Thaddeus (Act I)
So... what goes into a good hammer man?
What kind of man should this Paladin be? Some background: the Paladins are from a western group who split from the traditional church during a great and bloody crusade. The western rebels felt their duty was the protection of rights, not punishment of wrongs, a defensive role. The skill Blessed Hammer also has a defensive, protective origin; a group of nuns sacrificed themselves to protect the Hammer of Ghrab Thaar from an undead invasion.
Our Paladin should think of himself first and foremost as a defender. Other people's needs should weigh more heavily on him than his own, and his use of the hammers means he'll rely less on the strength of his arm than the power of his faith. Devotion to others and to the light, self-sacrifice, and calm concentration. He sure won't be much fun at parties, but being more mature and less profane than Xanthippe isn't a bad thing. My weapons of choice will be hammers (even the war scepter looks like a hammer on the game sprite) so his name ought to evoke that... Maxwell? M.C.? No, something with a little more dignity. Thaddeus. Sounds vaguely like *thud*.
It has been told to you, in the beginning,
Light shone upon the darkness
And the foundations of earth were lain.
The herald of good tidings rose above stone and fire,
Who declared it from the beginning, and before.
-- Visions of Akarat, c. 1, v. 17-21
As the Paladins and priests of Zakarum advanced their inquisition into the corruption caused by demonkind over the whole world, a schism developed behind the facade of unity the church sought to project. Priests rebelled, and warriors of the light cast down their swords. The council in Kurast condemned their insubordinate members, saying they were deceived by demoniacal influences. For their part, the smaller contingent of protesters said the Church of the Light had lost its way; their fanatical persecution of free peoples had distracted them from the true teaching. But their numbers were few, and they could not hope to sway the inquisition from its determination.
Speaking could accomplish nothing, so the dissidents left quietly, going out into the less-civilized parts of the west to keep their vision of the Light alive. In the east, the Hand of Zakarum had polluted the name of Paladin in the minds of many. The older name was invoked again in the west, and the Protectors of the Word are now known again by those whom they serve. There are not many, and they have scattered to the many churches, monasteries, and small farming towns of the plains of Khanduras and Westmarch. There, they serve the Light and administer to the needs of the people... often working against the Kurastite bishops and priests sent from the east for the same purpose.
When demons began to roam the land, the dead rose from their graves, and dark clouds obscured the sun from view, Paladins began to be heard from again. Many died as darkness suddenly erupted in new places, and as the few survivors fled, word spread swiftly, and fresh acolytes abandoned their studies to take up their swords. They went where they might be needed, any settlement, village, or outpost which might be in danger. The most experienced warriors searched for the source of the demonic outbreak; it had to be one of The Three Brothers, probably Diablo, the Lord of Terror. He was rumored to have been imprisoned in this part of the world by the Horadrim, somewhere, centuries ago.
When called, Thaddeus went to the Monastery of the Sightless Eye, a well-established stronghold across a high mountain pass. The Rogues of the Sightless Eye are a martial order, no passive monks or nuns who need complete protection. But Ahlus, the paladin who watched over the monastery with the Rogues, had not been heard from since the troubles began. She was strong with the light, but always punctual with her letters. It was unlikely that such a strong monastery had fallen, so an acolyte was sent to seek her out and inquire after her tardiness. Thaddeus went to the monastery, and with him, carried holy relics for safe-keeping: the scepter Knell Striker, and the Umbral Disk, a disk of pure light encased in a shell of black iron.
When Thaddeus arrived at the base of the mountains, he found the land fouled with demons and corrupted beasts. The birds of the air, even the squealing rats who normally hid in the fields dove at him, biting and clawing. Terrible things were stalking Khanduras, and they became more numerous as he got closer to the mountains. As he reached the outer ring of farmlands which supported the Rogues with their food and fealty, Thaddeus found a crude fortress, bound together from logs and rope. The walls were manned by women archers; they must be the sisters of the Sightless Eye. What had become of the monastery?
Thaddeus approached the Rogues openly, calling out to announce himself. He was not fired upon; whatever they feared, it did not look like a man. The fortress walls circled a motley collection of tents and wagons; it looked like a caravan was sheltering here. A couple of dozen Rogues guarded the walls, or listlessly stood about near the tents. Some merchants were there too, but they looked less despondent; merely impatient and frustrated with their present predicament. A stocky, bearded man in the middle of camp stepped forward to greet Thaddeus, clapping him on the shoulders.
"Well met, noble Paladin! I am Warriv, master of this merchant caravan. It has been a long time since I have seen any of your kind here in the west! Many times, Paladins have guarded my caravan from danger, and you will always be a welcome sight for me."
"Thank you," Thaddeus replied. "I am Thaddeus, an acolyte of Zakarum. Has something happened to the monastery?"
"It is a terrible tale. A few weeks ago, a dark wanderer came through here, traveling from the southwest. I don't know who he was, but terror seems to have followed in his wake. Since he went through the pass, the Rogues have been ejected from their monastery, the gates are closed, and the land is plagued with demons and the walking dead."
"What do you know of this... wanderer?"
"Very little, I am afraid. I arrived after he was gone, and found the Rogues here. You should speak to the head of their order, Akara. She'll be able to tell you more."
"I would be able to tell him as much," a tall, red-haired woman in armor said, "if I thought it would do any good. I am Kashya. Akara may be the head of our order, but know that I lead the Rogues in battle. And I'm not easily impressed by swords and promises."
Though he had a sword, Thaddeus could not remember making any promises. Perhaps his presence was enough of one; clearly, here were people in need. "While I cannot make any promises, my sword is yours. My purpose for journeying here was to safeguard some holy relics, but instead of finding a haven, it seems to me that I have stumbled into the center of a demonic invasion. Forgive me, but I must go and speak with the head of your order now."
Near a corner of the encampment, a scrap of canvas supported by one pole protected a pile of potion bottles, staves, scrolls, and books, both religious and secular. Outside of this miserable shelter, the priestess Akara stood, slowly pacing to and fro. Her cloak and hood were soaked with rain; she had obviously not sought shelter from the downpour. Such a picture of dejection could only provoke pity, which was made worse when Thaddeus saw how her hood had been pulled far down over her face. She was clearly blind.
"Abbess Akara, I bring you greetings."
"Come closer, and be recognized, noble warrior. Ah, I see you bring artifacts of great power with you."
Thaddeus was amazed. The relics he carried were carefully packed away, where the eyes of thieves could not find them. "Yes, lady. I came here to bring them to a place of safety, which I see this is no longer."
"Indeed, it is not. Is there any place of safety in the world anymore, I wonder? The Eye sees none. Our monastery was lost a short while ago, and I have led my sisters out into the wilderness, where I can offer you but poor shelter within these rickety walls. Our sisterhood has been struck by a strange, corrupting plague: many have been suddenly turned to evil by a clearly demonic influence. How this came to be, I do not know, but they attack us daily, and none may move about outside in safety."
"Members of your own order?" Both amazed and alarmed, Thaddeus asked, "How could this be? You could not have abandoned the worship of the Light."
"I cannot explain it, but it has torn our hearts out, all of us. Those who weeks ago were peaceful, friendly comrades in arms, are now mindless things driven by bloodlust. They consort with demons, and have been raising the dead from the local villages, possibly even from our own blessed graveyards. The power of this evil seems limitless."
"The shadow is always limited where light is present, milady. Please, since safety there is none, we must take up arms and strike out against the enemy. Tell me how I may assist you, what I must do to drive back the darkness."
"Some great evil has taken our monastery from us. It came very suddenly, as poison and blood came welling up from beneath our own cathedral! Soon the whole monastery was full of choking clouds, hideous demons, and the undead. To our horror, many of our sisters joined them in joyful slaughter. What is left of our order is here. A few stragglers come in from time to time, but too many others have been found dead by Kashya's scouts. We need to find out what evil has taken our monastery and our order from us, and destroy it."
Thaddeus knelt before her. "It will be my only thought until I have succeeded, or perished. My suspicion is that such an evil can only be one of The Three Brothers, the Greater Evils."
"That has crossed my mind as well," Akara said, "and while your words are comforting, I fear we are lost. We have reports that a cotillion of demons, led by a fierce zombie lord, are gathering a force in a nearby cave, to crush our encampment upon the morrow. Their numbers are great, too great for us to fight. To insure the survival of the order, we must abandon this camp, and flee far away from harm."
"If I could move against this force, the risk to my life would mean little. But I must ask you, if I do not return, to look to the safety of the relics I carry now. They are precious things, and will be great aids to the cause of light, in worthier hands than my own."
This made Akara smile, faintly. "After all that has happened, it is difficult for me to find hope in anything. But your words comfort me, acolyte. You do not need to do this."
That surprised Thaddeus. "My lady... I do."
For his rebellion is as the sin of pride,
Because rejects the teachings of the wiser.
To come with sacrifice and prayer
Is to consecrate the soil, sheep, and oxen.
-- Visions of Akarat, c. 15, v. 22-25
The fields held no demons, merely corrupted animals and a few wandering zombies. Quill Rats might once have been porcupines, shy creatures which do not shoot their quills, but after their alteration, they were hostile, hateful, and prolific. The zombies were nothing more nor less than the mortal remains of the recent dead, infected with a demonic spirit. While the spirit is willing, these decayed remains are far from sturdy, and they seem addled by the disintegrating brain. Often, they forget an enemy is present, even while being cut to pieces. Clearing the field was not dangerous, but there was a cave in the middle of the field. This must be where the demons were gathering for their assault.
Evil was strong in the cave, and Thaddeus knew this would not be an easy battle. Before entering, he bowed his head in prayer, and considered the ritual of sacrifice, anointing his blade with his own blood. The ritual was an old one, older than Akarat's prophesies that were the foundation of Zakarum; many argued that such a bloody ceremony was not fitting for the church of Light. It smacked of the older religions, of the energy that could be taken from death and pain, demonism and black magic. The Protectors of the Word teach that the sacrifice of one's own life and body is of a different character than taking it from an innocent. The offering of another is a violation, but offering yourself is a devotion.
Staring at the blade, it occurred to Thaddeus that another important part of the ritual might be the need for courage. In the seminary, it is easy to talk about the nobility of sacrifice, ignoring pain selflessly, just drawing enough blood to anoint one blade. It doesn't seem like much, but it is very difficult to actually do. There in the field, when you must deliberately injure yourself, and know it will hurt... Thaddeus was no more fond of pain than anyone else. He'd never done it before, and while part of his mind knew he should, to protect the Rogues, another part quailed at actually bringing his blade to his own flesh.
All the arguments went through his mind. The body is merely a vessel for the soul, the light's blessings will close up the wound, pain is nothing to the devoted, the needs of others must be paramount, and on and on. Twice, he brought the blade to his shoulder, and twice put it down; when he had to drive it in, his strength left him, his belly quivered with fear. Maybe it won't be so bad in there, part of him thought. Maybe I won't need a sacrifice to conquer the beasts in the cave. Surely, serving the light, the word, and my fellow human beings does not require me to shed my own blood in some archaic ritual!
All of a sudden, Thaddeus understood. He was to be a warrior of the light, and must place himself in far greater danger than this if he was to serve. If his suspicions were correct, one of The Three was here, sending demons out over the countryside. And if his courage failed him over such a trivial thing... how could it stand if he was facing the Lord of Terror himself? Staring at the blade, Thaddeus knew the ritual of sacrifice was not an offering of blood; what need had the Light for blood? Sacrifice was an act of courage, conquering the terror within. Any warrior would need to face fear; even one who wished the blessing of the Light could not be excepted.
Calmly, a prayer in his mind, Thaddeus drew his blade to himself a third time, and a trickle of blood washed over the steel. It did hurt, a lot; pain always seems worse when you know its coming. The blood on his sword congealed almost instantly, and a throb of power seemed to warm its length; it almost felt like an echo of his heart was in his hand. After it was over, it wasn't nearly as bad as Thaddeus had feared. He almost laughed at his nervousness, and resolved never to fear anything again. Fear really does eat at a warrior's heart, and if he was to be a warrior, he could never allow it into his heart again.
Inside the cave, Thaddeus met his first actual demons. Fallen are small, impish things, with red skin and sharp horns -- exactly what demons are pictured to look like, except that they are tiny, weak, cowardly and pathetic. Some depictions of the infernal make the enemy of man out to be merely misunderstood, rebels of grand poetry scoffing at the intolerant heavens, which could not control them, and therefore cast them down. There was nothing grand or poetic about these creatures, very little that might lend itself to the illusion that evil was liberating. Killing them brought out much the same emotions as crushing a particularly nasty bug. More powerful Fallen, dressed like primitive shamans, would resummon their brethren, so Thaddeus learned it was best to kill them first.
Many creatures had been marshaled in the caves: the Fallen, a great many Zombies, and hairy, man-like beasts from the mountains. They were supposed to be peaceful creatures, timid and rarely seen, but now their eyes were full of empty hate. They attacked slowly, but without mercy, and took many blows to kill. In the rear of the cave, Thaddeus found the Zombie lord who must be leading these demons; at least, he was the most powerful creature in the cave. Maybe the spirit moving the rotting flesh was a particularly nasty one, but its rotting brain could not possibly be of much use to it. Twice, while Thaddeus was striking its followers down, the Zombie wandered off to another part of the cave, and he had to go and find it again. When the last of the creatures had been exterminated, the air of the cave seemed to clear. Thaddeus bowed his head in prayer, thanking the Light for granting him the resolve to do what had to be done.
By the time he returned to the Rogue encampment, all the injuries he received in the caves had healed, thanks to his prayers to the Light. Word of his deeds seemed to have preceded him; Kashya must have sent one or two of her Rogue scouts to follow him, though he hadn't noticed them while he was there. Akara was especially pleased.
"Your return is a joy to me. This victory, though it may seem small, has given us all hope, and may restore my faith in humanity. While you were gone, I took the liberty of examining the relics you brought with you. I hope you do not mind."
"Not at all, prioress," Thaddeus said. "I had hoped you would. When I came, it was to bring these to your monastery, and ask after one of my order, who was with you."
"Yes. I have not seen Ahlus since that fateful day when we were forced out. I fear she has fallen, along with many others. Which brings me to the relics. Normally, these things would be stored in a place of reverence, but with the situation we are in, that is not possible or advisable."
"The disposition of the relics is a great concern. There is nowhere safe for them?"
"They should not be kept safe," Akara said, bringing the scepter Knell Striker from its case of polished wood. "These things are weapons, first and foremost. They were meant to be used, not kept safe in a box. I think you should take up the scepter, and use it."
"No, please, lady," Thaddeus stammered. "I am an acolyte, not even indoctrinated into the order of Protectors. A worthier hand than mine should bear the scepter."
"Whose hand, then? A great darkness has fallen over the land; I cannot believe that these things have not come to us for a reason. We must take back our monastery, and you are the only one of your order who is near. I cannot believe there is no reason for that, either."
"But I have not even completed my seminal studies... the Knell Striker is of such holiness, I should not even touch it!"
"If you doubt your worthiness, then we shall let the scepter decide itself."
Akara closed the lid of Knell Striker's case, and set the scepter down. The rain beaded on the oiled wood, and as Thaddeus watched, the scepter slowly turned of its own accord, until the haft pointed directly at him. "Take it up, Paladin. It has chosen."
Knell Striker was heavy in Thaddeus' hand, the iron knobs on its head polished bright. The power in it was awesome, it felt ready to leap and crush down anything in its path. "Thank you, great lady Akara. I do not know what to say."
"Then say nothing. But you may want to visit our blacksmith. While you do not seem to be injured, your armor is desperately in need of repair. Curious, that."
Thaddeus left, wondering if lady Akara really was blind. Perhaps the Sightless Eye had gifted her with knowledge far beyond anything he knew. For her part, Akara dropped the thread she had looped around a knob on Knell Striker's head. A slow pull on the loop had been enough to turn the scepter, but there was no need for the boy to know that.
At the northern end of camp, among the merchant wagons, Thaddeus found the Rogue's blacksmith. She was, as you might expect, a woman, but quite a large one, with very blonde hair and bright blue eyes.
"Hi there!" she bubbled, "I'm Charsi. You must be the new warrior in camp!"
"There is no other who I have heard from, so yes, I must be. I am Thaddeus. You have many weapons and things for sale, I see."
"Oh, sure! That's a pretty sad looking set you've got there. Thinking of trading up?"
"I've a sword for sale... and perhaps some of your studded leather and a pot helm. This coat has served me well, but something stronger might be necessary."
"Yeah... what's with all these scratches on the left shoulder?"
"Ah... nothing. Have you any lances here?"
"Nope, none of the big stuff. It's really hard to get supplies here, and all my best tools are back in the monastery. Wish I could get you something, though... maybe a spear?"
Looking at Knell Striker, Thaddeus shook his head. "Perhaps I should not. Though I am not completely sure what I ought to be doing."
"Hey! I just thought of something." Charsi smiled. "If you want the best stuff, go see Gheed, right over there. He's great, he's got a lot of funny stories and knows a lot about all kinds of things! He's been to Lut Gholein, and Kingsport, and the Amazon islands, all over!"
"Thank you, I shall," Thaddeus smiled. Charsi seemed like a nice girl; a bit silly, perhaps, but it was good to see that someone could still smile after all these people had suffered. Gheed also could smile, but Thaddeus liked his smile much less.
"Hello there! I'm Gheed, and I can already tell I'm going to be your best friend in this whole camp. If you need anything at all, don't hesitate to ask! All I ask in exchange is a bit of gold, a small gem, things that would be useless to a holy man such as yourself. The taint of material wealth is the downfall of humanity, that's what I always say!"
Try as he might, Thaddeus could not believe Gheed would ever say that, even though he'd just heard it from his own lips. Zakarum preaches charity towards all; he should not assume the worst of someone on their first meeting. Nonetheless, avarice hung about Gheed like a cloak proudly worn, and despite all his teachings, Thaddeus could not find it in him to think well of him. "Wealth is not a destroyer of virtue; the love of wealth is humanity's downfall. In itself, money is no more than a means to an end. The goal towards which it goes depends on the one who is putting it to use."
"My sentiments exactly," Gheed grinned. "I hate those who think of nothing but money! A drain on our spiritual strength and resolve. If only others saw things as I do."
Thaddeus smiled. "You must be offering exceptionally low prices for your wares. As the need is so great, who could do any less?"
"Not so fast! Heh heh heh. May I interest you in this fine sword of triumphant virtue? I guarantee its performance for life!"
"My life, or the sword's?"
"The two will be the same, of course! Perhaps a helm, then? It comes with a back plate! Those pesky little devils might try to sneak up behind you."
While Gheed's wares were beyond reproach, as far as Thaddeus could tell, he felt no overwhelming need to give him any business. In fact, he wondered how Gheed could get any business at all, he seemed so untrustworthy. Either he sold only to the unwise, or he had some other, less savory line of business to make him his real money. Feeling that virtuous behavior should be its own reward, Thaddeus bid him good day, and returned to the field. Walking to the Rogue's monastery, fighting demons every step of the way, was going to take a long time, so it was only sensible to start off as early as possible.
They poured out innocent blood, and abhorred their heritage.
The land was polluted, made unclean by their acts.
Thus, they became unclean by their acts,
And played the harlot for those who ruled over them.
But the covenants were remembered. With mighty arms
Twice ten-thousand chariots rode upon them.
-- The Book of Radenis, c. 36, v. 39-44
"Yes, the dead have been raised, many of them."
"This is different," Kashya snarled. "They are not content with the bodies of peasants and foreigners, the demons are defiling the holy ground of our own order! The blessed earth has been violated... and by my own sister in battle, Blood Raven."
Calmly, Thaddeus said, "One body or another makes little difference to the infernal spirit, once the soul is gone. Few are so holy that even their dead flesh resists dark influences. But tell me, what is a Blood Raven?"
Kashya glared at Thaddeus, then snorted. "Her name is, or was, Rabina. She was a priestess in our monastery, and my closest friend. We always called her Blood Raven for her indomitable spirit. I never imagined she could fall to the demons. Not only has she fallen, she is the one in the graveyard, raising a new cohort of undead for them!"
Thaddeus nodded, considering this. "You found in her a kindred spirit, then."
"Yes," Kashya said, a nervous blink breaking her intense gaze for a moment. "We were very much alike. I do not know why she fell, or how she could fall so far. But this violation cannot be allowed to continue. She must be stopped. She must be killed."
"I agree, she must be stopped. Every moment that passes, a new soldier of darkness is raised. Where is the graveyard?"
"Some five hundred yards from here, and to the west, is a small plateau on top of a hill. You will see two tall mausoleums, dedicated to the earliest leaders of the sisterhood. She is there, engaged in foul sorceries, but know that she is strong and quick of body as well. I was never able to best her in any contest of arms."
Thaddeus nodded. "I will do all I can. What else could I do?"
Kashya crossed her arms, her lip curled in a sneer. "You could run."
"No, I could not," Thaddeus looked to the west. "Excuse me now."
The conversation left Thaddeus worried, and wondering. Not about this corrupted priestess; he was sure she would be fierce and difficult to stop, but that did not worry him. Kashya was not upset about Zombies being raised, only that they were being raised from among the Rogues' dead. There were other graveyards, obviously - many of them, to judge from the numbers of animated dead - but their violation did not seem to concern her. Her friendship with this "Blood Raven" might also be cause for alarm. What sort of person would want to be called such a thing? Troubling speculations leapt to his mind, but he tried to dismiss them. After all, he knew little of Kashya, and it would not do to judge her too hastily.
The ground turned rocky as Thaddeus moved deeper into the wilderness. The hills rose on either side of the field, and would soon turn to mountains as he approached the pass and the monastery that sat across it. A fence had been strung between the hills, and at a gap, a single Rogue stood guard.
"Greetings, I am Thaddeus. What is this place, I wonder?"
The Rogue gave him a dubious look. "Hi, I'm Flavie. This... is a fence."
An accurate answer, but not an informative one. Thaddeus began to feel a little irritated. The day was not starting well. "Why was a fence built here?"
"Crowd control. This is the only pass through these mountains, you know. A lot of people come through some months, and we don't want them wandering all over destroying things."
"I do not quite understand."
"Lots of people go through the pass. Or did, when it was open. Right?"
Frowning a bit, Thaddeus nodded. "So I have heard."
"Right. There are inns and taverns strung out up to the monastery, right?"
"Ah, that I did not know. Each tavern owner owns the land within his fences?"
"No, we own the land. But they are responsible for any drunken sots who do something they shouldn't near their watering hole. If the damage is on their side of the fence, they have to pay a fine. Keeps them from dispensing too much ale."
"An unfortunate necessity of peacetime, then. I thought this fence was too open to serve a defensive purpose."
"You thought right. What are you doing here?"
Thaddeus rubbed at his temples. This Flavie seemed to admire Kashya enough to emulate her approach to interpersonal relations. "I am going to the monastery. Tell me, is there a graveyard near here?"
From the look on her face, Flavie's opinion of Thaddeus' intelligence did not improve with that pronouncement. "There is mortal danger for the likes of you out there. Our corrupted sisters are not to be trifled with. What's wrong?"
"Just a slight headache. You do not seem afraid to be here alone."
"I'm a lookout, I'm under orders to run and warn everyone if they approach. You're a Paladin, right? You're not supposed to run from anything."
"The Protectors of the Word are not required to fight on when all hope is lost. Our order frowns on suicide. I would appreciate knowing the location of a graveyard, which should be a short distance from here."
"It's on that hill," Flavie said, pointing. "The quickest way to get there is to follow the fencing around to the left."
"Thank you. Do commend yourself to Kashya. You are performing your duties exactly as I believe she would herself."
The land beyond Flavie's watch point grew rockier, and bare in large patches. No flowers were left here. In the distance, Thaddeus could see a large building. It was on fire, smoke pouring out in the light rain. As Thaddeus moved forward, a group of people ran towards him... women, with axes and clubs. Once he got a good look at them, he realized they were almost entirely naked. Strange green and black growths had erupted from their skin, especially along their legs and feet; their breasts were bare, and their eyes empty of all but demonic rage. These had to be corrupted Rogue sisters, but why didn't they have bows? Judging from the look in their eyes, they might have forgotten how to use them.
Thaddeus stood his ground and awaited their approach. There was no sense of tactics to their attack, or even an awareness of self-preservation; they shrieked and dove straight for him, bashing at his shield when he put it up. Thaddeus retreated in a small circle so they couldn't surround him, but never once did they try to head him off, or attack his back. All he had to do was put his shield in their faces, and they hammered away at it without thought or reason. It was frightening and pathetic all at once, how a human being could be reduced to something like this. How had this happened? What could have done this? Demons can seek out weaknesses in a person's soul, but these poor women seemed almost soulless.
Pity welled up in Thaddeus' heart. Somehow, he had to find a way to free them. Exorcism might work, but the ritual of exorcism is time-consuming. And he couldn't possibly capture all of these women and take them back to camp for the ritual anyway. Whispering a prayer, he raised Knell Striker, and brought it down on the head of the nearest Rogue. The skull caved in like a rotten melon, and with a gurgling scream, a vaporous spirit rose and dissipated out of the body. She dropped to the ground, gushing blood, very dead. Knell Striker was indeed a powerful weapon. Either that, or the Rogue's flesh and bones weakened as the spirit within twisted them into a shape more to its liking. The next one, Thaddeus didn't hit as hard, and she fell intact, incapacitated but alive.
Of the bunch, Thaddeus was able to keep two alive, and returned to the Rogue camp with them over his shoulders. They didn't even look peaceful when they were unconscious; they kept snapping and biting, their bloody raw fingers clawing as the demons inside them tried to get the body moving again. Akara had them tied to fence posts, and began the exorcism. Back out in the cold plains, Thaddeus met a few more Rogues, and tried to keep as many alive as he could. The demons he slaughtered without remorse. There were many more demons than Rogues, thankfully, all red and fiery except one. That one was poisonous green and attended by a crowd of shamans; obviously a demon of importance, so he killed it first.
Along the western side of the field, Thaddeus found a side path which lead to the hill. From this short distance, he could see the iron fence which surrounded the hilltop, and the nearest of the mausolea. A few Skeletons were wandering down the path towards him. Thaddeus met them, and smashed them to bone splinters. By now, Thaddeus had brought back seven corrupted Rogues. Before he entered the graveyard, he returned to camp to see if anything was coming of the exorcisms. He was glad to see a young woman he recognized, wrapped in a blanket and sitting by the fire. At Akara's, two more corrupted Rogues were left; the others he did not see.
"What is wrong?" Thaddeus asked.
"Well..." Warriv scratched his beard. "I think she was aware of... she knows what she was doing. It is a terrible thing."
"Hello," Thaddeus said, kneeling next to the girl. She did not respond.
Clearing his throat, Warriv patted Thaddeus on the shoulder. "Kashya has already been speaking with her, at great length. You do not need to say anything more."
"No, I am not angry. I want to know if there is hope." Placing a hand on the girl's shoulder, Thaddeus said, "I'm sorry I hit you. I was afraid. What is your name?"
"You should hit me," she numbly answered. "I wanted to hit you."
"You don't even know me. Did you want to hit everyone?"
Thaddeus looked down at her hands. They were moving under the blanket, pulling at her legs. Her feet were raw and bloody where he could see them; all the strange growths had been pulled off, and took the skin with them. "What did you think?"
She was silent for a long time. Then, "I couldn't think. I just felt."
"I think the demon told you what you felt. It wasn't you. You were not in your mind." Quietly, Thaddeus listened to the tearing sounds under the blanket. He wasn't sure if he should get her to stop. Those growths looked hideous. "You were not in your mind."
"I killed my best friend," the girl sobbed, curling up even further. "I cut her heart out in her bed and took a bite out of it!"
"It was not you," Thaddeus repeated. "What did the demon make you feel?"
"Powerful," she immediately said. "I felt like I did when I came back from Tristram."
"A bunch of us went there, when Diablo was there."
"Tristram is a farming town southwest of here," Warriv said. "There are rumors that the Lord of Terror returned to the world there, and many went to do battle with him."
That was a great surprise for Thaddeus. The Protectors of the Word were unaware of that, he was certain. It is true, they were spread thin across the west... but how such a thing could happen, without anyone in the order hearing of it, was inconceivable. "What happened to you, in Tristram?"
"There was something in the church. They had a bishop. He disappeared. Some of us went in after him. The church was big, really deep. I kind of wondered about that."
"What do you mean?" Thaddeus asked.
"It was, like, this little town, with a huge cathedral, and deep catacombs, and caves underneath it. I didn't go any deeper than that, but I think it went deeper."
A cathedral in a small town is an odd thing. "Did you keep anything from there?"
"Yes. I found a powerful suit of ring mail."
"Did you all find items of power there?"
"There was a lot of magic stuff in there."
A cathedral where it should not be, full of tempting objects, and the Protectors were kept from hearing of it. This stank of something rotten, but there would be no time to travel to Tristram and investigate. "I must go speak with Akara. Young girl?"
She smiled, a little. "I'm Avilli."
"You rest, and please, stop tearing those things off. They will fall off on their own, and will bleed much less if you let them."
Kashya was with Akara, who was exhorting a demon to leave the last of the living corrupted Rogues. It was laughing, snarling a few coherent words, and spitting with impotent rage. As Thaddeus watched, he could see the exorcism was not working. Akara was exhausted, and stopped, stumbling over to sit on the wall next to her tent. "Greetings, Paladin. Please, sit with me for a while."
Thaddeus did as he was asked. "The spirit seems... unyielding."
"I do not know why," Akara said. "When I think it is gone, it returns. It is as though it has bound itself into her body in a way beyond my reach."
"You have had one success, prioress... how was she different?"
Akara thought for a while. "It is a mystery to me. This has been very tiring, in mind and body, and I cannot be certain I have accomplished anything."
Thaddeus smiled. "One soul is free."
"And we all may die in the morning." Akara sighed. "Even if the monastery is liberated, I fear for our sisterhood. What is to become of them, and of us?"
"I cannot answer, prioress." Thaddeus bowed his head. "The first strike of evil is always terrible, and leaves a deep wound. It comes from hiding, and may seem strong. But once good people have armed themselves, the power of evil dissipates. They fall to squabbling among themselves, or greedy looting... or perhaps their courage simply leaves them when faced with a determined foe."
"I only hope that nothing worse will happen," Akara said. "Your words comfort me. Tell me, where have you found yourself, and what is there?"
"I was outside your monastery's graveyard. Kashya told me of a corrupted priestess there, but I did not want to move against her, until I knew whether there might be hope for her."
Akara looked up, to where Kashya was taking away the body of the last corrupted Rogue. "Hope... these ones you returned to us were filled with nothing but anger. Rabina is actively participating in her own corruption. I fear I could do nothing for her now."
As he approached the graveyard fence, Thaddeus found more Skeletons and Zombies, either wandering aimlessly or staring into space, in the way of the lesser undead. Quietly, he lured them away in groups, then destroyed them. He could faintly hear the sound of digging in the graveyard; Blood Raven was there, but there was no need to alert her while she still had an army to use. When he was satisfied that there he was no more he could do outside the fence, he ventured in. Blood Raven was a tall, fiery Rogue, still wearing scraps of chainmail and bearing a recurved long bow. Two horns had grown at least four inches from her skull, and her fang-filled jaws extended like an animal's.
"My army will destroy you!" Her voice was still clear, at least. The Zombies stopped digging and shambled to the attack. Blood Raven dashed atop a high tombstone, and quickly fired an arrow, which burst into flame in mid-flight. It shattered in a fiery burst on Thaddeus' shield, and stung a bit. He wondered if the other Rogues could do that.
"Your army is nothing to me. Stop what you are doing, this is madness."
"This is power! This is revenge! This is death! Join my army of the dead!" Methodically, Thaddeus smashed each of Blood Raven's Zombies down. She raised new ones from fresh bodies, in between shooting at him. With Knell Striker in his hand, her army really was no threat for him, and she herself wasn't making much of a dent in his armor. One last time, he tried to appeal to her.
"Rabina! This brings you no power. No one hates you. There is no point to this. You have been deceived. Think of what you are doing!"
"Rrrrrahh!" Gnashing her teeth, she fired arrow after arrow at him. Sadly, Thaddeus ran after her, jumping over the fallen tombstones as she darted lightly away from him. After much maneuvering, he got her into a corner, and as she continued to madly fire, stunned her with a blow from his shield before beating her to a pulp. There was no other way.
Blood Raven's body burst open, and lightning arced into the iron graveyard fence. Finally, a ghostly humanoid shape flashed up into the sky, and her empty shell of a body collapsed to the ground. Looking around, Thaddeus saw the graveyard had been invaded before. Three dead Rogues were hanging from the willow tree in the center; perhaps they weren't "ripe" enough to make into Zombies yet. Kashya was amazed that Thaddeus had defeated Blood Raven, yet wasn't greatly injured. She even offered the service of one of her Rogues, to accompany Thaddeus into the field.
"I'm afraid I cannot accept that," Thaddeus said. "Your women are needed here, I could not conscienceably place one in danger."
"My warriors are strong," Kashya said. "I have trained them myself to work together, and the beasts will be more dangerous the closer you go to the monastery. Even you will need someone to watch your back."
"Their strength is not an issue. So few have survived, I could not allow more to be lost unnecessarily. This battle will be won, but without your sisters, the peace that comes after would be lost. You must be able to hold your monastery once it is taken."
"Then you will need more than a weapon," Akara said, as she glided over to the fire. "Your shield may be faith, but a more material one could not possibly hurt. I believe you must take up the other half of your gift. Since we cannot keep them safe, they should keep you."
The Umbral Disk was light as a feather, quicker than any piece of iron should be. The light within it hummed like a single note, and the blue gem in its center sparkled with unearthly luminescence. Arguing with Akara's wisdom was fruitless. Her vision was indeed great. "It is clear to me," she said, "that we need guidance from one wiser than myself. Perhaps that one can answer the many mysteries we have been confronted with. There is no one in this part of the world wiser than Deckard Cain, the last sage of the Horadrim. But he was, when last I heard, living a quiet life in Tristram. There seems little hope that he is still alive."
I am the man that has seen affliction
Burning the foundations of the mountains.
Our enemy has stretched out his hands
Over all our precious things. Fear
Has defiled the kings of the earth.
-- Visions of Akarat, c. 87, v. 1-5
The closer Thaddeus got to the monastery, the more corrupted Rogues he found. They were still outnumbered by the demons and undead, but their growing numbers were disheartening. The changes in their bodies had gotten worse too. Many had horns, long teeth, or the beginnings of tails. Not all bore axes or spears anymore -- there were archers, with a look of crafty awareness in their eyes. They also wore more clothing; mostly the high boots Rogues favor, or a padded leather jerkin cut off to expose the breasts and midriff. This preference for displaying their womanly charms continually mystified Thaddeus. The first few were a shock and a distraction, perhaps, but any gains it gave them were far outweighed by the loss of protection.
Using the Umbral Disk, Thaddeus could blind an enemy by willing a burst of light to blaze out of the shield's central gem; this made capturing Rogues much easier. He brought a few back to camp, but Akara could do nothing for them. The exorcisms exhausted her and produced very little by way of results, so Thaddeus eventually stopped bringing Rogues back. He could do nothing for them but crush their bodies and send them to whatever reward was most fitting. Still... he was sure there had to be a way. Stalking the fields, he turned the problem over and over in his mind, wondering what strange new technique the demons could be using to resist the rituals of exorcism. Knowing what demon lord was responsible could help; each has known habits and weaknesses that might be exploited.
While in camp, Thaddeus stopped to talk with Warriv. "I do not suppose you have been in the deserts east of the pass recently?"
"Not for a few months. Are you worried about what might lie on the other side of the mountains?"
"Partially, but the monastery and these poor corrupted women concern me now. It occurs to me, some of the demon lords have a weakness for the defilement of women's bodies. The demon lord Baal in particular is fond of it; he is purported to keep an army of female demons on hand to satisfy his depravities."
"I know nothing of that, my friend! Demons and kings are things best avoided, to my way of thinking. Well... the king will only invite you to dinner, but you risk getting hit on the nose by the cherry pits."
Thaddeus thought about that for a moment, then laughed. "You speak from experience?"
"Much experience! It is good to be close to kings, but not too close. The closer to the king, the closer to the gallows. What does this demon lord you are thinking of have to do with us? You said the Lord of Terror was imprisoned here in the west."
"His brother Baal was imprisoned in the deserts near Lut Gholein, on the other side of the Rogue's pass. I wonder if things I have seen here do not bear his imprint. He, I think, would want the Rogues to wander about as they are, and change their bodies to suit him."
"That's an unpleasant thought. Two of the Three would be terrible indeed."
"Yes. So, if you had seen anything like this when you were crossing the desert..."
"I assure you, no. Let us not think things any worse than they must be. If I am to die, I will be happier not knowing what awaits me." Then Warriv laughed. "I made a rhyme! The last line is a bit long... hmm, let me think on that a while."
"Many new proverbs will be born in these times," Thaddeus smiled.
"Like cold water to the thirsty, or good news from a far land. I am sure we will hear some good news soon."
"From who?" Thaddeus asked.
Warriv snorted with laughter. "From you! You're not that thick-headed, are you?"
"Oh! Well, I intend to bring some, when I can."
"I know you will. We all have hope. I just hope it will be soon."
As Thaddeus explored, he came across a ring of five standing stones, with a heel stone close to the circle. A little blue demon and its cohort guarded them. That was a painful fight, his most painful yet; every time he struck the demon, lightning sparked from its body, causing great pain. The demon itself was no great threat at all. A few smashes from the Umbral Disk quieted it. After killing it, its minions fled as quick as their trembling legs could carry them. The worst thing about true demons, Thaddeus decided, was chasing them down after they run away. The standing stones, Akara told him, were a gateway the Rogues used to use to travel to distant locations. Touching the five stones in a certain order would open a gate, and several destinations had been ensorceled into the ring in days of yore.
The ring was important, because Akara wanted Thaddeus to go to Tristram, in the hope that Deckard Cain might still be alive. One of the ring's destinations was Tristram. Unfortunately, no one in camp could remember which combination opened the right gate. The Horadrim had built waypoints in many parts of the world, so the older gates were not used very often, and much had been forgotten about them. The correct combinations were recorded in the monastery's library, but Thaddeus might not need to go that far. Through the underground passage, there was a fenced-off field overseen by the Inifuss family. Outside their inn was a huge dead tree, which served as a sort of community message post. Over time, many people had carved names, dates, obscenities, and the like into it; among the older inscriptions, high on the tree, Kashya was sure at least one combination for the ring was mentioned.
The entrance to the underground passage was very near the stone ring. The passage itself was full of monsters, including demons who were not quite as cowardly as the Fallen Ones. These were the Tainted Ones, another set of nameless minor demons that hide in dark places and scurry away when challenged. Having huge, weighty heads and short, weak limbs, they don't scurry very well, but can do harm at range. From their energized guts, they can spit a ball of lightning, which makes them a minor sort of threat, if you're slow enough to let them gain any distance. After smashing a few, Thaddeus wondered who could possibly be so slow that these things would be dangerous. A feeble older person, perhaps, or a very young child might be this beast's preferred prey.
On the other side of the passageway, Inifuss's inn was a blazing ruin packed with Fallen Ones. The stables were inhabited by Rogues, Skeletons, and still more Fallen Ones. The dark woods beyond the light of the burning inn were filled with even more Fallen Ones. They hid behind trees, dropped rocks from the branches, or just tried to set the woods on fire while Thaddeus was among them. If the trials a man must undergo are the driving force in shaping his will, Thaddeus knew he'd come to hate the little bastards. Being attacked by Fallen Ones is like being nibbled to death by ducks, only the ducks are braver. Finally, he worked his way around to the other side of the inn, where the tree of Inifuss stood.
A group of huge brutes guarded the tree. Their leader was terribly strong and quick, but Thaddeus stood his ground and blinded his minions with bursts of radiance from the Umbral Disk. The leader seemed resistant to this, but without the others, he fell quickly. Looking over the tree, Thaddeus saw much of the paper that had been nailed to it was burnt away. Some writing had been carved into the wood itself, and high up near the branches, he saw a few drawings of the stone ring, with directions. But the writing was archaic, using names of towns Thaddeus was not familiar with. Was Tristram even represented? Standing a bench on its end, he climbed up and carefully copied all the writing for Akara.
It turned out that in the days of yore, Tristram went by a different name. When a local king moved his seat of government there, he renamed it Tristram. The combination was on the tree, and armed with the knowledge, Thaddeus immediately took the waypoint back to the stone circle. After touching the 5 ring stones, the sky went dark, and heaven's power struck down at the heel stone. Chains of lightning arced among the ring stones, and though he did not fear the heavens' power, Thaddeus stepped back out of the ring, so awesome was the sight. A web of power leapt from stone to stone, and as five identical lightning bolts leapt skyward from the stones, a red gate appeared in the center of the ring.
After giving thanks to the Light for guidance, Thaddeus stepped through the gate, and found himself outside a small town. Smoke and the stench of death filled the air. The demons had not even spared the beasts of the field: a cow lay nearby, its belly swollen with rot, a huge gash through its skull telling that its death had not been quiet. Every building was a burning mess, and bodies lay exposed in the fields, full of arrows and defiled countless times. A huge group of Fallen Ones and Skeleton archers greeted Thaddeus as he approached the town. Never having known that Skeletons could be intelligent enough to use bows, he decided to retreat, and let them come to him, before he heard a cry for help.
Entering the square, Thaddeus saw two separate groups of Fallen, a crowd of Goatman clan champions, another Skeleton archer group (led by a spectral one) and a cohort of Skeletons wielding scythes. Near a fountain in the center of town, an iron cage was hanging from a spar, with a man inside. Fighting so many in such an open area would not be wise, but if he ran, the monsters might kill that man. His only hope would be to distract all their wrath to himself, and hope he could survive it.
First, Thaddeus ran towards the Goatmen. They were nearest, and probably the most dangerous. Quick use of the Umbral Disk blinded them for a few seconds; then he ran to the archers. The cage was high enough that the Fallen Ones were no threat to the imprisoned man, unless their shamans decided to roast him, but that was unlikely. While smashing the Skeleton archers, Thaddeus looked beyond them, and saw the biggest Zombie he had ever seen slowly plodding towards him. He must have been a smith or something in life.
Leaving the last of the archers before the Zombie smith reached him, Thaddeus went back to the Goatmen. By the time the Zombie reached him again, he had killed all of the Goatmen, so he went back around to the archers. As usual, the Fallen Ones were not a concern. Even their shamans were unable to goad any courage out of them, so they just scampered around, squeaking with rage or shrieking with fear, depending on which emotion was strongest at the moment. After killing the shamans, Thaddeus turned to the Zombie. While it took forever to lay down, eventually it dropped with a sigh, and Thaddeus cleaned up the last of the Fallen.
Inside the cage was an old man; he looked uninjured. Hopefully, it was the right old man. After lowering the cage, Thaddeus pulled him out and handed him a Portal scroll. "Go if you value your life!" The old man began to stammer his thanks. Thaddeus read the scroll and pushed him through the gate. More Goatmen were coming; better to be rough with him now, and ask forgiveness later.
After searching the town, Thaddeus came to the conclusion that no one else was left alive. The bodies were everywhere, trampled into the dirt repeatedly, burned, stabbed, abused long after their deaths. The destructiveness of demons was well-known to him, and they had obviously been at their work here for a long time. To the northeast of town, the cathedral stood empty; it was too large to have been built for such a small place. The graveyard was completely defiled; every grave was dug up, and two magnificent tombs stood open. One tomb was decorated with bat-winged women; the look of them disturbed Thaddeus. Of the great items which supposedly had been in the cathedral, nothing now remained. That was a shame; Thaddeus had developed an idea that those items were important, somehow. It might have been useful to examine one.
When he returned to the Rogue's camp, Akara gave him a ring from her own hand, and they went to see the old man, Deckard Cain. Cain was exhausted, hungry, and needed water badly, but had recovered most of his strength while Thaddeus explored Tristram. Everyone else in Tristram had been slaughtered, but the demons hardly touched him. He had been forced into the cage, hung in the wind and rain for days, but otherwise ignored. Thaddeus could sense nothing malevolent in or about him, but was still disquieted. Was the old man some sort of Trojan Horse, an unknowing carrier of evil? The Sightless Eye told Akara nothing was out of the ordinary with him, but Thaddeus still wanted answers.
"Why was I brought from the womb
To live only to be carried to the grave?"
Then Zophar answered his friend,
"Should this mocking babble silence us?
Who knows not his span is short, but sweetness
And the breath of life must be our joy.
Better to plunge yourself into a pit,
Than to move beyond what is your gift.
It brings no happiness to you or I."
-- The Book of Haisin, c. 10, v. 21-22, and c. 11, v. 1-7
Tristram was larger when the cathedral was built, back in the days when it was a king's seat and not a farming town. No, Cain did not know how the Protectors of the Word were kept from hearing of Tristram's plight. Other heroes came, including Rabina and other Rogues. Some never came back out of the ground. Many returned from the dungeons, but then left; their nerve failed them. There were rumors of evil bandits who kept a short distance from Tristram, waylaying all who tried to leave. The heroes were able to enter, and presumably go again, unmolested; the Rogues who returned didn't mention bandits. After Diablo finally was defeated, they celebrated for days... before he left, going to the east. Tristram was destroyed immediately afterwards, like it was no longer needed.
As for the magical artifacts... Cain assumed they had been stored in the cathedral, or buried in the catacombs, or perhaps the demons brought them with them. There were many items, all the heroes were able to collect more than one, including things out of legend... Arkane's Valor, Baranar's Star, Civerb's Cudgel, the Umbral Disk, the Lightsabre.
From where he had been nodding off, Thaddeus suddenly looked up. "The Umbral Disk?"
"Why, yes! I remember the warrior who found it thought it a splendid help to him. The Umbral Disk is a disk or pure, radiant light made solid, kept contained within a shield of black iron. A 40-carat blue crystal, cut in a roundel pattern, set in the center allows..."
"Did that shield resemble this one I bear?"
Blinking, Cain looked at Thaddeus' shield. "Why, yes. How did you come by it?"
"The Umbral Disk has been kept safe in the reliquary of Linkirk Cathedral for the past two centuries. When attack threatened, I brought it here, hoping to find a safe place among the Rogues. Before I brought it there on my quest to find you, it had not been within a hundred miles of Tristram for over 200 years."
The camp was silent, as Cain sat staring at the small shield in confusion. "Well, that must mean... but Boris the warrior said... he was quite specific about its properties and usefulness in the catacombs... But... hmmm. May I see that shield of yours?"
After examining the shield, Cain muttered, "This has been in Linkirk for 200 years, you say? The resemblance is close. There could not be two."
"No, the Umbral Disk is unique, as are all those other great relics. How did they all come to be in one place, under one town, when they are known to be scattered to the far corners of the earth, or even lost in the sea?"
After thinking for a while, Cain slowly nodded. "It does seem a spectacular coincidence... at the time, with so much happening, I did not give it much thought."
"It cannot be accident," Thaddeus said. "I have an idea. But I am not sure. Excuse me, I shall return soon."
Though it was well after midnight, Thaddeus returned to the wilderness. Demons would come creeping down from the monastery, replacing their losses; Thaddeus was hunting for Rogues. After smashing two packs of Fallen Ones and a few skeletons, he found a marsh. There, he found a pack of five corrupted Rogues who were not too twisted; they had kept their hair, and had no horns or tails yet. Three remained alive when Thaddeus subdued them; it was pleasing to note his fighting techniques had improved. As they lay on the ground, twitching and snarling, he relaxed his mind and looked them over. Their spirits were twisted, but each also had a small patch of blackness, an emptiness, in some item on their possession.
The Rogues were not pleased to see him dragging more of their corrupted sisters back to camp. They were even less pleased when he began stripping them even more naked than before. With two of the Rogues, he had sensed something about rings on their hands, almost invisible in the filth. With the third, her helm caught his attention. Nonetheless, the signs were subtle and he had been wrong before; it would be best to get rid of anything that might possibly have come from Tristram.
Kashya crossed her arms and looked on with disapproval. "I thought Paladins weren't supposed to go for that sort of stuff."
"This is not something I enjoy," Thaddeus said, yanking off a boot.
"Oh? Would you rather be stripping boys, then?"
"There are no boys in your order. Why would I do such a thing?" After looking them over closely, Thaddeus nodded, satisfied. "Let us see if this time we are more successful."
Kashya smirked. "What's on your mind, big guy?"
"You are behaving very strangely tonight," Thaddeus remarked. "Cain, do you recognize these items? You must have examined hundreds, but..."
"Yes, they are all things from Tristram," Cain nodded. "This is a ring of light I identified for this young lady, who is named Tahye. A charming girl, her present condition is a great surprise to me. Why, when we first met, she said I reminded her of her great uncle --"
"Yes, thank you. If Lady Akara could..."
It seemed Akara had guessed his mind, and was already at work on the exorcisms. While she exhorted the demonic spirits possessing her daughter Rogues, Thaddeus sat down with the rings and helm. Quietly, he meditated upon them, opening his inner eye to the lines of the spirit world, which flow for good or ill through all things. These three artifacts had many threads to them, wrapped like nests around a hollow space; perhaps a spirit could rest there, and travel with the item. While with someone, the spirit might examine them, learning by observation their weaknesses and flaws. When the time came, on some signal, the spirits might take advantage of those chinks in that person's spiritual armor, possessing them. And when exorcised... the spirit could flee to the artifact, and hide there, for a while, to return when the body was safe again.
As Thaddeus concentrated on the rings and helm, he became aware that one was now filled, with a small, malevolent spirit. It snapped and thrashed and spat a thousand obscenities, for its former habitation was no longer available to it. The other two filled in short order, and Thaddeus was amused to watch the three demons writhe in their prisons. These things were not artifacts of this world. Somehow, they had been made under Tristram, beautiful little traps to snare the unwary. Is evil ever more seductive than when it seems useful? No one thought to wonder why they were all there, just waiting for someone to come along and pick them up. Even if someone guessed, the temptation to use the darkness' own weapons against it would be very strong.
Returning his mind to the camp, Thaddeus looked around. The three Rogues seemed to be peacefully asleep. Though filthy and bloody, to look at their faces now, no one would think there was ever anything wrong with them. Kashya gave an order that they were to be put to bed, and watched until they awoke. Akara was exhausted but triumphant, as dawn broke the horizon behind her. Realizing how late it was, Thaddeus realized he was very tired; it had been a very long day and night. Besides, Akara could not perform any more exorcisms until she had rested. Sleeping now would give Thaddeus a chance to talk to the Rogues when they woke up, and bring many more home from the wilderness.
Later in the day, when just about everyone was asleep, Gheed woke up. Yawning and scratching himself, he looked around the oddly empty camp, wondering if they'd been invaded and no one bothered to tell him. No, not enough blood on the ground, and nothing on fire that shouldn't be. Charsi was up and about, putting a polish on a shield.
"Hello, my best girl! How's business?"
"Oh, everything's wonderful! Have you heard? The Paladin brought back some more of our sisters, and this time, the exorcism worked!"
Gheed shuddered. "I wish he wouldn't do that. Most of those gals were scary enough before they got demons inside them."
"Hey, that's not a nice thing to say! Don't worry, the demons are out now! Akara thinks they were hiding inside trick magic items. Now that's scary. Who would have thought a ring or something could betray you?"
Gheed chuckled, noting Charsi had been working on the Umbral Disk. "Say that around him, and you'll probably get a sermon on the temptations of power."
"Oh, yeah. You think that was it? I mean, why they fell?"
"As if I care," Gheed muttered, then smiled. "We can't know why, so don't worry about it! Me, I've got enough on my plate without anyone else's problems being served up."
"Um..." Charsi thought a minute. "I guess. I'm just worried about the monastery."
Gheed sighed, casting his gaze heavenwards. "My dear girl... religion is all very well, but you have to remember business is business! Money made the monastery work, all the fees you collected from the pass. What am I going to do with you? I like you. Everyone likes you! When everyone likes you, with a little business savvy, you can make money hand over fist! Akara needs money a lot more than sermons, if you want to do her some good."
"The Paladin seems to do fine without much money."
"He doesn't buy anything, he loots it. Oh, excuse me: liberates it from the infernal hordes, to put to a holy purpose. And he brought better stuff with him than anything you or I have. Real churchly relics; they always keep the best for themselves." Then Gheed thought of something. "Say, why don't you call him by his name? He has one, doesn't he?"
"Oh, yeah, Thaddeus. It's kind of weird to just call him that. He's kind of... I mean, he comes back in, I know he's been fighting, but there isn't a speck of dirt on him!"
Gheed smirked. "Not very accessible?"
"It's weird to just call him a name, you know?"
"You know what I think of him? Boring. B. O. R. I. N. G. Doesn't buy anything, hardly sells anything, gives it all away. Worse businessman than you. Also, he doesn't laugh at any of my jokes. The other day, I told him a great one, and he just stared at me."
"What joke was it?"
"Oh, just a little something between men," Gheed chuckled. "I know you're in a monastery, but mark my words, don't get religious, or you'll have no sense of humor at all and no one will like you. Look at me! Everyone loves ol' Gheed, because I make them laugh!"
Charsi laughed. "Yeah, I guess. Still wish you'd tell me the joke."
Gheed backed away, waving his hands. "Oh, no! Can't let Kashya catch me telling you things like that! I'll be banned from camp or worse."
Back in the marshes, Thaddeus found a few more corrupted Rogues, and took the survivors back to camp. There was also a huge old tower, broken and fallen into decay. This section of the pass didn't have an inn, even though it was fenced off like all the rest. Perhaps the innkeepers didn't want to stay in a marsh (the mosquitoes were annoying) or the land was owned by whoever stayed in the tower. Probably the latter; the remains of foundations told Thaddeus it was once part of a much larger building. Inside, one wall of an empty basement had collapsed, and a strange smell came up from below.
Even without the charnel smell, the feeling of evil was palpable in the cellar. Something was here, stronger than your typical demon, and should be dealt with. Beneath the tower cellar were 5 levels of sub-basements, networks of winding tunnels leading into the earth. Human bones were scattered everywhere, heaped up against the walls, in loops of corridor, even walking around of their own volition. All the bones were tiny, like those of children or youths. In addition to Skeletons, Wraiths and Blood Clan Goatmen abounded; something terrible and painful had happened here, to make so many ghosts. The Blood Clan was a bad sign as well; they often follow after Vampires and other blood-drinkers.
At the deepest level, Thaddeus found a symmetrical set of chambers, laid out like a temple of one of the old religions. A concourse, set with pillars, made the body. Four side branches represented the limbs. The entrance was central, between the legs -- make of that what you will. As he went deeper, Thaddeus was sure the "arm" chambers would be holding the "head" chamber between them, disconnected from the "body." Temples dedicated to blood-letting, the ceremonial severing of the neck, were laid out this way. Sure enough, the "body" ended in a blank wall and a cauldron of boiling blood. The temple was active.
Thaddeus inspected the "legs" first. The Blood Clan was strong here, and there were women archers as well. At first, he thought they were corrupted Rogues, but with a closer look he saw they were much older than that. Though they looked younger than any of the Rogues, their bodies were pale and withered. Their clothing (more than any of the Rogues had) had an antique look to it, and revealed their immature bodies where it was rotten. As archers, they were clearly inferior, but their flesh was much tougher. These, Thaddeus did not bother to save. Their eyes looked empty; clearly, no soul was in residence.
Scattered on the floor of the "legs" was a great deal of treasure; coinage, jewelry, and other small, portable forms of wealth. Weapon racks and several locked chests also yielded up valuables. Deeper into the temple, the "arms" only had a few barrels and a scattering of gold coin. The evil was strong, centered in the head of the temple; Thaddeus approached it cautiously. Sure enough, a group of axe-wielding girls came out as he got near; the axes were a bit of a surprise, he'd heard blood rituals usually involved daggers. After killing them, Thaddeus went into the "head."
A few members of the Blood Clan were there, along with the only grown woman in the place. She was pale and tall, but lacked the "starved" look of the younger girls. And she looked very pleased to see Thaddeus. This one, Thaddeus could tell, was beyond any salvation he could offer, save a swift death. The Goatmen stayed in the back, only coming forward after she was dead. Were they using her for blood, or had she been using them? It really didn't matter, all met the same end, but knowing the tricks demons employ could not hurt. The final chamber of the temple held a vast amount of wealth. Thaddeus had little use for it, but the sisters would be pleased, he was sure.
When our works are great and honorable,
Full of generosity and majesty,
Then the work of our hands is trustworthy.
Praise endures forever for our kindred
And redemption for sins of ages past
Is the joyful inheritance of the nation.
Wickedness sees the light and is angry.
The desire of wickedness come to naught.
-- Visions of Akarat, c. 55, v. 3-10
From Akara's description, it was obvious after the fact that the countess was not a true worshiper of the Light. She was cruel to her servants, petty and demanding in her dealings with visitors, and derisive towards the monastery, even while making donations. Many had noted the sardonic smile she wore when coming to worship, but others were blinded by the splendor of her gowns and the allure of her face. After her activities came to light, she and her servants were buried in her dark temple, to die amid the bones of their victims. Perhaps she did finally die in there, but it mattered little when the darkness came and the tower burst like an old sore, covered over but never healed.
Leaving Akara, Thaddeus pondered how easy it is to blinded by sinful dealings, how seductive wealth, power, or material rewards can be. Then he caught himself; that was the kind of thinking that led to the Inquisition, the Hand of Zakarum, and the destruction in the east he had been told of. Not all temptations take the form of gold or beautiful faces. Crusading against evil in others, not for their goodness, is another easy trap to fall into. For someone who must keep up a cathedral, or feed barracks full of soldiers, money is very tempting, not out of greed, but because it is so useful. It would not do for Thaddeus to look down on the sisters, if they took money, or looted enchanted items from the dead. After all, he himself was wearing a fine, rare suit of scale mail he had taken from a dead Rogue.
Looking around the camp, Thaddeus felt a bit guilty. Who was he to pass judgment on the sisters, even in his mind? He had not been in Tristram, when the items seemed like harmless but useful trinkets. He had not been here when the countess was alive; if he had met her then, he might have found her too charming to think ill of her. She was beautiful, to judge from the thing he found in the tower. By one of the tents, Thaddeus saw guards still stood over the corrupted Rogues he'd brought back; he should see them, if they were awake.
The three were awake, sitting quietly on bunks near the back of the tent. "Hello," Thaddeus said, not sure how to introduce himself. He was sure they remembered their last encounter.
They fidgeted, and one looked ready to bolt at the sight of him. "Hello," one said, looking up for a moment.
Thaddeus sat down. "May I speak with you?"
"What choice have we got?" the frightened one said. "We can't go anywhere."
"You do not have to say anything to me," Thaddeus said. "But I would like to speak with you. There are things I need to know, and I think you could help me."
They sat silently, and finally one shrugged. "Help you with what?"
"When I found you... you were not yourselves. I believe I know how it happened, but I also need to know why."
A longer silence filled the tent. One began trembling, tears rolling down her face. "I don't know how it happened," another finally said.
"You were all at Tristram, weren't you?"
"I wasn't," one said.
She was the one who had a Tristram helmet. "That helmet you had --"
"I traded a bow for it... it was just an Ochre pot helm, nothing great..."
"I believe those things were trapped with demonic spirits, set to possess their users. You were possessed; it would have happened to anyone who had those things. It was not your fault, anyone would have fallen as you did." After pausing for a moment to let this sink in, Thaddeus continued, "The demons made you feel things, didn't they?"
"Yes," they said immediately, almost as one.
"Yes," Thaddeus replied. "Anger, hate, and pride, I would guess."
"I wanted to kill Kashya," one murmured.
That didn't surprise Thaddeus at all. He suspected that many of Kashya's Rogues disliked her, which would be a good starting point for a demon. "There are things within us all we do not like, which the darkness can use. That does not make you evil, nor does it make you weak. Do you still want to kill Kashya?"
Still staring at the ground, she shook her head. "No. Not as much."
Thaddeus smiled a bit. "I know Kashya has been angry with you, but she is as frightened as we all have been by this. When Kashya is frightened, I am sure she becomes angry."
"She wants us to leave the order."
Thaddeus shook his head. "Some of the greatest saints were beset by demons. They learned from their tragic lives and rose above their circumstances, to the benefit of all humankind. Kashya realizes that, I am sure."
The three stared at Thaddeus. "But she said, 'I want you out of the order.'"
That was embarrassing. Thaddeus cleared his throat. "I shall speak with her. Think on this: you have had a trial by fire few have experienced. How many know as much as you about our enemy?"
They looked less afraid now, but still not happy. Thaddeus continued, "Which brings me to what I need to know... who is responsible for this?"
"You mean..." the frightened one said, "her?"
Her. Not Diablo, or Baal. Only one of the 7 Great Evils always took female form. But the four lesser evils had supposedly rebelled against the three greater; had they reconciled? Or was this some lesser demon, not one of the greater lords? "We do not have to talk about it if you don't want to."
They nodded, and said no more. Thaddeus left quietly.
Cain was sitting by the fire, talking with Kashya. When Thaddeus came over, she snapped, "So, what'd they have to say for themselves?"
"For themselves, nothing. They have identified our enemy."
Cain said, "From what you said, I believe it to be Andariel, Maiden of Anguish!"
"I suppose it should have been obvious. She is also Mistress of the Succubi, and seems to expect all of her minions to dress the part."
"It may be that she was trying to recover from her losses at Tristram. While I was there, the heroes mentioned meeting many Succubi in the deepest parts of the dungeons. They were never numerous, and many died, so it may be that Andariel was seeking among the Rogues for... replacements."
"Can demons do that?" Thaddeus asked.
"That is not clear to me," Cain muttered. "It may be possible."
"This would also mean that the forces of Hell which were in rebellion against the Three Prime Evils have rejoined them."
Cain nodded. "Andariel was working against Diablo and his brothers for centuries, but now it appears she is with them. It is my belief that Diablo has taken possession of the hero who sought to slay him, and is making his way to the deserts of Lut Gholein to free his brother Baal. Andariel is obviously occupying the monastery to block pursuit."
"Yes," Thaddeus agreed. "So it is imperative that I get through." Turning to Kashya, he said, "And while I am doing so, I will return as many of your Rogues to you as I can."
"We won't have enough to guard them if you do that," Kashya said.
"You do not need to guard them," Thaddeus said. "They will need to be put back into your service, and soon, for there is much they need to do."
"Have you gone nuts? They can't be trusted."
"Of course they can. I would trust them before I would trust your untested soldiers; they know where danger lies. Besides, I will need your Rogues to carry letters to nearby cities, describing what has happened here."
Kashya's mouth opened and closed a few times. "I will NOT allow them to go armed in our camp! They slaughtered their fellow sisters, they gave in to demons, who knows WHAT they were doing out there with them --"
"That is all over now," Thaddeus said calmly. "Have you no forgiveness in you? They have gone through something horrible. They lost their minds, their better natures, their souls were in peril. To find themselves again, they need goodness from you and all their sisters. To be good is something more than simply shutting out evil."
"You weren't there when the monastery was attacked!" Kashya snarled. You have NO IDEA what they did! You say they were possessed. A demon can't possess someone and make them do what they'd never do themselves! Read your scripture! The ones who fell WANTED to fall, they made a PACT, the demons just rooted out the weak ones and we're better off without them!"
"No," Thaddeus said. "A demon can make someone do what they would not normally do. When possessing a mind, a demon may take advantage of weaknesses, resentment, or hostility normally held in check. All people have weaknesses. Tell me, why do you think Blood Raven fell?"
That gave Kashya pause. Thaddeus went on, "Was she weak? Or full of resentment? Did she enjoy raising the dead from their slumber when you knew her?"
"Rabina was... proud. I'd consider that her only flaw. She had a lot to be proud of."
"And as near-flawless as she was, she fell further than any other. I think your sisters fell into a cunning trap, that would ensnare anyone. To clear your monastery of everyone who could not be 'turned', you would have to empty it forever. Now, in these girls, you have some who have come back from the brink of darkness. They should not be blamed for what was done, using their bodies."
"I still cannot trust them."
"You may have to. I will write letters, which I need taken to nearby cities, and the head of my order. We have learned much of how the demons are working now, and cannot allow the knowledge to die with us. This may endanger us, but we must think of the rest of the world. I must return to battle. Please, discuss this with Akara. The decision belongs with you and she, but I beg you to reconsider your position."
Kashya is a fierce woman, Thaddeus thought as he climbed out of the countess's marshes. Pride may be her only flaw too, or perhaps merely her greatest flaw. It does not bode well to spend time contemplating the inadequacies of others, but something about her irritated and distressed him. She had probably remained behind at the monastery, keeping the barracks, when the Rogues went to Tristram. If she hadn't, she would probably be out here, armed with a bow. As he climbed a hill, the monastery came into view. The high stone walls were built across a gap in the mountains, with one huge gate, shut up tight. A gloom hung over the whole building that even the sun could not penetrate. Looking at the wall, Thaddeus wondered how he could enter, before he saw a small door off to one side. In the meantime, arrows were whizzing past him as he stood on the hilltop; skeletal archers below were taking advantage of his poorly-chosen vantage point.
The hillsides around the monastery were full of corrupted Rogues, far more than Akara would have the energy to exorcise. As much as it pained him, Thaddeus began to pick and choose who would live and who would die from among them. Any who seemed too pleased with what they were doing, died. Those whose physical transformations probably mirrored a more deeply corrupted soul were put down as well; horns, claws, even one with a vestigial pair of wings he took as a sign for death. The remainder were still so numerous, Thaddeus had to pile them up outside of camp, where the Rogues tied them to the palisades. He wondered if Akara could see to them all before they died of exposure.
On one return trip, Thaddeus saw Avilli, armed with a bow and standing watch at the first gate. Akara had evidently disagreed with Kashya, and welcomed Avilli back into the order. Warriv warned Thaddeus that it would be a good idea to avoid Kashya for a while; she was mad, and might take it out on him. Charsi also seemed leery of Kashya, but also of her formerly corrupted sisters. They still bore the physical marks of their ordeal, and made her nervous. But while you're here... Charsi had left her best tools back in the monastery, including a thing called the Horadric Malus. It could craft powerful items, and would be very useful to have. Thaddeus agreed to look for it.
Before he went back, a strange thin man Thaddeus didn't recognize stopped him. "Greetings, your holiness! It's good to see someone around here again."
"Greetings... you have been here before?"
"Many times! You see, I'm a... traveler, of a sort. I give things to deserving people I meet so they can do good things with their lives."
Thaddeus smiled. "Charitable acts are not to be frowned upon. Here, let me give you something that you may purchase food and lodgings."
"Oh, I don't want those things! I'm here to give something to you!"
"I have no need of charity," Thaddeus frowned. "Others need you much more."
"This is less a need, and more a convenience! You'll be wanting this, and this here. They'll do you a world of good."
Thaddeus now had a valuable amulet and a glowing set of chain mail, which spat and shone with sparks of electricity. "What are these things?"
"This is a Rainbow amulet of the Bat, and that there is the Sparkling Mail. Don't you worry, no demons hidin' in them! I've got to go now, so I'll see you again when you've opened the pass. Best o' luck to ya!"
"How did you..." Thaddeus looked around, but the strange man had ambled off. That was some very quick ambling, he thought, but the items did not seem to have any demonic traps. Perhaps they were a gift from the light, but the peculiar emissary seemed an odd choice.
The gates led to a small garden area, with a beautiful fountain representing three Rogue heroes in a back-to-back hilltop stand. The gardens were torn up, with blood splattered on the walls, and mangled flesh and bones in the flower beds. Some of the canniest-looking Rogues were here, along with more courageous Fallen Ones. Beyond the gardens were the barracks, where Charsi had said her tools were kept. The barracks were full of everything you'd expect: cots, weapon racks, bits of clothing and armor, eviscerated young women... Well, maybe not everything was as it should be, but all was as Thaddeus expected. The Sparkling Mail was a great help; charges of electricity surged around him, adding an extra zap to every demon he hit. The amulet was useful too, allowing him to recover much of the vigor and will he would normally lose to fatigue over the course of a fight.
In the deepest part of the barracks, a huge demon was pounding away on an anvil, probably using Charsi's tools. It looked like a Flayed One, a demon formed from the blood of an angel whose all-consuming vanity led him to revolt against Heaven. As punishment, he was thrown into the fiery pits, where his beauty was taken from him with red-hot whips and tongs of icy-cold iron. Flayed Ones are tough and powerful, but slow, so Thaddeus was in no real danger as he destroyed it. The Horadric Malus was among the tools in the smithy, and Charsi was very happy to see it again.
Thaddeus thought it was good to see the camp again. More of the Rogues he'd returned from the pass were walking the grounds. They were unarmed, and looked deeply ashamed, but they were there, and making themselves useful. There were still plenty of corrupted ones tied to the walls; Thaddeus did not think they could all have been exorcised in one day. He just hoped he wasn't expecting too much of Lady Akara; she was not young, and this might be a terrible strain for her. It was long past dark. Flavie was at her post again, and more Rogues were outside the camp walls than within, watching over their sisters. It might have been helpful for him to watch with them, but Thaddeus stayed inside. He needed light to write his letters, and then he needed sleep.
The Whore of Darkness came to them in secret.
She served Baal and worshipped him,
And bade them to forsake their own house.
Zedekiah the son of Shilhim came near
And went in strength into the temple.
The Light rent the mountain, broke into pieces
Rock and beam. All who ate at her table were there,
And he said unto her, "Your servants are dead,
The door is opened up, all now know you.
Come out to me, for your time is at an end."
-- Chronicles of Zakarum, c. 13, v. 31-40
According to the Rogues, beneath the barracks was a jail, where they had kept misbehaving visitors, of whom they had many. Women soldiers were a bit of a novelty here in the west, and not everyone recognized their authority. Many female Paladins had complained of this. Beyond the jails was an inner courtyard, and the Rogue's Mountain Cathedral; Akara was sure Andariel was there.
Andariel was well described in the scripture of Zakarum. While walking among humanity, she always takes a form of great beauty, for vanity and envy are her favorite sins. In times of tranquillity, she is at her most dangerous, for she and her most favored minions have great insight into human weaknesses. War is not her theater, but she is a Lord of Hell, and not to be trifled with at any time. She would take on a form more suited to combat, taller than any man, with the features of a horrendous spider -- the sort that eats its mate. Perhaps the symbolism appealed to her.
As he dressed for battle, Thaddeus wondered if he was afraid. Despite the nightmares, he felt calm and focused, but a crawly feeling came up in his gut when he thought of facing Andariel. He had read much on her and her infernal cohort; the demons he met outside the monastery were numbered among Diablo's favored minions, not hers. The trapped items from Tristram was a tactic he had never heard of either using. How much of the knowledge in Zakarum's records was inaccurate? Perhaps they was simply out of date; the demons had changed their tactics. Uncertainty had always made Thaddeus uneasy, but from here, he could not rely on the knowledge he had spent so much time learning.
Before returning to the monastery, Thaddeus looked around the camp, seeing who was there. Gheed, perhaps in a fit of premonition, was under his wagon, and prepared to stay there until winter. Kashya was with Akara, as the last of the corrupted Rogues were brought inside the walls to her. Warriv was chatting with two of the Rogues over breakfast, telling them some funny story. A laugh might do him good, so Thaddeus went to visit with them.
"Good morning," he said, dishing up a bowl of gruel for himself.
"Ah, hello there!" Warriv smiled. "Have you heard the story about the overturned wagon?"
"No, I don't think so."
"One time, a merchant's wagon overturned, right in this pass. The driver, a rather handsome young fellow, was trying to turn it up when two Rogues came by."
The two Rogues next to him were giggling. Thaddeus was sure Warriv wasn't the sort to tell embarrassing stories, so he smiled. "Go on."
"The two Rogues said to him, 'It's almost dark. Why don't you come with us? You can put your wagon back in the morning, it's not going anywhere.' The driver replied, 'I would like to, but I don't think my caravan master would want me to do that.'"
"This isn't... Gheed's sort of joke, is it?"
"This early in the morning?" Warriv looked positively aghast. "And around two lovely young ladies, too! What do you take me for?"
"Oh, I should have realized you've more discretion. I don't know how I ever could have doubted you," Thaddeus deadpanned.
"The Rogues take the driver back to the monastery, and treat him to a meal in their own hall. And while everyone treats him well, he keeps saying he has to get back to his wagon, or the caravan master won't like it. Finally, the Rogues say, 'Your master must be the worst master in the world! You don't have to be afraid of him! Who is he, anyway?' You know what the driver says?"
"He says, 'He's the one under my wagon.'"
It wasn't even that great a joke, but Thaddeus spat his gruel out, he laughed so hard. The Rogues looked at him strangely. "Ah ha ha... ha... I'm sorry, I think I needed that."
"It seems so," Warriv laughed. "You should stop being so serious all the time. Tell me a joke you know. It'll do you good."
"Um..." Thaddeus thought a minute. "Well, I do know one, but it's not a very nice joke..."
"Oh, ho!" Warriv and the Rogues both looked surprised. "Something straight from the dark underbelly of the seminary? I can't live without hearing it now."
"If you insist. One night, a priest and a nun were traveling together and came to an inn. No other place offered hospitality, but they only had money for one room. The priest said, 'Sister, there should be no difficulty if we spend the night in one room. You may have the bed, I will sleep in the chair.'"
"I think I've heard this one," Warriv raised an eyebrow.
"I haven't," one Rogue said. "Does anything good happen?"
"That depends on how you define good," Thaddeus remarked. "During the night, the sister says, 'Brother, I am very cold here.' The priest goes downstairs, and fetches a blanket from the innkeeper."
"Ah, this is new. The one I heard, the priest asked her to look for a mouse in his bed."
"A mouse?" the Rogue giggled.
"I hope it was bigger than a mouse," the other laughed.
Hearing that was a bit of a shock for Thaddeus. "Warriv, perhaps we've been worrying too much about them hearing dirty jokes."
"Oh, come on!" the first Rogue said. "What do you think there is to talk about all night in a barracks, anyway?"
Warriv laughed, but Thaddeus's ears were burning. It was fortunate that his dark skin concealed it, or he'd probably be bright pink now. "I thought this was a monastery..."
"We're not monks. With all the cute guys that come through here?"
"Oh, don't I know it!" Warriv chuckled. "You Rogues became famous for your odd double standards, as far as hospitality goes. Most visitors see the harsh, martial side, but a select few... do not." Rolling his eyes heavenwards, Warriv did his best to look innocent. "But we'd better let your current and only guest finish his story."
"Ahem. Yes. He got her a blanket, and lay down. A few minutes later, she said, 'Brother, I'm still cold.' The priest got up, saying 'I will get another blanket for you.' She said, 'I don't think it would be sinful, if we acted as man and wife for one night.' The priest nodded, and replied, 'You may be right. So... shut up and get your own damn blanket.'"
Warriv laughed a lot at that one; the Rogues laughed, but not as much. Maybe they were hoping for something juicier. "Whoever thought of that one," Warriv said, "obviously knew what being married is really like!"
"You're married, Warriv?" Thaddeus asked.
"Happily married for 17 years. She's in Kingsport, and probably thinks I'm already in Lut Gholein, fending off some sweet young thing's advances. It's not my fault the fairer sex finds me irresistible!"
That made the Rogues laugh. "Oh, sure, Warriv! The bristly, itchy beard does it for me."
"And those cute little love handles!"
"Oh, and the gray hairs look so distinguished!"
"What can I say?" Warriv puffed his chest out in mock pride. "Charisma like mine is a gift."
"Don't worry, maybe you can still exchange it."
"You wound me, girls! Why, haven't you ever noticed how Kashya just can't stay away from me? She's always hovering about, drawn by my fierce, manly magnetism!"
This was getting to be a bit much for Thaddeus. He was sure none of them were serious, but didn't feel comfortable joking like this, especially with nice-looking young women. "For some reason, I just can't see that."
"Believe me, Kashya is glad," one Rogue said sarcastically. "She would NOT approve."
"A pity, that." Warriv looked off into the distance. "Many visitors to the Rogue's pass have admired fair Kashya from afar, but she spurns all suitors. Her marriage bed is in the officer's quarters of a barracks."
"Well, she is quite beautiful." Thaddeus finished his gruel. "But I wonder about her."
The Rogues looked at him strangely again. "Aren't Paladins supposed to, like, not notice stuff like that?"
"Why not?" Thaddeus looked confused. "I'm as human as the next man."
"Obviously, telling a joke like that," Warriv opined.
Thaddeus shrugged. "Paladins are not ordained or put under vows. We're knights, not priests. Or I hope to be, someday."
"You're not a knight?"
"I have not been knighted. When the troubles began, I came out of the seminary to serve as an errand runner. I have not passed my tests of manhood. That may have to wait for a while, until the crisis is past."
After bidding the Rogues good morning, Thaddeus returned to the jails. All through the jails, Thaddeus saw no more living Rogues. There were ghosts, more Fallen Ones, Tainted Ones, and Skeletons, but the Rogues were dead. They were impaled on stakes, nailed to tables and vivisected, shredded to bits -- every possible way of slowly killing them had been used. None of this was surprising, but Thaddeus would have to ask where all the torture equipment came from. The demons certainly enjoyed having it. A narrow staircase led to the inner gardens, just outside the doors to the Rogue's cathedral.
The cathedral was a beautiful building, made from the smooth grayish-white limestone of the mountain. The two processional halls on either side of the apse featured huge tapestries, commemorating the coming of the Rogues to the mountain, the building of the monastery, and the first battles they participated in. All the tapestries had been defaced in the crudest ways. The delicate stained glass windows had been broken, and the pews were smashed to the floor. While breaking in the skulls of a group of Fallen Shamen, Thaddeus reflected on the motives of the vandal. Some cannot abide grand, beautiful things; it reminds them there is something in the world greater than themselves.
There were some dangerous creatures in the cathedral. The Fallen Shamen, when in a group under a powerful leader, were fairly dangerous. In the other hall, a similar group of Tainted Ones also proved dangerous. Near the main altar, a Skeleton named Bone Ash was waiting. Bone Ash used to be a Necromancer, who brought his poisonous talents to Diablo's service in exchange for power. Power was granted after his timely death; Diablo continued to make use of him as a general of his terrifying skeletal mages. True, he could not enjoy his power; being dead puts a damper on your enthusiasm and enjoyment of things. But when was the last time a deal with a demon turned out to be all you'd hoped for?
Andariel was not in the cathedral, but Thaddeus found a small set of stairs near the back, which must lead down into the catacombs. Waves of almost palpable evil spilled up from the depths; something terrible was down there. Thaddeus wondered why Andariel was hiding in the catacombs; surely, someone of her temperament would be more comfortable in a boudoir or seraglio. Then again, the Rogues probably didn't have a place where she'd feel really comfortable. The catacombs gave her access to animatable corpses, which would be reason enough to make her stronghold there.
Going down into the catacombs, Thaddeus met new and strange beasts. Sitting quietly in the corners were absolutely gargantuan hunting spiders -- their abdomens were nearly the height of a man, and their legs could span a whole corridor. Unlike the other monsters, they did not charge to attack immediately, but charged from ambush. It was actually possible to not notice them in the pell-mell of battle until you were quite close to them, despite their size. Andariel might be fond of spiders, explaining their presence, but the next new monster he met was a complete surprise. These were tiny pygmy-men, smaller even than the Fallen, but with gigantic teeth and absolutely nothing cowardly in their disposition.
A horrible thought occurred to Thaddeus. According to the histories he had read, a tribe of pygmies called the Flayers lived in the jungles of Kurast. They were numerous and highly excitable, and though their diet was almost entirely meat, they were not a great danger to humankind. Usually, they avoided direct confrontation, their small size making escape easy and combat difficult for them. These ones wore the simple, brightly-colored garments typical of the eastern jungles, and certainly matched the descriptions of Flayers. But they came gibbering to the attack in a mad frenzy, with no regard for their own lives, a sure hallmark of demonic influence. The giant spiders might also be from Kurast, where all sorts of insects can grow to prodigious size. Kurast was home to the Hand of Zakarum, the Custodians of Hatred, and the Guardian Tower, built to imprison the eldest of the Prime Evils.
If Kurast had fallen... that would mean the Lord of Hatred had done as Diablo did, corrupting the land around his prison. Kurast would be full of his minions. Had he sent some, through a hellish gate, to help his brother? No, wait -- among Cain's ramblings, Thaddeus remembered that the troubles in Tristram began when an Archbishop was sent from Kurast. Tristram was far too small a town for so high an official to make his seat there. That fact should have leapt out at Thaddeus, but he hadn't noticed among the hundreds of other facts pouring out of Cain's memory. The world must be enmeshed in a secret web spun across many lands, perhaps even moving through the church of Zakarum itself! If Terror and Hatred were free and working evil, Destruction must be contained at all costs.
Muttering a quick and silent prayer, Thaddeus swiftly moved down through the catacombs with renewed vigor and concentration. The Fallen Ones down here were black and hardly cowardly at all; they might have been dangerous for those outfitted with fewer great relics. Half-skeletal ghouls, the remains of mages given over to corruption, feasted on the decayed dust of the dead. Thaddeus crushed them all, and in the lowest level of the catacombs, he found the funerary shrine. Prior to interment, bodies were lain out for a period of mourning and praising of the dead. Now, the pool of cleansing, where the purest water was held for mourners, was a broken pit in the floor full of blood and corpses. Andariel had been thorough in her defilement. Huge doors led into the shrine itself.
Thaddeus opened the doors, and glared into the smoky darkness. Tainted Ones came to greet him, then Zombies, then a pack of Fallen Ones. More minions, and still more minions. Patience is a virtue, but Thaddeus had lost all he had. "ANDARIEL! Come out!"
Nothing moved in the shrine. "Andariel! Unless you crawl back into the Hell you came from, there is no place deeper than this. You cannot hide from me any longer! You can cower behind your slaves a few moments more, if that is your wish, but do not expect them to save you from me! So COME OUT, you worm-eaten whore!"
Huge, heavy footfalls suddenly pounded the floor. A voice wailed, |YOU MAGGOT! NONE DARE SPEAK THUS TO ME!!| and Andariel came into view. She was queen of the Succubi, and some of her chosen features might have been beautiful, on some other creature. When she spat, Thaddeus caught the green glob on the Umbral Disk. With demons, you never know what might be dangerous, and spiders do have a poisonous bite. Snarling, Andariel hurled a cloud of stinking green vapor from her bosom, then charged into battle, lashing out with her long talons.
The Umbral Disk caught the brunt of her attack; the Sparkling Mail protected Thaddeus from the rest. Andariel cried out in pain as the sparks shocked her; no, combat really wasn't her forte. Zealously, Thaddeus lashed out with Knell Striker, each blow slamming into her soft body, splattering red and green ichor over the shrine. Chitin and bone crunched as Thaddeus rained hit after hit upon her, blocking her return strikes with ease. Only the noisome vapor she put out had any lasting effect on him. The fight was brief, the end inevitable. Andariel wailed in despair as her body broke and her life bled out on the floor, finally collapsing and burning from the inside. A column of intense heat blasted up from her corpse as it burned to ash and dust. Looking up at the ceiling, Thaddeus noted the exquisite carvings there, now obscured by the huge scorch mark. Typical. Even while dying, she had to destroy one last thing of beauty.
Andariel's dying wail of agony could be heard over the whole pass. Something like a shudder passed through the land, and then, peace. Back in camp, all the corrupted Rogues began laughing. They were still laughing when Thaddeus returned; he wondered if he had stumbled into a madhouse. But the joy on their faces was unmistakable. It was relief, and release, and the resurgence of hope that made them laugh; the joy of madness ending.
When they saw him, Thaddeus became the object of the biggest group hug in the history of the sisterhood. He still didn't feel quite comfortable with it, but there really wasn't any way out of it. When he was able, Thaddeus told the Rogues he would have to leave. Diablo was on his way across the deserts, and pursuing him was vital. It would take Warriv's caravan a few minutes to get started, so Thaddeus went around the camp, saying his goodbyes. Avilli was there, and many other corrupted sisters, armed and ready to clean up the last of the beasts in their monastery. The scars on their faces and bodies would never heal, but their minds and souls seemed to have found some happiness again.
Kashya greeted Thaddeus with something almost not entirely unlike a smile. "You have been an inspiration. I mourn our dear sisters, but the sisterhood stands firm. And we owe much of it to you. Many of those here, would not be, if it wasn't for you."
"Good can be found in anyone, Kashya. Evil doesn't always win. Hope is the thing; none of us must ever lose it."
"Our life is renewed here, and some of my own views as well. I heard some of the things others said about me. Perhaps I have emphasized my Rogue's martial training overmuch."
"Faith is the shield that protects the mind, which is at least as important as the body when your foe can attack your soul. Though this does not mean they should be monks... I don't think they'd enjoy that very much."
"We are warriors, first and foremost." Kashya looked down, her voice lowered. "So many of the ones you brought back hated me so much. I have always been hard on them, to master their training, but I know now that created resentment. That hate was the greatest weapon the demons had to turn them."
Thaddeus nodded, understanding now. "Warriors you are, and great ones. But we are all human beings, and the joys of life are a part of our being. Perhaps you wished to turn them away from sin; but sin is a loss of balance, not life's pleasures."
Slowly nodding, Kashya smiled a bit again. "Is that why you don't take vows of chastity?"
Thaddeus's ears began to burn again. "Eh... well... something like that, yes..."
Before he could leave, Akara summoned Thaddeus to her tent. Ordering him to kneel before her, she took up his scepter. In view of all, Akara declared Thaddeus to have satisfied all the knightly requirements of his order by leaps and bounds, and let none contradict her word on the matter. With a touch to each shoulder, Thaddeus was declared a Knight of the Order of the Protectors of the Word, Champions of Zakarum, Hero of the People, and Preserver of the Light. Returning Knell Striker to him, Akara then ordered Thaddeus to get the heck out of camp and chase down Diablo. A more fitting ceremony could come later.