Thaddeus (Act V)
A city built on a hill cannot be hidden;
It is a beacon in war. Look and despair!
Even now, I would that you knew the ways
Peace is brought through faith and arms.
Are any so blind, as they who will not see?
The days are come when your enemies
Surround you, hem you in on every side,
Dash you and your children to the ground... -- Visions of Akarat, c. 63, v. 4-11
"What is the Worldstone, Cain?"
"I have no idea. The outside world never knew what was hidden in mount Arreat. I only know because Tyrael told me, while we were in Pandemonium."
"Surely, someone must have guessed?"
"The world's sages have long debated the purpose of Mount Arreat. Among the Horadrim, at least 5 theories were considered credible, though I think the idea that it contained the egg of a new world is a bit far-fetched. Not that the idea is without merit; many seers have spoken of worlds coming into being this way, and the --"
"All right, never mind. Why was it placed here?"
"For protection, I believe. Tyrael said that the soulstones used to imprison the Prime Evils were in connected to the Worldstone, but the Worldstone is far more ancient. Apparently, the local Barbarian tribes were charged with its protection for all time, which is why they have always been so hostile towards any outsiders."
Thaddeus frowned. "Why Barbarians? From what I have heard, they do not seem to be the most... reliable of people."
"Now, now... don't believe everything you hear." Cain smiled. "I am sure Heaven had its reasons. Perhaps these hardy folk were seen as purer, less corruptible than civilized men. Or it may be that the profound isolation of these mountains makes keeping it isolated from humanity that much easier. You must admit..." Cain said, looking at the snowy peaks rising to the sky around them, "it would be difficult to find anything hidden up here."
"At least during winter," Thaddeus agreed.
"Perhaps we should part ways and explore the town. I am eager to meet these people, as I have heard many tales of their fearsome battle prowess and wild ways. Judging by the rumors, the best approach with them is to be blunt, but respectful. Candor is held in higher regard than tact."
"And to think I resolved to be more polite," Thaddeus said ruefully. "You feel you will be safe, alone among these people?"
"If I am not, it would be best if I found out now. I am sure you need not worry about whether it is safe to be here, but you must be here. Natalya failed to kill Baal, you must do so in her stead."
Cain went off to the right, along the high platform they found themselves on. Thaddeus took the left-hand route, down some stairs towards the sounds of a smithy. In one corner of the walled town, he found an enormous man hammering out a giant axe on an anvil.
"Greetings, I am Thaddeus."
The Barbarian looked up, brow knitted in confusion. "Who are you?"
Perhaps working in such a noisy environment had damaged his hearing. "I am Thaddeus, a Paladin of the order of Protectors of the Word. I am here for Baal."
Tossing aside his hammer, the Barbarian grunted, "All of us are! Won't do you any more good than it's done us. How'd you get into our city?"
Thaddeus looked around. City? He'd been in fortresses bigger than this. "If I am trespassing, I apologize."
"What are you sorry for? You own the ground under your feet until someone takes it from you. Probably wouldn't be too hard, you're a weedy little one."
"Then I will not take up much room. To judge from the few people I have seen, you have a need of warriors; I hope I can fill that need."
For some reason, this seemed to amuse the Barbarian immensely. Thaddeus wondered if he might ever stop laughing. When he finally did, he clapped Thaddeus on the shoulder, staggering him. "I haven't had a good laugh for a long time! Sure, you can be a warrior! If you want to take that tiny hammer of yours and dent a few skulls before you die, go right ahead! While you're at it, why don't you kill Shenk the Overseer?"
"I would be glad to," Thaddeus said as he straightened his helmet again. "Where might I find this Shenk?"
"Behind the besiegers! Where else would a general sit out a siege? Take your clean, shiny behind out the gates, up the hill, past that little army out there, and kill him."
"Sounds simple enough. Though I assume there is a good reason your people have not done it themselves."
The Barbarian picked up his hammer again. "You trying to be smart with me?"
An answer leapt to Thaddeus' mind, but he decided not to express it. "I meant, Baal's army must be more formidable than that."
With a groan, the Barbarian returned to the axe he'd been working on. "When Baal came, our warriors sallied forth, the way they'd been born to. Almost a quarter of them died that first day. Our elders had sacrificed their lives to put a magic dome over the city; all it did was trap us here to starve."
"A magic dome?"
"The invisible dome over the city. Didn't you see it?"
Raising an eyebrow, Thaddeus said, "It must have escaped my notice."
The Barbarian chuckled. He didn't seem like such a bad fellow, despite his rough way of greeting strangers. "You never told me how you got inside the city."
"You never told me what I can call you."
"No, never did, did I? I'm Larzuk, smith of Harrogath. I'm descended from a line going all the way back to Krugim, the personal armorer of our Immortal King himself. But my smithing days are almost over."
"There must be a great need for a smith now... unless there are so few warriors that your arms and armaments go unused?"
"Not yet. More of Qual-Kehk's men die every day. Soon, I'm going to have to put down my hammer and take up a sword myself."
"Hammers are capable weapons in the right hands. I think you'd do well to study them."
"There's no matching a sword in battle; all real warriors know that. I once had an idea of rolling a cart fitted with flailing hammers up the battlefield, to run through the enemy at high speed while keeping the warriors safe... but it's a stupid idea. No one could make it work."
"Something like that might be as dangerous for your own troops as the enemy. Who is Qual-Kehk, by the way?"
"Our chief man-at-arms. By the gate. Didn't you walk past him?"
"He... must have escaped my notice too."
"How did you get in here, anyway? You sure didn't come in the gate, and there isn't any other way!"
"I came through another gate, a magic one. I had to come a long way, you see."
Larzuk snorted, crossing his tree-trunk arms. "Do you think I'm daft? I know better than that. If a magic portal could go through a dome, Baal's forces would be in here!"
"That is true," Thaddeus nodded sagely. "You have to be right, so I guess I came in the main gate after all."
"You climbed the back wall, didn't you? No, there's a thousand-foot cliff back there..."
"That would be a difficult climb in full armor, carrying this locker."
"Yeah... so how'd you get in?"
Thaddeus shrugged. "A magic portal. I've just come from Hell, where an archangel made a gate for me to come hunt down Baal before he destroys the Worldstone."
With a snort, Larzuk returned to work. "Lying to make yourself look good is the mark of a coward. If you don't want to say, just tell me to shut up like a man would."
"I'll have to remember that. It's been good meeting you, Larzuk; I hope to be back soon, with good news."
"Wait... how did an outsider like you know about the Worldstone? Or that Baal's here after it? Word couldn't possibly have reached anyone yet!"
"The archangel told me."
Larzuk looked nonplused. "Oh."
Continuing his tour, Thaddeus found most of the city to be empty. A few very large men sat by small cooking fires, and a few very large women moved slowly about on various errands. All stared as Thaddeus went past, but no one did anything, or responded to his smile. Only one sneered: a thin, white-haired man Thaddeus detested on first sight.
"Well, well. The siege has made everything in short supply... except fools."
Thaddeus sniffed. The air smelled stale and moldy, with a hint of clotted blood. He hadn't smelled anything like that since he'd been in the tombs of Lut Gholein... except the mummies smelled nicer. "Greetings. You must be someone of importance."
The sneer changed to a smirk. "And what makes you say that? Please, enthrall me with your acumen."
Thaddeus quietly said, "You have obviously been studying necromancy. Such a man would have to be very bold, or of high standing, to show his face on a public street."
The two stared hard at each other in silence. "That is a strong accusation for a stranger to make, against an elder of Harrogath. You have some evidence to offer?"
"I will not, after you wash your hands."
After glancing down, the elder tucked his hands close to his body, as though for warmth. "As the last elder, it is my task to prepare our dead for cremation and burial. Few can keep their hands as clean as you obviously have."
"I have had blood on my hands, but it was fresh. You are the last, you say?"
"I did. The others sacrificed themselves in a useless ceremony to save this city."
"The force dome. I hope it was not as useless a gesture as that."
"Saving Harrogath would be very simple. There is no need for this battle, apart from Qual-Kehk's desire to have some purpose for his life. All could be ended easily, without bloodshed, but few have the wit to see how or the courage to do what would be necessary."
"And a sharp-witted person like yourself... ?"
"Each man must do what is right... without caring what others think."
Every instinct Thaddeus had was screaming to smash this sneering old man's head in right this moment. "Honored elder... I have been trying not to judge ill of people I have only just met, and see the good in them when I can. You are making this very difficult."
He took a step back. "You do know that if you raise one hand against me, you will never leave this city alive."
Lead me not into temptation, Thaddeus thought. "I have no intention of beginning my visit to your 'city' with armed assault. Whatever you have done, it is far less important than the things we will do now."
Nearby, a square with a well sat roughly near the center of town. The city gates were just to the north. Next to the well, Cain was talking with a white-haired and bearded man, clad head to toe in bronze and iron armor. He was huge (everyone in Harrogath was huge) and very impressive looking, with a great-sword on his back. Even at his obviously advanced age, Thaddeus would not want to meet such a man in battle.
"Here he is!" Cain exclaimed, motioning Thaddeus over. "Come over and introduce yourself to Qual-Kehk, something of a leader here."
"Hello, Cain. It is an honor to meet you, Qual-Kehk. I have heard your name spoken with great respect."
"Hail, noble Paladin," Qual-Kehk intoned. Very few people know how to intone. "You are welcome here, in our hour of need. In my youth, I considered joining your order, and making the pilgrimage to Kurast."
Thaddeus wondered, what order of Paladins might he have gravitated towards? Or would he just have taken the knowledge of the Light back to the mountain? "You would have been welcome. The church would have been glad to receive your devotion."
"Having a true man among you would have done your order good! I was young and foolish then, and should have known my place would always be here. The protection of the sacred mountain is a higher calling than anything your church could possibly offer."
Cain laughed, a bit nervously. "He means, his people received instructions directly from Heaven to protect Mt. Arreat. Leaving would mean abandoning that charge!"
"Of course," Thaddeus nodded. "The word of Heaven should not be ignored."
"Or twisted to suit slick-tongued priests, who want golden chalices where wooden cups will do. Word has reached us that your church fell under its own ponderous weight. Such is the fate of 'civilized' men, who do not respect the ways of the ancestors."
Thaddeus smiled. "You are a proud people, I perceive. My only hope is that I can make something of myself among such capable warriors."
"It will be an honor to have a warrior of the Light fighting alongside my men. Our sagas mention your ancestors, shield-bearers of noble bearing who strengthened our men by their mere presence." Qual-Kehk smiled. "Not that they could do much on their own. If you could do even that much, you would have my gratitude. But don't expect any gifts of Heaven to protect you. They haven't saved my men."
"What more can I do than my best?" Thaddeus asked.
"And that has been a very great deal!" Cain smiled. "Two of the Prime Evils have fallen, the third surely cannot be far behind. Baal is on the run, it is only a matter of time."
"Yes..." Qual-Kehk frowned thoughtfully. "You have told me of these things, Deckard Cain. Somehow... it simply does not seem likely to me."
"I understand," Thaddeus nodded. "I hardly believe it myself."
"Ha!" Qual-Kehk laughed. "Any real warrior knows what he can do. Go out with my next wave of men, and try to make a showing of yourself. Watch the catapults; I've lost many to their long range. If you mean to live, either be quick, or a coward."
"I shall be quick."
The proud are forced to abase themselves before
the Light, but the lowly stand and are saved.
We deliver the innocents of the world to justice;
You will be delivered into righteous glory
Through the cleanliness of your hands.
-- The Book of Radenis, c. 22, v. 28-32
"Hail, fellow warriors. Have you --"
"What do you mean, fellow warriors?" one spat. "Look at Mr. Shiny-Britches here, 'fellow warriors!' Don't he look pretty?"
All of them laughed, far more than was really necessary. "He must be scared! Look at the little guy! With all that on, he might be half my size."
"And he's got a shield to hide behind! Baal's troops don't use arrows, fool!"
"What do you want around here, anyway? You don't belong here! Run home to your mammy, you coward. This is work for men!"
Nodding, Thaddeus slowly said, "Actually, I meant to ask you something, but you have just answered me. Who will be leading you against Baal?"
"None! We have no leaders, all are equals!"
"You little striplings from the southern lands take orders from kings and generals! Anyone tries that with me, I'll smash his face in!"
One Barbarian laughed. "Makes you feel better, I'll give you orders! Fetch me an ale, little boy! Ha ha! What'd you think of that?"
"I didn't think there was any ale here," Thaddeus calmly answered. "I would have guessed that you've drunk it all already."
"That we have," one snorted. "We might have left a thimble-full for you! I'd guess that's all you could take!"
"Naw, don't give the little guy ale! He'll piss himself when he sees Baal's troops and get his nice shiny suit all rusty."
At that point, the gates of Harrogath were opened. With a tremendous yell, the Barbarians beat their chests with their fists and sallied forth, running onto the battlefield. Thaddeus walked behind, wondering what Baal's troops would be like. Surely, they couldn't be worse than anything in Hell itself. There were demons outside the gate, small one with leathery skin plating their backs and shoulders; they probably wouldn't have been dangerous if the Barbarians had stayed in a tight group. Instead, after racing each other out the gate, they split up and attacked in a frenzy, making no attempt to coordinate their attacks, protect each other, or even avoid being hit. Thaddeus couldn't believe what he was seeing.
The demons were obviously familiar with Barbarian tactics. They waited in clusters of 5 or 6 individuals, just enough to surround a single screaming-mad Barbarian and cut him to ribbons. Concentrating, Thaddeus ran up behind the nearest Barbarian and began casting Blessed Hammer. The blessing of Saint Maccabee protected the man from the whirling hammers, but Baal's minions were struck down. After thinning the herd enough that the Barbarian could take care of himself, Thaddeus ran to the next, repeating his performance. Moving upwards past the resentful Barbarians, he began to see old fortifications built into the sides of the hills. There were trenches filled with stakes, or flat areas for siege engines. Their layout seemed to reflect a theory of warfare the southern lands abandoned centuries ago as too simple-minded. Any reasonably intelligent opponent could move around them easily. Baal's demons got more use from the fortifications than the Barbarians ever would have.
None of these demons were ones Thaddeus had fought before, but the texts of Zakarum described them well enough. The small leathery ones were slaves to an overseer, great fat things armed with whips. The slaves were no great threat unless charged into a suicidal frenzy by an overseer; they would then run to an enemy and explode, sacrificing their own body to serve their master's will. Without slaves between themselves and an enemy, the overseers were nearly helpless, but getting rid of their "wall of exploding meat" could be tricky. Here on the foothills, there were no overseers. The only other demons were Death Maulers, extravagantly named creatures made partially out of stone and metal. They had a trick of extending long tentacles from their arms, burrowing underground to strike up at an enemy. To Thaddeus' surprise, they could do this across trenches, the tentacle snaking among the stakes and bursting out on the other side.
The catapults Qual-Kehk had warned Thaddeus about were siege machines manned by a few Death Maulers. They had been set on the platforms, and would have rained death down on Harrogath if any were close enough. Their range was great, but not that great. At least the Barbarians hadn't built too many things their enemies could use. Since they couldn't be used on the city walls, the catapults were loaded with alchemical explosives for use against men. Every now and then, a ball of fire or ice would burst where Thaddeus had been a moment ago. If he kept moving he was reasonably safe, and it was easy to destroy the catapults once he was close enough.
Meanwhile, back in Harrogath, Cain was trying to speak with Qual-Kehk. "The battle with the Lord of Terror was surely the worst, but he has seen no need to speak of it."
With a snort, Qual-Kehk intoned, "IF he defeated Diablo, it was by accident and he is too ashamed of his weakness to tell of it. This Paladin you brought with you may be a fine priest, but he is not much of a man."
"Surely, someone who had defeated two Prime Evils in combat does not need to prove himself any more..."
"A warrior's reputation is everything. When I spoke to him, I called him a coward to his face. A man, a warrior, with any pride would have struck me. He answered with meek and mewling words, obviously afraid of an old man. The words of a coward mean nothing to me. I cannot believe he defeated Hatred and Terror, no matter what anyone says."
"No, no... he would not strike you, out of deference to your great reputation! You may remember, he said he heard your name many times."
"Hmm, that may be so," Qual-Kehk said, puffing out his chest. "It would be foolish to strike at me, so perhaps he is simply not a fool. Nonetheless, he did not answer me as a man would have. If he dares to face them, Baal's forces will tear him to pieces."
"Ah," Cain said, pointing to the gate, "here comes one of your men with news."
"Vardhaka," Qual-Kehk smiled. "One of my strongest warriors. He has slain many demons in this siege. What could have brought him back so early in the battle?"
"He looks a bit dejected," Cain said impassively.
Ignoring Cain, Qual-Kehk asked, "What news?" when Vardhaka approached.
"The battle goes well," he muttered. "The siege may be lifted soon."
"What?! Has having one Paladin on the field made us that much stronger?"
"My strength is nothing!" Vardhaka screamed in anguish. "As I went to face the enemy, great bronze hammers appeared out of thin air, and struck them down before I could reach them! Once, I hit one; my axe sent the demon reeling like never before, but before I could attack again, the hammers came from nowhere and killed it! When that shrimp bothers to use his little stick, it hits harder than I, in a fury of blows fast as Heaven's lightning! What good are weapons to us? All of us might as well never have been there at all!"
Cain was pleased to note that Qual-Kehk looked visibly shaken. "Are you wounded?"
"Hardly scratched," Vardhaka wept. "He healed me as he went past."
"Then what are you doing running back here?!" Qual-Kehk demanded. "There is a siege to be lifted, and here you are whimpering in the city square. Have you no shame? I don't care what any southlander does, your place is on the battlefield. Get back out there! Harrogath and our ancestors look on you."
Sniveling a bit, he put his helmet back on and ran out the gate, with far less enthusiasm than he had the first time. Cain looked up at Qual-Kehk, who was frowning and obviously deeply troubled. "I hope nothing is wrong?" Cain said.
"Of course not. What could be wrong? The battle goes well. Events seem to be turning in our favor for the first time in weeks. Soon, there may be cause for celebration." Qual-Kehk paused to touch a wooden fence, then said, "If so, I will be very pleased."
Thaddeus hammered his way through the first set of fortifications into what seemed to be an enemy camp. Great rollers used for crushing city walls stood idle next to tents made from huge bones and skins. The bodies of a few Barbarians, stripped of most of their flesh, hung on meat hooks next to great cauldrons. By now, four Barbarians were moving along with Thaddeus in a group. They seemed to resent it, judging from their baleful looks, but stayed with him. Every now and again, Thaddeus stopped to pray, helping his companions recover from the injuries they insisted on getting. This irritated them even more.
Shenk was not in the camp, so they moved on. Beyond was a cramped defile between a high cliff and a steep drop. As might be expected, the narrows were defended; tiny Imps with big heads and small bodies, almost as small as Fetishes, began teleporting around and hurling balls of fire as they approached. Thaddeus charged into the middle of the group, but Blessed Hammer was not particularly useful here. These little ones kept their distance and peppered him with fire; the Barbarians weren't having much more luck. Finally, Thaddeus had to just chase them down and smash them. They weren't as tough as Fetishes, though they might have been even more of an annoyance.
On a return trip to Harrogath, Thaddeus saw several of the Barbarians he'd gone out with lying in beds in a single building, obviously a hospital. A single old woman he hadn't yet met tended them. Not introducing himself to such a caring person was a tremendous breach of etiquette, so Thaddeus went to meet her.
"Greetings, noble mother. I am Thaddeus, of the order of Protectors of the Word."
"Hello, young man. You need not be so formal. I am Malah, and I welcome you to Harrogath."
"I have been here for some time, but thank you. You are running a hospital for these poor men?"
"It is all I can do to help. You have the look of a warrior to you; if you are here to help too, you need only ask for healing potions or anything you might need."
Smiling, Thaddeus took several healing potions from his pack and gave them to her. "I had been selling these to Larzuk, but you will find a better use for them."
Malah's eyes brightened. "So that's where Larzuk found so many of these. You must be a great warrior indeed to have so little need of them."
"The Light blesses me with healing, and redemption from victory in battle. Your people are stronger than I am, but Heaven aids me directly to aid me in my quest." I also dress and act more sensibly, Thaddeus thought.
"What is your quest? Is it to kill Baal?"
"Of course. It must be done, to save us all."
Malah sighed. "A short time ago, I might have told you to go home, and save yourself the trouble. I do not know why we cannot stand against Baal. Every invasion that came before was defeated easily. Now, I wonder if the Ancient Ones have revoked their blessing in our hour of greatest need, and we are destined to fail in our life's purpose."
Thaddeus shook his head. "I do not know why events have turned out as they have. But the Worldstone is safe, and your purpose is fulfilled. Baal will be defeated."
"That is very good of you to say. You know, I have heard tales of an outlander coming to town, who claims to have defeated Mephisto and Diablo in single combat. Now, I think that has to be you... but you haven't said a thing about it."
"There is nothing to be said. Yes, I defeated Mephisto and Diablo in single combat, but all that effort will be for nothing if I cannot kill Baal. Now please excuse me; the longer I stand here, the closer he comes to his goal."
Beyond the narrows was another open plain full of demons. These must be the reserves, or perhaps they were guarding Shenk. Judging from the bodies, Thaddeus could see that a few Barbarians got this far sometime in the recent past. Most of his compatriots were still with him, so Thaddeus went up the hill, casting hammers repeatedly. By now, he'd seen the great and mighty Barbarians in combat enough to form an opinion. They were indeed mighty, fierce and fast and terrifically strong. But they weren't fighting the demons. They were competing against each other. Racing out the gate, they were trying to prove who was bravest. Those suicidal charges were to show they weren't afraid, even though a sensible person would have been. Avoiding injury in battle wouldn't let them show off how tough they were, which must be they resent healing. It may be a good way for an individual to fight and impress others... but it's no way to win a battle.
As they approached the top of a hill, Thaddeus heard the crack of a whip, and a guttural voice howling orders. Smiling a bit, he hammered through a crowd of Death Maulers up to a group of slaves gathered like a wall around the hill. At the very top, a demon so fat as to be almost globular squealed and shook a great bullwhip. This overseer's bulk would probably make it very hard to kill -- getting any weapon deep enough to reach the vitals through all that fat wouldn't be easy. Its short legs were almost invisible behind the wall of slaves, but its long, spindly arms had almost no strength to them; other creatures had always done the overseer's work for him.
Thaddeus stood at the bottom of the hill and cast Blessed Hammer. As the overseer plied its whip, several of its slaves had swollen with energy, flesh actually protruding from under their body plates. Getting rid of them before they got near would be an excellent idea. Hammers skimmed along the edge of the hillock, tearing through the front rank of slaves. One hit was enough to get the energized ones to explode, messily; their companions did not appreciate this. Unfrenzied slaves would come down the stairs and attack (the Barbarians took care of them well enough) but the exploding ones ran for Thaddeus in a straight line; standing well away from the stairs ensured they would never come near him. Finally, Shenk was alone.
Climbing the hill, Thaddeus stepped over a pile of dead bloody slave-bits to attack Shenk. The overseer's great rolls of flab flopped back and forth as he ran around, howling at his troops to drop everything they were doing and defend him. A few more slaves came from the other side of the hill; Thaddeus started casting Blessed Hammer. All went well until one frenzied slave managed to avoid all them and get right next to him. The explosion was one of the most painful he'd recently experienced; thank the Light that Oblivion Knights never did things like that. Looking out from behind his shield, Thaddeus couldn't see Shenk. Anything that fat and slow couldn't have gone far... where was he?
"You bastard! You killed him," a voice said from below.
Thaddeus looked down the hill at the Barbarian. "What was that?"
"You killed Shenk! Those damn hammer things killed him!"
Next to Thaddeus, a huge pile of greenish goo was dripping off a surprisingly delicate skeleton. It was as though all the fat burst off Shenk's body after he died, and was oozing away from his bones with a will of its own. "Oh, I didn't notice. That's good."
"YOU DIDN'T NOTICE?!"
"My mind was on dealing with his slaves. Now, I'm sure Baal will send another one of his generals to renew the siege, if we give him the opportunity. Let us smash all these catapults and fortify those narrows, to keep Harrogath safe. There isn't much food in town, either; we should get as many of those rabbits over there as we can."
Returning to Harrogath, Thaddeus was pleased to note plenty of Barbarian warriors in the town square, on their feet. The healing potions he'd brought back had done some good. No one was hurling insults either. Qual-Kehk was happy to see the siege lifted, and agreed that fortifying the narrows would be a good idea, since he had so few men they couldn't possibly hold the wider plains. Larzuk was deeply impressed, and apologized for doubting Thaddeus. He'd never expected to hear a Barbarian apologize for anything, so he was very pleased and accepted graciously. There was an odd thing in his footlocker, though -- a maul and three runes, with one of the Mule's notes.
Howdy doo! This is the last thing I have for you -- the runeword is "Black." You might try it out on those teleporting Imps; a charge should do the trick. Be good, show them Barbies it's not all about who's got the biggest sword, and keep the faith, brother!
- The Mule
This is a sign for you, a prophecy
Concerning all who are in your house.
"They shall go into exile, into captivity.
The prince who is among them shall dig
Through the wall and go out through it.
I spread my snare, and he will not see it;
Winds scatter all who are around him."
-- The Book of Haisin, c. 12, v. 11-17
"Good morning, Larzuk. Brought out anything new today?"
"Greetings, uh, great warrior! Here, try this one. It's one of my best."
The ancient armor was amazing indeed. The steel was thick, and the joints would hardly allow a pin to pass; yet, movement was almost unimpeded by the carefully-fitted plates, sliding over each other almost noiselessly. For all that, it was still too heavy; Thaddeus knew he'd tire quickly if he tried to wear it. "Thank you, this is extraordinary, but I'm simply not man enough for it. Your ancestors must have been very impressive."
Larzuk seemed confused. "It's not that heavy..."
Thaddeus laughed. "Perhaps not for you. Tell me, why don't more of Qual-Kehk's men wear these wonderful armors?"
"Well..." After looking furtively around, Larzuk finally said, "A lot of them aren't strong enough for it either. But I thought you would be! You killed Shenk and raised the siege!"
"Larzuk, I didn't do that with the strength of my arm. Faith carried me up the hill. In a way, I cannot even say I did it, the power comes from outside me."
Still looking confused, Larzuk snorted. "Our greatest warriors call on their totems. The spirits of the earth and the wild places watch out for us. But on the field of battle, a warrior is alone with no one to rely on but himself. No spirit will save you if your arm is weak."
"That is another thing which perplexes me," Thaddeus said. "There is not need for your warriors to attack alone. The fighting would go better if they did not. It is a simple matter to form a line of battle, charge together... or just stay close and protect each other."
"What, attack together?" Larzuk guffawed. "How do you know who gets the kill?"
"Why should it matter?"
"Of course it matters! It's everything! Look, death and pain are nothing. Everything dies in the end. The only thing that lives forever is a warrior's reputation. The songs we sing about our fallen resound to the heavens! How can we sing forever about a warrior's deeds, if you don't know which deeds were his?"
Trying not to let his doubts show, Thaddeus said, "When the fate of the whole world is in jeopardy, your personal reputation should not bear much weight. By all I have been told, the only reason your people are here is to protect Mount Arreat. Your concerns should not be about who kills the most, or puts on the best show of bravery."
"Hmm. I suppose not... I mean, if Baal destroys the Worldstone, there won't be anyone left to sing about anything."
"All songs, everywhere, would end. One man's reputation is nothing against that. This may strike you as odd, but I have no idea how many 'kills' I have made."
"Too many to count?"
"Only three matter. I have two of those."
"Well... how high was it when you lost count?"
Growing a bit impatient, Thaddeus said, "I had to take my boots off to count them all."
Slowly nodding, Larzuk said, "Wow. That many, huh?"
As he walked back towards the gate, Thaddeus reflected on his experiences in combat. He really had no idea how many demons and other creatures he had killed. Hundreds, without a doubt. Over a thousand? It might be interesting to know, but he really didn't care. If he failed in his quest to stop Baal, it wouldn't matter.... and if he succeeded, it wouldn't matter either. As far as a personal reputation went, defeating the Three would far overshadow all his other efforts. Perhaps soon, Thaddeus could find the time for pride, when his quest was complete. Until then, there was no point in even thinking about it.
From the foothills, steps carved directly into the icy ground led up into a pass. Jagged peaks rose abruptly on either side, and at the top of the steps was a waypoint. The Horadrim had built these long ago; those ancient hunters traveled widely indeed. Just how many of these were there, scattered all over the world? Today's hunters of evil would do well to leave such a helpful legacy behind them. Beyond the waypoint, an open highland spread out before him, full of more teleporting Imps.
The texts of Zakarum had little to say on these tiny demons. Mages used to summon them as servants quite frequently. They then found themselves being carved into pieces by their familiars, before each piece was used to form the body of a new Imp. Beyond that warning, they are said to be slow moving and physically weak, and to use magical attacks instead of physical ones. To judge from the ones he'd met, they were well aware of their weaknesses, and went to any length to avoid close contact with an armed man. They stayed out of the range of Blessed Hammer, teleporting whenever Thaddeus came close. The magic bolt they used was not a serious threat, but chasing them all down would be very time consuming.
All was not lost, however: the Mule had given him a weapon just for them. Thaddeus brought out his maul and charged. As he closed on his chosen Imp, the look on the tiny thing's face was just priceless, before it disintegrated -- killed in one satisfying hit. So he ran around the highlands, smashing Imps right and left. There were some problems with the tactic. The highlands were rocky, and strewn with tough brambly bushes; tripping was a real danger. A more serious threat was howdah-bearing Crushers, huge beasts covered with armor. When an Imp teleported into the basket on one's shoulders, it could use an inferno wand mounted there. Thaddeus was vulnerable to fire without his shield, but if he charged from the side, he could knock the Crusher around and throw off the Imp's aim until he'd killed them both.
While charging around after Imps, Thaddeus took a moment to reflect on the Mule. Down in Hell, he'd been in too much danger to concentrate on anything but surviving, but he was making smooth, easy progress up into the highlands. Obviously, the Mule was a servant of Tyrael's; the archangel had brought Jamella and Halbu to provide items as well. In Hell, they must have been under the watchful eye of all the other angels, so they could not lend any aid except by playing the role of merchants. The Mule, not obviously associated with Tyrael, might escape some of that oversight and could give his things away. That made a certain amount of sense... but it didn't explain the way he behaved. Jamella and Halbu at least acted like servants of Heaven are supposed to.
Further into the highlands, Thaddeus found a pit, obviously a recent addition to the area. It went deep into the earth, with a red gate over a bridge crossing the center. Readying his scepter and shield, he went through, and found himself... in Hell again, on one of the many small islands floating in the Lake of Fire, the final destination of the River of Flame. Much of Hell's wickedness flows into it, a pit of rage even demons rarely venture into. Baal's forces were using the islands for production and storage; several had been lashed together with bridges, and slave creatures worked on siege machines under the gentle persuasion of their Overseer's whips.
As Thaddeus approached, the slaves squealed and reached for their weapons. Overseers bellowed flatulently, quivering in fear and whipping their workers into a combat frenzy. Out of thin air, a group of Imps appeared. This was turning into a party; Thaddeus cast Holy Shield and moved forward, letting Blessed Hammer fly. The hammers didn't serve as well as they had under other circumstances, mainly because of their slow speed. A energized slave could run straight for Thaddeus and explode -- the hammers often missed completely. Imps just stayed out of range. But if Thaddeus waited until an energized slave reached him, then moved away after it stopped, he could avoid the explosion, and the hammers would hit most everything eventually. Wisely using his speed of movement, most of the battle was spent casting, moving out of harms way, or chasing Imps. Those Imps were, truly and honestly, almost as annoying as Flayers. Bless the Light, they died quickly.
After killing everything on the islands and rolling the siege engines into the lake, Thaddeus went back to the highlands. A short distance ahead, he found a fortified wall -- Barbarian work, by the look of it. No Barbarians were in evidence, but there were plenty of slaves and Imps manning the walls, shooting at him from the towers. With a sigh, Thaddeus wondered just how many of these fortifications the Barbarians had built. Knowing them, they probably encircled the entire mountain with layer upon layer of stuccoed wicker walls, miles long. The whole region couldn't support a population large enough to man them. Had these walls been stone, and too high to climb, at least they could keep some demons out. As it was, there was nothing to prevent them from being burnt, or smashed down, or just taken away.
Under fire from several guard towers, Thaddeus brought out his shield and moved up to the base of the wall. The spirits of vengeance easily set the tower aflame, and Blessed Hammer crushed the Imps as they teleported out. Methodically, he moved along the wall, stepping through gaps from one side to the other, hammering and pounding Imp after Imp, slave after slave. A few Crushers sheltered inside the walls, but they were even less dangerous there. The Barbarian work was good and strong, for wicker-work, but wood, stone, and iron are far more suited to the demands of war. Maybe there weren't enough sources of raw materials in the area; the trees were certainly small and stunted at this altitude.
As he moved along the wall, Thaddeus heard cries for help -- human voices, and nearby. Rounding a corner, he saw a yard with a wicker cage. Inside were several Barbarian warriors, disarmed and stripped naked in the cold. Prisoners? Demons never ransom anyone... then he thought, this isn't a prison, it's a larder. The Imps started blasting at the prisoners, trying to kill them before Thaddeus could get near; you can always rely on a demon to prefer hurting someone else over saving itself. Blessed Hammer would be much too slow here, so Thaddeus ran in and smashed the cage door. After quickly casting a portal for them, he ran around the cage, zealously smashing through the Imps and a horde of slaves who appeared as they fled.
There were two more layers of walls as Thaddeus moved up the highlands, and two more cages full of captured men. No women, curiously, though he had seen dead ones here and there. Perhaps the Barbarians felt being a warrior was man's work, as many ancient cultures used to. Even the church of Zakarum felt that way, long ago. Thankfully, the southern lands did not adhere so rigidly to the ways of their ancestors, and the sisters of Zakarum could stand against the foes of the Light as freely as anyone. Though a woman's arms tend to be less powerful, faith, honor, and virtue are a Paladin's true strength.
The highlands narrowed again, to a pass between two high cliffs. There were a few corrals which might have held farm animals, but no walls or any other barriers. When the Barbarians built their defenses, why did they not fortify these narrow places? They built everything out on the open plateaus; did they think it would be cowardly to concentrate themselves behind one truly defensible wall? Thaddeus supposed there was really no point in asking now; what was done was done, and couldn't be undone now. At least Barbaric thinking made it easier to attack their mountain than it could have been. Then again, Malah and Qual-Kehk had mentioned previous assaults on the mountain; how had they failed?
Back in Harrogath, Qual-Kehk thanked Thaddeus for rescuing his men. "They have spoken well of your bravery. They say you move quickly, but always into the fray; your hammers of power strike with devastating effect. Our legends speak of wielders of the Hammer, but from what I understand, few are seen in these times."
"Much of the knowledge of Blessed Hammer was lost, but has been rediscovered. There may be many more like myself soon."
"Then the southlands, at least, will be in good hands. Speaking of which, take these runestones. I thought to put them in a shield, but you may use them first. The Paladin is master of the shield, even using it as a weapon." Qual-Kehk guffawed. "A strange use for a thing made to protect a warrior from cowardly archers."
Ral, Ort, and Tal, Thaddeus thought, just as in the shield I now bear. "This is a princely gift, great... man-at-arms. Are you sure you would wish to part with them?"
Laughing, Qual-Kehk clapped Thaddeus on the shoulder, staggering him. "Outlander, your people may have forgotten this, but we here in the mountains remember: a man's generosity is the measure of his worth. What good is hoarding wealth you have no use for? Do you think to buy a longer life, or honest friends? The warriors you brought home to me mean far more than three rocks."
Well... that's not such a bad thing, Thaddeus thought. Heaven would approve. "I bow to your wisdom, Qual-Kehk. There are many who would do well to hear those words."
"I know. Southlanders never seem to remember their lessons. Should you wish to have any of my men accompany you, I will be pleased to send them."
Should he refuse? Thaddeus had always worked alone, to avoid placing others in danger. But refusing aid might be an insult, especially if he told Qual-Kehk the reason. "I would be glad to accept your offer! But first, it occurs to me that I haven't been very generous to you, and there is something I must do."
Back at Atma's, everything was just like Thaddeus remembered it, only hotter. Coming from the mountains, the desert heat was wilting. Atma greeted him; when word came about Kurast, Farah took the first ship out. The church needed her, she had said, and so did the land; there would be many wounds of the spirit to heal. It pleased Thaddeus to hear she had found her faith again. Geglash was at the tavern, and he was even sober. Everything was looking up. Quickly, Thaddeus picked up two kegs of Atma's best ale. Staggering under the weight, he dragged himself back to the waypoint and returned to Harrogath.
"Qual-Kehk, your men mentioned they had no ale. I hope this will meet their standards, which are no doubt very high."
Looking at the barrels, Qual-Kehk laughed uproariously! "Paladin, you surprise me and I like it! We haven't had cause to celebrate for too long, but there's plenty of reason now. Drink up, men! Tomorrow we may die, so let us enjoy life while it lasts!"
Unsurprisingly, Barbarians drink like they fight; with reckless abandon. Some observers might have a hard time distinguishing a Barbarian celebration from a pitched battle. Thaddeus nursed his ale along, and took a moment to quietly ask Cain something.
"Cain... do you know anything of southlanders invading these mountains?"
"Yes, of course!" Cain said, adroitly dodging a happy Barbarian. "The ancient Horadrim came here, and were greeted with fierce resistance. In more recent times, some princes have sent small expeditionary forces into the mountains, looking for gold or other worthwhile resources. Only a few ever returned."
"Small expeditionary forces?"
"Yes... no more than 20 men or so."
These Barbarians spoke like they'd pushed out whole armies. In their minds, maybe they had. And to judge by the waypoints, the resistance the Horadrim met wasn't fierce enough to keep them out. Cain's expression told him that saying more in front of them might not be wise, so Thaddeus let the matter drop. The Barbarians were dropping too; Atma's finest ale on a mostly empty stomach could put down a horse. Of course, since they were in no shape to fight, Thaddeus would never expect them to accompany him into battle... he'd explain it to Qual-Kehk in the morning. Right now, he had to get further up the mountain. Baal had to be somewhere behind all those walls.
Many a man proclaims his own loyalty,
But who can know a truly faithful man?
He who states his case first seems right
Until another comes and contradicts him.
Rebellion will come by a cruel messenger,
A false face, brother to him who destroys!
Against sound judgment, the estranged
Perverts the ways of justice for a bribe.
Let me meet a she-bear robbed of her cubs
Rather than a fool in the grip of his folly!
-- Visions of Akarat, c. 15, v. 1-10
Almost immediately, he came across a group of high-ranking Overseers, champions of their type. Only a few slaves accompanied them; soon all were whipped into an explosive frenzy and running for Thaddeus. Blessed Hammer killed a few before they reached him. The rest he avoided, watching their bursting guts illuminate the night with fire. How in Hell or Heaven could anyone imagine being a servant of darkness would bring pleasure? Many who fall into evil think it will get the freedom to do as they will, partake of pleasures freely, or speak their minds as they like. Most end up as slaves, but even overseers were enslaved by their lords, subject to their cruel whims. For that matter, even The Three cannot be said to be free. Their every thought must go to maintaining and expanding their power, or it will all be taken away by an ambitious underling. There is no freedom or happiness to be found in darkness; all are held prisoner by it, high and low alike.
A slave's spine bounced off his armor, and Thaddeus remembered where he was. This was no time for reflection. A few casts of Blessed Hammer softened up the Overseers, then he zealously beat them to death. Tougher than most, they took a long time to die; he finally brought out his maul and scattered their gristly bones across the plain. Of course, this got the attention of more demons, but they fell more readily than the first. Clearing the plateau went quickly and efficiently.
Back in town, Thaddeus stopped at Malah's to donate the potions he'd found. Her stock was mostly replenished, but she always accepted them graciously. This time, she seemed nervous. "Good Paladin... there is a matter on which I hesitate to speak..."
A Barbarian hesitating to speak, on any matter? True, their women were more reticent than the big warriors, but this must be something important. "Please speak freely, Malah, if your wisdom deems it necessary."
"You are aware of the magic dome over our city? And how all our elders, save Nihlathak, sacrificed their lives to raise it?"
"I have been told of this, but I did not stay to listen long." Thaddeus bowed his head. "In my great haste, I have spent much time on the mountain, but little listening to the wisdom of those who know this land."
"I do not know how he survived unscathed when all the others were slain. It seems Anya had some suspicions. Late one night, I heard her confronting him, though my ears are old and could not make out what was said. The next morning, she was gone."
There were many women in Harrogath, more than there were men, but Thaddeus couldn't remember one called Anya. "I do not recall..."
Shaking her head, Malah smiled. "Oh, bless me, my mind is going. This happened before you arrived in Harrogath, you cannot have met Anya. She is the only daughter of our great chief Aust, a girl of remarkable wisdom and understanding for one so young. Had you met her, you would not easily forget her."
"And one night, she went to see Nihlathak... and disappeared?"
"He says she left the city on a fool's errand, and died. Do not believe him! Anya is blessed with great strength of spirit, and is not one to die easily by the hand of any beast. I am sure Nihlathak has done something with her, to cover up some guilty secret."
Though he could easily believe Nihlathak was guilty of something unspeakable, Thaddeus tried not to make too many assumptions. "You do understand, it is very easy for anyone who leaves this city to meet a bad end, regardless of any inner strength."
With eyes as hard as flint, Malah rapped her cane on the floor. "Not Anya! Never would she fall into the grasp of evil, unless betrayed by one she trusted! Death has not come to her, I know it in my bones! She must be alive!"
Barbarians, Thaddeus thought. Whenever they grow fond of someone, they make them sound like the hero in an epic poem. "I shall look for her."
"I know you will find her. Nihlathak is too much of a coward to kill her outright. When you have found her, you must find out what he has done. He would never betray us to Baal, but if he had a hand in the death's of the other elders, we must know!"
As Thaddeus left Malah's, he wondered if he should just go back to the mountain and forget all this. One dead woman among so many could not weigh heavily against Baal. How would even recognize her if he came across her? Perhaps Nihlathak did do something to the other elders. Their deaths made him senior man among the Barbarian tribes, a position many might kill for. But even the most underhanded political machinations were less important than the fate of the world. Thaddeus was not here to seek out and destroy sin, any sin. He was here as protector; the Hand of Zakarum had shown the folly of crusading against the evil in other people's hearts.
On the other hand... doing good is not just destroying the evil outside the walls. If Nihlathak did wrong, it would be a grave misdeed to leave Harrogath in his care. If Anya was the only one who knew, bringing her back to witness against him would be a very good thing to do. Besides... it felt good to bring people back alive. Nothing filled him with more hope, and Anya might resent being rescued less than the Barbarian warriors did. Not sure what course to take, Thaddeus stopped to speak with Qual-Kehk.
"Greetings. May I ask you about someone?"
"Anya, you mean?" Qual-Kehk answered.
"Yes," Thaddeus blinked. "Malah asked me --"
"To look for her. She has asked all of my warriors to do the same. She is convinced Anya is alive, and I cannot help but feel the same. And that elder Nihlathak had a hand in her disappearance."
Thaddeus nodded. "Her opinion of Nihlathak is widespread, then?"
"He was always the least respected of our elders. Fear and death cling to him, and his tongue is sharper than a blade. No true man should act or look as he does, but I have always given respect to the position he holds."
Ah so, Thaddeus thought. Barbarians do respect social position... just not anyone else's social positions. "As an outsider, I hesitate to involve myself in your affairs."
After clearing his throat, Cain said, "If I may interject... it is my suspicion that Nihlathak harbors some dark secret as well. But I do not think it directly involves Anya."
"How so?" Thaddeus asked.
"After speaking with him, it seems to me that Nihlathak believes the safety of Harrogath rests on his shoulders alone. He feels as through he is carrying an enormous burden, with great resentment, and has nothing but contempt for any other efforts to save the city."
Qual-Kehk grunted. "It is my opinion that elder Nihlathak has done nothing to protect this city, or sacred Mount Arreat. When the demons came, he slunk away, leaving others to die in his stead. His behavior is most unfit, especially for an elder."
"I think he has done something," Cain continued, "something that he believes protects the city from harm. What it could be, I do not know."
Quietly, Thaddeus said, "I will speak with him now."
Nihlathak was stirring a small pot by a fire. As Thaddeus approached, he sneered, "Well, well. If it isn't the good shepherd, having returned the lost sheep. A job well done."
He wasn't expecting the punch to the gut, or the shield slam to the head. Some nearby Barbarians leapt to their feet, but none approached. Picking Nihlathak up, Thaddeus stared him hard in the eye. "What have you done?"
"Take your hands off me this instant!" Nihlathak spluttered.
"No. And you may notice that none of the 'sheep' are coming to protect you. Your foul deeds have been exposed. Now, where is Anya?"
"What? Who have you been talking to? Never mind, I know," Nihlathak snarled. "And you don't know anything. She ran off after a friend of hers, who used to live on the plateau. I am sure both of them are long dead by now."
"Wrong answer. Great protector of Harrogath, on whose shoulders the safety of the city rests... what bargain did you make with Baal?"
Nihlathak turned white as chalk. "Bargain?" he stammered, "What would lead me to bargain with Destruction? Just because he took our capital in less than a day is no reason to believe Qual-Kehk and his idiot warriors couldn't protect Harrogath! Of course a simple shield will hold him off forever! Or maybe, a hero will come like something out of a saga, and defeat his entire army single-handedly! There are so many things that might save my people from Destruction, I should rest calmly, knowing the matter is well in hand!"
Someone behind Thaddeus was shouting. Ignoring it, he was about to answer when a powerful blow to the back of his head sent him reeling. Behind him, a warrior with a glazed look in his eyes was holding a giant axe, ready for another swing. Thaddeus slammed him back with his shield, and his vision suddenly went dim. In the sudden darkness, there was confusion and more shouting. More people began hitting him; he heard the clang of metal on stone; Thaddeus prayed for Holy Freeze and moved away. When his eyes cleared again, he saw a pile of Barbarians, including Qual-Kehk, wrestling some of their fellow warriors to the ground. In the confusion, he'd lost his grip on Nihlathak. Damn; he'd heard Necromancers use curses which confuse the mind, making one believe friends are hated foes. This certainly seemed to confirm his suspicions of necromancy; but where was Nihlathak?
Thaddeus ran to the door of Nihlathak's house. He wasn't there, nor could he be found anywhere else in town. He'd known the Barbarian elder was bad the moment he laid eyes on him; why didn't he strike then? Because doing so then would have brought all of Harrogath down on him. Even if he could take them all on, he wasn't going to destroy the town in order to save it. Finally, he went back to Qual-Kehk.
"The snake has slipped our grasp. Your insight was true; Nihlathak has made some bargain with Baal."
"We cannot be completely sure of that," Thaddeus muttered.
"What more proof is needed? All saw when you confronted him. The eyes speak clearly when the tongue is silent. I cannot believe it! The protection of Mount Arreat has been our purpose from the days of the Ancients; what could bring an elder to betray us?"
Dark suspicions crept into Thaddeus' mind, but he said, "Malah believes Anya knows, and that Nihlathak is too cowardly to kill her. Where might he hide her?"
"There are many places," Qual-Kehk mused. "The most secure would be his temple, where his tribe keeps the relics of their ancestors."
"Where would that be found?"
Qual-Kehk crossed his arms, looking deeply troubled. "Each tribe's temple is in a secret place, protected from looting and other tricks. The elders of the tribes know them all, but that does not help us now. Anya would know."
Thaddeus nodded. "Her father must think well of her, to confide in her so much."
"Think you Aust would tell his sons?" Qual-Kehk laughed. "Secrets are best kept by women and old men. When a warrior possesses knowledge, he knows he must survive the battle to pass the secret on. His hand is slowed by caution, he cannot fight as he ought. Aust did think well of her. You will think well of her, if you find her before Nihlathak has destroyed us all." Pausing for a moment, he laughed again. "It is good that you, of all warriors, are going to find Anya! Any or all of Harrogath's daughters would be safe with the likes of you!"
Why does everyone assume I've taken a vow of chastity? Thaddeus wondered. It would be best not to correct Qual-Kehk; he might start making other unwarranted assumptions. "Please try to find Nihlathak again. He cannot have gone far. As for your temples, I would not know one from another, so I plan to enter any I find. Should I defile your sacred ground, I apologize in advance. I must go."
Hammering his way further up the mountain, Thaddeus pounded through more forts, and another small pit of Hell. The pit led to another set of islands in the Lake of Fire, guarded by frenzied Minotaurs. They fought like Barbarians, but were strong and tough enough to almost get away with it. Blessed Hammers made a good impression, when they hit, but he spent a lot of time charging. Thankfully, when a charge meets frenzy, the charge wins. Anya was not in Hell (thank the Light for her sake) so Thaddeus continued up the plateau until he came to edge of a glacier. There was no way he was going to climb the ice, but a crack at the base led into an icy cave.
The ice tunnels under the glacier made a formidable maze. Naturally, Minotaurs lived there, as well as strange ice beasts, abominable snowmen, and Succubi. Thaddeus never expected to find Succubi attacking him in an icy cave. Helpless victims and luxurious surroundings were more to their liking. For all their howling and cursing, they were probably the easiest kills he'd had yet; they seemed to have good reason for avoiding open combat. Baal must be in dire need to be using them here. The Minotaurs and snowmen were more formidable; with their speed they could avoid the hammers and quickly close to melee range, where their strength and size made them very dangerous. Ice Beasts, huge and painfully slow, fell to Blessed Hammer almost without Thaddeus noticing.
The ice caverns extended for miles underground. In a deeper level, Thaddeus found zombies in great numbers. He was surprised they weren't frozen solid; they still had enough water in their bodies, and no apparent source of internal heat. Then it occurred to him: none of Baal's other minions were undead. But Nihlathak could raise Arreat's fallen. Thaddeus went deeper into the caves, hammering through wave after wave of monsters, until he found a platform built out into a bubbling pool. On the platform, encased in a shell of crystalline ice, a woman stood shivering in the numbing cold. Through the frost, Thaddeus could see her eyes were open; she looked at him. Nihlathak had been afraid to kill her after all.
The air near the ice prison was noticeably colder than anywhere else under the glacier. The ice itself was frozen harder than rock, and Thaddeus could hardly chip it. When dealing with ice and frost, the best solution Thaddeus could think of was warm water, but that might not be enough here. Malah had a better idea: anoint the ice with burning oil, using a special recipe she knew for thawing ice. It worked like a charm -- Anya walked out of the pile of steaming ice unharmed.
"Thank you, great hero, for rescuing me... who are you?"
"I am Thaddeus, of the order of Protectors of the Word. You must be Anya. We have to go back to Harrogath immediately, so you may tell them about Nihlathak."
"Has he been captured?" she asked hopefully.
"No, he escaped. This is no place to converse, and anything you tell me, you will have to repeat in Harrogath. Let me take you home now."
Let his habitation become desolate;
Let there be no one to live in it.
Of his office, let another take it.
-- Visions of Akarat, c. 15, v. 38-40
"It began one night, when I noticed Nihlathak going back to his temple. Outlanders, each clan has its own temple, but Nihlathak is the elder of his tribe..."
"Was the elder," Qual-Kehk frowned.
"Good. Nihlathak is priest of the grandest temple of all the snake clans. One night, I saw him returning there by portal. My father taught me portal spells as well, so I followed."
Malah shook her head. "I am amazed our elders kept their Druidical knowledge hidden from us, and for so long!"
"I have been told of the great division which occurred between your people and the druids, long ago," Cain said. "The two paths were deemed incompatible, but each agreed that the other's ways had some merits. Your elders must have considered their magical knowledge a great secret, which could not be shared with warriors."
"Exactly," Anya said. "But this is not important now. What is important is that there, in the garden of Nihlathak's temple, waiting for him, was Baal himself with all his attendants!"
The room went silent. "Nihlathak was bargaining and wheedling, offering to show Baal the path to the summit in exchange for the lives of our people. He would have given Ball the Worldstone if he could! I could not believe what I heard, and stayed too long; one of Baal's creatures discovered my hiding place. Nihlathak wanted me alive for himself, so Baal took me away and put me in that icy prison."
"As a bargaining chip, no doubt," Thaddeus muttered. "But something confuses me. Nihlathak was willing to show him the path to the summit, but this was not enough to satisfy Baal... is that not where the Worldstone rests? Or is there more?"
Qual-Kehk darkly said, "What lies at Arreat's summit is something we have not spoken of to any stranger. Few go there, and fewer return."
"All with knowledge of the magical arts have debated the purpose of Mount Arreat," Cain began. "But none have --"
Sensing another long speech, Thaddeus interrupted, "-- to know what is there. If Baal is unsure of going there, that is all we need to know."
"I'm afraid he may not be for long," Anya said. "While I was gone, Nihlathak took the Relic of the Ancients! With it, Baal would not... he would be able to pass the summit safely!"
"The... Relic of the Ancients?" Thaddeus asked.
"As chief of all the tribes, my father kept it in his temple, but all the elders had access to it With it, the summit would hold no fear for Baal. Any more, I should not say. It is imperative that Nihlathak not give him the Relic!"
"If his temple is the safest place for him, that is where I must go, now."
As Anya cast the portal spell that would take him to Nihlathak's temple, Thaddeus noticed every warrior in the city was watching. Hadn't they seen a portal being cast before? Maybe not -- the Barbarians may not teach their warriors about portals. Some feel that if a fighter knows he has an easy retreat, he'll fight less bravely. That was never a problem for him, but maybe others lacked his concentration.
The area in front of Nihlathak's temple was strewn with bodies, many in an advanced state of decay. What kind of temple was this? Not a good kind, that was obvious. Cliffs surrounded the temple garden (if you could call it that) except for a single, narrow path climbing up -- the only non-magical access. Thaddeus walked to the center of the garden, readied Blessed Hammer, and waited for the dead to awaken. This they did, and the hammers rang through the garden. Like the rest of Nihlathak's zombies, they had a bad habit of rising up again after they'd been killed, but the prayer of Redemption helped immensely with that.
As he disposed of the Zombies, Thaddeus mentally reviewed his order's advice for dealing with Necromancers. Whenever possible, simply avoid the wall of dead flesh they seek to impose between themselves and danger. Their curses do no harm in themselves; they are a coward's way of hampering an opponent to compensate for weakness. If cursed with faded sight, rely on the Light to guide your steps; few Necromancers can outrun a charging Paladin. The curse of the iron maiden is torturous, but can be assuaged by calling on Holy Shock or Vengeance. But beware the power of a Necromancer to use his minions even after they are struck down, by causing the corpse to explode! Redeeming the souls of the dead by holy prayers will take this power from him.
Nihlathak's temple was full of the dead, staggering and stumbling all over the place. Judging by the empty niches all over the temple catacombs, and the zombies' thick, sturdy bones, these were his own tribe's dead, raised to serve him more obediently than they ever did in life. Every now and then, one would mutter what might have been words; rotted tongues and broken jaws made their meaning unguessable. If Nihlathak had somehow found a way to bind the souls of dead warriors, instead of just using their mortal frames, his evil had gone far beyond mere necromancy. Thaddeus made sure to stop and pray for all these tortured dead, releasing them from Nihlathak's power.
Baal's creatures defiled the Barbarian temple too, Minotaurs and Maulers. Blessed Hammer was less effective on them, but killing them was simply a matter of time -- time Thaddeus hoped he wasn't wasting. He'd seen no sign of Baal in the temple, but it had taken him most of a day to find Anya since Nihlathak disappeared. In that time, Baal might have come and gone. The temple's catacombs were huge, easy to lose himself in, and the stairways small, tucked away in unexpected locations. Things got so bad, Thaddeus had to go back to Anya and ask where he should go.
"The catacombs are three layers deep, with many shrines and burials. Has Nihlathak left the paintings on the walls intact?"
"The paintings were broken by powerful blows; I think the demons there were offended by their beauty. Nihlathak will probably hide on the deepest level. Do you remember where the stairs from the second level are?"
"I have never been that deep inside, but I believe they are to the north and west. You are nothing like our people, outlander."
"You will stop to ask for directions. And you've barely even looked at me. Do you think I would be a danger to your vows?"
She asked the question so straightforwardly, the insinuation almost didn't offend him. As he glared at her, Thaddeus suddenly became aware Anya was attractive for a Barbarian. A bit sturdy for his tastes, with a rather long nose, but far above average for the race. Maybe the Barbarians weren't staring at the portal after all. "For all our sakes, time is not something I can afford to waste. I also did not think you would want anything to do with an outlander, so there would be no point in expressing an interest."
"A man, if he is a man, would look. What kind of man are you? You seem a warrior, but Cain tells me you slay your enemies by magic."
"Would you be happier if I had looked at you?"
"I would have struck you for your impudence. A simple warrior does not look at the chief's daughter."
All the simple warriors looked at the chief's daughter; Thaddeus saw a lot of them were still looking. They looked from a distance, admittedly... but Anya's stand-offishness seemed at variance with the facts. Was this an intimidation tactic, trying to keep the stranger from trying anything he shouldn't? Or some sort of strange Barbaric flirting? Either way, he didn't have time for it. "I hope I am not so simple. Thank you for your help, I must go now."
Thaddeus finally found the stairs, and descended into the deepest halls of the temple. Some of Baal's slaves met him at the entrance, and behind them was a horde of Succubi. The level was full of Succubi, beautiful ones with brightly feathered wings; was this a way for Baal to bend Nihlathak's will? Or a reward for services rendered? Whatever the reason for their presence, they died as easily as ever. At one point, he felt so confident that he cornered one and asked her a question.
"Before I kill you, tell me what you've been doing with Nihlathak."
The Succubus spat at him. It stank. "Nothing! He keeps mooning over some Barbarian bitch like a born love-slave."
Oh, ho. "What are you doing here?"
"Having no fun at all. Something you'd know nothing about."
Thaddeus shook his head. "Why does everyone think I've taken a vow of chastity?"
The Succubus' eyes brightened. "You haven't?!"
"No! Not that it matters for you, though." Then he beat her head in.
In a remote corner of the catacombs, Thaddeus finally saw Nihlathak. He was floating over a horde of slave creatures, surrounded by a spinning shell of bones. Thaddeus never heard of Necromancers being able to fly. As the slaves came for him, he retreated to a safe distance and let the hammers spin. As he paused to clean up the bodies, Nihlathak spoke.
"I suppose you're wondering what I hope to gain from this."
"The safety of Harrogath, and the hand of the great chief's daughter," Thaddeus said, as the last demon body vanished.
"Correct! You have no idea what you're interfering with!"
As he collected a new group of minions for death and disposal, Thaddeus replied, "Does this mean I won't be invited to the wedding?"
"I invite you to die!" There was a pause, in which nothing happened. "Damn it! What are you doing back there?"
"Come closer, and I will show you."
"Oh, no! I am perfectly comfortable back here. Don't think getting rid of those slaves will save you. It is a simple matter for me to raise more. Do whatever you like with them."
"The Succubi have been wondering why you won't do what you like with them."
The sneer was audible. "I'm not stupid. I know what Succubi do to men, better than you do. You honestly think this will do some good, don't you?"
By this time, Thaddeus had moved around to the other side of Nihlathak's lair, collecting a new batch of minions. "Having fewer Succubi in the world is a small improvement. Anya is much better looking."
After a small pause, Nihlathak answered, "Don't even think of touching her, or my revenge will not stop when you're dead."
"You think I'll break my vows over a Barbarian?"
"Do you take vows? Or is it just a way of disguising your interest in choir boys?"
Thaddeus took a deep breath, and replied, "Big talk, for someone who surrounds himself with naked slave men."
"This is insulting and pointless!" Nihlathak suddenly seemed to lose patience. "You're just hanging back, trying to draw me out! It won't work. Are you a coward?"
"No, merely sensible. But if you insist..."
As quickly as he could, Thaddeus ran into the room. Nihlathak was hovering over a raised pentagram The crowd around Nihlathak was much smaller than before, but still too large; he ran out the other entrance with the crowd of slaves behind him. After disposing of them, he went back and charged.
Just as he was about to bash Nihlathak's brains in, he vanished, reappearing a short distance away. Blast, Necros weren't supposed to know teleporting spells; he must have studied the magical ways of several clans. Who knows what he could do? Nihlathak summoned a slave, and Thaddeus prepared his shield and called on the spirits of vengeance. As far as he could, Thaddeus ignored the slaves, beating through the bone shield around Nihlathak until he had to summon it again. Finally, frustrated with his scepter's lack of killing power, he switched to his maul and charged. That was just what Nihlathak was waiting for.
On a signal, a slave jumped between Thaddeus and Nihlathak, and died. Nihlathak gestured, and the explosion blasted Thaddeus across the room. Fire was a terrible threat without his shield, and the rest of the slaves were between him and Nihlathak. As Nihlathak laughed, Thaddeus fell back around the corner, killing and disposing of the bodies as they came. This could get we killed, he thought; what should I do? Charge was very risky. The hammers might be worse, if he sets off more than one corpse at once.
Thaddeus put the maul away, and readied Blessed Hammer. It had killed Diablo; surely it could take care of one Necromancer. He could hear Nihlathak in the chamber outside his lair. "Oh, Pally-boy... where have you hidden all the bodies? Do you fear me so much?"
"I sent them away to their reward. You'll meet them again soon enough."
"I don't think so. I have a world to rule. And its about time, too."
"No, Nihlathak. There won't be a world out there. You've given him the Relic of the Ancients, haven't you?"
"You forced me to do that, you know. When you found the girl, Baal was going to call off our whole bargain and send all his armies into Harrogath! That foolish shield would have done no good at all, and neither would you. I had to give it to him to save my people!"
"Nihlathak, you have destroyed your people. Do you think Harrogath will survive long after he destroys the Worldstone?"
"He gave me his word!"
Thaddeus actually looked around the corner at Nihlathak. "His word?"
For the first time, Nihlathak actually looked nervous. "You don't think he's a man of his word?"
Thaddeus slowly turned away. The headache was coming back. "You idiot."
"DON'T YOU CALL ME THAT, YOU STUPID WARRIOR!! All you muscle-headed louts are so stupid! You're stupid, stupid, stupid! If Baal tries anything, my magic will save Harrogath!"
Thaddeus just shook his head. "You IDIOT..."
"I can take on anybody!" Nihlathak's voice was rising to a high pitch. "Do you know how long, how many years I worked to make myself the ultimate killing machine!? No one can beat Necromancy for mastery over life and death! But I didn't stop there, I studied sorcery, and thaumaturgy, even alchemy! Go on! Ask me anything about anything magical!"
Screeching now, Nihlathak replied, "I told you to STOP CALLING ME THAT!!!"
Thaddeus ran around the corner and charged Nihlathak. The elder took it right in the gut; Thaddeus hit him again and again, slamming him back into a wall. After teleporting away, he summoned another slave. This time, Thaddeus carefully sidestepped and slammed him into a wall again. While he was stunned, Thaddeus got between the slave and Nihlathak, slamming with his shield to knock him back before charging along the wall. After a few solid hits, his defenses collapsed, and Thaddeus sprayed his brains all over his dead minions. An infernal gate opened up in the floor, and as Nihlathak hovered there, screaming out his last breath, the flesh was stripped from his bones and his bones wrenched apart. The whole gory mess was drawn straight down into Hell as the gate closed up.
Watching him get his reward for all his efforts, Thaddeus thought: nice fireworks, Baal. Then he looked at the last slave. It looked at Thaddeus. It tried to smile. Thaddeus didn't smile back. After crushing its skull, he looked around for anything resembling a relic, in the dim hope that it might still be here. None were to be found.
Hadst I a hammer,
I would hammer in the morning!
I would hammer in the evening!
All over this land! -- The Book of the Hammer, c. 10, v. 17-20
"Before he died, he said he gave the relic to Baal. I have brought you everything I could carry away from the temple. If the relic is not here, it is lost."
"Then you must go to the summit. The path to take is through the ice caves you found me in, by way of a hidden passage next to a river." Sighing, she lowered her head. "You must think me presumptuous. I cannot ask this, you have already done so much."
"There is no presumption; you need not ask. The Worldstone must be protected by any means you or I possess. My hope is that we can cooperate, but you have not spoken of yourself. All this must be galling for you; I know you are a proud people."
She stared hard at him for a moment, before her eyes fell. "Yes. Which makes Nihlathak's betrayal all the more mystifying. The Worldstone is the source of our pride; it is our whole purpose. How could he have done this?"
For a minute, Thaddeus was silent. Not that he couldn't think of anything to say; if Anya honestly wanted answers, he could easily spend an hour answering her. A dozen different answers came to mind, none of them good things to say. Finally, Anya asked, "Before you killed him, he said things about me, didn't he?"
"I know he wanted me for himself..."
"Yes. But I do not think he was fond of you. If I might speculate... ?"
"Speak freely, outlander. It is our way."
"You are the great chief's daughter. Marrying you would be an act of taking power."
Anya frowned. "Here in the north, a man must make his own way. He may not marry into power and expect to keep it."
"That is not quite what I meant. Nihlathak was a proud man; in fact, he felt he was better than anyone else. I cannot help but notice that all the men in Harrogath admire you. Taking you from them would have suited his pride."
"He was never any more proud than the other elders," she murmured. "But his misguided pride will be our undoing. I wonder if our ways confuse you. When I first saw you, I thought you must be quite a man to have come so far up the mountain, through so much danger."
Laughing a bit, he replied, "And now you think differently?"
"I did, but I changed my mind again. You confuse me. You stand up and look men in the eye, but have no pride in yourself. Your confidence seems absolute, but you will not allow others to see it. Qual-Kehk tells me he and his men, down to the lowest, insulted you to your face. Your reply was to walk out our gates and defeat Baal's army. You have great strength; why are you ashamed of it, to hide and belittle it so?"
"Anya, in my religion, pride is considered a terrible sin. A mortal sin. It is... how should I explain this?" After some thought, Thaddeus said, "I know a story written in the chronicles of Zakarum about the Nephalem. I don't suppose you have heard of them; they were a race of giants, mighty men of ancient times."
Very quietly, Anya said, "Go on."
"When the angels descended from Heaven, some made congress with mortals, and children came of their union. These were the Nephalem. Favoring their own blood over all others, the angels gave them power and privileges, saying 'You are first among all mortals. Let our blessings be upon you, that you might be a blessing for the world.' They became humanity's first guardians, and the first kings."
"They must have been great indeed," Anya said with a smile.
"They learned of power from their heavenly parents. The discernment of Heaven, peaceful for eons beyond our knowing, was theirs. So great was their power, they grew proud."
Anya nodded. "The mighty are always proud."
"But pride led to contempt. Their strength was such that none could stand against them, and they did as they liked. People everywhere groaned under the weight of their demands for land and wealth. In time, they grew arrogant and withdrew from humanity, and could not be bothered with the concerns of lesser mortals."
"Heaven turned a blind eye towards her favored sons. The angels, whose wisdom is not infinite, felt their children would be so wise they would not fall into sin. But the Nephalem remembered only that they had been blessed, not why. After long ages, Hell did invade. The Nephalem said to themselves, 'These devils have not threatened my place. They do not walk in my house, or take my cattle. Let other men fight for their things; they have great fear of us, and will not come to our places.'"
"I see," Anya said.
"Hell took realm after realm, until finally the stench of them rose up to Heaven. When the angels came to their children, they found them laughing and at play, racing each other or hunting in the woods. The angels said to them, 'Your enemy is upon you, they are shaping evil for you, what stubbornness is this?' The Nephalem replied, 'They are far away, and will not come today. Any who come here, we will strike down.' Meant to be a blessing for all, pride made them a hated curse."
"What became of them?"
"The chronicles are not clear on that. They do not walk the earth now."
"That is an interesting story, Paladin. Perhaps, when we first heard rumors of troubles in the south, the elders ought to have sent our warriors out to destroy it. Evil would not have had time to grow as strong as it is now."
"Though I risk speaking ill of your father, it is your way, so I will speak. I do not think your elders would ever do so. Since I came here, I have heard nothing but talk of the greatness of Barbarians, what mightiness you possess."
"And you think that is arrogance? Outlander, it is nothing but a statement of fact, clear to any with eyes to see. Even you must admit it."
"Whether it is true is not important. But since you are so mighty, blessed by Heaven with a great and noble guardianship... why would you bother to help other, lesser men? You and your father heard rumors before Baal reached you. Did you have any thought of going forth into the world to help others?"
Anya stared quietly at Thaddeus. "No. It never entered our minds."
"Your elders, Heaven bless them, sacrificed themselves to protect Harrogath. But they were meant to protect the Worldstone! Why wasn't this shield put up over Arreat?"
"Do you suggest that my father was willing to forget the Worldstone? A father must keep his children safe! And a chief must see to his people!"
"I do not mean to imply that. But protecting something means you must be willing to sacrifice yourselves for its safety, not sacrifice it for yours."
"Only Nihlathak did that!" Anya spat, glaring at Thaddeus. Standing at her full and not-inconsiderable height, she began to speak... then stopped and lowered her eyes. "Maybe you are right. Cain has told me you spoke poorly of our warriors. You feel they fight with pride but no strategy, in ways that assure their defeat."
"That is not quite what I said. I said their strategy was born of pride, and I believe it is their undoing. A warrior here fights first, for his own glory and reputation; second, for the glory of his clan and tribe; third, for the loot of the battlefield to enhance his family's wealth; fourth, and last, to defeat Baal's army."
"That is the way we have always fought. The endless war between our clans has made us strong, but perhaps you southlanders know more of fighting armies. Baal's minions are slaves who receive no glory. I always thought that would be a weakness, but it is a strength for them. They have no fear of cowardice."
"It is not cowardice. Working together can defeat a mighty foe. A soldier must forget himself and fight for the common good of his people."
Anya shook her head. "Your words are wise, but my heart will not listen. This is not our way. I am glad you are here; you have all of our gratitude, even those too proud to express it. Perhaps things would have been different if we had asked for help from the neighboring kingdoms. The walls might have been manned, the fortresses full of spears; catapults of our own might have rained death on the demons as they came."
Quietly, Thaddeus nodded. "I must be going, while there is still hope. The summit of Mt. Arreat is sacred for you, but I must know what I will find there."
Thaddeus blinked. "The who?"
Faintly smiling, Anya answered, "The Nephalem. They are our ancestors. The Ancient Ones came to these mountains long ago, led by our immortal king Bul-Kathos. He is the only king Barbarians have ever bowed to. Our blood has thinned and weakened since those days; we are less than what we were, so do not be surprised when you see them. The first time I went to the peak, I knew I was in the presence of gods."
"Oh," Thaddeus mumbled intelligently.
Qual-Kehk laughed when Thaddeus asked him about the Ancients. "I have never dared to venture there. I am sure I would be found unworthy. Anya is the one to ask."
"Please! I was insulting her father, insulting her people, and then I find out I was insulting her ancestors. I couldn't speak to her again."
"What's wrong with that? Maybe they deserved it!" Qual-Kehk laughed and clapped Thaddeus on the shoulder again. "Besides, they're my ancestors too, and you're speaking to me. What of it?"
"Well... maybe. I was embarrassed."
Smiling, Cain interjected, "You must consider, Qual-Kehk, you're not nearly as attractive as Anya."
"What does he care? Don't these armored priests take vows?"
Cain began, "Well, actually --" when he was suddenly cut off by Thaddeus stepping on his foot. As he stumbled off, Thaddeus laughed. "Anya is such a vision of loveliness, most any man's vows would be put to the test. You do grow 'em nice up here! I'd better get back on that mountain right now, or I might lose complete control of myself."
Qual-Kehk frowned dubiously. "You're not getting any funny ideas, are you?"
"Oh, no! Perish the thought. Well, must run. Bye now!"
Where did that come from? Thaddeus wondered as he went back to the ice caves. Anya is an attractive girl, but no one should even suggest that he might like her. She's the chief's daughter, and he's got the wrong set of ancestors. Damn; maybe it was too long since he had been with a woman. There hadn't been much time for it. On the other hand, it could just be nerves. Nihlathak's betrayal was a serious blow to his quest.
The ice caves were full again, with Ice Demons, Maulers, and Succubi. Ice Demons might be dangerous if they ever got to melee range; they were so slow, Blessed Hammer bashed them to bits while they were still creeping in. The Succubi were annoying if their curses struck while a group of Maulers was attacking. Otherwise, nothing prevented Thaddeus from finding the path to Arreat's heights. The Barbarians had hidden the entrance behind a wicker barrier covered with a thick layer of ice; Thaddeus never would have found it by himself, and Baal probably wouldn't have either.
A few last rings of forts, covered with ice, sat on the high frozen tundra surrounding the summit. One last set of caves, and he was through to the peak, thrust above every other mountain in the range. Thaddeus had to take a moment to look down on the rest of the world. There was Harrogath; he couldn't see any people. The Worldstone was not on the peak, nor were any angels or sons of angels visible. Stairs led down into the mountain, but they were locked behind a closed gate. An altar surrounded by three statues of Barbarian warriors stood at the center of the summit. Unlike anything else in Barbarian art, the statues were very realistic, and obviously extremely ancient. They were also huge, far larger than life. The one's sword was taller than any man.
Tribal cultures often have "sky temples", particularly on mountain tops. Though this was not the way of Zakarum, this was holy ground, and out of deference to his hosts Thaddeus knelt in prayer before approaching the altar. As he stepped inside the ring of statues, three male voices spoke in unison.
)We are the Nephalem, the ancient ones of the mountains. Ages ago, Heaven made our kind guardians of the world and all that is in it. Now, we have been chosen to guard sacred Mount Arreat, wherin the Worldstone rests. Before you enter, you must defeat us.(
In a flare of light, the statues came to life. Of course, Thaddeus thought, I should have known. And, getting in to the Worldstone would be a trial of combat. Barbarians. Winning a fight makes you a good fighter, not a worthy person. As two throwing axes whistled through the air, he quickly moved out of the way and started casting Blessed Hammer. One of the Barbarians, armed with sword and shield, charged in a peculiar fashion, spinning around and screaming as he whirled through the temple. Thaddeus stepped aside and let him pass; he must have taken 6 hammers as he went through. That was interesting to watch, but then Thaddeus noticed a shadow beside his own. Another Barbarian crashed to the earth next to him, his axe clanging off Thaddeus' shield.
Moving back a bit, Thaddeus got right next to the axe Barbarian and started casting Blessed Hammer. The swordsman was smarter than he looked, and didn't try that mad whirling charge again. Instead, he closed and stood next to his partner, pounding away at Thaddeus' shield. Smiling a bit, Thaddeus moved two steps over and recast; from here, the hammers went right through both Barbarians. The third Barbarian, the one with throwing axes, stood back and pelted Thaddeus. It was annoying, but tolerable.
When the axe Barbarian died, his body vanishing in a puff of luminescence, they changed strategies. The swordsman began whirling again, but stayed almost in one place, raining blow after powerful blow on Thaddeus far faster than he could block them. When he tried to get away, the swordsman followed him, spinning through in quick, sweeping charges. After quaffing a mana potion, Thaddeus hid behind a pillar near the thrower. As expected, the swordsman came for him again, but by then he had half a dozen hammers in the air, whirling around the pillar to strike both Barbarians. Another trip through the cloud of hammers at full speed was too much for the swordsman; he died and vanished like his comrade.
Looking around, Thaddeus noted two of the Nephalem statues had reappeared. Instead of rusty iron, they looked like solid gold now; they must have been standing there beside that altar for a very, very long time. Did Heaven do that as a punishment? He couldn't believe anyone would desire immortality if the price was standing on a mountain top, frozen forever. The thought crossed his mind in a moment -- the last Barbarian was still standing there, peppering him with throwing axes.
"You there," Thaddeus called. "Must we do this? You are not my enemy."
)Your enemy is below. We may not open the gate for you unless we have been defeated in honorable combat.(
"Heaven has so decreed this? You must stand on this mountain forever?"
)We must. Finish this quickly, warrior. Baal will not wait for you!(
For once, a Barbarian was making sense. As he threw axes, Thaddeus switched to his maul and charged. The huge man didn't budge from the charge, or the second one. The third finished him, though; he vanished to his pedestal, and the gates into the mountain opened.
Woe to you, destroyer, treacherous one
With whom none has dealt treacherously!
Your time among us is spent; when you
Cease to destroy, you will be destroyed.
Where is the fury of destruction,
When there is nothing to destroy?
-- Chronicles of Zakarum, c. 28, v. 11-16
As he gazed sadly at the precious pieces battered through the walls of this sanctum, the first group of demons attacked. They were just Imps, with a few Minotaurs in golden armor. Thaddeus dealt with the Minotaurs first, then battered the Imps back into oblivion with his maul. Then he stood in contemplation. What was he to do? What could he do? By all indications, it was too late to save the Worldstone. Baal won the race, thanks to Nihlathak. As Thaddeus stood there, a burst of lightning erupted from under his feet, accompanied by the sound of laughter. His infernal eminence was obviously awaiting the pleasure of his company, and didn't like to be kept waiting. Bastard.
So on he went, exploring and admiring the shattered magnificence of the place, smashing every demon he met. Whenever he stopped for too long, clouds of poison, a burst of icy cold, or lightning bolts would goad him on again. Baal let him stop to kill his minions, but seemed to have little tolerance for sightseeing or prayers for the dead. There were a few dead Barbarians in the keep... probably heroes who'd managed to defeat the Ancients, but couldn't deal with Baal's army any better than Harrogath's warriors could. Fortunately, Baal couldn't stop Thaddeus from casting a portal, so he returned to Harrogath.
"Hello, Cain. Here are a few things you might look at."
"Excellent! I'm very happy to see you again. Have you met the Ancient Ones, then?"
"Yes. They were very fierce."
Thaddeus could sense Qual-Kehk behind him, itching to ask about the Nephalem. Cain simply nodded. "You do not seem... triumphant."
"Defeating the Ancients was difficult, but Baal has already gone past them. There is... was a sanctum dug into the peak of Arreat. Huge pieces of crystal are everywhere, smashed to bits. I fear hope for the Worldstone is lost."
"You bested the Ancients, warrior?" Qual-Kehk burst in. "Every time I hear from you, your deeds become more legendary. Now, you have gone beyond all our legends."
"Qual-Kehk, it doesn't matter! Who cares for legends? They will mean nothing without the Worldstone! Baal has destroyed it. There will be no one to speak of legends anymore."
"Nonsense," Qual-Kehk calmly answered. "Baal cannot defeat you now. Think on this: the Ancient Ones defeated the hordes of Hell long before the Worldstone even existed. You have defeated the Ancient Ones. What threat could all Hell's fury hold for you?"
"I cannot replace the Worldstone. I don't even know what it does."
"It seems to me that Qual-Kehk has a point!" Cain smiled. "The Worldstone was given to us eons ago, but the world existed long before that. It may be that we can live without it... though perhaps life will be harder."
"What's wrong with a hard life?" Qual-Kehk smiled. "It makes men tougher and stronger when they can rely only on themselves. So the Worldstone is gone. Maybe the world has enjoyed its protection long enough. With the light to guide us, and heroes like you walking the earth, we cannot help but prosper."
Thaddeus looked at Qual-Kehk. "The Worldstone protected the world?"
"Why do you suppose there have been so few demonic invasions these last few centuries? The Worldstone did that."
"Ah," Cain exclaimed. "One theory of the Worldstone's purpose is that its energy interfered with Hellish energies trying to enter our world. With their power weakened, demons could not function. This gave us respite from constant invasions, and allowed kings and kingdoms to grow and consolidate."
Qual-Kehk shrugged. "It is not my place to know what it did or how. My calling was to protect it. I failed, but maybe the world is better for it."
"Surely not," Thaddeus replied. "Heaven gave us the Worldstone for a purpose."
"Purposes change!" Cain said. "Many of Heaven's gifts only last a short time. When the need for them fades, they fail or are allowed to be destroyed."
With a shock, Thaddeus wondered... could this all have been a Heavenly gambit? Hell can plot and plan for centuries; why should anyone think Heaven is less clever? Surely, the other angels knew of Tyrael's actions... stopping him would have been easy, if no good could come of them. "Yes, humanity's power has increased since the days of old. Angelic protectors were not the answer to the infernal threat. Perhaps simple, common human beings needed to band together and become strong enough to protect themselves."
"Simple, common human beings?" Qual-Kehk snorted. "Maybe you started that way, but a true hero is far greater than any lesser man. The world needs heroes."
Cain added, "And if the hero must work hard to improve himself, that just may be what makes him a hero. Heroes are made, not born."
Thaddeus nodded. "Well, since it seems I cannot save the Worldstone... there is only one thing I can do, and I will actually enjoy doing it."
"What is that?"
"Making Baal wish he'd never been born."
Thaddeus went down through the Worldstone sanctum quickly, constantly moving lest Baal get the satisfaction of giving him another one of those magic hotfoots. The place was full of Baal's strongest troops, obviously the ones he'd kept closest to his person on his journey up the mountain. The most powerful slaves had learned how to excite themselves, and could explode without any Overseer to whip them up. Such devotion was appalling. The Minotaurs were the strongest he'd met, and the Succubi were almost a threat in and of themselves. Baal must like them that way.
The deepest level of the Worldstone sanctum was full of Minotaurs and Succubi. These witches could work stronger magic than curses, casting tiny bolts of pure red death from great distances. They fled from close combat, but charging with his maul took care of them very neatly. Dealing with the Minotaurs was more difficult if Thaddeus couldn't get a good angle for Blessed Hammer; charging them without his shield was out of the question, they hit much too hard. Despite all the pieces of crystal blasted up through the floor, Thaddeus felt strangely at peace. There is a certain freedom in having nothing to lose. Of course, he kept killing Baal's demons -- they had to be removed from the world. Even if the Worldstone was lost, there was still hope. No matter what Hell did, there would always be hope.
When Thaddeus finally found Baal, he was feeling almost light-hearted. Baal was in a good mood too. He was in an impromptu throne room, up on a dais with a red gate behind him. The way to the Worldstone, no doubt. *Finally! Welcome to Destruction's throne!*
"You're a mean host, Baal. No wine, no entertainment... not even hors d'oeuvres."
Baal threw down a glowing ball of energy, and cast a crippling curse on Thaddeus. His joints ached and his muscles felt weak, but the minions Baal summoned were a joke. A group of Fallen Ones, shamans throwing fireballs. Thaddeus didn't even bother to move, just cast Blessed Hammer until they were all pounded to jelly.
"You should have told me you were on the throne, Baal. I would have waited."
The laughter diminished slightly. *I have spent enough time waiting for you! Do you have any idea how slow you are?*
"So kind of you to wait on me, Baal. Now, be a good lad: my boots need a bit of a polish. I seem to have gotten your servants all over them."
A twitch developed at the corner of Baal's eye. Thaddeus smiled to himself; this worked better than taking him seriously. These proud spirits cannot endure to be mocked. Snarling, Baal summoned another group of attackers: Greater Mummies, with burning skeleton mages. His resistance to cold was excellent, so Thaddeus yawned theatrically and started casting Blessed Hammer. This group was a little tougher than the Fallen Ones had been. At one point, he prayed for the mage's redemption, not only for his own spiritual strength but to bless the dead so the mummies couldn't resurrect them. As the last of the dead went to their final sleep, Baal snarled some more insults.
"This from the creature summoning these things. I'll not match wits with you, Baal; you're too lightly armed."
"I believe your brothers said something like that. Personally, I'm disappointed. After all the talk I've heard, I expected far more, especially out of you. In fact, if I'd known you were this weak, I wouldn't have bothered coming."
Baal threw down a third group: warped humans. They looked much like the council of Kurast, but they were all dead. As he retreated to draw them away from Baal, he gave the nearest one his most pleasant greeting. The string of filth it uttered didn't sound like anything he'd heard in the church. Then he noticed the remains of magic symbols on their clothing. This must be Bartuc the Bloody, lord of the Vizjerei before his death, made Warlord of Blood after his demonic "slaves" dragged him down into Hell. It was a pity there were no Vizjerei here to see the state he'd sunk to, some of them still respect his memory. The hammers disposed of Bartuc and his followers easily enough.
"Oh, Mr. 'I am destruction'? I must apologize; as a guest, I should not interfere with the way you treat your servants. But they are making a terrible mess."
Another curse. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but curses never hurt me. Don't you have anything left at all? Is this the worst you can do?"
Another group of monsters appeared. "Balrogs. Oh, please."
Thaddeus took the Balrogs a short distance away and disposed of them. Baal's minions were getting tougher, but they were still nowhere near as tough as the Ancients had been. They weren't even tough enough for Thaddeus to use anything but the hammers. No wonder Baal had feared to take the summit; the Ancients probably wouldn't let him enter unless he fought them himself, and he was nothing without his army. In that respect, he was the inferior of the Barbarians. He'd won the war on the mountain by being the one who chose how it was fought. Thaddeus should probably get up on that dais and teach him a lesson he wouldn't soon forget, but goading him was intensely gratifying.
Whistling a jaunty tune, Thaddeus came back in. "Look, this is all very entertaining, but shouldn't we get to the business of sending you screaming back to Hell? I'm afraid you've overstayed your welcome by a considerable margin."
"And these minions are... what? More Fallen Ones? Perhaps some Zombies? Maybe a dyspeptic Quill Rat or two? I don't think you've got anything left."
Baal grinned. It was a very unpleasant sight. *You aren't the first to think that... So say hello to my little friends.*
Thaddeus backed up to give them space, and began casting Blessed Hammer. This bunch was odd looking, with four legs and four arms, all bony plates and huge teeth. The hammers didn't stop them in their tracks like most beasts; they walked right up to Thaddeus and flailed their fists at him. When the first hit his shield, he knew he was in trouble; it knocked him right off his feet and back into a column. Being trapped among them would be very bad, so Thaddeus took the better part of valor and beat a short retreat. They came for him again, slowly ambling along; he had several hammers in the air before they reached him and bashed him back again.
The hammers hurt them, probably a lot, but these things were so tough it hardly seemed to matter. As Baal laughed, Thaddeus retreated all the way out of his throne room with the things in pursuit. In the entrance hall, he got behind a pillar and cast a few hammers; one of the beasts died, but more came up behind and battered him into the open again. Swearing, Thaddeus retreated again and again, getting off one or two hammers before they were on him again, not nearly enough to set up the cloud of death he needed. Finally, he just ran back to an open area, hoping they would follow.
They didn't follow; Thaddeus looked out and saw them waiting in the hall. Well, what now? Subterfuge? Perhaps a charge? No, they'd mutilate him without his shield. Subterfuge would be much better. He stepped out into the hall and began casting. They came forward, he retreated, casting a hammer with every other step. When they got too close, he kept backing up. They began to wear down, but Thaddeus ran into a problem. He'd backed into a wall, and was trapped in a dead-end room. Throwing caution to the winds, Thaddeus walked into the middle of the group and began casting Blessed Hammer. He got exactly one off before they smashed him into the wall again.
With nothing else to do, Thaddeus zealously hit them with his scepter. All of them gathered around and pinned him to the wall with repeated blows. That was it; if he ever got out of this, he was getting a bigger scepter. Smiting one away, Thaddeus walked out of the crowd and into the middle of the room again. After a couple more hammers, he retreated down the hall, exactly as he'd come in. Most of the hammers missed, damn it, but as he reached an open area, he had time to cast a hammer cloud. Another died; now there were four, still too many but he could probably deal with them up close now.
After downing a rejuvenation potion, Thaddeus retreated to the main hall. Two followed; the others stayed behind a low barrier and watched. That was strange, but Thaddeus wasn't about to question their decision. Casting and retreating, he drew the near two away, until finally there was only one, the biggest. He took out his maul and battered it senseless. The last two fell easily.
Back in the throne room, Baal looked very unhappy to see Thaddeus. He ran through the gate; Thaddeus followed. The Worldstone chamber was a huge natural cave, dominated by a pure red crystal of enormous size. Bits of stone and broken crystal floated through the air, as bits of the Worldstone broke away from the main body and smashed into the walls. That they could float so delicately and still hit with such power was strange, but the Worldstone was of Heavenly origin and their ways are not easily guessed. Baal was on a causeway which led up to the Worldstone, laughing triumphantly.
"Well, final act is correct. A pity, it was a beautiful thing."
"Your brothers said that too. You demons are so repetitive. Blood this, doom that, I'll be back the other thing. I know you'll return; the whole world knows it. You'll have about as much of destroying the world then as you have of defeating me now. So shut your face, you pathetic weakling. If you haven't got it now, you never will."
Twitching with rage, Baal summoned tentacles from the floor. Thaddeus ignored them. He summoned a duplicate of himself. Thaddeus stood between them and cast Blessed Hammer, giving both equal treatment. At one point, Thaddeus tried a charge, and Baal replied with a wave of cold, pushing him back. With a shrug, Thaddeus put his maul away and cast Blessed Hammer. Without his minions, Baal was truly a weakling; the cold wave was about all he had to defend himself. Thaddeus was drinking potions more to restore his mana than to recover from any damage Baal could inflict.
Baal died messily, collapsing to the floor and puking his mummified guts out. The smell was more offensive than any of his attacks. Strange translucent spirits floated up from his body; hopefully, they would find the peace they deserved away from Baal. The earth trembled, the ceiling cracked... and Tyrael descended into the chamber.
"I am impressed, mortal. You have accomplished the impossible."
"Hail, Tyrael. Is the Worldstone lost forever?"
"I am afraid you are correct. Baal's destructive touch has corrupted it completely."
Thaddeus nodded. "So... what was it?"
Tyrael regarded him silently for a moment. "Ages ago, Heaven retreated from the mortal realms, leaving the Worldstone behind as protection. When the Prime Evils were exiled to your world, I hoped to use the soulstones, whose vibrational energies were in harmony with the Worldstone, to contain them forever. This would have turned the balance of power between Heaven and Hell to our favor, and kept it there. Now, the Worldstone must be destroyed, or Hell will be able to use its power against us both."
"The world will survive without it?"
"That is my hope."
"Then we do not need it anymore." Thaddeus smiled. "There is so much more to be done. The church must be rebuilt, new stones laid for the foundations. Do you know anything of Fara, and if she has come to Kurast?"
"She was not greeted warmly, but is earning their admiration. You will be pleased to know that Asheara did not remain Lord of Kurast for long."
"How surprising. I hope she didn't do too much harm?"
"Very little; she grew bored with the position and left of her own accord."
"She will find another war somewhere else. Has peace come to the Sisters of the Sightless Eye, and their monastery?"
"They have established themselves in strength once again, and new converts flock to their monastery from nearby kingdoms."
"I wonder if they would consider admitting men. Probably not, but there are other places men may go to learn. Hopefully, they'll stay out of necromancy. What will become of the Barbarians, now that they have no purpose to unite them?"
"Whatever they wish to do, they will do. That has always been their way."
Thaddeus chuckled. "Unless someone tells them to do it... then they do something else."
"You seem different, mortal. Has your quest changed you?"
"How could it not?" Thaddeus laughed. "I have been considering your servant, the Mule. His humor confused me at first, but then I saw the joy and love of life in it. Joy and honest laughter are things demons do not understand. Your Mule could mock me, and not give offense. When you mock evil, it grows angry. Contemplating that humorless selfishness, the joylessness of an evil existence, may be the most compelling lesson I could carry away from all my encounters."
After a moment's silence, Tyrael said, "I have no servant called the Mule."