Varnae (Act III)
Ship: A vessel for transport over water, combining all the charms of prison with the added chance of drowning. In the days of yore, ships provided civilized men with the advantage of variety, allowing them to escape the fools of one country and dwell for a time amongst those of another. Speedier ships have rendered travel less costly, negating this key benefit: the traveler will now find that familiar fools have followed along in tourist class.
It must be said, there is nothing better for calming one's nerves than a long ocean voyage. Maintaining a proper sense of outraged wrath for such a long period is beyond all but the most poisonous of minds. Despite a spirited effort to nurse my grudge against the world, I find it has gone and died on me.
Dear old Deckard Cain believes the angel in Baal's tomb was Tyrael, former patron of the Horadrim. Yes, gentle reader, he is still following me. Such a hoary head ought to hold more wisdom. The archangel Tyrael provided the Horadrim with the soulstones, and instructions for their use. In that sense, he is the author of all humanity's woes, at least at the moment. Supposedly, an edict from higher in the celestial hierarchy forbade direct involvement in any earthly affairs, but acting as a mere advisor allowed him to weasel out of it. Order's forces are keen on adhering to the letter of the law, but violate its spirit whenever it strikes their fancy -- when mortals do that, they call it "sin." We must strive for a future without such powers meddling in our world, well-intended or not. I never knew of a being who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.
Despite our captain's skill as a navigator (or perhaps because of it) we may have difficulty finding the city of Kurast. The whole of Kehjistan lies under an all-concealing mask of greenery, and almost all his navigational landmarks are invisible. He is not even sure if he has sailed up the correct river. I rather suspect it is; if the number of human bodies drifting by is any indication, a large city used to be further upstream. On the first day sailing up this river, I counted 114 corpses, all in advanced stages of putrefaction. They were more numerous yet on subsequent days, but I had lost interest in tallying them by then.
Very little to write about the last few days. The further up we go, the more corpses fill the river; the water has gone absolutely black with rot, and the smell is beginning to affect even me. In many places, the dead had piled up like sand bars, completely blocking our progress. Clearing them away was necessary and thoroughly unpleasant work for the crew. For some reason, they thought I should involve myself with the labor, or might want to. Just now, the captain has found a thin spot in the greenery, with a dock. My eyes see a protective dome extending far out over the water; whether this is Kurast or not, we have found an island of succor amidst the inexorable greenery.
Our captain steered us true. This is Kurast, the great holy city... or what remains of it. The welcoming committee (only one fellow summoned up the initiative to greet the ship) is an odd-looking little fellow named Hratli, an enchanter and smith. I suppose combining the two eliminates the middle man, resulting in considerable savings for him. Hratli is a shockingly honest fellow with a socially unacceptable sense of humor, especially strange in a merchant. His prices are completely unreasonable, and if I don't like it I can go to Hell. Either he is of unparalleled skill, has a complete monopoly locally, or is a damned fool. Unless the last is true, he will be no fun at all. Ignoring merchants as they wheedle and flatter has always been one of the high points of my day. He does seem to be responsible for the dome, which indicates some power.
It seems that all is not well in the church of Zakarum. The followers of the church have become paranoid fanatics, drenching the whole country in the blood of innocents and sinners alike. Huge numbers of the persecuted have risen again in spirit or flesh, and demons roam openly, all with the blessing of the Que-Hegan. That alone should have aroused suspicion, but the holy father explained them away as slaves under the control of the church, a "means justifying the ends" argument. His followers evidently accepted that without a qualm. The city suburbs have been devoured by the jungle, nothing recognizable remains of vast areas of formerly inhabited land. The urban areas are haunted by the last bits of the church's power, lorded over by their masters, the hordes of demons and undead. A pity the situation has degenerated so far, but any knowledgeable person could have told them it would come to this eventually. Sadly, some cannot be convinced by mere words; they have to see it happen for themselves.
For the moment, the only "safe" territory is a few hundred square yards of dockside around some artificial islands near the mouth of a tributary. Even this is being inexorably squeezed out of existence by a greater power in the jungle outside. Once again, I have arrived just in time, like a noble hero out of legend. Father would be turning over in his grave, if only he'd stayed there. The disadvantage of the "noble hero" business is the lack of decent lodgings, as one is always out in the wilderness or some other dangerous place. It is doubtful that any decent inns remain here, though I may as well look regardless.
At the center of the dome stands a stepped pyramid of the classic design. I seem to recall such structures from my studies, connected with the Taan mage clan. Now, what have we here: a Taan mage! An impressive fellow of indeterminate age, he bears all the tattoos and bodily decorations characteristic of that enlightened group. The Taan were glorious in their day, full of understanding of life and death. True, they feared death, and sought to extend their lives by various means (some quite unsavory, even by my standards) but at least they spent their time contemplating the body and soul, instead of the simple elements. If I ever again must deal with a Vizjerei, I swear I will throw a fit.
I have just spoken with the Taan. He looks healthy in body (they all do, until the day they die) but his mind is far, far gone. Unless he's doing it deliberately, in which case I'd rather host a Vizjerei self-congratulation party than converse with him five minutes. Now Varnae will write, once hand is on pen. He once was in a desert, was Varnae, with sand in his boots. Now, backwards run his sentences, until reels his mind. WIZARDS!! Warriors, at least, know they're simpletons and don't pretend to be anything else. Before my eyes glazed over completely, I gathered that the Taan is named Ormus, and he is a poet. I have met more pretentious poets. Were there art in his pretensions, he could be fascinating, but I'll wager that a walk in the ocean of his art would scarcely dampen my feet.
A few buildings stand off to the left of the pyramid. Larger structures, such as the pyramid, are built atop massive logs rammed far, far down into the mud of the riverbank. Wooden buildings sit atop stilts; all have a ramshackle look that bespeaks the rapidity with which wood decays in this climate. Most of the lesser buildings are little more than fisherman's shanties, but one is much larger and flies colors: a wolf head on a plain background. Heraldry is not my strong suit, but I suspect the owner is of a martial bent.
The house's... inhabitant is warlike, the head of a mercenary band. When I said warriors know they are simpletons, obviously I spoke too soon. SHE is named Asheara. Physically, she is not too old, and quite short, to her obvious disappointment. Clearly, she devotes a great deal of time to muscular exercises, and wants everyone to know she is proud of what it has done for her body. Though her estimation is not misplaced, the degree to which she indulges her pride is almost laughable. In absolutely EVERYTHING she boldly presents to the world the statement "I AM WOMAN!!" as deliberately and unsubtly as possible. Her attire consists only of two strips of cloth, concealing a bare minimum of her form (it's not THAT warm, darling!) from the eye's perusal. Around her shoulders, she carries an albino python... yes, a white, round, living cylinder of pure muscular power, which she will not let go of. The crowning touch of this enlightened fashion statement is her demeanor. With a steely glare, she DARES the viewer not to take her seriously. Double-dares, in fact!
Gentle reader, leave aside your amateur psychopathological theorizing and consider this: overcompensation is an ugly thing in a man or a woman, but giggling will only exacerbate the situation. Whenever someone strains so effortfully to project a commanding presence, it is always best to pretend that they have succeeded. Otherwise, they will strain even harder, and may become violent. A truly confident and competent person can put up a pretense of humility; my abilities were in no way lessened by bowing to this tempestuous teapot in her own house. The display appeased her instantly. Perhaps later, when I have gained more of her fragile confidence, we can work on her wardrobe a bit. If this woman ever heard the phrase "less is more," it was either completely lost on her, or she applied it mathematically to the square inches of cloth she ought to burden herself with.
One of the ramshackle fishing huts I mentioned earlier smells familiar: an alchemist works there, I am sure of it. I invite myself in; he doesn't mind in the least, happily. Alkor (what a name for an alchemist!) is a pleasantly acerbic little monkey of a man, with a fascinatingly hideous face warped by age and many layers of light burn scars. We have a glorious time swapping recipes and old lore. Much of the alchemical arts trace back to discoveries made here in the east, even right here in this city. What a pity so much has been lost, and must be discovered anew. Religion and knowledge rarely coexist peacefully.
When I left Alkor, the sun was sinking into the river like a tarnished copper. I so easily lose track of time in the company of stimulating intellects. More of the dockside remains unexplored. To the right of the pyramid lies another large artificial island that was an open-air market in the recent past. If you're fond of bananas,
Oh... oh, my... what vision is this before me? I have fallen instantly, deeply, passionately in lust. This woman is tall and fair, and unlike Asheara she intimately knows how to undress for success. My tongue positively tingles at the sight of that ebon leather on bare salty skin... I adore a woman in black, and she almost wears it scrumptiously. My heart is hammering in my throat! Must calm myself, or I'll never make a proper introduction. How does that old song go? "I want a girl just like the girl who married dear old dad..."
Oh, what a truly glorious day this is! I feel giddy as a schoolgirl! Her name is Natalya, an absolutely perfect name for a perfect creature of the night. What imaginings those three little syllables evoke... I could not put them to paper, mere words cannot suffice. Had I a year, I might succeed in crafting prose to summon up the cold curl of her sneer, but with the tiniest flick of mood, that disdain would break into the appraising grin of a predator spotting her natural prey and my puny efforts would be for naught. The tale of Tal Rasha's tomb had reached her ears. The ice in her eyes chilled me to my depths -- a thousand deaths could have sprung upon me, I stood frozen, I could do nothing! My trembling terror meant as little to her as my failure in the desert. She was impressed! With me! My heart might burst with joy! I feel as though I could stand astride the whole world; what terrors can Hell hold for a man in love?
Great Rathma's ghost, I'm beginning to sound like a poet. What does it matter? Splendid deeds wait to be done! I shall summon my servant and sally forth into the jungle, truly like a hero of ages gone by seeking his lady's favor. Granted, hers would not be a spotless white kerchief, but I wouldn't want such a thing and neither would she. Ah, what leather does for the right woman... say, where is my servant? The brute's scampered off somewhere. Come to think of it, did he ever get on the boat with me? No... no, I don't believe he did, and I was too upset to notice. Of all the cheek! I shall get another; I couldn't be seen without a servant, not now. My precious viper might interpret that to mean my financial situation is unsound -- women care deeply about that, if mother is any indication. Mercenaries are for hire from Asheara, which gives me an opportunity to speak with her again. If I accomplish nothing else here, I simply MUST do something about her.
As might be expected, Asheara rebuffs my attempts to reform her wardrobe. Honestly, I do believe that woman thinks herself more manly than I. Making such a huge overstatement of oneself does nothing to hide a fragile ego -- the flaw is only accentuated by the effort made to conceal it. Then again... the poor woman tries so very, very hard to impress, she could never allow anything to endanger her carefully constructed self-image, though only the naive would see her as she wishes to be seen. The Makeover of Asheara will be a long-term project. Incidentally, her mercenaries are all Vizjerei sorcerers. Mercenary and mage, wizard and poet, enchanter and smith -- this land must not encourage specialization. The most costly (and therefore my first choice) is Khaleel, a specialist in ice magic. Keeping a Vizjerei as a servant may not be so bad, so long as he recognizes his place.
With my new servant at my side, I sally forth into the wilderness, again. So much of my life is sallying forth into the wilderness now. This wilderness is more pleasant than others I have sallied into, at least -- while warm, it isn't so infernally dry and the sun is perpetually hidden by the canopy. Besides, it is good to have solid earth under my feet. I am simply not made for sea travel; I must find another way home once this business is done with.
Once on land, my first encounter was quite unanticipated -- a tall man in a concealing cloak, shuffling into the jungle. Of course, I instantly realized he was not what he appeared to be: an unarmed peasant, walking calmly into a demon-infested area? I gave chase, and blocked his path. His face was invisible, but a hellish red glow filled his hood -- all I had to see to know what it was. As I attacked, the demon vanished, leaving behind a quartet of fleshy worm-like things which tried to bite me off at the ankles. Here Khaleel demonstrated his usefulness for the first time, freezing my enemies into immobility.
I've made my way well into the jungle, and encountered a few new creatures, but never for very long. The reason is simple: Khaleel sees an enemy, blasts it into immobility, then applies his magic until the profound temperature changes shatter its body and it falls to bits. Should I wish to involve myself, I may or may not take a stab at something, but I need to be quick about it. The simple, dare I say "muscular," power of the sorcerer's art, though completely lacking in subtlety, is interesting to see up close. Vizjerei are well suited to the demands of a mercenary's life, being little more than walking weapons with no need for style or intellect. Oddly, though being deeply chilled may render a victim immobile, their metabolic processes continue unabated and poison has its normal effect.
Previously in this journal, I have made note of the demons and other creatures I encounter, and may as well continue now. Perhaps in the near future, I could publish a bestiary based on my discoveries. The jungles contains many new horrors. Here, mosquitoes are the size of large dogs. Those who call me "parasite" know nothing of what that word means. True, they come singly rather than in clouds, but given their size I cannot say which is more revolting. The jungle monkeys have been changed into large thorn-skinned apes, their fur so green with mold they blend into the bushes perfectly. And then... we have the Flayers.
Gentle reader, a short review of my adventures in the Rogue catacombs will acquaint you with a group of little rat-like men I found there. At the time, I thought them no more than an odd curiosity, but the error of my presumption has been driven home with overwhelming power. Imagine, please, a tiny creature with legs but a few inches long, far away across a clearing. Before one can raise a weapon, the creature has closed the distance and struck, leaping up to take hold of its victim and stab repeatedly with a knife nearly as large as itself. Not only are they appallingly numerous, but they are led by shamans, who can not only raise their followers from the dead, but breathe fire, a nasty little trick I would have thought them too primitive to master. Far more than with Fallen Ones or Horadric Mummies, it is absolutely imperative to destroy the shaman first, and a greater danger. Fortunately, they are easy to spot, as they are always carried about on the shoulders of a lackey. Perhaps this reinforces their social status; for all I know, it merely allows them to see over bushes. Khaleel's ability to freeze enemies is proving a great asset. He is becoming irritatingly essential, and seems to know it.
Paladin shields are turning up wherever I go. How many of those holier-than-thou blithering numskulls were there? This is their home territory; perhaps I can find a few and interrogate them. I have also found a set of claws, just like those my precious bears...
Oh, of course she would not want these claws! How stupid of me! Completely unenchanted, nothing worthwhile in them at all! I condemn the foul things to the river bottom. My servant catches her eye; yes, I visited Asheara. No, I am not impressed with her at all! She is laughable! Laughable! Indeed, a tough-talking mage who has never faced a real threat in her life, no doubt of that! You are flawless in every way, precious darling...
What a perfect day this is! One smile, and I feel lighter than air! It occurs to me that I have been lax in caring for my personal appearance. Over a week has passed since I last had new clothing. Hratli has a few suits available; perhaps I can find something that isn't too atrocious. How about a great helm? The "intimidating" look may -- UGH! The bone helm is superior in every way. Perhaps a suit of splinted armor? Hmm... not bad, not bad. Ah, field plate! Practical, yet fashionable: the suit comes in black. Much better!
A short distance from the docks, in a clearing festooned with spider webs, I have found a Horadric waypoint. Perhaps this was a place of importance, to merit its own waypoint when another is so close by. Structures once stood here; little remains besides foundations and an odd statue of a six-armed woman. Ah... a cellar, almost hidden by a flap of webbing, much like the lairs of certain hunting spiders. Gigantic spiders lurked in the Rogue catacombs as well; it seems the Flayers were not the only creature imported to the west.
So far as I know, spiders are solitary creatures, and do not relish the company of others of their kind. Finding groups of the horrid things, each larger than a man, is daunting. At least two species are present, one mainly green, the other red. These animals could not possibly have a use for treasure, yet one carried a worthless jadeite statuette of a scowling, barbaric warrior. The quality of the carving was dubious at best, and the subject bordered on the offensive. Why, oh why do many foolish men believe that ignorant tribesmen grubbing about the mud are freer and nobler than themselves? Even the most downtrodden serf enjoys a standard of life those primitives would envy, were they capable of comprehending it. Simple logic is lost on deluded romantics, I fear. Romance is the core of life... ah, Natalya... but the beguiling cliches of cheap novels are a poor place to seek it out.
As it turns out, the statuette does have value, after a fashion. Perhaps a century ago, when most of the "Barbarian hero" literature was actually written (the good old days weren't all good) these images were made and sold to the genre's undiscriminating fans. Our ship's captain is one such fan, and this particular degenerate was missing from his collection. Though he lacks the wherewithal to compensate me properly, in my kindness I allow him to persuade me to take another piece from his collection -- one made of gold. To my discerning eye, it resembles an ornamental funerary urn, and could be an antique of genuine value. Who would have thought that simple seafarer could have something so precious and rare, even if he had no idea what sat under his ignorant nose? I must show it to Natalya -- she will appreciate its beauty.
Ah, disaster... debacle... nay, a romantic catastrophe of nigh-mythical proportions! With a look and a word, my viper cut my triumph off at the knees. What could I have been thinking, cherishing a mere golden bird, when heroic deeds should occupy my attention? Love is a many-splendored thing; she lifts me to rarefied heights, then with a cruel laugh, coolly casts me down into the depths of utter despair! This is the most exciting woman I have ever met! I wonder if it's too early to set a date for our wedding?
As a side note, the urn contained the ashes of a renowned alchemist. Alkor, in exchange for certain spider parts that interest him, mixed a potion for me from the remains of that ancient sage. I've never honored someone by drinking him before, but when in Kurast... During our chat, I inquired after Ormus; is his madness a recent development? Quite the contrary: Alkor noted that he has been speaking in rhyming riddles for years, probably to hide the fact that he has nothing intelligent to say. I cannot dispute this.
There is some beauty to be found in this country. A few archaic shrines built of human bones remain, despite the church's zeal for removing all that offended its standards. How joyfully unorderly they are! These blessed skeletons are immune to the effects of the local climate as well; even bone could not normally survive long here. The power of the dome over the docks is beginning to concern me; it is visibly smaller every time I return from the jungle. My concerns are shared, of course -- Hratli has told me of another local artifact, the Gidbinn, an ancient dagger made to store magical power. This item was kept hidden from the church in Kurast's suburbs, though no one still living knows where. It was used in Skatsimi rituals, so the Gidbinn was doubtless a sacrificial dagger, and if untapped could conceivably be a great power source.
Deeper we go into the endless greenery. To think I found the desert monotonous! The few bits of art and architecture we find are rapidly being ground into nothing under the weight of the jungle's fecund growth; there is absolutely nothing to contemplate. In another patch of jungle given over to spiders, a webbed-up section holds more than spiders: Sand Maggots from the deserts of Lut Gholein live with them! To all appearances, the Maggots and spiders cohabit harmoniously, a prey species and a predator -- absolutely unprecedented. Were it not so late in the day, I would describe their situation better, but the light is fading and I am weary from my exertions. One of the larger red spiders has a well-enchanted dagger, but it is not the Gidbinn. Behind that spider, hidden in a chest(!) is an intact human eye, free of all corruption. The eyes, as we all know, are the first things to go; its state of preservation is truly remarkable. But sleep calls; more details on the morrow.
Upon rising, I found that my old correspondent Mule visited me during the night. Atop a pile of shining metal and bone was another of his precisely-scribed ramblings:
-- The Mule"
The eye, according to dear old Deckard Cain, can only be a saintly relic. According to the teachings of Zakarum, the remains of saints are incorruptible, proof against normal decay and even the ruinous touch of evil. The belief is quite senseless to me -- if saintliness makes one incorruptible, angels should be inviolable; during the Sin War, Hell's forces should have been helpless before them. It is altogether more probable that the myth of saintly relics is but one more way the church deludes and manipulates its followers, showing off some dried-out bits of meat and bone (which may or may not have come from anyone special, that's hardly necessary) to bleed "donations" from fools eager to save themselves from the eternal damnation they no doubt richly deserve. However, none of my opinions can change the fact that I hold in my hand a disembodied human eyeball: it is slightly damp, flexible to the touch, and cannot be crushed or cut by any power I possess. Also, unless I am mistaken, it is still warm. At this time, reserving judgment seems the most sensible option.
Fitted with the correct runes, the new helmet is not only lovely to look upon, but seems to improve my powers of recall. The shield is also marvelous, light and quick in the hand. Yes, these will do. Now, to harmonize the ensemble. Being made of disparate elements not chosen for each other, creating a suitable "look" takes a bit of doing, but with time and a few accessories, I manage something. Black is ever so much easier to work with, but red and white aren't so bad, so long as they are blood-red and bone-white. I wonder what Natalya will think?
Devilish woman; can nothing I do impress her? Her only concern is finding the Gidbinn, and arresting the wall of greenery creeping ever closer to the docks. With all her watching and waiting, I should think she would have time to consider something besides her own needs. Granted, tendrils of greenery have been winding their way around the outermost buildings, including Alkor's hut. Given some of the things in his potions, it would not be wise to move his workplace closer to an inhabited area, nor to allow the jungle to take it over.
When I was in the deserts of Aranoch, I longed for the soothing dampness of home. Here, in a place very much like home, I long for the unbroken horizon of the desert. I've always been difficult to please -- anyone with any taste should be -- but hacking my way through this great miserable swamp is nightmarish. At one point, I paused to rest, and could easily watch the brush growing without being bored. Cut stones and a few bits of crockery are all that remains of Kurast's suburbs. The only reminders that this area was inhabited only a few short years ago are the dead, who have been pressed into service by their church and greet me at every turn. The local zombies are so saturated with disease-ridden water, it splatters out of them on every strike, but they freeze well enough. Those whose souls were stronger are now Wraiths, called "Will o' the Wisps" by the ignorant. I understand these spirits tend to be those of dead children. When they become visible, Wraiths are ethereal wisps with no identifiable form; I find ghosts more pleasing to the eye.
A few living creatures find their way through this muck. The waterways and stagnant pools follow a regular pattern here (perhaps they were streets and squares in happier times) and are frequently home to Tentacle Beasts, snake-like amphibians with two arms. They must be very large, though I have not yet seen the body of one, merely its arms and long neck. A large species of frog has been corrupted by Mephisto; they now weigh as much as a man and spit fire. Am I the only one who cares about aesthetics here?
Upon reaching higher ground, I paused to clean the mud off my boots, and a few tiny darts pinged off my armor. The plate was tougher than it seemed, which was pleasing, but I could not find my enemy. They were Flayers, of course, hiding in the greenery where they were nearly invisible, despite their flowered sarongs and enormous white teeth. I stepped forward to dispatch them, and a few dozen of their closest friends scuttled out to join the fun. The little things are not strong (a single strike will kill one, eventually) but they are so terrifyingly fast I hardly knew what to do. Khaleel made himself invaluable with his explosions of chilling ice, I cannot doubt the value of my investment. NEVER go cheap on a bodyguard.
By all that is holy or unholy, these are desperate days. When I spoke of a dislike for Flayers earlier, I really had NO IDEA. These tiny freaks are EVERYWHERE! I have tried everything to deal with them. The curse of Attraction is only a small help -- the one I cast it on is torn to bits and EATEN(!) by its fellows almost instantly! Decrepification only serves to bring their speed down to a brisk sprint. Any I kill, the shamans raise again! Corpse Explosion forestalls that, but they move too quickly for me to catch enough of them in the explosion's radius, and it's so tiring... No wonder Mephisto uses these, even an army would be hard-pressed not to be EATEN ALIVE by these land-based piranhas! I have been surrounded and nearly bitten off at the knees more times than I can relate; I simply cannot change targets quickly enough to fend them off; the moment I turn, they are on my back in an instant.
Very slowly, I have been working my way further and further into the jungle. Looking behind me, it seems as though the jungle is paved with brightly-colored sarongs, there are so many lying on the ground. I should mention that other creatures share the area. Some trees and brambles have taken on a life of their own, uprooted themselves from the earth, and now stalk for prey. This development is not unexpected, and even less welcome. Whether they profit by devouring what they kill (again, it would not be unexpected) or act out of simple, wholesome malice is unclear.
There is a waypoint, next to a large pond. Bless the Horadrim! (I hope no one I know ever reads that.) With the effort I put in (three hours to cover a few hundred yards!) I deserve a short rest. While Hratli is picking Flayer teeth out of the joints of my armor, he comments that when I finally meet the Zakarumites, I should find them much like zombies, but far less charismatic. "I wish I'd said that," I replied; I admire a good insult. He smiled thinly, and said, "You will, Varnae; you will." As if I need to, though it is tempting. Hratli, passive as he is, would never dare object. Even old Alkor knows him: "Hratli is only good for making his silly magic weapons. It's not like he has the stones to actually use them on anything." Quite so! And properly attributed. Like many other irascible men, he shares the gift of seeing others as they are, with the curse that he honestly tells others what he sees.
The pond by the waypoint has a small island in the center; a tiny wooden bridge leads out to it. Did the Flayers build this? It is appropriate for their size. The bridge barely supports my weight; the island is empty apart from stone stairs leading down into the earth, obviously not made by Flayers. Khaleel is fearful of the place; apparently, a few of Asheara's mercenaries went into these "Flayer lairs" in the early days, but none ever came out again. I'd best be cautious.
The first room reminds me of home -- the walls are muddy stone with water drizzling down them, and the fetid smell of mold suffuses my every breath. The floor is littered with bones, most of them too large to be human. Ah, here is a skull; it was a cow... an entire cow. The image of a pack of Flayers stripping a cow to the bare bone with their teeth is one I shall carry with me to my grave. It is good they are so small, or Mephisto might have tried to consume this land by having them go out and EAT the whole place. As I
I am lucky to be alive. Gentle reader, I believe I have explained why I do not enjoy fighting the undead. My feelings for Flayers should be clear as well. When I tell you that a pack of undead Flayers came charging into this room, I am sure you can predict my reaction. I was not happy. The horror... without flesh to encumber them, they are even faster. Poison has little effect. And when they die, they do not simply fall down, oh, no... that would be too easy. No doubt created by their shamans (who have given me yet another reason to hate them) these skeletal Flayers are held together by the most primitive binding spells. Enormous amounts of energy are needed for even one, and when the spells are broken, they collapse explosively. The battle was a frenzy of chasing the little monsters all over the room, and desperately trying not to be close by when they died. Khaleel wanted to leave, and I actually considered it for a moment. Then it came back to me: my people abandoned those binding spells because they are so costly, one can only make a few servants. There cannot be many of these undead; in all likelihood, the worst is behind us.
There are surprisingly few Flayers in this pit -- I dearly hope they were all outside. Instead, we find Wraiths, Ghosts, and even a few mummies. How the mummies survived the climate and their manic lairmates is anyone's guess; perhaps the Flayers prefer their meat warm and screaming. Some tiny mummies, well-wrapped, sit in niches in the wall. At first, I wondered if these beings revere their dead as men do, until the damned thing fired a cloud of poison gas at me. A trap, from a rigged body. Genocide sounds perfectly reasonable now.
The pit is quite deep, leading down into an array of sewer-like tunnels; a familiar layout. At no point do I meet any more skeletal Flayers; my guess was correct. The Flayers converted the pit into a temple or relic storehouse; there is a great deal of loot. In addition, Asheara is impressed by Khaleel's tales, and her estimation of my abilities seems to have grown. To think that he wanted to run after our first battle... perhaps now, she can be convinced that the truly capable need not make such an effort of projecting an image. I will speak to her of it when I've reached Kurast, there should be no further doubts in her mind by then.
More of the jungle falls behind me, slowly and painfully. According to Khaleel, we are near the city's outer walls, but it's impossible to see more than 5 feet through this growth. Flayer ambushes are so constant, I cannot honestly say we are ever taken off-guard. In a large clearing, we find a small village. This is the Flayer's home village, I am certain: I don't think I could stand up inside the huts, and everything is covered with sharp spikes. A few human bodies, growing mold with visible speed, lay before an idol. This must be the Flayer deity, for them an awesome being of gigantic stature, capable of spitting spiky death high over their heads. It stands nearly to shoulder height.
On the opposite side of the village clearing, suspended over a small altar, is a small bronze dagger. The aura of power it puts off is palpable -- even Khaleel feels it. Of course, he calls it "evil." Vizjerei... I'm tempted to take this thing for myself, though I have no doubt it is the Gidbinn I seek. Once I'd cleared the village, I took the dagger; one last guardian appeared out of nowhere, but it was quickly dealt with.
The dagger's power could be tapped by Ormus, to further power Hratli's spell. There is an advantage to different magical traditions cooperating; while they lasted, the Horadrim were a powerful organization. To congratulate me, Ormus presented me with a magic ring (useless to him, and to me) and a poem, composed in my honor:
Every time he sees one, he just goes "ick! ick!"
I went to speak with Natalya she said I was AMAZING!!! I got the Gidbinn like she wanted and she smiled at me and she smiled at me and she said I was AMAZING!!! and then she said something about the church's midget minions but I forget she said I was AMAZING!!!
I feel lighter than air! Back to the jungle. Hello trees! Hello flowers! Hello pile of severed human heads! Hmm. There is another Flayer lair here. I'd best quit tripping lightly over the verdant greensward and get back to business. The lair was empty and quiet when we first entered. Dead quiet; there was nothing, not even the scuttling of rats. I mentioned this to Khaleel; "Yeah, too quiet," he agreed. Then, I will swear upon anything you care to name, I heard a tiny squeak of a voice say, 'what him-sa say?' Another replied, 'him-sa say it too quiet!' With a million psychotic shrieks, the horde descended on us, with skeletal Flayers along for good measure. I do so deeply hate Flayers...
This pit must be the Flayers' last stronghold, the site of their final, ultimate, very very last stand. At least, that is my hope. They have come in wave after wave; only the narrow corridors have kept them from simply burying us under their combined weight. We have both avoided being blasted to bits by the skeletal ones (Khaleel is a good man, much more sensible than I gave him credit for) and dealt with the other occupants of this pit as well. There are a few Tentacle Beasts, more watery zombies, ghosts (all green) and mummies. Before the Flayers took this area over, perhaps these were catacombs under neighborhood churches; that would account for the sheer numbers of undead in both Flayer lairs. I've even found an old funeral mask. It would make a passable helmet, if I didn't have a better one.
The depths of the pit is another layout of sewers, draining the upper levels. I wonder how the water is ultimately removed; probably magically, there seems to be a lot of that around here. It does indicate that, like my people, the Zakarumites did not originally come from a swampy climate. It seems to me that people who live in watery areas would never have a cultural tradition for underground tunnels, or preserving things by burying them. In the node at the back corner of the level, what must be the chief Flayer and his retinue have made their lair. How very convenient. The curse of Attraction confuses them wonderfully, and Corpse Explosion clears away any resurrectable minions. Even Khaleel has a laugh, watching them kill each other. The last dies of my venom. His treasure is imposing: an enormous axe, a giant sword, and... a brain?
Out in the light now, and that is indeed what it is. A human brain, slightly damp, flexible to the touch, and unharmable by any power I possess. I feel a sense of foreboding, as though some saint will soon bless my life with his presence, radiating beams of golden luminescence, thereby making it impossible to sleep at night. Speaking of light, the day is quickly vanishing. I have Khaleel climb a tree to see where we are; he says we are very near now. A bit further upriver, and there it is: the holy city of Kurast, crumbling before our eyes. Every tree in the jungle stands higher than those walls; the city looks wide open to any invader. Perhaps that is what the Lord of Hatred wants us to think. I will not be so tempted -- I am going to bed.
Glorious Kurast, city of saints and angels! With a god in every golden cloister, and a temple in every stinking tavern. Depending on the religion of the moment, there might have been a tavern in every temple as well. Zakarum frowns on anything enjoyable now, but in the past, who knows? Every conceivable form of worship has at one time and place been condemned, and at another been decreed the worshiper's most sacred duty. Despite this, the enormous skulls decorating the city walls are a bit of a shock. Perhaps my religious education was as inadequate as it was biased, but my impression was that the current lot of prelates rather disapproved of that sort of thing.
One last bunch of walking trees guards the only gateway; the gates themselves are absent. As I said, it is as though all the defenses have deliberately been left wide open. The city is in ruin. Corpses lie rotting in every hovel, never concealed by the ubiquitous greenery. The Zakarumites still inhabit the city, I am happy to say, and they come in droves to die. What pathetic ragamuffins these are! Given the number of Paladin shields I have found, I should think they could afford least one among them, or enough filthy clothing to make a single shirt. But no; they come at me with farming tools, almost naked, half-crazed with hunger, and seem happier after I've sent them from this world. If they believe dying while fighting me will guarantee them a place in Heaven, they will be unpleasantly surprised.
Besides Zakarumites and wild animals (should I distinguish them?) other creatures inhabit the city. Vulture Demons exactly like those in Lut Gholein's deserts feast on the dead here; did they travel here when I did, I wonder? Or have they been here longer? To spread their evil so far, The Prime Evils would need an enormous network of assistants. Ah, Hatred had the church to do his bidding; he must have sent minions to assist his brothers the moment he sensed their escape. No! How could he sense them? Diablo could not sense Baal.
If only we understood the nature of demonkind better! For now, I am stymied, though I must focus some of my attention on survival. The great apes which roam here may once have been mere temple monkeys before Mephisto took them under his control. They look quite formidable now, huge and muscular, with enormous fangs and spines growing from their backs and shoulders. Hatred did not devote as much care to their minds; they fight with neither enthusiasm nor skill, and would rather run.
After my frenzied battles in the Flayer jungles, Kurast is almost anticlimactic. Not that I mind the more leisurely pace -- oh, no! -- but my fellow denizens of the dockside still feel a great deal of concern for me. While in the jungle, my frequent lamentations and the quantities of broken teeth embedded in my flesh burdened their thoughts considerably. How touching. (I kept all the teeth, by the way; the pile is nearly seven and one-half inches high.) Old Alkor offered me something special in his own peculiar way: "I hope you survive, my pasty friend. Would you care to take a gander at my grimoire? I have a recipe that can pick you up and put you right down again." I declined; even my constitution, hardened by years of dedicated abuse, can only withstand so many of his concoctions in a day.
During our conversation, it also came up that Alkor is eager to peruse a book of prophecies confiscated long ago by the church. This book of "heresies" was not committed to the fire for some reason, but kept preserved in one of their high temples. The stupidity of Zakarum never ceases to amaze me, yet it is so inconsistently applied. The book is well known among my compatriots. Deckard Cain babbled a long and utterly irrelevant account of the history of Lam Esen, particulars of his historical period, etc. etc. etc. Ormus calls it "The Black Book," and jokes that it has much in common with a coffin: both are the shape of the future. Hratli speaks of it almost reverently, hoping the world can bear the prophet's revelations. I would have expected Hratli's comment from Ormus, and the reverse. In my experience, prophets and soothsayers are always better able to lighten one's purse than enlighten one's mind; nonetheless, Zakarum's singular treatment of the book intrigues me.
Natalya is wearing new leathers they're even tighter than the others and she said Lam Esen's Black Book of Prophecies is very important to her and if I find it she will be impressed! I will return with the book if I must gnaw down a tree and make it myself!!
My explorations have revealed something of the city's structure. Kurast was built in layers, but not upwards, as Lut Gholein was. The city grew outwards over the flat alluvial plain where her two rivers joined. The section I have been in, Lower Kurast, is the newest and the least pious, with no large temples or other devotional areas. Further upriver is the Kurast Bazaar, then Upper Kurast. Perhaps calling it "Middle Kurast" was too unimaginative even for Zakarumites, though simply calling it "Kurast Bazaar" is hardly an improvement.
One note of limited scholarly interest: when simultaneously frozen and envenomed, demons explode into toxic ice fragments which will kill any grass they land on. Would demon blood, enchanted with death magic, make a useful defoliant?
More Zakarumites occupy the bazaar, of course, but also some of their priests. Thank the earth and all that's in it, these "advanced" religious fanatics cannot raise their minions from the dead! They do heal them, as well as any other creature they see fit, which is nearly as bad. As with shamans, they merit a quick death. The Zakarumites are a bit better clothed; I've seen the occasional helmet, though others have human bones braided into their hair, which may offer them some measure of protection.
To my astonishment, the bazaar once featured ornamental trees arranged in aesthetically pleasing patterns, judging from the holes they've left. Nothing of Zakarum, not the temples, cathedrals, nor anything in Kurast, indicated to me any sense of beauty. The trees are scattering cherry blossoms everywhere they go, and are fairly dangerous if they manage to surround a victim. Worst of all by far are the swarms of biting flies, another horror I hoped I'd seen the last of. They are not dangerous; I refer merely to the sound of their many tiny wings. As a threat, insect clouds merit fumigation, not a battle.
More notes on the architecture: many larger buildings here feature giant skulls like those on the walls. Some have intact eyes of blood-red glass. Less commonly, a few have great gouts of blood and gore dripping from their jaws, though they are high up on the walls and apparently immobile. I do not linger by them. Zakarum's views were never balanced, but this is more unbalanced than expected, and in the wrong direction. Incidentally, the apes from the lower city seem to be in their natural form. Piles of skulls lie scattered about the bazaar, where their large teeth were used as a source of ivory. Mephisto has hardly touched them at all, so their reluctance to enter battle on his behalf is understandable. Why they fought at all is now a mystery.
Two temples grace the bazaar, a northerly and a southerly. Perhaps there is some meaning in their placement which is lost on me. The southerly one is closer, so I enter the temple's inner chambers by the poorly-concealed trapdoor behind the main (very bloody) altar. The interior is covered with murals, much the worse for abuse and the passage of time; a large number of "sanguinary events" has raised the humidity inside the building, and the plaster is beginning to molder. The only image I can clearly make out is a dark-skinned man kneeling before an unearthly being, offering up his own blood. How ridiculous! If one must make a sacrifice, make sure it is from someone else. That is why we have servants.
Just had a very messy battle. First came a wave of Sasquatch -- Sasquatch, here of all places! These were followed by a hordette of nuns, wearing even less than their men, and obviously freshly come from some very wicked activity. Gentle reader, if I may be permitted to offer up unsolicited advice, I implore you to leave wickedness to the naturally wicked. The good and pious, when they fall into wickedness, completely lose all sense of proportion and go far beyond where they ought to. Those born and raised to depravity know when to embrace evil and enjoy it, and when to put it aside. These nuns, for instance, while quite fetching in their gore-spattered lunacy, would have been much more dangerous had they not been quite so naked and unarmed. Tearing an enemy to bits with bare hands and teeth may sound like great fun, but there are other, more efficient ways to accomplish that end.
A stroke of luck! The Black Book of Lam Esen sits on display in this very temple! The tome is ancient indeed, by the look of it... bother! It's written in glyphs. While I have studied these symbols, I am not as familiar with them as I would need to be, especially if this is written in the vague style prophets are so fond of. Even with proper reference materials, I would not have sufficient time to attempt a reading. It seems Alkor will read it first after all. I will show it to Natalya first.
Wormwood! I LOVE wormwood, it frees the senses! Green potion had wormwood, must have been. Little green fairies dancing in a line around the rooooom wheee la da-da da-da DA! DA! da-da da-da da! da! la-da da-da da
World clearer now. Someone dropped something heavy on my stomach, a great big heavy hammer. That was rude. Now my stomach hurts nearly as much as my head, which feels as though there's a Flayer living in it. Oh, a note came with it: guess who.
While examining my newest "gift," who should come visiting but Natalya. That witch wanted me dead, for no better reason than my existence proved an annoyance for her. She's just like mother, she really is. I don't know what I EVER saw in her.
I don't know HOW I could have been so wrong! My precious viper has dispelled all my worries with but a few sweet words. She was not sad to learn of my survival at all, it was just that my daunting presence overawed her into an unaccustomed reticence. "Your power surrounds you like a... like an aura of power!" Perhaps not the most eloquent exposition, but eloquence has a way of abandoning us when we we are most overawed. Even I could not help but be impressed by her sheer honesty, the undeniable, powerful reality of her feelings for me. In the future, I shall have to keep that "aura of power" carefully hidden... she must understand that I am, after all, but a man like any other. Once more into the breach, then, dear friends! Not completely unwilling to abandon Soul Harvest (for the stylishness, if nothing else) I tuck it away and strap the Mule's offering to my back. Devils and angels, that thing is heavy.
Apparently, my indiscriminate consumption of Alkor's medicinals was even less wise than I thought -- my man Khaleel last saw me on my feet some three days ago, and is surprised to see me again at all. This may mean I am, once again, too late to intercept my target. If so, I may soon face The Three united, a prospect which would make Heaven's mightiest quail in fear. Of course, Heaven's mightiest would announce their arrival with blasts of holy fanfare, and ride into open battle on glittering beams of radiance. I am not that stupid.
The marketplace holds no Zakarumites, but their animals have repopulated the ruins. Here is something I had not noticed before: the giant, red-eyed skulls I had thought were randomly placed on these buildings are not sculpted naturally. Judging from the remaining stones, the skulls grew inside the walls and forced their way through the outer casements. Another feature I missed are two sewer entrances. Almost certainly, Kurast's municipal bowels are full of the most disagreeable forms of evil, which I must personally cleanse if there is ever to be regularity in her again. How did I come to embrace this quest, I wonder?
The sewers of Kurast are not as indescribably filthy as they could be, no doubt because they are no longer in active use. Horrors abound, but again nothing is as bad as I first feared. My first encounter was a group of Horadric Mummies, which was a bit of a surprise. How they maintain cohesion in this damp climate is beyond my powers of rationalization. Their leader was enchanted with an aura, which chilled and slowed all of my movements. Experimentally, I used the new hammer on him (or her; difficult to tell now.) The battle was decided with five blows, but I nearly died of boredom. Even without the aura's effects, this crude hammer is too slow to be of use.
These sewers are, in fact, nearly empty. A few Horadric Mummies shamble about here and there; an assortment of bats aimlessly flutter about and die; Tentacle Beasts have made homes for themselves in some of the larger nodes; otherwise, my attention is little diverted and free to wander. Did the Horadrim have a tradition for mummification in Kurast? Surely, I would have heard of it; a sleepy backwater like Lut Gholein could keep such a thing secret, but not the greatest city of the east. Best check the encyclopedia.
Dear old Deckard Cain knows of no mummies in Kurast. The Taan dabbled in mummification long ago, and these may be a remnant of that time -- I might ask Ormus. I think it would be just as profitable to consult the leaves from my morning tea, and say so, which made the old man laugh. "Ormus would like you to think him mad," Cain said. "I am perfectly happy to indulge him," I replied. Personally, I suspect these are creatures Diablo and Baal enslaved in the deserts of Aronach and summoned here for my entertainment, and they are not the only ones. Between the giant spiders, the apes, and the lightning bats, I wonder when I will see my next familiar face. Why, Blood Raven! Is that you? I'd hardly recognized you.
Kurast's sewers are as broad as Lut Gholein's were deep, and there is no sign they were ever anything but sewers. Two more entrances connect the sewers to the upper city -- none go to the lower. Either lower Kurast post-dates the sewer's construction, or the were not worthy of the gifts of sanitation. In one rear corner, a sluice gate leads to a sump, so the sewer might be flushed or drained for maintenance and the like. Flushing the sewer sounds like an excellent plan; the floor will be slippery, but those damned Tentacle Beasts won't be everywhere, getting smart ideas about attacking me.
After a good, long flushing, Khaleel and I go down to see what of value might have washed out. Heavy things, like gold, tend to be caught in sumps, and it is so much easier to check there than to explore every pipe. (Gentle reader, if you wonder how I know so much about sewers, let me just say that at home, this is the stuff of our daily existence.) A jumbled-up lot of monsters are struggling around in the muck down there -- some Tentacles and a few Mummies who weren't dashed to bits by their watery ride -- but nothing I can't take care of. And the treasure! Very few people realize how much wealth is lost every day in a large city simply by being dropped, and how much of that goes into the sewers. Most of my finds are coinage and jewelry, of course, but sheer volume compensates for that. Also in there is a golden strongbox, containing a human heart... well-preserved, slightly damp, flexible to the touch, and unharmable by any power I possess. When I drop it in the sump, it bobs on the surface, repelled by the filth. Nothing even STICKS to it. I'm tempted to leave it down here out of sheer spite.
Never mind the heart; it can sit with its former associates. On to the upper city, where I can loot a better class of corpse. The paladins are here in force, all true zealots eager to die for their cause. When men are willing to die for what they believe, they really ought to put more effort into finding out if what they believe is true. Their priests tell them what they do is right, and that is enough. The upper city's decorative trees have also been rallied to the cause, and more of those infernal vultures flap lazily about. How do my host and his brothers expect to entertain me like this? Unless they provide me with more variety soon, I shall become very cross, and may do one or more of them an injury.
To my delight, one of the houses has a silver mirror which survived the recent upheavals. I am sure Natalya will love it, once it has been polished and otherwise restored. Goodness, I look a fright! Alkor's potions may not help me to live forever, but they can help make me look as though I had.
Two dreadful battles behind me now. The first was a group of walking trees, quicker than average, led by one able to throw curses. I do wish I understood how Hell could work such magic out of a tree. While I knew to retreat, Khaleel unthinkingly let himself be surrounded, and was being pounded into paste before I pulled him out. The second was far, far worse: a group of those damned priests led by one of their cantors, or ministers, or whatever exalted title they give themselves. Perhaps because they find weather more celestial, these priests summon lightning and storms of icy rain, but more importantly they heal each other. The slow death of poison was meaningless to them; despite my misgivings, I had to beat them to death with the sledgehammer. I am growing hourly more annoyed with this instrument.
Two grand temples grace the upper city. Inside the first, one of those fluttery bats has an aura which lowers my magical resistances. Altering probabilities so effortlessly must be marvelous; according to father, Paladins are capable of it, though I have seen no evidence of that. Another temple feature I have just noticed here are the reliefs on the walls. These older expressions of religious fervor were covered over with the scenes of bloody submission I noted previously. They seem more subtle, though the carvings are now so abused it is hard to say what they once depicted. Heaven has always worked more subtlely to extract worship; Hell is content with fear, preferring to use discretion in battle.
Beyond the upper city is a large lake, with a stone causeway leading to a small island. Two more temples are visible on either side of the causeway -- Kurast's water control systems are miraculous indeed, to put underground temples in the middle of a lake! One temple is lair to a vampire, completely immune to Khaleel's icy magic. The sledgehammer takes care of it well enough, I suppose, but it seems so wrong to choose mere practicality over style. Not that I haven't made that choice already, so many times... I hope this is not the last dying gasp of my artistic standards.
According to Deckard Cain, the island in the lake is called Travincal, the religious heart of Kurast, site of the tower where the Horadrim buried Mephisto. The patriarch of the church was possessed by the Lord of Hate (good choice), the High Council of Seven has been twisted into evil mockeries of their former selves, and so on. This much anyone could have guessed; there is more. Cain absolutely insisted I speak to Ormus this time, I couldn't avoid it. Mephisto's power over the local area is focused through a device, unpoetically called a compelling orb. The orb is in Travincal, with the council guarding it. Destroy the orb, and all the little Zakarumites will be free to do as they will for the first time in years.
While I do not anticipate profound changes in their behavior, destroying the orb should put an end to the jungle's growth. If all the Flayers died, I would be in ecstasy. However, the price of failure would be terrible indeed. Should I die on this quest, Ormus has promised to write a poem commemorating my heroism. THAT simply CANNOT be ALLOWED to HAPPEN, UNDER ANY AND ALL CIRCUMSTANCES. My artistic standards will never be allowed to pass so quietly into that long dark night! Tomorrow, the council will die!
Unwisely, I have been reviewing this journal. Dreadful, dreadful, DREADFUL! Why must I subject myself to such agonies when it all turns out to be drivel? My adversaries simply will not behave in a appropriate manner! Where are the epic battles of wits, the uncountable armies marching to heavy drumbeats, the satisfying final denouements? All through the deserts of Aranoch, I had nothing to describe but aimless treks through empty wastelands, and robbing a few tombs. My enemy chose discretion and fled the scene before the final act, leaving a stumbling bunch of hastily-raised corpses in his place. My record is factually accurate and little more -- "Lady Liliwhite's Traveling Guide to Westmarch for Young Girls" contains more deathless prose. Perhaps I could do something in the editing, but I really will need more suitable material if I'm to make anything of all this. Who would have guessed that I would even contemplate writing a history? History is entirely too overburdened with facts to be worth my attention. Perhaps inventing something more flattering to my foe and myself will improve matters -- I'd rather be quoted than honest.
On the subject of books, Alkor has made some headway with the tome of Lam Esen. Events are unfolding exactly as foretold, and end with utter ruin for all humanity, according to his interpretation. More importantly, a few verses of prophecy seem to be about me, indicating that not all will go well for me. Vague, yet unpleasant; how reassuring. Of course, if these prophecies are sufficiently vague (and almost all prophecies are) they could be interpreted to mean I will die today, or 30 years from now of a morbid affliction of the toes.
My Natalya is wearing her finest leathers, polished to a ebon gleam. Now I remember what I saw in her. While I acknowledge some deprivation due to time spent among the ignorant, it is still pleasing to see someone who really knows what to do with leather. Despite all she has suffered, Kurast offers up a plethora of fascinating characters with whom to converse -- yet another testimonial to the power of cities to improve humanity. The gem in Kurast's battered crown is imported, it is true, but only to the city's betterment. With her blessing, and the promise of more in her eyes, I would venture into any lion's den.
Travincal, not quite as comfortable as an animal cave, is a small square island built up from the lake bed, serving as a base for the ponderous tower which sits like a wart on its eastern end. The rest of this platform is now full of temples, pavilions, and altars, perhaps originally constructed by the Zakarumites with the view of keeping vigil over the tower. Clear-headed thinking and religion rarely coexist. My main business is with the council, of course. Happily ignorant of Zakarumite ways as I am, I can only guess that they are in the tower, close to their master; I head straight in without delay.
The church's finest are arrayed against me -- some may have eaten today -- with all their cardinals and councilors behind them. With these come Vampires, out and abroad in daylight. Fascinating. Further on, in the center of Travincal, is a dais with four sacrificial altars and a pit leading down into blackness. The altars are much-used; the platform is ankle-deep in congealed blood, and I am sure far more went down.
On approaching the tower, I note a few pairs of tentacles sliding through the muck in the ornamental ponds to either side of the main entrance. Then, one of the council comes out to meet me. The sight is one of unparalleled hideousness. Prelate's robes are ugly, never made to be flattering, and these are worse than most. The cut, showing far more flesh than should be acceptable from a cleric, is unforgivable. The colors, hideous clashing blotches with no sense of harmony or design, are indescribable. The quality, using materials a hair-shirt wearer would find uncomfortable, is inexcusable. I have never beheld an uglier garment in my life. The kindest fate I can imagine for it is to burn it at first opportunity and wipe its very memory from the face of our beautiful green earth. Additionally, the councilor is half-demon, divided lengthwise. He looks very uncomfortable.
More councilors, in the same hideous garments. While their crippled bodies are a hindrance tactically, their magic is effective... when they remember to make use of it. Having one's brain divided down the middle may be worse for the powers of reasoning than religion, though that can't be helping either. One invoked a few fire elementals (the immobile serpentine form) before dying of my venom. In less time than it has taken to record, six bodies lay before the tower and the Council of Zakarum is no more. Absurdly simple, once I set my mind to it.
The tower reveals itself to be entirely hollow, a single room with its ceiling hundreds of feet above ground. Why build so much to contain nothing? For that matter, why build a tower at all? The Lord of Hate was buried below the lake's turgid waters. At times, the Horadrim seemed to lack even the commonest variety of sense. The chamber is empty apart from a crystal ball set on a ark-like pedestal, no doubt the Compelling Orb previously spoken of. It proves invulnerable to any means at my disposal; I cannot even tip it off its base. Ormus may know how to destroy it, though frankly, I'd rather ask Alkor. His formulae may not make a dent in it, but they'll be much more entertaining to watch at work.
On my triumphant return, Deckard Cain has some peculiar news for me: my luggage has begun to sing. Before going into the jungle, I left a locking storage chest with him, so that I might store valuables without walking all the way back to my personal hovel. Now, perfectly audibly, a Zakarumite hymn is echoing from within, in three-part harmony. The horrible noise began shortly after I left this morning, and has grown steadily louder since. This is uncanny, and not in a good way. Well... perhaps in a good way, but not MY way. I am almost afraid to open the chest: demons I understand well enough, but what fiend would do this?
I have come to the inescapable conclusion that my life is CURSED. When I opened the chest, the song grew louder, clearly coming from the Horadric Cube where I stored my collection of saintly relics. (They got everything else damp and sticky otherwise.) Beams of golden light shone through the gaps around the lid. Judging from the sound, an orgy of glimmering light and unfettered glee might overflow the cube if I dared to open it, and flood the docks with caramel-smelling puddles of pure sticky niceness. Deckard Cain, overeducated savant that he is, was convinced that this would be a good thing.
Then he noticed a piece of loot I'd recovered: the patriarch's flail, by tradition the personal weapon of the head of the church. Golden serenity radiated from every link of its chains. What happened next, I cannot be held accountable for. Deckard Cain, in a state of high excitement (a man his age should be on guard against that) placed the flail with the saintly relics. Helpless in a fit of nausea, I was powerless to prevent it. How was I to know it was there, or what might come of it? My understanding was that Mephisto had the patriarch, and I certainly don't expect the Lord of Hatred to be guarding his own front door. Once together, a tremendous flare of light heralded the flail's transformation. Now apparently made of gold, with the organs as balls on the ends of its chains, the weapon has obviously been imbued with heavenly power. And dear old Deckard Cain is insisting I make some use of it. I don't even want to touch the blessed thing.
Heaven cannot stop meddling, but this intervention is minimal. A single touch from the blessed relics shatters the Compelling Orb and the flail, all in one go. If only other conflicts between the celestial and the infernal resolved so neatly; more commonly, the fallout of their battles slays thousands, ruins kingdoms, and lays waste to entire regions. Of course, Heaven claims they are only trying to help us, like the powerful neighbor who comes over for a friendly visit and somehow manages to burn the house down. Hell burns the house down deliberately, but the end is much the same.
The orb's pedestal hid a large key, nearly three feet long; the keyhole is in the back wall of the tower, and so large I did not recognize it as such. Destroying the Compelling Orb seems to have broken Zakarum's back, as it were. The jungle is visibly dying back, and the lake smells better already. The zealous defenders of the faith who badgered me so persistently now run and hide, leaving their priests and vampires to their fate. Khaleel takes an innocent joy in slaughtering them all anyway. Most of the loot is cracked and broken, so after a short jaunt about the city, I drag him away and we descend into the tower.
The Lord of Hate's fortified basement is... well, I hate it. I realize that we are deep under a lake, and that the walls must be very strong and tightly sealed to keep all the water above us out. Even accounting for that, enough sins are built into this place to damn a dozen architects. The stonework is all dark metallic gray, set off by huge wall panels of polished, sealed brass. It is impossible to light these well; illumination either vanishes into the stone, or glares off the brass into the eyes. Every interior space, no matter how small, is split by screens of iron, eliminating any chance for organic flowthrough. After the church fell, things only got worse: now, spikes and spines project from every surface. Demons absolutely love spikes, beyond all sense of proportion: they even put spikes on spikes.
Another later addition are a number of chutes, emptying into pits in the floor. Corpses litter the entire structure; I cannot exaggerate their number, thousands would be a conservative estimate. The air is thick with imprisoned spirits, and the concentration of energy is awe-inspiring. Conversing with them is quite useless, as it has been everywhere demons roam; those who retain any memory have been reduced to gibbering incoherence by it. Even with the dead, I can be in a crowd, and yet understand no one.
Mephisto's personal guard (no more Zakarumites) consists of Vampires, who must be here for the blood, Giants, who may be here for the flesh, and a scattering of walking corpses. As I go deeper, another sort of creature joins them: skeletal Flayers. Hatred must have felt my hate for those damnable things, or Terror felt my fear. Khaleel can blast them to bits with my blessing; never let it be said I am indifferent to my servants' joy. Pits in the floor have been put to specialized uses. There are ossuaries, haematuaries, visceries, and treasuries. The latter occupy most of my attention, though the possibility of a golem made from such a quantity of pure viscera is an intriguing one. One that size could devour an army, growing all the while... no, perhaps the world is not yet ready.
A Horadric waypoint. They just had to leave the back door open...
Just now, I brought a powerful sword to Deckard Cain; the poor old thing began to cry when he saw it. I took it away at once, of course, but still wonder why a pacifistic gentleman like Deckard would be so affected by a battered, rusty broadsword.
The deepest vault of the tower is a pit, Hatred only knows how deep, full to overflowing with the dead. The amount of energy extracted from the kingdoms worth of souls ground up in this generator is unimaginable. The sight of that bubbling well of churning gore, heaving with putrescence, gives even one such as I pause. The smell is making Khaleel sick, but he'll recover soon enough -- he'd better. Despite being assured that the Zakarum council numbered 6, more of them are here. Their master must be close indeed, with his brothers. There is no sign of my enemy, though they cannot be unaware of my intrusion. A Hell Gate stands open on an island in the middle of the pit, ready for their use.
I have met Hatred, and he is mine. Terror and Destruction are nowhere to be found. I shall not spare the details. Mephisto, Lord of Hate and eldest of The Three, lurked in wait in the deepest part of the vault. In appearance, he was fascinating; I have never seen mortal flesh so extensively altered to suit a demon's fancy. (See accompanying sketch; words do not suffice.) It surprised me to see he was alone. Of course, he introduced himself by laughing and goading me, claiming I was merely a pawn of Heaven. Nonsense, I replied; you haven't a leg to stand on.
The battle was not a disappointment. My enemy floated on a cloud of noxious gas, which the Jade Tan Do rendered me nearly immune to. As I went forward, Khaleel, excitable as ever, threw a salvo of ice over my shoulder. Mephisto responded with his own, a solid ball of ice which burst on my shield. It nearly killed me; another certainly would have, so I engaged the demon lord at close quarters, ignoring the chill of his form and the slight burning in my lungs. When Mephisto struck, I eluded his blows or took them on my shield; when he began to cast, I struck, interfering with repeated quick blows. The stratagem was safe, but I saw that my foe would not soon fall to it. Venom meant little to the Lord of Hate, nor would the pricks of any dagger.
Though unstylish, I saw that a more muscular approach might prove efficacious. Without my dagger and shield, I was more vulnerable. Mephisto responded with powerful blows as I took out the sledgehammer, not employing his magic at all. Why, I wonder? Another ice ball, and I might have been done for. Despite his long reach and surprising strength, the Lord of Hate was not difficult to avoid, or to head off when he tried to flee. Yes, gentle reader, the most powerful of The Three attempted to escape me as his life ebbed. Khaleel was uninjured, never even threatened during the entire battle.
One last inspection of the vault reveals nothing. Diablo and Baal are gone. Three skulls lie on the ground where Mephisto fell. They suggest nothing to me, nor can I make anything of the ghost which manifested, struck at me, and vanished again as I examined them. This pit is so thick with spirits, I can hardly tell one from another, but the poisonous power of a Lord of Hell could not hide amongst these lesser souls. I had imagined that meeting one of The Three would answer more questions than it has, but I am simply confused. They wanted to reunite, that much is clear. That should have been their primary goal if their intention was to invade our world once more. They accomplished their goal, then parted company, leaving their greatest alone to meet me. What purpose could this possibly serve?
Deckard Cain is as confused as I, but feels the Hell Gate is key to whatever new plan they have devised. Opening a gate to Hell should be the first stage of an invasion, yet nothing is coming through. Our first instinct is that the gate must be closed, but I wonder if we should be so quick. Surely, they would expect us to close it, and would not leave it vulnerable if it served any further purpose. I think I begin to see... we mortals have grown accustomed to seeing Hell Gates as a way for demons to enter our realm; they also allow them to leave. If Andarial and Duriel are any indication, the lesser evils have forgotten their rebellion and fallen in behind the greater once again. Like kings returning from exile, Diablo and Baal would be welcomed with open arms (or appropriate appendages) in their infernal home now... and the Sin War would begin with renewed fury!
All is clear now. While his brothers were gone, Mephisto remained behind to either defeat me or hand me an illusory victory. Death means nothing to the Lords of Hell; one of them could easily be "defeated" if it meant throwing me off their trail. The quest is not over. I must forge on into the mouth of the abyss. I wonder if Hell is as bad as they say? Most of those reporting on Hell's fury were hardly unbiased witnesses.
There is little time to lose. My quest is not over yet, but there are a few errands I must run before resuming my pursuit. Ormus will not need to be silenced -- my victory impressed him beyond words, so no poem will be forthcoming. Asheara has seen the wisdom of my words, and found herself a bikini in black leather. It's a start. When I went to visit Alkor, I could not speak with him, as his face had recently collapsed. Hratli asked me to put in a good word for him down in Hell, but I feel no need to make introductions for him. He will follow me in his own time, I am sure.
But the most precious of all, my deadliest viper... she is gone. No sign of her remains; she has vanished into the night as silently as a shadow. The mirror, framed by Mephisto's skull (one of them, anyway) will not reflect the beauty of her mortality after all. Had she not disappeared with such style and artistry, I would be more upset, but it is clear that this is nothing less than a sign of her love for me. The prospect of my going to Hell frightens her (why should it not?) and she cannot bear to see me off on so hazardous a mission. It may even be that the power radiating from me is simply too beautiful to bear. Or perhaps she's more like mother than I ever imagined. Ha! I know better. Our paths will cross again, it matters little whether in this life or beyond.