Evil Has a New Vessel…
They say that in the most desperate times one can always find hope, even if it's only the faintest glimmer in the darkest of places. However in the desolation since the destruction of the Worldstone by the Archangel Tyrael, such a glimmer seldom shone in the land of Sanctuary. In the twenty years since these events passed, plague, death, and war consumed many of its inhabitants. What little resources that could be gathered were precious, and in some cases worth killing for. Alliances faltered, and the former virtues of honor and trust faded into obscurity. In all this madness and disorder, one would think the land that held setting to the most horrific of evil occurrences would be left barren and uninhabited. Call it hope that brought the township of New Tristram into existence.
It was a pale evening when a pair of travelers came upon the town. It was filled with shabby looking buildings that seemed to be put together haphazardly or in a hurry, and the streets were empty, save for a few gaping onlookers. They were probably not accustomed to seeing travelers of late with the increasing peril of traveling abroad. A few crows had landed and settled atop a rickety signpost which read 'The Hollow.' Exhausted from their journey, the travelers entered and discovered a local pub. The bar was empty save for a few shadowed figures at the back tables. The barkeep, a small and nervous-looking man had been shining a glass at the bar when they had first arrived.
"New faces eh? What brings you to New Tristram, travelers, certainly not the ale?"
"Aye, just the ale for now! She'll have water. Ain't that right Mina?"
She glanced over and gave a nod of confirmation. She had still been standing at the entrance but she joined her companion soon after.
"These places make me nervous," she said.
"That bow of yours makes me nervous. Then again, it has taken down more than its fair share of feral wolves, and we weren't nervous for very long."
She beamed a smile of satisfaction.
Just then the barkeep chimed in.
"By the way, you should probably leave your weapons at the door. My patrons are very on edge as of late, in fact the whole town is. There have been a few murders and kidnappings in the night. Can't be too careful!"
"Are you saying we look like murderers!" The traveler growled as he stood up.
"Easy Apoch, we don't need any trouble, we'll leave them at the door," she said as she took Apoch's sword and made her way back to the door.
"If ya ask me, this whole bar is safer as long as that bow is within her reach!" he said as he sat back down, half defeated. "I'll have that ale, please!"
"C-Certainly!" the barkeep said as he grabbed a glass and filled it from the tap shakily.
"Pardon me for my insistence on the weapons. Normally I would allow them but under the circumstances… Apoch, you said?"
He gave a nod.
"We understand, right Apoch?" the woman said as she sat back down.
"I just don't understand how we could be safer without our weapons!"
The barkeep gave a sigh. "I think we'll be safe at least until nightfall, but I'll be closing up before too long. You might want to check in at the Tavern of the Rising Sun. That is, if they still have room." Just then his attention turned to the woman sitting next to the towering barbarian. "And what might your name be, miss?"
"Don't call me miss! My name is Minaverus and I never miss!" she said matter-of-factly.
"The Minaverus of eastern legend, the Silent Death of Lut Gholein?" The barkeep said in shock as the glass he was pouring overflowed with water.
She smirked, "Is that what they call me these days?"
Apoch gave a loud roar of laughter as he slammed his mug on the bar table. "Then what does that make me?"
"It makes you a bumbling buffoon!" she said with an icy glare.
He stifled his words and began to drink again.
"About these murders, you said they occurred in the night; was there anything odd about them?"
"Well, aside from the decapitations and overall horror of them, the only thing that struck me as odd was that the children were taken from the homes of the deceased, no doubt covered in the blood of their parents judging from the trails that led to the old cathedral."
"That would mean…"
"So the stories are true then? It is as I had feared. How many have been taken?"
"Five," the barkeep said as if in a trance.
"I fear for the lives of my wife and child as we speak, though the archbishop of the church has been marking the children with demon-warding magic to try and fend off all demonic endeavors. My son was marked today. It was very painful for me to watch… The archbishop insists that the markings must be burned into the flesh in order to be effective. I had to stifle his screams with my hand. He nearly bit through…"
He grabbed at his wounded hand and a tear began to roll down his cheek. "Do you mean to enter the cathedral?"
Apoch shifted and piped up "you know what they say; 'where there be demons, there be treasure!'" he said with a boisterous snort.
"Is that all you think about Apoch? Treasure and shiny things? People are dying!"
She smacked him upside the head and with this, he gulped down the rest of his ale.
"I'll have another please!"
The barkeep poured him another mug of ale and Minaverus began to take a drink of water when she noticed an old man who was sitting in the shadows had been listening to their conversation. She turned back to the barkeep and said, "Yes, we do mean to enter the cathedral, but we're low on supplies and our weapons and armor need to be repaired first. Apoch here bit off a little more than we could chew on the journey here; picked a fight with a skeleton and six of his friends."
"I couldn't see them all! It was dark!" he proclaimed.
"No matter, we arrived in one piece for the moment, though my breastplate and your buckler are another story."
"So there are skeletons abroad in the wilderness? Dark times…The local blacksmith is right across from the Tavern, so you should be able to have them repaired in the morning. You should probably finish your drinks and get to heading out. I'm going to be closing up soon," said the barkeep as he finished wiping off the counter and disappeared into the rear of the bar.
"I wonder what the demons want with the children? No doubt some kind of evil plot or ritualistic sacrifice." Minaverus said her thoughts out loud as they came.
"Or maybe they've decided to put their demonic past behind them and start a big happy demonic family," Apoch said as he turned to her, smiling.
"Apoch, you really are a buffoon," she said as she gulped down the last of her water
The hour of twilight had past and the barkeep bade the adventurers farewell as he boarded and locked up the bar for the night. They headed down the road and through the town and they noticed many of the townspeople had been locking up for the night as well, so they hurried down the road in search of the Tavern of the Rising Sun.
"I hope we're not too late." said Minaverus.
Just then, a dusty old man emerged from a dark alley yelling "Wait!"
"Not now old man! We're trying to secure a place to stay for the night!" yelled Apoch.
"But please, stay a while and listen!" he shouted as he ran towards them, panting.
"We have no time for your tall tales, drunkard!"
"Wait Apoch, he's not like the other townspeople, maybe we should listen to him."
"Yes please, I won't be long travelers. I overheard in the bar that you mean to enter the cathedral. I will not question your intentions, however I fear that their may be a great evil brooding down there. I hear tales of the resurrection of a king. The Skeleton King. Leoric was his name long ago. You see travelers; I was a resident of the first Tristram, before the first uprising of evil many years ago."
"I think we can dispatch any danger we may encounter, old man, but thank you for your concern," said Apoch as he started to walk away. "Farewell. Are you coming Mina?"
"Yes, I'll meet you at the Tavern. Tell them to wait for me."
He shrugged and headed down the road toward the Tavern.
"So if you were here in Tristram long ago… Your skin and immense age… Do you mean to tell me you're…?"
"Deckard Cain, the last of the Horadrim. Indeed it is true, I made my way back to Tristram when I heard news of the horrid events that had been taking place. I had been searching for the Archangel Tyrael ever since the events that transpired on Mount Arreat; however I haven't found a single trace of him.
"Tell me Horadrim, what do you think is going on here?"
"It's hard to say, though I have many guesses. I fear that the archbishop may have been corrupted. I saw the markings that were bestowed upon the barkeep's child, and they are not runes of warding. They are runes of corruption! I fear that the demons may be trying to resurrect the Prime Evil Diablo!
"But I thought the soulstones were destroyed?"
"Indeed they were, but in my search for the Archangel, I discovered that numerous fragments of the Worldstone had disappeared after its destruction. It would require a magic more powerful and beyond my knowledge to reassemble, though I am afraid the demons may have discovered such a magic."
"If it is true then we must stop it!"
"Yes, which is why I wanted to speak with you, traveler. I have heard of your exploits in the East, though I never expected to encounter you. If you do mean to enter the cathedral, I ask that you investigate my theory and return to me with anything that you have learned."
"I will certainly try."
"Thank you Minaverus, now go with the blessing of the Horadrim!"
With this, she headed to the Tavern only to find Apoch wrestling with the Innkeeper to keep the front door open. "What took you so long? I've been at it with this guy for ages waiting for you!" They both apologized to the Innkeeper as he locked up, and with minor occurrence, they retired to their room for the night.
As the night passed, the towering Apoch lay sleeping in the tiny bed and seldom tossed or turned, but Minaverus lay awake and anxious for some time. The weight of the task at hand and the theories of Deckard Cain rested squarely on her shoulders. She wondered whether she would tell Apoch of the demons' plot to resurrect the Prime Evils. "No" she thought. "I took on the task for myself and it's none of his concern. Besides, all he cares about is treasure!" She pondered on into the night until at last with a heavy sigh she closed her eyes as thoughts drifted into dreams.
The travelers awoke to the sound of chatter in the streets as the rising sun shed light through the clouded windows of the tavern. Eager to pursue their adventure, they made ready and headed with haste to the local blacksmith to mend their broken equipment. They came upon a burly balding man pounding away at a short sword beneath a sign that read 'By Griswold's Mallet.'
The blacksmith greeted them with a thick accent and through a moustache to match. "Ah yes! A finely placed blow from an axe, perhaps… a woodland skeleton?" The blacksmith took the breastplate from her hands and upon further examination said with interest "a finely crafted plate… from the eastern deserts, judging from the intricate markings. It can be mended… for a price."
Minaverus produced a leather satchel from her belt and dropped it on the bench producing a pleasant jingle.
"Gold coins? Big spender! I'll have it mended within the hour!"
The blacksmith took the breastplate to the fire and gave the short sword a few more whacks before producing a large pair of tongs and dropping it in a barrel of water filled with other weapons in progress. He returned to the bench when he noticed Apoch had revealed his cloven buckler.
"Let me take a look at that mess, boy!"
Apoch carefully placed the two pieces on the bench and the blacksmith grabbed the two pieces and exclaimed upon examination "a crude piece of work this is, and by the looks of it, not very effective at all! You'd be better off with a new one altogether! I have these finely crafted…"
"No thanks! I would like to have this one repaired. It belonged to my father."
"Ah yes! A sentimental piece! Like this mallet here! Understood! I'll have it mended, bound in leather and reinforced with steel for a price, of course!"
Apoch reached for his belt, but found that his bag of coins was missing. "I've been had!"
Minaverus laughed loudly.
"By a charming barmaid, no doubt! Looks like you got into a little more trouble than I thought. I can't leave you alone for a second, can I Apoch? Or shall I say ape?"
With this she produced another handful of gold coins and dropped them on the bench, and with a twinkle of a tear in his eye the blacksmith said "I can't remember the last time a woman paid to have my buckler mended AND reinforced! But so it shall be!"
With a wipe of his brow he proceeded to mend the broken equipment all the while humming and whistling a haunting tune bearing resemblance to a lullaby. In the distance, Minaverus could make out a group of people gathering at the Hollow, probably waiting to get in. She paid it no mind as the blacksmith continued working and in what seemed like no time at all, he was finished.
"There y'ar good as new! Normally I would allow more time for that leather to cure but you folks seem to be in a hurry! Now off with yeh!"
And so before the sun was at its highest point in the sky the travelers set off with renewed spirits and equipment on their journey to the depths of the cathedral. Though the weight of what might lie ahead still lay heavy on her heart, Minaverus felt that her skill exceeded that weight, and pressed on. They came upon the outskirts of town when they noticed something amiss. A door was cracked open and inside there appeared to be the aftermath of some struggle. They approached the door and called to see if anyone was inside.
"Hello?" Minaverus pushed open the door and as it creaked open there was a thud on the other side, followed by the sound of something rolling across the floor. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion as the gruesome scene unfolded. The object rolled until it finally stopped dead against the body of its former owner. The head of a woman, a look of terror and desperation still upon its face, fixated its lifeless gaze upon them. Minaverus stumbled into Apoch as she turned to look away. "I have to get out of here." She said as Apoch stepped aside. He was still absorbing the scene when Minaverus shouted for him.
"I think we should get moving! If they took another child, we may be able to catch up with them before it's too late!
"Then let's get moving!"
The travelers seldom spoke as they made their way through the wilderness, and as the ruins of old Tristram and the towering cathedral came into view, they exchanged awkward glances. Apoch spoke first.
"This place is even bigger than I imagined! The cathedral, I mean. Doesn't look like there's much left of the town though."
Minaverus spoke as if she didn't hear him. "I think I see something up ahead in town. Let's check it out!"
They made haste as they continued on their path in the direction of the town and as they got closer, they started to see signs of a small battle: droplets of blood, a broken sword, and a bloody dagger. They followed the droplets of blood that led into town and they came upon a few broken arrow shafts. They also noticed that the volume of blood increased tremendously, almost to the point of creating a continuous and unbroken trail of blood. It led them into the center of town, and as they made their way to the long unused and dried up well, they heard a man breathing heavily and gasping in pain. They found him sitting propped up on the other side of the well. It was the barkeep from The Hollow, but he was missing a hand and was punctured with arrows. He was as pale as a ghost, and every breath was a struggle for him. He had barely noticed when the travelers arrived.
"I sure could use an ale right now…" he said with a bloody chuckle.
"What happened?" Minaverus asked, though she could probably guess the answer to some extent.
"The demons, they came to my house in the night. I had been sleeping upstairs when I heard my wife screaming for help." He struggled to breathe and he coughed up more blood as he spoke. "She had been tending our child's burns on into the night." A sudden fit of rage came over him, and a bit of color suddenly returned to his face. "That bastard! Demonic scribe! The archbishop is a fraud! This is his doing! His f-…!" He struggled even more to breathe and he closed his eyes.
"Here. Drink this." said Apoch as he produced a skin flask from his pack. "It'll dull the senses."
The barkeep took the satchel from his hand and he took a long draught before he spoke again. "Funny… All these years… I've made a living serving drinks… And now…" He started to cry. "Please, my wife was killed… my child… taken into the cathedral. I beg you… If you find my son alive down there… Tell him that I… I…" and with a final breath he dropped the flask and slumped over dead on the ground.
"Understood," said Minaverus with a sympathetic tone.
Apoch gave an angry roar. "I say if we make it out of here alive, we roast that holy bastard!"
"Now, now Apoch, since when do you care about the lives of other people?"
"He made really good ale! Besides, I never said I didn't care… It's just that sometimes you have to look away to move ahead…"
She gave a nod as she turned to the cathedral. There was something about that place that seemed to emanate pure evil. A thick air of foreboding had settled upon them, but they pressed on knowing that they very well may be entering a veritable den of evil. For Apoch, it was no longer a simple quest for treasure. Something struck a chord with him, and he seemed to have new-found strength as they came to the entrance of the cathedral.
He kicked open the doors and shouted into the darkness "Watch out you demon bastards! Death approaches!"
As they made their descent, they heard the sound of something scurrying along the wall. 'Probably rats' they thought. The air was stale and filled with dust that flurried as they moved through dimly lit corridors, until they finally reached a set of stairs that descended into an even greater darkness. Apoch lit a torch with a flint and tinder that he had produced from his belt. The light filled the corridor, revealing scattered bones and various weapons, no doubt left behind by other would-be adventurers. They proceeded down the steps until they reached a room filled with solid stone tombs, some of which had been opened, and something else…
"I think I liked the darkness better," said Apoch as he turned with his torch revealing a group of walking dead.
Minaverus was the first to strike, sending arrows into the advancing dead. She struck one in the head and with a thud it hit the ground, still twitching. Apoch brandished his sword and with a few swings, managed to decapitate two of them and slice another clear in half. He was taken by surprise as another fell onto his shoulders from behind, an arrow protruding from its head.
"Nice work, Mina" said Apoch as he threw the corpse to the ground.
"That one nearly had you Apoch! I was waiting to see if you'd notice him in time. I figured I'd give you a chance" she said with a laugh.
"What would I do without you?" he said, smiling.
They continued onward and descended flight after flight of stairs, fighting off random groups of skeletons, demons, and walking dead. They lost track of how many levels they had traversed in the darkness until at last they reached a room entirely different from the rest. As they made their way to the end of the narrow corridor, the light from the torch revealed a large stone chamber with what looked to be a sacrificial altar of sorts, covered in fresh blood, still dripping from the edges. As they approached the altar, a high pitched voice ripped through the silence and boomed through the chamber, followed by a barrage of arrows.
"What foul stench the living bring! Who dares to enter the domain of the Skeleton King!"
They ducked behind the altar as a battalion of skeletal archers stormed the chamber and crowded in the corners. Minaverus grabbed three arrows at a time and fired into the corners to try and thin out their numbers. Apoch charged at them, his body low to the ground with his buckler held high in front of him as he swung at their legs. Within minutes, his shield was loaded with arrows and another one stuck in his shoulder. But after dispatching one group of skeletons, he noticed that the other group was still going strong. Minaverus was still crouching behind the altar to shelter herself from the oncoming arrows.
"I'm out of arrows! Watch out Apoch!" She shouted across the chamber.
Just then the skeletons turned their attention to Apoch, and as he raised his shield and began to charge, they fired at him, hitting him in the abdomen and in his left leg. With a tremendous growl, he leapt into the air and unleashed an aerial attack on the skeletons below. He took out half of them with a single attack, and continued to battle on the ground with the rest of them. Minaverus scrambled across the floor, grabbed an arrow and fired at a skeleton that had drawn a sword at Apoch's back. The arrow whirred through the air and slammed into the skeletons hand, causing it to break off with the sword still in it. Apoch turned around and sliced off its head just before the Skeleton King entered the room.
"You fools! You think you can stop me?" it growled as it swung a tremendous sword. Apoch rolled out of the way just in time and ran between the towering skeleton's legs into the hallway beyond. "I'll cleave you in half when I find you! I smell another rat afoot! Where are you?"
Minaverus shuddered as the king spoke in his shrill and thunderous voice. She stumbled out from behind the altar and the king turned around.
"There you are!"
She scrambled across the floor, looking for more arrows. As the giant skeleton ran towards her, she found an arrow, drew her bow and let it loose. She heard a loud ping and then the sound of something metallic crashing to the floor.
"My crown!" the skeleton shrieked.
As the king backed away to grab its crown, Minaverus ran through the hallway and into another chamber to find Apoch standing in the center, holding a deep red stone that glimmered in the darkness.
"What is this?" asked Apoch with a look of astonishment.
"Put it down! I think it might be cursed!"
He motioned to put the stone down, but as he did, he found that his hand had tightened its grip on the stone, and he could no longer control it.
"What's the matter!" she yelled as she heard the skeleton king begin to cackle maniacally in the other chamber.
"I can't put it down! I can't move!"
She moved towards him and tried to pry the stone out of his hands, but Apoch swung at her with his fist, knocking her to the ground.
"What's wrong with you? Let go of it!"
"I can't… control myself! Get out of here! I'm done for anyway! I can't recover from these wounds!"
"I can't just leave you down here to die!"
"I'm already dead" he said as his hand lifted the stone shakily, and with a violent thrust, the stone pierced his head and started to glow brightly as Apoch screamed in pain, his body shaking uncontrollably. A red glow had engulfed the room and the ground began to shake as the Skeleton King appeared from the hall.
"It has chosen!" it shouted as it kneeled to the ground.
Minaverus stood in awe as the chamber began to collapse. She didn't know what to do. Apoch slowly turned his head toward her and with a frightened look on his face, seemed to mouth the words 'get out of here.' She couldn't think of anything else to do, so she listened to him and ran past the kneeling Skeleton King into the hallway, and with a final look at her former companion, headed up the stairs and out of the collapsing chamber. She stumbled as she made her way through the various corridors and up the stairs of the cathedral, the light getting a little brighter with every step, until at last she made it to the entrance. She stumbled into the grassy field, fell to her knees and started to cry. The sun was setting in the distance, and at the same time the moon was already in the sky; a pale shade of red…