Tearlach (Act II)
The caravan traveled east over the wastes of Aranoch. Waste was a good word; Tearlach never saw such a gods-forsaken land in his life. Over the whole trek down from the Rogue's pass, all he saw was scuttling bugs, carrion birds, and a few tiny little patches of water. What could carrion birds eat out here? They'd have to find something dead, and there was just nothing. At each miserable oasis, Warriv had to bargain with this or that tribe for the right to water the animals. The tribesmen were tall but skinny, their skins burnt dark by the searing heat, and all went armed with spears and slick little curved swords. Respectable, even if a true man could snap one in two with his fingers.
As zealously as the tribes guarded their water, they were generous with food. Where they got it, Tearlach wouldn't guess, but a generous host is a good host. The food was strange, mostly bread and a cake of some meat-like stuff. Though he'd seen a few rabbits (as thin and scraggly as everything else here) he doubted the meat was rabbit. Naturally, he wolfed it down to show his hosts how good their food was. Taste didn't matter in the end. Very likely he'd get thirds and fourths of whatever-it-was -- or so he thought, before the spices kicked in. His face went pink... then red... then purple as his sinuses melted and ran out his ears. Trying to scrub his mouth out with sand seemed like a perfectly sensible thing to do. Everyone else thought it was pretty damned funny, so Tearlach had to eat more, just to show them he could take it.
When a host is free with food, it is only proper for the guest to be just as generous, so when he could breathe again, Tearlach did his best to repay his hosts. Without family of his own to provide meat and drink to share, he made do with gems and gold, and tales of his brave deeds in the Rogue's pass. His stories impressed them greatly; they laughed, clapped, and sang strange chants to encourage him. It wasn't until they were nearly in Lut Gholein that Warriv told him the local tribesmen didn't speak his language, and couldn't understand a word he said. They all thought he was very entertaining anyway, and liked the gem chips.
As they approached Lut Gholein, sparkling with lights in the distance, darkness suffused the air, though the sun was still as bright and hot as a master's anvil. Vultures and hawks soared in the burning sky; at night, strange shadows moved among the dunes. Now and then, they came across a wrecked wagon. Sometimes, bodies lay nearby, withering up in the dry wind. Other times, there were no bodies. The merchants were worried, of course, but Warriv was sure a large caravan like his should be safe. Tearlach knew better; a larger group just means better pickings for those brave enough to take it. But anyone used to attacking fat helpless merchants should know better than to try anything with him.
The day before they reached the city, the first demons attacked: corrupted cliff lizards, jumping around and trying to kill the animals. They were tough, but not tough enough, and Tearlach knew Diablo had to be near. After getting to the city, he'd ditch these stupid merchants and get back to the hunt. Well, maybe not as fast as that -- he still had no idea what people ate or where to find it. He was a warrior, not a hunter. So, when the caravan entered Lut Gholein's western gate under the red light of a setting sun, Tearlach went to look the place over. Naturally, it could have little to offer a child of Bul-Kathos, but it would be good to know where food and drink could be had.
Some young pup in a fancy blue robe was talking with Warriv. As Tearlach walked by, he put his arm out to stop him. "Greetings, honored traveler. I bid you welcome to --"
"Out of my way, stripling. Isn't your mother looking for you?"
"I am Jerhyn, lord of Lut Gholein. Warriv tells me you are responsible for opening the pass for travelers once again."
"Aye, that I did. How'd you get to be lord of anything, anyway?"
"My father died recently, and left to me the stewardship of his city. It is a great burden, but one I hope to rise to."
Tearlach snorted. "Your eldest warrior?"
"Kaelan is captain of my guard... he's at my palace." Looking Tearlach up and down with a bit of distaste, Jerhyn said, "Ah, I'd invite you in, but it's a bit of a mess just now."
"A luxurious mess, then? I care not for your fineries, I seek prey here." After thinking for a moment, Tearlach asked, "Has a demon lord been here?"
"A... demon lord?" Jerhyn rocked back on his heels nervously. "Well, a cloaked wanderer did come here from the west some weeks ago. Terror has followed in his wake, and my city has been besieged ever since. They gather nightly outside the walls, and attack in the darkness; I have had to hire mercenaries to keep my city safe."
"Good," Tearlach grinned. That sounded like something a demon lord would do. "Where did he go?"
"He sought the location of an ancient tomb, where Tal Rasha is buried. The Light be praised, we did not tell him; none now know the tomb's location, save that it is out in the deepest deserts."
"Hmm... sounds like a long walk. I'll need food and drink, to start with."
"Atma's tavern is near the eastern gate, you'll find both and good company there. A soft bed can be had from Elzix, whose inn is by the northern wall."
"Soft beds? With my destiny at hand? Distract me not with comforts, I have no need of them. Hmm... Atma sounds like a woman's name."
"She is. Her husband died recently, so she runs the inn now."
"A lot of people died recently around here. Sounds like my kind of town."
After Tearlach left, Jerhyn asked Warriv, "What was the hold-up in the pass?"
"Well, the Rogue Monastery had been taken over by the demon queen Andarial. Between you and me, I'm sure the cost of entering the pass would be only slightly higher than what the Rogues charge, but I wasn't willing to pay that price."
"That is terrible news! We'd heard nothing from the west for weeks, and with the troubles we've had here, I assumed the worst. Things may be worse even than that!"
"That may be, my lord. Fate is taking us from the frying pan to the fire, and we don't have enough marshmallows to go 'round."
"Uh... yes," Jerhyn looked a bit confused. "Warriv, night is falling and the gates must be closed. Your caravan will be fine here, we must seek Drognan's council immediately."
For a while, Tearlach wandered the streets of Lut Gholein. It wasn't that he was lost, of course. It's just that this was a huge city, bigger than any he'd ever seen or heard of. Even Sescheron wasn't said to be this big. The whole city was lit up, with torches and lamps on every roof, and all around the walls. Outside, he could hear inhuman snarls and squeaks, and the spearmen on the walls occasionally killed something that got too close. For now, he'd let the city dwellers take care of themselves. There'd be plenty of time to show them how it's done after he'd had a decent drink and a meal. And none of that weird spicy stuff, either; it was giving him the runs.
Near one wall, a tall desert tribesman in mail was directing the warriors on the walls. This might be someone worth speaking to, if only as potential competition, so Tearlach greeted him. "You must be Kaelan, eldest warrior."
"No. You've got me confused with that pansy in the palace. I'm Greiz. You look like you're not from around here."
"And damn proud not to be. You in charge of these weaklings? Best of a bad lot, I'd say. What's with the funny hats?"
"Stranger, we are the Desert Eagles. We may not look like much, but we're the best this desert has to offer. A damn sight better than the local guardsmen -- they're all over in the palace, keeping the harem girls company."
"Harem girls? I've heard of them." Leering at a passing pair of wenches, Tearlach said, "I have noticed your city's fine scenery."
"Those aren't harem girls. The real ones are in Jerhyn's palace. When the demons came, they all wanted in there where it's safe." Greiz chuckled. "He was happy to oblige."
"That youngster? He wouldn't know what to do with them! What they need is a real man to take care of them."
"If the 'real man' wants to spend all his time in the palace, he can deal with Kaelan. Out here on the walls, we're dealing with a lot worse."
"Demons?" Tearlach snapped his fingers. "Killed hundreds! They're nothing to me."
"Most of 'em aren't too bad. The ones that throw the poison bottles are annoying."
"Yeah, the cat people. Nasty tempered."
"Not goats, then? Or little red ones?"
"Oh, no, they're complete wimps. You see a few of them in the western desert, but not around here. What's worst are the mummies."
"The cats have mummies? What about their daddies?"
Greiz almost didn't smile. "Preserved dead. The desert dries bodies out pretty good. If you smack 'em around enough, they let out a cloud of poison gas. Say, since you're new in town, why don't you hire one of my men? Can tell you which ones have nasty surprises."
"I don't need help to defeat the lord of Terror."
Eyes widening, Greiz slowly nodded. "Didn't say you did. It's those little annoying demons that get to you, though."
Tearlach sneered. "My honor demands a clean victory over Diablo."
"I wouldn't send anyone up against something like that. But if you can't afford what I charge, that's okay. Not many can."
"The hell I can't!" Slamming a fistful of coins into Greiz's palm, he snarled, "There's for your mercenary! And there's plenty more where that came from."
Carefully, Greiz counted the cash. "Hey, Emilio! You've got a job. He's your new boss."
Blinking, Tearlach looked down at the dark little man with a spear offering his hand. "Hey there. How's it hangin'?" Damn it. Hadn't he just gone through this whole 'help' thing? "I said, I don't need help from you or anyone."
Greiz shrugged. "I make it a policy never to give refunds. Emilio, back on the wall. He can't make up his mind."
"I know damn well what I'm doing!" Tearlach bellowed. "I paid for a mercenary, and that's because I meant to. Got me?"
"Sure," Greiz answered calmly. "Whatever you say."
Damn shifty southlanders... whenever they say 'whatever you say' or 'have it your way' they always seem to get the better part of the deal. Tearlach was going to have to watch these people, make sure they never try anything clever on him. Wandering along the street, he finally came to a well-lit house with large, open windows. Inside, in plain sight to all, maybe a dozen people were gathered. It smelled of good food, and strong ale... this must be the 'tavern' thing the stripling mentioned! Inside, it was warm and smoky; the whole building was saturated with the smell of roast meat and exotic spices. Tearlach bellowed an order for lots of meat and the most expensive drink in the place.
The most expensive drink in the place looked very disappointing. It was a tiny little glass, with maybe a finger's width of very dark liquid, and a mushroom floating on top. As Tearlach frowned at this feeble offering, a voice over his shoulder said "Are you gonna drink that?"
It wasn't often he had to look up to look someone in the face. The face in question was bleary and ill-defined, even though Tearlach hadn't touched the drink yet. "No, I'm going to bathe in it. What's it to you?"
"Oh, hey, don't let me disc'rge you from the whole bath thing, you know what I'm sayin'? But tha's a Black Mushroom, that is. Don't drink that, I'm tellin' ya. Tha's for seasoned professionals only. Moderation is the key!"
"You're afraid of this tiny concoction?" Opening wide, he threw the whole drink back in one gulp, mushroom and all. "Ha!"
That was the last thing Tearlach remembered when he woke up. It was daylight, he was in a completely different building, and was strapped to a bed that was soaked in sweat. A red-haired woman was dozing in the chair next to him. "What's going on?" he shouted. "Where am I? Where are my clothes? Who are you? Release me or I'll --"
The woman, who startled awake at the noise, put a hand on his forehead. For some reason, he immediately felt calm. "Ah, good. The fever has broken. Please don't be angry, but we had to tie you down to keep you from injuring yourself. The seizures should all have passed by now, so we'll let you up."
She was a comely lass, to be sure, and the red hair was an appealing touch. Maybe he was developing a soft spot for redheads... or a hard spot. "Not a problem, lass. Though I think we'd both be happier if I was free... and up."
"I paid Elzix for the room, of course, but you cannot stay here as I do not think you could pay for much longer. I found you out behind Atma's tavern, with a few of the local ruffians. They said they were your friends, and were taking care of you, but I had my doubts. For one thing, they were removing your armor."
"What?!" Throwing the last of his bonds away, Tearlach looked around the room. There was his rucksack, a suit of armor filling it. "Thank the Light! I could not lose that armor, it is a precious heirloom of my family."
"Do you mean the splinted armor, or the plate?"
The Berserker's Hauberk was leaning against the wall, with the helm and axe; what was in his pack? Tearlach looked, and found a completely new equipment kit inside. There was a set of plate, a winged helm of the kind his people make, new boots, gauntlets, another axe, rings and an amulet, several enormous gemstones... and a letter:
Don't you know that sometimes the smallest things have the biggest whallop in 'em? You stay away from those mushrooms, they're bad for you. To insure that you stay healthy and wealthy (wise will have to wait) here's some new things for you. You're startin' to outgrow the Berserker's set anyways. Put topaz's in the helm; the sapphires are for the mana you don't have. The axe is Bladebone, which should come in handy around here. Treat the ladies better, don't beat up your merc, and keep going after that whole destiny thing. Mr. Manmuscle, you are truly on track to success. Don't blow it now!
-- The Mule
"Is something wrong?" Fara asked.
"Nay. Destiny is finding me," Tearlach replied as he looked over the Mule's gifts. "Powerful spirits aid me in my quest to destroy The Three, and restore my people to our proper place in the world."
Raising an eyebrow, Fara asked, "Your proper place... ?"
"Aye! What else can it mean, that artifacts of power all come to me and me alone? Fate is our only master. It can only be that my destiny is to destroy all of Hell's minions, and become king and leader of all the world."
Quietly, she stared at him. He didn't smile. "I see you do not entertain small ambitions."
"They are for smaller men than myself."
"Well then, lord of the earth, I'll go downstairs while you dress."
Now he smiled. "Lass... I know you don't really want to."
With no visible reaction, Fara said, "Please don't strain yourself; I'm sure the effects of your adventure with the Black Mushroom haven't completely faded."
"You think I can't hold my ale, woman?"
"I'm sure you can hold a lot; Black Mushrooms are a different matter. It does not surprise me that you have never known anything stronger than ale or mead, but if you are wise, you will stay away from distilled alcohol. That gift of the alchemist's art has not been a blessing for the world."
After putting the Berserker's Arsenal aside, Tearlach picked up this "Bladebone" axe. It had much the same weight and balance as the Berserker's axe, but the head was engraved with grinning skulls. Good; all the better to put the fear of death into Diablo's slaves. The helm was a grand winged helm, imbued with knowledge; only Harrogath's smiths know the secrets of making such helms. Strangely enough, there were no magic stones to put in the helm's sockets, or the four in the plate armor; just sparkly gems. They were big and shiny enough, true... any lass would kill for them. But to a warrior, runes of power are far better. Ah, but the note said to use the gems. Who was he to argue with his spirit guides? There must be a good reason for it, though it might take time to see.
Rucksack on his back, Tearlach walked out of the inn into daylight. It was midmorning; did one little glass of... whatever it was put him down all night? The demon queen of the Rogue monastery didn't have such strong venom! In front of the inn's open window, by a display of old clothes and weapons, was an amazingly mangled man. Tall, dark, and scrawny like every other native of this place, he was missing an eye, a hand, a leg, and who knows what else under his sagging clothes. They were obviously the scars of battle; a sad thing, to see any warrior survive in such a state. He'd never know warfare again, ever.
"Hey, you're awake," Elzix said. "Your mercenary figured you were dead and went back to his boss. You know, Lord Jerhyn came by, asking about you."
"The stripling? He can ask what he wants, I do not answer to a child. What concerns me now is my purse. It is much too light."
"Hey, don't look at me!" Elzix held up his hands. "I haven't had a robbery at The Desert Rain for years! These are things old guests left behind. Kind of a rummage sale."
"Another robbed me, behind the tavern. He will pay with his life. Here; this money is for the night I spent. I will not be indebted to a woman, either."
"She didn't tell you it was three nights?" He waited for an answer, but the confused look on the Barbarian's face told him enough. "Ah, why don't you just forget about it? It's not like I've got anyone beating the door down for a room."
"Three nights? Are you sure?"
"I've still got one eye, don't I? The sun disappeared three times. Three nights."
"Hmm..." A horrible thought crept into Tearlach's mind. "Damn it... the trail will be cold!"
"If you're looking for your robbers, nobody's left town. Jerhyn closed the port."
"No, you pathetic dolt! The demon I follow will have hidden by now!"
"My destiny is to destroy Diablo, and his brothers with him. In the time I spent, felled by your foul concoctions, the demon lord will have gone to ground and hidden himself, making him that much harder to find. It is the way of these cowardly beasts."
"Oh. Uh, sure. I dunno, the monsters I've tangled with didn't like hiding. Those old tomb guardians out in the desert are all over you the minute you step into their crypts. The only monster I know of that's hiding is down in the sewers."
"What monster? Where? You know of one?"
"Sure. Listen at any sewer grate, you can hear it moaning. Big bastard too, huge; bigger than you, easy. Used to come out at night and stalk the city streets, but he's been holed up down there since, uh... since you came to town."
Tearlach thought about this; Elzix could almost hear the gears grinding. Finally, a smile crept across his face. "Damn it, that's clever. My quarry sought to hide right here below your city, under my very nose. Who would think to look there? Ha! I'll say one thing for these demons -- they know how to hide! Very clever, but not half as clever as me."
"Oh yeah," Elzix nodded. "You're sure it's him?"
"I can sense these things. He will not escape me this time."
After collecting his mercenary (he paid for him, he was going to use him, damn it) Tearlach found a maintenance hatch into the city sewers. Water - or something fouler - dripped from the ceiling and gurgled out of pipes in the walls. The nomads of the far-off deserts would kill for such richness, here used to wash away muck under a city grown too large. True to his nature, the Lord of Terror filled the sewers with skeletons. To make them extra-scary, he'd even lit them on fire. When are these demons going to learn? Maybe that skinny little merc of his might be frightened by burning bones, but Tearlach smashed them to bits. His new axe clove greedily through the bones without getting a scratch, obviously made for this.
Looting the dead was profitable enough. He found the merc a spear he liked, a powerfully enchanted blade, and best of all, a battle axe with two sockets. That would be perfect for the runes he found in the Rogue's pass, left there in ancient times. They spelled the rune word "steel," the first word Bul-Kathos ever taught his children. With steel, his people had carved their names into legend; on steel, the reputations of warriors were made and broken; by steel, the world would stand or fall. Tearlach took the axe back to the surface, to find the city's smith.
The smithy was in the central marketplace. The red-headed nurse was nearby. "Woman, where is the smith? I need this axe sharpened and its haft rebound."
"The shaft could use reforging as well; it has obviously been bent a few times, and the metal is fatigued." She took the axe quietly and began work on it.
After a moment's stupefied blinking, Tearlach smacked himself on the forehead. "By the Immortal King's sacred charge... is there a smith anywhere in these lands who's a man?"
"Didn't that hurt with gauntlets?" Emilio asked.
"My head is harder than that!"
"And thicker as well," Cain said as he ambled over.
Frowning in concentration, Tearlach finally said, "You look familiar..."
"I believe he came east from the Rogue's pass with you," Fara said.
"I knew that. He's... he looks different now, that's all."
Cain raised his eyebrows. "I do? How?"
"You... changed the part in your hair."
"I haven't had hair for years!"
Tearlach look Cain up and down. "New robe!"
"I've had it laundered. Perhaps that has confused you."
"Of course, you old fool! How do you expect me to recognize you like that?"
"Yeah," Emilio held his nose. "Take it from him, never clean anything."
"No point in it," Tearlach mused. "What are you doing here, old man?"
"More than anyone, I know what you face, and the threat he represents. I could not stay comfortably behind... though the Rogues wanted me to. If the world is to have any hope, Diablo must be destroyed, by whatever means are open to us."
"Us? What do you mean us, old man?" Then Tearlach noticed the smith; she must be listening. "I mean, I wouldn't let an old man go into danger. You should find someplace you can live out your remaining years in peace."
"I am not eager to be here, believe me," Cain said, looking suspicious. "But I would know no peace if I were not helping. My only hope is that my lifetime of knowledge can be of some use. Say, is that Rixot's Keen you have there?"
"I just found it. Decent, for a pocket knife."
"You do have a talent for finding enchanted items, which seems to be improving."
"It's good to be lucky, but better to be strong. Woman! Are you done with my axe?"
"Nearly," Fara answered.
"Are all the smiths in these lands women?" Tearlach asked.
"No," Emilio answered. "She's good at it, though. I think she learned in Kurast."
"I don't care where she learned, just so she learned. And don't think I don't like that she's a woman doing smithing! I've never had a problem with that."
The silence was palpable. Even Fara stopped working. Finally, Cain cleared his throat and said, "Yes, I've always admired your easy acceptance of non-traditional lifestyle choices."
"Of course! Why limit yourselves to being wrong in only one way? Ah, the axe is done! Let me see that thing."
"Careful, it's still hot."
"OW!" The axe clanged to the ground, but Tearlach immediately picked it up again. "You're right, it is. Not too hot, though. Just surprised me." Juggling it from one hand to the other, he took it back to where he'd stashed his rucksack, and retrieved the runes.
While he was gone, Fara whispered to Cain, "Has he always been like this?"
"Actually," Cain thoughtfully muttered, "I think he's getting better."
The battle axe was a thing of beauty. Skulls shattered with ease, cloven straight down into the spine. He'd have to give more thought to his choice of weapons in the future. In the Rogue pass, he used a single-handed axe because it was part of the set, but it seems that breaking with tradition has its rewards too. In the deepest node of the sewers, Tearlach found his prey. Skeletal mages, and other walking bone-piles burnt black with flame, formed a wall of undeath in front of a huge demon. As though that would save him. Ha!
Tearlach leapt over the skeletons and laid into the demon. The skeletons surrounded him, blasting their magic, but his concentration was too strong to be broken. The merc knocked one down every so often, but the demon just raised it again. Stupid. Every moment it took away from Tearlach was one he used to carve another chunk out of its ancient, leathery body. Midway through the battle, Tearlach realized this couldn't be Diablo. It didn't have a heartbeat. Demons have a heartbeat; the monster was just some kind of undead.
In time, it gave up the ghost, like dead things should. Undead or not, it went spectacularly. Bolts of white light shot down through the roof, lighting up the sewer node while Tearlach killed the last skeletons. Human bodies littered the thing's lair. Several had been skinned, or had pieces missing. On a rack in the corner, the skins of many bodies had been stitched together into some kind of suit. Damn, that thing was ugly. If the monster thought it was going to fool anyone, it should have at least gotten matching tits. Tearlach cleared anything that might be valuable out of the lair and hauled it up to the surface.
"Damn it, old man, it wasn't him. I'll have to keep looking."
"I cannot imagine Diablo remaining here in Lut Gholein. He will be out in the desert, trying to find his brother's tomb. Ah! You should look at this book. It is a description of some old martial techniques you may find useful."
"I am privy to the oldest martial techniques of all, and the strongest." Tearlach looked at the book. "No harm in looking, of course."
"None at all. From what you describe, the sewer creature must have been a mummy, the desiccated, preserved body of an ancient mage or king."
"Don't be stupid. It was over 8 feet tall."
"When the Horadrim mummified their greatest mages, their bodies were enhanced with the bones and blood of animals, to give them greater stature and physical power. They were meant to guard their tombs after death, and to remain there... but it seems many of the old binding spells are being unraveled."
Tearlach spat. "What fools would work so hard to give the dead power over the living?"
"None of this could be foreseen. Those ancient mages doubtless had no idea their remains would be put to such uses. I wonder if this one was trying to rebel against Diablo's will; he seems to have been trying to restore his body with living flesh."
"Then ancient mages were idiots. That thing wouldn't fool a child of 3."
"Being dead does tend to dull one's wits. Ah, a Horadric scroll! This mummy must have been a Horadric mage!"
"Not anymore he isn't. Never mind, you read your useless scrolls. I'll be at the smith's."
Cain didn't answer; he was already lost in the ancient glyphs. Wizards. Put a piece of paper in front of them, they're lost to the world. Makes you wonder if an effective technique for taking on wizards is to throw a book at them and kill them once they're distracted. While Fara was putting a new edge on Tearlach's axe, he took the chance to tell her of his many deeds of skill and prowess. He'd been in such a rush to find Diablo, he never got a chance to tell her about himself. Now he knew that finding Diablo might just take some time... and he can't spend all his time scratching around in that desert. Unlike the Rogues, Fara didn't go quiet and look ill while he spun his tales; she chatted patiently, and never once took her eyes off her work. She must like him. But how could she not?
Ready for anything, Tearlach stepped out into the empty wastes outside Lut Gholein. Diablo wasn't in the sewers, but he might be anywhere out there, looking for his entombed brother. The demon lord Baal had supposedly been buried in "the deepest deserts." How can a desert be deep, anyway? Never mind; the tomb is far away, and would take time to reach. Nearer town, the dead had been planted all over the place; every hole in the ground was probably full of demons and darkness. Best to go through them all. Being a major demon lord, Diablo was probably smarter than Andarial was, and might hide somewhere less obvious. The sewers still would have been a good place.
The dry, empty deserts were the same as they had been on the ride in -- only now Tearlach was walking, instead of riding on a cart with a canopy to shade him. The canopies had stuck him as incredibly decadent at first; what harm can there be in a little sunshine? After falling off the cart twice, Warriv told him to stay under the canopy -- it was too much work to lift him back up. A warrior never faints, of course; he fell asleep, maybe, to the slow rocking of the cart, but that was all.
Anyway, it was damn hot in this country. There weren't even trees to shade yourself, just low sandstone boulders and the occasional statue. The statues were strange, giant heads of bearded men with conical hats and simpering smiles on their faces. If they wanted to make impressive statues around here, they'd better make the faces less idiotic. And then there were the insects. The land was cursed with them. In summer, the mountains' high plateaus were breeding grounds for biting flies, but the midges knew no season here. And what didn't bite stung with tail barbs that could drive through boot leather. According to his mercenary, every bug in the land was either venomous, unclean, or just plain nasty.
"And don't kick over rocks like that. If there's a cobra under one, it'll get mad."
"I care not for a cobra's moods, whatever a cobra is. Anything that hides under a rock is nothing I respect."
"They gotta get out of the sun too!" Emilio wiped his brow, squinting in the heat. "Yeah, smart critters get out of the sun..."
"If they can't take it, that's their weakness. I have demons to hunt."
"Huh. Yeah. Only demons and Barbarians go out in the noonday sun. Yes, sir. You know, maybe I should write that down. Might make a good title for a book. You don't read books much, do ya?"
"Didn't think so. You should, chicks dig guys who read books."
"No they don't. Books are for old men and wizards."
"No, I'm serious! They think it means you're smart and going places. You should know how to write, too. I'll teach you if you need to."
"I sell letters to the other guys so they can send them to their girlfriends. I don't think anyone's done as much as I have to make this city a happy place. I only got caught once, when I copied a poem out of a book and the girl knew it. She still thought the guy was great, though; he went for good reading."
"A warrior has no need for reading. Now shut up! Do you think I want to listen to your babbling all day? You're as bad as the Rogues."
"Hey, calm down! You getting hot? Should have brought some water, you know. Or wear something under that armor. Metal gets hot in the sun."
Tearlach looked appraisingly at Emilio for a moment. "Are all those cloths on your head to keep it cool?"
"Well, duh. Why are you wearing that weird helmet? It looks like your head's about to take off flying."
"You would not understand the beauty of sacred helms. Now shut up or I'll kill you."
Emilio sighed. "Don't blame me for trying to make conversation."
Half a day out of town, Tearlach found a tomb carved deep into the desert bedrock. The stairs down were cool and dry; the air smelled like dust and spices. Though the tomb was full of bodies, preserved for the ages and animated by Hell's evil, it was cool and shady, with no obnoxious insects. The preservation process these people use involves soaking the body of the honored ancestor in a foul combination of toxins, then wrapping it in swaddling linens like a mummer. Because of that, they were called "mummies", whether they were a mummy or a daddy or whatever. It also meant they let out a cloud of foul vapors when you cracked them open. All the more reason to let the dead be dead, and not try to keep them around once their time is done.
The tomb was big, with dozens of bodies, not all of which were ambulatory. Apparently, all the honored dead of a particular family were interred here. Shrines occupied side rooms, where the people offered their ancestors food and drink, like they were actually alive. At least, that's what the stupid mercenary kept babbling about. Tearlach wasn't interested in the tour; it was all madness and more madness. The dead were dead, and the living should concern themselves with living. At least the tomb didn't contain any big mummies like the sewer monster. If only Horadrim wizards got that treatment, there couldn't be many more of them, and with luck he'd never run into another one.
As deep and dark as the tomb was, there was no Diablo or anything like him there. He was probably even further into the desert. Tearlach pushed out from the city, into some low hills, where he found a rock painted like a waypoint. It probably was a waypoint; the mages who made the stupid things liked hiding them, so they made them hard to recognize. With some hesitation, Tearlach activated it. Ordinarily, anything that makes life easier should be discouraged, but time was running short and magic is occasionally useful.
Night was falling as Tearlach climbed the first hill to look around. That merc was whining about going home; apparently, he was tired and hungry. For his part, Tearlach was eager to continue. The nights were bracingly chill, and the clean winds felt good against his face. If the mercenary got cold, he could warm himself up again with fighting. Just in time, a fight presented itself as a glass pot shattered against Tearlach's armored chest. Pungent gas filled the air, stinging his nose and lungs. That must have been one of those alchemical gas bombs he'd find every now and then; better find out who threw it.
In the dark at the base of the hill, Tearlach found a bunch of cat people, wearing elaborate leather harnesses and fancy hats. Like everything in the desert, they were skinny, rangy, mangy things who desperately wanted to kill him. They were as good at it as everything else in the desert too. After they were all dead, Tearlach took a look at them. They had to be some kind of people, as they had clothes and weapons, even shields which had saved their lives until he got a second swing. Also, many of them were girl cat things. With more than one set of... girls shouldn't go around dressed like that! Especially on cold nights! Hmm... maybe all the fur helped.
The deserts were dotted with the ruins of old houses, now little more than low stone walls in the dust. Houses were a sign of farmers, which couldn't be right; there was nothing you could possibly farm in this wasteland. The kitty girls kept bombing Tearlach with potions from a distance, as though they thought it would do them any good. He suspected they weren't actual demons -- for one thing, they were a lot cuter than any demon ever tries to be. Even angry, they looked cute. Maybe they were some people from somewhere in the world, who sold their souls but hadn't been corrupted physically yet. It didn't really matter, but killing them took so little concentration Tearlach found his mind wandering.
Another tomb had been dug into the ground between two hills. This was a big one, with long tunnels extending in every direction, and huge temples and galleries. The columns looked like people with their arms crossed over their chests, and similar decorations were worked into the walls. They looked nothing like the giant heads outside; these people were severe in the face, and clean-shaven. Strange and senseless, all of it, but not as mad as what they'd done with their dead.
These tombs were for more important people, apparently. There were Horadric mummies, each with a crowd of smaller undead at its command. Yes, actual command; the big mummy would point and go "Aaaaroroooghha" and the little ones would charge forward at a leisurely shamble. It was almost funny. The big bastards remembered magic, which took a lot of the humor out of the situation. They cast death bolts of some kind, unholy energy Tearlach couldn't see except by their shadows. And when a lesser undead was struck down, the greater mummy would raise it again. That was annoying, but the tombs had high ceilings. Tearlach just leapt over the little guys and took down the big mummy first.
Some cat people were hanging around in the lowest part of the tombs, along with the usual crowds of undead. These ones tried to kill Tearlach with whips. Kittens with whips. Even the merc got a laugh out of that one. It did prove the kitties were people, and probably "civilized"; only the civilized think whips are to be used on anything but animals. After smashing his way through every corner of the tomb and not finding Diablo, Tearlach went through the loot to see what was there. Most items were easily classified - sword, spear, hat, jewelry - but one was strange. It was a box, maybe a foot and a half on a side, with a big button. Odd, but the old fart would know what it was. He'd ask later; the sun was rising, and it would soon be hot again. This was a good time to get some sleep.
The sun shone red through the room's single small window as someone came knocking on Tearlach's door. He'd rented a bed -- sleeping outside was just about impossible. As soft as sand was underfoot, it was harder and less comfortable than bare rock under his back, and the insects in this country were impossible. At least in a room, he could shut the door; the bugs inside would sate themselves on his blood soon enough, and no more could get in to renew the feast. Enough blood would be lost to Diablo's demons, there was little to spare for fleas and biting flies. But now, someone was knocking on his door.
"Go away!" Tearlach delicately entreated.
"It's 6 o'clock," the mangled innkeeper's voice replied. "Someone wants to see you."
"Who wants to see me at dawn, a giant lark? Anyone who goes visiting at this hour better expect to learn patience. He's gonna spend a long time waiting."
"No, it's 6 o'clock at night. The sun's going down. It's that wizard guy who hangs around in the marketplace. Says it's important."
"Nothing he says is important. It's always 'stay a while and listen' this, and 'you honor me with your presence' that. Then he blathers into his beard about something that happened to some stupid fool centuries ago in another country. Ah, show him in. He'll get nervous and start drooling on himself if he doesn't get to say what's on his mind."
It was time to get up anyways. Tearlach started pulling his armor on as Cain hobbled into the room. "I've been telling you those stories of 'stupid fools' because I thought you might find them instructive."
"I don't need someone to teach me to be a fool."
With visible effort, Cain held his tongue. "Do you remember this scroll? I have translated the runes it bears, and what it says relates to your quest."
Frowning, Tearlach tried to remember. "Scroll... with the sewer monster? He had many of them down there, and books."
"All of which contain much valuable information, though none so important as this. Ages ago, when Tal Rasha was imprisoned, the Horadrim crafted his tomb so that it could not be opened except by the use of a Horadric ceremonial staff. Years later, after one was stolen by a madman trying to free Baal, the Horadrim broke their staves and scattered the pieces."
Tearlach was pulling on his boots. "Does it say where the tomb is?"
"The Horadrim chose not to record the location, so that the knowledge could never be used by Hell's forces. They did record how the pieces of a Horadric staff could be reunited, using an alchemical tool called a Horadric Cube. When I spoke with Emilio earlier, he said that you found a peculiar box... may I examine it?"
"It's in the corner. Weird thing. Who's Emilio?"
After glancing up to make sure he wasn't joking, Cain sighed. "The soldier who has fought by your side for the last few days. I hope it's just that you're not good with names." When he saw the cube sitting under a pile of charms, he crowed, "Yes! You have indeed found a Horadric Cube! That is quite a treasure, and will prove invaluable on your quest."
"It's a folding box with a button. What does it do?"
"The Horadric Cube is a transformative tool, with many valuable uses! It's quite simple to operate: place the correct items inside the cube, and press the button. Three gem chips and a magical sword will make a new enchanted sword with three open sockets!"
"Hmm... that could be useful. What of an axe?"
"I fear the Cube will not transform anything but a sword. Peculiar, that. There are many other uses for the Cube: two quivers of bolts will make a quiver of arrows, or two quivers of arrows make a quiver of bolts!"
"So it can change junk into junk, and back again."
"Well... a stack of javelins can be made from any spear and --"
Tearlach laughed! "A spear? How do you propose to fit a spear in that box? Or a sword, for that matter?"
"A Horadric Cube is much larger than it appears. Since you doubt my word, I'll leave it to you to experiment, and perhaps discover other formulae."
"Can you stuff a demon inside and turn them into gold? Or just keep them in there?"
"I do not invite you to try."
"Well enough," Tearlach grinned. "You said Baal's tomb is opened with a staff, and the staves were broken and scattered around the desert?"
"Ah, you were listening. The highest-ranking Horadrim used ceremonial staves as badges of their office, and guarded them well. I am sure the pieces were hidden carefully, in the darkest and most dangerous parts of the desert."
"Figures. Wizards think they're so subtle. All you need to do is go to the most dangerous place in the land and thrash their feeble guardians to find their precious secret things. I still think Diablo would have been smarter to hide in the sewers."
"Yes, you've said that repeatedly. It would Diablo little good to hide himself in the sewers, I fear. He is trying to find his brother."
"Don't worry, I'll find his brother first and make him wish he'd never been born. No one will ever find him once I'm done with him! Next comes Diablo. Who's the third one?"
"Mephisto. He was imprisoned in Kurast."
"There next. Might as well make it three for three, and teach you southlanders a lesson in how to handle demons. 'Imprison them for all time.' Ha!"
"And what would you have done?" Cain inquired mildly.
"Kill them, of course. Send them screaming back into the pit that spawned them."
"Yes, that sounds obvious. But 'the pit that spawned them' is the source of their demonic power; they come back from it renewed, stronger than ever."
"Hmm. Does that mean Andarial will come back to the Rogue monastery?"
"In time, she will return... perhaps not there, but somewhere."
Tearlach smiled. "They'll need someone to guard them, then."
"Perhaps not. She was there to guard Diablo's way, and not of her own choice. According to legend, Andarial greatly prefers male victims to female ones."
"She also doesn't like them to put up a fight. Never mind, that's for tomorrow. We might die today... but not if I have something to say about it."
After collecting his mercenary, Tearlach used the waypoint to get back to the desert. He forgot the guy's name again, but that's because it's one of those weird southlander names with lots of vowels. Instead, he decided to call his merc "useless." It was either that or "hey you" and "useless" fit him better. On a wide plateau above the hills, several springs of water came to the surface, making a bunch of closely-spaced oases. For around here, it was a lush setting, full of spiny desert plants and date palms heavy with fruit. The bad part was that biting flies also liked water; they were so thick he got a mouthful of little bastards every time he drew breath. "Useless" wrapped one of his head cloths around his nose and mouth; a good idea, so Tearlach followed suit with an old rag.
Then the flies started coming in tight clouds, every bug moving together to push aside cloth and leather and get the flesh and blood underneath. I knew it, Tearlach thought. They're tiny little demons here to torment me. Demons never kill cleanly; they have to draw it out, slowly suck you dry or flay the flesh from your bones. The flat of his axe was much more useful here, swatting the bugs and breaking up the cloud. Sometimes, the flies dropped an item. How in the nine Hells does a bunch of bugs carry a poleaxe, anyway? And WHY would they carry around a poleaxe? Never mind; there's too damn many of these bugs to worry. Concentrate on killing them.
In the open areas, little blood hawks flapped languidly around, and huge segmented worms twice as long as a man is tall burrowed in the earth. "Useless" said the big bugs were farmed out here; their eggs were good eating once, but now they were all poisonous. The bastards were poisonous -- they even spat venom, and they were tough and hard to kill. They still laid eggs, which hatched into little hordes of flesh-eating young with Hellish speed, and hid under the sand rather than die with dignity. After going through a group enchanted with lightning, Tearlach was sure he had a new least-favorite enemy, and even more reason to find Diablo and give him a taste of his axe. If he came back to earth for another beating, that would be just fine. Tearlach had a lot to dish out for him.
The big bugs came out of a round hole in the ground. Lowering himself in, Tearlach saw it was a network of round caverns and openings, like an ant nest on a giant scale. Rather than stone, the walls were lined with some kind of mucus, hardened in the dry desert air. Now, Tearlach didn't mind mucus, but this much of it was another matter. The ceilings were also incredibly low; he couldn't even stand up straight.
Tearlach jumped out of the hole. "Never mind this place. There's nothing here."
"Hey, that's a nest," Emilio said. "They never used to dig those. I'm betting whatever's corrupting the sand cows is down there."
Sighing, Emilio shook his head. "The big bugs. I told you that already."
"Is it my fault you don't speak up? I'm not here to kill insects. I've more important prey."
"Whatsa matter? You chicken?"
"WHAT!?" Tearlach had his axe to the merc's throat in a moment. "Say that again, so I have an excuse to kill you."
"I saw how pale you looked when you climbed out of there!" Emilio grinned. "Paler than usual, even! Is it dark and scary down there?"
"I fear no man or beast. There is nothing of importance down there."
"Buck buck buck bu-COCK!"
That did it. With the stupid mercenary behind him, Tearlach went through the entire bug nest, killing everything that moved. Big sand worms, insect clouds, even three packs of the damned lightning beetles he'd grown to hate almost as much as the worms. Strangely, there were several storage chests in the nest, full of valuable weapons and armor. He couldn't see how or why the bugs had brought them in, and packed them up so neatly.
"It's damn weird, wizard," Tearlach told Cain as he looked over the loot. "They're stupid bugs, beneath humanity. Even beneath you. Why do they have these?"
"Some demons collect artifacts with the intent of devouring them," Cain mused. "There has been speculation that demons can absorb enchantments, at some risk to themselves. It may explain those odd creatures with strange powers and abilities for their type."
"Ah, ha! There must be a powerful demon in there, to have so many rare and wondrous things! Diablo himself could be in there. And to think 'useless' wanted to ignore it!"
"What?!" Emilio blurted out.
"Why do you think I call you that? For your charming personality? I'll be back soon, with some demon's head. And don't be surprised if it looks familiar."
Back in the bug nest, Tearlach went chewing his way through insect after insect. "Useless" was upset over something and not helping, but he didn't need help to clear out bugs. In a strangely cold chamber in the deepest part of the nest (it's always the deepest part) a fat worm five times the size of all the others lay. It was spewing out eggs and grown bugs as fast as its bloated body could make them, and dozens of tiny worms were crawling to attack and feed. It was a long, tedious fight, surrounded by unworthy but hungry and numerous foes. Even "useless" broke out of his reverie long enough to kill a few.
A thorough search of the nest didn't turn up Diablo. There was a neatly-packed chest in the bug-mother's lair, with a few valuable items and a broken old staff. Hmm... an incredibly ancient staff, broken into pieces, hidden in a dark and dangerous place. Who says wizards aren't predictable? Sure enough, it was what was left of the shaft of a Horadric staff.
"A destiny is a comforting thing, wizard. Far greater than any magic."
"I wouldn't know," Cain replied. "I've never cast a spell in my life."
"You're even more useless than most wizards!" Tearlach laughed. "What's that up there?"
Cain followed Tearlach's gaze upwards. High in the sky, a dense black cloud was flowing out of the desert, towards the sun. "I have no idea. In all my years I have never seen such a thing."
The cloud oozed across the burning blue sky, and passed in front of the sun. Everything went black. "Damn that demon," Tearlach muttered. "He's summoned enough damn bugs to blot out the sun."
"This is obviously the result of sorcery," Fara said, glancing up at the darkened sky. "We should seek Drognan's council immediately. He is wise in such matters."
"Aye, it's foul magic," Tearlach replied. "A cloud of bugs blotting out the sun. I know how these things work. So... before they come down, I should make sure you get inside, where they can't eat you."
"I'm... not sure that you're correct. We would do well to seek Drognan's advice."
"I've already got one old fart following me around, telling me what to do." Casually, he leaned against the wall of Fara's shop, every muscle flexed, and smiled. "A time of darkness is best spent in shelter. Don't worry lass, I'll gladly stay with you."
For the first time, words seemed to fail Fara. He must be wearing her down -- but what red-blooded woman could ignore him for long? Finally, she stammered, "I suppose in your land, indifference in the face of alarming events is considered courageous. Here, a warrior's duty demands that troubles like this be dealt with promptly. I feel there is a greater danger in this than any cloud of insects. I have never seen anything like this before, but Drognan is native to this land and spends much of his time studying its history. His knowledge would be invaluable in dispelling this darkness."
Of course, Tearlach thought, she's scared of the dark! "Lass, there's nothing in the dark that's not there with the sun! Until those bugs come, there's nothing to worry about. Get your mind off your fears. There's a tavern right over there; you need ale and laughter!"
"I am aware of the tavern's location, if you'll remember your first day." After a moment's thought, she said, "Perhaps we both need some 'liquid courage.' What other reason would a brave warrior have to stay in town, while the object of his quest gets further and further away? This endless night must have unsettled you... you poor thing."
"What?!" he snarled. "I need no woman's pity! Day or night means nothing. It could be night forever for all I care! So, you think some darkness-making demon can get the better of me by shutting off the sun? I'll show you who's 'unsettled'!"
As Tearlach stomped off to Drognan's shop, Fara bowed her head with a sigh. Cain, who was always nearby, said, "I see you have learned something of his character."
"Despite his efforts to be ingratiating, it would be a foolish woman who could not see him for what he is. Manipulating another is unpleasant work. It is not something anyone should be proud to learn to do. But... he makes it so easy."
Cain nodded. "He is a simple soul... no, that's not quite true. Despite what you may think, he is capable of surprising mental exertions. It seems to me that he strongly believes in his own intuition. He feels his first thought is always good and true, and follows that inkling until long after it should be clear that it was wrong."
Shaking her head, Fara said, "He admits to knowing nothing of these lands, yet feels his ignorance is greater than the learning of sages."
"For one who 'understands things', what need is there to know anything?"
"If Diablo truly does stalk these lands... and it is almost certain he does... I should take up sword and shield again, and move against him. But I swore on all that is still holy I would lay down my arms forever."
"Do not worry, child," Cain smiled. "In the Rogue's mountain pass, he surprised everyone by succeeding where all were sure he would die. I have every confidence he will defeat Diablo. The challenge will be to direct him, and not let his 'intuition' be a distraction."
"Walking a difficult path demands discipline," Fara said as if reciting from memory. "I fear this one has little or none. Defeating a Prime Evil will require more than brute strength and a thick skull."
The streets were almost deserted; everyone must be hiding indoors. Drognan's shop was in an alley near the eastern wall; the wizard himself was outside, in the pool of light two lamps cast by his door. Tearlach meant business and didn't mind who knew it, so he got the conversation off on the right foot. "Out with it, wizard. What's with the sun?"
"Good evening. You must be the one who banished Andarial back to Hell. So kind of you to finally introduce yourself."
"Why should I bother with you? You think I'm interested in one of those pathetic sticks, or bits of demon bone to tell my future? I already know my future, and it has nothing to do with you or your wizardry. The smith says you know something about the sun going dark, so spit it out... without any damned riddles!"
"I am not fond of riddles; I prefer the crossword. Something like this has happened before. It was the work of Claw Vipers, snake-like beings from the desert. Unlike natural reptiles, Claw Vipers cherish cold and hate the sun. They erected an altar to one of their dark gods in exchange for eternal darkness. Beware of them, they often kidnap and sacrifice travelers to appease their deity's hunger."
For a moment, Tearlach was so shocked to get a straight, informative answer out of a wizard he almost didn't answer. "Where do they lair?"
"In caves, tombs, and dark places far beneath the burning sands. They do not come to the surface until the night has cooled sufficiently for them. The largest permanent lair I am aware of is the Valley of Snakes, beyond a dead city near a group of oases."
"I know the place. Full of Zombies?"
"The former inhabitants of the city died of a plague, believed to have been caused by Claw Viper magic. It would not surprise me if they walk their city again, for Claw Vipers are well known to practice all the darkest magical arts."
"You should talk to the other old wizard, by the well in the marketplace," Tearlach smirked. "He could stand to learn something about not babbling and getting to the point."
"I shall pass your kind words along."
He knew where to go, so Tearlach went to the tavern to collect his mercenary. He wasn't there, so Tearlach asked one of his little friends, "Where's my mercenary?"
"Uh..." the other merc helpfully answered.
"What? Are you too drunk to remember?"
"No, he's..." Something thumped him on the leg under the table. "Uh, he died."
"He died. Yeah. Gone. Joined his ancestors. Finis. Kaput."
A few people in the room laughed; Tearlach felt suspicious. "What did he die of?"
"It was, uh... it was really tragic."
"Yeah," another merc said. "It was horrible."
Something thumped the first one under the table again. "Yeah, horrible! So horrible, I don't even want to talk about it."
Tearlach's suspicions had not been assuaged. "Do tell."
"No way, man. It'd make you sick just hearing about it."
"No, really! It was so totally gross and stuff, he just exploded all over."
"What was he doing?"
"He was, uh... ow!" The first pulled his foot from under the table.
"It was his toes." the second one said with a smirk.
"Yeah! He was trimming his toenails, and he died. Exploded. All over."
"What was he trimming them with, a scythe?!"
The two looked shocked. "Well, what do you trim them with?"
"Enough of this! I paid for a mercenary, and one is as good as another!" Tearlach grabbed the first tavern jokester and hauled him off to the waypoint. As his screams faded into the distance, Emilio crawled out from under the table. "I died cutting my toenails!?!"
"Hey, you didn't tell us what you wanted us to tell him. You're supposed to be the smart one, you figure out a good story."
"See if I ever write love letters for you again. Barkeep, a round on me. At least he's gone."
Out in the desert, the new merc was mumbling something about someone owing him big time as they strode into the city of the dead. It was a large city, bigger than Lut Gholein, with two levels separated by a rocky escarpment. The "lower city" was full of Zombies and some weird tall men with four arms and pinheads. Their many hands held skinny little blades made out of glass or crystal, which broke satisfyingly easily on Tearlach's armor. Like Lut Gholein, this city had a sewer, with lots of mummies and skeletons. Why they put so many of their dead in the sewer was beyond Tearlach, but they had plenty of valuables to plunder.
The "upper city" had larger houses and big temples, as well as better loot. The rich can't stand living beside their slaves; they have to "keep them in their place" and pretend they're too good for them. There were some ancient fireball traps in the upper town marketplace. They couldn't possibly defend the city from there, unless they were to spit fire at commoners who might stray into the wrong part of town. As he chopped and clove his way through crowds of the dead, Tearlach wondered if the Zombies from the upper town would refuse to mingle with the Zombies from down below. He couldn't see or smell any difference between them, but you never know.
Beyond the city, a small valley lay between two sloping cliff walls. Inside was what looked like another tomb, but two crude statues of enormous size flanked the entrance. They were snakes, but with shoulders and arms. Even Tearlach could tell they were not human work; any human could do better work than that. He had seen things that looked like that painted on the walls of some southlander tombs, always engaged in some act of bloody mayhem. So, these were feared here? They might almost be worth his time.
Hordes of skeletons greeted him at the door, with big mummies behind them. This must be an old southlander tomb. Among the undead were what had to be Claw Vipers. Their beady little eyes and low brows bespoke their stupidity; charging him confirmed it. Laughing at the ease of the fight, Tearlach ignored them and slew their undead servants first, making sure to bounce the skulls off their scaly hides. When all were dead, Tearlach took a moment to look around the tomb. It was dark and dreary, but without the usual layers of dust and cobwebs covering every surface. Creatures lived here, and had for a long time.
"The sun has never shone here."
"Well, duh," the merc replied. "It's underground."
"I know that. These sun-haters live in this tomb. What manner of foolishness would lead even these creatures to dwell amongst the dead?"
"You know more about that than I do. I just want to get out of here."
"Ha! You're an even bigger coward than the last one. There's little opportunity for sport here, so I'll make it quick for you."
At a run, Tearlach went through the Claw Vipers like a hot poker through ice. That was the best analogy he could think of, anyway; killing them didn't distract his mind enough to keep him from coming up with metaphors. The Vipers liked it cold and kept their tomb chill, but for him that just meant less sweating. In the lowest level, the altar he was expecting was down in a pit in the floor. More Vipers guarded it feebly, including one enchanted with lightning who insisted on sitting right on top of the altar. Maybe he intended to make himself one last sacrifice, so Tearlach dragged him off before bashing his head in. The altar's top slab broke in two with a single stomp, and sunlight flooded the chamber.
Cain went over the loot, as usual, and picked out a corroded little brass amulet. That was the headpiece of a Horadric staff, and might match the shaft Tearlach had stored away. It took him a moment to remember, but Tearlach found the shaft soon enough and used the cube to rejoin them. For such a rotted old thing, the staff cleaned up nice; maybe he could use the cube to clean and repair his equipment. But then Fara would never get to see him undressing... yes, it was better to get repairs the old-fashioned way. Who knows how badly the poor lass would take it if he stopped coming?
According to old fart #2, the Claw Vipers' power was assuredly broken by smashing the altar in their tomb. The dark gods they worship do not forgive failure easily, so destroying the altar broke much of their strength. Like all sorcerous things, Claw Vipers are weak and look outside themselves for power, making bargains with demons and the like. They revel in their borrowed might until they fail to satisfy the true power, and it is withdrawn... leaving them as weak and helpless as they always were. The desert people kill them whenever they can, but with the cunning of serpents they always hide in their times of weakness, and are never completely rooted out of their dens.
Satisfied that he'd never have to deal with stupid snake-men again, Tearlach went to put the wizard staff in his pack. Maybe he'd store it inside the magic box; it folded up so small, even with big things inside, it would make great storage. Those ancient, wise and mighty wizards never thought of such a simple use, he'd bet. Maybe he'd even carry the magic box around with him. When he opened his rucksack, there was more than the box inside; along with several axes were an assortment of runes, gems, and a note:
Congratulations on your advancement! Now that you're strong enough, we need you to do a little comparison. Put "strength" in the cleaver (that's Amn-Tir, in case you forgot.) The other is an Artificer's War Axe of Slaughter; put the rest in that, and see how the two stack up. For everyday use, the big axe is "Brainhew"; a cute little sorceress found that in Kurast not long ago. Try them out in Jerhyn's palace, but don't expect the girlies to be impressed.
-- The Mule
Lord Jerhyn was not inside enjoying his palace; he was out in the street with a couple of his guards. "Thank goodness you've arrived! It all began when --"
"What, stripling? You knew I was coming?"
Jerhyn looked confused. "Didn't Drognan send you?"
"Wizards do not send me about! I go where I please. Now it pleases me to go into your palace. You have something to say about it, stripling?"
"Only that your timing is excellent. How you knew I needed you baffles me, though."
"Uh..." Tearlach thought; Jerhyn could almost hear the gears grinding. "I have an instinct for these things. You would not understand."
"Ah, yes." Nodding sagely, Jerhyn leaned back on his heels. "I have spoken with Deckard Cain, who told me of the ease with which you seize upon ideas not obvious to those around you. It is... surprising to see. As for clearing my palace of the evil my brave guardsmen have been unable to expel, I am glad to find you so agreeable, mighty one. Of course, you will require compensation, so any valuables you may find intact within are yours."
Maybe this was why the heroes of the past did not like their destinies, Tearlach thought. Looting the palace would be a lot less fun if he had permission. "Erm... good. So, uh... what evil is it, anyway?"
"It all began when I was giving a visiting mage a tour of the palace. We were looking at the carvings on the walls of the deepest cellars, when he saw the ancient artifact."
"What ancient artifact?"
"In the lowest cellar, a pair of metal spires rise from the floor. They have been there at least as long as the palace itself; nothing we do can even scratch them. As a child, I used to use them for target practice. Since not even Drognan's wisdom could penetrate their mystery, I thought nothing of granting the visitor time to study them alone."
"So he found out how it worked," Tearlach grunted. "Never trust wizards. Never leave them alone with anything. Where I am from, we kill every last magic-slinger who dares set foot on our lands. None venture there now."
"My actions seem unwise now, looking back. I had no idea anyone could possibly awaken spells so ancient, or even know what they were. The mage was a Vizjerei, I believe --"
"One mage is like another. None are to be trusted. Killing them is the best thing you can do with them."
"I must differ with you on that. Drognan is the best advisor a ruler could hope for; he aids me greatly, as he advised my father before me."
"You ever wonder what killed him, then? I'll bet. Any wizard would love to be 'advisor' to a wussy little panty-waist of a boy who can't keep one house, let alone a country. I'll clear your palace; it's up to you to clear out the potion-peddlers and wand-wavers, if you've got the balls for it."
Shoving the guardsmen out of the way, Tearlach stomped into the palace. They were about to attack him when Jerhyn motioned them not to. "Lord Jerhyn, I --"
"Never mind. I said I would open my palace to him, I must do so."
"Weren't you going to tell him about --"
"Yes, but if he does not listen, that will be on his head."
The palace was a huge building, full of riches and luxuries. The chairs had thick padding, not just on the seats, but the backs and arms too! The candles were of beeswax, not a single tallow one burned in the whole place. The windows were covered with daintily carved grilles to keep the wind out. All the tables had daintily carved little legs -- what if someone kicked one? They would snap like twigs! Maybe these lanky desert-dwellers didn't weigh enough to need much by way furniture; they probably wafted into a chair without it noticing. Tearlach considered picking up some statues, or maybe silk pillows, before he decided he'd be better off ignoring the palace decorations. There'd be too much to carry. The city guard had their offices in a side hall, with a strange poster on the wall:
Height: 4 cubits and a span
Weight: Not given much
Hair: Shorn close
Sex: Um, don't they take vows?
Distinguishing features: Saintly glow
On charges of:
Proselytizing without a license
Conduct unbecoming to a holy man
Reward! Call LGPD for more information. Keep our city clean.
While appraising some jewelry (most of the baubles weren't worth enough to carry out) it occurred to Tearlach that something was missing. Straining his keen senses to their utmost, he tried to detect just what it was that disquieted him, but couldn't identify it. Was it the scuttling of demonic claws just at the edge of his hearing? Something naggingly familiar in the symbols dabbed on the walls with human blood? An unmistakable aura of evil telling him that here a greater demon lord laired? No, he couldn't smell ale. Where the hell's that damn mercenary!? He forgot to drag him out of the tavern. He'd paid good money for a merc, he was going to get his money's worth!
Several of Greiz's mercenaries were wasting their lives at Atma's, as usual. When Tearlach came in, one dove behind the bar, and another into the kitchen. Like that would save them. After a round of "eenie, meenie, miney, moe" Tearlach and his mercenary were slaughtering the minions of evil in the palace once more. This palace had a lot of cellars, almost as many as the tower back in the Rogue's pass. Nobles are fond of basements, maybe for protection when the peasants whose backs they live on finally revolted.
The cellar demons were a varied lot, with skeletons, tall skinny ones, big fat ones, and weird green monkey-things with huge claws and teeth. All of them came from one place: on the third level, a pair of metal spires, warm to the touch, protruded from the floor. Something differed from Jerhyn's description, though: a round thing was suspended in the air between the spires' tips. Tearlach took it down. It was a disc with teeth around the edge, made of the same gray metal as the spires. When he replaced it, it hung in the air, wobbling slightly for a moment. That was strange; what could it mean?
"Try spinning it," the merc said.
"I was going to do that," Tearlach snarled. "What good would spinning it do?"
The merc shrugged. "It looks like a gear. Gears spin. Maybe it'll do something."
"That's stupid. It has teeth; I'll give it a drink of demon blood. Demons like blood."
The Gorebelly who donated the blood objected weakly, but Tearlach's arguments had a persuasive power all their own. The toothed disc did not react to the blood. "Maybe it needs human blood," the merc suggested. "Like a human sacrifice."
"Hmm... I know what the answer is."
"The war axe is better. Though the runes are strong, these gems give my axe as much strength, and it is quicker to strike. Their flashing fire appeals to the ladies, too."
Rolling his eyes, the merc replied, "I don't think ladies like skulls as decoration. That's more of a guy thing. What about the toothed wheel?"
"Put it back where it was, with blood. That should do."
The disc was restored to its place. Blood oozed slowly down the spires... and nothing happened. "Hmm..." Tearlach muttered, "this is a puzzle."
"Try spinning it."
"Maybe that stupid wizard knows something of this. No, the kid said he couldn't figure this out. It's up to me."
"Try spinning it."
"Ha! I put it in backwards." Tearlach reversed the disc; nothing happened.
"Try spinning it."
"Maybe if I put a demon heart on every tooth..."
"Yuck, man! Try spinning it first!"
"Are all you soldiers in these lands so craven? Spinning it won't do anything! Any fool can see that!" Just to prove it, Tearlach spun the gear. A blue gate quietly appeared between the spires.
The mercenary stared at the gate silently, never looking at Tearlach. Red-faced, Tearlach snarled, "So I'm not any fool."
"I wasn't going to say anything."
"Then quit not saying it so damn loud!!"
Through the gate was an impossible place, marble paths as straight as arrows, hanging in starry nothingness. Braziers of dark bronze burned with eternal fires, but did little to dispel the chill of the void sinking into Tearlach's bones. The trails twisted in directions that do not exist, that should not exist, wrapping back both beside and above themselves at the same time. This would be an easy place to get lost. Feeling nervous, he went back to town by a handy waypoint and got a loaf of day-old bread.
Everywhere they went, Tearlach dropped a trail of bread crumbs behind him, through the puddles of blood left after every battle. "This is an old trick, but a good one."
The mercenary looked dismayed. "We could just follow the trail of bodies back. Line the ghosts' skulls up so they face the right way."
"The demons could move them! I'll not be misled so easily."
"Look, the fireballs are frying those bread crumbs. It's not gonna work."
"Then I will follow the ashes. 'Tis better than touching those foul ghostly bones, or the undead sorcerer's empty brainpans. I've just about had my fill of the living dead."
"It's not like this place is that confusing, once you figure it out..."
"Enough back-talk! Warriors make war, they do not stand and argue! Stop arguing with me and do what you're supposed to do: kill!"
"Yeah, sure, whatever."
Tearlach hooked his neck with his axe and pulled him forward, slamming his nose against his own forehead. While he was reeling and screaming about his broken nose, Tearlach snarled, "Answer me with 'whatever' again, and I'll tear off your head and sh!t down your neck. We go. Now!"
Conversations were blessedly brief after that. In fact, the merc never said anything at all. Eventually, among the endless twists and turns, Tearlach found what he was looking for: an obviously sorcerous man in ancient robes, holding a staff of power. With a mighty leap, he launched himself across the void and came down hard, splitting the wizard's head neatly in half with a single blow. A fitting end. Once the place was empty, Tearlach looked for loot. There were a few things (nothing worthwhile, though) and a book permanently attached to some kind of decorated pedestal.
"Here, wizard. Reading for you."
"Hello," Cain said. "Should I ask why you brought half of a broken lectern with this one?"
"I suspected as much."
As Tearlach strutted over, smiling that smug, cocky smile of his, a frown creased Fara's brow. This man would vex a saint. "Shouldn't you be engaged on your quest? Diablo must be nearing his goal."
"My destiny will lead me to him," Tearlach said with complete self-assurance. "He can run, but cannot hide for long. There's time enough for many kinds of engagements."
"Which reminds me, I have an appointment to keep elsewhere..."
"At ten o'clock at night? Wench, you've been hiding from me too long. There are other destinies, ones that call man and woman together --"
"Look," Fara exclaimed, pointing behind him, "it's one of the men who robbed you on your first night in town!"
"Where?" Tearlach whirled about, but saw no one.
"He just went into the tavern. Hurry, you might catch him!"
In a moment, Tearlach was shoving his way into the tavern. "RIGHT! There's a man I want in here, and he'd better --"
In its long and sordid history, Atma's tavern had never emptied that fast. Greiz's warriors, innocent townsfolk, even the cook all dove out the windows or trampled each other getting through the back door. When the dust settled, all that was left were a couple of barmaids, and Geglash. He sat up from his stupor in the corner, looked around with bleary eyes, and muttered, "Gee, kind of slow for a saturday night..."
There was no way he could chase them all down, so Tearlach went back to Fara's. Her door was closed, the lights were dark. Damn it, the woman tricked him. Doesn't she realize how important he's going to be after he kills The Three? Fame, reputation, money -- he'd have it all. What woman with any sense would refuse that? Maybe after he had the world under his heel, she'd see the light of reason. But then there's Kashya; how could he choose between them? Both were fine... so why not have both? He'd be king of the world, they'd be fools to refuse him, he could have either anytime! Maybe at the same time, even...
While he was musing over these and other pleasant thoughts, Cain came over. "There you are! I'm glad you didn't go far. This is Horazon's journal!"
"Aye," Tearlach muttered.
"I would guess that what you found in Jerhyn's palace was Horazon's Arcane Sanctuary, a sanctum the legendary Vizjerei archmage built centuries ago."
"The sanctuary was built before the Mage Wars, when the brothers Horazon and Bartuc were heads of the Vizjerei mage clan. Do you remember my telling you about the conflict which arose out of that unfortunate situation?"
Cain seemed a bit surprised. "Oh! I wasn't sure if you were listening. Horazon was very interested in the current events of his time, and according to legend, had many portals in his sanctuary through which he could travel to distant parts of the world."
"Ah, then you cannot help but realize the importance of this! The binding of The Three took place shortly after the mage wars, and it seems Horazon was still alive, hiding from the world in his sanctuary. He recorded the location of Baal's tomb, and here it is!"
Old fart #1 was holding something in front of Tearlach's face, so he looked at it. It was the book, open to a page with a picture of a triangle and some writing. "Hmm..." Tearlach said discerningly, "very interesting."
"And useful to you for your quest! One of the portals in Horazon's sanctuary should take you to the Valley of the Magi and Tal Rasha's tomb!"
"Oh. Sure, uh, portal, Valley of the Magi. Is that like the Valley of the Kings?"
"No mere kings are entombed there! In those happy days when the mage clans set aside their differences and formed the Horadrim, that canyon was set aside for the burial of the most powerful. It is in the most remote desert, far from any oasis; even the roving desert nomads do not venture near it. In fact, it is so safe from all forms of intrusion, it was the only place even considered for imprisoning Baal. I only hope it was safe enough."
"Sounds like a long, thirsty walk."
"Which is why you should take the portal, and pray you are not too late. Diablo was here weeks before you, and time is growing short!"
"Time is always short for you. I'll take your portal and be back by morning."
Looking around, Tearlach noticed his mercenary was gone. They always keep wandering away whenever he gets back to town. After catching the guy (or someone who looked like him) Tearlach got out his magic box to see if it would repair equipment. Fara was probably going to pretend she couldn't hear him all night; another trick women play. Inside the box was a heavy belt, and a note:
Here you go, just for you: it's Goldwrap! An axeman needs a little boost in speed anyways. Don't try to fix stuff in here, it won't work. Once you get through them tombs, I've got another surprise for you, but not until you get across the sea. Don't forget your water wings!
-- The Mule
The canyon was full of kitty people from top to bottom. While killing them, Tearlach had a look around. Seven pretentiously huge tomb entrances led to tunnels burrowing deep into the canyon walls; it was not obvious which one held Baal. As the rising sun's light filtered weakly into the canyon, Tearlach picked a tomb at random. It was small, but had plenty of mummies and other undead. Tearlach was getting so sick of walking dead. If destiny took him across the sea, it couldn't be too soon. Surely, other people must treat their dead more sensibly, and he'd never have to look another zombie in the face again.
Everything went fine until he ran into the beetle. It was a powerful one, which spit out far more than the usual number of sparks every time a weapon struck it. After killing it, he found plenty of loot in a fine golden chest nearby, but needed another mercenary. The new merc was asleep when Tearlach found him, which eliminated the tedious business of running him down. You'd think even a southlander could go into battle with more dignity, not with all that crying and screaming for his mommy.
Even a southlander will fight if thrown directly in the path of an oncoming monster. Tearlach used this to his advantage; the occasional well-placed kick is also a good motivational tool. All went well until the monster in question was a lightning-enchanted Gorebelly. Shortly afterwards, Tearlach needed another mercenary. The next tomb wasn't the right one either, but it had a huge mummy laughing soullessly at the end of a long hallway. On his way back for yet another mercenary, Tearlach considered his tactics. This might not be a bad battle strategy. Meet a demon who's too powerful? Throw a henchman at it and run while it's busy. Southlanders were good for something after all!
Eager to experiment, Tearlach went back to Lut Gholein for another merc. They must have sensed his eagerness: the town looked deserted. No one was on the walls, the houses and shops were all closed and shuttered, even the palace gates were closed. The tavern was open, but it was empty except for the barmaid in black playing solitaire, and that big stupid drunk guy. Hmm, maybe he'd be good in a fight...
"There you are, you bastard," a voice said from the corner. "Fara said you'd come here."
It was the mercenary captain, looking peevish. "What?!" Tearlach gently inquired.
"You keep kidnapping my soldiers without paying for them. You owe me --"
"I owe you nothing, you selfish coward! I paid for a mercenary, I'll get a mercenary! You got my gold, isn't it good enough for you?"
"You didn't hire a mercenary, you hired Emilio. If he dies, you don't get to pick another."
"Why not?! I don't care what his name is, if I hire a mercenary, I get a mercenary!"
"That's right," Greiz said. "You hired a mercenary. One guy. He serves his contract until you fire him, or he dies. Then the contract ends."
"Damn you southlanders and your legalistic arguments! Where I am from, we know what words mean, and don't try to hide behind split hairs!"
Geglash blinked. "You can't hide behind a split hair, can you?" he asked Atma.
"It sounds easier than arguing contract law with a Barbarian," she replied.
"No more of my men go with you," Greiz said. "You've had your hire. That's it."
"Like I ever needed your mercenaries anyway! Don't know why I hired them in the first place! They're useless, thick-headed, whimpering little wimps who curl up and die at the first bolt of lightning!"
"You kept all the lightning resistance gear for yourself, didn't you?"
"Damn right! It's mine by right of destiny. When I'm king of the world, you'll pay for your damned insolence."
"Yeah. Right. See you then."
Damn mercenaries, mercenary captains, damn them all to hell! Tearlach went back alone and smashed his way through the next tomb. It was full of ghosts, which the mummies could raise back to undeath too. Damn, that was annoying. After he'd conquered the world, he'd have to remember to outlaw mummies. And kill everyone who made the things. It was a sick and bizarre practice, and should be banned. They were all wizards anyway, it's not like the world would be a worse place. This tomb was the right one -- in a small chamber far in the back, he found a room with a socket in the floor, just the right size for the staff. Someone had even been kind enough to blow all the sand out first.
Sure enough, the Horadric staff fit the hole, and a blast of lightning opened a hole in one wall. Tearlach entered and slid down a muddy slope, ready for anything. Mud? What was a room full of mud doing in the desert? Wait, it wasn't mud, it was... As he realized what he was standing hip deep in, the horrible smell assailed him, worse even than Aunt Noracci's prize-winning haggis. "Looking for Baal?" a deep voice croaked, and a maggot the size of a house came wriggling out of the darkness.
The battle was joined as the thing's soft pulpy body slammed into him. Tearlach hacked at one spot, trying to get deep enough into the thing's body to reach something vital. It rolled over and smashed him with its short flailing limbs. There was a face up on one end, but its brains were probably not its most vulnerable area. Finally, he found the heart, or something pulsing deep in the thing's body, and tore it out with his bare hands. Most of its viscera came with it, and Tearlach made a new discovery: something that smelled worse than what was filling the pit.
The earth shook, kind of like it did when Andarial died; could this thing be Baal? What a disappointment, surely the Lord of Destruction had to be tougher than this! Looking around, Tearlach saw paintings on the walls, showing a man being chained up with a big red gem in his chest. Chaining a demon does no good, but killing doesn't work either. It looks like the only way to deal with demons is eternal war. Good thing war is so much fun. Just to be sure it was Baal, he got out of the pit to explore the chamber.
There was a huge chamber in the back, with a pit of fire around a rock suspended in the air. A robe bridge (you'd think Horadrim mages would go for something flashier) led to the rock, and over it, an armored angel hovered. An angel! The like had not been seen on earth since the days of yore. Bul-Kathos was fathered by an angel, and his children were favored over all others ever since. This one must have come down to bless Tearlach and his quest. It's always a good thing to have angels on your side, so he came forward.
"Greetings, mortal. It is good to see you... though I did expect you earlier."
"Ah, these stupid southlanders kept slowing me down. They were no help at all. It'll be a pleasure to smash their faces in and show 'em who's boss when The Three are all dead."
"Mortal, you have not slain Baal, merely Duriel, another of the lesser evils. Diablo and Baal are on their way to join their brother Mephisto in Kurast."
"Bastard demons! He ran away again! Doesn't he realize --"
"That his destiny is to die by your hand? Whether it is or not is immaterial. Diablo seeks his own destiny with undivided attention. His goal is to reduce your world to ashes. He and his brothers will do so if they are allowed to reunite. You must go to Kurast. Find Diablo and Baal before they meet Mephisto; failing that, destroy him so that they cannot join forces. If The Three become one again, your world is doomed."