Red Vex slammed the Staff of Lazarus into the ground. A crimson Horadrim Portal opened. Solo had never seen a Horadrim Portal that color before and found that it added just an extra bit of hellishness to their mission.
"Oooh," breathed Ichabod. "A Laz run!"
Red Vex shook her head. "Look, he's going to be more of a liability than an asset now."
"Call me Dances with Cows," intoned Ichabod.
"And the rest of you aren't in such great shape either," continued Red Vex. "Why don't you just rest here and I'll go in and open the portal to the final level."
Dolt, Solo and Griswold all shook their heads.
"No," said Dolt.
"I don't think so," said Solo.
"I'll come with ye," said Griswold.
"I shall become a Cow," said Ichabod, "to strike terror into the hearts of criminals (a superstitious and cowardly lot!)."
"Anyway," added Griswold, "What if ye're temple is swarmin' with Zerg beasties?"
"It's not," Red Vex assured him. "The Staff of Lazarus is the only way to open and close this portal. If the Zerg had gotten in, the portal would have still been open when we got here."
"I am Cow hear me moo," sang Ichabod, "In numbers too big to be true."
"If the Temple really is as secure as you believe, it will be a good place for me to try to get Ichabod back to some semblance of reality," said Solo. "I know his chain mail was missing a few links, but CowLord was a powerful ally."
Red Vex shrugged. "Have it your way." She strode through the red portal. Griswold, Solo, Dolt, Ichabod, Wilbur and the seven Fallen Ones followed her.
The chamber on the other side of the portal was man-made, probably by the same architects who built the great cathedral in Tristram. When he arrived, Conjurer Ichabod pitched forward in a dead faint and would not move.
Solo sighed. "I guess I'll stay here with Wilbur and look after him."
"It'll only take me a minute to open the portal," Red Vex assured her. "You," she commanded one of the Fallen Ones, "Come here."
The goblin scurried to her side.
"What do you need him for?" asked Solo.
"Opening the portal requires a blood sacrifice," said Red Vex matter-of-factly. "His will do."
The Fallen One whimpered softly, but did not try to flee.
Red Vex strode to the door at the far end of the room and opened it. "Whoa!" she exclaimed, seeing what was on the other side of the door and slamming it shut.
Everyone waited expectantly as Red Vex turned to face them. The expression on her face was one of irritation rather than fear or alarm. "Wrong again," she sighed. "The hall is full of Zerg pods."
Red Vex frowned. "Somebody had to have let them in here and then closed the portal behind them," she said, "That somebody could only have been Lazarus or Black Jade."
"So there's a fifty-fifty chance that Black Jade is wandering around here somewhere," stated Solo.
"Yes." Red Vex seemed distracted.
|Between the pheromones and the hatred, Gris would be collateral damage waiting to happen.|
That was why she had been trying to get them to stay behind while she opened the portal. Her bare breasts made no secret of the fact that she was excited at the prospect of encountering her old lover again. Except for the fact that Red Vex wanted to kill Black Jade, it all made perfect sense, thought Solo. It also explained the nagging urge she had to take off all her armor. Red Vex was leaking pheromones again. All the more reason to hurry things along.
"You can follow the hallway either direction to reach the altar," said Red Vex.
"You go one way, and I'll go the other," suggested Dolt.
Red Vex nodded.
"I'll come with ye," Griswold told Red Vex.
"I don't know if that's such a good idea," cautioned Solo. Between the pheromones and the hatred, Gris would be collateral damage waiting to happen.
"I'll be fine," Griswold assured her.
"I still think..." started Solo.
"I said, I'll be fine!" snapped Griswold.
Solo backed down. Every passing second made her feel less and less comfortable with their situation.
Red Vex just shrugged. As far as she was concerned, Griswold was a non-issue at the moment. All that mattered to her was finding Black Jade again. She didn't dare wonder what would become of her if it turned out that Lazarus was the one who let the Zerg into the Temple and Black Jade was dead. All that would be left for her would be her eternal unrequited hate. If she was lucky, some hero would come along and kill her.
Dolt opened the door just as a drone carrying a pod was scurrying by. He swatted it with his axe. He stepped into the hallway and let loose blasts of flame in both directions. Pods burned and burst open, their contents sizzling. "There," he said, "That'll get us started." He gestured at the remaining six Fallen Ones to follow him, and they did so obediently.
Red Vex, Griswold and their goblin followed Dolt into the hallway and turned the other direction. That left Solo and Wilbur to look after Ichabod.
The pods ranged in size from about grapefruit to a few that could have held three or four people. After his initial blast of fire, Dolt relied on his axe to destroy them. The Fallen Ones took great delight in bursting the pods as well. Some of the pods sprayed acid when burst, a few others contained items ranging from random junk to gold coins and other treasures. Several pods contained creatures in the midst of some sort of metamorphosis. Three of the bigger ones contained sleeping succubi. Dolt axed them before they could regain consciousness.
They also encountered a few drones whose job seemed to be moving the pods up and down the hall at random intervals. The goblins killed and ate these.
Dolt's route took him around a corner and through a door into another pod-filled chamber. After clearing that room, he and his troop of goblins turned another corner into a second hallway. The pods in this passageway tended to be of the bigger variety. Dolt found and executed four more succubi. The last two were obviously turning into some sort of Zerg-succubus hybrid.
Dolt opened one more human-sized pod and stopped. "Well," he mused as a well-slimed humanoid form tumbled out, "who do we have here?"
"Come on, Ichabod, wake up," pleaded Solo shaking the semi-conscious Conjurer.
"Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be CowLords," moaned Ichabod.
A thought struck the Bard. She dug through her pack until she found the Collar of Submission. She fit it around Ichabod's neck and fastened the choke chain.
"Snap out of it, Ichabod!" she commanded giving the chain a forceful yank.
"Yes, Good Master," said Ichabod sitting up.
"That's more like it," said Solo. "We need CowLord."
"We're sorry. Your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please hang up and try again," said Ichabod, "Good Master."
Solo interpreted that as a "no." As she was puzzling over what to do next, Ichabod spoke again.
"I have looked into the mouth of the Beast and seen the Light, my child," he said.
"I had an epiphany. Luckily, it was only a small one. I was able to treat it with ointment and did not require surgery," said Ichabod. "No, that's not right. That's a hemorrhoid. What's an epiphany?"
"A sudden insight or revelation," supplied Solo.
"That's it!" shouted Ichabod. "That's what I had!"
"So what was it?" she asked once it became apparent that Ichabod was not going to volunteer any information.
"What was what?"
"That's rather a personal question. I mean, I've grown quite fond of you over the last day or so, and maybe if we got to know each other a little better..."
Solo gave a sigh of exasperation and yanked hard on the choke chain. "Now, please tell me about this insight of yours," she ordered.
"Yes, Good Master," said Ichabod. "We're all going to die."
Griswold knew in his heart that, when Red Vex had killed Torvan, she had done both father and son a favor that could never be fully repaid. He also knew that, if she had never come to Tristram in the first place, King Leoric would never have gone mad and inflicted that horrible curse on his men. In fact, his entire family would be alive today.
|Griswold knew the road to Hell was paved with good intentions. Ironically, Torvan's road to Heaven had been paved with bad intentions.|
But then, if the Horadrim had not buried Diablo under Tristram, Red Vex and Black Jade would never have come to Tristram to begin with. And if the Horadrim had not imprisoned Diablo? The Lord of Terror would be running around free, and then where would they all be?
Centuries of events linked together like a suit of the finest chain mail. Life had seemed so simple when he was working at his forge or having dinner with his family. That simplicity had been nothing more than a cruel illusion. Tragedy had started its journey toward his town and family hundreds of years before there had even been a Tristram.
Then there was Red Vex. She was both victim and villain. Every single one of the girl-demon's motives was corrupt. Even saving Torvan's soul had been more out of her desire to thwart Mephisto than out of any compassion for Torvan. Griswold knew the road to Hell was paved with good intentions. Ironically, Torvan's road to Heaven had been paved with bad intentions. Who would save Red Vex's soul? Did she even have a soul to save? If not, whatever became of the innocent girl put to such a brutal death by her own people? So many questions without answers. Griswold's heart ached for her.
It would have been against Red Vex's nature to be unaware of Griswold's conflicted feelings about her. For the moment, however, he didn't matter. All that mattered was Black Jade. They had been apart for days, and she already knew exactly what would happen. They'd attack each other on sight. First with Bloodstars, which wouldn't do either of them any harm, and then physically. Eventually, one of them would draw blood and, once those supernatural pheromones hit the air, they'd succumb to Lust Frenzy and fighting would be over except for the hatred. A shudder of revulsion ran through Red Vex at the thought Black Jade's hungry fingers having free run of her body. She also longed for it at the same time.
Having Griswold along was not helpful either. She and Black Jade would be all over each other and completely vulnerable for hours at the very least. There was an excellent chance that their combined pheromones would affect him too and he'd try to join them. It had happened before. Always, they had simply killed the intruding party and gotten on with their business, or pleasure. Afterwards, the freshly killed meat made a welcome meal. The truth was that Griswold would probably be doing them both a tremendous favor if he simply ran them both through while they were engaged.
They reached the chamber containing the sacrificial altar. It was thick with Zerg pods and other growths. Drones, mostly small ones, scurried to and fro carrying pods in their mandibles. As ready as Red Vex was for an attack, she was still caught off-guard when a huge pod-encrusted growth lurched out of a shadowy corner and began firing Bloodstars at her.
"Look out!" shouted Griswold. He jumped into the path of the blasts and blocked most of them with his shield. One clipped him across his sword arm, making him gasp in pain.
"Oh, get out of the way," snapped Red Vex trying to get around the Master Blacksmith.
As if in response, a huge serrated claw brushed Griswold away. He came to rest, thoroughly winded, against a leathery pod at the other end of the chamber. The goblin they had accompanying them took the opportunity to run for cover behind the altar.
"Hello, lover," cooed a voice that Red Vex knew better than any other. It came from above her, and Red Vex whirled toward the sound. Her Bloodstar fizzled in her hand and her jaw dropped in shock.
It was Black Jade. There was no question about that. It was her almond-shaped eyes, set in that perfect oval face with flawless olive skin. Her long black hair framed that face, spilling over her shoulders and breasts. There had been a time when Red Vex had loved nothing more than the feel of that endless river of ebony hair flowing over her body. Her arms still ended in slender wrists and delicate hands with fingers whose merest touch could arouse ecstasy that the gods themselves could only fantasize about in frustration.
|All it took was several additions from the Zergs' vast library of DNA to turn the succubi from temptresses into huge mobile hatcheries.|
But that was it. Her horns had changed into a pair of twitching antennae and her wings had grown into huge multi-jointed legs that reached over Black Jade's shoulders to touch the ground in front of her. It was with one of these legs that she had brushed the interfering Griswold aside. From the waist-down, Black Jade had the body of a gigantic bloated wasp. It came complete with six legs and a set of gossamer insect wings that could carry her in steady, but ponderous flight. Like a bumblebee's wings, Black Jade's new wings had an aerodynamically impossible load to carry. The abdomen of the insect portion of her body was a grotesque bloated mass of pods and oozing creep. Drones crawled over and around it, removing pods, placing them, moving them and replacing them. The humanoid portion of Black Jade sat on top of this mass, over ten feet above the ground.
The class of demons known as succubi had been created for seduction, not reproduction. They did not bear young except under extraordinary circumstances. That did not change the fact their bodies were based on those of young women at the peak of their fertility and desirability. Thus, when the Zerg encountered succubi, they recognized them as nothing less than reproductive dynamos. It was a simple matter for them to reactivate the genes that enabled reproduction and nurturing young. After that, all it took was several additions from the Zergs' vast library of DNA to turn the succubi from temptresses into huge mobile hatcheries.
It was another triumph of Zerg genetic engineering. A Succu-Nest could carry pods equal to five times the troops that an Overlord could carry. Succu-Nest pods did not produce helpless hatchlings either, thanks to the vast latent nurturing potential the succubi all carried in their genes. Each Succu-Nest could accelerate the growth of pods in her charge to adulthood and peak efficiency within minutes.
"Do you like the new look, sweetie?" asked Black Jade. Seeing that her old lover was still at a loss for words, she pressed on. "When the Wasp Fliers returned with nothing but your wing, I knew I'd see you again."
Red Vex let out a shriek and lunged at Black Jade. The giant Succu-Nest rapped her on the top of her head with the flat side of one of her great claws.
"You nasty thing," teased Black Jade. "Your eyes say 'kill, kill,' but your body's saying 'do me, do me.'"
Red Vex shook her head and backed away. Black Jade was toying with her. That blow that left a giant goose egg on her head and knocked her on her backside could have, and should have, been aimed to decapitate her. It was the same old Black Jade; always with some scheme or other. As a mortal, it had driven Red Vex crazy waiting for her partner to get to the point.
"Look," said Black Jade, "We've been doing the same thing for centuries. What say we forgo our traditional cat fight and multiple orgasms in favor of something new. I had a little surprise made from your wing."
On that cue, cantaloupe-sized pods all over her abdomen burst open. Tiny versions of Red Vex, no more than six-inches high hatched from them. The little Vexlings had antennae and insectoid wings. They also had whip-like tails equipped with sharp stings.
"What do you think? Cute aren't they?" said Black Jade. "They remind me of you so much that I've been squishing them for fun while I was waiting for you to come back."
They flew at Red Vex, peppering her with tiny pinprick Bloodstars. Then they were on her, scratching and stinging. Red Vex rolled away, trying to shield her eyes and face from the little sprites. The Vexlings were out to insult as well as injure. They pulled her hair, and Red Vex could feel lewd little touches over her breasts, bottom and crotch. At least one of them urinated on her.
Griswold was standing over her, waving his shield and trying to shoo the little creatures away, but to no avail.
Then one of the Vexlings noticed Black Jade watching the assault with sadistic amusement. A ripple of hate went through the swarm. Red Vex's hatred of Black Jade was so deeply ingrained that it transcended the genes used to create the Vexlings. Within moments, Black Jade found herself fending off the scratches and stings of the vicious little Vexlings. She waved her arms and great claws, but her ponderous bulk made it hard for her to defend herself against them.
Realizing that her miscalculation had been a big one, Black Jade burrowed into the floor. Her claws shoved aside the stonework floor and underlying earth with ease.
Red Vex howled. "Come back here!" She leaped to her feet to follow, but Black Jade, and the Vexlings tormenting her, were gone, and Black Jade had filled the burrow in behind her.
Red Vex dropped to her knees and began trying to dig after them with her bare hands.
"Lass," called Griswold.
Red Vex continued to dig.
Griswold reached out to put a restraining hand on her shoulder. "She's gone, lass. She'll be..." he stopped as Red Vex turned to face him. He realized that he had not felt so aroused since he was a teenager. He wanted to take her right there, on top of the pile of broken stonework and overturned earth, amid the Zerg pods and scuttling drones. Red Vex, knowing that controlling Griswold would be the fastest way to bring her own raging hormones under control, was willing to let him.
With her left hand, Red Vex moved his hand down from her shoulder to her breast. With her right, she reached inside Griswold's armor to feel for the buckles holding it together. Her nimble fingers had spent centuries learning how to get warriors out of every type of armor ever forged, so even the Bovine Plate offered no protection against this type of attack. Her hand stopped briefly to unfasten the metal udder before continuing its downward journey.
"Hey Gris!" called Dolt entering the chamber from the far hallway.
"Whoa! What can I do fer ye?" responded Griswold, badly startled. Griswold's face had turned a shade of red that made his beard, mustache and remaining hair look white by comparison. He turned and stumbled over the Bovine Plate's udder, which was now dangling by a single leather strap.
"Does anyone know who this is?" asked Dolt. He was half-leading, half-dragging a naked man. The man was glistening with slime from having been inside a pod. Around them, Dolt's troop of Fallen Ones was gleefully smashing pods and tormenting drones.
Griswold had his back to Dolt and Red Vex had been hidden from view behind him, so Dolt could not see what had been going on between them. Red Vex's goblin, however, had been crouched behind the sacrificial altar watching the action with wide eyes. He mimed the details to his fellow goblins who took obvious delight in mimicking the series of obscene gestures. As discreetly as possible, Griswold tried to refasten the Bovine Plate's udder. It let out a loud "moo" when his fumbling fingers accidentally squeezed one of its teats.
All this was lost on Dolt, who rarely noticed anything unless it was trying to kill him or he was trying to kill it.
Red Vex was merely annoyed until she saw who Dolt had with him. It was Lazarus.
Lazarus saw her at the same time and, slick with slime, squirmed out of Dolt's grasp and ran to her. "Red!" he greeted her. "I feared you had been lost. All praise to the Master!"
"You!" accused Griswold recognizing the man who had brought the wrath of Hell down on his hometown and on his family. He moved to intercept him, but Red Vex motioned him to stay still.
"Praise the Master," repeated Red Vex automatically.
"Praise and glory to the Overmind!" He rushed to embrace her. If he recognized Griswold, he gave no indication. He only had eyes for Red Vex.
"Who?" asked Red Vex. "Don't we serve Diablo?"
The former Arch-Bishop of Tristram looked puzzled. "Now we serve the might of the Swarm," he insisted. "All hail the Overmind!"
"That's what I thought," accused Red Vex. "You were the one who let them in here." With that, she grabbed Lazarus by the scrotum and dragged him toward the bloodstained altar. The move had the added bonus of temporarily paralyzing Dolt and Griswold with sympathetic pain.
She threw Lazarus on the table he had used to send the souls of children to his Master. The truth was, as long as the Prime Evils were all trapped in their respective Soul Stones, Red Vex's allegiance to any of them was mostly academic. Nevertheless, she was not fond of surprises, and if being sold out to a bunch of hungry alien bugs wasn't a surprise, then nothing was. Furthermore, Red Vex had a sensitive spot when it came to betrayals. She loved dishing them out, but nothing made her more furious than being betrayed herself. Finally, while sex was usually the preferred way to alleviate Lust Frenzy, Red Vex had learned early on that murder worked just as well.
"Wait!" gasped Lazarus as Red Vex pulled the sacrificial blade out of its holder beneath the altar. "You don't understand!"
"Lass, no!" cried Griswold. "Don't do it!"
"Your madness ends here, betrayer!" She plunged the knife into Lazarus. As his blood flowed through the channels in the edges of the table, the pentacle outside the Temple began to glow with a harsh crimson light.
Red Vex, spattered with blood, turned to face Griswold. Her eyes silently dared him to tell her that he hadn't wanted to do exactly the same thing to the former Arch-Bishop. For the second time in barely as many minutes, Griswold felt deeply ashamed.
Dolt was savvy enough to realize that he was missing several pieces of vital information needed to understand what had just transpired. Solo would have insisted on details and explanations. Dolt ordered his goblin troop to fall in and decided not to get involved.