The sounds of rejoicing and merriment filled the night. Light flooded through the windows of Greymore's Tavern as a party continued to flourish through the night. Laughter echoed through the surrounding lands when the door swung open.
A thin stranger entered, his body completely covered in a simple black cloak. He carried an elaborate looking staff, over a meter in length with an extravagant headpiece. The piece was ebony black, appearing to be carved of obsidian or some other such substance. It was in the shape of a demon's claw, looking quite menacing despite being a mere carved figure. Clutched in the hand was what appeared to be a normal orb, but upon closer inspection, one could see a pulsating center, black as night.
This man was known among those few who were privy to his identity as Intruder, evil necromancer. Choosing a bench far from the rambunctious partygoers, he summoned Greymore, the tavern owner, to him. A warm smile covered the kind man's bearded face.
"What'll it be mate?"
Intruder looked up, and all the warmth disappeared from the man's eyes. His smile vanished quickly as the corpse-like eyes of this new customer pierced his own. Intruder's face was completely devoid of expression save that of undeniable contempt for those around him. Looking at Greymore, he spoke.
"Information." Intruder flipped a gold coin onto the counter. It landed with a soft clatter, spinning for a moment before falling onto its side. The tavern keeper looked upon it distastefully for a moment, and then he began to shake his head as he stepped back.
"Sorry, mate. You're in the wrong place for that. I just sell ale"
Sighing, Intruder reached into the depths of his cloak and removed a large pouch. He tossed it onto the bar where it landed with a loud clatter, drawing the attention of some of the drunken men nearby. Greymore's eyes went wide as several coins spilled out onto the counter and fell onto the floor. The pouch contained at least 10,000 gold coins, and this stranger was tossing it around as if it were nothing.
"Money is no object" Intruder sneered, noting the attention his action had drawn. "I am looking for a man, I believe he has been through here recently. He knows the location of… an artifact I seek."
Stuttering, Greymore muttered "Many people come through here, how am I to remember a single one?"
Clearly annoyed, Intruder reached into his cloak once more and removed an even larger sack, containing at least three times the gold of the previous.
"Does this refresh your memory?"
By now, the entire tavern had grown silent. Many of the tenants had not seen this much gold in their entire lifetime, much less at once. For most, the purchase of a two-shilling loaf of bread was a luxury. A particularly conspicuous group of large warriors whispered to each other in the corner.
"He goes by the name of Harris, and I want to know where he was headed."
A look of triumph came over Greymore's face. "I remember him! That bloke said he was a' heading to a town called Tabula Rasa!" Intruder smiled. Greymore took this as approval and reached out for the gold.
"Not so fast" growled Intruder. "Your greed and the greed of all these men have made all of you vulnerable." He leaned back a bit, looking disturbingly nonchalant. "You should feel honored. You will soon be part of the power source for the most powerful being on this world."
Laughing maniacally, Intruder stood. He raised his staff into the air as it began to pulsate with dark energy. Ribbons of black energy shot out from its interior, flying with unbelievable speed toward each target. As the lanterns blew out, the last thing that could be heard through the night were the high pitched screams as Intruder added the power of these men's souls to his own.
Looking upon the high walls of Tabula Rasa, Intruder scowled to himself. He had wandered through the sea of bodies surrounding the city only to find a near impenetrable fortress of a city. Still, he thought, it is much easier for one man to get in the walls than a hundred. Surely there must be a weak spot in the guard, perhaps a sleeping night watchman.
Alas, despite Intruder's best efforts, he could find no such weak spot. Only vigilant guards who obviously took their job quite seriously. They had to if they wanted to survive. Finally, frustrated beyond belief, Intruder attempted to walk through the front door, the front door being a heavily guarded makeshift bridge.
As soon as Intruder's feet touched the wooden planks, several archers emerged, arrows pointed straight at his heart. One man stepped forward, obviously the captain of the guard. He spoke.
"Who goes there?"
"Merely a weary traveler who seeks shelter from the evil that resides outside these walls" Intruder replied trying not to crack a smile. The captain looked deep into Intruder's eyes, sensing something wrong. He was not about to let him in so quickly. It was then that Intruder noticed the emblem on the man's arm.
The sign of the Crimson Empire.
Turning, the captain ordered "Summon King Fearless to inspect this man before we allow admittance." Though it was common knowledge that the heroes occupied this town, Intruder had been unaware of Fearless's status as king.
Cursing his foul luck, Intruder looked for some means of escape. The dozen arrows still pointed directly at him showed there was none. An idea crossed Intruder's mind, but it would require some theatrics. Doubling over in apparent pain, Intruder began rolling around on the ground. As several of the archers rushed to his aid, Intruder rolled into the river mere moments before Fearless arrived on the scene. The captain could only describe a gaunt man wearing dark robes. Fearless looked at him with disdain before heading back into the city.
Mercy sat quietly, listening to the night. After all the hard work, the fighting, the sacrifice, things had only gotten worse. With Abadon in possession of Diablo's powers, he was even more dangerous than before. Presumably, he could destroy them all with ease. Worse still, the hero of heroes was now dead. The prince Fearless had been forced to kill the great Shin in order to save them all. Hopefully it would take some time for Abadon to adjust to his new power before he could mount an offensive. That would give the heroes a chance to mount some kind of defense and plan their revenge.
The door creaked open quietly, and Mercy looked over. Fearless silently entered the room looking a bit displeased. His weariness was quite evident, as was the fact that he was being extremely hard on himself for his actions in Dorado.
"What was that all about?"
"Someone trying to get in the city, he disappeared... Just an old man apparently, he was described as thin, ragged and-"
"Wait" Mercy interrupted. She closed her eyes and began to concentrate, which seemed to confuse Fearless. However, he had learned during his short time that these westerners knew what they were doing and not to question them, as their methods and purposes would become clear or be explained afterwards.
"I feel something… something familiar." Mercy strained, creases forming on her brow. "But I can't pinpoint it." Mercy sighed to herself, then relaxed. "You know, maybe you should increase the guard. I have a bad feeling."
"Very well. I don't really understand it, but I will trust your judgement." With that, the prince departed. Several minutes later, after gathering a few things and arming herself, Mercy too departed.
It had been a hard swim, but Intruder had finally made it to the opposite side. Despite the relatively short distance between banks, the strong current made even this small swim a highly exhausting task. Stopping to rest, Intruder examined his options. He was now directly below the bridge, so he was safe from wandering eyes.
Finally, he decided that the best course of action would be to create a quick diversion and slip in unnoticed. Raising his staff, Intruder summoned several of his slaves. Their souls emerged from the center of the black orb on his staff and swirled around it for a moment before flying off toward the body-littered fields surrounding Tabula Rasa.
As the bodies of the fallen defenders of the last stronghold of light began to rise, the shocked cries of the guards could be heard above. The undead charged the bridge before anyone could react, engaging the defenders on the other side. Being caught off guard by the proximity of the attack, most of the guards at the gate were quickly slain as the unholy strike force entered the city.
Though he knew it would be only seconds before his force was slaughtered, Intruder had been successful. With all attention focused completely on the warriors of his creation, he easily slipped into the shadows in search of the man named Harris who held the secret Intruder so fiercely pursued. So eager was he to find this man that he did not notice the person watching him, nor did he notice when that person followed...
The ominous spires of castle Dorado loomed over the land, instilling fear upon all who beheld them. Once known as the city of gold, Dorado was now know as the city of death. Body parts decorated walls and doors and blood stained the streets. Where there was once life, there was now a legion of undead minions, under the control of one man.
Abadon. Those who spoke his name now did so with disgust, fear, or some mixture of the two. Regardless of how one looked upon Abadon, they all had something in common. They all knew better than to anger him lest they become victims of his power. And right now, Abadon was very angry.
"What do you mean you can't find him!?"
Atlas looked up at his master with great fear in his eyes. "He left no survivors this time. I followed his trail as best I could, but from the looks of things, he either left a misleading trail or he is in Tabula Rasa"
"Incompetent fool!" Abadon brought his hand across Atlas's face, sending him sprawling. Slowly standing, Atlas began to cower and dropped back down to one knee. "If he is in Tabula Rasa, he will be difficult to catch. I want Intruder brought to me. Exile!"
Abadon looked around, but Exile did not appear. He began to growl, and was about to retrieve his servant in a… painful way, when Atlas began to laugh. He laughed harder and harder until his features began to contort, and then he transformed into a demonic creature.
"Exile, I have warned you about that before."
"I want you to go to Tabula Rasa. Disguise yourself as necessary, and find Intruder!"
Exile nodded quietly, then ran out of the door. Abadon sat down quietly, brooding to himself. "Soon," he mused. "Soon the world will be mine, after I repay my... debts." A smile crept onto Abadon's face. "Soon, Dorado will be known as the city of terror!"
Man is an unpredictable creature. When faced with the prospect of death and damnation, different people deal with this is different ways. Some attempt a futile battle to beat back the forces of evil. Some run away, hoping to escape the wrath of the darkness. While others, much like those in this bar, drown their sorrows in alcohol and simply await the inevitable.
Sitting at the end of the bar was a particularly quiet man. A deep scar ran across his face and one of his eyes was missing. He lifted his mug to his mouth with his left hand, and looking at his other arm, one could see that his right hand was missing. After all, this man was a thief and the penalty for a thief caught in the act was the loss of a hand.
Intruder sat next to the man and ordered a drink. He looked over at the man, examining him. Satisfied by what he saw, he thanked the underworld that his target had such distinguishable marks. Still, in this city full of troops and his former companions, Intruder decided it would be best to be discreet.
"Greetings. I am known as Intruder."
The only response emitted from the drunken man was an ear-piercing belch. Intruder frowned.
"Charming. I understand you have something in your possession. Something you were able to... let's say, extract, from the Temple of Ages."
The drunken thief called Harris turned toward Intruder. "Yeah, what's it to ya?"
Intruder smiled. "I wish to purchase this item from you, and believe me, money is no object."
Thinking quietly to himself, Harris came up with a proposition. "If you can make sure I don't ever see the bottom of this mug again, I will give you what you want."
"Consider it done."
Harris reached into a pouch on his belt and pulled out a small scroll. Hands shaking, Intruder slowly took it from him. "At last..."
"Don't forget my payment."
"Don't worry," smiled Intruder. "You will never see the bottom of that mug again." Holding out his closed hand, Harris looked curiously. Moving his head forward, he was unprepared when Intruder opened his hand, revealing two odd looking thorns. They dove toward Harris's eyes, burying themselves in his head. Harris screamed in pain as they dug into his head until they finally reached his brain, then he fell over, dead. "You will never see anything again." The enchanted thorns of the blackroot tree were a most effective and painful killer.
Feeling rather triumphant, the necromancer headed toward the door. Suddenly, he felt something poking him in the back. Turning slowly, he came face to face with Mercy. Tears filled her eyes as she remembered her departed friend, and that this man had taken a large part in Shin Hikaru's death.
"You're not going anywhere, murderer!"
Intruder frowned once again. This was not his day.
Many miles away, a group of seven very concerned priests were gathered around an oval table. They all spoke at once, making each person unable to hear the other clearly because of the intense background noise. Each wore a simple brown robe, and each had shaved a bald spot on the back of the head.
An eighth man entered the room and sat at the head of the table. He was undistinguishable from the others except for one feature. He wore a large gold cross around his neck. As soon as he sat, a silence fell over the group. The seven priests looked to their leader for answers.
"It is as we have always feared. The sacred map has been stolen, and the path to the Runestone of Souls has been made open for outsiders." Clearing his voice, the man raised a shaky hand into the air. "Our sacred Temple of Ages has been violated. We, the last of the Horadrim, must recover it before all is lost. Our power, however, is greatly depleted. We are all too old and frail to take on the powers of darkness any more. The years have ravaged most of us, which is why I have brought in outsiders. Mercenaries."
Another man entered the room, only this one was in sharp contrast to the priests in drab robes that surrounded him. His face was grim and dirty, with a battle-worn expression in his eyes. Completely bald, he had a thick beard around his face. On his back, a large, vicious looking sword hung. More blood was stained upon it than could ever be washed off. The man's armor consisted of chain mail arms and legs with a light suit of steel armor on his chest and wrists. A deep blue cape billowed behind him.
"My friends, I would like to introduce to you General Dorien. He commands a rather large army, numbering nearly twenty thousand highly skilled warriors. Should the secrets of our sacred artifact ever be unleashed, he may be the difference between the life and death of this world. General."
Stepping forward, Dorien cleared his throat before speaking. "Gentlemen, I have been offered a substantial amount of money to come to your aid. However, remember that me and my men are all mercenaries. As such, you should be prepared to raise the ante should the other side offer some... financial competition. That said, so long as your money holds out, I promise you we will not return empty-handed. The only thing I require is one of you to lead us to the place we must defend."
The apparently nameless head priest stepped forward once more. "I have already arranged our youngest and strongest to accompany you. He is the only one of us below the age of eighty in fact. May I introduce you to Zahn, the youngest man to ever achieve the title of Horadrim."
Standing, Zahn was obviously much younger than the others. Definitely no older than thirty, he was a child when looked upon in this room of elders. Despite this difference in age and experience, the other Horadrim looked upon him with the utmost respect. It was quite obvious that this was a unique individual, destined for great things.
"It does me honor to serve the light. I will represent the Order Horadrim with pride as we vanquish the servant of Hell. 'We stand upon damnation's door, but we will not go quietly into the night. When it all ends we will write to lore that we sent our souls to defend the light'."
The old prayer having been said, the rest of the order bowed their heads as Zahn shed his brown robe. As it fell to the stone floor, in its place was a suit of armor not unlike the paladins of Westmarch. The main difference between the two was that instead of a red cross on the breast, there was a shimmering gold triangular shape with a gem and two tears in the middle. The symbol of the Order Horadrim.
As Zahn and Dorien lead the mercenary army to the north, the rest could only pray that the tide of evil could be stopped before it was too late.
"Intruder, you are either extremely brave or extremely stupid. What could possibly motivate you to come the Tabula Rasa? Come to face judgement for your crimes?"
Intruder was trapped. Mercy's sword was pressed firmly against his chest, and the slightest pressure would cause it to pierce his heart and end his dark existence. Time was what Intruder needed, and to buy some time he would have to tell her what he knew.
"Very well." Intruder slowly reached into his pouch and removed an old scroll. "I hold in my hand a map. It will lead me to a place of infinite wealth. This man, Harris, stole it from a place known as the Temple of Ages. This temple is well guarded, but not in the sense most would assume. A ward was cast upon it to prevent servants of the darkness from ever gaining admittance. Those with any knowledge of the black arts whatsoever would be destroyed upon stepping on the first stone."
Mercy, nearly hypnotized by his words and her own curiosity, relaxed her grip on the sword a bit. "But if this man was a thief, that makes him evil. How did he enter?"
Clearing his throat, Intruder continued. "He may be tainted, yes, but his knowledge and power is severely limited. That made him the perfect candidate. Through a contact of mine, I offered Harris a substantial amount of money to acquire this scroll for me. Unfortunately, my contact attempted most foolishly to run out on me with my money. A mistake he has paid for with his life and soul."
Mercy cringed at hearing that last line. Her sword lowered a bit more, but Intruder knew he needed to keep talking.
"By the time I had returned, Harris had left in order to find a higher bidder. It has taken me seemingly forever, but I finally tracked him here." Intruder grinned, and Mercy lowered her sword once more, just enough as far as Intruder was concerned. Swinging his staff quickly, he knocked her away from him and dove out of the way as she attempted to strike. Backing up a bit, Intruder squared off with Mercy. The two were just about to charge...
When a little girl, no more than eight, ran to Intruder. Mercy gasped and raised her sword as Intruder grabbed the girl around the neck and produced a dagger, which he held menacingly at her throat. The girl began to cry softly. Suddenly, a wire dropped down from the rafters in the shape of a loop. It wrapped around Intruder neck and pulled him several feet into the air, causing him to drop the knife and the girl. Dropping down from the rafters, Severen looked upon Intruder with a smile as Mercy held the frightened child in her arms.
The heroes were so concerned with paying attention to Intruder that neither noticed when the girl produced a dagger of her own, and Mercy was completely unprepared when the girl knocked her down and held the knife to her throat.
The girl spoke. Her voice was deep and demonic, and frighteningly familiar. "Now this is how it's going to work. You're going to cut him down, and then you're going to lead us out of this city. We will keep Mercy as a hostage until we reach a safe distance, at which time we will release her. If we think you are following us or you try to stop us, we will butcher her on the spot. Do you understand, Severen?"
"All too well, Exile. I shall offer no resistance. For now. But mark my words, we will find you. And we will destroy you and your evil master."
"Cut him down."
Severen did as instructed, but not before slipping a small object onto Intruder's belt. As for Intruder, he fell hard to the floor and stood with a groan. A bit confused but not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Intruder slowly followed Exile as he moved toward the city gates. As instructed, Severen made sure the guards did not attack the two as they made their way out of the city. He only smiled as the substance Ethon had described as "fluorescent dust" created a path that would make the enemy easy to follow.
Intruder stopped to catch his breath. Despite the deal made with Severen, he and Exile had run at top speed while making sure not to lose their hostage. Now surrounded by deep forests and within close distance to Dorado, the duo felt it was now safe to stop.
"I suppose... I... owe you... Exile."
"Then you will have no problem with accompanying me back to Dorado. Abadon is displeased, to say the least. Best you take your punishment now rather than wait and increase his wrath. In the meantime, what shall we do with Mercy?"
Smiling wickedly, Intruder raised his now infamous staff toward Mercy's head. Looking for some sign of fear, he found none. Instead, there was only a look of hatred and disgust. Lowering his staff, Intruder spoke. "Let her go."
Confused but indifferent, Exile let Mercy slip free. She ran quickly back toward Tabula Rasa and help. Meanwhile, Exile turned once more toward Dorado. "Let's go."
"I don't think so Exile." A ball of dark fire formed in Intruder's palm, and he tossed it in Exile's general direction. It hit the ground with a burst and a circle of fire formed around him. He backed into the center of the flames, hoping to find some means of escape. He found none, and the flames were closing in on him.
"Intruder! What do you think you're doing?" Exile was in a rage. His anger did not come from Intruder's disobedience, however, but how he knew Abadon would react to this news. Punishment would be dealt, but not to Intruder. At least not yet.
"Sorry, Exile. I have plans of my own to attend to. Give Abby my regards." That being said, Intruder departed, opening the scroll he had worked so hard to obtain and following it to his destiny. Several minutes later, as the flames came closer and closer to Exile, he closed his eyes waiting for the end. He opened them a few seconds later and was surprised to see that the flames had subsided. The only indication that the flames had ever been there were a few burn marks on the grass. They looked odd in a way, and upon closer inspection, Exile could see that they formed words.
"'You're still alive. Now we're even'. Damn you Intruder!" Giving Dorado a frightened look, Exile subserviently headed back to report to Abadon and receive his punishment.
Zahn looked at the landscape and frowned. The mercenary army had made camp just outside of Westmarch, the place where the path would be shown at dawn, which was a mere hour or so away. Something disturbed the young man, however. As a member of the Order, he had been made to memorize the map which would show the way in case of dire emergency.
Despite knowing he was in the right place, the land seemed somehow unfamiliar. Perhaps through error in the map or perhaps through geological change, something made Zahn feel quite uncomfortable. Sensing something was wrong, Dorien sat down next to him.
Nodding quietly, Zahn realized that he was about to attempt to acquire that which has been hidden from man for more than a thousand years. The last time the artifact had been unleashed, the result had been the creation of the warlord of blood. All his life. All his life Zahn had studied, had prepared, but all the study in the world, reading every text ever written cannot prepare one to meet his destiny. Zahn did not yet realize, but the fate of millions was now in his hands.
Dorien stood and pointed. "Look!"
The sun was rising. When the light hit the mountain peak, it was refracted and shone brightly, revealing a well-hidden valley, only visible to one who was looking for it. The path discovered, the time for fate to play out its role had arrived. Gathering his things, Zahn and his companions departed to defend the light.
Strange sounds could be heard by the people near Ethon, Severen, Fearless and Mercy, who trod slowly through the wilderness. The sounds of electronics beeping were unfamiliar to the people of this time, and such technology as Ethon possessed would not be seen for many centuries.
Following the path of the enemy had been easy while in the forest. Intruder's path had been characterized by plants that were either dead or began growing in the opposite direction. Once the trail had moved into an open field, however, it became decisively more difficult to track. With Ethon utilizing his infrared scope, a concept he had for an hour tried in vain to explain, the path was once more laid clear.
"How much further?" Mercy pressed. "I can't wait to settle the score with him."
"These tracks at least a day old. He has a good head start on us and he doesn't have the burden of tracking anyone like we do. Unless he makes a prolonged stop somewhere along the way, I doubt we will catch up to him before he reaches his destination."
The canopy of the forest teemed with life. Birds of all kinds flew about as many smaller creatures such as reptiles and small mammals littered the floor. The trees were green and healthy, the plant-life abundant. This was the Forest of Wisdom, a place thought not to exist.
Such semantics were not on the forefront of this particular necromancer's mind, however. He cursed the creator of the map who had traced the path through this place. One who drew his power from death would have little with which to defend himself in a place such as this. Intruder knew he was weakened and vulnerable here, and he wanted to leave this place as soon as possible.
Still, Intruder thought. All this nature was... relaxing… Shaking off such preposterous notions, the necromancer continued along his path. Unlike in most places, not even the foul presence of Intruder was able to kill any of the abundant plant-life. Normally, any part of nature that came into contact was immediately poisoned, made unpure. Apparently, the mystical forces of life within this forest were incredibly powerful.
Trodding silently, Intruder read silently to himself the next clue. 'Try as you might to leave the wood, you will not escape until the truth is understood.'
Intruder looked puzzled. These clues were incredibly cryptic, and despite the years of research and learning, he had never heard any clues like this before. However, there was a clearing up ahead, and there appeared to be a path leading to the next landmark shown on the map.
Entering the clearing, Intruder saw that the sign indeed indicated that the path lead out of the forest. Following the dirt road, he looked down at the map again to see his next clue. Before he could read it, however, he felt something strange around him. He looked up and found that he was back in the clearing in which he had started.
"What sorcery is this?" Intruder increased his pace, walking with a bit more speed than before. But once again, upon reaching the end of the path, Intruder found himself back where he started. Growling, Intruder tried another tactic. Utilizing what magic he could, Intruder sent a bolt of black energy toward the path, hoping to widen it and perhaps find a way out. Unfortunately, as soon as the bolt began to fly through the air, it began to dissipate and eventually vanished into nothing.
Having taken a different path toward the same destination, Zahn found himself in quite an opposite place. Ironically, had they each taken the other's path, each would have been surrounded by their own element. While Intruder had traveled into the forest of life, Zahn and his companions were now in a place known as Death Valley.
Bodies and skeletons littered the ground. Many of the soldiers had become quite uneasy and contemplated whether this journey was worth it. Already there had been many deserters and the army seemed to be shrinking just a little with each passing hour. Still, the promise of the huge amount of money combined with fear of Dorien's anger kept most of the men in line.
Dorien stopped abruptly, signaling for the others to be quiet. Slowly walking forward, he looked around the corner ahead. He barely jumped back in time to avoid a large battleaxe burying it where he had stood only a moment before.
Shocked for a moment, the men drew their weapons and charged into battle. Turning the corner, they came face to face with something they had not expected.
Nothing. There was absolutely nothing. Only more bodies and rocks. Dorien and Zahn exchanged confused glances when a scream came from the back of the group. Climbing a large boulder to gain a better vantage view, Dorien was surprised by what he saw to say the least. Creatures that looked almost human had attacked the back of the army. Despite their humanoid shape, the creatures were composed entirely of rock.
"We've been ambushed! Weapons ready!" he shouted, already too late to save the lives of his rear flank. By the time his army began to fight back, nearly three dozen men had been killed. Their bodies fell to the ground and were swallowed up, only to be returned moments later as skeletons, all flesh stripped away. With weapons drawn Dorien and Zahn rushed in, and the battle was joined.
Not too far away in a very different place, Intruder was fighting a very different battle. He found that not only was he unable to leave the forest, he was also unable to go back the way he came. Despite his best efforts, escape was impossible.
Teleportation had been ineffective. No matter his designated destination, he always came out where he had cast the spell. He also found his dark magic was useless. The overwhelming power of life had made all of his spells fail before even having the chance to succeed.
Sitting on a nearby tree root, Intruder lowered his head. The days of non-stop travel had taken their toll, and now hope was disappearing with each passing minute. It now appeared that Intruder would die here. Ironic, considering the vast amounts of life that surrounded him.
A low rumble came from underground. It was so subtle that at first Intruder disregarded it, thinking it to be his imagination. But soon, it became so deafening that even a deaf man would be unable to ignore the vibrations. Looking up, Intruder was shocked to see a new path being carved out as many trees were sucked underground then covered by solid rock.
Even more incredible was what stood at the end of the path once it was completed. An apparent battle scene carved out of rock was constructed showing an epic battle between an army of many thousand and strange looking humanoid creatures.
"Curious," Intruder said to himself. "Once I gave up and resigned myself to my fate, the path was made open for me. These carvings are strange. I would study them if I had more time. But time is a luxury I do not have right now. I shall return to study these once my mission is complete"
Had Intruder taken the time to study the carvings carefully, he would have noticed two more prominent figures standing above the rest, and carved with excruciating detail. Two men destined for great things, one dressed in extravagant armor, and the other who was a member of the Order Horadrim.
The mercenary warriors under the charge of Dorien fought valiantly and bravely, felling many of the vile monsters that assaulted them. The fight was futile, however. For each man that was felled, a rock creature rose to join the other side, the fallen man's flesh providing the body. The trade of defeats was far from even, four or five men dying for each rock creature slain.
Soon, only about a hundred men were still alive along with Dorien and Zahn. These were the oldest members of the force, veterans of many wars and Dorien's close personal friends. They too would be unable to escape their fate. After a long and hard fight, the last of the army finally fell, leaving the two leaders alone to face the horde of monsters.
The two had been forced upon a large boulder, and using the elevation advantage, managed to fight off the monsters. Just when defeat seemed eminent, the rock creatures ceased their assault. Instead, they formed a large circle providing no escape.
A hole in the circle opened, and a woman stepped through before it closed after her. The first thing the men noticed about her was her breathtaking beauty. Her long black hair fell to her waist, and her eyes sparkled an emerald green. The woman's face was flawless, and a silver circlet that seemed to glow. She wore a white cloth that seemed to mold with her body, and when she opened her mouth to speak, her voice boomed across the valley.
"I am Tianna, guardian of the Valley of Death. This valley is the only path to the sacred Runestone of Souls that can be taken without the aid of the map. As such, it is my sacred duty to prevent those who may threaten the land from ever passing through this place." She paused, as if to collect herself, then began to speak again. "Young Zahn, you are of the Horadrim and pure of heart. You provide no threat to this land. Rather, you provide hope, a means of defeating evil threats. You will be allowed to pass. The men who you traveled with were tainted. They would turn the stone over to the forces of evil for any large amount of money, thus they could not be allowed to pass."
Dorien looked perplexed. "Why was I spared?"
Tianna looked deeply into Dorien's eyes. He became lost in the emeralds that filled her head as she looked into his soul. "Although you are not pure and have been tainted by the temptation for monetary gain, I see something within you. There is much potential in your soul. You are destined for a higher purpose."
Tianna stepped back. With a flick of her wrist, the rock creatures that had surrounded the area melted into the earth. Soon, the three were alone.
"Know this, travelers. One of you is destined for greatness. However, should you undertake your adventure, you will be faced with death. Should you continue upon your quest, one of you will die." She turned around and began to walk away. As she disappeared into thin air, the echo of her voice remained "…it is up to you to choose your fate…"
Zahn and Dorien, obviously shaken, climbed slowly from their vantagepoint to the ground. Putting away their weapons, they walked alone through to the end of the valley and back into the light of day.
Blood soaked the floor as it ran freely from Exile's face. He had been battered beyond belief and could not even stand under his own power any longer. Atlas entered the room and looked at Exile with pain in his eyes, then lifted him over his shoulders.
"Get him out of my sight!" Abadon shouted, barely containing his rage. He then turned, looking out the window. "When you put him down, get back in here. I have a job for you."
Atlas could guess plainly what this job was. It was no secret that Abadon desperately wanted to track down Intruder and bring him here. Not only had he refused Abadon's summons but had also resisted Abadon's minion when Exile had been sent to retrieve him. Seething in rage and barely able to keep from shaking, Abadon gave Atlas a chilling look that sent him running, and almost immediately he was back in the room.
"You will track Intruder. You will capture him. Alive. And I will be accompanying you to make sure there are no foul-ups. I will deal with him personally once we find him. We will depart in five minutes, I expect you to be by the drawbridge when I am ready to depart."
Atlas nodded in understanding, then ran off to prepare for the journey. After questioning Exile as to the direction Intruder had gone, he grabbed what supplies and weapons he could carry before heading to the castle gate. He had two horses brought out to him and was ready when Abadon arrived.
"We will not need the beasts of burden."
With that, Abadon's form began to change. His head split into three separate sections and grew into long necks. The arms and legs grew thick and his hands and feet transformed into claws. He hunched over as his center of gravity shifted and he walked on all fours. Huge wings sprouted from his back, and a tail emerged as well. Each of the three necks sprouted a head, the left a serpent, the middle a lion, and the right a falcon. Abadon had transformed into a mighty chimera.
Grabbing Atlas in one of his claws, Abadon lifted into the air and flew in the direction Exile had indicated, relishing the thought of what he would do to Intruder once he found him.
Intruder licked his lips in anticipation. He faced only one more obstacle before the path to the Runestone would be made open. What he faced now, however, was a seemingly bottomless chasm. No way across could be found, and his clue had been less than helpful.
"'Only with a leap from the lion's head will he prove his worth'. What the hell is that supposed to mean? How am I supposed to get across this?" Intruder pondered going back to the forest to retrieve some sort of vine or some other aid to cross, but he did not want to face the prospect of being unable to escape. Whether one must unconsciously resign himself to his fate or could know beforehand the way out was unclear. Besides, he quickly realized that the distance was too great for him to use the vine effectively.
Intruder had to smile at the irony. Had Cobalt been around, he would have been able to fly with a vine to the other side and tie it to something. Now, Intruder was left with no way across. "A leap from the lion's head… this means what? Prove his worth… this clue seems to have some kind of diving influence."
Thinking for a moment, a clarification came upon Intruder. "It's a leap of faith. But can one of the darkness find safety in this faith?"
Deciding that he had come too far to turn back now, Intruder righted himself and prepared to step forward. Lifting a foot, he shifted his weight in front of him…
And he found nothing but air. Panicking, Intruder realized it was too late to turn back. He realized he was going to die. It was at that moment that his foot hit something hard a couple feet below the cliff from which he had just stepped. From his new vantagepoint, he could see that it was indeed a leap of faith, but the power was not that of divinity. A platform ran across the entire pit, blending perfectly as to make seeing it from the above cliff nearly impossible. Smiling at his triumph, Intruder made his way across as quickly as he could allow himself.
Upon reaching the other side, Intruder collapsed to the ground. After a moment of rest and allowing his heart to slow again, he stood and ventured forward. Already he could see the resting place of his prize. With no more obstacles between it and him, there was nothing that could stop him now.
Abadon set down a few feet from the start of the forest Intruder had entered. He could already sense the life energy within. There was extreme power within this place. Holy power. After Atlas made absolutely certain this was the way Intruder had gone, the two evil beings entered the forest to continue the hunt.
Severen began to despair. He had never been so thoroughly fooled by an illusion in his life. No matter what path through the trees he took, he could not find his way out of the clearing. His companions sat waiting. If anyone could find a way out, it was Severen. Finally stopping to think, Severen sat alongside the others.
"The trail ends here. I can't find any indication of a path he followed, so either there is some really powerful magic here or the pouch on his belt is empty." Ethon said quietly.
"Given what Severen just went through, I would have to opt for magic." Fearless said. Just months ago, the idea of magic seemed preposterous to the young prince. As an atheist, he believed in neither gods nor magic. However, the more time he spent here in the west, the more he began to understand the nature of things.
Mercy spoke up as well. "There is no way this can be a trap. No being could ever create such a powerful force of life with malevolent purposes." She sat thoughtfully for a moment. "Perhaps… perhaps we should not attempt to find the path. Perhaps it cannot be found, but must be allowed to present itself for us."
With that statement, the ground began to rumble. Much as it had when Intruder had fallen into despair, the forests subsided once more, revealing a stone path out of this place. But above the rumble, they could hear an even more disturbing sound behind them. The sound of clapping. Turning, the band came face to face with evil.
"Abadon…" Fearless said with incredible disgust. It had been Abadon that had forced Fearless to kill the hero of heroes, thus taking the title unto himself. The prince being an atheist, Abadon had hoped end the cycle of heroism and make evil reign supreme for all eternity.
"Thank you, heroes. You have shown us the path we desperately sought. For this aid, I shall spare your lives. For now." Transforming again into a chimera, Abadon lifted Atlas into the air and flew with haste over the path. He did not notice the statues that stood at the end of the stone road.
The heroes were a bit more observant. Looking carefully at these odd carvings of two people fighting a third, they pondered the meaning. The two who fought the third seemed to emit some kind of intangible glow. This was undeniable. One was totally unfamiliar, wearing an elaborate chain mail suit with a cape that seemed to billow despite being made from stone. The other, however, looked oddly like a paladin of Westmarch. What stood out, however, was the symbol on his chest.
"This symbol seems familiar…" Mercy said. "I know what this is, but I can't place it. It's on the tip of my tongue."
"This one is undeniable." Fearless spoke bitterly, looking at the man who battle the other two. "It is Intruder."
"Let's go. We are going to catch him and make him pay." Severen said almost emotionlessly. The others agreed and began to make their way forward once more.
Intruder fought desperately for his life. He had been ambushed by these two warriors, and while one was obviously quite inexperienced and a poor fighter, the other was clearly the opposite, well seasoned and a brilliant tactician. Just as Intruder had arrived at the resting place of his prize, he had been attacked.
Instantly, he had recognized the symbol upon Zahn's chest. The symbol of the Order Horadrim. Intruder realized he should have expected pursuit from the former owners of the scroll and protectors of the artifact, but he had assumed he would arrive before his enemies would. Clearly he was mistaken.
Zahn realized he was not fighting well. Swinging his sword wildly had proven quite ineffective as Intruder had easily dodged his blows and even countered a few. Fortunately for Zahn, he had a great warrior such as Dorien at his side. Where Zahn fell short in fighting skills, Dorien more than made up for it. The evil one was being driven back, and the sacred runestone was protected.
Just when victory seemed at hand, a large blunt object hit Zahn in the back of the head, sending him sprawling. He landed face-first in the dirt, and when he rubbed the back of his head, he brought his hand before his face to find it soaked in his own blood. Looking up, he saw a large man, a barbarian. This was no ordinary man, however. This was Atlas, a vampire whose strength had been enhanced even more upon his death.
Standing next to him was a creature that caused Zahn's heart to skip a beat. This creature seethed with evil, emitting an aura of terror that was unmistakable.
"The lord of terror!" It was clear. This was an evil god. One of the three prime evils, reborn once more to wage war with the light and create havoc and pain throughout the land. Dorien turned away from Intruder who was all but beaten and examined his new foes. His sword raised, Dorien stood ready."
"Kill him" commanded Abadon. Atlas didn't need to be told twice. He charged, raising his axes and preparing to cleave through this mortal's flesh. He was all the more surprised by the speed of his target as Dorien sidestepped, using Atlas's own momentum to drive him into the ground.
Abadon was angry before. Now he was furious. His arms seemed to melt as they changed their shape and became two sickle-like blades. Ignoring Intruder for now, he charged at this foolish man. Despite his courage and skill, Dorien was no match for Abadon. Soon, Atlas too rejoined the battle. Clearly outmatched, Dorien continued to fight bravely until his sword was knocked away by Atlas's axe, and he was forced to the ground by Abadon.
"You are foolish to challenge me. But looking into your soul, I can see that you are tainted by the temptation of money. I am the lord of Dorado, I'm sure you know of the city and the gold within." Abadon was bluffing, Atlas realized, since all the gold was now in Scarlet's lair. But the bluff appeared to be working. Dorien's features softened and Abadon lowered his arm. "Excellent."
Zahn looked upon this scene in horror. He had been warned, yes, but still, the feeling of betrayal was unspeakable. It appeared as though the forces of evil had indeed been victorious. Abadon looked at Zahn and saw the symbol on his chest for the first time.
"The Horadrim! How sweet such irony makes this victory! You, the only ones capable of defeating Diablo, have failed! This is truly a sign that my time has come."
Dorien retrieved his sword and walked toward Abadon. Atlas noticed too late Dorien's grip on the weapon tightening.
"Never!" Dorien shouted as he swung his blade. Even with this element of surprise, he only managed a glancing blow. For some reason, the sword would not come out of Abadon's shoulder. Abadon looked at the wound and began to laugh. The sword was pulled out of Dorien's hands by through Abadon's mastery of metal and was incorporated into the vile one's body.
"I guess I shall have to kill you too. Pity. You had potential." Abadon raised the blade on his arm, preparing the make a final strike, when he felt something enter his back and come out through his chest. Turning his head slowly, he came face to face with Mercy.
Abadon fell to his knees in pain as Mercy extracted the sword from his back. Severen, Ethon and Fearless began to circle their adversary and his companion, Atlas. Abadon rose to his feet, recovering from the injury with his unholy healing powers.
"So, you managed to get across the chasm."
Severen smiled. "I could see the stone platform from fifty feet away. That was easy to cross."
"Your victory will be cut short, as will your lives." The taunting finished, the two groups prepared to enter combat.
"You should have paid more attention to me!"
All heads turned toward the source of the sound, and they saw Intruder standing a few dozen meters away. It was not his presence that had captured the attention of all nearby so. It was what he held in his right hand.
The stone was shaped like a trapezoid, the longer side being on the top. It was several inches thick with odd carvings on it. Coming from these carvings was a bright yellow light. A yellow haze surrounded the stone as well. Abadon's eyes went wide.
"The Runestone of Souls!"
Zahn's eyes went wide as the tears began to stream down his face. He had failed in his mission. The powers of evil had retrieved the stone. Lord help all who stood in this man's way.
"That's right Abadon. The Runestone of Souls. Do you have any idea how long I have waited for this moment?" Speaking too softly for the others to hear, Intruder chanted the words of activation. These words had been forgotten by mortals many centuries ago and could only be found in the rarest of the rare texts.
The glow surrounding the stone increased in intensity. The glow continued to glow until it seemed to consume Intruder's entire body. There was then a great flash that forced everyone to look away.
Just half a mile away, the forest of life began to change. The trees withered and died, and the hidden path became completely open. The runestone had been found, the illusion was no longer necessary. What was most disturbing, however, was not the end of all this life. It was what was now carved upon the stone path. The carving was no longer of the present, but of the future. It showed Intruder standing over the ashes of what had once been the earth.