Varnae (Act I)
My meager explorations of the class leave plenty of room for other viable approaches. Let's avoid the "piles of minions" strategies, though I may find room for a golem. The ranged spells are also out. He'll do his own killing, by hand; the only melee skill is Poison Dagger. Hmm... I haven't used poison much, with any character. The Necromancer is supposed to be a great poisoner; this looks like a good opportunity to give poison a shot.
For skills, Poison Dagger is a must, for the attack rating bonus if nothing else. The damage looks pretty low, but poison charms should help. The Necro is a fragile thing to be in melee range, so Bone Armor is called for. My curse of choice will be Lower Resistance -- another level 30 skill, but I'll limp along until then. If I use a golem at all, it will be a Fire Golem, and my merc will be an Act III Sorcerer. Since Poison Immune monsters are fairly common, some back-up damage source is called for: either Corpse Explosion or the Decrepify curse and a big whacking implement. No reason not to try both.
What are Necromancers? Priests of Rathma (whoever Rathma is) come from an underground city hidden in the most distant swamps. The order seems more philosophical than religious, striving for understanding of what is, not an ideal that might be. The consummate Necro is pragmatic, content with the power provided by the dead and unconcerned with infernal or celestial power. Beyond good and evil, the Necromancer stays in balance and is immune to the Hellish temptations that plague lesser mortals (at least in theory). The Prime Evils are now loose, and Necromancers are trying to rid the mortal realms of all outside interference once and for all. Heaven is willing to keep out of the mortal world, but Hell was never so principled and must be ejected by force.
Personally, what might my Necro be like? His main weapon is poison, possibly backed up with explosions. From what I've learned watching forensic detective shows on A&E, poisoners and bombers share some elements of their "typical" psychological profiles: a high intelligence and education, meticulous habits, a great deal of patience, above-average ability with lying and deception, and a passive-aggressive personality with just a hint of cowardice. In a nutshell, everything a Necromancer would aspire to. For a name: Varnae, after the third most famous undead monster in history... or is he fourth by now?
Another day of traveling is behind me. Alas! many more loom ahead. Endless roads ramble through verdant greensward, studded indiscreetly with flowers and butterflies, all bathed in endless supplies of bright warm sunshine. I am in hell. I expect to see puppies and kittens gamboling at any moment.
The worst aspect of the countryside is the people one meets. They rise early, work with industry all day, then go to sleep at sunset to prepare for another day of exactly the same thing. Is it any wonder they have nothing to say, with habits such as these? When they do speak, their speech reminds one of ragged washing strung out on a line, or a series of damp sponges full of mold. No; the sponges might have some interesting colors among them.
Before I continue, I ought to include a few biographical elements. It may well be that no one will ever read this journal, or will dismiss it as the ravings of a madman (a fond hope) but as I have been forced on an assignment of uncertain value, an explanation of my task for any future biographer is in order. Not that I desire one just now -- you only know a man is truly dead when someone has written his biography.
My full name is Varnae Cesare Amygda von Rhus, a well-established initiate of the order of Rathma. Do not worry, I will not eat your soul. I have very little interest in matters of the soul; I have been very happy to be an initiate for the last several years. Were it not for my blessed father, I'd be at home still, feverishly occupied with the task of being idle. He died some years ago, of course, but being dead didn't take nearly as much out of him as it ought to have. I'm still waiting for my inheritance.
Mine was not a happy childhood. Our home was one cave among many, in a vast intestine of a city dug into the sodden earth of the largest marsh in the world. Outsiders may wonder: why dig a city under a marsh? Given the prevalence of a substance known as "water" in such places, won't your tunnels flood? To them, I say: YES!! Every moment of every day, on and on without end! But do not worry; the walls and ceilings are supported by iron-hard braces, made from the bones of those who died of diseases brought on by the prevailing dampness. There is almost an endless supply of them, which increases daily. As water pools, it drains to lower levels where armies of our servants ferry it, one bucket at a time, back to the surface. This is the most complex sewer on earth, larger by far and consuming more "manpower" than the city itself. The closest analogy I can imagine is building a city below the tide mark, then keeping the ocean from flooding it by means of constant bailing.
As you might imagine, members of our order (and we are all, by compulsion, members of the order) differ somewhat in appearance from those who live elsewhere. A resemblance to fish has been noted; also, to the recently drowned. Disease and general ill-health are common, and mistakenly attributed to our rites rather than our living quarters. Most of us learn to swim before we can walk, and develop a tolerance for foul odors I dare say is unparalleled. Actually, that last may have more to do with our rites than not.
But I diverge from the subject: me. Recently, word came to our city that the forces of Hell are at work in the outside world. Why, I hear you ask, should this concern me? It doesn't, particularly. According to the high priests, Heaven has been having a go at it for some time. If the order is as dedicated to "maintaining the balance" as they keep droning on about, why shouldn't Hell get to have a bit of fun every now and then? They habitually object that the infernal side of things is "less moral." Strange how that's so often said about anyone who's getting more fun out of life than you are.
Sadly, my usual tactic for evading unpleasant tasks prevailed me not. Father found me, and I have been sent out into the world with a few family heirlooms, to seek either demons or death. I have been told neither should bother me overmuch, yet remain unconvinced. The novelty of walking on the surface has long since abandoned me. As I have yet to see either death or a demon, I shall continue on this way, at least until everyone at home has forgotten me and I can sneak back.
Ah, an occurrence! At last, something has broken the tedium of being alive. At sundown, I came upon a fortified campsite by the side of the road, and convinced those within that I am, in fact, alive. There was some doubt in their minds; how charming these simple villagers are. To my surprise, nearly everyone within the walls was female, and armed as well. They explained to me that they are Rogues, a monastic order dedicated to protecting a mountain pass. Before you take this seriously, let me describe them in detail.
These "monks" have a sort of uniform, consisting entirely of leather fitted tightly to the body. An abbreviated vest barely covers more than the chest and upper back. On the lower body, a short loincloth provides a meager shred of decency, but the thighs, hips, and much of the buttocks are left exposed. The legs are well-covered by boots extending far up the thigh. The head is left uncovered, perhaps because almost everything else is.
If you, gentle reader, have followed me this far, I am sure you agree that the image which presents itself is not one of quietly reserved monks. In fact, if all those pretty young things were laid end to end... well, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised. Unfortunately, as splendid as their costumes might be, these poor girls have no idea how to present themselves. Can you believe it, the leather is left its natural color! It was all I could do not to say, "Ladies, please! Dun brown may be acceptable for the cow, but you should have more ambition." Perhaps these folk haven't heard of dye, though the color of their war leader's hair suggests otherwise. More on her in a moment.
When I first entered, a prosperous fellow in a shabby blue tunic greeted me with the smile of a born glad-hander. I immediately sensed he was a salesman, the sort who is a friend to everyone and makes quite a good living off his friends. He might stab you in the back for a penny, but does it in such a kindly way you'll scarcely notice you're bleeding. Naturally, being everyone's friend means he is no one's intimate. Looking into those blue eyes is like looking out a window -- assuming windows can appraise you back.
The ostensible leader of this band is called Akara, a lady gifted with perpetual old age, but not a single redeeming vice. One can forgive any amount of sin, but a woman must never, ever allow herself to become dull.
Their war leader I have already mentioned: Kashya. Perhaps father was right, and travel is broadening -- I had no idea monasteries kept war leaders. A deliberately striking woman, she possesses every virtue a man could hope for except a tolerance for false humility. This is a woman of high standards; I must be careful never to live up to them.
As is common among warlike bands, they have an armorer, a girl named Charsi. Only one adjective comes to mind for her, and it does so with the weight and authority of 300 pounds of rotting suet stuffed into a 5-pound sack: perky. The girl is a happy, pleasant, perpetually smiling mass of saccharine sweetness with arms that could choke an ox. I DESPISE perky people. I'd bite them, but I fear they'd stick to my teeth.
To my surprise and delight, I have an old acquaintance here, stuck like sewage in a clogged drain. The merchant Gheed, who has provided my people with valuable goods and many hours of entertainment over the years, is taking shelter in this encampment. It seems something is wrong with the pass, and his wagon cannot go through. "You mean you're trapped here?" I asked. Perhaps I looked a bit too pleased. "I hoped I'd never have to lay eyes on one of your kind again!" he said. "Your money's still good, but remember this: I know you're alone here, so don't even think about trying anything!" "I wouldn't dream of it," I lied. "I'm simply happy to see a familiar face! That's all, I swear it."
Perhaps I could remain here for a few days, if the alternative is returning to the countryside. The simple life of country folk has its appeal to those who want simple lives; it is only in large gatherings that company becomes worthwhile. This is the chief advantage of cities -- no one is truly civilized anywhere else, and this does seem to be the largest gathering of living people I have yet seen. The dead in this area have been more tedious than usual, wailing on about fire and evil. It's not unusual; dead minds are so slow, they can only concentrate on one thing at a time. And father wonders why I so rarely talk with them.
Rosy-fingered dawn has made her presence known to the world, and to me. Nature has her enthusiasts, but I am not to be counted among them, and the sun is not a welcome novelty. I fully realize all life owes its existence to that brilliant orb, but it is much too hot, far too bright, and rises a great deal earlier than is acceptable. At least clouds obscure it now, and I feel it is safe to wander the earth once more.
On my way to breakfast, I noticed Gheed. The poor fellow nicked himself while shaving this morning. Naturally, I let my gaze linger over the injury... eyes widening... then slid the tip of my tongue along my upper lip. The effect was immediate and most gratifying. I really could grow to love that man. Once, father seriously considered having him executed on some pretense and raised as a Zombie, just to see the expression on his face.
My quest for victuals has come to naught. My niggardly hosts, concerned for their material survival, will not provide for my needs without some form of compensation! It seems I am not in polite company, and my cash reserves are at an ebb. There is my wealth of goods, of course, but parting with family heirlooms in exchange for chicken-and-turnip surprise would be unconscionable. I have not eaten for some days, and would be willing to set aside my normal feelings for turnips, but all the same...
Many would simply continue on their way when dispensed such ill-treatment; I do not feel I was entirely wrong in giving voice to my complaints. After all, I have been having a very difficult time. Entirely unsympathetic, the Rogues informed me that while they are out in the wilderness, their resources are limited and necessity forces their hand. Some sort of revolt within their ranks has led to their present exile, and a general pall has settled on their land. They blame these things on demonic influences. It is common for monastic sorts to blame any sort of trouble on demons; the alternative is to admit that their lives are dull and empty, and any sensible person would rise up in revolt.
With effort, I held my tongue, and over the growling of my stomach gently inquired if some other means might be found to reach a mutually satisfactory arrangement. As miserable as these people are, they represent the best this land has to offer. I am unlikely to find nobler or more interesting company; as sad and frightening as that thought is, I must face facts. A deal was struck. In exchange for a cot and all the turnips I should like, my services will be accepted in lieu of gelt. To wit: I must hire myself out. Oh! that outrageous fortune should place me in such a predicament! And for such meager wages...
My first task is to empty a nearby cave of its denizens. This "den of evil" which strikes such terror into their delicate hearts lies out on the local moor; reportedly, the dead walk there and demons roam freely. The dead would be less of a difficulty than the living, I am sure, but it may be best to wait and see what lies in this cave. For all I know, these bumpkins have mistaken some local family of inbred cannibals for demons. Meeting such people could make for an entertaining evening.
The moors are a dreadful place. Knots of sepia-colored grass and brush alternate with pools of standing water, breeding grounds for all manner of pestilential insects. Even worse, loose soil and tendrils of greenery cover much of the water; it is almost impossible not to step into stagnant pools and splash into the mud. My shoes are an absolute disgrace, and I nearly turned an ankle. Despite my initial misgivings, I must admit the local fauna are behaving oddly. Large hedgehogs with extraordinarily long spines crawl about in the bracken. I killed one with difficulty, and my examination of the corpse was not encouraging. The creature's forelimbs are greatly lengthened, so much so that it can no longer crawl on its paws, but must hobble with the entire forelimb on the ground.
My search for the cave continues, but more distressing revelations have come to light. The hedgehogs can throw their spines with a flick of their tails... and they are not alone on the moor. The dead do walk here, and do not respond to the spell which should send them to sleep again. You must understand, gentle reader, this is the first thing any member of the order of Rathma must learn. Priests often raise servants who resist the spell, but the priest must be very skilled indeed if the Zombie's only reaction is anger. I was forced to beat it down with my wand, a use for which it is most unsuited.
An abandoned house on the moor provided me with a moment's respite, to clean up and consider my course of action. Well, father... it seems you were right. We first learned from demons how to raise the dead, though we turned the knowledge against them. Only a fool refuses a weapon. Now, someone or something is raising the dead and altering animals. In all likelihood, that unknown is infernal in nature; celestial powers disdain our arts, and our own order is unlikely to be involved. Also, it is not likely that this is disconnected from the revolt in the monastery. A serious investigation is called for.
The house's kitchen supplied me with a large knife. Raising my own servants to combat this great unknown might be viable, but it seems to me that a subtler approach may be more likely to succeed. Any being powerful enough to raise these servants will be powerful enough to dispel mine, and then where will I be? Instead of leading an army of the dead, the quieter path of the lone assassin, striking alone with an envenomed blade, may be more fruitful. Our science is well advanced in discerning the ways death works in nature; how fitting it will be to destroy the infernal with the mundane.
A short distance from the house, my destination became apparent. No charming savages met me in the cave, only Zombies being corralled by little red demons. I identified them as Fallen Ones, the weakest of demonkind. Evil souls of the common type, the sort one sees walking the streets every day, are torn to pieces when Hell takes them. Each shred, barely even demonic, becomes a Fallen One. They vaguely recall their former existences with equal parts of resentment and shame, and react to the living with spiteful hostility mixed with embarrassing cowardice. Their resentment is perfectly understandable, but if they had done anything truly worthy of shame, they certainly would have risen higher in Hell's hierarchy.
Searching the cave thoroughly yields a large crop of Zombies and their tiny masters; perhaps Zombies are the only things Fallen Ones can master. One dead strongman gave me a goodly clout to the head before returning to the earth, but I am reluctant to wear a helm. It is so dreadfully difficult to keep a good hairstyle with any kind of helmet, though a bloodstained bandage doesn't look fetching either.
Somehow, Akara found out I emptied her cave before I returned to camp, though I used a portal and arrived instantaneously. Then I remembered, these charming ladies worship an aspect of the orderly heavens. In the ages-long battle between Heaven and Hell, both sides have developed complementary methods. As Hell delights in hiding and deception, so Heaven has developed skills of spying and forcing truth. The "Sightless Eye" these ladies refer to is doubtless some aspect of that. Our conversation was uninteresting, but I shall record it here for the edification of future generations.
"You have cleansed the Den of Evil," she said as soon as I appeared. "You have earned my trust, and may yet restore my faith in humanity."
Please recall, I was still somewhat taken aback. "Perish the thought, dear lady. Humanity and I have as little to do with each other as possible, to our mutual benefit."
This seemed to puzzle her. "No matter. Take this ring as our bond of friendship."
"A trifle, I am sure." Then I looked at it. "Yes, a trifle. Mind you, I have many friends, all of whom have grown to despise me. None love me more than my enemies -- they go out of their way to provide me with amusements. Now, so long as you're willing to trust me, I have a fine property to the south I'm anxious to sell..."
Sadly, we were interrupted by the war leader, whose name has slipped my mind. "I've just gotten the report from my scouts! There's been a violation of our graveyard!"
Now, why do you suppose she looking at ME like that? "I beg your pardon?"
"One of our sisters, Blood Raven, is in our own monastery graveyard! She's raising our dead for an army! Someone has to stop her!"
Hmm... were the local servants being raised by one of these women? What a fascinating idea. "Worry not, ladies. I shall go and see her forthwith."
"Don't be stupid. She's one of the most dangerous priestesses in our monastery."
"Oh, I do hope so."
Gentle reader, if there is one piece of advice I can offer you, it is this: never let yourself fall into circumstances where your labor can be had cheaply. Working for food is a miserable state of affairs, yet it is the best this blighted landscape has to offer. I've half a mind to go home and hide in a cupboard, demons be damned. (Now there's a phrase. I really ought to have been a writer, you know; my talents are wasted here.) I will grant you, the quest has its charms. My hosts have allowed me, in the depths of their gratitude, to exchange things I find at pawnbroker's rates. The moors have supplied me with enough abandoned and looted possessions that I could afford a few material comforts, were any available. Those with a stronger back and weaker mind than I might find these prospects tempting.
Another issue of importance is the opportunity to test a variety of poisons on living demons. The study of the full course of a venom's effect is one of the most difficult, partially due to a lack of test subjects (extrapolation from humans can only go so far), and also because a complete understanding requires vivisection -- a messy affair that prevents reuse. Despite superficial resemblances, demons are not rats: one cannot simply go out-of-doors and hope to trip over an inexhaustible supply of them. However... if the cave outside is any indication, research material abounds here. The opportunity is exciting, yet frustrating -- lacking a suitable laboratory, I cannot take proper advantage. Field research can be so imprecise, but it is my only recourse if I hope to make a contribution to human knowledge here.
Wasting none of the morning, I traveled across the moors to a wooden fence with a single gate, guarded by a lone archer. She rather imperiously informed me that great danger lay ahead. Ahead of what, I asked? This innocent question prompted an exhaustive cataloguing of the terrible ills their order has suffered in recent weeks. I may have written it all down sometime before, or I may not. Others' complaints tend to make my mind wander. Near the tail end of this, she revealed that demons and persons allied with them are present in great numbers further up the pass. Neither wanting nor needing to hear more, I thanked her for the pleasure of her company and went on my merry way.
Cold, wet plains lie above the moors, blessedly free of mud. Just beyond the fence, a large stone slab carved with sorcerous symbols lay in the ground. Its appearance is maddeningly familiar, and its size and placement lead me to believe it an artifact is of some importance, though its purpose is a mystery. I was never the most diligent of students in the carefree days of my misspent youth, and my study of sorcerous magics was sadly neglected. Well, one simple stone shouldn't be too difficult to puzzle out.
The stone's main feature is a circle, surrounded by symbols of air, lightning, the earth, and a few others I do not recognize. It is possible that this is a Summoning Circle, a protective ring intended to isolate a sorcerer from whatever unearthly force he is attempting to bargain with. Why would such a thing be out here, in full view? A Summoning Circle would be kept indoors, hidden from prying eyes; even Sorcerers foolish enough to dabble in the infernal aren't stupid enough to let absolutely everyone know about it. Nevertheless, there is no sign this wasteland was ever home to a magician's tower; no ruined foundations or blasted walls lie within view to tell of its sudden and fitting demolishment.
My examination of the slab's external features yields no insights, apart from a haunting sense of familiarity. Cautious scrutiny must now yield to active experimentation. Progressing with the hypothesis that this is a Summoner's Circle, the safest place to stand must be inside it, despite its resemblance to a target. As logic dictates, I enter the ring; bluish flames leap up from the stone's corners, and I suddenly remember where I've seen this rock before! Another just like it lies back in the Rogue's encampment, very near the smithy. When I first saw it, I thought it was a piece of local artwork, and did everything I could not to acknowledge its existence. Call me old-fashioned, but the "new primitivism" movement that's so popular these days does nothing for me. Artisans of the past made rune-covered rocks because they had giant muscles and brains the size of a walnut. Cities are the highest apex of culture; no artist produced anything but stones and doggerel before our times.
While the image of that other stone was in my mind, an odd thing happened. In an instant, I was longer where I was, but back where I was before. In short, a teleport! The Rogue's encampment surrounded me, with its hastily codged-together walls, omnipresent piles of chicken excrement, and the less-than-ideal fragrance of masses of unwashed femininity. Be still, my heart. The smith, who thankfully did not notice me, was engaged in conversation with three of her cohorts.
"I think he just acts creepy," the smith said. "He can't be that bad."
Oh, I can't, can I? I'm going to have to start working on her. One of her companions replied, "Yeah, he could! I mean, look at him! Ewww!"
"The last time I saw that color," the third said, "I was looking under a rock."
"Aw, c'mon!" the smith chided them. "Remember, he has a mom just like anyone else."
Naturally, I have a mother. My memories of her are a blend of neuroses, too little clothing, far too much make-up, and sadism. She raised me as though it was an arduous duty, using simple cruelty in measured doses. Between her and father, there was great passion, hatred, worship, wrath, and slavish devotion, but nothing like love. She would flirt with anyone so long as he was watching, and kept no secrets except what made her happy. Pity any child born to such a union.
"Well..." the third said, "maybe a really long time ago. Even Bartuc the Bloody had a mom, that doesn't change anything."
The smith smiled, radiant as the sun's face. "Maybe all he needs is a great big hug!"
Thank the earth for her blessings! Her friends' screams of dismay concealed my own. The teleport-stone took me away in a flash, back to the comforting chill of this demon-infested wilderness. Now, after a short rest to settle my nerves, I feel ready to resume my quest. My observations on the effects of poison on demonic creatures will come later; I am not sure I can calmly comment on them in my present state. Begging your forgiveness, gentle reader, but this important matter will simply have to wait.
In the meantime, I shall comment on the local life (or unlife). The Fallen are out in numbers, with shamans who can raise them from death to their former state. Lest anyone believe this means they are highly skilled in matters of life and death, I must remind you that a Fallen One is not precisely alive. "Raising" one is a relatively simple matter of repairing the broken body, rather than entrapping and returning the soul. Interspersed among these demons are a number of women, obviously of the Rogue order but now fallen from even that lowly state. Distressing as it is, the priestess was correct: they are obviously under Hell's influence. No woman, not even these martial matriarchs, would appear in public looking like that. I shall say no more for modesty's sake.
Journeying over the plains, I have found a number of fascinating novelties. The Fallen Ones have made camps, decorated in proper barbaric fashion with the bones and skulls of those whose lives were happier than their own. Some have even made rude tents of flayed human skin. To my knowledge, this degree of social organization has never been observed before. Another unanticipated development is what I shall call a High Shaman, capable of restoring a lesser shaman to action. As interesting as they are, I am glad I've only encountered one, as killing it was a dangerous proposition. The death released an explosion of internal energy, spattering blood and bile for yards around. Field research is not without its risks, but I am not being paid enough to tolerate all this mess, that is the simple, final truth.
There is one beast I have neglected to describe thus far: the Sasquatch. Huge, hairy bipeds with an unpleasant aroma, these creatures plod about in forests up and down the western continent. A few laired in the cave on the moors, and I have found more in another cave here. Sadly, their presence forces practicality on me: I am now wearing a helmet. One blow to the head is bad enough, but these creatures are so tall that that is their only target and I am fond of my brains, thank you very much! All the same... very few helmets are made with any thought beyond protecting the head. None have style, there's no sense of elan; they say nothing beyond the wearer's admission that there is something valuable inside his skull. Even the occasional plume or riveted pattern is only added as an afterthought.
The caves are quite enjoyable; I thoroughly kill every last thing inside. Naturally drained of water, they are relatively dry and near enough to the surface to get plenty of air. Perhaps if I am successful here, I can cut a deal when the local real estate market opens up. These caves should be reasonably priced, this far out in the countryside. Ah, there's the rub; local real estate will be cheap as dirt, because no sensible person wants to live here.
Leaving the cave and my flight of fancy behind, I finally make my way to the local graveyard. I've spent many a happy day in such places; how saddening that such familiar things should distress me now. The undead are out in force. New Zombies, fresh from the earth, shamble about aimlessly without orders -- until they see me. Skeletons, the flesh long since fallen from their bones, also react violently to my presence. As poison is a material embodiment of death magic, it has less effect on reanimated corpses, but beating them to death the old-fashioned way works as well as ever.
By the willow in the center of the graveyard (itself decorated with fresh corpses) a vision in white awaits me. She is most palpably evil, with skin like fresh bone and ivory horns growing from her head. The dead respond to her immediately, rising from the ground at a gesture; I cannot make out what she does to protect them from my magic. So as not to disturb her at her work, I hide behind a convenient headstone. I'm not sure what intrigues me more, the ease with which she casts, or the grotesque way her body has warped. This evil lady has unmistakably given herself completely to darkness, but knows so much of death. I wonder... would father approve of her? Oops! No time for that; she's seen me.
Just done with the battle; triumph and sadness fill my heart. From her bow, she shot fiery arrows at me; quite a "hot" girl. Then she ran to a new position; a "fast" girl too. I had to exert all my manly prowess just to challenge her pace. Sadly, her entourage of followers came between us. She and I ran up and down through the graveyard, among and around that throng of the dead; the battle was almost a ballet in its use of point and counterpoint (no pun intended, please.) It was almost with sadness that I plunged my dagger into her one last time, and watched her soul slip away, dragged down into the depths of Hell. Her knowledge, her subtlety, the way she screamed when wounded... she was truly a vision.
Understandably, I was full of melancholy as I returned to camp. The war leader, who I'd never expect to understand, greeted me with open amazement. "I can hardly believe you've defeated Blood Raven! She was one of our proudest warriors... and my greatest friend."
"Yes, a truly amazing woman," I said, a tear trickling down my cheek. "I doubt I'll ever see anyone like her again."
"Uh... yeah," she replied. "She didn't hit you on the head, or anything?"
Never let it be said that I pay no attention to a lady's feelings, even one who would kill me if I called her a lady. Perhaps I was also feeling a touch maudlin. "Your concern is touching, but you need not worry. I was... anxious that you might be upset by the deed which had to be done. She wasn't the sort of girl one would take home to mother anymore." Actually, she and mother would probably have gotten on smashingly.
From her expression, it was obvious that my show of sympathy was unconvincing. It was equally obvious that she didn't want to believe the truth, and would accept the sham. Entire political philosophies have been based around that sort of decision. "O... K. There's no way we can pay you, but one of my scouts can serve you as a mercenary."
"Ah, a servant!" It's about time these people came to understand what class of person they're dealing with. "I shall treat her as well as one of my own."
"You'd better not," she said, suddenly very suspicious. "If I hear you've done one thing..."
"Gentle... Kashya, is it? I'd never harm a hair on her head. Should she die, I will of course respect your ways and leave her to molder in peace. I swear it."
With a cynical snort, she nodded. Will nothing convince this woman? "Yeah. Right. Your gear looks beat up. Why don't you get Charsi to fix it?"
A not-unreasonable fear gripped me. It was true, father's quilted vest had suffered in the battle, and his dagger could use a new edge. Then I remembered: I have a servant! "You there! Take these things to the smith's and have them tended to."
"Um... hi. My name's Floria."
"Excellent. Hop to it, I wish to retire early, there's a good girl. In the morning, a simple breakfast will do: tea, buttered bread with black currant jam, and the least offensive bits of ham you can manage. I take it precisely at 8, and do not appreciate slacking."
Quite suddenly, I found the war leader standing between my new girl and myself. I asked, as politely as I could manage, "What is the meaning of this?!"
"I said as a mercenary," she snarled like some sort of beast, "Not a serving wench. A mercenary warrior. Understand?"
Long experience had taught me when I am about to experience pain. In fact, my nature is so sensitive that I can often feel it before it is inflicted. As one's ability to see the light of reason correlates directly with the pain one is suffering, it took nothing more to convince me that I had made an error in judgment. "Ah, of course," I replied. "Silly me! What a terrible thing I said! It will never happen again. Please, I bruise like a grape."
There are those in this world who cannot abide women and detest their company; I do not number among them. Women are the charming sex, wonderfully unreasonable and meant to be adored. In defiance of this ideal, there are a few who will not (or cannot) be charming, and disgrace their entire gender: the merely female. My hostesses are exhaustingly poor company, primarily due to the influence of their leaders. Their priestess, with labored dignity, has taken responsibility for events far beyond her control on her aged shoulders and will not allow herself - or anyone else - a moment's rest. The war leader, perhaps concerned that some feminine weakness has led to her order's downfall, seems determined to erase that character from every girl under her power. Perhaps it with this in mind that she has assigned one of her scouts to accompany me into the field.
Her name is Floria. Shy and slender as a lily, with the delicate blush of palest rose in her cheek, I cannot help but wonder how she came to be planted on this mud heap. Perhaps this one has not been here long enough for her bloom to die. Then again, some of the most fragrant blossoms only grow on the dunghill; it may be that unexpected strength lies in her supple limbs, and fierce thorns guard this flower. I do hope so; an iron fist in a velvet glove is a so fetching on a woman.
As a test, I explore two large mausolea in the Rogue cemetery with her. Apparently, they are too impoverished to afford more. Inside the first crypt, we encounter Ghosts, the most beautiful of the undead. Beings of pure spirit, their ethereal grace is a wonder to the eye; they may be observed in their natural habitat (any graveyard or torture house) and are well worth the trip. A close approach is not advised; they have been known to materialize and set upon visitors, feeding by sapping away spiritual strength. It does not surprise me to find those in the crypts braced to attack on sight. Sadly, the anger of the dead did not pass with Blood Raven, so she could not have been directly responsible for them. As splendid as she was, she was but a tool for some greater power.
I did not predict the presence of Goat Demons alongside the ghosts. Goat demons are odd creatures, quite unlike other demons in appearance. It may be they were once another kind of people, from some distant place now consumed by Hell's power. Many commoners believe them to be a hybrid between man and animal. Perhaps to our rural cousins, lustful thoughts involving farm animals seem normal. It matters little; these creatures must be defeated, and I'm afraid dear Floria is performing quite badly. She does not appreciate that while attacking, Ghosts must make themselves vulnerable, and Goat demons are shot as easily as a man. Her timidity indicates a lack of experience. I must confess to disappointment, but this cloud may bear a silver lining. Obviously, Kashya cannot have had much of an influence on her as yet, and she may benefit from my tutelage.
My first order of business is encouraging her to dress suitably. The crypts offer up a splendid set of leathers, which have survived entombment in remarkable condition. Of rare quality and a far more flattering cut, the name "Death Suit" has been sewn into the collar. They're also jet black; who could want for more? I dare say I'd try them myself, if I could do a thing with scooped necklines. Her hunting bow I replace in the second mausoleum, with a much bigger one (I understand bigger is better here) set with two tiny demon skulls from my own growing collection. The bones of magical demons can be harvested, providing a wise user with energy-stealing weapons or death-reflecting shields. I've set two in a shield myself; if I cannot prevent being struck, at least I can provide a quick reprisal.
On our way up the mountain, I notice Floria seems uncomfortable, tugging and pulling at her new armor in a decidedly uncivilized way. I hope this doesn't indicate a reluctance to loot the dead; that tendency is sadly common, I can't imagine why it persists. Besides, here and now, the dead have been arrayed against the living; disarming them is only sensible. Hmm, she's complaining of cold! Odd, I hadn't noticed a draft... and her new ensemble isn't any better ventilated than her old one. I suspect insincerity. After a long explanation of the enchantments on her leathers and the advantages of the skulls, she quiets down and seems to accept my judgment.
Further up the pass, the ground turns rocky. Everywhere I turn in this land, new creatures await my eye; here, demonic crows flap about. Of course, making observations has become difficult with Floria; everything alarms her, and once startled she reflexively starts shooting, with deadly accuracy. Her martial skills would be more valuable to me if she could only learn patience. Not everything is best dealt with by a spray of arrows. Despite her incessant trepidation, I have been able to observe some odd behavior in these birds. Rather than eating dead flesh, they shred it and stick it together in large nests, heaps of meat up to ten feet high. Communities of birds dwell in these structures, perhaps even being spontaneously generated in the rotting heart. Living nests are a novel weakness; poison affects them as it would any living creature. When they "die", these carnal accretions collapse like a souffle, revealing a large hollow within. How they remain standing is a mystery.
I have found another aspect of this girl's company I do not appreciate. As I noted before, this is my best opportunity to study demonic responses to poison, but I cannot follow the full progress of my venoms if she kills the beasts before their time comes! While I admire her enthusiasm, my goal is not just to kill -- human knowledge may be expanded immeasurably here, but only by experimentation into the unknown. I already know what a cloth-yard shaft through the wishbone will do. We have spoken about this several times; she always nods quietly, and immediately falls back into her old ways. I wonder if she understands me at all. While her behavior has improved since the crypts, I find myself torn as to whether she is making a positive contribution to this expedition.
The red Fallen Ones have more menacing cousins, blue devils known as Carvers after their favorite method of torture. It will surprise no one that a few were here, gathered inside a circle of standing stones. When Floria began shooting, as of course she would, sparks of deadly lightning sprayed across the wet grass of the field. This phenomenon, thankfully rare even among demons, was described to me in fear-tinged tones during my school days; poison is the only good answer to the enchantment. On this occasion, I am willing to allow Floria her desire for a quick and painless kill, but I feel compelled to instruct her to switch targets while I stab the demon myself. Three envenomations are required to bring the foul little thing to its knees; the greatest danger came when Floria shot it.
Thankfully, demons enchanted with elemental forces are rare, and singular; a run-of-the-mill Carver is virtually identical to its red cousins. Most of my journey through these green fields is unworthy of comment, little more than moving from place to place, slaughtering endless hordes of the minions of darkness. A few bare notes will suffice:
First - There are a great many scepters among the dead here, leading me to conclude that the Rogues are not the first martial religious order to inhabit the area. It may be that the "monastery" no longer functions as one, but retains the title from a remote era.
Second - Within a ruined building, I found several books. Most were illegible with mold, but a few fragments described a bit of local history. These people did not understand, but it is obvious that one of the local noblewomen was experimenting with life-extension magics. The unfortunate woman was put on trial for "bathing in the blood of 100 virgins" or some other such rubbish and buried alive. Perhaps I should take a lesson in caution from this. Original thinkers meet violent opposition from mediocre minds, and as they are usually outnumbered things always end badly. I shall be nicer to dear Floria in the future.
Third - On the subject of being nice, I have been visiting Gheed. Only he and the caravan leader have traveled at all; I am sure he must be bored. Lest he lose his ebullient charm to idleness, I have been engaging him in conversation on any subject that comes to my mind. When we spoke last, he gave me a helmet (polished mirror-bright to impress the ignorant) on the condition that I never speak with him again. I am sure he's just being coy.
That is all for today, I must rest. This "hired sword" business is as exhausting for the body as it is wearying for the mind, flatly alternating crushing boredom with stark terror. Perhaps summoning a servant or two to take care of routine business, would be acceptable? I shall sleep on it.
After consideration, I have decided to stick the course of my original plan. An unseen enemy works behind the curtain here, and defeating this considerable force may require all of my efforts. Taking the easy route, though tempting, may cause me to lose focus and allow my strength to dissipate. These demonlings are not so difficult to defeat, but provide valuable opportunities to hone my chosen technique. Later on, I will doubtless face stronger foes; it is the habit of demonkind to send their weakest against the enemy first.
The pass continues up into the mountains, but a faster route is available via an underground passage. The caves in this area really are agreeable, and absolutely wasted on their present inhabitants who don't appreciate them at all. Demonic Rogues and Carvers guard the caves, but also Skeletons, using bow and arrows! When I first saw them, I could scarcely believe my eyes, but repeated observation has confirmed it beyond all doubt: these dead retain the ability to use complex weapons! It pains me that so much knowledge is being used on the field of battle, and I can do so little to tease out my enemy's secrets. I myself might obtain results of this quality, but it would take years of experimentation on the Rogues' dead, and I'm afraid they simply wouldn't understand.
Another novelty in the caves are the Misshapen, a classic demonic form well documented in the annals of my people. Among the least powerful magical demons, these creatures can attack with their claws or spit balls of lightning; they do neither with any aptitude. Primitive tribesmen in the northlands are reported to use their skulls as helmets.
At a much greater altitude, the caves exit into an empty, dark wood. The hedgehogs are growing larger and more intractable, capable of hurling many quills at once. The Carvers have their own shamans now. Sadly, these are only variations on creatures I've found before. An unfortunate side effect of learning is that new discoveries become progressively more difficult to make, and ennui inevitably sets in. This dank forest seems empty, without even any dead spirits to provide entertainment. I was about to give up on the place when I discovered a great tree, thoroughly dead but probably more active in death than it had ever been while alive. A multitude of spirits shelter inside its flesh, possibly accounting for the emptiness of the rest of the forest.
Sasquatch guarded the tree, as though I needed any more indication of its importance. I have been reluctant to record this before, but I have temporarily halted my efforts to study the use of poison. Field research is trying at the best of times, and I'm afraid other matters prevent me from concentrating on it. The main issue is the Rogues, as it always is; they are concerned about their short-term survival, and feel my priorities may be misplaced. Those who know death intimately realize this is not an important issue, but we cannot expect the common folk to understand that their lives are nothing next to the improvement in the human condition an increase in knowledge might bring. Sadly, though I realize I should not allow their difficulties to stand in the way of progress, my own personal survival is a matter I must consider. I walk amongst the heathen unguarded, and must compromise my standards or the war leader will be allowed to have her way with me. To keep the peace, I have been using a curse of physical infirmity, so the enemy may be killed with greater speed. As dissatisfying as it is, a few sacrifices now may lead to more opportunities later. We of the ancient order of Rathma always win in the long game.
After "wasting" the Sasquatch - and what a waste it is! - I turn my eye to the tree. The spirits are strangely unresponsive to my entreaties. Perhaps the many markings in the skin of the tree provide them with protection from outside influences; knowing how that works would more than make this journey worthwhile. The latter pages of this journal have been removed for rubbings; it takes a great many pages, the tree is large and extensively worked. One picture in particular leaps out to my eye: it looks like the stone ring I discovered earlier, with the stones indicated by a series of runes in a particular order.
By means of teleporting stones (they are common in this land) I return to the circle, which I had previously done my best to ignore. Indeed, each stone has been decorated with a single rune. But what to make of this? Knowing that the enchanters of ages past often took great efforts to make their work seem effortless, my first experiment is to touch the stones in the indicated order. Flashing blue lights and a loud tone announce the success of my intuition. The complete sequence brings lightning flashing from the sky, striking each stone and forming a web of crackling power around a red portal at the center of the ring. My predecessors in the field of magic made great things, but subtlety was not their strength.
My curiosity has shown its heels to my better judgment; I have entered the portal and find myself in the burning ruins of a small village. Judging from the local vegetation, rainy climate, and a few scattered livestock, I am still in farm country, not far from the Rogue pass. Of the town, little remains besides ghosts and ashes. My enemy has been active here: Skeletons armed with bows hammer the point home. Besides the Skeletons, the town is plagued with Carvers; so many shamans are here, I feel as though I've stumbled across a convention. A single Zombie of great strength stalks the western fields. Curses and poison simply will not stick to the creature; I absolutely MUST know how my enemy does these things!
The spirits are especially strong here; the earth remembers them well. Here, a girl and her grandmother cry together in their home. A man still waits outside the door of an inn, sadly staring at his burnt signpost as though he blames it for something. West of the town square, a great and shining spirit comforts a faint and twisted one. Next to a well, a desperate spirit hangs... oh, that one's still alive. I can't imagine why, but these demons have hung an old man up in a cage, where he is crying to be let out. As the immediate danger here has been eliminated, I can't see why not. One of such advanced years might make good company, though I'm not getting my hopes up. Many elders spend their time complaining about their bowels, if they've enough remaining mental faculties to think about anything at all. I shall inquire of him tomorrow; this has been a trying and exhausting day.
One should think that, having made so many concessions to these ladies' tender sensibilities, a man might be allowed to rest at end of his daily exertions. No further proof of their lack of hospitality need be sought than their behavior last night. While on a side trip to a distant farming town, I came upon the last survivor of a demonic attack, an old man kept alive and unharmed in an iron cage. I took him to be nothing but the local village elder, but no good reason for him to be singled out presented itself. His appearance was in no way remarkable. The rest of the village received no kinder treatment than a sword in the gut. Despite my initial suspicions, I couldn't leave the poor old fellow there... I'm not made of stone. In retrospect, had I realized the extraordinary effect his presence would have on my hostesses, I might have done things differently.
High priestess Akara recognized him at once as Deckard Cain, last official member of the most famous glee club in the sorcerous world. I speak of the Horadrim, an ad-hoc organization of the best and brightest of the mage clans, unified to rid the world of demonic intruders. In their sage wisdom, they felt the best way to accomplish this was by taking the three most dangerous devils Hell had to offer and imprisoning them here, in the mortal world, in broken cages they knew very well would never hold them. Once purged of the delusion of a common cause, their great and heroic enterprise swiftly became a sickly, quarrelsome convalescent as its members fell back into their old sorcerous habits, throwing snowballs or giving each other hotfoots.
Unlike the vast majority of his predecessors, this Deckard Cain has no magical abilities at all, which may make him not only the last of the Horadrim, but also the least. How such a man could gain entry into a magical fraternity, I have no idea; standards must have been very lax indeed in the group's dying days. Despite his lack of talent, Akara became very excited when she learned of him. Her reaction led me to wonder if these oldsters might have a past together; while it could never make her fascinating, having a past invariably makes a woman more interesting. Tellingly, I speculated too wildly. Only his name and reputation aroused her interest.
To compensate for his lack of spellcraft, master Cain chose the path of knowledge. Learning unburdened by power is his king. I dislike the company of well-informed men. Their minds are like antique shops, jammed full of dreadful monsters priced far above their true value. At any moment, dust kittens the size of tigers might come roaring out of a forgotten corner and devour all of one's time and patience. Nonetheless, Cain had a reputation for sage council, and Akara was eager for his advice. The old dear hardly had time to chew a crust of bread before she was regaling him with the sad tale of her monastery's downfall.
Lest any infer that I do not respect knowledge, I cannot stress its value too highly. Power can accomplish nothing of value if undirected -- witness the entire history of the sorcerer clans. Even the Horadrim's shining moment in the sun was brief, and full of well-meant but misguided actions. If only others saw fit to place understanding before action! Knowledge is humankind's most powerful weapon, and our only sure guide into an uncertain future.
Happily, in the time it took to tell the tale (again), Cain was able to recover somewhat from his ordeal. Food and water were his most urgent needs, which he satisfied while lending her his otherwise-unused ears. I dozed off twice: Floria jabbed me to wake me up again. When Akara was done, he began his own story, a far more compelling narrative.
The town, Tristram, was a peaceful little place. Their king was a generous and just ruler, aided by noble knights who personified chivalry, and advised by a wise archbishop. Yes, an archbishop; this farming town of perhaps seven buildings had its own cathedral. Despite its minuscule size, Tristram was the central seat for religion and politics in the entire area. I'm afraid that on hearing this, my initial suspicions returned, with reinforcements. To be frank, I couldn't believe a word of it -- what reasonable man would? My reservations were unvoiced, but perhaps Cain sensed them, as his story addressed them all as he went on.
In the final days of the Sin War, the Lord of Terror was run to ground and imprisoned in a soulstone, a sort of spirit trap given to the Horadrim by Heaven. To insure that no agent of Hell could ever find the stone and free Diablo's essence, it was buried hundreds of feet below ground in an isolated spot of countryside the Horadrim were sure would never amount to much. (Judging from what I saw, they chose uncharacteristically well.) The location was recorded in a few private journals, but marked only by a small, undistinguished chapel.
That, it seems, is the point where history took an unexpected turn. The church's influence waxed and waned in the west, but that chapel was always kept occupied. The constant presence of monks and knights increased its prestige, and its power outstripped the other local temples. Over time, the chapel's original purpose as a simple marker was forgotten; it was enlarged several times, and deep catacombs dug underneath. When one of the local nobility took on the mantle of royalty, he transferred the chapel knights' loyalty to himself by a show of religious piety, donating capital for further construction and making the little town which served the monks his capital. Ah, the plans of men! The very act of guarding the place, but telling no one why, turned a hopeless backwater into a seat of power, and gave the Lord of Terror all he needed to contrive his release.
For those acquainted with demonic infiltration, the remainder of this tale will be familiar. The king went mad, his knights committed regicide, the archbishop became regent for a young prince, the prince vanished (I'm sure he was delicious) and demons slaughtered almost the entire town. That last is peculiar -- they're usually joyously thorough. Word spread, and help came in the form of adventurers, brigands, itinerant sorcerers, a contingent of archers from the Rogues (led by none other than Blood Raven) and other mercenary gold hunters. They scavenged through the catacombs and the lava-filled caves below, their altruistic motives generously supplemented by the large piles of loot someone left lying about. Cain remarked on the quantity of gold and precious items that came out of that cathedral, far more than he ever remembered going in.
Most of these explorers, including Blood Raven, did not reach the deepest depths. When the danger became too great, they were happy to escape with their lives (and new wealth) and return home. A local boy, motivated by more than a quest for his own fortune, faced Diablo's gauntlet of death and survived to meet the Lord of Terror in person. Shortly thereafter, he left the town as well, and all the demons he was supposed to have killed came up out of the ground and finished the town off. Except for this one man, that is...
As I said, the tale was familiar. However, enough deviations from the common pattern exist to trouble my mind. Though their approach may seem mindlessly straightforward, the Lords of Hell rarely play their hand in a simple way. Deviousness and deception herald them as surely as blood and slaughter, and often what seems to be victory instead means something has been overlooked. However, by the time Kashya finally saw fit to release me, it was far too late at night to think on it. Even my humble cot gave forth a siren call I was helpless to resist, though sleep came fitfully.
At dawn this morning, the strangest person woke me by kicking my bed over and knocking me into the dirt! Though he resembles my people to a degree, his behavior was unusual and most distressing. Had I not been befuddled from sleep, I would certainly have taught him manners, but he was here and gone before I could even find my own head. No one in camp saw him leave, either. I shall record his words, to the best of my recollection.
"Wakey wakey, merry sunshine! Up and at 'em, there's all kinds of things waitin' for you to git out there and kill 'em! They're finally tough enough that Gull won't get 'em in one hit, so we can see just what poison does. Try this dagger for a while -- it's called The Diggler! I'll be back with more stuff when you're big enough to use it. Ta ta for now!"
The dirk left on the remains of my cot is what I believe the jollier sort of mercenary calls a "ballocks dagger." The blade is heavy and broad, with a round bulge at the point. The guard resembles two golden orbs, side by side. The hilt is smooth, with the pommel in the design of... I will not go into that, but I am not about to touch it. The Rogues may dispose of it as they wish, I will leave it here. No, on second thought, I would not want a lady to find such an item among my possessions. But I am certainly not walking about with that in my hand, it would give entirely the wrong impression.
As per our arrangement, Floria accompanies me into the wilderness. Sadly, she is wearing a shirt underneath her leathers. Perhaps the armor was stiff with age, and began to chafe; though their impression on the eye is greatly diminished, I will accede the issue on grounds of practicality, considering these trying circumstances. The woods I discovered last night were repopulated during my visit to Tristram, with stronger foes. Goat demons, their sooty black skins marking them as members of the Night clan, are present in numbers, with ugly brutes of Sasquatch as well. All take at least three arrows before they die, so I encourage Floria to scatter her shots among them, giving me time to experiment a bit with their fleeing lives. I wish she were less sharp-eyed than she is. Twice now she caught me trying to dispose of that obscene dirk, and I had to hide it again.
Always we go further up into the pass. A marsh lies above the woods; curious, it's usually the other way around, but geography was never my strong suit. The brutish, axe-swinging monstrosities which surround me have ceased to command my attention; my mind will not let go of last night's revelations. It occurs to me, was I meant to find Deckard Cain? He was certainly meant for someone to rescue, if not me. Yet... he is so unmistakably only a man, not even an interesting man. What possible demonic plot could use a man with a head full of Horadric knowledge about demons against me?
Nothing occurs to me, and I should not let myself be distracted from battle. Overusing my head could result in parting company with it. The marshes are dull, though I have kept myself entertained. Gheed has gifted me a fine suit of chainmail; and father used to think so poorly of him. A shrine allowed me the luxury of experimenting with poisonous gases, which sadly proved nearly useless. The old-fashioned approach to envenomation works best. One of the Sasquatch was carrying a totem head in a jar -- he might have wanted to drink the preservative liquor, but happily was unable to open the bottle.
As the totem was not useful to me, I sold it to Charsi, hoping the sight of it might dim the sunshine of her smile a bit. She laughed, and asked if I wanted another, made of metal. Then she could say she was forging ahead. Honestly, I don't know what I'm going to do with that girl. I'd make a more concerted effort, but that might result in my being hugged.
Back in a secluded corner of the marshes, I have found the remains of a tower, or perhaps a small keep. It was obviously destroyed by fire a long time ago, and little remains. Ah, dear Floria informs me "the bloody countess" dwelt here long ago, the one said to have bathed in the blood of 100 virgins. What a dull country this is, that anyone could find 100 virgins. The account I read mentioned that the woman was rich, and much of her wealth was rumored to be buried with her. Those who arrested her would not let her keep her wealth; I have never known a churchman to pass up coin just because a sinner laid hands on it. Legends of buried treasure invariably disappoint, but the tracks of Goat Demons lead in and out of the remains of a cellar. I'd best go in and be about my business.
What a surprising place this is, full of goats, and ghosts, and perhaps the ghosts of goats. Human bones, all quite ancient, litter the floor, but I can find no alchemical apparati or any other means for making use of so many dead bodies. In one corner, a shrine in the form of a kneeling angel offers up a bowl full of blood. This "countess" may have had only a primitive understanding of the live-giving power of blood, one more influenced by religious teachings than science. Also, the quantity of ghosts hints at a shocking number of pain and fear-filled deaths. Far more efficient techniques were available, even in those days.
After five levels of cellars, I hope never to see another set of stairs in my life. Whoever dug all of this out had a great deal of money and an uncommon need to hide dead bodies. Also, considerable foresight. In addition to money (mostly coin) I've also found a small armory of Paladin weapons and shields. That may explain where this woman found 100 virgins, and why the church was upset enough to bury her wealth with her. I also suspect the woman is still alive, or has been revived to serve a demonic master. Someone lit all these candles.
I have met the Countess, and she is mine. In the rear of the deepest cellar, I found a boiling cauldron of blood, the closest thing to a potion laboratory in the place. Beyond, attended by a pack of Blood clan goats and revived female corpses, a woman of noble bearing awaited my pleasure, soaked head to toe in blood. For a moment, I was quite impressed, and wondered if my mother had any relations in this part of the world. Then I noticed the weapon in her sanguinous hand: an axe. At that moment, all admiration for her vanished, and she became nothing but another creature to kill. Honestly, how could any woman be so graceless?
Happily, though her tastes were unforgivable, her reputation for wealth did not disappoint. I suppose many believe it is better to have an income than style. If they all made it so easy for me to arrange their deaths and take their wealth, I could find it in me to forgive them. I also suppose this places me among the ranks of "treasure hunters." Well, perhaps not a treasure hunter... more of a treasure finder.
After exploring the remains of the Countess' tower, I find myself in an entirely novel position, financially. Long ago, my family was quite wealthy, but all that remains from those days is a good name, expensive standards, and unpaid debts, some of which date back centuries. My family's long and wasteful history is a fascinating one; I should write a book, but vulgarity distresses me. Now, for the first time, I find myself with a great deal of disposable wealth, and no agreeable way to dispose of it. I'd waste it senselessly, but lacking wine and song, the undertaking would seem a hollow sham. Paying family debts would set a bad precedent; others might expect me or my descendants to pay for our things in the future. I suppose I could try to behave sensibly, and set a judicious fraction aside against my frail old age, but I doubt I could break my many well-established habits this late in life.
To my younger readers, who might be considering a life spent searching for hidden treasure: finding troves isn't all it could be, despite the hold they have on the popular imagination. Hoards of incalculable wealth tend to be located far out in the wilderness, nowhere near any hotel with decent room service. Traveling costs, which must include transporting one's hard-won booty back to civilization, could easily render the entire operation moot. The Countess' tower may seem an exception, but consider the tower's guardians, who effectively prevented its being looted for several centuries. All decent hoards are either inconveniently located, unacceptably hazardous to those who gain entrance, or impossible to find, or they would have been looted long before you were born. If you wish to spend your life digging for money and dodging axe-wielding maniacs, consider a career in the civil service instead.
After leaving the tower (and climbing all those stairs AGAIN) my dear girl Floria and I set off up the pass once more. It wasn't until we were well into the highlands that I realized I could have used a portal to go back to camp, then return to the marshes by means of a teleporting stone. As you can imagine, I was just kicking myself, or would have been if my feet weren't so tired. It's doubtful that the Rogues even have a good masseuse. Incidentally, I learned from Deckard Cain that the teleporting stones are called Waypoints; the Horadrim made them all over the world, whenever they thought they might want to visit a place again. They must not require much effort to make -- I've already found five, all in places I'm quite sure I'll never want to visit again.
We are near the monastery itself, which is guarded by more demonic servants. Fallen Ones abound in the form of Devilkin, those souls wicked enough for demons to be flattered by the resemblance, but lacking sufficient drive to really make something awful of themselves. With heads full of malicious thoughts rarely translated into deeds, the Devilkin are placed on the lowest rungs of Hell's long ladder until they get some ambition. The undead are also out in force, shooting bows or wielding elemental magic. Ah, magus ossia... a bit of a misnomer, but a forgivable one. This servant knows no magic (having nothing to "know" with) but is simply infused with one spell, which it activates repeatedly when threatened. Still, making one is no mean feat, and making large numbers is more impressive yet. If my enemy is the Lord of Terror as the Rogues fear, I will be facing an extraordinary battle.
Finally, I have gotten to the top of this pass! Mountains turn up in the worst places. The monastery is huge, its high walls bridging the pass from one side to the other. This lump of a building reeks of the ponderous style of the church of Zakarum. The stonework is, I suppose, of acceptable craftsmanship, but graceless, flat, and unimaginative -- no style at all in the whole construction. Its architects were doubtless the sort who'd call a spade a spade, and who should have been forced to use one as their only avocation in life. The gates, at least, are adorned with a pair of lovely female figures (obviously done long after this ceased to be a true monastery) surmounted by large blank eyes.
Our entrance is unopposed. In an effort to be friendly, I ask Floria's recommendation: will we need to search the entire building for our enemy? She has no idea, but suggests following the corrupted ones back to their foul source. Followers of Heaven can be so melodramatic --but so can followers of Hell. A short corridor leads through the thick outer walls, past two guard posts, and into a small garden. The grounds are pleasant enough, for those who like green and growing things. The demons have seen to it that the plants are well-fertilized with bone and ashes, obviously hoping for a different sort of crop. The cloister centerpiece is a marble statue of three heroic Rogues, twice life size; it is left curiously untouched by the invaders. One wonders if they have some purpose in mind for it.
I wish I could say my visit to the cloisters was properly contemplative, but there was little time for quiet meditation. All I heard was howls of pain, the screams of the dying, and the mindless gibbering of the irretrievably degraded. Sasquatch, children of nature, made the gardens their lair. The local Rogues took an idea from the Night clan, blackening their skins with the greasy ashes of the dead. The effort is intended to transfer a victims' strength to themselves, though further rituals to bind the soul are needed. Sorcerers have no idea what they're missing, restricting themselves to the elements. The mindless rage and fanaticism of my foes is growing, and I've grown less fond of being physically struck by them. A shield set with skulls is worthwhile if one cannot avoid being struck, but I've felt less need for revenge as their blows grew powerful enough to do me real damage. To fend them off, I'm carrying a larger shield, set with diamonds. They are a girl's best friends.
Another gate leads through to the inner cloisters, but the way has been barred. It seems my approach was not subtle enough, and my arrival was anticipated. Happily, another avenue presents itself. Floria has told me of another way in, a circuitous route through the Rogue barracks and a prison. These jails are underground, and she feels they should be reasonably safe. I have my doubts, but a dangerous route is better than none at all.
The barracks are well fortified with Devilkin, Goat Demons and corrupt Rogues. Of course, anyone assaulting a barracks should expect armed resistance. Strangely, a Toad Demon is also in the barracks, working at a blacksmith's forge in a back corner. Toad Demons are resentful things, made from the flesh of the most beautiful prince of the angels to mock his vanity; their heavenly origin gives them unusual power and high status in Hell. Of greatest use is their strength, which suits them to heavy manual labor like smithing; they delight in making ugly things, or making beautiful things ugly. Now, I'm no ravishing, come-hither beauty, but the fight it gives me was inspired. None of my venoms have much effect on that blob of twisted flesh; I'm almost ashamed I cast the curse of frailty and stabbed it to death, but my ends prompted my means. After it finally died, I discovered all that fervor was to protect... a hammer, a tiny little thing like a shoemaker might use. It doesn't seem to be a smith's tool at all, yet there it was, in a place of honor on its own special rack in the smithy. What a peculiar thing, though it does seem to be magical.
The Rogue prisons are underground, with an entrance in the barracks. These rooms may have been intended for another use before the Rogues occupied the building. Signs of pain and despair are all around me, starting with the slow torture of caged starvation and working upwards. My mood has improved considerably; even Floria finds it worthy of comment. All the torture equipment has been recently used, with bodies left everywhere to rot. Sadly, none of the materials left littering the place could have been of any use to me. Their souls have already been bound in Hell's service as Skeletons and ghosts, with just enough Goat Demons that my venoms aren't completely worthless. As frustrating as it is to say, I could grow very weary of the undead.
A most terrible thing has happened. On a trip back to camp, I turned that little hammer over to Charsi. Oh, for the joy of life I once possessed...
With a squeal like a guinea pig being trodden on, she grabbed up the hammer and held it tight to her muscular chest, exclaiming, "Oh, thank you for finding my malus!"
Not quite hearing that last word right, I replied, "I never suspected you had a malicious bone in your body. You must tell me what glorious thing I've done to unleash it."
That's when the terrible thing happened. She scampered (as difficult as that is to imagine) from behind her anvil and... oh, I can hardly bear to put the words to paper! That brute of a girl took hold of my body and hugged me! She picked me completely up off the ground and twirled about three times with me in her grasp, giggling with glee! "Thank you thank you!" she said, oblivious to my agony. "You're so nice! Did I tell you I really like the bony whirly bits you keep flying around? That's really neato-keen!"
Floria was off to one side, obviously enjoying my screams of anguish. After all I've done for her! I fear I've taught her not wisely, but too well. "Do you know he sounds just like a 12-year-old girl when you do that?"
"That is my ribcage fusing!" I explained as calmly as I could. This exhilarated amazon was going to be the death of me in another few moments. "Please tell me what I've done, so I'll know never ever to do it again!"
Releasing me, she went to hug Floria, who took it bravely. I wondered whether it would be wiser to flee to some safer place, or lie on the ground and feign death. Before I could reach a decision, Charsi came bouncing back. "This is the Horadric Malus!"
"Oh... a malus," I said. Common tradesmen have specific names for all their tools; I plan never to learn any of them. "Isn't that lovely. Perhaps you can forge me a new spine."
"Aw, don't be silly, Mr. Spooky-man. You don't fool me! Get up off the ground, your whirly bones are getting confused." After pulling me to my feet, she held up the malus, beaming with joy. "This is the Horadric Malus! I can use this to make magic items!"
By all the spirits of the earth, this girl is pure sunshine. It was all I could do not to vomit all over her. Somehow, I know even THAT wouldn't impress her! Re-swallowing the lunch she'd nearly squeezed out of me, I said, "Ah, magic items. Lovely." I try, but they can't all be deathless witticisms. I was not having a good day.
"Yeah! Anything you want, I take an unenchanted item, and make an enchanted one out of it! But it only works once, it has to recharge on its rack. Is the rack still there?"
"Young lady, there are some things it is not acceptable to speak of out in public, and one of them is a girl's rack. Besides which, I have no particular interest in yours. I return to my task, but should I have any need of your services, you will be the first to know."
The Rogue's jails are extensive; they must have had a great need for prisons while the pass was open for business. I can happily lose myself in them, and try to wipe recent events from my memory with torrents of blood and ectoplasm. Sadly, I cannot escape the trauma. Every time Floria smirks, I remember, and she has begun to smirk a very great deal. It's actually a joy to see the sky again when we leave the jails and enter the inner cloister. The center of the cloisters is the center of the monastery: a cathedral. A cathedral represents everything Zakarumite thought and architecture aspire to. I despise every stone of it instantly. I am sure it is full of horrors, but will not enter it tonight. A waypoint graces the garden outside its doors, and the jails have exhausted me. It is time to retire, and hope one night will not give my enemy time to cut me off again.
Back in camp, Deckard Cain wishes to speak with me. He is confident that my enemy is not the Lord of Terror. The local hero who defeated Diablo, and was no doubt possessed by him, had gone on about "the east" before he vanished. Baal, Lord of Destruction, was entombed under the sands of Aranoch, the great desert east of this very pass. This fact, the pattern of corruption of the Rogue women, and the use of the most lowly demons, leads him to the conclusion that Diablo did pass this way, but has not remained. A less powerful demoness, Andarial, the Maiden of Anguish, is in the monastery, guarding Diablo's path and preventing any pursuers from interfering with him.
If there is any truth to these speculations, humanity's situation is grave indeed. If the lesser evils now support the greater, Hell's leadership issues have been resolved and their forces may reunite under one banner, which is good news for no one. My knowledge of Andarial's ways supports his hypothesis, though. I confess, the chance to lay eyes on the infamous Maiden of Anguish interests me. According to our lore, she is the most beautiful of demons, mother of the Succubi and first among seducers. Unfortunately, she is also queen of spiders and nearly immune to poisons. According to Cain, she is not fond of fire; how I can use this, I have no clear idea as yet. A night's sleep may help focus my mind.
One last note: I heard this conversation outside my tent, before nodding off.
A Rogue (no idea which) asks, "So, what's he like?"
My Floria answered, "He's not that bad."
How flattering. Another asked, "He looks creepy."
"Yeah, he's kind of creepy," Floria answered. Good girl. "But he's pretty harmless. He likes to talk about stuff. Hairstyles, men's fashions, interior decoration, things like that."
One of the girls laughed. "Is he into musical theater too?"
Floria said, "No, never mentioned that."
What could be wrong with musical theater? A well-performed aria is transporting beyond all worlds, but I can't imagine anyone in this rural setting appreciating opera. No point losing sleep over women's gossip, I'd best put this from my mind. If Cain is right, tomorrow will take all of my concentration.
As I have recorded here, on a previous occasion a most ungentlemanly person entered my quarters, threw me to the ground out of a sound sleep, gave me an embarrassing dagger, and slipped away without alerting my hostesses. He was here and gone so quickly I hardly got a look at him, but sleep did not come easily last night -- I already had one eye half-open when my visitor arrived, and was able to catch him at his business. Note that I did not see or hear him enter. I dare say professional burglars creep about with less grace, despite his burden, an alarmingly full haversack which nearly bent him double. Again, I shall record our conversation here; my future biographer may be able to make more of this enlightened individual than I can.
As soon as I noticed his presence, I rose and put my dagger to his throat, the perfect way to greet uninvited guests. "That is far enough, my good man."
"Howdy do!" he replied, irritatingly unruffled. Before I knew what was what, he'd taken father's dagger out of my nerveless hand. It was instantly replaced by a much larger one, with a beautiful reddish gold blade that undulated like a swimming serpent. "There ya go! That's the Jade Tan Do! You'll like that a lot better!"
Gentle reader, you should not think it surprising that I found myself at a loss for words. Very few are lucky enough to see an artifact of such power in their lifetime (only Blackbog's Shard is considered superior), and no one could expect to have it thrust into their hand before breakfast. It was genuine beyond any question, as was my astonishment. What would you have done in my place? I claim no sophistication to my actions, no eloquence in my response. I rather roughly took hold of the fellow, and sputtered, "WHO? WHAT? HOW? WHERE? WHY?!"
"I'm the Mule!" he replied with a broad smile. "That's the Jade Tan Do, and here's Soul Harvest and a nice bone shield. I'll get ya a better one when you're big enough. Me and th' boys live out on the disk; don't see much action out there, so we carry stuff for you and your friends to use. Don't you worry, I've got your best interests at heart. Can't let Andarial whop your butt before you've really gotten started! Now I gotta run so you can get movin'. With that dagger you're mostly immune to poison, so remember to keep in close and whack that spider-momma good! We're all waitin' on ya!"
With that, he was gone. I must have allowed myself to be distracted by the scythe and a beautiful collection of polished demon bones leaning against the tent flap, as he slipped my grasp and vanished, again without alerting the Rogues. 'Sightless Eye' indeed. What could this "disk" he referred to be? Some cosmologists have speculated that the world is shaped like a wheel, which spins endlessly in repeating cycles. I'd never thought of that as more than a clumsy analogy.
But to return to the matter at hand: the Jade Tan Do, and other items my benefactor left. Daggers of this design are well known and feared in the eastern nations, where they are used as weapons of assassination. Many a prosperous ruler has gone to bed at the end of a hard day's oppression and found such a dagger on his pillow. The wise need only one warning. No one left the Jade Tan Do in some sultan's harem, though; its loss was mysterious, but not as mysterious as its return. The scythe Soul Harvest has a more straightforward story. A member of my order, eager for power but impatient with learning, commissioned it as part of an ensemble he intended to wear in battle. Having a simple mind, he had a simple idea: if an opposing force is frightened, they will fight less effectively. His first battle was a terrible disappointment for him -- the enemy simply brought archers to the field, and never saw him close enough to be frightened. The weapon is intimidating to behold, despite its history, and may serve me well if employed more judiciously.
With great kindness, the Rogues put their all into preparing breakfast for Floria and myself; I am reminded of the last meal of a condemned man, but I smile and thank them as I make my way to the waypoint. Skeletal mages with lightning guard the cathedral doors, and inside are more and stronger horrors than I've seen in days. How delightful to know I've made such a fine impression -- my enemy has sent out her very best in my honor. The undead abound, so I put both of my new weapons to the test. Soul Harvest is a fine implement of destruction, especially for those pesky creatures on whom venoms lack effectiveness. The Jade Tan Do is, as anticipated, a powerful weapon, but the true gift is the shield. I don't think I shall ever return to those heavy, clumsy, metal-and-wood things. Light and quick in the hand, yet broad enough to cover me, this wall of bone suits me to a tee -- and so stylish, too! With a proper helm, I could almost consider this a life worth living.
Within the cathedral, I found one great work of art and spirit: a skeletal mage imbued with poison instead of an element. The bones may have come from a priest (or likely a priestess) as it would not leave the main altar; devoted souls often have a few lingering memories that guide them in undesired ways. Cursing the fate that brought me so much opportunity and so little time, I allow Floria to kill it, then escort me into the catacombs. Normally, tombs are friendly places, but an enraged demonic presence stirs under my feet. The dead will rise and oppose me again and again, I am sure. Even the earth bleeds in my enemy's presence; pools of it bubble out of the broken floor, giving me an indication of her power. I cannot say if the knot in my stomach is terror or eagerness.
Of course, before I can meet this dark lady, I must deal with her servants. The catacombs are deep and very full, but I meet surprisingly few undead. Demons abound -- Dark Ones, the strongest of the Fallen Ones, and the Misshapen. Strange that Andarial should be here with them... according to my studies, she prefers prettier demons. She is also not fond of combat, preferring to sow anguish and despair by tantalizing and tempting, then crushing the hope she herself created. Why am I reminded of mother again? A very peculiar little oddity I've just encountered is tiny little men, hardly bigger than the ubiquitous rats. These rat-men are very small, with huge heads that are mostly mouths full of sharp teeth. Obviously they're demonic, but I do not recognize them at all, which troubles me nearly as much as the vivid floral-patterned skirts they wear. Demons come in endless variety, but I never thought I'd see any that like flowers...
The catacombs are full of martial implements, as befits the burials. Frustratingly, most of it is Paladin gear, like shields and a mace called Crushflange, but I do find a new bow for Floria called Eagle Horn. Odd name, that. I notice she's wearing a suit of scale mail now. I sold that suit to Charsi, but Floria bought it back for herself. It's terribly unflattering... but there are more important things to worry her mind just now, sadly.
Soul Harvest, I find, is most useful against slow creatures like shamans, or single opponents. I'm also finding Corpse Explosion very useful, with such strong starting materials. As we go deeper, the undead make their first appearance: flesh-devouring Ghouls lie within many of the sarcophagi. I've never understood why anyone, even Demons, would want Zombies as servants. They're utterly filthy and smell impossibly foul, and there's that dreadful habit of eating living flesh as thought it might do them any good. They're especially drawn to brains. Perhaps they miss their souls, and if they can't have their own back, mine will have to do.
Another new creature is the Gargoyle. These are immobile, and to all intents and purposes appear to be stone decorative elements, but start spitting balls of fire the moment anyone comes into their range. Destroying such a thing should be difficult, but the construction carries an inherent weaknesses: they are alive, and thus susceptible to poison! Demonic knowledge does not extend to mechanical artifice -- almost everything they produce is made from twisted flesh or harnessed souls. Give a demon a lump of raw metal, and he'll have no idea what to do with it. It is rumored that a mysterious clan of mage-killers, hidden from the rest of humanity, avoids demonic tampering by specifically using only mechanical devices, though I doubt there's any truth to that.
Our last edition to the bestiary is the Vampire, banished ones which haunt the darkest tombs far from the light of the sun. They're even more sensitive to it than I am. Perhaps I should make note of something at this point: currently, in the weaker sorts of popular fiction, there is a trend for making Vampires out to be intelligent, sensual, impossibly beautiful beings who are superior to dull humanity in every respect. Seeing one in the flesh leads the viewer, not to admiration and awe, but to wonder just what sort of people the authors of these cheap novels know, that a Vampire would be superior to them. Shrunken and leathery, with mean, glittery eyes starting greedily from their grinning skulls, they know only enough to blast victims into submission with fireballs before they try to devour them. I've seen Zombies with more erotic appeal, which says very little for the Zombie in question.
The deeper we go, the more palpable anger radiates up through the floor. There can be no doubt at all a demon lord is in residence. At the deepest level, someone has arranged what can only be described as a corpse garden. The whole chamber is decorated in a Dead Rogue pattern -- impaled on pikes, slammed over stakes, splattered against the walls or ground into jelly and spread on the floor like carpeting. A woman's touch is evident. In the center of the room is a pool of blood and naked bodies: perhaps Andarial's bath, or her larder, or both. After clearing the last of her servants away, I open the door to her chambers. Of course, we haven't been invited, but I know we're not unexpected.
Completely forgetting myself, I brought out Soul Harvest. Perhaps my desperation amused her; I think she actually let me hit her, once. Then the four stingers on her back came down and I remembered why I should never have put away the dagger. Drawing it cured the poison, but then a greater problem faced me: how was I going to kill a Lord of Hell with a glorified kitchen knife?!? Over twice my height, this giantess hardly needed poison to rend my flesh from my bones.
I'm not ashamed to say I retreated, and that I retreated very rapidly. The stairs up into the catacombs beckoned me; with sufficient speed, I might escape. The Rogues would be upset, but I've repaid them for their meager hospitality by clearing out most of the monastery. This is a big world, there are many places I could go and let some hero with big muscles and not much on his mind kill Andarial. As abject cowardice filled my mind, I fear I didn't look where I was going, and turned right where I ought to have gone left. There was a wall where I'd hoped to find a door, and in front of the door, all the way over there... was her. Laughing.
"YOU DO SCREAM JUST LIKE A LITTLE GIRL."
The voice wasn't heard so much as felt, rumbling through the violated earth. I wish I could say I was inspired to put up a valiant stand, but my knees nearly gave out from under me and I wished I was already dead so it wouldn't hurt so much. But there was a hope: I just had to get her away from that door. Steeling myself as much as my quivering frame could manage, I ran across the room into the cloud of venom. Vision failed me; I knew I'd gone the wrong way when I bumped into a mountain of mad flesh that slammed four stingers into my back, right in the middle of the big yellow stripe doubtlessly adorning it. After stabbing until she let go, I ran in another direction until I found the wall. I found it very hard indeed.
The next few hours (probably only 20 seconds) are a blur of green clouds and gigantic thighs suddenly filling my view. I was aware that she was chasing me. Never in my life have I had a woman chase me; I'd always hoped it would be more pleasant than it was. Finally, some small part of my brain still capable of rational thought informed me that I was still alive, so I must be doing something right. Continue doing this, but add something to the mix that might kill Andarial. Being no stranger to this part of my mind, I bowed to reason, and when she next loomed out of the clouds, I plunged the Jade Tan Do into her belly and ran away. All at once, a strategy came to me. Even those resistant to poison are not immune, and in my hand is one of the most powerful single sources that exists. If I can stab her repeatedly, yet keep out of her range, she must eventually fall.
All at once, my terror vanished. I was not out of the woods yet by any means, but fear no longer had any hold on me. The corpse garden in the front hall would do for a battleground. Keeping her running would encourage my poison to do its work. And so, I led her around and around the pool, trying to stay out of her arms' reach, yet dart in to stab when my venom's effect had faded. My foe, naturally, was not stupid, and quickly realized what I was doing. Her venomous spit flew thick and fast, but the dagger protected me from most of that. The greater danger was her enormous strength. I had to brave her blows to get close enough to stab, and we both knew it. And that, dear reader, is how the battle eventually ended. Once I saw a path to victory, I did not flee her presence. Her overwhelming arrogance would not allow her to retreat. It took many minutes full of short yet violent encounters, but in time the giantess fell. My own body was very badly hurt; a few links of that chainmail will remain with me until the day I die.
The Rogues were overjoyed. The clouds that had covered the sky ever since the monastery fell broke, and brilliant sunshine kissed the blighted landscape. I could take no pleasure in it. Even if I liked the sun, how could I explain that the only reason I stayed down there was because, in a moment of panic, I couldn't tell my right hand from my left?
What a maudlin exercise this journal is. I wish I could put something more flattering in it, or at least less shocked by all that violence. A long rest is called for, perhaps a permanent one. Surely, father would agree, this was enough for anyone. Ah... Deckard Cain has reminded me of Diablo, the one who started this whole mess. He and his knowledge of the demon lord must journey east, to aid whatever cause has doubtless arisen to fight off the Lord of Terror in whatever land he's plaguing. Why do good people always have to be so brave? Now I'll have to go with the old addlepate to keep him safe.