Tearlach (Act V)
Tyrael's portal vanished behind Tearlach, and an icy wind, wonderfully familiar, instantly bit at his skin. All the familiar smells of childhood washed into his mind... jothula wood smoke, that makes meat so savory... the tang of raw iron, scorched by the forge's heat... bundles of dry heather, for shelter against the rain and snow. A sense of peace filled his soul, until new sounds pushed the happy memories aside. Screams, the clash of steel, and loud whooshing noises filled the air, coming from a very short distance away. He opened his eyes. Before him was Harrogath, proudly defiant as ever, untaken by the forces of darkness.
"It looks like we have arrived in time," Cain said next to him. "This town looks untouched. Are we in Harrogath?"
"Aye, where else could we be?" With a huge grin, Tearlach spread his arms as if to take the whole city in one manly embrace. "The last bastion of order in the world. What a feast for the eyes! Wizard, in all your travels, have you ever seen such grandeur and magnificence in one blessed city?"
Blinking through the drifting snow, Cain looked around. This town might be many things, but "a city" was not one of them. Even Tristram was bigger. Nor was there anything "grand" about it. The heavy, ponderous architecture did have a kind of blocky distinction to it, but calling it "magnificent" was quite a stretch. He cleared his throat quietly. "Hmm."
Slowly, Tearlach's face fell as he looked around. "Strange... I remember it being a lot bigger than this."
"Perhaps you were smaller then," Cain suggested.
The Barbarian stood silent. "I think you could fit this whole place inside that weenie-boy's palace back in the desert."
"If you make use of his cellars..."
Now he was frowning, starting to look angry. "Where are the banners, damn it?! There's no colors, it's all gray and the trees are all dead!"
"Calm yourself! It is winter, and snowing -- the trees are just sleeping! Really, it's a fine city... more of a fortress, really, which I suspect is its purpose."
Tearlach laughed. "You're right, wizard. The true people do not hide inside cities, there's no need to make them big and pretty. This is a fortress, built strong to stand against evil."
"Yes, and it seems to be fulfilling its purpose," Cain said, listening to the sounds outside the high walls. "I see some men over there, by that building. Why don't we ask them how the battle goes?"
For a moment, Tearlach actually looked nervous. Then he shrugged. "Why not? In war, any friend is a true friend."
Two big Barbarians, each easily Tearlach's size, had collapsed against a wall. They must be a remarkable people indeed, Cain thought, if they all possess such great strength. These two, though, were covered with bandages, and looked utterly exhausted. That didn't stop them from smiling as they approached. "Hey, hoo's the fancy boy?"
"Now don't he look pretty, with all them shiny jewels. And the big helmet with wings!"
"Aye, it's got wings," Tearlach snarled. "Only great heroes wear these. Must be why yoo've never seen one!"
Both of them burst out laughing, though it looked like it hurt. "Great heroes! Yoo think yoo're gonna walk out there and glitter 'em all to death?"
"No, he's gonna flap his wings and fly over the catapults!"
"Maybe he'll chop a tree down on 'em with his little axe!"
"If yoo lot are finished bein' stupid," Tearlach said, "I've just come from Hell, where I made Lord Diablo and Lord Mephisto wish they'd never crawled out of the slime pit that spawned 'em! I'm here to pick up the third, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna waste time listenin' to two mutton-heads sit on their behinds while a war's on. Harrogath stands, and I intend to see that it doesn't fall! Does Qual-Kehk still live?"
"I never heard of a great hero hoo hid behind a shield!" one of them spat.
He impassively replied, "I heard yoo all are hiding inside a wall. A magic wall, raised by the elders. Is that true?"
Both of them fell silent, eyes cast down. "Aye, it's true. The elders raised a magic wall around the city. We'd be dead if they had not. The catapults would have finished us."
"Druids," the other shook his head slowly. "Magic. What's the world comin' to?"
"And so yoo're hiding in here," Tearlach fumed, "while demons defile Arreat."
"There is little any of us can do," another voice said. A very old woman, bent nearly double, had slowly hobbled outside. "Yoo're... Tearlach, aren't yoo? I thought I recognized that tone of voice."
Tearlach nodded. "Yes, Malah. I heard the sacred mountain was threatened, and came."
Slowly, Malah nodded. With eyes hard as flint, she gently inquired, "Did yoo bring yoor father's war gear with you... or have yoo lost it?"
He swallowed, but returned her gaze. "It is with me and safe, though I do not wear it any more. In my travels, I have vanquished many foes, and come with steel of my own."
"Good. If they still live, yoor clan will wish its return. This is no time for old grudges. Our need is great, and valorous deeds may wipe out old transgressions. Qual-Kehk commands us still, though I cannot see what good one more sword will do."
"It is not the sword, but the arm that wields it." Tearlach looked out, beyond the city walls. "But first: what is a 'catapult', Malah?"
"A foul beast made of demon flesh fused with steel. It has one great arm, and hurls balls of magic great distances. As you were told, they would be throwing their magic directly over our walls were it not for the elders' sacrifice."
"The elders' sacrifice?"
"Yes," Malah said. The hard edges of her face fell away, and sorrow filled her eyes. "All the elders died placing the ward over the city. All save Nihlathak."
A look of disgust crossed Tearlach's face. "Och, he would weasel out of it. Never trust a snake clansman!" Then he stopped himself. "No, yoo are right, no time for grudges. This is the final battle, we are all in it together. And my place is in battle, not here." He hefted his axe, the red light of rage filling his eyes. "I'll be back."
Watching Tearlach charge towards Harrogath's only gate, Cain smiled. Not so long ago, he wouldn't have bothered asking what a catapult was. Malah seemed surprised too. "What a strange world this has become. If I had not seen his face, I would never know it was him."
"We all change over time. I am Deckard Cain the elder, of the order of the Horadrim. You are known as Malah, I heard?"
"Yes, young man," she smiled, with a twinkle in her eye. "Have yoo been with him on his journeys? Is what he says true?"
"In essence, yes. It was in Entsteig, far to the south, where we met. The demon queen Andarial had taken over the Rogue's monastery. He was able to defeat her, and has since gone on to face many of the lords of Hell. Quite a saga could be made of it, I am certain."
Malah clucked her tongue. "Were he to say such things, I would not believe it. The young warrior I knew never stopped boasting. Now he comes, but does not say anything of what he has done."
"He has changed, in the time I have known him. Slowly, reluctantly, and with a great deal of denial." Chuckling, he continued, "He is probably not even aware of it. I have noticed he spends little time in introspection."
"What good is looking inward, when all faults lie without?" Malah laughed with Cain. "Yoo do have a way with words, young man. Puts me in mind of my late husband, may the Light shine on his path. Do yoo intend to stay long?"
Cain shivered a bit. None of these Barbarians, even Malah, seemed to notice that it was snowing. "Perhaps not too long, only to render what assistance I may in the quest against the might of Hell. Would you mind if I went to look around your beautiful city?"
"Yoo go ahead. It's not likely yoo're a spy for Baal. Speak with Nihlathak. Maybe yoor silvery tongue can break the silence he carries with him."
The first thing Cain looked for was somewhere warm. Say what you will about Hell - there's not much good to say about it - at least you're not likely to freeze to death. Down the way from Malah's, a huge open-air smithy stood atop a high platform. The smith was easily the biggest man he'd ever seen, a giant even among Barbarians. You could probably fit three of me inside his shoulders, Cain surmised. "Hello there."
"Uhng," the smith grunted, and returned to his work.
Not much of a conversationalist, it seemed. "I see you really love your work," Cain said, trying to draw the man out.
"I used to," the smith grunted, pounding a frightening-looking dent out of a helmet. "Now all I do is fix things for men who are going to die. Soon, I'm going to have to put down my hammer and take up a sword myself."
"Are all your warriors on the field? The city seems empty."
"On the field, in some demon's belly... what's the difference? The warriors can't lift the siege. It's die out there or starve in here. Big difference."
"Good news may come soon. There is always hope."
The smith just looked irritated. Further talk would serve no purpose, Cain realized. Despair has this man in its grip, and will not let go until he sees reason to hope. "Good day."
Most of the town was empty. Buildings stood vacant, kitchens untended, beds empty, the hearths gone cold. A few Barbarians sat here and there, cooking meager meals or staring empty-eyed into the distance. One was different from the rest: much older, and thin to the point of emaciation. His appearance was so unusual, Cain had to stop and talk with him.
"Hello. I am Deckard Cain the elder, of the order of the Horadrim."
"Well, well," the man sneered. "What have we here? An old vulture, come to loot our fallen? If yoo plan to grow rich off others' stupidity, yoo've come to the right place. There's more than enough to spare."
"Not at all... I have come to help, in any way I can."
"Yoo needn't have bothered. The great and mighty Qual-Kehk, our battle leader hoo has never led anyone into battle in his life, has the situation well under control. I am sure having so many men die is all part of some bold subterfuge."
"You face a foe of demonic strength," Cain replied, growing uneasy, "and you are not vanquished yet."
"A fact which has nothing to do with our warriors. The knowledge of myself and the other elders saved our lives... forbidden knowledge. But what can yoo expect, in a land where mere knowledge is forbidden?"
Ah, ha, Cain thought. "It is most unfortunate, when knowledge is forbidden. My whole life has been spent in its pursuit. Lately, I have traveled with young Tearlach, who says --"
Nihlathak laughed. "What would that insolent puppy have to say that anyone should listen to? There are no words to express his ignorance -- stark in its frankness, invulnerable in its arrogance, as predictable as the rising of the sun. Next to him, Qual-Kehk is a scholar. The wisest thing we ever did was to exile him."
"Hmm. Tearlach seems well-known here."
"The word yoo are trying not to say is 'infamous.' The less those like him occupy my thoughts, the happier I am."
"Then I will not bother you any more with my prattling. Good day to you."
So that is Nihlathak, Cain thought as he walked away. He had more to say than he thought he might, but none of it was very informative. It also struck him as curious that everyone in Harrogath seemed to know Tearlach. As far as he knew, Barbarians were nomads, each clan trekking over hundreds of square miles of territory. How likely was it that everyone in the northern mountains had met him? The boy must have done something extraordinary to make himself so "infamous." But what?
Inside Harrogath's iron gate, a huge man in bronzed plate armor waited. His hair was long, like all Barbarians except Tearlach, and snowy white. Obviously, a man of importance, and long years, which carried great respect here. "Hello, I am Deckard Cain the elder."
"Hunh," the big man grunted. "I am Qual-Kehk, senior man-at-arms. Ordinarily, it would be my sacred duty to take yoor head and put it on Harrogath's battlements as a warning to other outlanders."
Cain smiled nervously. "Ah, yes. A pleasure to meet you, too. I am not a fighting man, but I will help in any way I can."
"I've no use for a weak old man," Qual-Kehk said, his gaze returning to the mountain rising above the city.
Straightforward talk seems to be the way of things here. Well, when in Rome... "I came with a young warrior named Tearlach. Have you heard of him?"
"Aye. He returned here?"
"Yes. We heard from... a reliable source that Harrogath was in danger. I understand he was exiled... something to do with his father's fighting equipment?"
"No. He was exiled for arrogance. He stole the Berserker's Arsenal after."
Despite himself, Cain was shocked. "Arrogance? How arrogant does a Barbarian have to be to be exiled for it?"
Qual-Kehk's gaze never wavered from the mountain. "Yoo've met him."
The time came, and we were not ready. The end is here, Hell has thrown its might against us. All our lives were devoted to readiness, and we were not ready. Tearlach ran out into pitched battle. The mountain slopes ran red; the earth was slippery, gory mud, where it wasn't frozen solid deep crimson. Demons were everywhere, gathered in little knots around the very few warriors who faced them. How could this be? Where was the mighty host the free people would bring together? Centuries had been devoted to one thing, and one thing alone: this very moment. The mountains were full of fighting men: where WERE they?
Snarling, Tearlach leapt into the thick of the nearest gang of demons. The angel told him this was happening. The clans were too sure of themselves, too confident of their strength. When Sescheron fell, they blamed each other, and would not unite under one banner. He'd thought it a lie when he heard it. By the bones of Bul-Kathos himself, even southlanders had more sense than that! All the demons were soon dead. The man they'd surrounded was standing there like a dolt, staring. "Look alive, stupid!" Tearlach bellowed in his face. "What are yoo gawking at? They don't wish away, useless!" No more sense than a moon-struck bunny rabbit in that one.
More demons surrounded other lone warriors. They were the finest the world could offer, but alone and outnumbered a dozen to one, they could only be cut down. Each fought alone, like they were dueling other men. Muttering curses, Tearlach leapt from one man to another, shouting and slaughtering. This was no matter for warrior's pride, this is war against a vast host that fights without honor. These were slaves: fear of their masters drives them, but fear does not give strength -- it makes slaves run, but gnaws in their bellies all the while. A good loud war cry makes them more afraid of you, stops them right in their tracks. A child could mop them up after that.
In Harrogath's central square, Cain was trying to talk with Qual-Kehk. "I must say, it is a privilege to stand here with you now. Very few outsiders have ever seen Mt. Arreat, and I hope you realize I appreciate its beauty and importance."
"Yoo do not. The mountains are beautiful and terrible, in ways no one who sits by the well all day can understand. Arreat is the most terrible of all, and has killed all the unworthy who tried to learn its secrets."
"Well... secrets are... ah... secret, you know. I think young Tearlach is happy to have returned to his homeland, and glad to be of help. He has spoken very highly of you. Having another warrior in battle can only be for the good."
"Aye, crumbs are still bread. Don't expect anyone to mourn him, though. When Baal is finished here, no one will be left to mourn."
Cain smiled. "Master man-at-arms, perhaps you are taking things too hard. I understand your people have suffered, but that does not mean all is lost. I think of life as learning, and everyone has something to teach. Though he does not know it, young Tearlach taught me of your people's resilience, and extraordinary strength in times of adversity. He has faced down Evils both lesser and greater, and stood alone in Hell itself."
"So yoo say," Qual-Kehk grunted. "He might do all that, if he ever grew into his mouth. A great hero out of legend might save us now, but one warrior cannot do much. Even we are less than what we were in ages past. Our ancestors were mighty men, true beings of power. All of us together cannot equal one of them."
"I do not wish to seem obstinate, but it seems to me the tide of battle is turning. Listen! The sounds of combat no longer come from the boundary of the protective dome, but much further away. Baal's forces are being pushed back, and the town may be saved."
While he spoke, Tearlach ran down into the square. Blood dripped from his axe, and huge holes rent his armor, particularly on the legs. Qual-Kehk turned his back, pointedly gazing out over the battlefield. "Wizard! Identify these things. What in blazes is this collection of skulls and bones? I can't get them apart."
"The Wall of the Eyeless! Those are demon bones, bound together with necromantic magic. Did one of Baal's minions have this?"
"No," Tearlach frowned. "It was in one of our burial chests, on the mountain slopes. What good would this do any warrior?"
"I do not know," Cain replied. "This is something spellcasters are more fond of, particularly those who deal with the dead. Are you hurt?"
"Scratched a bit. There are earth demons up there, they tunnel through the ground and poke you in the feet. Quickly, I left three men fighting behind me! They'll get all the glory!"
Chuckling, Cain quickly described each item. "I also thought Barbarians disapproved of looting the dead."
"We disapprove of yoo southlanders looting our dead! The dead have no use for anything. We put those things in there so the living know where to find them!" With that, he ran back to Malah's house, and started unloading potions.
"Well," Cain said, looking at the bony shield, "he seems to be performing commendably. Though perhaps this is not the best time to seek plunder."
"There is never a bad time to plunder enemies," Qual-Kehk spoke. "Everything he brings back is honor and wealth for his family and clan. It is our way."
"Of course, of course. I wonder why he will not speak with you, though."
Qual-Kehk's leveled his gaze at Cain. "The warrior Tearlach was exiled from these lands, his head shorn in shame. By our ancient laws, none of our people may give him shelter, or share meat with him. Were I to see him again in Harrogath, our holiest bastion, I would be bound by duty and my own honor to slay him."
Slowly, Cain nodded. "It's a lucky thing you had your back turned."
"It is bad enough that southlanders sit by our well. But I see yoo are right. For the first time in many days, no demons stand by the wall. I can send foragers out for food. It will be good to have something besides moldy bread."
"Yes! If my eyes do not deceive me, the battle rages at that narrow point there. That will be difficult to attack, a small number could hold out there easily."
"Their general, Shenk, keeps one of his pets there. My men tell me engaging it is difficult; it is easier to run past than make it stand still and fight. Any warrior who could kill it might have what it takes to kill the general and lift the siege."
"After the trials he has faced, I am sure he will succeed. Surely, this general's pet cannot be more powerful than the Lord of Terror himself."
When Tearlach returned, the three he'd left had already gone ahead. He found two of them at the entrance of a narrow defile, with nearly a score of earth demons finishing off the last. Such large numbers required concentration, but he'd learned how to deal with a horde of slow-moving attackers back in the Rogue's pass. Also hiding in the narrows was a new sort of creature, tiny men with big heads who could vanish and reappear elsewhere. Chasing them down was a great annoyance; they died quickly, but it almost wasn't worth the effort. One had a nice set of rare throwing knives, if you like that kind of thing.
Beyond the narrows, a set of rising plateaus led upwards. They knew he was coming now: and slaves were arranged to meet him. Just to show them he didn't need to break through their defensive lines, Tearlach leapt over to the earth demons arranged behind them. They would furnish many skulls for primal helms, if there was anyone left who could make them. Maybe Larzuk could; his line went back a long time, he might know the old secrets. There was still hope for the future, in spite of all that had come to pass. Much that was old yet remained. Yes... there was no reason the children of Bul-Kathos could not be great once again, after this little problem had been taken care of.
On a high mound, Tearlach heard something bellowing like a pig being violated. Two skinny arms, one holding a whip, flailed above a gang of slaves. These should be easier than usual to kill -- they were so puffed-up and bloated they couldn't even hold a weapon. A war cry should stun them easily, but it didn't; one ran up to him and exploded, knocking him into a low trench. Good thing he had the shield, that might have hurt. Quickly, Tearlach leapt into the middle of the crowd of slaves and waited. As expected, they all rushed to surround him. At the last possible moment, he leapt away, watching them explode messily behind him. Good to know that trick works, sometimes. Now piggy-boy was alone.
The whip wielder was a disgusting thing, mostly a ball of useless flab with tiny legs and long spindly arms. To its credit, the demon didn't run away; it slowly shuffled off its hill towards Tearlach, howling and lashing its metal whip. Very brave; also, very stupid. A whip is a miserable weapon for combat, unless the fat pig thought he could kill him by sitting on him. Tearlach made it quick. After the pig died, the remaining demons ran. Not that it saved them, of course, but they gave it an inspired try.
"What's this axe, wizard?"
"Hmm..." Cain examined the weapon. "A Great Axe of Quality, nothing special. Tell me, have you met anything that looked like a general yet?"
"One big fat thing with a whip, driving the other demons into the fight. If yoo call that a general, yoo can call me a king. I expected... the other one to be around somewhere."
"Baal is said to be searching the mountain. He is probably looking for the way in to the Worldstone."
Qual-Kehk turned, fury in his eyes. "He told yoo of the Worldstone, outlander!?"
"No," Cain replied quickly, "the archangel Tyrael told me before he brought us here."
"That name never came to my lips," Tearlach replied indignantly.
"Shut up, puppy," Qual-Kehk roared. "Yoo shouldn't even be here! What else have yoo done to break our traditions?!"
"I win battles," Tearlach growled. "Which is --"
Oh, no, Cain thought. Though it might cost him his life, he moved between the two huge Barbarians and held up his hands. "Please! Think of where this might lead."
They both stopped, glowering. Cain continued, "Surely, we cannot waste our time and energy like this! Qual-Kehk, honored war-leader... the siege has been lifted! Baal's most vicious general is no more. Surely, someone who would risk his life to save this great city would never knowing betray your proud traditions."
"What risk? He wa --" He stopped when Cain elbowed him in the stomach.
"Aye... there is that." Qual-Kehk stood in solemn thought. Foraging parties were already coming back through the gates, with more firewood, rabbits, nuts, and mountain garlic. "If these are the final days... then there is no reason to keep our secrets any longer, is there? The protection secrecy brings has failed, it no longer serves any purpose."
"Indeed," Cain said, rubbing his elbow. "Baal does not know how to reach the Worldstone, so it is likely that his effort will be futile."
"That's right!" Tearlach smiled. "He can look 'til his eyes fall out."
"While he looks, all our lives are in peril," Qual-Kehk said. "The siege will be renewed, more demons will come. My thoughts turn to those who have been taken prisoner, for the demons to feast on in their nightly revels."
"A fate no man should suffer," Tearlach opined.
"Those who escaped tell me they were held in the holding prisons we built, higher up the mountain. If they were all released, we could renew our assaults on Baal's forces and turn the tide against him."
Tearlach blinked. "We built prisons?"
"Don't be stupid, whelp. Of course we did. Even if we didn't, they would. Demons like their meat alive and screaming."
We built prisons. The thought wouldn't leave Tearlach's mind as he smashed the last of the catapults, which were still trying to rain death on the faraway city. Only southlanders build prisons, so they can torment and enslave those they fear. The sons of Bul-Kathos have the resolve to finish off their enemies. Aye, that was what the elders said. They also said the sons of Bul-Kathos don't use magic. After kicking the last earth demon back down to Hell, Tearlach found the broad steps which led up from the foothills into the highlands.
He'd never been this far up before. In ancient times, the people built rings of walls around the sacred mountain, to defend it in the end times. Walls are a good defense. Barbarians don't need them, most of the time; we have nothing to defend. That purity of life gives us the freedom to attack without worry. At the top of the steps, Tearlach saw, almost invisible under the dirt, an old Horadric waypoint. For a moment, he glowered at it. Bad enough that they'd been in Hell. How did that bunch of pansy-ass sorcerers get here, and find the time to build something of their own on the very slopes of sacred Mt. Arreat? Was no one on guard against foreigners? Or did the elders invite them here? Cold fury crept into his heart, but he activated the waypoint. It was too damn useful not to.
One last group of slaves beset him (maybe reinforcements for that "general" down in the hills) and then it was nothing but open spaces, full of little big-heads. By the Light, who knew Hell was so full of tiny annoyances? Every single one of them must be up here, right now, just for him. Even the dart Flayers weren't this hateful -- they could only run away. These things took great pleasure in vanishing the moment he got close enough to hurt them, always with the sassiest smirk on their pointy-chinned faces. When he leapt, they were gone by the time he landed. When he gave chase, they scampered away, laughing while their fellows peppered him with magic. The only time they'd sit still was when the found a beast to ride: huge animals that walked like men, covered in iron plate with a saddle on their heads. Each had a flame-throwing device mounted on the saddle. Anywhere else, and that might have been a terrible weapon; in Arreat's chill air, it was almost invigorating.
It took far too long to reach the first set of walls. The big-heads should have known they had no chance, all they did was make him chase them. It was so frustrating, he hardly took the time to loot. Now that he was here, seeing for the first time the mighty defensive works his ancestors labored so hard to build, he was... disappointed. He hadn't expected them to be great walls, but these weren't even very good walls. Hardly more than the height of a tall man, built of wattle and sun-baked mud, they looked like a good kick could go right through. There were a few towers; a big-head was desperately pouring fire on his head from the top of the nearest one. Only demons used the wall now... so Tearlach raised his axe, smashed the tower, and split the big-head in two from below. It wasn't even difficult.
Behind the wall were open platforms, one with a catapult, another with a cage. Tearlach hadn't noticed the catapult firing. Maybe he'd been running after the cursed big-heads so much, the thing couldn't take aim. The cage was nothing but sticks and rope, with a single chain locking the flimsy gate. They weren't even very good cages. A strong man could jump over that ring of sticks, or break them. They couldn't hold even an unarmed man unless he were constantly watched. Five men stood in the cage, shouting for release; slaves were stabbing through the bars, trying to kill them first.
Tearlach chopped through the chain with one swipe. "Get out of there! Get a sword, there's plenty of killing for all of yoo!" Maybe they'd clear big-heads so he wouldn't have to bother. As soon as they were out, a portal appeared, and they all ran. Well... maybe that was for the best. A hot meal would do them good before they came back into the fray. Now that he wasn't out in the open, the big-heads couldn't blast away at him so freely; he went through the wall from one end to the other, looting thoroughly. The ancestors left a lot of wizard toys behind them: Druid skins, staves, and wands made from glowing crystals or dried human bones. By now, Tearlach could only shake his head; he'd gone beyond surprise. It wouldn't even surprise him to learn that the ancestors were all magicians, and the great traditions all got started as their little joke.
Beyond the first wall was another open plain, full of bouncing big-heads. Tearlach killed them without thought; they weren't a threat, but his heart wasn't in the battle anymore. None of the men he'd rescued returned to the fight. There were no honorable foes, only little ones that cast spells and ran away. The things that stood their ground did so because they were too stupid to do otherwise. In the middle of the highlands was a pit, with a bridge that led to a red gate. Having been in Hell, the red glow from below was very familiar. An entrance to Hell on Mt. Arreat? Why not? The guardians of the mountain not only failed to guard it, they even failed to be the men they were supposed to be. Why wouldn't Hell come to the most sacred place in the world and make itself at home?
Tearlach went down to a tiny bit of Hell, an island in a lake of fire. The River of Flame might flow here. Siege machines and hand armaments lay about, mostly pole-arms, spears, and other two-handed weapons. And there were big-heads, more and more big-heads all over the damned place. He was about to scream in frustration when the bull-men charged. Ah... these ones, at least, look like they fight in ways a man can understand. The big poleaxes lying around were not two-handed weapons either: bull-men used them one in each hand. They were fast, strong, eminently respectable, and very rewarding to kill. Though even he had to admit, it was good they only came one or two at a time.
There was plenty of war-gear on the fiery island, useful things any warrior would appreciate. What had happened to the sons of Bul-Kathos, that more good steel could be found down in the pit than on the slopes of Mt. Arreat? Almost sadly, Tearlach left Hell and returned to the hell on earth that was his homeland. The second ring of walls came into view, no better than the first. Two cages stood here; at one, he found another Barbarian warrior, hacking away at the guardian slaves. Fool! He should free his brothers first, not try to get all the kills for himself. After kicking through the cage wall, Tearlach turned his attention to the slaves, getting five kills to the other man's two. A member of the wolf tribe (so marked by his use of two axes) should be ashamed of so poor a performance. Ah... but what does it matter, next to the shame that hangs over us all?
Beyond lay another highland, and another wall. The fighting was even more tedious than in that forsaken desert down south. At least there were no walking dead; his people do not leave bodies for demons to work their magic on. Far up into the highlands, the land leveled off. Some earth demons guarded the pass, but after killing them, Tearlach climbed a tree and looked out over the vast plateau. Fires burned everywhere, and the thick acrid smoke did not all come from wood. Thin winds carried the screams of slaves and the crack of whips to his ears. The flanks of Arreat were now a staging area for the enemy. A new force was gathering for another assault.
The square in Harrogath was full of men, preparing their armor and swords. Where were they a few minutes ago, Tearlach wondered? "Old man," Tearlach growled at Qual-Kehk, "demon slaves and their masters gather above the highlands. Have any of those who returned found the stomach they'll need to face them when they come?"
Qual-Kehk was drawing lines on a map. Ignoring Tearlach's tone, he replied. "They have returned, and eaten for the first time in days. Their wounds no longer fester, their bones are whole and strong once more. They have spoken well of yoor bravery. I thank yoo for saving them."
Hmm... they were a bit battered when he found them. "It was... there was nothing too difficult in it. The worst was the time it took to slay all the little wizard things."
"Aye, they are a plague. The men also tell me yoo broke the old walls in many places, and found the things the elders kept there."
Slowly, Tearlach nodded. "Aye."
"I often wondered why those things were there. The elders would not say, just that they were to stay. I thought, perhaps so long as they are here, the world's sorcerers and demon-kissers cannot have them. Now I know better."
Teeth gritting audibly, Tearlach muttered, "Aye."
"When Aust, who I looked to as a father, came to me and told me to hold back my men, magic would defend Harrogath, it was all I could do not to strike him down. The spell did not save the mountain." Now Qual-Kehk looked straight at Tearlach. "We are the sons of Bul-Kathos, mightiest of men, the only king of this land. Walls may save a city, but we must do more than save our lives. Baal is out there. Kill him... and all this collapses."
"Aye!" Tearlach grunted, standing straighter.
"Beyond the plateau yoo saw, there is a tunnel under a wall of ice. Through those tunnels lies the way, by a hidden path he seeks, but will not find. If our warriors go there, he will follow, thinking we will lead him to it. We can lure him into a trap and put him and all his kind to the sword."
A fire lit in Tearlach's eye. "A sally..."
"Aye. But we must break through his armies with enough men left alive to deal with him and his cohort. We must not fight for glory, or the honor of our clans. I have decided to adopt a new strategy. Yoo, and all yoor fellows, will be paired. Each of yoo is to watch the other's back, and fight as yoo would to protect a brother. Yoo are not to compete; all yoor kills will be in common."
This brought some grumbles. Only Tearlach took no convincing. "Aye, that's not so bad. 'Tis good to have a shield-brother at yoor side, when surrounded by the enemy. Two pairs of eyes are better than one, after all."
"And speaking of shields... Tearlach, I had thought to put these runes in a shield, but seeing how yoo bear one, yoo may use them better. Yoor partner will be Klatu."
"What, him?" Tearlach snorted. "A damned Crane tribesman, what a --"
"Hoo are you, speakin' to me that way, boy!?!" Qual-Kehk roared. "Forget yoor clans, most of 'em are dead anyway! This is bigger than clans, this is everything! We have to fight, and we have to win! If we're dead, it'll do nobody any good!"
No one spoke up again. Soon, all were paired up, mostly outside of their tribes. Tearlach looked over his new "partner" with some resentment. "I am Tearlach, son of Grignr, son of Gor."
"I've heard of yoo. I am Klatu, son of Gort."
Tearlach frowned. "Don't you have brothers named Borada and Niktu?"
"Aye. I intend to avenge them."
Tearlach nodded, a smile slowly coming to his lips. "Aye. There's chance enough for that."
In happier times, when outsiders attacked the highlands, the sons of Bul-Kathos met them on the plains and plateaus. Springing out of ambush, a charge with a few war cries was usually enough to send the southlanders squealing in terror back to their own lands. Those lacking the wit to flee that first rush were slaughtered... think of it as culling the herd. What Qual-Kehk demanded now was different. By the old ways, each warrior fought for his own honor and glory, then the honor of his clan, but the old way would not win this war. Their foe outnumbered them by an unthinkable margin, and did not flee -- their masters frightened them far more than any shouting. The hour was late, but hope was not lost: a few more had trickled into Harrogath, besides those rescued from the cages. Now armed, fed, and ready, a smaller but wiser band might yet snatch victory.
Qual-Kehk told them what he expected of them. The key to this battle was Baal himself. His army was far too numerous to defeat, and even if they did, he would simply summon it again. To win, they must kill Baal, but finding him would be impossible. Qual-Kehk's plan was wily: if you cannot reach the enemy, have him come to you. Their goal was the ice caves under Arreat's peak. Baal had been searching for the entrance to the Worldstone's chamber for days. If they could destroy the army massing on the plateau, but retreat to the caves, he would think the entrance must be there. He would follow... and the caves are one of the best places on the mountain for an ambush. It would be a hard battle - he would certainly have his strongest minions with him to protect his foul carcass - but killing his slaves and minor demons again and again would not win the war.
Of course, they had to defeat Baal's army, and leave warriors alive to make an ambush work. This would take new tactics, fighting to stay alive and reach the caves. Each man was to carry portal scrolls, and attach no shame to using them. Keep your eyes on your brother, keep him and you safe. Move in slow, harass the enemy until you've whittled them down to size. Tearlach listened, and approved; much of this was nothing more than his usual combat strategy, learned from painful experience. Not everyone shared his opinion.
"It sounds..." Drus frowned, thinking. "It is unmanly, to cower and run from Baal's slaves."
"Is it manly to die against them?" Tearlach snorted. "Too many of our proud warriors lie dead, their crimson life fluid staining the unhappy earth. Even a slave can kill."
"What can yoo say that we should listen to, lack-kin?" a man called Hrothgar sneered. "A man with no clan is like a blasted tree standing lonely on a hilltop."
"Yoo can sit under a tree to get out of the rain," Tearlach snarled. "A dead man does no one any good. Did I pull yoo out of their stew-pots to insult me?"
"I will not fight alongside a Snake!" Drus spat on the ground.
"Nor I beside a Bear!" Tostig hissed. "My cousin Tharr was killed by a Bear clansman, and I have sworn a blood-feud against all his kin."
"I know yoo, Tearlach," Hrothgar glowered. "I know yoo from yoor youth. Yoo want us to go slow so yoo can take yoor fancy jeweled axe and get all the kills for yoorself!"
As they argued, Cain sidled up to Qual-Kehk. "I beg your pardon, but is this they way decisions are usually made here?"
"Yes," Qual-Kehk sighed. "And no. I expected argument. Only a fool would think proud warriors would forget all they have known and fight a new way."
"Listening to them, I am reminded of Tearlach when I first met him. How strange that his should be the voice of reason now."
"None will say it, but they are afraid. When southlanders came in the past, we knew the fight would be easy, and it was easy to set differences aside. Now, any excuse will do for them to sit at home by the fire. It makes me sick to see it."
"Why don't you just tell them that?"
"It would shame them into battle, and they would fight and die. I want them to fight and live. It is disgraceful to say, but the exile is right; it does no good to stand and die."
"Hmm..." Cain thought. "I think I have an idea."
The fight among the Barbarians was growing louder by the moment; Cain was sure it would come to blows soon. With a sweet smile, he hobbled into the middle of it and looked up at Tearlach. "Pardon me, but I am a bit confused about something."
Tearlach sighed theatrically. "What do yoo want now, wizard?"
"Well... I know perfectly well that none of you are afraid of dying..."
"Of course not!" All the Barbarians laughed, a bit longer than they needed to. "Death comes to all, there is no call to fear it!"
"I have also heard you sing many songs to honor those who die a glorious death."
"All men die," Hrothgar said. "Only a warrior's reputation lives forever, through the sagas."
"Yes. So, if you all die against Baal's troops, who will sing to honor you?"
There was a long, painful silence. Cain continued, "Especially against those slaves, who have no honor at all. To die facing Baal, that I can understand... but why are you arguing about who kills the most slaves? I don't think it matters to Baal if you kill them."
"Erm..." Drus shuffled his feet. "True, there is little honor in it."
"We've all slain plenty of them," Tearlach said. "A few more makes no difference."
"I'm still not fighting beside a Bear," Tostig murmured darkly.
Cain nodded. "That is very wise. It would be terrible if you were to save his life, and have his clan owe you a debt. All your clans have suffered greatly, and they might have difficulty compensating you. It would bring them dishonor."
Quietly, Cain glanced around; a few of them were confused, some looked offended, one or two had a crafty look in their eyes. "Wizard, are yoo trying to get clever with us?"
"No, no! Forgive me, I do not understand your ways. I was confused, especially knowing Qual-Kehk's plan could be what destroys Baal and avenges all your kin."
"Aye... there's that," Hrothgar scratched his shaggy beard. "No point killing his slaves if he cares not about the loss."
"More important, he can't find the Worldstone," Drus said.
"Aye! He seeks it above all else. All his thought is on it," Tostig nodded sagely.
"So..." Tearlach's eyes narrowed as he thought, "if he thinks it's in the caves, he'll go there and we can get him!"
"Damn!" Hrothgar shouted, "we have to get that army out of the way now, before it's ready to march! What are we all standing around here for? For GLORY!!"
With a mighty shout, all Harrogath's warriors charged out the gate. In the now deserted square, Qual-Kehk shook his head. "Outlander, that was disgustingly manipulative."
Looking not a little smug, Cain quietly shrugged. "Sometimes, people simply need to be reminded of what's important to them. Strange... they seemed more eager to fight when they thought it was their own idea."
Qual-Kehk laughed. "Of course! My people do not take orders, all of us are equals. That was one thing I always admired about elder Aust. He had a golden tongue, and a gift for fine speech. He never gave orders to anyone. It was always his greatest pleasure to let them do exactly as he wanted."
When they reached the plateau, a few of the Barbarians abandoned their battle partners and ran on ahead. Others with more experience moved in slower, wary and light on their feet. Tearlach grabbed Klatu and stuck close to him. Let the others charge in; they'd soon learn caution, if they lived. Very few sagas will be sung about fighting slaves; even dying against Baal would be a better fate.
At first, there were only a few scattered slaves, lost and confused after the first Barbarians' rush through their ranks. They were easy to mop up. Tearlach noted, to his infinite disgust, that Klatu was a Crane fighter through and through. He was constantly moving in and out, dodging and weaving, occasionally swinging his sword; he couldn't just stand still and bash. Granted, he didn't need much more than one carefully-placed swing, but it was still annoying. Tearlach stood behind his shield and chopped, killing two or more for every one of his.
Finally, he had enough. "What the HELL are yoo DOING?"
Klatu looked at Tearlach. He had heavy-lidded eyes, and always looked half-asleep. "What are YOO doing?"
Grunting as a slave detonated on his shield, Tearlach replied, "Killing! What are yoo doing?"
"No, what's with all the dancing around and crap?!"
Klatu was now weaving around a slave master, avoiding its whip and slowly slicing it to bits. "The little ones explode, yoo know."
Tearlach shook half of a slave's head off his helmet wing. "I noticed."
Long after they had both finished off the slave master and moved on to the next, Klatu continued his thought. "They hurt less when yoo'r far away."
"Nah, step back when yoo see them swell up. Problem solved."
Klatu seemed to consider this for a while. "Aye, that might do it."
"Yoo should do it. Gods, yoo get chewed up. I'm sick of yoo taking all the potions!"
"Yoo drink a bunch of them. Yoo even drink the blue ones."
"Is it my fault I get thirsty? Tough work, this."
"Aye." Silently, he watched as Tearlach searched the fallen. "Findin' anything there?"
"Just Cathan's Mesh. Sorcerer crap. Let's move on."
It was on his next return to town that Malah stooped him. Many more warriors were coming back to have their wounds tended before they went out again, but she didn't want to talk about that. Elder Aust's only child, his daughter Anya, had survived the death of her father, but vanished soon after. She was sure elder Nihlathak was responsible. Tearlach smiled and assured her he'd look for her, but didn't have the heart to tell the poor old woman she was surely dead. Anya was supposed to be the most beautiful girl in the land, and one of the wisest, as her father gave her many of his secrets. But no woman, neither the wisest nor the strongest, could survive long outside of Harrogath's walls.
There were a few encampments on the plateau, with a few dead women, some of them still in bed or sitting by the fire. Tearlach was surprised they hadn't been eaten. Maybe demons like beef better than veal. Behind a wall was another hell-pit; the cursed things must be all over Mt. Arreat. Standing at the entrance, Tearlach looked around. Despite stopping for loot, he and Klatu seemed to be well ahead of the others. They had formed little knots of two or three sword-brothers, and were taking the demons on with ease. It was important to get to the ice caves, but if they were coming up through these portals, it would be just as important to kill everything down below too. And besides... there was sure to be loot there, better loot than he was finding up here, all his for the taking.
The red portal took them to another string of islands in the lake of fire. In spite of it being his first time in Hell, Klatu took it well. The fire and stench made him nervous, but Tearlach took no notice. The Crane was a decent fighter, even if he took too long to kill things, and besides, Hell is supposed to make a man nervous. The only time he had to be rough with him was when a gigantic bull-man, a genuine Hell Lord, attacked with his pack.
"That's a big 'un, he is."
"Yoo can't be running away! He's not that --"
Tearlach grabbed Klatu by the collar of his breastplate and dragged him away. "Damn it, when I scream like a girl, pay attention!"
"I didn't expect yoo to turn coward!"
"Keep running! I'm no coward! We've got to string those bastards out and take on that big bastard alone or we're done for!"
"Doesn't look that much bigger than the others..."
When they got to a safe distance, Tearlach stopped. "You see that red glow around him? That's a spirit aura, and the most dangerous kind."
"So it glows. Yoo think it'll glimmer us to death?"
"Yoo wait and see. But don't attack when it has friends. Get it alone!"
It took running, leaping over gaps, and more fancy footwork than even Klatu liked, but they finally isolated the Hell Lord with only one of its cohort. That was about as good as it was going to get, Tearlach realized, so they attacked. Repeated war cries confused the minion, but bull-head hit faster and harder than anything Tearlach had yet felt. Both of them reeled under the repeated blows, delivered in a frenzy of bloodlust. It took three purple potions to keep them alive, but finally they killed it.
As they stood there gasping, Tearlach handed Klatu a potion. "Drink."
"Aye," he gurgled. "By all the Ancients... I thought yoo'd been here before?"
"I've been. Hell of a place."
Klatu shook his head. "Aye."
After that, the rest of the island was child's play. At least there weren't any big-heads, just slaves, masters, and bulls. Back on Mt. Arreat, near the pit, was another Horadric waypoint.
"Damn it, wizard," Tearlach asked as he dropped off another load, "how by all the Light did those damn mages build all these things? They're up and down the mountain!"
"Mages all over the world have long debated Mt. Arreat's purpose. It is no surprise that the Horadrim came here at some point, to try and answer their many questions about the mountain and its secrets. Thankfully, they did not explore it completely, or Baal would not need to do so now. Have you had any luck in the ice caves?"
"I'll be there soon, and so will the others. Luck is smiling on us. These demons aren't any tougher than any of the others, once you find their weaknesses."
"Good, good. There are a couple of things here I think you should look at. In particular, this note. The handwriting looks familiar."
Ooooh, that Minotaur was nasty! Wish I got this to you sooner. The amulet is a good one, a Resonant amulet of Life Everlasting, reduces damage by 21! That'll help a whole big fat hairy bunch with those guys. Wear the chain gloves for the lightning resistance, and the great sword is for your friend. Leeching and speed keep the help helpful. Hasta la vista, you big lovable bulkhead, you!
-- The Mule
Back on the mountain, Tearlach put the Mule's latest gifts to the test. Resisting magic is important, particularly lightning, but the new amulet was a good one. It made his voice more powerful, so his war cries were really scary. His flesh toughened too -- slaves couldn't chop as deeply as before, and even the most barbed whip meant nothing at all. Must be like what it feels like to be invulnerable. It felt good.
There were no end of slaves to chop through. Even Klatu canned the fancy moves after a while and got down to business. Was there no end to the little bastards? They were almost as numerous as Flayers in the jungle, they just kept coming, endlessly. Finally, at the last defensive wall on the plateau, there were no slaves... just little Big-heads. Not much of an improvement, Tearlach cursed as he smashed through the wall, but at least there's some variety. Damn, why couldn't we at least have used stone for this thing? It's humiliating how easy it is to break through our own defenses.
After clearing the wall and finding nothing of value, they moved on. Beyond was a glacier, one of several creeping down from Arreat's peak. The ice caves ran underneath from a small cave below the glacier's base. The area looked empty, until they found the fresh remains of a dead warrior. The man was burnt to a crisp from his head to his heels, and clutching a bow. Why would anyone with any choice of weapons use such a thing? The answer came soon enough: a slave master enchanted with lightning waddled in behind a wave of exploding slaves. At least he died fighting, Tearlach thought, but being fried by magic is no proper death. The thing died quick, probably quicker than its last victim. Nothing stood between them and the caves.
Looking back down, Tearlach smiled with satisfaction. Only a few pockets of resistance were left, and were being wiped out as the others converged on them. Hell had taken a loss at least as bad as the one they'd taken at Sescheron. Now was the time to loot. Clan burial chests were common near the glacier, sheltering ancestral remains together as high up the mountain as most were allowed to go. Also outside the cave was an urn. When a son of Bul-Kathos commits a crime worthy of death, he is burned and the ashes carefully gathered before being placed in an urn. These burial urns are thick-walled, almost impossible to break, making sure nothing of the criminal will ever pollute the world again. It really shouldn't have surprised him that the lid of the urn was shaking. He and Klatu stood ready, and knocked it off. Big spiders crawled out; they squished every one. Yeugh.
Now that the battle was won, the next step was to go into the caves. No doubt... um, what was his name... the other one had already been there, and left some minions behind to hold off intruders. They would have to be cleared out, of course, so Tearlach led the way. The first things he met were animated chunks of glacial ice, creeping around slowly. After them came... women? Yes, indeed! Women with wings, though they didn't look like any angel he'd ever seen. Oh, they were comely enough, in a bony kind of way, but the last time he'd seen that many horns and sharp teeth was in the Rogue pass.
"Oh, yeah..." Tearlach grinned. "What a waste that they're demons."
"Yoo sure?" Klatu muttered hopefully. "I mean, what if they aren't?"
"Hi, boys!" one of them giggled. "Ooh, look at all those muscles!"
"They look so hot!" another cooed, "and it's so cold down here. I don't like anything frigid. Wouldn't it be nice to be held in those strong, manly arms?"
A third licked her lips. "I'm getting hot just thinking about it."
Tearlach shook his head, as if to clear his thoughts. "Remember, they're demons."
"What lass isn't, in the end?" Klatu murmured, his sword scraping the ground.
"Aye, there's that..."
They fluttered down, just out of weapon range. "Gosh, it's so amazing! Who'd think we'd ever find two such fine, hot-blooded studs in this ice box?"
"I want to get them someplace warmer."
"Sure!" the others giggled. "That'd be lots of fun."
"Eh..." Tearlach muttered, "yoo are a little lightly dressed, lasses..."
"Our master won't let us wear anything more. I'm freezing my nippies off! See how hard they've gotten?"
Klatu turned bright red. "Hamina..."
"Aye," Tearlach stared, "yoor suffering is easy to see."
"Hey," Klatu said, looking into the distance, "how many of yoo are there down here?"
"Maybe more than you can handle, studmuffin?"
"I don't think so," one grinned. "He looks like he can handle a lot. I like him."
"So," Tearlach said, watching more demon women approach, "why are all yoo 'hot' ladies in such a cold place? Yoor master, yoo said?"
"Yeah! We hate him. He makes us do... bad things."
"We really don't want to!" they pouted, very cutely.
Aware that they were now surrounded, Klatu raised his sword again. "Then leave."
"We would, really! But there's no place to go that's safe from him."
"If only someone would help us, instead of trying to kill us."
One of them gasped, "I'd instantly fall in love with any man so brave!"
"So would I!"
Klatu looked at Tearlach. "Yoo noticed we're surrounded?"
"Aye. 'Tis a bewitching trap."
"Aye. Not sure I mind so much."
"Aye. That's what makes it dangerous."
"Aye. Let's kill 'em."
They were too bony anyway. Besides, none of them were proper women. When they were killed, their glamorous looks faded into nothing, and a drawn-out hag of withered flesh and bones collapsed to the ground. Tearlach spat on them, and vowed then and there never to let any female's looks cloud his eye. He could not allow one devious she-creature's wiles to conquer him where Hell's fiercest monsters could not. As if to reinforce the point, they soon found what had to be those who had fallen to temptation: men bound and helpless, stripped of everything... their clothes, their flesh, and their lives. There were women captives, too; they still had clothing, but their faces and breasts had been ripped to bits.
Continuing through the caves, they found bull-men, bigger than the last ones. Such worthy foes were killed with great respect; other warriors might call it fear, but even Klatu didn't use that term. One thing was strange: all the bull-men were accompanied by clouds of demon women, who hissed and spat and fought fiercely to protect them. Hmm. Must be a reason they're so popular with the ladies, but Tearlach didn't look to see what it might be.
The caves were a maze of crystalline passages. The lights of torches shone through layer upon layer of clear ice, scattering in blues and purples that gleamed weirdly off the demon's armor. Seeing a creeping ice-beast walk in front of a torch was actually kind of dazzling; it was a crime Arreat's ice had been put for such evil ends. One advantage the Barbarians had over their enemy: they were used to cold. Even the bull-men were constantly just this side of freezing, and it didn't take much to chill them into a trembling mess. The helm of Frost Shield Klatu wore came in handy more than once.
After a while, Tearlach began to wonder where they were. He'd never been in these caves before, and all the tunnels looked alike, icy and glittery. Klatu just followed along behind him; he probably didn't know where they were going either. Not that there was any cause for alarm... Harrogath was just a scroll away, and they were still finding demons, so they were obviously doing good. According to Malah, most of the others survived the battle thanks to Qual-Kehk's plan, and were clearing the caves too. They must be in deeper than anyone else had gotten yet.
Down a slick slope, Tearlach found a frozen river. After a short trip back to dry off and warm up again, he and Klatu went to explore. Malah had never heard of an underground river up there; maybe they were under the base of the glacier, deeper than any man had gone since ancient times. Whatever, there were plenty of corpses in the river, and they'd been there for a long time. Ice poked between their ribs, and froze their grinning mouths shut. Klatu was about to go past, but Tearlach knew unclean dead are always a danger when demons are about. Sure enough, with a crackling of shattering ice, the dead rose to attack.
This was something new for Klatu, and he didn't take it well. Good thing the slope up was too slick, or he might have really embarrassed himself. They weren't much different from any other zombie; slow, hard to put down, but no real danger. A few muttered something unintelligible, which was disturbing, but Tearlach smashed them anyway. As he stripped a magical plated belt from one, he called to Klatu, laughing. Klatu wouldn't come; the dead were rising again. That was even more disturbing. After bashing them back down, Tearlach took the time to rip their arms and legs off. Maybe that which is not alive cannot die... but it can still be torn into little bitty pieces.
Along the river, they also found Yeti. Sadly, like their brown cousins to the south, they had been corrupted and turned against the true people. With time, Klatu grew accustomed to the walking dead, eventually scoffing at the idea he'd ever been afraid. Tearlach let it go; he liked the man, even if he was a little slow. A man should be a friend to his friends: meet a gift with a gift, a smile with a smile, and a lie with a pretense of not noticing. One demon woman had, among her other jewelry, a magical amulet, which vanished as Tearlach held it. Another note fluttered down in its place.
Vidala's Snare! That's good -- too bad we already had Sigon's Wrap. You're completing so many sets it's not funny. Your way with women is, though! You watch out for the next one, she could drop-kick your little heiny but good!
-- The Mule
"It's from the gods... or something," Tearlach frowned. "They gave me my battle gear, but take some of the things I find. It seems I have little choice in the matter."
"Huh," Klatu grunted. "Yoo should hold on tighter. Not even a god should be allowed to take what a man has earned in combat."
"This god is a strange one. He seems to know what I need, but is damned annoying. Yoo should be glad no gods have blessed yoo by meddling in yoor life."
"Och, that's true. I am a humbler man."
Tearlach smiled. "Yoo've got reason to be. Let's find this fearsome female. I'll show her my 'ways with women.'"
Thick plank bridges crossed the river many times. They were sturdy under the feet, with only a dusting of ice crystals on them -- they must be new. Someone else was down here before them. Past a crowd of powerful Yeti, Tearlach saw a platform, decorated with the curling serpent of the snake clan. At its center, a mound of blue ice surrounded something shaped like a woman. She did not move, so they approached cautiously. It was a woman... a beautiful woman... without doubt, the most beautiful woman in the whole world! Tearlach was instantly overcome by the very sight of her. Even shivering, weeping frozen tears inside that icy shell, all others paled into insignificance. Her eyes, dark as midnight, pleaded with him. Instantly, Tearlach raised his axe, but Klatu stopped him. What was he thinking? To risk one fine raven hair on that head would be unthinkable! But what to do? What to do? Oh, Malah would know, surely! She is wise, and knows many secrets!
By the time he was halfway through his babbled entreaty, Malah had mixed up a potion and told him to pour it over the woman in the ice. She said some other things, but Tearlach was already gone. With a flash of steam, the ice instantly vanished, and the most perfect vision of loveliness stepped out, unharmed by her ordeal.
"Thank yoo, brave warrior, for rescuing me! Nihlathak trapped me here! Where is he?"
The woman blinked for a moment, then sighed. "Follow me to Harrogath. Nihlathak must be stopped at all costs! He is going to destroy us all!"
"Hero, please. Yoo must focus yoor mind, we are all in the gravest danger!"
She turned to Klatu. "Are yoo his friend, warrior? Maybe yoo can tell him. I'm not sure he understands."
Klatu said, "Woawowow..."
"There is no time for this. I must go. Follow me, when yoo are able." With that, she vanished through a portal.
Tearlach stood stunned. "Och... that bonnie... she..."
"I'd heard, but I never thought it could be true..."
"What'd yoo hear?"
"Anya, daughter of elder Aust! The most beautiful girl in the land."
"The most beautiful creature in the world! None can compare, and I've seen plenty of what the world has to offer!" Tearlach took of his helmet. "From this moment on, I vow to make this mountain a safe place for Anya, the most... wonderful of all her kind! No woman could take her place in my heart. I've lost all interest in any other!"
Far, far away, in the Rogue's pass, Kashya suddenly looked up, an expression of shock on her face. Warriv stopped unloading his wagon. "What is it?"
"I felt a great disturbance in the force... like a horrible fate hung over me, but now is no more. I feel something terrible has happened... to some other woman."
"Have you found anything?" Cain asked Qual-Kehk when he came back. He and the other Barbarians were searching the town for any sign of Nihlathak.
"The snake has slipped our grasp. All that time he called me a fool, while he planned a folly ten times greater." The old warrior slammed his armored fist into a nearby wall, then turned to stare up at the mountain. "And to think, the battle was just turning. I could see victory ahead. Now all may be lost to his betrayal."
"There is hope yet. Nihlathak must find Baal before he gives him the totem. Or might he convince Baal to come to him?"
Qual-Kehk shook his head and sighed. "Anya knew not how long she had been imprisoned in the ice, but many days passed since she vanished from Harrogath. There is no doubt in my mind that Baal has taken the totem and done what he set out to do. Now he toys with us, encouraging our hopes so our despair will be even greater. I have sent my warriors out of the caves, and higher up the mountain. They may reach the Causeway of the Ancients, but I dare not let them go beyond."
"Surely, if Baal reached the Worldstone, there would be some sign of it!" Cain suggested reassuringly. "We have seen no changes. Heaven still watches over us, and the Light still shines on our path. Perhaps there is still time."
Qual-Kehk nodded. "There is a chance."
"Hey, old wizard!" Tearlach shouted as he ran down from Malah's, "have yoo seen that vision of beauty? A man could die happy, having seen such loveliness once in his life."
"Let's not talk about dying just yet," Cain smiled nervously. "If you're speaking of Anya, I have seen her. She must be a remarkable young woman. She seems to command great respect, despite her youth."
"Respect?" Klatu snorted. "Aye, yoo could call it that."
"Forget it," Tearlach elbowed him in the ribs and grinned. "Old men can't remember what's important after a while."
"We can't?" Qual-Kehk huffed. "Then maybe yoo can judge the importance of this. Anya told us that Nihlathak intends to give the Relic of the Ancients to Baal."
"WHAT!?!" they both bellowed in unison.
D-flat, Cain thought. "He may not have done it yet. But he is nowhere to be found."
"I can guess what rock he's hiding under," Qual-Kehk said. "His clan temple will give him shelter. Only demons walk there now."
Tearlach's eyes narrowed. "How do we get to him?"
"It is a week's walk. Or yoo could speak with Anya. The hidden knowledge of the elders may serve us again."
Aust's house was one of the largest in Harrogath, near the center of the city as befitted his station and the respect accorded him. Now Anya was there, sadly going through the things left behind after his death. She looked out as Tearlach and Klatu ran up.
"Yoo've come back! Thank yoo for rescuing me, though I wish it could have been sooner. I knew Nihlathak must have broken faith with the other elders, but I did not guess the depth of his betrayal."
Tearlach smiled, shifting from one foot to the other and wishing he'd thought to polish his armor that morning. "Och, yoo couldn't have known, lass!"
Klatu took his helmet off before the lady. "He was an elder, like yoor father. Woo woold'a thought he'd betray us like that?"
"No one would have!" Tearlach moved to take his helmet off, but replaced it when cold air touched his naked scalp. "I mean... it don't stand to reason!"
"Yoor words are comforting, but mean nothing if Baal has the Relic of the Ancients."
"He won't have it if we do! Where does the snake hide it?"
"Yes," Klatu agreed. "Is it in his clan temple?"
"Yes, I am sure it is..."
"Then that's where we're off to! Someone has to make him pay for what he did to yoo!"
Anya smiled, bowing her head. "Yoo are kind. I don't know if it will do any good, but I can make a portal to take yoo there. If Nihlathak has already given Baal the relic, nothing we do now will save us. Perhaps he has not. I hope there is still time."
"Lass..." Tearlach said with growing impatience, "there won't be if we spend all of it standing here!"
Anya cast the portal, and gave Tearlach a gift from her father's store of armor and weapons. The helm was a primal helm, not suited to his way of doing things, but one look into those deep, dark eyes and he couldn't say no. He stowed it carefully in a place of honor among his things and charged through the gate. Nihlathak's temple was dark, sheltered in a deep crevasse where light never reached. Corpses littered the yard outside. They were zombies, of course, probably a gift. After tearing them all to pieces, they went into the temple.
Once Tearlach had a look inside, he wasn't so sure the zombies were a gift. Cages full of bones were everywhere, stacked up to the ceiling. The temple walls had been decorated with murals and tapestries, showing the snake clan's noble history, but the tapestries were gone and the murals cracked and broken. The stench of old death and decay was thick. Something had been rotten in here for many years. Sure enough, there were plenty of undead wandering the temple's sacred halls, as well as Baal's demons.
Searching the temple grounds for Nihlathak, or in a pinch, the Relic of the Ancients, turned up neither. There were plenty of fresh bodies, snake clan women who might have tried to hide in their temple when the demons came. Older bodies were abundant too, but they were all walking around. Not for the first time, Tearlach cursed the elder, for another thing that wasn't supposed to happen here. At least the tombs of ancient heroes were unmolested. As they went deeper, new horrors and defilements came to light. The murals were gone, but human bones decorated the walls in their place. A new kind of demon floated airily through the halls, infecting other creatures with little glowing worms that drove them mad. Men lay tied to tables, where they had obviously been cut to pieces while still alive.
"It's disgusting in there, wizard," Tearlach snared as he dumped a load of artifacts on the ground. "Bones and corpses everywhere, and the stench! By the Light, I haven't seen that many walking dead since the desert, and at least those smelled better!"
Cain nodded absent-mindedly, looking over Tearlach's haul. "Yes, they use aromatic spices as part of the mummification process. Let me see... Isenhart's Horns... Cleglaw's Pincers... the Manald Heal... ah! This confirms our suspicions beyond all doubt!"
Cain held up two rings, chuckling. "The unique artifact, the Manald Heal. And here, also, is the unique artifact, the Manald Heal!"
"Heh," Tearlach grunted. "Sounds like sorcerer crap."
"The Manald Heal is a powerful spell-caster's tool, much desired by students of the magical arts. I don't suppose you'd want it."
"Nah, keep yoor trinkets. I have all I need. Though I'd give it all up for one kind look from her." A dreamy expression filled Tearlach's eyes. "Ah, Anya! Most fragrant flower in the mountains! Full of wisdom and beauty, strong as any mountain wolf."
"Yeah," Klatu said. "Too bad she likes me best."
"What do yoo mean?" Tearlach yelled. "She likes me best! She gave me a gift, and yoo got nothing!"
"Don't yoo know anything about women? She gave yoo that so she wouldn't hurt yoor feelin's. Like a second-place prize."
"I know a lot about women! I've known women up and down the length and breadth of this land! If there's anythin' I know, it's women!"
Cain remained quiet, happy to be ignored. Klatu went on, "It's a shame when a man doesn't know he's beaten. What more can I say? Everyone knows she likes me."
"Yoo're foolin' yoorself! Even yoo saw how she looked at me when she asked 'What are yoor needs?' Oh, what I had a need for then..."
"She was lookin' over yoor shoulder. Look at us; between yoo and me, there's just no comparison. Don't take it so hard. I've always had a way with fair damsels."
"Let me tell yoo somethin'!" Tearlach jabbed Klatu in the chest with his finger. "I don't know what it is, but I've got somethin' special they can't resist! I visited a monastery, a monastery full of women. They all, ah, live with other women, if yoo get my drift."
Folding his arms, Klatu shook his head. "No... no, I don't think I do."
"No wonder women can't stand yoo, yoo're stupid and don't appreciate the subtle ways they communicate! By the time I left, their war leader was carrying on fit to burst, crying and screaming her head off! The poor thing just couldn't stand to see me go."
"Is that a fact," Klatu slowly nodded.
"As I live and breathe! Wizard! Was not Kashya distraught over my leaving?"
"She was very reluctant to let you go," Cain agreed. At least alive, and able to function as a man, he thought. "It would be a shame if Nihlathak hands the relic over to Baal while you're here arguing, though..."
Tearlach smacked his gauntleted hand into his forehead. "Och! I'll show yoo how wrong yoo are another time, Crane! We still have to find that snake!"
"Aye. Just don't be too upset about what yoo find."
The deepest halls of Nihlathak's temple were named for Vaught, Bul-Kathos' third son and ancestor of the whole clan. It was full of slave creatures and demon women. So, Tearlach thought, he's a necromancer, a coward, and a pervert. It would be a shame if his hell-born hussies killed him before they had a chance. The sacred halls where Vaught himself might once have walked were full of Nihlathak's revolting experiments. Men and women had been vivisected on tables, their blood and other fluids carefully drained away and stored in jars. Corpses hung from meat hooks like deer, ready to be dressed. The demons feasted well on the many remains.
At the end of the last hall, they saw Nihlathek floating amid a crowd of slaves. Maybe he was smart enough to stay away from the demon women. No matter; his doom was sealed. Klatu favored a direct assault, but Tearlach remembered how those slave creatures could explode and opted for a wilier approach. He poked his nose around the corner, then ran as Nihlathak sent a dozen slaves to kill him. Then he went around the other side, pruning a batch of slaves away there.
Klatu shook his head. "To think yoo accused me of wasting time with fancy maneuvers."
"Just remember to rip them up after they're dead. He raises the dead, we don't want anything comin' back that doesn't have to."
"There's no cause to fear them, even dead."
"Fear, nothing. The bastard will get away while we're busy!"
"Ah," Klatu nodded. "There's that."
"Look at him! He's floatin'!"
"Don't look happy, do he? Here come some more. Retreat?"
While they chopped his minions to bits, Nihlathak snarled, "I know what yoo're doing!"
"Yoo think we care what yoo know, traitor?!"
"I could fill my temple to the roof with what yoo don't know! Yoo don't even know how to save our people! None of yoo do!"
"We know not to give our most holy totem to a demon," Klatu said flatly.
"What good did the Relic of the Ancients do? The relic is nothing! Obedience to Heaven was destroying our people! What good is keeping it safe at the cost of all our lives?"
"Because, damn yoo," Tearlach roared as he tore dead slaves to bits, "losing the relic means all our lives!"
"So yoo believe," Nihlathak snorted, "as yoo've been told since yoo were babes. Men with big pectorals and small brains should not decide the fate of humanity. Those hoo can think for themselves are better able! Heaven's lies have..."
"We've cleared enough," Tearlach fumed. "I don't want to listen to any more."
In they charged. The chamber was nearly empty, save for a few slaves in the back corners and a low dais surmounted by a pentagram. Must be where he'd gone for information about "heaven's lies." While Klatu finished off the slaves, Tearlach leapt for Nihlathak, smashing bodily into elder and burying his axe in his skull. At least, that was the plan. Just before he got there, Nihlathak vanished, reappearing on the other side of the room. At his gesture, another slave appeared from the pentagram. This one has lots of demonic tricks. After splitting the slave in two at the waist, Tearlach charged for Nihlathak again.
The kill was much harder to get than he'd anticipated. His clothing looked like nothing but furs, all black and white, but had a remarkable ability to absorb damage. Maybe he has an amulet like mine, Tearlach thought; that was what made the temple so easy to overwhelm. Vanishing and reappearing like a big-head (he even looked a bit like one, come to think of it) made the chase even more annoying. When he began making his dead slaves explode like bombs made of meat, that was the last straw. Klatu like to bash opponents around; maybe he had the right idea. Tearlach reared back and slammed Nihlathak into a wall, and repeated the performance until he was safely in a corner.
It worked, for a while. He and Klatu sliced and chopped into the frail old elder, taking far too much time to kill him. It just wasn't natural. Eventually he got away, teleporting across the hall again, and summoning another minion. Tearlach bellowed at Klatu to ignore it -- they're more dangerous dead than alive here. Happily, he did, and they ran Nihlathak down again. This time, he didn't get away. With a final chop, he fell to the ground, and screamed when the floor opened up under him. Screaming, he twirled and whipped in the air as the gate to the abyss ate him, stripping the flesh from his scrawny bones as he'd doubtless done to so many of his own clan.
The Relic of the Ancients was nowhere to be found. He'd given it to... the other one. Damn him, damn him to Hell where he belongs. They'll like him there. Anya said a few kind words, and thanked them for trying, before she went back inside, still going through the things her father had left. Even Tearlach knew this wasn't the time to ask her who she liked.
"What can we do now?" Tearlach asked Qual-Kehk. "Is all lost?"
"Baal has the relic. There's only one thing we can do. He must be destroyed, but by now, he will be inside the Worldstone Keep."
"What is that?"
"The chamber of the Worldstone is within. Few now living have ventured there; I myself have never dared. Without the relic, a warrior may only enter if he is tested by the Ancients themselves, by the only measure worthy of them: trial by combat, to the death."
"To stand against the Ancients is something no man can now do," Tearlach muttered.
"That may be, but we cannot bring ourselves to admit defeat." Qual-Kehk clapped him on the shoulder. "Every time I see yoo, yoor deeds have become more legendary. It is hard to believe yoo are the same brash yooth we sent away years ago, and has come back to us in our hour of greatest need. I think yoo should be the first to challenge the Ancients."
Tearlach stood slack-jawed. "Such an honor... !"
"Are yoo sure yoo can defeat them?" Qual-Kehk raised an eyebrow.
"No! They are the Ancient Ones! Sword-brothers to the Immortal King himself! What man could... aye, but what man could not, knowing what's to happen if he fails?"
"A goodly answer. Yoo shall go first. If yoo fail, another shall go. At least our place shall be assured in Heaven, though the battle might go there next."
Tearlach nodded, a gleam shining in his eye. "So I'd best get it over with now."
"That's the spirit," Qual-Kehk smiled. "Beyond the ice caves lies the Causeway of the Ancients, and from there, the very summit of the mountain. There yoo will find them, where they have stood watching over us all our lives. Yoo will know what to do."
Tearlach and Klatu returned to the ice caves. Beyond lay the frozen summit of Mt. Arreat, where the Ancients awaited them. But first, they had to get through the caves. Bul-Kathos' icy bones! Why did the Ancients dig so many miles of mazes for them to stumble through!? Wandering in and out of dead ends, they found no way out to the peak. There were plenty of demons, plaguing them every step of the way; demon women, bull men, ice beasts, more stupid zombies than you could shake a stick at, evil urns, and the corpses of dead, tortured men and women. The demons even started trapping the bodies, just to spite them.
"This is a waste of time," Tearlach grumbled, throwing down a green breastplate. Even he could recognize it, he'd seen it so often. "Admit it! We're lost in these cursed tunnels."
"Yoo're lost?" Klatu said with a smirk. "I know where we are."
"Yeah? Then where are we?"
"We're in a cave, under the ice."
Should I punch him, Tearlach wondered? "No! Next, yoo'll tell me we're on Mt. Arreat! I need a smarter sword-brother."
"I know where we're going. I thought yoo were looting."
"I am! If there were anything worth having here. Say, yoo're a Crane! Why don't yoo use a pole-arm, then?"
Klatu looked at his sword. "It's a pole." He swung it in a circle overhead. "It's a long, metal pole, that's sharp up here. Yoo hold it by this end."
"That's stupid. Anyway, if yoo know which way to go, why don't yoo say something?"
"I didn't say I knew which way to go. I said I knew where we are."
"So where are we?" Tearlach fumed.
Klatu smiled. "We're in a cave, under the ice."
Eyes narrowing, Tearlach snarled, "Yoo also said you knew where we were going."
"I do. Through tunnels, in the caves, under the ice."
A short distance away, a group of Minotaurs heard a loud clang. "Rrrmmm?"
One's ear twitched. "Chainmail gauntlet," a deep bovine voice huffed, "hitting full helm."
They sniffed the air. "Smell raging testosterone."
"Babas!" Their leader snorted, the red light of fury filling his eyes. "We go! Avenge our heifers back home on Moo-moo farm!" Bellowing like the breaking wind, they charged off to their timely deaths.
Back in Harrogath, Anya had come to speak with Qual-Kehk and Cain. "As glad as I am that Nihlathak got his just reward, it means all our tribal elders are now dead. The wisdom of generations was not passed on. All was lost."
Qual-Kehk smiled. "Lass, not all is gone. Besides, the old ways were meant to prepare us for this time. When the day is done, we may have no further need of them."
"There is also the gift of writing," Cain said. "I was glad to see so many of your ancestor's words recorded, preserved for all time."
"Aye," Qual-Kehk nodded, "that has also done us good."
Cain smiled. "Qual-Kehk, I am a bit surprised to hear you say these things. I was under the impression was that you might be reluctant to change from the old ways."
"I am, outlander. But I have eyes to see, and know when I don't like what I see. Too many died fighting the old way. Even the clans may have done more harm than good. Yoo know, when I was younger, I thought of making a pilgrimage to Kurast and enlisting in the holy order of Paladins. Perhaps my defense of Mt. Arreat might have succeeded if I had."
"Well... Kurast was not what it should have been, even then."
"No matter. I have seen one warrior succeed where all others failed, and know he did not learn how to make battle here. I did not think much of his new ways at first, but see their wisdom now. Perhaps southlanders have something to teach us after all."
"I must agree," Anya nodded. "So many of our problems might not be, if we had asked for help from the neighboring kingdoms when we knew Baal would invade. Our own people did not heed the elders' call when the time came. I hate to think of how many died for the sake of our foolish, foolish pride."
"There was no way you could have known the battle would go so badly," Cain said. "But I must admit, I was amazed the Barbarian clans did not come together to fight Baal after your capital was destroyed."
"We prepared for war by making war on each other," Qual-Kehk said. "We knew no other way. Those centuries of fighting proved stronger than our bonds of kinship. In the end, it took but one betrayal to lay waste to our cause."
"Betrayal to Hell has plagued mankind from the beginning," Cain shook his head. "There will always be someone who seeks personal gain at the expense of all else. Speaking of gains, I wonder how the climb up Mt. Arreat is proceeding?"
"My men have met fierce opposition on the high frozen tundra. Baal's forces are in retreat, concentrating themselves higher up around the peak of the mountain. Yoor friend and Klatu have not joined them. They must have become lost in the glacial trails."
"That should be easy enough to remedy," Cain said. "There are many who know the way, all they'll need to do is ask for directions."
Anya nodded. "I don't know why they wouldn't."
Wandering along a frozen river, hopping from one patch of ice to another, Tearlach and Klatu stubbornly pressed on. It felt like they'd been wandering down there for days, guided only by a few flickering torches and fires glinting among the crystalline drifts. The demons kept coming and the loot had grown plentiful, so they must be on the right track, but Tearlach still wondered if they were missing the whole battle. They hadn't seen another living Barbarian for a long time, and very few dead ones.
At the bottom of a tunnel that should have gone up, they finally found a tunnel that took them to the surface. The sky was cobalt blue, and only a few scraggly pines grew near the thick layers of clear ice hanging over a nearby cliff. Blinking against the sunlight, Tearlach noted five burial chests within view; this must be a very important holy place, high up the Mt. Arreat. Most likely the enemy was strongest here. After a bit of looting, they made their way onto the frozen tundra.
To say the enemy was "strong" here might be a misstatement. There were hordes of little big-heads and a few armored riding beasts, but little else. One of the last walls stretched across a narrow point. The ancestors built so many of those things... if only they had built them stronger. No, who was he fooling? The sons of Bul-Kathos would never be content to sit behind walls and wait for the enemy. Even if they had the patience, how would they feed so many this high on the mountain? The enemy could simply sit down and wait for them to starve. The walls were useless. Aye... maybe the seeds of loss had been sown by their own ancestors long ago, as disrespectful as it was to say such things.
Another Barbarian was inside the wall, chopping through a gate. Tearlach killed a big-head who'd been annoying him and shouted, "Hail! What news of the war?"
"Where've yoo been?" the other man called over his shoulder. "The demon army is climbing the mountain and gathering around the peak! Their master's there, and he doesn't want to be disturbed at his business."
"Disturbing him is our business," Tearlach grinned.
"Not many of us made it this far," the man went on, kicking through the gate and charging a tower inside. "My sword-brother died! I'll mourn him in time, though he was a Bear."
"You had it easy," Tearlach said as he chopped up an armored riding beast. "I got stuck with this Crane! Bastard can't do anything right!"
"Could a' been worse," Klatu said. "Could a' been a Wolf. We'd never get the smell out."
"Yoo want smell? Cranes, they stink fierce! Big smelly birds, with long stinky legs."
A small sphere crashed into the wall, scattering lightning bolts everywhere. Tearlach grunted, "More of those damned catapults?"
"Aye, they're up there. It's funny watchin' the demons try to drag 'em around."
Only a few catapults remained, propped up precariously against the walls, barely lashed down securely enough to fire without flipping themselves over. There weren't even any slaves to guard them, just endless supplies of the little big-heads. Where in Hell did... the other one get so many of those things? They were so numerous, you'd think they grew on trees down there, except that there weren't any trees down there. Along with the catapults, they'd hauled cages up the mountain. Even now, they wanted prisoners to kill and eat. After one last hell-pit (full of nothing but big-heads and a few slaves) they came to the last ice cliff which blocked the way to the summit. A cave led to the Ancient's Causeway.
A large group of bull-men met them inside. It was a nasty fight, but it told Tearlach they were on the right track, with the fiercest minions closest to the demon lord. Earth demons and ice demons filled the rest of the caves, with demon women standing guard over some huge piles of gold in the cellar. Unlike the other caves, the Ancient's Causeway was short. At the end, a narrow stair spiraled up through the living rock, to the summit.
The air was thin and bitingly chill. The howling wind quieted instantly. Here the Immortal King ruled, with his retainers girded for war all around him. Their spirits suffused the rock and glittered in the ice; their voices sang in the still air. There stood the gate to the Worldstone Keep. The mightiest heroes of the highlands, those deemed worthy by the ancients, were within. The gates were closed. By sacred pact, only two things could open them. One was lost. The other could never be lost: the word of the Ancient Ones themselves.
Madawc the Guardian stood before the gates, the advisor in war whose keen eye saw the enemy and its weaknesses. His words decided many battles, always in the Immortal King's favor. By his right hand stood Talic the Defender, fiercest of Bul-Kathos' brothers. The tribe of Thunder looked to him for their matchless speed and fury, breaking over enemies of the people like the howling mountain storms. To the left hand was Korlic the Protector, the most courageous and daring of the Immortal King's men. He was always the first to enter battle, and the last to leave, striking deep in the enemy's heart without thought of danger. But no battle had come to them for centuries. Snow and filth covered their bodies. Tearlach and Klatu sank to one knee, bowing in their presence.
"WE ARE THE NEPHALEM, THE ANCIENT ONES. OUR LIVES HAVE BEEN GIVEN TO GUARD SACRED MOUNT ARREAT FOR ALL TIME. WE KNOW WHY YOO ARE HERE. YOO MUST KNOW THE ONLY WAY YOU MAY ENTER, IS TO DEFEAT US."
Light flared, and the Ancient Ones stood before them, their magnificence restored. The gold in Talic's armor and shield shone like the sun; opposite him stood Korlic in silver; Madawc howled the order to kill. Tearlach bellowed the order to kill Madawc; it's a good idea to take the leader first. Then Korlic leapt in front of them, his axe thudding into Tearlach's shield. Very well, most courageous Ancient; you have always been first. So be it.
Klatu stopped when Korlic smashed into them, and half-heartedly swatted him with his blade. "Hit him, stupid!" Tearlach yelled encouragingly in his ear. "Kill or yoo're not worthy!" Talic came to Korlic's side, so Tearlach moved opposite him, taking blows on his shield while raining a berserk fury down on Korlic. Heartened (or perhaps deafened), Klatu found his fury and laid into Korlic, bashing the Ancient across the plateau. Throwing axes bounced off their armor. When Korlic vanished in a puff of silvery sparkles, they both gasped; it seemed the Ancients, though mighty, were only men after all.
With renewed confidence, they turned on Talic. He had scorched past them like a blazing whirlwind several times during the battle; they had not allowed it to distract them, but it was time to even the score. In even less time, he fell to their blows, and his body disintegrated in a shower of golden light. Madawc ran behind a column. No, Tearlach thought. One of the Ancient Ones, mightiest of mortal men, couldn't be hiding behind a rock. This must be part of some plan. But it wasn't; he stayed back there until they ran around to get him. After he died, the voices of the Ancients rose up again.
"YOO ARE TRULY WORTHY TO ENTER! BAAL HAS ENTERED BEFORE YOO; HIS TREACHERY HID HIM FROM OUR FURY, AND HE HAS MADE THE WORLDSTONE KEEP HIS OWN. HEAVEN ITSELF CANNOT HELP YOO NOW. THE ARCHANGEL TYRAEL HAS ALWAYS BEEN OUR BENEFACTOR, BUT BAAL HAS BLOCKED HIM FROM ENTERING THE WORLDSTONE CHAMBER AND HE CAN DO NOTHING TO HELP YOO. YOO MUST FACE BAAL ALONE. IF YOO ARE WEAK, THE WORLD AS YOO KNOW IT COULD BE LOST FOREVER. YOO MUST NOT FAIL!"
All right, Tearlach thought. Maybe they didn't fight as hard as they might have fought... the other one. At least he knew that. No Barbarian should engage in battle by hiding behind a rock, least of all one of the Ancient Ones.
In Aust's house, Cain and Anya were going over her father's books. "I must say, I find this absolutely fascinating... and yet deeply troubling. The few hints we have on the purpose of the Worldstone imply that its loss will have unimaginable consequences."
Anya nodded. "It may be that this is the last battle, the one that will destroy us all... or it may be that we will never need to fight again!"
"Prophecies are often maddeningly ambiguous. I find it is often best to ignore prophecy and rely on your own judgment. Fate has a way of working itself through your actions, and trying to oppose it only hastens its resolution."
"Yoor words have wisdom, but I fear them all the same. So much depends on making the right decisions, wise decisions." She bowed her head. "When my father and the other elders died, our wisdom went with them. Hoo will lead us now?"
"Child, I have spoken with mighty kings, powerful wizards, and some of the wisest men in the world. They are not always the same people, you know," Cain said with a wink. "I have neither met, nor heard of, any truly wise leader who thought himself up to the task of ruling men. Only a fool thinks he would make a great king."
Anya laughed a bit. "I have heard of someone like that. He seems to have grown wiser since then. Going to yoor world has done that."
"Well... trying to turn his ideas into actions did it, and that can be done anywhere. You should not underestimate yourself. Since your father's death, you have made several wise decisions and kept a cool head on your shoulders."
"Of course it's cool, my actions put it 'on ice'." She laughed a bit, then shivered. "Damn Nihlathak! I am still convinced he killed my father."
"I would not doubt it. Judging from what was found in his temple, his treachery ran deep."
"Vengeance was sweet, especially knowing he went directly to Hell to suffer the fate he deserved. If the world survives what Baal has done, I want to start my people on the right path, and find our way again. But I fear it is too much for me."
Cain patted her shoulder. "It is too much for anyone. But I can think of no one better to try. If I am any judge of character, you are stronger than you realize, and you will have the advice of more experienced minds, like Malah and Qual-Kehk. If you don't know where your decisions might lead, do not worry; even the very wise cannot foresee all ends."
"Yoo would not stay?"
"I fear it is a bit... wintry for my old bones. I prefer sunnier climes. Should you wish to visit them, I would gladly accompany you, but I do not think you need to to seek wisdom. I recognize wisdom when I see it, and I believe you have an abundant supply, which will only grow with time."
Anya smiled, and hugged the old man tight enough to make his ribs creak. "Yoor words are comforting. Thank yoo."
Meanwhile, Tearlach and Klatu were looking for Cain. "Damn it, he picked a bad time to look for a bush. I need this crap identified."
"Yoo do that," Klatu said. "I'm going to tell Anya."
"Oh, no you don't!" Tearlach caught up with him. "I'm going to tell Anya! I don't want yoo misrepresentin' my actions!"
Klatu shrugged. "I'll just say what happened."
"I know yoo too well to believe that! Yoo'll tell it to make me look like a fool, and take all the glorious bits for yoorself!"
"Just 'cause that's what yoo'd do..."
"I never lie!" Tearlach snarled indignantly. "Don't think I haven't seen yoo tryin' to turn her head! Yoo Cranes are famous for it."
Klatu smiled a bit. "All we ever say is the naked truth."
"I don't think so! Well, maybe the bits that serve yoor purpose, but not exactly the truth, the whole truth, and nothin' but!"
Shaking his head, Klatu sighed. "Yoo'll just never believe that she doesn't like you, will yoo? Yoo just can't see the signs. It's sad."
"There's a lie, right there! I'm her rescuer! The one she gives gifts to! Why, she offered to scribe my name into my axe all special-like!"
"Och, that's special. Have yoo gotten a ring from her?"
"No, and neither have yoo! I'm looking for one special enough for her. An angel deserves only the very best."
"Is that why you've been gambling with her for one? Buying a ring she doesn't want so you can give it back to her. That's smooth, that'll really impress her."
"Here's her house! We'll ask her right now!"
They turned the corner and looked inside. Anya was embracing Cain. They both walked past and around the corner, out of sight. "Och..." Tearlach said in disgust. "I didn't need to see that."
Klatu looked genuinely ill. "That was the most horrific thing I ever seen in my life!"
"I'd rather fight the Ancient Ones again than look upon such a scene."
"I'd rather crawl down into Hell, and face off with all the Three Evils at once!"
Both of them stood in silence for a while. Finally, Tearlach said, "Klatu, I forgive yoo for all yoo've said about me."
"Ah... I suppose yoo're not so bad yoorself."
"All that's left in life is killin'... uh..."
As they watched, Cain left, hobbling away with his staff. They shook their heads in disbelief. "Hoo'd have thought the old fart had it in him?"
"Well, it just goes to prove something," Klatu said philosophically.
"Yoo're never too old."
"Anya certainly is a fine example of feminine strength." Cain rubbed his ribs, grimacing. "Actually, she reminds me of the Zakarum priestesses I knew in my youth. They don't take vows of chastity, you know."
"Shut it, wizard. What's this shield? It looks different."
"Ah, the Bverrit Keep! This was made long ago to combat a sect of fire mages known as the Red Wizards. It proved invaluable, particularly against their walls of fire."
"Then it's useless. These things don't bother. Axes and whips are their weapons."
"What of the Ancients? Have you encountered them?"
"Aye, they let me in." Tearlach sneered a bit.
After waiting in vain for further comment, Cain shrugged and went back to examining the loot. "These must be your fiercest encounters yet, below the peak of the mountain. Surely, Baal has kept his most dangerous minions closest to himself."
"Nah; more zombies, more slaves. The bull-men get bigger and uglier, that's all."
Cain nodded. "I was told many great heroes of the past are there..."
"Aye, they were. They sold their lives dearly, but it mattered not."
Something is troubling him, Cain thought. What could it be? "The Ancient Ones must have been an awe-inspiring sight, especially for one such as you..."
"Aye, shining gold, glowing like the moon, the whole bit."
"No doubt your rite of passage could only be earned in combat..."
"What are yoo yammering about, wizard? Of course! We fought 'em, they let us in, we're in the Worldstone Keep. There's demons all over the place and pieces of red crystal smashed up through the floor. What else is there to say?"
"Well... surely, you must have some questions?"
Tearlach thought for a minute. "All right, one. What the hell is a waypoint doing inside the keep?! Is there anyplace those damned wizards didn't get to?"
Cain blinked. "There's one inside the keep?"
"Never mind." Tearlach and Klatu stomped back to the waypoint.
What on earth could be on his mind, Cain wondered. "Qual-Kehk, I don't suppose you have any idea what could be troubling him?"
"It's a simple thing. The Ancients let him win. How could any true warrior not be troubled that his foe handed him his victory?"
"Hmm. The loss of the Worldstone would not bother him like this?"
"Anya has read to me from the old prophecies, and from what they say, the destruction of the Worldstone is not the end of the world. It bodes ill for us, but the final battle against Hell's might will come later. The final gambit has yet to be played."
Cain slowly nodded. "What do the prophecies say about the end of the world?"
Qual-Kehk looked up at the mountain again. "None of the seers say anything about what comes after this; we thought this would be the end. Thinking on it now... I do not believe we will survive as the people we once were. We will survive, but there is nothing to unite us. What will become of us, I do not know, but we will face our fate on our feet."
Once, the Worldstone Keep was a matchless wonder. Heaven itself moved the stones of its walls and created its majestic columns; the Light filled its vast halls and dispelled all shadow. Now there was nothing but shadow. Blood dripped down the walls, and ancient bones from long-dead heroes lay on the floor... just like in every other building Hell roared through on its bloody trek across the world. Tearlach's heart was cold within him. Treating this place the same as the pompous temples of Kurast, or the overblown cathedrals in the western lands, was more than any man could stomach. The Worldstone fragments poking through the floor were the crowning insult; he couldn't wait to let the world know he'd won.
Without pity, Tearlach and Klatu sought out and slaughtered every last Hell-spawn in the keep. Bull-men, big-heads, and slaves went by in a blur of gory explosions. Especially the slaves; these ones, obviously the most dedicated, would willingly explode and kill themselves without a master to drive them to it. In the deeps of the fortress, hordes of demon women in gold stood guard alongside the biggest bull-men on the mountain. The golden horde didn't kick and scratch uselessly like the other ones, they hurled little balls of magic; they stung a bit. The throne of all the Barbarian people, Bul-Kathos' own, stood at the end of his great feasting hall on the lowest level of the keep. The throne was gone; apparently Baal found it a poor fit for his bug-like ass. He sat on the dais, waiting... and laughing.
"What's the plan?" Klatu asked.
"Hoo needs a plan? Just kill the wizard."
"Er, demon. It's a demon wizard," Tearlach said exasperatedly
Klatu nodded slowly. "They're the worst kind."
"It won't save anythin', yoo know."
Tearlach grinned wide. "It'll make me feel better."
Klatu nodded. "There's that."
In they went. Looking terribly pleased with himself, Baal made the tiniest gesture; a ball of reddish light burst at his... feet, you could call them. A hordling of little red demons popped out, gibbering and throwing fireballs. "Are those dangerous?" Klatu asked.
Trust a Crane to be cautious in battle. "No, they're pathetic. Get... what's-his-name!"
"BAAL, YOU MICROCEPHALIC PAWN!! HAD YOU TWO BRAIN CELLS TO RUB TOGETHER, YOU WOULD FLEE AT THE VERY MENTION OF IT! YOU HAVE FUMBLED YOUR WAY INTO A SPHERE OF CONTENTION FAR BEYOND YOUR MINIMAL CAPACITY, SO GET BACK TO THE ALE HOUSE WHERE YOUR POWERS ARE MORE APT TO PREVAIL!"
Klatu blinked. "What'd he say?"
One of the demonlings was screeching at Tearlach. He spat in its eye. "Who cares?"
"NO, IT IS I WHO DOES NOT CARE! THAT IS BECAUSE I HAVE ALREADY WON!!" Laughing uproariously, Baal sat back and gloated. "NOW, AMUSE ME."
Tearlach charged, but found an invisible wall between himself and Baal, with his face. Baal's amusement was obvious, and uproarious. The wall didn't budge when he put his shoulder to it. At his back, fireballs were pinging off his shield. The demonlings were starting to annoy him, and Klatu wasn't killing them fast enough, so he killed them himself. Once they were dead, what's-his-butt threw out a crowd of mummies, with skeleton mages. Klatu had to be reassured about them too, then convinced to attack the big ones first. The biggest mummy was a hellish creature, with more poison in his breath than any chemicals could explain. One thing was clear: Baal liked mummies. Maybe all that time in a tomb warped his judgment more than most demons.
After the mummies came some of those strange warped Zakarum priests, then a bunch of sword demons. Through it all, the wall around Baal stood firm. Tearlach wondered how much more "amusement" they'd have to provide before he took this seriously. The last battle was hard. The summoned creatures were giant fleshy things with too many arms, too many legs, and too many teeth and claws. They fought by slamming bodily into their foe; they didn't need technique, they were so strong and heavy. Tearlach gritted his teeth and took them on his shield. Klatu's fancy moves were getting him nowhere, he might have fallen if Tearlach hadn't pulled him back to pour a potion down his throat now and then.
It was a hard fight. The Ancients were far tougher. They could have stopped Baal easily, if that damned snake hadn't... but there's no point thinking about that. What's done is done, there's no taking it back. When the last of his minions was slain, Baal turned his back on them and strutted through a red gate, doubtless to what was left of the Worldstone. He probably wanted one last chance to gloat. Tearlach and Klatu went in after him. They could not take his victory from him, but he could not be allowed to enjoy it long.
Baal was pathetic compared to his minions. His brothers should have been ashamed of him. Maybe he was the more "civilized" of them, used to ordering, not leading. His body was softer than Diablo's, but solider than Mephisto's; blades bit his flesh deeply, releasing satisfyingly thick gouts of blood. He had a few tricks, like a blast of icy wind that blew them back. Klatu had heard of Druids doing that. His other trick was making an illusory copy of himself, hoping to confuse them. Trouble was, the copy looked whole and hearty, which Baal most certainly did not by that time. Baal was still laughing even as life ebbed out of him; Klatu put the last cut neatly across his throat. He died spraying blood like a fountain, puking too much for any more of that annoying laughing to be heard.
"There," Klatu said, "a job well done."
"Can't be much of a win if you're dead," Tearlach agreed. "Now for the loot!"
"Strip him! Let's see what he had... Vidala's Fetlock... Sigon's Gage... Tancred's Skull... Kinemil's Awl. Not a bad haul."
Tearlach looked dumbfounded. "How'd yoo know that?"
Klatu turned Vidala's boot over. "See? She wrote her name on it."
"Och! And here I thought that damned wizard knew somethin'! Hey, what's up there?"
A shaft of light burst through the ceiling of the Worldstone chamber, and Tyrael floated down. Klatu stood there slack-jawed, then closed his eyes and shook his head: too much weird stuff for one day. Conversely, Tearlach greeted the heavenly emissary casually, like an old and trusted friend. "Hey, took yoo long enough, angel! Where yoo been?"
"Mortal, I am actually impressed," Tyrael said, politely ignoring him. "You have done all you set out to do, and you have done it well. But it was too late to save the Worldstone. If it is allowed to exist, the stone's empty husk would give the forces of Hell a permanent gateway into your world. Therefore, I must now destroy the Worldstone."
"It's already destroyed," Tearlach asked. "There's bits of it all over the keep."
"Before Baal's corrupting touch defiled the Worldstone, it was full of the energy of your world. Now its power is draining away, even as the crystal structure breaks apart. The pieces could serve as a power focus for outside energy sources, but never again will they resonate with earthly energy. It can only be a weapon for Hell now. This is the end of an era, for your people and all humankind."
"It's not the end of the world?" Klatu asked.
"Nah. It's the end of the Worldstone," Tearlach replied. "So... now what do we do?"
"Humanity will go on as before," Tyrael said. "The effects of the Worldstone's loss will not be felt for some time. You have dealt a profound blow to The Three Brothers; they will not recover from it quickly. But in time, they will regain their strength, and there will be nothing to stand between them and the world of men."
"Ah, that's all right," Tearlach grunted. "They couldn't take us now, they won't ever. The worst they'll do is sneak in and trash something before we send 'em back where they came from. Who needs the Worldstone? So it's the end of an era. All things have an end. Except sausages, which have two."