The village had been smouldering for weeks. Located on the eastern edge of the Aranoch Desert there had been no warning bells from a nearby settlement to direct aid, so when daemons had struck it had been over quickly. The fiends had taken few prisoners and even then, only for their entertainment and sustenance. The corpse in front of Tyrael had been tortured and then killed, most of its lower body consumed by daemons. He gripped his sword El’druin tighter before rising to his feet. The sight had made him furious, a fury he intended to turn on their opponents.
“This is grim indeed.” Valla said. The Nephalem too had been examining a corpse of an unfortunate villager. It had sustained similar injuries.
“It is quite likely that we will find no survivors.” Tyrael said, steeling himself to the thought.
“I didn’t expect any.” Valla said grimly and stood up. One of the daemon huntress’ crossbows came into Vallas hands in a blur and she began examining it for faults or potential problems.
“Are you all right, Nephalem?” Tyrael asked.
“Nephalem? I have a name, you know.” Valla responded. When Tyrael simply looked back at her, she sighed and continued her work.
“I will be fine, thank you Tyrael. I just suppose I hoped that once we had defeated both Diablo AND Malthael, two foes of cosmos-shaking proportions, Sanctuary would calm down a bit, be a happier place if only for a spell,”
Valla looked at the mutilated corpses and the smouldering village on the horizon again, “And in recent weeks I have been proven soundly wrong. Sanctuary is just as full of evil, sickness and death as it has always been. Now it is just through more personal and savage means than some grand ritual.
“Perhaps we missed something, some canker Malthael or Diablo left behind-”
Tyrael put a hand on Valla’s shoulder. He could not help but notice that when the Nephalem became agitated, her eyes took on a golden shade. “Malthael is dead, Heavens rest his spirit, and Diablo was banished. And if there is some grand evil at work again, that is why we are here. Be at ease, Valla.”
Valla locked eyes with Tyrael for a moment before her shoulders slumped again and she took a deep breath, the crossbow vanishing under her cloak again. “Thank you Tyrael. It’s been a rough year. Now let’s get going, there is still a small chance that someone survived.”
The scene of mutilation they had found on the outskirts of the village paled in comparison to the village centre. Piles of corpses rotted next to collapsed huts, plumes of smoke still curling from holes in their roofs. Spikes of hell-rock had impaled women and children around which impish daemons were dancing and cavorting. Gargoyles were circling in the sky, too caught up in their competition for food to notice Tyrael and Valla’s approach.
Valla pulled up her cloak to cover her nose against the stench of death that was blowing out of the village. Tyrael did not seem to notice.
“None of these vile fiends appear in charge.” Tyrael whispered angrily.
“Indeed.” Valla responded. The golden glow of Nephalem power had returned to her eyes.
The Nephalem rose from their hiding spot and, dual hand-crossbows appearing in her hands in a blur of motion, unloaded on the gargoyles flying in the sky. In a moment the flyers were torn asunder in a hail of crossbow bolts, their stony hides no match for Valla’s armaments. The fiends on the ground stopped in their revelry and looked dumbfounded at the winged creatures tumbling out of the sky above them, not noticing Tyrael’s charge before it was far too late. El’druin split one daemon from throat to hip before it had time to cry out and then continued, confusion rising amongst the daemon herd as they torn to pieces by sword and bolt.
The fight was over quickly, the daemons weak and unprepared for an attack. The only injury sustained by the companions was a minor cut from when a panicked daemon had managed to lay a claw on Tyrael’s cheek. It had taken a crossbow-bolt to the temple before it had taken another breath.
“Tyrael, sit down.” Valla indicated a large chopping block that the villagers must have used for firewood before the attack.
“I assure you Nephalem, it was a tiny cut barely worth mentioning. I am just fine.” Tyrael responded. Besides the cut, the man’s cloak was the only evidence he had been in battle. Valla envied his enchanted armour and sword on which blood and guts never stuck. She herself had no injuries but her armour was spotted with daemon fluids.
The daemon huntress pointed to the improvised seat again and unhooked her water-skin. “You won’t be saying that when it gets infected. Now, sit down.”
Tyrael, chastised, sat down and held still while Valla washed the cut. Even as the Aspect of Wisdom it would take Tyrael a little while longer to adjust to his new life as a mortal and the requirements that entailed.
“Thank you, Valla. I had not thought of it like that.” Tyrael said while trying to resist the urge to rub at his cheek.
“It is nothing. Daemons are vile creatures in every sense. Cleanliness of any sort is not their forte. Now, survivors and then we try and discover if there is anything more to this attack.”
As Tyrael had suspected they found no survivors. One young girl had hidden herself in the cellar of one of the houses before it had collapsed. The poor girl had given up the ghost, dead despite no injuries on her person and all the food-stores the family had stored in their larder. Valla carried her out into the village square and laid her to rest in one of the corpse-piles before lighting them on fire, giving the villagers as much of a burial as was reasonable. It reminded Valla too much of her own child-hood, but the two companions had come here to investigate, not to spend days digging graves.
Their rescue effort attempted, the two gathered in the centre of the village. Tyrael gently planted El’druin in the bloody soil. The holy blade lifted off the ground by a few inches and the central jewel changed in its brilliance. Globules of energy rose off the daemon corpses and floated into the jewel for a minute before a trail of sorts became evident in the air, like a scrap of blood-covered cloth hanging in mid-air. It led out of the village towards the ocean. A thick pillar of smoke rose there but the village had not extended that far out.
“Their hell-gate.” Valla said.
“Indeed.” Tyrael agreed. But as Valla strode off and Tyrael made to grasp his blade and follow, his touch caused another reaction in the holy sword. The trail vanished, and the blood-red spots vanished from the central jewel, to be replaced by a single glowing spot that sped off, leaving a trail of radiant dust that led off in a different direction from the hell-gate.
“Wait a moment, Nephalem. There is something else here.”
Valla stopped and turned, taking in the glowing trail with a glance. “A bigger daemon?”
“No, it is an angelic presence. An angel passed through here.” Tyrael responded.
“Really? Before or after the attack?”
Tyrael rose to his feet, El’druin at his side. “Far before, I would hope. I cannot condone any of my angelic brethren passing through this charnel-house without taking action.”
Valla took out one of her crossbows and held it to her side, eyes fixed on Tyrael. “Do you want to go take a look?”
“I do, but you need not accompany me. You have helped the High Heavens enough without getting involved in our personal matters. I will send a signal if I am in need of assistance.” Tyrael said. He was not looking back at Valla but was instead staring off into the desert where the trail was leading.
“I will close that hell-gate then. If it comes to it, I too will send a signal. Good luck Tyrael.” With that, Valla strode off towards the plume of smoke in the distance and the hell-gate it promised.
“Blessings of the High Heavens to you, Nephalem.” And Tyrael grasped El’druin tighter and stalked after the trail.
The trail snaked through the dunes of the Aranoch Desert until the smoking village was just a plume on the horizon, the glowing path leading to a radiant fissure suspended in the air in the shadow of a sand-dune. Tyrael recognised it well enough; it was the aftermath of a gateway to the High Heavens. Not just any angel could make those. He approached and lifted El’druin, the holy sword forcing the gateway to reactivate. It flared up with a flash of light, an image of a castle floating among the clouds of the High Heavens, a glistening retreat unknown to Tyrael. Wondering if this was a remnant of Malthael’s time before his corruption, Tyrael stepped through the portal.
Compared to the harsh dryness of the Aranoch Desert, the air in the High Heavens was sweet and crisp and the clouds in the distance rolled gently along. It was the kind of landscape Tyrael had become used to through the millennia of his long life but at this moment it did not bring him ease. It disquieted him, raised questions. A fellow angel had had this castle constructed without the Angiris Council being any the wiser. Tyrael knew that sometimes the humans of Sanctuary would construct homes for themselves to reside in during rest periods. This was not such a place. This was a fortress, albeit one with no guards manning the battlements. The complete absence of any creatures, angelic or daemonic, past the rift only disquieted the Archangel more. Tyrael looked about as he walked its halls but saw no sigils or items of heraldry. This place was as functional as the High Heavens come.
Eventually he arrived at something he could only describe as a laboratory. Vials, beakers and burners dominated a long table and the air was heavy with smells and acrid odours Tyrael could not identify.
“An angel dabbling in alchemy? What is this?” Tyrael muttered below his breath as he searched for identification or any notes that might explain this place’s existence or purpose.
“Become a common intruder, have we, Tyrael?” A deep voice spoke from the doorway Tyrael had come.
Sensing the essence of the speaker, as well as recognising the voice of an age-old acquaintance, Tyrael knew just who was speaking. “Imperius. Why are you here?” He turned and looked the Archangel in the eye.
The Archangel of Valour stood in the doorway, gilded armour resplendent in the light that suffused the fortress’ interior. “I could ask you that very question.” Imperius strode into the chamber, the door closing behind him without a sound.
“I was wondering why an angel had passed through a destroyed human village crawling with fiends and daemons and yet had not put them to the sword.” Tyrael responded.
Imperius stopped at the table Tyrael was examining. His arms were crossed behind his back, reminding Tyrael of some human magus. “Humans are transient beings. If we angels needed defend them at every turn the High Heavens would forever be without defenders.”
Tyrael felt some unease about his ally’s manner. Even before Diablo had defiled the High Heavens Imperius’ wrath at the presence of daemons had been without equal. He would be the last to leave a herd of daemons unchecked. “Did you not hear me, Imperius? Daemons. This was not some border dispute or bandit attack. Daemons followed the trace of this place, whatever it is, and they resided not but a minute by wing from its very doorstep! Me and the Nephalem found it by chance-”
Imperius held up a gauntleted hand for silence before he interrupted Tyrael. “Understand me well, Tyrael, I loathe the daemons as much as ever, as much as any angel, but I prepare for a greater foe, one that any daemon, even the Prime Evils, pale before.” Imperius said.
“A foe greater than the Prime Evils? Who is this? Why have you not informed the Council?” Tyrael demanded. What creature could be so fearsome?
Imperius turned back towards Tyrael ever so slightly, wings slowly extending. “Because this foe is beyond the reach of the Council.”
“Imperius, Malthael is gone.”
Imperius raised a hand, palm upwards. “I speak not of Malthael or some daemon.” The air above Imperius’ palm shimmered and an image appeared in golden colours, a scene Tyrael had seen with his own eyes not but a few months past. A human woman with black hair and golden eyes, suspended above the fading image of a dead Archangel on wings of radiant Nephalem energy.
Tyrael gasped and reflexively stepped away from Imperius. “Have you lost your mind, Imperius!? You cannot be serious!”
Imperius closed his fist. The image vanished and Solarion, Imperius’ fabled spear, replaced it in his hand. He held the upper hal still split in two from his fight against Prime Diablo at the Diamond Gates. “My mind is sound, old friend. And if you were still stalwart in your wish to defend The Silver City, you would not balk so at my words.”
Tyrael raised El’druin before him. “The Nephalem has saved not only Sanctuary but also the High Heavens. They champion our cause! How can you consider them a foe?”
“We both saw it together. The Nephalem’s boundless power,” At those words Imperius grew tenser as if withholding a great rage, “Great enough to destroy both Diablo and Malthael and yet stand on their own two feet to tell the tale. They are too dangerous.”
“Too dangerous!?” Tyrael backed a step towards the door. Something must have corrupted Imperius, some fiend from the Burning Hells. He would need the Nephalem’s aid in this.
Imperius continued. “The Nephalem might be an ally today, but what if they should be corrupted, or see some imagined slight made against their precious Sanctuary,” Imperius practically spat out the name of the world of mortals, “And they should turn against the High Heavens? Even the possibility cannot be allowed.”
Tyrael turned and made to leave but Imperius surged past him on his wings and landed, Solarion pointed at Tyrael’s chest. “Your mortal mind must be blinding you to the truth. I cannot allow you to leave, Tyrael.”
“You would fight your own brother?” Tyrael asked, unwilling to mask the shock in his voice.
“The Silver City must be kept safe.” Was all Imperius said before he raised Solarion and struck. The very air screamed as the fiery spear crashed down towards Tyrael parried it with El’druin and leap backwards to keep his distance. Imperius wasted no time on further discussion and charged, spear forward and aimed for Tyrael. The former Archangel did not counter, but instead cut at the air with his holy sword to open a portal out of the High Heavens and back to Sanctuary, stumbling through before Solarion could land.
Tyrael fell out of the portal and into the desert sand. It was still day in Sanctuary and the plumes of smoke from the smouldering village still painted the horizon.
“We have found our great foe. I must warn the Nephalem!” Tyrael surged to his feet and raised El’druin. A surge of power ran up the blade and shot into the sky, so brilliant that was it clearly visible even in the sky of the desert. The portal behind him lit up even the bright desert sands when Imperius followed Tyrael, the Archangel of Valour landing rather more gracefully next to him, spear already sailing around in an arc to crash into Tyrael’s sword and sent it flying. Tyrael could hardly take a step before Imperius wrapped a wing-tendril around his foot and toppled him, ensuring his prone position by stabbing Solarion’s blade through Tyrael’s side.
“I am sorry it had to happen like this, Tyrael. I will take you back to the Silver City and you will see the truth and necessity of my cause.” Imperius’ gauntleted hand created a new portal in the air, an image of the Diamond Gates visible through it.
One definite downside of his new mortal body was the pain. It reached out from the blade in his flank threatening to disable him. Tyrael grimaced against it and reached for his sword. El’druin flew to his hand in response to his call but Imperius stamped on his sword-arm with an armoured boot before he could use it. Imperius ripped out Solarion, forcing a cry of pain from Tyrael, and lifted him bodily with one arm to carry him through the portal.
But the Archangel of Valour had barely taken a step before 3 crossbow-bolts slammed into the arm holding Tyrael and exploded, sending both of them flying from the portal.
“Imperius!” An apparition of power stood on top of the furthest dune. “What is the meaning of this!?”
The Daemon Huntress Valla stood cloaked in her own power, a mass of wings like an angel but black and crimson in colour. One crossbow was raised, the bolt surrounded by a harsh red glow. Blood coated her armour underneath the wing-cloak, but it was the dark blood of daemons. Valla had closed the daemonic hell-gate without a scratch on her own body.
“Tyrael is your ally! Did losing to Diablo make you lose your mind!?” Valla shouted.
Imperius had risen to his feet with Solarion at his side, staring up at the Nephalem. “I need not reason with you, mortal.” He retorted with condescension.
“If I had taken the same stance those months ago, Imperius, neither of us would be standing here today,” Valla raised the other crossbow, “So explain yourself, Archangel of ‘Valour’!”
“Nephalem, be careful!” Tyrael shouted at the top of his voice, “Imperius means to kill you, he has gone mad!”
Imperius leapt as Tyrael shouted, surging forward with his wings, fading into a pale mist that sped towards Valla. For a moment Tyrael feared his warning had distracted the huntress at a vital moment but she leapt aside from the spear-thrust that erupted from the fog then retaliated, a cluster of bolts that clattered and stung against Imperius’ armoured form. Even as the bolts were loosed Valla started moving backwards, creating distance between her and her opponent, but Imperius struck again, blasting a ray of angelic energy at the Nephalem whose crimson-black cloak withered under the assault but ultimately held. The smouldering cloak was swept aside when Valla tossed a handful of round objects at Imperius with one hand and shot an electrified bola with a crossbow in the other. The speed of the counter-attack surprised Imperius for he was briefly bound by the bola and thus unable to leap away before the grenades exploded under him, scattering black smoke and sand all over the battlefield. Valla did not wait for the smoke to dissipate, unloading her crossbows into the cloud, crimson-charged bolts slamming through the obscuring cover. In a long leap Valla hurried to Tyrael’s side as he stood, leaning on El’druin. A hot desert-wind had begun to kick up, blowing away the black smoke from the Valla’s onslaught.
Imperius still stood but barely, leaning heavily on Solarion. Motes of angelic essence drifted out of his armour like blood, gathering on the sand in front of him.
“Yield, Imperius. We do not wish to fight you.” Tyrael shouted. Valla gave him a look that indicated she felt differently but she did not voice it.
“I do not yield.” Imperius roared and rose to his feet. Valla readied her crossbows again but Imperius made no advance towards them and simply extended his left hand and unmade his fist, one gauntleted finger at a time.
Rising out of his hand was a jagged crystal, red like fresh blood. The crystal was slowly spinning under some invisible force.
“What is that?” Tyrael asked. In truth he had some inkling as to what it might be, but he wished dearly that he was wrong.
“You should know even better than I, Tyrael.” Imperius responded in a mocking tone before raising it aloft.
Valla’s gaze was drawn to it before she stumbled as if drunk, raising her hands to her head and her crossbows tumbling out of her hands. “What, what is happening?” She said in a weak voice. Her eyes were shut tight and her mouth was a grimace of agony.
Tyraels suspicions were dreadfully true. “The Worldstone. You tampered with the sundered Worldstone!” Tyrael shouted at Imperius, unable to believe that his own brother would stoop to such methods.
The Archangel of Valour did not respond but began striding towards Valla, who was by now on her knees fighting to even breathe.
Tyrael staggered forwards, one hand clutching the wound Solarion had put in his side and moved to stand between Imperius and the Nephalem. “Stop this madness, Imperius. It must be Baal’s lingering presence in the Stone that corrupts you so!” He looked into Imperius’ eyes, searching for any sign that his words were being heard. “Please!”
Imperius stopped before Tyrael, Solarion in one hand and the Worldstone-fragment slowly spinning in the other. “Step aside, brother.”
“I will not.” Tyrael raised his sword as high as he could.
Imperius sighed and bull-rushed Tyrael, knocking his sword aside with Solarion while the larger angel battered the weakened mortal form to the ground. Tyrael gasped in pain and his sword flew a few meters away to stick into the sand.
Valla was desperately trying to rise to her feet when Imperius slammed his knee into her face and lifted her bodily into the air. She struggled for a moment until Imperius’ put his spear-point at her chest. He could kill her before she could even take a single breath, let alone defend herself. The woman could barely breathe, let alone move a single finger of Imperius’ hand.
“Nephalem,” The Archangel of Valour said, “It is true that you are a champion of the Realms and that without your aid The Silver City would have fallen.”
He drew her close to his helmet, the blade of Solarion still resting against her chest. “But you are mortal, with a mortal heart. Your power is too great, too unchecked. You are susceptible to corruption, to the influences of daemons.”
With a roar he tossed her aside, Valla landing painfully in the desert sand with a gasp of pain. “Know this. I will allow you to continue your crusade, your quest, whatever it may be. But one misstep, one sign that you are becoming an enemy of the High Heavens,” Imperius surged to her side in his mist-form before materialising and putting an armoured boot on her stomach and Solarion against her neck, the crimson crystal held above her head, “And I will end you, so I swear by the High Heavens. The Silver City cannot be threatened.”
His speech ended, Imperius made his left fist again, cutting off the glow of the fragment. Valla began sucking in great lungfuls of air with a start, coughing against the sand that came with them and while trying to raise herself up on shaking arms.
Imperius stepped away from the recovering Nephalem and past Tyrael who was still struggling on the ground. He said nothing as he raised Solarion and created a portal to the High Heavens then stepped through. The portal closed behind him immediately, leaving Tyrael and Valla alone in the Aranoch Desert.