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The bonfire slowly subsided. Standing in the middle of what was now a cloud of hot steam was a devil that exuded an aura of Evil that rivaled even Jalie's.
He was a full eight feet tall, muscular, with burnt red flesh and black hair down to his shoulders. His fiendish wings, horns, cloven hooves, and forked tail completed the image of the classic devil, and a fiery aura surrounded him. He wore a breech cloth and golden wristbands, and held a trident made of blackened iron.
The expression on his face as he looked at the Lich-Fiend was not a pleasant one...
And the expression on Jalie Squarefoot's face was one that the humans watching had not yet seen him show – fear.
He and the other devils around him fell to their knees.
"M-m-master..." he stammered.
Mephistopheles, the Archduke of Cania, Lord of the Eighth, sighed and shook his head.
"Jalie, Jalie, Jalie..." he said. "I always knew you thought bigger than my other men... Why I let you continue with your grandiose plans, I have no idea... I guess I couldn't help but admire your audacity...
"But now... Now I finally learn the extent of your plans, and discover the catastrophic disaster that you almost caused..."
The flames around him started to intensify.
"I still have wounds that I received during Tharizdun's first campaign of obliteration! They never fully healed, and still ache when I'm having a bad day!
"I would disassemble your skeletal body and send each bone to the Platonics in a separate parcel, if not for one thing..."
He pointed his trident at Jalie.
"Their punishment for you would be far too merciful..."
"Master, please!" begged Jalie.
Then the Lich-Fiend screamed as Hellfire erupted around him. In seconds, he had vanished.
Then Malanus, Xon, and Novolar screamed as the same thing happened to them. Then every remaining devil present howled before vanishing in plumes of hellish fires.
Mephistopheles paused. Then he turned and glanced at the Shadowchasers and Unity-of-Rings.
He gave them a sly smirk, then turned around, and then vanished in a flaming burst of his own.
Dante let out a tired sigh, and sat down.
"Glad he didn't stay to chat," he muttered.
"Jalie..." said Ophelia. "I wonder who ratted on him?"
"I did," said a familiar voice.
They turned as Ibza walked into the room.
"Ibza!" shouted Dante. "We completely forgot about you!"
"How come?" asked Jeb, looking at the cornugon with a suspicious glance. "Why betray your boss?"
"I figured that Jalie was going to be found out sooner or later," said Ibza, "about the time when he lost control of the Sentinel. I had two choices… I could be punished along with everyone else who worked for him when that happened, or I could be the one to expose his unauthorized project. I chose the latter option.
"So, after I flew Mr. Connors to the Sentinel, I made a jaunt back to Cania. Getting an audience with Archduke Mephistopheles was rather easy… It seems he was already suspecting that something was up. As I'd hoped, Lord Mephistopheles promised me a reward for my loyalty."
"Same old story," said Jeb in disgust. "He's getting ahead because he double-crossed his boss."
"Don't knock it Mr. Belmont," said Ibza. "I figured I owed your friend over there one, so after Mr. Connors defeated Belphagon and pulled the switch, I opened a portal and yanked him through.
"While you were dueling Jalie, he was recovering in a safe house in Mephistar."
"What?" gasped Jalal. "You took him to Cania?"
"I saved his life, didn't I?" chuckled Ibza. "I had someone heal him, right? No need to thank me, you know."
"He has a point," sighed Dante.
"Don't worry, I don't want anything in return..." said the cornugon. "I'll consider us even at this point…"
He chuckled evilly. Then he turned to Jalal.
"Mr. Stormbringer... I guarantee you won't hear from me for at least nine-hundred and ninety-nine Earth days."
"How can you be so sure?" asked Jalal.
"Because Lord Mephistopheles is promoting me to pit fiend," said Ibza, with a grin, "and that's how long a devil must bathe in the fires of the Pit of Flame to assume that form!"
"Sounds painful…" said Ophelia.
"It's excruciating…" replied Ibza. "The Pit of Flame is most often used as a punishment when a demotion would be too lenient. But becoming one of the ruling class of Baator isn't easy…"
He grinned wider.
"Of course... When I am a pit fiend, I won't be going by the name 'Ibza' anymore... So if you happen to deal with one in three years, he may be me... Or maybe not...
"Who knows? You're immortal, I'm ageless... Maybe in a century or so, I'll gain the level of power that Jalie did, and then...
"...you never know..."
He turned around as a portal opened.
"Wait!" shouted Ophelia.
Ibza turned around.
"Did Mephistopheles know about the Triangle Duel?" she asked.
"So why didn't he step in then?" shouted Ophelia.
Ibza chuckled again.
"He thought it was rather amusing," said the cornugon. "Frankly… So did I."
That did it. All the Shadowchasers, including Jalal, drew their swords, and made a rush at him, but he leapt through the portal, which slammed shut behind him.
"Amusing..." said Jeb. "He found it... Amusing..."
"How does that old song go, people?" said Dante, as he sat down again. "I think it went... 'As the flames grew high into the night, to light the sacrificial rite, I saw Satan laughing with delight'...
"It never ends people... It's like how Jalie goaded me after I defeated the Wicked Avatar...
"He told me... 'Evil cannot die… You may vanquish us now and then, but your victories are always temporary. As sure as the Spire, we will rise again… In another time, in another place…and in a different skin.'
"That's what he said..."
"And do you remember what your reply was?" asked Jalal.
Dante thought for a minute.
"Yeah..." he said. "I said... 'And God willing, there will be someone around to oppose you then too.' But I don't know if he heard me."
"It was still a valid point," said Jalal. "Evil may not give up... But they will only claim victory if Good surrenders."
Ophelia looked where the portal had been.
"He narcs on his boss and gets a promotion..." she sighed. "You know, the devils may claim that Hell is a meritocracy, but the truth is, their leaders don't advance on their own merit. They really take the credit for others' work, and take advantage of others' mistakes."
"True," said Unity-of-Rings. "That's how Lucifer likes it. And by keeping the nobles of Hell plotting against each other over the eons, he's made certain that no one has made any lasting threats to his position as Overlord of Hell.
"And in a way, we should be glad that's the case."
"Say what?" said Jeb.
"I know it sounds strange," explained Unity-of-Rings, "but Lucifer is actually the best choice for the ruler of Hell. He may temp and deceive mortals... He may cheat the forces of Good at every turn... He tricked the ancient Powers of Law into signing the Pact Primordial and has been exploiting its loopholes ever since…
"But... It's under his rule that the devils wage the Blood War against the demons of the Abyss. By doing so, the near-limitless hordes of demons are kept in check. He may have lost every trace of Good that was once in him when the hosts of angels counted him among their own, but he still has his commitment to Law, and kept his oath to fight the forces of Chaos.
"If he ever stopped doing this, or someone replaced him who didn't care to, the demons would grow to an army of unearthly proportions. They'd destroy the devils first, then overrun the Upper Planes, and then the mortal worlds. And once they ran out of places to destroy, they'd turn on themselves... And that would be the end of everything.
"In other words, people, as bad as Lucifer is... He's better than the alternatives..."
The angel sighed.
"Stormbringer…" he said, "I realize that losing your army of warforged was costly… If you want to file a lawsuit for the damages, I'm certain that the High Court of Mechanus will hear the case and relatively certain that they'd rule in your favor…"
"But Mephistopheles will likely throw the subpoena in the trash, I assume?" replied Jalal.
"More than likely," sighed Unity-of-Rings. "The Lords of the Nine have something similar to executive privilege so long as they remain in Hell, and only Lucifer can revoke it. I'm afraid any ruling the Court would make would be symbolic at best."
He sighed again. He looked at the still-burning wreckage of the Hellfire Sentinel.
"The Key is somewhere in that mess," he said. "I must go find it, and then contact some heavy lifters who can transport it. Once that is done, we will rebuild Tabjari at a new location. We'll correct the mistakes that led to the Key's theft this time…
"Tharizdun may have failed to escape, but he will never give up… And if the Key must be guarded until the end of time, then so be it…
"Perhaps we will meet again."
As they watched the angel walk towards the wreck, Jalal's eyes turned towards something on the floor.
It was one of the infernal Duel Disks that Jalie's servants had used.
"Just out of curiosity, Dante…" he said, "what kind of cards did Belphagon use?"
"Horrible creatures," he said, "with no purpose other than to destroy…
"We can only hope that the alien technology that Dybbuk used to create them died when he did."
Jalal cast one last glance towards the ruins of the Hellfire Sentinel.
"Let's go people..." he said. "There's nothing more here."
As the Shadowchasers walked back the way they came, he stepped on the Disk, breaking it under his boot.
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Three days later, in the vicinity of Jalie's now-deserted fortress...
When the Hellfire Sentinel exploded, the ice surrounding it had been reduced to hot steam.
Now, the still-smoldering remains lay in a huge crater. A squad of men wearing high-tech armor and a team of robots were carefully sorting through the wreckage.
Finally, one of them shook his head. He tapped his gauntlet, and a screen appeared in mid-air in front of him.
"Dr. Faker?" he said.
In a dark room full of computer screens, thousands of miles away, a young, blonde-haired man wearing a purple outfit turned his head.
"Report," he said.
"I'm afraid there's nothing worth salvaging here, sir," said the armored man. "The only thing the Hellfire Sentinel is good for now is scrap. The same can be said for the warforged."
"A pity..." said the man he had called Dr. Faker. "Well, it was worth a look."
Then a robot started beeping. It pulled something out from beneath an iron slab.
"Hold on..." said the armored man.
He ran over to the robot, which was holding a metal object, the size and shape of a shoebox.
"Dr. Faker, we may have found something useful after all," he said. "I believe this may be some sort of 'black box'."
"Why don't they ever build the whole craft out of the stuff the black box is made of?" he mused. "Bring it back to Heartland... It may have recorded the duel that took place...
"If we can gain information on whatever cards that brimstone golem used, we could benefit greatly..."
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At that very moment, in a hospital room in the infirmary at Shadowchasers' Headquarters, Shelly groaned as she started to wake up.
"She's coming to," she heard the doctor's voice say.
She slowly opened her eyes.
"Mom?" she said, when she saw her parents looking at her. "Dad? Dr. Hunt? How long have I been asleep?"
"Sit up, Shelly," said the doctor. "Here, give me your hand..."
Still with her mind full of fog, Shelly did so...
And when she saw her left hand, she gave a little cry of surprise. The ugly, twisted claw was gone. She had her human arm back.
"The procedure was a success," said the doctor, with a smile. "All traces of that awful thing have been purged, and we were able to restore your true arm."
Shelly broke down into tears as she hugged her parents.
We can add this to our list of victories against Tharizdun, thought the doctor. Still, it is doubtful that he will ever truly be defeated...
He tries to escape his prison at every opportunity, and should he ever succeed, the consequences would be catastrophic... But killing him to end the threat permanently might unleash an even greater evil...
I guess that some problems in the universe simply don't have simple solutions...
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In Dante's house, Jeb was typing at his computer. It had taken three days, but he had finally figured out the best start for his book's prologue.
There once was a man who was never satisfied with his achievements, he wrote.
He became a leader among his people, but he was not satisfied.
He became a member of the ruling class of his society, but he was not satisfied. He strived to become king, but he knew that even this goal, should he succeed, would not satisfy him.
When I asked him what would satisfy him, he told me that he would settle for nothing less than being worshipped by mortals in the way that those who sit upon the thrones of Heaven are… It was a lofty goal indeed…
The crazy part is… He actually tried to do it.
Meanwhile, a duel was going on a few feet away from him.
Dante, who now had a new suit and hat to replace the ones that had been ruined, had D.3.S. Frog, Dupe Frog, and Submarine Frog on the field…
Then he stepped back in shock, as all three of them exploded into shards.
"Barbaros!" screamed Karen, "attack him directly!"
Dante grunted as the Beast King jabbed him with his spear. He fell over, his Life Points falling to zero.
"I hate to admit it…" said Ophelia, as the holograms vanished, "but she's getting pretty good…"
"No kidding…" moaned Dante, as he got up.
"So…" said Karen. "Think Jalal is going to let me into the Shadowchasers when I'm eighteen?"
"I don't think he has a choice…" replied Dante. "If he doesn't, some group that doesn't like us is going to try to recruit you…"
Karen giggled as she plopped herself down on the couch.
"Hey, Jeb…" she said. "What do you think Mephistopheles did with Jalie?"
"Beats me…" he said. "If there's one thing that Mephistopheles is known for, it's how angry he can get… In a way, the Hellfire he commands reflects his violent temper…
"Quite far removed from Dispater, the only other surviving original Lord of the Nine. From what I heard, he's calm, collected, and cautious… Everything Mephistopheles isn't…
"If I had to guess, I think I could say for certain that the Shadowchasers won't be dealing with Jalie Squarefoot again… At least not in our lifetimes…"
He looked at the computer screen.
"It would be nice to know what his final fate is, though… If anything good came out of all this, I'm finally inspired to write this book, and I have most of it planned out in my notes. I just have to type it all out…
"But… When I reach the ending… I might have to ad lib a lot of it…"
"Not all stories have definite endings, Jeb…" said Dante. "I'm sure that anyone who's fought the forces of Tharizdun can tell you that…"
"So true…" said Ophelia. "So true…"
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Dugan: I once met a philosopher who said that if a sinner – any sinner, even one as evil and brutal as Charles Manson or John Wayne Gacy – were given a one-minute view of the torments of Hell, and then a one-minute view of the glories of Heaven, those two one-minute experiences would be enough for him to reject his wicked ways forever and seek a path to redemption.
Most mortals don't get those views… The promise of eternal bliss for those who do good and the threat of eternal damnation for those who do evil… We are told of it by clergymen and others, but we kind of have to take their word for it. Blind faith is a very hard sell, and because of this, men are tempted by the forces of Hell.
But as some Shadowchasers have seen, the plots of evildoers often persist long after being damned. Hell is a society as much as it is a place of divine punishment… A society built on betrayal, where friendships don't exist, and alliances end when they are no longer useful. A society where ascension is the only goal, and no trick is too dirty in order to climb to the top.
And as much as we don't like having it hang over our heads, it's not going to go away…
…because it's not a perfect world…
– Finis –
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I'd like to thank everyone for reading "Shadowchasers: Ascension".
I'm sorry to say that this will be my last foray into the world of Shadowchasers as a solo writer, but not my final foray period. I am currently working on a joint project will fellow Shadowchasers authors Lux-Nero and MultiplePersonas for a fic that will premiere soon. I can't say how soon, because a lot depends on them. Still, keep your eyes on you e-mail for author alerts, and in two or three months or so, we hope to bring you the first chapter of "Shadowchasers: Tournament of Shadows".
This fic will star some popular characters from fics written by all three of us, including Ember, the one who started it all, along with the debut of a few new heroes and some very unique villains.
But this is not the only project I am working on. Inspired by a suggestion by Lux-Nero (who I hope to count on as a beta-reader for this) I am going to start work on a remake of one of my most popular older fics, with the card game's updated rules, far more detail, and a few new surprises.
I realize that a remake can be a big success (like Hawaii Five-O is) or a colossal failure (like that God-awful remake of Charlie's Angels) but I think I've matured a great deal as a writer since the time I first wrote this story, and I have high hopes for the remake.
At any rate, I'm still keeping the Shadowchasers Writer's Guidelines handy, and will still update them whenever the need arises. Whoever wants to write a fic need only contact me to get the ball rolling.
The story of the Shadowchasers is far from finished, and I'm as eager to read the next chapter as you are.