The nighttime forest surrounding Tristram appeared still. Owls hooted, leaves rustled, crickets and other nocturnal creatures sang their songs.
In fact, the Khanduran Rangers had the town surrounded and were advancing on the great cathedral. The Rangers were apprehensive. They had all heard different rumors out of Tristram as they hurried back from pointless skirmishes in Westmarch and as far north as Riparia. Throughout Khanduras, villages lay in smoldering ruins and terrified refugees told of nightmarish creatures that came in the night. Many of the Rangers had encountered cloaked riders who cast fire and lightning in battle and burnt away to ash when killed.
A moss frog croaked: The dead were rising from their graves.
A breeze rustled through the loose bark of an elder pine: The Prince and the Archbishop were missing. In fact, many were missing.
A chorus of crickets chirped: The King had gone mad. The King had had the Queen put to death.
A pine cone rattled to the forest floor: Captain Lachdanan had assassinated the King and a curse had fallen upon him and his men.
A night scuttler scurried through some dry leaves: The King had been over eight feet tall when Lachdanan killed him.
A distant wolf howled: The King was no longer dead, nor was he human any longer.
A lost dog barked and the other forest noises died down. That was Hector Gorash silencing his troops. They'd gone beyond pooling information and were only decreasing each other's morale now. Gorash didn't know what had happened while he and his Rangers were off on various fools' errands, but he knew his forces could put an end to it. He had already had his people block all the roads in and out of Tristram with boulders and other debris. No one would be entering or leaving the town without his leave. Likewise, several Rangers were already hiding in the shadows Tristram itself; ready to restore order the moment they received the signal.
The majority of Gorash's forces were positioning themselves to retake the great cathedral. The plan was relatively simple: They'd enter, separate into their fighting squads and secure the ancient structure, room-by-room, down to the lowest catacombs.
Gorash gave a boss-cricket chirp. Dozens of female cricket chirps answered. Everyone was in position. Gorash allowed himself a tight, grim smile and gave the signal to advance. In eerie silence, nearly a hundred Khanduran Rangers melted through the darkness to retake their kingdom.
There was a slight change in the light and air pressure above Gorash. It was the slight distant-lightning smell of in-rushing Mana that told him something unnatural was happening. He turned with blinding speed, sword already drawn, but the surprise attack came even faster than that. A heavy blow caught him squarely and sent him backwards to the forest floor. His attacker landed lightly, but firmly, on top of him, straddling him.
Hector Gorash found himself staring into a familiar face. "Gl-glorianna?"
Fleshdancer laughed. "Oh, Hector! The expression on your face right now is priceless!"
The face was Glorianna's, or at least close enough to not make any difference. But the eyes were empty. It was almost as if he was looking straight through her head into the night sky above her, but the the darkness in her eyes was devoid of the warmth of a single star.
Gorash was also cognizant of the other changes his dead lover had undergone. The horns and webbed wings left no question as to what sort of creature she had become. He knew he was in mortal danger and wanted to struggle free, but his nostrils were full of a distracting musky scent.
"My Rangers," said Gorash, trying to keep focused.
Fleshdancer shook her head. "They can't help you and you can't help them. Your men are already busy playing with my sisters. Can you hear them? Can you hear the sound of Fleshdancing in the forest?" She smiled. "Don't worry though, Hector. You'll get to keep your command this time too." She closed her eyes and swayed, as if to some melody that only she could hear. "What lucky boys they are. Such a lovely way to go."
Gorash strained to fight the building arousal that sought to claim him. It was a fight he was destined to lose, and Fleshdancer knew it. She could feel him losing his battle beneath her and ground against him.
"Please..." managed Gorash, panting feverishly.
"Yes, it does please me," agreed Fleshdancer. She leaned forward, using the claws at the tips and joints of her wings to pin his arms and shoulders to the ground while her hands busied themselves with his armor. "It's time to do the Fleshdance again," her hot breath whispered in his ear. "I've learned some new steps that I've literally been dying to show you."
Reaching down, Fleshdancer found what she was looking for and leaned back, situating herself. "Ahh, just how I remember it," she sighed. "It's only been a few months for you, but it's been centuries for me. You know how they say time flies when you're having a good time?" She looked Gorash in the eye. "Well, I wasn't having a very nice time!"
The hate that blazed in Fleshdancer's eyes at that moment was almost enough to knock Gorash out of the nightmarish web of pleasure that had ensnared him. Then her features softened again and she seemed to study Gorash's face.
Fleshdancer considered her options. She could let him go and leave him to live a life of unquenchable longing. She could simply kill him with a point-blank Bloodstar to the head. Or she could feed on him.
It was no contest. As Fleshdancer, she wanted Hector Gorash as much as Glorianna ever had, and hungered for him in ways Glorianna could have never imagined. She leaned forward and pressed her lips against Gorash's. They yielded to her as easily as she knew they would. She closed her eyes and a shiver ran down her spine.
From under Fleshdancer's tongue, a slender barb extended, punched through the back of Gorash's throat, and plunged into the base of his brain.
Hector Gorash arched his back, unable to scream as Fleshdancer drained him from both ends at once. Pleasure and horror intermingled and became forever indistinguishable from one another.
Throughout the surrounding forest, Fleshdancer's sisters were feasting on the Khanduran Rangers in a similar fashion. Ordinarily, such feeding would continue until nothing remained of the prey but mummified husks. But Tristram's new master had need of the Rangers' souls. Conjuring from their hiding places deep beneath Tristram, the Counselors and Advocates of Diablo called to what was left of the bodies and souls of the Khanduran Rangers and encased them in the preternatural armor of Black Knights, Doom Guards, Steel Lords, and Blood Knights.
Silently, the Khanduran Rangers rose to their feet and continued their journey into the cathedral. All except Sir Gorash.
"What have you done to me?" self-awareness had returned. His hollow voice was little more than raspy mockery of what it had been.
Fleshdancer looked up at Sir Gorash. Encased in black plate armor, he had gained at least two feet of height and at least a hundred pounds of weight. His face was no longer visible, she observed with some regret. Two red points of light shone through the eye holes in his visor.
"What have you done to me?" repeated Sir Gorash.
"Only the same thing you did to me, lover," said Fleshdancer.
Gorash could feel the call of Diablo. "This will not stand. I will not submit."
"That's what King Leoric said," replied Fleshdancer. "He was wrong too."
"I don't know what I did to you to make you think I deserve this, but..."
"'You don't know what you did'?" snarled Fleshdancer. "YOU SON OF A BITCH!" A volley of Bloodstars smashed into Gorash's armored chest and sent him reeling.
Sir Gorash struggled to his knees and drew the great sword from his back. He gripped it by the blade and reversed it. "I don't know what I did to make you think I deserve this," he repeated, "but your revenge is going to be short-lived."
Sir Gorash thrust the sword into his chest and exploded in a burst of black flames.
Fleshdancer regarded the ashes silently for a moment. "One last heroic act of defiance," she said shaking her head, her anger gone as quickly as it had come. "I suppose you deserved at least that much." She rubbed the soulstone ring she had obtained from the Duke of Hatred, and Sir Gorash rose from the ashes intact.
The red lights that served as Sir Gorash's eyes looked down at Fleshdancer quizzically.
"I captured a piece of your soul in this soulstone," explained Fleshdancer, holding up the soulstone ring. "You can't die unless I allow it."
She waited for some reaction from Sir Gorash, but none came.
Fleshdancer shrugged. Despite her legitimate claim to Sir Gorash, she knew better than to get into an argument with a Prime Evil over it. "Go into the cathedral and serve Lord Diablo's will," she told Gorash. "I'll be back to collect whatever's left of you after he's finished with you."
Sir Gorash turned to leave, then stopped and looked back at Fleshdancer for a moment.
"Once, I could have been yours forever," said Fleshdancer. "Now, you're mine forever."
Sir Gorash turned and continued toward the cathedral to lead his Rangers once again. He did not say another word.
A few months later:
"I heard the explosion from here!" enthused Farmer Lester, his voice warm and folksy. "Many thanks to you, kind strangers. What with all these things comin' out of the ground, monsters taking over the church, and so forth, these are trying times. I am but a poor farmer, but here -- take this with my great thanks."
The Rogue and the Sorcerer stared at the Auric Amulet. Their Warrior companion had been closest to the blast and was still quite dazed. His face was black with soot and his hair and eyebrows had been singed nearly completely away.
"That's it?!" exclaimed the Rogue, gripping her bow tightly, and then under her breath added, "You cheap son of..."
The Sorcerer put a hand on her shoulder and shook his head. "He's not worth it," he counseled. "Come on, we have to get our friend to the Healer."
"Mom? Is that you?" wondered the Warrior as the three adventurers left Farmer Lester and his cows.
Farmer Lester watched them go with satisfaction. He had wondered if coming all the way back to Tristram for the sake of three lousy cows was worth his while. He had already sold his farm and had a new ranch set up south of Riparia, where it was safer and the profits were more certain. Still, money was money and now he had three extra head of cattle for the price of an Auric Amulet.
Lester turned to herd the three animals away and found Fleshdancer standing there.
"Glorianna!" he exclaimed.
"Fleshdancer," she corrected him. "You killed Glorianna, remember?"
Farmer Lester started to take a step back, but Fleshdancer held up her hand. The soulstone on her ring glinted crimson in the sunlight. "If you try to flee or scream, you'll be dead before you hit the ground. And believe me, judging by the number of dead people I've met who are eager for you to join them, you definitely want to put off dying as long as you can."
"What do you want from me?" asked Lester.
"Six months ago, I would have settled for a divorce," said Fleshdancer. "As recently as a few months before that, a kind word might have worked. But now, we're looking at eternal torment."
Lester stood motionless.
"What? No offer to make a deal? I'm disappointed."
Farmer Lester stood up straight and touched the brim of his hat politely. "Call me what you will, Glorianna, but I'm a businessman," he said. "Obviously there's nothing I can give you that I'm willing to part with, so it looks like we won't be able to do business." His voice had taken on that deceptive warm quality that she knew so well. A moment later, there was a knife in his hand.
"Oh, please!" snapped Fleshdancer, exasperated. She side-stepped Farmer Lester's surprisingly quick lunge and blasted the blade out of his hand.
Lester gasped and fell to his knees, clutching his wrist. The Bloodstar had turned his hand into a charred mass of blisters.
"I'll give you a little credit for using a poisoned dagger, but you must realize that your days of being able to hurt me ended when you killed me," said Fleshdancer. "As for me being able to hurt you, well, those days have just begun."
She looked down at him. She had never seen him at so profound a disadvantage. It was possible that he had never been at one. She savored it for a moment. "I have good news and bad news," she said. "The good news is, as I told my... sponsor, tormenting a soul such as yours would only be interesting for about a half-hour." She grinned. "The bad news for you is, as I learned in the centipede pit, a half-hour can be a very long time."
Fleshdancer grabbed Farmer Lester by the shoulder and pulled him to his feet. His wrinkled face was pale. He truly looked his age.
"The Wisdom of Zakarum tells us to 'regard highly the counsel of thy spouse,'" said Fleshdancer. "So, seeing as how your half-hour began about a thirty-count ago, here is my advice to you: Run."
Farmer Lester ran.
Fleshdancer watched him cross the bridge and disappear across the fields on the far side. She smiled. Farmer Lester had no way of knowing it, but Fleshdancer intended to spread that half-hour out over years.
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