Valeria Desdemona Sapphire Stars-in-the-Heavens-over-Riparia of the House of Halla had been sitting outside, keeping watch and looking after the ailing Cecilia. Valeria's heart was heavy. When rumors of the troubles in Tristram reached the Sisters of the Sightless Eye, Valeria cut short her training in order to go to Tristram to offer aid. She had arrived at the camp earlier in the day only to find that there was no one left in Tristram to help.
She looked over at the bedroll where the young girl lay sleeping restlessly by the fire. Her face was pale and she was severely dehydrated. Valeria recognized the symptoms from her desert training. The problem was that Cecilia simply couldn't keep any food or water in. The girl shivered and Valeria moved to cover her with another blanket.
One by one, the others came out of the tent where they had been interrogating the wounded demon. The first one out was the Barbarian giant, Dumptruk. Like Valeria, he had been on his way to Tristram to check on the welfare of friends after hearing about King Leoric's madness and the other troubles.
Even though she was a full head taller than Valeria, Rhapsody, the Bard, looked minuscule next to Dumptruk. She was freelancing for the Westmarch Scribes Guild and had been on her way to Tristram to gather news of that city in the aftermath of King Leoric's unsuccessful war on Westmarch.
Although she was the same age as Valeria, Valeria had a hard time not thinking of Gillian as a mere girl. She had been working as a barmaid at the Tavern of the Rising Sun when Valeria passed through Tristram two seasons earlier on her way to receive her training from the Sisters. Even though Gillian's tragically abbreviated training under Pepin had matured her a bit, her world was a tiny one that was, until recently, without risk or change.
The Master Blacksmith, Griswold, followed Gillian. Even from across the camp and over the fire, the veteran warrior's eyes looked haunted to Valeria. Within the six months since she'd last seen him, he had lost his family, his livelihood, his home, and now the town of his birth.
Dolt Lungren, a Barbarian wanderer, came from a different tribe than Dumptruk. He was handsome while Dumptruk had a more brutish appearance. He spoke plainly compared to Dumptruk's broken way of speaking that seemed to lack personal pronouns. Paradoxically, Dumptruk was easily the smarter of the two. He had the soul of a philosopher, while Dolt was more like a crafty wild animal. Valeria thought of him as a lone wolf who had been shunned by the pack and then shunned the pack in turn. She sighed. Such insights would have passed her by like summer breezes a half-year ago. She had learned more from the Sisters than mere archery.
The last two out of the tent were Adria, the witch, and Solo, the Bard. Adria was both changed and unchanged since Valeria had first met her. When Valeria first arrived in Tristram, Adria made her living telling fortunes and arranging marriages. Valeria had passed on the witch's matchmaking services, but her prognostications had turned out to be unnervingly accurate so far.
Valeria had instantly sensed a kindred spirit in Solo, and would have loved to join her on her adventures, or invite her along on hers. However, if the situation in Tristram was as bad as feared, Valeria knew that their paths would lead different directions.
|"What Tristram had before was a demonic infestation; a major one granted, but still manageable. What's there now is more like an invading army."|
"Who's watching the she-demon?" asked Valeria as the others took seats around the fire. Gillian checked on Cecilia and then went to her tent to look for ingredients for a remedy for her.
"Adria cast enough Stone Curses on her to keep her petrified while we decide what to do next," said Solo. "Red Vex - that's what she calls herself - turned out to be a fountain of information about Tristram and the Zerg. Unfortunately, most of the news is pretty grim. What Tristram had before was a demonic infestation; a major one granted, but still manageable. What's there now is more like an invading army."
"What kind of numbers?" asked Valeria.
"A lot," said Dolt.
"And increasing steadily," added Solo. "Their troops hatch out of pods, and the pods grow like toadstools after a rainstorm. What's more, any creature they encounter, they either kill or capture and mold in their own image."
"Aye," said Griswold, "The creature we battled this afternoon was grown from a wee wasp!"
Valeria gasped. She had seen the creature's body when Dolt and Griswold dragged it back to camp. "That used to be a wasp?"
"Kind of," said Solo. "I think it's more complicated than that. They take the essence of the wasp and combine it with their own essence until it suits their needs."
"Zerg craftsmen, like friend Griswold," said Dumptruk. "Take raw materials and forge weapons."
"Aye, living weapons," said Griswold nodding at the analogy.
|"They're going to keep spreading and will continue to be a threat to man, beast, demon and angel alike until something stops them."|
"You saw what they did with an insect," said Solo, "so you can imagine what they might do with a demon."
"But you wouldn't have to, because they've already done it," said Rhapsody. "According to our unreliable source, they killed or drove out most of the smaller demons and twisted the most powerful ones in their own image."
"What do they want? And where did they come from?" asked Valeria.
"No one seems to know where they came from," said Rhapsody. "Apparently, the first hive appeared a couple of months after King Leoric's death. Neither Solo nor I have heard or read of anything remotely like these creatures. I'll check the Royal Library and with the Scribes Guild when I return to Westmarch."
"As for what they want," said Solo, "It's pretty clear they want to increase their numbers and diversity with whatever creatures they encounter. They're going to keep spreading and will continue to be a threat to man, beast, demon and angel alike until something stops them."
"And at this point," continued Rhapsody, "that something is going to have to be an army."
"Many armies," corrected Griswold.
"That's why I'll be heading back to Westmarch with my report as soon as I've had something to eat," said Rhapsody. "The king must be alerted and his forces mobilized. The longer we wait, the stronger the Zerg will get."
"Dumptruk return home too," stated the giant Barbarian. "Warn other tribes of Badlands, then bring warriors to fight Zerg."
Valeria nodded her head. "I was hoping to be able to go to Tristram," she said, "But it's clear my duty lies in returning to Riparia and leading my own forces back here."
"Dolt, Griswold and I will be going to Tristram to scout out the Zerg and learn what we can," said Solo. "Adria will stay here and work on a way to defeat them."
"Everything the Zerg produce is alive," said Adria. "Their weapons, their nests, all their resources. Anything damaged will simply heal in time. It is one of their greatest strengths." She paused. "It may also be their greatest weakness. Everything feeds on the creep. It is my plan to try to concoct a poison powerful enough to taint the creep and leave the Zerg vulnerable."
|"Potions of Mana are exceedingly valuable in times of need. There is no such thing as 'extra' Mana potions."|
"Gillian and Cecilia will stay here with Adria until I get back from Westmarch or can send someone for them," said Rhapsody chewing on a strip of dried pork and cramming a few pieces of fruit and a loaf of bread into her backpack. "I'm almost set to go. Do you have any extra Mana potions?" she asked Adria, "Full restoration, preferably."
"Potions of Mana are exceedingly valuable in times of need," said Adria sharply. "There is no such thing as 'extra' Mana potions."
"Spare me. If you have 'em, I'll buy 'em," replied Rhapsody. "I'm going to have to drain my ball a couple of times Teleporting all the way to Westmarch."
Adria started to name her price. "It would be appropriate," interrupted Solo, "if you'd spare her your usual adventurer's rate under these circumstances."
"Oh, very well," sighed Adria getting up to go back to the tent. She returned with a large trunk and sold Rhapsody three Full Mana potions and a standard Mana potion for 123 gold pieces.
Rhapsody tossed back the smallest of the four potions. "Ahh," she sighed, her face flushed. "That's the stuff. I thank you, and my expense account with the Westmarch Scribes Guild thanks you." She stood up and slung her backpack over her shoulders. "Good fortune to you all. May we meet again soon under pleasanter circumstances," she said. "I'm gossamer on a spring breeze." With that, she invoked the Teleportation spell and vanished.
Valeria squinted in the direction of Westmarch. Her keen eyes picked out a tiny figure more than a mile down the wooded road. Rhapsody Teleported again and disappeared from sight entirely.
Gillian came out of her tent carrying a cast iron pot full of a thick, milky liquid. She began warming it over the fire.
"What about the demon?" asked Valeria.
"She will remain Stone Cursed for several more minutes," reported Adria.
"I meant, what are we going to do with her?" said Valeria.
"Easy," replied Dolt, "we shatter her and use her for cobblestones."
Griswold guffawed at this, but Dumptruk shook his head. "Dumptruk and friends better than demons," he said. "Not kill helpless foes."
Dolt looked at him as if he'd become unhinged. "What good is Stone Curse, if it's not for killing helpless foes?"
Dumptruk could have pointed out that he had never needed such magic, but let it pass.
"I agree with Dumptruk," said Gillian sparing the giant Barbarian a fond glance. She was busy stirring the remedy she was brewing for Cecilia. "Killing her now would be needlessly cruel."
"Cruel?!" sputtered Griswold. "Did y'not recognize that she-demon? She's surely one of the ones who..."
Solo interrupted him, not wishing the argument to go on any longer. "Frankly," she said, "I'd like to take her to Tristram with us as she asked. She fed us a lot of information about where we're going, and I'd like her to be there to receive the first of the punishment if she's attempted to mislead us. The only problem is I'm not sure how to keep her under control so she won't be a threat to us." Solo hoped that focusing them on a practical problem would distract her companions from a philosophical debate with no real solutions.
Adria had been digging through her trunk to inventory what she'd been able to rescue from her shack. "Ah!" she said, "This might be just the thing you need." She held up a large black studded leather dog collar attached to a slim length of gleaming chain. "It's a Collar of Submission," she said, "Whoever wears it will obey the holder of the chain." She turned to Dumptruk. "Dumptruk, be a good fellow and go fetch Red Vex."
Dumptruk lumbered into the tent and returned carrying the petrified succubus over one shoulder. Gently, he set her down between Adria and Solo. Adria slipped the collar around the demon's neck and fastened it. She handed the chain to Solo. "When you grasp the gold links and tug on the chain, she will be submissive to your will for several minutes. The effect diminishes slightly with each use. However, if you are a good master, you may find that you no longer need the collar's power."
|"Why would a dog collar have matching wristbands? What use could they possibly be?"|
Solo was about to ask what Adria meant by being a good master when she saw what the witch had in her hands. "These can be securely fastened to each other, to the sides of the collar, or to your end of the chain," she said. Adria was holding up a pair of studded leather wristbands that matched the collar.
"Why would a dog collar have matching wristbands?" asked Gillian. "What possible use could they be?"
"Never mind," said Adria dismissively and fastening the wristbands around Red Vex's wrists.
Gillian looked puzzled. Griswold and Dolt both guffawed and even Valeria snickered. Solo looked at the leash in her hand as if it had suddenly turned into a dead snake. She tried very hard not to imagine the answer to Gillian's innocent question and failed miserably.
"Would either of you..." began Solo trying to offer the leash to Dolt or Griswold.
The Blacksmith and the Barbarian both shook their heads, grinning. "Ye're the one who wanted t'keep her alive," Griswold reminded her.
"Stone Curse start to wear off," noticed Dumptruk.
"You should use the collar's power immediately to establish your authority," Adria advised.
Solo sighed and gave the chain a gentle tug.
"Harder!" commanded Adria. "You must prove your dominance beyond all question to use the collar effectively."
Solo yanked the chain and nearly pulled Red Vex off her feet as the Stone Curse wore off.
"Command her to stand up," suggested Adria.
"Um... Stand up," said Solo.
"Yes, Good Master," said Red Vex standing up straight and looking at Solo expectantly.
"Why, she sounded just like Ogden!" gasped Gillian.
At that moment, Adria considered Stone Cursing Gillian and leaving her in the woods someplace. Fortunately, Dumptruk intervened. "Soup boiling," he observed.
"Oh, thank you Dumptruk," said Gillian removing the pot from the fire and taking it over to Cecilia.
"All right," Solo told Red Vex, "Have a seat."
Red Vex sat down. "Yes, Good Master."
"Please don't call me Good Master."
"I'm sorry, Good Master."
Solo rolled her eyes. "We've decided to grant your request and take you to Tristram with us."
"Oh, thank you, Good Master."
"How long does this effect last?"
Adria shrugged. "It varies."
"Great." She turned to Red Vex again. "I don't suppose there are any errors or omissions you'd like to correct about the information you gave us earlier?"
"Yes, Good Master," said Red Vex. "We'll want to keep to forested areas as much as possible and avoid open areas. All the Zerg creatures burrow and I've seen them burst out of the ground to capture their prey. Tree roots may slow them down, or at least, give us some warning."
"We would have regretted not knowing that," said Solo without looking at Dolt and Griswold. "Anything else?"
"Yes, Good Master. I lied about smelling live humans as I fled Tristram. I think the only survivors of Tristram are in this camp."
Solo spared a glance at Gillian. She knew that the young healer had been hoping that her grandmother had somehow survived the massacre. "Are you sure there are no humans left alive in Tristram?" asked Solo.
Red Vex looked troubled, obviously wanting to please her Good Master. "Anything is possible," she said. "I have reason to believe that Lazarus might still be alive. Although I don't suppose you'd be interested in rescuing him."
"Aye," grumbled Griswold, "I don't suppose we would."
Solo had one other question in the back of her mind. "Why do you really want to go back to Tristram?"
Red Vex was slow in answering, and this was not lost on Solo. "I wish to find my sister, Black Jade."