As Diablo III draws near, those new to the series may be asking: “What, exactly, are these ugly loot pinatas I'm slaughtering in droves for gold and shiny new weapons?” The Diablo universe has a long and detailed history, and if you're an unrepentant lore hound like I am, you already know how deep it goes. But Diablo II was released
12 years ago
, so there's no shame in brushing up. This is the short version, for those who want more context on the game's world and story in a neat blood-soaked package.
Short on time? Look for the "too long; didn't read" summaries at the end of each section.
In the beginning...
The universe began with a sole being in the void: Anu, who encompassed every possible concept and emotion. Since his situation didn't leave him much to do, he decided to perfect himself by purging all of his impurities. That was all well and good, except that the purged elements coalesced into a giant, seven-headed evil dragon: Tathamet.
Naturally, Tathamet picked a fight with Anu. After millennia, they finally killed one another, setting off an explosion that created the universe. Anu's body rose to become the High Heavens, and the Angels spawned from its latent energies. Tathamet's corpse took a tumble down to become the Burning Hells. Each of his seven severed heads became a Lord of Hell, creating the septet that would rule over the demons born from his rotting flesh.
tl;dr: Omnipotent dragon split himself into good and bad halves, forming Heaven and Hell.
Sanctuary is formed
Unsurprisingly, the angels and the demons didn't get along well at all, and waged constant wars over the Worldstone. Believed to be the eye of Anu himself, the Worldstone held the power to spawn entire worlds. Eventually, some on both sides got sick of the fighting. They hid the Worldstone from both Heaven and Hell, and used it one last time to create the hidden world of Sanctuary. During the housewarming party, some angels and demons had a little too much to drink and ended up populating the new realm with the cross-breed Nephalem -- the ancestors of all Sanctuary's mortal races.
tl;dr: Humans came from a cross-breed of rogue Angels and Demons, hidden away from Heaven and Hell in a world called Sanctuary, which was created with the super-powerful Worldstone.
The Sin War gets things going
It was clear to the renegade angels and demons that the Nephalem held vast potential. When the demoness Lilith tried to turn them into an army, the angel Inarius -- one of the only creatures privy to the Worldstone's hiding place -- used the Eye of Anu's power to curse his children. From then on, each generation of Nephalem grew less powerful, leading to the relatively weak mortals of the present day.
It wasn't long before the human descendants of the Nephalem forgot all about angels and demons. In time, however, mortal sorcerers inadvertently made contact with demons through summoning rituals, which lead the three Prime Evils -- Diablo, Mephisto, and Baal -- to Sanctuary. To corrupt the Nephalem, they formed a false religion called the Triune under pretenses of unlocking humanity's true potential. Inarius discovered the deception, and appeared to the mortals as a great prophet, preaching an opposing faith based on Light.
The three-way war between the Prophet, the Triune, and Uldyssian -- a mortal who discovered how to unlock the Nepahlem powers in himself and his followers -- is known as the Sin War. It concluded when Uldyssian sacrificed himself to strip his soldiers of their power so that Heaven would not see humanity as a threat that needed to be destroyed. It had already been proven, though, that the potential still existed in the Nephalem's descendants.
tl;dr: The Prime Evils, Diablo, Mephisto, and Baal, tried to corrupt humanity, but a guy named Uldyssian proved that mortals can unlock the powers of their ancestors. Then killed himself so no one would get all uppity about it.
Up next: The events of Diablo
Prelude to destruction
In the wake of all of this, a civil war erupted in Hell between the Prime Evils and the four Lesser Evils. These four (Duriel, Andariel, Azmodan and Belial) were getting annoyed that their three “bigger cousins” had become obsessed with corrupting humans rather than continuing to wage direct war against Heaven. They rose up and exiled the Prime Evils to Sanctuary, where they could spend as much quality time with their mortal pals as they wanted.
Rise of the Horadrim
The Archangel Tyrael (pictured above), who had cast the deciding vote to spare humanity, found out about the Prime Evils' presence in Sanctuary and didn't want to risk the other angels finding out and calling for a reconsideration. Instead, he went rogue and banded together with a group of human sorcerers that would come to be known as the Horadrim. Using magical artifacts called soulstones, they set out to imprison the Prime Evils and defend Sanctuary.
Through persistence, the Horadrim eventually succeeded... with one minor hitch. The soulstone that was supposed to hold Baal shattered during a battle, and the shards could not be reassembled. Tal Rasha, leader of the Horadrim, offered his own body as Baal's prison, ordering the others to lock him away deep below the desert. The other two Prime Evils were properly imprisoned, and their soulstones put under close guard. Spoilers: that didn't last.
tl;dr: The Lesser Evils rebelled and exiled the Prime Evils to Sanctuary. An archangel, Tyrael, rallied some mortals, founding the Horadrim to find them. All did not go totally according to plan, and Baal entered the body of Horadrim's leader, Tal Rasha.
Things started going downhill hundreds of years later when a man named Leoric showed up in Tristram -- a town that had grown around the now-abandoned Horadric monastery protecting Diablo's soulstone -- and declared himself its king. The imprisoned demon lord was eventually able to corrupt Leoric, who began torturing and killing his people, as mad kings often do. In time, the king's own men were forced to put him down.
Leoric's son, Aidan (the retroactively canonical identity of the player character in the first game), returned from fighting one of his father's ill-advised wars to find that many mercenaries had already failed to discover the source of his father's madness. He headed into the catacombs beneath the old monastery and discovered that his father's adviser, Lazarus, had freed Diablo from his soulstone. After a pitched battle, Aidan defeated the manifestation of the demon lord... but at the cost of his own soul.
As Tal Rasha had done with Baal, Aidan took Diablo's essence into himself. As time passed, he lost his mind to the overwhelming presence of the Lord of Terror, and set off to free the other two Prime Evils.
tl;dr: Diablo escaped and drove a fellow known as King Leoric mad. His son, Prince Aidan, defeated Diablo... but was possessed by the demon's spirit and became his avatar.
Up Next: The events of Diablo II and beyond
Mephisto and Baal Join the Party
At the bidding of Decakrd Cain, the last living Horadrim, a group of adventurers was tasked with pursuing Aidan/Diablo and preventing the release of his brothers. This group included a young barbarian, who is stated by the developers to be the very same barbarian that is playable in his older, grizzled form in Diablo III. Unfortunately, they arrived too late at the crypt where Baal was imprisoned. He had been freed from his chains and taken full possession of Tal Rasha. The reunited Lords of Hell were two steps ahead of the heroes, well on their way to freeing Mephisto (above).
When at last the mortal champions arrived at Mephisto's resting place, they found him already free. He had stayed behind as a rear guard while Diablo returned to Hell to reclaim it from the Lesser Evils, and Baal had set out to secure the Worldstone. Tapping into their Nephalem heritage, they were able to topple Mephisto and seal him away again. From there, they had only one way to go: straight into Hell to pursue Diablo.
Through the portal, the heroes encountered Tyrael, who spoke of an anvil within Diablo's realm that could destroy anything placed on it. If they were to use it to destroy a soulstone containing a demon lord, their evil would be ended forever. With Mephisto's soulstone already in tow, they battled through legions of horrors to confront and trap Diablo, before destroying the stones containing both he and Mephisto on the anvil.
That only left one loose end...
tl;dr: A group of heroes fought their way into Hell to destroy Diablo and Mephisto for good. Well, supposedly for good...
Showdown at the Worldstone
The heroes arrived at Mount Arreat, the resting place of the Worldstone, to find its brave, barbarian defenders beaten and Baal's forces laying siege to their last line of defense. They fought their way through the lines of demons, but by the treachery of one of the barbarian elders, Baal had already bypassed the ramparts and reached the Worldstone. They eventually found their way to him and defeated him, but discovered that his ritual of corruption had already begun.
Tyrael arrived just in time, and used his angelic sword to destroy the Worldstone rather than let it become permanently tainted. The energy released destroyed Mount Arreat, Baal, and Tyrael. How at least one of the mortal heroes survived (the barbarian, who appears again as a playable character in Diablo III) is a mystery.
For a time, the conflict between the mortals of Sanctuary and the Burning Hells had ended. For a time...
tl;dr: The heroes confronted Baal at Mount Arreat. Archangel Tyrael blew up the Worldstone and the entire mountain around it to keep the stone from becoming corrupted. Baal is dead, and Tyrael is missing. Heaven is taking notice.
Evil is Back in Style
Now you're all caught up to the “present day” in the Diablo universe. It has been 20 years since the destruction of the Worldstone, and Deckard Cain believes the remaining Lords of Hell -- Azmodan and Belial -- are plotting to bring about the end of days. A star has fallen on the Tristram cathedral, the former resting place of Diablo. Whisperings among mystics of something called the Black Soulstone are beginning to circulate.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, with Tyrael gone, the forces of Heaven may judge Sanctuary too dangerous to continue existing. It seems it will fall again to a group of mortal heroes to decide the fates of Heaven and Hell.
tl;dr: The bad guys are coming to kill us all. Best be prepared.
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