The creep was thinner in Tristram, more like a dirty purple-gray slush than the gooey blanket they'd seen before. Older, more established, Zerg resources needed less creep than newer ones did. Thus, the creep was always thickest near the borders of Zerg territory.
Despite the lack of creep, there was no question that Tristram was no longer a human town. Except for the buzzing of the flies, the town was unnaturally still. No human voice spoke. There was no evidence of human craftsmanship that wasn't in ruins. Even Red Vex couldn't smell a single human scent other than her companions.
To their right, all that remained of the Tavern of the Rising Sun were a few charred timbers and a pile of creep-slimed rubble. On the left, Griswold's smithy had fared slightly better. It too was charred and slimed, but only the back wall and part of the roof had been destroyed.
"The pasture I told you about is back this way," said Red Vex, gesturing behind them to the left.
"We should check m' workshop," said Griswold, "If the Zerg ha' not gotten into m' weapons lockers, there may be things we can use."
"Sweet Zakarum on a Pony!" breathed Solo. She was looking behind them, to the right. The old Horadrim cathedral that King Leoric had converted into his palace was now a towering alien bio-mass. It looked like a giant termite mound, except that it was clearly alive. Creep-filled veins pulsed across its surface, and even from the relative distance of town, they could all see drones and other Zerg creatures swarming over its surface.
There was a long silence, during which they could almost hear the alien structure's breath and heartbeat. Even Red Vex found herself repulsed by its other-ness.
"More weapons would be a good thing," whispered Solo, finally.
Without another word, they hurried into the dubious shelter of Griswold's workshop.
"Dolt, you make your way to the front of the shop and keep an eye on the Town Square," said Solo once they were inside. She wandered over to where Red Vex was standing and swiftly reattached her leash to the Collar of Submission. The succubus shot her an icy glare, but made no comment. "Red Vex and I will watch the back while Gris sees what he can salvage."
Red Vex sat down on a collapsed portion of the back wall and stared out at the giant Zerg hive. "There are thousands of them," she said. "Far more than there were when I was here two nights ago. I think they'd only begun transforming the old church."
Solo was only half-listening. She'd stubbed her toe on something soft and brown half-buried in creep. She bent to pull it free. It was a soiled stuffed bear.
"What's that?" asked Red Vex.
"It's Cecilia's friend, Theo," replied Solo. "She asked me to look for him before we left." She smiled and shook her head. "Poor kid, she said it was Theo's idea that they should try some of the 'grape jam'."
Red Vex did nothing to hide the look of utter contempt that crossed her face as Solo slipped the bear under her belt.
It seemed impossible to Griswold that, only days ago, there had been a wall between the house and his workshop, and that Kella Griswold's perfect little dining room and kitchen had been on the other side of that wall. A tattered piece of canvass hung on what was left of the wall. Gently, the Master Blacksmith removed it and held it in his hands is if it were made of smoke that might drift away at any moment.
It had been nearly ten years ago. A painter had arrived with Caravan, and Kella had gotten the notion that a portrait of the family would be a good thing to have. It had cost a fortune and been sheer hell. With Caravan in town, Griswold had far too much work to do to sit in a tent while some skinny Eastern artist smeared paint on a canvass, but Kella had insisted. "Let your apprentice handle things," she had said. "You've taught him everything you know, haven't you?"
The truth was, Griswold hated sitting still. His little daughter, Hildy, took after him in this respect. She was only three at the time and had whined and carried on almost as much as Griswold had. No battle Griswold had ever fought compared with the ordeal of that day.
Now the canvass was scorched and torn. Griswold and half of Kella were missing from the portrait, but the children were as clear as the day they were painted. The artist had been more skilled than Griswold ever wanted to admit. Somehow he had captured Torvan's strength and discipline; Hogan's playful rebelliousness; and Hildy's indisputable adoration of Griswold.
Lost in the painting, Griswold sank to the dirty floor and did not move for long minutes.
When Griswold rejoined Solo and Red Vex, he had a sword, axe, and a shield. "Most of my weapons lockers had been broken into," said Griswold, "But they missed one o' the best ones." He handed Solo a broad sword. "It's a Dragon's Sword of the Vampire. It'll allow ye t'store extra Mana and t'drain Mana from your foes in combat."
Before Solo could respond, Dolt returned from the front of the shop. "Ah, there you are, Dolt," said Griswold. "I've found an axe that y'might find useful." He handed the Barbarian warrior a great axe. "It's a Strange Axe of Slaughter."
Dolt frowned. "A strange axe? Don't you know what kind it is?"
"No, lad, 'tis a..." began Griswold.
"Never mind," said Dolt. "I came back here to tell you that there's someone in the square, by the fountain."
Silently, the four made their way to the front of the shop. From behind a collapsed portion of the front wall, they could see a lone human figure dressed in the remnants of a blue robe. He was standing next to the fountain, with his back to the shop.
"I thought he was just a corpse until he got to his feet and wandered over to the fountain," whispered Dolt.
"Saints be praised!" breathed Griswold. "It's Cain!"
He started to get up, but Solo put a hand on his shoulder. "He could be a zombie, or worse."
Red Vex shook her head. "Not likely. The first thing the Zerg did in the labyrinth was to round up and destroy anything undead. If there was still meat on it, they ate it. Otherwise, they just annihilated them: skeletons, liches, skull wings, shr'dead, even black knights and bone demons. The Zerg don't seem to be able to work their craft on dead matter."
Griswold gently removed Solo's hand. "If anyone in Tristram could've figured out a way to escape the Zerg, it would've been Deckard Cain! Now lemme go see 'im."
"All right," said Solo, "but we're keeping you covered."
Griswold stepped into the sun and walked toward Cain. "Cain? Over here. 'Tis me!"
Cain did not move. Griswold crept closer. "Cain, are ye all right? Speak t'me."
This time, Cain turned. "Hello, my friend," he said. "Stay awhile and die!" Cain's face and torso had been replaced by a writhing mass of grubs and oozing pods.
Griswold drew in a gasp of horror, and, in that instant, Cain burst in a spray of spores and parasitic creatures. The attack caught Griswold full in the face.
Solo yanked Griswold back under cover with a Telekinesis spell while Red Vex blasted at Cain with a Bloodstar. The shot missed its mark, simply because nothing remained of Cain from the waist up. What was left toppled backwards into the slimy fountain with a splash.
"Don't heal him!" yelled Red Vex as Solo knelt next to Griswold. "Burn him! If those creatures burrow into his flesh, there'll be no saving him!"
Solo looked down at the hundreds of tiny white grubs wriggling across the Master Blacksmith's face and hands. Already, they were biting into his flesh and disappearing. That was enough evidence to take the Hell Spawn's warning as sincere. Solo cast an Inferno spell. Griswold screamed as the wave of liquid fire washed over him. The parasitic grubs sizzled and popped.
There seemed to be no trace of the creatures when the flames went out, so Solo quickly followed up with a Healing spell. Griswold gave a sigh of relief. "My thanks," he wheezed. Even though Solo's spell healed his burns and the tiny nicks and cuts left by the parasites, Griswold was still having difficulty. "I canna get a decent breath," he gasped, "an' I can't move."
Red Vex knelt close to Griswold and sniffed his breath. It smelled alien. "Your lungs are full of Zerg spores," she told him bluntly.
Solo readied another Healing spell, but Red Vex shook her head. "They're parasites. If you heal Griswold, you heal the spores too. You'll just make them hatch faster."
"How do we know ye're tellin' the truth, demon?" gasped Griswold.
"You don't," admitted Red Vex. "But we're deep in the heart of Zerg territory now, and the longer we can postpone your death, the better my chances of survival. Plus, if you die now, I won't have a chance to seduce you, force you to do my twisted bidding and ultimately devour your soul."
Griswold studied the Hell Spawn's unblemished face. Despite a hint of an ironic smirk at the corner of her lips, there seemed to be a genuine lack of malice in her expression. There might have even been a hint of concern. Griswold wondered at this, and accepted her explanation.
A burrow opened near the fountain and three creatures that looked like giant spiny beetles emerged.
For her part, Solo was racking her brain for some solution to Griswold's predicament. As far as she could observe, Red Vex's assessment of Griswold's condition was accurate. A Healing spell would surely kill him. Not doing anything would also kill him. A skilled Healer might be able to cure the parasitic infestation. Solo herself knew of a number of herbs and fungi that could have at least slowed the parasites' progress. Unfortunately, the creep had long since consumed any plant life that might have been useful. "Where was Pepin's hut?" she asked. "Maybe we might find something there that we can use to..."
Dolt shushed her. A burrow opened near the fountain and three creatures that looked like giant spiny beetles emerged. One went to the fountain, gathered up what was left of Cain in its mandibles and went back underground. The other two wandered around the square aimlessly.
"I can take them," whispered Dolt shifting the weight of his new axe.
"They're just drones," whispered Red Vex. "They won't bother us, if we don't bother them. Probably."
"We should leave here as quickly and quietly as possible before something that will bother us shows up," said Solo. "Dolt, can you carry Griswold?"
"Sure, where are we going?"
"Red Vex's pasture," replied Solo. "With any luck, I might be able to find something to cure Gris."
Red Vex led the way out the back of Griswold's shop. Solo followed, holding the demon's leash. Dolt threw Griswold over his shoulder and brought up the rear. If the Zerg drones noticed them, they gave no indication, and went about their alien business.
The assault came almost immediately after they'd cleared the building. The Zerg had created the Venom Tails from Scavengers they'd found in the labyrinth. Not quite satisfied with the result, they continued to tweak their creation's genetic makeup and combined it with their own Zerglings. The end result was a wolf-sized monstrosity that was slashing claws in the front and poisonous tails in the back. They scuttled about on four legs and were encased in hard shells the color of bleached bones. Each had not one, but two scorpion-like tails.
There couldn't have been fewer than fifty of them.