And Then The World Came Crashing Down, part one


Deep within the depths of hell, anger and hatred burned hotter than the eternal flames of damnation themselves. Arcane light filled every corridor of the infernal labyrinth, which was covered with the torn flesh of mortals and angels alike. Wherever one turned, there could always be heard the frustrated, pained howls of the damned as they unwillingly danced their eternal ballet of suffering within the Well of Souls. Even here, in this perversion of hell trapped between the barriers of the nether and mortal realsm, their cries for salvation could be heard with clarity.

In a very short time, those cries were to be reinforced with the lost souls of many more valiant warriors.

The master of this twisted, distorted realm between realms, Diablo, was gaining strength and power by the day. It would not be long before his former glory, his former title as one of the Greater Evils, was restored. His new body was still in a weakened state; the soul that had resided within was strong, but had cracked long ago before Diablo's raw power. The supreme demon's mind was as sharp as ever before, though, if not sharper. He had learned well from experience, had learned never to underestimate even the most unseeming of opponents.

Those same opponents that he had vowed never to underestimate, the self-proclaimed heroes of the land, were still alive, thanks to the failed efforts of his minions. The countless failures of Abadon to rid the world of the heroes' presence was beginning to weigh heavily upon the mind of Diablo. That same lesser demon now stood before his lord and master, returned to hell in defeat once more.

"Worthless!"

Diablo's jagged claws slashed across Abadon's face, sending the demon reeling backwards. Blood gushed from the open wound but turned to a silvery, metallic substance as it splattered across the floor.

"Ignorant!"

Again the claws lashed against Abadon's face. The demon was sent careening to the ground, where he lay, fist clenched but not retaliating. Diablo strode up to him, and unmercifully planted his powerful foot down upon his minion, digging his sharp, sickel-like toenails into his chest. Abadon's face tightened with pain, but not a whimper passed through his lips. Diablo looked down upon his fallen minion with some satisfaction, but felt no terror emanating from his soul. He withdrew his foot in disgust, and marched back towards his dark throne as Abadon righted himself.

"Leave my presence," the demon lord growled menacingly as he stormed away. "I will decide what to do with you and your failures ... later."

Abadon glared fiercely at Diablo before leaving the throneroom. Beads of his own blood trickled down from his face and from the gash across his chest. Staggering out of the throneroom, he let loose an anguished cry that filled all of hell, before collapsing down to his knees to regenerate.

Why was I foolish enough to release that monstrosity from his prison? The dark thought echoed through his mind. I should have left him to rot for all eternity in Shin Hikaru's cursed head. I would give my very soul to see Diablo slowly and painfully...

Then he hesitated as an unthinkable course of action passed through his mind. Unthinkable ... but cunning. As the wheels of his mind continued to turn, he began to enjoy the prospect more and more. Then, he allowed a thin smile to pass across his face. It was going to work. It had to.

Perhaps I won't have to give my soul to see it...

As he reached the surface, he found his own minion, Exile, waiting for him rather impatiently. He turned to acknowledge the presence of Abadon, but looked twice when he noticed the wicked smile that now graced his master's face.

"Are you okay, boss?"

"Better than you could ever comprehend," Abadon breathed as they began the trek back to Dorado, the gates of hell sealing themselves behind him.

"Anything that I should know about?" Exile asked hopefully.

"No. All that you need to do," he gazed off into the horizon, "is to bring Scarlet to Dorado. Go forth and do my bidding ... I will be waiting for you two there."

Without another word, Abadon strolled off silently into the darkness, leaving Exile to scratch his head and deliberate what his master had said.

"Might as well stop for a beer first," he finally decided, and walked off in the general direction of Scarlet's lair, and coincidentally, the nearest tavern.

**********

A soft layer of mist covered the kingdom of Dorado as twilight set down upon the city. The muffled cries of tortured citizens could be heard piercing the still night air. Abadon sat on his throne, a small frown planted upon his face. What he was about to do was risky and if not executed properly, could very possibly cost him his very existence. The hinge of his fate lay with his worst enemies, the heroes, whom had fallen back to reorganize before making another attempt to recapture Diablo. But if everything went according to plan, then this mortal plane would be his, and his alone. And after that, perhaps the time would come when he would return to hell to reclaim his rightful place as the one True Evil. How glorious it would be...

Suddenly, his thoughts were jarred back to reality as the huge wooden doors of his throneroom creaked open. He lifted his eyes up menacingly to find Scarlet standing in the doorway, with Exile hanging back outside. There was a look on her face that suggested that she was more than slightly annoyed. She took a few steps forward, and then the doors slammed shut in Exile's face.

"This had better be good, Abadon," she said, her feminine voice carrying a harsh edge to it. "I don't appreciate being dragged to this hell hole for reasons unknown to me."

Abadon stood, his metallic battle armour clanking as he did. Slowly he began to speak.

"What you are about to hear no soul knows about, yet. I am going to tell you because after the past events, I believe that we should place aside our grudges and work together towards this common goal."

Scarlet rolled her reptilian eyes. "What do you seek, demon?"

He couldn't help but smile. "Your hand in marriage."

Scarlet's jaw fell open. Slowly it raised, but only to fall back. She tried to speak, but the only things that came out were rumblings that likely would have developed themselves into a death threat. Abadon was not about to let that happen.

"Hear me out," he continued. "I have no intention of conducting a long relationship with you. Besides, the mating habits of humans are almost as repulsive as those of the impish Fallen Ones. But for my plan to work, I need a bride. And I have selected you.

"Okay, two things," she stammered. "First, what is this plan? And second, why me?"

"My plan is to take Diablo's place as the Lord of Terror," Abadon replied, licking his lips at the prospect. "And you are going to help me."

"Me being your bride is going to make you the Lord of Terror? What is Diablo looking for, an heir?"

"No," said the demon. "Diablo despises all mating rituals of the flesh even more than I do, and would have no part. But he would not stop me from going through with it; he would not admit it, but he owes me a great debt for releasing him from Shin Hikaru. He will not bar my path in what he views to be inconsequential events that I care to conduct. This wedding would give me reason to bring a majority of hell's minions to this plane. And at that time..."

"Diablo would be vulnerable," Scarlet nodded, beginning to understand.

"The heroes will find out. Without any doubt, they will venture into hell to defeat Diablo once more," his eyes flickered with pleasure at the thought. "After he is gone, I shall return to the infernal realm, and take my rightful place as the Lord of Terror."

"How sweet. But what's in it for me?"

"That which you have always sought. All the gold of Dorado."

Once again, the posing human's jaw fell open. All the gold of Dorado was every dragon's dream. Some would have given their souls for it. And here she was, placed with the opportunity to grasp it all for herself, and all she had to do was fake a wedding.

"Just from now until the wedding?" she demanded, still cautious. "Just a fake wedding, Diablo dies, you call it off, I get my gold? No hanky panky and such?"

Abadon shrugged. "Nothing more and nothing less."

"Then I guess you have a bride."

A wicked grin spread across Abadon's face once more. "Excellent. You will not regret your choice, Scarlet, when you are the richest dragon in the world. In a few minutes, one of Diablo's servants will be coming to fetch me, and bring me before the demon lord again. We need to put on a small act so that Diablo will be sure to find out."

Slowly, Abadon walked over to where Scarlet was standing. He slowly fell to one knee and produced a slender gold ring. Scarlet looked unimpressed.

"I was expecting something more extravagant. I have gold hairpins more magnificent than that."

"It's the thought that counts."

"No, it's the gold that counts. But I will overlook it this once."

Suddenly, Abadon perked as he sensed a coming presence. "The servant has arrived."

Slowly, Abadon took Scarlet's hand in his own, and placed the gold ring upon his finger. Both of them fought to keep their smiles back.

"Scarlet, will you..."

Suddenly, the door creaked open. Standing there was a very large skeleton. It quickly scanned the room before its single remaining eye caught a glimpse of Scarlet and Abadon. The single eye grew wide at the sight.

"*GRUNT!*"

"Leave us, fool!" Abadon feigned anger. "Can you not see that I ... we, are busy? I will join you in a moment!"

The skeleton grunted and quickly pulled the door shut, leaving Abadon and Scarlet staring at eachother with amusement.

"You should feel fortunate," Abadon said as he got up and donned his travelling cape. "All that you have to do is kill a few days and go to a wedding, and you become one of the richest dragons in history. I, on the other hand, have to face Diablo's wrath."

"Lucky you."

"You are free to stay here if you want, or you may return to your lair. Either way, make sure you are back in two days ... that is the time when the wedding shall be. We don't want hell's minions to become suspicious of our plan."

"Of course not."

With a parting glance, and the grin of criminal partners, they turned and went their seperate ways. There was no turning back now.

**********

An aura of impatience hung over Abadon as he stood outside the doors to Diablo's hellish sanctuary. His chest still throbbed with pain from its encounter with Diablo's foot, and no doubt it would be made worse shortly. The skeleton that had escorted him here was currently in the throneroom, conversing with Diablo, and undoubtedly revealing to the demon lord what exactly he had seen. Abadon could only hope and wonder if things would go right. What he was about to do would be the hardest part of his plan...

"*GRUNT* *GRUNT* *GRUNT*!"

"HE DID WHAT?!?"

The all-too familiar sound of Diablo's claws ripping through the air reached Abadon's ears, making him cringe slightly. A second later this sound was followed by a solid crash, and several flesh-rotted bones skittered out of the sanctuary. Diablo roared with fury, and suddenly the door flung open all the way and a trio of skeletons scrambled out. Then, slowly, the large skeleton that had escorted him back to hell limped out. His entire right arm and most of his rib cage was missing. It beckoned that Diablo wished to speak to him.

As the skeleton limped away, Abadon took a deep breath. He knew that at this time there was a good possibility that he could kill Diablo in out-and-out combat, he would be killed long before he made it out of hell alive. No matter what, he had to control his anger. Bracing himself, he entered the room. Bones littered the ground. Flesh lined the walls, and in the middle of the room was a throne of bones. Sitting on it was Diablo, tapping his claws impatiently on the armrest. He stared at Abadon with burning eyes.

"Yes, my master?" Abadon said, careful not to provoke the great demon.

"I had originally planned for you to come here to discuss plans for my glorious future," Diablo replied, slowly and with a surprisingly calm edge to his voice. Abadon knew it was a mask. "But it seems that you are making plans for your own future already."

"I take it you are referring to Scarlet."

The demon lord growled slightly. "I am going to be direct, Abadon. You know how much I despise mating rituals. Especially ones involving physical bonding. The only bonding that should be going on in my domain is that of cold steel on hot flesh."

Abadon gulped. "My lord, I..."

"SILENCE!" he barked. "Why? Why her? And why now?"

Abadon had already carefully scripted his answers. "She has uncanny abilities for a mortal..."

"We have demons that can and would make her feeble powers seem like little more than simple tricks."

"It's not just her powers. She makes me..."

"She makes you what?" the demon lord growled, the calm edge beginning to fade away. "Does she give you a warm and fuzzy feeling in the bottom of that cold black heart I molded for you?"

Another deep breath had to be taken before he could continue. "She makes me feel almost alive. She makes me feel things I have never felt, and has opened a door to my soul that I want to explore."

"WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, ABADON?" Diablo demanded. "Only a few short weeks ago you were butchering the inhabitants of Dorado indiscriminantly and enjoying it. Now you are telling me that you are falling in love with a mortal?!?"

Abadon gulped and braced himself. "I know you don't understand, and I don't expect you to. I am asking you simply to accept it."

With a roar of pure fury, Diablo lept to his face and slammed his claw across Abadon's face. "OF COURSE I UNDERSTAND! I AM THE LORD OF TERROR ... I UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING!" he bellowed as Abadon hit the floor. He shuddered in pain, and clenched his fist tight to contain his anger. Blood began to trickle from his hands as his finger's blades dug into himself. Then the demon lord approached again, seized Abadon by the neck, and dangled him several feet above the ground. "BUT ACCEPT IT?"

Once again Diablo's claws collided with Abadon's face. Once more, Abadon was thrown into the wall, and Diablo picked him up again by the throat.

"Simply say you take it all back and it will end..." he hissed.

Abadon choked several times and coughed up some blood before replying. "No..."

This did not serve to calm Diablo any. He squeezed with all of his unearthly might, and his claws pierced Abadon's throat. Both his head and his body fell to the ground, severed. Slowly, the head began to melt and flowed back to his body, where the head began to re-grow. After a minute, Abadon stood back up, though the pain flowing through his system was immense.

"Either accept it or kill me now, because I will not change my mind," he seethed. "Scarlet will either be my bride or a widow."

Diablo slammed his claw against Abadon's face once more. A deep scowl was plastered on his face as he turned his back on Abadon and slowly walked back to his throne. He sat down and began to speak again.

"Your persistence is unwise, Abadon. I could kill you with but a thought. However, you have proven to be an ... asset to me in the past, and I see little reason to destroy you over something as trivial as your physical relationship with mortals. Take whatever minions you may need for the ceremony. But I warn you, Abadon ... if your pursuits here interfere with our unholy quest, I shall see to it that you and your bride die side by side in equally horrible fashions. Now get out of my presence."

Abadon finally allowed himself to breath out. "Thank you, master."

Quickly, Abadon left the room. He shut the door behind him, but as he did, he slumped against the wall, reeling in pain. The damage that Diablo had inflicted upon him was greater than he had thought. But as he lay, polymorphic body wracked with pain, his thoughts were not focused on his injuries; they were focused on his triumph, and what to do next.

**********

It had been several hours since Abadon's departure, and much to the surprise of the palace's guards, Scarlet had chosen to remain in Dorado, despite her unhidden distaste for the frivolous mortal cities. But rather than prepare for the staged wedding, she sat at a quaint wooden desk in her chambers. On the desk was a bundle of scrolls. With a quill in hand, she waved ink across the current piece of paper with almost careless precision. After the note was completed, she rolled it up to form the final scroll, and sealed it with one of Dorado's royal seals. Gently, she walked over to the window, where a raven was tied. Untying the rope, she grabbed the bird by its beak and stared it in the eyes.

"You know where you have to go," she whispered, her mesmerizing eyes taking their unearthly effect. She tied the scrolls to its foot, and then released the bird. The raven promptly flapped off towards its destination.

"Never stare a raven in the eyes..."

She spun around, a little surprised at the voice. Abadon was just entering the room, walking with a slight limp, but a small smile still spread across his face.

"...Or it might steal your soul and fly away."

She looked him over. "Since you stand before me now, I assume that everything with Diablo has been taken care of."

"Yes. I lost my head over it, but we will have the majority of hell's minions at the ceremony. Hell will be guarded only by Diablo's personal minions."

Scarlet's upper lip wrinkled in disgust. "I don't really want to know. But anyway, this is one plan that even those heroes shouldn't be able to foul up."

Abadon snapped his fingers. "Speaking of heroes..."

"Already taken care of."

He looked surprised. "How did you do that?"

"I invited them to the wedding," she smiled quaintly. Abadon's eyes perked up.

"You will have to explain this to me."

Scarlet sighed. "They will receive the information. They may debate it, but eventually they will come to the conclusion that there will be no better time to strike at Diablo, with all the extra security at Dorado. They will agree, and fall into a trap."

Abadon nodded. "Brilliant. Now all that remains is the wedding itself..."

The dragon woman scoffed. "If you think that I am trying on more than one dress, then you can forget this entire thing. I dislike wearing clothes enough as it is."

**********

A light breeze cascaded through one of the open windows of the heroes' new, recently-established base of operations in the town of Tabula Rasa. It's fortified walls provided sanctuary and rest for the weary warriors within, as well as a reliable place in which to regroup. Shin was amusing himself by cleaning his sword and seeing how long he could go without cutting himself. Ethon was cleaning out his gun. Xeiss was outside practicing with her bow and arrows. Glitterspike was reading his Bible. Triesque was outside in the stables, munching on some hay contentedly. Severen was nowhere to be found. D stood in a dark corner, seemingly having a conversation with himself.

It had been this way for the past hour, so everyone was slightly jolted by an off-pitch squawking sound. All eyes turned to the window sill, where a raven was now perched. Shin stood and slowly walked over to the raven, careful to avoid its eyes.

"What's that thing doing here?" Glitterspike asked, looking up from the Good Book.

"I don't know, but I'm going to catch it," Shin whispered, creeping up as best he could, sword in hand. "I'm hungry, and it's a good distance to the nearest tavern."

Suddenly, the raven cawed again, dropped something from its claws, and then flapped off before Shin could so much as lunge. Cursing his luck, the hero of the land walked over to the window to see what had been left behind, half suspecting that it was raven droppings. It was quite a surprise when it turned out to be the sealed scrolls. Examining them, he saw that each one was addressed to one of the heroes.

"What is it?" asked Glitterspike, getting up.

"Read for yourself," Shin replied, tossing the paladin the one that had been designated for him. He then passed out the others, after which he began to read his, teeth clenching more with every line.

Dearest Shin,

Oh how I have missed you. It has been such a long time since we last came in contact. I myself am to blame, and so I write this to make amends. In two days of receiving this letter, I shall be marrying his lordship King Abadon of Dorado. We would both be most pleased and honoured if you and your group were to attend. The wedding shall be held in the courtyard at high noon. I look forward to seeing you and your friends here in our great city.

Your long time friend,
Scarlet

By now the other members of the group had finished reading theirs as well. Anger seething through him, Shin crumbled the scroll in his hand.

"This is totally unacceptable," he said at last. "We have to do something."

"Like what, crash the wedding?" asked D, perhaps a little too eagerly.

"Yeah ... nothing like breaking up a match made in hell," Xeiss growled.

"No," interjected Shin, deep in thought. "I have a better idea. I say we go directly for Diablo."

"What? Shin, are you feeling okay? That would be suicide, and you know it. Diablo has got hell fortified to no end with all of his minions."

"Actually, I believe that Shin may have a point," D continued. "Clearly they are mocking us with this. They are assuming that we will either swallow our pride and remain docile, or launch a suicidal attack against Dorado. I say we do the one thing they do not expect. More than likely they will take the defenses from hell and send them to Dorado in case we should attack there. That leaves Diablo unexpectedly vulnerable."

Shin nodded. "I concur. We've been on the defensive ever since we started this ordeal. I say the time is ripe to go on the offensive, and take a stab straight at their heart, where a blow will cripple them all. Are there any objections?"

Everyone began to look at everyone else in silence. Clearly this was their opportunity. It could be their first, their last, and their only.

"Then it is settled," Shin said quietly. "In two days we complete our quest to recapture Diablo."

And Then The World Came Crashing Down, part two


Anarchy reigned across the western countryside. At first it had only been a few scattered and unreliable reports from wandering nomads and a few drunk farmers. But within a day, countless farms began to tell tales of their crops and livestock destroyed by the undead walking, walking in numbers that could easily be counted in the thousands. They came from the ruins of Tristram, and were heading south, towards Dorado. Paranoia was settling over the broken kingdom like a dark cloud of terror. The talk was that the nefarious Abadon was starting to make his final crusade against all mortal creatures. Residents were taking up arms to defend themselves, though they knew that they would be massacred without a second thought by the demonic forces. All that they could do was pray to the high heavens for a miracle, for a deliverance...

The heavens were listening that day.

Reports of Abadon's sudden mobilization quickly spread themselves across the land, and the panic blooming across the countryside quickly found its way to the kingdoms of the Eastern lands, and in particular the militaristic society in the Kingdom of Ashguard. Built on ideals of military dominance, and physically embedded in a cluster of mountains, Ashguard was the strongest fortress in the land. A driving desire to come out ahead of all of the other powers in the realm had given Ashguard an enlightened scientific view as well; while most kingdoms were still using catapults and ladders in their sieges of other nations, Ashguardians were using Ballista, siege engines, and even to some extent, gunpowder.

Ashguard's sovereign ruler, King Azvarad, had heard tales of the evil that had once plagued the lands of the East, and that had been driven westward by the Horadrim. He knew very well that such evil could not be allowed to reincarnate itself, and he was prepared to do whatever was necessary to stem the tides of darkness.

And so the elite armies of Ashguard set out from their fortified home, carrying with them their mighty war machines. As they passed through the distraught lands of Khanduras, the various peasant militias, crude and untrained, joined the crusade to rid their land of the evil ones once and for all, no matter the cost. But nobody could know exactly what that cost would be...

**********

Two sunrises later, the light of a new day was shining down upon Dorado, which had not been decorated in such an elaborate manner since Abadon's takeover. However, these decorations were not ones that would usually be associated with a joyous occasion. Rather than flowers, boquets of severed human heads graced the walls, courtesy of the civilian population of Dorado. Their mouths had been done up in little smiles, although looks of terror were still to be found in their eyes, and blood still dripped from their torn necks. A congregation of demonic abominations took the place of a human one in the middle of Dorado's courtyard. They stood lined in rows, weapons held before them tirelessly in ceremonious fashion. It was almost time.

From the front of the courtyard, Abadon nodded to his 'best man', Exile, standing guard over the proceedings, who in turn barked an order at the human minstrel sitting behind the organ. The man cowered in fear momentairly and then started to play. Though Abadon had been loathe to allow any live humans to the ceremony, he knew of no demons with much of a musical aptitude, aside from the Succubus', who were too unpredictable to allow to such a function.

His eyes turned to down the aisle to where Scarlet would soon appear. Beside him, a large and powerful demon, one of Diablo's personal agents, stood, prepared to preside over the ceremony. It held in its claws a desecrated bible, and wore a flowing black robe. Then, as the music rang out over the courtyard, Scarlet finally turned the corner, wearing a white dress laced with red, a group of wilted red roses in her arms. Behind her walked four skeletons, two carrying her train, one carrying her bow, and the over a quiver of arrows.

"ATEN HUT!" shouted Exile. On command, all of the demonic warriors along the aisle, ranging from the armored spawns of Diablo to the relatively weak Skeletons, drew their swords and held them over the aisle. Scarlet passed through them slowly, one by one, until she stood next to the priest and beside Abadon, a small yet cruel smile on her face. Abadon grinned openly. It was time for the end game to begin.

**********

The musky smell of death and destruction still hung over the ruins of Tristram like a bog. Darkness had permenantly stained this damned and unholy land. Charred buildings, once the life work of their occupants, now stood as only relics of what they once were. Gazing upon the ruins of the place he had once known so well, Shin Hikaru could still identify each building. The group had travelled all day and night, and now stood in what remained of the town square, the broken fountain still occasionally spurting up a filthy orange water that was unsuitable for consumption by any form of life.

"So," Glitterspike said, looking around at the destruction. "What do we do now?"

Shin's eyes rested upon a small patch of blackened soil, out behind one of the smashed stone buildings. He could still remember the unspeakable evils that he had faced while down there, and would now face again.

"We go to hell," he replied, slowly walking up to the sealed entrance. The group followed suite, approaching what appeared to be just another patch of land amidst the ruins. Shin gestured, and everyone stepped back some. He drew his sword and began to chant an arcane spell. A white energy began to swirl around his sword, growing stronger and more intense with every word of the incantation. Then, with a shout, he plunged the sword into the earth. The white light flowed through the sword and into the ground, which subsequently began to rumble as a crack appeared. The crack began to grow larger and larger. Suddenly everyone was knocked to the ground as a ferocious gust of stale, disgusting air was hurled out of the crack, and an unholy red light shone from deep within. Getting back up to their feet, the heroes surrounded the hole, staring downward to the staircase that would take them into the depths of hell.

"And so it begins..." Severen murmured. Everyone nodded, and then one by one they descended down into the hole, and for all they knew, to their deaths.

**********

The mighty army of Ashguard was on the move, coming in from the East like an unstoppable juggernaut, it's forces swelling with every town that it stopped in. They were less than an hour away from Dorado, hidden amidst a cluster of hills. King Azvarad himself was present in the middle of his massive army. He was a man of great personal faith, posessing much strength and charisma. He was admired by his people and feared by his enemies. The enchanted armour that he wore glistened in the sun, which was at the pinnacle of its journey across the sky. The only part of him that was exposed was his face, itself as steady and unyeilding as steel.

The army was massive, and included everything from peasants to mounted warriors to knights to Ballista. It was one of the most powerful conventional armies to be assembled in the western lands since the fall of Khanduras. And all of its warriors were aimed at one common goal: putting an end to the evil scourge that Abadon and his minions had brought upon this fair land. To command the rest of the troops, a tent had been pitched for Azvarad and his highest generals so that they could coordinate the battle plans one last time.

"...From what we know, the outer perimeter has been rebuilt," one of the King's advisors, Sahara, was saying. "We can't expect to gain any benefits from the siege of Dorado."

Another one of the King's advisors, and his close personal friend, Marcus, scoffed at the prospect. "We don't need any benefits from a dead kingdom. Whatever glory was once to be found here is as dead as its sovereign, God rest his soul."

"True," boomed Azvarad himself, stroking his beard and studying the hand-crafted battle map rolled out before him. "But you must learn, Marcus, that when opportunity stares you in the face, only fools hesitate to take it. Pride can be a valuable ally, or your worst enemy, depending on how it is used."

Marcus bowed and yielded. "Yes, my lord."

"Our primary plan will be this," Azvarad said, bringing his gloved hand down upon Dorado on the map. "We will lay siege to the city as soon as our scouts report back. Our catapults and ballista should be adequate in surprising the forces inside. Abadon will then no doubt send his forces out to retaliate. Once they have left the safety of their city walls, we should be able to match them blow for blow, and annihilate them."

"Simple yet effective. As usual, your plan is flawless, my lord."

Suddenly, the flaps to the tent flew open, and one of the young scouts that they had sent towards Dorado emerged, panting and completely out of breath. He fell to one knee, gasping.

"Rise, my boy," Azvarad commanded, removing a flask of water from his belt and handing it to the lad. "Drink, and tell me what you saw."

The scout drank for several seconds, and then lowered the flask.

"I saw ... I saw something that I would not believe true had I not seen it with my own two eyes," he panted. "The forces of evil are not gathering for conquest. They are gathering for ... for a wedding."

Azvarad's eyes went wide. "A wedding? The only marriage associated with demons is the bonding of hatred and damnation. You must be mistaken."

"I assure you I am not, m'lord. I climbed one of the far walls, and was staring directly into the courtyard. There was a congregation of the damned, holding formation ceremoniously. A beautiful woman in white was coming down the aisle, carrying flowers. Organ music rang out like sick birds. A demon spotted me, but did nothing but grin."

The King rubbed his beard once more, slightly perplexed. "This is unusual, to say the least. Return to your quarters and rest, son. You have done your King proud."

"Yes, m'lord. Thank you, m'lord."

As the scout left, Azvarad turned back to his advisors.

"What now, my king?" asked Sahara.

"It would seem that we now have two choices," he replied. "If the demons are truly only assembled for a wedding, then there is a chance that after its completion they would return back to their own realm and leave this world in peace. If so, then an attack may only provoke them further."

"But what if they were to choose to attack after the wedding? Perhaps their journey to this realm has a double purpose," interjected Marcus.

"Exactly my dilemma," Azvarad said, stroking his beard. "I am not sure that it is a risk we can afford to take, especially when our army is already here and prepared to fight." He hesitated for a second. "Give the order that we are moving on Dorado. We have a wedding to crash."

One after another, voices rang out all over the camp relaying the King's order. The die was cast; it had begun.

**********

Shin could never remember it being quite this easy. The upper levels of hell were almost exactly as he had left them last: dark, infernally hot, flesh-covered, and completely devoid of any demonic spawn. It had been a long time since last he trode through the passageways of the damned, and the configuration of the labyrinth seemed quite different than his last odessey down into the depths. Fortunately, with no real opposition apart from a few odd Acid Beasts to bar their way, they progressed quite quickly. Not everyone was pleased with this.

"It's too easy," Mercy whispered, her sword still drawn out in front of her in a defensive posture, ready for anything. "We're at the heart of Diablo's realm, and yet..."

"...There's nobody here," Shin completed, his katana likewise brandished. "I hadn't really expected hell to be this ill-defended. But it cannot last ... be ready for anything."

Slowly, they made their way down to what Shin remembered as the sixteenth floor. The smell of death and destruction nearly overwhelmed them, and the evil was almost palpable. It became obvious that they would no longer be quite so lucky. The bodies of other would-be, fallen heroes littered the ground. But as they were about to round another corner, they heard voices emanating from around it. Shin waved everyone to a halt, and then peaked around for a look.

It was a small room, with the flesh on the walls still dripping with blood, marking a fairly new construction. There were six demonic characters in the room, Diablo's personal bodyguards and minions. They were seated around a table that stuck out of the ground, built upon the bones of fallen mortals. The demons were evidently playing some card game.

"I will raise you five more," cackled a skeleton captain, holding his cards close to his armoured sternum.

"You're bluffing," growled another demon. "You keep tapping your hip bone because you're nervous."

The skeleton looked as offended as possible. "Am not."

"Just shut up and show 'em," barked a Black Knight from the head of the table.

"Demons over skeletons," sneered the skeleton captain. "Read 'em and shed blood."

"HA!" snorted the other demon. "Undead Flush."

The Black Knight laughed cruelly. "He sure showed you."

"Shut up..."

Shin looked at his compatriots. "Should we try to find another way around?"

D shook his head. "That would take time, and the odds stack against us with every second that passes. I will handle this myself."

"All six of them by yourself?" Shin asked in disbelief. "It won't be a fair fight."

D checked around the corner. "I know. But it would appear that six is all that they have, so it will have to do."

With that, much to the disbelief of the rest of the group, he put his sword away and calmly stepped around the corner into plain view of the demons.

"Hey boys," he said. "What's the game?"

All of the evil monstrosities looked up for a second, and then went back to their game.

"Bloody vampires," a Stalker hissed. "Don't you ever knock?"

"Not really," D replied. "Too human."

"Good point. The game is five card bones. Ten gold ante."

"Sounds like fun. Deal me in." With that, D walked over to the table and sat down amidst the hell spawn. He reached into his pouch, and pulled out a small gold-encrusted crystal, which he calmly laid out on the table. All of the demons' eyes grew wide with horror as they were engulfed in a white light. A few seconds later, D picked up the object again and stuck it back in his pouch. All that remained were six large piles of ashes and a few resilient gold pieces. The rest of the group slowly walked into the room to admire D's handiwork.

"What was that?" asked Fearless, resting his blade against his shoulder.

"It was a ... gift, from an old mentor."

Glitterspike looked slightly crestfallen. "I see. So there is no chance of my getting one?"

D smiled crookedly. "None whatsoever, paladin."

**********

"We are gathered here today to witness the forevor bonding of these two souls in the mortal ritual known as marriage," the demon acting as preacher grumbled, his deep voice echoing across Dorado's courtyard. "Do you, Abadon, take this woman to be your queen and bride ... to have and to hold, to cherish forevor, to never leave on the field of battle, 'til death do you part?"

"I do."

**********

The heroes stood before a massive, steel-encrusted door, made from the bodies and flesh of untold numbers of creatures. The only marking upon it was an evil red emblem, which throbbed and glowed with an unholy light. Diablo was close ... each and every one of them could sense it within them. Soon it would be time to end this.

"All right," Shin said, taking a deep breath, knowing full well what they were aboout to do. "Who wants to knock?"

Without hesitation, Xeiss stepped forward, and with a mighty heave kicked the door open. Dust was sent up in all directions as the door was knocked off of its hinges and landed upon the ground with a sickening thud. Gazing passed the dust, the heroes were able to make out a cluster of cyan flames surrounding a dark figure, seated in the center of the room upon an unholy throne. The creature's eyes burned red with fury as it rose from it's seat.

"We have returned, Diablo!" Shin shouted, already in battle stance and ready for anything. "We're here to put you back in your place ... a place where your terror will no longer be able to hurt anyone."

"Welcome, mortals," the supreme demon hissed. "Welcome to the end of your pathetic, meaningless little existences."

As the group entered the room and prepared to charge at the dark one, Diablo lifted his hands into the air, and with a roar that seemed to tear the very fabric of reality, the ground that they stood on came to life. Clawed hands of flesh and bone reached up from the floor and attempted to maim each of the heroes. Glitterspike shrieked in pain as several hands clawed at him mercilessly, ripping through his armour, and holding him in place as well. He gritted his teeth in pain as they dug deeper and deeper into his flesh. Then, abruptly, the pressure stopped as a quick slicing sound was heard, and the fingers were cleaved from the hand that bore them.

Turning around, Glitterspike saw Xeiss standing there, both her swords covered in blood. The hand retracted into the ground as blood gushed from it's open wounds. He was about to thank her, but hesitated when he saw an enormous fist headed straight for Xeiss' back. He instead pushed her aside and plunged his Halberd forward into the fist. There was a sickening slicing, ripping sound, followed by a lot of blood, after which the hand began to recede into the ground again. Glitterspike and Xeiss both nodded their thanks towards eachother, and turned to face more of the monstrosities.

On the other side of the room, D and Ethon were standing back to back, fending off the hands as best they could. Unfortunately, Ethons' guns were having a less than desirable impact upon the evil incantations; in fact, they were downright ineffective. Frustrated, he holstered his pistol and waited for a hand to come within range. Within seconds, one of the evil things bore down upon him, trying to disembowel him. Rather handily, he sidestepped the blow and grabbed a hold of one of the hand's fingers. Pulling with all of his might, he ripped the hand right out of the ground, dug his armoured fingers into it, and began to swing wildly at any approaching foes.

"You know," he called over to D. "Where I come from, there's a game that's kind of like this..."

"Do tell," D grunted, swinging his long sword and cutting straight through several of the hands. Such a weapon was much more ideal for keeping the monsters at bay.

Only one of the warriors had a clear path to Diablo himself, and it had obviously been engineered that way. Shin's sword gleamed in the evil glow as he approached the dark lord, who raised his razor claws to accept the challenge. This was deeply personal, and each would savor the victory over the other.

**********

"...And do you, Scarlet, take this ... demon to be your husband and sovereign, to have and to hold, to cherish forevor, to never leave on the field of battle, 'til death do you part?"

"Yes, I do."

**********

The impact of claws on cold steel manifested itself in a blast of raw hatred and fury as Shin lunged at Diablo. They stared at eachother for a few seconds, eyes burning with hate for the other, as their weapons locked. Then Shin drew back and thrust his sword forward towards Diablo's heart, but a quick swipe of the demon's claws knocked the weapon away. Now defenseless, Shin could only watch as Diablo raised his mighty jagged hands, preparing to take the hero's head off with one quick, efficient swipe. Sensing imminent death, Shin did the last thing he could. With all of his strength, he hurled his body against Diablo's.

The mighty demon, the omniscient, the undefeatable, hit the ground with full force, on his back, with Shin on top of him.

With incredious speed, Shin scrambled and picked up his sword which lay nearby, reversed its blade, and placed it on Diablo's heart.

"PERISH, DARK ONE!"

**********

"Then with the power vested in me by our god Diablo," the preacher said, holding out his hand as a small flame appeared there ceremoniously, "I pronounce you demon and wife. You may kiss the bride."

Abadon turned towards Scarlet, and only he could see her wince as he moved towards her. A roar emitted from the crowd as they leaned forward and embraced with as much passion as either dared to muster.

Suddenly, they were interrupted as a hiss filled the air, and within seconds had turned into a mighty roar. A bright red ball of light shot overhead, filling the courtyard with heat and light. All eyes turned away from the bride and groom to follow it as it soared over, and impacted the north tower. Rubble was sent flying everywhere as the tower's supports were blown out from under it. There were screams and howls of pain and death as the heavy stone blocks tumbled from the sky, crushing many of the minions gathered in the courtyard. Even before the dust had settled, more fireballs were filling the air.

"DAMN!" shouted Abadon over the commotion as the demons broke up and ran to their posts. "Of all the timing ... what in hell's eternal blazes is going on?"

"We are under attack, ssssir," hissed a Viper as it moved away from its post and towards its commander.

Abadon shook his head. "Now how did you figure that out? BY WHOM?!"

"They are carrying bannersss wittth the emblem of the kingdom of Assssshguard, sssssir."

"Azvarad," Abadon growled. "That nuisance has refused to pay tribute to me for months. I should have had him destroyed long ago ... an oversight that I am now paying for. But this will be the last time he crosses me. Send our ground demons out ... no, out the south gate, and have them flank those infernal war machines. Once the archers have repositioned, send the flyers upon them. Once they have joined the fray, then send in our remaining forces."

The Viper nodded in understanding and then slithered off, hissing orders as loudly as it could in Abadon's name. The head demon himself turned towards his new bride.

"I'm afraid that we may have to delay the honeymoon," he said. "Get inside, Scarlet. It's not safe out here."

The draconian snorted. "The hell I will. I just had to marry you, and it will be a cold day in Diablo's lair before I allow some usurper army to come and claim my payment for themselves."

Abadon hesitated only slightly before grasping her wrist. "Then follow me."

"Where are we going?"

"To change."

He pulled her inside, where they ran towards Abadon's throneroom. Once there, Abadon pushed the throne aside, revealing a hidden staircase. Once more he grabbed her wrist, and pulled her inside, with the throne sliding back into place behind them. Scarlet found herself running down a long, dark hallway, unlit by any toches. She didn't know what she was doing or where she was going, but it seemed that she didn't have much choice. In her frail human form, she was no match for a demon like Abadon, so it was best to obey him until they came upon a room large enough for her to...

...Change. It suddenly clicked in her mind what he was about to do. They rounded a corner and arrived in a large, empty room near the heart of Dorado. There was nothing significant in this room except for several large holes, one on each of the four walls. Gazing upwards, Scarlet realized that the ceiling was an illusion. They were hundreds of feet underground, but she could see all the way up to the surface. Abadon stood in the middle of the room and turned towards Scarlet.

"Once I leave," he ordered his new wife, "change forms and follow me. We have some pestilence to destroy."

Slowly and carefully, Abadon began to chant the words to some arcane incantation. Suddenly, from out of the four holes a golden liquid began to flow. As if it were alive, it flowed towards Abadon, layer after layer covering his body until his original form was impossible to see, leaving only a large golden blob. Scarlet's eyes went wide as the golden blob began to take form; the form of a great golden dragon that she had once met before. The liquid finally ceased to flow from the wall, and the dragon sat in the middle of the room for a minute. Then, there was a cracking sound as its eyes slowly opened. It blinked once, twice, then three times before its eyes finally stayed open. Then it's wings extended from its body, and wordlessly, the dragon leaped into the air, sailing gracefully out of the large hole. Scarlet stood gazing upwards.

"He can actually be quite handsome when he tries," she remarked. Taking her place in the center of the room, she began to concentrate, and held out her arms. Seconds later, there was a ripping sound as her wedding dress began to tear as her sized increased exponentially. She huddled over in both pain and pleasure as scales pierced her skin. Her teeth became sharper, her nails became flesh-ripping claws, and she became larger by the second. In less than a minute, she was once more in her dragon form. With a roar of ecstasy at having shed her human skin, she took off into the air and out of the room. Spotting Abadon high above, she sailed high and joined his side. She couldn't help but admire his sleek golden body. Soon all of that gold plus more would be all hers.

Below them, the battle between good and evil was unfolding as Abadon's forces poured out of Dorado to fight the brave warriors of Ashguard.

"Don't worry about killing the undead," Abadon said, his voice a bellowing draconian growl. "They are expendable."

"Good," Scarlet remarked. "I wasn't planning on being choosey."

Without another word, they dove down towards the battlefield far below.

**********

Azvarad's prized Warhammer was swung through the air with all of the might of the heavens, crashing into the head of a demonic Stalker and shattering it's skull. The King sat high upon his great white war horse, the battle for Dorado being fought all around him. Everything was going according to plan: Abadon had been forced to show his hand and send out all of his forces as soon as possible, lest the demons be destroyed inside Dorado's walls. The fighting was fierce, but Azvarad knew that the warriors of Ashguard would fight to the last, and defeat the demonic presence here.

Another swing of his Warhammer shattered the rotting bones of several skeleton warriors, clearing the area around him of immediate threats. Gazing into the sky, he suddenly spotted a horde of Gargoyles bearing down upon the war machines. Riding up to one of the catapults, the king bellowed an order and pointed skywards. The spotter squinted, then nodded and repositioned. Several seconds later, he cut the rope, sending a flaming wad of hot shrapnel skywards, cutting down the Gargoyles instantaneously.

"Damn good shot!" he congratulated. "If this keeps up, we'll have these demons whipped before the day is ... what the hell are those?"

The spotter's eyes once more turned skyward, to see a pair of black blobs sailing through the sky towards the Ashguardian lines. As they drew closer, their silhouettes became more and more fluid against the sky. The king's jaw hung open.

"My...God..."

**********

Scarlet bore down upon the enemy lines, distinguished by their colorful banners and shining armour. Had her facial muscles been capable of smiling, they would have. Ashguard's bright banners would not be bright for much longer.

Wings folded in close against her body, she whipped towards the ground. At the last possible second, she extended her wings, coming to a stop just above the ground. A huge gust of wind followed her maneouver, knocking to the ground the various knights and lancers that were rushing to oppose her. Then, she let out a roar, and fire bellowed from her mouth, a wall of super-intense heat. Screams emitted from dozens of throats as they were incinerated, and many more didn't even have a chance to scream. Turning her head, Scarlet brought her flames to bear on yet another section of the proud army, and then another. Within seconds a large portion of the battlefield was covered in flames, with hundreds of surviving humans, burnt and battered, running away in sheer terror. It did her heart good to see such a sight.

Suddenly, another shrieking sound filled the air, and she whipped her head around. Abadon was diving down upon the war machines and catapults that were tearing apart his city, at breakneck speed. He, an "amateur" was clearly attempting to mimic her maneouver, so she watched in interest and amusement. As he swooped over the heads of his demonic horde, he attempted to bring himself to a halt, but it was too abrupt and too late. Rather than coming to a halt right in front of the reloading catapults, he barrelled into them at top speed, smashing into the ground and the war machines at the same time. He slid for several dozen meters, crushing more than a few of the hapless humans beneath his immense weight. Finally, he came to a rest, slightly stunned by the heavy blow. Behind him, most of the catapults and ballista had either been destroyed or abaondoned as their crews ran in fear.

Just as he was getting back up to his feet, though, the air was filled with a hundred hissing screeches as arrows pierced the air, straight at Abadon. Hundreds of the powerful arrows collided with Abadon, sticking into his armour. Though they did not hurt him, they clearly scared him, for they made an uncanny hissing sound. Raising his arm, he examined one of the small projectiles. Each one appeared to be tightly wrapped with a small pouch of something, with a fuse on the end of it. He sniffed it. Sulphur...

Then came the pain, as the fuses reached their sacs, igniting the gunpowder within. Abadon roared in pain as hundreds of small explosions wracked his body. Bits of Abadon were sent flying all across the field of battle, reverting back into the liquid metal state once severed from him. Badly wounded, the great golden dragon fell back onto his side in pain.

Scarlet took to the air at the sight, fearing that another round of these new type or arrows aimed at her was imminent. Once there, she swooped down and released a wall of flames right upon the lightly-armoured archers, incinerating most of them, and badly scorching them all. Then there was a roar and a series of explosions as the kegs of gunpowder, as well as the small sacs they carried, ignited under the intense heat.

Gazing back down upon the battlefield, she could see that the humans were now soundly defeated ... most of them that were not dead were in full retreat, shedding their primitive weapons and armour in their mad rush to escape impending doom at the hands of the dark forces. Approaching Abadon, she grasped his limp body firmly in his claws, and prepared to drag him back to Dorado. Some honeymoon...

**********

Marcus swung his two-handed sword, slicing through the dense skin of a demon, which subsequently toppled to the ground. He was alone, his own forces having abandoned him, surrounded now only by the scent of death on the wind, and the hundreds of fallen bodies. The attack had been an utter disaster; nobody had anticipated or expected the arrival of the two dragons, which had almost single-handedly minced Ashguard's army to pieces. Tears formed in his eyes as he watched in the distance the proud Ashguardians who had been wounded badly during the fight. The demons were now collecting them up, for transport back to Dorado where slow, unspeakable deaths awaited them. The air was filled with their collective yet futile screams for mercy. Marcus wanted to help them, to at least put them out of their misery. But he had one charge, and one charge alone.

"MY LORD!" he called out over the field of carnage. "WHERE ARE YOU MY LORD?"

He looked frantically around in the place where he had last seen his sovereign, King Azvarad, during the fight. The ground was littered with an uncountable number of bodies, but Marcus knew the King's distinctive armour plate, and was now looking for it with all the strength he could muster. Soon the demons would be upon him, and he too would be taken back to Dorado. But he would not leave without finding his king.

"M-Marcus..."

The voice from behind him was weak and hoarse, but easily recognizable as that of his master. Tears pouring from his eyes, Marcus bent down to grasp his king and drag him from the carnage surrounding him. But even as he gazed down, he realized that it would be impossible. Though Azvarad's Plate of the Stars had held up to Scarlet's fierce flame wave, it had taken heavy damage, and his face and all the rest of his armour had been badly burned. Marcus fell to his knees.

"My lord, we must get you out of here..."

"It ... it is too late for me," Azvarad said, his blackened face wincing with pain at every word. "Y-you, you must get out of here, Marcus. R-return to Ashguard..."

"NO! I'm not leaving without you, my liege."

"You must..." he gasped out faintly. "You must leave now, Marcus, leave me behind. You must rule over Ashguard in m-my name..."

A dark look crossed over Marcus' face. "But what about your son? He is the heir to the throne, not me."

Azvarad coughed violently. "H-he is my son, and some day he shall ascend to the throne of Ashguard in my footsteps. B-but he is still young, and not ready to rule yet. You will know when he is ready, Marcus, but you must rule my kingdom ... our kingdom, until that time..." He broke out in another violent series of coughs. "P-promise me, Marcus ... promise me..."

With that, the body of King Azvarad went limp in his arms. Marcus' tears splattered upon his liege's chestplate. "I promise, my lord," he whispered. "I will rule until your son is ready."

Slowly, Marcus stood and began to run, following in the footsteps of the rest of the army of Ashguard, away from the city of Dorado and the fields of destruction. He did not look back.

**********

Shin and the rest of the heroes stood over the fallen body of Diablo, the katana sticking straight through the great demon's heart. The battle, hard fought, was over and won. Shin looked around at the others, who nodded at him, knowing what had to be done. Bending down before the fallen body of Diablo, he wrapped his hand around the Soul Stone embedded in the demon's forehead. He prepared himself to do the same thing that he had done two years ago ... the thing that had to be done. With a heave and a sickening sound, he pulled the Soul Stone from Diablo's skull. Instantaneously, the demon's flesh began to waver and dissolve, revealing the fallen body of a young man, dead.

The sharp Soul Stone glistened in Shin's hand, it's light reflecting upon every wall in the room. It had to be done quickly, before the demon grew strong enough to escape the crystal on its own.

He placed it at the base of his forehead, bracing himself for the second time for the most intense pain that he could ever imagine. But much as he hated it, it was necessary, lest Diablo's evil spirit escape to wreck havoc once more. Hegritted his teeth and pulled in a fresh breath of air ... possibly his last. Then, with all of his might, he plunged the cold, hard crystal into his head once more, screaming in agony. His convulsing body fell to the ground, and even as his comrades rushed to aid him, his eyes filled over with blood. The demon was contained, at least for the moment.

But the price was to be a high one.

And Then The World Came Crashing Down, part three


Pain, deliverance, fleeting hope, hatred, fear. All surrounded him like a white-washed shroud, filling his heart and his mind, penetrating into the very depths of his soul and turning it inside out. He did not know whether he was alive or dead, nor did he know if he wanted to know. The world had melted away, leaving only a bestrewed whirlwind of emotions and feelings swirling around him.

Images, memories long lost to his mind, buried by the sands of time, flashed before him, long enough to remember, too quickly to acknowledge. A burning sensation surrounded him as the world of colors and feelings gave way to one primal force...

Terror. Sheer terror filled his heart, seeping through every pore of his body and flooding through his soul. He felt like he was drowning in a sea of trepidation.

Though he could not remember what was going on around him, he could feel another's presence, a dark and ethereal entity on the outskirts of his consciousness ... and infringing closer and closer with each passing second. He attempted to fight with every last ounce of strength that he could, but it was clear that this was not a battle that was going to be won easily.

"You are correct," a foreign voice echoed through his mind, though he could not see the speaker. "Your strength has waned since last we met on this plane. Though you may think that I am your prisoner, it is in actuality the other way around."

"Show yourself!" he cried, fists clenched in frustration as the vortex of colors around him slowly began to subside. Memories were coming flying back to him. "Come, you coward! Prove your boasts!"

A menacing laughter filled his thoughts "I shall do more than show myself, weakling. You were persumptuous to believe that you could fully contain my essence as you did before. Already I have grown too powerful for you ... I have become immune to your feeble restraints and inhibitions."

The swirling finally stopped, and he found himself standing before the figure. It was broad, and silhouetted by an eerie cyan light. Memories flashed passed him as he gazed upon the beast's claws. The world seemed to slow to a halt, as though in a dream state. Endless cascades of terror rushed through him as the monstrosity stepped forward and towards him.

"Prepare yourself, mortal," Diablo growled, echoing voice filled with the primal evil that defined his very existence. "Prepare yourself for Hell."

A scream rang out from his throat as Diablo pounced upon him, and sank his grusome fangs into his consciousness. Pain, suffering, remorse, burning. All of these filled him as he tried to fight against the demon in his mind. But slowly yet surely, one sensation was enroaching over all of the others, taking dominion over his fragile mind.

Terror.

**********

"OW! Watch it, Severen, the ceiling is low here!"

"I can hardly help it if you are unable to keep your eyes open, young one."

"Yeah well, just watch where you're leading me!"

The calls emanated from the throats of two of the heroes, Severen and Fearless, as they grudgingly carried the fallen body of their comrade Shin Hikaru back through the labyrinth that composed the outer portions of Diablo's former dark realm. Their friend and leader had not reacted to being re-merged with the Soul Stone and Diablo's essence as well as had been anticipated; almost immediately he had lost consciousness and crumpled to the ground. Repeated efforts by D and Mercy had been made to wake him, but to no apparent avail. All that could be hoped for now was that he would grow stronger and recover with time.

The group was nearing the exit to hell, and already they could feel the palpable dark atmosphere around them beginning to clear, only it had nothing to do with their vicinity to the mortal plane. Without Diablo's presence to reinforce his hold on this domain, the mystical realm was beginning to revert to its old form, that of the abandoned Horadrim catacombs. The tear of reality that had caused Hell to meet Earth was slowly beginning to close.

"There! THERE!" Ethon's voice echoed through the corridor from ahead, where he was taking point. "It's the exit! We're home free!"

This news was met by a rally of cheers by the rest of the group. Despite their weariness, and despite their friend's perilous condition, an unparalleled happiness was growing in their hearts. Diablo, last of the Three Great Evils, was now their prisoner, and the world was rid of his darkness. It was indeed a time for celebration.

"When we get back to Tabula Rasa," Kain piped up suddenly, "we are going to throw the biggest feast that the city has ever seen." It was not a question, nor was it a request. Venturing away from the barren ruins of Tristram, their thoughts turned to the days ahead. What was going to happen, what they were going to do, and how they were going to fit all of that food into the courtyard.

**********

The only sound that came from Abadon's personal chambers in Dorado was that of the soft wind billowing lightly through the curtains, and that of a knife slowly wittling away at a piece of wood. The hellspawn himself lay on the bed in his chambers, prevalant wounds covering his body. Nobody, not even the wisest of demonic healers, knew enough about him to risk treating him. And so he lay.

The whittling sound came from Scarlet, who sat at his bedside with patience that only an age-old dragon could possibly muster, carving a small statuette of herself out of a block of wood. After the strange explosive arrows of Ashguard had struck Abadon, he had been unable to hold his draconian form for long, and so she had been forced to remove him with all due haste. But not because she cared about him, like his minions believed. Personally she believed that the mortal world would be better off without his malevolence plaguing it. She had brought him back to Dorado only because his minions would not allow her to get anywhere near the promised gold without his leave. So she spent the long hours at his bedside, waiting for him to show a sign of consciousness.

Slowly, the door to the chambers creaked open, and Scarlet's neck jerked around to see who enroached upon them. It was the third day of her 'husband's' healing coma, and no visitors had come thus far. She was surprised to see the nimble form of a Succubus enter, its leathery black wings flapping gently in the wind. It came and sat on the edge of Abadon's bed, and then applied a wet cloth to his forehead. As it did, the Succubus turned towards Scarlet and began to speak.

"I am here to warn you," the demon's bittersweet voice sounded offensive in Scarlet's ears. "Many of my sisters are none too pleased about you and the master."

"Oh really?" Scarlet said, continuing to whittle and not really paying much attention.

"Yes," the Succubus hissed. "I am personally most pleased with the arrangement. But my sisters feel that they should be Abadon's queen, rather than some," it looked disgusted, "frail mortal creature. Several are making plans to have you killed."

This caused Scarlet to look up. "Which ones?"

"Well," the Succubus replied thoughtfully. "The most noteable one would have to be me."

Before Scarlet could respond, the Succubus clasped its hands together, and released a burst of arcane energy, which slammed into the unprepared draconian's chest. She fell backwards in her chair, roaring in pain and fury at the surprise attack. Scrambling to her feet, she could see the Succubus preparing for another blast.

"Insolent mortal wretch," it snarled fiercely. "I shall make you pay for stealing the master's black heart!"

It released another blast, but this time Scarlet saw it coming, and easily dodged, even in the enclosed room. Grasping her golden dagger, she reversed the blade and threw it horizontally, where it embedded itself deep into the Succubus' shoulder. The demonic witch screamed in pain, and tried desperately to pull the blade out. This gave Scarlet the chance she needed. Mumbling an ancient human incantation, she held out her hand, and instantly a wave of magical fire rushed forth. The Succubus screamed, but it was too late, and the Flame Wave surrounded the demon. When it subsided a few seconds later, nothing was left of the Succubus but a pile of ashes.

Rubbing her sore chest where the energy burst had struck her, Scarlet collected her dagger, righted her chair, barred the door, and sat back down again to maintain her vigil over Abadon.

"I suppose," she murmured, beginning to whittle away at the chair's arm, "that in Hell, having women fighting over you takes on a whole new meaning."

**********

"Make your peace with the dark underworld that you serve, Arrisa. The darkness and malevolence that has consumed your past is where you will be spending your future as well."

The words that she had been for so long planning to say, inkling for weeks, nay, months over the words that she would speak to the one whom she was about to slay, finally came pouring out from between her pursed lips. Even before they had fully become coherent, her hand was already at her belt, groping to find the reassuring handle of the dagger she knew was there. Once she had discerned it, she slowly removed it from its sheath, filling the air with the unerring metallic hiss of fresh steel attuned to blood.

The girl was no more than eighteen, and yet her eyes had long ago been derived of the youthful glow and energy so common amongst her peers. The lustful soft flame of innocence had instead been replaced by a burning hatred, a need for vengeance. It had consumed her many years ago. Her name was Lesya, and she had but one purpose left in her life. Not a dozen paces away from her now stood the object of her hatred and righteous fury. Another woman, older than she and of fairer build. As the pair of them stood facing eachother, the odious scent of the dark Eastern swamps rose up to greet both of them.

Lesya's dagger felt comfortable in her hand; it had been given to her many years ago by her older brother, and she was skilled in its use by this time. When she had first received it, she had never even dreamed that she would ever use it to harm another being. Now she could not dream of it being used for any other purpose. The object of her burning hatred, the infamous necromancress Arrisa, stood opposite her, eyeing Lesya and her weapon with an almost bemused look.

"The last time we met, little one," the dark woman said, a sinister edge piercing her voice as the flaps of her grey robe kicked up around her legs, "you were but a child. Now you have returned, and I sense that the circle will be complete."

"I'm here for your blood, Arrisa, and nothing more," Lesya's voice came out in heaves. "You slew my brother before my very eyes, and by the Heavens, I will cut your heart out for what you did to him."

A veritable storm of black clouds and pure darkness rose up from the depths to surround the evil one. "Your brother was challenging my power, as you are right now, little one. I still gain deep satisfaction when I think of the sweet, slow death I gave him..."

"Enough!" Lesya shouted, tears flowing from her eyes like a fountain of remorse. "I've been looking forward to this for a long time!"

She lunged, her brother's dagger coming down in a direct path with Arrisa's sternum, planning to embed itself and then tear through her innards. But no matter how skilled in the use of small blades she was, Lesya's feeble mortal powers were little match for the raw malignant hatred that composed the might of the underworld. With but a beckon, dark magics lanced from Arrisa's fingertips, and the determined young woman was flung backward with all of the fury that she had contained in her charge reversed back upon her.

"Your challenge means less to me than you do," Arrisa said calmly, advancing upon the crestfallen young warrior, and drawing her own dagger. "I could smite you with a mere thought. The only reason I haven't yet is because I wish to make your end as painful as possible."

Lesya was back on her feet again before the words had even slipped out of the necromancress' mouth. Venting all of her anger, she swung her dagger, grazing Arrisa's jugular, and only missing a lethal hit by a few inches. The dark woman's blood splattered on the ground, where almost instantly it hissed and bubbled, and then solidified into black rock.

"Insolent wretch!" Arrisa seethed, clasping her wounded throat with one hand and extending the other one towards her opponent. The air was suddenly filled with bursts of light as the dark sorceress cast out a wave of crackling lightning, which quickly surrounded Arrisa's body, filling every pore with excruciating electromagnetically-induced pain. She fell to her knees, screaming in agony, even as Arrisa summoned healing powers to close her gushing wound. An evil smile crossed the necromancress' face as she approached Lesya once the spell had dissipated. With little ado, she grasped her by the throat and held her up in the air, dangling above the ground, unable to breathe.

"You were a fool to challenge my power," Arrisa hissed. "If I were going to allow you to live, you would look back upon this day as the last of your childhood. But no more experiences shall you ever have."

Carefully, Arrisa removed Lesya's dagger from her hand, reversed it, and plunged it into the young girl's chest, rotating it hard and ripping through her internal organs. A look of pained disbelief crossed Lesya's face as blood began to pour out of her open mouth. This couldn't be happening, not when she was so close...

An uneasy silence filled the land. Lesya could feel the ethereal pull of the underworld on her soul, dragging it across the barriers between this world and the next. She fought it with her every ounce of will and strength, even as she struggled futilely against Arrisa to remove the dagger from her sternum. But the dark witch held on, twisting and turning viciously, without any amount of mercy. A docile look was planted firmly on her face, and it was the last thing that Lesya saw before her eyes faded closed.

Then it was over, and her lifeless body was allowed to crumple unceremoniously to the ground.

**********

A sense of relief had passed over Scarlet when she had finally realized that Abadon's wounds were in fact healing themselves, and healing rather well. His regenerative capabilities had at last kicked in, and hopefully it would not be too long before he was back on his feet. It's about time, she thought to herself darkly. I already had to sacrifice my pride and dignity in that ridiculous ceremony to get this gold. Now my precious time is wasting as well while I wait for this demon to recuperate. My horde sits unprotected, and if word of what I have done here ever reaches my fellow dragons, they would laugh me out of the sky. But then the thought of all the gold in Dorado passed through her mind. Then again, maybe they would accept a bribe...

Suddenly, her ears perked up and her heart jumped as she heard a moan from the direction of the bed, bringing her out of her trance-like state immediately. Abadon had awoken from his coma and had begun to stir. She quickly jumped out of her chair, not willing to miss another chance to get to her gold. She quickly began to shake him by the shoulders, not knowing nor caring whether or not it was in his best interests.

"Abadon!" she said to him, quietly at first, but then losing her patience and screaming. "ABADON!"

The demon's eyes shot open, but they were filled with a look that Scarlet had never seen on him before: horror. His skin rippled visibly, still weak, as he began to move about.

"I saw them..." he whispered, almost unheard. "They are calling to me..."

Scarlet looked at him in confusion, wondering who he was rambling about. Was this some part of the plan that he had not let her in on? She pondered asking him for a second, but then decided that it really wasn't worth the effort on her part to find out. Not when other, more important matters on her mind were taking precidence.

"Abadon, I want my gold," she hissed, holding him steady. "Did you hear me? I said that I want my..."

In a flash, Abadon was upright, and had grasped her by the shoulders. He stared deep into her mortal eyes, and she could see the fear burning deep within his own. Surely this demon had completely lost it.

"Take your money," he said, a frightened edge to his voice. "Take your money and get out of here, Scarlet. Get out of here before they come, Scarlet. Get out! GO!"

A cold shiver ran up Scarlet's spine as Abadon thrust his royal seal into her palm to use to get past the guards. Whatever was coming she would have no part of.

Breaking away from Abadon, she ran out of the room without even a parting glance, down towards Dorado's massive treasury. The gold was stored there; gold collected and mined over uncountable generations by uncountable sovereigns. And now, it was all hers. Amounts of gold that a dragon would sell its soul for without hesitation. Down the stairs she flew, the fear in her heart growing as fast as her anticipation. Enlisting the aid of several skeletons and demons, she began to move the gold out into the courtyard in vast quantities, load after load until an insurmountable pile had been accumulated. Then, without delay, she ordered the denizens of hell to continue transporting the materials, and promptly changed into her dragon form to begin the inhuman feat of hauling all the glittering gold pieces back to her lair.

**********

Staring down upon Scarlet and the work that was being done far below, a smile was perched upon Abadon's face. Everything was going perfectly according to plan. The greedy dragon below was getting her gold, enough of it to make the rest of the draconian race roar with envy. Her usefulness to his plan for ascension was now at an end, and though he had originally planned to have her killed at this point, he knew that someday this would continue to play into his hands. Things on this plane would be allowed to run their course.

For it was not this plane that Abadon was concerned about any longer.

While in his deep sleep, Abadon had reached out with his consciousness to make arrangements to execute the next phase of his plan. He had contacted the Underworld, and there his destiny was waiting for him.

**********

Hours had passed, and every bone in Dragoneyes' mighty body was now weary from an uncountable number of flights to and from her lair. She had lost count long ago; the undead kept bringing gold up to the courtyard, and she kept taking it away, not allowing any of the flying demons to aid her, as she wished her lair's location to remain a secret. But soon her lair would be completely filled with gold ... literally her dream come true.

Finally, as she returned to Dorado once again, she found that there was no more gold waiting for her. All that there was awaiting for her was a single Stormbringer demon. She allowed herself to settle into the maw of the courtyard to rest.

"Do you have anything else for me?" Dragoneyes bellowed, her voice echoing through the courtyard even when she whispered.

"No, my queen," the demon hissed in reply. "All of Dorado's gold is now in your posession. I was wondering if you knew what has happened to the master."

"What do you mean?"

The demon's eyes glinted. "I mean that he has gone mad. For the last hour he has been running around the castle, raving like a madman, ordering his minions around irrationally. He has killed several of us already."

Dragoneyes stopped to ponder this for a moment while she regained her strength. "He was like that when he awoke. I am afraid that whatever troubles him now came to him while in his sleep. I don't know what could possibly mortify one who worked ... er, works for Diablo, in such a fashion, but I have no intention of staying to find out. If you have a chance, inform Abadon that I have departed for my lair."

The Stormbringer bowed deeply. "Of course, my queen."

Dragoneyes then unfolded her wings, and began to rise up into the air, flapping mightily. As she soared into the sky, she took one last look back at the mighty fortress of Dorado. What was about to happen there she did not know, nor did she really care. She had fulfilled her part of the bargain, and now she was going to reap the rewards. A roar of laughter left her lungs as she sailed back to her cave to count all of her new gold, or die trying.

**********

Abadon sat in his throne room alone. He was enjoying giving his minions the impression that he had gone mad; acting had always been one of his strong suits, right alongside merciless killing and the slaughtering of innocents. Most of his heretic soldiers had fled to the lower quarters to avoid his wrath until the madness passed. That gave him the much-needed opportunity to complete his dark mission.

Standing from his throne, he slowly walked to the center of the large room. It was time. The words to a dark incantation that had never before been uttered on the mortal plane came whispering from his lips as his eyes closed and his brow furrowed in concentration. Black whisps of energy began to flicker around him. Then, he held out his hand, and from his fingertips a glowing red portal formed, a tear in the space/time continuum. Blood dripped out of the energy surrounding the rift, splattering on the floor in an unholy fashion. Beyond the dark portal, there was nothing but blackness.

Abadon braced himself. If everything went according to plan, then he would not only emerge back onto this plane with his life, but with untold power. But if something went wrong ... eternal damnation faced him.

Gathering all of his strength and courage, Abadon stepped forward into oblivion.

**********

The night sky covered the forests to the east of Tristram like a soft blanket. The stars flickered softly, an infinite number of them filling the vast sea of darkness. Smoke from a small fire rose into the air, unseen. The ember glow shed by the fire lit up a small clearing, where two figures could be seen, soundly asleep after a hard day. The forms of Kerran and Kiera were easily identifiable against the blackened forest.

Suddenly, Kerran's eyes shot open, and he sat up, as if he had heard something approaching. But as he clutched Stormbringer tightly, he knew that what he sensed was not of the physical realm. A pathway to darkness had just been opened; a pathway that lead to an unspeakable, unthinkable evil. Dread began to grow inside of his heart, dread that something as terrible as Diablo himself's coming, if not worse, had just occured.

From nearby, Kiera awoke as she sensed his movement, and saw the concern etched on his face. "Kerran?" she asked sleepily. "Kerran, what's going on?"

"I'm not sure," he replied darkly, not letting go of his enchanted sword. "But I feel as though the beginning of the end has just begun."

The two of them stared up into the night sky, looking for answers, both as confused as they had ever been, and powerless to confront the coming darkness.

**********

The celebrations in the castle of Tabula Rasa had been going on for several days now, the denizens of the group's new capital rejoicing almost nonstopped at the capture of the Lord of Terror. But by now, late into the night, the parties had ground to a halt, and most of the citizens had either gone home or passed out on the floor from too much food and drink. Indeed, several members of the group were in a comparable situation.

Save one, Glitterspike, who was maintaining his vigil over Shin Hikaru's limp body. The paladin of Westmarch knew the importance of what was going on here, and was not about to allow himself to celebrate until his friend regained complete control over his body. As it was, he sat by Shin's bedside, eyes glued to the throbbing, pulsating Soul Stone that was embedded in his head, occasionally wiping away a trickle of blood that ran down his forehead.

"I had always hoped that it would never come to this again, old friend," Glitterspike said quietly as he stared down upon Shin. "I never stopped thinking of or searching for another way to contain this dark spirit, rather than within your own soul. I would have gladly taken on the burden rather than you, had I thought my spirit was strong..."

Suddenly, his thoughts were cut off in mid-sentence by a sudden sensation which flowed through him. He abruptly stood, knocking over the chair upon which he sat, and ran over to the window. Overlooking Tabula Rasa, he could see that all was quiet below him.

"What in the name of the Lord...?"

Staring out upon the darkened land, he could almost see it becoming darker still, as a sense of misgiving filled him. Something had just happened somewhere, some dark, unholy event that he could feel even this far away. The thought crossed his mind that it might have been Abadon and Scarlet on their honeymoon, but then the feeling passed through him again, and he was sure that it was something far worse than even that. He could now feel it reverberating in his bones, over and over again. Something evil was coming...

**********

Spinning, cascading, rolling, eternity, pain, delight, suffering, anxiety, love, hate...

Lesya could feel, yet she could not.

See, and yet she was blind.

Hear, and yet she was deaf.

Taste, and yet she had no tongue.

Spinning, cascading, rolling, towards a bright light in the distance, her final destination. She felt many things right now, but none as powerful as the fear. Fear that she was going somewhere from which there was no return. Ever.