Thaddeus (Act III)
The elaborate plans of man all end,
Everything that stands will fall.
Nothing is safe forever, my friend;
Do not let its end surprise you.
Can you picture what will be
Years from now, in a desperate land?
-- The Book of Haisin, c. 22, v. 5-10
The whole country was a jungle, a green eagerness enveloping the land. Everything was moist, spreading under its own thick weight; fecundity run amuck and gone rotten before it had time to ripen. From the river, all the way into Kurast, Thaddeus couldn't see anything but green. He could hear much more: squeals, hisses, gurgling, the groan of wood growing so fast it seemed to move on its own. Sometimes, voices came to his ears... high-pitched chittering with a vague language to it, or the groans of those past caring about life. Sitting on the prow of the ship, listening because he couldn't see anything meaningful, Thaddeus felt the whole land tightening around him the further in they went. Dull fear and inactivity ate into his mind. It didn't feel like angel's wings, pushing him where he wished to go. He was going to the worst place in the world, even if he didn't know it yet.
Where the glorious city of Kurast once stood, there was only empty green. The wind died away to a whisper. Apparently, they had arrived. Meshif's men started rowing, looking for a place to land. The green wall opened as the ship turned a bend, where a rotting wooden dock jutted into the river. Fighting against the sluggish water, thick with slime and snaking roots, Meshif steered the ship in. From his vantage point on the prow, Thaddeus saw the people first -- dark, slender people, staring at the ship with empty eyes. If he and Meshif's crew had been angels from heaven, these people probably wouldn't have cared. Some were armed; Thaddeus kept his hands away from his weapons.
"I gave you my word," Meshif said, "and brought you here. But by all that is holy, I wish I never saw this. Are you sure you want to go on?"
"There can be no doubt in my mind," Thaddeus said. "Who are these people?"
"I've never seen any of them. I haven't been here for years. I don't know what this evil is, my friend, but it's obvious it must be stopped. I pray you can before the jungle consumes the last vestiges of my beloved homeland."
"The land does seem to be... consuming itself."
Meshif shook his head. "The jungle made this land a paradise. Now it's as though paradise has festered... and burst open. You don't suppose they'd try to hurt us, do you?"
"It might take more will than they have." The ship thudded against the dock. Thaddeus stepped off, and held up his empty hand. "Greetings. We have come from Lut Gholein, to visit Kurast, and receive what news we may of your situation."
"Welcome to Kurast, traveler," a small man in red said. "Few come willingly anymore, so you may understand your appearance comes as a surprise to us. Tell me, how fares the Hand of Zakarum in Lut Gholein?"
"The Hand does not reach there," Thaddeus said, letting antagonism creep into his voice. "All there thank the Light it has not. My order, the Protectors of the Word, left the Hand and the church in Kurast many years ago, and count ourselves fortunate we did so."
"And the present state of Kurast?"
Thaddeus frowned. "Do you speak of the church, or the city it has become synonymous with? No word has come from either for years. Since I began my journey here, I have seen nothing good, and fear for this land. Or what is left of it."
Without much visible change, the tension permeating the dockside dissipated. Only the man in red was able to smile, though. "I am Hratli, smith and enchanter. As much as it pains me to say, your presence in Kurast is welcome."
"Are you in charge here, master Hratli?"
After a short pause, Hratli answered, "As much as anyone is. Tomorrow, you may be in charge."
"I cannot be in charge of a city," Thaddeus said. "What has happened to the city?"
"What city? There is no Kurast, only the wretched jungle hell which covers all the land and water. I have placed a protective spell over the docks, so if you wish, you may call the seven huts we have left to us 'The Glorious City of Kurast.'"
Despite himself, Thaddeus was beginning to grow annoyed. This strange man was talking in riddles -- complaining in riddles, really. "Where did the jungle come from?"
"From the ground. It is tended by the Hand of Zakarum."
Slowly, Thaddeus sighed. Turning back to the ship, he said, "Meshif, stay in the boat. I will go explore the glorious city of Kurast."
"Don't you worry, I'm not leaving this boat. Never get out of a boat, unless you're going all the way out."
The crowd wandered away while Thaddeus was talking to Hratli. Hratli wandered away while he was speaking to Meshif; the dock was empty now. Aimless wandering seemed to be the order of the day in Kurast, so Thaddeus wandered. Over some rickety wood bridges, past two of Hratli's huts, he found a stone platform built up from the river bottom. Roofed booths surrounded a bonfire; this might have been a marketplace once. Several people wandered around, a few carrying wares.
"Bananas, sahib? Only a penny for the bunch."
The man's voice was so plaintive, Thaddeus gave him two. "That's very cheap, compared with Lut Gholein."
"That is the price. I buy rice from Irenii for a penny, she buys bananas from me, for the same penny. None of us have seen meat in weeks."
A very closed economy, Thaddeus thought ruefully. "Surely animals can be found in the jungle? It can't all be plants."
"Go into the jungle, sahib?" The man looked genuinely terrified. "The jungle would eat me! If we are lucky, the Iron Wolves bring back more than they can eat, but that has not happened for a long time."
"The Iron Wolves?"
"Lady Asheara's mercenaries, sahib. Though I do not consider her much of a lady."
As he ate a banana, Thaddeus noticed a tall woman by the bonfire, staring at him in an appraising sort of way. "Is this lady Asheara?"
"No, sahib, that is Natalya. I do not know who she is."
"I shall ask her, then."
Natalya was quite tall for a woman, and slim. Her hair was cropped down to almost nothing, so looks might not be important to her... however, the leathers she wore gave a different impression. Thaddeus hadn't seen that much female skin since that house in Lut Gholein. Part of him was already starting to dislike her; he tried to suppress the prejudice. Though she might look better if she let her hair grow out. Fara's hair was much nicer.
"Hello. I've heard of your exploits in the west... I must say, I'm quite impressed. Taking on any of the Great Evils is a daunting challenge."
Thaddeus calmly chewed his banana. "You've heard of my exploits?"
"Word does reach here, from the outside. I am Natalya, a member of a secret society pledged to hunt evil."
"You've come to the right place," Thaddeus said. "How did you hear of my exploits?"
"Sailors love to talk, you know that." She smiled; she had a great smile. "It's good to see a warrior in Kurast again, someone who can take on the jungle."
"The jungle is merely a symptom, it seems to me, of a great evil hiding within it. As for sailors loving to talk, I did not know that. The sailors I have sailed with had very little to say about anything."
"You have to know how to talk to them. Let's say I have a certain advantage when it comes to talking with sailors. You're absolutely right about the great evil, by the way. You know it's your own church, and your own patriarch, Sankekur."
"I do not know that, either. Though I admit it is likely. I did not know Meshif or his men left their ship, or that they spoke with you at any length. They are afraid of this place, and seem to be unwilling to come this far."
"You're persistent, aren't you?" Natalya laughed. "Don't worry, I like a man who presses me hard. Tells me his mind's on the right things. You're right, I didn't talk to Meshif. He's still hiding in his cabin. My orders were to come to Kurast as soon as you left Lut Gholein. I've only been here a short time."
Perhaps it was the narrowing of his eyes that gave Thaddeus' thought away. "I'm not lying this time," Natalya said. "I don't like being called a liar."
"Even when what you say is intended to deceive and distract?"
"My organization is a secret; it has to be. I am not disposed to discuss it now."
"Do not worry, I doubt you have anything of importance to say." Thaddeus dropped his banana peel on Natalya's shiny mail boot. "Even if you did, I do not think I could trust your word, so it is better to pay you no heed unless you interfere with my mission."
Striding away, Thaddeus wondered if he should ignore Natalya, or keep a very close eye on her. She knew far too much, and how could she possibly have reached Kurast before he did? Only waypoints allow such speedy travel, and very few people have the knowledge and will to use them. Of course, if she was from a powerful order of hunters, and had visited Kurast before, she might be able to use the waypoints. Perhaps Cain would know something about her, and her mysterious 'order.'
Turning left, Thaddeus wandered onto a larger platform, dominated by a tall pyramid. The sight was not a pleasing one; the Skatsimi religion made use of such monuments. According to the lore of the church, before Zakarum made its home in Kurast, the native inhabitants practiced blood sacrifice, tortured their tribal enemies to death, and even engaged in ritual cannibalism. The pyramids, which they believed made stairways to Heaven, were central in their bloody rituals. Animals, even humans, were sacrificed at the top. After their hearts were cut out, the bodies were cast down the steps to be skinned and eaten. As though the Light could be pleased by such foulness.
Steps did lead up the side of this pyramid, and a fire burned at the top. Perhaps it had been put to use as a lighthouse, guiding ships into port. There were no stains on the steps, thank the Light. At the base of the steps, a tall, muscular man stood, deep in meditation. His priest-like looks suited the setting, but Thaddeus tried not to think ill of him. Thinking ill of people he'd only just met was getting to be a bad habit.
"Greetings, honorable... man. I am Thaddeus, of the Protectors of the Word."
"You now speak to Ormus, noble Paladin."
"Actually, it's Sir Thaddeus. Lady Akara, high priestess of the Rogues, knighted me."
"Ormus was once a great mage. Now he lives like a rat on a sinking vessel. You have questions for Ormus. You have questions for yourself."
A mage; that's not too bad. "I did wonder after your profession."
"The lives we all led, our elaborate plans, are at an end. Ormus is a poet, a teacher, and a seeker. What he seeks, even he cannot say. Seek wisdom with Ormus, or turn away, and seek it in thyself."
The light in Ormus' eyes was either the most sage wisdom, or raving lunacy. Thaddeus was leaning towards the latter, though some of his words were familiar. "What we seek, depends on what we need."
"Can you picture what will be? Are you so limitless and free? Can you picture what will be, years from now, in a desperate land?"
This guy made Hratli seem like a paragon of plain-spoken common sense. "Present needs might overwhelm such long-term concerns."
"Your wisdom is profound. Kurast is desperately in need of some stranger's hand. This is now a desperate land. All of her children... are insane."
Suddenly, Thaddeus recognized the half-quotations Ormus was babbling. They were from the Book of Haisin, one of the most hallucinatory pieces of Zakarumite scripture. Reading it always gave him a headache, but it might help for understanding Ormus' meaning. "My purpose is to rid this land of what plagues it. The demon lord Mephisto has infiltrated and taken over the church of Light. He must be expelled for the Light to shine here again."
"My friend, your words carry your love with you. The blessings of the church are upon your enemies. Go forth, and destroy all you value."
"That is not my goal," Thaddeus frowned. "Nothing here holds value for me."
"Can you picture what will be? Ormus thinks not."
There seemed little purpose to any more talk. Despite being in a churchly order, Thaddeus had never had much patience for mysticism. Solid knowledge and common sense were more reliable, and easier to communicate with the rest of humanity. Past the pyramid, a large house, two stories tall, rose above the water. Several armed men were gathered around the door; it seemed to be some sort of meeting. In all likelihood, these were the Iron Wolves, and the not-quite-a-lady Asheara was inside the house. It would not do to disturb their gathering, so Thaddeus went to look at a small, uninhabited shack near the edge of the docks. Maybe he could stow his locker there.
The shack was inhabited, just in miserable repair. As Thaddeus opened the door, a heavily accented voice squealed, "Leave me alone!"
"Hello. I thought to introduce myself."
"Oh, you're new here, aren't you?"
"Very new; my name is Thaddeus."
"I am Alkor, I peddle potions and salves. Should you wish to go into the jungle, you may want to buy some, but don't come around too often! I do not like being interrupted."
"I suppose insect repellent is popular here."
"Always. If only it did any good for the big ones. Have you seen them? Of course you have not, you are too new. How did you get here?"
"By ship from Lut Gholein, with your countryman Meshif."
"You came with Meshif? The 'tour guide to the stupid'? I am surprised you are here in one piece. Now go away!"
With a shrug, Thaddeus closed the door. "Charmed to have made your acquaintance."
The Iron Wolves' meeting had broken up by now, and they were scattering out among the docks. Thaddeus looked in the open door, and suddenly understood the banana peddler's words. "Hello there," the house's owner said. "Come on in."
Completely at a loss for words, Thaddeus did as he was told. Asheara (it could be no one else) was wearing something a Lut Gholein harem house might consider tasteless. A few tiny patches of cloth barely clung to her most unmentionable parts, not concealing anything at all. Even the color was hardly different from her deeply-tanned skin. "You must be a great adventurer to risk coming here. I'm Asheara, leader of the Iron Wolves."
"Uh... I... ah..."
Obviously greatly amused, Asheara said, "Fresh from the choir, eh boys?" A couple of her mercenaries, standing nearby, started laughing. "Close your yap, Paladin. Guys like you aren't supposed to drool anyway."
His face flushing, Thaddeus stood up straight and stared hard at Asheara's eyebrows. It would look like he was looking her in the eye. "I am Thaddeus, come from Lut Gholein, and the Rogue's Monastery before that. I am on a quest to prevent the reunification of the Three Prime Evils."
"And you came here to do it. Heh. That'd explain what's happening in the jungle. My boys keep blasting 'em to oblivion, but they just come back for more. Should have known there was a prime evil behind it."
"There certainly is. This land is under the sway of Mephisto, lord of Hate. His brothers, Diablo and Baal, are seeking him out."
"If he's anywhere, he's deep in the jungle. Some of my boys have gotten as far as the outer walls, and it's walking trees, psycho midgets, and mosquitoes the size of dogs all the way in. You've got your work cut out for you."
"That does not worry me," Thaddeus said, still staring. "The fate of all life is at stake."
"Uh-huh. If you can't handle it, you can hire one of my men, but don't expect me to hand out help for free."
Thaddeus looked her in the eye for real; she meant it. "I would never suggest it. The mercenary's code is well-known."
"Better be. And don't piss any of them off, either. They're worse than anything you'll meet out in the jungle."
"I am sure they are. My funds are limited, but perhaps I will see you again later."
Asheara raised an eyebrow. "High-quality armor for a poor warrior."
"It was a gift," Thaddeus explained. "Excuse me."
This was a troubled land, in desperate need, but also a troubling place. Everyone he'd met was either hopeless, mad, or almost naked. But then, he'd found the people of Lut Gholein troubling when he first met them, and the sisters of the Rogues. As he went back to Meshif's ship to pick up his footlocker, Thaddeus wondered about that. Was he only seeing the bad in people, on first meeting them? Common townsfolk will be different from those he'd known in the seminary; uncommon folk might be very different. Slowly, he repeated to himself: different does not mean bad. The Protectors of the Word fled a church that thought different was bad. The consequences of those evil thoughts were all around him now. Not for the first time, Thaddeus wished there were someone he might confess to. The state of his soul worried him; the final battle might be fought there.
Arise and go, for this is no place to rest.
Uncleanness destroys with grievous waste.
If a man should go about and utter lies,
saying, "I will preach to you of hate and fear,"
He would be the priest for these people!
-- Visions of Akarat, c. 62, v. 8-12
After his experiences in the west, Thaddeus had some idea of what he needed to do. Merely rooting out evil would not be enough. These people needed more than a respite. To give them hope and a reason for living, Thaddeus would have to bring some goodness back to this land. The church had been overcome by evil decades ago; Mephisto was master of his keepers, and they would certainly strive to protect him. While Thaddeus would need to kill him and his brothers, he could not destroy the church. Sadly, the church would have to be purged and cleansed before it was fit. It was meant to be a vessel for the light; destroying it would leave an emptiness. The church would have to be filled again with the joy of proper worship, to shine once more, as it was meant to.
As he carried his footlocker off Meshif's ship, Thaddeus wondered about the patriarch of the church, Sankekur. Though they'd never met, he'd heard his name many times. He was one of the most distinguished priests Kurast ever produced. Brilliant and compassionate, strong and deeply spiritual, a humanitarian of wit and humor whose whole life was inseparable from the church, Sankekur was outstanding in every way. Even the simple, raw facts of his many accomplishments read like the best efforts of a dozen men. It was only natural for him to rise to the highest position in the church. And now... according to Natalya, Sankekur was at the center of Kurast's corruption. As much as he tried, Thaddeus could not connect the evil around him with the stories about Sankekur. It was easier to believe he was dead, and Mephisto had put some impostor up in his place.
The dockside was full of people, so Thaddeus could not find a house with room inside for him to stay. Rather than board on the ship, he decided to put his things out in the open, next to the pyramid/lighthouse where Hratli's protective spell was centered. It would demonstrate his trust to the locals; hopefully, it would be reciprocated. When he put his footlocker down, Thaddeus heard an unfamiliar rattle. Inside, a battle crown sat next to two runestones, with another one of those notes.
Glad to see you're making such progress. Don't mind the crown: it's not vanity, it's a fashion statement! The runeword is Lore, "Ort Sol." Don't worry, you'll love it; you'd look lousy in a Great Helm anyways. -- The Mule
Set with the runes, the crown seemed to help Thaddeus remember more. The light radiating from its spires was certainly heartening; a much nicer runeword than "stealth." Feeling much better about his chances, Thaddeus turned to the path leading off the platform, and out into the jungle. The first thing he saw was a tall man in a traveling cloak, slowly walking into the greenery. That was surprising, and alarming; no one but the Iron Wolves dared to enter the jungle, and this man wasn't one of them. Thaddeus ran to intercept him.
With his hood pulled down, Thaddeus couldn't see the stranger's face. As he watched, the man disappeared in a puff of brimstone, and four fleshy worms appeared in his stead. They attacked viciously; Thaddeus struck them all down, but the stranger was gone. That had to have been one of the Prime Evils, Thaddeus was sure. But he couldn't find him again; the demon lord was gone. If Diablo and his brothers could vanish whenever they chose, how was Thaddeus going to stop them before they had achieved their goals? He might have to defeat all three together, something no one had ever done. It might not even be possible.
The dockside was lost to view very quickly as Thaddeus moved into the jungle. The green seemed to close in behind him, dank and dark and suffocating. To keep from getting lost, he followed a small river, which thankfully did not branch confusingly, as is often the way of marshy waterways. The first thing he met was a flock of Blood Hawks. What were these creatures doing here? They had never been seen this far east -- Diablo must have brought them with him from the Rogue's pass. The three brothers were rearranging the world to suit them. Thaddeus had found Quill Rats more annoying, but maybe Diablo thought differently.
Beyond them, a group of Thorned Hulks stood by the riverbank, almost indistinguishable from the woody bramble around them. As Thaddeus approached, they stood, and slowly shuffled towards him, hatred burning in their eyes. This was a sad sight. Hulks had always protected Kurast, and worked alongside humans who sought to live with the jungle. Is there anything good which cannot fall into darkness? Perhaps they had simply been deceived: Hulks protect their jungle from invaders, and might believe this unnatural growth was good. Thaddeus was being considered an invader, a threat. As the Hulks came closer, he stood his ground, hoping they wouldn't attack... but fearing they would. They did -- the nearest raised its huge arm, and brought it down where Thaddeus had been a moment ago. A few Blessed Hammers ended their lives.
A jade statuette of a warrior lay tangled in the wood and seeping bracken of a Hulks' body. How it got there was a mystery; maybe this Hulk had grown through the remains of a ruined house, Thaddeus had seen a few among the trees. It would sell for a bit, and money was a great convenience. Then he remembered a collection of statuettes Meshif kept in his cabin, mounted in a special cabinet on the wall. Since he seemed to have a fondness for them, he might appreciate this. It might also get his mind off the destruction of his homeland. Material things can be a distraction from higher, spiritual values, which is why the church frowns on a concern with the material. In this case, however, a distraction would be good for Meshif; he was taking Kurast's plight very hard.
Thaddeus also met a group of Flayers. That was no surprise, they were native to this place, but a shaman was with them, like the shamans of the Fallen Ones. The Flayer shaman did not walk on his own: another Flayer was pressed into carrying him atop his huge head. Like the Fallen shaman, the Flayer could bring his dead lackeys back to life. After beating him to death, Thaddeus let a few hammers fly to deal with his underlings. As they watched the Blessed Hammers spin by over their heads, missing them all completely, Thaddeus could swear he heard them giggling. So he beat them to death as well. Being so small made them hard targets; if Thaddeus ever met more, he would have to find some more efficient way to deal with them.
It turned out that the statuette was part of a collection, commemorating a group of warriors who saved a city from an invasion of the undead. Meshif started telling Thaddeus about the incident, which apparently involved a lot of very large men flexing their muscles, fathering the city's next generation with every woman in the place, and incidentally killing all the undead. As fascinating as the tale was, Thaddeus felt compelled to return to business in the jungle. His long wait in Lut Gholein had left Meshif a bit cash-poor, so he couldn't pay for the statuette, but insisted Thaddeus take a golden bird statue as compensation.
The bird statuette was a frilly little thing with screw holes in its feet, as though it was meant to fit on a perch. While examining it, Thaddeus found a compartment on the underside, full of a spicy-smelling powder. Meshif hadn't known the compartment was there, or what the powder was; maybe an alchemist might know? When Thaddeus brought the bird to Alkor, he leapt at the sight and grabbed it out of Thaddeus' hands. Cackling, he began mixing some preparation, and told Thaddeus to come back later.
While repairing Thaddeus' equipment, Hratli mentioned, "As I told you before, I placed a spell of protection over the dockside. Now, that spell seems to be weakening, and the jungle is creeping ever closer."
Thaddeus was watching a snail crawl along the edge of a sword. "I have noticed it myself. That Flayer head on the spike next to the gate has begun to sprout."
"We certainly would not want more of them here," Hratli said. "With a suitable source of magical power, the spell might be reinforced."
"You know of such a source, perhaps?"
"In my old house, quite near here, I had an old artifact called the Gidbinn, dating from the time of the Skatsimi. In appearance, it resembles a small knife, made of copper. It was of little use to me then, but it is a great repository of power, and would be more than suitable for strengthening the spell."
Thaddeus nodded. "I'll see if I can find it."
Meanwhile, Alkor had mixed the powder with a few other choice ingredients to make a potion for Thaddeus. Eager to demonstrate his trust, Thaddeus drank it; it was strong, not very pleasant to the taste, and went straight to his head. When Thaddeus came around, he was lying on the floor of Alkor's hut, with the old alchemist kicking him.
Slowly, Thaddeus sat up. "What was that you gave me?"
"A potion of life, of course! You are not supposed to fall over dead from it. Get off of my floor! It is my floor, you may not have any of it."
"I do feel a bit livelier..."
"So demonstrate it, by getting out of here!"
After thanking Alkor, who kicked him in the shins for his pains, Thaddeus went back to the jungles. In a small clearing, draped with spider webs, he found an underground cavern. To no one's surprise, the place was full of huge spiders, just like the ones from the catacombs of the Rogue's monastery. Most of their tunnels were too narrow for Blessed Hammer to spin properly, so Thaddeus went through by hand, trying not to strike or step on the many human bodies wrapped up in the webs. In the deepest part of the caves, a golden chest held a great deal of money, and a well-preserved human eye.
The chest was a strong one, all metal, with the highest quality lock. The eye must be very important, but Thaddeus had no idea why. Then he remembered the story of Khalim, a Paladin who rebelled against the Hand of Zakarum, but who did not escape Kurast with the rest of the Protectors. Unable or unwilling to flee, Khalim was struck down (with great sorrow, of course) by the Hand, and his body burned for his heretical beliefs. To the great shock and anger of the church, Khalim's body would not burn, a clear sign of incorruptibility and Khalim's saintly nature. News of this was brought west with many followers of Zakarum; it was the sign they needed to know which side to take. Khalim's body was hacked into pieces, mutilated and scattered to the far corners of Kurast.
Finding even a small piece of Khalim's body, the relic of a saint directly connected with the battle against Mephisto, was the best sign Thaddeus could have found. Cain was very excited to see the eye, and was sure that if more of Khalim's body were recovered, the saint would take some more active role in the battle. Despite the terrific news, no one around the docks seemed to care. Their dejection ran deep, and Thaddeus would have to go to much greater lengths to revive their spirits.
In the beginning, rock and branch
Were all we had. Then came the Light
And the glory of the hammer's magic.
We built, and carved, and forged
Life and harmony from crude wildness.
To reject the hammer is to renounce
Order, and all the gifts of the Light.
-- The Book of the Hammer, c. 2, v. 1-7
Howdy-doo! The gauntlets are "Frostburns", to help those little guys you're about to run into chill out and relax. You also get more mana; what more could a Hammer-man want? Better boots, I know; if you're a very good boy, I'm sure we can work something out.
-- The Mule
As he closed his locker, Thaddeus looked around the dock. At least the people seemed to have accepted his presence. Still... something seemed wrong. On his return trips from the jungle, he could feel a presence here near the pyramid. The pyramid was not to blame, he'd examined it several times. Nor did he feel the unconcealable aura of evil a demon emanates. Nonetheless, the feeling was there and wouldn't go away.
The area near the docks hid one more cavern of spiders. Thaddeus diligently cleared it, but didn't find any more relics of the saint. Venturing deeper into the swamps, he met more of the corrupted Hulks, guarding knots of water-logged Zombies and misty ghosts which shot lightning. The spirits, called Will-o-wisps, are a peculiar form of spectral undead common in swamps and marshes. Some believe Will-o-wisps are created when an evil person dies from a lightning strike, or perhaps when anyone dies alone in a swamp. In happier times, they were only encountered singly, and didn't attack so brazenly. This section of jungle contained so many undead, Thaddeus wondered if some great battle had been fought here. The Zombies didn't even have the rusty remains of armor on, so it seemed unlikely.
Another new encounter in the swamps was the Tentacle Beast. Huge reptiles with long, thin necks and bodies, these poison-spitters were dangerous for livestock even before the land was corrupted. Now, they would attack man or beast, rising from pools and deep waterways to launch globs of sticky venom at anything passing by. Thaddeus met several in the marsh; they kept just out of his reach, spitting and lashing out with two long tentacles. A Blessed Hammer or two killed them, if they hit; Thaddeus had to position himself just right.
Wandering the marshes, finding dead ends, soppy bogs, and impenetrable tangles of growth, took a long time. Thaddeus tried to go against the current, but the river was so tangled, sometimes it flowed back against itself. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that he was lost. Going back to the docks by portal was easy, but he didn't seem to be getting any closer to Travincal. Mephisto was in there, and Thaddeus couldn't waste valuable time wandering around in some forsaken swamp. It pained him to admit it, but he might need a guide, even though it meant exposing them to danger.
The Iron Wolves had reached the outer walls of Kurast, so they knew the way. However, hiring one would mean dealing with Asheara, and he wasn't sure if he was feeling charitable enough to take Asheara seriously yet. Hiring one of the townsfolk might work, but who? Hratli was too smart to go out there. Thaddeus was too smart to take Ormus out there. Alkor couldn't be trusted to find his own rear after he'd been "testing" his elixirs. Meshif still didn't feel comfortable even getting off his boat. So, Thaddeus went to speak with Natalya. He'd have to apologize for the banana peel incident, of course.
When Thaddeus entered the marketplace, she wasn't there. Perhaps she was out hunting evil. Then, very suddenly, she appeared behind him. "Hello."
Normally, Thaddeus was not the excitable sort, but he *never* knew there was someone behind him. He almost hit her. "Oh, hello! I apologize, I was startled."
"Good," she grinned. "I'm not losing my touch. What can I do for you?"
"Well, firstly, I would like to apologize for my earlier rudeness."
"What rudeness?" she asked quizzically.
"I... did not trust your word, or take you very seriously."
"You shouldn't take my word, if I'm lying that badly. And I like it when people don't take me seriously. Makes it easier to get 'em in the end."
Thaddeus shifted uncomfortably. "Yes... Cain has told me he suspects you to be of the Viz-Jaq'taar, the order of Mage Slayers."
"Not so loud, ok?" Natalya smiled. "Don't see why that would make you nervous."
He blinked. "Madam... if what Cain says is true, your order is dedicated to policing the mage clans... by killing any who step out of line."
"So? How is that different from what you do?"
Frowning, Thaddeus crossed his arms. "There is a world of difference. The Protectors of do not conceal themselves, emerging only to kill, and then vanish again. We guard and shield common people and great alike. Doing good for the world is more than eliminating evil."
She was unfazed. "This is a weird apology, you know."
Thaddeus glared... then slowly lowered his eyes. "You are right. I am judging you ill again. That has become a very bad habit of mine."
"Especially since you don't know what you're talking about. How do you know that all the Viz-Jaq'taar does is sneak around and kill people?"
"That is all anyone knows."
"Well, maybe they know wrong. Nobody knows anything about the Viz-Jaq'taar, so everyone assumes the worst. How do you know we don't have more charities than you guys? Because we don't make a big public statement about it? Because we don't go around making sure everybody knows what nice stuff we do, getting them to admire us? Don't criticize what you don't understand."
Try as he might, he couldn't see Natalya running a soup kitchen. "Concealment is the way of evil, hiding in darkness. It has always been."
Natalya laughed. "You're taking on the church of Light. They never hid the terrible things they were doing. Must be a real nice bunch of guys, they operate so openly. You have no idea what you're talking about. If we let them know where we are, the mages would destroy us. Secrecy is the only advantage we have over the magically gifted."
"The church's words were a mask over their deeds; the motivation was concealed behind rhetoric and twisted readings of the scriptures. Horrible as they were, the open statements allowed the wise to see what was happening. Your order claims to watch the mages, but no one is allowed access to them; who watches over the watchmen?"
"We've taken many steps to keep demons out."
"So did Zakarum," he snorted. "I do not believe anything is inviolable anymore. Stealth and the creation of confusion would be more vulnerable to corruption than anything else, it seems to me. It is too easy to simply lie."
"Yeah, I lie, and sneak around, and no one knows about it. Not all of us have the luxury of clanking along in shiny armor, and looking down our noses at everybody else."
Thaddeus fumed, but slowly said, "All I am saying is that lying and hiding can conceal anything, and good people rarely have things they need to hide. Evil thrives in hiding. The assumption is a natural one, and only to be expected. I am not looking down my nose at you. You're too tall, for one thing."
"Evil can hide anywhere, even out in the open. Wait a minute, did you just crack a funny?"
"Yes. I can do that, can't I?"
"I was beginning to wonder. Ok, maybe you're right, there's not much accountability from the outside. We can't lie to each other, unlike you churchmen."
He sighed. "They have been lying to themselves, I think. Anyone can do that."
"Yeah... not much anyone can do about that. Anyway, your sort-of apology is sort-of accepted. What do you really want?"
He'd gotten so distracted, he had to think for a moment to remember. "Ah, I have had difficulty making my way through the marshes. If you know the way into Travincal, and could find a way to help me, I would be very grateful."
"Sorry, I don't know my way in there. My orders are to keep an eye on Ormus."
"Ormus? He seems unbalanced, but hardly threatening."
"He'd like you to think that, but who knows what evil lurks in his soul?"
Thaddeus smiled a bit. "Now, who's making assumptions?"
"He's a mage," she said, as though that explained everything. "I'd like to help you, I know you're going up against the greater evil, but I have to stay here. He could betray us all to Mephisto if given a chance."
Slowly, Thaddeus nodded. "Asheara does not bother you, though?"
With a snort, Natalya answered, "She's nothing but bluff. Tough-talking, but she's never faced true evil. You can tell."
"All talk and no action?"
"Exactly. I mean, who'd go into combat in that outfit?"
A few choice comments about Natalya's own ensemble leapt to mind, but they were better left unsaid. "Someone with something to prove. Or it's for the 'distraction' value. Mages tend to need less armor than other warriors."
"A 'distraction'? You can't have noticed."
"Why not? She's an attractive woman, even if she does try a bit too hard."
"Uh..." Natalya seemed genuinely shocked. "Sure. You had any more thoughts about your church? And Sankekur? What are you going to do about him?"
Thaddeus frowned. "I am not sure what I will do when I find him. They tell me Sankekur now embodies Mephisto."
"I cannot quite believe it. I have read sermons of Sankekur's, letters he wrote to the brethren in other lands. His voice was so clear and pure. I cannot connect that voice with someone who embody Hate. The two cannot mesh in my mind."
"There's darkness in everyone's soul. When you're the head of a church, with thousands of followers, power can go to your head."
"That can happen," Thaddeus said. "For the great, temptations are great. Temptations confuse the mind. Power, ideals, the morality handed down to us, and practical necessity are at war. Perhaps a great and powerful man might be tempted to play god."
Natalya said, "There's conflict in everybody between good and evil, rational and irrational. Good doesn't always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes the better angels of our nature. Every man has a breaking point, and the darkness can find it."
On that cheery note, Thaddeus returned to the jungle. The marshes went on forever, all soggy muck and tangled trees. Insects just loved to crawl into his armor, looking for blood or a place to live. Even the monsters made a mess; drowned carcasses let out a horrific splash when you hit them. The Cleansing aura was getting a lot of use. Occasionally, a corpse would shatter and melt away neatly, thanks to the Frostburns, but not often enough. Along the way, he wondered about Natalya. She wasn't such a bad sort, certainly not as bad as her order's reputation. In a way, she and he did similar things: keeping an eye on evil, and eliminating it when necessary. Doing more would compromise her order's secrecy, though Thaddeus wasn't convinced secrecy was really necessary.
She's also been surprised he'd make a joke, or acknowledge a woman's attractiveness. True, Thaddeus was never the funniest fellow. Even back in seminary, the other students teased him about it. So serious. So earnest... completely unlike the Mule. Every note the Mule left was full of jokes, ribbing, and outspoken humor. Almost...
The thought was interrupted, as a horde of psychotic midgets scampered out of the jungle, howling and gibbering and leaping onto Thaddeus. Flayers, but Thaddeus had never seen this many. They were actually climbing up his body to get closer to his face; three were on his head already, trying to stab his eyes out. Shaking them off, Thaddeus dropped to one knee, and let Blessed Hammer spin. It was a lousy position for defense, but the hammers hit this time; hearing the whirling bronze mallets pound the little guys into jelly was strangely satisfying. By the time the Flayer shaman was carried over, all the underlings were dead. Thaddeus knocked him off his ride easily.
As he continued, he ran into Flayers, and more Flayers, and still more Flayers. Hordes of 20 or more were not uncommon. This section of jungle must be their home area. The hardest part of fighting them was remaining calm and letting the hammers fly; their shrill screaming was quite unnerving. Fortunately, Blessed Hammer did excellent work on tightly compressed groups, leaving only a few survivors to mop up. Sometimes, the shamans would come within Blessed Hammer's range too; they didn't last very long. Certain Flayers used blowguns, with tiny darts, but the "Lore" helm reduced the damage to insignificance; he only had to chase down the Flayer itself. Holy Freeze was helpful for that.
The Flayer Jungles went by with great ease, and eventually Thaddeus found a small village. Literally, a small village. The huts were only 4 or 5 feet tall. The place was full of flayed and dismembered bodies, human and otherwise. Human heads decorated stakes on every roof, and every low wall. Of course, it was full of Flayers. After wiping them out, Thaddeus found a small knife, suspended above a pedestal in the middle of a magic circle. It was made of copper, and shone red in the light. Looking at it, Thaddeus frowned. By Hratli's description, this was the Gidbinn. A small, Skatsimi knife, a repository of magical energy. Thaddeus just hadn't thought about what that meant.
The old religion relied on sacrifice, blood and death to release magical energy. The sacrificial blade was an obvious way to store this energy. The Gidbinn looked old, and had probably been in use for a long time before Zakarum came to the land. It might even have been used afterwards; Skatsim was suppressed, but its adherents were not killed or imprisoned for life. Not in those days.
But now... Hratli wanted to use the energy in the knife to increase the power in his spell. It would protect the people on the dockside. The thought of using this disgusting thing was revolting for Thaddeus. The simplest rituals of the Paladin also use sacrifice, but the Paladin sacrifices of himself, his own blood and energy going into his blade. Taking from another was repugnant and wrong, even worse if their life is taken away to feed some magic. The Gidbinn was an instrument for dark rituals, a power sink. Every bit of mana stored in that blade had come at the cost of pain, probably even death. But if he did not use it, he'd have to find some other mana source, and Thaddeus wasn't sure where he might find one. Every time he went back, the jungle had crept closer to the docks. The people needed the protection of the spell dome, no matter what the source or power.
Thaddeus could think of many good reasons to return with the blade; the only reason against it was his own repugnance for the relic. That was no good reason at all, so Thaddeus went to pick up the Gidbinn. As he touched it, it vanished, and fire leapt up from the pillar. A trap! A small group of Flayers ran screeching out of the darkness -- the one in the lead wielding the Gidbinn. Calmly, Thaddeus knelt, and sent hammers spinning into them. It was a short battle, and the Gidbinn was his.
As a modern earth and fire mage, Hratli didn't know how to draw power out of the Gidbinn. Ormus did; maybe Natalya was right to worry about him. As a reward, he gave Thaddeus a ring, which did him no good, and composed a poem commemorating the event:
Retreating from close combat which he clearly does not crave.
His manners and appearance are clearly meant to please,
So polished is his armor (he's charged outrageous fees.)
But woe to moaning Zombies, which lurk among the dips,
And especially to the Flayers with whom he comes to grips!
Though evil hordes press forward, to victory they think,
They became carpentry projects; you could say that they stink.
Who can say whether his methods are sound, or deeply flawed?
Darkness begins its last retreat when he holds up his rod!
"Hi there," Asheara said as Thaddeus walked in. "How's the jungle treating you?"
"Hello, Asheara. You wished to see me?"
"Rumor around town is that you need a guide to get into Kurast."
"It... would be helpful. I do not know the way."
"Why didn't you say so?" Asheara motioned one of her mages over. "This is Devak. With the protection dome juiced up, I don't need him on the docks anymore. Devak, you wanna take our boy into Kurast?"
"Sure, ma'am. Hey, where are you in the jungle?"
"At a small village. A very small village."
"Hey, you're in the Flayer Jungle. Great -- I love the smell of burning Flayers."
Asheara laughed. "Wish I could join you. Pity I don't have that sartorial flair."
If an Iron Wolf had been listening in on his conversation with Natalya, Thaddeus hadn't noticed him. He was sure Natalya would have; Natalya didn't like Asheara. Maybe one of the townsfolk heard them. "You look fine, Asheara. Flowing robes wouldn't suit you."
"Damn straight," Asheara grinned. "Come see me again sometime, Teddy-boy. There's nothing to be scared of in here."
Their ways are naught but whitewash and lies!
What do they tear down that cannot be rebuilt?
Shut a man out, and the way may be opened.
Ask of the wise. They know judges to be fools,
Send priests away stripped of discernment,
Lose the crowns of kings and bind them in sacks.
We come from the womb for but a few days.
The Light can never be extinguished.
-- The Book of Radenis, c. 14, v. 12-19
"Woo-wee! Looks like it got pretty hairy here."
"Hairy?" Thaddeus asked.
"Don't think I've seen this many of the little bastards dead in one place yet. You say you went in here alone?"
Thaddeus was removing human heads and other decorative elements from the huts. "I am a soldier of the light. I am never truly alone."
"Yeah, whatever you say. Looks like you just bashed in their skulls, didn't ya?"
"It was necessary. I understand that, in happier times, these strange little people were friendly with the peoples of Kehjistan."
Devak shrugged. "No way are they ever gonna be again. These little lunatics killed too damn many of us. Better to just wipe the little fvckers out."
Quietly, Thaddeus laid the Flayers' last victims beside a still pool, and knelt in prayer. He'd found many bodies in the jungle, poor people who hadn't fled quite fast enough. There was no time to bury them, but it didn't matter, with the speed everything rotted. "That does sound very sensible."
"Fvckin'-A! Hey, sorry if the language is bad or anything?"
Thaddeus shook his head. "Violent words for violent times. Tell me, do you know this place? How close are we to the walls of Kurast?"
"Just up the river. You're practically in sight of it. If you could see anything, anyway."
"Very good. Tell me, what is that hole there? Those look like stairs."
"Flayer pit. Never go into those."
"They've got some heavy sh!t in there, man. Tight little tunnels, can't stand up, can't see anything. Go in there, you don't come out again."
"Hmm." Blessed Hammer, Thaddeus knew, didn't work well in confined spaces. He'd have to go through by hand, and might not be able to give Devak much protection. "Perhaps you should just show me the way to Kurast, then."
"I'm not afraid to go in there, you know! I'm not afraid to go in that place, I'm not afraid to go into that fvcking place!"
Thaddeus looked surprised. "I never said you were. You were assigned to show me the way to Kurast, and nothing else. It wouldn't be right to expect more from you."
"Yeah. Yeah, those were my orders. You gonna sit there all day?"
"I was kneeling," Thaddeus said. "There is nothing more I can do. Show me the way."
"Glad to. Just stay out of the way of my fireballs."
Having a mercenary was a lot of trouble for Thaddeus. Devak was the guide, so he had to lead the way -- but he wasn't up to a full frontal assault from a pack of Flayers. The Iron Wolves usually came through in a pack, covering each other, and Thaddeus had to break his concentration many times and rush to defend him. Granted, having a sorcerer was nice for the Flayers with blowguns, but they weren't the dangerous ones. A pack of pygmies would filet him in an instant if Thaddeus weren't in the way. The Book of the Hammer didn't say anything about working with others. The way of the Blessed Hammer seemed best suited to a single warrior, with no one to protect but himself.
Working with Devak had other disadvantages. Foremost among them was his charming personality. He went at the business of being a mercenary with great relish, blasting Flayers right and left, or dueling with the shamans to see who could roast the other fastest. Mages aren't sturdy enough to fight a war this way; Asheara's influence, no doubt. It did seem to reflect a certain lack of practical experience. Occasionally, Devak would take direction, if it involved burning something. Put a string of fireballs along the treeline, please set this bush on fire, things of that nature.
When they found the second Flayer village, they'd both had just about enough of the hireling experience. Thaddeus' skills worked best when he was by himself, with the enemy clustered around him. For his part, Devak wanted to keep well away from the Flayers, and didn't like Thaddeus standing near something he wanted to blow up. Clearing this second village was harder and more time consuming, thanks to their lack of cooperation. Near the village was a waypoint, and a boggy pool of water. A stone platform sat in the middle of the pool, with a tiny causeway connecting it to land.
"That looks like another pit in the middle of that pond."
Devak was just grinning. "You smell that?"
Thaddeus sniffed. "Smell what?"
"Burning Flayers. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love that smell. Smells like... victory. Someday, this war is gonna end. When it does... we are so gonna rule this place."
"You think so?"
"Hell yeah. We're doing really good now. Got a lot of money, lot of equipment, nobody else in the place can take it away from us. You smash the church, who they gonna call?"
Thaddeus frowned. "Who will call?"
"Whoever's in charge! Hell, it might even be Asheara. Who's gonna say no? That'd be cool. We'd be, like, the power brokers."
The Iron Wolves would be the only military presence left in Kurast. "Taking care of the church will come first, of course."
"That's your job. Your technique's kind of weird, but, hey. Whatever works."
Thaddeus nodded, trying to ignore the bad taste in his mouth. The more he dealt with this mercenary, the less he liked him, or Asheara. They were so... mercenary. Having them be in charge of a country would be madness. But they would be, by dint of sheer force, without something to rein them in. "How far to the city?"
"Couple hundred yards upriver."
"Very well. Now that I'm out of the marsh, the river's course is clearer. You have been a great help to me; please commend yourself to Asheara."
"Hey, I was figuring I'd take you into the city. You know, see the sights, waste a bunch of your fellow Paladins. They fry up nice."
With effort, Thaddeus kept his expression neutral. "Before I go to the city, I plan to search the Flayer pits. I am sure they have put their most valuable things down there, and it would be worthwhile to find them."
"Oh. Yeah, that's a good idea. So... you don't need me sticking around, then?"
"I feel I can manage. Besides, someone has to bring word back to the docks."
"Sure, yeah. I'm gonna do that. Well, see ya."
Below the stone platform, tiny steps led down into a deep dungeon. How they kept this pit from flooding completely was beyond Thaddeus. Muddy water was everywhere, dripping from the walls and ceiling, in deep puddles all over the floor. The only good thing about it was that the splashing of tiny feet could be heard long before the Flayers arrived. As might be expected, they were in force in their own lair, and Thaddeus' best skill was useless in the cramped tunnels. In an occasional open area, he could let the hammers fly, but most of his fighting was done by hand.
The Flayers weren't alone in the swampy pit; the place was full of Wraiths. These spirits are created by painful death, so there must have been a great deal of agony down in the pits in the recent past. Human bodies, and pieces of them, were everywhere. To judge from them, Flayers were cannibalistic, and liked their meat still bleeding. These wretches had probably been kept alive for days, their limbs slowly being carved away in pieces to feed the Flayers' hyperactive appetites.
After methodically emptying the second pit, Thaddeus went back to the first. This pit was less damp and more open, but the fighting was even more savage. Flayers, Wraiths, and Tentacle Beasts filled the dungeons, and there were traps in every corridor. For a while, Thaddeus wondered how these dungeons had come to be. The Flayers seemed like a very primitive people, not up to large excavations, or working stone. Then he remembered, this area was civilized until very recently. This was probably someone's basement. It was still impressive that they managed to keep water out, given the swampy soil.
The deepest part of the Flayer dungeon was home to an exceptionally fiery shaman and a pack of his cohorts. Thaddeus tentatively approached, and got a face-full of the hottest flame he'd yet felt. No wonder the Iron Wolves stayed away; even with great resistance to fire, these ones were dangerous. But they were all in an open chamber... with no columns or walls to get in the way. After assessing the situation, Thaddeus smiled, and calmly walked through them into the middle of the room. They seemed surprised (but not ungrateful) when he went down on one knee; then the hammers started spinning. Another short battle behind him, Thaddeus looked over the room.
A glowing, golden chest sat in one corner of the chamber. It held a few rare items (nothing particularly noteworthy) and a well-preserved human brain. Another of Khalim's artifacts? It had to be; anything else would have rotten away long before this. After a short but joyous prayer, Thaddeus returned to the docks.
"Cain, I have a brain!"
"I should hope so," Cain deadpanned. "Though as with all things, the use is more important than the possession."
"No, another of Khalim's relics! I am sure of it."
"Oh, of course! This is most fortunate. Khalim's brain will know Mephisto's weaknesses. I wonder if the Horadric Cube could be used to reunite the parts."
"I would not expect so. This is a miracle from Heaven, not alchemy."
Cain smiled. "The forces of heaven make use of the same magical powers we ourselves do. It is quite likely that our own understanding of magic will be enough to help this miracle along."
While it might be true, Thaddeus had his doubts. Then again, Heaven may have arranged for him to have the tools he needed, without their direct intervention. "If I attempt such a thing, we will need more of Khalim's body. Given how thoroughly the church has divided and scattered him, I am afraid resurrecting the saint may be too time consuming. I may have to make my assault on the Brothers myself."
"Oh, yes." Apparently, Cain hadn't considered how much time it would take to reassemble Khalim's entire body. "Perhaps if we bring together more of him, we may at least speak to him, and ask his advice."
"That may be so. I cannot imagine that I have found these relics, unless I was meant to. In a quiet way, Heaven's will is at work here. As we respected their voices, we must respect their silence, and do as we know we must."
From the waypoint, Thaddeus made his way upriver again. A few solitary knots of Flayers still attacked, but their power was broken. Just as Devak had described, the outer walls of Kurast soon came into view. Jungle growth covered the stonework; any attacking enemy would have his choice of vines to climb, if the gates hadn't fallen off already. The closer he got, the more the walls came into view through the trees, the worse the smell was. He saw the pair of giant, gemmed skulls over the open gates as he was walking down an avenue of heads. Row after row of human heads, impaled on pikes. The outer ones had fallen over into the bogs; piles of them now filled the water.
A cohort of Thorned Hulks guarded the gate. One must have come from a lightning-struck tree -- electricity filled its every fiber. Fortunately, it wasn't so huge that a well-placed charge wouldn't knock it over. After putting them to rest, Thaddeus entered the lower city, a ruin covered with trees and vines. Buildings still stood, but bodies were everywhere. Most had rotted down to scattered bones already. The ones who weren't had been tied to posts or around trees, and cruelly tortured until they died.
Lower Kurast was full of animals. Some of the desert Leapers were here, their skins gone green with some fungus. Huge black apes, with razor-like spines along their backs, might have been temple monkeys, or the passive vegetarian giants of the jungle, once upon a time. It was while he was dealing with a pack of apes that Thaddeus saw Zakarumites.
How could the Iron Wolves call these creatures Paladins? No auras of holiness accompanied them; they bore no shields. All wielded giant axes or scythes, common farming tools. Yet... they wore the ragged remains of churchly robes, now stained and half rotted away. Paladins are expected to wear these simple robes in the temple, to represent the purity and simplicity of faith. They plied their crude weapons with zeal, such as might be expected of the Hand of Zakarum. Could they have fallen so far?
Thaddeus stopped casting Blessed Hammers, and attacked the Zakarumites by hand. These men did not look possessed; the glare of Hell did not shine from their eyes. He'd captured Rogues, and did the sisterhood a lot of good. Maybe he could capture a Zakarumite. The trouble was, these warriors fought on no matter how much Thaddeus battered their bodies. The spirits who possessed the Rogues could only force so much from their hosts. The Zakarumites fought with such fanaticism, the only way Thaddeus could stop them was to kill them. Finally, only one was left. Instead of striking him down, Thaddeus slammed him with his shield, then tripped him up and sat on him.
"Hail, brother. Why are you here, in this place?"
"You are no brother of mine," the Zakarumite spat. "You're one of them, wrapped in a cloak to conceal you. You're lying, father of lies, splitter of falsehoods and tongues!"
"Fragments of scripture do not make up wisdom. I am a Protector of the Word; we left this place years ago. Are you of the Hand of Zakarum?"
"You're with them. We must kill them. We must incinerate them. Pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army. You lie. You want us to be merciful to the ones who lie, how I hate you... Get off me!"
This might take more time than dealing with the Rogues had. This man was in control of his faculties... after a fashion. "Maybe you're right, I have been listening to lies. You can enlighten me, set me straight on the path of righteousness."
"There is no turning back from the twisted path!" the Zakarumite screamed. "I am lost. Claws scuttle along the floor of the temple. A man in a brown mantle came, and I had to bow and worship him."
Maybe this wouldn't take so long after all. The Zakarumite was starting to cry. "May I see him, the man in the brown mantle?"
"You don't talk to him! You don't talk to any of them. You listen. Sankekur has enlarged my mind. He's a poet-warrior, greater than all of us. The temples, they're all for him now. Sometimes he'll, uh, well, you'll bow to him, and he'll just walk right by you, he won't even notice you. And suddenly he'll grab you, and he'll throw you in a corner, and he'll say, do you know that fire is cool? It's not hot, it's cool, and heals, he told me that. It has been told to us! In the beginning, Light shone upon the darkness and the foundations of earth were lain. The wicked try to steal by deceit, and sing in the goodness of the houses, while the Patriarch of all tells us, if you can trust yourself -- I mean I'm no, I can't -- I'm a little man, I'm a little man, he's, he's a great man."
With growing sadness and alarm, Thaddeus listened. "A great man, yes."
The man kept babbling. "He said, I'm going to kill you. And he meant it! He gets friendly again, he does. But you don't judge him like an ordinary man. If you could have heard the man, just two days ago, if you could have heard the man! His sermons are unbelievable! There's so much purity, and strength, and power, and he forgets himself. I mean, we all forget who we are, no, we remember! Why do you want to kill him?"
"Why would I want to kill who?"
"Him! He's expecting you. He expected someone like you. Do you know you're expected? Why? Why would a nice guy like you wanna kill him? Did you know they like you? I heard them, them saying you were coming, they talked about you. They like you, really like you. Now him, he's got something in mind for you. There's something happening here. You know something, I know something, but you won't talk to me. You just sit there and lie. That's right, I know you're a liar! The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad. He hates all this, he hates it! But something in his soul wants it to happen."
"Something is sitting in his soul," Thaddeus slowly answered. "You know that is true."
"He likes you because you're still alive. He's got plans for you. You're going to help him. This is suffering on the earth, our hands were frustrated and saw no success. The Hand went everywhere, we killed and killed, but the enemy was behind us. Logic says there is love, and there is hate -- no fractions! I love you, man. You ever consider freedom? From the opinions of others, even yourself? I want to be free. I hate you so much..."
Thaddeus couldn't make out any more words. Listening to the Zakarumite sob, no words would come to him. He just wept. They cried together for a while. The Zakarumite still tried to push Thaddeus off and reach his axe. But Thaddeus knew it wasn't him doing it. When no more tears came, Thaddeus kneeled on the man's back, and swung his scepter at the spot on the back of the skull, just where the neck joins.
On the docks, Thaddeus asked Cain, "What do you know of Compelling Orbs?"
"Hmm? A Compelling Orb is a powerful device indeed, made by the mage clans of..."
"How may one be found and destroyed, Cain?"
The tone in Thaddeus' voice alarmed Cain. "You... believe there is one in Kurast?"
"The church has had one for centuries. It was used to compel truth from priests taking their vows, and to keep lies out of trials. In unhappy times, the orb could compel truth from enemies without torture. It is being used for something else now. I know it."
"Compelling Orbs are very powerful, and not easily destroyed. How do you know this?"
"Because my brothers and sisters in Kurast love me, and have seen the madness of their ways. How do you destroy an orb?"
Cain thought for a while. "I am not sure. It is rare for anyone to want to destroy one."
"I need to now. You do not know?"
Cain shook his head. "I am afraid I do not."
Thaddeus glared at the ground. "You are useless, old man. I need to sleep."
He said, "There is great power here,
Which may be used to our purpose.
Why can we not use it, as it was used
By those who are now our slaves?
In their foolishness, all the brothers
Answered, "Yes, let us use it on them."
-- The Book of the Hammer, c. 5, v. 5-10
When Thaddeus passed through the gates of Kurast, he began to feel a compulsion. These here in Kurast were his brothers and sisters, not the greedy sinners and worthless pagans of other lands. It was confusing at first; the skulls, the bodies, the idols of death worked into Kurast's very walls, these were not signs of the church of Light. Only after speaking with his brother Zakarumite did the cause become clear. The confusion in the man's mind mirrored his own, but he was trapped inside the madness, trying to get out. No mere fanaticism clouded these men's minds; Mephisto had found his Orb. Could he have intended this, all those years ago, and allowed it to be captured?
Lying on his bunk in Meshif's ship, Thaddeus stared at the ceiling, the full enormity of this ages-old demonic plot beginning to dawn on him. Mephisto's temple had infested the land openly, brazenly daring the church to attack it. Was it built with the intention that it would be lost, to aid his greater victory later? Demon lords are willing to sacrifice all their followers for their own enrichment, and their ends are always kept hidden from view. As he lay there, a feeling of weakness crept through the walls, a sick feeling that no matter what he did... they'd know beforehand. Every move he could make was anticipated, expected, worked into their plan. They planned this for ages, sitting in the dark, waiting for it to happen. Every minute that passes, they grow stronger, closer to their goal.
Someone tapped on the door of the cabin. "Hey," Natalya's voice said, "the sun's been up half an hour."
Thaddeus stared up at her as she looked in the door. "I'm sorry. It's been a bad night."
"You're usually a crack-o'-dawn guy. What's the matter?"
What a stupid question, Thaddeus thought. It's beyond words. But he said, "Perhaps I'm just tired. It is no concern of yours."
"Yes it is," She sat down on the edge of the bunk. "You made it into Kurast?"
"Cain said you were rude to him last night. He's never seen you be rude to anybody."
"Cain may follow me everywhere, but he is not my keeper. Yes, I have been into Kurast."
"You had to kill some people?"
Thaddeus didn't answer. "They've fallen into darkness," she said. "You did what you should have. You did your duty."
"I'm doing my duty. They're doing their duty. So what?"
"How about a little faith?" Natalya smiled. "They just can't see right now. They'll be fine when you kill Mephisto."
Thaddeus shook his head. "I've chased the Brothers halfway across the world. They will not meet me in battle, they do not have to. I will not find Mephisto unless he lets me. He will not let me unless he knows he can win. All of this was planned."
"They can't plan everything. Come on, you're letting them get to you. Yeah, Mephisto's taken over your church. That's even more reason to get out there and get him!"
"Yes," he mumbled. "That has to be done."
"So come on," Natalya said, pulling him up from the bunk. "I'll help you get your armor on. Man, that stuff has a lot of buckles. Which end of this stick do you hit things with?"
"The end with the crown on it." Thaddeus inspected his armor padding; overnight it had grown green with mold. "I hate this jungle."
"You think you hate it? Meshif's been going on and on about the mushrooms growing on his deck. Have you seen those things? They're huge!"
On his way back into the jungle, Thaddeus stopped to apologize to Cain. The old man was not offended, thankfully; just very confused. "If my advice has been inadequate in some way, I truly regret it..."
"Please, do not worry," Thaddeus reassured him. "You have done all you could. All of us are doing all we can. It was just... a very bad night. That is all."
"I wish I could tell you more about the Compelling Orb. They are rare things, considered very valuable to those who hold them, though their potential for evil is great."
"Absolutely. A very powerful tool. I will be going into Kurast today, and hope to find the Orb. Perhaps deactivating it would help our situation."
"I hope so as well. Oh, before you go, let me say that the people of Kurast are very grateful to you for the aid you have given them."
Thaddeus smiled thinly. "I'm sure Asheara is happy with what I have given her. The rest will have to wait until Mephisto's power is broken. Of course, that will make Asheara happier still. I will see you again soon, Cain."
Thaddeus went through the waypoint, and was gone. For his part, Cain was more confused than ever. What had Thaddeus given to Asheara? As far as he knew, Thaddeus didn't have a very high opinion of Asheara; he didn't even like visiting her.
"Hello, Asheara," Cain said as he walked into her house.
"Hi there," she said. "What can I do you for?"
"I have a question. What do you think of our earnest young Paladin?"
Asheara laughed. "Not bad. Can deal with the midgets. He'd make a decent Iron Wolf; just needs to pull that broomstick out of his ass and relax."
"Has he... given anything to you?"
"Sure. A hard time. If he's giving anything to anybody, it's that Assassin. He likes her. They talk about me behind my back."
Cain smiled pleasantly. "Surely there's no harm in that. In these trying times, gossip is one of the few distractions we have."
"If you're gonna talk about me, say it to my face. Anyway, Assassins don't gossip. They collect information. I'm not givin' him anything, as long as he hangs around with her."
"Hello, Natalya," Cain said as he walked down to the marketplace.
"Hello, Deckard Cain. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I have been wondering about something. Tell me, what do you think of Thaddeus?"
She shrugged. "He's ok. But he doesn't appreciate where he is. He takes it seriously when he has to kill someone."
"Shouldn't he? Ending a human life should not be taken lightly."
"When you have to do it, yes. He's fighting church followers, so I guess it's natural. But if he keeps taking it like he is, it's gonna drive him crazy. You don't kill someone, then try to be compassionate about it. You kill, and move on."
"Hmm. You would know more about that than I do. Has he been visiting with Asheara that you know of?"
"Not that I know of. I know he likes her. I think it's the outfit."
Cain raised an eyebrow. "You believe she may have... turned his head?"
"Ever heard of 'opposites attract'? The repressed ones always go for wild girls. They want to do all the naughty things they heard whispered about in religion school."
"That would explain some of the Zakarumite priestesses I met in my youth." For a moment, Cain looked distracted by fond memories.
"You wild and crazy old bastard, you." Natalya laughed. "Don't think you'll find any of them anymore. Have to make do with Asheara."
In Kurast, Thaddeus finished exploring the lower city, and found a bridge over a canal into the middle city. The area he found was a bazaar, a great marketplace with open stalls and large blocks of closed shops. Many of the merchants and customers were still there... in body, anyway. They had been dispatched with slow cruelty. Someone apparently thought it would be humorous to kill the merchants with their own wares; the cutler had been sliced to ribbons; the millner was crushed to a red paste between his grinding stones; a kiln disclosed the ashy remnants of a potter; a vegetable merchant was stuffed until he burst.
Great Thorned Hulks guarded the bazaar, and green vulture demons circled above. But the worst for Thaddeus were the men, now accompanied by their cantors. The zealots sent to greet him in the bazaar were more energetic than those he'd fought earlier. For a while, Thaddeus tried to avoid them. He hid behind buildings or trees, but they interpreted this as cowardice and came for him even more eagerly. That failed, so he tried running around to strike down the priest directing them. When the cantor died, his body disintegrated, the pieces sucked down to the earth by his descending soul.
"Look, there, my brothers!" Thaddeus cried. "Your leaders are corrupted! Evil lies in the heart of the church, do not follow your priests and councilors!" There was no reaction from them; either they couldn't see, or were beyond caring. As they surrounded him, Thaddeus cursed Mephisto, and let the hammers fly. Part of him knew, this is war, a cruel and horrible war. In war there are moments for compassion and tender action. There are moments for ruthless action. The only possible compassion was to see clearly what was to be done, and do it directly.
Another part of him screamed every time a hammer ripped through a human body. He'd killed dozens, hundreds of creatures; these men were just another enemy. It shouldn't matter who they were or what they believed. But as much as he tried to lie to himself, these men were his brothers. They thought as he did. Some might even still think what they were doing was right and good. When it was all done, Thaddeus dropped to his knees, weeping and cursing and praying all at once.
As he went through the bazaar, he ran into more Zakarumites; each encounter ended much the same way. Two temples sat at the corners of the bazaar; the claws of moldy vultures scuttled across blessed stones. Inside, the temples were full of Vampires and Hulks, as well as the priestesses and nuns Thaddeus never saw outside. Inside, cloistered away from the outside world, they had grown pale, and their nails were like claws. To judge from the quantities of human bones littering the floor, sacrifices were held here. In the old days, the remains of any sacrifice were devoured by the priestesses.
In one ruined temple, Thaddeus met a paladin of renown, Sarina. He couldn't think of much to say to her at this point. Not for the first time, Thaddeus wished someone were with him, someone he could trust and take comfort in. It would be nice to have Fara here, he was sure she could overcome her fear. Having her here would help him overcome his own fear and hate. Hate was welling up within him, looking at what Mephisto had done to Kurast. But hate is Mephisto's strength, his greatest weapon and support. Hating made Mephisto strong; but how could Thaddeus move through Kurast without coming to hate Mephisto himself?
Sarina was guarding a book, a black book shaped like a coffin. The text was all old glyphs, which he did not have the knowledge to read. Back on the docks, Cain identified it as the book of Lam Esen, a seer from the distant past. Alkor would be most likely to know how to read the book.
"You have found the Black Book! It contains information on the Prime Evils."
"Such as how they may be found?" Thaddeus asked.
"I will not know until I read it. Busy yourself with slaughtering. I have a love of morbid excess."
Menesemi did not do what was righteous;
He walked with darkness on the paths of sin.
Images were made for the great Abominations.
His sons, and others, were slaughtered as offerings,
Amid burning incense on the high temples.
Smoke of incense covered every high altar,
Burning under every good green tree to cover
The stench of the blood of many, many children.
-- Chronicles of Zakarum, c. 14, v. 23-30
As Thaddeus vanished through the waypoint, Cain heard a voice next to him say, "Damn. He's not going to make it."
"I am sure he will be fine," Cain told Natalya.
"No, he's gone. Did you see his face? He keeps trying to judge this."
"How should that be a problem?"
She tsked, and crossed her arms. "Never try to judge the people you're killing. You have a right to kill them, you don't have a right to judge them. Judgment is trying to do the right thing, and you can't judge anything in war."
Cain shook his head. "Any anger must be directed. Without a moral compass --"
"Did I say anything about morality? I didn't. You gotta be a moral person, yeah; then you have to have the strength to put that aside and kill without feeling. You're not a warrior, I don't expect you to understand. But judgment will kill you."
For a while, Cain was a loss for an answer. Carefully considering his words, he replied, "Perhaps he is trying to do something more than simply eliminate the enemy."
"If he's trying to restore the local's faith in the church, he can forget it. Everything he's brought back to aid the cause has been Skatsimi. The Gidbinn, the Black Book; everyone thinks the old religion is gonna save them. The church is a lost cause."
Cain decided to change the subject; this was too depressing. "Your concern for him is touching. Thought it is not something I would have expected."
From her shadow, Natalya frowned. "What, you think I like him?"
"That is not what I said."
"No, you just thought it. He and me are both police, but he's a rookie, earning his stripes in the worst possible place. It's painful to watch. Why'd you think I like him?"
Cain considered his words for a moment. "Earlier, you said you thought he was interested in Asheara."
"Well, Asheara is sure that he is interested in you."
"What?!" Natalya's shadows dropped. "What does she know about it?"
"Careful," Cain smiled, "Ormus will see you."
As she raised her cloak again, Cain continued. "You speak to him so frequently, and show such concern for his well-being. Besides... if there really is any attraction for the 'bad girl'... you could fill the bill just as well."
"Cain, quit talking stupid. As the last survivor of the Horadrim, I must show you respect, but you're pushing it. I'm gonna go straighten that witch out right now."
As the shadow whisked off to Asheara's hut, Ormus came over. "Hail, Deckard Cain. My shadow has left me; does this mean I have risen from the dead, to feast upon the living?"
"No," Cain chuckled. "It means the ways of women's hearts are as confused as ever. It seems to me that men should never chase after women. If they are polite, well-spoken, but feign disinterest, they will soon find the women are doing the chasing."
"There is a poem called 'Woman,' which Ormus cannot read. There are no words. Asheara is self-conscious of her womanhood. Natalya is ignorant of hers. Combine the two, and true sisterhood will flourish."
Raising an eyebrow, Cain said, "They call each other a lot of things, but not 'sister'. This is something I've seen many times. Any man who approached either of them directly would be rebuffed. But take the same man, and have him express an interest in the other woman, and suddenly a competition arises. I wonder what will come of it."
"Not the noble Paladin," Ormus remarked.
Cain laughed! "Everyone seems to think he has taken a vow of chastity. But I think any romantic inclinations are far from his mind. A pity, it might do him a world of good."
The Kurast Bazaar was beautifully, gloriously empty of life. Except for a Tentacle Beast, poking its head out of a sewer entrance. As Thaddeus approached, it made a borborygmic rumbling noise, and ducked down into the sewers. Thaddeus followed. The sewers under Kurast were huge, almost a single large chamber underlying the upper part of the city. Permanent enchantments slowly cleansed the water, and forced it down to the river. The system was sophisticated and did a marvelous job of keeping Kurast dry; perhaps this was why cellars didn't flood here.
One blessing of the sewers was that while they were full of all kinds of monsters, there were no living humans to be found. Lightning bats and Tentacle Beasts were plentiful, as were the undead, in the form of mummies. As far as Thaddeus knew, the people of Kehjistan never mummified their dead; the warm, wet climate prevented it. These were imports, and did not take to the damp of the sewers well. They stank of decay and mold, and their touch was virulent with disease. Thaddeus was sure they would all fall apart within a week or two, as even their preservative-laden flesh succumbed to rot. Hastening their departure from this world was actually a pleasure, one he could partake of without guilt.
Exploring the sewers was a relief. A few nodes had entrances leading back to the surface, but Thaddeus went through every corner before he had to go back up. One large node had an entrance to a lower level, perhaps some sort of maintenance cell. Down below, a Greater Mummy guarded a small chamber. His pack of skeletons looked odd; perhaps they were the remains of lesser mummies who had lost their flesh. Blessed Hammer sent them to their rest as efficiently as ever. Several chests of treasure were stored in the cell; was this a demonic armory? Or did people, now probably dead, hide precious things down here?
The last chest, near the back of the cell, held the answer: a human heart, miraculously preserved in this most inauspicious place. All the alchemical arts known to man could not keep soft flesh so intact in Kurast, especially under Mephisto's influence. Though he couldn't feel it through the cold of his gauntlets, this heart was alive, alive with the courage and spirit of a saint. Thaddeus sat with the heart, cradling it in his hands. Quietly, almost too faint to be heard, the words of the song came to his lips.
Give your ears to my supplications.
Enter not into judgment with thy servant,
For no man living is righteous before thee.
The enemy has pursued me,
Has crushed my life to the ground,
Made me sit in darkness like those long dead.
My spirit faints within me.
The heart within me is appalled.
My soul is parched and dry.
Let thy will come to the righteous,
Bring me out of my trouble!
For the love of humanity that is mine,
Let me strike down my adversaries
For I am the servant of mankind,
And thy servant as well!"
"Hello, Cain," Thaddeus smiled. "We must take heart."
Cain looked quizzically at Thaddeus. "Hello. Something has happened?"
"Yes, how could you tell?" Laughing, Thaddeus showed Cain the heart. "I've a song in my heart, a heart in my hand, and I am sure Heaven's blessing is upon me."
"You have found Khalim's heart! Perhaps it has given you the courage to face Mephisto. Surely, this is a sign from Heaven!"
"That was never in question. But yes, the sign is heartening. So to speak."
With a chuckle, Cain replied, "I haven't the heart to tell you how awful your jokes are. Put that away now, before someone tries to cook and eat it. Where was it?"
"In a dark pit, deep with filth and rot. My boots were a disgrace."
"I am surprised you're still wearing the leather ones."
"They don't go well with the plate, do they? Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a better pair. Boots seem to be my Achilles heel."
Cain blinked. "Young lad, are you trying to be funny?"
"And failing, apparently." Thaddeus looked up at the night sky, smiling. "Though I know I should, I do not feel tired at all. Instead, I shall go back into Kurast, and hopefully reach Travincal by dawn. The Guardian Tower is there, where I am sure Mephisto awaits."
"Are you sure? Meeting a Prime Evil is dangerous enough even with a full night's rest, and Mephisto may not be alone."
"Time is precious, and I do not think sleep would come to me anyway. But before I go, there are a few things I ought to do."
First, Thaddeus visited Asheara. "Hello, Asheara!"
"Hey there," Asheara smirked. "You look happy. Been 'gossiping' with Natty?"
"No, I came to see you. I just wanted to tell you, you were right, and I was wrong. There is nothing to be alarmed about with you!"
"I wouldn't say that," Asheara said, looking a bit displeased. "What do you mean?"
"When I met you, I judged you by your appearance. Of course, I'm supposed to; you're working very hard to project a certain image."
"Uh... yeah?" she said suspiciously.
"Whenever someone tries so hard to be impressive, they are probably covering up their own vulnerability with a display of bravado. So you see, there is no need to be alarmed by you. I should be trying to reassure you that you should not be alarmed by me!"
"Hey, that's not --"
"There is nothing wrong with letting others see your softer side! It would be good for all of us to be more forgiving with each other. The pillars of humanity are faith, hope, and love; intolerance for each other's foibles is not included!"
"Don't you get any funny ideas about love," Asheara snapped.
"Why not?" He picked Asheara up under the arms and gave her a big, wet, sloppy kiss. "We all should love each other a little more. Now excuse me, I'm off to see the non-wizard. And remember: lighten up a little! It'll do you good."
Next, Thaddeus went to see Meshif. "Meshif, you need not remain here. Your services are not needed, there is no further need for you to stay."
"That's very kind of you! But why would I go now? From what I've heard, you've almost reached Travincal. The High Council of Zakarum is there!"
"And this gives you what reason to stay?"
"Hratli tells me the High Council is responsible for the jungle. They fell to Mephisto's evil ways a long time ago, and once you get rid of them, the jungle will stop growing and go back to what it was before! Why would I want to miss that?"
Though still terrifically happy, Thaddeus realized he'd forgotten the council. They were great priests, all well known to him. If Mephisto possessed Sankekur, head of the council, those men and women would be deep in his service. The cantors and rectors he'd met in Kurast were certainly tainted; the council would be even worse. "Oh, yes... yes, there will be more killing before I am done. Restoring balance to this land will require it. Do you know who sits on the council now?"
"No one outside Travincal has seen the council for years. Rumor has it they've lost much of their humanity, and look like horrible monsters."
"Hmm. Not a good sign, when they remain in hiding. Speaking of hiding, let me speak with Natalya. She's something of an authority on that."
Down in the marketplace, Natalya was waiting for Thaddeus. "Hi there. Heard you went to visit Asheara."
"Yes, I thought I should let her know I no longer think ill of her."
"You can say that again."
"Of course I could, but there wouldn't be much point. I just wanted to reassure her that she could relax around me."
"Why would she want to?" Natalya snidely asked.
"It is her own choice. But she is trying so hard to be impressive. There must be a great vulnerability underneath that prickly exterior she cultivates so assiduously."
"So, when did you become interested in her soft girly bits?"
"When I realized why she is behaving the way she is. Someone must have hurt her, a long time ago, and she's never recovered her trust of humanity."
"And you have just the thing to save her from herself, right?"
"I don't know about that," Thaddeus lowered his head. "I just hope I can bring some good to the people of this land. Some time ago, a very wise woman told me that my actions helped restore her faith in humanity. That's really all I want."
Natalya raised an eyebrow. "For a guy like you, you seem to know a lot of women."
"A whole sisterhood of them," Thaddeus said, chuckling. "I'd also like to thank you. As horrible as Kurast has been, you have helped me see and learn many new things."
She seemed surprised. "Like what?"
"Not to judge by appearances and first impressions. The soul is far more important, deep within and sometimes hard to reach. Knowing why someone does as they do, reaching some understanding of them, I need to look past the skin into the heart." Natalya almost jumped away when Thaddeus gently kissed her. "You have a good soul, Natalya, though your means and methods are unfamiliar to me. But they're not what matters."
"Uh..." Natalya murmured intelligently.
"Now, I must get back into Kurast. A world of time may pass in a moment, but even a moment is precious to us. I hope to return soon."
I know your many transgressions,
How great your sins are.
Do not turn aside at my gate --
No righteous man shall afflict you.
I have built a house of hewn stone,
But you shall dwell in it.
I have planted vineyards for you;
You shall drink of the wine.
-- Visions of Akarat, c. 101, v. 1-8
The ruins of the upper city held much wealth, and two more temples. Not for the first time, Thaddeus wondered how the giant skulls on the walls got blood and gore between their teeth. He was probably better off not knowing. Nuns were cloistered in the temples. They used bows and arrows; Thaddeus was reminded even more of the corrupted Rogues. Other violations in the temples were crowds of slobbery Blunderbores, Vampires, and Claw Vipers. Thaddeus kept Khalim in mind, to know he was not alone, and not think of the gory altars and bones scattered on the floor. Above one high temple, the roof had partially collapsed; enough remained for Thaddeus to climb up and look inwards to Travincal.
Holy Travincal is the city within the city of Kurast. Zakarum's holiest places, most sacred artifacts, and all the hallowed traditions were kept on an island of stone in the middle of a lake of pure, clear water. Like the rest of Kurast, the water was black and bubbled with the stench of decay. White marble was stained a dark, rusty red; the blood of thousands had been poured out there. The temples were knocked over or gutted. With some, new buildings stood in their place. Others were empty pits of slimy water. Thaddeus hadn't known what to expect of Travincal. Somehow, he'd thought it would look worse than it did.
Meanwhile, back on the docks, Natalya went to visit Asheara. "Hello."
"Hi there," Asheara regarded her suspiciously. "Kill anybody yet?"
"The night's still young." Natalya tapped her foot nervously. "Did he come here?"
"Yeah, about half an hour ago. He was acting really weird. What's it to you?"
"Did he... want anything?"
"Yeah... I didn't give it to him, if that's what you're thinking."
"If what is what I'm thinking?"
Asheara folded her arms. "What are you talking about?"
"What are *you* talking about?"
"Don't get cute. You know damn well what I meant."
"I simply wish to know. It is a perfectly fair question," Natalya responded innocently.
"Did he... want anything?" Asheara asked coyly.
After regarding the other woman for a moment, Asheara smiled faintly. "Oh, he was hot and bothered. Really passionate. I might consider it."
Calmly, Natalya replied, "Good. You could both use it."
Obviously, this was not the answer Asheara was expecting. "What?"
Natalya smiled. "Yeah. After he left you he came over to me, and he was oh so sad for you. You must have been hurt something awful to put up such a front, he was saying. He's sure you're all warm and tender inside, if only you could trust other people."
"That is such bullsh!t. He did not say that. No, he probably did. Sh!t."
"Sure he did! Let me ask you something personal."
Frowning, Asheara said, "Go ahead."
"How long has it been since you've actually been with a man?"
"You heard me. You sure put it all out on display... but how long has it been since you've actually done anything with it?"
Asheara fumed. "I've got a merc band to run."
"And that takes how much of your evenings? Or are you just... nervous?"
Glaring, Asheara snarled, "I would hand him his balls if he even thinks about threatening me..." Then she smirked. "How long has it been since you've done anything with a man? Besides kill him, I mean."
"Don't change the subject," Natalya snipped. "Besides, I'm on duty."
"Yeah, sure. Hmm, maybe you're right. I haven't broken any vows of chastity in years. Might be fun again. He sure as hell wouldn't want it out of you."
"Yes, he would. He kissed me."
Asheara laughed. "How courtly and romantic. Face facts, sugar: he went to you second. And all he did was try to kiss you."
"He could have done more than that, but he didn't. He's a gentleman. Probably why he's not interested in you."
"You should have been here earlier. Mmmm..."
"Don't try that act on me. He only has pity for you. Oh, she's so defensive, she must be so afraid, you should hear him go on about you."
"Poor Natty. A buddy to talk to, a shoulder to cry on, then he comes back to me. Don't worry, it'd just get in the way of your 'duties': sitting on your skinny, pale ass all day, staring at Ormus."
Natalya gasped! "There is nothing wrong with being fit."
"Someday, you'll learn men like a woman with a little padding on her." Asheara breathed in deeply, looking down at her chest with approval.
"Is that why he never comes to see you, then?"
"Once. What'd he have to say?"
"He didn't do much talking..."
"Then he left. And you weren't even trying to chase him out, were you?"
Asheara frowned, "Yeah, all right, he went running off. But he came to me first!"
"I knew it!" Natalya cackled. "A pity mission. Then, his duty done, his thoughts turned to pleasure..."
"Quit twisting it! He likes me best!"
"No, he doesn't! He likes me best!"
While Thaddeus was back on the docks visiting Ormus, he heard a fearful row coming from Asheara's house. Someone was having a fierce argument in there; he went over to look.
"Hello?" he said as he walked in the door.
"What do you want?!" Asheara and Natalya screeched together.
Thaddeus blinked in surprise. "Nothing, I suppose."
Thaddeus left wondering what on earth those two had to argue about so loudly. As far as he knew, they had as little to do with each other as possible. Whatever the cause, it would probably be best if he did not get involved. They were both strong-willed women, and might not accept him meddling in something he had nothing to do with. Back in Kurast, Thaddeus found the grand causeway, a permanent bridge connecting the upper city with the inner city. Two more temples rested on the causeway, and a group of the Desert Raiders of Lut Gholein guarded them. They were no happier in the jungles than any of the other desert dwellers; their morale was so poor that only the leader ever came anywhere near Thaddeus. After clearing the bridge and temples, he arrived at the gates of Travincal.
From up close, the corruption of the city was palpably worse. The salty smell of blood was everywhere; once-white marble was deeply stained with layer upon layer of gore. Entering was easy: the gate towers supported no gates. Why should they, when the Light's enemy was within? Even at the entrance, Thaddeus could feel the Orb, pounding at his will from the Guardian Tower on the other side of the city. He strode towards it; no one opposed him until he reached a central platform where four bloody altars stood. There, black-skinned zealots charged en masse, with a circle of priests hiding behind them.
The crowd around him was too great; he couldn't reach the tower without dealing with them first. He couldn't even get to the priests without striking down the zealots. For what he hoped would be the last time, he cast Blessed Hammer on a fellow Zakarumite, letting the hammers spin and strike them down. Several of the priests died in the flurry, and a group of Vampire Lords; the rest he killed by hand. As the last of the priests fell, one of the High Council of Zakarum came out of the tower.
By all the Light, Thaddeus hoped never to see such a sight again. Mephisto had twisted as much of the man's body as could be, wrenching it into bizarre shapes hobbled by deformity. Yet, exactly as much humanity remained as would assure the viewer that this creature was once human, and a particular man at that. Of all Zakarum's priests, Ismail, called Puretouch for his blessed power with healing, was always considered the gentlest and kindliest. His barely recognizable face twisted into a leer of pleasure as he bore down on Thaddeus with a huge, three-headed flail.
His gorge rising, Thaddeus could not bring himself to hit this thing. He wanted it dead, but not if it meant touching it. What remained of Ismail was no concern anymore; Mephisto only left enough of the man to horrify any who saw him. Thaddeus positioned himself, and cast Blessed Hammer repeatedly, pounding the thing into jelly. Luckily, the hammers also killed a pair of Tentacle Beasts living in the watery pits near the towers. As Ismail dropped the flail, it flashed with silvery light, and a voice said, "Return with me. I bear you good news."
Thaddeus was not in the habit of ignoring miracles. He picked up the flail and cast a portal, returning to the docks. "Cain, do you know what this is?"
"Ah!" Cain said. "Khalim did bear a great flail as his favored weapon."
"Yes, great Khalim! The Durance lies beneath the Tower, I know."
"This is good news!" Cain said. "What is to be done?"
This Thaddeus did without hesitation. When he brought it out again, the flail was golden instead of cold iron, and each ball resembled a human skull. The flail's appearance was a bit shocking for Thaddeus, until Khalim spoke again. The skulls mouth's moved in unison with his voice. *Go into the tower, and smash the Compelling Orb. Do this, and your compatriots will be free, as will I. Quickly, now! There is little time.*
When Thaddeus returned to Travincal, another councilor was waiting for him. Geleb, Keeper of the Flame in the holy city, was once a mighty priestess. Now, she summoned fiery beasts from beneath the earth for her master. Thaddeus charged right through her, smashing her up and down the length of Travincal until her grotesque body gave out. When he returned to the tower again, two more councilors came out. These he did not recognize, but beat them to death as zealously as if he had. Two more came out; one was Toorc the Avenger, a Paladin of much renown. At least, he was once. When they were dead, Thaddeus bowed his head for a moment's prayer. They had not come all at once; Thaddeus might have died if they had. Perhaps their jealousy of each other had saved his life.
Inside the blackened tower, dried blood on the floor crunched beneath Thaddeus' boots. The whole building seemed to pulse with angry, arrogant energy, demanding his obedience and the surrender of his will. It felt like his helmet was the only thing keeping Thaddeus' head from bursting with the pressure. Through a red haze of pain, he looked around the tower; a blinding white Orb sat on a black stone pedestal. Taking Khalim's flail in hand, Thaddeus struck the Compelling Orb. There was no sound of breaking glass, or splintering stone -- no sound at all, in fact. The Orb simply vanished in a puff of smoke.
The aching pressure in his head suddenly gone, Thaddeus stood gasping. When he could open his eyes again, he saw that the tower floor had collapsed, tumbling down into a broad set of stairs leading into a pit. Before going down, he went out into Travincal, and found a group of Zakarumites. They ran at his approach. Khalim's flail was gone, vanished along with the Orb. Thaddeus took up his scepter again, and went down into the Durance.
Mephisto, terrible Lord of Hatred,
Bringer of sorrow after sorrow, spoke:
"Know that I determined your ruination long ago.
I planned from days of old what will come to pass.
I know your comings and goings. Rage against me,
Dismayed and confounded by what I have brought.
I will heap evils upon you. Hunger will waste you,
Icy winds and poisonous pestilence devour you.
Teeth of beasts and crawling things, flow with venom!
You will never discern to what end --
For you will not know me when I come."
-- Chronicles of Zakarum, c. 19, v. 18-28
The welcoming committee was a pack of Fetish skeletons, the kind that explode when they die. Gingerly, Thaddeus stepped around them, casting Blessed Hammer, watching them dart in and out among the whirling hammers. Sometimes they hit, and the skeleton went up in a burst of fire and bone fragments. Sometimes they missed, and Thaddeus had to charge the skeleton to kill it. Charging with his shield sent most of the bone fragments away, so he was rarely hurt. Behind the Fetish skeletons were Vampire Lords. Their decaying bellies bulged from gluttonous feeding, stretching the skin tight and translucent. As the hammers whirled through then, they burst like ticks, thick fluid oozing from their rotting guts.
On a return trip to the docks, Natalya stopped Thaddeus on his way to Hratli's. "Hello. How are you holding up?"
"I don't feel anything at all."
"That's good," she replied. "You're getting used to it."
"I do not want to be used to it," Thaddeus sighed. "Killing is necessary, but it should not be something we grow accustomed to. It is too easy an answer."
"It's the only answer. These aren't people you're dealing with."
Not now, Thaddeus thought. "There do not seem to be any in the Durance."
"No, Mephisto sent the Zakarumites out to die. The Iron Wolves captured some."
"Really?" Thaddeus stared at her.
Suddenly reticent, Natalya said, "But they haven't lasted long."
"What is the difficulty?"
"Um... a lot of them are killing themselves."
"Oh," Thaddeus nodded. "I understand. Many do, when their fall is clear to them."
Natalya nodded. "Well, they're... really, really contrite. But everyone here on the docks is happy and grateful for what you're doing. I just hope you can defeat Mephisto."
"I have to," he said. "If I do not, all of this will begin anew."
"Mephisto is embodied by Sankekur, maybe the most powerful mortal in the world. This is an incredibly dangerous quest. I wish I could help you somehow."
"Could you leave Ormus, with a clear conscience?"
Her eyes narrowed. "No! He's probably waiting for something like that. He'd get us right at the worst possible moment."
Frowning a bit, Thaddeus nodded. "I have seen no outward sign of corruption in Ormus."
"Unlike your Zakarumites, he's smart enough to hide it. No, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that. I can't go with you. But maybe... if there were something I could do for you here?"
"There is nothing to be done here. Kurast will rebuild itself, I am sure, but that must wait until afterwards."
"Yeah," Natalya said. "But there must be something I can do for you... maybe take your mind off your problems for a few minutes?"
"My will is focused now, I could not encompass distraction. Were I to turn away, I might not be able to return to my duty in time."
"No, you don't understand... it wouldn't take long at all."
"Diablo and Baal have already entered Mephisto's durance. The longer they are together, the worse it will be for us. Perhaps I can catch them in their reunion, before they unleash whatever new horror they are planning. I must leave now."
"But... no, you're right. Duty comes first."
Deeper in the Durance of Hate, Thaddeus found more pits of death. It was hotter down here, and all the blood was dry. He could walk over the dead; they puffed into dust under his boots. The level was full of Vampires and giant Blunderbores. The flabby flesh of giants was less vulnerable to Blessed Hammer than the brittle bones of the Vampires -- Thaddeus often had to kill them by hand. In one large chamber, he broke up some sort of conference of the fat, smelly things: two named Blunderbores, one enchanted with lightning, the other enchanted with cold, and with a spectral hit. The battle ranged all over the room, as Thaddeus dodged behind chests, around columns, constantly casting Blessed Hammer and zealously smashing any who came too close. It was worth it in the end; one dropped a pair of plated boots, rare ones with useful enchantments.
His old pair of leather boots looked a bit odd with the plate armor, so Thaddeus was eager to trade up. Asheara happily took the old ones off his hands. "Hey, faster running and some great poison resistance. Quite a few of my Wolves would kill for something this good."
"I am sure they will go to a deserving warrior."
"Uh-huh. How's the durance?"
"Dry and still, full of fiery death."
"Sounds like a nasty place," she smiled. "Need anything for the fire?"
"Something to deal with giants would be better. They swing human bodies as weapons." After a moment's thought, he said, "During a battle with the giants, I heard something. A bellowing scream, horrible, but with no fear in it. Like a man breaking from himself."
"Gotta be one of the Three, at least. You're close."
"Very close. I can't see them... but I can feel them all."
Nodding, Asheara turned to her bodyguard. "Get lost."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, and left.
"What is it?" Thaddeus asked.
"It's traditional," she said as she sidled up to him. "The conquering hero always gets the lady's favor before he goes in." Then she grabbed him behind the head, pulled his face down, and kissed him hard, tongue snaking into his mouth.
"Mmmphglff!" Thaddeus said, stumbling a bit as he tried to catch his balance and not fall over on her. Part of him crazily wished that she'd at least put her python down before she did things like this; it was poking curiously at his ear.
Breaking the kiss with a smack, Asheara grinned. "Smooth, lover-boy. Can tell you've had a lot of experience with this."
"Madam!" he sputtered, "the last thing you should call that is traditional!"
With a wicked grin, she purred, "If you really want to be traditional about it... I think the traditional favor is a piece of the lady's clothes, worn next to her knight's heart..." She reached behind her to undo her top.
Thaddeus quickly looked away. "I don't think you have enough to spare."
"Least I can do, for the man handing me a new kingdom. Come on, you know it's gonna happen. Somebody has to be in charge of this mess. Did you think it would be Ormus?"
"That is no concern of mine. And yes, I knew it would happen."
"You obviously don't object too much," she smiled. "Lady Asheara, Lord of Kurast. I like the sound of that. And I owe it all to you. So why are you getting so upset about me bestowing my 'favors' on you?"
For a moment, all Thaddeus could see was red, with Asheara in the middle of it. "Since you are so *kind* as to ask my opinion... I think you will be the worst ruler Kurast has ever had!! Ruling a country is much harder than managing a band of mercenaries, and you don't even do that very well! But... no one left alive in Kurast wants power as much as you do, so you will get it. Knowing what will happen does not mean I approve of it!"
Glaring at Thaddeus, Asheara drew herself up to her full height. "You damned Zakarumite. All you people do is stand around judging everybody! Look what that holier-than-thou crap got you: your church is a corrupt wreck, Paladins are demons' slaves, everybody in the whole fucking world hates you! I am going to run this country. When I do, no one's gonna judge me! I will do whatever I want, and no one can say jack-sh!t about it! Now go back to your damn assassin and get out of my sight!"
"I will go back to Travincal. My duty lies there."
What did Asheara know of duty? Nothing. Who could lead, without knowing the duties that fall upon a leader? In the old days in the west, there had been hordes of men and women like her. Hundreds of tin-plated dictators ruling tiny patches of land, thinking all should go according to their whim. They tried to conquer their neighbors regularly, thinking to increase their holdings. None knew how to govern what they had -- would increasing the demands on their authority improve matters? They couldn't even govern their own natures. Now that good government had collapsed in Kurast, the worst and most desperate for power would come to the fore, clawing for all they could get.
In the durance, no more cries echoed up from below. It took Thaddeus forever to find the stairs to the lowest level; why had the Horadrim made this such a maze, anyway? Vampires, Blunderbores, and a frighteningly fast Fetish skeleton pack harried his every step. Slowly, horror crept into his mind, worse horror than Mephisto's lackeys could inspire. He was too late. Whatever the Three Brothers were doing, they had already done it. Now, they were just toying with him, waiting for him to deliver himself to them so they could laugh in his face and destroy him. Then they'd destroy the world. He should turn around now, cut his losses, turn around and get out of this place. The Three together in one place was too much for any man -- even angels would fear to tread there, who was he to go in? Then, in the last place he looked, he found the stairway down into darkness.
At first, Mephisto was little more than a voice. \Come in, honorable guest./
"I hear you," Thaddeus called. "Will your brothers not speak?"
\My brothers have escaped you. But not by much. Your arrival is very punctual./
"Flattery will get you nowhere, demon." A horde of Fetish skeletons ran hissing out of the darkness. "What, more useless minions? How much more time do you need?"
A raspy chuckle echoed out of the darkness as Thaddeus let the hammers spin. \You presume too much. My business is done. All that is left is pleasure./
Rigorous application of Blessed Hammer destroyed all the skeletons but the most powerful, which ran away and hid. Thaddeus charged and smashed it. "I will not bother to ask what pleases you. Answering me would give you too much satisfaction."
\You know me, then. They did not./ As he said this, two more council members ran out of the darkness. Only seven sat on the council, Thaddeus had not expected to see more. To judge from his face, one was Bremm, famous for calling lightning down from the sky to smite his enemies. None came now, though he fought with conviction. \Tell me... what do you think of my methods?/
"I see no method at all," Thaddeus grunted as he beat the councilors to death. "Random death and pointless destruction, accomplishing nothing of lasting value."
More chuckling. \I expected someone like you. What did you expect, in this place?/
In a central chamber, a pit of boiling blood took up most of the room. It might have been lava, but for the human bodies roiling and bobbing in it. Thaddeus went to the side, where he could see an entrance. "Cease this questioning, demon. I have no more tears left to shed for your satisfaction."
\I shall tell you what you should have expected. Honesty./
"Honesty from the father of so many lies?" Thaddeus spat. Yet another council waited in the wing: Wyand Lifebringer, though he would not call her that now. "Even when you speak the truth, it is in the service of a lie."
\Who should expect honesty from the church of the Light? You train the young to spread fanaticism, destroy with lightning and holy fire. But you cannot allow yourselves to say a simple word like 'fuck' because it is obscene!/
"Fuck you," Thaddeus snarled, fighting his way through a few Vampires.
That brought a hearty laugh. \Such horrors you must have seen, to bring such anger out of someone like you. Good, honest anger. I detest the stench of hypocrisy and lies./
"You're lying, you hypocrite." Thaddeus finished Wyand off and found another entrance to the back of the chamber.
\Who is lying? Tell me... are you an assassin?/
"The assassin is sitting on the docks."
\An assassin is sent to kill. Are you an assassin?/
"I am a soldier of the light."
Mephisto appeared out of the darkness. \You're neither. You're an errand boy, sent to collect a bill centuries old. And I am the one who sent you./
Thaddeus took out his maul and charged. Straight into an icy ball Mephisto let fly. Without his shield, it chilled him to the bone instantly, and the impact stopped him dead in his tracks. He charged again, to be struck down by the laughing demon lord. This was not working; all the goading had made him too angry to fight. Rolling away as Mephisto floated forward, he got to his feet, quaffed a potion, and readied his shield. The second ball of cold shattered on it, chilling Thaddeus for but a moment. Swatting at his long, bony arms, he slowly moved in, towards Mephisto's misty body.
Clouds of venom and ice swirled around Mephisto's body, deflecting most of Thaddeus' attacks. Numbing cold, or sparks of lightning, shot from the demon's hands, but they didn't bother Thaddeus much. The greatest danger, here up close, was those long arms, which struck terrifically hard. He kept his shield up, zealously smashing away, eyes shut to slits against the sharp fragments of ice that came from every blow. When Mephisto tried to move away, Thaddeus let a few hammers fly before closing range again; some of them even hit. The ice ball seemed to be Mephisto's most dangerous attack, but he couldn't cast it as long as Thaddeus was so close, flailing away at him.
It was a grueling battle. Thaddeus cast Blessed Hammer; he called on the spirits of Paladins past to wreak vengeance on Mephisto; he even charged him when he tried to retreat. Every skill he had, he used on the demon lord, keeping the fight close and avoiding all his most powerful attacks. Slowly, Mephisto weakened, but it took such a long time... Thaddeus almost wished he'd speak again, just to relieve the tedium. Finally, after a very, very long time, Mephisto crumbled to the chamber floor. And Thaddeus' wish was granted.
\The horror... the horror you will face when I come again... I will exterminate you all./
All that remained was a broken-up human body, stretched and twisted out by that hideous strength. And a stone, a soulstone glowing with an icy illumination. Thaddeus took it. A few Vampires remained in Mephisto's durance, hiding in the corners. They guarded all the greatest treasures of Kurast; at least, the ones which survived. There was an axe, the Axe of Fechmar, a relic of legend. The legends hadn't mentioned it being ethereal.
Back on the docks, Cain and Ormus greeted Thaddeus. "This is a great day!" Cain said. "You have Mephisto's soulstone! The demon's essence is trapped there, though it will not make a permanent prison."
"You have defeated a Prime Evil in combat. Ormus is impressed beyond words. But what of his brothers, who came so far to join him?"
"They were not in the durance, so far as I could see. But there was, in the middle of a boiling pool of blood, a red gate full of the screaming insane faces of the damned."
"Not a good sign," Cain said inadequately. "Surely, the Three have opened a Hellgate into Hell itself! Diablo and Baal must have gone through."
"Of course," Thaddeus nodded. "All of their old portals were closed long ago. Why would they return there?"
"Who does not miss the sights and sounds of home?" Ormus asked, without a trace of irony. "Gates to Hell have always meant but one thing; invasion is imminent."
"Diablo and Baal were the highest commanders of Hell's armies. They bowed to Mephisto, but the eldest Brother seldom took direct command in war. I would imagine that they want to reclaim their infernal thrones, and marshal Hell's forces to invade our world again!"
Slowly, Thaddeus nodded. He felt weak. It wasn't over, it was only just beginning. The world was not ready for this. The church, intended to be the shield against invasion, was in tatters. Only a few faithful were left, in far off lands. "The gate must be closed. Can it be closed by any art we possess?"
"Ormus knows not the ways of Hell's magic."
"In the past, Hellgates were closed only after enormous efforts by many Horadrim. The source of the gate must be found and destroyed... but the magics are usually based in Hell itself, and well protected by Hell's mightiest forces."
"Then I must go through. Tell Asheara's Wolves to be on guard against anything coming through the gate. Where are all the Iron Wolves, anyway?"
It suddenly occurred to Thaddeus that the docks looked deserted. "Well..." Cain started to say, then lapsed into silence. Ormus never said a word.
"Where is everyone?" Thaddeus asked.
"Celebrating," Cain replied.
Happiness did not seem to accompany the word. "Where are they?"
"By the south docks."
Near the marketplace, Thaddeus saw fires burning. A great gathering of people clustered at the edge of the dock, cheering and shouting happily. Their noise almost covered up the screams. They had some Zakarumites. One was tied to a log, being ducked into the river until he nearly drowned. Just before his struggles ceased, they pulled him out, gave him just enough time to recover, then ducked him again. Another had been bound to a stake and covered with wet clay. He was rotating over a fire, slowly roasting to death inside his boiling prison. More were being slowly fed into a pit of Flayers, screaming for a quick death while the starving things ripped them apart and ate them from the ankles up.
Several Iron Wolves stood by, laughing and joking about having to go get some more; these ones were almost used up. The townspeople laughed and shouted, beating and kicking the Paladins of the Hand of Zakarum for dead wives, husbands, children, or friends. The scene was like something out of Hell. Thaddeus stared. When they noticed him, the shouting died away into silence.
"These were men," Thaddeus whispered. "These were men who fought with their hearts and souls. They had families and children, filled with love. Their judgment was taken away from them, and they became monsters. That is over now."
"SHUT UP!" a woman screamed, throwing mud into Thaddeus' face. "They butchered my husband, my sons, my daughters! It took days for them to die! My husband begged to die before they were through! Now THEY are going to beg ME to die!! SO SHUT YOUR PREACHING FACE!!! I will HAVE what's MINE!!"
A roar of approval went up from the dockside. Everyone started throwing mud, rotten bananas, or whatever else came to hand. The Iron Wolves started laughing, and some of them got in on the fun too. In his mind, Thaddeus could hear Mephisto laughing along with them. Defeating a Prime Evil in combat meant nothing -- a temporary setback at best. His victory in Kurast was far, far greater than his defeat.
Slowly, Thaddeus turned around and walked away. There was nothing he could say. He could not save them, nor the Zakarumites, or anyone else. There was nothing he could do. Except... try to foil Mephisto's plans, whatever they were. Back in the empty durance, the Hellgate stood waiting. Three human skulls, white and clean, lay on the ground where Mephisto died. For a moment, Thaddeus stared at them, wondering whose they were, and what their presence might mean. No answer came. He stepped into Hell.