DIABLO: AMOR AETERNUS
Born of Night & Beams of Light
"All things that pass
Are wisdom's looking-glass."
– Christina Rossetti
"We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light"
– William Blake
Twenty Years After the Fall of Malthael, Angel of Death
Deep within the halls of the Silver City, the Pools of Wisdom lay dry and unattended. Tall, stone pillars that once shimmered with eternal light rested in shadow, as if a step out of reach of the glow from the Crystal Arch. Only the Chalice remained; it sat on a pedestal at the pinnacle fount of the Pools, its components adorned with angelic runes and depictions of swirling streams. Dust gathered about the brim, the most notable tell of its true owner's absence.
It had been years since Tyrael had used it last, and as long since it was touched by angelic hands. All in the ranks of Wisdom had perished during the Reaper's reign, leaving the Pools abandoned and Chalad'ar without an owner. And while Tyrael had briefly tried to claim it for his own, he had rescinded his right when the Chalice had proven too much for him to control. Thus, the former Archangel of Justice was the Aspect of Wisdom in name only, and the role had gone unfulfilled for nearly two decades.
Auriel visited the Pools often, but was unable to bring herself to touch the Chalice. She hoped her presence would bring renewed light to the domain, or at least relieve the deep shadows that had permeated the realm since Malthael had Fallen. Truthfully, her attendance altered nothing, except to instill in her a growing discomfort with the state of the High Heavens.
Tyrael, her brother, was a mortal living on Sanctuary. The Halls of Justice were mostly abandoned, save the few remaining of Tyrael's kin who had refused to fall in line behind Imperius. Decades had passed since the Lightsong had drawn forth one of Justice.
Here, in the Pools, it was much the same. No Wisdom kin had been born since Malthael had been slain. Nor Fate, since the Nephalem had defeated Diablo in the Heavens and thrown the Scroll into chaos. Even her own kin, though more numerous than Itherael's, had dwindled through occasional clashes with demonic forces and a lack of new Hope angels emerging from the Arch.
There was a sickness in the Heavens, she believed. One she could identify but did not know how to heal. A dissention in the ranks, down to Anu's core, that was splitting them into uneven factions, increasing some while destroying others through attrition. She had watched Valor's ranks swell while her own and Itherael's dwindled. It was as if the High Heavens intrinsically knew something about the future that Itherael could not predict, and was attempting to protect itself accordingly.
There is always conflict. Eternal, unending. This is not enough to explain the Arch's whims, nor does it tell me why my home is crumbling irreparably as I watch.
She approached the Chalice, taking care not to gaze into its depths. Though it was built for immortal minds, the Archangel of Hope made no claim to having the control required to use it effectively. Her domain was of the body, the individual. The Chalice showed all that was: an infinity she could imagine but had no true desire to comprehend.
Then, a sound.
The Pools had been painfully silent for years. Why now?
She looked about, searching for the cause, but it was pervasive. Within the damning silence, and the subtle shroud of death that filled the domain, echoed the gentle ringing of crystal. As if someone were running a finger about a glass, drawing from it the hidden harmonics that were present in all things. Allowing her wings to flutter gently, she bid the vibrations run through her, until the smallest of directional differences pointed her to the source.
Incredulous, Auriel turned back to the Chalice, for that was where the noise emanated. She prepared herself, then glanced quickly into its depths. The living light that filled Chalad'ar, and which had been still since Malthael had disappeared, was dancing. Ripples filled the vessel, splashing up the sides, threatening to draw Auriel in. She pulled away before it could capture her mind, but the sound continued. A quiet yet joyful peeling of bells.
Perhaps Wisdom had returned to the Crystal Arc, finally. The thought was a melancholic one. The Heavens desperately needed a leader; Imperius' control had tightened over the City, and she did not believe he was suited to the duty long term. Wisdom always fulfilled that role, in part because it was a tempering force. Slow, methodical, and able to counteract the hot-headed aggressiveness of Valor.
Yet, the Archangel of Wisdom that would be born would not be the brother she remembered. The Arch remembered form and function, but nothing more. While many angels died and returned to the Heavens, their bodies the same but their thoughts renewed, Malthael never had. Until he had vanished, he had been one of the few eternal constants in their world. The oldest of them, born first; the one who had taken their hand millennia ago and introduced them to the Silver City's marble halls and the towering pillars.
Even if he returned, the knowledge he had preserved since the creation of the Heavens would still be lost. As would his memories of his kin. Regardless of the illness that had struck him later in life, Malthael would always be her family. Her early memories of him leading her about the City were some of her most precious. The other Angels had all been privy to his knowledge and insight; few had directly witnessed the depths of his patience or his kindness.
She had. And she hoped, desperately, that the being returning to them was even a facet of what her brother had been, once. A raw, unfamiliar pain ached through her at the thought. Her wings shuddered, and she suppressed the urge to sink against the pedestal and clasp the Chalice.
The feeling was not despair. That, she had only felt once before, when she had been held against her will in her own Gardens. But it was remarkably close to it. Enough that she knew it was time to leave the domain of shadows and alert her brothers as to what she had seen.
And yet, she hesitated as she turned from the dried pools. In the distance, the Crystal Arch was still silent. There was no call to the Lightsong, or a sign that an Angel was forming. In the moment she considered that, the ringing within the Pools faded away as well. She did not know why the Chalice sang. But it was not for her brother's return.
"May the Light guide you," she whispered, her voice melodious even in the coldest of realms. "Wherever you are, brother. Be safe."
Chapter One: Departure
Seven years later: 1327, Late Summer
"I wish you would consider staying." Farah tightened her arms about the travel pack she carried, before eventually offering it up to Malthael. "With Aya and Tyrael off to the Heavens, and the others spread about, there are too few here to protect the town. If something were to happen, you may be our only line of defense."
"That is precisely why I must leave," he said quietly, taking the bag and re-checking its contents to ensure everything was in place. "It is better I am far from here while the talks take place. Should Imperius wish to visit New Tristram for any reason, I would rather not be nearby. And Itherael is skilled enough at scrying that if they were to place any attention on the town, it may reveal my presence."
"Itherael, from what you have told me, is hardly omnipotent, especially concerning mortals. They should not be able to see you in the Scroll."
"I am not a typical mortal."
The librarian smiled, slightly. "No, you are not."
"And I would rather not test that hypothesis. Nor do I wish to provoke Imperius' temper."
"If it involves your safety, I would also prefer not." She hesitated. "I am sorry. It is not my place to dictate your actions."
"I understand why." He considered the pack in his arms and the breadth of words left unspoken, before dropping the bag gently to the ground and joining her to sit on the bed. "If the rumours from Caldeum hold true, then no place in Sanctuary is without danger to Nephalem. This is why my brother and your sister go to the Heavens. And why I must leave. Information that travels through whispers is often inaccurate. I do not wish to make the same mistake I made with the Baalstone."
"You are rather good at fettering out truths," she admitted, her eyes crinkling with a tangible warmth that lit similar within him. "Even from me."
Farah he understood implicitly at this point. She was organized, and predictable in both her competency and in her consideration of him. She had sought him out earlier that morning before the sun had manifested, having apparently arrived just as Tyrael was setting out to gather his own supplies for his journey. Though, when she had knocked on his door, he had already been awake for hours, lying in bed to consider and puzzle through his plans for the coming weeks. Unlike Tyrael, who revelled in the joy of dreaming, he rarely slept a full night. Too many thoughts occupied his mind.
Often, too many worries.
It was a lie to say her concern was not his own. Tristram had its protectors, and though the number of Nephalem in town had increased dramatically in recent years, many of them had journeyed out to try and piece together the crisis that was unfolding across the continent. He could not hope to visit each settlement in turn to learn what was going on; others had been forced to travel in his place, many opting to visit the locations where they had grown up.
Although, he also had ulterior motives for choosing Salvos as his destination. It had been several years since he had visited, and he wanted to ensure the city's populace still supported the Nephalem the way it had when he had left. He had also received a letter a few weeks prior inviting him to the city's harvest festival. The message had been scrawled in neat letters that were clearly not Talm's, though it had been sent on his behalf. His wife Lena was clearly educated; at least that was who he assumed had penned it.
Farah's voice shook him from deep contemplation. He blinked several times to clear his head, and saw that she was gazing at him, her shoulders twitching with silent laughter.
"I am going to miss you while you are away," she said. "Who else am I going to kick out of their thoughts?"
"I would suggest Lyndon if he were still in town, though you may not like what you uncover."
The librarian stifled a chuckle, then eventually gave up attempting to stem her laughter. He smiled in return, and without effort, the world sharpened about him as it did only rarely; he found himself completely embodying the present instead of the future, where his mind so often lived.
Dust motes glimmered in the growing beams of sunrise through the window. A subtle shimmer flickered from the inlaid silk on Farah's dress, and the interwoven threads in ruby, gold, and sapphire hues. The same light from an oil lamp illuminated her hair, highlighting silver mixed with a deep ebony, revealing the unavoidable signs of age that she sometimes swore about. And her eyes: quiet, intelligent, the same deep mahogany as the library's shelves. They considered him carefully, as though she were trying to parse together his thoughts by watching his face.
"Please try and return before he does, then. Someone must keep him in line," she finally said. "I don't think Osseus or Valla have much interest in doing that."
"Tyrael is lending me one of his horses." The words were a thin covering over what he wanted to say. "It will speed the journey." I won't be away long. I will be safe.
"Quicker than on foot," she replied wryly. "How many sets of boots have you worn through since I met you?"
"One." I haven't travelled as much since you arrived.
"For the best. Haedrig will tire of repairing them." Her expression softened, and after a moment's hesitation, she raised her hand and gently brushed his cheek. "Please be careful," she whispered. "I wish I could offer more, but I have Seen nothing. All I have is a feeling, for many weeks now, that things are different. Changing."
He raised his hand and placed it against hers, feeling the rough skin on her fingers caused by hours of working with dry parchment. The simplest gesture caused his breath to hitch in wonder. Not from the physical lust he had seen so often in the eyes of others, but something much deeper, akin to the feelings he'd had once, looking down into an endless swirl of living light.
I understand now what mortals write. To see eternity in another's eyes. The desire to overcome solitude. Mortal solitude is not peaceful silence. It is emptiness. Even those who live alone find their care directed towards something. Without that, they wither.
"There are many things I miss from…before." He tightened his fingers so they intertwined with hers, struggling with the words he wanted to say. "You remind me of them. And so long as you desire my presence, I will always return to you. That much will not change."
They remained that way for what felt, to him, like a literal eternity, until a noise from Farah startled him. He glanced down and saw her wiping tears from her face, though her smile remained.
"I will make sure to have a basket of fruit ready for when you come home," she said, voice wavering. "And a quiet spot to read."
"I would like that very much."
He really did not want to leave her that way. But the longer he tarried, the more he knew he was at risk of never leaving at all. He stood, carefully helping her up as she finished wiping her face.
"I am too old for this," she laughed. "This is for the young." Then she reclaimed his pack from the floor and handed it to him, pulling the clasps tight to secure its contents. "Ride fast, travel safe."
"I will. Perhaps I will find you a gift."
"But ensure it costs less than last time."
"Agreed." He shuddered. "Let us find my brother."
In the stables, Tyrael was finishing readying his steed for Malthael's use. The charger was the third he had kept in his time as a mortal, but was as reliable and quick as the others. He tightened the saddle about it, pausing to run a hand through the horse's mane.
"Swift ride," he said, to both the animal and his brother, wherever he currently was.
"Leaving without me?" Aya appeared at his side, a second horse in tow behind her.
They planned on sharing the mount to allow them to trade off on jockeying. It would make the ride to Westmarch faster. The abandoned city contained one of the few remaining portals between Sanctuary and Pandemonium, and therefore also granted access to the Heavens. The rest had collapsed over time or had been closed intentionally by the Host. While Tyrael could transport himself to the Heavens as a lingering remnant of his angelic nature, Aya could not; thus, they took the long route.
The arcanist attached a pack to the saddle before stopping and considering him. "You seem unsure about this." She folded her arms about the travel cloak that covered her usual brightly coloured robes.
"What I am unsure about is how Imperius will react to our request." He took the charger's reins and directed it from the stable as she followed with the other animal. "He has never appreciated challenges to his authority."
"His authority is over the Heavens, not Sanctuary. We have our own voice."
She was correct, but Imperius had never particularly respected that concept. While he refused to intercede in Sanctuary due to the Truce, and viewed Tyrael's becoming mortal as sacrilegious, he had also meddled in the lives of mortals due to intentional inaction. His refusal to oppose the Reapers had caused the deaths of thousands. And it was clear he harboured no love for the Nephalem, if his constant posturing against them was any indication.
He slung and secured his own pack across the saddle, before latching El'druin beside it. "I believe that Imperius fears the Nephalem's actions will eventually wreck the Truce and lead to a demonic attack on the Heavens, via Sanctuary."
"The Nephalem stopped Diablo when he last attacked the Silver City. If they hadn't, the demons would have overrun them."
And Imperius had never forgotten that embarrassment. He sighed. "All excellent points. I hope my brother will see the same." He turned at the sound of quiet footfalls. "Ah, Malthael."
The other man nodded to Tyrael, then to Aya. He wore a dark travel cloak over combat leathers and breeches, his blades strapped into side-sheaths instead of across his back. He had shown a continued preference for the side-sheaths since they had travelled to Caldeum. Given his experience in the city's bazaar, Tyrael did not doubt his hesitancy to display them prominently. Though the current position was not fool-proof, as he had discovered, it was at least markedly less obvious.
"It is too bad we cannot travel together," Aya said. "Quiet company as you are. It would provide us an added element of safety."
"No. It is best we stay apart, free from scrying eyes."
"And I suppose you do not want to visit Westmarch."
"Not particularly." He frowned, then accepted the charger's reins from Tyrael and strapped his bag to the saddle. "Are you sure the portal to Pandemonium remains open?"
"Rumours suggest so," Tyrael said. "More than a few have braved its depths seeking treasure. Myriam has seen a few of the trinkets pass through town."
"But, beneficial confirmation for ourselves." He raised a gauntleted hand in a salute. "In less concerning times, I would ride with you. But spread as we all are, the best I can do is wish you safe travels."
Malthael returned the action, then, surprisingly, clasped Tyrael's hand in his, holding it tight for a moment before letting go. For a man who generally abhorred casual physical contact, it was a touching and respectful gesture.
"Do not forgot what I told you," he said, his eyes narrowing. "Or what is at risk."
Tyrael could not, for three separate prophecies had spoken of the End of Days and the fall of the Heavens. Deckard Cain had compiled the first one. The second came from Farah, in which she had seen the Crystal Arch shatter. The third was from the bookseller in Caldeum, whose mother had seen alterations to Cain's prediction followed by the sundering of Sanctuary. Though the Silver City was his past and his birthright, Sanctuary was now his home. He would protect both from darkness until he could no longer wield El'druin—whatever that protection entailed.
"I will not forget. And I will do my best to uphold justice."
It was the first time he had spoken such words in years. He had tried to yield to the Arch and fulfill the role of Wisdom, at the cost of neglecting his other calling. In doing so, he had been continually shown Wisdom was not his domain to control. But now that the true Aspect of Wisdom had returned, he was free to again assume the role he had been born for. And he hoped the words he brought to Imperius were crafted from a nuanced merger of the many, complex mortal experiences he had acquired in the meanwhile.
"That is wise," Malthael eventually said, a ghost of a smile crossing his lips. "And comforting." He leapt deftly upon the charger, then lowered his hood to cover his face. "I will return within a fortnight. I have several stops to make on the way."
"I will send your greetings to Imperius," Aya said, smirking.
Malthael did not reply, except to snap the reins; the horse reared and surged forward, its hooves thundering on the town's cobblestone. In seconds, they were gone.
"Come," Tyrael said, gesturing to their mount. "It is as good a time as any."
Though the road to Westmarch was quiet, Tyrael and Aya encountered many things along the way that disturbed them greatly. Close to Tristram they found tracks and markings that were suggestive of large groups on the move; such groups had never stopped in Tristram itself, but instead skirted around it, as if avoiding the town. Further out they found the husks of burned out farms and razed fields. Where Aya expected to see demonic footprints, she instead found human markings in the dirt and mud.
In one barn, three corpses hung from the rafters, their flesh picked apart by maggots and corvids. Their throats had been slashed and obscene markings carved into their skin. Though she had seen much death in her time, the stench of decay and clear innocence of the victims drove her to retch repeatedly in a hay pile, while Tyrael stood by and rubbed a gauntleted hand down her back.
"Malthael said nothing of this since last he came this way," she said, once she had stopped vomiting, though the nausea lingered. "I think he would have noticed."
"He misses little. He also has not travelled much in the past two months." Tyrael frowned, the expression cascading from his lips to his forehead. "We know there is discord in the areas around Caldeum and Kingsport. But not this type of slaughter. This is…malevolent."
After Zaira had returned to Caldeum, she had sent word of unrest in the capital. The violence had cascaded from the moment they had stolen the Baalstone at Hakkan's war proclamation. Riots had broken out in the streets between the Iron Wolves and citizens. Some residents stood with the Wolves, while others opposed them, decrying Hakkan's growing authoritarian regime and his politically charged definition of who was even considered a Nephalem.
The news from Lyndon and Eirena in Kingsport had been similar, though it was tinged less with political prejudice and more with fear of instability. The southern city had been free of demonic influence for centuries, and even during the Reaper uprising had not seen the conflict Caldeum or Westmarch had. Its citizens considered the arcane balance in the city to be acceptable and safe. But a sudden explosion of power amongst a random few would change that.
No one wanted Westmarch's fate to fall upon Kingsport. Or elsewhere. But such fear did not excuse the atrocities in the barn.
"We cannot leave them this way." She gestured to the corpses, unable to stop her eyes from lingering on their faces. "They didn't deserve this."
"No. They did not."
Wordlessly, Tyrael sought out shovels, eventually bringing two from a nearby woodshed. Digging graves was hard, physical work, and for every scoop Aya made, the larger man took three. Her palms burned with growing blisters, and she did not care. She was Nephalem, and those who feared her had done this. She was not guilty of the crime, but she felt the weight of its burden keenly. The least she could do was grant the victims a small mercy in death.
Once finished, she gathered and arranged stones on the mounds, while Tyrael used El'druin to cleave branches off a tree, bound them together, and placed them in a crude effigy over the graves. They stood silently, heads bowed, until it seemed right to leave.
"I understand something now," she said, quietly, once they returned to riding. The closer they drew to Westmarch, the heavier the wind became, as if the land were pushing them away from the scouring. The gale tasted bitter and metallic, like blood turned to mist.
"What is that?"
"Why your brother hated us."
"Malthael went mad because the Worldstone was stolen and then destroyed. His quiet world became marred with countless human minds that he could not fathom."
"And in that madness, he sought vengeance. On us. He could have as easily disappeared someplace and ended himself. But he didn't."
"No. He walked Sanctuary seeking answers to what had occurred. As any wise being would."
"And he found this. Death, destruction. Despair. All the horrific things we mortals are capable of. We, the children of angels and demons." Her thoughts returned to the corpses in the barn, including the smallest, a child, who had not been spared. The memory made her shake. "Imagine seeing the same and not being of calm mind. Can you truly blame him for wanting to rid creation of us?"
Tyrael did not answer immediately, which was unusual for someone so sure of his thoughts and his cause. Aya saw his knuckles tighten about the reins.
"No," he admitted, eventually. "I blame him for many things, whether in his control or not. The actual slaughter, yes. His attack on the gates of my once-home, yes. But his assessment of mortals? No. I cannot judge him that. For he was correct."
"How do you reconcile that, Tyrael? How do you not judge us yourself?" How can I not do the same, when I want to incinerate my own people for what they have done today?
"I remind myself of the good I have seen. I tell myself that with example, and direction, mortals are as capable of light as they are dark. But we cannot fight darkness with greater darkness. That was Malthael's error, and his downfall."
Aya felt ashamed, then, for that was also what she had wanted moments before. Had they caught the perpetrators, she had no illusions about what she would have done. It was not a matter of defense at this point; the deed was done. It was about revenge.
"I wish we had arrived earlier." Her eyes burned with tears. "Then I could have done something."
It was again a long moment before he replied. The usual assuredness faded from his voice, to be replaced by a bone-weary, tangible sorrow. "We cannot change the past. But hopefully, beginning with this journey, we can change the future."
She nodded, briskly wiping tears from her face and flicking them to the ground. "That we can. I will try my best."
A/N: And, here we are. The Prologue and Chapter 1 of the final Act of Diablo: Amor Aeternus! First, important business: I plan on posting a chapter a week, unless I'm either waiting on artwork or an emergency happens. And I have great artwork queued up for this story, so I promise, it will be worth waiting for.
There are quite a few internal inconsistencies in Diablo lore when it comes to what the Heavens look like, and how travel works (example: the waypoints) in Sanctuary. For the purposes of this series, I've narrowed it down to my own lore that will be consistent in whatever you read from me. If you see something that doesn't entirely match the game or the supplemental reading materials, then the change is intentional and meant to improve the viability of the story.
Finally: thank you all so much for keeping on this journey with me! Our fandom is small, but it's extremely welcoming and kind, and I've enjoyed being able to speak with so many of you. In particular, all my thanks go to Janzoo over at tumblr, who has helped me proof this entire story and kept me motivated during editing, and my husband, who has been incredibly patient while I've been working head-down to try and get this one finished.
Tighten your seat-belts, folks. We're about to hit some angelic turbulence!
Chapter Two: Diplomacy
Tyrael led them watchfully through Westmarch's deserted streets, his boots and the horse's hooves echoing ominously on the charred cobblestone. They had dismounted at the gate when they saw how much the city's infrastructure had degraded. There was no safe path to ride without risking the mount's safety due to heaved roadways or collapsed structures. And each abandoned hovel could host an ambush or thieves. It was best they proceed with care.
The sun dimmed unnaturally as they walked deeper into the city. Mist hung about the edges of stones, some drifting purposefully and taking on the shape of mice or other small animals before breaking apart. When the wind intensified, it took on the timbre of haunting moans.
"I have seen paintings from before," Aya said, looking about wide-eyed. "It was a beautiful city. This saddens me to see."
"Very. It was a vibrant, lively place. Quite different from Caldeum, but as marvelous. I visited several times in mortal disguise, ages ago."
"Was it quick, at least? The attack?"
"Extremely. Malthael caught us unawares, or we might have been able to intercept it before it occurred. It was swift, and immensely well-orchestrated. Though in hindsight, I do not believe we could have done much to stop it completely. His manipulation of the surrounding situation was flawless."
"I am glad he is on our side now."
"As am I. He was the Angiris Council's greatest asset when he was healthy and immortal. Itherael saw the future, but Malthael created it as if he were playing a game. Even now, he sees the world as pieces on a game board, or a puzzle that must be solved."
"Much to your frustration?"
"Ah, you know me too well." He frowned as the horse neighed and refused to continue. "We are close. We may have to leave our friend here."
"Wouldn't we be too long?"
"Passage through to the Heavens will take little more than a blink. Pandemonium has its shortcuts for those who know how to find them." Drawing a length of rope from his pack, Tyrael secured their mount to the remnants of an iron lamppost.
While he did so, the arcanist scavenged a serviceable bucket from the wreckage, then poured the rest of her water into it for the horse. "Be calm," she whispered, scratching its cheek briefly before turning to Tyrael. "Lead on."
The portal was obvious when they eventually stumbled upon it. Its edges were cut starkly from the surrounding landscape; thin white tendrils spilled outward and drifted ominously in the stagnant air.
Aya peered into it intently, then tentatively reached a hand through before nodding. "This is no common summon to have lasted so many years."
Tyrael shook his head. "Malthael's work. It is anchored in Death."
"Of course. There is no shortage of that here. After you."
Tyrael had walked the plains of Pandemonium countless times before, but few as a mortal. The land seemed to stretch impossibly, as if mighty beings had bent the ground and pulled it to touch itself at a point far out of sight. Angels and demons had done so, metaphorically, many times. Tyrael had been one of those who had fought on the eternal fields. He had slain uncountable foes while fighting alongside his brothers and sisters as their bulwark and shield.
Those were violent but simpler times. And the vividness of his memories of them reminded him why Imperius was drawn to conflict. On the battlefield there were no shades of grey. You were either victorious, or you perished. You were right, or you were wrong. There was no time for moral quandaries or questions of faith when a single moment of hesitation could cost a warrior their life.
Eventually, as long cliffs and outcroppings passed, and they drew deeper into the realm, Tyrael felt the subtle but drawing pull of the Light. He drew El'druin and called upon its own light to illuminate the shadows. Then he pointed the blade to bisect the air, its glow revealing a long, fractured set of marble stairs that seemed to lead to nowhere.
"Do we knock?" Aya asked hesitantly, following him after tapping a boot on the bottom step.
"No need. They will already know we are here." He pulled El'druin close to his chest, the tip pointed downward, and willed the light within the hilt to intensify. "And this will identify us as friends."
Aya gasped as the intrusive haze of Pandemonium vanished, to be replaced by a glare so intense she instinctively covered her face. Her eyes gradually adjusted as she lowered her arm, revealing scenery so entrancing she forgot for a moment they had just left Pandemonium. They had come out on a marble platform, its edges and railings cast with gold and glittering crystals. In the distance, a towering city rose within layers of clouds, built from countless pillars of the same marble and gold. Atop the tallest tower was a curved archway, from which the light came.
The Light, Aya realized. It was the Crystal Arch, where angels were born.
As she marvelled at the spectacle, a trio of angels clad in golden armor approached them. Each carried a spear, the hilts adorned with the same sunburst design present on their breastplates. The armor was very different from Tyrael's and was accentuated by flaming wings that sprouted from their back. The wings wavered and glowed, disappearing and reforming much like the lights Aya had seen in the sky on winter nights.
It was as if someone had given material form to the arcane power she felt flowing within her. Raw power, yet tamed. Imposing.
"Ah, Tyrael." One of the angels stepped forward and nodded neutrally enough, though he used his spear to block their way. "We were not expecting you. The Council does not meet today."
"And when did I require the Council's permission to visit the Heavens?" His brow furrowed. "You would bar the Aspect of Wisdom from these halls?"
"Hardly. You are always welcome. She, however, is not."
"Lady Aya is here as my guest and is under my protection. You would do well to respect that. As you would to request my siblings' presence at their earliest convenience."
Aya felt their covered stares on her. She shifted uncomfortably, wondering if they were seeing right through her.
The angel paused, then lowered its spear and gestured for them to follow. "We will inform Lord Imperius of your arrival. Until then, you must wait in the Council's chamber."
"And what of the Pools?" Tyrael asked, sprinting to walk alongside the angel. "Are they not my domain to access as I choose?"
"We all must make concessions in times such as these."
Aya shivered at the words, though she assumed at least part of her reaction was due to the dropping air temperature. Tyrael had warned her about the harsh conditions of the Heavens. The intensity of the light and frigidity of the atmosphere were not conducive to mortal life. She resisted the urge to rub the chill from her arms, and instead kept her pace steady and her posture straight.
"Then that is one of many things I would like to discuss with Lord Imperius." Tyrael's voice dripped with sarcasm; Malthael's intonations were clearly rubbing off on him. "Again, at his convenience."
Aya paced back and forth across the chamber floor, arms crossed, cloak billowing behind her. Tyrael watched from his place on Wisdom's stairs. His expression was impassive, but internally, he was roiling far more than the arcanist was. Imperius was brash and sometimes foolish, but it was not in his character to make others wait. He was clearly detained with something important.
Not that Tyrael particularly cared about unknown variables, given what he had seen in the City as they were escorted to the Council chamber. He was more preoccupied with the number of Luminarei about; Imperius' elite guards were everywhere when they usually could only be found at the Spire, protecting the Crystal Arch. And he had seen few from the other Aspects.
I should have visited more often than I have in recent years. I would have at least been aware of such a glaring change.
"I assume they have clocks in Heaven?" Aya asked, pausing her pacing to glare about the room. "Or does the city run on spirit time?"
"We attend to mortals when we see fit," a voice rumbled.
Tyrael braced himself as a swirl of flame appeared on Valor's platform; Imperius thundered into the chamber shortly afterwards, taking form from the fire, Solarion clasped in his right hand. Though the spear had been repaired since Diablo had sundered it in two, an almost imperceptible crack remained along its length, try as Imperius had to recover its perfection. A similar crack remained on his torso where Diablo had pierced him during their fight at the Diamond Gates. No amount of attention from Auriel had fully healed the wound; narrow beams of light still glowed from the break.
The Archangel of Valor straightened, bringing his wings to their full, blinding height.
"Brother," Tyrael said.
"Tyrael. How good of you to finally grace us with your presence."
"Where are Auriel and Itherael?"
"Busy, as it were, keeping the High Heavens functional. We are low in number. Particularly since you have shirked your duties in favour of cavorting with mortals." He stepped forward, and the chamber rang with the impact of his boots on the marble. "Tell me, brother. What human activities have entertained you of late? Have you and your comrades uncovered any intriguing mortal treasures?"
"Spare me your disdain. I have never hidden my actions from you or the Council. Particularly those involving the Horadrim or the Nephalem. Justice works in Sanctuary as it does in the Heavens."
"Indeed. And that extends to all corners of the world, does it not? Caldeum is a long way for mortals to travel for a mere stone."
Tyrael swore silently. He had hoped Imperius had either not heard the news or had at least not traced their involvement. "Dangerous artefacts sometimes require intervention."
The chamber walls shook as the angel laughed. "You meddle in many theatres, brother. Is that why you are here today? To ask for my help with your petty squabbles? It is none of my business if mortals wish to slay each other."
Tyrael nodded to Aya, who was watching the exchange with poorly disguised fascination. "We are here as representatives to propose a summit."
"Representatives? For whom do you speak? The mortal angelic host of one?"
"For all those on Sanctuary. Particularly, for those whose Nephalem blood is strong."
Imperius slammed Solarion into the stone floor, the impact making Tyrael's ears ring; he raised a gloved fist and angrily pointed a finger. "Sanctuary is your concern. I do not recall the promise of a human voice in the Heavens. Or do you wish to intervene further in the Eternal Conflict, as you have done so casually in the past?"
"Sanctuary is indeed my concern." Heat born of frustration surged across his face. "As it should be yours. Brother, when the Truce was established, both sides swore to leave Sanctuary alone. The Hells have not done so. Neither have the Heavens. Or have you forgotten Malthael's sundering of souls?"
"He acted without the permission of the Council."
"He acted while the Council stood idly by and watched!" Light gleamed from his side, and Tyrael glanced down, realizing he had unconsciously grabbed El'druin. The blade's hilt shimmered, blue beams flashing from the gem in the crossbar.
"What does Wisdom request of us, then? In this meeting of equals?" Imperius turned and scraped Solarion across the floor, the grinding noise excruciatingly loud. "Or are you Justice today, come to reclaim your abandoned post?"
"We wish to discuss extending the Truce to include Sanctuary itself. Not as a passive partner, but as an equal in power to the Angelic Host and the demons of the Burning Hells. If Sanctuary is to be tread on by others, then its denizens should also be granted a proper voice."
Imperius' wings flared ominously; below them, Aya stumbled backwards and began summoning a protective glyph to guard her from the heat. "You are bold to demand Heaven bow to your wishes," the Archangel rasped.
Tyrael stood against the inferno. He had felt it and been on its receiving end thousands of times prior. And though he had stood by Imperius' side for millennia as a brother and a fellow warrior, he'd had more than enough of his incessant posturing. He snapped El'druin from its sheath and slammed it into the marble platform. Light exploded outward, enveloping him and cooling the air as if with ice.
"Speak carefully," Imperius growled, flexing his fingers about Solarion's length. "You try my patience."
"The Truce has always been a farce. An excuse for the Heavens to disregard the fate of mortals. There is no justice in that. As a mortal, I have seen how the Eternal Conflict has scoured Sanctuary and riddled it with scars."
"Mortals cause their own strife."
"Mortals did not raze Westmarch or unleash death on the land."
Imperius did not reply immediately. When he did, his voice had lowered, and each word dripped with intensity. "Nephalem murdered our brother, an Archangel. An act no demon has ever accomplished."
"You bid them slay Malthael when you could not. They acted in self-defence."
"After they intruded on the Silver City without warning or permission. This, after they brought about the resurrection of the Prime Evil and set it upon the Heavens!"
"They slew the Prime Evil and saved the Heavens."
"Killers of angels and demons, then." He turned to stare at Aya from within his golden helmet. "Do you see yourself as a god, little Nephalem?"
She looked to Tyrael, eyes wide, as if begging him for advice.
"Should I take your stunned silence as affirmation of your power?" Imperius' words intensified to a barely restrained fervour. "And how little you respect the authority of the Heavens? The City is not your battleground to wage wars as you would!"
It was not the first time Tyrael had seen Imperius so enraged. The Archangel's passion ran close to fury and had exploded many times in the past. It drove his brother's worst decisions. But what he heard in Imperius' voice now was more than anger. It was raw desperation. Humiliation. The lingering pain of battles lost, and future battles yet to be won. He wasn't sure what had happened in the Heavens since he had last visited, but something had stolen the angel's usually unbreakable confidence.
"We can be your greatest allies," Tyrael replied, tempering his own tone. He lowered El'druin and let the light drain from it. "Together, we could overcome the Hells and win the Eternal Conflict. But as allies. Not as strangers."
"And then what, when the Lords of Hell are dead, and the Abyss collapsed? Where will mortals turn their ire?" He sounded tired, which was a strange thing for a being who did not sleep. "The High Heavens will protect their own, Tyrael. The Eternal Conflict only became unpredictable when Sanctuary was created. And you know my thoughts on its existence."
Indeed, Tyrael remembered the Council's vote as if it had just happened, including how Imperius had bid them destroy the newly formed world. He also noticed, painfully, how Imperius had ceased to call him 'brother'. "Let us at least discuss this further with Auriel and Itherael. I would have their input before we make a decision."
"Leave." Imperius swept Solarion horizontally, pointing its tip directly at Tyrael. "If you wish yourself to be mortal so badly, then vacate your position so another of worth may claim it. I should have known when Chalad'ar rejected you that you were not fit to wear Malthael's mantle. There is no place for you here."
"Please," Aya interjected, finally drawing forward, her eyes wavering but braver than they had been moments earlier. "Lord Imperius. We do not wish for conflict."
"THEN LEAVE!" An amber glow enveloped Solarion, followed by an intake of flames that seemed to pull the air itself. "Or I will remove you myself!"
Imperius was beyond dialogue, and without the others, there was little chance of the discussion continuing. Tyrael leapt from the platform to land beside the arcanist. He grasped her shoulder, then tightened his grip when he felt her shaking. "Come." As he directed them from the chamber, he kept his gaze on Imperius. His brother met his stare as they left, flames still swirling about his spear as he kept his position on the platform.
"I am so sorry, my friend," Aya whispered, as the Luminarei escorted them back through the Diamond Gates. "I felt as though I was melting inside. I never imagined he would have that sort of presence, even after hearing all the stories."
"No mortal can. The fault was not yours. It was mine. I should have prepared you better."
"I failed you. I was meant to be your emissary and I crumbled."
"You failed no one, Aya."
"Cain even wrote about his intensity. Yet all those words were inadequate."
"They were. Even I did not anticipate such a reaction from him."
He struggled to compare Imperius' behaviour with his usual demeanor. He was not one to let those he considered lesser than him see his anger. Tyrael had only previously seen such untamed wrath on the battlefield, unleashed in the faces of the Lords of Hell. And, he admitted to himself, during one other moment: when he had ripped his wings from his back and Fallen to the mortal realm.
The arcanist watched him carefully, her expression betraying the swift intelligence he was familiar with, and an uncharacteristic fear that seemed to well just below the surface. She was frightened, and with good reason; angels were meant to be predictable beings.
That Imperius had not been predictable worried Tyrael greatly.
"What do we do?" she asked, finally.
"We return to Tristram. With nothing."
Except, perhaps, a great many things to puzzle. He needed to speak to Malthael when the man returned from his journey. And then, they needed to determine exactly how they wanted to proceed.
Imperius stalked the halls of the Silver City. His fists shook with barely contained rage, and Solarion blazed with each step he took. The audacity of Tyrael to confront him with such a request was almost unfathomable. The Nephalem were always meddling with the Heavens, and now, of all times, they wished to bring a delegation to speak to him? Insurgencies within their populace meant they were simply receiving what they deserved. If the other mortals had grown terrified of their arcane brethren, then let them burn. It bothered him not.
As if detecting his irritability, the break in his armor ached. He growled, pushing the sensation away, though the memories of the battle that had caused it were quick to rush him. It was the Nephalem's doing that he had been defeated by Diablo in the first place. And if he was not careful with his condition, his death would be as much their responsibility as his brother's had been. It was unfortunate that Malthael's sickness had driven him to attack the Heavens, because Imperius mostly agreed with his assessment of and actions on Sanctuary. If Malthael had managed to shatter the demonic essence in all mortal souls, then the entire Heavens would have been better for it.
It was even more unfortunate that the Nephalem had succeeded in the duty Imperius had bade them do. He had hoped they would wound his brother enough he could be reasoned with, and perhaps returned to the City and healed. And ideally, Malthael would have killed the Nephalem in the process, thus fixing two rather frustrating problems.
None of that had occurred, of course.
And now the Nephalem were intruding on the Heavens again, this time with demands and a pathetically ineffective show of force. Contrary to any of their claims, they were transforming into a threatening nuisance more than potential allies. He did not like what that meant for the future, particularly since Itherael's efforts to scry out anything related to them were useless. There was, however, one artefact that did reveal the mortals in all their confounding complexity. With Malthael gone and Tyrael powerless, it fell on him to use it.
He gestured to a triad of his Luminarei as they passed, and they fell into formation behind him. Kurael, his second-in-command, grunted to him in greeting, and otherwise remained respectfully silent, waiting for his commander to speak.
He knew the other Archangels thought him an ineffective leader of the Angiris. But while he did not have Malthael's pristine grasp of the eternal, nor his often ludicrously tardy patience, he was well aware of the nature of the Eternal Conflict itself. War. Battle. Imperius was the greatest warrior in all of creation. He had built contingency plans and battle strategies, and was prepared for any demonic invasion of the Heavens. He had even doubled his efforts after Diablo had attacked them, and again after Malthael's regretful missteps.
What he had been utterly unable to predict was the Nephalem's impact on it all. Their actions had brought him defeat, repeatedly. That thought rang discordant with his soul, and he planned on remedying it.
Itherael and Auriel were waiting for him at the entrance to the Pools of Wisdom. His sister raised a gloved hand, Al'maiesh tight in her grasp, and bid him to halt. Itherael remained behind her as they always did, hiding away with their now-useless Scroll. Imperius resisted the urge to hiss disdainfully, as he did whenever he saw the Archangel of Fate. It was difficult to respect someone who had so completely given up on their duties.
"Brother," Auriel greeted him, her tone warm but commanding. "I was just informed we had visitors from Sanctuary. Why did you not notify us of their presence? We would have joined you in the chamber."
"It was none of your concern." Imperius avoided the Cord of Hope as he pushed her aside and entered the Pools; Al'maiesh had brought him neither peace nor hope recently.
"A concern of the Council is always our concern! And this is not your domain." She followed him as he leapt from platform to platform, bypassing the intentional maze of the Pools to arrive at its heart.
"I have seen you skulking about here as well." Imperius growled and pointed at her. "I do not remember you being the head of the Angiris. This City and the Heavens are my responsibility." He shifted his attention to Itherael, who cowered behind their sister; they truly had grown lesser since the Worldstone's shattering, as if their Aspect was withering. "What wise words do you have, Itherael? Has Talus'ar seen fit to finally show you the fate of mortals? No?"
"Enough, Imperius." Auriel slid Al'maiesh from her shoulders and prepared to sling it his direction. "We need not brew conflict between ourselves. Our brethren have been reduced. We would do well to hold together and seek strength in our unity until we understand why."
He slammed Solarion onto the cold stone of the Pools. The impact as the tip embedded into the rock echoed loudly across the silent domain; had the Pools retained any light, they would have rippled from the intensity.
"We all know why," he bellowed. "Our kin were slain by the Prime Evil when it was set on the Heavens by mortals. Then by Malthael's forces, when they were needlessly led here by the same. Would you wait for their next blunder to act? Or would you in your declared unity defer to your leader, who would seek insight into this growing threat?"
Before they could reply, he turned away from Solarion, which was still impaled in the floor, and walked to the Chalice.
Chalad'ar was not made for mortal eyes, and Tyrael had been a fool to try and tame its light in his current form. Imperius honestly doubted that the Arch had called Tyrael to be the Aspect of Wisdom at all, and instead suspected the man had arbitrarily taken it as his role when he had been allowed to remain on the council. Tyrael knew that Malthael had always tempered Imperius' desire for conflict, and had likely hoped to wield similar influence over him.
And the others were too hesitant and wary of Chaladar's power to use it properly. Wisdom was hardly Imperius' domain, but he bowed to no adversary, and he would not let the might of eternity turn him into a trembling fool. He grasped the Chalice, his gauntlets clicking around its edges. The runes and etchings on the artefact flared, then glowed a deep amethyst.
"No," Itherael called. "Wait."
He looked down into the Chalice. The living light rushed up to greet him, before enveloping him completely. Though angels did not breathe, Imperius immediately understood the sensation of drowning. He struggled against the flow, and thrust his arms sideways, but there was no end to the deluge.
Then, the glow gave way to impenetrable darkness, followed by the renewed return of light in tangible experiences. The Light itself sang tales of the Heavens and of the Hells. Familiar ones, for Imperius: The Eternal Conflict, the glory of victory, and the pain of defeat. All things he knew well, some more welcome than others.
As he relished in the songs of his own magnificence, a growing multitude of other voices began to break through the harmony of the Light. They were discordant, broken. Shouting, screaming, singing, laughing, all at once, and all with an intensity that seared his consciousness.
"What is this taint?" he howled.
Echoes of the arcane brushed him. Strange, unsettling mixes of angelic and demonic essence. Raw, uncontrolled strength threw him side to side in the growing torrent of beings.
"Who are you?"
The crack in his torso throbbed, and he glanced down to see Lightblood seeping out.
We are Nephalem.
The voices resolved into featureless shades that drifted his direction. Their shadows slowly took shape, growing and towering over him. He held his ground, refusing to concede. Yet, he could not look on their forms without pain overwhelming him. The closer they approached, the more he felt his being shattering.
Imperius, the Archangel of Valor, could not gaze upon the souls of the Nephalem without coming undone.
We are your children. We are your superiors. You will never overcome us.
His greatest fear, worn close to his spirit alongside his wrath, was given form in their words. In the Chalice's words.
You will never be victorious against us.
The threads of eternity pulled and weaved, touching innumerable beings, drawing together to a single conclusion. They would sunder the Hells, surely. And then, there would be no use for him. Valor would be discarded. Conquered. He clearly saw the light and the dark in them, the anger and the hatred tainting the Light irreparably.
Do you fear us, Imperius?
He howled and reached for Solarion, before remembering he had abandoned it in the physical realm. He was a fool to come weaponless.
We feel your fear.
"And I feel your death!" The spear materialized into his hands, and he drove it into the heart of the shadows.
The shades vanished and were replaced by the muted tones of the Pools. The Chalice rested below him, unmoved on its pedestal. Solarion's tip pressed into the air aside Chalad'ar but was unable to go further, having been blocked by a faint purple barrier. Flames sheared around the cup, mere reflections of the wrath that pulsed through him.
The Chalice showed truth. There was only one way forward. He needed to act before it was too late, while the mortals were still in their self-induced disarray.
"Kurael," he shouted, and the leader of the Luminarei stepped to his side.
"Yes, Lord Imperius?"
"Burn the Nephalem." He snapped Solarion downward, gesturing symbolically at Sanctuary.
Behind him, Auriel gasped. He glanced over his shoulder to find his sister and Itherael leaning against the stone pillars, shock radiating palpably from their wings. Their behaviour only confirmed he had made the right decision. Their Aspects were weakened and could not defend the City. It remained his duty alone to see to their safety.
Let that dread fill them, he thought. Perhaps then they will realize what is at stake. Let it make them stronger. My spear was not forged from mere reflections off water. Neither was my resolve.
Kurael snapped his fist to his chest in a salute, then nodded. Satisfied, Imperius returned the gesture; he had trained him well, unlike his previous lieutenant. He would not question the direction. Nor would he skimp in the execution.
"Where would you have us do this, my Lord?"
A/N: This chapter (and the rest of the story) has been almost a solid year in the making. I had the ideas for Act 4 while I was writing Act 1, and this is one of the reveals I've been waiting to post. I've always assumed Imperius would be the antagonist in a future game. He has good reason for it. The Nephalem constantly wreck his house and his lawn. And they completely subvert the reason for his existence. He has never liked them, and now he very much wants them gone.
There may be a delay in posting the next update due to holidays and other personal factors. If it's not up next weekend, please know that it's only a temporary delay. For anyone who is celebrating this week or next, Happy Holidays! Thanks for reading!
Chapter Three: Death
The path Malthael intended to take to Salvos was a roundabout one. He had made a mental list of various small villages between Tristram and the southwestern coast, the order of which drew a loose arch that would eventually lead him back north to his destination. They were all settlements he had visited in the past, and each was home to one or more of his trusted contacts.
None of the individuals knew Malthael's true identity. But they shared with him similar cravings for knowledge and a deep-seated respect for the pursuit of such. They were believers in truth, and in the facets of grey that coloured such truths with the complexities of the mortal world. They read and shared information voraciously; many were teachers, and some even leaders within their communities. Likely, they were his kin from ages past, in a realm far beyond the one he now traversed.
But regardless of their location, or their history, they all brought him the same message from those who they served: "People are afraid." Fear was the most powerful of the demonic domains. It was an emotion that either drove mortals to survive or broke and sundered them into passivity. It bred anger, even hate, and made them lash out against their kin. Anything, to stop the terror.
The terror he saw in the remotest locations drew its life from rumours. Whispers had reached even the furthest coast away from Caldeum. Of powerful beings, Nephalem, who sought to overthrow their local government. Nephalem who believed they commanded more respect than the authorities. Though some were sympathetic to the perceived rebellion against Hakkan's iron-fisted rule, others were wary; even if the Nephalem had good intentions, what did that matter if chaos followed in their stead?
Compounding the issue was that very few in the smaller settlements even knew what a Nephalem was. They imagined warriors with flaming swords or wizards crafting death spells. They did not understand it could be their local potions maker, their priest, or the recluse who defended their land from demon incursions. For simple farmers or craftsmen who had likely never touched the arcane in their lives, the Nephalem were another dangerous enemy that threatened the stability of their livelihood.
For them, change did not mean political upheaval or the defense of moral stances. It often meant failed crops, burned homes, and starvation—all of which Malthael uncovered as he gradually worked his way towards Salvos. In trying to stem the natural flow of the world, the locals were causing the same strife they sought to avoid. All because they were afraid of the unknown and sought to give a face to the shadows.
Tales of angels and demons were no longer enough for those whose world was now directly marred with conflict. Their enemies and their saviours were real, and were as mortal as they were. As mortal as Malthael had been when he had washed up on the lakeshore and been found by Talm and Jerem. He still remembered the naïve reverence they had shown when they had found his weapons, and their absolute inability to come close to imagining where he had come from.
He wondered what they thought of the Nephalem. If they were as afraid as everyone else. Or, if his brief presence in their lives had been enough to give them hope that not everything arcane was horrific and dangerous. He certainly hoped so, just as he hoped he would find similar in Salvos itself. The city had always been kind to its protectors, regardless of how they worked their craft. In Salvos, at least, the people believed in the Nephalem, because the Nephalem had saved them from a far greater darkness. They had never forgotten Westmarch. They had seen true horrors there, and the might of the Heavens and the Hells, and they had survived because of the strength inherent in mortality.
Malthael kept those thoughts close to him, dark as they were. He needed to believe rational minds would prevail and help lead the ignorant to the truth. It was that message he left with each of his contacts: an imploring request for them to provide patience, leadership, and direction in tumultuous times. Chaos was the natural way of existence, and for those like him who could more clearly see the threads of causality pull and weave, it was their duty to guide others through the maelstrom.
While his mind was enraptured with such ideas, he made camp for the night, settled onto his pack, and watched as the stars began to drift through the twilight. Tomorrow, he would finally reach Salvos, and he would have his answers. And then, perhaps, his mind could be put at ease enough for him to enjoy his visit with Talm and his family.
Malthael dreamt of a towering figure taking the Chalice of Wisdom and drinking deeply from it, before shattering into an infinitude of golden fragments inlaid with streaks of darkness. The shards became shooting stars that cascaded across the sky, their amber trails searing the clouds and scouring the air. Flames rose where they impacted into towers and onto cobblestone streets. A deafening, screaming wail resounded within the growing smoke, until the noise became unbearable and shook him from sleep.
He awoke drenched in sweat as the first rays of the morning sun cut through the trees to where he had made his camp. And he knew something was horrifically, terribly wrong. He rarely dreamt, at least anything he remembered later. But the images had been tangible, as if wrought from a piece of reality. Particularly the Chalice; he had felt the being take hold of it and drain it of its offerings. The action was a symbolic one, for that was not how Chalad'ar worked. But something unworthy had intruded on his domain and ripped the Truth from it.
"A twisted figure clad in armor will walk the land."
His eyes widened as the old bookseller's words returned to him.
"The world burns to ash."
He was not imagining the smell. The harsh scent of wood smoke and burning metal was drifting on the wind. Fighting a wave of dizziness that threatened to fell him, he hurriedly packed his gear, mounted the charger, and snapped the reins. The horse, as if sensing his urgency, surged along the dirt trails, darting between trees and making quick headway north.
The closer he drew to Salvos, the warmer the air became, until he felt it as a constant, stifling pressure against his skin. The stench of burning intensified as the horse climbed a small rise before the city. Above the horizon came drifting a thick, black fog. Then, the flames, as in his dream.
He slowed the mount and dropped to the ground, his hands already going to his blades. From the crest of the hill, he finally saw Salvos unimpeded. The city's towers burned. Fire and embers rose and spewed great, billowing soot clouds into the sky.
The riots they had heard of were elsewhere. In Caldeum, in Kingsport. Not here, of all places. Not during the harvest, when the city would be filled with revelers and visitors from the surrounding land. Not when those he cared about were there. And all the others who had escaped the slaughter he had rendered upon Westmarch. Salvos was meant to be their salvation.
He abandoned the charger on the hill and sprinted down the rise, his cloak snapping behind him, the shotels already in his hands in case he encountered resistance. The city gates were torn open, ripped from their supports and thrown as if mere twigs. The heat in the streets was overwhelming; the fire, everywhere. No building was spared.
And the noise. Multitudes, screaming and wailing, distantly. This quarter had already been razed. It was stiller, save the roaring of the blaze. Malthael fell to his knees as the conflagration assaulted him mentally. The shotels slid from his hands as he pressed his palms to his eyes and tried to stifle the howl escaping his lips.
Dark memories, unwanted, hammered into his consciousness. He tasted death on his lips, bitter, metallic, like blood pooling under a corpse. Felt the shadows, the clacking of bone and metal on stone. The air, chilled only in his mind, became a fog, stretching out, enveloping the city, choking anything it touched. Narrow, darksteel blades swept forward, severing limbs and souls from bodies, until—
The city he saw was Westmarch. He mouthed the words and dug gloved fingers into his scalp. Took the past, ripped it from his mind, and threw it as far from his consciousness as possible. Breathe, he thought. It came in broken pants when he did, but each gasp of air returned to him a semblance of his focus.
Westmarch was gone. A burned husk, abandoned. As Salvos would be soon, if he cowered on the ground and did nothing.
"Not here." Farah's voice continued to echo within him. The words that had become his mantra for concentration transformed suddenly into otherwise: a pledge for intercession. Where his blades had been dropped on the stones, they began to resonate. The runes flared into blinding brilliance.
"Not here," he growled.
Compared to the Nephalem, he retained little of his previous power, and he entertained no illusions about his ability to intervene. But what he did have, he thought, as he clasped the hilts, pushed to his feet, and swept his hood back across his face, was the element of surprise. Whoever had burned the city would not expect him.
And he planned on not giving them time to figure out otherwise.
Charred corpses were everywhere, left to smoulder where they had been struck down. They littered the streets and were piled in shattered doorways, seared as they had attempted to escape. Malthael observed it all with a growing numbness that overcame the nausea wracking his gut. He stepped with the practiced care of a wanderer, while his mind attempted to understand exactly what had taken place.
"Death is the end of all things."
He hissed and pushed the thought aside. Even so, as he did, he heard the faintest traces of whispers in the back of his mind. He knew what they were: the voices of the recently departed. It was a Sound he always heard, but that he had pushed from his consciousness and avoided profusely since his rebirth. A Sound he had only touched in the past when he had reaped great evil.
"Make it stop."
Here, while his concentration was broken, and the atrocities were so fresh, he could not avoid it. Nor could he ignore the difference in what he heard. Before, when he had been the Angel of Death, the souls had only screamed at him incoherently, as though his indifference to their suffering had been enough to merge their voices into a general cacophony. But now—
"Please, help my brother! I left him!"
"Who are you? Why am I here?"
"Help me, stranger!"
Their souls spoke tangibly. They wailed, and cried, and asked for intervention. Some of them acknowledged his presence, as if knowing instinctively that he could see them in return. The mental barrage was staggering, made more so by the understanding that he could not help them. Auriel had brought spirits back to their bodies in the tensest battles of the Eternal Conflict, but he could not. He knew how to sever and harness them. The only way he could help was to find them while they were still alive.
Swallowing the bile rising in his throat, he moved methodically through the collapsing structures, checking for survivors; his best course of action would be to locate someone who had seen the attack and could tell him what had occurred.
The air became inundated with the stench of uncontrolled evocations as he moved deeper into the city. He frowned, pausing to run his fingers across a deep gouge in the side of a stone wall. No mere mortal had made the mark. It was the work of something stronger. Demons likely, or perhaps Nephalem. Neither made sense; Salvos' citizens had learned how to take care of the demons in their territory, and he could not fathom the locals coming to blows with their regional arcanists. The city was also rife with unspoken Nephalem. Many were scholars or priests instead of warriors. Salvos had grown over time into a place of learning, fellowship, and life. Malthael had taken steps to drive it that direction, and in the year he had spent living in its streets, they had taken his subtle guidance to heart.
A quiet but discernable moan drew his attention; he slipped silently down a side street, where he found a mighty figure collapsed against a wall, its hands pressed against its chest. Lightblood spilled out from between its fingers, cascading across golden armor marred with char. The angel lifted its head and stared at him from underneath an adorned helmet. It tried to stand, then collapsed again.
Malthael tipped his head and considered the Valor angel before him, trying to imagine what could have brought him to Salvos. Perhaps the talks had gone well, and Imperius had sent him to assist. It would explain the shooting stars from his dream. But it did not explain why the stars had exploded into flames. Nor did it explain how his brother would have known of the attack if he were not watching Salvos directly.
Unless it was Imperius who had meddled with the Chalice and had used it to scry the countryside. Which also meant he was the dark figure from his dream. What hidden taint runs within you, brother?
Unable to find acceptable answers, he dropped to a knee, blades still in hand, and loomed over the angel.
"Spare me," it rasped. It was dying; Malthael had seen enough immortal wounds to know when one was fatal. Without immediate and dramatic intervention, its Lightblood would run dry.
"Who did this?" Malthael asked softly.
"It was not my choice."
"Oh Light, help us."
"Save me from him!"
He narrowed his eyes. The blades shook in his hands as the voices of the dead grew louder, unbidden. "Who did this?" he asked again, more forcefully.
"He bade us burn them!" The angel moaned as its Lightblood pooled across its torso and dripped to the stones.
Stunned, Malthael drew back as sensation faded from his face.
Us, it said.
The angels had done it. And there were more of them.
"A twisted figure clad in armor will walk the land. It wields a spear within clawed hands, and with it sunders Sanctuary forever. The world burns to ash."
An inhuman growl escaped him, and he swung the blades to scrape the bottom edge of the angel's helm. The runes pulsed, and the air around them hissed as if burning. This was not the work of demons or Nephalem. It was his kin who had committed such an atrocity. They had fallen from the sky, not to save, but to destroy.
"Why do they murder us?"
He pressed the blades harder, the gesture a pale reflection of the rage flooding him. Fear radiated from the angel and he saw its faceless gaze go to his weapons. Then, a flash of recognition.
"How?" it whispered. "You Fell."
"You would do well to answer my question," Malthael snarled. "Who bade you do this?"
He knew the answer. Had known, perhaps, since he had awakened from his dream and seen the smoke drifting over the horizon. But he wanted to hear the angel admit it. He would rip it from its throat, if he had to.
"My Lord Imperius did," it answered, voice cracking. "Please, Lord Malthael. We do your good work. You understand. Help me."
His head throbbed; the blood echoing in his ears made his vision waver.
He could no longer ignore them. Nor could he change what had already occurred. The angels had killed hundreds, if not thousands. But the dead were the only thing that could possibly help him stop the carnage from continuing.
Malthael stood and laughed. It was a raw, terrible sound, that he had hoped he would never hear again. It scared him as much as he was sure it did the angel. As he tried to stifle it, the cackling turned into uncontrollable, broken peels. Then he raised a blade and pointed its tip toward the angel's throat. Thin, white tendrils drifted from the cobblestones and enveloped his boots. He heard the spirits' call and drew them upwards, pulling the souls into the blade before bidding the angel's spirit follow.
They wanted vengeance. He could oblige.
"My work? Let me show you my work."
Talm peered out from under an overturned cart but was unable to see far through the haze. The fires around them had burned until they had run out of kindling; the flames were now reduced to glowing embers that spewed smoke. Beside him, Lena tightened her grip about their son, one hand absently stroking his back. The child whimpered, and she hushed him gently.
He was only two, Talm thought. Far too young to understand what had occurred. But not too young to be spared. The attack had been swift and unannounced. Tall figures clad in golden armor had thundered into the city from the sky. Wherever they landed, fire had spread. And wherever there were no flames, they started bonfires with their spears.
The market that Talm and Lena had stood in had been shattered: stalls engulfed, wood beams splintered. The beings had stalked down the road after the fleeing populace, sparing some but not others without any obvious differentiation why. None were guaranteed to be safe from the culling, even the smallest ones, if they drew their attention.
"Shhhhh, Nat," Lena whispered, as the child began to cry softly. She glanced to Talm wide-eyed.
They had fled as those around them ran, stumbled, and burned to death. Their lungs had seared with smoke and exertion, until they had found the cart and a small group of other survivors. They had been under it for what felt like hours, waiting for the wailing to stop. But the attack had continued unabated, and at moments when they thought the market might finally be deserted, a golden figure would appear, walk slowly across the ground, then disappear again into the smoke.
The angels were looking for survivors. At least, that's what Talm thought they were, and what they were doing. He had only seen them in pictures before, in texts Lena had borrowed from one of the local priests and brought to their homestead. Their wings, tall and flaming, were said to turn the air hot as they walked. These angels' spears did the same, and if the flames did not take those they hunted, they impaled them on the tips and sundered them against the walls.
What he did not understand was why.
"The Host should protect us," he said, quietly. "Pa always said the Light would save us from danger."
"I only see fire," Lena said. "And death."
"Quiet," an older man said. "Do you want to bring them upon us before we escape?"
"And how are we to escape?" said a different woman. "When they continue their search?"
"I would think if they meant to kill us, they would have done so, already," said another, louder.
The old man spat on the ground. "I did not live through the horrors of Westmarch to die under a cart. Be silent, all of you, lest they change their mind."
Then, from the haze, came the sound of footsteps.
Talm's hands grew cold, and his breath hitched. His chest thudded with his pulse as he looked to the ground; he couldn't bring himself to see what was approaching. But, the chill wasn't from fear. The temperature had dropped suddenly. A row of weeds between cobblestones withered and folded, the leaves growing frost, then spots of decay.
"Light help us," the old man whispered. "Not this foulness again."
Lena inhaled sharply, her eyes widening and pupils dilating.
There were more footsteps, then running. Shouts echoed through the haze, before the gloom erupted with a crimson glow and the deafening rush of flames. Metal collided with metal, the clangs ringing sharply across the market. After only a few moments, the yells turned into screams. Then all noise dimmed, as if a heavier shroud had been cast across the city.
"No, please," one of the voices begged. The words turned into a dull moan, then a hiss, then faded altogether.
A single set of footsteps resumed walking towards them.
"Pa," Nat cried, and Lena lost her grip on him. He stumbled into Talm's arms, burying his small head in his chest. "Pa, help."
"Best we kill ourselves now," the old man said quietly. "I know what comes next. I will be no reaper's plaything."
Talm glared at him; he held his son tight, then turned and stared out from under the cart. Whatever was out there, he refused to die shaking with fear. He was no warrior, and could not fight against the sort of beings that hunted them. But he could comfort his son, and perhaps they would leave the world together, calmly.
A figure resolved in the smoke. Thin, cloaked, with a hood covering its face. It turned to slowly walk parallel to the cart. The two curved blades it carried glowed brilliantly, illuminating the street and driving the shadows out from under the wagon.
Hope and relief thundered into Talm. He hugged Nat tighter, unable to stem the tears, then reached a hand for Lena. He knew those blades and the man who carried them.
"Mal?" He called softly at first, then a second time, more assertively.
The figure snapped its head around and bent to look under the cart.
"Please tell me it's you," he added. "I don't want to die."
The man dropped to his knees, his weapons trembling in his hands. His cloak and clothing were torn in some places and burned in others. And a strange, glowing substance was spattered across much of him. It looked like blood, but not the sort Talm had ever seen.
Then he spoke; the familiar voice was riddled with exhaustion and immense sorrow. "Come with me."
Immediately upon their return to Tristram, Tyrael and Aya had set upon writing letters to their compatriots across the continent with the details of their visit to the Heavens. It was hard news to share. He had harboured no expectations of Imperius helping them quell the conflicts sprouting across the country. He had, however, hoped he would at least be open to a formal conversation with the more senior of the Nephalem.
Truthfully, the longer he thought on his brother's reaction, the more it concerned him. He could not compare it to what had occurred to Malthael in his descent into madness, for his older brother had not spoken of his ills to anyone. He had rarely spoken at all even while healthy. When Tyrael had next seen him after his disappearance, it was when he had attempted to draw Tyrael's soul out. And when the Nephalem had fought him later, his words had been tinged with darkness, as if Death were personified and given speech.
Still, there had been a desperation buried in his voice, one Tyrael remembered well. "You need but die," he had said, as the Nephalem had confronted him within the heart of Pandemonium Fortress. It had been a command, yes, but Tyrael had also felt the begging request within it. An indescribable plea to help him finish things. To finish him. Malthael hadn't needed to say anything while they had fought. His silence alone had always commanded respect. His need to speak, and the words that had escaped, told Tyrael, retrospectively, that his mind had reached a particularly intense breaking point at the end.
And he had heard a faint but similar desperation in Imperius' voice.
Tyrael flinched as the door to his study slammed open. Aya entered without asking, but when he saw the panic on her face, he did not care.
"He's back," she said, breathlessly. "Come, quickly."
Farah heard the commotion as she returned to the library after taking lunch out by the river. From the general hubbub and a few shouted mentions of a horse, she guessed Malthael had finally returned from Salvos. It was about when he had said he would be back. He had budgeted a fortnight to visit a few villages along the way, as well as spend several days within Salvos itself. Though she had been hesitant to see him go, she had also found his subdued excitement to visit the family who had helped him rather endearing.
It was good timing; she had stopped at the food stalls earlier and spent her savings for the week on a large basket of fruit in anticipation of his return. The trees were yielding their final harvest of the year, and she had wanted to secure some before they were purchased by others. They would not have to sit long, it appeared.
She quickly returned her book satchel to her desk in the library, then took the basket in her arms and made her way to the town gates. A large crowd had gathered, which struck her as strange; the other residents tolerated Malthael, but she had never seen any of them excited about his return. And this group was not excited. They spoke in hushed, concerned whispers; many pointed.
Behind Farah, a pair of familiar voices grew louder. The crowd parted around her, allowing Tyrael and Aya to push through. She followed them wordlessly, her unease growing.
At the city gates they found a few dozen individuals she had never seen before. Their clothing was marred with char and dirt. Their faces were the same. Some had bandaged or splinted limbs. Others, blood stains on their skin and tunics. They carried little with them, save the occasional cloak or blanket.
A man, woman, and young child sat separately along the town's stone fence. The boy had buried his face in his father's chest. The parents were young, their clothes simply sewn and inexpensive. Farmers, from what she could guess.
Malthael stood beside them, his back to Farah, his head tipped downward in conversation. His cloak, which had been untouched when he left, was shredded, as if hewn with a butcher's blade. His combat leathers were ripped and burned away in places. He carried a heavy cloth bag across his back, strapped into place with makeshift leather straps. And all of it was covered in patches of dried, glittering paste. It looked like blood, though of the wrong colour.
"Oh, Light," Farah muttered.
"Brother," Tyrael called, approaching Malthael but then stopping short; the child had pulled his head from his father for a moment, seen the former angel, and begun to scream.
"You frighten him," the young man said. "Please, your armor."
"I am sorry. I did not mean to do so." He drew his cloak tighter about his body, attempting to hide the breastplate. "I remember you. Talm?"
Oh. Farah's unease turned to nausea. It was the young man Malthael had spoken of so fondly.
"What happened?" Tyrael asked, finally.
His expression crumbling, Talm buried his face into his son's hair and shook his head, unable to speak. The woman rubbed his back before looking to Tyrael.
"Salvos burns," she said, with a strength Farah did not think she herself could have possessed at such a moment. "We fled by foot."
"How many survived?"
"Those you see before you."
Though Malthael had not moved, his fingers flexed, as if his body was straining to contain something.
The whispers in the crowd grew. Aya's face paled, and she brought a hand to her mouth. They had heard of attacks on the Nephalem in other areas, either through isolated instances or riots. But nothing like this, against a population that was so clearly without arcane influence. Nothing like the razing of an entire city.
"Who did this?" Tyrael instinctively grasped El'druin, which had begun to glow a pale, icy blue.
Malthael finally turned, though Farah could not see his face under his cowl. He walked to Tyrael, pulled the bag from his back, and withdrew from it a large, metallic object. He threw it to the ground, then, in the same swift movement, he slid a broken shaft from where it was tucked in his belt and drove it through the object.
His actions were so fast it took Farah a moment to realize what the items were: an angelic helm, sheared open across the front as if by a narrow blade; and a spear made of crystal, its shaft cut cleanly.
"Valor," Tyrael breathed, his hand falling from his sword to reach for his brother.
Malthael pushed him aside and continued, unspeaking, towards Farah. When he stopped at her side, she realized that in her shock she was still carrying the basket.
"My dear friend," she whispered.
In reply, he raised a hand and very gently lay it on her head. He held it there for a moment, his fingers brushing through her hair. Then he pulled away and continued walking.
The basket slid from her grip. She fell, stunned, to the dirt as a sequence of images flooded her mind. Golden angels with wings of flame, razing buildings and people. Angels turning to run, screaming, as a white fog overtook them, seeping into and collapsing their armor, and ripping their essence out into the air.
A single angel, wounded, raising a shaking gauntlet, begging for mercy. "Please, Lord Malthael. We do your good work. You understand. Help me."
Then, a city seen burning from a hill. He observed it with horror, the blades in his hands humming from the dismay he felt. That she felt. And not simply dismay. Hatred. Weariness. The cold chill of death. The sensation of souls, thousands, reaching out and begging for life.
"No," she gasped. "No, no, no."
She had dreamt of Malthael standing in front of a city aflame. She had thought it was Westmarch, for the towers were so covered in fire any identifiable features were indiscernible. Instead, she knew now that she had seen Salvos—and a future they could potentially have prevented had she known otherwise.
"Farah." Warm hands helped steady her. Aya pulled her into a tight embrace and held her, even as she shook. "You are safe. It is all right." Then, quietly, so no one else would hear, she asked, "What did you see? What did he show you?"
"I made a mistake," she managed.
"Shh. You did no such thing."
"But I did. I saw it. I saw Salvos burn. And I told no one."
"Then we can discuss that later. But, Farah, we need your help." Aya stepped back and took Farah's cheeks in her palms. "We need him to talk. He will know things the others do not. Can you help us do that?"
Feeling far beyond her actual age, Farah wiped her eyes with a sleeve and managed to nod.
A/N: There is art for this chapter! Check out my account on A03 or my tumblr to see Malthael reaping some souls, courtesy of Zaera-d.
The idea for this chapter came while I was working on "In All Things Light and Dark". I had the basic plot for Act 4 already worked out, and I knew at some point Malthael would revisit Death. He is a dual Aspect, after all. The question was what would cause him to do that? Zaira was right, of course, that a situation would eventually force him to reevaluate his pledge to avoid it. And Death isn't the same for him as it used to be. But, I think the Valor angel probably shouldn't have told him they were doing his good work. I don't think he liked that very much.
Act 4 consists of three main story arcs, and the next chapter is the end of the first one. As always, thank you so much for reading!
Chapter Four: Deliberation
They gathered around the helm and spear, which Tyrael had placed on one of Haedrig's smithy stones. He glanced at the blacksmith, who looked at Myriam, who in turn looked to Aya. The latter was still pale and clearly worried about her sister. Farah had yet to return from her search for Malthael, and Tyrael had no idea at all where his brother had disappeared to. Or, if they would receive any useful information from him in the foreseeable future.
"There is little doubt." He carefully picked up and studied the weapon. The crystal was angelic, a piece of the Arch that had been sheered off to create the weapons of its most dedicated defenders. "This is Luminarei. As is the helm. Lower ranking, granted."
Haedrig ran a finger across the gash in the helmet. "Surprised, myself, that he was able to take out one of Imperius' folk, let alone a few. Didn't think the Valor angels were pushovers."
"No," Tyrael agreed. "This was also not how this one perished." He tilted the helmet, slightly, to reveal a spot near the base where the metal had warped outward, as if dragged forcibly towards an external power. "It has been a long time since I have seen this type of wound on an angel."
Aya leaned in for a closer look. "What caused it?"
"Its essence was pulled from its physical form. On a mortal you would not see this, as the body and soul are quite separate. But for a seraph, their body is a manifestation of what is inside."
"He ripped its soul out from its throat," Myriam said bluntly. "You know the Sight has grown weaker in me over time. I Saw none of this. Should we be concerned, celso?"
"I do not believe so." Though in truth, he was not entirely sure.
He trusted Malthael's mortal judgement. And he knew the mortal experience was more nuanced than the immortal one; the same pitfalls that had drawn him to insanity before would no longer be there. Still, his brother's refusal, or perhaps outright inability, to speak earlier told him Malthael was conflicted, and very likely in pain. Any being in that situation could act out irrationally.
"He would not have done this unless he was desperate," Tyrael continued.
"For others," Aya added. She looked away from the helm, as if lost in a memory. "He could have done so when we were in Caldeum, and he chose not to. We were a small group, and we all knew the risks. But these people, they were innocent. Helpless."
"I think the nature of this armor is our biggest concern," Haedrig interjected. "You think the angels were acting without direction?"
"No. Imperius would never lose control of his troops." It was one of his greatest strengths: the ability to amass soldiers under a single banner and guide them as a general. "Of that, I am abundantly sure."
Aya folded her arms. "The better question is whether Salvos was the only location they struck. I think the chances of that are low."
Tyrael frowned and turned away from the smithy to stare at the town proper. Most of the residents had gone inside, understandably uncomfortable with what had occurred earlier. The survivors from Salvos had been escorted to the inn, where he assumed they were being fed and bathed.
"It could take weeks for word of further attacks to reach us," he replied, eventually. "Particularly from Zaira in Caldeum, or others further away. If this was indeed orchestrated by Imperius, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, we must assume it is the first stage. I am sure the only reason there were human survivors in Salvos was because Malthael had the element of surprise."
Aya shook her head. "Not only that. Lena said the angels avoided some of the residents."
"Then they targeted Nephalem," Myriam said. "Those of the strongest blood. What other distinction would they make?"
"I cannot think of any other," Tyrael admitted.
But it did make sense. If Imperius had decided, for whatever reason, to go after the Nephalem, doing so when there was already dissent in the realm was the perfect timing. Depending on the location, and the number of survivors, such attacks could be blamed on the brewing conflict instead of the Angelic Host. Tyrael's Horadric forces were also spread thin and in a poor position to react to any sort of incursion from the Heavens. He had not prepared for one. From the Hells, yes. From Hakkan's forces or similar, yes. But he had assumed Imperius would be indifferent to them, if anything. Not actively hostile.
"I think we made him angry," the arcanist mumbled. "Unless he had planned this all along and lied to us?"
"No." Something had felt off with his brother during their meeting, however brief it had been. The attack was strategized, yes. But Tyrael did not believe it had been months in the making.
"What should we do, then?" Haedrig asked. "We are few here, granted. And those who we would usually consult with are too far away to wait for a reply. But we can't sit idle."
"No, we cannot. We must act." Tyrael closed his eyes and inhaled slowly. "We need more information."
"We need the Chalice."
They all turned to see Farah and Malthael approach; the librarian had one arm wrapped tightly across his back. Her eyes were swollen, and Tyrael assumed she had been crying. He could not see his brother's face as his cowl was still drawn, but the man walked as though he had been beaten near to death.
"We need the Chalice," Farrah repeated, directing Malthael to sit; she stayed at his side, keeping her arm pressed to him. Her eyelids fluttered, and her lips moved as if she were mouthing a conversation. "Slower, friend. You speak too quickly."
Aya glanced Tyrael's direction and raised an eyebrow. He shrugged. He was unsure of exactly what was happening, though he had a small idea, based on the things he could do with his lingering angelic abilities.
"Why do we need the Chalice, celsa?" Myriam asked, her attention fully on Farah.
"Because Imperius defiles it," she replied, and it was clear she was indeed speaking for Malthael. "He uses it for ill. It must be removed from the Heavens."
"And once taken," Tyrael wondered, "what would we do with it?"
"Learn what he plans. Quickly."
"The Chalice isn't for a mortal mind." He shuddered, recalling the times he had used it, only to be overcome with its power.
"The Chalice," Malthael finally said hoarsely, "is not for Imperius' mind, either. It is mine, and I would use it properly."
"Could you use it to see where he has attacked?" Aya asked.
"And Imperius himself? Could you tell us his thoughts?"
"I will try. It must not be his, regardless. Though he wields it poorly, and it will take him time to learn how to utilize it, he would eventually use it against us. Nothing can hide from Chalad'ar. Our plans would be lay bare before him."
"How do you suppose to retrieve it?" The blacksmith rubbed his chin absently. "You want to waltz into the Heavens and ask for it nicely?"
Tyrael frowned. "That would never happen. When we stole the Soulstone, the Council did not anticipate one of their own doing so. Their defenses within the Gates were weak. They have since been fortified. Any entry into the Silver City would be noticed, as ours was when we attempted to reason with Imperius."
"We have an idea for that," Farah said. "But Aya, we will need your help. And Li-Ming's."
After they finished setting their plans in motion, Farah helped Malthael back to Tyrael's home. There, she made a fire in the hearth and bade him rest.
"It is good Lyndon and Eirena are returning soon," she said, as she filled a steel basin with water from a jug. "Hopefully they will bring us news from the road, and we can learn how widespread this is." Then she collected some clean rags and a roll of cotton and joined him by the fireplace. "By then, perhaps the Baalstone will be ready. Myriam triggered the beacon Li-Ming carries. She should return by morning."
"We are lucky she offered to patrol near Tristram."
"Yes. Though, you needn't worry about that now. You have earned a respite."
Malthael wanted anything but to rest. To rest, for him, was to think. And to think was to dredge up raw emotions that tightened his throat and made him clench his hands. He had initially fled to the library, which is where she had found him: leaning against the shelves, his breathing coming in ragged gasps. He had hoped to find peace there, as he usually did. But it was not his to find.
Not when he had broken every promise he had made to himself since he had awakened in the woods near Salvos, his memories reclaimed and his brutal past laid out before him. He had sworn he would never kill in anger. Rage and pain had driven him to eradicate humanity once before; emotions had blurred his thoughts and stolen from him the objective wisdom he prized above all things. And he had sworn he would never touch the dead, whether slain by his hand or not. He had no right to that domain after all he had done. They deserved to be at peace.
Whatever peace they could find after burning alive. He flinched as their screams reverberated within his memories.
"I know you may not believe me," Farah said, quietly, "but you did the right thing."
He watched the flames jump about the hearth, a miniature version of the blaze that had overtaken Salvos. He wanted to take a bucket and throw water on the wood until it steamed and was extinguished. But he needed the warmth, badly. A pervasive chill had followed him since he had touched Death, and it had only grown worse as he had escorted the survivors back to Tristram. The weather had not been kind, nor had his conscience.
"Those people," she continued, "would not be alive had you not intervened."
He tried to draw solace from that fact. Talm, Lena, and their child still lived because he had been there. Every survivor who had walked from Salvos to Tristram was alive due to his actions. And he had not killed and desecrated the corpses of the other citizens. That had been the work of Imperius and his troops. The spirits had come to him willingly, crying for aid and for revenge.
Before, when he had been immortal, he had been immune to the emotions of the souls he had ripped. But he understood those feelings, now. He had walked into Salvos already enraged, and when their calls for vengeance had been added to his own, it had drowned him and overcome his restraint.
"I shame myself with how I did it," he whispered. "Hatred is of the Hells. Not of the Light."
He did not have to explain what he had done; in the dark of the library, beside the darkened hearth, she had taken his face in her hands and bid him to show her. He had accidentally done so already when she had approached him on the square. Those images had been volatile and incomplete. She wanted to understand fully; and so, he had opened his mind and let her. She had wept for Salvos, and for him. And then she had given him the strength he did not have. To stand, and gather his soul, and find the motivation to continue.
"Hatred is also a mortal feeling," she said gently, before dipping a cloth in the water and wringing out the excess liquid. "But just because our emotions overtake us does not mean our actions are wrong. You will find a balance, with time. As we all do." She hesitated and squeezed the rag tightly. "Malthael, it may not be my place to say this. But what I saw was not someone who wished to destroy. I saw someone who wished to save. You gave those souls a purpose, at the end. And then you gave them peace. And that does not sound like the Reaper of Westmarch to me."
His voice cracked when he finally managed to speak. "What…does it sound like?"
"An Angel of Death who knows better. One who has become wise." She gestured at his over-cloak with a half-smile. "But, come. You are still mortal, and I will not have you bleed on the floor."
Her words pierced through the shame and guilt and struck the small but lingering hope buried deep inside him that he had done good. That the burden of death would always be his to carry, regardless of his intentions; and that perhaps, just perhaps, the burden itself was not tainted forever, but was instead born of the natural cycle, and could be as powerful a force for light as it was for darkness.
He raised his hands to drop his cowl, then hesitated. He had sat and numbly watched his features ripple in the flowing waters of the river leading to Tristram. Even in such a shattered mirror, he had seen the new and permanent remnant of his transgressions. To speak of his deeds was one thing; to show her this felt horrifying.
Her expression softened. "Come, pi'ra. I am sure I have seen worse."
It was as though the warmth from the hearth finally reached him. He closed his eyes and lowered the hood. Heard her inhale loudly, then sigh.
"I see," she whispered, running her fingers through his hair. The previously ebony strands were silver streaked: the undeniable sign of necromancy that all wielders of the dead carried with them.
"Now," she added, her smile widening, "we match." She turned her head, so he could see the silver mottling on her own. "We are a good pair, you and I. Perhaps we will wear our age and wisdom well."
The spark within him caught and flared. He found himself smiling. "Perhaps. I will try and live up to your expectations."
"They are not too large. But here, before the others require our help. Let us clean you up."
Three days later, Tyrael watched as Li-Ming and Aya worked on the Baalstone in the wizard's workshop. They stood with their arms stretched about it, hands linked together by vivid arcane lines that were intersecting the air. As they rotated their wrists, the spell twisted, driving various facets of arcane energy into the stone, which was now shimmering with an inner fire. When completed, the incantation would turn the stone into an arcane-ground, allowing them to channel its power into the fabric of the realm a rip a portal open to the Heavens.
A portal that could, conveniently, also be closed as required.
"The Lord of Destruction's plaything needs to calm itself," Li-Ming grumbled. "Each layer we unfurl unravels something else within it."
After the wizard had returned to town, the pair had spent days researching the enchantment before even attempting to cast it. During that time, Lyndon and Eirena had also returned from their journey to Kingsport. They had neither seen nor heard rumours of seraphim in the city, though the population was certainly riled due to the continuous riots breaking out in its markets.
On their way back to Tristram, however, they had come across two small villages that had been razed. There were no survivors from either; Lyndon had suspected it was mostly due to the speed at which the fires spread and the settlement's remote locations. And there was no clear evidence the blazes were angelic in nature.
Still, Tyrael had his suspicions. Even if Imperius was becoming unstable, he was no fool-general. He would test various styles of incursions before he committed his full force to war.
Tyrael startled at Malthael's voice. The other man was silent moving as always, particularly when he wore town clothes. He appeared at Tyrael's side, his arms crossed and brows furrowed. His face was unusually gaunt, understandable given the days he had spent on the road escorting the survivors with little sleep or food. He was more composed, however, than the days prior. Each day that passed since his return, the man seemed to reclaim a tiny piece of his serenity.
"Will it work?" The scholar nodded at the pair.
"Hopefully," Aya replied, biting her lip in concentration. "It is slow, but its base configuration is shifting."
"Have you spoken to Lyndon about our plan?" Tyrael asked.
He nodded, again. "He thinks it is foolhardy."
"Then he likes it." Li-Ming chortled. "It will certainly garner Imperius' attention. And I would lie to say I have never wanted to kick in his Diamond Gates just to irk him. For an angelic being, he is aggravating."
"Not the word I would use," Aya muttered.
The wizard laughed louder. "Ah, my dear. His routine grows old, fast. You will adjust. You have more power than he could ever hope to wield."
"That is the problem. He really does believe we will break down his door whether we intend to or not." Aya closed her eyes, her words trailing off as she lapsed into deep concentration.
"I will leave you to work." Tyrael gestured for Malthael to follow him, before closing the door and leaning against the building's outer wall. "How are your burns healing?" He gestured at the remaining dressings wrapped about the man's left wrist. Malthael had not returned physically unscathed, though most of his injuries were superficial. Unlike Tyrael, who could use El'druin to create a protective shield, his brother had no such defense, particularly against fire.
"Well enough. I was lucky. We may not be again, in the future."
"Is that why you called Chith back as well?" Tyrael smiled wryly. "I never thought I would hear those words leave your mouth."
"He has his uses."
"I would almost say you were fond of him. Brother, why do you roll your eyes at me?" He chuckled. "He has grown much since arriving here."
"And learned much, thankfully. We could use a light to offset the dark." He extended his bandaged hand and flexed his fingers tentatively, wincing. "Do you still believe Imperius can be reasoned with?"
"Do you still believe he cannot?"
"There are some actions one cannot recover from, particularly when one is an Archangel." His expression drifted into memory. "Some lines that should not, cannot, be transgressed. Shatter points of the soul."
"You overcame your actions."
"I died for them. It was the only possible end. That I am here now is a lucky act of mercy. And note, brother, that I have not donned wings in my return." He shuddered, as though his words dredged unwanted thoughts.
"The same is true for myself."
"Then, consider this. The Church of Rathma speaks of the Balance. A naïve simplification, but a legitimate facet of a greater truth. What balance is there in the Heavens when two of its leaders walk as mortals?" Before Tyrael could answer, Malthael turned to leave. "Seek me out when things are complete."
"Of course," Tyrael said, his brother's words already cascading in his mind.
Malthael had lost many things after becoming mortal, but his wisdom was not one of them. Tyrael had felt the imbalance since Malthael had vanished from the Heavens, and it had only worsened when Tyrael had cast himself down to Sanctuary. He had naively believed his mortal voice would be as strongly received on the Council, but the reality was otherwise. The grudging respect Imperius always showed him had disappeared the moment he became, in the Archangel's eyes, no longer an equal.
When he had become weak.
He was not weak, Tyrael knew. His mortality had granted him gifts of insight and emotion he could never have claimed while immortal. But the power of mortals was not the same, or as simple, as that of the Aspects. Before, he had been Justice itself, a physical, perfect embodiment of a single concept. Now, he was one of many seeking to uphold justice's ideals. A noble venture, and one very different from what the Heavens required.
"Do you still believe Imperius can be reasoned with?"
"Perhaps not," Tyrael admitted, to Malthael's absent form. "We shall see."
The Slaughtered Calf Inn's rooms were small for three people, but Talm did not care. The inn was warm, clean, and, most importantly, quiet. Even the smallest hubbub was enough to send his pulse racing. The crackle of fire did the same. Bron, the owner, had kept the hearth unlit at the survivors' request; instead, he had acquired and passed out extra quilts for when the nights grew colder. He seemed a rough man at first, but his actions told Talm his heart was kind.
Talm watched Nat wander about the commons area, which doubled as the tavern and bar. The child explored carefully, studying the tables and the woodworking, but always glanced back at Talm or Lena to check they were there. He had said little since they had arrived in Tristram; sometimes, Talm saw haunting expressions cross his face. At night, he whimpered and refused to sleep separate from them.
An older woman approached their table tentatively. Her clothes were of a style Talm had only seen a few times in the markets. Desert-wear, from a land far away. Her eyes wrinkled when she smiled. In her arms she held a basket filled with various foods and other items: fresh fruit, loaves, and a clay pot containing stew; a child's wood puzzle; and a stuffed bear hand-sewn from leather.
When she repeated his name, he finally recognized her from the day they had arrived in town. She had stood in the crowd and had carried the same basket. She had been the one Mal had walked towards.
"Farah. Malthael asked me to bring you some things." She set the basket on the table and pushed it Talm's way. "He wished to bring them himself, but things are moving quickly. He couldn't get away."
Gratitude welled in his gut, bringing a lump to his throat and fresh tears to his eyes.
"Thank you," Lena said for him, standing and offering her arms to the woman; they embraced tightly. "We appreciate the gift."
"He is relieved you are safe. I know he was looking forward to seeing you, before…" She trailed off. "He told me all you did for him. How you helped him when he had nothing."
"It's what good folks do." Managing to compose himself, Talm pulled an apple from the basket and puzzled over her words. In the brief time he had known Mal, the man had spoken very little. That she was privy to his private thoughts spoke volumes of the trust they shared.
"Pa." Nat tugged on Talm's hand, having reappeared at his side. The child glanced at the her, then back to Talm; though he was hesitant to go closer, he did not seem afraid of her.
"Hello, little one," she said, softly. When Nat gazed at her curiously, she laughed, a warm, joyful sound that calmed Talm's heart. "What is your name?"
"Nat," he said, frowning. "Who you?"
"My name is Farah."
"Nat!" Lena exclaimed.
Farah chuckled again. "I speak a few languages, some clearer than others. He means no offense, and none is taken." She paused, and a fleeting look of concern crossed her face before the smile returned. "I cannot stay long. I have my own work to do, to help the others prepare."
"But I have so many questions!" Talm sputtered. He wanted to know how her and Mal had met. Not to mention what had happened in his friend's world since he had seen him last, years prior.
And who Malthael was, to be able to draw the spirits of the dead from the stones and slay angels without flinching. Talm and his family had always had their ideas, particularly after they had found his weapons on the lakeside. Perfectly forged and radiant. Angelic. Ideas were just ideas, though. Nothing made sense, anymore. Not the stories of angels he had been told as a child, or the words of the Light spoken by priests.
Farah grasped his shoulder and squeezed it tightly, as if hearing the doubt cascading through him. "There are many things he will tell you. When he is ready. But until then, know this. Malthael and his brother fight for you. For goodness and the Light, against whatever darkness brews in this world or the Heavens."
"The Heavens are real?" Lena asked, though it seemed more a statement than a question.
"Very much, yes. And with any luck, tomorrow they will visit them."
A gasp escaped Talm's lips. "To do what?"
Her grip on his shoulder faltered as she considered the question. Then her eyes grew distant, and Talm knew she was imagining things he could not. "To reclaim what is rightfully his."
A/N: I wrote this chapter in the late summer, and you have no idea how many times I almost had Farah call Malthael pi'ra in the Ask replies on my tumblr blog. Good gosh. Talk about having to maintain two different writing timelines.
The Nephalem are going to go knock, knock, knocking on Heaven's door. Intentionally. We'll have to see exactly what Malthael has planned.
In Diablo 3 we see Tyrael share memories and thoughts with Leah. Malthael did similar accidentally in Chapter 3 with Farah, and is doing similar here. I imagine listening in to his mind is a bit like getting hit with a fire hose.
Chapter Five: Despair
"Take it out of town," Li-Ming said, holding the Baalstone out to Tyrael. "Just in case. It would make an awfully large mess if it exploded here." They had suspended the reworked gem within a golden lattice, a dozen needle-thin legs holding it in place at the epicentre. The stone pulsed as if it had a heartbeat; the air rippled around it with each thump.
"Is it stable?"
"Enough for what we need. It will not be permanent, or long lasting, but I personally don't wish to tear an eternal hole in Heaven's arse."
"A single use?"
She nodded. "You know well the power required to walk between the realms. Even this concentrated arcane essence is enough to hold the portal open only briefly. An hour, perhaps two. And only to connect the nearest halls of the Heavens. Anything deeper, and it would not cut through."
"I do not wish to be that long." The reverberations coursed through his fingers as he took it. "Imperius will be not be entertained by our visit."
"That is a humorous understatement. Which is why I will watch from here in case things go horribly awry. Aya knows how to activate it." Her characteristic haughtiness flickered, replaced momentarily with concern. "She is so much more than she believes she is. And she knows this. I do not think she will disappoint you. Or us."
"She will find her courage when the time is right."
"Well said." The wizard reached out to clap him on the back. "This is not a day I wished to see, my friend. We have always found strength in unity. It is unfortunate the Heavens have forgotten that lesson."
"I still hope we can relearn. With patience, and some luck."
"Then may the Light illuminate your path and guide you safely back home. Good luck."
They gathered as the sun reached its zenith, the sky a brilliant, clear blue, the soil of the field warm under their feet. While Lyndon finished readying his weapons, he watched his companions carefully, knowing the plan weighed heavy on each of their minds.
Tyrael had discarded his cloak for once, leaving his armor exposed and polished; he looked every bit the regal Archangel of Justice he had once been. El'druin rested loosely in his hand, the blade's tip balanced on the dirt, its hilt glowing faintly. His expression was stern, and if he were nervous, it was not apparent.
Aya, adorned in robes of crimsons and golds that were embroidered with runes, carried the Baalstone apparatus suspended above her hands. She mouthed words of power silently, her eyes closed, and brow furrowed.
Eirena stood confidently in her enchanter's garb, a long, polished wood staff in one hand, a clear crystal focus in the other. Also immersed in spellcasting, she raised the focus, and between it and the staff, she crafted a clear veil that looked as though it were made from polished glass. Then she draped it across Lyndon's hooded form; he shivered as the magic slid over his clothing and skin before absorbing into him.
That completed, she moved to Malthael and did the same. The scholar kept his head bowed while she worked, a light-weight and nondescript cloak wrapped about his usual leather armor, which still showed fire damage from his encounter with the Luminarei. His expression was no less serious than Tyrael's, and far more intense. Lyndon was glad he was not on the receiving end of the glare, for once.
"You will not be invisible," Eirena explained, stepping back. "But it should be enough that the casual eye, when otherwise preoccupied, will pay you no mind."
"We will be swift." Malthael glanced briefly at Lyndon before raising his cowl.
"I still think this is a terrible idea," Lyndon said. "But I honestly can't think of anything better. Are you sure we can get to the Pools without drawing their attention?"
"Assuming the others provide a fitting distraction, then yes. There are many paths through the Heavens, some less travelled."
Double checking to ensure the grappling hook he had acquired from Haedrig was in place on his belt, Lyndon groaned and stepped forward. "Then let's get this idiocy over with before your brother gets around to burning anything else. If you would be so kind, my lady?"
Aya snapped her palms upward. While the Baalstone kept its place in the air, the pulses within it intensified, and when she opened her eyes, her irises glowed with the same crimson hue. She spoke, and the words resonated with arcane power at multiple discordant pitches. The air began to ripple about the stone, spreading outward in a shimmer, until a different world slowly took form within the disturbance. The portal expanded to be wide enough for two to walk abreast; within it, the shining towers of the Silver City glimmered.
The arcanist stepped backwards, leaving the stone to its devices. The portal remained stable even as the glow faded from her eyes.
"All right?" Tyrael asked, and she nodded. "Then let's go." He stepped through first, followed quickly by Aya and the others.
Even though Lyndon was expecting it, the thin atmosphere of the Heavens caught him by surprise. He took a deep breath, forced the dizziness away, and found his balance on the marble platform. Before he could look about, Malthael grabbed his arm and tugged him sideways, leading him to the edge. Beyond the golden balcony there were clouds and endless sky.
Behind them, angelic voices began to shout.
Lyndon looked to the scholar, his eyes widening. "You want me to jump?"
In reply, the other man leapt over the edge, using the railing to turn himself to face Lyndon on the way down. A good eight feet below, he rolled and regained his footing on nothing; the air glittered, and Lyndon saw the faint trace of angelic runes, like the stairs Tyrael had described as being in the Council's chamber.
Malthael raised an eyebrow and gestured for him to follow.
Well, there was little choice now. Lyndon swung over the edge, held on for a moment, then let go. The wind rushed by him as soon as he was free from the cover of the platform. He thought briefly that he had missed the landing and would fall forever, until his feet connected with the invisible terrain, and he rolled, hard. Malthael caught him before he could tumble too far, then helped him upright.
"This is the most asinine design I have ever seen," Lyndon complained quietly, though he found himself smiling regardless. "How in the Hells did you know about this?"
"Curiosity. Boredom." He pointed in the direction of more empty space. "Follow, carefully."
The greeting was about as enthusiastic as Tyrael expected. He held his ground and El'druin against his chest as a full unit of Luminarei rushed down the open walkway, their weapons aloft and glowing with bristling flames. To his side, Eirena and Aya raised their hands, arcane spells already at the ready.
"You are not welcome here." Kurael, Imperius' second-in-command, stepped forward. He stood a head taller than the rest, and his armor was adorned with nearly as much golden regalia as his commander's. "I will grant you this one opportunity to retreat."
"As much an opportunity as you granted those in Salvos and elsewhere?" Tyrael struggled to keep his voice even at the mention of such injustice. "Do not think me an idiot, Kurael. My brother has much to answer for, and I will hear his answers."
"Lord Imperius needs answer to no mortal, yourself included."
"I only wish to speak to him."
"And he wishes you remain silent." The angel snapped his spear forward, summoning a swirling cone of flame at the tip. Then he thrust it towards Tyrael, the shaft glowing for a moment before it exploded with a searing beam of light.
Tyrael swung El'druin outward to deflect the attack, but before he could call upon its shield, a different one made of shifting arcane runes cascaded around him. The flames collided with it, the embers scattering as if across glass. Aya stepped to his side, her arms raised and fingers spread. Her eyes glowed with the power of the invocation and an overwhelming poise Tyrael had never seen in her before.
"Lord Imperius will answer to me," she called, as Kurael stepped back, his body language conveying poorly concealed shock. "Now, would you have me bury the lot of you, or would you bring him here?"
Lyndon and Malthael returned to the main levels of the Silver City near the Gardens of Hope. The tops of lush foliage and towering trees were visible even outside the Garden's walls, and the intoxicating smell of flowers drifted through the corridors, causing Lyndon to momentarily lose his focus. He forced his attention away from them, shaking the relaxation that was trying to arrest his mind.
"I always wanted to visit them again," he admitted, while checking to ensure they still walked alone. He hoped the absence of any angels in the area meant the distraction was working and was not simply due to luck. "I'm sure the Gardens are breathtaking when they're not being ransacked by demons."
"Not the time." Malthael pointed to the left as the corridor split into three. "This way."
"You're still no fun, you know. We could go see your loveliest of kin. But no, you are taking me to the land of death and books."
"I doubt my sister is interested in you."
"Tyrael said the same thing, once. Ah, you cannot fault me for trying."
The further and higher they progressed into that corner of the Heavens, the colder the marble and the air became. Lyndon found himself gasping for breath and had to stop several times to recover. If Malthael experienced the same he gave no indication, leaving Lyndon to wonder if his immunity to the altitude was a lingering remnant of his immortality, or if he was simply not showing the exertion.
Finally, they turned a corner and found themselves before a mighty doorway that was crafted from rough, ashy stones. Runes were carved into each block, forming a continuous arch that stretched from one side of the entryway to the other. Lyndon couldn't read the language, though he assumed the script was Angiris.
Malthael noticed his fascination with the markings and smiled slightly. "Wisdom's truth lies within these pools, and the song of eternity within its walls," he read.
"How does one find music within walls?" Lyndon muttered as he followed him through the gateway. The blinding glare from the Arch disappeared immediately and was replaced by an unsettlingly deep shadow. His breath caught in his throat when his eyes adjusted to the change in lighting.
They stood on a cliff that extended across a vast chasm. Within the gap swirled a shimmering waterfall of light that warped and bent upon itself, rising and falling, but always returning to its original place. Lyndon could not see where it began or ended, for its furthest extremities faded into the twilight. Around the chasm, platforms stretched out to the horizon, cut from the same rock as the doorway instead of the marble found in most of the Heavens. They were dotted with shallow, dry depressions, where Lyndon assumed the Pools had been when there had been angels to attend to them.
"Gods," he whispered, the air absorbing the word as though he had never spoken. An overwhelming and pervasive silence stifled all noise, except for the intense humming in his ears. He understood, then, what the words at the entrance had meant. The Pools were without physical border or walls: the song of eternity was nothingness.
Interrupting Lyndon's reverie, Malthael pointed below the cliff, where a pedestal stood at the centre of several interconnected platforms. The Chalice rested on it, its arms and bowl etched with runes like those on the door, as well as perplexing depictions of rippling waves. A cold light emanated from within it, the shadows it cast writhing about the stones. It was impossible to look at it for more than a few seconds without feeling dizzy.
"I want this cursed cup even less, now," Lyndon mumbled, as he drew his grappling hook, secured it into a break in the rock, and descended carefully to the lower level. Malthael followed him, sliding down the rope as effortlessly as one who weighed nothing. "Was it always this way?" he asked, as the scholar led him across the Pools, the words echoing louder than he would have liked. Or this empty?
"It sang, once. When there were others like me. But the madness took them as well." He paused at the edge of the dais that contained the Chalice and frowned from underneath his hood. "The Pools dried without care."
"I don't like it," Lyndon admitted, grasping his crossbow and glancing about. He had the distinctly uncomfortable feeling they were being watched, though he heard nothing save their voices and the continuous hum. But he hadn't survived as long as he had without having a somewhat uncanny ability to feel presences, and he trusted that more than his ears.
Malthael seemed not to have noticed, which was extremely unlike him. Instead, he stared at Chalad'ar intently, before eventually stepping onto the dais and slowly lowering his hands to it. He moved to brush the rim with his fingers, then halted, his head snapping to the side, as a panicked voice broke the silence.
"Stop, strangers! Go no further!"
"I knew it," Lyndon hissed, drawing his crossbow and readying it. He spun, looking around for the intruder, but still saw no one. "Hellspawn, I was hoping if they found us it would be on the way out."
In reply, Malthael raised a hand, his body language more curious than concerned. He touched a finger to his lips, bidding Lyndon to remain quiet.
The air above them shone briefly, and a form dropped to the stone. Narrow, heeled boots clacked on the rock. The being straightened, drawing a long sash about its body and unfolding delicate teal wings until they towered impressively over Lyndon. The tips drooped, and they vibrated slower than he remembered. But he knew this angel. He had met her once before in her domain, when the Lord of Despair had held her prisoner.
"Be still, mortal," Auriel said, her voice melodic yet sorrowful. "Your form shimmered vaguely when I first saw you. I thought you were Imperius, returning here to stare in that accursed cup again. I would sunder him across these stones if it would halt his sacrilegious campaign against your kind, though it is most unfortunate I am outnumbered by the Luminarei. Do you come to bring me further stories of woe?"
"Your brother likely makes war in the hallways today, not Sanctuary," Lyndon replied, withdrawing his hood and revealing his features to her. "My Lady, it has been a long while since we last met."
"Oh, friend. You are one of Tyrael's companions." Her posture relaxed, and each step she took his direction sent crystalline cascades through the air. "I remember you, Lyndon. And you continue to have my thanks for releasing me from those wretched chains."
"None required, Lady Auriel."
"Then listen carefully, dear one. The Heavens are no longer safe for you. Some terrible sickness has overtaken my brother and his kin. He returns each day to stare into Chalad'ar in the hopes of finding his situation changed. It never does, and his rage grows with each attempt. Why are you here, in this most dangerous place, when he stalks your kind even on Sanctuary?"
Before he could answer, the deep silence of the Pools was pierced by a deafening, harmonic keening. They both looked to the Chalice and to Malthael, who had finally placed his hands upon the cup. It sang joyfully in a tone so pure it brought tears to Lyndon's eyes. The Light within splashed to its sides, some running over onto his fingers. It glittered there, taking on an amethyst hue, before dissolving into his gloves.
Though the Archangel of Hope was faceless, Lyndon saw in her an intense change in emotion. Her fingers shook as she raised them to her hood, and the brilliant light of her wings vibrated.
"No, it cannot be," she whispered, stepping towards the dais. "I believed you returned, once. Years ago. But then, nothing came of it. Afterwards, I thought perhaps I had only dreamt it, as mortals do."
"This is really very complicated," Lyndon said, knowing he was powerless to intervene in the reunion that was about to take place. "And we still don't have the time."
Malthael held his place as she drew close. Archangels towered over mortals, and Auriel was no exception. When she eventually stood opposite him across the Chalice, for a single moment there was no sound at all in the world. No breath, no voice. Time seemed to hold itself at bay, as Hope looked at Wisdom as if for the first time.
"You Fell," she breathed. "You were sundered. Lost to us, forever, I thought." She took his hood in her gauntleted grasp and pulled it back, revealing starkly mortal features.
"Hello, sister," Malthael replied, his pale eyes holding her gaze unblinkingly.
Hesitating, she traced his jaw and cheekbones with thin fingers, as if unable to comprehend his presence. His expression remained neutral until she withdrew Al'maiesh from her shoulders and draped it across his. He exhaled loudly and squeezed his eyes shut as the Cord fell on him; Lyndon could not tell if he was in pain or was finally releasing the emotions he carried pent inside him. Perhaps, there was not much difference.
"I have a multitude of questions," Auriel said, softly. "And were it other-time, and other-place, I would ask them slowly, each one, and bade you answer. But Lyndon said there is no time, and I trust the truthfulness of your companion. I will task you with a single query, which I have already spoken. Tell me, brother, who I once lost and have now impossibly found. Why are you here?"
Aya quelled the fear threatening to rise in her, focusing instead on the protective spell she wove and everything that depended on her success. The Luminarei had retreated, conferred, and two had eventually rushed away to find their leader. Kurael remained, helm and spear still directed their direction; his wings flared varying shades of amber and crimson, as if he were enraged and would lunge at any moment.
She hoped he was angry. The more she kept them unbalanced, and the longer they were detained, the higher chance Lyndon and Malthael had of securing the Chalice without being caught. What they would do when they returned to the portal was to be seen. But until then, she pledged she would uphold her end of the plan.
"You do not want to fight Imperius," Tyrael whispered, El'druin still raised in preparation for an attack. "Distract him, yes. Taunt him as you would. But he is Diablo's equal in many ways, and it took more than a single Nephalem to defeat the Prime Evil."
She knew he was being realistic. But even still, Li-Ming's words stayed with her, echoing louder than his logic: You have more power than he could ever hope to wield. Cockiness was one of Aya's specialities. It had helped her survive a difficult upbringing, surrounded by those who hated her. She always thought providing them something real to dislike was the best strategy. And many times, she had possessed the skills she claimed to have in her boasts. She hoped that now was one of those moments.
"I will do whatever is necessary," she replied, straightening her back and throwing off the cloak from her shoulders. They could see her in all her colourful splendor and be afraid. Overwrought visual drama was not just for the Heavenly Host.
"We will support you as you need." Eirena had been quiet until then, silently observing the spectacle. "I have faced Imperius before, and I saw him cower on the ground as the Light of the Arch was extinguished. He is not supreme, nor is he without fault."
As the enchantress finished, an unexpected wave of heat rushed over them. Aya looked up to see where the attack came from, then realized there was no danger. At least not yet. The air churned and glowed as a vivid fireball arched through the sky, traversing between towers before landing on the other side of the platform in an explosion of sparks and flame.
Solarion crackled in Imperius' hand, its crystal tip pointed their direction. His armor glowed like an ember, cooling and eventually returning to its usual golden sheen. Roaring, he stalked their direction, stopping mere feet from the shield before tipping his head downward to consider them.
"Nephalem, you return. Do you wish a quick end to your pathetic existence?"
"I wish to redeem my worth," she declared, and the words were no lie. "I previously stood before you and cowered at your might. It surprised me. I am not surprised twice. You slay my kin, and I will not stand by and do nothing." She directed a hand his way, drawing a sphere of arcane energy from the air. Her throat was raw from the thin atmosphere and the responsibility of what she was about to do. "I challenge you to combat, Imperius, Archangel of Valor. Are you afraid of a single Nephalem?"
His gauntlets tightened about Solarion, the metal crackling and pinging from the pressure. "If you wish to die so badly, then come, little mortal." He bowed, the gesture as mocking as his tone. "I will show you the strength of the mighty." The Luminarei withdrew behind him; Aya nodded at her companions, and they did the same.
"Your move," he sneered, his wings flaring upward to their full, engulfing height. "I bid you. Defeat me."
A wonderful side-effect of finding Auriel was that the Archangel could fly effortlessly while holding them. She carried Lyndon and Malthael, one in each arm, her wings flowing outward as they soared over fortifications and balconies. The altitude was required to avoid overt attention on the ground, though, she had explained, many of the Domains were now sparsely populated.
Awestruck from the experience, Lyndon clutched the wrapped Chalice tighter against his chest. Malthael had entrusted him with it, bidding him to keep it safe unless he needed to take it himself. The scholar needed his hands free to fight, and Lyndon more than accepted the man's superiority when it came to combat. Not that he had any plans of dropping it; after how much he had played up his sleight-of-hand over the years, doing so would be mortifying.
As they flashed over the tallest towers in the Heavens, Auriel dove towards one, the action sending Lyndon's gut into his throat. They did not land, but instead rushed briskly across marble floors whose walls were dotted with endless bookshelves. Auriel's voice rang through the library, loud and commanding.
"Itherael! It is time to take action. I would have your aid. Join me near the gates, where the battle rages."
Then, they were off again, the clouds drawing near. Lyndon drew harried breaths as the air diminished.
"Keep hope," she said, tightening her gloved hands about them. "We are nearly there."
In the distance, he recognized the platform where they had entered through the portal. A pervasive glow surrounded it, warping and shifting between amber and a deep violet. Flames, he realized, colliding with arcane magics.
"Hurry," Malthael said, leaning forward to see the same from under his hood. Though the other man did not say it, Lyndon knew he was worried about their friends. They were powerful, but they would be no match against Imperius and his contingent of Luminarei for an extended duration.
As they circled to land, a beam of fire lanced towards them from the platform. Auriel cried out, surprised but unscathed, and dropped quickly towards a nearby walkway. She let the two men down gently, then pushed forward, Al'maiesh in one hand, a sword materializing in the other.
"Your soldiers would dare strike at me?" she called, gesturing for Lyndon and Malthael to follow her. "Your sacrilege grows."
Kurael moved to meet her, his spear still glowing with evidence of the attack. Behind him, within the shimmering remains of the arcane sphere, Aya and Imperius stared each other down. Lyndon could not see clearly enough to know how the fight was going, but his friend still stood, and that was impressive in itself.
"Remove yourself, Auriel," Kurael said. "Our fight is not with you."
"Your fight goes against the Light, and thus, is with all that I represent." She brandished her blade at him, slamming it into the spear. The air rang as the weapons collided, though neither gave way. "Now, step aside, so I may speak to my dear brother, who shames us all with his sins."
"I step aside for no wayward angel, nor for any Nephalem." He spat the word as his gaze went to Lyndon and Malthael.
"Then you are a fool."
Dashing so quickly that Lyndon could barely follow, Auriel swung Al'maiesh at Kurael, the Cord wrapping tightly about his shoulders. He struggled against it, but she was faster. The Archangel leapt upward, pulling him into the air with her, before using her grip on the Cord to slam him into the ground. The other Luminarei shouted, breaking formation and launching into the sky to follow her. She dove in response, rushing past them to drive her sword at Kurael. He managed to roll at the last moment, but the blade still grazed the side of his armor, spraying a brilliant streak of Lightblood across the marble.
"Go," she shouted.
Lyndon ran, his cloak flapping as he dodged between surprised Luminarei who were still distracted by the Archangel. Malthael followed closely behind, his hands on his blades, as if waiting to see if he needed to draw them. The angels bellowed at them to stop, then were forced to return their attention to Auriel, who was circling them and preparing to reengage.
"I am the most harmless thing here," Lyndon hissed, not entirely lying. He was greatly relieved when the Luminarei finally ignored him and Malthael in favour of keeping Auriel from reaching her brother.
There was one final obstacle between them and the portal, however. Even though he was distracted, Imperius was a commanding presence on the platform. The air grew warm as they approached him. Soon, sweat ran down Lyndon's forehead, and the cloth wrapped about the Chalice became hot.
Too hot. From the wrong direction. Senses tingling, he glanced backward in time to see Malthael drive his shoulder into him, knocking them both to the ground. A searing flame scoured the air where they had stood moments ago, crackling and snapping as it passed.
Lyndon cringed as he retrieved the Chalice from where he had landed on it with his chest. Before he had time to catch his breath, Malthael was already pulling him upright, dragging him across the walkway.
"Thanks," he gasped, as he gradually regained his senses. "Hells, they're becoming irritating."
"Extremely." Malthael hesitated, then snapped his shotels from their sheaths. "Keep hold of the Chalice. Run quickly. I will distract him."
"And how are we to use this without you, should things go wrong?" He shook his head when the other man made to argue. "I will have your back, as you have mine. We go together."
Lyndon knew what Malthael intended, and it was its own kind of bravery born from relinquishing his anonymity. He did not envy the man the price he might pay when Imperius discovered he still lived. Nor did he wish it to come to that.
"Stubborn," Malthael growled, though he did not protest further.
As they finally stepped onto the platform, Lyndon managed to draw Aya's attention. She breathed heavily, and her robes were torn and burned away on the edges, though her skin appeared unmarred. Her eyes widened when she saw the bundle he carried.
Seeing her reaction, Imperius spun to face Lyndon and Malthael, letting loose a snarl of rage low enough to shake the platform. While he stalked towards them, Tyrael and Eirena took the moment to rush to Aya's side. The man drove El'druin into the floor, drawing a shield about the three, while the arcanist collapsed, exhausted, against the enchantress.
Well, that was it, Lyndon thought. The ruse was up.
The Archangel's gaze jumped to the poorly wrapped Chalice in Lyndon's arms, and his gauntlets tightened about Solarion. "You would steal such a holy artefact from me?" He laughed ominously, before a tangible aura rose about him. "You mock my honour! There will be no mercy for such an act!" He rotated his spear horizontally to better block their path.
A shadow flashed across the floor over them. Imperius looked up, having only seconds to raise his weapon before Auriel fell on him. She slashed her blade into Solarion, crystal slamming into crystal while her own, high voice clashed discordantly with her brother's. He stumbled from the unexpected attack, and she took the opportunity to spin around him, pulling his arms together with Al'maiesh.
"Traitor to the High Heavens!" he rasped, twisting his wrists enough to swing Solarion at her.
She released the Cord of Hope's hold on him and sidestepped the blow. The Cord curled back about her arm, as if alive. Resuming a martial stance, she positioned her blade against her face, parallel to the ground. "I only see one traitor here," she said. "Though, because that traitor is also my brother, I would end this without bloodshed. I have mediated in the past, Imperius. Let me do so again."
"You would have us relent to the mortals. Only cowards bow to peace."
"Only fools confuse defeat with hope." She shifted, then leapt at him, her sword striking multiple times at his vital points; it was obvious the blows were not meant to wound, but to throw him off balance. While he deflected them, she snapped Al'maiesh forward with her other arm, the Cord's tip seeking out the other angel's limbs.
Though she moved like the wind, even that was not enough to catch Imperius once the surprise had faded. Still, it gave Lyndon and Malthael enough time to dash around the edge of the platform, their long strides taking them nearly to the opposite side before Imperius broke away from the duel. Free from Auriel's assault for a moment, he returned his attention to them and began to sprint their direction.
"You will go no further," he roared, raising his spear and becoming an immaterial wall of flame.
Lyndon's mind moved quickly, faster than most others. But even he saw no out. Tyrael made to intercept Imperius as he dove, but he was too far away to reach them in time. While Lyndon dropped to the ground in the hopes of sliding under the Archangel, Malthael stepped in front of him, his blades raised. The wind from Imperius' rush dislodged his hood, revealing eyes narrowed in determination.
Well, that was fitting. Malthael staring down his brother, fearless even in the face of death, while Lyndon tried one last time to dodge the arrow and escape. It was how they had always fought, together; likely, how they were about to die together. And they had been damn close to the exit.
The impact never arrived. Confused, Lyndon blinked away the glare from the flames and stumbled to his knees. Surrounding him and Malthael was a dazzling, golden sphere; it fluctuated in places where it had been struck, the vibrations rippling about its surface.
"What in the…" he whispered.
On the other side of the shield, Auriel shuddered and fell to one knee, her fingers sliding down the edge of the spell she had summoned. Solarion was cleaved deep through her shoulder; a glimmering pauldron slowly tumbled to the ground, the remnants of a teal wing breaking apart and fading as the metal collided with the marble. Brilliant Lightblood cascaded across her chest and back.
Imperius slid the spear from her armor, then stepped back, as if hypnotized by the result of his work. "Sister, you are weak, to give your essence for mortals. In what realm did you think you could best me?"
"In one where I have hope for your defeat," she gasped, raising a hand to her wound. Healing magic flickered between her fingers, but the Lightblood continued to run, slicking the floor. "You shame our kind, Imperius. And you will not succeed in your campaign." She stumbled to her feet and limped towards the portal, drawing the shield with her, Lyndon and Malthael following from within its protective glare. In the same breath, Tyrael arrived at their side, summoning El'druin's shield to cover his sister.
"You think stealing Chalad'ar will lead to my demise?" Imperius' tone suggested he did not think so. "The Nephalem are fools if they believe they can use it. And I do not need it to conquer them!"
"Perhaps they cannot. But I can." While the others slowly assisted Auriel and Aya towards the portal, Malthael stepped between them and Imperius. He raised his weapons again, their runes glowing brilliantly. "And you would do well to remember that, brother."
The Archangel went rigid at the sight of the man standing before him.
It was the greatest distraction Malthael could have managed, though it was likely short-lived; Lyndon planned to make the most of it while it lasted. "Quickly, quickly," he hissed, pushing in front of the others to jump through the portal, the Chalice clutched between his hands. "Cup first." Then he turned to watch.
"What game do you play, mortal?" Imperius looked to Malthael's blades, and his tone became guarded. "Where did you find those weapons?"
Silently, the scholar used a shotel to return his hood to his face, then tipped his head imperceptibly to the side. "Where I left them."
"No. I do not understand." The confidence left Imperius' voice, to be replaced by confusion, then barely contained rage. Solarion wavered in his hand. "The greatest among us. Our wise leader! The Nephalem slew you!"
"Yet you stand here, aiding them! Why, brother? You were right to cull them!"
"Because I am one of them. And you are a fool." Malthael rotated one of the blades, and as he did so, a translucent mist formed around him from nowhere. Then he snapped the weapon down, sending a blast of chilled air outward. Lyndon was not sure where he drew the power from, until he saw the spattered Lightblood dripping from the shotels and realized Auriel had given them more than one gift.
Malthael quickly sidestepped towards the others as he brought the deathshroud into being, his expression fierce even in its detachment. The effortless way he spiralled the essence about him, as if he were utilizing any other form of arcane power, made Rathma's necromancers look childish.
To Lyndon's dismay, the shroud drifted through the portal; ice formed where wisps of it brushed his cloak. The air tasted frigid and metallic, as if someone had mixed blood with snow. He imagined it was what dying felt like, and it made him briefly think that his own death was suddenly very close-
"Help me!" Tyrael's voice broke through his mental haze.
Shuddering, Lyndon dropped the Chalice and helped pull Auriel through the rift. Then Eirena tumbled through with Aya, the two falling to their backs on the grass.
Malthael followed moments later, the shroud breaking apart as he lowered his weapons. "Aya," he called. "Stone."
The arcanist shook her head blearily, clearly fighting the exhaustion threatening to overtake her.
He glanced back towards the Heavens, his eyes widening, before roaring: "Aya. Stone. Now!"
Groaning, she crawled to her feet and lunged at the Baalstone where it hung in the air. Arcane waves arced between her fingers as she grasped it between her palms, screamed a series of incantations, and slammed her hands fully together. The gem imploded, throwing her backwards, before settling into a gradually diminishing ball of crimson lightning. Its remnants snapped out of existence with a thunderclap.
The portal shimmered, wavered, and imploded, leaving the remnant afterimage of Imperius diving for it and the lingering echoes of an inarticulate howl.
"Hells take him," Aya groaned.
Relieved, Lyndon allowed himself to collapse onto the field. The was thick in his lungs; humid, warm. Alive. Then he raised a hand, saw the Lightblood glittering on it, and remembered what their victory had cost them.
A/N: This is one of my favorite chapters in the story, mostly because it has so many moments in it that stuck with me after writing it. Aya challenging Imperius to combat. Auriel realizing Malthael is alive...and mortal. Malthael being an absolute badass and standing up to Imperius. And Auriel...who tries harder than absolutely everyone else. But you're fighting the greatest warrior in all of creation.
A while back someone asked me on tumblr who would win in a fight between Imperius and Auriel, and I had already written this chapter. Me: UHM. My answer still stands. In a one-on-one fight, none of the other angels should be able to best Imperius. And he shows signs of besting the Nephalem when he fights them, temporarily, in D3. The dude is a martial machine.
Small notes: My depiction of the Pools draws more from the description and imagery of it in the 'Book of Tyrael', and less so from 'Storm of Light', because the two are a bit inconsistent. Also, the awesome art of Aya from this chapter will be up on my tumblr for you to fave in a bit! This chapter's artwork is courtesy of @kenyizsu over on tumblr.
Chapter Six: Downfall
Tyrael staggered to his feet after having been knocked over by the Baalstone's blast. The portal had closed, thankfully, though before it had, he'd glimpsed Imperius rushing the opening, his wings flaring with rage.
"May imps gnaw on his fingers," Eirena spat.
Before he could reply, a low, ethereal moan interrupted them.
"Auriel," he breathed, El'druin falling from his hand. He rushed to where she had collapsed, her remaining wing wavering hesitantly above the grasses. She had finally stilled the flow of the Lightblood from her shoulder, but it was apparent she was not stable. Flickers of Light shot from the gash and where the pauldron had been ripped from her. She grasped repeatedly at the missing wing, her limbs shaking.
Tyrael did not know what could be done. He had seen Auriel heal terrible wounds in the past, knitting flesh or armor together as if new. But he had never seen an angel's sundered wing be restored. Nor could he forget how it had felt when he had ripped his own from his body.
"Sister, I am here." He kneeled and helped her to a sitting position. She had always been smaller than him when they had both been Archangels, but now he found himself looking up at the face hidden behind the invisible veil that all angels wore.
"He burns in his own wrath." Her voice wavered more with each word. "He would raze Sanctuary and the Heavens to satisfy his yearning for victory."
"We can discuss Imperius later. Our priority, now, is your safety." He glanced around for Malthael, who was finally approaching, having quickly cleaned and sheathed his blades. With luck, he would have an idea of what to do next.
"Ah, my safety?" Her miserable laughter chilled Tyrael. "To think, I find my lost brother, only to lose my existence to another. What lonely awfulness is this?"
"Lyndon has gone for help," Malthael replied, kneeling beside them. "And you are not alone."
"But I am, brother. Mangled, broken. What angel cannot fly and feel the wind against their form?" She tightened her grip on Al'maiesh, as if seeking comfort. "I feel my essence unravel. It leaks, unbidden."
Malthael kept his composure, though he flinched at her words. He brushed the edges of her hood and considered her silently. "You cannot remain this way," the scholar eventually whispered, far gentler than Tyrael had ever heard. "You know this. The form that holds your soul cracks. It will soon shatter."
Her desperate wail cut the air, making Tyrael's knees quiver and his hands cold. Though angels were most affected when her Hope was stifled, the power of her sorrow was enough to shake even his resolve.
Malthael caught her as she slumped. His boots dug into the dirt as he held her upright. "Death is not the only path forward," he grunted, straining under her weight. "Your power for Light lingers. Cast off this form. Tyrael, help me."
The implication shattered the numbness from Tyrael's soul, filling him instead with dread and resolve, and the haunting memories of when he had Fallen. He stood and wrapped his arms about Auriel's shoulders, holding her tightly. The warmth she always emanated flickered, diminishing. He lay his head beside hers; physical contact was different for seraph, but it was the only way he could comfort her.
He tried to think of another option. But he knew the indescribable pain of losing a wing. Of feeling half of his being stripped away, with only an empty, irretrievable echo remaining. The moment between then and when he had Fallen had felt like an agonizing eternity, one where his soul had screamed into a darkened abyss.
"Malthael is right," he admitted. "I cannot promise your survival otherwise."
"You would have me join you?" she asked, weakly. "I do not have your drive for justice, Tyrael. How am I to bring hope to our kin, to mortals even, without this splendour?"
"There is a humble magnificence in mortality," Malthael said. "You already despair. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain."
"And you also told me once that hope rested with Sanctuary." Tyrael tightened his arms around her when she shuddered. "Do not think this world is any less vivid than the one you leave."
"All I can think of is the Gardens. The calm, and the peace. The lush scents." Her speech hastened. "It did not have to be like this. He could have listened, and us, bargained. I would have forgiven all." She groaned as her shoulder began to bleed anew. "I would have this end any other way."
"Sister," Malthael implored, "your time dwindles."
"I-I cannot. Every remaining strand of my being shouts at the thought of such sacrilege. I know I must. But…" Her voice became the faintest whisper of wind. "Is this fear? Is this what mortals feel?"
"It is what mortals have the strength to overcome." The scholar looked to Tyrael. "Let us bear this burden for you. If you cannot."
"Then, sin for me, brothers. For I am afraid, and I tremble."
Her choice made, Malthael swiftly transferred his hold of her to Tyrael, who took her full weight carefully, her strength having left her save the remaining fragments that kept Al'maiesh in her hands. Then he stepped to her back and studied the damage, before drawing one of his blades. The weapon rang softly as he brought the tip to the base of her remaining wing. He hesitated, then closed his eyes and took the hilt in two hands.
No mortal could pull her wing asunder, Tyrael realized. But an angelic weapon, wielded with calm precision, could sever the connection. The rest was up to her. As it been to him, when he had torn the Light from his form.
"You must want it," Tyrael murmured. "What we do is only half of what is required. You must be the catalyst."
"Will it ache?"
"No," he lied.
"Then, help me."
Malthael drove the blade into her armor; it slid easily, permitted. Tyrael held her fast as she screamed and the pauldron sheered from her back, the cut clean and glowing with a deep amethyst. The remaining wing glimmered, broke apart into flickering wisps of light, and faded.
The moment the pauldron hit the grass, angelic Light began to seep from between the cracks of her armor. The metal grew warm, then burning; throughout, Tyrael continued to clutch her tightly. Strong fingers grasped his forearms as Malthael did the same from her back, where he had pressed his standing body against her and leaned his chin against her hood.
But only Tyrael witnessed the glory and finality of the Fall. Aquamarine essence swirled about, enveloping them, until within the confines of her cowl, the shadowy outline of a face took shape. Then the remaining angelic glow shattered, its energy dispersing outward into dust-like, gleaming motes that drifted away on the wind.
And in his arms lay his sister. Smaller, weeping, but very much alive.
Imperius howled with rage as the portal slammed shut before him. He halted his dive, using Solarion to dig into the marble and slow his movement. Behind him he heard the Luminarei scrambling, apparently coming to their senses after having been distracted by Light knew what. Probably his meddlesome sister, before she had dropped on him from the sky.
With luck, they had not seen his moment of weakness. He had let his incredulity stay his hand, when he should have struck them down while they were fleeing. Instead, he had been paralyzed by the mortal shade of his brother and the parlor trick fog he had summoned. He did not entirely believe the man was Malthael, though the blades were indeed those of the Archangel. Ancient weapons, ones he had wielded long ago during the Sin Wars, before he had taken his campaign to Sanctuary.
But, Imperius had also seen disturbing things in the Chalice recently. Chalad'ar had fought with him, flooding him with unwanted images whenever he stared into its depths. While he had seen his troops raze towns, leaving the Nephalem to rot on pikes or roast in the flames, he had also seen the corpses of his Luminarei scattered about a city, their armor punctured and stained with the ghostly tendrils of necromancy.
Not a single angel had returned from Salvos, though from what he could tell, they had at least succeeded in their duty before they had fallen. He had assumed the Nephalem were to blame, until he had seen the mortal with Malthael's blades draw Death from Lightblood, as if that holiest of essence were some sickening plaything.
Imperius had witnessed countless battles over many millennia. He knew all the tricks of mortals, of their weapons and their arcane magics. And he had never once seen one of them desecrate holy liquids for use in their rituals. Lightblood was strong enough to melt the flesh from demons. No mortal should have been able to wield its power, let alone twist the essence into Death.
"Lord Imperius," Kurael called, approaching him. The lieutenant pressed a palm to his torso, where a long gash ran from his sternum to his hips. It was mending, slowly; a superficial wound, nothing more. "Your sister, she intercedes. A few of her followers also engaged us moments ago, but we were able to quell them."
"I am fully aware of her actions." Rumbling, the Archangel turned to wrap his fingers about Kurael's throat. The angel groaned and tried unsuccessfully to break his grip. "Would that I had trained someone who could have stopped her before she escaped with the Chalice." He growled and violently tossed him to the marble. "No matter. She will not last long in such a state. And you would do best to spend your time considering how not to disappoint me again."
"What is this madness?"
Imperius stifled another snarl as Itherael's voice interrupted their conversation. He hardly had the time. "None of your concern, sibling."
"But, Auriel said to-" They trailed off, having strode past Kurael to where a puddle of Lightblood ran across the platform. They dipped their fingers into it and considered it, their wings sharpening into points. "Where is she?" they asked slowly.
"She has chosen to throw her lot in with the Nephalem."
"Answer the question I gave you. Do not make me ask again."
"I am not sure where she is, save that her essence is…diminished."
Itherael stood and straightened, their wings conveying overt suspicion. "You did not aid her?"
"In her stealing of Chalad'ar? I am no fool. She has made her choice."
"Yes, she has." The other Archangel glanced at Imperius over their shoulder. The motion was hardly threatening; their assistants had dwindled and their own power lessened as the mortals had grown in number. "I saw none of this in the Scroll. Or perhaps, I did, somewhere. But it was lost within an infinitude of possible futures, all swayed by those very Nephalem you detest."
"Without stability, there will be no victory."
"There would have been none before had we faced the Prime Evil alone. It always returns, Imperius. You know this. It is because the Hells are malleable, like the fires that sustain them. We are like this stone. Inflexible. Rigid." They calmly drew a sword from under their cloak and snapped the tip into the floor, fracturing the marble. "When stretched, we shatter. Your actions tear our realm asunder."
"I hold no responsibility for the mayhem in the Library of Fate."
"You know I am not speaking of that. Though, I wish I had foreseen this, if to save our sister from whatever happened here."
Raising Solarion in reply, Imperius stepped forward, his greaves ringing loudly on the polished stone. Before he could strike, however, a shrill wail pierced the Heavens, melodious and discordant at once. It stopped as suddenly as it began, leaving only the quiet hum of the Arch in its wake.
"No," Itherael cried, their sword wavering. Their wings drooped at the tips, losing some of the form they had just developed. "No, it cannot be. I felt her cry out, and now...now she is gone. I cannot feel her."
"She made her choice," Imperius said, regaining his composure; the lose of Hope was a minor setback, for truthfully, he had never seen the need for such an Aspect in times of conflict. Hope did not win wars or slay foes. Hope asked for mediation and prized weakness above all things. And though he had felt her disappearance the same as Itherael had, he refused to let it hinder him.
The air rippled and snapped. Itherael vanished, then reappeared a moment later at Imperius' side. They swung their sword at his chest, but Imperius met it deftly with Solarion. His sibling had a limited arsenal of tricks, and he had seen them many times. The spear absorbed the blow, and he pushed the Archangel away, the other's greaves skidding across the floor.
"My lord," Kurael called, from where he had been watching, prone. "We will assist you!"
Imperius shook his head. He had already been humiliated by the Nephalem and his sister. If Itherael wanted to fight, then this was his fight alone to win.
In the moment Imperius was distracted, the Archangel of Fate flickered and faded. Crack. Their blade slashed to Imperius' left. He sidestepped, swinging Solarion around to swipe through empty air as Itherael eluded him. Crack. Another blow, this time from behind. He ducked, feeling the blade sweep where his wings had been moments earlier. Itherael could predict his actions through guesswork, but Imperius was still polished and stronger.
As he lunged, the air suddenly felt thicker around him, as if he moved in water. More trickery, he thought, as he summoned a wave of flame down Solarion's length and sent it Itherael's direction. He had rarely seen his sibling slow time around others, though it was indeed one of their domains of control, and the true source of their teleportation. The action expended precious energy. Which meant the fight was now one of endurance.
Crack. Imperius deflected the blow, though the action was harder when Itherael moved with unnatural speed. Still, the longer the duel continued, the more confident Imperius grew. The lost sensation of victory flooded through him, tarnished though it was with his earlier defeat. He began to see patterns in the other's attacks, and he waited impatiently for the right moment to present itself.
"How could you?" Itherael barked, their attacks becoming frantic and more vicious as they fought. "How could you kill our precious sister, who brings only kindness and Light to the Heavens?"
"Our precious sister would have seen us bend on our knees to the Nephalem."
"I do not understand why you fear them!" Their tone grew ragged. "They slew the Evils when we could not. We owe our continued existence to them!"
Imperius knew that well. It was his continual shame that he had been unable to defeat the Prime Evil himself. An Evil that had been tampered with by mortals, displacing the balance of the Eternal Conflict. It was the second time Itherael had mentioned it, and after each iteration, the memories further raised Imperius' ire.
"There will be no victory so long as there are Nephalem!" The time field wavered, and Imperius saw his opportunity. Itherael was difficult to hit, but he was still the faster combatant. And he only needed to predict their location once.
Crack. Itherael vanished, reappearing and slashing downward with a deafening roar.
Imperius was waiting. He intercepted the blow, using the spear's shaft to block and throw them backwards. Then he dove, thrusting Solarion's crystal tip through the other angel's breastplate. The momentum of the attack carried them both into a nearby pillar, which cracked as Solarion pierced its surface.
Itherael moaned, their form flickering momentarily before regaining substance.
"I have bound worse adversaries than you with this weapon." Imperius twisted it, driving it deeper into the rock. "You whose Aspect fades as the mortals you love so dearly proliferate."
"You are…mistaken." The Archangel tugged at the spear's shaft, but was unable to wrench it away. The longer they tried, the more their gloves became coated in Lightblood. "I would…gladly relinquish my Aspect for beings who uphold the Light."
"Stand by me, then."
"I see only darkness in your future."
A fool, then. As always. "You see no future. The Scroll is useless."
"I do not need Talus'ar to know this," Itherael rasped painfully. "Mortals are made of greater essence than ourselves. Such a thought tortures you, does it not?"
"And with but a little time, they will be greater than ourselves."
"And they-" Itherael wheezed as Imperius wrenched Solarion from side to side, tearing their chest armor apart. "Will not. Forgive. You."
Growling, Imperius wrenched the spear outward, ripping it from the pillar and through his sibling. Itherael gasped as their remaining Lightblood ran unimpeded, then collapsed onto the floor. The bright silver of their wings flared, then faded, leaving only a lingering afterimage on the marble, and an empty, shattered encasing of armor.
He had finally won. A bitter victory, but a necessary one: one he had not known he had needed until that moment. With both Auriel and Itherael removed, he no longer feared insubordination from his kin, for he was the only remaining Archangel in the High Heavens. Valor alone could reign, and when balance had finally been restored in the Eternal Conflict, the others could return from the Crystal Arch and carry on their duties. Until then, he would carry out his as required.
He shuddered as a wave of triumph rushed through him. This was proving to be the most difficult campaign to protect his kin he had ever undertaken. But in such trying times, the worth of an individual did not matter. What did was the survival of the High Heavens themselves.
"Kurael." He swung Solarion to fling the remaining Lightblood from its length. "We are ready for the next phase. Send your remaining troops to Sanctuary. The capitals can burn. Also, check the Library and the Gardens. If any of those Aspects remain, eliminate them. We cannot afford additional resistance."
His lieutenant intelligently remained silent, choosing instead to stand and salute respectfully before hurrying towards the City proper.
While Kurael put things in motion, Imperius had much to consider. His meddlesome mortal brothers, for one. Tyrael had always been a thorn in his side, even when he had been immortal. His ability to amass and manage troops was only second to Imperius' own. He expected him to continue resisting.
And then, there was Malthael, or the thing that had impersonated him well enough to set Imperius on edge. Regardless of his actual identify, the mortal's sin of wielding Lightblood was worse than anything Inarius had dreamed up while utilizing the Worldstone. That alone told Imperius it truly was his brother. Malthael had never hesitated to warp the souls of mortals while he had campaigned against them. Nor had he hesitated to do whatever was necessary to reach victory. Such horrific ideas could only come from his mind. It was best to end him, again. Quickly.
Even as Imperius considered all the ways he could go about that, a single thing Itherael had said grated against his confidence: "The Hells are malleable, like the fires that sustain them."
Even after the Luminarei's first successful attacks on Sanctuary, the Chalice had still whispered of his defeat. Now that it was gone, and he was unable to see how the Nephalem might respond, his only course of action was to become stronger. Malthael had done so in the moment when he had been strongest; he had manipulated the power of the Prime Evil into one even an angel could wield. And he had done so without corruption; had the Nephalem not outnumbered him substantially, he would have survived and triumphed.
The true result was as Imperius had expected. Wisdom's forces, even after taking on the Aspect of Death, were few. Valor's troops were numerous. He need only strengthen them accordingly. If his mortal brothers saw fit to dabble in the darkness to fight him, then he would acquire his own advantage, to be wielded by his entire army with terrifying purity.
Caldeum's largest bazaar shimmered in the heat, the dry air visually distorting vibrant robes and rug sellers' stalls until they blurred into a colourful menagerie. Clouds of spices and cooking oil merged with always present dust, while children ran between the legs of their parents and strangers, giggling. Zaira walked among the crowds, her cowl up even on the hottest of days; she could tolerate the sweat if it meant anonymity.
It was good to see the market returning to its usual behaviour. For weeks it had been the scene of riots, some small, some spanning its entire expanse. Hakkan had no patience for the uprisings, and the Iron Wolves had quickly quelled them, jailing some of the protest leaders and executing others. The relative calm in the bazaar felt strained, but the locals maintained it because they were slowly coming to prefer it to the chaotic violence.
Which was the operative mode of any leader who ruled with an iron fist. The Church did not intentionally dabble in politics, but Zaira had also interceded enough in governments to know that those with the highest degree of rigidity were those that were worst for the Balance. A certain degree of chaos, of interplay between light and dark, was necessary for mortals to thrive.
She held no illusion of being able to stop Hakkan's rule single-handedly. Her last and only attempt to meddle in the Emperor's affairs had worsened things, though she blamed that equally on Tyrael and on Chith's frustrating insistence with helping her. Their actions had caused the subtle currents that had been sparking between mortals and Nephalem to explode to the surface, and she spent most of her time now simply keeping tabs on civilian morale, trying to ascertain when and if they could attempt to intervene again.
Today, at least, the mood was high. Buyers and sellers haggled, some guarded, while others were friendly. Laughter punctuated deep conversation. The rich and poor alike walked while eating kabobs and clay-fired bread. Zaira casually chewed on one of the skewers, allowing herself to briefly enjoy the moist pork and peppers.
I wonder how many other Nephalem walk about as I do? Cloak raised, guard up. Likely far more than anyone else knows.
"Ma, look!" A child collided into Zaira, before squealing and rushing to his mother who stood at a potter's stall. "Shooting stars! Aren't they pretty?"
Snorting at the child's clumsiness, Zaira glanced up to the clouds, where a row of falling stars were indeed cutting through the sky. They trailed smoke behind them and glowed a deep amber. Stars, falling towards Caldeum. At the height of the day.
"That is not normal," Zaira breathed, her hand going to her dagger.
"Find your sister," the mother said, her eyes widening. When the child gazed at her quizzically, she raised her voice, shouting, "Go! Find her and take her home!"
Good advice. Zaira pushed aggressively through the crowd, which was beginning to take notice of the unnatural phenomena. Finding a deserted alleyway, she leaned against the wall, closed her eyes, and let her soul reach out. Death, as always, was everywhere. The old and the forgotten. Dark points in the city that oozed decay. There were none in the sky.
She shifted instead to look for the opposite. Bright points, strong energies: the opposite side of the Balance. There. Radiating brilliantly in her mind, hurtling downward, unopposed until they slammed into Caldeum's streets. Even after they impacted, the objects retained their arcane intensity. When one landed nearby, she opened her eyes to see a cloud of dust explode from the other side of a building. Screams followed, then shouts as nearby patrolling Wolves called for everyone to remain calm.
"Idiots," she muttered. As if the general populace knew how to react. After fighting the Church's enemies for over two decades, she was no stranger to combat. She had worked tirelessly from the shadows to ensure the Balance was kept in check. And she knew the darkness, intimately. Had wielded it to fell its own kind.
What she felt in the streets was not darkness. It was blinding.
It was angelic.
"What in the Hells are they doing here?" she hissed, drawing upon the dead and blurring her form so she would appear only from the corner of one's eye. Then she darted from the alleyway, quickly cutting between fleeing merchants and following the screaming to its nearest source.
A trio of golden-armored angels were staring down a squad of Iron Wolves on a street corner. Their spears were embedded in the chest of a wizard, whose eyes had rolled back and who did not appear to be breathing. They threw him to the ground, his blood spattering over the stones, and turned to the rest of the Wolves.
"We have no qualms with the Heavens!" one of the soldiers exclaimed, raising a staff and calling upon defensive magic. "Why do you strike?"
"I need not answer your question, Nephalem."
"But, I am no Nephalem! If you seek those miscreants, then we are of like mind! Let us work together!"
The angel cocked its head, considering. Then it summoned a roiling ball of flame on its spear's tip before leaping forward and striking the guard. The man wailed as he fell and burned, while his compatriots stumbled backwards and shouted.
"I see no reason to honour your strange differentiation between yourselves." The angel ripped the spear from the body and pointed it at the next Wolf. "You all carry the strong taint of demon-kind. You will all burn."
Swearing softly, Zaira fled back down the side streets, hoping the guards were enough to distract the angels from her still partially visible form. She ran until her lungs ached and she tasted bile in her throat, but she refused to stop until she returned to the burned husk of a home that had been her hideout. The stairs clicked under her boots as she rushed down into the abandoned cellar. No place in the city was safe, but she had embedded protection glyphs throughout the structure, ones that would grant her enough time to do her work uninterrupted.
From a hidden pocket on her hip she withdrew a folded parchment. She'd bought the scroll years ago, as a failsafe of sorts to save her from harm. Truthfully, she'd never expected to use it. But then, she hadn't expected the Heavens to attack Sanctuary. Even as she unfolded it and began the incantation, she heard more stars fall, and the screaming grew closer.
There was no time to wait for letters or marginally faster arcane messengers to reach Tristram. Whatever talks Tyrael had proposed with the High Heavens had clearly gone terribly awry. And she was not foolish enough to believe she could stop the attack on her own.
The building shook. Zaira gathered her cloak about her, placed the glowing scroll on the floor, and stepped onto it. Runes flared into being, activating in sequences across the worn parchment before climbing her legs and enveloping her body. She closed her eyes and held her breath as the traveller's spell took her, whisking her through the fabric of the realm, and away from the angel's attack, to safety.
A/N: "...as Fate lies shattered, forever." I know there are a lot of readers who love Itherael. I'm so sorry. Please don't come for my thumbs. I promise, this was really difficult to write. :(
Had Imperius and Itherael been less distracted, they might have noticed they didn't entirely lose Hope when Auriel Fell - because she's not dead.
Because all the other Archangels seem to have specific elemental domains associated with them (fire, electricity, water/ice, and earth/plants), I headcannon that Itherael's domain is time, which explains how they can teleport as seen in the "Wrath" animation. Canon lore also states that they can slow time, though it doesn't specify why they would do that, so I assume it is for combat.
I also headcanon that when angels Fall, they form an entirely new physical body, and thus would be able to craft it without any wounds or injuries from the previous one; the power that they are giving up more than equals what is needed to do that. Most angels wouldn't consider this because it's considered sacrilege. But Auriel would rather commit sacrilege than pass, because at least this way she can continue to oppose Imperius and bring Hope to the world. And had she not done so, she would indeed have eventually died.
Imperius is in a pretty wonky place mentally by now. You're not doing a very good job of protecting your family when you kill them all first.
Chapter Seven: Darkness
"I hope it was worth it." Eirena leaned against a bookshelf as Malthael placed the Chalice on a table. "This was a high price."
He followed the enchantress' gaze to the lit hearth, where Tyrael was sitting on a worn armchair. Auriel sat on another chair across from him, wrapped in a thick woolen blanket, her lower legs and feet extruding from the bottom. She had shed her armor with their help, claiming the weight only overwhelmed her further.
The flames' glow flickered across her face, illuminating round features, a delicate nose, and piercing amber eyes that were swollen from tears. Thick swaths of dark hair draped across her shoulders, curling and tangling with the exposed tips of Al'maiesh. The Cord remained wrapped about her shoulders and arms, though only those small pieces were visible from underneath the quilt.
Malthael thought it strange to see the Cord separated from her being, though not nearly as much as seeing her features made mortal. Even odder, though not surprising, was how similar her features were to Chith's. He wondered if his sister's closest advisors would also resemble the young man, were they also mortal.
"We knew the risks," Tyrael said, interrupting Malthael's thoughts. "And you were right to call us to retrieve Chalad'ar. The Chalice was obviously aggrieving Imperius' already fragile state of mind."
Chalad'ar always fractured angels, Malthael thought, as he ran a thumb around the cup's cloth-covered rim. Or at least, it had since it had become filled with the overwhelming emotions of mortals. Though it had been created by immortal minds, its confines were no longer safe for their use.
Another piece of the Heavens, changed irreparably. "Salvos was too high a price," he admitted. "The other towns, too high a price. Your Fall," he glanced again to Auriel, before looking away as his own memories surged, "far too high a price."
Tyrael frowned. "I have never known you to disregard the necessity of actions."
"The actions were necessary. The actual war is not."
None of the conflict was worth it, as far as he was concerned. Yet, no amount of rationality could reach Imperius at the height of his rage. The Archangel's fight against the Nephalem was not one of logic but of fear, an emotion the angels did not fully understand, and of failure, which was a concept that ran counter to Imperius' very essence. In trying to reclaim his purpose, his brother was falling into the same pit that had taken Malthael's immortal sanity and twisted it beyond repair.
"We would do best to end him quickly," he continued, before looking towards the back room, where a rattling noise was intensifying. "The longer he subsists, the more chaos he will sow."
"I am sorry to take so long!" Farah appeared in the doorway with a teapot and several ceramic cups, which were gently jostling as she walked. "I admit, I was prepared for several things, but none of them were making tea. And I needed to ensure Aya was tended to."
"Is she all right?" Eirena asked.
"Well enough. Li-Ming said she will likely sleep for a bit while her connection to the arcane strengthens again."
"I am glad to hear this," Auriel said softly, speaking for the first time since she had settled onto the chair. "She was valiant to stand against my brother as she did."
"This is not the first time Aya has done such a thing. Though, he is probably the biggest being she has opposed." The librarian chuckled, then set the pot and cups upon a table beside the fireplace. She poured one and held it out to the former-angel. "It's hot. Please be careful."
A tentative smile graced Auriel's lips, and even through what Malthael assumed was a horrible mental strain, the expression managed to convey a ghost of the Light he remembered. She had every right to continue weeping over what had occurred. That she did not suggested the fires of hope still burned, someplace, within her.
"So strange, these concepts." Auriel finally unwrapped her bare arms from the blanket and accepted the cup. She brought it to her lips, closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply. "Skin. Breath. Tears. This scent, however, I recognize."
"Lavender." Farah bowed slightly. "I thought it might help."
"Ah, I thought so. A calming flower, long a favorite of mine."
"A calming drink, as well. One your brother enjoys on occasion, when he sees fit to relax." She winked at Malthael, before returning to sit behind her desk.
"Would that I could attend to my books and tea undisturbed," he said, dryly. "However, the world sees fit to keep me from such simple comforts." He tipped his head as a melodic giggle escaped his sister. "Yes?"
Which caused her to laugh harder. "Oh, dearest brother," she gasped, as bemused tears rolled down her face. Her snickers wavered between legitimate humour and poorly disguised distress. "Here we are, our situation strange, and my biggest worry was that you would be unrecognizable. And yet, neither yourself nor Tyrael have changed at all."
Tyrael placed a palm on her knee and smiled. "If we have, it is for the better. You may find the complexities of mortal emotions overwhelming at first. But they are earnestly welcome."
"And freeing," Malthael added. "From many previously unknown shackles."
He wondered if he should move closer to them, to provide her the sort of comfort Tyrael was always adept at. He did not wish to aggravate his own discomfort, however; the day's events had dredged some extremely unwelcome memories within him. He dropped his hand from the Chalice and moved instead to sit on the edge of Farah's desk. As if understanding his reasoning, the librarian pushed a stack of books to the side to allow him to perch more easily.
As her laughter faded, Auriel's gaze burrowed into his being. "You are less than you were, Malthael." Her tone grew curious. "And yet, more. You were never one for warmth or companionship. I recall spending a great amount of time tracking you down in the Pools to introduce you to your newest kin. I never thought I would see you seek out others willingly."
He shifted uncomfortably and folded his arms tightly about his chest. "Mortality," he managed, though he knew it was a poor explanation for the complexities of his feelings, particularly the ones he harboured for Farah.
"Perhaps. But remember, those elements of mortality were also born from Light. I know them well. They are my domain. Or, they were." A sad glimmer crossed her face. "Many things seem within my reach, now. Others, less so. Muted, expanded, as though my being has been stretched and thinned."
Tyrael looked absently to the fire. "I recall some of the same. Though, my experience was complicated by the loss of El'druin. I remembered nothing from my past until I retrieved the sword, and by then, I had already adjusted somewhat to mortal life."
"You shouldn't have thrown it from the Heavens," Eirena snickered, clearly trying to bring some levity to the situation. "What carelessness."
"Then it is good you retrieved it," Auriel said, amusement gradually returning to her voice. She looked to Malthael. "What of you, brother?"
He did not particularly wish to discuss his transition to mortality. It was complicated, and a critical component of the memories currently assailing him. Whether she now sensed warm companionship from him did not matter. His relationship with all his kin had previously been one of mentorship and distance. Tyrael and Lyndon, through action and deed, had gradually earned a deeper, human kind of trust. Farah, even more so.
He needed time to try and understand how he felt about his sister's renewed presence. But that was time he did not have until they halted Imperius' rampage. He would have to persevere, until then.
"Until the end, yes? When death takes all, and all fade to dust?"
Not here, he thought, unclenching his fist and pressing his palm to the desk. As he did, he felt Farah gently grasp the back of his cloak. Her fingers lingered on the heavy cloth, trailing down a seam towards his hand; her hand brushed his for the briefest moment before she withdrew. Immensely grateful for the gesture, he took a few moments and mostly regained a neutral expression.
"Such traumas are never simple," he finally replied, choosing his words carefully. "For mortals and immortals alike. Particularly when they are preceded by insanity."
Auriel's eyes flickered to his hand, though she kindly said nothing about what was, for him, a profoundly private moment. "I fear that sort of madness is what festers in Imperius. I felt growing in him the same pensiveness that struck you in the early days. An inability to reconcile his calling with the changing world." She glanced at Tyrael. "Your choice, as I once said, was the correct one. You saw justice failing, and you took the form of a being who could deliver it properly."
"My choice was less ideal," Malthael muttered.
"At no true fault of your own. We understand that, now. Even more, the wisdom I remember in you from ages past has returned. Albeit differently, though no less beautiful."
The words drew his attention back to the Chalice, which whispered faintly from the table. He felt a strange comfort in its presence, as though a missing piece of his soul had been returned to him. He also dreaded what he needed do in the future, once they had taken time to rest and regain their strength.
"Were you truthful?" she asked. "About being able to use Chalad'ar?"
I will make it true, he thought. The Chalice can be looked upon by all beings. Whether they will survive its depths is dependent on their character and composition. The latter I cannot change, for it was not made for mortal flesh. The former, however, is within my control. And perhaps I will find a different wisdom within its confines now that I share mortality with its shadowy inhabitants.
"I will do whatever is necessary to ensure Imperius fails in his genocide," he said. "As I already have. As I will continue to do."
He was interrupted by a knock on the door. It cracked open, letting in sunlight and a familiar figure cloaked in shimmering emerald and black robes.
Zaira threw back her hood and leaned against the wall, panting. She smelled of sulphur and wood smoke, and the telltale remnants of the arcane. "At least you are consistent," she said, nodding at Malthael. "Here or the bakery, it matters not to me."
"Zaira?" Eirena's eyes widened. "I thought you were still in Caldeum!"
"I returned as quickly as I could. My traveller's scroll skipped a few hours, from what I can tell. I am sorry, dears. I hoped to bring this news sooner. Imperius' troops attack Sanctuary."
"We know," Tyrael said, folding his arms. "Unfortunately."
"Including Caldeum. The Iron Wolves will likely put up a mighty defense, as they did against the Reapers. But the angels struck without warning, and from what I can tell, with far greater numbers than the Reapers. There will be many casualties."
Malthael hissed. Imperius had wasted no time in moving his attacks forward. They could afford no time for recovery if he was bold enough to attack the larger cities.
Zaira glanced his direction, her eyebrows raising. "How interesting. It seems a great deal has happened, recently." She smirked. "I rather like your new look. It's…threatening. And certainly befitting an individual with less cowardly inclinations."
He made himself focus on the scent of lavender lingering about the room. He had kept his composure throughout worse trials that day. The necromancer would not be the thing to undo him.
"I think it is distinguished," Farah said sharply. "And if you have nothing else to tell us, then we would all prefer the privacy."
Snorting, the necromancer turned back to the door. "If you wielded a dagger as pointedly as you do words, then I might understand what he sees in you."
"Enough," Malthael growled. "I am sure you are needed elsewhere."
"Worry not, lovelies. I will leave you to ponder over this new information. Though from the presence of the strange woman by the fire, and the suspiciously wrapped object over there, I assume you are well on your way to developing a plan."
"With your assistance, yes," Tyrael interrupted. "If you would be so kind, could you keep an eye on our surroundings and ensure nothing wanders into town, unbidden? We have a great deal of work to accomplish in the next few days."
"Of course. Such simple requests are within my power." She turned to leave, then glanced Malthael's way one final time. "I have questions for you later, my Lord Reaper." The door slammed behind her.
Malthael exhaled a rattling breath. His elbows ached, which was odd, until he looked down and realized he had been clutching them within whitened knuckles.
"She does not seem very pleasant," Auriel observed.
"Indeed," he mumbled.
He did not disagree, but neither was he entirely upset she had returned with news. That Caldeum was now under siege suggested Imperius did not currently wish to strike at Tristram. He knew it was the base of the Horadrim, as well as Tyrael's home. It was as viable of a strike option as Caldeum, or any of the other capitals, perhaps more so. But without Chalad'ar, the Archangel had no idea how many Nephalem were present, and it would be a risk to lash out at their stronghold. This bought them precious time that Malthael would not squander.
"Regardless of…personal difficulties, she has brought us critical information. We cannot delay using the Chalice."
Tyrael shook his head. "We need a respite. None of us are in a position to assist you as we are."
"Tomorrow, then. We rest. And then we learn what our mad brother plans."
Malthael awoke before dawn, the soft trilling of birds shaking him into consciousness. He hadn't expected to sleep long, not with what was required of him. Sleep, though important, was not the real preparation he needed. He dressed and gathered his things silently, attempting to let Tyrael rest as long possible. He hoped his brother's dreams were good, if any.
The town square was deserted save a few squirrels that rummaged under benches for discarded treats from the previous day. The cool night breeze brushed his face as he walked, sharpening his attention. The hours before sunrise always seemed as though they were on the cusp of reality, half existing and half in dream; a surreal moment paused in time.
It was the calm he needed to draw on for his work. Before he and Tyrael had turned in for the evening, they had spoken at length about the other man's experience using the Chalice. His descriptions reminded Malthael of the dreams he'd had after his rebirth. Of muted reflections of the Pools and the shade of his former self drowning him in Light.
Still, Tyrael's use of the Chalice had also been tempered by his identity as much as his mortality. Chalad'ar was a physical extension of Malthael's soul. Though it showed the web of truth that interconnected the world, the truths it depicted were also heavily influenced by Malthael's perceptions and mindset. When Tyrael had dabbled with it, the Chalice had been mired by Malthael's preoccupation with mortality. It had whispered of death and eternity, and the power of such ideas ripped from an immortal mind had nearly ruined his brother.
A comprehensive grasp of deep-founded, philosophical concepts was now mostly beyond Malthael. His fixation was not on eternal truths such as Death or Wisdom. Instead, it was on the complexity of the mortal condition, and on the millions of souls that would be at risk if they could not stop Imperius' onslaught. He assumed his thoughts mirrored those of the very mortals whose presence had occluded the Chalice in the first place.
Which was to his benefit. Without the mental stamina of an Archangel, his reach within Chalad'ar would be limited, though focused. But he did not need to comprehend eternity or watch the flow of causality as it cascaded between all things. Nor did he need to listen to a million mortal minds simultaneously. His consciousness would fall somewhere in between them, as if he were walking within the largest bazaar in the world. Overwhelming perhaps, but comprehensible.
His deepest fear was that he would become lost in the deluge, as he had in his dreams. The Chalice gave answers. It also gave him what he desired most in the world: wisdom. Unlimited knowledge, if he could only find it. He'd spent near-literal eternities gazing into its depths, once. And he no longer had that time. Nor could he risk succumbing to the temptation.
The library was dark when he entered, save for the small arcane brazier that always burned by Farah's desk. His blades pinged quietly as he lowered his sheaths to the furniture's surface. He had brought them out of habit, but did not expect to need them. He had chosen his attire for the same reason, opting for a simple robe with a deep hood. They were a comforting reminder of the time before, when he had been the master of the Chalice and known all its secrets.
The delicate clinking of ceramics startled him. He turned and found Farah standing in the doorway to the back room, her eyes widened in surprise. She was still dressed in her day clothes and appeared to have been awake for some time.
"You startled me." She smiled sleepily, absently adjusting the tray she used to carry a teapot and a half-filled cup. "I did not expect to see you so early."
"Neither you. Have you not been to bed?"
"I did. I was so tired I forgot to change. Not that it matters. I haven't slept much lately." She chuckled, then gestured for him to join her at one of the study tables. "I think, perhaps, the older we become, the more we have to think about at night. Oh, here. Let me find you a cup."
He waited as she acquired another teacup. "Sleep has never come easy to me."
"I know." Steam rose as she filled his mug. "Your angelic kin do not sleep at all. It should not be in your nature."
"You know Tyrael enjoys it. Particularly the dreams."
"This is true. Granted, his work is very physical. I doubt he has much to consider once abed. I know it is hard, but it would do you well to rest your mind as often as you rest your body."
Smiling slightly, he brought the cup to his lips and closed his eyes. The blend was unfamiliar, though he smelled cinnamon and a hint of pepper. She must have mixed it herself. "You would have me settle my mind with sleep, in order to slumber?"
"I never claimed mortality made sense."
"I would worry if you did. It is fraught with contradictions. Though, there are better ways to clear the mind than sleep."
He lowered his cup and took a long breath, inhaling the lingering aromas of worn parchment and dust. Those scents were always accompanied by the tang of inks smeared on his fingers. Of candle wax, burning deep into the night as he worked. Of the old floorboards of the library, still coated with lingering varnish.
In the library, behind its thick walls, he heard no birds or the rustling of leaves. Only his breathing, and hers, and the pulse rushing in his ears.
He opened his eyes. She had abandoned her cup on the table and was considering him, her expression soft.
"You meant to do this alone," she said. "Didn't you."
He awkwardly rubbed his hands together, tracing the callouses that hefting his blades too often had worn into his palms. He had aimed to avoid the others. They meant well. But there was nothing they could do to help him save clutter his space with additional presences. What he wanted and needed to do his work was his mind at peace, focused, and without distraction.
"I understand," she whispered. "I expected this, eventually. The first time I dreamt of you, I knew you were important to our future. This is your journey, your legacy. One I cannot begin to comprehend. I would aid you if I could, but this is not my path." She stood. "I will leave you."
"No." She hesitated when he spoke, her dark eyes glittering in the light of the brazier. He reached out, tentatively at first, then clasped her hand in his and drew her back to her seat. "Please. Stay."
"I would only distract you."
Mortality was full of contradictions. She was no distraction. She was one of the few constants of his mortal existence. A point he could return to, without question or judgement. She was the anchor to reality he had sought so desperately to find. A bright light in the complicated, mortal life he often found overwhelming. He could be lost, wandering the streets of Caldeum or the forests of the far west, and she would always be there. They had told each other as much, but he had not truly understood what the promise entailed.
Not until this moment.
"I need your help," he breathed. "I could do this alone. But I do not wish that."
"The Chalice is not for mortals. You have said as much."
"Then look upon me, and tell me—what do you see?" He squeezed her hand tightly and raised it to his cheek. "I am no less mortal than you. And the Chalice is no more daunting a foe for you than it is for me."
Her eyes widened.
"You have always been my equal," he continued, the feelings coming from a deep place that he had been nurturing for many months. "I would ask for help from no other, and only accept it if you truly wished to help. You have my respect. And my trust."
Relief flashed across her face, followed by poorly concealed fear that vanished almost immediately. She pursed her lips and met his bottomless gaze with her own. "And you, mine. Tell me what I must do, pi'ra."
It was not an action. Not a physical one. It was a bond he had to maintain with reality. One that would allow him to sink into the flow of all things and watch the threads of eternity without the risk of losing himself in them.
"Keep me here." When he spoke again, the words flowed freely, born from the connection he felt to Chalad'ar, and to her: "Eternity, nothingness, and you and I."
"Life," she continued, seamlessly anticipating what he needed, "and death, and you and I."
"Darkness, light, and you and I."
With that, the wall surrounding his consciousness cracked and shattered. The feeling was like when he had shared his memories with her, but the effects were vastly different. He felt her soul, warm and joyful, and within it, he heard her thoughts, as vivid and numerous as his own.
"I did not want you to leave, pi'ra. I thought you would return lifeless to me."
"I am here, safe."
"Your brother has no honour or valour. Aya, more valor than he ever will."
"She is Sanctuary's future."
"Your sister Auriel is radiant. I weep that she despairs, and I hope that she recovers her strength soon."
"She will find her way, in time."
"I am scared for you. That you must risk this."
"I was afraid," he conceded aloud, knowing she could feel his soul and that she would see the truth. "But I am no longer. Come."
They moved together to the Chalice, their fingers still entwined. With his free hand, Malthael carried Chalad'ar from the table and set it on the worn stone tiles beside the unlit hearth. Farah sat cross-legged opposite him and lowered their clasped hands to the side of the cup. As he grasped the Chalice, she brought her hands to his face and ran her fingers along the underside of his jaw.
"You and I," she whispered, pressing her palms to his cheeks.
"You and I," he echoed, tugging the cloth away so it tumbled to the stones. Then he peered into Chalad'ar's swirling depths.
An endless night took him. He fell willingly into its soft embrace, which flickered like air on his skin. And as he had so many nights before, while sitting at the peak of the Heavens or on a mountainside in Sanctuary, he looked for the stars. The void rippled like a pond, then began to flicker. Seeing what he sought, he let go of the invisible thread he had been clinging to and allowed himself to slide towards the glow. Soon, the haze resolved into effervescent balls of light, each a Soul, rebounding off others, their paths tracing the magnificent threads that were the Wisdom of the universe.
They were too close. Too many. The cascading Light ripped his breath away, throwing him into a realm of flashing sensations, colours, scents. An endless cacophony. Voices everywhere. Whispering, chanting, talking, screaming. They bid him join them, and he struggled against the command as their emotions tangled and overwhelmed him.
Within the din, a familiar voice spoke. Calm, commanding. Farah.
You are Wisdom. This is your domain. Seek your knowledge.
He was Wisdom. The Chalice was his, and he knew how to navigate it. He reached out and found, almost imperceptibly, the edges of its confines. Invisible, infinite, yet there. He dug immaterial fingers into them, orienting and pulling himself upward in the swirl, bidding the voices recede. They did, though as they retreated, they grew in number, their whispers becoming an endless buzz that hammered on his consciousness.
The Sound followed him, even in this form.
Seek your brother's forces. Find them.
Yes, that was right. He had queries. Complex ones. More so than Tyrael had ever dared attempt.
Within the dazzling array of Souls, he looked for the familiar glow of flame, of the golden shimmer of armor. The Light resolved into images as settlements flashed before him. Towns, cities. Some, he knew. Many he did not. He found road signs or texts and drew from them the locations' names. He witnessed slaughter as he searched. Mortal blood, running over the streets. Angelic hosts, their spears raised. Families and children, torn asunder, left to expire together, or alone. Tears pooled in his eyes unbidden, though they did not cloud his Sight.
And as he searched, the voices of the dead exploded around him. They were limitless in number, crying for aid, for life. For his help. They sought true death, and he, the Aspect whether he wished it or not, could grant it to them.
Hesitating, he reached to them, flinching as he momentarily lost hold on his perspective within the Chalice. There was no time to guide them, but their call was overwhelming and affecting. He couldn't leave them.
Seek your brother. Farah's voice grew agitated, as if she sensed the instability in his concentration. Tell us what he plans.
He planned death. And where there was Death, there would be angels. He remembered how they felt in the Chalice. How they glittered brighter than the stars, blinding even within a haze of mortals. He sought their glow out and found it spread across Sanctuary, in so many locations he momentarily felt breathless. In the Heavens, he found only a few minor presences; nothing like an Archangel, though he had only moments to consider what the lack of such meant.
Where are you, Imperius?
He expanded his reach, resigning the dead to their activities. Instead, he looked elsewhere, bidding Imperius' soul to resonate with his. The entirety of creation sang in reply, and he felt his soul buckle under the weight.
You and I.
He growled and forced the dimensions of his mind back outward, gradually reclaiming the crystalline stability of his consciousness. He was neither omnipotent nor eternal, but he remember what it had felt like. The Chalice remembered, too. And in that lingering fragment of his immortal essence, he drew the strength he needed for one final search.
You and I, pi'ra. You and I.
In the pits of the deepest dark he saw a dwindling Light where one should not have been. He drew closer, air and sea and dirt rushing imperceptibly past him, until his mind cut through the realms themselves, pierced into the Burning Hells, and found his brother.
Imperius stalked across the Realm of Destruction, the radiant heat of the land searing his armor until it glowed near-molten. He did not fear the flames, nor the minor denizens of the Realm. Not when Baal and his other Greater and Lesser kin drifted formless in the immaterial planes. The Gates of Hell had yielded to him easily; he had sundered the lesser demons with Solarion, their remains oozing under his greaves.
The Hellforge itself was sparsely attended, and as he approached, the few demons that were present drew away, their eyes glowing warily. They preferred to spit curses and bile pools at him from a distance. Pathetic. Their masters were in dispose, and they scarcely thought to defend their domain. The Hells bred selfishness: the opposite of what drove him into their depths.
Diablo had chided him once over his rage. The demon had claimed he hid it from his brethren. Imperius had never disguised such a thing, but instead, had carefully chosen when to wield it. He had braved the heart of the Crystal Arch, once, calling upon the fire of a star to forge Solarion. Here, he would call upon a different fire to fortify the weapon further, imbuing it with flames that even the Nephalem could not withstand.
Though he was no Lord of Hell, his intentions were pure enough to overcome and manipulate the forge. As Malthael had done once in Pandemonium, he would take the powers of the Evils and wield them as a weapon. One that would equal the wrath brought forth by the Nephalem and grant him the strength to rid creation of their existence, and thus return the Eternal Conflict to its original state.
He clasped Solarion tightly and considered the spectacle before him. The greatest of the Forges towered nearly as high as the Silver Spire, its molten surface folding and reforming as he watched. Situated aside the River of Flame, it contained an endless furnace of pure, purposeless fire. At its base lay an anvil shaped from flame itself. As he drew closer to it, he felt eyes upon him, lingering facets of darkness that were intrigued by his work.
"Witness, demons," he shouted. "The true might of the Heavens! We take your fire and make it our own!" He slammed the spear's tip into the anvil. It embedded deeply, its diamond surface glowing dimly, then brighter, as if attempting to fight against the fire.
"You will be forged anew!" He raised his fists above the anvil, spreading his palms and bidding the blaze, a comforting, familiar friend, to rise and engulf the spear. He drew the molten shards around him, bringing them forth to his fingertips so he could mold and shape them. As they took form, he drove them into Solarion, shattering and reforming the spear. The crystal hummed as its resonance became fierce.
That was the wrath he sought. The formless, relentless energy he needed to end the Nephalem. The Angiris Council had been fools not to tap into the Forges sooner. And there was no reason to stop at Solarion; not when the process was so simple. He called for the Forge's brightest conflagrations, howling with bliss as the flames seared across his armor, strengthening and shaping it to take the form he wished.
Supremacy and victory, carved from metal and Light.
He felt, then, an intruder in his mind. The brief, flashing sensation of terror and surprise. A familiar essence, echoing against his soul. His kin.
Not just kin.
Growling, Imperius tore Solarion from the forge, clenching its new, stronger shaft, and revelling in the power that pulsed within it. "Do you fear me, brother?" he bellowed, his words shaking the ground and sending demons scattering away. "Begone from my mind, lest I strike you down with righteous flames!"
Let him watch, he thought. Let Malthael see his splendor as he wielded the fires of creation, mightier than any demonic blacksmith who had ever utilized the Forge. Let the man see his pathetic, mortal weaknesses, and the true wrath that lie in his future.
Farah cried out as an overwhelming burning sensation overtook her. Her hands fell from Malthael's face; her skin seared from the imagined flames. She had seen little of his earlier visions, for he had been careful to keep them contained within his mind alone. And he had mostly succeeded, until a towering fire had shattered his concentration and a horrific voice had severed their careful communion.
"Begone from my mind, lest I strike you down with righteous flames!"
Before she could grab him again, he groaned and collapsed beside the Chalice. Chalad'ar flared brightly, then dulled to a calm swirl of Light. Shaking, she tossed the cloth overtop the cup and crawled to his side. His breathing was ragged, and a line of blood dripped from his nose onto the wood. She was unsure if he had hit the floor with his face or if it were from the strain of the scrying.
"Hellspawn," he gasped, as tears ran from his eyes. "Fool, idiot of a brother." He stumbled to the edge of the nearest table, his shoulders shaking as he tried to balance himself against it. "He would doom us all. Festering, imbecilic pile of imp shit. May the Prime Evil take him and feast on his rotting, blackened essence. Nar'ka da vin'sakri sithola!" He lapsed into several languages she didn't recognize before breaking off into incoherent gasps.
She had never seen him so unravelled. Though she hadn't seen all he had witnessed, she knew more than Chalad'ar itself weighed on him. As he rambled, she stood and wrapped her arms about him, hoping it would be enough to help him focus. His entire body shuddered against hers.
"Breathe," she whispered, spreading her hands across his chest and pressing her cheek to his shoulder. His robes and hair were damp with sweat. "It is done. Breathe with me." Gradually, his shaking lessened, and his breathing slowed. She relaxed her grip on him as soon as his shoulders slumped.
Malthael collapsed onto the table and buried his face in his hands. When he finally spoke, his words simmered with urgency. "I must speak with Tyrael." He glanced at her from between trembling fingers. "Immediately."
A/N: This was one of the chapters I had planned (to a degree) ahead of time and was really looking forward to writing. Tyrael has El'druin; Malthael has Chalad'ar. The chapter turned out nothing like I had initially envisioned, and I'm incredibly happy about that, because I love where it went. There is also some gorgeous artwork to go with this chapter, which is available on my tumblr page and in the chapter itself, as always. Thanks to Zaera-D for the amazing illustration!
Imperius' strength is not meta-planning. It is not strategic brilliance at a world level. He probably shouldn't have gone to the Hellforge. He probably should have paid more attention to why he walked in without too much resistance.
This is one of the extremely few instances in the series where Malthael swears audibly. He has good reason to (see above).
The tea Farah makes Malthael is pretty spicy, but I cut the full description because it garnered one of the best reader comment I've ever received, which is that Tristram must have a David's Tea somewhere. Cutting it was the right choice, but I still giggle about the tea-shop-that-isn't to this day.
Next chapter finishes off this arc in the story, and then the final four chapters plus epilogue will take us through to the conclusion. As always, thanks for reading!
Chapter Eight: Direction
"You are sure of what you saw?" Tyrael asked, arms folded. He glanced out the window towards the square, where the rising sun gradually illuminated benches, trees, and the roofs of nearby buildings. Light beams danced across the glass, as the sunlight filtered through nearby foliage.
"Unequivocally." Malthael kept his palms pressed to his eyes, his hands only partially hiding the sickly pallor of his skin. He hadn't moved from the edge of the bed since Tyrael had made him sit. Patches of his robes were damp with sweat and clung to him, and his hair was similarly limp and drenched.
Tyrael massaged his temples and wished Malthael would awake him in the early hours for proper reasons, instead of to tell him about his stupidity. "You are nearly as big a fool as Imperius. We could have lost you to Chalad'ar. You risked your mind and your sanity to tap into his, alone."
"I was hardly alone." He glanced to where Farah stood near the door.
Tyrael did not want to argue the point, for he knew his brother was as protective of the woman as she was of him. But Seer or not, Farah had never been immortal and did not understand the breadth of eternity. They had dared peer into the infinite mind of a seraph and had thankfully survived. "Regardless of your idiocy, at least we have some answers, worrying as they are. Tell me. Since you saw into his soul. What does he feel?"
"Fury. I cannot describe it." He spoke precisely, as if trying to draw rationality from an experience that had none. "It consumes every facet of his being, alongside shame, and failure. He would wage war ceaselessly to find victory. He craves it. When the conflict was indeed Eternal, he could do so. But now, with the Balance shifted, he feels there is no place for him."
Frowning, Tyrael thought back to the many battles he had fought alongside Imperius. Of the bloodthirst he had sometimes seen in his actions, revealed only to those closest to him, who stood at his side in the throes of combat. "He has always abhorred peace."
"It is more than that, now. His Aspect shatters. Valor turns to Wrath. We cannot expect him to behave as he did in the past."
"Not with three of the Council on Sanctuary."
"Worse. I looked to the Heavens. They were empty, save some remaining from the lesser Host. Only one Archangel still lives."
It took a moment for Tyrael to realize what Malthael meant. Dizziness overtook him. "And Fate is shattered, forever," he muttered.
Pain blossomed in his heart at the thought of Itherael's demise, however it had come about. He leaned absently against the wall, his mind suddenly consumed with memories of his fallen sibling. Of their calm, emotionless voice, dripping with the whispers of many futures. Of their endless optimism, and their search for the victories Imperius always desired. Of their belief in the power of the Nephalem to transcend the darker half of their birthright.
Even as Itherael's power had waned, they had always been the biggest indulger in Auriel's domain. They had hoped unwaveringly in a future where goodness prevailed, even if it was a future they could not see themselves. The ache in Tyrael's chest grew when he thought of Auriel, and what such a revelation would do to her.
"We must wait to tell her," he said, knowing Malthael would follow his thoughts and understand. "I cannot imagine the harm it would do to her, particularly with her mortality being so fresh."
"Agreed. This is one secret we must bear silently. Though, I do not think we need do so for long. Imperius warps the Heavens to match his desires. He will bring darkness to both Sanctuary and the Silver City to reclaim his past glories."
"You felt his power. Tell me of his strength."
"Limitless, potentially." Malthael's voice grew raspy. "I also wielded the Prime Evil, once. Cracked it from its prison. It consumes, Tyrael. I barely overcame its influence. Imperius does not know what he drew from the Hellforge. Diablo and his kin are not consigned to the Abyss. I freed their essence."
The room grew quiet. Farah continued to watch them silently, though her expression was now one of grave concern.
"You think Imperius will use their power to fight us?" Tyrael finally asked.
"He did more than reforge Solarion. Consider the ease of his descent into the Hells, and the lack of defense at the Hellforge."
"You believe they were waiting for him? I don't see how they could have known."
"No. They simply saw an opportunity and acted on it. Angels are straightforward, honest beings. Demons will always deceive and manipulate. It is their greatest advantage over us, as well as our greatest weakness." A hollow laugh escaped him. "He consumed their blackened essence into his very soul. Welcomed it, even. He brings the combined might of the Heavens and the Hells against us, just as we were warned. An armored warrior, twisted and terrible, who will raze the earth."
"What do we do, then?" Farah wrapped her arms around her stomach, as if ill. "He already burns Sanctuary."
"The Nephalem are stronger than most of his soldiers," Tyrael said, "but the cost to fight him would still be terribly high. The Host has always maintained an impressive size, and if the Arch has prioritized Valor over all other Aspects, then his troops likely number in the tens of thousands. Depending on the Prime Evil's influence on their strength, we may not even attain victory."
Malthael had grown quiet, his expression distant. He stared blankly at the wall, his hands pressed against his mouth and chin. Though he seemed calm on the surface, his pale eyes darted about, charting plans and possibilities from a multitude of ideas. Tyrael watched patiently, fascinated by the behaviour his brother had always indulged in; of his terrifyingly fast contemplation of all the truths he carried from marble halls and millennia of endless study.
"We give him what he wants," Malthael said, eventually.
"Pardon?" Farah's eyes widened.
"We give him what he wants," he repeated. "He wants us and the Nephalem dead. He wants overwhelming, undeniable victory. But, we resist and slay his troops in the cities and fields, dragging out the conflict at the cost of innocent lives."
"Explain, then." Tyrael narrowed his eyes. "What would you have us do?"
"Gather here in Tristram. Any who call themselves Nephalem and even the strong who do not. Bring our combined forces together into an army—the very thing Imperius fears. This will take the fight away from those who cannot defend themselves."
"And leave the cities undefended altogether?"
"He will come," Malthael insisted. "He showed me his strength and his flames. Let us show him ours. He is overconfident and impatient and believes he will win. This battle will happen regardless of where or how it is spread. But we will find needed strength in unity. And if he delays in coming to us, we will use our united powers to open a gate to the Heavens. He already fears we will attack the Silver City. Let him."
The full implication of the plan left Tyrael breathless. It was risky. And undeniably brilliant.
"I already have the blood of innocents on my hands," Malthael continued. "I will take responsibility for whoever we lose in this gamble."
And there was the other remaining fragment of his brother's immortality: his unending desire to shoulder the future alone. Tyrael stepped to the bed and carefully placed his hand on Malthael's shoulder, chuckling when he looked up at him in surprise. "Have you not learned, brother? This is a burden we carry together. All of us, as you said."
"Then you think the plan is viable?"
"I think it is the best of terrible options. At no fault of yours. We have been placed in an undesirable predicament."
"I do have a concern," Farah interrupted. "How are we going to tell everyone to come here? The longer we wait, the more lives we will lose. Even if the Nephalem have scrolls to access Tristram's waypoint, contacting them with the details will still take time. And we don't even know who or where they are."
That had also crossed Tyrael's mind, and he did not immediately see a way around it. Some Nephalem could be called via beacon stones if they had attuned them with the master gems housed in Tristram. Others who were nearby could be contacted with more standard methods. But they would have to rely on letters for the rest. Which meant it would take weeks, if not months, to gather an army. They could not afford such a delay.
"There is a way to contact them." Malthael stood and shrugged off Tyrael's hand. Tyrael saw in the man's eyes flickers of the being he used to be. Of the impeccable general who had guided the Angiris Council from behind the scenes to victory after victory. "Chalad'ar cannot alter reality. But it can touch each facet of it, including the soul of every mortal in existence. Imperius felt my presence when I searched for him, just as I felt yours, Tyrael, when you accidentally contacted me while you consulted it."
"You cannot possibly be proposing what I think you are proposing."
"It would kill you. Or at the very least shatter your mind."
"Of course." Malthael turned to the door and gestured for Tyrael and Farah to follow him. "Which is why I will need substantially more help this time."
"I finally take a moment to rest, and I miss everything!" Lyndon complained half-heartedly as he took a pastry from the basket of baked goods by the library door. "Journeys into madness, internal battles between angelic consciousnesses…my life seems tedious by comparison."
Laughing, Eirena grabbed a book from one of the surrounding stacks and tapped him on the back of the head with it. "Your life currently consists of breakfast and comradery. I could think of much worse."
Aya watched their banter with amusement; their cheerfulness distracted her from her aching joints. Though her duel with Imperius had been short-lived, the arcane strain on her had been intense. Even so, she had held her ground, drawing on everything Li-Ming had taught her to deflect the Archangel's harried attacks. Thankfully, he had been more content to taunt her than break through her barrier.
She was grateful to accept the draw for what it was: her survival. She was safe and unwounded, though even after sleeping the previous day and most of the morning she was still deathly exhausted. Had Farah not awoken her from a near dreamless sleep, she assumed she would have continued napping through the rest of that day as well. Rarely did she feel all forty-odd years of her age, but this had done it.
"Eat." Tyrael pressed a pastry into her shaking hands, his expression serious. He stared her down until she accepted it with a sigh. "It will help your stamina."
"I might vomit it back up." Mercifully, the baking was bland enough for her rocky stomach. "But thank you for bringing it."
"Better you have some food in you before we attempt this. Seeing as you insist on aiding us."
"You still have not told me what we aim to do."
"I will let Malthael explain, once he returns." He rocked on his heels a few moments before continuing. "Your work was exemplary, yesterday. You did yourself and your teachers proud."
She grinned; Tyrael's compliments were not particularly rare, but he did mean each one with heartfelt earnestness. "I wish I had the opportunity to duel him properly, and not simply as a distraction."
He chuckled. "You may have convinced him you were that strong, momentarily. But you know better than to underestimate him."
"Of course. And you know better than to underestimate me." She took another bite of the pastry, enjoying the embarrassment that danced across his face. "Ah, my friend. We have known each other a long time now. And still, I manage to put you off balance. Your good nature is endearing."
"No, you are right. I apologize for questioning your skills. It was not my intent. More, I…" His amusement faded. "I must remind myself that I cannot keep others safe by dictating their behaviour. It has never helped in the past."
"You are forgiven if you promise to stop shoving food in my face." She grimaced and rubbed her stomach, which was rumbling loudly. "And, I know what you mean. About trying to protect others. But sometimes when we care, we have to let go of them and trust."
"Indeed." He looked as though he wanted to say more, but instead chose to keep contently silent.
Moments later, the library door opened, revealing four figures silhouetted against the morning sun. As they stepped inside, the dim lighting revealed Farah, Malthael, Auriel, and another smiling, familiar face.
"Chith!" Aya exclaimed, genuinely happy to see him.
The young man had grown on her and the others since they had first met, in part because much of his ineptitude had faded when he had begun to channel his abilities in the correct direction. He had also matured greatly in a few months, an impressive feat for a someone who had previously been most concerned about recovering a gem and impressing his teacher. His dedication to studying the healing arts was commendable.
"I'm sorry I took so long." Chith accepted her embrace when she offered it. "The road from the monastery was troubled. I had some interesting conversations with roaming vigilantes. They were all very suspicious of me, until I told them I was a healer and attended to a few of their wounds. Honestly, from their questioning, I am not sure if they thought I was a Nephalem or an angel in disguise."
"I am not really surprised, on either account." She snickered. "When did you arrive?"
"Late this morning. As soon as I returned to town, I sought out Tyrael to find out why I had been summoned and, well, he also told me about…" He glanced at Auriel, a rosy hue tinting his cheeks. "I had many questions. Which likely doesn't surprise you, I know. I really am sorry for the distraction."
"You caused no trouble." Auriel smiled and absently wrapped a long curl of her hair around Al'maiesh. She carried the sash loosely on her shoulders, its ends trailing across a tunic and baggy breeches that were temporary loans from her smaller brother's wardrobe. "Truly, it brought me joy to speak to someone who sees the Light the way I do. I have been without new kin for a very long time. And I am glad to see Hope's legacy thrives, even in mortal form. But come. Let us find a comfortable seat with the others."
Before Farah could follow them, Aya gently tapped her sister on the arm and smiled. The older woman returned the gesture, albeit more hesitantly. That was understandable. Tyrael had told Aya what had occurred in the darkest hours of the morning. She was surprised her sister was as composed as she was.
"Did you find what you needed?" Aya asked.
"If you mean a change of clothes and a long soak in the bathtub, then yes, I did. I no longer smell like spilled tea."
Malthael's brow wrinkled as he stepped to her side. "I do not recall that. If it was my doing, I apologize."
"It was, pi'ra. But you were more concerned with comparing your brother to Hell's demonic shithole." She chuckled. "I would not expect you to remember."
"What!" Lyndon called from across the room. "Did I hear that correctly? My good friend, embracing the crudest elements of our language? You are truly one of us now. I am sorry to have missed it."
Malthael closed his eyes and sighed.
"Also, hold on a moment. Doesn't pi'ra mean—"
"—That such conversations are best saved until later," Farah said, not unkindly. "And I would not judge him until you experience the same. Which you will do." She waited as all eyes turned to her. "Friends, you are here for a reason. Last night, we looked into the Chalice."
"We? You mean together?" Eirena asked.
"Yes. We know where Imperius strikes. All large cities in Sanctuary are under attack. We also know that he journeyed to the Hells, and within the Realm of Destruction he absorbed the essence of the Prime Evil."
"Ah, shit." Lyndon spat, a hand going instinctively to his crossbow. "Well, the Archangels are predictable in their stupidity, at least. No offense, my lady." He glanced apologetically at Auriel.
"None taken. Unfortunately, your assessment is accurate, at least in the examples we have seen thus far."
The thought of the Archangel of Valor possessing demonic power made Aya hiss. She knew he had been toying with her during part of their battle, as if he was testing her abilities. That he was even stronger now was disturbing. He was already the most dangerous combatant in the Heavens.
"Unfortunately, that is not all," Farah continued. "We believe this demonic alteration will extend to his troops. Malthael tells me that when he drew upon Death, the same abilities and forms manifested in all angels from the Aspect of Wisdom."
"The Heavens are ill," Auriel interrupted quietly. "I knew this, though I did not understand the cause until too late. As the Archangel of an Aspect corrupts, so too does their kin. They are all pieces of the same essence. Each a fifth of Anu, finite and connected."
"Correct," Malthael said. "Thus, the Luminarei and the rest of the Host will share in the darkness Imperius has tapped. It spreads as a sickness does. It contaminates, and slowly, it kills."
"But you must have a plan," Lyndon said, levity having left his voice to be replaced by an intent seriousness. "Or you would not have gathered us here to eat pastries."
"I do. We will meet his force with an equal one. We will call your brethren, the Nephalem, here. Enough will come to pose a threat to the Heavens. Imperius will follow. Fortunately, we have Chalad'ar to communicate with your kin."
"And how does the Chalice do that…oh." The scoundrel trailed off, his eyes widening.
Malthael smirked. "I would prefer to do this alone, as you are all an exceedingly large distraction. But I cannot. Not if I wish to reach so many at once." He contemplated them for a long moment. "I believe in the fairness of a council of equals. I asked each of you here because I trust your fortitude, your resolve, and your friendship. And in respect of that friendship, I ask, rather than demand, for your assistance."
"Of course," Lyndon replied earnestly, spreading a hand across his chest. "Never think otherwise. I am honoured to be included in this exclusive circle."
"I as well," Eirena said. "I am more than pleased to continue working alongside you and your brother."
"I am exhausted," Aya admitted. "But by Baal's caustic arse, I would give my last breath to ensure Imperius' helm is split across a boulder."
"Verily," Auriel agreed. "Much as it troubles me to admit, the time for diplomacy has passed. You have my aid and my determination in this act, and in whatever action is required in the future."
"I would also do anything to help." Chith seemed nervous, but steadied himself as Auriel clasped his shoulder, her golden eyes glittering with encouragement. "And I am flattered you think me worthy to aid you. I will bring the Light to whatever darkness you seek to pierce."
"Of course, brother," Tyrael said simply, nodding.
"Then, we should proceed." The scholar's smirk became self-deprecating. "Before I think too hard on this decision and decide it is terrible."
Farah took his hand and held his gaze for a long moment. Aya watched the two inquisitively, knowing something was passing between them as it had that day in the smithy. There had been a change evident in them then, as well. The beginnings of a deeper confidence, perhaps. But it was nothing like what she saw now, as they stepped together to take positions opposite the Chalice. An implicit trust was written nakedly on their faces.
It was an emotion that Aya had never thought she would see either of them express, at least outwardly. Not when both their lives had been so dependent on self-survival. But, with time, and enough rain, even the desert eventually bloomed. Often, with the most magnificent flowers in the world.
You have grown so much, baina. All you needed was a bit of care and water to flourish.
Closing his eyes, Malthael held his palms over the Chalice's cover. Farah closed hers as well, then took his cheeks in her hands.
"Join us," he said. "And I suggest kneeling."
The others gathered around them in a circle. Aya took Tyrael's hand on one side and Lyndon's on the other. Auriel knelt the closest to the cup, her expression serene. She floated one hand over Malthael's shoulder. Her slender fingers flexed, waiting for the right moment.
"Tell me when you need us, brother."
In reply, Malthael tugged the cloth from the Chalice and brushed its brim with his fingers. From Aya's perspective, little changed. Light glimmered brightly in Chalad'ar, and though it was difficult for her to look at, she saw nothing move on its surface. Farah and Malthael remained still, their breathing gradually slowing.
Auriel grasped his shoulder.
And Aya gasped, as the world disappeared, and eternity stared back at her.
Across Sanctuary, angels hunted the Nephalem, burning crops and razing buildings as they went. They grew indiscriminate as they slaughtered, seeking out lesser mortals and setting them aflame alongside the powerful. Imperius' instructions followed them across the fabric of the realm, driving them to do Valor's work with relentless brutality. The angels did not fight his commands; they could not, for they were as much a part of Valor's Aspect as the Archangel was, and his desire became theirs.
Neither could they fight the corruption that twisted their forms. Dark tendrils spread across their armor, strengthening and stretching the metal. Smoky streaks tainted the flames of their wings, so that when they soared through the sky, they left billowing ash clouds in their wake.
Yet, the mortals managed to resist and even fell some of them, regardless of the angels' newfound power. In Caldeum, Emperor Hakkan the Third mounted a mighty defense alongside the Iron Wolves. In Kingsport, the Thieves Guild did the same. Nephalem and angels clashed and died together, crimson blood mixing with Lightblood until the streets ran with foul-smelling ichor. In reply, the angels fought harder, ripping flesh from bone and blood from vein, tireless and relentless in their campaign to bring victory to the High Heavens.
Across Sanctuary, countless Nephalem struggled against the High Heavens' forces, their faces stained with blood and bile. They were as varied in form as they were in vocation. Barbarians from the mountains. Crusaders from Khejistan. Priests of Rathma and other wielders of the dead. Wizards and arcanists and all manner of magicians. Jewel crafters, blacksmiths, and artisans, all who had the gift of crafting illustrious artefacts.
Each was damned by the blood that coursed through them, that the Heavens sought to spill. And each heard, simultaneously, a voice like a thunder-clap from the sky. It spoke a single word, melodious and hallowed, that roused their very souls.
The word paint images in their minds. Countless other mortals like them, joining together to survive. A small city buried in the forest beside a river. A scroll left on a table, on which a single word was written in crisp, ebony writing: Tristram.
Those who knew the place fled from their battles and began their journey. Those who did not looked to others for answers, and in doing so learned of an incredible secret that had been brewing in Sanctuary for countless years. An oasis for Nephalem. A place of peace, of learning, and of comradery.
A place of hope.
A/N: This chapter is a bit shorter than others, but it does tie up the current arc of the story in preparation for what will be a very action-packed final arc. Malthael is returning to (and embracing) the role he used to play as a leader. Whether his idea is a good one remains to be seen. But, at least they successfully sent out the call! That's what friends are for: to provide you some grounding so you can talk to every mortal in existence simultaneously.
As always, thank you so much to everyone who is reading! For anyone who might be a new reader, be sure to check out my tumblr blog mal-likes-biscuits, where I post behind the scenes material and answer "Ask Malthael" asks for everyone's amusement. We're a friendly bunch…come join the reaper and biscuits party.
Chapter Nine: Devotion
Auriel walked leisurely about the town square, the tails of her dress and Al'maiesh trailing behind her. She ran her fingers along the edges of the embroidered sleeves, marvelling at the exquisite softness of the cloth. As busy as her brothers were preparing for the coming battle, they had found time to acquire her attire that pleased her, and even made her somewhat feel as if she were in her proper form. Though, 'proper' was certainly a relative concept.
It had been strange to learn that although she felt out of place in her new body, her discomfort was not necessarily obvious to others. She felt strangely invisible as she walked among the other mortals. Countless humans busied around her, rushing to complete tasks or to find friends who had recently arrived in Tristram. Some she recognized from years prior, when their adventures had taken them to the Heavens and her domain in the Gardens.
Her brothers promised that the Gardens were still hers. Hope was a small but infinitely perfect fraction of the Heavens, and she remained its Aspect. But now, she also had an entire world blossoming before her. None of it was hers, and all of it was unknown.
Across Tristram, the tree leaves had turned various shades of orange overnight. The crisp fall air brought with it the scent of browning vegetation and the eventual promise of winter. It was vastly different from the Gardens, where flowers always bloomed, trees continually bore heavenly blossoms, and the air was warm and inviting.
Sanctuary's differences felt even more pronounced in her mortal form. There was a new, stark vividness to her senses. Her flesh prickled from the chill of the wind or warmed from the gentle touch of others. Her feet, now detailed with five individual toes and soft bottoms, protested as she walked barefoot, though she continued to do so, as it was easier to feel the dirt and stones and to become, slowly, one with the land.
My brothers were right. Sanctuary is not the High Heavens, but I would be a fool to ignore the obvious and miraculous life teeming within it. Life that grows, multiplies, and adapts alongside the seasons.
She did not hate mortality as she thought she would. Instead, it brought to her consciousness an unexpected balance: a lessening of her drives to heal and console, and a blossoming of others that were entirely new to her. All of the concepts she had represented—hope and perseverance—were now real emotions she could feel, instead of simply inspiring them in others. What had once been an immutable facet of her being was now a conscious experience she could define.
Alongside those emotions also lived darker entities, such as fear or distrust. Yet, she could comprehend and experience them without feeling her form crack from within. She could weep, despair even, and as the feelings gradually passed, and the light returned to her anew, she knew the world would continue to turn. And she would continue to survive.
It was as freeing as Malthael had claimed. A wondrous relief from a burden she did know she had carried, until it had been shattered from off her back.
"Lady Auriel, there you are! I'm very glad to see you outside. It's certainly warmer today, though I'm sure anyone who is practicing their martial craft may not appreciate it."
Auriel smiled genially as her new protégé approached. Chith reminded her of the various kin she'd had over millennia. She did not believe he had much if any demonic blood in him, except perhaps a single pairing long ago. His soul was a glittering beacon, a Light that represented the pinnacle goodness of what mortals could become.
"We've finished crafting the remaining healing vials," he explained, blinking repeatedly as the wind pushed his hair into his eyes. "Your advice to alter the mix was a good one. They should be greatly more effective for treating burns."
"I am glad I could help. Truly, I wish I could do more. Would that I could draw from the waters of the Garden themselves for your use. They would surely make a salve fit for the Heavens' mightiest warriors."
As she spoke, the persistent breeze rushing through the city grew to a howl. Nearby adventurers gripped their clothing tightly and drew cloaks over their heads to protect their eyes from clouds of dirt. Then, the circle of Waypoint glyphs on the city square flickered and flared brightly from underneath vines and moss. A mighty clap of thunder sounded, followed by a rush of arcane magics that she tasted on her tongue. As the glow faded, three shimmering forms appeared on the summoning platform.
More Nephalem, and those lucky enough to possess the increasingly rare scrolls of travel that allowed them to tap into the network running across Sanctuary. They had been arriving in groups or individually for three days. Others had travelled by horse or by foot. The outskirts of Tristram were dotted with tents, some large enough to hold entire families.
Within its borders, its walkways bustled with traffic as vendors busily provided what they could. Additional merchants had also arrived with large packs in tow that were filled with scrolls, books, potions, and other esoteric supplies. It was a true war effort, a concentrated front that with each passing hour grew stronger and more able to sustain itself.
"I'm not sure I will adjust to that." Chith coughed at the dust, though amusement was evident in his voice. "Or this commotion. But it is certainly tangible, isn't it? This feeling of comradery, between people who have never even met."
Tyrael appeared out of the haze, El'druin in hand, his voice raised to cut through the growing hubbub. He welcomed the new arrivals, pointed them towards the tents, and bid them visit the tavern or the stalls as they required. All the while, his face shone brighter than his armor, and Auriel saw in him a mirror of the Archangel he had been. He was a leader amongst mortals, a relentless pursuer of justice, and all those who laid eyes on him appeared at once inspired.
"This is as it once was." She tightened Al'maiesh about her. "A call to conflict is issued, and my brother, justice itself, brings form to the hope I feel. I dearly wish we were not fighting our kin. Imperius should be by his side as they always were on the fields of battle."
"You will have to stand by him, instead." Chith's eyes glimmered with poorly concealed awe at Tyrael's work. "Mal as well."
She smiled at the nickname, knowing Malthael likely disliked it, and that Chith likely continued to call him that because the older man tolerated him more than he cared to admit. "We will see what he chooses. You have known him mostly during moments of war. I knew him during peace. It was his voice, melodious and impeccable, that drove us to action or away from conflict. His words and insights told the Council when to fight and when to concede. He did this from the shadows, as he preferred. Alone."
"Except he is not alone, now." Chith grinned and ran a hand through his hair. "He believes I speak too much, and maybe there is truth in that. But, this is what I believe. I think your brother found something here that he could not have before, and it burns in him. It drives him to be more than he was, and then he inspires the rest of us to become better."
"And what is that thing, child?"
"He loves. Deeply. As we all do, in some way." His cheeks reddened. "You know, there is no virtuous love in stories of the Heavens or the Hells. It's always written as corrupt and impure. Something angels and demons experience only if they sacrilegiously desire each other. Isn't that sad? To live forever and never experience such a feeling."
Love. The singular emotion mortals spoke of the most. Beyond hate, or jealousy, or fear, or any of the demonic entities. A feeling that angels understood at a conceptual level, but could never indulge in. One her mortal brothers had now experienced, and that she would as well. Perhaps soon, when the war was over, and she had the time needed to truly accept and understand the fate that had befallen her.
"Verily, that is sad," she replied, softly. "It is good, then, that we are here as we are, and that we may partake in the immensity of love's joys, however brief they may be."
While the others had offered Aya a lengthy respite to compose herself and recover from her exhaustion, she had instead taken twelve hours to rest before setting to work alongside Farah and Li-Ming. The three gathered arcane materials, spell scrolls, and whatever else they could find lying in chests or drawers. At her mentor's request, Aya also spoke with the other arcanists and made notes of their strengths and their less obvious weaknesses.
Paperwork was not her forte, nor was it her preferred mode of action. But it was necessary so that days later she would be ready to split the arcanists into combat groups. These teams would walk into battle and hopefully prevail with few casualties. A nagging voice whispered that any mistake she made would be immensely costly. She could be consigning them to a brisk death, or worse, a drawn out one at the hands of the Luminarei.
But Li-Ming had told her years ago she would one day lead the evokers in combat, and she wanted to uphold that expectation. Even though this war would not be that day, Aya still understood the trust being placed by giving her such an assignment. Li-Ming had seen many battles, and even during peace times she had strove to perfect her abilities and teach them to others. She had relentlessly prepared them – prepared Aya – for the eventuality of a new struggle arising.
Thus, Aya scrawled names and spells onto long scrolls of parchment, introduced strangers to their teammates, and vowed to make the woman who had taught her proud. She would fight for the wizard who had become her sister from the moment she had set foot into Tristram. And she would fight for Farah, the sister who had sacrificed everything while they had been young, and who had eventually grown into a font of wisdom and compassion that inspired Aya to be kind when she did not believe she could.
Aya watched the arcanists convene around her, bustling and making details plans based upon her framework. She tightened her grip on the parchment, smiling as the flames of confidence began to rekindle within her.
I am not afraid, she thought. Together, we are stronger than he ever will be. And we will prevail.
Haedrig's smithy had become the central collection point for spare weapons, armor, and ammunition. The smith himself was away, having gone on some errand or another, leaving Zaira and the other Nephalem to fend for themselves.
Not that she minded. It freed her to take what she wanted, instead of simply what she needed. Her belt and packs grew heavy with smoke traps, flash bombs, and similar gear she did not have the patience to craft herself. She trusted in her necromancy implicitly, but only an idiot would turn down additional supplies when they were offered.
"Have you become a rogue, my dear?"
She hissed at Osseus' lilt and continued to pick through a pile of bones that someone had left for scavenging. They were mostly cattle, but at least a few were smaller pieces that would fit in her vials.
"Don't tell me we're still not speaking." He slid to her side, laughing as she raised her finger in a rude gesture. "You seem to have enjoyed Chith well enough."
"You were the one who was avoiding me last I was here. And I take pleasure in knowing you were the bigger fool, my love, for even assuming he could raise the dead."
"I saw in him the potential for excellent necromantic material."
"The only necromantic material contained in that boy is his skull, and even then, it's miniscule and would not take long to clean out."
He caught her hand as she reached to grab a rodent femur, then spun her until she faced him. His expression was a familiar one of insufferable charm. Even aged, his broad nose and strong jaw were handsome. The lingering scent of decay on him remained enticing. And the way he still made her tingle made her loathe him even more.
She scowled, wishing only somewhat jokingly that he would disappear someplace and off himself, so she could make use of his entrails. That, or leave her to finish collecting her materials.
"You have been oddly subdued since you returned." He chortled again as she twisted away. "Did you encounter something more powerful than yourself? Or someone who put you in your place?"
"Spare me your sarcasm, Osseus. I am sure you know what happened."
"Oh, I heard rumours. But tell me. Did you really accuse him of having clean hands? Even I would have loved to have seen that. Though, I am even more surprised you did not recognize the Reaper of Westmarch and his impeccable command of the dead. Did your idol disappoint?"
"I would fall to my knees and beg him slay me himself if it meant I no longer need listen to your terrible romantic platitudes. Is this what counts as flirtation now?"
"Ah, Zaira. I both hated and missed you while you were away. Things were so…calm. And boring." He lowered his voice, the deep tone sending familiar shivers through her. "That is the nature of the Balance, is it not? To give, and to take?"
It was, indeed. And she knew exactly what he wanted, and what she wanted to take. Before he could react, she grabbed him by the wrists and pushed him against the nearest weapons rack, pressing their bodies and lips tightly together.
"You had best make this good, love," she eventually whispered into his mouth. "Do not make me waste my time when I could easily have countless others."
"I would not dream of it. Though, perhaps we can go someplace more private?"
"If you insist."
Malthael sat cross-legged in the centre of his bed chamber, his arms resting loosely on his knees, his eyes closed so he could better listen to the bustle outside. The sound of mortal emotions washed over him. Laughter, crying. Surety, fear. He recognized some of the voices, while countless others were new to him. Regardless of their identity, they were all pushed into motion by the singular plan he had proposed. He had bid them join each other in Tristram for one final defense against Imperius' forces, and they had acquiesced.
Tristram. Where the few he truly cared about now resided. Talm and his family, who were gathered at the Slaughtered Calf Inn. Tyrael and Auriel, his kin, connected to him through their now-mortality and the sacrilege they had each undertaken in their attempts to better their kind. Lyndon, an unexpected, generally incorrigible, yet entirely welcome friend, whose crude wit often made him smile.
Farah. Soft spoken, erudite, and curator of the quiet simplicities he also treasured.
"Come, pi'ra. I am sure I have seen worse."
And she meant more than the rest combined. While Imperius set the world aflame for himself, Malthael would call the spirits from their graves, swing his blades until death took him, and walk to the literal edges of the world if it meant preserving the peaceful life she cherished. There was no rationality behind the drive; nothing written in tracts of knowledge or scrolls of fate explained the lengths he would go for a single soul.
It was a mortal instinct. Deep, bottomless, unfathomable. And the strongest, most undeniable force he had ever experienced, beyond the call of his Aspect or the Light. He loved her, with every facet of his being. And he had never felt more alive than when he contemplated that truth.
A loud knock on the front door shook him from his thoughts. Frowning, he took a moment to gather his composure, then looked to see who was intruding on his much-needed solitude.
"Bad time?" Haedrig peered in from around the edge of the frame.
Surprised, Malthael shook his head and gestured for him to enter. He didn't want to be interrupted, but Haedrig usually did not seek others out unless he had a purpose. He was as practical with his time as Malthael was with his. Truthfully, he had expected to see Lyndon at the door, wanting to discuss the finer points of profanity.
"I know you like to be alone." The blacksmith slid a pack from his shoulder into his arms. "I respect that. Lots of peace in the smithy, too. Heat, hammers. Keeps my mind busy." He looked around the room, clearly uncomfortable, though not seemingly from being in Malthael's presence.
"I had a wife, once," Haedrig continued, unexpectedly. "Beautiful lass. Name was Mira. World and myself lost her far too soon."
"I am sorry. I did not know."
"Was a long time ago. You were different, then. Your brother, too. He fell from the sky, dredged monsters from the ground. They took her. She became one of them. Even at the end, though, she loved me. Wrote me about it. Still have the letter." His eyes glistened.
Curious, Malthael tipped his head and tried to discern why Haedrig was sharing something so immensely private at this exact moment.
"What I mean," the man sputtered, wiping his face with soot-coated arm, "is that, even when she looked like a monster on the outside, and would have eaten me like the others, I don't doubt she was still my Mira inside. She was sick, is all. And I couldn't help her but to…but to…" He pushed the pack forward, then curled Malthael's fingers around its edges. "Sometimes we aren't given a second chance. And sometimes, we are. Your brother asked me to make you these years ago, after you arrived. I admit, I wasn't sure of you at first. But we all learn. I figure, you're a bit like Mira. You were bit by something awful, and you died because of it. Now you have a Mira of your own, and you need to do your best to keep the same from happening to her."
The bundle was surprisingly light. It tugged Malthael into his memories. Of when he had stood in a wheat field and a young man had handed him a package containing a set of meticulously crafted curved blades. Heavy weapons. Not from their size, but from the responsibility they represented.
"I took my time with it all," Haedrig explained. "You didn't seem ready, back then. I figured, that's why you always wore cheap goods. You didn't think you deserved better. Now, I think you do. Love's a fickle thing, and a heavy burden, one you don't always choose to carry. This set's light and might make that burden a bit easier. I seen you practice when you think no one's watching, late at night. You move like mist made man. Best you look the part."
Finally realizing what he had been gifted, Malthael's eyes widened, and he began to thank him.
Haedrig raised a hand and shook his head. "You put that on and end that fool brother of yours. Show me it was worth my time. That'll be my thanks." He pulled the door closed as he left.
Malthael stood a long while, turning the man's story over in his mind, and wondering if he was as ready as Haedrig thought he was for the duty that was his to bear. Since the day he had washed up on the lakeshore, he had been looking for wisdom. For answers. What he had found repeatedly in his search was that compassion and love always triumphed. Not always over death, as in Haedrig's case. But over darkness. Love was the drive behind hope and the mortal desire for justice. It brought people together in common struggles when they needed to survive, and it often transformed into something greater afterwards.
It was something Imperius would never have. And its might, combined within the Nephalem, would be his brother's undoing.
He squeezed the bundle tightly, his eyes narrowing. It was time to don his proper mantle again.
Kormac greeted Lyndon and Eirena each with a hearty slap on the back. "I set out the moment the stars began to fall. Never a good sign, especially when not over Tristram. And then I heard your message and hastened. What a strange thing, hearing a voice from within your soul!"
"You should have experienced it from the other end. I'd be happy if the immortals kept their squabbles at home for a bit." Lyndon groaned and took a moment to stretch; he had spent most of the day carrying boxes and was feeling the strain in his calves and shoulders. "They would save us all a literal world of trouble."
"Tyrael briefed me on what happened." The templar gestured at the tavern, where the Horadrim's leader looked over a parchment with Aya and Farah. Eventually, the former-angel rolled the scroll up and hurried off elsewhere. "Trouble is an understatement."
"At least you did not have reality assault your consciousness like a cudgel. I would well prefer to never touch that blasted Chalice again. I wept uncontrollably for an hour, afterwards."
"We all did," Eirena said. "And it was not uncalled for. This feels like the End of Days. At least, more so than the previous ones did. Can you smell the arcane in the air? Like smoke, but ethereal. There's so much power concentrated here."
"History is made of such tipping points." Kormac frowned. "Unavoidable moments of conflict between the mightiest."
Lyndon understood. He had felt it since they had broken into the Heavens to steal the Chalice. The world was altered, irreparably. Their lives were forever changed, and perhaps ended if things went awry. He held onto their small reprieve, a moment of vibrant joy where they had been able to gather together. He did not want it to end. But the world, as always, would carry on without him.
Sighing, he took a seat on an overturned crate. "I hoped to be done being part of such things. Wars are for the young and stupid. When did we become old?"
"When we survived long enough to fight repeatedly." Eirena absently squeezed his shoulder, sending a welcome wave of warmth through him. "I hope we do the same, here."
"Aye. I enjoy breathing. Also, drinking, eating, and loving. I would like to keep doing all the vices of mortals until I am too old to raise a tankard."
"I would rather ensure this threat is eliminated. There is no comfort in survival if you are being hunted." Kormac absently adjusted his shield. "And I would prefer this wait end."
"You never were one for patience, were you?" Lyndon chided. "You and Aya, biting at the bit to go against the Lord of Wrath and his chittering minions. I am sure they will be here soon enough."
A murmur rustled through the crowd then, and Lyndon briefly thought Imperius had chosen that exact moment to thunder down from the Heavens. When nothing pierced the clouds, he realized the distraction was from within the town.
The three companions stood and stretched to see over the crowd. The square became overwhelmingly quiet, save the clear, crisp ring of greaves on stone. Slow, methodical steps, one after another, that gradually approached them.
"Has Tyrael returned?" Kormac asked, but Lyndon knew he was wrong.
Tyrael walked with strong, quick strides that shook the dirt and his armor. This was the sound of a steady heartbeat, a crystalline singing running underneath all things, its existence only revealed through profound silence.
The crowd parted for a thin, cloaked figure. Lyndon's breath hitched at the sight of a familiar silhouette from a dying city. Its curved, pointed hood was wrought with silk and silver stitching in countless, complex patterns. Two long ribbons drifted from the cowl, the ends brushing against a pair of curved blades. Narrow, gauntleted hands rested on the hilts.
But that was where the physical comparison ended. For the Reaper of Westmarch was dead, his shadow etched onto the stones of Pandemonium Fortress. The man who stood before them was no mindless reaper. His robes were a muted grey, run through with subtle streaks of deep violet that shimmered as he walked. His breastplate, greaves, bracers, and gauntlets were all brilliant silver, inlaid with water-like runes that seemed to shift, unbidden. Asymmetrical pauldrons rested on his shoulders, their various points strikingly like the tips of his weapons.
"I take it back. This immortal may stay." Lyndon was enraptured by the awe of the moment. "You have brought the Heavens to us, Archangel of Wisdom."
The corner of Malthael's lips flicked up. "You may thank Haedrig. It was his work." Then he continued walking, his greaves resuming their haunting pinging until he stood before Farah.
The librarian raised her hands to her lips when she saw him.
"It is time to bid my brother welcome," Malthael said, quietly. "The longer we delay, the more lives we risk."
"Of course." Her eyes widened as she glanced over his armor. "Oh, pi'ra. You are radiant."
When he did not reply, she wrapped her arms tightly about him and pressed her head to his neck. He recoiled, but only for a moment. Then, tentatively, he lowered his chin, drew his arms around her, and held her silently.
And Lyndon's heart ached as the act ripped memories from him; he felt the same for Eirena and Kormac after so many years traveling together. He had for his brother as well, before Rea had ruined everything. Such a deep bond could not be expressed in words, but only in unspoken touches and companionship.
He watched them embrace with a smile, knowing he had gone and made another connection, even against his best judgement. Malthael had been many things, once. Wisdom, death. Light, darkness. But now he was mortal, and he had found the pinnacle of existence. He had earned his redemption and deserved to experience it for more than a moment. Regardless of what it took, Lyndon swore to himself that he would keep the man alive. For Malthael, for Farah, and for everything such a transformation represented.
Eventually, the librarian withdrew, her expression having transformed into one of sound resolve. "Come, then. Let us invite your brother here."
Imperius silently wished that his siblings had not disposed of themselves and had instead been content to carry out their duties as required. As his war effort expanded, he found himself inundated with skirmish reports, requisitions, and all of the pesky things Itherael or Tyrael usually took care of. What he wanted was to lead the armies himself, Solarion in hand, Nephalem corpses burning before him. Instead, he stalked about the Halls of Valor, consulting with lieutenants while wishing for his siblings' now-mortal skulls to be added to his trophy collection.
Even more infuriating was that the Nephalem appeared to be running away. The cowards were breaking their own battle lines and using ancient travel scrolls to try and escape him. All their efforts did was extend his campaign, which enraged him more and made him wish he had the time to attend to such matters personally.
But valour-less deserters would find their appropriate end, eventually, by his hand or that of the Luminarei. He need only find them—
"Do not worry, brother. We will find you. Shortly."
The words cut through Imperius' consciousness, echoing from within his armor. He howled and raked gauntleted fingers across his helm until the invasion subsided, and he regained control of his mind. Still, he felt the tendrils reaching for him again, searching for an entrance. Though the voice retained little of its former glory or its later, latent maliciousness, it still resonated with the part of Imperius that respected his eldest sibling.
"Begone, Malthael!" he growled.
"My lord?" Kurael stepped back from the outburst. Several other Luminarei glanced around, clearly confused.
Malthael dared to make him appear weak in front of his primary advisors. Imperius would ruin him and the others; he would flay their corpses and parade them at the front lines until the rest cowered in terror.
"Doubtful. Try, betrayer. We will end your sacrilege."
"Do not taunt me, hypocrite!" His wings roiled with reams of flame. "I will bend that frail body of yours in half until you beg for mercy."
"Then, come. Or are you too cowardly to leave your throne?"
The Halls of Valour vanished, and for the briefest moment, Imperius stood on Sanctuary. In the distance, mortal buildings rose over trees. Before him was a worn field. Countless Nephalem stood on the dirt, their weapons brandished and eyes directed upward.
To the Heavens.
They had not fled, he realized. They had assembled an army to match his own. The thought enraged, then thrilled him; Solarion glimmered brighter in his grasp. They assumed that by gathering, they would become strong enough to best his forces. But truly, they had only provided him the opportunity to consolidate his own soldiers and lead them under a unified front.
The Nephalem would not set a single foot in the Heavens. He would personally crush them before they ever had the chance.
The Hall returned finally as the images of Sanctuary vanished, along with his brother's presence. Imperius spun to Kurael and pointed Solarion at the nearest exit. "Gather our forces," he commanded, straightening to his full height. "I know where the mortals hide."
"It is done." Malthael collapsed in front of the Chalice. His hair had fallen across his face and hid his features, but exhaustion was evident in his voice. Even with assistance from Auriel, Tyrael, and Farah, he had only managed a brief conversation with Imperius before he had become overwhelmed by the Archangel's essence. "The fire is stoked."
"You did well," Farah said, and helped him sit. Her arms shook; she had seen more of the visions this time, regardless of Malthael's efforts to keep them from her, and they had not been palatable. "He is properly angry."
"Very." The scholar took several deep breaths and regained his composure. Then he looked to the others. "We have little time. His power has grown since I saw him at the Hellforge."
Tyrael frowned. "And you believe he will lead his forces personally?"
"He will leave a few soldiers to defend the Heavens. But he will come. This will more than satisfy his craving for battle."
"Then we will gather into the army you have shown him. Rest, brother. Join us when you are ready." Tyrael turned to the door. "We will grant you some solitude."
Auriel turned to follow him, before hesitating. She met Farah's gaze with youthful, yet ancient eyes that crinkled the longer they stared. She looked only briefly to Malthael, but it was enough for Farah to discern what she was asking.
I will watch over him, she answered silently, nodding as her only overt reply. In this short breath before battle, before the end of things, I will keep his company.
"Rest well, then. Brother. Farah." The Aspect of Hope smiled, before following Tyrael from the library.
They were left with the flickering light of the arcane braziers and the distant noise of war preparations. Farah closed her eyes and gently leaned against Malthael's back, trying to capture the intricacies of the moment in her mind. Of the pervasive smells of spiced teas, old books, and ancient inks. Of endless conversations and midnight readings. Of silent companionship when they were both too anxious to sleep, yet did not have the words to explain why.
Of baskets of fruit left as gifts when he arrived safely home.
Home. The word hurt the more she considered it. It was more than a physical place. It was him, and everything she had come to treasure since they had met. It was everything she could not bear to lose, but had no choice but to let go of in the coming hours.
"I cannot ask you to stay," she whispered. "This is beyond you and I. This is the world and its future."
The metal of his greaves scraped against the wood floor as he shifted.
"This is for your young friend and his family. For my sister. For generations that will come after."
Gauntleted fingers grasped hers, squeezing her hand tightly. "I will return," he whispered.
"Make me no promises. Not ones you cannot keep."
"Then, this one. We will see each other again. Here, perhaps. Or our souls will find each other."
She knew what he meant. The ache in her gut grew, until she bit her lip to keep herself from breaking at such a precious moment. "Two bright lights. Among many. Where will you be?"
"Where water meets sky. You will know the place, pi'ra."
He never called her that. It was her word for him, and she had never expected otherwise; he showed his care for her in different ways. But he also seemed to know exactly what she needed, in this lingering moment when they were together, while the world fell apart around them.
Treasuring the gift, she closed her eyes and allowed herself to drown in his presence.
A/N: All my thanks to macabrecabra, who painted the gorgeous artwork of Auriel to go with this chapter. You can also find it over on tumblr, shortly.
This chapter pulls a lot of things together in anticipation of the coming battle. I wanted to take time to capture the feeling before war, and how various people prepare for it. (All very differently, as we'e seen.) Next chapter, the fight begins in earnest. Thanks for reading!
Chapter Ten: Desecration
The Nephalem gathered north of Tristram, their boots, greaves, and hooves bearing down upon battle-scarred fields. They considered each other with uncertainty at first, before suspicions eventually gave way to curiosity and wary companionship. Though they hailed from all corners of Sanctuary, they were there for a common purpose: to defeat the corrupt Heavenly Host.
Tyrael watched them from a small rise that overlooked the fields. His charger whinnied softly, as though the horse could sense the impending conflict. The plates of his armor pinged as the animal dug a hoof into the dirt, shaking him in the saddle, and causing El'druin to clang against the charger's flanchard. To his side, Auriel glanced at the horse and chuckled with amusement.
His sister had donned her armor for the battle, which Haedrig had cleaned and repaired; a thin, jagged crack ran down one pauldron, in the spot where her shoulder had been cleaved by Solarion. Al'maiesh was wrapped about her head and arms, and on her hip rested a new blade, glowing with runic enchantments. It was no angelic weapon, but it was one of the best Haedrig had to offer, light as the wind and sharp enough to cut through the strongest armor.
To Tyrael's other side, Malthael studied the warriors milling before them, his cowl obscuring most of his face. His hands rested on his blades' hilts as if he were ready to spring to action at any moment. The ribbons of his hood and his cape snapped in the wind, giving the occasional impression of violet wings behind him.
"Speak to them," Malthael said, the breeze scattering his voice. "Lest they grow hesitant."
"You have no wisdom for us?" Tyrael smiled slightly.
"This is your domain, brother. Instill justice in them."
Valour would be best, he thought. He wished Imperius was alongside them, instead of rushing to face them menacingly. The three former-angels could bring many Aspects to the Nephalem host, but valor was not one of them. They would have to draw courage from within themselves.
"He speaks truly," Auriel added. "Tyrael, I bid you. Let your words bring our companions together in friendship, and may it inspire in them the martial prowess they need to prevail."
She had still not asked about Itherael, and he had accordingly avoided telling her the truth. Whether she assumed their fallen sibling would join them on the fields, he did not know. But it was best to keep her faith strong. Even while mortal, Auriel glowed radiantly, the Light filling Tyrael with a hope he did not entirely feel himself.
You are delaying the unavoidable.
He took a steadying breath, then clasped El'druin. The blade glowed as he raised it to the sky, its radiance filling the battlefield.
"Friends," he called, waiting as the din lessened, then disappeared. Eyes fell upon him: a myriad of faces, many unfamiliar. "Today, you bring the fight to those who seek to strike us down. You stand here today not as mere mortals, weak and uninspired. But, as Nephalem, the children of angels and demons, whose power overwhelms and terrifies the Heavenly Host.
"I do not see here mistakes of creation, but, instead, the future of Sanctuary. If your forms are sacrilegious, then embrace them regardless, without doubt, and with unlimited surety. Unlike your forbearers, who walked hallowed halls or crawled within the fiery earth, you are not beholden to a pre-determined destiny. You hold the capacity for immense good and evil, and I see before me hundreds who have chosen to die for the Light."
The host cheered, while some slammed spears and banners into the earth.
"Today," he shouted, "you face a mighty foe who brings the combined wrath of the Heavens and the Hells to bear against you. And today, together, you will defeat him!"
Their voices grew thunderous. Revelling in the energy, Tyrael snapped El'druin downward in Malthael's direction. In reply, his brother deftly drew a blade and swung it up to strike the sword. The shotel's runes flared with an amethyst glow. The impact rang, empowered, through the air, as angelic weapons forged from the Arch recognized and resonated with each other.
Tyrael looked to Auriel. She smiled and slid Al'maeish from her head, wrapping one of the ends around his gauntlet. The Cord glimmered a vibrant pink. Its light spread and enveloped the Nephalem, while sending a wave of steady contentedness through him.
Then the wind rose as clouds began to gather. The sky darkened and occluded, until the gale reached a fervour and the storm front swirled upon itself. From its centre, a series of flaming stars exploded, their trails glowing with ash and fire. They fell towards the fields, where they impacted a fair distance away from the Nephalem, sending clouds of dirt and foliage into the air.
More lights appeared and began to fall; the clouds took on an ominous, amber glow.
"Stand tall," Tyrael cried, summoning El'druin's shield to protect the trio from the shockwave. On the battlefield, Nephalem raised their hands and wove protection spells for those around them.
The impacts uprooted trees and upended ancient stones; the surrounding forest caught fire and began to burn. The Nephalem withstood the onslaught, straining as Sanctuary itself shook under the assault. From within the smoke and deep craters, the Luminarei stepped forth. They moved into ranks and columns, a precise military unit of impeccable control. And at their front, arriving last on a pillar of flame, was Imperius. He landed like thunder, Solarion clasped to his side, its base driven into the ground.
Malthael hissed. "Fool."
Tyrael also struggled with the shock, having only been vaguely prepared to see what Imperius had done to himself when he'd absorbed the Hellforge's power. His once pristine armor was tarnished with long streaks of ash. Cracks ran throughout it, but instead of Lightblood seeping out, there was instead a molten glow, as if the Archangel had swallowed the fires of Hell directly. His gauntlets and greaves were misshapen into claws; the circlet about his helm, the same. And where he had once possessed golden wings of fire, there was now towering spikes of smoke and flame.
Imperius straightened. His soldiers snapped their spears in salute. Then he pointed at his siblings, while dark flames burned within his helm. "I accept your invitation," he growled. "And your hastened surrender."
"And we grant you one final chance, brother." Auriel stepped forward, her hands folded in front of her. "May this end without further conflict. Let us heal the animosity that separates us."
The united Nephalem watched the exchange, many shaking their heads. Tyrael knew better than to believe the mortals would forgive Imperius so easily. They had loathed to accept Malthael amongst them, even after he had spent years trying to earn their forgiveness.
"My dear sister." Imperius' laugh was a terrible, grating noise that shook the earth around him. "Who forgives so easily. At least Itherael fought valiantly for you until the end." When she fell back, her eyes widening, he cackled again. "Oh, did Malthael not tell you? Or did he not notice their absence when he scoured creation for me?"
The Cord began to unravel from Tyrael's hand. He grasped it tightly and glanced at Auriel, whose eyes were glistening. "Hope, sister," he intoned, drawing from himself the determination she had granted him and attempting to send it back to her.
She ignored him, and instead shook her head repeatedly at Malthael. "Did you know, brother?" Her words faltered. "Why did you not see fit to tell me the fate of Fate itself, my dearest one?"
"I wished you time to grieve. At a quieter moment than currently afforded." His expression hardened, and he drew his second blade and pointed them both at Imperius. When he spoke again, his voice carried the chilling rasp of death. "I know the evil festering within you, Imperius. It still does not permit you this disrespect. Nor will I allow it to continue."
"Nor, I," Tyrael added, shivering as a soft wail escaped Auriel's lips. "Sister, do not pay him heed. We will mourn Itherael to the fullest they deserve, after we have put this one to rest."
Her Aspect was normally a warm force that brought joy to angels and mortals alike. Tyrael heard neither in her voice now, though he did not fear for her as he had when she had lain in his arms, her form shattering. Mortality offered balance. There was no denying the pain she displayed as she raised her blade, her eyes narrowing. But he knew she would overcome it with time.
"I wished my first mortal feelings this intense might be ones other than rage and hate." She clenched her teeth. "But if you also wish, dear brother…the mightiest among us who has fallen into darkness…then I will rid this world of your evil."
"So be it." Imperius stabbed his spear at them, fire condensing at the point. Then, in a mocking tone: "Come, sister."
Both the angelic and Nephalem forces split nearly simultaneously, charging as Imperius fired a beam towards the ridge where the former-angels stood. The flame cut through the rock and caused El'druin's shield to flare as brightly as the harvest moon.
While the others rushed the Luminarei, Aya pushed backwards through the lines towards her friends, trusting in the evoker leaders to manage their teams accordingly. She had purposely left herself without one, unsure if her stamina had fully returned since her previous duel with the Archangel. And someone had to keep an eye on Tyrael and his siblings. Their role in the conflict was critical, regardless of their lack of Nephalem blood. They knew Imperius' strategies and weaknesses. The Nephalem could use all the advantages they could find.
As the dust cleared, Tyrael rode towards her on his charger, his arm outstretched. She grabbed it and leapt onto the steed behind him, then tightened her legs around the animal to steady herself. Her robes rippled in the breeze as flames began to thunder around them.
"Are you all right?" She summoned arcane power into her fingertips, readying a series of missiles as they approached the battle line.
"Enough. He wanted to send us into disarray more than strike us."
"I would say he succeeded."
"Marginally. We planned to go where we were needed when the battle began."
"Wherever gets us to him the quickest."
The air grew thick with smoke as they rode. Aya coughed, and the horse began to whine from the miasma. Tyrael pulled them to a halt, dismounted, and drew El'druin. The blade shimmered, buoyed by the proximity of many seeking justice.
"Stay with me?" he shouted, as the din from the approaching angels grew louder.
"Always, friend." She turned to cover his back, closed her eyes, and allowed the arcane floodgates within her to open to the eternal Well.
Then the Luminarei were upon them, their wings roiling with embers.
Nothing could have prepared Chith for the tumultuous clash of war. He had seen death, surely, as a necromancer's apprentice. But he had never been part of the legions discussed in legend. Now, he was in the middle of one of those wars, channelling the Light to imbue the Nephalem around him with stamina and concentration. Auriel did the same beside him, her eyes closed and face radiant; Al'maiesh floated about her, its tips striking out to mark enemies or to wrap those in need within its healing properties.
Mere minutes passed before he felt wells of darkness blossom on the field. Death knells, Auriel called them, like the harsh ringing of a cathedral bell tolling for the recently passed. To those who felt them, they were a beacon put out by a soul calling for aid. She had promised to teach him to channel them in the future, to pull the dead back to life. But for now, he was forced to ignore them and focus on the surrounding host.
"More are coming," Kormac called, as he drove his shoulder into the gut of a hindered Luminarei while another Nephalem decapitated it with a battle-axe. "Everyone, move and make way for the wounded!"
A group of fighters rushed towards them, each carrying another on their shoulder or in their arms. They ducked under a ray of flames before sliding into safety beside Auriel. While she immediately went to work assessing the injured, Chith called forth a shield around the templar. The glimmering Light knocked aside a Luminarei spear and forced the angel to overstep. As it did, Kormac drove his greatsword into the angel's side, splitting its armor open. Tainted, amber Lightblood spilled to the ground. The angel howled and slashed with its spear even as it fell. Its strikes were sloppy, and Kormac was able to dodge them and swing his sword again, the blow separating its helm from its body.
"My thanks." The older man nodded to Chith as he retreated to his side; sweat dripped down his brow and onto his nose. "The Light makes a fine bulwark."
"Perhaps not enough," Chith muttered. He glanced at their wounded compatriots. Their blood ran profusely across the soil even as Auriel worked to quench it. While he felt two grow stronger, a third exhaled softly and closed his eyes, his soul drifting upward into the chaotic stream whirling about them.
Auriel must have felt it as well; she frowned, then returned her attention to the others.
She is truly more and less than she had been. The dead will stay dead, today. No matter how much we wish we could save them.
From within a different battle line, Valla and two other demon hunters surged Chith's direction. They moved like shadows, their crossbows snapping as they fired. Enchanted quarrels impacted their enemies, shocking or freezing them into place. Some of the Luminarei managed to shake off the magic and launched upward towards the sky. Others collapsed to their knees, and the demon hunters fell upon them methodically, their daggers finding and striking at vulnerable points.
Valla stalked to his side, wiping her blade across her cloak to clear the blood from its trough. "They are more durable than the Reapers were. Imperius dabbles in dark magic, indeed."
"Verily." Auriel's voice brought much needed warmth to Chith's ears. She caught Al'maeish as it settled about her shoulders, the Cord behaving the same as a mortal sash now that she was done her work. "It was only at the end when Malthael was cornered that he even dreamt to draw upon the power of the Hells. Imperius shames my brethren with his senseless actions."
"And you shall redeem them." Valla smirked, then pointed her crossbow at the fray. "We will take point and give you a moment to recover. Come, Kormac."
As they darted away, Chith studied his mentor, noting her face's growing pallor. "How is your shoulder? Does it pain you?"
"If fairs well enough. Thankfully, the physical fight is for others who are more inclined to the art. I would rather we focus our attention on the wounded." Her frown deepened. "Before we were split, Malthael told Tyrael and I the truth about Imperius' forces. We are overwhelmed by number, though perhaps not by skill. This will be a bloody fight."
"Isn't that important for everyone to know?"
"Malthael is still wise even in this form. Unlike my kin here who have lost their way, he remembers the importance of hope." She hesitated, and Chith felt her warmth momentarily waver. "We must be that hope if theirs fades. Will you be mine, child, if I falter when I encounter my brother?"
"Of course," he managed, humbled to be entrusted with such an immense duty. "My Lady, my Light will remain strong, however long you require."
Even though the fields had seen a great deal of carnage in the past, souls rarely lingered there for long. Those that did decayed over time as they wandered, lost, between existence and Death. Zaira preferred using fresh essence, and there was fortunately no shortage of it around her. Angels and Nephalem alike fell to the dirt, some burning, while others howled as their fluids were violently spilled. She revelled in the massacre and called their flesh and bones to her, until she was surrounded by a host of lumbering skeletons and shades. A poisonous haze drifted around her boots, ready to rise when she required it.
As her summoned forces wrecked mayhem, she noticed a gradual shift in the battle's flow. More Nephalem were falling than angels. Mortals eventually tired, and the Host had an unnatural endurance that pushed the angels to fight even as they bled out.
Had the fight been any common one, Zaira would not have cared who prevailed. But here, she felt the Balance begin to tip perceptibly in favour of the darkness. Within that darkness, she also felt the tendrils of another necromancer reaching outward for death and drawing too much of it. Embracing it.
"Osseus, you fool," she hissed, gathering the shroud about her and sprinting through the disarray. She drove sharpened bone shards into shimmering armor as she went, the projectiles shattering angelic breastplates and drawing the Luminarei's attention towards her and away from those they slaughtered.
What she was doing was idiotic. She owed Osseus nothing. Their relationship had always been one of convenience and carnal desires, not of respect. And yet, of anyone on the field who was shedding blood or losing limbs, he was the only one she wanted to survive.
He was hers, and she was the only one allowed to break him.
"Out of my way," she growled, sprinting over corpses and around clashes until she finally found him.
Osseus lay draped across a boulder, his bone armor resplendent save for where it had been shattered by a Luminaerei spear. Even while run-through, he managed to grimace and wrap his own gore about the angel who had attacked him, crushing its helm before it could react.
"You idiot." Blood spilled under her knees as she knelt beside him. "You should have waited for me."
"I am not one to wait." He wheezed. "Neither are you. And there was no time. But, my love. Do you feel it?"
"The Balance shifts." She pressed her hands to his chest and wished for the first and only time that she could quell the bleeding, instead of encouraging it. "Darkness approaches."
"Indeed. Our duty calls." His voice faded. "You brought friends."
The Luminarei who she had struck while running had found them. The angels circled them, their spears upraised, as if waiting for an attack.
"This is not fair." Zaira growled, then leaned over and kissed him deeply, until her lips dripped with blood. He tasted like iron. "We should be eternal. We, who indulge in death."
"Then indulge with me. One last time." He grasped her hand weakly and dragged it across his face, using her finger to draw, in his blood, one of the first runes a necromancer was taught.
A rune that brought the dead to life.
"All that grows must whither and die," he whispered.
Crowing, Zaira stood and licked the lingering plasma from her lips. Osseus smiled as his eyes closed and his soul released. She drew it to her, then began to bind it back to his body. The angels retreated a step as his corpse floated into the air. Dirt, blood, and bone from the battlefield rushed towards it, melting together and stretching, until a terrible, towering golem overlooked them.
The creature that was once Osseus howled, raising fractured limbs swelled with fluid. She grabbed one, bid it raise her, and assumed an unreachable perch on its skull.
"Do angels fear?" she snarled, hoping maddingly that Malthael and his fool siblings wouldn't waste the distraction she was about to afford them. "My lovely has given me a most pleasant gift. I would introduce you."
Malthael felt the flow of battle about him even without the Chalice. Angels and Nephalem alike flared and exploded within the part of his mind that touched Death. Their screams echoed in the void, mixed with the tangible howls of the still-living wounded. He gritted his teeth against the cacophony and tried to focus on the immediacy of the conflict.
Thankfully, mortality hadn't ripped from him millennia of combat experience. Baser instincts took over and guided his blades, aiming countless swift strikes against the angels until his weapons dripped with Lightblood. Spatters of it ran down his breastplate and trickled to the soil. The dirt was mired with nauseating smelling ichor.
"This is not how I prefer to dance," Lyndon shouted, as he slid around an angel while Eirena bound its arms with an arcane net. He fired his crossbow into its side, then dove his dagger into its other and slammed it down into the dirt. The angel immediately struggled against its bindings and attempted to stand.
Before it could, Malthael flung one of his shotels, the curved blade pinning its shoulder tightly to the ground.
"Traitor," the Luminarei hissed, as Lightblood ran from its sides. "I would slay you for my Lord Imperius myself. You, who taint angel blood with Death. Heretic." Before it could continue, Lyndon slashed his dagger across its throat, severing the helm.
Malthael raised an eyebrow.
"I can't abide rudeness." The scoundrel spit at the angel. "Joking comradery, of course, is one thing. But that was impolite."
The clamour of active battle dimmed as their immediate surroundings fell still. Smoke drifted ominously, concealing the reams of corpses Malthael knew lay at their feet. He retrieved his blade, then closed his eyes and tried to determine how the larger conflict was fairing.
"Are we winning?" Eirena asked.
A battle so complex could not be described in a simple statement. He allowed Death to rush over him fully. It brought with it glimmers of fights won and lost. Of pockets of resistance where Nephalem had struggled and been victorious. Of others where their comrades had fallen, when their endurance had finally failed.
Oddly, the Luminarei were currently converging on a location across the field, where they were being torn asunder enough for him to detect at a distance. He was unsure who fought there, or what they had done to draw attention, but it explained the lessening pressure on other fronts, including his own.
Flash point. Time to move.
He resumed his pace across the field in the general direction of his brother. "Imperius is key. So long as he falls, nothing else matters."
"That doesn't sound like winning," Lyndon said, as he dashed to follow.
"It is not winning. It is fact. We are outnumbered. They will outlast us. If we wish to be victorious, we must remove the head."
"Finally, some damn honesty from you. I wish you had told us this sooner."
"There is no benefit in exposing others to pointless despair."
"You think I'm worried?" Lyndon tossed his dagger, caught it, and pointed it at a distant pocket of fighting. "Malthael, we've known each other long enough for you to know I am an underdog. The odds are always against me. That's when I win."
"I will try and take some comfort in that." Eirena sighed. "I am not as big a fan of poor odds."
The ground trembled without warning, and a flame scorched over their heads, close enough that Malthael's cowl grew hot. It was not the work of a low-ranking Luminarei. Whether it was Imperius or not did not matter. They had stumbled on a particularly dangerous opponent, and they needed to cull it. Immediately. He turned to Lyndon and saw the same realization on his face.
"After you," the scoundrel said.
As they began to run, Malthael dragged a shotel along the blood-stained soil. The Nephalem dead whispered to him, begging to fight again. Muddled with them were the angelic dead; they drifted about, their essences calling out for the Arch. He drew both into the blade, its keen edge seeping wispy tendrils born from seraphim and mortal essence.
Lyndon and Eirena glanced at him but remained respectfully silent. They knew he loathed to draw on the dead, and how severe the situation was if he did.
Kormac had found himself in abysmal predicaments before, but the angel who stood before him was realms beyond most of the foes he had previously faced. The seraph was a head taller than its compatriots, and its limbs and armor were extensively corrupted. Though it was not Imperius, it was likely one of his lieutenants.
"You are brave to stand before me alone." The angel brandished its spear, the point crackling with fire from its previous attack. "Tell me. Are you overconfident, or foolish?"
Kormac raised his sword in reply and held his position, waiting to see what the angel would do next. He had never intended to leave Chith and Auriel, but as the battle had progressed, an incursion by a particularly aggressive group of Luminarei had split him from the healers and demon hunters. They had sundered the field in two, the towering conflagration blocking any attempts he made to reach them. He had encountered the angel while trying to traverse the fire.
"I would stand before the entire Heavenly Host if necessary." He called arcane power into his sword, then steeled himself against the strikes he knew would come. "Does your Lord fear a single Nephalem?"
"My Lord and myself fear nothing!" The angel blurred as it dove at Kormac.
He sidestepped, allowing the spear to slide along his blade before redirecting it with a parry strike. The angel repositioned and attacked again from a different direction, forcing Kormac to roll to safety. The seraph was back on him immediately, raining blow after blow, some slicing shallowly into his armor. He stumbled back, his hands burning from the heat of deflecting the flaming spear, his flesh aching from the wounds.
As he regained his balance, a brief whiff of frost brushed him, followed by the putrid stench of death. The angel also noticed, launching upwards to perch on an overturned boulder; its ashen wings fluttered alertly.
The death shroud overtook them soundlessly, sweeping across the dirt and hiding the corpses of those who had fallen. The chill brought Kormac welcome relief, though it avoided seeping into his flesh, and instead washed over him as if it were a layer of fresh snow. Three figures appeared in the haze, the one in the lead carrying two glowing blades. The veil eventually parted around them, revealing familiar faces.
"By the hells," Lyndon drawled, as he gestured at the angel. "Were you going to slay Kurael by yourself?"
"I thought about it." Kormac grimaced as they joined him, relieved to have even a small chance to catch his breath. Particularly, since he had unknowingly been sparring with Imperius' second-in-command. "He is sorely persistent, though."
"We will fix that," Malthael said.
"You!" Kurael's wings jumped erratically as he turned to stare at the former-angel.
The man glared back from underneath his hood, then snapped his blades to the side, spattering Lightblood to the ground. "Surprising. We were not introduced."
"I know you well, heretic," Kurael barked. He dropped from the boulder and landed heavily on the ground. "You use our essence against us. Not even the Hells would take you in after such a sin."
"I care not for labels. Do not think you dissuade me." He raised a shotel, its blade parallel to the ground.
Kormac blinked and the former-angel was gone, his form a glimmer within the shroud. Moments later, Malthael struck, his blades curving around the spear, redirecting it. He spun as Kurael's parry went wide, using the momentum to carry him safely out of the angel's reach. Then he lunged again, the shotels leaving frosty trails as they narrowly missed slicing the angel's wings.
He had fought alongside Malthael enough times to know how the man moved, and he had never seen him attack with such haste. The shroud empowered him and the blades. Even so, it was clear that Kurael had the edge through raw strength. As they dueled, the angel began predicting Malthael's strikes with greater precision, until he was waiting, spear poised, to slash the man's thigh.
Malthael gasped and stumbled backward. Blood ran between his fingers as he pressed a palm to the shallow wound, the liquid trailing down the thick leather of his breeches. The gash smoked from the heat of the spear and seemed to stem the bleeding somewhat. He grimaced.
"I have bested you, as I expected," Kurael crooned. "You are even weaker than the Nephalem. Would you have your minions fight for you, now?"
"Companions," Malthael corrected him as he regained his footing, though he clearly favoured his injured leg. "Or have you forgotten such kinship already?"
"As one," Lyndon murmured, having apparently been thinking the same thing.
Steadying himself, Kormac lifted his sword as a spark of energy returned to him. He'd rested enough, and they could not delay while Malthael needed their help.
"For the Light!" he roared.
They rushed the angel together, Kormac deflecting the spear's blows, while Eirena strung enchantments together. Arcane ropes snaked out and bound Kurael's arms and legs, slowing him. But the angel was no simple foe, and he shrugged off the binds, raking the ground with his spear as Lyndon attacked from behind with his crossbow.
Flames inlaid with darkness gathered about Kurael's weapon. As moved to strike the scoundrel, Malthael leapt at him, snapping his blades around the spear's shaft and tugging it downward. The inferno exploded into the dirt, sending clumps of moss and mud into the air. The impact threw Malthael backwards, though he kept his footing after rolling.
"Enough," Malthael hissed. He closed his eyes, inhaled loudly, and sank to his knees, driving his weapons into the mire. A line of frost ran briskly from them towards the angel. Icy chains bound Kurael's greaves to the dirt, though they melted from the angel's warmth as quickly as Malthael summoned them. Coming to his aid, Eirena renewed her own binds, strengthening the elemental chains that held Kurael in place.
Kormac and Lyndon took the opportunity to move, each simultaneously striking at the angel. Kurael struggled against his binds and managed to parry Kormac's sword with his spear. Lyndon's quarrels, however, struck as intended; the bolts buried themselves in the angel's side. As the scoundrel retreated, he slashed his daggers along the angel's armor. Kurael howled and swung his spear wildly, nearly catching the rogue as he tumbled away.
The others couldn't hold the angel indefinitely. Eirena was breathless from constantly weaving spells, trying different variations to keep Kurael's legs bound. And while Malthael's expression had become muted, the sweat beading across his forehead betrayed his weakening stamina. He was bound in place by the frost the same as Kurael, and was unable to find additional souls to buoy him.
"Courage," Kormac called.
Lyndon grinned in spite of obvious exhaustion. "What in the Hells do you think we've been doing?" He renewed his attacks, striking quickly as Kormac defected Kurael's spear.
They gained nothing substantial, however, and likely wouldn't so long as the angel maintained a hold on his weapon. The spear left deep gouges wherever it struck the earth. As Kormac intercepted a strike aimed at Lyndon, the weapon slide down his sword and tore the outer edge of a pauldron. He flinched as flames ran along his armor, the heat making his skin ache.
In the moment he was distracted by the assault, the unthinkable happened. Kurael roared and arched his body forward. The ice cracked and shattered from around one of his legs. He took a step and tugged at the other, also ripping it free.
An uncharacteristic look of panic flashed across Malthael's face.
Kurael ignored the reaper. He turned to Eirena, whose bindings still held. He struck away the remaining frost from his feet and walked freely, and though his movements were still sluggish from the enchantress' spells. Eirena's spellcasting became harried as she attempted to fully chain him to the ground.
Kormac knew her limits. Knew the others', as well. They could not ensnare the angel again without replenishing their stamina.
He couldn't, either. But he could stop him.
He raised his blade and sprinted, screaming, at Kurael. The angel saw him approach, turned, and raised his spear. Kormac leapt. Their weapons scraped against each other before driving deep into the other's armor and flesh. His head exploded agonizingly, but he pushed the greatsword in further. The angel hoisted him upward, the action tearing them both and spilling their blood to the ground.
He stared into Kurael's helm. Shadows gleamed at him, then flickered.
"Your valor is admirable," Kurael rasped, before his grip on the spear lessened, and he collapsed to his knees.
The world tumbled, then struck him. Kormac found himself gazing at the sky. Through the smoke and flames he saw fragments of blue and drifting clouds. He thought he heard bird song, but then, where were the birds?
No birds. Only battle. He tugged at the spear protruding from his chest, but it remained, and his gauntlets slickened.
"Stay still," Eirena cried, from somewhere.
"My friend." Lyndon's voice wavered. "By the Light. You incredible, handsome, idiot."
"You jest," Kormac replied, though he struggled to speak. His lungs were heavy. Everything was. He tried to raise his hand again, and failed.
He was dying. The realization hit him gentler than he expected. The pain had receded somewhere far, leaving him with a dull numbness that crept up his limbs.
They were beside him, then. Eirena ran her fingers across his cheeks. Lyndon buried his own face in his palms, his shoulders shaking. Malthael slumped beside them, his blades clattering to the ground; he shook his head repeatedly.
"Do not frown," Kormac whispered. "I have led a mighty life. A blessed one, to have you all at my side."
Eirena's tears fell onto him as she spoke. "Do not talk that way. We will find help."
"No. Find Imperius. Precious companions." He finally managed to reach his hand to them. Three other hands grasped his and held it tightly. "I will see you again, someday."
The sky brightened until the sun seemed to envelope Kormac. His weight lessened and the numbness in his flesh vanished as the glow sang to him. He smiled, welcoming the Light he had fought for. Then he stepped towards it, his arms wide, and accepted the release.
A/N: *weeps* Well. No one ever said necromancers go out boring. And I think Kormac would have preferred to fall in battle if he'd been given the choice. Doesn't make it sting any less. But, this is a war story. And not everyone comes back from war.
Thanks to Kenyizsu for sketching Malthael in his new armor. :)
Next chapter, some knuckles are cracked. Time to find Imperius. Thanks for reading!
Chapter Eleven: Destiny
The longer the battle progressed, the more Nephalem fell. Their blood mixed with the dirt to form a bitter tasting mud. Aya constantly wiped flecks of it from her face. Her boots were coated with the mire, and the colourful layers of her robes were torn and marred with stains and burns. Her entire being felt sullied.
She fought at Tyrael's side for what seemed like an eternity. Together, they steadily pushed across the terrain towards Imperius. The Archangel periodically launched into the sky, where he fired flames downward with Solarion. Similar beams exploded back towards him from the Nephalem's side, as the various arcane units, led by Li-Ming, pressed his Luminarei vanguard back.
Aya badly wanted to fight alongside her mentor. But it was best to skirt around the heart of the conflict and bring Tyrael to Imperius unscathed. Even away from the main fighting force, however, they were constantly besieged with horrors. Nephalem wept for fallen comrades as smoke billowed around them from scorched brush. Others moaned from where they had collapsed, their torsos seared, and their limbs severed.
Yet, the remnants of resolve and a lingering hope of victory also glimmered on the faces of the living. Their expressions always brightened whenever she and Tyrael approached. Though his face dripped with sweat and he wielded El'druin with a heaviness he had lacked hours prior, he stalked with a relentless determination that transferred to those around him. The former angel cleaved limbs and severed angelic helms effortlessly, while Aya distracted the Luminarei with arcane bolts. Several times, he used El'druin's light to shield her, as the seraphim struck back with darkness-infused flames.
Confident numbness became Aya's secondary shield, and it held until they stumbled upon their companions further afield. She balked at the sight of Lyndon kneeling beside Kurael's shattered form. Kormac's blade was impaled into the angel's chest; the Luminarei's spear was driven through Kormac. Eirena leaned over the templar's prone form. She clutched his hands where they had been folded across his chest.
"Hellspawn." Aya rushed to her side and embraced her tightly. The enchantress sobbed into her shoulder, her shoulders heaving until the cries gradually faded into shallow gasps.
"I'm relieved to see human faces," Lyndon said humourlessly. The scoundrel absently sharpened his dagger. His fingers were bloodied from the whetstone and the crimson rivers surrounding him. "Thought for a moment you were more accursed Luminarei."
"They would rue crossing me," Eirena spat, pulling away from Aya; her eyes were red and swollen. "Damn them to an eternal suffering in the Hells."
"I have no comforting words for this," Tyrael admitted quietly, as he approached an overturned boulder.
Malthael perched on its surface, facing away from them. The shredded ends of his cloaked drifted in the stifling air alongside lingering death tendrils.
"It is a critical victory," Tyrael continued, "but at a heavy price."
Malthael shook his head. His fingers tensed around his sheathed blades. "It is a terrible victory in a useless conflict."
"Fighting for the Light is never useless."
He spun, revealing cheeks mottled with dirt and Lightblood, as well as a heavily bandaged thigh crusted with blood. "Do you feel it, Tyrael? The pain? The death?"
"No, I cannot."
"They scream. There are many. So many. Perhaps we prevail, but at what cost?"
"You knew this was the only way." Tyrael stretched out a hand, but Malthael pulled away. "You were not wrong. This was the right action."
"I consigned many to this fate."
"You did not." Aya gently brushed Eirena's cheek before standing and walking to Tyrael's side. She understood how Malthael felt. She had also walked the battlefield and had seen the despair wrought by Imperius' forces. She doubted she would ever forget it. "This slaughter would have happened regardless of its location. You told us as much. This way, at least, we can fight on our terms."
"I should never have left the Heavens. Had I the perseverance to withstand the Worldstone's destruction as the others did, the Council would never have fractured, and our unity never broken."
"Would that we all did many things we did not." Auriel's soothing voice interrupted them. She approached out of the growing haze with Chith at her side. Her armor was stained and cracked in places, but her expression was serene.
"I am glad to see you," Tyrael said, obviously relieved.
"And I you, brother." Her eyes flickered to Kormac and Eirena, then clouded, as though her essence momentarily stretched beyond her body. "He is far gone. I am sorry, child. There is nothing I can do."
The enchantress nodded, then gestured hesitantly at the spear embedded in Kormac. With Chith's assistance, she managed to slide it from his body and toss it to the dirt. Then, the healer unclasped his cloak and lay it across the man, granting him some dignity in death.
"Now." Auriel looked to Malthael, then gracefully scaled the rock he stood on. "I feel your despair, dear one. And your guilt. You carry much, and it weighs heavily. But none of us wield Itherael's gift, especially now, in these mortal forms."
"My decisions were neither wise nor learned. They were mistakes."
"You were weakened in your immortal state. As were we all were. And now, you have the strength to overcome such pain." She wrapped Al'maiesh about his shoulders, tugging it tight. When his knees began to shake, she reached an arm under his to help him balance. "There are those who wish for you to survive, and who, I think, would very much regret if you had never journeyed to this world in the first place. You must put aside your conflict and draw from the Light I know you carry here, inside. For each shadow, there is a sunbeam. For each skeleton, a new flower springs forth. After each night, there is a dawn. Where you see regret, I see experience. Where you see guilt, I see compassion."
Auriel's words stirred a wellspring of mixed feelings within Aya. She had failed so many times to protect those she cared for from those who harmed them. Her friends. Her sister. But hindsight was stronger than any Sight, and with it came growth. She had risen above her fears and regrets. Each time she faced her adversaries, she stood taller than the time before. And when she faced Imperius this day, she would do so with courage in her heart.
This is the power of Hope, she realised. Even mortal, it survives unbroken.
Malthael's hesitant chuckling shook her from her thoughts. "Your concern about your talents was misplaced, sister," he said. "You still embody hope. As persistently as always."
"And you, dear brother, are still a bottomless wellspring of silent crisis." Her eyes crinkled. "But, come. I fear our time of opportunity runs short."
"Agreed." Tyrael glanced at a distance rise, over which a billowing ash-cloud floated. "I am as exhausted as any of you, but we must conclude this while we maintain control. We risk squandering their sacrifices, otherwise."
"Go without me." Eirena said. "I will stay with Kormac. No angel or demon will desecrate his body while I am here. Take Imperius down."
"We will carry your heart, and his, with us," Aya replied softly.
"And you have our word." Lyndon sheathed his dagger and stowed the whetstone. "The mighty have further to fall, anyway. I am sure we can locate a suitable cliff to toss him from."
"The top of the Arch," Malthael added, as he and Auriel leapt from the rock together. His eyes retained the renewed determination the Cord had granted him. "Precautionarily."
Aya flexed her fingers and pulled into them any arcane fragment she could find within reach. "I like that idea. Let's go."
The landscape closest to Imperius' position was heavily disfigured. Grass and smaller bushes were completely scorched, while the remnants of felled trees still burned. The soil was a mire that stunk of char and bile. In several places, the ground itself was split; flames rose from the breaks as if the Hells were piercing into Sanctuary.
Lyndon observed it with a growing numbness, though his legs and feet still ached from trudging through the muck. It was impossible to react with his usual humour. Not when the struggle had become so very personal. The memory of Kormac impaled on the spear was his constant companion. And if he gave too much attention to the distant wailing in the air, it began to sound like Eirena.
He had always assumed they would leave the world together, slain simultaneously by a mighty foe in some foolhardy venture. A real fool's wish, that. And now, inaccurate.
They paused before a jagged row of towering stones, formed when the land had been driven into the sky by powerful magics. Malthael dropped to a knee and raked his gauntleted fingers through the soil.
"There was much conflict, here. Recently."
Tyrael absently hefted El'druin to his shoulder. "Where are they now? And who?"
"Dead. Many Nephalem." The reaper closed his eyes, listening to voices they couldn't hear. "They fought him and lost."
"If a larger group failed, that bodes poorly for us," Lyndon grumbled, unable to summon his previous confidence regarding their odds.
Malthael's breath escaped in wispy clouds, betraying the deep connection he was maintaining with Death. Tendrils crept from his fingers and criss-crossed the ground, searching. "They weakened him. He is powerful, but not limitless."
"I hear them, too." Chith's pale eyes darted about the landscape. "They fell, but they're also…proud?"
Tyrael lowered his head respectfully. "Many small blows will eventually break even the strongest of walls. Likely, they knew they would be defeated, yet they fought regardless."
Malthael flicked the grime from his gauntlets as he stood. "His forces were culled. I feel many Luminarei here, as well."
"Good. We can save what we have for him." Aya's hands glowed with lingering arcane essence. "We have one chance. And we may be the last group to make such an attempt." She paused as Auriel approached with Al'maiesh at the ready. "I am all right, friend. Save your strength."
"I have more than enough left. I have cared for others on this battlefield. Allow me to do so for you, as well, before we press on. Chith, if you would aid my brother?"
While the healers attended to Tyrael and Aya, Lyndon sprinted over to Malthael, who stood nearer the rockface. He rocked on his heels and tried to find something to say; it was the moment they usually would have bantered, in the past. But the situation called for the truth, not humour.
"He fears you," Lyndon offered, eventually. "Imperius."
The other man glanced at him briefly before frowning and continuing to stare at the sky. "I partake in great sacrilege. It displeases him. He wishes his dead would stay dead."
"Then you should return them to him. Oh, come now. I know how you feel about that sort of thing. And truly, it is terrible work. But this is all terrible. You weren't wrong. We fight needless wars. We always have. Between the Heavens and the Hells, immortals and monsters. It's not eternal for us. Us humans, we're always in the middle. We struggle, then we die. Wisdom, am I correct? I know that. And Kormac knew that. So, why do we still fight?"
"And to have the chance to do more. I look around and see all this, and it's hard to remember there is life somewhere. But there is. And if we fight hard, and we survive, we can return to it. And if we don't survive, then at least we're giving others the same chance to live."
"Indeed." Malthael flipped his cowl over his face. "And, you are correct. This is terrible work. But you and I…we are practiced in such arts. Are we not?" The shotels rang as he drew them. "My brother is proud. And he enjoys his theatrics all too much. I will remind him my power is more than show."
The wind abruptly shifted direction. Mist swirled about Malthael's greaves before snaking across the ground and running over Lyndon's boots; he stepped back, still unsettled by the sight, although he trusted Malthael implicitly. The souls coated the blades in a malleable haze as they intensified. Then the excess spilled back to the dirt, giving form to the shroud. In the fog behind Malthael, tangible forms took shape.
Several were fallen Nephalem, whose blurry faces reflected fury and desire. They came willingly, to continue the fight in whatever form they could. The others were angelic forms, twisted and towering: the remnants of Luminarei, their souls ripped from whatever eternal stream they drifted within.
He's blocking their return to the Arch. No wonder they hate him. "Now that is properly dramatic." The thought of Imperius flinching at the restrained souls of his vanguard brought a vicious grin to Lyndon's lips. "Let's see if we can make him cower, shall we?"
Once Chith and Auriel had completed their work, Tyrael checked with each of his companions to ensure they were ready. Even Malthael, who was now surrounded by a disquieting mass of spirits, seemed more composed. He displayed none of the despair he had when they'd reunited earlier. Instead, he projected a focused intensity Tyrael remembered well from their days spent in the Heavens.
Together, they scaled the broken terrain, aiding each other as portions of the stone crumbled under their boots. When they reached the pinnacle, they found an overwhelming horror. Dozens of human corpses were piled up across rocks or lay prone on the field. They had been left where they fell, their faces contorted in pain. Blood and refuse pooled about them, staining their vivid evoker garb. Scattered among them were shattered angelic helms and the remnants of golden armor. The shadowy impressions of seraphim souls were seared onto the stones, blasted into place by arcane power.
"No," Aya moaned, as she haphazardly slid the remainder of the way down the ridge. "No, no."
Tyrael followed her gaze to where her mentor sprawled motionless on the soil. Li-Ming's eyes were squeezed shut, and her lips twisted into a grimace. A blistering burn ran from her neck to her hips. The few remaining colourful shreds of her robes flickered in the breeze.
"They were supposed to meet us here," Aya continued; the arcane glow drifting around her fingers intensified. "We were too late."
"Only just." Tyrael gestured to the centre of the massacre, his hand shaking from barely contained ire.
Imperius stood motionless amongst the carnage, his back to them. Solarion dripped with charred gore. His previously golden armor was stained black from smoke and ash. The breaks running throughout his body had grown and now oozed molten rock, which dropped to the soil and solidified. Other, newer wounds pulsed, though they had not become large enough to release his essence.
The Archangel considered them over his pauldrons. Within the twisted helm, nothing remained of the brother Tyrael knew. Instead, there was a shadowy, smoking darkness that drew him in, chilling his soul.
"Finally." Imperius turned and raised his wings to their full height. Reams of ash drifted from them; they were more molten than flame now, churning upon themselves and releasing tumbling embers. "I was growing tired of your underlings. How generous of you to attend me personally."
"It is the least we can do," Lyndon replied, drawing his crossbow. "Seeing as we have some favours to return."
"Many," Aya hissed, having finally pulled her attention from Li-Ming. Flames pulsed up her arms and reflected in her eyes. "For everyone you have wronged."
Tyrael raised El'druin and circled so the angel was flanked. Malthael did the same, though the souls he had harnessed remained at a distance. Aya and Lyndon split into a wider arc, while Chith and Auriel kept abreast with the spirits, their hands raised to their chests and their attention already deeply focused on channelling.
The heat radiating from Imperius was almost unbearable. Tyrael's face ached from the warmth; sweat pooled across his forehead and ran into his eyes. The last time he had felt so intense a fire was when they had faced Diablo in the Heavens. His brother had clearly absorbed more of the Prime Evil's essence than he realized.
"Would you entreat me to mercy again, sister?" His voice had distorted further, crackling as if emanating from a blacksmith's furnace. "Or are we past such niceties?"
"A ribbon may as easily become a noose," she replied, as Al'maiesh drifted about, its tips poised to strike. "Be careful, brother, lest you hang in my Garden."
Imperius laughed, then shifted his stance and spun Solarion towards her. "Make such a threat worth my while."
"Gladly," Malthael interjected. He snapped his blades downward and lunged. Soul essence swept forward with him, obscuring his form. The cloud overtook them all, the chilled mist bringing much-needed relief to Tyrael's exposed skin.
Reinvigorated, he raised El'druin and rushed the Archangel from within the haze. The sword rang as it clashed into Solarion. He dug his greaves into the ground as Imperius returned the strike, his brother's strength as overpowering as his surrounding conflagration. Relenting, he leapt back, ducking as the spear separated the shroud over his head.
While Tyrael repositioned, Lyndon fired several rounds from across the mist. The quarrels ricocheted uselessly off the angel's armor, though the impacts were enough to capture his attention. The Archangel spun away from Tyrael and used his spear to deflect a second wave of bolts.
"My turn," Aya snapped, summoning a wave of arcane missiles, her lips moving wordlessly with the evocation. Her aim was true. The bolts thundered into Imperius. Some skirted across his armor, but many found cracks and penetrated deep.
He howled and swung Solarion over his helm. A firestorm formed around it, then erupted outward.
"To me!" Tyrael called. Lyndon and Aya dove behind him as he summoned El'druin's shield. The flames flared ominously against it, then fizzled as the surrounding shroud absorbed the remaining energy from the explosion.
Malthael lunged from the resulting steam and slid between Imperius' legs. He raked the shotels around the angel's knees, but Imperius sidestepped enough to redirect the blades onto the top of his greaves instead. The strikes cut frosty grooves into the plating. Growling, Malthael intentionally tumbled to the side, avoiding a strike from Solarion and regaining his footing out of Imperius' reach.
While the others darted away, Tyrael intercepted another strike from the Archangel, the spear shattering El'druin's shield fully. Imperius was blindingly fast even when injured. He launched blow after blow, some knocking Tyrael backwards. Others narrowly brushed his pauldrons or bracers.
Still, Tyrael kept pace, knowing he was the only one in their group who could withstand the beating. Each strike was like a bitter memory fractured against his consciousness. He had fought alongside Imperius for most of their existence. It felt wrong to be on the opposite side. But he was made of Justice as much as Imperius was made of Valor, and the knowledge that his actions were just kept him focused.
As did the continual reminder that he was not alone. While Tyrael parried Solarion, Lyndon and Malthael leapt at the angel simultaneously, the scoundrel having drawn his daggers. They struck at Imperius' weakest points, while Aya again pummelled him with a relentless stream of the arcane. The Archangel deflected many of their incursions, his form a honed monstrosity of martial prowess.
Until Tyrael saw an opening. While Imperius raised Solarion, Tyrael sliced El'druin along the angel's side. The blade carved armor from his flank, spilling reams of molten Lightblood to the ground. Imperius clutched at the wound and stumbled backward, his wings sharpening to molten slivers.
"It seems I may strike you after all," Tyrael shouted, thankful El'druin had granted him that much. "How do you feel about your crusade, now?"
A dark fire Tyrael had never seen before seeped from Solarion's point and down its shaft. The air cracked, and Imperius became a rushing, immaterial flame that barrelled towards Tyrael, catching him before he had a chance to react. Solarion's tip scoured his back armor. The corruption flowed into him, wrenching his consciousness away from the field.
The dirt and sky warped into a shadowy cavern. Its confines closed around Tyrael; he felt as though he was falling into an endless night. Tortured screams echoed, distantly. Pained cries for aid. Familiar voices, even after so many years.
"The true legacy of the Horadrim ended when I gave my life for El'druin. I reforged the sword, yet justice remains elusive. I regret all that Sanctuary has now lost."
"You are not Deckard Cain!" Tyrael grimaced and raised the blade to illuminate the darkness. The jewel in its hilt shimmered briefly but remained unlit.
"I trusted you. Uncle Deckard trusted you. And you trusted her. You let her betray us all. You let her turn me into that monster!"
Lightning flashed in the cavern, revealing the silhouette of a young woman bound overtop of a summoning circle. She raised her head, revealing glowing, crimson eyes.
"Angels are monstrous in any form. As am I. We are not so different, are we, Tyrael?"
Before Tyrael could argue with the shadow of Diablo, another voice cut in: "Mortals are worse. Far worse. At least Tyrael the Archangel of Justice would have stood by my side. Instead, you ran with the humans. You left Imperius to kill me. Your sibling. Do you even mourn me, brother?"
El'druin wavered in his grip. He knew it was not truly Itherael. They had always seen the good in mortals. And yet, the shade spoke a painful truth. As did Leah, and Cain. He had failed all of them. Their deaths were on him. As millions of others would be, soon.
Auriel's words jerked Tyrael back to the physical realm. He struggled against the binds restraining him, before realizing his sister had wrapped Al'maiesh around his shoulders.
"Those visions hold no weight in this world," she intoned, tugging the Cord loose and weaving it about her arms. "They are the product of the Lord of Terror, nothing more."
"Of course," he managed, steadying his breath and his hold on El'druin. As the remaining haze receded from his vision, he looked about, and realized the others had distracted Imperius while he had fallen prone.
The Archangel dematerialized again, snapping back to reality in time to swing Solarion at Malthael. The man snagged the spear with his blades, diverting it to strike the soil. As soon as the weapons touched, however, Solarion's flames snaked down through the shotels and up Malthael's arms. He collapsed to his knees, his cowl falling askew to reveal widening eyes.
Tyrael shivered, knowing Malthael was likely experiencing the same as had happened to him. But before he could intervene, his brother shook his head roughly and leapt backward, before Imperius could wrench Solarion from the ground and strike at him again.
"You think that will break me? Death does not frighten me." He raised a blade, his fingers outstretched from the hilt. The spirits which had drifted aimlessly until then rushed forward, their misty forms striking at Imperius, slowing his movements.
The Archangel struck at the spirits as they lashed at him; their forms solidified into a thick miasma that hindered his movements. "Perhaps I should find the mortal you were thinking about so dearly just now and bid her scream. Would that satisfy your overconfidence?"
"Do. Not." The shroud roiled, and Malthael slammed a blade into the ground, his eyes narrowing into slits. Ice shards dropped from the air as the cloud thickened.
"What a useless effort. I am as immune to your sacrilege as I am to the mortal traumas you drown within."
"I would not worry about me," Malthael replied softly.
A searing, magenta beam split the shroud, striking Imperius' back. He roared and vanished, then reappeared a distance away. A new fissure smouldered between his pauldrons.
Aya pushed Tyrael aside, her arms outstretched and hair drifting from the energy arcing through her. Her robes snapped and flared, the mud and grime burning away and revealing the vibrant silk underneath. Her eyes glowed, and when she spoke, her voice echoed with a force beyond her mortal existence.
"You slay my friends and then threaten my sister?" she snarled, vanishing as Imperius had done, before flickering back into existence behind him. She caught Solarion with her palms; a powerful arcane burst halted his advance and pushed him back. "If you want your Eternal Conflict so badly, I will bring it to you!"
Imperius howled and launched into the air, flinging himself towards her and swinging Solarion to intercept her follow-up attack. The spear shone hot as angelic flames collided with the arcane. Heat waves rippled through the air, striking Tyrael and forcing him and the others to take shelter.
"Finally," Lyndon cheered, pumping his fist. "That's what we need."
Each time Tyrael saw the arcane Well fully tapped, always by a different mortal, he was reminded why the Nephalem continually bested any angel or demon. The stream flowing from Aya was a perfect merger of both energies, unlike the corrupted imitation Imperius had forged within himself.
"Impossible," the Archangel sneered, as he finally broke the beam and repositioned. Solarion dipped, and for the first time, he appeared fatigued.
"Do you fear us now?" she taunted. "Does your valour bid you continue?"
Solarion flared, and Tyrael readied El'druin in anticipation of the blast. However, instead of attacking, Imperius stabbed the spear into the air and tore open the realm. Within the growing portal, the spires of the Silver City glittered. Then he leapt backward, his wings lifting him swiftly through the rift.
Before the gate could vanish, wispy fingers grabbed at it. Malthael stalked forward, gesturing for the spirits to hold the rift open. As they did, its composition shifted from a smouldering fire to a hazy, darkened mist.
"Coward," he hissed, before disappearing into the portal.
Relieved they could pursue Imperius, Tyrael shouldered El'druin and stepped through to the Heavens.
The brisk air of the High Heavens parched Malthael's throat. He welcomed the sterility all the same; it was preferable to the humid stench of blood and bile from the battlefield. They had arrived on a high row of platforms nearly parallel with the heart of the Crystal Arch itself. The Light was muted, and shadows permeated the Silver City below.
"As it was before," Tyrael breathed. "When Diablo attacked the Diamond Gates. Though, the darkness is not as pronounced. The Light still reaches the Host, or they would have collapsed."
A short distance away, Imperius staggered as Lightblood spilled from him. He raked Solarion across the wounds, its flames melting the metal and closing the gaps. Then he launched into the air. Al'maiesh shot after him, the Cord lengthening and wrapping around his leg. He struck at it with Solarion, but it shimmered and held fast.
Auriel and Chith appeared at Malthael's side, each clutching a handful of the sash. Pink light surged through its length as they heaved it backward, slamming Imperius into the marble floor. His greaves scraped across the stone floor as he fought to stand with his legs bound.
"Go," Lyndon shouted, sprinting as he did.
Malthael drew the shroud around him again and willed the frost to condense on his blades. He struck in tandem with the rogue, aiming for Imperius' freshly tended lesions. But even while bound, the Archangel thrashed, swinging Solarion their direction. The spear shattered marble as he struck once, then again. He glanced Lyndon on the third hit, the blow knocking his legs out from under him. The strike sent the scoundrel tumbling into the platform's wall, where he collided hard with the stone.
"I'm all right," he groaned, though he remained prone on the floor.
Though Imperius could not dissipate away from Al'maiesh's bind, Auriel and Chith could also not continue to hold him unless they immobilized his torso. Malthael glanced around quickly, hoping to find help while Lyndon recovered his senses. But Aya was still catching her breath, and Tyrael had joined her, El'druin raised to protect her from any unexpected attacks.
It was up to him. He closed his eyes and reached through the portal, bidding the mass of spirits gathered outside it to join him. They surged through the rift, past the souls that held the gate open, their ghostly weapons at the ready. He strained to maintain so many connections in his mind. Commanding such a sizeable host had been easy when he had been immortal, but now, their essence seared his consciousness.
His weapons became unfathomably heavy, and the blades clanged onto the marble as he fell. Ice spread across the shotels, creeping up his hands and onto his arms even as he tried to regain his footing. Still, he fought the burden, commanding the spirits to strike the Archangel.
They listened. The souls enveloped Imperius and ripped at his armor. Others tore at his helm. Though immaterial, they were not insignificant. They dragged the Archangel to his knees; the force of the impact rang through the thin air. They were relentless, shearing off charred armor and spilling darkened Lightblood as Imperius howled and thrashed.
Malthael's vision grew murky as the death tendrils began to rebound against him, freezing his skin and stealing his breath. His flesh ached. "Help me," he gasped, hoping Aya and Tyrael were finally ready.
The arcanist shook her head as if clearing her thoughts. Then she called forth an arcane cord and threw it at the angel. It lassoed tightly around his left arm, binding it in place. At the same time, Tyrael rushed Imperius, El'druin's point aimed at the Archangel's chest.
Imperius roared, and with his remaining free arm, he stiffly redirected Solarion at Malthael. "Die with me, brother," he bellowed.
Flames gathered at the spear's point. Malthael struggled against the ice, but it bound him to the marble as much as it held Imperius. The frost hanging in the air began to melt.
That was it, then.
"Death is the end."
Without warning. Without a chance to speak.
"Death will release you from pain."
Just the briefest moment for him to hope they would succeed, even as he fell.
"In death there is peace."
At the water, Farah. You will know the place.
He did fall. Hard. His ears rang as a blast roared by, close enough to sear his cloak. He screamed and clutched his arms, which had been wrenched from the ice hard enough to rip his sleeves and skin. He distantly knew the flames hadn't knocked him to the ground, but that detail wasn't important. He had to find his blades, and keep his brother in place—
Except, Imperius was already still. Solarion swayed in his grasp, then tipped and clanged to the floor. Tyrael stood before him, both hands clasped about El'druin's hilt. The blade was driven deep into Imperius armor. The blow had fractured his breastplate; rivers of Lightblood spilled out, coating the marble.
"There is no justice in this," Imperius groaned.
"That is not for you to decide. El'druin has spoken. Give Itherael my kindest regards." Tyrael tore the sword from Imperius' chest, and in one smooth motion swung it at his throat. It cleaved cleanly, sheering the helm from his shoulders. The Archangel's wings flared, then extinguished, leaving only an ashen outline on the marble and the smouldering, crumpled remains of golden armor.
Malthael inhaled sharply as the sudden silence hit him. The spirits slipped from his hold, dissipating into the air with a lingering shimmer.
Imperius was dead.
His brother. His brother was dead.
He tried to sit, but the thing that had struck him lay across his legs. He forced his eyes to focus and found Lyndon collapsed over his knees. The man's breath hitched painfully, and he gripped his left arm where it had been burned away at the elbow.
"Fool," Malthael managed, though any intended rancor caught in his throat.
"Still with us?" The rogue rasped. "You're welcome."
"Stay still. Here." Auriel knelt beside them and gently pulled Lyndon onto the marble. Al'maiesh slid from her shoulders and wrapped around his arm. Chith joined her shortly after, his palms already radiating a warm light, brighter than anything in the Heavens.
"Let me see," Chith said quietly.
The Heavens. The Arch.
Malthael stumbled to his feet, stifling another groan as shredded sleeves brushed his bleeding, frost-burned skin.
Lyndon was alive.
"Brother, wait!" Auriel shouted.
They would care for him.
"Mal, stop! Come back!"
He could still walk. Unevenly. He stumbled past Tyrael, who was staring numbly at the crumpled remains of their brother. He didn't stop until his view of the Crystal Arch was unimpeded. It towered before him, close enough he could see each of its brilliant, golden facets. Thousands of dark tendrils twisted around it, marring the crystal. They grew as he watched. The sight made him dizzy.
Imperius was dead. The powers of the Hells he had wielded were extinguished. The Arch should have returned to its splendor as soon as he had fallen. Instead, the Light writhed within it. Slowly, relentlessly, shadows spread across its surface, until the High Heavens fell into a deep, impenetrable night.
And Malthael knew that their intervention had come too late.
A/N: Full credit for Tyrael's "Give Itherael my kindest regards" line goes to my husband, who suggested it before we knew how many of you liked their character. It seemed perfect and entirely warranted. Auriel's garden-noose comment is mine. Though my favorite moment is when Malthael reacts completely calmly to Imperius threatening Farah, because he can see Aya barreling at him from behind and knows exactly what is about to happen.
Artwork for this chapter is by kenyizsu. It's fantastic.
Next week is Chapter 12 and the epilogue. We're almost at the end. Then work begins in earnest on Series 2. But until then, I leave you all to wait nervously for the finale.
Chapter Twelve: Dawn
Tyrael watched Malthael stumble away from them with exhausted resignation. He considered trying to stop him, but he also knew his brother's stubbornness well. Whatever he sought was more important to him than his own health, or the well-being of his companions. Trying to convince him otherwise would be futile.
And Tyrael had his own concerns. He turned back to where Chith and Auriel were applying healing magic to Lyndon's arm. Golden light wrapped around the rogue, sealing the wound and soothing the charred flesh. Beads of sweat ran across his forehead, and a pained smile twitched on his lips.
"Still less damage than he took." Lyndon glanced blearily at Imperius' corpse. "Hells be damned though, this hurts."
Any comfort Tyrael tried to voice died in his throat at the mention of the Archangel. Imperius' essence had long evaporated from the smoking husk of his armor. Elsewhere, it remained. He rotated El'druin, cringing as Lightblood dripped from the hilt and his gauntlet onto the marble. It was dark and corrupted, but still his brother's. Who he had slain, without any hesitation.
"What you did was just," Chith offered quietly, as if reading his expression. "Do not think for moment it was not."
"I don't offer my limbs for ridiculous causes," Lyndon added, before groaning as the spell continued to stitch his flesh.
"No," Tyrael muttered. "And I am immensely grateful. Because of you, I am only mourning two siblings, instead of three."
"Where did Malthael disappear to?" Aya rubbed her temples and winced as she approached. "I saw him leave."
Auriel looked up from her work. The glow gradually faded from her hands, and with Chith's assistance, she helped Lyndon stand. "He goes to the Arch. To see the Light return." But as she spoke, the sky darkened further and the shadows about them lengthened.
Confused, Tyrael watched the remaining light fade from the Heavens. The quiet keening of the Arch grew discordant, as though someone were dragging a knife across its surface. The dissonance made his head ache and his soul ill. The clamour was far worse than what he'd heard during the Lightsong when the Black Soulstone had been kept in the Heavens.
Al'maiesh slid from Auriel's grasp, though Chith caught it before it fell to the floor. "No. No, it cannot be."
Malthael knew. Before any of us.
Speechless, Tyrael sprinted after him, passing over platform after platform until his view of the Crystal Arch was unimpeded. An impenetrable, soul-shattering darkness spilled out from where its glow had once been. The Arch's heart throbbed with shadow; the stain contained the Light within, blocking its escape.
Malthael leaned against the balcony and stared unblinkingly outward. "This should be impossible. The Light cannot be perceived this directly by mortal eyes."
"It is tainted, as it once was by Diablo."
"You also said when Diablo was slain, and his essence was removed from the Arch, the Light returned. Imperius is dead. Yet, this intensified. Why?"
Footsteps sounded as the others joined them, Lyndon still braced carefully between the two healers.
"It is the sickness we angels bore." Auriel's voice had lost its melody. "Verily, our brother took the darkness of the Hells into his being. But he was darkening before that moment. I saw in him a terrible, festering wound, one I could neither heal nor sooth. It was through that wound the Prime Evil entered. And where it remains."
Malthael shuddered but remained silent.
"But he would return healed, would he not?" Tyrael gestured to the Arch. "At the next Lightsong. We would see Valor return, and Fate, and the many kin you have lost to time."
Even as he spoke, he doubted his words. The Lightsong signalled a moment of harmony in the Heavens. In the past, it had birthed angels of all Aspects. More recently, it had called for Valor. But even when the Aspects had been imbalanced, there had still been enough angels to create the resonance.
"Who remains to do that, brother?" Malthael said, echoing Tyrael's suspicions. His fingers tightened against the railing. "Those dead on the battlefield? Or the few below us, whose wings lose form as I watch? Without the Light to sustain them, there will be no melody."
"Perhaps tomorrow, then. There were not always angels. The Arch formed you from nothing."
"It created me from Light itself. The darkness is within the Arch, not outside it. Auriel speaks truly. Anu's will is tainted with the Prime Evil." Then, quieter: "I only delayed this moment by taking mortal form. The same would have occurred had I returned to the Arch. The Prime Evil would have followed. These are the death throes of a dying being."
"I refuse to let that happen. We fought today to preserve all the Heavens represent!"
"We fought for the mortals' survival. Do not be blinded by our past, Tyrael." Malthael fell silent again, and for a moment, only the haunting howls of the Arch broke their solitude. "I strove to avoid this moment. I still misunderstood."
"I do not understand."
His brow furrowed. "Prophecy. We were warned this would occur. Imperius. Angels on Sanctuary. I thought by avoiding that fate, we would avert the darkening of the Arch. But that future, the future Farah saw…she glimpsed the path we took to arrive here. Victorious."
"She saw the Arch fall," Aya conceded. "I remember. She told me she saw it crumble and the Light escape."
"But the Arch still stands!" Tyrael gestured emphatically at the Spire. "Imperius has not succeeded in shattering its glory. Neither have the Hells."
"No. That duty falls to us." Malthael turned, but Tyrael caught his arm, clutching it tightly even as the man growled. "Unhand me."
"You would have us destroy the very heart of the Light?" The words seared his throat with their sacrilege. "Why? We would concede the Eternal Conflict, irrevocably."
"I would release it, lest it rot in this prison eternally. Or worse, be wielded by the Hells. As they will do, if their evil continues to spread. They will warp and twist our kin beyond recognition for their purposes." He wrenched his arm away from Tyrael, though he made no additional attempt to leave. "I would do as you did for me, when I drowned in darkness. As you did when you destroyed the Worldstone."
Tyrael tried to think of another path, one that could heal the Arch of its corruption. But even the Archangel of Hope had been unable to cure the sickness plaguing the Heavens. A sickness that had existed since the moment Sanctuary had been created, forever altering the Balance of the Eternal Conflict.
It could have been Malthael, as he said. It could have been me. The darkness infects. Patiently. Insidiously. What righteousness is there in eternity if it fraught with evil?
"We have long walked this path," Tyrael admitted. He had taken the first steps when he had cast off his wings and fallen. "It went unnoticed for far too long."
Malthael nodded. "We were incapable of noticing. Such awareness was not in our nature."
"But it is, now."
"Then you understand what we must do. The Light will survive, but not as the singular property of the Heavens. The Conflict was never ours to win. We must entrust it to those who fight in our place."
"To Sanctuary." Auriel pressed Al'maiesh to her eyes with her palms. "I wish it were otherwise. But Itherael said as much when they cast their vote to save the mortal world. They believed humans would serve the Light better than we ever could. They were right. In their absence, I will uphold their faith. And my own. I do not wish my brothers and sisters to languish forever in agony. I would rather them have peace, wherever they find it."
Malthael's eyes grew distant. He absently palmed the hilts of his blades. "We are mortal. But the Angiris Council we remain. What does Justice say?"
"Justice left the Heavens once before to preserve its purpose." The conflicting correctness of the statement twisted his gut, but he continued. "I will do as I must to ensure the Light survives, and to ensure justice is done for our kin."
"Consensus. We destroy the Arch."
"Together." Auriel wiped her face and stood. "Though, brothers, how do we undertake such an immense duty?"
"It is already weakened." Malthael pointed to Aya and Chith. "And these two, strong."
"I will share your burden," the arcanist offered. "For all those on Sanctuary."
"As will I," said Chith.
"Then, come. Bring Solarion. If El'druin was able to shatter the Eye, then the Spear will break the Spine. With haste, before we lose our resolve."
Aya gripped Solarion tightly. The spear felt heavy with purpose. It sang faintly, though its resonance was warped from the darkness Imperius had infused within it. The struggle between Light and shadow threatened to tear it apart in her hands. As they traversed the stairway within the interior of the Silver Spire, similar vibrations rose from its base. The lightless path was treacherous, and several times she stumbled when the steps shook under her.
"I don't think it needs our help," Lyndon muttered. He had climbed onto Tyrael's back at the larger man's request, which allowed him to ascend the stairs while dizzy.
The darkness lessened only marginally when they exited onto the heart of the Arch. The platform's floor was split by two large openings. Where Light should have escaped, only shadow remained. Aya could not look at it for long without feeling ill. She averted her eyes and allowed Solarion to settle to the floor, its tip ringing as it hit the marble.
While Chith and Auriel helped Lyndon down from his Tyrael's back, Malthael lowered his cowl and knelt near one of the gaps. He squinted into the rolling shadows, then eventually removed a gauntlet and ran his fingers across the nearby floor. "The resonance is broken." His frown intensified.
"As we feared. It is far worse than when the Lightsong was corrupted." Tyrael knelt beside him. "Then, the instability came from the Host. But this is indeed from within the Arch."
The spear continued to hum loudly against Aya's shoulder. "Solarion is doing the same."
"Wait." Malthael swore as a tendril lashed out from the gap, barely missing his hand. A second followed, then another. He slid away from the breach and drew his blades, mist already pooling about them.
"I don't remember it doing that last time," Lyndon hissed. "And I really don't want to find out what happens if we leave it alone."
"Ah, but are you not curious, Nephalem?"
The scoundrel's face lost its remaining colour.
"Mal…" Chith stumbled back from where the shadows were beginning to coalesce.
"Spear!" Malthael snapped, rushing to Aya and pulling her to the platform's centre. "And you." He pointed at Chith. "Call the Light. It will answer."
"The Light always answers. How predictable."
Aya shivered. The voice was like a thousand swords digging into her skull. Still, she lifted Solarion, its tip pointed at the Arch's epicentre. The Spire's vibrations had intensified and ran through her boots and into the spear. Ignoring them, she tugged at the edges of the arcane Well that glowed within her and began to draw it into the weapon.
"What pathetic cowardice. A mortal, willing to surrender the Conflict to the Hells? Your kind has weakened, human."
She hissed as doubt gathered in her. The spear, which had begun to glow, wavered. Then a hand grasped her shoulder, and shortly after, a second. She blinked the haze away and found Tyrael and Malthael standing on either side of her, their expressions sorrowful yet resolved.
Across the gap, Chith angled his palms at the shadow, his brow furrowed in concentration. Auriel had wrapped Al'maiesh tightly about him and held one end, while Lyndon clutched the other.
"You are greater than we are." Tyrael's words became a beacon of serenity in her soul. "Just as you are greater than this monstrosity."
"It is not difficult to be greater than your kind, angel."
"Nor yours," Aya roared. Inhibitions shattered, the arcane exploded freely within her. It surged through her limbs and ignited her hair, before flowing to gather at the spear's point.
For all I love. For Sanctuary. For our future.
"For the Light!" She drove Solarion into the Arch. It pierced a hand's breath at first, then sank until the spearhead was completely embedded. The Arch's corruption fought her intensely, but she met it with equal fervor, becoming a conduit to the eternal essence, until cracks of brilliance began to emerge from within the shadows. Motes of Light drifted upward, gradually floating towards Chith.
"Fools! You concede everything by doing this!"
"Absolutely right," Lyndon sneered. "And that includes you. Now take your arse back to the Abyss where it belongs."
The Light reached Chith. The instant it brushed his hands, the world paused. In that moment, Aya felt every piece of the Arch. Each crystalline facet, every step and corner and gold-wrought panel. Within it was all that remained of Anu, struggling mightily against the darkness that threatened to drown it. It screamed.
Here, she called, pointing it to the bridge she had forged between her and Chith. Come here. Come to us. Escape.
Reality returned with a deafening crack as the Spire shattered along its length. The floor heaved, wrenching Solarion from her grip and knocking her off her feet. Strong arms pulled her towards the stairs as the tower's sway and the lingering remnants of the arcane offset her balance.
The Spire began to lean. There was no time. Groaning, she tore open the Well of the arcane, haphazardly weaving its power into the incantation that would allow them to escape. The magic seared her limbs, but she forced the evocation to completion with a howl. The world rippled around them, then disappeared.
Aya collapsed onto a cold marble floor. In the distance, the Silver Spire swayed, then began to crumble. Enormous chunks of crystal sheared from its sides. Before it could collapse, a blast exploded from the heart of the Crystal Arch, shattering it and any pieces that had already fallen. The fragments flashed outward in beams of Light that pierced the firmament.
For a final moment, the Heavens were illuminated to their full glory. The sky glittered with crystal rain. El'druin's protective shield materialized as Tyrael slammed the sword into the platform. Shards showered downward, driving deep into the stone around them, while others were flung outside the Silver City, tumbling towards Sanctuary.
Then, the Light faded, though the impenetrable darkness from earlier did not return. Instead, the Heavens retained a muted appearance, as though twilight forever lingered on the horizon.
A sunset for the Angiris. Or perhaps, Aya realized, a sunrise.
Though skirmishes occasionally approached Eirena, none ever reached her location. She remained beside Kormac, his body kept warm from the incessant heat of the fires. The dry autumn leaves had burned quickly before the fire moved to the trees and grasses. The river that ran near Tristram would stop the worst flames from reaching the town, but even so, it would be a long while before the landscape recovered.
Before any of them did. She brushed the templar's hair from where the breeze had pushed it over his eyes. She should have followed the others after Imperius, but she had not wanted to be a liability. Nausea struck her whenever she thought of Kormac. And if the worst happened, and Imperius somehow won, well — someone needed to survive and tell the others what had occurred. She still believed they would return, victorious. But something about Kormac's death had shattered her unending resolve and replaced it with a practical cynicism.
"You did us all proud," she whispered. "You were the mightiest of your order. A true templar. We will tell your tale and ensure it is never forgotten."
Above her, the sky shifted hue. Confused, Eirena glanced upward, thinking perhaps the fire had moved towards them. Instead, the clouds dissipated, and a brilliant, pure light emanated from the zenith. It intensified as she watched, its glow radiating warmth and peace.
Eirena closed her eyes as the beams fell upon her. They released from within her the swirl of emotions she had sought to subdue. Fear and sorrow. Yet, also hope and joy. As though the entirety of her existence had suddenly become enrichened.
And she knew, unwaveringly, that her friends had defeated Imperius and had returned the Light to the Heavens.
Around the battlefield, the remaining Luminarei fell inert. Valla watched suspiciously as the angels, who had moments ago been prone but still very much alive, began to fade. Their wings dissipated, and the golden armor tarnished and sank into the dirt.
The demon hunter considered the light emanating from the skies with a strange mix of relief and dread. She knew the warmth, intimately. It was the Light of the Heavens. She had seen it many times upon visiting the realm.
It was not meant to be seen in Sanctuary.
Even as she pondered the possibilities, including the most dreadful, she realized the answer was already before her. The Luminarei were, after all, deceased. The Nephalem had won the conflict. She could return home to her son, and her other students. They would mourn. And then, they would prepare for the next hunt.
There was always another.
In Tristram, the sky burst into brilliance. Farmers and scholars protected their eyes until they realized the glow wasn't flames. They had listened to the distant sounds of battle echoing from the wilderness, waiting to see who emerged, wondering if the town would be razed while they watched.
"Holiness," Talm breathed. Nat squirmed on his lap, also watching with wide-eyed wonderment. "The Light."
Through the window he saw others leave temporary shelters, gazing upward with similar rapture on their faces. The screams of war had dissipated, leaving only the gentle murmur of birds and insects. The smoke drifting on the air remained at a distance.
"They won." Lena dropped to her knees and pressed her forehead to the worn floorboards. "It's over."
Even from the meadow, Farah still heard the faint clashing of blades and the roar of flames. The library was more insulated, but she couldn't bring herself to remain inside forever. Too much was at stake for her to hide away and avoid the world. Instead, she waited by the river. Where, if she closed her eyes and dreamed hard enough, she could still hear Malthael's voice and smell the tanned leathers of his gear.
After what felt like an eternity, the clamour of battle unexpectedly ceased. The clouds exploded with light, a permeating shimmer that drove away the shadows. The river reflected the radiance, its waters rippling like fireflies.
Pain wracked her chest. She had seen that light before, in a dream. A spire falling, its crystalline heart shattering onto the earth. The end of the Light. Stifling a cry, she forced herself to breathe. There was no sound of troops, yet. But the angels would rush Tristram. They would destroy the last bastion of the Nephalem. And if they didn't find her directly, their flames would.
She had nowhere to run. All that remained was a promise.
"Where water meets sky. You will know the place, pi'ra."
She wrapped her arms across her chest and tried to still her shaking shoulders. He would have been strong, even in the face of death. Not fearless, certainly. But resolute. As he would want her to be.
I'll wait here. At the water. For you.
Yet, the world continued. The silence was broken by voices, from Tristram. Weeping. Screaming. Joyous. But that was impossible. She had Seen the end of things and the fall of the Heavens. And she was sure the Fall had taken place above her. Except, there were no Luminarei rushing the town. Or her.
The longer she considered the din coming from Tristram, the more she found herself staring into the water. The ripples were hypnotic and something tangible she could focus on, while she tried to understand the confounding situation unfolding around her. Each wave that struck the shore brought with it the same realization.
The voices she heard were mortal. All of them.
Gradually, the Light faded. The waters tinted amber as the sun began to dip. The celebratory cacophony continued. If it was real, then she needed to go to them. Aya could be there. She had to check on her.
But she could not. Not when she had promised to wait for him. Not until she knew for certain if his demise was imagined, or if he had, miraculously, survived. And perhaps none of it was happening. Perhaps it was the final gasps of her mind as she lay on the ground underneath the Luminarei. Perhaps—
"You were not where I expected to find you. When I said by the waters, I meant so symbolically."
She flinched in surprise, then in fear. But even as she rose to flee, the deep, familiar voice finally registered in her consciousness. And there, in the water, was a tall figure standing by her side.
"Pi'ra," she whispered. Malthael dropped to his knees and caught her as she stumbled. "I saw the Light. Gone. I thought we had lost."
"You saw our victory."
Overcome, she embraced him tightly, withdrawing only when he groaned. The reason for his discomfort became obvious. His sleeves were shredded, and the skin underneath streaked with dried blood. Haphazard field bandages were wrapped around some of his arms, as well as his thigh. She ran her fingers across his chest, then through his hair, which glowed a vivid white in the dimming sun. An illusion of the skies, and not his doing. But he was no illusion.
He was there. He was breathing. Not a dream born of her last moments.
"You're still here," she managed.
"Indeed. Mortality is vastly preferable to the alternative."
"But, how? Wasn't the Arch destroyed? I thought your brother had…"
"Imperius is dead. Aya bested him. Tyrael drove El'druin through his chest."
His mention of Aya swelled her heart further, though it did little to explain the contradiction. "Then, who?"
"We did. The Angiris. Our time is over."
"You…" They had spilled the Light from the Heavens. Not the demons, or the corrupted angels. But her friends. She shook her head, unable to express her sorrow at the revelation. "But, then the Conflict is—"
He gently wrapped his arms around her shoulders and pulled her against his breastplate. "Complicated."
She sank into the gesture, her composure dissolving into a strange blend of relief and dismay. "I should have brought tea," she whispered, as she tightened her fingers on his back. "To help. Oh, not that it would. With this. But-"
He chuckled, painfully. "It would. And I would like that very much."
It had been a long while since she had heard the sound, and she found herself joining in. They watched as the last flickers of daylight left the skies and night fell. It was a darkness finally free of peril, and privy to the secrets of their future, come dawn.
Though the Host lay in ruin, and Imperius' remains were sundered across the white marble of the Heavens, it came at a hefty price. The losses to the Nephalem were not miniscule. As soon as the survivors were able, they returned to the charred fields to retrieve their fallen comrades. No indignity would be as great as if they allowed roving monsters to raise the corpses from their rest or use them for a meal.
Then, they gathered whatever remaining unburned kindling they could find, bringing it and the bodies to the centre of Tristram. There, a wide pyre was assembled: a collection of wood imbued with arcane runes where the dead could be safely sent off. Once it was completed, the survivors gathered solemnly around it.
Malthael observed the memorial from under the cover of a market stall, away from the bulk of the crowd. He ached from the events of the day prior, and from the small help he had provided in collecting the dead. He absently adjusted the fresh cotton bandages wrapped around his forearms; the lacerations pulsed, even after Auriel and Chith had tended to them. His leg did not feel much better, but he refused to let the pain stop him from attending the ceremony.
"Are there any others?" Tyrael called. He waited a few minutes, then eventually turned and bowed to the pyre. A seemingly-endless queue of Nephalem followed him around the unlit bonfire, each taking short moments to pay their respects to those who had fallen.
Lyndon glanced at Malthael as he and Eirena passed by. The scoundrel shrugged, and Malthael replied in kind. He knew what Lyndon meant by it. They had, in their own way, survived. There would be time enough for talk later.
I owe you my life. That will not be forgotten.
Any pretense of control Lyndon displayed, however, broke when he saw Kormac's body. He slumped against Eirena and pressed a palm to his eyes, sobbing quietly. Then, with the enchantress' help, he tugged the charm he carried from around his neck, and lay it on the templar's chest.
"Sleep easy, friend," he said hoarsely. "You've more than earned it."
Once as the passersby thinned, Malthael left his post. He searched the pyre, eventually finding a white-haired woman whose smirk remained even in death. There were no flowers or tokens left for her. She would not have cared.
Returning the smile slightly, he lay his hand on Zaira's chest, long enough to show a semblance of respect. She had been unkind, even to him. But she and Osseus had died resplendent in battle, with the confounding complexity he saw so often in mortals. They had traded their lives for the distraction that had likely brought them all victory.
"Rest, Lady Reaper," he whispered. "With my respect." Then he joined the others and waited for the procession to conclude.
At the very end of the mourners came Aya and Farah. The former's usually vibrant robes were replaced by dark mourner's garb. She carried a gem engraved with a greater mark of burning. Bowing, she placed it upon Li-Ming's chest, then folded the woman's hands tightly around it.
"My friend." She spoke so softly Malthael could hardly hear. "My mentor. My sister-kin. Your sacrifice and your love will not be forgotten. I will do right by it and your memory." She sought Farah's hand and held it tightly, before closing her eyes and stretching her other hand to the pyre.
The runes began to glow, faintly at first, then brighter, until the wood combusted, becoming a final, ruthless conflagration that surged towards the night sky. The smoke obscured the stars until the crackling stabilized, and the haze dispersed.
As the bodies caught fire, Malthael felt a twinge in the realm's fabric. Lingering souls, waiting to bid farewell to their comrades before making their final journey. If the faces of the mourners were any indication, they were unaware of the company. They were absorbed in their own, overwhelming emotions, and did not notice the transient brushes of hands across their cheeks or the whispered, breathless goodbyes.
It was his silent watch, alone.
The spirits flickered, then gradually vanished. As they did, he reached out and very gently guided them towards the fog of Death. He did not know what was beyond the veil. It was still not his time to learn. But he did remember the words spoken by those as they passed. As was the Aspect of Death's burden and responsibility.
Do not be afraid. There is plenty of light where you go. May it be greater than what you found here, at the end.
As the morning sun crested the horizon, it gradually illuminated the smoking remains of the pyre and the remnants of the wake that had occurred through the deepest hours of the night. Casks of mead and wine remained where they had been dragged from cellars onto the streets. Discarded steins and bottles were everywhere. A few revellers were passed out under trees or on benches, some in each other's arms.
Auriel smiled as she walked across Tristram's square, quietly so as not to wake them. They were in no danger, and she did not want to disturb their sleep. Exhaustion was also her companion, both from her efforts on the battlefield and the countless hours she had spent healing the injured afterwards. She had taken to bed while the fires still burned. Even after a deep sleep, she felt as though she walked in a dream.
The world is changed. My perception of it will adjust, with time.
Yet, some elements of her world remained the same. In the stillness of the early hours, she sought someone who could share her company. She knew Malthael would be awake. He had been a restless soul even while immortal. The little she had seen of him since his rebirth suggested nothing had changed.
"No sleep, sister?" he asked, as she approached. A worn, leather journal lay open on his lap, and beside him on the bench were an ink vial and pen. He gathered the latter into a pouch and gestured for her to join him.
"Oh, I slept. Restfully and undisturbed, to my relief. But the dead sleep enough for us, and I would not squander these blessed hours by wallowing in the emotions of the damned."
"Mortality is wrought with feelings."
"As I have seen. Yet, all in their place and time."
His lips twitched. "You are not here for small talk. What wisdom do you seek?"
"You know me all too well."
"And you, I."
He clearly knew she was troubled. She had always provided him hope during his darkest moments. And he had always provided answers when the horrors she witnessed threatened to drown that hope. If ever she had needed an answer, it was now. She had breathed her question into silent life a thousand times while pondering it to the extent of her ability. It rested heavily on her tongue even as she tried to give it form.
"Speak," he said, not unkindly.
She clasped her hands and locked her gaze to the cobblestones. "What of our lost siblings?" Her voice rang discordant even to her own ears. "Now that the Arch is no more, and the Light has been released to cascade endlessly about Sanctuary. What becomes of Itherael, and Imperius, and the rest of the Host?"
Malthael was silent for a long moment. He braced his chin against his hands, his expression growing distant. She waited, patiently, for she knew he was giving deep consideration to her question.
"I do not know. But," he raised a hand, "I know death. Death of the body is not an end, particularly for our kin. It was not for me. Perhaps it will not be for them."
"Hope, then? Is that the answer?"
"Perhaps." A subtle smile hid in the creases of his eyes, where the depths of wisdom pooled. "You should know, sister. That is your domain."
"It was, a lifetime ago. Do you think it will remain such as I walk this realm?"
She laughed softly. Regardless of all that had occurred, at least a small fraction of her family remained. And though she missed Itherael with a horrific, keening pain she had never known while immortal, she also saw the truth in Malthael's words. Their sibling might return, one day. And if Imperius chose to do the same, perhaps with time she could forgive him as she had Malthael.
"What of your dear friend?" She chortled again when his eyes widened in surprise. "Your Farah. Where is she?"
"I would assume. She was when I left."
"I am glad you have found someone who understands your penchant for vanishing. Oh, Malthael, do not scowl at me so. You have always been different, and I mean so kindly. In mortal form, these differences are some of the many facets that make the realm truly unique."
"As should be expected from a world born of chaos."
"Still, I am more familiar with mortal needs than you likely believe, having entertained Tyrael enough times in the past. Have you slept at all? Have you even eaten since we warred?"
"I have not been home," he said, dryly. "It was in most pleasurable use when I attempted to."
"Surely they could have waited until the morning. Particularly if you required rest!"
"I did not ask. I am not evicting Tyrael from his own home. And I am tired of him and Aya staring at each other in bewilderment. Perhaps this will remedy their confusion."
Mortality had not dulled his bluntness. Still, as concerned as she was for Malthael's health, she was also happy her other brother and Aya had found some comfort with each other. That was no small blessing, given all that had occurred. She also suspected Malthael could have stayed with Farah had he so wished. It was clearly not a lack of lodging that had kept him awake through the night.
She gestured at his journal with a knowing smile. "And so, you write. Despite bandages and sleeplessness. Is it a history of these events?"
"Of course. Victors create history. We will be judged, as we should be. And this preserves our reasoning, lest they condemn us without context."
"Why do you so readily assign us villainous roles in the tale? You were right when you claimed this was not our conflict to win. It never was. Nor did we willingly invite darkness into the Heavens. It was unfathomable, and unavoidable. At least mortals may use what lingers of the Light to do what we could not."
"The shards of the Arch also fell to Sanctuary. They will be uncovered in time, as were the remnants of the Worldstone. Only, they are far more powerful. And power is not inherently good. We may have done the Nephalem a disservice."
"You may be right," she admitted. "Though, I suppose we will learn the answers to that in time. Tyrael told me of the wanderings that occupied your time in recent years. I sense a great many adventures in your future."
"The search for wisdom is endless." He closed the journal carefully. "That remains constant."
"Wait, brother. Since you speak for all our kin in your words. I would know, what did you write in our defense?"
He sighed, then reopened the book. And in the wonderful voice Auriel remembered, he read aloud.
Future inhabitants of Sanctuary may accuse us of genocide. And verily, we did choose to end the reign of the High Heavens. Yet, that end was also preordained, and had been in motion since Diablo first split the Council. He spoke of a trap, and indeed, he rendered one fully capable of destroying the delicate balance of power between the Angiris. He sowed seeds of discord that eventually struck Imperius from his throne of valor.
Even Diablo, however, was not strong enough to singlehandedly bring ruin to our kind, though his work certainly hastened it. No. Such an end was caused by our own nature: static, unmalleable, and unable to adapt to the introduction of a third power. As Sanctuary grew and the Nephalem became stronger, the Host weakened. A sickness spread through the Aspects, one driven by our compulsive need to maintain an order that no longer existed.
From myself, it stole my understanding of eternity; in my drive to find answers in muddled waters, I sought to destroy the very beings that would be our future.
From Tyrael, it stole his immortality; demonstrating wisdom beyond his station, he saw the necessity for Justice outside the Heavens, and he cast off his form to join those who he would embrace as his kin.
From Imperius, it stole his purpose; he feared a day when the splendour of war would be beyond him, and instead of revelling in the glory of such a permanent victory, he created new conflicts to ensure an eternity of battle.
From Itherael, it stole the respect owed to them; though, it should be noted that of any of the Archangels, Itherael maintained their admiration for mortals, and was content to watch them grow even as the Heavens faded.
And from Auriel, it stole the rush of air on her wings; her fall was the result of each of ours prior and was as malicious and horrific a sundering of innocence imaginable. She paid the price for our mistakes without choice or alternative.
Thus, the Angiris Council faltered. Without their guidance, the Heavens themselves fell prey to the shadows. But even in times of the deepest darkness, the Light of the High Heavens will always persevere.
We released it from its prison, so it may grow in splendour within Sanctuary. Equally available and freely obtained within the heart of every mortal. The Light will always thrive as they live and die together.
And, most profoundly, as they love.
And thus, we reach the end. The series started on the water's edge, and it ends there, as well. Prophecies echo, after all. As do stories. But sometimes with enough repetition, we find wisdom. We find purpose. We find love.
When I started writing Diablo: Amor Aeternus, I hadn't planned on it being a series. I didn't know where it was going beyond the first story. Like so many works of fiction, the characters found their voices and their own directions. Farah was meant to be a side-character at best. Lyndon was just in it for the jokes. Malthael was supposed to find mortal wisdom, though I wasn't sure what kind. But, well.
Well. Stories tell themselves, sometimes. The series received its name after I finished writing Act 4, once it became obvious the story I was trying to tell. Which is, that the most common and affecting fundamental human experience is love. In every permutation. Between all sorts of people. Nothing complicated. And nothing short of profound.
It's been an immense joy to share this series with all of you. I hope you've found as much joy in reading it (alongside no small amount of heartache, I'm sure).
Is this really the end, though? Not really. Ends are just the beginning of other tales. And I have more than a few left to tell about Malthael and the Nephalem.
...Stories that you'll see in the next series - Diablo: Archfall!
"Archfall. The moment the Eternal Conflict ended, changing Sanctuary irrevocably.
While mortals recover from Imperius' attack on their home, the Nephalem seek to understand the shift in the Balance wrought by the destruction of the Crystal Arch. The Light has fallen to Sanctuary, and its shards possess the strength of the Angiris. Some seek the shards to understand their power. Others pursue them for their own uses, whether to maintain peace or gain authority.
Observing all of this with calculating patience is the Burning Hells. Demons never rest: they only find new hosts. And without the Heavens to assist, it falls to the Nephalem to stand alone against the growing shadow of the Prime Evil."
Our friends have some new problems to deal with. They also have a lot of baggage to process from the preceding series.
Diablo: Archfall is a series in 5 Acts, tentatively titled as follows:
Act I: Breathe
Act II: Shards of the Gods
Act III: Tomes of the Ancients
Act IV: Brothers-in-Arms
Act V: The Mortal Aspects
There will also be a series of side-fics, the same as I did with "Tales from Tristram".
I am currently debating whether to post everything under one over-arching story for ease of reading the filler chapters afterwards. Regardless, I won't be posting anything until the writing is finished and I have a chance to do a full-series edit like I did with the first series.
Look for Diablo: Archfall this summer! And in the meantime, I'll still be answering tumblr blog Asks, writing extra material, and generally providing you all with the Malthael-related Diablo content you seem to crave.