Tearlach (Act III)
Getting to Kurast was going to take time. The city had waypoints, of course -- they were just about everywhere. But none were functional; someone had deactivated them all a few years ago. No ships ever came out of Kurast either, and those which went in never came back. Since Mephisto was imprisoned there, all this told Tearlach he was loose and in control of the land. For once, Cain agreed. Kurast was the holy city of the Zakarum religion, a young upstart faith that had replaced the old ways across all the southern lands. That alone probably made it responsible for most of the south's weakness. It makes you wonder just how long ago Mephisto broke his prison. What demon wouldn't love to secretly be in charge of the forces arrayed against him?
Lord Jerhyn paid for a ship to ferry Tearlach across the Twin Seas. This was his first time on the sea -- and he hoped by all his sacred ancestors it would be the last. From the moment he stepped onto those bobbing planks, his stomach balled up into a tiny knot of spastic pain and squealed "I don't wanna!" to anything even remotely resembling food. Everything he tried to eat went over the side sooner or later, most likely sooner. Thank the Light it was a short trip, or he might have starved.
Lying below decks, clinging to a heaving bunk, gave Tearlach some time to think, when his stomach left his brain alone. Mostly, he thought about how annoying this was. Diablo and his brother escaped him. They didn't even bother fighting him, they just ran off to find their other brother. He had a destiny; great forces had gathered behind him, and The Three were sure to perish by his hand. But those damned demons weren't cooperating. As he thought about it, he began to realize what they were doing. He may be destined to defeat them in combat, there was no guarantee he'd do so before they'd destroyed the world.
"Damn it," he muttered, "I've been doing this wrong."
"What was that?" a voice asked. The old man was in the cabin; he couldn't seem to get rid of that stinky geriatric no matter how hard he tried.
"Those demons are spiting me. I'll kill them, and they know it. They're seeing how much they can destroy before I do it."
Cain nodded. "That is possible... you never did tell me what you found in Baal's tomb. Presumably, Baal was not there."
"Some angel was there, told me Baal was gone with Diablo. Said the world would be ashes if The Three got together. Damn it, I should have been faster."
"Now, now, there's no time for regrets. I know you're doing your best."
"Damn you, wizard, I can't rule a heap of ashes! There has to be something left to rule after I've killed them. They're not too cowardly to fight me -- they know they can't win, so they're going to take my victory from me out of spite!"
Sighing, Cain bowed his head. It wasn't Tearlach's eccentric conclusions (for all he knew, he might be right) but his complete self-assurance that bothered him the most This muscle-headed oaf honestly thought the world revolved around him. "Do you know which angel it was? What did he tell you?"
"An angel is an angel. He barely spoke five words. I should have noticed the scorn. And I deserved it, dallying with lasses while my enemy took my kingdom from me."
"It might have been the archangel Tyrael, ancient patron of the Horadrim. Of all Heaven's brethren, he was always the most compassionate towards mortals. It was he who gave us the Soulstones to imprison The Three."
"Fat lot of good it did. They all broke their prisons."
"It would seem so... though I would never doubt Tyrael's wisdom. There is one more thing I wonder about. You spoke of ruling a kingdom after defeating The Three. I thought that Barbarians did not recognize kings."
"Don't be stupid, if you can help it. Of course I'll be a mighty king. But not at home."
"I would think you'd want to return to your homeland! You've spoken so fondly of it."
Tearlach rolled on his side to face the wall. "I'll not be going back."
After a moment's silence, Cain cleared his throat and said, "I don't suppose --"
"Do you want to see how easily you'll fit through that porthole?"
"I'll leave you, then."
With a favorable wind, they reached Kurast in a few days. The city was well up a mighty river, so huge they might as well have still been on the sea. Even when they did get close to the bank, no land was visible: a wall of greenery covered everything. To judge from the crew's reaction, this was not normal. Meshif didn't try for landfall until they found a pier. Here, at least, they might have something solid to stand on. Tearlach was happy to be the first one off. Their welcome was meager; two people stood on the dock, small and slight with dark skin. One carried a bundle of strange yellow things, which he started selling with surprising eagerness. The other greeted Tearlach.
"Welcome to what remains of Kurast, traveler. Your appearance suggests humor to my eye; I hope you brought some wit with you, for it is in very short supply."
"I am Tearlach, son of Grignr, son of Gor, here to rid the world of The Three."
"I am Hratli, smith and enchanter. It is a pleasure to see someone with a use for my skills; I don't have many customers these days."
Looking down at this small, weedy, pathetic excuse of a man, Tearlach couldn't help but sneer. A smith? An enchanter he could see, or some kind of wizard. Oh, well; at least he's male. "Fine. So, give me the details, I haven't got all day. Where's Mephisto?"
"In the heart of the city, in many senses. Kurast was built around the tower where he was buried. Why, you might ask, was a tower built to imprison a being who was buried beneath the earth? It seems that even then there was confusion at Kurast's heart."
Great, he likes to talk in riddles. "Right. What's with all the plants?"
"While Zakarum grew, the jungle fell back. Though the church still stands, the jungle now prospers and is advancing daily, covering the land in a green hell. Only a protective dome I have placed over this dock keeps the growth from consuming us all."
"Plants don't eat anything, wizard. I do not fear trees."
"When trees grow teeth and pursue men, those in the jungle need to fear. The rivers flow red with blood; perhaps they have grown fond of the taste."
"Whatever. I hope you'll be less useless than the last mage." Then, Tearlach noticed the sailors eating the yellow things. He bought what was left of the bundle and chowed down; they tasted terrible, but his stomach calmed immediately.
Hratli smiled thinly. "Already, I see you will bring the gift of laughter to us. Most others choose to peel their bananas before eating them."
"Hlmmgh? Uh... no, this way is better! Gives 'em some chew."
"Already, I am much relieved, knowing one such as you has arrived. Feel free to come by my shop whenever you wish. Your presence and heroic appetite will mitigate the tedium and terror each new day brings."
This one was going to be trouble, Tearlach just knew it. For one thing, he didn't understand half of what he said. Do they train wizards not to make sense? Maybe they have classes in obfuscation and snootiness at wizard school. As he wandered away from the ship, Tearlach saw the jungle surrounded the docks on all sides. If he stood in one place, he could actually watch plants grow. Why didn't that enchanter just say so, instead of babbling about trees eating people? Wizards. To the south, some natives had gathered around a bonfire. They were all dark, weedy little types, except one who didn't look local. She was pale, tall and rangy, with dark hair cut nearly down to her scalp. Rather than loose, draping clothes like everyone else had, she wore tight black leather and a red-lined cape. Not that the look did much for her; her figure was almost boyish.
"Hello, stranger. I've heard of your exploits, and... I must say I'm quite impressed."
"Of course. I am Tearlach, son of Grignr, son of Gor. With your hair like that, you look like a dyke. I don't like it."
After a short pause to stare appraisingly at him, the woman said, "Oh, gosh! I never would have thought of that! How terrible this is! I must immediately change my look to something that might please you more."
"Just telling you, lass. You are a lass, aren't you?"
She grinned. "How badly do you want to find out?"
"Not enough to do anything about it." Damn, who does this ugly, scrawny girl think she is, anyway? He has better taste than that. "What do you do around here?"
"I'm a member of a group dedicated to watching the mage clans."
Tearlach threw his head back and laughed! "Who wants to watch them? All they do is talk in riddles and act like they know everything! Except when they meddle with demons; then you kill them. Best to kill them all, just to be safe."
"Hmm. That halfway made sense, right up to the part where you said 'kill 'em all.' Have you met Hratli?"
"Which one is that? The one who says he's a smith?"
"Hratli is a master craftsman. My order could use someone with his talents. I've tried convincing him to leave, but he won't have anything to do with us."
"I don't care what he's master of. A midget like that can't possibly bend steel; I haven't seen a decent smith since I left the north."
"Oh, no; don't call Hratli a midget if you haven't seen the real ones. They're NASTY."
With a snort, Tearlach left. Did everyone here always make vague threats about terrible things? This country hadn't offered up anything more ominous than the foliage. At least the desert carried the threat of thirst or starvation; water abounded here, and surely a jungle could offer up plenty to eat. They got these strange fruits from somewhere. (Actually, once he tried, Tearlach found they did taste better peeled.)
Near the center of this little riverside hostelry, Cain had finally dragged his ancient carcass off the ship and was talking with some tall man. The local was bald as a mountain, almost as tall as Tearlach, and fairly well-muscled; here might be someone worthy of respect, except that he was willingly talking with the old fart. Best to shoo the old man away and give him someone worthy to talk to.
"Hail, warrior! Don't let this blithering old man bother you."
Impassively, the man rapped his staff on the ground, three times. A staff? Damn, it's another stupid wizard! "You now speak to Ormus!"
Looking around in confusion, Tearlach wondered where Ormus was. "Huh?"
"He once was a great mage, was Ormus. Now he lives like a rat in a sinking vessel."
"Well, la-di-da! Where is he, then?"
"You have questions for Ormus?"
"I might, if he were around. What is he, a soothsayer?"
"You have questions for yourself."
"Bring him out, you pompous fool! How am I supposed to ask him anything if I don't know where he is?"
"Lad..." Cain started to say.
"I grow impatient with this dolt! He and his master can rot in Hell. I've no use for riddles and anyone who won't show their face."
As Tearlach stomped off, Cain shook his head. "He means well, usually. Well, not usually, but little harm comes of him."
"Ormus cannot teach this one. He has no patience. Too much like his fathers he is, full of passion and pride."
"So were we all, if you'll remember. He will try his best."
"Try? Do, or do not. There will be no try."
"I'm sure he will, despite himself. I have seen him face many difficult tasks, with no doubt of his own invulnerability. Ah, to be so young and sure of ourselves again."
"Only the ignorant are sure. Ignorance moves forward, where knowledge quakes in fear."
What a complete waste of time, space, and air, Tearlach thought. He was actually starting to miss that stupid wizard back in Lut Gholein. At least he was smart enough to give you a straight answer. As he wandered, Tearlach came to a house, the biggest one on the docks, and in the best repair. Most everything else was rotting or falling apart. A bunch of armed men stood around outside. They wore robes, but also bore swords and shields. Warriors? Wizards? Who knows? This crazy land had so many mages, they might be both. A woman's voice rose over the throng.
"... and I don't want to see any more in camp. I want the ice mages on the periphery, freeze 'em down to the roots and get 'em out. Not one weed. Got me?"
There was a general mumble of assent. "Great. One more thing: Thadar made employee of the week when his charged bolts made that shaman dance the macarena. Thadar, that was great. Let's give him a hand!"
One of the mages bowed deeply as the others laughed and applauded. After some back-slapping, the crowd dispersed, and Tearlach got a look at the woman in charge. My, my... no wonder she was in charge. It was a distinct pleasure to finally meet a woman who knows how to dress for success. She was short and dark, but he wasn't about to hold that against her. Not while there were other things to hold against her.
The woman noticed Tearlach's open leer, and didn't seem too upset. "So, is that a banana in your hand, or are you just admiring the scenery?"
"It's a banana, all right. Woman, you know how to set a man's blood boiling."
"In more ways than one. I'm Asheara, leader of the Iron Wolves. We're the best damned mercenary mages you'll find anywhere."
Yet another mage? Ah, he found himself in a forgiving mood. "I don't suppose you hire out for anything yourself... or do you choose not to mix business with pleasure?"
As shards of ice and bolts of lightning erupted from the house, two nearby Iron Wolves watched with curiosity. "Who was that guy, anyway?"
"Dunno, never saw him before. Did he ask the boss what I think he just asked the boss?"
"I think he did, and I don't think she liked it."
"You think so, do ya? Wait, here he comes."
Tearlach slowly walked past, clutching at his groin. The first Iron Wolf tsked and shook his head. "Fastest Frozen Orb in the east."
"So, does that mean he's got two frozen orbs now?"
"I think he'll be lucky if he's got any after she --"
He was cut off when Tearlach came back and grabbed them both. After a short interlude of inexcusable violence, Tearlach continued his slow trek to find a healer. One who didn't practice "laying on of hands," preferably.
"Ow," said the first Iron Wolf.
"Ow," the second agreed, spitting out some teeth.
"Remind me never to do that again."
"Sure. Just help me find my nose."
After looking for a healer and not finding one, Tearlach walked stiffly into the waiting jungle. Normally, he wouldn't have bothered, but having progeny would be very important. They are the hope of the future, and if he was going to be king of the world, he'd need strong sons to fight off rivals and carry on his rule. Trust a woman to completely misinterpret his words and overreact. Must be that time of the month. Maybe he should take that as a sign: if his future was going to be all he wished, he'd have to think in the long term, and be more careful of his well-being. At least stay away from hysterical skirts who blow up over an innocent misunderstanding.
Huge trees covered with climbing vines and draperies of hanging moss grew near the base of the docks. This wouldn't have been worrying, except some of them grew through the ruins of a building that obviously hadn't been abandoned very long. The biggest was already 15 feet tall, twisted like bundled ropes with its abnormally accelerated growth. The locals were right to be wary, foul magicks were afoot here... but hiding behind other magic spells would not save them. A southlander's first thought is always to hide behind a wall, but all walls fall in time. Tearlach could already see the jungle pressing in on their "safe zone." It was good to know the sons of Bul-Kathos would never die cowering inside a magical dome.
As he advanced and the green closed around him, Tearlach saw a man walking ahead of him. Who or what was that? The man was tall and broad shouldered, but wore a long cloak with a hood, concealing his identity. Honest men have no need to hide their faces. Tearlach instantly realizing this had to be a spy going to report to his master -- probably that crazy servant of Ormus, he was the only one big and tall enough. Without a second thought, he leapt to the attack.
Tearlach seemed to move slowly, his blade hissing through the humid air. Almost gently he wafted down... and just before he reached the spy, the man looked up. By the Light, the Immortal King himself couldn't have done worse to a man's face and leave him alive. Bits of bone... and something else... poked through rotting skin stretched like a mask over... over no one knows what horror. With demonic speed, the man that was not a man made a gesture, and vanished. Time sped up again, and Tearlach landed with a sickening squish in the damp earth, water rising up to his ankles.
Out of the thick air, little demons appeared, pink ugly worms with tiny arms and tiny, very sharp teeth. Killing them was easy, but that wasn't the point. The stranger was no mere man, he had to have been a demon, a big one. Of course, Tearlach realized... it could only have been Diablo. He laughed -- how like him to run like a coward and throw minions in his path. The bastard and his brother must have stowed away on the ship somewhere. They hid themselves well, and didn't dare come ashore until well after he'd left. Even laid low by sickness, they'd had no stomach to face him. The outcome of this battle was less in doubt than ever. They would to face him, sooner than they wanted, if he had to slaughter every last living (and dead) thing in the world to reach them.
A miserable little stream trickled down from the east; the green was impenetrable elsewhere, so Tearlach went up the bank. Everywhere, there were ruined buildings, crushed and split open by plants growing up through their floors. Poking in one house, he found a few things: kitchen utensils, papers, children's toys. Everything wooden was covered with black and green mold, and fell to bits in his fingers. Only stone held out for long, and even that was crumbling. Nothing valuable was left; either the inhabitants had time to flee, or there was nothing worth taking. Resuming his journey, he was stopped by a knot of thorny trees blocking the stream. Something groaned, like wood rubbing or maybe the croaking of a huge frog. It wouldn't surprise Tearlach at all to find giant frogs, but he'd have to clear these brambles or find a way around them to proceed. While trying to decide which would be quicker, he noticed they were moving.
Tiny red eyes high up on their trunks gazed downward. Their branches lowered, huge limbs of wood swaying like arms. With a mighty tearing sound, the trees wrested their roots from the sodden earth and shambled towards Tearlach. Good thing he had an axe. That twit from the dockside mentioned trees eating people. Of course, he couldn't just come out and say what he meant; he had to talk in those riddles that don't make sense until after you've found out the truth for yourself. Being wood, they were huge and tough, but almost as slow as zombies. The fight was a long one, but they were never a real threat. Some had a few items tangled in their thorns and branches, maybe from growing up through someone's house.
One of these items was a little statue, a warrior with a sword. It was funny how fiercely the little man glowered as he stood with his sword planted between his legs, a kneeling woman clasping his thigh with obvious lust. As if any healthy girl would be satisfied with such a scrawny, feeble little man. Maybe if there was nothing else available, but Tearlach couldn't imagine her reacting with such enthusiasm even then. The old fart said the statue wasn't very valuable, just one of a series of "jade" statuettes made in the images of heroes from popular fiction. They weren't even real jade, just some more common stone that looked like jade but was easier to carve. Meshif, the ship captain who'd ferried them over, collected statuettes, and might pay something for it.
The statue was of Nanoc the Reaver, a "barbarian" warrior. For some reason, Meshif thought Tearlach wanted to hear about all his fictional exploits. At least, he wouldn't shut up about them. As hero of a few dozen tedious books, each much the same as the others, Nanoc was an iron-thewed scion of rugged masculinity, raven-haired, with bronzed skin gleaming with the sweat of his mighty battles and cobalt-hued eyes filled with canny wit and fiery passion. He traveled far and wide, as a thief, assassin, mercenary, and finally, king. Lusty wenches threw themselves at him everywhere he went; even the noblest ladies were helpless before his volcanic virility. When he wasn't stealing priceless artifacts or infiltrating the forbidden demesne of some all-powerful wizard, he was effortlessly slicing his way through armies of lesser men. It was interesting, in a way, if this was how southlanders viewed his people, but not interesting enough to listen to. When Tearlach stole stuff, people got upset, and the only time a lusty wench threw herself at him, she stole all his money.
After a terse reminder that time was growing short, Meshif admitted he didn't have enough cash to pay for a "rare collectible" like this. He offered another statue in trade, a gold one, obviously much better than any stupid stone statue. Better yet, the statue had a hidden compartment, packed full of powder. One weakness southlanders indulge in is a fondness for exotic spices. Because they value them so highly, they pay premium prices and hide them in clever little stashes, like false bottoms on statues. Obviously, Tearlach now had someone's store of some exotic flavorant, maybe worth more than the gold hiding it.
Walking away from the ship, he mused on his find. That long sea voyage had deprived him of a lot of nourishment, and the "bananas" weren't enough to fill his stomach. There were giant frogs in the jungle, but people hunted and ate them, not vice-versa. Since there was meat, he might as well see how this stuff tastes! Tearlach sat down with a big bowl of frog stew, sprinkled in some spice, and tried it. He couldn't taste the spice, so he added more. It still didn't change the flavor, so he stirred the whole batch in. Why do southlanders pay so much for this stuff? It didn't taste like anything at all! The frog stew wasn't bad, though. He felt much, much better after eating it.
Meanwhile, back in the jungle, Tearlach found he didn't always have to stick close to the stream. As quickly as plants grew, they died, and rotted down in heaps of molds and fungi. Through the gaps they left, he found little clearings, the ruined buildings now inhabited by monster trees and corrupted animals. There were muscular apes (big teeth and claws, but weak in combat) and tiny little people with huge heads. The little people were very fast, stupidly brave, and their heads mostly mouths full of sharp pointy teeth. They'd climb right up you and try and bite your eyes out. Their shamans could raise them from the dead, just like the little demons from the Rogue's pass. Happily, the solution was much the same: kill the shaman first.
As he went deeper into the green, Tearlach came to a group of houses completely draped in spider webs. Bundles of webs writhed with spider hatchlings the size of cats. Andarial had giant spiders with her, but the spider queen herself had been banished back to the Hell-pit that spawned her. Any minion of hers here couldn't be worse than the losers guarding her person there, just more numerous. Poking around among the buildings, he found a hole in the ground, its walls supported by webs. How underground tunnels could stay dry in this sodden mess was beyond him, but caves are always profitable. Down he went.
After his first battle, Tearlach came to the inescapable conclusion that Andarial had little to do with these spiders. Hers were relatively small, lethargic, and stupid; you could walk right up to them and kill them without them noticing. These spiders were full of magic, poison and fire, especially one nasty bastard in the back corner. To his great surprise, there was a chest down in the spider tunnels - one of the golden strongboxes southlanders use for their most valuable items. An unexpected, but welcome find in such a strange place... but inside, there was nothing but gold and a freshly-cut eyeball. Why would anyone value that?
What was an eyeball doing in a strongbox in the middle of a spider pit? For once, Tearlach was curious to find out, even if that meant asking someone. The box was covered in webs and filth, and obviously had been there for a long time -- but the eye looked so fresh-cut he was surprised it wasn't still bloody. There was obviously magic at work; he was tempted to throw the thing away as cursed. But magic can be useful sometimes, and this magic wasn't like the magic making the jungle grow. The jungle made dead things rot fast.
"Wizard," Tearlach asked Cain, "what's this thing?"
Blanching at the sight of Tearlach's newest trophy, Cain said, "Except for its unusual color, I would say that looks like a human eye. May I assume its former owner did something out of the ordinary with it?"
"It was locked in a chest in a cave. Been there a long time, too."
"Ah!" Cain exclaimed, suddenly feeling better. "It may be that this is a saintly relic! While you've been in the jungle, I have been speaking with the people here, learning what I could. Over the past few years, there have been many signs that this holy city was not as holy as it once was. For one, the relics of the saints were no longer used in public rituals. Rumor had it that the priests of Zakarum could no longer approach them. It may be that Mephisto's forces could not destroy the relics, so they were hidden in dark places, like --"
"Shut up. Why's it still fresh?"
"Well... being the relic of a man blessed by the Light, it lies outside of time and cannot be touched by decay. Much like the angels themselves."
"Blessed by Heaven, huh? Only the sons of the Immortal King are blessed by Heaven, from the ancient days when angels walked the earth as men do now."
An eyebrow raised skeptically, Cain said, "If you are referring to the Nephalem, who all the Barbarian clans claim as ancestor, they are mentioned in Zakarumite scripture. According to the church, they were the first blessed, but it made them proud and selfish. From then on, Heaven selected only mortal agents, based on their words and deeds."
With a contemptuous snort, Tearlach snarled, "The clans are blessed now, as they always were. Everything in the north is as it always was, when men were men. Anyway, what's wrong with being proud and selfish? When you're the best, you should be proud! And who's gonna watch out for a man but himself, anyway?"
Cain closed his eyes and sighed. "I see there is no point in arguing about this."
"Of course not! Can't argue with the simple truth, wizard. So, a saintly relic." Looking over the eyeball, Tearlach laughed. "Being blessed by Heaven didn't do him much good! He's dead! So much for 'blessings' if they can't even keep you alive!"
"All men die in time. Why don't you leave it with me? Perhaps I can find out which saint it was. Oh, and Hratli mentioned that he wished to speak with you."
"Why does it matter which one? One fool is the same as another." Chuckling at how he'd shut the old coot up with the power of reasoning, Tearlach went off to have his equipment repaired. Maybe that scrawny little wizard could manage that much; he'd keep an eye on him to make sure.
"I could have retired..." Cain muttered, feeling very old. "I could have moved to a quiet little village out in the country. No, wait, I did. That quiet little village did not remain quiet for long. Poor Griswold. Maybe I'm under some sort of curse. Things like this never used to happen to me. Maybe if I took a new name..."
While Hratli was polishing Tearlach's axes, he said, "As I told you before, the enchantment I placed over the dockside seems to be weakening."
"That should teach you to hide behind walls. When your fate comes, meet it head on, don't draw it out with cowering and begging."
"I happen to be a recognized expert in cowering and begging. I have taken the coveted Golden Kneepads in the international Sniveller's Olympics for three years running, and will not allow Zakarum to alter my choice of lifestyle now. With a suitable source of magical energy to reinforce the protective dome, we will remain safe much longer."
Taken somewhat aback, Tearlach stood there blinking for a few seconds. "Ah... er... right. Source of magic energy."
"One of the most potent in this area was an ancient Skatsimi dagger, the Gidbinn. It is just the size for a Flayer; most likely that you will find it among them. Bring it to Ormus; he knows the spells which will release the dagger's stored power. Now go about your business, or I will be forced to beg."
One thing was sure... this guy was the weirdest wizard he'd ever met. He talked like begging was the worst thing he could do! Maybe it was, he probably wasn't much of a wizard. Now that other one, the woman, that was the kind of wizard Tearlach could get along with if she learned to control her temper and stop misinterpreting people. The world would be a better place if more wizards dressed like that... then the image of Cain in a thong passed unbidden through Tearlach's mind. He ran back into the jungle to bathe the image away in blood -- preferably not his own, but that would do if it had to.
Pushing in through the greenery, Tearlach came to a marshy area full of zombies and weird lightning-shooting ghosts. The ghosts disintegrated in one hit; the zombies usually took two. After the first few dozen, he wondered if this was once a battlefield, for so many dead men to be here. The ghosts lent support to the theory: they're common where war leaves the unpurified dead on the ground. Maybe each ghost had a body lost here; to amuse himself, Tearlach tried throwing zombies into the ghosts to see if they'd breathe in the soul and come back to life. It didn't work -- zombies don't breathe. There were also huge river snakes, which spat poison as he passed by. The cowardly things sat too far out in the water for him to reach, but he could safely ignore them.
Tearlach was glad to leave the marsh. He'd more than gotten his fill of undead in Lut Gholein, and these ones smelled even worse. Must be from sitting on a river bottom. As the land got marginally higher and less swampy, he heard drums echoing among the trees: short bursts of drumming, answered by more distant beats. He'd be expected. Not that any warning would save the Zakarumites, but it's good to know someone's noticed his arrival. As he stomped into the greenery, a tiny little man with giant white teeth streaked past him, ululating with excitement as his bitty little legs tore along the ground. Ah, Flayers.
The next hour was a blur of tiny bodies, launching themselves at him in a suicidal frenzy or blowing tiny darts from behind the leaves. More came whenever he took a moment to rest, shredding through the greenery with their tiny knives and spears. It was almost impressive, so much courage in such tiny packages. Their strength was pathetic, but they attacked in such insane fits, with no concern for their own welfare, they were actually beginning to wear him down. Of course, it would take hundreds of them to kill him... but they seemed to have the numbers they needed, and would do absolutely anything to get a piece of him. After he killed one who'd been trying to bring a full-sized spear to bear, Tearlach howled in frustration and took a portal back to the docks.
"Damn it, wizard! You know I'm not a coward. I'd have killed you long ago if you ever thought so!"
"Assuredly," Cain replied with great mildness. "Is something upsetting you?"
"It's these damn little midget bastards! They intend to kill me with sewing needles and pinking shears, and they might have enough of them to do it! I hate them, I hate them, I hate them, I hate the &*$%#*! things so much!!"
"Perhaps if you considered using your shield? I notice you've left it out."
"What?" Tearlach looked around, and noticed a huge shield leaning against his rucksack, the runes Shael and Eth mounted in it. With it was a note:
Go through the Flayer Jungle without a shield or life leech? That's just askin' for it! In the interests of your not being nibbled to death, I'll trade you "Rhyme" for Bloodthief, the unique Brandistock you got there. Flayers carry around the damnedest things, don't they?
Cain raised an eyebrow. "I thought you did?"
"Never mind, then. I've used a shield before, I can use one again."
Of the many runes the Ancients had given to his people, those meant for shields caused the most argument. Many think a strong warrior should never need a shield. One is only called for against cowards who try to kill from a distance, or professional duelists who take unfair advantages. Others felt the children of Bul-Kathos would not be given a tool unless they were meant to make use of it as the need arose. Flexibility is the most important weapon in a warrior's arsenal, so his mind must be sharper than his steel. Tearlach, who took pride in his keen intellect and intuitive grasp of tactics, was willing to try a shield again, particularly if directed to by the higher powers guiding his destiny.
As he knew it would, the shield made the blow-darts a lot easier to deal with. His bejeweled war axe did nearly as much damage as Brainhew anyway, so Tearlach moved the big axe to his back and hacked through the Flayer's jungles from behind a shield. Soon, he found a village of the tiny freaks, with tiny huts and tiny walls, and human skulls impaled on stakes. Human bodies lay where they were being sliced up like butchered pigs, and moldy bones were boiling in a huge cauldron. After killing every last living thing in the place (even one of the talkative green birds that accidentally strayed too close) he found a little blade, made not of iron or even bronze, but copper.
Back on the docks, Tearlach brought the copper dagger to Ormus. "Hey, stupid! The other wizard says I should bring this to Ormus, so he can do something with it."
"You have done well, hero. Now, Ormus may use the knowledge he has spent a lifetime collecting, for the good of all."
"Good for him. When's he going to show his face?"
"The face of Ormus is known to all, as is his shame. The past is mirror to the future, like the black river beneath our feet. Will the future be so dark, Ormus wonders?"
Tearlach had become bored almost the instant Ormus started babbling. He got his armor fixed, set a new giant axe he found with gems and runes, sold off Brainhew, and came back; Ormus was still babbling. "Ormus congratulates you. Take this ring; it does me no good! And you must speak with Asheara. She has something for you."
She has something for me? Tearlach thought. That sounds... intriguing. Maybe she's coming around. He went up to meet her, wondering if he should put the shield away. Having it out might imply he was afraid to meet her -- a ludicrous idea, but you never know what a woman will start thinking. No, he decided: why should he do any different than what he always did just because of what a woman thinks?
Asheara smirked as Tearlach came in. "Hi there. Nice shield. Or is that someone's wall you're carrying around these days?"
Vindictive little tart. But Tearlach knew that sweet words were a surer way to a woman's heart than sharp retorts. He decided to try flattery. "I came to hear of something a wizard and leader has to say, not to listen to a chattering woman's insults. Does this leader of men have anything to say?"
She stared hard for a moment, before a twinkle crept into her eye. He'd guessed right about how to flatter her. "Ormus says the dome's been strengthened. It looks like fewer of my men are needed to guard the dockside."
"So, will they be standing idle, or do you have other uses for them?" Her eyes went hard again in an instant. "I meant attacking, not sitting on these miserable docks."
"You'd better mean that," she snapped. "Yes, we're attacking. I've got a lot of revenge for Zakarum and their midget minions. I'm also assigning a man to go along with you."
Tearlach laughed. "You sure he'll be safe?"
"Don't piss my men off, any of them. They're a lot more dangerous than anything in the jungle out there."
"You think he'll actually be useful to me?"
The new mercenary actually wasn't very useful in the caves under the Flayer village. He shot lightning every now and then, or let loose a few sparks, but hardly sped their progress. Even when he concentrated all his bolts on one Flayer, the thing was hardly better than half-dead before Tearlach lost patience and chopped it in two himself. He found himself wasting more time waiting in the dark for him to catch up than he saved by the extra firepower. The only place he might have proven his worth was against the skeleton Flayers. They were something new: when they died, they exploded. Could a mage fry the bastards before they got close? No -- he couldn't even make a dent in them. Wizards.
In the deepest part of the cave, Tearlach found another strongbox being guarded by a bunch of Flayer shamans. Inside was a bunch of gold, and a human brain, still soft and squishy. It wouldn't break up in his fingers, though, despite its softness. More saint bits, hidden away. But maybe some use would come of them... if Mephisto feared the Zakarum saints, surely they couldn't be all bad.
"So, how's Yatiraj working out for you?" Asheara asked.
"He's pathetic," Tearlach said with a smile as he casually flexed his massive biceps. "A more useless mercenary I've never seen. About the only good thing I can say about him is that he learned to stay out of my way, after I had to crack his skull a few times."
"Huh," Asheara said, turning away to look at her roster. "Ice mages are more popular. You can trade up to --"
"Hell no!" Tearlach spat. "I've learned ice is more destructive than fire. It's amusing to see the enemy shatter and melt into nothing, but too much is destroyed with them. Why do you stupid mages use ice? If you wish to destroy an enemy's spirit, it's better to tear their still-beating hearts out and eat them before their dying eyes. Has more style, too."
For the first time, Asheara actually looked appalled, and more than a little ill. Guess she's not as tough as she thinks she is. "Yeah. You found any spellbooks up there?"
Tearlach smirked. "You mean your mighty mercenaries haven't penetrated the jungle as far as I have alone? No, I've found no books or scrolls. All the soft things have rotted."
"Magic doesn't rot, barbarian. It's the only thing keeping your stuff from rusting away."
Oh, so she wants to fight, does she? "Steel is king of the world. All bow to it. Magic is a convenience for the strong, but a crutch for the weak to stand on."
"Then I guess you don't need the merc," she said. "Yatiraj, you're off."
It was bad enough that she was trying to take his merc... then he had to give that huge sigh of relief and mutter "thank God" as he left. "Hey! I paid good money for --"
"How much did you pay?"
"That's right. You get what you pay for. The Iron Wolves don't volunteer often, it's bad for business. When we do, you treat us with respect. You hear me?"
"I'm not deaf, woman. But there's nothing to respect about any of you."
More shards of ice and sparks of lightning burst out of Asheara's house. Shortly thereafter, Tearlach left, clutching his groin again. By the blood of the Ancients, he was going to have to teach that woman a lesson someday. A woman should know how to control her temper! But then, there's something about her that's just not natural. Maybe it's the voice, she's got a really deep voice for a woman. And she keeps trying to blast his goodies off, which is the last thing any natural woman would want.
By the time he got back to the jungle, Tearlach had pretty much recovered the feeling in his extremities, which was just enough to put him in a really foul mood. Next to one of the ever-present waypoints was a swampy pit, leading down to a series of catacombs. Undead were everywhere: almost waxy-looking mummies, wet and bloated zombies, lightning ghosts, and those annoying exploding Flayer skeletons. The only good thing about them is that they don't have lungs, so they can't blow darts like the living ones. And, of course, there were Flayers. It took hours to clear the place, but they had some decent loot.
Continuing through the jungle, stomping little squeaks right and left (they burst like pimples if you do it just right,) Tearlach came to the towers of a city gate. An impressive edifice, to be sure, but what's with all the skulls? Huge death's-heads were sculpted into the walls, one with blood and gore splattered all over its teeth. Hmm... lifting someone up that high to feed them to a wall? Weird. A crowd of lightning-blasted trees guarded the gates, but once they were disposed of, nothing held him back from the city of Kurast.
Ruined buildings, large and small, were laid out in an orderly grid behind the city wall. Jungle growth overwhelmed everything, but there were few trees, so long grasses with sharp, saw-like edges to their leaves covered the ground. Unlike the buildings down-river, these were mostly intact, much easier to search and loot. He got right to business, only stopping when interrupted by the Zakarumites, Paladins of Kurast.
The Zakarumites are worth mentioning. Being southlanders, they were pathetic excuses for warriors and men. In addition, they'd been starved down to skin and bones, and given rusty axes and scythes to fight with. Mephisto would have to do better than them if he expected to hold this land. Maybe he was thinking of relying on Flayers and killer trees, but starvelings armed with sticks and farm tools wouldn't be a threat to anyone. The wimps fought single-mindedly, at least, with no sign of fear or any whimpering for mercy.
While repairing his stuff, Hratli asked, "Have you met the Zakarum yet?"
"Yes. Miserable dolts who don't know when to quit. They die in droves."
"You will find they are much like zombies, only without the warmth and charisma. This is because they are being controlled by magic. In the inner heart of Kurast, the high council of Zakarum has set up a compelling orb, which forces their followers to do their will."
Tearlach laughed. "You'd think they'd be smart enough to at least give them swords. Or did they sell all their arms to enrich themselves?"
"For many years, I watched the high council, and their decisions baffled me. Their minds seemed set on destroying their own city. Now, it seems they were nothing but the voice of the Lord of Hatred, and it is his decisions which baffle me. I am not as well-versed in the ways of evil as I ought to be."
"How about that Ormus guy? He's too shady to come out in the light and be seen."
"The confusion Ormus leaves behind him is of an altogether different character. So far as darkness and despair go, Alkor explains things much more clearly than Ormus."
Tearlach frowned. "Who's Alkor?"
"At the north end of the docks, you will find a small ruin. Near it, nothing green can grow, but not because of magical power or any kind of goodness. Alkor dissipates himself there, when he is not spying on his fellow man. Go and see him. It might cheer you up."
There was a hut up there, in the center of a strangely clear pool of water; when Tearlach first saw it, he was sure no one would choose to live there. When he opened the door, there was someone inside, a tiny old man with a face like a dyspeptic monkey. "Damn it, I told you people to leave me alone! Wait, you're the new one, aren't you?"
"New enough. Pfaugh, how could anyone live with this stink?"
"Funny, that is what everyone says about you! But you never listen. You would not even stay to listen to Ormus' poem about you."
"Huh? What poem?"
"I will recite it for you. Try not to lose interest and wander away before I finish."
Grief and sorrow fill the air!
Happy children on the street
Are now barbecuing meat.
Those of us who Death bypassed
Won't look back: she's gaining fast.
Well-disguised, a savior came,
Seeking only wealth and fame.
Hear the women wail and weep
While he looks for one to keep --
If demons don't kill him dead,
I am sure he'll die in bed.
Pray his deeds with mighty axe
Equal those with sheep and yaks,
But there's something he must learn:
FIRST you plunder, THEN you burn!
"And I suppose you were just standing behind the yak."
"Forget the yak! There's no truth to those rumors. How'd he know about that, anyway?"
"I am sure it was nothing but an educated guess. So, you no longer bless me with your absence. It pains me to waste time with you, so what do you want?"
"Um... what did I come up here for? Oh, yeah! Why is Mephisto destroying his own city?"
"You think I should know? For the fun of it. When you are a demon, what other reason is there to do anything? If you are unsure, find the Tome of Lam Esen, a book of prophesies connected with these unhappy times. The Zakarum hid it away long ago."
"Why didn't they just burn it?"
"Again you ask me his mind. My own mind is enough of a mystery to me! Now, go out and slaughter the Zakarum, if you please. I have a great love of morbid excess."
This guy might be even weirder than Hratli. Nothing in this country made any sense, not the people, not the demons, nothing. Tearlach returned to Kurast, and drove into the city. It was easily the biggest he'd seen, a huge place full of temples, houses, little market stalls and big empty halls. There was plenty of loot, some of it quite rare. One Zakarum had an amulet with a picture of a winged heart on it. The minute he picked it up, the amulet vanished, and a note appeared in its place:
The Angelic Wings! I've been lookin' for this practically forever! You've completed the Angelic Set! You'd think it'd be easier to find. Keep going, you're doing just fine, you'll start finding good stuff from here on out.
-- The Mule
According to the old man, who spent a lot of time in Kurast many years ago, the city was built in layers, each built around the previous one. Originally, there was just a little town called Travincal, built on an island in the middle of a lake. When the place became the holy city of Zakarum, all the brainwashed zealots wanted to live there. They called themselves the Hand of Zakarum, and built houses on the shore and a wall to protect themselves and their temples. As Zakarum's influence grew, more brainwashed zealots came; they lived outside the wall, but soon built another around themselves. The final result was a sprawling mess with rings and rings of walls, manned by legions of paranoid fanatics who would sacrifice anything to protect their holy city. In the past, when they was prosperous and the demon's influence was not so obvious, Kurast had seemed impregnable.
Now, the hands of Zakarum were starved and naked, with nowhere near the numbers they'd need to man even one wall. No one had ever invaded, so all the wealth the church spent centuries accumulating was still there, ripe for plundering. It was almost embarrassing how easy it was to slaughter the minions of the church and loot their holy temples, but Tearlach was not easily embarrassed. It was clear to him that he was doing nothing but living up to his destiny, wiping away the old powers of the world in preparation for the establishment of his kingdom. He was killing demons too, which made it even better. And at least one of the Prime Evils was in here, somewhere. Diablo and Baal escaped him in the desert, but he was not about to let that happen again.
The Zakarumites dug moats (or maybe canals) around their inner walls, but also built bridges and conveniently left the gates open. Tearlach wouldn't even have to get his feet wet. It was strange that the Zakarumites left the gates open. Why would Mephisto leave his city open and exposed like that? If he's risen to leader of all demonkind, he can't be a complete fool. On the other hand, Tearlach thought as he chopped his way through yet another crop of walking trees, maybe he should count it as a blessing. It's not every day that a warrior can rely on his enemy to behave like a fool.
The next layer of city looked like a big marketplace, with open areas and lots of little stalls where merchants used to ply their trade. The Zakarumites were out in force here, along with priests who could heal their followers or summon up lightning. When one of the Paladins was too badly wounded, he (or sometimes she) ran back to the priest for healing, before returning to the fray. Tearlach quickly realized that could prove more annoying than raising them from the dead, as they would heal anything -- their followers, the walking trees, even the swarms of jungle mosquitoes that plagued the place. A quick leap and strike took care of the priests, though; like other spell-slingers, they fold quickly once you get close.
Looting the merchant's stalls was highly profitable, there was a lot of valuable junk there. This had been a rich city, once, and all the good stuff had been left lying on the ground after Mephisto took over. There were also two pyramids, with temples on top. In the first ruined temple, Tearlach found huge swarms of monsters: giant spiders, fire-slinging vampires, some Wendigo, and an all-female band of Zakarumites. They were more than three-quarters naked, which wouldn't have been so bad if they weren't even more physically warped than the corrupted Rogues. You'd think that with that many demons guarding a place, there'd be something worth guarding there, but all he found was a stupid little black book. He couldn't even read it.
Back in the marketplace, Tearlach continued through hordes of enemies. His concentration was supreme, but when he met a cloud of bugs enchanted to teleport, and the little bastards wouldn't stop teleporting, he finally lost his temper. He didn't care if they hurt, he didn't care about anything, euphoria flooded his brain and he didn't feel pain and RAAAGH!! STUPID BUGS DIE DIE DIE DIE BITE RIP TEAR CRUSH AAAAAHH I COULD EAT A TREE!!!!! When the fit passed, he looked around at the corpses of his enemies. He felt sick. He felt great. There were splinters stuck between his teeth, but this did not alarm him nearly as much as it should have. The greatest gift of the Ancients, the inner fire of the berserk, had been given to him. Nothing could stop him now.
While clearing the marketplace, the fit came over him many more times. Blinded to pain, his armor repair bills skyrocketed; the smith wondered how he could be so happy while his armor looked like he was getting hacked to pieces every time he went out. As he got used to the fire coursing through his muscles, he found a loud war cry was enough to stun his foes, before he hacked them to bits. Wood and bone splintered like nothing now, he didn't notice how much his enemies hurt him until after the battle was over. In his saner moments, he realized that this was not entirely a good thing. Thinking in the long term, he had to keep himself whole and healthy, but when the ecstasy of combat filled him, none of that mattered. He did start picking up potions, though.
A square hole in the ground of the marketplace led into the city sewers. Water-filled tunnels branched out to every part of the city but the innermost regions. Apparently they still throw wastes into the lake the old-fashioned way up there. Like every other cave in this demon-haunted world, the place was lousy with demon-spawn, mostly undead: drowned zombies, skeletons, even mummies, both little ones and those obnoxious big ones. They must use a lot of preservatives to keep themselves fresh in this watery climate.
Of course, what part of Kurast would be Kurast without Flayers? Tearlach was thoroughly sick of the little bastards, and the sewers made it worse -- they were all undead, the kind that won't die peacefully. After an extremely unpleasant encounter with a stronger-than-average Flayer skeleton while in a berserk fit, Tearlach felt woozy enough to go back to merely hacking the little bastards up from behind his shield. Even the gifts of the ancestors should not be over-used. Damn, the thing left teeth embedded in his codpiece. Can't allow things like *that* to happen.
The deepest depths of the sewers hid a trap door, which Tearlach smashed through with his axe. Then he noticed the lever which opened it. Oh well, he could always use more practice with his weapon of choice. In a pit full of spitting water snakes, he found a dozen or so large chests full of treasure, and a well-preserved human heart. You don't often find well-preserved organs floating in slimy water, particularly in Kurast; this had to be another saintly relic. Let's see, that's an eye, a brain, and a heart. What comes next, his manhood?
"Hmm..." Tearlach muttered, looking over Alkor's selection of gambles. "The boots."
"As sahib wishes. There you are: a fine set of Chain Boots of Remedy."
"Damn it! I've no luck with gambling games. It's a good thing I've so much coin on hand, or you'd never see me at all."
"You have plagued my house ever since you discovered my sideline. Now, I waste what little time and space I have tending to your material obsessions. Boots, boots, and more boots. This is quite a footwear fetish you have developed."
"I do not need them. The gods left me a message, asking for decent boots."
Alkor stared at Tearlach, squinting even more than usual. "What would the gods want with boots? Damn it, if gods need boots, then gods have feet, and that means they might step in something ungodly. I do it all the time, and I am not a god at all."
"A new religion could be founded on this. Speaking of religion... the mud you track into my house every day tells me you have entered the upper city."
Tearlach's eyes widened. "You can speak to mud? Damn, that's a gift! The other wizard thought you knew so much because you spy on everybody."
Alkor's eyes squinted shut completely, and he muttered something too faint to be heard. "Hratli must enjoy your company, you suit his bizarre sense of humor. Go and spend more time with him. Have you found the Black Book of Lam Esen yet?"
"Book... oh, yeah! Is this it?"
"You have it! Get your fat sausage-fingers off and give it to me. These prophecies will give us all some insight into the goals of the Prime Evils."
"What's to know?" Tearlach shrugged. "They're going to destroy the world, trying to deny me my destiny. If that book's any good, it'll all be about me."
"I am sure you are mentioned here somewhere. Lam Esen studied many lower forms of life in his spare time. Now be off! I need much time alone and unmolested."
"No one molests you, wizard. Who would want to?"
"Asheara. She is my best customer! She buys a potion of manliness from me every week, and is always interested in reducing the cost. It is good for me that my experiments have inured me to her violent charms."
Laughing, Tearlach puffed out his chest. "So, her man needs a potion to keep up with her. And only once a week, too!"
"No, no, lack-witted mendicant. She takes them. I wonder if they have begun to have any permanent effects yet?"
A look of horror crept over Tearlach's face, and he almost ran out of Alkor's hut. Normally, anyone who insulted him like that would pay with his life... whatever a mendicant is. But hearing that Asheara was... she was a... damn it, he looks just like a woman! No wonder she seemed so unnatural. Good thing Tearlach's instincts warned him away from her -- or him -- or whatever! -- in time. A scary thing, a creature like that wandering around, trying to seduce real men.
After diving back in the reassuring familiarity of combat to the death, Tearlach met a band of green, decaying vulture demons, very much like those in the desert. This bunch had hard, stony skin; he cut right through them in a berserk fury, never realizing how badly they were knocking him around. Vulture demons didn't seem that bad, back in the desert. His war cries frightened them a bit, but not nearly long enough, and all the noise brought more enemies. Not that it made any difference, in the end. One of the Zakarumites had a scimitar the old fart said was called Blood Crescent. Sparkly little thing. No one ever decorates a real sword that much.
The far edge of the city butted up against a lake. By the time Tearlach found a bridge, he'd worked out a strategy. While the blessed madness consumed him, he left himself open to all kinds of career-ending injuries. But if he could keep his head through the fit and retreat a short distance as his enemies approached, they would string out into smaller, manageable groups. The Zakarumites didn't fall for the trick; if they were dangerous enough to worry about, that might have been a problem.
Weirdly enough, the Zakarumites even built temples on the bridge leading into their holiest of holies. What's all this preoccupation with religious stuff, anyway? The temples were so full of demons and naked nuns, it just wasn't safe for Tearlach to let himself go -- he carefully chopped his way through, concentrating on his safety and well-being. If the gods didn't like it, they could get down here and kill these things themselves, boots or no boots. One of the nuns was in leather -- must have been the mother superior. The short leather vest vanished as Tearlach tore it from her body, and a note fluttered down in its place:
The world is a scary place, isn't it? You just forget Asheara, she ain't the girl for you anyways. Thanks for Vidala's Ambush, we only had one of her items! Now get your little heiney into Travincal, you're late for a very important date!
-- The Mule
"You ask Ormus how to kill a god?"
"No, how to kill The Mule. Not that I'm going to do it. Anytime soon, anyway."
"You now face the challenge of killing Mephisto, who is as much like a god as anything in this world. It understand that the great patriarch of the Zakarum, Sankekur, now embodies his spirit. Even the hatred we feel for him fuels his strength."
"Yeah, whatever. How do you keep them from popping in and out? I can't crush their skulls if they don't stand still."
"Ormus knows not how to slay gods and monsters. If you best Mephisto, you will usher in a new age. If not, Ormus will write an epic poem to commemorate your deeds. You need not worry about immortality, Ormus' words will keep your name alive forever."
Not even trying to hide his disgust, Tearlach said, "If it's anything like his last poem, he can keep it. In fact, you can tell that pontificating blowhard never to sully my name with one of his poems again! I'd tell him myself, but I'm in a good mood today."
"Ormus thanks you. Perhaps the words of a great Barbarian king will give you the answer you need: 'If brute force is not working, you're probably not using enough.'"
Tearlach smiled. "I see southlanders haven't forgotten *all* the wisdom of the ancients. There's hope for you yet. After I get rid of Mephisto, I'll have to make this my capital."
"All will welcome you. Asheara has told me she always wanted to be the commander of a great army of men, and will eagerly come to your side."
All the color drained from Tearlach's face. "Uh... er... ah... no sense making plans this early. Still have to whack Mephisto. And Diablo, and... uh... the other one. Until then, I'll just have to... um... whatever it was I was doing."
"Your words are wise," Ormus intoned. "In the holy city of Travincal, the High Council of Zakarum guards Mephisto's tower. His durance is locked, but the head councilor holds a key that is not a key."
Tearlach frowned. "What the hell's a 'durance'?"
"A restraint, from those who know none to one for whom it means nothing. This vile durance has been sealed by those meant to guard it, that none may enter but his brothers."
"Ha! Like any door could hold me back. Never mind, you know nothing worth listening to. I'm off to the city to kill some more priests. I'll see you again by sundown."
Travincal was full of temples, which were probably once made of white marble. The stones were now stained with dried blood and burnt flesh; the zealous guardians of Zakarum were likewise blackened. They moved quickly, and under the oversight of their priests proved a difficulty even for one so mighty as Tearlach. He had to move with care, leaping from low causeways to the tops of pyramids, striking swiftly, precisely, and with punishing force. Cantors and paladins fell in droves, along with the vampires and tentacle snakes they shared their "holy city" with.
The ruined tower in the center of the city reminded Tearlach of that tower back at the Rogue's pass. It was in ruins, and burnt completely black. While he was killing the poison spitters in the watery pits outside, the Zakarum council came out. They were in even worse shape than the corrupted Rogues. Killing them was a mercy, like stomping on an especially gruesome bug. As weird as they were, they had a lot of loot: fine armor, powerful weapons, even a nicely enchanted ring. But no boots. Still, it wasn't a bad haul. He'd have to visit the big city more often.
Inside the tower, someone had put a glass globe on a little dais. Nothing else, no keyhole or anything. The globe was probably the "compelling orb" thing the old fart mentioned. Bashing it to pieces should take care of it, but the thing wouldn't break; his fiercest fury couldn't even scratch it. For once, the old fart had some useful advice: the flail one council member used belonged to Khalim, who'd been head of the council before Sankekur. He resisted when Mephisto took over the rest, and they killed him for it. His flail, combined with the saintly relics from around the city, made a new weapon that could smash the orb. The floor of the tower opened, and Tearlach fell into Mephisto's Durance of Hate. Right on his heiney. Damn, the gods will have their way no matter what he does.
The way into Mephisto's durance was a smooth chute, large enough to accommodate several people. It was a long slide, but Tearlach's fall was cushioned by a pile of human bodies at the end. Sliding in wasn't a bad strategy, actually -- might be easier to catch the enemy off guard. Nonetheless, he preferred stairs. The pile of bodies he'd landed on was deeper than it looked: dozens of local people were heaped into shallow pits in the floor, with holes leading down so blood and putresent fluids could drain away. None of them had anything valuable, so he moved on.
Not all the bodies were just lying around, of course; some of the older ones had gotten the mummy treatment. There were also pin-headed giants and the floating undead mages like in that hidden place in the palace. Weird; according to the elders, every demon lord has his own favorite minions that he likes to use. Here in Mephisto's prison-fortress, he should have his own best slaves sacrificing themselves to protect his rotten hide. This probably means that Diablo got in here first, and he'll have to take on all three of The Brothers at once. It's a good day to die, if it comes to that. Probably won't.
As Tearlach made his way through, he found a lot of treasure chests, neatly packed with valuables and locked up tight. The Zakarumites had probably stripped all these bodies before piling them up, or sending them down more chutes deeper into the durance. It made things very convenient, not having to dig through piles of rotting corpses 12 feet deep for a few coins or a ring. Not that he'd left a single Zakarumite alive to accept his thanks. Maybe he could go directly to The Three; he also had a thing or two to tell them about all these chests being locked. They even arranged groups of torches in keyhole shapes.
Back at Hratli's, Tearlach bought another ring of keys. "Why the hell would a demon lock up all his valuables anyway? Is he just trying to annoy me?"
"One could ask, why did the Horadrim build a tower when they planned to bury him below ground? As I told you before, nothing here has made sense for many years."
"I believe you! Did you know that Asheara's a man?"
Hratli did not react visibly; maybe he was too stunned by the revelation. "Every new day with you is a learning experience. How do you come by this knowledge, I wonder?"
"The alchemist. Damn, he or she or whatever it is gives me the creeps. He looks almost exactly like a real woman!"
"Remarkably so. However, I must admit to some skepticism. I have seen Asheara on laundry day; she is a very bold woman. If that was a disguise, it was easily the best I have ever seen."
Tearlach frowned. "I'm telling you, little wizard, I know what I know. There's no way I can be wrong on this one!"
Hratli tried to smile calmly. "I am sure you are right, of course."
"None of that!" Tearlach snorted. "You don't believe me, but you won't say it because you're a sniveling little coward."
"Actually, I am a passive-aggressive coward. Sniveling was never one of my strengths."
"Never mind! I'm right, and I can prove it! A disguise, huh?"
Sensing imminent catastrophe, Hratli shook his head. "No, no, I must not have seen her clearly. I did not have my glasses that day. They were in the shop, getting new valves."
"You've never worn glasses. I can tell because you don't have the little marks on the sides of your nose."
"Damn my classic profile. Please, you do not need to prove to me what Asheara is. It is not a sight I need to see in this lifetime."
"I'll prove it anyway, and you know why? Because I'm sick of all you wizards looking down your noses at me. Just because you're all jealous doesn't mean you don't have to give me the respect I deserve! Now I'm right, I know I'm right, and you know I'm right but won't admit it! So, damn you, I'm gonna prove it!"
That stupid barbarian hadn't come to visit for a long time, but Asheara wasn't surprised to see him come stomping back in now. What did surprise her was that he had Hratli under one arm. "Hey, Hratli. Don't tell me he's taken a fancy to you?"
"The pleasure is all yours, Asheara. Could I please be released from your armpit now?"
"Fine," Tearlach said propping Hratli up beside the desk before turning to Asheara. "Just so you know I'm onto you, you... thing!"
"A thing? I thought I was a witch."
"He does not think so," Hratli said. "In fact, the contention is over... a thing."
"A thing?" Asheara asked.
"Is it a great big thing?"
"So it's a tiny little thing?"
"You'd hardly notice it. At least, I didn't."
"I wouldn't expect you to. Unless he really has taken a fancy to you."
"That I would notice. I did not notice this thing."
"So it's another thing, huh?"
"A thing no one ever suspected."
Asheara grinned; she was actually intrigued. "Hmm, a very mysterious thing. Is it shaped like a turnip?"
"Why are you asking me? I did not notice it."
"Enough of this banter!" Tearlach snarled, "I came here to prove it, so there!" With that, he tore Asheara's top off. "What do you think of that?"
Slowly, Hratli blinked. "You mean 'those'."
"Huh?" Tearlach looked. "Oh, the disguise! They must be glued on."
"Please, do not try pulling harder, for all our sakes."
"What the HELL are you two DOING?"
"He was proving a point. Barbarian, do you ever run from combat?"
Tearlach snarled, "Never!"
"Good. I dislike competition."
After barely making it out of the house before the showers of ice and lightning started, Hratli quickly sauntered over to visit Alkor. The old alchemist was standing outside his door, watching the show. "I do so love fireworks. We have had many entertaining displays since the new fellow came to the city."
"Yes," Hratli nodded. "Perhaps he does this as a public service."
"It is certainly better than watching you play around with all your silly magic weapons. As though you or anyone else ever had the stones to use them."
"Alkor, you have entertained us all many times in the past, but I feel no need to follow your example. I am content with the knowledge that our troubles will soon be over."
"You mean, Mephisto will be destroyed and we can torture all the Zakarumites to death?"
"That, or we will all be devoured by Flayers. Except you; I do not think they could survive eating you."
"Oh, happiness! I would smile, but I fear my face might collapse!"
"Whatever brings you pleasure. You need not tell me what that is; I have already spent too much of today in an armpit."
As Alkor danced a jig of joy, Hratli continued to watch magic bolts blasting through the walls and roof of Asheara's house. The whole building was trembling. "Goodness! She is inspired tonight. I hope she will realize how limited my involvement was."
"Of course she will!" Alkor cackled. "But she will freeze your little man off anyway. What did he do to earn it this time?"
"It seems to me that he misheard something you said. Combined with an intolerance for sexual ambiguity, it led him to a certain belief about Asheara."
"Hunh? Did I hear 'sexual ambiguity' and 'Asheara' in the same sentence? It cannot be!"
"She was not pleased." Then Hratli noticed Tearlach leaving Asheara's house, clutching at his groin. "Ah, I see they have reached a satisfactory conclusion."
"No! Asheara will not be satisfied until she has you too."
"I shall have to work on my sniveling." With a faraway look in his eye, Hratli paused to wipe away a tear. "You know, it is almost sad that our new friend's visit with us must end soon, one way or another. He has provided us all with many hours of amusement."
"True, true. His miserable gambling skills. His unique way with women. We will never see another like him."
"That might be too much to hope for."
Ok, so they are real, Tearlach thought as he staggered back to the durance. There was still no call to get so upset. It was an honest mistake -- he really thought that no woman would ever want to drink a potion of manliness. Men are men, and women are women, and no real woman would want it any other way. But would she calm down and listen while he tried to explain this to her? No! Demons are more reasonable than women. They accept steel as the ultimate argument; no ifs, ands, or buts there. Well, the little exploding skeletons aren't very reasonable. There were a few there, and Tearlach dispatched them very carefully.
All the drains and chutes in the durance emptied into one pit in the deepest level. The bubbling pit of corruption was guarded by five more councilors, who led hordes of undead mages. For all their magic, all of them ran, and were cut down. Finally, in the deepest pit of rot and slime in the whole place, the demon lord Mephisto laired. It was probably Mephisto; he said something about his brothers escaping, but Tearlach wasn't really listening. All he saw was a red haze. In the end, the Lord of Hatred, the most terrible of all Hell's evils, went down before Tearlach even had to touch a potion.
There was nothing else in there; no sign of Diablo, or the other one, nothing. Tearlach went back to the docks. "Wizard! Have you seen Diablo or the other one go by here?"
Cain blinked. "You're back! We all heard the scream; was that Mephisto?"
"Guess so. He was big and floated and stank like rotten meat. Anyway, the other ones weren't in there. Where might they have gone?"
"Did you find Mephisto's soulstone? It is crucial that we have it."
"Is that the gem with the little shimmying light inside?"
"Ah, yes. The light is Mephisto's soul. Don't look at it too long, you'll give him a window into your soul. Did you find any sign of Diablo or Baal?"
"They ran like cowards. Their eldest was braver, I'll give him that, but it did him no good in the end."
"They may have used a gate. Were there any there?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah, the gate! There's a big red one in the middle of the pool of blood, with screaming faces and things. Lights up the room pretty well."
"Oh, dear. Then it must be a very powerful gate... powerful enough to reach down to Hell itself! That must be where Diablo and Baal have gone."
Tearlach snorted. "Old man, why would anyone want to go to Hell?"
"The Three did not leave Hell of their own choice, all those centuries ago. For a demon, Hell is home, the source of his strength. The Three could not return to Hell, which is why the Horadrim were able to capture and imprison them in the soulstones. It also meant their powers were a fraction of what they would normally be."
"Huh," Tearlach grunted. "So... if they get back to Hell, they get stronger?"
"They regain strength, and may be able to rally Hell's armies behind them, for an assault on the mortal world which imprisoned them for so long!"
"What, you mean all these demons running around aren't Hell's army?"
Cain shook his head. "You have fought a few remnants: scattered demonlings, corrupted animals, and whatever undead The Three could find or create quickly. The armies of Hell are infinitely larger and more dangerous. If Diablo and Baal are not stopped quickly, we might all be doomed."