The stairs down were steep, dark and treacherous. They became more so with each step. Even Red Vex, who had had wings the last time she navigated the passage, felt a need to take extra care. The stairway finally gave way to a vast subterranean world where the hot air stank of scorched flesh and ash. It was, at the same time, unbreathably thin and oppressively heavy. Despite the thin layer of creep, the ground crunched underfoot like millions of tiny bones or insects. The walls seemed carved from the bones of some great beast, and a slimy black mist hid the ceiling. Even the troop of Fallen Ones found the new environment threatening. Only Red Vex took comfort in what were, to her, familiar surroundings.
"We must be getting close," said Dolt.
"Well, duh," commented Ichabod.
"This cavern is unnatural," observed Solo. "Have we crossed over into..." She hesitated.
"Hell?" supplied Red Vex. "No. These are just more caverns. Diablo's influence has made them like this, that's all."
"Which way do we go now?" asked Griswold.
"The pentacle is this way," said Red Vex indicating the direction they should go.
The Fallen Ones fanned out before Dolt and CowLord. They treaded cautiously, not daring to stray too far ahead of their new masters. Red Vex followed a few paces behind them to give directions, while Solo, Griswold and Wilbur brought up the rear. As they approached one of the cavern's walls, a wide passageway leading to two separate chambers became visible.
"The pentacle's through the passage on the left," said Red Vex. "We'll need to find the Staff of Lazarus to get into the Temple."
"Temple?" asked Solo.
"We kept access to Diablo's level tightly controlled," explained Red Vex. "You need the Staff of Lazarus to get to the Temple. You can only open the way to Diablo's level from the Temple."
"What if we can't find the staff?" asked Solo.
"Then the portal will already be open," replied Red Vex.
"Hold on!" warned Griswold. "I thought I saw somethin' move!"
Something roughly humanoid darted through the shadows across the first chamber.
Griswold held his sword and shield ready, but shook his head. "These old eyes must be playin' tricks on me," he said. "For a second I could've sworn tha' was Gillian!"
Suddenly, it was on him; a whirlwind of slashing claws. Despite his skill with the sword he'd forged on the Anvil of Fury, Griswold seemed unable to connect with the creature. Wilbur lumbered forward and threw a massive fist at the attacker, but the only thing the bullrog managed to hit was Griswold's shield.
"Get down," Red Vex warned Solo. A crimson Bloodstar sailed through the air, but somehow, the creature managed not to be in its path. The blast struck Wilbur in the chest causing him to bellow and stagger.
Claws raked across Griswold's side, drawing sparks from the Bovine Plate. He swung Griswold's Edge, once again to no avail. "It's almost as if the beastie knows where I'm goin' t'strike next," breathed the Master Blacksmith.
Solo found herself seized by an impulse to throw herself into the middle of the melee. Suddenly, she was between Griswold and the creature. His sword clanged off the back of her armor, knocking the wind out of her and scorching her hair. At the same time, The Grandfather cut deep into the creature's abdomen. A blue-white flash of lightning danced along the length of the great blade as it sent the creature spinning to the ground dead.
"Are ye daft, woman?! I could ha' killed you!" shouted Griswold.
Solo said nothing. She stood staring down at the body lying face down at her feet. It looked like a young woman, nude with long brown hair.
Griswold spied the corpse and began shaking.
Solo just shook her head and rolled the body over with her boot. The illusion of humanity ended at the neck, knees and elbows. Her face was that of a praying mantis. Her forearms were also mantis-like and ended in razor-sharp talons. The feet were insectoid too, and there was an extra joint at mid-ankle.
"Good Lord," said Griswold. "Fer a minute, I thought tha' was Gillian!"
"Not Gillian," said Solo. "Giselle."
|Bard Giselle with her "second sight," as Gillian called it, had easily been the second most powerful psi in Khanduras.|
For countless centuries, the Zerg had prospered in their native universe. They moved from world to world, incorporating the DNA of the life forms they encountered into their genetic repertoire. Eventually, their expansion brought them into contact with a species called the Protoss. Knowing that their strictly ordered hive mentality would be especially vulnerable to these telepathic warriors, the Zerg sought to incorporate the genetic patterns of creatures of psionic ability. Unfortunately, such species were few and far between. An incursion into Terran space brought the swarm some hope of harvesting telepathic humans, but even there, the Zerg encountered unexpected resistance.
It wasn't until the Zerg arrived, entirely by accident, in Tristram that they found what they were looking for. Bard Giselle with her "second sight," as Gillian called it, had easily been the second most powerful psi in Khanduras. Only her granddaughter, who was completely unaware of her gift, had greater potential power. Once the Zerg realized what they had, they wasted no time incorporating Giselle's genetic material into their larvae. The Gillioids, as Solo would soon dub them, were only a prototype strain. They were able to use Giselle's precognitive talent to give them an edge in battle. More powerful strains able to unleash more of Giselle's psionic potential were already evolving in the caverns under Tristram.
The Zerg were not the only ones who had some of Bard Giselle's essence, however. The Grandfather was imprinted with the spirit of every warrior who wielded it well, including Bard Giselle and her husband. Through the enchanted blade, Solo could feel their outrage at the violation. From that moment forward, The Grandfather would deal triple the damage to Zerg opponents that it would to ordinary enemies. The voice of its righteous fury at the aliens would be electrical.
The encounter and revelation had only taken seconds. Dolt and Ichabod, at the front of the party, had barely had time to react to the threat before it had passed. They had just started to turn back to see what had happened when one of the Fallen Ones shouted at Dolt, "Master! Knights come!"
A platoon of the undead demon knights who had terrorized the underworld before the arrival of the Zerg was approaching from the pentacle chamber.
"I thought you said the Zerg'd destroyed all these creatures," said Griswold.
Red Vex shrugged. "I thought they had."
"Don't worry about it," said Dolt. "This is my kind of fight!" Saying this, he leaped past Ichabod toward the approaching Steel Lords. As he landed at the mouth of the chamber, the floor caved in beneath him. Dolt, Ichabod and all the Fallen Ones plunged into yet another subterranean chamber. Wilbur took wing and flew into the pit after his creator. Almost before they could get to their feet, they were set upon by a nightmare horde of twisted horrors.
A blue-white spark of electricity traveled up and down The Grandfather's blade. "More Zerg," warned Solo. A pack of Gillioids came bounding out of the shadows from the rear flank. Meanwhile, the Steel Lords were filing along the edges of the pit to attack from the front.
"I've got the Zerg," shouted Solo. "You two take the knights!"
Griswold was already engaging the lead Steel Lord, and the clang of their swords and shields echoed throughout the chamber. Red Vex moved off to Griswold's left and began taking pot shots at the knights marching along the edges of the pit.
Solo let loose a blast of Chain Lightning, but the Gillioids knew exactly where the gaps were going to be and made sure they were in them. Not a single one was even singed. Solo got her back up against a wall and cast a Fire Wall in front of her. That, at least, made the Gillioids pause. Since it was a passive attack, there was nothing for them to do but to go around it. They split into two groups and started working their way along the wall of fire to get at their prey.
The chamber that Dolt and Ichabod had landed in was about two hundred feet wide and twelve-to-fifteen feet high where they had fallen through. It had the infernal appearance of the caverns above, but with a slimy Zerg twist. The bone-like walls were overgrown with alien bio-matter and pods of all shapes and sizes littered the floor, walls and ceiling. Throughout the chamber were pools of bubbling primordial ooze from which countless types of creatures slithered, crawled, hopped, or flew.
The bestiary almost defied description. Not every strain the Zerg attempted to create could be the wild success that the Gillioids or Deathspit Mutalisks were. Many were hopeless rejects cast down into this pit to be eaten or, if they were strong enough and lucky enough, breed and hope that their offspring did a little better. Some were variations on existing Zerg strains. Others were combinations of native animals and Zerg sensibilities. It looked to Dolt as if the Zerg had attempted to crossbreed with every organism they encountered. In that respect, they reminded Dolt of a number of Barbarians he knew. If this was the result of cross-species dalliances, then Dolt thanked The Sword that none of his former comrades had produced any offspring as a result of their drunken celebrations.
Dolt got up and started swinging his axe and flaming the creatures. CowLord positioned himself at Dolt's back and began blasting away at creatures approaching from the other direction. The Fallen Ones quickly scattered throughout the cavern, seeking creatures weak enough for them to kill and running away from those who posed a danger. The ensuing chaos was enough to prevent the twisted mass from converging on Dolt and CowLord.
At the beginning, Red Vex had been helping Griswold by firing Bloodstars at the advancing demon knights. Now she had her hands full keeping them away from her. Only the fact that they had to come around the edges of the pit single file prevented her from being overwhelmed. Each knight seemed to be taking five or six Bloodstars before falling. They were slowly forcing their way closer. Like Red Vex, the knights were creatures of Mephisto. It didn't matter to them whether or not they died. All that mattered to them was their hatred for their enemies. Right now, they counted Red Vex among that number. Solo was battling Gillioids behind her, so fleeing was not an option. Red Vex hated the idea of standing and fighting, but that was exactly what she was going to have to do unless she killed every single knight trying to make its way around the pit. She redoubled her efforts.
It had been many years since Griswold had been in a life-or-death battle against an opponent using man-made weapons. Despite that, he was more than holding his own against the demon knights. Each blow of the sword named Griswold's Edge threw his opponent backwards, negating any opportunity to launch a counterattack. The fast-block shield canceled out the chance that any of the knights might score a lucky hit on Griswold. Griswold felt thirty years younger. He had battled far too many monsters in the last day or two. This kind of fight, dueling, had an art to it that he had missed. Watching the evil, twisted warriors explode in black flames as he slew them almost made Griswold forget the pain and emptiness that had been his companion for so many months.
Solo waited as the Gillioids filed into the corridor between the cavern wall and the Fire Wall she had cast. The Fire Wall was over a hundred feet long and would burn for a long time. They were approaching from both sides, but Solo waited until they were as close as she dared allow them. Then she Teleported to the other side of the Fire Wall. The Gillioids knew what she was going to do seconds before she actually did it, but knowing about it and being able to act on it were two different things. Even as the Gillioids turned and tried to scramble clear of the corridor, Solo filled it with a Lightning Wall parallel to the Fire Wall. Several Gillioids died struggling with their comrades to get free. Others managed to leap over or run through the deadly barriers of fire and lightning. This time, none came through unscathed.
The first Gillioid reached Solo, its carapace smoking. The Grandfather sliced through it, delivering a devastating lightning strike as it did. The other Gillioids moved in on Solo.
"Hello again, morsel."
Dolt looked around. Out of the biggest slime pool rose a giant creature that seemed to combine the worst features of a silverfish and a squid.
"SO, WE MEET AGAIN, DEFILER!" stated CowLord.
"I almost didn't recognize you," taunted the Defiler, "The last time I saw you, I was watching your backside flee in terror."
"COWLORD FEARS NOTHING!" He punctuated the boast with a barrage of Cudstars and Firebulls.
The creature sank back into its pool and avoided the brunt of the attack. It rose again and its long sticky tongue snapped out and snared a Fallen One and the beetle-like creature it was grappling with. The Defiler's burns healed as it consumed the two creatures.
Dolt was distracted from the CowLord-Defiler reunion by a calf-sized creature leaping at his face. He peeled it off before it could do any damage and then beheaded it. Then he beheaded it again. Eventually, he managed to chop off all six heads.
Suddenly, the air in the chamber was alive with buzzing, biting, and stinging insects. Neither Dolt nor CowLord could see the Defiler through the cloud of insects. Dolt found that his flame-throwers were useless in the midst of the swarm. He could burn up a lot of bugs, but his armor's targeting system had been blinded. He wasn't about to take his helmet off either.
CowLord, on the other hand, was unimpressed. "YOU DO NOT FACE A RAG-TAG BAND OF Confederate MARINES AND A FRIGHTENED CONJURER THIS TIME, CREATURE! TODAY, YOU FACE THE MASTER OF THE PASTURE! COWLORD COMMANDS THE COWS AND ALL CREATURES OF THE FIELDS!" To prove his point, CowLord summoned a swarm of flies. The flies immediately engaged the alien insects in tens of thousands of tiny aerial dogfights. The air began to clear.
The Defiler had been a mere hatchling when it eluded the Boojum and followed Conjurer Ichabod to Tristram. It was a juvenile when it killed the Sorcerer, Mr. Mojo. The Defiler who faced CowLord was an adult at the peak of its powers. It belched out a cloud of poison gas and spores. The inside of Dolt's visor lit up with red warning lights that told him, in no uncertain terms, to get out of the corrosive cloud.
"Your little human tricks will not save you from the might of the Swarm!" said the Defiler, "We will take your lands and feed on your people like the cattle they are. We will craft your land to serve the Swarm just as we have crafted Hell itself. We are the Masters of HellCraft!"
The corrosive cloud was tarnishing CowLord's gleaming armor. "I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE!" he boomed, "AND I BRING YOU..." He paused dramatically. "...CATTLE!"
Dolt was already diving into one of the pools to get out of the cloud when CowLord cast the Bova spell. He only caught a glimpse of it, but it was impressive. A stampede of spectral cattle radiated outward from CowLord. The thunder of their hooves was deafening and the dust cloud they raised danced with charges of static electricity. Any creature smaller than an elephant was mowed down. Even the Defiler was knocked backwards as the phantom herd trampled over its shell and many legs and tentacles.
The last demon knight in the line was a hardy warrior. Griswold had been sparring with him for at least twice as long as it had taken him to kill the others. There was something about its fighting style that was familiar to Griswold. The longer they fought, the more familiar his opponent seemed. He prayed he was wrong.
Griswold faked a step forward with his left foot. As he predicted, the demon knight's shield dipped toward the movement, briefly exposing his hip and thigh. Griswold had counseled him time and time again about falling for that move.
"Torvan," called Griswold, "Son!" Torvan Griswold had been a knight in King Leoric's guard when the Black King had called his terrible curse down on them. Griswold had thought - prayed - that the curse had merely killed his son. He knew now that wasn't the case.
If Griswold recognized his eldest son, the demon knight gave no indication of recognizing his father. If anything, he seemed to fight harder.
"Torvan, listen t'me, lad," Griswold called. He was being driven back toward the Fire Wall Solo had cast, but he couldn't bring himself to strike back. Griswold knew he had to do something or he would soon be dead. He drove his sword into the ground and reached into his backpack for the burnt and tattered family portrait he had saved from their home. He unfurled the canvass across his shield and the demon knight froze.
The glowing red points of light could hardly be called eyes any more than the surrounding blackness could be called a face. But Griswold saw a glimmer of recognition in them all the same.
Torvan Griswold's voice was all pain and loneliness. It echoed from the bottom of some unknowable void. "Papa," it pleaded. "Kill me." He lowered his sword and shield.
Griswold pulled his sword out of the ground and raised it high to deliver a decapitating blow.
He lowered the deadly blade. "I... I canna do it, son."
"That's all right," said Red Vex. "I can." The first Bloodstar exploded in the Steel Lord's face and sent him reeling. The next four burst across his shoulder, chest, arm and chest again. Torvan's weary sigh was almost lost in the explosion of black flame as his armor released its tainted energy.
The Hell Spawn standing some yards away, over the smoking remains of the last Steel Lord. She had managed to bring it down only inches from where it would have been close enough to do her harm. This was lost on Griswold. All he saw was the demon who had killed his son. He howled and charged at her, intending to drive Griswold's Edge through her black heart.
Red Vex folded her hands behind her back and didn't move. She waited, looking the veteran warrior straight in the eye.
At the last possible instant, Griswold raised the tip of his sword. The blade passed over her left shoulder, cutting her cheek and piercing her remaining wing. Black ichor bubbled over the blade as its magical heat cauterized the cut. Red Vex winced, but did not move. She continued to meet Griswold's accusing stare.
"Why?" demanded Griswold finally.
"Because, for a moment, his soul was his own," said Red Vex. "You can strike me down if it makes you feel better, but take this one piece of advice before you do: If you ever have the opportunity to die free of Mephisto's control, take it."
Hesitantly, Griswold withdrew the sword, causing the wound to Red Vex's cheek and wing to bleed again. Red Vex still didn't move.
"Believe me," she said, "I know of what I speak."
It was only as Griswold sheathed his blade and turned away that a smile played across the Hell Spawn's lips.
Even for a creature of the Defiler's bulk and armor, being caught in a stampede was nothing to just shrug off. The thundering hooves had kicked holes in its shell and severed tentacles. It submerged into the relative safety of its pool of primordial ooze.
"NOW YOU BEGIN TO LEARN THE HARSH LESSON LEARNED BY OTHERS WHO DARED CHALLENGE THE DIVINE BOVINE!" bellowed CowLord.
Like the Defiler, Dolt had sought the shelter of one of the slimy pools. Now he felt something huge moving underneath him. It was the Defiler! Underground channels connected the pools. Before he could act, he was sliding off of the monster's shell. All he could do was try to warn CowLord. "Sorcerer!" he shouted.
"EH?" CowLord turned a fraction of a second too late.
Oozing tendrils grasped him, pinning his arms. "Morsel," rasped the Defiler. "You have annoyed me." One of the tentacles sported a heavy bony growth with a serrated edge. It brought this weapon down on CowLord's helmet, splitting it open. Two more tentacles tore the pieces of the helmet off and flung them away.
Conjurer Ichabod found himself face-to-unprotected-face with the alien monster that terrified him more than anything except the Boojum itself. The last time he'd had a similar view of a Defiler, it had been devouring Confederate Marines like candy.
Dolt had seen men panic in battle before. From his vantage point on the ground in a mass of sticky shattered pods, he could see that Ichabod was showing all the signs. In a moment, he'd be screaming and struggling and absolutely useless for anything but monster food. He did not like Ichabod, but he was not about to let his personal disdain for the man cost him a powerful ally. He struggled to his feet. There were still enough insects swarming around to make his flame-throwers unreliable. He was going to have to do this the old-fashioned way. Marine Armor of the Firebat or no, it felt good to have the weight of his axe in his hands.
The Defiler's tongue lashed out and began reeling Ichabod into its dripping maw. He remembered how impressed he'd been when he saw a doomed Marine in the same position spit into the monster's face. For his part, Ichabod was on the verge of fainting.
Wilbur the bullrog barreled out of the air and rammed the Defiler. The flying Minotaur was in sad shape after tangling with some of the Zerg experiments and then flying unprotected through both the swarm and the Defiler's toxic cloud. However, his mass was still sufficient to crack the alien's carapace. At the same time, Dolt came up behind the Defiler and chopped off its rearmost left two legs.
More startled than hurt by the unexpected assault, the Defiler loosened its grip on Ichabod. Ichabod grasped a tentacle and one spell bubbled to the surface of the chaos into which his mind was descending. For just an instant, Ichabod's panicked senses perceived a huge disembodied gauntlet pointing at the Defiler and a crimson aura surrounding the monster.
He cast Cheese Curse.
Normally, such a spell would not have held a creature with the Defiler's size and natural resistance for more than a second. However, this time, Ichabod finally got Swiss Cheese. When the transmutation wore off a split-second later, the Defiler literally turned inside-out as its innards rushed out the gaping holes that the Cheese Curse had left in its body.
Ichabod fell to the ground with a wet thud and did not move.
"Sorcerer?" called Dolt. Carefully, he made his way across the smear of gore that had been the Defiler. "CowLord?"
Ichabod looked up at Dolt and blinked his eyes. "I'm not CowLord," he said, "I'm Sybil."
The last Gillioid went down in two pieces. A maze of Fire Walls burned around Solo. A Lightning Wall that she had cast just for variety's sake crackled off to her right. It would be several minutes before they burned themselves out. The heat was almost unbearable, so Solo decided to spend a little more Mana and Teleport herself out of the inferno she had created.
She materialized in the connecting chamber between the pentacle chamber and the large cavern they had come through. She saw Griswold kneeling in silent prayer over the charred and twisted remains of a Steel Lord. Dolt had climbed out of the pit and the bullrog was handing an unconscious Conjurer Ichabod up to him. She noted that Ichabod had been stripped of most of his CowLord armor, which was probably a bad sign. On the other side of the pit, Red Vex was examining the remains of more Steel Lords.
Miraculously, eight Fallen Ones had survived their visit to the Defiler's pit. The little goblins were nothing, if not tenacious.
They were starting to test the limits of their luck. Solo noted that not a single one of them had come out of the chaos unscathed. Even Red Vex was bleeding ichor from a gash in her face. Although she had been able to maintain her Mana Shield for most of the melee, Solo had received several deep cuts from raking Gillioid talons toward the end of the battle. She was also drenched in sweat and alien blood. Her hair had been singed by her close proximity to her own Fire Walls. Solo took a moment to cast a spell of Healing on herself. That would at least keep her from bleeding all over the place, but if she didn't get out of her armor and let it air out a bit, she risked squishing around in her own sweat until it drove her mad. Not that she wasn't thankful just to be alive.
Miraculously, eight Fallen Ones had survived their visit to the Defiler's pit. The little goblins were nothing, if not tenacious.
"I've got it," said Red Vex. "We can enter the Temple." She was holding an ornate golden staff festooned with miniature human skulls.
No, not miniature human skulls, Solo realized, the skulls of children. She felt ill.
Red Vex was impatient to open the Horadrim Portal to the Temple, but everyone else needed time to rest and assess the physical and/or emotional damage of the last series of encounters. Even the Fallen Ones were acting tired and whiny until Red Vex blasted one to shut them up.
"That was a waste," noted Dolt. He had fashioned a torch out of some Zerg creature's leg and was using it to burn the tiny creatures still trying to eat their way through the flexible joints of his armor. Most of the red warning lights visible on the inside of his helmet had either gone out or turned yellow. He had no idea what any of them could have meant specifically, but the fact that they were meant to be a warning was pretty plain.
Conjurer Ichabod seemed beyond help. He sat by himself rocking and muttering. Every so often, he'd shout out something nonsensical and then resume his rocking and muttering. He seemed unable to acknowledge the existence of anyone else. His bullrog was doing a fair impression of a rotting zombie. His wings were in tatters and huge chunks of flesh had been eaten away by the Defiler's parasites and corrosive gas. Gleaming white bone was visible in places. Healing spells did not seem to work on the conjured creature, but he didn't seem to be in any pain either. He just stood and watched over his master in silence.
Once they had made sure the cavern was secure, Solo stripped off her armor, drank a Mana potion and took the time to bring her journal up-to-date. There were still many Bards in the field who shunned the written word in favor of song and the oral tradition of storytelling. Solo had once traveled with a Bard who was a compulsive rhymer. His flawless recall was almost as uncanny as his ability to generate spontaneous verse no matter what he was doing. Unfortunately, what had started out as clever and charming quickly turned out to be as annoying as hell. She could have coped with his inventing songs out loud in battle, but it completely ruined a number of intimate moments.Frankly, there were parts of her body that she just didn't need to know rhymes for. ("Who the hell is Dolores?" she had demanded, grabbing him by the hair. After that, it was pretty clear that things weren't going to work out.)
In any event, Solo was a storyteller who needed a pen or charcoal stick in her hand before she could organize her thoughts properly. She was busy recording Griswold's tragic reunion with his son. The cavern echoed with the steady clang-clang-clang of Griswold using his enchanted sword to dig a grave for Torvan in the cavern floor. No one knew better than Griswold how bad that was for any weapon, but it didn't matter. He had refused offers of help from Solo and Dolt, saying that it was something he had to do himself. He seemed to tolerate the proximity of Red Vex as she stood nearby, watching him work.
Red Vex was still holding that horrid staff in her hands. Solo had come to rely on the Hell Spawn in battle, and even trust her to some extent. The Staff of Lazarus was a graphic reminder of how big a mistake that really was.
Tenderly, Griswold laid Torvan's remains into the shallow grave in the stone floor. There was nothing that was really even recognizable as having once been human. All that was left of the Steel Lord was a pile of scorched and twisted metal. He covered the remains with broken rocks and said a silent prayer. At last, he laid the tattered family portrait over the grave. He walked away without looking back.
Red Vex paused and knelt next to the grave. Griswold had his back turned and Solo and Dolt were wrapped up in their own tasks. Ichabod didn't even know what planet he was on. She looked down at the painting of Griswold's smiling family and her lips curled in a sneer. She almost spat on the canvass, but stopped. She hadn't spent centuries manipulating human emotions without learning a thing or two about her own. Red Vex recognized a telltale tinge of envy in her hatred.
Thanks to her, Torvan's soul had slipped out of Mephisto's grasp. There would literally be Hell to pay for that. It had been centuries since she had cared about anything, and she didn't care about this either. She picked up the painting, rolled it up tightly, and tucked it behind her wing.