The hot air stank of scorched flesh and ash. It was, at the same time, unbreathably thin and oppressively heavy. The ground crunched underfoot like millions of tiny bones or insects, and was the color of an infected bruise. The walls seemed carved from the bones of some great beast. Given all that, it hadn't surprised Dumptruk in the least when, after describing the above to Cain, Cain had explained that Dumptruk had crossed a dimensional barrier and literally entered Hell.
And then there were its denizens. Great sword-wielding serpents who reared-up as tall as the ogres of his homeland. Vicious armored warriors who exploded in black flames when slain. And then there were the succubi. At least, that's what Cain had called them. Dumptruk accepted the strange new word; he didn't feel comfortable referring to the evil creatures as "women" despite their obvious female appearance. The kind-hearted Gillian and her ailing grandmother were women. His mother, who had firmly and lovingly raised him and his fourteen brothers, was a woman. Dumptruk would have killed any man who dared put his mother in the same class as these creatures. Likewise, Dumptruk didn't think it fair to call them witches even though they cast spells. That strange ageless woman across the river was a witch. Visiting her hut always made Dumptruk a little edgy, but she always seemed glad to buy the books, scrolls and staves he found. He had to trust her to deal with him fairly since he had no idea what kind of squiggles made one book or scroll more valuable than another. She was also willing to buy those strange blue potions he sometimes found. Dumptruk had tried one once. It had made him feel itchy and restless as if there were something inside him straining to get out. It also made him a little horny. Cain had explained that many sorcerers literally lived on the blue potion. If true, it only reaffirmed Dumptruk's life-long philosophy: Never turn your back on a sorcerer. In any event, Dumptruk never felt inclined to try one of those potions again.
Dumptruk was running as fast as he could in the choking air. Ahead of him was a retreating succubus. She and her sisters had ambushed him, blasting away with bursts of red and golden energy. Although the lights were pretty, they stung when they hit. Dumptruk was certain they would do a lot more than sting if they ever caught him without the ridiculous armor he wore.
Despite being full plate, the armor was virtually weightless. It was black-and-white, just like a Holstein. It also had a giant metal udder that protruded from the stomach and clanged whenever he walked. The man who had given Dumptruk the armor had been dressed as a cow himself. He had given Dumptruk the Bovine Plate in exchange for a moose suit Dumptruk had found. Dumptruk had met stranger individuals on his travels, but not many.
Dumptruk had taken the armor to Cain who had told him that the Bovine Plate was forged from pure mananite. After patiently explaining that mananite was a type of metal, not a tribe of farmers who wore black and led simple lives according to their religious beliefs, Cain went on to say that the armor's strength came from absorbing magical energy -- mana -- from its surroundings. Over many years it had absorbed enough mana to become indestructible and harder than the shell of an ancient dragon turtle. It would even blunt the power of magical attacks aimed at its wearer. Despite this, the armor had not been well crafted. Its maker had forgotten to enchant the armor not to absorb mana from the wearer. Cain had gravely informed Dumptruk that he would be unable to cast spells in the armor. Dumptruk had just shrugged.
(Actually, Dumptruk did have a magic power. He had acquired it after investigating an ornate shrine in the dungeon. He found he could generate small balls of lightning that would travel along the ground like glowing white drunken spiders. He briefly entertained the idea of assuming a new identity as a warrior-mage, but dropped the idea for two reasons: A) it wasn't a very effective spell; it was just adequate for cooking small animals for dinner. B) Someone pointed out that the name "Lightning Balls" was unlikely to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies. Dumptruk had finally given up the spell altogether after he nearly set Pepin's hut on fire trying to race two of the charged bolts across the village square.)
After Cain had finished describing the armor at great length, Dumptruk took it to Griswold. The poor craftsmanship enraged the Master Blacksmith. In fact, Dumptruk hadn't seen Gris so angry since Wirt had concocted a scam wherein he tried to convince the town that he was really Griswold's illegitimate son. "Mad Cow Armor!" Griswold had snorted. On general principle, he refused to offer Dumptruk more than 100 gold pieces for the armor, so Dumptruk kept it.
Dumptruk was gaining on the succubus. She was the last one. In each corner of the stygian chamber, one of her sisters lay dead. The demonesses were plenty brave shooting at Dumptruk from a distance, but they had little appetite for hand-to-hand combat. He had painstakingly chased each one into a corner and brained her with Gnarled Root while her sisters enjoyed free shots at his back. Even with the Bovine Plate (which, due to another design flaw, glowed like a roaring campfire and made him an easy target), Dumptruk probably could not have survived such a concentrated assault from the succubi if not for another artifact he wore.
Dumptruk was quite fond of Gillian. Not only did she faithfully store the extra treasure, potions and magic items he found, but she was pretty, unconditionally polite and charming to everyone she encountered; and would not have lasted three seconds in a real fight. There was something about her that filled Dumptruk with the need to protect her from stray dogs and strange men. So when she told him about a grave matter in the old crypt, he promised to check it out for her.
What he had found instead was a huge chunk of glowing masonry. Remembering what Gillian had said about leaving an offering, Dumptruk dropped a magic bow on the block. It was, according to Cain, a very powerful weapon, but Dumptruk had never been much of an archer. As soon as Dumptruk let go of the bow, a booming voice began babbling about a year of golden light or some nonsense and nearly scared Dumptruk out of his armor.
When Dumptruk returned, after the voice had finally shut up, the bow was gone, and, in its place, was a battered crown forged from a heavy metal. Cain identified the crown as that of their tragically lost king, Leoric. A curse had fallen upon the crown and, when Dumptruk wore it in battle, he wanted to kill and kill until nothing was left standing. In other words, it wasn't much different than not wearing it. Interestingly, each time he landed a blow upon an enemy, the crown would make him feel stronger. Dumptruk's wounds would close as if the crown was somehow causing the life force to drain from his enemies into him. Actually, the bloodlust that the crown inspired in him concerned Dumptruk. He was glad he worked alone, because he could easily imagine the crown's thirst for blood causing him to turn on an ally before he could stop himself. Likewise, he also worried that it might lead him to charge into an overwhelming situation and get killed. There was nothing to do about that, other than to just try and be careful. The crown's benefits still outweighed its risks.
The succubus had gotten far enough ahead of Dumptruk to stop and fire off a shot. A sun-yellow burst exploded to Dumptruk's right. Dumptruk knew it was his right because that was the hand he used to wield his weapon. The spiked club hadn't looked promising at first when Dumptruk killed a giant acid-spitting spider for it, but he quickly changed his mind after Cain had identified and analyzed it for him. Cain had identified it as Gnarled Root and Dumptruk found he could hit three times as hard with it as he could with any other weapon he found. That was hard enough to kill any enemy with a single blow, assuming he got a good hit. Why someone would want to drive a few nails through an old piece of a tree stump and then dip the whole thing in an iron-mananite alloy was beyond Dumptruk, but why argue with success? It probably made more sense than using up a half-million gold pieces worth of mananite to forge a 100gp suit of Mad Cow Armor.
The succubus -- the yellow energy blast told Dumptruk that she was a Soul Burner -- had run into a corner. As Dumptruk raised Gnarled Root over his head to strike her down, she turned to face him and Dumptruk hesitated. She was beautiful. Her night-black hair framed an unblemished heart-shaped face that was at once girlish and womanly. Her expression showed both vulnerability and a promise of everything that she was willing to share with him if he spared her. Dumptruk spared a glance at her ample bare breasts. Whether she was out of breath from the chase or whether her breathlessness was part of her offer, Dumptruk couldn't tell. In either case, it was almost enough to allow him to overlook the tiny horns protruding from her forehead. To sample those charms, he might be able to ignore the furiously beating little wings that grew from her shoulder blades.
(Dumptruk often wondered about the wings. They were bat-like, but beat like a hummingbird's. They were far too small to carry the succubi in flight. Perhaps, he theorized, they permitted the succubi to run across uneven ground in those high-heeled boots they seemed to favor. Or maybe they acted as a counterbalance to their prodigious chests. Or perhaps, in whatever strange and dark dimension the succubi called home, they actually could fly.)
Dumptruk didn't like killing the succubi anyway. They were too pretty, too human-looking. Not that Dumptruk had any problem killing any man or monster who came at him in battle, but killing these scantily clad opponents seemed somehow dishonorable. Even knowing their true nature, it still felt like beating up on a bunch of girls. Dumptruk had taken to loudly humming a drinking ditty he knew whenever he battled succubi. The tune masked their screams and the sickening sounds of their skulls caving in or rib cages shattering.
Dumptruk started to lower Gnarled Root. Perhaps it would work: Her love for him would ease his loneliness. His love for her would restore her humanity. Then he stopped. It wasn't that he noticed the yellow-white energy arcing between her slender fingertips as she charged-up to blast him at point-blank range that stopped him. No, Dumptruk had gotten a good look into her eyes. No lights were on, and no one was home.
There was nothing remotely human in those eyes. If there ever had been, it had died cold and alone a long, long time ago. A drunken tryst with an ugly stranger in a filthy alley would be more desirable than coupling with this creature. Even joining with one of the cows in the field would have returned Dumptruk more love and meaning.
Dumptruk raised Gnarled Root again. This time, he didn't have to hum.
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