Thaddeus (Act II)
Yea, O people who dwell in this place,
Rejoice, for you shall weep no more.
The sounds of your cries, the wail of your
Children, the weeping of your widows,
Has come to me. Rain shall fall for the seed.
The oxen and asses will eat salted grain.
There will be majestic songs in the night,
And your hearts will skip like young lambs.
-- The Book of Haisin, c. 30, v. 19-26
After a short goodbye at the monastery, Warriv took the wagons on their long-overdue trek into the great desert of Aranoch. The journey is always dangerous, not only from the heat of the desert, but the ubiquitous bandits who roam the dunes and salt flats. Some of them are nothing more than the local nomads, who think anything they can take is theirs for the taking. Others are "civilized", but have no stomach for work and try to better themselves at the expense of their fellow men. The bandits were out in force this trip; they assaulted the caravan no less than four times. Warriv could never remember them being so ferocious.
The bandits came so often, Thaddeus was sure, because Diablo had gone through this area. Like a shadow trailing in his wake, corruption and doom were defiling the land and its creatures. The wells and oases were going dry, or black with poison. Many of the desert animals attacked them; several horses and people were stung by scorpions or snakes, and Thaddeus had to cleanse their bodies of the poison. As they approached Lut Gholein, a group of Sand Leapers, cliff-dwelling reptiles common in the desert, attacked. According to Warriv, Leapers are predatory, but these were larger than any he'd seen before, with enormous claws and a thick hide. They attacked as a pack; one would distract, the others would come in from behind.
On the journey across the desert, Warriv and the other merchants entertained each other with stories about their travels, and a lot of the talk centered on Lut Gholein. The port was the gateway to the west, the first port ships traveling from the rich old lands of the east come to. No ships had come across in recent years, but Lut Gholein was still important, as the mountainous terrain of the west often made transporting things by sea more economical than taking them over land. They were all eager to get there; Andariel had delayed them for a long time, and besides, their water was running out. Warriv thought the local well water might be drinkable if they boiled it first, but he didn't want to try unless they had to.
To Thaddeus's surprise, the caravan arrived at Lut Gholein without serious losses. Warriv assured him it was no surprise to anyone else. Over the years, he had led many caravans, some of which suffered great misfortune, but never when a Paladin accompanied them. Not only does the Paladin defend the merchants physically, but their prayers of restoration and cleansing can heal almost any injury. Thaddeus was just glad they'd made good time across the desert. According to the Rogues, Diablo went through the pass more than three weeks ago. Finding him before he dug up his brother Baal would be critical. To find him, Thaddeus would need to know where he was going.
The city of Lut Gholein was fairly large, larger than any of the towns Thaddeus had seen in Khanduras. There were also no farms surrounding it -- just empty dunes and rocky wastes. The city walls and buildings were made of baked mud bricks, sometimes painted colorfully but more often left the same drab tones as the desert soil. The people were a great contrast. Even the gate guards had robes of white and bright red. Beyond them, the people on the streets were brilliantly clothed in yellow, vibrant blue, crimson, beautiful purples and subtle pinks. No great cheer went up when the caravan pulled into the open gates, but a few local dignitaries (to judge by their beards) greeted them quietly. A young man, richly garbed and of noble bearing, was among them.
As he looked about the streets, Thaddeus wondered about the place. The "subtle pink" he'd seen earlier was more outspoken than he'd thought, on a rather unsubtle garment a young woman was wearing. A narrow strip of pink cloth was wrapped around the woman's chest, leaving her belly, shoulders, and most of her back completely bare; he'd misjudged the color because he was unaware that most of what he was seeing was flesh. Red satin trousers rode low on her hips, pressing close against her body with every movement and every breeze. A slit up the outside, from ankle to waist, was held together by a row of widely-spaced brass buttons, permitting the exposure of even more skin. Cheap-looking jewelry sparkled from her neck, bosom, and arms. Topping it all off, a veil over her face preserved her modesty.
As Thaddeus stared at this unencumbered vision, she noticed, and winked before moving on. After looking around to make sure she'd winked at him, he wondered what that could possibly have meant. Maybe she was laughing at his clothing; he was decked out in full armor, which was uncomfortably hot in the desert sun. Looking around, Thaddeus saw many of the town's citizenry were lightly dressed, even naked from the waist up. Perhaps the young woman's attire was simply sensible desert garb, and if Thaddeus thought it a bit revealing, he just had different standards. Nonetheless, even though it was very hot in the mail, Thaddeus wasn't about to change into local garb. For what he had to do, armor was the only appropriate fashion statement. Besides, that woman was still a bit suspect.
"Greetings." The noble young man he'd seen earlier had come over to greet him.
"Hail, noble lord," Thaddeus hastily bowed. "I am Thaddeus, and have come from afar, on a quest of great importance."
"Warriv has told me of your quest, Sir Thaddeus. I am Jerhyn, Sultan of Lut Gholein, and I bid you welcome to my fair port city. It is good to know you are here."
It was a bit jarring to hear the title attached to his name. In an objective way, he could see that defeating a lord of Hell in combat was a suitable test of valiance, and he deserved the title, but it would take a while to get used to it. "I am glad to be here, mighty sultan. Perhaps Warriv has also told you of what I seek?"
Jerhyn frowned, looking uncomfortable. "The dark wanderer he described did come to the city, perhaps 4 days ago. He came seeking knowledge of the location of the Tomb of Tal Rasha, and left when he discovered that the tomb is lost. Though he was peculiar, I did not attach any importance to his visit, until terrible things began to stalk the desert sands. The dead are rising from their tombs, and beasts unknown to these lands fill the night with alien calls. I must confess, I fear for my city."
Four days ago; at the Rogue Pass, Thaddeus had been behind by weeks. It was good to know he was catching up, but Thaddeus wondered what was delaying Diablo on his journey. Was he stopping along the way to raise demons, terrorizing the land? "You should not worry, my lord. Your walls are strong and well guarded, and your foe does not seek to destroy you at this time. If he is allowed to find what he seeks, then you must worry for all humanity."
"If only it were so simple," Jerhyn muttered. "The dangers outside these walls are great, and I hesitate to send you forth unadvised. You must speak to Drognan, my father's court wizard and the wisest man I know. He will be able to tell you much of what is happening. Oh, and many merchants about town have things for sale you might want. I would give you a tour, but I must inspect your caravan and then return to my palace."
"Thank you, my lord. May I visit you there again later?"
Hospitality is usually offered by a noble house to a visiting knight. So Thaddeus was a bit surprised when Jerhyn started at the suggestion. "Ah, no, please, you may stay at Elzix's inn, free of charge. His place is near the north gate, you will find him an excellent innkeeper and good company, besides. I am sorry, I cannot invite you into the palace right now. Things are... a bit of a mess."
A mess? Surely my lords' servants..."
"My servants are all gone, visiting their relatives. Ah, when the troubles began, they wanted to make sure their relatives who live outside the city were all right. I granted them leave to visit them, and they have not returned yet."
Now, Thaddeus was embarrassed. If all of Lord Jerhyn's servants were gone, he would have to wait on guests himself, not a position a sultan should be forced into. "I beg your pardon, mighty sultan, I had no idea. Your generosity impresses me deeply."
"I thank you for your understanding. And I nearly forgot: Atma, who keeps a tavern east of the market square, has been requesting my help on a matter of grave concern. While I cannot spare a single man to aid her, if you would do so, I would be grateful."
If Diablo was only a few days ahead of him now, Thaddeus probably had a little time to tour the city and see what services it had to offer. While the gifts of the church and that odd fellow from the Rogue's camp were of inestimable value, there were other things he might want or need for his quest. By the docks, several ships were moored, with sailors sitting about playing games of chance and skill. They said all ships had been ordered to stay in port until further notice. Apparently, Jerhyn was worried about travelers taking small demonic stowaways with them, something which has been known to happen. Though still a young man, Lord Jerhyn was well-advised in his rulership.
Moving up through the central market, Thaddeus saw many merchants peddling wares, from bright copper bowls to clothing of all sorts. Light and breezy was definitely the fashion here; certainly not like the staid garments the church favored for sons and daughters of Zakarum. Perhaps it was a bit dull, Thaddeus thought as he looked around, but making a display of the body could be a terrible distraction, even a temptation to stray from a balanced life. In one hour in Lut Gholein, he'd seen more skin than he had in years. Even the Rogues, who prefer to dress light so they can move quickly, would find some of the women here a bit untoward.
All of a sudden, an explosion ripped through a shop at the north side of the square. The shop held together, but smoke billowed out as a fire started inside. The people looked up... and after a moment, went back about their business. An old man stumbled out, coughing and waving the smoke away. Pulling on a handy rope, a sprinkle of water came down from pipes set in the shop's ceiling, extinguishing the fire. Judging from his preparedness and the unconcerned attitudes of his fellow citizens, this was not an uncommon occurrence, but Thaddeus decided to look and see if he needed help anyway.
"Greetings," Thaddeus said. The old man, muttering imprecations, didn't seem to hear him, and went back into his shop. Following him in, Thaddeus tapped him on the shoulder.
"Hah?" The old man whirled about, looking around, then up at Thaddeus. "Oh, hello! You'll have to pardon me, I'm a bit deaf."
"I would never have guessed," Thaddeus said, looking around at all the sooty blast marks decorating every inch of the shop's walls and ceiling. "You must be an alchemist."
"Lysander's the name! I'm the alchemist here; I make potions and things. Anything you might like, don't hesitate to ask."
"Thank you. Do you know where I might find a wizard named Drognan?"
"Lizard banes? Have you been having a problem with them? Pest control is a specialty of mine, but scorpions are the usual complaint." This might be harder than he thought. "I'll just have an antidote, then."
"Oh, for antique coats, you'd better go see that pack rat Elzix. He runs the inn near the north gate, and is forever selling old stuff off. I think he's trying to fence all the things he stole from other people's tombs when he was still a bandit!"
If he got anything he wanted out of this Lysander fellow, it would be by accident. "You've been very helpful. But I must be off. I bid you good day."
Friendly enough people, Thaddeus thought, but it would be better to find someone with two good ears to talk to. North of the square, past some houses and a magnificent palace, an inn called The Desert Rain sat directly against the north wall. Soldiers patrolling the walls could actually step down and walk on its roof. Elzix, the inn keeper, only had one good ear, and eye, and leg; he was the most mutilated person Thaddeus had ever seen smile.
The word "adventurer" has a lot of negative connotations to it, mainly because a lot of adventurers are nothing but bandits and thugs using a fancy name. "You look like you've seen a lot of adventure. It must have been a daring life."
"Daring isn't the word for it! I was the terror of the sands, no caravan ever got away from me! But that's over now. I'm too old, and too beat up to make a living like that. My days of adventure are behind me."
He spoke of it so openly and cheerfully, Thaddeus couldn't help but frown. "What do you think of the things roaming the deserts now?"
"I wouldn't go near them! The worst thing I've ever faced was an old tomb guardian, and it killed half my men after we'd put it down."
"You mean before."
"No, I mean after! They're poisonous. Not to be taken lightly."
"I see. Lord Jerhyn has told me I can take lodgings with you here."
Elzix smiled ingratiatingly. He was missing several teeth. "Anything Jerhyn says is ok by me! Remember, there's always cool wine and hot ladies at The Desert Rain."
Any port in a storm, but Thaddeus decided to keep his footlocker locked and hidden. Even if he didn't go raiding, Elzix might not have given up thievery completely. The shirt he was wearing looked suspiciously like one of Warriv's. Leaving the inn, Thaddeus wondered if he could somehow get into the palace unawares, and store his things there. It would be an inexcusable breach of etiquette, so he never really considered it. The city's north gate was right beside Elzix's inn, and a single guard stood there.
"Greetings. Could you tell me where I might find Drognan the wizard?"
"South of here, to the left, before you get to the inn. New in town?"
"Yes, I have only just arrived. I am Thaddeus."
"Greiz. Head of the Desert Eagles, the best damn merc unit in this desert."
He was wearing the same colors as the guards on the wall. "You and your men here are mercenaries, not town guards?"
"Don't ask me what's up with the town guards. They're all busy in the palace for some reason. Jerhyn hired my men to watch the gates for them. You look like you're here to do some adventuring."
"I suppose I am," Thaddeus reluctantly agreed. "Have you any advice?"
"Hire one of my men to watch your back. There's packs of monsters out there. You don't want to go up against them alone."
"You may be right. I hate to risk their lives on my own adventures, though. Perhaps I will take you up on that later, when I run into greater difficulties."
The wizard Drognan ran a small shop, selling magical wares such as staves and scepters. The shop was not very large, or particularly luxurious, as Thaddeus might have expected from someone wealthy enough to trade in such expensive enchantments. Perhaps Drognan understood the folly of ostentatious display; or he might not have many customers. The wizard himself greeted Thaddeus quietly.
"Hello. I understand you are responsible for banishing Andariel back to the burning Hells."
Word traveled quickly. "I am, though I had the assistance of the Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye."
"Impressive nonetheless. You will find many things here which may be of use to you. This scepter, for instance, will help you cleanse yourself of poison."
"That would be useful, but I am in possession of Knell Striker, the weapon of Saint Herven, with which he banished the --"
"Yes, I perceive that you are. Many of the creatures wandering the deserts now are the bodies of our ancestors, raised by evil spirits. The weapon you hold should be very useful. But poisonous insects are also common, and many of the living dead were embalmed with chemicals which make their touch poisonous."
Thaddeus could cure himself of poison, or visit Lysander's shop. Would visiting Lysander be safe? Probably not, but Knell Striker was such a wonderful gift, Thaddeus was reluctant to replace it. "That does sound dangerous. Carrying antidote potions with me would be wise, when moving against such foes."
Perhaps a bit miffed, Drognan nodded. "As you see fit."
"What do you know of the wanderer from the west, who came here 4 days ago?"
"He was very tall, had broad shoulders, came wrapped in a long cloak, and kept his face and body hidden from view. Of me, he asked the location of Tal Rasha's Tomb, and I told him rightly that I did not know, that no one knew anymore. He left the city, and I know nothing more of him or his travels."
They looked at each other. Thaddeus could tell Drognan suspected the wanderer's true nature, and he wasn't going to say what he thought to a stranger. The word of a Paladin means little to wizards, though history has shown magicians to be far less trustworthy where demons are concerned. "Thank you, great wizard. I shall remember your words."
Atma's tavern was just south of Drognan's shop. It was a large building, nearly the size of the palace; Thaddeus wondered how a drinking place could merit such a priority among the city's establishments. There wasn't a church in town. Inside, a dozen people sat at tables, drinking and playing with dice and cards. It wasn't much later than noon. At the back of the tavern, a beautiful young woman in very revealing clothing was standing next to a curtain which separated a small private area from the rest of the tavern. A door behind the bar led to a circular tower, perhaps the owner's living quarters. As Thaddeus looked around, with everyone in the tavern staring at him, a middle-aged woman in black came out of the door.
"Hello," she said. "Are you the one who came through the pass to the west?"
"Many have come through that pass," Thaddeus said suspiciously. "If you mean am I the one who banished the demon Andariel, yes. How may I help you?"
"If you could do that, you can help me. Excuse me. I am Atma. My husband and I used to run this tavern."
"Yes, my husband and son. A horrible thing has invaded the city sewers. It used to stalk the city at night, kidnapping and killing, until Greiz and his men bottled it up down there. But they were unable to kill it. My family was among its victims."
Thaddeus nodded. So, the city was under attack on two fronts, from without and from beneath. No wonder Jerhyn hired Greiz. "Then the sewers are where I must go next. They should be easier to explore than the desert outside."
"I hesitate to ask this of you. I do not think you would approve."
"There is a threat to the people of this city, which must be dealt with. If I could do so without killing the thing, I would do so, but that may not be possible."
"I want you to kill it. I want it to suffer like I have."
Thaddeus slowly nodded. "It may not be possible to make it suffer. Tell me..." Thaddeus gestured to the young woman at the back, and in a low voice, asked, "Why is she here?"
Atma looked at her for a moment. "She is my cook. The kitchens are back there."
"Ah, thank you. I had wondered, as I did not smell any food."
"Lunch hour hasn't begun yet. She will be busy soon. Won't you?" The woman nodded to Atma, and disappeared into the back.
Perhaps I am growing too suspicious, Thaddeus thought as he left. The way that woman had been standing there, next to the relative privacy of that curtained-off area, he really wondered just what she was doing. She certainly didn't look like a cook, they wear aprons. Well, maybe she hadn't put hers on yet. The way she was dressed wasn't unusual for the city of Lut Gholein, there was no cause to wonder. Even if there was, what was he going to say? He was here on a mission to save their bodies, not just their souls.
After this, at the Abbey of St. Maccabee,
A great multitude of the dead rose up, as the
Prophecy had warned. Baham died of his wounds,
None was there to save them. Ghrab Thaar
Was there, mighty weapon of the holy saint.
The hungering dead came there, despoiling all.
The blessed relic was kept by destroying it in fire,
With all who were there, to keep their bodies
From the corruption of the fearless dead. Faith
And their sacrifice lay waste to countless legions,
And the blessing went out into the whole world.
-- Chronicles of Zakarum, c. 30, v. 10-21
"You looking for something?" the mercenary guard asked.
"A monster. I have been told one is down there."
The guard laughed mirthlessly. "I'm supposed to stop you from going in, you know. If you want to, it's your funeral. Probably won't be one, though."
"Others have entered before this?"
"Every now and then, some idiot grabs a pigsticker and tries to play hero. Sometimes we find the bodies in the bay, with pieces missing."
"Cut up with a sharp knife. One was skinned."
Thaddeus nodded. An intelligent monster, then. "Will you stop me?"
"Hey, anybody wants to be stupid, I figure: let 'em."
"A simple philosophy. Experience is the best teacher, and very harsh for students unable to grasp her lessons. I will see you in a little while."
Marching in against the flow of the city's ordure, Thaddeus wrinkled his nose in disgust. His usual habits of cleanliness were sorely tested back in the pass, but this was even worse. Deeper in the sewers, a platform beside the main stream allowed him to walk up out of the sewage. About this time, the first fiery arrow whizzed past his head. Up ahead, visible by the light of their own burning bones, was a group of skeletal archers, mechanically firing arrow after burning arrow. The Burning Dead are one of Diablo's favorite troops. Not very powerful, it is easy for him to animate many of them at a time. The Burning Dead are more dangerous than unenhanced Skeletons in combat, and by tapping into the primal fear of fire, even more terrifying to those who behold them. The flames that flicker over those dead bones grant them some resistance to extreme temperature changes, but they are still very vulnerable to being broken apart with a club.
The upper levels of the sewers were full of Burning Dead, as well as some strange tall man-like creatures with four arms. In each hand, they carried long blades made of some very sharp crystal, but they were quite cowardly. After clearing the sewers, Thaddeus found an entrance to a deeper level. While he was not an architect, he did wonder why a sewer would need more than one level. His equipment had also taken some damage from smashing through all those dry bones. As he took a moment to clean up, it occurred to him that he hadn't seen a smith in town. Surely, a city this size had to have at least one.
In the market square, in a section he hadn't looked in, Thaddeus found a smithy. All the excitement at Lysander's had distracted him, so he hadn't seen it. The smith wasn't there at the moment. Cain was standing by the square's well; the old man insisted on accompanying Thaddeus across the desert, despite the danger. If he was guilty about surviving Tristram's fall when everyone else died, he shouldn't have been, and the Rogues would have been glad to shelter him in their monastery. But Cain was sure he could somehow be of service, and Thaddeus didn't have the heart to refuse him. At least, unlike a hired bodyguard, Thaddeus could be sure he would stay in town where it was mostly safe.
"Hello, Cain. Is the smith out at lunch?"
"No, she left just before you arrived. A strange woman."
A woman? Almost all smiths are men; to find two female ones in short order was very strange. With Charsi, it wasn't so surprising; the Rogues are all women. Besides, she was the beefiest girl he'd ever seen. "She's like Charsi, then?"
"Not in any way I can see," Cain frowned. "A slender woman, with long red hair she does not tie back, and no apron to protect her clothing. I did speak with her; an aura of sadness hangs over her, deeper than I might expect from a lonely desert maiden."
Curiouser and curiouser. Not that Thaddeus suspected anything wrong; there just seemed to be a lot of inexplicable things going on in this city. "Is there another smith? I would like to have some work done."
"There does not seem to be. Most of the merchants here sell clothing, earthenware, jewelry, and other such things. Ah, there she is now!"
Thaddeus looked behind him. A red-haired woman was peering around the corner of the smithy. She startled when he looked at her, then came out into view; Thaddeus would have sworn she looked guilty. Or embarrassed? "Hello. Please, don't be alarmed."
"Hello, brother. I am not afraid. I was just... coming back from... where I was."
Brother? "I was hoping you would repair my worn equipment."
Fara nodded, and Thaddeus handed her the Umbral Disk, scratched from the impact of many fiery arrows. She obviously recognized it, and handled it with reverence. "This is an item of great power. You must be an important man."
Thaddeus watched as she went to work. She was far less bulky than Charsi, but her long arms were deceptively strong. So careful was her work, she never burned her clothing, nor did her long hair get in the way. "I do not think so, sister; I was in a place at a time when I was needed, and was able to rise to the task. How is it that you come to be here, I wonder? I notice you have not asked my name."
"You have not asked mine either."
"Your ways seem... familiar, sister. I do not feel I need to address you by name."
She stopped working, leaning over her anvil. "Is it so obvious?"
"You are a follower of Zakarum, I perceive. You have trained with sword and shield. Even in your craft, you work with care and precision."
She kept her back to him, staring at the filthy floor of her smithy. "My name is Fara. Once I was a Paladin, in the east. Your name is known to everyone in the city."
"You have come from Kurast?" Thaddeus asked.
"Yes. A few years ago."
"How fares the church, in Kurast? Very little has been heard in the west."
Fara paused before answering. "The church stood, when last I saw it. Any further word does not reach us here."
The Protectors split away years ago, objecting to the growing intolerance and brutality infecting the church. Khanduras might not receive news, but surely Lut Gholein would see travelers from Kurast. "You do not go to see the ships from Kurast?"
"Ships do not come from Kurast. Nothing does anymore."
Thaddeus slowly nodded. "Except a few who escape?"
Fara did not answer. As she went back to work on the shield, Thaddeus saw a teardrop fall on the iron. "Much has changed in the east, but it take too long to describe it all."
Pressing the matter seemed pointless, for now. Thaddeus had his things repaired, paid Fara, and went back to the sewers. In the third level below the city, groups of preserved bodies shambled about, and Skeleton Mages cast fiery bolts at him. They were joined by packs of cat people, wielding whips and curved knives. How did these creatures get into the sewers under the city? Especially the cat people; surely, they needed to eat. Hmm... it might explain why not all the "heroes" who went into the sewers came out again. He'd seen a body or two, here and there, but not many.
Outside an empty sewer node, Thaddeus ran across a pack of blackened Horrors. These are Skeletons so burnt and baked by heat and electricity, they are nearly immune to the natural elements. They're still vulnerable to being bashed to bits with a club, though. The first one Thaddeus took down brought faint laughter echoing into the tunnels. Dark tendrils of magic swirled out, the bones swirled up into their former shape, and attacked again. Something back there, probably the "monster" Atma spoke of, could resurrect fallen minions. Shamans can be so annoying. Thaddeus knew the drill; fade back, striking down underlings a few at a time, then move around them and charge the shaman.
Fortunately, the sewer node was well lit, with several lamps. Thaddeus saw the monster, and the rest of its entourage, well before he was committed to his attack. The thing was some kind of undead, made of a patchwork of parts. The bones were human, mostly, bound together with longer animal bones, increasing the thing's height. Dried flesh clung to the bones, except in places where the skin looked much, much fresher. Behind it were a dozen more Skeletons, including several mages. As one, they all began casting bolts of elemental energy, while the monster hurled bolts of black negative force.
Looking over the situation, Thaddeus decided a straight charge might not be his best option. Thinning the herd would be a more sensible approach. Turning around, Thaddeus stumbled back out of the node, loudly gasping with pain at every magical bolt. Retreating to a corner, he waited out of sight as the Skeletons came to get him. All shamans have to see their dead underlings to raise them. After a short while, Thaddeus felt the situation would be easier to manage, so he charged back in and hit the thing hard, smashing it back into the wall.
Despite its patchwork nature, the monster was surprisingly sturdy. Its leathery flesh was sewn together with sturdy wire and layers or reinforcing magic. In addition to spells, it could also gasp out the powdery remnants of its dried-up lungs; the tissue was full of poisonous chemicals. Even after snapping in half from many repeated blows, it kept moving; Thaddeus had to crush every bit of it to lay it to rest. This thing was like nothing Thaddeus had ever heard of from Hell; obviously, it was made from pieces of many dead creatures, joined and infused with unholy life. Perhaps it was something new to the world; he would have to write more letters to his order describing it.
In the monster's lair, Thaddeus found pieces of human bodies: organs, bones, and muscles all sliced out with surgical precision. Next to a worktable soaked with gore, a suit made from a haphazard collection of human skins hung from the ceiling, not quite complete. The sight was chilling, both for the materials, and the implications. This leathery covering wouldn't fool anyone into thinking the monster was a man; its height alone precluded that. Did the thing want to walk among humanity? Thaddeus looked around some more. It had a library, full of tomes from the era of the Horadrim. The owner had written his name on the endpapers of many of the volumes: Radament. Thaddeus took all the books and scrolls with him when he went back up to the city. And the thing's head.
Everyone was glad to see Thaddeus, and know the thing was dead. Jerhyn was pleased and relieved; the monster had obviously been a great worry to him. Atma was very glad, but Thaddeus tried not to pay her joy much mind. When something has to die, it is best to kill it quickly and not gloat; no good comes from that. Cain told Thaddeus that the Horadrim used to "mummify" their dead. Mummification was traditional in this area; the body was prepared with poisonous preservatives, and could remain inviolate in a dry tomb for centuries. Part of the Horadrim "mummification" process incorporated parts of animals and magical amulets into the body, to increase the power of the undead being they were creating. That way, Cain explained, the dead mage would be able to guard his own tomb against invaders. The sewer monster was probably Radament, an ancient Horadrim mage, but he was far away from his own tomb. Why he had come to the sewers, and what he was doing with all those body parts, was a complete mystery.
Thaddeus was deeply shocked. Deliberately making an undead creature was the sheerest folly; making it as powerful as possible only compounded the error. Yet, no one in the city seemed to think anything of it. Drognan even outlined his own mummification wishes in his will. In complete disbelief, Thaddeus even went so far as to ask one of the drunken sots in Atma's tavern his opinion of the old tradition.
"Oh, I dunno," the huge, slovenly brute said. "I don't like all that living dead stuff."
"Exactly! Why on earth do you make such creatures, and consider it an act of reverence for the dead?"
"No, you got it all right! All wrong, I mean. They're our anshest... our incestors... our foreborers... our parents. They're not gonna hurt us."
"The living dead certainly are attacking the living," Thaddeus reminded him.
The sot made a sputtering noise. "Scary, huh? Our incestors have fallen."
Thaddeus nodded. "They've been calling the monster 'Radament the Fallen.'"
"Dunno why. I've fallen lots of times, and they never call me 'Geglash the Fallen.' Maybe they say, 'Geglash! You've fallen!' But I can figure that out for myself. Sometimes."
Arguing against ancient, respected customs is rarely fruitful. Particularly when you try to argue with someone whose mind wanders this much. "Many ancient practices must have seemed harmless, in their day. I'll leave you to your drinking now. Try not to have too much, Atma may need you to throw someone through a window tonight."
"Oh, I do that better when I'm drunk! When I'm sober, I always remember to check if the shutters are open first, and sometimes they get away."
Talking with a fool is folly. They lower the conversation to their level, then outmatch you with their greater experience. The sewers were empty; clearing them took all afternoon and into the evening. Before long, it would be dark, and Thaddeus would rather start his search for Diablo in daylight. Besides, the books from Radament's lair intrigued him. Cain had quickly borrowed them; he'd read anything, but those dusty tomes practically made him salivate. Most of the books looked like the usual tomes of science and magic, but Thaddeus had seen a few that looked like religious texts.
The first was a Skatsimi text, with the references to the undead circled and notes made in the margins. Radament obviously had been looking for useful information, not enlightenment. The next was an early copy of the Chronicles of Zakarum; glancing through it, Thaddeus saw the text was not quite the same as the version he had studied with. Had there been errors of copying? He'd have to save it, and get it to his order for study. The third book was a real find, something he never expected to see; a book thought to be lost, all known copies destroyed. There, in his hands, was a copy of Saint Maccabee's Book of the Hammer. The text outlined the way of the Hammer, one of the most spiritually demanding paths a warrior of the light could follow. In ages past, Hammer Paladins were the mightiest of all who fought for the church of Zakarum, drawing on the power of Ghrab Thaar, Saint Maccabee's mighty hammer. Having this holy book come to him, at such a time, amazed Thaddeus. Could this possibly be a sign?
Praises be to the Light eternal!
We build, protect, and honor.
The hammer on the chisel
Shapes the stone for the wall.
The hammer against the nail
Holds the beam o'er the child.
Blessed Hammer, from my hand,
Move against the foes of light!
-- The Book of the Hammer, c. 1, v. 1-8
As he sat there, staring at the book's cover, Cain glanced over from his chosen text. "You seem to have found something interesting."
"This is a piece of Zakarumite scripture, thought to be lost."
"Ah!" Cain said, glancing at the cover. "The Book of the Hammer. A rarity indeed! There must be all manner of interesting things hidden in Lut Gholein's many ancient tombs."
"This may be the last copy in the world. I would love to read it."
Cain laughed. "You will not damage it. Radament's tomb has kept these books very well. Go ahead. A book is meant to be read!"
One of Thaddeus' teachers told him that when faced with a quandary, go to a holy book and open it at random. Meditate on the first passage of scripture your eyes light upon. That will usually resolve your dilemma. Here was a holy book. The pages did not feel brittle; it would not fall apart if he opened it once. Casually, he opened it, and his eyes found: "To use thy chisel blunts its edge. Not to use it wastes its edge utterly." Things are meant to be used. Even a relic like Knell Striker is valuable only in use. Left in a cathedral reliquary, the finest scepter might as well be nothing but sticks and lead. Cain was right; a book is meant to be read. That is its use.
However, he should not be the only one to read this book. Chisels can be resharpened, but the Book of the Hammer contains knowledge, which cannot be discovered again so easily. Before starting into the text, Thaddeus drafted letters, one to Akara, telling her he had arrived safely and of his discovery, and another to the head of his order, with more detail about the book. Across town, Warriv was buying raw iron and steel, hides for leather, and other raw materials the Rogues could use.
"Ah, hello there!" Warriv smiled. "I'll be returning after I've made some purchases, to outfit the Rogues more properly. Just let me know if you want to tag along."
"I would be indebted if you would carry my words with you," Thaddeus said, entrusting the letters to him. "I have made what may be an important discovery."
"So soon? No wonder everyone's talking about you! But after all you did back at the pass, I'm not surprised."
"Fortune has been with me, but it is best never to rely on it. If my luck should change, others must be able to follow in my steps. When will you be leaving?"
"In a few days. There are a lot of things the Rogues need. You know, I've gotten a lot of letters to carry west. Do you think they've missed us?"
Hopefully, nothing would happen to Warriv on the way back; Thaddeus could not go with him this time. Maybe hiring guards would be a good idea, if they could be spared. The only thing he could do was make sure there were guards to spare, by reducing the threat from outside the walls. In the morning, he would start; the sun had set, it was getting cold and dark, and he didn't want to start exploring the desert at night. Elzix had a rule against burning lights in tenant's rooms; the inn was very old could burn down easily. More likely, he didn't want to risk any of the magic items stored there. For reading, Atma's tavern was well-lit, and things never got too loud or boisterous, so Thaddeus sat down in a back corner to study.
The Book of the Hammer was one of the shortest pieces of scriptures Thaddeus ever read, only 18 pages. Even going through slowly and carefully, he read the whole thing three times before going to sleep. On the surface, the way of the Hammer looked surprisingly simple. The only martial technique was invoking the spiritual hammer, a combination of mana and the diffused energy of Maccabee's Hammer. The description sounded like summoning a Holy Bolt. Unlike Holy Bolts, the spiritual hammer seemed to be an effective offensive weapon, as the Hammerdins of old were some of the greatest fighters the church had. Much of the book was devoted to a rather stern code of conduct the Hammerdins were expected to observe, and some spiritual philosophy. That would need more contemplation; Thaddeus felt he already knew enough to call on the Hammer.
Come morning, Thaddeus prepared his equipment and himself, then sallied forth from Lut Gholein's north gate. At first, all was just flat, rocky wastes, with a few vultures flying high up in the sky, looking for something dead. A short distance from the gates, Thaddeus came upon a large slab of stone, covered with archaic writing, now mostly buried in the desert sands. Near it, half sunken, a gigantic head rested, with a curly beard, conical helm or hat, and a smile of utmost benevolence. The time of these antique things was obviously long past. A dead body, one of Greiz's mercenaries by the look of him, stained the sand next to the head. He wasn't long dead, but none of the vultures had come near him. Strange.
Looking up, Thaddeus saw the vultures coming down. Each one had four legs, as well as wings, and their eyes were locked on him, not the more convenient corpse. Ah, he thought, no wonder; this one's been dead for much too long, they want something fresher. Demonic meddling with living creatures can physical change them in many ways, but the motivations given to the afflicted animals are very predictable. As Thaddeus moved away from the stone head, the vulture demons landed and stalked towards him on foot. Perhaps they were too heavy and ungainly in flight to dive at a victim, unlike the smaller Blood Hawks found in Khanduras. When enough had landed, Thaddeus stopped running, concentrated, and flung his arm out to summon a blessed hammer.
Just as the scripture said, a small bronze hammer spun away from Thaddeus' hand, whirling around his body. As it spun, it moved further away from him, eventually reaching the vulture demons. The spinning hammer smashed through the group of demons, scattering and tossing them before it, before continuing blindly on its way. Eventually, it came around Thaddeus again, but the vultures had moved now, and were inside its arc. He backed up a bit, and let another hammer go; it moved much the same as the first, hitting each vulture at most once before they had moved out of its path. Some it did not hit at all, instead passing on their right, left, before or behind them. Satisfied, Thaddeus beat the vultures to death normally.
Blessed Hammer was indeed powerful; even two hits from the hammer had greatly hurt those vultures, who were fairly tough as demons go. But it spun blindly about, undirected. The random nature of the attack bothered Thaddeus; he valued precision and discipline in war. While he did not expect the hammer to fight for him, he had hoped it would be easier to aim and direct. Perhaps that was why the Hammerdin's path required such stern discipline; the Paladin must choose his position and await the right moment. It is not a sorcerous attack; a sorcerer can simply stand there and unleash blast after blast at his foes. Blessed Hammers would require careful positioning and timing to get the best use of them.
As he moved further into the deserts, Thaddeus experimented with Blessed Hammer. Large rocks would stop the hammer, so it would be useless in narrow areas. Having more than one hammer spinning through an area greatly confused the demons, with so many attacks to try to avoid. The hammers would not harm him, so he could walk through battlefield without worrying about them. Sometimes, Thaddeus could send the hammers spinning and stroll from demon to demon almost unchallenged. But much of the time, Thaddeus did not use the hammers. As he got deeper into the desert, the demons were growing more dangerous, and he was quite unskilled with them. While back in town, Thaddeus stopped to ask Cain about some of the demons, but Cain had something for him first.
"Ah, there you are! I have just found this scroll among the treasures you brought from Radament's lair. This is an important find!"
Thaddeus smiled. Cain thought just about everything was important, or at least worth telling him about for hours. "There is something I wish to ask you about..."
"This is a Horadric scroll!" Cain smiled triumphantly.
"Wasn't Radament a Horadrim mage, so every scroll he had would be a Horadric scroll?"
Cain thought for a moment. "That is most probably true! In fact, the wealth of knowledge you have brought to us with may be the greatest treasure anyone could find! The return of the glories of our past, tempered by the hard experiences suffered since then, could..."
Now that Cain was started, Thaddeus could look at the scroll himself and see what it was without wasting too much time. It was written in glyphs. "Ah, Cain, what is this?"
"... in the 4th decade of the Moon King's rule, so he was... ah? Oh, yes, the scroll! This is a description of Tal Rasha's tomb, where Tal Rasha and Baal are kept imprisoned!"
"There is someone in the tomb with Baal?"
"Don't you know about this?" Cain asked. "You seemed... well-read, I thought."
On secular history, Thaddeus' learning was a bit weak. But if Cain knew that, he'd never hear the end of it. "Cain, what's in the tomb?"
"It says here, that to safeguard the tomb, it can only be opened with a Horadric Staff, the mystical weapon of a great Horadrim mage. There is an inner chamber, you see, where Tal Rasha and Baal were entombed together, to wrestle for all eternity."
Thaddeus vaguely recall hearing about that. "So Diablo could not open the inner chamber without one of these staves? Or could a demon lord as great as Diablo simply smash his way into the chamber by brute force?"
"Well... to use an analogy, the staff is the key for a lock. But many locks can simply be broken. Hmm. Well, the Horadric Staves were all broken centuries ago, to prevent anyone from opening the way to Baal."
"However, if Diablo does not need a staff, you might, to reach the inner chamber. If he is there, with no one to challenge him, he will be able to free his brother. If you were find the pieces of a staff, they could be repaired with a Horadric Cube."
That could not be allowed. "A Horadric Cube?"
"An alchemical device, used for transformations and transmutations."
Thaddeus looked at Lysander's shop, still smoking from something unsuccessful he'd done earlier. "Let me guess: most of them have been destroyed over the ages?"
"I fear so." Cain thought for a moment. "Many Horadrim originally came from this area. There may be others entombed here and there. Have you found any tombs yet?"
"Just one, full of the foulest demons and undead creatures. I wanted to ask you about something: I have met groups of humanoid felines, which attacked me. They are in league with the demons, and I do not recall any account of such creatures in the deserts, but their bodies do not seem twisted. They are in their natural shape."
"There are tales of Saber Cats, a species of felinoid men from Kurast. I cannot know how any would come to be in the deserts. Being jungle creatures, they would have difficulty surviving in the barren wastes."
Another creature from Kurast, here where it should not be. "Thank you, Cain. I shall keep an eye out for anything Horadric."
As he trudged across the dunes, Thaddeus began to feel the weight of his armor under the heat of the desert sun. There were oases here and there, with trees he could rest under, but the monsters seemed to congregate there too. The swarms of insects were the worst; they had a way of crawling into the armor with one mind, biting and stinging. Finding a tomb was almost a blessing, even if they were full of undead, more mummies than you could shake a scepter at. The open areas of the tombs gave him ample opportunity to practice with Blessed Hammer; it was very effective against the undead. The hammers smashing through everything but a stone wall helped a little against the big Horadric mummies, who resurrected lesser undead. It was still more efficient to distract the lesser ones and charge the greater; with more practice, Thaddeus was sure he could make better use of the hammers.
This particular tomb complex was extensive and very deep; many of Lut Gholein's citizens must have been entombed here. Sarcophagi were everywhere, ordinary mummified people, others so old they were completely skeletal, and every now and then, one of the Horadric mummies. Whatever creature had donated the bone for their hand scythes, Thaddeus did not want to meet. They must have been three feet long, and sharp. The Horadrim's heads had been replaced with crocodile heads; how did they keep their own brains, Thaddeus wondered? An idle thought; he wasn't about to go over the corpse to find out.
In the darkest deeps of the tombs, fuzzy bats hung from the ceiling. Though strangely cute, these were Lightning Bats, denizens of Hell's outer reaches. One tomb held another surprise: giant beetles, standing the height of a man on two of their six limbs. These creatures were slow moving, but looked very heavily armored and tough. When Thaddeus hit one, lightning spat out; he began to regret neglecting his defensive disciplines, which included resistance to electricity. By backing up, then charging and hitting hard, he was able to knock them down without suffering too much damage himself.
One room in particular was full of the tomb's worst denizens. A group of javelin-hurling Saber Cats, a swarm of bats, and a pack of Horadrim Mummies filled the room. One Horadrim was bad enough; Thaddeus was forced to retreat. A horde of lesser undead came out after him, joined by the cats. Luring them a short distance away to a pillared hallway, he used the pillars to hide from the javelins while smashing the skeletons. The cats were much easier to deal with afterwards; then the bats, and finally the Mummies. Dividing and conquering was as good a strategy as ever. The tomb held a great deal of treasure, as well as a strange box. A cube-shaped box. How curious that Cain should have told him about Horadric Cubes, and he would find this almost immediately.
The box was a Horadric Cube. By pressing two catches on opposite sides of the box, the sides fell away from each other and the box opened into a cross shape. Even though the closed box was no larger than a helm, you could pack swords, long bows, even a spear into the box and close it up again. Watching the objects as they were folded up, then unfolded, was fascinating. They were also protected inside the box: you could put a chunk of granite, a honeycomb, and an egg inside the cube, and nothing would be crushed or befouled by the other things. All sorts of things could be transformed with the cube; three small gemstones could be made into a single larger one; potions could be transmuted. And most important, broken objects could be rejoined into a single whole.
Thaddeus had collected a lot of gemstone chips. They were useful, if placed in equipment socketed to hold them, but bigger gems had stronger effects. Nothing he was using had sockets, but now that he had a few good-quality gems, he might find a use for some new equipment. But when he opened his footlocker, he found something strange. Nothing was missing, Elzix had not come to visit. Someone had added a few things, and a note:
Congratulations on the whole Horadric Cube thing! Yes, you were meant to find that little item, it will be very helpful for you. As a kind of reward for being such a good boy, we've decided to hold Christmas early this year! No need for a midnight mass, but here's a couple of presents. The scepter isn't perfect, but it's the best we could do. The shield word is "Ral-Ort-Tal", the Pledge of the Ancient Ones. You can send your old stuff back with Warriv. There's a cathedral reliquary that could sure use those shinies. Good luck with the hammers, they sure are fun, aren't they?
-- The Mule
Be not sad, all those who suffer on this earth,
Whose hands are frustrated and see no success.
He who is wounded, hands will bind him up.
In time of famine, he is redeemed from death.
Do not fear wrath or the scourge of the tongue,
The scepter shall rise for your defense in war.
When evil comes to you, know good may as well
And all that was taken away may yet return.
-- The Book of Radenis, c. 5, v. 17-24
These were wonderful gifts, there was no denying it. All the same, Thaddeus couldn't help but wonder where they'd come from, and why they were given to him. Judging from the tone, the note must come from the same man who'd given him the Sparkling Mail; obviously he was far more powerful and knowledgeable than he'd let on at first. As far as he could remember, Thaddeus hadn't told anyone he'd been experimenting with Blessed Hammer. Cain knew, he'd seen the book, but didn't know anything about Thaddeus' benefactor. Perhaps this was a blessing from above, by an unexpected messenger. All the angels he'd heard of in legends sounded quite different, but this might be a lesser celestial being.
Or possibly... an infernal being? Thaddeus could see nothing wrong with the items, no hidden spirits or unseeen traps. Perhaps Fara could help. He'd been looking for a chance to speak with her again, and this would be an excellent opportunity.
"Hello, Fara. May I ask your opinion about some things?"
"I would be honored."
"This War Scepter came to me, and this shield. Have you seen such things before?"
Slowly, Fara examined them, then shook her head. "Not in this part of the world. When I was in Kehjistan..."
For a long moment, she was silent. Whenever the lands across the Twin Seas came up, Fara tended to go quiet. Sensing that she wouldn't be ready to talk about it yet, Thaddeus said, "I wondered if there was anything wrong with them."
"I cannot see anything. The shield is a wonder, a great rarity. This scepter I would consider adequate at best; you could find better."
"What do you mean? It seems quite a good weapon to me."
Fara smiled a bit. "This scepter increases your skills, but those you gain the most in are not the best. There are few other advantages to using it as a weapon."
Thaddeus nodded. "I would think Blessed Hammer, and Concentration, very useful skills, and of great value."
"When I went forth with the Hand of Zakarum, the blessing of the light I found most useful was Fanaticism. Calling up the vengeful spirits of Paladins past is far superior to simple zeal. And while this scepter is quick in the hand, I always favored the sword or lance."
"Charging with a great spear is a devastating attack."
"Absolutely." Combat and weapons seemed to be a safe subject; Fara was starting to open up. "No one calls on the Hammers of Maccabee anymore. In ages past, all Paladins were masters of concentration, and the Hammers were very powerful. Now, all you will find are fanatics, who strike with the speed and vigor born of unthinking certainty."
"Must fanaticism cloud the mind?" Thaddeus inquired.
"It often does." Fara's eyes were flashing, her voice rising as she spoke. "The weakness of concentration is that you must be sure of what you concentrate upon. It is a great help for you and others, but it is slow. A fanatical warrior is a frightening opponent; it makes combat quicker, and easier. After all, our goal is to deal with the enemy quickly, yes?"
"Yes! There is no need to think of who we were striking down, of what crimes they are accused. Fanaticism is the enemy of thought -- flail away at whatever moves, as you are instructed. For those who survive, death comes more slowly, but there is no need to worry about that either. They are possessed by..." Suddenly Fara stopped, and dropped her head to stare at the floor, her face flushing nearly as red as her hair.
"Yes, well..." Thaddeus shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. "Surely, even a fanatic has calmer moments, and may consider their actions while at peace."
Returning to examining the shield, Fara nodded. "But some avoid it, even when they can, lest they come to realize just what they are doing. This shield is very impressive; it would be difficult to find its better. The scepter will serve. Where did you find them?"
"In my room. Someone left them for me."
Fara blinked with surprise. "These are very valuable things. I could not begin to pay you what they are worth. They were simply given to you?"
"Yes," Thaddeus shrugged. "By a pale, thin man, who I had seen earlier, I believe. He also gave me the Sparkling Mail, which I now wear."
"I had noticed," Fara said, staring. "I have not seen this man here in Lut Gholein."
"I suspect he has not actually been here."
"Then how did he place these in your room?"
Thaddeus shrugged. "It is a mystery. That is why I wished your opinion."
Slowly, Fara nodded. "Perhaps you have been favored by a higher power."
"I have wondered, but worried more that I might be misled by a false light."
"But no one has tried to dissuade you from your quest?"
"I have been given tools, and knowledge of ages past to help me. Perhaps they were given with the intention of distracting me, encouraging greed or pride in my heart. The ways of Hell can be subtle; is evil ever more seductive than when it is useful?"
"Yes," Fara said. "When evil gives you the goal you put your life towards."
That was a disturbing idea, Thaddeus thought as he returned to the desert. Something truly terrible must have happened to the Hand of Zakarum. To judge from what Fara said, a new fanaticism that had overtaken the Paladins there, and much suffering resulted. The order of Protectors guessed as much, especially when no word came from the east for years. But Fara had come from the east more recently, and from what she said, there was evil there... giving her the goal she put her life towards? Shuddering, Thaddeus strode out through the dunes towards a large oasis. The Protectors saw the service of man and the Light differently than the Hand of Zakarum, but surely evil could not take hold among them.
As he approached a pool of stagnant water, tight swarms of biting flies come to meet him, as well as a crowd of vultures. The vultures were green and dried out; Thaddeus was sure they had eaten nothing but undead flesh, or were already dead themselves. His new scepter should greatly increase the power of the Blessed Hammer, so he set a few hammers whirling, moving a few steps to unleash each from a different spot. The bronze hammers spun and spiraled out, blasting through the insect swarms and striking the vultures dead on the spot. Very shortly, Thaddeus was surrounded by corpses; he never needed to raise his hand to any of them.
Throughout the oasis, the story was much the same. Demons come out. The hammers ring around him. The demons all fall down dead. Clearing the oasis went very quickly, except for a ruined house whose walls stopped the hammers. Inside, a group of Lightning Scarabs laired, and their chief was resistant to magic. This made the hammers far less useful, so Thaddeus lured them out and killed them with a series of charges. Bouncing from one to another, Thaddeus kept them separated, avoiding the lightning and preventing them from coordinating their attacks until all were dead. It was all so easy. Once, he caught himself thinking, 'Yea, though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I shall not fear evil, because I am the most dangerous bastard in the whole valley.' Now, what would the other Paladins think of that?
Soon, the oasis was empty of life, even unlife, apart from Thaddeus and whatever innocent animals had survived the demonic occupation. Even the scorpions seemed pleased to see them gone. All that was left was a round hole in the sand, leading to a tunnel. The tunnel sides were sand cemented together with some kind of slime. The result was almost as strong as stone, so the narrow tunnel could go very deep into the ground. Thaddeus thought about certain insects he'd seen, which dig a hole, then dart out to attack passing prey. Nothing leapt out as he approached the hole, so he went inside.
The first thing Thaddeus found in the tunnels was a human body, thoroughly covered with slime, cemented to the floor. It seemed to be dissolving, like the slime was digesting it. This was not a sign of anything good. As he ventured into the tunnels, he had to crawl on hands and knees, the ceiling was so low. Down here, the hammers would do him little good; there was no room for them to spin. He'd have to rely on his new scepter exclusively as a weapon. After a short distance, he found one of the things that made the tunnels: a gigantic insect, easily 10 feet long, with legs everywhere and a fat body covered with chitinous plates as hard as stone. It spat a stream of poisonous slime, then retreated to cover a group of pulsing, throbbing eggs with its body.
There could be no doubt about identifying this thing. Accounts of Hell had mentioned them many times, horrible things called Maggots. The eggs they lay mature with unnatural speed, hatching into ferociously hungry young. The mother creature, meanwhile, busies herself laying more eggs. The horde one mother can produce will quickly overrun many opponents, if she and her eggs are not dealt with. The tunnel conformed to the Maggot's body shape: low but wide. Thaddeus barely had enough room to swing his weapon; any narrower or lower, and killing it would have required a spear. Before it died, the eggs hatched into small Maggots. They took longer to kill, but at least they were too young to be poisonous.
Back in Lut Gholein, Atma told him that the Maggots were not creatures from Hell, just large but common desert creatures. Before the troubles begain, they had not been so big, vicious, or venomous, and were easily tamed. Farms used to raise small herds of them, making their eggs into a nutritious paste that was mixed into vegetable soups to enhance the flavor. But over the last few weeks, all the Maggots had grown huge, and many killed their keepers. Their flesh was now corrosive, and unfit to eat.
"Are you sure you should be doing this?" Atma asked.
"Absolutely. These creatures are mentioned in the annals of explorers who visited the burning hells, though I cannot account for their peaceful presence here."
"They have always been here," Atma said. "One of the few good things to come out of the desert. This is not a productive land, otherwise."
"I'll tell ya," Geglash interrupted, "Bug soup's the besht hangover cure there ish. Well... maybe shecond best. The besht is gettin' drunk again! Ya know, hare uva dog what bit ya. Dunno why dog hare, I don' like rabbit or dog..."
Thaddeus pointed in a random direction. "Geglash, look! It's Bigfoot!"
"Whaa? Where?!" Geglash left to look around the tavern.
"Forgive him," Atma said. "With the city in the trouble it is, he has taken to drinking more than his usual."
"I am sorry, I should be more patient," Thaddeus sighed. "I wonder, if there might be some infernal species of maggot, which is influencing the mundane ones?"
"Are there hellish versions of common animals, then?"
"Some are known to me. I will keep looking. As for you, you may want to water Geglash's drinks more than you do."
Atma smiled. "I water everyone's drinks, these days. Though it may not be a kindness."
Of course his advice had been unnecessary. Years of experience no doubt told Atma exactly how much Geglash should have. Still, his behavior was worrying. Geglash was unlikely to be dangerous, but distractibility and clouded judgment can be trouble even in a peaceful place. Especially in someone that big.
Deeper in the Maggot's lair, insect swarms and Lightning Scarabs filled the tunnels. Were these things coming up from the depths too? The swarms could deal with the tunnels easily, but the beetles had to crawl, and weren't very good at it. A hard-hitting charge was out of the question in the narrow tunnels, so Thaddeus beat the beetles to death by calling on the vengeful spirits of Protectors past. It was, as Fara noted, an effective maneuver.
At the bottom of the lair, a huge chamber held what Thaddeus suspected all along: a Maggot queen. The bloated creature might once have been an ordinary mundane Maggot, but Hell's poison filled its distended body now, apparently through pulsing tendrils snaking into its body from the earth. Its chamber held at least a dozen Maggots and their young. The monstrous queen was so engorged with venom it couldn't move, not even to lift its head to spit. Its offspring, however, defended it with a frenzy of spitting and egg-laying. Thaddeus tried to charge in, but a horde of young Maggots blocked him. Laying about with great zeal, he flailed right and left through a rain of corrosive spittle, smashing Maggot young and any adult foolish enough to come within reach.
His new shield made him almost immune to the creature's venom, and the waves of Maggot young were easily killed; there were just so many of them, it was almost impossible to reach the queen. Pushing in through heaps of crushed bodies, Thaddeus started releasing hammers into the chamber, driving deeper as the way was cleared. Soon he was casting Blessed Hammer from right next to the queen; they tore through it and its offspring easily. One last Maggot hid in a far corner, next to a chest. Once it was taken care of, Thaddeus killed the queen, his scepter crunching into it repeatedly. It died squealing hellishly, its remaining life spraying out in an explosion of icy-cold, venomous slime.
Thaddeus was completely, thoroughly beslubbered with half-frozen corrosive ichor. It was almost enough to make him vomit himself. For once, he didn't even try to clean up before going back to town. It took a rinse in the ocean to get it all off; several fish died. The queen had collected some magical items in its lair, all in that chest. Strangely intelligent of it... but Thaddeus was more grateful that the chest had protected its contents from the corrosive venom. In the chest was a broken staff, its headpiece snapped off. Cain identified it as the Staff of Kings, a Horadric staff. He was very happy to see it, but Thaddeus only frowned again. Once again, something he needed just happened to turn up, in the last place he would have looked for it. Perhaps it was fate, or an unseen hand guiding him to some goal, but he was beginning to grow very suspicious.
Going back to the inn, turning over the day's events in his mind, Thaddeus opened the door and found... something new in his room. Again. A gleaming set of gothic plate stood on a rack next to his footlocker. Two runes were set in the breastplate, and a note was stuffed under the pauldron.
Gross! And to think of what that salt water can do to chainmail, too. You're doing just fine, but here's something to help you on your new career path. The runeword is "stealth." Don't worry, it's got nothing to do with sneakiness, it's just something to help with casting spells. Let those hammers spin, dude!
- The Mule
The wicked go astray from their birth
And speak like the venom of serpents.
Deliver us from these enemies! By night
They come prowling about the city,
Cursing and trapped in their lies,
Consumed in their pride and wrath.
Let only sweet peace come at night,
Rest for all who labor long and truly.
The upright rejoice in their faithfulness,
And sing in the goodness of their houses
Which the wicked try to steal by deceit.
-- Visions of Akarat, c. 58, v. 1-11
"Elzix, has anyone been in my room?"
"Of course not," Elzix smiled. "The privacy of my lodgers is very important. Something missing?"
"No, something that shouldn't be there is."
"Are we getting those damn black scorpions in the rooms again?"
"No, it's a suit of plate armor, enchanted with runes, very well-suited to my needs."
"Sounds like your lucky day," Elzix's smile faded, his one eye blinking in confusion. "What's wrong with that?"
"Absolutely nothing, except that I do not know where it came from. Anything that works in hiding is not to be trusted."
Elzix shrugged. "That's why I believe in complete openness and honesty. Won't catch me trying to hide anything, except the enchantments on the stuff I offer to gamble."
Thaddeus knew of Elzix's gambling, expensive risks he offered for enchanted items. He kept a display of them in his window, claiming they had all been accidentally left behind by former lodgers. Thaddeus had his doubts. "Such heavy armor is not suitable for this climate, anyway. The metal will heat up intolerably in the sun, and I do not have a surcoat which would fit over it."
"Hey, I got an old surcoat back here." Elzix held up a broad piece of cloth, white with red trim. Decorating the front and back were two symbols: a blazing star of golden light, and beneath it, a deep red hammer. "I'll give it to you free for one gamble. What do you say?"
Thaddeus stared at the cloth. Then he looked in the window. Right there in front, a huge sledgehammer gleamed dully in the lamplight. A hammer. "How about that maul?"
"Damn. That's one of the decent ones." Elzix handed over the maul, a Maul of the Leech, and draped the surcoat over Thaddeus' head. "Doesn't look that bad on you."
Thaddeus silently stared at the surcoat, the maul, his shield, the scepter, and back up at his room. "Excuse me." He got the armor, and dragged the whole bundle over to Cain.
Cain seemed to have turned in for the night, as was sensible. Knowing full well he shouldn't go around waking people, Thaddeus pounded on the door of Fara's smithy until she finally answered. "Fara, tell me, what is this?"
Blinking sleepily, holding her nightshirt closed, Fara looked at the armor. "Socketed Gothic Plate, set with the runeword 'Stealth', excellent for a spellcaster, but no resistances..."
"No, I know that! What was it doing in my room?"
"Even if I could tell you, I could not tell you at this hour. What time is it?"
Thaddeus sighed. "It is late. I am sorry I woke you. My mind is troubled."
"It seems so. If it worries you, leave it here. I will examine it in the morning."
After setting the armor and maul inside Fara's, Thaddeus returned to the inn. But he couldn't sleep. So far, things were going very easily for him in Lut Gholein. But he had no idea where Diablo was. Events were guiding him onto another path: finding the tomb of Tal Rasha, and opening it, leading the way to Baal. His quest was to locate Diablo, not to find Baal or open the way to him. As far as the world was concerned, Baal could stay lost forever. Baal was doing no harm lost, but might if found. And one of the things pushing him onto this alternate path was the gifts of the Mule.
Sometime close to midnight, Thaddeus stopped trying to sleep, and went to search the city. The Mule, or even anyone like him, was nowhere to be found. The city at night was full of things he hadn't seen by daylight, though. A few houses rang with song and laughter, their lights shining in the night. The women dressed even more daringly than by day, if that were possible. A few walked about the marketplace, though all the shops were long closed; others stood on nearby street corners. The rest of the city, from the dockside to the palace, was dark and quiet. It was strange for the palace to be so dark, Thaddeus thought. Even at this hour, there ought to be a few servants at work, unless they still hadn't returned.
Perhaps the Mule, if he was in Lut Gholein, was not to be found on dark streets and alleys. The houses, where many people had gathered, might be more to his tastes. The first one Thaddeus visited was a shock for him. What kind of party was this? The floor was littered with empty wine bottles, and men and women freely mingled, singing obscene songs. No one noticed him at the door, so Thaddeus took a quick look around and left. No one who looked like the Mule was there; if he was there, he was in some deeper part of the house Thaddeus would not enter.
As he stepped away, a voice said. "Hi, Mr. Green-Jeans! Don't see anything you like?"
Thaddeus looked around. Apparently, someone had seen him; a young woman, clad mostly in her reputation, stood smiling in the doorway. "I'll bet you do now."
"Yes, very nice," Thaddeus stammered. "Excuse me, I am looking for someone."
"I'm looking for someone too."
"No, I'm trying to find somebody."
"This is some body, isn't it?" She laughed, showing herself off indecently. "What's the matter, baby? Is it your first time?"
His face flushing, Thaddeus sputtered, "You're a bold one!"
"You don't know the half of it. Come on! It's too cold to be wandering the streets. You need a warm bed and some company."
Thaddeus hissed, "If you were wearing something decent, even one thing, it wouldn't seem so cold! Just what are you doing in there, awake in drunken debauchery at this hour? Does your family know where you are, or what you're doing?"
Standing up straight, the woman answered, "Oh. You're that Paladin, aren't you? I didn't recognize you without your helmet."
"Yes, I am that Paladin, young lady. And you haven't answered my question."
She ignored him, coolly looking him over. "You should wear the helmet. You have a really funny-shaped head."
Thaddeus' eyes narrowed. "If we're going to talk about strangely-shaped body parts, you really ought to wear more on your chest, and not just because of the cold."
She gasped, almost believably. "There is nothing wrong with me!"
Raising an eyebrow, Thaddeus stared pointedly at her. "So you're smuggling two olives out of the house? Whatever, madam. Enjoy your night."
Despite all further searching, the Mule was nowhere to be found. Exhausted, Thaddeus went to bed, and woke up late the next morning. Fara had already examined the armor and the maul, setting them to one side in her shop.
"Good morning," she said as Thaddeus dragged himself in. "Did you sleep well?"
After a few muttered imprecations, Thaddeus shook his head. "No. I couldn't sleep at all most of the night."
Silently, Fara nodded. "The things you brought me appear to be perfectly ordinary. Are they more gifts from your unknown friend?"
"Yes. Worry is gnawing at me. My benefactor operates in hiding, and I fear I am losing track of my quest. Events have distracted me to another path."
"You feel suspicious about the origin of these things. It concerns you greatly."
Thaddeus glared at Fara. "Shouldn't it?"
"Of course it should. But I think you may be responding improperly."
"And how should I respond when pushed onto a certain path, by one whose motives are kept hidden from me?" Thaddeus kicked the maul, knocking it over. "When I am told I need a certain staff, I immediately find a certain staff. A piece of scripture comes to me, telling me of a path to great power, and tools suited to that path begin to appear out of nowhere. What am I to think of this?"
Patiently, Fara set the maul upright. "Perhaps a passage from scripture might help you."
Thaddeus snorted. "I have thought of many passages. None set my mind at ease."
"I will try to help you, then. The passage that came to mind is this: 'Let not worry or fear tell your mind. The first guide must be the love of mankind.' Brave Thaddeus, you are so consumed with worry, it is interfering with your quest far more than any demon."
Nodding, Thaddeus said, "That is very true. But you see why this is a worry to me? You must understand, there is so much at stake here, I must be vigilant."
"Vigilance is a virtue, and our calling." Fara shook her head. "But any virtue, carried too far, can lead to our destruction. Let me tell you a tale of vigilance. As you doubtless know, in the east, the Hand of Zakarum went forth against the sin of the world."
"Yes, I have been told. A great campaign against the evil in others."
"A campaign of vigilance, seeking out what is hidden, exposing it to the Light. Everywhere the church looked, darkness was uprooted, but our efforts only seemed to increase it. The church encouraged us, glad at the numbers of heretics we found. One day, when I was with the Hand of Zakarum, I arrested a child, only 8 years old."
"Such innocence could harbor few demons," Thaddeus said with alarm.
"I know. He had set fire to a shrine. He did this because we had arrested his father, and his mother, his older brothers, his uncles and aunts... his family had been destroyed by our vigilance. Then I realized, our fear of heresy had created this new heretic."
Thaddeus nodded. Unflappably calm, Fara continued. "As I read the scriptures and looked at the church, I saw only paranoid fanaticism, not a blessing for the world. Somehow, what was wrong with the rest of the world had become more real that what was right within us. This was well after the schism. When your order split away, I cursed you with my brethren. Now, I wish I had been with you, before I saw the things that shattered my faith."
"Surely," Thaddeus said, "All is not lost for you..."
"Oh, no! You have come." Fara smiled. "When you first arrived, I was ashamed to be seen, I felt so tainted. You do not seem to realize what your presence means for these people, or for me. Your actions have been so selfless, and you have gone so far to ignore our many flaws. Were the Hand here, half the city would be on fire; you disapprove of much of what you see, I know, but I have not heard you utter a single cross word."
Now Thaddeus felt ashamed, deeply ashamed, of his conduct last night. Worry and fear had overcome him; he had spoken hurtfully to that woman. She was trying to be friendly... in her own way. Sort of. "You have not heard everything I have said, or thought."
"Your thoughts are your own. Your deeds count for more. Brother, what you have been and done is inspirational. The church is alive here in the west, the real church. When good things come to you, I believe it is because you have been blessed by a higher power."
"Surely not!" Thaddeus exclaimed.
"I do not mean to offend your modesty," Fara bowed her head. "'Blessed' is not the best term. Events have gone in your favor, as though guided by an unseen hand. Perhaps in time, you will play a part in restoring the church's honor and spirit. Perhaps... I could take up my sword again, without fear of myself. You are an inspiration, brother."
Nervously, Thaddeus stared at the floor. "The church needs stronger souls than mine."
"Perhaps it does," Fara sadly said. "These last few days, I have seen your mind so full of suspicion, I worried. The fear of evil is familiar to me: it nearly consumed my soul. The fall of the east began with suspicion. You must not let it overtake you."
Thoroughly chastened, Thaddeus felt unable to lift his gaze. "You are right. I was so worried about losing track of my quest... I lost track of myself."
"Losing yourself would mean the loss of more than your quest. These gifts worry you, and me, but none of us can find anything wrong with them. Put them from your mind, and return your thoughts to your mission. If you like, I have more ordinary equipment here."
"No, please," Thaddeus said. "Perhaps these things have come to me from a higher source. I do not think myself blessed. Sometimes, pride or anger finds its place in my heart. But an object cannot do harm unless I give it a hold over my soul. I should not fear things, or look relentlessly for evil where none may be."
Thaddeus wore the plate, with the surcoat, and kept the maul on his back. A charge with that great hammer would be devastating, though it meant dropping the shield. Back out in the desert above the oasis, a ruined town sat on a mesa. There were many buildings, broad avenues, and large open squares; this was once a mighty city, larger than Lut Gholein. Now all was ruins, the roofs caved in, with the marks of fire everywhere. Also many Zombies, all bearing signs of disease on their decaying bodies. While Thaddeus was gathering some of them together for a flurry of Blessed Hammers, everything went dark.
Thaddeus looked up. Had he suddenly gone blind? No, he could see familiar stars and the outline of the sun, its light faintly visible behind... something. A knock on the head reminded him of the Zombies. After killing them, he looked back up at the sun, and over the land. All was in darkness. He sat down to meditate on this. Darkness conceals, and is often called upon for that purpose. Darkness can also give strength to beasts which fear light or heat. Could it be that Diablo was near, hiding in this summoned night? Or was it something else? Before moving on, Thaddeus would need the advice of others wiser than himself. Cain had no idea what caused the darkness; natural eclipses occur only when the moon is new. Fara was no wiser, but was sure Drognan would know.
Drognan was sure the eclipse was caused by Claw Vipers, humanoid serpents who dwell out in the desert, far from man's dwellings. Evil beings with black hearts, they crave cold and darkness, and happily ally themselves with demons for their own purposes. Sometimes, lone travelers in the desert are kidnapped by the Vipers; those who escape tell of dark rituals around unholy altars, blood sacrifice, and cannibalism. Where nests of them are found, the desert inhabitants feel no compunction about stamping them out.
Cain was almost overjoyed to hear about the Claw Vipers. In addition to their other habits, the Vipers are fond of loud ostentation and display. Jewelry is particularly important -- no Viper is ever seen without huge quantities of rings, bracelets, necklaces, and other baubles. Most is worthless, made of string and shiny pebbles or bits of broken glass; sheer quantity of display is what matters to the Vipers. Chiefs bear more valuable things, taken from the poor humans who fall into their hands. Their unholy altars are decorated with the most precious of all. Perhaps the Vipers had the headpieces of some Horadric staves.
Before returning to the desert, Thaddeus noticed Lysander motioning to him. He went to see what he wanted. "Hello, Lysander. I hope the darkness hasn't bothered you too much."
"Of course it has! I'm deaf, not blind. Though there are blessings to deafness; I no longer have to listen to the tedious gossip of others. I have asked you over to see a new invention of mine."
I've got a bad feeling about this, Thaddeus thought. "Something for the Claw Vipers?"
"Hah? Saw wipers? I didn't know you were interested in carpentry. No, this is something I think you will find useful. North of here, along the coast, lies the land of Magnesia."
"I know of it. Magnesia, land of milk."
Lysander looked at him suspiciously. "Silk? That's produced on the Amazon islands, all the best lingerie comes from there. What would you know about it?"
With a sigh, Thaddeus said, quite loudly, "What about Magnesia?!"
"No need to shout, my friend, I'm not so deaf as that. In the mountains of Magnesia, they know of a certain metal, which few have found any use for."
"Indeed! I have found a use for it! When burned, this metal lights up in a brilliant flare of light, glowing like the sun. In this darkness, it would be extremely useful."
"That might be useful, yes. When you... burn it, you say."
"No, when burned. Pay attention!" Lysander brought out a tangle of wire, drawn from a light silvery metal unfamiliar to Thaddeus. "It takes a very hot flame, but when set off..." Lysander touched the wire with a firestone, an enchanted gem common in laboratories.
'Setting it off' was a good way to describe what happened. The blaze was brilliant. Blinding white light filled Lysander's shop -- until the white-hot metal burned through the table and fell to the floor. Cursing, Lysander reached for his water sprinkler. At the touch of water, an explosive sizzle shattered the burning wire, and bits of it scattered throughout the shop. Including, Thaddeus noted, a nice big chunk into Lysander's pile of immolation potions. The pottery jars began to crack as the hot metal lay on them. Lysander moved to pour more water on the fire. Quickly deciding that this would not be a good idea, Thaddeus grabbed the old alchemist and carried him out of the shop. Lysander was swearing a blue streak, but Thaddeus hardly heard him over the explosions.
Once the fire was out and peace restored, Thaddeus congratulated Lysander on his great discovery. Obviously, he was onto something, but he'd have to exercise more caution in the application of this breakthrough. For his part, Lysander was terribly upset about the loss of so much inventory. He would also need some way of controlling or extinguishing the fire if he was going to experiment with it any more. "Maybe some sort of chilling spell? Or something to take away the air? Things can't burn without air, I know that well. Hmmm..." Thaddeus left him to his musings. Moving against the Claw Vipers would be difficult in the dark, but far better to curse the darkness than to light THAT candle.
An abomination is the sacrifice of the wicked,
Much more when brought with evil intent.
Out of sight and hearing, envy rends them
With scourges of desire for harm and infamy.
-- Visions of Akarat, c. 15, v. 15-19
"Excuse me, please."
"Oh!" the old woman said, "what a surprise! You're welcome here, of course! Business is off tonight, so you can have --"
"May I speak with your..." Thaddeus caught the young woman's arm before she slipped away. "Her, please."
"Excellent choice, master! Almost all the rooms are open --"
"I just want to speak with her, please." After a moment's thought, Thaddeus got his purse and shook out a small pile of gold coins. To judge from both women's reactions, he was being very generous. "I want to apologize."
The older woman beamed. "Apology more than accepted! You may insult us with your presence anytime you like, master Paladin!"
"Thank you." The young woman had stopped struggling, so he let her go and went with her to a corner of the room. "Young lady, I am sorry for the assumptions I made, and the way I spoke to you. There was no call for such rudeness."
"Yeah, sure," she replied, glaring suspiciously. "What else?"
Thaddeus was confused; he thought he'd been clear about what he wanted, and all he wanted. "Nothing else. I'd hoped that would be enough."
"That's a lot of money to say you're sorry you're a pompous jerk."
Thaddeus thought the nasty names were best ignored. As for the money, he had a lot, even after donating his Rogue's Pass treasure to the Sightless Eye. Most of it was theirs anyway, and they'd need it far more than he. In the deserts, he'd found much more on the ancient dead, and most of his expenses were taken care of by Lord Jerhyn. "I don't know what the usual charge is in here."
She looked dubiously at him. "You've pretty much rented me for a week, you know."
Thaddeus nodded. "I have other plans for the week. You may do as you wish."
Sneering, she said, "Oh, now I'm supposed to go all gushy and throw myself on you?"
"No... why would you?"
"Because all the 'nice' guys think that if they do something nice for me, I'll like them and give it up free."
"But I don't want 'it' from you."
She raised an eyebrow. "So you prefer boys, then?"
As hard as it was, Thaddeus did not frown. Of course, she was trying to goad him. He'd hurt her feelings and she wanted revenge; not a good motivation, but an understandable one. "Romance is not on my mind just now. Minstrels have sung of a night that lasts forever, but now that I'm in one, I don't like it very much."
"Uh, yeah." She looked out the window. "I guess it is really weird."
"I do want to go to bed. Alone; I need to do my work in the morning."
She nodded. "Hey, uh... I'm sorry about the pompous jerk part."
Thaddeus smiled. "But I am a pompous jerk. You're not the first person to say that, or tell me I have a funny-shaped head. Who am I to fly in the face of public opinion?"
"Now, if you want to take the week off, by all means do so."
"Not much choice if there's no business. You've got your vow of chastity, I know."
Again, a vow of chastity; why does the untutored laity always assume that? Correcting her might be taken the wrong way, so Thaddeus said, "I do need to sleep, really sleep. This night must end soon."
"Yeah. See you around."
The next morning, Thaddeus wondered if he'd overslept: no sun came in the window to wake him. The darkness gave everything a timeless quality, so he had no idea how much time had slipped away since yesterday. Out in the desert, the ruined city was full of plague-ridden Zombies and the thin, four-armed giants. Fara identified them as Desert Raiders, a race of nomads who roam the deepest deserts. They are cowardly by nature, but will attack lone travelers if they think they won't meet strong resistance. Fighting a few at a time involved more chasing than fighting; they weren't as cowardly as Fallen Ones, but once frightened, they weren't bloodthirsty enough to come back without allies. They grew bolder if Thaddeus pretended to be afraid, so he could herd a large group together into an open area by "fleeing" them. The effect of Blessed Hammer on such groups was devastating.
The ruined city held a great deal of wealth. Death had come suddenly, by some quick stroke of great evil. No one had been buried, so it occurred to Thaddeus that the whole city could be seen as a huge graveyard. Still, he collected loot; Jerhyn might need the money to help Lut Gholein recover from its losses. His treasury was probably nearly empty by now. While exploring a peculiarly large underground vault, Thaddeus reflected on pillaging. The desire for gold drives many mad, and they forget themselves. Greed drives many to despoil graves, breaking the covenants the living keep with the dead. Thaddeus was looting the dead; did it really make a difference that these dead walked, and were trying to kill him?
Something odd happened when Thaddeus found a small stick on the Zombie of an old man. Made from the spine of a small animal, it was doubtless some sort of Necromancer wand. While he was looking at it (with some distaste,) a pale hand appeared out of the darkness and plucked it away! A note then appeared in a puff of light:
Sorry, didn't mean to scare you like that! Don't you worry, I serve a higher power, who is indeed looking out for what's best for you. You see, I hold things for people, taking items of power from those what got 'em but can't use 'em, and giving them to those what can! That wand was useless for you, but some Necromancer may want the whole Sander's set, which you have just completed. Congratulations!
"While I was in that city," Thaddeus told Fara as she hammered a dent out of his shield, "it occurred to me that I was pillaging the dead in unprecedented numbers."
"From what you have told me," Fara replied, "that is nothing new for you."
"That is true, I have looted the dead many times. The scale of this place saddened me, though. So many, men, women, and children. The desecration was so much worse."
"It is a great sadness when the young are cut down; sadder still when they come to such an end as this. They have little need for their wealth now. If they could be aware - and we should thank the Light they cannot be - I am sure they would understand."
"Isn't it the excuse of every tomb robber, that the dead do not need their wealth?"
"A truth put to foul ends, as an excuse for greed." Fara stopped her work for a moment, staring into space. "If you learn nothing else, know that there is nothing which cannot be corrupted. No ideal, no matter how high-minded, cannot be used as an excuse for hate and destruction. In the mouth of evil, the most gentle sentiments are instruments for terror."
Thinking back on the Rogues, Thaddeus nodded. "Must evil always win?"
"No," Fara said. "I might have thought so once, but no longer. Corruption comes from hidden places, for it needs time to work unopposed. Given time, nothing, absolutely nothing, is too pure. But all corruption contains its own destruction. Evil will, after its first burst of strength is spent, devour itself."
Thaddeus smiled. "What should we expect from those who hold greed, the lust for power, and bloodlusting anger as virtues?"
Fara looked up at the heavens, smiling with great calm. "The chronicles of Zakarum tell of many battles between Heaven and Hell. In most, Hell's strength seems overwhelming. They strike suddenly, viciously, where good is at its weakest. All seems lost. But as an answer to Hell's fury arises, their strength vanishes. The lords of Hell become consumed in squabbling; their forces work against each other; their troops flee any determined resistance. They are swept away, we mourn the sadness they brought, and pledge vigilance anew."
"Which grows lax as the generations pass, and the scars on the land heal over."
Fara shrugged. "The common men must live their lives. The crops must grow, the cattle need tending. Not all can live in vigilance against a threat that will not come in their lifetime. And even the vigilant can be... misdirected. Turned away from the true threat."
Thaddeus nodded. "I had also wanted to ask you about the Claw Vipers. Tell me, what do you know of them?"
"They are cold-hearted serpents, with arms like men, and evil eyes. When I was in Kurast, I saw a few of them."
"They are from Kehjistan?" Thaddeus asked.
"No, they are native to Aranoch."
"I have seen many creatures native to Kehjistan here in the west, in the service of evil. You have seen western creatures in the east?"
"A few. What have you seen here?"
"Giant Spiders and Fetishes, infesting the monastery of the Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye. There are also Saber Cats here in Aranoch."
"Fetishes and Saber Cats are native to the jungles, yes. Giant spiders are common in the east. Their webs are collected and woven into subtle garments, light yet terrifically strong."
"Yes, I believe Lysander mentioned them. When I fight the Vipers, what must I fear?"
"They are rumored to engage in necromancy. In combat, they strike with their claws, or the poisonous spine on their tail. Their touch chills the body, I have heard, though perhaps that is an effect of their poison."
No one else knew much more about the Vipers, so Thaddeus went in to find out for himself. Immediately, a horde of Skeletons came out of the darkness; this seemed to confirm the accusations of necromancy. Behind them, a few Greater Mummies and a pack of the Vipers waited. Backed up to the temple entrance, Thaddeus couldn't make good use of the hammers, so he bashed his way through the Skeletons by hand and charged the Mummies. The Vipers might be more dangerous, but the Mummies were raising their skeletal cohort again, so they'd just have to wait.
That was his first mistake; the Vipers charged Thaddeus, placing themselves between the Mummies and him. For snakes on a smooth stone floor, they moved very quickly, and their touch was chilling. Most summoners, especially necromancers, like to hang back and let their minions do the dirty work, but these serpents were braver. The pack surrounded Thaddeus, striking quickly enough to interrupt his attempts to cast Blessed Hammer. Behind him, the Skeletons began rising right and left. Even one of the Mummies shambled forward to breathe a cloud of poison. Snarling imprecations, Thaddeus zealously bashed in heads and crushed bony limbs, grabbing potions from his belt when he had a moment's pause to do so.
The nearest Greater Mummy died amid the fury of blows, leaving an opening for Thaddeus to charge the other one. Slamming the monster back into the wall, Thaddeus pounded it about the body without mercy until it snapped in off at the waist. To his amusement, the legs wandered around for a while as Thaddeus finished off the Vipers. He'd never seen an undead do that before. Eventually, all the skeletons were smashed to bits, and Thaddeus paused to rest. True to what he'd heard, Claw Vipers were fond of jewelry. Their bodies were draped with baubles, most of them valueless. Some of it was worth something, and the biggest of the Vipers carried a magical amulet.
The amulet was not a Horadric staff headpiece, but Thaddeus did find another which was, on a fearsome Salamander deeper in the temple. It didn't match the staff he'd found, though. All in all, there were nearly a dozen magic rings and five amulets in the temple, all decorating some serpent or hanging from rude shrines. Cain told Thaddeus to look for an altar, the probable focus for the magic being used to blot out the sun. There were two shrines on the upper level of the temple -- neither dispelled the darkness. One shrine was placed very, very interestingly, right next to a set of stairs leading down to a lower level. The shrine granted high resistance to lightning. He didn't need it, but Thaddeus wondered: is lightning going to be a problem down there? Is this another sign?
Below the main level of the Viper temple, a small chamber of horrors awaited Thaddeus. The walls were hung with people, gutted and partially stripped of flesh. As he advanced, a small group of powerful-looking Vipers came to meet him. At least there didn't seem to be any of their undead servants down here. On his first strike, Thaddeus knew destiny was working behind the scenes as much as ever: the chief of the Vipers was lightning enchanted. When he found out who was responsible for this, Thaddeus was going to have a word with them. Maneuvering around the close confines of the room, Thaddeus dealt with each Viper one at a time, leaving the lightning spitter for last. It was fast, and hit hard, but hitting it back would only make matters worse until he was ready to deal with it alone.
The chamber was small, with a low pit in the center. An blood-drenched altar lay in the pit, half-buried in rotting flesh. As he killed the remaining Vipers, Thaddeus noticed the matter in the pit of decay was moving on its own. By all the Light, what were these things making in here? No time to think of it now; Thaddeus killed Viper after Viper until only the chief was left. The Viper chief looked at Thaddeus. Thaddeus looked at the Viper chief. It attempted to grin; at least, the expression looked more silly than threatening. Then it ran and hid in the corner. Thaddeus picked up his maul, charged, and bashed in its head.
Around the Viper pit, over a dozen human bodies hung from the walls. More slumped in iron cages, obviously starved and tortured to death. The pit was full of rot and blood, rippling in waves around the jewel-festooned altar. Something was coming to life in there. Muttering a prayer, Thaddeus gingerly leapt on top of the alter (he couldn't bring himself to even touch the filth in the pit) and started kicking the jewels and carvings away. A groan came up from the pit, and shudders went through the roiling corruption. Finally, with enough desecration, the altar broke. A great shiver went through the pit, and silvery lights floated up out of the filth, swirling around Thaddeus. They looked so clean and pure, coming out of that mess. Gently, the lights swirled up to the ceiling through the darkness, and in a bright burst, went through the stone. Sunlight, glorious sunlight, shone down onto the altar.
The sun was out in its full glory; it was almost noon. Everyone in Lut Gholein was overjoyed, even the ones who normally only come out at night. The jewelry from the Viper altar was valuable, and some was magical. The only piece of value was an amulet, socketed for a staff. The staff Thaddeus had in his footlocker was a perfect match.
The liars served, stole, and feasted
Upon the souls of these wise fools.
One great fool argued with another
Over which of them was the greater.
They did contest, and the liars made
Them feast on each other's tongues.
-- The Book of the Hammer, c. 5, v. 11-16
The best place, in all probability, was in the palace. It was the safest place in the city: guards stood at the doors, all the windows were barred day and night, and every member of the city guard had been in there for weeks. Thaddeus hadn't asked to enter since he first arrived in Lut Gholein; he'd been too busy in the desert to think about it since then. Now that he did think about it, it was strange that the place was locked up so tight, or that Lord Jerhyn's servants never seemed to have returned. Was Lord Jerhyn hiding something from the whole city? Thaddeus could sense no malice in him; nervousness, yes, but that wasn't out of line for a young ruler trying to navigate through a crisis of these dimensions.
Any palace was sure to have a secure vault, for the Lord's treasury. Putting the Viper's amulet in the vault would be an excellent excuse for looking over the palace, and perhaps ask a few questions of Lord Jerhyn. Nothing seemed unusual while Thaddeus was walking to the palace, but Lord Jerhyn was waiting outside the palace doors with two guardsmen. The guards weren't facing out towards the town, either; they faced inside, staring in the palace doors, weapons at the ready.
"Good morning, Lord --"
"Thank the Light you are here!" If Jerhyn had seemed nervous before, he was positively panicky now. "How did you know to come?"
Despite the restored sun, Thaddeus suddenly felt cold. "Uh..."
"Never mind, you are here, and I have a great need of a miracle. I hope you can provide my city with another one."
"Whatever you need, my Lord, will be mine to give if I can."
Jerhyn nodded, his eyes darting back and forth. "I do not know how to begin."
Calmly, Thaddeus said, "The beginning might be the best place."
"Yes, of course," Jerhyn laughed nervously. "When our troubles began, the city's harem guilds sought shelter within the palace walls. Some of the demons had managed to breach the city's defenses then, and they were afraid for their lives."
Despite himself, Thaddeus frowned. "Harem guilds."
"It was a reasonable request, and I granted them shelter. Everything was fine, until one night when we heard screams coming up the stairs. The poor girls were being slaughtered by a horde of bloodthirsty demons!"
"In the palace?"
"Yes. They must have come through the gate in the cellar."
This just got better and better. "A gate in the cellar?"
"Yes!" Jerhyn sputtered. "Is something wrong with your hearing?"
Thaddeus took off his helmet. "I'm beginning to wonder. You have demons in the palace, and have for weeks, but have mentioned nothing of it to the rest of the town?"
"Drognan knows, I would do nothing without his advice. We have tried to push them back, but there seems no end to them. I had to hire Greiz and his men to guard the city walls, and concentrate what was left of my own guardsmen in the palace. When the sun went out, they seemed to sense it, and came in even greater numbers. These two are all that remains of the city guard. I need your help desperately."
Thaddeus could hardly believe what he was hearing. "My Lord Jerhyn," he said, trying not to lose his temper, "I cannot believe you have been keeping this hidden..."
"Drognan's advice was to keep this secret, lest the city panic. My brave guardsmen were holding them off until recently. When you came, your quest seemed more important!"
Poor excuses, all of them, but pointing that out now would do no good. Fuming silently, Thaddeus nodded. "So we have been under attack from within all this time. Your whole city came so close to being overcome, almost nothing remains of your defenders. While I may question Drognan's judgment, I cannot fault your present decision. You do need my help."
Looking pale, Jerhyn nodded. "Riches, power, favors only a ruler can give, all will be made available to the one who helps my city."
"Bribery will not be necessary," Thaddeus snapped. "I am sorry, my Lord. I did not mean to say that. It will satisfy me to know how a demon gate came to be in your cellar."
"It has always been there; it is older than the palace itself. Drognan believes this to be the site of an ancient Vizjerei fortress, and the gate is a relic of those times. As long as the city has been here, the gate has been quiet, and would not open for anyone. Drognan has always wanted to see what lies beyond it."
"Now it has opened on its own."
"This may not be important, but... a few months ago, a Vizjerei mage came here from the west. While I was giving him a tour of the palace, he seemed to recognize the gate, and asked to study it, alone. I granted his request, and he was never seen again."
Thaddeus blinked. "Had this mage visited a small town called Tristram?"
"I believe he mentioned such a town, yes. Is that important, do you think?"
Thaddeus felt another headache coming on, a strong one. Perhaps Jerhyn would be wiser not to grant so many requests in the future. If he had a future. "Lord Jerhyn, you must open your palace to me now. The future of your city is at stake."
Jerhyn gasped with relief. "You may go anywhere in my palace, or throughout my city for that matter. My confidence in you is absolute."
Ah, good; he could freely enter any harem in town. Replacing his helmet, Thaddeus strode into the palace. "I'll be done before sundown."
The conversation left a bad taste in his mouth. The lord of a city should be someone his people can respect. There is always an incentive to hide weakness, but sending his guards in to die against endless waves of foes was incomprehensible. Was Jerhyn foolish, or simply ill-advised? Thaddeus would have to speak with Drognan about the gate.
The first basement level of the palace was a huge pleasure arena, with rooms large and small, full of furnishings and decorations intended to stimulate and gratify sensual pleasures. In his poor mood, Thaddeus thought all kinds of uncomplimentary things about Lord Jerhyn, though he had to admit that the Rogues' jails were less pleasant by implication. The silks and incense burners were all drenched in gore now, with the occasional mostly-intact body arrayed decoratively around the rooms. The demons were Desert Raiders, Skeletons, and huge fat giants called Blunderbores. The Blunderbores' choice of weapon was a human body, wrapped in heavy chain and slammed into an opponent; an unsophisticated style, but difficult to avoid or block.
Beneath the seraglio, the palace's cellars went deep. The stonework looked more like what you might find in a fortress, though later workers had widened all the doors. Narrow doors are easier to defend, but hard to move through, and were doubtless altered in peaceful times. Much of the palace's bureaucracy had worked down here, including the city watch. In their offices, Thaddeus found a strange poster.
Height: Very short
Weight: Frequently thrown around
Eyes: Wide and flashing
Hair: Luxuriant black
Sex: *You* can try, but I want to have children someday
Distinguishing features: Only uses weapons bigger than she is
On charges of:
Disrespect of city elders
Conduct unbecoming to a sorceress
Reward! Call LGPD for more information. Keep our city clean.
"Excellent, your success is admirable," Drognan smiled. "You must have reached the lowest levels of the cellars by now, and found the gate. Have you found it?"
"Yes, I have. It is open."
With visible excitement, Drognan asked, "Have you seen what lies beyond?"
"That, I have not seen. What happened in the palace was terrible, of course."
"I am sure it was. Tell me, have you any idea how the gate was opened?"
"No," Thaddeus lied. "You have a guess where the gate might lead, then?"
"Centuries ago, this was the site of a Vizjerei fortress, built by Horazon, a leader of the order. If legends are true, Horazon built an Arcane Sanctuary, whose gate was within the fortress, as a retreat from the cares of the world. All of Horazon's greatest works were kept within the sanctuary, safe from ignorant minds."
Thaddeus nodded. "The Vizjerei were demon summoners, I have heard."
"Naturally. Horazon was a great, powerful, and wise archmage, master of many branches of magic. It is well known that he was served by demonic slaves."
"In the church of Zakarum, we were taught that Horazon was an example of the folly that lies in the pursuit of power. He believed he could bend demons to his will, as they allowed him to believe; they were using him for their own purposes."
Drognan smiled thinly. "I am sure your church holds many beliefs. The Vizjerei still revere the great Horazon, as a master of otherworldly forces beyond compare."
"And the deaths in the palace?"
Still smiling, Drognan shrugged. "An unfortunate incident, yes. If he is still alive, then no doubt Horazon's work was interrupted, and he sent his servants to see to the matter. It is more likely that he is not alive, in which case his servants were trapped in the sanctuary for centuries, and have reverted to their normal behavior."
Thaddeus nodded. "Lord Jerhyn told me that some months ago, a Vizjerei sorcerer came to the palace, and examined the gate in the cellar."
"This one also came to me. He was obviously insane, and I dismissed him. Perhaps... you may think, could he have penetrated the Arcane Sanctuary?"
"That thought occurred to me."
"An interesting theory, but his skills and knowledge would not have been sufficient."
"Of course," Thaddeus nodded. "If you could not open the gate, how could he?"
"Indeed. Perhaps he found some way in, and lost what was left of his ravaged mind. If you encounter him in the sanctuary, he could be dangerous."
Thaddeus raised an eyebrow. "In the sanctuary?"
"Of course. If I do not know how the gate was opened, I cannot know how it is to be closed. The Arcane Sanctuary must be explored, and cleansed."
"Then, the knowledge within may be studied at leisure." Thaddeus nodded. "Besides, so long as the sanctuary contains demons, the city will be in danger."
"Of course, of course. I shall be glad to follow along behind you, of course."
With as little care as Drognan had displayed for the lives of others, Thaddeus wasn't sure he wanted the old wizard as a battle companion. "You are a very brave man. The hordes of demons in the palace were a terrible threat, and they took such a delight in death by slow, painful torture. There would probably be even more in the sanctuary itself."
Drognan paled a bit. "Ah, no, that is not quite what I meant. At the moment, I must go to the palace, and advise Jerhyn on his next course of action. When you have finished with the Arcane Sanctuary, please inform me."
"Oh, I misunderstood. I hope no one has entered the lowest cellars. While I was here with you, more demons may have come through the gate."
Drognan frowned. "Of course. When you are done, come and inform me."
Looking at the gate, Thaddeus wondered best how to sabotage it. While he didn't approve of harems, that didn't mean their residents should be condemned to a painful death. Drognan had been quite unconcerned about that; he only cared about knowledge of ancient Vizjerei ways. As for Jerhyn... he obviously liked harems a lot, to devote an entire floor of his palace to one. Perhaps Drognan encouraged this weakness, to make him easier to rule. If there was power beyond this gate, neither of them should have it. On the other hand... there were obviously demons in there, and they must not be allowed to remain, even if he could deactivate this gate permanently. Closing the gate while he was inside might trap him, so any sabotage would have to wait until after he'd gone through.
On the other side of the gate, Thaddeus found himself staring out into a black, starry void, empty save for a maze of stone catwalks suspended in nothingness. Wherever it was, this was a horrible place, a disconcerting emptiness devoid of light or life. Looking down was terrifying, but looking up or sideways wasn't much better. The stone pathways were more than confusing: their layout seemed designed with the sole purpose of defying the natural order of the world. You couldn't be sure if you were walking up or down, even if you were right on them! Surely, this place could only be the result of a twisted mind -- exactly what a sorcerer might build. The gate was at the top of a short flight of steps, above a waypoint. Thaddeus immediately returned to Lut Gholein, and rejoiced in the normalcy, bathed in the sunset's light.
Back at the marketplace, Fara had closed up shop. Lysander was still there, putting up the last wall of his new store. "Hello."
"Hello, Lysander. It has been a trying day. You haven't heard any rumors of demon summoning from anyone in town, have you?"
"Good heavens, no. Anyone who tried that would get his tongue cut out, his fingers all burned off, and then they'd start getting mean. You think someone is doing that?"
"No, no. But Drognan believes I have found someplace called Horazon's Sanctuary."
"Yes, Canker Bees are a problem. Demons are very fond of insects, too."
"Oh, Horazon! A terrible man, who came to a bad end. Had to lock himself in to protect himself from his own servants. That's the fate of all summoners -- that, or damnation. Let me tell you something: there are old summoners, and there are bold summoners, but there are no old, bold summoners."
"A foolish but tempting path, for mages who lack foresight. For all their reading, you would think wizards could read something of history. It might not repeat itself so often if they did."
"Repetition has its good points; someday, you might get it right."
It is true, doing something more than once can serve to correct flaws in a basically sound procedure. Returning to the waypoint, Thaddeus went back into the sanctuary, and through the gate into the palace basement. No one was around, so Thaddeus took the gear away. Sneaking out of the palace through a window was not very dignified, but he didn't make too much noise, and returned to the Arcane Sanctuary by the waypoint.
The marble paths were full of Goat Demons, the demonic Hell clan, strongest and darkest of that accursed race. The undead were also present, vaporous Wraiths and vampiric Dark Lords. Perhaps they were the remains of mundane servants and mages, trapped in here with the Goat Demons when the Sanctuary was closed. While cleansing the Arcane Sanctuary, Thaddeus found it was quite impossible to fall from the catwalks. He couldn't even knock the demons off; perhaps the empty space he saw was all some kind of illusion. Stockpiles of treasure were stored in certain parts of the maze, including ancient texts full of arcane lore. Some were about the elements, some were about the enchantment of items, and some were about the summoning and binding of demons. Unfortunately, some of the books and scrolls caught fire, in unavoidable accidents.
After a long battle with some vicious Dark Lords, Thaddeus found a large platform. A pile of old clothes lay on the floor, next to a book. The clothes contained a relatively fresh body, his head caved in by one of Thaddeus' hammers; Thaddeus hadn't even seen him up here. Hopefully, the man had found some peace, as it was doubtful he'd been up to any good. The book was Horazon's private journal. While locked up on this platform, Horazon had plenty of time to observe events in the real world. He didn't dare leave, or his "servants" would seek him out and kill him, but he could still watch and record what he saw. Baal's imprisonment occupied several pages of detailed observations. Tal Rasha's tomb was set in a secluded valley, flanked by the tombs of 6 other archmagi. Horazon's sanctuary could send Thaddeus there instantly. Before he went, Thaddeus took the gear that opened the sanctuary, and left that with the dead body. It was his, he may as well keep it.
The Lord of Pain, fifth of the Great Evils,
King of flies and maggots, all rot and filth.
Devouring, he comes behind Destruction,
Jealous of his primacy, desiring all himself.
Greedy, violent, gluttonous, rebellious --
His lords have punished him many times…
-- Chronicles of Zakarum, c. 14, v. 1-6
There were a few books on the platform, so Thaddeus began looking them over. Perhaps the ancient mage had observed the entombment of Baal and made a note of it. The first book he went to was a diary, open on a tall stand; Horazon's private journal. As might be expected, most of it was sorcerous ranting about power and such; Thaddeus' gorge rose from reading it, so he paged through quickly. Near the end, he found Horazon's account of Tal Rasha and Baal. Most of it was empty rambling, but Horazon noted that the entombment in the "canyon of the magi", a small canyon with the tombs of six other sorcerers. Baal was in the corner tomb, the largest.
One of Horazon's gates led to the canyon of the magi, so Thaddeus went directly there. The sun had just risen: light was peeking into the gorge, creeping slowly across the walls where seven ancient tombs yawned wide open. A waypoint, its flames extinguished, sat on the canyon floor. It was covered with dirt, obviously disused for a long time. After getting his bearings, Thaddeus set out for the north-east corner, sure that was Diablo's destination.
As he walked, the ground began twitching under his feet, and a huge Sand Maggot burst up underneath him. More tunneled up through the sand as a crowd of javelin-hurling Saber Cats sprang out of hiding, peppering Thaddeus with their spears. After blocking most of the first volley, Thaddeus summoned the hammers, sending them spinning through his enemies. The Saber Cats quickly learned it was best to avoid the slow, spinning missiles, so Thaddeus had to close and deal with them in melee. The maggots weren't nearly as intelligent -- besides, they were much bigger targets.
As he fought his way to the tomb, Thaddeus wondered if Diablo had reached the tomb first. The monsters in the canyon might indicate so, they were his beasts, and seemed to have been expecting Thaddeus' arrival. When he got the tomb entrance, his heart sank; two sets of human footprints led in, and one set ran out. Was this Diablo, and some companion? What manner of man would travel with a dark lord? There was no time to ask questions; the tracks looked fresh, so there might still be a chance to catch him.
In the tomb's interior, Thaddeus lost the trail on the stone floor. While there was some sand and grit, he wasn't a good enough tracker to read such poor signs in near-darkness. The tomb was huge, with tunnels branching everywhere. All were full of ghosts, mummies, and the huge Gorebellies, who had fresh corpses to use as weapons. Thaddeus hardly had a moment to look for his quarry, the place was so thick with defenders. Finally, in a small side tunnel he almost overlooked, he found the tracks again. They went into a small room with a socket set in the floor; the trail led up to the north wall -– and through, as though the stone wall wasn't even there.
Panic gripped Thaddeus. He bent to examine the tracks -– they were no illusion. The wall was real and solid, not giving in the slightest to his shoulder. The empty socket in the middle of the floor was where the Horadric staff would no doubt go; Diablo hadn't needed one after all. Thaddeus quickly returned to Lut Gholein, and put the staff together. With the press of a button, the corrosion filled out with shining metal, the bent shaft straightened and acquired a new polish, and the two pieces joined as though they had never been separated. Cain was very happy to see the staff, but when he asked to hold it, Thaddeus just grunted and ran to his portal. The staff fit into the socket; a glow filled the room, and lightning shot out of the staff's head, shattering the north wall. A foul smell washed out into the room.
Heedless, Thaddeus climbed over the pile of rubble, peering ahead into darkness. In his haste, he didn't watch his footing; the rubble gave way, sending him tumbling into a deep pit full of horrible-smelling mud. Standing up, Thaddeus realized it probably wasn't mud; it was alive with maggots, some of them nearly two feet long. Then, something slammed into him, sending him flying across the room into a wall.
@Looking for Baal?@ a voice croaked, full of equal parts amusement and phlegm. A huge THING was bearing down on him again. In shape, it was much like the maggots squirming around his legs, but the end rearing up was easily ten feet off the ground. Its long body, covered with many insectile legs, negotiated the pit of filth easily. Blocking the charge was pointless; it just slammed into him again. Dodging was impossible, thigh-deep in muck. Gathering his wits, Thaddeus prayed for a Blessed Hammer, but the thing chopped at him with its axe-like arms, breaking his concentration.
Whenever Thaddeus tried to gain some distance, the maggot slid across its pit of ordure to slam into him. Finally, the thing pinned him to a wall with its body, hammering down on his shield with both arms. Thaddeus got a good look at its face; this was Duriel, the Lord of Pain, one of the Princes of Hell! Certainly not his quarry, and a sign that Diablo had been here and gone. Just like Andariel, this lord of the maggots had been left behind to delay pursuit. This, of course, meant Thaddeus had to defeat this worm right now.
Pinned to the wall, his shield in Duriel's face, Thaddeus couldn't do much. But Duriel couldn't do anything besides pound on the shield; his body was far too soft to press the breath out of Thaddeus' lungs. Duriel was big and powerful, but by all Zakarum's accounts of him, demon lords do come smarter, and he'd never been known for patience. Casually, Thaddeus took a potion from his belt and drank. Feeling better, he calmly said, "When you are ready, o minor lordling of all that squishes. You're not getting anywhere doing this."
With a snort, Duriel pushed away from the wall, and tried to slam in again; Thaddeus barely avoided it. Now that he had room to swing, Thaddeus went at it zealously, his scepter bouncing off Duriel's pulpy body, occasionally breaking the translucent skin. Every now and then, he'd miss with a shield block, letting Duriel get in a strike. Better to let him think an open fight was working, than to invite another slam into the wall. While Duriel's arms were powerful, his weight was his true advantage.
By judicious use of healing potions and making Duriel's few hits look worse than they were, Thaddeus slowly whittled the monster down. Whenever it looked like Duriel was thinking of a slam, Thaddeus let a blow hit, or would let his own strikes diminish to egg him on. A scepter might not be the best weapon to use on him (something with an edge would slice into that pulpy body,) but perceptibly, Duriel's strikes weakened. His head lowered, bruises appeared under Thaddeus' blows, and finally, his body slumped forward. Thaddeus finished with a blow to the back of Duriel's skull, perhaps the only hard part of his body.
Light finally entered the chamber. Thaddeus was in a pit full of filth, absolutely covered with the stuff. Before him, Duriel's body had burst, spewing maggot-ridden intestines and foul liquid all around him. Huge, hairy worms also squirmed in the pit, waving their heads and slithering along the floor. It was all too much; Thaddeus threw up all over the inside of his helmet. Feeling weak and ashamed, Thaddeus emptied the helm, and looked for something to wipe it out with. Everything he had was covered with something far worse. Sickened, he put the helmet back on and tried to climb out of the pit. The way back to the tomb was too steep, but another entrance stood in the east.
Through a short hallway, Thaddeus saw a gentle glow. In a large cave, a bridge led over a pit of fire; hovering over the bridge was... the most beautiful, awe-inspiring being he could ever have imagined. The glow of its wings filled the room with sublime illumination; armor sheathed its body and a sword hung by its side, but there couldn't possibly be any malice from this being. So overwhelming was this vision, Thaddeus completely forgot that he was still up to his eyeballs in muck. Barely aware of his own body, he went forward, and knelt at the angel's feet.
"Glorious angel! My feeble efforts have been for naught. I have come here in pursuit of Diablo, but have been unable to find or stop him."
"I have tried to aid you in your quest, but cannot do so openly under Heaven's eye. Last night, Diablo and I fought. I tried to stop him from freeing his brother Baal, but I have failed. Now, both stalk your world."
Suddenly, all was clear. Thaddeus had been under a watchful eye, all this time; the fear that gripped him seemed so foolish now. "Your blessings are clear to me! All your gifts have been great and good, though my own weakness and fear have overcome me, so my quest is not complete."
"You must seek out Diablo and Ball. They journey to Kurast, to join their brother Mephisto, who is now lord of that place."
Thaddeus' heart sank. "The prisoner now rules?"
"He has corrupted his Soulstone, and uses its power against his captors. I cannot pursue them; my body is spent, the energies binding me to this world are fading. You must go to Kurast, and prevent the Three from reuniting. If they do, all hope for your world is lost."
"I shall, great angel! I pray for the strength to succeed, to dispel my doubts..."
"Let your prayers rise up from the boat. Time is precious."
"Yes, great angel! I... I..."
The angel gave no sign of impatience, but said, "Go. Now."
Back in Lut Gholein, Thaddeus hastened to Jerhyn's palace, to explain about the sanctuary, the canyon of tombs, the battle with Duriel, and the wonderful angel who appeared to revitalize his quest. On the way, he wondered why everyone in town was running away from him, holding their noses. The palace doors were shut, with Jerhyn and his two faithful guardsmen peering down from the battlements.
"Lord Jerhyn! I bring you news!"
"Whatever you are, go away! I'm summoning more guards!"
Looking down at himself, Thaddeus realized he was still caked in demon sh!t and his own vomit. He'd gone before an angel looking like this! Though his face was burning with shame, Thaddeus pulled his helmet off and addressed Jerhyn again. "Lord Jerhyn! Your palace is safe, the gate went to Horazon's Arcane Sanctuary!"
"That's safe?" one guard asked the other.
"Oh, it is you!" Jerhyn laughed. "You encountered something much worse than Horazon, I take it?"
"I encountered Duriel, the demon lord of excrement!"
Jerhyn nodded. "That would explain it."
"He was defeated, but Diablo and his brother Baal have escaped! I must go to Kurast in pursuit of them, with all possible speed!"
"Go to Meshif, and tell him he is free to go, so long as he takes you there. And please, do something about yourself first! If you come near him, you might kill him!"
Thaddeus stopped in the market square, to take advantage of Lysander's sprinklers. While getting rinsed, he explained everything to Fara and Cain.
"This is a serious setback. Baal is in possession of one of the world's most powerful mages, and Diablo guides his path." Cain frowned. "There is much known only to the Horadrim, which Baal could make use of against us. I fear for our future."
"I do not," Thaddeus smiled. "We are on their heels, and Heaven watches over us."
"What do you mean?" Fara asked.
"In Baal's tomb, there was an angel, who had contested with Diablo."
"Ah, that must have been the enigmatic archangel Tyrael!" Cain smiled. "He was advisor to the Horadrim from the beginning, and gave us the Soulstones. Of all the heavenly host, he could he called the bravest and most sympathetic towards humanity's plight."
"But... he could not stop Diablo?" Fara asked.
"I suppose the combined might of two of the brothers was too much for him," Thaddeus surmised, shaking the last of Duriel off. "Which is why I must go to Kurast, and prevent the third from combining with them."
Slowly, Fara nodded. "I would that you could go anywhere else."
Thaddeus shook his head. "Tyrael told me Mephisto is master of Kurast now. I suspected this some time ago, and am not afraid to have it confirmed."
"I think I suspected it as well." A tear came to Fara's eye. "I fear for you, going to Kurast. The Hand of Zakarum is wicked, and can only have grown worse since I last saw it."
"I... do not know what I will find there." Thaddeus rinsed his helmet out. "No doubt terrible things await my arrival. But I must succeed. There is no other option open to me."
"Of course there isn't," Cain said. "That is why I must accompany you. I have not set foot in glorious Kurast for many years, but I hope my knowledge can aid you."
"I am sure it will. You have been a great help to me. There, I feel a bit more presentable. We must go to Meshif's ship. Time and tide wait for no man."