The whole level stank. It was all Val Halla could do to keep her stomach from turning inside-out. Losing her last meal on the filthy stone floor would only add to the stink. The smell of rotting meat was so thick, she could almost see it.
Considering the fact that she was two levels beneath the defiled cathedral, she was lucky she could see anything. The guttering torches mounted to the walls and pillars put out more oily black smoke than light. Most of the illumination in the forsaken dungeon took the form of a dishwater-gray glow that infused the stones around her. Both the weakly luminous stonework and the fuel-less torches were a legacy of the Horadrim wizards who had built the cathedral centuries ago. But the Horadrim magic was failing, its failure hastened by the corruption that had claimed the old church, and Tristram itself.
Val Halla shivered. How could this place smell so bad and still be so cold? She knew the answer. The truth is, her surroundings really weren't much colder than an autumn evening. It was the pall of evil that sent cold fingers up and down her spine. That, and the persistent knowledge of what had happened to the town above, and to its people.
She remembered climbing over the massive boulders that had been piled across the road and seeing the burned out buildings of Tristram. Only the cathedral and a few buildings near the town square still stood. The only thing that was growing in Tristram was the graveyard. The list of the dead, the missing and the mad had been staggering.
Something darted out of the gloom to Val Halla's left. Whirling around, her senses zeroed in on the motion as she drew her bow. She found her tickle spot and an arrow formed between her fingers. She let the bolt fly, and it struck her target -- a scaly scavenger beast -- in the shoulder, piercing its twisted heart. The impact knocked the scavenger on its back, and its razor-like talons clawed the air spastically for a moment before it lay still.
The scavenger had had a severed arm clenched in its teeth. The arm was far too small to be an adult's, however. Val Halla prayed it had belonged to one of the Fallen, the goblin-like demons who now infested the old church. She didn't care to go any closer to find out for sure.
Val Halla took a step and something sticky tried to hold the sole of her boot. A trail of huge bloody footprints crossed the floor, leading into the dark. The footprints were clawed and had only four toes, and the blood was still drying.
"The Butcher," breathed Val Halla.
It had been a miracle that the man who first told her about the Butcher had been alive at all. He had crawled out of the dungeon, somehow avoiding scavengers and Fallen, leaving behind a virtual river of his life's blood. He'd made it up no less than two flights of stairs to achieve the noble goal of dying in the light of the sun. Meeting Val Halla just before he did so had been an unexpected bonus.
He had managed to tell Val Halla how the Archbishop Lazarus had led the townsfolk into the underground to search for the missing Prince Albrecht, and how they'd been torn to pieces by a horde of Fallen led by a hulking brute of a demon wielding a gigantic meat cleaver.
"Avenge us," he had pleaded with his last breath.
Val Halla had seen the Butcher's great bloody footprints throughout the level, but these were by far the freshest. Val Halla followed them through the gloomy corridors.
From behind a pillar, a scavenger made a half-hearted lunge at her, but it was fat and slow. It had been eating very well lately. Val Halla left it sprawled in a corner, its filthy claws clutching at the puncture in its stuffed belly.
The Butcher's great gory footprints disappeared into a sticky pool of blood seeping from under a heavy wooden door. The stench of death and decay had a twisted life of its own. Val Halla could almost feel its labored breath all around her. She could certainly smell it.
The smell went beyond the mere stench of rotting flesh. The smell of a dead animal, or even a person, left to decay in the sun at least carried the implicit understanding that something was being returned to nature; that the soil would reclaim the flesh and that new life would spring forth at some later date. There was nothing natural about this stench. The lives that had been stolen here had been stolen from Nature herself. These deaths would bring no renewal while the Butcher yet lived.
|"Ahhh..." came the soft
rumbling voice from the back corner of the chamber. "Fresh meat..."
Val Halla willed the gooseflesh on her arms smooth and ordered her breakfast to lie still in her protesting stomach. She steeled herself and reached for the great, cold metal handle of the door before her. Like everything else, it was sticky with drying blood.
She had prepared herself for the worst, but her preparations had been woefully inadequate. What the Butcher had done to his victims defied comprehension. People she had known had been reduced to meat in a slaughterhouse. But even beef, pork and poultry had never had to endure what Val Halla saw here. It was like some grotesque art show; molded in flesh, sculpted in bone and painted with blood.
"Ahhh..." came the soft rumbling voice from the back corner of the chamber. "Fresh meat..."
Val Halla barely heard the words. Her stomach twisted like a wash cloth being wrung out by a giant. She doubled over with such violence that she imagined she could have turned a somersault if she hadn't grabbed her knees.
Even as Val Halla was bent over vomiting, the Butcher's cleaver slashed through the air where she had been and embedded in the stone doorjamb.
Instinctively, she rolled away from the doorway, her stomach still heaving, and found herself crouched several paces away, facing the Butcher. Val Halla's training did not fail her. Her bow was in her hand, she had found her tickle spot and an arrow had formed between her fingers. Finding her focus immediately pushed her stomach and all other concerns into the background. She released the arrow, and then another. And then another. Each shot honed her focus to a needle-sharp point.
The Butcher grunted as Val Halla's shots found their mark. He was a massive lump of a demon who filled the entire door frame. The great gray rolls of sweaty fat that hung from his frame reminded Val Halla of bacon grease congealing in a cesspool. Only the fact that he was smeared from horn to claw in blood gave him a maroon complexion. He wore a blood-spattered smock made from the skins of his victims. His face was pig-like, complete with a snout and tusks protruding from under his lower lip. His tiny red eyes glowed with greed for more blood and pain.
The Butcher needed both hands to retrieve his giant meat cleaver from the doorjamb, and that gave Val Halla time to hit him with five more shots. Each impact drew an impatient grunt from the Butcher, but Val Halla seemed unable to penetrate the demon's protective blubber.
Freeing his weapon, the demon advanced. Val Halla leaped backwards and fired again. Her shots found their mark, but again to no avail.
The Butcher raised his cleaver high over his misshapen head, and Val Halla turned and ran. She heard the clank of the cleaver striking the stone floor where she had been and could smell the sparks that leaped to life from the impact.
Val Halla glanced behind her and saw that she had put enough distance between herself and the monster to risk another shot. She turned and sent another volley at the Butcher, but the only thing she accomplished was giving him an opportunity to close the gap between them.
She turned and ran again. This time, the tip of the Butcher's cleaver traced a long slash across the back of Val Halla's left bicep and shoulder. Pain radiated down her arm and across her front and back like a wildfire.
When Val Halla next risked a glance behind her, dread gripped her heart. Despite his mass and lumbering gait, the Butcher was having no trouble keeping up with her. He'd take off her head if she turned and attacked again.
Val Halla darted through a door and tried to slam it shut behind her, but she was a fraction of a second too slow. The Butcher's cleaver turned the door into kindling.
Picking his way through the splintered door slowed the Butcher down and Val Halla dared another shot at him, this time aiming for his glowing red eyes. The Butcher blocked the shot with his cleaver, but the assault seemed to enrage him. Val Halla took to her heels again.
Val Halla's flight carried her through the gloomy halls for what seemed like hours, but was really only minutes. The entire time, she could feel his hot, stinking breath on her neck and back.
As Val Halla swerved to avoid the corpse of a Fallen One she had killed earlier, the Butcher lunged with his cleaver and, this time, caught her in the ribs. "Fresh meat..." he breathed, greedy for carnage.
She managed to twist away enough to avoid a lethal blow, but, even so, the impact sent her sprawling and left her side slick with her own blood. Not daring a counter-attack, Val Halla scrambled to her feet and ran again.
Val Halla forced herself to take stock. The loss of blood was making her a little dizzy, in addition to the pain across her arm, back and side. She had a couple of healing potions, but the Butcher refused to let up even long enough for her to drink one and stop her bleeding. It was only a matter of time before she tired, or made a wrong turn and wound up in a corner. Either way, the Butcher would finish her off with no trouble.
Considering how unconvincing her last attempts had been, turning and fighting him certainly wasn't an option. She knew some magic, but they were basic combat spells: Fire Bolt, Holy Bolt and Charged Bolt. None would be much more effective than shooting him had been, and each would still require her to stand and cast them. She had also found a couple of magic scrolls in a ransacked library. One contained a Stone Curse spell that she couldn't make heads or tails of, and the other was a Fire Wall spell. Fire Wall was a fairly powerful spell and might be enough to do the Butcher some serious harm, provided he could be convinced to stand in it long enough. That was the trick, though. If she cast the spell and ran away, the Butcher would probably just charge through the flames after her, taking only minimal damage in the process. If she stood her ground, Val Halla figured that the Butcher was probably stupid enough and mean enough to stand in the fire roasting while he hacked away at her. But there was absolutely no chance that she'd last longer than he did if she went with that scheme though.
The wide hall gave way to a great pillared chamber. Its far side was lost in the gloom, but standing near the middle of the chamber was a low stone wall surrounding a stairwell leading down.
Val Halla ran for the stairs, hoping to lose her hellish pursuer in the depths of the levels that lay beneath them. Six steps down, she thought she saw something huge and skeletal lurch through the shadows at the bottom of the stairs. Realizing what a bad idea fleeing deeper into the labyrinth was, Val Halla leaped for the far side of the stairwell.
She barely caught the lip of the wall around the stairwell and, for a nightmarish instant, felt her bloody fingers slipping. Her heart was pounding in her throat and her bad arm and shoulder were past ready to give out on her.
Then the Butcher's cleaver buried itself in the stonework between her legs. That was all the incentive Val Halla needed to pull herself the rest of the way up.
The Butcher's fat sweaty hand closed around Val Halla's right foot as she struggled up. It was as if she had stepped in something nasty, but there was a firm, insistent strength beneath the lard. Mercifully, her boot came free in the Butcher's hand and she scrambled to safety over the top of the wall.
Panting, Val Halla reached for one of the healing potions on her belt. She would have only precious seconds while the Butcher backed out of the stairwell and came around after her. She kicked off her left boot. Running through the dungeon barefoot would be difficult, but outrunning the Butcher in only one shoe was more challenge than Val Halla needed. She drank the warm crimson liquid and felt it work immediately. The white-hot pain in her arm, shoulder and side subsided to a thumping red throb.
Val Halla expected to see the demon lumber around the corner at her, so she was startled to see his sausage-like fingers reaching for, but not quite grasping the stairwell wall. She stood and saw him, still on the stairs, trying to leap after her.
"Fresh meat..." he insisted. Apparently, going around was an idea that hadn't found its way out of the blubbery folds of his demon brain.
Val Halla almost laughed, but the Butcher put an end to that when he startled her by jumping up and swinging his cleaver. The filthy metal blade struck the stonework again, creating a shower of sparks and gravel. It was clear that the Butcher's similarity to a hippopotamus extended to his jumping and climbing ability, and this time Val Halla did laugh.
She drew her bow and found her tickle spot. She had never actually shot fish in a barrel before, but she now understood where the expression had come from. She peppered the demon with quicksilver bolts of mental energy as the Sisters of the Sightless Eye had taught her. It had been months since she had last bothered with actual wooden arrows. The only time a true Sister was ever out of arrows was when she was dead, and Val Halla didn't intend to run out of arrows today.
The Butcher's grunts of irritation turned into grunts of pain, but he still wouldn't fall. He used his cleaver to shield his eyes and face, and his blubber protected the rest of him. Val Halla had never known of a creature that could stand being shot so many times and still live. There was a genuine danger that she would wear out her bow before the demon fell.
Then, after many more futile attempts to jump up and come after Val Halla or hit her with his cleaver, the Butcher began to back up the stairs.
A stab of panic ran through Val Halla. She was dead if he got out of that stairwell. She waved and leaned over the top of the wall. "Up here, you greasy, fat son of a bitch!" she shouted. "Come on up and get me!"
The Butcher hesitated and then lunged at her. His cleaver missed her chin by a hair's breadth. He jumped up again and the cleaver produced another spray of sparks against the stonework.
"That's right, you massive boob of the stars," Val Halla taunted, peppering him with more bolts now that she had his attention again. "Shake that bowl full of jelly for me!"
The Butcher obliged her. Each time he tried to jump, the rolls of fat rippled across him like an oily lava flow.
"Fresh meat...." he panted, his blubbery sides heaving. And then he began to back up the stairs again.
Val Halla tore her jacket and vest open, exposing herself to the cold subterranean air. "Here's your fresh meat!" she cried. "Come and take it!"
There was a prolonged silence as the Butcher stood and stared at her.
"Urrr," he judged. "Small."
"Oh, that's it!" swore Val Halla. She unrolled the Fire Wall scroll and invoked the magic it contained.
The stairwell filled with yellow-white flames and the Butcher screamed. Val Halla could actually hear the fat boiling off him.
Val Halla heard the clatter of metal on the stone stairs and knew the Butcher had been startled into dropping his weapon. She drew her bow and a cool silver arrow materialized between her fingers.
The Butcher let out a strangled cry and toppled backwards into the fire as Val Halla's bolt embedded itself between his tiny red eyes. The cry faded away and was replaced by the sizzling sound and a smell that made Val Halla's empty belly cry out for a heaping plate of fresh bacon.
When the magical fires exhausted themselves, the Butcher lay dead at the top of the stairs. A pool of grease surrounded him and ran down the stairs in treacherous, slippery rivers.
"The spirits of the dead," said Val Halla as she buttoned her vest, "are now avenged."
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