Solo, Dolt and Red Vex scrambled up onto a large rock and quickly formed a circular back-to-back-to-back formation with the paralyzed Griswold on the ground in the middle. They had each faced much deadlier opponents than the Venom Tail/Zergling hybrids. The problem was the sheer number of the beasts. Each time they killed one, the ground seemed to spit up two or three more.
Dolt remembered an off-color joke his father had once told him after a successful day of pillaging. 'Why was the ground all white after the Battle for the Temple of Baal? Because the Fallen Ones kept coming and coming and coming...' Swinging the Strange Axe, Dolt was able to take the creatures out in twos and threes with each stroke.
Solo had worked out a similar strategy using The Grandfather. Even though it handled like a short sword, she had to remember that it was six feet long. All its enchantments wouldn't do her any good if she stuck it in the ground, or in one of her allies, or somehow managed to stab herself in the back with it. She found that, by sweeping in a figure-S in front of her, she could also hit two or three at a stroke. With her left hand, she used the Dragon's Sword of Vampires to stab at anything that survived or avoided being hit by The Grandfather. In addition, with her teammates safely behind her back, Solo was free to cast Chain Lightning. She repeated the invocation over and over again, backing her swords up with sheets of electrical blue death. As an added bonus, the smell of ozone and burnt Zerg did an effective job of masking the cloud of pheromones that Red Vex emitted in battle. The downside was that the continuous spellcasting made it almost impossible to maintain a Mana Shield. She'd have to take her chances and rely on her swords to hit the enemy before they hit her.
Red Vex, momentarily free of the chain that controlled her collar, blasted away at the Zerg with barrages of Bloodstars. She didn't think there was any limit to the number of bursts she could generate, but she'd never needed to fire anything like this many. If she had had both wings, she would have fled at the beginning of the assault. She never actually flew, but she had been able to cover over sixty feet in a wing-assisted running leap.
For their part, the Venom Tail/Zergling hybrids were extraordinarily efficient, handing the bodies of their dead back to the troops behind them who, in turn, passed them back down into the burrows to be used as food. It didn't matter how many of them died; they would all serve the swarm in one way or another.
Despite their best efforts, Solo, Dolt and Red Vex had all been stung at least once. The poison did no harm to the Hell Spawn, and Dolt always fought better and harder when he was feeling some pain. Each sting made Solo feel a little woozy, however, and forced her to break her pattern of defense and attack to cast a Healing spell. Even with the Dragon's Sword of Vampires, she was running out of Mana.
Salvation came from above. A heavy blow from behind knocked the wind out of Solo, and she found herself squeezed in the crook of a massive arm, with her own arms pinned at her sides. She was almost nose-to-nose with Red Vex who was similarly pinned by the other arm. There was a rush of wind and a beating of wings like sails, and they were suddenly soaring over their Zerg attackers.
Whatever had them, it was massive, covered with hair, incredibly strong, and smelled like a barnyard. Craning her neck, Solo saw a broad brown chest and the underside of an elongated snout. Solo couldn't identify the creature or guess its intentions, but it had separated them from the Zerg and was carrying them toward the pasture. Below them, the Zergling/Venom Tails scuttled along, trying to keep pace.
Dolt had felt a gust of wind when Solo and Red Vex were abducted, but assumed it had just been Red Vex's wing. A second later, massive arms gripped him around the waist and he found himself airborne as well. His captor's position made it impossible for Dolt to hit him with his axe. He might have been able to make the creature drop him with a head butt or a forcefully aimed elbow, but he didn't relish the idea of being dropped fifty feet into a hundred Zerg monsters. He'd decide whether to kill the creature or thank it once they were on the ground again.
Griswold had been having more and more trouble breathing as the Zerg spores filled his lungs. Even though he was blacking out, he was the only one who caught a glimpse of the flying creatures. Like Dolt, he too recalled a joke from his childhood. He didn't remember the exact joke, but he did recall the punchline: 'Boy, I'm glad that cows don't fly!' The creature picked him up and carried him away as he lost consciousness.
First Solo and Red Vex, then Dolt, and finally Griswold found themselves dumped unceremoniously in a grassy field a few short minutes later. The creatures dropped them hard enough to knock the wind out of them, but gently enough so as not to injure any of them. Dolt rolled and sprang to his feet first, his axe ready. The field was free of creep and seemed untouched by the Zerg. Something heavy moved behind Dolt, and the Barbarian whirled about to deal a devastating blow. He stopped in mid-swing. It was a cow. It mooed at him and wandered off.
Solo and Red Vex needed a moment to untangle themselves from one another. As they did, the saw the creatures that had carried them flying away over the fields. Based on the horns, massive builds and bat-like wings, both Bard and demoness identified the creatures as Balrogs. This was somewhat reassuring to Red Vex, and more than a little troubling to Solo.
"Ahem." The voice was like gravel pouring on a stone floor. Dolt, Solo and Red Vex looked around. Griswold, more unconscious than not, merely groaned.
The speaker appeared to be a stone Golem, but it was half-and-again as large as any that Solo had ever seen conjured. She had never heard of a Golem speaking. Also, it had a bull's head instead of the usual humanoid one. Solo vaguely remembered a very old story about flying men and a labyrinth. There was a monster in it that matched this description. Man-Bull? Tauro-Man? Minotaur! That was it. Not that any such creature had actually existed. What would be next? Elves?
"My master wishes to inform you that you are safe from the Zerg," said the stone Minotaur. "Rest and refresh yourselves. The Master will meet with you in two hours." A smaller Minotaur brought a tray with milk, water, fruit and cheese.
"Who is your master?" Dolt wanted to know.
"Griswold is infected with Zerg spores," said Solo at the same time, "Can you help him?"
"I will bring a remedy," said the big Minotaur. "In the meantime, you are free to wander the pasture. However, we cannot be responsible for your safety if you choose to leave and return to Zerg territory. Also, be careful not to step on any Brown Runes." With that, the Minotaur turned and lumbered off, the smaller one following him.
"Well, what do you make of that?" asked Solo. She wasn't really asking anyone in particular. She would have valued Griswold's opinion, but he was unconscious. Dolt's usual assessment of any situation involved hitting it with his axe, and she didn't care to put any more trust in anything Red Vex told her than she absolutely had to.
Red Vex volunteered some information anyway. "There is no scent of Zerg here and only vague traces of a human presence."
The ground where they had been deposited sloped downward toward the Talsande River. Clumps of creep floated downstream. Behind them was a rise that separated them from any view of the town.
"I'm going to the top of the hill to see if I can see where we are," said Dolt.
"Stay within earshot so we can back you up if you need it," advised Solo trying to see if she could make Griswold more comfortable. "Or if we need your axe."
Dolt nodded and turned to make his way up the bank. At the top of the hill, it was easy to see where the pasture ended and Zerg territory began. Hundreds of Zergling/Venom Tail hybrids were lined up along the edge of the field. They seemed unwilling to enter the pasture, however. After a moment, Dolt saw why.
The sheer volume of the crowd caused one of their number to be shoved into the field. Instantly, the Zerg creature was enveloped in and dissolved by a mass of brownish-green sludge. Dolt squinted. There were numerous small objects littered in the grass along the border. He had seen Runes of Fire and Runes of Lightning, but Brown Runes were a new one on him.
From somewhere within the Zerg mob, a Hydralisk fired a volley of quills at him. One of them struck and Dolt cursed. He ducked back behind the rise and drank a healing potion. There was no sense in being hurt if he wasn't going to fight, and what he had seen was more than even Dolt was willing to challenge single-handed.
When Dolt rejoined the others, Solo was helping Griswold drink a steaming bowl of white liquid while Red Vex leaned over them and watched with interest. "We're completely surrounded by Zerg," reported Dolt. "But they won't enter the pasture. There's some nasty runestones scattered along the perimeter."
Solo nodded. "The Minotaur brought this for Griswold while you were gone."
Dolt knelt next to her. "A bowl of warm milk?"
Solo shrugged. "All he said was, 'It does a body good.'"
"Did you learn anything about the man-bull's master?" asked Dolt.
"Only that he'd busy receiving tribute from his loyal subjects," replied Solo, "And that he'd meet with us as soon as he can."
"He's making us wait to elevate his importance. He wants us to be impressed," said Red Vex. Centuries of dealing death by temptation had made Red Vex a keen student of human psychology. "He'll be favorable toward us if we act accordingly."
Dolt started to respond, but was interrupted when Griswold came fully awake, sneezing and coughing. The first sneeze jerked him back as if he'd been struck, and the subsequent ones just seemed to get louder and more forceful. Suddenly, he rolled away from Solo and vomited. He almost had a moment to catch his breath before the next sneezing fit started as his body attempted to rid itself of Zerg parasites.
Griswold's torture lasted several long minutes. Finally, he rolled over on his side in the grass. Tears mixed with blood streamed from his eyes and blood and mucous oozed from both nostrils turning his beard and mustache into a swampy mess. "I feel like hell," he whispered hoarsely.
"You're lucky to be feeling like anything," said Red Vex.
Dolt offered Griswold some water, which he accepted gratefully. He drank it and promptly threw up again. Another painful sneezing fit followed.
"Get some rest," Solo advised him. "We've got some time before we meet our mysterious benefactor."
"Who?" managed Griswold.
Solo quickly filled him in. "The question is," she finished, "what do we do now? One option is to read Adria's H. Portal scroll and leave. With Griswold injured, it might be prudent."
"I'll be fine," wheezed Griswold.
"I doubt it," said Red Vex. "At least, not right away. Your body temperature's been increasing steadily since you drank the Minotaur's remedy. A high fever may finish off the remaining parasites in your body, but you won't be able to sit up by yourself in an hour."
"We have not accomplished our mission," Dolt pointed out. "We haven't learned anything about the Zerg except that they're nasty and there's a lot of them. And we knew that already."
Solo nodded. "To tell the truth, that's my feeling too. I'd like to have some useful intelligence to show for our efforts. At the very least, we ought to find out who has managed to keep this field Zerg-free and how."
"So we may as well make ourselves comfortable," said Dolt. He sat down and began cleaning and sharpening his axe.
To keep from being driven mad by an all-Mana potion diet, the ancient Horadrim wizards used to cut off one of their testicles. So, if he used up all his Mana, he was said to have 'drained his ball.'
Solo spent another minute making sure Griswold was as comfortable as possible and began managing her own belongings. Her swords needed maintenance as well. She had two vials of Blacksmith's Oil in her pack. The question was whether to use them on the swords now, or wait until they suffered significant battle damage. Next, she checked her belt. She was down to her last three Mana potions. "This is not too good," she said aloud, "Even with the Sword of Vampires, I'm still draining my ball far too fast."
Dolt looked up. "Where does that expression come from? 'Drain your ball?' I've heard spellcasters use it all my life," he said.
"Nobody knows for sure," said Solo. "The most popular legend says that, to keep from being driven mad by an all-Mana potion diet, the ancient Horadrim wizards used to cut off one of their testicles. So, if he used up all his Mana, he was said to have 'drained his ball.'"
Dolt shook his head. "Sorcerers," he snorted.
"I'm not sure if I believe that story, myself," continued Solo. "One of the first exercises any spellcaster learns as an apprentice, or at university, is how to visualize Mana recharging. Almost everyone is taught to picture a sphere filling with blue energy. I still do it every time I drink a Mana potion. That's where I always thought the saying came from." As she was speaking, she got up and casually drifted closer to Red Vex, the chain to the Collar of Submission cupped in her hands behind her back. Swiftly, she reached up to attach it, but this time Red Vex was ready for her.
"Can we dispense with this?" asked the succubus gripping Solo's wrist in an iron grip. "It really doesn't work anyway." She released Solo's wrist and took a step away from her. Dolt watched carefully, ready to slay Red Vex at the slightest sign of real treachery. "You surprised me with it once when I was just coming off a Stone Curse. Since then, I've been playing a long to get me here." With that, Red Vex reached up and easily unfastened the collar and wristbands. She tossed them on the ground at Solo's feet. "Collar of Submission. What a joke," said Red Vex. "Adria may think she's a big, bad dominatrix prancing around in her open-nipple leather teddy and spiked heels, but next to me she's a virgin on a unicorn. Hearing her talk about her Collar of Submission would be like Griswold listening to someone boasting about what a fine weapon his pointed stick was."
Solo bent down to pick up the items in question. "All right then. What do you want and why should we trust you?"
"All I'm interested in is finding out what happened to Black Jade. Help me do that, and I'll help your cause. As long as you're interested in learning about the Zerg and not getting killed doing it, our agendas are parallel," said Red Vex.
"And once we find your Black Jade?" asked Dolt.
"Once we find her, if we find her, we'll probably still be surrounded by Zerg," said Red Vex. "Any act against you, Solo and Griswold would be both stupid and suicidal, and I'm neither. Even if we all get somewhere safe, I'd still be inclined to leave you in peace. I'd be stupid to survive the Zerg only to get killed for viciously turning on my own allies." She studied Dolt's face carefully. "As long as we're in the same situation, you can trust me exactly as far as I can trust you."
Dolt met Red Vex's gaze without blinking. "Then we had all better watch our backs." He sat down and continued sharpening his axe.
Red Vex nodded and perched on a tree stump where she could watch over Griswold who was already drifting off into a feverish sleep.
Solo sat down and felt something hard under her. It was Cecilia's stuffed bear, Theo. She examined the threadbare little toy and found a slit along Theo's spine, held shut by a row of burrs sewn into the fabric. That was an interesting idea, mused Solo.
She pried the slit open causing a loud tearing sound. Inside was a secret pouch containing a couple of gold coins, a pretty pebble and an amulet. The amulet had been inscribed with a set of runes that looked promising to Solo. There was one way to be certain. She held the amulet up by its chain and tapped it with a fingernail. It rang with a soft musical tone. She sang a soft note herself and the ringing of the amulet changed to match her before it faded out. Harmony. Solo slipped the braided chain around her neck. An Amulet of Harmony provided the wearer with increased mental focus and faster reflexes.
It was a good thing she'd thought to pick up the toy bear. Solo wondered for a moment if it was worth the effort of expending an "I told you so" on Red Vex, and then decided it wasn't.
Solo studied Red Vex for a few more moments. There was more to the demon than met the eye. That didn't make her any less dangerous, but it did make her more interesting. Maybe so interesting that her story might fetch a good price. Solo checked her swords and belt once more, and then sat and retrieved a leather-bound book from her backpack. She flipped through the pages until she came to the first blank one, pulled a charcoal stick from her pocket, and began writing.
Like all Bards, Solo was a professional storyteller. Some, like Bard Rhapsody, worked under contract for Scribes Guilds or libraries. Others were little more than long distance messengers. The majority, however, were freelancers, like Solo. She earned her living telling the stories of her adventures and selling the knowledge she gained. Her clients might be Scribes Guilds, libraries, royal courts, or even isolated farm families. In her twenty-nine years, she had wandered from one end of the continent to the other.
Solo wrote quickly, using mnemonic devices to recall the exact details of the day. The better her recall, the better her tale. And the better her tale, the higher price it would fetch. Of course, the fact that she currently had an exclusive story meant that she could write poorly and still be able to name her price at any Scribes Guild in the land. Nonetheless, Solo took pride in her profession and made sure that her descriptions of the Zerg and Tristram were flawless.
By the time Solo finished writing, Dolt had dozed off leaning on his axe. Red Vex crouched on her tree stump, watching over the sleeping Griswold. She reminded Solo of a cat watching a wounded fledgling. Solo stood and stretched. Her arms and shoulders ached from the battle. She had a little more of the food that the Minotaur had brought and then checked on Griswold.
"His fever peaked a few minutes ago," said Red Vex. "He's starting to cool down already."
"Whatever the Minotaur gave him, it sure works fast," said Solo. "What happened to your cloak?"
Red Vex had discarded the cloak Solo had given her and was basking in all her bare-breasted glory. "Well, since we've established that you can't actually make me do anything I don't want to do, I decided to get rid of it. It slows me down," she said. "I'm keeping the boots, though."
Solo shrugged. "Whatever."
The big Minotaur returned, accompanied by four smaller ones carrying trumpets. A number of cattle wandered up with them. The small Minotaurs blew a loud fanfare, waking Dolt and Griswold. "Ladies and gentlemen," announced the big Minotaur, "All rise for the Divine Bovine." He waited for everyone to stand, and everyone except Griswold did. The Minotaur found this acceptable and nodded his huge head.
There was a clap of thunder and a dazzling flash of light. A great horned figure appeared in their midst. "I AM COWLORD!" he said in a booming voice. He stood just under seven feet tall and was clad in gleaming chrome armor. A scarlet cape flapped in an unfelt wind, and he held a polished metal staff topped with a stylized cow skull. His helmet had been forged in the shape of a bull's head, complete with long curved horns. An eerie green light emanated from the eye slits.
The gathered cattle seemed strangely undisturbed by the light and noise.
Red Vex smelled mortal meat inside the armor, but only barely. The amount of raw magical energy coursing through the form was comparable to, or may have even exceeded, her Infernal masters. She fought back a stab of fear and focused on the man-scent. If he was mortal, he had mortal weaknesses. That made him potentially controllable.
Dolt's nose was nowhere near as keen as Red Vex's supernatural senses, but he knew a sorcerer when he smelled one. The armored figure reeked of magic. He also suspected that the newcomer must have great physical strength to wear such a massive suit of armor. Assuming the armor wasn't just for show, or enchanted in some way to make it wearable for a weakling sorcerer, he might have physical prowess to match his armored form. He noted that, as good as CowLord's armor probably was, the helmet would not allow him any peripheral vision. Dolt edged to one side, just in case.
Solo felt cowed by the sudden dramatic appearance of the armored stranger. That thought was all it took to exclude her from any participation in the subsequent conversation. She had to bite her lip until it bled to stifle a giggling fit of, well, bovine proportions.
Griswold squinted up at the CowLord. His head was plugged up and he was seeing through a fever haze. Furthermore, the CowLord's voice sounded like it was coming out of a cave. Still, there was something vaguely familiar. "Conjurer Ichabod? Is that you?" he managed.
The armored bull's head fixed a piercing green stare on Griswold. "SO! YOU HAVE DEDUCED MY SECRET IDENTITY!" boomed CowLord, "WELL, HEAR ME, GRISWOLD! I AM NO LONGER THE CONJURER YOU KNEW! I AM THE MASTER OF THE PASTURE! I AM POWER INCARNATE! NOW AND FOREVER, I AM COWLORD!" A dramatic thunderclap from out of nowhere punctuated this statement. "I HAVE ASCENDED TO A HIGHER PLANE!"
Solo imagined CowLord grazing on a higher plain and nearly lost it again.
CowLord paused and raised his visor. His face was that of a thin middle-aged man whose life-long pursuit of the secrets of magic and the universe had led to a routine avoidance of direct sunlight. Despite his harrowing experiences with the Battle Net, Conjurer Ichabod was, physically, none the worse for wear. "Of course the reason for moving to a higher plane," he continued, "is that the frequent flier miles really kick ass!"
No one knew what to say. Dolt suddenly realized that he had been waiting for Solo to say something. She always had something to say or some question to ask. Women were always yacking on and on, and Scribes were even worse. A woman Scribe had immediately struck Dolt as a particularly bad idea. Still, she had proved her worthiness on several fronts. He looked over at her. She was in tears and refused to look directly at the CowLord. She was obviously trembling with hysterical female terror. Dolt started to say something to her, but Solo just shook her head and turned away, shaking convulsively. Women!
Dolt turned to Griswold. "Do you know this man?"
"Aye," said Griswold. "His home an' workshop were destroyed when the first Zerg hive appeared." He tried to sit up, got dizzy, and leaned back again. "What happened t'you, Ichabod? The last I saw of you, y'were standing out in this very field in a cow costume. Y'wouldn't say a thing to anyone except 'moo,' and when we tried to bring you inside, y'became violent."
Conjurer Ichabod nodded. "I needed a little time to assimilate the knowledge I gained from the Battle Net," he explained. "But I'm feeling muuuch better now." He rolled his eyes wildly. "The question is, what brings the unlikely four of you here to the Field of Screams?"
"Your creatures carried us here," Dolt reminded him.
"Oh, yes. My bullrogs. But I meant why are you in Tristram? It's not safe here," said Ichabod.
Solo regained her self-control. She didn't know exactly what it was that struck her so funny, other than the fact that here was a man who had dressed up as a cow and proclaimed himself Lord of the Cows. Whether he called himself CowLord, or PigLord, or the Amazing Irving, his power was undeniable. There was just something about cows that was inexplicably silly. "Actually," responded Solo wiping her eyes, "it seems safe enough here. Why is that?"
Conjurer Ichabod looked out toward the edge of the pasture. Most of the Zerg creatures that had been massed along the border had returned to their burrows. A few drones and Zerglings circled about, but even they seemed to have lost interest in their escaped prey. "The Zerg know that they'll get turned into Swiss cheese if they try to violate my domain (www.cowlord.com)," said Ichabod winking broadly at a joke no one present could have possibly gotten, "Not that they don't test the limits every so often."
Almost as if on cue, a massive creature detached itself from the distant cathedral spire and flew toward the pasture. At the same time, four of the wasp-fliers emerged from the ground beyond the pasture's edge and waited, hovering. The large creature was easily the size of a small ship and looked for all the world like a giant crab. It flew without the support of wings, but achieved respectable speed. It covered the distance between the cathedral and the pasture in seconds.
For the first time, the cattle showed signs of fear and beat a hasty retreat to other parts of the pasture. The Minotaurs stood their ground, awaiting orders from their master.
"Excuse me a moment," said Conjurer Ichabod. He lowered his visor and flew into the air.
Even as CowLord took to the skies, the Zerg monster vomited up a blast of acid that rained down on the pasture. Dolt, Solo and Red Vex scrambled for cover as the green grass turned to scorched earth. Griswold, unable to move quickly, caught the worst of it. Only covering himself with his shield at the last second saved his life. The acid dissolved the waiting Minotaurs completely.
"I'm gettin' too old fer this," realized Griswold as Solo came to him with a Healing spell. "An' at this rate, I'm not likely t'get much older!"
"Keep your chin up, Gris," said Solo. Her spell quickly regenerated the tissues destroyed by the attack, and Griswold rested easier.
Above them, CowLord flew to meet the Zerg Guardian. Being airborne put him above the reach of the creature's acid attack. As deadly as Guardians were to ground forces, their only defense against flying attackers was their tough shells. That is, until the Zerg combined their DNA with that of the Familiars they found in the labyrinth. The Guardian unleashed a massive electrical discharge. While this new form of attack would make a very nasty surprise for the electrical systems of the next Terran Wraith pilot who flew too close, CowLord merely shrugged it off.
"FOOLISH ALIEN!" he bellowed, "LEARN NOW THE FOLLY OF ALL WHO WOULD DARE CHALLENGE THE MIGHT OF COWLORD!" At that, the Guardian's color changed from mottled gray-and-black to yellow. It wobbled in the air once and then crashed to the ground with a splat. Huge soft chunks of it spattered across the pasture.
Solo picked up a piece of the fallen Guardian, not quite believing her eyes or her nose. "Cheese Curse?" she asked.
CowLord addressed the waiting wasp-fliers. "SCURRY BACK TO YOUR HIVE WITH THIS LESSON: NONE MAY CONTEST THE POWER OF COWLORD!"
The fliers turned and buzzed back to the cathedral.
As CowLord landed, the restored his fallen Minotaurs with a glance. He raised his visor.
Solo picked up a piece of the fallen Guardian, not quite believing her eyes or her nose. "Cheese Curse?" she asked.
Conjurer Ichabod looked disappointed. "Gouda. I don't know if I'm ever going to get Swiss," he admitted.
Solo took a small bite of the cheese. It wasn't bad.
"Listen," suggested Ichabod. "It's awfully buggy out today. Why don't we all go inside where we can relax?"
"Inside?" asked Dolt. There were no structures of any sort in the pasture.
"Hay, just because I'm outstanding in my field doesn't mean I don't have a place to hang my horns," said Ichabod. He slammed the tip of his staff into the ground.
Ichabod looked annoyed. "All right, I'll recite the incantation:
Hai! Senduh puh tipi, ay?
Eyem nottuhp ee kai!"
The ground shimmered and a black-and-white Holstein-patterned Horadrim Portal opened. "Boys," Ichabod ordered the Minotaurs, "Gather up the cheese, find some crackers and hang a few No-Pest Strips. And let me know if any more bugs need swatting. Everyone else, follow me!" With that, he strode through the portal. A few cows followed him.
Red Vex shrugged and followed him too. Dolt and Solo helped Griswold up. "Are you sure your friend is..." Dolt racked his brain for a word and couldn't manage it. "...all right?" He tapped the side of his head for emphasis.
Griswold shook his head. "No," he replied.
They followed him through the portal.