|Then they heard Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt's
Considering how early in the morning it was, there was a fair amount of activity in the town square. Hogan Griswold was serving up toasted hoagies for breakfast and the smell was irresistible. Torvan, Albrecht and Wirt had already gotten theirs and were eating over by the fountain while Albrecht struck up conversations with passersby. Bill Farnham, Gillian, Ichabod, Zhar and Nova were all waiting in line ahead of Valeria. Captain Lachdanan stood near the entrance to his house, watching over the square while, nearby, Farmer Lester was busy entering one of his prize-winning Holsteins in the annual competition.
Nova was chatting about something or other, but Valeria wasn't really listening. She had never had to wait in line for anything in Riparia and was feeling a little irritated, not to mention hungry. On top of that, she had slept poorly the night before. Her sleep had been plagued by disturbing erotic nightmares; a legacy of having been under Jade and Scarlett's spell.
At first, Nova and Valeria paid no attention to the noise from the river. It could have simply been the ordinary sounds of barges being loaded and unloaded. The raised voices could have been rivermen shouting orders to one another, or even singing one of their traditional songs. But then the commotion took on a distinct metallic tone like the clash of swords and shields in battle. And there were screams and shouts that could never have been mistaken for song. Underneath it all was a constant hissing babble of a sound that defied identification.
Then they heard Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt's roar over it all.
Valeria and the people in the square turned and stared. A mob of gigantic black spiders, each the size of a pony, was scuttling toward them from the river. They moved about on their hind four legs, and used the front four to slash at their opponents. They spat globs of flaming acid at anything they could not reach with their claws.
The far side of the river was thick with spiders. South, along the shore, Valeria saw more Town Guards and a band of Rangers, led by Sir Gorash, trying to halt the monsters' advance in that direction. In the opposite direction there was a flash of Fire Walls as Adria attempted to keep the creatures out of her hut.
There were two approaches to the town square from the river. The north-east approach was the road that separated Griswold's and Lachdanan's homes. On the other side of Lachdanan's house a path accessed the square from south-east. On the opposite side of the path, Jade and Scarlett's tent stood nestled among the piles of jagged boulders that the Talsande had deposited there in centuries past.
A quartet of Town Guards and a Ranger were trying to bar the monsters from the town square on the north-east road. Even with Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt fighting at their side, Tristram's protectors were being driven backwards. All the men had sustained acid burns and most were bleeding from the spiders' razor-sharp claws. Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt's armored hide was smoking where he'd been stuck by acid.
Captain Lachdanan leaped into the fray to protect his men. "Fall back!" he ordered them. "We need reinforcements." Lachdanan's men reluctantly, but obediently fell back. The Ranger fighting at their side did likewise. Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt lowered his massive head and charged at the lead spider, goring it on his horn. Giant spiders leaped at the horned giant's unprotected flanks, clawing and spitting acid. Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt bellowed in pain and backed off, shaking loose the three spiders attacking him.
Blinded by acid and smoke, Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt reached out for something to throw. He grabbed Farmer Lester's Holstein, who was stampeding away from the predators with her owner.
"Oh no! Not with the cow!" cried Farmer Lester, unconsciously repeating the punchline of nearly every "Lord Cool & Stupidhead" skit ever performed. Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt hefted the bovine over his horned head and hurled the cow at the approaching Spider Lords.
The lead two monsters were crushed underneath the flying cow, and all the others tore into it hungrily. Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt wiped his burning eyes and stepped back, watching the carnage with apparent satisfaction.
Captain Lachdanan took advantage of the momentary lull. "Get the prince to safety!" he ordered.
Torvan was already hurrying Albrecht and Wirt away when four more spiders came around the rear of Griswold's smithy, blocking the path to the Cathedral. Torvan raised his sword and shield to defend his prince.
Valeria heard a scream from her right and saw Glorianna, Jade and Scarlett run from their tent, four more Spider Lords in pursuit. As the three women reached Hogan's stand, Jade turned and set her snake down on the ground. It slithered toward the approaching creatures and, as it reached them, tripled in size and sprouted a quartet of arms. Scarlett tossed her scimitars to the new monster and he went to work, slashing and biting at the spiders.
"How did you do that?" breathed Glorianna wonderingly.
Scarlett just shook her head and smiled. "We have so much more to teach you, my glorious little Glorianna."
Valeria felt her skin crawl, and it wasn't entirely from the proximity of the giant spiders.
Bill Farnham joined Lachdanan and Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt. Working together, the three managed to hold the main path from the river. Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt refrained from charging at any more of the creatures and instead used his massive bulk and heavy claws to prevent them from passing.
Lachdanan and Farnham battled on either side of the horned giant. Lachdanan had a full set of plate mail, a kite shield and a bastard sword. He cut down the monsters he fought with methodical and professional efficiency. Valeria imagined she could almost hear his thoughts: "Guard. Turn. Parry. Dodge. Spin. Ha! Thrust." Uncharitably, she wondered if his lips moved when he fought. Still there was no question that he was a man who took his business seriously. He would gladly die a million deaths before he let any of these creatures harm the people under his protection.
Even me, thought Valeria.
Bill Farnham, on the other hand, looked like a man having the time of his life. He had no armor other than a cape, and he kept it flapping and moving behind him to make it appear to the spiders that he was a bigger target than he actually was. On one arm, he had a small buckler, and, in the other hand, he wielded his sabre. He danced with the spiders, eluding their nimble claws and poisonous spittle, teasing them as often as slaying them. Few seemed able to lay a claw on him, and none could silence his merry, mocking laughter.
Two Town Guards had arrived to help Jade's serpent bar the spiders from the south-east approach to the town square. It didn't take them long to realize that the giant Cave Viper was somewhat indiscriminate in its defense of the area. They backed off and stayed well behind the monster to pick off any spiders that got past it.
Meanwhile, at the northern approach, between Ogden's tavern and Griswold's smithy, Torvan had his hands full. Wirt and Albrecht were, for the moment, safe behind him as he battled the Spider Lords, but there were more approaching.
"Over here!" Nova beckoned her, going to Torvan's aid.
Valeria hesitated. With the exception of the wyvern she'd shot down a couple of years ago (and Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt the day before yesterday), the most dangerous thing Valeria had ever drawn her bow at was a bear. And that had been on horseback and from across a gorge. Hunting was one thing, but these things were a lot bigger and meaner than anything she had ever planned on picking a fight with. Getting any closer to them than she already was would have been insane. Besides, the Town Guards were handling it. That was their job.
None of this seemed to have occurred to Nova. She was already beside Torvan, guarding his right flank. A bolt of fire leaped from the young sorceress' fingertips and struck a spider. She succeeded only in annoying it.
"I should not be doing this," Valeria muttered under her breath as she followed Nova.
The spider approaching Nova had already taken two Fire Bolts and did not seem to be slowing. Valeria drew her bow and let fly an arrow. It struck the creature with a solid thunk, embedding itself between the spider's number four and six legs. The Spider turned and spat a blob of flaming acid at Valeria. The projectile just missed her, leaving a poisonous bubbling pool near her feet.
Nova took advantage of the spider's distraction and broadsided it with a third Fire Bolt. It staggered and tried to turn, but Nova hit it with a fourth Fire Bolt to finish it off. The Spider Lord deflated like a punctured water bag, spewing its caustic innards on the ground around it.
Nova let out a whoop and turned her attention to the next advancing Spider Lord.
As Valeria moved to back up Nova and Torvan, she heard Gillian cry out.
|Suddenly, Wirt was on the spider's
back, biting it and clawing at it with his bare hands.
When the Spider Lords first appeared, most of the townsfolk in the square had fled to safety along the north-west road that ran between Pepin's hut and the tavern. Gillian had run that direction too, obviously to get back to her grandmother, but one of the spiders had gotten around Torvan's left flank and was blocking her path. That wasn't the reason she was yelling for help, however. The spider was chasing, and about to catch, a small girl.
Albrecht saw the situation and raced to rescue the girl. He caught her and they rolled out of harm's way as the spider spat a glob of acid past them. He came to a rough landing, the girl still in his arms, against the fountain where Gillian was hiding. The spider turned to follow. Its prey was neatly pinned down and would not escape this time.
Out of the corner of his eye, Torvan saw Albrecht leave his protection. He turned to call out to the prince and a huge serrated claw raked down his side. Another claw caught him on the opposite side and knocked him to the ground.
Nova suddenly found herself without the warrior's protection and paled. She had nearly drained her ball fighting the first creature, and now another one was looming over her. She hit it with a Fire Bolt, but, even at point-blank range, Fire Bolt was not a powerful spell. The spider reared up and lunged.
Valeria hesitated again, not sure who she should try to save. There was a spider menacing Albrecht, Gillian and a little girl; and another one towering over Nova and the semi-conscious Torvan.
For Wirt, there had been no decision to make. He had taken off after Albrecht the second he had gone to save the girl. Now, seeing his friend in dire peril, he cried out, "My Prince!"
Suddenly, Wirt was on the spider's back, biting it and clawing at it with his bare hands.
Meanwhile, Nova screamed as the spider sank its poison-laden fangs deep into her shoulder and its claws raked across her back and sides.
Valeria fired a perfect shot and her arrow sank into the spider's head, right between its largest two eyes. The spider relaxed its grip on Nova and she crumpled to the ground, her blood rapidly pooling around her. Unfortunately, the spider really didn't use its small brain for much. Having an arrow through it was startling and painful, but that was it. It resumed its attack.
Near the fountain, the other spider had managed to shake Wirt off. Wirt stood his ground between the prince and the attacking monster. This time, he leaped straight into its horrific face, clawing and biting again.
Valeria sank two more arrows into the spider she had already hit. That was enough to distract it from Nova and Torvan, but now it was coming for her. Others were following.
Something glass shattered in the midst of the spiders and they paused. Valeria smelled the pungent scent of fresh blood even over the monsters' acid stench. Somehow, Alchemist Zhar had gotten around the spiders and was hiding behind some barrels alongside the Tavern of the Rising Sun. He had thrown a vial at them, and that was the source of the smell.
|"Just a little brew I call Compound 77423," said Zhar, helping Valeria drag Torvan to the relative safety of Hogan's stand. "It makes wooden barrels explode."|
"Come and get it, boys!" he shouted, uncorking another vial of what Valeria later hear him refer to as 'Blood Perfume.' As one, the spiders turned and started scuttling toward the smell. Zhar poured the Blood Perfume into the barrels in front of him, and then poured a few drops from another vial into each barrel. He hurried out of the way.
Even as Tristram's Alchemist scurried to safety, the ground behind Valeria opened up. Conjurer Ichabod had conjured a Guardian. Ichabod's Guardian took the form of the three-headed serpentine creature. The three dragon-like heads scanned the square for enemies, and one of them spotted the spider battling Wirt. It immediately began spitting balls of fire. The first one caught the spider square in the back, and the second one finished it off.
As the spider collapsed, it dropped Wirt into a pool of its own acidic blood and the boy let out a cry of pain that sent a chill down Valeria's spine.
Just then, one of the spiders reached the barrels beside the tavern and tore one open. The barrel exploded in a ball of fire, setting off a chain reaction that ignited the adjacent barrels. The blast scattered spider parts across the street and into the square. Not a single creature in the area was left standing.
"What in the name of Mana was that?" asked Ichabod, picking Nova up in his arms.
"Just a little brew I call Compound 77423," said Zhar, helping Valeria drag Torvan to the relative safety of Hogan's stand. "It makes wooden barrels explode. Up until today, I've never had a use for the stuff."
"Bryon," said Ichabod, "that's got to be the dumbest thing you've ever concocted."
"Tell me about it," replied the Alchemist. "I must have a hundred gallons of the stuff back at my lab, but it's not as dumb as Compound 77424."
"Dare I ask?" pondered the Conjurer.
"It makes squirrels explode."
Valeria wondered how Zhar had discovered that particular property. Had he just tried it on different animals until one blew up? She also had to wonder at the nonchalance of the two sorcerers. Her heart was pounding in her throat, but these two were bantering back and forth just like they had in the pen the day before. It was if giant spider attacks happened every day. But then again, they were wizards. Maybe for them, this was an everyday occurrence.
Finding no more enemies to attack, Ichabod's Guardian returned to the earth, not leaving so much as an overturned pebble as evidence of its passing. Albrecht picked up Wirt, and Gillian picked up the little girl. They too hurried toward Hogan's stand.
Hogan's booth stood at the east end of the square, near Lachdanan's house. It included a massive brick oven, complete with an eight-foot chimney. High piles of firewood, long tables for dining, and the metal racks that Hildy had made to let Hogan's bread cool evenly provided some measure of cover to those seeking refuge there. Those who had made it to the shelter of Pepin's hut or the Tavern of the Rising Sun had barred the doors shut behind them. Even if they hadn't, however, more spiders entered the town square from the now undefended north path, cutting off the only possible escape routes.
Ichabod conjured two more Guardians to retard their progress. Valeria was certainly willing to help, but she was down to her last four arrows. Furthermore, they were just target-shooting arrows and hadn't been that effective anyway.
"How's everyone?" asked Albrecht, crouching behind an overturned table, his back to the brick oven.
"Nova's in a bad way," said Gillian. "She's lost a lot of blood and I think the spider bite was poison. We've got to get her to Pepin."
The distance between their location and Pepin's hut was thick with scuttling black monsters. Pepin would be safe inside to tend the wounded later, if there was a later. Only Griswold's smithy was open to the air. Valeria caught a glimpse of Griswold and Hildy in the back of the smithy, side-by-side, fully armored, fighting to keep the spiders out of their house. They had a massive armory at their disposal and the relatively cramped quarters worked to their advantage. They seemed to be holding their own.
"I'm all right," Torvan insisted, trying to struggle to his feet. He gasped and collapsed again.
Hogan was kneeling by his brother's side. "You rest still, y'great lout. Ye'll get yereself killed. Everything'll be all right."
Torvan groaned and tried to get up again.
"Listen to your brother," Albrecht told his guardsman. "That's an order."
Valeria saw Albrecht crawl to the other side of the great brick oven. There, Scarlett, Jade and Glorianna crouched behind the woodpile to watch the giant Cave Viper battling on their behalf. Albrecht seemed to accept the unexpected demonstration of their powers. He'd already had a taste of their enchantment spell, so there was no reason they shouldn't know other spells. Besides, it made sense that two young women traveling alone across the country would be able to conjure up a monstrous protector.
"Where is your band?" Albrecht asked the dancers. "Did they make it to safety?"
Scarlett said something and Jade elbowed her in the ribs.
"I beg your pardon?" asked Albrecht.
"She said that they're shallow and grave and went off in the woods somewhere last night," offered Jade. "You know musicians." She gave an innocent shrug and her partner snickered.
|Wirt looked awful. His complexion had gone almost slate-gray. Strangely, his too-square jaw looked almost twice the size that Valeria remembered it being, and those bulging too-far-apart eyes looked bigger as well.|
Prince Albrecht turned away from the two dancers frowning. It was clear that he distrusted them, and may even have been a little concerned about Glorianna's welfare under their protection. But he also had more pressing issues to worry about, not the least of which was his best friend. Valeria stood behind him as he knelt next to Wirt.
Toby Wirt looked awful. His complexion had gone almost slate-gray. Strangely, his too-square jaw looked almost twice the size that Valeria remembered it being, and those bulging too-far-apart eyes looked bigger as well.
"Toby?" whispered the prince.
Wirt's eyes opened and Valeria startled. They were definitely yellow now, and slightly luminous. "I'll be all right, My Prince."
"Toby," scolded Albrecht gently, "you should not have taken the risk. You know what could happen to you. To your very soul."
Wirt reached up with a hand that had twisted into some kind of claw, and gripped Albrecht's shoulder. "Without you, I might not have had a soul in the first place. I would gladly risk it a thousand times to save your life."
Valeria wondered, purely hypothetically, how she'd respond if someone had expressed that kind of devotion to her. She had no idea. As it turned out, Prince Albrecht didn't have a response either. He smiled and shook his head slightly. "You just rest easy, my brave friend." He gave Wirt's twisted hand an affectionate pat. "All will be well."
Wirt nodded and closed his eyes. As he relaxed, his features began to soften from the monstrous contours they had assumed during the fight.
Valeria had good reason to doubt Albrecht's assurance that all would be well, but her newfound tact prevented her from saying so out loud. The part of the square they had fled was crowded with spiders and, in the opposite direction, Lachdanan, Farnham and Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt had been pushed back almost to the stand. While Jade and Scarlett's monster held its position and was not faring too badly, it had allowed several opponents to get past it.
They were surrounded.
One of Conjurer Ichabod's Guardians caught an advancing spider in the back and it collapsed across the counter that served as their cover. Valeria shot an arrow into it where she thought its heart should be and it stopped twitching. She tried to retrieve her arrow, but only pulled out a smoking stub of wood and feathers. She was down to three arrows.
"Hey Bryon, take a look at this," Ichabod called to Zhar. He had pried a jagged piece of glass out of one of the spider's feet. It still had a bit of a barely legible label attached to it. 'B. Zhar,' it read.
"Oh hell/hell," muttered the Alchemist. "I guess we know where my stolen potions went. Oil of Duplication, Growth serum, mutagenics."
"Does that help us?" asked Ichabod.
"It might," said Zhar, checking the selection of vials adorning his belt. "See if Lachdanan or somebody knows where these beasts originated."
"I'll go," volunteered Valeria. She wanted Ichabod to stay right where he was and keepconjuring Guardians.
Captain Lachdanan was on the other side of the stand fighting as efficiently as ever. Dozens of spiders lay dead around him. Valeria noticed that several of the dead spiders also had identical pieces of glass embedded in their feet. That duplication stuff must have really worked.
A spider reared up over Lachdanan, and Valeria drew her bow and shot at it. The arrow flew over Lachdanan's shoulder and sank into the spider's neck. It let out a gurgling cry.
"Watch where you're shooting!" snapped Lachdanan, finishing the beast off.
Valeria sighed. She wondered what she was going to have to do to ever get on the Captain's good side. "Alchemist Zhar needs to know where these creatures came from," she said.
"They came from the dock where my hounds were caged," volunteered Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt. "I can see the spot from here. There is a glowing area at the end of the dock, and it smells like Mana gone bad."
Valeria lacked the horned giant's height and sense of smell, so she took his word for it. She relayed the information back to Zhar.
"Well, that would have been too easy," said the Alchemist sadly. He had a vial full of silvery liquid in his hand. "I have a vial of Compound 0000, my most powerful neutralizing agent. But it has to be applied at the source."
"There's no way anyone will be able to get through all those spiders and across the river without getting killed," said Albrecht. "Could you conjure a Golem, Ichabod?"
"Sorry, Al," apologized the Conjurer. "My ball's nearly empty. Maybe we could tie it to Farmer Lester and have Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt throw him."
Albrecht smiled, but shook his head.
"That's a great idea," shouted Valeria.
"Say again?" asked Albrecht.
"What if we tie the vial to an arrow and I shoot it across?" said Valeria.
"That's an impossible shot," said Zhar. "You can't even see it from here."
"Maybe from the top of the oven," suggested Valeria, gesturing toward the eight-foot brick chimney. "Besides, the only other option is to have someone make a break for it, and those odds are even worse."
"Valeria's right," said Albrecht after studying her thoughtfully.
For a split second, Valeria could almost see people the way Albrecht did. His people-sense truly bordered on the supernatural. He knew little about archery and whether or not the shot was possible. But he knew everything he needed to know about Valeria for that moment. He took the vial from Zhar and handed it to Valeria.
Silently, Valeria tied the glass vial to the tip of her arrow. She then picked the arrow up, feeling how its weight had changed.
|Valeria stood again and aimed her bow. I can do this, she thought. I've been telling everyone that I'm the best for my entire life. I can prove it right here. I can do this. She drew the arrow back and aimed for the sky once more.|
She nodded at Albrecht and he nodded back. His implicit faith in her was undeniable and inspiring. In that instant, Valeria knew she could not fail him.
Valeria climbed to the top of the oven. Since it was a temporary structure, the builders hadn't bothered with much mortar. It made for a treacherous climb. What was worse, once she was out from behind cover, the spiders began spitting at her. A glob of acid struck the back of her thigh and the pain was excruciating. She willed herself to ignore it and climbed faster.
From the top of the chimney, she could see across the river to a glowing pool on the dock. That was her target. Valeria took a deep breath and let it out. She drew her bow and aimed for the sky.
She took another deep breath and let it out.
Then a spatter of acid rained across the small of her back and she nearly dropped the arrow. Her concentration was shot and she wanted to climb back down.
Instead, Valeria stood again and aimed her bow. I can do this, she thought. I've been telling everyone that I'm the best for my entire life. I can prove it right here. I can do this. She drew the arrow back and aimed for the sky once more.
Another blast of acid struck her and she lost her balance, but this time, the arrow sailed high into the air and over the river. As the chimney's loose bricks collapsed underneath her, Valeria saw her arrow strike the dock, just at the edge of the glowing pool.
The vial of Compound 0000 shattered and a dull, vibrating thud that made everyone's teeth ache rippled across Tristram. Every single spider simply vanished. At the same instant, Valeria hit her head on a brick, but instead of stars, she saw great golden letters in the sky.
"Duplicates destroyed?" she gasped and then lost consciousness.
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