"I'm sorry, Captain, but the Archbishop left very specific instructions that he was not to be disturbed," insisted the priest.
"That's what you said this morning," said Lachdanan. "This is a matter of..."
"I'm sorry," repeated the priest. "There are to be no exceptions. The King himself has given me the authority to enforce that command." He handed Lachdanan a scroll bearing the royal seal.
Lachdanan scanned the scroll and handed it back.
"Then I'll go see the King," said Lachdanan.
"Good luck," said the priest. "I understand he's sequestered himself with similar instructions not to be disturbed."
Tomas was able to read Lachdanan's expression very clearly: It stated, "What in Zakarum's name is going on in this town this week?" Out loud, Lachdanan just sighed and said, "Very well. Did you at least have someone look into the incident in Necromancer Veeble's workshop?"
The priest nodded. "We sent a team down to bless the area and set up protective wards. We'll..."
"...continue to monitor the situation closely," finished Lachdanan with uncharacteristic rudeness. "I guess that's the best I can ask for. Please keep me advised of any developments."
"Now what?" asked Tomas as Lachdanan turned away.
"I'm sure we'll get to see the Archbishop eventually," said the Paladin. "In the meantime, we'll get some rest and then head out to Farmer Lester's farm at first light."
"Why?" wondered Tomas. They had spoken briefly with Lester when he had come into town to claim Glorianna's body. The old farmer had appeared annoyed at the inconvenience; more like someone who had ridden into town in the rain to pay his taxes rather than a new widower.
"Farmer Lester is a man who puts a gold value on everything in his life," said Lachdanan. "I'd like to go see if there's any reason to believe that a dead wife might be worth more money to him than a live one."
Lester was absent the next evening when Lachdanan and his scribe arrived at the farm. He had left late in the morning to deposit his shipment of hag's hair weed at the ruined cottage deep in the woods from which he distributed the goods. A dozen cows and a few chickens were the only witnesses to Lachdanan and Tomas's arrival.
After receiving no answer at the door, Lachdanan and Tomas walked out to the barn and found it deserted as well. They were turning to leave when something caught Lachdanan's eye. A pitchfork leaned against the barn wall, next to a haystack. Crouching for a closer look, Lachdanan saw that straw clung to the fork's tines, held in place by a thick coat of brown crust.
"What is it?" asked Tomas.
Lachdanan's answer was interrupted by the sound of hooves racing toward them. Lachdanan stood quickly and stepped away from the haystack.
"Is it Farmer Lester?" asked Tomas.
It wasn't. It was one of the Town Guards. He had ridden at top speed from Tristram to bring his Captain disturbing news: "Sir," he panted. "It's the King!"
The soldier shook his head. "I don't know. He's ordered the border sealed and dozens of arrests, including the Queen! There's all kinds of crazy rumors going around already. Talk of a conspiracy, an invasion by Westmarch."
Lachdanan shook his head as if awakening from a bad dream. "Great Zakarum," he managed. "We've barely been gone eight hours! What in Heaven's name is going on?"
The soldier just shook his head again.
"We'd better get back to Tristram," said Lachdanan. He glanced over at the pitchfork. "This will have to keep until later."
As Captain Lachdanan, Tomas and the soldier hurried back to Tristram, none was aware that there would be no "later." It was the beginning of the Black King's Reign.
"And he was just about to figure it out too," said Glorianna sadly. The sight of the pitchfork made her shiver. "What's happening in Tristram?"
"Big things," beamed Mr. Duke. "Amazin' things. Y'all might get to be a part of them."
"I feel like I already am," replied Glorianna. "If nothing else, I'm getting around pretty well for a dead woman."
Mr. Duke crouched next to the pitchfork, examining the dried blood much as Lachdanan had done. "So you managed t' escape from Lazarus and y'all came back here."
"Mind if I ask y'all a question?"
Glorianna shook her head.
"In Mephisto's name, why?"
"Where else was I supposed to go?"
"Anywhere!" laughed Mr. Duke. "What were y'all expectin', comin' back here? Y'all could have gone t' Gillian or Nova. Hell, even Wirt would've taken y' in."
Glorianna shrugged. She didn't know the answer. It simply hadn't occurred to her not to return to the farm.
"So, y'all got here, Lester confronted you and stabbed you through the heart with a pitchfork."
"Of course not. Why would he do that? I may have been little more than a slave where he was concerned, but at least that gave me some monetary value in his eyes."
"Well it couldn't have been Red Vex, Black Jade or Lazarus," said Mr. Duke. "They were all too busy with their own affairs..." He chuckled. "...to chase you out here. So it had to've been Gorash."
"Don't be silly," chided Glorianna. "If he was going to kill me, he would have done it at the tavern during Caravan. Going out of his way to find me, for any reason, was the last thing he would have wanted to do. Besides, he had no way of knowing I was here."
"You're not gonna stand there and tell me y'all stabbed yourself t' death with a pitchfork and threw yourself in the river?"
Glorianna laughed. It was the first time she'd laughed since she died, then she sobered again. "Now that you mention it, the idea of killing myself has never been very far from my mind these last few years. Except for when I was with Hector," she said. "The truth is, when I got back here, I didn't want to go back to my room, but I didn't really know where I should go. So, I was out here behind the barn when Lester came out to give the cows their evening feed.
"He was furious with me, of course," continued Glorianna. "For running out on him. For making him look bad in front of the Prince. For leaving him to do my chores. So, he was all set to work his frustrations out on me again. Only, this time I ran." Glorianna sighed. "he chased me. He shoved me. The pitchfork was sticking out of the back of the hay wagon. End of story. It didn't even hurt that much, but you should have heard Lester curse when he realized what I'd done. It would've brought a blush to even your cheeks. In the end, he threw me in the river because he didn't want to pay for a funeral."
While Glorianna had been speaking, the Lester farm faded away to reveal the inside of a mammoth cavern. Pools of boiling blood provided a crimson illumination and the walls and stalagmites were embedded with broken bones and grinning skulls. Bat-winged creatures with twisted human faces flapped around the giant dripping stalactites. In one of the larger pools of blood, someone or something thrashed and splashed around, trying to fend off whatever lived in there. For his part, the Duke of Hatred reclined on a massive throne made of human skulls.
Glorianna was unperturbed by the dramatic change in scenery. Acting startled or frightened would have fooled no one, least of all herself. Mr. Duke had made no secret of his identity or his intentions. She welcomed the offer he was about to make her.
So, said the Duke, leaning forward in his throne. "What do y'all say to servin' up a few heapin' bowls of just desserts?"
Glorianna Lester smiled. "Just give me a big enough spoon."
A pair of hulking magma demons erupted from the ground at Glorianna's feet and grabbed her. Their touch burned and Glorianna screamed and struggled as the creatures pulled her down into the molten ground.
"It'll take a few hundred years t' get y'all ready," the Duke of Hatred called after her. "Durin' that time, y'all might feel some slight discomfort!"
The Duke of Hatred laughed and leaned back in his throne. He buffed his well-manicured nails on his sleeve and then paused to admire them. Then he picked a bit of grit out of his ring and buffed its glowing red stone. "I have got the greatest job in the world," he sighed.
The scorched earth at the foot of the throne suddenly bulged and burst in a spray of hot rock and lava. A magma demon scrambled to its feet and hurried away from shapely winged figure at the center of the explosion. She gestured at the magma demon and a burst of magical energy cut it down.
"Well, that was a quick few centuries, darlin'" noted the Duke as the remains of the magma demon's humanoid form liquefied.
"If it seemed quick to you, maybe you should try it and I'll stay here," she replied, watching her last tormentor slowly drain into a nearby lava pool.
"Then I take you found our hospitality effective?"
"Personally, I found the centipede pit trite, but the Dismemberer showed a grain of inventiveness. Duriel's work?"
"They don't call him the Lord of Pain for his after dinner speeches," said the Duke. "But they should. Anyway, I'll let him know y'all said so. Everybody screams in torment, but we don't get much in the way of constructive feedback." He paused, waiting for her to turn around.
"Now then, let's have a look at y'all, darlin'" suggested the Duke.
"First of all, don't call me darling. And don't call me Glorianna either," she said turning. "Call me Fleshdancer."
The face was Glorianna Lester's, but the fear in her eyes and the weariness around them was gone. The tiny scar above her right eye, left by Farmer Lester's belt buckle, was gone too. In its place was a short, sharp, dark blue horn. Its mate jutted from the left side of her forehead. Her dark brown hair, so recently wet and filthy from the river, was now black and full. But it seemed to be equal parts shadow and substance.
The bat-like wings were another badge of her new demonic nature. They were indigo and laced with spidery black veins. At five feet from shoulder to wingtip, they were too small and slim to grant Fleshdancer real flight, but they would help her leap, climb, glide, and balance herself.
The metamorphosis from Glorianna to Fleshdancer manifested itself in other remarkable ways. Gone were the old bruises and blemishes. Now her skin was smooth and white as polished bone, but as tough as chainmail. Hector Gorash had described Glorianna's breasts as "perfect handfuls." Now they were perfect and considerably more than a handful, capped with bluish nipples. But then, Fleshdancer herself was more than a handful now. Not a creature born of woman, Fleshdancer's flat stomach had only a dimple where her navel should have been.
The Duke beamed. "Y'all may just be our greatest creation since Mephisto had his little mishap. Raven hair, ruby lips..."
Fleshdancer smiled a killer's smile. It was the smile of someone who wielded power for the very first time and was eager to use it.
"Now then, darlin'," said the Duke of Hatred, "why don't y'all tell me who you hate the most so y'all can settle your scores and get to work. We need y'all to help secure the labyrinth under Tristram to..."
"You," said Fleshdancer.
"What?" asked the Duke frowning.
"I hate you the most," clarified Fleshdancer. Bursts of crimson energy flew from her slim white fingers and caught the Duke of Hatred square in the chest, stunning him. The third and fourth Bloodstars punched him through the back of his throne, and the next series of bursts punched holes in the Duke himself. Oily black entrails flew in all directions, and Fleshdancer caught a glimpse of the Duke's true face before splattering it into smears of black ichor and gore. It had been a nest of slimy black lampreys surrounding a cluster of glowing red eyes.
Fleshdancer kept blasting away at the helpless demon lord until the largest piece of him was too small to fill a teacup. A large red eye attached to a bit of tendril rolled across the cavern floor and came to rest at her feet.
Confident, Fleshdancer bent over, hands resting just above her knees on cream-smooth thighs. Her wings fluttered slightly to maintain her balance. The eye stared up at her glassily. "Actually, you're not really the one I hate most of all," said Fleshdancer with a smile. "I'm just not interested in listening to anything you or your banished master have to say to me anymore. Look where it got Red Vex and Black Jade. Truth is, I'm still not sure who I hate. I'll figure it out eventually. In the meantime, I've got an agenda of my own to pursue. People to see..." She stood and stretched luxuriously, flexing her wings. "Anyway," she said, "I told you not to call me 'darling.'"
A glint of something crimson caught Fleshdancer's eye. The Duke of Hatred's ring was sticking out of a wad of tarry goo that had once been part of his hand. Fleshdancer picked up the ring and tried to wipe some of the gunk off of it. The stuff on the ring was raw, scorched Hatred and it stank even to her demonic senses. Nonetheless, she said: "I hope you don't mind if I help myself to this little bit of soulstone." She slipped the ring and admired it. "I might have a use for it."
The Duke's red eye continued staring at the ceiling.
Fleshdancer rubbed her hands together and then called out to the great cavern that surrounded her. "Sisters!"
That one word echoed off the walls of stone, bone and blood. Instantly, it got a response. They came from perches high and low. Succubi, Ice Witches, Soul Burners, and Hell Spawn. Fluttering down on leathery wings. They came by the dozens. They crawled down the cavern walls like lizards, using their wing-claws to grip the rock. They strutted across the scorched floor, wearing nothing but their flawless skin and lethal charms. Sometimes they would pause to fondle one another, but just as often, they would lash out at each other viciously.
Fleshdancer licked her lips and smiled hungrily, and then opened a Horadrim Portal. "Come," she leered at the approaching demonesses. "It's time to go do what we were made to do."
She turned and passed through the portal, and her hellish sisters followed. The vacant crimson eye of the Duke of Hatred continued to stare at the ceiling.
After a time, the eye finally blinked. The little bit of tendril attached to it shivered and then reached out for another oily black bit. Absorbing it, it dragged itself and the attached eye over to a larger black glob. After awhile, it found a few more eyes and lamprey-like tendrils. Then the reconstruction went faster.
The Duke of Hatred oozed back into his throne and gave a sigh. "What a woman!"
He looked around, hungry. But the lesser demons knew to steer well clear of the Duke in this state. He shrugged. He'd be feeding off of Fleshdancer's Hatred for centuries to come, maybe longer. She'd provide sustenance until she found the person she hated the most. Her frustration in that quest would only fuel her Hatred.
The Duke shook his head and chuckled softly. He had known the answer all along, of course. But she had really given herself away the night Farmer Lester had killed her. She had returned to the Lester Farm to punish the one she hated the most, and had succeeded.
"Have y'all ever seen such self-loathing?" he asked no one in particular, and chuckled louder.
There was nobody that Glorianna Lester hated more than Glorianna Lester. It would be a long time before Fleshdancer realized that, if ever.
The Duke of Hatred was laughing out loud now, holding his tarry sides, his slimy black tendrils quivering with mirth. Oily tears streamed from the cluster of red eyes in the center of his face. "How I love this job!"
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