Thaddeus (Act IV)
We walk together. I never leave, yet
Who is the one walking beside you?
Counting us, I see only you and I
Here on the white road. Ahead of me
There is always another beside you,
Gliding wrapped up in a brown mantle.
I cannot know from where he comes.
Who is that always close by your side?
-- The Book of Haisin, c. 2, v. 1-8
The strange fortress looked empty. One small wing was empty; another held a waypoint -- the Horadrim had been here, at least. Upstairs, Thaddeus found his footlocker, against one wall of the fortress. As he looked around, he saw a huge fireplace, with weapons of great power mounted on the wall surrounding it. Deckard Cain was there, humbly conversing with an angel... the archangel Tyrael. Thaddeus went into his presence in silence.
"It is good to see you again, hero. I welcome you to the Pandemonium Fortress, the last bastion of Heaven's power before the burning hells."
Of course, Thaddeus thought, how could I not have known? "Hail, noble Tyrael. I have just come from Kurast, where I failed in my pursuit of Diablo and Baal."
"Your quest was far from a failure," Tyrael answered. "The Prime Evils' plan has been upset by the defeat of Mephisto. He remained to guard the Hellgate, awaiting Diablo's return to the mortal world with his army. After you entered it, I closed the Hellgate behind you. The last brother, Baal, travels the mortal world alone."
"Baal did not enter Hell?" Thaddeus asked.
"The brothers are divided," Cain smiled. "You have followed Diablo, and Tyrael tells me Natalya is pursuing Baal. Whatever plan they had will not come to pass."
Somewhat reassured, Thaddeus nodded. "What purpose could Baal have for remaining in the mortal realm?"
"That, even I cannot answer," Tyrael intoned. "If fortune is with us, we will never need to know. With the Hellgate closed, Diablo must not only placate his rebellious underlings and gather them for battle, he must create a new gate. Even if this is possible, I know it will take more time than he has."
Cain smiled. "It seems we have a bit of breathing space, my boy. I suggest we use it wisely."
With immense relief, Thaddeus bowed to the angel. "Great and munificent Tyrael! Your tidings gladden my heart. It is also good to know that the Pandemonium Fortress stands yet; these sanctified halls are rich with legends of heroism. It is an honor --"
"Erm..." Cain interrupted, "you have Mephisto's soulstone with you?"
"Yes! It is here." The stone glowed blue with a tiny, writhing spirit.
"It will not contain Mephisto for long. Unless properly destroyed, he will escape into Hell."
"There are many ways to destroy a soulstone... but the Hellforge is the most convenient," Tyrael said. "The Hellforge is a place where raw chaos is harnessed, and any bond of spirit or sorcery may be broken. The Pandemonium Fortress was built here to stage an assault on it, many ages ago... which brings another thing to mind."
"I have heard of the Hellforge, great Tyrael. Is it not on the River of Flame?"
"You are correct. But before you reach there, you face a long journey through the outer steppes of Hell. There, a tortured soul has been imprisoned: my most trusted lieutenant, Izual. It was he who led the ill-fated assault on the Hellforge. Fallen into the clutches of Hell, he was tortured for eons, and told his captors many of Heaven's most precious secrets. For his transgressions, he was imprisoned in the flesh of an ice demon, summoned from the blackest heart of the abyss. Ever since, he has roamed the outer reaches of Hell, unable to leave this place, or to enter the cities of the damned. I think he has suffered enough."
"The tale of Izual is known to me, noble Tyrael. Bearing the crystalline blade Azurewrath, he led a Heavenly host against Hell's fiery legions --"
"Hero, you must go forth and find Izual. The demon imprisoning him must be broken, and his soul set free. Then, you must proceed to the Hellforge."
"Yes, exalted Tyrael, I shall. Though I wonder if I can succeed, going where angels would fear to tread."
"Hell has been in disorder ever since the Three were exiled," Cain said. "I think you will find no organized resistance awaiting you."
"I can provide you with no assistance, save a few bits of wisdom. This must be mortal man's triumph alone -- your triumph."
My triumph or my death, Thaddeus thought. "My quest is before me. I only hope I can complete it as I intend to. Thank you, grand and glorious angel, for your confidence and the hope you bring me."
Downstairs from the fireplace, Thaddeus met two great heroes of legend. Halbu was a master forger for the church of Zakarum, martyred in a surprise attack from Duriel's forces on Kurast, ages ago. The other was Jamella, an enchantress and court scribe who died long before the church was founded. A virtuous and righteous pagan, her presence was all the proof anyone would need that the church was not the only way to Heaven. Both had goods for sale; the necessity of coin struck Thaddeus as odd. One would think that these elevated souls would have been left such material attachments behind.
Both seemed mildly amused by Thaddeus, but neither of them spoke to him, apart from Halbu offering to clean and repair his equipment. He was about to refuse, as he should not need it, when Halbu plucked a rotten banana peel off his head. Mud, dung, and rotten bananas were dripping off Thaddeus onto the Pandemonium Fortress's pristine floors. He was so awestruck, he never noticed he was leaving a trail. Deeply embarrassed, he let Halbu do the work; Jamella definitely giggled. Will I ever appear before an angel when I'm not covered with filth, Thaddeus wondered? That might be difficult to arrange in Hell.
A single stairway, floating in a void, led from Pandemonium down onto Hell's outer steppes. Hellish instruments of war lay scattered about in ruins, reminders of past attacks on the fortress. With as few defenders as the fortress had now, Hell could take it easily, if there were any armies to commit to the effort. As Thaddeus entered Hell, the only sound was the granular, ashen soil crunching under his boots. Nothing appeared to notice him. Stopping to look around, Thaddeus noted that not all the structures were war machines; some were the ruins of buildings, their construction similar to the Pandemonium Fortress itself. While looking at a steel archway equipped with chains fit to restrain a giant, Thaddeus heard something approaching -- something that sounded just like the desert Leapers.
They were Leapers, just like the ones from the desert, and from Kurast. As far as he knew, they had never been encountered in Hell before; were these some lingering remnant of those Diablo had taken with him to Kehjistan? They looked like they were starving; perhaps they had escaped during their transferal, and now wandered loose in Hell, trying to find something to eat. Demon flesh was poisonous to natural creatures; Thaddeus was probably the only thing fit to eat in all of Hell, and it looked like they'd guessed it.
Though it was a pity, Leapers are just animals, and Thaddeus killed them without concern. While casting Blessed Hammer, moving about to spread the hammers, some genuine demons caught sight of him: Venom Lords. No one could mistake these creatures for a beast of nature. Tall and powerful, armed with huge scythe-like blades, they looked like everything a demon should look like - but were famously weak in battle. Their bulk made them ponderous, slow to react and easy to block. Though Hell's fires burned within them, it only took a few holes to let the flame out, where it would consume their bodies to the bones instantly.
When the battle was over, Thaddeus found his first damned souls. Melded into a stone column, they stood as he approached and started clawing at the air, trying to reach him. He had heard of these damned ones, those condemned by the sin of Envy. Never satisfied with what they can accomplish, these sinners always compare themselves with others. Vanity and bitterness poison their souls, weighing them down with their own inadequacy until they plummet into the abyss. As their lives were spent anxiously looking and listening, in Hell they are put to use as watchers. Thaddeus moved past; there was nothing to do for these poor souls. Even beating them to pieces would serve no purpose.
Demons were everywhere on the steppes, and undead as well. Skeletal knights attacked in slow-moving but disciplined units; trapped souls screamed within their blades, dripping with foul venom. Blessed Hammer struck them down easily. The souls of sinners lay scattered over the empty plains too, on the ground where the demons trampled them. Some were in pairs: those taken by the sin of Lust. So lost were these souls in pleasures of the flesh, they actually felt that the only way to escape temptation was to give in to it. Others lay face down in the ashes, clutching some minor treasure, usually a sackful of coins. These ones were lost to Avarice, greedily clutching their wealth as if it were the only thing in the world. None of them cared about anyone but themselves, so they lay naked and exposed on the open plains; even the demons didn't care enough to pay attention to them.
Outside the ruins of a cross-shaped mockery of a church, huge braziers held those consumed with the sin of Pride. As blind as they were to the virtues of others, they now provide illumination in the meanest, humblest way -- as kindling. Burning eternally to light the way for others, these prideful souls rail and writhe in pain and shame. As he passed by, Thaddeus could hear a few claiming they were far too good for this. If these demons had any brains, they'd realize their talents for evil merited far better consideration. A desk job, at least. The vanity of it struck Thaddeus as utterly absurd... until he remembered that vanity was exactly why these people were here.
Not all the condemned were so loud. Those doomed by Gluttony hang in cages until they waste away to mere bones. The sin of Sloth is the monk's sin, one priests must especially beware of. Many, disgusted with humanity, turn away from their responsibilities to their fellow human beings and become hermits, striving to maintain their own purity by avoiding temptation. By trying to escape sin, they fall into the sin of pure selfishness; in Hell, the slothful are put to use weapons and instruments of temptation. The less said about the latter, the better; demons love to put former priests to the most depraved uses.
By the time he found the stairway down to the next layer of the abyss, Thaddeus had seen every sin but Anger. Those lay ahead, where they burned forever in the River of Flame, not realizing the river was nothing but their own all-consuming wrath. The Hellforge was on the river, drawing its heat from the destruction of angry souls. Thaddeus would know the river well before he was done in Hell; very few living people had been there. Beyond it, a ring of fortifications surrounded even deeper hells; Diablo would probably take sanctuary in one, to gather his forces and establish a new link with the mortal world.
"They cast me out from their presence.
Shall I ever look again upon thy temple?"
She said, "When my soul fainted within me,
I sang and prayed to the Light; I was heard.
Arise, and go to that great city we know
Proclaiming the glory and joy of the Light.
Your persecutors are now ashes and rust,
Only a sad remembrance of long past days."
-- Visions of Akarat, c. 42, v. 9-16
Of course, nowhere in Hell is truly empty. As might be expected, the plains were given over to the dead and those who live upon them. When Thaddeus saw a faint glow, cast by no light source he could see, he knew what it was: a Will o' Wisp, like the ones from Kurast's swamps. Drifting about and crackling with electricity, a pack of these creatures can be very dangerous for the unprepared. Floating creatures that looked like giant scale lice, or perhaps a giant's ribcage that had taken on a life of its own, came behind them. These creatures also cast lightning attacks, little trails of bolts that crept along the ground. Both fell quickly to Blessed Hammer; they must be undead.
The grotesque things that came to gnaw on their shattered bones were resiliently, horribly alive. None of Zakarum's texts mentioned these. A flabby, pale body was supported by four legs, all bent backwards, like a human being "crab-walking." Under a blank face with three long horns, pendulous breasts hung, with a gaping red opening taking up most of the thing's underside. Their appearance was nauseous, but as a few approached Thaddeus, they added a whole new level to their grotesquery: each gave birth, pushing a tiny worm-like young out into the world with all the maternal beauty of the painful aftermath of a "beans, broccoli, and cabbage" feast night for someone with life-threatening hemorrhoids. The young ones, hungry mouths gnashing, rushed Thaddeus. After reflecting for a silent moment on Hell's endless ingenuity, he dropped to one knee to cast Blessed Hammer.
The young died easily; the mother things less so. Sending a cloud of hammers whirling would get them eventually, but they didn't often approach close enough to make the attack really effective. They preferred to let their young go in first; perhaps they'd been wandering the plains looking for food, and wouldn't spit out their young until they found one. The ash-grey souls scattered around didn't seem fit for their consumption, yet. Once souls have "ripened" enough in their despair and desperation, the lords of Hell deem them fit to be ripped to pieces and reassembled in new, ever-more disgusting forms. Or simply devoured, to fuel the ever-hungry fires that burn within every demon.
Apart from the episodic terror of battle, the plains were the most tedious stretch of ground Thaddeus had ever had to cover. Even the deserts of Lut Gholein were never this empty; there was always some bit of life to take comfort in. Thaddeus never thought he'd see the day when he'd miss scorpions. They were nasty and ugly and venomous, but at least they were natural creatures, not actively malicious. And having thought that, he ruefully realized, Hell would immediately set to work making scorpion monsters. At one point, it became so dull he actually spoke with one of the dead souls littering the ground.
"What do you have there?" he asked an avaricious soul.
"It's mine! You can't have it!" the soul screamed, covering something with its body.
"There is nothing you can use it for, here. You're devoting eternity to something that does you no good."
"IT! IS! MINE!!! It's all I have! Who cares for you, I've got it and it's MINE!!"
'It' was probably three coppers, or a cheap piece of jewelry. It amused Hell to see a miser clinging to the last bit of his collection, only because it was his last. Perhaps an alternate strategy would be more helpful. "How many of those did you have, once?"
With a low growl, the soul clutched about its treasure tighter. "You're just trying to find out what it is, aren't you? Don't even try!"
"You're very clever," Thaddeus told him. Or her. It was hard to say.
"Very clever, cleverer than you! I had thousands. Millions!"
"Truly, you must have been wise in the ways of commerce."
"Kings were at my feet! Dukes at my call! They pressed about me, only a fool wouldn't take them for all they had! Oh, how the money rolled in! Oh, my glory, my glory, the power I wielded with but a single word..." The soul's voice trailed off into mutterings.
"What did you do with it all?"
"Do? What's to do? Get more, that's what to do!! Money is for investing, to get more money! And more, and more! Don't look at me like that, preacher-boy! I gave tithes, my bishop was always glad to see me. A sound investment, a ticket to Heaven! All sins may be forgiven when Heaven is glorified with golden chalices..."
Thaddeus nodded. "Did you have a family? Children?"
The soul spat dust on the ground. "Ingrates! Ungrateful wretches!!"
At the seminary, Thaddeus had heard of a poison described as 'inheritance powder,' useful for getting rid of inconvenient relatives standing between you and a legacy. Whatever family this person had, Thaddeus guessed they took after him in the worst way. The soul was still ranting about spiteful children; Thaddeus didn't want to hear any more, so he kicked its head off. At least this way, Hell would not get the use of it. The treasure was a chipped bit of diamond. Staring at it, Thaddeus shook his head; gems have value in their use. The gems sitting in his locker are valueless, so long as they stay there.
While laying a group of Flesh Mothers (as Thaddeus decided to call them) to rest, a loud bellowing shook his concentration. A huge blue demon, armed with a gigantic blade, slowly came out of a deep pit. Its body seemed to be made of ice or crystal, and a bluish-white spirit could be seen struggling inside. As Thaddeus disposed of the last Flesh Mother, the crystal demon raised its blade and let out a great blast of chilling cold. Perhaps it was ice, surely a rarity in the fiery pit. The ice demon looked dangerous, so Thaddeus lured it back to an empty area, where he'd be able to deal with it without interference.
This demon had to be the one imprisoning Izual. First, Thaddeus cast Blessed Hammer, to see what the hammers would do. They went through with little effect. Physical attacks might be more fruitful, so he zealously bashed away at it. That was better, but the demon still barely noticed. Perhaps the fires of vengeance would help, so Thaddeus called on the spirits of his brother and sister Paladins to smite the demon. Was his arm not strong enough? Nothing seemed to slow it down. Finally, Thaddeus backed away and brought out his maul. A few blows from a sledgehammer might do the trick.
A full-body charge with the maul stunned the demon, and some chips broke away from its body. His blows were damaging it, but it would take a long time to break it. Fortunately, the demon was fairly slow and easy to outwit; Thaddeus could take his time. Every now and then, it would release another frost explosion, but beyond that it was no threat. Eventually its crystalline body shattered under repeated blows, and an ethereal spirit floated up from its remains, laughing and free. Laughing, at least...
"Tyrael was a fool to have trusted me! AH HA HA HA!!"
Sensing that all was not well, Thaddeus cleared his throat. "Hail, noble Izual?"
"Hello, tiny mortal." Izual smiled, obviously immensely pleased with himself. "An obedient servant to the last, like Tyrael and every other idiot in Heaven!"
Thaddeus frowned. "Am I to understand that I have been misinformed?"
That bought even more peals of laughter. "'Misinformed'! A truly impressive capstone to the monument of lies your church is! You place your faith in Heaven. Heaven abandoned you to us, to save themselves!"
"And 'us' is... ?"
"I am the one who told the Three Brothers how to corrupt the soulstones. Now they are batteries and conduits for Hell's power. This was a plan we set in motion centuries ago, and nothing can be done to stop it. You, and all your kind, are doomed."
What a proud defilement this angel is, Thaddeus thought. "What could you possibly hope to gain by this?"
"Power, tiny mortal. I will be master of Hell's legions, overrunning and crushing Heaven and all their hosts. When our plan bears its full fruit... nothing can stop us."
Now Thaddeus thought, what a stupid angel! "You hoped to get power from the Prime Evils, angel? Every Fallen One they hurl at their enemies hoped to gain power from the deal! Your future is to be nothing but an above-average slave."
"You DARE speak to me thus!!?!" the angel roared, its ghostly wings flailing in the air. "Do you think you know anything of power, or what we have in store for you? I am not a fool to be taken in by offerings of gold or petty temptations! When I speak with The Three, I speak as an equal!!"
Without a body, Thaddeus knew the angel was no threat, no matter how angry it got. "An equal. They do not even treat each other well. Do you expect them to let you rule in Hell?"
"Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven," Izual snarled, and floated off into the sky.
Another being, turning to darkness seeking power and freedom, Thaddeus thought. What is it that convinces some that evil means freedom? That they will be allowed to go where they please, and do whatever their black hearts desire? To fall in with darkness is to become a slave; every Fallen One has learned that. Somehow, Thaddeus was not surprised that Izual did not survive his torture and long imprisonment uncorrupted. What on earth or in Heaven cannot be corrupted? Allying with the Prime Evils was unexpected, however. Izual probably was very powerful, and would make the Three an excellent slave. He might even manage to convince himself he was really the master.
Casting a portal to return to the Pandemonium Fortress, Thaddeus reflected on the fallen angel. If ever he'd heard the sin of pride speak, he'd heard it today. A very proud spirit might imagine he could ally with Hell and come out something more than a servant. And in falling, Izual's betrayal would aid Hell's cause immensely. Tyrael was glad when Thaddeus told him he'd found Izual, but greatly concerned when he heard Izual's words.
"I thank you for your mercy on Izual... he was a cherished friend, and faithful companion. Or so I thought. If what you say is true, I have been played for a fool all along."
"We have all been played for fools!" Cain said. "This is terrible! All the sweat, blood, and tears the Horadrim shed pursuing the Three were nothing but part of their plan!"
"This was not a simple plan, I fear," Thaddeus said. "I must confess, I have wondered why Baal chose to remain in the mortal world, when he could easily have returned to Hell."
"He lacks his soulstone, so his power will be limited," Cain said.
"That may not be true," Tyrael murmured. "Baal's soulstone was last in the possession of a weak and fear-filled man. I instructed him that he must take the stone into Hell and destroy it... but this has not happened."
"Tyrael..." Thaddeus cleared his throat. "The journey into Hell is not for the faint of heart."
"No, it is not," the angel bowed his head. "In my haste and alarm, I may have expected too much. Hero, continue your quest. Destroy Mephisto's soulstone, then find and defeat Diablo, wherever he may have hidden himself. Do so with haste, for you may have to seek out Baal as well."
"Don't worry," Cain smiled, patting Thaddeus on the shoulder. "Natalya will seek out Baal, wherever he is. You may not have to at all."
"I hope it can end here," Thaddeus muttered. "I must return to the battlefield. There is no time to waste. I shall return."
After he was gone, Cain said to Tyrael, "Natalya at least slowed him down, I hope?"
"Not enough, I am afraid," Tyrael said. "Baal's personal bodyguard, headed by Lister the Tormentor, was too much for her. His rampage of destruction continues, across Entsteig, and into the Barbarian highlands."
Cain's eyes widened. "Towards Mount Arreat?"
"There is nowhere else he would go."
Below the Plains of Despair, a city lay in ruins. Fallen souls were abundant here, hanging from every building, or stuffed into holes in the broad avenues like paving stones. Balrogs and lightning bats were common, along with a new sort of demon. These were fat, shuffling things with enormous mouths surrounded by tentacles. They could lurch into battle quicker than Thaddeus would have thought, and hit fairly hard; there was obviously a lot of muscle under that blubber. However, their most disagreeable trick was to devour a fallen comrade and spit it back out, half-digested and with great force. A 300-pound meat missile covered with poisonous digestive juices was an impressive way of dealing with a foe. This indelicate tactical maneuver moved them to the top of Thaddeus' "To Be Killed" list, as there were no Flesh Mothers in the city.
The city of the damned had obviously been overrun many times, but no one ever bothered to fix anything. That might involve work, Thaddeus guessed. Even worse, it might make the city a comfortable place to live and take the edge of the demon's anger, and we can't have that, can we? In the city, he found roofless, empty houses, shops selling nothing, and star-shaped church mock-ups covered with filth. Demons came clawing out of every corner; even the damned souls seemed to want a piece of him. After a great deal of effort, he explored every inch of the place, but couldn't find a way further down. Then he looked into one of the glowing red pits scattered about.
It was a soul-searing sight... the River of Flame. Even from a distance, is was painful to behold, burning bright and terrible. Shimmering waves of heat rose from below, carrying with them the roar of the fire's anger and the screams of the damned. A narrow stairway led down, to a small island of something solid in the middle of the flames. As he stood staring into the abyss, one of the souls crushed into the ground spoke to him.
"Scared to go down there?" the soul asked, in a neighborly sort of way.
"Only a fool wouldn't be," Thaddeus said. "I suppose you disagree."
"What makes you say that?"
Thaddeus stared at the lustful soul in disbelief. These were naked souls; all their flaws of character could be clearly seen by anyone. "Just a wild guess."
"Don't you think you're being a little quick to judge?" The soul smiled, in what it hoped would be an ingratiating way. It looked like a leer. "I'm not a bad person; I have no idea why I'm down here. I'm sure this is all a mistake."
"You think so," Thaddeus said, wondering why he was wasting his time with this.
"Sure! Listen: why should Hell even exist? I mean, what's the point?"
Thaddeus felt a headache starting to come on. "That's rather a pointless question."
"You don't get it, do you? Why bother with this 'torture people for eternity'? Nobody gets anything from it. It doesn't make any sense!"
"So, the place where you are has no reason for being... and what has happened to you has no reason for happening?"
The soul shrugged. "Look, you're a Paladin, right? Answer me this: why should the universe care how I live my life?"
Thaddeus sighed. "Hell is not here for a purpose. Hell is, and Heaven is. To think that your torture has a purpose beyond the temporary satisfaction of a demon's malice is flawed in a fundamental way."
"The way I see it is this," the soul continued, as though Thaddeus never spoke. "Each of us is responsible for ourselves, right? So if someone gets upset over what I do, that's their fault! They don't have to get upset about it. What I do is my business, what they do is theirs, they have no right to impose their standards on my life."
"So: all men are islands. Our lives never touch anyone else's. Therefore, we can do as we please, and if someone doesn't like it, it is their responsibility, not ours."
"Exactly! Why should anyone care what I do? I never hurt anybody. They're just trying to impose their standards on me."
"Heaven forbid," Thaddeus said. "I suppose your philosophy must give you some comfort. It seems that the universe has not been working in a reasonable manner, in accordance with your wishes, and owes you an apology. If you will excuse me, I have no time to waste."
As Thaddeus started down the stairs, the soul called after him, "What kind of bullshit was that! You think you're better than me?! Then why are you down here, huh? You're in Hell too, you know! You think you're so great, why are you in Hell too, huh?!"
Thaddeus stopped and looked back. "I'm a tourist, not a resident." He continued down, ignoring the fading cries of the damned.
The humble stone dost not know
Why hammered chisel cleaves it.
The hard iron dost not know
Why fiery flame scorches it.
When thy life is cleft and scorched,
Death and despair leap at thee,
Wilt thou beat thy anguished breast,
Howl and curse thy evil fate?
Give thy thanks in humble prayer
For the trials that wilt shape thee!
-- The Book of the Hammer, c. 9, v. 11-20
Angry heat pulsed up from the River of Flame, and not just on a physical level. Every ebb and flow seemed to howl with rage, directionless and without focus, a boiling pit of wrath from which Hell derived much of its power. At times, the crust on the surface would clear, and Thaddeus saw a few souls in the river, fighting and tearing at each other. Every now and then, one tried to leap out; its fellows dragged it back down for more punishment. No, falling in would not be a good idea. Even if the heat didn't kill him, he might never get out again. These suffering dead, consumed with anger at everyone and everything around them, would hold him down for no better cause than sheer spite.
Several islands bobbed in the suffering, with demons clinging to their surfaces. Thaddeus wondered if they ever tried poling them through the river to get from place to place, or if they were content to sit and drift. Then he noticed the bridges, made of some clinging slime and coated with the same stuff as the islands. A group of Flesh Mothers came across to him, whelping as they approached. Kneeling to set the hammers spinning, he wondered what a male of these creatures looked like. They probably didn't need males; matters of the flesh only interest demonkind when they can use them to get their hooks into a mortal soul.
Also on the islands were some of the giant poisonous bugs from Lut Gholein's deserts, living off who-knows-what down here. They and their offspring were hungry for mortal flesh. To complete the experience, the spitting fat demons joined them all. Any of the various young Thaddeus killed, they would suck up and spit back. Thanks to the Flesh Mothers and the bugs, there was never a shortage of bodies. By keeping Blessed Hammer spinning almost constantly, Thaddeus made his way along the islands without much mishap, occasionally stopping to zealously bash some worm the hammers missed.
So long as he kept safely away from the edges of the islands, the River of Flame was hectic rather than dangerous. The swarms of little beasts fell easily to a rigorously applied Blessed Hammer cloud. In spots, he found solid ground, permanently built up from the bottom of the river. These permanent islands held profane temples, full of blood and pentagrams, or walled areas suitable for staging troops. A named Strangler attacked, but the hammers killed it and its minions very quickly. Thaddeus was growing troubled, though; on his next trip back to the Pandemonium Fortress, he confided in Cain.
"Cain... have you had any luck talking with Halbu or Jamella?"
"No, I'm afraid. Though I have spent many an hour with Tyrael. He has been kind enough to answer many questions, so long as I remember what not to ask. The ways of Heaven will always be a mystery for me, I fear, while I am in this world." Cain looked around. "Well, not THIS world, but... oh, you know what I mean."
"Yes," Thaddeus smiled. "I find it difficult to speak with Tyrael."
"We both noticed that. You're not shy about praising him."
"He is worthy of great praise. But an angel is not someone you just... chat with."
"Oh, no," Cain shook his head. "It is difficult to feel comfortable around angels, and those who have joined them."
Thaddeus nodded. "The only others I have spoken to are the condemned. Perhaps they are more accessible, but I don't want to speak with them any more."
Cain chuckled. "Not your sort of people?"
"Sometimes they are. In the River of Flame, I recognized one of my teachers."
"Oh! That must have been a shock."
After a moment's thought, Thaddeus shook his head. "No, it wasn't. Sister Ermeda was a nun from my seminary, always ready with ruler or rod. She strongly believed that physical pain was the best way to impart virtue. Her memory for insults was long, even the ones she only imagined, and she had no forgiveness in her. I have no good memories of her... and I hate myself for standing here judging her, saying her fate does not surprise me."
Cain nodded slowly. "You cannot help using your own judgment, especially for someone you know so well..."
"No, no. Everyone judges those around them, that happens constantly. But I have been thinking about judging others, and the things that happened in Kurast."
"What do you mean?"
"This may not be right... it is only an idea... but I think the Hand of Zakarum was deceived because they were encouraged to judge others, but only see the bad things in them. It is easier to see the bad, particularly if you seek it out. The church became a sort of negative church, for whom evil was infinitely more real than good."
Cain nodded. "No one would contest that, I believe."
"By encouraging them to see only the bad in others, to judge, and act on that judgment, Mephisto infected the church with hate, and the rest of the world responded in kind. The pillars of the church should be faith, hope, and love. I told Asheara that, and I'm starting to see the true meaning of it myself."
Glancing over, Cain noticed that Tyrael seemed to be listening. "Go on, please."
"My faith has taken a terrible battering on this journey. At times, I felt lost. Hope nearly abandoned me once I began to see the design of the Prime Evils' web of deception. And as far as love goes... most of what I've done, I did out of duty, not a love of humanity. Love? I don't even like most of the people I've met."
"Well... just because you don't like someone doesn't mean you dislike all of humanity..."
"No, Cain," Thaddeus shook his head. "Love should not be that abstract. What good is it to say you love humanity, but don't like humans? One wag once said, 'I love humanity! It's people I can't stand,' but that's not a good way to think."
Cain chuckled. "Instead of loving humanity, try treating your friends a bit better."
"That is a beginning," Thaddeus smiled. "But how to treat them well? Sometimes, they do wrong. If I say nothing, they take it as tacit approval. If I speak out against it, I seem like a moralistic busybody. I ask you, Cain: is there anyone more odious than those who torment us for our own good?"
Chuckling, Cain shook his head.
Thaddeus grinned. "I've gotten off track. Of the three things, faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love. I'm not going to learn to love humanity from the condemned in Hell; they excite pity, but if anything seem to be souring me on the rest of humanity."
"I suppose they are not examples of the best in human nature," Cain mused.
"They're self-interested, violent, manipulative, proud, hateful whiners."
Cain patted Thaddeus on the shoulder. "And yet, you can pity them. Many would respond with hate and contempt. Tell me, how did your sister Ermeda react to you?"
"I'm not sure if enough remained of her mind for her to recognize me. In her present place, mindlessness may be a blessing."
"Even now, your thoughts towards her are merciful. Let me try a small exercise with you, one that I was given in my long-distant youth."
"A lesson?" Thaddeus asked.
"Yes. Do you remember the Rogue's encampment?"
"Yes, very well."
"Find something good to say about... Kashya."
"She kept her head when all about her were losing theirs, and had the courage to retreat when it would save lives, even at the cost of her own honor."
"Very good. Now say something good about Gheed."
Thaddeus paused, thinking. "He lusts for gold and drives a hard bargain, but you get what you pay for. His wares are not false."
"Interesting. Now, something about Geglash."
Thaddeus smiled. "He's a very funny fellow. In times of trouble, we need funny fellows to keep our spirits up."
"How about Elzix?"
"Another funny fellow, who will not betray a confidence or hold a grudge. My possessions were safe in his hands. Or, hand."
Cain chuckled. "I don't believe you dislike humanity at all. Now a hard one: Asheara."
After taking a deep breath, Thaddeus thought. And thought. And thought. Finally, he looked up. "She's got a really nice set of knockers."
"Ahem!" Cain stammered, "I suppose that's true..."
"No, really! She is hot, she sizzles, I freely admit it. If she were less... I mean, if she had more of a... if she were a completely different person from what she is, I'd like her a lot."
"You don't need to convince me. It seems to me you have no difficulty seeing the good in others... perhaps your trouble lies in expressing yourself."
Thaddeus rolled his eyes. "Stop preaching?"
"You never started, my boy. I think you need to relax a bit, and share your thoughts with others more often. Why, I don't think any of those people know you think so well of them."
Thaddeus hung his head. "I admit, I am a bit reticent. And perhaps too serious."
"And spending far too much time talking about it," Cain said. "Meditate on this, but not for long; not while Diablo still roams free in Hell."
"Ah! How long was I standing here, wasting time? Forgive me, I must go."
After Thaddeus ran off, Tyrael said, "He is still very much attached to the earth, and misses the company of those like himself."
Cain raised an eyebrow. "How could it be otherwise?"
"True. Few so young can separate themselves from worldliness. Soon, he will be able to return to your world, and perhaps take some lessons with him from Hell."
"If he survives. That is in question."
"Of course. If he survives."
Pushing further along the river, Thaddeus soon found a huge floating island. The rhythmic pounding of metal could be heard over the river's roar. Approaching cautiously, Thaddeus slowly made his way through crowds of Hell-spawned larvae until the Hellforge came into sight. Working at the forge was a huge, fat demon, its features a distorted mockery of an angel's beauty. From what he knew, this was Hephasto, a warrior of Heaven who fell from grace. The Prime Evils twisted his body and soul, shaping him into something more suitable to their purposes. All enemies who came near him lost their resistance to Hell's heat, even other demons. As his hammer was always white hot from the Hellforge, this made combat with him particularly dangerous.
After disposing of one last Flesh Mother, Thaddeus ran away, feigning injury. The armorer followed, giggling and drooling in anticipation. When he'd reached a safe distance, Thaddeus took up his maul and charged, battering him back to the edge of his island. Stunned by the powerful blows, Hephasto stood there helplessly; with nothing to distract him, Thaddeus could pound away at the fallen angel with impunity. After he fell, Thaddeus took his hammer (cooled by now) and a few other items back to the Hellforge. Hephasto was making great demonblades, each infused with a damned soul.
"help us! no! please, make it stop!" voices wailed from the pile of weapons.
I wonder if Izual knows the fate of his predecessor? Thaddeus mused. "You there, in those blades. I can offer you nothing but quick destruction."
"help us! please!" they continued.
"You are lost, I fear. I can offer you nothing but death."
They all went silent. Except one. "i don't understand! i did nothing wrong!"
Sighing, Thaddeus asked, "What did you do that was right?"
"my life was virtuous!" the thin voice whimpered. "i followed every word of the sacred texts to the letter! i don't deserve to be here! help me!"
The wailing began again. Being trapped in those poison-infused blades must be sheer agony for naked souls. "I know nothing of your lives, or how you came to be here. The only thing I can give you is an end to your suffering."
"i couldn't save the world... i was just one man," the voice said. "all i could do was save myself from the world..."
Thaddeus nodded sadly. "Does that seem selfish, now that you look back on it?"
There was a silence, and some of them began sobbing. "yes. it was," a voice said.
"I fear it was. And now, there is only one mercy I can offer you."
One tiny voice said, "thank you. i am ready."
Thaddeus broke each blade on the Hellforge, pounding them to shards with the armorer's mighty hammer. Sometimes, wisps of soul would float away and dissipate in Hell's feverish air. A few times, an intact soul floated away, up into the sky. What caused this, Thaddeus wondered? Maybe there was hope for redemption after all, even in Hell itself. After he had broken everything Hephasto had made, Thaddeus took out Mephisto's soulstone and sat it on the Hellforge.
"Lord of Hell, most contemptible of all the infernal forces, I hope I see the last of you here. I know that you have succeeded in bringing great suffering to the world, and this will be no more than a temporary inconvenience for you. You have destroyed a church with hate. You have not destroyed faith. Even knowing you will return, we will rebuild, for we have not lost hope. And nothing you do, nothing at all, will touch the love we bear for each other. All the hate, destruction, and terror you unleash will amount to nothing in the end."
Taking up the hammer, Thaddeus grinned despite himself. This was going to feel damn good. Mephisto's soulstone shattered into a million pieces, and dozens of trapped souls floated up and away from the forge. Feeling very satisfied, Thaddeus left the hammer there. It would be tempting to try to destroy the forge, but not yet. He still needed it for Diablo.
Throwing off his disguise, Lechiem said,
"Let the names of all who fled from this sham
Be stricken from the rolls of our order.
Our foe is the Lord of Terror himself.
He comes with fire and fear; the dead are his,
All of our own who die will rise 'gainst us.
Every horror Terror can conjure will meet us;
Blades and hammers will not prevail where
The heart is weak. A cringing coward who
Cannot stand will not be our friend tomorrow." -- Chronicles of Zakarum, c. 20, v. 15-24
Much closer at hand was a completely unexpected sight: an angel in silvery armor, floating gently above the path, never deigning to touch Hell's soil. Thaddeus' heart sank; had Izual found a body, and he would have to fight him again? Or was this some other false light, fallen from Heaven? No sign of malice or corruption presented itself, but appearances can deceive. Cautiously, Thaddeus advanced, and the angel spoke.
"Fear not, Paladin. I am Hadriel, come to advise you."
"That name is known to me, noble Hadriel. I would cherish a word from one so wise."
"Your caution is understandable, but I am here only to tell you the way. Diablo is in the innermost sanctuary of this fortress of chaos. Three of his greatest lieutenants and advisors have come to him, with a few retainers. Most did not survive the Dark Exile, and Diablo's power is at its weakest. The sanctum is protected by five seals, all of which must be broken to open the way."
"I thank you for your guidance, great one. Know you of Izual's fate?"
"That one has drifted into realms vast and wild, awaiting the reward he thinks will come for his patience. His masters have no use for him yet, but will find one for battles to come."
"The Brothers' power will return, then?"
"Yes. Humanity has been ill-used; your quest is naught but an attempt to erase the many mistakes Tyrael made centuries ago. The most hopeful outcome is that the balance will be restored to what it would have been had Tyrael never acted. He has always been among our most compassionate... but not our wisest."
Past the angel, Thaddeus noticed a group of Blunderbores approaching. Before he had time to say anything, Hadriel spoke: "They would not dare to attack me, but I can offer you no protection. Rejoin the battle, I will not stay."
Hadriel gently floated away, leaving a sweet scent behind. It was quickly overwhelmed by the gamy smell of Urdar, the largest tribe of Blunderbores. Thaddeus advanced with clouds of hammers whirling; Urdar, grotesque Flesh Mothers, and strange Strangler ghosts came and died. On this section of the river, there were no rough floating islands, only stony platforms and avenues. The demons fell quickly, and some could be redeemed by holy prayers, for which the Light rewarded Thaddeus with life and energy. Without much incident, he made his way to the gates of the Hell fortress.
Before entering, Thaddeus returned to the Pandemonium Fortress. "Noble Tyrael, before I enter Diablo's lair, there is one question I must ask."
"I see something troubles you, hero. This is an inopportune time to lose your nerve."
"On a path on the River of Flame, I met an angel, claiming to be Hadriel. He offered me advice about Diablo's sanctuary."
Tyrael's wings quivered. "I cannot account for that. In my every effort, Hadriel has long cautioned me against folly. His words fell on deaf ears... so perhaps he might try to help you without my knowledge. Can you tell me his words?"
Thaddeus gave Hadriel's words about Diablo's three advisors, the five seals, and an edited version of his comments about Tyrael. "The words sound like his, and what he says is true," Tyrael replied. "At least, so far as I know. The last is an opinion he has voiced to me himself... in similar terms."
"Could it be that I was deceived, and opening these seals will release some greater horror to serve Diablo?"
"Sealed inner chambers are to be found in all Hell's fortresses. Whatever is within must be dealt with. Do not despair; what greater terror could you find than Terror himself?"
Cain, who was always nearby, replied, "Terror, and all his host with him?"
Thaddeus shook his head. "That would only mean more targets for me. Thank you, Tyrael. I shall play this out and be on my guard."
Venom Lords greeted Thaddeus at the open door of the fortress. Why hadn't Diablo simply closed the gates? Then Thaddeus noticed there were no gates; they had been smashed off ages ago and never replaced. Most of outer Hell seemed to be in poor repair. The Venom Lords weren't very dangerous, but the next group of monsters were: Oblivion Knights, led by an Oblivion Mage. The knights are a sad lot, the remains of the noblest warriors who fell into temptation. Their corruption is complete when they are fit to serve an Oblivion Mage, a former necromancer of the highest station.
Blessed Hammer rendered the knights a mere nuisance to Thaddeus, but the mages were dangerous. Like all necromancers, they ran from combat, though undeath made them sturdy enough to withstand more than a few blows. (The habits of a lifetime are apparently not easy to shed, even when life is gone.) But running put them beyond the range of Blessed Hammer, or at least let them hurl many, many laughing skulls of death before the hammers reached them. When Thaddeus tried to charge, they cursed him with a damage-reversing spell, so he was hurt more than the mage was. Several times, he found himself being chased away by two or more flying skulls, trying to find a healing potion or a body to pray over.
There is no shame in a tactical retreat, but Thaddeus had a terrible time when three of the cursed, cursing necros all got together at once. Hiding (and not ashamed to call it hiding) behind a column, Thaddeus called out, "All right, come and get me."
Dry laughter echoed off the walls. "No. You come get us."
"Then stand still, damn it."
"No. That would be foolish. We are not fools."
"Not fools? Look at where you are!!"
"You're in the same place we are."
Thaddeus frowned. "Good point." The curse was gone by now. Taking a deep breath, Thaddeus charged out with renewed vigor and bashed one over the head with his maul. The others hurled laughing skulls; he charged around and bashed another, killing it. Once there were only two, he could handle them. Three was far too inconvenient.
In the center of the fortress was a dais shaped like a pentagram. Iron clamps the size of Thaddeus' whole body held the top of the dais down, like some kind of lid. He couldn't see any seals to break, so he went into one wing of the fortress. After clearing away everything but the Oblivion Mages (and very carefully excising them) he found two strange structures: flat disks set in the floor, surmounted by metallic rings. Their function was unclear; he hit one ring with his scepter, stepped on the disk, and finally pushed the rings down to the floor. Glowing runes appeared on the disk, and glowing Stranglers appeared out of thin air. A few rounds of Blessed Hammer reduced the crowd to one, who bowed to reason and followed the others into the void after a zealous beating.
The next wing of the fortress had only one seal. Thaddeus opened it, but nothing appeared until he returned to the center of the fortress. Five flying skulls bit into his soul, and several crippling curses shackled onto him. Oblivion Mages. It had to be Oblivion Mages, probably led by Lord de Seis, an infamous necromancer still admired by that sect of mages. Running past, Thaddeus noted 5 of them, including one who was probably de Seis. Once the skulls had given up their chase and the curses were gone, Thaddeus tried a few spins of Blessed Hammer. One died; the others cursed and blasted him with death again. Switching to his maul, he charged de Seis as fast as his arthritic legs could take him, stunning the mage lord. More charges kept him wobbling, as Thaddeus knocked him away from his retinue where they couldn't help him. After beating him to death, Thaddeus returned and polished the flunkies off. These must be Diablo's advisors, he thought. As the seals are undone, Diablo was sending them out instead of coming himself. Typical of demon lords, he would only fight his own battle if there was no possible alternative.
The last set of seals brought out the last of Diablo's three advisors: the Infector of Souls, a powerful Venom Lord. Hideously fast, he and his minions quickly surrounded Thaddeus. Not that Thaddeus minded; he did his best fighting from the middle of a pack. A concentration of Blessed Hammers quickly pounded them all to jelly, and Thaddeus opened the last seal. A red glow shone from the center of the fortress, and the whole building shook.
^NOT EVEN DEATH CAN SAVE YOU FROM ME,^ a voice growled.
"At least you're not running anymore," Thaddeus called out as he approached the dais.
^NOW IT IS YOUR TURN TO RUN.^
"Are we taking turns, then? I have no patience to speak with you. Your brother was a far better conversationalist."
Diablo leapt ponderously out of a hole in the floor of the fortress, the piles of burnt skulls surrounding the dais bouncing under the impact. He towered over Thaddeus, angry red, covered with spines, horns, and scales. From his forehead, a red gem protruded. How had it wound up there, Thaddeus wondered? Mephisto's had gone through Sankekur's heart. With a roar, Diablo launched a bolt of lightning across the room; Thaddeus' shield took almost all of it. Then came a wave of fire, which Thaddeus sidestepped. Never putting his shield down, Thaddeus charged, slamming bodily into the demon lord. To his surprise, Diablo actually fell down... right on his behind. Thaddeus smirked. "If you're going to frighten me, you'll have to do better than this."
A swat from Diablo's heavy tail stunned Thaddeus; the touch was chilling, too. Maybe the Claw Vipers learned their tricks from him. Retreating a few steps, Thaddeus cast Blessed Hammer a few times. Diablo avoided the hammers, and cast his lightning again. After three hits of lightning, Thaddeus began to worry, so he took a potion and ran in to zealously strike at Diablo. Most of the blows were turned by Diablo's many horns and spiny bits. A few hit, but not nearly enough.
Dissatisfied with his light scepter, Thaddeus backed up and charged Diablo with his maul. It was a hit, a palpable hit, but Diablo's return fire hurt without his shield. The Lord of Terror was laughing now; Thaddeus realized he must look frustrated, and Diablo was interpreting it as fear. He tried calling on vengeful spirits, which worked well -- when he hit. The difficulty was getting past Diablo's thick hide. Blessed Hammer, of course, would go through Diablo's armor like it was nothing... but aiming the hammers at a single target was difficult. Thaddeus moved to the other side of the dais and cast Blessed Hammer. Diablo charged in, and the hammer hit him; Thaddeus cast again, but Diablo moved out of the way. Blessed Hammer seemed to be his best way of hurting Diablo, if he could hit with it.
For a while, Thaddeus and Diablo exchanged spells. He cast a few hammers until Diablo hit him with lightning. After moving, he cast a few more hammers, and the process repeated. After enchanting his shield, the lightning wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been -- but surviving wasn't the goal. Finally, he saw his chance. Diablo had come between two of the firepits flanking the dais. Placing himself to block his advance, Thaddeus cast the hammers again and again. Caught between the pits, Diablo was hit again and again, twitching and roaring with pain and anger. After casting so many hammers he had to drink another potion, Diablo died. Writhing, flames bursting out of the holes pounded through his body, the beast's flaming red spirit tore loose and was drawn into the soulstone.
Diablo's frame collapsed and shattered on the floor. The remains might have been human, stretched beyond recognition and burnt to ash and bone. With a sigh, Thaddeus knelt beside the body, praying for the salvation of whatever poor soul had been forced from that husk to make way for Diablo. It was over. At least, this was over. After taking Diablo's soulstone to the Hellforge and taking care of it, there could only be one problem left in the world.