There was a carefully concealed tunnel at the far end of Ichabod's cavern. It led down into the volcanic caves under Tristram. As they reached the other end of the tunnel, it took Solo's eyes a few seconds to adjust to the change in light. These caverns were illuminated by the hot glow of lakes of molten rock. Obsidian in the walls reflected the ruddy glow into every corner.
A sealed pouch dangled from Solo's belt. It jingled softly, as if it was packed with coins or something similar. Ichabod had given it to her. "What's this?" she had asked.
"Don't open it," replied the conjurer. "I'll tell you if we need to use it."
She attempted to get him to clarify, but he assumed his CowLord persona and began boasting, loudly, about how the Zerg would fall before his might. Later, when the visor was up again, he pretended not to remember anything about the pouch.
Ichabod accompanied Solo, Dolt, Griswold, and Red Vex into the caves. He brought with him a pair of the winged bullrogs and an entourage of six minotaurs. They were on a ledge looking down over the cavern and the molten lake that dominated it. Zerg growths lined the edges with twisted tendrils reaching out over the magma. It almost looked like they were warming themselves in the heat. Zerg drones carried softly glowing packets or sacs from the structures.
"Hmm," said Ichabod looming over Solo's shoulder. "Extractors. They provide energy to the hatcheries and supplement the sustenance provided by the creep. Helps 'em breed more and deadlier mutants faster."
"I don't see anything other than drones down there," said Red Vex.
"They probably figure there's no one left to threaten them this far underground," said Ichabod. "Saaay, we could do an awful lot of damage here if we tried. Suppose Solo, Griswold and I work our way around the lake clockwise from six, and Dolt and Red Vex go counter-clockwise. We destroy all the extractors in-between and meet at twelve o'clock."
"What's a clock?" asked Dolt.
Ichabod bit his lip.
Solo didn't know what a clock was either, but got the general gist. "You and Red Vex go to the left and we'll go to the right," she said, "And we'll meet on the opposite shore."
Ichabod didn't bother to correct Solo on the distinction between clockwise and counter-clockwise. "Leave nothing standing," he said. He turned to his Minotaurs. "Boys, I want you to follow the path those drones are taking to the surface. Flatten any Zerg creature or construct you encounter. We don't want anyone sneaking up behind us. Go, and may the Force be with you." The Minotaurs lumbered off dutifully. Lastly, Ichabod addressed the two bullrogs: "Wilbur, you provide air support for Dolt and Red Vex. Orville, you spot for us." The winged Minotaurs took to the air. "Let's rock and roll," grinned Ichabod lowering his visor. "NONE MAY CHALLENGE THE MIGHT OF COWLORD AND LIVE!"
CowLord bounded down from the ledge, and there was nothing to do but go along with the plan. Griswold and Solo followed him. The Zerg drones continued harvesting energy sacs from the extractors, almost oblivious to the intruders. They made some effort to avoid colliding with the invaders, but that was it.
Solo wore a Valiant Breast Plate of the Stars that she had won in battle a year ago. Being less encumbered than Griswold and CowLord allowed her to move to the front and use Chain Lightning to sweep a clean path before them. A half-dozen drones burst open, sizzling, as did the nearest extractor. Its tendrils flew out of the magma and jerked spastically as the voltage flowed through it.
Not to be outdone, CowLord launched a magical attack at the next extractor in the line. Solo was familiar with the Fire Elemental spell. She could cast it herself, but preferred the explosive force of Fireball. CowLord's Elemental was easily ten times the size of any Fire Elemental she'd ever cast. Instead the standard humanoid form, CowLord's Fire Elemental was a charging bull. It barreled into the extractor and set it alight.
He followed up with a virtual stampede of Firebulls, and Solo decided to conserve her Mana and help Griswold keep an eye on their flanks and rear.
Meanwhile, Dolt was learning about his new armor. Whenever he pointed with either hand at a target he was looking at, it turned into a ghostly red silhouette. He quickly found that, when he pressed the heel of his palm against the inside of either gauntlet, a jet of flame would leap at the target from the nozzle on the back of his wrist. Red Vex was making sure to stay well behind Dolt to avoid sharing the fate of the drones and extractors in their path. Normally, Dolt would never have allowed the Hell Spawn out of his sight unless he was sure she was trussed up, Stone Cursed and/or dead, but, at the moment, he was having far too much fun with his new armor to care.
Dolt and Red Vex had destroyed about half the extractors on their side of the lake when the Zerg finally responded.
Torchants, along with the Venom Tails and the Wasp Fliers, were among the first new strains the Zerg bred upon their arrival underneath Tristram. Though less well armored and weaker in melee than Zerglings, the Torchant strain compensated with speed and immunity to fire. Their ability to spit explosive balls of plasma marked them as members of the same strain that included the spare-faring Scourges. Furthermore, they were so simple genetically, that three could be grown from a single larva.
Dolt first became aware of the arrival of the worm-like Torchants when a huge ball of fire nearly knocked him off his feet. Four more blasts struck him as he struggled to get his bearings. Despite its insulation, the armor heated up like a furnace and Dolt could feel himself being cooked alive. He ducked and rolled behind the oozing remains of the last extractor he had destroyed. He remembered Ichabod's instructions for taking a Healing potion. "Activate stim-pack one," he commanded. He expected that the armor would somehow allow him to drink the potion. Instead, it injected the potion directly into his left buttock.
Dolt yelped and jumped into the path of an oncoming fireball. He struggled to his feet and blasted the offending Torchant with both flame-throwers. The Torchant did not mind this at all. As Dolt ducked back under cover, he remembered one of the few pieces of useful advice that his father ever gave him: "Only a fool fights fire with fire..."
The Torchant and several of its friends were slithering around to get a clear shot at Dolt. Dolt was busy remembering the rest of his father's advice: "...A true warrior charges into the flames swinging his blade and shouting his name for the gods to hear!"
"DOLT LUUUUUNGREEEEENNNN!!" he roared leaping to his feet and swinging the Strange Axe of Slaughter. Up until now, charging into the faces of a pack of fire-breathing monsters had always seemed like a bad idea, no matter whose name one shouted. In fact, it could well explain why he had never heard another warrior utter the second part of that advice. Nonetheless, Dolt could not deny how good it felt. Caught completely by surprise, the nearest two Torchants could do nothing but die, spewing flaming blood, as the Barbarian's axe cut through them. The remainder of the pack backpedaled furiously, hoping to find safe positions from which to shoot at their foe. Dolt caught up with and cut down a third Torchant, and the others turned and fled. Their flight was cut short by a barrage of Bloodstars hurled by Red Vex as she stepped out from behind the cover of a boulder.
Realizing the creatures' dislike of physical combat, Dolt found it was easy to chase them wherever he wanted them to go. As long as he kept them on the run, they couldn't shoot at him. He began herding them into corners and against walls where he fed them to his slashing blade. Red Vex made herself useful by picking off the strays that managed to get around to Dolt's sides and rear. She also returned fire at any Torchant who popped up out of the magma where Dolt couldn't reach them. The bullrog Ichabod had sent with them made his presence known by swooping down and goring the occasional Torchant with his horns. However, a Minotaur is not a creature designed for aerial combat, even one with wings. It took him a long time to circle around for the next attack.
Meanwhile, CowLord, Solo and Griswold were stirring up a Zerg response of their own. When the Zerg had first penetrated the volcanic caverns, they encountered packs of acid-spitting hounds. One pack in particular gave them an unusual amount of trouble, and many Zerglings and even a few Hydralisks died before the swarm was able to overwhelm them. Zerg drones dutifully scraped up the remains of the pack leader for genetic analysis. Ultimately, they combined the hound's DNA with Mantis Screamer DNA. The result was a smarter, smaller, faster, lightly armored Mutalisk with a vicious pack mentality.
Griswold was the first to hear the banshee wail of the pack of Deathspit Mutalisks as they flew to attack the intruders. He barked a warning to his comrades and raised his sword and shield to battle the creatures. The flying monsters ignored him. They assessed their opponents and moved to eliminate the biggest potential threats first. Half the pack climbed and began spitting acid at the flying Minotaur. They literally flew circles around him and it was only a matter of seconds before his lifeless corpse dropped into the magma below.
The rest of the pack descended on CowLord. The caustic acid spattered his armor and quickly turned his bright red cape to smoking tatters.
"FOOLS! YOU DARE INCUR THE WRATH OF COWLORD?" boomed CowLord. "LEARN NOW THE FOLLY OF YOUR WAYS!" Firebulls took to the air to deliver flaming death to the Mutalisks.
Solo sighed. She would remember every single word she heard. Her training allowed no less, and it was impossible not to hear CowLord's speeches. But no real person said, "learn now the folly of your ways" in battle. If she survived, she would tell this tale with flawless accuracy. But it wasn't going to be easy.
CowLord used a variation on another spell that Solo recognized. It caused bright stars of energy similar to Red Vex's Bloodstars. These, however, were green and slimy. There was nothing else to call them but Cudstars. Solo sighed again. At least, by now, she'd gotten over the giggling fits.
The Deathspit Mutalisks had noted Griswold and Solo. They saw armor, swords, and no spells and categorized them as a lesser threat. After all, as long as they were more than a sword-length away, they could strafe the humans with impunity. Solo was quick to take advantage of this mistake. The fact that they were staying well out of reach made it easy for her to blast them with Chain Lightning without fearing for the safety of her allies.
The Mutalisks suddenly found their number decimated by the unexpected magical attack. Six broke away from their attack on CowLord and converged on Solo. She ducked as the first strafing run halved her Mana Shield. They quickly reversed course and flew for a second pass, skillfully navigating through the gaps in Solo's Chain Lightning counter-attack. Griswold pulled Solo down to lend her the protection of his shield. It was a gothic shield enchanted with magical amber, and it gave the wielder the power to block blows and missiles with blinding speed.
|In the extreme heat of the cavern, Cheese Curse was an especially lethal spell. Affected Mutalisks simply melted.|
The Deathspit Mutalisks changed tactics once again, this time circling around Solo and Griswold. They knew that his shield would only be effective from one direction at a time. They stayed far enough away to navigate around Solo's Fireballs and Chain Lightnings, but close enough to shoot at their less maneuverable ground-bound foes.
The rest of the pack was faring less well. No amount of tactical genius could change the fact that, against CowLord, they were simply overmatched. Their attacks did not seem to penetrate his armor and the Firebulls were difficult to elude once they had found a target. Furthermore, in the extreme heat of the cavern, Cheese Curse was an especially lethal spell. Affected Mutalisks simply melted.
Solo had taken a hint from CowLord and switched from Fireball to Fire Elemental. She had better luck connecting with her targets this way, but was doing less damage. Also, it was draining her ball faster.
Suddenly, a huge blob of bleu cheese splattered against Griswold's shield. CowLord had finished with his portion of the pack and was coming to their aid. Within seconds, it was over.
Before anyone could offer thanks or congratulations, there was a loud spattering hiss. They looked and saw Dolt coming, axe-first, through the last standing extractor. His armor was scorched and glowing with heat. Red Vex strode up behind him, her fingers still arcing with residual Bloodstar energy, but not a hair out of place. To make their mission a further success, Dolt and Red Vex had found some giant beetle-like Zerg squatting in the backs of side caves. They offered little resistance and, once they were dead, the drones in the main cavern ceased their work and scurried to flee the noise and fire.
Solo drank a Mana potion. She was down to her last two now. Griswold grimly tried to clean the salad dressing off of the shield that had been in his family for generations. CowLord's cape had miraculously healed and his armor had somehow found the time and means to polish itself.
"We'll find a shortcut into the lower levels toward the back of that cave," said Red Vex gesturing.
"That's where those flyin' spitters came from," said Griswold.
"More bad news for you, Gris," said Red Vex. "It smells like demons back there. Lots of them."
"No Zerg?" asked Solo.
Red Vex sniffed. "Who can tell with these oozing extractors and dead whatever-they-ares?" she shrugged. "I can't tell for sure, but I know demons when I smell them."
Solo recast her Mana Shield. "I'll scout ahead," she said, confident that she could avoid detection.
"Be careful, lass," advised Griswold.
"Naturally," replied Solo.
She returned less than a minute later. "Your nose is correct," she told Red Vex. "There are pens and pens full of Fallen Ones, Carvers, Devilkin, Dark Ones, and even a couple of Goatmen."
"Why would the Zerg leave them alive?" asked Griswold.
"They stay fresher that way," remarked Red Vex. "At least, that was the idea when we originally built the pens to hold humans."
"Whatever," said Griswold. "As long as they're locked up, we d'nae have t' worry about them."
Dolt snorted. "Fallen Ones! As if we'd have to worry about them even if they were free!"
They headed into the cave. Red Vex led the way, followed by Solo and Griswold, Dolt and CowLord and finally by Wilbur, the surviving bullrog. The wooden pens were packed with Fallen Ones. They hissed and grunted and cursed as the four humans, Hell Spawn and bullrog walked by. The Zerg hadn't thought enough of them to take their weapons away, so many rattled swords and waved spears.
Solo wrinkled her nose. "Nasty little goblins."
"I don't know," replied Dolt looking down at one that had come up with a particularly creative obscene gesture. "I think we should free them."
Solo was surprised. "Compassion?" she asked turning around.
Dolt's not-very-nice smile was hidden under his helmet. "Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of catapult fodder."
"That's not a bad idea," agreed Red Vex.
Griswold shook his head. "Are ye serious? These creatures'd kill us as soon as look at us. We canna trust them."
"You have to earn their trust," said Red Vex. "Let me show you how." She strode over to the nearest gate. The Fallen Ones leaped and clawed at the sides of their pen. Red Vex opened the gate and a Carver lunged at her brandishing a scimitar. She blasted him and his companions fled to the far corner of the pen. Red Vex stepped over the body and into the pen. She fired two more Bloodstars, killing two more goblins. "Now I have their trust," she told Griswold.
"You!" Red Vex addressed a scaly red Devilkin cowering in the corner. "Come here!" He was a fraction of a second too slow and Red Vex blasted him. "You come here," she ordered a bluish goblin.
He scurried over and threw himself at her feet. "No hurt Snotspill?"
|"Spread the word: I will find anyone who fails me and mate with him."|
"Not if you and your little friends do as I say. Now stand up."
"I want you to take your band to the surface," instructed Red Vex. "Kill any Zerg creatures you encounter and destroy any Zerg structures you find."
Snotspill nodded. "We do! You no hurt, we obey!"
"See that you do," said Red Vex. "Spread the word: I will find anyone who fails me and mate with him."
Snotspill's complexion changed from dark blue-gray to a delicate shade of baby blue as the ichor drained from his face at the threat. "WE DO! WE OBEY!" he swore.
"Good," said Red Vex stepping out of the gateway.
"What kind of threat was that?" asked Dolt as the goblins scrambled past him, desperate to get away.
"Maybe you should mate with me and find out," suggested Red Vex sweetly.
Dolt was startled to realize that it had been a long time since he'd had an offer that appealed to him less.
Red Vex repeated her performance with eight more pens full of Fallen Ones. Although he didn't offer to mate with anyone, Dolt found that he too had a knack for winning the loyalty of the vicious little goblins. In all, Solo counted nearly two hundred of the creatures sent to the upper levels to harass the Zerg. No one expected them to do anything other than get killed the first time they encountered any Zerg resistance, but hopefully it would be enough to distract them. Ichabod conjured six more Minotaurs to help keep busy any Zerg who might be sneaking up on them.
The entrance to Red Vex's shortcut to the lower levels was inside the last pen. As Dolt "negotiated" with the occupants, Red Vex made her way to the back of the pen and rolled aside a large boulder blocking a steep stairway down.
"We should send this gang down ahead of us," suggested Dolt.
Red Vex peered down the stairs and nodded. "How many?" she asked.
"Twenty-three," said Dolt. One of the creatures panicked and charged at him. "Twenty-two," he corrected himself, swatting and crushing it with the flat side of his axe.
Properly motivated, the Fallen Ones filed into the stairway. They were more than eager to prove their worth to their new masters and continue their existence. Dolt and Red Vex followed their troop. Ichabod and Griswold followed them, with Solo and Wilbur, the bullrog bringing up the rear.
"Psst! Over here!" A voice called to Solo just as she was about to follow her comrades.
Solo turned to see a one-legged Dark One hobble out from behind a rock. He was using a crutch made from a human thighbone.
"Shouldn't you be up front with the rest of your pack?" asked Solo. She could handle a single crippled goblin with no trouble, so wasn't worried about talking to him alone.
"Do I look stupid to you? Don't answer that," said the Dark One. "Listen, can you cast Town Portal?"
"Cast it for me and I'll pay you." He held up a battered leather cap. "It's a Holy cap of Protection. It's enchanted to give you nearly twice the protection of an ordinary helmet."
"You've got to be kidding," said Solo. "No protection twice is still no protection."
"C'mon, give me a break," whined the Dark One. "You can see I'm not fit for battle. I'll throw in this book I found." It was a Teleport spell book. "Do we have a deal?"
Solo smiled. She didn't know who the strange little goblin was, but there was certainly more to him than met the eye. It was a pity she didn't have time to hear his story. "You know, the Zerg have overrun Tristram," she warned him.
"I know," replied the goblin. "I was there. I'm hoping I can make it to the river, find some scrap lumber and float downstream. I don't stand a chance here unless the Zerg suddenly get interested in buying the stuff I find."
Solo opened a Horadrim Portal to the surface. The Dark One limped toward it and paused. "When you see Griswold, tell him Wirt said, 'Good luck.'" He waved and disappeared through the glowing blue portal.
As the portal closed, Solo flipped open the spell book to the Preface. As with most such books, the first few pages contained the text for a powerful Reader spell developed by the secretive Horadrim. She read the pages to invoke the magic. The book turned to ash as it fed the knowledge it contained directly into her mind. Solo now knew the art of Teleportation magic as well as the author of the tome and, as a side effect, the Reader spell had refilled her ball.
The Horadrim had developed Reader magic to make it easier for its members to learn new spells, and more difficult for everyone else to do the same. It would have done the Horadrim power base no good to leave powerful spell books lying around where anyone could learn their secrets.
Solo put the Holy cap of Protection on her head. If nothing else, it would keep cheese from getting in her hair the next time CowLord transmuted a Mutalisk.