"Continuity is served," announced the armored plot device. Around it Sugar, Evette, Biff, Dr. Bruce, and the others stirred weakly, somehow brought back from the brink of death or beyond.
Solo screwed up her courage and approached the Deus Ex Machine, Stupidhead following cautiously.
"Wh-what just happened?" she wanted to know.
The armored behemoth regarded Solo and Stu with luminous red eyes. It seemed to consider its response, then said, "As far as Continuity is concerned, you all died battling Diablo beneath Tristram. Not unlike countless others."
A Town Portal opened and Prince Albrecht stepped through. He nodded to Solo and Stu and then addressed the plot device: "I'm ready."
The plot device nodded and handed Albrecht Diablo's soulstone. The young prince studied the stone a moment and Solo saw a look of resignation flash across his face. Then he squared his shoulders and favored Solo and Stu with a smile and jaunty wave. "I'll just go lock myself in the playpen and wait for adventurers." He walked off into the gloom, staggering only as he plunged the soulstone into his forehead.
"What was that about?" asked Stupidhead.
The plot device's attention was elsewhere for the moment. With one gauntlet, it gestured for CowLad to approach. With the other, it resurrected Red Vex from the ashes. The Hell Spawn hissed and lunged to attack, and then disappeared with a wave of the plot device's hand.
"Holy now you see her, now you don't!" exclaimed CowLad.
A burst of crackling energy engulfed CowLad and his cape, tights, utility belt, and mask morphed back into Wirt's clothes. "Try again," advised the Deus Ex Machine.
"Psst! Over here!" said Wirt.
The Deus Ex Machine nodded and Wirt vanished.
"Continuity has now been fully restored," announced the plot device. "Wirt and Red Vex are in their places, as are Cain, Lazarus, and Adria. Han Solo, Scottie, and Gilbacca have once again been replaced by Griswold, Ogden, and Gillian. All other non-Continuity elements have been removed or made to fit in. That just leaves the fifteen of you to deal with." The plot device reached up, gave its head a quarter twist, and lifted it off its shoulders. Underneath it was a human face with brown skin, brown eyes, and a mop of curly black hair.
"You!" gasped Solo, Stu, and Smarterhead.
"I thought you wrote yourself out of the story," said Smarterhead.
"I did. This is the Epilogue," said Steve. "The story ended when Elsie detonated herself and took Diablo and all of you with her."
"So, we're dead then," affirmed Solo.
"At least as far as this Continuity's concerned, but then so am I," said Steve. "And that's as it should be. The question is, where do you want to go from here?"
"Well, we're already in Hell," observed Stupidhead, "So I suppose things can only get better from here."
"Biff just wants to go home," complained the giant barbarian lumbering up to join Stu and Solo.
"Seems like a good idea," said Steve. He motioned for Biff to stand with Jay, Dr. Bruce, and Ubet. "I had a lot of fun writing you guys. You work well together, so I'm sending you back to Stephen as a group even though only Jay and Biff are really his characters. You guys are the ideal team: You've got a strong guy, a smart guy, and a quick good-looking guy who's also black."
"What does that make me?" asked Ubet Choas.
"The little guy that goofy crap keeps happening to," said Steve.
Ubet started to protest, but then remembered Biff's giant butt-print was still creasing his robe. Then he touched the eyepatch he'd worn since his first encounter with Smarterhead. Then of course, there was the matter of the super-secret sorcerer's rob wedgie. Ubet Choas just sighed and shook his head. His karma was in serious need of some maintenance.
"All you need is a girl and you guys are golden," continued Steve.
"A girl?" asked Jay. He was once again garbed in his black cloak ensemble.
"Well, you could all be gay. It's kind of a niche audience, but it's still got potential to be big. I'll leave that up to Stephen. Or if he doesn't want you, maybe I'll give it some thought." Steve opened a portal. "Off you go to that paradise of the southern hemisphere."
"Biff thought we were going to New Zealand," commented Biff.
"Shut up," hissed Ubet as he, Biff, Dr. Bruce and Jay passed through the portal.
"Evette," said Steve, "Obviously, you were Stephen's creation too, but I didn't think you and Elsie would want to be separated."
"Merci," breathed Evette.
"Now, the Unlikely Heroes of Tristram," said Steve. "Rob tells me that the puppy Deathspit comes from the early episodes of UHOT, while the rest of you come from sometime between UHOT and its unfinished sequels."
Elsie whispered something to Evette, who then nodded. "Excuse me, Steve," said Elsie, "may I have a word in private with Sugar before you send her off?"
"Sure," said Steve. "Take all the time you need."
Elsie led Sugar away from the group. "What do you want?" asked Sugar, "Because if it's about that night in the inn..."
"It's really not," said Elsie. "It's about Lord Cool."
Sugar wrinkled her nose. "What about him?"
"I want you to know that there was nothing going on between him and Evette, or between him and me."
Sugar just shrugged. "Whatever. I don't really care."
"I don't," affirmed Sugar. "Look, just because you two are lesbians doesn't change the fact that Cool would have been all over either of you if he'd had half a chance."
"What about you and Dolt?" asked Elsie.
"He did it with Red Vex first," retorted Sugar.
Elsie sighed. "I know Cool isn't perfect. Believe me, I know." She hesitated. "Maybe you'd better read this." She handed Sugar the ragged pages she'd saved before their battle with the Adversary.
"What is it?" asked Sugar.
"It's the 'Sequal' to Unlikely Heroes of Tristram," said Elsie.
Sugar skimmed the pages for a couple of minutes and whispered. "He... He really loves me."
Elsie nodded. "And he always will. No matter what happens, no matter who or what he becomes, he always will."
Sugar gave Elsie a hard look. "What makes you so sure?"
Elsie just smiled. "If I told you, you wouldn't believe me. Let's just say I've been where he's been and leave it at that."
Sugar started to ask something else and then just shook her head. "Thanks, Elsie." As Elsie walked back to rejoin Evette, a funny thought struck Sugar. "Elsie. L.C.? Huh!" She shook her head again. "Nah!"
Lord Cool was crouched down and rubbing Deathspit's tummy. "Who's Daddy's good widdle puppy-wuppy?" he cooed at the young acid hound. "You are! You're going to be all grown up again when I see you again."
Sugar crouched next to Lord Cool. "Hi," she said, not quite knowing where to begin.
Cool looked uncomfortable. "Uh, look, Sugar," he began. "I really wanted to rescue you, but it's like this... See, Dolt and I were... and..."
"It's okay," she told him. She spent a few moments studying his face, trying to imagine him as he'd been described in 'Sequal.' Grim-faced and willing to literally dig all the way to Hell to come find her. She surprised herself when she realized she could believe it.
"Look, about Red Vex, and Elsie, and Evette, and the Autogasm Droid in Mos Eisley..." began Cool.
Sugar shushed him. "If I was being held prisoner somewhere and you were surrounded by beautiful young warrior maidens who would do anything you told them to do, what would you do?"
"Is this a trick question?"
Sugar smiled. "Kind of."
"I..." Cool began. "I overheard Steve telling Stu that Dolt had been returned to the WarCraft Continuity he landed in at the end of HellCraft. You could probably get Steve to send you there with him, if you wanted."
Sugar pretended to consider it. "Well, Dolt's definitely pretty hot, and he did slay one of the Great Old Ones in my name. And man, can he last. I mean, wow, he's like the Energizer Bunny, only with an axe. And he's huge. I mean, HUGE!"
Cool listened stony-faced.
Sugar laughed and patted Cool's arm. "But you know what? He shouts out his own name in bed and it was really starting to squick me out."
"Even more than that time when I accidentally called out Grandma's name?" asked Cool.
Sugar blinked. "You actually stand in front of a mirror for a few minutes each day and practice saying the wrong thing, don't you?" Then she laughed. "Whatever. I've had enough Dolt."
"Yeah, well, Red Vex wasn't so great either. The first time, she nearly killed me, and the second time she only wanted my body to host Diablo," said Lord Cool. "Plus, she said mean things to me. She said I was a lousy lay."
"Oh, honey," said Sugar stroking his cheek. "You are a lousy lay. And you've got a roving eye."
Cool looked hurt.
"I, on the other hand, have a roving eye and am an excellent lay," she smiled. "I think that might be enough for us to work with."
"You mean it?" asked Cool.
"I might get lucky?"
"You might. The only way you're going to get better in bed is by practicing."
Cool got up. "I'll go over behind those stalagmites and practice right now."
Sugar grabbed him by the belt loop and pulled him back down. "I meant with me, you big moron."
"Ohhh! I get it."
"Not if you don't pay attention," said Sugar. "Now there's certain things you need to know about a woman's body. Take the clitoris, for instance..."
Lord Cool yawned and fell fast asleep, his head in her lap. Sugar shook her head and stroked Cool's hair as he slept. Watching him sleep, his expression only slightly more clueless than when he was conscious, Sugar remembered how the Lord of Terror had tormented her with her greatest fear. Was her greatest fear really the thought of a life without Lord Cool by her side?
Cool giggled in his sleep. "Panties," he murmured.
Sugar chuckled softly. Strangely enough it just might be.
Meanwhile, Steve had levitated the greasy charred spot that had once been ULTIMATE EVIL into the air. He apologized to Stu and Smarterhead. "I'm afraid Maximum Evil is part of your Continuity. He'll have to go back to the Robiverse with you."
Stu looked grim but nodded.
"That's all right," said Stupidhead. "Max has always been our problem. We'll deal with him just like we always have."
With that, Steve opened a portal and Maximum Evil drained through it. "It won't take him long to resurrect himself and get back up to his old tricks again," he warned them.
"What about me?" asked Mini-E who had been nervously hiding behind Cool and Solo.
"And me?" asked Smarterhead.
"Well, you two pose a problem. You're not really part of the UHOT Continuity, but there's really nowhere else appropriate to send you. Particularly you, Smarterhead. Separating you from Stupidhead would be gross and extremely painful for both of you."
"So what happens to us?" asked Smarterhead.
"I'm sending you to the Robiverse with Cool, Sugar, Stu, Max, and Deathspit. It'll be up to Rob to figure out how or whether you fit into UHOT Continuity. Mini-E, for example, might be retconned into some relation of Scary Harry, or even Max."
"And me?" pressed Smarterhead. "I suppose I just go back to being what I was."
"That's up to Rob. Maybe he'll send you on a quest to make you a real little boy," said Steve. "But look, I wouldn't worry too much. Rob's written more about other mens' penises than any other allegedly heterosexual male I've ever known." He looked at Smarterhead again and grimaced. "At least until recently. Anyway, you'll probably be in good hands. So to speak."
Stupidhead the Weak shrugged. "I guess we're ready then." He motioned for Sugar to wake up Lord Cool and come join them.
"Guys, it's been an honor and a genuine pleasure writing you," said Steve as the Unlikely Heroes of Tristram vanished. "And it's going to be a genuine pleasure reading you again. Hopefully, before too much time passes."
Elsie, Evette, Solo, and CowLord waited their turns.
"All right then," said Steve. "Elsie and Evette."
"You said we'd be able to stay together," prompted Evette.
"Of course," said Steve. "You two belong together. If it hadn't been for Elsie, Evette would never have been seen again after her appearance in SvH's Chapter 13 of Collaborative Carnage. If it hadn't been for Evette, Elsie never would have been anything more than a 'Lord Cool with boobs' joke. Besides 'a time-lost WWII French Resistance fighter and her android lesbian lover' is just too cool a concept to leave on the back burner for too long. The question is, where do I send you?" Steve thought for a moment. "How about your own small spaceship at the edge of explored space?"
"As long as we're together," added Evette.
"It'll take a lot of exposition and retconning to make it make a grain of sense, but it'll be worth it. You'd better take this," said Steve. With that, the Exposition Stone floated out of the crack where it had lodged and bobbed in the air between Elsie and Evette.
"Don't touch it!" shouted everyone when Elsie absent-mindedly reached for it.
"By the way," added Steve. "I'm writing that anti-matter bomb out of your chest."
"Zat is a relief," said Evette.
"Er, it won't change my bustline?" wondered Elsie. "I mean, it's good not to be a walking bomb and all, but..."
"Your attributes will remain unchanged," Steve assured her. "Now off with you. You're about to go where no android and French girl have gone before."
Elsie and Evette held hands and vanished, along with the Exposition Stone.
"Hey," said Solo suddenly. "Whatever happened to Multi and the Castle Ebola?"
"She's been rewritten as a set of identical quintuplets granted sanctuary by a monastery full of naive young monks. Wacky and fairly naughty hijinks will ensue," said Steve.
"The Compelling Orbs?" continued Solo.
"Down to one, and it's in Travincal, where it belongs," answered Steve.
"She's been returned to her original state as the cow nearest the wall in Tristram."
"How about Biff's date with Ubet's aunt?"
"That'll be up to Stephen," said Steve. "Any other loose ends you want tied?"
"Probably, but I can't think of any right now," admitted Solo. "So what happens to me?"
"Well," said Steve, "in the HellCraft timeline, you're successful and semi-retired. In the main Diablo timeline, you're dead, crippled, insane, or some tragic combination thereof. The aren't any Bard characters in Diablo II."
"Well, that's not a difficult choice," said Solo.
"I'd like to offer her a third choice," came a woman's voice. A Town Portal had opened and a tall, athletic woman in an animal skin bikini stepped through.
"I remember you!" cried Solo. "You're the leader of the tribe of bisexual Amazons."
"I'm glad I finally caught up with you," said the Amazon chieftess. "My warriors and I have been searching all over the Battle Net for you since the misunderstanding back at our village."
"What misunderstanding?" asked Solo. "You threw Stu, Biff, and me into the Battle Net."
"Well, that was the misunderstanding," said the chieftess. "We only wanted to get rid of Biff and Stupidhead. Those responsible have been severely spanked."
"Okay, so you're kinky bisexual Amazons," allowed Solo.
"We were hoping to offer you a job," continued the chieftess. "We've been looking for a full-time scribe and we think you've got some genuine talent that would reflect well on us and, hopefully, sell a lot of books. We've got a global distribution network and one of the most visited web sites on the 'Net."
"You got it," answered the chieftess. "We were hoping we could interest you in a multi-book contract, starting with HellCraft."
"Whoa," breathed Solo.
The chieftess smiled. "Would that be a 'yes'?"
"I'm straight, you know," Solo advised the chieftess.
"We won't hold that against you," the chieftess reassured her. "So, are you interested?"
"Absolutely," replied Solo. Then she glanced back at Steve. "Unless you've got some plan for me?"
Steve shrugged. "Not really," he said. "Truth is, I'm probably getting out of the fanfic biz. Readership's down and there's no money in it. Not that there's a whole lot of money in anything else I write, but I need to turn my creative energies in other directions for awhile. You know how it is."
"How could I not?" said Solo. She turned to follow the Amazon, then paused and looked back at Steve, a wry expression on her face. "So, I've got a multi-book deal and I'm off to live with a tribe of bisexual Amazons," she summarized. "Project much?"
"I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about," sniffed Steve.
Solo laughed and stepped through the portal.
"Hmm," said Conjurer Ichabod thoughtfully, the visor of his CowLord armor up. "For Solo's sake, I hope the web site they were talking about was amazon.com. I don't know how happy she'll be writing for bisexualamazon.com."
"Either way, I'm sure she'll manage," said Steve.
"So, what about me?"
"Beats me," shrugged Steve.
"Beats you?!" exclaimed Ichabod. "But... I'm your greatest creation!"
"Puh-lease," said Steve. "You don't really believe that even in your CowLord persona."
"So what's going to happen to me?"
"I don't know. As I said, I'm getting out of fanfic for a bit, so I really don't have any plans for you. But if I ever do the StarFire sequel to HellCraft, you're a shoo-in," Steve told him.
"And in the meantime...?" prompted Ichabod.
"I guess I'll just put you back where I found you," answered Steve.
"Oh well. At least it'll be quiet..."
CowLord had been adrift in the Battle Net for some time now. Threads continued to hum and change color. Portals opened and closed. It mattered little. The portal that would return him home wasn't there anymore. The Deus Ex Machine had seen to that, and, frankly, that suited him just fine. He yawned and stretched. Time to catch up on some sleep.
Steve looked around the empty chamber and nodded to himself. "I think that's everything," he said aloud. "Man, I hope that's everything. What a mess." He considered adding more to his monologue, but just shook his head. "Stick a fork in me; I'm done." With that, he vanished.
Something had hit the ground hard enough to melt the permafrost. The hardy tundra vegetation lay scorched in a wide circle around the impact. Nihlatek approached cautiously. Something metallic lay at the center. He could sense the unnatural energy radiating from it.
He knelt and gingerly touched the object, then quickly drew his hand back with a gasp. The sheer power the thing contained was nearly beyond his comprehension. If he could master it, even Baal would be forced to bow before him.
He reached down and pulled the thing out of the slush with a loud slurp. It looked like a metal bull's head that had been smacked on one side by a war hammer. One of its eyes glowed with a crimson light.
Nihlatek held the object over his head in triumph and laughed into the icy mountain wind.
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