The woods oozed with creep. The only thing worse than the overpowering sweet smell of it was the buzzing and swarming of the flies feeding on it. After a half-hour, Solo would have cheerfully set someone on fire if there was a chance it would bring relief from the flies.
Furthermore, the creep made for difficult walking. In some places, it was ankle-deep. If there was rock or a tree root or some other solid surface under it, it was treacherously slippery. Otherwise, it was as sticky like molasses. There was no way to tell beforehand; you simply had to take a step and hope for the best. Red Vex was the only one who seemed not to be having any difficulty walking. It was a marked contrast from earlier in the morning when Solo had untied her from her tree.
Solo had seen the succubus stumble a few times before already, but this time she took two steps and pitched forward. Her wing beat furiously as she fell, and if she'd had both wings, it might have kept her upright. As it was, all she did was turn a couple of sloppy pirouettes before crashing chest-first into the ground. A normally proportioned human being would have landed face-first. As it was, all Solo could think of was a clown she had met when she was traveling with Caravan. His nose honked when he squeezed it, and Solo couldn't help imagining that sound when Red Vex hit the ground.
Red Vex let loose a stream of obscenities that had made even Dolt and Griswold cringe and pale. Solo was glad that Gillian and Cecilia had gone to gather berries for breakfast. They would certainly have required a full-healing potion apiece from hearing Red Vex's curses.
Red Vex struggled to her feet, dusted herself off and nearly stumbled again. This time Solo was quick to identify the problem. It wasn't just that her missing wing was throwing her balance off. "It's those boots of yours," Solo told her. "They've got to go."
The boots Red Vex wore came up to her mid-thigh and were made of gleaming black leather - demon hide, actually. The narrow soles also featured six-inch spiked heels. No wonder succubi needed wings to keep their balance!
Luckily, Solo had a couple of extra pairs of boots. The nomadic lifestyle of Bards led most of them to value a good pair of shoes even more than a good pair of swords. The boots she offered Red Vex were soft leather, ankle-high and had tough flat soles. "Put these on," Solo told her.
Red Vex sat down on a log and peeled her boots off. Like the rest of her, her legs were flawless and as smooth and white as ivory. Solo - who, in rare moments of vanity, considered her legs her best feature - refrained from considering any comparison between Red Vex's anatomy and her own. That way lay madness.
Red Vex slipped her dainty feet into the new boots and stood. She took a step and a strange expression came over her face. It was a long time before anyone present realized it was a smile. "These shoes are incredible," said Red Vex. She took a few steps. "Why, I no longer feel the need to kill men and devour their souls!"
"Ye're kidding," said Griswold, who had been watching the entire episode.
"Yes, I am," replied Red Vex, her smile gone. The fact that Griswold looked taken aback at the statement was not lost on Red Vex. It would definitely be worth her while to work on the veteran warrior when she could get away with it.
The rest of the morning had gone by uneventfully. Dumptruk and Valeria each left for their respective homelands, promising to return with reinforcements as quickly as possible. Gillian had spent much of the night brewing Healing potions for each of them. Solo finished equipping herself by purchasing a half-dozen Mana potions from Adria. Adria took that opportunity to remind her that she expected the Collar of Submission back when they completed their scouting mission.
"Ordinarily, I would be loath to part with it," said Adria of the collar. "But these are dire circumstances. Besides, I'll be too busy to use it until after the Zerg menace is dealt with anyway." Solo had no desire to ask Adria what she would have used the collar for if it hadn't been for the Zerg menace.
Adria gave Solo one other item: A Horadrim Portal scroll. "This scroll will open a different portal than the Tristram Town Portal. I used it to escape the night the Zerg invaded Tristram," she said. "Make sure you are within a mile of the cathedral when you read it. It will bring you here to the forest."
Tristram was not just a dead town. It had been murdered, and its murderer had stayed around to gloat.
Solo, Dolt and Griswold headed into the woods toward Tristram. Red Vex, at the end of the leash Solo held, led the way. The creep had spread a half-mile closer to camp than it had been the day before. Overall, the mood of the party was somber. Partly because of the difficult going due to the creep, and partly because of the nature of their destination. Tristram was not just a dead town. It had been murdered, and its murderer had stayed around to gloat.
With nothing to do but shoo flies away and pick their way through the creep, their thoughts wandered. Griswold's mood was especially grim. His family had lived in Tristram for generations. He remembered when, as a young man, he had been called to the church to claim his father's body. Torvan Griswold had been a Tristram Ranger who had disappeared on Long Patrol one day. Another Long Patrol had found his body a fortnight later pinned under a rock slide. Griswold felt as if he was going to claim another body. Part of him was glad that none of his family had survived to see the Zerg invasion of Tristram. He whispered a silent prayer for his wife, Kella, and for his children, Torvan, Hogan and Hildy. They had all fallen as victims of the Black King's madness.
Griswold knew Tristram had gone to hell long before the Zerg arrived. It was all the fault of the she-demon, Red Vex. While no one knew all the details, Griswold had no doubt that she and her sister were somehow tied up in the betrayal by Lazarus, the disappearance of the Prince, King Leoric's madness and the raids by the cloaked riders. Red Vex and Black Jade had come into Tristram with Caravan, posing as dancers. They had sought out the Archbishop Lazarus, claiming to seek redemption and to follow the Path of Light. Of course, their goal was not their own enlightenment, but rather the corruption of Lazarus. Griswold wondered again how they'd done it. With the possible exception of Captain "Wet Blanket" Lachdanan, Lazarus was the most pious man he'd ever known. If he ever got half a chance, he swore he'd beat the answer out of Red Vex before he killed her.
Dolt Lungren cursed as he slipped on the creep and had to grab a sticky tree trunk to keep from falling. He had heard rumors of the troubles in Tristram and had been on his way to seek glory in battle. Normally, that was what gave his life purpose. But then, normally, he expected to be alive at the end of the day. He had even gone so far as to give his name to the girl, Gillian.
More and more, Dolt had been thinking of his late father. No one was exactly sure how or when Olaf Lungren had died. He had been a Barbarian warrior with a temperament that made Baal look like a sleepy nun. There was little doubt that he'd finally gotten into a fight - probably with an angry mob and lost. Dolt sighed. He had inherited his father's strength and temper and would probably soon inherit his demise. Perhaps if he had been born to another family, he would not be on this path. Maybe he'd be in a nice quiet guildhall somewhere forging horseshoes or blowing glass. Then again, maybe he'd still be here up to his ankles in sticky alien goo.
Before they crossed into the creep, Solo had taken the precaution of casting a Mana Shield. She then replenished her magical energy by drinking one of the Mana potions she'd gotten from Adria. It was standard practice, since a Mana Shield was most effective when one had a full ball. In retrospect, it might have been a mistake, however. The blue potions were famous for a particular side effect, and Solo found her thoughts turning toward topics that were not at all appropriate to their current situation. The fact that Red Vex was a few feet ahead of her and leaking supernatural pheromones didn't help matters either.
The last time Solo had been with a man had been over a year ago when she was traveling with Caravan from the coast to Riparia. He had been an acrobat, and his agility and stamina had made him a memorable companion. Solo allowed herself a smile at the memory, and then sighed. Judging by her current company, she'd be "Solo" a bit longer. Even though he was handsome enough, she was not at all interested in Dolt. She could have said "misanthropic misogynist" to his face and had days to get away while he tried to figure out what she meant. It was enough that she'd earned enough of his respect that they were able to work together. Even though he hadn't said so, Dolt Lungren was one of those people in whose world Solo would have been at home raising a mess o' babies.
Griswold was another story. The older man had a good heart, but it had been broken again and again. To get close to him would be to immerse herself in his pain.
Meanwhile, Red Vex had been amusing herself by calculating what it would take to seduce and control each of her captors. There was a certain amount of role-playing involved, and that's what made it fun. For example, Dolt Lungren would respond to strength. One or both of his parents had probably been very controlling and, whether he realized it or not, that was what he would seek out in a mate. The Collar of Submission would have been ideal for him. Even without it, though, Red Vex was confident that, given an hour alone with the Barbarian, she could have him eating out of her hand. Or any other part of her body.
Being a creature of Mephisto, Red Vex knew how easy it was to turn love into hatred, or hatred into passion.
Griswold was almost the opposite. He thought of himself as a father and protector. He'd respond to anyone that he thought he could help. The fact that he'd lost so much would make him especially vulnerable to the charms of a damsel in distress. Of course, he blamed her for the loss of his family and the destruction of Tristram, and hated her for it. That was not really the problem one might have thought it would be. Being a creature of Mephisto, Red Vex knew how easy it was to turn love into hatred, or hatred into passion.
Red Vex was aware that her power was having an effect on Solo, and would not have acted to control it even if she could. She could feel the slight increase in the Bard's body temperature and hear the increase in her heart rate. That was good, she might be able to turn even a slight distraction to her advantage. As with the two men, Red Vex had faith that she could have worked her will on Solo without undue difficulty. Solo, she sensed, would respond to a confidant. If she became her best friend, it would be easy to overcome her heterosexuality. Red Vex frowned. It was something like that that had resulted in her becoming Red Vex in the first place. Just for an instant, she almost remembered her name.
They had been within sight of the road, but followed Red Vex's advice and stuck to the forest. They were caught short when the woods ended in a rolling creep-covered meadow.
"Do we keep going?" asked Dolt.
Solo nodded. "We need to go another mile before we're close enough to use the Horadrim Portal into Tristram."
Centuries ago, Horadrim wizards had known how to conjure portals that could transport them instantly between any two points in the world. Thanks to Horadrim secrecy, however, all knowledge of that spell had been lost when their numbers were decimated during the Sin War. All that remained were the portals themselves. They could be opened with a simple spell, assuming one was nearby. No one knew where all the portals were any longer. Finding one was just a matter of luck. Having it take you somewhere useful would be another improbably lucky break. A lot of the old abandoned Horadrim Portals were one-way trips to nowhere, so people were not inclined to explore them even when they found them.
Luckily, Tristram had a Portal whose nature was understood and well documented. Opening a Horadrim Portal within a day's journey or so of the town would transport the traveler into the heart of Tristram.
Griswold squinted, trying to see through the clouds of buzzing flies. "Aye, there it is," he said pointing down the road. "The obelisk." There was a stone marker at the top of a rise about a mile away. It was marked with the Horadrim symbol and told travelers that they were within range of the Portal to Tristram.
"Let's go, then," said Solo. "The less time we spend in the open, the better off we'll be."
They were exactly halfway there when the flies suddenly vanished.
"Uh-oh..." said Dolt.
The Zerg burst out of the ground in ambush. Three of the wasp-creatures that had savaged Red Vex took to the air and immediately reversed and dived at them. A half-dozen white Venom Tails wriggled out of the earth around them and began to move in for the kill from all sides. Their leaders were the last to emerge: a pair of towering serpentine Hydralisks. All were creatures that the Zerg had worked their twisted HellCraft on. The fliers had been bred from wasps. The Venom Tails had Scavengers as their forebears. The Hydralisks had been plenty deadly even before the Zerg added Cave Viper DNA to their genetic makeup.
Solo yanked Red Vex's leash to invoke the power of the Collar of Submission. "Protect us!" she commanded detaching the leash, and freeing the Hell Spawn's hands, "Kill the Zerg!"
"Yes, Good Master," replied Red Vex gleefully. She unleashed a Bloodstar that sailed over Solo's head and brought down one of the fliers. The other two broke off their attack and retreated a bit, hovering.
Meanwhile, a sweeping blow from Dolt's axe brought a quick end to the three Venom Tails approaching from his side. Griswold was faring less well. Although the sword that he considered his Edge in Battle had dispatched one of the Venom Tails, simultaneously setting it aflame and knocking it away from him, the other two were on him. They lashed at him like huge white scorpions and, when one found its mark, Griswold let out a scream of agony.
Dolt attempted to rush to the Master Blacksmith's aid but found himself blocked by one of the Hydralisks. It reared up like a striking cobra, looming three feet over Dolt's head. Its mouth was at least two feet wide and full of needle-like teeth. The upper pair of appendages ended in scythe-like claws, the bottom pair wielded great scimitars. Dolt and the alien monster regarded each other for a silent moment, and then the battle was joined.
Red Vex was holding the other Hydralisk at bay, blasting away at it with Bloodstars. Her attack was keeping the creature from approaching too close, but its Cave Viper DNA made it resistant to the magical attack. Each flick of the Hydralisk's tail sent a volley of javelin-sized quills flying at Red Vex. Red Vex, who had evaded the arrows of veteran Rogues in the dark, had little trouble avoiding the monster's missile attack. It had only hatched hours ago and this was its first real battle. She had no doubt that she could be in real trouble if the other Hydralisk finished with Dolt and caught her in a crossfire.
Solo Stone Cursed one of the Venom Tails attacking Griswold, giving him time to quaff a Healing potion. Stone Curse took more out of Solo than it would have Adria, and she'd surely drain her ball if she tried to cast another one without having a Mana potion. One of the fliers seemed to recognize Solo's vulnerability and dived at her. Although the slashing attack did her no harm, it nearly depleted her Mana Shield. The second flier was following the lead of its brood mate and Solo knew that a second attack would tear through her Mana Shield and into her body. She went on the offensive. Draining her ball, Solo Stone Cursed the alien in mid-dive. Petrified, it slammed into the ground and shattered.
Griswold had managed to kill the unpetrified Venom Tail and was about to shatter the one Solo had Stone Cursed when the last flier snatched him off the ground.
"Red Vex!" commanded Solo, "Save him!"
Red Vex turned and blasted the flier out of the air and Griswold came to a soft but sticky landing in the creep. The Hydralisk, seeing Red Vex's back turned, lunged at the succubus, only to be met by Solo's swords.
Solo did not like going into melee without the protection of a Mana Shield, but there just wasn't time to drink a potion and cast the spell. She had The Grandfather in her right hand and her trusty short sword in the left. That gave her two blades to the monster's four.
Griswold recovered from his fall just in time to see that the Stone Curse had worn off on the last Venom Tail. Even if he hadn't been injured, he was stuck in the creep with his sword pinned under him. The creature came at him, its deadly tail held high. Then there was a flash of crimson and the Venom Tail burst into slimy pieces.
Griswold looked up and saw Red Vex standing over the slain monster, scarlet energy still arcing from her fingertips.
Solo was having what was turning out to be quite a fencing match with the Hydralisk. She'd scored a number of serious hits on the creature without receiving any herself, thanks to The Grandfather's reach. The Hydralisk moved more easily in the creep than she did, so she knew it was only a matter of time.
Then the Hydralisk's head became airborne. As what was left of it crumpled, Solo saw Dolt standing there, his axe dripping. Actually, Dolt himself was dripping. He looked as though he'd cut through the other Hydralisk and come out the other side. A quick glance at the other Zerg confirmed that this might have been the case.
"They're not so tough," said Dolt.
"Unless you want to put that assessment to a real test, we'd better be moving," warned Solo. The ground was bulging in numerous places behind them, and already, several Venom Tails had surfaced for a second attack.
"We can make it to the marker! Let's go!" yelled Solo. She downed a Full Mana potion as she ran. Dolt followed her. Red Vex helped pull Griswold out of the creep where he was mired, and they both followed as well. Behind them, no less than 30 Venom Tails and a dozen fliers pursued. More Hydralisks followed as well. Glancing back, Solo saw a few other varieties of Zerg that she wasn't eager to meet. Fortunately, Red Vex was bringing up the rear and her Bloodstars killed or discouraged any creature that came too close. Hell Spawns excelled at running battles.
When they reached the stone marker, Solo cast the spell to open the Horadrim Portal to Tristram. Almost as one, she, Dolt, Griswold and Red Vex dove through it. Solo slammed the Portal shut behind them.
They were safe, but "safe" was a relative concept. They were also in the heart of the Zerg-infested corpse of Tristram.