sh!t."
"We are going there! Now where is it?"
"We don't have any 'pits', unless you think Andarial's hiding in a latrine."
"Damn it, woman! Where are the deepest tunnels under your monastery!?"
"Probably the catacombs under the cathedral. Dare I ask why you want to know this?"
"That is where I face Andarial." Tearlach grinned. "Where else would she hide?"
"Gee, how'd you guess that?" Itonya rolled her eyes.
"I have a sense for these things. You would not understand."
"Or maybe because we told you how the evil came from under the cathedral that night?"
"Of course not. I wasn't listening."
The outermost area of the monastery was a group of gardens. Southlanders do like natural things, but only in an unnatural setting. Maybe that way, they think they control it; pipes hold water, walls hold earth, and banks of tall trees keep out most of the winds. It is nature that controls man: the land shapes him, tests him, declares him fit or unfit. Let man shape the land, and he becomes soft and weak. The Rogues had a statue in the central garden, a heroically-proportioned representation of three archers defending a hilltop. Tearlach just shook his head; the vanity of these silly women, putting on such an ostentatious display to glorify their weakness.
Sasquatch and more Rogues filled the gardens. These Rogues bore more signs of corruption on their bodies; their skins were turning black like burnt wood. It made killing them easier. The sasquatch were a tougher breed than usual, though still not respectable. Itonya told him there was a shortcut to the cathedral, through "barracks" and jails dug deep into the mountain bedrock. Tearlach didn't know what a "barracks" was; the best she could explain was some kind of weapons storehouse. There were plenty of weapons there, but also cots lined up in side rooms, like people were supposed to be stored there too.
On his way through, Tearlach ran into a huge crowd of demons, advancing on him in a considerable horde. Past experience had taught him that they could be safely ignored until their shamans were dead, so he leapt over their tiny heads and started braining shamans right and left. Then a deep voice bellowed, "I shall make weapons from your bones!" A fat demon, taller even than he, shuffled out of a red-lit hall, shoving tiny demons aside as it came. Tearlach smiled; this foe might be worthy of him.
The first hit is usually the worst; it actually sent Tearlach reeling back into the wall. Blinking with surprise, he took the next on his shield and bashed the fat demon back. The horde of little demons closed in, hammering and cutting from all sides while Fatso came back for more. Every time Tearlach or Itonya struck a demon down, one of the half-dozen or so shamans in the distance brought it back. He was going to enjoy killing them. Fatso, to his great credit, gave at least as good as he got; Tearlach actually had to drink a potion of healing before the bastard went down. The little one scattered, squeaking in fear. After shouting of his victory to the heavens; Tearlach continued where he'd been so rudely interrupted, bashing shamans into little puddles of goo. And damn, it felt good.
The fat demon had some valuable items, including new armor for Itonya. She actually said thanks for it; Tearlach was almost disappointed she didn't spit in his eye or something. In the chamber Fatso came from, a forge burned brightly, accounting for the glow. One of the smithing hammers glowed with magic. A magic tool? Why waste enchantments on a mere tool, when weapons are what saves your life? There no making sense of these people, but money is money, so Tearlach stuffed it in his pack and forgot about it.
Under the "barracks" were the jails. Prisons and bars everywhere. No man should ever be caged; among his own people, those who were not killed for their transgressions were exiled to foreign lands. The latter was the worse punishment. Ghosts abounded among the cages and torture devices, with hordes of goat-men and skeletons for good measure. Tearlach did not like this place. The walls seemed close, and the torture machines were obviously much older than the demonic invasion. He drove in deep and fast, plowing through ghosts and goats and ghosts of goats until they reached daylight again.
The jails opened out, strangely enough, onto the gardens in front of the Rogue's cathedral. It was a big building, dedicated to the glory of the Light; in the middle of the gardens was a waypoint. Tearlach stared at it for a moment, then activated it.
"Wow! Amazing! He's actually using the waypoint! Three cheers for no-brains!"
"Silence, woman. This is too far to run."
"What do you have against waypoints, anyway? You've been using portal scrolls. Heck, I didn't even think you could read."
"That will be enough, woman! The scrolls are common and easily understood, our shamans make them all the time. Waypoints are a sorcery I know not, and are not to be trusted."
Itonya grinned. "You just don't want to go through the jail again. Don't try to deny it, I saw how nervous you looked in there."
"I disliked the air in there; it stank. Perhaps you mistook distaste for fear."
The walls of the Rogue cathedral were intact, but that was all the good you could say about the building. The tall windows were smashed, the thick, heavy doors covered with gashes and bloodstains, and bodies lay scattered in the gardens. Powerful demons doubtless lurked inside, so Tearlach stomped up to the doors and pulled them open, letting the sun shine in. Immediately, demons attacked. The first group was what the Rogues called "devil dogs," a stupid name as they looked nothing like dogs. They were scaly, walked on two tiny legs, slouched so much their arms dragged on the ground, and had huge heads with protruding foreheads and jaws. If an opponent proved too tough, they would retreat and spit balls of lightning from their gaping mouths, a move Tearlach had become very familiar with.
Behind the big-heads was a crowd of demon shamans, with their retinue. Tearlach had just about had his fill of these sniveling worms. They wouldn't stand and fight, hid behind bigger beasts whenever they had a chance, and died in one hit. There was no honor in killing them, but they came endlessly. Even demon lords must be contemptible things if they think hiding behind walls of these creatures will save them. Do they think to prick a man to death with a thousand tiny knives? Charging in with a fearsome battle cry, Tearlach chopped them to bits one by one, while they squeaked and scampered and tossed useless little balls of fire. When he found this "Andarial", she was going to pay for all the trouble she'd put him through.
Past rows of smashed benches, he found the main altar, now drenched in gore. Boiling blood filled a basin to one side... with more demons hiding behind it. Just for a challenge, Tearlach decided to try seeing how far he could send their heads flying with a single chop. None got very far; his power was fine, but the technique needed work. While he was amusing himself in this fashion, Itonya started yelling: a glowing green skeleton was approaching, throwing globs of poison. Another skeleton wizard; doesn't this demon lordess have anything left? He pounded it to powder. Even then, it stank.
Soon, the cathedral was empty of all evil, save for a lingering stench and some stains on the floor. Looking around, Tearlach had to admit there was a kind of grandeur to the place; the southlanders might be small, but they could build a big building. The side galleries had some interesting pictures on the walls, showing some kind of cataclysmic celestial event, a mighty battle, and the fall of a kingdom.
"That's the founding of the Order of the Sightless Eye," Itonya said. "Ages ago, this land was the property of a greedy king. He abused all his subjects, but especially the women. He really hated women; kind of like you, I guess. The Goddess' eye appeared in the sky, with a great fiery tail, and the king fell in his next war."
"Don't be stupid," Tearlach said. "Why would an eye have a tail?"
Itonya glared at him in irritation. "It's a prophesy. The tail was the blade of a sword."
Tearlach laughed. "If a king falls, it's because of a sword in his belly, not in the sky. No seer would think a sword in the sky is any woman's eye, anyway."
"The Goddess' eye! The prophecy came true in every detail, and the women of the city founded the order to honor the Goddess."
He sneered, "If your Goddess wanted him dead, why didn't she have him killed with an arrow? She likes them better, doesn't she? Ha! Didn't think of that, did you?"
"Like you know anything about prophecy. The Goddess will work as she wills, by the means she chooses. The seers saw her in the sky, and they knew what it meant."
"Your seers are as blind as your 'sightless' eye. Not like the ones we have in the north! Ours have made prophecies for the whole world, all the lands and peoples, from the very beginning right up to the end, and they're always right!"
"Oh? So let's hear some."
"They are not for your ears."
"Ha! I knew it. Anyone can prophesy if they don't have to tell until after." Itonya struck a pose, one hand high in the air, and proclaimed, "Lo! For a warrior of great size and little hygiene shall come unto them, and render himself obnoxious to all. All shall fear him for the sickening odor that doth accompany him wheresoe'er he goeth."
"That's no prophecy. You make a mockery of the gift of sight."
"No, I make a mockery of you, as if you aren't enough of one already. You don't respect our ways, why should I respect yours?"
"Because our ways are the true ways, handed down to us by the Ancients themselves. No argument or mockery will change that."
"I know a prophecy," Itonya smirked. "I'm pretty sure you're in it."
"My coming must have been prophesied," Tearlach said suspiciously. "Are you brave enough to tell me, before it becomes truth?"
"It's not really about you... it's about the times of troubles, before what's called Hell's Final Gambit. In it, the Barbarian clans are guarding something... you know?"
Eyes narrowing, Tearlach grunted nonchalantly. With a bigger grin than she should have, Itonya continued: "They've got one champion who kills all the demons -- I figure you might be thick-headed enough to pull that off -- but whatever they're protecting gets destroyed. And it gets destroyed because of the Barbarian's pride."
"That can never be," Tearlach growled. "Our elders are the wisest men in the world, our warriors the strongest. None can stand before the fury of the tribes. Any man or demon who comes to the sacred mountain is dead. Your prophecy is but empty wind."
Itonya raised an eyebrow. "Sacred mountain?"
Silently, Tearlach fumed; he wasn't supposed to talk about that. "Wipe that smirk off your face, sassy little b!tch. I've decided not to tolerate any more of your insolence."
"Works for me. Won't hear another word out of me. Nope, not a one. Not a single --"
"THEN SHUT UP!!"
"Sure," she grinned. "Whatever you say."
The "catacombs" were down below the cathedral, where southlanders stacked up their dead in boxes. Of what possible use this could be, Tearlach could not say, but they like to be laid out on stone slabs under a temple more than anything else. Wide stairs led downward from a side hall of the cathedral, wide enough to carry a bier down into the cold, damp earth. With so many unclean bodies, there were sure to be many undead creatures. The uppermost level was full of goat-men and ghosts; they seem to be found with each other a lot. Why that might be so, Tearlach did not stop to wonder; he had bigger prey in mind.
The Rogue, at least, shut up after he'd told her to twice. That prophecy couldn't be right, of course -- the seers of the north hadn't seen anything like it. Still, it was troubling that these people knew about sacred Mount Arreat, and the guardianship. No one was supposed to know about that; even Tearlach himself knew little more than the mountain's name. Well, so what if some outlander prophet saw it? They couldn't be wrong every time. The knowledge would do them no good, with the clans in all their thousands constantly on vigil.
On a trip back to camp, the smith started jabbering at him. If it's not one woman making a lot of noise, it's another. He did his best to let it flow in one ear and out the other.
"... They told me my parents were Barbarians, but they died. I always thought they must be, like, wild and free and could go anyplace and see the world... and stuff."
"Nay, there's nothing to see," he muttered irritatedly. "They must have been weaklings if they died here. Now hammer out that dent and be quick about it."
She didn't. She was just leaning over her anvil, knuckles white around her hammer, before she started crying. "I just... I just..."
"You just what?!"
"Leave her alone!" Itonya said. "Charsi, don't let this meathead get to you!"
"Oh Goddess, I hate you!" Charsi sobbed. "I thought you'd be all neat and stuff, but you're just mean! You're cruel and mean and you must hate everybody and I hate you too!"
"You stupid!" Tearlach replied. "Is that what you're gonna do, cry like a baby? No wonder you're all so soft. Life is pain! Get used to it! You don't know what pain is, coddled in these soft lands with soft meat and soft words. All I say is the simple truth, and if you can't take it, toughen up! Thank your stupid Goddess you were born down here, 'cause in the north you'd be dead long ago."
The stupid girl just cried more. It was disgusting from someone that age, even a girl. Too much southern mollycoddling, no doubt about it. Itonya stepped in between him and Charsi, pushing against his chest. "Leave."
Tearlach didn't budge an inch. "She hasn't finished her work."
"So wear the helmet dented!" she yelled, smacking it down on his head. "It goes with the dent in your head! Just leave!"
"As though any good could come of tolerating weakness," Tearlach sneered. But he left. The whole camp was sickening. Weeping women pretending to be warriors. Prophesies from a blind Goddess. These lands are worse than the elders said. It was nauseating.
As Tearlach left, Itonya comforted Charsi, then went to see Akara. Cain and Warriv, who had heard everything, followed.
"Lady Akara, you know I am obedient to you."
With a sigh, Akara nodded sympathetically. "Yes, child, I know."
"I don't think I can take much more of this. He was supposed to be dead by now."
"He has proven more resilient than I believed possible."
"Legends say that the Barbarian clans are descended from ancestors who were more than human," Cain surmised. "Though his possession of the Berserker's Arsenal could account for much of his success. I wonder how he came by it."
"And let me assure you, Lady Akara," Warriv said, "his behavior is in no way unusual. What he said about traders coming to the mountains is not true. I have traded in the Barbarian capital, Sescheron, on many occasions. The northlands are hard and unforgiving; they make the people hard and unforgiving too."
Akara shook her head. "Visiting a city of such people would require extraordinary bravery, good master Warriv. But I fear returning smacks of foolhardiness."
Warriv chuckled. "Never fear, my lady. Despite all the strutting and blustering, they would never harm me. They need outside resources, and I am one of the few traders they haven't frightened away. They need me, and I know it. I just don't let them know I know it."
"Is he really so typical, then?" Cain asked.
"Mostly... though he makes a bigger point than most of disdaining outsiders. I thought it might be that the Barbarians of Sescheron have learned to behave better, but now I'm not so sure. Perhaps it's just that this young warrior feels he has something to prove, more than the elders I negotiate with."
"Hmm," Cain muttered, pondering this. "Curious."
"None of this solves the problem at hand, I am afraid." Akara bowed her head. "There is little doubt now that he will reach Andarial, and perhaps defeat her. I am sure he will want to be rewarded, and I will not allow him to get what he wants."
"Shouldn't Kashya have something to say about that?" Warriv asked.
"Her wishes are well known," Akara snipped.
"Where is Kashya, by the way?" Cain asked. "I haven't seen her since yesterday morning."
"She is indisposed," Akara said primly. "Itonya, dear child, I am afraid I must ask you to return to him."
"Lady Akara, please..."
"I have two very good reasons. Andarial must be defeated, if at all possible; for the good of the order, you must make sure this happens. And he must not defeat her alone. Under no circumstances can he win by himself; he must have had assistance to dilute his victory. You must fight Andarial with him, and you must remain alive. Do you understand?"
"Yes, ma'am. Then can I kill him?"
"No. If you do, Kashya will kill you, and I would rather that did not happen."
Itonya grinned. "Yes, ma'am, she would. I'd better go now, before he finds her."
"Thank you so much, child. May the Light shine upon you and protect you, from both our enemies and our allies, and the Goddess' sight be with you."
Tearlach was chasing a fleeing ghoul when the arrow came zipping over his shoulder, killing it. Damn, the b!tch is back. He'd never let her know it, but it did bother him the way all those little arrows went whizzing past him, missing by inches but always missing. Looking over his shoulder, he watched her approach silently before they moved on. Andarial was keeping her most dangerous minions close to her. The shamans' fireballs actually hurt, and these ghouls hit harder than any wizardly creature had a right to. They all died in the end, of course; the danger wasn't going to stop him. It just told him how close he was.
In the deepest chamber of the catacombs, Tearlach found a pool of blood the size of a small pond. Blood had come burbling out of holes in the floors above, which was bad enough, but where did the demons get so much blood? Surely, there weren't that many Rogues in the whole monastery, considering how many he'd already killed outside. After mopping up a last few zombies and demons, Tearlach kicked open the door to the inner sanctum.
Dead Rogues were all over the place, some in armor, some still in night-clothes. One had a strange-looking crossbow. Strange, the Rogues didn't use crossbows, but she still had one. There were also more zombies, big-heads, and shamans. Just how long did she think she could hide behind these weaklings? Tearlach sent their heads bouncing into the dark, and was satisfied to hear a response. "Die, maggot!" As though saying it would make it so! With his own less articulate (but more effective) battle cry, he met her head on.
Hmmm... nice tits for a demon. But they gave poison, just like the spider whose legs grew out of her back. With a grim smile, Tearlach hacked through the chain binding her nipples together (what was up with that, anyway?) before burying his axe in her neck. She hardly flinched, and backhanded him across the room! Damn, the uber-b!tch was tough!
Arrows whizzed over his head, thunking softly into Andarial's chest. Snarling, Tearlach leapt back to his feet and into the fray, bashing Andarial away before laying into her again. Yes, the uber-b!tch was very tough! Why didn't she ever try to take out the Rogue camp by herself? Demonic cowardice, probably; to go to battle is to put yourself at risk, something no demon wants. Until she had no choice, she would have stayed in this room until she rotted with the dead, rather than risk facing a single opponent... even a Rogue.
The battle was hard, but Tearlach proved harder. Well, he had to drink two healing potions and a poison antidote, but that's not cowardice, that's just smart. Andarial died in a tower of flame as her spirit went shrieking back to Hell, with his spit on her face as a parting gift. Ha! As though she ever had a chance. Still, the victory was a good one. The uber-b!tch had some shiny gems (chicks love those, don't they?) which Tearlach was sure Kashya would take as a gift, and a sign of his victory. He would have brought Andarial's head, but it had burned to ash instantly.
Tearlach stepped back into the Rogue camp with a triumphant howl. Looking around, he saw none of the Rogues admiring him. The merchants were packing up their wagons. No one was paying any attention to him at all! Where was Kashya? Where were the cheers, the praise, the hot and cold running babes? Starting to grow angry, Tearlach went to give Akara a piece of his mind. Itonya was standing with her; all the better!
"All right, witch. Your demon lordess is dead. Where's what's coming to me?"
"Whatever do you mean?" Akara asked politely.
"You know what I mean! I went up your damn hill, kicked demon ass all the way through your damned monastery, and slaughtered the b!tch that started it all! I have a gift to make to the fair Kashya, and I'm not letting you and your little witches hide her from me!"
Calmly, Akara asked, "Have you defeated Diablo, as you said you would?"
Blinking, Tearlach suddenly remembered all his previous boasting. Akara continued: "If, as you said, Andarial was only a minor lord of Hell, and not worth a true warriors time... surely you do not think defeating her will impress Kashya."
Shifting from one foot to the other, Tearlach said, "Um..."
"Young man, you are making a very big noise for something so unimportant. Remember, the quarry you came in pursuit of went through the monastery and out the other side. He is far away now, and getting farther the longer you wait here."
"Yeah," Itonya said. "And you didn't even kill her alone. I had to help you."
Face suddenly flushing with anger, he stammered, "I... ! You... ! She... !"
Working hard to conceal her smile, Akara said, "Young man, you have only just begun what you set out to do. No one is rewarded for running the first quarter of a race, or winning half a battle. If Andarial was unworthy, so be it. Come back when you have done something more worthy, if you please."
Eyes wild, his whole body trembling with anger, Tearlach stared at Akara while she tried to keep a straight face. Finally, he turned to the camp wall, and with a mighty roar, put his fist straight through it. Then he walked away, grimacing in pain.
The merchants loaded quickly, and were gone that very afternoon. Akara decided not to collect the usual fee for safe passage; after she'd had her cleverest Rogues break into Gheed's wagon and plunder his cash box, the order had all the ready money it needed. The last order of business was Kashya. It took five Rogues to carry her back into camp, still bound tightly to a heavy post. Letting her go might have been dangerous.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Kashya. Your mouth is bloody; did you try to bite through the gag?"
"WHERE IS HE!?! WHERE?! WHERE?! You CAN'T have let him go! I WON'T LET YOU!!"
"Calm yourself, Kashya. I am sure he will be back."
"OH PLEASE GODDESS, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL HUMANITY!! PLEEEASE LET ME KILL HIM!!!"
"There's no need for all that screaming. I am sure the Sightless Eye sees that this is for the best."
"At least let me make sure he'll never reproduce... !!"
Akara actually paused to think about that. "No, catching up to the caravan would take too much time. We have work to do. The monastery must be cleansed, and the grounds reconsecrated. When your lover returns, you may nail his private parts to the altar as an offering. I think that might please the Goddess very much."