The Harvest, part three


The sound of a billion souls in torment filled the air. A billion screams all intertwined as became as one. It was at that moment that the flash of energy subsided, leaving Intruder standing over the now unconscious bodies of his foes.

Only two beings were still standing. Zahn of the Horadrim and Abadon, lord of terror, had been the only ones among them all who had been prepared for what would happen once the words of activation had been spoken. However, neither knew what could be done now.

Intruder floated a foot above the ground, still drinking in the power he had released. He looked up and opened his eyes, which now glowed an eerie yellow. Surveying the landscape, he realized he had forgotten his enemies had even been there. He gave Abadon a weary look.

"Abadon. I believe you wanted to say something before?"

Abadon looked up a bit nervously causing Intruder to smile. Clearing his throat, Abadon spoke. "Intruder, you know not with what powers you now mingle. Denounce this power and return to my side before it destroys you!"

A roar filled the air, unrecognizable as any form of speech or communication. As Abadon's ears adjusted to the booming sensation, he could hear more clearly what it was. It was laughter. Intruder was laughing at him. Never before had a mortal been so impudent. Abadon seethed in rage. He raised his hand and fired arcane energy at Intruder, but when it made contact, it simply washed over him and dissipated.

"Fool! Your powers cannot hurt me, I now harness the very source of all Hell's power! You may be a god, but with this power, I am the God of Gods! Now, befoul me with you presence no more!"

With a gesture, Intruder sent Abadon's form flying through the air. He would not land again until he reached Dorado, where he would land hard, but he would survive to plot his vengeance.

Meanwhile, Zahn was having trouble coming to grips with reality. This was the moment he had feared his entire life, the moment that his entire Order had worked for centuries to prevent. He knew he had little time to act. The vile one was moving toward the barbarian, obviously preoccupied. Zahn had to help the others if there was to be any hope.

Through the use of shouting, slapping the cheeks and a small spell, he was finally able to wake Dorien who had trouble standing for a moment. Motioning to the strangers that had helped them, they hastened to wake them as well.

Severen awoke rather easily. He was not accustomed to being unconscious, thus his body quickly pushed him to wake. Mercy too was easy to revive. Her holy aura had protected her from the brunt of the energy feedback that came from the blinding flash. Ethon and Fearless were a different matter.

Ethon's combat suit had failed to protect him from the blast. In fact, it appeared to have enhanced the effects. It would be days before he would wake again. Fearless was nearly as bad off. Being unused to magic in any sense, such a powerful burst of it had taken a hard toll on him. He was out cold with no signs that his condition would change anytime soon.

This presented a serious problem. Though Fearless could be easily carried to safety, Ethon's armor made him far too heavy for such a simple solution. Dorien hoisted Fearless over his shoulder and ran with him to cover while the others tried quickly to find a solution. Intruder was preoccupied, but perhaps not for long.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

Intruder had noticed immediately the stirring of the heroes nearby. His newfound power had already made him arrogant, however, and he ignored it completely. Instead, he approached the unconscious body of Atlas. He laid a hand on Atlas's forehead. Almost immediately Atlas was awake, Intruder having used a simple trick to wake him. Atlas awoke almost ready to scream. Intruder had invaded his dreams and made him think he was about to die. Such a trick nearly always worked. The dreamer always wakes just before the moment of death, or, as is sometimes said, he will truly die.

The question had no definite answer, but it didn't matter because Atlas was now awake. He looked around confused for a moment, then he saw Intruder floating above him and jumped back in surprise. Thinking about the shock that had almost approached fear in Abadon's eyes, he began to crawl backwards.

"Fear not, Atlas. I do not wish to harm you. Rather, I want to help you. Remember the colossus?" Atlas nodded meekly. "Remember our plan to destroy Abadon in the past? Well, though that failed, with this newfound power, you and I can rule this world. You are probably the only one on this earth that I would call a friend. I offer you a chance to rule with me rather than serve at Abadon's feet."

A look a surprise crossed Atlas's face. At first he didn't know what to say. But then he remembered the beatings, the yelling, the abuse he had endured at the hands of Abadon. It wasn't really a choice at all. Atlas reached his hand out where it met Intruder's, and they shook hands upon the agreement.

At that moment, Mercy buried her sword into Intruder's back. When she pulled it out, she was surprised to see that not a drop of blood was on it. She was further surprised when Intruder turned toward her, unfazed by the attack. The attack had achieved one thing, however. It had made him very angry.

Mercy ran as fast as she could, Intruder giving chase. Atlas followed as well, moving unnaturally fast for one of his size. The ruse had been successful. With Intruder chasing Mercy, Ethon had been taken out of harm's way. Severen approached Zahn.

"I want answers. Where did Intruder get all that power? What is the 'Runestone of Souls'?"

Zahn regarded Severen with a look of distrust at first, but upon consideration, his expression softened and he opened up. "The Runestone of Souls is an ancient artifact that the Horadrim have worked for centuries to protect. It gives an evil person unbelievable power. In this case especially, since the evil one is a necromancer."

Severen looked confused. "What does his being a necromancer have to do with anything?"

"Don't you see? He now controls the billions of souls that give Hell its power. He now has access to the Well of Souls!"

No one spoke for several minutes. Only the sounds of birds chirping could be heard. Fearless slowly stumbled from his hiding place, holding his head, which ached bitterly.

"What happened?" he asked, seeing that all the forces of darkness were gone.

"Intruder happened. He got some relic that gives him incredible power. We need you to stay here and watch over Ethon while we help Mercy."

Fearless was badly shaken and in no condition to argue. He sat and watched as Ethon's systems worked to keep him alive. Something felt strange though. This land seemed oddly familiar, but he could not be sure because of the throbbing in his skull. The world seemed blurry and his eyes wanted so desperately to close. Knowing his life and the life of Ethon might depend on his staying awake, he fought this urge as the rest disappeared in chase of Intruder.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

Mercy moved with great speed, but she could not seem to lose her pursuers. She ducked, she weaved, she even climbed, but Intruder and Atlas were with her every step of the way. Worse than the fact that they were gaining was the feeling that Intruder was simply toying with her. If he had truly become powerful enough to expel Abadon at a whim, she was in serious trouble.

When she finally came out of the woods, Mercy was surprised to find a well-kept road. She had come out at a fork, the road to the left leading to, by looking at the sign, seemed to be an important city. The other led back the way she came, but if she was careful, she could probably lose Atlas and Intruder. The road was laid in stone, so she would leave no trail.

Taking the risk, Mercy headed down the road back toward the others just as her trackers emerged from the woods. She barely managed to avoid being caught in their line of vision.

Intruder himself was surprised by what he saw when he stepped onto the roads. He had been here before, he was sure of it. It was right on the edge of his mind. Looking around, Intruder noticed a sign indication the name of the city at the end of the left road. He smiled.

"Arcadia. So with all the atheism and disbelief that existed in this land, my journey to the runestone had lead me here. Ironic."

Atlas looked at Intruder confused. He remembered Abadon mentioning Arcadia at one time, but he had no idea what it was or why such a big deal was made. Intruder pondered journeying to Arcadia and raising an army of the undead from the dead warriors, but dismissed the notion quickly as he remembered the defenders of the great city had been nothing more than peasants. The army itself had been cut off from the city, making it easy pickings for the demonic hordes at Abadon's command.

"Come, Atlas." Intruder pointed to the east. "We will journey to the Illiad Valley, the Valley of Death. It is the way back to the lands of Khanduras. There our rise to power will come to completion."

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

"Here he comes! Get ready!" Severen climbed a nearby tree and Dorien hid in a bush. As the figure came rushing through the bush, Severen jumped down, knocking his target to the ground. They rolled several times until Severen held down the shoulders with his knees and had his knife raised above his head.

"Mercy!" Severen quickly climbed off and Dorien emerged from the bushes. Zahn arrived, quite short of breath. Clearly he was not accustomed to strenuous physical action. "Where are Intruder and Atlas?"

"I think I lost them. We hit a road made from rocks held together by some strange substance, almost like rock. I found a fork in the road and took one before they saw me." Mercy put her hands on her knees and bent to catch her breath while Severen contemplated the situation.

"We'll need to go back to Tabula Rasa and get some help. Hopefully Xeiss and Glitterspike are back from Triumverate."

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

Atlas felt sick and nearly threw up as he materialized just outside the Forest of Life. As unaccustomed as he was to teleporting, such a long distance was trying for even those with the strongest of stomachs. He doubled over in pain from the stress his body had been put under, but looking up he saw Intruder had not even flinched.

"Where are we going?"

"I realize that I was overly arrogant when I first received my powers. Abadon is a very powerful threat and he must be neutralized as soon as possible. We are going to Dorado."

Atlas thought to himself what reaction Abadon would have to an attack from Intruder. His heart began to race once a realization came over him. If Abadon saw that Atlas had joined Intruder, Celes might be put in danger. Above all else, even his own personal welfare, Atlas could not let anything happen to his Celes.

As Intruder began to move towards Dorado, Atlas quietly followed, thinking to himself. The seed of hope that had been placed in Atlas's mind was beginning to wither and die, and Intruder's time as a near-omnipotent being appeared to as well.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

With Fearless's direction, travel to the Illiad Valley was easy, and he was able to quickly and easily lead them through. They arrived at Tabula Rasa before nightfall to find that, although Xeiss had not yet returned, Glitterspike had.

He wanted at first to regale them all with his stories of the reunion with his mentor Hammerstar, but when the situation was explained to him, he realized that it took precedence over his trip to Westmarch. He had heard of the runestone in his studies as a young man and surprisingly knew something important that Zahn did not.

"Intruder may seem all-powerful now. In fact, he is almost immortal. For every soul that resides in the Well of Souls, he can be killed in body once and instantly heal. For a normal person, that would be the limit of his power. However, being a necromancer, he also has the ability to raise a soldier of the undead for each of the billions of souls he now possesses, whether that soldier be a skeleton, zombie or golem. This makes him possibly the greatest threat we could ever face. He could raise an army of billions."

Glitterspike noticed the shocked reactions from the listeners. He also had been in shock at first when he realized the magnitude of the emergency but had overcome it in order to do what must be done. Clearing his throat, he continued.

"There is, however, a weakness. Our only hope is to take the stone away from him, get it out of his possession. This will not be an easy task. Only one person here has the power to do this. I believe you know who you are."

Zahn nodded. He had known altogether too well, as Glitterspike's explanation was turning into one of the many incomplete texts of the Horadrim. Obviously the lost parts had found their way to the paladins of Westmarch. Knowing the rest of the tale, Zahn continued the story.

"Only the Horadrim can take the runestone from the bearer. An ancient spell that only we know must be cast to send it back to its resting place."

Fearless spoke up. "So why don't you cast it now?"

Zahn looked sadly down at his feet. "I must be in physical contact with both him and the stone when I recite the spell. I have to be close enough to touch him and the stone and survive long enough to cast the spell. I know the spell, but it is a bit long and will take a few seconds to say. Also, once the runestone leaves his possession, he will not lose contact with the Well of Souls. Instead, he will be tested."

A silence was predominant for many seconds before Fearless once more spoke. "Tested? What do you mean by that?"

"I don't know exactly, the texts are unclear and end here. After that, we will be going blind. We'll have to react rather than plan. But one thing is for certain. This man Intruder must be stopped at all costs."

Just then, a soldier burst into the room. He was covered in mud and was breathing very fast having just run a great distance to deliver this news. "King Fearless, the one called Intruder has been seen near Dorado. I barely managed to escape with my life. My horse was not so lucky."

This was surprising news to say the least. "Dorado?" Mercy asked. "It doesn't make sense that he would go back to Abadon after what happened earlier."

Dorien, having been content to listen, finally made himself heard. "His move is obvious. He wants to take Dorado for himself. Abadon is a threat, and Intruder realizes he shouldn't have simply sent him back to Dorado. So now he wants to not only destroy this threat, he also wants to reside within an impenetrable fortress where we may never be able to reach him."

Fearless's eyes went wide as he realized the ramifications. "With the sizable army he could raise, penetrating Dorado could prove impossible! We would never be able to reach him and take the runestone away!"

Glitterspike stood. Despite his weariness from days of travel, he was more than ready. "Then we must stop him now. I never thought I would say this, but if Abadon and Dorado fall, all is lost."

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

Things were not going well for Intruder. Not well at all. Not only had Atlas disappeared, but also his forces were proving to be very ineffective. They were slowly gaining ground and even a few had reached the wall, but with the strategic positioning of Abadon's troops on the castle wall, most of his golems and skeletons were falling before even coming close to doing damage.

Intruder did not yet have a handle on his new powers. He could only do what he had done before to a greater extent. He realized that he could have never before raised as many undead as he had done now, but it was also apparent that some other strategy would need to be employed. His mistake had been assuming that he could just show up and win. Now Intruder realized he needed a plan. He needed to get involved in the battle.

The first thing Intruder did was cast a spell which set the city walls on fire. Most of the archers who held the attackers at bay were instantly incinerated. Given a small reprieve, the soldiers made good of it. The fliers swooped toward the drawbridge and attempted to let it down. Most were slain upon landing by the better armed ground forces within, but they finally overwhelmed the defenders and lowered the bridge.

Abadon was extremely displeased. He realized that it would now be necessary to involve himself in this battle that had moments ago been going so well. If Intruder wanted to make this personal, than by Hell, it was going to get personal.

At first the undead did not know what to make of the beast that floated down toward them. Mindlessly they attacked and were quickly butchered by the bladed arms of Abadon. Seeing the new threat, many more zombies and skeletons closed in, but they were severely outmatched. Each was destroyed in short order, evening the odds a bit and allowing Abadon's forces to drive back Intruder's.

Intruder approached Abadon carefully. The two sized each other up, walking in a circle. Abadon, knowing that his best hope was to deprive Intruder of his power source, swung hard and fast at the runestone, attempting to knock it from Intruder's grip. He was surprised to find that as soon as he made contact with it he received a brutal shock that nearly knocked him to the ground. Intruder looked at the stone with a hint of surprise. He had not known it would defend its owner so viciously.

It was not long before Abadon was back on his feet. Intruder attempted to press the advantage by charging with his staff readied, but it was clear by his clumsy movements that he was no fighter. Abadon easily sidestepped and drove a bladed fist into his enemy's neck. Needless to say, it surprised him when Intruder grabbed the arm and pulled it out, apparently having taken no damage.

With all Intruder's concentration held on Abadon, his control of his army began to dwindle. Many of his troops simply fell to the ground lifeless while others such as the golems melted back into the earth from which they came. The sizes of the armies were about equal now and the fight appeared to have reached a stalemate. No side could gain an advantage.

Nearby, a tired but determined group of heroes had just arrived. They surveyed the scene before them and determined that they had not gotten her too late. If Abadon had been defeated, his minions would be gone. It was not in Hell's nature to keep fighting once the master has been destroyed.

"There!" Severen pointed to a spot on the field that was impressively hard to see. His eye for detail was incredible. Not waiting for praise or congratulations, Severen quickly ran toward his two hated enemies followed closely by the rest of the group.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

"Give it up Abadon. You can't hurt me, much less beat me."

Abadon smiled. "I don't have to." He then turned and ran back toward his castle. Intruder looked at him confused, then a firmly planted foot to the back of the head sent him sprawling. Looking up, he saw Severen standing over him. Behind him stood Mercy, Zahn, Fearless, Dorien and Glitterspike. Ethon had been left at Tabula Rasa under the care of a healer.

"So, you want to die that badly? I will be more than willing to accommodate." A yellow streak flew from Intruder's eyes striking Severen in the chest. He cried out in pain before falling to the ground. The assault continued, Severen's cries growing softer. Intruder surely would have killed him had the others not been there.

Dorien, realizing his weapons would not be effective, punched Intruder in the stomach very hard. This caused Intruder to double over in pain and cease his attack on Severen. Mercy dragged the injured Severen away and began chanting a healing spell.

Meanwhile, Fearless, Zahn and Glitterspike moved to attack from the side and from behind. Though Intruder was able to keep them at a distance with spells, he was surrounded and they overwhelmed him. Worse still, he could not summon his undead minions to his aid as they were all busy fighting Abadon's army.

Zahn attempted to close in on Intruder in order to cast his spell. Unfortunately, Intruder was able to catch Zahn on the back of his legs with a swing of his staff, knocking him to the ground. Knowing that if Zahn fell the others would be unable to stop him, he smiled and pointed the orb of the staff at him. Zahn could only look helplessly as a deadly bolt of energy flew toward him.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

Inside Dorado, Abadon sat brooding on his throne. Standing in front of him was none other than Atlas, who had come back in order to save his beloved Celes.

"Atlas, you will be rewarded for your loyalty. Had Intruder caught me by surprise, he might have had a chance for victory." Abadon then stood up, his eyes beginning to glow red. "However, your failure to assist me before disappoints me. You must be punished for your shortcomings."

Even from as far as the battlefield, the pained screams of Atlas could be heard with bloodcurdling clarity.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

It is an odd sensation to know you are going to die. Everything you have ever done flashes in your mind as your brain ponders the meaning of your life. Every glaring error, every moment of joy, every ounce of pain is laid bare. Then reality sets in, and the sheer terror of it overwhelms you. It is a traumatizing experience that ends as quickly as it began with death.

Zahn was experiencing all these things now. The bolt of energy that now flew towards him seemed to be moving in slow motion. The looks of horror on the faces of his companions seemed to be frozen, unmoving. Standing over his, Intruder really did appear to be darkness incarnate. Trying in vain to move, Zahn knew it was all over.

Suddenly a figure obscured his view. He knew immediately that it was his companion, Dorien. As the unholy energies hit Dorien rather than their intended target, time seemed to speed up again in a rush. Zahn's cried could be heard.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!"

Dorien hit the ground with a disturbing thud. Zahn rushed to his side, hoping against hope that his companion was still alive. His hopes faded when he turned the body over and came face to face with the scorched remains of what had once been a human body. Then in a wave it hit him. He remembered Tianna's words. She had foretold that one of them was destined for greatness. One of them would die. She had not, however, said that it would be the same person. Zahn had assumed he would be the one to die from the psychic feedback that comes from contact with the Runestone of Souls. He turned toward his enemy, a look a hatred in his eyes.

Intruder was speechless. He could not believe what had happened. A mercenary, a person who fights only for money, had given his life to save another. Such an event was unprecedented in the necromancer's experiences. Mercenaries had no ideals. They had no loyalty. Yet this one had changed. He had sacrificed.

Fearless cut Intruder's thoughts short when he tackled him and pinned him to the ground. "Zahn! Quickly!"

Zahn had no time to mourn. That would come later. Now he knew what he had to do. Rushing upon Intruder, he put one hand to the necromancer's forehead and the other upon the runestone. Intruder was still stunned and could not react before the spell had reached completion. Fearless let go as the energies seemed to grow out of control. Zahn was thrown back by the psychic feedback. The runestone vanished and returned once again to its former resting-place.

"Now comes the test" Glitterspike whispered. He had not told anybody, but he knew well of the test. When one of darkness loses the stone, he does not lose the power. He only loses control of it. Now the power would destroy Intruder unless he let it go. That is the test. A creature truly of darkness will never give up the power, he would be destroyed by it. A being within whom there was still an ounce of light, however, would let the power go and survive.

Intruder writhed in agony. The souls he controlled appeared to be turning against him, attacking their former master. Hell's revenge was swift and brutal, and Intruder knew that Hell was what he had to look forward to if he died. But so much power. He had worked all his life for this. He had spent countless years in study and recluse, he could not have finally succeeded only to have it taken from him.

With one final scream, a blinding light filled the sky. This time all of the adventurers were prepared and looked away. When they looked back, Intruder was gone. Glitterspike smiled.

"And the evil one has failed the test. The harvest of souls has come to an end. May his time in Hell be painful." Everyone looked up as the energies subsided. No one noticed when Dorien's body changed into the form of an angel and disappeared into the sky.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

Sacrifice. That is one of the most important virtues a person can have. Here in the town of Triumverate lay the body of he who had made the greatest sacrifice of all to protect the land from evil's grip. Xeiss sighed to herself. She knew she would have to leave soon. The others needed her, and Shin's last wish had been for her to lead the group. Still, she found it difficult.

Many people kneeled around the statue paying their respects. One of these people caught her eye. Xeiss was certain she had not seen this man here before, yet he was strangely familiar. Shaking it off, she resisted the urge to probe his mind. Best let him have his privacy.

The man wore a cloak, which covered most of his features. Had he not, Xeiss would have instantly recognized and attacked him. This man was Intruder. He too now knew of sacrifice. He had seen Dorien sacrifice his own life to save the only one who could stop the harvest. He had let go of the near infinite power he now possessed, the potential of which he had not even scratched the surface of.

Above all, these things made him think. Over all the years he had tried so hard to extinguish all the light from his soul. He had hated the way he had failed to do so, as he felt a single spark of light still within him.

Standing, Intruder walked toward the road out of town. He had paid his respects to the hero of heroes. The one who had given his life. Kain did not know this, but his words at Dorado had hit home. They had effected Intruder, though he had not known it at the time. As he walked into the wilderness, Intruder pondered his alliances.

High above only discernable to the keenest of eyes, a figure hovered near the clouds. Looking down, Cobalt smiled. "You are destined to be the one, Intruder. That is why I chose you." The angel recited a long forgotten prayer, only still known to a select few.

"'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.'" Cobalt then smiled and recited the final verse, forgotten by man. "'And when we can go on no more, a man of darkness will join our fight.'"

Unbuttoning the brilliant blue cape that was around his neck, Cobalt spread his wings and flew back to his home in the heavens.