Amanita (Act IV)
IT IS GOOD TO SEE YOU AGAIN, AMANITA. Where am I? T W I W E H P O T N G T H V W E O U A T R H E E S I H R L K O A E R N U L T E MEPHISTOS DEFEAT WAS A GREAT VICTORY FOR THE LIGHT E A N T P E Y O V N O P L L H H N N O U I G U L A Y E O E O U L V T V O F M T D E E U Y Who are you? YOU KNOW ME, AMANITA. I AM THE ARCHANGEL TYRAEL. I HAVE RESTED, MY WILL IS STONG AGAIN. PERHAPS IT WOULD BE SAFER FOR YOU TO ARRIVE HERE, A O N R D THE LAST BASTION OF HEAVEN'S POWER E R M E O S N BEFORE THE GATES OF THE BURNING HELLS. ooh pretty I U THOUSANDS OF CHAMPIONS OF THE LIGHT, M MANY OF THEM MORTAL, LIKE YOURSELF, HAVE HALLOWED THESE HALLS WITH THEIR BLOOD LOST IN BATTLE WITH ETERNAL DARKNESS IN A WAR WHICH NEVER TRULY ENDED. Angels bleed? YES. Angels die? YES. I could kill an angel? PERHAPS. Wow AMANITA, YOU MUST PREPARE YOURSELF TO BATTLE DIABLO Oh yeah, him THE LORD OF TERROR HAS GONE TO HIS FORTRESS AND IS CALLING HIS MINIONS TO HIM FOR AN ASSAULT ON YOUR WORLD. YOU MUST DESTROY HIM, AND CLOSE THE HELL GATE AND YOU MUST FACE HIM ALONE What? I HAVE BEEN FORBIDDEN TO AID YOU INTERVENTION IS FORBIDDEN BY HEAVENLY SAVE FOR A FEW BITS OF WISDOM EDICT THIS MUST BE THE HOUR OF ASSISTANCE MORTAL HUMANITY'S TRIUMPH. DISALLOWED COMPLETELY YOU MUST SUCCEED ALONE Alone? TWO MORTALS REMAIN HERE, AND STAND READY TO LEND YOU SUCCOR Can I bring someone else? YOU DESIRE THE COMPANY OF DECKARD CAIN OF HE HORADRIM? Yeah. Will he be safe here? LONG AGO I SWORE AN OATH TO PROTECT THE HORADRIM. HE IS ALSO YOUR FRIEND. NO HARM COULD COME TO HIM HERE. Well... ok
The Pandemonium Fortress was pretty... or maybe "awesome" was a better word. Marble and bronze shone in the light of torches and lamps. Everything was so straight and white and gleaming, I felt cleaner just looking at it. I hoped I wasn't leaving a mark on the floor. Then I looked down. Everything on me was exactly in place, cleaned and polished within an inch of its life. The armor was oiled, the bow had a new coat of wax, there were even fresh strings in my pouch. I didn't know whether to be happy or annoyed.
Once I got him in, Cain was ecstatic about the Pandemonium Fortress. You've never seen anyone so happy to be dragged off to Hell before -- he must not get away from home much. Knowing him, the chance to interrogate an archangel about Horadrim history probably made going to Hell worth it.
"Can you believe this place? Did you ever dare to dream that you'd one day stand upon the crossroads between Heaven and Hell? This is truly miraculous!"
"Yeah. Cain... I'm not so good with all this angelic miracle stuff, so... I was wondering if you could do most of the talking with him?"
"I..." Cain blinked, shaking his head. "Well... I will help you in every way I can. If you do not with to, though I cannot understand why anyone would deny themselves the chance to speak with the archangel Tyrael. Such opportunities do not come often."
"Yeah, I know, it's awesome and all that... I don't know, I just don't feel comfortable."
Cain smiled, and patted me on the shoulder. I didn't quite avoid flinching. "Though well-known for his compassion, the company of angels is seldom a comfort to mortals. But I think something else is bothering you. You never did say what happened to your friend Natalya."
I shrugged. "Frozen and shattered. Happens to the best of us."
He nodded. "A terrible thing to have happen. Who could take comfort in the presence of the eternal, when our own mortality has recently been made so clear?"
"Yeah, whatever. I've gotta get busy. Diablo's in some kind of fortress, it's gotta be near here." I frowned. "He didn't say anything about Baal. Could you ask him?"
With a confused look on his face, Cain nodded, and turned towards Tyrael. I grabbed him before he could say anything. "Not now! Wait 'til I'm gone."
"Amy, this is absurd... if I didn't know you, I would say you were intimidated. Tyrael may seem powerful, and he is, but he will do you no harm!"
"I know. He's an ally. I'm just not an "ally" kind of girl, ok? I know he's compassionate and devoted and eager to help, but I... I just don't want..."
With great compassion of his own, Cain listened to me fluster and blather for a while, then patted me on the shoulder again. I wish he wouldn't do that. "Calm yourself, everything will be all right. It seems to me Natalya's death is bothering you more than you think. Perhaps, in time, you will be able to properly mourn her."
I closed my eyes, counted to ten, and very calmly said, "Cain... can we have a little less of the soppy, get-in-touch-with-your-feelings crap right now?"
"You'll hear no more from me until you are ready. Your journey is far from over. Diablo is in Hell. Only when he is beaten will our world finally have peace."
"Yeah... he's in a fortress, with the Hell gate, calling up an army. Probably got a big crowd with him already. Good thing the angel picked me up before I got there."
Cain's eyebrows rose to his hairline. I envy those eyebrows. "Tyrael picked you up?"
"Yeah, he picked me up. I'm kind of cute sometimes."
Now staring in utter confusion, Cain slowly shook his head. "I see..."
"Said the blind man. Well, sands of time and all that. I gotta get going. See ya!"
I should have known making a joke like that about an angel, especially Tyrael, might offend Cain's sensibilities, but if you're gonna go to Hell it might as well be for a good reason. At the other end of the fortress, two people were waiting -- the mortals, presumably. Halbu was a Zakarumite paladin and smith, Jamella a Zakarumite priestess and mage. Either one alone could have been the most beautiful human being I'd ever laid eyes on. The sight of both together got me to wondering if I could earn some more reasons to be in Hell, but they wouldn't say much to me. Polite, but... maybe they could tell what I was thinking.
I usually don't think like that on a job. Something was getting to me. Maybe it was Natty: there's worse ways to go than freezing, but it's pretty bad. Whatever the cause, there was no time to worry about it now. The Pandemonium Fortress had one gate. Looking down, I saw we were suspended in the middle of a black abyss. Sharing the emptiness was an empty plain not far below, looking as cold and gray and empty as the ashes of love. Naked steps barely wide enough for one person led down.
Sixty-six steps down from the fortress, and I was in Hell. I guess I knew it was going to happen someday. At first, the inferno wasn't blood, flame and nightmares, just dark gray ash and grit that felt like cremated bone. A metallic taste hung in the air, maybe from the fires I could see in the distance. The horizon was completely black. I couldn't see far in the gloom, but there didn't seem to be a single living thing around. Something had been here, at least long enough to build some free-standing pillars and what looked like doorways. None of them were part of anything, or even connected to each other.
There were no obvious threats, so I went to look at a doorway. It was probably a gate, but opening it would take a spell. I didn't mess with it. When I came up to one of the pillars, it opened its eyes and looked at me. A person, as ash-gray as everything else, was melted halfway into the pillar, and more were around the sides. They stared as I paced a slow circle around them, but their eyes were empty, like they were just tracking movement and nothing else. I couldn't tell what sex they were, what race, anything. Everything individual in them was gone. So this is damnation. Looks incredibly dull... which may be the point.
Something rustled in the grit behind me. I dove away as a red-and-gray blur bounced off the pillar and skidded off, kicking up clouds of ash. More came behind it. They looked a lot like the leapers from the desert, but bigger, spikier, and covered with open sores oozing bloody liquid. An odd choice of creature to demonize -- I would have picked Flayers. They were as vulnerable to poison as ever, so I put them down fast. One damned soul took a swipe at me while I was maneuvering, and hit just hard enough to upset me. I paid it back with a bolt in the throat once the leapers were dead. It died too. Are souls in Hell undead? They could die, or at least stop moving... nah, too much thinking. Undead, demons, animals, people -- everything dies if you hit it hard enough.
Hell didn't have many landmarks. One direction looked the same as another. I couldn't get lost with the fortress up in the sky, so I picked a horizon and started walking. It wasn't long before a bloated shape picked itself up and started slouching vaguely in my direction. It wasn't headed towards me, so I held my fire and watched. The creature was big, mostly a huge gut with some spindly limbs pushing it along the ground. Its head was small, perched over a gaping mouth surrounded by feelers. It shambled right past me to a dead leaper, ducked its head, and consumed the body in one gulp.
All right, the thing was gross, but it was just the clean-up crew. It would account for the lack of recognizable remains around here. I was about to move on when it turned towards me, and spat. The dead leaper, already partly digested, arced gracefully over the plain and splattered on the ground behind me. It missed, but the smell almost killed me anyway. Teeth clenched, I barely managed to keep breakfast down, and with my eyes tearing up, shot the biggest moving thing I could make out. Mr. Mouth hurled two more bodies before he died, but I wouldn't expect poison to much bother something with that kind of diet.
Exploring around, I found a few things, none of which made any sense. There were plenty of pillars, with dead guys and without. Some also had big chains draping off them, or running along the ground. Every now and then, I'd find a skeleton hanging in an upright tomb. It probably meant something in some religion's symbology. I just saw a "hung skeleton" and thought of this one Necro joke I heard once. The land had an edge to it, supported by buttresses made of either shiny stone or dull metal. What the buttresses were resting on, I couldn't see -- everything down there was dark. Looking over the edge made my scalp crawl, so I didn't stay long.
There were also a few recognizable demons, wandering around in packs. The most common were Balrogs, one of the biggest, angriest, and stupidest demons around. Poison didn't mean much to them, but they're easy to turn on each other. Just whispering in one's mind "Hey, that guy's been looking at you funny" was enough to start a fight, and I could snipe away to my heart's content. The dangerous ones were rarer: Doom Knights. They're faster and a lot smarter than Balrogs, and almost as poison resistant.
"How are you getting along?" Cain asked me back at the fortress.
"Fine," I shrugged. "It's business. Ran into a pack of Doom Knights, that was bad."
"Dear me! I hope you were not frightened by their skull spirits."
"What? Nah, they weren't that powerful, just curses and poisoned blades. Diablo's probably keeping the big boys closer to him. Speaking of the lesser of evils, have you heard anything about where Baal went?"
"I have spoken with Tyrael. Baal's whereabouts are unknown to him... and he has asked to speak with you himself."
Damn. My stomach knotted up again.
Hi there GREETINGS. THERE IS A TORTURED SOUL WHO WAS TRAPPED WITHIN THIS FORSAKEN REALM AGES AGO. Z U L A WAS HIS NAME AMONG MORTAL MEN. HE WAS MY MOST TRUSTED LIEUTENANT. L N O I AGAINST MY WISHES, HE LED AN ASSAULT UPON THE HELLFORGE L THE RUNEBLADE AZUREWRATH. I T STRENGTH AND VALOR PREVAILED NOT W G AND IZUAL WAS CAPTURED BY THE PRIME EVILS. S TORTURED BY THEIR PERVERSE POWER, E IZUAL WAS FORCED TO BETRAY HIS OWN KIND AND GIVE UP HEAVEN'S MOST CLOSELY GUARDED SECRETS D A E D D N S E F I D E G O S F CORRUPTED BY THE PRIME EVILS, HE BECAME A SHADOW OF HIMSELF R A L O E L N A D E R F L G T E D T I NEITHER HEAVEN NOR HELL WOULD TRUST. E D E L N L D D E D FOR HIS TRANSGRESSIONS, IZUAL'S SPIRIT WAS BOUND WITHIN THE FORM OF A TERRIBLE CREATURE SUMMONED FROM THE ABYSS. HIS MADDENED SPIRIT HAS RESIDED WITHIN THAT TORTURED HUSK FOR MANY AGES NOW, ROAMING THE EMPTY PLAINS OF HELL'S OUTERMOST STEPPES. IT SEEMS TO ME HE HAS SUFFERED LONG ENOUGH. AMANITA, I IMPLORE YOU TO SEARCH OUT IZUAL AND RELEASE HIM. Um... how? DESTROY THE PHYSICAL FORM IMPRISONING HIS SPIRIT AND PUT AN END TO HIS GUILT AND ANGUISH. THOUGH HE NO LONGER WIELDS AZUREWRATH, SUFFERING HAS POLLUTED HIS VISION, AND HE WILL ALMOST CERTAINLY BE HOSTILE. BE CAUTIOUS.
Cain smiled in a way he hoped would be comforting as I came stumbling back. "There, that wasn't so bad, was it? What did Tyrael wish to speak with you about?"
"He wants me to go after his lieutenant Izual."
"Tyrael has asked you to confront Izual the Fallen? He must have great faith in your abilities! But then, why shouldn't he?"
"I dunno. I wonder why he wants me to bother with a corrupted angel, though. You'd figure that would put him beyond redemption, and he should stay locked up. Unless he and Tyrael were more than friends or something."
A frown darkened Cain's brow. I still envy those eyebrows. "I hope I'm not going to hear more innuendo..."
"Hey, love flies out the door when money comes innuendo. Besides, angels probably don't do that kind of stuff. They probably don't have thingies. Demons sure don't. Well, most of 'em. Goats do, and the cat women had boobies..." I glanced at Cain. He was so blanched and sick, I wondered if he'd had a heart attack standing there. "Why don't I head back out right now before I say any more?" He nodded quietly. I went.
By one edge of "Hell", a stairway led downwards to another ashy plain. The bottom of the previous area was solid stone, supported on pillars from the level below... an ash pit the size of a country, built on top of another pit. I'd heard once of the "666 layers of the Abyss," but didn't think that meant literally. Did they build a fresh layer when one filled up? Whatever, this fresh hell looked a lot like the one above: gray, gloomy, and lifeless. The big difference was the cracks in the ground: down here, faint red light flickered up from below.
The demons were mostly familiar too. There were Balrogs and Vomiters, but also some weird things that looked like stiff starfish floating through the air. They were magical, and used their arms to make little crackles of lightning that crawled along the ground. Bizarre, but not a serious problem.
It took a long time to find Izual. I actually found a stairway to the next layer first, but decided to make a clean sweep before I got myself in any deeper. Izual was pretty easy to identify. The body he was in was icy blue, covered with horns and armor, and incidentally, about twice the size of a Balrog. Also, strongly poison resistant. He was too heavy for my bolts to knock back, and too stubborn to run. You'd think an angel would be wise enough to mention little things like that... or that I'd remember to ask instead of wondering if they were making hot, hot angel love back up in Heaven.
I gave Izual a lot of exercise. Say what you will, Heaven knows how to make a prison. I ran him all the way to the stairs up to the fortress and back again, but he just wouldn't die. Finally, I closed and sliced him up with the katar. It still took forever, but at least dodging him kept me from getting bored. Finally the body cracked, then shattered in an explosion of ice chips. A spirit floated free. It was sort of angelic in shape, and almost as bright as Tyrael, but something was wrong... I snapped my shields up in time, just before something hit me.
mortal fool! you mean to stop me?? I think I just did You bounced, pretty-boy i am weak now but when my strength returns you will suffer as no other has! do you think a mortal pawn can affect the outcome of this magnificent game for your world? Sure I can know that it was I who told the PRIME EVILS about soulstones, and how to corrupt them! He was tricked! Who was tricked? he was!! ha! I don't think so fool!! you mock me? Look, you're obviously kind of a lightweight You can't even bring yourself to say Tyrael's name of course I can! I will not sully my lips with it. When are you spirits going to figure out that YOU DON'T HAVE LIPS!?! my body has been destroyed my power has been dissipated but my masters will remember the service i have given them now they plague your world bringing destruction to you from two directions. nothing can stop them. your doom is assured.
He floated away. I've heard that you shouldn't gaze into the abyss, lest the abyss gaze into you too. At his low point, Izual couldn't look into my mind, but I could look into his. Some of what he said was true. He did tell the Three what Soulstones were, and how they worked. But he didn't do it of his own free will. The same pride that got him to charge the Hellforge wouldn't let him understand that the Three broke him. His head turned going against Tyrael's wishes into a clever plan to fool him. Izual's deluded wreck of a mind faded into the distance, giggling about plans and promises made. Then I went down, deeper into the abyss.
The next layer of the abyss looked a little more organized than the ones above. There were buildings there, for one thing. They were all burned up and falling over, with plenty of gaps to snipe through, but urban warfare isn't such a bad thing. The damned were all lined up in rows, with open flat areas on either side. The landscape was in worse shape, though. Lots of big holes were knocked in the ground, and a red glow from below lit up the layer. Bridges went over some of the big gaps. Naturally, I had to look down. The layer below was a pit of bubbling lava, with chunky bits floating in it: just what Hell is supposed to look like. I hocked up a loogie and spit. Never even heard it sizzle.
The first building looked like it used to be a barracks or meeting house. It was empty and roofless now, and half the walls were gone. While I was poking around a gap in the wall, a group of Balrogs on the other side noticed me, and swarmed in. Only two of them figured out they're supposed to walk around the building to get me, not through it. A few Vomiters came to clean up the mess. Once you know what they're going to do, dodging them is easy, and the digestive gunk helps give the place a little color.
Most of the time, the terrain worked to my advantage. Balrogs and Vomiters are both the "big, ugly, and dumb" type, and keep getting lost in the buildings. I could snipe as I pleased through gaps, and quickly put a wall between me and anything smart enough to go around. Everything was going great until I saw the Abyss Knights, undead made from combat mages. They're smart, organized, and like to snipe almost as much as I do, with magic and elemental spirits instead of bolts. One bolt will still kill 'em, but lining up for a shot without making myself a target for the whole pack is tough. At least they can't do anything once they're hit. It's kind of funny watching them cast Bone Armor once they feel the poison draining their energy, like more armor is going to help them.
One ruin was weird: it was built like a cathedral in reverse. The building was square, with thick outside walls. Inside through a double door, most of the floor was a massive glowing red pit that looked like it had been made that way deliberately. An island was out in the middle of the pit, with stained-glass windows in purple and orange around the edges. Most of the windows were broken already, and some big Balrogs were running around inside. When I got close enough, they ran for a bridge and charged. With Abyss Knights, I might have been in trouble, but I can outrun a Balrog any day. My biggest problem was running out of bolts, I wound up putting so many in them.
The biggest pack of Abyss Knights were waiting next to the biggest pit in the layer. More than one high-ranking wizard was there, along with a Balrog lord and his buddies. The opening volley of elemental spirits knocked down half a building -- I ran for my life in among a group of small pits and started attacking mentally. I'd been avoiding the mental side of my options, for the most part. The less I know about what goes on in their minds, the happier I am. Hitting them while keeping my own shields strong is exhausting, so confusing a couple of Balrogs was all I could do. It got most of them out of my hair, so started hitting them a little less frantically. Once I got some of the weaker Abyss Knights attacking their lords, I knew I was safe and went back to sniping. The Balrog lord was the last to go.
In the pit, there were stairs down, into the lava lake. I could see a few small islands down there, but no sign of Diablo's fortress. Next to the pit was... a waypoint? I made a portal and went back to Pandemonium.
"Hey Cain, have you ever heard of demons making a fake waypoint?"
"Ah, hello," he said, looking a bit warily at me. "Is all well?"
"Yeah, it's going fine. Had some trouble with undead wizards, they're dead now. Do you think the demons could make a fake waypoint, and trap it?"
"Hmm... I cannot recall such a thing ever occurring. If you have found a waypoint, that should not surprise you. The Horadrim are known to have entered Hell during the Sin War, and I believe they did construct waypoints for their own use."
"Huh. Wouldn't think that would be safe."
Cain smiled. "I believe the waypoints are enchanted in such a way that they respond to the presence of mortal life-force, which would prohibit demons from using them."
"Unless the demon's possessing somebody, which we know they do."
"Ah." Cain frowned, and diligently studied his shoes. "Well... we know that now. We can hardly blame our predecessors for acting on the knowledge of the time. The rank-and-file demons of Hell surely could not use a waypoint against us."
"For now, anyway. Tyrael said anything else?"
"No. I fear your report of Izual's corruption has disturbed him deeply. I fear it may be possible that Izual deliberately betrayed his fellow angels, which would be even worse."
"I don't think so. I think he got broken, and was trying to justify it to himself. Uh... Cain, I'm sorry about some of the things I said earlier. They were way out of line. I don't even know why I said them."
The old man nodded, vague bafflement on his face. "I am as confused as you."
"I don't know, it's kind of weird. Out there, I hate what I see, but when I come in here, I don't like it either. It's like they're opposites, but I can't stand either of them. Hell is cold and nasty, but this place is so pure and clean and forgiving, I come in here and I start thinking the filthiest things. And I don't know why."
Cain slowly raised an eyebrow. "It has occurred to me that you seem more comfortable in a different setting... something more earthy."
"Yeah, I guess," I shrugged
With a faint nod, Cain smiled. "And like many people of action, you are would rather crawl through a sewer than sit in a church?"
"Well, yeah. I might get something done in the sewer. Speaking of stinking pits, did you know there's a layer of boiling, flaming lava down there?"
"Ah, you are approaching the River of Flame! Diablo's Chaos Sanctuary is there, as is the Hellforge Izual sought to destroy."
"Oh, his fortress's down there! I was wandering around this ruined city looking for him."
"Yes, they are there. The Three are fond of the River of Flame, for they can draw power from its immense heat to use during battle. Now, before you enter Diablo's sanctuary, it is vital that you find the Hellforge. Only there can the Soulstones be destroyed, and free our world from their evil forever!"
"Ok, that'll be important. Diablo can draw power from the fire?"
"All demons can, to some degree... though I understand Andarial is not fond of the flames. Now you must go. I am afraid you will have to venture out onto the River of Flame, and face whatever forces of Hell inhabit that frightful place. Surely your efforts have angered Diablo, but he will not leave his fortress to seek you out."
"No, that would be stupid. And stop calling me Shirley. First, the Hellforge. I'll avoid a direct frontal assault swinging an angelic runeblade, so I should be all right. See ya!"
Sixty-six steps down, and I was standing on an island. The ground was rough and bubbly, and cracked into sharp edges wherever I stepped. The heat was suffocating. Chunks of building stone floated out in the lava, probably fallen from above. There might have been other stuff out there, but I couldn't see more than 10 yards through the shimmering. The other layers of the abyss looked like they'd been built. I wondered who in their right mind would build a giant tub of lava. While I was looking, a burned human skeleton tried to crawl out, then fell back in. The river has as good a reason to exist as anything else down here, I guess. Somehow, they draw power from it all.
There were Abyss Knights down there. They obviously relished the chance to blast me from other islands. Not that I blame them, it was a good strategy, so after a little persuasion to direct their attention elsewhere, I returned the favor. Seeing Vomiters was no surprise, they seem pretty common. The maggots, I didn't expect. I guess they made a good impression on the big D while he was in Aranoch; he imported a whole mess of them to the River of Flame. How they could tunnel through the ground here, I'll never know. Heat from the lava should kill anything, and if that didn't, the sharp ground would.
The islands in the river were connected by bridges, natural or made of cut stone blocks. On some of the islands, I found shrines and even wells, quietly steaming in the heat. Maybe the heat wasn't that bad down inside the islands. The maggots might go down there for some relief. Out in the river, sometimes I could see submerged walls or archways, like there used to be something out there before. Maybe, during the wars, drowning an area in lava was Hell's way of making sure they'd keep it -- sort of like spitting in the cookie jar.
One of the worst fights on the river was an island covered with maggots. I'd had to move around the island and approach it from the other side. Meantime, they'd been breeding like mad and the place was knee-deep in hungry baby maggots. There was hardly room for the Vomiters to move around. My first move was to tell all the starving babies about those big slabs o' juicy flabby meat over there, much tastier than stringy ol' me. My next move was to move around and snipe at the mommy maggots, and a few unhatched eggs. That cleared things a little, and stray bolts killed most of the Vomiters. They killed a few Abyss Knight I didn't notice in all the confusion too. How sad. Again, my biggest problem was running out of bolts. I had to finish the last maggots with the katar.
One of the out of the way islands was built up with a high platform. As I approached, I saw what looked like a blacksmith's forge on top. The smith, a fat grotesque with a green aura, was almost alone. He looked like he could lose some weight, so I shot him a few times and gave him some exercise. One thing about the high-mass demons: they take forever to die. I hate waiting. At least he wasn't running around naked. I do not want to see that.
After clearing out a few Abyss Knights, I had the forge to myself. I had no reason to doubt this was the Hellforge Cain was talking about, but there was really only one way to be sure. Smashing Mephisto's Soulstone before I went after Diablo would be a good idea anyway. If I died in there, at least one of the Prime Evils would be out of commission. One hard hit from the demon smith's hammer shattered the stone. There was a howl in a familiar raspy voice, and dozens of skeletal human spirits escaped and floated away. Maybe they might even float out of Hell. My good deed for the day was done.
Just past the Hellforge was another waypoint. It activated like all the others, and took me back to Pandemonium. Convenient. Past the waypoint was an island with six larger-than-life statues of evil knights, looking at me as I approached. Ooh, spooky. Hovering above the far end of the island was an angel. This one was smaller than Tyrael, and his armor was silvery instead of gold. Maybe that's the difference between archangels and angels.
PROCEED, AMANITA, INTO TERROR'S LAIR. DIABLO HAS CONCEALED HIMSELF WITHIN HIS INNERMOST SANCTUM TO CONFER WITH HIS GENERALS. IN AGES PAST, THEY STROVE AS ONE AGAINST HEAVEN'S WILL AND SHOOK THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE WORLD STRIVING TO OVERCOME ALL THAT IS HOLY. DIABLO'S SANCTUM IS HIDDEN BEYOND THE SIGHT OF MORTAL HUMANITY, PROTECTED BY MYSTICAL SEALS, IN TURN GUARDED BY THE REMNANTS OF HELL'S LAST GREAT ARMY. IT IS GOOD THAT YOU DESTROYED MEPHISTO'S SOULSTONE. NOW, UPROOT TERROR FROM HIS PLACE OF CONCEALMENT AND DESTROY HIM, OR ALL YOU CHERISH WILL BE LOST.
Ok, I was right. It's an angel, one of Tyrael's attendants, here at his master's behest since I won't talk to him myself. I don't think I needed him to draw me a picture, though. Anything like that, I think I can figure out for myself what it is.
Beyond Waypoint Island was a maze of cut stone paths, and a new kind of pain. The Abyss Knights I'd seen before. They love sniping in wide-open areas with difficult terrain almost as much as I do, so the maze was ideal for them. The new pain was the worms. First, there's the mother-thing, a mass of rotting green flesh on four legs. When one sees something good to eat, like me, it rears back and gives birth with all the maternal beauty of a constipated leper taking a dump, and their little wormy spawn comes slithering for me, teeth gnashing. Unlike maggots, they're all demon: fast, full of hate, and hungrier than any actual need for food. I think I was cured of any last vestiges of my maternal instincts.
Speaking of burning into my head... the river was spitting rocks into the air now. Sometimes they came down on the path and exploded. The lava got choppier and a lot more active the further up I went. What was going on down there? Did I really want to know? Dodging falling river rocks, I kept going until I could see a black shape through the shimmering haze in front of me.
Diablo's sanctuary looked just like the picture in my head: tall, buttressed walls with arched doorways, and lots of windows. In fact, it looked like a cathedral in ashy black rock instead of white marble. I kind of liked it, it had a lot of style. Too many windows for a fortress, though. The defenses must be mostly magical. Too bad I don't play that way. The walls had plenty of gouges and holes, and the windows were all broken. Made it easy to see the shadows of the Balrogs waiting in ambush on either side of the door.
Balrogs are easy kills, but take forever to die. The flying starfish are smarter, but not nearly as tough and kind of timid. One time, I confused one enough to think I was its friend. The stupid thing floated over and hid behind me from the other demons. The worst thing in "the remnants of Hell's last great army" was, as always, the upper ranks: Oblivion Mages, also known as a Necromancer's most delirious wet dream. I only met one or two at a time. Each had Doom Knight bodyguards, a typical Necro "wall of meat" strategy. Confusing the guards took several mind blasts, and by the time I'd gotten them fighting each other, I was cursed with something and had at least 2 Skull Spirits on my ass. Even after they got shot, the damned mages kept casting and cursing, right up until they died.
The sanctuary was laid out like a cathedral: a long part leading up to the center where the altar sits, and three wings branching off to the cardinal points. Back when it wasn't a wreck, maybe there were pews lined up to face west instead of east. There wasn't an altar in the center, just a pit emptying into the river, capped with a black iron pentagram. Human skulls littered the floor. Say what you want, you can't accuse the big D of subtlety.
The seals were off in the wings, behind Diablo's army. After a round of "eeny, meeny, meiny, moe" I went straight up the middle. The wing wasn't completely open, but narrowed down to a twisted path through the lava before I got to the one seal. The Oblivion Knights liked the chance to snipe, but so did I, and their guards couldn't get in my way as easily. It was kind of funny watching them fight each other, nothing coming near me. I kicked in the seal with a smile. Hell's best weren't that tough.
On my way out, I saw a Doom Knight, and he saw me. No, wait... that's an Oblivion Mage, without any guards. There's another, and another, and they've got this evil-looking orange aura around them... oh, shit. I ran back to a corner, and looked across the lava, wishing I'd learned how to do super-jumps like the martial artists. Three Skull Spirits came cackling in to make friends with me. Nothing for it: I was in a dead end with only one way out. I ducked my head, ran past the spirits, and took it.
There were half a dozen of the bastards, resplendent in their jeweled and rotting finery. I didn't bother to fire the bow; that would have taken a quarter-second away from running. Where in Hell did these guys come from? Wait... Diablo is conferring with his generals. The Oblivion Mages I killed before must have been lesser officers. Since I broke a seal, he sent the big guys to take care of me. Sending minions is typical of demons, I guess. I'd go with them to make sure the job gets done, but I'm not a demon lord. Well, if I don't have to fight Diablo and his best troops at the same time, I won't argue about it.
Slowly, I inched my way back, until I saw the mages again. They'd stayed in a tight group, and didn't chase me at all -- smart. Also perceptive. One cast a spell, and suddenly my joints creaked and the armor weighed a ton. I gritted my teeth and, as Skull Spirits bit into me, took aim and fired. They spread out, forming a line, and fired volleys of spirits and curses. I ran several times, battered their minds, did everything I could think of, but they would not break formation. Finally, I had to take a portal out, back to Pandemonium. I'd actually run out of healing potions. I don't think that's ever happened before.
I came back by waypoint instead of my gate. I was sure they'd set a trap around it -- that's what I'd do. The gate was still there, so I approached from another side, looking across the lava. Two mages had died while I was gone. Smiling, I ran slowly away, listening to Skull Spirits chattering away behind me, and lined up for a shot. One more died, then another. I got out the katar and charged the last two. They bunched up tight, and both cast curses at the same time; discipline had broken down. A single slash killed one. I backed the last into a corner and pounded his bony face in. Damn, that felt good. You'd think a high-ranking mage would have better magical stuff than leather gloves and a club, though.
The next wing also twisted down to a narrow path, a perfect trap. I really should have seen that coming. There were two seals. Maybe those Oblivion Mages were all the generals Diablo had, but betting my life on it would be stupid. I kicked in the nearest seal and ran like a bunny. Little crackles of lightning chased me along the floor -- flying starfish. I stopped, turned around, and shot them. They flew up to me, made little crackly noises, flew away, and died. General Starfish lasted longer and didn't run, that was about all the difference.
The last wing had two seals, and a lot of Oblivion Mages and Balrogs spread out along the narrow path. Balrogs smash Doom Knights good. Doom Knights smash Balrogs good. Oblivion Mages die very stylishly. I admire that in a wizard. After clearing everyone out, I looked over the seals. Judging from recent trends, when I break the seal, Diablo will send another general after me. I've seen Oblivion Mages and starfish, so this time they're likely to be Balrogs. Balrogs are big, strong, tough, and stupid. Getting cornered by them is bad, but they're so easy to turn it's almost impossible for them to be a threat. I kicked in the seals, and ran to the back corner.
Balrogs appeared, right on schedule. The crowd was huge, at least a dozen of them. I've never seen demons that big in my life. The smallest one was still bigger than anything in the rest of Hell. Obviously, General Balrog didn't choose them for their brains. I opened their minds and told each of them that the guy next to him said something rude about his mother. While they were sorting things out, I ran past into the main sanctuary.
In the minute it took them to figure out that demons don't have mothers, I'd poisoned just about all of them and was waiting patiently. When they came after me, I corrected their misperceptions: it wasn't their mother, it was their sister. They took 3 or 4 bolts each, but I was never under any threat. As the last one burned up and died, the whole sanctuary went red. A howl Cain could probably hear made my ears ring, and a deep voice announced, "NOT EVEN DEATH CAN SAVE YOU FROM ME!" It's official. The Big Red Cheese is in the house.
I put extra venom on my bolts and went to the center of the sanctuary. He'd be there, of course. It wouldn't occur to him to show up anywhere else. The long trip across the world, always in disguise, must have been a terrible strain on him. He needs a nice long rest. As I approached, he came running up to me on all fours. I stepped away just as he charged in, and put my first bolt right in his rosy... er, scaly red butt. The second bolt skittered off. Damn, that's going to be inconvenient if it happens too often.
It wasn't much of a fight, I guess. There was no striding into the infernal maw, standing toe to toe with Evil Itself and smiting it most valiantly. That seemed to confuse Diablo. I think he'd been expecting something else. Don't know why. He ran around, shot lightning from his fingertips and fire from his mouth, but I just didn't come anywhere near him. Every now and then, I put a new bolt in, like sticking a fork in to see if he was done. Finally, he bowed to reason and kicked the bucket like a good boy. That one general of his gave me more trouble.
Diablo's Soulstone was red where Meph's had been blue. Might have something to do with their powers -- bloody terror as opposed to cold hate -- but they smashed just the same. Back at Pandemonium, Cain was almost crying.
"I knew there was great potential for good in you! You have done amazing work!"
"Oh, you weren't sure I was a good person?" I asked.
"No, no!" he said, immediately aghast at his words. I've got to learn not to be sarcastic around Cain, he has a bad habit of taking me seriously. "All I meant was --"
"I know what you meant," I said, giving the poor old bastard a hug. "I was just trying to be cute. I do that sometimes. You should know by now."
Cain laughed, still looking embarrassed. "I am just glad I was able to help you find your way. Our world has never seen such deeds as you have wrought."
"Yeah, yeah. Now, we've done good, but we're only 2 out of 3. Do you or Tyrael have any idea where Baal is? We need to --"
"YOU BOTH MUST RETURN TO YOUR WORLD." Man, Tyrael sounds impressive even when he isn't in your head. "BAAL HAS REMAINED ON EARTH, AND RECOVERED HIS SOULSTONE. WITH ITS POWER, HE HAS SUMMONED AN ARMY AROUND HIMSELF, AND FORGED DEEP INTO THE HIGHLANDS OF THE NORTH. BAAL KNOWS, AS TAL RASHA KNEW, THAT THAT IS THE LOCATION OF THE MYSTIC WORLDSTONE! DIABLO AND MEPHISTO HAVE BEEN BANISHED FOREVER FROM YOUR WORLD. YOU HAVE DONE THIS, AND DONE IT WELL. BUT IF BAAL FINDS THE WORLDSTONE, ALL YOUR EFFORTS WILL HAVE BEEN FOR NAUGHT. YOU MUST GO TO HARROGATH, LAST BASTION OF ORDER ON THE SLOPES OF MOUNT ARREAT, AND STOP BAAL FROM FINDING THE WORLDSTONE!"
I blinked. "Well, crap."
Cain nodded. "Mount Arreat is the highest peak in the northern ranges, and it has long been the most sacred duty of all the disparate Barbarian tribes to protect it. Scholars have long debated why this is so."
"Looks like we just found out."
"It would appear so." He smiled. "There will be much to learn in Harrogath, and perhaps something for you as well. At the very least, we will be back in our world. Heaven's gates are a marvel to behold, but like you, I do not wish to go through them for many years. Let us go."