Varnae (Act II)
I've neglected this journal for the last few days, and gave serious thought to abandoning it altogether, but I believe it would be wiser to resume my account of my travels. The fit of self-doubt I momentarily suffered after my battle with Andarial is only to be expected; how many others, on the first part of some grand undertaking, have stumbled and nearly fallen due to their own inexperience? My performance of the deed was hardly stellar, but I am not as experienced at murder as a typical muscle-bound bravo might be. I recorded my missteps willingly and without exaggeration or apology-- a befitting humility was always one of my strongest character traits, much commented upon by my peers.
Another important reason to record my thoughts and deeds is, as I have come to realize, the great profit they will be to the world due to my unique perspective on the events of these troubled times. From my conversations with Deckard Cain, it is apparent that the calamities of today were a long time a-borning, yet took everyone involved by surprise -- even master Cain himself, who really should have recognized the signs. The rest of the world, steeped in complacent ignorance, will no doubt be taken unawares, and under no circumstances can the ignorant be expected to react properly to a cataclysm such as this.
Additionally, there is the matter of history. Could a common man be expected to record an accurate and detailed narrative, even if by some blessing he knows how to write? These are the Three Prime Evil's last days in our world... or will be if I have my say. Future generations will look back on these times with wonderment and disbelief, sure that the creatures I have described are too fantastic to have ever existed. The danger of the history we are living now being viewed as legend (or myth!) by our posterity is very real; a poor, incomplete, or uncomprehending description by an unlearned observer would only compound the issue. Consider how rare it is for a historian to have at his disposal full documentation of history being made, by the very one who makes it. The Horadrim, when they felt their task was complete, hid the evidence of their deeds lest their shoddy work be undone. I have no intention of committing the same error. This time, the Prime Evils will be banished forever. If they cannot, I most certainly will not hide them and allow them to rebuild their strength under humanity's very noses.
Of course, the greatest plans come to naught without the means to bring them to fruition, and the will to carry them out. As Deckard Cain informed me, the Horadrim undertook their journey with the best of intentions, and did all they could with the resources available to them. The road to Hell, they say, is paved with good intentions, and my own journey could reach a similar conclusion without proper care. I may expound on the need to exile outside spirits from the realm of humanity, but my philosophy offers no more than speculations about how this might be accomplished. The Soulstones were given to the Horadrim by the angels, and were intended to keep the Three Prime Evils imprisoned forever; accepting aid from such a source is of disputable wisdom, but I have nothing better to offer, and might have done the same were I in their place (which I dearly hope will never happen).
Now that Andarial has been removed from her post, the next phase of my task begins, and already it is a severe test of my will. I must travel across the desert of Aranoch in pursuit of the Lord of Terror, who has fled to the east. According to Deckard Cain, the Horadrim buried Baal, Lord of Destruction, in a hidden tomb in the deepest deserts, and Diablo is doubtlessly seeking his brother that they might combine their powers. One Brother roaming at will is a serious business, but two would be intolerable -- to say nothing of what would follow, when they inevitably seek out the third of their unholy triumvirate. Even if I cannot bring about his permanent destruction, Diablo must be prevented from reaching his brothers. As might be expected, there are additional complications. Will anything in my life ever run smoothly? Unlike the town of Tristram, the location of Baal's resting place is lost, even to Deckard Cain. Destruction's call will no doubt be heard by his brother, and I have no idea where to intercept him, or how to overcome his enormous lead.
Another, perhaps greater, difficulty is Aranoch itself. The climate here is GHASTLY. Nothing stands between the land and the sun, and I'd wager not a single drop of water has fallen since Baal was first captured. Skin cracks open in the dryness -- my lips bleed every time I speak -- and the sun's glare off the sand is so intense, I feel faint every time I look outside. (Of course I'm inside the wagon, it would be suicide to sit on top in this heat!) Despite the absolutely BEASTLY weather, our caravan master chatters away as cheerfully as though he were on a Sunday ride in the park, completely oblivious! Cain is sitting up there too, trading endless, tedious stories of far-off places. Chief among them is Lut Gholein, our destination. "The jewel of the desert" is a seaport that seems to be the only excuse for a city in the entire area. After I've split completely open, they can rub sea-salt on me, and make my life complete.
Oh goody, we've arrived. The only thing I can say for that journey is that it was shorter than expected. Outside the window, I can see this "jewel" arrayed before me; Warriv and Cain both spoke so highly of it, I wonder if it just lost its luster in recent years. As far as the eye can see are clusters of mud brick huts, baked by the sun to the point where a touch might send whole structures shivering back into dust. Occasionally, a colorful banner hangs over a window, like a bright veil an aged courtesan might wear to hide her faded looks. The smell confirms the city's status as a coastal port. Many find sea air "bracing". I have never understood the appeal of rotting fish and salty weeds.
Part of the process of unloading a merchant wagon is to remove the carpet that serves as its flimsy roof. That scrap of cloth was my only shelter for many days crossing this cruel desert. Now, it seems I must slink from shadow to shadow if I'm to survive. The local people seem unaffected by the heat, no doubt due to acclimatization; perhaps I could hire one of the taller ones to walk with me on my sunward side.
My first inquiry has met with success of a different sort. Any city will have its nobility, but I never anticipated making the acquaintance of the sultan himself so soon. He is young, and unprepared for the lofty position he holds -- if it can be believed, this Lord Jerhyn rushed from his palace to see a group of common merchants, so eager was he for news. These are trying times indeed, if the sultan goes to the commoners, rather than summoning them. This one must learn to conduct himself properly if he is to rule, though it is not my place to say so openly.
Lord Jerhyn and I chatted for a while; our words are unimportant, as I grew less and less impressed with him the more we spoke. Our caravan is the first to reach the city in months, it appears. Others were waylaid and destroyed in the desert, as the city of Lut Gholein is surrounded by hordes of monsters. His tales of these beasts are tantalizingly familiar; giant stalking things among the moonlit dunes, long-quiet tombs yielding up their dead, local fauna twisting into demonic versions of themselves, etc. etc. etc. A band of mercenaries guards his walls, leaving him one coin away from complete vulnerability. He won't even invite me to his palace, mumbling some pathetic excuse about it being "a mess." Any and all help from armed fighters of any kind would be appreciated, especially if they work for free.
Knowing full well the cause of his troubles, I assured him that I am an expert in such matters (who would dispute me?) and that everything possible will be done. The city is doomed, of course, due to bad management more than the Lord of Terror. This puppy does not know how to rule a city, he can't even keep his own palace in order. Hopefully, when the city is crushed like a bug by whatever stalks the desert, I will be elsewhere. But while it stands, I shall make some inquiries, for a decent meal if nothing else. Exploring landwards seems an excellent idea -- anything to take me away from all that healthy sea air.
My first stop is a small central market, separated from the rest of the city by walls. Many cities grew up from smaller towns; this could be Lut Gholein's "old quarter", with its earliest buildings and perhaps the original graveyard. It will be interesting to see how the dead fare here, I'm sure I'll be meeting some of them again later. Ah, a familiar scent screeches and claws its way into my delicate nostrils -- an alchemist's shop! The proprietor, one Lysander, is not a good alchemist (one may judge an alchemist by the condition of his hearing and the number of fingers he has remaining) and a poor merchant besides. A good merchant, when he sees a new face, rejoices that another sucker has come to town to be drained dry of his material wealth. Lysander's reaction is one of suspicion and hostility, not even allowing me to enter his shop and escape the wilting heat. The only product he offers is a rough paste those with pale complexions may use to safeguard their skin against the sun. If I am here for any length of time, that may be necessary, but his churlish sales technique will never endear him to his customers; I shall find other means.
Against the city's north wall is a tall building that looks less uninviting than the others. It is an inn, named "The Desert Rain", run by a one-handed, one-legged, one-eyed man. More may be missing, but I hesitate to inquire. The man's rough looks and fragmented body inform me of a violent past; my own looks give him pause, but after a brief hesitation he welcomes me warmly. Obviously, this is a skilled merchant. With so few visitors surviving to reach the city, he must have many vacant beds, and a full purse speaks louder than an unorthodox appearance. He also asks about replacement parts. It's amazing how quickly one becomes known in a new town. His selection of rooms, without exception, are small, flea-ridden, dusty, suspiciously stained, almost unfurnished little pits of hellish discomfort... but a vast improvement over the cot I had in the Rogue camp. I reserve the least objectionable for a month, with instructions that he is not to enter in my absence; I'll be fumigating.
Naturally, the inn sits conveniently near the city's north gate to welcome visitors. The gate itself is closed, and watched by a large fellow with a pointed helmet. Perhaps it reflects the shape of his head. This one (no doubt one of Jerhyn's mercenaries) would have made a good servant had he died younger, but time and inactivity have reduced his mighty frame from its peak, judging by the paunch his bulky clothing does not quite conceal. I wonder if warriors, if they do not die at the peak of their powers, ever ponder the folly of their chosen path? At the age when those who chose the way of magic are beginning to taste their true potential, the fighting man's is fading away as time robs him of his speed and strength.
Continuing always on the shadier side of the streets (if that isn't a metaphor for my life, I don't know what is), I came to a tiny shop stuffed to the rafters with books scrolls, staves, rods, and polished demon bones. The owner, unfortunately, is a sorcerer. Naturally, he tried to ingratiate himself with me, offering his congratulations on Andarial's defeat, but even then he had to brag of his own magical prowess. Sorcerers! Insufferably arrogant when they feel they possess an advantage, but endlessly cajoling and flattering any who prove themselves superior. To cap it all off, he actually expressed surprise that my "primitive" magics brought down a lord of Hell... even the "relatively weak and unwarlike" Andarial. That, as they say, was that. Perhaps it was the heat of the day, but I could restrain myself no longer and gave that old bolt-slinger a piece of my mind. Rathma's traditions come from the old days of True Magic, the power of the soul. Sorcerers are elementalists, frightened away from True Magic ages ago. Only golem-makers bother with the elements, and their creations can still outdo any sorcerer's efforts. His reply was weak and vague, mewling something about elemental power being less susceptible to corruption by demonic forces. As though one power source is more or less prone to corruption than any other. Power is power, and only a fool refuses it when he needs it.
I've taken my leave of that arrogant old clown, and will not return to his little shop. Were I to see that smug smirk again, I might feel obliged to prove my position to him, and I will not be seen brawling in the streets like a common ruffian. The sun is nearly at its zenith, but I can look in the marketplace for a short time before I simply must go indoors. The first person I see, a pale red-haired woman quite out of place in this arid setting, greets me with the first sentence of Rathma's great text! Could it be that I've found another of my people, here of all places? Oh, no... no No NO, she is a PALADIN! The dead ones in the Rogue's pass were vexatious enough, and they could not speak! I am cursed. To have one of those moralizing martial monks in my life is too much to bear. Please, Lord of Terror, raise your hand and wipe this city away, there are too many people in it whose company I must avoid.
Oh my, there were sparks before my eyes. Or some sort of flashing lights. I found myself in the common room of a tavern, with that Paladin telling me I fainted. I appeared flushed, so she is sure it was the heat. Out of the kindness of her heart, she carried me here, loosened my garments, and applied cool, wet cloths to my body. In addition, she has ordered me a splendid luncheon of watercress sandwiches, white cod with lemon, plums chilled on winter ice, and white wine. Her church teaches the value of kindness, of course. Having not seen such a spread in weeks, I can almost forgive her her religious affiliation, though if she keeps being nice to me I'll have to tear her heart from her ribcage and force her to eat it as she dies. I cannot bear too much kindness from someone I despise.
The tavern offers shelter from the sun. Otherwise, it is full of convivial ruffians and common jackblades, all engaged in loud and pointless conversations. Enjoying my food requires an effort of will to screen out the stream of banalities assaulting my ears. By all the spirits of the earth, what a complete and utter misery this city is. In every respect, it is complete and utter failure of the human spirit, representing the worst imaginable of... of... I say, that man over there has a... is that a... Black Mushroom? Could I order one here? No doubt it would be of inferior quality, but there is a chance that it might remind me of those back home.
The hostess is a subdued woman in black, a pleasing sight amongst the harlequin-colored garb which otherwise fills the city. It is only when she prepares the concoction that I realize I am in the presence of an artist. Firstly, she only uses the finest ingredients. This being a trading town, its inhabitants would have access to the best the world has to offer. Even the general antidote potion which forms the base of a Black Mushroom is of good quality -- the odor of cedar and the bitter tang of citrus heralds its excellence. With the smooth efficiency of experience, she combines ingredients with impeccable grace and timing, each in exactly the proper amount to insure its full impact in the completed concoction. The final step is where most tavern-keepers fail, by using a cut piece of a mature mushroom. No! This lady finishes the mix with an entire baby mushroom, plucked while the stem is still tinged with red and its venom is at its most piquant! There was only one thing I could do: I went down on bended knee, and asked for her hand in marriage.
Oh dear, it seems she was recently widowed; I have spoken too earnestly, and too soon. It is my hope that she will take my words as they were intended. In the meantime, the Black Mushroom's siren call overwhelms any regret for my mistaken entreaty.
Oh... what possible happiness could Heaven offer, if things such as this are not found there? Heaven? Hell? What does is matter when all a man might want is to be found right here on this earth? I'm no fan of nature's abundance, but she did a good thing when she started growing these little black bombs of deadly goodness on her cold earthy bosom. I'll have another. Here's to nature's cold dirty bosoms! Maybe I'll invite that Paladin for a drink, she could probably use one. All Paladins could. I won't even mention cold dirty bosoms around her. Ha ha! I'll have another. Who kneads the Paladin, everyone I need is rite here! Salt of thee earth, all these vine fellows. Who was that lade I saw yew with? That was no lade that was a Paladin. Hee hee! Sure, whine is good. I'll have another. I reel low these gays, I'll by them all little drinkys, and woo cares day poot the sealing so far away no that's the table and I'm under it. Who cares.
I think my brain is trying to secede. Remember: complain to innkeeper about noisy insects crawling inside walls. Can't now. Moving makes blood slosh in my skull.
Alcohol, like attending religious services, is a vice that carries with it its own torment. Even fools are interesting when you're drunk, and if the fool is drinking with you it only compounds the offense. Though it must be admitted, these are difficult times, and indulging my tastes when an opportunity presents itself is to be expected -- why, in the Rogue's camp, I was forced to live for a week on nothing but food and water. Sadly, I indulged far past the point where I could remember the awful things I did, which rather defeats the purpose. Let me see... the barmaid mixed a Black Mushroom (so many tales of woe begin with that) and I... proposed marriage? Oh, my my my... what an insipid frame of mind I must have been in. If she intends to hold me to that, I'm going to have to kill her.
Everyone in town seems to be avoiding me: crossing the street to walk on the opposite side, or hastily abandoning their shop fronts to rummage far away in the back. Not that I mind... but I'm dying to know what I did to merit such deference. Perhaps it was a recital of my "Twelve new uses for human skin" speech? That was a funny one. The tavern, despite the early hour, is still full of drunkards, slatterns, and other persons of little worth destroying their pathetic lives in cheap self-annihilation. Expensive self-annihilation is so much more becoming. That's how I would want it: dying, as I've lived, beyond my means.
The proprietoress is not speaking to me; good, I needn't do anything strenuous. I wish I could say the same for this huge oaf who's trying to get me to make a joke. He's easily the worst of this miserable lot, absolutely sweating alcohol -- I could make a lamp of him if I lit his head on fire. He might burn for a week. The greatest difficulty in getting rid of imbibers, I have found, is that... oh, no. Between his slobbery demands for wit, he told me he liked the "six foot boner" joke. That can only mean one thing. I told it.
Gentle reader, I shudder to relate the history of this particular piece of humor. The "joke" was first unwittingly told by a Skeleton Master of sharply inferior character, and became far more popular than it deserved to be with the lowest classes of my fair city, though even among them many considered it beneath their standards. It is without a doubt the lowest expression of drollery to be found among mortal men: guaranteed to curdle milk, upset farm animals, and alienate ladies of any social station. This naturally accounts for its irrepressible popularity, and my heartfelt oath never to repeat it, not even to describe it. To learn that I have let the "joke" pass my lips has awaked, for the first time in my life, a sense of sin.
This cloud may have a silver lining. Now possessing a notion of having sinned, I may embark on a novel project: repentance. As the worst of sins is to be dull (the "six foot boner" joke certainly qualifies) my repentance should be a tremendous undertaking, something worthy of the transgression which gave birth to it. I don't think I've ever repented before; this might be fun, particularly if the first step is to beg before a lady. Besides, given my real life-long devotions, it seems appropriate to beg penance from a barmaid, not a priest.
The tavern proprietoress (who is named Atma) has accepted my apology, on condition that I slay a beast haunting the city sewers. Her complaint against it is that it has killed her husband and her son, which seems a perfectly reasonable thing to be upset about. Relatives are inconvenient people one would normally have nothing to do with, but still should not lose too many of in too short a space of time. It smacks of carelessness.
To enter the sewers, I first must remove the mercenary whose assignment is to stand on the only maintenance hatch. He gives me the usual warnings: the nature of the beast is unclear, but it came from the great desert to the west, walks on two legs, is much taller than a man, and is responsible for many deaths. Until recently, it stalked the city at night like a tall, two-legged stalking thing (not very innovative, this fellow) absconding with helpless victims, but he and his mercenary crew have been able to confine it to the sewers. Every now and then, someone like myself "grabs a pig-sticker" and descends to dispatch the beast; in time, some will be found floating below the sewer washout, with pieces missing. Its previous victims were found in this condition as well.
The only appealing trait of mercenaries is their ruthless practicality; this one will not involve himself in my affairs unless he is paid to. The sewers of Lut Gholein are the nicest I have ever seen -- and if you think I have seen any others, we obviously travel in different social circles. From their function, one would think a sewer would be a rather wet place; these are dry and quite pleasant, as though a level or two of the city was buried intact, then built on top of. Where the city's sewage goes, I have no idea, but I'll count my blessings in the meantime. It's not here, and I do not mind in the least.
Oh, I thought I was alone. The Burning Dead are here. Burning Dead are demonic undead, articulated bones suffused with a light touch of hellfire. Their essential undead nature is not altered, but their inherent heat makes them less vulnerable to earthly flames, and imparts heat to their own attacks. These archers, for instance, fire flaming arrows: the wooden shafts crackle into flame in their hands. The curse of Confusion might have worked, if they weren't so resistant to their own form of attack. Still, it does give me the opportunity to approach and apply my dagger.
I've also encountered what I believe to be a new variety of Zombie! This creation, which I shall call a "Venomous Creeper" is made from a human corpse completely suffused with strong poisons. The result is as slow and addled as a standard Zombie, but with a venomous touch. They also smell quite pleasant. Because of the poison, its body seems completely immune to normal rot or attack by insect life -- the ones I have encountered here are leathery and dry, but completely untouched by normal decay processes. An additional danger comes with their destruction: when the body falls, it will often break open, releasing puffs of poisonous dust. The inconvenience is minor, but most hellish in its conception.
Note to self: never die here. I've found a pile of greenish goo, about the size of a human body but bearing no external resemblance to one. Within were a few coins and the remains of a man, almost completely digested.
Another note: why are there so many animal pelts down here? I have found three, one of which looks like nothing so much as a giant chicken. The "bold and hairy" look went out of fashion ages ago. A man is not now, nor should he ever want to be, a dog or a chicken or a bear or any other such thing.
My discovery is nothing new after all. The "Venomous Creeper" appears to be nothing but a local form of undead called a Mummy, so named because of the wrappings which enshroud their bodies. The custom in this land is to preserve the dead with sweet perfumes, scented oils, exotic spices, and a blend of poisonous preservatives strong enough to kill absolutely anything and keep on killing for centuries. Thus rendered resistant to decay, the revered ancestor is wrapped in several layers of cloth, even down to individual fingers. A body may survive for millennia, outlasting dynasties or even empires, and sometimes even maintains a fraction of its former intelligence if the brain is sufficiently preserved. Perhaps dying in this part of the world wouldn't be such a bad thing, provided my dutiful descendants get to me before the slime molds do. Of course, I would need dutiful descendants, and I've hardly endeared myself to the local ladies. Speaking of which, I've discovered that the Paladin is both the city's healer and its blacksmith. Heaven must be watching over me -- for their amusement. The one I most want to avoid is the one I can least afford to.
So far, I've found two levels of sewer, and there may be more. This "repentance" business is certainly an inconvenience, though at least not all the creatures down here are dead. Tall, rangy, four-armed things stalk the sewers, their top-knotted pin-heads scraping the ceiling as they glide gracefully along. Being alive, they possess little poison resistance, and die with ease. If only everyone was so gracious. With enormous effort, I took one of the bodies to the surface with me, but as much as they resemble the terse description of the Beast, my quarry is not one of these. "That's just a Sand Raider," they say. Hmph. Incidentally, I've found a number of bodies here on the second level, most in a state of dissection. The Beast is not a mere animal, nor do I think it eats human flesh; the cuts are made with precision, exactly as a surgeon or anatomist might make them, with no preference for fat, meat or entrails. A suspicion grows in my mind: my prey is engaged in a "necromantic" project, if I may use the vulgar term.
Now I am sure there is something wrong with this sewer. No matter how desperately they were looking for recruits, the Horadrim could not possibly have a reason to build a waypoint down here. It does make my life easier, but this must have been a functioning part of the city at some point, perhaps built over after it sank below the earth in some cataclysm. Why doesn't it flood, though? The ocean is directly adjacent to the town, and I am sure I have descended well below sea level.
These "sewers" are endless! I must have passed through three entire cities by now, all full of demonic servitors. The Sand Raiders are few in number now, but have been replaced by cat creatures which walk on two legs and use weapons. This is all rather depressing: I am very fond of cats. I wouldn't kill them, had I any choice, and wish they weren't trying to kill me. They don't seem to be actual demons, though that may be my own wishful thinking speaking.
There, only one corner left. As I approach, my nose tells me penance is at hand. Nowhere else is the odor of rot so strong, not even among the "fools with pig-stickers" whose bodies I found earlier. My arrival has been noticed, a horde of skeletons is heading this way. Some are the Burning Dead who've made every level of the "sewer" their home. Others are Skeletal Mages, also burning with Hellfire. A few are ashy black in color -- those must be Horrors, a particularly strong variety of Skeleton I've always wanted to see. I really should be careful of what I wish for. Behind them all, something is laughing... I believe it just said, "I shall live again." Now I'm simply DYING to see it. I'll just clear these skeletons away.
Oh, confound and bother it all! Whatever the Beast is, it can raise Skeletons from the dead, like those irritating little Fallen One shamans back in the Rogue pass. So it's magical, as well as murderous and greater than the height of a man; I should have realized, after seeing its necromancy project. Well, it's not the only one who can grasp a dead man's soul. A good corpse explosion releases the spirit bound to those bones, and helps put the rest down as well. If only it weren't so tiring... the Beast might simply outlast me. Best to lure some of its servants away, hopefully out of range of its magic.
Gracious, what a crowd of minions the Beast has. It's been a very busy little bee, hasn't it? Corpse Explosions makes a messy dungeon -- some refer to the spell as "paint job," and after so many applications I'm beginning to see their point. After dozens of blasts, this sewer is beginning to look like a sewer, probably for the first time. Nonetheless, I can now approach the Beast, and hope it can't kill me on sight. I've probably set its project back a ways.
The battle is done. I could cry, thinking of what I have destroyed! The Beast was beautiful, a golem-like construction of preserved flesh and bone towering to the ceiling. Akin to the Mummy, but far more advanced, the Beast was mostly human, but with some animal parts added for greater size, strength, and perhaps innate magical powers. Some of its pieces had recently been replaced, such as the arms and skull; they were poorly preserved, it must have had to replace them continually. As wondrous as it was, I could not let it live, and not only because it desperately sought my death. Beyond it, hanging half-complete from a crude rack, I saw another of its kind being assembled from bits and pieces of the dead. Undead able to reproduce at the expense of the living would be an incomprehensible threat, one which could grow exponentially. The Beast must not be allowed to exist.
As is typical of the undead, poison was almost useless. Its preserved body made it highly venomous, so I spent a great deal of time uselessly hacking away with the Jade Tan Do, poking tiny holes in it. In the end, I hacked it down with Soul Harvest, picking up the dagger to dispel its poison only after it lay in pieces on the floor. That was when I made a horrible discovery. What I had taken to be another body, was nothing but human skins, tanned and sewn together in a rough approximation of a living human form, but of much greater height. It was a "human suit," hollow and meant to be worn. The Beast's old skull, the fang-filled maw of a giant lizard, lay in a corner. Its original arms were gone, but I have no doubt that they were not human.
What an isolated existence this one-of-a-kind being must have led! Separated in flesh and spirit even from others of its kind, the poor Beast must have come to Lut Gholein seeking the company it had known and cherished in life. Its appearance, calculatedly horrific, presented an insurmountable obstacle, so in a clumsy and ineffective way, it tried to change itself and once more blend in with society. The suit would fool no one... the Beast's intelligence was not intact. But making the attempt spoke volumes of its loneliness.
The Great Beast had a few possessions, no doubt brought from its tomb. Amulets, rings, and some books and scrolls which did not survive the journey it undertook. A fragment of text described the Bone Armor spell I myself use. One scroll was complete, but written in a runic language I am unfamiliar with. I shall examine it at more leisure later. This "repentance" business is wearying, only Paladins would undertake such foolishness. Atma's deed is done, and I shall never repent anything I do again. I am going to bed.
This morning was even worse than I had anticipated. In addition to a growing contempt for myself - what was I thinking, risking my life in a sewer to please a woman? - there is the matter of Jerhyn. This morning, he came to see me, here at the inn. Needless to say, I was aghast. Any leader, if he is to have the proper respect and fear of his subjects, must remain aloof. Mixing with the commoners creates familiarity, and familiarity breeds contempt. If the boy absolutely must speak with me, then he must require me to make the effort to go to him, not the reverse. Who is master here?
He has to learn sometime, so after hearing of his presence I rose leisurely, taking all the time I need and more to prepare for the coming day, in the hopes that my insolence will remind him of his station. It has not; he is pacing back and forth in the street under my window, impatiently awaiting my pleasure with no notion that his time should be more important than mine. The position of sultan is hereditary, I understand; did his father not educate him in these important matters? Perhaps a bit more insolence will help, but I'd best not indulge my worse nature too enthusiastically; he has the larger force behind him.
The discussion began badly -- he actually said he was glad to see me. It is I who should be glad to be allowed into your presence, you puppy! But before I could think of a suitable way to express this sentiment, he distracted my mind and purpose most unfairly, by presented me with important information. Against all expectations, a man resembling Tristram's local hero came to Lut Gholein a few weeks before my arrival. Accompanied by a small man who was obviously feeble-minded, the stranger kept himself heavily cloaked at all times, despite the heat. Of everyone he met, he asked the location of Baal's tomb. No one still living knows the whereabouts of Baal (the Horadrim did one thing right) so the stranger left, with as little ceremony as when he arrived.
The implications of this are fascinating. One theory concerning demonkind states that they do not truly exist in a material sense, but interact with our plane by manipulating the astral connections associated with living minds. Being from a dimension beyond our own, the insensible matter which makes up our world is inaccessible to them except through indirect means, a way of explaining why demons use devices infused with native souls to interfere with our material world. More importantly, existing beyond our reality implies that any two demons will be able to perceive each other outside our plane using their native senses, and so could never be hidden from each other.
If that was indeed the Lord of Terror (and there is little reason to doubt it) it would seem that he is unaware of his fellow demon's location: Baal is lost to him. Jerhyn also notes that the assault on the city began within hours of the mysterious stranger's departure, no doubt emptying the surrounding area so Diablo's search would not meet interference. The desert will certainly be full of demons, revived corpses and corrupted animals until Destruction has been found, or even afterwards if Terror's malevolence has not been satisfied. I occurs to me that the Soulstones may be responsible for this strange turn of events; spirit traps of our own invention affect demons oddly, who can say what a Heavenly trap would do?
It also occurs to me that I haven't much time for dilly-dallying. As offensive as it may be, educating Lord Jerhyn about his title will have to be forgotten, if not forgiven. Finding Baal before Diablo has the chance to free him appears to be my only alternative; either that, or finding Diablo himself. The former option seems the least hazardous. Exploring that sun-blasted wasteland will not be good for my health or disposition; traveling across it was enough punishment for the sins of one lifetime. Lest the heat kill me before the demons do, I need a way to protect myself, even if it means giving Lysander my business.
There are many jolly merchants in the marketplace, all eagerly anticipating my patronage. Who's to say the followers of Rathma are not welcome wherever they go? Deckard Cain, who seems fond of sitting by wells, is very happy to have the decayed scrolls and tomes I brought up from the sewer -- it takes so little to please him. Ah, I've no need for Lysander after all! A fellow here is selling folding sun-shades called "parasols," which may be carried in one hand to provide cover for the head. Necessity is the mother of invention, so 'tis said. My armaments do not leave me a free hand, but that's what servants are for, and they're for hire. My only quibble is the colors and patterns available, all floral things in gaudy shades. The least offensive is a subdued peach.
The rocky wastes outside the city walls are absolutely impossible, alternating between small hard stones just large enough to trip over, and shifting sands which slide out from beneath one's feet. My hired man, one Zanarhi, is not being very helpful. I demand only one duty of him, but he seems to feel it is beneath his dignity. A servant has no right to dignity, but perhaps the only example of a master he has known is Jerhyn. I've had little opportunity to correct his misapprehensions, however, as almost from the moment we stepped out of the gates we have been beset. The spear he insisted on carrying along has seen enthusiastic use, and he will not remain close and give me shelter as I've instructed.
The creatures of the desert are, blessedly, living things one and all. Firstly, there are the Sand Leapers, extremely active reptiles with more eyes than is acceptable in a vertebrate. As their name implies, they are energetic runners and jumpers, forever bounding hither and thither to avoid our blows and attack when our backs are turned. Zanarhi finds them a terrible consternation, but a single dose of poison is all that's required. Second come flocks of four-legged birds, resembling a combination of the worst of vultures and jackals. Having two wings and four legs gives them a total of six limbs, which I have not observed before in any natural animal. Zanarhi says are new to the area. These birds weigh about 30 pounds each, but are powerful fliers capable of reaching great altitudes, though lacking the aerial grace to attack while on the wing.
Also inhabiting the area are cat people, like those in the sewers. Quick and agile, though perhaps not terribly strong, these are beautiful creatures who really should not be in league with Hell. Why any cat would care for Heaven or Hell is a complete mystery to me; sensible earthiness is one of the cat's most charming traits. Another reminder of the sewers can be found half-buried among the rocks: the bones of enormous reptiles. The sewer beast's old head may have come from a juvenile of this species.
Ah, a discovery! The local people do not keep graveyards; each family has a large tomb for the preserved remains of their honored ancestors. Zanarhi wishes to avoid the tomb, as it does not belong to his family, but my curiosity must be assuaged. Seeing how the dead are treated here is more than a matter of curiosity for me. As might be expected, the revered ancestors object to my adventurous spirit, but strenuous arguments convince them to lay down their arms... and legs, heads, etc. etc. etc. Being out of the sun has improved my mood somewhat, though it irritates me that now Zanarhi sees fit to remain close. He's also forgotten the parasol; if he lost it, a new one will come out of his pay.
The deepest part of the tomb conceals a couple of armories, as I suspected it might. This is news to Zanarhi; the family patriarchs must not share the knowledge of these holdings with their more rash and impetuous sons. He is an irritatingly efficient killer, even more so than poor Floria. The first armory is guarded by an especially revered ancestor; after Zanarhi kills it, it explodes in a blast of ice, injuring him severely. The mummy was obviously trapped, to teach anyone who violates its tomb to a fatal lesson.
The second armory has powerful guardians. The family whose tomb this is could not have placed them there -- they would never see their heirlooms again. These demons resemble beetles externally, these demons are the height of a man and walk on their hindmost legs. The forelegs are shaped like axes, and are used to attack. Being struck by one, though certainly painful, was not the greatest danger; that came when we retaliated. Bolts of electricity jolted up our weapons, sending sparks of brilliant lightning dancing about the room and giving us both near-fatal shocks. Every muscle in my body was trembling as I ran away, with Zanarhi not far behind me in any sense of the term. After some minutes, we returned to find the beetles dead. Poison is such a great gift.
The best loot in the tomb is a suit of chainmail. Perhaps its a measure of how far my steps have deviated from my intended path that I value this. The joys of nihilistic transcendence are far from my mind, now taken over by the crass concerns of material survival. Back on the surface, Zanarhi nearly "forgets" to pick up my parasol; as punishment, he shall have to carry it while we are in the city. I have no idea why it amuses the townsfolk so to see it, but carrying it embarrasses him and that is enough.
Finding for the tomb of Baal could take years, and it seems I must fight every step of the way. Up in some low hills, I have found the remains of monumental stone statues. In style, they are very different from the tomb sculptures, but seem more recent; erosion has touched them less, despite being more exposed to the elements. We are not far from the city, so I am sure they have been well described elsewhere and I will not waste my time on them. Were there anything else of interest to note, I would not have mentioned them at all. This land is a misery, hot and dry and plagued with blood-sucking insects. The only novelty I have discovered is an enchanted scimitar, which floats and attacks without human guidance. At least, it did before Z broke it in two.
The day has been an exhausting one. There is another tomb in the hills, but I will not go in tonight. On any exposed skin, I am burnt painfully. Sand is everywhere -- in my boots, in my gloves, my skin has been abraded to the point of blistering. My only desire is cool water and a soft bed, but know I shall find neither until I accomplish my goal and leave this desert far, far behind me.
Someone has been in my room. Nothing was taken; instead, things were left, along with an insulting note.
-- The Mule."
Your latest gifts have been received, and let me offer my heartfelt thanks. Though I hesitate to inquire into what may be a personal matter, my curiosity has overborne my deference and I feel compelled to put a number of questions to you:
Who are you really, and why have you decided to bless me so magnanimously?
How do you come by these things?
In an earlier encounter, you mentioned companions, and a disk. Does your assemblage support the theory of our world being flat? Most educated persons align themselves with the spherical theory, being so much better supported by astronomical evidence.
In the hopes that I find you and any compatriots well, I remain
Varnae C. A. von Rhus"
Upon awakening, I discovered my letter had vanished, and a response lay in its place. Next time, I shall construct a deadfall above the door. The missive is written in black ink on plain paper of the commonest quality, with no visible watermark. In all respects, the penmanship betrays a well-practiced hand: each line of text is perfectly straight and horizontal on the page, the margins are sharp as knife blades, and every letter is perfectly, even identically, formed. No hesitation or clumsiness mars the smooth movements of the pen, as one might expect from an uneducated simpleton trying to produce a document. Yet, my correspondent is trying to fool me into believing him such a simpleton by using coarse colloquialisms and deliberately poor grammar. I also notice his spelling is absolutely perfect, yet another flaw he forgot to include in his masquerade. There is no need to betray my realization at this stage, however; people are generally much more honest and forthcoming when they believe themselves disguised. Here are his words:
The world isn't flat; it don't really got a shape. Hear that whirring? We all sleep on that disk, and when it whirs like that, the world comes off the other disk into the RAM. While you're in the RAM, you're in the world and doing stuff. Now get off your butt, get to the Halls of the Dead, and find that Horadric Cube!
-- The Mule
Nonetheless, my correspondent's reference to the "Halls of the Dead" is interesting. I believe I saw another tomb entrance among those hills yesterday. It looked like a pleasant enough place; heat doesn't penetrate far into the earth, providing a welcome respite. Searching it should make a worthwhile afternoon's labor. Before I sally forth, I'd best make inquiries as to the nature of a "Horadric Cube," especially why I or anyone might want such a thing.
Just back from speaking with Deckard Cain. The poor old dear was more than willing to share everything he knows about this mysterious cube, just so I'd stay a while and listen. I doubt he gets many visitors. The Horadrim came from all the magical disciplines, including alchemy, and the Horadric Cube was one of their inventions. All manner of transmutations (far more than I care to remember) can be effected by simply placing the ingredients inside the cube and activating a switch. Besides the usual potion manufacturing, arrows could be changed into crossbow bolts, spears into javelins, sockets added to weapons... the list was endless, or perhaps it just seemed so.
Before I made my escape, the old dear brought up something from the sewer beast's books which may be of importance. Apparently, the Horadrim mummified their dead, and the most powerful were invested with magical amulets, replacement parts, and other "improvements" that they might guard their tombs against robbers. As much as it could be described as a single being, the sewer beast was named Radamant, and while alive had been present for the capture and binding of Baal.
When Baal was imprisoned, the Horadrim realized the Soulstone they had could not contain him for long. One of their number thrust the stone into his own body, thinking his spirit could match the demon lord's and he could make a spirit trap of himself. The idiot had a very high opinion of himself indeed, though we must remember he was probably a sorcerer. His fellows could see no reason to dispute his assessment, so they entombed him alive, congratulated themselves, and went back to their old rivalries. The tomb was not forgotten -- its location was deliberately wiped out, but the Horadrim could never stand the idea of anything in this world being truly inaccessible. Why do you think they've salted the earth with all those silly waypoints? Every member of the band which bound Baal had a staff made which could open the tomb, though how these staves were to be used was never recorded.
The Lord of Terror, when last seen, did not have a staff, though I cannot presume a demon lord would require one to make his way past whatever keeps Baal imprisoned. Should I find one of these staves, it might be amusing to enter the tomb and destroy Baal before Diablo has the chance to free him. The look on his face would be just priceless. A pity I won't be there to see -- I'm not a fool. Until then, the Halls of the Dead beckon.
My hireling was hiding in the tavern. He really ought to have known that was the first place I'd look for him. The tomb is indeed called the Halls of the Dead -- it's carved right on the lintel, in case anyone should be confused or unnaturally stupid. The entry chamber is large, with a dry well in the center (no doubt a symbol of some kind in the local religion) and three doorways, each sealed by a heavy slab of stone covered with glyphs. Very large, very strange bats that look something like insects inhabit the tomb. I am reminded of the many-eyed Sand Leapers, and the electrified beetles. Happily, these tiny creatures make mere sparks; even Zanarhi is not bothered by them.
The doors slide down out of the way at a mere touch, with remarkable smoothness and very little noise. I'd suspect hydraulics, but water is so scarce here it seems implausible. Beyond the door, I find my first Horadric Mummy since Radamant. This one cannot speak (or cares not to) and seems to possess no motivations beyond destroying interlopers such as myself. Like Radamant, it can repair its servants or recreate them after their destruction; unlike Radamant, its servants are of poor quality and no real threat to my person. This one seems content to behave like an ordinary monster; a pity, considering that its preservative-laden form could survive for centuries. All that time, and so little thought to occupy it...
Plundering the tombs fills many a happy hour. The dead disapprove, but a few well-placed explosions calm their tempers. The technique works especially well on Mummy servants, not only damaging the survivors but scattering the remains so their masters cannot call on them again. I did see a severed hand clawing at Zanarhi's ankle. Such devotion! I was almost sad when he stepped on it.
In a deeper level of the tomb, there are more javelin-throwing cat people. They die easily; it still tears my heart out to do it, but since it must be done I am glad it is easy. Once, while opening a treasure chest, Zanarhi wandered away. Soon, I heard the sound of howling cats and clashing steel, but by the time I arrived, all were dead. I suppose I should have been pleased, but I was not. Getting himself out of trouble would be far less exasperating if he weren't the one getting himself into it! But I will say nothing. I have learned, through long and painful experience, that his only response to my objections will be an eloquent shrug and the only word with more than two syllables he knows: "whatever." Many disparate meanings can be read into that word, but he really ought to learn another.
I have found an interesting novelty. The most honored dead lie in heavy stone sarcophagi here, but someone found a most extraordinary use for one. It was standing upright in an embalming chamber. I was not shocked to see a lesser Mummy come out and attack me; the second was more surprising; by the fifth, I knew it to be enchanted. Stacking so many in one coffin is a physical impossibility, even with their cooperation. Are the dead summoned from some other location, I wonder, or are they hidden below a trapdoor in the floor? Had I more time, I could investigate, but survival's demands are strict. Sigh! I suppose father's training in morality has had some effect on me: I am being "good," diligently devoting myself to a task. Though I'm not all good, all the time. The good die young, no doubt because even they cannot tolerate the strain of their company.
Just finished a hard battle: a group of four Horadrim Mummies in the same room! The quartet proved impossible to separate, and their servants formed a veritable army. As great as the danger was, there was no alternative but to enter their chamber and meet them face to... navel. To my astonishment, the stratagem proved wise. With their servants close about, when one fell, a corpse explosion could do a great deal of harm to the survivors. A few more would fall, and... well, the term "paint job" is a crude but apt description. These dense packs of creatures in tight spaces are making corpse explosion a blessing. At least the Mummies cannot raise each other. To be sure, I spent quite a bit of energy blasting their bodies into tiny little bits. I wonder, was that healthy spite, or am I losing my normally sunny, devil-may-care disposition?
The lowest level of the tomb hides the real treasure, as before. Turning left from the main entrance, the first chamber is guarded by three Horadric mummies and two packs of spear-throwing cats. Who could guess that centuries-dead bones would have so much energy in them? The battle is a cacophony of exploding servants and howling cat people; my clothing is nearly ruined. But in the chamber is a treasure chest, and in the chest is a cube covered with inscribed runes. If the Horadrim had restricted themselves to alchemical devices, and not strayed into saving the world, humanity's lot would have been much improved.
The rest of the tomb has worthwhile treasures as well, though the battles were tedious and messy. One armory yielded a set of scale armor. Experimentally, I have Zanarhi wear it. It looks to be good protection, though he fidgets even more than Floria did. Why, I wonder? Dressing him is certainly less fun. Men simply aren't decorative; even when women try not to be, they still manage. Would that we all could succeed so effortlessly. And so long as we are on the subject of success, the Halls of the Dead are now empty of life and unlife, save for ourselves. There is nothing further to be gained here, so we take our leave.
Much has been written about the harsh deserts of Aranoch, especially in the cheaper sorts of romantic fiction. According to these sources, this is a land of mysteries concealed amid moonlit dunes, gentle breezes wafting over the temptations of perfumed seraglios, and cool nights spent at lush oases excite the heart with sensual delights. A sufficiently imaginative writer could make a cesspool sound delightful, I suppose. In my experiences, the mysteries among the dunes are things no one would want to discover, and the perfume's real purpose is to conceal the rarity of bathing. As for the oases...
Gentle reader, I now request your indulgence, as I take you on a journey to a place I pray you are unfamiliar with. Imagine, if your mind can grasp it, a union of all the worst of desert and marsh. Where the ground is low, brackish water percolates up from some subterranean source, carrying with it the dissolved salts of ten million gallons of desert sweat. High ground is covered with plants, all blessed with thorns ranging in size from tiny, hairlike thistles that invisibly worm their way into the skin, to spines capable of being driven straight through a man's torso. Date palms form the only exception to this rule, but where date palms grow, one finds either desert camels or rotting dates; which smells worse is debatable and entirely irrelevant. This is an oasis.
Yet, the feast for the senses pictured in your mind is not finished. No description of an oasis would be complete without making a note of the insects. Every sort of mosquito, flea, tick, or other bloodsucking parasite makes its home here, sustained by an abundant diet of camel and desert nomad which keeps them happy and numerous. None love anything better than armor, under which they can hide and breed without restraint. The noise alone is enough to drive a man mad. I am sure some little corner of Hell must sound exactly like this; trust a demon lord to know a good thing when he hears it. And the Lord of Terror has been here, of that there can be no doubt. I have swatted many a mosquito in my life, but never one that burst in an explosion of blood and fire.
Small creatures abound in the oasis. The deformed raptors that were so common in the west have made their way here, though the climate has not been kind to their nests. Being made of meat, a large amount of moisture is necessary or the structure dries into a leathery husk, unsuited to these creatures' needs. Those ubiquitous four-legged carrion birds are present, but seem to be dead, doubtless from dining on the poison-laden flesh of mummies. Death did not agree with them, and they are now eager for a change in diet.
A curious thing has happened. In the ruins of a large building, a group of giant beetles had made their lair. Perhaps being out in the bright sun was unpleasant for them; one had an old leather jerkin draped over its back. While I was examining my unimpressive prize, it vanished from before my eyes, and a note in a familiar hand appeared.
-- The Mule
On the subject of dumb ignorance... Zanarhi has tried to lose my parasol twice today. There are trees in the oasis (horrible palms oozing sticky sap) so I want it less frequently, but we shan't be here forever. I'm beginning to run out of punishments for him, unless I use some that would interfere with his job as bodyguard.
Much to my surprise, while the lightning-enchanted scarabs are the largest vermin to be seen, they are not the largest to be found. At the edge of the oasis, a pit resembling that of an ant-lion, but many times larger, presented itself to me. Having seen these creatures procure their meals, and not wanting to suffer a similar fate, I sent Zanarhi down. Nothing leapt forth to devour him, but the pit led to a series of tunnels. Like many insect tunnels, the walls are a mixture of saliva and sand, nearly as hard as stone. Unlike many insect dens, the tunnels are large enough to stand in comfortably. There are also several human corpses dotting the floor and walls, all covered with a green slime that seems to be slowly dissolving the flesh and bone.
My first encounter with the tunneling beasts was very fruitful. They are indeed gigantic, and strongly resemble the aforementioned ant-lion: a segmented body with six pairs of legs, long barbed mandibles ideal for catching at prey, and a singular ability to quickly dig through loose desert sands. Between 10 and 15 feet in length, the creatures are far too large and sluggish for the quick leaps and snatches of their smaller cousins; they compensate for this by laying eggs, which hatch with Hellish speed into tiny, more agile versions of themselves. Killing the egg quickly is highly recommended.
What curious creatures these insects are turning out to be! I have found a large chamber, with three of them inside, along with two highly decorated traveling strongboxes, such as merchants use to secure their most valuable goods. The chests were obviously secured with some care, as they have not been damaged in any way; their trim and gilding is unmarred. Why, I wonder? One might hypothesize that these insects chew wood to make the walls of their tunnels, and animal instinct would drive them to collect this resource. If that were so, would not other pieces of a wagon do just as well? None are to be found. These creatures have obviously waylaid a caravan; did they simply save the prettiest things, or are they aware of what these boxes contain? If only I could spend more time here...
I have just been to the tavern, spoke with the proprietoress, and learned two things. The tunneling insects are well known: they are unimaginatively called Sand Maggots. In happier days, they were raised for their eggs, and bred to be prolific layers. Recently, their eggs turned poisonous and the creatures turned on their masters, spitting venom and tearing innocent herders to shreds. What a surprising turn of events that must have been -- like all cows taking up arms and rising in revolt against the milk bucket. Fortunately, bovines remain well-behaved, placid creatures, disinclined to violent excess.
My other lesson was about parasols. Apparently, their use is generally restricted to the fairer sex, and everyone in town has been wondering about me. The proprietoress tried to put it gently, but speculation has been rampant, and several aspects of my character were brought up for scrutiny. Indeed, my very manliness has been openly called into question! Naturally, the idle chatter of a tavern full of inebriates with nothing better to do all day but spin rumors about their betters is nothing to me. Let them spread their silly gossip all they like, more important things occupy my attention.
Zanarhi is now openly defying me, refusing to carry the parasol in town. Circulating rumors are now more important than my wishes, and he will not be reasoned with. Simply because I care about my appearance, appreciate fine food and drink, and know what colors clash does not mean I am some sort of deviant. His response was as pithy as ever: "There's lots of reasons to think you're some kind of deviant. Like that 6-foot boner jo--" In an instant, I was at his throat, with a clear order never to bring that up again. Unmanly, indeed!
The Maggot tunnels make a formidable maze. Other insects lair here with them, including Lightning Scarabs, and mosquitoes in such dense clouds, they almost form a solid mass, and move about as though they formed a single being. Many of their chambers have stolen strongboxes in them, not all decorated; something besides bright colors must attract them. In one, I found a crystal sword: a blade of pale blue stone, nearly as clear as glass, polished to a glittering shine. These pretty things are popular with angels, who appreciate their spark and keen edge, though crystal is not as practical for battle as common earthly iron.
I have just had the most extraordinary battle, in which I acquitted myself most manfully, I do believe. In a huge chamber, something I can only describe as a Sand Maggot queen lay on the floor, immobile under her own immense weight. Half a dozen of the normal sort escorted their queen. With only a dagger (or a spear) we might have been overwhelmed, but they did not reckon with my power. It is when I am pressed by great numbers that I am at my most dangerous. The first Corpse Explosion, there in their most sacred chamber, alarmed them greatly; the next few sent death splattering around the room in glorious, gory excess. There is something to be said for "cutting loose" on occasion.
After enough explosions, the room was clear of foes. The queen herself, too bloated even to attack, was last. If only I had known how much pressure that balloon-like body was under! The instant we were through the chitinous outer shell, her body literally burst, spraying the entire chamber with venom-laden guts. Poison was so concentrated inside that vile body, it even affected me. Zanarhi would have died, I am completely convinced, without the quick administration of an antidote potion I found earlier. Plainly, the Maggot Queen was Diablo's creation -- the Lord of Terror is fond of spiders, maggots, rats, and snakes, for the irrational fear they inspire in the hearts of many. True to the Maggots' nature, the queen has a chest of valuables in her lair. Surely, the most valuable treasure should be here with the queen -- but there is nothing in the chest but some random coin and an old, worm-eaten staff. The shaft isn't even straight anymore.
Ha! It appears I am in luck! Dear old Deckard Cain has identified that decayed bit of wood as the Staff of Kings, property of a great Horadrim magus. Were it in good condition, this staff could open Baal's tomb, but it may be too damaged. Ah, well; it makes a charming collector's item, relic of a bygone era when the mage clans weren't constantly at each other's throats. In its present state, I don't think even Drognan would pay money for it. Not that I'd sell it to him, but it pleases me to imagine that he might want it.
The world was in darkness when sleep released me from its grasp. I didn't mind so much -- the desert is cooler at night -- but wondered about the time. Under normal circumstances, I sleep as the innocent do, and never wake early; besides, I know I did not oversleep. I woke as refreshed as a night in this flea-ridden hovel could allow. Glancing out of the window confirmed my suspicion that something was amiss. The entire sky was black as bile, without a single moon or star visible.
Others are roaming the streets as well, their expressions fascinating mixtures of confusion and dread. If only I were the cause! But I am as baffled as they. The most confused of all seems to be poor old Deckard Cain. This has no precedent in his long memory of ancient facts and rote history, so he is utterly at a loss. Can you believe, he recommended that I seek out Drognan? Being flayed alive by angry ducks would be preferable; with that in mind, I went to speak with Lysander. Since my first visit, I've devoted my evenings to failing to acknowledge his existence, but the irksome old coot's memory may be long enough to provide some clue about the present predicament.
Dear old Lysander's hearing bespeaks his skill as an alchemist, as do the many blast marks on the ceiling of his shop. I quite insisted that he have nothing in his hands while speaking with me; he may continue working in the dark after I am well clear. Being so old, he is stubborn as a mule and as easy to steer in conversation (the mule might be a pleasanter companion, actually) though the darkness is as much on his mind as anyone's. Something of this sort did happen before, in the antediluvian days of his childhood. The solution was simple: a race of beings called Claw Vipers was responsible. These villainous beings hate the sun and hide from it in desert caves, where they spend their days stealing candy from babies, tearing wings off of butterflies, and other beastly depravities. An heroic sortie by the soldiers of the sultan's guard put an end to the menace.
Only two members of the guard could be found, both standing at the palace gates. Neither would not leave their appointed post, and their pip-squeak of a master was nowhere to be seen. Recruiting mercenaries might be difficult, as I would have to outbid the pip-squeak for their services. It appears I must I do everything myself. My great quest against evil has decayed into something much worse: it is now work. Still, risking my skin in the desert will be less work than trying to amuse myself in the city, if marginally more hazardous.
The night's chill has not left the sands. What should be furnace-like winds blasting away all moisture are instead shrill whips of frost invading every crevice of my armor. Whenever I believe I have suffered every torment the desert has to offer, some new circumstance arises to correct my misapprehension. Though I'd never confess, it is a bit disturbing to be in such absolute darkness and not be underground. While a tomb may be dark, the walls are never far away; finding one's way by touch, or by listening to echoes, is possible. Here, there is absolutely nothing around me. My voice and footsteps vanish into the distance, never to return. Noises come to me, but the things making them may be far away, or close at hand. I cannot know until they appear in my feeble circle of lamplight and attack.
Stumbling about blindly is an excellent way to lose oneself, and while lost, one may find lost things. In the deep desert, there is a set of ruins known as "the Lost City." Losing an entire city should be too much even for these people, but they refer to the spiritual loss of the city's residents, who are now plague-ridden zombies. Despite the designation, everyone knows where the city is. There is even a waypoint for our convenience. When not stalking after the flesh of the living, the zombies remain peaceably in their city, where they move things from place to place, make incomprehensible scribbles on any surface they encounter, and at the end of the day, congregate in a central marketplace to exchange rocks, sticks, and dirt for small, shiny objects, all the while faintly moaning to each other. I wonder if Zakarum has considered establishing a church here. So long as the priest doesn't smell too appetizing, he couldn't ask for a more agreeable congregation. But no church will be built here; Hell arrived first, and left Cat People and Sand Leapers. The cats have mastered the making of poison gas potions. Such elegance and intelligence, so cruelly used, saddens me.
Like Lut Gholein, this city has an underground level of tunnels and basements. Perhaps in the past, some catastrophe buried both cities, and the inhabitants rebuilt on top of the old ruins. If so, Lut Gholein is the older city, with three underground levels and a waypoint which may fix the date of subsidence. This city has but one; Lut Gholein must have been rebuilt at least three times, possibly many more. The presence of Sand Raiders indicates that the city underground is now a bandit hideout -- somehow, they've made peace with the mummies. As for the mummies, my people really should appropriate the preservation techniques used here. One of them retained enough intelligence to cast a curse, and I had to use the scythe to kill it before its cohort killed me.
This city must have been home to many mages in the past, to judge by the number of wands and staves among the dead. At least it isn't more Paladin shields... honestly now, I could have built a house from what I've found so far. Or at least hammer them flat and set a table for 12. The marketplace is in the lower section of the city, full of zombies and four squat towers shooting fireballs. My equipment renders me highly resistant to flame, but destroying the towers is still quite an undertaking with spear and scythe. A sledgehammer would have suited the task better. Perhaps these towers are similar to the Gargoyle traps in the Rogue jails? I must remember to investigate the resemblance further.
On a nearby flat-topped hill, an ancient temple looks over the city, but a few changes have been made since humanity was last here. Flanking the temple entrance are two statues of rearing snakes, with fang-filled maws, impressive shoulders and pectorals, muscular arms, and long claws on their four-fingered hands. Claw Vipers, I presume. Even if the carvings were of acceptable quality (they are not) such bald self-promotion would be irksome; the one thing I cannot tolerate is arrogance. My own arrogance, of course, is perfectly natural and in keeping, but for others such self-importance is dull and ugly and I will not abide either.
When we first entered the temple, Zanarhi commented that it was as dark as a tomb. A bit of a fatuous comment, I thought -- is there anywhere that isn't dark? I appreciate his simple wisdom a bit more now; the temple is full of mummies. In all probability, this was a place of entombment for the city's higher social circles before some final catastrophe turned the city into a necropolis. The Claw Vipers may have had a hand in that; snakes carry diseases, and the zombies are infected with some plague. The Vipers themselves are few in number and not particularly dangerous, though they have a way of bunching up and launching themselves great distances through the air to slam bodily into a victim. Curiously, they are icy cold; I have never known a reptile which could exist with such a low body temperature.
Despite years of Claw Viper occupation, something yet remains of the old temple's grandeur. Wall murals depict various scenes. A common motif is a cow, with broad white wings and a beard similar to those of the "laughing heads" statues I have seen in the desert. My instinct seems to have been correct; those are more recently sculpted than the austere seated figures. Also depicted are the slaughter (possibly sacrifice by beheading) of cows, and Sand Maggots beside spear-wielding figures. I cannot say if the maggots are being attacked or merely herded. They are painted as smaller than the spear-wielders, which is most certainly not the case today.
Another, more sinister, mural depicts what is doubtless a Claw Viper holding a human head. Two nearby human figures regard this calmly, not engaging the Viper in any way. They are unarmed, and from the context, I would say that they are conversing with the Viper, despite its apparently murderous actions. As I have already noted, another painted scene shows what seems to be the sacrifice of a cow by beheading; could this be a human sacrifice meant to appease the Viper? If so, it did these people little good in the end. I would not be surprised if the Claw Vipers caused the plague that wiped out the whole lot of them. After all the business with demons, one would think humanity would have learned not to sell out to powerful beings, hoping to profit by the arrangement. But what can be said? The fool's bandaged finger inevitably goes wabbling back to the fire, in the hope that though it burned him 500 times, the 501st might turn out differently.
A small note: in a side chamber, I found what was obviously the remains of a mummification workshop. Human corpses, all of great age, lay about in various stages of preparation, with the tools of their handlers still beside them. Many of the artifacts were smashed and broken in the ensuing melee, but all was not lost. An ancient tome, beautifully preserved, lay open on a table; a glance revealed instructions on the preparation of mummies, still as clear as the day they were written. Frustratingly, I fear Zanarhi saw me eyeing the book, and objected that the knowledge it contained belonged only to the local priests. I assured him that he was perfectly correct; in fact, it may be that the knowledge was best lost. We have seen how his own ancestors were used so horribly by Hell's power, have we not? He agreed; men of little learning fear knowledge, and can be relied on to agree enthusiastically to its destruction. To satisfy him, a small number of tomes and scrolls, those already ripped to shreds or covered with ichor, were committed to the fire.
The deepest part of the temple, where the holiest alter was once kept, shelters the bulk of the Claw Viper force: perhaps a dozen great snakes. Their leader, a huge brute colored an incongruous shade of lilac purple (and others think me unmanly?) is enchanted with lightning. Zanarhi cannot seem to understand that repeatedly poking the creature is, in fact, the last thing he should do; poison works so much better! Once they all are dead, we fall to looting, an activity I mind less and less as time goes on. Human bodies, naked, gutted, and missing their heads, line the chamber walls. Some are still warm, and cannot have been dead more than half an hour in this cold. Where did they come from, I wonder?
To judge from the height of the ceiling and the shape of the chamber, this shrine once had a central dais. In its place, there is now a pit, with a single low stone slab encrusted with gemstones and bits of jewelry. The simplest way to retrieve the valuables is to roll the altar out of the pit and knock the jewelry off on the floor; violating this "temple" can be regarded as an added bonus. Removing it from the pit was easier than I expected, and when dashed to the floor, the slab broke in half. A number of bright lights whisked out of its interior, filling the chamber with a iridescent glow. I have seen spirits escaping material confinement before, but these did not alarm me as much as they ought to have. After fluttering about like little fairies, the lights rose to the ceiling and pierced the stones. A brilliant shaft of sunlight shone down; true to Lysander's account, the slaughter of the Claw Vipers brought the sun out of hiding. Though it will be easier to see, it's almost a pity that daylight has returned. I was beginning to enjoy the darkness.
Upon my return to camp this evening, Deckard Cain informed me of two things. Some of the jewelry I freed from the clutches of the Claw Vipers was of Horadric make -- is there any kind of enchanted craftsmanship those old busybodies did not engage in? One of the pieces may be the headpiece for the staff I already found, and could be reunited with its shaft using the Horadric Cube. More interestingly, Jerhyn wished to see me, and left clear instructions that I was to come to his palace at once. A welcome change, that. At least he has sense enough not to linger about the tavern door like a quean awaiting her special fellow.
My instruction (despite his rank, I cannot call it a command) was to go at once. So, I made my leisurely way back to the Desert Rain. The innkeeper keeps a "lost and found" of random detritus other guests left behind as they hurriedly made their way out of town; I had nothing better to do, so I went through the pile. Most of it had been cast aside with good reason, but tossed behind a weather-beaten croquet set -- why was that here, anyway? -- was a thing of beauty. While I had heard of demon skulls being used as helmets, much like the nest of demon bones I was using as a shield, I never would have guessed that the result could be so aesthetically pleasing. I normally do not favor such "barbaric" splendor, but as they say, live and learn. A healthy bribe convinced the innkeeper I was the original owner (memory is so fallible.) The helm is enchanted too, but I almost don't care.
I was still admiring myself when Jerhyn's guardsmen retrieved me. I do hope he'll be angry, any proper sultan should be. No, he isn't; he's consumed with fear. All my hopes for he and his kingdom are dashed. A leader should never, EVER be seen as afraid, especially when he is. Ah... the truth comes out.
The city has been under attack from three directions all this time. There were those outside the walls, and those who infiltrated the sewer -- those Jerhyn could not hide from his people. Those inside his palace he could hide, and did. Lut Gholein was built atop a Vizjerei fortress, which would explain the underground tunnels and waypoints. Down in a deep palace cellar is a dimensional gate, (!) which has sat quietly for centuries. A short while ago, a visiting Vizjerei of doubtful sanity asked to examine the gate alone. (!!) Jerhyn granted this request without a second thought. (!!!) The sorcerer disappeared, and the gate began to function again, disgorging wave after endless wave of demons into the palace.
Lord Jerhyn's harems -- apparently quite sizable -- were put to the sword. The two palace guardsmen who retrieved me so efficiently are the last two he has. By tonight, they will be gone as well, unless something is done. There will be no rest for the wicked tonight. The Lord of Terror, if he awaits my pleasure, will have to wait some more. More likely, Lordling Jerhyn's deceitful cowardice has cost me the race. Jerhyn is asking... nay, begging me to stop the demons and their sorcerous master; any and all valuables I can haul away will be mine without question. Of course, I would have done this regardless. In all this desert, where else but here could I sleep and store my things? Odd -- having a mighty lord offer me the jewels of his crown and the wealth of his kingdom should be delightful, yet all I want to do is slap him for wasting my time.
At least on the upper floor, Jerhyn has little wealth to pick over. Most likely, it's all lining the mercenary captain's purse. There is a strange wanted poster in the guard quarters:
Height: Bigger than his britches
Weight: Always thrown around
Eyes: Full of primal rage
Hair: May be cause of primal rage
Sex: Not in this lifetime
Distinguishing features: Frozen orbs
On charges of:
Assault, nasal: first degree
Creating a public nuisance
Conduct unbecoming to the king of the world
Reward! Call LGPD for more information. Keep our city clean.
None of this is to imply, of course, that I would voluntarily spend time here, especially not as things are. My preferred forms of self-indulgence are... different from those of the common man, let us say, and even under more sanguine circumstances I would not favor the harem's charms. Hmm... perhaps I should say LESS sanguine; the whole palace is literally soaked in the blood of dozens of women. I have never seen so many in one place, all cut down in their prime. A lesser number of palace guardsmen lay among them. Some clearly died "with their boots on," (despite the local lack of closed footwear) while others were taken alive and died, quite miserably, a short time later.
Then, there is the enemy: Desert Raiders, and enormous fat giants with tiny pin heads. From my studies, I seem to recall creatures called "Urdar" by the lords of Hell, and these beings fit the description well. Slow and flabby, Urdar are very strong, but not nearly as powerful as they are heavy; a quick opponent will run them in circles, and forceful thrusts penetrate their layers of fat easily. I find poison works very well on them, perhaps because their hearts are already overtaxed by their lumbering exertions. In addition to living foes, skeletons from the sultan's own basement crypt are present in extraordinary numbers, all with bows or magical enchantments. The curse of Attraction works wonders for distracting their attention in open areas, such as the large dance arena which occupies the center of the harem.
Both the harem and the cellars beneath feature plenty of iron grillwork, which the skeleton mages and archers are fond of using to their advantage. Of course, I find this feature to my advantage as well, again for the curse of Attraction. Creating dissension in the ranks of my enemies is such a simple pleasure.
I have just noticed something very odd: the cellar stairs are in the corners of each basement level, but not in matching corners. I went downstairs in the northeast corner of one level, but arrived in the northwest corner of the level below, and the stairway was not nearly long enough to traverse such a distance. Excepting the current inhabitants, these cellars are utterly mundane; the plain sandstone walls and stored household junk hint at nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps this is a relic of the Vizjerei, who were fond of reality-flopping tricks in their days of greatness. Under the pretense of making the illusory nature of earthly reality clear to lesser intellects, the Vizjerei went to a great deal of effort to play tricks on men's senses. Myself, I think it likelier that they wanted to make everyone else look stupid, a bit of adolescent pridefulness one often finds in intellectual wizards, especially those who boastfully claim to be above such things.
The cellars have been cleared; that was dull. The dimensional gate (that is what it is, there can be no doubt) is classic Vizjerei work: two silver spires crossed like an X, with a solar disk spinning freely in space between the upper branches. Naturally, the gate itself occupies the space between and under the spires, and is low enough that one must bow to enter -- the sorcerous desire to humble those who take advantage of their devices, no doubt.
I have just gone through the gate, into a wondrous new dimension! This place is absolutely fantastic! If only I had time to study it, curse the fate that makes haste so necessary. So much knowledge is slipping through my fingers like water, and I can only let the merest taste of it touch my lips. This must have been built by Vizjerei, there can be no doubt. A mere physical description must do: marble pathways hang suspended in an endless starry void, lit by classic Balrog braziers. Slender silver columns and spires guard the corners, the orange light of endless fires dancing across their cold surfaces. Perhaps sorcerers are not wholly unworthy: they did decorate their sanctums with great style. This understated elegance is positively rejuvenating after the sumptuous overripeness of the harem.
The creatures of this strange dimension are completely unlike those in the palace. Though I found no other way into the cellar, I find it difficult to believe that the palace demons came from here. Our old friends the Goat Men are putting in an appearance, and Vampires like those who served Andarial. Ghosts are abundant, though I have no idea if they are "native" to this place or were summoned from afar. Clearly, these are some of Terror's favorites. No matter; I know them well enough not to fear them.
Whoever made this dimension must have been very powerful indeed; I have found one of his treasuries. Never before have I seen so many rare things, precious jewels and adornments. For defense, this unknown architect adapted decorative spires to a new use: by placing a triad of tines at the apex and suspending a ball of electrical energy within, he created a trap of lightning, like the fire towers in the desert necropolis. Curiously, these metal spires are vulnerable to poison, while the stone fire towers were not.
I hereby revoke my kind words for sorcerers -- I have had quite enough of this place, thank you very much! A misplaced fondness for optical illusion has led to the creation of the most confusing set of paths imaginable. Wiser architects laugh at plans for impossible buildings and move on; this intellectual imbecile just HAD to show off and make some! At least he only made one section require teleporting through gates; any more of that, and I would have become quite sick to my stomach.
The errant sorcerer who has caused so much mischief is no more. He was hiding on a platform that might once have been a study, wearing the bright ceremonial robes and crown of a high Vizjerei archmage. To put it mildly, he was not worthy of those trappings. A single dagger thrust, applied simply and directly, put an end to his delusions: like a moth too close to the flame, he crumbled and vanished in a puff of smoke. The platform where he sought succor is obviously a place of power. Six strange sigils dance in empty space, and a pile of books awaits my perusal.
Oh, I should have known! One of the books is a journal, identifying this dimension's maker: Horazon, archmage extraordinaire and the second most egotistical sorcerer of all time. The first was his brother, Bartuc, now a slave to his former slaves down in Hell. I fell to reading it at once -- I love reading other people's diaries. Never my own, though; the scandals of my past lack novelty.
Never let it be said that I have refused to learn from sorcerers; Horazon has taught me a few very important things.
First: the old crank was a hopeless voyeur. He watched, and kept notes on, almost everything that happened during his life. Yet, there is never any note of anything he himself did. Watching seemed to be all he was good for.
Second: only great egotists keep journals. Who else would imagine that anything they think could possibly be worth recording? Thankfully, my personal pride is well-deserved.
Third: For the sake of your readers, don't be dull! Horazon, a born bean-counter if there ever was one, is so wearisome a writer it ought to be a sin for him to put pen to paper. This journal describes some of the juiciest sorcerous follies in history, but I almost nodded off before I found his account of the binding of Baal.
With meticulous detail, Horazon recorded more than anyone would ever want to know about Baal, those arrayed against him, and their final solution to the demon lord problem. The local Horadrim, steeped in their cultural traditions, had their remains mummified and entombed in a small gorge they called the Canyon of the Magi. Coincidentally, the battle to subdue Baal took place nearby, and the soulstone they intended to imprison him in was damaged. The "foremost" of their number, one Tal Rasha, impaled himself with the damaged stone, and both were entombed in a vacant crypt in the canyon. There, the spirits of Tal Rasha and the Lord of Destruction were to wrestle for all eternity, an estimate of the mortal's endurance I find frankly laughable. Horazon offers no opinion, but he does note the location of the canyon, a portal incantation which leads directly there, and which tomb contains our eternal wrestlers. To my astonishment, this detour is the most productive path I could have taken. If only I'd known of it earlier! Jerhyn will have to suffer in some way; I'm sure I can think of something humorous but lingering when I have time to put my mind to it. Perhaps involving boiling oil... or would molten gold be more fitting for a fool of his station?
As might be expected, for their own convenience the Horadrim built a waypoint in the Canyon of the Magi. I took it back to Lut Gholein. Inside Horazon's sanctuary, there was no way to track the passage of time, but my adventures so exhausted me I was not surprised to see the pale light of dawn peeking over the canyon's edge. The idea of exploring a dark tomb late at night had lost its characteristic appeal for me. After a hearty meal (hunger is the best spice) and a nap, it is now nearly noon on a new day. I am tanned, rested, and ready for the task of destroying Destruction, and Terror as well, should the need arise. (The tan conceals the aristocratic blue of my veins; unwelcome, but unavoidable.)
The steep walls of this little valley must make access difficult from the outside. Both ends were blocked by avalanches of rock, obviously to seal it off further. The effort was useless; burial urns, chests, and boxes lie scattered on the canyon floor, the remains of many past tomb raids. Perhaps half are as yet unopened. Fresher bodies -- resembling local nomads, and none more than a few weeks old -- also decorate the sands. These people must have been coming here for years, dragging easily-ported valuables out into the sunlight, away from the Horadric Mummies who no doubt guard the tombs. What a shock they must have had to return one day and find their treasure cache inhabited.
Terror's demons are here, though they keep close to the canyon walls. In this high desert, only mad dogs and priests of Rathma go out in the noonday sun. The first sign of them was the roaring of Sasquatch. What could induce them to come here? The poor things were obviously suffering horribly under their heavy coats of fur; as angry as they were, the heat rendered them powerless. Did Diablo bring them from the mountains, then abandon them in this wasteland? How like him that would be. Additionally, there were javelin-throwing Cat People and more Sand Maggots. I have no idea what their presence here signifies. It is known that demon lords summon their minions to themselves, which may mean that the Lord of Terror has been here. On the other hand, it is doubtful that he could have visited every tomb I explored; all were inhabited to various degrees, which implies that he scattered his minions far and wide across the land, and may not yet know of this place.
All seven tombs are intricately and uniquely embellished, with monumental columns, carved lintels, and other adornments hewn directly from the rock of the canyon wall. Judging from the lesser tombs I have raided, all contain dozens if not hundreds of burials. The statuary in the canyon is all of the older, more severe style, and substantially less weathered than the surviving examples outside. Some of these statues and columns are still erect, their glyphs faintly legible -- if only anyone knew how to read them anymore.
The seventh tomb, at the lowest end of the canyon, is the correct one. In the entrance chamber, I find a large chest; a tomb raider must have dragged it this far, then abandoned it, for its former owner is still guarding it. I have the feeling that, by the time I've explored this tomb, I will be thoroughly fed up with Horadric Mummies. Perhaps that's why cursing the Mummy to attract its own minions is so amusing -- the look on its face as its own retinue of Burning Dead slaves comes back to carve it to bits is just priceless. Self-willed dead, though inherently troublesome and difficult to discipline, are fascinating creatures. They will even run (well, shuffle at above-average speed) away from danger if their circumstances warrant it; this one is doing so as fast as its dried-up legs can manage. The chest is empty, except for two of those flying scimitars. Beautiful things, but the way the chest was being guarded, I expected more.
Other than ghosts, the Mummies are the only creatures here, and I am becoming thoroughly sick of them. This place is a veritable warren of tunnels and rooms, all positively crawling with the pestiferous things. The Canyon of the Magi was in use for a very long time; either that, or the Horadrim were more numerous than I knew. The tomb's decorative elements are all of the old style: standing or seated human figures with rigidly straight postures, beardless faces, impassive expressions, and plain garments with no visible pleats, folds, or seams. I may call this the "Kingly Period" for their regal aspect. The newer smiling, bearded men are almost absent; only a few coffins feature paintings resembling the style. In addition, there seems to be a third style of sarcophagus, elaborately decorated on lids and sides, but not with human representations. Most feature a black basalt jackal reclining on the lid, though hawks, lions, and strange chimeric hybrids are also portrayed. This hard stone is difficult to carve, but the figures are executed flawlessly. The tomb has preserved its decorations very well, and their absolute age is impossible for me to determine; the dead refuse to answer my queries. I suspect the "Animal Period" lies between the "Kingly Period" and the modern.
As befits the rich and powerful, these tombs are riddled with traps. I've had 3 Frost Novas go off in my face in as many minutes, all from canopic jars. If they were a significant threat, I would worry more. I suppose I am looting, something these ancient fellows do find rather objectionable. Is it any wonder that we're not on speaking terms? Before Terror corrupted the dead, the logic of traps was quite sound. Most thieves dare not approach, and those wealthy enough afford protection should not need to go raiding tombs. I do it for curiosity's sake. "Archaeologist" sounds so much more dignified than "thief."
I have found the seal on Baal's tomb, intact. For a time, I was afraid all my suffering would be for naught. Now, I must make a decision. Dare I wait here for Terror, and ambush him in this chamber? Or should I enter the tomb, dispose of Baal (little will remain of Tal Rasha) and then ambush Terror with less risk of his brother aiding him? Ah... sometimes, simply stating the problem correctly reveals the solution. After rejoining shaft and headpiece in the cube, I insert the completed staff into a receptacle on the floor. After a pretty little light show and an earth-shattering blast, the rear wall of the chamber is split asunder, opening the tomb. That display of raw power was portentous, pretentious, and unforgivably pompous. It must have been designed by a sorcerer.
Oh, what a horrible place that rent in the wall led to! I'm still trembling. In my haste, I went through the door first instead of sending Zanarhi. Beyond was a deep pit, full of the most horribly indescribable FILTH imaginable! I FELL IN IT!! FACE FIRST!! A horrible maggoty mass launched itself out of nowhere and landed on me!! I think it said something, but I was not listening. Good, faithful Zanarhi came to my rescue, stabbing the thing until it retreated, dribbling ichor all over me. It was huge, it was horrible, it STANK and slavered and had axes for arms and was COVERED in FILTH!! oozing out of every possible orifice and more besides! Only my natural fortitude kept me from fainting dead away.
Dear Zanarhi and I were in a pit of ordure, full of maggots and worms and roaches and all manner of filthy manure-eating bugs. The thing, like a giant larval queen with a face, arms, and a dozen caterpillar legs, was grinning malevolently. For once, I could not stomach slow death; I pulled out the scythe, cursed the thing with Decrepification, and fell to hacking away it its obscene bulk like a common soldier. I could feel THINGS crawling in the muck covering me, wriggling into my armor and over my body. Midway through the battle, some small, sane part of my mind reminded me that this creature fits the description of Duriel, the Lord of Pain. Lord of All that is Slimy and Disgusting might be more appropriate.
After enormous exertions, the thing lay dead, its horrible form burst open, spraying its ropy intestines and foul internal jellies everywhere. Blessedly, I had almost nothing in my stomach to lose. Murals of a chained man with a large red gemstone graced the chamber. Duriel had two quivers of crossbow bolts, and nothing else. Toothpicks? Hors d'oeuvres spears? I spent no more time there. If only there were a way to scrape off this muck.
Oh, joy. Oh, goody goody. My life is now complete. Not only did the Lord of Terror bypass the seal, it seems angels can do so as well. One of them was waiting for me, his dainty feet floating ever so gently above the scorched and blackened filth of the tomb. Allow me to describe the setting: beyond Duriel's pit is a short corridor, full of crawling worms. Past that is an enormous chamber with a central pit, in which stands a natural stone column which can only be reached by a narrow wooden bridge. Hovering placidly over said bridge is the Angel, perfectly polished, unblemished, not a hair out of place, everything in perfect order.
"Greetings, mortal," the angel intoned in that perfect-peace-and-sublime-snobbery voice they are so well-known for. "I congratulate you on coming this far... though I did expect you earlier."
When dealing with a pompous ass, it is my habit to let them do the talking, but I could not bear to do so this time. Gentle reader, you must realize that my nerves were frayed and my normally mellow temper at a low ebb. Even under ideal circumstances, who could speak with an angel and not feel at least a little insulted? "Oh, my dear SIR," I began, "please lower your expectations and allow me to beg forgiveness for my untimely entrance! Or should I kill myself right now and spare you the embarrassment of my presence? Had I but known that you might be even slightly inconvenienced, I would have let that corpuscular blob on your doorstep run me over a few more times, in the hopes that my dead spirit might find its way back to you more quickly. How stupid of me! Please, please let me humble myself properly in your divine presence, o great fluttery dustmop! Your most contrite servant awaits your word, suitably chastened that he could not do that which could not be done, though he had to slog through hell to not do it!" With that, I "accidentally" flicked a bit of filth on him. It slid off. I find that I DESPISE angels.
As peaceful as ever, glittering in that oh-so heavenly way, the angel replied, "What you did not do here must be done. Diablo has fled with Baal. I was unable to stop them, and the energies that tie me to your reality were weakened by our battle; I cannot stay to help you. You must travel across the seas to Kurast, where Mephisto, Lord of Hate, was imprisoned. Beware, mortal; that land was overrun by his hate, and the church of Zakarum corrupted by his lies and deceptions. If the Three Prime Evils reunite in your world, it will be your doom; you know this to be true. As I aided your cause in the past, I will do so again. Until I am able, you must face the minions of darkness alone. Hurry, mortal -- time is running out for all that you know."
What was I to do? What could I possibly say? Every word was true; angels may conceal the truth, but they never lie. I was at a loss for a response. Requesting more information would be pointless. Arguing would be pointless. Spitting on him would be pointless. Following his instructions... was the most galling thing I've ever done in my life. I feel like my tongue is dripping venom -- I could SPIT bile right now. Like a good little minion of Heaven, I'm getting on a ship (arranged by Jerhyn, who will NOT suffer the painful death he so richly deserves) to sail across the Twin Seas to the holy city of Kurast, bastion of divine Order, highest home of the high and mighty church of Zakarum. I DESPISE ANGELS. If looks could kill... this boat would fall to pieces and I'd poison the entire sea. I UTTERLY... oh, bother.