by Stephen van Ham
Lazarus wasn't a very happy priest. Just forty-eight hours ago, he'd been the big man on campus. The wise holy man doted on by a congregation of idiots. The big fish in a little pond. Not that there actually were any fish this far underground, but he found the analogy comforting. It reminded him of fishing trips back in the old times when he and Bryon Zhar had spent days out in the wilderness, unwashed, unshaven. He smiled in recollection of their returning to their neolithic roots, huddled over one of the many nearby streams, eyes wide and eagerly searching for any sign of the famous rainbow trout that swum the River Talsande.
And then, the day before last, it had happened. Everything went blue. The Succubi stopped their endless wailing, turned to each other and started gossiping like teenage girls. The walls shook, groaned, and started to warp into strange and bizarre new shapes. The Fallen Ones on level one of the labyrinth all turned into blue-skinned smurfs, dropped their weapons and started a food fight. Blackash the Burning and his troop put aside bows in favour of cello, xylophone and microphone and formed an acoustic pop band.
Sir Gorash lagged out completely. All Lazarus ever found of the knight captain was a small pile of his armour sitting beside a whistle made of human bone, a tiny locket of blue-black hair and a love note to someone named "BJ."
Of lesser note, the Goat Clan turned completely back into goats. The Mud Runners started playing leap frog again (it had taken Lord Diablo years to channel their overexuberance in other directions), with gruesome results. The Lava Lords sank back down into the lava and were never heard from again. Nothing amiss happened to the Acid Beasts, so they simply continued to mourn over the disapperance of their child Deathspit.
Even the Advocates changed, if not for the better. They shucked off their old, dreary mage robes in exchange for brightly coloured, tie-dyed smocks and garlands of flowers. Even Dreadjudge, master sorceror and slayer of the first born child, was seen mincing up and down the corridors making the peace sign and singing, "hey yeah, hey, hey, my boyfriend's back".
Lazarus looked upon Maximum Evil and his Army Of Things That Should Not Be with complete and utter loathing. The black hearted hunter, after establishing his initial base of operations in Lazarus' old haunt, had stormed into Diablo's lair with a mass of followers behind him and taken Diablo prisoner, chaining him to a wall and ordering two giggling Succubi to tickle him with feathers until he gave up the location of the lag generator that the demon lord kept hidden away in some dark, forgotten corner of hell (The Boojum, and thus its brother/father/son the Adversary had always been jealous of anyone else having the power of Lag).
Now, Maximum Evil (or "Lord Maximilion" as he had styled himself) was sitting on Diablo's throne, surrounded by Diablo's former flock. Lazarus stood patiently beside him, head hung meekly as he dreamed of being back in his altar room with Red Vex and that two-timing demoness Black Jade at his side. But both Vex and Jade were gone, and Lazarus' Lair was now the home of a dancing Barney troop. The priest shuddered in outright terror. He was never going anywhere near those little purple abominations if he could help it.
Maximum Evil's voice shook him from his deep brooding. "Lazarus," Max prompted, "begin your report. How goes things in the upper levels?"
"Very well, Lord Maximilion, very well indeed. Things go as planned. Heroes continue to come down from the sun drenched lands above and meet their demise." He smiled faintly. "Poppa Smurf and his minions met out their form of justice most efficiently, sir." Lazarus bowed ingratiatingy. "I am very impressed with your ability to train such cunning killers so quickly."
Max waved his hand modestly. "It was nothing, Lazarus. I am merely following 'the vision' as outlined by our lord and master." Max leaned forward on the throne. "And now, Lazarus, what news of my arch nemesis Lord Cool. Has he been sighted?" He reached down to stroke Sugar's shoulder as he eyed Lazarus intently. With a cat quick motion, the rogue clamped her perfect teeth down hard on Max's hand, making the evil lord pull back with a yell of outrage.
Lazarus mumbled something.
"What was that?" asked Max as he flexed his fingers gingerly. "I didn't quite catch that ..."
Lazarus raised his voice regretfully. "No, Lord Maximillion. Lord Cool has not been sighted."
Max was not happy. "Well, you must find him. I can't have him wandering around on his own and accidently foiling the Master's 'vision'." He drew his blade and pointed it at the fawning priest's chest. "I'm holding you personally responsible for his capture, Lazarus. Take whatever resources you need and go find him."
Lazarus bowed. "Can I take the Succubi with me, Lord Maximillion? And some of those big strapping Stormtroopers?"
Max grunted in exhasperation. "Whatever floats your boat, Lazarus."
Three lags later, the CowLord had been restored to his normal (for him, anyway) form.
While the CowLord was adjusting to his various lives as a cape-wearing super hero, holstein, coffee house patron and part-time wizard and world saver, Adria had explained that she'd watched the group's battle with Max from afar. Although she'd been too distant to make out any details, she had seen two or three figures take flight into the Crack of Hell.
Now, as she stood by the shack, Solo looked thoughtful. The bard assumed that the Max was headed down for the lower levels of the labyrinth and could take some finding. She beckoned to the little group to come in closer so she could address them. They all did, except for Biff, who continued to munch on the kielbasa, and Red Vex, who was out cold.
Once the little group was assembled, the bard began. "I think it's time for us to separate. The way I see it, we've got three objectives." She ticked off her points on her fingers. "One, do something about that cloud. Two, kill or capture Maximum Evil. And three, rescue Sugar. And Wirt, if we must. Now, we can't be in two places at once, so I say Dolt, Red Vex, Stu and I go north and see what we can do about the cloud. CowLord, take Biff, Elsie and the mutt with you, go down into hell and see if you can gatecrash Max's little party and get Sugar back. Any questions?"
"Yeah," interceeded Dolt, "how come you get to give the orders?"
"Well, somebody has to wear the pants around here. And that just happens to be me."
Elsie looked down at Solo's g-string and giggled. "No it isn't."
Solo blushed and pulled the poncho tighter around her body. "Fine. Does anyone have any better suggestions then?" She looked around the small group. Biff and Deathspit were fighting over who got to eat the scraps. Red Vex was still unconscious. Ichabod/CowLord was nudging Adria as if sharing a joke. Dolt was staring at his sign again and mouthing something to himself in bafflement. Stu was standing behind Elsie and inching closer with his hand outstretched. Seeing the bard looking at him, the conjurer dropped his hand and cleared his throat. "No," he said loudly, "I think what you say is a good idea." Inwardly he was unhappy that he and Elsie would be parting company. He wandered over to talk to Ichabod and the witch.
Ichabod, laughing lustily over some punchline of Adria's, was suddenly muted as his visor shook loose and fell down with a clang. He waved his head from side and side in confusion and then raised his arms to the sky. "DOWN WITH THE ADVERSARY! COME FACE THE DIVINITY OF THE BOVINITY!" the CowLord bellowed.
"I guess it's settled then" Solo said. "We should be off as quick as we can. CowLord, you and your team need to get down into hell as quickly as possible, preferably without alerting anyone to your presence. The rest of us will need to get equipped and then we'll head north straight after. Good luck, people."
Ichabod/CowLord finally managed to get his visor pushed back up again. "Oooh," he breathed, starting to polish it with his hanky. "A Max run!"
After saying their farewells to Biff, Ichabod and Elsie and after giving Deathspit an affectionate pat on his bristling maw, Solo, Dolt, Red Vex and Stu had set off across the forested woodlands north of Tristram. They'd been walking for hours. The air was incredibly hot and humid. Things were made worse by frequent showers of hot, scalding rain, and Solo feared that the Adversary was already exherting an influence over the local weather patterns.
Solo was at the head of the group. Moving swiftly over tangled vines and around tree stumps, she was now wearing one of Gillian's low cut blowses and heavy skirt that the solidly built barmaid had had spare, atlhough on Solo, the garments fitted a little loosely in places. Griswold, who hadn't appeared to have been himself lately, had donated a set of chain mail and twin bastard swords that he'd recently repaired. The bard missed her accustomed adventuring gear that Maximum Evil had destroyed, and Solo hoped to be back in time to give Maximum Evil some payback.
Dolt, on the other hand, was still wielding the Cardboard Sign of Slaughter. When the smith had first seen it, he'd looked at the sign with interest. Then he'd given the big barbarian a tiny spraycan that he'd had tucked away behind his anvil. Dolt had looked at it suspiciously before asking "what is it?"
"It's a Strange Spraycan of Haste," the smith had replied.
Dolt had grunted and said, "Yeah, it is strange. But why is it strange?"
"But that's its name - Strange Spraycan of Haste."
To which Dolt had returned, "But couldn't you have given me an axe or something?"
"Yer cannae change the laws of physics!" the smith had yelled at the big barbarian. He'd added, "be grateful fer what yer have and be awey with yer!" before stomping away in injured silence.
Red Vex, of course, needed no more weapons than the body in which she walked.
Stupidhead stomped along at the rear of the group with his eyes on Red Vex's wiggling posterior. His hands were clutched tightly around his Angel's Staff of Mana. Adria had lent him the powerful artifact on the promise that the wizard came to visit her at the witch's shack once the adventure was over. Stupidhead had hastily agreed.
The little group had just entered a small clearing when they heard a noise above them. Solo fell back to join the others and drew her blades (hastily checking them make sure they weren't vibrating). Stupidhead readied his staff and Dolt held his sign and spraycan up. They all peered into the foliage as they waited in anticipation. Moments later the noise above rose in pitch and the group could make out many distinct buzzing sounds. Finally, the source of the noise came into view.
"Oh great," Solo muttered as she spotted a flurry of wings. "Why am I getting a feeling of déjà vue?"
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