"'I'm going down to Cowtown, the cow's a friend to me. Lives beneath the ocean and that's where I will be; beneath the waves, the waves, and that's where I will be. I'm going to see the cow beneath the sea!'" sang Ichabod.
Solo pulled hard on the choke chain again. She knew the Collar of Submission would lose its effectiveness after invoking its power so many times in rapid succession, but keeping Conjurer Ichabod focused was presenting a major challenge.
Ichabod gagged. "Yes, Good Master?"
"I need you to at least try to get a grip on reality here."
"Reality?" Ichabod began laughing. "Oh, that's a good one." He laughed harder and harder. Even the Collar of Submission could not stop his laughing fit. Tears streamed down his face and he wet himself. His bullrog dissolved into a pile of rotting cow parts. Finally, Solo Stone Cursed him.
He seemed much subdued when the spell finally wore off. "There is a war going on between the Forces of Order and the Forces of Chaos," he said without preamble.
"You mean the Sin War?" asked Solo.
Ichabod shook his head. "The Sin War is nothing but a pale reflection of the true conflict. The Boojum represents Order. Eternal changeless Order. It removes anything or anyone that threatens its sense of Order. If things get too out of hand, the Boojum resets things to a time and situation more to its liking."
The fact that the doubt on Solo's face was immediately visible to Ichabod was a testament to how tired she was feeling.
"You're wondering how I can know this," said the Conjurer. "After all, if the world resets with all of us in it, how would we be able to tell?" He sighed. "You see, the Zerg invasion is all my fault. I went beyond the boundaries of the universe into the Battle Net."
Solo had heard legends regarding the Battle Net, but she had always assumed that it was some kind of magic weapon or artifact. Ichabod was speaking as if the Battle Net was a realm or a place. She would need to do more research.
"I was hoping to conjure up a hero to come save Tristram and defeat Diablo. Instead, the Defiler followed me back through the portal and built a nest under my house. The rest you know," said Ichabod.
"But I didn't come away from the Battle Net empty handed either," said Ichabod. "The sum of all the knowledge of the gods of the Battle Net downloaded into my mind. It was terrifying. So much of the wisdom of the gods was actually garbage. It took a long time for me to make any sense of it at all, but eventually some of the pieces began to fall together."
Ichabod tugged at his robe trying to get more comfortable. The nearest change of pants was a long way away. "You see," he continued, "it turns out that the Boojum has held sway over this world, and Tristram in particular, for... Well, since it seems to stop, reset and restart time at will, there's no telling how long it's been."
True to her training, Solo was trying to be objective. Trying very hard.
"You're looking at me like I'm crazy," said Ichabod, "and I guess I've earned that. But bear with me: There's another force in the universe. It represents chaos, conflict and change. It has many names. Some call it the Hand of Fate because it sometimes manifests itself as a huge disembodied gauntlet. Others call it the Strife Bringer. Most of the people who are aware of its existence simply call it the Cursor, presumably because everything it touches is cursed.
"I saw the Cursor while I was struggling with the Defiler," said Ichabod. "It's with us right now and, somehow, it's keeping the Boojum at bay. It used me to bring the Zerg to Tristram and somehow the Zerg have anchored themselves in this reality so that the Boojum can't cause them to lag out."
"So what happens if the Boojum comes back in and removes the Zerg?" asked Solo, "Wouldn't that make us all its prisoner again?"
Ichabod shrugged. "Maybe, but I feel like more things have changed than the Boojum may be able to reset. It's just a feeling. No proof or anything. I just feel like events have been set in motion that can't be altered by anyone or anything. I don't know how many of us will see another sunrise."
|Ichabod was on his way back to that special place in his head where fat, happy cows munched on green, green grass.|
Solo said nothing. He seemed unusually lucid, but Ichabod's tortured mind was such a mess that there was no telling whether anything he said was even remotely reliable.
"So, I'm going to choose my last words now while I have a chance," said Ichabod. "How about, 'I regret that I have but one life to give for Tristram.'" He thought a moment and then shook his head. "No, giving one life is plenty. How about, 'Hasta la vista, bay-bee,' or maybe, 'Say goodnight, Gracie.'"
Ichabod was on his way back to that special place in his head where fat, happy cows munched on green, green grass. Solo considered using the Collar of Submission on him one more time but decided against it. There seemed little to be gained by it.
"Goodnight and have a pleasant tomorrow," said Ichabod.
Red Vex was the first one through the door, followed by Griswold, and then Dolt, and finally all seven Fallen Ones. "We can proceed," said the Hell Spawn walking through the room to the red portal. Solo noted that she was spattered with blood.
Griswold just nodded and followed her.
"What happened to Wilbur?" asked Dolt noticing the decomposing remains of Ichabod's bullrog.
Solo shrugged. "I think Ichabod may have accidentally dispelled it."
"And that's the way it is," agreed Ichabod absently.
Dolt picked up Ichabod, threw him over his shoulder, and followed his goblins through the portal. Solo glanced around the room one more time and joined them.
On the other side of the portal, the great pentacle glowed with a bloody light. Solo caught up with Griswold and he told her about Red Vex's reunion with Black Jade and Lazarus. Solo sensed significant gaps in his telling of the tale. She also noted that his udder was crooked. The Fallen Ones were excitedly pantomiming a variety of obscene acts that they seemed to embellish each time around. Based on these two facts, Solo was able to make an educated guess about the part of Griswold's story that was missing. Before she could get Red Vex to confirm her suspicions, the Hell Spawn stepped into the center of the pentacle and vanished into a red mist.
Griswold stepped around the jeering Fallen Ones and followed Red Vex.
"Time for Tubby bye-byes," shouted Ichabod squirming off of Dolt's shoulder. He threw his arms wide open and skipped after Griswold and Red Vex. "No matter where you go, there you are!"
"Perhaps it would be kindest to put him out of our, I mean, his misery," suggested Dolt.
Solo shook her head. "If he wanted to be dead, he's had plenty of opportunities. I think being crazy is just his way of coping."
Dolt shrugged and ordered his Fallen Ones into the pentacle. "And stop doing that!" he commanded after observing four of them acting out the most bizarre (presumably) sexual act that he or Solo had ever seen. The rest of the Fallen Ones were applauding and cheering wildly.
Despite its ominous appearance, the pentacle worked just like any Horadrim Portal that Solo had ever been through. The exit point was at the top of a staircase fashioned from the combined bones of demons and mortals. When Solo and Dolt arrived, Red Vex, Griswold and Ichabod were already at the bottom of the stairs and the Fallen Ones were on their way down. Like the previous chamber they had been in, this was a huge subterranean cavern. The ceiling was so high as to only be barely visible, and there was no chance of seeing all the way across it from one wall to the other.
A man in a tattered robe and headdress appeared near Red Vex. His body was covered in Zerg growths and writhing parasites. The Hell Spawn turned and blasted him. The impacts sent him reeling away and, when he hit the ground, his body burst open in a spray of toxins and parasites.
A second one materialized near Griswold. Griswold's Edge knocked him back and the fast-block shield protected Griswold from the resulting spray of poisons.
"They were infested, just like Cain," observed Griswold as Solo and Dolt joined them.
"Don't cry for me, Argentina," nodded Ichabod.
"That's disturbing," said Red Vex. "It's possible that they were infected on one of the upper levels and made it down here afterwards, but it more likely means that the Zerg have penetrated even here."
As if to confirm the Hell Spawn's dire assessment, a bolt of electricity danced up and down the length of The Grandfather. Then the ground shook as if a giant boulder had just rolled off a cliff.
"They're heeeere," observed Ichabod.
"I really may need to kill him," grumbled Dolt.
The ground shook again, and once more. It was definitely the footsteps of something very big. Then they heard the creature bellow.
Dolt, Griswold and Solo each recognized the battle cry at once. "O. Lord!" they said together.
It was not a prayer. None of the three was particularly religious. Griswold had not gone to church regularly for years. Solo knew a lot about many religions and, therefore, had a hard time putting her faith in any of them. Dolt had pillaged several churches and temples in his time.
In fact, 'O. Lord' was short for Obsidian Lord, the most aggressive and dangerous species of horned demon. The fact that most people who found themselves in the path of these charging rhino-like monsters uttered "O. Lord" in its more traditional context was merely a convenient coincidence.
Baal had created the creatures as to be living siege engines. They could topple castle walls, splinter reinforced gates, and turn catapults or other such weaponry into kindling; and heaven help anyone too slow to get out of their way. As a species, however, horned demons were clumsy and stupid, especially in close combat.
Everyone spread out. They knew that anyone who was not the target of the monster's charge would get a clean shot at its flanks and back. Even the would-be victim might be able to jump out of the way at the last second, if he kept his wits about him.
|The O. Lord-Ultralisk hybrids were literally a smashing success. So far, not a single man-made structure in Khanduras had withstood the charge of these great beasts.|
It wasn't an Obsidian Lord. The creature that charged out of the gloom would have been twenty feet tall if it had been standing upright. Its outstretched arms ended in scythe-like claws that gave it a span of eighteen feet. Its head had a mouth full of jagged teeth and serrated mandibles. Right between its giant compound eyes, it had a single four-foot curved horn.
When the Zerg had discovered Baal's living siege engines under Tristram, it was only natural that they combine them with their own living siege engines. The O. Lord-Ultralisk hybrids were literally a smashing success. So far, not a single man-made structure in Khanduras had withstood the charge of these great beasts.
It had targeted Ichabod. Being crazy, but not stupid, Ichabod took to the air and let the monster pass under him. "You are the wind beneath my wings," he said.
Although she was busy trying not to get killed herself, Solo took note of this. She had thought that Ichabod could only fly in his CowLord persona. This ran through her head as she hit the ground to dodge under the giant sweeping claw. Either she was lucky or The Grandfather was starting to manifest an ability to take independent action against the Zerg. Solo landed with the great sword sticking straight up. Its keen blade severed the monster's arm at the first joint behind the giant claw.
On its other side, Dolt jumped over the other claw in a hydraulically assisted leap while Griswold rolled under it. Red Vex had been out of harm's way and scored Bloodstar hits across its left flank. With the exception of the one who was crushed under the O. Lord-Ultralisk's massive foot, the Fallen Ones all scurried to relative safety.
The O. Lord-Ultralisk dug its remaining claw into the ground and braked to a stop. It looked down at the spurting stump where its right claw had been and seemed to shrug. It turned for another attack.
Solo hit it with a Fireball and Dolt let loose with both flame-throwers. That assault, combined with another barrage of Bloodstars would have been enough to bring down just about any creature any of them had ever encountered. The Zerg war machine just kept coming. This time, it had chosen Dolt as its target.
Dolt leaped over the great horn, intending to bring his axe down on the creature's neck. At the last moment, the monster tossed its head back, catching the Barbarian and throwing him further back. His axe struck the creature's dorsal spines and cracked its carapace before he tumbled to the ground.
Meanwhile, Solo drove her Dragon's sword of Vampires into the monster's flank while cutting across its left rear knee with The Grandfather. Griswold's Edge struck the right front knee, causing the O. Lord-Ultralisk to stagger. Its charge fouled by the attacks to its legs, the monster pivoted and snapped at Red Vex with its mandibles and jagged teeth. The Hell Spawn jumped back and scored hits on its eyes and face with three more Bloodstars.
The O. Lord-Ultralisk reared up on its hind legs and bellowed its rage. Solo rolled under it and drove The Grandfather's entire length deep into the beast's belly. The sword further voiced its disapproval of all things Zerg with an electrical charge to its gut. Dolt got to his feet and swung at the monster's back, cracking the carapace again.
Griswold's Edge also found a joint in the hybrid's natural armor and penetrated deep. The sword had been in pretty bad shape following Torvan's burial, and there was only so much Griswold could do in the way of field repairs. Fortunately, Solo had given him one of her Blacksmith Oils to help restore the enchanted blade. Griswold quietly broke his vow never to use the stuff, and now he was glad that he had.
The O. Lord-Ultralisk had had enough. The final insult was a Fallen One, seeing which way the battle was going, running up and jabbing it with a spear. It toppled sideways to the tainted earth with a booming thud.
It took Solo a few minutes to work her swords out of the creature's body. The Grandfather was wedged in its carapace and continued to feed voltage into the dead monster until she finally pulled it free.
"The armor I could fashion from tha' shell," said Griswold.
"Godly Plate of the Whale?" asked Solo.
"Certainly Godly quality," agreed Griswold, "an' maybe a wee bit better!" A thought struck him. "I've got t' go an' have a look at that claw y'severed. I bet it would make a fine sword."
Ichabod came to a landing on the creature's back.
"You weren't much help," commented Dolt.
"I've always depended on the kindness of strangers," explained the conjurer.
"Well, the Zerg are certainly here," said Red Vex. "The infested Counselors were iffy, but this one's definitely not one of ours."
"Does that change our plan?" Solo wanted to know.
Red Vex shrugged. "Assuming Diablo's still down here, no," she said.
"Ach, oh no!"
"What is it, Gris?" called Solo, turning toward the sound of his voice.
|Griswold laid the body down tenderly. "Aye," he nodded. "I found him over yonder." He gestured past where the O. Lord-Ultralisk's claw lay. "It's Prince Albrecht."|
The Master Blacksmith of Tristram was carrying a body in his arms. It was a handsome brown-haired boy, still in his teens.
"Zak's Light!" gasped Ichabod. His recognition of the corpse snapped him back to reality. "Tell me that isn't..."
Griswold laid the body down tenderly. "Aye," he nodded. "I found him over yonder." He gestured past where the O. Lord-Ultralisk's claw lay. "It's Prince Albrecht."
"Aww no," said Ichabod. "He was a good kid."
"Aye," agreed Griswold. "He'd ha' made a fine king. A real people's king. He was always in town minglin' w' the common folk. He joined us for dinner many a time."
Ichabod smiled at the memory of the young prince. "He always used to say, 'Please, my father is Your Majesty; I'm just Albrecht..."
"...But you can call me Al," finished Griswold.
"There's not a mark on him," observed Solo, "except for that wound to his forehead. What do you think..."
She was interrupted by a choked cry from Red Vex. She was backing away from the body, pale and shaking in terror.
"What is it, lass?" asked Griswold.
Red Vex shook her head and seemed unable to speak on the first few attempts. "Prince Albrecht was Diablo's host body," she managed, "I was there when Diablo possessed it. I arranged it myself."
Dolt snorted. "You would have thought that the Lord of Terror would have picked a sturdier body."
"You don't understand," said the Hell Spawn. "This body's dead and the Soulstone is gone!"
The Grandfather suddenly came alive with a blast of lightning that almost caused it to leap out of Solo's hand.
By this point, they had all seen Zerg creatures burst out of the ground to attack. The new creature exploded out of the ground in a blast of flames and a shower of rock and debris. Like many Zerg creatures, this one seemed to be a mass of multi-jointed legs and claws. Four long legs supported it and another quartet of clawed appendages protruded from its back, some twelve feet above the ground. Its face was a nightmare combination of needle-like teeth, antennae, mandibles, and six multi-faceted eyes. This was no mere Zerg monster; she was the Hive Warden. A Zerg Queen.
It was no ordinary Zerg Queen either. She was reddish in color and a pair of great white curved horns protruded from her head on either side of her feelers. Two rows of curved white horns ran down the length of her back, from the back of her head to the tip of her abdomen. A malevolent crimson light glowed from between her two largest eyes. It was the Soulstone of Diablo.
"Oh," groaned Ichabod. "We are so screwed."