No creature that knows fear can resist the initial impulse to flee in terror when confronted by the Lord of Terror. The truly courageous or suicidally insane can master their fear and face Diablo, but the initial panic reaction is always there. As a result, everyone, Red Vex included, found themselves tearing a path up the stairs, desiring nothing more than escape.
With a gesture, Queen Diablo turned the world around them to fire. It was Diablo's own special brand of Apocalypse spell that came with a head full of fear. So much so that victims barely noticed the second- and third-degree burns.
For Dolt, it was being unable to move or fight as the unnamable doom that had been looming over him for days crept closer and closer.
Solo's first assignment as a professional Bard had been a simple gossip run between a couple of kingdoms on the western coast. Her mentor had assured her that the route was relatively safe and well traveled. She had been excited and confident. Until nightfall. Something was following her. Not following her, tracking her. It never quite caught up to her, but she somehow knew it meant her great harm. It was with her each of the three nights it took her to reach her destination. She never saw it, but she had a distinct impression of a faceless man with skin that glowed like the moon. She had been so rattled that she was barely able to deliver the news she had been carrying. She delayed returning home for almost a week and, ultimately, received substandard marks for her performance. But she never saw the faceless man again. Until now.
After all he'd been through, Ichabod could cope with anything. There was just one thing that he really feared: It was waiting for the Boojum as he lagged, and then softly and suddenly vanishing away. The writhing eels were just gratuitous.
Red Vex was treated to a replay of her last hours as a mortal at a level of detail that she had thought she'd repressed.
Griswold had never gotten over discovering Hildy's abused and murdered body deep in the caves, and then coming home to find the bodies of his wife and younger son, Hogan. He got to discover them again and again.
Ironically, the Fallen Ones were the least affected. They feared everything, so they were more or less used to the sensation.
Having already lived their worst fears, Griswold and Red Vex recovered first once they had come through the pentacle and were out of Queen Diablo's immediate presence. Red Vex ordered the Fallen Ones to heel. Only one was missing, and that was nothing short of incredible. Dolt and Solo were both still quaking with fear, but looked like they would recover. Red Vex was familiar with their breed of hero (she had killed many and fled from many more) and they were pretty reliable. Ichabod was singing, so there was no telling with him.
"I'm going to go get the Staff of Lazarus," she told Griswold. "We can close the portal and lock Diablo up down there."
"O. Lord!" cried Griswold.
"Snap out of it!" Red Vex began. "I need..." She stopped, suddenly understanding what the Master Blacksmith had actually meant. Another O. Lord-Ultralisk was charging out of the gloom.
Griswold's fast-block shield did not fail him. Unfortunately, no magical protection or enchantment could change the fact that Griswold weighed a mere 260 pounds to the O. Lord-Ultralisk's eight tons. The shield kept him from being killed on the spot, but there was nothing it could do to keep him from being driven like a golf ball through the red Horadrim Portal to the Temple.
|The one thing that Dolt needed to counter the nameless dread consuming him was a great big, easily identifiable dread like the O. Lord-Ultralisk towering over him|
Red Vex darted after him. After all, it was where she was going anyway. The others would just have to cope with the O. Lord-Ultralisk themselves.
If someone had taken the time to take Dolt aside to a safe setting and discuss his fears calmly and rationally, the approach would have failed miserably. The one thing that Dolt needed to counter the nameless dread consuming him was a great big, easily identifiable dread like the O. Lord-Ultralisk towering over him. Dolt let out a whoop of glee and leaped at the monster like a man reaching for the last life preserver.
The O. Lord-Ultralisk was a bit taken aback. It had had no idea that such small prey could behave so aggressively. It tried to step back and circle around, and this gave Dolt a perfect opportunity to jump on its back. Dolt's axe bit deep into the creature's armored hide and it reared up on its hindmost legs in an effort to shake him off.
Dolt held on and the O. Lord-Ultralisk charged off into the gloom, past the Defiler's pit and into the adjacent chamber, leaving Solo and Ichabod alone with the Fallen Ones.
The Fallen Ones, seeing that it was now safe, crept back toward Solo and Ichabod. They saw that their masters were distracted. Maybe distracted enough to be easy pickings.
"Don't even think about it," said Solo as the bravest goblin came almost close enough to touch her. It was not clear if Solo was warning the Fallen One off, or giving herself good advice. Either way the goblin hesitated.
Solo stood up straight. Her skin had broken into so many goosebumps that she could have lit a fire by rubbing a piece of flint across her forearm. She drew her swords and felt immediately reassured by their weight in her hands. Though unable to act, she had seen all that transpired: Dolt riding off on the O. Lord-Ultralisk, and Red Vex and Griswold going back into the Temple to close the pentacle. She wondered where Diablo was. She didn't have to wonder long.
A red mist swirled in the center of the pentacle and Queen Diablo emerged. She had been famished after her metamorphosis and had hungrily devoured almost all her Counselors. That last Fallen One had finally taken the edge off of her appetite. Albrecht had been little more than the second pick of a pretty dismal lot. This body was a living weapon, and it was time to see what it could do.
As Queen Diablo stared down at Solo, Ichabod and the Fallen Ones, Solo immediately understood that the Queen had so many ways to kill them that she was having difficulty choosing one. Solo used the moment to light a Lightning Wall under her and hit her with a Fireball. She succeeded only in snapping the Queen out of her contemplative mood.
A fiery Apocalypse blast exploded between Solo and Ichabod. This time the fear effect was much less, but the fire hurt more. At the same time, Queen Diablo seemed to inhale deeply. At her throat, a huge pouch, like a bullfrog's, inflated. The Zerg Queen snapped her head forward and the sac squeezed tight again. She spat out a mass of writhing worms. Their diameters ranged from about the size of Solo's pinkie to about the size of her wrist. Their lengths ranged from just under a foot to just over three, and each had a three-jawed mouth lined with saw-like teeth.
Solo got a good view of the Glave Wurms as they missed her head by inches and struck one of the goblins. The worms tore into the hapless Fallen One with a gusto that reminded Solo of a species of tropical fish she'd once heard about. Their toothy three-way jaws cut pieces out of their victim's flesh as easily as a tailor's scissors cut pieces out of a strip of fabric. In less than a second, the goblin was gone and the worms had turned on each other. A moment later, only one bloated worm remained. Having consumed both the goblin and its fellows, it had grown to the size of a donkey cart and was unable to move. In fact, Solo realized, it looked just like a Zerg pod now.
The pod hatched, releasing not one, but two Broodlings. The new creatures were six-foot, barrel-chested humanoids covered with leathery red skin. The bone white horns protruding from their heads and backs made them look more demonic than Zergish. In fact, Solo realized remembering illustrations she'd seen in texts on the Prime Evils, they looked exactly like miniature versions of Diablo. True to their lineage, the Diabolical Broodlings attacked viciously and with fire. Liquid fire similar to her own Inferno spell washed over Solo. She was going to die here unless she got somewhere where she could cast a Healing spell on herself and regroup.
Queen Diablo lunged at Solo, but one of the attacking Diabolical Broodlings got in her way. Irritated, Queen Diablo devoured the Broodling in three bites. There were more where he came from.
Solo took advantage of the confusion, grabbed Ichabod and ran.
"There's no place like home, there's no place like home," Ichabod was saying.
Solo actually agreed with him for once, but didn't have time to say so. They just missed taking the brunt of another Apocalypse blast and two more Diabolical Broodlings were hatching out of the remains of another goblin. Having nowhere else to go, they dove into the Defiler's pit.
In his career, Dolt Lungren had battled two dragons and a gydra. He had been a teenager and a prisoner of war when he encountered the gydra. His captors had offered him amnesty in return for agreeing to serve as catapult fodder in the battle against the mighty gorgon-hydra. Dolt had been lucky. His squad had drawn a high number and the monster had grown full and sleepy after devouring his fellow prisoners. The archers and sorcerers from whom Dolt and his squad were distracting the monster were able to finish it off and Dolt had escaped unscathed.
Dolt had been part of a small band of adventurers when he battled the acid-spitting swamp dragon. Not all of them had escaped with their lives, but they ultimately slew the beast. He had had a respectable hoard of treasure and the tale of the battle had earned Dolt and his surviving companions free drinks for a year at any tavern in the dragon's former territory.
Things had not gone nearly so well when he and his band took on their second dragon. This one was a mountain dragon, a fire-breather. He was a wily old drake with an appetite for destruction and a wide repertoire of spells at his disposal. Dolt had been the only survivor, and he had done this by diving off a fifty-foot cliff into a river and nearly drowning. He lost his armor and weapons and had had to make his way out of the dragon's vast territory armed with nothing more than a rabbit skin full of rocks and a crudely made spear.
Dolt considered the O. Lord-Ultralisk a dragon-class monster and, considering that this was the second he had fought in a single hour, things were going swimmingly. The creature finally bucked hard enough to throw Dolt off its back and sliced at him with one of its great claws. There was the clang of metal hitting metal as Dolt parried with his axe. Although Dolt succeeded in preventing a decapitating blow, the force of the impact threw him backwards several feet.
The O. Lord-Ultralisk reared back and struck like a snake, grasping the Barbarian in mandibles capable of crushing boulders. It opened its toothy maw to receive the armored morsel.
Staring down the O. Lord-Ultralisk's throat, Dolt drew on his experience as a dragon slayer. Specifically, what is the only unarmored part of a dragon's body? He was looking at it. In the case of the mountain dragon, the knowledge had done him no good because fire came out of that dragon's mouth. As far as Dolt knew, he was in no danger of that here. In fact, fire gave him an idea. He reached into the O. Lord-Ultralisk's mouth and let him have it with both flame-throwers. The O. Lord-Ultralisk's brain was small. It cooked quickly and evenly.
Dolt squirmed out of the dead monster's grasp and landed on his feet. Almost before he hit the ground, what felt like a flying castle wall slammed into him and sent him flying across the chamber. He hit the bone-like cavern wall with equally jarring force. Crimson warning lights lit up all over the inside of his visor. His head was still ringing from the two impacts. He could feel sticky blood between his helmet and his scalp. He peered into the darkness of the cavern. Another O. Lord-Ultralisk was stepping over the body of its fallen brood mate and lumbering his way. Off in the distance, he thought he could make out the huge shapes of at least five more of them.
Dolt thought about having a healing potion and then decided against it. He didn't relish the idea of being jabbed in the ass again. Besides, he found that a little pain focused him wonderfully in battle. "There are only six of them," he decided out loud and gripping his axe in both hands, "I don't need a potion yet."
Dolt hesitated. That was, without question, the stupidest thought that had ever entered his head, and he was a man who had entertained legions of stupid thoughts in his lifetime.
"Activate Stim-Pack 2," said Dolt. The armor injected the potion into his right buttock and Dolt winced. Somewhere inside Dolt's chest, an artery on the verge of a massive hemorrhage mended itself. The feeling of doom that had been hanging over Dolt since his arrival at the Tristram refugee camp evaporated.
The O. Lord-Ultralisk lowered its head and charged with a thunderous bellow.
Dolt raised his axe high and charged too, with his own battle cry: "DOLT LUUUUUNGREEEEENNNN!!"
The force of the O. Lord-Ultralisk's blow had carried Griswold right through the Temple's first chamber. He had struck the door at the other end and splintered it. That must have hurt, mused Red Vex.
Strangely, Griswold was not dead or unconscious on the other side. His shield lay on the floor, but there was no sign of Griswold. Red Vex stooped and slipped the shield on her arm.
She followed the hall around to the main chamber where she had killed Lazarus and left his staff. Griswold's sword and helmet lay at the entrance to the chamber amid a cluster of cantaloupe-sized pods. The pods continued up the side of the doorway, and Red Vex guessed that there were at least thirty.
"Hello, again, lover," said Black Jade.
This time the voice came from even higher up than it had before. Black Jade was crouched in a corner near the ceiling. She reminded Red Vex of nothing less than a gigantic spider, and Red Vex said so.
Black Jade laughed. "Come into my parlor." She was holding Griswold tightly in the crook of one of her great claws. "You didn't tell me that your little champion here was our friend Angus Griswold. I see you tasted a little piece of his soul too." She shook her head sadly. "And so soon after our reunion? I'm a little hurt."
"Well, you were too busy playing with your toys to satisfy me," retorted Red Vex. She edged a little closer to the pods growing up and down the doorway. "And, I might add, that's not the first time that's happened either."
"If you want something done right..." began Black Jade. She changed her mind. "Let's not get into that argument in front of Griswold here. Gris and I were just getting reacquainted. I know we didn't get to know him while we were in town, but it turns out that I had an opportunity to get quite close to his daughter." She leered a Griswold. "Quite close."
Red Vex arched an eyebrow. "Oh? When was that?"
"You were off tormenting Alchemist Zhar that weekend," said Black Jade. "Lazarus and I needed to take some Counselors down to meet Diablo, and we needed poor little Hildy to open the portal for us."
|"Do you think she died hating you for not finding her in time? Who knows, maybe she's just like us now. Maybe she'll come back and visit you some night."|
She shook her head sadly at Griswold. "She was such a sweet little thing. It was really quite touching how convinced she was that her Papa was going to come and save her. Of course, you didn't." Black Jade let out a sigh of mock-pity. "One can only imagine how confused and disappointed she must have been when Lazarus drove the knife into her heart. Do you think she died hating you for not finding her in time? Who knows, maybe she's just like us now. Maybe she'll come back and visit you some night." Black Jade paused thoughtfully. "Just the off-chance that that might happen is worth letting you live." With that, she dropped Griswold to the floor.
Griswold said nothing as he scrambled to his feet. His face was crimson and veins stood out on his neck and forehead. Black Jade may have changed masters, but she still did her job with remarkable speed and efficiency. With a few well-chosen cruel words, she had stoked an inferno of hatred within Griswold that would consume anything it touched. The first thing he wanted to destroy was Black Jade, then probably Red Vex, and then anything that got in his way.
Red Vex couldn't abide by that. "You know what? I think it's pretty rude to be hanging up there talking to Griswold and ignoring me." Griswold's hate was almost as distracting to her as her own hatred for Black Jade was.
"Oh, don't be like that," cooed Black Jade. "I've got something for you too."
"And I have something for you as well!" Red Vex swung Griswold's shield into the pods clustered around the doorway. A score of them burst open releasing another swarm of Vexlings. "Why don't you take your toys and go rape yourself?"
"You stupid tart," swore Black Jade, "Do you have any idea how long it took me to kill the last batch?" She burrowed into the ceiling with the Vexlings in hot pursuit. "Don't you even think about running away again," shouted Black Jade. "I'll be back."
"I'll kill 'er," swore Griswold reaching for his sword.
Red Vex shook her head. "Angus Griswold." She had her foot planted firmly on the blade. "Are you sure you want to start down that road?" His hatred was roaring out of control. "Before you answer, I have something to show you." She drew the Griswold family portrait from behind her wing and unrolled it. "Do you think anything you do to Black Jade will do any of them any good?"
Griswold stared at the faces of his lost wife and children.
"Look at her," said Red Vex drawing his attention to Hildy. "Do you think the little girl in this painting could have died hating her father? Or anyone?"
Red Vex waited. The inferno had died down to embers.
"Do you want to remember her for what was done to her, or do you want to remember her for who she was?"
The storm of hatred in Griswold's heart subsided. This was a first for Red Vex, but it had been an unusual week. Besides, she could hardly pass up an opportunity to thwart Mephisto and undo Black Jade's handiwork at the same time.
"Now then," continued the Hell Spawn. "Two things: First of all, I'm the only one here allowed to hate Black Jade. Secondly, do you remember how I told you that if you ever had a chance to die free of Mephisto's influence, you should take it?"
"Aye?" said Griswold nodding.
"Well, this is your lucky day!" The point-blank Bloodstar caught Griswold right in the neck and fused his windpipe shut. The Master Blacksmith toppled backwards clutching his throat and trying to draw air.
He looked up and saw Red Vex looking down at him, watching him die. Her eyes were full of contempt. He looked deeper into her eyes. There was something there. Something beneath the hatred. If only there was more time, but Torvan was waiting...
Red Vex looked down at Griswold's body and sneered. Had she ever been so frail and gullibly human? She shook her head.
There was a rumble of rocks as Black Jade emerged through one of the chamber walls. "It's just you and me now, lover," said Red Vex without turning around.
"I see you've prepared a meal for us for," Black Jade too was resigned to what would inevitably happen when the Lust Frenzy took effect, "afterwards."
Consume Griswold? The thought hadn't occurred to Red Vex even though she had tasted human flesh on many occasions. She just shrugged.
"Shall we?" asked Red Vex. There was always the chance that the monstrous alien bulk would wind up on top of her in the throes of their passion. That might be enough to put an end to her ridiculous existence.
"Let's," agreed Black Jade.
Red Vex shrieked and leaped at her old lover. Griswold's fast-block shield saved her from a swipe of Black Jade's huge claw. She raked her nails across Black Jade's cheek, just missing her eyes. Black Jade used her humanoid hands to push Red Vex away.
Red Vex tumbled off of Black Jade's massive body and landed near the doorway. She started to get up and then stopped. Black Jade was bleeding from the scratch Red Vex had given her. She herself was bleeding from a gouge Black Jade had left in her breast pushing her away.
Something was very wrong. Black Jade sniffed the air and recognized the scent of Red Vex's ichor. Red Vex sniffed too.
"Your pheromones," gasped Red Vex. "They're alien."
"You're repulsive!" breathed Black Jade wonderingly.
Their eyes met and, for the first time since they'd become Hell's Pawns, Black Jade and Red Vex shared something akin to a moment of joy.
Red Vex picked up Griswold's Edge and stood.
The same thought entered their heads at the same time. The same words left their mouths at the same time: "Now, you die, bitch!"
Solo and Ichabod tumbled into the Defiler's pit. It was, as far as she could tell, devoid of life. CowLord's Bova spell had seen to that. Solo wasted no time casting Healing spells on herself and on Ichabod. She then cast a Mana Shield and guzzled her last Mana potion to replenish her depleted ball.
"I have an idea!" said Ichabod brightly. "Now that Diablo's in a female body, perhaps we can introduce a gender-identity crisis and he'll become so confused that he'll make a mistake."
"Like what?" snapped Solo. She spied something metallic nearby. It was the battered remains of the CowLord armor. The bovine helmet lay in two pieces. If this wasn't an instance of desperate times calling for desperate measures, then nothing was. She picked up the two pieces of the helmet. The Defiler had cleaved it cleanly in two and the pieces fit together neatly. She found her last Blacksmith Oil and began applying it to the helmet. "Ichabod, come here a minute," she said when she had finished.
"What?" asked the Conjurer.
Solo spun around. With one hand, she slapped the helmet on Ichabod's head, with the visor down. The Blacksmith Oil had repaired the helmet just barely. If Ichabod sneezed hard, it would probably split in two again.
With her other hand, Solo attached her choke chain to the Collar of Submission around Ichabod's neck. "I need CowLord NOW!" she shouted giving the chain as hard a tug as she could without breaking Ichabod's neck.
Above them, a Diabolical Broodling had discovered their hiding place and was calling to its fellows. Queen Diablo was following.
Nothing seemed to be happening.
"Come on, CowLord," breathed Solo.
|A violent nimbus swirled around Ichabod as he conjured a new suit of CowLord armor from his tattered robe and the Collar of Submission.|
A dim green glow flickered inside the visor's eye sockets.
The first of the Broodlings were scrambling down the side of the pit. Queen Diablo's ghastly head peered over the edge.
Ichabod grasped the choke chain and yanked it out of Solo's hands. "COWLORD SUBMITS TO NO ONE!" A violent nimbus swirled around Ichabod as he conjured a new suit of CowLord armor from his tattered robe and the Collar of Submission. The energy field surrounding him seemed to consist of thousands of tiny hexagons like a honeycomb. The hexes flashed on and off like insane fireflies. Watching it, Solo got a vivid mental image of Ichabod literally hacking at the rules of reality.
When the smoke cleared, CowLord towered above Solo in a gleaming new suit of armor. She had been in Ichabod's company far too long. She knew this because she had an insane impulse to introduce Queen Diablo and CowLord: "CowLord, the Lord of Terror. Lord of Terror, CowLord." That impulse went away as the first pair of Diabolical Broodlings reached her. Solo's swords flashed and The Grandfather delivered lighting strikes at each touch. The Broodlings' hides were incredibly tough, however, and only the most precise strikes even drew blood.
An Apocalypse blast caught Solo and both Broodlings flat-footed. Solo's Mana Shield held, but it wouldn't take very much of that kind of punishment. The Broodlings hadn't had any such protection, and both screamed in pain. Solo Teleported behind them and drove her swords into their backs. The one that The Grandfather found died instantly. The other jerked free and turned to face her. Solo hit it with a Lightning spell and finished it off.
Queen Diablo threw her head back and spat globs of worms at the two bodies. As before, the worms consumed the bodies and then each other. Moments later, two more Diabolical Broodlings hatched out of each body. Although math had never been one of her favorite subjects, Solo had no trouble calculating her odds of survival if Queen Diablo was going to continue to spawn two Broodlings for each one she killed. If she was to have a prayer of living to tell her story, she was going to have to take the fight directly to Queen Diablo herself.
Solo Teleported up to the edge of the pit, behind Queen Diablo, and learned an important lesson about looking before one leaps. The area around Queen Diablo was packed with her Broodlings. Not only had she spawned them out of the bodies of the hapless goblins that had accompanied them, she had even used the dead Gillioids that Solo had left lying around. Solo found herself surrounded.
Luckily for Solo, the Diabolical Broodlings were slightly more surprised to see her than she was to see them. There was no time to think. Solo's swords went to work. The Grandfather hungrily sought out all things Zerg, creating a dazzling lightning show as it did so. The vampiric sword transformed the blood of its victims to Mana, refueling Solo's powers.
Meanwhile, CowLord had taken to the air to confront Queen Diablo. He did not know whether or not the Glave Wurms could eat through his armor, so he avoided them. The parasites sailed through the air and, finding no nourishment from the rocky floor when they landed, starved to death.
Solo had achieved an altered state of consciousness that she had only read about. A battle high, it was called. She felt as if she was made of liquid, rushing from foe to foe like the blood pounding in her veins. She killed when she could, and wounded or harassed when she had to. She used her Teleport spell to keep moving and keep the Diabolical Broodlings off balance.
Despite this, Solo was, first and foremost, a professional observer. She observed CowLord pounding Queen Diablo with a barrage of Holy Bolts. CowLord's Holy Bolts were a mottled black-and-white rather than the standard pure white. Regardless of whether or not Solo was willing to call them Holstein Bolts, they were effective in forcing Queen Diablo back from the edge of the pit.
"YOU'LL NOT FIND COWLORD TO BE SUCH EASY PREY, LORD OF TERROR," boasted CowLord.
It was good to have him back, thought Solo.
"FOR COWLORD FEARS NOTHING!" he finished.
|Queen Diablo paused and then seemed to grin, showing even more needle-like
"CowLord Fears Nothingness," clarified Queen Diablo. Her voice reminded Solo of thousands of tiny black spiders crawling over her naked flesh and burrowing in to lay their eggs.
To prove the point, the Lord of Terror summoned Ichabod's greatest fear. The floor and walls and the very air itself was suddenly alive with disembodied eyes and tentacles.
"YOU FOOL!" cried CowLord. "YOU'VE DOOMED US ALL!" The Boojum had come to remove everything that didn't belong.
All of this was lost on Solo and the Diabolical Broodlings. Ichabod and Queen Diablo were the only ones present who could see the Boojum. Solo kept fighting. As long as CowLord was keeping Queen Diablo distracted, she couldn't spawn any more Broodlings. She Teleported to the edge of the pack and lit into them with Chain Lightning. The nearest Broodlings responded with fire, but Solo was long gone by the time the flames reached the ground she had stood on. She materialized near one on the right rear flank and drove The Grandfather through its neck. She Teleported again.
The Boojum struck at CowLord with a mass of tentacles, yet not one of them made contact. He was looking straight into dozens of its eyes, but wasn't lagging. He understood the reason when he saw a tendril strike at The Grandfather only to be deflected. For an instant, it looked as if Solo was enclosed in a huge metal gauntlet that kept the Boojum from making contact.
Solo, the Broodlings and even Queen Diablo turned to see the source of the booming battle cry.
An O. Lord-Ultralisk staggered into the melee. It was missing a claw and a leg. Its great compound eyes were nothing more than smoking sockets. Dolt Lungren was astride its neck and cleaved half of its skull away with his axe. He jumped to the ground as the creature fell.
Solo Stone Cursed it as it toppled. The Glave Wurms Queen Diablo spat found no host in the stone body and went hungry.
Dolt Lungren was a sight to behold. The Marine Armor of the Firebat had exceeded every system tolerance built into it when Dolt was only on the fourth O. Lord-Ultralisk. The unbreakable visor had been shattered. If it hadn't been, the helmet's HUD would have shown that every single system from offensive weaponry to personal hygiene processors was functioning at less than five percent of peak efficiency. The intricate hydraulic and cybernetic systems that had amplified Dolt's strength and agility had been reduced to high-tech trash. The only thing moving the 250-pound armor now was Dolt's own considerable strength. The right flame-thrower had exploded when an O. Lord-Ultralisk had bitten down on it. The monster had been killed, but Dolt's right gauntlet was now fused to his axe. For its part, the Strange Axe of Slaughter glowed cherry red with heat from Dolt wielding it while using the flame-throwers. Dolt's unshielded face was a mass of blisters and first-degree burns.
Since the melee with the last O. Lord-Ultralisk had played itself out, Dolt eagerly leapt into battle with the Diabolical Broodlings. An arc of flame followed Dolt's axe as he swung, and blade and fire cut into his foes.
Ichabod could see that the Boojum wanted Dolt's armor badly, but the great metal fist of the Strife Bringer protected him too. He began to understand what was truly at stake, even if no one else did. In recent weeks, Ichabod's mind had become a series of strictly organized and separated compartments. It was the only way he could cope. He willed CowLord into one of those compartments and locked it tight. For all his power, CowLord's arrogance would not help him here. Besides, Queen Diablo had already had his number.
"Solo!" he called. "I need that pouch I gave you!"
Queen Diablo had analyzed the situation. The Teleporting Bard and the armored Barbarian were proving themselves an admirable match for her Diabolical Broodlings. She would need to make more. The bovine-armored madman was difficult to gauge, however. The one thing that had to change immediately was the fact that her attention was divided between attacks from two different directions.
She fixed her gaze on CowLord. Glands at the corners of her numbers two and four eyes squirted thick jets of sticky mucous at him. Not the ideal attack against an airborne foe, but it might distract him while she dealt with his two companions. She blasted him with an Apocalypse for good measure and CowLord went spinning into the pit. She turned and spat a wad of Glave Wurms at Dolt, but he incinerated them in midair. The next Glave Wurms were directed at a dead Broodling on the ground behind him. Within moments, the dead Diabolical Broodling was two live ones.
Solo had heard Ichabod call and saw that he was in trouble. As she Teleported after him, it occurred to her that she had heard Ichabod call, not CowLord. She materialized at the bottom of the pit near him. He was a blackened, sticky mess, but was not seriously hurt.
"I need that sealed pouch I gave you," Ichabod told her.
Solo had almost forgotten about it. It was a soft leather pouch that jingled as if packed with coins or some such. Solo handed it to him. She needed to get back to the battle and give Dolt some support. She wondered where Red Vex and Griswold were.
|Dolt was in dire straits. No fewer than four Diabolical Broodlings had his arms pinned back and Queen Diablo had all of them ensnared in a thick spray of mucous.|
"Thanks," said Ichabod. There was a questioning look on the young Bard's face. He considered explaining to her that this was the final battle between the Boojum and the Strife Bringer and that history and free will hung in the balance. He decided against it. She couldn't see them, and it would only make her think he was crazier than ever. It's possible that he was. Either way, he needed her confidence right now. "Listen, your target should be the Soulstone. Try to separate Queen Diablo from it. If you can, I'll be able to use this to its best effect."
There was no time for further explanations. Solo nodded and Teleported away. She'd pin him down afterwards and get the full story, if they both survived. Ichabod launched himself into the air.
Solo materialized behind Queen Diablo. This time, she was facing away from the pit. Dolt was in dire straits. No fewer than four Diabolical Broodlings had his arms pinned back and Queen Diablo had all of them ensnared in a thick spray of mucous. She had reared her head back and her throat sac was fully inflated as she prepared to spit Glave Wurms at Dolt and the Broodlings holding him.
Solo Teleported directly underneath Queen Diablo and The Grandfather flashed up and sliced open the sac. It was like opening a piñata. Glave Wurms spilled down Queen Diablo's front and on top of Solo. Solo screamed as the parasites tore into her flesh. Only the Amulet of Harmony allowed her to Teleport before being consumed.
Queen Diablo screamed too. Both from the pain of Solo's attack, and from the freed Glave Wurms attempting to tear into her legs and chest. Once expelled from her throat sac, the parasites did not care who they consumed. Unable to Teleport to safety as Solo had, Queen Diablo lit an Apocalypse at her own feet to destroy them.
Dolt had watched Solo's brave assault on Queen Diablo with awe. Aside from the fact that she had surely saved his life, he had never seen anyone do anything so risky and live to tell about it. He hoped he'd be around to thank her properly at the end of the battle.
CowLord rose into the air behind the wounded Zerg Queen. He directed a barrage of Holstein Bolts at the Broodlings holding Dolt. The attack killed one and loosened the grips of the others. Dolt twisted and, despite the sticky glue Queen Diablo had sprayed on them all, he was able to shake his captors loose. He stepped back and turned his axe and flame-thrower on them.
When Solo materialized, she knew how lucky she was to be alive. The heads of six Glave Wurms had Teleported with her when she escaped, their hooked teeth sunk deep into her arms, leg and shoulder. Her Mana Shield had been a casualty of the attack and she was bleeding badly from the bites. She cast a Healing spell on herself to keep from bleeding to death and, hopefully, to stave off any venom or infections the Glave Wurms might have been carrying. She'd have to pry the Glave Wurm heads from her body some other time.
|Solo Teleported onto the back of Queen Diablo's neck. She had sheathed the Dragon's broad sword of Vampires and used both hands to drive The Grandfather through Queen Diablo's skull.|
Solo Teleported to within striking range of Queen Diablo. This time, the Zerg Queen saw her and lashed out with a set of wickedly curved claws. The touch of the Lord of Terror caused Solo to recoil in primal fear. It was a terror that went to the most primitive part of her brain and she realized that she had fled nearly fifteen feet before she mastered it. It was almost as if Queen Diablo had picked her up and had thrown her backwards.
Dolt burned his way out of the ensnaring mucous and launched himself at Queen Diablo's flank before she could hit Solo with an Apocalypse blast. Queen Diablo screeched as the hot axe cut into her flesh. She turned to deal with the Barbarian, even as six more Broodlings rushed to her aid.
Solo Teleported onto the back of Queen Diablo's neck. She had sheathed the Dragon's broad sword of Vampires and used both hands to drive The Grandfather through Queen Diablo's skull. While this would have been fatal to any terrestrial creature, the Zerg Queen's skull contained mostly receptors for receiving instructions from the Overmind. The primary nerve cluster that served as her brain was actually located in her abdomen.
Despite this, Solo's attack was entirely successful. When the tip of The Grandfather emerged from Queen Diablo's forehead, it dislodged the Soulstone. The glowing red stone fell through space. Queen Diablo threw Solo off her back and lunged after it, The Grandfather still embedded in her head and sparking with electricity.
It was exactly what Ichabod had been waiting for. He hurled the pouch at the ground where the Soulstone would land. They hit the ground at the same time. The pouch burst open, scattering its contents: A pair of Gnarled Root rings, a Dreamflange amulet, a Lightforge amulet, a pair of Aerosmith backstage passes and a pirated CD-ROM containing a beta version of D2.
The Boojum went wild.
Ichabod cast the Etherealize spell. The results were even more spectacular than the last time Ichabod had used the dangerously unstable Lost Spell. This time, nothing less than the entire labyrinth and Tristram itself were yanked into the Battle Net.
Dolt and Solo found themselves on a realm that few people had ever visited, and that even fewer ever returned from. It was an obsidian-black plane criss-crossed with countless glowing threads of all colors and traveling in all directions and dimensions. Horadrim Portals of all colors opened and closed at random as far as the eye could see.
Now, on its home turf, the Boojum wasted no time ridding itself of everything that it found offensive to its sense of order. The hacked items in Ichabod's pouch were the first to go. Then the Diabolical Broodling's lagged and disappeared at the Boojum's touch.
Ichabod saw that Queen Diablo was about to retrieve the Soulstone. He dove and grabbed it at the same time she did. Around them, the Battle Net writhed with eyes and tentacles. Ichabod and Queen Diablo moved slower and slower as they began to lag.
"Let's do the Time Warp again," grinned Ichabod as a black Horadrim Portal opened to engulf them.
|Solo saw Red Vex and Black Jade tumble past her. They were locked in mortal combat and oblivious to the bizarre change of scenery.|
Solo quickly cast a Healing spell on Dolt and they decided that discretion was the better part of valor in this instance. They were on an unknown plane and an unknown entity had just dispatched the most powerful players on the field. In short, they were in far, far over their heads. Solo read the Horadrim Portal scroll Adria had given her.
As Dolt ran for it, the Boojum morphed the Marine Armor of the Firebat into a much more acceptable suit of scale mail. Suddenly 200 pounds lighter, Dolt spun past Solo's portal and fell through a green portal.
Solo called after him, but the portal winked closed behind him. As she turned to her own avenue of escape, Solo saw Red Vex and Black Jade tumble past her. They were locked in mortal combat and oblivious to the bizarre change of scenery. Griswold's body lay nearby.
The eyes and tentacles of the Boojum surrounded Red Vex and Black Jade. First, they morphed back into their original Hell Spawn forms. Then they morphed again, this time into the two young women who had been made into Black Jade and Red Vex. Even from where she was, Solo could see the shock of recognition cross the faces of the two women. There was no way of knowing what, if anything, passed between the reunited lovers before they too softly and suddenly vanished away.
Solo dove for her own portal.