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John Barleycorn
1999 by Martina Mertes
http://members.aol.com/Oszilla

Interlude: The Ruin of Many a Poor Boy

If anything had gone right for Bers Jeffcham in the last couple of weeks, he must have blinked and missed it. It had started when Lord Halla's daughter and her band of girl thugs had ridden stampede through his family's star melon harvest. Thank Zakarum his grandfather had been able to get the House of Halla to pay for the damages. He had been counting on profits from that harvest to pay off his debt to Farmer Lester.

He had arrived in Tristram with roughly a sixth of his harvest and 800 gold pieces from the House of Halla's treasury. That was plenty to pay off Lester and still have a respectable profit left over. When he saw some rivermen playing a game of Skull Dice on the docks, Jeffcham saw a golden opportunity to build on that profit.

After three throws, he had to dip into the 500 gold pieces he owed Farmer Lester. After ten more rounds, he was down to his last gold piece. If he didn't get that money back Lester would all but own him and his entire family. There was nothing to do but to wager the last coin, pray to whatever gods were listening, and throw the dice.

He won and doubled his money.

Then that Wirt kid showed up and won it all on a single throw. Lousy little square-headed yellow-eyed wad of scavenger droppings had raked it all into his bag with a smug little smile on his face.

He threw the dice again and won again. Four gold pieces. He threw again and won again.

And again.

And again.

Five incredible throws later, he had 512 gold pieces. Fortune had blessed him. He knew in his heart that he would just keep winning for as long as he kept playing.

Then that Wirt kid showed up and won it all on a single throw. Lousy little square-headed yellow-eyed wad of scavenger droppings had raked it all into his bag with a smug little smile on his face. He'd had no intention of giving Jeffcham a sporting chance to win it back.

Farmer Lester had been somewhat less than understanding. He gave him until the end of Caravan's stay in Tristram to come up with the money or Jeffcham would be looking at years of indentured servitude. A usufruct, he'd called it.

Well, he was usufruct all right. He'd sold most of his remaining star melons, but that hadn't even come close to raising the funds he needed. Particularly after he'd gambled those meager proceeds away.

It was after his last loss that he'd noticed the grinning wizard. The man had practically been skipping along the docks. Wizards were rich and this one was obviously drunk. If that wasn't opportunity knocking, nothing was.

Jeffcham smacked the orange-robed man across the back of the head with a barrel stave and went through his pockets. He must not have been a very good wizard, because he didn't have much money. He did have a belt full of potions though.

Selling the potions had been a problem since he didn't know what most of them were. The innkeeper at the Tavern of the Rising Sun wouldn't offer him more than a lousy twelve gold pieces apiece for the Mana potions. That seemed to be the going price. Ogden had thrown in a bottle of wine, and that was about the best deal he was going to get.

Now Jeffcham sat next to his last half-crate of star melons on the dock with an empty bottle of wine and a collection of potions that he could neither identify nor sell. Something had been growling at him from the darkness.

"Ah, shut the hell/hell up," shouted Jeffcham at Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt's dogs. Acid hounds weren't so tough once they were caged and muzzled. He threw the empty bottle at them and one of them whined.

Jeffcham considered his potions. He remembered a tale he had once heard about a bottle, much like one of these, that had had a genie inside. Shrugging, he opened one. It smelled vile.

Nauseated, he tossed the vial to the ground. No genie in there. He pulled the stopper out of another potion, and then stopped. Some of the potion had spattered on one of the star melons, and now the melon was making a curious stretching, tearing sound.

Jeffcham leaned forward and watched as the melon ballooned to three, then six times its normal size. He thumped it. It sounded solid and ripe.

He reached down and rolled a second melon through the small pool of liquid. It too swelled up to the diameter of a wagon wheel. "Oh yes," he breathed. "This is more like it." He reached for a third melon and accidentally dripped some of the potion in his hand on the giant star melon.

There was a loud pop and the giant star melon turned into two giant star melons.

Jeffcham looked at the vial and laughed. This was the answer. This would solve everything. He'd be able to sell these giant melons and pay off his debts. If he only hadn't spilled that growth potion.

He stared down at the puddle. Then he looked at the potion in his hand. Then he looked back at the puddle. He had an idea that was so crazy, it just had to work.

He poured the Duplication potion into the puddle of Growth potion. Instantly, the puddle began duplicating itself and spread across the dock like it was being pumped out of a well. The star melons it touched grew and cloned themselves. He was glad he hadn't gotten any on his hands. He was also glad that his ma had fixed the hole in his boot before he left Riparia.

Jeffcham was thinking about adding one of the other potions to the mix when he sensed something large moving behind him. He turned and started to say something, but whatever he had had in mind to say turned into a scream. A very short scream.

As the puddle continued to spread, it reached a tiny cobweb at the corner of an empty crate. Its occupant crouched, dying, waiting for her offspring to emerge safely from the tight little silk ball that held thousands of her eggs. Once the eggs hatched, her job, and her life, would be over. Her babies would eat her body (and probably a high percentage of each other) and then march boldly into the world.

Then the first fine mist of the magic solution struck her.

Jeffcham was thinking about adding one of the other potions to the mix when he sensed something large moving behind him. He turned and started to say something, but whatever he had had in mind to say turned into a scream. A very short scream. A blur of claws separated his head from his body and dropped it into the puddle. The last thing he saw was a giant-sized copy of his own severed head staring back at him.

The potions that had been in Jeffcham's hands also landed in the puddle, adding their contents to the mixture. The pool began to bubble and glowing tendrils of liquid coiled out of it.

The first tendrils speared the dying giant spider and reeled her into the concoction. The next ones lanced across the dock and tore open the cage holding Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt's hounds. The two smallest acid hounds were dragged into the pool and added to the mother spider's dissolved carcass. The large slate-colored dog managed to evade the sorcerous liquid, fled across the docks and dove into the river. In the coming days he would make his way into the caves and make a home for himself in the volcanic caverns under Tristram.

Meanwhile, the chemical mixture began to settle. The life-like liquid tendrils evaporated and the entire pool turned a soft, luminous blue.

Then the first spider eggs began to hatch. Thirsty, the tiny black spiders scuttled to the edge of the pool and began to drink.

Originally published to alt.games.diablo October 27, 1999.

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