Varnae (Act IV)
What an extraordinary place Hell is! And so nicely presented as well: who would have known that the lords of Hell would favor classic Early Gothic? White marble and antique bronze are excellent choices for materials; ethereal arches and graceful buttresses give the space the perfect air of elegance, dignity, and understated strength. Even the spikes atop the walls are pleasing to the eye. Though I did imagine Hell as being a bit larger.
Oh, I should have known. The same minds that conceived Mephisto's fortress and Andarial's throne room could not have built this. Perhaps my anticipations had too firm a hand in guiding my thoughts -- the common man believes Hell to be terrible, so I fully expected it not to be. The star of divine order, subtly worked into every surface of this fortress, marks it as an outpost of Heaven. Dear old Deckard Cain, who I was sure I had finally abandoned to his fate, is here; he's such a devoted old thing, I doubt I'll ever be rid of him. Before I could do more than express astonishment at his presence, he began babbling in a frenzy. From his excited ravings, I gleaned that this is not quite Hell, merely Pandemonium, a land between the earthly realms and Hell. Supernatural battles were fought here for ages, earning the locale its noisy name. This fortress is the most distant outpost not abandoned to Hell. Cain arrived before I did because the archangel Tyrael brought him here; the angel was patiently waiting to speak with me.
Gentle reader, it may seem incredible that I did not notice the angel when I entered, given the extraordinary presence such beings are known to project. I cannot fully account for it myself, except to say that in that fortress, the archangel did not stand out. Every stone (if they truly were stones) radiated much the same aura as he; we mortals took on an air of otherworldliness, our very earthiness a stark contrast to the surroundings. Nevertheless, I am not unhappy to see the angel. Open intrusion is far more tolerable than meddling from concealment; this way, I can give him a piece of my mind whenever I like.
Of all the impudent, irritating people! Our conversation went thusly:
As I approached, the archangel intoned, "It is good to see you again. I hoped your quest would end in the mortal realms, but Diablo has fled into Hell and must be pursued. During the dark journey you must face, this fortress will serve you as a place of rest."
"Splendid!" I replied. "When I knew I was going to Hell, the first thing that passed through my mind was how beastly difficult it would be to find a good hotel. Bring my luggage up immediately, there could be a generous gratuity in it for you."
"Your possessions are here, and I have brought mortal allies to aid you, such as your friend Deckard Cain. That is all the assistance I may offer."
"Oh, I'm so sorry," I said most insincerely. "I should have realized proffering aid would be beneath your dignity; like the Horadrim, I must do everything myself lest your hands be soiled by taking action. Or do you fear another beating at Terror's hands?"
"I have been forbidden from aiding you," Tyrael droned on, unruffled. "Humanity has taken shelter under Heaven's wing for too long. It is time you met the forces of Hell on your own. This must be the hour of mortal man's triumph -- your triumph. You must face Diablo alone."
This, of course, was unacceptable. The extended folly of the Sin War should not be dismissed so lightly, especially by its biggest fool. "Noble archangel Tyrael... it is well known that you guided... or I should say, misguided... the Horadrim during their pursuit of Diablo and his brothers. Your actions created a disaster worse than anything they could have devised on their own. Now that the full consequences of your actions have come to light, you say you will do nothing?!"
If my words had any impact, the angel's infuriating serenity concealed it. "None may know all ends; there are things concealed even from Heaven's light. The Brothers' reign of fear over your lands called for action; none could foresee what might come. This is not the time to regret past decisions -- the entire future is at stake, and you must act. Your order recognizes the importance of humanity taking control of its own destiny; it is necessary that you defeat the forces of Hell without my aid."
Of all the... "Of course, yes. I wouldn't want your help if you offered it!"
"All I can offer is a few bits of wisdom, and the help of mortal allies. By the fortress gate, two great heroes of the Light stand ready to see to your needs. Diablo has hidden in a Sanctuary of Chaos just within Hell's border, and summoned the greatest generals of his old legions to himself. You must journey down to the River of Flame, where the Sanctuary lies, and destroy the Lord of Terror at his strongest."
"Sounds peachy," I muttered. Could he hear my teeth grinding? Did he care?
"There is one thing more..."
"Oh, just one?!" I snapped. The sincere regret and perfect humility radiating from the angel's divine countenance were driving me mad.
"Just one. A dark, tortured soul roams the plains of Pandemonium: Izual, my lieutenant and friend. Many centuries ago, he led a failed assault on the Hellforge, but was captured by the forces of Hell. Under torture that slowly destroyed his physical form, Izual surrendered some of Heaven's most precious secrets. As punishment, he was imprisoned within the body of a powerful beast of the abyss. I believe he has suffered long enough. If you find Izual, I ask you to destroy his prison of a body, and free him from his agony and sorrow. But beware; he has some strength left, and may not know friend from foe. May the Light and the powers of Heaven shine on your path, even if you do not welcome them."
That was... he requested... he... AAHHHH! To think that I, who have long maintained that we should be free of Heavenly "aid," will be receiving no aid in the time of my most desperate need! HOW DARE THAT FLUTTERY DUSTMOP AGREE WITH ME!! Topping it off, Deckard Cain is naive enough to congratulate me on gaining his confidence! "Tyrael must have great faith in your ability" indeed! That is just what I need right now, an admirer! A passive admirer to stand by admiring me and do nothing!
The Pandemonium fortress has a Horadric waypoint, of course, so I take a short trip back to Atma's tavern for a spot of tea and a light luncheon. It does me a world of good, as do all my new admirers in the town. Word has gotten out, apparently, and I am now famous. I always knew I would be either famous or notorious someday. Adulation is something I could easily grow accustomed to -- what more could a man want than a crowd of beautiful idiots to praise and flatter him as he slides headlong into well-earned debauchery? Ah, Natalya... there will be a special place for you there too. Khaleel introduces himself to the joys of the Black Mushroom. Soon, he is no shape to face Hell; I won't be going anywhere, so I have one myself. Ah...
What would Hell be without a hangover? If I'm going to Hell, I ought to sin a bit first. My order has always been diffident on the subject, but it is well known that many human souls migrate to Hell after bodily death; those summoned back to our realm unanimously describe their time spent here as unpleasant. So: is it for punishment, as Zakarum claims? Is this a refuse heap where undesirables are disposed of? Or do Heaven and Hell compete for the energy of human worship? An inquiry would be problematic, given the difficulty of obtaining reliable information from either demons or angels. With any luck, Diablo will boast about it, though I expect him to lie, or use those parts of the truth most likely to deceive me.
The "great mortal heroes of the Light" by the fortress gate are nearly as serene as their angelic master. They do not introduce themselves, and take even less interest in me than I in them. Snubbed by servants! I must not meet Heaven's standards of respectability; good.
The fortress actually hovers over the vast steppe of Pandemonium, floating much as Tyrael himself does. There may be a valid reason for this: the soil of Pandemonium is pulverized volcanic glass, and gets into everything. After ten steps, I am itching over every inch of my body. I am sure that after a few hours out here, my skin will be rubbed raw.
After my first encounter with Hell's forces, I am fully prepared to go back to Atma's and not come back. Two horrid things, four-legged lumps of loose flesh, approached me and began expelling little worm-like terrors from openings on their ventral surfaces. They seemed very familiar, and not merely as a misogynist's least-favorite nightmare. As I was swarmed by the hungry young (they were nearly as quick as Flayers) behind them came Corpulent Demons, stomachs on legs made by Hell to destroy the bodies of their enemies. They can eat most creatures whole in one gulp, even things larger than the Corpulent itself. In addition, the Corpulent's muscular gut can expel a partially digested corpse with enough force to knock a man over, and the fleshy spawners insured they would not lack ammunition.
Leaping reptiles like those from Aronach abound here; I knew there was something unnatural about those things. The curse of Attraction helps me somewhat, dispersing the crowds who would otherwise overwhelm me. Exploding the corpses is a better strategy, as it denies the Corpulents their favored mode of attack. Neither approach works very well; my enemies are too numerous and too quick.
All across the steppe, the shattered remains of structures stand, cyclopean confirmation of the wars of ages past. Thick chains of some unguessable metal predominate, strung around and between tall pillars and cages full of eternal fire. Certain architectural elements remind me of Mephisto's lair. Scattered about are a few human souls, in bodies seemingly formed from the scratchy soil. A few attack me ineffectually; others lie wailing on the ground; some writhe in the cages, burning away forever. It is all quite senseless: no demon benefits from this pointless pain, and these now-mindless things cannot comprehend their suffering as a punishment. Pointless, senseless, devoid of reason -- I cannot ascribe anything but madness to what I see here.
Frequent trips to the healer have kept my skin on my body; I pity anyone trapped in this place without such a service. And to think, this isn't even Hell proper... what tortures await me there, I wonder?
Once again, I am lucky to be alive. Five of the fleshy spawners, faster than usual, with a dozen Leaping Lizards and 4 Corpulents, all at once. If the powers of Heaven really do shine upon my path, they must have been horribly embarrassed by all that screaming and running about. Their chosen champion (or should that be dupe?) may be ill-chosen.
Though I have no idea how much time has passed, it must be very late, as I am weary beyond all words. With no sun to guide me, it is impossible to gauge time's passage; I could have been out there for an hour or a day. Hell's forces seem endless, and constantly replace themselves. There is nothing for it, I must rest. If Tyrael disapproves, he can go to Hell. Of course, he won't -- that might help me, and we can't have that.
Heaven's Fortress possesses an austere beauty, but more than compensates with its lack of amenities. None of the physical comforts which give the merely mortal joy are to be found within these walls, with the exception of the fireplace, and even that burns with an eternal flame which produces no warmth; I can stand directly in it and suffer no harm. Of food and drink, there are none. Never mind that I have felt no need to partake while in this unearthly place -- there is more to dining than the satisfaction of bodily requirements. Sleep is also unnecessary: last night I merely rested, lying on the floor without even a cot to save my back. There are no furnishings, not even chairs, nor anything soft or comfortable. While I realize this is a military emplacement, that seems to me to be taking things a bit too far, but simple pleasures appear to be beneath Heaven's consideration. Nothing here is unpleasant, but nothing brings joy, except the quiet contemplation of staid perfection, for those who like that sort of thing.
If I should seem ungrateful to my host, I must protest to the contrary. For a sharp contrast with conditions in the fortress, one need only step downstairs to find a place where physical sensations are both abundant and extreme, each nastier than the last. Even the glassy soil seems to crawl under clothing and seek out skin to rub raw with a will of its own. Should I die, I dearly hope my soul will remain in our world. Neither alternative is promising.
After I rested, I rose, but having nothing to look forward to, nearly lay down again. How absurd that breakfast should assume such an important motivational role! Nobler sentiments, such as saving the world and all humanity, pale beside the smell of frying bacon. Memories of good earthy things are all I have to sustain me.
Pandemonium has been repopulated in my absence; a group of Flesh Mothers lay in ambush at the bottom of the stairs. These are the most disturbing and disgusting of all Hell's effluvia (having said that, my next encounter is guaranteed to be something even worse), but despite my desire, it is clear that I will never be able to kill them all. I do not like leaving an enemy alive behind me, but searching them all out would require an army and more time than I can spare. Avoiding them while driving in quickly and quietly, hoping against hope they do not circle behind and surround me, may be necessary.
A cliff separates the steppes of Pandemonium from a lower set of plains, with a single narrow set of stairs leading down. I am going into Hell, so downwards should be the right direction. In my earlier years, I had imagined my descent into the abyss would be more of a slow and languid spiral of debauchery and dissipation; I certainly should be having more fun. Hello, a blue Balrog is charging up the stairs. I seem to recall that Diablo resembles a Balrog.
The beast was not Diablo, but the fallen angel Izual, who Tyrael asked me to look for. I had half-resolved not to find him, but it seems he found me. His body was unusual, made in the form of a common Balrog, but of the same blue crystal Heaven favors for their crystal blades. Both poison and ice proved poor weapons, so I beat him to death by force. Once his prison was shattered (there can be no doubt that Heaven built that body) Izual proved even more tedious than Tyrael. I never would have thought that possible; those who make the best moral examples are usually the worst company. His joyful ranting followed the predictable pattern of a penny-novel villain, though he did reveal a few tidbits:
Informing the wise and benevolent Tyrael that his bosom friend has always been his greatest enemy would be an act of unjustifiable cruelty, so of course I rushed right back and told him. The poor thing's wings actually fluttered, he was so upset. My conscience would not let me leave him in such a state, so I tried to find the silver lining in this mess. Izual had betrayed Heaven, and should have gained infernal power, but did not and was left open to Heaven's wrath. A common fishwife would know better than to make a bargain that leaves her open to reprisal. Izual has lost none of his angelic innocence if he expects Hell to deal with him in an open and honest manner -- in fact, he still believes that his new masters will render unto him his due, though they plainly have no intention of doing so. Being so foolish, he will be easy to destroy when it comes to that. Tyrael did not seem to find comfort in the idea.
Back to business. From the top of the stairs, I can see structures in the distance, far across the plain. It looks to be a city, though I cannot imagine who would build a city down here. Having no other goal before me, I shall make my way there. The plain is full of foes: great Balrogs, highly resistant to poison even after being cursed; fluttering Wraiths, familiar spirits found in sad and lonely places; and, of course, more Flesh Mothers. This truly is Hell. When our lives are not being immediately threatened, Khaleel amuses himself blasting the damned souls we occasionally come across to bits. It is easy to keep his mind occupied.
My Bone Armor is proving nearly useless: the bones only intercede against physical blows, and the true danger here seems to be the Wraiths. How many battles have raged across these plains? An uncountable number, to leave so many dead behind! I have heard Wraiths tend to be the souls of children, I cannot imagine so many dying in one place, especially not this place. Of course, it is also said that a lonely and isolated death is needed to make a Wraith: they should not come in packs. These must be imported. Nonetheless, enormous quantities of bones lie scattered across the plain, and not all the dead spirits escaped. Occasionally, I find one that has taken refuge inside a nest of old bones; after destroying their tormentors, I happily set these free, and often receive material compensation for my trouble. It is so much easier to be good when it lies in my self-interest.
From up close, these buildings look no more like a city than they did from afar. Everything here is huge, at least twice life-size and made of solid iron. Chains spread like spiderwebs across every archway, hooks dangle from every balcony, and every edge is as sharp as the blade of a knife. How can buildings be so huge, so unconventional, so threatening... and yet so dull? Once again, it is confirmed: I am in Hell.
Could it be that Hell has exhausted its supply of Flesh Mothers? So far, there are none to be found. The city is inhabited by Corpulent Demons, parties of undead mages, and some odd flying creatures which are entirely new to my experience. The Corpulents are as before, perhaps a bit larger and darker in complexion. The mages are skeletal or mummified, wearing what I take to be Hell's most fashionable armor, and have apparently have retained much of their former intelligence. Their spells are varied, including Bone Armor and various missiles, and they make good use of the terrain and other creatures while in battle. Perhaps I'm just fooling myself, but I believe I see a few familiar faces among them. It is pleasing to see an enemy relying on Bone Armor, and finding it just as useless as I did.
The last monster I encountered merits a more thorough description, as it is of a type I have not seen nor heard of, and which may be new. This undead being, in appearance, resembles a flat layer of ribs or insectile legs, arranged vertically with no intermittent spaces. There is no obvious face or legs, though the outer ends of its "ribs" are capable of some movement. The creature levitates slowly from place to place, approximately a foot above ground, with no visible support. In size, one is about the height of a man. These are Hell's creatures, so naturally they attack on sight. All are capable of casting a lightning spell peculiar to them, which sends tiny sparks along the ground. These do little harm, but have the property of seeking out the enemy on their own, with no need to be aimed. Such a spell, with power behind it, could be dangerous. While certainly odd, they are not fierce opponents. Their broad, flat surface provides a large target area, and their thin bodies are easily punctured and broken. Venom and cold are equally effective. The lightning spell, which I suspect is instinctive, requires the creature to closely approach an enemy, making their vulnerability easier to exploit. My instinct is to label them one of Hell's failed experiments.
A curious observation: in the middle of the city, a mockery of a cathedral stands above a fiery pit. Its walls and windows were a perfect blasphemy of an earthly house of worship. The stained-glass windows were an especially nice touch, writhing with unholy images -- until I saw that they actually were writhing, like living things. Experimentally, I scratched one with the Jade Tan Do, and could see poison crawl through the pane until it shattered and... "died," I believe. Khaleel destroyed the rest of the windows.
Something about this city of the damned seemed familiar to me when I entered, and I have just now seen what it is. At first, I thought these structures might be the remains of siege machines or other engines of war, but that is not the case. As I walked along a covered walkway, I noted the shapes of the arches, graceful curves of iron with pointed crests in superior and inferior positions at the apex. Now that I have returned to the Pandemonium Fortress, I see that the fortress's gate is identical, in bronze instead of iron. Heaven's version of the arch is also more delicate, but the shape is identical. Other architectural elements favored by Heaven can be seen in the city as well... I did wonder why Heaven would use representations of devils as finials and braziers in their fortress.
The wise and pure archangel Tyrael denies any association between Heaven and Hell, as he would. With complete confidence, he assures me that they have always been desperate enemies, and would never borrow architectural elements from each other. While it is true that the Pandemonium Fortress has devil figures everywhere, they are merely decorative and nothing should be read into them. Could both Heaven and Hell have "drunk from the same well," as it were, taking inspiration from some common source? Quite impossible, he insists; nothing else exists, and Heaven and Hell have always been at war.
Deckard Cain has joined our discussion -- too bad, it was going so well. The old man seems to think I was terribly unkind to poor Tyrael over the matter of Izual, and that he must come to his rescue lest I be too cruel. I, for one, think that angels should be able to withstand a few unpleasant truths. But Deckard, the kind-hearted old dear, reminds his magnificence that Pandemonium was occupied by Heaven during the Sin War. The city may have been a place for mortal heroes to live and worship during the siege on Hell, and naturally would share some architectural features with the Pandemonium Fortress, which was constructed at approximately the same time. In fact, if his memory serves (and it always does) there should be a Horadric waypoint in the city, built to serve those heroes of old.
Back in the city now, looking for this waypoint. I don't know whether I want to find it or not, it would be so much more satisfying if I could say without doubt that Heaven and Hell have common features, perhaps even a common origin. Tyrael would be so vexed, I'll wager he might even raise his voice. None of this alters the necessity of my quest; the soulstones must still be destroyed. Nevertheless, walking out of Hell with verified knowledge that could embarrass Heaven would be so very satisfying...
Damn, there's the waypoint, next to a hole blasted down into Hell. A set of floating stairs bridges the gap between Pandemonium and the River of Flame, Hell's outermost moat and favorite staging area. It seems the city and cathedral were built by or for Heaven; Hell took them over and corrupted them. Ah, well; at least the question of how a city so impressive could also be so boring has been answered. Down below, the River of Flame glares painfully bright after so much time in Pandemonium's gloom. I could go down, but I am tired and the waypoint is here... oh, bother the fortress. A night of sleep, REAL sleep in a bed, will be just the thing for me.
The River of Flame is the ultimate source for humanity's legends concerning Hell, of course: a massive flow of lava, continually producing combustible gasses which ignite the moment they reach the air. Most of Hell lies far beyond, and is quite different according to the few reports available, but the river leaves a strong first impression on the casual viewer. Not that the River of Flame sees many "casual" visitors; for the most part, only those in league with Hell or Heaven ever see it, and few of them make reliable witnesses. Had I such a person sworn to truthful testimony to cross-examine, my first question would concern their sanity, whichever side of the conflict they feel is less despicable.
Nevertheless, I must confess to a quavering of fear at the sight of the River of Flame. Its appearance is so very like the description Zakarum's texts give it, even the most pragmatic realist would doubt his faithlessness. The wilting heat, the burning gasses which actually do smell like charring flesh and bone, even the sound is almost exactly like the screams of a million souls being slowly reduced to ashes. Naturally, my own order has little to say about the river, or anywhere else outside our plane of existence. In a weaker mind than mine, the sights, sounds, and smells of Hell might produce a religious epiphany. The blessing of apathy leaves me immune to such things -- forming an opinion on such an unpleasant subject would require giving it thought, which is far more trouble than it's worth.
A stairway from Heaven leads downwards, to a rough island amid the lava. Close to ground, the heat is not so intense, and the air fresher; the heat and miasma must rise heavenwards, leaving these islands (a series of them are visible from here) relatively cool. Nothing can be seen in the river itself; even Hellspawn are vulnerable to that heat. On land, I have found giants, undead mages, and more of those peculiar bone-insect creatures who attacked me so unsuccessfully in the city above. The giants are all a disconcerting shade of green, despite their fleshiness and apparent liveliness. At least my Bone Armor does me some good against such creatures, though their enormous strength rapidly batters the magic to bits.
Completely unexpectedly, the River of Flame has its own curious story to tell. The soil here resembles the glassy grit of Pandemonium, partially melted and fused. Perhaps some fell from above, shaken loose by frequent conflicts, and heaped at random on the river's bed. It is obvious that the river was much lower at some time in the past: the tops of buildings can be seen jutting up from the flames, even through one of the islands on occasion. From what is visible, these were ponderous fortresses with heavy stone walls, absolutely covered with spikes and spines yet not completely dissimilar from Heavenly architecture. I wonder if Hell finds is more to their advantage not to build, but rather to allow Heaven to build, then take the structure and redecorate according to their own tastes.
Additionally, I should make a note of the bones I have found in such abundance, here and elsewhere. Hell's inhabitants value filthy lucre much as we mortals do, I have found plenty of wealth secreted among the remains of battles past. Some of the bones are quite large, and I have just now found an intact skull, beautifully formed, though far larger than any mortal man's head could be. None of the giants has so sweet a face; could this be an angel? Not even Tyrael has such a swollen head.
The wizards I have encountered here and in the city deserve special mention. Mentally, the undead are rarely worth considering; even those whose minds remain suffer serious losses in intellectual ability. While these fellows retain more of a spark than I have ever seen in any formerly-live being, I cannot say their minds remain intact after death, one of the great aims of my order. Even Hell cannot achieve that elusive goal... or they have no desire to. Of course, I could be wrong -- engaging my enemies in conversation is difficult, even with those who still have tongues, so my estimate of their intellectual ability may be grounded on biased or incomplete data. My only other comment is that, among their ranks, it seems to me that I am seeing a lot of familiar faces.
Another observation: after a short but sweet battle with a crowd of giants, a skeletal being came crawling up out of the River of Flame. I kicked it back down, and it has not made the attempt again. What a dreadful place this is, enemies can come from anywhere. Only my desire to be out of this hell of tedium and terror carries me on.
Ahead, a large island looms above the roiling miasma of the river, with some sort of structure at its peak. I can see this from the apex of an arched bridge, which connects two other islands. It appears that Hell will build when it wants to, just not very well. I cannot imagine that Hell has no architects -- there are so many who certainly should be here.
The structure is some sort of forge, to judge from the sounds, and is energetically guarded by hordes of demons. My approach was met with a wave of magical attacks and the howls of frenzied giants, so I am certain something of importance lies on that island. The curse of Attraction provides me with some vicarious amusement, and exploding corpses is always a joy. Hmm, the hammering sounds have stopped.
I have slain a creature much like the jailhouse smith from the Rogue's monastery, with much less risk to my own person I am happy to say. This one was quicker than the first, and no doubt much stronger, but the poisons I use are so potent now, the muscle-bound clod-head didn't stand a chance. I like that in an enemy. Clearing the island is simple enough. Now, I have a forge and smithy, should I want such a thing. Perhaps that beastly girl Charsi could be persuaded to come here? I wouldn't mind seeing her in Hell. Then again, knowing her, I am sure that the moment she set foot down here all of Hell would freeze over, then burst out in clouds of flowers and butterflies. I actually prefer it the way it is.
According to Deckard Cain, Hell's endless state of war (whether with others or itself) means that armor- and weapon-craft is a major growth industry. Hundreds of "Hellforges" on the River of Flame churn out arms, each equipped with tools capable of shaping, bending, or breaking any material known. Thanks to Tyrael's blundering and humanity's naivete, there are three things we desperately need broken, one of which is in my possession. Destroying even that one will prevent The Prime Evils from invading our world. For this gift, I'll forgive Hell the name "Hellforge." Honestly, I thought only Heaven was that unimaginative.
Mephisto's spirit is visible in his Soulstone; my, he looks upset. Doubts nag at me; Tyrael and the Horadrim were wrong about so many things in the past, can I trust them this time? It could be that breaking the stone will release Mephisto's spirit into Hell, a bit like imprisoning a rapist in a harem. My alternatives are few. Keeping the Soulstone is not an option; it is clearly a weak prison at best. In Hell, it will eventually be found by some loyal follower of his. Returning Mephisto to my world is NOT an option. Perhaps some of the wiser Horadrim felt this frustration; I cannot know if Tyrael is wrong until I have done as he says.
Smashing demon lords certainly does produce a pretty show. The scream of impotent rage was an especially nice touch. A group of human spirits I had not noticed in the stone floated heavenward after I shattered it; where did they come from, I wonder? Now empty of power, a few bits of gem-quality stone are all that remains of Tyrael's Folly, part 1. My doubts have not been relieved, but I must confess: that was fun.
A bit further on, four monumental statues decorate an artificial island, made from blocks of stone instead of whatever scorched detritus everything else here is. The statues are gigantic and purposefully intimidating, yet tediously representational and artistically valueless. I am reminded of the monumental works erected to glorify some of our more dictatorial kings, only to a greater degree. Though I do my best not to notice their existence, some fear at the back of my mind is trying to convince me that these statues are watching me. There are no spirits in them, that is impossible... yet the feeling persists. This place is beginning to affect my mind. Could I have been possessed without realizing it?
Now I am beginning to doubt my senses! There is an angel here, attired differently from Tyrael, speaking to me. Something about five seals to break...
Back in the Pandemonium Fortress. Deckard Cain looks like Deckard Cain: old, ineffectual, with bits of pea soup dripped down the front of his robe. Oh, happy soup-stain! The very simplicity of it is reassuring, which is as sad a comment on my frame of mind as you are likely to hear.
Tyrael is agitated. Poor avatar of order, are things not going according to plan? The other angel is Hadriel, I am not possessed, and I could stand some other simple, earthy food to calm my nerves. Despite the misgivings of the rest of humanity, we followers of Rathma are an earthy lot, deeply concerned about the fate of the world and the souls of all men and women. We are certainly not suited to hobnobbing with angels! I wonder, does Atma serve pea soup? A bowl of that would hit the spot.
Dinner was at Atma's: honey-glazed chicken, sliced apples, and noodles with cheese sauce, served with a Spigleau white wine of recent vintage. Simple fare, but after the trials I have endured even the simplest things are an unqualified joy. There are those who imagine Hell to be a sort of sinful paradise, where they may indulge in the depravity their social ineptitude denies them in this world, but no carnal pleasures are to be found there. Nor should one look to Heaven, which views all sensation as suspect. The joys of life are their own reward, and their own punishment, and must never be scorned for their mundanity. A single glass of wine holds more cause for exultation than all of Heaven's majesty.
On the subject of otherworldly affairs, this morning has seen some new developments. My old benefactor the Mule came to visit. The obligatory copy of his note follows:
This is all for you, a couple of charms and some poison rings. Somebody else might want your old rings, I'll take them back. Now, Big D's waiting for you, so get your tiny white heiny in there and whack him good!
-- The Mule
Tyrael had little to say on my return. The angel floating over the River of Flame is gone now, and Tyrael cannot account for his presence or behavior. In my opinion, it seems likely that the angel was, in fact, not an angel, but I assured Tyrael that just because Heaven has lost all confidence in him and is acting behind his back is no reason to believe he will be damned to burn in the darkest abyss for all eternity. I always try to spread a little ray of sunshine wherever I go. Sadly, Izual's betrayal dealt the poor fellow's self-confidence a serious blow, and my comforting words could not brighten his spirits.
The River of Flame is much as I left it, though the mages have abandoned the field, leaving Balrogs in their place. The giants are stumbling about as usual, and those peculiar floating insectile creatures are present in numbers. Though they are not effective combatants, my original conjecture as to their nature may be in error. Unless these creatures can reproduce themselves at an explosive rate, the Lords of Hell made too many for them to be a failed experiment. My new charms and rings have increased my venom's potency considerably; with the proper curse, a single thrust will lay the mightiest giant low.
As I penetrate deeper into Hell, a structure becomes visible in the distance, looming up in fractured glory through the stifling gasses of the river. The rough, glassy-soiled islands are gone now, replaced by platforms constructed from massive slabs of dark stone edged with spikes. This is Hell; always, there are spikes. These platforms and catwalks are laid out like a maze, full of cul-de-sacs and winding walkways turning back on themselves. Why, I wonder? Hell's enemies can fly, and would ignore these pointlessly confusing paths. From the sinners on the plain to the fiery pit itself, nothing in Hell makes a bit of sense.
Ah, a fortress of Hell, and my first clear exemplar of Hell's architectural style. Contrary to my expectations, there is little resemblance between the structure and those built by Heaven -- this infernal sanctuary resembles, more than anything else, a human cathedral. The massive walls, elaborate windows, flying buttresses, even the overall shape mirrors the four-pointed star of order, with a few twisted additions to destroy the symmetry. The evidence is indisputable: all Zakarumite architects go to Hell. There is justice in this cruel universe. If this analogy in stone holds throughout, what I seek should lie at the center.
Balrogs and the insects greet me at the fortress' door; further within are skeletal mages, now with units of less-intelligent warriors to command. I can positively affirm now that Hell has gone far beyond humanity in the quality of its undead -- one actually cast a curse over me! Lower Resistance is far-and-away my favorite; I was pleased to meet someone who shared my opinion, if only briefly. His minions bore envenomed blades, as do the local Balrogs, but even with the curse the poison is weak and ineffectual. I was almost embarrassed. While I applaud the creation of any undead being capable of casting such a subtle curse, curses can only uselessly weaken a foe unless complemented by a strong attack.
It seems I may have underestimated my opponents again. These priests of oblivion know a variety of curses, and are capable of summoning lesser spirits as assassins, all of which goes far beyond anything our servants are capable of. The curse of Decrepificaiton is turning out to be a painful annoyance, given how much my usual battlefield tactics rely greatly on speed of movement. Were I a vindictive sort, I would use it right back on them, and see how they like painful aches and snapping joints, but my better nature compels me in the direction of greatest personal safety. In common with living humanity, my foes are most accommodating to their guests when flat on their backs.
The center of the fortress contains an enormous pentagram, flat on the floor, nearly buried under piles of burnt and blackened human bones. Do the Lords of Hell know anything of subtlety? When it suits their purpose, I suppose; there is a pleasure to be taken in bold and extravagant statements. I sense spirits beneath the center of the design: a score of lesser evils and a trinity of stronger ones, but only one whose malfeasance shines as brightly as Mephisto's. Hmm... somehow, I expected to find Terror and Destruction together, though even Tyrael only said that Diablo fled into Hell. Where is Destruction, I wonder? More importantly, could I persuade someone else to pursue him? I weary of this business, and long to return to my private life.
While exploring the fortress's northern apse, I came upon a pair of odd devices embedded in the floor. Several cohorts of Hell's finest guarded them most zealously. Perhaps, like the concealed stairways in Kurast's temples, these seal up some subsurface evil... ah, of course. The stamp of Zakarum is everywhere in this fortress, and they are such creatures of habit. Especially the nuns. Ha ha! Oh dear, that was a bad one; I am tiring. Best break the seal (there should be five of them) and end this tedious pursuit.
Upon breaking the first seal, a gang of insectile beasts appeared from nowhere, led by one of great magical strength. Numbering nearly a dozen, this cohort was actually able to confine me in a small corner of the fortress and unleash their magic in waves, draining my energy and nearly taking my life. Only when they began to die was I able to wriggle free, and a few Corpse Explosions laid waste to the remainder. The remaining seal in this wing presents no further retaliation; fewer spirits glimmer under the central pentagram, and the great power appears vexed, perhaps because he does not have 5 minions to plague me.
The eastern nave contains one seal. Breaking it releases... of all people! Though much the worse for the passage of time, I cannot help but recognize Lord Caldonius Turpino de Seis! He's an old family friend -- he and father were at school together. Ah, the amusing stories I've heard of those bright college days... sadly, he doesn't seem to recall me. Perhaps he's embarrassed, though he does appear to have descended to a high station and should not be ashamed of any lack of ambition. Whatever the reason, I was made to feel unwelcome, as his manservants (three in number) attempted an assault on my person. Our happy reunion cut short, I never did have the chance to ask him if, on mother and father's first date, she only went because she had lost a wager, as I've heard rumored. What followed was crude and violent, unbefitting reading for those of discriminating tastes.
The southern apse contains, as one might predict, two seals. Terror does not send his last lackey until I broke the second, obviously hoping to trap me in a corner again. This time, I am prepared. My enemy charges en masse, herded in from the rear by their leader: they are Balrogs, large, muscular creatures with teeny, tiny brains, easily confused and distracted. The greatest of them is the infamous Infecter of Souls, master of disease and poison. Why is he so surprised when his whole host collapses in a struggling, contentious heap as the stupidest among them unexpectedly turn on their fellows? Surely he realizes he and I must deal with each other personally, as I am (in a sense) a follower of his. The student, if he is to become a master, must overcome his teacher.
The Infecter of Souls proved less than a match for me; being nearly immune to poison was an unfair advantage, but life isn't fair, is it? Now, after a short but impressive earth tremor, the fortress is filled with flame and glare; fear is so thick in the air I can smell it. The Lord of Terror has seen fit to sally forth from his chambers, greeting me with a clumsy threat: "Not even death can save you from me." As though I ever expected it to! Besides which... that's my line. The eldest brother fell in time, the youngest should fare no better.
The Lord of Terror is no more! Perhaps some foolish muscle-headed lout might have suffered defeat at his hands, but my intelligence proved greater than all his infernal power. Diablo's fiercest magics relied on his foe standing still and allowing himself to be struck, something I had no intention of doing; Terror was helpless before me! No, I should be more modest, and confess that my foe was not completely powerless to prevent his death: he could run faster than I. In posture, the Lord of Terror runs very much like a rabbit -- not a frightened rabbit exactly, more of an angry, world-devouring rabbit. Nonetheless, my time-proven tactic of envenoming a foe, then giving them plenty of exercise as the venom works its way through the body, proved effective. Such a simple strategy; if only it were not so time-consuming. This quest has gone on too long as it is.
A short stop at the forge destroys Tyrael's Folly, part 2. Back in Pandemonium, dear old Deckard Cain is nearly as overjoyed as I, and I believe Tyrael is not entirely displeased -- that damned serenity frustrates me again.
Gentle reader, though this would make a fine finish, my narrative is not yet complete. Trust an angel not to understand that things should end on a climax. Baal, Lord of Destruction, remained in our world, where he summoned an army and is forging deep into the northern highlands. There, he seeks something called the "Worldstone", which I have heard nothing of. Tyrael believes it to be of great importance; in fact, he implies that Diablo's journey into Hell and the army he had begun to raise were nothing but a distraction from the Three's real goal. Now, he wants me to go to the northern highlands, hundreds of miles from anywhere, and pursue the Lord of Destruction.
This foolish fluttering angel, of course, has no idea what he is asking. Those mounatins are full of the coarses savages imaginable! I cannot go among savages! I'm too pretty to go among savages! Tyrael's pure and virtuous mind cannot conceive of the horrible things those wild, hairy brutes would do to me. Someone else must carry the banner for humanity from here. There are many made of stronger stuff than I, even my sweetest Natalya would be better prepared to meet them...
My heart is breaking! What outrage fortune has in store for me, on what should be my day of triumph! Deckard Cain had hoped not to tell me, but while I was in Hell, my viper Natalya took what anyone would suppose was the easier road and pursued Baal into the highlands... at the cost of her life! I should have known, I should have prevented her! That is why she disappeared, I now know; the safety of all humanity must be valued higher than my love. This tragedy I cannot lay at Tyrael's feet -- if I thought for a moment that fluttery, superior, arrogant celestial had a hand in her death, I would make him pay in an instant! But duty to humanity called her. My viper would never consent to be ruled by an angel's whims, she is made of stronger stuff than I. Yes... duty calls, to save the world for a third and final time. This maddening quest must end!