Tearlach (Act IV)
So this is Hell, Tearlach thought as he looked around. Doesn't look very hellish. There was a roof over his head, a wall at his back, and comfortingly solid stone under his feet; you could ask for a worse place. After waiting long enough for something monstrous to unexpectedly erupt out of the ground (you never know) he hefted his axe and went to explore. The first thing he saw was the old fart, the one who identified magic for him.
"So, wizard! I knew you'd end up here."
"For once, your instincts were correct! Is this not a glorious place?"
"Eh," Tearlach grunted dismissively. "I expected more."
"Hmm... true, there is not much to see now. In its glory, I am sure this fortress was much more impressive, when the great heroes of yore fought and died here."
Oh, it's a fortress! That explains the walls. "Hmm..." Tearlach said as he tried to think of something intelligent to say, "It's kind of empty. Not much here."
"Sadly, yes. When Heaven withdrew from the mortal realm, their infernal outposts were also abandoned. We are in Pandemonium, now a no-man's-land just outside of Hell's outer steppes. We will not find any more blessed legions waging battle against Hell's might; even demons rarely venture out here. Those days are now only legends."
"Huh. You'd think Hell would be warm, with all the pits of fire and miles of sulfurous wasteland I've heard of. This is a cold place."
Cain smiled. "You should have seen it a moment ago, when the archangel Tyrael arrived with me. A few demons were here, trying to defile these holy stones; his servants were just dispatching them. Now, the walls are clean, the eternal flames are lit, and the Light shines upon us. I am sad to say this is the last place you will find even a glimmer of the Light; you have important work ahead of you."
"Work, and always work," Tearlach grumbled. "You wizards are never satisfied, there's always one more thing to do."
"More than that, I'm afraid. Mephisto's soulstone must be destroyed, here in Hell. Before you try," Cain quickly interjected, "no mortal agency can break a soulstone."
Lowering his axe, Tearlach snorted. "Of course not. It's never that easy, is it?"
"The soulstones were made in Heaven, and made to last; no amount of physical force can damage one. The nearest place to destroy it is the Hellforge, a smithy on the River of Flame that surrounds Hell's inner regions. The forge and hammer are suffused with fire and chaos, and should serve to shatter the corrupted stone. But beware! Hell's smithies are surrounded by hellfire, and tended by the strongest of demonkind."
"As though that's ever been a problem," Tearlach snorted. Then he noticed the glowy thing hanging in the air next to a fireplace. "Hey, that's that angel!"
"Yes," Cain said. "Had I mentioned that Tyrael brought me here?"
"I suppose. I never listen to anything you say. Think he's still mad at me?"
With a sigh, Cain said, "I didn't know he was ever angry with you. What did you do?"
"Nothing," Tearlach quickly said. Then he thought, I finished off Mephisto. That should impress an angel. I'll speak with him; it's about time I started getting a little respect.
"Greetings, mortal. It is good to know you have defeated Mephisto."
"Hail, Tyrael. Good to see someone else could do what you couldn't, eh?"
There was an infinitesimal pause. "While you have destroyed the body he was using, Mephisto's spirit is unvanquished. The soulstone traps him and will hold him for a short time, but it must be destroyed here, cutting off his power at its source."
"Yeah, yeah, the old man told me about it. Hellforge, river of fire, all that."
"The assault on the Hellforge will not be easy. My own lieutenant, Izual, attempted the assault in ages past, and was captured alive be Hell's forces. There are tortures known in Hell which even an angel cannot bear. Many of Heaven's greatest secrets were taken from him by force."
Tearlach shrugged. "So I won't get taken alive. I was born ready to meet death. Don't know if he's ready to meet me, though!"
"Izual still roams the plains of Pandemonium, rejected by Heaven for his betrayal. As a punishment, he was imprisoned within the body of an ice demon. A harsh punishment, when so few of Heaven's brethren could have done any differently."
"Harsh punishments are good. Makes sure no one ever does it again."
"Punishments that go on forever are pointless, especially when they may be unjustified. I believe Izual has suffered enough. Hero, if you find him, destroy the demon holding him and release him from his torment."
"Huh. I suppose even an angel deserves to be free. What if your elders object?"
"Let any punishment rest on my head alone. I have failed at so many things, any further judgments against me will be moot."
"Ha! Like failing to stop Diablo? You should never have left the war! Thought you could hide up in Heaven forever, and now look at you! You've gone soft, and can't even take on one demon!"
After another infinitesimal pause, Tyrael continued. "I was thinking of when I brought the soulstones to the mortal realm. I have no idea how they could be corrupted, but The Three found a way, and are using what was intended to be their prisons for their own ends."
"Imprisonment is stupid. Better to just kill them -- no, wait, demons don't die. I remember that, the old fart told me. Hey, he also said the stones came from Heaven! Can't Heaven destroy what it made? You could smash Mephisto's stone!"
"That might be possible, and even appropriate. But Heaven has denied me the right to destroy the soulstones, or aid you in any way, save providing a few bits of wisdom. This is the final chapter of a long battle. Heaven has decreed that the triumph must belong to mortal man alone."
Tearlach slowly nodded. "So you'll do nothing?"
"My power holds this fortress for the Light. Beyond its walls, I will do nothing."
Tearlach spat. "Then may Heaven grant me the strength to deal with Hell alone. If not, to Hell with you all."
The servants Cain mentioned were on the other end of the fortress. Both had set up little shops, like common merchants. Heaven works in mysterious ways. The smith was a huge man wearing enough armor to convince anyone that his strength must be truly legendary. At least, Tearlach thought, the smith is a man this time. Hratli wasn't female, but that's about all the good you could say for him. His shop carried strong armor and weapons, but nothing worth a second glance to Tearlach. In another wing of the fortress, a strange dark woman in mirror-bright armor ran a magic shop. Attractive lass, though he'd never seen a sorceress wearing that much metal before; she too must be quite strong. To his disappointment, she was as cold and unresponsive as anything else in the fort. Neither of them would say more than four words at a time to him.
The fortress gate was open, to Tearlach's surprise. People who hide behind walls may be weak, but they usually have enough sense to close the door. Then he looked outside; the fortress was floating high in a dark sky, above a vast ash-gray plain. One set of tiny stone stairs, floating like the fortress itself, led down. This fortress would be hard to take, if the demons couldn't fly. It made him wonder why they put up walls at all, since they wouldn't stop the only demons capable of reaching them. Ah, what did it matter? His business is down there: finding Diablo and Baal and crushing the life out of them before they can raise their army. That won't leave time for dawdling. The time to move is now!
As he came down to the plains of Pandemonium, a phalanx of undead met Tearlach. Even here, the dead did not rest -- or maybe especially here? This was where the undeserving find their reward for their wasted lives. In a gateway at the bottom of the stairs, Tearlach made his stand, waiting to test Hell's mettle. These dead soldiers seemed quicker than their zombie brethren, with an intelligent gleam in their... no, most of them didn't have eyes anymore. But they wore full armor, bore well-maintained weapons coated with some greenish venom, and actually tried to avoid being hit. The last one actually tried to run away, a sure sign that it was still intelligent -- cowardly, but intelligent.
Intelligence in the face of the enemy should never be rewarded. Screaming "die with dignity, vermin!" at the skeleton soldier's back, Tearlach ran after it. Just before he caught up, the thing turned to face him; it had found allies. Tearlach swore aloud at the sight of them. Not these things. Anything but them. It was a bunch of those pesky leaping lizards from back in the desert. This would be a longer fight than he'd planned on. Not any more dangerous, just long. But first, he crushed the skeleton soldier's skull, just for leading him into a pack of these annoying things. That'll teach it to be intelligent.
Killing the lizards was as tedious and aggravating as he remembered. They were always up in the air someplace, raking their claws over his face as they passed overhead, knocking the wings on his helmet askew. When he raised his shield, they crawled in low, scratching up the armor on his stomach and legs. Whenever he finally did hit one, it bounced away head over talons, landing far away where he had to chase it down. It made perfect sense that these things came from Hell. Where else do torments walk on four legs? As Tearlach analyzed the tactics the pack used, he adopted a "round robin" style of fighting, hitting one, then turning quickly to hit another as it made a try for his unprotected back or side. Soon, there were only a few left. They leapt and dodged more and more, trying to save their lives.
As he ran around, chasing and killing the obnoxious things, more of Hell's inhabitants joined the battle. Another group of skeletal soldiers came, but they were no real danger. Alongside them were huge things, sluggishly dragging their squishy bodies on two short, muscular legs. Tearlach almost laughed at the sight of them. Their arms were thin, their faces covered with fleshy whiskers, and their gigantic mouths empty of teeth. What would these things try to do, gum him to death? Or perhaps sit on him and smother him under their flabby blubber?
As he killed a leaper, one "fatbody" took a swipe at Tearlach's back. He barely felt it, but gave it a blow in trade, right between its piggish little eyes. The fatbody wobbled away, obviously too easily intimidated to be a threat; he made a note to himself to find it and kill it later. So far, Hell's forces were a bit disappointing; true, they were more dangerous than anything back home, but not much more so. If they were more numerous (the population seemed sparse here) they'd be a serious threat, especially the strong poison those undead guys put on their --
Something very, very heavy slammed into Tearlach's back. When he opened his eyes, he was flat on his belly in a pile of gore, smelling of burning iron and vomit. What was that? No time for thinking; poisoned blades were biting into his back. Rolling over, he knocked aside a few soldiers (good thing those bones are so light) and leapt to his feet. The remains of a leaper, sizzling and bubbling, lay where he'd been knocked down. It was dissolving into a puddle of soup before his eyes, a sight and smell to sicken even a son of Bul-Kathos. As he watched, carefully smashing the last soldiers, he finally saw what had happened.
The fat things were weak in themselves, but they had a trick. That huge maw of theirs could suck up a whole other creature. Down in the fatbody's gullet, the thing was crushed, suffused with bilious acids, and finally vomited up with enough force to launch it dozens of yards! A fatbody's stomach muscles must take up most of its body. It was utterly cowardly, completely wasteful of good meat, and very effective to have those meat-missiles flying all over the place in the pell-mell of battle.
Once every living thing in sight was dead, Tearlach paused to think. That was a near thing, much nearer than he liked; true, he was victorious in the end, but avoiding any more such "victories" would be a good idea. He'd best adopt some sort of strategy. First, he knew what not to do: do not follow retreating demons, or chase the leapers too far. Those were false retreats, intended to lead him into greater danger. He'd used the same strategy himself many times in Kurast; it was an old and respected tactic with no shame attached to it, but only a fool falls for a trick he himself knows well. Instead of chasing them, retreat or stand your ground, so they must give chase.
As Tearlach looted the fallen, the second part of his strategy came to him: kill the fatbodies first. The backplate of his armor was in terrible shape, and acid from the thing's gullet had dripped down his legs, pitting and corroding the armor. The foul liquid had even soaked down into the cloth under the metal, burning and stinging his skin. Tyrael's smith gave him a whole new set of clothes, perhaps some of his old ones. The pants were a bit loose.
The outer regions of Hell were a trial in patience for Tearlach. His strategy worked well, but it took time to lure his foes to their doom, then destroy them. But he stuck with his plan, alternating the careful restraint of the tactician with the frenzy of the berserker. One well-armed batch of undead knights was armed with spears; he found a three-pointed one the old wizard identified as Bloodthief, and a cleaver-ended one called Steelgoad.
"Wizard, I found the Bloodthief one before. You said there was only one."
"You did, I remember it well. What happened to it?"
"The Mule took..." Suspicion dawned in Tearlach's mind. "No. The Gods could not have traded it to Hell."
"Hmm," Cain murmured, "I am quite sure there is only one..."
"Yo, angel! Tyrael, whatever you're called! How is it that this spear comes into my hands in Pandemonium, when but a few days ago it was taken from me by the Mule?"
Unruffled by the artlesness of the inquiry, Tyrael answered, "Others have asked me of this Mule. The brethren of Heaven have no knowledge of such a being, or what master he may serve. The Mule is not part of the Heavenly sphere."
Tearlach's mind whirled from notion to notion. The Mule was unknown to Heaven? But they know everything! Was the Mule known in Hell, even a demon in disguise? But the axe he gave clove Mephisto in twain, it was a good thing. As thought paralyzed him, both spears vanished from his hands, and a note appeared in midair.
Whoo-wee! Two at once, I've never seen that before! Don't you worry, I've put the other Bloodthief away, but two is always nice! Before you wonder too much and strain that brain of yours, there's more than one of them. There's as many of them as there are worlds you can make! Don't worry, Mr. Chunkman, I wouldn't give demons a thing!
-- The Mule
"Really," Cain said, brow furrowing as he looked at the note. "That is news to me. Though it may account for the fact that, throughout my career, there are certain ancient artifacts I have seen over and over. There was a fellow by the name of Isenhart, for instance..."
"Never mind," Tearlach cut him off. "There is no time to think of the past. My mind is now focused on one goal: find Diablo and... the other one!"
"I knew that. Stupid name. Sounds like something you'd do in a boat."
Slowly, Tearlach made his way down the flat steppes and plains of Pandemonium, reaching a place where red lights glowed faintly through gaps in the ground. The skeletal soldiers were out in greater numbers; he must be getting closer to Hell proper. With them came wafting spirits and floating spider-crab things that cast spells. After the annoyance of dealing with leaping lizards, these things were actually a relief: they died in one hit, leaving only a little pile of pulverized bone.
As he wandered, Tearlach found an unusual demon, icy blue and vaguely translucent where it wasn't covered with armor. It charged, bellowing "Save yourself and flee!" Typical demonic bluster; this one was strange looking, but Tearlach saw no reason to be alarmed. With a snort, he smashed it across the mouth and the battle began. The demon's armor was thick and shining white, able to absorb an enormous amount of punishment, but its counterattacks seemed... half-hearted, like it wasn't really trying. Tearlach wasn't sure if he should spit in its face for being so stupid, or chop it to bits and let death be its lesson. Finally, it broke, and amidst a shower of ice crystals, an angelic spirit floated free.
"Ha!" the angel laughed, "Tyrael must have sent you! I sense his foolishness in you."
"My foolishness is my own," Tearlach snarled, already liking this angel even less than the first one. "What kind of fool are you, that doesn't fight his own death?"
"You may strike me down here and now, but it will only make me more powerful than you can possibly imagine! You see, The Three are my allies. Ages ago, I convinced Tyrael to use the Soulstones to imprison them. He did not know I had already told The Three how to corrupt the stones, and use them for their own advantage. By arranging their own exile to the mortal plane, my masters set in motion a plan to subvert your world, a plan you yourself have helped along by freeing me now! You cannot stop us; even now, I go to set the next part of the scheme in motion. By your own actions, you and all your kind are doomed."
Then the angel floated away -- Tearlach tried to grab him, but he was as incorporeal as any spirit. The icy body the angel used was melting into the ashy soil of the plain, leaving its armor and sword behind. For once, he didn't feel like grabbing the loot. The Three Brothers, exiling themselves? Using the soulstones? Subverting the world? Damn, maybe he should have listened to that babbling wizard, some of this might make more sense! One thing was clear: the Prime Evils came into the world hundreds of years ago, with a purpose. That much he knew, without any doubt.
If they'd come into the world with a purpose now, Tearlach would have known what that purpose was: destroying his kingdom. But they came a long time ago. That purpose couldn't have anything to do with him, not that long before he was born. He was not fated to defeat the Prime Evils and establish his kingdom. The Prime Evils were doing something else that had nothing to do with him. Could it be... that my kingdom will not come to be?
"Ah, you met something unusual," Cain said. The huge suit of plate armor, still chill to the touch, and gigantic sword were far larger than anything Tearlach had brought back from Hell before. "You're lucky to be alive, from the looks of this."
"Neither luck nor skill had anything to do with it," Tearlach muttered, and went silent.
"The sword is a flamberge... though I suppose you knew that." It was unusual for him to be so silent, Cain thought. Before, whenever he killed something this size, he always came back boasting about how easy it was. "Perhaps Halbu could resize the armor for you. Some of the things he is capable of can truly be described as miraculous."
"No, I'll not wear it."
Something's obviously troubling the lad. Now, is this a bad thing? Nothing ever seemed to trouble him before, even things that should have. "I say, judging from the size of this, you must have fought something --"
"Enough, wizard! I care not for your prattling today. My mind is troubled by what the angel said to me."
"Angel? Ah, you must have freed Izual! You should speak with Tyrael at once. No doubt he has some reward in mind for the service you have given him."
"Reward? What good can any reward be? The Three Evils are going to destroy the world."
"Yes..." Cain murmured, baffled. "We have known their ultimate goal for some time now..."
"You don't understand, you dolt! They got themselves exiled, so they'd get the soulstones and subvert everything! He told them how to corrupt them ages ago!"
"What? I'm afraid you're not making yourself clear..."
"The angel told them how to corrupt the soulstones and use them! Deliberately!"
"Oh... you really should tell Tyrael, then."
"I have heard," the angel's voice echoed quietly throughout the fortress. "Thank you for ending his torture, but from what you say, Izual voluntarily gave his knowledge to The Three. With his knowledge, they would be able to use the soulstones as conduits for infernal power, and draw strength from Hell even..."
Tyrael's silence was painfully long. "Even what? When?" Tearlach finally blurted out.
"If Izual gave The Three knowledge of the stones, and they arranged the rebellion in Hell and their own exile to your world... then I have been played for a fool. Everything I have done... Izual's assault on the Hellforge, the creation of the Horadrim, the binding of The Three... all played into their hands."
By now, Cain was pale as ashes; the old man looked like he might drop dead right then and there. "Oh, no... this is the most terrible news!"
"My kingdom will never be..." Tearlach murmured. "Fate is against me."
"Fate is fickle," Tyrael intoned, "and changes more easily than you think. None of this was foretold in any prophecy; through your action, your destiny may change again."
Tearlach thought for a minute. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Make your own fate. It is only natural that The Three would have a plan, but this news worries me. There are things I must look into, so I will leave you for a while. Continue to explore Hell, find Diablo and Baal. No one has the knowledge to keep them from their goal if you do not oppose them. My servants will remain here, and keep this fortress safe."
"Right," Tearlach said. "Even if I can't have my kingdom, I can damn well make sure they never get theirs!"
As he ran off, Cain stumbled over to fireplace and sat on the hearth. "Oh... I can scarcely believe it! The Horadrim, greatest and best of all humanity, doing nothing but delivering the soulstones to them for their use..."
"Calm your mind, Deckard Cain. It may be that our chosen hero is wrong; I pray that he is, but fear, for once, he is not."
At the site of Tearlach's battle with the dark angel, there was no longer any sign anything had ever happened there. His journey into darkness continued at a brisk trot. Soon, he found a ruined city, full of broken war machines and shattered stone buildings the same dark gray as everything else. The bones of many past battles littered the ground, some of them from beings the size of giants. Like earthly cities, the place was full of packs of wizards, skeleton mages in armor like the soldiers outside. These undead must be some of Hell's basic troops. Beside them came fatbodies; Tearlach had a hard time decided which to kill first, both made themselves a real pain if allowed to live long enough.
Worse things inhabited the city, though. Inside a ruined church-like building (complete with stained glass windows that were great fun to smash) Tearlach found some: green fleshy things, on legs that bent the wrong way. They had heads with three horns, but no faces, and the whole underside of their bodies was an... opening, a huge gash dripping clear fluids and blood. He didn't know why, but the pulsing chasm between the creature's legs both fascinated and repulsed Tearlach. It looked like a great devouring mouth, even without teeth.
As he stood there, staring at these horrors, the creatures reared up in unison, screeching painfully. Each swung its body slit towards him, opening wide as their swollen, dark flesh squeezed outwards around a dark opening. With a final shriek, they pushed worms the same hideous green as themselves out into the world. Their little ones hit the ground wriggling, tiny mouths full of sharp teeth gnashing as they ran straight for Tearlach. What happened next was brief and violent, but not enough of either for him. After taking a moment to throw up from sheer nervous relief, he hacked the bodies to bits and threw them in one of Hell's ever-present fires. By all the ancestors, those things were deeply disturbing. He'd seen bigger demons, and maybe uglier (but not by much) but nothing so... disturbing. Forget the mages and fatbodies -- this was the first monster to kill.
Back at the fortress, Tyrael was gone. "Hello, wizard. Have any demons threatened the fortress yet?"
"None as yet. I suspect you are drawing them away." Looking over Tearlach's loot, Cain frowned as he recognized a breastplate. "How odd that I was just mentioning Isenhart..."
"Ha! I'll bet you've seen enough to equip an army. Might as well pound them flat and make tableware out of them." Then he saw a pair of gauntlets and a ring sitting on top of his pack. "The Mule's been and gone, I take it."
"Hmm? Oh, it seems he has. I did not see him, but I don't think I ever have."
"He's a sly one. Let's see what his note says."
I keep getting presents for you! The gauntlets are Chance Guards: try 'em, you'll love 'em! The ring is a nice rare, better than the one you got now. Keep going, you've some serious butt-whoppin' ahead of you, and all of us are sure you're just the man to do it.
-- The Mule
"That is what it says," Cain nodded. "He has taken many things from you, and returned many others. It seems unlikely that one person could do so much."
"It's unlikely one person could carry that much! He must have others working for him, looting the world for his gifts."
"Hmm. Perhaps you shouldn't accuse him of running a gang of pirates."
"Why not?" Tearlach grinned. "I think it's great! The only problem is the fool isn't charging anything for it."
Cain rolled his eyes. "Perhaps a life of violence and plunder is its own reward."
"Aye, there's that. He's probably rolling in money anyway. You know wizard, if I can't be king of the world, joining a band of bandits that can reach anywhere on earth or in Hell might not be such a bad deal."
Cain smiled. "We all have our dreams."
"I'll think on it later. The plains of Hell are no place to pause for reflection."
"Not unless you're planning to stay."
As he fought his way through the city, Tearlach decided he needed a new strategy; false retreats weren't working. The skeleton wizards and fatbodies preferred him to keep his distance, and the obscene mothers just sent their vile offspring after him. But by leaping or running past the worms, he could get to the dangerous ones and eliminate them first. It was a good strategy for wizards and other slow, timid foes; he'd always been more comfortable charging in anyway.
Soon, the city was empty. To judge from its ruined state, assaults had probably emptied it many times before. Strange that the demons never tried to rebuild the place; since Heaven had abandoned the fortress long ago, they should have had plenty of time to do so. Maybe they like living in ruins. In the city's central plaza, a huge hole in the ground led further into the depths of the abyss; there were even stairs to ease his descent.
This looks a lot more like Hell, Tearlach thought. The River of Flame was just that, a river of flames. Not lava, or water with burning oil floating on it, but genuine flames crackling along in a deep river channel. As he came down the stairs, he could clearly see a flow in the river, washing up from some source deep down below. Was there something burning on the bottom of the channel, Tearlach wondered? Or did the flame come out of nothing? Fire that needed no fuel would be good in the northlands, especially in winter when firewood was hard to find. Experimentally, he spat; it never made it to the bottom, vanishing in a hiss of steam. Hmm... maybe it wouldn't be a good idea to have this around the house.
The bottom of the stairs rested on an island of solidified magma, which was tolerably cool despite the fire all around it. The island was a long one, aligned with the flow of the river but with many little inlets and nooks to jump across. Some parts were constructed of blocks of the ever-present dark gray stone, with walls of iron spikes. Holes were punched through the walls in many places, and the floor occasionally sagged down into the flames; Tearlach hurried across those parts.
Apart from the roaring and shrieking of the river itself, Tearlach could hear nothing. It seemed like no one was home -- then balls of fire and poison came blasting across a nearby gap. Wizards. Why does it always have to be wizards? He leapt to the attack, and landed in the middle of the biggest swarm of bugs he'd ever seen. Yes, this really is Hell. I hate cockroaches, especially the kind that's three feet long and tries to eat your feet.
The roaches, it turned out, were merely the young ones. They were born from eggs laid by mothers, who looked a lot like the poison bugs from the desert; spat like them, too. The undead wizards who'd first attracted his attention formed a ring around Tearlach, firing away. Never before having been presented with this golden opportunity, he waited until the last possible moment, then leapt straight up. Unfortunately, the magician's bolts didn't strike each other down; most of them just plain missed. Oh, well, it was worth a shot. He leapt from wizard to wizard, carving each up in turn before moving on to the next.
All that moving around attracted attention: big demons with swords, and some more wizards. They must have gathered together back here, waiting for him to come to them. Not a bad strategy... one not of the blood of Bul-Kathos might get himself killed. Even Tearlach was greatly inconvenienced. Those giant cockroaches laid eggs so fast, their hind ends were caving in, and spat so much poison their front ends began to cave in. The eggs hatched so quickly he barely had time to notice before the ground was covered in little crawling nippers, so thick he had to leap over them. Even after killing everything else, he didn't dare unleash a berserk fury on the little bastards. Not that he needed to, he crushed each one easily with a single blow, but they were just too many to leave himself open like that.
Finally, after killing everything in sight and sorting through the small and disappointing pile of loot, Tearlach went to explore a side-branch of the island. You'd think that as troublesome as the roaches were to stomp, they'd at least have some loot. Being new-born is no excuse. No doubt about it, he had a new "first monster to kill." He just hoped he'd never have to forced to choose between these and the obscene mothers. Two kinds of creatures spawning hordes of little ones would be a hard choice -- the mothers didn't have as many offspring, but they were so much more disturbing...
Grunting noises snapped Tearlach out of his reverie. A mass of giants were wobbling their way towards him, with more skeleton wizards behind them supplying covering fire. Didn't he run into things like them in Lord Youngling's palace? Whatever, they were stupid; a false retreat worked very nicely, scattering the group so he could unleash his fury on them one or two at a time. The tactic lured the wizards out too; one them even tried to use his sword, probably for the first time in his life. It's so deeply pleasing to teach wizards the rewards of overconfidence. As he thinned the crowd, Tearlach got a good look at what lay ahead: piles and piles of giant roaches pooting out as many eggs as their swollen abdomens could hold, and what looked like a smithy. He could hardly hear it over the river's roar, but something was working up there.
There was a smith, pounding steel that seemed to scream with every strike on the heat of an anvil made of bone. Glancing at the roaches, Tearlach realized he'd have to kill the smith, but didn't want to do it here. He'd be up to his knees in bugs in a few seconds. The smith seemed to have gone deaf from years working his forge, but noticed a skull bouncing off the back of his head and charged to the attack. Well... more like waddled to the attack, but he came, and followed Tearlach away, swinging his hammer. For such a big creature, the smith didn't hit very hard. Maybe, in Hell as on earth, smiths were using magic to make weapons these days. Maybe magic was easier, but big muscles have other advantages.
After killing off the roaches (which took a lot more time than killing the smith) Tearlach took a look at the Hellforge. The forge and tools were not iron, but bone: huge bones burnt black and shaped in ways no living creature should be shaped. Magical energy was clearly visible coursing through the forge, and the heat channeled up from the river was wilting. What was it the wizard said? Destroy Mephisto's soulstone on the Hellforge. Right.
Tearlach got the stone and put it in the fire. The green glow inside seemed to get excited, but the stone was not destroyed. After carefully fishing it out, he put it on the anvil and hit it with the tongs. Is that spirit inside there laughing at me? It needs a bigger whack. The tongs eventually broke, so Tearlach got the smith's hammer. No sense notching his axe on this thing. The hammer (which was shockingly light for a smithing tool) finally did the job, shattering the soulstone into a thousand little itty bitty tiny little pieces that scattered on the ground. Spirits rose from each shard, twirling and wafting up into the sky. They must have been imprisoned by Mephisto, but now were free. Maybe they'd make it out of Hell, to whatever reward they really deserved. How do you imprison a soul, Tearlach wondered? No, best not to even ask; without that knowledge, men can only put chains on your body.
Some of the soulstone fragments were quite large; Tearlach's impulse to loot got the better of him, and he picked them up. Most were blue, empty of Mephisto's spirit, but one was clear as ice. These might make good gemstones, if they were free of evil. Best to ask that angel before using them.
Back in the fortress, the old wizard accosted him excitedly. "Congratulations! Surely even Diablo sensed the fury unleashed when you smashed his brother's soulstone. You have struck your first resounding blow against The Three, one from which they will not easily recover."
"Aye, that's true. Wait, how did you know?"
Cain smiled. "Because Tyrael has returned to us, with news."
"Your deed is impressive, mortal," the angel intoned. "I wish there were time for you to celebrate your victory. Sadly, you must move more quickly than ever, for only Diablo came down to Hell."
"Huh," Tearlach snorted. "What about... the other one?"
"Baal remained behind on the mortal plane. His soulstone was taken from him, but he has recovered it. During your time here, Baal raised an army, and marched on Mt. Arreat."
Slowly letting his breath out, Tearlach nodded. "So the end days are upon us. No matter. The defenses my people built still gird the sacred mountain, as strong and lasting as the rock itself. We who are as one with the land since the days of the Ancients will meet any demon who dares show his face and destroy him utterly. Thus it has always been, and thus it will always be."
"I fear the battle does not go well. When Baal's legions came, your people did not fear his arrival, and the clans were slow to gather. They marched day and night without rest, and when they reached Sescheron, it was nearly empty of warriors. Within two days, the capital was burned to ashes, and Baal moved to the city of Harrogath."
Blinking, Tearlach slowly said, "They... must have been taken by surprise."
"It matters little now," Tyrael continued. "The clans blame each other for the loss, and old feuds which should have been forgotten have taken on new life. The Snake refuses to help the Bear, and the Wolf will not aid his brother. Only a few warriors have gathered to defend Harrogath... too few, I believe."
"Oh, dear," Cain muttered. "Barbarian clan warfare is legendary for the stubbornness of its combatants."
"Pfhaugh," Tearlach snorted, shifting nervously from one foot to another. "The clan elders should have gathered by now. A single word from them will set aside all feuds."
"Most of your elders have died, though I am not sure how. Unlike so many of your chiefs and war leaders, they were not in Sescheron; they seem to have met their fate while raising a protective dome over Harrogath."
"Protective dome? What?"
"Using an ancient druidic ritual, like the..."
"WHAT!?!?" Tearlach bellowed, "Druids?! Those half-beast trickster wizards are not allowed to come near the sacred mountain!! Are the ancient laws forbidding them just so much hot breath? Is the great Qual-Kehk dead too, so that none may stand up to them? And what are they doing with the elders?"
With what could only be described as a patient sigh, Tyrael waved his hand. "Calm your mind. I know this is strange to you, but the elders of the Barbarian clans are Druids. They have always been. After Sescheron fell, the elders used their magic to raise a dome over Harrogath. The city is safe, but your warriors have fared poorly against Baal's forces, and Mt. Arreat is almost undefended."
Tearlach's eyes narrowed. "I don't believe you. You lie."
"Whether you believe me or not, I am trying to help you. That is all I have ever done. You must defeat Diablo, and destroy his soulstone to banish him from your world forever. Then you must return to your homeland to face Baal. Qual-Kehk's warriors do not know how to defeat Baal's army; even their survival is in question. You must bring that knowledge to them, and save the secret of Mt. Arreat, by whatever means are necessary."
Tearlach went back to the River of Flame, hardly noticing the hellish heat through his burning anger. The angel had to be lying. Why would the angel lie? There was no possible way he could be telling the truth. Demons would assault Arreat, all the prophecies were clear on that. The true people of the mountains would lose the final battle against evil, that had also been foretold, but only after they grew weak and lazy. That had not come to pass. Every warrior trained ceaselessly, as they always did. The people's lives spun around war, every invasion had always been repulsed long before outsiders even saw the sacred mountain. A demonic attack would meet the same fate. There was just no other possibility.
And another thing, Tearlach thought as he leapt howling into a mass of flesh mothers, how could the clan elders possibly be Druids? Druids were half-animals, weather-witches, tree huggers and animal tamers. The clans chose their elders from among warriors: the truest in their word, wisest in council, most open to friends, and bravest against enemies. An elder's honesty should be above all doubt -- there was no way on earth an elder would use magic! The old traditions were clear: magic is for the weak and cowardly, dealing with demons and spirits and foulness of all kinds. To practice magic went against everything a Barbarian should be; for an elder to use magic was unthinkable. But why would the angel lie?
The River of Flame went by in a blur. Flesh mothers, roaches, and big sword-demons came and died in wave after wave of slaughter. Tearlach drank potion after potion, tearing bodies apart to find more as he went. There were a few other things, like some scale mail engraved with the name "Hawkmail", but it didn't seem to matter now. With the red light of a berserk frenzy still filling his vision, Tearlach soon found himself looking up at a huge keep.
According to Tyrael, this stronghold was built to oppose incursions from the Pandemonium fortress. Diablo most likely was inside, gathering his servants to prepare for war. Was the angel lying about that too? Was Diablo really here? Maybe it was a trap. No, that didn't seem right: if this was a trap, Tyrael would have come up with a better lie. What he had said, no one would say, unless it were true. Tearlach went into the stronghold.
As soon as he passed through the gates, the air went prickly; some spell had been cast, one unfamiliar to Tearlach. A horde of undead soldiers advanced, and behind them, a skeleton wizard threw a laughing skull. The spell was odd and very flashy -- a lesser man might be unnerved by the sight, but pretentious looks mean nothing in war. The giggling cranium was about as potent as every other spell these guys used: not nearly enough. Tearlach carved the soldiers up, then jumped the fleeing mage and kicked his own skull into the river. The weird prickling feeling passed after a while without any lingering effect.
There demons in the stronghold were well-armed, those who bothered. Hell's forges must keep busy indeed, making so many weapons. There were also floating things that looked like some kind of giant louse, and cast little lightning bolts that crackled along the ground. They didn't hurt much, but Tearlach always felt drained and weak after fighting them. A potion of the spirit restored him, but his supply began to run low. One time, he suppressed his berserk rage, striking normally to use the leeching enchantments on his axe and drain his energy back. That's how he found out what the prickly feeling was; every blow rebounded back on him somehow, and he lost far more than he gained. The spell didn't affect him while berserk, for some reason. He went back to swilling potions.
The Pandemonium fortress was small and compact, surrounded by thick walls and floating up in space. Diablo's stronghold was a giant artificial island with many wings, splayed out amidst the flames of Hell. In the very center sat a pit dropping directly into the river, bridged by a giant star held together with metal clamps. Despite being decidedly un-celestial, demons like stars; one this big in such a central location must be very important. Tearlach walked over it, jumped on it, even whacked it with his axe. The center sounded hollow, and as he hit it, he heard laughter inside. Someone or something was in there, and had a very deep voice... maybe Diablo really was here. Mephisto had an impressive voice too. Nothing he did could crack it open, though. Frustrated, he went to explore the north wing.
This part of the stronghold was thick with flying lice, and at the end of the wing, Tearlach found two odd structures. Disks were set in the floor, with three metallic spines meeting above them like a tent roof. Nothing hellish could be good, so he knocked over the spines and stomped the disk underfoot -- not really expecting anything to happen, but destroying Hell's devices is always a good plan. A bellow of anger from within the stronghold told him he'd done good. Smugly satisfied, he turned to repeat his performance on the other disk, when a group of lice appeared out of thin air. It was a hard fight, and he had to drink a lot of spirit potions, but soon killed them all. One was carrying a shield, of all things. Not as strange as a Flayer carrying a poleaxe, but still peculiar. When he kicked over the other disk-tent, nothing happened. Maybe Diablo was saving his strength.
The east wing only had one disk; a barrage of spells and screaming skulls met him when he whacked it. Skeleton wizards, apparently. Without any soldiers to hide behind, they should have been easy prey, but there were so many spells and skulls flying around Tearlach soon found he needed another strategy. When he leapt to the attack, the prickly spell made the hit hurt him as well, but running left him vulnerable to the skulls, which were much stronger this time. Like all wizards, they ran away rather than fight toe-to-toe, so Tearlach used this to his advantage, leaping near them but not hitting. They scattered, giving him time to pick off a straggler before leaping again. The last one fought hard, almost admirably, but finally gave up the ghost he should have given up long ago. If only all wizards were so sensible. Of course, a true warrior's steel has a way of helping wizards see the light of reason.
Checking the star in the center of the complex, Tearlach noted three of the clamps holding it shut were open. A good sign, that; the south wing held the last two disks. Nothing came from the first. Were they just being coy? When he broke the final one, a huge crowd of sword-swinging demons came out of nowhere, moving so fast Tearlach almost laughed at the sight of them. It should have alarmed him, but such huge things moving like hyperactive squirrels just looked comical. When about a dozen surrounded him, it wasn't nearly as funny -- they hit as fast as a squirrel might too. Keeping his cool, Tearlach concentrated on defense, taking them down one by one. When only a few were left, he let loose the fury of berserk, finishing them.
A bellow of rage sounded from the center of Diablo's stronghold. Someone was not pleased with that outcome, someone Tearlach wanted to meet. Screaming his own cry of defiance, he rushed out to meet it. The Lord of Terror fit his description well: twice the height of a tall man, with a skin of rusted iron scales, and horns and spines coming out of every part. Even his rear, Tearlach noted with some amusement. Must not sit down much.
Diablo ran (on all fours!) between Tearlach and the stronghold entrance. Obviously, he's misjudged me, Tearlach thought. To teach him the error of making such assumptions, he ran through the wall of fire Diablo cast and slammed his axe into his face. The steel made only a shallow cut, but Diablo grunted with visible surprise. An excellent start; let's hope he fights better than his brother.
Like Mephisto, Diablo spent much of the battle slinging spells. The expanding wall of fire he threw was toasty, but not greatly inconveniencing. Another spell was a bolt of crackling lightning, a delicate pink in color. Though it looked girlish, it hurt enough that Tearlach found it best to avoid it. But he had something Mephisto didn't: his skin and flesh were so hard, most of Tearlach's blows were simply skittering off his scales. The eldest of The Three had been physically wispy and brittle, easy to smash. His resistance to magic might have been high, so the wizards of Kurast would have a hard time with him. Diablo's defenses seemed better suited to warriors. Just his luck.
Around the stronghold they struggled, trading blows and running to new positions, trying to gain some advantage over each other. Tearlach ran out of life potions, and started on his rejuvenation ones. He'd been hoping not to do that, those took some work to get. Diablo slowly weakened as he carved away, red blood boiling out of severed veins, dripping to the floor. He ran behind corners, then back to his star, but Tearlach wouldn't let him keep his distance and use that damned magic. Finally, he stopped and stood his ground, shooting lightning which coursed through Tearlach's armor and heated it red-hot, threatening to cook him inside it. The danger was great, but while he stood still, Tearlach chopped away for all he was worth, a smile coming to his lips. This... this was a worthy battle!
Even the greatest battles must come to an end, and this one was no different. With the last of his endurance, Tearlach leapt and struck Diablo on the head, slamming one of his horns straight into his own brain. Howling in pain and anguish, the Lord of Terror writhed as his body broke and his spirit left it. It swirled in the air, then was drawn into a gem embedded in his forehead. The body collapsed in a heap and almost immediately disintegrated, crumbling into a pile of worn, tortured flesh and bone that shivered into dust. Must be what was left of the body the demon was using, Tearlach thought. No matter; this was a job well done. Time to finish him off for good.
The Hellforge was still empty, and would probably remain that way for a long time. Diablo's soulstone shattered with a burst of flame, and noisome vapors rose from each scattered fragment. None of the bits were of gem quality; maybe Diablo had been harder on his stone than Mephisto was. Then he remembered, he never asked the angel if it was safe to use those... because the angel told him the highlands were being invaded! Cursing himself for letting mere loot distract him, Tearlach took a portal back to the fortress.
"You have done a fantastic job!" the old wizard greeted him. "Never in all my years have I heard of anyone besting two of the Prime Evils! One, they might say, is bad enough."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. What about... the other one?"
"Baal has surely sensed his brother's death," Tyrael said quietly. "Which will drive him to greater haste in his search on Mt. Arreat. Deckard Cain, last son of the Horadrim, I now feel I may tell you what secret that mountain holds. Deep within, in the heart of the mountain, lies the Worldstone, Heaven's last gift to humanity before their retreat from the mortal world. Baal knows, as Tal Rasha knew from his explorations in the Barbarian highlands, that the Worldstone is there, and why."
"Oh, my..." Cain stroked his beard. "If Tal Rasha knew..."
"The Worldstone is the greatest gift humanity has ever received; the future of all mortals depends on it. Tal Rasha wisely left when he learned of its presence and purpose, and never sought the way in to its resting place. For that, all humanity should be thankful. Mortal, you have accomplished the impossible, but further trials await you."
"I still don't believe you," Tearlach frowned. "The sons of Bul-Kathos --"
"Time is short. Events speak where words fail, so you had best see for yourself." Silently, a red portal appeared beside Tyrael. "This portal will take you to Harrogath, last bastion of order on Mt. Arreat. Go and find Baal, before time runs out."
Still suspicious, Tearlach snarled, "How do I know where that thing goes? How do I know it won't dump me someplace where I'll be killed?"
Tyrael answered impassively, "Where could it go that is worse than where you are now?"
After a moment's thought, Tearlach shrugged. "True enough."