Xanthippe (Act IV)
A narrow causeway of steps led down from the Pandemonium Fortress to the outer steppes of Hell. There weren't any roaring flames, pitchforks, or parades of the damned. All was quiet, gray, and still; the only sound was the granular soil crunching under their feet. Just outside the gateway at the bottom of the stairs, Xanthippe looked around. A few columns, made of either gray stone or some strange metal, were scattered about, broken chains hanging listlessly from their peaks. Nothing else could be seen.
The material composing the columns did not reveal itself to closer examination, either. It rang dully when struck and could not be scratched; the chains seemed to be made of the same stuff. A rough line of the columns extended into the distance; maybe this had once been some large building or covered corridor. Further down the line, Xanthippe could see some people, tied to the columns. They looked as gray as everything else, and their sex and age was uncertain, but maybe she could get something out of them.
As Xanthippe and Kasim approached, the people tied to the column's base looked up. They had no hair, and their legs were fused together, but their eyes and ears were grotesquely huge. Xanthippe stopped and stared, horrified. They began a low wailing moan, and the nearest flailed their arms at them both, clutched and clawing with over-lengthened fingers. Soon, all the others on the line rose and took up the call.
Some things approached fast, kicking up grit and dust. Their skin was pale and fleshy, but there the resemblance to humanity ended. Shuffling on long, backwards-bent legs, their bodies were taken up almost entirely by a single, huge... opening, and a featureless head crowned the whole grotesquerie. Kasim and Xanthippe ran to attack; a column thing grabbed at her as she went past, tearing her surcoat. One of the shuffling things squeezed itself together, and from its orifice, a fleshy worm shat out into the world. More and more of the worms came; soon, they were surrounded.
Taking out the big grotesques, before they could give birth to any more of those things, was the best tactic to take. As Kasim chopped through the little ones, Xanthippe ran around to tackle the big mothers. Her frozen armor shield, quite strong by now, stopped the worms as they leapt onto her; it gave her valuable time to reach their mothers and slice them to bits. The new armor she'd bought held up wonderfully. Once they were all dead, Xanthippe went back to the column things. "Who are you? Can you understand me?"
The thing that had grabbed at her was dead; its fellow beings had torn it to shreds. They were now busy tearing each other up, fighting over that tiny bit of green silk, which was already ripped to pieces. After they died, Xanthippe watched as their bodies slowly shriveled and crumbled, like sand pouring out of an hourglass. The ground itself was exactly the same color, the same consistency; she bent down to take a closer look. The loose grit was full of tiny fragments of bone, and broken, human-looking teeth.
Looking around, Xanthippe saw other things approaching. There were running leapers, which jumped from pillar to pillar, and huge demons with swords and vast bat wings. The big guys looked exactly like the paintings of balrogs, except that they were much, much worse in life. The battle was long and very bloody; Xanthippe and Kasim were almost constantly on the run, either chasing the bouncing leapers or trying not to get surrounded by the balrogs and grotesques. Huge cracks ran through ground, which they had to avoid, and many more people-things were laying out everywhere for them to trip over.
Once all was quiet again, Xanthippe looked at the... dead souls? The gray people scattered on the ground, or tied up to columns. All looked mostly human, but were deformed and mutilated in horrible ways. Some were on the ground, their bodies thrown over a small stash of treasure, often a bit of gold or trinketry. Others were bundled up like firewood, thrown together in huge cages, and set on fire, lighting up the vast emptiness of the steppe. A few pairs were melded together at the lower body, with their arms cut off at the elbow. None had any legs, nor would any of them speak. Most of them could scream, especially the ones in the fires, as they burned down to sandy ash.
The cracks in the ground went deep. Looking down, Xanthippe could see buttressing columns and huge chains supporting the deep, deep layers of ash and bone, which went down at least 30 feet and probably much further.
"What is all this?" Xanthippe asked no one in particular.
"Uh... Hell, I guess?" Kasim answered.
"But... but... are these things people? What are they doing here?"
Looking around, Kasim shrugged. "Being in Hell?"
"But why are they here? What are they doing here?"
"Uh... well, those guys are on fire. Those two look like they died doing something obscene."
"No! Why are they here at all?"
Kasim looked confused. "Uh... punishment for their sins, and stuff?"
Xanthippe went silent, staring at the unknowably thick layers under her feet, and at the former human beings slowly joining them. "But WHY? This serves no purpose!"
After a moment's pondering, Kasim rubbed his chin. "Punishment... ?"
Xanthippe shook her head in irritation. "Look, when you punish someone, you're trying to get them to stop behaving a certain way, right?"
"Then what's the point of punishing someone for all eternity? After they're dead, they can't change the way they behaved, or atone for their sins, if you believe in that kind of thing. What purpose does it serve to punish someone when you can't change them?"
Kasim hated it when Xanthippe got to asking stupid questions like this. It made his head hurt. "Uh... I guess they're not being punished for eternity, then."
"No, they're just... crumbling into nothing."
Xanthippe shook her head. "But why?"
With a shrug, Kasim opined, "I dunno. Let's kill things."
Xanthippe just stood there, staring around. "Why are we here? There's no point to this."
"We're here to get Diablo, right?"
"Yeah... Diablo, Baal, all their hoary minions. They're invading the world. Killing and torturing everybody. They want to make the world like this."
That sounded plausible to Kasim. "Maybe, yeah. That would be bad."
"I'm not gonna burn in a cage for the rest of my life."
Xanthippe nodded. "Or whatever. But..."
Quickly, Kasim said, "Whatever. Let's kill things."
The steppes were full of more dying souls, and more demons. They killed lots of things. During a return trip to the Pandemonium Fortress, Tyrael told Xanthippe of an angel named Izual, who had betrayed Heaven to the demons, and had been punished by imprisonment within an abyss demon. Xanthippe wondered if angels and demons had bodies of their own, or if they always had to possess something to act in the mortal world. Maybe the dying souls down there were people who didn't have their bodies anymore. No, that couldn't be right; there were too many of them, and there had to have been thousands -- no, millions -- there in the past. There couldn't possibly be that many demons possessing bodies.
As she stood there thinking, Xanthippe suddenly realized Tyrael had stopped talking. "Huh?"
"I believe he has suffered enough," Tyrael said.
"What? You mean... the people out there?"
"The mortal souls troubling your mind sank to this depth of themselves, but an angel must not be allowed to suffer so. The torture my lieutenant suffered was beyond the endurance of even the noblest spirit, and further punishment is undeserved."
"You say the people out there are being punished?"
"Izual is being punished, for betraying the light of Heaven. The mortal souls littering the plains of despair are damned by their own weight of sin. There is nothing you or anyone can do for them." Slowly, Xanthippe let that sink in. "Why are they there? What's happening to them?"
"Long ago, the Seven Great Evils came to this place, and made it their own. Seven layers of the Abyss, each ruled by one of them, make up Hell. After their first invasion of the mortal realms, Heaven surrounded Hell with a towering wall. Now that wall is buried under the sinners of your world, those whose weight has not sent them further down."
"They just... fell?"
"Yes. The human spirit is eternal. But in time, these ones come to a kind of end, as the weight of despair crushes them. Now, they make up a new ring of Hell, out of the exhausted remains of their own souls."
"Rings? I thought they were layers."
"The two are not incompatible. You will not have to enter the inner seven. Your destination lies in the second, just within the wall. There, you will find the Hellforge, which Izual assaulted so inadvisedly, and the Chaos Sanctuary, Diablo's staging post."
Xanthippe counted. "That's nine layers."
"The Nine Hells. The second was a moat, built next to the wall. It is now a river of flame." "Sounds wonderful."
"Though it is a wonder to behold, caution is advisable. The effluvia of Hell's malice overflows into the river of flame, and millions of mortal souls burn forever in its depths."
Abyss demons, rivers of flame... this just gets better and better. Wandering back to the plains of despair, Xanthippe avoided the damned souls as she looked for Izual. Though when she found them, she kicked over the greedy ones who were hiding treasure; no sense wasting it. Kasim seemed to think chopping them to bits was fun. On the plains of despair, they met the first undead beings they'd seen in Hell. So, they weren't all demonic; maybe only the most malicious didn't wind up as legless slugs on the ash-heap. There were great cracks on the plains under their feet; a hellish red glow glared from underneath. Even though she knew she'd be going there eventually, but Xanthippe could not bring herself to look down to what lay below.
Alone in a ruined building, Xanthippe and Kasim found a huge demon. Its body was dark blue, vaguely translucent, and covered with huge icy spikes. Deep inside it, a light struggled and quivered like a butterfly in a bottle. This was almost certainly Izual, being punished for breaking under torture that would have broken anyone. Xanthippe wondered if that's the sort of justice Heaven usually doles out. No matter; she said she'd get Izual out, so she and Kasim got to work breaking the ice.
The demon, or ice thing, had a very thick skin, and it took a lot of chipping and chopping to finally smash it to bits. The only blessing was that the thing was slow as a glacier; it was easy to avoid its blows. As the demon crumbled to the ground and its body melted away into nothing, the bluish light inside spread its wings, and floated free.
"FREE!" a huge voice rang out. "You were sent by Tyrael!"
"Yes..." Xanthippe said, not sure what to make of this. Something wasn't right.
"What a fool! And what a fool you are for following him!"
Something definitely wasn't right. "Izual, I presume."
"What a great fool, imagining that I, his superior, would be content to remain his lieutenant!"
Ah, so it isn't just megalomaniacal mages who use the word 'fool' so much. Izual continued his ranting: "I shall tell you a secret, mortal... now that it is far too late for you or any other power to stop the plan set in motion ages ago. I am the one who convinced Tyrael to use the soulstones on the Three Prime Evils."
Xanthippe nodded, her brain racing. "He wouldn't have thought of it on his own, huh?"
"Tyrael is a slow, stupid, half-witted, blind FOOL! Using crystals to trap spirits is an idea completely beyond his comprehension! I knew when I suggested it that his meager intellect could not possibly see the terrible flaw therein!"
Judging from his word choices, Xanthippe decided that sucking up to this crazy angel was the best option. That works best for the 'smart and arrogant' types; sometimes, they'll tell you their whole plan, just so you'll be impressed with how smart they are. "But I don't understand! How would trapping the demons work to their advantage?"
"Your tiny mind would be blasted into gibbering madness if the full plan were known to you!" As Izual laughed, light pulsed and flickered through his form. "The soulstones can be flawed by the corrupting power of darkness, as all things can be. That is why Hell will be victorious over Heaven in the end! All can be corrupted, and corruption is mastery!"
As much as she hated listening to people like this, Xanthippe kept talking. She needed more information. "But that can't be! Tyrael knew the stones were flawed; that's why the demon spirits were imprisoned in mortal bodies!"
That provoked such roaring laughter, even Tyrael must have heard it. "IMPRISONED!! You fool, you cannot imagine the purpose of the stones! They were tools to gain great and powerful bodies for my Lords to possess! Full of knowledge, magic, and strength! Inside these powerful shells, The Three are hidden from the power of the Worldstone, and may roam your world at will. You, and all your kind, are doomed!"
Izual vanished with that last, oh-so typical threat. Why do all big nasty evil people talk like that, anyway? They all think they're better than everybody else, but they all sound exactly like each other. Tyrael was very surprised to hear about this. At least, Xanthippe got that impression. Hard to see facial expressions amid all those tendrils of light.
"If what you say is true, we may have been played for fools all along."
"We?" Xanthippe said.
"The Horadrim and I, of course. I am sorry, I had no idea Izual's betrayal went so deep; this has affected me."
Xanthippe frowned. "The Horadrim and you. Didn't the Horadrim do what you told them?"
"Not entirely. But..." The light around Tyrael trembled. "My judgment may have been in error, and led those I felt most responsible for astray."
Xanthippe stared at the angel. She wanted to say something. She wanted to scream at him. She wanted to do something besides stand there, staring at an angel who was supposed to know better. Finally, she said, "Do you know where Diablo and Baal are?"
"That is hidden from me, in the depths of Hell."
"How do you know they're in Hell?"
For a moment, Tyrael was silent. "I do not know."
Suddenly fearful, Xanthippe asked, "When I killed Mephisto, among his remains were three human skulls. Who were they?"
Tyrael's light trembled again. "I have no knowledge of this. Mortal, I fear this is a ruse, meant to draw our attention from the Three's true purpose. I must go for a while. My servants should keep the Fortress safe during my absence. Should an assault breach the fortress, please, take Cain and return to Kurast. My servants will find me."
With a soft sound and a smell like a freshly-cut apple, Tyrael vanished. Cain, who had heard all this, looked like he was going to faint. Xanthippe said to Kasim, "Well, we're fvcked."
"Kind of figured, when you said we were going to Hell."
"No, we're fvcked in new and totally different ways."
Kasim shrugged. "Want to go home?"
"No. I wanna kill things."
Kasim thought about that for a while. "Sure, why not?"
Moving further into Hell's outermost sphere, Xanthippe and Kasim came to a city in ruins. All the buildings were constructed of the same greyish, metallic stone, which Xanthippe suspected might be made from the souls of the damned. Maybe, with heat and pressure, the gritty remnants of crushed souls might metamorphose, like mud being pressed and baked into a hard shale. Not only would the demons get useful material, it would be a new and different way to inflict agony. From what Tyrael said, even after the people crumble, they're not really destroyed; they might continue to be aware. Being pressed into service as a paving stone could not be pleasant. Not for the first time, Xanthippe wished there was somewhere she could step where she could be sure she wasn't stepping on someone.
Looking at the buildings, Xanthippe wondered if any one block represented one soul, or a whole bunch mashed together. The former might condemn them to an eternity of isolation, without eyes or ears or anything but themselves and the void. But if the souls were broken apart and mixed up, each would be fragmented, then forever melded with people they would probably hate. Which would be worse? For all she knew, the demons carefully sifted the remains and put each soul in the fate it would like the least. They do love pain, and might not have much else to pass the time with.
But there wasn't much point in worrying about it now; though the city was a wreck, it was not uninhabited. The undead here were mages, and threw intensely hurtful barrages of elemental magic. Bigger, nastier cousins of the Balrogs played forward guard for the mages, and fat, black, tentacled beasts with huge mouths shuffled along beside them. The mages were probably the most dangerous, but the fatboys had a nasty habit of devouring any dead bodies whole, then vomiting them out with great force. Their guts could launch a 300-pound Balrog over 20 yards, something well worth dodging.
With missiles screaming through the city from all directions, Xanthippe switched to sword and shield for a while. It was useful for blocking, but the sword was so much slower for killing than the poleaxe, she was actually taking more damage because of her poor offense. After getting her mana shield knocked out several times, she went back to the poleaxe, relying on footwork to herd the monsters around, then take out specific targets. The mages always got first priority; maybe Cain was right, she was cruel to those of her own profession. But they're the ones who merit special attention the most...
Mechanically, they cleared the city, killing everything they met. Xanthippe wondered if her mana shield would be more effective if she had more mana. Or maybe, a weapon that stole mana; then her shield might never go down. Have to keep an eye out for one, ideally a halberd. She'd found one, but it was of miserably poor quality. Still, it was much better balanced and more graceful than a poleaxe, which was a clumsy-looking weapon, even with a lot of enchantment.
Tyrael still hadn't returned from wherever he'd gone. With the city empty, there was nothing left for them but a narrow staircase, leading down. That hellish red glow shone up from underneath; Xanthippe did not want to go down there. She went back to town again, by a handy waypoint next to the stairs. Did the Horadrim build those things EVERYWHERE? For a minute, Xanthippe wondered if there was a waypoint in Heaven, and if she might be able to go visit her mom up there. She hadn't seen her down here. On second thought, there's probably more to getting into Heaven than a waypoint.
"Say," Xanthippe said, "before we go down there..."
"Yeah?" Kasim said, almost eagerly. He didn't want to go charging into the fiery abyss either, it seemed.
"There's something I should do." Xanthippe bit her lip. "Maybe I'm being stupid, but I think I need to do some atonement."
"Yeah. Don't get all religious on me or anything."
Kasim looked askance at her. "Uh... you know, I have noticed we're in Hell, and I don't like it one bit. If we ever get out of here, I'm becoming a priest."
Xanthippe laughed mirthlessly. "You found religion, huh? Hey, who wouldn't? Me, I think I need to confess to some sins, seek absolution... clear my slate. Some things I've done, I think I can feel the weight of them."
By waypoint, Xanthippe willed them back to the Rogue encampment. After hanging in the scary void for a few seconds, they arrived... at an empty field. No one was there. Oh, they're all in the monastery! She went to the inner cloister, and found what was left of the sisterhood cleaning and fixing the cathedral. Everyone was very happy to see her, which was kind of surprising, considering some of the things she remembered saying to them.
Kashya looked impressed. "Hello there. You actually look like a warrior. A warrior princess even; nice crown."
Xanthippe smiled. "Yeah... I just wanted to come back, and say I'm sorry about some of the things I said and did. And I'm sorry about Gaile and Debi. I know they were just trying to help me, and I was too stupid to accept it."
Shaking her head, Kashya said, "Water under the bridge. They served the sisterhood nobly, and died the way a Rogue should. Any debt you owe to us is smaller by far than the one we owe you. You gave us our monastery back. I couldn't do that myself."
Strangely, Xanthippe felt embarrassed. Sure, she'd tried to humble Kashya, but hearing her admit to that was weird, and kind of unpleasant. "I think you could have... but it would have meant the deaths of a lot of sisters. Your order would have died, and it's probably better to survive in exile than to die out. At least you could do the world some good."
Kashya blinked, and crossed her arms, staring at Xanthippe. "What the hell's happened to you, anyway? You never used to talk like this."
"Hell" was an appropriate word choice, but Xanthippe didn't think it would be a good idea to mention why. "A lot of things... some of which meant more to me than I thought they would. But, they're water under the bridge. I shouldn't stay long. I just wanted to come back and say thank you, I'm sorry, and I hope everything's ok with you."
Still staring, Kashya slowly nodded. The other Rogues looked shocked and surprised too. "Sure... we've heard you chased Diablo out of Lut Gholein... killed a couple more Evils... you're the one I was worried about. Guess I shouldn't have?"
Now Xanthippe looked surprised. "You were worried about me?"
"Hell yes. Always was." "Oh."
Xanthippe couldn't think of a thing to say. This also surprised the Rogues. She did stay long enough to say a few goodbyes. Akara, who'd been purifying the altar, smiled sweetly and congratulated her on the progress she had made. Charsi thought her armor was spectacular (which it was) and was dying to meet the smith who'd made it so nice for her. Also, she'd recharged the Horadric Malus, and was ready to craft a rare item with it. All Xanthippe had to do was bring her an unenchanted item, and she'd work the hammer's magic on it.
Her next stop was in Lut Gholein. The city had been cleaned up since she saw it last, and the damaged buildings repaired and repainted. Colorful banners flew from the rooftops, but the streets weren't full of beautiful, scantily-clad women. Instead, she could smell smoke and the acrid tang of metal being worked, and the moist earthiness of wet clay. People of all descriptions walked the streets, some beautiful, some less so; they recognized her instantly. Kasim went to meet up with his boss, and hand over a cut of his pay; Xanthippe went to the palace, accompanied by a cheering throng. Jerhyn invited her inside.
"It is so good to know you are well. Much has been happening, and word has come to me of your exploits in the east. They say you defeated the greatest of the Prime Evils in combat."
"Yeah, I guess I did," Xanthippe said. "I've heard he wasn't the greatest in combat, though; he usually left that to his brothers. What I've come back for is... I want to say I'm sorry."
Jerhyn looked shocked. "Whatever for?"
"When you were trying to explain about the danger inside this palace... and I stood there screaming about it in the middle of the street? That was incredibly stupid of me; it got a lot of people killed, and might have destroyed the city if the demons had taken advantage."
Jerhyn smiled. "That was much more my fault than anyone else's. When those demons began pouring in from the sanctuary... I did not know what to do. This has been the first real trial of my reign, and the course of action I took led to many deaths. Some might accuse you of being impetuous; that is far, far better than standing frozen in fear."
"You weren't frozen! I mean, what could you do? You couldn't evacuate the city, you couldn't tell everyone about the danger, I don't think there was anything you could do about it, except what you did."
"Your words are kind," Jerhyn shook his head. "And my people have forgiven me. But it is much harder to forgive myself. What good is it to call yourself a leader, when you cannot find a course of action in a crisis? Drognan tells me I will grow more sure with experience, but I wonder if anyone should place their faith in me at all."
Xanthippe bit her lip. "Would you believe... I know what you're talking about a little bit? I've made some really bad decisions, and gotten people killed. As hard as it's been, I think I've gotten better. I haven't killed my hired underling for weeks now."
"I should have guessed!" Jerhyn laughed. "One such as you must be of noble blood, and accustomed to the burdens of leadership. Here I am, complaining of minor difficulties, when the ones you bear have always been far greater."
Xanthippe shook her head. "Lord Jerhyn... I am the daughter of one of this city's most often-used prostitutes. I am about as low-born as anyone can be. The most I have ever commanded is one person; I would never know what to do with an entire city. That must be so damn hard, I can't even imagine it."
Jerhyn stared at her, deeply surprised. "Oh. Well... so much for nobility, then. If I may say so, your deeds have been noble and worthy of all praises, and if such greatness comes from Lut Gholein, our city will never fall to darkness."
Oh, now she was blushing. Xanthippe looked down. "I don't mean to be rude, but there are more things I need to do."
"Of course. Whenever you wish to return to your city, I will be very glad to have you."
Xanthippe looked up, and smiled faintly. "To have me?"
Jerhyn blinked a moment, then went beet-red! "I mean, to have you in the palace!"
Wheresoever my lord commands, Xanthippe thought, but did not say. She couldn't control her smile, though, which spread into a grin. Jerhyn stammered, "To have as a guest!"
Nodding, Xanthippe tried to force the smile away, but it just wouldn't go. "Thank you, Lord Jerhyn. I hope I can come to your palace again another time."
On her way out of town, Xanthippe collected Kasim... and saw Gheed. He was lying in one of the weed bars, having gotten a huge bowl of the stuff and smoked until all sense had left his body. He was just lying there... it would be so tempting to... no, she shouldn't. She was trying to be good.
In Kurast, Xanthippe first stopped to visit Alkor. He greeted her with shock, dismay, and too much melodramatic moaning to be taken seriously. "Oh, it is you, stupid girl! I thought I had died and gone to hell. Are you a demon now, come to torment me?"
"Nah, I just wanted to tell you I won't be bothering you any more. And I got you some more licorice, to replace the stuff I took."
"No, no more licorice! If I have some, you may return again!"
Asheara was packing up stuff in her old dockside house. She was dressed about as sensibly as ever. Helping her was Vanji, looking much better now that he wasn't hanging by his heels over a pit of starving Flayers. She must be moving out, either into Kurast, or to some other part of the world where mercenaries would be in demand.
"Well, well. If it isn't our little princess. You never said goodbye after you whacked Mephisto." Xanthippe nodded. "No... I guess I was kind of avoiding you."
Asheara laughed. "Don't tell me you got scared."
"You think I was more scared of you than Mephisto?" Xanthippe shook her head. "Maybe I was, I knew you'd be mad. That's why I want to apologize."
Asheara slammed a box closed, and stared at Xanthippe. "You want to apologize."
"Yes. I'm sorry I embarrassed you, and insulted you, and gave you that black eye. I was acting like a total b!tch, and I apologize."
The black eye was gone now; maybe Ormus had healed it. But Asheara didn't look ready to be apologized to. "Aw, how sweet. Isn't that nice?" she asked Vanji, who nodded obediently. Xanthippe took her crown off. "Look, if you want to give me a black eye too, that's ok. Fair is fair."
Asheara frowned. "Put that back on. Listen, you know what you did?"
"I made you a laughingstock in front of everyone in Kurast?"
"Not quite everyone. And you know what?"
Xanthippe weighed her options, and decided playing dumb was the best one. "What?"
Asheara grinned. "It was the funniest thing I've seen in YEARS. Hell yes, I was the victim, but damn, you got me good!"
Xanthippe laughed. "Well... yeah, I guess I did."
"I haven't been had that bad since this bastard named Gheed came through. And you were a hell of a lot funnier about it than him. I gotta admit... I asked for it."
"And got it. But it was still mean."
Asheara clucked. "I'd have been disappointed if it wasn't. If you think you have the guts to take on the jungle, you'd better be mean."
"I guess. Hey, what's that?"
Among the stack of spears and things Asheara had against the wall, Xanthippe spotted a tall, graceful-looking halberd. "That? One of the guys found it in Sankekur's chambers."
It was a beautiful weapon, polished to a bright finish, chased with gold and jewels, and the edge looked absolutely wicked. Xanthippe took it down to look at. The balance was perfect, the weight just right, it was obviously an amazing weapon. "This is beautiful."
With a smile, Asheara picked up a glass globe. "Actually, Hratli made it, and I put the enchantments on."
"What enchantments?" Xanthippe asked.
Asheara squeezed the globe. With a soft pop, it broke and vanished. The halberd vanished too, and so did Xanthippe. But not completely; her empty armor and equipment fell to the floor of Asheara's hut. "Ok, you two, hide that crap before she remembers she can teleport back here."
Out in the middle of town, Kasim heard a girl scream, then a loud splash. Normally, he didn't like taking orders from women who weren't paying for the privilege, but this sounded like a noble and worthy cause. He and Vanji did as they were told.
A few seconds after they'd hidden everything, Xanthippe reappeared. She was buck naked, dripping wet, and trying to cover herself while standing up straight to glare Asheara in the eye. "You... YOU... B!TCH!!"
Asheara chuckled. "Takes one to know one."
"Where is my stuff?"
"What, didn't it appear with you? Oops, I must have gotten the teleport spell wrong."
"That was some VERY EXPENSIVE gear..."
"Don't worry, we'll track it down," Asheara laughed. "Might take a few hours."
Vanji let out a low whistle. A few more men were staring in the door. Xanthippe hissed, "Dammit, Kasim, at least turn your back!"
Kasim leaned on his poleaxe. "Sorry, I can't hear you, I've got a banana in my ear."
"I thought you were going to become a priest!!"
"Not yet, anyway..."
"Then somebody give me something to wear!"
With a completely straight face, Asheara solemnly offered Xanthippe a hat.
All was peaceful when Xanthippe and Kasim returned to the Pandemonium Fortress. At least, no demons had invaded that they could see. Xanthippe did not feel peaceful at all. See if she'd ever apologize to certain people again. And Kasim, the way he'd been looking her over after Asheara's trick. He was quiet now, but every now and then his attention would wander and he'd start grinning; didn't take a genius to figure out what he was thinking of. Since all was well in the fortress, they took the waypoint back to the ruined city, and bravely stepped down the long, narrow stairway into the glowing inferno.
Down they went, though thick accumulations of gritty soul ash, and past a polished stone layer many feet thick. If this was the wall Heaven had put around Hell, Xanthippe wondered why it was laid down horizontally. Then she remembered that Tyrael had spoken of Hell's layers as rings. Maybe the layers of Hell manifest as spheres, nested one inside the other, and a wall around them would make a larger sphere. The inner rings must be very small, then. Maybe the evil was highly concentrated down there.
Once they'd gotten through the wall, Xanthippe and Kasim saw the River of Flame. It wasn't nearly as frightening as the harsh glow suggested -- Xanthippe was reminded of a huge lava flow. In color, it was full of bright oranges and yellows; had it been molten rock, the heat coming off of it would have parboiled them both, but the temperature was quite tolerable. A few islands of rock were scattered over its surface, and they could see demons crawling and stumbling towards the stairs to greet them.
They were more grotesque spawning things, chained giants, and undead mages. Nothing they hadn't met before. They say you can get used to just about anything. During the first few battles, Xanthippe noticed that Kasim was helping her a lot more than he should be. She'd square off with some big brute, the big brute would slam her into next week, but get frozen by her cold aura. Then Kasim would come in and chop the frozen thing to ice cubes while it was helpless, like she couldn't do it herself. Even after she glared at him, he kept doing it, though he had to know he was irritating her. Finally, after clearing out a pack of grotesques, she just couldn't stand it anymore.
"Will you stop doing that!?"
Kasim looked confused. "Stop doing what?"
"I can take some of them on myself, you know!"
"Yeah, I know... I'm just getting the ones --"
"The frozen ones are not dangerous, the ones that are running around are."
Suddenly feeling very tired, Kasim said, "the frozen ones are easier to take out."
"Do you think I can't tell that? Do you think I'm stupid? Listen --"
Kasim interjected, "Is this about looking at you while you were naked?"
"NO! Yes! What the hell do you think you were doing?"
Kasim glanced heavenward. "Looking at you while you were naked?"
"No! What makes you think you could do that to me?"
"Because... you were standing there, completely naked?"
Panting, Xanthippe glared hard at him. "First, you say I look fat..."
"I didn't say that."
"I KNOW what you MEANT!"
"Aw, hell!" Kasim shouted, "If I thought you were fat, I wouldn't want to look at you, would I?" Xanthippe opened her mouth... then shut it again. "Ok, point. But you do not just stare at me like that!"
Kasim folded his arms. "I thought you said you could laugh at yourself."
"That was humiliating! I just stripped Asheara! She took two hours to get my stuff back!"
"She did offer you one of her outfits..."
Eyes narrowed, Xanthippe hissed, "I'd rather die."
"I don't think you're going to die from wearing a leather bikini. She even said you'd look better in it than she thought."
"What she said was that the plate mail made me look fat. You told her, didn't you?"
"You told her bodyguard, then."
"Vanji? Uh... yeah, I guess I did."
Xanthippe went quiet, just seething with anger. "All I want... is a little respect. That's all. Just a little bit of respect. No talking about me behind my back, telling me I should be prancing around in a bikini, or getting stripped. Just... respect. Is that so much to ask?"
They stood there for a moment, Xanthippe silently boiling over, and Kasim slowly putting together a response. He had found, over the course of his career, that when a woman talks about wanting respect, she's in a really pissy mood, and will try to bite your head off no matter what you say. But you have to say something, or she thinks you don't respect her enough to pay attention to her. The best tactic is to start getting philosophical: talk about something else that has something to do with it, and hope she'll get the connection.
"Ok... it's like this."
"What?!" Xanthippe snapped.
"When I was growing up, in our neighborhood, there were a couple of dogs who lived there. There was a big dog, and a little dog."
"Ok. What about them?"
"The big dog was a great dog, everybody liked him. He'd let you climb on him, the girls would dress him up in clothes and stuff, he didn't mind. You could tell he was laughing, you know, going along with the joke, right?"
"We can argue about how much a dog understands jokes, you know."
"Yeah, but anyway, he was a great dog. Everybody respected him, because he could rip your arm off if he wanted, but he didn't have to 'cause everybody respected him. The little dog yapped and yapped all the time, morning 'til night. Everybody hated that damn dog, he wouldn't shut the hell up for anything."
Xanthippe nodded. "Go on."
Kasim continued. "The little dog was trying to tell everybody he was, like, dangerous and to respect him, but all he did was annoy everybody. We used to drop buckets over him, or tie things to his tail, the little guy totally went ballistic. Never did that to the other dog. You could drop a bucket over his head, he's just shake it off and look at you."
"And rip your arm off."
"I don't think he ever bit anybody. He didn't get upset over nothin'. The little guy just kept tryin' and tryin', but the more he yapped, the worse it got. Cause everybody hated him, you know? It wasn't respectable, it was annoying."
"Yeah, annoying yappy little mutt. What are you telling me all this for?"
Kasim looked at Xanthippe for a minute, then sighed. "No reason, I guess."
Irritatedly, Xanthippe let the matter drop. There was no point in even trying to talk to Kasim about most things anyway. He just didn't get it, and never would. They continued making their way up the river of flame. Every now and then, a scorched, skeletal form would rise screaming out of the river, then fall back out of sight. Guess there had to be something to remind them they're still in Hell. The stone platforms and narrow bridges eventually led to a large island, with one peninsula off to the left. A waypoint was on the island; Xanthippe activated it, then went left.
Amid a crowd of grotesques was a big fat demon who reminded Xanthippe of the demon smith from the Rogue Monastery. He was laboring over a forge, but dropped everything when they came in sight. An aura surrounded him, which suddenly made the heat of the river more palpable; the hammer he was swinging was white-hot, and getting hit by it would probably hurt a lot. Running around him, Xanthippe and Kasim concentrated on killing the Grotesques and their wormy brood before they got out of hand. The armorer was easy to avoid until they could deal with him by himself. Concentrating on hitting hard and fast, they never let him get in a good strike with the hammer, and eventually he went down.
Back at the fortress, Tyrael still hadn't returned. According to Cain, that was the Hellforge, which Izual had supposedly assaulted all those centuries ago. Hell's greatest weapons were forged there, amid the raging heat of the river of flame. Xanthippe informed Cain that the river wasn't that warm, but Cain told her the heat was produced by burning souls on the bottom. The roiling vapors of the river tended to keep the energy insulated in the river's channel, except what was routed through the forge. The Hellforge was also the place to smash the corrupted soulstones.
"How can you be sure?" Xanthippe asked.
"Tyrael has told me this. When the soulstone is smashed, the spirit contained within is released into Hell, and its connecting links to the mortal realms will be no more. The demon lord Mephisto will never be able to enter our world again."
"And how does Tyrael know this? Did Izual tell him?"
Cain thought about this, beads of sweat forming on his brow. "I do not know. Oh, this is terrible. Without heavenly wisdom, what is there to guide our path?"
"Cain..." Xanthippe shook her head. "We're supposed to be standing up on our own two feet anyway. Come on, if we just apply logic, we can figure this out. What do you know about the soulstones?"
"Hmmm. I am afraid the Horadrim never knew very much about their exact nature. They were given to us by the archangel Tyrael, for use in imprisoning The Three. Their perfect crystalline structure acted to counter the natural resonance of the spirit contained within, but now that they have been corrupted, I have no idea what properties they possess."
Xanthippe got Mephisto's soulstone out of her luggage. The shard pulsed from within with an evil blue light; it reminded her of Izual, but more diseased-looking. "How does the stone get corrupted? Did Mephisto alter the crystal lattice pattern?"
Cain just looked at her. "How am I supposed to know? I had no idea this could be done, and now you ask me how it was done? What you say sounds reasonable, but there are many other reasonable explanations. We have no way of knowing. With years of time to study the stones, we might be able to deduce the weakness the demon lord exploited, but we do not have that time!"
"Nor will you need it," Tyrael's voice intoned. The angel floated down from above. "The Three's plan is a diabolical one, but the soulstone may be safely destroyed on the Hellforge. After the Three opened the hell gate, each went a separate way. Mephisto remained in Kurast, to guard the gate and forestall your invasion of Hell. Diablo has entered Hell to raise his army, in case Baal should fail on his mission."
"What's Baal doing? Where is he?"
"Baal remains in the mortal realm. The Lord of Destruction is making for the Barbarian lands at great speed. He has recovered his own soulstone, somehow. For Hell's invasion to be halted, all three brothers must have their soulstones smashed on the Hellforge."
"Great," Xanthippe said. "They scattered. I have to chase each one down."
"The Lord of Terror is closest at hand, so you should continue your pursuit in Hell until he is vanquished. When this is accomplished, the pursuit of Baal must begin in earnest."
"Yeah, right. Get moving, in other words. Are you sure smashing the soulstones is safe?"
Tyrael was silent for a moment. "You feel you have cause to doubt me, mortal. You may be correct in doing so. I am sure. The Lord of Hatred's ties to your world will be broken when the soulstone he has bound to himself is destroyed."
With grave misgivings, Xanthippe returned to the river of flame and found the armorer's hammer. It had cooled, and she could pick it up without burning herself. Even approaching the Hellforge was difficult; the heat coming off it was intense, scorching and shriveling the flesh. Carefully, she put the soulstone on the huge anvil in the heart of the forge; it glowed with the heat of the screaming souls surrounding it. Lifting the hammer, she brought it down as hard as she could. Thunder and fire shook the forge, and a scream of rage billowed up into the air. Hundreds of skeletal spirits floated away from the shattered chips of crystal; Xanthippe wondered who they were, and where they were going. Among the crystalline shards, she found several gem-quality pieces: a perfect emerald, a flawless emerald, a flawless skull, and a ruby, as well as a Sol rune. In her cube, she was able to make another perfect emerald and a perfect skull. Hopefully, the mule would he happy with those.
Even though she knew time could not be wasted, Xanthippe insisted that she and Kasim get a good night's sleep. Invading Diablo's sanctum was not going to be easy. Despite Tyrael's dire warnings, she wasn't about to go anywhere without plenty of rest, a good breakfast (herbal tea, sausages, and buttered bread, toasted very nicely over one of the fortress's eternal flames) and a thorough check-over for all their equipment. The armor was strong, the weapons all sharpened. Her stock of full rejuvenation potions overflowed her trunk. The waypoint waited.
From the waypoint on the river of flame, they advanced slowly, and found... an angel? Hovering over the path was an angel, smaller-looking than Tyrael, and his (her?) armor was silvery instead of golden. The angel's voice sounded male, but Xanthippe wasn't sure how much that mattered. According to him, Diablo was in his Chaos Sanctuary with his greatest generals and officials, in an inner chamber protected by five seals. Each of these infernal officials in turn had an assortment of lesser officers, hangers-on, and other bureaucratic vermin in the Sanctuary itself.
Of course, the instant the angel stopped speaking, Xanthippe burst out with questions. Who are you, and what are you doing here? How did Diablo get these generals together so fast? Supposedly, it was a huge rebellion in Hell that exiled The Three to the mortal realms; had these officials been waiting for Diablo's return? The angel did not reply. Xanthippe wanted to whack him with her poleaxe, but Kasim wouldn't let her.
Before they reached the Sanctuary, they had to go through a maze of paved paths set in the river. The convoluted twists and turns were frustrating; was this meant to forestall invasion of the Sanctuary? Xanthippe doubted it: angels could just fly in. Even she could teleport. The twists and turns did give the undead mages plenty of opportunity to blast away at them, but the grotesques and spitters had to wait until they approached.
As they advanced, the Chaos Sanctuary loomed into view, black and huge, covered with spiky turrets and toothed spires. The front gates were open; in fact, there did not seem to be any gates in the frame. Much of the ceiling and pieces of the walls were gone too. Yet, there was no wreckage or ruin inside; had the missing pieces ever been there? This was the closest thing to an intact building she'd seen in Hell, and the construction seemed confusing and impractical. It almost seemed to have been built to make it easy to enter.
The minute Xanthippe and Kasim entered the gate, she felt weak and slow, and her vision dimmed. A crowd of undead knights advanced on them, with an armored skeleton in green and purple behind, making strange gestures. This had to be a spell of some kind... oh, of course, it was necromancy. Primitive magic like necromancy needs those elaborate movements and finger twining to harness and shape the mana. Altering the magical field of the body is not easy, and the effect of inefficient necromantic "curses" is subtle at best. The final result was a general weakness; no actual damage was inflicted. However, it did make that crowd of dead knights more difficult to deal with.
Xanthippe called for a retreat, and they decrepitly creaked their way out the Sanctuary door. Standing on either side of the doorway, they smashed an chopped the knights as they came out, killing quickly with little risk. The strange construction of this demon fortress confused Xanthippe even more; it seemed easier to attack the defenders, to get them in a bottleneck, than any sensible architect should allow. After the knights were dead, they went back and charged the necromancer skeleton; it retreated to a group of balrogs, then cursed them again.
Several times, they retreated to the gates, killed a horde of demons, then ran in again to try and catch the necromancer. Stupid necromancer. The dead bastard just wouldn't stay still until he found a group of like-minded friends. Together, the group of them started churning out curses and gibbering, flying skulls. It took forever, three more hasty retreats, and two full rejuvenation potions to corner them all and beat them back to death. After clearing the entrance hall, the rest of the Sanctuary was easy. Dealing with the curses was simple; just get away from the necromancer. The fighters will follow you, but the necro won't, so they're easy to separate; after dealing with the fighters, corner the necromancer.
Oddly enough, the layout of the Sanctuary resembled the four-pointed star of the Zakarumite church. In the center was a huge pentagram, surrounded by pools of flame and hundreds of burnt human skulls. Obviously, a place of importance. The pentagram's center was a single slab of stone, held down by huge clamps. When Xanthippe stood on it, she could feel some irregular vibration, rising and falling. She took her crown off and lay down with her ear to the stone; it was definitely a voice, but she could not discern the language. That had to be Diablo's inner sanctum. She wasn't going to try entering now, there was still more Sanctuary to clear, but Xanthippe was pleased to see a combat shrine right next to it. Shrines are useful things, even if they involve praying; Xanthippe was sure they had to predate the coming of demons to Hell.
At the end of one wing of the Sanctuary, there were two circular disks set in the floor. Their function was unclear, but when Xanthippe tapped the first one, it sank an inch into the floor and glowing glyphs appeared on it. Xanthippe hadn't paid much attention to runes and glyphs when she was studying, and was really starting to regret it. Old-fashioned symbol magic should be unimportant when you could simply harness raw magical power, but knowing them might help her figure out what another spell-caster was up to. Then, that strange angel's words came back to her; five seals held Diablo's sanctuary shut. She hit the second disk, and it did the same thing; two out of five?
As the seal lit up, a feeling of disquiet came over Xanthippe; a low, almost subsonic rumbling that had pervaded the Sanctuary rose to a shout, then died away. A sparkling light shot out from the center pentagram, and a group of insectile creatures appeared next to her. These things drain mana with their lightning touch, but Xanthippe made sure both she and Kasim had all the lightning resistance they could get, and she had mana to spare. On the opposite side of the Sanctuary were two more seals, which released an extremely fast balrog and his friends. They were even easier to deal with than the insects.
When she went back to the central pentagram, most of the clamps had opened. But the slab still wouldn't budge. The voice underneath was silent. Xanthippe wondered if Diablo had run out of generals yet. There was still one more seal, so Xanthippe ran off and tripped it. She should have known; the Sanctuary had been full of necromancers, mana bugs, and balrogs. At the first set of seals, Diablo sent the lord of the mana bugs to kill her. On the second set, it was the lord of the balrogs. This last one summoned up the lord of the necromancers, who heralded his arrival with a wave of curses and gibbering ghosts.
Not wanting to take that much punishment at once, Xanthippe teleported away. These guys proved smarter than their rank-and-file: the whole group stayed in a tight bunch, slinging death magic, no matter how much Xanthippe and Kasim tried to draw individuals away to deal with alone. Eventually, they had to charge right into the middle of them and start swinging. After a healing potion for each of them, one necro finally died; two more healings and a full rejuve got the second. Xanthippe cornered the necromancer lord, while Kasim chopped up the last two. When they were all dead, a burst of heat and flame erupted from the center of the Sanctuary. It must be their boy, and he was mad. Good.
Then she remembered; the combat shrine she wanted to hit was on the west side of Diablo's sanctuary, and they were on the east. "Ok, Kasim, we have to get past him."
"Just run by him?"
"Sure, why not?"
Kasim looked doubtful. "Hoped you'd teleport. That's kind of fun."
"We're not here to have fun. This is it, the big guy."
Kasim nodded. "Ok. Let's do it."
Together, they skirted the edge of the central pentagram, and Xanthippe got the shrine. The walls of flame that blasted out of the pentagram hurt Kasim some, so Xanthippe tossed him a potion, before they charged into the flames. There was Diablo, huge and terrible, with a shard of glowing red crystal stuck in his forehead. "Ok, we've got him!"
Diablo's laugh shook the Sanctuary. He crouched down, and red and white lightning arced from his fingertips, straight through Kasim. He died almost instantly, sliced in half by the bolt. "MORTAL... WHO IS THIS 'WE'?"
Ulp. This called for an immediate change in strategy. Xanthippe hid behind a corner and counted her potions; would she be able to get them fast enough? Diablo came out of his pentagram, all of Hell shaking with his footsteps, and stomped what was left of Kasim's head into jelly. Xanthippe tried to think: should she switch to the shield? She could hide behind it, and the sword had life leeching. And she could hide behind it. Diablo was coming over for her, trampling Kasim's thoughts and memories on the floor; they went up in smoke from the heat. She was still trying to decide what to do when Diablo looked around the corner, his face not a foot from hers and... licked... her... cheek...
The teleport spell came to mind instantly; she was on the opposite side of the pentagram in a thought. Diablo didn't seem to care; a wave of his hand, and a wave of fire blasted her off her feet, completely obliterating her mana shield. "TO COME SO FAR, AND FAIL SO MISERABLY. YOU WILL BE A DELIGHT." Xanthippe hid behind another corner, chugging a mana potion and recasting mana shield. She could cast a portal from here, and get back to the fortress...
Xanthippe looked out from her hiding place. Slowly, Diablo was coming for her again. When she showed her face, he licked his lips, then shot his lightning right through her. EEEAAHH!! She scampered like a frightened rabbit, the ground shaking under her trembling legs. Dammit, Kasim had always done most of the killing! She hated it, but he did, she was almost just a support unit for her own mercenary... and now he was a splat on the floor! Spinning fire and lightning in waves, Diablo blasted her into corners and off of walls, laughing. "AH... YOU SCREAM WELL, TINY GIRL. I WILL CHERISH YOU LONG AFTER YOUR DEATH."
In the back of her mind, a tiny voice told her, he's the Lord of Terror: he's trying to scare you. A much louder voice answered, he's succeeding! She didn't want to die down here, in his hands. There really is life after death, and she did NOT want hers to be in here! Running around the pentagram, keeping the flame pits between herself and Diablo, Xanthippe tried to think. What could she do? A portal! Just get out of here!
Xanthippe cast the town portal... and didn't go through. She could see Him out of the corner of her eye, grinning and slowly stomping his way over, in no hurry at all. But the voice in the back of her head was saying, you won't be scared. Little girls are scared, and run away. You never ran away before, and I'll be damned if I let you run now. Bony spines sprang up from the floor, surrounding her portal, but Xanthippe still just stood there.
Then Diablo was there beside her. "STOPPED RUNNING? DON'T. IT'S BEEN SO LONG SINCE I COULD REALLY ENJOY MYSELF." She looked up at him. He swatted her, like a cat playing with a helpless mouse. Spinning across the floor, the arrogance of the act suddenly thrust itself into her mind. Yes... an arrogant, conceited, murderous BASTARD who's dragged her halfway across the world and straight into Hell just so he can have a little fun! Springing to her feet, her indignation wiping away all fear, Xanthippe screamed "How DARE you!!!" She charged straight at him, swinging straight for his smug, ugly face.
The swing was magnificent. It would have been great if it had actually hit Diablo. But the Lord of Terror was quick enough when he wanted to be, and sliced into her with his lightning again. Chopping almost at random, Xanthippe drew a bit of demonic blood, then paused to take a full rejuve and recast mana shield. A quick mental calculation, comparing her supply of potions to the damage he seemed to be suffering, yielded an unpleasant result: she would run out of rejuves long before he ran out of life. There had to be some way to really hurt him, something that would not depend on her mediocre combat skills...
As another stream of lightning arced through her, Xanthippe realized that was the answer. Lightning! Not her Thunderstorm, which was doing a only little bit, but another spell perfect for softening up big targets: Static Field! She cast, zapping Diablo; unlike the swats from her poleaxe, he actually seemed to feel it. As waves of fire poured out of him, she cast again and again and again, watching him slowly burn. And just like that, the tables turned; he started running away from her! "Oh, no you don't, you bastard! Do you think I'm gonna let you get away?"
Quaffing potions as she slowly pursued the fleeing demon lord, Xanthippe filled the air with static charges. Sparks poured off of Diablo's claws, but not ones of his own making. Howling with pain and anger, he clawed and smashed at Xanthippe, but her Thunderstorm and the crackle in the air were draining his life energy to a sliver. Finally, he collapsed to the ground, twitching and squealing like a dying pig. Xanthippe raised her poleaxe, and with a single stroke, hacked his head from his body. The corpse burst into flame. A raging red spirit rose from the charring flesh, and was sucked into the soulstone. Then, silence.
Xanthippe pulled the stone out of the burning skull. The corrupted shard flickered with an angry red light, full of eons worth of fury... and complete helplessness. The smith's hammer should be next to the Hellforge where she'd left it. This is it, you bastard, she thought. Get ready for oblivion. I got you.